Mysteries are finally solved, yet they leave new ones in their wake. Nerves are fraying and the team is fighting to hold onto hope. But even if they stop the one who is hunting Naruto, who is to ...
Chapter Five: In Hope of Failure
Ino bolted upright, white sheets slipping from her shoulders.
Shikamaru awoke with a gasping cry, nearly falling from his chair. He and Chouji had stayed with their friend throughout the night, watching over her. Tsunade's drug had kept the kunoichi unconscious for nearly eleven hours; ever since she had come back from their team leader's mind.
"Its okay, Ino," Chouji dropped his empty take-out carton into the trash and sat by her side on the bed. "Naruto is okay - or - he hasn't changed, at least." Pale blue eyes roved the hospital room she had been assigned to. It hadn't dawned on her yet that she was under medical observation, nor that it wasn't night outside her small window, but very early in the morning. At the moment she was single-mindedly focused on just one thing.
"Where is Tsunade?" She asked, sliding pale legs out from under the sheets. "I have to give her my report."
"Whoa, wait a sec!" Shikamaru tried to keep her in the bed but she shoved his hands away. "You were really out of it yesterday. Gondaime doesn't want you up and about just yet."
"I'm fine, really. But Tsunade needs to know that Sasuke-"
"Is in Naruto's head." Chouji finished as though he were repeating a lesson he had been forced to recite a hundred times before. "Yeah, we know. You sort of went nuts and wouldn't stop screaming that when you got back."
"I remember." She said, pushing herself to her feet and earning a groan from her laid-back friend about what a pain in the ass she was. "I also remember that I was knocked out before I could give my full report. Tsunade needs to hear what I saw. Is she here?"
Shikamaru sighed and shook his head in resignation, jerking a thumb towards the door. "Last we heard she was heading back to her office, but that was last night."
"Fine. We'll start in Naruto's room and then swing by her office." Ino ripped her clothes from the bathroom door and went inside to change.
"Such a pain in the ass." Shikamaru repeated. Chouji just shrugged and followed silently when Ino burst from the bathroom moments later and then was out in the hallway without pausing for her friends.
She had only been a few rooms down from Naruto's to her relief. She didn't want to waste any more time than she already had. The comatose man's room had not been empty, but she had not expected it to be. Hinata was there, of course, as was Iruka.
"The others were ordered to go home and shower." The older man had obviously noticed the blonde's surprise at seeing so few people. "Hinata used the shower here. Tsunade wouldn't try to order her to leave. She knows when she can't win a fight."
"Do you know where Tsunade is?" Ino didn't have time for pleasant conversation. And as much as she liked the older man she really didn't have time to talk with him right now. Iruka sat forward in his chair, shaking his head.
"No, why?" It was clear to him that something was troubling the blonde girl. "Does this have anything to do with yesterday?"
Iruka nodded and stood. "I'm going to go help Ino find the hokage," he said, touching Hinata's arm to make certain she had heard, "will you be alright here?"
By yourself? It was beginning to feel like Naruto wasn't even there anymore.
Like he was already dead. Iruka chased the thought from his mind. He'd kick himself later for allowing it to even emerge.
"Go," Hinata replied, "then come back here, please. I want to know what's going on too."
Ino had no intention of leaving the Hyuga woman out in the cold. "Of course."
"I'll go check her home. You go to her office. We'll all meet back here." Iruka laid out the plans and then broke from the others to start the search.
"Shika, you two go gather up the others." Ino started down the hallway towards the stairs. "They'd be pissed if we let them miss this."
"Must be some news you have." Chouji turned to head out the side door, Shikamaru heading out in the opposite direction.
"Yeah," the woman muttered, "you could say that."
Ino had found the hokage at her office, just as the others had said. Tsunade had been perched over her desk, staring down at a jumbled pile of papers, her little desk lamp providing the only light in the dim room. Judging from the red blotches on her face when she pulled her hands away, the woman had been sitting that way for quite some time.
"I need to give you my report, Gondaime," Ino repeated. It had taken two tries to get a response out of the woman, Shizune had nbeen unable to get anything out of the hokage, Ino had learned. But after raising her voice a little the jounin finally got a response.
"Ino, you should be resting." Tsunade stood from her desk, taking the top page from her stack and tucking it into her belt. A weary sigh and a slow shake of the head followed. This was not like the usually spirited hokage. "Besides, I really don't think that's necessary anymore."
What? Tsunade would never brush off information any other time. Something was wrong.
"I think it is, Lady Hokage." Ino replied a little more firmly. "I think it is very necessary that I give you my report."
"Then give it, if you insist." The elder woman huffed. "Right now."
"But the others-" Ino turned to the door, signaling they should leave.
"Yes, Lady Hokage." Ino bowed. The hokage was clearly on edge, Ino realized and this was one of those times when it did not pay to play games with her patience. Defference would be a smart idea.
"Sasuke is inside Naruto's head, as I reported earlier." Screamed, is more like it, you fucking coward, her inner self chastised. "He and Naruto were fighting when I first arrived."
"Fighting?" Tsunade interrupted, her stomach lurching.
"Fighting, like a real match," Ino went on, "only without all of the jutsu - my only guess is that they can't use jutsu there. But it seemed like they were actually battling each other. Naruto was crying, demanding to know if he was dead. I don't know who started the fight. They were both pretty pissed by the time I got there." Tsunade felt the blood rush from her face.
No... you bastard... Was Sasuke really trying to take over?
"They pretty much ignored me, though I could tell they were aware of my presence. They just seemed too intent on one another. It was almost like seeing someone just pop into Naruto's head was normal for them."
"But then something strange happened." Ino went on. Tsunade's reaction was lost to the girl, whose memories were sweeping over her in once again. "The moon came out. I could see it in the sky through a hole in the ceiling."
"The red sky." Tsunade clarified and Ino nodded.
"And when the moon came out Sasuke looked terrified. He threw himself over Naruto, like he was trying to shield him from the moon." The girl shivered. "That's when he started screaming at me; screaming for help and that we had to stop Itachi. He went from trying to beat the hell out of Naruto to trying to save him, it seemed. And Naruto didn't even fight him when it happened. It was like he was... just gone, like he just went to sleep with his eyes open. And the kyubi... he started howling."
Ino sucked in a deep, shuddering breath, trying to still her nerves. "Then I was being thrown out of Naruto's mind. But I remember... before I left, the room changed, but only for a second. There were candles, and a baby on a pillow. A blonde baby. And a man standing over him... I think it was Naruto's dad. I mean, it looked like him." Tsunade's breath caught. She grasped the girl's arms in tight fingers.
"Did you see the seal?" The hokage's grip on her dug painfully into Ino's bone. "Did you see his father perform the seal?"
"No," Ino flinched, "no the room went back to that strange place with the kyubi. Sasuke was screaming again, saying that I had to hurry. That he wasn't going to be able to last much longer. That's it. That's when I came back."
"Son of a bitch," the older woman breathed, "he's trying to learn Yondaime's seal. He's trying to learn how to break it!"
"What?" Ino blinked. "Who is?"
"Itachi." The hokage pulled the girl from the room roughly.
If he's learned how already...
"We have to get Naruto to a secure location."
"You are not taking him where we can't see him!" Hinata blocked the doorway and shoved a foot under the wheel of Naruto's gurney. Tsunade's ANBU members watching the angry woman behind painted masks. It was darker in the room; the curtains had been drawn together tightly. This was not unusual; Naruto usually received his baths this time each day. Tsunade had planned this carefully.
"The fewer people who know of his location the safer he'll be." Tsunade replied. "This is to protect him, Hinata. Not to punish you."
"Pardon us for being uncooperative, but your protection hasn't been very successful lately, Lady Hokage," Neji growled impudently and the woman lashed out with the back of her hand, striking his cheek.
"You want to place blame on me that's fine," she replied through bared teeth, "but you save a big chunk of the blame for yourselves. You're entitled to it."
"You said we were Naruto's best defense." Sakura tried to be reasonable. "Now you're taking us from him. We can't help but be confused by your actions, Gondaime."
"The situation changes every time I blink," Tsunade replied curtly, "you're not alone in your confusion. But if what Ino saw is true, Itachi is coming dangerously close to learning the kyubi's seal - if he hasn't already. When that happens - not if/, people, /when - he'll come for Naruto. I can't have him out in the open and waiting. I need to take him somewhere safe. He needs to be somewhere where they can't hurt him." And where he can't hurt anyone else. She hoped with every ounce of her being that it wouldn't come to that.
"But Itachi will only go looking for Naruto once the bastard sees that he's not here!" Neji argued. "How can you expect anywhere else to be safe? At least if he's here he'll have us!"
"Hinata let them pass." Tsunade ordered, ignoring the woman's cousin. Naruto's fiancÃ©e shook her head, tears glistening in her white eyes. "Let them pass, please. I won't let anyone touch him, I swear it." Hinata dropped her gaze to Naruto's face, watching him closely. The portable ventilator beside his head popped, pushing fresh air into Naruto's lungs.
Her Naruto. Her precious one. The only one she'd ever love.
"I want him back, Tsunade," she said firmly, "if something happens - anything at all - I want him back. I won't let this be the last time I see him. And if he... if he... dies..."
"He won't." Tsunade said softly, but Hinata turned a furious glare upon the hokage, her Byakugan answering her rage almost by instinct. Fingers clawed into the air and the jounin's chakra radiated from her with such intesity Sakura could almost feel it charge her skin. Hinata's reaction happened so quickly that the hokage actually recoiled. Slightly.
"If he dies," Hinata hissed, "I'll kill everyone I believe responsible. Everyone."
Sakura pressed cold fingers to her lips, stifling a cry; Lee's hand clamping tightly around hers. They had never seen Hinata this way. The closest she had over come to angry was a scowl. Perhaps a firm tone. They didn't consider her weak, not anymore. The woman had strength; they all knew this by now. But hers was a kind of serene strength, fueled by love and compassion. Of all the members of their team, Hinata had always been the kindest; the gentlest. The group's heart and soul, Shino had once said of her. It was the truth.
This is what righteous fury must look like. Sakura thought.
Tsunade's face was grim, but she didn't strike out at Hinata as she did Neji. Insults she wouldn't tolerate, but words that poured forth from true emotion got to the hokage. She respected strength and guts. That was probably why she thought so highly of Naruto.
"I don't doubt it, Hinata," Tsunade replied, "now let them pass."
Hinata stepped aside, and the ANBU members pushed Naruto from the room. A pale hand clamped the railing of the gurney and Hinata stopped them once more.
Her fury was hidden beneath gentle caresses as she reached down and ran small fingers through his thick blonde locks. She kissed his forehead and cheeks, whispering things too low to be heard by anyone else. Another few seconds of unabashed tenderness and then she stepped back and allowed the ANBU to cover his face with a sheet and wheel him from her presence.
When she returned her attention to the hokage, though, the rage came back, sans her kekkei genkai.
"I want Itachi." She said darkly. "What do I need to do?"
"Wait," Ino was having trouble keeping up. Things were spiraling out of control as far as she was concerned. Hinata was five seconds from a murderous rampage and Ino was still mentally stumbling from what Tsunade had relayed to her on their way to the hospital. "What about Sasuke? The others have to know what you told me!"
"What about him?" Sakura demanded. "What did you find out?" Tsunade nodded, holding up a silencing hand. Things had to be just so, she knew. This was not going to be easy, but it was all she had right now. And she was going to need them; all of them. That meant she had to trust them completely.
Let's hope you knew what you were doing Naruto...
"You'll find out in just a few minutes, I promise. But first we need someone with stamina." She said, her eyes combing over the team members. "A whole lot of stamina."
It was getting harder. Pretty soon he'd be no match.
He never had been any match to start with, he realized bitterly, that's why things were the way they were now. He'd always been weak. He'd always had to rely on others. Even when he had been the prodigy, the gifted genius, he'd been too weak, though everyone had told him he was incredible. The student to beat. The pride of Konoha.
But he had been weak, he knew. That's why he had been allowed to live.
It was only when he and Naruto worked as a team that he'd been worth a damn. Only with his friend's help did he ever have a prayer of succeeding. Not even when he had teamed up with the snake bastard had he stood a chance. That choice had been his undoing, actually. It was because of Naruto that he had come so far in life; been so driven to excel. It was because of Naruto that he was free of that sick freak now. He'd never accepted this before. And now it was too late.
He couldn't blame Naruto for fighting him. Not after what Sasuke had done to him. Not after what Itachi had put the blonde through. Shit, Naruto was lucky he still knew who he was. Sasuke had tried to protect him, but Naruto wasn't making it easy.
But Itachi couldn't get the kyubi! Right now that was all that mattered. Not even Naruto's safety mattered as much. If the kyubi got out everyone was dead. No question about it.
He hadn't planned on coming forward; hadn't planned on doing this. But that first attack on Naruto's mind had reeked of his brother and Sasuke couldn't just sit there and do nothing.
He had spent the majority of his life hunting down his brother. Why should his death be any different? And if he could just get Naruto to accept him...
And then there had been Ino. At least he thought it was Ino. She had the abilities to get here, he knew. But there was always the possibility that it had been Itachi. Still he had tried to get the message out.
He hoped the others had a plan.
Because time was running out for him. And soon Naruto's mind would be an open book for Itachi. Once that happened, someone was going to have to take control. Someone had to get Naruto's body away, before Itachi could release the seal. Either that or stand up to Itachi and end this once and for all. In this body it was certainly possible to win against the traitor.
And who knew Itachi better than Sasuke?
Naruto's still form lay in the bed, the tube still down his throat, his face slack, and his eyes closed.
His throat lurched.
"Dammit Chouji, you have to stay still!" Tenten whispered. Hinata frowned, sitting by the bedside, her friend's hand in hers, just as she'd hold Naruto's. It was all as it had been only the day before.
Only now the man in the bed was awake and holding tightly to his Henge no Jutsu.
His throat twitched again.
"If you don't stop that she's going to put you under, just like she threatened." Tenten warned from the chair at the foot of the bed. Chouji had been gagging on the breathing tube for the passed day. Tsunade had gotten agitated and threatened to sedate the man to keep him in character. Unfortunately she had to keep her distance now.
They had staged an argument between the hokage and the team, and Tsunade had stalked off. It was unlikely that Itachi would try anything with the hokage around they had surmised. Jiraiya, Kakashi and Iruka had been ordered to keep their distance as well, though the superiors would be close by, ready if they were needed. But Itachi wouldn't think anything of the kids.
Tsunade had placed her full faith in those young jounin. They knew it. They knew what was at stake if they failed.
Much more than Naruto's life.
Much more than their little Konoha.
"He doesn't smell like Naruto." Hinata murmured and Tenten gave her a sad smile.
"I doubt Itachi is going to know what Naruto smells like." The blonde brow before her arched, though the eyes stayed closed.
It made her heart leap to see his features move in front of her. For five days she had hoped and prayed for him to blink, swallow, anything. Now it was hard to remind herself that the man before her was not her Naruto, and she had to do it or she'd lose her mind. She had to find things that would remind her that this wasn't her lover; only his image.
"I'm sorry," Hinata whispered, "I didn't mean to imply that you don't smell good. You just-"
"Did you talk to Naruto before?" Neji's voice drifted up from his place against the wall, his eyes still closed in feigned rest. "Because if you didn't and Itachi has been watching all this time he's going to notice that something's off."
Hinata sighed and rested her head against the slack arm beside her, trying to imagine what she would be doing if this really were her beloved. Gentle fingers trailed up and down his arm. Naruto had always liked it when she did that, and she had repeated the action a number of times since he had been admitted. Chouji tried not to sigh in contentment.
"How long are we going to have to do this?" Tenten returned to her magazine, staring dumbly at the words on the paper.
"Tsunade said it could take a while." Neji replied.
According to Ino's report, Sasuke was actually struggling to hold back Itachi, if what Jiraiya had said about the red sky and the moon was true. Though it was unclear what his true intentions were, right now he was the one impeding the invading Akatsuki. The Uchiha had told Ino that he wouldn't be able to last long. But there was where things got tricky. Nobody knew how long he had meant. For all they knew this could go on for weeks to come. And Ino couldn't go back, or she could risk tipping Itachi off.
The thought of not seeing Naruto for weeks, of not knowing how he was, made Hinata want to wretch. And the thought of Sasuke trying to take over Naruto's body, as Tsunade suspected, made her want to scream.
"Lee's got the next nap, right?" 'Nap' was the word they used when referring to the decoy, though Tsunade had been adamant about not speaking of it.
"Tenten," Hinata mumbled from her place beside the pale arm and the brunette rolled her eyes, returning to her magazine.
Hinata's eyes burned and she buried her face in the sheets beside Chouji. She missed Naruto. She had missed him before, when he had been lying in that bed unresponsive. But now he wasn't even here in body and it left her chest hollow and aching. She couldn't last through this much longer. That strength she had worked so hard to build was crumbling around her.
She needed to have him back.
He laughed; an honest, truly excited laugh. It was the first time Kisame had heard that sound in quite some time. For a moment it startled him. Itachi had never been one for emotional outbursts, unless it was anger. But as his partner's mirth continued Kisame's pointed teeth glinted in the sunlight.
"You've found it?" His quiet voice was knowing. It was less of a question than it was a statement. The laughter receded to a chuckle and Itachi matched Kisame's expression.
"I've found it." Itachi confirmed. "Little brother and his friend couldn't keep me out forever."
The memory had been buried deep within the boy's mind, so deep the boy undoubtedly did not realize he still possessed such a memory. It had been an image of a blonde man standing tall over him, his hands moving in signals the child had not understood. And then there had been the flash of bright light and the roar and the smell of death. He had finally seen it all.
Itachi had found it a few times, but had only been just able to pluck it to the surface, only glimpsing the man's face, before Sasuke had it buried again, smothering out the blonde's consciousness with his own. A few times the elder had slipped and grabbed another memory. That was how they came to learn of the sword. A fortunate mistake, he had commented. Another advantage should the boy try to release the beast upon them.
Itachi never tried to attack the boy directly. That would have been foolish. The boy was constantly fighting against Sasuke, wearing him down and unwittingly destroying his last true defense.
"So let them bloody themselves on each other's swords," Itachi had told his partner, "and I will deal the final blow."
It had taken him nearly two weeks of intense concentration and exhaustive attempts, but that morning Sasuke had finally been forced to concede defeat. And when Itachi had plunged into the vessel boy's mind there had been nothing left to block his way.
"Can it be broken?" Kisame asked of the seal. Itachi looked dour.
"We will need the body." He said resolutely. "I cannot do this from a distance."
"And your brother?"
The shinobi guarding the boy were of little consequence; Jounin whelps that had yet to win any great battle of their own. After all, fifteen months ago it had been the kyubi and the boy who had brought down Orochimaru. The others had simply been background noise. But Sasuke had proven to be difficult and Kisame had taken Itachi's example. He'd put nothing passed the youngest Uchiha.
"Once we break the seal the body will die," Itachi smiled, "and then my brother and his friend will no longer be an issue."
"Well then," the grey-skinned face before Itachi smiled, "whenever you're ready."
Sakura sat in a darkened room, two stories above Naruto's old window. Lee was taking his 'nap' at the moment and she was taking her turn at sentry duty alone. She sat beside the window, staring out into the growing darkness.
Four days of putting one of their numbers in that bed, under the guise of their friend. Four days of watching the borders. Four days on not knowing how Naruto was doing. Even Tsunade would not go near him, though she was aware of where he was being kept. Sakura was slipping into a depression.
Hinata had plummeted into one.
Sakura found herself hoping that Sasuke would fail. That Itachi would find whatever it was he needed in Naruto's head. Anything to get this over with. She'd rather fight to the bloody death than sit here and wait for nothing. But then, that was what it meant to be a kunoichi. Kunoichi were weapons. And weapons were not meant to sit and gather dust.
Naruto would argue that, she thought, he'd never let me think of myself as only a weapon.
Something in the trees, a black silhouette against the indigo sky. Two of them, leaping among the treetops. She waited. If they were the Konoha watch they move to the ground - there! Still on the roof. They were not the assigned patrol duty. Her pulse quickened. Sakura pushed the intercom button and the nurse's voice crackled over the receiver.
"Please send some juice to room 223." She said and the nurse complied. That was the signal: juice. It had seemed silly and childish to her, but now the thought of her friends seeing those cups brought a jolt through her veins. She felt her heart rate pick up. Her skin started to tingle. That familiar feeling that she got just before a battle returned, but now she embraced it. She pushed her knuckles into the palm of her hand, feeling them pop gratifyingly.
The shadows approached the hospital, darting from rooftop to rooftop. They were in the village now! Her intercom crackled.
"They send their thanks for the thought." The nurse informed her.
Sakura leapt from the bed and hurried to the stairs.
She had waited too long for this moment, and she wasn't going to miss it.
Soooo, we're getting there finally, aren't we? Yes, I think we are. I'm fairly certain this story is going to be longer than the last. And though it started off kind of sluggishly, I'm really starting to have high hopes for "A Promise to Keep." I had been kind of down at first, wondering if I'd be able to top "The Strength of Twelve." For a while I wasn't thinking that I could. But I've had a change of heart since then. ;) I think I've finally fitted everything together in my head. Now if I can just keep it there! Hahahaa!
So, if you've been reading my story from the beginning you know the drill. I love to hear from my readers. I really want to know what you're thinking. It helps me out big-time. Even if you just want to write that you loved/hated it. Thanks everyone!