It had been two weeks since Iruka left Konoha. Naruto stared at the blue sky dazedly. All the other teachers had returned from their missions save Iruka, Gai, and Kakashi. It made the blond wonder what in the world was taking them so long. There was only so many "tournaments" his and Gai's team could have. Naruto knew Neji's moves now so well that he could have fought the other Genin blindfolded. And Lee was starting to get on his nerves as well. He had not realized it before, but Lee really did talk a lot. But Sakura never bothered to quiet him—yet she did so whenever Naruto got out of hand. That really bugged him to no ends. Why did Lee get special treatment and not him? He was her teammate!
"Hey, idiot. Why don't you stop lying around on your ass all day long and do something useful?"
At once Naruto sat up and glared darkly at Sasuke. The latter had been relatively civil to him, which was surprising, but he was still just as arrogant as before. Naruto stared at him. "What?" he called out from his post on the rooftop.
"Mission," replied Sasuke.
"ARE YOU SERIOUS?"
Naruto almost stumbled off the building in his shock. He gaped at Sasuke, who merely watched him with a hint of a smirk on his face.
"We're teaming up with Lee and his team since Kakashi and Gai aren't here," he added.
"But, but, what do we have to do?" cried out Naruto as he leapt down the building eagerly.
Sasuke shrugged. "Nothing big. We're just delivering a package to Hidden Grass," he replied.
Naruto was still ecstatic. Any chance to get out of the village was fine with him. And it had been so long since they did any missions. He was going to yell at Kakashi when he returned from his mission for leaving them for so long. Naruto thought about this again for a moment. He would also complain to Iruka, too.
"Well, then what are we waiting for? Let's go!" he declared excitedly before grabbing Sasuke's arm and running off with the latter in tow.
"Naruto! Let go!"
The blond was blind to his request, though, as they sped through the village to the Hokage's main office building. A mission, a mission! The same stanza was repeated endlessly in Naruto's mind gleefully. When they reached the office, Naruto stopped victoriously. Sakura and the rest of Gai's team had already assembled there.
"You really do want to die, don't you?" inquired Sasuke sharply as he wrenched his arm out of the blond's grip.
Naruto grinned cheerfully. "But it's a mission!" he said as means of an excuse.
Sitting on the desk before them all, Tsunade folded her hands with a faint smile. "Your recklessness will be your downfall, Naruto," she commented airily.
"Whatever. So what are the details?"
Tsunade shook her head. "Such hastiness," she muttered under her breath before glancing at the paper in her hand. "You're to deliver this package safely to Hoshi Wakato, who resides in Hidden Grass. That's all. You'll be given a week—which is more than enough time for this mission."
"All right! Let's go then!"
"We need to pack first, dimwit."
Tsunade regarded them amusedly for a moment. "Be careful, though. Remember that we're at war. Spies could be littered all over the area. It would do you some good to take caution," she advised.
Naruto crossed his arms with a grunt.
"Don't worry, Hokage-sama! We won't fail you!" pledged Lee.
Tsunade smiled slightly. "As long as you understand," she said before dismissing them.
"Then let's start packing!" exclaimed Naruto before leaving the office in a blur.
Tsunade shook her head exasperatedly.
"I wonder what's in the package."
"Don't even try it, Naruto."
"If you open it, you die."
"Who made you leader, huh!"
Sasuke rolled his eyes at the fuming blond. They had only set out a few hours ago and already Naruto was proving to live up to his reputation as the most impatient and rash shinobi in all of Konoha. Gai's team was relatively quiet—Lee being the only one out of the three who seemed genuinely eager about the mission. Tenten made idle comments here and there and Neji was almost completely mute. It made Sasuke wonder how their team even functioned together. But then again, the same could be said about his team—in which the members were almost always quarreling.
"Mission, mission, mission," Naruto sang aloud as he decided to give up his attempt on opening the package without everyone else murdering him.
"It's amazing they managed to accomplish any mission at all," Sasuke heard Tenten murmur to Neji, who grunted in agreement. He couldn't blame them, though. Sometimes he wondered how they managed to live and survive to report their missions' successes as well.
"What could Gai-sensei be doing that's so important?" inquired Tenten again to Neji.
The dark-haired boy narrowed his eyes. "Who knows," he murmured.
"Let's find out!"
The two looked up in surprise at Naruto's sudden input. The blond was grinning at them as he walked backwards. "After this mission is done we can head over to the Hokage's office and snoop around. I've done it before—it's really not that hard. You just need to distract the guards a little," he suggested mischievously.
Tenten frowned. "I don't really think that's necessary…," she began before Lee suddenly jumped on the idea.
"Really? We can find out where Gai-sensei went?"
Naruto nodded. "Yup! And Iruka-sensei, too!" he added eagerly.
"Oi, Naruto, that's too risky! Do you want to stay a Genin forever?" argued Sakura.
"I won't get us into trouble! I've done this before. If you follow my directions everything will go smoothly!"
"Naruto, I don't trust you!"
"You really think you can do this, Naruto-kun?"
"Uh, guys, really, we don't need to find out what happened to Gai-sensei that badly."
"Come on, where's your sense of adventure?"
"I never thought all of you could be so annoying," remarked Neji finally.
There was a pause in which everyone stared at the dark-haired boy incredulously.
"The annoying part is true. But I think the idiot may have something going on—if we act correspondingly to a plan first."
The attention was shifted to Sasuke then, who bore a strangely masked expression, yet there was no denying the devious look in his eyes as he spoke. Naruto blinked several times before grinning widely.
"You actually agree with me?" he asked in amazement.
Sasuke shrugged nonchalantly. "There's something wrong within the Hokage's office. I can tell that much," he commented idly.
"So let's hurry up and get this damn package delivered! We can't be wasting any more time!"
With that declaration the group started moving at a quicker pace. They passed through the forests of Konoha with little difficulty; however, it was when they entered Hidden Grass that any trouble would greet them. It was late afternoon by the time they had managed to deliver the package safely to Hoshi Wakato, and it was nearing midnight when they were leaving Hidden Grass.
"Tell me why again we're traveling by night instead of staying at an inn," complained Sakura as they swept past tall fields of grass.
Naruto turned to wink at her. "'Cause we want to get back to Konoha as soon as possible to set my plan into motion of course!" he exclaimed.
Sakura glared at the blond darkly. "You're going to kill us all one day, Naruto," she muttered.
"Is it just me, or did it get really dark?" quipped Lee suddenly.
All six shinobi looked at the sky. The moonlight that had previously shone down on them so vividly had vanished behind smoky clouds, casting them all into an uneasy darkness. They all gathered closer together instinctively as they moved at a slightly slower pace. No words were exchanged, but everyone felt the same thing: that cold, ominous feeling of despair that haunted their minds.
"Well, maybe we should light a torch," suggested Naruto weakly.
"We would alert other wandering shinobi," Sasuke broke in. "We can only travel in darkness. Neji, you can see can't you?"
"It's clear sailing," replied the other boy.
Tenten gave a strained laugh. "Then I wonder why we're all so tense," she said.
The group gave a nervous laugh as one before continuing in silence. All plans on breaking into the Hokage's office were left in the dark temporarily as they focused instead on simply returning home unscathed. The thought made Naruto shudder involuntarily. It felt as if someone was watching them, yet according to Neji there was no one around the perimeter. The blond shook his head and gathered his wits together. I'm just being paranoid, he thought reassuringly to himself. Even so, however, Naruto retained a wary watch over their black surroundings.
"It's a silent night," murmured Tenten.
Sakura glanced around apprehensively. "Too silent," she added.
"Home, home, home—oh, Konoha, how I miss your quaint appearance! Your embracing people and village call out to my heart!" Naruto burst out suddenly in a highly broken tune.
"Naruto…you idiot," muttered Sakura while stifling her own giggles.
It seemed as if the tension had been put aside for the moment as Naruto continued singing his song, making up stranger and more outrageous lyrics as he went along until the entire group was seen smiling to his antics.
"It seems he's good for something after all," commented Tenten lightheartedly.
Only when a piercing coldness entered the air did they realize the possibility of having fallen into a trap of some sorts. They gathered around each other intuitively, forming a defensive circle on all sides. The field was dark and the tall grasses around them brushed against their legs in an almost taunting manner.
"What's…happening?" whispered Sakura—the tone of fear evident in her voice.
"Just stick close," Naruto advised tightly, gripping his kunai so hard that the weapon was shaking in his hand from the strain.
A sickly gasping sounded close to them, making everyone flinch.
"I don't see anything, Tenten."
The breathing was ghastly. It echoed around them gloomily and with each passing second, seemed to grow louder and louder until the deafening tones surrounded them completely. It sounded as if someone was trying desperately to breathe—the hacking and gasps inspiring fear and apprehension in the group's minds—and the rattling drum of air being sucked in and out was too horrible to bear any witness. Nothing else existed except this one cacophony of gasps, wheezing, and rattling.
Finally, Naruto summoned his energy and threw his kunai randomly in the air before him. For a split second, everything became silent. Only the faint thud of the kunai embedding itself into a tree bark rang out and then nothing once again. Before anyone could think to react, the breathing was upon them in an instant—louder and more horrid than before.
"Sasuke, light a goddamn fire already! We're already in as much trouble as we can get!" shouted Naruto desperately, fighting off the imaginary hands creeping around them.
The dark-haired boy followed through without word, picking up a stray piece of wood near his foot before igniting it aflame. He held it above everyone's heads and narrowed his eyes at the scene. There was nothing in the field around them. The sky was as inky as ever and the wind had fallen to a halt. But other than the tall grasses standing around them, there was not a single soul present. Hidden Grass had few trees and those that were encircling them were completely barren—bent into unshapely positions, their branches sweeping the ground faintly with a creak. Naruto's kunai was spotted among one of the trunks, gleaming dully in the firelight.
"Who the hell is out there? Come out and fight like a man!" Naruto yelled indignantly. He was mad at himself for feeling this fear—but more importantly—he was mad at being afraid of seemingly nothing at all. He clenched his fists. "Come out!"
Sakura faced the blond with some concern in her eyes. "Naruto…," she murmured before her eyes widened at something in the distance. "Oh, my…!"
The others looked at the direction the pink-haired girl was facing and each felt a sudden drop in their hearts. A swarming shadow was filling the entire area, the edges wrinkling and curling about like the licks of a flame. The horrid breathing had returned again and now they knew where it had come from. This shadow fell towards them in a great splash of black flames. The group backed away automatically, shinobi senses kicking into action when their minds could not think of anything else.
"W-what…?" stuttered Sakura as she dropped her kunai to the ground, her eyes wide in terror.
And without warning, the shadow attacked and a scream was sounded in the thick night.
Iruka woke up with a start, sweat dripping down his neck and forehead. He breathed deeply for a moment, trying to gather his senses before looking around the room. It was night and the cool air entered through the windows, stirring the curtains from their spots and eliciting a foreign image in the Chunnin's head. An image of blackness—a shadow looming in the horizon—figureless and haunting. Iruka narrowed his eyes and tried to remember what had happened in his dream—a dream that seemed far too real for him to ignore.
With a jolt, Iruka looked towards the window again and saw Kakashi leaning against the wall, arms crossed.
"What are you…?"
"Couldn't sleep either."
Iruka frowned slightly. He wished Kakashi would be slightly more courteous when he intruded on someone's privacy—but it was simply a wish, nothing more. The Copy Nin, it seemed, did not include the word "courteous" in his vocabulary. And no matter how much Iruka insisted, Kakashi would play forgetful and simply apologize in that very irritating manner of his.
"I had a strange dream," he suddenly said without thinking.
At this Kakashi looked at him, his one eye gleaming brightly before arching upwards in a smile. "Oh? Is our little Iruka finally growing up?" he replied lecherously.
It took several moments for Iruka to comprehend what Kakashi said before red filled his face. "W-what!" he cried out in dismay.
Kakashi nodded knowingly. "It happens to all of us at some point, Iruka. It's a part of being a man," he continued—employing a tone that implied he had much knowledge about the issue—but only managing to sound somewhat perverted.
Iruka glared at the silver-haired man darkly. "I dreamed about the demon, Kakashi."
Finally, the Jounin looked at Iruka seriously—but that moment only lasted for a brief second before he said, "Well now, Iruka, I'm not so sure if it's really healthy to be dreaming about the thing you're going to kill…"
The dark-haired man clenched his fist under the sheets as he attempted to calm his temper down. Kakashi was known for this. He was a master at provocation and he did not simply limit that skill to only enemies. No, he made sure his friends and allies would get a whiff of it as well—even if it drove them mad. Iruka wondered if there was any particular reason why Kakashi seemed to love driving people to corners until they exploded. Was it for some kind of sadistic pleasure—or did he just do it unconsciously? It was probably a mixture of both, Iruka concluded.
"I think…someone was attacked, Kakashi—someone close to us."
It appeared, for the moment, that the silver-haired Jounin had cast aside his teasing remarks as he gazed hard at Iruka. "What makes you say that?" he inquired.
Iruka shrugged helplessly. "I don't know! It just…felt real. I don't know who it was, though…," he replied, his eyebrows crunching together in obvious frustration. The dream had been so abstract. The only real image he could recall was the one of the demon—and even that seemed a little blurry around the edges. But he remembered voices and…fear. Great fear.
"They did say you were the only one who could defeat this demon. I wonder why, though. Did Shuntaro say anything to you?"
Kakashi narrowed his eyes. It seemed very strange that they would hide such details. Perhaps they were saving them for later as to not alarm Iruka. But now he could not help but what wonder exactly how Iruka's mother had sealed the demon in the first place. And the fact that this demon had no name made it seem even more suspicious. It seemed he would have to do some sneaking around. Kakashi did not really like the idea—but the secretiveness of the entire situation was slowly driving him crazy. Speculations would get them nowhere and if Hidden Shade truly did want an alliance with Konoha, then they would have to learn to share some of their knowledge eventually.
"Well, I don't think you should worry about it too much," Kakashi said calmly.
Iruka pursed his lips in concentration. "I suppose you're right. Shuntaro's sessions have been getting harder with each passing day—I guess the stress is just getting to me," he replied lightly.
"Hm… Have your sessions been getting more difficult? I can't really tell. You two are always fighting in darkness."
"Well, yes—wait. You've been watching?"
Kakashi stared back at the younger man evenly. Iruka sighed deeply to himself. It was also a known fact that Kakashi could be quite the snoop when he wanted to be. Gai had warned him of that, but somehow he could never imagine the famed Kakashi doing something so…childish.
"I'm not spying if that's why you're staring at me as if you're about to punish me. I'm only doing my duty. That brat Shinya has Gai and Genma wrapped around his thumb doing miscellaneous chores so someone has to make sure you're safe—because regardless of how much you trust this village, we can't afford any mistakes."
Iruka stared at Kakashi in mild surprise. Then the latter broke into a loud laugh.
"Or maybe I was just bored and had nothing better to do! I can't read a book forever you know. Besides…I would run out of them too quickly if I did!"
Iruka restrained himself from instinctively bopping the older man on the head.
Suddenly the door burst open and Gai rushed in, looking distinctly ruffled in his green nightgown. Iruka and Kakashi gaped at him incredulously, torn between staring at the flowery patterns on Gai's attire and the panicked expression on the man's face.
"I was looking all over for you, Kakashi! Where have you been?" Gai inquired immediately, ignoring Iruka completely.
Kakashi shrugged. "I was roaming around like a nighthawk," he replied offhandedly.
Gai suddenly became grim as he held up a piece of paper in his hand. "Yes, well, speaking of hawks…we received a message from Hokage-sama," he said.
Iruka and Kakashi looked at him expectantly.
The famed Green Beast took a deep breath. "The demon's been spotted in Hidden Grass," he stated before pausing and looking at Kakashi cautiously. "The group that discovered them was from Konoha—namely your team and mine—as they were coming back from a mission."
Kakashi's eyes became steely and Iruka could not help but tense in worry. Naruto…it can't be. He suddenly remembered his dream. All that fear…and that piercing scream of agony… Who had it been?
"And? Are they all right?" queried Kakashi, his tone and expression masked smoothly.
Gai sighed deeply and his eyes grew sad. "They're all fine—suffering from post-traumatic shock—but in perfect health," he replied softly before looking at Kakashi. "Except…Sasuke was taken. And they don't know where he or the demon is now. It's likely…he's dead."
Iruka's eyes widened in shock as Gai looked away apologetically.
There was a brief rustling of feet and both turned around to see Kakashi disappear through the window.
Ack, so sorry for the super long delay. I sort of hit a dead end with this story for a while. Writing this part was a pain in the ass. But now I'm back on track! So hopefully I won't be disappearing for another eight months again! XD