Chapter 36: Clandestine

For once, Tsunade read a mission report lower than A-ranked. Shizune couldn't have been more grateful as she skipped out of Tsunade's office, her arms laden with C and D rank missions. Tsunade, on the other hand, couldn't have been grimmer. A nasty part of Team Gai's report stood engraved in her mind with a bad after taste.

When going over the surveillance footage, we could only identify two people going down into the high security vaults. Gai wrote.

Tsunade picked up the picture again and squinted at it. The photo was grainy and pixilated, as though someone had enlarged it too much.

As seen in the picture, the taller one had long black hair and the shorter one had platinum hair pulled back. Because no one else was seen going down to those vaults on this day, we have to assume that these people are the culprits. The video shows that they went down into the basement, but there aren't any security cameras around Vault 26, but we assume they went it. However, after that, they did something very strange. They ran back up the stairs to the section of the library designated to Hokages and appeared to kidnap someone who was reading a book up in there.

Tsunade picked up a picture of two blurs racing up the stairs and compared it with another picture of two blurs grabbing someone. Whoever they were, they were training ninja; only ninja can move that fast.

It's difficult to tell, but we think they dragged him back down into basement. Then stayed there for approximately 10 hours and then came back up, however it looks like only two people left.

Tsunade narrowed her eyes at the pictures of the two people leaving. The long, black-haired one led the way, but the short platinum-haired one seemed to have gained weight. The short haired one may actually have been two people, but with the graininess of the photo, it was difficult to tell.

Tsunade spread the pictures out on her cluttered desk and began to examine them closer. The two culprits… one with long black-hair, one with short white hair, tied back… She knew two people who fit that description, who were smart enough to break into a maximum security vault, and good enough ninjas to never look directly at the camera and move quickly enough to avoid detection. Just the thought of both these people made Tsunade sick.

She bit her lip and began a letter to Jiraiya. If those two were involved, even if there was the slightest chance that Orochimaru and Kabuto were in Zosho, Jiraiya needed to know.


Three days at sea brought little comfort to the three teammates. The fight with Lee was still fresh on their minds.

"You think they were there because of us?" Naruto whispered as he stared out into the sea.

"I don't know." Sakura put her hand on top of her wig for security reasons. "but I can't think of anyway they could have found out about us being in Zosho. We were disguised."

"But we weren't on our trip to Lightning Country."

"Yeah, but Fire Country ninja aren't allowed to go up there." She sighed. "I think it's safer to assume that Konoha was alerted when we got Shodaime's scroll. I just hope our cover hasn't been blown."

"I don't think so." Naruto rested his chin on the railing and let the sea spray his face. "Lee told us that we were dead."

"That's true." Sakura rested her chin on the bar as well. "We can't take too many chances though. We should probably lie low for a while."

"Hmmm." Naruto hummed in agreement, and they both looked sideways, 20 feet away, at Sasuke. The black haired boy stood, gripping the cold metal railing on the other side of the boat, in the same place he'd been for three days.

"You think he's okay?" Naruto asked.

Sakura didn't answer. If only there was a medical remedy for this sort of thing.

Naruto crossed the divide between them to inspect his friend, closely followed by Sakura.

Sasuke looked out into the black ocean. Days seemed like an eternity to him, and yet, as they drew closer to their destination, he felt as though time had gone by too quickly. He didn't respond to his teammates and they tried everything to get him to snap out of it. Naruto went as far as challenging Sasuke to a duel, right there on the boat. Sakura quickly put an end to it, but a small part of Sasuke wished she hadn't; a fight might have taken his mind off their destination.

The air began to smell like Sound Territory, a mixture of trees and blood, bringing back memories Sasuke thought he could lock away. He heard screams, the splash of blood against a wall, felt the damp chill of dark places. Sasuke shuddered and tried to hide his face in his collar.

The boat slowed to a halt and bumped against a long wooden pier. All the muscles in Sasuke's body tightened to stone as he looked down the rickety bridge of a dock seeing nothing but fog engulfing the opposite end of it. He didn't know if he could detach his hands from the boat's steel guard rail. Little did he know, his companions shared his uneasiness.

Naruto and Sakura had been into Sound Territory only a handful of times, but none of those memories had been happy. Beyond those times, the only hints at what happened they got, were the looks on Sasuke's face. Every time the subject came up he looked sick, which only increased their curiosity more.

Indeed, right now, Sasuke looked very sick. Naruto stood three feet away from him, unsure whether his friend was going to crack the beam he clutched so tightly or throw up. It occurred to Naruto that Sasuke might do both and, from then on, stood four feet away from him.

A warm breeze plucked at Naruto's brown wig, but it wasn't a nice sort of breeze like in Zosho or Sea Breeze Island. This stuff was gross and sticky. It clung to the inside of Naruto's yellow shirt and made his neck feel oily. It was as though the air was rotting. He didn't want to breathe it; in fact, he didn't want to get off the boat, but the one-legged captain shooed them off cane. They were left on the edge of the creaking wooden pier watching the old man disappear into the humid fog.

Tentatively, they looked behind them. Supposedly, there was land somewhere on the other side, though, none of them wanted to reach it. In fact, Sakura was getting pretty comfortable with the plan of just staying right there on the moldy, lonely pier and living out the rest of Orochimaru's endless life there, but Sasuke stepped forward. And then he did it again. And again, until he was actually walking toward the shore.

"C'mon," he whispered hoarsely, "The sooner we get there, the sooner we can leave."

The other two didn't need much more motivation; they quickly scampered behind him as he walked stiffly through the mist. For several minutes, they walked in a void of white. Sakura began to wonder how far exactly was this pier, Naruto kept feeling like Zabuza was going to jump out and kill him. The path made several sharp turns and finally opened up to a larger, smellier dock. Other people meandered around on it, if you could call them people. They were more like shadows, all dressed in the same dirt brown cloak, faces turned to the ground.

The three passed a dusty immigration station. It had grown as one with a twenty-foot high wooden wall, which swooped around as far as they could see. The top was lined with spikes; a few seemed to be tinted the black of dried blood. At one time, not too long ago, the station may have seemed intimidating and foreboding, but now the entire wall had fallen to disrepair. The wooden columns smelled of piss and people had taken no time to carve chunks out of it; phrases started out as simple as "Ichigo was here" to large obscenities, sometimes sprawling 10 feet in length. The immigration house had been torn to pieces and looted, leaving nothing but the dying wooden frame and smashed out windows. With no one sitting at the post to meet them, Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura moved into the town.

They stepped out onto a cracking cobble road covered with dirt, grime and filth. People were everywhere, walking down the main roadways, sitting against the rotting buildings, all drenched in the same dirt-colored robes. It felt as though everything was being played in slow motion. Few people talked, and if they did, they did so in hurried and hushed whispers. The wooden buildings, broken and beaten, hummed with the empty voices of the people inside.

Naruto felt like an unsightly blemish on the face of this town. He could feel people looking at him, but every time he turned his head, they immediately looked away. He had the distinct feeling that they were whispering about him too, but couldn't pick up any conversation.

The solemn shadows walked, heads down, through the streets. Many of them carried large packs on their backs or hauling wheelbarrows, the contents covered in the same brown cloth as their owners. All the people seemed to be moving in the same direction, toward the city gates.

"It's like everyone's leaving…" Sakura whispered.

"Maybe they're migrating," Naruto rubbed his chin, "like birds."

Sakura threw him a dirtier look than the road they were walking on.

"Idiot." She muttered.

"What?" He cried. "It's a possibility."

"With a city this broken, I wouldn't want to live here either." Sakura said, ignoring Naruto and looking at the monochrome of the buildings and people. "With Orochimaru gone, these people probably don't even have a police force or anything…"

"You're giving Orochimaru too much credit." Sasuke interjected harshly, speaking for the first time since they entered the port city. Both of his teammates perked up and stared at him. "It's been a long time, but…" He looked around. "I've been here before, with Orochimaru and, sure, some of the houses had windows, but it wasn't much different."

Sakura opened her mouth to say something, but couldn't think of anything, so she closed it again. Her unspoken words clogged the air and they fell into an uncomfortable silence. Naruto squirmed and searched drastically for something to break the tension.

"Um…" He began. "Shouldn't we find a place to stay for the night?"

Both the other two turned to look at him. Sakura gave him an incredulous look.

"Are you serious?" She asked.

"Um…" Naruto rubbed the back of his head. "Yes?"

"Naruto, we're trying to reach the Northern Ribbon as quickly as possible!" She cried, slightly inclining her head toward Sasuke. They needed to get out of the country quickly for his sake. Sasuke seemed to pick up on this gesture.

"Yeah." He said. "Let's find a place to stay."

"What?" Sakura exclaimed. "But-"

"Don't worry about it." He said and walked off toward a side street. "It's not very good to travel around here at night anyway."

Naruto and Sakura trotted after him, wondering what he was concocting in his mind, but they soon found they had little time for that. Sasuke turned a corner on to a residential street and the hunt for shelter began. Finding an empty house was the easiest thing Naruto had ever done; most of the apartments were abandoned, but this too became a problem. The first place didn't have hot water, the place next to it had a cockroach problem, and the entire block next to those didn't have electricity. It became like Christmas shopping; so many gifts but none you could give to your mother.

Finally, they found a small place on the second floor of a complex about two blocks from the main road. The lights worked, the water worked… sort of, but some of the floorboards were loose. They all rolled out their sleeping bags and stared at each other, not knowing what to say. After a few minutes, they made a silent agreement to climb into their sleeping bags and go to bed,


Earlier that day, many miles from away, Neji stuck his hands in his pockets and stared down at the tablet labeled "Uzumaki Naruto." A brisk summer breeze whistled through row after row of grave markers and pushed his long hair into his face, but Neji didn't care. His mind kept floating back to the three people he'd seen in Zosho. He stared down at Naruto's grave as though it was a slug, disgusting, small, and not nearly adequate for Naruto. He wanted to kick it really hard.

Neji looked to his left, saw Shino standing beside him and looked back at the grave. Both stood in cold silence, ignoring each other, yet secretly curious as to why the other was there. On the rare occasion the Hokage gave you some time off, why would you spend it in the cemetery unless you had something hanging over your mind.

Unbeknown to the other, Shino felt the same way Neji did, except Shino understood why he want to kick the grave. It was a lie. Ever since Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura had been "cremated", Shino went to the cemetery every chance he got to see if the graves had been moved and the real ashes had been put there. So far, there was no difference; the graves looked the same as ever.

The wind tossed a petal off the stem of the flower Hinata had brought earlier and it went tumbling against Shino's jacket and then away down the hill. The petal hit someone else as he made his way nonchalantly toward them, but neither Neji nor Shino cared to look.

"Neji, Shino." A voice called them out of their reflective trances. They both looked to the left and saw Shikamaru coming down the row towards them. Neji quickly deemed him less interesting than his morbid reflecting and turned back to the grave stone.

"What are you two doing here?" Shikamaru persisted as he came and stood next to Neji.

"Nothing." Neji said quickly. There was something reverberating in the word that made the two boys look at him. The snappy, reserved, yet resigned tone that Neji used led Shikamaru to believe that he was hiding something

Shikamaru leaned in to try and get a good look at Neji's face, but Neji avoided his gave.

"Neji," Shikamaru continued to glare into the boy's cheek, "I heard you just got back from Zosho. Tenten told Ino that you were acting strange towards the end. Could it be…" Shikamaru's glare intensified, "… that you saw something?"

Neji's head whipped around. Shino looked up from the grave stone, his sunglasses hiding wide eyes as he stared at Shikamaru.

It couldn't be…?

Neji and Shikamaru glared at each other. Shikamaru had the impression that Neji was staring right through his eyes, through his skull and into his brain, trying to figure out what was going on in there. After a minute, Neji turned back to the grave.

"No…" Neji muttered, not taking his eyes off Shikamaru. "Why..?"

Shikamaru straightened. He hadn't had a conversation this intense since he confronted that Sasuke-Look-A-Like… what was his name? Takkun or something. He was just opening his mouth to answer when another voice called out to them.

"Neji? Shino? Shikamaru?"

They all jumped as though they'd been caught spray painting Naruto's grave and turned to look.

"Iruka-sensei…" Shikamaru whispered, and so it was.

"Good afternoon." Iruka beamed at them at them as he made his way over. He clutched a cup of dry instant ramen in one hand and a coffee thermos in the other. "My, my, so many people coming to visit today. You have a lot of friends, Naruto."

He moved around Neji and approached the grave, placing the instant ramen next to Hinata's flowers. He peeled back the paper lid halfway, unscrewed the cap of the thermos and filled the noodle cup to the line with boiling water. He pulled the paper lid over the cooking ramen and reached into his pocket, producing a pair of chopsticks. Iruka pulled the chopstick from their wrapper and, without breaking them apart, stuck them upright into the cup-o-ramen. After replacing the cap on the thermos, Iruka straightened up and clapped his hands in prayer. Feeling a little foolish, Shikamaru, Neji and Shino did the same, then felt foolish for feeling foolish.

"Iruka-sensei," Shikamaru piped up. "Why instant ramen? I thought Naruto's favorite was Ichiraku's."

"It is." Iruka fingered his cheek, "but I can't afford that all the time. I'm on a teacher's salary." Iruka beamed sadly down at the cold rock slab. "I'll bring him Ichiraku this weekend." He whispered.

A pang of guilt ran down the spines of Shikamaru, Neji and Shino, though none of them understood it.

"You bring him ramen a lot, Iruka-sensei?" Shino chimed in. eager to shake off the feeling.

"As often as I can." Iruka smiled at him. It was a sad sort of smile, the kind men use when their masculinity prevents them from crying.

This is bullshit. Neji's fists tightened. He suddenly had the urge to kick Naruto's grave again.

"Iruka," He said. Iruka looked at him. "Don't you-" his fingernails bit into his palms. "What if they're.… Isn't it possible…?" Just tell me I'm not insane!

Neji took a deep breath

"What if they're not dead?"

Shikamaru and Shino shot straight upright, staring wide-eyed at Neji.

Could it be..? Shikamaru's brain scrambled around as though it were on white hot coals. He did see something in Zosho!

Iruka merely smiled and look sadly at Naruto's grave again.

"I like to think he's alive somewhere." Iruka sighed. "Sometimes it would make more sense; it's hard to believe Naruto would be brought down by something as insignificant as an explosion, but I don't know if I think that that way because it's true or because I want it to be true. Nothing would make me happier than to see him now, alive and well, but at a certain point, you have to just accept what's true. My brain says the Hokage-sama is right and he's dead, my heart makes up theories about him being alive somewhere, but all I know for certain is that he's not here."

Iruka looked into the blue sky.

"I wish I had Kakashi-san's strength." He whispered.

"What about Kakashi-san?" Shino asked. Now that he thought about it, he hadn't seen Team Seven's leader since the recovery mission.

"Nothing, nothing." Iruka looked back down again and smiled.

"There's only one other thing I know for certain." He went on. "Wherever Naruto is now, whether it's this world or the next, he's with his closest friends. Wherever he is, he's happy."


Naruto was miserable. No matter how he tried, he couldn't sleep. His head felt hot under his wig.

Whose stupid idea was it to wear these 24/7 anyway? And why'd I have to suggest we stay here overnight anyway? He grumbled. This town gives me the creeps.

He looked over at Sasuke, a dark huddled mass on his left. Naruto couldn't begin to imagine what was going on in his head. Naruto was no fool; Sasuke treated his days with Orochimaru like Gaara treated the days before he met Naruto. Naruto could see pain and anger behind those eyes. He'd been there too.

While Naruto's brain kept him awake with these thoughts, he hardly noticed that they had a visitor. A small figure poked its head from under a loose floorboard, saw three sleeping mounds and, more importantly, three traveling packs, and grinned. It moved the floor board aside and crept out of the hole, slithering toward the luggage. Looking cautiously at the sleeping residents, the small creature wiggled its greedy little fingers and silently pulled a bag toward itself.

As it struggled with the draw string latch, it heard a sound from the ground at its feet and felt something cold next to its big toe. It looked down at its sandal and saw a yellow-handled stainless steel dagger pinning the sole to the floor. A hand held the dagger in place. The intruder followed the arm to the yellow sleeping bag and came across the face of Naruto, glaring evilly at it in the dim moonlight. The creature jumped, or would have, if Naruto's dagger had not been there.

"Idiot." Naruto whispered. "Don't think that just because you're quiet I don't know you're there. And don't think just because they look asleep that they didn't know you were here either."

Before Naruto was halfway done with his sentence, the intruder had begun to pull its foot out of its shoe, slipping out and away from Naruto.

"Hey!" Naruto cried as the little figure bolted.

With some effort, Naruto wriggled his way out of the sleeping bag and dashed after the small creature. It slipped through the hole in the floor boards and moved them back just in time for Naruto to nose dive into them.


By this time, both Sasuke and Sakura had pulled themselves free of their sleeping bags. Sasuke dashed for the door, Sakura yanked Naruto to his feet and followed Sasuke out. They all looked over the balcony and down to the ground floor where they saw a small figure running out from. A flickering street lamp doused the creature in light for a moment, just long enough for Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura to see that the small bandit wasn't some unearthly being, but, in fact, a child. It was dressed in dirt brown clothes and a hat that seemed 5 sizes too large that made it impossible to tell gender. They all vaulted off the balcony and began to chase after it.

For such a small person, it was very fast. It weaved in and out of alleyways, out running three well-trained ninja.

"That little…" Naruto cursed as the child slid under a fence. He scrambled over some trash cans and crawled over the spiked wood. His hand slipped and Naruto face-planted on the other side, nearly landing on top of the kid.

Naruto cursed again as Sasuke gracefully hurdled over the fence, landed on his feet beside Naruto and ran after the child. Naruto barely had time to think insults when Sakura came plowing through the fence like a bulldozer.

"Idiot, what are you doing, just sitting there?" She cried, grabbing his wrist and yanking him to his feet.

Sakura spotted the kid climbing up a drain pipe to the third floor of a nearby building. Sasuke had just reached the base of the structure when the kid hopped on to the third floor landing and ran toward an empty apartment. In direct line of sight, 100 feet away, Sakura locked on to her target. She glared and grabbed Naruto by the front of his shirt with one hand, the button front of his cargo shorts with the other.

"Wait, Sakura-chan, what are you-!" He blushed and flailed helplessly against her grasp.

"Think fast, Naruto!" She cried and with one swift motion, she lifted the protesting Naruto into the air and threw him like a javelin at their target.

"GYAAAAAHHH!" Naruto screamed as he flew through the air like a rocket. Then he realized he didn't have time for screaming; he was about to hit the third floor cement railing.

"Rasengan!" He cried, curling his hands together at his side, mixing the chakra into a tight ball. He smashed the sphere into the railing and it crumbled away like stale bread. The kid turned around to see the commotion, but only saw the nanosecond before Naruto came plummeting into it, grabbing the child around the waist. The two were sent smashing through the apartment door and tumbling into the room.

Shaking off his dizziness, Naruto pinned the kid to the floor. The child struggled like a dying animal until its hat fell off. Long blonde hair spilled out on to the floor and Naruto found himself on top of an angry, brown-eyed young girl. In realizing the awkwardness of his situation, Naruto let his guard slip and she head-butted him. Hard.

Naruto cried out, cursing, and tumbling off her, clutching his forehead in pain. The girl had underestimated how solid Naruto's head was and likewise clutched her temple and groaned.

As he messaged his forehead, Naruto snuck a peek at the girl. He could see very little of her face beneath the shadow of her hands; she was biting her lip in pain. Suddenly, she stopped, a sinister smile creeping over her mouth. Naruto ignored the blood running into his eyes and gawked at her.

A distant crash echoed from outside. Naruto jumped up and ran to the door. He squinted in the direction of the sound and saw the abandoned apartment where they were staying. Many other small creatures were leaving it, each carrying arm loads of goods, of which Naruto recognized his own personal belongings.

"Goddam it!"

Author's Note: Firstly, this chapter is dedicated to my roommate, who really helped me when I was stuck using the same words over and over. man, this chapter did not want to come out. I swear, everything got in my way of writing it. I made several fatal errors that took forever to correct and then when I looked at them again, I realized they weren't so fatal. >. Sorry this chapter is somewhat shorter that the last ones have been. I moved a lot of stuff around and took out about half of the chapter itself. Don't worry, it'll all make it's way back in there somehow.
A little on the chapter: Firstly, if you couldn't tell, Orochimaru and Kabuto weren't in Zosho, I can't emphasize enough how Tsunade was seeing Sasuke and Sakura, not the other two. Also, Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura aren't in the Sound Village yet, I wasn't very clear about that, but they're only in a port city at the moment. And lastly, you should all be hating Iruka right now. If he hadn't said all those mushy things about his opinions on Naruto's death, I'm certain Shikamaru, Neji and Shino would have spilled the beans to each other and would've figured the whole thing out. Funny how the only ninja who have some proof are those least likely to talk about it. ;)

Next Chapter: The origins of the little brat! An a dillema for Sasuke! what will he dooo?