The Lady Kameko slept well for a woman who'd just had an attempt on her life. Her dry, nasal snoring never missed a beat, in Naruto's opinion. Tsubaki, on the other hand, tossed and turned for hours. Her eyes, large in her small face and shining faintly in the dark, would open periodically, but she always squeezed them shut quickly. The soft, frustrated noises she made when she moved caught Naruto's attention repeatedly.
Naruto wanted to comfort her, but given her last reaction, he didn't think it would do much good.
A small part of his mind suggested that maybe it was his presence that kept her awake, not the assassination attempt. He didn't like that thought much, but it remained despite his best efforts to ignore it. If she was afraid of him, then sleeping with him in the corner couldn't be particularly easy. He saw the sense in that too much to dismiss it.
His throat went dry, but that might have been the damn incense. It stung his eyes, too. It made him itch worse than cigarette smoke. How something like that could be healthy was beyond him.
The sun was up by the time Sasuke came to relieve him, and Naruto was only too happy to let him take over. He staggered back to their billets, fatigue making him see spidery movement from the corner of his eyes. He was asleep nearly as soon as he fell across his pallet, and he didn't stir once until Hinata shook him awake.
Kiba eventually found the assassins scents on the lake shore. To all evidence, they'd come toward the house over the water. It was a needlessly showy choice on their part, and while Seigo's house guards might not think of attackers walking across the lake, it was pure luck that they'd avoided Sasuke and Hinata's patrols.
He told Shikamaru as much when the teamleader emerged from his meeting with Yori.
"Tche," Shikamaru noised. "I'm surprised they got as far as they did."
Kiba could only nod his agreement. "It seems like it was a botch job from the beginning."
Grumbling unhappily, Shikamaru pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'd think it was a feint, but to sacrifice a chuunin on a fake, then not even follow through with an attack..."
"Looks like it wasn't a fake, then," Kiba said.
Shikamaru shook his head, annoyed. "Something isn't right here. I just can't figure out what it means."
Reluctantly, fighting all the way, Naruto opened his eyes. It was already late in the afternoon. Slanting white light filtered in through the vents, washing the billets in a fine, powdery illumination. It hit Naruto's eyes like dust; he squinted, blinking and struggling to focus.
"Naruto," Hinata said, giving him another shake. "It's your shift."
He groaned, closing his eyes again. Maybe this was a dream, and it would go away if he ignored it long enough. He ached, his eyes, his throat, his ears, every large muscle in his body burning faintly with fatigue. "Just laid down," he grumbled. "Can't be me 'gain yet."
"It's after four," Hinata said, and her gentle fingers gave his shoulder a stubborn squeeze. "It's your shift with Seigo Kameko in less than half an hour."
"Can't be," he muttered again, closing his eyes tighter. He didn't care if he sounded childish. And he did, even to his own ears. Damn it, he couldn't be up again.
"Please, Naruto," her voice dropped, prodding him with the words. "Everyone's tired, and it's Sasuke's turn to rest."
"Bastard doesn't need sleep," Naruto said, but his eyes opened again. "His kind are supposed to suck the blood of virgins for their energy. Something like that."
Dropping her eyes, Hinata smiled a little. "If that were the case, he'd be the one sleeping all day, Naruto, not you."
He pushed himself up on his elbows, grunting. "Yeah, yeah, whatever. Take the bloodsucker's side."
He didn't bother hiding his smile at the end.
"Maybe I'll tell Sasuke you called him that."
Naruto grinned then. "Oh, c'mon. You didn't really the guy drank tomato juice in the morning, did you? Who does that? Blood would be less nasty."
"Mm, of course." She sat back, eyes looking at him through black eyelashes and white, autumn afternoon haze. "They're going to be waiting for you."
Huffing, Naruto reached for his shirt, realized belatedly that he was still wearing it, and tried to cover the mistake by stretching and raking his fingers through his hair. That was close to presentable, right? Of course, it was. Good enough for that brittle old bitch. He made a mental note to be a little easier on Tsunade for awhile. She wasn't quite as much of a hag as he thought she was after all. He swung his legs out in front of him, flexed, still not hurrying to get moving.
"I'll be there. Lucky them, they won't miss out on some of my shift."
A frown tugged at her lips at his tone, pulled at her brows, and he kind of felt bad about it. Kind of. "Get some breakfast before you go," she said instead of scolding him. Sakura would have scolded him. She would have had a reason, too, but Hinata let it slide. "You're going to have trouble staying awake if you don't take care of yourself."
Naruto drew a deep, heavy breath, then let it out in a sigh. Groaning theatrically, he levered himself up to his feet. "Sure," he told her, and winked. "And I'll make sure to wash behind my ears too."
Then he left, waving over his shoulder as he stepped outside.
Fresh air hit his face like cold water, and he took a deep breath. Okay, he decided, letting it clear some of the fog from sleep from his head. He'd swing by the kitchen and steal whatever was out, then off to take over with Kameko. Maybe they had some prunes there that he could slip the exalted lady and loosen her ass a bit. He imagined it must be as wrinkled and tight-puckered as the rest of her. No wonder she was such a sour cunt. For a moment, he entertained the idea of a joke, and it was enough to give him the energy to get moving, even if he'd shrugged it off by the time he got to the kitchen. Still, the idea might just get him through a few hours with Kameko.
His fox mask was down over his face when he finally reached the lady's chambers, hiding his smirk.
Sasuke liked Shikamaru insofar as he trusted him to lead the team well. If anyone could see through a messy scheme, it was him. For that, Sasuke respected him, despite whatever differences of opinion they might have, even if his attitude occasionally frustrated him. Shikamaru didn't let things cloud his judgment, and largely, if he saw a way to accomplish a goal, he got it done.
Sasuke appreciated effectiveness.
But he hated relying on it in someone else, and he hated more relying on it when he himself was blind.
Something was wrong here. He could feel it. He could smell it. He could taste it in the air, pulled across his tongue on every breath like the minerals in the lake and just as bitter. What he couldn't do was see what it was, or make out what belonged on the missing pieces of the puzzle he found before him. If anyone could, he trusted that it was Shikamaru, but even he needed enough of the picture to fill in the blanks, and Sasuke had no way of knowing if he had it.
He did suspect, as Sasuke suspected, and it troubled him too. Perhaps that's why they both found themselves here, on the gravel beach, looking out over the bright water.
"I thought you were sleeping," Shikamaru said without looking away from the lake. Sasuke scanned the surface of the water, but didn't see anything.
"I had things on my mind," Sasuke replied softly after a moment, disliking the feel of revealing even that much of what was on his mind.
Shikamaru barked a short laugh. "You don't say?"
"You don't know what it is either," Sasuke observed. It wasn't a question.
The other ninja's eyes dropped, studying the stones at their feet. After a moment, he leaned over and picked up a weathered rock, weighing it in his hand. "Not yet. There's something missing, and I can't quite figure out what it is."
Sasuke listened, silently agreeing. He didn't expect Shikamaru to continue, but he did, tossing the rock in the air and catching it experimentally. "It's a trap," he said, and there wasn't any doubt in his voice. "It has to be. This whole thing is a trap, but I can't tell who for. Us? Someone after you or Hinata for your eyes? Or are we the bait? They haven't moved yet... why? What are they waiting for? What are they interested in?" He drew back his arm and threw, letting the stone fly. It skipped across the still green water, leaving rings in its wake. "If I could figure out what they want, I'd have it."
"What they want?" Sasuke repeated, surprised. The pieces started sliding together. When he spoke again, his voice was grim. "What makes you say that?"
Turning, Shikamaru sighed and shrugged. "The attack. It wasn't real. It was for our benefit. That's the only thing that makes sense. Why else would it be so pathetic? There are other things, too. The guards, Yori, the rest. They're all waiting for something, they're all watching for something, but whatever it is..." he gestured out, including all the hills and battered rock around them, "it's not out there."
Sasuke closed his eyes, replaying their time here in his mind. The first meeting. The mission outline. The lady, Kameko, asking why there were so many of them. The guards. The attack. The lady's eyes watching them out of her shrewd face; but not all of them. Almost never all of them. Only Naruto.
That wasn't so strange. Naruto was good at making himself obtrusive. Many people paid attention to him, especially when he wouldn't shut up and let their squad leader talk. But Kameko had talked to him.
"What do you know?" Shikamaru asked; he saw the change in Sasuke's stance.
"No time," Sasuke snapped, turning on his heel and running for the main building. If he was wrong, then he was making a fool of himself, which was not something he did lightly. But Naruto was there now, with the old woman and her granddaughter, and this was a trap for someone.
The silence was too heavy. Maybe old people could be that quiet, fucking hag would probably break if she moved to fast or something, but kids shouldn't be. Naruto wouldn't have known Tsubaki was in the room if he couldn't see her, kneeling there on the floor beside her grandmother's stiff-backed chair. A girl shouldn't look that much like a doll. She shouldn't be that well behaved, never fidgeting, never speaking, hell, never sneezing because of the incense that crazy old woman seemed to demand on burning all day.
Naruto wheezed softly behind his mask. He'd been resisting the urge to rub his dry nose for fifteen or twenty minutes now, waiting in Kameko's receiving room, and to hell with Anbu decorum or whatever the hell he was supposed to do, if someone didn't open a window soon, he was going to take out a wall.
Maybe some fresh air would do the girl some good. Couldn't hurt, could it?
Kameko's long nails clicked on her chair arm twice, sharp on the ninja's ear in the oppressive silence, and a servant put more of that fucking incense in the brazier in the corner, sending up curling ribbons of smoke. Naruto had to bite his lip to keep from groaning, or possibly growling.
Something must have escaped, because Kameko's face turned toward him. Her painted on slash of a mouth pursed thoughtfully. "Problem, ninja?" she asked.
Naruto grunted and hunched a little. Nothing being on a train back to Konoha couldn't fix. "No," he said, rather than sulking, but he wanted to. Oh, how he wanted to. "Just settling in."
Her mouth twitched into an expression too ugly and too weak to honestly warrant being called a smile. Naruto twitched a little. "Bored? Perhaps you were hoping for more assassins."
Naruto huffed, almost making a snide comment, but then he thought of the girl sitting on the floor, and bit it back. He wilted a little. It wasn't Tsubaki's fault her grandmother was baiting him. She didn't deserve to hear what was on his mind. Even if Kameko deserved it enough for six people.
"Well, ninja," Kameko continued, and Naruto almost thought she was disappointed he didn't snarl at her, "Yori will be here soon. Perhaps that will give you a bit more entertainment?"
Snorting - then snuffing, clearing his nose - Naruto leaned back against the support beam he'd taken up position by.
More minutes dragged out with nothing to distinguish them but the crackling of the brazier and the flicker of oil light. Long, boring, thick minutes.
Then, finally, there were footsteps coming their way, and Naruto nearly heaved a sigh of relief. Anything, even listening to a meeting, was better than all this sitting and waiting and waiting and fucking waiting while nothing happened.
The door opened, and in stepped Yori, his scarred face grim. Seeing that face, Naruto straightened a bit. He almost expected the next words out of the soldier's mouth to be word of more assassins, or Kameko's possibly justifiably matricidal son. A look passed between Kameko and Yori. Yori's brows drew together, and he gave up the barest of nods.
Kameko's expression didn't change in the least.
Yori shut the door behind him, and the bolt slid home.
Naruto pushed away from the support, the hairs on the back of his neck and his arms standing on end. There was a question on his tongue, and he was figuring out how to word it, or if he even should. Something stopped it in his mouth; something in the look on Yori's face, and the silence, and the acrid scent of incense smoke.
Kameko stood, her formal kimono crumpling stiffly, her cane in hand.
"Tsubaki," she murmured, voice caressing the girl's name in a way Naruto hadn't heard come from her mouth before. It was a thin, satisfied word, cutting in its superiority.
The girl made a soft noise of assent, and folded her hands, bowing her head.
Naruto frowned, stopped in his tracks. A shock went through him, from confusion or something else, something that hung over him, waiting to fall.
Tsubaki started to pray.
There was no more time for confusion then, as the world suddenly lit up. Bright orange, deep red, and black, each one of them vivid and burning through him as the lamps flared and seals came to life like coals on the walls, on the pillars, in a ring on the floor. Heat swept through Naruto, up through the soles of his feet, through his limbs, through his fingers, up into his belly where it pooled in a way that was all too familiar. It nestled there, raw and powerful, fur, damp heat, a low, growling chuckle.
Then pain. Sudden, wracking pain. Naruto tensed against his will, his muscles burning. Cramps knotted his hands and his feet, twisted up his calves and shoulders and into his gut, pushing his heart up to pound in his throat. He couldn't breathe around it, couldn't get air. Only more of that smoke, thick and choking, filled his lungs. The smell was razor edged. His eyes stung. The air was alive with something burningly astringent.
Red light build around him, and in the seals that glared sullenly from every angle, sending up thin black tendrils of smoke of their own. Sulfur and singed wood.
In the hellish light, Tsubaki glowed softly, a cold, pure white.
Naruto fell to one knee. They were chanting around him. Had been for a moment, but he didn't understand them. Couldn't. The words were garbled to his ears. Mangled like a scrambled transmission. His ears were filled with static. Discordant, jarring, painful, and growing louder as they repeated their words. They buzzed in his head, down his spine.
The Kyuubi, inside him, was spared for a moment. The smells and the sounds, the white glow, filtered through Naruto as he tried to get back to his feet. It tried to get in, tried to saturate him, diluting the power that coiled in his belly.
The seals flickered silver briefly, then back to that red, that deep, unnatural red.
Inside him, the fox began to howl and thrash. Naruto blinked haze from his eyes, panting, and fell to his hands and knees again. Through the blur, he could see his fingers, the curved claws at the tips of them, the chakra sizzling off his skin like water off hot iron.
The fox howled, and Naruto screamed.
All of a sudden, the estate guards had delusions of competency. Sasuke put those down before they could reach fruition, showing them in quick, certain terms the difference between him and them. They fell as he passed, gasping or screaming, or boneless and eerily silent. The fact they tried to stop the Konoha ninja now was proof enough that they had become the enemy, had been from the beginning, and lethal force slipped into Sasuke's mission parameters as naturally as waking up.
Shikamaru wasn't as fast, and perhaps he had detoured to find help. Sasuke didn't know and didn't care. The halls of the Seigo compound unwound before him, giving way to a locked, sealed door. He had a moment to decide whether or not to charge through or open it conventionally.
He almost regretted that skidding to a halt was the safer decision when he heard the noise from the other side. He didn't recognize the voice, but he knew who it had to be, and his throat tightened minutely. But he didn't know these sigils, and barging in might conceivable make things worse.
Sasuke didn't know Kameko, but he knew Orochimaru, and he knew Kabuto, and he knew the kind of fail-safes they put in their locks. Sasuke ground his teeth, Sharingan reddening his vision, and studied the seals. After a visual check, he touched them warily. Nothing.
Whatever they were, they weren't meant for him. That worried more than it reassured.
He drew his weapon slowly, focusing his chakra. He could hear the others, not bothering to cover their running footfalls as they caught up. They'd be there too, soon.
Taking a deep breath, he laid his hand over the seal. His chakra released in a quick, blue-white flash, leaving the smell of ozone in the air after it and blackening the seal to nothing, not even scratches on the door. He set his heel, narrowed his eyes, and attacked the door next. It blew inward, spraying the room with splinters, and letting lurid red light pour out. Shadows twisted, sick things that didn't belong outside of nightmares, growing deep as they turned to see him.
Kameko - Sasuke identified her as the leader instantly, it couldn't be anyone else - frowned. "Tsubaki," she said in an uncompromising tone, "don't stop unless I tell you to. One moment before, and I'll box your ears so hard you won't hear for a month."
The girl faltered an instant, shifting, but then she stilled. Her eyes squeezed shut. She prayed like a child afraid of demons, and the room lightened in a way that was nothing to do with tricks of the mind. Sasuke saw it, the way the atmosphere changed. The air cooled, the shadows slunk away.
Naruto made a sound that humans shouldn't make, not ever, not and live afterwards.
Sasuke needed no more encouragement than that.
The captain of the guard adjusted his grip on his spear haft, moving slowly into position to intercept Sasuke. The Uchiha's eyes darted to him, and he turned his wrist, dropped his chin. His foot slid back into a ready stance. Offensive. Sasuke was in no mood for playing games.
But then Kameko spoke again. "The others, Yori. You can't handle this one."
Sasuke might have thought it a joke, but he knew better. And he knew better than to underestimate, as Kameko let her outer kimono fall away. Sasuke shifted his form again, toes of the leading foot sliding forward, weight back, grounded. He'd already given up his element of surprise. His mind went over his options, variables sifting through his mind and before his eyes.
The others burst in, Akamaru leading, and Sasuke ignored them. Yori rushed to meet them. That would keep him from Sasuke's back while he dealt with the old woman.
A mechanism clicked, and Kameko's cane split in two. She drew the grip up, slowly revealing two inches of shining metal blade. Sasuke chose his moment, striking then with all the speed the snake had given him. If she thought he was going to wait on her showmanship, she would be disappointed.
Kameko was fast. Surprisingly so, even accepting that she was more than she seemed, even expecting her to know her business, she was fast. Sword met sword, her blade parrying his with expert grace, her wrist turning, sword blade moving like a serpent as she guided it. He was stronger, he felt it in the way she had to give, had to take his force and redirect it rather than returning it, but she knew what she was doing. He felt that, too.
There was something familiar, something close and disturbingly intimate about the way they matched for a second. He could feel her resolve in her sword, and her calculating mind, her controlled hand.
Sasuke was almost grateful when she backed away, breaking the connection. The reprieve didn't last. He had to attack again. Sword met sword, ringing against one another. Neither of them intended to lose here. Sasuke felt it as she matched him for another exchange. She expected to win.
Fresh air tickled Naruto's nostrils. Panting, he clawed at his mask when he smelled it, tossing the thing aside and gulping hard. There wasn't enough of it. There wasn't. But it was there, and he could feel it. He needed it. Inside him, the fox could smell it too, and it pressed its nose against the bars of its cage, straining for it.
The world was a jumble seething red and black pitted with poisonous white, so nowhere was safe, nowhere was right. He could hardly see through it, couldn't think through it at all.
But there was air. Where there was air, there was a way out. The animal in him, the back of his human mind or the root of the demon or the cunning instincts of the fox, that part of him that knew without thinking, it struggled toward the air. The snare he was in, it wasn't closed, not entirely. Not anymore. He struggled for it with all his strength, the man, the demon and the animal.
Underestimating Hinata was nearly the last mistake Yori made. He charged the young woman, and she knew she must have seemed like the best choice. She was the one who soothed ruffled feathers, the one who backed down and looked away from confrontations. He forgot that she was a Hyuuga, or he thought, maybe, that it didn't matter. He thought, perhaps, that she was not a Hyuuga in the way that her sister or her cousin was Hyuuga, and Byakugan or no, he attacked her first rather than Kiba.
And perhaps he was right. Hinata had to admit that had he attacked Neji, he would most likely be dead in that moment, rather than clutching his useless arm to his side as he retreated.
"Oi, Hinata," Kiba growled. "Check on Naruto. I got this guy."
"No," Shikamaru cut him off. "Don't." There was no explanation for that, but a note of frustration in his voice as the shadows writhed away from him, possessed by something more than the normal laws of light and dark.
Before she could question him, Naruto lurched, stumbling to his feet, then falling back to his knees. His back arched and his teeth bared in a snarl. Orange chakra bubbled out of him, frothy and spinning.
Akamaru whined, and Hinata, despite her training, turned to look at him. She hadn't heard that sound in years. Not since Gaara.
Sasuke heard Tsubaki whimper. Kameko heard it too, and her sword slipped a moment. Sasuke's crept past her guard, the edge sliding through her sleeve and across the ropy muscle of her bicep almost without resistance. The old woman swore and spat. A needle, a ninja's trick and one Sasuke knew very well, but it drove him back. There was no knowing what was in that woman's mouth.
He was back in an instant, ready to press her again. He had first blood, and with her body, there was no way she'd last long after he'd clipped her. The problem was, Kameko wasn't there when he attacked. Fast, too fast, she was beside the girl, dragging her to her feet. Sasuke marked, already moving to follow, that Tsubaki was bleeding herself; a thin trickle of it leaked from her nose and rolled down her chin. Dazed, the girl didn't even wipe it away.
"Yori, now," Kameko snapped.
"Stop them!" Shikamaru ordered, sounding for a moment every bit the leader.
Sasuke followed Kameko, sword naked in his hand and not ready to be sheathed. He wasn't done yet.
One lamp went out, then another, and another, each extinguishing itself without warning. The whiteness, the light that had relieved some of the unnatural crimson glow and shadows, faded away entirely, leaving the room in eerie red and black relief.
In the middle of it stood Naruto. A Naruto whose slitted eyes saw none of them. Whose face was marked and alien. Whose chakra roiled off of him, so rank that even Sasuke had to shy away for a moment as the ofuda on the walls all ignited, their script burning to life and then to nothing, scarring the walls and the floor with char.
"What the –"
Kiba's voice, then Hinata's.
Kameko, Yori and the girl were gone.
"Fuck," that was Sasuke, hissed under his breath.
Naruto swayed on his feet, rounding on them with all the grace of a wounded beast. There was no recognition in his face. Then he blinked. Still nothing, nothing Sasuke could be sure of, not before Naruto toppled to the floor, his breath coming in hoarse, audible wheezes.
Hinata started toward him, ignoring an abortive command from Shikamaru and a worried exclamation from Kiba. She went to her knees beside him, her hands moving over him in a barely controlled flurry. She checked his vitals, searched for wounds, soothed him, all without a single question.
After it became apparent that Naruto wasn't going to move again, Shikamaru approached Sasuke. He was frowning deeply, more tired than angry. "What do you know, Uchiha?"
"No more than you do," Sasuke told him, watching as Hinata worked.