I'm not even gonna try to apologise about the delay this time. I'm just gonna go hide in the corner and pretend it didn't happen… (I'm having trouble writing these last few chapters – can you tell?)
Thank you for your reviews anyway! I really wish I could do a better job of getting the updates out as quickly as you all deserve T.T
Watching Hinata walk off for a few moments, Naruto eventually turned and began to walk down the tunnel again to check Onpa was finished off, mentally bracing himself in case he still had to carry out the task.
The boy froze mid-step, though, a look of horror crossing his face as he realised something he hadn't expected to see.
Onpa was gone.
The sound-nin slumped heavily against the labyrinth's rocky wall once he was sure he'd gotten far enough away, grimacing as his broken arm throbbed at the sudden jolt. He wasn't quite sure what had happened – the boy had gone crazy and beaten him to within an inch of his life, he recalled, but after that? All he knew was he'd been given an opportunity to escape, and had taken it. Orochimaru had designed the labyrinth with some secret passages to facilitate ease of travel, rather than constantly dodging traps – hidden mechanically rather than by jutsu, in order to make them harder to detect – and Onpa had been fortunate enough to realise he was right by one when he woke up.
How he'd summoned the energy to push himself upright, he didn't know. How neither the blonde boy nor the girl with the strange eyes had noticed him, he didn't know. There were lots of unanswered questions, in fact, but he couldn't care less about them at that point. He was alive. He had a chance to escape, to report back to Orochimaru and plead for further training, in order to exact revenge. He'd always assumed he'd receive his comeuppance for his sadistic streak at some point, but never at the hands of a child. Fortunately, fate's eye had overlooked him this time – and in future, he'd be that little bit more careful.
He suspected, now that he could take a moment to reflect on it while he caught his breath, that the reason he'd been able to escape was probably tied to the Hyuuga girl awakening. He would have permitted himself a short, sardonic laugh at that thought, if it didn't hurt so damn much to. He'd underestimated the boy's relationship with her, and had nearly gotten killed because of it, yet that relationship had apparently been what had saved him too. The boy had probably acted impulsively, which probably meant he underestimated their relationship as well. How lucky…
He'd spent too much time thinking now, though. If he didn't hurry, the brats might make it to the entrance of the labyrinth before he did, and could even wait for him there. That would be a disastrous scenario for him, since he was in no condition to fight. No, he decided as he pushed himself off the wall with a heavy grunt and began limping down the corridor; it wouldn't do to dally at all.
Hinata's eyes widened in horror as she ran into the main room and saw what had happened to her team mates. The two were both only just beginning to come around now, and evidently in a lot of pain – Shikamaru in particular looked to be in a lot of trouble, with an open wound that covered most of his upper arm, and the way Sakura's leg remained limp as she tried to sit up meant it was either broken or she was intentionally not using it.
"Don't move!" Hinata cried to the both of them, running across the room and slinging her backpack off her shoulders as she did so. She came to a stop in between them and barely even needed a glance before deciding Shikamaru needed to be treated first.
Sakura gave Hinata a look of relief as she realised the girl had somehow recovered from Onpa's jutsu without any lingering effects. "So, is he…?"
Hinata knew immediately what Sakura was asking, and nodded as she pulled a flask of water from her pack, opening it and pouring it over Shikamaru's wound. "I think so," she clarified. "When I woke up, he was unconscious and Naruto was about to finish him off."
Hinata's face didn't waver even briefly as she said this, knowing perfectly well that she couldn't give even the slightest impression that there had been something different about Naruto. "I guess he's just making sure of it now," she added as she closed the flask again, setting it aside and rummaging in her pack once more.
The relief on Sakura's face grew, though at the same time a thoughtful look clouded her eyes. Every time things seemed desperate, Naruto just seemed to be able to pull something else out of his bag of tricks. Haku, Gaara, and now Onpa – each time, he had overcome formidable odds where all others present had failed. She had no idea how he managed it, but one thing was clear: he certainly had the drive and will of any of the Hokage before him.
Shikamaru gave a soft hiss as Hinata began rubbing some ointment onto his wound, eyeing it with some annoyance. That arm would certainly be out of commission for the journey home, and probably longer if the medic-nin in the village decided he'd be better off letting it heal naturally. How troublesome.
"There," the Hyuuga girl stated with a smile, closing her pot again and pulling some dressing from her bag. "That's all I can do for it for now, but it'll help it heal and hopefully keep it from getting infected."
"Ah," Shikamaru responded, shifting awkwardly as the bandages were wrapped around his arm. "Thanks…"
Hinata sensed that any further conversation on the subject would make Shikamaru feel even more uncomfortable (his old-fashioned dislike of being rescued or helped by females had become a running joke among Konoha's kunoichi after Temari rescued him) and chose to ignore her reflexive compulsion to tell the boy he was welcome, instead tying the bandages off with one last tug before turning her attention to Sakura. "What happened to your leg?" she enquired, trusting the pink-haired girl's judgement as a medical ninja.
"A torn muscle, I think," Sakura answered almost sheepishly, waving airily with one hand as if brushing the subject off. "I'll be fine, I just can't do anything that involves a lot of exertion. I'll get it seen to when we get back."
Hinata nodded at this, though her face was a little doubtful. "You should at least support the leg though, even if we don't have any ice to help it…"
Sakura contemplated this briefly, torn between her pride and the professional in her that knew Hinata was right. It only took a couple of seconds for her to come to a decision, though. "You're right," she conceded, accepting the bandages Hinata offered to her and wrapping them tightly round her leg, wincing as she did so.
All three ninja in the room jumped as Naruto's yell came to their ears, and they turned with surprised looks on their faces as the orange-clad shinobi burst into view.
The blonde ninja had remained frozen for only a second after making his discovery, before he charged down the corridor Hinata had led them along earlier. Onpa couldn't have gotten far; not with the wounds he had. He should barely have been able to move, never mind walking or running away. It would surely have taken all his remaining energy just to reach the end of the passage that quickly – there was no way he could've gotten much further.
So why was Naruto's heart pounding so hard in his chest? Why was such a heavy uncertainty settling on his shoulders as he barrelled head-long down the tunnel?
'Because there's more to it than that' he told himself. 'He won't be there, will he? You let him escape…'
Gritting his teeth, Naruto kicked his pace up a notch, silently praying the voice in the back of his head was wrong. As he rounded the corner at the end of the corridor, though, the worst was confirmed. Onpa had already moved on.
Growling under his breath, Naruto carried his dash on, now sprinting at top speed as he tried to catch up to the sound-nin.
"Kuso!" the boy uttered, clenching his hands into fists as he rounded another corner and was met with disappointment. "How the hell can he move so fast?"
Skidding around another sharp turn, Naruto's frustration grew as he was yet again met with an empty tunnel. He had no idea how long he was planning to keep running for – until he caught Onpa, he supposed – but a distant part of him was aware that he had to calm down if he wanted to catch the sound-nin. A blind charge was easily countered by a sneak attack, after all.
It was fortunate for Naruto that he decided this when he did. As he slowed up, he caught a soft click from the floor below him, and felt the stone he was standing on give way slightly. Barely a fraction of a second later, the boy found himself dodging and parrying a series of blades and shuriken, his momentum too much for him to stop in time to avoid the trap completely. Had he been going at full pace, he'd probably have missed the click and been impaled by the first weapon to spring out from the wall.
When the swinging knife-edges and projectiles were finally done with, Naruto carefully picked his way back through the trap and slumped against the wall a little way past it, sliding down into a seated position.
"There's no way he'd have survived that," the boy murmured, gazing disbelieving back along the passage. "He couldn't have. He must've gone another way… but where?"
Naruto couldn't figure it out. If anyone in the party could, it would have to be one of the other three, he reasoned as he pushed himself to his feet.
'I just hope they can' the boy reflected as he took off the way he came, ready to deliver the bad news to the others.
The blonde ninja, panting for breath, jabbed a finger toward the doorway he'd just entered by. "He was unconscious when Hinata woke up, so I went and checked on her. She came down here to find you guys, and I turned round to finish Onpa off. He wasn't there, though, and I almost got killed running down the passages after him. He wasn't anywhere down them, but he shouldn't have been able to move that fast – he could barely stand!"
A sombre silence fell across the group at this explanation. Crippled enemies didn't just disappear into thin air, especially not without using chakra – and Naruto or Hinata would have felt him using it. So by that reasoning…
'A genjutsu isn't out of the question, I suppose' Shikamaru mused. 'If he cast a low-level one, it wouldn't require much chakra, and Naruto could have missed him.'
"Hinata," the Chuunin called, deciding on a course of action. "Go and scout the corridor and see if he's using a genjutsu to hide anywhere. Don't go further than the first corner – if he was that badly hurt, he shouldn't be further away than that. Otherwise, we'll just have to give up on him."
At Naruto's incredulous cry, Shikamaru gave a soft exhalation. "It's troublesome, I know, but our mission was to come here and check out this cave. A prisoner would have been useful, but it's not essential. At any rate, Soin should still be unconscious, so we'll be able to take him back to Konoha." 'If Onpa doesn't rescue him' he mentally added.
As Hinata nodded and ran off to follow Shikamaru's orders, the Chuunin continued. "Naruto, help Sakura up. I'll support her through the tunnels; we'll need you to be ready to fight Onpa off if he is still around and launches a surprise attack. I also want you to take some of the jars from in here as evidence for Tsunade-sama. I'll have a look for some too – Sakura, if you spot any books that look particularly beneficial, please point them out."
In truth, it was hard to tell what they should or shouldn't take. Did Tsunade really need to see three lungs connected to one trachea, or would a description suffice? Should they try to retrieve the mound that attacked Shikamaru? The Chuunin supposed so; it would help if any complications arose with his arm, as well as providing a clue as to the weaponry Orochimaru seemed to be developing. Could it safely be carried in a jar, though, or would it suffocate? And which jar should they use?
"That one," Sakura called, leaning on Shikamaru's shoulder with one arm as she pointed to a book with the other. "We'll want that book."
"'Vivisection'," the Nara boy read out as he led Sakura to it, letting her drop it into her backpack. "That's part of what he's been working on, right?"
The pinked-haired girl nodded. "Yes, but this particular author's work was banned years ago and is very hard to come by. It's got lots of useful and detailed information, but the tests themselves transgress what you'd call 'acceptable' practice. If any pages are particularly worn, it could show what he was aiming to achieve."
Shikamaru nodded at this. They were hardly likely to find a journal, after all, so that book could be among the most useful finds in the room.
Naruto, in the meantime, had placed several jars and vials on the table in the middle of the room, and was now examining them to try to decide what was and wasn't needed. Certainly, the tattooed stomach looked like it could provide some answers, but the other things were all drawing blanks. His lack of medical knowledge meant they could all equally be useful or useless, and he wouldn't know the difference. Certainly, hands weren't meant to have six fingers, but was that any more important than what appeared to be an arm with a second elbow?
'Geez… I'm way out of my depth' the boy mentally groused. 'What should I choose?'
(Yes, dull chapter. Sometimes you have to tidy things up a bit before you can move on though!)