A/N: I am appreciating all the feedback you guys are sending me! The author loves you people! Muah! Muah! As you'll soon notice, The Third's plan to remove the limiters is already causing some strange side-effects: most obviously, the style change from first to third perspective. A brilliant fit-in and I'm sure you will enjoy reading third-person as much as I enjoy writing in this style! Thanks again!
Chapter Twelve – Competitive Crush! Yamanaka Ino!
(The Raising Fighting Spirit by: Toshiro Masuda)
Uzumaki Naruto was awoken by the sound of a young girl's voice.
"Uh? What happened?" Naruto mused dizzily.
"You were out for an entire day! I was beginning to wonder whether you'd lost too much blood from the wound or something… I'm glad you've regained consciousness," The dark haired lady said with an exhausted grin.
It took a moment for him to recognize his nurse as the one he had met recently- Tenten. He ignored her for a brief moment as the young man seemed to pat himself over and brought his hand over his forehead as if he were feeling for his temperature.
"The voice? It's gone," Naruto gasped. "It doesn't talk to me anymore…"
"Huh? What voice?" Tenten asked plaintively, squeezing out a wet cloth and dipping it in fresh water, before folding it and placing it on Naruto's forehead. "I'll get you a drink… you must be thirsty by now."
The young man looked down, saw the ragged state of his clothes, and realized that his sleeveless top had been removed from his chest. It was at that moment that a voice rang through his head and reminded him of what the Third had planned in his dreams.
'Removing the limiters…' He mumbled to himself.
Tenten had arrived with a glass of cold water to see Naruto eagerly poking around his navel area as if his skin had suddenly changed color overnight.
"What's wrong? Does it hurt?" She asked, handing him the cool drink.
"There were five kanji around my belly… now, there's…"
Tenten looked down and saw what was causing Naruto's confusion.
"There's only four, Naruto," She replied, failing to see any significance.
"So what? Hasn't it always been like that?" Tenten smiled, trying to make sense of her injured object.
The boy scratched his warm belly, almost swearing he could feel the creature inside him threatening to tear out and consume them all.
"What time is it, Tenten?" He asked, his mind in another world.
"Early morning. The day after your pretty-violent meeting with Neji last night."
"Neji? Is he… alive?" Naruto snapped, suddenly remembering what had happened.
"Only just. We transferred him to the hospital a few hours ago. Oh! And he was awake for a while so that he could give you this. He told me to make you read it… don't worry, I haven't touched it, though. It was only meant for your eyes," She assured him, clearly trying to mock Neji with her tone.
With that, Tenten scrambled off her seat and fished into her pants pocket for a small, folded piece of paper that was slightly stained with blood.
"This is from Neji?" Naruto asked her carefully.
He unfolded it and it read:
'She told me I'd been out for nearly seven hours, Naruto. I have no idea where you'd learnt to do what you did that night, but by the fact that you rescued me instead of finishing me… well, I guess I'm reluctantly in your debt. Tenten suggested we take you with me to the hospital, but I stopped her. I know you could not risk going there, given your status here in Konoha. I hope and trust you will heal well, thanks to whatever it is that lurks within your body. Also, I'll try and make sure that good words about you are spread amongst our friends. I apologize, Naruto, for not trusting your motives before.
P.S: Please thank Tenten for the both of us. She's crazy about pink orchids. Don't ask how I know. Good luck.'
Tenten was already tending to the wound on Naruto's shoulder by the time he crumpled the note and placed it back in his pocket.
"I wanted you to go to the hospital with him, but we all remembered how they don't take kindly to wanted criminals over there," Tenten smiled. "We'll take care of you if no one else in this village will. We weren't sure about you at first, but I think you've convinced Neji and I that you aren't here to kill us."
"I'm glad to hear that…" Naruto trailed off, melting in Tenten's hazel smile. "Treatment has been a bit rough here lately..."
"Kiba obviously did it to impress Hinata. Shikamaru, as always, was just following orders. Lee… well, Lee hasn't been Lee since Gai-sensei died… things have changed here, but I'm sure that we'll be able to convince everyone to back you up in the end."
"I see," Naruto quipped, slipping off Tenten's bed and landing on his feet. "Where… where's my shirt?"
"Whoa, Naruto, what's the hurry? Do you really think you can move around in your condition? You're still healing. And plus, look outside- it's nearly midday. You won't be able to sneak around as easily as at night, and that's assuming you're body is strong for jumping and slinking around. Just sit down for a moment," Tenten scolded him.
Naruto checked outside the small window that brightened her room and there, plain to see, was Tenten's point. The sun was arching high into the sky, burning brightly and gloriously as suns always do. The afternoon after the fight with Neji had arrived so quickly. He plunked himself back onto the bed with a gesture of helplessness.
"Your shirt is still drying. I washed it out for you and tried to get rid of all that horrible blood. In the meantime, you can wear this-"
Naruto looked up from his seat and saw Tenten disappear behind a walk-in closet, before stumbling back outside with a black, silk jacket.
"It was my dad's," She said, as she laid it neatly across the bed.
Naruto looked down at the jacket, became silent, and looked into her dark eyes.
Tenten stared back into his eyes and brought the jacket around his back, holding the clothing at its sleeves. Once she had secured it tightly around the back of his neck, she began to pull his face closer towards her own.
The young man, feeling the impulse of the situation, felt his hand move it's way to the back of her neck, felt the prickles of sensation, expectation that crawled down it's length.
"It was different without you, Naruto. Everything I told you that day was for real."
She managed a weak smile, despite the fact that a dark tear strode down her right eye. Her lips were trembling in the moment. His eyes were locked on hers.
"You were so nervous when I found you… how can you be so sure of what you want?"
"Because I've seen what happens to this village when you're gone."
And Tenten drove herself into his lips and the warmth of his mouth met her tongue.
She brushed a tear from her face, felt how warm her swollen eyes had grown.
She had been writing it since he disappeared. Since the night he had failed to return to her room. She sat now, in front of the same low desk that held her paper and pen.
Like a vision that
You have returned at the high bend of the sun.
But when the moon falls, and darkness is everywhere,
You are robbed from me.
Like a girl who has lost her shadow,
Scanning the edges, waiting for her heart to return.
I miss you, Uzumaki
"And what else do you have to report to this meeting, Yuhi-san?"
She held her tongue against the top of her mouth, felt a lie squeeze past her teeth. Could ANBU sniff out when one of their own was betraying them? She hoped not.
"I have not sighted the target as of yet, sir."
"I see. Our people think that the sightings of Uzumaki must be directly related to The Sound's impending invasion- what are your thoughts on this?"
He could not see his lips moving beneath the animal mask. Could not tell if he was testing or her not. Was he on to her? She maintained her cool exterior.
"Are you asking me whether Naruto and Orochimaru are allies?" She replied.
"Yes," The mask replied at the end of the table.
"No. In my opinion, Naruto has no allies."
'Only me,' she whispered to herself.
Somewhere in Konoha, a bell chimed happily at the opening of a door.
"Ah, I haven't seen you in a while," The blonde, beautiful Yamanaka Ino said with pleasant surprise.
"I've been away. On business." Came the girl's flat, exhausted reply.
It was her first day back in Konoha. She had been absent since Naruto's return.
"You look like crap, do you want a glass of water or something?" Ino bent her neck to look more closely at her face and saw that it's makeup was ruined. "Let's hang out after my shift is over and we can go do dinner or something… my shout!"
"No thanks, Ino. I appreciate the thought, but I'd prefer to rest a bit first. Maybe tomorrow. I'll just take the usual, thanks."
Ino studied her for a quiet second, before nodding and wrapping the same flower she had always ordered since she was a child. She knew she had always kept it on the windowsill of every room she had slept in. She pitied the pressures her friend had been forced to undergo since taking on her new position, but loved her all the same because of their past.
"Here ya go! One Sakura Blossom."
Evening was approaching.
The young man had been laying still in Tenten's bed for the past hour or so, his savior wrapped gently in his warm arms. He opened his eyes gently and peeked down at her soft, warm features, as if they would melt like under the heat of his breath.
She wriggled her nose slightly in response to his breath and snuggled deeper into his chest. She was deep asleep and receiving her much needed rest after staying awake with her two patients from last night.
Because of this, it was easy for Naruto to slip her hands off his belly and to her side. He kissed her gently on the forehead and made to leave when Tenten uttered:
"Don't leave me, Naruto…"
Naruto spun around suddenly and saw that she had not been awake when she had spoke.
And with that, he got on to his feet and wrapped the black silk around his body. He also managed to find a wide-brimmed, straw hat sitting innocently atop her dresser and he donned it to cover his face.
Ripped jeans, black silk and a straw sakat, Naruto knew were he was headed next in the slowly approaching evening over Konoha. He owed Tenten his appreciation after all.
'I wonder if Ino still owns that flower store…' He whispered to himself.
And as he shut the door and felt its lock click into place, he made off into the dusk, walking calmly between open pathways and covertly between alleys. All the while, he held his hat to his face, not letting it slip off and reveal his identity.
Tenten's home was placed roughly on the northwestern outskirts of the town, which was a good thing because the markets were only a short distance towards the center. On his way to Ino's floristry, he passed the ramen booth where he had eaten during his first few hours back in Konoha. It had also been the location where he and Shikamaru had fought for his freedom. He wafted in the delightful aromas of Miso Ramen, but was forced to admit that it would be too dangerous for him to take a seat and suddenly begin eating.
As hungry as he was and as loud as his stomach growled, he marched onward towards Ino's store. The stalls around him were only just beginning to clean and pack up for the night, but Ino, he had remembered, had a habit for stalling the closing time cleaning chores. Half a block later, he was standing at the glass entrance to her family's store.
He had revised it over and over in his head, how exactly he planned for this meeting to unfold. Yamanaka would never know that it was he ordering the flower.
He took a deep breath and stepped inside and the bell rung softly at his entrance into the store.
"Hello!" Ino cried in a friendly, but routinely manner, glancing up slightly at the entrant and planting her face back into the magazine she had been reading at the counter.
Naruto nodded towards her and looked upwards at the shelves, looking for anything that even remotely resembled a Pink Orchid. When he noticed that nearly half of the store's flowers were pink, he conceded that he would have to ask for help.
He stepped up to Ino's counter, trying to maintain whatever distance he could and, without looking up at her face, he asked:
"I'm looking for a Pink Orchid. Have you got any, miss?"
Ino gasped suddenly and was flustered for a reply, adding a strange stutter to her reply:
"I…err…well, yeah. We do. Just one?"
"Please," Naruto replied quickly.
And as Ino scrambled off, Naruto turned to see what she had been reading on the counter. There were no pictures, but he could see the title of the article. In big, bold letters, it read:
'Terror Stalks Konoha! The Story of Uzumaki Naruto!'
The young man winced slightly and read the first few lines. They talked about how he had been a 'malevolent prankster' who 'weaseled through the ninja academy'. Apparently, an 'ANBU Street Patrol' was also being devised to sniff him out.
"One Pink Orchid?"
Ino's chirpy voice came from behind him. For a moment, Naruto considered how she might look after all these years, but urged his curiosity to stay back.
"Thank you. How much?"
The young man grabbed the flower and placed it in his pouch.
Little did Naruto know that Ino had been staring intently at the back of his body for quite some time while she had gone off to search for his order. In fact, she had been intrigued by his presence since he had entered the store. Naruto had just been too blinded to see it.
The Pink Orchids were kept a measly two yards away from the counter, but she had taken the long way around the store, noticing his height and the shape of his butt under his pants. There was something about this guy that was just so… alluring…
"No charge," Was Ino's reply, not without a tinge of mischief.
"No charge if you take off your hat and let me see your face," Ino replied back.
"Why? I… can't do that," He stammered.
Naruto definitely did not see this coming.
"Why not? Let me look at you," She replied back stubbornly.
"I… I gotta go!" Naruto replied back sternly, taking a few old notes out of his wallet and turning to make his way back out of the store. He felt Ino follow him to the door.
"Why? Why won't you just let me look at you? Are you shy or something?"
And Naruto stepped out of the door.
And into a whirlwind of commotion.
There was a loud noise to his right, down one side of the street, where a large group of uniformed people were marching towards Ino's store, staring down and intimidating all who stood in their way. They searched houses and stores for brief seconds, as if they were looking for something and could not live without it.
There could not have been more than six of them, all wearing black. All wearing masks.
Naruto recognized what the masks on their faces meant straight away: ANBU.
The ANBU Street Patrols.
'Shit,' He cursed inside.
He turned to his left and at once, saw a similar force of ANBU turn the corner into the market lanes, charging down to meet the other group. They too were overpowering merchants and clientele alike, searching severely for whatever it was they were looking for.
The young man cursed again and turned to make back into Ino's store, noticing that the young woman had also been standing outside next to him, watching the two ANBU teams coming to meet roughly in front of her store.
"ANBU Street Patrols," The lady mentioned tiredly to him.
Naruto heard her, panicked slightly, and realized he had run out of choices.
"Ino, let me hide in your store," He ordered her.
"Wh-what? How do you know my…?"
"There's no time. Is there a back entrance out of this store?"
"Yes… where we get the deliveries but… but wait!"
Naruto wasted no time. He stormed through the back door behind the counter and instantly found himself surrounded by plants. Walls and shelves lined full of them. He was in a storeroom of sorts, which meant that he'd have to be close to the delivery entrance. As he stormed through the small forest, he sensed Ino on his heels and turned to tell her to leave, when she interrupted him by saying:
"Wait. You can leave out there in a second. Just tell me who you are. I want to see your face. Please… I need to know who you are… there's something about you and-"
Ino was cut off by the sound of doorbell swinging mercilessly at the entrance of several ANBU men into her store. They began calling out for the owner to show herself and to declare any people she may be harboring inside. She ignored the summons.
"Ino, you will find out who I am soon enough. At the moment, I want you to leave and never mention me. You could be punished for doing what you did today. That's why I don't want you to see my face. Go! Now!" Naruto cried, urging her to turn and leave.
Ino felt her heart miss a beat and she turned and returned back to her counter door without any more hesitations.
Naruto knew that Ino knew whom he was- Uzumaki, in the flesh.
But that would wait till later. Just as Ino had passed through her doors to deal with the ANBU seekers, Naruto had just managed to reach for the knob on the back door.
It wouldn't budge. It wasn't locked, it was rusted or jammed or something. Naruto just could not get the door to open with all of his firm, silent strength.
"He's not here! I haven't seen him!" Ino cried from the other side of the door.
"The price for hiding him is more than you can afford, lady. Search the back!" An ANBU captain called to his subordinates.
"Oh no…" Naruto gasped, hearing the loud order that had been made. The storeroom lent few places to hide, despite the fact that it was filled with miniature trees. He could never hope to stand a chance and if he was caught, Ino would surely be punished sternly.
And with a final cringe at what loud sounds he might make, he stepped back and charged through the rusted door, falling on his wounded, freshly-stitched shoulder, into the dirt behind Ino's store. The door behind him shut itself back into place with a rusty bang.
He felt a wash of relief bathe over him, felt how good luck had seen him through and eluded the ANBU patrols for another night.
"Get up," A gruff, male voice ordered from nearby.
Then, suddenly, he felt his world collapse into dark, unforgiving nothingness. Blood began to drip down his arm where his old wound has opened slightly.
"I said: Get up! Now!" The voice ordered again.
Naruto felt a boot kick his side and the thin, sharp edge of a sword flick his hat off his head to reveal a flurry of long, blonde hair underneath.
He remained silent, not because he was calm, but for the total opposite. He had no idea what to do next and could feel the tip of death poking at the back of his neck.
"Mistress! I've found something! Mistress!" The guard called, his voice bouncing across his mask.
At that, Naruto felt the alarming wave of footsteps approach him. There were more ANBU, all converging on his downed body now, surrounding him and sealing off his escape. He felt the hands of one of the men feeling for his arms and tossing him aside so that his face and entire front was exposed to the early evening air.
They looked at him with wooden, expressionless eyes. All was wearing a mask, except for one. A familiar voice filled the sky above him with capture orders.
"Are you Uzumaki Naruto? Convicted Missing Nin?" One man asked him.
"He's still so young. Look at him." Another man whispered behind him.
"Silence! I do believe we have found our criminal, gentleman! Lock him up and bring him to the temporary command post for interrogation."
It was then when he had realized that the voice belonged to no other than Yuhi Kurenai, Jounin of Konoha. She had been working in tandem with ANBU all along.
He felt betrayed, but at the same time, self-reprimanding, for feeling the way he had before, the night after he had fought Shikamaru.
And as he felt the arms of several men locking his arms and legs together and placing him into a giant, heavy pot, he could not help but feel a surge of terror overcome his senses. He was confused as to why the fox's powers hadn't kicked in and saved him from capture, but then realized that it may have been a good thing, for it may have saved the lives of the ANBU officers.
He did not wish to harm any of them, but he knew he had to escape.
And then he realized another thing: the fox's red chakra was becoming more and more dependent on his own judgment. The fox's power was becoming his to control. He made the decisions now about the amount of force he would employ.
For now, he told himself, the extra strength would not be needed. It was even despite the pain he felt at allowing himself to think that Kurenai would help him and the failure of not even being able to complete the simple task of giving Tenten a flower…
And for some reason, he felt stung at not being able to see Hinata.
"Careful with him!" Yuhi ordered the men.
He wondered if Yuhi had been toying with him from the start. When he heard what the guards outside his pot were joking about however, it suddenly seemed very likely.
"Hey! Forget her! Bump him around a little bit!" One guard joked.
"Yeah! Let's get him all soft and tender for Hatake-san!" Another replied.
They laughed merrily like hyenas, not knowing that a small, red part of his mind sorely wanted to destroy them all where they stood.