Everyone's Got Secrets…
Sasuke had barely crossed over the front yard when spectacular bursts of color shattered the night sky.
The reflected light bounced off Naruto's form not too far behind him as they curved through the secluded labyrinth of walls and empty streets to finally pass under the Uchiha archway. The accompanying cracks and pops overhead were loud enough to hush every cicada for miles, while the summer evening felt tangibly thick from the sudden, violent beauty.
Sasuke was aware of the flashing patterns all around as they ventured into the village by roofline, armed to the teeth and scenting for blood. It triggered memories of a different night where he'd also been in the company of Naruto, with adrenaline pumping through his veins and fireworks shooting through the darkness—but his awareness only went far enough to recognize the signal for what it was.
"That's it, isn't it," Naruto commented beside him, his blue eyes scanning their surroundings as they followed their planned course into the heart of Konoha.
"Yeah," Sasuke replied, knowing they both understood what the booming screeches meant: It was midnight. Ibiki was now fair game for the competitors who managed to find him, and the countdown to dawn had begun.
"Good," Naruto answered, and Sasuke stole a quick glance at him, intrigued by the husky delivery of the single word.
Naruto looked straight at him; the lower half of his face grinning with mischief while the blue of his eyes had deepened underneath an intent brow, the expression he wore on missions to inform their enemies that they wouldn't stand a chance. Sasuke held his gaze for a moment longer than necessary, indulging since they really hadn't entered dangerous territory just yet and knowing the message wasn't being directed at him—his belly tightened just the same.
They met few townspeople, and zero competing shinobi on their way. The downtown streets were brighter than Sasuke was hoping, considering the late hour, yet the details of the Hunt had not been kept secret from the village as a whole and would undoubtedly attract spectators. If you asked him, it was smarter to stay indoors.
Sasuke shook his head at the rookie Genin and Chuunin who'd come out to see what there was to see, eating treats, giggling, and blissfully disregarding the obvious danger in the darkness. If it were any other time he'd report the little buggers to their sensei—but obviously their sensei were all involved in the Hunt or the students wouldn't be out there in the first place. Sasuke sighed. They better not get in his way.
Naruto signaled with his left hand, and they both halted on the ridgepole of a building that overlooked one of the bigger streets in Konoha. They were close to some of the larger administrative structures surrounding the Hokage tower, and noticeably closer to the source of the fireworks.
"Here's the first one," Naruto nodded below them and to the side, where two doors outside their line of sight faced the sidewalk.
"Let's hope it's the right one," Sasuke replied, withdrawing a kunai and eyeing the street with a frown as he counted how many villagers might block their progress.
"Wait for my signal," Naruto said, slithering across to the building's edge and disappearing over the side through the wall of heavy steam pumping steadily from a large vent.
Sasuke held his position while Naruto checked for Ibiki, senses alert for any other shinobi. Part of him was still doubtful—he'd have felt a lot more confident about this part of their Plan if Naruto hadn't recently thrown out all his old letters and was working from memory alone. If the information was correct they'd have a big lead on their competition… but it was hard not to doubt when the quirks of human beings were naturally unpredictable.
Naruto's blond head popped up through the steam. "Not this one."
Sasuke waited for Naruto to flip gracefully back onto the roof before sprinting towards the next target. There were only five places total that matched up with Naruto's information and were also open 24 hours; Konoha wasn't that big. But Sasuke still hadn't sensed any other shinobi; he tried to shake off the concern.
They slowed and hopped across a narrow alleyway through another cloud of steam. This rooftop vent rumbled with a mechanical purr, and Sasuke moved far enough away from it to keep his senses clear, nodding to his teammate and taking up watch like he had the first time. Idle for the moment, Sasuke thought about Ibiki's line of work and why he'd need a refuge from it. He then touched the naked hollow of his throat, wondering if Itachi had had such a place and hadn't told him.
The sky was still flickering with fireworks when Naruto returned; Sasuke could tell in one glance that he hadn't found Ibiki's secret hiding place. They sprinted off to the next location and Sasuke kept his lips pressed together against the urge to point out how narrow the odds were that the next three locations would prove to be any different.
"I know what you're thinking," Naruto said.
"I didn't say anything," Sasuke replied, moving methodically and scanning their surroundings.
"I'm sure Idate knew what he was talking about," Naruto moved up beside him, "He lived here for quite a while. And it fits, right?"
Sasuke shrugged, bearing to the right to head further North towards the third target. "It fits."
"But you're skeptical," Naruto chuckled.
"Always," Sasuke glanced over to meet Naruto's intense blue eyes. 'Which is why we're a good team,' he thought.
They landed one after the other, feet silent as they crouched and looked out into the busiest street they'd been to so far, close to the heart of the Festival. Sasuke's lips thinned. Musicians and tumblers were actively entertaining not too far away from the entrance Naruto would have to use, and several food vendors were taking advantage of the business opportunity and offering assorted desserts and snacks to passersby.
Without a word Naruto used a henge to disguise himself as one of the spectators and slipped backward to descend into the side alleyway. Sasuke remained perched where he was, the Sharingan surfacing as he monitored their surroundings. Nothing set off any alarm bells, exactly, but he couldn't help but be discouraged by the lack of fellow competitors—if they saw even one, it would confirm that they were on the right track to finding Ibiki.
Sasuke supposed it was strange to want to be attacked, even knowing that their tip was probably half-accurate in the first place and half-remembered by Naruto at best.
Ibiki's brother had been gone a long time. Sasuke had an idea what that was like.
Sasuke jumped in disbelief when an excited whoop reached him from ground level—his stomach flipped at the recognition of his teammate's voice, even if it wasn't exactly the signal they'd agreed on. Holy…! They really found him?
He followed Naruto's previous path down into the narrow alleyway, and met the eager gaze of his teammate inside the protective shadows. One of Naruto's hands tightly clutched a scroll. The other hand reached out to him when they were side by side, fingers resting on the exposed stripe of his pale skin just below the edge of his vest.
"Hurry," Naruto's eyes sparkled like he'd just been treated to all-you-can-eat Ramen at Ichiraku's. "Iruka told Ibiki to tell me hello, but he wouldn't tell me about anyone else."
Iruka?! Sasuke frowned at this information, but Naruto's hand squeezed gently against his hip. The touch was distracting enough that he turned and slipped towards the brighter end of the alley to disguise himself.
The henge got him to the doors without recognition, but once he crossed the threshold the jutsu vanished—the place had obviously been warded. The humid air of the interior hit him with a bouquet of smells all at once, but Sasuke pushed through the cloying scent of flowery soaps and made his way past the rows of washing machines.
The back of the Lost Sock Laundromat had two walls of dryers spinning with a steady drone; according to Morino Idate, the monotonous hum and accompanying warmth were comforting enough to make this one of Ibiki's habitual after-hours hangouts. Sure enough, Ibiki was leaning against the back wall flipping through a magazine, but he folded it under his left armpit as Sasuke came purposefully towards him. The expression on his face was pleasantly amused.
"I figured you'd be one of the first."
"Who else has been here?" Sasuke asked, a little quicker than he intended it to sound.
Ibiki just clucked his tongue, reaching into the lumpy flap of his coat. He moved his fingers over the hidden pockets and withdrew a scroll, checking the markings before handing it over. The Special Jounin's seasoned gaze took in Sasuke's boots, the leather pants, the mesh shirt under the Uchiha flak-jacket and the red of his eyes, but his scarred face was all business.
"Answering questions isn't part of the deal," Ibiki thumped a scroll into Sasuke's waiting hand. "But I congratulate you on your information gathering abilities. You'll find everything you need in there."
Sasuke nodded, and then looked at the scroll in his hand that had his name printed in bold calligraphy—one glance at the black markings along either end had him running for the door as quickly as he could, panic surging through his limbs and clutching at his windpipe.
Naruto better not have opened his yet!
Sasuke startled a villager in the Laundromat's doorway, spinning neatly on his feet to avoid the woman's oversized hamper and darted around the corner to see that Naruto—thank god!—was waiting for his return in the shadowed alleyway.
Naruto's face split in a grin at the sight of him. "Let's see what kind of map this is!" He started to pull the exposed edge of the scroll.
Sasuke's stomach lurched as he ran, "No! Naruto, don't--"
But his long legs weren't quick enough. Naruto opened the scroll with a typically dramatic flourish, clearly believing it to be a map or further instructions.
It happened so fast Naruto's smile didn't have time to falter before he—and the scroll—vanished in a cloud of smoke.
[this chapter in editing; the rest to be continued...]