Chapter 24: Self-Benefit
Trees and plants everywhere. She was running. Her team was running. The forest dripped with humidity, and the branches were wet and slippery, but still they ran.
Something was chasing them. Sasuke, bringing up the rear, was first to fall. There was a wet crunch, and she could no longer feel his presence in her mind.
Sakura screamed when the thing caught up to her, as she turned to see what had happened to Sasuke. Then she, too, blinked out of existance.
She was alone. She was tired. And she was angry.
She stopped and turned in one motion, her hands reaching into various pockets for weapons. But the shape merely swatted her down, knocking her to the forest floor with a wet thud and a painful crunch. It circled her, a mass of twisting smoke and shadows, a disgusting mixture of hatred and lust emanating from it in waves that made her knees weak and her stomach turn.
It laughed at her. A dry, humourless laugh that chilled her soul and made her tremble. The thing circled one more time, and then-
She was alone. Or at least, she thought she was. A jerk and a startled oath, and she rolled off the bench onto the cooling gravel path of the park.
Naru laid on the ground for a moment, trying to force her heart to quit racing. The visions were getting worse, and she could feel... Something. Something bad, just over the horizon...
Forcing herself to sit up, she took a few deep breaths, and shook her head. No. No sense getting all worked up about this... Not like the last time...
It was about then that she felt it. The unmistakeable feeling of being watched, the cold tingle that shot down her spine and made her leap to her feet. "Where are you?" She spoke aloud, reaching out into the darkening park with her mind.
"Here." The voice was cold, empty. Naru spun on her heel and dropped lightly into a defensive stance, facing the direction the noise had come from.
It was the boy from the day before. The one who had run into her on the street. He stared at her from where he stood, leaning in the shadow of a tree, watching with hollow green eyes. Her mind gently brushed the edge of his, and she almost flinched when he visibly frowned at the contact.
"Who are you?" He asked, stepping forward slightly into the light.
"I could ask you the same question." She replied, fighting her urge to flinch under his gaze. "This is, after all, my home you're in."
The boy cocked his head slightly, staring for a second more before nodding slightly. "I am Sabaku No Gaara, from Suna. I am here for my chunin exam."
"Kazama Naru." Naru replied, not moving from her stance. "Why were you watching me?" She asked.
"You interest me." Gaara replied, the tone of his voice causing a small shiver to shoot up her spine. "Tell me, how is it that you live so freely? Do the villagers worship your demon?"
Naru's veins froze, and her breath caught in her chest. "W-What?"
"Or is it perhaps that they don't know...?" He trailed off, scowling.
"What do you want?" The blonde asked, shaken by his knowledge. "How do you know what I am?"
"It is none of your concern." He said, a slight growl entering his voice. "I have questions for you."
"Keep them to yourself." She replied, trying desperately to stand her ground. Something about this boy made her want to run screaming into the night.
"I will not." He scowled ever so slightly. "When you bumped into me yesterday, you not only bypassed my natural defenses, but... You did something to me. You took something from me."
"You did." He cut her off. "I will ask you one question, and if you fail to answer it, I will kill you." There was no uncertainty in his voice. He leaned in closer, taking a step forward. Naru's muscles tightened in anticipation of an attack. "If I touch you again, will you make him go away?"
A million and one different questions whirled around in her head as she tried to make sense of what he was asking. "I-I... Wha-"
She never got the chance to say more. Something hard and grainy clamped around her ankles and wrists, and Gaara closed the distance between them in the same instant, his right palm closing over her forehead.
She was sure she was screaming. It sounded like she was. Wind howled out of nowhere, thunderbolts crashed, and animals howled in rage, and yet... There was nothing. Her eyes went dark, her body numb. Deep within, she felt the Kyuubi roar awake, and the sickly black shadow reappeared, fear and sadness and hatred all wrapped up in a violent energy that roared back in defiance, pulsing out of her skin in angry waves.
Blazing red smashed against the shadow, and the world tilted.
And then it was over. Her eyes opened to a dark night, and to a pair of arms holding her gently. She screamed and shoved the body away, scrambling back into a lamppost, desperate to get away.
"Naru!" A voice called to her in the darkness, and her heart recognised it where her mind could not. Her eyes forced themselves open, and in an instant, all she could see were a pair of bright grey eyes, shining in the night with concern.
Shino... She recognised him, and collapsed into his waiting arms, sobbing uncontrollably as he gathered her to him.
"It's okay... You're safe now... I've got you..." Comforting words drifted into her ears, and a tiny, gentle feeling of calm caressed at the edges of her mind. She was unaware that she was being carried until she heard a strangled gasp from someone nearby.
Shino took her home. He carried her halfway across the village, once again, and delivered her to her waiting mother, who appeared to be just as distraught as her daughter. And then he left, feeling the edges of his self-control beginning to fray.
The next morning, the Aburame clan would awaken to find a number of their personal training posts destroyed, some ground into sawdust, some sliced neatly into tiny chunks, and one with hundreds of fresh puncture marks. Shino was nowhere to be found.
Naru woke slowly, as was her custom. She smiled contently as the suns first few rays peeked in through her window, and rolled over in her bed sleepily, a slight hissing noise trying to lull her back to sleep.
Only to shoot straight up with a startled gasp.
Today was the start of the second exam! She had to get ready!
She showered and dressed quickly, wondering why there were only two of her uniforms hanging in her closet instead of three, but paid it no mind. After all, it wasn't every day you got the chance to become a chunin!
A full breakfast and equipment check later, and she was ready to go. She paused to straighten her forehead protector, and that was when she heard her mother step into the hallway. "Morning, Kaasan." She said with a grin, turning around.
The hissing grew louder.
It wasn't her mother behind her.
It was the shadow.
Naru awoke with a scream, tumbling out of bed and scrambling to get away from the monster that clutched at her. A monster who, after a few seconds of scrutiny, morphed into her concerned mother. "W-what...?" The distraught blond stammered incoherently.
"It's okay, sweetie..." Kurenai stated in an extremely false calm. "Come here... You're okay..." The jonin half picked up her adopted daughter, holding her close and rocking her gently, like she had so many times when she had been younger.
It took the better part of fifteen minutes to get herself calmed down enough to speak. "What... What happened to me?" She asked hesitantly, not entirely certain how she got home.
"You don't remember?" Kurenai frowned worriedly as Naru shook her head. "Shino said he found you passed out in the park. Your clothes were all ripped up and you screamed when he tried to wake you." An involuntary shiver rocked her small body, and Kurenai's red eyes locked with hers as she looked up in confusion. "Are you sure you can't remember what happened?"
"I... I'm not sure... That I want to..." An ominous feeling settled over the pair of them, and Kurenai sighed heavily.
"Maybe I should get Kakashi to pull you from the exams..."
A sharp jolt blacked out Naru's mind for an instant, and the scent of blood flashed in her nose. "No!" She shouted.
Her mother stared at her, the worried expression on her face doubling. "I-I mean... No... I can't let my team down... Not like that..."
"Sweetie, I don't think they'd think any less of you for that... Not after what you've been through these past months..."
"I know... But I can't just... Stop them like that. I have to be in the exam."
Poor choice of words.
"Have to? What do you mean 'have to'?" Red eyes narrowed in the dark bedroom.
Naru's head fell, unable to keep her eyes on her mother's. "I... I have a feeling..." She said quietly, chewing on her bottom lip. "One of those feelings..."
Naru bit her lip a little harder. "I... I have to be there, or something bad is gonna happen. I can feel it."
Kurenai took her daughter by the hand, making her deep, clear blue eyes rise from the floor. "Are you sure?" Documented cases of true precognition were few and far between, though there were, in fact, recorded cases. Mostly in a few rare members of the Yamanaka clan, though.
She nodded sullenly. "It's... Important." An image of fangs rose unbidden in her mind's eye, and she felt a shudder travel up her spine. "Please?"
The dark haired jonin smiled through her concern. There was nothing she could do to stop her second daughter once she decided there was something that needed to be done. "Of course."
It would be a long time before they went back to sleep.
Sakura stopped and stared when she arrived at the examination site. Not at the crowd of chunin hopefuls that seemed to have grown from the day before. Not at the huge, imposing forest or the fence that encircled it.
No, Sakura was staring at her teammate.
Naru sat against a rock, slumped forward so that her hair hung loose in front of her face. She looked, almost literally, like death warmed up. Now, Naru had never been starved for attention, her family had seen to that. But for the life of her, Sakura couldn't figure out what possible reasoning she would have had to draw so much attention to herself today, of all days.
The rose-haired girl sat down beside her teammate (and friend, though she would deny it to the bitter end), a look of concern on her face. "What happened to you?" She asked quietly, eyeing the crowd of gathered, agitated genin.
Naru shook her head with a sad smile. "Same old story…" She said quietly. "When something bad happens, it happens to me…"
A slight huff of disagreement came from above her as Sasuke stopped walking. "Story of my life." He murmured, sitting next to his teammates. He took in their moods at a glance, but only offered a gentle squeeze on Naru's knee in condolence.
It wouldn't do to stand out any more than they already did, would it?
Part of the reason she sat with her head down was what had happened the night before, but the other part was purely for the test. Her mind wandered through the gaps between the various genin in the group, picking at the surface thoughts and emotions of the stressed shinobi. Most were nervous, but a few were excited or even disturbingly aroused at the thought of a violent encounter in the forest.
But as she wandered through the crowd mentally, her mind came into contact with one that was haltingly familiar, and she blushed as she waited for Shino to shoo her out of his mind like he usually did. But he didn't. His mind, shut to her every time she had touched it, opened and enveloped her presence, stealing from her all focus on the outside world.
The quiet Aburame had one of the clearest minds she'd experienced yet, and it sang to her a song of concern, and of welcoming. And under all of that, she touched something so deep and true that it made her lose her concentration in wonder and no small amount of confusion.
Her head snapped up immediately, her eyes zeroing on the only face in the clearing that was not looking at the head examiner, who was already halfway through her introduction to the second task. The small round lenses of Shino's glasses shone in the morning sun as they locked gazes for a moment before he smiled in the subtle way she had come to recognise over the years.
Something inside her wobbled as she averted her gaze, cheeks burning with heat that seemed to gurgle up from in her chest. As if I'm not thinking about enough today…
But there was nothing for it. The examiner had finished her explaination, and the genin were now making their way to a small stall to sign some kind of paperwork. Sasuke accepted the scroll that was given to their team, and with little ceremony they were led to a gate a good distance from the clearing to wait for the test to begin.
"Anything to say before we start?" Sakura asked quietly, though they were alone at their gate save for their chunin guide.
Naru shook her head. "Nothing especially. Just… Let's try and stay away from that sand team… I have a bad feeling about them…"
Both of her teammates nodded, and Sasuke was about to speak when the proctor gave a small cough, pushing open the now unlocked gate. "Your second exam begins now. Good luck."
A/N: Well... I could give you all any number of excuses, but 'm not gonna do that. I'm grateful to any of you who're still here, and look forward to writing some more. I do, however, apologise for the wait. It's... Not something I planned.
Thanks for reading, drop a review, and as ever before, Stay Frosty. -E. Red