Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Masashi Kishimoto. I only own my own characters and the plot of this fic. Nothing else is mine.

Ahh, it took ages to write this chapter, and now that I actually did it, I have to admit that I think it sucks. I'm very sorry for taking so long, and for writing such a crappy chapter (bows in shame). You guys have been awesome with me, and you sure deserve something better than this. Unfortunately I cannot say when the next chapter will be up; it may take a while. I hope you guys forgive me, and once again, I thank you all for your constant support and help.

Chapter 18

Shadowy Pathway

On that moment all she wanted was to kill something. Everybody in her village knew better than making her angry, because everyone knew that an irritated Hokage was not a pretty sight, especially when she did have the ability to smash a wall by using one finger. However, truth was that Tsunade was aware that she had already caused enough destruction due to her fury, so now, as she twitched in anger, Tsunade pictured herself strangling a certain white haired Sannin.

"Oi, Tsunade! You called?" a voice asked suddenly, and the Hokage crossed her arms against her chest as she chewed her lower lip in a desperate attempt to calm herself down instead of killing the man that had just entered in her office on the spot. "I'm very sorry, but I was wandering around and, well, girls are getting so hot nowadays…"

"Jiraiya!" Tsunade finally screamed, and she turned around more than ready to punch the man on the chin, but she was forced to stop when she noticed his expression. He had done a great job sounding carefree, but on contrary of his words, Jiraiya's face was solemn. "Where the hell have you been? We have work to do!"

"Sorry, Tsunade, I just had to take care of a few things." Jiraiya started, his arms resting on his sides, "And trust me, it didn't involved skirts." at that, Tsunade twitched, "I was just looking around, and I heard about Sasuke. And that's why I came to you. I think it's time for me to do something other than just wandering around through Konoha."

"What are you trying to say?" Tsunade asked, and Jiraiya crossed his arms against his chest, a frown on his face. "One of Kakashi's dogs has just delivered a message. Apparently, they are going after a possible opponent that kidnapped a child. Everybody is going, including Mesi. And unfortunately Kakashi also mentions that Pakkun sensed Sasuke close by."

"That can't be good." Jiraiya commented as he looked down, in thought. "But I guess that only supports my idea even more. Tsunade, it's time for me to go after Akatsuki. My sources reported that they are moving again, and it seems that Sasuke isn't exactly the person they are looking for."

"You believe they are going after Naruto, and perhaps even Gaara, correct?" Tsunade inquired, and Jiraiya nodded slightly in reply. "Yes, that's my fear as well. Very well, you're allowed to go as soon as you want. Just make sure you report weekly, this time."

"Yes, I promise I'll do my best!" Jiraiya said with a smile, that Tsunade turned to her side before sitting down on her chair. "I just have to pack my things, and I'll be on my way."

"Jiraiya," Tsunade called out when the Sannin turned around, prepared to leave the room, and Jiraiya glanced at her over his shoulder. For a moment the two of them just stared at each other until Tsunade rested her elbows on the desk, her fingers entwined in front of her chin. "Make sure you don't die on me. I…I don't want to be alone anymore, and even though we're constantly biting each other's head, you're the only family I have."

"Don't worry; I'll be back in no time." Jiraiya answered with a wide smile, but Tsunade continued looking at him with a serious expression. "Just make sure you can hold the fort while I'm gone, and try not to smash any more walls."

"Idiot," Tsunade whispered, but Jiraiya simply waved at her before walking out of the office, closing the door behind him. When she was finally alone, Tsunade turned around on the chair so that she could look through the windows behind her, and then she sighed; it was in times like those when she cursed the fact she was the Hokage…

On the meantime, Kakashi and Yamato were standing apart from the rest of the group, both looking extremely serious as continued to talk in hushed tones. The rest of the group, however, was enjoying the pause more than they wanted to show. The only thing that stopped them from talking at easy and from taking complete profit of that break was a certain black haired boy.

"Oh my, he's so hot, but his smile freaks me out." Ino whispered suddenly, and Sakura gazed at her in confusion only to notice that the blonde was staring at non-other than Sai himself. The boy was leaning against a tree, staring at the sky with a smile on his lips. When Kakashi and Yamato had walked away, Sai had tried to talk to them, but since Neji and Tenten had kept quiet while Chouji had been too busy eating and Lee doing some workout, Sai had quickly dropped that idea.

The last thing he had tried to do was to bind with Ino, who had immediately blushed before excusing herself. Sakura had indeed been surprised by the Ino's behaviour, not really believing she had left a hot boy alone, but now, after hearing those words, Sakura could not help but shake her head.

"So, you heard about it as well?" Yamato questioned, and Kakashi nodded as he crossed his arms against his chest.

"I think most people heard about Sasuke wanting to kill Orochimaru first before going after Itachi." the silver haired Jounin started, "It's a very complicated situation, and Tsunade-sama is trying her best to find Sasuke before he does something foolish."

"It seems like we have a dog chasing a cat, and a cat chasing a mouse." Yamato commented suddenly, his right hand on his hip. "Sai and I were indeed searching for some clues before we headed back to Konoha, but it seems as if this mission was fruitless."

"Even if we don't have anything to report, we still need to try to do something." Kakashi started, and Yamato glanced at the rest of the group before looking at him. "I'd like to send a message to Tsunade-sama saying that we're going after Sasuke, but we must find the child first."

"Understandable, Sai and I will keep an open eye. If something happens, I'll report back to the Hokage, and I'll send you a message as well." Yamato said with a short nod, and the two adults looked at the group of teenagers not too far from them. "The girl in pink is Haruno Sakura, correct?"

"Yes, and at the moment she's the one who worries me the most." Kakashi answered as he rested his hands on his pants pockets, "She even commented that she had sensed someone watching us. Pakkun had informed me that Sasuke was around. If she finds out that I'm trying to stop her from noticing that Sasuke is this close to us…"

"Well, I'm sure you'll know what to do if that happens." Yamato interrupted suddenly, and Kakashi sighed as he stared tiredly at Sakura, who was still chatting with Ino. "Well, we shall waste no more time in here. You're wasting precious minutes, and I'm sure a certain kunoichi won't like to hear that."

"Don't remind me." Kakashi mumbled as an image of an infuriated Mesi popped in his mind. "I seriously don't want to think about that at the moment." at that, Yamato smiled faintly. "But yes, it's time for us to move out."

"I hope you can rescue the child soon." Yamato said, and Kakashi nodded. Then, in silence, the two of them walked towards the group of young adults, and informed them that break time was over, and that it was time for them to return to their missions.

They were moving at full speed, trying desperately to find any clues that could lead them to the kidnapper. Unfortunately, so far they had found nothing, and not even Hinata's Byakugan was being much of a help. Hinata, however, refused to deactivate it, and thus she continued to struggle to find something that could boost up the fading flame of hope inside all of them.

"Hinata, can't you see anything?" Naruto finally dared to ask, and the Hyuuga heiress shook her head at same time she sighed. At her reaction, Naruto looked over his shoulder at Mairi and Gaara, and clenched his hands into tight fists. "I'm sure we're going to find something soon."

"I'm…I'm just worried they may end up doing something to Maiko." Mairi finally confessed as she looked back at Naruto. "If something happens to her, I'll never forgive myself. And my parents….they'll be so disappointed…and angry…"

"I'm sure something is bond to happen soon." Naruto started, in an attempt to encourage the stressed medical. "Besides, Hinata's with us, and we couldn't ask for someone better than her. And she has Byakugan too, which is definitely a plus when we need to find someone."

"…He's right." Gaara finally decided to say, his face emotionless as ever, and Mairi glanced at him. "We will find your sister."

Suddenly, Hinata gasped, and everybody stared at her in time to see her eyes widening in horror. For a moment all of them were afraid of asking about what she could possibly be seeing, mostly because they feared it had something to do with Maiko.

"Hinata, what's wrong?" Naruto decided to ask, an unsure tone on his voice, and Hinata slowly turned to him, horror still all over her face. "Is it Maiko? Did you see her? Did you see the kidnapper?"

"A-A slaughter…" Hinata finally stuttered, and the three other ninja blinked at her reply. "T-There's a group just ahead of us, they…everyone is scattered around, on the ground, and there's blood everywhere, but…I didn't see Maiko or the kidnapper around."

"Let's check it out." Naruto said without any delay, "Maiko is our priority, but our duty as ninja is to check the wounded. If someone's alive, it's our duty to help them. What do you guys say?"

"It's my obligation as a medical-nin…" Mairi said in a soft tone while Gaara nodded, and after a couple of seconds in silence, Naruto turned to Hinata, and asked for her to lead them towards the said group.

It did not take long for the four ninja to arrive to the spot that Hinata had described to them, and all of them could not help but stare in shock at the scenery. Whatever had attacked that group had been vicious and sadistic. Bodies were scattered everywhere, all of them with deep wounds, and blood covering their skin. There were no children there, but the brutality of the attack was more than enough to freeze up some uneasy hearts.

"Start looking for survivors…" Naruto managed to mutter in a low tone, and his friends immediately scattered around, silently observing the corpses as they went. Naruto was about to move to the closest body when his eyes caught three marks on the tree in front of him. It was a strange mark; Naruto had to admit, almost as if it had been done by claws…

As he reached out to touch the spot on the tree, Naruto run three fingers though the mark, and admitted that someone or something had scratched that trunk. If it had been deliberately or not, Naruto did not know, but he guessed that mark had probably been made when the person or animal had failed an attack.

"Mairi!" Hinata called-out suddenly, and Naruto twirled around only to see the Hyuuga heiress kneeling next to a girl, who was lying on her stomach. Without any delay, the medical rushed to her side, asking what was wrong. "I-I think she's alive!"

"We cannot stay here for long." Gaara spoke suddenly as he appeared next to Naruto, his arms pressed against his chest. "Every second we waste here, is a second we could be using to find the child."

"Yeah, I know, but as ninja it's our duty to check if there are any survivors." Naruto answered with a quick nod at same time Mairi continued checking the girl Hinata had found, and informed them that she was indeed alive. "I know Mairi probably just wants to leave everything, and go after her sister, but this was a decision we had to make."

"Please, help me to turn her around." Mairi told Hinata as she grasped the unconscious girl's shoulders, and Hinata nodded. "I think I can take care of most of her wounds here, but I think she may have dislocated her shoulder, and her right leg definitely requires special attention."

"What can I do?" Hinata asked, and while Mairi told her what she needed, both Naruto and Gaara continued searching for other survivors. Unfortunately, it did not take more than a few minutes for the two boys to confess that there was no one else alive.

"What should we do now?" Naruto asked as he and Gaara approached the three girls, "Mairi may be a medical-nin, but this girl should go to a hospital or something."

"I'm afraid he's correct, I can take care of most of her wounds, but with her dislocated shoulder, it wouldn't be wise to leave her alone." Mairi agreed as she started healing a deep gash on the girl's left arm.

"What's that?" Naruto asked as he pointed at the black cloth that was hiding the girl's eyes, and Mairi glanced at it before shrugging while Hinata observed the rest of the girl's wounds. "You think she may be blind or something?"

"Perhaps, but I need to check her eyes before saying anything." Mairi said without looking away from the wound she was healing, and this time it was Gaara who spoke.

"You have to make a choice." he started in his usual unemotional tone, and Mairi stopped what she was doing for a second. "We either go after the kidnapper, and save your sister, or we stay here, to take care of her."

"Gaara…" Naruto hissed in a warning tone, but when Mairi spoke, he focused his attention on her as well as Hinata.

"I want to go rescue my sister," the medical started before closing her eyes, "Heavens, all I want is to leave all this behind, find her, hug her, and never let her go of my sight, but… I don't know, as a medical-nin I…it's my job to take care of the wounded, and…heavens, I don't know…"

"Hey, I know!" Naruto exclaimed suddenly, and Mairi opened her eyes before turning to him, her eyes tearing up as she waited for something to be said. "Gaara, you and I will follow the bastard that took Maiko away. The others are probably on their way here, so there's nothing to lose."

"…Very well," Gaara agreed with a short nod, and Naruto beamed at him before glancing at Hinata, who nodded in agreement, and then at Mairi.

"It's settled then, you take care of that girl. I promise that when I return, Maiko will be with us." Naruto said, and Mairi open her mouth before closing her lips, and look down. "Well, let's stop wasting more time, and let's go."

Without saying anything else, both Naruto and Gaara jumped towards two different branches, and quickly disappeared from sight. As she felt her heart hammering against her rib cage, Mairi looked down at the unconscious girl before releasing the shaky breath she had not noticed she had been holding.

"Maiko…" she whispered, and Hinata looked at her before smiling faintly.

"Don't worry, Naruto-kun always keeps his promises." she started, and Mairi looked up at her, "And he won't return without Maiko. Please, trust in him."

While Mairi forced herself to believe that Naruto was indeed going to keep his word, Mesi and the others had already managed to get rid of their enemies. Since Kiba and Akamaru were with them, the group knew exactly where to go. Unfortunately, everybody had noticed the strange look on Kiba's face while Akamaru growled from time to time.

"What's wrong?" Mesi finally decided to ask, and the member of the Inuzuka clan glanced at her before taking a deep breath only to grunt in pure annoyance seconds later.

"It seems that a damn cat was on the neighbourhood along with a traitor." Kiba muttered, his eyes narrowing in anger, and Mesi stared at him before gazing at the sky. "The scent is annoying the crap out of me."

"From which way is the scent coming?" Mesi asked, and Kiba sighed.

"From the same direction where the others are," Kiba quickly summarized, and Mesi's frown deepened. "It's not as stronger though, so I have the feeling they were probably on the same spot some time ago."

"That's not good." Mesi muttered before looking behind her, at Hana and Shikamaru. "Hey you two, lets move faster. I don't really fancy the idea of leaving Naruto all alone, even though Gaara and the others are with him." then, she turned to Kiba, "How far are they?"

"I'd say we'll be there in less than ten minutes." Kiba replied, and he could swear he had heard Mesi asking herself about how Naruto and the others could have moved so fast in such short period of time. "But I don't think they found Maiko."

"You said you noticed the scent of a cat, what did you mean?" Mesi questioned, and Kiba grunted again. "Can you say what kind of a cat it was? Is it still around?"

"No, like I said, the scent isn't getting stronger as we move, so I guess the cat left some time ago." Kiba explained, and Mesi nodded, the frown still on her face, "And then there's the scent of the traitor…"

"Don't speak of him, that doesn't matter at the moment." Mesi interrupted, and Kiba sent her a slightly confused look. "We can't allow people to realise that Uchiha was around. We don't have the time to go after him, and I seriously don't feel like dealing with an enraged Naruto right now."

At that Kiba nodded in understanding, and minutes later the small team finally reached the spot where both Hinata and Mairi were. Even though she had noticed the bodies that were lying around on the ground, Mesi gazed around to try to find Naruto; when she did not see him, she closed her hands into fists.

"What on earth happened here?" Kiba asked as he appeared beside Hinata while Hana rushed to Mairi's side, and started asking about what she could do to help. Shikamaru, on the other hand, walked to Mesi's side, glancing around as he moved.

"Naruto isn't here." he pointed out, and the female Jounin nodded in silent agreement. "Do you think he and Gaara left to see if they could find the child?"

"It doesn't matter why they left; they have to return immediately." Mesi muttered, but her hushed sound indicated that she was talking to herself and not to Shikamaru. "We cannot afford losing more time just because they decided to be all hasty."

"Are you going to follow them?" Shikamaru asked, and Mesi glanced at him before shaking her head. "We should inform Kakashi-sensei about what's going on."

"Kuchiyose no Jutsu." Mesi said suddenly after making some hand seals, and slam her right hand against the ground, in front of her feet. With a blink, Shikamaru found himself staring at a flock of birds, all of them different from one another. The bird that caught his attention though, was the one who flew to Mesi's shoulder, and that had a patch on its right eye. "Asa, I want you to find Hatake, and tell him where we are. Tell him that my group had to split up, and that now Naruto and Gaara are gone. Inform him that the others will search for them."

With a short nod, the black and white falcon opened its wings, and flew away. When Mesi looked at the remaining seven birds, they all nodded, and moments later they had flown towards the sky before disappearing from sight. After a short period in silence, Shikamaru turned to Mesi, who was still gazing at the sky.

"Don't you think we should go after Naruto and Gaara?" he asked, and Mesi turned to him before shaking her head.

"We just need them back; alone they won't be able to track anyone down, much less a kidnapper that took the child in a bird." Mesi started, and Shikamaru blinked at her words. "We can only hope that Hatake actually finds something, and reports back."

"And if he doesn't?" Shikamaru asked, and Mesi looked behind her at Hinata, Mairi and Hana before sighing, and turn to the young Jounin again.

"Then we'll have to keep on walking the shadowy path."

To Be Continued…