Disclaimer: don't own nothing.
A/N: Sorry for having taken so long with this chapter, but writer's block, real life and a couple others things took up more time that I'd realized. Hopefully, i will be able to return to my usual update schedule soon.
A/N2: Kushin eX has a new fanfic in action that I Beta, I recommend you all go read it, it's a great read and has a lot of highly interesting characters. You can find it in the Naruto section under the name of "The Ultimate Stars"
Izayoi was surprised to say the least, when Naruto suddenly stopped talking mid-sentence and instead dropped forward, his eyes completely blank. Apparently, she wasn't the only one, because Gaara's eyes visibly widened and Yugito was just as frozen as she was. As the blonde teen dropped to the ground without so much as a peep, the Kazekage seemed to unfreeze.
"Don't touch him." The redhead immediately ordered, his sand already in action, prodding the blonde to see if he would wake. "Nothing seems to work." Gaara concluded a few seconds later, after Naruto refused to wake upon being stabbed by a sand needle hard enough to draw blood from his right shoulder.
"What's that?" Izayoi drew the attention of her teammates as she pointed towards an object that had rolled from Naruto's hand. "He was holding it."
"I'll get it." An instant later, the object – a ring, Izayoi had realized – was surrounded by sand and lifted into the sky. "We can't keep standing around here, we have to get moving. We'll go to the Hokage's office. I'll carry Naruto there. Dessert Coffin."
At Gaara's command, the sand wrapped around Naruto almost instantly, hiding him from sight and levitating after the Kazekage. Izayoi and Yugito quickly followed the team leader as he jumped from roof to roof, heading to the Hokage as fast as possible.
"Wh-what?" the stumble left Naruto's mouth before he could make his tone more confident. That wasn't helping things, especially if this was as bad as Naruto thought it was.
"I am Richard," the shadowy figure repeated pleasantly, "the founder and leader of Akatsuki. It's a pleasure to meet you two again."
"What'd you mean, again?" Sasuke asked; his voice completely under control.
"Everything will be explained in due time." The shadowy man said, before he sat down. A moment before, Naruto hadn't even seen the chair. It seemed to appear out of nowhere when Richard sat down. "Please, take a seat. I only brought you here to talk."
Sure enough, looking behind him, Naruto saw that a chair had formed. It was as changing in color as everything else, but the form was solid. It even looked rather comfortable. Behind Sasuke, a similar chair had formed. Neither shinobi sat down, instead keeping their eyes on Richard.
"Well, I can't say I haven't been expecting such distrust." Richard sighed. "Then I guess you would prefer to remain standing, very well."
"Where are we?" Sasuke asked; his voice as clear as crystal. Naruto didn't turn to look around, keeping his eyes on the shadowy form of Akatsuki's leader.
"A question that I think your friend Naruto can answer and explain when you have returned to your bodies. For now, it is time to focus on the more important things."
"What'd you want?" Naruto asked instead, noting from the corner of his eye that Sasuke also kept his full attention on their foe.
"Such a complicated question," Richard chuckled. Spreading his arms wide, he answered with amusement clear in his voice. "What does anyone want? Wine, women and wealth? Power, riches and bitches, as they say? What I want is a girl in my bed at night, enough peace of mind to sleep soundly and enjoy good food all day long."
"You know what I mean." Naruto was annoyed, but he knew they had no choice but to play along with his game. "Why'd you bring us here? What do you want with us?"
"A far more precise question makes it much easier to answer. I want to talk to you, as I said before. That is why I brought you here and that is what I want with you."
Naruto was grinding his teeth, but Richard's smile only seemed to grow further.
"But what I'm sure you mean is what do I want to talk to you about? So I will explain." Richard sat back like before, casually leaning against the chair. "I have brought you here to tell you of Akatsuki's goals and, more importantly, your role in them."
"What?" Naruto and Sasuke said it at the same time, neither loudly, but enough to be heard.
"I have created Akatsuki for a single goal." Richard continued as if the two hadn't spoke up, looking at each of them in turn, "To unify the world and create world peace. This will only become possible by providing the Shinobi Nations – the most warlike continent in the world – with a single, powerful opponent they can not defeat on their own. In doing this, they will unite and create peace between them. Then, the rest of the world will follow their example and peace will soon become reality."
"You're kidding right? How stupid do you think we are? No way that'd happen." Sasuke argued, but Richard only looked at him like he was amused.
"But Akatsuki itself is still far too divided to provide such a strong threat." He continued, ignoring the Uchiha's outburst, "In order for them to become a large enough threat, I need everyone in Akatsuki to work as a team, covering each others' backs and fighting for a common goal. And that is where you two come in."
"I see." Was all Sasuke said.
"You want us to be a threat to them, the opponents they fear enough to begin cooperating…" Naruto added.
"Exactly," Richard sounded joyous that they had picked it up, but both teens looked incredibly sour. "I need you and your teams to be strong enough to look like a threat to Akatsuki, so they will unite at last. That is what I'm telling you: keep on training, take on as many missions as you can and become as strong as you can. But there's more. You are strong right now, no doubt. But not strong enough."
This raised two eyebrows – one from each teen – but no other reaction.
"So, I wish to meet you in person, to give you a peace offering of sorts. Something that will help you become stronger much faster. I will meet you two weeks from now, in person, to give you that gift. We'll meet at the Flat Plains in the Land of Grass. Not the most original place, but it should serve."
"Sure, we'll see you there." Naruto's voice was dripping in sarcasm, "Walk right into your little trap, meet with you and all of Akatsuki, why not? Maybe we'll bring everyone in Konoha and make it one big happy party."
"It's not that easy, Naruto-kun." The shadowy figure answered, ignoring the sarcasm. "I will tell you exactly who to bring. If you bring anyone else, I will not be there. You will never meet me again."
"I'm not hearing a downside." Sasuke said.
"There is. If you do not meet with me when I say so, you, your friends and all your loved ones are doomed. You won't meet me, even as I kill you. And I don't even need to be close to ensure your deaths. So, for your own sakes, appear."
Naruto felt the blood drain from his face. The threat was spoken as plainly as any other word Richard had said, as casually as possible, but perhaps that gave it more power. There was no need to appear intimidating. He had already proven he could contact them with something without any problem. Next time, it might not be as harmless as this contact.
"So, two weeks from now, I will meet you in the Land of Grass. Of course, you won't be alone. Naruto, I want you to bring your entire team. With Gaara, Yugito and Izayoi at your back, you should have enough power to feel comfortable. Sasuke, you will also bring your own team. A team I will name. Haruno Sakura, Rock Lee and Akimichi Chouji. If anyone other than them appears, I will not. See you there."
With a pleasant, even friendly, wave of his hand, Richard's shadowy form simply vanished from existence. Naruto and Sasuke shared a look of confusion before they too vanished.
It happened in an instant: Naruto's eyes opened wide and in the same instant, he shot up, crashing his head straight into Tsunade's chest as she was still examining him. The others present in the room were shocked by the sudden movement, since a mere second ago; Naruto had been as good as comatose.
For a second or so, there was silence, until Naruto pulled back his head to regain a view of his surroundings.
"Wha? Where am I? Granny's office?" He quickly answered his own questions, speaking before the others could. "Quick, get someone to pick up Sasuke from his house, he was there as well! We gotta make sure he also got back!"
"Where were you?" "What's happened?" "Sasuke?" "You two were together?"
Questions seemed to come from every mouth present, the assistants that Tsunade had with her asking most of them. With a wave from Tsunade's hand, they all fell silent.
"What just happened, Naruto? Where did you think you went and how was Sasuke there?" her voice was a textbook example of perfect control, making it impossible for anyone to guess her actual feelings.
"I just had a meeting with the leader of Akatsuki, Sasuke was there as well and he wants to meet with us."
"What? How did you – "
"He pulled me into the Astral Plane." Naruto interrupted. This statement didn't get any reaction from Tsunade, but behind her there was enough reaction. Her aides – all five of them – looked confused by the statement, as did Izayoi. Gaara and Yugito, each masters of controlling their expressions, couldn't stop their eyes from widening and eyebrows from raising in shock.
"The Astral Plane?" Tsunade asked, still keeping control. With another wave of her hand, she ordered all her aids out the door. They'd ensure the order to send ANBU to Sasuke's house was dispatched, but this was another matter.
"The Astral Plane is an alternate dimension," Gaara explained before Naruto could begin, "it runs parallel to our own and is a plane that is normally accessible only to souls. However, in ordinary cases, it should not be fully accessible to human souls. As Jinchuuriki, we are except from this, due to the demons we hold."
"So, normal humans can't enter it?"
"Not fully." Yugito supplied, "however, there are cases where people can enter it on a subconscious level. The famous rumored twin telepathy, or soul mates or similar situations."
"There's more." Naruto spoke up again, "normally, the Astral Plane is shaped by the soul that controls it into taking a specific form. This Plane didn't have any form or shape."
"And what does that mean?" Frustration actually entered Tsunade's voice: she was used to being in control, to explaining things to others, not having people half her age explain things to her.
"It could mean anything." Naruto sighed, leaning back against the wall, his voice controlled and radiating odd but cool professionalism as he thought out loud, "but all we know is that this guy is odd and very dangerous. He could pull Sasuke – for all intends and purposes a normal human – into the Astral Plane, which should have been impossible. He pulled me into an unknown plane, without drawing in the Kyuubi. That means he has the means to separate my soul from the Kyuubi's. And if his personal Plane is so chaotic that it isn't stable… I don't know what that could mean."
"The most logical answer would be that his soul is unstable." Yugito suggested, "Without some level of stability, the soul cannot create a surrounding. But for his very soul to be unstable…"
"We can not discard the possibility that this man is a Jinchuuriki, like us." Gaara stated with confidence, "It is the most logical reason for his ability to enter a dimension that only demons should be able to access."
A knock on the door broke up the conversation and a second later four ANBU ninjas walked in, two of them holding Sasuke between them. He seemed to be alright, if slightly dazed. Following closely behind the squad came two other people Tsunade was glad to see: Morino Ibiki and Jiraiya.
Three minutes after, Sasuke's health was ensured by a checkup and he and Naruto were separately interviewed. Jiraiya checked Naruto's story, while Ibiki talked with Sasuke. In the meantime, Tsunade went over everything the ANBU squad discovered at the Uchiha mansion and what the Demon Squad reported from Naruto suddenly passing out.
According to the reports Tsunade had received twenty minutes later, both boys had told the exact same story. A man named Richard, with creepy eyes, wanting to meet with them and telling them he wanted world peace.
So now, Tsunade sat with Jiraiya and Gaara, considering what to do. The others had all been dismissed and had left the office.
"I hate the idea of doing exactly what he says when he's so clearly an enemy to us." Tsunade's face hardened, "I say we go send in another four squads of jonin and lay down a trap, kill him before he can act any further."
"I don't know Tsunade." Jiraiya sighed, "Naruto seems like he was struck pretty hard by this. He's not telling me everything, but I can't figure out the missing pieces."
"Naruto fears for his soul." Gaara stated, dread heavy in his voice. "Richard has just, rather easily, pulled his soul away from his body for a period of time to talk. What if, next time, he can not return to his body? With ordinary people this is already bad, but with a Jinchuuriki… it gives the demon inside all the time it needs to take over the host's body without any opposition."
"So, what do you think we should do, Gaara?" Tsunade eyed the young Kazekage, "You're obviously the most experienced of us with the Astral Plane, so what do you think."
"Until we find a method of protecting ourselves, I fear we can do nothing but what this Richard tells us. If we do not appear at the meeting place, you may soon find a lifeless Uchiha body and a rampaging demon in your village. So, for now, do as he says, meet him and find out what he wants. We still have enough time for our two teams to practice co-operation in the field. And in the meantime, I will have Yugito work on a counter-measure. She is the most knowledgeable shinobi in the world when it comes to souls, she may find a way to help us protect ours."
"Tell her to hurry that up. Until we manage to gain a defense against this kind of attack, we are sitting ducks. I'll arrange for the others to meet your squad for training tomorrow morning. For now, it looks like everyone needs their rest and I'll send a rapport to the other Kages."
Nearly two weeks later, Gaara felt a measure of confidence in the capability of these eight shinobi to work together. For the past twelve days, they had been doing training drills time and time again, fighting against each other, sharing information or facing off against other opponents. At one point, the Hokage and Jiraiya had teamed up against them.
That match had been rather exciting, but in the end, the duo's far superior teamwork and experience had prevailed. Since then, they had managed to fight other powerful combinations and end up victorious, but their teamwork still wasn't as smooth as when the two sages joined powers.
"So, here is your basic formation for when you go to encounter Richard." Shikamaru said, sitting next to the Kazekage and handing him a paper with a drawing. "Travel in an arrow formation, with Lee taking point and Chouji and Sasuke flanking him. Lee's a highly capable scout and most effective when he's close to the enemy, his movement speed will allow him great flexibility. Chouji can reach far and has great destructive power, but needs a short wind-up, which is why he's in a flank. Sasuke can quickly analyze any enemy weaknesses with his Sharingan and provide tactical information as well as serve as a back-up fighter."
Gaara nodded, so Shikamaru moved on to the next part: two dots next to each other. It had been Chouji's suggestion to ask Shikamaru's advice and it had proved to be a good idea. Richard had said not to bring anyone else, but Shikamaru wouldn't be going with them, only giving them advice.
"After that comes the center formation, which has Naruto and Sakura. As a medic, Sakura is the single most valuable member of your team and needs to have maximum security. She can't be attacked from the front or back without going through the team. Naruto is next to her for added protection and his ability to aid all sides instantly, thanks to his Shadow Clones and Shukuchi."
Again, Gaara nodded. Despite the fact that Shikamaru had only returned from a month-long mission yesterday, he had already devised an excellent strategy. Gaara had, himself, created one that was mostly similar.
"And finally, you, Yugito and Izayoi follow in a half-circle formation, with you in the center. Your shield makes it nearly impossible for anyone to attack you in the back and Izayoi is a specialist in long-range combat. Yugito, meanwhile, is the most versatile member of your team and can assist a lot while staying out of the thick of battle herself."
"Very well. And for when we encounter Richard himself?"
"When you see him, have Naruto, Sasuke and Lee take charge, with Chouji and Yugito guarding Sakura in the middle, while you and Izayoi stay back and assist from a distance. You'll need people who are very agile in the front, to keep the enemy busy and create an opening. Sakura and Chouji both have the destructive force needed to inflict heavy damage, but they lack the speed that's needed to force an opening. Yugito can assist for all ranges, you and Izayoi focus mostly on protecting your team and distracting the enemy."
Gaara accepted Shikamaru's two drawings and thanked him, surprised at just how fast the teenager had come up with the strategy. Yes, Gaara himself had come up with a plan that was generally the same – though he had not given Chouji a role in the front of the traveling formation and had placed Sakura in the back of the battle formation – but he had spend some hours thinking and considering. This Konoha shinobi had come up with the same in just under ten minutes. He could understand why Temari was often impressed by him, despite his lazy demeanor.
Raising the hand that held his now-permanent cigarette – something Temari had apparently been vocal in of disapproving – Shikamaru gave a wave to his friends before leaving. He had other business to attend. Gaara quickly dismissed the team after that, but not before giving orders to meet back at the eastern gate in three hours. That was when they would leave for the Country of Grass.
Naturally, the Demon Squad did not split up, instead all of them headed straight for Naruto's house to pack up. Despite their much improved teamwork, they still hadn't been allowed to leave each other's vicinity.
So, nearly three hours later, the specially formed anti-Akatsuki squad was already at the east gate and waiting for the other team to arrive. Sakura was the first to appear, walking alongside Lee and bringing a couple of surprise guests with her.
Naruto's heard skipped a beat as Hinata walked alongside Sakura, with Hanabi and Neji close behind. Hinata wasn't dressed in her normal shinobi clothes, Naruto noticed, instead wearing a kimono and looking as stunning as Naruto had ever seen her. A second look told him Hanabi was also in a kimono, while Neji wore his usual robes. More likely then not, the two heirs didn't have any missions and Neji was along as their bodyguard.
But Naruto didn't give any of that any real thought as Hinata came closer. Although they had been dating for some time now, he had, in fact, rarely seen her since that fateful party where she kissed him. Since he wasn't allowed to be away from his team, it was impossible to plan for any dates with her. Fortunately, she understood and wasn't vocally complaining, but it still left Naruto with a bad taste.
So now, when Hinata split off from Sakura and walked over to Naruto, he was all too glad to lead her a small distance away, so the two could sit in some relative privacy. And, for some reason, they could talk easier now then they had in all the times they had met before the party. Back then, when they were doing their dance sessions, both Naruto and Hinata would get tongue-tied and silence would rule. That problem was now almost completely gone as Naruto proudly told her off the training exercises he had been going through, while Hinata in return informed him off her missions and dealings with her clan. Before they even noticed it, the two were sitting side by side, Hinata leaning her head on Naruto's shoulder. When they did notice, silence fell between them, but it wasn't a tense silence like before. This time, Naruto took the initiative as he gently placed a hand below Hinata's chin and kissed her.
Only a loud call from Sakura – issued from a safe distance – warned the two that time had passed faster then they had wanted and it was time to go. Sharing one last, quick kiss, the shinobi and kunoichi walked back to the others and reluctantly let go of each other's hands.
"Please, return quickly." Hinata told her boyfriend with a smile. Naruto smiled back at her and nodded.
"Yeah, I'll be back before you know it. See you soon."
The sun was setting over the plains when the two teams arrived, the day before Richard was to appear. These plains were what had earned the Nation of Grass it's name; nothing but endless fields of grass as far as the eye could see. In the morning and afternoon, these fields would be full of livestock, but for now, they were completely empty.
"We'll camp here for tonight." Gaara ordered, still staying in the forests just outside the plains. Here, at least, they would not be completely visible like on the plains. "Two men guard, switch every two hours. We wake and prepare an hour before dawn."
Fortunately nothing happened that night, same as the journey. Apparently, Richard did intend to keep his promise about not attacking them. But now came the hardest part; waiting. Since Richard had not specified a location, they would have to wait for him to appear. This also meant that setting traps was useless. The livestock already appearing would set them off and create unneeded chaos and Richard could just tell them to come to him, rendering any effort pointless.
"Over there." Lee pointed towards the north, where a single man was slowly making his way over. There were some shepherds around, but this man was walking alone, with no livestock around. As he got closer, they could also recognize the infamous Akatsuki cloak and hat.
The figure seemed to be taking his sweet time, casually walking towards the two teams who were already standing in their battle formation. It took him nearly an hour to get close enough to talk.
"Ah, greetings to you all, pleased to see you could make it." He gave a quick nod, "I don't normally wear the hat, but I thought you would appreciate the warning that I am truly a member of Akatsuki. For those of you who do not know me, I am Richard. Founder of Akatsuki."
With a flourish Richard removed his hat and gave them a quick bow, but his eyes always stayed on the group. Everyone in the group immediately tried to memorize his features. Short, shaggy brown hair, a face that was neither handsome nor ugly, no stubble or significant features, a build that was nothing out of the ordinary. All in all, he could pass for a perfectly ordinary man, except for his eyes.
But the oddest reaction came from Sasuke and Naruto; the two suddenly took a step back as they looked at the man, flinching as if they were in pain. Sasuke almost fell to his knees, barely holding out a cry of pain and grabbed his left arm. Naruto meanwhile placed a hand on his head as if he suddenly had a massive headache.
"Ah, impressive," Richard remarked as if it was the most interesting thing in the world. "Even after everything that happened the last time we saw each other, you still somehow remember me? Don't worry, your reaction is perfectly normal and the pain will ease in a few moments."
This statement seemed to shock the entire group, but they still didn't make a move: Gaara had to give the command for that.
"What are you talking about? You didn't do anything to them on the Astral Plane."
"That's right, I didn't." Richard smiled at the Kazekage. The smile actually made him seem rather pleasant, reminding people of a friendly neighbor. "But, in the Astral Plane, we didn't actually see each other. We saw projections, which I had rendered without color. The last time I saw these two in person was some months ago, when I healed their arms. That's what's causing their current pains."
Again, shock ran through the group, but this time it was Sakura who broke the silence.
"You healed their arms? But how? It was supposed to be impossible… how could you have done that?"
"That, my dear Sakura, is a trade secret." Richard now smiled at her, as if sharing a joke, "but suffice it to say, there was quite a lot of pain involved. The pain wiped their memories of the event clean but apparently their subconscious is more stubborn then I'd have thought. Seeing me is reawakening those memories and thus making them remember the pain they've gone through."
"Why would you heal your enemies?" this time the question came from Izayoi, but there was no confusion, just curiosity.
"Because I need them to be strong, of course." Richard shrugged, "They didn't tell you? I want your team to become a threat to Akatsuki, so we will grow stronger. In fact, that's why I called you all here. In order for you to become a credible threat to Akatsuki, your team needs more power than it has now."
"And I suppose you'll just hand us over that power on a silver platter?" Gaara managed to not sound sarcastic, instead phrasing it as a normal question.
"For the most part. It's why I have called you here. So I can give you a present."
Before anyone could even blink, Richard was gone, disappearing from sight, and then just as quickly re-appeared besides Gaara, already in the protective Wall of Sand. Both his hands were glowing, flames of chakra appearing on each fingertip as he suddenly shoved them into the Kazekage's stomach. His fingers penetrated the Armor of Sand as if it wasn't even there, and suddenly Gaara doubled over in pain.
All this happened in an instant before anyone could react. The next moment, Richard stepped back and, much like Zetsu had done, sank into the ground.
"A present for your efforts. Be sure not to die when it unwraps."
"GWAAARGH!" Gaara's cry of pain was almost inhuman to listen to and so loud that the others had to cover their ears. The sand on his gourd exploded outward, wrapping itself around the Kazekage as he kept on howling in pain. Each of the seven other shinobi quickly retreated, forming a circle around the Kazekage as his voice changed in the middle of a howl. Then more sand appeared, wrapping itself around the redhead and increasing his size a thousand fold.
"BWAGAHAG, I'M BACK!" came the insane and loud voice from that mass of sand, sending shivers down the backs of Naruto, Lee, Sasuke, Chouji and Sakura. They knew that voice.
"HAHAHA, I'M BACK AGAIN! AND NOW, I'LL KILL YOU ALL!"
Shukaku of the Sand had been returned.
Beta Note: Kushin eX here, confirming the beta. Enjoy the chapter.
Please leave a review telling me what you think.