ATTENTION: See note in first chapter
'His suffering is his cleansing,' Joben often told himself. 'The impurities within his body which condemned him will leave with his delusions. We are helping him; it's what w edo.'
'Please let it be what we do...'
Joben was young to the monastery—frightfully so compared to his masters, the only survivors from the original Order. Therefore, calling his creed into question was an unrealistic violation.
But something left him disquieted, something obvious, and it became harder to ignore with each passing day of solitude.
He and his fellow disciples were sequestered into isolation for the last few years as part of their training—to fully detach themselves from the world, from all material and aerial things, to reach the next stage of enlightenment. They were not to concern themselves with current events.
Joben extracted himself from the world with assured faith that this path he had chosen for his life was the right one. He had been doing so well. Perhaps that was why he was chosen to accompany his Masters to a new location.
He thought this would be a great honor, that he was given a great opportunity to further his studies with personal guidance from the Masters. Instead, his training slipped. Too many basal human emotions were triggered after speaking with Naruto that grounded his spirit and mind, guilt being the most profound. Guilt from withholding information from his masters. Guilt from doubting his masters. Guilt for unwittingly being party to what he believed his masters did.
His burning curiosity for the truth kept him from attaining further spiritual wisdom. This led to frustration, anger, and more guilt.
"You should hate me,"Joben had whispered to the captive one evening before averting his gaze away from the piercing stare. He always had trouble maintaining eye contact with the man.
This usually directed his eyes to the festering open sore on the demon's forearm, which then had him turning to the larger, perished hole in Naruto's side.
In the end, Joben had turned his head from the sight all together.
"I can't hate you..." Naruto's voice came unbidden to his memory. "You're a child...you're only doing what you've been brought up to believe."
Naruto spoke like a father would; like how a monk should—forgiving and understanding. In that moment, Joben knew he could not look at him, not with the tendrils of shame curling in his gut.
He recalled Naruto's next line, as though the other being could sense his line of thinking at the time.
This had been the final straw for Joben, the motivating force that led him to scrounging though the modest archive located above the chamber. It was nothing compared to the ancient hall of information belonging to the Fire Temple—the home that he dearly missed—just one of the smaller side libraries installed in each of the Temple's two subunits.
He could see the rough mountain ranges from where the window faced. Instead of trees and lush forests, only rocks and earth met his sight which, while locals may appreciate it, he could not see the beauty in such a landscape. It was such a foreign looking terrain that he felt another wave of homesickness.
He regretted being so proficient in his studies; he wished he were never chosen for such a task. But of the three, identical, underground sacred-chambers this was the one they had to move Naruto to. It was furthest from Konoha, and no one but the monks knew of the underground network of tunnels that branched from the Temple. It was a network that stood before the time of the ninja. A network Joben was now privy to as a reward for his competence.
It was a network, Joben feared, that was being used to commit terrible crimes.
Joben's hand brushed along the spine of an Iwa bingo-book. All temples with trained ninja-monks were required to have a collection of them. He pulled it from the shelf and began leafing through the pages, rolling around in his mind what Naruto said to him.
Yes, he recalled the Sage from Konoha...but that had been many years ago. The Toad Sage, he was called, Jiraiya-sama of the Sannin.
Joben's fingers moved faster, his eyes scanning the contents of each page rapidly.
But there had been an apprentice he knew of—two, in fact—the younger of which took over the title in Joben's childhood. He could be the right age…
Joben's frantic flipping stopped and he saw the face. Fleshed out, handsome, tanned—bright, blue eyes instead of grey—but it was still him.
Born of Konoha.
Joben flipped to the inside cover of the book—it dated over a year old. Still…what could have happened to this man? He looked at least thirty!
Container of the Kyuubi. Apprentice to Jiraiya of the Sannin. Speculated heir of the Yellow Flash. Toad summons—Toad Sage—
Joben fell back against his chair, the uncomfortably hard craft digging into his shoulder blades. His mind blanked out.
Naruto told the truth. He was a medium of nature; a protector of their country.
What were they doing? What have they done? Had they actually stolen from Konoha?
Joben knew little of the Akatsuki before he began his training, only recently learning of them being an organization of philanthropists, contrary to whatever rumors may be circulating.
So, in whom could he trust?
Joben began flipping through the pages absently with slow precision and eyes unseeing. Trenchant shock resounded deeply within his body.
Naruto may have absorbed the demon—he may have become a demon—but he was a friend to Fire Country, wasn't he? The masters were so secretive about the whole operation—they moved Naruto to the very borders of the country to escape the wrath of Konoha.
They trusted the word of this Akatsuki; the word that Naruto harbored a skewed drive for world domination.
That fact alone should have tipped Joben off that something was amiss, but he knew better than to question his masters—he was meant to have faith in them like he had faith in their Gods. He was meant to trust in them that they wouldn't lead him astray.
Joben started at the face he now stared at in the bingo book.
It was a whole face, even familiar without the scales—
Defector of Konoha. Multiple crimes against Konoha. Partner to Orochimaru—Orochimaru of the Sannin, slayer of the Sandaime—
For the second time that day, Joben felt himself reeling back in perturbation. He felt nausea, acrid and mordant, chafing the back of his throat raw.
This was the man they were helping to harm Konoha's sage. Everything was backwards. Nothing made sense.
Grasping onto a sense of himself, Joben forcibly calmed his heart rate and rubbed his forehead.
His thoughts kept leading him back to the same conclusion: something was wrong. His brothers wouldn't have noticed it—the behavior changes were subtle and subdued on the surface of the ground—but the Masters weren't acting as they used to when they first began recruiting to rebuild the Temple. Their patience dwindled, as did their compassion.
The Masters must have known they couldn't keep the ninja off their tail forever. These days, the Masters left Joben at this station alone for days on end. Trusting him to continue his training in isolation away from his brothers. Trusting him to trust in them, wholly and obediently.
Enough was enough.
He had already broken the decree by seeking earthly knowledge before his training was over. Additional freethinking would not tarnish his training further.
He set to work on researching who exactly the Akatsuki were.
The Rokudaime of Konohagakure felt nothing but abrading, itching, unrelenting agitation.
Konoha's Sage, Konoha's protector...his student, his friend...had been missing for four months. The circumstances surrounding the events were so frustrating he often dreamed of throwing down his hat and looking for Naruto himself. But Konoha needed her figurehead more than ever; the loss of their guardian had shaken the public and waved a flag of outstanding weakness to neighboring countries. He had to keep their economy running—he could not afford to spare all the ninja he wanted out there searching.
The first two months after the abduction sustained the most inspiration—an outraged village meant citizens who were willing to cheapen their lifestyles in order to impart more ninja for Naruto's search. The knowledge that other countries were on the hunt as well further fueled the drive; they could not keep the information of the young Toad Sage's abduction a secret no matter how tightly controlled they tried to keep the incident.
Naruto had become the treasure every nation coveted.
Unfortunately, like every treasure, the search for him did not come without consequences. Several ninja never returned from those searches, tipping Kakashi off that Akatsuki were not going to give up their boon so easily. Searching for Naruto posed a danger to their economy, yet without him they faced the same problem. Kakashi was caught between two opposing necessities and his own personal desires.
Worst of all, he felt guilt. Not from his initial fuck-up—though that particular blunder did continue to haunt him—but because the frantic need to save Naruto started to come more from what it could mean for the world if they never found him rather than friendship. Kakashi had begun to move into the mindset of a Hokage rather than a person; he was becoming his position...
...Just as his sensei had not long before he gave up his own child's normalcy to perform a village duty. He could see now, more than ever, why Naruto continued to deny his succession while Hitomi was so young. He was not simply because he needed to be a father—he wanted to.
Kakashi tried to be objective about the case; it would not do to bypass any obvious hints because he was so emotionally attached to the victim. Still, it was hard to overlook how every trail led the searches right back to the Fire temple. The monks checked out all right—even the Fire Daimyo vouched for them. Why would their temple do anything to purposefully harm Konoha? Politically, it made no sense.
But instinctually...instinctually, Kakashi knew something was wrong with the entire situation.
How could such an accident occur in the first place? He mulled that question around in his head over and over throughout the weeks. The monks had to have known what would happen to a Jinchuuriki despite their defense that they had no postulation to the reaction a sealed demon would have to the barrier. They argued that so few Jinchuuriki throughout history had been scrutinized, let alone encountered such a situation.
They claimed they did not know Naruto was in the village.
They assured all ninja that they were simply doing what they were instructed to do.
Kakashi's patience wore thin with the Fire Temple. The sincerity in Sentoki's remorse grew more false with every accusation and the Hokage's mind kept bringing him to three simple facts:
First off, Shizune was given a false lead; someone purposefully passed on the information that the Raikage was using spiritual barriers when, in fact, he was not.
Secondly, the monks pushed to put up those spiritual barriers, knowing where Naruto resided. For months beforehand, even.
Finally, the Akatsuki's coordination with the assembly and dismantling of those barriers played out too perfectly.
'That would be just like you, Naruto…to be right under our noses again…' he thought ruefully. A half of a smile quirked his lips before guilt weighed down on him once more.
It had been too long. Who knew what horrors Naruto had experienced in the last several weeks? And doing nothing but sending people on wild goose chases, often to their deaths, felt so insignificant compared to what should be done.
Storming the Fire Temple without a warrant from the Daimyo was a bold move; it was sacred, not to mention neutral, Fire Country grounds. Additionally, no sense could be found in their own temple turning against the country's greatest asset.
And yet something continued to ring false...
"Shikamaru!" Kakashi called to the man who was never far off from his office. The young man had taken over the point of advisor, Shizune moving her efforts to the Konoha Hospital to be by Tsunade-sama's side.
Seconds later, Shikamaru pushed through the door, face drawn in its usual scowl. Lines started to deepen around his mouth over the last year—the last few months truly securing the aged features.
"I'm sending another investigative team to the Temple. I want a full sweep of it."
At Shikamaru's unresponsive silence, Kakashi expatiated his statement.
"I know it's not ethical—it won't look good, continuing to accuse them of playing a part to Naruto's...relocation—but I want the most thorough sweep done to date. If they did have anything to do with it, then they've more than likely let their guard down by this point. And Akatsuki won't expect us to keep hammering at the temple, especially after we've backed off for a while. If you can, get a small team inside there. I want you to tear the place apart if you have to—just find something."
"They're ninja monks. They won't take this lying down," Shikamaru advised, though his voice sparked with fervor not heard in many months. Excitement radiated from his posture, as though he had been waiting for some time to hear these orders. Perhaps, he, too, felt something was amiss. "And we shouldn't care about why they may or may not have done this. It's just that, if they did, then they conspired with the Akatsuki, and that's treason. Treason gives us warrant to openly search the temple."
Kakashi smirked, "Out of your ass, kid, but it's good enough. I'll deal with whatever bitching we get from the monks or Daimyo. We can't afford to play nice with them anymore. I feel like we're running out of time. For now, I want a team assembled—"
The door, still partially ajar from Shikamaru's slow entrance, swung fully open as a ninja who worked in dispatch came barreling in, a thin letter clutched in his hand.
"Sir!" the man's face appeared drained of blood and the word tumbled out of his mouth in a single, haggard breath. "Hokage-sama, it's the Akatsuki...they've got the Hachibi!"
Everything stopped. Kakashi felt his entire world freeze with those words.
"What?" he whispered, already standing from his chair. He met Shikamaru's own appalled stare to confirm his hearing.
"They've caught the Hachibi," the ninja repeated. "Kumo is requesting our aid in the retrieval party."
Kakashi completely disregarded the latter statement. Their alliance with Kumo was only strong because of Naruto...and Naruto was as good as dead. They weren't running out of time—they were already out.
And when you were out of time, you no longer needed to play by the rules.
Naruto could virtually sense the chaotic energy approaching before the monk's face flew overview.
Or, that's what he'd tell himself in retrospect, because he was sure there must have been a time when he could sense all kinds of energy.
"They got him! They got him, you beast!"
A shadow of dementia tarried within the man's eye, a darkness that had been spreading over the course of Naruto's stay. The monk had the look of someone who had suffered under too much poison for too long. Irreparable.
Like Naruto's own body.
Naruto didn't need to wonder who 'he' was that the monk spoke of. His stomach would have plummeted to the tips of his hipbones if he had any such sensations any more. And if he were not lying horizontal.
Kirabi. Akatsuki had finally captured the only Jinchuuriki left aside from himself. His own brother, in a sense.
Emotions his body had long since been purged of returned. For the briefest of moments, Naruto's sorrow for Kirabi overshadowed the gravity of the situation before the timeline continued within his mind.
Akatsuki would be coming for him next—and he wouldn't have the strength or power to defend himself. And after that...
After that, everything would go to hell. Konoha would be screwed; either Danzo would take over and turn the once peaceful (by shinobi standards) village into a tyrannical force or Madara would go back on his word to the nuke-nin and raze his hometown to the ground.
Even then, if Hitomi weren't in Konoha, she'd still be unprotected. Disparity settled deeply in his chest when he realized he would never see his daughter again.
Hitomi better not be in Konoha in the first place, not after what happened to him.
Naruto was never going to let Kakashi babysit—
FUCK! Naruto swore within himself, cursing at his demolished attention span. Kirabi's going to die, I'm going to die… essentially the whole fucking world is going to die and I'm thinking about babysitters?
Opening his eyes, he realized the monk had left—it had been Sentoki, too. He didn't like Sentoki.
Even if I did get out of here, what good would I be? Would I ever be able to be a ninja again? Or protect anybody? No, the answer is no. I'll be fucking useless forever.
His bout of self-depreciation ended almost as soon as it began.
Stop pitying yourself, he scolded, trying, and failing, to scowl. You need to be clear of mind for your last lonely, painful days of existence.
"How long do you think the extraction will take?" Ino asked her two other companions as they flew towards their country's temple. She had not been there since her sensei's brutal murder.
Kiba and Neji flanked her sides, the three of them keeping pace with one another with practiced ease.
"It took three days for them to manage to get the Ichibi from Gaara-sama with nine Akatsuki, so with their current number of...What? Two?"
"Pein, Tobi," Ino counted off, "team Hawk Naruto already took out...so yeah, two. Wow."
"Though Pein could be using his many bodies..." Kiba suggested. Neji shook his head.
"Their source of chakra is still the same even if it can be utilized through different vessels. Even if their host had massive amounts of chakra, I would wager that two extra bodies would be the maximum addendums given that situation."
"What about Kabuto?" Ino questioned. Before leaving Konoha, they reviewed all past information Naruto gathered regarding Akatsuki. Naruto had Kabuto down as a suspected associate of the organization but then written him off after not detecting any activity from the man. After examining the exceptional cadaver left in the hospital from Naruto's kidnapping, both Tsunade-sama and the Hokage believed Kabuto needed to go back on the list of suspects.
"They could be using the monks, too," Kiba added with a nod, "if it turns out they have Naruto."
"So, possibly seven at the most," Neji concluded. "And as that is a baseless, uneducated guess, I would say the Hachibi has more than three days, but less than six."
A shadow passed overhead; Sai on his inked bird. They were the squad of four chosen for the mission, a group of trackers and interrogators that would not be turned away.
It was a risk Kakashi had taken; Konoha could very well end up a permanent enemy of the Fire Temple—either they were mistaken and the Temple cut ties with the country's ninja village, or they were correct and the Fire Temple would end up condemned for treason.
Sakura, Lee, Gai, and Konohamaru, along with two other squads from Cloud were sent on the Kirabi rescue. Kakashi failed to mention his plan to storm the Fire Temple to Sakura lest she become compromised and start to disobey orders. They knew the generalities of where extraction was to take place; the squad sent there was needed for power, meaning Sakura would be more useful for such a mission.
Ino felt guilty for withholding information from her best friend. Sakura had been subdued and frantic all at once since Naruto's kidnapping and Ino wanted nothing more than to quell the woman's fears.
"There it is," Kiba muttered as they broke through the trees to see the dirt courtyard of the temple. Sai had already landed and stood on the top of the sandstone steps.
"Show time," Neji mumbled and they set forth into the eerily quiet temple.
Naruto stared bleakly at the high-arched ceiling. For the first time in a long time, he felt numb. Wouldn't it be great if, on the eve of his death, he suddenly learned to block out the pain? That would be great.
He couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic or not. He forgot what sarcasm sounded like. The monks weren't sarcastic. The ceiling wasn't sarcastic. The back of his eyelids weren't sarcastic.
Naruto's eyes flew open at the sound of his full name. The monks must have known it, but he did not think this one knew it. He strained his peripheral vision, seeing Joben slowly walking toward him, pale and tight faced.
Naruto's eyes locked on the bingo book in his hand. Seeing where Naruto's vision lay, Joben managed a weak smile.
"I don't know what's right anymore," the young monk confessed; "if I should be listening to my masters or my heart. You...you aren't...bad."
Joben looked at the book in his hands, remembering the picture of a much younger-looking, healthier Naruto and trying to overlap it with the broken body before him.
Joben's lip quivered at the strangled words, stopping a good five feet away from the altar.
"They caught the Hachibi—it's all anyone's talking about."
"They'll be coming for you next, soon enough."
"What—" Joben licked his lips, "what would you do if they didn't come? If you were free?"
Naruto was fairly certain he had told the boy before, but humored him anyway.
"I...just want...to—to see...my baby...again."
Joben nodded as if expecting the answer and looked down at the book in his hand once more. The Sage gave no talk of revenge or any sort of retribution, nor had any been expected.
Naruto watched as some color returned to the kid's face. Joben fell into a stance, resolute and resigned, and turned away. Soft muttering echoed about the hall, just loud enough for Naruto to catch glimpses of it.
"You crave to return to your family, and so you suffer...craving causes suffering and...your suffering will end when your craving ends..."
Is he...praying for me?Naruto asked himself incredulously. He could not remember a time when anyone had ever prayed for him...ever. Who would? At the end of the day, he was still demonic.
"I pray that you reach enlightenment, end your suffering, end your delusions…"
He is praying for me, Naruto realized and he would have smiled sadly if he had the energy.He's a good kid. Silly, but good.
Joben's walk drew to a stop, just under the same archway he entered. To Naruto's utter disbelief, the boy's arm slowly stretched towards one of the seals by the door. The one that had the small tear in the corner that allowed him to talk.
This could still be a trap, a trick to cause him more pain.
But if not...
"Nothing is permanent," Joben whispered, glancing over his shoulder. "You have ten minutes."
With a short jerk of his arm, he yanked at the snag, ripping the seal three-quarters of the way down, not even removing the paper entirely, but still ruining the inked design. The reaction was instantaneous.
A movement of power swept through the air as the barrier lost its foundation and a pressure that had enraptured Naruto for so long vanished.
Naruto could breathe.
He didn't know how much he couldn't breathe until he could once more. The agony that ripped through him both lessened and augmented as the oppressive spiritual blanket lifted.
His chest heaved, up and down, the muscles of his diaphragm aching after such a long stagnation. His rankled wound pulsed angrily, but he could hardly care. Oxygen, this movement, this weightless feeling...it felt wonderful! It burned and blood began to gush from his wounds and his stomach felt like it was eating itself—but it still felt wonderful!
Mentally slapping himself for wasting time, Naruto turned his head toward the doorway Joben just retreated from, making note of how badly his neck muscles reacted to being used. He zeroed his vision on the exit and made it his first target. Now, he just had to maneuver his body without falling apart.
Gripping the knobby edges of the altar, Naruto tried to push himself into a seated position only for his side to flare warningly and his arm muscles to give out under his weight.
He collapsed back onto the slab of stone, bumping his already pounding head against the hard surface.
Groaning bodies of robed, adolescent monks littered Fire Temple's stone floors; those still conscious were left to wonder at what just happened.
The trainees had been under the impression that Konoha was their ally. They often studied about the advantageous relationship shared between the temple and village. So when four of its ninja showed up and, with out warning, trounced the young monks with vicious, effective attacks, they hardly knew to put up much of a fight. Their training, which could take decades to synch movements with virtue, was not enough to present much of a defense against four, seasoned jounin.
Only one master monk was present, and he currently suffered under the crushing weight of Akamaru. Neji and Sai stood on either side of the man as the only female of their group went from novice to novice, seeking any justification that would make their sudden attack on Fire Country property legal.
"I got it!" Ino finally called, stepping back from a slumped-over young monk. The poor kid had a glazed look to his eye and a bit of drool suspended from his bottom lip.
"I love it when you mind-rape people," Kiba breathed as Ino strode by him to crouched in front of Zenza's form. The once proud monk looked livid, both at the intrusion of Konoha and his degrading position underneath a dog.
"Zenza, is it?" Ino said rhetorically. "Want to tell us where the other two are?"
Predictably, Zenza remained silent.
"What did you find out?" Neji asked Ino.
The woman stood from her squat, flipping her hair over her shoulder as she moved.
"The kids don't know what the monks are doing down there—in fact, they don't know much at all. They're kept pretty ignorant about things outside of the Temple."
"Standard training," Neji interjected.
"But," Ino emphasized, frowning at Neji for interrupting, "they do know there's a secret chamber underneath the temple...and it's fingerprint access only. That's pretty nifty technology. I don't believe it's very common in monasteries."
She finished her report with significant look towards Zenza.
"Outside help?" Sai suggested.
"Definitely caught a glimpse of someone installing it...hooded though, very hazy. This is something only this guy and his friends would know," Ino continued to stare at Zenza's face longingly, as though she wanted nothing more than to tear the man's mind apart.
"Try it," Zenza snarled.
"Give me some credit," Ino scoffed. The greater monks were known within the Yamanaka clan to have extraordinary defenses of the mind. Enough so that he could trap her away from her body for an extended period of time. Her team did not have that sort of time to waste.
"I see it," Neji said, his byakugan activated. The Hyuuga and the Fire Temple held a long-standing pack that dated back since the beginning of their clan: they were not to use the byakugan on Fire Temple grounds, as it was a breach of sacred security. The Hyuuga never had a reason to do so before, but after breaking into the compound and beating much of its inhabitants into submission, Neji felt one more breach on propriety wouldn't kill him.
"I see the stairs and the chamber. But...there's nothing in it!"
Zenza grinned as Kiba's outraged cry of "What?" echoed throughout the hall. The bodies of some nearby monks twitched in response to the sudden noise.
"Having a chamber under there, as well as having some secret, high-tech method of reaching it is suspect enough," Ino declared, though the uncertainty in her voice was palpable. They could get into huge trouble with the Fire Lord if they had nothing to show for their subversion.
"That chamber is older than Konoha itself, you stupid girl," Zenza rasped. "It's more sacred than anything else in this land. Ancient! Since the time of the first monks!"
"Then why suddenly bother adding some technological security measure?" Ino shot back. "Had a new reason to keep people out of there recently?"
"Wait," Neji whispered, cutting off Zenza's retort. The single word brought hope to all four ninja. "There's a tunnel—no—two tunnels. They branch away from the chamber. One heading northwest and one to the southeast."
"What do they lead to? Is Naruto at the end of one?" Kiba asked, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
Neji shook his head, deactivating his byakugan, "They stretch far out of my range."
"I'll stay with the captives," Sai volunteered. He wanted desperately to find Naruto himself, to make sure his friend would be okay and bring him back safely to his daughter, but he knew he had the skills best for detainment. That and interrogation and tracking were best left to his temporary team members. He pulled out a scroll and whisked his paintbrush across the blank canvas, bringing several sketchy snakes to life.
"Right," Kiba said appreciatively as Akamaru lifted himself off Zenza. One of the snakes wound tightly around the monk's body before he could make any move to escape. "We'll be back before you know it."
"Preferably with Naruto," Ino added.
"Send word to Hokage-sama," Neji ordered Sai. "Tell him what we found and that we're going to follow the tunnels. Ino, Kiba, let's go."
The trio set off towards the entrance to the hidden stairwell, spending no more than three seconds in blasting it open. The end of every torn and hanging wire shot sparks at their heads, revealing the electrical operating unit within the door.
Sai listened to the sounds of their progress as he began to fashion himself a carrier bird.
"You're making a mistake," Zenza hissed, struggling against the strong binds of animated ink. "You'll find nothing!"
Sai did not bother to spare the man a glance.
"You would have been more cooperative if that were true."
He had to get out. He knew he did, he had such a great opportunity, such great motivation. The door was right there.
But damn did it hurt.
To get off the altar, Naruto had to roll to the edge and try to ease himself down to the floor, a procedure that ended with him gracelessly landing on his hands and knees. He froze for a moment, shocked to be looking at the floor rather than the ceiling. Simply feeling his very own weight underneath him again unnerved him, but he knew he had not the time to explore the sensation. From there, it was one jerky move after another. Half crawling, half stumbling, he became more aware of the damage in his body as he tried to make it out of the pit in which he had spent an unspeakable amount of time.
His head buzzed and a new kind of intangible restraint made itself known to him. Enervation: pure, hard-hitting exhaustion made his eyes feel like they were being pushed into his sockets and the room to keep seesawing. He had not slept in what felt like forever and his mind became aware that sleeping was now an option.
The pain he labored under was rather different from what he was used to. He could breathe and move now, and while the steady burn of being purified was muted to the back of his mind, starvation, atrophy, and open, infected wounds demanded his attention. He hardly cared.
Despite the nausea and hunger and exhaustion and weakness, despite his wasted muscles and weeping wounds and cannibalistic chakra, despite every disadvantage he suffered under...Naruto could not have been happier about finally having control of his body again. If he were to collapse on the ground and shut his mind down, it would be by his choice and not some spiritual induced coma. Simply knowing that invigorated him enough to keep moving an otherwise inoperative body. Because he could.
It took approximately three minutes to cross a distance that should have taken five seconds. Naruto imagined a healthier, more able, version of himself doing a victory dance the second his hand hit the stone archway. He seriously contemplated wasting time tearing up the suppression seal by his head, but then thought the better of it. He had a schedule to follow. See his daughter, and then save the world. He was a busy man. He had no time for cockamamie whimsies.
The hall beyond the chamber was dim, but manageable, and led down a straight and narrow path far beyond what his sight allowed. Through his drooping eyelids, he could see a second option—his option out. It was a stone stairwell leading upward with the tallest steps seen from his position illuminated by a heavily filtered light. Light he suspected to be sunlight.
He could hardly remember what sun felt like against his skin...or any warmth, for that matter.
I am in desperate need of vitamin D...Shit—I probably have rickets!
He began to shuffle forward, reaching the staircase. After a single attempt to step onto the first stair while using only the wall for support, Naruto was soon forced to realize that he would be crawling up the steps. Which looked to rise for close to four stories.
And I'll need just about every other nutrient, too. Fuck my life.
Kakashi lowered Sai's letter from his line of sight, his eyes unfocused as he mutely handed it off to Shikamaru.
"They found an underground passage," he needlessly summarized. "Most of this info is gleaned from the minds of the monks in training—they didn't know much. The rest is from Sai's personal interrogation. It was the older monks who were behind it..."
He trailed off, allowing Shikamaru to gather the rest for himself. Kakashi did not know how to feel. Should he feel happy? Happy that he was right in his hunch? Happy that Konoha would not receive censure for attacking their allies?
Or upset? Upset that the Fire Temple was behind this, after all. Upset that he had not acted on his intuition sooner.
"They've been acting strange for a while now..." he muttered, referring to the elder monks. Sai's report mentioned behavior switching between hostile and subdued as well as constricted, nearly unresponsive, pupils. "I should have realized sooner...I shouldn't have been so focused on...on our income, and..."
Shikamaru put down the letter, an odd frown on his face.
"This makes no sense," he growled, raising a hand to his chin in a thinking pose. "The Fire Temple would never willingly help the Akatsuki—not after what Hidan and Kakuzu did—there's just no way to spin it. Especially the older monks; they understood better than anyone the importance of stopping Akatsuki, the importance of Naruto. I mean, they're monks for fuck's sake! They should be vying for peace, not enabling terrorism!"
Kakashi took the letter back, glancing over the contents again, "I think that still holds true. Apparently, this Zenza believes Naruto's the one responsible for the demon's escape—which he is—but it sounds like they're under the impression that Naruto is plotting world domination."
Despite himself, Shikamaru snorted. "Naruto won't even dominate Konoha, let alone the world. He would never aspire for that much responsibility. Not with Hitomi around."
"Explain that to the monks," Kakashi sighed, throwing the letter back on his desk. "Sounds like Akatsuki have greater powers of persuasion than we thought."
The two men lapsed into silence, both geniuses baffled by the conundrum before them.
Indignation began to overcome Kakashi's usually calm countenance. Even if the Temple believed Naruto had sinister plans, why go as far as to saddle up with the Akatsuki? Why not consult Konoha about it? Or the Fire Daimyo? What had them so sure in their beliefs that they were willing to commit treason without getting the facts straight?
Shikamaru seemed to be in the same mind frame.
"There has to be something we're missing," he mused. "Something that could explain such a serious change of loyalties over conspiracy theories."
"We know they have outside help. Someone's been installing new technology to help protect chambers that haven't been used in centuries," Kakashi offered, realizing it did not provide much assistance with their brainstorming. "Kabuto could be responsible for that—"
"Kabuto has a silver tongue, but he's not that good. Plus, he had a well-known association with Orochimaru. The monks would have known before he set foot on Temple grounds not to trust him." Shikamaru's voice turned faint and his eyes lost focus. "And yet, all the monks that matter seem to be on board with Akatsuki...only the few that had influence over the Temple..."
"You onto something?" Kakashi asked, recognizing the expression on Shikamaru's face as one of dawning.
"I'm not sure," Shikamaru answered truthfully, narrowing his eyes as nothing in particular.
Kakashi wanted to help prompt whatever proposal Shikamaru stumbled upon along. "Where do you suppose the other monks were? With Naruto?"
"No," Shikamaru said at once. More things began to fall into place. "They're participating in the extraction, which means...which means wherever Naruto is...I'm pretty sure it's close to the extraction site."
The proposal, coupled with using the words "Naruto", "extraction" and "site" stole the breath from Kakashi's lungs for a moment. It sounded as if Akatsuki would start on Naruto right after Kirabi.
"Are you saying," he began slowly, wanting to make sure he understood correctly, "it could be more likely that Gai's team would find him than Neji's?"
"Yes, I believe that's the case."
"And they're keeping Naruto close, because..."
"Because it's taken them this long to plan, capture and preserve Naruto, and they're not letting the opportunity go to waste."
Kakashi made a face of distaste.
"Bastards," he swore. "Those damn bastards. All of this could have been avoided if the monks had just talked to us. There was no need for it—for Naruto or the barrier or any of it. It's just mindless."
The only thing keeping Kakashi from further ranting was the transition on Shikamaru's face from dawning comprehension to fervid disbelief.
"I...I think we overlooked something...it wasn't just Kabuto...it—" he mouthed out the word "mindless" a couple times, his nebulous vision trailing around the room. Then he was staring at Kakashi's face, hard. Like he could see right through his mask.
"Can you try forming a full sentence for me so I can follow along?" Kakashi asked in all seriousness. Shikamaru shook his head, as though waking from a dream. Instead of explaining a hidden thought process to his Hokage, Shikamaru strode towards the door.
"I need to look something up real quick, and then I'm going to follow Gai's team," the younger man muttered all in one breath. "I'll keep you posted if I turn out to be right."
Before Kakashi could make a protest, the door to his office had already shut.
"Right about what?" he sighed into the empty room.
Exasperation aside, Kakashi had no intention of going after or trying to impede Shikamaru in any way. He knew he was going to go down in history as the most lenient Hokage ever to govern Konohagakure. But what could he do with an entire generation of exceptional ninja just below him? They each worked best in their own unique ways; they each excelled following their own rules. Who was he to interfere with their styles? If the greatest genius Konoha had produced since The Professor thought he was onto something, something that would save Naruto, then he would let the man do his thing.
Kakashi remained seated for another full minute and forty-seven seconds before getting up to follow Shikamaru.
For the life of him, Kiba could not fathom why the monks needed to construct an underground tunnel that went on for miles. Very long miles, at that. It seemed like forever that he and Akamaru travelled the dark halls; covering so much ground that, without the usual obstacles such as trees and villages, he may have crossed half the length of Fire Country in less than five hours.
He could smell kerosene from the unlit torches that surely lined the walls and the fusty, stale air that only decades of quietness could have caused. Without his sense of scent, he would have been completely blind in the unlit passage; he was too far under the ground for even cracks in the structure to shed light for his eyes.
Akamaru barked, the heavy noise repeating itself over and over again as it traveled down the hall in both directions.
"What is it, boy?"
He barked again.
"The ocean?" Kiba mumbled, sniffing again. He held back a sneeze as uprooted dust and filth flooded his nostrils. Beneath the mildew and abandonment was a briny undertone. Sniffing again confirmed the new scent intensified.
"We must be nearing the coast!" Kiba exclaimed. Akamaru yipped his agreement and then, in a lower, whining tone, added another observation.
"No...I don't smell Naruto, either."
Both tunnels had been in disuse for far too long. The monks obviously knew better than to frequent them while a manhunt for their captive went on.
"Oh, well, they're not as fast as me, but Neji and Ino must be getting closer to the end of the other tunnel. Think we should turn around now or see this to the end just in case?"
The responding bark coincided with his thoughts.
"Yeah, it would suck if it turned out he was here and we had to go down this all over again. Besides, Neji and Ino can handle themselves against whatever's waiting for them."
They could reach the end, check out, and then turn around, covering the length of both tunnels at top speed. It wouldn't take them more than a day. That meant there was still plenty of time to find and save Naruto, right?
Naruto pushed through another handful of sparse underbrush and stumbled against a tree, still unused to shifting his weight. The rough bark scraped against his cheek but he welcomed the new sensation to his skin—anything to distract him from the constricting pain in his core and the cruel reality that was now his body.
When he first exited the ground level of the shrine, smells and feelings he had long since forgotten assaulted him. The sun nearly rendered him sightless despite the comfort of its warm rays; thankfully it had an invigorating effect that kept up his motivation to keep moving. Fresh, wet earth and bedewed patches of grass cushioned and cooled his bare feet. The moistness of the humid air hydrated him more than he had been in his entire absence while nearly suffocating his enfeebled lungs at the same time. The sorely missed scent of soil and green leaves and moss and rain and pine anchored his sanity a little more securely, it reeled in his mind, forced him to realize, to accept, where he was and what was happening.
He was free, and yet, he wasn't. Not yet.
Surrounding the shrine were trees, not enough to create a forest (and he did not know how he knew this), just deep enough to hide him from immediate view should someone come looking for him. He began in a direction he believed to be south. It would have helped immensely if he knew what time it was supposed to be or had the cognitive ability to better calculate his position from the sun and wind direction.
Naruto felt safer when he staggered past the first line of trees into the shaded safety of the woodland. Familiar terrain helped bring back memories he was once unsure of in full detail—training, meditating, leisure—and he became certain that he used to spend a lot of time in the forest. He felt at home here.
On the upside, he currently was not being actively targeted, or held down, or experiencing any other unpleasantness brought on by his hosts. On the downside, he was still on holy ground. Ergo, moving hurt.
He bled faster; not as fast as he could have been were there no spiritual energies, but a trail of blood still stippled his path behind him. At the pace he moved coupled with his inability to use any form of stealth at all, tracking him down would not be difficult. Knowing this kept his heart beating rapidly, it kept pushing one foot in front of the other, no matter how increasingly difficult it became to move.
More than once, darkness overcame his vision. Only for a second—panic kept him from succumbing—but he would suddenly find himself on his knees, his progress halted.
His body started to slow and it began to give out on him. He had lost too much blood; his chakra was still in a atrophic state. He was dying.
"C-come on," he grunted softly, using his hands on a tree to pull himself from his knees. He refused to look back, knowing the holy grounds had to end somewhere. He could make it; he had to make it. He had come so far, he couldn't fall unconscious, only to be found and brought back.
He would die, they would kill Konoha, kill everyone, his—
Light intensified around him and Naruto lifted his head to see the trees thinning.
Hope flared in his chest before Naruto fell once more. This time, his stomach heaved as his knees collided with the ground and blood spilled from his mouth. Naruto hardly paid any mind, his focus solely on the tops of the ferns where open sky began.
That was where the Temple grounds ended—he just knew it. Then he would be free. He would breathe again—really breathe—and he would heal.
Darkness encroached along the corners of his vision and he began to lose the feeling in his legs. His body began to numb and the increasing number of scrapes and scratches continued to remain unhealed in a most mortal fashion, but edge of the forest drew closer and he pushed his way along tree after tree, reaching for an unfamiliar skyline.
Finally, after a period of time he would never recall as long or short, he made it; he fell out from the shallow forest. Naruto experienced a brief moment of feeling all spiritual atmospheres leave his body—the greatest feeling in the world as far as he was concerned, almost weightless. Then he realized that the weightless feeling was due to the ground disappearing beneath his feet, seconds before he tumbled down the edge of a shallow ravine.
His body was so damaged, so broken at this point, that he hardly registered the added injuries. Unsure of how long he fell—it could have been ten feet or fifty—Naruto found, at the end, that he could not open his eyes. They were uninjured; he simply did not possess the energy to move any part of his body—including his eyelids.
Groggy, dazed and disoriented, the newly freed man only registered three things. He was lying down, he was out of the temple's grasp, and he had no idea where he was.
All in all, Naruto felt this was the perfect opportunity to fall unconscious.
"What in the hell...? Oi! Captain, check this out!"
A wide-shouldered, boulder of a man stepped away from the rest of his squadron, the symbol of Iwagakure on his hitai-ate flashed in the sunlight as he turned his head toward his subordinate's find.
He recognized the body immediately.
The rest of his team immediately gathered around, hearing the uncommon tenor of shock in their captain's voice.
"Look at him! It's him." The ninja who found the body took out his bingo book, jabbing his finger at a dog-eared page. "Uzumaki Naruto. We found him!"
"Hmm," the leader grunted. "He looks a bit different, but I suppose it all fits into place—he was kidnapped a few months ago, wasn't he?"
"And not by the nicest of folk," another ninja added, grimacing at the critically mangled body.
"He's...he's alive, right?" his teammate whispered. "I mean—I just don't see how anyone could still survive that condition. But it looks like he's breathing..."
"That's not all he looks like," an older-looking shinobi whispered, staring at the rare shade of blond hair and familiar bone structure.
"Look at him! NO! Look at him," the man named Taichi insisted. "He looks just like him—the fabled slaughterer!"
A hushed silence befell the group as they stared a moment longer at the unconscious form of Uzumaki Naruto. Then, without a word, the leader stepped forward and scooped the smaller man up, throwing the limp body over his shoulder like a sack of rice. He turned to his team and grinned.
"Then he's worth more than we originally thought."
So Naruto escaped finally captivity. It was never meant to be a long or time consuming arc—I wanted to describe it as seeming long to him since he couldn't sleep or move, but it was only supposed to cover one or two chapters and then be over. Unfortunately, I hit this part of the fic as my life became a whirlwind of mental tragedy—so it may have seemed the fic itself literally spent months covering Naruto's captivity. That is not what I wanted, and I'm sorry if it dragged anyone down.
In the next couple chapters, people are going to start dying and I'll slowly start to wrap things up. This could still cover several chapters depending on how I figure out how to word it. Don't hold your breath. I may only have a month left of school but the brutality continues to rise every week T_T Seriously...don't look too into that HP fic I added...I just felt so bad about not posting ANYTHING that I threw up an ancient drabble on my hard drive.
It did not satisfy me.
Thank you DarkHeroOrion for betaing. It is still unbelievable the stupid shit I overlook again and again.
Anyway, hope you enjoyed, let me know what you think, and have a great Easter for anyone who celebrates it!
Nextchap: Naruto meets an old contact and is forced to face a part of his past he wanted to bury.
If I ever get around to it.