Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto
Author's Notes: Props to whoever guesses what Naruto's dream was about. Also, I'm going to save time and confusion. The Konoha nin are on the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. (From the eponymous series Dune by Frank Herbert.)
The Gate: Chapter Three
"…you're telling us we're not in a sandstorm; we're inside some sort of interdimensional door."
Neji nodded. That was the basics of it.
Ebisu pressed on, waving his hands for emphasis. "We're inside…a door. A door that is disguised as a natural phenomenon that acts unnaturally, and happens to lead to the furthest corners of the universe."
Neji nodded again.
Ebisu shrugged and gave a long-suffering sigh. "Can't say it's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to me."
The other jounin-sensei ruefully nodded. Neji had expected this. As a rule, there was always something stranger that had already happened. Thanks to the existence of Gai-sensei, there were no exceptions to this rule.
"I've been able to determine what's on the other side," Neji remarked, pulling the other jounin out of their thoughts. "It's another desert. It appears to be similar to Wind Country."
Genma shifted the senbon from the right side of his mouth to the left with an aggravated flick of his tongue. "You don't think it's Wind Country." It wasn't a question.
There was silence for a moment.
Ebisu pressed his glasses up his nose and frowned. "So, our options are to stay here and hope that we magically reappear in Wind Country, or to attempt to use this 'gate' to magically find our way to Wind Country."
Neji nodded. He was beginning to like Ebisu; the man conveniently stated the obvious to make himself appear observant.
Genma sighed and cocked his head. "When do we leave?
"I'll be leading a small group through as soon as they can assemble. Genma, Mozuku, bring your teams. Everyone else, stay behind and keep watch. If things are…bad…on the other side, we'll come back."
Ebisu coughed nervously into his hand. "How do you know you'll be able to return?"
Neji smirked at the man. "I'll just follow the sound of Konohamaru whining."
The group gave a nervous chuckle at the poor humor. If only they knew he wasn't really joking.
"Genma, Mozuku, you have fifteen minutes. The rest of you…dismissed."
Mozuku readjusted his glasses for the sixth time, disguising the motion by scratching the hair over his ear. "What are we waiting for?"
Neji briefly considered answering with the small catalogue of nervous ticks the man had shown in the past ten minutes, but decided against it. "Something important. It won't be much longer." Mozuku reluctantly returned to silence. Neji took the time remaining to study the genin.
Kaoru and Michi, the two token kunoichi, stood slightly aloof from the members of their team, huddled in conversation. From the motion of their lips, Neji caught the words "hair," "water," "skin," and "look horrible." Well, there was always the off chance they would grow up. Supposedly Sakura had, though Neji saw few of the earmarks of maturity in her. Strength yes, wisdom…maybe.
The two boys of Genma's team were idly playing Janken. Taro had won fourteen – now fifteen – of their twenty-two games. Overconfidence was beginning to show, and Taro began each new game with a grin and a mocking shake of his shoulder-length brown hair. Takeo looked like the next game would end up in him throwing rock, right into Taro's face.
Iwao and Hideo of Mozuku's team were unsubtly attempting to eavesdrop on the girls' conversation. From the looks on their faces it had something to do with the (mistaken) belief that it was about them.
Now should be about the time, he decided.
"Konohamaru!" Neji barked. "Report!"
Konohamaru tossed the sand-patterned blanket off of himself and stood, thirty yards to the group's left. He was pouting, and Neji arched a single eyebrow and waited for a response.
The boy giggled nervously and scratched at the back of his head. "I was just, um…practicing my stealth skills?"
Neji didn't even bother calling the boy on the blatant lie; he just beckoned imperiously, the corners of his lips twisted down in a frown.
Konohamaru swallowed nervously before reluctantly jogging up the sand dune. Neji's disinterested, slightly irritated looking gaze didn't waver during the approach, and the genin stopped a respectful distance away.
"Respectful" was one of the many polite adjectives he had never attributed to Konohamaru.
Neji crooked a finger and narrowed his eyes. Konohamaru took a few nervous steps, and once he was in reach, Neji grabbed him by the shoulder. Ignoring the boy's surprise, he leaned in and whispered, "Stay here. You are the anchor for this expedition, and I need you here. Or we won't be coming back."
Then he shoved the startled genin away and turned back to the eight shinobi he'd tasked with following him into the sandstorm-gate. "We're going now."
"That doesn't make sense!" Konohamaru yelled.
Neji didn't look back, but answered anyway. "Have some faith in me."
Before Konohamaru could respond, Neji beckoned his expedition to follow. He wanted to take a deep breath to steel himself for the journey, but they needed a show of confidence. So with five casual steps, he walked into the storm.
If he ever did this again, he would have to make sure that everyone waited a decent amount of time before stepping into the storm. Watching five people collapse on top of each other had been a much needed moment of levity, but watching them yell at each other afterwards hadn't been.
They weren't really angry at each other, just…unsettled. Even in the darkness of night, it was easy to see why.
Iwao scratched his chin thoughtfully and stared up at the sky. "I wonder what it is about this place that doesn't feel like Wind Country?"
His teammate Hideo was quick to respond, "I dunno. Looks the same…sand, stars, moons…"
"Yeah, Wind Country always was famous for having two moons," Iwao shot back.
"That's enough," Neji interrupted. "You're right; this obviously isn't Wind Country." He hadn't thought it was; the sand grain hadn't felt welcomed or familiar. But…there was one thing it had recognized.
So he continued, "That doesn't mean this mission is a total waste."
Iwao frowned. "Why not? There's no water here."
Neji's estimation of the troublemaker rose slightly. He was concerned for their supplies. Good. A quick glance to Mozuku and Genma revealed that neither was overly concerned about the stellar shift. They weren't in the best of moods either – Genma's teeth were grinding audibly against the senbon – but they would follow him.
"There was a covert, secondary objective to this trip that I did not inform you of."
Genma scowled. "What would that be?" The tone of his voice reflected betrayal; did he really think Neji was using them for his own purposes?
Assuaging that doubt would be Neji's highest priority. "I think this is where Naruto ended up. I detected his chakra when I first scouted this place." He paused for a moment, letting that sink in. "I would have said that this wasn't home, but I scouted during daylight and didn't see the moons."
'Scouting' was such a more reassuring word than 'observing from the perspective of a grain of sand.' Neji knew that the others wouldn't believe him if he told them what he'd done. Not yet.
The day when they accepted him as…changed…by the day of the storm would come. It would have to; Neji could slowly feel the change building. It was subtle, but every day he felt as if his perception had grown. As if one day he'd be able to study the desert instead of the grains, and it wouldn't matter. He would know both.
Genma nodded appreciatively. "I'd about given up on him…should know by now that that's a losing bet," he chuckled. "So where's the runt?"
Neji turned and pointed at a long stretch of rocky ground. "That way." He quickly activated his Byakugan and strode off in the direction he'd indicated, leaving no room for argument. The jounin knew better than to disagree in public and the genin were too busy watching their footing in the soft light of the moons.
He knew what they would find long before they reached the scene of the battle, but didn't warn the rest of the group. It would be a good learning exercise for the genin.
Torn scraps of orange and black cloth were pinned to the ground with an assortment of what appeared to be broken crossbow bolts. A few splotches of blood still glimmered with faded traces of chakra, while others had none.
For Neji, the job was easy enough. Naruto had encountered a large group of people, possibly bandits, but with limited ninja training. A quick estimate of the decay rate of chakra in inert blood put the fight at a little over a day ago. Based on the relative amounts of chakra filled blood to chakra-empty blood, Naruto had won. From there, all Neji had to explain was why there were no bodies.
Knowing and knowing of Naruto, he'd have to guess that the blond had somehow managed to convince himself and the bandits that the fight had been a misunderstanding. By now they were probably eating together, with Naruto laughing and offending his new acquaintances with his lack of table etiquette.
Knowing that there was no rush to locate Naruto, Neji turned to the genin. "Who wants to guess what happened here?" he asked, tone making it clear that the genin had better 'want to guess.' He'd accept basic evaluation; it would be difficult for them to find subtle clues in the dark without a doujutsu.
Kaoru raised her hand.
Neji sighed. Sometimes treating every student at the Ninja Academy like they were civilians had its drawbacks. "This isn't the Academy. Speak up if you have an idea."
"A fight!" she exclaimed.
Neji resisted the urge to hang his head in exasperation. "…yes, there was a fight here. Can anyone guess what happened in that fight?"
"Well I think – " Takeo began.
Taro announced, "It's obvious that – " at the same time.
The two turned to glare at each other, convinced that they had started first. Kaoru smirked triumphantly. Raising hands was childish and apparently necessary. Neji refused to admit this. Proper ninja should be able to observe their fellows and use subtle queues to arrange a speaking order.
Genma grunted, and instantly had their attention. "One at a time. Taro first."
Neji almost envied the easy command Genma had over his team, but envy was pointless. It was Genma's job to be a leader that his team liked and trusted. It was Neji's job to be a leader that they followed – reluctantly, eagerly, joyfully, miserably – it just mattered that they followed. He decided the way the mission was done, and though he would have to work with these people again, it wouldn't be on a constant basis.
A little voice inside him whispered that love was better than fear, but Neji ignored it.
Taro looked down his nose at Takeo in a superior fashion. "Well, I was going to say that it's obvious that Naruto fought a large group of people here. There's a lot of arrows and a few scraps of torn cloth that look like that orange outfit he was wearing, but not much blood. I think he won."
"I think you're stupid!" Takeo blurted.
Taro snorted in amusement. "Oh really? What do you think happened, idiot?"
Takeo frowned and shrugged. "I dunno. But I do know that you can't be right, 'cuz if Naruto'd won then there'd be bodies or something. Bits of equipment he used on the ground. All that's left is the broken bolts; anything that was salvageable was carried off. So the people he fought have to still be alive. And with this much blood…"
"Not everyone has to scrounge every last little thing they need. Stuff could have blown away in the desert."
Takeo's hands balled into fists and he took a step towards his teammate. Genma snapped out an arm lightning-fast and grabbed Takeo by the back of his collar. Takeo didn't look at his sensei, but bit the inside of his cheek and relaxed his fists.
"Not here," Genma muttered. Raising his voice so Taro could hear him clearly, Genma announced, "But when we get back you two can spar, and if one if you should break the other's jaw, I won't say a thing this time."
Takeo flexed his jaw nervously. Neji nodded approvingly at the byplay – Taro was an ass, but Takeo could kick his ass. A good balance.
"I think Naruto lost," Michi announced. The rest of the group had been distracted by the near-fight between Taro and Takeo, and whirled on her in surprise. She swallowed nervously at the sudden attention. "Um…the heads of the bolts are poisoned. Soporific."
Mozuku frowned. "How do you know what it does? You don't really know anything about poisons…"
Michi blushed and pointed at Kaoru, who was snoring contentedly near one of the bolts.
"Well, that explains that," Iwao commented. Hideo nodded.
Neji frowned to himself. How had he not noticed the poison? Had he been careless? Or was there something different about this world's poisons? He needed to know more…
But right now, he didn't have time. "Genma, carry Kaoru. Everyone, pick up the pace."
The group set out at doublestep, using chakra to enhance their legs. It was a horribly inefficient pace for the desert; the environment sapped energy and encouraged slow movement.
Neji was somewhat proud that nobody complained about the pace. They'd all have plenty of time for slow movement when they'd found Naruto, alive.
The trail of the group Naruto had fought with was spotty and disappeared at times. Eventually Neji completely ran out of footsteps and overturned stones to follow, and after a moment's search for more, he abandoned traditional tracking methods.
Using his Byakugan, he strained his vision for miles, trying to see any trace of the missing 'genin.'
He gave the expanse of rock one more sweep of chakra-enhanced vision, and despaired. He couldn't see anything. No trace of – there! There was a path worn by long generations of hands and feet climbing up the same rock face. The end of the path was beyond the range of his vision, but now he knew where to go.
With a bound, he resumed pursuit. The rest of the group fell in behind him, struggling slightly to keep the pace.
By the time they'd reached the base of the climbing path, Neji could see the edges of a cave system. There were several human-shaped bodies there, but nothing he could see clearly.
It took the group almost ten minutes to reach the base of the cliff-path that Neji had seen. He called a halt, letting the genin catch their breath.
After a minute, he began telling them what he had seen. "This cliff-path is man-made from extended use. A few hundred yards from the top is a cave entrance…and inside that cave, we'll find Naruto and whoever he fought."
Genma eyed the cliff wall warily. "No traps on the wall?"
Genma nodded. "I say we rush it. Most chakra users don't use crossbows; the bolts are too slow. Running up the wall should take them by surprise."
Neji glanced at their group. The genin were tired, but the jounin were fresh. On the other hand, they were reasonably sure that their enemy was capable of taking down at least one jounin-level opponent…
In the perfect peripheral vision of his Byakugan, he saw a human-shaped chakra system approaching the cliff edge. A quick hand gesture silenced the group, and two more warned them of the approaching threat. Definitely a chakra user.
Mozuku slowly went through the hand signs of a concealing genjutsu; the words of the signs were spoken under his breath but sounded all too loud.
There was a shuffling sound from the top of the cliff, and the Konoha nin tensed. They couldn't be seen, they knew, but that still wouldn't protect them from blind fire.
When the figure leaned over the cliff edge, they realized that all their preparations were for naught.
"I know you're down there!" Naruto yelled. "What the hell took you so long? The food here sucks!"
Neji frowned to himself. There was something different about Naruto…he should have been able to recognize him just by his chakra system alone; he'd spent enough time trying to destroy it during the Chuunin Exam. Perhaps something had changed over Naruto's training trip with Jiraiya.
For the moment, he abandoned the small mystery and let his team bask in the confidence of easy success. They hadn't had to do any fighting, just basic tracking. And Neji had obviously been right with his first guess about Naruto's fight; the idiot was still alive after all.
Naruto waved his arms up and down like a windmill. "Are you coming? Whoa-" the waving of his arms upset his balance, and for a moment Naruto teetered precariously at the edge of the cliff before catching his balance.
"I meant to do that!"
Neji groaned and covered his face with his hand to hide his smile. Rescuing people like Naruto was punishment duty. There was no other way to describe it – constant whining, sand everywhere, and almost no water.
Of course, he still wouldn't give it up for anything.
In the end, Naruto talked the group into coming up the cliff to "meet the locals." This proved to be rather difficult due to the taciturn nature of the locals and the fact that they spoke an entirely different language. The Konoha nin were also reluctant to enter the cave system, and the locals were reluctant to leave it. Neji doubted that they would have been allowed inside in any event; Naruto's presence seemed to be all that was keeping the locals from attacking.
Looking around at the few people who'd clustered around the foreigners, Neji slowly shook his head in amazement. Did they have completely blue eyes? How did that happen? It looked vaguely like an inactive Byakugan eye.
Their cooking, however, resembled nothing Neji had ever seen before. In the interests of not appearing disdainful, he subtly managed to appear as if he was always just about to take a bite. He couldn't quite bring himself to eat it, though the cinnamon scent reminded him of how long it had been since he'd eaten.
Still, these people couldn't have much to spare, given the sparse nature of their homeland. They shouldn't have to provide for an expeditionary force of shinobi as well.
It would be a gesture of respect. Neji slightly narrowed his eyes at the thought. He'd never expected or demanded respect from foreigners.
Naruto interrupted his thoughts. "So, did you find that battlefield?
Neji nodded. "I'm still unclear on how you managed to be attacked by alien bandits, win, and then make friends without speaking a single word of their language."
Naruto grinned sheepishly. "Actually…I kinda lost that fight."
"How?" asked a surprised Neji. So he'd been wrong after all.
"It went like this…"
"Several dozen of you…one of me. Hardly fair."
The crossbows didn't waver.
"Maybe I should tie one hand behind my back?"
They couldn't understand him, but the mocking tone of voice got the message across just fine. There was a unanimous click-fwoosh noise of crossbow bolts being fired, and Naruto stopped holding back. They'd started it, after all.
He rolled forwards and jumped to the left, spinning in midair. One bolt nicked him slightly, but was deflected by the spin. The rest missed completely.
Problem with crossbows: they take awhile to reload. Nice thing about ninja: they're faster than crossbows.
Naruto hit the ground running. Everything seemed like it was moving in slow motion compared to him; non-ninja were so slow. The first group he ran into went down before they'd even managed to draw their knives. Naruto wondered how many he could knock out before the dropped crossbows hit the ground.
Three, as it turned out.
Thirty-eight more to go. It couldn't take very long. Actually, maybe it could wait a bit. He was kind of tired; the bandits seemed like nice people. They'd probably let him have his nap before finishing their fight.
Naruto hit the ground snoring, two rips in his outfit bleeding from narrow, thin gashes.
"So Michi was right…those bolts were poisoned," Neji mused aloud. In the moment of thought his concentration towards the food lapsed, and he took a bite. The cinnamon flavor burst onto his tongue, and he felt a violet light erupt in a starburst behind his eyes.
Neji inhaled deeply through his nose, trying to clear his head.
Naruto, oblivious, nodded. "Musta been something pretty strong too. Normally stuff like that barely slows me down."
That managed to kick Neji's thoughts back on track, if briefly. Naruto had some sort of natural resistance to poison? Neji could understand the pain threshold; being on a team with Sakura would immunize one to that sort of thing, but how did poison factor into that? Like so much else, it would have to wait.
Right now, he needed to know the rest of that story. His mind spun out of focus again, and his will morphed into action and he reached out with mental fingers and brushed against Naruto's surface thoughts.
Naruto woke slowly. When he first opened his eyes, his vision was blurry, and his entire body ached like he'd spent hours tied to a pole while sitting on a stone floor. He yawned, and reflexively tried to cover his mouth.
His hand was yanked to immobility by the rope that tied it behind the pole behind him.
Well that explained the soreness.
"Where the hell am I?"
Sadly, nobody answered. Still, the echoes on the cave walls sounded funny.
"Hellooooo" he called again, varying the pitch of his voice for every second that he held the "o." Naruto couldn't hold it for more than ten seconds before he burst out laughing.
When the amused tears had faded, Naruto was greeted with the sight of a man in simple yet elegant pair of dark blue pants and matching shirt. The man also wore a pair of fingerless gloves with a dagger-like emblem on the back.
The man himself wasn't anything special. He was maybe two inches taller than Naruto, though it looked like he weighed a good thirty pounds more. He had sandy-blond hair that came down to his shoulders, and a simplistic-looking headband kept it out of his eyes.
"How do you move so quickly?" the man asked.
Naruto grimaced in confusion. "Don't understand ya."
For a moment the scene wavered, Neji not understanding why he understood the Fremen's language - the man was a Fremen? What did that mean? The answer was instantly supplied out of knowledge that was not his own – [Free man]. Confusion was overridden by the Fremen's next words.
"My name is Otheym. I am the naib-[leader] of this sietch-[settlement]. You beat much water from my men. You moved…impossibly. I saw with my own eyes." He gestured towards his blue-in-blue eyes.
Naruto shook his head. "I have no idea what you're saying. Maybe…" he trailed off. This wasn't going anywhere.
"Mahdi?" Otheym repeated, horribly mangling "maybe." "You are not the Mahdi-[messiah]."
"Look, I'm sure you're having fun here, but I have to go," Naruto answered. "So cut the ropes and we'll go our separate ways.
Otheym sighed. "You are useless to the Fremen." Turning, he yelled, "Take this one to the deathstill!"
Naruto frowned. "That didn't sound nice."
"The water of your body will go towards the supply to change this desert world into a paradise. Be honored, outsider."
"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"
Neji was completely thrown out of Naruto's perspective. The dozens of shadow clones, all with immediately different perspectives – he couldn't follow the memories of the real one, because they were all real; one just happened to be the original.
There were fragments of memory after the technique –
…parried the knife with a kunai and kicked it out of Otheym's hand, shattering the blade of the crysknife…
…led the clone charge through the settlement, winning by virtue of every opponent dropping their weapon in shock and awe…
…Otheym spitting at his feet…a gesture of giving water, of deep respect, though he didn't know it…
…shifting from combat to confusion, Naruto tried to keep the woman from bowing to him…
…requested that he be tested to confirm his divinity. Naruto simply smiled and backed away, still not understanding a word the Fremen said…
Neji gasped, trying to clear his head of the lingering images with the inrush of air. It took him a moment to satisfy himself that he was back in his own body.
"Are you alright?" Naruto asked. "You kinda zoned out for a bit there."
He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. Had he really just…?
"Naruto, do they think you're a god or something?"
Naruto's jaw dropped. "How do you know that? I didn't say anything about the bowing or the…respect…" he whispered that last word covetously. Swallowing nervously, he pressed on, "I mean, they're way wrong; I'd make a crappy God, but how do you know that?"
Neji's eyes dropped to the bowl he'd spooned a bite of Fremen food from. The cinnamon scent rose again, this time tickling a now-familiar part of his expanded consciousness.
"I think there's something in the food," he answered slowly. "Have you been hallucinating? Weird dreams? Anything?"
Naruto shook his head. "The only weird dream I've had was before I ate any of this stuff. My first night here I had this weird dream I'd been standing in a ruin of some freaky, high-tech city and there were a few survivors scrambling around. Then a bunch of light balls fell from the sky and killed everyone, including me. Then I woke up."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah," Naruto answered, then shrugged his shoulders. "I mean, I only had like half a bite before I gave it to this starved-looking kid. They put way too much of whatever that spice is in it."
Maybe it was something about the air? Or maybe he was just more susceptible? Well, there was a simple way to check. All he had to do was tell everyone to stick to their travel rations for the night and see if anyone started having visions anyway.
"What does bad food have to do with anything?" Naruto asked.
"It's not bad food," Neji answered slowly. "I…read your mind after I ate a bit. It's probably not related, but it would have been a nice coincidence."
"You read my mind!?"
"Yes, you can put your doubts to rest. You do indeed have a mind."
Naruto scowled, but there was no venom in his voice. "That's not what I meant."
Neji sighed and turned to look at the Konoha nin. Kaoru was still out cold, but the other genin had slowly begun to edge towards the Fremen children, who had done the same. Adults on both sides kept a wary eye, though the Fremen were watching the jounin, not their children. Fremen children were capable warriors who lacked only the muscle mass and height to equal their elders.
"Things have…changed, while you were gone," Neji began slowly. "That sandstorm that sent you here…nearly killed me. But when I woke up, my Byakugan had seemingly endless perception. I could see everything, down to the tiniest particle in a grain of sand…"
"Well obviously you couldn't see everything, or you'd have seen me and gotten here faster," Naruto griped.
The comment sent the honed machine of Neji's mind into overdrive. If he could look endlessly closer at an object…could he look endlessly away? To the bounds of the world and beyond?
He resisted the urge…for the moment.
"We can deal with this once we're back on our world," Neji said, emphasizing 'our' to evoke a subconscious bit of nationalism from Naruto. "For now…well, it looks like it's well past midnight. You should get some sleep."
For a second, Neji thought Naruto would argue. Then, Naruto nodded and grinned a fox-ish grin that managed to look completely sincere while still reminding Neji that the 'genin' before him had been pranking elite shinobi for almost a decade.
It was not a comforting grin.
"'kay," Naruto said. "See you later."
Unexpectedly, Naruto headed for the Fremen cave system. It made sense – he didn't have a sleeping kit – but Neji had still thought that Naruto would spend the night catching up on everything he'd missed. Hopefully Naruto wouldn't get too attached to the Fremen; Neji planned to evacuate long before they discovered that Naruto was not, in fact, their Mahdi, their messiah.
In the meantime, he'd have to hope that the objects the genin and Fremen children were swapping weren't too valuable. The last thing he needed was five kids with no water and shiny trinkets as replacements.
Neji lay next to the edge of the cliff as he looked up at the foreign stars, stray strands of his long hair dangling over the precipice. He still didn't feel tired, even though he'd been awake for more than two days.
It wasn't like his thoughts were racing, filled with nervous energy. It was more like…serenity.
It was really somewhat ironic. For most of his life, he'd felt a sense of turmoil and quiet rage at fate. But now that he'd lost faith in fate, that the future was not written by some unknown higher power…he was at peace.
Maybe it's because you are the higher power.
Neji snorted in amusement at the idea. Neji, the God. That'd be the day.
Speaking of "gods," what was Naruto up to?
The veins surrounding his eyes bulged, and Neji's vision expanded. A brief glance through the cave system showed Fremen warily positioned in dark alcoves in the main entrance, but where was Naruto?
A more intensive, room by room scan of the caves revealed nothing.
Neji shifted his focus to the small encampment of Konoha nin, who had ignored the subtle attempts of their sensei to create segregated sleeping places in favor of a clustered pile of blankets and sleeping bags. Still no Naruto.
In desperation, Neji sent his vision into the sky and looked down at the dark, dead silence of the desert. The ground was universally sandy away from the rocky outgrowth of the cave system.
No Naruto. No tracks in the sand.
Neji scrunched his eyes shut and groaned. He should really be expecting shit like this by now.
Naruto hadn't quite known what to expect when one of the (what had Neji called them? Furmen?) woke him up. His internal clock said it couldn't have been more than an hour, and the long, smelly yawn he directed towards his human alarm clock said that the Furman had better have a good reason.
The Furman, who had the same weird blue eyes as everyone else, beckoned Naruto to follow. Naruto considered rolling over and going back to sleep, but these people didn't seem to have much in the way of a sense of humor.
"'m getting up already," he mumbled. "What does Neji want? Gah…of course, you might as well be mute, eh?" Naruto gave a wry grin. In response, a long metal rod with a hooked end, easily as tall as Naruto, was held out to him. Naruto picked it up, surprised at how light it was.
Then the Furman resumed beckoning, and pointed towards the main tunnel passage to the surface. Naruto yawned again and scratched his ass before waving a hand towards the Furman. The Furman apparently got the message and slowly walked on, peering over his shoulder every few steps to make sure that Naruto was following.
As they exited the cave, Naruto idly wondered at the strange get-up these Furmen wore. He could kind of understand the coloring; it made for great camouflage. But the nose plugs and all the dials and straps? And why did he have another giant hook in his hand, and what was that metal stake-thing hooked onto his belt?
Maybe they were just weird. They were aliens, after all.
When they took a path that led in the exact opposite direction as Neji and the rest of the ninja, Naruto's attention perked up. The fact that most of the Furmen they'd passed had carefully avoided looking in their direction hadn't gone unnoticed.
"So…secret mission?" he asked.
The Furman whirled, narrowly avoiding smacking Naruto with the metal hook-pole, and reached out to place a hand over Naruto's mouth. Naruto grabbed the offending hand before it had come within a foot of his face and twisted, forcing the man to pivot back away. Naruto let the arm go once the man's back was to him again. The original hostilities may have been over, but Naruto still didn't trust the man enough to drop his guard completely. Hell, he should have told Neji what was up, but doing it without telling Neji would irritate the Hyuuga to no end.
The desire to irritate a commanding officer had always been greater than any instinct for self preservation.
Apparently it was a secret mission, and noise was bad. Naruto could deal with that, if only because he knew it would piss of Neji. Hopefully it wasn't about the Furmen's messiah crap, but he knew it probably was. Wasn't there something about being tested in the desert in most religions?
For a moment, neither moved. Naruto was simply waiting for his guide to continue, while the Fremen was waiting for the figurative hammer to fall.
When it didn't, he continued onwards, acting as if Naruto hadn't said anything. Bastards were almost as stoic as the bastard. Sasuke tended to make better sniping comments, though Naruto was sure that if he could speak the same language as these Furmen he'd be buried in sarcasm.
Naruto gritted his teeth at thoughts of the Uchiha. He really didn't have time for this. The three years were almost up; Orochimaru would be able to steal Sasuke's body soon.
He took a deep breath to calm himself. Just because he hadn't had any flashes of Kyuubi rage didn't mean they wouldn't come if he didn't control himself. Naruto's right hand unconsciously drifted towards his stomach and tightened on his black undershirt.
Damn Jiraiya and his meddling. Two years of training gone to shit because the perv got curious about the seal. At least if Naruto ever did manage to gain control again, he'd theoretically be "a force to be reckoned with." Tch. He could have been that without the fox, and he wouldn't be living in constant vigilance of Kyuubi chakra.
Still, shit happens, and Naruto had been the one who agreed to Jiraiya's idea. Sorrow and moping wouldn't get him anywhere.
He hadn't bothered to bring his new orange jacket with the black sleeves, but in the cold desert night he regretted leaving it back in the cave. He tucked his hands beneath his armpits and bit his cheek to keep his teeth from chattering.
The Furman turned and held up a hand. Naruto stopped.
What followed was the most bizarre pantomime Naruto had ever seen. The Furman held out one left hand with two fingers extended downward in an upside-down V, and then began to make a walking motion. Suddenly he brought his right hand up from beneath the "walking" hand, and grabbed it violently, then pulled it down. Then he made an 'X' motion with his arms.
Naruto blinked in confusion. The hell was that supposed to mean?
The Furman wasn't done. He began 'walking' his left hand again, but this time the 'leg' movements were jerky and arrhythmic, like Jiraiya dancing. Then the Furman fisted his right hand…and kept it motionless. There was no violent grabbing of the other hand.
The Furman nodded to Naruto before turning and stepping off of the last vestige of rock, his foot sinking about an inch into the sand. Naruto groaned; open toed ninja sandals were going to suck.
Naruto watched in confusion as the Furman proceeded to stumble across the sand. It looked like he was having a seizure, and Naruto took three steps out onto the sand to see if he was alright.
Before he could take a fourth, the Furman whirled and hissed in anger, pointing at Naruto's feet, then his own. Then the Furman turned back around and resumed his odd gait.
Now, he wasn't Shikamaru, but Naruto wasn't stupid either. For whatever reason, he was supposed to walk…without rhythm. Or the sand monsters would eat him, or something.
Naruto grinned wolfishly. Pointless insanity was his stock in trade. Somewhat amused by the entire affair, he started his dance with the sand.
It was a surprisingly absorbing task, walking without rhythm. Ninja 'grace' was really just hours and hours of practice at refining normal movement, and the basics were always set to a quiet, smooth bit of classical music.
Naruto hadn't liked the music, but he'd showed up to class for every one of those lessons. He had definitely liked what walking to the music did to Sakura's posture – lip bit in concentration, eyes narrowed, "leg" muscles tightened nervously…and the girls always went first.
Absorbed as he was with the memory, he almost collided with his guide.
"Yo, why'd we stop?" Naruto asked. The words were pointless, but the tone might get his message across.
The Furman unhooked the clasps keeping the metal stake-thing from his belt, and for the first time Naruto got a good look at it. It had a long, central cylinder and two smaller cylinders on either side.
The Furman carefully set it on the ground and twisted the main, central cylinder. The cylinder slowly raised into the air before crashing down into the sand.
For such a tiny device, the boom noise echoed loudly throughout the empty sea of sand dunes. The central cylinder quickly rose up again before crashing down. It did so again with a steady rhythm; one thump every three seconds or so.
Naruto leaned in, trying to see if there was something more complicated about the mechanism that give it such disproportionate loudness.
In the two seconds that his attention was fully on the strange, thumping device, he lost track of the Furman.
He only realized it when something cracked against the back of his skull and a blinding light exploded behind his eyes, right before he slipped into unconsciousness.
The ground shook beneath Naruto's limp form. The sand began to heave, topmost grains jumping as much as six inches into the air. The shifting terrain rolled Naruto over, sending a lance of pain into the bloody bump on the back of his head.
"The fuck hit me," he grumbled groggily.
His eyes latched onto the still-thumping stake device. Right. The Furman brought him out here, and the thing that hit him the head was probably one of those metal hook poles. He could see them both lying on the ground; one had blood on it.
Naruto groaned. If he'd wanted to duel, they could have done that back at the cave. And, seriously, what the hell was with the stake thing? Maybe it was part of the ritual announcement of asshatted, underhanded duels that was unique to this particular culture of freaks.
He gritted his teeth and let out his breath in a hiss. The ground continued to shake, and even through his building rage, Naruto could tell that it was getting worse. He looked around, confused as to which way he'd come.
Climbing a distant sand dune, he could see the lone Furman.
Son of a bitch.
Ninja are fast, and if that jerk thought he could knock Naruto out and just walk away, Naruto picked up the metal poles, fully intent on shoving them up that guy's ass. Narrowing his eyes, Naruto forced chakra into his legs for the near-instantaneous speed of Shunshin.
Just as the world became a speed-blur, the ground behind him exploded upward.
Naruto was caught in the fringe of the sudden blast, and went flying an additional hundred yards. He landed lightly, cushioned by sand and near-instinctual chakra usage. He turned around to look back, wondering if that stake thing had been a bomb.
His jaw dropped, and his left eye began to twitch.
Nope. Not a bomb.
It was a giant fucking worm. The thing must have been sixty yards high, and he could see the ringed segments stretch on seemingly endlessly, until they ended over half a mile away.
He took a few steps backward, mind numb. This was ridiculous.
The worm turned in his direction, and exploded into motion. The massive ring segments contracted and expanded, moving it towards him at an impossible speed. There was no way he could outrun it, and the mind-boggling bulk of it made dodging ludicrous. There was only one thing to do.
He leaped into the air, screaming, "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"
Two dozen clones surrounded him, and two threw him further up. He landed on another, jumped, summoned more clones, and repeated. When he was two hundred feet in the air, right at the apex of his final jump, he angled himself for the fall.
In the second it had taken him to pull the technique off, the worm had covered the distance between them. It crashed through the clones like they hadn't even been there.
Naruto landed on its back with a thud. His feet slipped a bit, and he fell on his butt. He hastily shoved chakra into everything touching the worm. Falling would be bad.
After making sure he had his balance, Naruto breathed a sigh of relief, then looked down at his hands. In the chaos of it all, he'd never dropped the metal poles. His gaze drifted to the segments of the worm.
Huh. Those poles were just about right for…
Naruto stretched out with one of the poles and jammed the hook segment down into the crack between the massive segments of the ring. The worm began to turn, and the sudden jerk from the worm caused him to reflexively pull his arm back, trying to maintain his balance as he quickly found himself at right-angles to the ground.
The segment pulled back, revealing a fleshier, less armored looking bit of the worm. The worm turned back so that the exposed segment was on top.
Gears in Naruto's head began to spin.
"You have got to be kidding me," he muttered to himself. "These people are completely insane."
Still. One way to test his little guess. With a very quick hand gesture and a flare of chakra, a half dozen clones wielding the worm-hooks appeared. Three went down the right side of the worm, adhering to the surface with chakra, and the other three went down the left. After a moment, they all yelled that they were in position.
"Middle left, pull!"
The clone on the middle left of the worm pulled back on the segment, and the worm began to slowly roll to the right, it's great bulk leaving massive tracks in the sand.
"Middle left, release!"
The worm stopped turning, resuming its straight path, only at a slight angle to the original course.
Naruto's grin would have struck fear into fear itself. He was on top of a monstrous worm, almost a mile long, and taller than Gamabunta. The only thing separating him from a messy, squishy death was two metal hooks and some intuition. He had no idea how he was going to get down.
But right now, he could see that Furman ass off to distant left. There was another large group of people approaching the Furman at an angle, but they were even further off. Probably Neji, or maybe reinforcements for the Furman.
"Left side up! Right side, pull!"
The clones on the left ran up the worm, and the ones on the right pulled back, forcing the worm to turn abruptly. Had the clones on the left stayed behind, they would have been crushed.
"At ease!" Naruto yelled.
The clones resumed original positions, and the worm leveled off, heading directly for the Furman. Naruto wondered if this was what cavalry felt like, charging down the enemy infantry. Nah…it was more like being captain of a boat.
A worm-boat that went over sand instead of water.
An awesome boat.
The worm moved at an incredible speed, and in moments he was close enough to make out the individual features of his erstwhile murderer.
For the second time that day, Naruto's face twisted in shock. The approaching group had crested a sand dune and could clearly see him now, but he was focused on the man who had taken him out into the desert to die.
The man was…grinning? And jumping up and down, cheering?
Naruto shook his head in disbelief. There had to be something in the water around here. These people were loons.
Still, he didn't want to squish the man in cold blood. And he might miss and crush all the people who appeared to be angry at the man who'd brought him into the desert.
Another quick use of Kage Bunshin put another clone on the worm, who shrugged and took his place at the lead position. "Middle right, pull!"
The worm turned to the left again, veering away from the people on the far-away ground and out into the open desert.
For a brief instant, Naruto considered running down the half-mile of worm and leaping dramatically off of the tail, instead of making more clones and jumping safely to the edge of the sand dune.
Why would he need to think about it for more than a brief instant? It was a great idea.
He sprinted along the worm's back, easily matching its speed so that he appeared motionless relative to the ground. The Konoha nin and a large group of Furmen slowly drifted into a group behind the Furman who'd brought him out here. A few minutes later, he'd reached the tail. With a kick-step and a chakra enhanced leap, he soared into the air.
He did two forward flips as he rose, and for variety did a backwards flip as he sailed forwards, landing directly before his guide in a combat pose, the metal worm hooks held like swords.
Every single local burst into a wild cacophony of cheers. Naruto's grin had never faded.
God damn these people were crazy, but at least they were sane enough to recognize how awesome he was.
The moment Naruto had landed, the giant Maker-[sandworm] barreling off into the distance, he'd been swarmed by Fremen. Neji remained at the fringes of the crowd, not even bothering to try and get to Naruto. Genma and his team were further back up the sand dune, looking on in bemusement.
Of the Konoha-nin, Neji was the only one who truly understood what had just happened.
Riding a sandworm was the Fremen coming-of-age trial. Normally one would prepare, listen to hints from older, wiser hands, and most importantly of all, one would have at least a dozen others to assist with steering the worm.
One did not wake up from unconsciousness and wing it by oneself.
He will know your ways as if born to them…
It was part of the Fremen "prophecy" regarding their savior. An outsider who would lead them to freedom and transform Arrakis into a paradise of flowing water and green plants.
Until now, there had been holdouts against Naruto. It was all too easy for Neji to see from Naruto's memories – and that was a strange thought in and of itself – that for every Fremen bowing to the Mahdi-[savior] there had been one who scowled.
Until now, Neji mused, the ululations of the crowd ringing in his ears.