Prologue: Time Rolls Forward
A/N: To head off any confusion, if you are reading this and haven't read "Time and Again" then you're about 400K words behind and really should go read that story first as what follows will make very little sense otherwise.
For those of you who have read "Time and Again," please note that the scenes in this chapter, while in chronological order, are often separated by several weeks or months. They're almost completely detached from each other until near the end when part of a growing plot begins to appear, but even then they mostly stand on their own. I tried to have everyone (at least all of the main genin teams) show up to some degree so you could see some of their growth, but it really became ridiculous (and mind draining) trying to come up with plots for all of their scenes, so I scaled back my plan significantly (as in, practically no one outside of Team Seven shows up). These were the only important scenes anyway.
Pain raced through his body and Naruto threw his head back and screamed… or at least his body did. Naruto's consciousness felt like it was hovering just far enough away to be aware of the actions of his body and his torturers, but not completely connected to the pain.
Not yet, anyway.
He'd feel it eventually, when his concentration slipped or when he woke up after the pain grew so great that his body had forced him into total unconsciousness, but for the moment he was at least partially disconnected.
Iruka had called it going to a "safe place" and "blocking out what you don't want to experience." Ibiki had given it some technical name that Naruto couldn't remember. Jiraiya had told him it was something to learn if you planned on ever being dumb enough to be captured alive. Naruto had once thought it a bunch of mumbo-jumbo that he didn't need to worry about because of how amazing and unstoppable he was… he knew better now.
He'd been terrible at it the first few times he'd tried, but only a few weeks into his captivity he was a master of the highest order. He'd had to be, his only other option was to go crazy and he really didn't want to do that, though there were times where it was really tempting even though Orochimaru probably wouldn't allow it to happen.
As strange as it sounded, he actually had some very nice things going for him while in this hell. Orochimaru couldn't kill him – which wasn't that great of a thing as it prolonged his suffering – and he couldn't destroy his mind either. That took away some of the fear factor and scaled back the level the torture could escalate to. Once Naruto had conquered the pain (to a degree), Orochimaru no longer had anything that was effective as a threat.
It wouldn't last, of course. Soon he'd be too tired and too drained to keep detaching himself from the pain, but for the moment, he was safe… sort of, anyway.
Besides, anything he could do to keep Orochimaru distracted and away from Sasuke and Konoha was worth the pain that he'd feel when he returned to his body.
Another scream and this time Naruto actually felt some of the pain. His concentration was wavering, but he could hold on a little longer. He needed to come up with a plan for what to say or do when he was consciously back in his body and being questioned.
'Something funny,' he thought with a mental smile. That was usually the best way to piss Orochimaru off and end the torture. The punishment for making light of the whole thing wouldn't be fun, but laughter was supposed to be good for the body, maybe it would all even out in the end.
Something hot jabbed into him and then twisted as the smell of searing flesh filled the room. Naruto screamed yet again, and this time he was in his body when it happened.
"Alright… alright… please, no more," he whispered as he looked up at his interrogators, his blond hair so heavy with perspiration that it hung down in front of his eyes.
Orochimaru stepped closer. "Well?"
Naruto smiled, knowing it would probably be the last time his mouth would make that motion for at least the rest of the day.
He was right.
The four large men moved quietly through the unfamiliar woods, their every step carefully placed and almost completely silent. The forest seemed devoid of all life that wasn't a plant of some sort. Even the insects were gone for the moment. Each whispered silent thanks for that, the mosquitoes and gnats in the Fire Country had been brutal during the late spring and early summer, before the weather grew hot enough to force even them into hiding during the midday heat.
The war was still only a few months old, but already the Kumogakure's forces were making headway into the Fire Country. They still had a long ways to go before they reached Konoha – at which point marching on the capital would be a mere formality – but things were going as well as could be expected at this point.
The leader of the scouting party, a dark skinned man with reddish-blond hair slowed and then stopped next to an enormous tree, lifting his hand to signal the others to stop as well.
"Did you hear something?" he asked softly.
The closest to him shook his head. "Area seems deserted; I don't think there are even worms in the soil."
The third in the row scowled. "I don't like it," he whispered. "We lost two patrols in this area within the last three days. Something's here."
The first sighed, placing his hand against the tree. "We're here, but I don't know why."
"It's part of an important corridor into the Fire Country," one of his men pointed out softly.
It was a needless reminder; they all knew the route that they more or less had to take to get to Konoha. The first man didn't bother offering a retort. His team was not a made up of heavy infantry or even scout specialists. They were all well trained, quick moving, and probably would be able to escape anything they at least saw coming, but he suspected they were on one of the probing missions to see how far ahead of the main group they could move without encountering traps or enemy defensive positions.
No reason to waste perfectly good scouts by having them walk into traps and get killed, after all.
There were too few scouts from Kumogakure to risk having them go out until some of the traps and ambushes had already been discovered. Since the Kumo ninja corps was slightly larger in number than Konoha's and by all accounts had an advantage when it came to raw power, they could afford to send a few parties farther ahead of the main group so they could learn – based on who made it back – roughly where Konoha's defenses were.
It wasn't a great strategy and wouldn't be one that they'd use once they were farther in and the Leaf-nin were beginning to be pressed back, but for now it helped protect more valuable members until they were really needed. Of course, when you were the one being sent in to trigger the traps, it felt like a horrible strategy through and through.
Somewhere in the distance a great flock of birds suddenly began to chirp furiously. Everyone but the leader of the group looked up sharply, instantly on guard. He would have looked up, but was too busy frowning at his hand as it pressed against the tree. There were deep gouges that he could feel but strangely not see and, he pulled his hand back, semi-dried bloodstains on the tree.
He swore and reached for a kunai, but before he could get it into position, the air all around him seemed to shimmer and his vision of the forest twisted and bent as though viewed through swirling water. A stick snapped behind him and he whirled around as a pink-haired young woman stepped through the shifting image, her fist already moving forward. Her hand connected solidly with his teeth, shattering several of them and slamming his head back into the tree. By the time he hit the ground, he'd been swallowed up by merciful unconsciousness.
"Genjutsu!" the second man in the group cried as he brought his hands together. "Kai!"
The already failing illusion vanished completely and the cries of the birds grew even louder. Unnatural blue light filled the forest to their left and they spun towards the sight just in time to see Hatake Kakashi dash out of the bushes, blue lightning crackling in his fist.
The second member of the group was dead before he could even lift his hands to defend himself. The remaining two turned towards Kakashi as he seemed to vanish into the ground, their hands starting to form seals just as the bushes behind them spit out Uchiha Sasuke, his own Chidori chirping maliciously.
The third group member's chest seemed to explode as Sasuke plunged his fist through it, driving the body into the ground and reaching for a weapon in his thigh pouch as he began to turn to face the remaining Cloud-nin.
The sole survivor abandoned his attempt at ninjutsu and grabbed a sword from the scabbard strapped to his back. The thin blade came free without a sound. Sakura was in no position to help and Sasuke seemed off balance, though he had managed to draw a kunai for all the good it would do him against a larger and stronger opponent.
The blade cut through the air, but stopped halfway to Sasuke's head, as a large, brown-skinned snake had slithered its way up the Cloud-nin's body and drove her sharp fangs into his neck.
"Che, where's Kakashi?" Anko growled as she dropped from the trees overhead. "You little brats are lucky I got here when I did, or we'd have been out one Uchiha."
The Cloud-nin's body, still held up by the powerful snake suddenly was pulled down into the ground up to its neck – causing the snake to lose her grip on him, much to her annoyance. Kakashi rose up from the ground and looked at Anko with what seemed to be surprise.
"Oh, Anko-san, you've arrived already?" he asked, his mask shifting as he flashed her a carefree smile. His left hand reached up and scratched the back of his neck. "I wondered why he stopped moving."
"Should have known," Anko grumbled as she rolled her eyes and turned towards Sakura who was kneeling next to the man whose head she'd nearly split open. "How is he?"
Sakura looked up at her and smiled. "He'll be fine until Ibiki-san gets him. He's got a few broken teeth and a concussion, but nothing that'll impair his memory once he wakes up."
Anko nodded and then said, "That genjutsu came down early and he'd already figured out what was going on. You got lucky." She knelt next to the man and observed his face for a moment. "Don't punch him so high next time. A big guy like this, you should have aimed for just under the chin. That'll snap the head back and probably lift him off the ground. If he hadn't been right next to the tree, he might have recovered and then you would have been in deep shit." She glanced down at Sakura's hand and frowned. "Plus, you messed up those pretty hands you spend so much time moisturizing… seems like kind of a waste."
Sakura rolled her eyes. "Sorry, Anko-sensei, I do better next time." She formed a few quick seals and then gently pressed against the cuts she'd received when she punched the Cloud-nin in the teeth. Her skin knit back together, leaving only small scabs behind.
"Don't Anko-sensei me, Princess!" Anko snapped, looking exceptionally unhappy with the title, though Sakura suspected that she was just being grumpy as a matter of principle. Yugao had assured her on several occasions that Anko was actually quite fond of her. Nasty biting comments (and the semi-frequent punch or kick) were just her unique ways of showing she cared. "What if one of these guys has a radio on and their friends hear you? I don't want my name being attached to anything you screw up!"
Sakura grinned. "What if I don't screw up? Can I call you Anko-sensei then?"
Anko's right hand smacked the back of Sakura's head as she stood. "By the time that happens, I'll either be dead or too senile to realize what you're calling me… but even then I'd rather you kept my name out of it."
"You're a harsh mistress, sensei…"
Anko held up her hand, two fingers pointing at her eyes and then pointed at Sakura, a – possibly forced – stern expression on her face. "Get back to your hospital, Princess. I hear that slug-hime has been missing you." She turned to Kakashi and said, "Team Kakashi has officially been relieved. Do you have your report?"
Kakashi handed her a scroll. "Not much has happened that we weren't already expecting. The mountains and denser forest funnel them through this area, just like we thought. Gai said there have been a few skirmishes near the foothills, but nothing major. Still just scouting groups, the main forces are farther north, though their scouts have been getting more frequent. It won't be much longer before we start seeing some of their real ninja."
Anko nodded. "Sounds fun. The Council's orders are to get back and get rested up. They'll probably be sending you and Sasuke back out here soon enough. Princess might be stuck on hospital duty for a while; more causalities have been coming in from the northeast. I wasn't briefed, but you can bet there have been more than 'skirmishes' up there."
Kakashi nodded. "It was bound to happen. Any word on…"
Anko shook her head. "Princess's new mommy is doing what she can, but no one's seen him in a while. That can't be a good sign."
"Alright," Kakashi said with a weary sigh. "Good luck, we'll see you soon, I suspect."
With that, Team Kakashi returned to their camp, gathered their things and erased any sign of their presence before beginning the journey back to Konoha.
Sakura tried to talk to Sasuke during the trip, but soon grew tired of the exercise. When he talked, it was usually either about Naruto or the war. Sakura knew everything he knew about the war and she didn't want to talk about Naruto.
Some topics were just too painful to bring up and she wasn't the masochist he was when it came to that particular subject.
The pain was almost constant and it kept him from really sleeping a lot of the time, but occasionally he managed a semi-sleep where most of his brain and reasoning shut down. He was still – he guessed – technically awake, but the semi-sleep let him dream or hallucinate from time to time and he usually woke feeling slightly less exhausted than he'd been before.
At the moment, strange visions of specter giant's feet and yellow spotted rabbits were dancing in front of his open eyes.
Suddenly, there was a creaking of his cell door and hurried footsteps.
Naruto blinked, the rabbits and giants faded mostly away, and then he slowly lifted his head and tried to see what was making all the noise. It wasn't easy to get his head up far enough to get a good view, the chain and collar around his neck kept him in a kneeling position with his arms pulled back and chained to the wall. After he finally got a look at the noise, he almost wished he hadn't. The light streaming in through the door was dim by most standards, but he'd been crotched over in pitch black for nearly two straight days so it was still enough to nearly blind him with its intensity as he peered through the dirty blond hair that was beginning to hand down in front of his face.
He felt a weird buzzing in his ears that he couldn't quite understand and suddenly a cool hand touched his face.
Naruto had long since been trained to flinch away from contact. In the world he lived in, a touch was either going to hurt him or signal him that he was about to be hurt.
This one seemed to do neither. It cupped his cheek and then ran softly up the side of his face and pushed his hair away from his eyes.
"Naruto?" Hinata whispered as her pale face came into focus. "Can you hear me?"
Naruto stared at her in confusion, but didn't answer her question. Hinata wasn't supposed to be there. She was… he couldn't think of where she was supposed to be, but she wasn't supposed to be with him.
He couldn't remember how long he'd been in Orochimaru's clutches, but it felt like months. He longed for his friends at times, but mostly he longed for them to stay as far away from whatever hell he was in as they could. The physical torture had started off as a near constant, but had died down lately. Naruto suspected that Orochimaru had realized that he was blocking out a lot of the pain for long stretches of the torture sessions and that preventing him from doing so would require enough pain to permanently damage him.
Naruto had also taken to giving Orochimaru gibberish seals when the pain grew too great for him. The first time he'd done it, he'd finished with a "modified" ram seal – dropping his index finger and turning the still upright middle finger to Orochimaru. Naruto had thought it was kind of funny for about half a second, then his broken finger convinced him otherwise. In addition to giving Orochimaru an excuse to hurt him more and, for very short periods of time, giving Naruto something to smile about, the false jutsu sowed seeds of doubt into Orochimaru's mind about the accuracy and usefulness of anything he got out of the torture sessions… or at least Naruto hoped that it did.
It was a bit of a blessing that he didn't really know an actual time travel jutsu, if he did, he would have been sorely tempted to hand it over during the first week or two.
There was a clicking sound and suddenly his arms, which had been pinned back by shackles, fell limply to his sides. It was the first time in over a week that they'd been anywhere but in some painfully awkward position behind his back. The release of his arms made them feel uncomfortably tingly and almost completely unresponsive.
"Are you awake, dummy?" Sasuke's voice asked as Naruto's neck was freed as well.
Naruto turned his head so he could look at his other friend and found that he wasn't sure if he was awake or not. To have Sasuke and Hinata here was like a dream…
And then his brain seemed to catch on to what was happening.
"S-sasuke?" he whispered hoarsely. It hurt to talk. It hurt to do anything, really. "Hinata-chan?"
They reached down, grabbed him by his thin biceps, and lifted him to his feet.
"Can you walk?" Sasuke asked.
Naruto tried to take a step and stumbled, but Hinata caught him before he could go all the way down. She pulled his arm over her shoulder, so that she was carrying most of his weight, and smiled kindly. "Don't worry, Naruto, I've got you."
They took a step together and it went much smoother.
Sasuke was at the door now, looking both ways carefully. "We need to get out of here. The others are holding Orochimaru's men off, but we aren't here to fight a war." He turned back to Naruto and said, "Before we go though, there's something I need to ask you. Why did Orochimaru want you so much?"
"Sasuke," Hinata said gently, "maybe we should wait until we're out of here."
Sasuke shook his head. "No. We need to know. If something happens and Naruto gets recaptured or killed while we're escaping, we need to know what Orochimaru wanted and what he's learned."
Naruto nodded weakly. "He w-wants a… a jutsu from me."
Hinata frowned. "What jutsu?"
"It… it doesn't h-have a name."
"What does it do?" Sasuke asked. "What are the seals?"
Naruto pulled his arm away from Hinata and brought his hands in front of his chest. "It… it fixes mistakes," he said, his voice gaining a little strength. "The seals are: Rabbit, Boar, Boar, Dragon, Boar, Boar, Boar, Ram…" suddenly his hand shot out and connected solidly with Hinata's head, knocking her into the wall of his small cell.
He opened his left hand to show the pinky finger that had been dislocated and then popped it back into place as best he could as Sasuke – who was now a dark haired ninja with a Sound hitai-ate that had two pieces of metal or hard plastic running along his jaw line – threw his hand forward. There were dark holes at the end of each hand that probably served as some sort of weapon, but in the cramped cell Naruto was able to simply grab him and lift him sharply off his feet. The ninja's head slammed into the low hanging ceiling with a loud thud and he went limp.
Naruto looked at where he'd thrown Hinata and found Tayuya glaring up at him. "How the fuck did you know?" she demanded.
He gave her a contemptuous look. "Even wearing Hinata-chan's image and voice, trash like you is still trash. I knew you weren't her almost from the moment I saw you." He rubbed his hand along his cheek where she had touched him and then gave it an exaggerated shake as if cleaning something off of it. "Plus, you left some sort of slim behind when you touched me."
She scowled and started to say something else, but he kicked her in the face, breaking her nose and silencing her for the time being.
Then he limped towards the door. The rescue might have been a ruse to try to get him to give up the jutsu that Orochimaru thought he had, but the door being open was real enough. Naruto stepped through, glancing one way down the hall and then turning to look…
"Hello, Naruto-kun," Orochimaru chuckled.
Naruto tried to back away or just to reply, but his voice wouldn't work and something warm was running down his chest and splashing loudly on the floor. He looked down in surprise and found that it was blood. His blood. Lots of it. A sword had pierced his chest. He opened his mouth in surprise and more blood dribbled down his chin as he took a stumbling step back. Orochimaru stayed right with him.
"I've already told you this. The only way you get out of here is when you die and the only way you get to die is by telling me how to do your jutsu." He looked over his shoulder and said, "Heal him, Karin."
A young woman stepped around him and looked down at Naruto with her red eyes. Her hair was short and unkempt on one side, but long and combed on the other. As she knelt next to Naruto, Karin lifted the sleeve of her shirt, exposing pale skin that was marred by what looked like bite marks.
Naruto tried to pull away, not completely sure what she planned to do, but knowing what it would probably mean for him in the long run. Despite his attempts to stop himself, survival instincts kicked in the moment her skin touched his lips.
He bit deep, drawing the chakra from her, causing his wound to heal, and letting the fragrance of her skin fill his nostrils. She let him hold her arm in his mouth just long enough for the worst of the pain to subside before pulling away.
Naruto looked up at Orochimaru and closed his eyes for a moment, assessing what he could handle. For the first time in weeks he could feel chakra running smoothly through his system, not the way it did when the Kyuubi wasn't blocked off, but better than it had been. He wasn't sure what they'd been doing to him to keep his chakra suppressed, but they weren't doing it now.
He might never get such a chance again.
He pushed as much chakra into his legs as his weak body could handle and sprang to his feet, his hands already coming together to form seals.
Orochimaru's knee caught him in the stomach doubling him over and then fingers began to tap against his back.
Instantly, Naruto felt something go wrong with his body as chakra was cut off from flowing to the area that had been touched. It was a strangely numbing feeling that he hadn't experienced in a long, long time.
"Don't stop," Orochimaru growled when there was a pause in the attack. "You know what you have to do."
"Forgive me," a strangely familiar voice whispered in Naruto's ear.
He turned and looked up in the blank eyes of one of the many Hyuuga that he'd despised over the years.
Hyuuga Hiroshi's face was dirty and covered in signs of violence, a swollen lip with a hint of smeared blood still visible at the corners, a thin cut near his left eye that had only recently begun to heal, and a dark purple bruise surrounding his right eye. What must have once been white robs that he was wearing were tattered and gray, and his body was hunched over with the weight of defeat.
Naruto stared at him in shock for a moment, and in that time his near nonexistent chances of escape disappeared as Hiroshi's fingers swiftly made short work of the different tenketsu needed to completely disrupt the flow of chakra in his body. The Hyuuga did not meet Naruto's eyes again as he finished his work and then stepped back, head bowed and long, messy hair hiding his face like a drawn curtain.
"Thank you," Orochimaru chuckled. "I think that will be all until next time. Why don't you go clean yourself up?"
Hiroshi nodded numbly and stumbled away into the darkness, leaving Naruto powerless to do anything but stare after him until he was dragged back into his cell and once more chained to the wall and floor.
An enormous boulder slammed into the sand, showering the targets who had barely managed to dodge out of the way with tiny shards of rock and the cutting blades of sand. At least twenty other Sand-nin were facing similar predicaments, those who hadn't been crushed by the boulders, anyway. The mass of Rock-nin on the other side of the battle field were already preparing to send another volley at them, softening them up for the eventual physical clash that was sure to come.
The war between Sunagakure and Iwagakure was almost half a year old and had not been going well for Suna. They were heavily outnumbered by their enemies and, despite what they felt was better training, they often lost battles simply because of the numerical advantage that Iwa held over them. Because of that, they were forced to often fight by slowly giving ground while making the Rock-nin pay dearly for every meter of desert they took. It was a good strategy, but it couldn't go on forever. This battle was taking place less than fifty kilometers from Suna. The plateau that surrounded the village would have been easily visible on a clearer day.
Another explosion rocked the desert as a boulder slammed into a small sand dune completely obliterating it and those hiding behind it.
"Shit!" a young woman with dark hair cursed as she huddled against her own sand dune, covering her head as best she could to shield it from flying debris.
"Eiko-chan," the young woman with short brown hair next to her, Matsuri, yelled over the din of the battle raging around them, "I hope you were well named!"
Under less dangerous circumstances, Eiko would have glared at her teammate, perhaps even offered some sort of biting comeback. Matsuri was not a fan of fighting, but really didn't have much choice given the war going on. Since the outbreak of hostilities, she'd said the exact same thing every time they found themselves in a semi-dangerous situation. Eiko supposed it was her fate to get such stupid comments since the gods had given her parents who thought it funny to give someone growing up in a ninja village a name that meant "long-lived child."
Another explosion of rock slamming into sand shook the ground, it was closer this time. The Iwa shinobi had the range now and were going to decimate the Sand-nin.
"We have to get out of here!" Eiko shouted as she slid a little farther down the dune and stood. "We can't just stay here."
"Our orders were to hold the line here until reinforcements arrive," Matsuri reminded her, though the look on the brown-haired girl's face made it clear that she was all in favor of a retreat from the battle.
"I don't mean leave, I mean we can't keep hiding we need to…" her voice trailed off as she spotted something moving at high speed to the east of their position. It looked for all the world like a sand dune that had just decided it wanted to wander away from its spot without the aid of any wind. Actually, it was moving against the wind, which was impossible, or so she'd thought.
"Get down!" Matsuri yelled as another volley of rocks came at them.
Eiko pulled her eyes away from the strange sand dune and looked up in time to see a large boulder come down at her.
She didn't bother lifting her arms; nothing she was capable of would stop such a huge projectile.
At that instant, the migrating sand dune exploded. A huge gust of wind slammed into the boulder, pushing it of course while other boulders were caught by hands of sand and pulled out of the air. Eiko looked at the remains of the dune, but couldn't really see anything. It was as if a localized sandstorm had taken up residence in the middle of the battlefield.
The ninja from Iwagakure seemed just as perplexed as those from Suna, but were quicker to decide that the sand dune/storm was an enemy (which was reasonable, since it had stopped their attacks). Kunai rained down on the small sand storm, disappearing within it, but having no noticeable effect.
Eiko glanced to the side and noticed that more Sand-nin were peeking over their cover to see what was going on. There weren't many of them left from the group that had originally been tasked with slowing the advancing Iwa contingent until reinforcements could be rounded up from other areas that needed protecting.
Two large boulders slammed into the sand storm, this time having a noticeable effect, but probably not the one that the Rock-nin expected. The boulders that struck the storm stopped after about half of their masses had entered it and then cracked and fell to the ground.
The desert floor began to rumble, nearly knocking Eiko to the ground as the loose sand of the dune she was standing on shifted under the earthquake.
Suddenly, the sand around the mini sand storm dipped down as if being drawn into a funnel, the broken boulders that the Rock-nin had lobbed at the area vanished into the shifting desert floor, and then a great spout of sand shot out of the storm arcing its way towards the Rock-nin forces. In the bright sunlight of the midday desert, it was hard to look up for any length of time, especially in that direction, but Eiko's brief attempts revealed several dark shapes somehow riding atop the sand.
Just as the sand was about to slam into the ground near the Rock-nin, it suddenly shifted its trajectory, smoothing out its descent and then swirling into a near perfect sphere. No sooner had the sphere formed than it exploded outward. The Rock-nin nearby were instantly either killed or at least knocked to the ground. As the sand settled, Eiko could clearly see four shapes where the center of the sphere had been. Two of them moved in one direction, a third the opposite way while the fourth remained standing where he or she had landed.
The Rock-nin who had escaped the initial attack were now advancing on the intruders, breaking cover and moving towards them. One member of the group of two – that looked strangely crouched, almost as if it were crawling along the ground for some reason – suddenly sprang forward, and engaged the enemy shinobi up close. Weapons were thrown at him, but they were either dodged or somehow avoided as he moved amongst the enemy, dropping ninja left and right before returning to the other member of his group.
The one who had gone in the opposite direction was producing enormous gusts of wind, throwing Rock-nin away as if they weighed nothing.
It took a few seconds, but the two groups of fighters eventually created enough confusion that the Sand-nin who had been on the verge of being routed finally realized the advantage that was being created for them and launched their own offensive. They were barely halfway to the group of strangers when the three returned to the one who had remained where they'd landed.
Eiko wasn't close enough to seem much in the way of details about their saviors, but she was close enough to see the stranger who hadn't moved lift a hand over his head and then slam it down on the ground. The sand around them exploded in all directions like water fleeing the impact zone of a large rock that had been dropped into a still pond.
The Sand-nin turned to flee, but there was no need. The sand coming towards them seemed to hit a wall and then fall harmlessly to the ground. The Rock-nin weren't nearly so lucky.
When it was all over, the remaining Suna shinobi approached the battle site cautiously, but the Rock-nin that had survived – probably well over half their group, though it didn't matter at this point – were so confused and disorganized that the mop up battle was more of a slaughter than anything. The four strangers who had caused the chaos that gave Suna the victory were nowhere to be found, but in the distance, Eiko thought she saw a dune moving back towards the east.
"What was that?" Matsuri asked as she stood next to Eiko and surveyed the area for any remaining survivors.
"Reinforcements, I think," Eiko replied.
Matsuri shook her head, a look of disbelief on her face. "The way the sand moved… it was like someone was controlling it."
"How many sand users have you heard of?" Eiko asked.
"I've only heard of one," she said with a sigh, still looking towards the last spot she'd seen the moving dune.
Matsuri hesitantly nodded in agreement. "Don't talk about it," she warned Eiko so softly her voice could barely be heard over the desert wind and the distant sounds of small skirmishes. "His name isn't one we should even whisper back home."
"But…" A gloved hand pressed against her mouth before she could voice her argument.
Matsuri's wide, dark eyes held a hint of fear within them. "Don't talk about it," she whispered again. "We're not important, so no one will ask our opinion. If it was him, then it's weird that he helped us, but it doesn't really matter to us. If it wasn't him, then there's no reason to ask for trouble by bringing him up. Just forget it happened."
Eiko sighed and nodded reluctantly. They'd all been briefed on the treachery of the Kazekage's children and the events that surrounded it. Mentioning Gaara, Temari, or Kankuro was inviting some serious inquiry into one's past and current actions.
Not many who lived through such inquiries escaped without being transferred to far more dangerous posts… not that there were many safe posts anymore.
"Why do you keep doing this?" Karin asked as she sat panting next to Naruto in the darkness, trying to recover from healing his latest set of injuries. "He'd let you go if you'd just tell him what he wants."
"He'd kill me," Naruto growled back without much strength.
She snorted. "Of course, but wouldn't that be better than this?"
"You're bored of healing me?"
He couldn't see her roll her eyes, but he was certain that she did. "No, having my chakra pulled out of my body to keep your sorry ass alive is my favorite thing in the whole world."
Naruto sighed and let his head fall back against the wall, trying to hold his arms as still as possible to keep from sharp edges of his shackles from cutting into his skin. He knew what they were doing. It was so painfully obvious that he was ashamed that he hadn't noticed it as soon as Karin started spending time in his cell after healing him.
He supposed that the weeks of complete isolation – with a few breaks for some sort of torture – were beginning to get to him. Even if it was just another form of torture, he wanted someone to talk to.
Karin was simply trying to earn his friendship so she could betray him later. It would take a while, but Orochimaru was nothing if not patient… sometimes, anyway…
A part of him wondered if she'd even deny it if he asked her. He wouldn't risk it. If it was decided that him knowing meant that it wouldn't work, they might take away his only source of non-torture related human contact.
And, when she was in the room, he was relatively certain that everything he was seeing was real. That and a little companionship were probably the two things he craved most, above even a steaming bowl of ramen and a good night's sleep in his bed back in Konoha.
Every once in a while, Orochimaru allowed Naruto to go long enough without Hyuuga Hiroshi attacking his tenketsu that his keirakukei opened back up – at least partially – so he was more vulnerable to genjutsu. Usually at that point Sakura, Sasuke, Hinata, or one of his other friends showed up to rescue him and ask him about why he was a captive. Noticing that he could feel chakra was generally the first clue that he was in a genjutsu, but sometime he woke up in it and was so disoriented that it was hard to remember what was going on until they tripped themselves up or he regained enough of his senses to figure it out. There had been a few close calls, but for the most part it was a wasted effort on their part.
He suspected that Orochimaru had them do it not so he would give up the secret, but just to mess with his head and make him miss his friends that much more… which probably led back to Karin sitting and talking with him.
Naruto hadn't seen much of Orochimaru in the past few days – at least he thought it had been a few days, it was hard to tell in a dark cell – which meant that when he came back he wouldn't care about asking Naruto for the jutsu, he'd just regale him with stories about Konoha's defeats and people that were known to be dead. Naruto wasn't sure how much of the stories were true, but he was afraid that Orochimaru delighted in terrible truths more than horrifying lies.
Usually whenever Orochimaru left, Karin spent a lot more time with him, even when he didn't need any healing.
Naruto hated himself for looking forward to her visits, but he couldn't help it. She was one of the few people whose presence didn't mean he was about to be tortured or interrogated or humiliated or any of the other things that his captives enjoyed doing to him.
On the other hand, he knew a little about her, and with that he could try to mess with her as much as she was trying to mess with him. He'd never met her in the future, but he'd read everything he could on Sasuke and his little team. The information Konoha was able to gather on her – and that he could remember - was pretty minimal, but there had been some juicy bits that he could use.
If he was being honest, he'd have to admit that it wasn't likely to succeed and if she threatened to leave and not return if he didn't stop, he'd probably give real consideration to stopping, but it was something to pass the time. Plus, it made for interesting conversation.
"It must have been rough," he whispered, "growing up in a brothel."
He heard the quick movement of cloth and hair and suspected that her head had just snapped towards him. He could easily imagine the murderous glare that was probably in her eyes. "What did you say?!?" she demanded, suddenly not sounding so friendly.
"Your mother," he said with as much strength as he could muster, which wasn't much. His throat was horse from too little water and too much yelling while his captives tried to get the information they thought he had. "She worked in a wh… a brothel, right?"
A hand grabbed him by the remains of his shirt, pulling him forward slightly and causing the shackles to cut into his wrists, but she released him after only a second and he could hear her moving away from him. "Who told you that?" she whispered.
Naruto did his best not to smile. "O-Orochimaru. He doesn't… think much of you… thinks you're too much like your mom."
"Orochimaru-sama thinks…" her voice trailed off. She was quiet for a long moment and then she said, "Yes, it was hard."
"Where… are you from?" he asked.
She chuckled. "Are you planning on paying to get your jollies sometime soon?"
Naruto shrugged, though she couldn't see it and he instantly regretted the motion as it caused the shackles to cut into him again, "I've got a lot of free time on my hands, you never know."
He heard movement in the darkness and suddenly the sweet smell of her skin filled his nostrils as she stood very close to him. "I don't know where it was," she whispered, "but my memories of it make what you're putting yourself through look like a nice walk in the park. Those bastards just came in, used her for her body and her abilities and then left her a crying, filthy heap on the floor. Some of them made me stay in the room while they used her…" she paused and then leaned in so close that he felt her long hair brush against his face. "And I am very aware of the fact that a lot of the guards that watch over you know about what I came from. Don't think you can drive a wedge between me and Orochimaru-sama so easily. He saved me from ending up just like her; nothing you can say will change my opinion of him."
Naruto was quite for a long moment and then whispered, "He's not using… your body, but… is he really doing anything d-different from those men… when it comes to your… abilities?"
She slapped him, hard. Before he could say anything else or even apologize, assuming he wanted to, the door on the far side of the room was flung open, blinding him with the sudden burst of light, and then slammed shut as she left.
He didn't see her for over two weeks, even when he probably could have used her healing abilities. Naruto didn't try messing with her head again after that.
When she finally returned, he was so grateful he wept in relief.
The room was dark and stuffy, like a cave of death. Really, that wasn't too far from the truth. There wasn't any death in there yet, but those who entered couldn't help but feel that it wouldn't be long in coming. Jiraiya probably entered more than anyone else, except maybe Tsunade, and every time he did he couldn't help but think that it was probably the last time.
"I'm heading out," he called softly into the darkness where he could hear the raspy gasping of breathing that was the only real clue that there might be another time where he was called into the room.
"What clue… are you following this time?" the voice of the Third Hokage, Sarutobi Hiruzen, whispered out of the darkness.
The weakness in the voice was heart wrenching to Jiraiya. The Third had been like a father to him – though his actual father would have been a little hurt to hear it – knowing how much he'd deteriorated in such a seemingly short period of time drove home the fact that whatever had afflicted him really was destroying him.
"It's not concrete or anything, but a contact said there was a rumor of Orochimaru being seen in the Grass Country."
"That is a long ways from Oto," Sarutobi rasped. "Could it just be another false lead?"
Jiraiya lowered his head. "Probably," he admitted, "but no one else will look into it."
"Don't say it," Jiraiya growled more forcefully than he'd intended. "Tsunade will figure something out. I'm not taking your job."
A wet coughing fit drove the anger from him and drew him farther into the room until he was kneeling next to the frail Hokage's bed. Sarutobi had a handkerchief against his mouth and by the time the fit finally subsided, it was damp with dark blood.
Jiraiya closed his eyes, feeling hot tears burning against his eyelids, "I… can't. If I'm Hokage…"
"You could… o-order someone to do it…"
"They'd fail. I'm failing and I'm better than any of them."
Another cough, but this time it didn't start a fit. "Konoha… n-needs you."
"Konoha needs Naruto."
"I'm dying," Sarutobi whispered. "I won't last forever. Someone… someone must take the title…"
Jiraiya rocked back, suddenly understanding. "What did they say," he demanded.
Sarutobi shook his head weakly, refusing to answer.
The Village Council, a portion of it anyway, had been in to see his old sensei again, Jiraiya was certain of it. Their insistence on him picking a successor was growing more frequent and impatient. The law dictated that a living Hokage who had not been mentally incapacitated would be the one to choose his successor (provided the Council approved the candidate, which it had in every instance thus far). The Council wanted a new Hokage, but they couldn't strip Sarutobi of his powers unless he died, went crazy, or at least lost consciousness for a long period of time.
So far, that hadn't happened, but some members of the Council were arguing that his suborn refusal to give up his position was a sign that he had been mentally incapacitated since he should have known the time had come. It was a weak argument that was only entertained because of the war and the fact that under normal circumstances Sarutobi probably would have acquiesced to their demand that he pick a successor.
The problem really was that neither of those he'd picked would take the job.
Jiraiya was convinced that he would be a terrible Hokage and that finding Naruto was a greater priority. He'd been away from the village long enough to distance himself from the strong protective feelings one normally had for their home and knew he didn't have the political subtlety needed to deal with the brood of vipers that had clawed their way up to into the Council.
Tsunade was even worse. She didn't even want to be in the village at all. She'd softened slightly, agreeing to help in the hospital – often from a distance, as the sight of blood still caused her hands to tremble unless dire circumstances required her to subdue her fears through force of will alone – and had taken up training Haruno Sakura whenever the young woman wasn't out on missions, but by she still routinely talked about her desire to leave. And had twice packed up her belongings only to be talked out of it by the combined forces of Jiraiya and Shizune, who usually had to resort to pointing out that her skills where needed to keep Sarutobi alive.
Jiraiya sometimes suspected that Tsunade was teaching Sakura everything she could so eventually she'd be able to claim that Konoha didn't need her anymore.
He was certain that there was a lot of backstabbing and plotting going on behind the scenes in the Council, as some of them tried to position themselves to be appointed should Sarutobi die before either he or Tsunade were worn down and gave in to the appointment. In some ways, it would have been better if Sarutobi had simply died quickly, before anyone could try to manipulate the process. At least then need would have outweighed greed.
He looked down at his frail sensei and sighed. "We'll talk when I get back. Hold on until then. I'll see if I can't trick Tsunade into coming up here in the meantime, maybe you can talk her into becoming Hokage while I'm gone." He turned to go, but stopped and, with a small smile, suggested, "What you need to do is convince her to play a hand of cards with the bet being that if she loses she has to be Hokage. She'll be in those robes in no time."
The old man smiled, and then began coughing again, his whole body shuddering with the effort as his lungs seemed to rebel against his body. Jiraiya did his best to sooth Sarutobi, staying with him until the fit subsided, and then beat a hasty retreat.
When Sarutobi was in that much obvious pain, it was harder for Jiraiya to keep refusing to agree with anything that was asked of him.
He didn't have to search for Tsunade; she was waiting for him outside the door, her back pressed against the wall and her eyes narrowed despite the confusion clearly written on her face.
"He's getting worse," Jiraiya told her needlessly.
"I won't do it," Tsunade told him flatly. "I've given this village everything I had, it doesn't get anything more."
Jiraiya nodded. "I know."
She skeptically accepted his agreement with a quirk of her lips, but didn't press him to say what she thought he was thinking. "You're going out again?" she asked instead after a moment of silence.
"The Grass Country. A contact claims Orochimaru might be there."
"Do you believe him?"
"Not particularly, but it's better than sitting around here getting talked into a job I don't want."
She reached out and touched his hand, hesitantly at first, but then with more confidence when he didn't pull away. Her fingers closed around his and she looked into his eyes. "You would be a good Hokage," she whispered.
Jiraiya smiled, giving her hand a little squeeze. "You're just saying that so you won't feel bad for not taking it no matter how much a sick old man begs you."
She shook her head, her eyes telling him that she didn't want him to treat it like a joke. "No, of all of the Sannin, you always would have made the best Hokage."
Jiraiya let go of her hand and placed his on her shoulder, leaning over so their heads were level. "I always felt the same about you," he said with a wide sincere smile that reminded her a little of her brother, Nawaki. It was a bittersweet thought, but then everything that reminded her of Nawaki was.
She turned away from him, forcing the old pain down, and asked, "How long will you be gone this time?"
"Depends on what I find, but probably only a couple of weeks." He paused and glanced towards the door behind which Sarutobi was laying in the darkness. "Will he…"
Tsunade smiled a little. "Yes. He's dying, but it's not quite as bad as you think." Jiraiya started to protest, but Tsunade stopped him. "I'm not saying that he's faking his symptoms, he's just not letting you know that it isn't as bad as it looks. I've slowed down whatever it is by treating the symptoms. I can't seem to heal him, but I can keep him around for a while. As long as he stays in bed and nothing unexpected happens, it'll be months before he gets as bad as he lets you think he is."
Jiraiya frowned. "I'm not misinterpreting what he's going through by that much. He coughed up more blood while I was in there… even I know that's a bad sign."
Tsunade sighed, seeming to deflate a little. "I thought I had that under control. I'll have to come up with a new treatment. It was going to happen sooner or later, but I thought it would be later."
"If it'll be months before he's as bad as he seems…"
Tsunade shuffled her feet uncomfortably, looking like she wanted to lie, but unwilling to do so to him. "Whatever he has seems unstoppable, but it's also slow moving. If I stay on top of things, he could be in near constant pain for close to a year before his body reaches the tipping point. If I leave him alone, it'll be over faster, but the pain will be more intense. I'm not sure which would be the more merciful thing to do."
Jiraiya didn't know either. "You're sure he'll last that long?"
"Not totally, but I think he'll hold on as long as humanly possible, maybe longer knowing him."
Jiraiya digested the news thoughtfully and then said, "Try to keep the Council off his back and see if you can't trick them into thinking he's on the mend. We need to buy time while I find Naruto."
He turned and started to leave, but stopped with Tsunade whispered something he didn't quite hear.
Jiraiya glanced over his shoulder to find her staring at the floor, blond hair hiding her face, and hands clenched in tight fists at her side. "What did you say?" he asked.
Still looking at the ground, she turned her head to the side and softly said, "It's hopeless. You're a fool, putting your faith in something that's impossible… I'm sorry, but you'll never find him. He's probably already dead and laying in some unmarked mass grave. And besides that, if he is alive, he's only one chuunin. Even if he is a jinchuriki, what good could he possibly do?"
Jiraiya stared at her for a moment, his eyes hard and anger splashed across his face, then he turned away and said, "Keep Hokage-sama alive, Tsunade-hime. I'll be back soon, hopefully with Naruto… maybe then I'll forgive you for what you just said."
The door to his cell swung open, bathing the previously dark room in excessively bright light. Naruto squeezed his eyes shut and turned away from it as several men entered and began undoing the shackles around his wrists and feet.
His arms fell limply to his side as soon as they were no longer being held up and he toppled to his side. His head hit the hard, dirty floor, but he didn't even twitch.
They unlocked his feet and reached to pull him up.
The moment they touched his arms, he struck. Two quick blows to the throats of the nearest men dropped them instantly. Then he rolled up onto his shoulders and kicked out at the remaining two who were near his feet. One took a kick to the nose, and Naruto felt a satisfying crunch under his heel, but the other was quicker and avoided the attack by simply taking one step back.
Naruto cursed as he rolled back over his shoulders and tried to get his feet firmly under him. He'd hoped to at least hurt all four in the first flurry of movement, giving him enough time to steal a weapon and finish them off. Starved and weak, he stood no chance against them now.
The ninja advanced on him calmly, his back to the bright lit door making it difficult for Naruto to even look at him.
Naruto took one step back and then he was against the wall. It was over. He still couldn't feel his chakra from the last time Hiroshi had blocked it off, he had no physical strength after so many near-sleepless nights and minimal food, and Kyuubi was blocked off from him. A sane person would realize that there was nothing he could do, but Naruto wasn't sure how sane he was anymore.
The ninja's fist slammed into his head.
Naruto hadn't even seen the blow coming. He staggered to the side, then dropped low and tried to sweep his captor's feet out from under him. His leg connected perfectly with the larger man's knee… but nothing happened.
"Is that it?" the ninja chuckled. He grabbed Naruto on either side of the head and drove his knee into the blond's face.
This time it was Naruto's nose that broke. He went down with a slight groan and lay in the dirt, gasping and spitting blood as it ran from his nose into his mouth, choking him as he breathed it in.
The ninja stepped closer, reaching down and grabbing Naruto by the throat and dragging him up and off his feet.
"Give up, brat," the ninja snarled. "You're nothing compared to a real ninja."
Naruto closed one eye, blocking the sight of the doorway so it would stop irritating him, and did his best to ignore his desperate need to breath.
Then he smiled, a gruesome scene with so much blood on his face, and slammed his hands against his enemy's ears. To his credit, the ninja didn't instantly drop Naruto as he stumbled back, but it might have been better for him if he had. Naruto grabbed him by the wrist and used all of his strength to drive both of his knees up and into the man's stomach and groin.
This time the ninja did go down, dragging Naruto with him. Naruto quickly pulled himself away from his opponent, offering a few kicks to the man's face for good measure as soon as he was able, and then turned to find the other three that had come in now standing between him and the doorway.
"Shit," he grumbled.
"What the fuck is taking so long?" Tayuya's angry voiced called out from the light of the door. "Knock his scrawny ass out and let's go! We've got a long ways to go today."
A fifth figure stepped away from the wall near the doorway, Naruto hadn't seen him earlier and wondered if he'd been there the whole time or had entered during the fight, not that it really mattered at this point. The three who had been there the whole time rushed him, quickly overwhelming his tired attempts at fighting back. It only took a few seconds for them to subdue him, pinning his arms at his side and keeping his legs from kicking at them.
The fifth man stood before Naruto, his head bowed, and whispered, "Sorry, Naruto-san."
Naruto recognized the voice and knew what was coming next. Three Juuken strikes later, he was unconscious and the Sound-nin were free to begin transporting him to their new base.
Hinata felt strangely light without her Chuunin vest after having practically lived in it for the past month and a half while she, Kiba, Akamaru, Shino, and Kurenai were in the field. She wished she was back out there on a mission. She wanted to be with her teammates scouting for Cloud-nin incursion forces and traps. If she couldn't have those things, she would have accepted training with Neji as an alternative, though that was impossible at the moment as he and his team were supposed to be near the frontlines for the next few weeks.
She did not want to be observing a meeting between her father and a member of the Village Council.
Unfortunately, she had little to no choice in the matter. Hanabi would normally have been the one to sit through such things, but this time her father had specifically asked her (in a voice that told her the question mark at the end of his sentence was only there for punctuation reasons, not because it served any functional purpose) to join him, and so she was stuck.
"You can see the difficult position we are in, Hiashi-san," the Council member said as he began to get to the point of the meeting after nearly thirty minutes of talking in riddles and using the intentionally vague words of a trained politician. "In such drastic times, certainly drastic measures are needed. We must think of the village ahead of outdated loyalties and traditions."
Hiashi pressed his fingers together and lightly rested his chin against them as he thoughtfully considered his reply. "Traditions are important, but you're right, the good of the village must come first in times such as these."
"Then you will back our proposal?"
The thin man almost gasped in surprise, Hinata could briefly see his anger on his face before he covered it once more. "I beg you to reconsider."
"I will," Hiashi said with a small incline of his head, "when new evidence presents itself. For now, I fear I am not sure I see the good of the village in your leader's proposal. Hokage-sama is sick, but not dead and I have spoken with him personally in just the last week, he is still far from mentally incapacitated."
"The longer we go with an ailing leader, the more the morale is sucked from the village."
"It has been many months since he took ill," Hiashi conceded, "and we will need a new leader sooner rather than later, but the precedence that you propose to set is a dangerous one. It places the Council over the Hokage."
"You're being overly cautious." Political speak seemed to have abandoned the Council member.
"On the contrary, I believe that I am being just cautious enough. The Hyuuga may one day back your proposal, but not until Hokage-sama is farther along or things grow worse."
The Council member took a deep breath and then stood and gave a curt bow. "I thank you for your time, Hiashi-san. I hope that you will find the evidence you need to show you this is the only path available to us since Jiraiya and Tsunade will not accept the position."
Hiashi inclined his head. "Let us both hope that one of them changes their mind; then this matter will be moot anyway."
The Council member bowed once more, a little stiffly, Hinata thought, and then excused himself. She waited for a moment longer and then turned to her father, her eyes asking him the question she couldn't politely voice: 'What the hell was that all about?'
"The Council is growing ever bolder," Hiashi answered her, his eyes still locked on the door the Council member had stepped through a moment earlier. "Soon, we may have no choice but to go along with their plans."
"B-but you said…"
Hiashi nodded. "In times such as these, loyalty must be handled carefully. We will side with Hokage-sama until it is obvious that those in the Council seeking change have gained too much political backing to be denied. At that point, we will either agree with them or risk being on the wrong side of what could become a coup."
Hinata's eyes widened. "How long b-before we have to d-decide?"
Hiashi shook his head. "Months, maybe; days, perhaps. Politics moves at a strange pace. Sometimes it rushes forward, others it drags its heels. If the other clans feel as I do, then it will take some time for them to be convinced. Few will want to be the first to make their move in a volatile situation like this, but some might be bold enough. If enough do then others will follow. It will become a tidal wave if enough are swayed early."
"How c-could they do something l-like this while we are in a war?"
"Hokage-sama is ill, deathly so. I have been told that Tsunade-hime can keep him alive for months, but the longer he goes without showing his face, the more the fear of the genuine concerned Council members – and the greed of the opportunistic ones – will build." He finally turned his face away from the door and met her gaze, "Do you understand now why I asked you to sit with me? When you are the leader of our clan, you will have to deal with situation such as these from time to time."
Hinata inhaled slowly through her nose, filling her lungs, and then let the breath roll out through her lips as she struggled to quell the anxiety that such a future brought to her. "I w-will do my best to lead as w-wisely as you, Father," she whispered. She waited for another moment and then asked, "Who… who told you that Hokage-sama m-might live for months?"
"Jiraiya spoke with me briefly before leaving on his latest trip, that was several weeks ago, however."
Hinata felt her heart tremble, as it always did when she heard that Jiraiya was following another lead. "Where did he—" she cut her outburst short and covered her mouth with her hand.
Hiashi observed her carefully and then said, "Be careful where you place your hopes." He rose to his feet and began to walk to the door, but stopped before exiting. "He was traveling to the Grass Country this time, he was hopeful, but cautiously so."
Hinata nodded. "Thank you, Father."
Jiraiya cursed under his breath as he began to make his way back to Konoha. He'd done all he could, followed the trail as far as it went, but once again he'd come up with nothing. It was the third semi-empty base that he'd come across. Orochimaru had been there, once – probably not too long ago – but he was gone now and the trail was cold.
A part of him was beginning to wonder if he wasn't actually on a wild-goose chase. Perhaps Naruto really was lost forever.
If that was the case…
He shook his head. He wouldn't think about what he'd do or feel if the last tiny thread of Minato vanished from the earth. His godson was out there, somewhere, he just had to keep looking. Sooner or later he'd stumble across a clue that…
He stopped in his tracks and took three steps backwards, looking at a store window he'd just passed.
Beyond the display of nice clothes was a jacket that seemed vaguely familiar for some reason.
"But, um, when you're out there… if you find an orange and black jacket that would fit someone about 20 cm or so taller than me... pick it up for me, would you? I want one with black sleeves, and a black stripe running along the zipper, with orange panels…"
Frowning, Jiraiya entered the store and looked critically at the jacket. It wasn't quite as hideous as the one Naruto had been wearing the last time he'd seen him, but it still had far too much orange for his taste.
He reached out and touched one of the orange panels.
"Do you like it?" a young salesman asked. "It just came in a little while ago."
"It's too orange," he told him, wishing that one of the women he could see behind the counter had been the one to come try and sell it to him.
The man sighed. "Yeah, I know. Other customers have said that too. We're having trouble selling them."
Jiraiya looked at the jacket a moment longer and then said, "I'll take it, throw in some matching pants too."
The salesman couldn't move fast enough to get the proper sized clothes off the hanger and into a bag.
Jiraiya quietly paid for it, only giving a short, obligatory, leer at the breasts of the woman who took his money, and then made his way outside. The jacket wasn't much, but it was his way of reminding himself that he wouldn't give up hope no matter how bad it looked.
Naruto would need his new jacket, after all.
He walked in silence for nearly five kilometers before he noticed that he was being followed. How long they'd been back there was hard to say, but it hadn't been long. It only took him a second to realize that there were three of them, two were pretty large or carrying heavy items, the third seemed a bit quieter.
Jiraiya let them follow for a few more minutes, carefully observing them, and then grew bored of the game. He pretended to stretch, giving a large yawn, and then patted his stomach contentedly. His hands now hidden from their sight, he formed a quick series of seals and then slammed his hand down on the ground.
Instantly he was standing on the head of a large red toad.
"You got them?" Jiraiya asked.
The toad's lips pulled back in a smile. "'course." His tongue shot out of his mouth, moving much farther than seemed possible, twisting around trees until it entered some dense foliage, wrapped around something then pulled its captive back towards the toad's mouth.
"Sowwy, onny gat uhn," the toad told Jiraiya as his tongue continued to zip back towards his mouth.
At that moment, the remaining two dropped out of the trees, landing on the path, their weapons drawn. Jiraiya frowned at the red-haired boy dressed in plain clothing, with a large spider-shaped puppet on the ground under his outstretched arm. The girl next to him had dirty blond hair that hung past her shoulders. She gave him an irritated glare as she snapped open a large fan and drew it back.
There was something familiar about them, but he didn't put it all together until a burst of sand flashed out from his toad's captive and swirled towards him.
"Let him go," Jiraiya said as he flipped off the toad and away from the attack.
The tongue released its captive, sending a boy tumbling to the ground in a wet, sticky, and now dirty mess. The boy stood and Jiraiya spotted the tell-tale calabash gourd on his back, though his hair was a different color than it should have been and his clothes were those of a typical Grass Country youth. Except for the gourd, he looked almost nothing like the person Jiraiya knew he had to be.
"Gaara of the Desert, right?" he asked.
"And you're Jiraiya, one of the Sannin," Gaara said, his dark-rimmed eyes carefully watching Jiraiya from under dark, almost black, hair. The roots of his hair were beginning to show signs of the natural red, but from a distance, it would be hard to recognize him.
Jiraiya nodded, the reason for the disguise was obvious. "I hear the Kazekage is looking for you."
"We didn't do what he thinks we did," the girl, who must have been Temari, said as she approached, folding her fan up and letting it rest against her shoulder.
Jiraiya looked at her for a moment and then shrugged. "Why were you following me?"
"Uzumaki Naruto," Gaara replied. "I want to speak with him."
Jiraiya rocked back on his heels slightly. "Why?"
"He's… my friend."
Jiraiya digested that quietly. It was obviously not the real reason they wanted to talk to Naruto, but he wasn't sure that it was a lie. He debated his choices for a moment and then took a chance. "Naruto was kidnapped, right after the Chuunin Exam. No one's seen him since."
Gaara's eye twitched dangerously and then he lowered his head. "I see."
"I knew this was a stupid idea," Kankuro groaned, running a hand through his unruly red hair. The spider-puppet twitched as his hand flexed in agitation.
Temari shot him a reproachful glare. "It doesn't really matter; we don't need Naruto for this…"
Gaara glanced over his shoulder at her, a strangely dangerous look in his eyes. Temari's voice faltered for a second, but then Gaara gave himself a little shake and the look passed as he turned back to Jiraiya. "She's right. Orochimaru is still a problem that affects Konoha."
Jiraiya looked at the three young ninja and smiled. "Maybe it wasn't such a stupid idea," he said. "I don't know what you have on Orochimaru, but if you're interested in Naruto also, perhaps we can make a deal of some sort."
The cave would have seemed dark to anyone peering inside, but those whose presences filled it could see each other with ease as they stood at the base of a massive statue. Only a few were physically present, the rest had been sent out on various missions and were represented by specters
"It's been too long. We're ready to start, but we still haven't discovered the locations of either the Kyuubi or the Ichibi."
"It's not that big of a deal, we know where the others are, hmm. Well, except for the Sanbi, but supposedly it was freed from its jinchuriki somehow. It shouldn't be too difficult to find if it's loose though, hmm."
"What about that bastard Orochimaru? Haven't we let this nonsense go on long enough? We should have killed him right away."
"You're being impatient, Sasori. We'll deal with him when the time is right."
"Fuck that! I say we kill that shit-head now and get it over with. "
One of the few physically present figures turned his head to look at the last speaker. It wasn't much, but most of the others caught the movement and turned their attention to him. "Orochimaru and the Kyuubi are overlapping objectives and there are reports that Orochimaru is behind the recent unrest. They will be dealt with first. Sasori, Deidara, we'll leave them to you. The rest of you will continue with your missions."
The group nodded, some more reluctantly than others, and then those represented by specters faded away until only a few were still in the cave.
The last speaker looked up at the statue before them, his light-purple eyes with their strange multi-ring appearance seemed to sparkle, even in the darkness. He didn't smile, he didn't blink, he just stared up at the statue for a moment and then said, "It's almost time to let the world feel some pain."
A/N: I hope everyone was pleased with seeing Naruto up (sort of) and about (eh, not so much) along with a few fun little scenes from the war. There were initially more "torture Naruto" scenes, but I decided that some of them were in poor taste after reading them… plus, they made this chapter crazy long. I still have them, so maybe they'll show up as a flashback or something, but for now you'll have to live with what you get. I think the first Gaara scene was my favorite though it was sort of odd to write it as observed from a distance, still Gaara's always fun to write, even from a distance. Next chapter should be coming soon. Please Review and let me know what you thought.
Those of you interested in cool anime music videos should check out Amaleea's video that she made for Time and Again… I think it might be the coolest amv that I've ever seen (though I could be a little biased in that assessment). She's "Aleeight" on YouTube and the video is called "Naruto~ KyLewin's Time and Again."
Matsuri – This is actually a real character from canon. She's the girl in the fillers that Gaara trains to use a rope/whip-thing (it has a name, but I'm lazy). She's also, apparently, one of the girls who has become quite enamored of Kazekage Gaara in chapter 280 (when he comes back from the dead). That seemed a little creepy to me at first, but apparently they're nearly the same age, so it's not so bad… she just seems really young in the filler stuff.
Eiko – I made up her up. Mostly, I thought it would be funny for a ninja to have a name that means "long-lived child."
Ichibi – "One-tail" … as in Shukaku.
Sanbi – "Three tails" this is the turtle that Deidara and Tobi capture. It was originally in an odd-looking young Mist-nin, though it was freed at some point and simply living in the wild by the time Akatsuki caught up with it.