"They've already captured three Jinchuuriki?" Karui cried out in response to Killer Bee's latest revelation.
"That we know of," he replied. "Iwa isn't being at all forthcoming about the location or status of the Yonbi and Gobi. They could have as many as five."
Naruto had no idea how Bee had even gotten the information. They had camped in a clearing not too far from Kusagakure, with Takigakure and the Nanabi being their ultimate destination. Then in the morning, Bee had woken them to the news.
"I guess there isn't much point in continuing on," Naruto pointed out. "Should we go back to Suna and wait for them to strike Gaara again?"
"That may be the best course of action," Bee agreed, "But there's something else you should know."
He paused for a few seconds as if considering his words carefully.
"Uchiha Sasuke was the one you insisted on sending that message to after we first met, right?" he finally asked.
"Yeah, what about him?" Naruto replied, Bee's own reticence to bring this up making Naruto more than a little nervous.
"I received a report that he's been captured by Konoha and is scheduled for execution as a traitor," Bee declared, no longer beating around the bush.
Naruto froze for a second as he let that sink in.
"What!" he yelled as the impact of the message had fully hit him. "I've got to save him. Where's he being held? How long do I have? What else do you know?"
"Calm down for a moment," Yugito ordered him. "This is most likely a trap."
"I don't care," Naruto insisted. "If I walk into a trap, I'll deal with it. But I'm not going to let them kill Sasuke because I was too afraid to help him."
"You understand right?" he asked, turning to Bee. "If the Raikage had been the one captured, you'd feel the same way, wouldn't you?"
"Of course I would," Bee replied confidently. "That's why we're going with you."
"You can't do that!" Naruto insisted loudly.
"How could we not?" Yugito asked. "You expect us to let you walk into a trap by yourself?"
"Yeah, we've grown quite fond of you over the years, kiddo," Karui chimed in, while tussling his hair.
He growled slightly in response, annoyed that she persisted in treating him like a kid despite the fact that he was now almost as tall as her. She probably did it just to bother him.
But putting that aside, he focused on the other occupants of the room and saw even Samui was nodding in agreement. For once, Naruto was at a temporary loss for words. He'd gotten used to having a family, but still found it almost difficult to believe that others could come to care for him. But somehow, without his even realizing it, these people had done just that. And that realization had left him unsure how to react.
Omoi chose that moment to interject. "I must point out that ..."
"You stay out of this! You're ruining the mood!" Karui interrupted forcefully.
And the forceful interruption part was quite literal. For while her verbal response could easily be described as forceful, as far as in interruptions go, her fist hadn't left much for tongue to do when it had left Omoi collapsed in heap with the wind the knocked out of him.
"No, what Omoi was going to say is probably right," Naruto admitted. "How do you think Konoha will react to a group Kumo-nin jailbreaking a Konoha citizen who's scheduled for death?"
"Don't worry," Bee assured him. "The Raikage will clear up any minor diplomatic issues we might cause. He's good at cleaning up after me."
"I'm sure he'll be glad to hear you said that," Naruto quipped, pleased to see the normally fearless man's face whiten a bit at the thought. "But even if that's true, protecting the remaining Jinchuuriki is still Yuugure's priority. This is something I have to do, but the rest of you need to focus on the bigger issues. Now if you'll give me details on that report, I want to leave immediately."
Bee looked a little reluctant, but when no one seemed to have anything to say in response he slipped out a piece of paper and handed it to Naruto. Heading to the door, he looked over his shoulder one last time. Seeing the concern on the faces of his friends, he gave them his most confident smile to reassure them and swiftly departed.
Hinata stood at the ready, carefully scanning the small warehouse she was in with her Byakugan. It was nearly the time she'd claimed the execution would take place, so if anything were going to happen it would be soon. But it was still just her, Sasuke, and an impressive collection of crates haphazardly stacked all over the place. Her teammate turned bait was heavily chained and just as heavily sedated. She didn't want any unnecessary risks at this point. She hadn't even risked bringing Shisui along, instead leaving him in his cell.
Making another visual pass, she finally saw her target sneaking along the outside wall, slowly approaching an open window. She moved towards his apparent destination, such that when Naruto slipped through the window he came face to face with Hinata.
"What are you doing here?" Naruto whispered. "Are you trying to rescue Sasuke too?"
"Sasuke doesn't need rescuing," she told him as calmly as she could. "I spread false information because it was the only way I could think of to get you to come here. And there's something important I need to discuss with you."
She hoped that he would buy her story, but refused to let down her guard even when appeared to relax a little. She began to slowly close the distance between them, trying not to do anything suspicious. She was about four feet away when he suddenly stiffened and she realized he was looking at the unconscious and bound Sasuke.
"It's only a Genjutsu," she lied. "For added effect."
His tension faded again, and she resumed walking towards him, making sure to stay positioned so he couldn't see the hand signs she was making behind his back. Deciding she was close enough, she made her move, lifting his shirt with her left hand and slamming her right palm into his stomach. She then leapt back to see if she'd been successful, and was pleased when her Byakugan showed her the same seal Orochimaru had put on the boy was once again present.
She'd been very interested in that particular seal when she'd heard of it, and it hadn't been too difficult to convince Jiraiya to teach her in the aftermath of their revolution. That should take care of his monstrous healing. And without the Kyuubi's power, he'd be no match for her.
"What was that for?" Naruto asked irritably.
"You're a traitor to the village and too dangerous to be allowed to live," Hinata replied sharply.
Deciding to end this quickly, she charged back toward her target, sending a chakra infused fist toward his chest. When it hit, she'd pump his heart so full of her chakra that the organ would explode. Bracing herself for the impact that would end her former teammate's life, she instead was surprised to find her fist hitting nothing but air as Naruto dodged at the last second.
The seal must not have worked. She never should have trusted Jiraiya, there was no way anyone like him could be as skilled a ninja as the stories said. But examining him, she saw no sign of the red chakra that always heralded the Kyuubi's aid. But he shouldn't have been fast enough to dodge that himself.
"Can't we just talk this over?" Naruto asked placatingly.
Rather than listen, she redoubled her efforts. She attacked again and again, but found every blow dodged or deflected. To her frustration, even without the Kyuubi he seemed to have surpassed her in speed. She realized now it had been a mistake to assume she would be the only one to improve since he'd left. But it was time to show him just how much she'd learned.
She went in for another attack and, as expected, he dodged her attempted palm strike. But this time, several snakes extended from the sleeve of her attacking arm, closing the distance and latching onto his arm. Despite the surprise clearly shown on his face, he reacted admirably, having pulled out a kunai from and decapitated the snakes mere moments after they'd bitten him.
They disappeared in a puff of smoke, but it was too late. They'd already have injected him with their venom. And indeed, he stumbled a bit in response. He should be on the floor unconscious, but it appeared that his inhumane stamina wasn't entirely held in check by the seal. Still, she would press her advantage. Leaping back into action, she found that Naruto's movements were indeed significantly slowed. In response, she was able to seal off several chakra nodes in his arms and legs, slowing him even further.
Deciding she'd weakened him enough, she moved in for the kill.
"That's enough!" A commanding voice boomed, bringing her up short.
Looking in the direction it came from, she found Kakashi standing on top of a pile of crates, dressed in full Hokage regalia. She couldn't stop now though, not when she was so close. Desperately she leapt again towards Naruto, but found her flight interrupted as she was hurled face first into the ground and held in place by a knee on her back.
"That was an order from your Hokage," the Rokudaime said crossly.
"Why are you protecting him?" Hinata cried out.
"I don't like to get involved in personal matters," Kakashi said. "But despite my giving you every chance to work this out yourself, you've proven that the task is beyond you."
"That's not fair," Hinata yelled at him. "You don't know what he's done!"
"I know a lot better than you do," Kakashi fire back. "Because I, for one, bothered to find out what really happened. Did you know that he didn't run off? He was kidnapped. Actually, he was kidnapped twice; he decided to come back the first time."
Not to be persuaded so easily, Hinata continued to argue her point. "That doesn't change the fact that ..."
"Doesn't change that fact that he kept his promise and confronted Fugaku about the hostages?" Kakashi asked, interrupting her. "Or the fact that he was told there was nothing Fugaku could do, as he wasn't even the person who was holding them. That a third party was using them to blackmail both sides for his own ends?"
Stunned by this revelation, Hinata prepared to ask the obvious follow-up question, only to be cut off by Kakashi once again.
"And no I won't tell you who that third party is," he informed her. "You've already proven you're not mature enough to handle that information, and we have no real proof. But maybe Naruto will tell you can ever convince him to speak to you again after the way you've acted."
Turning toward the aforementioned blond, she saw that he was standing unsteadily on his feet with his skin having turned a very unhealthy shade of green.
"The room is spinning so fast. This is fun." Naruto slurred out weakly.
"Maybe I should remove that seal before the poison finishes him off," Kakashi quipped.
Naruto felt his mind clear as the Kyuubi's chakra, no longer barred by a seal, did its work removing the snake's venom from his system. He glanced over at Hinata who had been let up but looked suitably chastised. At the very least he didn't think her likely to assault him again anytime soon.
"I'm not done with you yet," Kakashi told Hinata sternly, seeming to have satisfied himself that Naruto would be fine new. "I've known all these things for years. It's amazing what you can find out from a few questions to some of the Uchiha we captured. I'd have been happy to tell you if you asked. But you made up your mind and never bothered to look underneath the underneath. Isn't that right Anko?"
"Yeah," Anko confirmed, stepping out of the shadows in another corner of the warehouse, partially eaten bag of popcorn in hand. "Only thing she wanted to know about Naruto was where he was. Good show by the way you two. Although you might want to learn how to not lose so pathetically in the future, Naruto."
"She caught me off guard, and I wasn't even fighting seriously," Naruto protested.
"And both of those are completely your own fault," Anko replied smugly.
"So, what happens to me now?" Naruto asked Kakashi.
"Oh, I'd say you continue the secret mission I assigned you three years ago," he answered.
Naruto was confused for a moment until he realized that Kakashi was offering him a way to escape punishment for his absence. That was a surprising piece of good news.
"In fact, if your associate would let herself inside, we can discuss it further," Kakashi added.
There was a pause, before Karui entered through the same window he had, somewhat abashedly.
"Is there anyone I know who wasn't watching this whole thing?" Naruto asked sullenly.
"There may be one or two," Sasuke replied from the center of the room.
"Aren't you supposed to be a Genjutsu?" Naruto asked his brother.
"She lied about that," he responded. "I've only been feigning unconsciousness for the last ten minutes or so. And I agree with Anko, that was a very entertaining fight."
"You've got a lot of nerve saying that when you're the one in chains," Naruto fired back.
"The difference is," Sasuke replied condescendingly, "that I was beaten by Orochimaru, one of Konoha's most infamous criminals ever. You on the other hand, were beaten by a girl your own age."
"He's got you there, kiddo." Karui chimed in.
"Well at least I'm not two for two on getting caught trying to sneak around Konoha," Naruto fired back.
He was pleased to see this left her temporarily at a loss for words. While she was attempting to come up with a suitably witty response, he registered something that had just been mentioned.
"What were you doing fighting Orochimaru?" Naruto asked him.
"He captured nii-san," he replied coldly, his anger at the man clearly visible.
"What?!" Naruto yelled in surprise. "Why didn't you tell me this?"
"Because you've been in hiding for three years and never gave me any way to contact you," his brother explained.
"Oh," he replied feeling his face flush a bit. "I guess you're right. Sorry about that."
"It gets worse," Sasuke continued. "He's somehow taken over Itachi's body."
"Orochimaru with a Sharingan?" Kakashi interjected. "I don't like the sound of that."
"Anko, have you managed to get a location out of your prisoner yet?" Sasuke queried.
"Of course I do," she answered, sounding almost offended that he'd asked. "I'm very good at getting information out of prisoners. Took me less than an hour to find out where his main lab is, and I'm quite confident that it's accurate. Believe me, she was too terrified of me to even consider sending me on a wild goose chase. Especially after the first day."
"I thought it took you less than an hour to get her to talk," Naruto pointed out.
"Let's just say I like to be thorough," Anko replied with a grin that actually made Naruto feel sorry for whoever it was Anko had captured. "Now I assume you boys will want to come with me."
"We'll come too," Karui offered. "Orochimaru is a former member of Akatsuki, and that makes him a potential source information
"We?" Naruto asked. "You mean you're not the only one who followed me here?"
"Everyone else is waiting outside the village in case I signal them," she replied. "We'd assumed this would be an Akatsuki trap to split us up and capture you, not just some little spat."
"Lovers' quarrel," Anko stage whispered, to Naruto's embarrassment.
"Well, I don't think forbidding any of you to go would do any good," Kakashi said thoughtfully. "And I can't go with, as there's a big meeting of the five Kage's I need to go to. But I do know someone else I can send with you who should be interested in going."
"The more the merrier," Anko said cheerfully. "You coming too Hinata?"
"I ... think I just need some time alone right now to ... think some things over," she answered weakly.
That was fine with Naruto. He found the Hyuuga girl to be impossible to figure out. It seemed that one day she was putting a knife in his back, the next she was all friendly, and the day after she was trying to kill again. Not the type of person one wanted to be around if they were at all fond of either their life or their sanity.
"Great," Sasuke declared. "Now that we have everything settled, can someone please let me out of these stupid chains?"
Sasuke was following behind Karui as she led them outside the village to where the rest of this mysterious group Naruto had joined was supposedly located. They'd already made a stop to free Shisui, so with Anko and Naruto that made five of them. They had yet to find out who it was the Hokage wanted to send with them.
Even knowing now, the things his father had done, he couldn't help be resent the man who had taken his place at least a little. But Kakashi seemed to be doing his part to try to make amends. First in allowing this mission and second with the promise he'd made before they'd parted ways. That he'd make sure they were pardoned if his family wanted to return to Konoha after this mission.
Although Sasuke did have to wonder if it was an empty promise. Sasuke and Shisui had been able to confirm that surviving members of their clan hadn't really been mistreated. Even those who had joined them in Kiri and were subsequently captured had all since been released after giving an oath to remain in the village. Even still, he had his doubts the wife and son of Fugaku could be protected even by the Hokage himself.
But then, that may be why he made the offer for after the mission. Eliminating one of Konoha's most infamous criminals would go a long way towards paving the path for Kakashi to keep his promise.
But for now, Sasuke turned his attention back to more immediate concerns. He was glad to see Naruto doing so well. Not that he would ever admit it, but he'd begun to worry about his brother after not hearing anything since that first letter. And despite his teasing to contrary, he was quite impressed with his performance after having his access to the Kyuubi sealed. In fact, both of his old teammates had performed admirably. Despite their differences, he almost wished Hinata would be joining them.
Still, even without considering whatever other people were members of this Yuugure group or this mystery helper the Hokage would be sending, they already had a very formidable assault group. He just hoped it would be enough. He'd been forced the hard way to learn just how dangerous their opponent was. And they had to beat him without harming the body too severely. Then they had to take into account whatever forces Orochimaru might have with him.
So it was they arrived at their destination and came upon four people who were waiting for them. Sasuke knew he recognized the large man from the group but couldn't place from where. So he only vaguely listened to the ensuing summary of recent events as he tried to dredge up the memory of that face. Despite his preoccupation, he did note that they had agreed to go along on this mission, as Karui had assured they would. Suddenly it came to him.
"You're the Raikage's younger brother!" he exclaimed in surprise. "Just what have you gotten yourself into, Naruto?"
"I'm not just the Raikage's younger brother," he huffed out. "I'm the jinchuuriki of the Hachibi, and one of the most powerful ninja in the world."
"If you and Naruto are both jinchuuriki, what about the rest of you?" he asked.
"I'm Yugito, the jinchuuriki of the Nibi," one of the woman announced. "None of the others have a bijuu, but I assure you they're all highly skilled ninja."
"The short version is, Akatsuki wants to capture the bijuu, we all have a personal interest in seeing that they don't, so we formed a group to stop them," Naruto explained to him.
"Well, this certainly is a fortuitous development," Shisui declared.
"Yeah," Sasuke agreed. "What do we need this guy the Hokage wants to send for? I say we go storm Orochimaru's base right now. We've certainly got the firepower for it."
"How rude," a voice announced from within the forests. "You were planning to leave behind the one and only, the great, Jiraiya-sama?"
Said man leaped flashily from the trees, doing several flips in the air before landing among them.
"After all, who better to deal with a Sannin than another Sannin?" Jiraiya asked to the stunned group.
Surprised again by another stroke of good fortune, Sasuke couldn't help but smile at this. Orochimaru wasn't going to know what hit him.
"I still don't like the plan," Anko complained. "If we all just surround Orochimaru and hit him with everything we've got, we're sure to take him out. And it'd be a mercy for your brother."
"No," Sasuke insisted angrily. "We're going to stick to the current plan. Shisui and I have worked out a way to enter Itachi's mind and free him from there. Jiraiya will deal with Orochimaru's corporeal form while we do so."
"Fine," Anko spat out, "I'll give you your chance. But if your little Sharingan hocus pocus doesn't work, don't think I'll hesitate to kill the host in order to destroy the parasite."
He realized that was the best he was likely to get from her and so simply nodded.
"So all we get to do is take out his lackeys?" Naruto whined.
"Not at all," Shisui replied. "Anything that will distract or unbalance Orochimaru will only improve our chances of success. So it'd be helpful if you cause as much damage and mayhem as you can."
"That's more like it," Naruto responded cheerfully.
And he wasn't the only one to brighten at that statement.
"Maybe this plan isn't so bad after all," Anko conceded, her face taking on a thoughtful look that involuntarily brought images to Sasuke's mind he'd rather not dwell on.
"There won't be much left for any of you to destroy once I get going," Bee added.
"But what if we destroy the information on Akatsuki we're looking for?" Omoi asked worriedly.
"While you cause damage, I'll look for it," Samui declared simply, in an apparent attempt to allay his concerns.
He hadn't been around them for long, but the woman displayed little enough emotion to be considered odd even in more normal company. Among the rest of her team, she seemed glaringly out of place. Almost as if she was trying to act as a balance for all of them.
"Well, what if we destroy the structural integrity and the building collapses on us?" Omoi countered, still seeming to have reservations about the plan.
"Quit your whining," Karui berated him. "If a little thing like a falling ceiling can kill you, maybe you don't deserve to be on this team in the first place."
"Anyway, we're almost there, so try to keep it down," Sasuke ordered. "Remember, wait four minutes after the three of us enter before you follow. Our target may flee if he knows the full force of what we have arrayed against him."
"Yeah, yeah," Anko said dismissively. "We heard you the first three times you told us."
"I only repeat it, because I want it to actually sink in," Sasuke retorted.
They came to a halt near the top of a hill. Peeking over, they saw a large facility down below. Unlike the last place they'd infiltrated, this made no attempts to disguise itself. He could see a dozen ninja from his vantage point patrolling the area. This was a compound that used force rather than stealth for protection.
Sasuke made ready to depart with Shisui and Jiraiya, when Naruto grabbed his arm to stop him.
"I wish I could be more help," Naruto told him morosely, "But promise me you'll rescue Itachi."
"Don't sell yourself short," Sasuke replied, "Orochimaru isn't the only one who can't afford to be distracted. With you to watch my back, I can focus completely on Orochimaru. And I swear I won't let that opportunity go to waste."
"Just do a little better than last time," Naruto quipped, but Sasuke let it slide, glad to see his words had cheered the blond up a little.
No one else made a move to stop him, so this time the three departed, dashing towards the main entrance without even worrying about stealth. There were two guards at the door, but one quickly fell with several of Shisui's shuriken embedded in his neck. The other was grabbed by Jiraiya and slammed bodily through the door, throwing it clean off its hinges and sending the poor fool into unconsciousness.
The three quickly made their way through the now open entrance and looked around. This was supposed to be a research lab, and the large room they'd entered certainly fit that description. There were tables full of beakers, vials of strange liquids, and all sorts of papers and notes. There were also large cages and beds with thick straps on them that gave the room a much more sinister appearance, but thankfully they were all empty at the moment.
"Orochimaru! Show yourself!" Sasuke yelled to the room, which appeared to have been empty prior to their entrance.
At this point Sasuke actually began to worry. They had no way of knowing for certain Orochimaru would be here. He'd stubbornly refused to consider that possibility before, but his thoughts were implacably drifting in that direction. His feelings of doubt soon shifted to a cold fury when a familiar form appeared in front of them.
"Why if it isn't Sasuke-kun," Orochimaru said cheerfully, back to wearing his own face, Sasuke noted. "I wasn't expecting you to visit again so soon. And I see you've brought my old teammate with you. Although I really wish you would stop using that hideous toad face, Jiraiya."
Sasuke glanced over at Jiraiya confused as to what Orochimaru was talking about, and saw the older man feeling his face as if to check something before glaring at his fellow Sannin.
"Oh, that's your normal face?" Orochimaru mocked. "I'm afraid it's hard to tell the difference. And it's been what, three years since I last saw you? Not since you agreed to let me have Itachi's body if I helped overthrow Sasuke-kun's father."
He turned once again to Jiraiya, but this time, his expression was decidedly less friendly.
"I'll answer whatever questions you have when this is over," Jiraiya assured him. "Just stay focused and don't let him turn us against each other."
Sasuke knew the man was right, but he wasn't about to forget this. His father may have made some poor choices, but Jiraiya had anything to do with Itachi's abduction, it wouldn't be easy for him to win Sasuke's forgiveness.
"Ah, I can see you three aren't here just to chat," the snake Sannin declared. "Now if you'll wait just one moment, I don't think this is the appropriate face for the occasion."
Even knowing what was about to come wasn't enough to fully brace Sasuke for seeing the man peel away his face to reveal Itachi's underneath. Stealing his nerves, he prepared himself to execute their plan but was interrupted by a large crash that seemed to be coming from somewhere else in the building. Most likely from a wall being knocked in.
"That was not even close to four minutes," Sasuke muttered to himself.
He wondered which fool had jumped the gun. He supposed it didn't matter, since Orochimaru had already taken the bait, but they'd all be hearing from him after this just the same.
"Go greet our new guests," Orochimaru ordered. "I'll take care of things here."
To his consternation, Sasuke saw three ninja who had been hiding back in the shadowy corners of the room depart. How had he missed noticing them completely? Activating his Sharingan, he scanned the room, looking to see if anyone else was still lying in wait. Not seeing anyone he nodded to Shisui, and the two of them began to form the Genjutsu they'd planned to use to rescue Itachi.
As if he'd been waiting for that signal, Orochimaru leapt towards Shisui, but was intercepted by Jiraiya before he could reach him. Pressing on with their Genjutsu, he felt it surrounding their target, reaching out to engulf him. Then Orochimaru looked right at him, Itachi's stolen Sharingan active, and grinned. Immediately he felt combined chakra they were using to ensnare the man, sort of slip past him, unable to gain a purchase. It seemed that he wasn't completely unskilled in the use of his new eyes.
But they weren't about to give up, they just needed one slip from the man, and he'd be trapped. They'd just try again and again, no matter how many times it took. But as the attempts grew, his confidence began to fall. Minutes passed, and still Orochimaru proved maddeningly elusive.
He wasn't even an Uchiha? How was he able to fight so intensively with a ninja of Jiraiya's caliber and at the same time run circles around two of the most skilled members of their clan in Genjutsu? The man really was a genius. And perhaps, he was able to steal some of Itachi's skills along with his body. He realized he truly didn't know much of how the process worked.
At least on other fronts things were going better. There were near constant crashes coming from various areas of the complex that gave proof the rest of their group were succeeding in their task. And Jiraiya had been able to protect them from all of their opponent's assaults and avoid injury himself.
Come to think of it, Orochimaru probably wasn't focusing much attention on Jiraiya. Protecting targets and fighting without seriously injuring your opponent was a huge handicap. That Jiraiya was still uninjured despite that, most likely meant he had most of his attention on the two Uchiha. Which meant he may be struggling more than he was letting on.
Off to the side, Sasuke noticed a familiar head of spiky blond hair. Wondering when he'd shown up, Sasuke saw him duck under a table containing a particularly large number of vials and equipment. He then lifted it straight into the air, without spilling any of the contents.
"Put that down this instant, you little brat!" Orochimaru yelled, having noticed Naruto's presence as well at some point.
He didn't know why Orochimaru was so concerned with that table, but he knew Naruto well enough to know what his response to that order would be, and this might be the opportunity he needed. Focusing all his efforts, he synced up with Shisui to attempt their Genjutsu one more time. Then, just as he'd expected, Naruto twisted the table, and hurled all of its contents into the wall.
Right at the moment glass began to shatter, they struck again. And this time there was no slipping away, Naruto's timely distraction providing just the extra little push they needed to succeed. He felt his mind being drawn along the pathways their jutsu had just opened, his vision blurring to where he couldn't see anything.
When it had cleared again, he saw himself, Shisui, and Orochimaru standing in a dark room. They'd succeeded in invading his mind, and within this space, Orochimaru appeared in his own form. Spread throughout the room, were a number of large lumps that he quickly realized, from some partially visible faces, were bodies wrapped in some substance. Looking around he tried to find Itachi, assuming he must be in one of them.
"If I had known this was what that jutsu would do, I would have let you do it from the start," Orochimaru declared confidently. "I've fought on this plane every time I've switched bodies, learned all its secrets. I even defeated your own brother. In here you have no chance against me."
As if to prove his point, snakes made out of the same material that surrounded all the other bodies appeared from nowhere and began twisting around Sasuke and Shisui. He struggled, but found himself completely unable to move. Already more than half his body was trapped and he couldn't think of any way out of this.
Then he saw another figure appear from behind Orochimaru.
"Nii-san!" he cried out reflexively when he realized who it was.
"You! How are you free?" Orochimaru cried out when he'd turned to face Itachi, his face somehow taking an even whiter shade if that were possible.
The progress of the snakes that had been wrapping them halted completely. Itachi meanwhile, simply stood there staring at his oppressor silently, Sharingan spinning.
"Stop! You can't do this to me! I've already beaten you!" Orochimaru continued to yell.
But judging from his reaction, it appeared Itachi was winning whatever struggle they were engaging in. Then everything went back, and Sasuke found himself back in reality, at almost the same moment the jutsu had hit. The shattered pieces of equipment hadn't even finished falling to the ground.
"Itachi!" he called out, running over to where his brother's body had just slumped to the ground.
Looking down on the fallen body, he found himself releasing a breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding when the eyes opened a few seconds later. He heard a similar sound from Naruto, who had already made his way next to him.
"Yes it's me," Itachi said weakly. "You did it."
"I feel more like you rescued me in there," Sasuke replied as relief spread throughout his body. "But we can discuss that after we get out of here."
Explosions and other large crashes continued to reverberate throughout the area, seeming to shake the building down to its foundations. Sasuke felt a tick beginning to form, as the antics of the rest of their group threatened to spoil the moment.
"Naruto, Shisui, Jiraiya, can you stop those idiots before they really do bring the whole place down?" he asked.
Almost before he'd finished the sentence, he heard a particularly close crash, and turned to see Jiraiya standing by a newly formed hole in the wall, a couple body lengths in diameter, fist still extended. Sasuke glared at the man, who at least had the decency to look embarrassed.
"I didn't want to them have all the fun," he stated sheepishly.
The whole group had made it out without any noteworthy injuries. Having left the facility, they had split up, with only Sasuke, Naruto, and Shisui remaining with Itachi. The rest were either remaining behind to search the facility or heading back to Konoha.
He'd already been given a brief overview on what had happened since he'd been captured, and how his mother had come to be living in Kirigakure, said city being their current destination.
Pausing a brief moment, to just take in the simple pleasure of being free and in control of his own body again, he spent a few more seconds to stop the shaking in his right hand. Then he turned and followed after his two younger brothers, who seemed eager to get on with their journey.
Itachi had been aware the entire duration of his captivity. He even occasionally caught glimpses of his captor's thoughts when he was particularly focused on something. Early on he'd made attempts to free himself, but found that Orochimaru was constantly on his guard for that, and would return to strengthen the bonds almost instantly after even the slightest of struggles.
So he'd stopped struggling, pretended to give up hope, planned, and waited for an opportunity to appear. That Sasuke had been the one to give him that opportunity filled him with a sense of pride. He paused briefly as he felt his head spin and gave it a moment to clear. Hopefully it was just a side effect of his ordeal that would soon pass and not ... well, he didn't want to dwell on the other possibility.
He continued moving again, and saw Shisui give him a curious look. Thankfully Naruto and Sasuke didn't seem to notice anything off. The two of them had been spending the journey catching him up on everything that had been going on for them in the past three years. Naruto was energetically boasting of all his exploits, and for once, Sasuke seemed almost as excited as his brother.
He was more than happy to listen to them, and it appeared both had grown in more than just height since he'd last seen them. But as the journey continued, his symptoms became stronger, and he could no longer deny what it was. He was showing obvious signs of drug withdrawal. He wasn't sure exactly what Orochimaru had done with his body over the years, but it was somewhat surprising he'd be feeling such strong effects so soon. The battle he'd just been in may have accelerated the process to some degree.
This worried him as he knew withdrawal could be fatal for certain substances. He wouldn't think Orochimaru would leave himself so dependant on a substance, but it was hard to predict the mind of a madman. Still, they were making good progress towards Kiri, and there were bound to be at least one medic-nin who could help his body overcome its dependency. Still, he subtly increased their pace and began pushing harder.
But he couldn't keep up the pace for long, as his body continued to weaken. Itachi now had a choice to make, it they continued to push towards Kiri, he'd probably survive with the help of medical attention. But the real danger wasn't in his survival, he could already feel Orochimaru struggling, trying to regain control of his body. As he weakened, it was becoming more and more difficult to resist. Should he falter for moment, he'd loose, and who knows what Orochimaru would do.
His mind went through his options. They could restrain him, put him under a powerful sleep jutsu, or any number of possibilities to prevent him from doing harm should he loose control. Then they would have time to work on freeing Itachi once again. But that was risky. There was no guarantee he would be able to break free so easily next time, or that Orochimaru wouldn't be able to escape from whatever they trapped him in. He was a very dangerous individual and an expert and saving his own skin.
But no matter what Orochimaru did, he knew Sasuke, Naruto, and Shisui would chase him to the ends of the earth trying to rescue him again. He'd be putting all their lives at risk to try to save his own. When he looked at it that way, his choice was simple.
"Shisui, can you go on ahead and get my mother?" he asked. "I'd like to speak with Sasuke and Naruto."
It was a tribute to the strength of their friendship that with a single look Shisui was able to convey that he knew exactly what Itachi was thinking. And despite this, he acquiesced to Itachi's decision and departed with a simple nod, leaving at the fastest speed he was capable of. His brothers gave a confused look to his rapidly departing form.
"Don't stop," Itachi told them. "We can talk as we travel."
They complied and looked at him curiously as they followed him along their path. He remained silent for a few minutes to get his thoughts in order and he could sense a growing impatience from the other two.
"Kabuto is a spy for Orochimaru," Itachi finally began. "I was able to occasionally catch glimpses of Orochimaru's thoughts and that was one of my discoveries."
"Who's Kabuto?" Naruto asked.
"I think he's a medic-nin in Konoha," Sasuke answered. "But why are you telling us this now?"
"Akatsuki sent him to spy on Orochimaru," Itachi continued, ignoring Sasuke's question. "But Orochimaru turned him and made him his own agent. He's sure to have information on their group if you capture him. But he's much more dangerous than he looks, so use extreme caution."
"Thanks," Naruto replied. "That'll be a great help. But we can deal with him when we get back to Konoha. Why are you making such a big deal about it?"
But Itachi simply remained silent as they continued traveling. Soon Kirigakure became visible in the distance, and almost as soon as Itachi had noticed the city, he saw a form moving towards them which quickly resolved itself to be Shisui, carrying his mother.
"Itachi!" she cried out as soon as she saw him leaping down from Shisui's arms she ran to him and engulfed him a fierce hug.
"I never thought I'd see you again," she continued, tears that had already been welling up in her eyes now spilling over.
"And Naruto!" she called out, releasing Itachi and giving him his own turn to be smothered in her embrace.
Not that he seemed to mind, happily returning it.
"You've grown so much," she announced warmly before she switched over to glaring at him, an effect that was somewhat ruined by how misty her eyes still were. "And don't you ever disappear like that again."
"Sasuke, Naruto, Itachi," she said, finally releasing Naruto. "All four of us together again. I have so many things to say, I just don't know where to start."
Itachi decided that waiting any further would only make this crueler. "I'm glad I got to see you all one last time."
"What are you talking about, 'one last time?'" Sasuke asked.
"I'm going through withdrawal from drugs that Orochimaru used on me," Itachi declared, then without giving them a chance to respond, continued. "My body is growing weaker, and it's becoming difficult to keep him from taking over again. It's only a matter of time until he succeeds."
"Don't give me that!" Naruto yelled at him, unsurprisingly angry at his decision. "Sasuke and Shisui already beat him up once, just let them back in your head and they'll do it again. They'll do it as many times as it takes."
"It's not that simple," Itachi answered, "and my mind is already made up."
"You can't," his mother ordered him. "Not after I've finally got you back again."
She moved towards him, looking intent to engulf him in another hug. Of its own volition, his arm suddenly leapt out towards his mother. Time seemed to slow down as it moved steadfastly towards her neck, his body refusing to listen to him. At the speed it was moving, she hadn't even realized what was happening as it moved closer inch by inch.
Then he felt an impact as a kunai pierced the palm of his hand, lodging there and hitting with enough force to completely knock his arm away.
As suddenly as he'd lost control, he could now move his body again.
"What are you doing!" his mother yelled accusingly at Shisui, when she'd realized that her son had been assaulted.
"Thank you," he told Shisui, and meant it more than he'd ever meant those words, "I couldn't ask for a better friend."
Realizing this was the end for him, Orochimaru must have put everything into one last attack to make Itachi suffer. But it didn't change the fact that he'd already put this off too long and couldn't wait any longer.
"And I couldn't wish for a better family either," he added.
Then, without giving them any further chance to protest, he pulled the kunai from his hand, and rapidly went through a set of hand seals taught to everyone in their clan. It would cause one's own body to be consumed in fire, reducing itself to nothing but ash, and protecting the secrets of the Sharingan.
Activating it, he saw his family rush him, before his vision faded. He heard them crying his name, before hearing too was denied him. He regretted that his decision would again cause pain to others, and to those he held most dear at that. But this time the only one to die because of his choice would be him. This time, he had a clear conscience.
Well, I'm certainly not putting these out anywhere near as fast as I used to. But I am still very committed to finishing this, and do have the ending completely planned out, so fear not in that regard.
As a note, I once read an author whose chapter had been delayed much longer than mine blame it largely on having too many of the story's main characters in one place and finding that difficult to write. I underestimated how true that really is.
So my advice to any aspiring writers is to consider that fact when writing your story. It is painfully hard to write dialogue for a large group of characters. You feel you're ignoring some characters who just fall into the background. And if you try to give everyone their share of lines the dialogue becomes awkward. You're never really satisfied with how it turns out and eventually just settle for well enough.
Or at least that's how it is for me. If you're more skilled than me, (which really isn't much of an accomplishment) and you can handle it, more power to you.
The next chapter is going to be something many of you may think me incapable of writing, a slow paced character development chapter that focuses on how everyone deals with all the stuff that just happened.
Yeah, I know; who thought I could write a chapter where following the plot didn't feel like driving a car at 120 mph down a highway? Don't worry, I'll probably include the Kage summit in that chapter so you don't suffer whiplash from the deceleration.