Lost and Found
The sound of rain hitting against the roof at this time of the year was normally something that would lull Iruka into a dreamless sleep. But, at the moment, all that it did was remind him of the colossal mistake that he'd made when he'd accepted the message brought to him by a vest-wearing hound without verifying first that it was, indeed, one of Kakashi's nin-hounds. And now, he and his companions were being held as bait to draw the Sixth Hokage to this cold and damp place. The only good side in all of this mess was the fact that Naruto hadn't been with them when they'd been taken by the Akatsuki. That was something, at least.
Iruka sighed and pushed himself up on the thin mattress that he'd woken up on after his initial run-in with Itachi Uchiha. According to Shikaku, he'd been unconscious for less than half a day, and considering other attacks by the Sharingan-wielder had resulted in far longer periods of vulnerability, he was lucky indeed. After all, even Kakashi had been affected for more than a week after one of his encounters with the man. Of course, based on the snippets he had heard while manning the Mission Desk, and all the stories from Naruto after that particular incident, it was clear to Iruka that his own attack had been nowhere near the level that Itachi had used against the Sixth Hokage. He couldn't even begin to imagine what it had been like to experience three days worth of mental pain in what had turned out to be less than a heartbeat.
Fortunately, it appeared that Itachi had chosen to use a different technique on him. And, as far as Iruka could piece together, the only thing that had happened to him once his gaze had been captured by those swirling pools of red was that he'd been rendered unconscious. A sharp ache at his temples had him change his thoughts slightly about that encounter, even as he tried to rub the pain away with his fingertips. He could now also thank the Uchiha for one of the worst headaches that he'd had since Naruto had graduated from the Academy, and he could only hope that this truly was the only side-effect that he'd be experiencing.
A raspy cough from across the small room reminded Iruka that he wasn't alone in this mess. He looked toward where Shikaku Nara was leaning over the edge of his makeshift bed, and he could just make out the fact that the man had just expelled something dark onto the hard-packed dirt of the floor. Once the older shinobi had finished, Iruka saw the way that his arms shook as he pushed himself back onto the mattress. He knew better than to comment on the man's failing health, so instead he silently crossed the room, stopping to pick up one of the cups of water that were supplied to them on a fairly regular basis. The elder Nara had been the one to point out to him that, as long as they were needed to lure the Sixth Hokage here, they wouldn't need to fear being poisoned. So Iruka moved to the man's side and silently offered him the cup, fighting to keep the frown off his lips when he saw how much the jonin's hands were still shaking. Once he was certain that the cup had been drained, he took it back and placed it on the floor.
"It may be troublesome, Sensei, but this is not your fault."
Although he was certain that Shikaku's words were meant to soothe him, the fact that the man's voice sounded like he'd recently eaten glass was doing nothing to lessen the burden of guilt that Iruka was feeling. Still, he did his best to place an accepting look on his face before turning back toward the man.
"You shouldn't be talking, Shikaku. You're going to do more damage to your throat."
A hoarse chuckle came from the jonin's mouth. "You are a rare breed of shinobi, Iruka-sensei."
Iruka rolled his eyes at the comment. "I would like to think that caring for the health of my fellow shinobi is not such a rare trait."
Again there was a chuckle. "I am not referring to your kindness. Although I do admit that it is part of what makes you who you are."
Now he was confused. "Then what are you talking about?"
The older man took a shaky breath before lapsing into another coughing fit. But when Iruka moved to pick up the cup to get him more water, he was stopped with a wave of the jonin's hand. "Don't waste it on me, Iruka-sensei."
He frowned, but put the cup back down, mumbling. "It wouldn't be a waste."
"Wake up, Iruka!" There was a trace of anger in Shikaku's voice that caused him to snap his head up to meet the man's eyes. "The chances of my making it out of this one are so low that it would take a miracle for it to happen. Look around you. This isn't a place for miracles. I am not worth the trouble."
Iruka felt his neck and cheeks warming from the anger that was building inside of him. He glared at the Nara and let all of the emotions which he had been holding in since this adventure began tumble out of him. "Don't you DARE tell me that you aren't worth it! You don't get to tell me who is or isn't worth my time! And let me be crystal clear for you...as long as there is even a fraction of a chance that we might ALL make it out of this alive, I refuse to give up on any of us! Not even a stubborn jonin like you!"
Of all of the reactions that he had expected for his tirade, Shikaku grinning at him had definitely not been on the list. It was enough to drain his anger away in an instant, leaving him more than a bit confused.
"And that undying faith in miracles is precisely why you are such a rare breed. And why Konoha cannot do without you."
Iruka rubbed a hand along the back of his neck. His cheeks warming once more, but this time from embarrassment. "I'm just a chunin. I won't be missed. But you...you are a clan head..."
"Enough! Yes, you are just a chunin. But you are a chunin who carries the Will of Fire within you, and who lets it burn so brightly that you have the respect of most of the jonin population. And more importantly, you have the future generations striving to do their best just so that they won't ever disappoint you. You may not think that you would be missed, Iruka-sensei, but you are the only one who thinks that."
Shikaku paused to catch his breath, leaving Iruka more than a bit stunned as the man's words started to sink in. But before he could pull a response together, the man started speaking again. "I may be a clan head, but if I died today there are others who will step up to fill my shoes. Shikamaru, for instance. But do you think that the boy would even be a consideration if he hadn't had you as his sensei at the academy? You...who saw the potential behind his laziness?"
It looked like Shikaku was going to continue, but instead his body tensed. At first, Iruka thought the man had overdone it, but when he heard the door to their room open, the cause of his companion's sudden silence became clear.
"Thank you for reminding me about just how important the chunin is, Nara."
A shiver ran down Iruka's spine at the sound of that unfamiliar and emotionless voice. He turned his head to see who was there, and instantly wished that he hadn't. A young man stood in the doorway that matched the descriptions of the Leader that he'd read about in the general reports on Kakashi's ordeal with the Akatsuki – right down to the multiple piercings across the man's face. Most of the important details had been redacted, but there was enough left in the document so that a clear identification of this man was possible. A chill crept into Iruka's bones over the fact that he now seemed to be the focus of the red-haired man's attention.
Shikaku seemed to share his wariness over the sudden appearance of their captor, as was evident from the tone of his voice. "What do you want?"
The young man's black and white ringed eyes shifted off of Iruka and onto the older man. "That is not your concern."
"It is tiresome, but the moment that your group chose to capture us, it became my concern."
Iruka bit at his bottom lip to keep from smirking at how the jonin skillfully massaged his words to be just this side of an insult. It was a skill that he had never quite been able to pick up. But, by the chill in the air as the young leader of the Akatsuki moved toward them, it was clear that Shikaku may have hit a nerve. If the head of the Nara clan had noticed the change in the atmosphere he had yet to show it. Instead, Iruka watched the man face off with the enemy as though he didn't have a care in the world. Meanwhile he was finding it very hard keeping his own fear from bubbling through...especially when those ringed eyes settled on him once more.
"I believe it is time to put this Will of Fire that you both speak of to the test. Take the chunin."
Iruka's mind was just registering the man's words when he felt his arms being pulled behind his back and secured with what felt like chakra wire. He hadn't heard or sensed anyone else enter the room, so the shock of being man-handled in such a way pulled an undignified squeak out of his mouth. He saw Shikaku tense, but the man remained where he was, which Iruka was thankful for. He knew that the jonin was not strong enough to survive a physical encounter with any one of the members of the Akatsuki right now, especially not their leader. And so he did not struggle against the hands that,even now, were pulling him toward the door. He did not want the death of the Nara clan's leader on his conscience.
Of course, that didn't keep his anxiety from increasing when he was pulled into the hallway and he heard the heavy door pulled shut with a resounding thud. Whatever the leader had in mind for him, Iruka could only hope that his Will of Fire truly was as strong as Shikaku thought it was.
Okaeshi heard his teammate stumble behind him for the third time in as many minutes and finally lost his patience. "Keep moving! And stop looking over your shoulder, Ban'yuu! You're going to drop him if you keep that up."
The young chunin mumbled something that was likely another complaint, but honestly, he couldn't care less at the moment. If they didn't keep pushing themselves to go faster, then whoever it was that had been strong enough to capture the Copy Ninja would catch up with them. And if that happened, he was certain that they wouldn't just let him and Ban'yuu walk away unscathed. In fact, he doubted that they would let them walk away at all.
The storm still raged all around them, making their progress all the more difficult, but if they timed everything right, they should make it to the required collection point well before the sunrise. Thunder rolled through the sky, shaking the very ground that they were running on, a moment before a streak of lightning lit up the sky on its way to yet another of the trees lining their path. This time, the upper portion of the tree that was hit toppled down to meet the ground with a resounding crash. Luck alone kept Okaeshi from being hit as the trunk and branches landed between him and Ban'yuu. As expected, this newest obstacle was enough to cause a fresh string of expletives to pour out of the young chunin's mouth. If the idiot kept it up, their pursuers wouldn't need to follow any tracks to find them. All that they'd have to do was listen for Ban'yuu's mouth!
"Come on, Kid. Shut the heck up and get over here!"
Another streak of lightning ripped through the air, leaving the distinctive taste of ozone on Okaeshi's tongue, and blinding him with its brilliant light for more than a few moments. By the time his vision was restored, two things became abundantly clear; this latest bolt had hit another nearby tree, and Ban'yuu had become silent. He frowned at the possible implications and moved back to where the fallen tree blocked the path. There was still no sound from the other side.
"Ban'yuu! Stop fooling around! Get over here!"
Silence greeted him, and a cold chill that was not caused by the constant rain ran down his spine. He jumped on top of the trunk and stared down at where his traveling companion should have been. But what he saw instead was that another chunk of tree had toppled to the ground. He cautiously made his way to the ground on the other side and looked around for Ban'yuu and the captive Hatake. At first, he couldn't find either of them amidst the tangle of tree limbs and wood. But another flash of lightning illuminated the area and provided just enough light to notice a shock of silver sticking up between some of the smaller branches. He pulled a kunai out, just in case the Copy Ninja was no longer unconscious, and scrambled over the mess of wood until he was standing next to him.
Okaeshi let out a breath of relief when it was clear that the man was still breathing, and was indeed still knocked out. But that relief shifted to disappointment a moment later when he noticed Ban'yuu's bloody hand sticking out from under a section of the tree to the right. The rest of the young man's body was wedged under the thickest part of the fallen trunk, and it was clear that there would be no way that the kid could have survived such a hit. That was verified when he reached out toward the man's neck to check for a pulse, and the chunin's head had nearly came off in his hand.
He shook his own head at the waste of life, and quickly removed everything that he could reach from the dead man's pockets, including that brand new Bingo Book that had been the cause of this Fool's task to begin with. Next, he worked as quickly as his old bones would let him, and he extracted the Copy Ninja from within the branches. The silver-haired man now had even more damage done to his body, but with luck he would stay alive long enough for him to be delivered to the collection point. Okaeshi lay the man over the fallen trunk of the first tree and turned back toward Ban'yuu's resting place. A few well known hand signs later, and the ground opened up beneath the kid and swallowed him, along with most of the tree that had killed him, before settling back into something more solid.
Satisfied that his work was done, Okaeshi then hoisted the silver-haired man onto his back and headed off toward the border of Rain Country. He pushed as much chakra as he could spare into his limbs, ever aware that he was no longer as spry as he'd been in his youth...as he'd been when he'd been Ban'yuu's age. Sure, he had said any number of times that he couldn't stand the kid...but that didn't mean that he wanted him dead. Especially not from something as ridiculous as a falling tree! He'd need to find some way to build his death up so as not to shame the kid's memory...or his family.
He stopped running and looked up into the falling rain. Ban'yuu's family.,.damn. What the hell was he going to tell them? That the idiot might still have been alive if he hadn't wanted as easy path to an early retirement? That, when it came down to it, the kid really hadn't been cut out to be a shinobi? Neither one would make the boy's family happy...if one can be happy hearing that their only child was never coming home.
"Dammit! Now what do I do?"
A streak of lightning lit up the sky, nearly blinding Okaeshi in the process and causing him to stagger backward in reaction. His foot hit a root, and he fell hard onto the cold, wet ground, while the man over his shoulder was dropped in the process, and now lay in a heap under a low bush. A low moan was heard from within that vegetation, signaling that the legendary Copy-ninja was no longer as deeply unconscious as he'd been at the beginning of this trek. And, just like that, Okaeshi knew exactly what he was going to do.
He pushed himself back up off the ground, straightened his clothes as much as he could, and verified that the trinket in his pocket was still undamaged. Then, without sparing even a glance backward, Okaeshi walked away from what might have been his path to a more comfortable retirement, and headed straight toward where he'd originally been going. He'd deliver the foolish trinket, finish his assigned mission, register the loss of his teammate...making up some suitably tragic ending for the boy, and then he'd return to his own home where he would be thankful for his dull, predictable life.
He stopped walking as a new thought entered his mind. He'd live his dull, predictable life until the Copy Ninja tracked him down from the chakra seals that he'd left on the man. Or worse than that...it might be whoever had been strong enough to subdue that man in the first place!
He ran his hands across his face and looked back toward where he'd left the younger man. If he was quick enough, maybe he could remove the seals and erase any trace of himself on the man. Yes...that's what he would do. Remove the seals and then focus on his original mission and put this entire fiasco out of his mind. With that settled, Okaeshi started back toward the bush where he'd left the Copy Ninja. Once there, he knelt on the soaked ground and started to reach toward the first seal. But with his hand only a centimeter away from it, the scar on his shoulder flared, causing him to cringe from the sudden pain. As though the ghosts of his long-fallen comrades had a far better idea for him than just leaving this man...his one-time enemy...to the fates. He could almost hear his brothers whispering in his ears...urging him to take the easy kill...appease their restless souls...allow him to serve up the right vengeance for them and all the countless others who had fallen at this silver-haired monster's hands.
Okaeshi could feel that age-old fury building in the pit of his stomach as he thought back to the battle that had cost his comrades' their lives and left him nearly crippled. He let it warm him in the cold rain, and he drew on the despairing memories that always followed...of telling his own mother that he had been the only one of her five sons to have survived the encounter with the Konoha ninja. Of how destroyed the woman had become after that, as she wasted away to nothing in less than a year's time. And how the wives of his brothers had demanded that he seek vengeance for their lost husbands, and their now fatherless children.
He had wondered, on more than one occasion, if he would have been better off perishing during that battle along with the rest of his family, but he hadn't. And he had carried the guilt of survivor-ship along with the scars from the actual battle. How he had dreamed of finding the courage to actually hunt down the Copy-ninja back when he'd been so much younger than he was today. But he was not the stuff of legends, as the man in front of him was. He'd recognized quite quickly, as more and more stories of the battle prowess of Kakashi Hatake had seeped into his village, that he would never be skilled enough, or strong enough, to ever be on the winning side of an encounter with the younger man.
But now, here before him, lying motionless on the wet ground, was an opportunity that actually allowed him the upper hand against the legend. All he had to do was take the kunai that he only now realized he was gripping in his hand and press it against that pale neck. One quick slice would allow his brethren to rest peacefully for the first time in over a decade, and he could still make a good amount off the man's head as well. It would be a fitting trade off for this most recent loss of life. Perhaps he would even share that small fortune with Ban'yuu's young wife as well. Yes...the destruction of this one man would provide so much more good than just leaving him behind ever would.
A strange calm came over him now that his mind had settled on what his actions would be. He could almost see the spirits of his family edging toward him through the woods as he leaned into his action just a bit more to start the process of slicing into that pale throat stretching out beneath the edge of his blade. He wondered briefly how long of a slice he should make, and whether he should be merciful and make it a quick death, or if he should drag it out to make up for the suffering that the man had caused so many along the way. Those ghostly images hovering at the edge of the area moved closer still, almost as though they, too, were waiting for his decision. But for some strange reason he found that he could no longer apply the needed pressure on the kunai in his hand. And stranger still, he could no longer hear the storm raging around them. Oh, he knew it still raged. His vision was dazzled by the flashes if lightning all around him, after all. But he no longer heard the resounding thunder, or the rushing wind that had been whipping the foliage all around him for hours.
He glanced down to where his blade still rested against that pale, pale neck and noticed a different shade of red had mingled with the wound he'd only barely started. His mind tried to puzzle out what was happening, but was coming up blank. It wasn't until one of the spirits drew close enough for Okaeshi to make out the leaf symbol etched into their headband that the pieces all slid into place. In his bid to appease the souls of his lost brothers he'd lost sight of the living, and allowed them to take him completely by surprise. As he felt a deep cold spread through his limbs, he focused on the unmasked face of his enemy one last time. That face was so much younger then he'd ever expected it to be, especially considering the two of them had been involved in the same war. And as the last breath left his lips, he couldn't help but smile at the thought that, at least now, he'd be reunited with is family once and for all.
Genma pulled the Cloud ninja's body away from Kakashi when it became clear that death had already claimed the bald-headed man. He had managed to land the perfect tri-fecta of senbon throwing; one to the elbow to freeze the hand that had been trying to slice though his friend's throat; one to just under the man's ear to muddle his ability to think clearly; one to the junction of the man's shoulder and neck to provide the death blow as his most powerful poison-laced needle sank deep into the bloodstream. Anything less, and he was certain that Kakashi would not have survived.
He motioned for Raido to take over the searching of the enemy's body while he moved back to where Neji and Shikamaru were pulling the Hokage free of the bush he had been lying under. He watched as the two worked in perfect symmetry as they pulled the chakra seals off of the man before working their way through the massive amount of chakra wire that wound around him. Meanwhile, he saw Sakura standing at the ready for them to give her the all-clear sign so that she could begin her assessment of what shape Kakashi was in after this latest mess. She had truly grown into her role as a Medic-ninja over the past few years, and he no longer feared that she might do more damage than good to those that she was treating.
When Neji motioned for her to join them on the ground, Genma moved closer as well. Kakashi looked like he'd been in a brawl with every one of his nin-hounds and had lost. His face was paler than he'd ever seen it, and it worried him more than a bit that the man hadn't woken up once the chakra seals were removed. As Shikamaru joined him, the look in the kid's eyes made it clear that, while he was more than a bit relieved that they had managed to find the Hokage, he'd have preferred that the man was awake now too. But there was something else hidden within those brown depths that, after having served on so many missions with the kid's father, Genma easily read. So when the chunin turned toward him, he beat the kid to the punch.
"So how long do you figure it will be before the others realize this old man couldn't have possibly been the one to make off with Kakashi in the first place?"
He nearly choked on his senbon at the incredulous look plastered on Shikamaru's face. But that look disappeared to be replaced by one of worry before anyone else would have had the chance to see it. And, to the kid's credit, his words held none of the obvious surprise that had shown itself moments before.
"I don't think it will occur to them at all. It can be a bother, but they are very focused on their current tasks, rather than the bigger picture."
"Yeah, that can be a bitch sometimes. So I guess it's up to you and me to solve the riddle."
He heard the long sigh and knew that the kid had already been running it all through his head as he'd worked with Neji to free Kakashi. So Genma waited to discover what that genius brain of his had already solved. He didn't have to wait long.
"The seals were definitely Cloud design, so it is entirely possible that this man did apply those to Kakashi-sensei. But I don't think he was the one to create them. If I had to guess, I'd say that they were elite jonin, if not Kage level work."
Genma nodded encouragingly, having already puzzled that much out for himself. Shikamaru shifted his eyes to the fistful of wire he held in his hand, and handed it over to him before continuing to speak.
"The chakra wire, however, isn't something you'd find in Cloud. Theirs has a different feel to it, as though it is coated in some sort of preservative against the moisture of their village. This feels far closer to something you'd find in Konoha."
Now Genma frowned, even as he ran the wire through calloused fingers and couldn't help but agree with the kid's findings. "Is it possible that they used Kakashi's own supplies against him?"
Shikamaru frowned. "It would have been a possibility if I didn't already know that the Hokage's pouches and backpack did not leave with him when the Akatsuki stole him away."
"Shit! So are you thinking we have a missing ninja from our own village to factor in?"
Another deep sigh showed him that the thought had already been analyzed by the kid. "I'm not so sure that it is a missing ninja, but there is definitely something...familiar in how the wire was used. I just can't seem to remember why."
It was clear that Shikamaru was more than a bit upset with his failure to connect all the pieces, but for now they needed to regroup and figure out the best plan of action. And that meant that he needed to find out from Sakura and Neji just how bad off the Copy-ninja was. He moved over to where his friend lay unmoving and frowned. Neji was kneeling next to the hand that still bore that accursed Akatsuki ring, and Sakura was busy tending to the various cuts, scratches, bites, and burns that covered so much of the man's arms and legs.
"How soon before he wakes up?"
Neji, if it was possible, actually looked more miserable than he normally did. While Sakura's eyes glistened with unshed tears when she turned to face him.
"I'm not sure, Genma. I've checked and double-checked his injuries and there is no medical reason why he shouldn't at least be starting to wake up." She turned back toward his friend. "But if he doesn't wake up soon we may have another problem."
He ran his hand across the back of his neck. "What the heck is worse than not waking up?"
Surprisingly it was Neji who answered. "If the Hokage fails to wake within the next two hours, his chakra system will burn out completely."
If it hadn't been a Hyuuga that had said that, Genma would have been tempted to think that it had been a joke. Still though, it didn't make sense.
"Why aren't you just releasing the points to restore his flow for a bit? I've seen you do it a hundred times by now."
The dark-haired jonin hung his head slightly, as though he were ashamed. "I'm afraid it was never as simple as that. The blocking and unblocking of those points is but one in a dozen minute adjustments that are made through the process to keep Kakashi-sensei's chakra free of the Akatsuki's control. The majority of those adjustments are things that only the Hokage could do for himself."
Genma should have known that something that looked so easy would be so damned complicated. For as long as he had known Kakashi Hatake, he'd made everything he did look simple. So why should this be any different? He figured that if it was something like a genjutsu, that Spooky-eyes would had been able to detect it. And if it was being caused by anything physical, then the pink-haired spitfire would have figured it out. So what the hell did that leave?
"Oh crap!" He knew he'd spoken out loud from the shocked looks on the younger shinobi's faces. But if he was right, this could very well be a bigger problem than any of them wanted to admit.
"Are you going to share with us, Genma? Or are you remembering that you still owe me a week's pay for getting you out of trouble with a certain shapely waitress' father back home?"
He shot Raido a scathing glare and focused on the matter at hand. "Think about it kiddos. If his lack of consciousness isn't being caused by genjutsu or physical causes, what does it leave?"
The answer didn't come from any of those in front of him. Instead Shikamaru's voice cut through the silence. "His spirit is somehow being held apart from him."
Genma grinned. "Right you are, Kid." But his grin was quickly replaced with a frown as the irony of it all hit him. "Unfortunately, the only way we can search for his spirit in that thick head of his is with a mind-walker. Which we have...just not here."
Sakura's voice was thick with the tears that she was now letting have free reign. "And Ino's more than two hours away. Even if you ran full speed."
"Yeah. I know that."
An uneasy silence spread throughout the group. Even the raging storm that had been a constant companion over the many hours they'd searched for Kakashi was now fading away. In all his years serving Konoha, Genma had never felt so utterly useless. This wasn't supposed to be how it ended. Not for the Copy-ninja. Not for the Sixth Hokage. Not for his friend.