So apparently I said that this chapter would be up soon... Wow, what a damn lie, self from November. How could you say that to your readers? Shame on you. Shame.
Also, just in case you somehow forgot: Second Bloom is NOT canon.
Now whoever made the TVtropes entry for this story can say that it's been updated!
This chapter was brought to you after A Really Long Time by massive amounts of Skrillex and the lovely and encouraging wlkwos.
The apprehension was killing him. There was something wrong in the night air, clogging his throat and keeping his back straight with tension. The mission he was on was never going to be easy, he'd known that, but he hadn't expected to feel such a persistent sense of dread once he took up his post at the resonance point that had been the focus of so much attention lately.
Taking a deep, silent breath, he continued creeping vertically along the western wall of the building that housed the actual resonance point. He kept one hand in his weapons pouch and a portion of his attention on his two teammates at all times. He knew that the girls were good at their jobs, but that didn't stop him from worrying when the recent war preparations made even the most important missions go off with fewer shinobi than they really should. And when he felt this sick... It was better to take precautions.
Reaching the very edge of the building, he crouched, let his eyes fall half lidded, and conducted a more thorough search for chakra signatures around him. There were his teammates. Small animals. A dying bird. Plants.
And somewhere close by, another human. A shinobi. Too close by.
"Jinya!" The too-loud whisper came from behind him just as he pinpointed the sudden presence.
He spun, but the thin dagger that he held never left his hand. The only thing he was cognizant of as the light faded from his eyes was the coppery taste of blood as it slicked his throat.
The aforementioned girl cringed slightly when Jinya's eyes landed on her as he gently lowered the body of the nin he'd just taken down, pocketing the hitai-ate with the musical note on it as he did so. The green color of those eyes was familiar, but they were too cold and too hard for someone used to the warmth that they usually showed. After nearly five years, she should be used to the different person that Jinya became whenever they were on a real mission, but she didn't think that she ever could.
And it was worse to look into his eyes this time, because she'd almost fucked up. Badly.
"Gomen nasai," she spoke with her hands instead of her words, falling back into the code that she should've been using the entire time. "I'm not used to people sensing your approach. Or you taking down people from so close. Sorry," she repeated at the end, her hands in a position to show how contrite she was even as she avoided his eyes in favor of the surroundings.
Movement from his hands, jarring because they were gloved just like hers for once, caught her attention. His reply message was not unkind as he reminded her that there were two ANBU and a squad of jounin depending on them, but his unmoving face and cool gaze still gave the signed words more impact than they might have normally. And she found herself wondering how she and Suzu could ever have believed that he would let his distraction spill over into the mission.
So she simply nodded at him and knelt to rig the newest set of explosives as he stood guard over her. She couldn't wait until this mission was finished and they could get back to their nice, normal escort assignment.
Standing several feet away from her in an at-ease position, Jinya allowed his upset at nearly having his face sliced open to quietly fade away. It was a strange fluke that the Oto-nin had managed to sense him at the last moment, but he wouldn't have reacted so strongly if Jinya had assassinated him from a farther range as he usually tended to. However, bodies made noises went they collapsed to the ground, and noise was the last thing that his team needed on the mission that they were on. Tatsuki shouldn't have been so surprised when he went in for a close kill.
The tips of his fingers twitched as he felt a tiny, foreign presence on his right hand, but he kept his senses open and his mind focused on defense as he realized it wasn't a threat. The unique tapping sensation was familiar to him; one of Suzu's messenger insects had landed on him, and it was tapping out a message. After a few moments of paying attention, he got that the rest of the compound had been cleared, and only two teams of shinobi had been found including the lone shinobi that he had just taken down.
It was making all of them antsy, because an asset like the resonance point should've been guarded more heavily. They'd already found it much too easily, even if the general location had been divined by the trackers days ago. It almost felt like a trap... Almost. But something was definitely wrong.
I can't wait for this to be over...
Daisuke was not built for any sort of extended running or fighting. Cold-blooded he might often be and sneaky he most certainly was, but when it came to the physical aspects of being a shinobi, he was something of a failure. He owned many sharp things and he was supernaturally skilled in staying hidden until he was close enough to use them, but beyond those two extraordinarily useful talents, all he had was patience and a very good poker face going for him. He'd never really thought about what would happen when, sometime in the future, Operation Rabbit Hole shut down for good.
However, as he pushed on into the third hour of tracking down his daughter as she went somewhere, he could say with absolute certainty that he did not intend to be a shinobi. His daughter, though? And her friend? They would definitely be shinobi. Damned good ones too, if the chase they were putting up was even a minor indication of skill.
It baffled him that with only half a minute's head start, Sakura and her friend had managed to get away from him at all. He should've been able to pounce and stop them, no hassles. And barring that, they should've been caught when he finally broke away to alert the nearest patrol to watch for two compromised children at the gates. Between the Hyuuga on duty and the ever-ready chuunin hiding along the walls, it should've been effortless to capture them.
Instead, when the two had been spotted approaching the Eastern gate, they suddenly disappeared into a hole of some sort in a nearby training ground, and appeared again exiting an outcropping of rocks nearly at the edge of the Hyuuga sentry's vision range less than a minute later. And they hadn't lost speed at all; if anything, whatever put them into such a hurry seemed to become only more urgent, because they'd sped up.
He gave chase immediately, ignoring any sort of shouting behind him as he fought to keep them in his sights, aided only by the children's vibrant hair colors. It was only a few minutes before he could hear the near-silent rustling of leaves behind him that signified that a rapid response team had been dispatched to assist him. It didn't take them long to catch up to him, and more than that, overtake him. He didn't run all that fast.
So Daisuke wasn't quite sure where in the world they'd disappeared to an hour ago, because he had caught sight of the running children again and the rapid response team was nowhere to be seen or sensed. If he'd actually had the breath to waste, perhaps he would've called out or something. But it was taking everything in him just to keep running instead of collapsing into a sweaty, overly-flushed pink mess on the forest floor, never mind keeping the contents of his stomach down.
He felt like a dry sponge had taken the place of his lungs and promptly been set on fire. Everything about him burned except the freezing cold sweat soaking every inch of his person. He wanted to stop, badly. But more than that, he wanted to catch up to his daughter and maybe shake her by her little shoulders and demand to know what in the world she was doing and how the hell she could still be running, pace unwavering, when he seemed to slow down a little more with every passing minute.
But that was just it. She was still running... And neither of the children had slowed down even the tiniest bit.
He had an absent thought, in between gasping breaths and blistering feet: Whatever this new Academy curriculum is doing, it's damn effective.
Daisuke would tell Sarutobi that, if he managed to live through this run. And he would try not to stab whoever had come up with the endurance program, for training his daughter so well.
His guts tightened as they went shooting into the darker, sparser forests that he knew clearly marked the boundary between Hi no Kuni and Yu no Kuni, the latter of which bordered the Land of Rice. The last thing he wanted right now was to see his daughter running anywhere near one of the countries and enemy forces that Operation Rabbit Hole had been keeping such a close eye on lately.
And like a lightning bolt, the epiphany struck him hard: that was exactly was Sakura was doing.
Just earlier, he had reflected on how strange it was that his son, who absolutely doted on his little sister, would do anything other than go to the first birthday party that she'd had in ages when he was in the village rather than on a mission. Strange, but not worrying, he had thought.
Time and time again, he found that his daughter was heaping skill upon skill into her shinobi arsenal, with or without the assistance of teachers at the Academy. But he'd figured out a long time ago that Sakura was a lot more than above average in intelligence, and it wasn't too surprising for her to be headstrong despite her earlier shyness as a child, especially with her mother's roots. It was no shock that she was advancing so quickly as a shinobi, just... Strange. But not too worrying.
Days ago, Jinya had been the one to call in the first of many distressing seals placed around the village. He had a keener eye than most it seemed, especially since hundreds of other shinobi passed them without a second glance at the walls, door frames and beams where they were inscribed. Strange. Not worrying, though.
The analysts in ANBU's Tracking and Homeland Security department were for some reason very sure that the main resonance point for the seals lay somewhere between eastern Rice Country and the middle of Yu no Kuni. He couldn't figure out why it would be in such an out of the way place, where it couldn't be easily defended, but Daisuke wasn't an analyst for a reason. Strange, but not my problem to worry about.
And then there was Shimarikase province, which Daisuke had only just realized lay on the unclaimed border lands between the Land of Rice and Yu no Kuni. Which was the supposed location of the resonance point to the seals that Jinya had been the first to notice, mere days before Sakura's birthday party which he had uncharacteristically missed. Shimarikase province... Which was the location of Jinya's sudden, previously unannounced mission.
A mission that he left on mere hours before his daughter went racing from the house like a demon fresh out of Hell, in what seemed to be the same direction.
Daisuke knew all about leaders with good intentions. Hell, he was sure that somewhere out there, at that very moment, Danzo was looking out over his troops and thinking about how Konoha would be so much stronger after he had destroyed everything weak within it and built it back up in his image. The goals were all the same, in the end; it was the method that continually differed. And he'd never found Sarutobi's methods terrifying before. Now, though...
He didn't know who it was giving his daughter orders. Maybe it was the Hokage. Maybe it was Danzo. Maybe it was someone entirely different. But even if he had never learned anything else from his time in Root or the long days of Operation Rabbit Hole, he still knew, without a single doubt, that he could find out who it was and he most certainly would when the opportunity appeared.
Daisuke's lungs felt like they were ripping into bloody pieces, but somehow, he found it within himself to speed up. At least for the moment, Daisuke wasn't quite sure who to direct the sudden, intense hatred inside of him towards. But at least it could fuel him for a few more miles yet.
He knew where he was going now.
Itachi was beginning to feel that vacations were nothing but an illusion. How long ago had that sensation begun...? He wasn't sure. Sometime after Uzumaki Duty was officially dropped off the ANBU roster, he was sure; it was only once he began taking A-ranks on a more regular basis that he stopped being so excited to receive them. And that had only happened after Naruto's first semester in the Academy.
Or... No, it had begun even before then, although effects took some time to show themselves. It began on that damned courier mission to the Land of Iron, during the very same week that the 'Not-War' of the shinobi nations had begun. It began, he suspected, the very moment that he met Uchiha Madara's single, cursed eye. Once that had happened, he'd never truly had a choice, no matter the options offered to him. Now he just had to deal.
"You're always thinking so deeply, even at night, ne, Itachi-kun? You should relax some time."
His ancestor had the sort of voice that caused Itachi's Sharingan to flare into existence without any conscious prompting. Contrarily, it took all of his will power for him to clench his eyes shut tightly and deactivate his kekkei genkai in the moments before the man dropped down from the ceiling. When he rolled over and looked outside of his blanket cocoon, he was still fighting back his own visceral desire to kill the anomaly before him, mostly because killing him didn't seem to be possible.
"I will assume that you have called on me for a reason." His voice was rough from sleep and low from the tension he felt. Itachi didn't like having this man in the same building as his little brother. Yet whether he stood in full battle gear or rested in the warmth of his bed, had Madara wanted something with Sasuke, there was nothing that Itachi could actually do stop him. He would just be glad that his brother had yet to catch anyone's interest.
"Assume, hm?" Something made the masked man chuckle in the dark. "You are correct, Itachi-kun. I have a task for you. A test of what you have learned so far, my favorite student. And for that, I'm afraid that you will need to get out of bed. In fact, you may not return here for quite some time! Are you excited?" He clapped his hands together, as if expecting Itachi to leap up with new energy at that very moment.
But Itachi did not leap up because he was not excited and not even his survival, which was dependent on keeping this man satisfied in some way, could make him feign that emotion. What he did do was hold back a sigh and extract himself from his covers. For once, his ancestor was silent as he stood before him; he could almost feel the raised eyebrow at his attire.
Itachi had gone to sleep in full armor. Not his standard ANBU uniform, seeing as he was off duty, but his 'casual' shinobi attire, complete with gray body armor, two thigh holsters and his sandals. He didn't know how many hours he'd been laying in his bed, staring at the ceiling and feeling cold dread clinging at his spine whenever he contemplated getting comfortable, but he'd retired early in the evening and it was getting close to dawn by his own estimation. He kept hoping for the bad feeling brought on by Jinya's words quite some time earlier to abate, but it steadfastly held on in the back of his mind.
As soon as he withdrew his tanto from under his pillow and attached his standard supply pouch to his belt, he was fully prepared. "Your instructions?" he questioned, raising a brow at the silent man across from him.
Ever so slowly, Madara began to clap, the dulled sounds of his gloved hands coming together breaking the very brief silence after Itachi's words. Something about his shoulders said that he was amused. "Bravo, Itachi-kun." With that last accolade, he removed a small, thick envelope from his pocket and handed it over to the younger Uchiha. Then he disappeared.
Itachi immediately walked down the hall to his younger brother's room. He sensed nothing amiss, but he peeked in anyways. Sasuke was sprawled haphazardly over as much of the futon as his short limbs could cover and there was a growing damp spot under his left cheek. Nothing unusual there.
Sasuke's quiet breathing hitched, and then the boy released a long sigh as he opened his eyes just slightly. "Niisan," he mumbled, half into his pillow. "Leaving?" His eyes fluttered closed again.
It didn't surprise Itachi that his brother had somehow awakened to his presence; it had become apparent some time ago that Sasuke was a sensor of sorts, if only based on how unfailingly he came to find Itachi whenever he returned home. He failed to contain a slight smile as he knelt next to his younger brother, briefly resting a hand in his hair. "I'll return soon enough," he said quietly. "Goodnight, otouto."
Assured of his brother's continued well-being, he left the house silently, absently leaving one of his shuriken on the kitchen counter as he went. His mother would know he was gone on a mission, rather than some emergency, that way. It was only when he was safely clear of the Uchiha district that he opened the envelope to divine the parameters of his mission.
Only one detail stood out at first: Shimarikase Province.
There were some days (and nights, and afternoons, and timeless moments) when Bear simply wished that he had never been born. At times he focused on the brand spanning his forehead, but that hadn't meant much since he began living behind his porcelain ANBU masked. Other times he thought of not getting the girl, of his nieces that could have been his daughters if things had happened another way, but that had more to do with not being good enough than having never existed.
It was mostly when he was standing still and watching the lifeblood seep out of some other human being that he wished that his soul could have chosen to be a flower instead of a baby that grew into a murderer. Times like now. Even though he had turned his eyes away long before, the image was still imprinted in his mind, superimposing itself over his real surroundings.
"For fuck's sake, will you stare at an enemy or something instead? You're giving me the chills!" his partner hissed quietly from two muddy sinkholes away, where she was cleaning her blade off on another unfortunate enemy's leg. Mouse never seemed to have the same problems with coming out superior in battle that he did.
His former enemy's bloodless face finally faded from his mind's eye, and Bear found himself searching out the other side of the strange bog his team had retreated to after the detonation went through as planned. His eyes found the two chuunin girls with them easily enough; they stood a few feet apart, facing in opposite directions, keeping an eye out now that the short and bloody battle had died down. Three jounin had already left to scout for any other enemies after them, so the girls' watch was less for any obvious danger and more for anything that could interrupt their third teammate.
The white haired boy knelt between them with the last of the jounin originally on their mission laying before him, and his face was screwed up with concentration as he painstakingly extracted fragments of metal from the unconscious man's chest. It was a stroke of unexpected luck that they had a healer, even a very amateur one, in their midst; if he hadn't staunched the most major bleeding already, it was doubtful that Shun would be breathing at all after the strange bomb he'd taken head on.
It was strange that the boy's skills were mentioned nowhere in his file when medic nin were so coveted, but Bear got the feeling that he was self-taught anyways if the occasional wince and near-invisible cringe he made at digging around in someone's chest cavity were any indication. Healers were generally desensitized to that sort of thing within the first month of training, and as a rule, medic nin were always supposed to go through licensed training because of how deadly any mistakes could be.
It would be a shame to have the boy get any sort of demerit for learning these life-saving skills on his own; he was pretty good for a teen. But Bear wouldn't be mentioning it in any case, and he was sure none of his comrades would either. As long as the rapid response squad that had intercepted them earlier didn't say anything in their report to the Hokage, he would be fine.
Or as fine as anyone's whose younger sibling was apparently on the run with the resident Jinchuuriki could be. Bear wasn't mentioning that to anyone either; the rapid response team searching for the children was already back on its original task and the Haruno boy was none the wiser, so he may as well let sleeping dogs lie. He'd opened his mouth too often lately anyways.
It would probably get him killed at some point.
Across the clearing, Jinya tried not to cringe again as he felt the Bear-masked ANBU begin staring at him for the third time in ten minutes. The chills going down his spine were distracting in the worst kind of way, especially when he was so close to being able to close his first-ever patient's chest. The healing experience was a lot different here on the former battlefield than it had been with Sakura in their backyard, fixing up wounded animals and trying to revive smelly fish. But he should've expected that.
Nothing was going right lately, and that was without prodding at the giant, painful mental sore that currently represented his emotions towards his imouto. I shouldn't be thinking about her right now, he told himself silently, pushing any thoughts away. Instead, he focused on his two teammates, separately battered and bruised from the surprise attack that would've taken all their lives if it weren't for the surprise interception of another Konoha team shortly after the Oto and Kusa shinobi had appeared. It still stung him somewhere inside that they'd put all that effort into a location that turned out to be just an extremely elaborate decoy. Lives lost for nothing... But that was the shinobi life, wasn't it?
It still rung strange to him that another Konoha team would be deployed anywhere near an operation like the one he was on, which technically only existed under the Hokage's eyes. But that was nothing for him to question. In fact, the mission itself was technically complete, since they had destroyed their target and taken out any enemies they encountered. When he was finished healing this jounin, he, Suzu and Tatsuki along with their instructor Genma would start on their way to Shimarikase Province for their official mission while the ANBU and other Jounin left for Konoha once more.
What bothered him much more about the entire situation was that even after blowing up an entire structure, killing four different men and actually coming close to death himself, he still felt that the worst was yet to come. He couldn't even recall exactly how many hours ago he had first felt that strange chill down his spine when speaking to Itachi; all he knew was that the moon had come and gone, the sun was still rising, and he was feeling more and more nauseous the closer his team came to 'tomorrow'. To think that something worse than the last few hours would be throwing itself at him soon...
Hopefully, he would survive.
"We lost the other tail now."
At first, Sakura didn't seem to acknowledge his words, but the two of them slowly began to decelerate and Naruto knew that she'd listened. They came to a stop finally and ended up nestled in the gnarled roots of a tree whose top he couldn't even make out due to the sheer size of it. He wasn't really interested in that anyways; mostly he was just breathing and wishing he had some water for his dry mouth. He wasn't willing to mention anything though.
Sakura's gaze was vacant as she stared off in the direction that they were headed, and she didn't even seem to notice it as her left hand flared up with green chakra and rested briefly over her torso, then her throat, before passing over her splayed out legs. They were both half-upright, leaning against the roots of the tree, but he was sure she wasn't even paying attention where they were. She hadn't the last two times they had their three-minute breaks either.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Naruto was still angry with her. But he'd stopped paying attention to it the moment she collapsed so long ago. Instead, he focused on more important things, like making Sakura stop to rest and heal her muscles even though he thought he could keep going, or letting her know that people were following her, or telling her whenever he came across those unique smells in the air that he associated with her older brother, so they could follow those trails directly.
In the few times that she'd been focused on him, Sakura had handed over her kunai pouch and asked him to put on his goggles even while she pulled down her own. He was guessing that he got the weapons because he only knew the one offensive jutsu that she'd taught him while she had an actual arsenal, but he still had no clue why they had their goggles on. There was no way he would question her though.
"Naruto, how close are we?" Her voice startled him.
He closed his eyes for a moment to try and gather his mind, then opened them again to find her looking directly at him, expectant. "Really close." His eyes turned in the direction that she'd just been looking in. "But... I don't think this is the same mission you were looking for, Sakura-chan. You said it was supposed to be an escort, right? But... They just finished blowing something up." He squinted. "There's that smoke that Iruka-sensei showed us on the a while ago, remember it? It fades away really fast so enemies can't track it."
Sakura put the knuckle of her index finger in her mouth and gnawed on it thoughtfully. It looked strange when her face was still so blank. When she removed it after a few moments it was wet with her saliva, but she didn't seem to notice at all. "We still haven't reached Shimarikase Province yet. That mission at least begins in Shimarikase Province, so it hasn't happened yet. This..." The finger went back to her mouth, but now her brows furrowed. Then it was out again. "Was Cell 19 appended to another mission first...?" She mused. Her hand raised a third time.
"Will you stop doing that?" Shuddering, Naruto stopped her from putting her finger back into her mouth. He much preferred it when she tore up the bottom of her shirts by accident.
With several blinks, Sakura seemed to remember that he existed again. Her eyes focused on him. "We need to get to the next city, Naruto. And we can't be seen. They're already searching for us, or for you... I should have sent you back before leaving the village. Now you're going to get into trouble for me, again. I'm sorry."
Under her suddenly heartfelt expression he blushed, a little bit uncomfortable at having such sincerity sent towards him. "I wouldn't have let you go off by yourself anyways, so it doesn't matter, does it? We're friends and friends help each other, no matter what." He was sticking to that. "We'll deal with whatever happens when we get there. For now let's just go save Jin, okay? I mean... He's almost like my brother too, so we definitely have to help him!"
Sakura was startled at his words, but only for a moment. Then she was smiling as Naruto blushed and pretended that he hadn't said anything so mushy. "Arigatou, Naruto." Exhaling heavily, Sakura let herself fall back into a calmer mindset. "Now, we've got a bit of time, so let me do a bit of healing on your muscles and your lungs. It should help."
Naruto moved closer to be healed, and she continued, "In about three more minutes we're going to start heading towards my eight o'clock direction, and that's when it's most important to have our goggles. The closer we get to Yu no Kuni's border, the denser the air is going to get. It'll look like mist or light fog, but the swamps there and in Rice Country have acidic compounds that can burn your eyes badly. I'm going to need you to stay close to me since you navigate better in bad light, okay?"
"Hai," he replied with a nod.
"Good. Keep your left hand by your kunai pouch at all times, we don't know what we'll run into once we make it to the border. And I don't mean just shinobi, either, so keep an eye out in all directions," she added in a stern tone even as she ended her healing of his legs with a light pat. "Whoever was behind us might be going the same way that we are, and we don't know when we'll catch up to niisan's team. Either way, we can't afford to be seen. If you even think we might be near someone, tap me and then henge into a tree or something as soon as possible. Got it?"
"Good," Sakura repeated. Then she turned towards her eight o'clock and glanced back as if to ask him, 'ready?' At his nod, she spoke her last words for a time. "Let's go."
The chase began anew.
A/N: Well... Yeah.
Anyways, for the adventures of somewhat canon grown ups instead of little kids, everyone should try out the fledgling story To The Deep North by wlkwos, which is only a few chapters in but which has more regular updates than this (not that such is at all hard to accomplish.) You'll definitely like it if you enjoyed the other fic I recc'd, One Small Kindness. Which has a sequel now, by the way. Both of them have a lot more Uchiha than Second Bloom does, which is apparently always cool.
Also, if not for wlkwos, I promise you this chapter probably wouldn't have come out til like... Summer or something (real summer, not this weird weather over here in the States.) Like the year that passed after Chapter 3, for those of you who remember.
Also, feel free to rant at me about how upset you are at my so-called 'soon' uploading of this chapter. I was upset at myself too. Especially after I deleted the whole thing and started over from pure frustration... Twice or thrice or several more times. (Though, after I deleted everything and started over this time, it only took me a week or so. What a fail.)