"All right," Shikamaru started, looking around the circle of ninja. "We'll keep moving for a little while, just in case. But, whatever you do, keep in contact with each other," he said, nodding at his hands, which were both connected to his neighbors' forearms. "That way, we're less likely to get separated again."
Jeremy tugged, but he couldn't get Aelita out of the hole. "I could use a little help," he grunted.
"Coming," Odd replied. He started over toward Jeremy, though he couldn't see that well in the darkness. The purple-clad Lyoko warrior stepped over a few times easily.
"Aah!" he suddenly yelped, pitching over forwards. He wobbled back and forth a few times, in the end able to lean back on his left foot. He set his right back down carefully, making sure there was actually solid ground beneath it.
"Please tell me you're just messing with us," Ulrich sighed.
"I'm flattered you think I could pull that off... But, nope. There's no ground there." Odd waved his foot around a couple places, but couldn't find any more solid ground in Jeremy's direction.
"So, this is him?" the gravelly, high-pitched voice questioned. "The sorcerer?"
"Yup," Asuka replied, using her foot to nudge the unconscious body closer to the dealer. He chuckled and poked his small, dirty fingers onto the body, making sure it was real.
"Yes, this one has been on the run for quite a while, hasn't he?" rasped the dealer. "There's a good price on his head."
"And I hope I get every bit of it."
"Minus the handling fee," the dealer hissed back.
"Fine." Asuka shrugged. "Take him away." She looked on, feeling nothing as the dealer dragged her former love through the dirt.
Aelita whimpered silently as Jeremy's hand slipped the tiniest bit.
"Hang on," the bespectacled blonde instructed wearily, not knowing what else to say.
"I will..." Aelita murmured.
"So, our suspect has the ability to teleport mass distances," Tsunade started, habitually pacing in her office. "In other words, sending out more normal search parties will be useless." Her high heels clacked loudly as she continued pacing. "But we know of no one else with this sort of jutsu, so it's our only option." She clenched and unclenched her fist angrily. "What a paradox," she growled.
Shiraga was only vaguely aware of a throbbing from his abdomen when he first came to. But by the time he was able to blink his eyes open, the pain had grown.
"What's going on?" he muttered hoarsely, looking around. He was surrounded by dusty wood tables and floors and walls, one of which held a dusty, red door. Shiraga started to stumble over to the door, his feet not constrained like his hands. He ignored his stomach wound as best as he could.
"You're awake." Shiraga jerked at the sound of a gravelly voice.
"Yes," the shinobi replied. "Would you care to tell me what's going on here?" The other man, on the other side of the door, chuckled.
"Just desserts, my lovely sorcerer, just desserts."
"What did I ever do to you?"
"Oh, nothing personal," the dealer laughed. "But your use of black magic must be punished. I'm just turning you in, as is my duty."
"Black magic," Shiraga scoffed. "What I practice is not black magic."
"Of course not..." The dealer chuckled.
Jeremy tried to tighten his grip as Aelita slipped a millimeter further. "And you're sure there's no way you can get over here?"
"Yeah. I could try a huge, leaping jump, but even if I made it, I'd probably knock you over."
"Perfect," Jeremy growled.
"Well..." Aelita started faintly, "we... we might be exaggerating things. For all we know, the bottom might be just a meter down..."
"Hopefully," Jeremy replied. "But..." He didn't have to finish.
Ino blinked at her teammate's instructions confusedly. "Sleep? But it's only, like, 3:00!"
"I know," Shikamaru replied, "but we don't know how much longer we can stay here without endangering people. And if you can only remember what happened to you-and what hand signs we have to use-after having a nightmare, you'll obviously have to be asleep first."
"Well... All right..." Ino slowly laid down on a dry pile of grass.
Shiraga wasn't quite sure when he has lost consciousness again. All he knew was that, when he reopened his eyes, he was upright, secured to some sort of pole at his back.
"Look who's awake."
"Asuka?" Shiraga strained his neck to see the redhead walking toward him.
The shinobi attempted to move, but his chest and arms were too tightly bound to the wood behind him. He only grimaced as Asuka stopped in front of him.
"Finally time for you to serve your sentence," she spat, throwing something that landed with a clunk below Shiraga's feet. He looked down to see a small pile of firewood beneath him, then looked back up with horror.
"You can't mean-!" Asuka laughed.
"Of course. What else do we do to black magicians?" She smirked and began to walk off.
"No! Asuka! You-You can't let me die yet!"
"Oh? Why's that?" the redhead responded in a monotone, spinning around to look at the man ready to burn at the stake.
"There's too much at stake!" Shiraga yelled. "I can't stay here! There's an interdimensional crisis I-"
"Oh, so that's it!" Asuka interrupted furiously. "You just have to solve some crisis for your precious 'greater good', huh? Of course you wouldn't want an extra second to live so you could redeem yourself to me!" She whipped back around to stalk away. "You never cared! All you care about is your fabricated 'interdimensional' catastrophe! Your own little world that only you can save! Well, guess what? You're not saving anyone. And no one's saving you."
"Oy, Asuka?" The redhead looked over at the dry-faced speaker, who was holding a small torch.
"That's me." The man held his torch up toward the redhead.
"Would you like to do the honors?"
"Don't mind if I do." Asuka took the torch, took one last, hateful look at Shiraga, and threw the flame at his feet.
Jeremy's hands slipped.
"No!" He flung his hands down far as he could, but he couldn't reach Aelita.
"Well, it's not like you'll remember anything else," Shikamaru said. "So, no, you don't have to sleep."
" 'Kay, good." Kiba looked around. "Do you think I should go find something to eat?" Shikamaru shook his head.
"We can't get separated. We'll just have to tough it out."
"Aelita!" Jeremy stared in horror at the blackness where his friend was moments ago.
"I-I'm still okay! S-Still falling, b-but okay!" she called back, poorly masking the fear in her voice.
"What are we going to do?" Yumi asked.
"Well, I don't see any rope around, and there's probably not enough ground to walk around and find any," Ulrich muttered.
"...yeah, and..." Hinata trailed off, looking away from her teammate.
"Lee...?" Kiba turned to look at the green-clad shinobi, who was gripping his head and had his eyes tightly shut.
"Hey! You all right?" Lee didn't respond. "Hey!" Lee suddenly blinked his eyes back open.
"I know the last hand sign."
"I know the last hand sign!" Lee repeated, sounding more excited. "I-I finally remember!" Shikamaru's eyes widened.
"What was it?"
"Like this," Lee replied breathlessly, froming the Ram sign.
"Ino! Choji! Wake up!" Ino rolled over to her side.
"What? What's going on? I haven't had a nightmare yet..."
"Don't need one. We have all the hand signs."
"What?" Choji responded incredulously. "Really?"
"Yep," Shikamaru replied with a grin.
A loud shriek pierced the air, making Jeremy flinch.
"Aelita!" he shouted. "Aelita, are you okay?" There was no response.
"So, that means it's Dragon, Snake, Ox, Ram," Shikamaru concluded.
"Well, what are we waiting for?" Kiba asked with a grin.
"Nothing much," Shikamaru replied. "Lee! Grab on to my arm or something since you can't use the jutsu yourself." The aforementioned shinobi nodded and complied. "Well, everyone," Shikamaru said, readying his hands for a jutsu, "let's go home." The group made the hand signs and faded to black.
Jeremy stared down at the captious blackness, trying to find some sign that Aelita might be okay. But there was nothing.
"Aelita?" he called again faintly, though he knew no one would answer.
Hinata opened her eyes slowly. She was no longer in the Kadic forest, though the other ninja were still next to her.
"Did it work...?" She looked around the wind-rustled branches, but wasn't quite sure where she was.
"Yes. Yes, it definitely worked!" Shikamaru laughed. He took one last second to make sure he was where he suspected before leading the group back to the village.
"Whoa!" Odd yelled, the ground suddenly shifting beneath him. He fell over, striking his head on the ground.
"Odd?" Yumi called, looking over to see the blonde lying on the ground. "Are you-Whoa, hey!" The ground suddenly tripped her, taking away her consciousness as well.
"Hey-!," Izumo started, looking at the ninja headed toward the village gates. "Is that...?"
"I... I think it's them!" Kotetsu replied, standing up.
Jeremy listened to his breathing as he started to regain his consciousness. Did everyone get knocked out? he thought faintly. It was another minute before he opened his eyes. The first thing he noticed was the light. Next, the solid, continuous concrete around him. Then, the rosette crumpled just a meter away from him.
"Aelita!" he exclaimed, hurriedly scrambling over to where his friend lay.
"...Jeremy...?" Aelita slowly rolled over and opened her eyes.
"You're all right," Jeremy said breathlessly.
"Yeah... I guess so." Aelita sat up and looked around. The rest of the Lyoko crew was starting to wake up. "It looks like... everything's gone back to normal," she said, confused.
"Yeah. I wonder..." Jeremy pulled out his cell phone and dialed Shikamaru.
"Well, it's... great to have you back," Tsunade concluded happily.
"Oh. My... cell phone," Shikamaru replied slowly, shuffling through his pocket until he found the thing. "...Hello?"
"Hey, Shikamaru?" the voice on the other side was a little fuzzy, but still intelligible.
"Hey. I, uh..." There was a sigh. "I wanted to say sorry about not believing you."
"No problem," Shikamaru replied. He looked around the room, where everyone who hadn't traveled with him seemed very confused. "Listen, I'm... kind of busy. But I'll call you back when I can."
"Oh? All right. Well, I'll see you at school tomorrow?"
"No," Shikamaru laughed, "you probably won't. We'll talk in a minute."
"Okay. See you."
"Bye." Shikamaru hung up.
"Was that Jeremy?" Hinata asked.
"Yup." Shikamaru fingered his cell phone before putting it back in his pocket. "Guess this thing gets pretty good reception.
"So, Asuka..." the man started, taking a seat next to her. "I hear you were once about to marry that man?" Asuka stared hard at the pile of ashes where Shiraga was yesterday.
"Hey, Hinata." It was Jeremy. "You busy?"
"No, not really. What's happening?"
"We've got another Replika. You up for some X.A.N.A.-butt-kicking?"
"Sure. Should I call the others?"
"They're already here."
"Okay. I'll be right there!"
"See ya." Hinata stepped away from the training post, made four hand signs, and disappeared.
A/N: Well, everyone, that's the end. I hope you all enjoyed reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. *salutes and walks away*