So, it's finally up. Hopefully I didn't lose any readers to boredom from too long a wait. On a side note, here, Anime Expo went great and I wish it would last all year! Anyway…so, finally, here's chapter 4. There shouldn't be such a long pause between chapter, now...
Disclaimer: The only thing I own is the rites to my own imagination.
Chapter 4: Meeting
Trailing Naruto was a more difficult task than I imagined. We couldn't get too close or else he would sense us, and we couldn't let him get too far ahead because we didn't know where he was going. Luckily Sai, being part of the ANBU Roots knew a thing or two about shadowing people.
We never actually saw Naruto because Sai had a small group of his ink mice following him and every once in a while one of them would drop back and inform Sai where to go.
Even though we could lag behind a little, we still had to keep up a pace that was much too fast for me, even with all my training. Naruto was practically flying through the forest, and it was all Sai and I could do to keep up.
I was relieved when Sai informed me that Naruto had finally stopped. It had already been dark for an hour, so I assumed the only reason Naruto had stopped was because he was halfway to his destination. It obviously wasn't because he was hungry or tired; with Sasuke on his mind, he wouldn't be able to think about anything else.
Even though I was exhausted as we set up a little camp, I didn't want to go to sleep. I couldn't relax at all until Sai assured me at least three times that he had his ink jutsu animals watching over Naruto, and there was no way he could sneak off in the morning without us knowing.
Even so, I slept poorly and woke up when the sun was just beginning to rise. Since I knew I wouldn't be able to go back to sleep I got up quietly and walked a little way off from where Sai still slept. I felt the need to do something, but my normal training would have caused too much of a disturbance. I decided, instead, to go back a couple years to our first real mission.
Focusing chakra into my feet, I slowly began to walk up the trunk of the nearest tree. I remembered the first time we had done this as a team, and how good it felt looking down at my teammates from that high branch.
I climbed until I could peer out through a break in the leaves at the top of the tree. If only I had Hinata's byakugan I could see exactly where Naruto was right now. As it was, though, all I could see was the green of tree leaves, stretching out like an ocean.
I stayed up there for a couple minutes as the sun slowly climbed in the sky, taking some of the chill out of the air. Then I turned around and walked down. I didn't want to exhaust a lot of my chakra in case I needed it soon.
Sai was awake when I got back and I immediately inquired on Naruto's current state.
"Still sleeping," Sai told me, before offering up that fake smile of his. "And a good morning to you, Sakura."
We couldn't risk cooking anything in case Naruto saw the smoke and got suspicious. Luckily, I had been working diligently on my soldier pills ever since Sai called them mud-balls. They still weren't very tasty but they would definitely work well in situations like this, and I always carried some on me.
Every ten minutes I checked to see if Naruto was still sleeping. He always was, but after the sun was fully in the sky and the air had warmed up I began to worry.
"He wouldn't sleep this long. I know that under any normal, every day circumstances he can be sloppy and – and he would sleep in, but this is different. He should be up by now! He wouldn't waste all this time."
Sai shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you, Sakura. He is still sleeping."
"But…but –" Then suddenly a thought occurred to me. "But, Sai, his specialty is shadow clones! Could he have fooled us? He's an amazing ninja so there's a pretty good chance that he knew we were following him."
"I just don't see how he would have had the chance to switch from his real body to a shadow clone." Sai shook his head, although the slightest hint of perplexity crossed his face for a brief moment.
"If he really wanted to, he would have found a way. You know that." Wrapping my cloak firmly around my body I got to my feet. "It was dark, and we were asleep. Your ink justsu animals may be good, but they aren't trained like us."
Sai got up as well. "You are correct. We should move." He touched my arm as I prepared to leap. "We should act with caution, though. You may be right, Sakura, but Naruto is unpredictable and he may, in fact, be sleeping in. We don't want to alert him of our presence just yet."
"Sure." I nodded to him then, putting an extra boost of chakra in my feet, I launched myself up to land on the nearest branch.
It was around noon when we finally reached the site where Naruto had supposedly camped last night. When I peered through the trees and saw him still lying on the ground, I knew something wasn't right.
"How can we safely test to see if it's a shadow clone, though?" I whispered to Sai. "Usually we only find out when someone throws a kunai at it and it vanishes. We can't risk doing that for the tiny chance that this really is Naruto, after all."
"You could kiss him."
I turned to gape at Sai as he continued, "I read in a book once of a man waking a woman by kissing her on the lips. It seemed to –"
"This isn't a fairy tale, Sai!" I hissed, nearly forgetting to keep my voice down. "That's a stupid suggestion."
"But your cheeks are red," he said calmly. "And I read that when –"
I silenced him with a punch.
Sai sat back on his heels, rubbing his head. "All I thought was that it was better than throwing a kunai at him."
I rolled my eyes at him, then turned back to the situation in front of us. "Okay…if this is a shadow clone then Naruto already knows we are following him. If it's really him then he's losing precious time by sleeping." I stood up. "So we really don't have anything to lose by waking him up." I walked towards him as Sai got to his feet behind me.
"Hey, Naruto!" I called down to him. When he didn't respond at all, I bent down and smacked him on the head with my fist, like I had done to Sai a minute ago. As I thought, "Naruto" disappeared in a poof of smoke.
I whirled around to face Sai. "All right, this is bad. We've wasted so much time! He could have been traveling all night while we thought he was sleeping." I waved an arm out behind me. "And we have no idea which way he went."
"Then we must split up." Sai turned to the right. "I'll go this way and you take the opposite direction. I'll send one of my mice after you in case either of us finds anything."
I nodded and we both leaped off in our separate directions.
I was trying so hard not to let my thoughts turn to what might have happened while we slept; what might be happening at this very moment. I tried to think of anything but Naruto and Sasuke fighting, but of course I was only kidding myself.
I was concentrating so hard that I wasn't aware of how far I'd traveled, and I almost didn't realize when I came to the edge of the forest. Sliding to a stop on a branch half hidden by the tree trunk, I peered out at the field before me.
I could see what looked like the ruins of a town or small city a little way off. Off to my right, a path ran out of the forest, winding through the tall grasses towards the ruins.
I squinted, shielding my eyes against the afternoon sun.
Was that –?
"Did I just see orange?" I whispered to myself.
The more I tried to focus, the blurrier the object became. There was only one way to find out if it was what I thought it was.
The grass almost came to my waist when I jumped down. At least it would give me some form of shelter if I had to quickly hide.
Crouching as low as was physically possible, I moved forward. I lost sight of my target about halfway to the town, but I kept going, moving a little more cautiously.
When I reached what had once been the outer wall of the town, I stopped to scan the area. I couldn't see any movement so I proceeded, moving carefully; stopping often to hide behind a close by wall every time I thought I heard something.
I noticed that, as I got farther into the town, the destruction became less and less. It still looked and felt deserted, but I could see houses still intact across the village square.
I was about to venture out onto the open square, when I suddenly started in surprise and ducked into an alley way. Placing one hand on the cold, clay wall I peeked around the corner.
There he was, half hidden in the shadow of an second-story balcony. He was sitting so still that I almost hadn't noticed him.
"Naruto –" His name came to my lips in a whisper. What are you doing? I silently asked him. Taking a break? Are you tired? Do you even know where to find Sasuke?
Now that I thought about it, how would he know where to find Sasuke? We had spent years searching without success when he was with Orochimaru, and from what I could tell, neither of them had given any indication of where they would meet that last time when Sasuke had almost killed me.
Maybe I should go to him. Maybe I could help him; maybe even convince him –
That voice still gave me chills.
I followed it's sound to where he perched on one of the nearby rooftops, across the square from Naruto. How long had he been there? Had he noticed me?
Naruto casually raised his head. "Hello, Sasuke."
I gritted my teeth until my jaw hurt. How could he say it like that – like he was not even concerned or afraid at all of what might happen!
No, he's right not to be afraid, Sakura, I told myself firmly. Because I'm not going to let either of them die today!
Before I could even finish my thought, though, another one broke into my mind: But what if you have to choose? What if you can only save one of them…who would you choose?
I quickly shook it away. That wasn't going to happen.
"Aren't you going to say anything to me?" Sasuke's cool voice cut through my thoughts, and I focused my attention back on them. "Try one last time to convince me to go back?" His tone was mocking.
Naruto shook his head, still casual. "No. I've said all I need to say to you."
There was a pause before Sasuke spoke again – icy, calm: "You know I'm going to kill you, Naruto." He said it like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Naruto shrugged. "I know you think you have to kill me. I already told you, though, we're both going to die today."
"I'm not going to die."
"Hey, I defeated Pain!" Naruto huffed in indignation, sounding like his old self and pointing a finger up at Sasuke. "Have you ever had to fight six people at once who are all coming at you from different angles with different jutsus?"
Sasuke's only answer was a snort of contempt.
A triumphant grin spread across Naruto's face. "Yeah, that's what I thought."
For a moment it was like old times, hearing them argue over who was stronger. Then, just like that, the moment was gone.
The ground where Naruto had been sitting exploded in a shower of dust and wood chips. I didn't even realize what had happened until I saw Naruto rolling away, and looked back to see Sasuke in crouched in the place he had just been, his katana lodged deeply in the ground. The fight had finally begun.
Naruto got to his feet, brushing off his pants. He shifted into a defensive stance as a kunai dropped into his hand from somewhere up his sleeve. "So…what do ya say, Sasuke? Loser buys me ramen?"