A peculiar scent tickled her nostrils, barely perceptible to her senses. Intrigued, Tsunade filled her lungs to the brim, hoping to imbibe the scent's flavor, but the aroma remained at the edge of her perception, to the point where she began to believe it a trick of the mind. She exhaled and proceeded to fill her lungs again, only to cough harshly as an acrid stench pierced through her mind and prodded her disgust.
She covered her nose and mouth with a swift hand, eyes watering as they snapped onto her patient.
'Is that... smoke?'
She had carried him herself from his room down into the bowels of the hospital, where a chamber had been specially prepared to monitor his condition, and set him down in the middle of the massive sealing array tattooed into the stone floor. The designs surrounded him on all sides and glowed in a soft blue light as they were fed and controlled by a half dozen medics.
Naruto lay there, unmoving still, stripped of his clothes save for a pair of boxers, his pale skin seeming to shine where it contrasted the ebony ink of Jiraiya's paintbrush. A white cloud of smoke leaked from his nostrils and mouth with a low hiss, making it look like he was burning from the inside out. The sight sent her heart into palpitations.
Her old teammate grunted, his eyes shut in concentration as the seals painted on his face pulsed light periodically, identical to the glow emerging from the floor. "It's fine. I think he's casting kage bunshin."
Tsunade kept her eyes on the white cloud as it expanded with every exhalation, and quickly realized that it wasn't rising as high as it should. Instead of climbing until it reached the ceiling, the bulk of the cloud simply hung above Naruto's head as though an invisible membrane prevented it from moving, like hot-air in a balloon.
Her eyes narrowed. "Wait…''
It was moving. The billowing cloud slowly inched its way forward in a way that was becoming increasingly obvious, and its destination was likewise unmistakable: Yamanaka Ino's unconscious body, lying some distance away.
Her father rushed forwards.
Yamanaka Inoichi cared for his daughter deeply, that was easy to see. And to be honest, Tsunade wholeheartedly approved of his devotion, it was just that the sheer girth of his insubordination precluded any attempt at choking it down.
That's why she didn't feel particularly guilt-ridden when she motioned for her ANBU to restrain him.
A pair of masked men emerged from the shadows and streaked across the room like phantoms, overtaking the blond man in a heartbeat. Inoichi was slammed against the stone floor with a hefty thump and began to vigorously thrash about, trying desperately to escape his captors.
Tsunade watched the spectacle with imperious eyes. "Remember your place, jounin," she reprimanded. "This is a delicate operation. Do not test my patience by presuming to disrupt our efforts."
Inoichi snarled. "That is my daughter over there! Who knows what that… that… boy is doing to her?"
Konohagakure's fifth Hokage narrowed her eyes as a twinge of irritation tugged at her heartstrings.
"Yamanaka Inoichi!" His name emerged from her lips with the full weight of her authority. "Watch your tone."
Her jounin twisted his back and strained his neck in order to look into her eyes, and as he opened his mouth to offer his rebuttal, she realized that she didn't really care to hear what he had to say.
Tsunade flexed her metaphysical muscles and simply crushed him under the weight of her power. His eyes opened wide as his breath escaped his chest, the desperate anger that could be seen burning in their center dimming considerably as moisture gathered on their surface, reflecting the dim glow of functioning seals.
Inoichi was a seasoned jounin, but she was kage, and he would obey.
His head bowed until his forehead touched stone. "Please! Hokage-sama, I beg you," he pleaded hoarsely. "She is my only daughter."
But Tsunade's heart was deafened to his pleas. "Ino is a proud kunoichi of our village. Have faith in her, if you cannot have faith in us." Turning to her ANBU, "Make sure he doesn't disrupt the proceedings. If he insists on making a nuisance of himself, escort him outside."
The pair acknowledged the orders she had given with a slight nod and were promptly forgotten as she turned her attention towards the center of the room, where the cloud had settled over Ino's body, churning silently and rolling into itself. The mass of smoke suddenly settled for a moment before compressing into a perfect white sphere the size of a melon, looking almost like a Hyuuga's eye.
Thin streams of coagulated smoke shot out of the sphere, extending like tentacles over to Ino's arms and torso, weaving around them in a way that strongly reminded her of a spider's web. She could hear rusting clothes, dull thumps and Inoichi's grunts of exertion coming from behind her as he struggled to free himself, but tuned it all out as she observed the phenomenon, utterly fascinated. The sphere quickly diminished in size as its web formed a fabric around the girl, until there was nothing left.
Tsunade's eyes narrowed as she watched the unconscious girl and the white cloth adorning her body. Its shape was intensely familiar.
"Is that...?" Jiraiya whispered.
Splotches of orange and blue appeared on the weave, at first faded, then vibrant as the colour quickly spread, wiping out all doubt. Only one person in the entire village wore a jacket like that one, and he was lying unconscious a few feet away.
The first thing to denote Ino's return to consciousness was a grimace, and Tsunade began to wonder if the Yamanaka clan's signature techniques were in any way painful. She watched her wiggle and groan for a moment and decided to shelve the thought for another time.
"Alright, that's enough," she said, motioning to the medics powering the seal. "Do a preliminary analysis of the girl's vital signs and bring her in for debriefing. I want a full report within an hour. Jiraiya, with me."
The toad sage snorted his disdain of authority, but obeyed, the glow of the seals decorating his face fading to black as his hands untangled from their symbolic arrangement, and he climbed to his feet.
"Hmph. You sure have gotten used that hat quickly, Princess."
Tsunade remained silent as she walked past Inoichi's prone body, the expression on his face reflecting his overpowering relief.
'You may be right.'
Tsunade glanced at a her oldest friend as he idly skimmed over his copy of the report. "You don't believe it?"
He shook his head slowly, feigning distraction. "No, I wouldn't say that."
"What is it, then?" she asked. Her eyes stayed on the text but stilled their advance.
He took a moment's pause to gauge the feel of the landscape. "I'm just wondering... how much time we really have to spend on research," he advanced.
His tread was careful, but she was sensitive, excessively so, in light of recent events. She took her eyes of the scroll only to glare at him.
"Get to the point, Jiraiya. What do you want?"
He matched her heat with a steady gaze, cool and resolute. "I want to send in the girl."
"I'd appreciate it if you could be more specific."
"Naruto's teammate. The one with pink hair."
Tsunade blinked. "...Haruno? I fail to see what that would accomplish."
Jiraiya crossed his arms, and leaned back into his seat. "Inoichi's kid got a lot further in than he did."
"Again, I'm not seeing the connection."
He pushed on. "This Watchman isn't Naruto, but he's based on him, same as all the other clones," he affirmed, then sighed. "Sending Inoichi was a mistake. Even if we ignore any bad blood between them, there's no way Naruto would just let someone he doesn't know well roam around his head! Of course he'd try to stop him."
Tsunade barely held back a snort. "And you think he'll stand aside if Haruno asks nicely?"
"He likes her," he advanced.
"He likes Shizune too," she countered.
Jiraiya shook his head strongly. "Not like that! He wouldn't like it, but he'd fight Shizune if she tried to force it."
She shook her head in confusion. "And just what makes you think he wouldn't raise a hand against Haruno?"
Jiraiya snorted and rubbed at his forehead. "What was I thinking? Shouldn't have expected you to understand," he muttered.
It seemed as though he was about to drop the subject, but she wasn't about to let him off easy. Her copy of the report clapped against her desk with some force after leaving her hands, and she stared him down until he matched her gaze.
"Do you realize what's at stake here, Jiraiya? I'm not willing to gamble with his life!"
"And you think I am?" he asked, incredulous, almost insulted.
"Then tell me, what makes you so sure?" she demanded. "What makes you think you understand him any better than I do?"
The tells that revealed his irritation – the slight tilt of his eyes, the tension in the corner of his mouth – faded away, to be replaced by something she could not identify.
"I've been in his position," he said, his dark eyes seeming to pin her to her seat with their intensity.
Her heart fluttered in her chest and disquiet numbed her tongue. Once upon a time she would have used those feelings against him. But then, once upon a time, he would have never admitted to such.
Maybe that's what helped convince her, in the end.
Because, when it all came down to it, she was scared. Scared of many things.
But not of him.
"Alright... I'll trust you."
She wasn't willing to gamble with Naruto's life, so she would trust in the Toad Sage's wisdom.
'I hope you know what you're doing, Jiraiya. For his sake.'
Somehow, the arcane symbols bleeding light into the air had a different feel to them up close. It was as if she could feel an expert seamstress tugging at the edges of her mind's tapestry, unraveling it thread by thread. The edge of her vision began to dim, but the effect receded quickly as soon it was noticed. It was almost like she was falling asleep, except that she was far too keyed up for that to be happening.
"Don't fight it," Ino warned. "We have to fall in at the same time, so I can lead you to our destination. We don't want to get separated and you're so inexperienced that you might end up trapped in his memories. So relax before you get to relive Naruto's most lurid fantasies of you."
The thought alone was enough to sour her expression.
"Yamanaka Ino, some decorum would be appreciated."
Her rival's pretty cheeks flushed red in embarrassment, but before she could truly enjoy the sight, the Hokage's stern eyes turned in her direction. Her breath caught as the woman focused the full weight of her attention upon her slight figure and seemed displeased.
The Hokage's expression shifted minutely, as if her tongue bathed in distasteful liquor.
"Before we can proceed, our seal master will need to inscribe certain precautions onto you, so as to avoid the very scenario Miss Yamanaka so thoughtfully described."
'Well... okay. I don't see what's so–'
Sakura then noticed a shadowy figure approaching from behind the Hokage. It was only then that she realized that everything outside the sealing circle was draped in endless shadows, including the floor, the walls and even the ceiling. It looked like she was standing on a platform of light in the heart of an abyss.
The shifting shadow absorbed the light emitted from the seal and died a swift death, revealing the large man hidden underneath. With the eerie light striking his wild white mane of hair, Jiraiya suddenly held the allure of the supernatural.
His frown spoke of annoyance, with no trace of the unease that was suddenly striking her heart. "What? You're still dressed, girl? Come on, we don't have all day. Show me some skin!"
Sakura felt her eyes open uncomfortably as her mind touched and tasted a truly horrific idea. She turned towards her Hokage, hoping desperately that it was she, and not the world around her that had gone insane.
Those hopes were dashed when the woman showed her approval, nodding grimly with no trace of compassion.
She swiveled on the balls of her feet, several curses primed on the tip of her tongue as she prepared to give the perverted old man a truly caustic piece of her mind. But he took the initiative, snorting loudly and looking terribly amused by the look on her face. She bit he tongue. Perverted or not, he was still one of the legendary sannin. She might have been angry, but she wasn't crazy enough to interrupt him. Who knew? He might just remove her ability to speak.
"Don't flatter yourself girl. You still need about a decade before you can start worrying about me."
Heat blossomed in her face as she found herself torn between mortification and relief.
"Now, come on." Jiraiya knelt on the stone floor and took out a bowl and a small brush from the folds of his clothing. "Let's get started!"
She hesitated. How could she not? But the Hokage's dispassionate eyes and Ino's sympathetic moue of disgust held little reprieve, so she just sighed and reached for her zipper.
Her tongue couldn't stand the repression any longer and rebelled. "Don't call me that," she muttered.
"What's that?" he asked as he unscrewed the bowl's top. "Speak louder."
She stopped to glare at him with her left shoulder bared, the white bra strap exposed. "I said: Don't call me that! I'm not a girl anymore."
His smirk grew wide enough to reveal his shiny teeth, but he didn't laugh. Instead, he looked up at her and asked: "Well, what are you then?" His eyes dropped to her hips and he waved. "The shorts as well."
She pursed her lips, but finished stepping out of her dress. "I'm a Konohagakura kunoichi."
In the face of such a man, that statement felt somewhat flat, even to her. This time he couldn't stop himself from chuckling merrily. "Fine then, little ninja."
That term earned him a scowl, but she figured that was the best she was likely to get out of him. When her tight shorts –she had recently outgrown them– slipped down her legs and onto the floor, she made sure to glare at him in warning.
"I'm not taking anything else off."
Jiraiya merely nodded. "That's fine. Lay down here. On your front."
She couldn't help but approach warily, clad as she was in nothing but her underwear, a simple cotton bra with matching panties, both white. Without her dress the chamber's controlled temperature felt decidedly chilly and nipped eagerly at her skin, while the stone floor felt like ice underneath her naked feet. She turned to Jiraiya and found him staring back, his expression void of anything.
She laid down without a word.
The ink was cold as well.
Later on, with the ink on her skin dry and glowing eerily, she was settled beside her teammate's comatose body on the opposite of her rival and temporary guide, still clad in nothing but her undergarments. They were the only ones left in the sealing circle, and within this illusionary darkness, it was easy to forget that they weren't alone in the world.
"Hey, Ino?" Sakura whispered, breaking the silence.
Ino's voice traveled across Naruto's disturbingly still chest, and it brought sassiness. "We're supposed to fall asleep, Forehead."
"I know, but–" She struggled for words for a moment. "Why are you wearing Naruto's jacket?"
The sound of her rival's giggling brought her spirits down, sharply. "Why? Are you jealous?"
Sakura grimaced. "Ugh! Never mind!" And closed her eyes.
When they opened next, her eyes perceived a changed world. The darkness remained as it was, looming and ever-present, but everything else seemed to have tilted ever so slightly, as though she was only seeing the other side of a coin.
The pale blue that had emanated from the sealing circle was replaced by a soft crimson leaking from the very air, and the circle itself gave its place to a flooded hallway with no end her eye could see. And finally, though her companions remained the same their roles were exchanged, with Ino hanging limply off of Naruto's shoulder.
His lips were moving with considerable speed, but no sound reached her ears, obstructed as they were by a sharp buzzing sound, as if she'd gotten too close to an explosion.
'He's not wearing his jacket,' she noted idly. 'Did he give it to Ino?'
With her mind revolving around clothing, it didn't take much longer for her to realize that she wasn't wearing anything more than wet, white underwear.
She screamed, and found the absence of a corresponding echo in her own ears quite discomforting. So she screamed harder, or tried to at least.
It was like a nightmare.
Suddenly, something warm smothered her mouth, so she opened her eyes and met Naruto's wide, frightened stare.
She pried his palm off of her mouth, using more nails than were strictly necessary. "Give me your shirt," she demanded.
The boy had to shuffle Ino around like she was a sack of potatoes, but he hurriedly drew his shirt up around his neck and threw it at her before her patience ran out.
His lips were flapping around again, so she decided to clue him in. She just couldn't be bothered to read his lips right now. Her head was all… fuzzy.
"I can't hear you. Stop talking." She wasted no time pulling the shirt over her head, noting that it was curiously dry, but found herself agitated by how little it actually covered.
'Oh yeah. Naruto's shorter than me.'
As it was, the hem of his black shirt barely reached the top of her thighs, and would doubtlessly offer tantalizing glimpses of her panties as she walked. Of course, while she was still under the purview of those wolfish blue eyes, that was unacceptable.
She looked at him and found him staring back, only his sight was aimed a bit lower than her face. Her face flushed with heat and she pulled the shirt down as far as it would go.
His chest was bare, exposing a beautiful gem hanging on a necklace. Her eyes remained stubbornly stuck to it for a long moment, but eventually focused on the prize.
"Your pants… give them to me!"
He took a step back, alarm etched on his soft features. "B-but! Sakura-chan!"
She barreled his objections down like a train car. "Stop complaining! I can't go around like this, it's indecent!"
"Well, what about me then?"
She rolled her eyes. "You're a boy! Who cares if you go around in your underwear?"
He grumbled and pouted, but pulled his zipper down, his concerns proven invalid. It was only as he hopped around on one leg, trying to pull his pants off without dropping Ino, that she realized it.
The splash's echo tickled her ears.
"Hey… I can hear you now!"
She caught a flicker of blue as he glanced up through his fringe, but he didn't say anything.
The blond threw his bundled up pants across the metaphorical chasm separating them, and she caught them offhand. She unraveled the pair before her and examined them through the critical eyes of a stylish young girl. They were soaking wet, orange and probably dirty, but they were infinitely better than walking around half naked. She slipped them on, wincing at the feeling of cold, wet cloth on her skin.
"So… Sakura-chan! What brings you here?"
She watched him carefully as she finished buttoning his pants. He was smiling, but she wasn't fooled. That wasn't Naruto, and she wasn't about to forget it. That, was a guardian at best and an obstacle at worst.
"You know why I'm here," she stated.
His smile died.
"You too, huh?" He chuckled. "He'd be glad to see himself become so popular. You know, I'm kind of surprised to see you chasing after him, Sakura-chan."
"He's my teammate. Team Seven sticks together."
He said nothing in response.
"Are you going to try and stop me?" she asked.
He shrugged. "That's my job."
She frowned at him and crossed her arms. "Your job? Wait, did Naruto put you up to this? Why would he stop us from trying to find him?"
The clone shook his head. "I'm just supposed to stop anyone from getting in here. I don't think he knew people would just appear out of nowhere."
"What?" Something didn't make sense, but the clone kept talking before she could figure it out.
"Well, this place isn't safe, Sakura-chan. If I wasn't here—"
"Hey… Watchman, right?" Ino's mumbling voice asked sluggishly. "Why are you naked?"
Watchman turned to her and said, without a trace of irony: "Sakura-chan mugged me."
It was like the punchline to a joke and Ino burst into giggles. Sakura felt like punching them both in the stomach. "S-shut up! He's not naked! He still has his underwear!"
That only made her laugh harder. "Oh, sorry! Did I interrupt you? Don't mind me! C-carry on!" The rest of it was more laughter than words and was thus completely unintelligible.
They had to wait for a while for Ino to regain her composure, and Sakura felt as though every second stretched on to forever. Her face burned with shame, and her jaw tightened underneath the flames.
And with his arm still wrapped around Ino's convulsing waist, the clone known as Watchman watched her unwaveringly.
Eventually, she got her fill of it. She looked him in the eyes. "It's rude to stare, you know. So stop it!"
He jumped as if startled. His free hand came up to scratch the back of his head in a familiar manner, and she had to remind herself once again. 'This is not Naruto.'
"Sorry," he mumbled his apology. "It's just… I know I've never seen you before. But I have all these memories and it's so different."
Sakura cocked her head in puzzlement. "Different how?"
He looked at her then, and she felt his wonder. She saw the depth of his emotions reflected in his eyes and was frightened.
"Better," he said.
Ino's fingers pinched the elastic of his boxers and pulled.
His retreat kicked up a wave that nearly reached his chest and quickly disappeared into the darkness. Watchman stared at Ino, scandalized like a Sister of the cloth stumbling across a naked man.
Ino's smirk showed no sign of contriteness, and Sakura had to hold back a few giggles herself. Ino shook her head in mock sadness.
"You're so pathetic. You do know she's your enemy, right? How are you going to stop her like this? You can't even look at her without going all gaga!"
Watchman stilled, then relaxed. "Sakura-chan is not my enemy. And neither are you." He seemed so calm, so sure of himself when he said that, almost solemn.
Ino scoffed, unimpressed. "What else can we be? We're trying to infiltrate what you're trying to protect. Make up your mind already. Try to stop us or get out of the way."
Sakura winced. "Ino, don't provoke him."
Ino whirled on her. "Come on, Forehead! Show some spine! It's two on one, and it's Naruto. We've got this!"
"It's not Naruto!" Sakura yelled. When she saw Ino jerk back, shocked at her reaction, she took a deep breath and tried to calm down. "You're taking this too lightly, Ino-pig."
Sakura and Ino turned towards Watchman as he addressed them.
"You keep treating this as if it was a fortress, but it's not. This place is a labyrinth. Don't go any deeper."
Ino blinked. "Um… We learned about this, didn't we? What's the difference between the two again?"
"Conventional wisdom states that a fortress is built to keep the enemy from coming in. A labyrinth, on the other hand, is designed to keep the enemy from escaping, usually a lesser demon of some sort," Sakura recited from memory. She then frowned. "Wait…"
Ino whistled. "Wow. I knew Naruto was in denial, but I didn't think it was this bad. Does he really dump all his bad memories in here? No wonder this place is so horrible then. I get it. He probably drowns the memories in the sub-levels."
She trailed off and frowned as she seemed to think of something.
"What is it?" Sakura asked.
"Nothing. It's just…" Ino shook her head. "This place is different than when I was here earlier. Why is that? Ugh, this place is so weird."
Sakura left Ino to her musings and turned towards the silent guardian. "Nothing to say?"
Watchman kept his tongue. Both his eyes were opened wide and he seemed almost stunned.
Sakura frowned. "Watchman?"
"Please leave. This place is not for you."
An uneasy feeling blossomed in Sakura's chest. Something about the way he pleaded with them made her uncomfortable, wary. Yet still—
"I'm not leaving. Not without Naruto."
Ino swiveled around to face her, but Sakura ignored her. She knew why her rival was so surprised. The Hokage had given them a simple mission. They were to confirm whether they could get past Watchman, and then return immediately.
But Sakura was not about to let such an opportunity pass her by.
'Those who abandon their teammates are worse than trash. Right, Kakashi-sensei?'
Watchman shook his head in dismay. "But Naruto isn't here!"
"Then go find him!"
He shook his head again, vehemently this time. "I can't leave you here! I won't!"
"Fine!" she yelled. "Then bring us to him!"
Watchman shut his eyes and sighed. "I can't do that either. But I might know someone who can."
He presented both his hands to them. "Please. Both of you take my hand."
Sakura threw a glance at Ino, but neither of them had any objections. They took hold of his hands and braced themselves for anything.
Watchman looked at them in turn. "Don't let go."
Something he did just then reverberated against her chakra. It was like standing next to a train going by at full steam, only an echo of the real pressure, but it nearly knocked her over anyway.
Right then, Sakura was struck by the certainty that they never could have beaten him.
There was a faint sound like broken glass, followed by endless, perfect cold. Like a winter storm, it consumed her and everything, even her sight, left her.
Everything, except the warmth of his hand.