This story has some of Masashi Kishimoto's characters from Naruto in a universe of my own devising. I do not own Naruto. I do not make any money from these writings.
Warning: This story features male/male relationships. If you are uncomfortable reading about gay male relationships do not read this story.
This story is set in a very different world to ours. In 'known space', different societies and communities are often very isolated from each other and have very different histories. There is no common shared knowledge of Earth's history; in fact all knowledge of Earth as the home of mankind is lost. There is no shared law, no shared agreement of what what is 'right' and 'wrong', no pervasive religion.
Warning: The views, standards, mores and morals of the different groups in this story, including those of 'spacers', are not those of our world. They are the product of a fictional future history. Many of the behaviours they consider acceptable we do not; some of them are wrong by my definition in that they are damaging to one or more of the individuals involved and/or suggest that one individual has more intrinsic value than another.
I would like to thank all readers who have left a review or sent an email. They are very much appreciated. Particular thanks to xxShadowheartxx, TanuKyle, Mosho, kaname-luvr, melissen, WTFflyingmonkeys123, LadySaturnGirl and I Am The Pumpkin King who have reviewed Iteration.
Apologies if the characters have grown differently in their new environment.
Many thanks to 'Small Fox' for beta-ing. For this story he had also been my muse, helping me develop many of the ideas and plot developments.
Chapter seventeen: Abduction
Sasori spent his first five days at the sanctuary observing comings and goings. He established that it was a busy place with almost no security and that Gaara cared little or nothing about his presence.
He rarely saw Gaara, even at a distance, and the ex-kage never sought him out. This suited Sasori; Gaara was the only person who could identify him when shelled.
On the sixth day another shell-wearer, to be known as Kugutsu, arrived at the sanctuary. He introduced himself as Hitokugutsu's assistant and settled into the four-room hut that Hitokugutsu-san already occupied.
Sasori sent Temari a message, including an image of the Kugutsu shell, saying that a second member of the Sunagakure had turned up on Kaze V. He told her that he thought that the Sunagakure were checking up on him. This was believable given the Sunagakure's paranoia.
However, there was no assistant. Kugutsu was Sasori in a second shell.
Once the presence of his assistant had been established, Sasori was committed. It was only a matter of time before either Gaara met Kugutsu and smelt Sasori inside or someone realised that Hitokugutsu and Kugutsu were never seen together.
The Kugutsu shell was unusual.
Firstly it could be worn under another shell; Sasori had been wearing it under the Hitokugutsu shell when he arrived on the planet. All people who used shells knew this was impossible.
Secondly, the Kugutsu shell appeared identical to one used by Tsubusa, another member of the Sunagakure.
Ensuring that Tsubusa and Sasori had identical shells had been surprisingly easy to arrange. Sasori had obtained a variety of clones from Pein and, under one of his many guises, sold them to a supplier in Kaze. He had then tracked each one and had been delighted when this one ended up in Tsubusa's possession.
Of course Sasori had another copy of each of the clones.
Tsubusa had been one of Sasori's special interests for many standards. He was the ideal person on whom to blame Gaara's abduction. He was careless, so Sasori knew far more about him than he should have been able to discover. He was known to dislike hybrids in general and Gaara in particular. He had opposed Temari becoming Kage because she was a woman. He had strong links with three of the blue-clad leaders. He was disrespectful to warriors, which meant that they would be quick to take any opportunity to kill him.
Having selected Tsubusa to be held responsible for Gaara's abduction, it was essential that he did not have an alibi. Again, the paranoia of the Sunagakure leadership worked in Sasori's favour. Planted intelligence, the right words in the correct ears, and Tsubusa was on his way to an assignment away from Kaze.
As Tsubusa would never appear as himself when on assignment, no alibi was possible.
Wearing the Kugutsu shell, Sasori made a number of arrangements. He organised a ground vehicle for Hitokugutsu and Kugutsu to use when they visited other establishments. He arranged for the planet's only courier service to call at the sanctuary. He ensured that he could get an air vehicle to land on sanctuary land, pick up a case and leave. He prepared a flyer and loaded two of the tiny crawlers it carried with drugs that the Sunagakure, and specifically Tsubusa, were known to use. He had the courier service deliver three hovercases, each large enough to take a body. He scouted the area around Gaara and Lee's hut and decided on the best position within fifty paces. He planted bugs in the hut that Gaara and Lee shared.
After that it was a matter of picking his time.
His greatest concern had been Lee. The man looked harmless but the symbiote he contained made him deadly. His second greatest concern was Gaara himself. If Gaara had time to switch off his controller then the chances of Sasori capturing him were small; Gaara would kill him.
Then Sasori had learned that Gaara and Lee slept in separate rooms, which was a surprise. The looks Lee gave Gaara had convinced Sasori that they were lovers. Even if they were not lovers, Sasori had assumed that Lee would never leave Gaara's side; wearing the controller made Gaara appallingly vulnerable.
Sasori liked unrequited love; it often made people act irrationally. In this case, it stopped Lee insisting on sleeping in Gaara's room.
As the chosen night came closer, Sasori's whole body hummed with excitement. As much as he delighted in layer upon layer of subterfuge, it paled next to the moments when he risked his life.
He checked every piece of equipment. Then he took a deep breath and booked three pickups for specified times. He placed a hovercase, weighted as if it contained a body, in the sanctuary grounds.
It had begun.
He, like everyone else, retired to his quarters as normal. There were no patrols; no guards. The feed from the bugs he had planted confirmed that Gaara and Lee were sleeping in their separate rooms.
Sasori donned the Kugutsu shell and then dressed the shell in dark camouflage and blacked its face. He took up the position he had scouted and brought in the two hovercases from his hut using a remote controller. From one he removed a flyer.
First he flew the flyer close to the room where Gaara was sleeping. Then a tiny crawler detached itself from the flyer and went under the door and into the room.
Crawlers were quieter. The little noise they made could be mistaken for that of a living creature. Sasori had taken the added precaution of checking its audio profile for all the frequencies Gaara was thought to be able to hear.
It went perfectly. Gaara did not even stir as his toe was anaesthetised and the soporific administered.
Now the tricky part; Lee had to see the Kugutsu shell. The flyer released another crawler. It injected Lee with a powerful muscle relaxant as well as a time delayed soporific. The risk was that Sasori was not sure how Lee controlled the symbiote or how the symbiote influenced Lee's muscles.
If Sasori was wrong Lee would be mobile when he woke. He would attack or raise the alarm.
Neither happened; the assumptions Sasori had made appeared valid.
Sasori packed Gaara into a hovercase while keeping a close eye on the time that had elapsed since Lee had been injected. He then steered the other hovercase into Lee's room.
He had timed it perfectly. Lee was awake but unable to move. His eyes burned with hatred as Kugutsu packed him into the case and sealed the lid.
The case containing Lee was steered to the place where Kugutsu left items to be picked up by the courier service; Gaara was taken back to Kugutsu and Hitokugutsu's hut.
Once in his hut, Sasori allowed himself a short break. So far everything had gone to plan but there was still much to do and far to go.
Next he arranged the hut to look as if two people had fought and put Gaara into the Hitokugutsu shell.
It was almost day. He watched the dawn break and the sun rise. The sun on Kaze V was orange and the sky had a greenish twinge; it made for spectacular sunrises. Sasori liked beautiful things and, even though he preferred his art more permanent, it was always worth a few minutes to admire a glorious view.
Once people started to stir, but not before, he went to get the ground vehicle. He parked it in the usual place next to the hut before manoeuvring the Hitokugutsu shell, containing Gaara, into the passenger seat.
This was the riskiest part of the plan. There was always the possibility that someone would realise the Hitokugutsu shell was inactive and ask questions. Sasori had practiced various comments about it being too early for his boss to be awake but none of them had sounded convincing.
Sasori wanted people to realise that the shell was inactive, but not yet.
There was a camera at the gate to the sanctuary; on close examination of the recording, it should be obvious that the body inside the shell was sleeping, unconscious or dead. By doing this he hoped to reinforce that Hitokugutsu and Kugutsu were separate people and to suggest that Hitokugutsu was Kugutsu's unwilling victim.
No one spoke to him as they drove through the sanctuary. The guard on duty opened the gate and waved him through.
Sasori could hear the air vehicle landing to pick up the decoy case as he drove away.
So far, so good; it did not matter if the hybrids found Lee or if he was picked up by the courier service and rescued later. What mattered was that any deductions made were consistent with Gaara being picked up by the air vehicle and Hitokugutsu being abducted or killed by Kugutsu.
There were drop and lift platforms dotted about Kaze V; leftovers from before the construction of the spaceport. The Akatsuki were sending a spacecraft to the closest of these.
Sasori sped towards it along uneven tracks through dense forest, his mind alive with all the reasons that the craft would not be there and how he should respond. He met only one truck, almost hitting it because he was travelling too fast. They just managed to avoid each other and Sasori drove on, heart thumping, thanking Lady Luck that the truck driver had been alert so early in the morning.
Twenty-six minutes later he turned into the clearing. The ship was there, ramp down, waiting. Sasori drove directly into the storage hold.
He hopped out of the driver's seat, found the intercom and told the pilot he would need no more than ten minutes.
Eight minutes later the vehicle was secured, Gaara was in stasis in the pod provided, the two shells were stored and Sasori was strapped down for lift.
There was only one known hole in the Kaze V system; they would have to use the gate to Kaze III. Luckily Kaze III was the ideal system in which to hide; there were the three main gates, two occupied planets, four space stations, miners spread throughout the asteroid belt and an obscure ungated hole.
Sasori recognised the harmonics in the hum of the drive. The ship Pein had sent had a miniature Mulligan drive; once in the Kaze III system they would head for the ungated hole and jump to an unoccupied system.
After lift Sasori dressed himself in the Kugutsu shell and waited for an invitation to meet with the pilot. It turned out to be a Pein lookalike who smiled and identified himself as the Deva who had met with Sasori in Suna.
"I am impressed," Deva admitted. "You have achieved far more and far more swiftly than we had anticipated."
Sasori knew that his high performance had been motivated by his desire to destroy the Sunagakure. He shrugged. "Opportunities presented themselves," he admitted.
"If asked, what would you have done to Gaara once we have finished with him?" Deva asked.
In addition to the usual cycle of meetings, Sasuke scheduled an extended one-to-one with each of his advisors once a div. Shikamaru knew Sasuke did this to make sure Neji and Kakashi each had an opportunity to speak absolutely frankly, something neither of them were keen to do in front of the other.
Being honest was not something that Shikamaru found difficult, at least not to Sasuke. Even so, it was good to have the chance to talk at length without worrying about what others would be thinking.
He sank into one of the chairs while Sasuke made them tea. His eyes went to the huge display frame on the wall, which showed an image of Naruto with the children. Haru was sitting at the front, next to Kazuki.
Sasuke brought the tray over to the table and set it down. His eyes also went to the display frame. "I am incredibly lucky," he acknowledged.
Shikamaru blinked back a sudden rush of tears. It was good that Sasuke could say that. There had been a time when the spectre of Naruto's early death would have prevented him from doing so.
"I know we have not pushed forward as we should," Sasuke was saying. "Except for the communication network, we are behind schedule with every aspect of our ten standard plan."
Shikamaru shrugged. "The communication network is growing steadily. It brings in large amounts of credit, both directly and indirectly." His eyes went back to the display frame. "We have other priorities. They will only grow up once."
Sasuke smiled with his eyes. "So Uchiha is being rather than doing," he suggested.
Shikamaru almost did not say it, but this was the meeting where Sasuke wanted him to say what he was thinking. "Based on easily available information, any analysis would have Uchiha as the most influential, non-Centralite organisation in known space."
Sasuke frowned and, in response, Shikamaru took one of the double-sided medallions from his pocket and placed it on the table.
The frown deepened to a scowl.
"You cannot ignore it," Shikamaru told him. "If you add in the reality of the communication network and the intelligence analysis, Uchiha will be the most powerful non-Centralite organisation operating in the Fringe within one to two decades. Unless we are stopped, of course."
Sasuke scowl lessened as he started thinking. "This is why we have attracted the attention of whoever sent Ranmaru," he suggested. He sighed. "The more influential and powerful we become, the more enemies we will have. Maybe that should be the next problem you should work on, Shika-san, making us safer."
"Turn nomad," Shikamaru answered immediately.
Shikamaru smiled. "You asked. Being predictable is bad. Sitting here in Tarrasade makes us predictable. Travelling using gates makes us predictable. Travelling using unmapped routes unavailable to others would make us unpredictable."
Sasuke was shocked at the idea that spacing could be safer than living in Tarrasade. "No one would dare attack Tarrasade," he declared.
"No one has ever dared attack Tarrasade," Shikamaru suggested. He studied Sasuke's face. "This is the meeting where I can say anything," he reminded him.
Sasuke sighed. "This is the meeting where you can say anything," he confirmed and sipped his tea. "What else do you think I need to hear?" he asked.
As if on cue, Shino's voice came over the intercom.
"Top priority message from Kaze, Boss. From the Kage herself."
Sasuke and Shikamaru exchanged anxious looks. Sasuke got up, walked to the intercom and pressed the button.
"Put it though to the holoprojector in my office, Shino-san," he instructed.
Temari was in her office. Her appearance warned them that the news was dire even before she spoke.
"Someone has taken Gaara," she began. "They tried for Lee too, but failed. No demands as yet. The problem is that everything points to my own intelligence service. Other than me and Kankuro, I don't know whom to trust. I have no idea if my information is sound or tainted. I need you-know-who."
She looked directly into the lens of the camera. "Please, Sasuke. I'll up the repayments but there is no time for a detailed negotiation. Every minute counts. Relevant packages of information are attached."
Shikamaru was on his feet. "I'll take the Dart," he said.
"You will not," Sasuke ordered. "It could easily be a trap. Sort out the best link you can over the new network. What is the minimum time delay?"
Shikamaru went into the part of his mind that specialised in calculation. "Between ninety and one hundred minutes," he decided. He smiled slightly. "Wow, that's an amazingly quick link."
"Exactly," Sasuke agreed. "It will be longer if you are travelling on the Dart, because you will have to relay your communications back through here. Go set it up. I shall tell Naruto and we will tell Kiba."
After speaking with Naruto and then with Kiba, Sasuke went to find Shikamaru. He was in his usual alcove of the laboratory, goggles and earpieces in place and wearing a pair of mesh gloves. His hands wove through the air, controlling actions in his virtual world.
Neji was sitting off to one side watching him. There was a basket of snacks, including a flask of coffee, on the floor. Shino was at the other side the room monitoring the link via a display over his work bench.
Sasuke had offered Shikamaru and Shino separate workspaces but they had always refused. Neji did have an office, which was incredibly neat and only used for confidential meetings; he preferred his desk and console in the laboratory.
Sasuke pulled up the spare chair and sat down.
"Has he come out yet?" he asked.
Neji shook his head. "Temari sent everything they had so far. He'll still be writing enquires."
Sasuke knew that, but he and Neji were merely making conversation; the verbal equivalent of a touch on each other's arm. His gaze went to the chest that contained this version of Shikamaru's data crystal array. Every standard it grew, as did the versions Shikamaru kept on the Oak, on the Cherry and, Sasuke suspected, at various other locations. He was always building a new array, populating it and replacing one of the others. The data in each array was updated regularly according to a schedule that only Shikamaru knew.
Shikamaru's movements changed and both Neji and Sasuke recognised that he was coming out of the datastream. Neji picked up the flask and gave Sasuke a questioning look. He shook his head in reply and Neji took a single small cup from the basket and filled it with viscous, dark brown liquid that Sasuke recognised as originating from the machine in Rin's office.
As soon as the goggles were discarded, Shikamaru reached for the cup. Neji pulled it out of his reach and Shikamaru responded by removing his earpieces and stripping off the gloves.
He was then allowed to claim his cup of coffee.
"It's a nightmare," he admitted after his first sip. "Layer upon layer of false trails and other misdirection." He swallowed the rest of the cup's contents in one and held out the cup for more. "It does smell of the Sunagakure."
"But why Gaara?" Sasuke asked.
Shikamaru shrugged. "To show Temari that they can?" he suggested. Then he frowned. "I knew that some of them were struggling to adapt to the new regime, but I did not think that they were that stupid. Temari was one of them. She has the power and the knowledge to destroy them completely. Perhaps it is a rogue."
"Could it be someone posing as the Sunagakure?" Sasuke asked.
Shikamaru considered. "Perhaps. It is unlikely. They are too familiar with Sunagakure procedures."
"Could you do it?" Neji asked.
"No," Shikamaru answered. "It could be a member of the Sunagakure working for himself or another organisation," he admitted. His gaze went unfocused and distant. "That is an interesting thought. It raises the possibility that we were the target rather than Temari, or the Kazian warriors, or Gaara himself."
"Perhaps they were hoping we would send the Dart," Sasuke suggested, thinking back to their earlier exchange. "A trap?"
"Maybe," Shikamaru conceded. "Perhaps just wanting information. That would explain why they tried to abduct Lee as well. Gaara and Lee know more about Uchiha than anyone else living outside our security cordon. That's if the attempt to abduct Lee was ever anything more than a ruse."
Neji sighed. "Explain."
"He was put in a case to be picked up by a standard courier service. There was no way he would not be found. Perhaps the whole Lee thing was another distraction, to point to Uchiha rather than the true target."
Sasuke found it like trying to play Shikamaru at shogi; intriguing at first but rapidly becoming too convoluted to lead anywhere other than confusion. "It wasn't Kabuto then, like Kimimaro's attempt in Petersville?"
There was a pause. "Maybe Kabuto has links to another organisation," Shikamaru suggested cautiously. "Maybe that organisation is behind Gaara's abduction and planting Ranmaru. Whoever planted Ranmaru is skilled and works at a deep level. It is possible that they have someone in the Sunagakure."
"So the kidnapper was either lacking in competence, so left evidence that points to the Sunagakure, or wanted to point to the Sunagakure," Neji suggested.
Shikamaru wiggled the cup to remind Neji to fill it. "We need more information. Temari has promised to have Lee at the other end of a link as soon as possible." He downed the second cupful and starting pulling on his gloves. "I need to warn Temari against pulling apart the Sunagakure before she has a chance to get to the bottom of it all."