I'm not dead! However, my time to write is in the negatives right now. I've been plugging away at this a sentence at a time when I can, but… well, time is lacking. So, this is about 1/3 of the planned chapter amount, but I figure I can break it off here and at least let you guys know I haven't quit and maybe get some suggestions/feedback/anything that will help me get back in the swing of writing. I have time coming up this weekend and I want to have some inspiration to write off of!

Chapter 3

"There is little time. It would be best if we started now."

Naruto nodded reluctantly. He knew Kurama was being truthful—it was, after all, why the mind-walk jutsu was so effective. Try as you might, you cannot convincingly lie in a mindscape. Thoughts are 'real'. Heard.

"What do I need to do?"

"Tear off a corner of the seal—be careful not to disrupt the writing—and… brace yourself. I will numb what I can, but this is likely to hurt."

Naruto grimaced, but made his way to the paper seal and carefully tore a corner off.

The immediate increase in space between the bars was… fairly small, considering the size of the Kyuubi—or was it Juubi, now?—but noticeable. Red chakra spilled between them, flooding Naruto's mindscape before moving to his body.

Naruto found himself back in the clearing with Sasuke, kicked from his mindscape, and covered in an amorphous red shroud that—oddly—was not taking the usual fox-shape. Sasuke was moving towards him, obviously concerned even though he knew better than to touch the corrosive chakra.

That was about all Naruto had time to notice before the numbing almost-pain kicked in.


Sasuke wasn't sure what to expect, but the glowing red chakra-bubble around Naruto wasn't in his few ideas. When his Kage opened still-blue eyes tinted violet through the red glow, the tinge of worry sharpened.

Sasuke moved closer, hovering just outside the not-quite-shroud, only to lunge to catch Naruto as the other boy crumpled, forgetting the corrosive nature of Kyuubi's chakra in his alarm.

It prickled, not—quite—burning. That was bizarre, but Sasuke wasn't going to question it until he knew that Naruto would pull through unharmed. He took a moment to glance around, still cradling Naruto's shoulders and head in one arm while his free hand worked through the half-seals that would allow him to act as a temporary chakra-sensor. Focus could do the same thing, but not nearly as effectively, and he needed to be certain.

No-one nearby. And Kurama's chakra didn't have any Killing Intent, though there was a feeling of heaviness to the air. Not enough to slow Sasuke, but he could see a rabbit in the brush yards away struggling to move against the odd pressure.

The village nin would probably notice something, and likely ANBU would come to check out the situation within a few minutes.

Sasuke cursed silently, wondering what to do. Could he just play dumb? Say he didn't know?

… That… actually might work. Well, sort-of. Obviously he had to have some clue, considering he wasn't running for help or backup. Which meant… what? Let them know he knew about Naruto's fuzz-ball issue?

Huh, Sasuke observed silently as three ANBU dropped down around himself and Naruto in a wide-spaced triangle, wary but not hostile—yet. They're here pretty fast. Sandaime must have realized it has to do with Kurama.

Crow-mask, Tenzo, from the signature—and since when was his mask a crow?—stepped forward, hands halfway to a seal Sasuke knew would have wood springing to his command.

The Uchiha found himself shifting, placing Naruto on the ground and crouching above him warily, not sure what to do or say but knowing that if it came down to it, he would fight for Naruto.

"Sasuke Uchiha," Tenzo's voice was cautious but even-toned, "Allow me to help."

Not a suggestion, but not quite an outright order.

"You can't help," Sasuke 'barely' kept his own response level enough not to be considered threatening. "Something went wrong—" misleading, and cut off in a fashion that should have Tenzo judging whether or not his subordinates should hear whatever Sasuke had to say, especially with the way the sort-of Gennin snapped his mouth shut, eyes cutting between the ANBU warily.

Tenzo, Sasuke trusted—to an extent—but he didn't know the other two at all.

"Rat, get the Hokage. Hawk, find a med-nin with S-class clearance."

So, both the ANBU had that clearance—not really surprising, considering, but good to know.

"Sasuke," Tenzo was obviously trying the 'nice' approach, "I need to know what's happening."

"I don't—know, exactly," Sasuke hedged, playing the part of the wary 'child'. "Just that Naruto's been complaining about his chakra… aching. And I could tell he's been getting more of it, a lot more, just in the past day or so. We were just talking, and then this happened," he jerked his chin at the amorphous shroud even as he ran a habitual check of pulse-points and chakra paths, noting a slowing too-fast heartbeat and an odd sense of almost physical strength to major coils that grew and 'hardened' beneath his hands.

And then the heartbeat stopped.

Sasuke's own heartrate skyrocketed in panic and Tenzo's presence became a distant thing, "Naruto? Naruto!"

He gathered his own chakra into electricity, never more thankful for his dominant chakra nature, sending a sharp jolt through his friend's chest. The heartbeat didn't restart, but Naruto's eyes fluttered open as the chakra shroud shrank and vanished.

"The hell was that for?" the blond muttered tiredly, starting to push himself up.

Sasuke pinned him with one hand above his still heart. "Naruto, your heart's not beating."

"Uh… what?"

Sasuke rolled his eyes, relief sweeping through him despite the extremely disturbing stillness of his friend's chest. "Well, obviously you're not dead and you're breathing just fine, but you have no heartbeat. By the way, we have company."

Very tense company, unmoving but clearly ready to.

Naruto turned his head and suddenly he was growling, flipping himself upright around Sasuke's hand and landing in a defensive crouch. He shook his head, "What…"

Sasuke's mind worked over the various recent happenings, "You don't like having strangers near you when you're weakened," he murmured, too quiet for Tenzo to have a hope of hearing. "Remember what Kurama said."

"Instincts, right," Naruto sighed, also too soft for the wood-user to catch, even if he was enhancing his hearing. Sasuke was just lucky he had his own hearing upped quite a bit at that moment.

Then the Hokage showed up with Kakashi in tow.


Naruto grimaced. He should have expected ANBU and the Sandaime to wonder what was happening when he started pouring out enough chakra to level a country. He'd been distracted, and coupled with the fact he was used to having his people expect that kind of power from him—yeah, he'd forgotten. He moved to stand even as Sasuke shifted himself between his Hokage and a potential threat.

Naruto reached out, touching Sasuke's shoulder and cycling chakra through his hand in a coded pattern. Threat minimal, here. No time. Gaara.

Sasuke tensed invisibly as he made the connection between Gaara and lack of time and the specification of low threat here.

A return chakra cycle—only perceivable through touch. Shukaku?

Naruto offered the slightest nod, the entire exchange taking only a moment, thankfully unnoticed by any but the two it passed between.

"Sasuke?" the Sandaime asked cautiously.

A second silent message had Sasuke reluctantly moving aside, flanking Naruto instead of shielding him. The inconvenience of being unable to pass messages no one else could see without Hyuuga eyes was balanced by the lessened caution in the 'adults'. "Hn," he glanced aside, trying to remember how he'd behaved as a twelve-year-old even though he couldn't convince himself to completely abandon his ANBU-Captain tendencies.