Chapter 7 - Prison for a Demon

Somewhere between his arrival and now, he'd gone insane. Naruto had concluded as much shortly after reaching the walls of Suna, barely capable of holding in a laugh at his successful ruse. Infiltrating the hidden village and manipulating the Kazekage were completely nutty ideas, and he'd pulled them off. Even now, dozens of carefully concealed clones were ransacking the place for anything that might be of use; if they got caught, they could simply pop out. Thus far, not one of them had caught a trace of Gaara. It seemed like he wasn't in the village at all. That only left the desert, then; he knew from the older version of Gaara that was a place he'd often go to be alone, to avoid the people.

Knowing enough about the situation had certainly helped, as his foreknowledge of the invasion plans had definitely surprised Gaara's father enough to get away with some pretty significant demands. Many things could've gone wrong; could still go wrong. Changing time itself was risky business, and he'd basically been driving a Rasengan into history and hoping that it turned out okay. He conceded that he probably wasn't the best choice to be handling something as delicate as this, but he couldn't really look back now. He'd have to figure out a way to find Gaara, and convince him to go without alerting half the village.

Trying to find Gaara couldn't be terribly difficult. He was a jinchūriki with flimsy control of his Bijū at best, which meant a lot of nasty chakra would be emanating from the boy. (It was strange to think of Gaara as a boy, despite technically being about the same age, now. He was so used to the adult version.) Naruto fished the second scroll he'd taken from Konoha out of his pocket and studied it for a long moment. His hidden weapon. Staring out over the desert sands, he wondered what he was doing. This was Gaara's preferred element, after all. The sand was everywhere. On the flipside, that meant even the guards would be unlikely to venture out here, for fear of being slain.

Naruto flinched as a whiff of unmistakably monstrous chakra set his teeth on edge, far closer than he'd anticipated, though still well outside the village. He shivered as he stared in the direction it had come from. That had been demonic chakra, no doubt about it: Gaara's chakra. The sands shifted, and for a brief moment he thought that it would crush him right then. Naruto had the presence of mind to check his surroundings, but there was rather little to hide behind.

He cleared his throat. "Gaara of the Desert."

The vast billowing clouds slowly moved aside, seemingly out of sight, but Naruto was well aware that Gaara was surrounding him; that was a favoured tactic of his, after all. Thankfully, this particular move would no longer work on him, now that he knew the Rasengan. He'd blast right out of the prison before it could properly form.

"Have you come to try and end my existence?" The voice was ragged and sharp; Naruto winced at the erratic tone, too. This was Gaara before. He had to remember that.

"Gaara of the Desert. I come from the Yondaime Kazekage," Naruto started, hesitating as he remembered the poor relationship that father and son had, at least in this time. "He has agreed to let you spend a year in another location, in my home town. It is already done, we have to leave immediately."

The red-haired boy scoffed, the sand now churning below his feet, and tendrils of swirling sand rose up from the soil. Naruto forced himself to stand his ground. Finally, the boy spoke again. "So, Father sent you? Did he want you to kill me, too?" His voice suddenly had a rough quality to it, and Naruto wondered what he was getting himself into. He hadn't come here to fight Shukaku again. Gaara narrowed his eyes. "I will not let you end my existence!"

"I haven't come to kill you," Naruto explained, but Gaara didn't react. Suddenly he approached, a vicious smile stretched across his face as his sand poured closer from all directions. Crap. Without rules or regulations in place to limit him, Gaara had few reasons to suppress the Ichibi. Naruto needed to remember to get in contact with Kankurō and Temari as soon as this mess was cleared up. He sighed. "You know, I really didn't want it to come to this. We've barely even met."

"I don't know you. You mean to kill me; all that come here want to," Gaara said. "To live I must kill and you are my prey!"
Naruto shook his head as Gaara's sand suddenly shot forward. Three clones popped into existence, throwing themselves at Gaara while the real Naruto backed away. "Gaara, I don't want to kill you, or hurt you. Calm down. Don't let it control your mind." He grunted as the sand crushed one of his clones, and he gained its uncomfortable memories. "If you don't control it, I'll have to get serious." He wiped a lock of white hair out of his face, getting ready to evade the sand once more.

Gaara glared madly at him, Shukaku lurking barely below the surface, now. The creature's demonic chakra inundated the air, and the Kyūbi sensed it, he knew; the seal on his stomach seared painfully as the Bijū attempted to infuse demonic chakra into him, to keep him alive against this kind of foe. The fact that he wasn't currently enraged was the only reason it hadn't taken control as it had that first time, on the bridge in Wave. Well, this was going to get messy.

Naruto took a firm hold of his emergency scroll and yanked it open. This was one of the few seals he hadn't designed himself; it was too far beyond his skills, even now. He'd copied from Pervy Sage's notes, years after the man had passed away in the fight against Nagato. It was also one of the few seals he'd actually memorized, at least of this complexity.

"Fūinjutsu," he tried as he began to pour chakra into the seal, but Gaara crashed through his clones, approaching with unrestrained madness as the desert came alive around him; Naruto had to defend himself, interrupting the process. Shukaku wasn't going to give him the time he needed to place the seal; it instinctively knew what he was attempting, it seemed. Gaara didn't normally move in a fight. His whole style was designed to take advantage of his ultimate sand defence. He was already using his arms to cover his chest, blocking off the seal that held the tailed beast in its container.

Calling on the Kyūbi's chakra would be a bad idea. Suna sentries were doubtlessly used to the Ichibi's emanations, but adding another demon, a worse one, would attract a lot of attention. That was assuming there were no ANBU around from Suna, which he expected was the case. Still, that wasn't the only option he had. Raising his hand, a glowing blue ball of chakra spun into existence.

"Calling the Council of Clones to order!"

It had become something of a habit, over the last few days; a varied collection of Shadow Clones sat, stood, or hung around the apartment, most of them uninterested in what was going on. Getting together to discuss how to deal with serving as the real Naruto's decoys, the clones had quickly agreed that the sanest of them should be the one to call things to order, though that was relative. None of them were unaffected by their unusually long existence.

One of the clones coughed. "Is it me or are there fewer of us?"

"Well, we had to pop six just because they got up to hare-brained schemes. Well, more so than usual," another answered. "That certainly didn't help. Then there was that ramen-hunt, of course. How many of us are left, anyway? Two dozen?"

"Damn it people, we're running out of me!" another clone exclaimed. At the weird looks he received from the others, he rolled his eyes. "We're getting awfully close to zero… how are we going to stick around until the Boss returns?"

"We probably only have a day or two to go," the first clone argued, lounging lazily against the wall. "We could tell Kakashi-sensei that we're sick. It'd be less troublesome than actually doing missions. I'm sure one or two days wouldn't hurt."

The second clone stared. "…When did you turn into Shikamaru? It's creepy!" The clone just snorted, looking away. "Damn it, now we've got a Naruto who's obsessed with the Nara… that's just not natural. Half of us are going loopy now that we're unravelling on the edges, and even the ones with the most chakra don't have enough for two days; not without regenerating it, too. We need a solution."

"We're even running out of scrolls. I'd suggest we moderate our chakra usage, that way we might be able to last. Keep the last scrolls just in case; they're our emergency plan. That counts for you too, seal nerds."

The two blinked as they looked up from their scrolls. "What were you saying?"

The oldest clone groaned, just as there was a knock on the door. "Naruto? Are you at home?"

All of the replicas froze. They all knew what this meant. Kakashi-sensei was at the door. Not good, definitely not good. "I'm here, Kakashi-sensei!" yelled the youngest clone, who had already spent the better part of the day with Team 7. "I'll be right out!"

"Can I come in?"

"It's a mess, don't worry about it. I'll be right out!" The clone stumbled to the door, evading several of its brethren as they quickly dove behind couches, into the kitchen, or right out the window. Soon, the room seemed empty, even if several of the clones were rather poorly concealed. Opening the door gingerly, the remaining Naruto clone stared out uncertainly.

Kakashi looked, in a word, awful. Not only were his clothes in disarray and blood-spattered, but he was missing an entire sleeve.
"Is something wrong?" Naruto knew for sure that Kakashi had never come to his door like this; not the last time around. "What's with the blood?"

Kakashi grimaced. "There's been an attack. Sasuke's been injured."

Naruto's breath hitched – for a long, long moment he could've sworn his heart stopped beating. He barely managed to avoid the next wave of sand and smashed a Rasengan squarely into the wave after that, dispersing it. "...What?" he blurted.

Gaara didn't say anything, a wicked smile on his face as he approached again, doubtlessly under the Ichibi's influence. Naruto avoided getting too close, too wrapped up in thought to think of something to say.

Something was wrong, very wrong, in Konoha. Naruto had just received the memories from one of his remaining Shadow Clones, and they hadn't been pretty: Kakashi was hurt, and so was Sasuke. The Jōnin hadn't told the clone anything about what happened, though. Naruto felt a chill run down his back as he considered that. He was certain that at this point in time nothing like an attack on the Uchiha should have happened, which meant that something he did must've triggered it. Had Itachi come back early, for his screwed up idea of a lesson? Tobi, perhaps? Damn, the nasty changes were already taking effect. He had to get back home.

"I'm sorry, it seems we can't stick around," Naruto said to Gaara. His speed wasn't brilliant, but it should allow him to actually reach the boy, rather than just avoid him, if only once. If he missed, it could be bad. Well, he still had his Rasengan, just in case. He held his scroll before him as he dashed ahead, gritting his teeth against the pain in his gut. The Kyūbi was incensed by what he was doing instead of using its chakra to pound the other Bijū into the ground. Well, it was good he was in control, then. He smashed Gaara's arms aside, focusing his chakra to active his seal. "Fūinjutsu: Gogyō Fūin!"

The Five Element Seal was an old trick that had first been used on him by Orochimaru during the Chūnin Exams. It had knocked him right out, and for a time yet the seal had messed up his chakra, too; he had also been incapable of channelling the Kyūbi's special form of chakra. As a side-effect, though… he'd not been in mental contact with it, either. Perfect.

Used on a normal person, the seal might well put them in a coma, or even kill them: Chakra was vital to life, after all. On a jinchūriki... Naruto figured he was a living example that it actually worked. Smashing his hand with the scroll against Gaara's chest, Naruto grimaced. The boy's eyes widened, and the blood-crazed rage briefly making way for sheer terror, until the seal burst to life, sizzling under his fingers. Gaara slumped to the ground, sand slipping off him on all directions in streams as his perfect defence crumbled away. Instantaneous unconsciousness: There was a reason he'd learned this move, and ways to block it. There were few who could apply it, true, but even one was too many. In the end, he'd only have to use his defence once, but it'd saved his life. That was mere hours before he'd gone back. He had no longer been a jinchūriki at the time; it would've been even more dangerous than usual, had he been hit.

It was a cruel solution, really; besides taking away Gaara's access to the Ichibi and its maddening voice, the Five Elements Seal would probably also remove his sand shield, perhaps his entire ability to control sand. Granted, he didn't intend it to be a final answer to the problem of the Bijū, but it would take time to develop a fix for the Fūinjutsu that was holding it back, even with his father's notes, or his own. Naruto crouched down next to Gaara, checking if everything was alright with the seal. It was even-numbered, even if it only had two parts rather than eight; no surprise that it was so weak, then. He'd have to remember to transcribe it in its entirety, as soon as he could. If he was going to do anything more helpful than knocking Gaara unconscious, he'd have to.


Naruto turned, frowning. "ANBU-san. Have you not been informed of the agreement with Kazekage-sama yet?"

The man paused for a moment. "I have. I did not expect you to take him like that. He'll resent the treatment."

"That is my concern, not yours," Naruto said shrugging. "I promise I won't harm him anymore than I already have. Tell him that when you see the Kazekage."

Raising his hands into the familiar hand sign, Naruto called another small legion of Shadow Clones. "We're heading home. Half of you should stay behind and get some of Gaara's stuff. You know what I mean. I'm taking him to that place. You know the one. Bring everything there."

"Will do, Boss."

Naruto grumbled a goodbye, raising Gaara from the ground as the ANBU looked on apprehesively. The boy was incredibly light for his size; it was probably the sand that made him such an immovable object. Quickly Naruto was speeding back towards Konoha, cutting straight through the desert. His second planned visit in Suna needed to wait, it seemed. It didn't really matter; it would be years before anything would happen that might get in the way.

Now, he had to get to a safe haven, to keep Gaara from prying eyes. He couldn't very well walk into Konoha with him, after all. There was one he knew of, that could serve his purposes; a safe house discovered in the wake of the Fourth Shinobi World War. One of the safe houses that the Yellow Flash used during his time as Hokage, to detain particularly high-profile individuals. There were only two ways in, and neither had requirements that were easily fulfilled.

After that, he needed to do one other thing: Find Jiraiya. If he was going to pull this ruse and convince the Kazekage that his agreement still held, then he'd need the Sannin to play his part. How he was going to make that happen he didn't know, but he wasn't Konoha's most surprising ninja for nothing.

He smiled devilishly as he stepped it up another notch.

"Naruto, can't you sit still for one minute?"

"Sakura-chan…" The clone pouted, twitching slightly as Kakashi jumped down to join them. "Kakashi-sensei, do you know who attacked Sasuke yet?"

Kakashi looked away. "That's classified information, Naruto. You should know that. You were there when the Hokage told you as much."

The clone grumbled. "Someone assaulted one of my team members. Of course I'm going to want to know who did it! I'll beat them up in return!" He shook his head tiredly. "At least tell me he's going to be out of the hospital soon? It's weird not having him around on missions, even if they're just D-Rank ones."

The last few days had been hectic. He was one of the last three clones, all of which had been sustaining themselves via Senjutsu; that particular tactic hadn't occurred to them until they were already running on fumes, much to their mutual irritation. It required them to spend hours upon hours each day just meditating, otherwise they'd just pop; still, like the clones that Naruto had left behind at Mount Myōboku when fighting Nagato and other foes, they were able to last quite a while longer this way. That said, Senjutsu was volatile, so they didn't dare take in too much. They had no idea what would happen to the real Naruto if he suddenly received a large amount of Senjutsu chakra without having signed the Toad contract, or trained his body again to be able to attain Sage Mode. Becoming a Toad Statue was definitely not in the plan.

The clones' attention hadn't really been on that particular issue, anyway. The attack on Sasuke had been a strange moment; for the entire duration of the trip to the hospital, the clones had been convinced that someone stole his eyes, but when he arrived, Sasuke's face was just fine. Either the attackers hadn't been after the Sharingan, or they had been after something , the only thing he'd been able to drag out of Kakashi was that the attacker was a man, and not from Konoha.

Sasuke would remain under observation for a few more days; he'd broken several bones and even with healing supplied by Medical ninjas, it would take some time before the Uchiha would be doing anything too intense. Sakura and Ino in particular had spent far too much time at his bedside, and Naruto thought he saw something almost like relief on Sasuke's face whenever he visited. Well, at least he wasn't hated, then.

Kakashi, whatever his role in the whole thing had been, returned to normal very swiftly, bossing his other Genin around while spending entirely too much time reading porn novels. He'd been sending curious glances at Naruto, though; the clone wasn't entirely sure what had caught the man's interest, but he'd found himself under the scrutiny of the Sharingan at least twice, though the Jōnin would not say why he thought that necessary. Thankfully, it would soon not be his problem anymore. The real Naruto could take over.

The clone turned to Kakashi and frowned. "So, when is Sasuke getting out?"

Kakashi sighed. "As soon as his bones and muscles have healed, he'll be back on missions, Naruto. I was under the impression that you two could barely tolerate each other?"

Naruto looked away, frowning. He couldn't really tell the truth about any of that. His history with the last Uchiha – well, not anymore, in this time – had always been hard to pin down. He supposed that ever since that fight in the valley, where he'd been skewered by Chidori, he and Sasuke had been enemies; he didn't know if that was really what he should call it, though. At the end of the Fourth Shinobi World War, they'd met again, and that time it'd been to the death.

He didn't want that to happen again. He didn't want Sasuke to throw his life away for the same lies, manipulated by everyone from Orochimaru to Itachi until he hadn't known what was real anymore, and what was mere nonsense. Then he'd died, and he'd never gotten his answers. Well, screw that.

"I'll keep my promise," he murmured. Sakura looked up and blinked owlishly. Naruto smiled slightly. "Don't worry about it. It's just a personal promise."

"As long as it doesn't involve Sasuke-kun,"she answered.

"Sakura – " Naruto hesitated. "Do you want to train with me? At least until Sasuke is back?" He smiled slightly. "You picked up that first Genjutsu really quickly, and I've always been... I mean, I'm really bad at those."

Her eyes softened slightly, and she nodded.

Huh. Had it always been this easy? Naruto smiled, trying not to think of the thousand things that were still churning around his head. Thousands of questions. Who had attacked Sasuke? What had he done to trigger it? Was the only one that went back here, to the past?

Gaara blinked awake slowly, his eyes roving confusedly around the dimly lit room. His eyes were crusty, his throat was dry, and there was an unusual chill in the air that he wasn't used to. For a few more moments he failed to connect what he saw to what he remembered. Then finally, it connected.

Paralyzing fear was the first thing he felt as he stared around, realizing that he'd just been sleeping. He'd been sleeping. He didn't do that; he couldn't. He'd been living without that luxury for longer than he could remember, only ever given a brief respite when Mother went wild. What had happened? Where was Mother's voice? He tried to move, but he could only wiggle back and forth slightly, his muscles cramped and he stopped. That feeling was unfamiliar. Dull and uncomfortable: It had to be pain of some sort. He'd been scraping his wrists against something, and it hurt. His sand, his perfect defence, was gone.

He let out a bloodcurdling cry as he tried to wrestle free with increased fervour, realizing that he was tied up. A rope was wrapped around him nearly from head to toe, and he was strapped to a large, soft chair. The only light he could see came from high above, a small alcove that let in the air and a thin ray of sunlight.

"No need to make a fuss, I'm right here," a voice said from deeper in the room. A boy stepped forward from the gloom, barely older than Gaara was, it seemed, with bright blond hair and strange whisker-like marks on his cheeks. The boy smiled congenially. "Gaara. Our first meeting was a bit more unfriendly than I'd figured, so I'm sorry I had to do this."

"Where…?" Gaara looked around the room with narrowed eyes, trying madly to find a way out. The room looked long-abandoned, with spider-webs crisscrossing in the corners; a handful of ratty robes and cloaks hang from the walls, as well as enough kunai for a small army. "Who are you? Where's the white-haired man?" He grimaced as his head ached, but for a different reason than usual. "What did you do to Mother? Let me out!" He struggled and the pain reminded him how exposed he was. "LET ME OUT!"

"Ah, Gaara," the boy said, shaking his head. His tone seemed almost wistful. "This place we're in... well, it belonged to my father, when he was still alive. We're in the Land of Fire, some distance from Konoha, if you must know. Technically this particular safe house is unknown to the village, which is why I figured it was a handy place to put you. As for your Mother: The Ichibi is, nor ever was, your mother. I shut it up for a while. I figured you could use the peace of mind; so could I, for that matter."

The silence in his thoughts was deafening, frightening. Gaara continued to wrestle against his bonds but they didn't budge, and the boy only stared at him with a strange look in his eyes. An impulse to slaughter this kidnapping Konoha ninja occurred to him but vanished as quickly. He had no control over his sand, and he was tied up, he was at the boy's mercy. For the first time in a long, long time, he was vulnerable. "LET ME GO! You won't end my existence!"

Naruto shook his head mildly. "I already told you, when we first met that's not what I came for. It's true what I said, an arrangement was made with your father to take you to Konoha. He told me to find you myself. As you realize by now, that's precisely what I did. I was the white-haired man." Naruto paused for a long time, simply staring, as Gaara breathed heavily, desperately trying to find a way free, though finding none. Finally, he spoke again. "The reason I brought you here is simple. We're the same."

The boy was delusional, then, as well as a kidnapper. "You are nothing like me!" His gaze danced around the room, pausing on the strange kunai lined up against the wall, on the distant little window. He'd been taken away from Suna. He'd been taken, and Mother was stolen from him. A deep loathing for the boy that stood before him formed in that instant. "Let me go, or I'll kill you and feed your blood to my sand!"

"Gaara…" the boy paused, frowning. "I know that you live for killing, that you chose to see murder as the validation of your existence. You've told me as much. I hope that I can show you a better way. A more effective way to get what you want. Your method is not the only way to gain respect or awe, and it's certainly not the only means of validating your own worth."
"Don't speak as if you know me." Gaara spat. He wanted to turn away, but he couldn't. The blond boy didn't divert his sharp gaze.

"Oh, but I do know you." He said, and smiled, placing a hand on Gaara's chest. "You are Gaara of the Desert, son of the Fourth Kazekage, sibling and teammate of Kankurō and Temari. Jinchūriki of the One-Tailed Beast, Shukaku. You are also lonely." He smiled softly.

"Don't talk to me about loneliness," Gaara said lowly. "You stole me from my village."

"I think I can speak from experience about loneliness. You can still be lonely even in the busiest of places," Naruto said. "It's nice to meet you, Gaara. Let me introduce myself properly, then. I am Naruto of the Leaf, son of the Fourth Hokage, teammate of Sasuke and Sakura. Jinchūriki of the Nine-Tailed Beast, Kurama. And… I have found my place."

"Son of… You are a Jinchūriki…" Gaara gaped.

Naruto nodded sagely. "You are not the only one, you know. There are others who carry a burden like your own. Who have been shunned or alienated by their people. Some separate themselves from everyone, despising the common shinobi, while some are honoured." He tapped Gaara on the head. "Some are like us, a lonely reminder of what gruesome events happened in the previous generation. The living embodiments of a sacrifice. We both lost parents, the day we were born."

Gaara stared with glassy eyes as Naruto turned and walked back into the darkness. Gaara tried again to break free, terror settling in his gut as he imagined being torn to shreds by the Nine-Tails. He'd have to be quicker, then, taking down the other host first. "It's not true. Monsters do not have a place. People cannot win against their loneliness."

Naruto shrugged. "There are many in my village who still despise me, who see me as little more than the demon that's locked in my gut; there are others, though. People who care, who respect me. My team, for one, and the Hokage. You have such people as well. Kankurō and Temari fear you, that is true, but they haven't run away, have they? Despite the fear that Shukaku might lash out, they chose to get close to you anyway. You're their brother, after all."

Gaara scoffed.

Naruto shook his head, smiling slightly. "You don't understand right now. You've barely realized how different it is to live without that voice in your head; you're still panicking. I have it on very good authority that your thinking processes should be much clearer now, with less effort to maintain that level. Perhaps this time you will find out on your own what the beast has been hiding from you. The true way to happiness." He shrugged. "I hope to have a way to fix your seal within a few weeks, perhaps months. Then, you can shut it off or let it in at will, rather than let the creature control your life."

"You mean to keep me here?" Gaara asked, a hint of panic in his voice. "No! NO!"

"I'm afraid you'll have to stay out of sight, for now. I'll leave clones behind, or stay here myself as often as I can. Freeing you from your captive state, even if you do not see it as such at this time, was something I'd promised a dear friend. I mean to help you become a better shinobi, and a better person, without adding to your pain and misery. You're not a bad person, Gaara, even with all the deeds you've done. No more, though." He shook his head. "Perhaps, when you no longer wish to kill me, we can discuss a way for you to enter the village of Konoha. I believe you would enjoy it."

Gaara didn't answer, simply staring mutely.

"I've got a year, per agreement."

Gaara closed his eyes, trying to control his warring thoughts. They were simultaneously clearer and murkier. He missed the crystal-clear clarity of a single goal, to end a threat to his existence. That voice was hidden now behind a great mess of hopes and dreams and fears that he'd long forgotten. The boy was like him and yet he wasn't. He would be a test of his abilities, a test of his worth, and yet Gaara was fairly sure the boy would not kill him, if it should come to a fight. Above it all, he hated being confined, being hurt.

"This bunker's keyed to blood; only those with the right kind can enter," Naruto informed him. "It's pretty large, and impenetrable. I certainly haven't found a way yet. Probably something to do with the construction. Anyway, the way in is usually via teleportation jutsu, so aside from the one emergency exit that I used, I'm not aware of any proper entrances. That means that unless I let you out, you're pretty stuck, here. Figured you should know." He gestured behind him to the table. "There's enough food and water there to last for weeks, and I can always bring more. There's a library two rooms over, though I haven't had the time to go through most of the books there. You might find unsavoury material."

"This… is my cell?" Gaara snapped, glaring at Naruto with undisguised loathing.

"…Yes. Well, until I'm certain that you're not going to murder everyone you come across," Naruto said dubiously. "Without Shukaku and the sand it should be pretty safe, but you showing up anywhere with that seal on you is going to invoke a ton of questions that I don't want to answer."

"I'll kill you, and escape with your blood," Gaara announced. He was gratified to notice that Naruto faltered for a moment, but his smile wouldn't go away. What would it take…?

"Well, if you're strong enough to do that, go ahead," Naruto said, smirking. "There are a couple other rooms. There's a washing room somewhere, and I'm pretty sure there's even a sparring chamber. The whole place is a bit run-down though; it's been ten years since anyone used it." He formed a hand-seal and more than thirty Shadow Clones popped into existence directly behind him, staring around in dismay.

"Oy, you want us to do all this? It's going to take forever!"

"Don't whine," Naruto said, rolling his eyes. "I have to get back to town. Sasuke's in the hospital, I still have to figure that out, and I think there's only one clone left, back there."

"So, how long are we supposed to last? Because I don't want to go insane," one of the clones said, frowning. "Do you want us to use that method? The one that the other clones came up with?"

Naruto shrugged. "Figure it out amongst yourselves; I suppose the Senjutsu trick will work. I hadn't though about it, actually. I haven't really needed long-term clones before, so I'm not sure what works best. I'll know when you're running out anyway, so I can always come by or send new clones this way." He frowned. "You know, right about now that technique of dad's would be really helpful. Even with clones, I'm limited in the number of places I can be."

Gaara slumped in his restraints, his panic making way for a plan. It seemed he'd be biding his time for a while. It didn't look like the other jinchūriki was going to make it easy for him. Firstly, he'd have to test that blood-protection.'Naruto' could've simply lied. People did that a lot, in his experience. Then, there was the window: It was small and high up, but it definitely showed sunlight. Perhaps that was a good way out? He grinned viciously as he glared at his captor. This would all be over soon.

The last Naruto clone in Konoha found himself regularly looking out over the village, worrying about his creator's whereabouts. His chakra was running low, like all the others; even with the huge amounts used to create them, the whole construct could only last so long, and pouring in more wouldn't help. Senjutsu was a good way to remain stable for a longer period, but it was certainly not enough to keep him going indefinitely, not unless he gathered the energy constantly.

He'd visited Sasuke again. He'd still not gotten any details of what happened, and he was getting mildly annoyed by it. It was true that their team was new, at least this time around, and that the two of them had rather hated each other in the academy; that shouldn't matter. If someone was going around attacking his teammates, he'd have to do something about it.

Of course, the real problem here wasn't that someone attacked Sasuke. Perhaps he'd even have been mildly amused by the great Uchiha being kicked down a notch, in his previous life. This time, though, time had shifted. He knew for certain that whatever happened had been his own doing. No, he didn't feel guilty about it: He'd had no way of predicting it, after all, and he'd done what he felt was right. He did feel that he needed to step it up, though. He needed to get better, quicker. If his changes were already affecting things enough that something of this magnitude had altered, then it'd snowballed a lot quicker than he'd anticipated. It could be an isolated even, of course, but that was hardly an assumption he could safely make.

The other option was too terrible to contemplate. There were many people who would've wished Sasuke harm, or required something from him. Most of them hadn't yet shown up near Konoha, in his original timeline; Orochimaru was the closest. He was quite sure he hadn't sent any of them closer to Konoha with his activity so far. Which left the possibility of another traveller. Someone who'd followed him through. There were precious few people who could or would have, that also wished Sasuke harm: None of them were good news.


The clone blinked, glancing up. "Kakashi-sensei."

Kakashi smiled as he dropped down and stepped into Naruto's apartment. He looked around for a moment, perhaps amazed by how clean the place was, after one of the clones had gotten obsessed with making sure the place was tidy.

"Any reason you're here?"

Kakashi turned and shrugged. "Well, that depends, really. Where is the real Naruto?"

The clone froze. "What do you mean, Kakashi-sensei? I'm not real?" He glanced down and frowned. "What're you talking about?

"Come now, even the real one's a better actor."

"I'll have you know I'm exactly as good an actor as –" He paused. "Crap. When did you find out?"

"I admit, it took a while. Ultimately, it was your erratic behaviour that tipped me off." He smirked. "The clones were destabilizing, weren't they? That's why all the pranks started again so suddenly. So, Naruto-clone, if you and your brethren have been the ones showing up at missions and training, where is the real one?" He shook his head. "I suppose from now on, I'll have to remember to give him a good hit over the head when he arrives. I'll have to dock it from his pay, too; shirking one's duties as a shinobi can be considered a crime."

"Not for Genin!" The clone argued, and Kakashi raised an eyebrow.

"Reading the regulations, now? My, you have been busy, haven't you? So, what's the real one doing? Making the seals that you clones have been bringing along?"

"Just invading foreign countries and kidnapping people, I'm sure," the clone answered jovially. "How would I know? I'm a clone. I was just put here to play decoy. It worked pretty well, until now…" He grumbled as he turned around. "Would you mind not popping me until he gets back? I was in the middle of a pretty good book."

Kakashi shrugged. "So, where exactly is Naruto now?"

"Come out, I've heard you," Jiraiya growled, stopping in the middle of the road.

A lithe figure detached from the leaves, landing in front of the Sannin gracefully. On his face he wore a very recognizable mask.
"A Hunter-nin from Suna?" Jiraiya raised an eyebrow. "You're quite a distance from home."

"I was searching for you, Jiraiya-sama," The man answered breathily, bowing slightly. "I was sent to find you."

"You were sent after me? Last I checked Suna and Konoha have an alliance. I think sending Hunter-nin after me goes rather against that."

"I was chosen to deliver an important message, because official channels are compromised," The masked man answered. "I have come merely to deliver it, and return your response." He held out a small brown scroll with a clearly visible seal on the front. "From Kazekage-sama."

Jiraiya frowned in consternation as he picked up the scroll and looked over the seal with a careful eye. "Blood-seal, eh? Wonder how he tuned it to me specifically…?" He glanced at the messenger and the man spun around obligingly. It was quite the show of respect; turning your back on a potential enemy could be lethal, after all.

Swiping a drop of blood across the seal, the scroll rolled open. As he read, Jiraiya couldn't prevent a colourful curse from slipping out.

Naruto smiled behind the mask.

Author's Note: Gaara's in the Land of Fire - but it's not as simple as all that. Jiraiya, Kakashi, Gaara and more in the next chapter, as well as Sasuke's release and trying to find out what even happened, there. See you soon. :)