23: Time Spanning Incarnation: Epilogue
Little Kabuto faithfully kept his post at the entrance to Orochimaru's base, even after Sasuke-san and his group had arrived, just as Orochimaru said they would. He had told Kabuto that there was going to be a big experiment today that might cause a lot of noise, and to make sure that no one but Sasuke was told where to find him. Sure enough, the boy eventually heard loud crashes coming from the other side of the base, but now things had been quiet for a long time. No one ever came to tell him what to do now, and he never saw anyone leave. After standing there for hours cluelessly, he finally decided to start walking that way to see what was going on.
But now... taking a look around only made him more worried and confused. The base was empty. All of the Edo Tensei guards had disintegrated. Naruto and Obito, Orochimaru, Sasuke—all of them were gone. Where? Where did they all go?
After searching for so long that his legs started to ache from all the time on his feet, Kabuto sank down to his knees in one of the hallways. He didn't mind treating gross, terrible wounds, and he didn't flinch at sights that could make even adults feel sick, but this—being all alone like this—was more than he could take.
Then, something unusual happened. Kabuto's vision grew hazy and white, even though he still wore his glasses. His entire body felt strange. Like it was suddenly heavy, or like he was high up above it but still inside of it at the same time. Kabuto clutched at his chest and gasped as the panic threatened to suffocate him. He couldn't breathe—he couldn't breathe!
This went on several long, frightening seconds more, and then it simply stopped. Kabuto sat trembling with his hands and forehead pressed against the wall.
What in the world was that? Was it really over?
He slowly opened his eyes and turned around. Everything looked exactly the same as it did before. The only sound was that of his own breathing. He stood up and started walking down the hall again.
"O-Orochimaru-sama?" Kabuto called tentatively. He looked around every corner and down every hall as he walked by, but there was no answer.
He finally found the experiment room, the source of all the noise from earlier. And no wonder; the place was in shambles.
I don't understand it...
Kabuto looked around at the room below, with its cracked floor and piles of mortar and stone. One of the walls looked like it had been blasted through.
I don't understand it... why? Where did everyone go? Naruto... Obito...
Tears beaded up in the corners of his eyes and fell out before he had the chance to wipe them away. Kabuto took off his glasses and scrubbed at his eyes with a sleeve. This wouldn't do! If Orochimaru-sama saw him crying, he might decide to send him back to the orphanage. As much as he missed home, he could not mess up this opportunity.
Still, he'd thought, for just a small moment, that he might be able to have friends here. Why was this happening?
Naruto was back.
For several seconds, the only thing that broke the silence was the quiet, regular beeping of the machine. Tsunade stared at him unguardedly, mouth slightly open in silent surprise, and Naruto smiled wider to try to reassure her that he was alright.
"N-Naruto!" she finally said, voice wavering. She pulled him into a surprisingly gentle hug, carefully avoiding pulling on any of the things hooked up to his body.
"Heh, sorry for worrying you, Baachan," Naruto said as casually as he could, though his voice was still weak. "I just had to take a really long nap."
Tsunade gave an exasperated sigh as she pulled back, her usual manner quickly coming back. "Stop trying to act so cool. Can you leave us for a moment?" She looked up at the nurse. "Please pass this on to Shizune. She knows what to do."
"Yes ma'm," the nurse said, nodding her head and then leaving.
Naruto tried to sit up, but Tsunade put a hand on his shoulder to keep him still. He looked up at her nervously. "Um... I'm not in trouble, am I?"
"Are you really back this time? Or are you going to disappear again soon?" Tsunade asked. "If you know, tell me right now."
"A-Ah..." Naruto closed his eyes.
Are we? Are we really back for good, Kurama?
'I think so. Orochimaru shouldn't be able to exert any control over us at all, as long as the Yondaime's seal is in effect. But he might be able to see and hear everything we do after a while, if not already. Don't forget that. Never let your guard down.'
Naruto opened his eyes slowly. He'd had the chance to get rid of Orochimaru's influence for good, thanks to his dad's knowledge of seals. But he declined it, hoping to bargain with Orochimaru to send Obito and Kabuto back to their own times. Naruto didn't even know for sure whether Orochimaru had done it, since he'd disappeared before being able to see. Either way, those versions of the two were in completely different dimensions... and the ones that existed here were not the same people.
'Which is exactly the reason you're a complete idiot. Can you really trust the word of that snake?'
Naruto ignored Kurama.
"Yeah, I'm back for real," He said to Tsunade, trying to inject confidence into his smile.
"Then, is Konoha in any immediate danger?"
Was it? Everything about the war wasn't supposed to happen for another few years, right?
"Um... probably not."
"Then, we can forget about anything else until I assess your condition." Tsunade said. She took a clipboard from the foot of his bed and started marking things down from the monitors and machines.
"Ugh, I'm hungry," Naruto complained as a wave of hunger hit him suddenly. He clutched his stomach and rolled over on his side. "I could eat twenty... no, thirty bowls of ramen..." He hadn't felt hungry for quite a while, but now the sensation was back with a vengeance.
"No solid food for a while," Tsunade said as she continued her work. "You're lucky. We were going to have to resort to more permanent measures to keep your body going soon. It probably should have been done sooner, but we hoped that you would be able to wake back up."
Something in the way she said it made Naruto forget his hunger for a second. He kept underestimating how much they must have worried about him, because he had been so busy learning things and fighting for his life in the future.
"What about Ero-sennin? What happened after I woke up that time?" he blurted out, rolling back over quickly.
"He came back here as soon as we contacted him about what happened. That was not the first time we realized that we were on the wrong track."
Then Jiraiya was okay. He was alive. Naruto was so relieved that his eyes started to sting. Tsunade looked down at his stricken face and sighed.
"You can see him in the morning, if you want. It's late right now. While I'm sure he wouldn't mind being dragged out of bed for this, you should have a few hours to re-adjust before seeing anyone, at least."
"So you're not..." Naruto's voice came out croaky. "You're not going to ask me about what happened?"
Tsunade leaned over the bed's rail and rested a glowing palm against his forehead. She stayed silently like that for several seconds. Her touch felt warm, and made him a little bit sleepy. Naruto gave her a questioning look when she stopped.
"For a good while, we thought that Akatsuki had taken the Kyuubi," Tsunade said. "But if that had happened, there was no way you should have been able to wake up. It just should not have been possible. Even if you are known for defying expectations." She ruffled his hair a bit before pulling her hand back. "Are you saying that you do know what happened?"
"Yeah." Naruto swallowed. He knew that there was no way he could just pretend like he didn't know. But there was so much to tell, he almost didn't know where to begin. "I never really learned all the technical stuff behind it, but it wasn't Akatsuki. It was Orochimaru. Um, only, it's not the Orochimaru you guys know." This already felt difficult to explain. How was he supposed to do this?
"What do you mean, not the Orochimaru we know?" Tsunade said, frowning.
"He's from another time—another dimension thing? It was a place just like here, only it was like... everything was happening years from now. There was an older version of me there, and you; everyone. The Orochimaru from that place summoned me from here and put my soul in some kind of fake body. I kept trying to get back, but it was really, really hard."
"Hm..." Tsunade hummed. Naruto didn't like the doubt in her voice, but he could think of no better way to explain it, not without going into every last detail from the start.
"I found out a lot of stuff about what's going to happen in the future," he insisted, gesturing the best he could with his weak noodle arms. "I swear that I'm not making it up!"
Tsunade continued her work quietly for another minute, making Naruto nervous and frustrated. What would he do if no one believed him? He hadn't thought of that. They had a war to prevent! If no one listened, then how was he supposed to do it? Itachi had warned him that he couldn't do it alone.
"They said that it was like that jutsu that brings back dead people. The Edo-whatsit," Naruto burst out, trying again.
"The Edo Tensei?"
"Yeah!" Naruto said, reaching up to point at her eagerly, but pulling the IV taped to his hand in the process. "Ow! Yeah, that thing. And he and Kabuto are gonna use the Edo Tensei to summon a ton of dead people, too—the Uchiha clan—and it's all because of Uchiha Madara, see, he started a war with everyone!"
Tsunade frowned and put the clipboard in her hands back in its tray at the foot of Naruto's bed. "Madara?"
"Yeah. I learned some stuff about him, and a bunch of other things, too. I can tell you all about them if you don't believe me."
"It isn't that I don't believe you, Naruto." Tsunade gave a sigh and pulled a chair up next to his bed. "Start at the beginning. But only the very basics, just so I can have a better idea of what you're talking about. What happened the night after the inauguration?"
Naruto rested his head back on the pillow, trying to remember. It felt like such a long time ago. And if Tsunade really believed him, then why was she acting so weird?
"I just went back home and went to sleep, that's all. Then I woke up in the future. I didn't realize it at first, 'cause I was outside the village. But I made it back, and... everything was so different. Kakashi-sensei and the other you thought I was an imposter of my older self, but we managed to get it worked out eventually..."
Naruto kept on talking, and Tsunade didn't interrupt him at all unless he started going off on a tangent or tried explaining something too complicated. When that happened, she would ask about what had happened next, and he would drop the current topic and move on. He tried to go off track often, because he was so determined to convince her he was telling the truth.
Tsunade's relative silence was very unnerving. She seemed less interested in the details of Madara's plot and the war, and more interested in the the Time-Spanning Incarnation jutsu and Orochimaru's activities.
But eventually, Naruto grew tired. He started yawning every other sentence, and his words were turning into mumbles. It felt like he hadn't explained but a fraction of everything that happened, but thanks to Tsunade's promptings, he was already close to the end.
"So how exactly did you make it home, if Orochimaru captured you after the second time you came back?"
"I escaped, obviously," Naruto said, a touch of his old bravado coming out, despite how tired he sounded. "I was able to summon the toad Sennin-jii and make it out. Then I was on the battlefield where everyone was facing off against Madara. Then I met my dad. He said that Orochimaru had brought him back with the Edo Tensei." Naruto fell silent for a moment and looked over at her. Tsunade had a look of deep concentration on her face. Her hands clenched the arm of the chair tightly. She didn't say anything, though, so Naruto continued. "My older self had told me about him before. He was able to alter the seal so that Orochimaru wouldn't have control over me anymore."
"That should not have been possible," Tsunade said, her grip on the chair relaxing. "Minato sealed himself using the Shiki Fuujin. It was the same move that the Sandaime used to seal Orochimaru's arms and his jutsu. And I know that he succeeded, because Orochimaru came to me himself to see about healing him. As far as I know, there should not be any way that he could summon anyone, much less Minato."
"I don't know anything about that, but he was there," Naruto insisted, frowning heavily. "And obviously Orochimaru could do it, 'cause he summoned me more than once, right? What gives, Baachan? You said you believed me!" He sounded hurt.
Tsunade rubbed her forehead with one hand, giving a low grumble that showed the internal debate she was having. Finally sighing, she leaned forward and rested her hand on the bed's rail.
"Naruto, I believe you when you say that you experienced these things. Or, at least... you are telling the truth about what you think you saw. But if what you've said is true—future time or not—it sounds like this Time-Spanning Incarnation jutsu really crosses dimensions, after all, since you said that your older self had no memory of it."
Naruto was caught off guard by this. "Yeah, and I'm pretty sure that's what they told me, too. So what?"
"Even assuming that's all true, how can you be sure that the place you went to follows the same path as here?"
"But... but..." Naruto gripped the sheets covering him. He hadn't thought of that, either. He could just say that it was a gut feeling, but where was the proof?
"Even if everything you said was the truth, we can't rely on it totally, or close our minds to other possibilities. We need to look out for anything you might have found out, but don't ahead of yourself. It's dangerous to blindly assume everything will be the same. That goes doubly when you consider who's behind it all."
"But... I spent so much time trying to get back home to warn everyone! I promised them I would... and I know that it's really the future. I can feel it."
Obito's older self even told him it was the real future, right? But... how did he know? He wasn't the one that had summoned him. Besides, like Orochimaru, he was an enemy. He said he could be trusted because he didn't care what happened in the younger Naruto's time, but did he even know what he was talking about?
"Don't stress yourself out over it. You need to rest and get your strength back." Tsunade said firmly, standing up from the chair. "For now, we'll keep this to ourselves. I'll let Kakashi and Jiraiya know, but don't tell anyone else until we have the chance to investigate further."
"Sure," Naruto huffed. He wasn't going to give up on this. There were still years until the war started. "Um... I know you said I should wait till tomorrow, but can I see Ero-sennin now?"
Tsunade looked over at a clock hanging on the wall. "Well... I need to talk to him, anyway. I suppose I could ask him to come over here, if it will help you relax."
After he was left alone, Naruto's brow furrowed, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. He was feeling drowsier and drowsier, no matter how much he fought it. He needed to get better as soon as possible, become strong again, and go out training with Jiraiya. Once they were out traveling together, Naruto was certain that he'd be able to get across that everything he said was true.
After all, he'd left a lot out while telling it; and not just because Tsunade was focused on getting the general picture. He wasn't sure what to do about Obito, Itachi, Nagato, and Konan. The Obito from this time probably wouldn't want his help, and the other three had said not to worry about them. Still, Naruto didn't want to give out information about them just yet, if it meant they would get put down before he had the chance to do it himself.
So far, he had pinned the entire war on Orochimaru and Uchiha Madara, leaving any mention of Obito out of it. Just until he could figure out what to do. Why did this have to be so hard? Naruto wished he had the help of his older self with all of this, but he did at least have Kurama on his side.
More or less.
The Third Shinobi World War was still raging on, and at this point, no one knew for certain what the outcome was going to be. Not even Konoha's Yellow Flash.
It was just a routine mission near the border of the Lightning Country, far from the front lines, but Minato got an apprehensive feeling when two of his students arrived at the rendezvous point without the third. The longer they waited, the greater the tension in the air became.
"He'll probably come a few hours late with some excuse about a stray cat," Kakashi said, shrugging with his palms up.
"But you know, he's usually serious when it comes to completing missions, right?" Rin said. "I wonder if he..."
"Don't worry, Rin," Minato said, standing from a crouch and folding up the map he had been studying. "This area should be safe from any enemies. It could be that he is having a hard time finding the meeting place."
"If that idiot didn't accidentally cross the border," Kakashi said. "They might see that Uchiha crest on his jacket and take him without realizing that he doesn't even have the Sharingan."
"I'll go take a look really quick. The two of you, stay here. I'll be back before dark." Minato took out one of his specialized kunai and threw it down in the middle of the clearing.
"Y-Yes, sensei," Rin said. Kakashi just crossed his arms and leaned against a tree as Minato left.
"It's bad enough he has to be late all the time. At this rate, he's going to make the rest of the team look bad, too," Kakashi said.
"Aren't you worried at all? I mean..."
"No. Minato-sensei said he would be back by dark, so we should still get home within the allotted time."
"Oh." Rin sat down under a tree with her arms wrapped around her legs. That wasn't what she meant.
They waited mostly in silence as the sun worked its way across the sky. Minato didn't return until much later. It was well into dusk, and the darkness had already settled down in the forested area where the two waited.
"Sensei!" Rin trotted up to him when he reappeared. She stopped and fell silent, though, when it became obvious that he was alone. Minato held up a simple gray backpack.
"Obito's bag," he said, tossing it down. "It was next to a river near the checkpoint, where he dropped off the scrolls. The people there said he came by as assigned, but they don't know what happened to him after he left."
"That's all you could find?" Kakashi said as he walked up beside Rin.
"Yes. I can guess that Obito stopped at the river for a break after completing his assignment, but there's no hint of where he went after that. He might have seen something, and rushed off over the water so that he wouldn't leave tracks... at any rate, there were no signs of a fight there or anywhere else in the area. The checkpoint hasn't seen any of Kumo or Iwa's forces today, either."
"Then... he might still show up here, just really late," Rin said, forcing a smile. "Ne, Kakashi?"
"If he's not hurt and there are no enemies, then he has no reason to be so late." Kakashi crossed his arms grumpily.
"That may be. But we've completed our mission well within the allotted time, so we can afford to wait a bit longer," Minato said, moving to sit down at the base of a tree.
Rin and Kakashi exchanged looks. They understood what that meant. Extra time or not, they couldn't wait around forever. They had only carried supplies for the few days they were supposed to be on the mission. And with the war going on, they couldn't get away with any extended detours.
Naruto had fallen asleep. Noticing the morning light in the room when he opened his eyes, he swore aloud.
"Nice to see you again too, gaki."
Naruto quickly looked over to see Jiraiya grinning at him.
"Whoa, easy there," Jiraiya said as Naruto dived forward to the best of his ability, trying to hug him. The railing made it awkward, and Naruto couldn't fully reach without tugging on his IV, but he halfway managed it. "Tsunade will let me have it if you hurt yourself now. Just sit back and relax."
Naruto let himself be pushed back gently, reclining on the soft pillows that somebody must have recently fluffed up for him. But he didn't want to relax. Jiraiya was really here! And there were so many things to talk about and do.
"When are we gonna go train?" Naruto asked immediately.
"Sheesh." Jiraiya gave a heavy sigh and sat back in his chair, arms crossed. "Well, it's good to know that spending months in a coma hasn't curbed your enthusiasm."
"Months? Hey… just how long has it been, exactly?"
He wasn't really sure how long he had been in the future—he thought it was a few months, but there was no guarantee it would be the same amount of time here, right? Naruto racked his brain, trying to calculate the exact length, but he couldn't come up with the answer.
"A little over three months," Jiraiya said with uncharacteristic seriousness. "Honestly, it's a miracle that you didn't die. You were lucky that you had Tsunade's help, and the residual energy from the Kyuubi. We thought that Akatsuki had managed to capture it somehow. But when you woke up those two times, we knew that something else had to be going on. But, I heard everything about it from Tsunade. I can't believe Orochimaru figured out how to do something like this. "
Naruto leaned back, looking at Jiraiya with a frown growing on his face. "So you think I'm telling the truth?"
"Hm... well, I don't think you're lying, if that's what you mean. You aren't really the type to make up stuff for no reason. Besides, it is definitely true that something serious happened to you. You almost died, Naruto." Jiraiya's voice gained a tone Naruto had never heard in it before. Not like he was mad at him, but like... like he was telling Naruto more than just what his words said.
"Then... what are you going to do?" Naruto muttered.
Jiraiya crossed his arms and hummed. "There's no doubt that something strange and dangerous happened here. But, I think there are bound to be some parts of it that you couldn't know or understand, even if you got everything else right. What to do? First of all, what we want to do is track down Orochimaru, and find out if the one in this time is also developing the jutsu you told Tsunade about. If we can catch him in the act, we stand a better chance of finding out right away how it works, and how to stop it from happening again."
Naruto sat up quickly. "I never thought of that!"
He'd been so preoccupied thinking about how to change things in this time for the better, and worrying about the people in Akatsuki, he had forgotten that the Orochimaru from this time might be just as dangerous as the one in the future. What if he was in the middle of developing the Time-Spanning Incarnation jutsu right now? Did that mean Naruto would someday meet another, younger version of himself? The very idea made his brain hurt.
"So there is that," Jiraiya said. "If we find out that he's doing something like that, then we might be able to get more information about the jutsu itself. If not information, then at least we'll have some proof to support your story."
Naruto pouted. He still couldn't tell if Jiraiya really believed him or not. "Then, what am I supposed to do?"
"You? You need to focus on getting out of the hospital, first of all." Jiraiya waggled his finger. "Don't tell me you expect to get out in a day, just because you woke up!"
Naruto grumbled and leaned back. At least they were taking some kind of action on what he said. Maybe they would find something on Orochimaru, and get things moving the right way sooner. If it hadn't been for Orochimaru, a lot of the bad that happened wouldn't be so—
Naruto's eyes widened.
"Sasuke! Sasuke is—?" He sat up even more violently than before, nearly launching himself out of the bed.
"Hey! Calm it down," Jiraiya said, pushing him back by the shoulders once again. "Do you want them to put restraints on you? I wouldn't put it past Tsunade."
"But Sasuke—did he leave the village? Did he go after Orochimaru?"
Jiraiya look troubled, and though he let go after pushing Naruto back, he looked ready to do it again if Naruto didn't keep still. He answered in a gruff voice, "So you know about that too, huh?"
Naruto stared, his heart starting to thump quicker. Having gone for so long without a normal body, it felt strange. He could hear his own pulse in his ears.
"Ah, well... maybe it's not the best thing to talk about right now—"
"I never got to face him," Naruto said, looking at his hands clenched in his lap. "I was supposed to face him and—and show him I'll do whatever it takes to bring him back, even if I couldn't win that time. And now, he..."
Jiraiya hummed sympathetically. "The truth is, we don't know a lot about it. He got a good head start on us. No one has seen him since the day after you were put in the hospital. There was a report about a group of Oto-nin in the area, and we believe there was a fight involving them not far outside of the village. It seems most likely that they came here for Sasuke. Judging by the extensive damage we found, Sasuke either got captured and tried to escape, or he left with them willingly and changed his mind afterward."
Naruto looked up. Sasuke fought them? But that didn't sound right... from what he heard in the future, Sasuke had gone with them willingly. Naruto didn't think it was either of the things Jiraiya suggested. But he had no idea what might have happened instead, and that was not good. It was too soon for everything he knew to be messed up! It wasn't fair.
Whatever had happened, Sasuke probably still wanted to kill Itachi, right? If only he hadn't left, Naruto could have explained everything to him. Whether or not Sasuke wanted to listen... he would come up with a way to make him listen.
"I'll take care of Sasuke," Naruto finally said. "If you guys can find Orochimaru, that will be good. Then I can just go right to him."
"You make it sound that easy." Jiraiya scoffed. "By the way, the old toad said you were pretty set against me investigating Akatsuki. Hmm? Maybe they really did get to you, after all."
"It's nothing like that," Naruto huffed. "It's just... just..."
How could he tell him? What if Jiraiya found out about Nagato and Konan and decided to go see them right away? Or what if Tsunade decided to attack Ame to get rid of them before they became a threat? Naruto had no idea how either of them would react.
"I just don't want you to go when there's no reason for you to," he said. "It's like I told Baachan... Madara is the one that wanted to start the war in the future. He's using Akatsuki for his plan. Some of them don't need to be... some of them aren't bad guys. Even though they're after me, I don't really want them to get killed." Naruto felt kind of silly saying that, imagining how it probably looked from someone else's point of view. "I-I just mean, if there's a way to stop them without killing them. Their leader is in Ame, so that's why I didn't want you to go there. You, or anyone. It's really dangerous."
"Their leader? You mean Madara again, right?"
"Uh, no. I don't actually know where Madara is." Naruto waved his hands. "But the one I'm talking about... he's unbelievably strong, but Madara is using him. I don't want that person to hurt anyone, or be hurt by anyone. But, I mean—if it comes down to it, I know the best way to beat him, so there's no reason for anyone to risk going there to find information. So, just... don't let anybody go there until I... I mean, until we can figure out another way to stop them."
Jiraiya raised a skeptical eyebrow, then sighed. "Well, for now, it's good enough to just look into what Orochimaru is doing. If there is any possibility of finding out how accurate your knowledge might be, it's worth doing before anything else." He pushed his chair back from the bed and stood up.
"Are you leaving?" Naruto asked, a little upset.
"Hm? What's with the face? Do you know how many times I came to visit you while you were taking a nap?"
Naruto looked down again. That was right. It was like that when they trained before, too. He wasn't a little kid, after all.
"Ha... y-you're right. I was just joking! I was gonna call someone to bring me some food soon, anyway. I need to hurry up and get my strength back as soon as possible."
Jiraiya watched him dubiously for several seconds, then sighed again.
"Come to think of it, I haven't had any lunch, either. How about I try to sneak in something a little better than hospital food for us?"
The way Naruto's face lit up at the suggestion made it completely worth it.
When Minato took them back to the village without the last member of their team, it was a tense moment for everyone. Kakashi seemed almost too eager to leave Obito behind so that they would make it back by the scheduled time. Rin was clearly reluctant to leave, and moved slowly when it was time to pack up and move on. Minato was torn between his duty as a sensei and as a team leader, and hid one of his markers high in a tree before they left. He silently decided to take the other two back as quickly as possible in order to return alone at his next opportunity.
Uchiha Obito was declared missing in action a few days after he failed to meet up with his team during the mission near the border of the Lightning Country. Days became weeks, and his name was called aloud at the periodic service with the others who had died or went missing in the line of duty during that time. But like all those whose statuses were unclear, Obito didn't get his name engraved on the memorial stone. He truly did disappear without a trace.
The war was still going on, of course, so his team continued on their missions without knowing if he was alive or dead. They didn't talk about it much. It was a sticky topic between Kakashi and Rin especially.
The decision to leave without finding Obito didn't sit as well on Kakashi's consciousness as he expected, but he didn't say so out loud. Rin inwardly berated herself for not insisting that they stay and look longer, but again, she kept that to herself.
Still, every time they went out on a mission, they kept a look out for any sign that might lead to where Obito had gone. Whether it was a casual inquiry by Minato to a jounin that had been through that area recently, or Rin and Kakashi discreetly looking around every time they went somewhere new, relevant or not... all of them felt the silent, persistent weight of Obito's absence. They were in limbo, not knowing whether to grieve or hope.
How long was this awful uncertainty supposed to last?
Obito heard the sound of running water, and it immediately called to attention how parched his mouth and throat were. He pried his eyes open and looked around without moving his head. He was laying down on a futon inside of a small, plain room, with a sliding door on his left and an opening to his right that looked like a kitchen area.
He didn't recognize this place at all.
Obito blinked when he saw movement coming from in the kitchen. An old woman came from behind the partition and paused when she saw that he was awake.
His memory came back quickly. He'd been on the battlefield just a second ago, with Naruto and the Juubi—and Kakashi was grown up, and his sensei was...
"Wh-who are you? Where is this?" Obito sat up and crawled backward as the woman came into the room. The pain that shot through his body when he moved made him cry out loud.
"Now, lay still and calm yourself. My my, I am surprised that you managed to wake up." She knelt down beside his bed and put one hand on his head, and another one over his heart. Obito saw and felt the medical chakra given off by her hands.
"Who are you, obaachan?" he asked again after a few seconds.
She sat back and put her hands in her lap. "My name is Fumi. We are in a little country village in the Lightning Country. You were discovered floating down a river by some shinobi from Kumogakure. They thought that you must be from the Uchiha clan, judging by your clothing, so they brought you back to Kumo to make use of you. Fortunately for you, you never woke up, and it was discovered after some investigation that you are just a little Chuunin without the Sharingan. They sent you here in hopes that I would be able to bring you back to consciousness. They intend to do whatever they can to activate your Sharingan and take it after you wake up."
Then, he was back in in his own time? Eyes widening, Obito scooted back again and stood up to run, but there was another sharp pain below his ribs, and it was almost enough to put him under again. Stooped over, his hand went to his side and felt the bandages that were wrapped around.
Fumi walked around him and gently took hold of his arms, moving him back down to the floor. "Please sit down. It's almost completely healed, and you don't want to make it worse, do you?"
"What happened to me?" Obito leaned back on the bed reluctantly, grimacing.
"Burns. Those charming people at Torture and Interrogation tried to wake you up with a hot iron."
"They did what?" Rage clouding his voice, Obito moved again, but the pain reminded him to stay still.
"It was good that you did not. Things would have been much worse for you then."
"But... obaachan, if you were put in charge of healing me, then..."
Fumi looked into his face, then stood up. "Don't worry, child. I have no intention of handing you over to them."
Obito watched her go back into the kitchen, his confusion growing. If they were in the Lightning Country, then the people here were loyal to Kumo, right? They had no reason to want to help someone from Konoha.
After several minutes, Fumi came back holding a tray with a bowl of thin soup and some tea.
"My grandson was about your age when he went out to war." Her small hands took things off the tray one at a time. "Maa, well, I may be the best healer in the country, but I am no shinobi. I am tired of the wars taking children. Here. You can sit up, but be mindful of your wound."
Obito did as she asked and sat up slowly, favoring his right side. The soup was completely bland, but he drank all of it down, feeling his stomach awaken after just a little bit.
"There. With an appetite like that, I'd say you have a great chance of making a full recovery. You can have some more in a bit, but not too much at one time."
"Thank you." Obito put the bowl back down on the tray. "But... if you don't turn me in, and they find out, won't you be in trouble?"
"Aren't you sweet," Fumi said with a chuckle. "Don't you worry about me. You might have caused some fuss to begin with, but now I think they've given up on you. I heard that they considered just making a ransom request when you wouldn't wake up, but they abandoned that idea after learning you were no one important in the Uchiha clan. Alerting Konoha could cause more trouble than it's worth. They probably expect you to die quietly here. Well, I did too."
She laughed again, and Obito's face turned red. Even if it ended up saving his life, it still pissed him off a little.
"At any rate, I can just tell them that you ran off while my back was turned. They won't arrest a poor old woman for that."
"If you say so," Obito said doubtfully. "Then, when do you think I'll be able to go home? Wait—how long have I been here already?" It had been hard to mark the passage of time when he was trapped in Orochimaru's hideout all those days.
"Oh, you've been here for a week now. I'm not precisely sure when they found you, though. A couple of weeks, maybe? The only thing I'm sure of is that they must have found you very soon after you fell unconscious. The state you were in, you could not have survived long without medical attention."
Obito frowned. He could have easily been missing for a month already. Naruto had explained to him that they left their real bodies behind when they went to the future. He was lucky to be alive, but this was bad. He had to get home as soon as possible! The older Kakashi said that everything would start happening right after he became a jounin, but neglected to mention exactly when that would be.
"I need to get back and save her," Obito mumbled.
"Ah—um, it's nothing!" he said, waving his hands quickly. "But I definitely need to get back home soon. My team probably thinks I'm dead by now."
Even worse, was it possible that his disappearance now might change something? He really hoped not. Things were going to be tough enough as it was. But as long as he could save Rin, it would all be okay.
"Hm, you're right. Well, I'd like to keep you until your burn heals completely, at least. Don't want it getting infected." Fumi stood heavily and picked up the tray to take it in the kitchen.
Obito lay back again. He tried to calculate how long it would take for him to reach home, but the Lightning Country was large. It could be anything from a few days, to over a week to travel back to Konoha. He made a mental note to ask Fumi where they were when she came back in the room. It would probably save time in the long run if he waited until he was healed… but it was so hard to think about waiting around here when anything could be happening back home. No. He would leave in a few days, max, regardless of what Fumi said. He couldn't risk the shinobi from Kumo coming back to check on him.
Obito grit his teeth as Fumi applied salve to the many burns tattooing his side. He hadn't been looking forward to the moment when his bandages would need to be changed, and now his apprehension was being completely justified.
"It was a lot worse than this before," Fumi said matter-of-factly when Obito let out a hiss in response to her touch. "Be grateful you were unconscious for all that."
"Yeah, no kidding—ugh!" Obito tensed up involuntarily at a particularly sore spot, right in the middle of the burn, but that part was quickly over. Fumi went on to cover it up in bandages again, using smooth, expert motions. When that was done, she turned aside to put away her supplies.
The mortar in Fumi's hand slipped out of her grasp, making a loud crash when it cracked against the stone floor. She and Obito both cried out when they felt a cold, piercing energy slice through the air. But Obito was able to recognize it for what it was—a Killing Intent of terrifying strength.
They saw a bright flash of movement, and Fumi was pushed against the wall with her hands wrenched behind her back. Obito jumped down from the counter, his mouth gaped open.
Narrowed blue eyes turned toward him, before Minato's harsh expression changed to one of confused shock.
Minato took a quick, sweeping look over the entire room, then let Fumi go.
"I suddenly felt one of my Hiraishin seals. I thought someone had taken one of my kunai to lure me out here."
"One of your seals—" Obito craned his neck around to look over behind his shoulder. He turned to show Minato the seal stamped there, plain as day.
"What?" Minato came over to look at it, confusion even more evident in his face now. "I don't remember doing that, but there's no mistaking..."
"Ah, well, that's kind of a long story," Obito said, rubbing the back of his head awkwardly. "Anyway, this is Fumi-obaachan, she saved me. She was going to let me go soon to try to find my way back."
"A-Ah! Is that so?" Minato turned back to the woman, taking on the same sheepish pose as Obito. "I'm very sorry. Thank you for taking care of my student."
Fumi braced herself against the wall, staring at Minato. "You... you're..." she blinked, and then looked very serious. "The both of you should leave as soon as possible."
"Ne, are you sure you'll be alright?" Obito said, walking around Minato to talk to her. "If they find out you helped me escape..."
"No, it isn't Fumi-san's fault that I found out where you were and stormed into her house to get you back. Right?" Minato winked and took out one of his kunai and put it down on the counter. "I'll leave this for you. They will probably want to destroy it, but you can make it seem as though I attacked here."
"But, isn't that bad, too?" Obito asked, raising his voice. "I mean, we're technically not fighting Kumo right now—"
"If they want to complain about it, they would have to admit to taking you in the first place. That would make them implicate themselves." Minato rested his hand on Obito's shoulder, above where the seal was. "Well then, we'll be leaving. Please forgive the rude intrusion."
They looked at him like they were looking at a ghost. In a way, that's what he felt like. He knew now what it felt like to bend the shape of time and reality. Knowing what waited for him in the very near future, Obito could feel that same sensation in the pit of his stomach as he limped toward his teammates, leaning on one crutch.
Rin ran toward him and threw her arms around him, laughing and crying at the same time. He winced in pain and she let go, apologizing immediately and covering her mouth in shock and horror as he lifted his shirt to show the mostly-healed burn. Kakashi stood a little further back, but his expression was different from usual. His coal eyes wide as he saw his teammate back from the dead, he looked a lot more like his older self.
Obito grinned and pretended the tears in his eyes came from the pain. But really, he was still remembering the temporary sensation of Rin's arms around him.
From now on, he would re-write reality.
"I'm so glad you're awake, Naruto."
The phrase, so quietly and sincerely spoken, surprised him into silence for a few seconds. Mainly because it was Sakura speaking—this time's Sakura, not the older one who worried and fussed over him. But that was not the only way she resembled her older self right now. It was also in her smile. It was the same strange, painful smile she wore when she visited him in the hospital in the future. Was it already the time when she started doing that?
"Of course! You should know that I won't go down that easily, Sakura-chan," Naruto said with a grin. "But thanks for visiting me when I was knocked out. I'm glad that someone was there when I woke up the first time, since it let everybody know that I could come back. Oh yeah, what happened that time, anyway?" he added curiously.
Sakura's smile got smaller, but it looked less forced. "Ahh, You really startled me then. Kakashi-sensei and Tsunade-sama thought you wouldn't be able to wake up until they caught whoever did that to you and made them reverse their jutsu. Well, I guess there's a reason why they call you unpredictable!"
Naruto froze. Wait... did that mean... did she know already? He hadn't considered it much, but he was eventually going to have to deal with his friends learning about his Jinchuuriki status again, right? Well... they seemed to be okay with it in the future, so maybe there was nothing to worry about.
Kakashi had been standing back near the door, but he came forward now.
"Yes, thank goodness. Well, we still don't know what caused it, but it is a relief to see that you were able to break out of it on your own."
Naruto frowned. "But, Kakashi-sensei—"
"I heard all about it from Tsunade-sama," Kakashi interrupted cheerfully.
"Oh." Did that mean they weren't telling anyone? Tsunade had said that they would be keeping it a secret for now, but Naruto didn't know that also meant Sakura and the rest of his former classmates.
It would be better to not have everyone fussing over him about the dangers of Akatsuki (he had plenty enough of that in the future). At the same time, it felt awkward to have the truth hidden like that.
Sakura pulled a chair over and sat down. "Naruto..."
Sakura looked down in her lap. Her hands gripped each other tightly, and her shoulders just barely shook.
"I... I-I'm sorry. I couldn't stop him... I should have done s-something differently, I should have..." but she let that hang. Even she couldn't figure out what might have been better to do. "I knew that something was wrong, but I didn't do anything about it... and by the time I finally tried to do something, it was too late."
"What? No, it wasn't your fault, Sakura-chan!" Naruto said, putting as much emphasis into as he could. "I'm just glad you didn't get caught up with those Oto-nin! It would have happened either way, believe me. You know how that guy is when he wants to do something. You would've just gotten hurt, so..."
Sakura flinched visibly at his words, making Naruto flounder even more, trying to find the right thing to say.
"Listen, I know it looks pretty bad, but we can get him back. We can save him, Sakura-chan. I'm gonna need your help with it. So what we need to focus on right now is getting as strong as we can, as soon as we can. We'll take him back and kick Orochimaru's ass while we're at it."
"...How can you be so sure? How do you know?" Sakura said quietly.
"Because I—" Naruto stopped, mouth slightly open as he stared. How exactly was all that supposed to fit in with everything else? Was it really okay to let Sasuke end up the way he was in the future, caught between Orochimaru and the older Obito?
"Because I promise," he said firmly. Sakura looked up at him. "I promise, and I never go back on my word. That's my ninja way!"
A/N: Thank you to everyone that stuck with this story this far! You've all been so amazing, and I've learned so much while working on it.
The sequel, titled I Will Become the Wind, is currently in progress! When I have a posting schedule set for it, I will update this story with Chapter 0 of the sequel and an idea of when posting will happen. In the meantime, I will have updates posted on my profile page.
Update: Chapter 0 is now added here. If you're wondering, 'do I need to read this to understand the sequel?' the short answer is no. I knew people might be likely to skip over it, so there's nothing vital. But it does give extra pieces to help you figure out later puzzles.