Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto
Team 7's Ascension
Chapter XVI - Grow the Tree VI
Sasuke heated his sword, then pressed it against Shino's shoulder stump. Sizzling and pained moans echoed; the air reeked of burned flesh.
Next to them, Naruto put his head in his hands. He had failed. Yet, when he looked around, trusting gazes sought him out, asking for answers he didn't have.
Sakura appeared beside him, stinking of sodden leaves, and with blood caking her face. Relief at the sight of her turned into shame, and he lowered his eyes. Shino had lost his arm, Akamaru, his life, and Ino, her ability to walk. The choice between these losses and Sakura, however, would always be the same.
Sakura tugged a few loose hairs behind her ear. "Where do we go from here?"
"I don't know."
Fury sparked, igniting an exploding tag in his chest. Laying waste to Kiri started to sound like a good path to take, and that frightened him more than anything.
Sakura slid closer. "We'll figure something out," she said, her thumb drawing circles on the back of his hand. "We always do."
He wanted to believe her. Figuring things out was their strength, wasn't it? But when he tried to think of solutions, he came up empty.
"Kiba wants to build a pyre for Akamaru," Sakura said.
She shook her head. "Akamaru hated this forest. Kiba said in his clan compound – with flames reaching the sky."
The Inuzuka was lying in the grass a few feet away from them, staring at the foliage above. He had only exchanged a few words with Sakura, remaining silent otherwise.
Naruto looked up at the sound of clattering armor. Sasuke had joined them, his lips pressed into a thin line. Behind him, Hinata had taken over the care for Shino.
"What happened?" Naruto asked wearily. Sasuke had never deliver any good news when he looked like that.
"Kumo's coming. We need to leave."
"They reported back just before he lost consciousness."
Naruto stared at the ground. When Kumo came, they'd arrive from the direction the tower was in. Making it there before them was impossible with their group as it was.
"We can't take them," Sakura whispered.
Dammit, he was tired of only dodging the shit flung at them.
Naruto glanced up at Sasuke who had crossed his arms, looking directly at him. Violence lurked in those eyes, and Naruto knew that his own mirrored the sentiment.
"We can," he said, rising to his feet.
Running away had never been their thing anyway.
Hiruzen stood on the wall surrounding Konoha, and before him, forest expanded until it met the horizon. He sighed. Soon, it would wither, forced to still its thirst with blood instead of water.
Jiraiya landed next to him, brushing leaves off his clothes. "Ditching our training now, Sensei? Afraid of the big, bad Sannin?"
"Perhaps," Hiruzen said, beckoning his student to follow as he started to move. "You were pretty rough with me yesterday, remember?"
"That sounds dirty… and wrong."
Hiruzen shook his head. "They say traveling his good for the soul. Your mind, however, is a place I never wish to visit."
They continued in silence, passing a group of construction workers who greeted them hastily. Once they had reached a spot where no one could overhear them, Hiruzen stopped and turned to Jiraiya.
"Two hours ago, Pakkun arrived in Konoha," he said. "In addition to Kakashi's Sharingan, he also delivered vital information: Suna is preparing for a large scale invasion."
Jiraiya's mouth closed with an audible snap. "This- Kami, save us, this will start a new war. Are they working together? Suna and Orochimaru?"
"There's no definite proof, but it's likely."
"That fool! Doesn't he know-" Jiraiya sighed, interrupting himself. "Of course he knows what he's doing…"
Hiruzen watched his student pace like an angry bull. "Jiraiya," he said, "I will be busy organizing our defenses in the coming month."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Supervise the last days of the second task in my stead, then become Team Seven's teacher and prepare them for the invasion."
Jiraiya spun around. "You want them to fight? They're Genin."
"You misunderstood me. Like the other Genin, they will be stationed as far away from the actual fighting as possible."
"Team Seven has always attracted trouble, no matter my orders. Prepare them for the possibility. That is all I ask."
"What about Kakashi? They'll be curious."
Hiruzen pulled his hat deeper, veiling his face in shadows. "The Elders and I agreed that it is for the best to hide Kakashi's fate until the invasion has run its course."
"Ah, the exalted council of decrepit farts." Jiraiya shook his head. "I will follow your orders, but mark my words: this won't go over well once they learn the truth."
Jiraiya strode into the command central, and after a quick glance headed over to the Jōnin in charge.
"Jiraiya-sama," Hayate said. "It's been a while."
"The old man's kept me busy. Everything alright here?"
Hayate hummed in response. "Depends on your definition of alright, I'd say. Most of Konoha's teams are still alive, if that's what you mean."
The Jōnin pressed a button, and Jiraiya nearly choked on his spit as the screen on the other side of the room lit up. "Is that…?"
"As you can see," Hayate said, pointing to the screen. "Team Seven is currently attracting the attention of approximately twenty-three enemies." Oh, Jiraiya saw. And what he saw didn't fill him with confidence that Minato hadn't dropped his son on the head too often.
"Get 'em! – eppōdama!" A static voice droned out of the speakers.
"Naru- stop laughing like a maniac. - igoku Gōka no Jutsu. Run!"
Jiraiya strained his ears. In the distance, a few miles from the tower, explosions made the forest tremble. "I have a vague idea, but whose plan was this?"
Hayate's lips curved upward. "Uzumaki Naruto's, of course."
Looking back to the screen, Jiraiya frowned as the picture zoomed in on Naruto's bloody face. "Why is it only Team Seven? I heard they teamed up with their friends."
"A few of them got injured in previous fights. Naruto convinced them to march straight to the tower; they should arrive soon."
"He made himself and his team a decoy?"
When Hayate nodded, Jiraiya was unsure whether to feel pride at his godson's team's sacrifice, or frustration at the recklessness of it all. Not that he could judge him, really. He wouldn't have done it any differently himself, and neither would any of the Hokage.
A tag lit up, ripping the branch behind her into pieces. The power of the blast catapulted her toward another explosion. This one she couldn't avoid. Sakura raised her arms, shielding her eyes from rogue splinters, and was lucky enough to avoid an arc of lightning that shot past her legs and incinerated a patch of grass.
The shrubbery next to her rustled, and she quickly twisted her body away from a volley of shuriken. They missed, barely, and shot off into the tree crowns above – beside her, strands of pink hair floated to the ground.
Sometimes she really hated Naruto's plans.
A grunt alerted her to the Kumo-nin behind her. As he cocked his fist back, she slid into his defense. Her palm shot upward, and crashed into the man's chin.
The attack had staggered him, and Sakura reached around his back, fishing a kunai out of his pouch. She ignored the screams ringing in her ears as she drove the kunai into his thigh.
Unexpected heat heralded the arrival of a new enemy, but when Sakura turned around, she flinched back involuntarily. Sasuke stood in front of her, sword drawn, Sharingan spinning, and behind him, a front of flames held three Kumo-nin at bay.
She took a deep breath, calming herself. Sasuke was her friend, her teammate. He wouldn't do anything. But holy shit, the hit-and-run battle against Kumo must have cranked his bloodlust up to impossible amounts.
"They will swarm us if we stay too long in one place," she said, watching the Kumo-nin struggle against the fire. "Let's find Naruto." Sasuke didn't respond, and she got the feeling that he didn't trust himself to speak at the moment.
Finding Naruto turned out to be rather easy. He crouched on a branch a few trees away from them, spitting water like an archer with unlimited ammunition.
They landed next to him, and Sakura reached for him, pulling him away from the incoming mass of enemies.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
She stared, then shook her head. "Stop talking, and run faster."
Jiraiya had just watched Naruto's pink-haired teammate lead another Kumo-nin into a trap, when an explosion rocked the tower. In quick succession, everything trembled a second time, and his eyes sought out Hayate at the other side of the room. The Jōnin had already assembled a group of ANBU around him.
"Find out what happened," Jiraiya barked.
The booming noise resounded a third time, and smoke entered through the windows. "Dammit, what is this?" he asked, waving his hand in front of his face.
A siren started blaring, drowning out his question, and Jiraiya looked over to Hayate. The Jōnin's face was partly veiled by smoke and tinted red from the alarm lights above them. His eyes were fixed on the wall behind Jiraiya.
Following Hayate's line of sight, any smart remarks got stuck in his throat. The screen that had monitored Naruto's progress was black.
What where those ANBU doing?
Jiraiya signaled Hayate to hold the position, then stormed through the door. Someone was mucking things up, but two could play that game. He tuned his senses until they were as sharp as knives, and found what he was looking for two levels below.
Skipping several steps, he flew down the stairs, paying no mind to the blood he found on the way. ANBU knew what they signed up for.
Jiraiya stormed into the room, and saw the last ANBU fight against two foreign shinōbi. Unleashing the full force of his killing intent, he startled the infiltrators before appearing in front of them.
His fist crashed into the midriff of the first shinōbi, driving onward until it had nearly reached the chest, breaking bones and ripping apart organs on the way.
They needed the second shinōbi for interrogation. A quick thrust with his knee broke the man's left leg, and a head-butt knocked his lights out.
Jiraiya took a quick look around the room, before turning to the surviving ANBU. "You know how to repair this mess?" he asked, pointing at the blown up bits.
"Yes, Jiraiya-sama. We have spare parts and all of us were instructed on how to use them."
"How long will it take you?"
"Ten minutes, Sir."
Jiraiya grunted. "Make it five." He shouldered the unconscious infiltrator, then gave the ANBU a wave and left the room.
If anything happened to Naruto, he would tear this forest apart.
"You know him?" Jiraiya asked Hayate once he had returned to the command central, tossing the body on the ground.
The Jōnin crouched down, staring pensively at the man and nodded. "The Kusa team that reached the tower first… they told me they were only in it for the money."
"Apparently not," Jiraiya said, pressing his palm on the man's forehead. "Let's wake the sleeping beauty, shall we?"
Wracked with shivers and gasping for air, the man regained consciousness, his eyes open wide and afraid. They rolled around in his skull for a bit, before focusing on his captors. The man's expression first changed into fear, but then switched to resoluteness. Jiraiya cursed. He knew that look on prisoners.
He grabbed Hayate by the collar of his vest, and jumped away from the infiltrator. A second later, a seal lit up on the man's abdomen, shining even through his clothing. The fourth explosion followed, but this time it rained flesh and blood.
Above them the screen returned to life with a soft, vibrant hum, and the siren stopped its incessant noise. Even the red alarm lights went back to normal.
Jiraiya turned to the Chūnin responsible for the consoles. They had huddled together in a corner the moment things got rough.
"Find Team Seven!"
"We finally meet, Sasuke-kun." The man's lips curved into an insincere smile. He chuckled, and inside of his yellow irises, slitted pupils widened. "I dare say it took longer than expected."
Naruto stepped forward, sighing. Of course they couldn't get a break. He palmed three shuriken, but the man noticed his movement, and within a single glance, Naruto's world shattered.
He fell to his knees as an intangible force pressed on his back. Maybe antagonizing the strong shinōbi hadn't been his brightest idea, but he was still riding the high from escaping an army of Kumo-nin.
"How do you know his name?" Naruto gasped out, straining against the invisible shackles.
Naruto broke out of his restraints and flung the shuriken at the man. A few feet away, Sakura pressed her palms on the ground.
The man tried to avoid the attack, leaning back, but had to reconsider as a wall shot up behind him. He dodged to the side, instead. Naruto's lips twitched. The shuriken might have missed the man, but Sasuke sure as hell wouldn't.
Sasuke's sword split the air, before sinking into white flesh. He had hit the man's throat, and blood squirted out of the wound.
Naruto wove hand seals. "Suitōn: Teppōdama!"
The water bullet shot toward the man, and Sasuke quickly kicked himself away from the dead body. He landed in a crouch next to Naruto just as the wall broke under the pressure. The corpse flew away, surrounded by bits and pieces of earth and mud.
Naruto wiped his forehead. "Who the hell was that guy? He scared the shit out of me."
Sasuke shrugged. "Maybe the presence was an illusion… he was a lousy fighter." He pointed at the heap of rubble partly covering their enemy.
Such a terrifying stare was afake? Naruto calmed himself. Sasuke could be right, he supposed.
Then the air thickened into a suffocating miasma, and all thoughts flew out his head. Under him, the earth trembled, and he clawed desperately at his throat as his airways constricted.
"Wonderful, Sasuke-kun. Simply wonderful…" A terrified sheen coated Naruto's eyes. This was impossible. Sasuke had stuck his sword right through the guy's fucking throat.
Naruto craned his neck; shivers ran down his spine. The white man stood at the opposite side of the clearing, tall and unbothered as though nothing had happened. Next to him lay Sasuke's weapon. Naruto's sight, however, was drawn to the man's wound, knitting itself together.
"Truly a masterstroke," the man said. He strolled over to them, caressing his now unmarred skin. "And such an interesting friend you have. The Kyuubi's Jinchūriki – my, what a surprise…"
Naruto searched his mind for something clever to say – if only to prove himself that he wasn't paralyzed by fear – but came up empty. The man ignored him, and walked over to Sakura, where he crouched down and two snakes slithered out of his sleeve. They nestled up to her, coiling around her arms, and inside of Naruto, everything rose in anger.
"Such command over earth is impressive at your age," the man said, caressing her cheek. "Kakashi taught you well."
Naruto strained his muscles, forced his mind to obey. This couldn't be. This wouldn't be. The hairs on his neck stood on end as he shouldered the man's malevolent presence. He rose sluggishly and staggered over to them.
He pulled his fist back. Fuck that guy. No one harmed his team. "Get away from her, you piece of shit."
The man looked up and grinned, then vanished. Naruto barely had the time to blink, before a hand smashed into his cheek, sending him sailing into a tree.
Someone laughed. A voice cried out. Was that Sasuke? Orange and red swirled in front of him, and Naruto closed his eyes. Warmth was a beautiful blanket.
His ears twitched. That was Sakura, wasn't it? Dreams of Sakura were fun. There was a quiver in her voice though, and Naruto frowned. She sounded panicked. And why did he taste iron?
"-ake up, Naruto." There it was again, and this time he reacted. His eyes shot open. Inside his mouth, teeth drowned in an ocean of blood.
"Katōn: Gōkakyū no Jutsu!" The warmth was back, though much more menacing than before.
He searched for the source and found it quickly. Sasuke's fireball shot past him and hit its target a few feet away. Only a second later, the man stepped out of the flames, unharmed, and laughed. "What a shame that I cannot play more with you. You have to thank Sarutobi-sensei for that. Old age must have made him cautious."
Sasuke lashed out with his leg, but the man caught it with ease and threw him away. Wooden splinters bit into Naruto's cheek as Sasuke impacted against the tree next to him.
"Now, just hold still." The man's neck elongated, and when he opened his mouth, sharp incisors glinted. "It will be over soon."
"Dotōn: Doroku Gaeshi!"
Sakura's wall shot up in front of the man's face, but he smashed through it as though it was made of wet paper.
"Little tricks won't help you now." The man's laughter came in bursts, mixing with shrieks as he sped toward Sasuke.
Naruto glanced at the crumpled form of his teammate. Sasuke sat slumped against the tree, unconscious, and the man's teeth came closer and closer. He'd never wake up in time to make it out of there.
A thought crossed his mind, and laughter bubbled up inside of him. Kakashi had warned them to never use it on living things that had an active chakra system themselves. But he had Kyuubi, and, perhaps… ah, he needed no reason, not really.
He smiled, remembering his first encounter within the Forest of Death. Back then, the bear had gotten to him; he hadn't been fast enough. This time, things would be different.
Tora, Ushi, Inu, Mi - "Ninpō: Kawarimi no Jutsu."
His chakra exploded outward and latched onto Sasuke's. His insides twisted themselves in knots. The sea-level of the ocean in his mouth rose even higher.
Then it was over, and he appeared in Sasuke's former spot. For a moment, clarity blew the haze in his mind away like a fresh summer breeze.
Naruto leaned to the side, puking blood through curved lips. The monster buried his teeth in Naruto's shoulder plate, driving onward but finding no flesh. And when the man's crazed eyes found his own, Naruto smiled back.
"You- Kyuubi child!" The man retracted his neck, and appeared in front of him, his face contorting in rage. Whatever the bite was supposed to do, it seemed to be a onetime deal.
The man's hand shot forward, but never reached him. Naruto heard a loud crash, then felt a presence just as monstrous as the man's. It didn't press against him though, but covered him like a protective cocoon instead.
Darkness encroached from every direction, but before he surrendered, Naruto glanced at his savior. A mane of shaggy, white hair. Interesting.
A beeping sound pierced his mind. Strands of consciousness wove themselves into hazy thoughts. A fly buzzed past his ear, loud enough to drown out the unusually gentle tones of his alarm clock. He frowned. Hadn't waking up at home always resembled a war? This morning, his opponent didn't seem worthy.
As Naruto opened his eyes to the world, pain lanced through his skull, and light flooded his vision. This wasn't home. It couldn't be, because he always shut the curtains before he went to sleep. Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the brightness, and he began to see fuzzy outlines of people standing around his bed.
Then the memories returned.
"Good, you're awake." The voice wasn't familiar, and Naruto craned his neck to see the speaker. Before he got anywhere though, pink hair covered his sight, and weight settled on his legs as a pair of arms squeezed the air out of him.
"Naruto," Sakura said. Red circles rimmed her eyes, and he smiled tentatively at her.
Sasuke stood next to them with crossed arms, looking as unemotional and bored as ever. Though, when Naruto exchanged a glance with him, Sasuke's lips twitched upward. They needed no words.
Team Seven had survived – all of them.
"You're an idiot." The stranger spoke again, and this time, Sasuke stepped aside, clearing the way for Naruto to see. At the other side of the room, a large man sat on a bench, smoking pipe. Naruto immediately recognized the white hair.
So this was his savior.
"There's a reason to be careful when substituting with living objects, moron." The man narrowed his eyes, and blasted smoke out of his nostrils like a long forgotten teapot on a stove.
As the smoke wafted up, the man vanished, and reappeared at Naruto's bedside. He leaned in, holding eye-contact, until their noses almost touched. "The Kyuubi saved your hide. Don't make it a habit."
Naruto sunk as deep into his cushion as he could. He didn't know whether to be intimidated or amused. The man smelled of sake, smoke, and forest, but had a presence that was almost tangible.
"Who are you?" Naruto asked.
"Who am I? Boy, open those panty-soaking eyes wide and get educated!" That sentence got Naruto's full attention. The man filled the room with life in a way that made Naruto forget the events of the forest. He'd cherish that, even if it was only for a short moment.
And what followed didn't disappoint. The man was a whirl of colored fans, of whipping hair, of wooden geta hitting the floor in an almost hypnotizing rhythm. His introduction, a masterpiece of rhetoric finesse, branded itself in Naruto's brain for all eternity.
"In short," the man bellowed out as his performance neared its end. "I am Jiraiya, Toad Hermit of Mount Myouboku." Then he leaned forward and whispered in Naruto's ear, "And I write special novels. Hit me up if you're in need of some entertainment."
"Jiraiya…" Naruto rolled the name over his tongue. It was familiar, somehow. Hadn't Kakashi used that name at the very first day of Team Seven's foundation? The mere thought swept the playfulness away, and Naruto's features sharpened.
"You're one of the Sannin," he said.
Jiraiya inclined his head. He, too, had lost his smile. "I am, though not the first one you've met. You had a little spat with my old teammate in the forest."
Naruto's gaze swerved to Sasuke and Sakura. They didn't seem surprised by this information. Jiraiya must have talked with them.
"What did he want with Sasuke?"
"I have a good guess, but that's nothing you have to worry about." Jiraiya smiled at them. "You're safe now, which is all that matters."
Naruto found that answer to be thoroughly unsatisfying.
As he formulated another question in his head, the noise of a squeaking door startled him. Jiraiya was almost out of the room.
"Where are you going?" Naruto asked.
Jiraiya turned around, grinning. "Find me irresistible already, do you? Sorry to disappoint, but there's no chance for a torrid affair between us." He laughed and nodded to Sakura and Sasuke. "Seriously though, let those two fill you in."
The door clicked shut behind his back.
Naruto's nose itched as he waved his teammates through the door to his apartment. Dust had settled on his furniture, and he scrunched up his face in frustration. It had barely been a week since he last cleaned.
He crossed the living room with two large steps, and threw open the window. Fresh air rushed in, and he inhaled deeply as it replaced the stale odor that had permeated his apartment in his absence.
Turning around, Naruto busied himself with watching Sakura as she set up the tea. Sasuke had already discarded his armor, and lazed on a chair, clothed in uniform black.
"I didn't expect them to release you so soon," Sakura said.
Naruto shrugged. "Kyuubi. Has to be good for something." Then he looked at Sasuke. "You said you'd tell me once we're out of the hospital."
"True." Sasuke sighed. "I dislike hearing it twice though, especially if it comes from my own mouth."
"Really, Sasuke? That almost tells me everything on its own."
None of Sasuke's facial muscles moved until he spoke. "Good. That means I don't have to hear it again. Once was more than enough."
"Stop being silly," Sakura said, placing three empty cups on the table. She looked at Naruto, and smiled sadly. "We're disqualified from the exams. Jiraiya's help constitutes as an external interference on our behalf."
Naruto nodded. "I expected as much. What's with Sasuke though? This wasn't the end. We can always try again next year."
"It's not about making Chūnin, or getting disqualified. He's upset about losing."
"To Orochimaru of the Sannin?"
Naruto grinned, but the words for even a light ribbing clogged his throat as he saw Sasuke's eyes. He took a chair from nearby, and sat himself across his teammate.
"Teme, your Sharingan is spinning."
Sasuke blinked. "It is?"
The red faded into black, and Naruto leaned back, scratching his chin. "Now, I know you don't like talking, but clearly there's something Sakura and me are missing." Sasuke remained silent, and Naruto closed his eyes for a moment. "Okay, let me try again. We fought, and we lost. Losing sucks, I get that. But we battled a fucking Sannin, so what's your problem?"
Sasuke's fists clenched and his Sharingan sprung back to life once more. Then he talked, and everything made much more sense.
"Orochimaru… he's of the same caliber as Itachi – S Rank." Sasuke drew blood as he bit on his lip. "That might as well have been him, slaughtering us as we try to avenge my clan. And we were nothing."
Those thoughts were depressing, but Naruto was glad to hear the 'we' in Sasuke's speech. That meant, whatever went through Sasuke's head, he hadn't abandoned the concept of Team Seven; didn't think of them as anchors, chaining him to the ground.
"Your reasoning blows." Sakura finally joined them at the table, pouring tea into the cups. "We have been Genin for a year. You're deluding yourself if you think killing a monster is done that easily." She took a sip; then smiled. "Besides, struggle is what makes a journey worthwhile, isn't it?"
Sasuke's left brow rose. "I don't care for difficulty any longer. Itachi can choke on an icicle for all I care… as long as I bought it for him."
Sakura huffed. "Ruin my moment of wisdom, will you?"
"Taking the path of most resistance to make a journey worthwhile isn't wisdom," Sasuke said, his lips curving into a slight smile.
"It's the sentiment that cou-"
"Excuse me," said a familiar voice from the door. "Can I come in? If possible, without tea thrown at me?"
Naruto scratched his head. He must have forgotten to close the door. Wait, tea? A short glance revealed Sakura to be the only one without a cup. He snorted. Had she thrown it during the short-lived argument?
"Come in," he called out. "The tea's just decoration."
A second later, Shikamaru stood in front of them with brown stains on his white shirt. He held a container out to Naruto. "Here's Ramen for you." He nodded to Sasuke and Sakura. "Sorry that I haven't got any for you. Didn't expect you to be here."
"No worries," Sakura said, while Sasuke tilted his head to the side.
"Anyway," Shikamaru said, sitting down. "I would've come sooner, but they only let us out an hour ago."
"They forced you to stay there?"
"The reason you got to leave was because of your injuries."
"Then it's over now. Everyone's out of the forest?"
Shikamaru nodded. "More or less. Team Nine is the only one that made it to the third task though."
"Come again?" Sakura said. "We had enough chips for at least two teams to get through."
Shikamaru eyed the ceiling fan. "Hinata decided it's for the best. We agreed with her."
"Hinata gave the chips to Neji? All of them?" Naruto narrowed his eyes. "Did he threaten her?"
Shikamaru started laughing. "Neji's a prick, but I never said Hinata gave him the chips as a present. He simply asked the wrong question at the wrong time."
"How to distribute the chips now that you were out of the equation… roughly at the same time as Jiraiya-sama stormed into the tower with your bodies."
"What a cunt… and Hinata?"
Shikamaru grinned. "She took offense. You should've seen it, man. Threw the chips at him and raged that he was a miserable human being. She was furious."
Noodles dangled from Naruto's lips, and he hastily swallowed. "Hinata? Shy, timid Hinata?" He shook his head in denial. Something about the imagery his friend had evoked struck him as wrong, horribly wrong – even though it rocked.
"And you and the others were okay with this?" Sasuke asked.
"As if the chips had any worth after the task…" His voice lowered into a whisper. "That shithole of a forest earned its fucking name alright."
Naruto stared at his friend. Shikamaru's emotions jumped from point to point, almost too fast to track. He couldn't fault him though. The Chūnin Exams had screwed with them – hard. Things had gone wrong in the forest, horribly so. And if he'd find the time, maybe he'd ask for the surveillance tapes to reconstruct where it all went wrong.
"My mother wants me back at five, so I better go now," Shikamaru said, rising from his chair.
"Come by if you have any news, 'kay?" Sakura said. "And if you see Ino at the hospital, please tell her that I'll visit her soon."
Shikamaru nodded, giving them a tired grin. "Will do."
Gravel crunched under Sasuke's sandals as he walked through a field of black and white columns, some only reaching his knees, others standing taller than him.
He found Sakura kneeling in front of a gravestone, the smell of incense lingering in the air. She clapped her hands once, then pressed them together and uttered a small prayer. Gracing him with a smile as he approached, she rose and dusted off her dress.
"I haven't been here in months," she said, trailing her fingertips over the name on the column. "I used to come daily… always after the academy let out."
He shifted slightly as Sakura chuckled. The sound was too empty to have come from her. "I thought I understood after meeting Kakashi-sensei, but I didn't, not really."
Sasuke remained silent, letting her talk. His inability to comfort people was a flaw, but one that didn't matter to him. Itachi wouldn't die through compassion.
"We're mortal, Sasuke, aren't we?"
The fear he saw in her eyes was familiar, put there by Orochimaru. He tilted his head and looked skyward, avoiding her gaze. Mirrors made him uncomfortable – they always told more than he wanted to know.
"I am sorry for not coming to training today," she said, staring at the grave of her mother. "It won't happen again, I promise."
That was all he could ask for, really. He turned around, his mission complete, and walked away.
"I wonder if she is proud of me."
Sasuke froze, closing his eyes. The wind had carried her whisper, and he doubted he had been supposed to hear it at all. But he did, and it was perhaps the only question he could answer.
"She is," he said, telling her what he had always wished to hear himself.
Sakura spun around, her eyes widened, and Sasuke wondered whether he should feel insulted by her surprise or not. It didn't really matter, he found.
Her smile held long after they had left the cemetery together.
That was enough.
Jiraiya smiled as Naruto's foot closed in on him. From above, Sasuke's airborne body came closer and closer, and below, he felt chakra building up in the earth.
Two weeks had done Team Seven some good, but they wouldn't be able to lay a hand on him – not yet anyway.
He stepped back, grabbing Naruto's outstretched leg by the ankle, and plucked the sandal of his feet. A blunted pillar shot out of the ground, and Naruto let out a gasp as it hit his stomach. Jiraiya loosened his grip, and Naruto shot away.
Sasuke was nearly upon him now, and Jiraiya deflected the sword with the stolen sandal. The moment Sakura had finished hand seals behind him; he jumped away from Sasuke's furious attacks and threw the sandal at her.
She avoided it, if barely. He grinned at her, stomping his heel on the ground. Behind her, a wall rose up and the sandal bumped off it, before hitting the back of her head.
As she wanted to get up, Jiraiya shook his head, and beckoned her to stay put.
"Raiton: Hisan Ikazuchi!"
Sparks danced around Sasuke's finger, but before he could amplify the water, strong arms closed around their throats and lifted him and Naruto off the ground.
Jiraiya stood behind them, smiling at the two boys apparently suffocating in his overbearing hug. Their techniques fizzled out, and he used the direct body contact to spin a minor illusion around them. Genjutsu wasn't his preferred art, but he had enough knowledge for some fun exercises.
A minute later, Sasuke and Naruto awoke from the illusion, sitting to the left and right of Sakura. They glanced at her, but immediately sought the ground to look at afterward.
"Humiliating," murmured Sasuke.
Jiraiya loomed over him, grinning. "Look in my eyes and tell me you didn't enjoy it."
Sasuke faltered as he responded, "I… I-"
"What's the matter with you?" Sakura asked, looking at both of them.
Naruto scratched his head. "Say, Sakura… you wouldn't mind working some black leather into your outfit, would you?"
"Black leather? What are you-" Her eyes widened, and she turned to Jiraiya. "What did you show them?"
"Nothing much," he answered. "A little bit of this, and a tiny bit of that. All in all, very motivating, I think."
It took less than a second before she was in front of him, murder in her eyes. "I'll kill you!"
Jiraiya caught Sakura's fist, and pulled her close to him. "First, you and your boyfriends have to catch me, princess."
He continued the sparring session until all three lay exhausted in the grass, staring at the sun as it drowned the world in orange.
"Your style is… unusual," gasped Naruto, rolling onto his back.
"You're one to talk." Jiraiya smirked around the stem of his pipe. "In our world, 'usual' means death. Become predictable, and the world outside will wipe the floor with you. Besides, I only condition you to keep moving even if something unexpected happens."
Sakura propped herself up and glared at him. "Unexpected like a Genjutsu? How often have you showed them that drivel now?"
"Often enough to make you very self-conscious should you ever decide to sex up your outfit, princess. Can't have teenage pregnancies now, can we?"
Sakura's eyes widened. "You-"
"Eh, don't worry, Sakura," Naruto said. "The old toad won't corrupt us."
"Is that a challenge?"
Naruto looked at Jiraiya and grinned. "You want to make it one?"
"You'll call me Jiraiya-sensei if you lose. Think hard; now is the last chance to back out."
"Why'd I want to back out? I know myself, and Sasuke's a prude… deal!"
Next to them, Sasuke groaned.
"I win," Jiraiya said. "Sasuke's been in my thralls since the time I used the illusion."
Naruto turned to his teammate and shook him. "Sasuke?"
"Don't bother denying it, Sasuke." Jiraiya laughed. "I saw you activate your Sharingan. By now, you must have seen every detail dozens of times."
"Delete it!" Sakura cried out.
"Can you share it?"
"What the hell, Naruto?"
Naruto shrugged. "I lost. No need to fight the inevitable."
Jiraiya watched them, but his mind quickly turned to more serious thoughts. It was good to see the three unwind after the forest had played a melody with them strung across its Shamisen of misery. Truly, that they hadn't been torn apart by the speed at which life struck the chords was the real miracle.
And still, knowing this, he kept his silence and lied to them about Kakashi's whereabouts. This definitely wouldn't help matters once the man's fate became public knowledge.
Jiraiya sighed. They were laughing now, fooling around and relaxing in the sun. But this couldn't hold forever.
It never did.
Naruto stopped his hand an inch away from the scarab-shaped door knocker, then grit his teeth and pressed his palm against it. The scarab's eyes lit up in a vivid green.
The door sprung open, and a woman with shoulder-length hair stared at him. He only had the initial twitch of her lips to go on, but that was enough to tell him that she hadn't expected him.
"Good morning, Aburame-san," he said, sketching an awkward bow.
She returned it, her head dipping not nearly as low as his did, but that was fine. The alternative was her shutting the door in his face.
"To you as well, Uzumaki-san. May I enquire about the nature of your visit?"
"Is Shino in?" She didn't move a muscle, and it dawned on him that answering a question with another question wasn't exactly polite. "I want to make sure he's alright," he added.
A tense silence followed, and Naruto glanced at the windows a few feet away. Should she close the door, he might get in that way. Unlike Shino, she didn't wear glasses to conceal her eyes, and her observing him like an interesting specimen was fairly obvious. Against what she was weighing him, he didn't know.
"Very well. Follow me please - Shino is in the backyard."
The slight inclination of her head made him grin. He had passed her test – whatever it was – and there was no need to break into her home.
They walked through a few empty wooden rooms, the function of which escaped him, and he was careful to stick close to her. The orphanage had brought him up on stories about the horrors that lurked in the Aburame's compound. He never took what those old crones told him as complete truth, but one could never be careful enough. After all, he had seen what kind of bugs Shino had up his sleeves.
"You were with him in the Forest of Death?" Her question caught him off-guard, and he was lucky not to trip. Hadn't the parents been told about the whole ordeal?
He nodded, not trusting his voice. The name of that place alone evoked an emotional response that was better left chained in his subconscious.
Damn that fucking place to hell.
Naruto's expression must have betrayed his thoughts, because her sigh sounded as if he had already answered her query. "You do not have to answer if it makes you uncomfortable, Uzumaki-san," she told him, looking resigned in a way that didn't belong on the face of a mother. "Shino's expression mirrors your own whenever I ask."
Ah, that explained it. So Shino had kept his quiet, not even telling his parents, and they had accepted it with the understanding only family could provide. Envy surged through him, but he clamped down hard on that particular emotion. Nothing about Shino's situation was enviable – absolutely nothing.
She smiled sadly at him, and once more thoughts of revenge clawed their way into his mind. They too were quickly shoved aside. He knew better than most what it meant to be held responsible for something he hadn't done. Kiri hadn't ordered the attack, and just like them had acted on the circumstances surrounding them.
That was what he told himself at night, at least. It didn't make sleeping any easier, but it made him feel like a human again. Something he had almost abandoned in the forest.
"He is in the clearing at the end of this path," she said, pointing to a place not far away, obscured by a few trees.
Naruto nodded, reluctant to speak. She had just shown him another side of her, the pain to see her son as he is suffering. Had his own mother looked like that when the Kyuubi appeared?
After watching her disappear into the maze of greenery, he shook his head to clear away all unnecessary thoughts. He had a reason for coming here, and it wasn't to wallow in what-if's.
Naruto entered the clearing carefully, making enough noise with every step that even an untrained child would have noticed him. Wounded shinōbi were jumpy, and it wouldn't do to startle Shino if he meditated.
He needn't have worried though. Shino wasn't in a place where Naruto's sudden appearance could have jarred him into hasty actions. He wasn't meditating either though. Weren't injured shinōbi supposed to rest?
Shino did nothing of the sort, and Naruto's eyes widened in disbelief as he saw him on the pond in the middle of the clearing, doing push-ups with his remaining arm.
It was the first time Shino didn't wear his coat in his presence.
"Naruto," he said, his tone even as he joined him at the edge of the pond.
Shino neither used Naruto's family name, nor a suffix after the name, and fuck if that didn't leave him hanging for words. Aburame had that effect on him it seemed. He hadn't thought he'd ever get Shino to just call him 'Naruto'.
"Yo, Shino. I see you've been busy."
Shino tilted his head to the side and stared at him. He had done that many times in the past, and now that Naruto had met his mother, he knew where Shino got it from.
"Indeed," Shino said. "The forest has shown me my inadequacies quite clearly."
"Inade- that place was a train wreck from start to finish. What happened wasn't our fault."
Naruto had to admit, his speech would have sounded more convincing had he believed in it himself. Not that he thought it was Shino's fault. No, he blamed himself for a substantial part of it.
Shino shrugged, and it struck Naruto that he had never before seen him use such a casual gesture. "It has nothing to do with being at fault," Shino told him, "Life issued a challenge, and we didn't rise to meet it. We tried, and failed."
Naruto knew that they had failed, but what Shino said sounded vaguely like crap.
"We tried everything we could," Naruto said.
"And that was not enough," Shino replied. "The logic is simple, Naruto. I wasn't ready for this trial, and now I train to be ready for the next one."
He got a far-away look on his face. "Life is a never ending chain of tests, each bringing its own risks and rewards. It won't get easier just because we failed."
The bug people really had a penchant for leaving Naruto speech-less. He was an inarticulate idiot at the best of times, but what he experienced in this compound drove him nuts.
"If you are weak, all that's left to do is train to become strong," Shino said, pushing his glasses up his nose. "That's what I believe anyway."
Naruto nodded, mulling over what Shino had told him. Shino got a point, and what he said didn't appear strange to Naruto either. He'd examine Shino's words in detail later on, in the confines of his four walls.
The sound of rushing wind alerted him to an attack, and he leaned backward. Shino's outstretched leg sailed past his face, and he admired the increase in speed only three weeks of training had brought Shino.
This was a language he understood, that didn't leave him floundering for words.
How long had they held him now? At first he had counted the minutes, added up the hours. But then he lost track as hours blurred into days, as hunger and thirst gnawed at his senses.
Why was he even still alive?
Kakashi tried leaning to the right, if only for an inch, to relieve the burden on his left knee. It was futile. The chains holding him bit into his flesh, and the surrounding seals sapped the chakra right out of him.
At least they had healed his eye socket – a curiosity in itself.
Then he heard shuffling footsteps outside his cell, and moved his head up as far as the chains allowed. Sweaty hair framed his healthy eye, clinging to his face like a second skin.
No one had visited him since he'd been caught.
Was it finally time for the torturer to get answers?
Kakashi gritted his teeth, even as a special kind of demented laughter welled up inside of him. ANBU were no strangers to pain. They'd get nothing out of him – nothing at all.
The cell door rattled, and a figure in blue robes strode into his small abode, escorted in by a Suna-nin.
The shinōbi who seemed to be the warden pointed at Kakashi. "This is the prisoner, Kazekage-sama."
Pearls of sweat trickled down the warden's brow, and he nodded quickly, before almost running out of the cell.
The Kazekage watched him leave; then turned back to Kakashi and chuckled. "Quite the predicament you find yourself in, Kakashi-kun."
Kakashi's eye widened. This wasn't the same man he had met weeks before at the start of his mission. The intonation of his name was familiar, too familiar to be coincidental.
The Kazekage moved closer to him, and crouched down until their eyes were on the same height. "You must have wondered why you're still alive… prisoners always do. The answer is easy – I am a cautious man. You see, I had a plan. And in case my plan failed, I needed a back-up."
The man's laughter chilled Kakashi to the bone. "Congratulation, Kakashi-kun," the Kazekage said, "you have become my back-up. I promise that you won't stay here much longer."
Kakashi almost gave up on finding out the Kazekage's real identity, when the man, on his way out, halted at the door and turned around. For a second, the illusion around the 'Kazekage' faded.
Kakashi paled. He knew that face, those yellow eyes.
He screamed into the gag.
"Warden," Orochimaru said, stepping out of the cell. "Watch the prisoner carefully. He shows signs of mental instability."
"At once, Kazekage-sama."
The chains rattled as Kakashi raged against them, and his screams turned into pained moans as the warden tried to reign him in.
AN: My thanks go out to DLP.