Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.
AN: Hey there. Here's the second to last chapter from the first book of Team 7's Ascension. I hope you'll enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing it. As a side note, today we passed the 3000 follower mark, and we're also racing straight toward the 1,5k comments line. For that I'd like to thank everyone who read this story so far and accompanied me on this wild ride. Because even when, at times, I stared at nothing but a white page for hours, your support kept me going.
Also, my thanks at the guys from DLP. I joined their community around chapter 10/11 and their advice as well as beta reading has saved me from many mistakes that would've driven this story into the ground.
For the curious among you: after this book is finished, I'll take a little bit of time off, then start on the second one. So, don't fret. This story is far from over.
Team 7's Ascension
Chapter XXII - Fallen Leaves IV
Naruto breathed a sigh of relief as they reached the shore. It had been farther away than he first thought, and while chakra exhaustion wasn't a problem for him, it could easily become one for Sakura—even more so after she had taken care of them for days with no rest beside a few minutes to get some food.
"Finally." Sakura sunk to the ground, letting herself fall backward on the white sand. "I thought we'd never reach it."
Naruto nodded. The small strip of beach brimmed with colored sea shells glimmering under the sun. Here and there, an odd starfish caught his eye, and some distance to the west—two miles perhaps—rock formations broke up the beach, reaching into the turquoise ocean.
"We should get out of the open."
"Right," Sakura said, pushing herself up with a grimace.
They walked up to the mangrove line that separated the sand from the jungle and soon found a shaded place where hundreds of small roots had knotted together, creating a sickle-shaped cocoon. Having seen a silver striped snake slithering through the underbrush earlier, Naruto made sure that no animals slunk around, before he carefully laid Sasuke on the ground.
Sakura leaned against the trunk next to Sasuke, her eyes droopy. "If I ever want a vacation, I'll come here," she said. "This place is beautiful."
"It is." In a sharp motion, Naruto slapped his neck. A small smattering of blood and the remains of a squashed fly-that-wasn't caught his eyes. "Not too fond of these things, though."
"Mosquitos," Sakura supplied. "Bear with it. They're only an annoyance to shinobi. Our chakra purges any disease they can carry."
Naruto chuckled, crossing his arms behind his head. "Annoyance fits them well enough, I guess." He panned his head around, taking in the sights around him. "So, this is the Land of Rivers…"
"Seems that way," Sakura said. "I didn't expect it to be so different from Konoha, though."
Naruto had to agree. The academy curriculum included geography lessons on the Great Five, but he couldn't remember having seeing much more than a single paragraph for each of the smaller nations as he had leafed through his textbook in a fit of boredom before abandoning it for the rest of his school years. Komon had later crammed vital knowledge into his skull, but even there the lessons had been focused on the more important countries.
"Any idea why?" Naruto asked. "I've never seen this kind of tree before."
Sakura shrugged, casting a glance around. "From Suna comes the heat, from Konoha the green—combine those two with the dozens of rivers running through this country and this comes out, I guess. It wasn't that important for the tests in the academy, so I never bothered to read up more on it."
"You learned plenty enough," he said, mirth coloring his voice.
"It's not that I know everything…You just were a slacker back then."
She smiled at him, heavy bags rimming her eyes. It might be better if they stayed for a few more hours. He expected Konoha's and Suna's forces to clash much farther inland, so this area would probably be one of the more peaceful ones.
As Sakura drifted off to sleep, Naruto busied himself with training his eye-sight. He made a game of locating as many fresh fruits as he could from his position, before getting up and gathering them. Soon, the pile of bananas, nectarines, and mangos in front of him grew to a respectable height.
Balancing two mangos on top of each other, Naruto wondered whether Konoha imported those fruits from this country. Merchants offered them at their stalls, but he couldn't remember ever seeing them grow anywhere around the village.
He had just stuffed himself with two nectarines at once, trying to nibble around each pit without parting his lips, when the shrubs a few feet away rustled. Careful not to make any noise, he took the half-eaten fruits out of his mouth and put them aside, before tapping Sakura's shoulder.
She jolted awake, and Naruto lifted his finger to his lips, shushing her.
We got company, he signed afterward.
A weary expression flashed over her face, but was soon replaced by steel glinting in her pupils.
Let me try to sense them.
Go for it.
The first hint that something was wrong came when her hands began shaking like leaves in a harsh breeze.
She shook her head and didn't reply.
He asked her again, but her lips stayed closed.
Too many, she signed, having visible trouble to keep her fingers under control. Two near us. Four in the west, Dozens up north.
How far north?
A few miles, not more. That's as far as I can sense. But I'm sure there are more.
Twigs broke; the sound was much louder now than before. For a moment, Naruto's thoughts went out to the brown duffle bag with supplies that now rested on the bottom of the ocean. He could use his fists, but he missed the touch of steel in his hand.
"I hate this country," came from the other side of the mangrove cocoon. Footsteps paved the way through the clutter of greenery and roots.
"I hear you," another voice spoke, this one deeper, older. "Konoha is in every bloody corner."
A slap echoed and a flock of birds shot into the air, setting course for safer pastures. Naruto's lips twisted into a vicious grin. In a most surprising way, he had found a weird form of kinship with the blood-sucking beasts inhabiting this country.
Let's hope they sting them to death, Naruto signed.
I doubt it.
"Have you heard about Kawa no Machi?"
The other man grunted to the affirmative. "Bloody massacre. A friend was stationed there…that old crock of a Hokage appeared out of nowhere and wrecked the whole formation."
"Senryaku-sama told us they wouldn't lose the fort. I can't believe he predicted this wrongly. He's supposed to be some tactical genius, isn't he?"
"He is," the older voice said. "He brought us through the third war all on his own while the other generals diddled their mistresses."
"But nothing. There isn't shit anyone can do about it…especially not when the fucking Hokage of all people crashes the battle with a horde of Kami-forsaken monkeys."
Naruto stared at Sakura as he listened to the two men argue back and forth.
Jiji is touring the world, he signed.
You're calling him that again?
I guess. I'll need to have a talk with him once we're back.
Sakura's mouth twisted downward. Should we get back to Konoha, we'll all have one, I can guarantee that much.
True enough. What do we do about these guys? Naruto nodded toward the other side of the cocoon.
They seem to be patrolling. Let them pass, then we'll run. I'll put up a Genjutsu.
You have enough juice?
Her fingers jerked into signs Naruto barely recognized as 'I'll manage'.
The minutes passed in a slow crawl, and each time Naruto heard the Suna-nin talk, his muscles tensed anew. Slowly, though, the distance grew, and soon they sneaked out of the jungle and onto the shore as Sakura spun two illusions around them. One for sight, the other for sound.
Once they were back on the ocean, Naruto shifted Sasuke to one shoulder, and caught Sakura just before she sunk completely into the water. She had pushed herself too hard, again. He blew air out of his lips. As if two hours of sleep had been enough to restore her chakra to such a level that she could hold two Genjutsu at once for an extended period of time.
Making sure both of his teammates were secured on his shoulders, Naruto began the trek toward Bōeki Toshi, keeping well away from the shore as long as they were still in the vicinity of the Land of Rivers.
The first thing Sakura noticed was warmth heating up her whole body from her shoulders to her toes, and the blue sky above, specked with small puffs of white. She shifted around, and grainy texture scratched at her neck. She panned her head around, looking for her teammates.
Sasuke still hadn't regained consciousness, and Naruto sat next to her, panting. They leaned against a rock that loomed several feet over their heads. Around them, Sakura found the reason for the prickling sensation at her neck: sand stretched onward as far as she could see, a haze shimmering over the endless dunes.
Sakura exhaled loudly. "So we made it," she said.
"You're awake." Naruto lips tugged into a smile.
"Are we close?"
"Hard to tell. Our map sunk with the ship. Anyway, I've water walked us with my water clones for the last two days."
"The whole way?" Insanity. This was pure insanity. "I don't know what to say to that, actually…"
Naruto grinned. "Thank you, perhaps? I'm almost spent, though. I waited until I only saw sand. Didn't want to take a break at the shore after…you know."
Oh, Sakura knew. And she had to wonder what kind of problem, danger, or sheer lunacy would fly their way next. Since they had left Konoha, absolutely nothing went right. It was as if a higher deity had taken offense to them.
"I can't believe we got away."
"You were awesome, Sakura," Naruto said. "That's the important part. Focus on the positive."
Sound advice. Just not as easy to implement as she would have liked. Her mind swirled with what he had just told her—keeping water clones for days and carrying two persons while water walking…She might have managed something of that scale for an hour or two. Should they survive this madness, she would have to look into this. Always being out of chakra was unacceptable.
Naruto said she was awesome. But as much as she would love to believe him, she couldn't, and that she lost consciousness sent throngs of shame through her body.
Her attention snapped back to Naruto. "Sorry, I missed that."
"I asked if you're ready to go."
Naruto nodded. "That'd be best, I think. The bulk of Suna's army is in the Land of Rivers fighting Konoha, I'd wager. But I don't want to take any chances."
"We've taken a lot of those in the last weeks."
"More reason to stop then."
Sakura followed Naruto's gaze to Sasuke's squirming body, and said, "We need to find a healer in the city. I read that chakra poisoning is something that you sleep out in a week or so and that the symptoms lessen gradually. It's almost been that long now, and he's not getting any better."
"Kyuubi's chakra," Naruto spat.
"Do you regret it?"
Naruto was silent for a moment, then shook his head. "No. As long as Sasuke lives, I'd do it again if I had to."
As Naruto put Sasuke over his shoulder, Sakura pushed herself up and stepped around the rock. There, the ocean met the desert in a clash of grains and water. She wobbled toward it, setting her feet gingerly on the small waves, acutely aware of the exhaustion that still permeated her body. Some of her chakra had returned over the last two days, but not nearly enough to spend it recklessly walking on water. Her mind ran various calculations to guess how long she could walk without collapsing. The results weren't all that promising
"Ready?" Naruto asked again, joining her.
"Probably not," she answered truthfully.
He pinched his eyes together. "Chakra?"
Sakura was reluctant to nod, but did so after a while. And she despised her weakness while doing it, trying hard to shove feelings of inferiority aside. The last time she had truly tried to increase her reserves had been during Kakashi-sensei's training. Then, everything had gone to hell, and Jiraiya had focused on drilling experience and Jutsu into them, rather than expanding their reserves, which were already ridiculously high for one of her teammates and well on par with a high-ranked Chūnin for the other. Using Jutsu in battle strengthened the pathways somewhat, but not nearly to the degree Kakashi-sensei's methodical training had done.
At length, they took to the water, moving farther eastward toward the city.
She talked with Naruto at first, trying to bridge the hours of silence, but even that had to stop as she felt her reserves drain away and she began to lag behind. Naruto waited for her to catch up when he noticed, of course. He just was that way, going so far as to slow the pace for her benefit. And while it was nice and definitely necessary, it stung.
A day later, having taken three breaks in-between, they finally beheld the walls of a large city wedged between a cliff and endless dunes.
"We're here," Naruto said, his lips forming a tired smile, which soon turned into a frown. "Now we have to get in."
"This is what, the third city in a week and a half that we break into?"
"Sounds about right."
"We could make a living off of this."
He laughed. "I doubt it. The last two times didn't go too well, did they?"
"Not a good sign for this one then."
Naruto sighed. "Let's stay away from the walls this time. We have no luck with them."
"You want to go in from the cliff side?" A tinge of desperation colored Sakura's voice. They were as close to the city as they could be without being seen. To reach the cliffs on the other side, though, they would have to circle around the damn thing, keeping well out of sight of the guards.
"Hell no," he said, "I say we march in from the sea."
"They'll see us that way."
For a minute, Sakura stared at the horizon, where mud brick houses with flat roofs rose against a low slope that quickly got steeper as it met the cliff-formation. A few ideas played in her mind, but none of them were viable. With Sasuke unconscious, and her almost depleted reserves, nothing seemed like a good option.
"Let's rest first," Naruto said, nodding toward the coast. "I see no way to get Sasuke through without your Genjutsu."
"We're on the clock."
He regarded her sternly and for a moment Sakura felt as though he knew exactly why she wanted to push herself so much, as though the insecurities this hellish trip ramped up in her were laid bare before his eyes.
"We won't save Kakashi-sensei if we die before we reach him," he told her. "And there's no telling how far we still have to go to rescue him."
"I know." Sakura sighed, running her fingers through her hair. "It's just…Kami, I want this to end."
Naruto squeezed her shoulder. "It will," he said, and she wondered where he took his conviction from. "We're in the Land of Wind already. The hardest part was getting here."
Making for the shore, they traipsed alongside the beach until they found an abandoned hut far outside the city. A dilapidated boardwalk next to it reached into the water, but no boats lay anchored there. Naruto pushed the half-broken door open, and as Sakura entered behind him, the stench of rotten fish and oil engulfed her. On the floor, dirt had piled up over the years of abandonment. In her state, though, she had no strength to complain and drifted off to sleep the moment she lay down.
Three hours after the sun had settled, but still on the same day, Naruto woke Sakura after he had finished his own nap. Shielded by the dark and her Genjutsu, they bridged the short distance over the water and moved into the large harbor, where ships of all sizes lay anchored to the docks.
Even this late, the port was a beehive of activity. Pressed flat against the pier, Naruto listened to the pattering of footsteps above. He handed Sasuke to Sakura, then pulled himself up and peered over the moss-covered stone ledge that kept them out of sight.
Wasn't this city supposed to be a cesspool of scum, flaunting the rules in every possible way? For that to be true, too many guards patrolled the dock, and too many officials walked around in rich satin robes, haggling with captains and fishermen alike over the prices to use the mooring areas. People crowded nearly everywhere, and oil lamps lit up even the darkest corners.
Naruto ended his observations and returned to Sakura, his brow wrinkled in thought. "This is too official," he whispered. "They're overseeing everything." He threw a meaningful glance at Sasuke's body.
"Nothing to it. Let's look for something else."
They sneaked alongside the pier, keeping their heads down and staying under the ledge, until they had almost reached the other side of the port in their search for another way into the city. As they neared the red cliff side, which seemed to ensnare the outmost western part of Bōeki Toshi like a too large blanket, the vigilance of the guards and the bustling of the merchants decreased gradually. Soon, sources of light became dappled; more and more resembling single beacons instead of a large, unified carpet of fire.
Multiple voices a bit farther ahead caught their attention, and they did their best to stay hidden. A man and a pair of women stood on a boardwalk, which lay a bit lower than the others around it and was drowned at least partially in shadow.
"You have it, Kaleth?" one woman asked, her voice husky. She stepped up to the man, grasping for the satchel that dangled from his fingers.
Kaleth hummed, a grin spreading over his face. "You'll get it," he said, pulling the satchel back until it was high enough that she couldn't reach it even when standing on her toes. "But not before you fulfill your end of the bargain."
She pulled a few golden coins out of her dress, while the other woman looked at the ground, her eyes never straying from the planks.
"Come now, Megumi-chan. That's only the first part," Kaleth said.
"I—Is that the only way?"
"You know what you agreed to." Kaleth threw a side-glance at the second woman and wetted his lips. "As does your friend. We had a deal."
Megumi sighed, and with slow movements she knelt down in front of him, unzipping his pants. "Come, Karen. Let's get this over with."
Naruto stared at Sakura. Despite all they had been through, this was the first time he saw something like this. He didn't exactly know how to feel about it.
What the hell?
Prostitution. For drugs, I guess.
I'm going to help, Naruto signed.
It turned out that helping wasn't an option anymore. A muffle scream rang in his ears, and Naruto's eyes swerved to the trio, which had become a duo in the short time he had conversed with Sakura.
Each of the women had a dagger in their hands and together they butchered the man, stabbing and stabbing, snickering as they drove their weapons through soft tissues. The breath got stuck in Naruto's throat as he watched Megumi stick her dagger a last time into Kaleth's stomach, before a joyous grin spread over her face.
After she had searched him and found the satchel, she took a pinch of the powder inside, guided it to her nose, then sniffed it. Her expression changed to bliss, and she repeated the procedure, holding her hand out to her friend, who eagerly inhaled the powder herself.
"I love this," Megumi said, pulling the other woman, Karen, into a searing kiss as her hands reached beneath her dress.
Karen leaned into the kiss, and murmured around Megumi's lips, "Me, too. Shinzo-sama will be pleased."
No prostitution then, Sakura signed.
Naruto glared at the women. This isn't any better.
"We should leave now. The guards will come soon." Megumi stopped her ministrations, eliciting a whine of disapproval from Karen. Both women turned away from the boardwalk and walked toward the pier.
They know a way into the city.
Let's follow them, Sakura signed. They won't take a well-lit route after what they did.
They trailed them to a small gate which was hidden by overgrown shrubs. The metal hinges squealed as the women stepped through. Naruto had no real desire to see where the two were going. Still, Sasuke came first, even if it meant crawling through dirty, dank sewers, tracking two homicidal addicts.
The hypocrisy of his feelings weren't lost on him, though. After all, he couldn't exactly take the moral high-ground when it came to murder—he'd done it himself, and not a small amount of it either.
Together they sneaked up behind the women, following them through a series of tunnels with oval ceilings and green-glowing torches lighting the way. The smell was another matter entirely and he preferred not to think too much about it as his nose tried to defend against an onslaught of rot, mold, and feces. Soon they came to a ladder that, if Naruto's sense of orientation hadn't fooled him, lay somewhere in the city, near the docks.
They had made it, even if through some detours.
Sakura tapped his shoulder. Do you think they know a healer?
You want to ask them?
I don't intend to make it a polite request for help.
I'm all for it, Naruto signed.
It was over before the women even had a chance to register what was happening. Sakura appeared in front of Megumi and swiped her legs. As Megumi fell, Sakura reached into the revealing kimono and stole the dagger. The woman was still in mid-air, when Sakura punched her hard enough to smack her against the wall.
Sakura pushed the edge of the dagger against Megumi's throat until a fine line of blood trickled down the blade.
Naruto raised an eyebrow at the short but brutal fight.
"I'm asking the questions," Sakura hissed.
Sakura growled and pressed the dagger deeper into the tanned flesh. "Haven't you heard me? Your friend shouldn't interfere, or you'll die."
Karen hesitated for a second, then turned as quick as lightning and ran away, fleeing through another part of the sewers as though death itself was on her heels. The sound of her wooden sandals hitting stone echoed as the distance between them grew.
"Looks like she abandoned you," Sakura said.
Megumi's face screamed betrayal. "What do you want?" The question came out as a whimper, and Naruto noticed a puddle extending beneath the woman.
"Who is the best healer in this city?"
Megumi pried her eyes open. "That's why you attacked me? For a healer?"
"Among other things." Sakura lashed out with her knee. It connected with the woman's thigh and Megumi howled in pain as she sunk to the ground. Sakura shifted the dagger so that it still hovered close to her throat. "Answer the question."
"Ouma Hozuku." Megumi cried out, holding her leg.
"Where does he live?"
"Seiko district. The alley next to the smithy."
"Are you telling the truth?"
"Yes," Megumi assured, her eyes alight with fear. "I swear, I'm not lying."
Sakura smiled humorlessly. "You have my thanks, then."
A punch later, Megumi's face hit the ground, landing with a squelch in something Naruto didn't even try to identify. He stepped up to Sakura, his face set in a frown, and did his best to ignore the unconscious woman. "Seiko district, huh?"
"We should get to it."
"That was rather violent..."
Sakura's glance told him nothing, and that she remained silent didn't help either. Something had set her off. He just wondered what had been the trigger.
The streets of the city were drenched pitch black, and only a few measly lights flickered in the distance. With the walls and port lit up but the core of the city completely enshrouded in darkness, Naruto imagined it looked like a peach that was normal and fresh outside, but rotten within.
He couldn't complain about the situation, though, not really. The dark represented the city well, but it also aided him and Sakura in their goal to navigate the narrow alleys without being too noticeable. Reaching the Seiko district didn't prove to be too difficult either. Sakura hid with Sasuke, while Naruto asked the odd passerby that slunk through the streets at night—of which there were fairly many—for directions. Many taverns and even some brothels could be found there, so his questions, while not all that usual, didn't raise heads either.
At length, they arrived in the district, and after a bit of searching, found the smithy the woman had talked about. It was a one storey building that made up for its lack in height with pure width. Two more buildings could have fit on this large a plot of land. Beneath a wooden roof that protruded from the wall, two anvils stood diagonally to the building. A funnel broke through the roof, but the furnace it connected to wasn't working. The fire inside had long since died out.
"We're close," Sakura said, pointing at the smithy. "That is, if we can trust that woman."
"Trust her? Not in this life."
Sakura glanced at him. "You think she lied to me?"
Naruto shrugged his shoulders, his eyes searching the streets for signs of trouble. "Haven't the faintest. Let's hope Evil-Sakura scared her enough to tell the truth."
"You were pretty ruthless. She's a civilian."
Sakura frowned at him. "As if you're one to talk…"
"I never said there isn't an Evil-Naruto somewhere inside of me." Naruto laughed a quiet laugh, even as his thoughts returned to the Bijū in his gut. "Also," he continued, "we can be the evil trio. Sasuke's already rotten to the core."
"You say the nicest things about your teammates when they can't hear you," Sakura said, grinning.
"I'm a charmer that way."
"What are you charming? Air? Your ego?"
Naruto snorted. "That hurts. You should be ashamed of yourself, Sakura. You're wounding my innocent heart."
"I wonder what Sasuke would do if he heard you."
"He'll never know, eh?"
"Who knows?" A snicker escaped her.
"Seriously, don't tell him," Naruto said. "He'll roast me."
He gulped at Sakura's honeyed smile. That was decidedly the scariest thing he had seen in days.
Soon, however, her features hardened again. "We can joke after Sasuke's fit again."
They walked into the alley behind the smithy.
"He's living here?" Naruto asked, looking around.
Broken barrels lay around in heaps of rubble and waste. Even more suspicious were the blank walls, though. Those were the backsides of houses, not the front where an entrance could be found. The only door in sight was the metal padded back door exit of the smithy.
"Maybe he's in the next one?"
"I doubt it," Naruto said. "You still got the dagger you lifted?"
Sakura leaned Sasuke's body against the wall, then pulled out the dagger just as the back door sprung open and armed thugs streamed into the alley. A glance to the roofs revealed several archers, their arrows pointed at them.
A bald, muscular man wearing sun-rise colored pants walked through the rows of thugs. From his nose up to his right ear hung a golden chain which then connected to a myriad of crystal-shaped, emerald earrings. All the gold he was laden with contrasted sharply with the dark tan and chiseled pectorals.
"I've never seen you before," the man spoke in a deep baritone. "And I know the people of Bōeki Toshi fairly well. Therefore, you are strangers."
"What of it?" Naruto asked bluntly as he readied himself for a fight. "Who are you anyway?"
"What of it?" The man blasted air out of his nostrils violently enough to rattle the chain. "You, as strangers, have the gall to meddle in affairs that do not concern you? You have the sheer audacity to kill my man, when you've been here for naught but two hours?"
Sakura shifted slightly. "Kill your man? You mean that guy trying to sell drugs at the pier?"
The man's voice lowered into a threatening rumble. "Do you deny that you killed Kaleth?"
"We didn't do it," Naruto said, his eyes narrowed. "Those women did. How the hell do you even know we were there?"
"My agent saw you." He whistled a shrill note and a woman clothed in black touched down beside him in a vapor of dust. She had two scimitars strapped to her back, and silver hair cascaded freely down her shoulders.
A bad feeling soured Naruto's stomach at the sight of her. He hadn't sensed the woman at all, and neither had Sakura if her expression was anything to go by. Naruto smothered the growl that rose inside him.
Did everyone employ shinobi these days?
"Mika saw you at the exchange point, then followed you once you left the sewers. It wasn't hard to arrange this little meeting here. You rats made your destination fairly obvious."
"I told you," Naruto said. "We didn't do anything. Two women killed this guy, Kaleth. He showed them some powder and the gals butchered him afterward. They said something about a Shinzo-sama."
Recognition flashed in the man's eyes. A jingling sound rang through the air, drawing Naruto's gaze to the the bracelets around the man's trembling wrists.
"Did she really mention Shinzo?"
"And the sewers? What was your purpose there?"
Naruto balked at answering every question this guy asked, but their position wasn't exactly one where they could make demands—not with that many bows trained on them, and especially not with that kunoichi.
"We followed her," Sakura answered for him. "Our friend needs a healer, and we asked her for directions. We were supposed to find some Hozuku Ouma guy here."
The man let silence descend for a minute, before he said, "Ouma's been dead for years. You, however, are lucky indeed…I believe you. Shinzo has been a thorn in my side for far too long now." He dipped his head. "You have my thanks for the information you provided."
"We still don't know who you are," Naruto said.
"You can call me Aasim. It means 'he who keeps away from sin'." Aasim made a sweeping handgesture as he bowed slightly. "Now that we are friends, let me invite you to my establishment as thanks for your recount of what transpired. It finally gives me the reason needed to eliminate Shinzo once and for all."
Naruto smiled thinly. "Friends, eh?"
"Indeed. I am sure I can help you in your endeavors."
Naruto glanced at Sakura. This Aasim wasn't exactly a paragon of virtue if his men were anything to go by, but did they even have a choice? Time was running out, and if there was someone who could provide them with the intel they needed, it probably would be this guy.
They followed Aasim through two streets and into a large building complex. The room they entered smelled exotic—sensuous, really—and vapors wafted through the air, dancing in the dim light of candles and oil lamps, leaving a pungent sweetness behind. The room took as much place as the gambling den in Tanyu had, and while not nearly as crowded, they still saw a sizable amount of people.
The guards that had escorted them sought out the many low tables strewn across the room. On each stood a colorful glass vase with a tube—which looked like cord, a finger thick—running toward a wooden mouthpiece.
One guard led it to his lips, and puffed plumes of smoke into the air after a deep drag. He was soon joined by another smiling soldier and a woman who wore a red skirt reaching her ankles but nothing else.
Aasim showed them to the largest table in the room. It stood on four golden claws; at each corner, a marble pillar reached toward the ceiling. Aasim took the place opposite of them, framed by two palm trees. Mika knelt next to him, observing Team Seven through the narrowed yellow eyes of a hawk.
Naruto placed Sasuke against a pillar, then seated himself beside Sakura. He sunk into the silk cushions—red with golden trimmings, smooth as nothing he had ever felt—and the tiredness that had built up inside of him screamed for release. It took a force of will to keep his eyes open, but he managed as Sasuke was always in his vision, reminding him of his purpose here.
Aasim opened the latch of a carved box and turned it toward Naruto. On a velvet stuffing lay four wooden pipes, each more beautiful than the next.
"Do you indulge?" he asked.
Temptation gnawed at Naruto—it had been far too long. A warning glance from Sakura made him reconsider, though. And, unfortunately, she was right. With all he'd seen so far, the possibility of finding something else instead of tobacco inside the pipe was too high to risk it.
"Not anymore," Naruto said. Should they survive, he'd definitely start again, though.
"But you have once? Then surely I can interest you, at least. This is the finest tobacco you will find on this continent."
"Another time," Naruto replied. "First we have to solve our problems."
"Of course." Aasim turned the box to Sakura. "What about the woman at your side? Is she interested, mayhap? I refuse to be a bad host."
"And you won't be seen as one," Sakura said, shaking her head. "But I never found particular enjoyment in this hobby."
Aasim ignited his own pipe. In its chamber, the embers lit up with each drag, and a scent so wholly different from the others in the room rose aloft. "How unfortunate, then. But no matter. Tell me, as we wait for a healer, what is your business here in Bōeki Toshi?"
Naruto's eyes widened. "A healer? You've called for one?"
"Naturally. You provided valuable information, and in turn I will do my best to accommodate you during your time here." Trails of smoke left his nose, slithering around his head like snakes. "That is what it means to be my friend."
Aasim used the word 'friend' far too often and loosely for Naruto to put any stock in it. Nothing showed on his face, however, as he said, "You have my thanks."
Next to Naruto, Sakura slid around on her cushion, pressing her heel against Naruto's thigh. It was a dangerous way to message him with the kunoichi around, but the table would, hopefully, conceal all of it. Around them, the people continued to chatter, but even with that much noise, Naruto felt that the atmosphere in the room had become rather oppressive.
At last, he said, "We need information."
"Then you have found the right person, my friend. For there is no one under the scorching sun that has more of it than me."
All or nothing, Sakura messaged him. We don't have time.
Naruto gave an almost imperceptible nod with his head, then said, "A friend of ours has been captured by Suna's troops recently. We wish to free him, but for that to happen, we first have to find him."
Aasim's golden chains clinked together as he leaned over the table. Harsh lines appeared on his face. "Suna's troops, you say? I heard…rumors. Tales of a man who defied Suna's army for a week and more, leading this nation's pride on a merry chase through the vast dunes."
That sounded remarkably like Kakashi-sensei, but Naruto couldn't be sure what Aasim's stance on the matter was. Bōeki Toshi distinguished itself by its relative freedom from Suna's rule, but not every inhabitant had to live by that creed. If Aasim's greed was strong enough, he could very well hand them over to the authorities. And with the silent kunoichi, Mika, watching them, they had no chance of changing such a decision should it occur.
Anger flickered in Aasim's eyes like a smoldering fire that threatened to burn all in its way. "And you wish to free this shinobi, wish to harm Suna?"
A single bead of sweat trailed down Naruto's left brow, but he paid it no heed. His muscles coiled to spring into action if necessary. "Yes," he said.
"Good. It seems our goals are aligned."
Naruto raised an eyebrow. "How come?"
Aasim made a sweeping gesture with his hand. "After seeing this place, you might not believe it, but I was once a family man." His tone acquired a gentle quality, which was drenched in sadness, though. "I had a beautiful wife, the noor of my eye, the envy of any other man. And a daughter…she loved to climb the acacia trees outside the city with her friends, eating and sharing the sweet bread her mother baked for her."
Naruto looked at his fingers. The grief and raw longing in Aasim's word enveloped him almost like a physical force. A story like this could have no happy end, not if the past tense was used for people Aasim spoke of with such yearning.
"Ah, I see that you understand already." Aasim's voice hardened. "Suna never liked this city's freedom, and in their attempts to subjugate us, many lives were lost over the years. Remember this, my friend, in every man slumbers a hideous beast, and war unleashes it more often than not. The fate of my beloved is unspeakable to this very day, but think not for a second that I won't seek retribution."
Aasim hissed, as he said, "Suna will pay for what it did to my family. I will crush them until nothing remains that can be distinguished from the desert it is built upon." The smile he now showed them was cold and full of scorn. "My wife would surely resent my methods, but I can ask for her forgiveness in the afterlife."
Naruto had a hard time associating the man in front of him with the diabolical drug lord he first thought him to be. "You will help us, then?"
Aasim nodded in agreement. "Normally, I'd ask for a heavy fee. The information you seek, however, is easy for me to acquire and directly harms Suna. As I said, our goals align…"
"Thank you," Sakura said, dipping her head.
"It is me who has to thank you should you succeed in your endeavor," Aasim replied. "Mika will show you to the guest quarters. The doctor, too, should arrive soon."
The guest quarters were only sparsely furnished. As the door closed behind them, Sakura watched Naruto carrying Sasuke to the rickety bed in the corner. He laid Sasuke's body on the dusty blanket, making sure that the head was placed squarely onto the middle of the patched-up pillow, before pulling the footstool at the end of the bed over to him and sitting down.
Sakura jolted as she laid eyes on her reflection in a mirror framed by red-stained wood at the other end of the room. She stepped closer to it until her thighs pressed against the small table in front of the mirror, and stared into it with disbelief etched on her features.
Kami be damned, she looked as if she had been hunted cross-country for days.
She felt like it, too.
"I look like shit," she murmured.
"There's no way I'm touching that topic," Naruto said.
Sakura shot him an annoyed glare. "You weren't supposed to hear that."
"But I did, and I'm still not touching it."
Naruto grinned, and at least a small part of his melancholy vanished from his face. Sakura counted that as a win. The shinobi life had marked all three of them, forced them to change in directions none of them had anticipated. But while some of these changes were good, like the little family they had made for themselves, there were also those that made her wonder whether this whole shinobi gig had been such a good idea in the first place.
Naruto would always remain her teammate, a friend and brother. But in some respects he had changed the most out of them, almost becoming a caricature of his former self. The joy that had once electrified the air around him wasn't there anymore. And neither was the unshakable optimism that had pervaded his whole being. Or maybe both were still there, but buried under a thick coat of blood and guilt.
Funny how she wished him to become more like the younger version that had been the scourge of her academy days. Funny in a very abstract and unfunny way. More sad, though, because it was also a frame of mind he'd never get back, even if everything were to magically become better now. His otherworldly purity—it seemed as good a word as any—wasn't something that could be restored that easily.
"Everything alright, Sakura?" He jerked her out of her thoughts, a frown creasing his face. "You spaced out on me."
"Just…thinking," she said and smiled, trying to cover up the caught expression she must have worn. "About Aasim."
Naruto sighed. "I don't know what to think about him. With murder and drugs he's in the same league as Komon and Gato…does it make me a bad human to believe he's justified?"
"Revenge isn't the way," Sakura said, but it came out weak, without conviction.
"Easy to say. I'm sure Sasuke disagrees."
A knock at the door interrupted their conversation.
"Come in," Naruto called out.
The old man that entered was tall and lanky. Wrinkles stretched across his face, a bald head shone under the moonlight, and his frizzy white beard was slung around his neck like a scarf. "A blessed night to you, strangers," the man said. "My name is Tobaku."
He shuffled farther into the room, casting a glance at the bed. "Aasim-kun told me that a member of your group is in dire need of healing. He spoke of the young man in the bed, I believe?"
"Right," Sakura said as Naruto rose from the footstool to make space.
Tobaku shambled over to Sasuke's bed, where he quickly took a seat. His hands began to glow green as they flew across Sasuke's stomach and it took barely a few seconds, before a sharp breath left Tobaku's mouth.
"In the name of all that is holy!" He turned to them, his mouth agape.
"What?" Naruto almost barreled into Tobaku, anxiety clouding his face.
"Calm down, Naruto," Sakura said, pulling him back. "You're scaring Tobaku-san."
At first it seemed as though Naruto hadn't heard her, but then he stepped back with a sheepish but no less apprehensive expression. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's just—"
"No need to explain, young man," Tobaku said. "But I have to ask, is your friend human?"
Sakura blanched. A thousand possibilities ran through her mind—none of them good. "Why shouldn't he be?" she asked.
"I have never seen something like this in all my years of practicing the healing arts. A foreign chakra, not human, though—no, certainly not human—pervades his whole body, poisoning him. It is too strong to dissipate on its own."
"Can you save him?"
"I can but try. However, it is not in my power to fully restore him. That would go far above my expertise, I'm afraid."
Naruto's voice became pleading. "We'll take anything you can do. Please, help him."
"I need fresh water," Tobaku said, pointing at the metal bowl full of water that stood on the table in front of the mirror. Sakura quickly brought it over to him, careful not to spill any.
The old man took it from her and placed it on the ground. His brow furrowed as he cupped his hands and dipped them into the bowl, channeling chakra. They emerged soon after, a glob of water balancing on open palms. He directed them over Sasuke's body and began the long and excruciating process of removing the poison.
Sarutobi Hiruzen leaned over a wooden table, staring at a map of the Land of Rivers. Thick palm trees reached into the sky, their green leaves as large as a grown man spending reprieve from the pressing sun. Behind him, the smell of stew lingered around crackling fires.
A Chūnin knelt down beside him. The brown ribbon at the woman's vest indicated her rank as a Runner—the fastest Chūnin in Konoha's employ, bar a few special exceptions. "Platoon One to Five are advancing along the shore as ordered, Hokage-sama," she said.
The Chūnin' face stretched into a grimace. "Platoon Three was the vanguard. They suffered heavy losses against the entrenched Suna-nin." She hesitated, before continuing, "Platoon Five had to be merged into Platoon One. Hoshiro-sama died in battle, leaving them without leadership."
Hiruzen closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them again, sharpened steel simmered inside. "Tell them to advance toward the Hiko River. Platoon Twelve will join up with them for an attack on Suzetsku-mura."
The woman nodded, then vanished. Immediately after, another Chūnin took her place. Hiruzen regarded him for a second. The boy was young, probably sixteen if that at all. Still, Hiruzen vaguely remembered him from the rushed ceremony where he had promoted several Genin for their conduct during the invasion.
Saburo looked up, his eyes wide. "Yes, Hokage-sama."
Hiruzen nodded in acknowledgement. "Tell Platoon Twelve to rendezvous with our forces at the Hiko River." After a moment, he added, "Konoha counts on your speed today. Make her proud."
"Yes, Hokage-sama" Saburo answered with vigor, then sped away, too.
A third Chūnin took Saburo's place. Hiruzen glanced at the harried young man who looked as though he had run for hours on end. The brown ribbon on his vest had green extra threads woven into the fabric, denoting him as a Runner that came straight from Konoha.
"Speak," Hiruzen said.
"Jiraiya-sama's condition is worsening, Hokage-sama. The poison has spread and the medic-nin can barely keep it from reaching his brain."
Hiruzen frowned. "Has he woken up?"
"No, Sir. It is unlikely that he will until the poison is extracted from his body."
"And the healers can't do anything?"
The Chūnin shook his head. "It is a poison beyond them."
Hiruzen stilled for a moment, his brows furrowed. Then he sighed, and said, "Tell them to do all in their power to keep him alive. I will find a way."
Without another word, the Chūnin disappeared. Hiruzen surveyed his immediate surroundings and after spotting his target, walked up to the pair of ANBU who stood nearby. They saw him coming, and bowed their heads.
"I want you to locate Tsunade," Hiruzen said. "However, do not engage her. Once you have her exact position, relay it to me. She has last been seen in Otafuku Gai, two weeks ago."
As the ANBU left, Hiruzen stood and watched the palm leaves wave in the wind. That he was still alive could be considered a miracle, especially if one considered who his enemy had been. And without Jiraiya to keep the two previous Hokage busy, Orochimaru would surely have achieved his goal.
He owed Jiraiya his life. Now more than ever as his student was writhing in agony, felled by a poison that Hiruzen recognized from his days under Hashirama-sama's tutelage. The First Hokage hadn't only been about pure destructive power, but was fully capable of subtlety as well. Some of his techniques weren't just about growing trees, but also about growing poisonous flowers and vines, releasing toxins the antidotes of which were only known to very few.
Tsunade was one of them.
Sasuke's body burned as he emerged from the mire of confusion that had held him captive for almost an eternity. Liquid fire seared his veins, but he preferred that to the haze which had fogged his mind before.
He had utterly destroyed Nikujī.
But he also got stabbed while doing so.
Sasuke's groan left his mouth with a wheezy sound. Madness. That's what it was. He still felt the faint echoes of sudden blood-thirst, of the need to crush, to render, to devastate. And his desire for Nikujī's death had only enhanced the thrall even further.
Because tolerating the man's existence had been out of the question from the moment he had targeted his team.
Getting stabbed like that, though, was a beginner mistake; and a costly one.
Sasuke fought against the pain, ignored the volcano erupting in his guts, and struggled into an upright position. The fresh draft entering through the half-closed shutters cooled the sweat on his back, sending shivers down his spine.
Twin snores came from the other side of the room. Sakura slept on the ground, her mouth slightly open, while Naruto imitated the shape of a banana. Sasuke tried to move a bit more, but sudden pain flared up in his arms. He hissed an oath, waking both of his teammates.
Kakashi would have been proud of their reaction times had he seen them. It took less than a second before they stood at the edge of his bed, peering at him with enough emotions in their eyes that, for a moment, he wished to return to unconsciousness.
Most of the time, emotions were hard to deal with.
"You're back." Naruto's relieved grin stretched from one cheek to the other. "Took you long enough," he added, scratching his neck.
"Kami has blessed you with astounding powers of observation." Sasuke's voice came out as a thready breeze of nothing.
Sakura hadn't said anything yet and stared at him as though he'd vanish the moment she looked away. This was fine, too. At least the lack of a crushing hug was. Sasuke tried hard to ignore the shimmering trails of tears on her cheeks.
"We're in Bōeki Toshi," Naruto said, breaking the awkward silence.
They had made it, then.
But if they were already in the Land of Wind, he must have been unconscious for days. Shame welled up inside him at the thought. He hadn't just been stabbed, he had also become a burden to his team—not a role he had ever envisioned himself taking up.
Sasuke swallowed and broke out in a cough. Naruto got a wooden beaker from the table and filled it with water after using a modicum of chakra.
"Here," Naruto said.
Sasuke took the beaker and stared inside, his brows knitting into a frown. The need to create their own water didn't bode well for the circumstances of their mission. His left hand was heavy, like flesh wrought in useless iron, as he lifted the beaker to his lips.
Cold water filled his mouth, rushed down his throat. Sasuke's attempt to drink all at once failed, though, as he broke into another coughing fit, this one of his own making. The beaker fell to the ground, rolling around in a small puddle.
Anger at himself replaced shame. Had he unlearned how to drink?
"Slow down," Sakura said. "You've got time."
At least she was talking again, Sasuke thought. Naruto picked up the beaker, filling it once more, and Sasuke was glad about the darkness in the room that concealed the blood rushing to his face as he tried to slake his thirst again.
For the sake of his pride, it would be better to forget this humiliating situation, and fast.
"We got anything on Kakashi yet?" Sasuke asked.
Naruto plopped himself on the ground, crossing his legs. "We've met this guy, Aasim. He's somewhat shifty, but he can help. He called the doctor for you."
Sasuke arched his eyebrow at him. "How shifty?"
The cagey expression on Sakura's face told him a lot. "He's a drug lord," she said.
Over the next hour, they let him in on the details of what had happened while he was blacked out, and on the reasons why they thought Aasim's help was genuine.
And he understood it. After all, he—of all people—knew exactly how important avenging one's family was.
Three days later, Sasuke's fever had finally gone down and he had regained some of his strength. Not all of it, though. Whenever he activated his Sharingan, an unfamiliar sensation surged through his eyes. A sting of pain that didn't last long, but still worried him. And he couldn't ask Tobaku for help either, because his identity as an Uchiha was better veiled in secrecy.
Mika led them through a well-lit corridor and Sasuke looked for anything suspicious as he followed the kunoichi with the flowing silver hair. If they had been summoned, then Aasim must have found out something about Kakashi.
Mika showed them into a study with expensive décor and lion rugs lining the floor. Two large shelves sat at the wall—one filled to the brim with books of all sizes, the other holding an assortment of trinkets and various kabuki masks.
"You're here already, good."
A man, presumably Aasim, entered and placed himself on the almost throne-like chair behind the desk. Sasuke hadn't known that the people here were that extravagant. Then again, so far he had only met a silent woman with silver hair—Kakashi's twin for all he knew—and a dubious, old doctor with a beard long enough to wear it as a scarf.
"It pleases me to meet you in good health at last."
Sasuke gave him a clipped nod. "My team explained the situation to me. Do you have new information?"
"A man of brevity, then. Very well. One of my contacts confirmed that the shinobi you seek is being held in an underground facility at a rather precarious location. The place where Rain, River, and Fire meet, to be precise."
"Directly at the border?" Naruto asked.
"Indeed. He was imprisoned in Suna for quite a while, but according to my information, he got transferred under Oto's supervision roughly a month ago."
Sasuke let nothing show, but inwardly he groaned. If the man was right, then Kakashi was imprisoned in such a ridiculous place that just thinking about it made his skin crawl. Hadn't they taken the long rout over sea to get to Suna without involving River and Rain? And now, it was all for nothing?
"That place…do you know how we can reach it?" Naruto asked.
"It might not be as difficult as you believe, my friend," Aasim said. "The desert is treacherous, but passable if you know how. And Suna's forces are all concentrated in the Land of Rivers. Actually, I believe your opposition won't be as harsh if you keep well away from the border between Wind and Rivers."
"We need weapons."
Aasim nodded. "I will outfit you to the best of my abilities. In return, though, I ask a promise of you."
"What?" Sasuke asked warily.
"Kill every Suna-nin you meet on the way. I will render my services for no cost, if you vow on your honor that you will fulfill this promise."
Sasuke grunted. "We'll try to stay out of sight. Should someone notices us, though, we won't have a choice either way."
"That is all I ask of you," Aasim said. "One of my men will show you into the armory where you can choose from an assortment of supplies."
Team Seven sketched semi-polite bows, then left the room, accompanied by a guard. Their goal came closer and closer now.
Once Team Seven had left, Aasim reclined his head, letting out a weary sigh. Some youngsters were difficult to handle, and that he had been under observation himself hadn't helped matters. As a former actor, he knew quite a bit about lying to an audience and selling himself as someone he was not.
The true performer in this play hadn't been him, though. Not by a long shot. Aasim's gaze drifted over to the kunoichi who still stood guard at the door. He flinched as their eyes made contact. A bucket full of ice cubes down his spine would have been more comfortable.
Aasim reached for the pipe on his desk, quick to ignite the calming drugs inside its chamber. A few puffs later, the fear still hadn't vanished—it never would, not with the people he kept company—but detachment set in. He was afraid, but the dissociation from his anxiety left him functioning.
Sometimes, his flight into the pipe was enough to make him forget altogether that he was Aasim, a minor—very minor—criminal who had thrown in with the sort of men who were so far beyond him that they might as well be gods themselves.
"That is quite the unhealthy habit, Aasim-san." Mika pushed herself away from the wall. "You should stop. It clouds the mind."
"If I get ill, a healer will see to me," Aasim said, ignoring the second statement.
"A healer, huh?"
The kunoichi's lips curled into a mocking smile. She shrunk down a few inches, until she barely reached Aasim's shoulder, taking a stooping position. Her skin rippled, revealing countless wrinkles and many liver spots, one as large as a thumb. Gleaming white teeth acquired a yellow hue, and at last, she grew a beard long enough to be wrapped around her neck.
Aasim had seen this procedure twice now, but that didn't lessen the disturbing impact it had on him. Shinobi…often he envied their power. After such a display, though, he was glad not to have it.
Tobaku, formerly known as Mika, stared at him through eyes glittering with cruel amusement.
Aasim scrounged up what morsels of his courage he had left. "Must we play these games?" Not something he'd say if he were any less detached from the situation. Kami bless his pipe.
"You are right, of course, Aasim-san. Let's dispense with the jokes."
Again, Tobaku's skin began to change. This time, Aasim kept looking at one of his many trophies. A hideous transformation such as this would only upset his stomach if he saw it more than once a day.
"You can look now." Tobaku's voice sounded several years younger.
Was this his true face now, or yet again a mask applied to fool the senses? Aasim took another drag of his pipe. It didn't matter…it was the true face as he knew it. Everything else was immaterial.
"I did everything as ordered."
The young man's spectacles glinted in the sunlight that drove through the shutters of the window. "Orochimaru-sama will be pleased with your conduct, I am sure. He has waited for a long time now to acquire a specimen from the Uchiha clan."
Aasim nodded, although his was more tired than anything else. He only wanted this man to leave him. Better to end this business fast.
"I'm sure you have better things to do, Kabuto-san. Following your precious Uchiha for one. The desert is dangerous, as I told them. And even if they take the route I proposed, there's no guarantee they'll make it to the facility on their own. Orochimaru-sama surely wouldn't be pleased if something happened to Uchiha-san."
Aasim stiffened up as, for a moment, murderous intent was directed at him.
"Careful," Kabuto said. "The drugs don't give you courage, they give you stupidity. Remember your place."
"My apologies Kabuto-san."
"Think nothing of it." The laugh chilled Aasim to the bones. "I'm a forgiving guy, after all. But don't let it happen too often, or we'll have to renegotiate the terms of our friendship." Kabuto sighed as he turned to leave. "Well, the fun is over for now. You will get the agreed amount of money after Uchiha Sasuke is in Orochimaru-sama's custody."
White clothes made of cotton protected Team Seven from the sun as they trudged through the desert. They were also equipped with weapons from Aasim's armory and a few crude exploding tags Naruto had drawn up in their down-time.
Naruto crouched and swiped a small scorpion off the ground before it reached his toes. "I get why they invaded us," he told his teammates as it scurried away.
"I'm dying to hear the reason," Sasuke said.
"You're a terrible liar. Anyway, it's easy—"
"I swear, you're getting worse by the hour," Sakura interrupted.
"—because who would want to live in this desert? It's all sand and nasty critters...like the Aburame compound without Aburame and desert instead of forest."
Sasuke groaned. "The heat's frying what's left of your brain."
"Maybe," Naruto said, crossing his arms behind his head.
Sakura glanced at them. "You think sensei's still alive?"
"According to Aasim, he is," Naruto said. "And his lead is all we have."
"Orochimaru had him for weeks, then. Probably took him after the second task."
"Fits with the timeline," Sasuke said. "But why? Kakashi is strong, sure, but why would Orochimaru want him?"
Naruto arched his brows. "Because he is a vile piece of shit? Orochimaru doesn't need much of an excuse."
"Not what I meant," Sasuke said. "He had been planning for an attack on Konoha. That's a big task, even for him."
"And he killed the Kazekage, too, deceiving Suna's army," Sakura added. "I get what Sasuke's saying. Why take time for Kakashi? He had other things to worry about."
"No clue. In the forest he focused on Sasuke," Naruto said and then blinked. It almost hurt that they hadn't considered this angle yet.
"He focused on Sasuke," Sakura repeated, "and he takes special interest in Kakashi. Both have something in common."
Sasuke frowned. "The Sharingan."
"And because he didn't get what he wanted from you, he went after Kakashi-sensei," Naruto said.
"There's another set of Sharingan wandering around," Sasuke ground out. "And as strong as Orochimaru is, I don't think he could beat Itachi."
The dark scowl made Naruto grimace. Sasuke loathed pity as much as he did, but the topic wasn't pretty, and talking about the older Uchiha wouldn't make it any better.
"Any thoughts on what to do afterward?" Naruto asked.
Sakura turned to him. "Afterward?"
"I mean, after we got Kakashi-sensei."
"You assume we'll get him without problems. I doubt it'll be that easy given whose prisoner he is."
Naruto shrugged. "There's no sense in believing we won't make it. What we're doing is insane, but none of us would have left Konoha if there wasn't at least a slight chance of success."
"It's insane alright," Sasuke said, adjusting the white bandana on his head.
Sakura chuckled. "I wonder what sensei will think of us..."
"We probably won't get to know. There's no way we can set foot into Konoha again—no one likes traitors in war times."
Naruto hummed in agreement. "Exactly what I meant. So, what are we going to do?"
"We bring Kakashi to a doctor in the Land of Fire and leave a message?"
"That sounds retarded," Sasuke said. "We could do that if Suna and Konoha weren't ripping out each other's throats. As it is, we won't get ten miles into the country without being noticed."
"We could try to get to the mountains," Naruto said, "and make past the Land of Wind. Nursing sensei back to health in a cave sounds like fun."
Sakura shook her head. "You have a very twisted sense of humor."
"She's right, you're an idiot," Sasuke agreed.
"Stuff it. I haven't heard any of your ideas yet."
"I've got nothing—"
"—but even that's better than your plan. Kakashi will need healing, and none of us can do that."
Until late into the evening, Team Seven continued the discussion but found no answer to their problem. And as the sky turned purple and red dunes threatened to swallow them whole, Team Seven found out that a world as unpredictable as theirs didn't lend itself to quick solutions.
No matter how much Sasuke concentrated on silencing his steps, each movement sent echoes through the bowels of the dungeon as if the bricks themselves were mocking him. He ground his teeth in irritation and slunk farther along the icy wall. Soon, Kakashi would be with them again, and then Sasuke could finally close this nightmarish chapter of his life.
The paltry light that came from the mounted braziers illuminated the faces of his teammates briefly. Then, shadows danced once more, and Sasuke turned away from them, bridging the distance to the door at the end of the corridor.
This was the last one.
Iron stretched over the oaken wood, swirling in endless patterns until it reached the heavy brass knocker where it took the shape of a snake biting its own tail. The reddish-orange glow, squeezing through the slit below the wood, formed a small cone that nearly reached Sasuke's feet.
Compared to the rest of their journey, this last stretch had been far too easy.
Beyond the door, chains rattled. A dull thwack followed.
Sasuke strained his ears.
"I don't see why you're still bothering," a voice said. "He's too far gone to feel any of it."
Flesh hit flesh, and cruel laughter vibrated through Sasuke's skull. He chanced a look at Naruto, who had balled his hands into fists.
"Man, I told you to stop. It's getting on my nerves."
"Shut up," came the heated reply. "Who knows how long we get to play with him?"
"Don't kill the guy. Orochimaru-sama still needs him."
Heavy boots clanked on stone as one man neared the door. Then, the cone of light died out. Sasuke frowned—had the man taken the torch off the wall?
"Maybe I can burn him some."
Sasuke closed his eyes, counting the seconds. Naruto's threshold had long been passed.
Sizzling. A pained moan.
Sasuke barely reached two, before his teammate sprang into action.
Naruto kicked hard against the door. It broke away from its hinges and flew into the room, where it smashed into a guard. The impact ripped the man off his feet and he tumbled to the ground with a gargled scream of surprise.
An ugly creak followed and the voice died out. Sasuke stepped inside and a wave of heat prickled on his scalp, contrasting sharply against the cold outside. Torches had been lit everywhere, but that explained only some of the intense warmth, not all of it.
Sasuke slid his thumb over the palm of his other hand. The humidity had made them clammy.
A crunch reverberated and he turned to the source. With the hand clasped around the throat, Naruto pushed the second guard into the wall until it began to crumble under the pressure and cracks appeared.
Sasuke thought about stopping him, but decided against it as his eyes swiveled to the far end of the room. Involuntarily, his lips curled back into a snarl. He had known from the beginning that the chance they'd arrive to a scene like this were high. But to think about it and to actually see it were two entirely different things.
Kakashi hung from the wall, red gashes criss-crossing over his naked body. Like a twisted rainbow, purple bruises mixed with red-brown lacerations and countless of burn marks. Kakashi's hair, a carpet of sleazy gray, clung to his skull.
Bile scratched the insides of Sasuke's throat as he stepped closer to the body. Behind him, Naruto finished the guard, and he heard the snapping of bones, the croak of death. Sasuke freed Kakashi from the manacles with mechanical movements.
This close, the sight was just as gruesome. They had taken Kakashi's mask, and the sludge of blood and dirt marring his face made it almost impossible to see the man beneath. A deep gash split Kakashi's bottom lip, but even worse, his Sharingan was missing.
Had Orochimaru already extracted it?
Beside him, Sakura's breath came in shallow bursts. They didn't touch each other, but Sasuke felt her trembling body as though it was himself who rattled like loose shutters in a storm.
Maybe it was him.
Sasuke broke away from these thoughts and slipped out of his cloak, wrapping it tightly around Kakashi, whose chest rose and sunk in a steady but weak rhythm.
Naruto joined them, his face set in a flinty expression. "Is he alive?"
"He is," Sakura answered with a thready voice. "We need to get him out of here."
"Same way back?"
Kakashi jolted up with a sudden jerk as Naruto made to carry him. His eye snapped open, a feverish haze glazing over silver frost.
"You'll get nothing from me," Kakashi wheezed out in what was barely a whisper. His eye swiveled from Naruto to Sakura, then to Sasuke and back.
"Nothing," Kakashi repeated, before breaking into a cough.
"Sensei—" Naruto began, but paused as Sakura tapped his shoulder.
She weaved through hand seals, then placed her fingertips against Kakashi's forehead. Kakashi fell asleep again. "It's better if he rests for now."
Sasuke wondered whether it was better for Kakashi, or for her peace of mind. Not that it mattered. He looked at the sleeping form of his sensei, saw Kakashi's lips lifting up into what probably amounted to his first smile in weeks as Sakura's illusion induced nice dreams.
His sensei had endured Orochimaru's cruelty for a month, perhaps even longer than that. And if what he told them in his fever was the truth, then his captors hadn't gleaned any information from him at all. A rush of foreign pride surged through Sasuke. His lips, too, curled into a smile.
For a man like Kakashi, torture meant either living or dying, but never breaking.
AN: After this chapter, I only need 13k words more until I wrote 400k. Yay, me! Till next time.