Chapter 12


"You are too damn loud!"

And then the slug princess pun–

Darkness.

He couldn't feel his legs. They might as well be absent. He couldn't feel his arms. He couldn't see, for there was no light.

He tried to open his mouth, but the liquid… it was getting thick. Too thick. He wasn't thinking, just feeling it. He could feel the tears building on his cheeks.

And he was shivering, shaking. No, he wasn't shivering, he realized. He was boiling.

It was too much; he couldn't take it. He felt as if he'd never, ever stop shaking. He tried to scream, but no sound came out, only a croak.

The liquid… the liquid, it didn't matter what it was, the liquid was sucking him down. It couldn't pull him under because it was still too early, but it had begun to do just that.

Sinking.

His body floated on its own, somewhere in this dark abyss, devoid of any sound save for the steady thump of his heart. His chest contracted, and he felt chilling pain coarse through his very being.

And then his eyes snapped open.

"Oy, wake up."

Kick

"Gah!"

He woke up with a jolt, panicked violet eyes wide with alarm and his arm grabbing the knife under his pillow. Were they under attack?! Bandits?! Hostile Shinobi?!

No...

That dream again.

He felt his breathing stabilize, felt the sweat sticking on his body. Head mechanically moving to the side, he leveled a betrayed gaze to the man standing by his side.

"Why must you do this to me?" asked Naruto, voice still raspy, his body slowly relaxing.

He received a raised brow for his troubles.

"Why? I'd not do it if you'd just wake up on time for once."

The boy let out an annoyed breath before chucking the knife at the cause of his ire. It failed to do any damage as his companion dodged it effortlessly. He still clicked his tongue. The beds here – if they could be called that – were entirely different than the ones he had at home. Not that he could complain about any of this. Not unless he wanted to be drafted for guard duty for the next session.

One time was too many for his liking.

It was almost routine by now, anyway. Their camp was located miles away from the village of Konoha, out here in the wilderness, mainly consisting of large tents and smaller buildings constructed with the help of Earth Style – something that he contributed in. It wasn't his first time sleeping in a bedroll, nor was it particularly unbearable — no, he could deal with that.

What he couldn't bear with, however, were these stupid dreams. He couldn't remember when it started. They didn't make any sense! All he could just do is exist and stay in that state of constant pain. The same damn thing every night. It made him question his sanity, but he still had hope that they'd stop one day, on their own.

He wasn't too keen on getting his mind probed by a stranger.

"Wake up, Captain's waiting for us."

"Yeah yeah, I'm up." He stretched his arms up in the air, suppressing a yawn, and paused, slightly creaking his right eye open.

He's still here.

"Ass," he muttered under his breath.

His companion only crossed his arms in response, not deeming to grace him with a rebuttal. The man looked youthful – a little older than himself — lightly tanned skin, a shapely nose, and a distinct scar over his left eyebrow. Naruto had tried to find out the story behind it repeatedly, but all his efforts were in vain. Not that he really wanted to know. Not at all. He wasn't desperate.

Maybe… a little. But that was stretching it!

Yeah.

"You won't be deceiving me again, Uzumaki. Shadow Clones only ever work so many times." Silky smooth black hair swayed as the man shook his head, his cheeks slightly colored – almost unnoticeable – in what might be embarrassment, but it was too difficult to tell. He wore a slightly altered version of the Konoha Shinobi uniform, opting to keep his jacket open and a leaf headband strapped to his waist like a belt.

Like that… that Gai...

"Oi, what are you staring at?"

"Dunno. Some dunce who goes around calling himself Tomura."

"Quit wasting time!" Tomura ground out, tightly gripping his biceps, strict brown eyes narrowed.

Naruto suppressed a smile, not wanting to poke his friend anymore.

Friend.

Were the two of them friends? He'd like to think so.

He had met plenty of people during his time serving as a Shinobi of Konoha, worked under many high-ranking officers, made a diverse group of acquaintances, some of them likable.

Others not so likable.

Despite all that, he didn't know who was his friend and who wasn't.

Well… there's one I know for sure. Or two. Or three.

Four…

KRKRKKRKRKKRKRKR

"Tomura—Hey—keep that away! Dammit."

His arm encased in crackling blue lightning, Tomura chased Naruto throughout the camp.

"You take too long!"

He got tased only thrice.

A grand total of one less than yesterday.

He was proud of his progress.

Friends. Yeah.


For the briefest of moments, Uzumaki Naruto experienced Homelessness. It wasn't a particularly traumatizing experience—the homeless part, not the part where he almost died.

Just how he managed to survive the colossal force eluded him.

Was it like the woman-cum-beast said? She "held back" and was "just tired?"

He was more inclined to believe the other lady's explanation—Shizune if he remembered correctly. Tsunade's chronic alcohol addiction was then exposed in front of the boy by her babbling apprentice, who tried her best to apologize for her teacher's unruly behavior.

According to the young woman, her master, a recovering addict, was admitted to the rehabilitation facilities ever since Tsunade agreed to take over as the Head of Konoha's Medical Department. They couldn't have a drunkard as in charge of such a sophisticated organization, requiring the best of capabilities at all times. Tsunade at the time had agreed wholeheartedly. Perhaps, it was a part of her that was childishly excited at the prospect of the job. Especially since she'd have a great deal of influence in how Konoha's medical talents shape.

Or there was something else that he didn't quite understand.

Of course, almost three months in, and the greatest healer in the world decided to flee altogether, diagnosing herself as no longer addicted and/or dependent on alcohol in any shape or form.

Only for the greatest healer in the world to get drunk the very same day.

He'd be fine if it ended there—happy, even. But the woman just had to wobble over to his house and — and — try to charm his sister for god knows what reason.

Usually, that'd be enough for him to be upset.

He was upset and scared to his knees after the woman demolished his house. Not wanting to do anything with the crazy lady, he had snatched his sister as swiftly as his training allowed him to and made a beeline for somewhere safe.

Now, he understood that the two of them were extended family. He might have even been excited.

But family doesn't go around demolishing your house!

It was fortunate he was already looking for a new house, and the apartment that he lived in was compensated by the apologizing Senju woman herself.

His next few days were spent eluding a now-sober-and-somewhat-horrified Tsunade who refused to leave him alone. She was almost worse than that creepy Hyuuga girl that wouldn't stop stalking him—at some point, he had just accepted the fact that his privacy inside the village was jeopardized permanently. Unless he did something about that x-ray rat and her bodyguard brother. He wasn't as cruel as to use the one favor he had with the Hyuuga clan to blind the little girl. Nor was he foolish enough to hope that such a maneuver would result in anything other than severe threats to his well-being.

And she wasn't all that bad. Naruto knew the reason why Teuchi started giving him all these discounts ever since his shop miraculously expanded through the investments of an unknown party. The unknown party remained not so unknown after Natsumi got Ayame to spit it out.

Discounted ramen was always more than welcome for the Uzumaki siblings.


"He's not here—"

"What do you mean 'he's not here?' Capt'n was here just moments ago."

Naruto resisted the urge to palm his face, watching as his teammate exploded with righteous fury.

"Look, kid—" the commanding officer ignored the way Tomura's eyebrow twitched, "something important came up, and he had to leave. It is as simple as that. Surely you can go on without your dear captain's help for a day? You only have patrol duty, for god's sake."

"He went alone?! What if he needs help? Naruto and I should go aft—"

"Out of the question!" The officer slammed his closed fist harshly on the table, the sound echoing as it bounced off the walls, effectively silencing the entire camp. "You will not abandon your position."

A beat of silence passed before activities resumed in the room. Naruto smacked Tomura, breaking him out of his stupor, and muttered a strong "Yessir."

"Good. Your captain shall return by midnight. Have some faith in him."

"Yessir!"


The Eastern borders of the Land of Fire, facing the Land of Water, adjoined by the sea and some small islands, was a budding hotspot for increasingly tense situations lately. Information was key. Information was important. But out of the five great nations, perhaps the least information was known about the Land of Water.

The Bloody Mist, to be precise.

Believed to be ravaged by a bloody Civil war just over a few years ago, what little information that leaked out indicated no such struggle in recent times. The Mist had been stable for long now, the Civil war seemingly coming to an abrupt stop. Something unusual had happened. Something unusual was being planned. The kind of something that spelled trouble.

Tomura and Naruto ran past the dense, green trees, tall and mighty as the famed forests of Land of Fire, jumping on the branches expertly as they moved faster than the wind, leaving swirling leaves in their wake.

"Stay alert. Our scouts mentioned suspicious activities by the shores."

Naruto nodded seriously, already knowing about the news. "It's been a while since we've had any kind of fighting. Can't say that I'm looking forward to it."

"Makes two of us. But if it comes down to it, I'm counting on you."

"Yeah you'd be very dead without me." Naruto gave him a cheeky grin, getting an unamused look in return. There was a comfortable silence between the two teammates as they traversed. No one spoke for a while.

"Say… It's been over a year."

Tomura blinked, then tilted his head a little, all the while not slowing down. "Huh?"

"Since we've been home, you know," Naruto elaborated, taking a giant leap that put him ahead of his teammate. "Don't you miss it?"

"Oh." Tomura blinked in surprise. "Has it, now? I was certain ten years would have passed by now. Time sure moves slowly when you're in the company of idiots." This time it was he who took a leap ahead, leaving Naruto behind.

"Didn't think you'd call Captain an idiot. That's a new milestone for you." Naruto counted on his fingers as he spoke further, catching up. "I mean, you practically worship the ground he walks upon. First, it was 'My lord,' then it was 'Sir,' then 'Captain,' and finally it's 'Idiot' now." He grinned. "How amusing!"

Tomura only growled in annoyance.

Naruto raised his hand, suddenly acting as if he wasn't just poking fun at his friend.

"Stop!"

The black-haired youth stopped himself upon a high branch with nary a word, all sense of emotion leaving his face.

He knew when his partner was serious.

"It's quiet."

Naruto narrowed his eyes, sweeping the surroundings with steely violet eyes muttering under his breath. "Too quiet."

The wind whistled past his ears; cold, silent, fleeing as if scared from some—something. It ruffled his green jacket fiercely, running through his blond mane of hair.

Silence wasn't out of the ordinary in the Land of Fire. The thick forests stretched out over a vast region; thus, the wildlife was also scattered all over. But once in a while, they'd hear the whistling of the birds and the song of insects.

Not now, however.

The kind of silence was foreboding. Mind-numbing. The kind that forces a bead of sweat down the neck. The kind that brings a chill down the spine.

The kind that makes a man go mad.

He closed his eyes, resting his hand against the tree trunk, furrowed his eyebrow.

Two…

Four…

Fifteen…

.
Forty… two...

Cold, piercing violet eyes opened, losing any mirth they might have once had.

"We're surrounded."

The kind of silence that speaks of nothing but death.


"Talk. Who sent you?!"

The man panted, his botched face bloody, his clothes ragged and tattered. He had non-descriptive features, save for his one missing ear. He coughed harshly, going into a fierce fit, and for a moment, it felt like he might collapse.

He didn't.

A mad cackle rang throughout the dark, gloomy room as he lifted up his head and guffawed. Making a sick sound in the back of his throat, he spat blood on his tormentor's boots.

"H–his name's Dog. They say he ploughed your mother—aak!"

The knife twisted inside his shoulder mercilessly, making him shout through gritted teeth. His tormentor didn't show any emotion. Or they might've. It was too difficult to know from the other side of the mask.

"Do not test me," the masked man said calmly, kicking the injured man wickedly on his shoulder, driving the knife further in.

It took a good few minutes for him to stop screaming this time.

"Let's try again. Who hired you?"

The poor guy panted, his face wet with tears, sucking air as if he'd never get to breathe again. It wasn't a far–fetched theory by any chance. He was one of those damned insects. Bandits. Terrorizing the outskirts of Land of Fire. Taking what they pleased as they robbed the poor farmers and abused their families. The recent surge in their numbers was alarming enough, but the fact that these bandits were using gear that was bloody expensive.

Gear that could only be supplied by a hidden village.

It was enough for the Hokage to send his elite troops to investigate.

"Y – your mum's lover—aaaagh!"

The masked man lifted him up by the neck and slammed him on the wall. He drove the knife further in, embedding it into the wall through his shoulder. It might seem unnecessarily cruel to a bystander, but only if they didn't know about the towns these clowns ravaged, leaving broken homes, dead and kidnapped families in their wake. Bandits would usually wait on the secluded paths, wait for a suitable prey, scavenge whatever junk they could, then get put down eventually when the people living in the neighborhood would hire Shinobi.

Seems they were getting bolder now.

"Leave it, Cat. Don't force him if he doesn't want to answer."

The clacking sound of footsteps alerted them of the new arrival – a woman, judging by the soft voice. The bandit looked up in hope, admiring his potential savior. Only to turn pale at the sight.

"Bull was getting hungry. Some meat would do him well."

A large, intimidating dark-furred dog followed the new arrival closely, a black spiked collar adorning his neck, further aiding his ferocious look. Bull stared right into the bandit's eyes and then approached him slowly.

"No! No! Wait!" The man cried out helplessly, but it was in vain as the predator continued in his stride. He tried moving away, but the knife stopped him as he sobbed openly. "Wait–Dammit! I- Okay! I'll talk! Just–Just keep it away from me!"

Cat turned around, his hands folded, radiating irritation from his entire being, not leaving anything to the imagination as he sighed.

"Weasel," he said, nodding. "I had him. Your interference was unnecessary."

"Clearly," came Weasel's flat reply. "Hound was getting bored. Says he wants to go back already."

"You know the reason why. It's not because he's bored—he just wants to buy that new book that got published today."

"Hm? I didn't know that you too were an avid follower. Perhaps I judged you too harshly."

"Nonsense." Cat snorted.

"Come here, Bull," called Weasel. The large ninken followed her command, turning around and sitting near her feet. She reached down, patting the dog appreciatively, and tossed out a red candy from her pocket. Bull was all too happy to catch it in his mouth. "Now, I believe you were going to tell us something." She turned towards the bandit who laid panting, half-conscious by this point. His shoulder didn't look too good either.

"I...they...They'll kill me if I tell ya!"

"Do you think that I'll let you go if you don't? Bull is still hungry. Right, Bull?" The big dog growled menacingly, drooling, and barked.

The thief hung his head as he contemplated his next move. He didn't have much choice in the end. Getting mauled by an animal was not something he wanted to add to his experience belt.

"I don't know much—I swear! All I know is tha' they were dangerous. He came with 'is people, a month ago, give or take a few days. We didn't know what we was getting into. He said he'd give us weapons. Strong weapons. The ones used by you Ninja people. All we had to do was raid the places he marked on a map. We were a large group of men, Kenichi and Juuzo didn't like 'paying them back' when we coulda jus' taken 'em by force." He stopped for a moment, panting, reminiscing something horrible. "They killed Kenichi! None of us saw it! We had no choice but to agree on the deal!"

"Hm… Describe them. How did they look?"

"They… they wore dark clothing. I don't remember much. Some of em had… these large swords strapped to their backs. Dunno much 'bout their faces 'cause they wore these masks – like yours! Same! Just without the animals."

"Well… that doesn't give us much to work with. The closest bet would be Anbu units, but we can't identify their allegiance without further investigation," Cat mused to himself, tilting his head as he stood up against the wall, his hands crossed. He then turned towards the man and nodded. "Good. Your help is appreciated."

Weasel stood up from where she was crouching, scratching bull under his cheek, and dusted her gloves. "We have what we came from. Report back to Hound."

The man's body seemingly relaxed, as if a huge burden was lifted from his shoulders, and there was a suspicious moistness around the corner of his eyes.

"Look… I helped ya. I can go now, right?"

"Uhh…right?"


The Village of Konoha was at peace.

The Chunin exams in Kumo all those years ago worked wonders in improving relations between the two superpowers. Most of all, because of the Hokage's willingness to relax the peace treaty forced upon the village of Kumo after the whole kidnapping fiasco. The Raikage, showing he could see reason when it meant the betterment of his people, agreed to it, finally swallowing his pride.

If only for a moment.

Of course, his brother, Killer Bee – much more reasonable but just as eccentric as the big man himself – played a big part in swaying the Raikage's decision.

However, not everyone was happy with the deal.

But for now, things seemed at peace, finally.

The Hokage sat in his chambers, playing checke—checking and signing the applications on his work table, alongside the Jonin commander, who was obviously not running away from his wife because he got their son addicted to the wonders of cloud–watching.

"A new merchant guild… hm. I would rather not have any more of them, looking at the current situation. The market has been extremely saturated."

Tap.

Shikaku eyed his leader thoughtfully, judging his reaction as he took away the Hokage's piece.

Nothing.

'Excellent poker face,' he commented mentally. He would be pretty annoyed if he were in the older man's position. But it was a far-away thought.

Nara Shikaku was unbeatable — doesn't matter if it was Shogi or Checkers.

"Agreed. It'd be troublesome keeping track of all these different groups."

Tap.

The Hokage placed his piece expertly, trapping one of his opponent's pieces. A ghost of a smirk danced on his wrinkled face as he eyed his opponent.

"Say Shikaku…"

"Hm…?"

Hiruzen reached out to his pipe, inhaling a respectful amount. He appeared to be thinking about something. Shikaku couldn't know for sure what it was, and his curiosity only grew as the Hokage took his time. He did not like not knowing things.

The old man surely knew how to tease him.

Finally, he exhaled, filling the room with the familiar and somewhat intoxicating smell of tobacco. Shikaku shifted in his chair.

"What would you say…." Hiruzen narrowed his eyes, looking at the playing board, and stroked his beard. "If I were to offer you my seat."

The Nara clan head stopped in his next move, his hand hanging up in the air, his piece ready to eat another one of the Hokage's. And for the first time in a long time…

He was confused.

Lazy as he was, Shikaku wasn't unmotivated. He loved his country. Loved his Village. Loved his clan. And he loved Yoshino and their son Shikamaru. He was pretty wild about drinking too, but that wasn't necessary right now.

And he'd do anything to protect his family.

If becoming the Hokage could mean making things easier for his family, could mean his Clan would enjoy an even higher status, and he would have an absolute say in everything…

Hiruzen couldn't suppress his smirk any longer, thoroughly enjoying toying with his friend. Even if he wasn't serious, he had made the Nara man stop in his tracks, made him think hard at the possibility.

That counted for something indeed.

"I—"

"Hokage–sama!" A chunin burst into the room, making Hiruzen jump in his seat. The man rested his hand on the door as he panted, seemingly very distraught. "It is that–that child again! The entire Hyuuga—All of their Kimono! Orange! They're all furious and Hiashi–sama is marching on his way here."

A suspicious sound of a door getting smashed was heard in the distance.

All color drained from the aged leader's face, his jaw slacked open.

Shikaku blinked, processing the situation. A mere child had managed to infiltrate the Hyuuga. A kid. He had no doubts regarding the identity of the mastermind behind this attack. Nor did he doubt the child's ability.

How could he, when he too had joined the list of victims not too long ago?

A chuckle escaped the Jonin Commander, a deep sound filled with surprising mirth, most of it at the expense of the poor Hokage, who looked entirely betrayed. His clan wasn't in any kind of trouble. They enjoyed a great deal of respect throughout the village, had strong allies

"I think you have my answer, Hokage–sama."

Why fix something that's not broken?

The Hokage took a deep sigh and buried his face in his palms.

It was a troublesome job.


They had to get out...They must..

"How many?!" A harsh whisper.

Get away from this place...

"Too many…"

Run away...

"Shit! Shit! Shit!" Tomura gritted his teeth. Gripping his fist tightly, he molded destructive chakra around his hand.

"No!" Naruto slapped his hand before he could complete his technique. "Get this through your head! We don't stand a chance! We have to report back."

Tomura stood up to his full height, an inch or so taller than his teammate, his surprised eyes meeting Naruto's determined violet. His expression turned into one of disgust as he spoke in a dangerously low voice, leaning forward threateningly.

"Are you suggesting that we run away like cowards?"

"There's nothing cowardly about retreating from a fight you know you cannot win. Pick your battles wisely," Naruto spoke without looking away from those accusing eyes. "I have someone waiting for me at home. And there is no way I'm dying before I see her again! She's been alone for so long...I…I swore I won't leave her alone anymore..."

Tomura's expression turned one of shock, then sorrow, and for a moment, it seemed like Naruto had gotten through to him.

"What would Captain want?" He tried again. "You really think he would wish for us to die meaningless deaths?! Is that how you see him?"

"No…"

"Then you realize what we must do."

"I do…" Tomura averted his eyes, looking downwards. He deactivated the flow of electric chakra to his hand and scratched the back of his head. "Sorry… Just bad memories. You're right. We should head back."

He had to look up when he noticed his friend's silence.

"Wha—"

Naruto stood alert, his tanto drawn in his right hand, a grim expression on his face.

"It's too late…."

Tomura looked around at last and finally grasped the gravity of the situation.

The mist engulfed.


Let's hope CDPR doesn't sue me for... borrowing that scene. Did you guys catch it?
Now, I do understand that it has been a fairly long time. How is everyone? I've been busy with college lately, so couldn't focus on writing even when I tried (I am now a second-year student on a related note.) I have no plans to abandon this and I thank every one of you who reviewed,
followed, or even just skimmed through the story because I devoted my time in it.

Stay safe.