It’s Just That Any One of Us Is Half Without Another One Is You – Chapter Ten

In which Gaara is taken by Akatsuki and Kakashi’s and Gai’s teams are sent to aid Hidden Sand to get him back. Drama, Action, Fluff, I-4

Sasuke dangled his legs over the weathered edge of the Nara house’s engawa and listened to the soft tick of stones as Sakura and Shikamaru played a game of go an arm’s length away. It was the first time both teams had been home at once for a few months, and everyone was enjoying a bit of a break.

“Hey, that almost singed my hair you jerk!”

The less quiet sounds of Naruto and Ino sparring broke through the brown and gold shadows among the trees of the back garden. Everyone had their own definition of “taking a break”.

“It just doesn’t make sense, you know,” Sakura said, out of the blue, frowning down at the board. “There’s been another attack on a host. This makes both of Rock’s hosts taken!”

“Sakura,” Ino said warningly, touching down on the grass. “That’s information from the files; even if it isn’t really confidential, you shouldn’t be sharing it outside Intelligence.”

Sakura flapped an impatient hand. “We’re the yearmates of our village’s host. If it comes down to guarding Naruto from Akatsuki, we’ll most likely be the inner line of defense. If anyone needs to know this, we do.” She frowned. “Besides… I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our year and the one before have so many shinobi who are this strong this young.”

Shikamaru looked up from contemplating his next move, eyes sharp. “What do you mean?”

Sakura chewed her lip. “Look, I know this sounds like superstition, but… we’re the ones who spent the longest time closest to Naruto. I don’t have very solid evidence yet, but I think that had an effect.”

“So I’m, like, an amplifier?” Naruto asked, flickering down from the trees to the grass after Ino. “Cool.”

“You’re an annoyance,” Sasuke corrected without sitting up. “I suppose that does tend to goad a person forward, yes.”

“Jerk.” Naruto pounced on him and they wrestled for a moment before Sasuke got a foot behind Naruto’s knee and flipped them over, pinning him down on the satin smooth engawa with a little smirk of triumph; Naruto was a lot better at hand-to-hand these days, and pinning him was getting to be an accomplishment. Sakura was probably rolling her eyes over them, but she didn’t bother to move as they rolled around behind her.

“No, you have a point just from the numbers,” Shikamaru said, mouth quirking as he watched them. “I mean, normally it takes five to ten years to pass to chuunin, and look at us. One to three years, for our entire cohort.” He laid a stone down and Sakura made an annoyed sound.

“All right, if we’re breaking security, let’s do it right.” Ino came to sit on the stone step beside Chouji and steal one of his chips, which he actually let her do. Sasuke guessed their team really was close with each other. “So, the Akatsuki attacks are continuing. Rock is down both their hosts, and Cloud is down to one. And we’ve had one probe years ago.” She poked Sakura in the knee. “I’ve been out on missions, not snooping in the secure files. Who else has gotten hit?”

“I think Mist still has both of their hosts,” Sakura murmured in a distant tone, eyes fixed on the board though Sasuke wouldn’t give any odds she was actually seeing it. “I don’t know for sure about the Waterfall, though.”

“Given the timing involved in the attacks, I suspect they’ve already got that one,” Shikamaru murmured, eyes dark and thoughtful. “The Mist might have lost one by now, too.”

Sasuke propped himself up over Naruto on an elbow, frowning. “You think this really is a systematic thing. Kidnapping the hosts.” The hand that had been holding Naruto’s elbow away from his ribs fell to his chest and spread there firmly. No one was taking Naruto away. Especially not Itachi. Not again, Sasuke wouldn’t let him.

Chouji looked up at Shikamaru, popping another chip into his mouth. “So, what do we do?”

“We keep ours safe,” Sakura said, setting down a white stone more firmly than necessary.

“That too,” Shikamaru agreed. “If we can, it would be ideal to share information with the other villages who have hosts, see if we can find a pattern in the attacks.”

Sakura and Ino looked at each other. “Not Morino-san,” Ino said. “He hates the idea of sharing information with other villages. And Hoshiashige-san doesn’t listen to me as well as Miuhara listens to you.”

“Mm. Actually, Kakashi-sensei might be our best bet,” Sakura suggested. “He’s not formally part of the Intelligence division, but he was, and everyone still knows him. And he has the Hokage’s ear.”

“We’ll start there, then,” Shikamaru said, laying down another stone. “And,” he smiled, tight, “we’ll keep ours safe.”

Naruto was looking around at them all, a little flushed and wide-eyed. “Idiot,” Sasuke told him, more gently than usual, and sat up to look over Sakura’s shoulder at the game. He left his hand on Naruto’s chest, though.

Kakashi stood in front of the Hokage’s desk, just as bland as could be, waiting attentively for any questions she might have about his report.

"Hm." She was smiling, small and tight, as she set down the folder and turned her chair to face her windows, looking out through the hazy blue morning over the roofs of the village. "You know, Kakashi," she murmured in a whimsical tone, "the more I see of Naruto’s generation the more I think… the Elders don’t know what the hell they’re going to face in just a few more years."

"I couldn’t agree more." And it was a thought that kept Kakashi warm at nights, he had to admit, especially as applied to Danzou. "But they don’t have the rank to support you against the Elders right now."

"Despite having reached exactly the right conclusion." She sighed and tipped her chair back. "We’re going to have to do this more slowly than any of us would like. Get back to them, Kakashi. Let them know they’re right; encourage them to talk this up to their own superiors. The more people in favor of a little international cooperation, the more freedom I’ll have to act." She smiled slowly. "Ask them to try to take jobs close to home for a while. If any international missions or delegations open up, I think it will be some of them that I want to send. And the old goats can complain after the fact." She gave cocked a brow at him. "Brush up on your diplomacy, too. I expect it will be you I send them with."

Kakashi winced at the thought and gave her his very best hangdog look, to no avail. She just snorted. "Get used to it, Kakashi. It’s getting to be about time you started picking up more diplomatic and administrative jobs. Just be glad I’m not making Shikaku name you his official successor as Jounin Commander. Yet."

Kakashi held up his hands in hasty surrender. "Missions it is! Missions are fine!"

She settled back in her chair, satisfied. "Good." Her smugness still had an alarming tinge of speculation, though, and she murmured, "Actually, you know, it might just be you I tap for—"

"I’ll just go have my dress clothes cleaned and pressed, then, shall I?" Kakashi cut in, sidling toward the door before she could come up with any more horrifyingly responsible jobs to threaten him with.

Tsunade laughed. "You do that." Her amusement drained away, though, as he got a hand on the knob, and she added quietly. "Be ready, Kakashi. If I do have to take you off field work for a foreign mission, it will probably be urgent."

Sasuke bounded through the tall trees and deep gorges of the eastern Fire Country and wished he had enough breath to swear properly. But even moving at their top speed, Naruto was outdistancing the rest of them.

“Naruto!” Kakashi called the next breath, “Stay in closer.”

There was no sign at all that Naruto had heard him—and an edge of visible red was flickering around him. Sasuke exchanged a tense look with Sakura. When Tsunade had told them and Gai’s team that the Kazekage had been kidnapped and they were going to assist, a flash of feral rage had slitted Naruto’s eyes, but he’d seemed to come back after just a second.

Maybe he just didn’t want to listen, now, but this wasn’t a good sign.

Sakura’s mouth tightened and she nodded sharply toward Naruto. Sasuke nodded back and gathered himself. One breath, a moment of solid footing, and he flickered forward on a burst of chakra-speed to land in front of Naruto. Right in front. Despite Sasuke’s preparation for it Naruto was still moving too fast, and they went down hard against the branch under them. Only Sakura’s fast grab at Naruto’s shoulders as she came up behind them kept them both from falling.

“Cut that out!” Sasuke barked at him, a bit winded. “You can’t get too far out front of us!”

“Gaara,” Naruto started, and though his eyes weren’t slitted they weren’t as focused as Sasuke liked.

“You want to give them two for the price of one?” Kakashi asked mildly, landing beside them.

“But I have to…”

Sasuke gave up on logic, as he so often had to around Naruto, and just shook him. “Shut up and listen to me,” he said, low and deadly. “I am not letting you run yourself right into an ambush. Understand? Not by those bastards and not because you were too unbelievably bullheaded to Stay. With. Your team!” Three more hard shakes punctuated that, and Naruto finally blinked at Sasuke like he knew who was in front of him.

“Oh,” he finally said, and Sasuke restrained himself with difficulty from banging his head on Naruto’s shoulder a few times. It was as good as a brick wall. Or maybe that should be Naruto’s head.

“That’s the true spirit of youthful teamwork!” Gai boomed above them, and Sasuke groaned.

“Now see what you’ve done?” he muttered. He took Sakura’s hand up and hauled Naruto with him. “Get a hold of yourself, or we’ll do it for you.”

Naruto smiled at that, like he knew perfectly well it was a promise and not a threat. “Yeah, okay.” As they started out again, in better order this time, he added, “Thanks.”

Sasuke just snorted, not really pleased to have had to show the inner working of their team to other people like that, even people from their own village. Still, better to work it out now than after they were in Sand, he supposed.

A few more strides and Neji fell in beside him. “The demon chakra has subsided again,” he said quietly. “That was well done. Will you and Sakura be able to pull him out of it when we’re in battle, though?”

“We will do,” Sasuke said precisely, “whatever it takes.”

Neji nodded. “Let us know if we can help.” At Sasuke’s raised brow, he smiled faintly, still looking straight ahead through the tossing green of their tree path. “Naruto carries this burden for all of us. It’s only fitting that we all assist as we can.” After another leap, he added, “Hinata-sama would wish it.”

Sasuke nodded acceptance of that, silently. Whatever it took.

They were waved through casually at the edge of River Country and, half a weary day later, with frantic haste at the borders of the Wind Country. They ran on until Kakashi decreed a stop, well after dark. Naruto, predictably, protested, and Lee was right behind him.

“We won’t be any help if we’re exhausted when we get there,” Sakura told them, pushing Naruto firmly down onto the sand of the hollow Kakashi had chosen to camp in and putting a water bottle in his hand. Tenten gave her a grateful look as Lee wilted at Sakura’s scolding, and chivvied her partner out of his pack.

They weren’t going to be much help if Naruto didn’t recover his scattered brains, either, Sasuke reflected. He was their medic, after all, and a battle with Akatsuki promised injuries, to say nothing of what they might find at Sand in the wake of a raid. After contemplating this fact for a few bites of his pressed fruit bar, he sighed and scooted over to sit back to back with Naruto, leaning against him. “Hey.”

Naruto made the kind of sound a person makes when their mouth is way too full and Sasuke rolled his eyes. “So, if Akatsuki has Gaara, what are we going to do?”

“Get him back,” Naruto growled fiercely.

“I was hoping for a little more detail than that,” Sasuke said dryly. “It isn’t fair to make Sakura do all the work. For example, if Gaara is hurt, you might need to stay with him while we chase Akatsuki, you know.”

Naruto’s back relaxed against his a little, at the reminder that he could probably do something about any injuries the Kazekage might have picked up. “So. I guess I shouldn’t just run in and beat up anyone with red clouds on their coat, is what you’re saying?”

“Well,” Sasuke allowed, “at least not until we’ve got Gaara safe and know they aren’t going to do anything to you.”

Naruto was quiet for a moment. “So. You think Itachi will be with them?”

It was Sasuke’s turn to tense, and Naruto leaned back against him more firmly. “He wasn’t reported,” Sasuke said tightly, “but he’s the one I’m worried about taking you.” He breathed through the twist of memory and sickness and managed a snort. “Normal top rank criminals, I’m not as concerned over.”

“Heheh.” He could hear the smug grin in Naruto’s chortle and stifled a smile of his own. No need to encourage him. “Hey, don’t worry.” Naruto nudged him with an elbow. “I won’t let him get me. And this time you’ll kick his ass.”

“This time,” Kakashi said out of the dusk, voice hard, “you’ll run faster unless you have a lot more backup.”

That was voice of Sasuke’s commander, more than his teacher—the same voice Kakashi had used that first time, after the bad fight with Naruto. That was the voice that understood what was at stake, and had never pretended Sasuke would be content with anything less than Itachi’s blood in the end. And that was why, as Naruto was inhaling to protest, Sasuke said quietly, “Yes, Kakashi-sensei.”

Naruto twisted around to stare over his shoulder at Sasuke, eyes a little wide. “Are you okay?” He put a worried hand on Sasuke’s forehead, which Sasuke batted aside with an exasperated glare.

“He’s being at least temporarily sensible,” Kakashi-sensei said dryly. “Now if only I can get you to do the same at some point I will have reached the pinnacle of my teaching career.” Raising his voice a little he added, “Everyone get some sleep. I have first watch.”

Ignoring Gai-sensei’s immediate insistence that they play jan-ken-pon for it, Sasuke tugged the blanket out of his pack and lay down. Now that they weren’t moving, the night was turning very cold; he remembered that from the chuunin exam.

He remembered his solution for it, too, and his mouth quirked, invisibly in the dark, as he ran his hands through the seals for Inner Fire. Almost immediately, as he’d half expected, he had a teammate snuggled up on either side. “I showed you how to do this yourself,” he whispered, nudging Sakura, making her squeak and swat at his hand. “And you don’t need it,” he added to Naruto.

“You do it better,” she whispered back.

“Yeah, and you’re warmer,” Naruto added from the other side. Sasuke rolled his eyes.

“Okay, fine, whatever. Just don’t toss around like you usually do.” That was mostly to Naruto’s address, though both he and Naruto had wound up with black eyes when Sakura had one of her nightmares.

Firmly ignoring Tenten’s giggling, drifting across the hollow, he closed his eyes and pursued sleep.

It didn’t take long to get to Hidden Sand the next day, and it was Temari who met them at the wall. Her face was tight and there were dark smudges under her eyes. “There were at least two from Akatsuki,” she said as she led them through stunned silent streets to the hospital. “We think there may have been more than we saw, though. They headed over the north wall when they left, we know that, but none of the guards saw a thing. One or two agents among us I could believe, but a dozen?”

“Genjutsu, do you think?” Neji asked quietly.

“An incredibly strong one, if so.” Temari bit her lip as they hurried up stairs and through the curving hospital halls. “I can’t think what else it might have been, though.”

“Itachi,” Sasuke said, low, rage and fear surging out of his control for a breath to wind his nerves another twist tighter.

“We know that Uchiha Itachi is part of Akatsuki,” Kakashi supplied at Temari’s questioning look. “And he’s achieved levels of genjutsu control I’d never heard of before.”

“At least three then. Explosives, illusions, and poison.” Temari’s jaw set hard. “Kankurou encountered the poisoner.” She pushed open the door of a private room, bright from the skylights and painted a soft, comforting apricot like the bands Sasuke had seen in some of the rock formations on the way here. It didn’t make it any less a hospital room.

Sasuke had never liked hospitals. The first time he’d found himself in one was after his clan was killed, and later visits hadn’t done much to break a bad first impression. The harsh, hoarse gasps of the man on the hospital bed yanked at his nerves; there was pain here, and he couldn’t do a thing about it.

He wasn’t at all surprised when Naruto pushed forward. “Poison?”

The very old woman by the bed said without turning, “More than one. Sasori’s poisons are tricky, too. We’re still trying to isolate them, and none of the general anti—” she looked over her shoulder and broke off, eyes widening. “White Fang!”

Sasuke was caught just as flat-footed as everyone else when she dove for Kakashi with a shriek of rage, but he slapped Naruto’s shoulder as Naruto started to wheel back; whatever was going on, he and Sakura were here. Naruto should concentrate on what only he could do.

By the time they’d both spun back to their right jobs, Naruto to the bed and Sasuke to their commander, it was already over. Sakura was spinning away from the kick that checked the old woman in midair, and an equally old man had come forward to stop the woman. Gai’s team spilled into the room after Kakashi, and once it became clear that it was Kakashi’s father the old woman had a grudge against everyone seemed to relax again.

“Okay,” Naruto said briskly, from the bed, having ignored the whole thing, “His liver already knows what this shit is, I’ll start there and burn it out.”

“We already tried a direct flush,” one of the other medics started, and Naruto grinned.

“Yeah, but you aren’t me.”

Sasuke’s mouth twitched. He’d always kind of figured that Naruto’s bedside manner forced people to get better just so they could avoid drowning in the overflowing self-confidence.

The old woman’s brows lifted as Naruto set his hands on Kankurou’s stomach and his chakra spilled into the visible range. “Who is this?”

“Uzumaki Naruto,” Kakashi provided. “The Hokage’s apprentice in healing, of late.”

The woman paused. “She sent her own apprentice?” she murmured, almost to herself.

“Tsunade-sama takes our treaty obligations seriously,” Kakashi answered, sober.

Sasuke listened with half an ear, keeping an eye on Naruto, who was starting to sweat. “Crap,” Naruto finally muttered, glaring at thin air. “I’ve got it out of his blood, but it’s… damn it…”

“Is it in his bones already?” the old woman asked sharply, coming to hover beside him.

“No, not that. It’s… it’s a reservoir, yeah, but not the bones, it’s…” Naruto narrowed his eyes, “I think it’s poisoned his chakra.”

The woman hissed through her teeth. “Sasori! He did create that one after all.” She bowed her head, hands locked tight. “Then there’s nothing we can do.”

Naruto growled. “There is! I just can’t burn or break it like the stuff in his blood! If I could just find a way out for it…” Blue eyes widened and his head jerked up. “Neji!”

Neji stepped forward, frowning. “What?”

Naruto grinned at him, and it was the grin he got in the middle of a fight when he’d figured out how to win. Sasuke smirked and settled back against the wall as the tightness in his gut eased.

“Open his tenketsu!” Naruto told Neji. “All of them, all the way! You can do that, right?”

Neji’s eyes widened. “But…!” He took a breath. “Naruto, if I do that, his chakra will all drain away. He’ll die.”

“Not while I’m adding more. Chakra transfers were the first thing I learned to do. And I’ll tell you when to close them again.” Only Naruto, Sasuke reflected, could make a suggestion this crazy sound perfectly reasonable. Neji had the slightly disbelieving expression of any normal person hearing it; fortunately, it wasn’t the first time, for him and Naruto.

“He needs to be standing upright so I can reach all sixty-four key points,” he said slowly. “Naruto, you’d better be right about this.”

“I am.” Naruto’s eyes were fixed back on his patient, and his confidence this time was quiet and sure.

“All right.”

The other medics got Kankurou upright and Neji set his feet, preparing, and engaged his Byakugan. One breath. Another. And then there was a whirl of strikes, blindingly fast, absolutely precise, and Neji was in front of Kankurou again, only to leap back. “Naruto!”

“Got it!” Naruto blazed up with the force of chakra he was concentrating, hands pressed to Kankurou’s chest. Another breath, and Neji hissed, still holding the Byakugan.

“It’s moving…”

Sasuke thought everyone in the room might be holding their breaths, hanging on Neji’s terse reports of Kankurou’s chakra levels as Naruto stood like stone in front of him, scowling in concentration.

Sasuke was keeping an eye on Naruto’s chakra levels, frowning at the rapid drain. But Naruto wasn’t turning muddy or jagged, so he kept his mouth shut. And kept watching. He’d been party to more than one of Tsunade’s lectures to Naruto about having a spotter when he tried a new technique, and he’d seen Naruto get so concentrated on his work Shizune had to knock him out to stop him.

“Almost,” Naruto panted. “Al… most… got it! Neji, close them down!”

Neji struck again, fast and sure, and Naruto slumped against the next bed. “Okay,” he rasped, as Sasuke released the Sharingan, with a covert sigh of relief. “See if that got it.”

The wide-eyed medics lifted Kankurou back into bed and the old woman passed her hands over him. “He’s stable,” she said, rough and shocked. “His pulse, his muscles, his chakra… all clean.” She turned and stared at Naruto. “How could you possibly feed enough chakra to him to replace his and still be standing?!”

Naruto grinned, pushing himself upright. “Well, me and Gaara have some things in common.”

The old woman actually sputtered. “Are you telling me the slug girl taught Leaf’s Sacrifice to heal?”

“Naruto is a very strong healer,” Kakashi observed blandly before Sasuke and Sakura could do more than stiffen at what the woman had called Naruto. “The village is very glad to have him.”

The old woman’s eyes darkened. “I see,” she said, very low. “That… was wise of the girl.” More briskly she added, “And an ingenious solution, boy. You’re a credit to your teacher.”

“Chiyo-baasama?” The whisper from the bed drifted through the momentary silence, and everyone spun to see Kankurou pushing himself slowly up. “What…?”

“Kankurou!” Temari just about tackled him back to the bed with a hug. And then she grabbed his shoulders and shook him hard. “You idiot! You went without backup! Never, ever, do that again!”

Sasuke caught Sakura’s eye and had to stifle a snort of laughter; that sounded extremely familiar.

“They have Gaara!” Kankurou flailed a little trying to sit back up again. “We have to go after them!”

“There are tracking teams already on the two trails we found, and support teams following each of them,” Temari told him. “As soon as they get a bird back to us, a full strength party is going in pursuit.” She smiled a little. “The Leaf sent us help, too.”

“Heh.” Naruto straightened all the way. “Yeah, don’t worry about it. We’ll bring Gaara back!”

“Uzumaki.” Kankurou looked around, and frowned. “Wait, how did I… did you…?”

The old woman, Chiyo, patted his arm. “Indeed. Naruto-kun was the one who cleared the poison from you.” She held out a hand and ordered. “Grip!”

Obediently, Kankurou gripped her hand tight, and she nodded judiciously. “Almost fully recovered.” She cocked her head at Naruto. “I’m very impressed. It was a completely brute force approach, but you actually undid most of the muscular and arterial damage. It seems the slug girl became a good teacher, as well as a good medic.” She brushed her sleeves straight and added, quite casually, “When the team leaves to go after Gaara, I will accompany it.”

“I’m coming too!” Kankurou swung his legs off the bed and pushed himself up with determination and only a little shakiness.

“Kankurou, you should stay put and recover,” Temari exclaimed. “I’ll go.”

Kankurou smiled, crooked. “You know the council won’t listen to me the way they will to you, Nee-san.”

Temari made a frustrated sound, and Sasuke thought he knew what hidden fear was underneath her anger. Fear of the hell he’d lived in himself, of losing everything. “We’ll bring them back,” he said, quietly. “Both of them.” It could still be done for Sand, at least. That thought was actually a little comforting.

“We’ll absolutely bring everyone back,” Naruto seconded, with downright alarming intensity.

Temari looked at them for a long moment. Finally, very softly, she asked, “Why?”

Naruto looked away, shrugging one shoulder. “Like I said, Gaara and I… we have some stuff in common.” He looked up at Sasuke and Sakura, and then beyond them at Gai’s team. “But I found people who accepted me. And he didn’t. I know how it hurts, and I’m not going to let it keep going on.” He looked back at her, again with that absolute determination of his. “Now that he has people, I’m not going to let him lose them!”

Sasuke nodded silently. It was true enough for him, too, though it was Temari he was thinking of and the expression that would be on her face if she had to stand and watch her family taken away from her. That was more than he was going to say to another nation’s shinobi, though, no matter how much sympathy he had.

Temari had a hand pressed to her mouth. She blinked hard and swallowed, and whispered, “Thank you.”

Naruto ran a hand through his hair, sheepishly. “Hey, don’t worry. It’ll all be okay.”

Temari drew a slow breath and pulled herself together. “Come with me, then. I’ll find rooms for you while we’re waiting for the tracking parties to report.”

Word came in the small hours of the morning, which Sasuke thought was a good thing. Much longer and Naruto would have produced Shadow Clones and gone chasing after both trails at once himself.

It would have been easier if the trail back toward River Country had been the true one, and it certainly ended in a convincingly warded cave, but there was no scent or trace of Gaara. Kankurou and Chiyo both agreed that trail had been laid by a puppet. The trail north into Sky Country, on the other hand, kept both Sasori’s scent and Gaara’s. A Sand patrol already near the border was ordered to close up and support the trackers, and Chiyo led Kankurou and the two Leaf teams out of the village herself.

“We’ll just have to hope no one from Rain stumbles over this,” Chiyo said grimly, as they ran north over slowly lightening sand and rock. “Because we don’t have time to beat sense into that idiot Hanzou’s head and then wait for the village to contact all their border patrols and convince them to stand aside.”

“Akatsuki have gone to ground, haven’t they? They won’t be moving again without us catching them; we can take a little while to explain to the border patrols if we have to,” Gai said, and gave her one of his embarrassingly optimistic thumbs up signs. “We’ll have the Kazekage back in no time!”

Chiyo gave him a quelling look that Sasuke entirely approved of. “Depending on how many of them are gathered at this hidey hole of theirs, it’s possible they’re going to attempt an extraction.”

“Extraction?” Both Gai and Kakashi looked puzzled.

Chiyo was silent for a few strides. “I don’t know how Leaf does it, but Sand always extracted the tailed beast from the Sacrifices when they became too worn down to control it any more. It allowed us to store Shukaku in a stable form between embodiments. Akatsuki may have their own Sacrifice to transfer the One-tail into.”

Sakura hissed between her teeth and Sasuke glanced over to see her eyes widening, sharp with calculation.

“But…” Neji was frowning. “Forgive me, Chiyo-san, but a beast’s chakra mixes very deeply with the host’s. Wouldn’t that scar the host very badly?”

“It kills them,” Chiyo said bluntly, dark eyes fixed straight ahead.

That choked off everyone for a moment, and Kankurou lost his next stride. “Gaara,” he whispered.

“It takes time,” Chiyo said. “Time and a great deal of chakra. If there aren’t too many of them gathered, we’ll still be in time.” She shot a sidelong glance at Naruto. “I’m glad you’re with us, Naruto-kun.”

Naruto was starting to look a little feral again, and Sasuke and Sakura immediately closed in at his shoulders. Chiyo’s brows twitched up, but she turned back to keeping their pace without comment.

“This is it,” Sakura was muttering. “This is what they’re doing! Not keeping control of the hosts… gaining control of the beasts!”

“Sakura,” Sasuke asked, very quietly, “how many have been confirmed taken?”

“Five,” she said, tightly. “More than half.”

Sasuke felt something very cold sink down into his stomach. “I think this mission just became important to more than Sand and Leaf alone,” he said, a little husky.

“I think you’re right. Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura called.

“We’re all that can get there in time, this mission,” Kakashi answered, and Sasuke wasn’t surprised he was already on the same page. “But the villages have to know, one way or the other. Sasuke, can you summon on the run? Yours will be fastest.”

Despite the sudden grimness of the situation, Sasuke’s mouth quirked as he remembered the training Jiraiya had harried him through in this very country. “It’ll be nostalgic,” he murmured, and pulled a summoning scroll out of his pouch while Naruto took point and Sakura dropped behind to watch his back. A nick of his thumb, and blood to carry the summons, and Youchi swooped down over his head, wings shadowing them against the high, steel blue of the morning sky.

“On vacation again?” the hawk asked sarcastically.

Sasuke ignored the attitude. He was used to it; it was even comforting in a way, to have something around with a sufficiently caustic outlook on life that he didn’t feel the need to contribute any extra cynicism. “Get word to the Hokage,” he directed. “Akatsuki may be extracting the tailed beasts from their hosts, either to hold or to seal into their own candidates. Everyone needs to know this, not just us.”

“Okay, but if Leaf’s message keeper tries to mew me up again, I’m going to take his scalp off for real this time.” Before Sasuke could answer, Youchi was winging away to the east, straight and fast.

“Have I mentioned that your summons is a jerk?” Naruto asked.

“Have I mentioned that yours is an idiot?” Sasuke shot back. He still hadn’t forgotten the time Gamakichi glued all of his underwear to the bottom of his pack, not even on Naruto’s orders.

“I bet your summons is nice and smart, Sakura-san,” Lee chipped in, ever hopeful.

“I haven’t contracted with one,” Sakura said rather dryly from behind him, “but if I had I can guarantee you it would be more sensible than both of theirs put together.”

Sasuke and Naruto shrugged at each other. That one was pretty hard to argue with.

A little more than two days took them over the border of Sky Country to meet with one of the trackers at the edge of a swamp.

“Kurota,” Kankurou greeted the man, “report.”

“There’s an old building, well into the swamp, perhaps an abandoned temple.” The man gestured almost due north. “The way to it is a maze, half reality and half illusion, seeded with some very subtle chakra triggered traps. We only broke all the way through this morning, and we don’t have anyone with us who can open the door into the place.”

“Show us,” Chiyo rapped out. Kurota paused to bow deeply to her, which, Sasuke was distantly amused to note, made her hand twitch as if to cuff him. Sand did seem to have a feisty bunch of Elders.

The swamp path was a maze all right, and Sasuke was impressed the Sand teams had made it through with, apparently, no deaths. Even he and Sakura together would have been hard pressed to pick apart the tangle of subtle illusion that led the foot toward quicksand here, a sinkhole there, cloaked the already faint ripples of water predators in another spot. The obvious routes through clumps of trees were seeded with strangling traps. It took hours to work their way through, even with a guide, and he watched both Naruto and Kankurou getting tenser with every turn they had to take away from the path straight north.

It distracted him from his own tension, which cranked higher every time he couldn’t keep from thinking about who might well have set these illusions.

Fortunately, Kankurou had Chiyo next to him to tweak his ear admonishingly whenever he tried to hurry ahead. As for Naruto… well Sasuke and Sakura both stayed close, with a hand on his arm or shoulder when they could. Naruto’s eyes kept flickering toward the feralness of the fox.

When they finally broke out of the maze, they found the rest of the Sand teams gathered at the foot of a gray stone building in the square, tiered style of Sky Country, though it had none of the windows those tiers of roofs usually sheltered.

The tall, narrow doorway was blocked with stone, too.

Turning away from it was the dark-haired woman Sakura had met during the chuunin exams.

“Kankurou-san!” She stopped for a startled moment. “Chiyo-baasama.”

“Yes, yes, spit it out, what’s the problem?” Chiyo demanded testily, and Fuunotora regathered herself.

“The whole temple has a reflective seal woven through the stone. Any chakra technique at all is reflected back on the user. We need to break through with pure taijutsu, and none of my people are that strong; Shinji reports the walls and that door are over a meter thick. Perhaps one of your puppets? Or can one of our allies do such a thing?” She cocked a brow at Sakura.

Chiyo grunted unpromisingly, and Sakura glanced at their second team. “Gai-san? Lee?”

“Lee,” Gai said firmly, laying a hand on Lee’s shoulder. “Knowing the difficulty, even I might slip and bring my chakra to bear.”

Lee stood very straight. “Right!”

“Any intelligence about the door itself?” Kakashi asked Fuunotora.

“Shinji!” Fuunotora called, and the Sand nin kneeling with his hands pressed to the stone in the door looked over his shoulder. For a second, Sasuke thought the man’s eyes were as black as his, but then he blinked and his pupils shrank abruptly to show brown around them.

“This is definitely the weakest structural point,” he tapped on the stone at a little over head height. “Aim here.”

An eye technique. Which, of course, made Sasuke think of Itachi, and he shook himself, set that aside for later when they knew one way or the other. Instead, he breathed, cleared his mind of one thing after another, and slid into the place where the Sharingan turned the world clear and precise, watching like one of his hawks for the movement that signaled prey.

Kankurou was ordering the Sand teams to make a charge once the door was open, or clear more traps, whichever was needed. Kakashi waved the Leaf-nin to fall in behind them. Lee stood in front of the door, breathing slow and deep. Neji had his Byakugan active and was watching the temple tight-mouthed.

“Hurry,” he said quietly. "It isn’t just the reflection jutsu distorting things; there’s something strange going on in there."

Lee nodded and sprang high into the air, spinning as he came down, and Sasuke could see the fine precision in how gravity and momentum came together with Lee’s own strength in a single heel strike at the precise point Shinji had indicated.

Cracks starred the rock on impact, and one of the Sand nin gasped.

Lee landed in a crouch and spun up in a fluid wheel to punch the impact point with a kiai that was nearly a scream.

The rock shattered.

So, Sasuke noted, had two of Lee’s long hand bones. His ankle was severely strained. Neji was swearing viciously under his breath even as he looked past his teammate into the building. “No traps,” he shouted, “go!” The whole lot of them charged forward over the rubble.

The Sharingan highlighted for Sasuke every detail of what was inside. A single, open room. A huge, fading shape, shoulders and hands and a demon face. Five of nine figures fading with it. A body in unfamiliar dark robes but with red hair he recognized falling through the air. As it hit the ground, Kankurou’s and Naruto’s voices nearly as one, frightened and furious.


A/N: Another thing I never found believable was that one of the major villages wouldn’t have any trackers of their own to have sent after their freaking Kage, and would not have sent any of their own teams along with the Leaf team to rescue him.