A/N: Hey guys. I try to steer away from creating author notes as much as possible, but I feel compelled to vaguely explain my lack of updates lately. Long story short, it's life. Fanfiction hasn't been put on hold, but life has been slowing down my creativity and time to sit down to write. But I am still very much motivated in continuing all of my current stories, as well as adding new stories that are in the works. Can't promise that this little dry spell will let up soon, but just know that I am nowhere near done with Fanfiction just yet.
With that being said, I hope ya'll enjoy the chapter!
*Drip* *Drip* *Drip*
Naruto opened his eyes to see that he was standing directly in front of the Kyuubi's giant cell, ankle-deep in water as always. He sighed. He always hated being here.
"What do you want now, Kyuubi?" Naruto said into the blackness that lied beyond the bars of the dark room. Naruto stood there with his arms crossed, ready to see a pair of red evil eyes leering at him again.
However, those eyes never emerged.
The blonde stood there in silence for a whole minute before calling out again. No response. Usually, at the very least, he'd hear her sinister chuckling. But he heard and saw nothing. Was she asleep? Did she escape? The paper seal was still on the bar of the cage, but as Naruto looked closer, he did notice that the paper was hanging slightly...
Just as Naruto began to ponder all the different possibilities as to what that could mean, Naruto started hearing splashing footsteps behind him. And from what he could tell from the increasing volume of them, the owner of the footsteps was running. Running towards him.
Quickly connecting the cause of this with the reason why Kyuubi could possibly not be in her cell, he tensed up and turned around, looking into the surrounding obscurity. He clenched his fist and adrenaline started to surge through him. He wasn't sure how fighting works in this "realm", but Naruto made sure that he was going to defend himself at all costs.
Naruto unclenched his hands. He'd know that voice anywhere.
Confirming his thoughts, the splashing footsteps slowed to a stop once they stepped into the visible lighting.
It was Sakura.
Naruto was past the point of disbelief. It was her. Staring right at him.
"Naruto... It is you." She murmured, locking her emerald irises onto his cerulean ones. She slowly walked over to him, and Naruto's certainty that it was the real Sakura increased as the gap between them shortened. Her facial expression, her stride... they all gave him clarity that this was the woman he'd inadvertently murdered on his most recent mission.
Sakura Haruno stopped once she was directly in front of him. Her facial expression displayed signs of shock, as did his.
"Sakura-chan... is that really you?" Naruto asked. The proof was right in front of him, obviously, but he had to ask for confirmation.
"Yeah, it's me." She answered, giving him a short smile, though she still seemed surprised, "Where are we? What is this place?"
Naruto's mind was scrambling so much that he almost didn't register her questions, "This is where... my demon dwells. I don't really understand the reality of this place, but this is where I can communicate with the Kyuubi." He decided to counter with some questions of his own, "How are you here right now? I've never really seen anyone else in here like this..."
"I don't know, honestly. This is the first time I've been able to see anything since..."
Naruto knew what the other half of her sentence was. He felt liquid building up in his tear ducts and felt a ton of heaviness and emotion weighing down on him.
"I'm so sorry..." Naruto apologized, too late to catch a tear from falling down his face before he could wipe it, "I... I don't know exactly what happened on that mission, b-but..."
"Hey." Sakura reached out to gently rub his shoulder, "It's okay, Naruto. You—"
"It's not okay." He interrupted, "I don't know how I'm even able to talk to you right now, but... you know what happened. And it's all my fault... it's all my fault..."
Sakura gazed at the sobbing boy for a few seconds before threading her arms between his arms and torso to hug him. She clasped onto him tightly and rested the side of her face onto his chest.
Naruto was so caught up in his own sorrow, he couldn't even muster up words. He simply wrapped his arms around the woman in his mindscape, hugging her tightly as if she'd come back if he held on long enough.
"Naruto, listen. I don't blame you for what happened, so neither should you. It's not your fault." She told him, still listening to his heartbeat, "You can't blame yourself. I know your demon had more to do with it than you did. So please, Naruto, don't blame yourself."
As warming as it was to hear this from Sakura herself, Naruto shook his head, "I'm... trying. But it's so hard to feel like that every second I don't see you. To know that if it wasn't for me, you'd still be around..."
Sakura pulled away to look him in the eyes, "I am still around, Naruto. I know what happened on that mission. I know I'm... supposed to be dead. And maybe I am, but I don't think I've moved on. I feel... stuck. Or trapped. I don't really know how to explain it, but something in my gut tells me that something isn't right..."
Naruto took a second to process what that could possibly mean. After all, Sakura was right here in front of him, and he could tell it wasn't a dream. He'd been able to distinguish the difference between his dreams and being in this mindscape since he was little. So how exactly was she here?
"This doesn't make a whole lot of sense." Naruto said, rubbing his forehead, "Part of me wants to think this is a dream, but I know it's not. You're here, right in front of me... when I thought I'd never see you again."
Sakura smiled and was about to reply until the room they were in went pitch black. Visibility was nil for only a few seconds. When the torches that were suspended on the walls of the room reignited, Sakura was no longer there. Naruto quickly looked around the room to see where she could have went, and was shocked when he turned around enough to see nine fox tails flailing behind a female demon in the cell that was once empty.
She was glaring at him hostilly, "You need to leave."
Naruto was a bit confused to hear that from her. Usually, she'd want him around to ridicule, tease, or threaten him to no end.
"What's going on, Kyuubi?! Where's Sakura?!" He demanded, marching up to the large steel cell.
"Why did I just see her here?!"
"Because you're delusional." She scoffed, "You're ridden with guilt to the point where you're seeing things that aren't there. You did kill her, after all."
Naruto wasn't buying it. Something was amiss.
He walked up to the bars of the cell until he was only two feet away from the Kyuubi on the other side, "What is going on, Kyuubi? There's something you're not telling me."
The demon crossed her arms, rolling her lava red eyes, "You really are delusional. What makes you think I have anything to do with these hallucinations you're having?"
"I'm not crazy. I know what I saw and heard. I could even feel her touching me." He wouldn't back down.
"That's something you should be concerned about, then. You saw your teammate die before your eyes. Her funeral is even taking place tomorrow if I recall correctly. The faster you accept that your precious friend is dead, the easier things will be for you."
Naruto took another step forward. There was an invisible barrier in between the spaces of the bars that prevented the two from contacting one another, but if Naruto was any closer, he'd be standing directly in front of her.
"You're up to something." He accused her, "And whatever it is, I—"
Naruto's sentence was cut off when a harsh grunt escaped his lips. His eyes bulged as he felt indescribable pain coming from his gut. He looked down to see the Kyuubi's claws embedded into his flesh, through his clothing. Red fluid began rapidly spreading around the five fingers stabbing into him, and Naruto was silenced by the combination of the large amounts of shock and pain he was experiencing.
"I said you need to leave." The demon said with a snarl, "Go. Now."
With a very sharp and desperate inhale, Naruto jumped out of his sleep in a cold sweat. He panted heavily and clutched at the spot on his abdomen that he thought was penetrated by the demon's claws. It had taken him a bit of time to adjust to reality and get his breathing under control. He scanned his room and surroundings before looking out his window to see the sun peeking over the horizon.
"What the hell...?" Naruto wondered to himself out loud. His heart was still pounding, and his mind raced with the different conclusions that he thought of in relation to what happened in his subconscious. Was it really a dream? If not, was he really hallucinating in his own mind? Why did the Kyuubi want him gone? How was she able to send him back into reality like that? So many questions raided his mind enough to make it impossible to head back to sleep.
Naruto closed his eyes and dropped his head back into his pillow. He wondered if the grief was making him go insane. He didn't enjoy how unsure he was about what was a reality and what wasn't.
After laying in bed to assess his excessive amount of thoughts, he came to a decision that would allow him to at the very least get some weight off of his shoulders.
He decided that today, he was going to tell Tsunade the truth.
Anko Mitarashi panted as she came down from her high. Sweat lacquered her peach skin and it took some time for her to regulate her air intake. With a deep satisfied sigh, she removed her moistened hand from underneath her cloth undergarments that was now soaked in the crotch.
"God... I swear those early morning sessions are the best ones." She thought to herself as her dry hand wiped the sweat off of her forehead, "It's definitely a nice way to start the day."
After lying there for a moment to bask in the ambiance of post-climactic euphoria, Anko muscled up the energy to get out of bed and hop in her shower. The steamy atmosphere made it difficult to resist the temptation to go for a 'round two', but she managed to succeed in washing up and exiting the bathroom before the water ran cold.
The violet-headed Jounin wrapped her torso in a white towel and her hair in another after stepping out of the shower. Just as she exited the bathroom with a razor and shaving cream in hand, she heard a knock on her door.
"Great." She sighed with annoyance, "Who could possibly be knocking on my door this early in the morning?"
Anko placed the objects on her bed and walked over to her door to answer. She looked through her peephole to find Kurenai on the other side. This was strange for a few reasons. Kurenai knew that she was not exactly a morning person, and avoided the possibility of being hit with Anko's grumpy attitude whenever she could. Not only that, but Anko was usually the one who had to initiate contact with her friend, not only because of the Asuma situation, but because Kurenai was always more self-reserved, even towards her loved ones.
"Kurenai, what's up?" Anko asked after cracking her door to peer at her. Upon further inspection, Anko could see that Kurenai looked extremely down, and wasn't wearing makeup like she normally would. She'd usually never leave home without at least a little bit of mascara or lipstick applied.
Kurenai glimpsed at Anko for a moment before her watery eyes returned back to looking at the ground, "I-I just wanted to see if you were available to talk... But if it's a bad time, it can wait."
Concern began to override any other bit feelings Anko felt, due to the fact that she could tell something was seriously wrong. She may have teased Kurenai about being emotional, but she knew that Kurenai was actually pretty tough, and it had to have taken a lot for something to affect her emotional state bad enough for her to come knocking on her door like this.
Anko opened the door more, gesturing for her to enter her home, "Not at all, Kurenai. Come in."
Kurenai thanked Anko and stepped inside. After closing the door, Anko sat on the bed and motioned for her to sit next to her.
"What did you wanna talk about, Nai-chan?" Asked Anko, giving her one-hundred percent of her attention. Kurenai hesitantly opened her mouth to reply, until her lips began to quiver into the most somber expression Anko had ever seen from her best friend. The Genjutsu Queen buried her face into her palms and began sobbing profusely.
Anko's concern easily doubled by this point.
"Nai-chan?" She called, wrapping an arm around her shoulders comfortingly, "What's wrong?"
Anko patiently waited for a response. Through her tears and irregular breathing pattern, Kurenai managed to build up the ability to give one to her.
"H-He's... He's dead... Asuma is dead..."
Anko's eyes widened before she shut them dejectedly. Anko enveloped Kurenai into her arms tightly, allowing her to cry to her heart's content into her chest.
"I'm so sorry, Kurenai." She whispered to her, rubbing her back comfortingly. Kurenai's weeping only increased in volume and severity, "That's it, get it all out. I'm here for you, hun. It's going to be alright. I promise."
Naruto Uzumaki entered the Hokage tower and sighed once he reached the Hokage's door. He wasn't sure what was to come from him spilling the truth after covering it up with a lie. He knew Tsunade would likely not be pleased to hear that he misconstrued intel on a mission and went as far as to convince another shinobi to lie on his behalf. The main thing he was worried about was whether or not he'd be thrown in jail, exiled, or even executed for his crime. Even if Tsunade herself wanted to let him off the hook due to their close relationship, he wasn't sure if it was enough to stop her from doing her job anyway.
It was then that Anko's words from yesterday replayed in his mind. If there was any sort of punishment that awaited him, he'd have to simply face it head-on, rather than cowering out of it for as long as he could and letting matters fester. The only thing he could do was plead his case and hope for the best.
After another deep breath to shake off his nerves, Naruto raised his fist to knock on the door. Before he did, however, Naruto heard voices on the other side that did not sound as though the Hokage was having a normal conversation with someone. The discussion sounded heated and emotionally passionate. Naruto pressed his ear against the door to listen in on the conversation better, and was a bit taken aback by the things being said.
"Ino, I'm going to need you to watch your tone when you're speaking to the Hokage. I—"
"Or else what? You'll strip me of my rank? You'd honestly be doing me a favor compared to what you're trying to do now."
"Ino, please." Naruto could tell that this was Shizune's voice, "You're being unreasonable. Don't talk back to her like that..."
"You know what's unreasonable? Me trying to do the best thing I can do for myself and being unable to because the 'Hokage' claims that I'm being irrational. I've made my mind up. I'm done. I've thought long and hard about it, so why the hell can't I just turn in this stupid headband and be done with it?!"
Naruto heard Tsunade take a deep breath. She was trying her best to keep her emotions at bay, "Because you're thinking with your emotions. I understand your pain and frustrations. Sakura and Asuma died for the sake of the village, just like many other shinobi, and—"
He heard Ino scoff. He'd never heard Ino talk with such an ill-tempered tone before.
"Fuck this." Naruto heard the clattering sound of metal dropping against wood, "It's really hard to take anything you say seriously when you're the reason they're dead."
Naruto heard footsteps approaching the door and backed his head away just in time as the door opened. Naruto froze in place as Ino strode out of the door with a fiery aura.
"Move." Ino growled, bumping Naruto by the shoulder as she passed him. Naruto watched as the Yamanaka stormed away from any human contact, destination unknown.
With his earlier task forgotten about, Naruto looked into the room of Tsunade's office to see Tsunade herself standing before her desk with grit teeth and a vein popping out on the side of her head. She was clearly trying hard not to hunt the backtalking kunoichi down to drag her face into the ground for her insolent behavior. Shizune stood next to her, trying to calm Tsunade down to the best of her ability.
"She's just upset over her friend's and sensei's deaths, Tsunade-sama..." Shizune muttered to her, with a tone that showed how carefully she was treading, "Don't confront her now. She's just dealing with the grief in her own way."
The Slug Queen let out an angry sigh that was almost a growl and sat back into her seat, "She's lucky she walked away when she did! The nerve of that girl to talk to me like that... Who the hell does she think she is?!"
Naruto slowly walked into the room. Easy to say that he wasn't expecting these events to unfold, "What happened?" He inquired to the two women.
Shizune saw that Tsunade was too busy regulating her frustrations to answer, "Um, Ino is having a rough time coping with Sakura's and Asuma's passing. Tsunade-sama called her in to have a one-on-one talk with her and it didn't go as expected..." She pointed at the Konoha headband on Tsunade's desk, "Ino wanted to turn her headband and retire as a kunoichi, and Tsunade tried to tell her that it was a rash decision, but... Ino wasn't trying to hear it."
Naruto stood there for a second to let this news digest. He wasn't even aware that Asuma had passed. And from what he'd overheard from the conversation, Ino wasn't in her right frame of mind to make the decisions she was making for herself.
The blond approached the desk and grabbed Ino's headband, "I'll talk to her."
"I wouldn't recommend that, Naruto-kun." Warned Shizune, "Ino... she needs some time to air out. Asuma and Sakura meant a lot to her, so she's in a very sensitive state right now. I-"
"No, let him talk to her." Grunted Tsunade.
Shizune was shocked to hear this, "Tsunade-sama, respectfully, I don't think that is wise..."
"Neither is causing a scene like the one Ino caused just now." The Sannin responded. Her frustrated eyes turned to Naruto, "Talk to her. She needs someone to talk some sense into her. If anyone can do it, it'd be you. I'd sooner rip her head off for her behavior than anything else."
Naruto looked at her and gave a solid nod before walking off before Shizune could say anything. The Hokage's assistant sighed.
"Tsunade-sama, I really don't think Ino is going to listen properly to reason in the state that she's in. Maybe if she had some time to cool off first..."
The Godiame let out a destressing sigh and shook her head, "That's exactly why I told Naruto to go after her. Naruto isn't reasonable. His stubbornness makes him that way. And if Ino is willing to talk to the most authoritative member of this village the way she just had, then I can't imagine the things she'd do or say after leaving out of here. Ino is burning hot with emotions right now, and sometimes flames need to be suffocated before they spread. I trust that Naruto is capable of performing this task better than anyone."
"I suppose..." Shizuka said reluctantly. She still had her doubts, but at the end of the day, she knew it was out of her hands. The only thing she could do at this current moment is trust in Tsunade's decision and hope for the best.