Sasuke was cornered. He had planned it through. He had gone alone so that he could sneak in safely, but they had been waiting for him. Clutching his sacred sword Kusanagi in his right hand, he faced three of the most dangerous shinobis in the world. Okay. Maybe not the girl. Haruno Sakura was not a threat even in his weakened state. If not for Uzumaki Naruto and Hatake Kakashi protecting her every cognizant second, he could have already killed her ten times.
He was worrying about Naruto and Kakashi. They were top class. After three years of hiding, he hadn't expected to meet up with these two three levels stronger than before. Naruto could now control the massive Kyubi chakra in him. That truth had smacked him with dread the very moment he realized it. And Kakashi. His level of expertise in using his fate-given Sharingan had become as if he was an Uchiha by blood.
He had wounded Naruto fatally in the chest. He was sure it could have killed him, but the wound had regenerated in seconds without the aid of any medical technique. The Kyubi was the reason for it, he was sure. If he couldn't manage to cut Naruto's head off, he would not be able to defeat him.
The wind ruffled his raven hair as the falls behind him stirred it into motion. He had nowhere to escape to. The loud roar of the waters falling from the Konoha river into a depth no one would dare to measure hammered the realization of finality in his mind. It was now or never. Fight or get killed. With the attack he had been receiving, he had a vague idea that they were not planning to kill him. But it was not enough reason to put down his sword and accept their unsung plead for him to give up. His hatred was stronger. But the uncertainty his heart was pumping into his blood was becoming palpable by the minute. He was in a dire situation. That he would not deny.
Naruto had fixed him with his determined, piercing blue eyes. A feather of exhaustion was apparent in his breath. "It's dead end, Sasuke. Please, lower your weapon. We are only here to bring you back," he said.
Sasuke smirked. "Pathetic words. You've chased me all over the place just to say that? No wonder you lot couldn't catch me. Three of you to boot."
"Sasuke, we are not your enemy. We are your friends. True friends. Come back to us. Please."
With an expression of gloating and anger mixed like coffee and cream on his face, he yelled, "Kill me, then! Kill me and you can bring me back!"
"It's no use talking to that criminal, Naruto," Sakura said.
Naruto frowned at her in disbelief. "What?"
"Accept it. It's useless. I have long given up on him. He's already just a trash."
"Don't talk of him like that! You of all people! You who is the reason I'm doing this!"
"Quit the melodrama, assholes," Sasuke said. Bits of pebbles gave in under his feet and fell into the deep abyss beneath the precipice. "Get serious! Come on!" He put back his sword into its scabbard and assumed a samurai stance of pull-and-kill—a completely defensive stance, but terribly lethal in its simplicity.
Sakura just stared at Naruto, wishing to herself that he would see why she had said those words. She was indirectly telling him that he was more important, now, more precious than the vagrant and hating Uchiha. She had come to realize that Naruto had only been uselessly pursuing a man already devoid of humanity, a goal that could kill him sooner or later. Sasuke could kill now as easily as swatting a fly. Kakashi just stood, alert, shifting his gaze between Sasuke and his two subordinates.
"Then let me show you," Sakura finally said. She glared at Sasuke with every frustration and anger the years of thinking about him had accumulated in her heart. "Let me show you how low he has gotten."
In an instant she disappeared from sight and reappeared only a few meters away from Sasuke. Naruto and Kakashi were gripped by a throat-drying fear at the imminent contact of the two—the girl who had loved the boy and the boy whom she had loved.
Sasuke smiled evilly and gripped the hilt of Kusanagi more tightly. He concentrated all the strength left in him to his right arm. The power was building and he could feel it. The slash would cut Sakura in two.
Before he realized it, Naruto was already on the run. He was faster than Sakura. He could make it in time before the collision. He just knew. One of the two would die if he just stood and watch. "Stop it, Sakura! You're no match against him!"
Sasuke shifted his center of gravity to his left foot and brought it up slowly. He could feel every muscle in his body passing over the force towards his right arm. Sakura was fast approaching, but to his eyes she was ridiculously slow. He could even see the particles of dust suspended in air like in a painting. The taste of blood started to conjure itself up in his tongue, an illusion he welcomed with excitement.
"Sakura!" It was Naruto, running desperately to catch up to Sakura. But he was too late. Sakura cocked her right fist and pulled it towards Sasuke's face. Sasuke grinned and pulled his sword. The blade of the Kusanagi slid smoothly out of its encasing and slashed the air. A split second more and it would hit its aim. Frame by frame of time. Frame by frame. Which would be the first one to hit, Sakura's mighty punch or Sasuke's deadly slash? When the two attacks, solid, cold, and ruthless, were only a hairline away from landing, the ground beneath Sasuke gave in. The Kusanagi missed its chance. However, the punch did not. It pierced the distance and hit Sasuke in the face.
A flash of orange coming past beside her startled Sakura. The orange dived into the depth as she watched over her stretched arm. Her eyes followed the plummeting color down its path to the impending obscurity. Of course, it was Naruto.
"Naruto!" she bellowed. Kakashi was immediately beside her. A flurry of hand seals and he got a long chain. He threw it down.
"Catch it, Naruto!" Kakashi ordered.
"Please, please, reach him," Sakura prayed, unconsciously.
Naruto plunged like an arrow slicing the air. He could feel the vapor and drops of water from the falls, which looked like a giant feather duster against his stomach. He felt like he had just dived into a river rather than towards a dark abyss quite visible now below. Drops of water clung on his face and his clothes was getting more drenched as the seconds ticked automatically in his head as if there was an actual clock in there. He stretched out his arm to grab Sasuke with utmost difficulty. He noticed the chain Kakashi had thrown dangling an inch from his body. He summoned shadow clones. The first grabbed the chain. Another grabbed the first one's free hand. A third grabbed the second's free hand. It went on and on until Naruto managed to grab Sasuke's bloody robe. He threw his free hand up and the twelfth clone caught it. The impact of the raging falls was enough to sway the chain and the persons holding onto it for dear life.
"Don't let go, Naruto!" Sakura screamed in a big voice, unwomanly but she didn't care. Naruto was down a hundred to a hundred fifty meters from the precipice. The powerful sound of the falls ate up her voice and she thought for an instant that it hadn't reached Naruto. But he shouted back.
"Pull us up!"
"Hang on!" Kakashi said. He began to pull at the chain.
"I'll never let go of you," Naruto said to Sasuke.
Sasuke smiled. "Oh. You will." He touched Naruto's stomach with the tip of Kusanagi.
"You won't do that, Sasuke," Naruto told him with a tone full of disbelief and fake confidence. He was uncertain, Sasuke could not miss that.
"You yourself are not sure." Sasuke erased the smile on his face and pushed the blade through Naruto. The Kusanagi cleanly went through Naruto's back. Sasuke, in sheer brutality, twisted the sword to tell Naruto that he was already ending everything between them—the friendship, the bond, the brotherly love. It was all useless now as they were about to die and be born again not knowing who they had been in the past. Naruto stared at him with utter bewilderment, but there was still a glint of hope in his eyes that irritated him. Naruto opened his mouth to speak. Blood splashed on Sasuke's face. His cold charcoal-black eyes became a notch frightening against the crimson liquid that completely covered his face.
"I'm sorry I can't…I can't save you," Naruto muttered. Then he did something Sasuke was not expecting. He smiled. "You can still save yourself." With that he closed his eyes. The clones turned into smoke. Gravity pulled at them again. They began to fall.
"Naruto!" Sakura shrieked.
"Shit!" Kakashi hissed.
It came back. That warm feeling he had felt when his brother smiled at him with hope instead of disgust the night of the Uchiha massacre. It all came back like a hammerblow. Naruto brought it back and he felt his heart opening up to do something he hadn't done for eight years. He cried. Now he was regretting it. What he had done. Sasuke refused to hold onto the chain that would save him from the bottomless darkness below. It was finished anyway. What was waiting for him up there on that solid ground was a life of eternal confinement, condemnation, and mockery. Or death. He believed they would shame him in public before they thrust the cold blade of spear into his throat. He had killed Naruto, a hero, and that was all that would matter. His previous crimes would shrink into the size of an ant or more, into oblivion. They would not care if he had ransacked an entire village and killed children and old folks. They would not see that. He had killed Naruto and they would kill him because of that. Only that. So, he closed his eyes. Finally, he could rest. It was finished. He dropped his sword and it plummeted ahead of him. It was a very long fall.
Sakura stood up. "No, no, no, no, no!" she said as if it was a chant. "Naruto!" she called out amidst the roaring falls. "Naruto!"
"Go and request for a search and rescue team," Kakashi said with anxious eyes. "I'll go down and look for him." Sakura wasn't listening so he had to shake her shoulders. "Listen to me! We don't know if Naruto is already dead." Sakura tentatively nodded. "Don't worry. I'm sure he'll not die that easily. Go!"
When Sakura began rushing for Konoha, Kakashi summoned seven ninja dogs led by a pug named Paku. "Listen up. Naruto fell down. We will spread once we get at the bottom," he said.
There was an honest expression of shock on Paku's virtually impassive countenance. "Naruto fell?"
"There is no time to explain to you, guys. Time is precious. Crucially precious this time. Let's move out."
Sakura was not thinking of anything but reaching Tsunade's office. The trees went past her peripheral and major field of vision like crude lines of crayon on parchment, but it didn't matter to her. She even wished the trees would burn and turn into ash, and she would shovel the ash up and tossed it down to the falls. The falls. Naruto had fallen towards the bottom, the Mouth of Hades as it was locally known. The fear that she had dismissed temporarily, pushing it with her will into the farthest corner of her mind, began to creep up again. She shook her head. What was she thinking at a time like this? She should be focusing on the solution at hand. That was to reach the office of the Hokage and report what had happened right off the bat. She should hurry. When a tree blocked her way, she punched it into shards of debris. She didn't care right now if an environmentalist group protested against the act. The tree would grow anyhow as long as the root was still in the soil. But Naruto wouldn't live if his body was found dead. Time was the enemy.
Now that she thought about it, the falls—it was called Sky's Descent—was more than four kilometers high. She didn't know if somewhere in the world a falls that high or higher than that existed. But what concerned her was not the height's rarity, but the height itself. Could a human survive after falling that high even though the bottom was made of water? In addition, the falls was gigantic. Imagine the weight of the force it had. Someone too unfortunate to fall would surely die. Even Naruto.
The realization stung her eyes. Was there still a chance that Naruto had survived the fall? Once Master Tsunade had taken her on a trip to get a wild medicinal herb growing from a rich patch of earth midway of the falls. Looking around at that place, she had seen how the rocks jutted like shark's teeth along the steep face of the cliff. Naruto getting caught on one came into her mind. The image of red flesh splattering around, minced into tiny bits, the image of blood suspended in air—those almost made her faint. Her breathing was caught by a knot in her throat. For two seconds, she couldn't breathe. Oh my God. Please spare him. I'm prepared if he becomes a vegetable, just don't let him die. Please, God.
Her praying to Kami—God—was rare for her to do. She only did it when fear of immeasurable degree appeared before her, laughing at her. Today was the day she had her most frightened state.
The gate of Konoha appeared in the distance. At last, she could feel a thread of relief. The thorn of fear was pulled out a millimeter from her back. She landed on the ground, looked around, dismissed the thought of telling the Jonin guard to make the request while she went back to help Kakashi, and went on herself. She jumped onto the rooftop of the first house she saw, splintering the shingle directly beneath her foot and prying off the shingles around it with the impact of her landing. She ran towards the administration building like her life depended on it. She reached the building in less than a minute.
"Master Tsunade! Master Tsunade!" she said as she entered the Fifth Hokage's office.
The pretty lady with long blonde hair sitting behind the desk started at her voice. The pretty lady was the Fifth Hokage. Actually, she was old, in her sixties already, but she used a regeneration technique that made her look like as she had been when she was in her twenties. Also, that technique reverted not only her skin's youth but her bodily functions as well. Her heart, kidneys, liver, pancreas, everything in her body regressed in age and worked like new. In that state, she was actually a young woman. Only that the technique spent a large amount of her chakras so she couldn't fight in her fullest when she was at it.
"Sakura? What happened?" Tsunade said.
"Naruto fell into the Mouth of Hades. Please…a rescue team…please." She was terribly exhausted and her breathing was getting thin. "Please…"
Tsunade was frowning. She stood up and went to fetch a glass of water for Sakura from the back of the office. She helped Sakura drink from the glass. "Take a deep breath…okay, that's it…okay. Now, tell me again. Slowly."
"Master Tsunade, we had been chasing Sasuke. We cornered him at the Sky's Descent. I attacked him, but the ground beneath him collapsed and he fell. Naruto dived after him and caught him, but Sasuke suddenly stabbed Naruto and they fell together. Master Kakashi stayed to look for their bodies. He believed that Naruto still lives." She whimpered. "Could that be true? Could Naruto survive that fall?"
Tsunade began to move like she had been hypnotized, whispered to, and with a flick of the fingers obeyed. She left Sakura standing there and went to her assistant's office.
"Shizune! Shizune!" Her voice thundered in the hallway. Two Jonins flinched and shrank away when she marched past them. "Shizune! Where the hell are you?"
A cute girl with short, black hair got out from the Filing Room, carrying papers in her arms. She was Shizune. "What's the matter? I was rewriting these files in here."
"Go and call for the Hyuuga and the Inuzuka search and rescue teams. Naruto is in grave danger. Now, go!"
At the mention of Naruto's name, Shizune dropped the papers and they scattered all over the floor. She ran into the Message Room.
Kakashi and his dogs fought their way down the steep cliff of the falls. They were rushing so it was difficult to avoid getting wounds here and there especially that the cliff was strewn with families of sharp rocks. Kakashi accidentally stepped on a loose ledge. The ledge collapsed and Kakashi slid. A rock no more than the size of an opened hand cut his back.
"Kakashi!" Paku called out.
"I'm okay. I'm okay. Carry on."
Paku didn't listen and approached him. "What's okay? You have a huge wound. Let me wrap it up, at least."
Once finished, they continued on their descent. Forty-eight minutes had passed before they reached the bottom.
One word: scary. Even for a Jonin like him, the place was like hell itself. Because of the eternal crashing of water from the river at a height of more than four thousand meters, the surrounding was always too misty to see a thing five meters from you. Without the mist it was a thick forest, undisturbed and thriving. Trees with thick trunks with branches growing in every direction possible comprised the majority of the area. Sunlight was scant if not none at all so the trees fight over dominance to survive, making them ten times larger than ordinary. Coupled with impossibly fertile soil, even calamities couldn't stop their growth.
The feet of the falls could easily have the width of a large knoll or a temple. It was huge. So huge for Kakashi that his belief that Naruto could have survived the fall waned a little. Also, there was the matter of the protruding boulders as large as houses around the falls' feet. Because of the impact, they had been forced out the ground, and the thousands of years of their existence had made their tips as sharp as blades as stray drops of water continued to hit and hone them every day. Beyond the group of boulders was a wide stream as black as pitch. That word again: scary. Back at the feet of the falls. The basin that was directly beneath the feet was called the Mouth of Hades. From the name alone, it was already obvious that the basin was of mysterious existence. The basin was deep enough to hide the whole falls under it. Monks believed that it was the actual gateway to hell. Priests believed that creatures with indescribable appearances lived in there. He hoped that Naruto had not fallen into that basin. From that height, it was possible that the direction of his fall had changed. It was better if he had fallen to the ground than to the water. The Kyubi's chakra would regenerate him anyway.
He pulled his forehead protector to uncover his Sharingan and began his search.
Eight minutes had already passed. Tsunade was standing at the center of her office, her foot tapping the floor with impatience. Every ten seconds, a crispy curse would go out her mouth. She would shot a glare at the door and curse again. Ten seconds. A new curse under her breath. A glare at the door. She was just suppressing herself from erupting in front of Sakura, who was now hugging her knees at a corner. She knew that Sakura was already exhausted. The Sky's Descent was a good eighty three kilometers from Konoha. And she had made the trip back for only thirty two minutes. A feat. A new record if she was in good humor for she would have already told the Record Council to write it down had it been not for the serious case they had.
Was Naruto all right? Kakashi was good at tracking. He might have gotten to Naruto by now. Tsunade gnawed at the nail of her right thumb and began pacing the room. Sakura looked up wearily at her.
"Don't look at me like that, pretty face." She glanced at Sakura if she had obeyed. Sakura had kept her stare. Tsunade hunkered in front of her. "Come on. Don't do that. Everything will be all right, okay. We will find them and they will both be alive with only a few scratches here and there."
Sakura finally looked away. "I don't care about Sasuke. Let him die. He stabbed Naruto who was just trying to save him."
"Would Naruto like to hear that from you? He was trying to save Sasuke for you."
"He was only doing that because he believed that I still loved the bastard."
"So? Wasn't that the case?"
"No. The one I truly love is him. Naruto."
Tsunade cocked her eyebrow, intrigued. "Hmmm…I didn't know that."
Sakura blushed despite of herself and unbelievably because of the situation. She nodded. "It's true. I was a fool in the past not to notice it. But now there's no one in my heart but Naruto."
"When we found him, would you confess to him? For me? I want to see Naruto happy." Tsunade offered a sweet, hopeful smile.
Outside the two teams began their ascent up the stairs going to the top floor. Their authority was tangible in the air. Some of the villagers who happened to be in the building bowed their heads when they passed by.
The Hyuuga Special Search Squad (HS3) was comprised of Neji, Hinata, and Aika. Hyuuga Neji had long, dark hair acting as background for his beautiful face. If not for his stern expression, many would think of him as a woman, especially that Hyuuga males wore long tunics. He was considered a genius and the youngest to be awarded the title of Jyuuken-Sei, in other words, Ultimate Master. His being a son of the Hyuuga Branch had been discarded, the seal on his forehead erased. Now he could attend—obliged to attend—meetings among the Hyuuga Main.
On his right was Hyuuga Hinata, who was once a shy one, but today her pretty face had a strong quality in it. All of Konoha knew that she was in love with their hero, Naruto. Because of it, many aspiring boyfriends had their hearts broken early on. They thought, especially the immigrants, that Hinata had high standards. Too high even for Naruto was internationally known as one of the best shinobis in history. A Kage material, as old folks would say. Her father had accepted her back as his daughter and the legitimate heir of the Jyuuken discipline and the Hyuuga leadership. Even though Neji was still ways ahead in skill, Hinata had proven enough that the Hyuuga clan could count on her. A ceremony had been held the day she was reinstated where all the elders and seniors of the Hyuuga clan touched their foreheads against the ground, prostrating themselves for the wrong judgment they had done on her. Hinata was now one of the five Grandmasters of Hyuuga in Jyuuken, only a level below Neji.
Another of the five Grandmasters was Hyuuga Aika, a bubbly thirteen year old girl with short white hair. She was a prodigy. Despite of her petite body, she could fight against bigger opponents. She was a member of a special family in the Hyuuga Main—the Hyuuga Hybrids. Her family had the royal blood of the ancient Hyuugas. The children born in this family had special eyes that had gold rim around the irises. They were capable of activating the eight gates without the danger of dying, unlike ordinary shinobis. Also, they had God Reflex, an ability that made it easy for them to transfer commands to and from the brain. This special ability made their reaction speed an estimated three hundred and four times faster than that of a skilled Taijutsu user. At her young age, she was already a Jonin. She entirely skipped elementary school and was trained by Jyuuken-Sei Hyuuga Kitashi himself, the legendary Firm Fist. Other than Neji, Hinata and the Jyuuken-Seis, the only other person she had lost to was Naruto. She had become curious about him and asked Hinata. With Hinata's all-compliment description of him, she fell in love with Naruto. Aika had written Naruto's name on the Hyuuga's Official Journal as her future husband. If Naruto did not sign his refusal and Aika took another man as husband, Aika would be sentenced to death as punishment.
The other team, the Inuzuka Tracking Specialists Team (ITST) was comprised of Kiba, Momoko, and Katsuo. Kiba was the dominating existence even though the two were not that behind. The reason was because he always had his big white dog with him. Akamaru, his dog, had grown muscular, more handsome in human description, more predatory in jungle words. A giant breed, Akamaru occupied a third of the hallway. His master Kiba would have been ordinary looking if not for the two red fang-shaped tattoos on his face, one on each cheek, the symbol for warrior in the Inuzuka clan. He was the top tracking shinobi of Konoha. His sense of smell was on par with Akamaru's and he reacted with his instincts more—an ability that had made him famous as the "Timing Magician" because of his uncanny premonitions in battles, usually escaping death in incredibly dire situations—than with his common sense. In battles done in forests, he always had the upper hand.
Inuzuka Momoko was the granddaughter of the Inuzuka Chieftain. Blessed with extraordinary beauty and a body that didn't get fat however much she ate, she was considered one of the most beautiful gems in Konoha. Her eyes were a pair of walnuts, sometimes almost as red as the sunset. She had long brown hair that was quite unruly because of her wild habits and smooth skin the color of rich chocolate. Painters had praised her symmetrical features, from the soft curves of her jaws, her high cheekbones, and her thin nose. The only problem about her was her tomboyish nature. She was already eighteen, but she was more rugged than most men, not a sign of femininity. For most, she was an eye candy. However, once she began to speak, her rough edges showed themselves. But don't be fooled by her looks. She was pretty skilled in Taijutsu and was born with special set of muscles most martial artists would love to have. Our body is composed of two types of muscles, the strong red muscles and the high endurance white muscles. However, she had muscles with the mixture of both—pink muscles. Thus, her physical potential shot up. Even Mighty Guy had once said that "Momoko could be a Master among the Masters."
In the past, she had been confident about her skills so she hated to train and she distrusted senseis. She had been as lazy as Shikamaru. One day Naruto challenged her in a Taijutsu duel. Of course, Naruto lost. After a week, Naruto challenged her again and again he lost. Two months passed before Naruto challenged her again. She accepted the challenge. At first she was winning. However, Naruto managed to sneak a punch in and she lost consciousness. That day she lost. After a week she decided to challenge him for a rematch. He gladly accepted. The fight was fierce. However, Naruto managed to sneak two punches in this time and she lost once more. The third time she challenged him, Naruto managed to sneak five punches in. She didn't give up on challenging him as if it had become her personal mission, but each time she lost. After three hundred and fifty eight fights, she hadn't won against Naruto, yet.
"Why can't I win against you?" she had asked him. It was after their latest fight. She was holding her bruised right shoulder.
Naruto grinned at her. "It's because you're lazy and overconfident. You know, you have a gift. You could be a great Taijutsu master one day. I fought you because your cousin, Kiba, asked me to wake you up from that bad behavior. The first time I lost to you, I took special classes from Guy-sensei. I worked hard so that I would be able to be skillful in Taijutsu. I'm not like you who can easily simulate and understand the purpose of a move, but I don't stop until I perfect a move as my sensei wanted it to be. You can't beat me until now because I keep on challenging Guy-sensei to push me harder so that I can become like Rock Lee, his chosen disciple. Momoko-chan, I envy you for having a body designed for Taijutsu, but if you will not put hard work in the equation and trust experienced fighters to teach you, that gift will be wasted on you."
Naruto's words struck her like thunderbolt. Many of her relatives had said those words before, but she ignored them. But this time, even though she wanted to ignore him, rebel against him, threw him a tantrum designed to piss him off, she couldn't. The tone that Naruto had used to speak those words that she had heard a thousand times before had made her feel special, respected, and loved at the same time.
"What should I do then?" she said.
"I heard that the Inuzuka clan is full of strong masters. Find one and work hard."
Before Naruto could go on, Momoko tiptoed and bit him on the neck, leaving four fang marks on it. Naruto clasped a hand over the small wounds and stared at Momoko, confused. Momoko just smiled and left. He did not know that the gesture was the first of the four traditional rituals of engagement in the Inuzuka clan. Momoko had just made him her "target." I guess she was just too mad at me, was what Naruto thought.
Momoko found a master of her liking and worked hard under her guidance. In just one year, she mastered skills that normally taught after fifteen years of apprenticeship. Her master said to her, "I'm happy that you've come back. Now that you impart diligence and conviction in your training, you might surpass me in two years."
The last of the Inuzuka team was Katsuo. He was a big guy with a pelt of polar bear on his back. He had small eyes and what covered his scalp wasn't hair but symbolic tattoos, characters only the Inuzuka elders would understand. He didn't speak much, but he was popular for being kind to animals and small children. His most potent weapon was the Lion's Roar, a Taijutsu technique requiring strength and control of the respiratory system, especially the vocal chords. His voice once amplified could demolish a concrete building. Another skill he had was his ability to speak with wolves. Not like Kiba who could communicate only to Akamaru, Katsuo could communicate with every kind of wolves that were already capable of deciding for themselves. Nobody but him could do this. This skill made him indispensable in the ITST.
They reached Tsunade's office. Tsunade sighed and said, "Finally."