Itachi Uchiha exits the building without sparing his brother a glance, his partner following quickly behind him. Jiraiya pulls out a scroll from his pocket, kneeling down to seal away the strange black flames.
Naruto drops down next to Sasuke immediately. He’s so motionless slumped against the wall, so still, and Naruto’s heart jumps into his throat, because he remembers this scene, remembers this feeling. He remembers holding Sasuke’s lifeless body in his arms, tears hot on his cheeks and blood slippery on his hands. He remembers the anguish that spiked through his heart, at the realization that he lost something he hadn’t known he’d miss.
No, Naruto thinks, the same desperation rising in his chest. Sasuke looks the same now as he did then – bruised and battered and so very, very still. No.
Sasuke’s chest moves then, and Naruto’s breath escapes him in a rush. His relief is so palpable he can taste it.
“Sasuke?” Naruto says. His hands hover uncertainly over his friend’s body, shaking and afraid to touch. Sasuke looks so much more fragile than he’s ever been, not even during his battle with Haku. Naruto can’t stop seeing the way he was flung around, can’t stop hearing the sound of his bones breaking.
At least with Haku, it could be called a fight. But this – this was just a beatdown.
Itachi Uchiha. Naruto can’t stop seeing those cold eyes. Or the way Sasuke glared into them, with more hatred than Naruto thought a single person capable of feeling.
What horrible thing could that man have done, to put such an awful look in Sasuke’s eyes? And why were they after him?
Naruto’s head is spinning with questions, but his attention is refusing to focus on any of them. Instead, his mind keeps replaying the image of fingers wrapping around Sasuke’s throat, slamming him against the wall; the sound of his screams still echo in his ears.
Naruto has never heard anyone scream like that before. He never wants to again.
Jiraiya returns his sealing scroll to his waistband. He walks over to his pupil, and the look on his face is grave. “Naruto.”
Naruto ignores him. His eyes locked on Sasuke’s pale face, he grabs the boy by the shoulders and begins to shake him. “Sasuke! Sasuke, wake up!”
Sasuke’s eyes remain closed. Naruto shakes him harder.
“Naruto,” Jiraiya repeats, his voice firmer. He places a restraining hand on the jinchuuriki’s shoulder. “That’s enough. He could have a concussion.”
Naruto stops immediately, though he keeps his hands on Sasuke’s shoulders. Jiraiya crouches down next to him, and his heart sinks as he gets a closer look at the kid’s condition.
Naruto watches him closely, taking in his grim eyes and the thin line of his lips. “What is it? He’s gonna be okay, right?”
Jiraiya places his fingers against the boy’s neck; the pulse he finds there is weak and thready. He catalogs the injuries that are visible to him, aligning them with what he saw during the fight. The kid’s entire body looks beat to hell, so it’s hard to zero in on specific injuries. A broken wrist, perhaps even a few broken ribs; his neck will be rather bruised up in a few hours (along with the rest of him). The blood on his lips is worrying; it suggests he might have punctured a lung.
Jiraiya leans closer to listen to the boy’s breaths. They don’t seem to rattle, which is a good sign.
“He should be fine, physically,” he responds. “But he should still get medical attention as soon as possible. I can’t be sure if he has a head injury.”
The Sennin looks down on him with a frown. What was he thinking, coming after Itachi alone?
Though the worry still remains in his eyes, Jiraiya's words seem to appease Naruto slightly. He tears his gaze away to voice one of the many questions swirling around in his brain.
“Pervy Sage, why were those guys after me? How did they know about the Kyuubi?”
For once, Jiraiya doesn’t protest the nickname. He frowns, carefully considering his words before he speaks. “Naruto, those two ninja – ”
That’s when a blur of green crashes through the hole in the wall, a hard fist colliding with his face.
“Ha-ha! Victory is mine, you foul – ” Gai's booming voice halts mid-sentence, his eyes widening. The victorious grin slips from his face as he processes the scene before him. “Oh.”
“Oh!?” Jiraiya repeats, pushing himself off the ground. He presses his hand to his nose to staunch the flow of blood. “What the hell was that for!?”
Gai wipes his knuckles discreetly on his jumpsuit. “I apologize!” he professes, in a voice that might’ve been sheepish if it wasn’t so loud. “I was casing the hallway from outside and mistook you for the enemy!”
“The enemy is gone,” Jiraiya grumbles, pulling out a tissue and holding it against his nostrils. “You better hope you didn’t break my nose. How did you even know they were coming here?”
“I didn’t,” said Gai. “But they arrived in Konoha first, searching for Naruto. Kakashi saw through them immediately, of course! Nothing gets passed my Rival!” He grins briefly with pride, but then it quickly slips from his face. His demeanor at once becomes more subdued. “However, even his elite moves were no match for those of Itachi Uchiha.”
Still kneeling on the floor, Naruto straightened, eyes brightening with concern. “Kakashi-sensei!? Is he okay!?”
“He will be fine, don’t you worry. Nothing can keep him down long, that Kakashi.”
His voice is filled with his usual note of irritation mixed with admiration when he speaks his rival's name. Naruto calms some, though worry still squirms in his gut. Itachi taking Sasuke down so easily was scary enough, but to hear he took down Kakashi as well…
Naruto shivers at the thought of someone so powerful after the Kyuubi – after him. If Jiraiya hadn’t gotten here…
Gai has turned his attention toward Sasuke now. His face creases in worry as he looks at him. “What happened?”
“What do you think?” Jiraiya says harshly. Gai winces. “What even happened? If Itachi was in the village, then surely someone was keeping an eye on him.”
“Kakashi was meant to be training with him today. When he didn’t show up, Sasuke went looking for him. Then someone burst in and blurted out everything that happened.”
“And let me guess, he took off?” Jiraiya guesses. He doesn’t know Sasuke Uchiha – hasn’t ever even spoken to him – but he knows enough of his circumstances to guess what his response would be to hearing Itachi was in the village. He saw it on the kid's face, when he and his brother squared off.
Hatred. Betrayal. A desperate need to hurt.
“As soon as he heard he was after Naruto, he hightailed it out of there. I went right after him, but that kid is fast. It seems I arrived too late.”
Gai's face is regretful as he looks down at Sasuke, and he asks, “Will he be okay?”
“He’ll live. But he needs a hospital.”
“Of course. I’ll take him,” the man volunteers immediately. He bends down on one knee next to Naruto, and Naruto instinctively tenses, drawing closer to his friend.
“Naruto,” Gai says gently when he notices. The strange softness to his voice is odd from someone usually so loud. “I need you to let me pick him up. I promise to hurt him as little as possible.”
Naruto hesitates, but his hands slide from Sasuke’s shoulders and he scoots back a couple feet. Gai scoops Sasuke into his arms slowly, careful of his injuries, and though he knows Sasuke can’t feel it, Naruto still can’t help but wince.
Gai stands up, holding Sasuke close to his chest. He looks so small in the man’s arms, so breakable.
He doesn’t look like Sasuke, Naruto thinks. Sasuke isn’t breakable. He’s not supposed to be breakable.
But he is.
"What exactly happened?" Gai asks. "Besides him getting beaten up?"
Jiraiya frowns at the unconscious form in his arms. "I'm not too sure. Itachi used some form of genjutsu on him -- I've never seen anything like it. He just started screaming."
Horrified recognition flashes quickly over Gai's face. Jiraiya isn't looking at him, so he doesn't catch it, but Naruto does.
“You said the two of them left?” Gai confirms. Sasuke’s head rests just below his chin. “Do you think they’ll be back?”
Jiraiya shakes his head. “No, they know better. You get that kid back to Konoha. Naruto will be safe with me – ”
“Wait, what?” Naruto snaps his eyes from Sasuke’s unconscious form, his attention drawn back to the current conversation. He jumps to his feet. “What do you mean with you? I’m not leaving Sasuke!”
Jiraiya sighs, but he looks like he was expecting this. “Naruto, we need to find Tsunade. The village is weak so long as it is without a Hokage. It’s important one be instated as soon as possible – ”
“Then you go!” Naruto yells. He looks at his friend held in Gai's arms, and he shakes, remembering his screams. “I’m going with Bushy Brow sensei!”
“I can’t go myself, that’s why I brought you with me. You’re the only one she’ll listen to.”
Naruto shakes his head. His blue eyes are fierce as he meets Jiraiya's gaze.
“I won’t leave Sasuke,” he declares.
Jiraiya fights to match the boy’s stare. In that moment, Naruto’s resemblance to Minato is so intense that it hurts to look at him.
“Yes,” he forces himself to say. “You will.”
Naruto’s blue eyes cut through him, hurt and betrayed, and Jiraiya feels himself softening. “Naruto, there’s nothing you can do for him,” he says. “Come with me. Sasuke will be fine when you return.”
Naruto wavers. He looks uncertainly at Sasuke, then at Gai.
“I’ll take care of him, Naruto,” Gai says. “I promise.”
Naruto bites his lip, but he nods reluctantly. He walks forward a few steps, staring into his friend’s pale face. His eyes catch on the trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, the bruise forming on his cheekbone.
“I’ll return soon, Sasuke,” he swears. “And when I do, I’ll have an awesome new jutsu to show off. And we can finally have that fight you promised me.”
Naruto steps back. Gai nods to Jiraiya, before exiting the building the same way he came in.
Jiraiya places a comforting hand on his shoulder. Naruto watches the two of them go, his heart only growing heavier as they disappear from his sight.