When all seems lost and the remaining team members begin to doubt their chances, hope flourishes from an unexpected source. (I'm Back!)
Still, as much as she hated to admit it, Kakashi was right. She couldn't fight - not this time.
She'd listen to him.
"Fine." She tried not to sound too upset at the situation, for Tadashi's sake. The little boy didn't need any more hostility around him. "You win. I'll go back. But what about you? You can barely stand on your own two feet and you absolutely can't move fast enough to be of any use. How do you think you'll be able to find the team in time and warn them?"
Kakashi pushed on bare hand into the shredded remains of his vest and produced a tightly rolled, familiar scroll.
"Pakkun?" Tenten shifted the toddler to her other hip, stroking his hair absently, "Do you think he'll be able to handle it? I mean... he's getting up there in age."
"Would you say the same thing abut me?" The question was delivered in Kakashi's usual even tone, but it still drove an embarrassed flush into the sniper's cheeks. A thumb drawn along a scrape Sakura had deemed minor enough to ignore, and a pop of smoke produced the diminutive pug before the two shinobi along with his seven larger companions. Eight noses began twitching immediately, taking in their surroundings. Round eyes roved over their surroundings, coming to rest on the covered bodies and lastly Kakashi's battered form.
"Are... are you going to tell us what happened?" The smallest of the ninken who was usually so in control of himself - the canine counterpart of Kakashi -was now at a loss for words.
"I've got a job for you guys." Kakashi replied. "I need two of you to take Tenten and Tadashi back to the village." Tenten didn't argue - she figured the moment she saw all the ninken summoned that at least one of them was going to be her escort. "The rest of us are going on ahead, probably into battle."
Without further command the largest of the canines moved forward and braced as Kakashi climbed up onto its back. Tenten took a tentative step towards her fellow shinobi, her hand pressing the toddler's head to her shoulder, muffling his ears in the embrace.
"No, now wait a minute. Kakashi, if you go into a fight you probably won't come back. Please, let the ninken go on by themselves. They're more than capable. Come back with us."
The silver haired man straightened on the giant dog's back and smiled weakly from behind his tattered mask. "I made a promise." A pat on the great shoulder beneath him and the pack slipped into the growing darkness, leaving Tenten, Tadashi and their chaperones behind. Tenten watched for amoment until finally the two remaining ninken stood and watched her expectantly.
"Idiot." She hissed into the still air and fought like hell to hold back the stinging in her eyes. He wasn't her mentor and she shouldn't care, but somehow that cold bastard had snuck his way into her heart as well.
And if he died out there like an idiot she swore to Kami she'd kick over his headstone ever day for the rest of her life!
His first thought was to escape. This beast, this... thing... wasn't human. Not anymore. Their very surroundings even felt different, though they still appeared the same - clearly affected by its mere presence. Twisted. Hostile. Worse, this creature wasn't locked behind a fortified seal. How it had happened no longer mattered.
It was out, beyond the paper seal and steel bars.
It could touch him.
He thought again to escape when it let loose another throaty breath and stepped towards him with a sadistic hunger plastered across its face - and then he recalled that his original body was beyond his current reach.
And he knew that he would not get the opportunity to move on to one of the hokage's teammates and use them as a life boat. They were certain to be on guard now.
The creature that had once been Rokudaime rumbled as it exhaled once more. Though he still resembled Naruto, red eyes, feral claws, jagged teeth and ears that were drawn to tufted points robbed the former man of any trace of his humanity. Muscles bulged and tore the clothes Naruto once covered his self-image in, revealing limbs that were nearly grotesque with sinew and veins, their contours visible beneath the tanned skin. Saliva slicked fangs flashed in the murky light when the thing opened its mouth as if to speak.
Yet nothing but a guttural growl came forth.
The man shivered.
The thought crossed his mind that in this place most jutsus and earth-bound abilities were null and void. It should have given him comfort, to know that in this place a demon was no more and no less than a human. They should be on equal ground here.
But as he looked at the thing before him that should not even be able to exist - not even in this place - the man felt real fear seep into his bones. He had seen things too horrible for common men to imagine in the past. He had been able to bear the reality of those things calmly, because they had always been within his control. He had known how they had come into being, and knew how to destroy them if the need arose. He had created most of them himself, making acceptance that much easier. But now...
Naruto should never have been able to meld his mind with that of the demon. A mind could either exist or be destroyed, but never, never could it merge so completely with another as to form one entirely new consciousness. Such a feat was no more plausible than the idea of melding fire and water to form acompletely new element in nature!
And the thought of escape bounced madly within his mind, taking over and driving out any plan of preserving his prize. The remains of Uzumaki Naruto and the Kyuubi stalked closer until the one that was still human had his back pressed to the mangled cage doors behind him. And still the thing approached, a red tongue darting over its lower lip as though savoring the taste of something. Real panic surged in the man at the complete inhumanity that was moving closer and closer to him.
He had to get away!
He couldn't see Neji's face from behind the thick fall of hair, but the slump in the proud man's shoulders was enough to tell Shikamaru that the Hyuuga man had lost his equanimity. Hinata lay in Neji's arms and Shikamaru knew that if Hinata wasn't dead already-
"Sakura," Neji's voice was almost alien as his throat closed, though he did not sob outright, "there's still some chakra..." his Byakugan was watching Hinata's life force as it bled out from her body and still he pleaded for help, though reason told him that his cousin was lost already. But he could not obey his precious reason - not this time.
The medic-nin was upon her friends without a second glance at Naruto's still form, peeling ruined garments from bloodied flesh. Her face screwed tightly in anguish at the sight of the wound - with her energies so severely depleted there was no way she could save Hinata's life. Perhaps with Tsunade's help-
A surge of power and a grunted cry of shock from behind was enough to pull the kunoichi's attention from her patient.
The elder hokage had managed by some miracle to dodge the younger one's attack. But it only took aglance for Sakura to see the reason - a reason that was anything but miraculous.
Naruto's body popped audibly as muscles twisted and bulged beneath skin. In some places skin tore from the stress only to heal instantly through the kyuubi's power. His nose and chin elongated slightly, his ears pointed, claws extended and limbs grew longer by inches. All the while the familiar red glow pulsated with a life all its own around him. The transformation had slowed Naruto enough for Tsunade to get clear of his attack.
Red eyes that did not bear the Sharingan rose and met green and Sakura swallowed a scream.
This was not the Naruto she remembered wielding the power of the demon. This wasn't even the demon breaking partially free - as she had witnessed when they had been fifteen. This was something worse, something terrifyingly real. This was not the demon taking control, or Naruto commanding the thing. The only way to describe it was the two merging into one. Something with a bloodlust she had never seen before.
The thing moaned a sound that terrified her as nothing she had ever known before. Naruto's voice was gone from the noise - his eyes focused on his prey who watched him in turn through cool brown eyes.
But the Hokage wasn't about to back down. Not after what had just happened - not after what she had just done. All the chips were going in and this time there was no I.O.U. to cover the debt. She'd pay in full if she lost and the payment was a one way ticket straight to hell with her name on it. She didn't care; she deserved that trip after today. The least she could do was make sure that no one else had to die with her.
No one but her most precious student.
Tsunade gritted her teeth and threw herself at her original target. The Kusanagi whistled through the air, its clear tone somehow sullied in her ears by the innocent blood that coated its blade. Naruto opened a mouth lined with jagged teeth at her. The thing let lose a piercing scream that betrayed no trace of humanity and Tsunade answered with a wail of rage and anguish and brought the red stained sword to her protege’s throat.
He dodged with an ease that made her skills pathetic in comparison. She tried again, this time barely managing to escape the clawed hands that countered her attack and only because she was lucky enough to have caught the fingers against the flat of the blade. There was no way; her advantage was gone.
“Get out of here!” She had to try to save the others, or at least give them time to save themselves. Shikamaru moved and before she could second guess herself she tossed the blade hilt-first to the strategist. “Go!” The Nara glanced down at the sword in his grip and, grabbing hold of Neji’s shoulder as he passed, obeyed the Hokage’s order. Hinata’s still form tumbled from Neji’s grasp as he was bodily pulled from the scene. Confusion and torn loyalty gave Sakura a moment’s hesitation before she, too, followed the men into the trees and away from her friends. Her last glimpse of Godaime was of long blonde hair billowing above that grey robe. A taunting sweeping kick at the demon-possessed man and Tsunade fled into the woods and in the opposite direction of her subordinates.
“We can’t-” Sakura shook the tears from her eyes as she ran, not knowing exactly what it was she was trying to argue against. Abandoning their possessed friend? His dead wife? The mentor who had murdered the woman? “Shika, we - I can’t…”
“Focus Sakura,” her deliberate friend said sharply, “don’t turn back. There's nothing back there but death.” Neji's silence was heavy in her heart - normally the man was a boon to a team, even if only in his proud confidence of their sucess.
The only thing she could think of at that moment was how badly she needed Lee’s confidence; his optimism that could shine through the darkest time. But Lee had been stolen by another member of Akatsuki. Taken, and then immobilized by her best friend’s wife.
And then Hinata had taken his location to her early grave.
And so Sakura sobbed for her self, for the lost, and for her friends who still held valiantly to their self-control.
“Why are you coming with us?” Pakkun kept pace with the larger dogs easily, watching Kakashi as he lay clutching at the huge collar beneath his face. “You should have gone with the girl.”
“There’s no reason to go with her.”
“You mean other than you would have lived?” The pug pointed out but was careful to keep his tone casual. “Yeah, I can see what you mean. Why go back just because of that?”
Kakashi didn’t seem to care about Pakkun’s careful baiting.
“Two are dead. Most of the others are turned against us. I’m not leaving the survivors out here alone.”
“You’ll be useless when the fighting starts,” Pakkun gave up trying to be polite, “you’ll only get in our way when the fight starts and we have to protect you.” The single brow lowered critically over the dark eye.
“You know better than that. You just fight. I’ll worry about covering my own ass.”
“And you know better than to say something so ridiculous.” The pug was not given to arguing so intensely with Kakashi – loyalty to the shinobi was strong in each and every one of the eight dogs. But Kakashi’s self destruction had hit an all-time high this time and it was angering the intelligent ninken more than he realized was prudent.
The dog at the fore – a silver-grey dog whose appearance was ferocious enough to have made Gai nervous in the past – halted and tilted his head to listen for something Kakashi could not detect. The others were quick to follow his example and Kakashi waited silently for them to report.
“Something’s out there.” The little one reported. “Something dangerous. It sou-”
The echo of a scream too terrible to place a face to filled the sky about their heads. Kakashi knew that only one thing in the world was capable of creating that sound, though he could not imagine the change the kyuubi had inflicted upon his former pupil to create such a cry.
Too late again. Always too late.
If he lived through this maybe he’d consider Tsunade’s silent hints at retirement. If he lived.
“Take me there.” He could only whisper the order, but the animal beneath him launched forward instantly, as if sensing the urgency and the torment that afflicted his master. And with the exception of the grey one in front who snarled in vicious promise of a bloody battle no one else made a sound.
The world spun around her and she turned, panic stricken, to the direction of the sound and too late she clapped a hand over Tadashi’s exposed ear. But the boy had heard and wailed in fear, fat tears spilling from his eyes.
“Naruto!” The name poured from her lips before she could censor herself. White eyes popped open and the crying boy in her arms writhed and kicked until he managed to bully himself free of Tenten’s grip.
“Daddy!” The little one shrieked and dashed off into the woods. “Da-ddy!”
He had mistaken her cry of surprise. He thought she was calling out to the man, not crying out his name in terror. “No Tadashi!” She cried though his little silhouette was quickly lost in the thick brush, and she was now too large to crawl in after him. “Tadashi! Come back here!” Tenten moved to give chase around the brush and catch him on the other side but the red dog with sunglasses that bore an odd resemblance to a canine Shino moved to stand before her. The bandaged dog ducked low and followed the boy into the thicket while the Shino dog kept Tenten at bay.
“You listen here, mutt,” she growled, “that little boy is my responsibility. Mine! Let me go!” But before she could spin around the dog he was in front of her again and she collided with his large body. She moved and the dog countered a furry wall between her and her desired path. She prepared to leap over the animal and he planted on large, padded foot onto her toes, a low growl rumbling in his throat, though his appearance was as placid as ever.
She wasn’t getting by him.
“Dammit, Kakashi!” She cried out and stomped her foot. “Fine, I’ll wait here. Go after him!” But the dog didn’t move. She threw her hands out before herself. “Go!” The dog sat down pointedly before her, staring her in the eyes as she remembered Shino doing through his glasses so long ago. If this dog hadn’t been around when Shino had been alive…
“One guard for each of us, huh? Well he’s a baby, and I’m a jounin and I’ll be fine for thirty goddamned seconds while you go get him back!” Her voice rose in angered pitch until she sounded hysterical, worry for the toddler filling her with every second he did not return. “Please! Go get him! Kakashi would understand. There are murderers in these woods right now! You saw your master! Please!”
At last, as if he had come to a decision after careful deliberation, the dog stood and sped off into the forest after the other. Tenten breathed a sigh and waited.
To protect you had to fight – that’s the way it had always been. Shinobi put themselves in danger to protect what they cared about. But now it was different. To protect that which she and Neji held most dear she had to stay out of the fight. To keep their child safe she had to run and hide. She would do it because it was the only way, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.
So she sat and waited, praying that Kakashi’s ninken could live up to their master’s reputation of never failing a mission.
They were gone at last – all but the one.
It had only been quiet for a few moments, but it had to be long enough. There was no time to be extra cautious. No time to wait in hiding in case they returned. They almost certainly wouldn’t, anyway. A good Shinobi never stumbled back into a fighting ground that bore them no advantage; and this place held no aid for either side.
Their plans had gone to hell too fast and things were now spiraling out of control. How this had happened made no difference; the mission was over, this much was clear. There had to be a new mission, but at the moment only one thought came to mind.
The blonde had been hiding in the shadows at first, dampening chakra levels to escape the notice of the beast that was after the fifth hokage. That thing that had once been their leader was now obviously something entirely different, and absolutely not something that should even exist. Crystal blue eyes watched until the two combatants had disappeared into the darkening forest, waiting for the opportunity.
It wasn’t in the shinobi’s nature to hide in the shadows like this. But priorities had to be set. The beast and the hokage had to be put aside for now, in favor of the pale figure lying on the forest floor. The dark, damp patch that had ceased to grow beneath her body was explanation enough as to why she had been left behind by the others. You could not save someone who was already dead. And the only one among them who had the skills to save the slain woman had been too drained to manage the effort.
Light feet landed soundlessly beside the fallen kunoichi, turning her placid face upward with gentle hands as the shinobi listened intently for any sound that would indicate the return of the beast. The Hyuuga’s skin was already tinted a pale blue, her lips the same deathly shade, her skin cold to the touch.
But though the heart had stopped and the breath had quieted, the smallest flicker of chakra remained, clinging desperately to a life that the Hyuuga woman was obviously not willing to relinquish. It was easy enough to find if you knew where to search, the newcomer knew.
Feminine hands began to glow blue and the woman that had been feared lost by her comrades smiled in relief.
Sakura may not have had the strength to bring Hinata back from the cusp of death, but Ino did.
Ino, who had managed to fight off the blonde bomb-freak by crawling into his head before he could crawl into hers.
Ino, who had answered Naruto’s orders to destroy the transmitters in the hopes that it would buy her time to go find help.
Ino, who had bumped into a possessed friend in the woods and, after a quick trip into his head, realized with a growing sense of hope that she was the help they needed.
Ino, who was sick and tired of watching friends die around her. And now she could do something about it. Now she had the knowledge and the strength to save at least one life. And once that one life was back they could move on to the next, and the next after that. One by one until they were strong enough to take Naruto back from his inner demon.
Hope was a damned powerful weapon if you had an idea to back it up.
“Come on, Hinata,” she whispered softly as she poured every ounce of effort into the still form before her, watching as the still body began to glow with her efforts, “it’s time to go kick some ass.”
I am SOOOOOOOO sorry this took so long to release! I had a baby this passed winter (and he’s soooooo perfect I can’t even begin to tell you about it!) and as any mom will tell you a new baby can take up a lot more of your free time that you can imagine. In fact, for a good few months you pretty much give up free time all together. Anyway, I appologize if this isn't up to par with my previous chapters - I'm just getting back into writing. I want to thank you all who kept me in your favorite and watch lists and especially those of you who emailed me asking me when the next chapter was coming out. It really helped for me to hear how much you were enjoying the story and that you were getting impatient for the next chapter.
I promised you all that this story wouldn’t just drop off unfinished and I fully intend on keeping my word! Thanks again to all of my FANTASTIC readers!!! I truly would not be writing if you guys (and gals) weren’t out there cheering my stories on like you do!