They had taken it for granted their entire lives, but now the concept of Naruto's most fevered promise is becoming a reality and it is a concept that none of them were ready to accept.
Chapter Eight: Making Good On His Promise
White eyes fluttered open and Ino breathily thanked Kami that she had succeeded, not that she gave Kami any credit at all in her accomplishment. Kami should never allowed any of this to happen in the first place. If Kami existed at all Ino should be cursing the gods in her foulest language for being sick and twisted enough to let this go on. Still the prayer poured from her lungs against her will as she watched the newly healed chest beneath her fingers rise and fall steadily.
She didn’t think she could have held out more than another minute. It had taken forever to get the pulse back. To get her patient breathing on her own again had taken the most effort of all and Ino had been forced to actually breathing for the woman a couple of times. Hinata had been technically alive again for at least fifteen minutes, though it wasn’t until just now that Ino knew the ebony haired woman would recover completely. The medic-nin collapsed to the side, her arms failing to hold her own weight and she landed on her shoulder in the muddy, blood soaked dirt.
Hinata gasped and sat up abruptly, coughing loudly, her hand pressed against her mouth in her typical well-mannered way. Her lungs burned and her eyes stung, but other than that she felt no pain. When the spasms receded enough for her to speak at last, she shimmied away from her rescuer until she was just beyond arm’s reach.
“Ino?!” Those white eyes focused on the woman panting beside her. “No, who are you really? I heard you on the earpiece. You’re Akatsuki!”
“You… heard me buy time… to think of a plan…” she wheezed squeezing her eyes shut against the stitch in her chest. “Almost lost it… when I … came face to face with the… Akatsuki bastards. Got out of there… when they gave… the order… to find you guys. But I’m… still me.”
Hinata rolled up onto her knees, staring down at the woman critically. “So you say, as did the other I encountered. You came up with a plan? Tell me.”
“Jump in head first;” a familiar sardonic smile curled pink lips, “save the world. Worry about the rest later. Be glad… I didn’t plan ahead. I… never would have… found you… otherwise.” Hinata sighed. She didn’t need any further persuasion as reason began to seep back into her fogged brain. She was alive because of this woman. Alive and herself. Had Ino truly been an Akatsuki, Hinata doubted that she would have been brought back to consciousness in full control of her facilities. Had she not been so disorientated when she first awoke she probably would have realized this straight away.
“Thank you, Ino.” She said, kneeling over to help the woman turn over and blinked as she noticed her surroundings at last. Her last memory was of Neji’s face, bent over hers. She had never seen her cousin so stricken before. She remembered wanting to reach up and touch his face, to give him comfort. But then the blackness had come over her. She wondered how long she had been unconscious. She was aware that some time had passed since then, but she could not determine at what length. To her, it had only been an instant; only a second ago when Neji held her as she…
Had her body not already been chilled from the rain and wind and blood loss she had sustained, Hinata would have noticed the chill that ran down her spine.
If she had only been unconscious they would not have left her behind – as they obviously did, for she was still here in this same place and they were not. They would never have left her if there had been even a glimmer of hope of saving her life, which could only mean one thing.
Oh Kami, I died.
“Not completely,” Ino whispered to Hinata’s spoke realization. “If you had… I wouldn’t have been able… to bring you back. I’m glad you’re stubborn.” Hinata nodded, dismissing the question of how a person can die, but not completely. She would leave the medical lesson for later.
“Where are the others?” She asked of her friend.
“Gone.” Ino finished rolling slowly onto her back with Hinata’s aid. Her breath was returning to her and she found it easier to speak. “Sakura, Neji and Shika took off…” a manicured hand pointed to her left “that way. Godaime and Rokudaime,” the hand swung over her body to the opposite direction, “that way. Naruto’s… he’s…” Ino finally allowed what she had seen to sink in and her body managed enough strength to shiver weakly, “Gods, Hinata… what the hell happened to him?!? He didn’t even look real!”
“I’m going to go find out. You should be fine here for the time being, they won’t come back here.” Hinata stood and pulled Ino to the shelter of a nearby tree trunk. As almost an afterthought she paused. “In case I don’t… well… in case anyone needs to know, I left Lee - and the person possessing him - incapacitated. That way. Twenty yards beyond a small creek. If you come to a tree that was obviously struck by lightning sometime this year you’ve gone too far. He’ll need medical attention pretty soon, though he should have been able to slow the bleeding himself. Please go to him as soon as you can.”
“Lee? Hinata, wait!” Ino called weakly. “Hinata, I know where Lee is! I – dammit!” The Uzumaki woman had already vanished into the forest, and Ino was too weak to pursue her. She thumped her head against the tree in frustration. “Dammit!” She swore again, her voice almost a whisper as she struggled to catch her breath.
“Hinata, I can save them!”
She could feel him coming before any other sign came.
Death was hunting them once more.
Whatever Tsunade had tried to do to distract him had failed, and Sakura wondered if the fifth hokage still lived. Despite the events of the past hour, Sakura could not sever loyalty so quickly – she never had been good at separating herself from her allegiances now matter how poorly they had been chosen. The thought of the elder woman’s death hit her hard.
“I know,” the tactician replied curtly. Dammit, they had no time! They had planned to collect the injured and take them back to the village. Save whom they could, gather the ANBU and whoever the hell else they could. Shikamaru could already tell that it was going to end badly. Many lives were going to be lost before this was over and they could contain the demon. This was going to follow the same path it had over a quarter of a century ago, only now there was no Yondaime to seal the demon into another vessel. So many people had died back then, and more were to follow. They had already lost three lives today.
Four if he counted Naruto. There was obviously no way they could separate the two.
But how in the hell was he supposed to come up with the details of how to save those that could be saved when they couldn’t shake the thing off their backs!
“If we split, whoever stays behind is going to die.” Neji said without emotion.
“We can’t outrun him,” Sakura pointed out.
“We can’t lead him back to the others, either.” The Hyuuga added.
Shikamaru drew up to a halt and the others followed his lead.
“Neji, you need to go on ahead.” He sighed at last. “You can locate the others the fastest and your Byakugan can keep a look out while you get them back to safety.”
The Hyuuga man barred his teeth in frustration, casting his kekkei genkai out to see how much time they had.
It would only be a few more moments.
His head jerked back towards his friends.
“And what do you plan to do, exactly? Fight him?”
“Get going!” Shikamaru ordered. “Get Tadashi out of here! You’re all he has left, Neji. Don’t let him live his father’s childhood. Go!”
“Shika,” Sakura called softly from behind the arguing men, “it’s too late.”
It was agony to stand on his damaged legs, but it was an agony he welcomed. It meant he could feel once more.
It meant he was back. The other one had put up a tremendous fight, but Ino had been so skilled at her craft that he had lost his footing within Lee’s mind quickly and together Lee and Ino had banished the would-be captor from his mind. Where his consciousness went after that Lee did not know. Yet Ino was certain after working her craft a bit more that the man no longer lived within Lee’s mind.
Perhaps he had vanished, as Sasuke had years before. It no longer mattered, though. Lee had been freed and now had a new task before him.
The overwhelming surge of power was getting closer and he knew it like he knew the face it belonged to. Naruto and the Kyuubi were one once more and given the strength of that power Naruto had lost control. He was going to need help and Rock Lee was going to be there for him no matter what. He may not have the ability to fight with his legs, but he still had his arms and back and mind. He would not – could not – abandon his friend to the fate that would otherwise consume him.
He assumed the others would be there as well. He could not imagine they would abandon Naruto in such a state. They would be battle weary, of course. Sakura would probably need encouragement. She was strong and brave and everything that had always made her absolutely alluring to him, but there were times when her concern for her friends halted her in her tracks, if only briefly. She would need him there so she could scold him - possibly hit him – and tell him how stupid he was for trying to fight in his current condition. But it would also be enough to spur her back into the fighting spirit. She needed to feel something other than concern, and anger at him often had the greatest effect.
And when it was all over she would thank him for being an idiot, as she always did.
Ino should already be there as well, having left him alone in the woods once she realized her jutsu was the cure. A true cure for Fushi Tensei! The only jutsu they truly feared and the cure had been sitting at their table all along. How fortunate they were! If she could cure him she could cure the team, and together they could take Naruto back. She had not had a definite plan, only to help as many of the taken as possible so they could free Naruto together. It had been enough for him, though. He, too, was a man of action.
Lee halted in his tracks, his elation at knowing hope once more quelled instantly.
A blood spattered robe lay on the ground at his feet, clawed slash marks tearing through the soil around it. Through the red-black stains and between the rumples in the fabric he could make out parts of a familiar symbol sewn into the garment.
Lee swallowed hard and increased his speed, ignoring the pain that lanced up his calves. He had to get to Sakura. He had to reach her now!
They hadn’t even noticed him, not even acknowledged his presence at first. They had simply stared ahead blankly, as the red glow that signified their doom grew brighter and brighter through the branches. There had been no point in running anymore – they never would have outrun the demon. They knew it. And even though he had heard Shikamaru order the Hyuuga man away just before all had gone silent, when he had finally emerged into view he noted that all three still stood together, perfectly still, perfect calm.
Resigned to their deaths it would seem.
Naruto would have stood there, too, only not so quietly. His fists would have been balled in impudent rage and he would have been shouting out antagonizing words to the battle that rushed them.
Kakashi felt a rush of longing for days passed when his young team had been part of a simpler world where you fought your enemies and saved your friends.
Not this. This was the life of a shinobi, but one he had foolishly hoped they could somehow escape. What had he thought - that their life as “The Mighty Team Naruto” would somehow drive those cold hard facts of reality from existence? That they were so great and so powerful that evil would never dare show its face in their presence? If he had actually hoped for that as he knew he had, Kakashi had been the biggest fool of them all. Evil sought power, it was the nature of the world. It sought power to either use or to crush. That his kids were so powerful only made them greater targets, and he should have understood this all along instead of living his life blissfully cocooned in his fantasies and novels.
“Sensei,” Sakura whispered softly when she noticed at last that he had joined them, “please go back to Tadashi. Take him home.”
“Tenten already did.” Neji’s brow puckered in irritation.
“Tenten is here?” If anything could pull the Hyuuga from his place at their side it would be her. Kakashi almost felt the lie slip passed his lips, a futile attempt to save just one more life…
“She was until I gave her Tadashi.” He gave into the truth reluctantly. “When I left her she was on her way back to the village. She’s got two ninken with her. She’ll be fine.”
“You should leave, too, sensei,” Sakura said without looking at him, “You won’t be able to fight him as you are.”
“And you will?”
Sakura shook her head, a sad smile grazing her lips.
“As usual, Kakashi sensei knows best.”
A tree before them exploded into splinters and dust and Rokudaime stood before them, breathing heavily from excitement and dripping blood from his claws.
“Tsunade is dead.” Shikamaru said flatly and a single fat tear traced down Sakura’s cheek.
“Oh Naruto,” she whispered gently, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I failed you…”
A heavy weight pushed down on her shoulder and she glanced sideways to see Kakashi steadying himself on his feet, holding onto her for support.
“We all failed him,” he whispered and to Sakura she realized he had never sounded so sad in his life, “and I think it is time we try to atone for that failure.”
“To the end then,” Neji said, watching the thing stalk towards them.
“To the end.” Shikamaru seconded. Sakura’s lips parted.
It was a small utterance, spoken softly and gently, but with such commanding authority that everything around them seemed to stop at the order.
Including the breath of three shinobi, for it had not come from Sakura. It had come from the ghost that stood off to the side, locked in a contest of wills with the beast whose attention she had captured completely.
She was there.
It shouldn’t have been possible, but Hinata stood before them, solid and aware. It was too much for Neji’s mind to process that she stood before him at all.
His first thought was the most logical - that it was an imposter. Someone was disguising themselves as the fallen kunoichi, but to what end? To steal one of them? It seemed pointless now – all plans for both sides had gone terribly wrong. So who, then?
The blood had not yet dried to the fabric of her ruined shirt, her hair still held bits of forest debris, her skin was still a little too pale. She looked like shit. But her expression was calm and confident while maintaining a small measure of compassion. It was an expression Hinata always wore into battle – one that she didn’t even know she had.
Logic argued against him, but this had to be her!
Shikamaru did not seem to echo his friend’s hope and opened his mouth to demand who impersonated their friend – but Hinata’s voice cut him off.
“Enough of this.” She ordered softly. “You’ll never win in a fight against him. You know this as well as I do. Leave. I’ll take care of Naruto.” Shikamaru balled a fist in anger.
“Whoever the hell you are I’m not buying it. Hinata died. How the hell can you expect us to buy your disguise?” A pale hand gestured absent behind her, though pure white eyes never strayed from the beast before her.
“Ask Ino – she’s back where I fell. She was too exhausted to follow me. Now go.”
“Ino,” Sakura’s heart skipped. Ino would have the ability to save Hinata – though it probably took a lot more out of her than it would have from Sakura – Ino never had been as deft at the medical craft as Sakura. But they had heard Ino destroy her earpiece – heard her obey Naruto’s orders.
Heard her obey a very mundane order, but never confirmed in person that she had been taken.
“I can’t leave you, Hinata,” the medic-nin argued, “not alone with that.” Shikamaru looked incredulously at the pink haired woman but the conviction on her face kept him from arguing.
“THAT is my husband,” Hinata said pointedly, “and I have never needed protection from him - in any form. Go!”
“He attacked you before-” Sakura sank into her stubborn self.
And Hinata let loose hers.
“I said GO!” She cried in exasperation. “Don’t you understand? I don’t want any of you here for this! Shugohakke Rokujuyon Sho!”
White chakra blades emerged from her palms and her arms swung in wide arcs about her. She fell into her Juuken as easily as breathing, her focus on the man she loved – or what had once been him.
“Naruto,” she whispered, “I’ll do this for you – so that you will not have to suffer as the thing you feared the most.”
Sakura’s stomach lurched. She wanted desperately to scream, though the sound refused to come forth.
Hinata was going to try and kill her husband.
The thing before her growled a low, terrible sound. A single tear traced down a porcelain face.
“It is not so terrible a thing, to die.” She said even softer. “It is only terrible for those left behind.”
A pale blur crossed Sakura’s path as Hinata charged her husband. The beast moved swiftly out of her reach, but Hinata was quick enough on her feet to match his counter and a white energy blade smashed against a clawed hand.
A spray of blood met the dirt beneath their feet.
The thing backed off and hissed in pain and rage.
She had cut him – cut him without the Kusanagi. It wasn’t supposed to be possible. Nothing but the sword had ever been able to penetrate the demon’s defenses before. And Sakura understood, draining away any argument she had been tempted to make.
Somewhere in that thing, Naruto knew what was happening.
In the only way he could, Naruto was helping Hinata fight the beast. He was going to help her kill him.
Naruto never gave up. He always fought if it was in his power. Now that he had no control over his body, over his mind, at least he could make himself vulnerable to Hinata’s attacks. He could do this much to protect his home, his people, his family.
Sakura now understood that he was fighting for the only outcome possible. He would fight to his last breath for the people he cared about – he had said that his entire life. Here was the time they had all thought would never come; the time when Naruto made good on his promise, and gave his life to his cause.
The medic-nin slowly turned her back to the scene, feeling Kakashi’s grip on her shift at her movement.
She took one step.
And another. Kakashi did not pull against her.
“Neji,” she choked, “Shika, we shouldn’t be here.” She took another step, and another, forcing herself not to look back. Not to look at the beast anymore. She didn’t want the last time she saw Naruto to be the scene playing out behind her. She didn’t want to remember him this way.
He was her best friend and had been for years – even when she had though no one could annoy her more. He had stood by her side in those times, taken her abuse and her snide comments, promised her things she had no right to ask of him and always with that same goofy smile plastered to his face. He knew how to piss her off; how to make her laugh; how to inspire her to do things she never dreamt she was capable of. He had taught her so much, even when she had thought he was the dumbest human being alive. He had always been there for her, making her a better person just by standing by her. Always giving all of himself and asking nothing in return.
She wanted to remember that above all else.
She squeezed her eyes shut and took another step, but it was becoming harder. One last hug, that’s all she wanted. One last cocky smile. One last anything, just as long as it was their Naruto.
She paused, listening to the scuffling sounds of battle behind her. He wouldn’t be there if she turned around. There was no reason to do it, she reminded herself – she wasn’t going to get her smile. She covered her free hand over her face and sobbed.
Kakashi’s hand pulled from her shoulder and an arm encircled her shoulders tightly. It was clearly for support, but who needed the support she could not tell.
Another hand pressed flat against her back, gently pushing her forward. She opened her eyes to see Shikamaru standing beside her, looking ahead, tears or rain – she couldn’t tell which – running rivulets down his cheeks. A figure stepped up behind her and Neji placed a hand onto her arm, guiding her forward. She allowed them to lead her away, feeling Shika’s fingers flex slightly every time they heard a particularly hard blow being struck.
“Sakura,” Hinata’s voice called from behind, “Ino knows where I left Lee.”
She couldn’t respond. She couldn’t bring herself to rush for Lee. Even if he was still in his body, he was beyond her reach, and she had no idea how to reclaim him. She would go to him, of course. There was still hope for Lee, even if it was the faintest glimmer. She needed to at least see his face. Needed him to somehow wipe away the guilt of failing her best friend so terribly.
Kakashi’s arm slipped from her shoulders and Sakura dared a glance back to her sensei.
“Go,” he said, “Hinata may not want it, but I’m staying. I… need to.” Shikamaru nodded when Sakura did not or could not respond. They didn’t ask if he would be okay. They didn’t tell him to be careful. This was Kakashi’s right, as the last of the three men who has basically raised Naruto, to stay and witness the end. The largest of the ninken accepted Kakashi’s weight once more and stood by quietly as the silver haired man took up his sentinel’s position.
“Let’s go collect Ino,” Neji whispered as much for himself as for his friends. He wanted to stay there and protect his cousin, but he had no right to stay. Not when she had asked them to leave. She was only just back from the dead and they were leaving her alone with a nearly indestructible foe. Nearly being the operative word, of course.
For if there was anyone who could defeat him, it was the one person in the world who held any power over his will. Hinata had proven immune to his aura, was able to calm the rage of the beast when it flooded Naruto, and held no fear when standing in that terrible presence. If any of them had the power to stop him it was her and her alone.
“Hakke Hyakunijuuhachishou!” Hinata’s tiny voice shrilled some distance back and energy exploded from behind them as they listened to her call out the counts of her attacks. Neji flinched, his breath catching in his throat.
The beast screamed from behind, as Hinata continued her count in perfect time.
Sakura wept great wracking sobs as she walked, now driven only by the hands against her back; tears clouded her eyes too much to see clearly. She was grateful for her own agony, grateful for how loud she cried, and that the sound of her own sobs helped to partially drown out the sound of the battle in her ears. An arm wrapped tightly around her waist and Shikamaru pulled close against her, propelling her forward, though more of his weight leaned on her now than before. His body jarred against hers spasmodically, and she was vaguely aware of the sound of his voice, tearing through each breath he expelled as he, too, lost control of his emotions.
Her fingers tangled into the fabric of the sleeves that wrapped about her and together the three shinobi pulled one another through the trees and away from the Uzumakis’ battle.
Okay, so first of all I have to apologize for taking so long to pick the story back up. It’s pretty hard getting inspired to write when you’re working 50 hours a week, taking care of a very active (thankfully happy and healthy) baby boy AND trying to fit in time to have some kind of an outside life. To put it bluntly, writing was number 6,279 on my list of things to do, and I just didn’t have the brain power to devote to it, to be honest. But lately I’ve been able to get some down time and with that has come some actual time to devote to completing this story. While I know I’m not going to be able to pound out the story at the rate I did when I first started writing, I DO hope to have the story finished completely before the end of the year. This is just a hope – mind you. But I hope that I haven’t lost my touch, and that you’ll find this chapter just as addicting as the others. Thanks again for being such great readers! Let me know what you think!