Categories > Anime/Manga > Naruto > For Them... And For Us: The Strength of Twelve

Chapter 1: Shattered Circle

by Lourdes 1 review

When trust is betrayed and lives are destroyed Naruto and his friends find themselves on a path they had hoped never to travel.

Category: Naruto - Rating: R - Genres: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama, Romance - Characters: Anko, Chouji, Gai, Hinata, Ino, Iruka, Jiraiya, Kakashi, Kiba, Kurenai, Naruto, Neji, Orochimaru, Rock Lee, Sakura, Sasuke, Shikamaru, Shino, Tenten, Tsunade, Other - Warnings: [!!!] [V] - Published: 2007-02-05 - Updated: 2007-02-05 - 5888 words

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, though I wish I did!

Chapter One: Shattered Circle


It wasn't supposed to be this way.

They weren't supposed to be here, they weren't ready for this.

This wasn't right.

It was not supposed to end this way.


Had he been alone he'd probably be dead right now. But it wasn't the support of his comrades that kept him alive; it was the need to protect them at any cost. Hand signals flew in rapid succession. He still had a few moves left, though his chakra was draining so quickly he was not sure he could pull off any of the ones that mattered.

"Kanashibari no jutsu!"

But fire rushed at him before the attack was raised, and he was forced to abandon his efforts; the roar of flames nearly deafening in his right ear as he just barely escaped serious injury. Damn it! There has to be a way.

Chidori was out of the question. With the chakra he'd already burned through and the Sharingan still in use Chidori would finish him faster than his assailant.

Not enough options... but he had to try something! He could not let them die here!

He was the last one standing - if you could call his current position standing. He had hoped, blindly perhaps, that they would come out of it safely. Somehow they always had, be it luck or fate or divine intervention - not that he believed in any of that. That still didn't stop him from wishing for it.

Prove me wrong. Prove these kids are meant for something more!

Naruto was the closest; the last one to go down. His determination had finally been forced to bow to his physical limits. Kakashi had hoped that the kyubi's chakra would have been able to sustained him, yet Naruto had not had time to draw upon it; the blow that had taken him down came too soon. But then, his attacker had known to take him out quickly, once the blonde teen's chakra had been exhausted.

"Hatake Kakashi's chosen ones did not measure up to their reputation, it seems." The young man before him smirked mirthlessly.

"You sound like you were never one of them."

"I wasn't." The aggressor corrected. "He was."

"He still is." Kakashi had hoped some trace of Sasuke would show itself. But Orochimaru had a firm grip. If Sasuke was in there still he was unreachable for the moment.

"No," Sasuke's mouth curved in a sickeningly twisted smile, speaking in a voice that dripped with sickening sweetness and malice instead of the teen's former staccato, "now he is mine. He gave himself to me willingly."

"He's a kid," Kakashi struggled to hold his stance; "kids make mistakes. Sasuke obviously wasn't thinking clearly when he came to you." The denial stuck in his throat. Orochimaru laughed.

"Come now, sensei, let's not lie to each other."

"Don't call me that." Kakashi hissed. "I was never your sensei. I was his. And all though you inhabit his body, you are not /him/."

"Funny how protective you are of him now, when moments ago you tried to kill him."

"Sasuke," a graveled voice called from behind and Kakashi heard the sound of someone scraping to their feet. Damn that kid! Why doesn't he just stay down! He's going get himself killed! "You jerk... why are you doing this to us? I'm gonna kick your ass!" Sasuke focused steely eyes over Kakashi's shoulder.

"You can barely hold your own weight up, dobe." Kakashi's skin pricked. That sounded like a Sasuke comeback if ever he heard one, and though the voice still did not belong to Sasuke it was clearly him.

It would figure, if anyone could break through to the Uchiha, it would be the one person that mattered most to him, though he'd never in his life admit it: Naruto.

"Sasuke, stop this," Kakashi tried again, "whatever you were thinking when you sided with him isn't going to happen."

"What I plan or what I do does not concern you at the moment, Kakashi. You have wasted enough of my time as it is. I suggest you hope that we don't meet again," Sasuke said coolly taking slow, deliberate steps back, "although I'm sure you will see to it that we do."

"Sasuke!" Naruto lurched after his fleeing former teammate, a kunai whistling from his fingertips toward the fleeing boy's back. Sasuke leapt to a tree, spinning round the girth of the branch to avoid another attack as the second blade thumped solidly into the trunk. Spinning round, Sasuke unleashed a barrage of shuriken at his former colleague and then disappeared into the nighttime forest almost instantly.

"Get back here!" Naruto staggered, ignoring the weapons that had impaled various parts of his body, "I'm not done with you! You jerk, I said get back here and fight me! Fuck!"

"Naruto, that's enough," Kakashi nearly dropped to his knees. Though inferior to Sasuke's, his Sharingan had probably saved his life, its use now taking a serious toll on him. But he couldn't rest yet. He had to get them to safety. Sakura needed medical attention and Naruto probably even more.

The yellow haired shinobi fell to his knees. "Damn it, Sasuke..." Blood dripped from a multitude of wounds to the scraped dirt below. Some were kunai wounds, some were the shuriken and some were from that bastard snake that Sasuke had taken to vomiting up. One gash on his side was probably big trouble, he had thought absently. Naruto watched the little pools of blood in the dirt expand, detached from what it meant.

"Sasuke let us go." Kakashi turned, taking unsteady steps over to the crumpled form of his pupil-turned-comrade. He knelt, his stomach knotting until he felt her pulse. It was weak, but Sakura still lived. He allowed himself to exhale before speaking again. "I am certain he ran so that Orochimaru could not change his mind."

"You're still sticking up for him?" The teen demanded weakly. "Why? He doesn't deserve it! He's the reason we're in this mess!"

"I won't give up on him, Naruto." Kakashi gathered up the unconscious girl in his arms. Her legs were burned, Sasuke's Katon Goukakyuu no Jutsu had caught her when she tried to leap out of the way, but the burns were not as severe as they could have been. The welt on her forehead that had driven her unconscious was what had him worried. She had fallen from the branch she had leapt to, her chakra no longer strong enough to hold her up, and had landed badly. "I won't give up on any of you. Ever."


"Naruto?" He looked back and found the young man prone on the ground, still as death, a pool of blood steadily growing beneath his body.



That bastard... always has to show off... always playin' it cool...


I know that voice.

"Naruto, can you hear me?"

Why is he asking that? Of course I can hear you; you're right next to me.



A sigh was his only reply and Naruto wondered what all the melodrama was for. Naruto opened his eyes; a vaguely familiar white ceiling was barely visible in the dimly lit room. But it was the smell betrayed his location. Clean, plastic, metal and antiseptic.

The hospital, huh?

"I hate this place..." he groaned. A hand was placed atop his head in the same way a father would comfort his young child. But Naruto was older now. He wasn't a kid. He was seventeen, and he wasn't in need of comfort. He'd been hospitalized before, and it didn't frighten him. But Kakashi, and Iruka, were the closest things Naruto had ever known to a father, and he'd be damned if he'd ever refuse their kindness.

"Just rest, Naruto," it was Kakashi. His former teacher's voice was as steady as always, yet there was something off.

"Sakura," Naruto thought aloud, remembering how he had seen her last, "is Sakura okay?"

"She's fine," Kakashi answered, "she's in the next room." Naruto was relieved. She had looked one step from death those last moments he remembered in the forest. The memory sent a shiver through his spine.

"Did you find him?"

"They're out trying to track him now." They. The ANBU, probably. The Hokage would never knowingly send any lesser shinobi after Orochimaru, even if he did now inhabit the body of a teenage boy.

"I hope they don't find him." Naruto growled. "Cause I wanna be the one to find him. And when I do, I'm gonna make him pay."

"Just sleep for now," Kakashi insisted. He couldn't worry about his own injuries at the moment, though the nurses were constantly pestering him. Now he could only think of the teens whose rooms he been moving between for the passed few hours.

This kid in particular, this annoying, obnoxious, stubborn kid was talking a big game to avoid his fears again. ANBU would kill Sasuke outright when they found him and if they got the opportunity. But if Naruto found Sasuke first he would try to save his friend - from the ANBU and from Orochimaru.

That is, he would have, Kakashi though somberly. But the situation was different now. Naruto didn't know it, but Sasuke was beyond even Kakashi's forgiveness now. And once Naruto learned the truth, the young shinobi would undoubtedly be at the foreground of those who were out to take the Uchiha down.

The silver-haired jounin closed his eyes; pained with the realization he had known since he had carried his last two students from the forest:

Sasuke was going to die; and quite possibly at the hands of those who had cared for him the most.

"When can I get outta here?" Naruto never asked that. Normally he would just get up and walk out like Kakashi. Kakashi wondered if the young man knew how badly he had been hurt.

"A week if you take it easy," he said, placing his hand on an uncovered arm, more to comfort himself than Naruto, "maybe two." Naruto's face screwed up and he weakly pounded the back of his head into his pillow.

"Well, at least I don't have to go on any patrols for a while," he finally said scathingly. "Now I can get Kiba off my back. He can take the shitty patrols and wipe that smug look off of his face."

Patrols were no longer handled by genin teams, now that Orochimaru was such a blatant threat. Teams made of jounin and the occasional chuunin now combed the borders of Konoha protecting the village from any dangerous surprises. Naruto hated patrols, but this had been his month on patrol duty and he had not been able to find a way out of it yet, much to Kiba's amusement.

At least Sakura had volunteered to be on his team. He liked having her around, though he long since given up the idea that they would ever become a couple.

Kakashi's single eye had flicked away at Naruto's words, though the rest of him remained still.

"S-sensei?" Naruto stammered the old title; something he only did when he was feeling anxious, Kakashi had learned not long after the boy's graduation.

Naruto had not missed his mentor's reaction to Kiba's name. He vaguely remembered that there had been people in the forest that day in training exercises. But they had been nowhere near Sasuke, right? They had certainly been nowhere near the remnants of Team Seven who had stumbled across the missing-nin while making their rounds. Odd that Sasuke's former team would find him so conveniently and by accident...

"We can talk more, later. For now I want you to rest." Kakashi had not wanted to break this news just yet. He had wanted to wait until his kids were stronger. Though Naruto was now jounin and Sakura chuunin he still considered them his kids; the closest thing to being a parent he would probably ever know.

"No. Tell me," the stubborn shinobi demanded, "what happened out there? Tell me or I'll go find out myself."

"You need your rest-"

"What happened to my friend, sensei?" Damn it. The kid was far more perceptive than he had been as a boy and he wasn't giving up; which shouldn't have surprised him. Kakashi could not tell him to not worry. The silver-haired man had taught his pupils the value of teamwork helping your friends. Naruto embraced these teachings whole-heartedly. He would not rest until he knew they were safe.

"Sasuke ran into a training group while escaping," Kakashi relented. Naruto stared at his mentor blankly, yet the steady blips of the heart monitor behind him accelerated slightly. "Take it easy, Naruto," Kakashi tried to sooth the boy.

"How did he slip passed them?" Naruto remembered that the ANBU were still out hunting for the Uchiha. Kakashi shook his head.

"He didn't slip passed. He met resistance," he said softly and exhaled. There was no easy way to say what had to be said, and Kakashi knew better than to lie to the teen. "Shino is dead, Naruto. Kiba, and Hinata are here in the hospital. They... don't expect Kiba to make it. He lost Akamaru." The monitor sounded frantically. Old Team Eight.

"Hinata?" Naruto croaked.

"She should recover, though she's got a long road ahead of her." Kakashi replied, trying to give the boy some piece of mind. "Kiba shielded her from most of the blast."

"K-k... katon Ryuuka no Jutsu?" Naruto whispered. "He used katon Ryuuka no Jutsu on them?"


Sasuke had not used the technique on his former teammates, and for that Kakashi was grateful. Towards the end of the fight that jutsu would have taken them out easily, as would any of Orochimaru's choicer attacks. The fate of the others testified that the wayward ninja had been perfectly capable of taking out his former team, yet some part of Sasuke had been strong enough to spare their lives. Naruto trembled under the covers.

"I," he rasped, "I..."

"Naruto you have to take it easy." Kakashi placed firm hands on the boy's shoulders, but Naruto knocked his friend aside and bolted upright, his eyes flashing red dangerously, fingernails tearing the covers to ribbons in his grasp as the monitor went wild beside Kakashi's head.

"I'll fucking kill him!"

"No, Naruto," Kakashi stood and stared into the strange eyes of the young man he knew so well. "Not now. Going after him as you are now would be suicide. Not even Kyubi would be enough to help you."

Naruto's eyes slowly faded from crimson to blue, tears sliding down his cheeks as he wrestled the demon back under control. He had become adept and controlling it. Extreme emotional traumas that would have once sent him into a killing frenzy now only brought about glowing eyes and labored breathing as he regained control. Kakashi's grip on his arms pushed painfully into recent bruises, but Naruto didn't complain. Pain helped him focus on reality; helped him remember that he was human. His breathing slowed, the hate in his features morphing into something painful to look upon.

"He tried to kill his friends, sensei," the teen mewled, a sound which tore the jounin's heart out, "he attacked us like we never mattered to him. He deserves-"

"He deserves everything you are thinking and more," Kakashi agreed quietly, "but for now you have be sensible. You have to think of your health, and of the friends you still have. None of you will be any use against Sasuke if you all go rushing out before you're ready."

None of us? Who else was trying to go after Sasuke? Naruto must have thought aloud.

"Hinata," Kakashi answered. "When she learned of the fate of her old team and what happened to us she tried to leave the hospital. The nurses threatened to place her in restraints if she didn't calm down."

"I wanna see them," Naruto said, "I gotta see them, sensei." Kakashi could not fault Naruto's sentiment. He had been wandering from room to room against the orders of the nurses, who had tried to insist that he remain in his own room to recover.

"Let me get a wheelchair," the masked shinobi said, "I don't want you pushing yourself any harder than you already are." Naruto obeyed and waited while Kakashi left in search of proper transportation.


They had passed Kurenai in the hallway, her blotchy complexion and swollen eyes stealing the beauty that she normally possessed. She had offered Naruto a squeeze of the hand as he was wheeled into Kiba's room, but said nothing.

Seeing Kiba had been difficult. The man was unconscious and hooked up to so many tubes and wires he was clearly in danger. He was covered almost completely in gauze wrappings, his face nearly hidden under the dressings. It was strange, too, seeing his friend without his furry companion. In all the years they had known one another, Naruto had never known Akamaru to be anywhere but by his master's side, or on Kiba's head when they had been younger. Seeing Kiba without the dog was like seeing him without his arms. Naruto shuddered.

Sakura was asleep. The light blanket that covered her hid the wraps Naruto knew shielded her legs, her head bandaged, mashing down her lovely long pink hair, her heart-shaped face peaceful as she slept. The only tube connected to her was an IV of clear liquid and she was breathed easily, to the teen's relief. Naruto kissed her forehead; guilt filling him that he had not been able to protect her better.

When Kakashi wheeled Naruto into Hinata's room the kunoichi's eyes opened, focused on her visitors and glistened with tears.

"Naruto..." she whispered weakly. From her fingers to her shoulders had been bandaged heavily against the burns she must have sustained. The bulky mass beneath the blankets spoke that there were bandages on her left leg as well. Yet her hair, porcelain-skinned face and torso had been unmarred, courtesy of their valiant friend. Naruto stood and walked carefully to sit on her bedside, earning only a sharp breath from Kakashi, and placed a hand on her hair gently, avoiding her bandaged appendages.

"How are you, Hinata?" It was all he could manage. The Hyuga girl looked away.

"Shino..." Naruto's fist tightened over hers. "And Kiba..."

"I know," he whispered, not wanting to hear the words again. There was a long pause. This was a new experience. Sasuke's betrayal had not been such a shock. He had still been alive, and there had been hope that he could be rescued. But Shino was gone. Kiba would probably follow, and now Sasuke was as good as dead, as far as Naruto was concerned. It was the first major loss their group had suffered.

"You will be okay?" She asked softly. Naruto would normally have brandished a cocky smile and bragged about how tough he was, but now he could not bring out that smile that she so loved.

"Yeah," he said simply. "You?" Hinata nodded from her pillow. Naruto's jaw clenched and he swallowed hard.

"We'll get him, Hinata," he said firmly, "together. We all deserve the chance to bring him down, but none of us can do it alone."

Kakashi sighed with relief. Though there were still times when Naruto could crawl under his skin faster than a tick, the young jounin was growing up and getting wiser. He was still young and immature, but traces of the man he would become were showing more and more each day. Kakashi no longer had any doubt that Naruto would be hokage someday.

"Neji," she said breathlessly, "Neji said the same thing. He told me what happened to you... in the forest. He said that I had to... wait for you. That he hated to say it, but if anyone was going to kill Sasuke it was going to be you."

"Neji said that?" Neji never did anything but give Naruto shit. Though he had long since ceased to call him a failure - the chuunin exams saw to that - he was constantly berating him in other ways; calling him a clown, an obnoxious pest, and pointing out that Naruto was not half the shinobi that Neji was.

"Just relax now, okay?" He finally said and Hinata nodded. "I'm gonna go for now but I'll come back later, I promise." He leaned down, cupped the side of her face in one hand and kissed her exposed cheek. Normally the contact would have brought a flush to the girl's cheeks that would rival a cherry, but she was hurting physically and emotionally, and the boy's tenderness was a comfort she welcomed openly. With a wrapped hand she reached up and touched the fingers on her face and closed her eyes.

Naruto stood, wobbling on damaged legs, and would have fallen had Hinata's bed not been high enough to brace a hand on. Kakashi brought the chair over quickly and after bidding goodbye to the Hyuga heir returned Naruto to his room for some much needed rest.

That night, when the light in the hospital rooms had been darkened and the visitors sent home, Kakashi lay in the bed of his assigned room, struggling to find sleep. He had not rested since the battle and was exhausted, but sleep would not come. He kept seeing that morning's battle play over and over in his head.

His chest felt hollow and the memory of Naruto and Sasuke engaged in a 'fierce' eating contest as genin went from cherished to cruel, as did others; Sakura following the Uchiha around when she thought he wasn't looking. The three genin, pausing their scuffling and antics long enough to pose for the picture that now graced Kakashi's nightstand. The time they had banded together in order to get Kakashi's mask off. They way the three could fight as one when they were threatened.

It's going to be hard from here on out, he thought. Now there was no hope of retrieving their lost third. Now the group that had become a family unto themselves over the years would have to adjust to living a fractured existence. Kakashi knew that feeling well, and wished futilely that his kids would have never known it.


"I don't care, I signed the damn papers! I'm outta here!" Naruto threw the doors open roughly, loud calls at his back.

"But you were not given your final examination! Don't you understand? You could still be at risk of relaps!" A little medic followed him out of the hospital anxiously. "The hokage is going to hear about this!"

Naruto continued walking without waving or even acknowledging the annoying girl. He had kept his promise to Kakashi as best as he could, but there was a limit to how long a guy could lie in bed. A week and a day in that stinking place had his nose burning and his legs twitching for some activity. And he knew his body better than anyone, he thought scathingly. There was nothing more that place could do for him. Sakura was already out, as was Kakashi. Hinata would be a while still and Kiba.... Naruto's stomach clenched.

They had said in the beginning it was only a matter of time, and yesterday morning Kiba's time had run out.

Sasuke, Naruto thought hotly, Sasuke had murdered Kiba and Shino and Akamaru. He was no longer the friend Naruto had considered him to be. He had been able to spare three friends, so why not the others as well? It didn't matter, though. Sasuke had made his choice; he had picked his side. All that was left now was to take him out, permanently. And now it would not be difficult. If Sasuke was this close to the village than there was only one place he could be. Though Orochimaru was in the traitor's head Naruto knew that Sasuke was still in there, too. And if that was the case, there was no one alive who knew the former star pupil better than him. It would only be a matter of catching up with him quickly.

And killing him.

The last battle had been hard; defeat his friend without killing him, without dying and without losing your teammates. Shit, with Sasuke as powerful as he had been it had been impossible, but Naruto had tried anyway. He had avoid aiming for vital areas and using jutsu that could prove fatal is Sasuke had not been ready. He had tried to protect Sasuke while brining him down, tried to reason with him at first. Not any more, though. The next battle would be different. This time he wouldn't hold back. This time he'd burn through it all and then bring out the Kyubi. And when the demon screamed for Sasuke's blood Naruto would oblige. Somewhere deep within him the beast rumbled approvingly.

"Naruto!" He groaned, pushing forward. "Naruto!" His pursuer finally caught up with him.

"Hey Lee," he tried to be polite, but he was in no mood for pleasantries. Lee matched step beside him.

"You look well, Naruto," he said amicably, "much better that you did a few days ago. They released you already?"

"Reluctantly," Naruto replied and Lee nodded, getting the picture.

"Yes, that is usually the case." He understood all too well the desire to be free of the hospital. "Do you return to your duties now?"

"I got personal business to deal with first," the jounin growled. Lee stepped in front of Naruto abruptly, his arms spread wide.

"You will pursue Sasuke?" He asked, concerned, his body forming a wall between Naruto and his destination.

The tai jutsu master was by no means small anymore. Years of rebuilding his body after the chuunin exams had added muscle mass and years had given him height, though Naruto still stood a few inches taller and maintained a larger, more defined physique. And where Naruto's appearance had altered greatly; his hair now long spikes that hung around his face - held back from his eyes with his hitae-ate, his face more angular and his eyes no longer great blue saucers but narrow and clever; Lee had virtually remained the same. The hair, the eyebrows, that hideous green outfit Gai favored and the round face full of honesty had all remained untouched by time.

"That was the plan." Naruto replied.

"Will you be able to find him?" Lee asked. "Do you know where you are going?"

"I've got my suspicions." His tone dared Lee to argue with him, but his old friend only nodded; his expression resolute.

"We must inform the others, then," he said and walked off, obviously expecting Naruto to follow.

"Whoa, whoa, wait a minute," Naruto said, trotting up behind. "What others?"

"Neji, to begin with," Lee said as though Naruto should know this, "and Sakura. Ino wishes to accompany us as well-"


"-and Kakashi-"

"What the hell are you talking about, Lee?" The ebony-haired shinobi stopped and faced his companion.

"We are going up against Sasuke, are we not?" He asked, frowning, "against Orochimaru?"

"What the hell?" Naruto frowned, wondering what had been going on while he was in the hospital.

"You were not planning to go alone, were you?" The normally polite jounin narrowed his glare under heavy brows. "Not after what you said to Hinata. Do not tell me that you are so selfish, Naruto."

Naruto scowled darkly at his friend and set off the home of the Hyuga clan, guessing that had been Lee's path, knowing his friend would catch up. Footsteps fell in beside him, as he had guessed they would.

"How many of us are going?"

"We will need a formidable force," Lee revealed, "Orochimaru has proven he can easily overwhelm a group of four highly trained shinobi. In addition to those I mentioned before as well as you and I, there are Gai-sensai, Jiraiya, Iruka, Shikamaru and Tenten. I am not certain if Neji has enlisted the aid of any others since our last conversation. That brings our numbers to eleven. We still run the risk of annihilation, but eleven is still much safer than four."

"Does Tsunade know of this?" Naruto asked. "Does she know that we are creating our own task force and going after Sasuke?" If the hokage discovered their plan and became angry there was a serious risk that it would not happen at all. Eleven shinobi sneaking from the village would not go unnoticed. Lee glanced at Naruto from the side of his eye.

"She asks that we are careful and come home whole." He said.

Well, well, Lady Hokage, aren't we a bundle of surprises?

The Hyuga compound rose up before them, Naruto and Lee passing through the gates uninterrupted by the guards. Neji's rooms were towards the back of the property and the two men entered without announcing themselves.

Neji stood off to the side, speaking quietly with Tenten; hushed tones and strained features currently masking the fact that the two had been involved for some time. Anko leaned against the opposite wall, rolling a shuriken over her fingers like a coin. Her interest peaked upon seeing the two newcomers and she called for Neji's attention. Sharp white eyes caught Lee's face before darting over to Naruto.

"It's time?" He asked. Naruto glanced at the others in the room.

"If you're ready," he said. Neji nodded to Anko who pushed herself from the wall.

"I'll go round up the others." She said and left quickly, giving Naruto a long look as she walked passed. Lee approached Neji.

"Anko as well? He asked. Neji nodded.

"She wants to be there when Orochimaru falls," he looked pointedly at Naruto, "she wants to strike the killing blow, but she understands that the mission comes before her personal feelings." Naruto hooked a wrist behind his neck.

"This is a full-fledged mission now?" Naruto asked. Neji produced a paper packet from the long bench against the wall and flicked the pages into Naruto's hand.

"Authorized and assigned." Neji replied. Naruto stared down at the sheets, familiar with a team mission order from back when he was on Team Seven. Yet this one was slightly different from what he remembered. The time frame was left blank; a note written off to the side announcing that the starting date was at the lead shinobi's discretion. And in the column where the leader's name was always listed was printed very clearly, 'Uzumaki Naruto'. He'd never seen that before; his name in the leader's column. Extra pages had been attached to list the remaining team members, most of the names had been written in by the actual teammate, seemingly at different times, judging by the multitude of ink colors and handwriting styles.

The rookie nine, Naruto realized. With the exception of the deceased and Chouji, who was away on a mission and probably had not received the news just yet, all of his former genin classmates had signed up for the mission. The rookie nine, as they had come to refer to themselves, though now most were jounin and the others only one step away.

They had all become close through the years, deep bonds of friendship tying them together though personalities often clashed within the group. In their shinobi world there were two types of people; those who cut themselves off from society, and those who saw friendship as a way to remind themselves that the world was not entirely a twisted, violent place.

Only one of the nine had followed the solitary path.

"This is strictly a volunteer mission," Neji explained, "everyone on that list is here because they want to be. Tsunade approved it only because she knew we'd go anyway. She only gave us approval once we recruited ten shinobi. Any less and she would have seen us all reduced to bodyguard duty here just to keep us locked in Konoha. She's still concerned, but she's keeping quiet, at least. Nine jounin and three chuunin. If we do this right we could stand a chance."

The Hyuga man locked deadly serious eyes with the mission leader. "This isn't some bullshit attempt, Naruto. This is it; the real thing. If we're doing this we're doing it right, and you better be damned sure we're ready, because this is the only chance we're going to get. If we fail we're dead."

"You think I don't know what I'm doing, Neji?" Naruto bared his teeth. "You thinkin' that I have no clue what could happen if we go into this wrong? I was there, Hyuga, remember that. I saw up close what he can do. I got the scars to remind me." Naruto yank roughly at the collar of his shirt, revealing the vivid red mark where Sasuke's snake had latched onto his throat. Neji didn't balk, but he softened slightly.

"I know. I just want to make sure that you know what is riding on your shoulders here, leader." Naruto made a sound through his teeth, annoyed, and returned his focus to the first page of names in his hands.

"Hinata's on this list," Naruto said after a moment, "what the hell is she thinking? She's not even out of the ICU yet."

"She signed it in case she got out before the mission started," Hyuga replied, "she wanted to be there. So did Kiba."

Naruto's mouth fell open and he quickly flipped through the pages. On the last page, in large, unsteady print was 'Inuzuka Kiba'. Naruto felt his stomach lurch. On his deathbed, with no laudable fighting skills now that Akamaru was dead, Kiba had signed on for the mission. He had wanted to fight after all. He hadn't given up. Naruto's scowl threatened death. Neji was not the least phased by Naruto's wrath and walked to his desk, opening a drawer.

"I agree," he said darkly, pulling a package wrapped in white cloth from the drawer. "But hold that fury. We'll need it; every last shred of it." Neji took the orders from the blonde and replaced them with the white package. "And remember," he added, "when you release that anger, why you're doing it."

Naruto pulled back the cloth. Three hitai-ate lay within, dried blood staining blue fabric. Characters had been engraved crudely underneath the leaf symbols on two.

Aburame Shino

Inuzuka Kiba

Which means the third belongs to Hinata. Naruto silently tied each band over his bicep, the metal facing out for all to see. Lee and Tenten, who had been silent through the exchange nodded their approval. When Naruto had finished red eyes raised and met white.

"For them... and for us."


My first fanfic ever! I know this chapter is slow moving and can be a bit dull at times, but I had to set the scene. Without all of this set-up things move a lot quicker from Chapter 2 on and get a lot more intense (After chapter 3 you might need a tranqulizer! I know I did...j/k!)

Please, I'm just starting out and want to do well, so all comments, criticisms and suggestions are welcome and encouraged. And I take requests, too. So write a review and let me know what you think!


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