Naruto has risked it all so many times in the past, but this battle's consequences could destroy him - even if he's victorious! Now he must find the strength - and the desire - to face down not on...
Chapter Six: Salvation
Though her sense of smell had never been one of her strengths, Hinata could pick up the scent of blood before the clearing loomed into view. The Byakugan revealed to her that the clearing was just ahead, people scattered along the ground; not fighting, many not even moving.
It was over.
She was too late. She bound forward without pause, knowing that some among the team still lived.
One of them stood, white hair and dark clothes. Kakashi. He drew a kunai and faced her direction. His hetai-ate covered his Sharingan, so she knew he could not yet see her, but he had obviously heard her coming. He raised his weapon.
"It's me!" She cried out, "Hinata!" The weapon hand lowered and seconds later she was landing neatly onto the ground before him.
"Hinata..." Kakashi sighed as though all of the troubles of the world now rested upon him. "You shouldn't be here. You should never have left the hospital, let alone Konoha." She heard none of his words, her eyes scanning the clearing, checking each face.
Sakura, Ino, Shikamaru, Neji, one by one she ticked off her friends' status in her head. Yet some were missing, and her fist pressed to her abdomen.
Naruto. Where is Naruto?
Two people lay on the ground side by side, hands crossed carefully over chests, their faces covered with scraps of cloth: a man and a woman. Though she could not tell who the woman was, the outfit of the man was a telltale.
Maito Gai. It stunned her, and for a moment her beloved was not first in her thoughts. She gazed at the body and found it hard to believe that such a vibrant man was gone.
"Gai..." she breathed, "oh no. Oh... Gai. And a kunoichi, too? Who is she?"
"Mitarashi Anko," he said. The instructor from the chuunin exams, Hinata remembered, though she could not remember interacting with the jounin much since then.
"Naruto," she peered up at the tall jounin, trying to find an answer in the parts of the face she could see. "Where is he?" Kakashi's single eye closed and he turned away. Hinata stifled a groan.
"He went after Orochimaru." Jiraiya spoke up from the ground as he helped Sakura remain upright; her eyes seemed to have trouble focusing. Hinata gasped.
"Alone?" She looked to each team member, hoping someone would deny it. None did, though Ino's eyes flicked to a path that had been torn through the forest. "He went alone? How could you let him go?" Hinata ran for the path, confident that was where he had gone. Strong fingers gripped her arms.
"You can't go after him," Kakashi said in a voice that had been drained of hope, "he'll kill you." Hinata's brow creased in angry confusion and she shrugged from Kakashi's armored hands, ignoring the sting his fingers left on tender skin.
"He's kyubi, Hinata," Neji said, arms wrapped protectively around Tenten, "not our Naruto. Not right now. If you follow him and he sees you as a threat or even an inconvenience, you won't leave this forest alive."
No, The thought of Naruto hurting her was obscene.
Those eyes; the color of a cloudless midday sky. That boisterous bravado he held fast to. Hair that smell of ramen and grass and summer breezes. Those soft lips that could make her melt just by remembering them. The arms that had held her so gently that day in the hospital. He had almost seemed timid. And that smile.
That was her Naruto. Kyubi could never change that. The beast could not make Naruto hurt her.
Not my Naruto, /she thought with a small smile. /Never.
"Hinata?" Neji's voice barely registered in her head.
Closer. Closer. Soon.
He could smell him; smell the stink of old sweat and ozone and death. It was stronger now.
Naruto snarled, red eyes darting over his surroundings, razor claws tearing at the earth as he pushed himself forward; searching.
"You came." The voice called from the shadows. "He knew that you would."
Naruto's throat reverberated with the sounds of the kyubi's bloodlust.
"No insults?" Orochimaru stepped into Naruto's sight, "no threats? It seems you are not as predictable as he thinks."
Sasuke's mouth opened and the snake materialized again, yet it did not attack. The thing opened its mouth wide; the blade of the sword that Naruto had once heard could cut through anything emerged within its gullet.
"I suppose this means that things will be over quickly." Orochimaru spoke around the snake that wielded the blade, its movements like liquid. The tip of the sword angled towards Naruto and the thing that had once been his friend pulled its lips back in a snarl. "How fortunate for me."
Naruto didn't hesitate. Nothing could stop him from his kill.
The blade hurtled forth, shining metal extending impossibly.
And Naruto was gone.
Sasuke's head spun, yellow eyes searching, lips curled around the reptilian torso. A flick of its head and the snake passed the sword into its master's waiting hand; and then disappeared from whence it came. Orochimaru gazed at the world through the teen's Sharingan. The beast's growled panting coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once, making it impossible to locate him.
Then nothing. Orochimaru tensed.
Fire! Pain lanced through the flesh of his back and a blood-curdling shriek from behind told him that his antagonist was no coward. Somewhere deep inside his former body, Sasuke nearly wept with relief.
Do it, Naruto...
The beast within exhaulted, that familiar coppery smell in his nostrils. and the hunger drove him to push his host further.
The blonde was before Orochimaru once more, blood stained fingers attesting to his speed. The beast opened its mouth yet no words came, only the sound of exhilaration at the thrill of the kill.
The yellow eyed monster smiled at the sound.
Orochimaru knew that feeling well.
And he had also known of Naruto's circumstances.
"Did you truly believe that I would not be prepared for such a situation?" His voice was sickening, high-pitched and vulgar in its malice. "Did you think I did not realize you would call upon that power within you at some point? Foolish child, I am the greatest of the Densetsu no Sannin. Certainly even you should have grasped what that means. "
Trapped within his own mind, Sasuke screamed in desperation, and Orochimaru savored the boy's torment.
The ground at his feet rumbled and cracked. The splits in the earth widened, chunks of clay and rock spilling out as something moved beneath it all. A flash of gold in the sunlight; a golden box. Characters were etched across the front of the box gracefully. No... not a box at all.
A coffin. And those characters...
"He stopped you once before," Orochimaru smiled, "I believe it is safe to say that he can do it again."
Naruto's breath came in short, hateful rasps, the beast's coaxings stilled for a moment.
The box opened; sand and dirt pouring up and in, surrounding the body. When all had settled the still figure of the man within opened his eyes. Blue eyes. Blonde hair. Features so, so familiar.
That face used to smile at me, didn't it?
The kyubi rumbled that none of this mattered; there was blood to be spilled. Yet Naruto held firm to his control.
Somewhere deep inside, though he didn't know how or when, Naruto recognized that face. Sasuke's mouth split into a triumphant sneer.
"Daddy says you've been very naughty, young man." He sneered. "It's time to take your punishment."
She sat before Sakura, examining the kunoichi's old head wound carefully. That last attack had compounded it and now Sakura was in trouble.
"You have to stay awake, Sakura," Hinata said, carefully cover her friend's wound with the wrappings she had taken from the hospital, "sleep is dangerous with head injuries, I know that much."
"I know," Sakura mumbled drowsily, "but it's hard." Hinata and Jiraiya lifted the woman to her feet so that she could not become too comfortable.
"Someone has to get her back to the village," the sennin said, "and have a team sent back here to help with the bodies." Lee's face screwed up.
"He is not a body!" The tai-jutsu master argued. Jiraiya ignored the young man's outburst, wishing not to upset him any further.
"Iruka, you didn't fare that badly. You can take her back."
"The hell I will! I am not leaving Naruto out here alone!" Iruka stubbornly pointed a finger at the elder.
"No, you're not. We'll still be here. We won't abandon him." Jiraiya explained. "Tenten needs medical attention as well. Neji can take her. You four can travel together; it will be safer."
"No," Shikamaru closed the distance between he and Jiraiya, speaking low to avoid being overheard, "Neji needs to stay here with Lee. Right now I think Neji is the closest thing to family Lee has. I'll take Tenten."
Neji, still seated close by with Tenten had overheard, however. A silent look at the woman in his lap and she nodded her acceptance. Shikamaru gather her up carefully, settling her onto his back. A demanding glare at Iruka from the lazy-nin and the reluctant jounin gathered up Sakura, nodding at Hinata's reminder to not let the woman fall asleep, no matter what.
"You don't leave him out here," he said heatedly to the the massive man, "you wait for him, got me? You bring him home with you, or else legend or no legend, I'll slit your damned throat."
"He comes home with us, you have my word." Jiraiya vowed, not taking the threat to heart, and watched the men disappear into the forest with their charges. If they took a straight route rather than backtrack over their previous winding path, Jiraiya guessed the men could have their friends back in Konoha before midday tomorrow. Allowing for the appropriate time it would take to find Tsunade and explain their situation, help should arrive in two days' time; no later.
It could be worse. But then there was the matter of the bodies and what to do with them in the mean time.
Hinata stared longingly at the broken path Naruto had taken. She wanted to be there with him, if only to watch, to cheer for him as he had cheered for her so many times. She wanted him to know that he wasn't alone; not even when the beast raged and those he loved shrank back in fear. As long as she drew breath Naruto would never be alone.
"Orochimaru may be powerful," Kakashi's hand rested on her shoulder in a fatherly gesture, "but he's still only mortal; no amount of stolen bodies can change that. As much as it kills me to say it, as long as Naruto stays partially transformed he stands an excellent change of surviving."
Hianta said nothing. The silver-haired jounin knew she was fighting the urge to race down that pathway. He sighed.
"Naruto told me how much he cares for you," he revealed and the kunoichi finally tore her gaze from the path, and raised hopeful eyes to Kakashi. "I know that it kills him when you're hurting. I'm fairly sure that until your time together in the hospital he had not known how strongly his feelings for you were. I believe he loves you deeply, Hinata." A small smile of incredulity lit up her features and Kakashi tried not to think about what he was about to say.
"That's why I think that if you went down that pathway and he hurt you... I don't think he would be able to live with the guilt." The sweet smile melted away and Kakashi felt like shit for saying something so harsh. Hinata swallowed, her head snapping back to the pathway.
That unearthly roar sounded in the distance and the hairs on Kakashi's arms stood up. Ino squeaked out a frightened profanity and Neji turned his kekkei genkai eyes down the path in a futile attempt to see what was happening. But it was Jiraiya who took the first step forward.
"I've never heard him sound like that." He whispered. "He sounds..."
"...hurt." Lee's face was no longer bent over his master. Dark brows furled as his gaze followed everyone else's.
The roar repeated and a thunderous crash vibrated the ground slightly.
A pattering of footsteps and Hinata's back faded into the trees.
"Goddammit!" Kakashi swore violently and before anyone could question the sanity of their actions the group was barreling down the pathway.
The rescue team's going to find a graveyard when they arrive, Jiraiya shook his head in resignation.
It was a good thing he wasn't afraid to die.
Yondaime vanished in a small white cloud as Naruto's claws sank into the soft dirt a few hundred feet away. Another puff of smoke and the man materialized behind Naruto, Kusanagi gripped in his hands and he slashed at Naruto's back.
The beast howled in wrath and pain.
"It appears that although I am no match for a demon, you are no match for your sire." Orochimaru gloated from the edge of the battlefield. "The man that gave you life and then that incredible power is now going to take both back from you. It seems only fitting, don't you agree?"
Yondaime watched with no emotion as Naruto disappeared and the reappeared a good distance away, snarling viciously, saliva dripping from exposed fangs, the three tails lashing out furiously behind him.
"Are you afraid, boy?" The yellow eyed man goaded. "Are you afraid of your demise? I was thinking of showing it to you, but I believe in your case surprising you would be far more amusing."
Yondaime vanished in his familiar smoke and Naruto moved, sparing himself another slash of the sword - the only thing that could cut through the kyubi's shield. His father - his father! somewhere deep within, Naruto was reeling at the revelation - was upon him again sword cleaving through air. Naruto raised a clawed foot and spun, driving the blonde hokage into and then through a nearby tree. But Naruto did not follow.
"Oh, so that's it. You can't do it, can you?" Orochimaru was chuckling now; laughing at him! "You can't bring yourself to kill your own father. Not again. Not after the first time you and the kyubi killed him - and you did kill him, make no mistake."
Yondaime was on his feet again, pursuing his son, driving the Kusanagi at him again and again while Naruto skimmed away; the blade extending and coming close enough to its mark to shave a few strands of blonde hair away.
"No matter how fearsome you appear, no matter how fast or how strong or how deadly you become, deep down inside you're just a sad little boy who wants his papa."
Naruto roared, Sasuke's imposter infuriated him and without warning the blonde beast turned for Orochimaru. Yondaime followed, blade at the ready. Naruto stopped, clawed fingers raised before his prey's face. And then in a flurry of movements that defied the laws of physics Naruto leapt into the air. Yondaime's blade pitched to the side, narrowly missing Orochimaru's cheek as the black haired man leaned casually to one side, avoiding the cut, and laughed.
"Well that was an amusing maneuver. Where did you learn that, from a child's storybook?"
Naruto was on his feet again, pouncing upon Orochimaru; but Yondaime stepped between the two. Naruto faltered, claws retracted and the dead man drove the sword through his son's shoulder.
Naruto screamed, and drew back, the sword slicing its way out through the side of his shoulder as he retreated. Though he still traveled at speeds too fast to track with any eye the blood trail revealed his path. When he finally stopped, his left arm hung limply to the side, though tissues and bone had already begun to rejoin.
A snap in the trees. Naruto's ears perked. Yondaime's expressionless face turned.
Hinata was entering the battle-made clearing, her face flush with worry and when her eyes fell upon the man she loved she gasped.
"You're hurt!" Naruto felt something inside his chest go weird. She hadn't recoiled; hadn't screamed. She was worried for him! Behind her a rustling noise and more of his colleagues came into view.
"Yondaime!" Jiraiya noted the scene before him and was outraged at the sight of his long-ago pupil. The bloodstained sword in the blonde's hands was unmistakable, and explained the multitude of healing wounds covering Naruto's body.
He turned hateful eyes on his former teammate. "You bastard! You'll regret disturbing his rest! And then you'll die for turning him against the boy!!" But the yellow eyed man leaned his head back, peering down his nose at the recent arrivals.
"Really, now," was his only comment, which suited Kakashi just fine. He wasn't in the mood for longwinded shit from a soulless pit. Lee stepped around Kakashi, his eyes boring into Orochimaru hotly, but the Copy-nin held out a restraining arm.
"You go after him and you run the risk of getting killed by him, a dead hokage or a demon."
"I will take my chances." Lee growled and Kakashi's fist turned over, gripping Lee's shirt tightly, pinching the skin beneath.
"So that's how you'll thank Gai for his sacrifice?" He demanded. "By throwing it away the first chance you get? Where's your respect for your sensei's honorable act?" Lee hesitated and then relented.
"Wise move," Orochimaru said, "but a wiser one would have been to avoid this place all together. Now you run the risk of becoming an interference, and I can't have that."
The point of the blade sung through the air and Yondaime turned sharply; he had new quarry to deal with at the moment. He moved.
"GO!!" Jiraiya ordered the team.
But before a single step could be taken by any of them Naruto was between his friends and his father, taking the blow that had been meant for a teammate. Bloodied steel pushed through his stomach and out his back. Hinata screamed his name.
The young jounin roared in pain and fury and grief -
And smashed a clawed hand across his father's face.
Yondaime flipped backward, avoiding Naruto's follow-up blow, but his son was there again, toenails like steel daggers slicing into his father's side and sending him soaring into the air before colliding sickeningly with the ground. Sand, not blood, poured from the open wounds on his father's face and Naruto was there again, atop his father's body, pounding him onto his back and tearing at him with a fury that could rival the beast within, the kyubi's shield blistering and burning the flesh Naruto assaulted without mercy.
The sword hand raised, but Naruto's jaws clamped firmly onto the wrist, sand dribbling down his chin when fanged teeth pierced skin, and with a jerk of his head the hand was ripped from the arm. Naruto reached up and pulled the sword free of Yondaime's disembodied grip, feeling the strong tug as Orochimaru tried to call the blade back.
But Naruto was stronger.
Tears ran rivulets down his face and Naruto called forth the blazing power of the kyubi, scorching the flesh and bone beneath him into nothingness. With the demon's voice he sobbed loudly.
He knows... Naruto's cry had reached Jiraiya's ears and the sennin was at a loss. Oh, Kami... Naruto knows who he is and still he fights!
"That's not him, Naruto!" he screamed, trying to give the boy some comfort. "It's only a shadow!"
The skin under his hands blackened, blue eyes open, unflinching, staring into Naruto's the entire time. Blonde hair flew wildly in the heat before turning to dust and ash. That mouth that Naruto remembered smiling at him in the distant past was still set in a line of dispassionate wrongness.
It's not him.
Naruto sobbed again, louder and more like himself.
It's not him!
"Father..." Naruto's voice strangled out through the kyubi's and the body beneath him dissolved into a cloud of ash and smoke, floating away on the breeze. Naruto trembled on his knees, the sword still clutched in his hand, crying forcefully. Kakashi turned an anguished eye away, but the cries still invaded his senses. He didn't think he could take it; watching as Naruto's soul died within him. He didn't-
But before anyone could wonder if Uzumaki Naruto would ever rise from that place again he was flinging out his arm, a cry of hate and love and loss in his throat and a shaft of light flung from his hand.
Kusanagi lodged in Sasuke's chest and Orochimaru's yellow eyes widened in shock, the look of bemusement gone. Naruto was upon him before he could cry out, fingers wrapped on the hilt, his face so close hot breath fanned Sasuke's black hair back with every exhalation.
"For them..." Naruto whispered to a face where yellow eyes filled with fear and blood dripped from pale lips, "...and for us..." Naruto twisted the blade roughly and Orochimaru grunted, the red flow from his mouth increasing, "...and for Sasuke!" Naruto pulled his arm out to the side, wrenching the blade through bone and muscle and the torso before him severed almost entirely in two.
And before Sasuke's body fell to the ground those yellow eyes turned black and Naruto thought he could see the ghost of his friend, smiling in those eyes.
Then it was over. Sasuke lay on the ground in a ruined heap, his heartbeat no more in Naruto's ears.
He stood there, for what seemed to be an eternity, over the body of his rival-turned-friend-turned-enemy. Hinata watched his back, covered in blood and dirt and ash. But the tails did not disappear and the aura did not fade.
He was still the beast.
But she was not afraid.
She stepped forward and none around her stopped her, though in truth none around her had noticed. It wasn't until she was halfway to him that Neji's voice called out to her, but she didn't stop. She walked slowly approaching him, her feet hissing in the grass; she made certain he could hear her. She placed a hand on his arm, whole again, though the clothes that covered it had been shredded to rags.
Naruto startled and whirled, his hand catching her wrist in a grip so strong she should have cried out, as she heard Ino and Neji cry out behind her.
But she didn't.
"It's alright, Naruto," she said softly, looking up into those red eyes so full of pain, "it's alright." His fierce expression softened and the tails behind him stilled.
"H-Hinata?" It was mostly his voice again, though the rumble was still present. The grip on her wrist loosened.
"I couldn't just sit there and wait," she whispered tenderly, a barely-there smile on her lips. "I had to know that you were safe. I had to come."
"You came?" He was confused, but the red glow was leaving his eyes. And then he noticed it. His hand, on her wrist: the aura wasn't burning her.
How is the aura not burning her?
"I came for you, Naruto." She said. "I came because I love you." He exhaled a deep ragged breath. The tails fizzled out of existence and the red glow left his body, returning the blue to his eyes and the beauty to his features.
"You... weren't afraid... just then?" He asked, raw eyes searching hers, needing something only she could give him at that moment. "You weren't afraid of me... of the kyubi?" She shook her head, the smile showing itself a little more.
"I knew that you would never hurt me," she confessed, "I knew it in my soul. My Naruto, he loves me too much."
Naruto's lips quivered and she reached up, wrapping bandaged arms around his neck. His body stiffened and then he was returning the embrace, his face buried in her hair. She did not hear the footsteps behind her, only the ragged breath of the man she loved as he tried with every fiber of his being to not cry.
And when a shadow crossed over them, and Kakashi placed a tender hand upon his pupil's back, Naruto set loose his tears and his sobs, grateful for the fact that he was not alone.
The last of the funerals were over; Gai and Anko receiving a hero's service, having participated in the mission that had brought an end to Orochimaru's threat. Kiba and Shino had been buried earlier that week, while the team had been away. Though none of their friends had been able to attend the actual services, the group had gathered later at the graves to pay homage to the men who had touched their lives.
It had been a somber first few days after the return to Konoha. They had not spoken to many outside their circle and not gone out into any shops or restaurants. And since the hokage had told them that none of them would have to report to the mission boards for some time, they really saw no reason to venture from each other's company at all.
Tsunade worried incessantly, fearing that they had been too young, too green, for a mission of such high caliber. But Kakashi had told her again and again; they were young but they were still shinobi. They would heal; they just needed time.
They retreated to the outskirts of the forest a lot, finding the cheerful sounds of Konoha's citizens a bit overwhelming at the moment. And it was there that they would talk, or not talk, whatever the case may be.
Naruto had been sitting in at the base of a tree, twirling a long blade of grass between his teeth, Hinata's head on his lap.
The others, the remains of the Rookie Nine, were not too far away, as had been the case for the passed week. None really wanted to be alone, so when one got the urge to move they usually all followed; even Neji, who had never needed anyone in his life.
"Does anyone have any idea when we should begin reporting for duty again?" Ino asked, breaking the silence. "Tsunade never did give us an actual date." It was quiet for a moment, but she didn't worry. Someone would speak.
"I think whenever we chose," Sakura held tight to the hitai-ate she had been carrying around recently, thumbing the leaf symbol absently. Sasuke's band. Naruto had had the presence of mind to take the band to her when they had returned from the forest.
Sakura had wept so long and so hard that the nurses had been forced to sedate her.
"Itachi is still out there." Naruto said blankly after another long pause. "Sasuke never got his revenge." No reply for a time. Then there was a sigh.
"Shall we champion his cause?" Lee asked, sitting so close to Sakura that their legs touched. Yet he would not try for her affections yet. It was too soon, Sasuke's loss to raw, and he had more respect for the pink haired cherry blossom than that. For now he simply wanted to be there for her; to give her a shoulder to cry on when the memories threatened to suffocate her.
"You seriously thinking of going?" Shikamaru asked, and though he tried, the scornful reluctance was clearly a ruse. He felt the sting of loss just as clearly. Naruto nodded.
"I'm gonna." He said. "But not just yet." He trailed fingers lovingly through the long black strands on his lap, thin white fingers reaching up to entwine with his. "I'm going to take some time and enjoy what I have first." The others nodded their agreement, and Naruto knew they would follow him once more.
The fourth hokage's son, as he was now known by all in Konoha - courtesy of Jiraiya and a couple of overly protective former sensei - had found his peace, though in truth he had never known he had been missing it.
He had always had some distraction to cling to: his goal to be hokage, his rivalry with Sasuke, his love of two women. And though he would be hokage someday - Tsunade would see to that - and had earned the love of one of his precious kunoichi, it was not those things that gave him peace, though Hinata, and Kakashi, had helped.
He was strong, he realized, but not just physically. Naruto could love and cry and hurt and still be strong enough to do what was needed. He could be counted on by those who cared for and trusted him. He could protect the people he loved. He was a man, worthy of his father's legacy.
He was Uzumaki Naruto, the number-one-hyper-active-knuckle-headed-jounin of Konoha, and nothing could change that. Not the demon he harbored, not his family or lack-there-of, not his reputation; nothing.
He was Uzumaki Naruto, and he was damned grateful to be so.
And that's a wrap, kiddies! My first story, written and complete! Can I just say DAMN I FEEL GOOD!!! I feel like dancing, or singing or freakin' breaking something! (yeah, sometimes I can get a bit out of hand...) :) I may decide to come back to this one eventually and pick up on the loop-hole I left for sequels (Itachi's still out there). Or not. We'll see how it goes. :)
Comments? Questions? Requests for future stories? Bitch at me for actually ending this story? I'll take it all. I can handle it. Bring it on! :) Seriously, what's on your mind?
Thanks for reading this, everyone! See you with another story soon!
ADDITION: The sequel is out and has been completed! "A Promise To Keep" officially closes out this story, and I have to say that the last two chapters of "Promise" were the most fun I've ever had writing! (You think the action scene here was good?!?! I know I did better in "Promise"!) But don't skip chapters! I link my stories, so if you skip I promise you that you'll miss something.