Death and tragedy find Team Naruto once more. Now it is up to a precious few to rescue those who can still be saved - and avenge those who cannot. And somewhere in the forest one team member's fa...
Chapter Four: A Beginning for Every Ending...
For the first time in a long time Kakashi didn't pause to brood over how he was getting too old for this kind of shit.
Lately that had pretty much been the topic of the one-way conversations in the jounin's head. He was thirty eight years old, after all, and well beyond retirement age for the average ANBU. Sure, he wasn't ANBU anymore, but he certainly shouldn't be going out on top-ranked missions at this stage of life. Any other hokage would have benched the aging shinobi to a retirement of teaching and guard duty at least three years ago, he would tell himself sometimes.
But Naruto had absolute faith in his former sensei, and Kakashi had confessed to him, once upon a time over a nearly drained bottle of sake, that he just couldn't picture himself sitting in the guard shack at the village gates no matter how old he lived to be. So Naruto put Kakashi into his usual class of missions and Kakashi pulled them off with the apparent ease of a fresh jounin.
And through it all Gondaime watched from the sidelines, holding her tongue. She knew that when it came to Naruto and his sensei things said by her would bring about nothing but stony glares and silence from both parties. Someday she would have to step in, if only to keep Kakashi alive, but as long as he continued to achieve near flawless success there would be no convincing the two that the time for retirement had come.
But right now thoughts like those were as absent from his mind as anything else that didn't revolve around a certain little blonde boy with white eyes. The one who dared to call him Uncle Kakashi - despite the looks it brought about from any bystanders. The only one who had ever managed to pull down that black mask with his own hands and find the face beneath.
It felt... nice... having family again, Kakashi confessed to himself, even if they weren't the blood he had been without for so long. Having someone call him 'uncle' almost made him believe that there would be a place for him in the world even if he wasn't a shinobi.
But he was a shinobi.
And though he may be getting older, and though there was a newer generation that was more than capable of taking his place, he was still one of the elites. His was a name that continued to inspire awe and trepidation throughout the lands. He was the legendary Copy-nin. He lived in more bingo books than anyone he had ever known. He had more victories than anyone; though in truth he had stopped counting once Gai died. His name would be remembered long after he was dead and buried.
He was Hatake Kakashi.
And he was going to bring that kid home safely; even if it killed him.
Sakura had at first thrashed and fought wildly against the one who was dragging her deeper and deeper into the trees and away from her team. She didn't want anyone burrowing their way into her brain, like some filthy maggot, and taking over. She reached down to pry the arms from her waist and calmed instantly. She knew those fingers, covered in thinning wrappings that ran up his wrists and forearms.
"Lee?" The grip was too tight on her, and she couldn't turn to see his face.
"We must get away from here. Shikamaru said we must scatter or be overcome."
When did Shika give THAT order?
"But Ino! And Neji and Hinata! We can't just abandon them! Lee-"
"I agree, Sakura! I do." His voice was pleading; a side of himself he only let her see in recent years. "But for now I cannot know what the next step will be. The plan is failed, and we have no other option at the moment. We must assure our safety first so that we may rescue our friends later."
Sakura dragged her feet in the dirt stubbornly, making it nearly impossible for Lee to tow her along. The grip loosened as her fingers dug into wrapped tendons, forcing him to release her. At last bright green eyes stared into her lover's.
"Since when does Rock Lee care about securing his personal safety above that of his friends'?" She asked carefully. It wasn't that what he said didn't make sense. It made perfect sense, in fact.
And that was what worried her. In cases of extreme danger, Lee had always been the first to throw himself in harm's way, consequences be damned. He would do anything to protect his friends and his ninja way. It was the asinine behavior that had more than once come close to costing him his future as a shinobi as well as his life.
With a sorrow that could have suffocated her, Sakura knew at that moment that this was not her Lee.
And she had only enough time to raise a forearm to deflect the approaching fist. Her years of training with the man kept the bones in her arm from splintering beneath his blow. Lee's follow through was classic tai-jutsu style. Whoever was controlling the man obviously knew his strengths well. Before he could appear behind her and cut off her only retreat she summoned forth a cluster of Bushin and scattered them in every direction she could. Lee would only be able to follow one; he didn't have the ability to replicate himself and pursue every single clone.
Two of the Sakura's sped out ahead of the others. Lee's invader chose to follow the one to the right, and Sakura pushed onward, grateful that the odds had been in her favor. She had hung back slightly at first, hoping that Naruto's tactic of always placing his true self in the most dangerous position would pay off for her as well; and it had.
Seconds later she listened as Naruto's voice cut into her earpiece. The leader was ordering the transmitters destroyed and one by one she lost track of some of her friends. Chouji and Lee were the first to comply verbally. Then Ino. Oh, Ino. Yet there was nothing but silence from the others. Sakura would leave nothing to chance. She pulled the transmitter from her own ear and smashed it underfoot.
She'd find her remaining teammates the old fashioned way.
He rolled the flare from his pocket between his fingers. According to the plan, this was the point in which Shikamaru was to set off the flare and raise the alarm. If the shit hit the fan, call for Tsunade; the last one powerful enough to take on Naruto and have a chance of coming out alive.
But things were different now; and the last thing in the world they needed was another hokage under Akatsuki's control.
Three were lost for certain. Ino, Lee and Chouji. His throat constricted at the reminder of Chouji looking so hateful. His closest friend...
No, he'd get him back. He'd get them all back. This was just going to take some thought.
Shikamaru snapped the flare in two, careful to avoid igniting it and inadvertently calling for Tsunade anyway. If he were captured there would be a strong possibility that whoever took him over would learn of that plan and call for Tsunade. He couldn't risk that. He took out the remaining two flares and destroyed them as well. At least he could protect someone.
There was a soft intake of air behind him and without hesitation he whirled, his Kage Kubi Shibari no Jutsu extending, grasping the approaching shinobi by the throat with ease.
"Sakura?" The pink haired woman held perfectly still in his grip. Here eyes were trained on him intently.
"Is that you, Shika?"
"I could ask the same of you." He replied, though he held the fingers of his jutsu in check.
"You destroyed your transmitter too, I see. Did you hear that we lost Lee and Ino, too?"
"Yeah, I heard. You never answered my question, Sakura."
"I'm still me." Sakura replied.
Prove it? How the hell am I supposed to do that?
"That's kind of a loaded request, don't you think?" She barked. "If I'm not me, the imposter can still read my thoughts and memories for the right answer and mimic my abilities. Any evidence I give you could just as easily come from someone in my head. On that note, the same could be said for you. So how do I know that you're really Shikamaru?"
"Well, since I'm on the right end of this jutsu I'll think we'll worry more about proving you're really you for the moment."
"Yeah, I figured as much." She sighed. "Fine. There's no other way. Shika, promise me that you can get the others out of this mess - even if it's without me."
"Say that again?"
"You can't trust me and I get that. And right now I can't trust you, but you're in control and I've got to accept that. So you leave me here. You can knock me out if you want to, restrain me, whatever. I'll understand. Make me useless to anyone for a good, long time. But no matter what you do, you promise me first that you can save Lee and the others. You swear it to me that you can get them back."
"And what if I can't?"
Sakura tried to smile but her facial muscles wouldn't work that way. "Well if you're not an imposter, you're Nara Shikamaru; our friend. Our Shika can figure out a way to save them. If you tell me you can do it I'll believe you."
After an eternity of being scrutinized by dark eyes, Sakura found the grip on her throat released; the shadow pulled back to its master.
"So you're you. I get that. That leaves Neji and Hinata up in the air."
"And you." Sakura reminded her friend - she/ hoped/ he was still her friend. "You never proved you're still Shikamaru."
"How do you propose I do that?" And the medic shook her head.
"I don't know," her admission was full of defeat, "this is way over my head. I'm just going to have to keep my eyes on you for a while, I guess."
"Then I'll leave the choice up to you. Do we go after the ones we know have turned, do we look for those that could still be our friends or do we come up with a plan?"
"You mean that you don't already have one in the works?" Somehow the idea that Shikamaru didn't have a plan forming was more frightening that the idea of the Nara may not be himself.
"I guess that's my answer, huh?" His pulled on that familiar sick smirk and slid down into a crouch, his fingertips joined in what Asuma had called his tick.
Sakura achieved a tiny smile and Shikamaru frowned.
"Do you mind sharing with me what's so damned amusing about this predicament?" He demanded irritably.
All these years and nobody's bothered to point out his tick to him.
"Nothing. I just don't have to keep my eye on you anymore." Her sad little smile didn't fade and she was glad. Right now she needed something to hang on to. "I know you're Shikamaru now."
The Nara's frowned deepened as he stared at her. Shaking his head slowly and muttering something about a pain in the ass, he closed his eyes and returned to his thoughts.
And Sakura began to feel just the slightest bit better, though she didn't even realize it.
He looked out at the world through the Sharingan and was utterly amazed. It wasn't that the kekkei genkai changed his vision, or altered the way he saw the world. It simply held onto everything he saw; which was everything around him. He could recite how many breaths Deidara had taken in his new female body. He could tick off the exact number of leaves on the tree at his one o'clock position.
In the deepest recesses of his mind he quietly crowed his superiority to the long-dead Uchiha boy. Years of bragging about his family's greatness had proven ridiculous. The Uchihas were extinct and their precious bloodline trait now existed solely in the possession of two men who had not been born to its right.
How perfectly fitting.
And then he was aware of her presence. She was skirting around the shadow, well beyond the range of his newly acquired Mangekyo Sharingan. Yet his telepathy told him that her mind was buzzing with thoughts of how to win her husband back. How to capture him without killing him and without hurting her friends. She was like a mother lioness, pacing nervously as she watched her cub mauled to death by the newest king of the pride.
Hope was such a pointless emotion during times like these.
Speaking of cubs...
A look to the one within the tai-jutsu master's vessel; Tobi he knew. The man had lost the pink-haired woman when the copy dissipated in a puff of smoke under his fingers.
'We have a straggler to our deep seven o'clock. Mind her Byakugan and pay her a visit. She has an appointment with one of your fellows. And make sure you get this one.'
The comically browed face nodded and moved into the trees with a speed and grace he would have never displayed in his previous form. There was something to be said for this host, who could never move beyond the physical fight.
He reached out for Zetsu and was upset at what he discovered. It seemed the man that inhabited the largest of Team Naruto's members had run into one of the few that had escaped - and had paid for his inexperience with a severe thrashing. The Hyuuga clan's members were far more troublesome than he had heard. A speedy warning was sent to Tobi; the woman he pursued should not be underestimated. She was, after all, the one who had killed Uchiha Itachi.
The man within Rokudaime turned for base camp. The cub. It was time to wrap up the loose ends before a certain mother lioness made that task impossible. He smiled when he heard the desperate cries from within his mind; pleas and curses and threats of things far worse then death if anything happened to the boy.
And the leader of Akatsuki found the words as impotent as the man who let them loose.
They were drawing closer. Kakashi had given the signal for absolute silence; something that was only to be done once they were within range of their destination. Iruka was growing more and more apprehensive. He remembered that Tsunade had said Tadashi was inside of a sealed crate, but what of the others? What had happened to Naruto? To the team? He was certain that any plan of Shikamaru's would not involve just handing Naruto over like a ransom. But it didn't help that the young genius was also so secretive sometimes.
Beside him, Kakashi was pulling up his hitai-ate. Jiraiya was about as silent and focused as the youngest man had ever known the sannin to be. Though he was no weakling himself, Iruka had to admit that his teammates were more than a little intimidating. He prayed that he'd be able to hold his own within this group. The last thing he wanted was to become an added liability-
-Kakashi dropped to the ground bellow and the others followed without cue. There was no more rushing onward; no more barreling through the trees in search of their destination.
They were here.
Rouge shinobi were scattered through the makeshift camp. It was easy enough for the rescue team to dispatch the ones at the edges. They were obviously the thugs Gondaime had warned the secondary team of. Their deaths were silent; these shinobi might have been rogues but they were pitifully skilled. Lackeys obviously, riding the coattails of the more powerful in the hopes of building a name for themselves. It was a common story.
Yet the fifth rouge proved to be more of a challenge, and Iruka's split second of surprise gave the man time to cry out.
Dammit! Men scrambled from throughout the small camp and Kakashi rushed in ahead of Jiraiya; his Sharingan searching desperately for a sealed crate. "Split off!" He didn't have to explain why. Jiraiya and Iruka knew precisely what they were looking for.
And it was Jiraiya who spotted the crate first.
"Hey tyke!" Jiraiya called out to the sealed box he rushed towards. His fellows recognized the elder's nickname for Tadashi and leapt in, drawing the remaining rouges away from the sannin. "Don't'cha worry, Gramps is here!" He despised any nickname that mocked his age, but this one in particular made the kid smile and right about now he figured Tadashi needed to hear something friendly.
Jiraiya glanced down at the seals. They were intricate and would need more time to break than the two seconds he currently had available. For now he'd have to just take the box and get the hell out of town. Let the others wrap up this mess and then join him.
"Hey tyke, you okay in there?" He reached down and pulled the heavy crate carefully into his arms - moving slowly so he wouldn't jostle the precious cargo within. "Don't worry, I'm going-"
Four smoke bombs that had been hidden beneath the box were knocked loose by the crate's movement. Jiraiya watched helplessly as the little orbs rolled down into an indentation that had been dug in the dirt beneath the crate. His pulse quickened. In that indentation laid four slips of paper - pressure traps, the likes of which he had never seen before.
The smoke bombs rolled onto the paper slips.
His world exploded in a flash of white and searing heat. Wood splintered against his chest, blood evaporated in the flames as it was torn from flesh. The explosion pushed outward and Jiraiya could hear Kakashi scream from somewhere behind; Iruka's cry of pain and surprise rose almost simultaneously, echoed dissonantly by the sounds of the dying rouges.
Although Jiraiya had never feared death, in that instant he felt true terror.
Jiraiya had never feared death, but he had always feared failure. And at that moment he had failed them all; Naruto, Kakashi, Hinata-
-and especially the tiny boy who used to call him Gramps.
White turned to black, and Jiraiya didn't fear - or feel - anything anymore.
The leader halted in his tracks. The ground beneath his feet trembled, but more than that was the near deafening sound that erupted from camp. Above the treetops in the distance rose a ball of fire and smoke. The primary trap had been sprung.
It seemed he didn't have to carry out the execution after all.
When the blood curdling shriek rose within his mind from the other he pushed it aside. It didn't entertain him as he thought it would; killing the hokage's son. It probably wouldn't have mattered even if he had dealt the death blow personally. The idea of killing a child with no fighting skills now seemed pitifully boring - no matter who's blood flowed in that child's veins.
He didn't have long to dwell on that thought. Within his mind - no somewhere/ deeper/ - something was happening. His heart raced, his blood boiled and power like he had never known surged through his veins. A rage that went beyond mortal emotion began to take over; as did a presence of something dark and hot and full of hate.
The Kyuubi. The hokage was calling upon the power of the demon. This was a contingency the invader had planned for. He had suspected that the beast would still bow to the commands of the original host; at least until Rokudaime could be eliminated completely. But that was no matter. The newest inhabitant of Naruto's body had been prepared for this.
He forced an image into his head - the image of the hokage's son cowering in fear, weeping pitifully. It wasn't a false image, but a memory. The image expanded and his prisoner watched as a kunai was dragged across the boy's scalp. The hokage listened to his son howl in pain; as he screamed out for a father that would never come. He pressed the fact silently that this was how the boy's last moments on earth had been spent; full of terror and pain, with no father to rescue him.
The captor did not relent this barrage of memory and guilt until he was positive that it had brought about the exact reaction he had hoped for. Rage turned to crushing grief; an emotion the Kyuubi held no sway over. The invader was now able to separate his emotions from those of his prisoner. He was aware of how the man within drowned in the sorrow; showing signs that he'd never again have the will to fight.
Yes. Despite the lack of amusement, killing the boy/ had/ been the right decision, he was certain of that.
Hinata danced away as Lee's body moved at her with a speed she'd never be able to match. True, she was quite fast, but there wasn't one of them - other than Naruto when he channeled the demon - that could ever hope to match Lee's speed. Now the man inside her friend wasn't giving her enough time to employ her familys' greatest defense. She was barely managing to stay out of reach-
Thoughts of evasion were forgotten when a concussion wave of air smashed against her, the sound of the explosion assaulting her ears an instant later. To the south smoke rose into the air; one of the largest explosion clouds she'd ever seen. Something inside her filled with dread. Shikamaru had said nothing about setting up traps. Had one of the team met with trouble?
Lee's form stopped moving towards her. His arms dropped to his sides and he peered at her from a cocked his head, as though resigned to the blast's hidden meaning.
"You can give this up now," he said quietly, "there's really no reason to carry on like this anymore. You've lost. Your son is dead."
Hinata's heart skipped a beat. What? What did he just say?
Her response faltered, but she found her voice after a moment. "I don't believe you," she countered, "you are trying to trick me."
"Why should I? We both know it will only take me a little while longer to capture you." Lee's usurper said reasonably. "I'm just trying to save us both the trouble of a physically draining fight.
"That explosion was a bomb that had been placed under the crate where we kept the boy." Lee's captor explained. "If anyone lifted the crate the trap would blow. Obviously one of yours was able to reach our camp and tried to save the boy. Now he's dead and I'm betting whoever tried to save him is dead too." A cruel smile creased her friend's face. "So, do you have any idea who that might have been?"
Hinata forgot to breathe; forgot to maintain her defensive stance. She forgot everything but the random snippets of truths the bounced within her head.
He had to be lying.
But Kakashi had been slated to lead in a second team...
It CAN'T be true!
...a team that was supposed to move in on the camp and steal her son away from his captors.
Hinata didn't realize she had been screaming. She didn't feel the tears running down her cheeks. And she didn't notice when Lee's fist crashed into her face, knocking her through the trunk of a small tree some thirty feet behind her.
Her boy... her precious, precious boy. Unnoticed beneath her, Kyuubi's small stuffed body remained wedged against her back. Her boy was dead and she hadn't been there. She hadn't been able to chase away the fear or hold him to her.
Her Tadashi had died alone and afraid. Hinata no longer screamed, though she didn't know that, either. She wept silently, her thoughts swirling around the son she had failed to save. Around a husband she could never again face - even if he managed to win his freedom.
The world no longer held any meaning for Hinata.
And when the green clad figure bent over her she couldn't bring herself to care.
Sakura gasped in surprise at the wave of air pressure and noise that always signified an explosion. Beside her Shikamaru swore and dropped unsteadily from his crouch to one knee. Two heads spun to face the direction of the explosion.
"What..." Sakura was at a loss for words and ideas.
"I don't know."
"So, that wasn't you? It wasn't some part of your plan?" She tore her eyes from the rising cloud of smoke in the distance and glanced down at Shikamaru, who was slowly shaking his head as he continued to watch the billowing grey mass in the distance. He pushed himself slowly to his feet and she could practically see his mind trying to work furiously behind his eyes.
"I think... we have to get there." His words were coming slowly, broken apart as though he couldn't think clearly. Something was wrong - and Shikamaru knew what that something was.
She was almost afraid to ask. "Why?"
"Because... because I think I know where that blast came from. At least, I can think of only one place where they would bother with such high explosives. If I'm right... I think we just lost Kakashi's team," Sakura's eyes bulged at her friend's whisper, "and... if that's true," Shikamaru went on hesitantly, "that probably means we just lost Tadashi too."
The kunoichi's lips quivered and her jaw fell open. She couldn't believe what he was saying. She couldn't believe what was happening. But the look that was now plastered over her friend's face was familiar - and Sakura couldn't bring herself to believe that he was wrong no matter how badly she tried.
She hadn't seen Shikamaru look so defeated since Asuma died. Not even when they had lost Kiba and Shino. Not even in the battle where Gai and Anko had died.
And Shikamaru was defeated now. He had given his word to bring the boy home safely. Now it seemed that not only had he lost the boy, he also lost three friends in the process - if not the ones taken by Akatsuki as well. Failure swept over him like a smothering weight.
Sakura didn't wait for Shikamaru; she tore off through the woods towards the blast zone.
Her sensei. Her best friends' son. Iruka and Jiraiya. She prayed to the gods that somehow Shikamaru was wrong. She prayed that Kakashi and the others were safe and that Tadashi was alive. She prayed that Shikamaru's sharp mind had failed him in this assumption. She prayed out loud - something she hadn't done in years - as she ran with all of her available speed through the forest.
Shikamaru followed her closely, listening to his friend as she panted out plea after plea without a care of being heard by a nearby enemy. He hadn't the heart to quiet her. Let her pray on his behalf, too. He'd given up the ritual long ago.
Let Sakura pray for them both. Because Shikamaru already knew the truth. He didn't need anymore evidence that the gods didn't exist. He didn't need to utter another prayer that would never be answered.
He already knew that his friends were dead; and no amount of praying would bring them back.
I know, it's dark. I know it's sad. And I know: 'You're pregnant and you're writing about THIS?' Just so you know, I am perfectly aware that what I write is fiction. I have a vivid, graphic imagination and I always have. Right now my emotions are fine and this story has no bearings on my current state of mind. There, feel better? No? Why the heck not?
Oh. Yeah. That whole explosion thing.
Okay, so I'm a bit sadistic when it comes to my stories. But isn't that what keeps you coming back? Because, in the end, you're all hoping that SOMEBODY lives. Right?
Well sorry, because you won't get your answer in this chapter! Gotta wait for the next one! :D
Oh! And FYI: I prefer reviews to emails, please. I'll respond to any reviews, just as I'd respond to am email, and I won't have to delete the reviews when my box gets too full!