Weight of the World


Chapter 13
The Red Sand


We made good time, crossing through the remaining forest of the Land of Fire, opening up to the short expanse of fields that just boarded Konoha territory. The farmers and all their children stared blatantly at us as we shot across their lands. No doubt they'd seen many a ninja pass by, it wasn't like this wasn't a route often used.

But we were, I would admit, a very colourful group.

Only Sasuke's hair was a somewhat 'normal' colour, the dark coal of a Land of Fire native.

Sakura had to have family roots somewhere between Rain, Rock and Sand, because those were the only places people with such lightly coloured hair, such brightly coloured hair, were born.

The Hatake clan, I knew, originally came from Rain Country hundreds of years ago, but had moved to the Land of Fire for better business opportunities at some point during the Clan Wars.

The Namikazes had actually been merchants from Rock, according to Kakashi. Namikaze Minato had been in the Leaf as a toddler when he was suddenly orphaned by a Konoha Nin attempting to go Missing Nin. Needless to say, that wannabe Missing Nin hadn't made it out of the village.

The fact the greatest terror of Iwa was actually born in Rock country was conveniently left out of the history books.

Considering this, it wasn't difficult to imagine the kinds of psychological effects the Uzumaki could have managed with their hair colour. Shrouded in the mist and storms that Uzu had once been famous for, they'd have been a blood red blot. Was that a spray of blood, or the hair of an approaching Uzumaki?

It was almost up to par with Zabuza's Silent Killing Technique.

Oh, if only I'd gotten the intimidating Uzumaki red, instead of the bright blonde that was perhaps the most hated shade of colour in Iwa. Maybe Kumo too.

Regardless, we were a colourful bunch, darting across the farmers land, little children watching us go and squealing with joy as we sped past.

"Cute, huh?" I elbowed Sakura in the side, gesturing to the children that were slowly disappearing as we covered more ground, the fields fanning out into sandy dunes. My chakra adjusted instinctively beneath my feet to combat with the significantly unstable ground.

"You think kids are cute?" Sakura asked dubiously, turning to look over her shoulder. By now though, we were well out of range at which she'd have been able to get another glimpse of them.

"Don't you?"

In the original manga, Sakura had gone on to marry Sasuke and have his child, a girl if I remembered right. I hadn't paid too much attention to the rest of the manga past the ending in which Naruto and Sasuke had blown their arms off. I'd really, really like to avoid that myself.

Luckily, it seemed like Sasuke was already changed for the better.

"I guess one would be okay," Sakura murmured, lips puckering as she thought, while Kakashi snorted under his breath.

"Well I want a lot. At least three. Maybe four or five."

It was a dream that'd carried over from my old life. I loved kids. I'd had three younger cousins, all born while I was in my teens, and I'd loved spending time with them. Having a family had been the big dream of my old life. I'd just not had chance to live it out.

Once, once everything was okay here, maybe I'd be able to pick that dream up again.

"No." Kakashi suddenly snapped with an absolute finality about his tone, and it took me a second to realize he was responding to my comment.

"What the hell do you mean no?! My body my rules!"

Sasuke was smirking from where he was running beside me, a low snicker escaping between his lips as I growled at the two males in annoyance.

"Maa, your Tou-chan would kill me if I didn't put up some resistance to that idea, Naruto-chan."

"But, but why?" Why wouldn't Minato want his daughter to have her own family? Especially when she'd grown up an orphan? Surely Kakashi didn't think Minato would want that for his daughter? For me?

"Maa, that involves a boy touching you, Naruto. And you're banned remember?"

Heh, Gaara and the Chũnin Exams. And Haku in Wave. Well, at least Kakashi didn't know about-

"Too late for that. Haku already had his way with her."

My eyes shot over to Sasuke, mock betrayal wrote all over my face.

Okay, so maybe we'd gone to Mist again a fortnight before we came back to Konoha and maybe I'd spent some time -a night or two- with Haku. Scowling, I punched -a gentle punch, we were only playing after all- Sasuke in the arm. It didn't stop Kakashi's sudden spike of killer intent.

"Too far, Sasuke, too far." Shaking my head in mock disappointment, I folded my arms across my chest, running backwards in front of the smirking Uchiha boy.

This was the down side to social Sasuke. He liked to tease, and usually that was okay when it was just Jiraiya. It wasn't like either of us would've been able to get one over on the legendary Sannin. But ratting me out to Kakashi, really?

"At least I wasn't seduce into bed by a sissy lord's daughter."

Sasuke's scowl hardened, a low nod of 'we're even now'. Hell no we weren't. Not until I done dropping that on Shisui when we got back. If I was gonna have to put up with Kakashi's moping face, then Sasuke was going to get the ribbing of a lifetime from his cousin.

"Who's this Haku boy, Naruto?"

Speaking of ribbing-

Scowling at Sakura when Kakashi's killer intent spiked again, I flicked a spark of chakra at one of the seals resting beneath my bandaged forearm, pulling out a photo book. If it weren't for ninja reflexes, finding the right page at the speed we were moving at would have been impossible, but I found it nevertheless, handing it over to Sakura.

"Oh! He's cute, a Mist Nin?"

"It was just a bit of fun between friends really."

It hadn't been anything too serious between the two of us. Haku was seventeen, maybe eighteen now, so it hadn't felt weird. Huh, I didn't even know how old Haku was. I just knew he was two and a bit years older than me. I'd have to actually get him to tell me his birthday, not knowing it was bad. Bad friend.

Shaking my head, I turned my attention back to running forwards, and then tried not to cringe too much as Kakashi took a moment to offer the 'disappointed in you' face over his shoulder. Okay, I was so dropping Sasuke in it when he got back. After all, that Lord's daughter was just the first of many.


Camp for the night had been set up when it began.

Nestled under one of the large rocks that perturbed the desert sand and offered a buffer to the gritty wind, I'd been curled up on the floor, eyes only just starting to flutter shut as sleep began to overtake me. I had the early shift again in the morning, and Sakura was taking the first watch; as the medic it was best she got the greatest amount of uninterrupted sleep. There was an irritating amount of sand that'd snuck into my sleeping bag, but I was putting up with it, the itchy grains scratching at my legs.

Of course, just as I was slowly drifting off to sleep, there was the oddest sound in the distance.

I shot up, because odd sounds in the world of Naruto usually meant incoming death, or at the very least, an attack you were unfamiliar with.

Kakashi too, being the only other one with enchanting hearing among our group, was alert, looking out over the horizon for the source of the strange noise.

Getting up and out of the little shelter, I flipped up onto the rock, staring out into the distance, trying to figure out just what the hell that sound was. It was familiar, but from such a distance, the sound muffled by the sand, it was hard to pick out just what the cause was without hearing it again.

Narrowing my eyes, I leant forwards a bit, straining my sight and hearing.

And then there it was, ever so quiet, in a string of quick successions, was the sound of a multitude of bombs going off. Who did I know of that used bombs?

"Suna's under attack!" I cried, rapping my chakra coated nails against the metal of my headband and letting out a ringing sound that woke both Sasuke and Sakura.

Kakashi startled, but I was already off, eating up the distance between camp and Suna. We were at least an hour out at the pace we'd been going, and Kakashi had opted for camp because hey, it was an easy mission, no rush. Plus, he'd wanted to keep to his three day schedule.

Camping out in the desert was apparently an 'experience'.

But now, now bombs were going off in Suna. And I only knew of one criminal that'd dare do that.

Still, it'd take me ten minutes to cover that distance at my top speed to reach Suna, and that was really pushing myself. I wouldn't get there in time, not in time to help this fight. Maybe with enough time to give chase, but that wasn't enough, not enough certainty. This was a game of luck now.

'Tch, no it's not.'

Chakra flared through my system, bubbling up and surrounding my limbs in a glowing red halo of power. Three red tails curled around at the corners of my vision, and I could all but feel the toothy smirk that Kurama was no doubt giving me. Oh, I might not have been able to get there on my own chakra in less than ten minutes, but with Kurama's burning red energy spurring me on, it cut that time down. It cut it right down.

Taking off across the sand with renewed vigour, all of the sleep having left me, I let my own chakra start to build up, ready for a fight. It'd be a minute till I was in Suna. It would take nine minutes after that for Kakashi, Sasuke and Sakura to arrive.

It would have to be enough.

Sasori of the Red Sand, Missing Nin of Suna and Akatsuki member, stared up at the mass amounts of sand that was gathering in the village, rising into the sky to cut Deidara off. Of course the brat would fail his infiltration, he was too cocky.

Still, as long as he did his job and didn't keep Sasori waiting, the puppeteer was fine with that.

Then, given the vengeful state of the universe, the red haired nin shouldn't have been surprised when things took a turn for the worst. All of a sudden, there was a massive flare of chakra from the south, the kind of chakra that was easily on the same level as Kisame.

Straightening up on the rock he'd been sat on for the past few minutes, Sasori cocked his head to a side, the wooden joints cricking and echoing within the hallow cavern of Hiruko.

Whoever all that chakra belonged to, they were coming in hot. And they were coming in angry.

Preparing himself, Sasori rolled the puppets shoulders with a flick of his fingers, checking all joints were capable of full movement. It wouldn't do well to go into a fight and then find out the sand had clogged up any important joints. The One Tail Jinchuriki certainly had some interesting powers, able to control sand as he did. Maybe once they were done with him, he'd be allowed to keep the body, to add it to his collection.

Frowning as the incoming chakra gave another burst of power, Sasori carefully removed the face cloth that covered the joint of Hiruko's mouth, readying himself to face the oncoming threat.

It skidded to a halt before him, a vision in orange, long blonde hair and whiskered cheeks. The Nine Tailed Jinchuriki.

Oh, what a shame they could only deal with one Jinchuriki at a time, given the fact one of them had come straight to him.

She was a pretty looking thing, with hard red eyes that were slowly bleeding blue as the Bijū chakra flickered away from her.

As a Jinchuriki, she probably had some power that would make her an interesting puppet, that was for sure. Zetsu had claimed that she graduated before turning seven, a year younger than he himself had managed. His own spy network backed that up. She was talented, but she didn't have the sheer experience that he did.

Still, best to be careful.

"Sasori, right?" The Kyūbi Jinchuriki, one Uzumaki Naruto, asked, shifting from one foot to the other, eyes darting over to the mass amounts of sand hovering over Suna, paying particular attention to the bombs going off.

The Brat was already having problems with one Jinchuriki, he'd fail against two. It seemed it was up to him to keep the Uzumaki off his back. She looked calm, clearly having realised she'd have to get through him first in order to go and aid the One Tail Jinchuriki.

But she wasn't quaking in her sandals, she wasn't looking impatient. This was a girl- No, this was a shinobi that'd already taken a death blow and lived to tell the tale.

And he knew which one as well. Zetsu had all sorts of information on the Jinchuriki, anything that could be used against them. He wasn't above psychological warfare. Sometimes, when done just right, it was a lot cleaner, a lot quicker, than a messy battle.

"I must thank you, the Iwa nin that Sharingan Kakashi and yourself took out those years ago made a good addition to my collection. "

The slightest tensing of the skin around her eyes; not as temperamental as her teammate then, not as obsessed with anything close to revenge. She fought to protect. Those were always the hard ones to rile up.

Unless, you already held the leverage.

"Deidara should be done with the Jinchuriki soon," Sasori spoke with the hoarser tones he favoured for the façade of Hiruko.

And there it was, the straightening of shoulders, the tightening of fists, the snarl on the face. She wasn't without buttons to prod. You just had to know the right ones to put pressure on.

"I won't let you get them."

"Them?" Sasori asked, amused.

There was no them. There was the Jinchuriki and his Bijū, and that was all. Surely she had realized he was stalling for time by now?

As if to answer his question, a ball of condensed chakra began to form within the palm of her hand, one Sasori recognised. The Fourth Hokage's original jutsu. The Rasengan. So, the game beings now, did it?

"I-Kurama and I, will not let you get them."

There was another burst of the ferocious chakra from earlier, a single red tail snapping about behind the girl as the orb in her hand quivered from the sudden influx of chakra.

Kurama? So, she'd given the beast a name, had she? Clearly they hadn't been on talking terms for long, struggling to hold that jutsu under the sudden influx of Bijū chakra as she was. At least he didn't have to worry about all that power having any finesse to it.

Now he just had to pay attention to how skilled she was without the Bijū.

"Well, I do hate to be kept waiting. Perhaps you can entertain me for a while." Firing the poisoned darts from Hiruko's mouth, Sasori watched in appreciation as the girl flipped effortlessly out of the way, the red tail snapping out and batting away the ones that got too close anyway.

Two kunais came his way, and they were deflected by the mechanical tail that swept out from beneath his cloak.

"Your poisons won't work, Kurama will burn it all away before it could do me any damage." The girl sounded smug, and in all honesty, she had the right to. Few could claim immunity to all the common poisons, and he knew of no one that could claim immunity to his own cocktails.

"Then perhaps it is a good thing we wish to take you alive."

Uzumaki jerked her tanned hands together, forming a cross seal he'd seen far few times in his life. The Shadow Clone technique, a Leaf signature. And most importantly of all, it required an ungodly amount of chakra to be used to the full effect. It hadn't surprised him to learn the Jinchuriki knew this technique.

And he had his own means of combating it.

Quickly pulling out of Hiruko's body, Sasori unrolled the scroll that held his army. He'd only just managed to unseal them all in time in order to clash with the one-man army that was Uzumaki Naruto.

It was a dance. He'd once taken down an entire country with this collection, but that had been against civilians, thugs, and the shinobi that'd been scraped from the bottom of the barrel.

Uzumaki was good. She met each of the puppets head on, a fluid grace to each of her movements, be they with kunai, with taijutsu, or with a Rasengan in hand. He was forced into constant movement, not only attacking, but defending his own body, Hiruko long since blown to pieces. He'd put it back together later, the clunky body of Hiruko would have only been a disadvantage against this girl anyway.

She pressed forwards relentlessly, summoning up more clones when she began to lack on numbers, something which he was unable to do. He could rebuild puppets, true, but the parts had to intact. And after watching him rebuild a pair once, Uzumaki got the message and went about destroying as much as she could.

A tanned fist approached his face, and Sasori launched himself back, only just dodging the Bijū chakra that threatened to eat away at his body.

Instead, it took the puppet he threw in her path, the fleshy human puppet dissolving under the force of all that chakra. It was interesting to watch the corrosive chakra at work, and part of him itched to get a hold of the girl's body; she would make a fearsome puppet indeed.

"It would appear it is time to bring out my favourite." If he had veins, perhaps his blood would be pumping inside of them, instead of just curling about in the smaller cavity holding his heart. It had been a while since he'd had to bring out the Third Kazekage.

The girl was completely still as he unsealed the Third, but it only took him a second to realize she wasn't being stupidly courteous, and was instead powering up some kind of jutsu. Two of her clones were sat on the desert sand behind her, and they too were completely still.

Interesting, he'd not heard of a technique like this, and he'd been partnered with Orochimaru for so long. The man had been obsessed, was still obsessed, with mastering all the jutsus in the world. Yet, he'd never mentioned anything like this. For the girl to start using it when facing the Third, it had to be something powerful, that was for sure.

The Iron Sand had lost its poisonous edge in the face of this girl, given her apparent immunity to it, but that didn't make it any less formidable. The red Bijū chakra was gone now, but he didn't underestimate her. That was how one got killed.

A fetching shade of orange had spread out across her eyelids, and when her eyes snapped open, coming face to face with the compressed iron sand that'd been launched at her, they were almost golden in colour, the pupil a horizontal bar.

Like a toad's.

Her fist shot up, and even without connecting, the compressed iron sand bullet was thrown aside as if it were a mere fly before her.


"And this is?" He found himself asking in spite of their battle, watching as the girl stood, rolling her shoulders back as she did so.

He didn't know what this power was, what this form was. It had nothing to do with the Bijū, that much was obvious. His spies had reported the girl had shown the ability to use her Bijū chakra, something that'd been proven in her Chũnin Preliminaries.

But there had been no word of these strange golden eyes and orange rimmed eyes.

Uzumaki seemed to consider him for a moment, but was a gracious enough opponent to answer his question.

"Sage Mode. The Toads taught me to summon natural energy and convert it into something I can use alongside my physical and spiritual energy, granting me the ability to use Senjutsu Chakra. Like Senju Hashirama once did."

Right, that was a bit humbling.

An ability that the First Hokage, the God of Shinobi, had once used? He was very, very interested.

How had Orochimaru not heard of this? Or perhaps he had, and had just been unable to achieve such a state. He knew for a fact that with the snake constantly moving bodies his spiritual and physical energy would be in a flux, he probably couldn't balance natural energy on top of that.

She'd stayed still while collecting all that natural energy, so evidentially there were downsides to the technique. He'd foolishly allowed her the time to gather it when he was retrieve the Third with a bit more showmanship than was perhaps strictly necessary.

Well, this was much better than just waiting for the brat to finish.

Shooting out of the way of another bullet of iron sand, I felt my chakra flare as it forcibly popped one of my clones, reinforcing my sage mode while my mind whirled for a way to deal with the Third Kazekage.

Iron Sand.

Manga Sakura had beaten it with the help of Sasori's grandmother. I didn't exactly have her to hand though, Kurama was my only backup.

Five minutes until Kakashi and co arrived, and that was optimistically.

Five minutes until I had some back-up against Sasori.

Five minutes in which Gaara had to keep protecting Suna and himself.

In a world where battles were decided within a split second, five minutes was far too long. The question was, how dense was the Iron Sand? Would I be able to force my way through it with a Rasengan, or would I just be met with the crushing force that Sasori was currently wielding?

My best bet was to take out the puppet, but that required getting past the iron sand anyway.

Frowning, I ran through the seal for a quick wind jutsu, whipping up a whirl of sand for cover. Out of the two of us right now, in Sage Mode, I had the best senses, even if this was the first time I used it on the battle field. But I could feel Sasori's chakra, the strings he had attached to the puppet, the strange way it interacted with the human puppet to force it's kekkei genkai forth.

I didn't have a chakra scalpel to break the strings.

But maybe, I didn't need one.

Dashing forwards, I rolled under the first swipe of iron sand, A hastily made clone sacrificed its life to throw me up and over the second swipe, and taking a hit to the left arm had given me the chance to skid around the Third Kazekage to latch onto the chakra strings.

Instantly, the glowing blue threads quivered under the sudden influx of natural energy, and Sasori, not being an idiot, released them from his own fingertips.

It was far too late to save the Third Kazekage however, the natural energy turning the human puppet into a deformed stone statue.

Taking a quick glance at the toad like features of what had once been Suna's greatest pride, I turned my attention back to Sasori, feeling Sage Mode slip through my fingers.

One clone left. Two minutes worth of Sage Mode from that clone. Four minutes until the rest of Team Kakashi arrived.

Four minutes.

Sasori's army was down, the Third Kazekage now a stone statue slowly sinking into the sand. If I was remembering right, if nothing important had changed, then-

"I'll acknowledge that you're worthy of recognition."

My eyes narrowed, fists tightening. I was intimately aware of the single clone behind me, it could only be allowed to pop when I needed the natural energy and not a second before. I couldn't afford to waste it. Already I'd used too much of Kurama's potent chakra and my pathways were still burning from the sudden influx it was unused to.

I needed to preserve, I needed to avoid using Kurama's chakra because Sasori was just stage one. There was still Deidara to beat and Gaara to save.

"It's been a long time, since I've used myself."

Yes, Sasori made a terrifying sight. The sharp blades protruding from his back in a mockery of deadly wings, the whip like iron which had replaced his intestines slowly lifting him into the air, the sharp spike digging into the ground beneath him.

Swallowing hard, I rolled my shoulders, sucking in a breath with a voice that sounded suspiciously like Shisui whispering 'Don't fight hard, fight smart.'

Right now though, fighting smart was throwing myself out of the way of those flamethrower hands. The sand beneath the blaze instantly turned to glass and the scent of burning hair let me know that I'd lost the tips of my blond mane to the fire. The heat was blistering, scorching the bare skin of my arms, the warmth uncomfortably seeping in through the bandages that wrapped around my forearms and biceps.

Gritting my teeth, I launched myself under the flames, throwing one arm up and hissing in pain as the skin burnt under the proximity of the fire. Still, my feet hit the glass, skidding across the smooth surface with a little aid from some careful chakra application. I curved around on the glass as if it were made from ice, darting forwards as a Rasengan twirled to life in my hand.

There was a loud click as Sasori's mechanical hands cut off the flamethrowers, either out of juice -though there was a chance he was using some form of chakra to power those flames- or simply deciding to go for another tactic.

Leaping up, I threw the hand holding my Rasengan forwards before my body, ploughing into the sand as Sasori managed to just duck to the side and out of my path.

With a growl, I spun on the limb, brining my feet back under my body just in time to dance out of the way of that metal whip intending to skewer me.

So focused was I on the fight, that I didn't register the presence to my back until lightning was already arching over my head, colliding with the metal and crackling into Sasori's puppet body faster than a ninja could blink.

Head snapping back, I stared at Sasuke, slick with sweat Sasuke, who's sword was pointed towards us and still smoking from the lightning he'd just thrown into the battle. Most importantly of all, there was a heavy sheen of perspiration covering his pale brow, and from the reddening of his cheeks, he'd given up the chakra control exercise that blocked sunburn in favour of activating his own sage mode.

Sharp, lilac streaks covered his eyes, dipping to a point on either side of his nose, and eyes the same shade of gold stared back at me, the only difference from my own being the shape of the pupil.

"Idiot," Sasuke grumbled under his breath, dashing forwards without a second of hesitation.

I followed after him, the scent of burnt wood occupying my thoughts for a mere moment before I was dashing onwards too, weaving in and out beside Sasuke, deflecting the poisoned senbon aimed for him and trusting Sasuke to let me know when the blades on Sasori's back were getting a little too close for comfort.

Twisting to a side, I ducked beneath another unnervingly sharp blade, hissing when the tricky curve on the end nicked my elbow, only for Sasori to jerk to a stop, puppet joints creaking disconcertingly at the sudden lack of motion,

Even with my bangs sticking to the side of my cheek and blocking half my sight, it wasn't difficult to see Sasuke, twisted at an angle and with his sword deep in the chest cavity that was Sasori's heart. Already I could feel the demonic chakra burning through my veins, sweating out the poison that would otherwise kill me.


Stumbling over to Sasuke and stopping a cautious amount before Sasori -a given really, it wouldn't surprise me if he tried to take us down with him-, I swiped at the perspiration that covered my forehead.

The redhead was looking straight at me, with those glaze, sightless brown eyes. He might be able to see, but those eyes were just wood. How Sasori had managed to create this body, well, it was truly a wonder.

"I won't be able to move for much longer. Before that, I'll do something pointless for you, a reward, for defeating me…" Sasori's voice was starting to rasp now. Perhaps if his body had been human, he'd have already collapsed. But he was a puppet, made of joints and oil instead of limbs and blood.

"If you want to know about Orochimaru, go to the Tenchi bridge in Grass Country, at noon, fifteen days from now... I desire to see that traitor pay..."

And with that, Sasori of the Red Sand spoke his last.


Pulling his blade free with a sickeningly familiar squelch, Sasuke went about cleaning the light littering of blood from the metal surface, a frown on his red face.

"That was stupid," he spoke softly, quietly, and I tempered the instinctive wince that wanted to burst free.

If Sasuke were upset, he'd glare a bit, maybe even offer a very small frown that could probably fall under the classification of a pout. When Sasuke was furious though, he spoke with a false tranquillity, giving off the impression of a volcano just waiting to erupt.

"Can we not discuss this after we save Gaara?" I snapped back, already itching to take off running towards the village.

Sasuke's scowl deepened, red eyes narrowing as they scanned the stretch of sand between our current location and Suna. The muscles of my thighs twitched, rearing and crying out to take off running again, to go and save my fellow Jinchuriki. Thanks to all the interference I'd caused with my presence, everything was up in the air.

Gaara could fight Deidara off on his own. Or, he could be kidnapped regardless, only, there wouldn't be a gruffly kind old woman to save him here.

This wasn't a manga with a plotline prewritten, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to change as much as I had. Shisui would be dead, Sasuke would be under Orochimaru's tutorage, Haku wouldn't be alive. I could take nothing for granted here, because this was reality now.

Gritting my teeth, I looked over my shoulder at the sound of shifting sand, wincing at the look Kakashi wore, one that promised chastisement the second he could manage it. The second we weren't about to rush into an open battlefield against one of the Akatsuki.

"Good work," Kakashi murmured, looking over Sasori's corpse with a brief glance before his eye shifted back to focus on the three of us.

Sakura looked winded, but still stood tall and proud, back straight and startling green eyes alert.

"The three of you will go on ahead, I will secure Sasori's body, on the off chance he has any fail safes in place. Naruto's in charge."

Nodding sharply, I turned to look at my two teammates, meeting their determined gazes for a brief second before we once again took off across the desert landscape, kicking up clouds in our wake.

I kept pace with Sasuke, just slightly ahead of Sakura, our medic nin.

"When we get there," I spoke between short, sharp inhales, my breathing remaining as even as I could keep it in preparation for a fight, "Sakura will aid any casualties. Sasuke, you're backing me up. We're looking at explosive release, weak against lightning."

"Got it."

Taking a second to shoot the dark haired boy a grateful smile, I swung my gaze back around to face Suna.

The ground rumbled beneath our feet, sand rising into the sky and forming a protective shield over the city as the biggest explosion yet burst through the air.

The shockwave blew civilians off their feet, and it was only thanks to a quick application of chakra that we managed to stay on our own. My ears rung, brain throbbing within my head, my shattered eardrums pulsating with pain. I could feel Kurama's chakra surge, already healing the damage, and as I turned to look at the duo that stood only ever so slightly behind me, I noted Sakura finishing up healing her own ears and moving onto Sasuke's.

Grimacing, I quickly scaled the nearest building, peering up into the sky and searching out the floating orb of sand. It's surface was crumbling; the clay construction flew closer, and fury rose within me as a figure that could only have been Deidara hauled Gaara out of his safe little cocoon.

My fingers itched, itched for any kind of long range jutsu, but there were none I knew that wouldn't catch Gaara within its destructive force too. Kurama's furious snarl rumbled about deep in my mindscape, but the both of us were well aware that I was not yet acquainted enough with his chakra to pull off the full transformation; the only thing that'd get us close enough to save Gaara.

For a brief, bitter second, I regretted changing Sasuke's curse mark. Didn't that thing come with wings?

As soon as the thought crossed my mind though, instant guilt dropped into my stomach.

Sasuke had been twelve. He had been twelve with the weight of a dead family pressing own on his shoulders and what was apparently a genetic weakness that meant he'd topple off the deep end should he lose everything he loved.

Hell, it was probably thanks to Shisui's survival that he hadn't turned out so much worse. Because rampant jealously would've been the key factor in our team had my best friend not had Shisui to ground him. Hell, I probably wouldn't be as well-rounded as a person without that particular Uchiha.

If there was one thing I'd evidentially gotten right, it was Shisui's survival.

"There's hundreds of landmines beneath Suna," Sasuke snapped, Sharingan red eyes spinning and my teeth ground together. It was an earth jutsu, and out of the three of us-

"Sasuke, you'll have to deal with those. Sakura and I will give chase."

It was the only logical conclusion; out of the three of us, Sasuke was the only one with true Lightning jutsus, and the ability to locate the bombs. I could probably sense them if I focused enough, but I didn't have any lightning jutsus.

And while Sakura apparently knew one or two, she wasn't trained to sense constructs of chakra like the two of us were. She was a medic nin first and foremost, she was best present wherever a battle was happening.

"When Kakashi get's here, send him after us while he's still fresh, and once you're done with the bombs, catch up."

Sasuke nodded, paused, before reaching out and clashing my shoulder with one steady hand.

"Be careful."

Nodding, I gave his wrist a light squeeze, a silent promise I'd do my damn best to come out of this alive. And I would. Because I'd already died once, I had no desire to do such a thing again, to find out if there was a third chance if I messed up the second one.

"You too."

Turning to Sakura, I didn't even have to ask which direction the clay bird had flown off in, the pinkette just turned on heel and began bounding through the streets of Suna that were half submerged in the sane Gaara had raised in its defence.

Sakura's footwork was impeccable, impossibly steady in a way that suggested she'd move across sandy terrain before. Sasuke and I had only spent a week in the desert however, and I don't know about the Uchiha, but I still slipped up every so often when I was moving across the golden grains.

Instead, I stuck to the solid foundations that were the houses of Suna, shooting up and past several Suna ANBU that were clearly going to help the victims of the Deidara's bombs.

Gaara was great, but even he couldn't save everyone from that mass attack. What he'd managed was commendable when Deidara's level was taken into account. And I wouldn't let him get hurt, wouldn't let him die, because he'd been protecting people.

Such a thing was unacceptable.

Sakura was terrified.

Not quite because of the situation, because she'd trained for this. She'd been trained from a young age to be able to power forwards, to be able to handle running a knife through a human jugular and step over the still arm body like it was nothing.

Tsunade-shishou had taught her all there was to reverse the damage done to the human body, and to be able to do that, she had to know how to inflect the damage first.

No, going against the Akatsuki didn't scare her, it was after all, her duty as a medic nin and a Kunoichi of Konoha to do her very best, to give it her all.

No, what scared Haruno Sakura, was her teammate.

She'd never seen Naruto like this.

True, she'd interacted with the girl rarely before she had left for her training trip. The idea of her being a Jinchuriki had put fear in her preteen heart, and she had ended up misjudged her.

After all, Naruto had done everything she could to make sure that Sasuke and Kiba had survived that Chũnin exam. Given the fact she'd have been on the only person to recognise Orochimaru for what he was, she'd done magnificently.

But right now, it was clear that the soft hearted, joking Naruto she'd come to know since the blonde's return was gone.

Her eyes were cold, and her pacing was relentless. When they reached the open stretch of desert, the half moon providing the only light, she didn't even hesitate. Her footing wasn't certain as she made her way across the sand, but she didn't slow, just kept powering forwards in the same direction that the Akatsuki on the bird had gone.

She'd known, theoretically, that Naruto had incredible endurance and stamina. She'd just been in an S-ranked fight not thirty minutes ago, and yet she wasn't slowing down in the slightest.

Whatever wounds she had were long gone. Tsunade-shishou had warned her, had forced Sakura to study the medical records of outliers, of unnatural ninja who had quicker or slower than average healing, and Naruto's file had been one of the many among those. She'd read about the wound the blonde had suffered before Sakura had even graduated, a wound that would have killed any other person.

But Jinchuriki's were blessed with advanced healing, the higher the tail count, the better the recovery period. She'd known all of this, but it was another thing altogether to have to keep up with her like this. Had Sakura not spent the past two years training like a beast -a green one, actually- then she'd have already fallen behind.

Summoning up a slug onto her shoulder, Sakura let out a sharp breath at the dip in her chakra, rapidly rebalancing the energy until she was once again working at optimal levels. Were she not so skilled with her chakra control, she'd have already dropped from this mad rush across the sand.

"Go tell Tsunade-shishou that the Akatsuki got Gaara, they're heading for River Country."

The small slug -she hadn't had the chance to learn the messengers' names yet, she'd never really had a reason to call them before- nodding, disappearing in a poof of smoke. Back-up would come from Konoha, Tsunade-shishou would never leave them to face the Akatsuki without backup. And Kakashi-san, and Sasuke would be coming in from the East, following their trail.

It wouldn't take them long to deal with the bombs, they'd manage it fine and be backing them up before they knew it. Which was a good thing, because Sakura honestly wasn't sure on Naruto's mindset right now.

She knew the girl was close to Gaara, that they both had the Jinchuriki thing in common, but going into this without a clear head was a sure fire way to get them both killed.


They ran, and ran, and ran across the sand.

A day had passed, and they were on the very outskirts of the Land of Wind now. The sun was a boiling as Naruto's mounting fury. The impatience and desperation seemed to be coiling off her in waves, like a caged tiger that had nothing better to do than stalk back and forth, growling under its breath.

Given the fact that all Naruto could do right now was run, to chase after the airborne Akatsuki, it was perhaps an apt comparison.

Sweat was pooling in the dip of her collarbones, and Sakura knew if it weren't for her incredible chakra control, she'd have already dropped, exhausted and out of chakra.

Most ninja could go full speed for a day and a half. A medic nin of Sakura' calibre could double that, but anything past that? She was going to drop, and drop hard.

She prayed the Akatsuki's destination was in River Country, because otherwise Naruto was going to be on her own. And she could see now that the blonde would well and truly be on her own; she wouldn't stop for a rest until she had Gaara safe.

They were an hour into River Country when it happened.

Leaping from tree to tree, exhaustion was starting to nip at the edges of Sakura's awareness, and her gloved hand slipped into the back of her weapons pouch, pulling free one of the multitude of soldier pills that rested there. She considered things for a second, before offering one to Naruto.

The blonde blinked, pupils sharpening as she refocused her gaze on the teammate beside her instead of the upcoming branch she needed to land on.

She took the pill, popping it between her teeth and biting down.

Suddenly, Naruto's hand was clamped tight around her wrist, pulling the two of them down just as a round of kunai impaled themselves upon the tree trunk they'd just been passing. A second later, and they'd have been decorating their bodies instead.

Startled green eyes shot up, and Sakura stared at the source of those weapons, her heart leaping into her throat.

It was one thing to mentally start preparing yourself to face an S-ranked criminal, it was a different thing entirely to be face to face with Uchiha Itachi.

Skidding to a halt, I stared at the still figure of Uchiha Itachi, heart palpitating in my chest and seat collecting in the curves of my palms.

He wasn't supposed to be here. All the Akatsuki were suppose to be in their freaky cave, doing their freaky jutsu thing that would kill Gaara.

If Itachi was here, did that mean they didn't need him?

Or was it all over already?

Were the rest of the Akatsuki going to drop out of the forest now and spirit me away for my own extraction process?

'Naruto! Calm down!' Kurama's voice rumbled through me like fresh lightning, and a choked gasp escaped from between my lips.

Sakura's concerned eyes slid over to look at me for a second, and I grit my teeth, shaking my head in an attempt to clear it.

'You're thinking emotionally, and that is not going to help you, Shukaku or his host. Look at his chakra, that's not really Uchiha Itachi.'

Taking a moment to do as instructed, I could feel the underlying death, the sense of wrongness that came with using a jutsu that required a sacrifice.

Kurama was right, whoever that was, it wasn't the real Itachi. Sure it had some of his chakra, but it was nowhere near the right levels to be the real Uchiha.

Which meant, I could probably beat him on his own. A day awake was nothing really, not to ninja, certainly not to a Jinchuriki. With Kurama at my back, I had this one in the bag.

"Sakura, stay back. When we get Gaara back, you're going to need your chakra to heal him. I'll handle this."

Itachi's eyes, deep Sharingan red, drifted lazily until they were locked on my form. Otherwise, he didn't move a muscle.

"Naruto-chan, it's good to see you again."

I doubted it was. More than likely, Itachi was just pleased that he didn't have to face Sasuke in battle again. That he didn't have to see the boiling hatred that ran so deep in his brother's veins it might as well be all his body contained.

I couldn't even begin to imagine how much that hurt.

The images, flashback, of what I'd seen when I was caught in Itachi's Tsukuyomi, swam before my mind. Of the rampant grief that threatened to swallow this man whole as he cut down his parents, his kinsmen.

"Good to see you too, Itachi-san."

Shifting my weight from foot to foot, I chanced a glance at the space between the two of us.

If I remembered correctly, Itachi was good at everything. His ninjutsu, genjutsu and taijutsu was perfect.

His one let down, was his stamina. He didn't have the massive chakra reserves that I did, Kakashi and maybe even Sasuke had more chakra than the man before me. Were this any other occasion, I'd play a game, drag it out.

But time was of the essence for me, he was the one that wanted to play a waiting game right now.

Such a thing was unacceptable.

Rolling the muscles of my shoulders until they were no longer bunched heavy by my torso, I adjusted my footing again, flicking a single finger at Sakura as a reminder for her to keep back.

Red eyes, Sharingan eyes, were still locked on mine, and fearlessly I met his gaze. Not watching them was a bigger hazard to me right now, because then I wouldn't know when he switched to the upgraded version. I'd be able to watch for the Mangekyō, and that was worth the risk of possibly being ensnared inside of a truly horrific genjutsu.

There was no unspoken signal, no agreement to rush into battle.

I just shot forwards as soon as I'd finished centring myself.

There was no time to be messing around with fighting etiquette, not when Gaara's life was at stake.

I didn't feel the genjutsu settle over me, but I sure as hell felt Kurama's chakra surge, felt his sharp toothed smile as he shattered the illusion with a quick flare. Itachi's face, which up until this point had been impassive, changed. It was only slightly, but I saw his eyes round slightly in shock, the Sharingan pupils dilating and the tomoe spinning rapidly as he caught my intended movements.

Our hands came together as Itachi caught my punch, and I twisted at the hips, slamming my leg into his as he blocked again. My free hand went for his face, intending to obstruct his vision, but the Uchiha was quick to disengage as Kurama's chakra bubbled into existence along my limbs.

We both paused for a second, Itachi reassessing and I attempting to throw together a new plan of attack. But perhaps, a physical attack wasn't what was needed here.

But I'd have to be careful.

I couldn't let Itachi incapacitate Sakura, nor could I allow him to delay the two of us for much longer. So, underhanded it was. Shooting forwards again, I shot through the handseal for both my jutsus, clones appearing and each one firing off a wind bullet.

For anyone else, invisible wind attacks from all directions would be incredibly dangerous. Given Itachi's Dōjutsu though, he would be able to see each and every one of them that came his way, and dodge accordingly. I don't know how bad his eyesight had gotten yet, but it had to have been degenerating since he first used it eight years ago against Sasuke.

If need be, that'd be my next plan of attack.

"Sasuke's got Orochimaru's Curse Seal, you know?"

I darted out of the way of the rapid shot fire balls that came my way, several clones popping in the wake of the attack. Itachi landed neatly, attempting another genjutsu that was torn apart rather gleefully by Kurama.

From the look on the Uchiha's face, he seemed to have realized what was happening to his preferred jutsus, because his brows furrowed ever so slightly.

"It was suppose to eat away at his mind," I continued, engaging Itachi in another bout of fast paced taijutsu.

His limbs kept up effortlessly with mine, though I did notice he kept his gaze on my forearms. Perhaps more accurately, he was assessing the chakra output to my arms, not wanting to get caught out again by the seal that'd probably broken bones in our last encounter.

Not that Sasuke and I had expected to ever get him with that again, but we still wore them anyway.

"But it's fixed now. He can think just fine. Will think just fine when I tell him the truth."

Itachi snapped at that.

I hadn't exactly been gentle with how I dropped it, nor did I actually plan on telling Sasuke about the Uchiha massacre until I had sufficient proof.

But Itachi didn't know that.

His hand went right for my throat, and in that moment, I activated the seal I'd long since moved from my arm to the necklace Tsunade gave me.

Blinding light flashed before my closed eyelids, and I drove a kunai right into through the neck of the not-real-Itachi.

The body hit the floor and I cut the chakra to the seal, quickstepping away from the deteriorating corpse that was most certainly not Uchiha Itachi.

Slowly, a relieved breath escaped from between my lips, and I twisted around to look at the wide eyed Sakura.

"Come on, we'll never catch up at this rate."


We shot across the landscape once again, bouncing from tree to tree, Sakura's footsteps completely in sync with my own.

Within my stomach, Kurama's own senses were stretched taunt. He'd already tried entering that sole safe haven that the Bijū shared with one another, and while he said he'd been able to feel Shukaku's chakra, the sand Bijū hadn't responded to any call at all.

He hadn't appeared before Kurama as he had done not forty eight hours ago, he hadn't spoken or projected his voice. But, his chakra had been wildly fluctuating, up and down and in no way stable at all. Kurama wouldn't voice it aloud, but he was worried, and so was I.

It'd been years since I read the manga, I couldn't remember how many days the extraction process took. I did recall that we were in Suna when the kidnapping happened, which we were not suppose to be present for, not at all.

So maybe, just maybe, we'd be able to make it in time.

Maybe Gaara wouldn't die, maybe Shukaku would get a second chance, a chance to work alongside Gaara.

Gritting my teeth, I pushed myself forwards that little bit quicker, clocking the quartet of chakra signatures approaching from the south.

It was only a minute later that our paths crossed, and I blinked in surprise at the sight of Team Gai.

They were all older, puppy fat well and truly gone. Lee had filled out, and what I could see of his green clad body, unprotected by anything other than the jumpsuit and a green Chũnin vest, was nothing but whip cord muscle. Tenten was the epitome of grace as she leapt form branch to branch, and Neji's stern, prideful calm fit hit to a tee. Gai, well, Gai hadn't changed a bit.

"Naruto-chan! You look well! Where is my eternal rival?"

Leaping a bit closer on my next jump so that we didn't have to shout, I sprung back up and off another tree limb, eyes scanning the surroundings, though I was reasonably sure another Itachi wasn't about to pop up out of nowhere.

"He and Sasuke stayed to defuse the bombs, given that they can see them," tapping at the sides of my temples to indicate the Sharingan, I took another glance towards the front, Kurama's reaching chakra already sensing the extraction point up ahead, "they'll probably be about an hour, two tops, behind us."

Gai nodded, looking uncommonly grave at my words, and was silent and we continued on ahead.


It was a five point seal. I knew that as soon as I looked at it, the evidence in each inked stroke, in the syntaxes and the curves of the marks. Informing Team Gai, they went off to take care of the other four seals, leaving Sakura and I stood before the great big rock.

If things were the same, then it should be just Deidara on the other side, considering we'd gotten a hold of Sasori and killed him already.

But we could take nothing for granted. Because it wasn't the same on my end. Sasuke was still about, and he and Kakashi were on their way here.

It was just Sakura and I, stood staring at this big rock and just waiting to get in and start ripping the Akatsuki apart.

I could feel Kurama, his violent, empowered energy bubbling about beneath my skin, burning and blazing, dying to be used. Dying to rip into the ones that would dare to hurt his siblings.

Only Kurama was allowed to do that, only he could smack them around. Not a group of S-ranked criminals.

'Not as dull as my past containers.'

'I try. I can count on you for a chakra boost, right? Even if things get rough, we don't leave here without Gaara. Fingers crossed, Shukaku will be okay.'

The deep, warm snort that Kurama let out wasn't particularly reassuring, but I knew I could count on him when the time came.

Adjusting the earpiece, I took another glance back in the direction we'd come from throwing my awareness out as far as I could. I still failed to sense either Kakashi or Sasuke, but there was always the chance that the two of them were moving in stealth mode, chakra tightly contained, so as not to alert any possible enemies.

"Naruto-chan, I have reached the seal!"

Lee's exuberant voice echoed down the earpiece, just a shade too loud, but not quite loud enough that it deafened me.

"I'm at the seal too!"

"As am I."

Tenten and Neji spoke one after the other, and I cringed slightly, in preparation for Gai. I was right to fortify.

"Yosh! I have also reached the seal! Let us begin, in three, two," I crouched, fingers hovering right over the left corner of the seal, Sakura tensing in front of me, "one!"

Ripping the paper clean off the rock surface, I darted out of the way as Sakura shot forwards, battle cry ringing through the air before her tiny fist hit the rock.

And it shattered.

Watching Tsunade perform such terrifying moves was one thing. Watching tiny, thin Sakura, who's thirteen year old self still overlapped her sometimes, crack that boulder like an egg, was a bit horrifying.

How Canon-Naruto had taken her punches so often, I didn't have the slightest idea. Nor did I ever want to find out.

A ringing crack echoed though the air as the rock broke, crumbling flaky pastry but with a lot more dust.

A quick wind jutsu flicked it away, and I shot forwards, internally assessing the mass of chakra in the room. I could feel Shukaku's chakra, could feel Gaara's dwindling energy.

More importantly, though there were several chakra signatures in the room, they were projections.

Only one was present. Several sets of eyes snapped around to look at me, and I forced myself not to scream as I shot into the strange spectrum of energy surrounding Gaara.

It was impossible to really describe somewhere between a knife severing every limb I had, ever organ shrinking and expanding and shuddering, even as my bone began to burn.

And Gaara had been here for so long.

But he was still alive.

He still had chakra.

With a snarl, I felt Kurama's chakra flare, and I crossed my arms in front of my face, unable to stop the pained scream that escaped my lips.

Nevertheless, the wave of pure fury that was Bijū chakra exploded out of me, slamming into every visage of the Akatsuki and forcing them out, dispersing the apparitions and knocking Deidara back into the wall.

Gaara felt unnaturally still in my arms, but I could still sense his chakra, however little there was, sluggishly moving about in his limbs. Kurama roared in victory when he found Shukaku's chakra there too. There was so little of it, so very little, but it was there.

Which meant Shukaku was still there, and he could recover from chakra exhaustion. We'd managed it as humans, a Bijū would recover.

And I'd changed something again, because Gaara was alive without Sasori's grandmother.

A panicked laugh escaped my lips as I knelt on the ground, cradling Gaara's head in my lap and one hand running through the fine red hair that rested atop it.

Of course, that didn't last long.

Something sliced into me, and I only managed to register it in time to avoid a killing blow, instead feeling the kunai dig deep into my rib, life-threateningly deep.

Hissing, I held Gaara tight in one arm, the other curling around my bleeding side as I backed up real quick. In my sheer joy, high on my victory, I'd forgotten about Deidara.

Swearing under my breath, I threw Gaara to Sakura as best I could manage with my abdomen half open, snarling when the muscles screamed in protest. Kurama was already hard at work on it, and my chakra pathways burned, screamed that it was too much.

That I was pushing too hard.

I hadn't had chance to separate the malice that'd infected Kurama's chakra, that ran through it like a disease, like a poison. I needed to do that as soon as I had a chance.

We both needed it.

Kurama would be better off for it, and I wouldn't feel like I needed to go dive in the ocean every time I used it.

"Heal him, Sakura!"

My voice sounded irritatingly hoarse to my own ears, and I flipped out of the way of a clay bomb, gritting my teeth as I had to intercept the other heading for my pink haired teammate.

"You're gonna be next. I'll kill the pink one, and once we're finished draining the red-head brat, you're next."

Snarling, I gestured for Sakura to run with Gaara, to flee. Because I couldn't defend both of them and myself in an enclosed space like this, not against a ninja who's main method of attack was to blow things up. Being anywhere with a roof over my head was asking for trouble.

My breathing was coming in pants now, my lungs dry and aching for water. Flicking a storage seal on my wrist -mentally noting I was at half reserves chakra wise, having used more in the run than I'd expected- I let the geyser of water shower down, shielding Sakura's escape with Gaara.

The Akatsuki, Deidara, roared in fury, and I snarled back, equally as mad. Especially when another shower of bomb evaporated half my water supply. Scooping a bit up with a chakra magnet hand, I gulped it down, feeling the liquid settle into my stomach as I flashed through handseals.

"Water Style, Water Kraken Strike."

Eight thick, tentacle like strands of water rise and begin whipping out at Deidara, who cursed loudly as he was forced to duck and dive out the way.

I could feel Sakura's chakra, panicked and fluttery, as she tried to heal and flee at the same time. She was no doubt as exhausted as I was, and my teeth ground hard against one another, a grimace on my face as I dashed forward to meet Deidara in battle again.

He blocked my first strike, and the second, but the third managed to knock him away. He wasn't a close combat fighter, he was long distance. It was obvious, no point in using explosive jutsus if he was going to have to be close by them, risking his own head.

That and the fact he was missing one arm was a huge help.

Seemed like Gaara got a chance to tear that off after all. Still though, it appeared I had underestimated Deidara's burning need for vengeance, because as a hand spat out one clay doll, he exploded it almost in my face, regardless of the burns he suffered to his own hand.

Screaming in pain and surprise, I collapsed backwards, tears collecting in the corner of my eyes at the sensation.

Blinking, I forced my body back up, catching sight of Deidara disappearing through the opening of the cave, and another unfortunate word escaped from between my lips as I forced myself up.

Sakura was tried, she was weighed down with Gaara and had her attention split. Deidara, on the other hand, hadn't been on the run for several days, had ready-made transportation, and a good helping of chakra to go with it.

Swearing under my breath again, I took off after the blond, grunting as the skin of my burnt face stung against the cool wind.

'I'd really like to not have a big burn scar on my face, Kurama.'

'On it, brat.'

The wince that came was Kurama's chakra was reflective now, but a sigh of relief came up from my lungs when my face stopped burning in response.

Reaching for my chakra, I spun it around, working into wind chakra, ready to unleash it upon Deidara as soon as I had a clean shot.

As luck would have it though, I didn't need to.


Skidding to a halt at the sight of Sasuke and Kakashi stood before Sakura, Temari and Kankurō covering her back, the panic just drained right out of me.

Kakashi's the first to notice me, followed quickly by Sasuke, who shoots over to catch me as my knees wobble.

"The Akatsuki decided he didn't want to fight four reasonably fresh shinobi," he offers in way of an explanation, and I just nod, pressing my face into the curve of Sasuke's neck.

The adrenaline that'd been fuelling me since we'd heard the first bomb, since we'd first started that mad dash to Suna, has left me now that it's all over. It was the lowest I've been on chakra in months, and my every limb was aching with how far I've pushed them, with how much of Kurama's chakra I've forced through them.

"Sleep, Naruto. We've got this." And I trusted Sasuke. I trusted Kakashi.

So sleep I did.


By the time I woke up, night has fallen and the entire group was laid out around a dwindling campfire.

Gai was on watch, stationed over his students with a particularly vigilant look in his eyes as he scanned the clearing. Much to my amusement, Lee was curled up around Tenten, while Neji laid at least three feet away from the two of them. Even in his sleep, he's against public displays of affection.

Sniffing the air, my nose scrunched up at the scent of roasted chestnuts, and slowly I sat up, pushing a Leaf Jonin vest off of my body. Given Kakashi's simple blue shirt, it clear who it belongs to, and I took a moment to tuck it around his body.

In that light not quite sleep but not quite awake state, his chakra reached out until it recognises mine, and then receded back, recovering from his mad dash across the countries.

Shifting about, I made my way over to the fire, dropping onto the felled log beside Gaara. He didn't flinch, didn't move.

Just kept his sand in the fire -not quite hot enough to turn it to glass, but certainly warm enough to heat the chestnuts no doubt inside- and his eyes on the flickering flames.

Without hesitation, I reached out and wrapped my fingers around his own, staring into the flames too. We were quiet for a while, simply sitting there and enjoying the peace, enjoying the fact we were both still here, both still present on the face of this earth.

"How're you feeling?"

"Sore. My chakra pathways are all but burnt up, and it will take several days of exposure to medical chakra just to get them working correctly once again… Shukaku has lost a lot of chakra too."

Glancing at the redhead from the corner of my eye, I raised a brow, feeling Kurama perk up inside my mindscape too at the mention of his baby brother. He might insist he didn't care, but he totally did.

"You spoke?"

"We did," Gaara confirmed, sand recoiling from the fire and unwrapping to expose the chestnuts beneath. With another gesture, the sand wore away at the hard shell, until only the tender innards remained.

Accepting one of the offered nuts, I popped it between my lips, turning back to look at the fire even as Gaara's hand -long fingers, smooth skin- tightened its grip.

"I almost died. Shukaku was almost absorbed. They almost destroyed my village."

Pain shot through my heart at the idea, the idea of everyone I loved in my village getting killed by the people trying to sever Kurama from me.

No, I would never allow that to happened. It didn't matter that they'd been ink and paper to me near a decade ago. Right now, they were real. They were my family and friends and I would never let them get hurt if I could prevent it.

Just like I wouldn't let them hurt Kurama. Because he was one of my -to steal Haku's words- precious people too.

The fox was quiet, even more so than Gaara, who I could at least hear breathing.

"Kurama and I are going to try contacting the others in the mindscape in three days. It'd be a great help if you were there."

The redhead blinked, tired teal eyes turning from the fire to finally look at me, and he offered a fatigued smile.

"Thank you, Naruto. We will be there."

Nodding, I ate another chestnut, returning my gaze to the fire and letting my mind just rest for the first time in three days.


I'm really tired and can't be bothered with a long authors note, but I was determined to get this chapter out today. I'm sorry it's been so long, but my dissertation is almost over. Updates will pick up after that. Jan 14th is my hand in date. So, not long to go.

Merry Christmas, I love the whole lot of you.