Soul of Fire

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Matatabi whipped her tails back and forth in frustration. Yuzu had run out the door just as a village-wide alarm sounded. She had tried to go after her new human pet once she saw the tidal wave of ink-clones swarm the village, but the wards around the Kurosaki's apartment were distressingly well-made, and Ichigo hadn't modified them to respond to either of the Tailed-Beasts. That was an oversight the boy would have to correct the instant she dragged the children home.

Eventually, Matatabi and Isobu had been able to find a weakness in the wards. (Kurosaki had overlooked the pipes leading to the toilet. After Isobu caused them to burst, the pair of Tailed-Beasts had been small enough to crawl out of the hole.) But by the time they finally reached the outside world, the volunteer contingent from Konoha had already departed.

Matatabi, Isobu, and all the others were receiving updates from Kurama and Shukaku through their link in Naruto, so the Two-Tails and Three-Tails knew to head for Uzushio. For expediency's sake, Matatabi had grown as large as a moderately-sized cart—and graciously allowed the slower turtle to ride on her back—but she was a cat not a cheetah. In addition, she needed the strength to fight when they arrived, so she couldn't waste all of her energy on running.

A few hours out from Uzushio, Matatabi and Isobu stumbled into a cohort of Suna shinobi heading in the same direction. The Tailed-Beasts' presence brought the Sand-nin to a halt. Despite Naruto's best efforts, humans and Tailed-Beasts weren't comfortable with each other. Neither party moved to attack, but as long as they were stopped, they weren't helping Naruto and the other humans.

Matatabi looked over the group and recognized the one in the lead from memories shared by Shukaku. She prowled toward him, causing some of the shinobi to react with screaming and unsheathing of weapons. But Matatabi was willing to prioritize the safety of her human pets over the rudeness of the Suna-nin (not to mention Shukaku would be unbearable if she damaged one of his shinobi), and so she did not hiss or growl or flash fang at the shinobi.

"Baki of Suna, we go to the aid of Naruto and our kin," announced Matatabi. Her voice boomed across the plain making the humans wince.

Baki refused to show his unease at being identified by name by a Tailed-Beast, though she could smell the anxiety rippling from him in waves. Instead he took a small step toward her and gave a shallow bow.

"Lady Two-Tails, we go to the aid of our Kage and to avenge our comrades," answered Baki.

Matatabi approved of the respectful address. "Then we will ride with you," she allowed. Those who had never hosted a Tailed-Beast within themselves should be honored by such favor.

On her back, Isobu snorted quietly. He knew she didn't want to run anymore, but he was too smart to say anything. He climbed to her shoulder, causing the Suna-nin to whisper among themselves, then leapt through the air onto a sturdy looking shinobi. It wasn't a move a real turtle could manage, but Tailed-Beasts were superior to ordinary animals in every way.

The man in question went wide-eyed but didn't immediately throw Isobu off, which was for the best. His one concession was to resettle the bundle of cloth strapped to his back. The Two-Tails noted that all the Suna-nin carried similar bundles. They were steeped in enough pungent oils and chakra to make Matatabi's nose twitch if she had had less control over her form.

For her part, Matatabi pounced, shrinking as she soared, and landed on Baki's shoulder in her disguise as a house cat. Baki didn't flinch away, but he didn't move either.

"Forward," demanded Matatabi. "Your Kage and his siblings still live, yet we must arrive soon to keep them that way."

Baki didn't move. Matatabi thought she would have to complain to Shukaku. Her brother was clearly underestimating the man's intelligence if he couldn't even follow simple orders.

"Are you sure?" asked Baki. His voice was thin with restrained hope. Matatabi graciously forgave his slowness in the face of overwhelming emotion. Shinobi were still human beneath their training.

"We are in communication with Shukaku and Kurama through Naruto," announced Matatabi. "We are not mistaken about this."

Isobu bobbed up and down in agreement. The shinobi bearing him went white at the movement. Isobu might have to pick another if that one collapsed. Humans were terribly fragile physically and emotionally.

"What are you waiting for?" demanded Matatabi. "Go."

Baki looked like he wanted to speak more, but he swallowed his questions and gave the order to proceed instead. At least he was trainable. Shukaku would have to work on that after this mess was over and done.

The Suna-nin were pushing faster than was healthy to reach Uzu in a timely fashion. They weren't outright sprinting—that would leave them exhausted and useless much as it would have done to her—but they wouldn't be in top form after reaching their destination. Not that any shinobi other than a jinchuuriki could be in top form after a mad dash across the continent. Nonetheless, Matatabi wanted the Sand shinobi to go faster. Surely, her presence and that of Isobu would make up for the weakness of the humans upon their arrival. She kept quiet because Isobu would suggest she start running again, and she was not going to carry him.

They had cleared more than half the distance to Uzu when Matatabi involuntarily yowled in shock. The volume of her cry forced the entire group to a stop, several shinobi dropped to the ground from surprise or pain or both.

"What is it?" shouted Baki. Matatabi must have temporarily deafened him. Oops.

"We've lost the link with Naruto!" roared Matatabi. Out of deference to preserving what remained of his hearing, she shouted it telepathically. Ichigo couldn't be the only human accustomed to telepathic communication. Her darling Yugito had had no problem and neither did sweet little Yuzu.

Baki reeled wildly—perhaps there was a small chance Matatabi had been too loud with her mental voice—but the jounin managed to keep his feet beneath. Once he was steady, Baki did the most sensible thing she had seen so far. He turned to his cohort of shinobi and ordered them to run.

The group was still miles and miles away when a blast of light turned the sky red. They felt the shockwave from the attack anyway and had to brace against the wind that threatened to drag them from their feet.

"Was that a bijuu?" asked Baki.

Matatabi switched her tails back and forth. "No."

"Our enemy can do that?" demanded a kunoichi. Her voice pitched just on the edge of hysteria.

From their vantage point, they watched as mountain-high crests of waves surged then collapsed back into the ocean. Tremendous force had split open the sea. In the distance, storm clouds formed quickly with the sudden influx of evaporated water. The sea was sure to be treacherous up and down the coast for days, maybe weeks, as the currents righted themselves.

"No, not our enemy," declared Matatabi. She hoped she sounded steadier than she felt. It took conscious effort to smooth her fur, but she managed after a moment or too. "That was most likely Kurosaki Ichigo."

"Kurosaki?" protested Baki arching his neck back to stare at her at her properly. "The boy is barely a genin! It doesn't matter who his family is. No genin has the skill and reserves to do that."

Matabi leaned back on his shoulder and met his skeptical look with her own hard stare. Cats did not lose staring contests, and she did not appreciate being doubted.

"He is new to being a genin, but he has faced challenges that would make most shinobi quail in terror," said Matatabi. Kon was an excellent storyteller with the appropriate bribe, but those weren't her stories to tell. "Ichigo was confident in his ability to subdue my brother and I were we to cause trouble in Konoha. Individually or together."

Matatabi was no sensor to feel the tremble in a man's chakra. But she was close enough to see Baki swallow around a suddenly dry throat. Unless a kage was gifted with a skill such as Senju's mokuton, Uzumaki sealing chains, or Uchiha's Sharingan, they were not enough to stand up to a bijuu alone. It took teams of high-level shinobi to capture, seal, or drive away a free bijuu. Kurosaki expected to be able to handle two at once.

"We will keep going," said Baki once he regained control of himself.

"Enter from the southwest," suggested Isobu.

"Yes," agreed Matatabi. "That is where the allied shinobi set up their medical tent. The Kazekage's siblings are recovering there." Along with her and Isobu's new humans.

The shinobi weren't quite as fast with the threat of something as powerful as a loose bijuu on the horizon, but they still moved quickly. They could very nearly see the village when Matatabi's connection to the other bijuu popped back into place as if nothing had happened.

She nudged Baki's cheek and said in a whisper, "Naruto's back to normal. Hantokei turned him into a child. Typical Naruto."

"The Kazekage?" asked Baki just as quiet. No need to slow the whole group down again.

"He is as well as can be expected," said Matatabi. "Fighting. Irritable. No serious injuries. But Shukaku is a grump and distracted with the fight, so his reports are irregular."

"A grump," repeated Baki under his breath.

Matatabi grinned, showing sharp, perfect fangs. "I suspect you already know this."

Baki sighed heavily. "There have been some signs."

A genjutsu flickered into existence. It was a massive creation that floated improbably over the ruins of the entire village. As far as Matatabi could tell, the matrix pointed up rather than down, meaning it affected almost no one.

"What is that?" asked Baki. "Is that Kurosaki again?"

"I think so," said Matatabi. She couldn't quite figure out what he was doing with his pointless genjutsu, but she could interrogate Kon once she found the twerpy doll. Somehow, the pathetic toy knew everything.

"Keep going," she told him. "It's only a genjutsu."

"Infinite Tsukuyomi was only a genjutsu," muttered Baki, but he kept moving.

The Suna-nin finally reached the outer edge of the village. Their pace slowed to a crawl as they sought out the medical tent or anyone who knew what was going on while trying to avoid drawing enemy attention. The group met no resistance but could hear the sounds of fighting and of screaming. As a rule, shinobi did not scream in battle. Yelling and shouting were common and often used to regulate breathing. But screaming implied fear, and shinobi trained extensively to control their fear in the face of death and pain.

"To the north, just past that structure," snapped Isobu. "I felt Karin use her powers."

"Where the screaming is concentrated. Perfect," growled Baki. "Fall in."

The shinobi moved, smooth and silent, like a shark in through the water. Baki was in the lead of the formation, which meant Matatabi was one of the first to lay eyes on the chaos.

There was a large black mound in the center of a small yard clear of rubble. The mound moved and heaved like a ball of snakes. But the edges of it were blurred and fuzzy, like looking at heat haze. Disantly she could sense the natural chakra conduit, Jugo she thought was his name, at the bottom of the mass.

Not too far away, injured and barely conscious shinobi and samurai were pouring like angry bees out of the med tent. Those too weak to move were being hauled away by their more able comrades. More fuzzy, people-sized shadows chased after them.

The humans batted uselessly at the faint shades. The blows did nothing but cause the humans pain at first, which was the source of the screaming. Only when the shapes grew darker did the blows of the shinobi seem to have any effect, but at that point the shadows were solid enough to deal out injuries.

"What the hell?" demanded Baki.

"GET BACK!" shouted a familiar voice.

Matatabi scanned the area. There was a streak of yellow! Yuzu was surrounded by half-a-dozen wavering chains like a demented metal octopus. Unlike most of the shinobi's efforts, her chains had an actual effect on the shadows and could knock them away. She stood back to back with Karin, who was wielding a glowing blue pole and stabbing at any shade that came to close. Two of Yuzu's chain arms were burrowing into the throbbing black mass, while the rest were trying to pick the shadows off injured shinobi.

As Matabi watched, a pale shadow barely noticeable against the chaos of bodies, slipped under the chains and grabbed Yuzu's arm. She shrieked and the chains on that side of her body froze.

"Not my human!" roared Matatabi. She leaped off of Baki's shoulder, reversing her earlier transformation, and grew to an impressive size.

Matatabi pounced on the sickly grey fuzz, avoiding the women with natural feline grace. Her paws went numb and she flared fire around her toe-pads. Sensation bloomed around her paws. That was much better. The great Two-Tailed Beast pulled away from the fuzzy monster and saw the shadow was much lighter, barely a pale wisp and not moving in the slightest. That was boring. But there were others around.

Matatabi bounced from fuzzy to fuzzy flaring her fire each time. Whatever dark energy had gathered around the fuzzy monsters burned away in her flames. At last she was left with the dozens of fuzzies surrounding the natural chakra conduit. She wasn't supposed to kill humans while living under the Kurosaki's roof unless they were attacking her and she had no other option. Matatabi would definitely set the man on fire if she tried to light up the fuzzies swarming him.

The Two-Tails frowned and switched her tails. She allowed herself to grow bigger. She generally preferred a smaller, housecat shape the size of a horse, but she could be as large as her siblings if needed. This time Matatabi grew to the size of a small house, reached out a paw, hooked the back of Jugo's shirt, and hauled him out of the mass. A part of her wanted to carry him by the scruff of the neck in her teeth. But sadly humans didn't have much scruff.

She set the natural chakra user to the side and then pounced on the very dark fuzzies. They were a lot faster than the paler fuzzies and there were more of them. She had to chase quite a few. But by the time she was done they were all burned clear and still.

When she was finished, the courtyard was empty except for a few pale wisps and a few dozen shell-shocked shinobi.

"What just happened?" asked Sakura. Naruto's friend was wavering slightly on her feet and demonstrating all the classic signs of chakra exhaustion.

"Thank you so much, Unicorn!" gushed Yuzu at Matatabi's feet. "You're amazing!"

Matatabi shrank down to her kitten-form and wandered over to Yuzu for scritches. Yuzu was extremely talented at giving scritches, and Matatabi deserved a reward for all her hard work. Yuzu dutifully bent down and began to scratch Matatabi behind the ears and under the chin.

"You're so pretty and strong and a great pouncer. And your fire must have been really hot to get rid of those bad guys!" praised Yuzu.

"Naturally," purred Matatabi. Yuzu was a very well-trained human. It was a good thing Matatabi had decided to save her.

The Three-Tail scoffed loudly from his place among the Sand-nin. Some of the shinobi had dumped their cloth bundles and were checking on the wounded.

"They were feeding on chakra. That's why they pounced Jugo," announced the Hokage after examining the man in question.

Tsunade looked tired, drained, and older than Matatabi had ever seen her. The Two-Tailed Cat wondered if that was a side-effect of the fuzzies' attack, or if the Hokage had finally seen too many wars. Humans wore out eventually. That was the problem with physical bodies.

Karin stared at Matatabi's glorious form. There was a contemplative look on her face as she said, "There was a legend where we were born that nekomata can exorcise the dead with their flames."

"But that doesn't make sense here. The Two-Tails' flames are made of chakra," protested Sakura weakly.

Naruto's female teammate clearly couldn't recognize excellence when it was in front of her nose. That was too bad. It was probably why she had never said yes to a date with Naruto.

"The fuzzies clearly knew when they were outmatched," announced Matatabi.

"Of course they did," agreed Yuzu instantly.

"Fuzzies?" drawled Karin.

Matatabi flushed. It was undignified for her to say "fuzzy" outloud. Then again, could she do anything undignified?

"I can think of several things," said Isobu telepathically.

Matabi sneered quietly in his direction. She had just as much dirt on him after months of living together.

Ignorant of the brewing argument between the Tailed-Beasts, Baki spoke up, "Do you know the status of Temari and Kankuro and the Kazekage, Tsunade-sama, Sakura-sensei?"

"We're here, Baki," called Gaara's sister from just inside the medical tent. She rose to her feet as her brother did his best to steady her.

The kunoichi looked terrible and was wobbling worse than Sakura. She was missing her usual fan but had acquired a kunai from somewhere. The brother was unrecognizable without his face paint. He was leaning on a piece of half-rotten wood, which served as his makeshift weapon. Matatabi remembered that they had been kidnapped before this whole mess started and while not necessarily injured, both of their chakra systems had been disrupted for a long time.

"Lady Temari, Master Kankuro, I'm relieved to see you alive," said Baki.

"Same here," croaked Kankuro. Temari nodded once, her words already spent.

"And the Kazekage?" asked Baki.

"Gaara is fighting in the village," explained the Hokage. "These shadows aren't the only assailants. Hantokei has resurrected a number of Uzumaki and ordered them to fight our people."

The faint relief on Baki's was swept away by grim determination. "Then our preparations were not in vain." He gestured to the bundles of fabric the Suna-nin brought with them.

"I'm guessing that's not for bandages," drawled the Hokage.

"No, Hokage-sama," said Baki. "The fabric is imbued with chakra-dampening seals, which were developed when our village fought against Uzushio."

The Hokage frowned, deepening the lines on her face even more. "What does it do?"

"The cloth prevents Uzumaki from activating their chakra chains, but is unaffected by chakra-disrupting seals, which were common among Uzumaki shinobi in the past," explained Baki. "I had to consult our Elders for the information."

"No wonder you didn't get here until now. I bet it took hours to get anything useful out of the elders," mused Kankuro. Temari elbowed him in the side causing them both to stagger and sway.

"Konoha doesn't have any records of how to counter Uzumaki techniques," said the Hokage. "Your precautions were wise despite any delay. Your squad is probably in better shape than everyone but the undead. How much cloth did you prepare?"

"Only twenty-nine bolts. Some were in storage. A few are new. The sealing process is expensive in terms of materials and time," said Baki.

"There are more than thirty Uzumaki out there," said Sakura. "There's probably one for every kidnapped redhead with a drop of Uzumaki blood."

"But the Uzumaki aren't mindless," countered Yuzu. "Mom wasn't. And they're all mad about being made to fight. They'd probably let themselves be herded together, so you can catch more than one together."

Matatabi quietly purred in approval. She had such a good, intelligent human.

"That might work," said the Hokage. She studied Yuzu carefully. "Do you think you could hold the Uzumaki in place with those chains of yours?"

Yuzu considered the question seriously. "I don't know. I can't summon too many chains at once, or I lose focus. And the fuzzy-shadows are extremely distracting."

"Yuzu could group some of the Uzumaki together until we can bind them," suggested Baki. "If Lady Two-Tails can keep the…shadow monsters away from her."

"Of course I can," said Matatabi instantly. She shifted into the size of a draft-horse. "Yuzu, just this once you can ride on my back."

"Oh my, it's an honor," said Yuzu. She quickly clambered into place and drew her chains.

"Yuzu and the Two-Tails will accompany the Suna-contingent as they subdue the shadows," announced the Hokage. "The rest of us will evacuate the wounded out of the bounds of the village. We obviously cannot keep the injured here and risk anyone losing any more chakra."

There was a quiet roar of "yes ma'am"s from the assembled forces as they separated into their assigned groups. Those who could walk would be assisting the healers with those who couldn't.

"Try to head straight for Naruto," said the Hokage. "He's in the middle of the square drawing a seal that will contain the madman responsible for all of this. I remember seeing shadows there too."

Baki and Matatabi both nodded in understanding. Naruto was, as usual, up to his neck in the middle of things.

"What is that?" The nervous Suna-nin who had carried Isobu pointed at a cloud of dust moving toward them at high speeds.

There was a moment where everyone tensed for a new threat. Then Karin said, "Oh, it's just Kon."

"It looks like Kurosaki," said Baki slowly.

"Kon is in Ichigo's body right now, since Ichigo is busy fighting," explained Yuzu casually.

"I don't understand," said Baki. "What does that mean?"

Matatabi pricked up her ears, hoping for a more thorough explanation herself. Kon had never gone into detail about how he came to possess Ichigo's body or any particular body.

Karin opened her mouth to speak while Yuzu shifted in place for the same reason. Unfortunately, Kon himself interrupted whatever the twins were going to say next. He skidded to a stop in front of them. Looking harried but otherwise entirely unlike the typically grim Ichigo.

"What's wrong with your face?" demanded Matatabi.

Kon sent a ferocious scowl in her direction.

"Oh that fixed it," she said.

Kon huffed and turned away from her to look at Isobu. "Most of the other kages are trying to empty out the seawater gathering below Uzushio, so they can fill it with dirt. Shukaku thought you could help with that."

"I can," said Isobu. "Karin, you come with me. Your ice-affinity will be of us."

Karin looked to Sakura, who found the strength to smile faintly.

"Medics can't do anything for chakra exhaustion without exhausting themselves, and we have enough people for ordinary injuries," said Sakura. "Helping the Kages and Tailed-Beasts is more important."

"Yes, sensei," said Karin. She walked over to the nervous Suna-nin and carefully retrieved Isobu from his shoulder. "Are you going to grow big too?"

Isobu snorted. "Eventually. But not for travel. I am a turtle. Kon!"

Kon snapped to attention. "You want me to carry you and Karin to the docks?"

"If that's where everyone else is," said Isobu drily.

"One ride on the Kon Express coming right up," he said with a grin. "For you, top speed."

Karin's eyes widened. "Top-speed?"

Kon grinned, the expression maniacal and unsettling on Ichigo's usually stern face. "Since the matter is urgent. By your leave, Hokage-sama."

"Of course," said the Hokage, sounding as amused as her exhaustion would allow.

"How fast can Kon run?" asked Matatabi quietly.

"He has three times the leg strength of whatever body he's in," chirped Yuzu.

Matatabi watched as Kon scooped up Karin—and therefore Isobu—into his arms and surged forward. He covered tens of feet in a single step, all without use of chakra, and then Kon used a basic body flicker to launch himself into the distance.

In their shared gathering-space, the other Tailed-Beasts were suddenly subjected to Isobu unholy shrieks of terror. Matatabi snickered. The cold-blooded reptile needed to be shook up every now and then.

Matatabi turned to face the center of the ruined village. Let the shell-head scream. She and Yuzu had a mission of their own to complete.

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End of Chapter.

This chapter was subtitled: The Two-Tailed Cat v. The Evil Dust-Bunnies.

Kon can only perform the most basic jutsu when he's in Ichigo's body. But he's a lover, not a fighter. Basic jutsu are all he needs.

Thanks for reading! Please review.