A/N: PLEASE READ THIS NOTE, WOULD YOU KINDLY?

This chapter was torture to write while in recovery. TORTURE.

Owowowowowow surgery hurts. Not fun. Not at all. I feel like crap, so I apologize if this isn't up to my usual standards.

Trolls and threats all over the reviews yet again. Ignore 'em. Or laugh at them. That's what I'll be doing from now on. I've gotten some good news after all this surgery nonsense and it makes all of their nastiness small by comparison. The good news is...well...private. Lets just say my career has taken a sudden turn for the better. At the end of the day, this is a hobby. I don't get paid for any of this. I'm not going to let death threats drag me down.

Just a reminder, this IS the Naruto we all know and love; he's simply been reincarnated in a new body. If he gets his memories back...hoo boy...

Once again, this is a YEAR before the events of Volume One. As such, Blake and Pyrrha haven't quite come into their own just yet.

But little Blake finds her spine in this chapter...and it was a glorious thing to write. Now, then!

No long author's note this time around; we don't want to detract from the chapter.

As ever we own no quotes, references, themes or memes!

So in lieu of a wordy author's note...readysetgo!

"We are all of us, beasts. Oh, some Hunters may choose to act civilized. They'll deny who they are, put on airs, pretend to be something that they're not. They restrict themselves outside of combat, restrain their impulses, curb their own true nature. They settle down. Start a family. They take all those instincts and bottle them up day after day...until one day...

One day bottle cracks and they give into their desires. They run amok among the populace, taking what they can, wherever they can, reaping lives like so much wheat.

What's wrong with that? Let the strong live. And the weak die."

~Merlot.

Release the Beast

Blake heard the howl first.

It was a decidedly shrill sound, one that laid the poor girl's ears flat against her head. There seemed to be no end to it; echoing on and on behind them, before being taken up by another and another. Each cry echoed in the distance, long and lilting, as though a dozen voices were crying out in unison.

"Hoo boy," Nauto grimaced, pausing to peel back a branch for her and Emerald to duck under, "That sounded close. We better keep moving."

The younger faunus scurried after the two thieves, shadowing their every movement for fear of being left behind. She didn't want to be alone in this forest now. Not after hearing...that. It was close. Too close. Golden eyes flitted this way and that, half-expecting a Grimm to come crashing out of the trees at any moment. When none came, she found herself stressed all the more. It wasn't helped when said thieves exchanged a worried look between themselves.

"Beowolf?" Emerald posited.

"Sounds like a whole pack of them." Naruto retorted. "Better keep moving before we get bogged down."

Someone screamed again. Louder than before. This time, it sounded almost human.

Blake grimaced against it. "Aren't we going to do something?"

Naruto flicked a reluctant glance over his shoulder.

"No." Emerald shot Blake's hopes down before they could truly take flight. "If we double back now, we won't be able to get a relic in time. You know that, Naruto."

"Suppose you're right." he sighed and moved on. "Its a pity, but we can't save everyone, Blake.

The little Faunus stomped after him with a scowl. "I thought you helped people!"

"We're thieves, not heroes." Her partner hastened his stride, forcing her to jog after him and Emerald lest she be left behind. "We can't save everyone."

A muscle jumped in her jaw and harsh words leaped to her lips, ready to explode into the air. It took all she had just to choke them down. Calling him out for this would only make her seem a hypocrite. At the end of the day she'd come to Beacon to hide, not to stand out. Still, to leave someone to the Grimm like that...it smacked of cruelty. She didn't liek it.

Another shout went up, far closer than the last. "That sounded like Cardin...

"Then nothing of value will be lost." Just like that, any trace of compassion vanished from the blond's eyes. "There's no helping that one. Trust me, I speak from experience."

"But...!"

"Say we did double back to help him and his friends." Emerald skirted around a fallen tree and held up a finger. "Do you think Cardin would thank you for it? No." she shook her head. "Putting aside the fact that he's a big oaf, Cardin hates Faunus; loathes anyone seen working with them. I know his type."

"Probably has something to do with his father, that." Naruto sidled up beside her, guarding her flank. "Do you really want to give up your chance at becoming a huntress for someone like him?"

Blake flinched anew and her ears drooped again.

It hurt to admit it, but Naruto had a point. The Winchester name was infamous for all the wrong reasons. His family had fought in the War, after all. That alone lent them something of a reputation, nevermind what she'd already seen of the brash boy thus far. Low profile or no, Cardin hadn't made the best impression on her.

"Besides," Emerald saw her weakness and pounced like the thief she was. "Ozpin and the other teachers are watching. They wouldn't let a potential student die on their watch, right?"

"I suppose-

"RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!"

A shrieking blur of blood and dented metal tore out of nowhere to shoulder-barge Blake from behind, sending her spinning into Naruto. Her fellow Faunus caught her quickly, but before he had a chance to so much as blink at her attacker they shot past, screaming bloody murder. In a moment they were gone, crashing through the undergrowth with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball.

Emerald twitched. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me. Was that Cardin...?"

"Was it?" Naruto helped Blake to her feet with a shrug. "Didn't get a good look at him. Why was he running...?

An ear-splitting snarl perforated the forest.

Naruto raised his shield and Emerald drew her sickles with a put-upon groan. "You just had to ask!"

This time Blake heard the Grimm coming long before she saw the beast; if only because it was impossible to miss.

A great hulking beast burst through the brush, snorting loudly as it searched in vain for its victim. Failing to find Cardin, it bounded in their direction instead, prior prey all but forgotten. This one wasn't normal either, for reasons Blake couldn't understand. Ghastly green spines jutted from its back and its sickly green eyes -they weren't supposed to be that color!- burned with an overwhelming hunger. She could see the hate in its gaze, a seething desire to rip and tear all that lived, and something in her shrank back from it.

She watched its jaw work wordlessly as it crept closer. Almost as if it were trying to...talk. Nonsense. Grimm didn't talk. She was imagining things.

Naruto saw her fear and pushed her back. "Hey, just let us handle this one alright? Its alright if you're still a little spooked."

Blake hated herself for such weakness, yet nodded all the same.

"Left?" Naruto asked, flicking a look at Emerald.

His partner rolled her eyes and jabbed his sight. "Right."

Together, the thieves absolutely surged forward in flawless unison.

For reasons Blake didn't understand the Beowolf went for Naruto first; perhaps it was the bright colors he wore, or perhaps it was simply a matter of proximity. She couldn't be sure. Regardless, the whiskered warrior was more than prepared. He met the beast head on and caught a clawed paw on one shield like the tank she'd come to think of him. He latched out with the other and caught its other limb before it could draw back and attack him again. Moments later, a faint red miasma began to bleed from his right arm as he drained his prey. Blake recognized his Semblance.

The Grimm, unfortunately, did not, and struggled fruitlessly in his grasp.

Naruto smacked his lips. "Thanks for the meal, big guy."

His free fist swung back like a piston and slammed into the Grimm's gut with a horrible crunch, bending the beast double. From there, he latched onto his right arm with both hands and ripped it away. Grimm didn't bleed as living creature did, but they still felt pain. True to form, this one howled in mindless rage and lashed out with its remaining paw. Rather than evade, Naruto turned and raised his remaining shield to intercept, allowing it to flail uselessly against him, to no avail. Even from here, Blake saw his blue eyes dance with devilish light as he tanked the storm of blows.

So focused was the beast on its prey that it failed to notice Emerald creeping up on its flank.

The Grimm certainly noticed when a chained sickle swept around its throat.

Glowing eyes bulged for all of a moment before the green-haired thief landed on its back and unloaded her weapons into its spine. Even then the Grimm didn't go down; it only thrashed in agony and howled anew as it sought to rip her head off. Emerald did not dodge; no, she danced out of the way, tumbled down its back with deadly grace, and used the chain to yank it down again. Bereft of balance, the beast came crashing down to earth; where a smiling Naruto awaited with all the patience of a stalking fox.

It didn't last long after that.

With a grim smile the berserker stepped in, smacked the Grimm down with a shield when it tried to rise, and brought two empowered fists crashing down on the beast's skull. Dark fur and white bone yielded like so much putty, creating an awful crack. Blake felt something tiny quail in her at as Grimm's corpse began to dissolve.

That hadn't been a fight. It was an execution.

"Heh. We've still got it." Naruto raised a hand and Emerald stepped forward to slap her palm against his. "One and done." he clicked his tongue. "See, Blake?" he turned to face her. "Nothing to worry about here. What did I tell...you...

All around them, the brush began to stir; countless glowing eyes surveyed them from the treeline.

Emerald hissed through her teeth. "Change of plans, kitty-kat. Run. Now."

"What-

"Just run!"

Blake yelped as Naruto spun, gave her a shove and urged her onward. A dark shape lunged at him when she turned her back and he ducked beneath a claw larger than his head. The blond plucked something from his belt and flung it down on the ground between them. Against her better judgement, Blake turned away.

Even then the flashbang left her sensitive ears ringing.

"Go, go, go!" Emerald urged her forward, voice muffled in the chaos.

Too little too late, something emerged from the trees ahead of them, cutting their retreat off.

As far as Grimm went, these were even larger then the last and just as warped, bigger than anything she'd seen. Worse, they didn't look...right. All green and black and twisted, their ghastly bodies seemed to shimmer with unnatural light as they shambled towards them. More came after. Many more. Too many.

"Outmaneuvered by Grimm." Naruto groused. "Coco's never going to let us hear the end of this."

"What now?" Emerald whispered.

"I'll draw their attention." Blue eyes burned red again. "You two scatter."

"Wait, you're not going to...?!"

Swinging his arms, the blond stalked forward.

"C'mere, ya filthy mutts!" a rough edge overtook his words as his body began to shimmer. "I'll make a meal out of ya!"

One swing of an empowered arm sheared through the skull of a Beowolf's who dared creep too close; on the backswing he caught a second wolf by the leg and whipped it forward into its fellows, sending them sprawling like a bunch of broken bowling pins.

"Is that all?!" his voice rose in a taunt. "I thought you lot were Grimm, not puppies!"

Another leaped at him and he caught it on his shield, levering its bulk into the ground. Scarlet eyes burned with deathly flames as he stomped its skull to mud. His hand shot out, found another Grimm by the throat, and latched on. It shriveled in his grasp and his muscles pulsed with fresh life. Casting its corpse aside, he stalked forward, banging his shields together. His very being seemed to shimmer with crimson light now, almost as if it were a living thing, like a shroud, no, a cloak of some sort. Still, he slammed his shields together.

Every Grimm turned toward him as one.

"That's right, you sonuvabitches!" he boomed a laugh. "Here!" He banged his shields together once more. "Right here! Come and get me if you think you're hard enough!"

Sure enough, the rest closed in on him. Naruto threw himself at them like a madman, swinging and striking, ripping and tearing.

"That's his Semblance acting up again." Emerald sighed as Blake balked. "He tends to go berserk when it comes to situations like this." Drawing her weapons once more, she waded into the fray after him, her body already beginning to blur. "Go on. You're not ready for a fight like this, yet. We'll catch up with you."

She hesitated.

"Just go! We've faced worse odds than this."

Blake's traitorous legs needed no further encouragement.

She made it all of a few yards before one of the slavering Grimm intercepted her frantic flight. She lashed out without thinking, sending its head spinning away, but another stepped into take its place. Unlike the last, this one was larger, and worse, this one showed no fear. It was the eyes. Those terrible, horrible eyes. They pierced right through her as it growled, blood still dripping from white jaws. She froze like a deer in the headlights, and sensing her fear, the beast closed in.

Gambol Shroud barked furiously in her grasp, to no avail. Bullets pinged harmlessly off its hide. It chuffed softly and hastened its stride.

What had she been thinking? She was too young. She wasn't ready for this. She couldn't...she wouldn't...she was going to...

Still the Grimm came on, those horrid eyes fixed on her. Its jaw popped open as it crept closer.

"Little...cat...

Wait, did it just talk?!

A bronze meteor fell onto the beast's back from on high and bore it down to the ground with a warcry. Blake's jaw popped open. Her savior didn't so much fall upon the Grimm as she did crash into it, physically pinning it to the earth with her spear. The creature perished before it truly knew what happened. Its killer -a girl in bronze and gold armor- rode their dissolving body to the ground with an awkward grace, stumbling on the landing with only the faintest hint of hesitation.

"Thank goodness." a familiar voice hummed. "Looks like I made it in time. "Are you alright?"

Blake spied red hair and bright green eyes, framed by a nervous smile as her savior helped her stand. With the other she plucked her spear free and with a segmented click, the weapon collapsed back into the form of a shortsword. She felt the faintest stirrings of envy at the sight; at her grace, at her fearlessness.

"I'm Pyrrha." the girl introduced herself. "Pyrrha Nikos."

"Blake." she clasped her hand and replied in kind. "Just...Just Blake."

Oddly enough, her apparent lack of recognition seemed to please the redhead for some reason Blade didn't understand.

"I knew I made the right decision coming here a year early." Her savior preened. Then she realized she was staring. "I'm sorry, that was rude of me." her hands flailed for a flustered moment. "But I don't suppose you have a partner? You're the first person I've seen thus far.

Blake nodded her head numbly. "Sorry. Already do."

"Don't be." the redhead beamed. "I just-

"Why are you still here?!" Emerald's stumbled through the trees, and the younger girls rounded on her with a start. "There's too many Grimm in these words. Too much cover for them, too. Find an open area!"

Only then did she notice Pyrrha.

"Oh. Its you." the green haired girl blinked and reached out to thumb a bit of dirt from the younger girl's cheek. "Hey, squirt. Glad you found us."

"I knew it...it really is you." Pyrrha breathed the words out with scarcely disguised glee, her grin nigh on euphoric. I finally found you!"

"Is that little red? Perfect timing." Naruto stumbled up beside Emerald, limping slightly. "We could use some help here."

Pyrrha preened. "I'd be happy to."

Blake was beginning to wonder if she'd missed something here; apparently these three knew each from some prior meeting, one she wasn't privy to. Whatever the case, the newcomer was all too happy to assist. Together the four of them beat a hasty retreat; Naruto and Pyrrha linked their shields and bore the brunt of their pursuer's wrath. Emerald harried them from the high ground, leaping from tree to tree, taking shots wherever she could, slinging her chains into any Grimm unlucky enough to stray far from the pack.

Blake couldn't bring herself to help them; fear still gripped her heart in an icy vice.

She felt like nothing. No, less than nothing.

It galled her that she had to be protected like this; least of all when she knew how to fight. Pyrrha was the same age as her and she showed no such hesitation, whirling and slashing alongside Naruto without a care in the world. She wanted that courage. Needed it. Craved it.

When the next Grimm overtook them, something snapped.

Blake leaped at it with a shriek, dove under its claws and speared it under the chin with her weapon. It collapsed with a wordless gurgle, and tried to rise. Gambol Shroud was having none of it. Her weapon hacked down once. Twice. Thrice. When one of its brothers bounded at her she snagged a limb with her weapon's ribbon, yanked them down, and slashed at their throat.

"Oh, great." Naruto sighed. "She's blooded."

Blake snarled at him. "Say that again!"

"Easy there, kitty-cat!"

Eventually their measured retreat allowed them to gain enough ground to make a break for it. Naruto lobbed another flashbang into the melee when the pack attempted to pursue, drawing a chorus of angry growls and howls from the beasts. Some of them stumbled after them, reeling from the grenade's aftereffects. Even then, the rest of them tried to pursue.

A piercing howl stopped them in their tracks. Almost as if something were calling them back.

Blake bristled at the sound of it. "What was that?"

"Too big for the four of us, that's what." Naruto yanked her backwards when she tried to pursue. "I'm glad you finally found your courage, but there's a fine line between recklessness and suicide."

From there they retreated swiftly, never quite turning their backs on the pack even as the last of them melted away into the trees. Their little group didn't relax. Rather, they couldn't. Everyone expected another enemy to materialize at any moment. When they failed to do so, that only made the tension worse. Five minutes after the fact, they reluctantly lowered their guard, but still moved at a brisk pace.

Pyrrha was the first one to break the stifling silence that threatened to swallow them whole.

"Well," she groused, rubbing a bruised shoulder, "That wasn't grand."

Naruto snickered.

Emerald snorted softly.

Blake bit back a hysteric giggle.

That set off an avalanche of nervous laughter amongst their little quartet. They'd fought and bled together, after all. There was no better camaraderie than that. Against all odds, they'd come together. Found one another, and triumphed. This was what it felt like to be a Team. Blake found she rather liked it.

It felt freeing. Cleansing.

With each step all her fears and doubts slowly washed away. In its place, came certain. Pride, even. She could see herself working with these three; dysfunctional though they were. Naruto and Emerald might have their own warped sense of moral and justice, but at least they weren't killers. Moreover, they weren't Adam. No matter how vicious they might be in a fight.

Pyrrha was nice, too.

They were both nearly the same age, two fledglings trying to make a name for themselves in the world, to step out of the shadows brought by their family names. And she did recognize hers. Pyrrha Niko was something of an infamous name, even among the White Fang. Wisely, she'd chosen not to mention it. Something told her only sadness and sorrow awaited her down that road.

Golden eyes drifted back to the unlikely trio ahead of her. Watched as Emerald rubbed Pyrrha's hair fondly.

Maybe she could have a life here after all.

"We worked pretty well together, I think." Naruto gave one last chuckle and wiped a mirthful tear from the corner of his eye. "Two tanks, and two rogues. Pretty balanced, I'd say."

Blake felt her ears twitch in mild curiosity. "Tanks? Rogues? What're you on about? Is that supposed to mean something?"

"Just an old RPG slang." Emerald waved her concerns down. "He's a bit of a gamer, don't mind him."

Naruto arched a blond brow. "Says the girl who likes to cosplay. Why, just the other day-

Emerald turned beet red and launched a pebble at him.

Laughter flowed freely.


(.0.0.0.)


All told it was almost a relief to find the relics waiting for them.

In all honesty Naruto almost expected an attack when they finally broke through the thicket and reached their destination; after the afternoon they'd had, he was sure Emerald and the rest expected much the same. An ambush, an explosion, a trick of some sort. Something that would inevitably set them back once more. As soon as she saw the altars and the "Relics" placed atop them, his heart leaped. All the horrors they'd endured to get here made it worth it.

When no such threat emerged, he released a breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding.

"This must be the ruins, then. Finally. Feels like we've been walking forever."

Emerald elbowed him. "What gave it away, dumbass?"

"Aw, you do care!" rather than be offended, he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Told ya I'd grown on you."

"Tch, like bad mold." She elbowed him away, and the words held no rancor. "Go on, get moving. You're practically vibrating."

In truth he wasn't even sure how much leaping from one Grimm to the nest. His body certainly reflected that much. Everything ached.

His arms throbbed, his eyes burned and their was an uncomfortable buzzing sensation in the back of his head, a sure sign that he'd overexerted his Semblance. Yet at the same time he felt content. Sated. He'd drank his full from every Grimm they'd encountered and then some; he felt like he could take on the world right now.

That wasn't a good sign.

He'd need to find a way to safely burn off all this excess energy soon. Holding onto so much power for so long had...side effects. The last time he'd hoarded too much energy for himself, he'd gone berserk.

Best not to dwell on that.

Empowering his legs with just a little bit more power than was strictly necessary, he surged forward, reaching the altar before allies. He all but felt Emerald roll her eyes and jogged after him. Young Blake and little Pyrrha brought up the rear, exchanging wondering looks for their surroundings.

A small, traitorous smile twitched at the corner of Naruto's mouth. Emerald aside, they weren't the friends he'd asked for, or even thought to need. Yet he found himself smiling at them all the same.

Here it was.

This was the new life he and Emerald had longed for, and so much more. The four of them had fought together, grown He wanted to look after them. Protect them. Keep them safe. This team -assuming they accepted the offer he was about to make- would be better than the last. This time, everyone would live. Not like Sasuke and Sakura.

Wait. Who were they? Why had he said their names?

A spike of bitter red agony rammed itself through Naruto's skull and he stumbled, nearly planting his face in one of the stone altars. Sasuke. Sakura. The names burned in the back of his mind like twin brands, sharp and hot and terribly painful. He clutched at his head, hissing between his teeth. A familiar voice cried out in his ears, longing to be heard.

"Remember!" it cried out to him. "This isn't you! Remember!"

"Remember what?!" Naruto clicked his teeth in irritation. He felt as if he were on the verge of recalling some great and terrible truth, but it slipped through his fingers when he tried to grasp it. He bent double and bit his tongue until he tasted blood in his mouth. That sharp, bitter tang snapped him back to reality.

...alright?"

The blond blinked and found Emerald's red eyes peering at him. She'd reached him before the others, though having seen him collapse, Blake and Pyrrha were already hastening to his side. Shaking his head and tossing his bangs aside, the whiskered warrior willed the strange sensation away and forced himself to smile. It felt brittle on his face, as though it might crack at any moment.

Whatever it is, ignore it. Naruto muttered himself, shaking his head. Suppress it.

"Its nothing." he said. "Just a headache."

Emerald chewed her lip nervously and stepped forward.

"You're sure?" She laid a hand on his arm. "You've been getting those a lot lately."

"I'm fine, alright?" he touched his hand to hers. "Its just a migraine. Nothing's wrong. Trust me."

"I do." Dark fingers curled around his, but she didn't pull away. "Just be careful, alright? I...I can't lose you."

Naruto flinched at the reminder. He'd fallen ill when they were little. Once. It had been a raging fever, one that nearly killed him. Emerald had bawled her eyes out. Even after he'd managed to recover, she hadn't left his side for weeks afterward. If something happened to him, or gods forbid, if someone ever hurt him...he wasn't sure what she'd do. He wasn't sure he wanted to find out.

On a whim he stepped into her and kissed her forehead.

Emerald's face flamed and she slammed her head into his neck to hide it.

"Hey, have some faith!" this time, his smile felt more natural to him, less brittle than before. "I've gotten us this far, haven't I?"

"Hmm." That mollified her enough to pull away, though her fingers lingered in his a bit longer than they should have before she tugged them three.

As the rest of their drew closer they saw these so-called relics for what they were. They weren't mystical items, nor sacred tomes, or any such thing. For all his talk about Relics and teamwork, the Headmaster had failed to mention how ordinary the items in question would be. He'd expected a lamp, or a staff, a crown, or perhaps even a sword. Not...this.

"Chess pieces?" Emerald scoffed. "Really?"

Naruto didn't answer. He simply stepped forward.

"Right then," he mumbled to himself. "Guess its decision time."

"Someone was already here by the look of it." Pyrrha indicated a pair of vacant altars. "They beat us here."

"Seems so." Naruto hummed. "There's still plenty to go around, by the look of it. Ozpin must've been yanking our chain."

A tan hand snatched up a golden knight piece, which in turn caused Emerald to choose the corresponding one. He'd expected that much. They were a package deal, after all.

"Such a little thing." he muttered the words softly, turning it over in his hand. "And yet it decides our fates. Funny." Blue eyes flickered over their ragtag little group. "So? How are we going to do this?" he asked. "Blake's my partner, as is Emerald, thanks to a technicality. But Pyrrha," he indicated the nervous redhead with a wave, then drew her into his side when she still dithered on the sidelines. "Made eye contact with Blake. Who, as I said, partnered with me."

Emerald palmed her forehead. "This is confusing."

"INCOMING!"

With sound and aplomb Coco Adel came crashing through the thicket, flanked by a number of applicants that Naruto failed to recognized. She saw them at once and snapped off a jaunty wave as she jogged their way; in so doing she also drew their his attention to the massive towering weapon slung almost casually over the older girl's shoulder.

Was...was that a gattling gun?"

"Looks like you beat us here," she groaned, sauntering up to them. "So much for our shortcut." Then her eyes fell upon the rest of their party and her crestfallen expression only worsened. "Aw, shoot." the brunette kicked one heel at the grass as she saw the four of them. "Looks like you found yourself a partner."

Naruto smiled wistfully at Blake. "Yeah. Guess I did."

"And I found mine." Emerald latched onto his arm like a limpet.

"Huh. Neat." Coco blinked, catching on quickly. "Way to use a loophole there, greenie. Introductions, then!" she clapped her hands together. "The big guy over there's Yatsuhashi."

Naruto turned his head in acknowledgement, only to realize he actually had to look up at the young man to greet him and return his nod. Holly crap. Coco hadn't been kidding. Yatsuhashi was an absolute giant of a being, and one clad in green leathers with matching armor. The sword slung over his back was nearly as large as he was tall. Seriously, what did you eat to get that big?!

"And the quiet one's Fox, his partner." Coco indicated a dark skinned youth with white eyes and red hair, clad in crimson leathers and wielded curved blades to match. "He's not much of a talker. Got somethin' to do with his Semblance, I think."

"Indeed."

The voice that greeted him didn't come from the man's mouth, but his mind. Naruto blinked, momentarily startled by it. Any discomfort he might've felt vanished when the redhead offered a hand in greeting. He stepped forward and clasped it readily. "Telepathy, eh?" he whistled as he released Fox's forearm. "That's a handy ability. I'm kinda jealous."

"Jealous. Yeah. Sure. Riiiiiight." Emerald huffed softly in his ear. "Says the teleporting psycho with a freakin' drain touch ability. Why the hell wouldn't you be jealous?"

"And I'm sure you two remember Velvet here." Coco lowered her shades and winked. "Don't tell me you forgot about our favorite bun-bun?"

"Coco!" The Faunus in question swatted her arm, to no avail. "Why're you always like this?!"

"Like what?" The gunner planted a hand on her hip and cocked her head.

"Aaargh!"

"They're...certainly an interesting bunch?" Blake hazarded as she watched her fellow Faunus flail at Coco.

Emerald's elbow dug into her side. "Sweetie, you have no idea."

Pyrrha giggled softly.

Still, it brought up another, less pleasant question. Coco and her friends had come hammering out of the forest with undue speed; almost as if something were chasing them. Naruto risked a glance over their shoulders, half-expecting a horde of Grimm to come racing in, hot on their heels. No such luck. The Emerald Forest remained quiet. Almost eerily so. In the end, curiosity won the day and he had to ask.

"What kept you?" Naruto asked.

"Had to deal with a giant death stalker." the gunner chirruped. "You?"

"Just about the same thing," Emerald slapped a hand against her thigh. "The four us ran into a pack of mutated Beowolf."

Blake shuddered, as though remembering something foul. "I think...I think one of them talked."

All eyes turned to the young Faunus. And then:

"Nah."

"Nope."

"No way."

"Surely not."

"That's impossible!"

"Grimm do not speak."

"A-Are you sure you didn't imagine it?"

Despite each of their protests, Blake set her jaw and stomped a foot. "I know what I heard!"

A sudden and fiery explosion deeper within the forest put paid to those very words.

Pyrrha craned her neck. "Somehow, I don't think they're a problem anymore."

"Ten lien says that's Cinder and her boy toy." Coco shuddered and clutched her arms close to her chest. "Right scary bitch, that one. Don't wanna mess with her. "Speaking of messes, this piece of shit to anyone?" she jerked an awkard thumb over her shoulder and Naruto finally noticed the quivering form of Cardin crouched behind Yatsuhashi. Despite himself, the blond grimaced. Winchester looked well and truly out of sorts. Even now he was mumbling to himself, head in his hands.

"Russell...Sky...Dove...Dead...dead...they're all dead...

"We found him like this hiding behind a tree." Velvet whispered, ears drooping in distress as she watched him. "He won't say anything else...

"No?" Coco clicked her tongue. "Pity. Guess we'll throw him to the Headmaster or something when we get back."

"All dead...all dead...

"Cardin?" Against his better judgement -and Emerald's hissing- Naruto pushed past Yatsuhashi and knelt before the younger boy. "What happened? Who died? Can you tell us?"

Wild eyes snapped up and locked onto him.

"You! You stupid fox!" Pale hands surged up and locked around his throat, trying to wring the life from his lungs. In his weakened state, Cardin had no more strength than an mewling infant. "They're dead because of you! If you'd just partnered with me, none of this shit would've happened! Its your fault!" Still he babbled on, livid and frothing at the mouth. "Not mine! ALL YOUR FAULT!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Coco cried! "What the hell are you doing, Winchester?! Are you cracked?!"

"Let go of him, you fiend!" Pyrrha started forward, only for Naruto to fling a hand up.

"Its fine." he sighed. "He's right to be angry with me."

Even as Cardin attempted to choke him, the whiskered warrior tensed the muscles in his throat, reached up and pried those fevered fingers away from his throat. Blue eyes pulsed red and the boy's crazed assault withered as his remaining strength was stolen from his very veins. When he faltered completely the blond reared back and him dead in the face with a fist. Cardin toppled to the ground like a fallen tree, head lolling to one side. He did not rise again.

Naruto did, however.

"Somebody give him a relic." he grunted, massaging his neck. "He'll hate us for it when he wakes up, but he's a survivor. He's earned his right to be in Beacon."

"Has he?." Emerald scoffed. "All I see is a scared little boy."

"Are you sure that's wise...?" Pyrrha murmured.

Was he? No, not at all. But an annoying thorn of guilt wouldn't let him be. Looking back, he could've partnered up with Cardin. He would've hated every second of it, but there was no denying that he might've been able to help his friends survive...had he been there. But he didn't, and he hadn't, and there could be no changing the past. He'd just have to live with it. As he did all things.

"Just...just do it."

Fox and Yatsuhashi wandered off to do just that.

Naruto took the opportunity to look around. Cardin's outburst had sapped the joy from their little gathering, as surely as a mortal wound. To make matters worse, he brush rustled again and another group emerged from the copse of trees nearby. Naruto offered a silent prayer that it would be a band of strangers, not who he thought it was.

His prayers weren't answered.

"See?" Adam Taurus emerged, flaked by Illia Amitola. "I knew I heard something...

Then the redhead saw Blake; moreover, Blake saw him, and her face went bone white. Naruto's heart shuddered to a stop in his chest. He'd suspected that Adam and Illia had come here for her. He'd even said as much. From the beginning he'd known that Adam was here for a reason, that he had a purpose. He braced himself for an explosion, for shouting, for anger, for...something. It never came. There was no anger on Adama's part, no hatred, no spite. He looked...tired. Indeed his suspicions were proven correct a moment later when Illia cried out and threw herself into Blake head on.

"Found you!" she cried out in triumph.

To her credit, his partner didn't run away; if only because Illia was just too damn quick. The smaller girl hit her like an arrow and latched onto her. Illia's skin flashed seven shades of varying colors before she finally settled on a deep, rosy pink as she buried her head against Blake's shoulder. Realizing she wasn't going to escape anytime soon, Belladona sighed and unbent enough to awkwardly pat Illia's head and stroke her hair. True to form the chameleon faunus practically mewled and nestled her face deeper still, content to take what comfort she could, while she could.

Not so Adam, who made the mistake of taking a step forward.

"Screw you!" Much to Naruto's dismay, Blake took one look at Taurus and backpedaled herself behind him, accidentally dragging Illia with her. "Not a word! You...you stay away from me!"

"I'm afraid I can't do that." Adam blew out a sharp, irritated breath. It reminded Naruto of a bull. "We'll discuss this later. You're coming back with us."

"No. There won't be a later!" Blake poked her head around Naruto's back with a hiss. "I never want to see you again!"

Adam flinched as if she'd slapped him across the face. She may as well have. Naruto saw the spark of anger there, knew what would happen if given the chance to fester. He'd seen hatred before. This...well, it wasn't quite that, but he didn't like what he saw all the same. So he spun around and swatted Blake on the shoulder. The startled girl recoiled with a yelp.

"What was that for?!"

For a fleeting moment, Naruto considered giving Blake a swift kick in the rear for good measure. It was only her sullen expression that stopped him. Honestly, it was like herding cats. There was some irony to be had there but he dare not speak it. He suspected Blake might try and claw his eyes out if he gave voice to his thoughts.

"Did it ever occur to you that he might want to change for your sake?"

Blake grumbled something best left unsaid and buried her head into his back.

"I hate to break up this touching reunion," Coco coughed, "But that still leaves the matter of teams."

Everyone went terribly still.

Coco opened her mouth to continue, but Adam bulled his way to the front with a silent glower. To his credit, the young man didn't draw his sword...yet. His expression proved telling enough.

"C'mon, Whiskers!" Coco clicked her tongue. "We don't have all day. Make your choice already! Who are you and Blake gonna work with?!"

Emerald turned pleading eyes on him. "You can't be serious. Its not even a choice...right?" It was like an arrow in the heart. Urk!

Naruto sucked in a sharp breath through his teeth. Well. This didn't bode well. Everyone's eyes fell upon him.

Pyrrha's guilty expression certainly didn't help matters any. Poor girl looked like she'd been shot.

Exasperated, the whiskered warrior flung his arms up into the air.

"What're ya lookin' at me for?!"

A/N: READ THIS LEST YE BE CONFUSED!

And with that, Initiation is done! Finally! Thank goodness!

Had to cut that bit with the Grimm and save it for later, don't worry, there's more to that scene than meets the eye.

This chapter was a logistical nightmare to write, due in no small part to recovering from surgery, all the moving pieces, AND the fact that we needed Blake to have some character development here in this chapter. Ugh. Never writing initation again if I can help it, bloody. Still, the votes have been tallied. I suppose I could allow one last chance to squeeze in a few more.

We'll be getting team names and delving into story arcs as of next chapter, so this is your absolute LAST chance to vote on the team names/composition here.

Seems fitting given the direction I plan to take this story. I know some were hoping for a CVNE (Caffeine) but they lost out this time around. And those Grimm we saw weren't a one off. Merlot's clearly up to something. But who can say? Not me. I'm not spoiling anything this time around. No sir!

As ever, lack of reviews murder my inspiration. If folks don't review, I tend to think they don't like a story, you know?

So in the Immortal Words of Atlas... ...Revieeew... Would You Kindly?

They keeps an old man alive. And enjoy the (potential) previews!

References are references and I own nothing.

Which do you like?

SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER!

READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!

PLOT DETAILS AHOY!

(POTENTIAL Previews)

Ozpin adjusted the microphone and cleared his throat. "Allow me to introduce...


"Naruto, no." Velvet whined. "Don't do it. Don't even think about it!"


"You look...familiar."

A boy with dark hair and darker eyes regarded him with quizzically.

Naruto felt his skull throb painfully at the sight of this stranger and the words he brought.


"So that's your plan, boss? Get into their good graces and destroy them from the inside out?" Mercury sounded skeptical and his expression told as much. "Doesn't seem to be working."

"Patience, dear Mercury. In time, they'll play right into our hands."


"Remember."

Naruto glowered up at the giant fox, eyes narrow. "Remember what?"

A massive red iris snapped open.

"Remember who you are."


"You're a bit of an odd duck, aint'cha?" Naruto blew out a sigh. "How the hell did you manage to lose a staff in the middle of the city?!"

"I'm not a duck!" the girl wrinkled her nose at him. "My name's Amber!"

A blond brow rose. "Question still stands, missy."

"I'm a bit clumsy, alright?!"


"I didn't know it was you, I swear!"

...as I said, I'm not emotional about the dust or the money, Roman." Naruto clapped a hand on his shoulder. "In fact, I couldn't care less. You're a thief. I'm a thief. Its what we do."

R&R~!