AN: This chapter was brought to you by... Ainu Laire! Go thank her at... http : // ainulaire . deviantart . co m/
For the Love of My Friends
Chapter Fifty-Seven: War's End
There were few things in the world that Naruto praised more highly then a person's power to repress their own memories. Whether completely aware of it or not, he was very grateful for the ability to go through life without the pain and feeling of each memory bombarding him every minute of every day.
Because of repression, his defense mechanism of choice (as well as rather blatant denial), he had managed to survive and endure where others had opted for the easy way out. And boy did Naruto have many reasons to want to kill himself!
As good as repression was, it tended to have that second shoe/bite you right on the ass aspect that nearly every thing useful tended to have required in its fine print, meaning that when you least expected it, the memories tended to metaphorically, as it were, bite you right on the ass.
Like now, he recognized, even as his fingers froze on his kunai. The empty streets (which was supposed to be a good thing!), the silence(even better!), the property damage, the way that the sun, about an hour away from disappearing below the horizon, threw light so it cast long dark shadows everywhere... Naruto knew this place, both in the good and in the bad.
The good, the unrepressed memories... He tried to focus on them. The time when Sakura had finally gotten her license to heal. She had jumped up and down, squealing and abandoning any pretense of maturity. She had jumped up, kissed him, then managed to hug nearly everyone in the vicinity, many of who she did not know at all. Later, she would be embarrassed but at that moment, she was so achingly happy.
The time when Shikamaru had casually (too casually, Ino would irately say later) asked Ino to marry him. Ino had fainted, falling and hitting her head on a wall, which granted her a concussion and two days in the hospital. She would later accuse Shikamaru of trying to kill her and demanded that he make up for it for the rest of his life. Naruto had never seen the two so happy, bickering at each other like that.
The time that Iruka, noticing Naruto's upset at what Naruto thought was his complete inability to be of help to anyone on his team, had simply wrapped an arm around his shoulder and talked to him, like a father would talk to a son. Iruka never knew how much Naruto needed that and Naruto never had the chance to thank him.
So far, so good. Naruto thought from his position behind a house. The bad still had its hold but the good had briefly won out. The brief reprieve was all Naruto needed to be able to focus objectively back on the situation. The street he was overlooking was calm and silent, appearing to be completely empty of any human life. Naruto knew most of all that appearances can be deceiving.
Fortunately, they (meaning Naruto and his two chuunin babysitters, Tonbo and Isamu) had not run into any Oto resistance yet. In fact, barely two blocks into the neighborhood, they had run into something all three of them hoped for but knew not to expect: survivors.
Led by retired (and in some cases, handicapped) ninjas, a small group of twenty people had been stealthily moving from building to building in hopes of coming across some Konoha ninjas. To their great disappointment, all they had found so far was two chuunins and a genin. Namely, Tonbo, Isamu, and Naruto, which didn't say much about what aid that was supposed to be going towards the fallen wall. Or, rather, lack thereof.
Without even needing to confer together, Naruto, Tonbo, and Isamu collectively decided to hand over any unnecessary weapons to the group so that they would have a better chance of making it out. To join the group as protection would only insult those ninjas who had made it to jonin as well as mess up the group's chain of command.
Retired ninjas and active duty ninjas never ever got along, Naruto had noted with a pained smile. Ripping open part of his vest, he had handed over some explosive tags to a man who looked barely twice his age. The man had smiled, somewhat nervously, in thanks. That was an hour ago, yet Naruto was still mourning over his lightened load.
Explosive tags, at best, were luxuries, so Naruto had no trouble handing them over. He had full range of movement and limb while some of the men and women (and children, he saw) did not; they needed the power of an explosive tag more than he did. It might give them the extra advantage needed in combat.
The only ones he kept were the three that were covered in his blood, most likely from a cut he received that was already scabbed over and half healed. Tags covered in blood tended to be a lot more volatile than tags in mint condition. Medic nins would be the first to tell you that chakra tends to leak into blood and that, since tags only needed a minimal amount of chakra to explode, blood covered tags were very dangerous to handle, liable to explode when exposed to even the faintest brush of chakra.
Naruto probably should have disposed of them but years of fighting had taught him the value of an unexpected source of distraction. Not to mention, the value of not tossing aside what can still be used. The war had definitely honed his scavenging skills.
"Eerie." Isamu whispered, peering over his shoulder. For a second, Naruto was struck at how much she looked like Chouji when she was doing that frowny-stare thing that Chouji was so good at. Naruto shook his head, mentally telling himself to focus.
"Indeed." Tonbo murmured, a short sword in one hand and its sheath in another. He had his head tilted towards the street. "I have never seen the streets of Konoha this silent. Not even at night."
Naruto had. It was of the bad memories, the ones he tried to repress. Silent streets, enemies lurking around corners, these had been a reality for him, day in and day out for many years. The sound of silence became something to fear because he learned just what and who could use silence as a cover or sound as a weapon. It had gotten to the point where everyone learned that trusting your senses would get you killed. It had even gotten to a point where it was hard to trust the person next to you, so many deserters and spies were there.
"So..." Naruto tried for a winning smile but only managed to look uneasy. "Let's make it noisy."
They might have been a team once, the Legendary Three, but they never really worked as a team. One of them always took to the forefront of the situation, leaving the other two to stand on the sidelines. Usually, it was Orochimaru but Tsunade stepped up to the plate just as often. Jiraiya was known to steal it from right underneath their noses on several occasions.
They all might have taken turns being the main attraction but they never worked well with each other as equals. There was too much potential in them, too much power. There was arrogance there as well, arrogance born of youth and of knowing you're superior.
The Legendary Three (and boy, what an ego booster that title was) just never really worked together. It was like a law of the universe, stating firmly that teamwork was impossible. It just never happened.
Seeing Jiraiya and Tsunade in front of him, so clearly working together, made Orochimaru glance briefly up at the sky, almost expecting it to come crashing down. When it did not, he felt vaguely cheated. However, it was no illusion in front of him; they both fought with an absent mindedness awareness of each other's position that hinted at how well they knew each other.
It was shown more obviously when they abruptly switched targets in unison, Tsunade pulling away from the Nindaime to punch her grandfather across the face and Jiraiya twisting around her to block a kick from the darker haired Hokage.
That graceful teamwork irked him, it irked him more than their ease in fighting Hokages. Where was that when they were kids? Something twinged in him (almost hurt even) at the idea that, once he was out of the picture, Jiraiya and Tsunade suddenly fit into a nice and cohesive team. Like he had been some obliviously placed wedge that had weakened the entire team with his existence.
It made him feel left behind, discarded, lost-
No. He was the one who left them behind, it was they who should feel lost. And they would feel lost, once he had destroyed everything that they knew and cared about.
Orochimaru denied that he wished that his old team mates had felt their loss of him forever, like a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle that is never found. Denying things, however, doesn't necessarily make them not true.
With his teeth grinding together, Orochimaru glanced at the ground just forty yards east of him. There was a deep indention in the ground, a deep chasm that had been so hurriedly made that trees still awkwardly jutted half in and half out of it.
The chasm, of course, had been made by Jiraiya's uncouth summon, the one who acted like a mafia boss. That toad or frog or whatever that hideous thing was, it had slammed its sword through the top and bottom jaws of Manda, keeping the snake summon from doing much more than wiggle like a pinned worm.
Then the coward went and left him before Gamabunta could do worse, mumbling something about retribution- really, did Jiraiya even understand how hard it was to make Manda listen to him? It was hard enough just summoning the surly snake, let alone controlling him. Manda didn't even stick around, despite the fact that he was leaving when there was not one but two powerful summons being stacked against his summoner.
It was only because of some sort of sense of fairness that Orochimaru managed to keep from getting squashed, as Tsunade and Jiraiya had both sent their summons away when they saw that he didn't have one. Really, he could have defeated them anyway, but they wanted to be fair. Orochimaru showed them, though. In the time it took for them to convince their summons to go away, Orochimaru managed to do the Resurrection Technique that he had planned to use on Sarutobi.
His choice of the Hokages had been a good one. Tsunade had looked positively shocked at the sight of her grandfather and even Jiraiya looked a little pale. Orochimaru glared at the one coffin that hadn't opened. Now if the Yondaime had just resurrected like a good little boy, Jiraiya would have been reduced to nothing.
If anything, Jiraiya's affection for that foul demon boy proved that he would have been helpless while fighting his much loved student.
Orochimaru rubbed at his face distractedly, feeling an itch burn underneath his skin. He almost felt feverish, sick even. The only logical explanation he could think of was that his body was decaying on him already but that was impossible. His body still had another two or three months before he would have to switch.
As distracted as he was, he was almost caught off guard by Jiraiya, who popped up out of nowhere. Orochimaru jumped back, dodging the kunai strike that would have lodged in his heart. Instead, it sliced open a cut across his arm, each side of the flesh wound parting like an opening flower, and kept opening, the flesh sliding off his arm like melted candle wax. Orochimaru stared down at his arm with mute horror.
The vessel had been corrupted.
"Maybe you should get a doctor to look at that." Jiraiya offered sarcastically before leaning in with a directly aimed punch. Orochimaru moved to parry the obviously telegraphed hit, but realized he was dealing with a clone. Dispatching it with ease, he turned around at the odd sound behind him, managing to deflect most of the power of the rasengan.
However, what he had not been able to deflect had done its damage. More flesh peeled off, falling with a sickening, wet thump.
Orochimaru glared at his arm. The damn host was practically disintegrating on him! He could see the bones in his forearm, a sharp white gleaming against all the dark red.
Only one thing could have corrupted his vessel thing. Only one person. Only one being.
Orochimaru's eyes flashed angrily. He would have the boy's head, one way or another. This war wasn't over yet.
Kimimaru collapsed against a building, coughing up blood in his hand. He wheezed, pressing his other hand against his chest, almost feeling the palm strike of his enemy searing down right into his soul. Wild eyed, he looked behind his shoulder, searching for that elusive figure. That man. That ninja.
The ninja with those terrible eyes.
He wasn't followed. This is good. He thought, even as he sunk to the ground. His knees shook horribly, weakness soaring through his limbs like a bolt of thunder zips through the sky. Kimimaru thought, meditated, and rationalized. The quicker he calmed down, the faster he could push back the pain. Oh the pain... And that man who knew exactly how to and where to trigger it. He knew the name. Hyuuga. Which one, it didn't matter. All of them had the eyes. All of them could see his disease, his illness, his weakness. The weakness that he tried so damn hard to hide, to the point where he could ignore even the most agonizing of pains and not even twitch.
He closed his eyes briefly, thinking of the Hyuuga. The man had stood silently, a grim specter, between Kimimaru and the boy from his past. The boy- Haku was his name?- was listless, nearly dead from blood loss. And how sweet their battle had been, how long Haku had lasted, even with his own injuries, weaknesses, holding him back.
It was inspiring, Haku's determination to live. But Kimimaru's determination was stronger. He had lived years longer than Kabuto had predicted. His will had been forged in the fires of misery and despair where the only hope, the only beacon of truth was Orochimaru. No, Haku's will, though formidable, could not match his own.
But the Hyuuga had stepped in. And had shattered his will with a single blow to the chest.
Kimimaru tried to rationalize it. It was just one hit, yes, but a hit fused with chakra. Chakra plus his weakening lungs (one of the many victims of his illness) was what made him drop to his knees in front of the Hyuuga. Nothing else, and nothing more.
He was not dead and he refused to die. But, dammit, it hurt so much to live. But he would live. He would continue to live, if only for Orochimaru. His body was too weak for his lord to live off of but he could still use the useless thing to protect him. To get the man what he wanted. And he would do it until the day he finally died.
It was that thought that finally calmed him down. He could breathe now. How simple it is, to take a breath. He mused. But one never truly appreciates it until it is gone.
He tilted his head, a sound suddenly flitting through his senses. No, not a sound exactly. He realized. More of a feeling. A warmth that has the edge of cold. He glanced down, realizing it came from the seal on his chest. Closing off all other senses, he focused on the feeling. He knew it was important. The seal was a gift from Orochimaru, a gift of power. His power. Whatever the seal was transmitting, it was from Orochimaru.
Anger. Irritation. Confusion. Fear. The last made Kimimaro frown. Why would his lord fear anything? He was great and powerful. Surely no one had as much knowledge or as much genius. Kimimaro instantly hated whoever made Orochimaru feel so... no, he would not shame Orochimaru by calling it fear. Apprehension, yes, that was better.
The emotions searing through his seal(yes, that did hurt but it was a pain he had felt a thousand times before) suddenly stopped. A clear message came through, ringing through Kimimaro's head so loudly that he nearly winced.
We leave. The message was succinct and was not repeated. Kimimaro straightened, glad he once more had a purpose, a job. Orochimaru knew that Kimimaro was the only one who could 'hear' him through the chakra in the seal. The other four were worthless in this respect. Kimimaro felt his chin raise slightly higher.
Yes, they were so pathetic. But they were Orochimaru's. Therefore, he must collect them, like the children they were. Orochimaru would leave a louder sign of retreat for the other cannon fodder but he would give Kimimaro time to collect the four that were worth a little more than the others.
Kimimaro was moving before he realized that he had risen to his feet. Darting through the shadows like the ninja he was, he felt no pain. The attack was a distant memory already. Kimimaro had a purpose, he had a mission.
Nothing else mattered now.
Tonbo made a judgment call when he decided to let Naruto join their little makeshift time. Asami hadn't liked it but Tonbo enjoyed a certain sense of seniority over her- meaning he got to lay down the rules and make the decisions.
His decision was that the well being of the untrained civilians in the invaded sector of the neighborhood took precedence over a trained albeit young ninja. His mission involved rescuing and escorting civilians out of the danger zone, not rescuing and escorting wayward ninjas out of danger. Though he would have tried had the situation been less grave.
Tonbo was prescribed to the general 'if it's there, use it' philosophy that most ninjas tried to adhere to. As long as Naruto was around, then he could help Tonbo and Isamu in the evacuation efforts. No harm done. And if there happened to be harm done, then well... Tonbo would treat Naruto like he did any other teammate- try to treat what injuries he could and, if he could not, move on. The chances that Naruto would get injured or killed were very high, something Isamu held with more priority then Tonbo did.
Tonbo was of the opinion that, if Naruto got hurt, he'd have a good story to tell to go along with the injury. If Naruto died, then Tonbo would graciously spin it in his report so that Naruto would come out smelling like a rose. If Tonbo pressed, he bet he could even get Naruto on the memorial stone.
But these were thoughts at the back of his mind. He was more considered with the result of the mission than the people involved. He was a ninja, that's the way it was.
So he made a judgment call, choosing the lives of a mass of people he had no idea if they were actually there or not over the life of a kid he knew was still alive. And he decided that it wouldn't be his problem if the kid actually got injured or not.
What Tonbo didn't consider happening (an ironic spin of the situation that he might have appreciated if he had a sense of humor) was the very real possibility that he himself could get hurt. Which, about half of a mile into the sector, he did.
He contemplated the gaping hole in his chest vaguely, too far into shock to feel any pain. Too far into shock to feel Isamu wrap her arms around his shoulder. Too far into shock to realize that Naruto was going head to head with the ninja who had injured- with much better results than Tonbo.
He wondered, with unfamiliar fear, how he was going to be remembered. He did not want to die.
"Get out of here!" Naruto shouted at Isamu, briefly pulling away from Kidomaru. The chuunin looked at him with tear filled eyes but nodded resolutely. Tonbo needed medical attention now. His injury was severe, a round hole four inches across in his left lung. Too much blood was on the ground. If Isamu didn't go now, Tonbo was dead.
Or, Naruto thought pessimistically, he may be dead already.
But Isamu was gone, Tonbo with her. The only company Naruto had left was Kidomaru, who smirked at him beyond his thick web. A well aimed arrow took out two of the four clones Naruto was able to summon.
Oh this is going to be a short fight. Naruto realized grimly. And not in my favor. He used up nearly all of his chakra, even the chakra that he had stored away. Kyuubi wasn't answering his calls and his body was being nearly as stubborn as the demon by slowing down on him. Naruto hadn't had this slow of reflexes since he was ten.
He needed to be faster, much faster to win. He needed to be stronger, much stronger. He needed to have all of his chakra... but the days events had taken their toll. He was spent, done for.
Good thing all he really needed to do was buy Isamu more time. He refused to think about what was about to happen to him which, knowing the Sound Four like he did, could be a lot worse than what Tonbo was suffering.
Kyuubi was supposed to have killed them all. Naruto shook his head. He must have missed a few. He knew at least Sakon and his freaky twin were dead. Or wait, he had only seen Sakon die. Would Ukon have ditched the body?
Something zipped by his cheek, tearing a jagged line through it. Naruto flinched and backed off, realizing that the bastard had found his hiding spot. And ow! The injury stung like no other but wasn't too deep. Just deep enough to bleed and deep enough to tell Naruto to keep his eye on the Sound nin.
Naruto walked out of his hiding spot. The arrow had punched through two walls and embedded itself in an iron stove. If Naruto wasn't so tired, he would have seriously been impressed.
"Aw, too bad. I thought that dull thud was my arrow hitting your head."
"No, but pretty damn close though." Naruto said lightly, touching the cut on his cheek. "You have x-ray vision too?"
"What can I say? My aim is fantastic." Kidomaru grinned, pointing his empty bow at Naruto. "I could hit your spleen from here. Or maybe your left kidney. You know, I think you can live without a kidney, how about I take that?"
"I know for a fact that you can't live with a huge gaping hole in you."
"Is that so? Too bad..." Kidomaru's grin took on a sinister edge. "For you."
Hanabi knew she was lagging behind the other kids but she really couldn't walk any faster. While exiting the Academy, she had nearly taken a tumble down some stairs but she caught herself with an awkward step. That awkward step, though it saved her from falling, was extremely painful. She tried to shake it off and keep walking but the pain still persisted.
Hanabi ducked her chin close to her chest, her teeth gritted together. Now what was more shameful that a Hyuuga accidentally twisting his or her own ankle? Had Hinata been the one to do, she would doubtlessly be forgiven, as she always was. That was the upside to being viewed as a weakness, Hanabi supposed. No one ever expected much out of you.
Suzume, who stood at the end of the line of Academy students, looked down at Hanabi's bowed head in concern. She, of course, had had the gifted girl as a student once but the only thing she could remember about the Hyuuga was her extremely unfriendly attitude towards other students. It had only been a year or so since she had the girl in her class but it was apparent that her attitude hadn't changed at all.
All the children in front of Suzume walked in pairs of two or groups of three, all quietly chattering about what was going on and what their respective family members or older friends were probably doing at the moment. But Hanabi walked by herself, completely silent and utterly alone.
Suzume, overwhelmed suddenly by pity, was trying to screw up her nerve to talk to Hanabi (because, a third her age or not, Hanabi was scary) but someone beat her to it. Another girl that Suzume recognized chose that moment to address Hanabi.
"Boring!" Moegi declared to her two friends, Konohamaru and Udon, before she looked over her shoulder. "Hey, Hanabi-chan! Who do you think will beat more Oto nins, jonins like Kakashi-san or genins like Sasuke-kun?"
"Tch!" Konohamaru folded his arms over his head. The boy had started the conversation in an attempt to get Moegi to stop crying and it was working really well until he had made some comment about how little the genins would be able to do in that sort of situation. "It's only obvious, stupid! Jonins are much better than genins!"
Moegi turned back to him, a pout starting to form on her face. "But I heard that fighting started during the Chuunin Exam! There's a bunch of genins there, right? Including guys like that creepy Gaara kid, his siblings, and Sasuke-kun! Are you saying that you don't think that they're gonna do anything at all?"
This was a fairly upsetting topic for Moegi. She was so used to thinking that, once she turned twelve and passed the Genin Exam, she'd become a much stronger ninja who could better protect her friends and loved ones. Hearing Konohamaru state that the genins, a group of kids who she looked up to and wanted to be like, wouldn't be able to do much more than they, the Academy students, could do... Moegi was becoming very upset and very worried for the older genins.
Unintentionally but fortunately (because Moegi looked like she was going to cry again), Hanabi derailed her train of thought. "Sasuke...?" the girl asked softly. She frowned, trying to remember why the name felt familiar to her. "Who is that?" The topic change was able to calm down Moegi while, at the same time, bring Hanabi a little closer to her classmates. Without thinking about it, Hanabi quickened her pace a little until she was only a couple feet behind them.
Konohamaru's chest puffed out slightly and he grinned, buffing his fingertips on his shirt. He was the eight year old with the 'big kid' connections. "Uchiha Sasuke, of course," he said, like this was obvious. "A cool but grouchy guy. Naruto's better, of course."
Hanabi's reaction to the name was a little too sharp. "Naruto?" she said quietly. The next step she took nearly took her breath away but she bit her lip and kept all the signs of pain down to a minimum. Once she felt like she could talk without gasping, she spoke again. "Uzumaki Naruto?"
Konohamaru, with Moegi and Udon following his lead, lagged behind a little so that he could continue to talk to Hanabi. Moegi dropped back and fell into step with Hanabi while Konohamaru and Udon walked in front of them. Konohamaru confidently walked backwards while Udon, paranoid that he would walk into something, walked normally but kept turning his head back to look at them. Suzume, still walking a bit behind them, beamed at the group.
They didn't notice. "Yeah!" Konohamaru said enthusiastically, flapping his arms a bit. The eight year old's affection for the genin was obvious. Talking about Naruto was enough to put a grin on his face. "Naruto's the best, isn't he?" A thought occurred to Konohamaru. "Hey, how do you know him?"
Hanabi had a twisted look on her face, as if she had sucked on a lemon and had no idea whether she had liked the taste or abhorred it. As a matter of fact, Hanabi was having a hard time deciding whether she liked the fact that someone was talking to her or whether she regretted drawing more attention to herself in the first place.
"Hinata. My sister," the girl finally said, the words climbing out of her mouth in a stunted way. Hanabi looked off to the side, her voice becoming hushed. "She introduced us."
"Oh!" Moegi said, her eyes brightening. "You're related to Hinata-chan, aren't you?" It was a stupid question so Hanabi chose not to answer. Not that Moegi noticed. "Hinata-chan's really nice! Much better than Sakura..."
Konohamaru shivered, a pained look passing over his face. "Sakura is nice but man, is she scary!" The troublesome trio winced in unison, all looking as if someone had just dragged a piece of ice down their spines. He made a face. "Hey... did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Moegi asked, her eyes wide.
Suzume paused, sweeping over her surroundings with her senses. She didn't hear anything- other than the fighting and the fire and the calling that had become like background noise. But then she heard it. It was a low, sobbing cackle, as mournful as it was insane. Knowing she had to find the source of it (what if it was a wounded civilian?), Suzume ordered the children to hurry up behind the other adults. Casting dubious glances in her direction, they nevertheless quickened their pace.
Suzume jumped up on a roof, pulling up her chakra to strengthen her senses. She heard the tail end of the kids' conversation.
"Hanabi." It was Konohomaru. He sounded submissively afraid and defiantly protective at the same time. "Can you...?"
Hanabi's breathed answer was nearly inaudible. "...Yes."
Suzume sought out the source of the noise, nervously chewing on her lip as she triangulated its poisition. Hearing the noise again, louder this time, she dropped down into an alley, darting down the length of it with quick feet and quicker eyes.
There was a dark curled up shape near one of the trash cans. The noise came from him again, half-sob, half-laugh. He clutched at his head, making the mournful sound again. He started whispering faintly, but what he said was inaudible to her. He was just a boy.
Her heart went out to him. Compassionate, she closed the last few steps between them, stopping only when the details of his murmurs became all too clear.
"Die, die, die..." The figure whispered fervently. He gulped a gasping breath and looked up, one small black eye sightless, the other hidden by dark silver hair. His painted mouth pulled in a faint grimacing smile as he saw her. Black marks fluttered over his face like fire.
Suzume opened her mouth, about ready to call for help (he wasn't theirs!) but only a gasp came out. His face was in hers, his almost delicate, feminine looking face. That face slowly changed into something hideous, something monstrous, something... inhuman.
The kunai in her chest twisted to the left, wresting a pained half-choked sound from her.
"Die." he whispered intimately, nothing but disdain for her. The kunai was dragged out of her chest, and blood... there was too much blood. She collapsed slowly to her knees, staring at him with uncomprehending eyes.
The boy was sobbing again, tugging at his hair and turning the silver into red with her blood. The black over his pale face flew faster. He dug his nails into his face, cutting skin, as he bared his teeth and stared at the sky. A wet torn noise escaped his throat just then and he let out a bloodcurdling scream, a name.
Kidoumaru was unresponsive when Kimimaro found him. Clear of obvious wounds, the boy was nevertheless out for the count, twitching occasionally and moaning. His was not the sleep of peace and happiness. It was hardly a sleep at all.
Kimimaro cast his gaze over the area. Genjutsu. Where was the caster? There was blood on the floor, yes, blood that did not register to his senses as blood of Orochimaru's cursed children. That there was corruption there in the blood was unmistakable, but it was unfamiliar. That the blood on the floor was plentiful was also undeniable, but held little interest for Kimimaro, save for a most minor point.
Where was the body? His sharp eyes quickly picked up a battered and beaten up headband of Konoha lying near the blood, but that told him nothing.
Kimimaro turned his eyes back to his burden, narrowing them. Kidoumaru appeared to be suffering from a type of genjutsu that Kimimaro could not dispel. The binding was powerful. Kidoumaru's anguish was obvious.
Kimimaro didn't care.
A barely audible click sounded behind him. He jerked quickly, a bone sliding into his hand. There was nothing, a tile had fallen and hit the ground. There was no one to be seen or sensed. And yet, there was undeniably a presence of someone.
He stood there stiffly, waiting for an attack. None came. Eyes were on him, curious but not hostile. Watchful but indifferent. They weren't waiting for him to trip up. They were waiting for him to leave. They were not of the Leaf or Sound. They were someone else, someone apart.
Kimimaro relaxed. It was not any of his business.
He tossed Kidoumaru over his shoulder, the action more gentle than he would have usually. Though he wasn't normally the one who was easily frightened, he was ill at ease with the lack of response from the boy. That, as well as the sheer strength of the genjutsu and the complete silence of the street. Those eyes were killer eyes.
He left quickly, trying not think how the only two Sound nins he could find were Kidoumaru and a half-mad Ukon, and how both were unconscious or unresponsive. To think that Orochimaru and his forces could have been hurt so badly by the ninjas of Konoha- it was almost blasphemy. He did not look forward to hearing the fallout of this. He hoped that, at the very least, Orochimaru would have his host in Sasuke. If he did not get the boy, then what was the purpose of this venture?
In his hurry to leave, Kimimaro failed to notice the shadow detaching itself from the wall.
A darkly cloaked figure, his form appearing out of no where, watched the two Sound nins disappear in the distant. A strong wind tossed the outer cloak about, revealing a red and black cloak underneath.
Almost without thought, his gaze dropped down to his left, his eyes drawn beyond the blood to the glinting metal of the abused headband. He bent over at the waist and picked it up, a thumb idly swiping over the engraved leaf. Blood smeared thinly over the etching. He thought it was oddly symbolic, if not morbid. But that was what Konoha was- death, life, hate, love. He wished it wasn't so.
His free hand tightened in a fist. Konoha would always smell like smoke, sakura, and blood to him, and nothing would change that. Considering the etched leaf for one last moment, he pocketed the headband gently and turned around, tipping his straw hat down slightly as he went.
The streets were empty, and the body, where he laid it on a bench, was left untouched. A chest moved up and down slowly. A chakra system struggled to renew itself. Open wounds bled softly and bruises deepened. Breath rattled between a pair of parched lips.
Itachi stared at the still marked face for a while before dropping to one knee. His eyes moved up, the movement almost involuntary, until his red eyes fell upon the last grave face etched in stone, high above the village. He looked back down. The similarities were unmistakable.
With a near silent sigh, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the headband and placed it over the torn, dusty, and blood spattered vest, tucking it under one tanned hand.
What a stupidly brave boy.
He rose to his feet and left.
Sakura just about froze when she saw who was brought in next. Her knees locked, her throat tightened, and her vision narrowed on that pale familiar face. He looked dead already. Oh no oh no. She mentally gasped, her fist clenching. Please no, not him.
Ever since their group had been pushed, prodded, and bullied into the limited sanctuary that was the hospital, Sakura had pushed, prodded, and harassed the nurses and medic nins to allow her to help. She was far from having a legitimate license to work in the hospital but she had training, so she could, at the very least, fetch stuff for people!
Rin, who was one of the medic nins that had been called in, sympathized and did some harassing of her own. Rin was far more successful than Sakura at that and even got the offer extended to the other genins, who, at this point, had nothing better to do than sit in one of the crowded hallways and twiddle their thumbs.
No one was surprised that nearly every one jumped up to help.
Sakura herself was nearly chomping at the bit to do something, anything. The hospital was so overcrowded with the injured and scared. She found just talking to them made her own fears lessen. It wasn't enough to make her forget that Naruto was out there alone, that her teacher was seriously injured, and that Sasuke was in a forced sleep because of the injuries he had sustained. And that was without thinking about where her parents were in this mess of a situation.
No, getting involved didn't ease her fears but the action definitely soothed her, allowing her to move about and through the crowds of the injured without the sort of fearful tension that others like Ino had.
But that was before she saw his face.
Sakura unfroze abruptly but Hinata made it to his side first, on the heels of one of the nurses. The man who had brought him in- Hey, that's Hinata's dad, Sakura realized numbly- kneeled down with the boy in his arms. The nurse checked for a pulse, then took a look at one of his more serious injuries.
"Hm... this is a deep cut, several hours old." she said, looking at Hinata. "He must have kept reopening it, probably while running." Hinata nodded seriously. Without seeming to think about it, her eyes suddenly flashed. She looked him over critically, pointing out the gash on his leg.
"This one has something embedded close to the vein, be careful while taking it out." the nurse nodded, signaling to some of the other nurses to bring in a stretcher. Her eyes never left Hinata though. "His heart is beating very slow... he needs blood, now." Hinata's gaze drifted down his torso. "There's also some damage to his left kidney. Two of his ribs are broken."
"I carried him very carefully." Hinata's father said, finally speaking up. His deep voice seemed to shock Hinata out of whatever zone she had gotten in to. She flushed a bright red, looking her father in the face for a half of a second before looking away.
"O-of course you did." she said nervously. The stretcher came just at that moment and the boy was placed on the stretcher. Quickly, he was whisked away, disappearing from Sakura's sight just as suddenly as he appeared.
Hinata turned to her, her eyes open and worried. "You know him, don't you?" she asked softly, her concern obvious to even the casual listener.
"Yes." Sakura said sadly. "That's... Haku. He's a- a friend of ours, Team Seven." She didn't realize that she was crying until the first warm drop hit her clasped hands. She stared down at them like they were some alien thing. Her chest felt tight around her lungs but she labored to get out a strong breath and barely managed, her smile slightly shaky.
"He is a good ninja." Hinata's father said unemotionally. "He fought with honor to protect Konoha. That is all you can ask for." He reached into one of his sleeves and pulled out a bloodied explosive tag. "Do not mourn. Learn. This is what he chose to do and would have done to protect this village."
Sakura stared at the tag in muted horror, realizing what he meant. If he hadn't stepped in, Haku would have... would have killed himself? Tried to take out his enemy and him at the same time? She had to ask herself if she could have done that, performed virtual suicide to save her village. All she could think was an emphatic 'no!'
From a ninja perspective, it was admirable to see how far Haku would go. From a personal perspective, it was absolutely horrible. She looked up at Hiashi. Some of this must have reflected in her expression because he took her hand and put it in her palm. He closed her fingers around it.
"Do not belittle his sacrifice for it was his choice." he said "To him, the people he cared about were worth more than the continuation of his life." With that, he walked away.
Rin rested her hand on Sakura's shoulder suddenly. When she looked up, the woman was gazing at her with gently compassion.
"Sakura... We don't have any medic nins on staff who can treat him fast enough. We're all out of chakra." Rin gestured to the area Haku had been carried off to. "We can do it the normal way, of course. In fact, we're getting some blood set up for a transfusion right now but..." She bit her lip. "It's probably not going to work. I'm sorry, I know he's your friend."
Sakura had a sudden idea. "I heard that there's medic nins outside."
Rin nodded. "Yes, there are."
"How many fights have there been?"
"Few. The ninjas tend to run away when they see that there's more than one team out there."
There was a bluster of commotion from off to the side that took their attention away from each other but, seeing the situation handled, they turned back. Sakura blinked at the sudden addition of Shikamaru to their group, having honestly not noticed his approach.
Shikamaru had a pinched look on his face. "These teams are made up of four people and, considering the layout of this building, there's, what, four of them?"
"Five actually." Rin pointed up. "There's one on the roof."
"So that's twenty medic nins you have out there that are needed in here." Shikamaru, if at all possible, looked even more irritated than before.
Rin sighed and shot the genin a sharp but understanding look. "We need the defense. That's why we're still here, because we're almost safe, with them out there."
"But a four man team is not a team for stealth." he pointed out. He crossed his arms over his chest. "They're working as our eyes right now, aren't they?"
After a moment, Rin nodded. "If they can neutralize the threat, they will. If they can't, then they retreat back here... so, yes, I suppose you could say that." She looked suspicious all of a sudden. "Why are you asking me this?"
Shikamaru had his eyes half-closed in thought. The tips of his fingers pressed together lightly in front of him. "Can we spare at least five ninjas from the defense?"
"I'm not sure." Rin had a troubled look on her face. "I know it's doable, but I'm not sure if it's wise."
"It's unwise to have medic nins outside when we need them in here." Shikamaru pointed out. "We can replace the fourth member with another medic nin or, better yet-" he extended his hand to encompass not only himself and Sakura, but also Kiba and Chouji, who were watching. "One of us."
Emboldened by his strategy, Sakura added in her own two cents. "We need those medic nins, Rin." she said, pleading. "Not just for Haku but for the others as well."
Rin stared at them for a long moment, then a smile lit up her tired face. "You may be on to something here."
Back in his younger years, he had been one of the fastest runners in his village, fastest messenger. Tazuna broke records with how easily he could fly across the ground. It had, in fact, been one of the things that initially attracted his late wife to him before they knew and fell in love with one another. Running was something he looked back on fondly as something he did well.
In his old age, he realized he wasn't quite the runner he used to be. He was a little wider around the middle and his knees and back tended to complain under the stress. He got winded quick. Knowing all this didn't stop him from running and trying to lead that damn snake away.
When you grow up, he pondered tiredly, there are certain things that become more meaningful than your own well being. He could think of two people who jumped to mind, his daughter and his grandson. He'd do just about damn near anything to help them, make them happy, or keep them alive. They were the sum of his world. Without them, his world would cease to exist.
He fully expected to die once he started running.
He didn't expect to outrun the snake or to be able to duck and hide in some of the alleys. He didn't expect the cloaked group to come out of nowhere and beat the living hell out of the second snake. He didn't expect for the remains of a bridge to fall on another one. And he sure as hell didn't expect the fourth one to turn its nose up at him, like he wasn't worthy enough prey!
Wait, he was supposed to be happy about that, right?
Yes, he was ecstatic about that, he decided. No need to jinx himself any further.
Now all I need to do is lie low and avoid the snakes. Easy. He rapidly reviewed that thought and smacked his forehead. So much for not jinxing himself!
So it was with heavy paranoia and great caution that he glanced around the corner of the building, peering into the alley. The tall buildings, crammed up against each other with no sense of personal space, threw off his sense of direction. For all he knew, he was running around in circles.
There was a clatter and a bang in the alleyway. Tazuna flinched and ducked back, still watching with tired eyes and listening with ears made sharp with stress. He heard something scurry- little tap tap taps against the ground. Tazuna gasped, his heart beating wildly.
It was swift, it was fast, it was turning the corner! He flattened himself against the wall, fearing the sight of another snake, fearing his approaching death...
But it was just a cat.
"Meowr." The cat acknowledged him bad temperedly. Tazuna sagged to the ground in relief.
"Oh, it's just you." he smiled, slightly giddy. The cat continued to give him a gimlet eye. "Don't like this situation either, do you?"
The cat flicked its tail at him disdainfully and sauntered off. Laughing, Tazuna mopped the sweat off of his brow, following it out into the street. Okay, he needed to calm down, just a little bit. He'd never hear the end of it if he died of a heart attack but lived through a ninja invasion. He paused, reconsidering that thought, then started walking again.
Live. Damn. He didn't know he could be that optimistic again. Not after... everything.
The street was empty and quiet. Even the sulky cat was gone. Tazuna frowned each way of the street, unable to sense chakra but straining his senses anyway. There was nothing but...
A shape. A form. A tiny, tiny form. A child's body on a bench.
He took one shaky step towards the bench and shuttered, feeling the blood drain out of his face. His eyes darted over the scene, the torn clothes, the blood, the tattered bit of metal and cloth. A tan arm dangled over the edge and brushed its knuckles against the ground, the body it was connected to as still as death.
Tazuna pressed the heel of his hand to his mouth, nausea rising.
To be NOT continued.
AN: Seriously, not finishing this, guys. I have a life, and that life does not include Naruto anymore. I was urged to take the bits of chapter 57 I had cluttering my hard drive to give to you as closure. No more will I write this.
I started this when I was fourteen and stupid and while I enjoyed writing this, flying by the seat of my pants as I went, I do not anymore. I'm in college now, and college is rough, and the Naruto fandom is no longer my fandom of choice. Naruto is becoming a little bit too much like DBZ for my tastes.
Will I update ever again? Unlikely. Is Naruto dead? Maybe. Can you continue/rewrite this story? Have at it. I don't care. Am I dead/sick/maimed/eaten by Nargles? No, but thank you for your concern.
You've all been tolerant of my faults and stumbles. Thank you and good bye.