Happy Chinese New Year!

I know I am a couple of days late in saying that but its better late than never, right? I doubt people who are reading this fanfic would agree with that…

Well, here's the long-awaited chapter twenty-three and I have to say, it is quite focused on Hitsuka, unfortunately. I usually try not to place too much of a highlight on him (yeah right, says the rest of the cast) but there are so much things that needed to be explained in this chapter that I couldn't help it.

That was why I had so much trouble writing it.

I have a good idea as to where everything is going and pretty much the next chapter sussed out, and the previous chapter was easier to write as I just needed to figure out how to make each fight original. But this one… it is the in-between that is so important as it depicts exactly which version of the upcoming chapters is going to be. I have to say (or whine, more like), with university, exams, training full-time at the hospital and socialising all going on in my life, I am really crap with time management. I should have this chapter out sooner despite all of the above, even my mother is using this fanfic writing as a example of just how loyal and responsible I am to my readers (not much, in case you are wondering). I know all if my promises before are just lies, but I will seriously try harder.

So, to all the readers that are reading this fanfic, I hope you will enjoy this chapter.



Chapter twenty-three – What Are Friends For?

On the rooftop

"Orochimaru… this is low…" Tsunade muttered, dodging an attack from her own grandfather, the Shodai Hokage. "But then again, it's you we are talking about."

Fighting head on with the Nidaime Hokage, Jiraiya was not deterred when his giant fireball was so easily put out by his opponent's water jutsu. As his hands flew into a complex sequence of hand seals, a soft voice from a memory surfaced to his conscience.

"Jiraiya-sama… Please be aware of what Sandaime-sama may do." The boy looked away though the man could tell something was wrong from his shaking voice. "Be aware of… of the Fuuin Jutsu: Shiki Fuuji."

Having had never heard of that jutsu before, Jiraiya was still be very cautious, not taking any chance due to Hitsuka's behaviours. A flying chunk of roof coming towards his head forced him to duck. "Oi, Tsunade! Stick to your own side, will ya!"

"Shut up! Concentrate or do you want to get killed!" was the harsh reply, cracking a grin on the man's face despite this serious situation.

Feeling this more than seeing it, Tsunade also smiled. "Alright! Grandpa, ready to rock n' roll!"

"Why are they laughing!" Orochimaru asked incredulously, all of his glee and jeer had left him. Right now he was angry and bitter, wondering who had betrayed him so that his perfect plan laid in ruin.

"Because they are not afraid of you," the Hokage replied, facing his old student in his complete fighting gears, showing that he was not a rusty sword that many had thought him to be. "We will win!"

Looking at the old man, the frown that was on his face suddenly lifted. "But I still at least one advantage over you!" he laughed, pulling the thin mask off his face, revealing another underneath it. "Youth!"

Grimacing at this young face, the Hokage silent prayed and apologised to the brutally sacrificed soul. "So you are after Uchiha Sasuke now."

Pouting slightly for not having the chance to brag about his success, Orochimaru nevertheless agreed with that eerie smile of his. "May be," he said though he knew otherwise. "Might wait a couple of years for him to grow up."

Slowly performing a set of hand seals, the Hokage took his time before he replied, the responsibilities and the life of his people weighed heavily upon him. "Orochimaru… it was my mistake for not killing you then," he began quietly, his hands formed the seal for inu, the fourth one in the sequence. "I will kill you now and correct my past mistakes!"

Speeding up, he was suddenly knocked down by a body, so concentrated he was he was not able to dodge it.

"Sensei! Don't do it!" Jiraiya cried, him being the one that had threw the body of the Nidaime. Bleeding and breathing deeply, the white-haired man was able to best one of the leaders of Konoha by employing many of his jutsu and several of his water-loving frogs.

"I don't know why but I agree with him!" Tsunade yelled out, standing over the immobilised body of her grandfather, her condition far better than her fellow teammate. Sensing the look of unfairness, she tossed her pigtails over her shoulders and took on a superior look.

Pulling himself up, the Sandaime frowned. "Why did you stop me?" he asked, his voice firm and strict. 'It was as if you knew what would happen… Ah… I see, Hitsuka…' At the thought of the boy, a sudden fondness filled him and he knew why Hitsuka had told his student about this particular jutsu. 'But what are we going to do as these zombies will just regenerate themselves?'

As if proofing this point, the body of the Shodai suddenly leapt into action and soon had the surprised female senin in a disadvantage position. "Tsunade!" her worried teammates yelled out belatedly.

"Well, well, what have we here?" Orochimaru sneered, sauntering up to the duo as he had sensed the wind changing to his side. "If this isn't Tsunade-hime?" He leaned down, ignoring the threats from Jiraiya he brought his face close to the other. "What does it feel like, overpowered by your own grandfather?"

Ignoring the snarky comment, Tsunade simply blasted her way out of the wooden prison. Using the broken tree trunks as stakes, she slammed them into the body of her grandfather, immobilising him. Maintaining her speed, she was soon into the personal space of Orochimaru, smirking at his surprised expression. "Did you think my family would just thrive in the legend of my grandfather? Of course we would look for weaknesses and improvement of all of our jutsu!"

Stiffening the fingers of her right hand, she lifted them in preparation to slash down with her deadlychakra blade.

At the Ninja Academy

Having had herded all the Academy students into the structurally reinforced basements that appeared to have existed since the war of Shodaime's time, the genin and teachers quickly dispersed themselves to cover the Academy grounds. At first, Iruka was adamant that the genin should be with the students, hiding in safety and leave the fighting to the adults. But Naruto and Sasuke's stubbornness, the fact that the enemies were closing in and they were sorely out-numbered and out of time, won in the end.

Finding himself temporary alone with his thoughts, Iruka finally admitted to himself that the genin were no longer naïve and what Kakashi had said was true – they were no longer his students, they were the soldiers of the village. There was a brief flash of sadness as he felt remorseful about his village needing child soldiers. He had truly believed they had reached and earned the peace they had worked so hard for; he himself had seen the children of his generation giving up their childhood to fight.

"Iruka-sensei! They are coming!" Sakura called out softly, being the messenger and quickly moved on.

Briefly catching her eyes, Iruka was suddenly ashamed of himself for doubting these genin. He had always thought Sakura would not be a good kunoichi, far too innocent and distracted from her training. But, look at her now. He was proud of her improvement and just knew she would be one of the best. Steeling his eyes, he nodded tersely; his usual air of the kind teacher was gone.

With soft thumps, the main groups of Oto- and Suna-nin landed in front of the Konoha-nin. The three groups stared at each other in tensed silence from their own corner of the triangle. The usual response in a battle was: "Enemies! Attack! Fight! Retreat!" But no one dared to move, doubts caused fears in provoking unnecessary response.

The Konoha ninja were not sure who exactly their enemies were. Could they trust that the Suna-nin would not turn on them? Could they place the life of the children on an uncertain faith?

Even the Suna-nin were not sure who they were supporting anymore. Their plan, however idiotic it was, had been under process for months and was put into motion. Then the monster, sure they respected him and he was Kazekage-sama's son but a monster nevertheless, called off the attack on the day with the news of the death of their leader. No explanation, nothing. Just the order to turn on the Oto-nin. But did they dare? What if they had been tricked by Konoha with a Henge?

In the case of the Oto-nin, they faced the uncertainties of being outnumbered. So, fearing for being killed, the silent agreement was to stay put.

Sweat trickled down people's backs and faces, yet no one made moves to wipe the drops away. The only movement within the clearing was the soft heaving of chests and flickering of eyes. Finally, one brave – and perhaps stupid – Oto-nin could no longer take it anymore.

"What are you waiting for!" he yelled at the tense Suna-nin, his voice extraordinarily loud in the quiet gathering. "Can't you tell you've been tricked by these sneaky Konoha dogs? Look at them, a couple of chuunin and genin! No wonder they would lower themselves like the pitiful bugs that they are and make us fight amongst allies!" he finished proudly.

'Are we mammals or exoskeleton insects?' all the present Konoha resident wondered.

Nevertheless, it worked. One by one, the uncertain expression on the Suna-nin's faces disappeared and became hostile. Wanting to gain brownie points, the Oto-nin who provoked the others rushed forward, prompting his comrades to follow closely behind, casting any remaining doubts aside.

He was the first to die. His scream of fear was suddenly cut off as sand quickly engulfed him. The sand coffin rose off the ground and in one heart beat, the clearing was showered with blood. Iruka winced lightly but forced himself to look at the scene in front of him. After all, they could have a new enemy on their hands.

"What do you idiots think you are doing?" a young yet commanding voice stopped any remaining activities. All heads turned to look at the source and saw one of the last people they expected to see. But what did they expect; there was only one known person in the world that could perform that jutsu.

"Gaara!" Naruto cried, surprised by how energetic the boy was, considered only half an hour ago he was half deformed and in pain. Then he remembered this boy, his friend, had just killed a man in the most brutal way he had ever seen. Only Sasuke's hand on his shoulder stopped him from yelling out his exact thoughts about it.

"Gaara-sama! We…" the Suna-nin stuttered as they trembled under the cold gaze, any suspicion of Konoha's trickery was long gone. "We…"

"We!" the red-head boy continued for the man who was about to wet himself in face of a child. "We are no longer the enemies of Konohagakure. We are to stand by their side and protect this village! Do you hear me!"

"Yes sir!"

Nodding his head once, the powerful child disappeared in a swirl of sand and leaves, supposedly heading off to do more damage control like he had just done. His unspoken command had relayed the amount of trust he had placed on his subordinates. The Oto-nin soon found themselves in serious troubles.

Tying and gagging his enemy, Sasuke noticed the frown that had appeared along with Gaara's appearance still remained fixed on Naruto's face. "What's up?" he asked lightly, knowing full well what was bothering the other.

"I still can't understand why Gaara would kill that man like that," the blond muttered after a moment of silence. "Surely there was no need to…"

The brunet could understand the conflicting emotions as he, too, was once plagued by them. "Naruto… Gaara did what he did because that was the quickest, clearest way to identify himself." He elaborated when this was met with confusion, "From what I had gathered, not all Suna-nin believed the message of them fighting the Oto. That coupled with all the confusion had thrown them off and made them suspicious of anything and anyone. Thus with on push from the Oto, they had easily turned against us. In that situation, if Gaara did not perform the jutsu that only he could, he could have provoked a negative response and face being attack by his own people."

Naruto listened attentively, knowing this type of thinking and logic was not his forte. He could understand now the reasons behind the boy's action, and he had reluctantly approved of it. He knew, inevitably, he would kill one day, when and how might be beyond his control. Perhaps he would have to chose to kill to prove himself just like Gaara had forced to do, or perhaps he needed to so he could protect others. Thus, it was better for him to face the harsh reality of the ninja world sooner rather than later, just like Sasuke had.


"Don't mention it."

The end of the war

The war, if one could call it such, was over before some even noticed it had begun. With the temporary leader of the Suna all over the place, helping Konoha, there was little doubt as to who Suna had allied itself with. This had left Oto in a severe disadvantage and most of its ninja had fled, with the remaining either laid dead or held prisoner.

All that now remained was the fight between the leaders of the two villages at war up on the roof, and it appeared victory was in the hands of Konoha.

However, nothing had happened. No bleeding wound, no cry of pain; Orochimaru's top wasn't even torn. Everyone sighed, either in disappointment or relief, at Tsunade's failed attempt.

The snake-liked man burst out laughing, shocking the other two men out of their frozen disbelief. "I'm afraid you have missed, my dear hime," he mocked, taunting her. It appeared Orochimaru had leapt back just in time to avoid getting cut in half from his right shoulder to his left hip.

The pretty princess smirked ferociously in reply, a bright light in her eyes that should not had been there after her failure.

"Oh, Orochimaru, Orochimaru…" she chided gently, shaking her head. All the men stared at her in confusion, no one daring to move until more was known about the situation. "Do you honestly believe I would make such a fatal mistake? Of course I knew you would be fast enough to avoid my longest chakra blade. So…"

She held up her hand again, a soft, almost transparent light engulfing it. "It's been years, Orochimaru. My chakra blades no longer just cut things and flesh. By making them so thin and transparent, I can reach further than my normal blades. And these ones can even cut chakra circuits!"

"No…" Orochimaru breathed, his hands flew into a complicated sequence of hand seals, prompting the other two males into action to protect their female team mate who just confidently stood there. When nothing happened, they stared at each other, some in confusion or rage and one in wild delight.

Beginning another set of hand seals, this time much simpler, Orochimaru's hands shook violently when all he got was a burst of harmless smoke. He gave a wordless scream of frustration tinged with fear and swung around to glare hatefully at the female senin. "You! You WENCH! I'll kill YOU!" he screeched shrilly, his sword appeared in his hands and slashing down.

Fortunately, Tsunade was an expert at determining the exact moment when someone would blow up, having had looked after multiple emotionally unstable patients before. Thus she knew this attack was coming and had dodged the terrible blow. All the while, she taunted him mercilessly with details of what was to be Orochimaru's fate.

"No one can live without chakra; every part of our bodies depends heavily on it! Your arms, without the flow of chakra in them, will slowly grow heavy and turn into a pale purple, gradually darkening into black. Then," she laughed coldly as she made a slashing motion, "they will fall off! You're life as a ninja is over!"

Realising this was effectively the same as the jutsu he was originally planning to use – without the whole sacrificing thing – the Hokage was thrilled to know Orochimaru was stopped in his reign to terror. Staring into the hateful eyes of his old student, there was a tint of regret in his own as he was remorseful for not being the one to stop him – and for feeling gleeful at the demise of his once beloved subordinate. "Orochimaru… your ambitions will end here!"

Orochimaru was filled with rage and an unbearable grief over his loss of not only his war but also something greater, his jutsu. Swearing obscenely, he commanded his puppets to continue their attacks on these hateful Konoha ninja, securing a safe passage for him out of this disappointment. He no longer cared about the Shodai and Nidaime, having had found them useless and not worth the fight.

The walls that had separated him and his Oto-nin wavered and dissolved, and soon they were next to him, confusion and fear on their faces. "This is over, it's all finished," he grinded out between his teeth to his concerned subordinates. And then, he said the words he hated to voice, "Retreat."

"Oh no you don't!" Jiraiya snarled, tearing after the group of retreating Oto-nin. His charge, however, was broken abruptly by one of the men he had respected so much. "Get off me!" he yelled into the stoic face of Nidaime, twisting his head to watch helplessly as his hated ex-teammate disappeared from his sight as the distance between them grew.

"Damn it!" Anger and frustration tinged with grief twisted the pretty face of the female senin, her hands literally tied by her own grandfather.

The current Hokage worked at freeing his students, knowing neither of them could survive without one another against the still energetic opponents. Managing to blast Nidaime away from his comrade, he did not need to give further instructions as Jiraiya was already alighting the wood surrounding Tsunade, fuelling it with frog oil.

"Sensei! Any idea how we can get rid of these two!" Tsunade yelled, watching with tight eyes as her headless grandfather staggered about drunkenly, his head already regenerating itself.

Sighing tiredly, the great leader loathed to admit he was just about to ask the same question. "Let's just contain them first!"

"Sensei, we can handle them! Your people need you!" Jiraiya shouted though the foot on his face showed anything but. Nevertheless, Sandaime knew this to be true and, with a look that conveyed more than any words could at the moment, he was away to look at his village.

Tsunade paused for a second, deciding what to do, knowing her previous method did not work. Then, her hands flew into action. Watching her, Jiraiya winced lightly at the sound and sight – the medical expert had dislocated all the major joints of her victim and had used his own limbs to create a human pretzel. Leaning heavily on the body to further immobilise it, she looked far more at ease than the struggling Jiraiya, who had help from several Konoha ninja. "So, what now?"

As if answering her call, an all-too-familiar anbu landed in front of her. About to ask for an update, she was shocked into silence by how dishevelled he looked. It was only her reflex that had prevented the boy from landing face-first at her feet, collapsing from sheer exhaustion. "Kami-sama! What the hell happened to you!"

Undoing his last earring, Hitsuka was able to stand straighter as energy flushed the fatigue out of him. "Been around a bit," he answered simply, stretching and slapping his arms, legs and hands to get some feeling back into them. "Right," he muttered grimly, ignoring the suspicious stares from the senin and crouched down to look at the quiet but struggling Shodai. "What are you going to do with them?"

Still slightly annoyed at being brushed off, Tsunade only shrugged an answer.

Licking his dry lips unnoticed under his mask and blinking away the cold perspiration that was pouring down his forehead, he leaned forward to touch the immobilised body. Shuddering lightly, he quickly withdrew his arm and stepped away. Breathing heavily now, he was all too aware of the eyes that were burning into him. Shaking his head, he turned back to Tsunade while rubbing his hands harshly on his pants. "I'm going to check on the genin," he told her and headed off without waiting for a reply.

Just as he passed Jiraiya's labouring mass, Nidaime's arm swung around suddenly and struck him.

The two senin's hearts leapt into their throats, the heaviness choking then momentarily. But they settled back down when they saw the boy had caught the limb firmly into his hand. However, they missed the now heavy tremors that overtook his body as he staggered off the roof. They were still too busy with their opponents, even though they were now strangely quiet.

Hitsuka only had enough mind fixed in reality to remember that he should not de-mask in public and that he needed to look for somewhere secluded. Besides, he did not really want people to see him lying in his own vomit.

Losing conscious for a few seconds, he landed poorly in the clearing and collapsed into a boneless heap, his mask clattering off some distance from him. "Crap…" he muttered and quickly turned his head to one side to heave up his breakfast. Forcing himself up and away from the puddle on the ground with a moan, his befuddled mind suddenly had a thought that wrenched a mirthless laughter out of him.

His old hair style would have just dragged through his stomach content, and he remembered the reason why he had cut his hair after years of keeping it the same way.

Flash back

He had always kept his hair long even though it was often more of a bother than anything else. It was a pain to wash and had proved to be a good target to pull on during fights. It wasn't until recent years did he finally manage to avoid getting maimed because of his hair. But, despite all the troubles it had bought him, he had never once considered cutting it.

Away from the strict rules of high school and general prejudice of the society, he had the freedom of whichever hairstyle he liked. So he had chosen his mother's. He had always been bitter by the fact he shared no similar features with his family, even before he found out that he was adopted. So when given the chance, he grew out the only thing that he could somewhat link himself to one of his parents. For all these years, it had been a small comfort for him as he felt like his whole family was with him.

But now, his love had turned into hate. With no remorse, he had cut his hair off in one clean sweep and trimmed it so short that it resembled Naruto's. It was ironic, he realised, that the only thing that he could have to tie himself with the parents that raised him was the only similarity to his real parent that he could destroy.

As he was burning the last physical link to his family away, he allowed himself to cry under the pretence of smoke irritating his eyes.

Orochimaru was indeed a possessive man – he had taken everything.

In the forest clearing

Blinking the little moisture in his eyes away, Hitsuka half-heartedly wondered why his eyesight was not clearing up and remained blurry. Staring blankly at his left hand, he had this strange sensation of heaviness crawling up his arms like the darkness that was at the edge of his vision. He briefly thought about what was happening to him and finally, with a tired sigh, he closed his eyes and decided to rest his heavy body for now. He would think later when he wasn't feeling so tired.

The wounds on his body reopened as the tension had left him, his slow heartbeat gently pumped his blood out, turning the soil underneath him into a dark, sticky mess.

But Hitsuka did not notice it, his mind was too far away for him to do anything.

He jolted awake, a warning was already on his lips as he reached out – he knew he would die if nothing was done in the near future. All the warning signs were there but remained unrecognised by his confused mind. However, there was a little part of him that had remained vigilant and had tried to warn him.

He guessed that was how he managed to become so instantly alert – in his own mind that was.

Shaking his head slightly to further clear it – even though he technically was shaking an image of himself that only existed in, well, in his mind – he got off the white couch that he was lying on. Padding away from it, he suddenly frowned softly he as glanced back at the furniture. With one glare it instantaneously turned into a lovely shade of green. Now smiling softly as he was satisfied, he squared his shoulders and turned to the free-standing fusuma (1) to face the mess that he had created.

The doors slid open silently to admit his entrance and disappeared as he stepped through. With a deep bow, he greeted his two guests respectfully, "Shodai-sama, Nidaime-sama, I apologise for the current situation."

The two men, clad in their comfortable daily cloth, looked at each other, communicating wordlessly with their eyes. They were no longer the mindless puppets that were under Orochimaru's control. They were the powerful, well-respected Senju brothers, Hashirama and Tobirama.

"Child, who are you? Where are we?" Hashirama asked calmly though his stance suggested otherwise. "The last I remember I was in a world of hell, being forced to fight my own granddaughter… to the death."

"And I almost killed Sandaime's student," the other man said gently, lifting his hands up to look at them, seeing the invisible blood that was not his on them.

"My name is Yuki Hitsuka, an anbu of Konohagakure and…"

He hesitated, the words he was about to form were unfamiliar on his tongue as he had yet to introduce himself as such. No, he had avoided using it at all cost since he came to know himself as such. But, he had to.

"…You may better know me as one of the Tamashii Shuushuuka (2) of the Ki Clan."

The two men did not hide their surprise this time.

"Tamashii Shuushuuka! I thought they were just a myth?" Tobirama exclaimed, unable to believe the boy in front of him was actually someone out of the stories they told to make the children be nice. "We used to tell the kids that if they didn't behave the Tamashii Shuushuuka would come and take their souls away!"

Hitsuka couldn't help but to feel slightly offended by that comment.

Shodai was silent, observing. He had known about the clan, had met them and drank with them. He recognised the trademark gold eyes the boy had and the fact that the two ex-Hokage were here unquestionably made him one of the Ki. "Your clan, while part of the Konoha, has isolated itself from the village life a long time ago, so why are you here?" he asked and his brother turned to look at him with a raised eyebrow.

"You knew?" he said with a hint of accusation in his voice. "Was that why you discouraged everyone from using them as the bogeyman?" He rolled his eyes heavenward when his brother nodded affirmative. "Why didn't you tell me? And why did the clan go into hiding? With them and their Kekkei Genkai, we would have been able to save so many people!"

Hashirama sighed and glanced at the boy whom nodded. "From what I have found out, my clan did not want to participate in the war," he said quietly, recalling the information from the thin little book he had found in the library. "Our power could be so easily misused and to avoid becoming… inhuman, it was the best the clan remained neutral. And to answer your question," he looked up, cutting off the man, "I had no choice."

The men sensed that this conversation was not for now and, as they were already dead, not for them. "Very well."

"So, what's going to happen to us now? If the myths are true then…" Tobirama trailed off, not wanting to finish his sentence, for if they were true, the two brothers' futures would be bleak.

Hitsuka, however, was already shaking his head. "I have no such ambition. While my Kekkei Genkai makes me a Tamashii Shuushuuka, I have no intention of being one – the sacrifice would be too great. The only reason why I had ever used it upon you both was because that was the only way I could think of in stopping you. So," he stepped aside and another fusuma appeared next to him, "… do you have anything you would like to say to the others?"

Hashirama took his eyes off the opening doors and looked at the young Shuushuuka. "Please tell Tsunade I am sorry, and… look under the white butterfly." Reaching out a hand, he shook the surprised boy's much smaller one. "Thank you, thank you for saving us from that hell," he said emotionally.

Tobirama placed his own hand on Hitsuka's shoulder and reached down with the other to have his own handshake. "Tell Jiraiya I didn't mean to try to kill him for me, alright? And tell Sarutobi that he's doing a great job with the village. Thanks."

Then, having nothing else that they need to say or could do, the two men walked towards the open doors into the brilliant brightness. Hitsuka bowed once again. "It was an honour to meet you both," the boy whispered. "I will pass on your messages."

The light pulsed suddenly, throwing a long shadow behind the small form for a brief moment, then, he was all alone again.

"And now…" Straightening his back, he turned to face the approaching figure. "Shin…"

"Hey squirt," the older teen called back, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "What a day you have had there."

Hitsuka stood there silently, his eyes upon his fiddling thumbs.

Shion slowly lowered his arms and paused in his advancement. "What is it, Hitsuka? What's bothering you? You have just done something great, something the two great men had thanked you for."

"You have seen what I had done, I have killed today, brother," Hitsuka replied shamefully in a small voice. "And those stuff with Orochimaru and everything…"

"Is that why you have been avoiding me?" Shion sighed; scratching his head as he finally knew why he was unable to talk to his brother in the last couple of weeks. Palming his face in frustration, he peeked at the boy through the gaps of his fingers and he did something a brother would probably do in this situation. He punched with all his might.

Whether Hitsuka did not want to dodge it or he simply did not expect it, the punch landed solidly, causing him to stumble slightly. He stared dumbfounded over Shion's shoulder as he was suddenly swept into a bone-crushing hug. "You silly, idiotic brother," the man breathed, holding his brother in everything but blood closer. "It was a war, Hitsuka, you cannot avoid it if you want to be a ninja – it's part of a ninja's life. You're smart so you should know this already." Pulling away slightly, he looked hard into the large golden eyes. "I am not telling you to forget what you have done, but you must know what is right and what is wrong."

"I understand… but it's hard not to feel so guilty…"

"I am sure you will learn how to cope with it all. I have full confidence in you," Shion said proudly and, with a small wink, he continued, "And who cares if you are the son of Kyuubi and Orochimaru, you are still my annoying little brother!"

The smile on Hitsuka's face faltered and then all but disappeared. "Shin, I…" He paused and took a deep breath to stop his voice from shaking. "You must go," he said finally, gesturing in the direction of the opened fusuma. "I really hate to say this but you must leave me now."

Shion looked at him in disbelief. "You can't be serious! I can't leave you!" he argued, an unexplained anger rising within him. "You need someone there with you when you are in the clutches of that man! Someone to keep you sane!"

"No!" Hitsuka shouted back, his hands balling up as he fought against his desire and frustration. "Of course I want you to be here! You are my brother, my family!"


"So I need to protect you," Hitsuka quickly cut off Shion's argument, backing away to avoid his touch. "You must know what my Kekkei Genkai is capable of doing by now. I don't want to lose you because of me!" He hid his face with his hands so his voice came out muffled, "I have even used it on Naruto…"

"…What do you mean?"

Hitsuka turned his face away, refusing to look at Shion's penetrating gaze. "All of my research said that it is impossible for normal jutsu to achieve a mental link between two people. As neither of us was competent with jutsu, I had thought it was because of Kyuubi, though he wasn't sure how he had done it either. But now I know." He gave a humourless snort and shook his head. "The mental link that I had so comfortably shared with Naruto is because of my Kekkei Genkai. I have been literally devouring Naruto from the inside, someone I had sworn to protect no matter what!"

"You don't know that!"

"Then how is it that I was able to disconnect it so easily?"

Shion had nothing to say in response to that.

Hitsuka sighed and relented, somewhat, "Even if that wasn't the case, my Curse Seal certainly will destroy you."

The older male snorted. "What can it do to me?" he asked, thinking of the protection provided by Jiraiya's double seal. "I certainly haven't felt or seen anything."

Hitsuka sighed with a frustrated frown on his face. "That's because I have been keeping you away from it! This room, these white walls, they have been hiding the ugly truth because I don't want you to see what I am becoming!"

At the disbelieving look on his brother's face, he threw his hands out. Instantly, the walls surrounding them began shifting back and expanding in lengths at an alarming speed as the ceiling raised so fast that Shion thought it was them who were falling down.

Then, floating right in front of them, was a large ball of heavy chains. The chains, inscribed with strange golden runes, where groaning and creaking as they seemed to fight with whatever was in the centre in order to contain it. It was emitting such darkness that had dyed its surrounding whiteness with tendrils in the now familiar sick purple, constantly moving and expanding to cover more grounds.

At such sight, Shion had fallen to his backside, a look of utter shock and disgust on his face. "What is this… this tumour!"

"This is the Curse Seal," Hitsuka answered solemnly, looking at the thing as it hissed and spat at them. "It is slowly contaminating my soul despite the Seals. And I have no doubt that yours will be, too."

"So! So what if I will be contaminated as well? I will still be with you!"

The smaller boy finally looked up at his brother. "Call me superstitious or whatnot, but I have never heard of a religion where a soul is so tainted with such evilness is accepted," he said seriously and he knew he was low to use religion as his argument point as his brother was a religious man.

Shion really looked like he was about the punch Hitsuka again. Letting out a big breath, he replied softly, "But I will still be with you, and nothing can compete with that. So there is nothing that you can do to make me walk through that door."

At this, Hitsuka gave him a sad smile. "I am afraid I don't need you to agree," he said softly and waved his hand towards the fusuma.

Shion then felt a force from behind him, pushing him in the direction Hitsuka had gestured at. He, of course, had struggled against it, but to no avail, he was still slowly being pulled. "Hitsuka! Don't do this!" he pled, grabbing the boy's top who did not avoid his touch this time. "I can't leave you alone! Especially now!"

Holding his tears back, Hitsuka breathed out deeply before lifting his head up, a smile on his face. "Nii-chan, I was so happy when I found out that you have always been with me. But it was only because of a miracle that my Kekkei Genkai hasn't affected you all these years." He stopped when his voice trembled and he had to take several deep breaths before he could do on. "Now… because of the Curse, I will taint your soul and I will never be able to forgive myself if you cannot rest peacefully!"

"Hitsuka! That's just stupid and you know it!"

Ignoring that comment, Hitsuka embraced his brother for one last time. "Good bye, nii-chan, I love you," he whispered, feeling the hands that had now grabbed the back of his top held on even tighter.

Shion had fully understood where Hitsuka was coming from, and it warmed his heart to know that his little brother was willing to put himself through hell to save the elder one. Thus, knowing it was futile to argue, with a heavy sigh that held so much of his emotions, Shion decided to leave his little brother with something other than angry words. Kissing the white head gently, he smiled as the boy finally broke down crying at this. "I love you, too." Choking lightly, he continued, "Take care of yourself."

Then he was gone.

Alone in his mind with the ball of chaos, Hitsuka had never felt so lonely before.

Few days after the war

They were all crowding in front of the small, hastily built platform, waiting patiently for the start of the debriefing. Despite the glaring sun and stifling heat, no one complained about being out in the element as they sweated away. After all, there was no room that was big enough to fit them all. Almost every ninja that was involved in the war was there, including the anbu and even the genin.

Anyone that was less experience in warfare might be confused by the need for the gathering. They had all written their reports, giving their account of what had happened. So why waste time sitting here when there was so much work to do?

But not to Kakashi.

The war veteran knew the importance of such debriefing and, in fact, looked forward to it each time. It was like listening to a long story, told by different voices and tones. This story would bring everyone up to speed as to what had happened. Of course, as the Hokage had heard and read all the reports, those of the sensitive nature would be omitted.

Thus, the story telling began with a jounin that was in charge of watching over the Chuunin Exam. One after another, his simple story was being built on and layered until it was a complicated yet clear structure that contained pieces of different people's life. The story took them all on a journey from the heart of the war to other parts of the village with those knowing the extra bits of that area adding their knowledge.

He watched proudly as his team told their stories, adding a bit to each other's tale as they painted a picture. Neither of them was trying to show off or put the others down; they were simply giving an account of what they saw and did.

One thing that had stood out amongst everyone's voices was the act of Gaara of the Suna. Kakashi had to admit that, without the boy's actions and help, they would probably cover more grounds with the graves of those that had fallen. But there was something that kept on bothering the man. He was there when Gaara was taken over by Shukaku and had seen the lone sand dome in the arena from air some time later. If the Suna boy was still in the dome, then who was the one that was patrolling Konoha? But since he could still perform the Shukaku-only jutsu, surely then…

Adding that on to his already long list of mysteries to solve, Kakashi returned the remainder of his attention back to the Hokage who had rose to stand on the platform as the story had finished. "Thank you all, you have done well in this war!" he said powerfully, every bit of the great leader that he was and the crowd roared their answer back to him, delighted. Raising a hand for silence, he continued, "But do not forget those that have lost their life protecting their home, our home. Please stand and give them a moment of respect for they deserve it and more." He paused, waiting for everyone to stand, then he started reciting the names of those that were killed in the war from memory, "Aita Kouchi, Atashi Hana…"

It did not take long but it was still a terribly sad list.

At last, when Sandaime had finished, he gestured to the chuunin behind him. "Thank you, everyone. And now, I would like to take this opportunity to welcome two new ninja into our ranks." Eyes landing on the two men almost immediately, he nodded firmly. "Please come forward, Zabuza Momochi and Haku," he said ceremonially.

Quickly masking their surprise, the two stepped forward though their movements showed their uncertainties. Gently, their leader took off their blank forehead protectors and presented them with their new ones. "I have absolute confidence that no one here has any doubt as to where your loyalties lie after observing your actions in the last couple of months, and especially in your achievements in the recent war."

The crowd cheered and instantly opened up their circle, welcoming their two newest members with open arms. Kakashi made sure he was the first to slap Zabuza's back, though he pretended to miss and hit the man's head a couple of times instead.

"Now, go and bring this village back to its former glory!"

"Yes sir!"

Having had been dismissed, Kakashi stretched lightly as he waited for the crowd to thin out before taking him leave. He thought over the new information he had gathered today and began to modify his to-do list as several things taken from the debriefing had taken priority. However, something, or the lack of something in his memory caused him to stop and jerk around, making the chuunin behind him to yelp and back-paddled into his colleague.

Ignoring the dark muttering and the sharp intake of breath as the offended chuunin recognised just exactly who he was calling an 'old, bird brained man', Kakashi realised that there was one story that he did not hear today. One that he had wanted to hear the most.

His eyes instantly sought out the all-too-familiar white head despite the boy's shortness, and watched as the Hokage and senin opened their ring to accept him. There was no moment of hesitation, no sense of seniority in face of the differences in rank, nor indignation at the invasion of privacy.

Kakashi was suddenly reminded of the oil droplets that were floating on top of his instant ramen soup that was his breakfast. For a few seconds amidst his serious glum this morning, he was childishly fascinated by how two separate droplets, each its own entity, managed to join and expand into a bigger one so flawlessly. There was no opposition, no complaints. Because they were equal.

And so was Yuki Hitsuka.

Staring hard at the group, his surroundings faded into the back of his mind as people around him avoided him. He read the tensed body language and stony facial expressions, and he knew that there was something more, something important that the rest of them did not hear.

He saw Jiraiya's red face and Sandaime's sigh and Tsunade's white knuckles on Hitsuka's shoulder. With a tensed nod, the great leader guided the boy towards his office; his voluminous rob obstructing Hitsuka from Kakashi's view.

It was just so happened that the Hokage dropped his arm slightly, and just so happened that Hitsuka looked over his shoulder in that instance. Their eyes met briefly, Kakashi's full of feigned coldness though there was a hint of concern, and – to the surprise of the silver-haired man – Hitsuka's were so very sad. Kakashi actually took a step forward, so profound was the sadness in those eyes.

Hitsuka stopped and his companions walked ahead a couple of steps before realising he was lagging behind. Without a word, they waited silently as the serious boy bowed deeply in the direction of his teacher.

It was then Kakashi knew. How he knew he did not know and could not say. But he just knew.

He had lost Hitsuka,

In which sense he could not pinpoint and that frustrated him deeply. He wanted to grab the boy by his arms and shake him until he came to his senses.

"Stop!" he would yell, though to stop what was a mystery to him. "Stop!"

But Hitsuka was already gone. The moment had passed and life went on.

Kakashi hoped and prayed that what had just happened was only a fragment of his imagination, that his gut instinct was wrong. But the intellectual side of his brain knew he was not the only witness to this very public display and his gut instinct was never wrong.

At the HQ

"Hitsuka," Sandaime said solemnly, his eyes hard on the boy, "you have been silent for too long."

Thinking that he had been in this situation for far too many times to be healthy, Hitsuka resigned to his fate with a sigh. "Where should I start?" he asked, stalling for time so that he could make up his mind – to tell the truth or not?

"Gaara of the Suna, if you will."

Hmm… if he told them the Gaara that was doing all the damage control was in fact the Shuushuuka in Henge, they would then know he was a Ki. He did not think that would go down particularly well. Especially since he had no doubt they would make the connection with him and the two Hokage. In that case, there was no way he would tell them what he was going to do in the near future.

So, really, what choice did he have?

"Well… during my training, I had come across this jutsu that allows its user to transfer someone else's jutsu to an object or objects. That was how I was able to make an ice spearhead by using Haku's own jutsu," he explained, lying straight through his teeth with his well-rehearsed story. "So, after I had dealt with Shukaku, I transferred Gaara's jutsu, well, technically his chakra, to sand and pretended to be him because I knew the Suna-nin would be confused and Gaara was in no state to perform this task. Unfortunately that meant I was killing under his name…" he trailed off, feeling very guilty.

Sandaime frowned lightly. He had heard of such jutsu but he did not know it could be applied to the Bijuu. Then again, had anyone try it before? Besides, this would explain why Hitsuka was found in a dead faint with his chakra reserve almost empty.

But what about the two previous Hokage? According to his student, the bodies of the two men dissolved into dust after Hitsuka had been there. However, that could simply be due to Orochimaru cancelling his jutsu to conserve his chakra. What could Hitsuka have done by merely touching them?

Finally, he decided to let go of his anger and allow his grandfatherly concern of the boy washed over him. "Hitsuka, you have to take care of yourself!" he said, a memory of the prone, motionless body surfaced. He remembered how he almost had a heart attack when they found him.

The boy smiled weakly at him. "I'll try, Hokage-sama," he said as he crossed his fingers in his laps. "I'll try."

Later that week

So life at Konoha had finally continued on with its people working to recover from the war. Ninja young or old, genin or anbu, were all over the place on an assignment, errand, or simply just cleaning up. While Konoha was cleaning up, Suna was busy with maintaining their peace with the powerful village. But, as the Hokage was an understanding man who knew the real story, the Treaty was not damaged and Suna had agreed to help with the restoration. The Oto-nin who were captured received medical attention before they were brought back to their cells, their fates still an uncertainty. And, unfortunately, the Chuunin Exam was cancelled and all the villages of the finalists understood perfectly well that this was not the time to focus on such thing. Thus, any promotion would have to be done at a later date.

Having had been so busy day and night, Hitsuka found himself with a moment of peace to have a breather. Sitting down at his desk with a cup of tea, he thought about his next move and when he should execute it. His timing must be right, for his life might very well depend on it.


The said boy looked up, swallowing the greeting that was on his lips when he saw the other's facial expression and body language. A resigned look overtook his face as he though with a hint of regret, 'I guess I can no longer hide behind the confusion left by the war. And he… he deserves this…' Closing his eyes for a moment to prepare himself, he asked, "What would you like to know?"

Not surprised by how accepting Hitsuka was, Haku merely nodded his thanks before sitting down slowly, using this action to buy him some time to decide which question he should start with. Coming to a decision, he looked up. "Who… are you?"

Lifting an eyebrow at such an open question, Hitsuka grinned lightly despite the grave situation when the other responded with a soft blush. Then he grew serious as he wondered just how much was needed to be said. Looking at his friend – cheeks still tinged with pink – his partner, he realised if he was to succeed in what he was planning to do, he first needed this teen's support and help.

The question was can he trust him?

Of course he could.

Thus, the next few hours were spent on explaining his role as an anbu, his relationship with Orochimaru, his knowledge of the current situation while avoiding any mention of his source, and lastly, his Kekkei Genkai.

"I knew it," Haku said softly, his mind overwhelmed thus he quickly latched on to having his suspicious being confirmed, something that was concrete. "When we fought, that lingering chakra… was mine!"

Nodding, Hitsuka smiled somewhat apologetically. "I can absorb people's jutsu along with their chakra within that jutsu, and use them as my own," he elaborated, being completely truthful with the teen and knowing he could. "Kind of like charging up a battery and using it."

Haku frowned. "Is that why Orochimaru want you? Your Kekkei Genkai? But it's not like the Sharingan that can learn the jutsu… So why?"

An uncomfortable look flitted across the white haired boy's face, and he was hesitant in his reply. "The strength of Ki Clan's Kekkei Genkai does not lie in the 'borrowing', but rather the 'stealing'." At Haku's confusion, he took a deep breath and elaborated, "Foreign chakra is not the only thing I can absorb… I can also absorb people's soul, leaving their body dead. And by internalising that soul, I can steal that person's knowledge and jutsu… including Kekkei Genkai."

Staring wide eyed at the other, Haku wasn't sure if he should believe what he had just heard or laugh hysterically at how ridiculously clear everything had just became. He so desperately wished he could just do the former.

Shifting awkwardly under the intense, unwavering gaze, Hitsuka was started out of his guilty embarrassment by the sudden question, "Why is it that I've never heard of such powerful Clan in the history of any village?"

Now it was Hitsuka's turn to stare. He couldn't believe how accepting Haku was. Here he was, telling the teen he could suck out someone soul and basically digest it like his lunch, and instead of screaming murder, he remained by his side.

Seeing the emotion-filled eyes of Hitsuka, Haku smiled sincerely and punched the other lightly on the shoulder. "Go on," he prompted lightly.

Smiling back at him, Hitsuka answered, "The Ki Clan was never really that ambitious, content to remain in the background and keep to themselves. Then," here he shrugged, "the history had simply forgotten about them."

Raising an eyebrow to show just how much he believed in this simple explanation, Haku waited for more. He had known enough about his partner to know he was still hesitant to continue; thus he was patient with him.

Realising he was not getting off so easily, Hitsuka chided himself for holding back when he should really should be spilling his guts. "It also takes time to fully 'digest' someone's soul, depending on that person's power. And… there's also a side effect." His face paled from knowing but not understanding his fate, but he braved on nevertheless, "We'll gradually lose our minds after each use, turning into a mindless killing machine."

Haku was suddenly reminded of the monster in the clearing of the Forest of Death, bursts of bloodlust demanding to be satisfied rolling off him in suffocating waves, choking and surprising even the hunter-nin that was within him.

That was his friend, his partner. He trusted him with his life and would not doubt his words. If that 'monster' was a preview of what he would become…

"I'll never allow that to happen!" he said firmly, grabbing the other's forearms tightly to finalise his point. And he knew he was the only one entrusted with this job as Hitsuka had allowed this information to him only. "Never!"

Hearing this, Hitsuka smiled sadly. "Haku, thank you. But I…" He swallowed and looked straight into the other's eyes, speaking out the words that he had yet to voice out loud: "I intend to go to him."

The snow boy's reaction was so bizarrely explosive that Hitsuka almost snorted in amusement, having had found it funny. Slamming into the wall of his bedroom with a loud crash, causing a few books from his shelf to jump off from their space, he stared up at the livid teen before him while absent-mindedly being thankful that they were along in the apartment.

"Why, Hitsuka? Why?" was the tightly whispered question. "Why must you always be the hero?"

Unsure if it was because of the loud ringing in his ears or the absurdity of the question, the boy answered intelligently, "Huh?"

"Zabuza-san and I, Sasuke back in the Forest of Death… and now…"

Finally understanding where the other was coming from, Hitsuka replied as he sat up slowly, "If you knew you could make a difference, you would have done the same in my position. By doing this, I could potentially give Konoha a few years of peace, time for its people to prepare for what coming up."

"You don't know that!"

"Then what will you have me do!" Hitsuka was shouting now, grabbing onto his partner's collars as his temper finally got the better of him. "What will you have me do? Run away and hide? Abandon my life here so I could escape the one being that bastard's son?" He snorted humourlessly, a sneer on his lips to hide his shame as he admitted, "I will be lying if I say I didn't think about it. In fact, I had such an argument with myself that I almost punch myself in the face. I don't want this, I hate to be in this position and I don't want to go! …But I…"

Haku felt the hands on his collar tightened momentarily before they complete slacked and slid off his shoulders. Catching and holding on to them tightly, for a second he feared if he did not do so, he would lose his friend.

"I… I love my brother, my friends, my teachers and this village. I cannot run away, knowing exactly what kind of mess I will be leaving them in." Looking into his friend's eye, his own suddenly full of unwavering determination and courage. "That's why I am doing this!"

Finally, the snow boy sighed in defeat, knowing no matter what he did, he could not stop Hitsuka from doing what he wanted. Of course, he could report to the Hokage whom he had no doubt would have the power to deal with the situation. But would that be the wisest thing to do? Would he be betraying the trust that was placed in him?

Glaring at the now smiling Hitsuka, he couldn't help but return with a weak version of his own. "I hate you…" he said in mock anger for he was glad that he was the one that the boy had confided in.

At this, Hitsuka quickly apologised, truly sorry, "I know it's unfair for me to burden you with all these information and for that, I am sorry." But then, he grinned mischievously. "But hey, since we've gone straight past the hand-holding stage, it's alright, right?"

Seeing the rising red on the other's check – the kind of red that usually ended in someone being severely deformed – the white-haired boy mentally smacked his own mouth for running off on him. Then, the next little while involved a lot of screamed "I am sorry! I had to!" and "I don't care!", followed by lots of running and smashing, not necessarily of inert objects.

"What kind of dude cares about their first kiss!"

"When this 'dude's' was given to another dude!"

Finally, when the dust had settled any one lumpy mass was groaning with pain on the floor, Haku sobered up. Holding out his newly gifted forehead protector to the other, he said, "Hitsuka, give me yours." Raising an eyebrow in puzzlement, the white-haired boy's silent question was quickly answered. "I… I cannot stand seeing your own becoming that of missing-nin. It was fine for me as I did not think the Mizu was my home. But Konoha, it means everything to you and I just know how much it will distraught you should it… I will take care of it until you're back."

Eyes shining with unshed tears, Hitsuka was lost for words as his heart swelled with gratefulness. "Thank you, just… thank you," he whispered, his soul lighter as a burden was lifted.

"Hey, what are friends for?"

(1) The Japanese papered sliding door.

(2) Literally means the Soul Collector.

So, that's it for this chapter. No cliff hanger, as usual. Didn't really move the plot forward, though… But, I can tell you what's coming up next! Of course, to the faithful followers of Naruto the manga, they would know what coming next. Itachi! (Bah dum pch…!) And whatever else that my mind can come up with…