Sorry for keeping you all waiting. It's been a long time between chapters, but at least this means I could make it a Christmas gift to all who've been waiting.

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Chapter 17

A blazing roar clawed its way through the night. It was not the sound of a charging beast, nor did it carry the ferociousness of any animal. It was simply the sound of unmatched heat, scraping across the dark canopy and worming its way to any eardrum it could locate. No creature known to the living races made this noise. The only thing that came close was a forge, suddenly opened to the cold when its fires had burned brightly and tightly for hours uninterrupted. The noise echoed three more times as the heads of each blazing dragon snapped and hissed at each other, experimenting with their newfound life. They seemed to be aware of an existence that was not just their own, yet they also resembled newborns. They were new to life, yet had been aware of it long before they had been called.

Jiyumaru felt something in his spine tingle. He realized it was his nerve.

Yakusho remained silent for the time being, his eyes scanning his incarnations and the battlefield all at once. He slowly rose to his feet, his gaze drifting gently towards Jiyumaru once more. There was finiteness to his eyes. It was a quality that disturbed the ANBU jounin immensely. It was as though Yakusho felt this would be the last time their eyes would meet. Delving too deeply into those thoughts fractured what little calm Jiyumaru had managed to attain.

"You look tense," Yakusho muttered. His voice was hardly noticeable above the roaring flames of his summoned beasts, but the skilled ninja's ears picked up the noise nonetheless. "Anything I can do to help you with that?"

Jiyumaru was wary of Yakusho's demure attitude. The flaming dragons before him could not be friendly. They were most definitely hostile, but it was impossible for the Jounin to understand just how hostile they were. He had never seen or heard of a jutsu quite like this one in all his years, leaving him guessing for the first time in a long while. He felt his limbs twitch more and more as he remained still, sizing up his opposition with care. His grip on his katana loosened for but a split second, causing the steel weapon to tilt slightly before he regained his composure.

"You seem quite on edge," Yakusho continued, crossing his arms over his chest. The Dragon Fang remained in his hands, held tightly to his body along with the bloodied photo. "You've never seen anything like this, right? It's one of the most well hidden techniques of the Ryumoto Clan, so I'm not surprised. Would you like a crash course?"

A solitary dragon-flame tilted its mass downward, becoming level with Yakusho's height for but a moment. It leaned in towards its master as if it wanted to be petted on the head, a request that the brunet did not respond to. Spurned by its master the dragon turned on Jiyumaru, letting out another furnace-like belch that actually singed the hairs on Jiyumaru's skin. The dragon-thing returned to its position high above the Ryumoto, hissing all the way up.

"You see, the Karyuu Yuudoudan is a special kind of summoning technique used mostly for tracking," the sole clan survivor explained. "It requires, on top of a little contracted blood, an object to use for the dragons to home in on a particular person. Like a dog sniffing out someone by using one of their socks, only more effective."

As if responding to its summoner's words, another head of flame roared deadly heat into the air, snapping its flaming jaws at the speedy ANBU member. Jiyumaru felt his breath catch in his throat, his limbs poised to move at a moment's notice. He didn't trust the serpentine fires any more than he trusted their caller.

"Basically, I've used this pretty little picture of you and your team when you were kids as a base," Yakusho continued. "My dragons will hunt down the closest thing related to the base until they've killed it. Pretty simple, huh?"

Jiyumaru leapt backward just as the first snake of flame crashed into the rocky terrain. Tendrils of smoke and fire cascaded out from the impact as the summoned entity ploughed through the limestone, bombarding the surrounding area with chunks of rock. Jiyumaru brought his arm up to shield his face from the barrage, grunting as the debris cut into his clothing and skin. He had barely realized he was under attack when the draconic fire had rushed forward to strike him, giving him but a moment to escape catastrophe. He vaguely wondered how much longer he could keep up with simple close shaves. He knew his luck would only last so long.

"Not bad, you've still got good reactions," Yakusho sneered from across the brook. "Though I sincerely doubt you can outlast my missiles."

Three of the four flame-bred dragons flew off from the ring surrounding Yakusho, bellowing out in hunger as they scorched straight toward Jiyumaru. The veteran shinobi attempted to distract them momentarily with an explosive kunai, bounding off to the left as the tool combusted violently in the air. The diversion did not work as intended, instead doing nothing more than obscuring his vision of the oncoming assault. A cylinder of flaming might ploughed through the smoke and fires, opening its eyes and jaws on the other side as it closed in on its prey. Jiyumaru dove forward and sprung off his outstretched palms in order to escape, flinging himself out of the way of the screeching flame and into the path of the second.

A single curse left the jounin's lips as he hurtled towards the second hunter, unable to change his trajectory by any normal means. But Jiyumaru was no normal man, which gave him many options to which normal people were not entitled. His mind raced to force the chakra through his arm, causing a hard gust of wind to blow his body to the side of the gaping, fiery fangs. He hit the stony earth hard, coughing out his breath as he skidded and tumbled across the rocky surface. He stopped sharply, his bones battered by the fall, yet not damaged enough to keep him from fighting back.

The third searing beast reared its head right behind Jiyumaru, barreling down on him with its fiery jaws wide open. The great summoned entity swallowed the ANBU jounin whole, bathing his form in flame. Yakusho observed as his opponent's body was slowly reduced to ash beneath the assault, leaving not even a single shred of his existence behind. The dragon reformed slowly and pulled its head into the air, peering over at its master with a sneer.

"I think I should mention," Yakusho blurted out, "that the dragons don't need to see you to find you."

All three vicious creatures ploughed straight into the ground, knocking rocks and chunks of soil to the side. Jiyumaru leapt out from his hiding spot, his face twisted in anger that he had been unable to hide in the ground like he had planned. Another barrage of exploding kunai met the incarnations, driving them back for just a moment. In that one moment he summoned a good portion of chakra and put it all into one jutsu. A moment later the clearing was filled with five Jiyumarus, each one giving a curt nod in Yakusho's direction before dispersing in a several directions. The scraping of flame roused once more as the snake-like flames rushed out from Yakusho's ring.

"Oh, and Bunshin don't fool them either."

Jiyumaru swore louder than he realized, most of the aberrant word censored by the blaring, scorching roar of three separate serpents of flame racing through his clones towards him. Each Bunshin dissipated noisily into chakra smoke as they were ripped through, each streaming animal screaming towards the large oak that Jiyumaru had hidden behind. The solid plant was no match for the crazed force of fire, becoming torn and burned apart as each manifested conflagration crashed into it. Chips of splintered and charred wood scattered about as Jiyumaru used the force to propel himself back into the clearing.

No sooner had his feet hit stone than Jiyumaru was running off at top speed. Chakra placed in the legs was known to give one a great boost in speed, but the boosts that Jiyumaru had given himself were beyond anything any other person had seen. It was specific rhythm he had designed, the perfect timing for pushing chakra out through one's legs and feet. It was not a constant boost, but rather quick shots of chakra beyond what would normally be acceptable. The result was Jiyumaru's "First Step", an incredible boost in speed that made him move with blurring alacrity. He was upon Yakusho before the brown-haired teenager even realized the elite ninja had hit the ground, the silver-bladed katana poised to finish the dragon-warrior with a single swipe.

The strike failed as the fourth flame ignited right at Yakusho's feet, encircling his body in a protective wrap of fire and hissing out violently at Jiyumaru. The dragon's eyes formed within the blaze along with its jaws, catching the blade against its body of impenetrable flame. The two shinobi traded glances in that one moment, Jiyumaru's filled with anger while Yakusho's remained impassive. Jiyumaru snarled shortly and withdrew before the three other fiery snakes returned, crashing into the earth violently and scattering more stones and steam about.

"You never cease to amaze me Jiyumaru." Yakusho had not moved an inch since the fiasco had begun, his arms still crossed tightly across his chest. "Even now you're pulling out things I didn't know about."

"Being ANBU means I don't give all my secrets away, especially in battle!" Jiyumaru panted slowly, catching his breath. The only downside to his extreme speed was that it tended to wind him momentarily after its use. It didn't always happen, but it was a pain when it did.

"I see. Don't hold that against me, please. The only reason I've given away as much as I have is because I had to do so to survive."

The earth before Jiyumaru erupted in a shower of rock and soil as the three flame serpents exploded from the ground. They had burrowed their way through the solid earth using nothing but heat and brute force to lash out at him, following their predetermined orders. Jiyumaru barely back-flipped out of the road, the blazing touch of one of the missiles burning his vest and pant leg. Though their sneak attack failed, the three summoned beasts were already preparing for another assault, twisting apart to come at Jiyumaru from all angles.

"Katon! Karyuu Endan!"

The cry pervaded Jiyumaru's mind and caused him to falter. A fourth screaming stream of flame exited Yakusho's mouth, flying straight at the already dangerously positioned jounin. The blast came to life in the shape of another dragon missile, opening its blazing jaws wide as it neared its goal. The three homing missiles dove in at that exact moment, forming a four-way death trap. It was a sinister display of fire's true might, sealing all the exits Jiyumaru could take very quickly with intense heat.

He made his move suddenly, diving toward the draconic blaze coming at his left. The suicidal maneuver had been done with perfect timing, such that for a moment even Yakusho believed Jiyumaru to have died. Jiyumaru's narrow escape could only be attributed to his intense flexibility and agility, as his body would not have escaped a bath of flames any other way. Like a snake the well-trained ninja dove straight toward the missile just as its body swerved, leaving a momentary opening. He was through it just as all four of Yakusho's attacks collided, consuming the area in a gigantic inferno. The dragon ninja watched his creation burn for a few moments before watching Jiyumaru stand up slowly, his clothing singed and touched with ash.

"You just keep pulling shit out of your ass, don't you?" Yakusho actually chuckled, amazed at the entire situation. Luck was allowing Jiyumaru to live and keep on fighting in a way no other had ever done.

"Well if I didn't, this wouldn't be very entertaining for you, would it?"

Jiyumaru did not share Yakusho's amusement in the least bit. The game that was going on was taking its toll on him, as he realized it had been intended to. The summoning technique that Yakusho had employed was a wondrous thing, such that it even met Jiyumaru's incredibly high standards. He had no doubt now that it would continue to chase him until he was dead. Even if Yakusho ran out of chakra, Jiyumaru would most likely be in no condition to fight back, whereas Yakusho would be completely fresh and ready for combat.

"No, I don't suppose it would be, now would it?" Yakusho barely let a smirk light his face as he pointed in Jiyumaru's direction. "Don't get cocky now. The fun's barely started, after all."

The ring around Yakusho burned more brightly as he spoke, suddenly bursting to life as his speech ended. Three separate flames coiled around his body before taking their shapes once more, sneering devilishly as they came to life once again.

Yakusho's dragon missiles launched out with a crackling scream, each one headed straight for Jiyumaru.

Naruto struggled against the chakra that bound him to Sakai's barrier. The tendrils of energy that held him to the dome tightened against his squirming, crushing his body against solid azure. He had not been aware until that moment that chakra, something he usually felt flowing throughout his body, could be so damn hard. It felt less like chakra and more like a cement wall.

His attention shifted slightly from his own pains toward Hinata. She had just agreed to fight Sakai, in order to spare him. The more he ran that by his mind, the more ludicrous it seemed. Using him as bait so Hinata would be forced to fight? How did that even begin to make sense? Why would Sakai want to fight at all? Wouldn't he rather simply escape? And why would he use someone like Naruto as bait?

Naruto realized that metaphorically sitting on his ass would do him no good at all. He began to struggle against his prison once again, grunting sharply as the tension increased and smothered him against the see-through wall once more. He would not allow pain or fear of death stop him though. He would break free and rescue Hinata just like he had promised Kiba. He wouldn't fail twice.

The problem that arose at that point was that Naruto's brute strength alone could not shatter his bonds. The snake-like swirls of energy that kept him chained to the dome were surprisingly resilient despite their rather thin structure. Naruto wondered what it was that made them so strong. He vaguely remembered Sakai saying something about the chakra being tempered with soil and metal from the earth. If that were the truth, then it would take more power than his body had to break through.

It would take him breaking his promise to save her.

Don't even think about it, pup.

Naruto's eyes shot open as the voice entered his head. The Kyuubi had spoken to him once before that night, back when his hope had begun to falter. Now the beast was speaking again, but this time it was to prevent him from saving Hinata, an action that made no sense. The Kyuubi had helped Naruto get this far, all on the promise of reclaiming "their vixen." Why would the demon stop him now?

Why the hell shouldn't I?! What, you're suddenly looking out for me and my promises now?

Don't get a swelled head. This has very little to do with you…it's about that strange child with the blue hair.

Naruto found his eyes drawn to Sakai as the Kyuubi spoke, as if the Demon Fox were tilting his head in the strange teenager's direction. For but a split second Naruto and the ghostly boy's eyes met. At that moment, in spite of the situation at hand, Naruto felt a chill run up his spine.

What about him? He doesn't seem that special.

Then you're blind AND stupid. Then again, I guess I couldn't expect you to feel all that chakra like I can…and that marking…he has to be from the Ageru clan.

The Ageru clan? Who the hell are they? I've never heard of them.

Of course you haven't…you don't get around like I used to.

I'll take that as a compliment.

The trapped bijuu snarled at Naruto's impudence, something that made the blond chuckle.

So, what makes them special enough to make you think twice?

Naruto could practically feel the Demon Fox peering from his prison, looking back and forth throughout the clearing before looking straight at Sakai. His attention seemed to be linked to Naruto's, as the young shinobi was doing just what he felt the Kyuubi would be doing.

You're pretty much living one of the reasons they're so special. They have wondrously large amounts of chakra, more than most ninja could comprehend. But as a whole, their shinobi history was short and unimpressive.

So then why are you so worried?

Because before they were shinobi, the Kyuubi snorted loudly, they were demon hunters.

Demon hunters? What the hell kind of job is that?

You really ARE clueless, aren't you? The Kyuubi chuckled, his voice echoing throughout the chambers inside Naruto's subconscious. A demon hunter hunts demons…small ones, and Bijuu like myself.

Are you serious? People other than Akatsuki do that?

They don't anymore. Demon hunting became a dead profession long before you were born. Still…it's still a problem concerning me and you pup.

Explain that one to me!

Honestly, is there any part of that brain of yours that isn't focused on ramen and our vixen? The Kyuubi was beyond irritated now, but continued with its exposé regardless. All ninjutsu created by demon hunters were originally designed to deal with demons…other beings with immense levels of chakra. If you tap into my power, there's a very high chance that you'd only be helping him.

Naruto would have slammed his fist against the barrier had it not been crushing him. Suddenly the coils around him tightened, compressing his body and wringing the air out from him. He gasped hotly and begged for breath, hyperventilating as they let go of him. His face slumped against the blue dome with a grunt, leaving him exhausted.

At that moment, he caught eyes with Hinata, who quickly turned around to face Sakai once more.

Damn it, this isn't fair! I can't help her, and he's using me as bait!

This time the Kyuubi did not respond. Naruto felt a growl rising in his throat that was quickly quelled by another sharp squeeze of his body. As it released him, he realized that he could not escape and that it would be up to his lover to stop Sakai.

He may not have been a genius, but the irony of the situation was so blatant even he could not miss it.

Suddenly, the ground began to tremble violently. Sakai and Hinata's eyes were drawn directly toward something that was going on behind Naruto. The blond squirmed tightly against his bonds, trying to turn his head to see what they were looking at. Something about it had Sakai spooked, that much Naruto knew.

Damn it, what the hell is going on?

Jiyumaru's body flew through the small stream, tossing water and stones into the air as he slid across the ground. The dive had been his last minute escape from another strike by Yakusho's dragons, which had summarily blanketed the area behind him in a swathe of fire. He lay there for a moment, letting the tranquil stream soak his vest and dark garments, letting the tiny rivulets of water dampen the ends of his hair.

Move damn it. Get up and move!

Jiyumaru rolled out of the stream, pulling himself to his feet just as Yakusho's missiles reformed, throwing him deviant sneers as they prepared to lash out once again. Yakusho himself seemed relaxed, eyeing the jounin cautiously. He was monitoring the progress of the fight, determining Jiyumaru's remaining strength and stamina. He was biding his time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike.

"I don't suppose you'd like to come out here and join the party, huh?" Jiyumaru called out, dusting off his elbows.

"Thanks for the offer, but I like my little corner over here. You're more than welcome to join me, there's room." Yakusho's lips curved very slightly into a smarmy grin that made the hairs on the back of Jiyumaru's neck stand up.

"I'll pass thanks."

The dragon to Yakusho's left sped outward, making a beeline directly at Jiyumaru's body. Without hesitation the ANBU-level shinobi dove out of the way and made a break for the trees behind him. There was no logic in it. Yakusho had already proven that nothing fooled the beasts, and that included trying to hide behind or under things. They were relentless, able to find him through some unbelievable sense that Jiyumaru could not hope to emulate. They were savage creatures, brutal like the flames that had created them.

Jiyumaru doubted he could outrun them much longer.

Just when he thought things could not get worse, the serpentine flame snapped out, traveling several feet sharply without warning. Jiyumaru was forced to perform another dive to avoid having his head bitten off, an action that cut him off from his momentum and caused him to grind across the gravel below him. His face and jaw were cut in the slide, battering his upper body with stings of pain. In that moment he was struck with the horrifying realization that the dragon was still upon him and that he was no longer able to run away from it. He rolled over onto his back just as the seething jaws of his attacker raced down on him.

Then, for some reason, they stopped. The draconic fire was yanked back, like a dog that had run to the end of its leash and had suddenly been snapped back. It let out another charred roar, trying to fight against the force holding it back without success, snapping its fiery mouth at Jiyumaru desperately. The ANBU jounin was at a loss to explain why he wasn't burned to a crisp yet, staring into the hungry eyes of the fire-made beast with confusion.

"Shit," Yakusho cursed. "I wasn't paying attention…let it go too far."

For a moment, Jiyumaru remained puzzled. Then slowly the pieces fell into place and the mystery was solved. He slowly and carefully regained his footing, backing away from the ravenous flameling and shooting Yakusho a triumphant yet mischievous grin.

"They have a limited range huh? That's good to know."

"Don't act all superior. It's not because they have a limited range. It's because they have a limited volume."

Jiyumaru's eyes shot wide as the serpent to Yakusho's right slipped back into the ring of flame and the one that had been held back suddenly rushed forward, past its previous maximum length. Jiyumaru threw himself to the side, dodging the rush of heat and teeth just in time to avoid being struck. He was on his feet quickly, running once again from the elongated missile, unable to fight back against the immaterial beast. Another exploding kunai covered his tracks, giving him some extra distance between himself and the attack.

The third head slammed into the ground ahead of him, causing a wave of fire to fly across the rocks and soil in all directions. Jiyumaru could feel the intensity of the flames before they reached him, causing his legs to propel him into the air out of instinct. He avoided being incinerated by the surprise attack, leaving him wide open to the other head as he fell back towards the ground. The missile that had been chasing him previously closed the gap quickly, racing up through the air to catch him while he was vulnerable. Another furnace-like bellow filled the clearing as it homed in on its desired feast.

Something flew through the air, aimed directly at Yakusho. The dragon ninja was unsure as to what the small projectile was, but he wasn't about to be struck by something this close to victory. The fourth flame ignited in the ring, coming up to provide the draconic shield that had protected Yakusho from the last attack made on his person. The result of that simple defensive action was twofold in Jiyumaru's favor. As the shield drew up, the dragon missile that was poised to strike him down was pulled back, drawn away due to the change in consistency in the overall attack. Yakusho realized only too late that calling up his shield shortened his attack once again.

The second thing that occurred was a loud, shuddering explosion. The object that Jiyumaru had thrown was a small explosive, usually triggered by impact. The heat from the Karyuu Yuudoudan, however, was more than enough to cause the small orb to combust. The shielding fire absorbed most of the deadly blast, causing Yakusho to merely be thrown two feet out of the circle of fire. The red-vested teen slammed against the rocks behind him, grunting as the world around him spun slightly.

The flame serpent that Jiyumaru had just stopped shrieked, drawing more than enough attention to itself. His attention diverted itself to the sound, which blessed his eyes with a peculiar event. Yakusho's summoned beasts were currently writhing and struggling against themselves, their pure and bright flames slowly dying down to nothing but embers. Those hot flecks crumbled and fell off the creatures as they thrashed about, slowly wasting away to almost nothing as their source of life was slowly being wiped away. It took Jiyumaru a moment to realize just what was occurring and another moment to figure out why it was happening. He met Yakusho's eyes as the younger brunet stood up once more, a mere hint of exasperation apparent in the traitor's visage. Three steps saw the dragon-nin back inside his circle, at which point his summoned creatures regained their full vigor.

"That's a pain in the ass," he shot out. The hunting flames returned to his side, hovering and slithering about him cautiously, responding to their owner's emotions.

"So that's it huh? The whole trick depends on you staying in that circle?" Jiyumaru almost laughed at the situation, holding his side to prevent the amusement from showing on his face. "Jeez, that's so lame I can't believe it took that for me to figure it out."

"At least you're having fun, right?"

Jiyumaru's relaxed pose slowly melted away as he considered Yakusho's words. They weren't exactly cryptic in nature, but somehow they held a deeper meaning than they appeared to. The answer to that was probably more damning to Jiyumaru's personality than to his actual character. Every duck and weave exhilarated part of him. Part of him was brought to life by the near-death experiences, by the sheer defiance of the Reaper's strike each moment of this battle had offered. As a Kenshin, he naturally found his calling on the battlefield, where peace was not welcome except at the end of grueling combat. That was part of his nature. It was in his blood, an undeniable fact of who he was. So, at least in part, the answer was yes.

Yet another part of him was not having fun. It was his more human side, the part of him that valued everything life had to offer. The part of him that valued his allies and friends. It was that part of him that looked at Yakusho and felt remorse and sadness. Sadness over the events that had brought out the truth. Remorse over Yakusho's choices, whatever they may have been. He did not want to be here, fighting to death over someone he had thought his friend less than two hours ago.

"Am I allowed to add an asterisk to my answer?" Jiyumaru asked with what little wit he had left.

Yakusho snorted, his lips creeping into another playful smile. "You're shitting me."

"Believe it or not, this isn't how I wanted things to go."

"You honestly think it's any different in my shoes, Blades?"

Yakusho's arms fell limply to his sides, as if the life in them had been extinguished by a particular memory. Jiyumaru kept himself ready for just about anything, his hand gripping his katana tightly as the conversation allowed a break in the action. The longer he kept Yakusho talking, the more time he had to regain his stamina. With that in mind, Jiyumaru pushed the topic harder, unaware of just what he was getting himself into.

"You expect me to buy that load?" The ANBU's anger was a culmination of the confusion and distress that had amalgamated amongst the Konoha shinobi since the wedding. "You and your group kidnapped Hinata. Unless Naruto catches up to your friend, you'll get away with it, too. You've scattered our forces, and at least one of the Leaf's best shinobi is dead! So explain to me how it's not different for you!"

"What the hell makes you think I wanted any of that!?"

Jiyumaru nearly dropped his blade at Yakusho's outburst. It was not the shout, however, that had caused him to lose his composure. It was the raw emotion that had consumed Yakusho's face and eyes that disturbed him. For but a moment, the betrayer had lit up with such furious feelings that they nearly set the area around him aflame. A moment later those feelings slipped back into the darkness as Yakusho controlled himself, relaxing in the fiery circle of the Karyuu Yuudoudan.

"Fangs wasn't supposed to…it wasn't supposed to turn out like that. It wasn't in the plan."

Jiyumaru had been trained in the finest arts of weapon combat known to the world. It was that training alone that allowed him to catch onto the subtle hints that gave away Yakusho's true sentiments. The way his gloved palm tightened its grip on the Dragon Fang. The way his lip trembled ever so slightly as he spoke. The way his words hitched and scattered. The way he changed the words he wanted to use. It was obvious that something was bothering him, yet he refused to let Jiyumaru in on the secret.

"That's wonderful…except that it happened anyway, and you're just as guilty as Katai!"

Jiyumaru had expected a violent retort. What he witnessed instead was the rather disarming sight of Yakusho turning his head away from the accusation, holding his sword tightly as the flame missiles circled and glided around his body protectively. His lean frame trembled within the barrier of flames, and for the first time Jiyumaru truly realized that he was looking at a child. Even though no shinobi could be called something so innocent, the sight of Yakusho withdrawn into his own fire was more than symbolic enough to remind the jounin of his opponent's true age. It was enough to remind him that horrors he didn't even dare to dream had been a part of the young boy's everyday life. At age seventeen he was alone, the sole remaining member of his kind, in a world full of death and deceit.

For a moment, Jiyumaru felt sorry for him.

"I don't need to explain myself to you," Yakusho growled as he teetered on the brink of what might have been tears. "I am who I am, and have done what I have done. This is my decision…nobody else's. I will not be held to the standards of others!"

Yakusho thrust his sword arm out, holding the blade horizontally as he pointed at Jiyumaru with two fingers. The non-verbal command was heard by the dragon missiles Yakusho had summoned, sending all three of the free ones on a death-dealing course towards Jiyumaru. A simple roll was all it took to dodge the erratic assault, giving Jiyumaru just enough time to get his footing and make a dash to the far end of the clearing. He had been given just enough time to regain some of his wind, as well as enough time to formulate a very simplistic plan.

It was based on a story he had heard from Hatake Kakashi about the Chuunin exams some two or so years ago. The once-great ANBU member had thoroughly told the tale of Gaara's battle against Gai's student, Rock Lee. He remembered how the one-eyed special jounin had described the Jinchuuriki's Shield of Sand, and how Rock Lee's immense speed had outwitted the very rudimentary but effective defense. He was also reminded how similar Yakusho's defense was to Gaara's sand, and had thusly decided to borrow a chapter from Konoha's past to deal with it.

Jiyumaru only hoped that he would still be standing after he did it.

"Second Step."

Jiyumaru's form vanished from view. The dust rose rapidly in a straight line towards Yakusho without reason, kicked into the air by an unseen force. Yakusho could not respond fast enough to the mysterious disappearance of his target, his eyes opening wide as the fiery shield from the Karyuu Yuudoudan rose up to the defend him from an oncoming attack. The shield shuddered and scattered slightly as something cut across the flames, almost breaking through the solid power of the barrier.

"What the hell?!" Yakusho cried out, spinning on his heels to look behind him.

Jiyumaru was now several feet behind him, having outwitted both Yakusho and his summoned creations. The special jounin let out a deep, rasping breath as he came to a full stop, holding the ground for balance as he summoned more air to his lungs and chakra to his legs.

So, it works after all.

"First Step" had been simple enough to create. It wasn't even a marvel of shinobi ingenuity. All it had been was perfecting a concept and giving it a name. "Second Step" however, was a bit more complicated than just giving a concept a name. It was based upon the idea of First Step, but instead of just any kind of chakra, this version used Wind elemental chakra. It was a violent risk to use wind chakra in such a fashion, and Jiyumaru could already feel the side effects. The precise timing of sending wind chakra through his legs and out his feet produced an insanely large amount of extra speed.

It was this technique that Jiyumaru hoped would end this fight.

"I'm sorry to say I can't let you just keep going on like this," Jiyumaru called breathlessly, "but I don't take kindly to those who tread on the happiness of others. Your selfish ambitions all end here!"

Jiyumaru vanished from sight once more as the chakra poured through his legs, kicking up another streamline of dust and rocks. This time Yakusho brought up his hands and the shield of his own will, catching Jiyumaru's katana with the wall of flame. It wasn't until the fire that rose behind him was cut across the middle that he realized he was under attack again. He tried to turn around and face the oncoming blade, only to feel another attack attempt to penetrate the defensive perimeter to his left. Jiyumaru continued his light speed assault, bringing the katana down on the blazing shield, each lightning fast blow attempting to cut through the thin but strong obstruction. Eventually one strike managed to cut through the intense flames, whipping right past Yakusho's skin. The swing caused a small rustle of wind to rattle the hairs on the teenager's arm, alerting him to the failing state of his attack.

Without warning the next attack landed, knocking Yakusho clear of the circle. The blade did not have enough force left behind it to cleave him in two, simply rattling his ribs as he was tossed into the wet stream. He tumbled head over heels backward before coming to a stop in the water, looking up just in time to see the Karyuu Yuudoudan begin to fall apart and cool. Any chance he had of making it back in time was eliminated as Jiyumaru zoomed by once more, hitting Yakusho with the handle of his katana and knocking the young ninja aside. The traitor came to his knees just as the blade of Jiyumaru's sword made its final pass, the sharpened steel passing right over his forehead with a sound so frighteningly close to his body it made him freeze in place.

Jiyumaru finally came to a stop in front of Yakusho, skidding harshly on his knees as he finally halted his attacks. He was panting hard, unable to catch the breath he had wasted in his effort to defeat Yakusho. He blinked in order to regain his senses, finding it hard to see after his rapid movements. When he could see straight once more, his eyes traveled to Yakusho's kneeling form just in time to see the red bandana he always wore slide off his face, cut by his katana in the last pass.

Yakusho's bare forehead stopped Jiyumaru's breath in its tracks. Emblazoned upon the young man's brow was an old shinobi emblem, long forgotten by the people and found only in textbooks. The sight of the dragon, with its wings curled about its form, simply bursting from the dragon ninja's head was somehow a terrifying sight. The more he stared, the more obvious it became to Jiyumaru that the once noble symbol of Ryuugakure had been literally burned onto Yakusho's forehead, seared onto his flesh by some event long into the past.

Yakusho turned his head upward, his eyes glazed over with rage. His hands glowed red with dragon chakra as he rose to his feet, letting heat and power gather around his body in a shimmering display.

"You know nothing about me. You don't even begin to understand half of what I've been through. So don't you….don't you…don't you dare judge me!"

The energy that gathered around Yakusho began to tremble as the young man snapped his hands together, focusing all his power into the necessary seals as he let his rage drive him. Yakusho's brown eyes flared violently as pure force traveled throughout his entire body, igniting the air around him.

"Ryuu no Kokoro!"

Jiyumaru could only step backward in both awe and fear as Yakusho unleashed the power of his lineage, summoning every ounce of his draconic might from within the deepest crevices of his body. The ebony backdrop of the darkened forest and nighttime sky rippled under the intense force of Yakusho's dragon chakra, which slowly seeped out from his skin and began to cover him. By the time his hands hit the cold stone of the lonely brook they had already changed, surrounded by and morphed into claws by the altering effects of the volatile red energy. His throat issued forth a deep roar of anger, which slowly became deep and vicious as the chakra crawled over his face. His features stared cold death at Jiyumaru as they were slowly replaced by a snarling crimson visage, a row of faux-teeth snapping as Yakusho became engrossed in his transformation. A long tail snapped out from behind the dragon ninja, whipping across the ground and scattering pebbles about the scene. The final step of the transformation was a set of thick wings on his back, which flapped once before coming to a rest.

A single bead of sweat rolled down Jiyumaru's cheek.

"Let's see what you've got now!" Yakusho taunted. "I'll tear you apart limb by bloody limb!"

Despite being several times bulkier than his regular body, Yakusho's dragon form moved with surprising speed. A single lunge brought him to Jiyumaru in less than a blink of an eye, his claws poised to rend the flesh of the seemingly petrified ANBU. Jiyumaru artfully ducked to the side, evading the savage attack and bringing his katana down on Yakusho's thick red hide. A loud scraping assaulted Jiyumaru's ears as he pulled his sword across the unstable chakra shell, finishing the long swipe just before the hind legs. The jounin turned around just in time to see that his attack had done next to nothing before he was slapped aside by Yakusho's tail.

"I think you'll find that the protective shell created by my chakra is much more durable than flesh," Yakusho sneered. His voice had an otherworldly echo to it, deeper and more animalistic than his regular tone.

Jiyumaru propped himself up on a knee, bringing his sword up to block another one of Yakusho's lightning fast blows. The same scraping sound as before rang out from Yakusho's hands as he gripped the blade tightly with his claws. Jiyumaru attempted to withdraw his weapon, but found that Yakusho's clutch was far stronger than his own muscles. The more he tried the harder his opponent held on. The katana's metal began to creak under the pressure, signaling the panic response in Jiyumaru's brain. The maw of Yakusho's shell snarled viciously as the young ninja tried to snap Jiyumaru's sword in half, tugging on the steel with all his might.

Without warning, a purple cloud exploded to life in the middle of the brawl. Yakusho's lungs received a full blast of the smoke and expelled it sharply, causing him to release Jiyumaru's sword with a hard cough. Jiyumaru pounced on the opportunity afforded him by his smokescreen and rolled out of the cloud, releasing him into the free air of the rocky creek. No sooner had the elite ninja gathered his bearings did he launch himself back into combat, springing back into his Second Step attack pattern. His body vanished into the air as he flew past Yakusho, striking his powerful hide over and over again with each pass. Each time he brought his sword down on the red chakra that covered Yakusho's body there would be nothing more than that same scraping sound, signifying he had failed to do any real damage.

Yakusho dispelled the cloud with a hot blast of fire just as Jiyumaru was making his seventh pass. Suddenly the dragon-like man was very aware of his surroundings. The eight strike glanced over his shoulder, giving him a reference from where Jiyumaru had come from. He watched the cloud of dust that was born from Jiyumaru's lightning-fast passing and waited. He did not have to do so for long before Jiyumaru came around for another strike, kicking up pebbles and dirt on his way in.

Yakusho struck the ground in front of himself with his claw, tossing up chunks of stone and gravel. Amidst the banks of fire and destroyed terrain, the defiant gesture seemed immaterial and pointlessly destructive. Yet behind the primitive display of power was a flicker of anticipation. A moment later that anticipation was met with success as Jiyumaru collided with the outstretched arm and was sent flying across the small brook. The grizzled jounin tumbled across large, wet stones for but a mere second before regaining his posture, coming to a shaky stop with shock on his face. Yakusho, whose face was mostly obscured by the crimson veil covering his body, curved into a sadistic grin as Jiyumaru prepared another attack.

This time when Jiyumaru raced in, Yakusho's chakra tail caught him across the stomach. Saliva flew from his mouth as he was tossed aside, flung into the shallow river by the merciless appendage. He did not get up for a moment, letting his senses and thoughts return to him before attempting another attack. Another gust of wind later he was on the offensive once again, only to be thwarted at the last second as Yakusho pulled a giant chunk of earth out of the ground and slammed it into Jiyumaru's incoming form. The sickening crunch that filled the clearing didn't even make it to Jiyumaru's ears, as he was struck mindless by the savage blow. He teetered for a moment just out of Yakusho's range, shaking his head to try and regain himself.

"There's a fatal flaw with speed like that," Yakusho bellowed, "even beyond the side effects it seems to have."

No sooner had Jiyumaru's brain started functioning again than he realized just how much his legs hurt. A quick look down confirmed the worst of his fears as each of his pant legs was steeped in blood. His leg muscles and skin had begun to rupture under the pressure of Second Step and had finally taken all the beating they could take. He bit his lip as the affliction assaulted him so as to not let on to how much pain he was in.

"And what might that be?" he gasped.

"When you move that fast, your eyes can't keep up with your surroundings." Yakusho paced to the side, keeping his eyes on Jiyumaru. "It's a well-known downside to super speed. The faster you move, the less aware you are as you move. Your vision most likely focuses in on your target and only your target. It makes it incredibly easy to simply trick you. Also, someone with reflexes and speed like I have in this form can simply throw obstacles in your road that you can't possibly avoid."

Jiyumaru cursed, unable to hide the agony in his legs any longer. Things had been bad enough before, but now he was crippled. His speed and maneuverability were gone and his attacks had almost no effect on Yakusho whatsoever. Every instinct in his body knew that this battle was over and that he would die. Yet he refused to accept that, keeping his legs moving despite the pain that consumed them. He forced his body into a fighting pose, panting desperately as his eyesight blurred under the throbbing agony in his limbs.

"Fighting till the bitter end, huh?" Yakusho snorted. "Entirely within your character, I guess."

"This has nothing to do with my character," Jiyumaru responded. "This has to do with my duty."

"Whatever helps you justify your life on your way to hell!"

Jiyumaru's eyes strained to follow Yakusho's rapid movements, catching only blurs and streaks of red as the now-transformed dragon ninja took to the sky. Flecks of chakra scattered about in the wind as they drifted from their ethereal origin, lighting the darkness with their incendiary glow. It took a moment for the beleaguered shinobi to find his flying enemy amongst all the shining debris, spotting him silhouetted against the moon. The air around Yakusho had begun to twist and ripple as he gathered power, a blinding orange glow forming inside his jaws. Small streaks of light floated from his lips and past his cheeks each time he opened his mouth to draw in breath, his voice catching in a deep chuckle high above the battlefield.

Jiyumaru willed his legs to move. He knew what was coming. If he didn't move now, there would be no way to escape it. His mind screamed at his damaged muscles and bleeding shins, cried out in fear and rage with the command to move.

The only thing that answered it was pain.

Yakusho exhaled a violent storm of flames that crashed into the stone and water, casting up a cloud of hot steam moments before even that was consumed by the blaze. A tsunami of cascading fire rushed along the entire clearing, smothering every last thing there in a cocoon of blistering heat. Yakusho continued to expel the savage flames until his lungs could no longer blow, searing everything within his vision. From the sky he looked down upon the scorched wasteland, letting his eyes roam over the burning landscape. Flames flickered powerfully where once there was a tiny stream, reduced to nothing more than an imprint in the wake of the red-dressed man's assault. Back and forth his eyes scanned the ground, looking and looking. Yet no matter how hard he searched, what he was looking for evaded him. Once, twice, then a third time he passed his eyes over the great space before letting out a howl.

"Where are you, Jiyumaru!?"

Kenshin Jiyumaru gripped his right arm firmly, letting saliva drip down his chin as he sat against the base of a rather large tree. A small pool of blood had begun to form just under his legs, made slightly larger each time a drop of his essence seeped through his thoroughly saturated clothing. His katana was no more, lost in the blaze that had charred his sword arm and nearly taken his life. He had managed one last burst of speed under the circumstances and instantly regretted having pushed himself that far. His tendons were shot and his muscles were shredded, leaving his legs almost completely useless. If they weren't treated soon, he would most likely never walk again. He realized that in his current situation, those kinds of thoughts should probably have been placed on the back burner.

"Where are you Jiyumaru?! I'm not going to just float around here forever, you know!"

Jiyumaru grunted slightly as he shifted against the tree, brushing his singed arm against the great plant's surface. The pain was extraordinary, brought on from overworking himself in the previous battle. He was completely down and out this time, without any hope of a comeback or second wind. Those things were wonderful, but mattered very little when one was basically a cripple. Jiyumaru continued his labored breathing in an attempt to keep his thoughts level as Yakusho continued to taunt him from the darkness.

This is bad. I can hardly stand, let alone move. My arm is too damaged to use my sword effectively…and even when I could use it, I could hardly even scratch him..

"You're trying my patience Jiyumaru!" Yakusho's distorted voice traveled far throughout the skies and forest, easily reaching Jiyumaru's ears. "Perhaps I should just start blowing things up and see if I find you!"

Somewhere to Jiyumaru's right, much deeper into the woods than he currently was, there was a giant explosion. A deep crimson glow battered the incapacitated jounin, changing the colors of his body to a deep red. He ignored the obvious implications of Yakusho's rage, staring off into the distant blackness of the trees.

At this rate, the outcome of the battle is obvious. I'll lose. There's simply no way I can stand up to someone like him in my current condition. Think, Jiyumaru, think! There's got to be a way…some solution. You can't go out like this.

Jiyumaru continued to belittle himself with random comments as the forest and surrounding area began to glow with the red of Yakusho's fires. Every few moments another small patch of wilderness would be set ablaze as the angered dragon ninja searched violently for his opponent. It would only be a matter of time before one of the errantly thrown fireballs found Jiyumaru and incinerated him.

That's how it was going to be. The last moments of Kenshin Jiyumaru's life would be spent waiting to die. The bloodied ninja wanted to deny it, but found no way to do so. There was no escape from Yakusho at this point, and the scattered barrage of flames was slowly creeping in. He could not fight back and he could not escape. It seemed that there would be no other alternative except to await death.

And yet, at the corners of Jiyumaru's contemplation was a solution. For a moment it teased him, darting in and out of his thoughts as he continued to breathe. His hand shifted on his burned arm as the answer to his predicament continued to flitter back and forth in his mind, finally resting on the tip of his consciousness and tongue.

"K-Kagura!" he coughed, sucking in another hard breath of air. "I've never managed before but…might be my only chance…"

The forest ahead of Jiyumaru exploded in a cloud of fire, scattering wood and rock into the air. Splinters landed on Jiyumaru's head straight from the disaster, along with soot and wisps of smoke. Yakusho was getting closer with his random attacks and there was no telling when the next one would hit home. There was no more time for deliberation or thought.

It's now or never.

Jiyumaru drew his hand towards his mouth and bit into his left thumb. The blood from his digit flowed gently compared to the flood of produced by his legs and drooled down to his palm slowly. The seals for the jutsu were placed together slowly due to Jiyumaru's injured right arm, snapping together one after another in slow succession. Time ticked away as the ANBU jounin raced against the clock to finish the technique before the screaming fireball that claimed his life showed up.

Yakusho readied his next blast. Steam rose from the maw of the dragon's head, a pale orange glow coming to life inside his mouth. Each coughing suck for more air and more flame scattered embers into the air. He had picked a small batch of forest that had completely avoided his wrath so far. It would burn, just like all the other patches he'd attacked. Perhaps that was where Jiyumaru would be hiding and this blast would be the end of everything.

"Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

Yakusho's fireball was delayed as the piece of green he had chosen became covered in a cloud of thick white smoke. Amongst the chakra-induced fog a large figure landed, shaking the ground as it came into being. The terrain shook and changed under the weight of whatever it was that had appeared, several large trees creaking and snapping as they were bent over.

The thick layer of mist cleared shortly after, revealing an incredibly large beast standing in the forest. It was easily four times taller than the tallest tree there, clad in deep blue armor. In its paw was an expertly crafted spear that was about ten feet taller than the creature was. It was an amazing weapon, crafted out of the finest material one could imagine. The dual spearhead design was not commonplace in the day and age that Yakusho lived in, yet seemed perfectly in place with the design of the creature's armor. The navy blue with gold-rimmed armor clinked lightly as the giant animal flicked its long, bushy tail in the trees, knocking one or two over as it lifted the guard of its helmet up, revealing a thick black mask covering golden eyes.

"The hell? A giant raccoon?"

"I don't believe it! I actually did it!" Jiyumaru coughed out from atop the giant raccoon. He was sitting on the animal's head, holding on to the side of the great beast's helmet. "Kagura-hime…"

"Now what the heck am I doin' here?" the great Raccoon Princess bellowed. She used a single paw to cover her eyes from the moonlight as she scanned the horizon. "And where's the tiny person that summoned me here?"

"R-right here, Kagura-hime!" Jiyumaru slid down the front of Kagura's helmet and came to rest on her muzzle, looking her straight in the eye. The Princess blinked a few times before her cheeks turned red and her eyes squished tight in excitement.

"Kawaii!" she screamed. "You're such a cutie! Absolutely adorable. Nice butt too."

A moment of silence passed by before a giant sweat drop formed on the back of Jiyumaru's and Yakusho's heads.

"What the hell!?" The dragon-man snarled. "You've got to be kidding me!"

"I-I'm sorry, what did you j-just say?" Jiyumaru stammered.

"Did I stutter?" Kagura simply giggled, stamping her spear on the ground. "I said you're a cutie, and you've got a nice ass. Is there somethin' wrong with that? Seriously, if you were a raccoon, I'd be all over you! I might be all over you anyway…"

Jiyumaru paled momentarily as Kagura continued to talk. The blood drained away from his face as a horrible, horrible truth began to sink in. The world around him darkened around him as reality came crashing down.

"Dear god, you're almost as bad as Zurui!"

"Oh, you've met my little brother?" Kagura giggled and narrowed her eyes on Jiyumaru, squealing happily as her memory kicked in. "Oh yes! You're Kenshin Jiyumaru! You're the one that summoned him here last, weren't you?"

"Most unfortunately…" Jiyumaru grumbled.

"Do you two mind?"

Kagura's and Jiyumaru's attention was instantly drawn to the floating form of Ryumoto Yakusho, who continued to flap his large chakra wings in front of them. Bouts of flame flickered out of his mouth as he focused his chakra, preparing for another fireball. The giant, armored raccoon clenched her fist and shook it angrily at the dragon, her cheeks puffed out in comic rage.

"Is that the big meanie that's got you all worked up, cute stuff?" she asked.

"Um…y-yeah, he's the uh…meanie…"

"Alright then! Since he's ruined my good mood by picking on you," the Raccoon Princess offered, "I'll cut you a deal."

"What…kind of deal?" Jiyumaru twitched slightly, afraid of the answer he might receive.

"Simple! I'll beat him up," she giggled, pointing her spear directly at Yakusho's hovering body, "if you give me a private reading of every Icha Icha volume there is. With lots of juicy details."

Jiyumaru's face contorted in mind-blowing shock as Kagura released the details of her plan. Yakusho tilted slightly, almost falling from flight as he tried to comprehend the priorities of the massive beast before him.

"A-are you insane?" Jiyumaru quivered.

"It's either that or I leave you as lunch for that ugly lizard."

Jiyumaru didn't take long to weigh his options. With a small but nearly invisible nod he accepted the proposal, taking a hold of Kagura's armor so he could stand up on her head.

"Alright," he muttered, "you win. I'm all yours then, Kagura-hime."

"Excellent!" she cooed with excitement. "Oh boy, I've never had such a sweet piece of ass order me around! It's really energizing!"

"You're gonna go this far to insult me Jiyumaru?" Yakusho didn't appear at all pleased, as he looked Kagura over from head to toe. "She's worthless. I'll be able to crush her and you all at once! Don't you have enough spine to die alone!?"

The air beside Yakusho suddenly shifted, tossing him to the side violently. The humanoid dragon rolled in the sky three times before finally stopping, turning his attention to the strange phenomenon that had flung him so violently. Kagura's spear was outstretched, hanging in the air in a perfect line, the great head occupying the space his body had once been holding.

"I would ask you to not insult my summoner," Kagura smiled indecently. "You're already on thin ice as it is, sweetie."

A fireball flew across the clearing straight at Kagura's face. The great raccoon pulled her spear back and deflected the blazing orb with a single spin of the weapon, bringing it into the ready position with the flowing grace of a combat expert. From there the Princess swung her lance overhead, sending her immensely strong chakra to the tip as it cleaved the sky. The result of her swing was a giant blade of air that sliced through the sky, tearing up the ground as it headed straight towards Yakusho. It traversed the great space with alarming speed, leaving Yakusho no time to dodge. The only thing that saved him was a slight tilt to the left, leaving the sickle of wind to cut across his wing instead of his entire body. The sizzling red appendage fizzled into nothingness as it was severed from him, causing him to nose dive towards the rocky ground below. Before he could crash into said stones however, the wing regenerated, reforming perfectly and giving him the gift of flight once more. A single flap of the extensions of his shell sent him airborne again, saving him from certain death.

"Y'ever heard of the saying 'don't judge a book by its cover', sweetie?" Kagura giggled, returning the giant javelin to her side. "You should have listened to your mommy."

Yakusho's response was a violent roar that seemed to shake even the air. Channeling all his rage into his chakra he formed another blast of fire that rocketed out of his mouth, flinging liquid fire towards the heavily armored summoned beast. Kagura's response was to raise her opposite arm, intercepting the blast of flames with the pronounced guard of her left arm. The impact was announced by an odd crackling noise as the flames scattered against a barrier of pure chakra, deflected easily by the intense defensive maneuver. Despite the stunning protection, Yakusho did not let up on his attack. He continued to pour on the fire, pushing Kagura back very slightly by force alone. Knowing her shield would only last a few more moments under the prolonged exposure to Yakusho's fiery breath, the great raccoon princess swung her spear in an underhanded arc, sending a wave of chakra through the earth towards the dragon ninja. The ground split under the force of the energy, sending large chunks and pillars of ground straight up in a long line. Yakusho let up on his attack and ascended higher into the sky to avoid the ramrods of earth that Kagura had sent after him, leaving himself only temporarily open as he flew upward.

Kagura met that opening fiercely. Jiyumaru shifted on her helmet and fell to his rear as she charged forward, closing the gap in but two strides thanks to her massive size. Yakusho was forced to veer off to the side as cold metal lunged ahead of him, attempting to skewer him by cutting him off in mid-climb. He responded to her attack with one of his own, firing a heavy ball of flame directly at the giant raccoon's head. Her left hand rose to the occasion and defended her once again, dispersing the fiery orb with a single swipe of her shield. Yakusho flipped backwards into the air to dodge the second strike of Kagura's lance, taking a harsh dive to get below her and firing a thick spout of flames against her stomach. This time she could not defend against the attack and took the full brunt of it, grunting fiercely as she felt the wild flames crash against her. When the light and heat abated much of her armor was charred, along with a lot of her fur being singed. This made her rather irritated and caused her to lash out by slamming the butt end of her spear into Yakusho's back, slamming him into the rocky ground at her feet.

The spear was shoved aside rather quickly as Yakusho pushed up from the ground, moving it away with a rather intense show of brute force. Kagura, though taken aback, wasn't about to be struck again. She spun the great spear and caught Yakusho's side with it, flinging him into the air rather viciously with the sharp end of her weapon. The bladed tip just barely cut through his chakra shell, catching him and opening a large gash on his side. Though the damage to his body was extensive, Yakusho took that moment to pepper Kagura in a sheet of fireballs, keeping her pinned down and unable to follow through. Behind Kagura several trees caught fire and toppled over, leaving the landscape torn and destroyed in the wake of the huge battle.

"Sugoi…" Jiyumaru breathed from atop the navy blue helmet of the raccoon princess. "I'm…sorry I doubted you Kagura-hime."

"We ain't out of the woods yet, cutie!" she huffed, holding her spear at the ready. "He's a tough little bastard, I'll give him that. It's not going to be easy to take him down."

Why Yakusho? Jiyumaru used the great raccoon's ear for leverage as he attempted to stand on his wounded legs. Why are you doing this?

"Why are you doing this, damn it!?" Jiyumaru was shocked to hear his own voice in the dark night. He continued to stand by Kagura's ear, panting as he waited for a response.

His answer came shortly after a period of great silence. Yakusho's looked up from his crimson body and snarled only once, clenching one of his claws tightly as the words left him in a deep growl.

"Because I have to…for my own dreams!"

The air around Yakusho crackled unexpectedly, shimmering and wavering as heat gathered around him rapidly. The dragon chakra that encompassed him slowly turned to brilliant flames, encasing him in a fiery body that made him resemble the very dragon missiles he had sent after Jiyumaru earlier.

"What the hell is he doing?" Kagura called out.

"I'm…not sure," Jiyumaru responded. "I've only ever had it described to me, but it looks like his ultimate attack."

Without warning a loud bang filled the clearing as Yakusho's body was covered from head to toe in bright red flames. His entire face was hidden from sight, save for two slits that quickly became blackened facsimiles of eyes. His voice wavered with the heat of his building chakra as he cried out into the sky.

"Ningen Karyuu Endan!"

Another loud boom echoed through the giant clearing as Yakusho fired forward like a bullet, sending a shockwave out behind him as he raced forward. Kagura brought up her shield again, grinning madly.

"Oh boy, it's gonna be fun to see if I can block this!"

Yakusho's aim turned upward, changing his flight path ever so slightly. Jiyumaru could only shake in fear as he realized what was going on, grabbing on to Kagura's ear tightly.

"Only he's not aiming for you!"

Yakusho collided with Jiyumaru before Kagura could react. For a split second nothing happened, the world around the two shinobi freezing. The next moment the entirety of Jiyumaru and Yakusho's lives were consumed in a pillar of fire that stretched unto the heavens and shook the ground with its tremendous power.

Everything slowly turned white until not a thing was left.

Jiyumaru stood above Yakusho, wobbling on bloodied legs as he tried to remain standing. Kagura stood behind him, rubbing the soot and char marks off of her armor before vanishing in a puff of smoke and goodbye kiss. Jiyumaru was, for reasons he could hardly understand, barely harmed. His body was lightly singed, darkened from the mild heat of the flames that had surrounded him. He was a light brown and black all over, yet all of his body remained. He would recover from the mild burns he had suffered due to Yakusho's ultimate jutsu.

Yakusho lay at Jiyumaru's feet, horribly scorched from the backfiring nature of his own technique. He was unable to move save for his head, every inch of his body clothed in fierce burns. Somehow his clothing had survived the disaster, leaving Jiyumaru to believe that they were designed to resist heat. The young male remained still on his back, looking up at the starry night sky with half-lidded eyes. The embossed mark of Ryuugakure remained untouched somehow, as if a miracle had prevented the symbol of the boy's heritage from being defaced.

"You missed," Jiyumaru stated calmly.

"You figured it out already?" Yakusho's voice was strained and quiet, unable to speak up due to his injuries.

"While I was in the fire," the ANBU admitted. "The flames weren't hot enough to kill or incinerate things. They're a flashy side effect made from the fire you coat yourself in and to mask the true nature of the jutsu. You collide with a specific point on your opponent's body with such tremendous force that the shockwave multiplies within their body, creating a massive chain reaction that can shatter their bones and organs."

"Exactly fifteen millimeters from the left of the heart," Yakusho said. "Even half a millimeter's difference means it fails."

Jiyumaru sighed deeply and looked up to the sky with Yakusho. "Why?"

"Why did I miss, you mean?"

"Yes, that's what I meant."

Yakusho turned his head to the side, avoiding the deep gaze that Jiyumaru had turned downward. "You need to help Naruto. He may be strong…stronger than any of us…but against Sakai that power is meaningless. He will lose on his own."

"Wh-why do you…?" Jiyumaru was silenced as Yakusho looked up at him with pleading eyes, a look that froze Jiyumaru's judgement.

"Do you really need to ask that question?" Yakusho asked. "You know the answer. Go."

Jiyumaru stayed for only a moment before nodding and turning around. He knew he wouldn't be able to do much for Naruto in his current state. He could barely move and could barely fight. Yet somehow he knew simply being there would be a help in and of itself. With a slight smile the battered ANBU jounin limped away from Yakusho.

He did not get far before he was faced with the Dragon Fang. The previously discarded blade lay not too far from where Jiyumaru was currently, face down near where the stream that had cut the terrain had once been. Normally, in any other situation, Jiyumaru would have simply kept walking. Yet something from earlier in his battle was still bothering him. Despite his training and purpose, Jiyumaru walked over towards the blade and kicked it over, trying not to get burned by its odd nature.

Just as Jiyumaru had hoped, the picture Yakusho had stolen remained on the stones underneath the sword. The injured male fell to his knees gently and picked up the picture, staring at it intently. His eyes trained on it harshly until his head started to throb with his heartbeat, causing a loud thumping to consume his mind. He stared at the boy in the photo that had replaced Zougen Gisei even though his mind began to boil over.


The words were forming on his lips, but seemed to be blocked by something in his head. No matter how hard he tried to speak the name it would not come. The throbbing in his head grew, causing him intense pain. Each palm cupped his skull as he began to writhe in agony, searching his memory for the words that would not come.

"Yoshiro…wh-who…who the hell…are you!?"

A bright red light came to life on Jiyumaru's forehead, along with a searing blast of pain that consumed his entire consciousness. He screamed into the night as a small symbol formed upon his forehead, that of the small blood drop that was his clan's insignia. The red light stopped as soon as the entire icon had been formed, ripping through Jiyumaru's mind and body like a scythe. His hands fell to his side as he toppled over, crashing onto the steamed rocks that remained.

The picture fluttered down from his grasp and landed right next to him. In the picture, on both the mystery boy's and Jiyumaru's shoulder pad was the very same blood drop symbol that had appeared on Jiyumaru's forehead.

­­Merry Christmas one and all! Please visit the website at http://dragonheart. so we can celebrate together. The website will be moving soon, so I'll update you here and in my profile if it does.