Notes: Been a long time since I did this, so there are probably plenty of mistakes.

The Nature of Love

A Naruto Fanfic by

Nate Grey (xman0123-at-aol-dot-com)

Chapter 35: Will of the Snake

Kurenai landed hard on the ground in a heap with Itachi and Tobi, disoriented but otherwise fine. She was still getting her bearings when there was a high-pitched cry of, "Oh no! Birdy, you're hurt!" A small girl wearing an Akatsuki cloak ran past Kurenai and gently took Itachi's arm, carefully pulling him into an upright position.

"I will survive, Hatsumi," Itachi said, though he still sounded more than a little tired.

Frowning, the girl took a bright red pill from her cloak and pushed it into his mouth with no warning. Itachi nearly choked on it, but forced himself to swallow. Then the girl turned her attention to Tobi, who was doubled over, groaning softly, and holding his stomach. "You threw up, huh?" she asked, rubbing his back sympathetically.

Tobi made a noise that was probably a positive.

"Poor Big Buddy. It's okay." She pillowed her head against his back and began to hum softly.

Kurenai was still not sure what to make of this when Kisame suddenly appeared at her side, dropping to the ground just as roughly as she had. "The hell?!" he shouted, his hand already closing around Samehada's hilt when he noticed them. "Oh," he said, calming down at once.

"So you DO know what's happened?" Kurenai asked, trying not to sound as desperately lost as she really was.

"Yeah. Must be the kid and her transport seals again," he grunted, nodding at Hatsumi.

"Indeed," said a new voice, and Kurenai froze as two other people appeared. The first looked like a botany experiment gone horribly wrong. The second was so obviously wearing a stolen body that Kurenai found it hard to keep looking at him long. The slightly maniacal expression on his face gave her the creeps. And that was saying something, considering that the other one had TWO faces, each of them rather ugly in its own right.

"Transport seals?" Kurenai asked, not wanting to remain in the dark.

She thought Kisame or Itachi would explain, but surprisingly enough, Hatsumi did. "In case anyone got in trouble, like they did today, I can pull them back to me. I can make all kinds of seals!"

Kurenai certainly believed it: her Hachigan confirmed that the little girl had far more chakra than Kurenai herself did now. "Even forbidden ones?" she asked without thinking.

Hatsumi blinked and grinned. "Well, those are the most fun, aren't they?"

If the girl really was responsible for the transport seals, Kurenai realized with growing shock, then she was only mere steps away from reproducing one of the Yondaime Hokage's most famous jutsu. That is, if she hadn't already. At one time, this would've filled Kurenai with dread, but now it only confirmed that she'd made the right choice in following Itachi. She never would've learned this much so quickly any other way.

"Oh, wait!" Hatsumi cried. "Hot Potato and General Dolly aren't here yet!" She shut her eyes tightly and flared her chakra.

An instant later, Deidara appeared, bound and gagged by many thick vines, and seconds after that, so did someone who Kurenai first mistook for the assumed dead Sandaime Kazekage.

"Damn, Sasori," Kisame muttered, frowning at his comrade. "When you said you were having difficulties, I didn't know you meant-"

"Not now," Sasori said, his voice laced with such loathing and killing intent that Kisame fell silent. With a halfhearted gesture from the puppet master, a long blade shot out of his right arm and slashed Deidara free from the vines. "Zetsu, were you able to retrieve Orochimaru's body?"

"Impossible at this time," the plant man replied. "His body is being used as a foundation for a Tree of the Underworld. I could only attempt to claim him once it died, and even that could prove difficult."

"Amazing how even his failed plans always seem to backfire on us," Deidara snapped, tearing off a leftover vine from his shoulder and tossing it away. "If I'd been allowed to kill him before-"

"No. Even in his meddling, Orochimaru has done us a favor," Itachi said, sounding and looking far healthier than he had before. "Konoha is vulnerable. Now would be the best time to capture the demon vessels."

"Captain Awesome thought so, too!" Hatsumi chimed in. "That's why he sent Valentine to get them!"

Through his defeats by Kimimaro and Itachi, Sasuke had learned one thing: he wasn't ready.

No, more than that. He wasn't ready, and there was no way he would get ready by remaining in Konoha. He'd made remarkable progress under Gaara, and the new powers that Shizuka had given him were considerable, but none of it was enough. Itachi advanced too quickly, and there were strong opponents out there that a Leaf-nin, bound by duty to his village, would never even see. Sasuke understood now that in order to beat Itachi, as much as he hated to do so, he needed to follow in his brother's footsteps and leave Konoha.

Sasuke came to this decision with great reluctance, though. He hated to leave Hinata behind, and he owed Gaara so much. But Itachi had no attachments that could be used against him, and that had only made him stronger. It was better for Sasuke to have no people close to him, as well. And if Hinata never forgave him, those feelings of regret and pain would only strengthen his resolve. Itachi had cost Sasuke everything, and now his marriage would be added to that list. It was just another reason to end his brother's life.

It was easy to leave the hospital: the ANBU guard outside of the room had never considered that he was also meant to prevent Sasuke from escaping. Going out through the window was a simple matter, and the moment Sasuke hit the ground, he began to run. Hinata would miss him soon, so there was only so much time available.

Along the way, Sasuke spotted many Sound-nin fleeing, and was soon among them with a convincing henge. As he'd hoped, they were too busy running to give him even a first glance. Odd plants had sprouted up nearly everywhere, and kept snatching up Sound-nin as they ran past. Sasuke noticed that even on the few occasions he'd dared to come close to the plants, they never attacked him. He thought it was strange, but didn't question it.

He was just minutes away from the village gates when the first lightning bolt took him in the left shoulder.

Though he hadn't even sensed it coming, Sasuke rolled with the blow, whirling around just as Hinata burst from the trees a few feet away, her entire body bathed in the blinding blue glow of Hizashi's aura. Not wasting a moment, she pointed the sword straight up, and the blue glow intensified.

Sasuke was moving before the lightning bolts could form, but he was still hard pressed to dodge all of them. The first had been more of a warning than anything else, but these were obviously meant to stun him or worse, depending on how angry Hinata was with him. He found out when the next bolt connected with his wrist. White hot pain flooded Sasuke's body, and he went limp, collapsing heavily to the ground. He tried to get up, but his limbs would only spasm uncontrollably when he commanded them to move.

Hinata approached him calmly, but the fury in her pale eyes was unlike anything he'd ever seen before.

"How...?" Sasuke whispered. "You told me that Hizashi swore to protect your family. So how can it attack me?"

"Oh, we had a rather long conversation on the way here," Hinata replied. "And he agreed that by running away, you were threatening the unity of our family. That cannot be allowed." In a softer tone, she asked, "Why, Sasuke-kun? If you thought Konoha couldn't give you the strength that you needed, why wouldn't you at least ask Gaara and I to come with you? Are we so easy to abandon?"

"Itachi... threw everything away," Sasuke choked out, feeling tears prickling behind his eyes. "And in return, he was rewarded with incredible power."

Hinata's face fell. "Oh, Sasuke-kun. You never understood. All the power you think Itachi gained... all of it came from here. Itachi was a genius because he mastered what Konoha taught him so quickly. Even the Mangekyou he gained came from Shisui-san, and only Konoha could have taught him to treasure a friend enough where that would've been possible. How many times must I say it? You aren't Itachi. You can't take the same path to power. It isn't in you, and besides..." Her eyes narrowed, and her voice hardened. "I won't let you."

Sasuke took a deep, shuddering breath and sprang to his feet, wincing as the last of the paralysis faded. As he'd hoped, Hinata's attempts at convincing him to stay had allowed enough time for the numbness to vanish on its own. "You can't stop me, Hinata-chan. I'm stronger, and it has to be this way."

"Hizashi and I agree. You'll only be able to defeat me with the power that Shizuka gave you. Otherwise, you might as well come back to the hospital with me right now."

"If that's what I must do," Sasuke growled, shaking his head. He reached deep within, searching for the power that he'd used against Itachi... and hit a roadblock. "What?" he whispered, just before the world around him shimmered and melted away. Suddenly, he was standing in a place that seemed oddly familiar. It was a small, dimly lit room. Candles lined the floor in two neat rows. At the end of the path was a large altar, and resting on top of it was Shizuka. She stretched out her gold on black wings as he approached, her eyes flashing ominously.

"Sasuke-sama," she greeted, inclining her head slightly.

"Where is it?" Sasuke demanded. "Where is the power you gave me before?"

The thunderbird seemed disappointed by his response. "I gave you that power to defeat your mortal enemy. Now you wish to use it against your wife? The same person who loves you unconditionally, and raised me with such kindness?"

Sasuke did feel some guilt, but did his best to ignore it.

"Perhaps I made a mistake," Shizuka sighed. "I didn't think you were ready, but I feared you would die without my aid. Still, if this is how you seek to use my power, then you are far from ready to wield my gifts."

"What are you saying?" Sasuke asked, feeling cold all over.

"I won't take away my power completely, Sasuke-sama. But from this day forth, until you prove yourself worthy again, my power is sealed. You will not see me again until you are ready."

"WAIT!" Sasuke shouted, rushing forward, but with a single beat of her mighty wings, Shizuka sent him tumbling backwards, out of the darkness, and directly into a hard palm strike to the right shoulder. He hissed in pain and backed away as Hinata frowned and readied herself for another attack.

"Please stop this, Sasuke-kun. Come back with me," she pleaded.

"You don't understand! Neither of you do! I need stronger opponents! Greater challenges! It's the only way I'll ever defeat Itachi!"

Hinata blinked and sighed. "Fine. Hizashi, are you willing to help me with this?"

"You need only say the word, Hinata-sama," the sword replied, pulsing in her hand.

"I never dreamed I would be using this against you first, Sasuke-kun," Hinata whispered, a single tear falling from her left eye. "But at least Hanabi will be pleased to know that she was right. Again."

Sasuke had no idea what to expect, but it certainly wasn't what happened next.

Hinata dropped her sword, but instead of clattering to the ground, it seemed to pass through the ground and vanish. Then she settled into a familiar Gentle Fist stance, one that Sasuke had learned to guard against some time ago. It was virtually impossible for that attack to work against him now; Hinata had shown him some of the counters herself, and the rest he'd made up on his own. He had to assume that she had changed her mind, and was no longer capable of hurting him. It made his heart ache, but Sasuke told himself that he was doing what was best for them both.

"Forgive me, Hinata-chan," he muttered under his breath before charging. At the very least, he would only use taijutsu against her. The very thought of burning her pale, flawless skin made him nauseous, but bruises would clear up eventually.

Hinata made no move to defend herself, merely staying in her stance.

Sasuke closed in, directing his first punch towards her left shoulder. There was enough force behind it to spin her body around, where he could easily end this with a quick, painless chop to the neck. Then he would carry Hinata somewhere safe, where an enemy wouldn't find her, and leave.

However, just two inches from Hinata's shoulder, Sasuke's arm was grabbed and held by an unseen force. He struggled uselessly as Hinata took a deep breath and stepped closer.

"I love you, Sasuke-kun," she breathed, and then she landed the first two strikes: one on his captured arm, and the other on his chest.

Sasuke inhaled sharply as he felt his chakra draining away. That much, he'd expected, though. What he did not expect was that immediately after those two hits, the unseen force struck him four times, and with far greater force than Hinata had, sealing off more than twice the amount of chakra than she had. He was very much dazed by that point, his eyes glassy and unfocused.

"I would do anything to save you from pain, even if it means hurting you now." Now she landed four strikes, but Sasuke could barely even feel them. He certainly felt the eight heavy blows that followed, as they left his entire body numb. His vision swam, and Sasuke instinctively sent the little chakra he still had access to towards his eyes, hoping to at least discover how Hinata was doing this. What he saw made his mouth drop open in shock.

Just behind Hinata was what appeared to be a thicker, taller version of her own shadow. But as she finished her eight strikes, the shadow was suddenly bathed in light as it lurched forward, and Sasuke was trapped within the furious gaze of Hyuuga Hizashi as the dead man hit him with sixteen rapidfire strikes. Pain unlike anything Sasuke had ever known shot through his body, and halfway through Hinata's sixteen strikes, he collapsed bonelessly to the ground, blood slowly leaking from his mouth.

"You can't leave me behind," Hinata sighed, dropping to her knees and stroking Sasuke's head tenderly. "We won't let you..."

"Let this be the last time you attempt to severe the bonds of family with Hinata-sama," Hizashi warned sternly as his body began to fade.

Sasuke did not even have the strength left to glare as he blacked out.

Although the majority of the Sound was retreating, the four overseeing the retreat had hidden themselves in an abandoned apartment. Like their comrades, they were reasonably stressed, and closing in on their respective breaking points.

"Well? Any word from Sasame?"

Kagero sighed in frustration. "She refuses to retreat with everyone else, Arashi. She insists on killing the Hokage first."

Arashi frowned. "Can't you just teleport her, anyway?"

"No. One of the seals Orochimaru-sama placed on her must prevent me from doing so without Sasame's permission. And even if I could do that, how long do you think it would take her to overwhelm us? All of our powers are linked to her. She could take all of our strength back in a heartbeat."

"He's planned for this all along," Arashi hissed angrily, driving his fist into the wall. "He made it so we'd have no control over her. Now all Sasame cares about is carrying out his wishes. She could die!"

"She won't, though," Kagero muttered reluctantly. "If she could die so easily, Orochimaru-sama wouldn't have put so much time and effort into raising her. We know that much for sure."

"So stop worrying," Kamikiri snapped. "There's nothing we can do but make sure the rest of the Sound escapes. Kagero, there's no need to transport the Sand as well-"

"Already on it. The seals I placed on them are slightly different from ours. Only Kankurou's is still active by now, and I doubt he'll need it again."

Jigumo shook his head slightly. "I still can't believe Orochimaru-sama is really dead. I mean... I didn't think he COULD die. Did any of you?"

Kamikiri glared at him. "Would you let it go? He's dead."

"And so are you."

Kamikiri spun around like the wind, his giant pincers flashing. The arm holding them was wrenched brutally behind his back, and the very weapon that Kamikiri had depended on for most of his life was used to behead him.

"I only need one of you alive," Kakashi said solemnly as he dropped the dead Fuma and stepped over him. "The rest I'll kill for trashing my village."

"It's the Copy Nin! Rush him!" Arashi barked.

For most of the Sound, the standing order was to flee on sight if they came up against Kakashi. Unless, of course, they were of the elite, as the Fuma were, and/or had a Cursed Seal to rely on. However, that order had been issued back when Kakashi only had a Sharingan, and more importantly, when the woman he had considered to be his best friend and soulmate was still alive.

But Anko was dead, Kakashi had the Mangekyou now, and consequently, he was not in one of his better moods. The Fuma would've been better off running, if all it would've meant was that they would lived a few minutes longer.

Kagero was dead the moment a Chidori was shoved into her heart.

Arashi was far more resistant to lightning, and wasn't all that surprised when the Chidori meant for him was neatly absorbed into the seal hidden beneath his clothes.

Kakashi frowned beneath his mask, and neatly caught Arashi's head as it rolled into his hand, courtesy of a well-placed use of his new Kamui. Then he turned to Jigumo, who by then was shaking like a leaf. Kagero and Arashi had easily been more powerful than him, and together, they hadn't even lasted seven seconds.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to kill you," Kakashi said in a friendly tone, offering a disarming eye smile and clapping Jigumo on the shoulder. "The forbidden jutsu I'm going to sacrifice you for, however, is."

Sasame had been a kind, affectionate girl for much of her life. Her only real flaw back then had been the childhood crush she'd developed on her older cousin Arashi. Arashi had always displayed a talent for high-level ninjutsu, while Sasame... had not. But in an effort to stay close to him, she'd poured all her energy into becoming a Fuma Clan ninja, too. So when the hand of Orochimaru reached out for Arashi, it couldn't help but close around Sasame as well. And even if it hadn't, she would've followed blindly, anyway.

Orochimaru had an eye for two things: talent and potential. Generally, he looked for talent in his subordinates. These were people he could use right away, without much training or preparation. Potential, on the other hand, had to be drawn or forced out, and depending on the person, that could take years of effort.

Arashi had talent, while Sasame had potential. And patience had never really been Orochimaru's strong point.

Sasame had started out with only an oddly strong resistance to injury and sickness, which was not unheard of among the Fuma Clan, but still rather rare. Over the years, Orochimaru had covered most of her body in various seals, some of which even Sasame didn't know the function of. But that was fine: most of the seals were made to activate automatically in certain situations. Sasame saw each one as a symbol of Orochimaru's faith in her: most of his elite only ever received one, after all.

As her power grew, Sasame's feelings changed. Orochimaru was the one who constantly praised her determination, while Arashi and her kinsmen grew uneasy with the increasing changes in her. Sasame was surprised to find one day that she simply didn't care what others thought of her. So long as Orochimaru continued to reward her with little more than an affectionate pat on the head, she would slaughter armies for him (although it was usually just a matter of summoning Manda and watching watching the carnage unfold).

Orochimaru's death had startled her, quite badly, in fact, but not for long. So often he had talked of death as if it were merely another enemy to defeat and make another of his many servants. Sasame firmly believe that he would rise again, and when that happened, she wanted to be able to tell him that she'd destroyed his greatest enemy for him.

And as she gazed up at the old man walking beside her, Sasame couldn't help smiling. Her dream was so close now: the Sandaime Hokage was on his last legs, and all she would have to do was deliver the finishing blow. He would never even see it coming, and if not for the fact that Sasame would make the killer's identity obvious, Konoha would've never learned who defeated their Hokage.

But, as they tended to do, problems arose.

The unlikely pair was still a good distance from the hospital when an ANBU with a crow mask appeared in their path.

"Hiruzen-sama, please step away from that girl. She is dangerous."

The Hokage paused, obviously surprised at the use of his given name. He also realized, however, that Crow had only done so to convey the urgency he felt at the moment. "What exactly do you-?"

"She is Orochimaru's heir!" Crow shouted.

The expression on the Sandaime's face was one of pure disbelief. But even as he turned towards Sasame, he already knew what he would see.

Sasame was staring up at him in confusion and fear. "What's he talking about, Hokage-sama? Who's Orochimaru?"

"Don't believe her! She summoned Manda and killed Ibiki before my eyes! Her only purpose here is to destroy you!"

"Calm down, Crow," the Hokage ordered. "Think about what you're saying. How could a mere child do any of what you're claiming?"

Crow's shoulders sagged. "The same way a mere child could hold Kyuubi prisoner. And if you still doubt what I say, then use the Seal of the Black Sun on her! If she is as innocent as you believe, it will have no effect!"

It was a drastic step, but it was also an easy way to learn the truth, the Hokage realized at once. He sighed and turned back to Sasame, who had moved slightly behind him. "I'm sorry, my child, but I promise this won't-"

"I don't like him! He's scary!" Sasame wailed, burying her face in the old man's back. "Make him go away!"

The Sandaime was about to do no such thing, not with such serious allegations against her. Crow was one of his most trusted subordinates, and had literally given up his life for Konoha as a genin. If he had any failing, it was fierce loyalty to his commanders, and Ibiki's death would certainly explain his actions now.

Crow was done waiting, however. He had lost one leader in the invasion, and he was determined not to lose another. But before he could act, the choice was taken out of his hands.


Sasame shrieked in genuine fear as a living shadow oozed over her, seizing her arms and binding them roughly behind her back.

Crow and the Hokage turned to see a most unusual sight: Yamanaka Ino, Haku, and Kyojuu riding a giant, flying fox. Ino's face was frozen in a determined scowl, but the reason for this was not clear until she leaped to the ground. Both men immediately noticed that the shadow entrapping Sasame was instantly linked back to her feet.

Kyojuu approached Sasame first, scowling and taking a big sniff. "It's her, alright. She smells like snakes and blood."

"Hokage-sama, that girl is trying to kill you!" Ino shouted.

The Sandaime said nothing. He had been very busy lately, but he was still fully aware of Ino's mental state. Kyojuu, however, was noted to have no such problems, and neither was Crow. So while he was far more inclined to believe that Sasame wasn't innocent, he still was not about to punish her without concrete proof. "I will be the judge of that, young lady." He performed a long series of hand seals with blinding speed, and then stretched out a glowing hand towards Sasame.

Crow was only one present that had seen Sasame in action, so he was the only one that had any idea of what to expect. He knew to keep his eyes on hers, for several reasons, the most important being that it could very well be the only warning they received.

And just as he'd feared, Sasame's eyes flashed with an eerie, dark violet light, gold bleeding into the pupils as she opened her mouth.

This time, however, he knew what was coming, and timed his response perfectly to intercept. Using small, subtle movements, he formed a miniature window with his fingers. And although he was well past the point where he needed to correct his aim by raising his hands to eye level, his intention would've been obvious to anyone that had ever battled alongside or against a Yamanaka, and certainly to one that belonged to that clan.

Ino immediately recognized what Crow was doing, but in her shock, did not miss the fact that his target was not Sasame, but a few inches to the left of the girl's head. If Ino had seen Sasame in battle beforehand, she would've understood exactly what Crow was up to. But all she could see was empty air between Crow and what she thought was his target: Haku, who was standing just behind and slightly to Ino's left. She reacted impulsively, mirroring Crow's hands at once, but there was no mistaking her target.

Behind his mask, Crow paled, knowing precisely what would happen in the next moment. If he attacked, there was a chance that he would save the Sandaime, and have his secrets exposed to the one person he so desperately wanted them hidden from. If he held back, even for a second, the Hokage would surely die, and more than likely everyone present, save for Sasame, would follow. Given those choices, there really was no choice at all.

"Shichishou no Jutsu (Seven Lives Technique)," Sasame hissed, her eyes narrowing. Six dark violet shadows burst from the base of her neck, but one immediately froze, shuddering uncontrollably as it hit the ground.

Crow's body began to slump, then visibly straightened. Ino collapsed across Konkon's neck.

Haku needed only a glance to know where Ino's soul was. He immediately stepped backwards into an ice mirror, reappearing at Crow's side.

Sasame suddenly went limp, while five of the shadows hovering over her went into hyperactivity, zooming at everything in the nearby area. Kyojuu fell under attack first, quickly backpedaling as one of the shadows belched a stream of fire at him. Crow was the next target, but Haku was quick to defend him with an ice mirror. Seeing that, the shadows switched tactics, and one dove into the ground, only to re-emerge in the form of a jagged pillar of rock that nearly tore Haku in half.

Konkon sprinted into action, diving through the web of shadows and carefully bumping Crow so that he fell across her back as well. Then, with a wave of her tails, all three vanished from view.

With Ino out of harm's way, Haku and Kyojuu decided to hold nothing back. Ice mirrors appeared randomly around the area, and yellow lightning leaped from Kyojuu's claws, flying back and forth between the mirrors until everything and everyone was trapped in an electric net. The shadows tested the net cautiously, and shrieked in pain when they received nasty shocks as a result.

"Looks like we've got things wrapped up here, Haku," Kyojuu grunted.

Haku frowned. "No. She said seven, but I only count six shadows. Where is the last?"

As one, they both turned to the Sandaime, and got a nasty shock of their own. They were just in time to see the final shadow creep out of the old man's collar, and sink its fangs deep into the Hokage's heart. Haku's arm blurred, sending a trio of senbon flying at the shadow. They all hit their mark, but even as the shadow fell away, Haku could see that he had been too late. A black, ink-like stain began to spread from the wound, slowly but surely covering more and more of the Hokage's body. The old man groaned softly and fell to his knees, his eyes glassy and unseeing.

Not liking the way the stain was spreading even over the Hokage's clothes, Kyojuu ripped apart the front of the Sandaime's robes, only to see a similar effect on his chest. "Can you stop it?" he asked quietly, turning to Haku.

Haku grimaced as he knelt next to the Sandaime. "Stop it? I don't even know what it is! I'd probably make it worse."

The Hokage grabbed Kyojuu's shoulder abruptly. "Naruto," he wheezed, and then, after a long, shaky breath, "Gaara..."

Kyojuu's eyes widened. "Can they stop it?!"

"No," Haku murmured, recognizing the look in the old man's eyes. "But go get them, anyway. They should be here, when the Hokage breathes his last."

"You should not have come here. I will not allow you to proceed any further."

Ino said nothing as she stared up at the enormous crow. She wasn't surprised to find obstacles within the ANBU's mind, but she hadn't expected them to be so... literal. For now, however, the crow seemed wary, but not overly hostile. It was best not to make any threatening moves until she had a better grasp on the situation.

"This is the mind of a Yamanaka, isn't it?" she asked.

The crow peered at her closely. "You've already decided on the answer. I can see it in your eyes."

Ino smirked. "There's no other way to use that jutsu, and have it work. But I guess you aren't going to give me a name, huh?"

"That is correct."

"Can I ask why you're here, then?"

"It is my duty," the crow replied, "to guard this mind and the secrets it holds."

"So why haven't you kicked me out yet?"

"You should not be here, but you cannot access any of the information I protect from this point, either. The owner of this body wishes you no harm. Also, I have been instructed to tell you that your friend was not the target of his attack."

"Then who was?" Ino demanded.

"The stolen spirits within that girl."

Ino's eyes widened. "That's not possible!"

The crow sighed and shook its head. "For a Yamanaka with a shadow spirit attached to your body, you have a surprisingly limited imagination. Not only is it possible, it is real. She has used them to kill before, and thanks to your interference, she may again. That is why you are still here: to keep you from harm, and to keep you from harming anyone else."

Most people who faced him in battle didn't realize it, but the key to Hatake Kakashi's success, long career, and huge arsenal of jutsu was not the Sharingan.

It was Kage Bunshin.

From the moment he had first learned the true importance of that jutsu, Kakashi had become a man possessed. And he warned others away from it, not only because of the obvious dangers, but out of fear that someone might stumble upon his incredible secret.

The Sharingan was rumored to cause madness, and Kakashi firmly believed that still. He had frantically searched for a way to counter the downside to Obito's final gift, and he had found it.

Each of Kakashi's questionable quirks aided him in his quest.

The lateness allowed him plenty of time to create clones that moved throughout the village, stealing techniques and ensuring that Kakashi not only knew more jutsu than most ninja in Konoha, but more than the Sandaime Hokage himself.

His beloved Icha Icha was source of relief and escape from the seemingly endless download of information.

The mask hid his pained expressions each time a clone was dispelled.

He could stop at any time, but Kakashi never would. He'd lost too many people by being ill-prepared, and it would never happen again. Beyond that, while the chakra drain from the Sharingan still taxed the clones, and Kakashi himself, he had gradually built up a tolerance over the years. Now the drain was only significant on the clones, as opposed to Kakashi, although he still had to endure their fatigue himself.

Over the past decade or so, Kakashi had never knowingly entered a battle without creating at least two clones beforehand. The beauty of these scouts was that they only used the Sharingan when absolutely necessary, so Kakashi never became at risk for taking in more information than his brain could handle. And the returning chakra did help combat the Sharingan's drain to some extent. Yet the frequent use was taking its toll despite his best efforts.

There were days when Kakashi's body felt three times its age, and days when he woke up fully expecting to see Rin and Obito standing over him.

In the end, Kakashi was just a man doing his best to survive.

Then his Anko had died, and just living became impossible.

If not for the clone who had witnessed Orochimaru's Edo Tensei, Kakashi might very well have ended his own life, the moment he learned of Anko's death. Without it, he would only have the incomplete notes that Anko had recovered from one of Orochimaru's abandoned underground labs. But his Anko had always been so clever, right up until the very end. She had known that Orochimaru was a creature of obsession, and that he would never be happy until the Sandaime was dead and Konoha crushed.

All that mattered was that the Mangekyou Sharingan had given him power upon Anko's death, and he could now use the knowledge stored in Obito's eye to bring her back to life.

It was odd, how just a couple of simple hand seals and a living sacrifice could restore Kakashi's damaged world to normalcy, or at least what had passed for happiness when he shared his life with Anko. But less than an hour after he'd captured Jirugumo, Kakashi was staring into his beloved wife's face as she opened her eyes and drew breath again.

Her eyes flew to various points in the candlelit room before focusing on him. "S-Scare Bear?" she whispered uncertainly. "Did you die, too?"

"Not yet," Kakashi said softly, reaching up to caress her cheek. He carefully helped her out of the coffin, catching her around the waist as she stumbled against him.

"I don't understand. I was dead, wasn't I?"

"You still are, in a manner of speaking," Kakashi admitted, briefly resting his chin on her head. "You up for learning a new seal?"

Anko frowned slightly. "Now? What does it do?"

"If I'm right, and that's a big if, it should anchor you to this world in general, and me in particular."

"But... what happens if you die, too?"

"Well, we can take care of that right now," Kakashi said, pressing a kunai into her hand. "Once you've learned the seal, and Edo Tensei, you're going to kill me and bring me back. Then we'll apply the seal, and with any luck, we should be anchored to each other. So the only way to destroy us would be to destroy us both. And how likely is that?"

"I've never heard of a seal like that," Anko replied, looking doubtful.

"It didn't exist before. You could say I created it from some of it from Sensei's old notes."

"Didn't you tell me once that you flunked Seal Theory?"

"No, I said I WOULD have flunked Seal Theory, if Sensei hadn't helped me cram the night before the final exam. There's a big difference. Anyway, how could it hurt? We'd already be dead."

Anko considered that briefly. "True. But what if we end up with horns and melting faces?"

"Then we'll be able to walk into any restaurant and get free food without waiting in line. Now shut up so I can hurry and teach you the jutsu, before this other Sound-nin I found wakes up and decides he doesn't want to be a living sacrifice."

She shook her head and smiled. "Whatever you do, Scare Bear, don't ever change."

A small amount of foreign but familiar demonic chakra in his body was all it took to open Gaara's eyes. He was not surprised to see Naruto leaning over him, although the sight of the boy's normally blue eyes being a deep red told him otherwise.

"Get up," the blond told him. "The old man is dying." There was no triumph or sadness in his voice, he was merely stating a fact. Gaara was not certain if that was a good thing or not, but put it to the side for the moment. It took great effort to sit up, and Gaara only made it because of Temari and Hanabi offering some much-needed support.

The Sandaime Hokage was lying on the ground in front of them. Haku knelt next to the old man, routinely checking vital signs and mopping up the sweat that continued to appear on the Hokage's face.

Even in his dying moments, The Professor had not lost too many steps. Though his eyes were dark and unfocused, he reached out for them. "Naruto, Gaara. There are things I must tell you now. Come closer."

Naruto and Gaara exchanged looks, but beyond that, neither one hesitated in kneeling next to the old man. Naruto had reason enough to, that is, if Kyuubi suspected the Hokage of some last minute treachery. But it was becoming clear that Kyuubi's influence was fading, either naturally or because Naruto wanted and needed to be himself at the moment. Even as Gaara watched, much of the red faded from Naruto's eyes. Much, but not all.

"Naruto," the Sandaime whispered, "I do not expect your forgiveness. But I hope that these words will bring you some small bit of comfort. You were not born an unwanted child. Your parents loved you dearly, and sacrificed everything so that you could live. They were-"

At that point, Naruto abruptly leaned down, placing his ear next to the old man's lips. Whether the Hokage could see this, or merely sensed it, the message was clear, and his next words were delivered so quietly that only Naruto could hear them.

Gaara made no attempt to listen in. Had he strength to spare, he might've even plugged his ears with corks of sand to keep from hearing. The identity of Naruto's parents naturally interested him, but he had taken an oath to Naruto and the rest of their family of demon vessels. If Naruto wanted to tell him, then so be it. But even if that time never came, Gaara could live with it. If this was all that Naruto would ever have of his parents, he had the right to keep it to himself, if he so desired.

Whatever Naruto had been expecting, he clearly did not like what he was told. His face transformed into a mask of rage that was, amazingly, completely devoid of Kyuubi. This was all Naruto, and he was absolutely furious. Without a word, he rose and moved away from the Hokage. Naruto's steps carried him towards the nearest building, where he sank down against it, glaring up into the sky. He tensed when Hanabi sat down beside him and took his hand, but did not shake her off. Temari kept her distance, not wanting to crowd Naruto, and not wanting to leave Gaara in case he needed her.

Gaara could tell with a glance that if Naruto had his way, they'd be out of Konoha, for good, within the hour. As it was, he suspected that Naruto was now ready to cut any and all ties with the village. It was something Gaara had foreseen, and he himself was ready to leave, too, if that was to be their path.

"Gaara," the Sandaime whispered, recapturing his attention. "Look after Naruto. Don't let him drown in his anger and resentment."

Gaara didn't respond. After the childhood he'd experienced, he felt Naruto had every right to be angry, and was even entitled to some revenge, at least against the civilians who contributed nothing to Konoha's security.

"You can... become Hokage, if that is your desire," the old man murmured.

It wasn't, never had been, and never would be. But Gaara nodded, and the Hokage smiled weakly.

"One last thing, Gaara. The child who struck me down... swear to me that you won't allow her to be harmed. She is not to blame. Orochimaru has..."

Gaara didn't like it, but he agreed with another nod. It was the man's dying request, after all. "I give you my word, Hokage-sama. But you shouldn't die this way, withering as his venom poisons you. I would send you off with a shinobi's death, one more worthy of you."

The old man said nothing, but nodded his head the slightest bit.

It never occurred to Gaara to use his sand. He watched closely as his hands slowly grasped the Hokage's head, tensed, and then twisted sharply, resulting in a loud crack. Once done, he carefully lowered the old man's head to the ground.

"You did him a great service," Haku said quietly.

"I doubt anyone else will see it as anything more than a demon turning on its master again," Gaara sighed. "Kankurou has made sure that I'll at least be implicated in attacking the Hokage's box at the stadium. No one will bother to test whether it was actually my sand used, not after Naruto's transformation. We will all need to leave the village immediately."

"In the middle of an invasion?"

"I can think of no better time." He glanced at Yugito, who was kneeling over the Sandaime's body and carefully closing his eyes, murmuring a few words. "Once she is done here, all of you return to the Uchiha compound and collect everything you need. I will find my team."

"You need my nose?" Kyojuu offered.

Gaara shook his head. "I'd rather take Hanabi, if she is willing."

"Yeah, but... Naruto needs her now, doesn't he?" Kyojuu muttered softly, so they wouldn't be overheard.

"Yes, but this is still a war zone. He is vulnerable, and will need protection. Hanabi cannot provide that, but you can. Besides, there is something that I need to discuss with her... in private."

Kyojuu was no genius, but he didn't like something he saw in Gaara's expression. "You're probably right. She should go with you."

Gaara nodded. "You see the strategic value of my intentions, then."

"Yeah, but really, I just hate seeing girls cry."

Hinata was carefully smoothing out the sheets on Sasuke's hospital bed when the Uchiha heir stirred and slowly opened his eyes. "I'm glad you're safe, Sasuke," she murmured, not looking at him.

Sasuke stared at her for several moments. "I didn't know you could do that," he said at last. "You never told me, or showed me. You never even implied that you could."

Hinata said nothing.


"Hanabi told me once that I would have to fight you, and that it was important that I win. If I had lost, you would've abandoned me, our team, the whole village. Now I know you won't. You can't." Hinata finally looked straight into his eyes. "Now that I've beaten you, you'd never leave until you knew for a fact that you could beat me."

Sasuke bit his lip. "You don't want to be my wife anymore, do you?"

Hinata blinked. "What? Of course I do. Why do you think I stopped you in the first place? You were becoming Itachi, and I corrected your mistake. That's my duty, as your wife. Haven't you learned anything? Trying to leave was the wrong choice. And if I'm right, you couldn't call upon Shizuka's power because she knew it, too."

"Actually, she was more upset that I wanted to use her power against you," Sasuke admitted. "And no more 'Sasuke-kun,' I see. Have we grown past that?"

"You forced us past it," Hinata stated. "But don't get the wrong idea. This battle has brought us closer. You loved me when I was timid, and that's fine. But I think you'll love me more if I challenge you. I'll bind you to me with my own strength. I won't give you any reason to leave me a second time."

Sasuke continued to stare at her, surprised that she wasn't more upset. Then something dawned on him. "You aren't going to tell Gaara that I tried to run."

"Not unless he asks. I am still your wife, and I will stand by you. But make this the last time that you run away from me, Sasuke. I don't know that I can convince Hizashi to be so merciful again."

Recalling the intense pain of Hizashi's hits, he was about to question Hinata's definition of mercy when someone knocked on the door.

Hinata glanced in that direction, her Byakugan instantly activating, then deactivating in the space of two seconds. "Come in, Sakura," she said.

The door slowly opened, and Sakura stuck her head in, with Akamaru riding on top of it. "Sorry to interrupt, but I was wondering if you either of you had seen Naru-" She paused, blinking owlishly at Sasuke's heavily bandaged chest and arms. "What happened to him?"

"A mistake in judgment," Hinata replied calmly. "You were asking about Naruto-kun? I haven't seen him in some time. But why ask me? I'm sure Akamaru could find him."

"Tsunade-sama said that genin couldn't leave the hospital until someone of a higher rank told us different."

Sasuke blinked. "Hn. Hinata, are we genin?"

"No," Hinata replied, "we're ANBU. But I suppose we are the same size as most genin, could easily be mistaken for them, and in the eyes of some adults, might even be considered genin. So I suppose that ruling applies to us, albeit very, very loosely."

Sasuke smirked. "I suppose you could say we've been naughty, then."

"Gaara would be proud."

Sakura just looked at them like they were crazy as she slipped from the room.

Gaara had always been the quiet type, but this was different. Hanabi had known him long enough to know the usual silence from a troubled one. It was all in the way he moved as they walked through the village, tracking Sasuke and Hinata. Gaara had, for years now, been able to track scents with a bit of Shukaku's chakra, and for those as familiar as that of his teammates, it took almost no effort at all. But he was doing it all with a stiffness that was unusual, even for him.

"Are you going to tell me what's bothering you?" Hanabi finally asked. "Is it Naruto?"

Gaara didn't look at her, another clear sign. "No. Naruto will be fine, in time."

"Then what? I know something is wrong."

"There are several decisions I had to make abruptly."

"Because you're leaving," Hanabi replied. She was not concerned, because she assumed that she would be going as well. After all, Gaara and Naruto needed her. They might never admit it, but they did.

"One of them concerns Ayame."

Hanabi sighed. "You should tell her carefully. She won't take it well. Girls usually don't, when you leave. But it's just something that you have to do this time."

"Indeed," Gaara said softly, coming to an abrupt stop. With barely any pause, he added, "Why do you love me, Hanabi?"

Hanabi gaped at his back, completely unprepared for the question. "Y-You didn't judge me. You never treated me like I was too young, or too innocent. You just accepted me as your equal, even before I could appreciate what that honor truly meant."

"And if I were to hurt you, deeply? You would still love me?"

She frowned. "I think so, yes."

"Then I am sorry. I have chosen Ayame."

Hanabi rolled her eyes. "Yes, you've said so in the past. I don't need-"

"You misunderstand me. She will become my mate as soon as time allows. When I leave the village, she will accompany me. You will not."

For several moments, Hanabi could not speak. There were no words to describe all the things that she felt in those endless seconds. In time, Hanabi would even come to realize that she was less upset about his choosing Ayame, and more at being left behind. But she finally settled on one thing that, as a Hyuuga, had always come easily to her.

"So that's it?" she snapped. It took everything she had to glare at his back, to speak to him as if he were beneath her. She had never done that with Gaara: not because she wouldn't have dared, but because he was the only person that she'd never thought of as being lower than her. Not even now. It was the only thing she could do to protect her wounded pride, as a Hyuuga and a young woman.

Gaara did not turn around. "Farewell, Hanabi. I do not think we will meet again, but I will remember you."

"Have you forgotten already? You still owe me!" she cried.

"What is it that you want?"

She bit her lip. "Nothing. Forget it. Why would I want anything from you?"

"Ah. Because I am a monster?" Gaara guessed.

"Yes," Hanabi whispered. "But not for any of the reasons that you're accustomed to."

"Then feel free to hate me," he replied as he walked away. "That, I am accustomed to."

But that was the worst part about it. Hanabi could not bring herself to hate Gaara. He had warned her countless times that he either would not or could not return her feelings, and she had clung to him all the same. But the very act of attempting to push her away was a sign of Gaara's feelings for her, as he never went out of his way to protect anyone that didn't matter to him.

Aside from that, Hanabi's visions had already shown her that, for better or for worse, she was meant to be with Gaara. Even if she'd never wanted to see him again, it just wasn't possible.

It took a great deal of effort for Hanabi to put aside her broken heart, and put one foot in front of the other. Soon enough, she continued following along behind Gaara, as if he hadn't said a word. It was a small relief that Gaara's tension had not faded in the least, proof that he hadn't enjoyed hurting her. But they both knew that things were different now. Their friendship was shattered, and for the first time, Hanabi followed Gaara less because she wanted to, and more out of duty than anything else. She would lead him to Hinata and Sasuke, and once she was sure that they were all safe, Hanabi would be done with Gaara, until the day when he walked back into her life, and became her husband.

Konkon watched warily as Ino and Crow woke up at the same time. She had brought them to the closest convenient location: a restaurant that had been half-destroyed in the invasion. Konkon had placed both humans in chairs, but made sure they were a good distance from each other, just in case.

Ino, as usual, was the first to speak. "You're a Yamanaka."

Crow didn't move. "No, I was a Yamanaka."

Ino scoffed. "You can't just stop being-"

"Well, I did," he interrupted sharply. "Just drop it. You've messed things up enough as it is. Hokage-sama is probably dead by now, and if you're lucky, that little witch has finished killing your friends and moved on. You don't want to imagine the shape they'd be in if she took her time with them."

"How do you know so much about her?"

"I watched her kill my commander. Do you make a habit of attacking ANBU? It's a wonder you're still alive."

Ino frowned at him. "Maybe I'm more capable than you think."

Crow snorted. "I could say the same to you, especially as an ANBU speaking to a genin that didn't make it to the finals. Haven't we wasted enough time here?"

"What if I decide to tell someone about you?"

"Go right ahead. You wouldn't be the first to try it. But I've got news for you, Yamanaka: your father is the only one in the clan even loosely affiliated with ANBU. There's no record of any other Yamanaka working for them in over ten years. And just so you know, I'm not the only Crow in ANBU."

"What do you have against me and my clan?" Ino demanded.

"Nothing, until you got in my way. Don't let it happen again. After all, your emotional state is already in question. Interfering with ANBU is the sort of thing that could get you thrown in prison for life, at the very least. So watch your step from now on." He turned away and vanished into a small whirlwind of black feathers.

"Jerk," Ino muttered.

"He did have a point," Konkon added. "No more challenging ANBU unless you know you can take them. You barely even knew his name."

"His name's 'Yamanaka Baka' as far as I'm concerned!"

"See, you aren't listening. He's NOT a Yamanaka anymore."

Ino glared at her. "Like I said, you can't stop-"

"Ino, people are driven out of clans all the time. And as hostile as he was, I can't imagine the Yamanaka would've wanted to keep him around. Maybe he was family once, but now he's a stranger that probably knows every trick you learned from your father, and then some. You can't underestimate him again. I don't think he'd kill you, since he had the chance and didn't take it, but he might be able to make trouble for you and your father. Besides, we have more important things to worry about. I want to get back to the Boss and Naruto."

"Yeah, okay," Ino grumbled as she swung herself onto Konkon's back. "You can track them, right?"

"That's the easy part. Making sure we don't run into any further problems is not."

Ino grinned. "I've got that part covered." She glanced down at the floor. "Shika, you run ahead of us, and let me know if you spot anything, okay?"

Though it was difficult to see in the dim restaurant, Ino could just make out a dark, humanoid shape slipping silently across the floor.

"Now why couldn't we ever get Shikamaru to do that?" Konkon muttered as she followed the shadow.

"He wasn't a scout. He liked to go in last, not first. He was lazy, remember?"

"Maybe. Or maybe he just preferred to watch your back."

Ino blinked, having never considered that before. "Yeah, maybe..."

Tayuya woke up on a lumpy mattress in a bad mood, but this was nothing new. It was pretty much routine, in fact.

What WAS new was that Iruka wasn't immediately rushing to her side, or already there to begin with. Instead, he was on the other side of the dark room, talking quietly to a dark-haired woman that Tayuya instantly hated, for no reason that she could readily admit. But the feelings of jealousy must have seeped into her seal, because Iruka quickly broke off the conversation and moved towards her, a relieved smile spreading across his face.

"What the hell are you so happy about?" Tayuya demanded as he knelt down beside her.

Iruka's smile widened as he leaned in and kissed her, abruptly but firmly.

Tayuya's eyes tripled in size,and she jerked her head back and turned away, but he had already seen the red creeping into her face. "Y-You bastard! I didn't give you permission to do that!"

"I'm glad you're okay, Tayuya-chan," Iruka said, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her against his chest. "I was really worried about you."

She scowled at him, but made no further attempts to free herself. "Oh, yeah? Was that before or after you got done with the floozy over there?"

Iruka laughed, though not unkindly. "That 'floozy' is a medic-nin, her name is Shizune, and she probably saved your life. And since she is apparently here on Kabuto's orders, she certainly didn't have to. You should be thanking her."

"If she's mixed up with that creep, then I'm not telling her shit!" Tayuya snapped.

Iruka only smiled again, giving her a quick peck on her mouth. "I really did miss you."

"Dammit, quit doing that!" Tayuya shouted, shoving him away. "You like me, I get it, now back the fuck off!"

"Whatever my mistress wishes," Iruka agreed. He made a point of staring at her lips, however, which only worsened Tayuya's mood. She took the chance to get a better look at Shizune, and was immediately puzzled. There was no Cursed Seal on Shizune that Tayuya could see, so she wasn't one of Orochimaru's elite. And Kabuto was easily the best medic-nin that the Sound had, so he wouldn't bother keeping Shizune around unless she was exceptionally talented, and even then, he was probably still better than her. Maybe he was just getting lazy and trying to delegate some of his work, but that was likely to get Shizune killed, if Orochimaru found her lacking. Not that Tayuya cared, anyway: she wasn't about to thank Kabuto's lackey.

"You two should really think about leaving now," Shizune said suddenly. "Based on what I've been hearing, Orochimaru is dead. I don't know what Kabuto intends to do when he gets back, but I think it's in your best interest to be gone before then."

Tayuya's hand immediately went to her Cursed Seal. It was still there, and in fact felt no different. She'd always thought that in the unlikely event of Orochimaru's death, something would happen to the seal, but there had been nothing. She was more inclined to think that meant he wasn't dead, and was just faking it for the time being. That would've been an old trick for him. Every Sound-nin knew at least one horror story about how Orochimaru had ruined a premature celebration of his death by showing up and murdering all of the guests. So even if he was dead, the only place Tayuya planned to celebrate was inside her own head.

"What do you want to do, Tayuya-chan?" Iruka asked.

She shrugged, unable to answer. Maybe escaping Orochimaru's hold was a common dream among Sound-nin, but that was all it was. No one would actually dare to have physical proof of such a plan, or keep it at the forefront of their minds where Orochimaru could easily detect it. She had always assumed that she would work for Orochimaru for the rest of her life, however long that was. Now that she actually had other options, Tayuya had no idea what to do.

"Whatever you decide, we should get away from here," Iruka advised. "But I'll follow wherever you go."

"Fuckin' stalker creep," Tayuya muttered with a small smile.

Naruto was not in his right mind at the moment. He had always wanted to assume that his parents weren't important in Konoha, that the Sandaime had simply taking a liking to an unfortunate orphan. That might have explained why so few people in Konoha had been unwilling to sympathize with his circumstances. Not unlike his father's final wishes, Naruto would've expected to be praised for simply containing Kyuubi and protecting the village. If nothing else, as a Hokage's heir, he should've been hidden away or at least protected from harm.

Instead, he had been hated and abused at every turn. Naruto understood now that a Hokage was not all-powerful, but he was also aware that it had not been beyond the Sandaime's ability or power to defy the council's ruling and keep him safe. It would have created tension, and perhaps it could even have cost the Hokage his title, but even then, there were only so many people in Konoha brave enough to attack the God of Shinobi, and an even smaller number that could actually defeat him, no matter what his age.

So it wasn't impossible for Naruto to have been raised by at least a loving father figure. But the Sandaime had chosen to keep his power, using only the bare minimum of it to keep Naruto alive. Naruto could understand that. But he didn't like it, nor would he ever forgive it. Some things were worth widespread public scorn, in his mind, and while serving as the jailer of a demon was nowhere on the list, abandoning a high rank to take care of said jailer certainly was. There should have been some code between Hokages that guaranteed the safety of their families, provided that the succession had been of the friendly sort. The Sandaime had clearly felt indebted to Naruto's father, so Naruto found it hard to believe that his treatment in Konoha would have been deemed acceptable by his father. If nothing else, Naruto himself deemed it unacceptable, and that was all that really mattered to him.

Unfortunately, there was not much time to properly dwell on this. Gaara had tasked Naruto with delivering the unconscious Sasame to the proper authorities, and then returning to the Uchiha compound with the others so that they could leave the village quickly and without detection. In no mood to play guard, Naruto had tasked three of his clones to deal with Sasame while he and the others went home. He was aware of Gaara's promise to keep Sasame safe, but in all honesty, Naruto couldn't have cared less what happened to the girl.

Perhaps that was why when Naruto became aware that the trio of clones carrying Sasame were destroyed without warning, he didn't react or alert the others. All he knew for certain was that Sasame hadn't done it. It would have been a simple matter to tell someone. Kyojuu would've been glad to check things out, he was easily fast enough to do so in a timely matter, and he still had Sasame's scent.

But Naruto said nothing.

He assumed that it wouldn't matter to him or those close to him, one way or another.

He was very, very wrong in that, and once again, someone close to him would suffer because of it.

Konohamaru was in a bad mood. Nothing was going like he thought it should.

First, his village had been invaded. That part wasn't completely intolerable, he understood these things happened when you lived in a ninja village. But he had expected to be out there fighting. Instead, he was shoved into a shelter with the other kids, and told to be quiet.

Yet Hanabi, a GIRL (a rather skilled one, but still a girl) had been chosen to fight the invaders. It wasn't fair at all. Konohamaru was certain he could have held his own. The few times he had sparred with Hanabi, she hadn't beaten him by that much, at least.

And even after they were given permission to leave the shelter, no one would tell Konohamaru where his grandfather was, or even if he was okay. More than a little annoyed, he had decided to stick with Ayame. She was nice, she didn't talk to him like he was a baby, and she had promised him a free bowl of ramen. If nothing else, Konohamaru figured that the Sandaime would eventually show up at Ichiraku's, it being one of his favorite places to eat.

Walking through the village with Ayame was a drastically different experience. Konohamaru had never seen such destruction outside of textbooks, and somehow the fact that it had happened to his village made it more real. Some of shops that he went to all the time had been badly damaged, and the idea that it could happen had simply never occurred to him.

Oddly enough, Ichiraku Ramen didn't seem to have suffered any damage at all. This was especially curious, since the shop next door was little more than debris now. Ayame didn't seem surprised at all: she merely asked Konohamaru to wait while she tidied up a bit.

There was nothing to tidy, though, and the way that Ayame went about it was even stranger: she carefully swept small amounts of what looked like brown dust outside. Konohamaru noticed that instead of sweeping it away entirely, she seemed to be forming a large circle with it, one that surrounded the entire ramen stand. Even stranger, it looked a lot like the dirt that Gaara had used back at the shelter.

Ayame was still sweeping when a very large man suddenly stepped through the curtain. He was one of the tallest people that Konohamaru had ever seen, almost as tall as his uncle Asuma. Right away, something about the man gave Konohamaru a very bad feeling. Maybe it was the way his eyes seemed to glow bright green, or that they were the only visible part of his face.

If Ayame was bothered by the stranger's appearance, she hid it expertly behind her usual business smile. "Welcome to Ichiraku Ramen! What would you like?"

The man walked right up to Ayame, perhaps a bit closer than was absolutely necessary. "I'm hunting a certain type of prey, and I need just the right bait to draw them out."

Ayame swallowed nervously. "Well, we have all types of ramen here..."

"I was thinking of something a bit more... alluring." The man's eyes went briefly to the framed pictures of Gaara and Naruto on the wall, and then swung back to Ayame. "I have yet to meet a man that wouldn't drop everything and chase after the right bait."

Before Ayame could ask what he meant, his very large hand had seized her arm.

"HEY!" Konohamaru shouted, drawing the man's attention. "You get away from her!"

The man was not impressed, but he did not look away from Konohamru immediately. In fact, he stared. "Hmm. I know who you are."

Konohamaru's heart leapt into his throat. "Y-You do?"

"Indeed." The man's arm moved so fast that Konohamaru's eyes couldn't follow it, and the next thing he knew, a large hand closed around the boy's neck and squeezed hard, lifting him into the air. "You're bait, too."

It was a struggle just to breathe, but even then, Konohamaru thought he could draw enough air to scream for help. Before he could, he heard Ayame gasp, and when he saw what she saw, any plans to speak faded at once.

A second figure had come into the ramen stand (at least, he assumed it had, but he hadn't seen it do so). It was even taller than the man, and wore an odd bull-like mask with a yellow nose. Whatever this creature was, it wasn't human: its body looked like a childish doodle of a nightmare come to life. But the most frightening thing of all was the limp form of an orange-haired girl, draped over the monster's enormous shoulder.

The message was clear: there would be no mercy, not for women, and certainly not for children.

The Shodai Hokage was a man of habit. He'd always found time to pause and take a good, long look at the village he'd helped create. It soothed him, and never failed to remind him of what could be achieved with enough faith and hard work, not to mention some very unique botany skills. As a spirit, he had spent nearly all of his time either at the Hokage Monument, or in the Hokage Tower: both had fantastic views overlooking Konoha.

"I assume you're aware that everyone wants to know if you're back for good now."

He smiled from where he stood atop the giant stone replica of his own head, looking over his shoulder to see Hanabi a few feet behind him. Of course she would know where to find him; it was where they'd first met, after all.

"It's a good question, too," Hanabi added when she realized he wasn't going to answer. "If you are staying, you should think about growing some more trees, or working out some sort of deal with the Yamanaka. It's not as if anyone could turn you down, and..."

Hanabi stopped talking as the Hokage turned fully to face her, walked up to her, and then did something truly shocking.

He slowly sank to his knees, and bowed his head until it touched the ground at her feet.

"Shodai-sama," Hanabi said softly, nervously, "what are you doing?" She knew perfectly well what he was doing, she just didn't understand why.

The Shodai lifted his head, the smile never leaving his face. "You truly don't realize what you've done for me, do you, child?"

Hanabi blinked, shaking her head. "No..."

Laughing, the Hokage placed his hands on her shoulders, squeezing them gently. "I was almost forced to destroy the very village I built with my own two hands. I was almost commanded to kill a dear friend, one who I am proud to call the Sandaime Hokage. But you... you and your beautiful voice... saved me from all of that, with just a few words. As far as I'm concerned, I could give you everything I've ever owned, and still never repay you enough."

"Oh," was all Hanabi could think to say. From what she'd heard, the Shodai's clan had technically owned half of Konoha during his reign. "You're... welcome?"

"There is, however, something I can give you." He removed his right hand from her shoulder and slowly passed his fingers over her forehead. "All Hyuuga and Uchiha have chakra reservoirs just behind their eyes. It is generally larger in Hyuuga, which is why the Byakugan can be activated over longer periods than the Sharingan."

Hanabi was tempted to point out that she already knew all that, but made do with a simple nod.

The Shodai smiled. "Your case is slightly different, my young friend. You cannot will your Byakugan to activate. Yet it is connected to your will: each time you are near a spirit, or you enter battle, your eyes respond accordingly. But because you cannot control the activation, you have an abnormally large amount of chakra in your reservoirs. If you cannot increase the frequency at which you release this chakra, the reservoir will begin to put pressure on your brain. That would be even more dangerous than the jutsu your mother passed on to you."

"What can I do?" Hanabi asked quietly.

"Nothing, without help. But that is where I come in." With that, the Hokage untied his forehead protector and placed it in her hands. "This metal is composed of special minerals. Together, they act as a chakra converter. They convert human chakra into nature chakra."

"Will... I be able to use Mokuton jutsu?" Hanabi asked, her eyes wide.

He shook his head slightly. "Again, not without help, but that can wait. As you know, spirits sometimes anchor themselves to a certain place or person that is important to them. For me, that place has always been Konoha. But now, after all that you have done for me, with your permission, I would like that place to be at your side."

"But... why?" Hanabi whispered.

"There are several reasons. But the simplest is perhaps the most important. A long time ago, I lost a close friend of mine to the darkness. I swore to myself that if I ever found another close friend, I would not make the same mistakes. With you, I've been given that second chance. Maybe, now that I am not too busy running a village, I can learn to be a far better friend."

"But the village still needs you!" Hanabi cried. "You can't just ignore that because you want to be my friend!"

"I never said I would. As you are aware, this village has a history of ignoring the will of fallen Hokages. And while it is true that we often lay down our lives for the village without hesitation, we all assume that our final wishes would be honored out of gratitude, if nothing else. This is something I intend to see enforced, starting with the Yondaime's will. Can I count on your support, Hanabi, daughter of Hotaru? Will you speak for me?"

Hanabi didn't have to think long. It was too late to undo everything that had been done to Naruto, but so much could be made right if ignorance was no longer an excuse. Besides, she wanted something to keep her mind off of Gaara, and this was a more than worthy cause.

"Only if I get to boss people around."

He chuckled. "You are the voice of the fallen Hokages. Your word is very much law."

"You have all seen for yourselves the chaos that Sarutobi's mistakes have caused," Danzo said as he shuffled across the dim council room. "This exchange was among the greatest of his failures. It has become obvious that Gaara was merely biding his time, waiting to turn on us. It was his brother that helped him bring down Sarutobi, and Gaara himself snapped the old fool's neck. On top of that, our village has been ravaged by the power of Kyuubi yet again. A power that Sarutobi willingly handed over to the Sand, making this invasion possible. I ask you, how long will we continue to play the victim? Now is the time for swift and decisive action."

"What is it that you have in mind, Danzo?" Koharu asked. "We are all well aware of your desire to become Hokage, and that-"

"No," Danzo interrupted. "It has become clear to me now that a Hokage is not fit for this type of work. That is why it has never been carried out by one. I am not here to nominate myself for Hokage. I am here to request the reactivation and reorganization of Root into an external peacekeeping force. I vow that Konoha will never again be invaded."

This statement was met with mixed reactions. Most present were shocked that Danzo had apparently given up on being Hokage. Others knew better.

"External to what degree?" Homura questioned.

"Our first order of business would be to confirm the rumors of the annihilation of the Sand."

"You're saying that they've been destroyed? By whom?"

"That is why we need to confirm, in case we are the next targeted. It is likely in our weakened state. However, there is one last bit of internal business I believe we must address first."

Koharu was not surprised at all. "And what might that be?"

"Based on the devastation we have suffered, I recommend that Konoha do everything in its power to capture and execute all surviving demon vessels. Root would of course assist in this."

Koharu and Homura exchanged glances, but neither said a word.

A chair shifted, and Aburame Shibi stood up. "Danzo is correct in one thing. We can no longer hesitate."

Homura nodded. "All in favor of the reactivation and reorganization of Root, also recognizing them as Konoha's external peacekeeping force?"

Every hand in the room went up with almost no hesitation.

"All in favor of the capture and execution of the surviving demon vessels?"

Slowly, one by one, each of the hands went up again.

Danzo smiled slightly and inclined his head respectfully. "Long live the great tree."

End of Chapter 35.

Next Chapter: Broken Bonds

Kakuzu's plot draws the demon vessels out of Konoha, but the village is unable to pursue, thanks to the intervention of certain undead persons.


I am assuming that Kakuzu's extensive knowledge of bounties also includes well-known public figures who could potentially be used as hostages... so, he knows Konohamaru on sight (virtually everyone in Konoha does, so it's not so strange).

Jutsu list:


Hizashi's jutsu:

Kenjutsu: Hakke Rokujuyon Sho (Sword Art: Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms)

Hizashi manifests in physical form, and shadows Hinata as she performs Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms. However, he uses twice as many blows, and strikes with far greater force.

Ino's jutsu:

Kage Bunshin Shika (Shadow Clone Shikamaru):

Ino's overall command to summon her shadow, which can move independent of her body, and sometimes her will.

Sasame's jutsu:

Shichishou no Jutsu (Seven Lives Technique):

Sasame summons up to seven stolen spirits from her body to attack or defend. Each spirit is powered by a different seal on her body. They can be replaced if destroyed. This jutsu places a severe drain on Sasame's chakra, and sometimes causes her to fall into a state of hibernation for some time.