Sorry for failing to write much soon. Real life's just been fun lately, what with parties and people leaving and buying stuff for University...

Anyways, a brief synopsis of the last chapter: Kenta came to the Nara house, but Naruto and Shikamaru had just left: since Shikaku was out spying, and Yoshino in town, that left only Rumiko and Rinku there. On confronting the girls, Kenta found out Rinku was a demon-host, and he attacked the girls: he's obtained a scroll that will remove a demon from one seal and transfer it to another, and was planning to try it out on the poor jinchuuriki. Just as Rinku snapped and fought back with demon energy, the Akatsuki appeared on the scene: Itachi told Rumiko the demon in Rinku was the seven-tailed horse, Ekitako. Meanwhile, though, Team Ten had gone to visit Kenta's brother Makoto: the old man told them why Kenta had left Konoha, and found out that the seal keeping the Kyuubi locked up will release the demon when he dies.

Shikamaru and Co get cut off then, because they sense the release of youki over at the Nara house. Naturally, they run off to see what's happened; Rinku's fighting Kenta, but he losing, and he runs. The Akatsuki also vanish promptly, leaving Ino, Chouji, Shikamaru, Rumiko and Rinku alone. Oh, and, the house is on fire.


Chapter 24.


Kenta ran terrified away into the woods, dashing across treetops until the chakra burns down his body made him give in to exhaustion. He dropped down to the ground, then, and walked staggering along. The shade in the woods was nice – calming, as much as anything could be - and the gentle breeze helped reduce the tremors in his body. There was sweat dripping down into his eyes, his legs felt loose like jelly. His hands were white and bloodless, even when he'd unclenched them.

The demon in a human form. Who'd have thought it could be so fucking terrifying.

He'd faced the Kyuubi's chakra when the fox smashed Konoha. Back then, he'd stayed strong. There'd been people to defend and people watching out for him; however many had broken and ran, there'd been shinobi to stand by, who were taking on the monster with you, who were sharing their resolve and helping with the terror. And that kind of camaraderie helped a lot, during a disaster. This – this'd been him standing alone.

He shouldn't have done it. His pulse wasn't so loud in his ears now; now, the sweat running down his body had cooled. The breeze and the shadows in the wood were less welcome: he was shaking still, even more violently.

Adiurat had just been so bullheaded about it all. The blind old bastard had his own plans, and Kenta'd wanted to make the first move. He'd thought he had to do it now. And well, he'd fucked up. He'd been given a chance to set things right and he'd screwed it the hell up. Going after the girl had been dumb, cocky, impatient, fuckwittedly stupid. Now the game was up and the fox and his bitch of a sister and that sky-cursed girl host would be on guard and his chances were shot.

And-

Someone was watching him.

In the dappled shade of the forest, Kisame and Itachi didn't have any trouble at all taking Kenta's scroll. And no-one was a witness to it.


Tsunade and Shizune dashed the last few miles to Konoha: there was demonic chakra in the air. It seemed like Jiraiya hadn't been kidding about Akatsuki after all. Not that Tsunade'd though he would be, but it was alarming all the same.

There was no-one on guard at the village gates. She and Shizune entered unchallenged, and were faced with villagers standing aimlessly in the streets, scared and angry and questioning. That nerve-racking youki aura had died down, leaving the common folk of Konoha with fearful eyes and Tsunade's poor deear pet terrified. It left the sannin herself with the impression a power other than the Kyuubi's had been responsible. This wasn't the demon fox, it was something less familiar, and that changed matters.

But then, Jiraiya had mentioned more than one demon-host. All Tsunade could do was hope this unknown factor worked to their advantage. And that the village Council hadn't found much out about this unfortunate new jinchuuriki.

Her hopes sank as they moved into Konoha centre: down the street from the two new arrivals, a man with a Nara-like pony-tail and a walking stick was shouting at an officious silver-haired councilor. A group was crowding around the two men, all with their own opinions. As Tsunade stepped in, one woman was shrieking something about demon-spawn.

"Gentlemen."

She introduced herself. Years of medical practice had given her a calm steely voice that could cut through any interruptions, and she made good use of it to broadcast her name and her intentions. There was silence, and the group turned to her.

And bowed, respectful. For once, she was thankful for her heritage.

It didn't work unconditionally, though: the silverhaired man, introducing himself as Councilman Aduirat, politely informed her that her assistance was unecessary in these matters.

She moved towards him. She flicked him in the chest, with a single finger. She felt that she was better qualified to fight demons than he was, thank you anyway.

And then she turned her formidable attention to the man who'd argued with Aduirat: the Nara jounin's face was studiedly blank. The ponytailed man offered to help her ascertain the causes of this disturbance, sounding very slightly urgent.

He and his wife followed her, and a straggling group of bystanders went with them. All in all, Tsunade felt pretty proud of her diplomatic skills.


Shikamaru and Chouji had escorted Rumiko out of the ruined house, one on either side like a pair of guards. They came back to where Ino and Rinku stood, the kunoichi's hands on the other girl's shoulders. The five youngsters stood silently together, all shaken.

Shikamaru, red eyes skipping between the chaotic field, the burning home, and his friends.

Ino, looking between the two older girls and concerned for both of them (the need to learn to defend herself grew in the kunoichi's mind).

Chouji, watching his best friend, thinking back to the interview with Makuro Makoto.

Rumiko, feeling horribly dizzy from the blow to the head she'd received, tossing up the dangers that the Akatsuki and Kenta presented respectively.

Rinku, starting to believe in demons and jinchuuriki, felt newly scared.

They had nothing to say to each other, and they had too much to say to themselves. So silence stretched out, Rumiko putting her hands over her face, sinking down until she was kneeling on the ground. The others looking at her. Shikamaru crouching and putting hands on her shoulders. The wind blowing smoke from the burning house towards them.

The others stood awkwardly. Aware of clouds gathering in the sky. Aware of the home that was destroying itself, but not moving towards it to help. But all at once, Shikamaru spun and as he turned rose upright, alert and facing the path from the village. The other children followed his eyes, seeing nothing for a minute until a blonde woman came into view on the trail. Behind her, they recognised Yoshino and Shikaku, and a flock of villagers following this trio.


Jiraiya was enjoying travelling, for once. It was a nice time of year to move between Sand and Fire country, and he was enjoying riding in a cart and the effort-free journey that vehicle bought. It gives you so much freedom to look around, and to doze: the day was warm; the mist that had covered the ground at sunrise as they'd set off having all burned, and the stillness of the morning had given way to a pleasant afternoon, with long shadows following the four travellers and marking out hills in the rolling countryside.

Jiraiya liked nature: he smoked his pipe as he observed it, thinking it pleasant that he could sit so peacefully with these three genin. Kankurou was working beside him, carefully assembling newly cleaned puppet mechanisms, and the boy's unpainted face looked at once serious and young. Temari had her hands folded over her fan as she walked, and was looking between her brothers. The sannin wondered what she made of Gaara: the young Kazekage's eyes were following a bird circling in the sky, his face was blank.

And when staying quiet got old, they also did a good line in bickering banter.

It was generally Kankurou who set it off: he'd been sitting crosslegged in the back of the cart with mechanisms for Karasu laid out around him for the whole journey, and when cleaning joints got boring, he'd stick his head out to address the his older sister and younger brother. Both those two had chosen to walk alongside the vehicle; it wasn't obvious why. The middle child, talking to them, came back to the same grievance every time.

"I don't care if you two forgive them, they broke my Karasu. Even the fact that kid Naruto slapped Gaara doesn't make up for that."

"You've gotten it functional again already, though, 'Kuro. Besides, you like rebuilding your dollies."

The puppeteer turned his back on his sister, clearly indicating he was not going to rise to that bait. She smirked and tilted her head upwards to inform Jiraiya (the hermit had made it clear age gave him the right to ride in the cart), in a sing-song voice of the kind only ever found in playgrounds, "Kankuro pla-ays with do-llies..."

The aforesaid brother gave Jiraiya a weary look, hoping for solidarity against the female gender. Jiraiya shrugged. The youngest sibling turned to Temari, looking perhaps just the slightest bit amused.

Temari smirked as Jiraiya met her gaze, then hummed: do-llies.

And Kankuro snapped:

"Te-ma-ri, the word is "puppet". Pu—ppet. It has two syllables, it's pretty easy to remember. Two, new techniques and new parts are good. Replacing splintered joints is not. At all. And-"

And at about this time, Temari's laughter told him he'd risen to the bait. He'd look at his brother, and see Gaara smirking in a way entirely new to him.

He'd look crestfallen, then, utterly betrayed. Jiraiya grinned.

Cute kids.


"So."

Tsunade folded her hands together, elbows resting on the Hokage's desk. Shikamaru scratched behind his ear, shifting his weight. Ino cleared her throat. She looked at her team-mate, not wanting to speak first.

"An exiled member of this village was responsible for the attack." Shikamaru's voice was terse. "Makuro Kenta."

Tsunade's gaze became more intent. Shikamaru spoke on: he had one chance to impress the woman who'd taken over from the council, and he knew this was it. If he convinced her he was honest and sensible and a good ninja, she'd be able to protect the Nara family. If not, he'd become an easy victim.

So he talked: in a low, serious voice, he explained Kenta's hatred of the Kyuubi, the reasons behind that anger, the cryptic behaviour of Kenta's brother Makoto. He explained, very quietly and with as cold an attempt at logic as he could, what Kenta had been told about the seal imprisoning the demon fox, why that had driven him to leave, and what the implications of his return were.

He didn't want to talk about it: the thought of the demon imprisoned within him had scared him before today, and now, that fear had been magnified. It'd been foolish to think the seal would last after his chakra system faded, but he'd never wondered what would happen to it when he died. It'd have been neater if the demon would be taken out of the world along with him when he died. He didn't like knowing that wouldn't happen: fear sat heavily in his stomach through all the interview with Tsunade, and he felt very clumsy, very young, when he tried to confront it.

Rumiko and Rinku had been taken to the hospital; Yoshino and Chouji had escorted them there, concerned about the villagers' likely behaviour. Shikamaru was the only one in a position to address the Hokage, though – Ino didn't have the right attitude or the right knowledge to speak to the new Kage, and his father didn't know the whole story, or even most of it.

So Ino was standing by him but looking off to the side, hands and posture betraying her tension. She'd looked at the blonde sannin and tensed up and Shikamaru knew there was going to be some kind of feminine critiquing going on later, of dress sense and pigs as accessories and bust size. It made him grin, for a brief second. And his other supporter lifted his spirits, too: Shikaku stood to the other side of Shikamaru, leaning on his cane, alert, eyes on his son.

"So tell me," Tsunade said once he'd explained his position and Kenta's psychotic rationale, "Why this Rinku individual was present at your home."

Shikamaru grimaced. But he'd speak on.


Rinku had been put on a bed by Rumiko's, and she was copying the posture the Nara girl had used earlier: she had her hands over her eyes, blocking out the light. Her back was against the wall, her knees were raised protectively, her arms curled around around them to bring the palms of her hands over her face. Light hurt her eyes; it made crawling patterns of black-red-purple block out her vision. She kept thinking she could see things in the shapes, too: animals and monsters and demons. She was worried she was going crazy, and the sound of her heartbeat and the clattering and muttering of the hospital wasn't helping.

The nurses had left her alone. They'd given her a wide berth, just chucking wide-eyed looks back as she followed Rumiko and the medic who was treating her. She thought she'd heard them discussing her: just fragments of sentences, but the tone of the conversation made her shudder and piecing together what she'd overheard was worse.

She wanted Shikamaru and his family to be here, or to wake up. A ninja dressed as a healer had drawn something on Rumiko's forehead with a salve, then formed hand seals and lit the pattern she'd written in medicine up with glowing blue light, letting it sink into the Nara patient's skin. Rumiko had still been awake at that point, lying with carefully close eyes and hands clutching the bed covers to keep herself still. She'd gone limp, unconcious or asleep but hopefully recovering.

Rinku really, really wanted to talk to someone. Keeping her eyes shut made then hurt, and it amplified all the sounds and smells of the hospital: someone was crying, somewhere nearby. Someone ran down a corridor. A trolley clattered.

The door opened.

And a silver-haired man walked in.