What's up, everybody? DKW back again to bring you another chapter! And let me tell you, this one's a big'un; my second longest chapter to-date!

Also, I updated THREE times in one year?! HOLY SHEIAT! Can I do four? I don't know, but I'm gonna try!

I know I said this one would be done about two weeks after the last chapter, but when I said that, I had planned something about half the size of this. But, as usual, I wasn't satisfied with what I had, so I kept adding and adding, until I had…this.

I think I have a problem…

Anywho, as I told you all in the last chapter, this one and the next will be a good bit darker than you may be used to, even considering what's happened in the story so far. This one in particular is heavy on the emotions, which is part of what made it take so long. Took me a bit to come up with something that I felt myself, and that's a must. If I don't feel anything while writing it, how can I expect anyone else to feel anything while reading it?

Also, I've got a forum here! It's called "Devilkeys' Playground"(very original, I know), and it's a general forum where you're likely to see just about anything, from role playing, to advice for aspiring writers. Not a lot of members so far, but that's what this shameless plug is for! So if you think you'd be interested, head on over.

That's about it, so let's get started, shall we?

XXXX

(Meanwhile)

"Sakura?! Sasuke?!" Kakashi shouted as he and Naruto came out of the small entrance hall and into…another hall. A much, much longer one, lined with doors.

"Odd layout." Naruto commented while trying to feel out his teammates' chakra signatures. He wasn't getting anything.

"It's meant to confuse single assailants, make them waste time checking every room, until they run into a trap or an ambush. With multiple enemies, it makes them want to split up to cover more ground, allowing you to pick them off one by one." Kakashi said, having seen the same type of design many times before. "So let's not split up."

"No need." Naruto said as he created a group of clones…Or, at least he tried to. "…The fuck?" he tried again, making a single Darkness Clone from his own shadow.

His shadow shifted and stretched, forming a bubble that rose only a foot before collapsing like a soufflé.

"That can't be good." Kakashi said before trying to create a Shadow Clone.

The signature puff of smoke appeared before him, but as it cleared they could see that Kakashi's clone was a mess. Face down on the floor, deathly pale and lifeless. It lasted barely three seconds before dispelling on its own.

"This could be a problem."

"Hmm…Naruto, try to make a Shadow Clone, but use about twice as much chakra as you normally would. I think I know what's going on, but I need confirmation." Kakashi said.

"Right…" Naruto shrugged and did as instructed. Another puff of smoke, and another sickly-looking clone. But at least this one was on its feet, though it appeared to be trembling from the effort. Ten seconds later, it was gone, unable to hold on any longer.

"Mm-hm, something is stealing our chakra." Kakashi stated. "When it leaves our bodies, only a fraction of it goes into the technique, the rest is going somewhere else." he eyed the walls warily.

"Seals?" Naruto suggested.

"Most likely, though I don't know how or why they're active, since we came in here just like the guard team would."

"Maybe it's the second ANBU. Anko told us that there were four ninjas stationed here, but only three are accounted for. The last one probably retreated in here to make a final stand."

"Then we'd better be especially careful."

Naruto nodded in agreement. No matter how confident he was in his abilities, ANBU were not to be trifled with. In open combat, he was sure he could take all but the strongest of them. But in a situation like this, where the ANBU would have every advantage that mattered, it was best to play it safe.

"Let's get a move on." Naruto ordered, falling back into his role as leader of the mission. Assessing the situation may have been vital, but they couldn't forget why they were there in the first place.

"Will do, boss." Kakashi replied, earning grunt from his "commanding officer".

The two proceeded down the hall, Naruto on the right, Kakashi on the left, slowly opening doors as they passed. It soon became apparent that the safe house interior was designed not only to confuse, but to frustrate intruders as well. Every single room looked exactly the same as the last. From the paint on the walls, to the furniture and its placement, it was all identical.

Fortunately, whoever came up with the idea hadn't counted on potential intruders possessing the Sharingan.

"Hold on, I think I've got something." Kakashi said, waving Naruto over.

"Hm?"

"All of the other rooms were the same and I've memorized the layout. This one is different; see that lamp on the nightstand? It's been turned around; the pull string for the switch is on the wrong side." Kakashi elaborated.

"So it is." Naruto remarked, then absently checked his watch.

"What time is it?" Kakashi asked, having looked over his shoulder just in time to catch the action.

"4:12, why?" Naruto replied, raising an eyebrow behind his mask. It didn't really matter what time it was…But then why did he feel the need to check in the first place?

Kakashi shrugged. "Just wondering if we've been out here as long as I feel like we have."

They hadn't. Team Seven had left the Hokage's office at 3:30, the official start of the mission. Just forty-two minutes, yet for how Kakashi felt, it might as well have been a week.

"Let's get this over with." Naruto sighed. Unkai still had to be killed, and the longer this took, the further away he got.

Kakashi gave a nod and cautiously stepped into the room. Oh, how he wished he could send a clone in to check for traps, but that wasn't an option now.

Naruto went to follow, but a sudden noise from further down the hall stopped him in his tracks.

"Uchiha? Haruno?" he called out.

No answer.

Eyes narrowed in suspicion, Naruto turned back to the door just in time to see it swing shut on its own. He reacted immediately, launching a kick that destroyed the reinforced lock. But when the door flew back open, Kakashi was nowhere to be found. In fact, the room itself had changed; the lamp on the nightstand was in the right position, with the switch facing the bed.

Naruto stepped into the room and waited a few seconds. Then, when he picked up the sound of the door moving across the carpeted floor, his coattails shot out and hooked around it. However, whatever mechanism was controlling the door was a powerful one and the appendages, strong enough to tear a human apart like wet paper, barely managed to slow it down. Only when Naruto added his own inhuman strength to the mix was the door finally pried back open.

Unfortunately, it didn't seem to matter if the door was allowed to close all the way or not. The hallway had become a large, open room, sparsely decorated with simple furniture. It reminded Naruto of a living room in one of the apartments in his building, just ten times the size.

'…Kyuubi?' it was time to call in the cavalry, as he was officially out of his element; stuck in an illusion that he couldn't brute force his way out of.

"Trying…Oh, shit…"

Naruto didn't at all like the demoness' tone, a combination of worry and awe.

'What is it?' he asked, already dreading the answer.

"I…I don't know." Kyuubi confessed. "But whatever it is, it's not a Genjutsu."

'Wait, so you're telling me that this…is real? No, not possible.' it had to be a Genjutsu. Otherwise, that meant the rooms and hallways were physically moving around within the house, instantaneously and without even the slightest of sounds.

Naruto was briefly reminded of a movie he once saw, where a group of civilians were trapped inside of a gigantic cube, filled with smaller ones that constantly shifted positions and contained rooms, most of which were booby trapped. As one could imagine, it didn't end well for the characters in the film. But there was no way something like that was happening in the safe house.(1)

"That's not what I said; I said it's not a GENJUTSU. Those work by directly targeting your brain to mess with your senses. Well, I'm in your brain and I'm telling you, there's nothing here."

The faint sound of someone snickering was ignored by both parties.

'Then what the fuuuuuuaaaaAAAAHHHH!" Naruto screamed as he was suddenly hit with a debilitating headache. He lurched forward, his legs moving automatically to maintain balance and carrying him through the threshold.

"Naru-!" Kyuubi's voice was abruptly silenced, not that Naruto noticed.

But he certainly noticed when her voice was replaced by one he didn't at all recognize. "My sincerest apologies, Mr. Namikaze." it was a male voice, its tone calm and cordial, with an accent that some would call "cultured" or "posh". But it still carried the eerie, authoritative undertone that Naruto had learned to associate with demonic beings.

"W-What...?" Naruto couldn't speak, unable to even think of the words, let alone put them together coherently.

"The headache will subside shortly." the voice assured. "Your mental defenses are more formidable than most, especially humans. Very impressive for one as young as yourself; The Queen has taught you well. Unfortunately, that means I need to be a bit more...insistent about getting through them, as I have neither the time nor the patience for finesse at the moment. Again, I apologize for the pain this is causing you."

True to the voice's word, Naruto's migraine gradually faded over the next minute, allowing him to regain control of his faculties.

"Who are you?" he demanded, pissed off at the prospect of another demon invading his mind.

"Do you really have to ask? I am Rumare, The Mindbender…Though, after today, I will need a new moniker." the demon chuckled.

"And why is that?" Naruto asked, against his better judgment.

What he really wanted was to tell the demon to get the fuck out of his head, but that likely would've been very counterproductive. Whatever this thing was, it was powerful enough to not only plow through his mental barriers, but to keep Kyuubi and Nightmare at bay as well.

"Because it's not only minds that I can bend to my will. Just as The Queen told you, what you are experiencing is no mere 'Genjutsu', as you ninjas call it. Though these walls may shift and shuffle around in the blink of an eye, they are quite real, Mr. Namikaze. You are not trapped in your own head, while your body sits in a hallway, drooling like you have just been given a lobotomy. You are here, and 'here' is wherever I wish it to be."

The huge room began to shrink rapidly around Naruto, putting him more than a little on-edge. But the walls soon stopped closing in, leaving him in a room about the size of his apartment. As if responding to his thoughts, the room continued to morph, with interior walls sprouting from the floor and more furniture appearing out of thin air. Including a very familiar sofa...

"This...This is my apartment..."

"I thought it would be a more comfortable place for us to chat."

"...Do we have something to 'chat' about?"

"Indeed we do. I have wanted to speak with you for a while, Mr. Namikaze, but circumstances have prevented me from doing so. However, it seems the stars have aligned and events have delivered you right to my doorstep!" the demon chuckled gleefully.

"Events that seem to revolve around you and your vessel."

"Ah, my lovely little puppet." the fondness in Rumare's voice was unsettling, even for someone like Naruto. "I knew she presented a golden opportunity from day one, but I never imagined things would proceed so swimmingly!"

"Right…What is it you wanted to talk to me about?" Naruto already had his suspicions about where the conversation would lead, but he saw no other choice than to humor the demon and hope Kyuubi could figure something out on her end in the meantime.

"To business, then. Firstly, I want to thank you."

"For…?"

"You were already told that The Queen's sealing was what inspired that pathetic clan to go looking for a demon to make a deal with. If not for that, if not for you, who knows how much longer I would have been searching for a method of transcendence?"

"…"

"A little background to help you understand. You see, I like my 'title' of 'Mindbender'. Or, rather, I did like it. It is something I earned through centuries of toil and strife. But I am not content with it, something I am sure you can relate to. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no way of bringing myself to that next level…Because that level was reserved for beings far greater than myself. But I still tried. I honed my abilities to the absolute limit and increased my power tenfold…Alas, it wasn't enough. I couldn't breach that final barrier that separates illusion from reality."

"But now you've found a way." Naruto didn't like the sound of that. Not one bit.

"Indeed I have! And I found it in a human child, of all things. From the moment I laid eyes on the girl, I knew she was something special, and bless it if I wasn't right! I do not know how or why, but somehow, someway, the girl possessed the ability to compromise that last barrier. Though only briefly and slightly, she could make it waver, and that's all I need. If I add my own power, I can tear a hole and allow my influence to leak through, bending reality itself to my will! You've already seen the proof in that little lightshow yesterday."

"I get the feeling that's only the tip of the iceberg."

"And you would be right, Mr. Namikaze. That was a parlor trick compared to what I have in store; I merely wanted to make sure my puppet would be able to handle my power without dying. Over the years I have conditioned her body to channel my youki without too much harm, but never in such vast amounts. Fortunately, she passed, if just barely. I suspect she will be half dead by the time all is said all is said and done, which works out just fine for me."

"…I also get the feeling I'm involved in all this, somehow. Or, at least, you want me to be."

"Smart lad! I expected nothing less from The Queen's apprentice and lover. My first order of business was to thank you for making all of this possible. My second was to offer you a gift in return for what you have had to endure at the hands of those wretched humans."

A small, rectangular piece of paper materialized on the coffee table. Picking it up, Naruto saw that it was a ticket, like for a concert or the Chūnin Exams. A ticket that for an event called "The Great Konoha Massacre".

"What?" Naruto suddenly felt as if he'd swallowed a lump of ice.

"Front row seats to the end of the greatest of the Hidden Villages! It will be GLORIOUS!" Naruto winced at the volume of Rumare's voice inside his head. "First, I will drive them all mad. They will see things...Things they will not be able to wrap their fragile little minds around. Rational thought will be obliterated as their fears come to life right before their eyes, taking the places of friends and loved ones...Husbands will beat their wives to death, mothers will strangle their children, sons and daughters will be hunted like animals by their own families! They will tear each other apart in the streets! And then...And then the real spectacle begins." Rumare cackled maliciously.

"That doesn't count as a 'real spectacle'?"

"Compared to the final act? Not at all. Once enough energy is siphoned out of the vermin, the barrier comes down and it all becomes real. Monsters, creatures from peoples' most horrid nightmares will appear and wreak havoc! The Hidden Leaf will fall, and when others inevitably come searching for survivors, answers and to pick over the scraps, they will only find a battered, barely-alive little girl...Whom they will take back with them and follow the same path as the Leaf. And then the cycle will continue, until the vermin have been exterminated!"

Naruto was starting to sweat. "...And what about me?"

"What I offer you is not only the chance to watch your tormentors get their just desserts, but also freedom. With no 'Hokage' or council of pissants to tie you down, the world will be your oyster, as they say. Do whatever you please. Hire yourself out as a mercenary; the power vacuum left by the Leaf will most certainly start a war amongst the vultures, and those are always great fun."

"...And what about my people?"

"Hm?"

"My people, my friends in Konoha. The ones who've helped me get where I am. The ones who don't deserve what you're planning...What happens to them?"

"My creation will not discriminate; everyone will die. If they do not kill one another, the second phase will finish them off. What does it even matter? You are a hanyō, are you not? Play your cards right and you will be around for a very long time, especially with The Queen guiding you. Plenty of time to make new 'friends' and take new concubines...Though I do not see why you would want any."

"..."

"…I should have known, even half human is still too much. Always so sentimental." Rumare sighed deeply. "Well, I suppose that puts us on opposing sides, then."

"I guess s-!" Naruto was interrupted by another headache, this one somehow even worse than the last.

"Which means I have to kill you. You are most certainly the type to hold a grudge and I have told you too much about my plans. You are simply too dangerous to keep around. I would say it pains me to do this, but...I'm quite looking forward to taking one of Shizaru's more important pieces off of the board."

"You'll...have to do...better than this." Naruto growled as he fell to a knee, struggling to keep himself from collapsing altogether. If he went down now, he likely wouldn't be getting back up.

"So it would seem. Very well, shall we dig a little deeper?"

Naruto didn't know how much more he could take. It felt like his head was being torn apart from the inside, slowly shredded synapse by synapse.

"Ah, here we are! My, my, for someone so apparently fearless, there sure is a lot in here..."

The pain finally ceased as room suddenly burst into flames, startling Naruto for a moment. But only a moment.

"Fire? Really? Please." Naruto snorted as he willed the flames away. However, this only seemed to make them angry.

A large plume of fire shot out before Naruto could react, striking his right arm and setting it alight. The pain was immediate and unexpected, causing Naruto to flail around for a few seconds before managing to put the blazing limb out.

He stared at the partially charred appendage in disbelief. Fire didn't hurt him. It couldn't hurt him. No matter how intense the blaze, his affinity, really Kyuubi's, protected him. And even if that wasn't the case, both the cloak-turned-jacket and the Biosuit underneath were fireproof…

"There it is! That moment of dawning horror that I so adore!" Rumare laughed. "All that time under The Queen's wing, learning to control your fear by controlling that which you feared…All for nothing. You have conquered nothing. Take away that control and you are still the same scared little boy from back then…But not scared enough. This is not your worst fear, is it? No, I can do better…"

A sudden chill up his spine was the only warning Naruto got before his body moved on its own, rolling to the left just as something came down on the floor where he had been. His heart nearly stopped when he saw Shizaru with his claws buried halfway into the floorboards. On reflex he attempted to call out the Black Soul, but without enough chakra to stabilize it, the portal closed almost instantly.

"Dammit..." Naruto growled as he took a few steps back, putting as much distance between himself and his opponent as the conflagration would allow.

"Your reaction time is terrible, Halfling." "Shizaru" remarked as he yanked his blades free and stood to his full height. "It's like you're moving in slow motion; I actually have to make an effort not to hit you."

Naruto didn't bother responding. He just braced himself for the attack he knew was coming, every muscle in his body a coiled spring, ready to release at the first sign of danger.

"If ever there was a being to truly be terrified of, it would be Him." Rumare spat out the last word. "But, as with most who have encountered the former General, your fear of him is tainted by hatred, and no small amount of envy. Not good enough, I can do better..."

Another chill spread through his body and Naruto dove to the side once again, inadvertently putting too much power into the jump and nearly rolling right into the fire. Making sure to keep "Shizaru" in his line of sight, Naruto faced the new threat with mounting dread.

Another figure stepped through the burning wall opposite the black-clad Archdemon and all color drained from Naruto's face. Blood red eyes turned to stare at him, glowing with pure contempt, and his body went numb. It was a look he was all too familiar with and normally would've shrugged off and/or returned. But coming from the visage of the one he cared for above all others, it brought an indescribable pain. A pain that silenced the voice in the back of his head, screaming at him that it wasn't really her.

In its place, something quiet and pathetic whimpered out a single question.

Why? Why would Kyuubi look at him like that?

"Ah, there she is, The Queen! Such beauty, such power…Perfection personified…But that is the problem, right? You may fear her strength and the thought of what she could do to you with but a flick of her wrist, but above all else you fear that one day she will realize just how unworthy you are. You try to tell yourself that she loves you, but in reality you are just the best of a bad situation, and you know it."

The ethereal knife in Naruto's chest twisted as Kyuubi turned her gaze away from him and walked forward, towards Shizaru. There was a very different look in her eyes now.

"You wish to free her, but you are terrified of what happens afterward. Because you know she will leave you the first chance she gets. She will find someone better, more deserving of standing by her side."

Kyuubi stopped in front of the black-clad Archdemon, invading his personal space as she looked up into the abyss of his hood. Shizaru's right arm lifted and he ran the backs of his gloved fingers across Kyuubi's cheek. Slowly, gently, lovingly. Those same fingers soon found the back of Kyuubi's neck and pulled her in as their owner leaned down.

Naruto's stomach lurched when Kyuubi's arms wrapped around the other demon's neck. He snapped his eyes to the ground, unable to stand the sight. But the sound sounds remained. The heavy panting, the pleased groans, the cute little growl Kyuubi always made when he grabbed her rear during their own make-out sessions…

"If only your 'friends' could see you now. The mighty, indomitable, fearless Naruto, on his knees, trembling like the frightened child he really is. Hmph, 'fearless' indeed." Rumare snorted. "There is no such thing. Maybe you do not fear things like hulking monsters and insurmountable odds, but everyone has buttons to press. I have found yours, boy, and now you will fall like all the others!"

Responding to an unheard command, Kyuubi and Shizaru disengaged from their passionate embrace and moved on Naruto. Shizaru's claws sprang out from his sleeves once again, while Kyuubi's tonfa swords materialized out of thin air into her hands. They raised their weapons and prepared to drive them into the unmoving boy's skull, and then he looked at them.

The eye slits of Naruto's mask glowed an unholy red and a growl bubbled up from his throat. A second later, the growl became a roar that shook the entire house to its foundation, accompanied by a chakra pulse that would've blown the place apart if not for the blast-rated construction. The imposters weren't so sturdy, however, and were vaporized instantly.

Unable to get through the walls, the massive wave of energy took the path of least resistance and careened through the halls, destroying furniture, blowing doors off their hinges and smashing whatever else wasn't able to withstand the onslaught.

(The Forest, 4:20pm)

Kurenai almost had it. After several minutes of what amounted to a game of chicken with the Genjutsu, she was finally making some headway in drawing it out. The key was to let it cross the "bridge" as a trickle so it could be dealt with more easily, as opposed to a tsunami that would overwhelm you before you could react. It had taken longer than Kurenai would've liked, but now she had the trickle she needed.

'Just a little more…!' Kurenai was so focused on her task that she didn't notice a beetle buzzing around her head until it landed right on her nose. Her first instinct was to swat the insect, but it seemed to realize that it had gotten her attention and immediately took flight again, hovering in front of her face.

It took her a second to recognize what she was looking at, and the realization brought a small smile to her face.

"Shino?" the red-eyed woman called.

"Yūhi-san." the boy greeted after descending from his hiding place in the forest canopy.

Kurenai's smile vanished, remembering that she was no longer "Kurenai-sensei" to him or the others.

To his credit, Shino managed to keep his mask of stoicism upon seeing Kiba in such a sorry state. Whatever had happened to him, Yūhi seemed to have a handle on it. But when he saw what had become of Akamaru, the mask shattered.

"No, no, no, no!" Shino chanted as he rushed to the dead pup's side. He reached out to do…something, then pulled his hands back as if burned. What was he doing? What could he do? What was the protocol for something like this? What kind of logic or reasoning would be of use here?

The boy didn't even notice he was crying until the tears started to pool on the inside of his sunglasses.

Kurenai could only watch as the unflappable Aburame heir's body shook with near-silent sobs. She had no words of comfort to utter, and she hated herself for it. A member of the team was dead and she had nothing to say about it.

As if she needed more convincing that she had made the right choice in resigning as their teacher.

'…But if I hadn't resigned, they wouldn't have been out here in the first place…' once again, Kurenai's mind worked against her, poking holes in any excuse or delusion she tried to concoct for herself.

"…What happened?" Shino finally spoke as he took off his dark eyewear and wiped the remaining tears off on his sleeve.

"Huh?" came Kurenai's eloquent reply.

The corners of Shino's lips twitched downward for a split second before settling into a thin line.

"What. Happened? Why is there a dead woman on the ground? Why is Kiba unconscious in your lap? Why is A…W-Why is Akamaru dead?" the Aburame's throat constricted and he struggled to hold back another torrent of tears.

"I…I don't know." Kurenai admitted with her eyes to the ground, unable to look her former student in the eyes. "I was still unconscious when it happened, so I can only go off of what Anko told me. She figured out that Kiba killed that Kurama," she nodded towards the dead woman, "but she managed to cast a Genjutsu on him before she died. Whatever it was, it made him kill Akamaru."

Shino felt as if he'd been punched in the gut. "You're telling me that…Kiba did this himself?"

"Ugh…Did what?" a familiar voice asked groggily, causing both Kurenai and Shino to freeze.

Though most found it hard to believe, there was such a thing as being too good at one's job. Kurenai was damn good at her chosen form of the Ninja Arts. So good, that even while having a conversation with someone else, she could still maintain enough focus to break a very powerful and complex Genjutsu. Of course, being that it was all subconscious on her part, she didn't realize she'd even broken it until it was too late and the boy resting on her lap awakened.

The next few seconds were the longest of Kurenai and Shino's lives. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Kiba turned his head to peak around his former sensei's body, to where he'd heard his best human friend's voice come from. In that time, either of them could have done something to keep the Inuzuka heir from finding out. Kurenai could've positioned her body to block his view, Shino could've rushed over to divert his attention, or at least picked up the body and hid it in the bushes. Anything would have been better than what they did, which happened to be absolutely nothing. They just couldn't think quick enough given the situation at hand.

And then Kiba saw his worst nightmare made real.

The scream was borderline inhuman, startling Kurenai enough to make her lose her grip. Not that it mattered; the feral-looking boy seemed to acquire the strength of a dozen men as he wrenched himself free and scrambled towards the pup's corpse. He was just within arm's reach when Shino felled him with a swift chop to the back of the neck.

Catching his friend with an arm, Shino immediately rounded on Kurenai, fury and outrage contorting his normally impassive visage.

"What is WRONG with you?!" Shino yelled, thoroughly startling his former sensei. "Why would you wake him up when his partner, his best friend, is staked to the ground ten feet away?!"

"I-I'm sorry, I…I wasn't thinking…" Kurenai trailed off, inwardly wincing both at how weak of an excuse it was, and the fact that it was true.

"About anyone but yourself? No, of course not." Shino said, then took a few deep, calming breaths to reign in his emotions. "Is it done? Is he free of the Genjutsu?"

"…Yes." a small part of Kurenai wanted to reprimand the boy for being a smart-ass, but could she honestly fault him for it?

"Then please leave him with me. I will get him to the hospital and make sure he receives proper treatment." Shino requested as he gently laid Kiba on the ground, then turned his attention back to Akamaru with a deep, shuddering sigh.

"What? You're asking me to leave you behind! I can't do that, I won't do that. We have to find Hinata and get you all out of here!"

"You already left us behind, remember?" Shino sniped, kneeling down beside Akamaru's corpse and gently taking hold of the kunai handle protruding from the dog's back. He nearly vomited when the entire body came up off the ground as he tried to pull the weapon free. It must have been stuck in the spine.

"Dammit, Shino, now isn't the time for this!" Kurenai huffed. "You're still angry, I understand that, but your grudge against me can wait until after we've found Hinata and gotten out of this forest. Which, need I remind you, is crawling with hostiles!"

Shino merely gave her a sidelong glance before pinning Akamaru's body down with a trembling hand and yanking the kunai out.

"There are no hostiles here, Yūhi-san. Not anymore; Naruto-san saw to that." Shino replied, then reached into his coat and produced a storage scroll.

"H-He's here too?" Kurenai couldn't suppress the tremor in her voice, nor the sweat beading up on her forehead. Regardless of the fact that Hinata and the others had followed her of their own free will, Naruto would no doubt blame her if even a single hair on the girl's head was out of place.

"…you won't just be 'out'; you'll be inside out…" Naruto's last words to her echoed in Kurenai's mind.

Shino nodded as he set the scroll on the ground and unrolled it. "Hinata and I felt him when we were out…gathering supplies. He let off a chakra pulse to lure the Kurama in, and I'm sure you can guess what happened after that." the boy shuddered as he remembered hiding in that hollowed-out tree, feeling those chakra signatures vanish one after another, after another.

He had never thought of himself as someone with a great imagination, but it had chosen that moment to wake up and run wild, conjuring up images of the unadulterated carnage that was surely taking place. It didn't help that he had seen firsthand what Naruto was capable of, so he couldn't take comfort in the thought that his mind was portraying events as worse than they really were. They were likely highly accurate, and all the more unsettling for it.

"You mean he took them all out…by himself?" Kurenai did NOT like the idea that Naruto could take on an entire clan and win, while she'd been bested by just one of them. She wanted desperately to believe that Naruto was more hot air and bravado than skill and power.

She wanted to believe she'd stand a chance if he ever came after her.

"By my count, he killed thirty of them. Hinata and I also killed another four. If there are more than that out here, they are either running or hiding, and are likely being hunted down as we speak." Shino scooped up the small canine and placed the body on the scroll. A handseal and a puff of smoke later, it was gone, a black seal taking its place on the previously blank paper.

Kurenai's stomach sank at the news, but she did her best not to show it. "You and Hinata…killed?"

Again Shino nodded. "Unavoidable, given the circumstances; it was either them or us." he slipped the scroll back into his coat.

"Are you…alright?"

"Why wouldn't we be? We may have been somewhat overwhelmed at first, but we've had more than enough time to make peace with what we had to do. This is the life we chose to lead as ninjas."

Leave it to an Aburame to be so unflinchingly pragmatic and logical. Kurenai hadn't been able to sleep for nearly a week after her first kill.

"As much as I'm enjoying our conversation, I have to go; Kiba won't get himself to the hospital." Shino said as he picked the unconscious boy up and slung him across his shoulders in a fireman's carry.

"But what about Hinata? You're just going to leave her out here by herself?" never in a million years would Kurenai have thought Shino would so readily leave a teammate and friend behind.

"The threat has been neutralized and she chose to go off on her own, to meet up with Naruto-san. She is fine, Kiba is not, and, quite frankly, I've had enough 'excitement' for one day." and with that, Shino began his trek South, back towards Konoha.

Knowing she couldn't stop him, and not really wanting to, Kurenai uttered the only words she could before he departed.

"...Thank you..."

(4:25pm)

Hinata was positively giddy as she all but skipped towards the group of identical chakra signatures. Oh, she couldn't wait to tell Naruto about her first kills, and how she had taken charge of the situation and come up with a plan of action! One that actually worked!

"Naruto-sama's going to be so proud of us!" Hinata squealed, so happy that she didn't even register her choice of words.

"I wonder if he will give us a reward?" Hinata's Inner chimed in.

"Mayb-…" Hinata stopped herself upon realizing she was having a conversation with the voice in her head. Out loud.

Even if the voice wasn't an indicator of her losing her mind, she wasn't at all convinced that talking to it was healthy.

"…I am you, you know…I have feelings." Inner Hinata pouted.

'…Sorry?' this time the girl had the wherewithal to internalize her reply.

Whatever response her Inner would have made was silenced when Hinata finally entered the clearing occupied by the familiar chakra signatures. She knew she was guaranteed to see something pretty nasty, but even the knowledge of what Naruto could do, couldn't prepare her for the scene she'd walked into.

She had never seen so much blood in her life. It was everywhere! Staining the dirt, soaking the bushes, coating the trees; it was easier to list what WASN'T spattered in red. And then there were the chunks. Lumps of flesh, chips and shards of bone, strips of torn skin…It was enough to make Hinata's own skin crawl just thinking of what had happened.

And in the center of it all, surrounded by a ring of Naruto's clones, was a large pile broken bodies and severed limbs; the remains of what had once been the Kurama clan.

"Ah, Hina-chan!" one of the clones broke formation and rushed over to the girl with a noticeable bounce in its step.

"'H-Hina-chan'…" Hinata blushed, unable to keep the smile off her face. She knew Naruto's clones often had very different personalities compared to the original, but they were all still a part of him. So somewhere in his head, Naruto thought of her as "Hina-chan", and that made the heiress' heart flutter.

"Did you meet up with Anko-chan?" the clone asked, absolutely brimming with friendly exuberance.

"She's here, too?"

"She's the reason the Boss and his team came out here in the first place! She found the Medic who managed to escape and he told her what had happened up here." the clone explained.

Hinata deflated a bit at that. He hadn't come for her, he had come to stop the Kuramas.

"But he's still here, which is all that matters." Inner Hinata stated.

"I'm afraid you missed the festivities, but you're just in time for the after-party!" the clone then grabbed Hinata by the wrist and pulled her over to the other clones, from which she received various greetings.

"…'After-party'?" the girl repeated, eying the pile of bodies warily. She couldn't help but notice that every corpse she could see was missing its head.

"You might want to hold your breath." the clone advised.

Before Hinata to ask any more questions, streams of fire spewed forth from the mouths of every clone, turning the pile of bodies into an inferno. It didn't take long for the acrid smoke to hit her.

"Told ya'." the overly enthusiastic clone snickered as Hinata went into a coughing fit.

"What's the point of…this?" Hinata asked after she recovered, gesturing to the pile.

"Huh…That actually smells quite nice." Inner Hinata remarked.

'…' Hinata wanted to say something, but thought it better to just pretend she never heard anything. That was one can of worms she was NOT going to touch.

"Standard procedure when dealing with nuke-nin; burn the bodies to prevent any secrets they may still hold from falling into enemy hands." the clone replied, its tone giving away the fact that it really didn't give a damn about "standard procedure". To the clones, it was just something to do.

Hinata only nodded. Her time in the tunnels under Naruto's home taught her not to question what his clones did, or their reasons for doing it. "So…Where's Naruto-kun?"

"Boss went off to the safe house to check…" the clone trailed off when it noticed something very troubling: The mental connection with Naruto had been severed.

The clone then shot off without another word, quickly followed by the rest.

"Wait! What's wrong?! Hey!" Hinata shouted, but it was no use; the clones weren't paying her a bit of attention.

But she did get a response from someone. "Hinata?"

"…Hello, Yūhi-san." the girl answered in a very unladylike grunt. She didn't have time for this, for her; Naruto must have been in trouble for the clones to run off like that.

The rational part of her mind reminded her that if Naruto couldn't get himself out of a situation, she certainly wouldn't be any help. But still…

"Oh, thank God you're alright!" Kurenai breathed a sigh of relief, then looked at the burning mound of bodies. "…Namikaze."

"Standard procedure." Hinata shrugged.

"Right…Listen, Hinata, I need you to go back to Konoha with the others."

"What? Why? It's safe now." Hinata nodded towards the fire. "Everyone who wanted to kill us is over there."

"For you, maybe. But Kiba and Akamaru…"

Hinata's breath hitched. Between hunting the Kuramas and her elation at Naruto's arrival, she had completely forgotten about her third and fourth teammates!

"Are…Are they alright?"

"…It's not good. Not at all." Kurenai said grimly. She wanted to give Hinata the details, but did it really matter? Whether she told her now or let her find out on her own, it wouldn't change the outcome or how Hinata felt about it.

"B-But what about Shino?"

"I've already talked to him, he's taking Kiba to the hospital as we speak." Kurenai sighed and looked Hinata right in the eyes. "You came out here to talk to me, right? Well, we can talk, back in Konoha. I give you my word, I'll tell you whatever you want to know, just please, go back." Kurenai could see the conflicting emotions dancing in the girl's eyes.

Eventually, Hinata nodded. "What about you?"

"I…I still have something to do here. I'll be back later on."

Hinata's eyes narrowed and her mouth settled into a thin line. "Fine." came her curt reply as she walked around her former teacher and back the way she came.

Kurenai's form slumped. Those kids were starting to hate her guts, and she couldn't blame them. Right now, she hated herself, too. But she also had her own personal mission to accomplish. Even if Yakumo would be in good enough hands with Team Seven and Kakashi, she still needed to see the girl.

'I just have to figure out where the cabin is from here…'

(Safe House, 4:33pm)

It had taken an almost embarrassingly long time for Kurenai to find the cabin, but she managed. She nearly lost her lunch upon seeing the mangled corpse out front, but couldn't help but feel a sense of vindictive joy when she discovered that it was Jinki Kurama. She naturally attributed it to more of Naruto's handiwork, which brought on a full-body shudder, and figured it was safe to enter the building. Even if there were a couple Kuramas still around, which Kurenai doubted, their best shinobi was now little more than a pile of meat on the ground.

As soon as she stepped foot into the cabin, she knew something was wrong; she could already feel the mental probe worming its way into her mind. It was a subtle one, something no one without the proper training and know-how would detect. Fortunately, Kurenai had both in spades. She easily neutralized the initial probe, and once she figured out what it was looking for, even the more aggressive one was no match for her. But instead of destroying the probe, she merely redirected it.

As she opened the second door, Kurenai was immediately mobbed by…kittens. Tiny, fluffy, adorable kittens, mewling happily as they crowded around her feet and rubbed up against her legs.

"Kurenai-sensei!" a familiar voice chirped, prompting the red-eyed woman to look up.

It was Hinata, wearing her old coat and sporting a dazzling smile.

"Hello, Hinata." Kurenai smiled back. "I'm sorry to spring this on you so quickly, but I need your help."

"Of course, sensei, whatever you need!" "Hinata" beamed.

"Can you take me to Yakumo?"

"Mm-hm, follow me!" the girl said as she turned and skipped off down the hall.

Kurenai's smile turned sad. She had fooled the Genjutsu into conjuring things that she loved instead of things she feared. And something she loved above almost anything else was seeing Hinata happy. Illusion or not, Kurenai would enjoy it while she could, for she knew it wasn't something she was going to see again for a long time.(2)

(Meanwhile)

The common room, once filled with the sounds of battle, was now quiet save for the panting of its last two occupants. It was over, and somehow, someway, Sasuke and Sakura had survived…No, not "somehow, someway"; they both knew exactly how they'd managed to eke out the victory.

The fight had seemed hopeless. They were losing stamina with every punch thrown, while their opponents just kept going. In fact, they had been losing too much energy with every move. It was unnatural, even given the stress of the situation. It had been Sakura who deduced the Genjutsu that had created their opponents was sucking out their chakra and using it to fuel the solid illusions.

The revelation hadn't helped. In fact, it effectively dashed what little hope they had of winning. Sasuke was already outmatched by "Itachi", and the knowledge that he would get weaker and weaker while "Itachi" got stronger was like a nail in his coffin. Sakura was having a somewhat easier time with Sasuke's undead parents, by virtue of their condition making them fairly slow, though still much faster than the other zombies, but it was the other zombies that were the real problem. They came in a never-ending wave, constantly pouring into the room from the doorway and forcing Sakura to destroy a dozen or more every minute just to keep the room from filling up and leaving her and Sasuke with no room to maneuver. Not to mention that Sakura's chakra capacity wasn't exactly impressive to begin with, even though she had more than tripled it since she'd starting taking her job seriously.

It was a recipe for disaster that neither Genin saw a way around. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and they couldn't fight forever. Then, just when they resigned themselves to their inevitable fate, a wave of chakra more powerful than anything they had ever felt before tore through the room, bowling everyone and everything over. When Sasuke and Sakura picked themselves up off the floor, they immediately noticed that something had changed; they could feel some of their strength returning. The chakra wave had disrupted the Genjutsu and broken its hold on them! The constructs were still there, but they were no longer able to leech chakra out of them.

What followed was an even more intense melee than before, with the Genin making a final push with their renewed vigor. And they won. They faced their greatest fears and insurmountable odds, and came out on top. That was something to be proud of.

But pride could wait until they could feel their limbs again. Twenty straight minutes of fighting for your life tended to take a toll on one's body.

Sasuke managed to haul himself over to the wall Sakura was currently propped against at the foot of the stairs, and slid down it until he was sitting next to her. He barely noticed when she rested her head on his left shoulder.

"Well…that was…a thing." Sakura panted. She'd never felt so exhausted in her life. Even when she literally trained herself until she passed out, it wasn't like this. She was too tired for her brain to even muster the effort to hit the "off" switch and knock her out.

"Not…Not how I would've wanted…you to meet my parents…" came Sasuke's equally labored reply. His limbs felt like there were a million fangirls clinging to each of them, they were so heavy. And he couldn't feel the right side of his upper body for some reason, arm included, but he was too drained to care.

"…You'd want me…to meet your parents?" Sakura blushed at the implications.

Sasuke's first instinct was to deny it, but the more he thought about it, the more he didn't mind. While it pained him to see his mother, even in such a disgusting form, get dispatched so brutally, seeing Sakura decimate his father damn-near gave him a hard-on.

"…Sure. I think Mom would've liked you." Sasuke said, finally starting to get his breathing back under control.

"What about…your Dad?"

"Tch, what about him?" Sasuke scoffed.

"…I take it you weren't close."

"Hn."

Sakura took the hint and dropped the subject. She then felt him begin to shiver and looked up at him with a furrowed brow.

"Are you alright?"

"Yeah, just a little…cold." Sasuke replied, shaking his head to clear the sudden drowsiness that had set in.

"Injuries." Sakura suddenly demanded.

It took Sasuke a second to realize what she wanted. "Uh…A couple bruised ribs, dislocated right shoulder, a loose molar and…I think that's it."

"Nothing that broke the skin?"

"No…Well, he did try to stab me in the chest, but I moved and he only got my shoulder. Didn't go in very deep, though, just a flesh wound."

"Which shoulder?"

"Right."

Sakura immediately checked the area. Sure enough, there was a small, vertical slit in his shirt and the area around and below it was absolutely soaked with blood. Cursing to herself, the pinkette wasted no time in tearing the Uchiha's shirt off, ignoring his slurred protests.

"Dammit, the blade still went deep enough to hit your subclavian artery; you're bleeding out!" Sakura inwardly cursed herself for not bringing her medical kit. She had left it at home, thinking she'd be able to swing by and pick it up after the team had gotten a mission.

That meant no Soldier pills for her, and no Blood pills for her patient.

"Really? That…sucks…" Sasuke's eyelids drooped as he continued to lose strength. "I…I'll be fine after…after I take a little nap…Wake me in a couple hours, 'kay?"

"No, no!" Sakura firmly smacked Sasuke's cheek to keep awake. "Come on, stay with me, Sasuke! I need you to stay awake!" her hands glowed a dull green as she placed them on the wound.

"I'm up, I'm up…"

"Stay that way." Sakura ordered, her face a mask of concentration as the Tourniquet Technique went to work.

"No promises." Sasuke replied flippantly, seemingly unconcerned with the fact that he was mere minutes from death's door.

"Talk to me, keep yourself awake."

"Talk about what?"

"Anything!"

"…I'm sorry." Sasuke said after a few seconds of silence.

"What?" Sakura blinked, then hissed out another curse for her lapse in concentration.

"I'm sorry, for the way I treated you before."

"Oh…Uh, don't worry about it, Sasuke-kun." Sakura laughed nervously. "You have to admit, I kinda deserved it for the way I behaved."

"No…No one deserves to be treated like that…To have someone look at you like you're nothing but an annoyance, even when you're only trying to please them. Like your very existence is an inconvenience…If they even acknowledge your existence at all." Sasuke leaned his head back against the wall and glared up at the ceiling, less-than-pleasant memories flashing through his mind.

"…" Sakura didn't respond, instead redoubling her efforts to stop the bleeding. While the gesture of an apology was appreciated, she didn't like the fact that he was talking like a movie character who knew his ticket was about to be punched.

"Sakura, promise me something…" despite herself, Sakura couldn't help but look up and into the Uchiha's eyes. "Promise me that, when I'm gone, you won't do something stupid, like trying to go after my brother yourself and live my dream for me…Just move on with your life."

"No, I'm not promising anything, because you aren't dying!" color drained from Sakura's face when she saw the glow around her hands begin to dim. She didn't have enough chakra left and her body was starting to resist, trying to prevent her from using up the last of it, which would be fatal without an immediate infusion to keep her body functioning.

"I don't think that's your call to make…"

"Don't you dare, Sasuke! SASUKE!" Sakura screamed as the Uchiha's eyes closed and his head fell forward limply.

Ignoring the full-body burning sensation, the girl forced what little chakra she had left into her hands. The glow returned, but it pulsed and flickered. Such a technique required control and concentration even in the most ideal of conditions; in her panicked state, Sakura didn't have a prayer of pulling it off.

But she would still try. Even if it killed her, she would still try.

(Forest, 4:40pm)

Fueled by adrenaline born of panic, Hinata shot through the forest canopy. Her enhanced strength was now on full display, with her powerful legs breaking every other tree branch she jumped from. But she didn't care; all that mattered was getting to Kiba and Shino.

Fortunately, Hinata's impressive pace, combined with Shino being hindered by Kiba's dead weight, made catching up a simple matter.

"Shino!" Hinata called out when she saw them up ahead.

"Hinata?" Shino halted on a branch and turned. He caught only the briefest glimpse of Hinata as she blurred by him.

As it turned out, while Hinata could get going at a good clip, she hadn't quite gotten the hang of slowing down. She completely overshot her friends, and the trees, ending up hitting the ground with a good bit of force. On instinct she dug her feet in to halt her forward momentum, leaning her body back to keep herself from falling forward. Her heels carved two ten-foot-long gouges in the dirt before she finally came to a stop.

Shino came down from his perch to meet her and explain what had happened. At least, a version of what had happened. He couldn't tell her the truth, not yet. Not until they were back in Konoha, well and truly out of harm's way.

Despite her worry, Hinata couldn't help but be proud of Kiba. Alone, injured and emotionally compromised, he still managed to not only survive, but take out a Jōnin-level enemy. But Shino's recounting did leave one question unanswered.

"Where's Akamaru?" Hinata asked, the familiar feeling of panic beginning to churn within her again.

"Right here." Shino said, pointing to a bulge inside of his jacket that the girl had apparently missed. Unbuttoning the garment in the middle and pulling it aside, he revealed the pup's face, eyes closed, but visibly breathing, albeit with obvious difficulty.

Having sensed Hinata's rapid approach earlier, Shino came up with a plan to fool her. Using his clan's signature Insect Clone Technique, he formed a mass of beetles into an exact copy of Akamaru, wounds, ant-sutures and all. Now he just had to pray that Hinata didn't ask to hold the tiny dog, or use her Byakugan.

Fortunately, Hinata only sighed in relief, making no effort to touch or otherwise check "Akamaru" over.

"Are you alright? I can take Kiba, if you want." Hinata offered.

"That won't be necessary, Hinata, I'm fi-!" agitated drone of his bugs was the only warning Shino got before he saw a black streak shoot out from behind a tree, straight towards Hinata's exposed back. In a fraction of a second it was on her, too quick for him to do anything.

But Hinata was even quicker. Whipping around, she grabbed the wrist of the assailant's outstretched arm, hooked her free right arm under his left, tilted her upper body to the side and used both his momentum and that her own spin to throw him over her hip and to the ground with bone-shattering force. It was a move identical to the one she'd performed on Kiba earlier in the day, but the outcome wasn't at all the same.

This attacker wasn't so easily caught off-guard. He rolled with the throw, managing to get his feet under him before he hit the ground. He then pushed off, flipping backwards over Hinata's head and twisting in mid-air to lash out with a kick. She was already jumping away as she turned to face her foe, but it wasn't quite enough to get out of range. With her body again acting more on instinct than actual thought, Hinata leaned back, just barely avoiding contact.

Once she managed to put some distance between herself and the mystery opponent, Hinata felt around the point of her chin. She winced ever so slightly at the sting of the friction burn that was now there from the sole of the boot just grazing her skin; if she had reacted even a microsecond later, she had no doubt that kick would've shattered her jaw.

Returning her focus to the enemy, who had landed in a crouch facing away from her, Hinata let a low growl escape her throat. A growl that became a squeak as her throat constricted when the figure stood up and turned around.

It was Naruto.

But why? Was this a training exercise; one of those no-warning ambushes? Like they had time for that!

"Naruto-kun, please, can't this wait? We need to get them to the hospital." Hinata gestured to Shino, who now how a cloud of beetles circling his body in a ring formation. "Akamaru especially; if he doesn't get help soon, he'll bleed to death!"

Naruto looked at the other male and cocked his head slightly. Even such a small action put the Aburame on edge, evidenced by the sweat beginning to bead on his forehead and even more beetles scurrying out from his sleeves.

"There isn't a medic on this planet who will be able to help what I'm going to do to them, and you." Naruto said, before launching himself at Hinata again.

This time, the girl was too shocked to react and took a hard right hook to the face, sending her tumbling backwards. Before she could get to her feet, Hinata found herself rolling across the ground again, this time with a couple busted ribs courtesy of a vicious knee to the side.

As she came to a stop, Hinata instinctively curled into a tight ball and clutched at her side.

"W-Why…?" the heiress whimpered as a shadow fell over her. What had she done to make him so angry with her?

"Why? Because I'm through with you." Naruto replied nonchalantly.

"W-What did I d-do wrong? Please, j-just tell me! I can m-make-" Hinata was cut off by a hand wrapping around her neck and jerking her into the air.

"It's not about what you've done, Hyūga," Naruto said, "it's what you haven't done." then, with little more than a flick of his wrist, he flung Hinata off to the side, where she hit a tree back-first and released a sharp yelp. "I'll admit you have potential, but with your attitude, you do nothing but waste it. I've trained you, taught you, even gave you my blood and with it, power beyond your wildest dreams! And what have you done with it? Have you stood up to your father? Have you put your cousin in his place? Have you done anything, anything at all, worth talking about? No. At the first sign of trouble, you still come crying to me, quite literally."

"Sto-!" Shino tried to intercept Naruto as he stalked towards Hinata, intent on talking some sense into him. The masked boy didn't even break stride as he palmed the Aburame's face and shoved him off to the side.

But Shino wasn't deterred. Even though every fiber of his being begged him to run, he couldn't let Naruto murder his friend.

He willed his bugs into attack mode and sent them out. They responded immediately, a red flag for Shino. He had fully expected to have to exert more effort to override the insects' natural, instinctive fear of the blonde.

But that was something he would have to think about later, for as soon as he loosed the beetles, he felt something grab his right ankle. Something cold and hard, with what felt like multiple individual parts to it. For a moment, Shino feared it was Naruto's chain, but it was still securely wrapped around his torso.

'So what…' Shino's thoughts trailed off into nothingness when he looked down to see what had a hold of him. It was a hand, coming out of the ground. A skeletal hand; as in completely lacking skin and muscle, just bare bones.

He would've shrieked like a little girl if he'd been able to breathe properly.

Shino tried to pull away, but the hand's grip was too strong, and it was soon joined by another, bursting from the ground to grab his left leg when he tried to kick at the first one. Seconds later, more hands appeared, latching onto whatever they could, be it clothing or limbs, and pinning Shino to the ground.

His heart raced and his eyes darted about behind his sunglasses. He knew where this was going.

Meanwhile, Naruto was still railing against Hinata, who was a trembling, sobbing wreck.

"I can't believe I've put up with a clingy doormat like you for so long. But no more."

"M-Master, please, I-" Hinata head snapped back from a boot to the face and her hands flew up to her nose, now broken and leaking blood like a faucet.

"Unfortunately, for you, I can't just walk away and leave you to your own devices. You know far, far too much, and that makes you a liability. A loose end that needs to be tied up before it comes back to bite me."

"I-I would n-never tell, I p-promise!" Hinata cried, still holding her nose, oblivious to the fact that it was already healing.

"You say that now, but people say all sorts of things in the face of death, most of which they don't mean." Naruto grabbed Hinata with his left hand around her neck, choking off her whimpers as he hoisted her up and pinned her against the tree. "Who knows, maybe you do mean it, but I can't afford to let you go to find out. So just be still and close your eyes, I promise you won't feel a thing." Naruto pulled back his right hand, now tipped with wicked claws.

Hinata didn't struggle, she simply took his advice and closed her tear-filled eyes. Nevermind that anything she could do would only delay the inevitable, but what was the point of trying to fight it? What did she have to live for, now that she had been abandoned by everyone? Her family, her sensei and now Naruto, they had all turned their backs on her. And this time, she couldn't convince herself that the other party was to blame. Once is chance, twice is coincidence, but three times is a pattern, and she was now forced to face the reality that it was her. She was just plain unworthy, and that's all there was to it.

She had given it her best, time and again, but it was never good enough. And it never would be good enough, so why draw out her torment any longer?

"…Not right…" Inner Hinata suddenly spoke, the voice little more than a whisper.

'What?'

"Not right…Not master…" the voice was growing louder. Angrier.

'…As much as I'd like to believe that, I-'

"NO!" the word was a defiant roar as Hinata's body acted on its own, bringing her legs up, tucking them in, then planting both of her feet into Naruto's chest, sending him flying.

In all, the blow didn't do much to him, as he recovered just a second later. But it allowed Hinata's inner demon enough time to activate the Byakugan to show its host what was really going on.

The moment Hinata laid eyes on the chakra circulating within "Naruto", she knew it was all wrong. The wrong color, the wrong density, the wrong flow speed; nothing was right about it. The fact that she could even look at it without being blinded was enough to tell her this was nothing but a pale imitation of the real deal. Hell, that she could see it at all was a dead giveaway; the real Naruto's jacket blocked out the Byakugan's sight.

The imposter came at her again, attempting to overwhelm her with sheer speed and power to get a quick kill. Hinata was unimpressed; even his speed was a joke compared to her Master. His power, too, as she found out when she grabbed his arms and stopped him dead in his tracks as he tried to shred her with his claws.

However, imposter or not, her foe fought like a veteran. Without missing a beat, he slammed his forehead into Hinata's nose. Or he would have, had she not seen the tactic coming and dropped her head so her own forehead could take the brunt of the impact.

While a normal person would've been knocked out cold, possibly with a fractured skull, Hinata didn't budge. She held firm, keeping her grip on his arms, matching his strength and staring into the eye slits of his mask with every ounce of hatred and malice she could muster. Then, she felt it. The power roiling and burning just beneath the surface, awaiting her command. Once, she feared this power, but now she embraced it. The imposter was right on one account; she hadn't done anything with the gift she'd been given. This was mostly out of fear of those around her discovering half-demon status and being less-than-understanding. But none of that mattered now.

There was only one thing on her mind, and that was punishing this impudent little worm that dared to play with her feelings.

A malignant, purple energy began to envelope her body and she felt a rush unlike anything she had ever experienced before. She could move mountains, take on armies and conquer nations! And she could grind this imposter into mulch. As her eyes turned black, her lips pulled back in a grin. A grin that grew wider and wider until the corners of her lips were nearly to her ears. And when those lips parted, revealing triangular, razor-sharp teeth.

Before the imposter could react, Hinata unleashed a shrieking roar right in his face, the air coming out of her lungs with enough force to snap his head back. Not even a second later, the rest of him was blown back as Hinata's chakra exploded outward in a wave of destructive force.

The imposter hit the ground back-first, then swung his legs up for a backwards roll that put him on his feet. But by the time he looked up, Hinata was bearing down on him at incredible speed, arms now covered in a black, glossy, chitin-like armor, and her fingers were tipped with talons that would put any bird of prey to shame. One of those hands latched onto the imposter's masked face with an iron grip and slammed his head into the ground. Hinata kept moving forward, dragging her foe's body and gouging out a sizeable trench in the ground. She then swung her arm forward and released, sending the imposter tumbling across the dirt and into the base of tree with enough force to break through the trunk and have the whole thing come crashing down.

Hinata didn't relent, immediately descending upon the imposter again. Just like the real Naruto had taught her; when you've got the advantage, press it. Don't let the opponent get their bearings, keep them off-kilter and hammer them until they make a mistake you can capitalize on.

Hinata's opponent was already on his feet by the time she reached him. He was tough, for a fake, but it didn't matter. He threw a punch, but it was wild and sloppy, evidence that he was still reeling. Hinata had no trouble dodging the attack, and before he could pull his arm back, she opened her mouth inhumanly wide and chomped down on the forearm. Her shark-like teeth sheared through flesh and bone like they weren't even there, taking a huge chunk out of the offending limb and leaving the hand hanging by mere strip of skin.

She spat out the chunk of meat and continued her assault, swiping low tearing through her enemy's right kneecap. As he fell, she took hold of his left leg at the shin and squeezed with all her might, crushing the limb to the point of nearly severing the foot. Once the imposter was on the ground, she plunged her left hand into his abdomen and tore open his belly, shredding part of his intestines and spilling them onto the ground.

The imposter howled and thrashed, flailing his good arm wildly in an attempt to hit Hinata. He only succeeded in getting the arm torn off.

After carelessly throwing the severed limb over her shoulder, Hinata straddled the Naruto look-alike's chest, using her knees to pin what was left of his arms to the ground. She then grabbed his head almost gently and looked right into his eyes, before plunging her thumb claws into them, breaking through the mask with ease.

The imposter spasmed and twitched violently, letting out high-pitched screams that did no favors for Hinata's enhanced hearing. And through it all, Hinata maintained an expression that would make serial killers shudder. But she'd had her fun, the message had been sent, and it was time to let the worm die. With one final squeeze, her victim's head imploded. Her claws tore unintentional gashes in the skin, allowing the pulverized contents to ooze out between her fingers.

Her work done, Hinata felt something rushing up from within. It almost felt like she had to vomit, but she didn't feel the slightest bit queasy. No, this was something else, something she actually wanted to let out. And so she did.

Throwing her head back, Hinata produced a deafening roar that shook the ground beneath her. It felt incredible! It was a moment of catharsis; she'd even go as far as to say it was borderline orgasmic!

After exhausting the air in her lungs, Hinata's entire body sagged. With her opponent vanquished and her rage spent, the power her emotions had called forth receded. The rush was over, and now came the crash. Her eyes were also stinging, which made her deactivate the Byakugan immediately. A Hyūga's eyes were his/her most valuable possessions, and thus the most protected and cared for. It had been drilled into her head from the moment she first activated her bloodline, that if she felt anything wrong with her eyes, anything at all, she was to stop pushing chakra into them and head to the doctor ASAP.

"So…tired…" Hinata yawned, then looked down just in time to see the corpse under her fade away, leaving her kneeling on the ground. "Wha…" even the blood was gone!

"It would seem that we were caught in an illusion." Hinata froze at the sound of the voice; she had completely forgotten that Shino was there.

This was it. This was the moment where everything came crashing down. Where Shino ran back to Konoha and tell everyone who would listen that she was a monster. Even if no one believed him, he would still know the truth and their friendship would be sha…

"Wait, what?" Hinata turned to stare dumbly at Shino, idly noting that his coat had been ripped open, judging from the missing buttons, and there was a large tear in his dark undershirt.

"A Genjutsu, apparently meant to turn our worst fears against us." Shino said, scanning the area with a furrowed brow. "Yet, somehow, it was real. All the damage you did by throwing him around is still here, as are the holes in the ground left by the skeletons."

"…Skeletons?"

"As I said, the illusion seemed to have targeted our worst fears. I don't like skeletons. At all. The one thing that terrifies me above all else is a recurring nightmare I've had since childhood, where I would be held down by skeletons while they tore open my abdomen and extracted my organs. That is exactly what was about to happen to me, if not for you." the Aburame gestured to the hole in his shirt.

"…Me?" Hinata pointed to herself, still not quite comprehending what was going on.

Shino nodded. "That burst of chakra must have disrupted the Genjutsu, because as soon as it happened, their grip on me loosened and I was able to break free. Thank you." he finished with a small bow.

"You're welco-Wait, wait, wait! You saw all of that, right?"

Another nod. "Indeed. An impressive display, I'm sure Naruto-san would be proud."

"And you're alright with it?"

"Is there a reason I shouldn't be?"

"…I bit his arm off!"

"It was mostly just his hand, but I see your point."

"Then why…?"

"Because I already knew. Not the exact details, but I knew that you had changed, not just in personality, but physiologically as well. My insects can tell a lot of things about a person just by getting close enough, and what they know, I know. When they get close to Naruto-san, they tell me he isn't human, at least not entirely. And they've told me the same about you."

"And you're not…afraid?" Hinata inquired, her voice little more than a whisper.

"Should I be? If you were going to hurt me, now would be the time. Someone else knows your secret, and here we are, alone in the forest, miles away from Konoha. Miles away from any witnesses. From what I've seen, I wouldn't stand a chance of fighting you off if you wanted to kill me. So, I ask again, should I be afraid?"

Hinata recoiled as if she'd been physically struck, appalled by the mere though.

"And there's your answer. Now come on, we have to get back to Konoha. We may be free from the Genjutsu now, but I, for one, don't want to meet whoever's powerful enough to cast something like that." and with that, Shino went to pick up Kiba, who he'd laid down behind a bush to try and hide him. While he was doing this, he used the cover provided by the bush to make another clone of Akamaru.

He still felt terrible about fooling his friend, but it was a necessary evil; he couldn't afford for Hinata to have a meltdown in the middle of the forest.

(Safehouse, 4:50pm)

Ask most anyone who had met him, and they'd tell you that Naruto was plenty scary enough on a good day. An angry Naruto was something they didn't want to even think about, let alone encounter. And at this point, Naruto was well beyond angry. In fact, maybe a bit too furious, considering what had happened to him.

So he'd had his worst fears exposed. So what, right? But that wasn't what enraged Naruto; it was who his fears had been exposed to. Kyuubi had heard and seen everything, and there was no way she would let it go without talking about it. The last thing Naruto wanted was to talk about his own insecurities. Especially not since he had gone to great lengths to hide them from his lover. Even before they had taken that step beyond student/teacher, Naruto had made sure to keep those particular thoughts and worries to himself.

Kyuubi already had a long list of reasons to find a more suitable mate; Naruto didn't need his lack of confidence added to it. But now it was, and there was nothing he could do about it.

But he could still find the son of a bitch who had outed him.

Unfortunately, that had proven to be much easier said than done. When your quarry is able to change the environment around you at will, it added an entirely new level of difficulty to the hunt. So, too, did the constant barrage of monsters being conjured up. They weren't very strong, but the suddenness of their appearances had caught Naruto off-guard a few times, one of which resulted in his mask being knocked off his face.

With his combination of rage and single-minded focus, he didn't even notice.

Fortunately, Rumare's reality-bending powers seemed to have their limits, and didn't seem to work too well against other demonic entities. While they were quite resistant to attacks using normal chakra, mixing some youki in allowed Naruto to tear right through whatever was in his way. And tear he did; if not for the fact that everything he killed vanished shortly afterward, the halls would've been drenched in blood and cluttered with body parts. And without being able to use Naruto's own chakra to fuel the constructs, Rumare couldn't summon anything strong enough to do more than annoy the young hanyō.

But as satisfying as it was, it did nothing for Naruto's mood. He wanted Rumare, anything else was just a waste of time.

"You're only delaying the inevitable!" Naruto shouted as he tore the head from another grotesque creature that had materialized out of thin air. "I'll rip this entire building apart if that's what it takes! Then I'll do the same to you!"

Unlike his previous strings of threats, this one actually provoked a response, albeit not the one Naruto would've liked.

"Perhaps I am delaying the inevitable. Aren't we all? But you will find that I can delay it far longer than most. You can blow this whole building to smithereens if you wish, but know that anything in your arsenal powerful enough to do that will most certainly kill anyone inside. Except me, of course."

Naruto snarled. The demon was right; any technique with the power to destroy such a fortified structure would vaporize the others. He would have to continue doing it the old fashioned way, despite how ineffective it had been thus far.

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star…"(3)

"The hell?" Naruto whirled around at the sound of a female voice singing. He had just turned a corner to enter the hallway he was currently in, but now that corner was gone and the hall was now a straight shot extending back hundreds of feet.

"How I wonder what you are…"

Whoever, or whatever it was, the voice was coming from down the hall. So, against his better judgment, Naruto followed it.

"Up above the world so high…"

The voice was definitely getting louder the further Naruto went, so he picked up his pace a little, and just a little. If he started running and something appeared before him, he would have far less time to react, as he had already found out once before.

"Like a diamond in the sky…"

Naruto soon came to a single door, placed seemingly at random in the middle of the hall. Again, against his better judgment, Naruto opened the door using one of his coattails. What he saw wasn't at all what he expected.

The door led outside, right in the middle of Konoha Park. As he cautiously stepped through the threshold, he immediately felt the softer ground beneath his feet, as well as the sun and the breeze on his face, reminding him that his mask was gone. But before he could dwell on what was happening, his attention was drawn to the playground by the infectious laughter of little children. And there was one child in particular that he felt a strange need to focus on.

It was a girl, no older than eight, maybe, sitting by herself on the see-saw. She was pale, almost unhealthily so, with somewhat dull brown hair and eyes. Eyes that glimmered with conflicting emotions as she glanced back and forth between the two adults, a man and a woman, chatting on a bench, and the line of kids waiting to play on the monkey bars. A few seconds later, another girl around the same age, this one with dark green hair, ran over to the see-saw and hopped up onto the opposite end with practiced ease, startling the brown-haired girl.

"Aya!" the pale girl exclaimed with a pout.

"Sorry, Yaku-chan!" the other girl, now revealed as "Aya", apologize, though her grin showed she didn't mean it. "So, whatcha thinkin' about?"

"What?"

"I saw that look before, like you wanted to do something, but didn't want to because your mom and dad are over there."

"Well, I…I wanted to play on the monkey bars, but…"

"But…?" Aya pushed.

"But mom and dad said I can't; it's too high and I might get hurt." the brown-haired girl's shoulders slumped.

"Oh, please!" Aya scoffed before jumping off the see-saw, once her friend was safely on the ground. "Come on!" she took the other girl's hand and all but dragged her over to the bars.

"W-Wait, Aya! My parents-!"

"Are getting ice cream right now." Aya pointed to the small ice cream cart near the fountain at the center of the park. Sure enough, the man and woman who'd been sitting on the bench before were now there, looking over the selection of frozen treats. "Now come on, before they see us!"

Soon enough, it was the girls' turn to cross the bars and Aya took the lead, swinging back and forth, and even doing a couple tricks, to the delight, and envy, of the other kids.

"Show off." the pale girl frowned.

"Nah, I'm just getting a little training in; a ninja needs upper body strength, afterall!" Aya laughed before swinging, backwards, to the other side of the monkey bars. "You wanna be a ninja, too, right? This should be nothing!"

Nodding to herself and adopting a determined expression, Yakumo looked up at the bars and took a leap. She barely made it, and when she grabbed the first bar, she struggled just to hold her own weight up. No way she would be able to swing herself anywhere. So she just hung there for a few seconds, then made the mistake of looking down. Apparently, she must have been afraid of heights, because as soon as she did it, she let out a yelp and her fingers slipped from the bar. Her friend tried to catch her, but wasn't quick enough. The girl hit the ground feet-first, with most of her weight on her right leg. Her shin snapped in two with an audible 'crack' and she let out a piercing wail as she collapsed.

The last thing Naruto saw was the girl's parents sprinting towards her before there was a flash bright enough to make him cover his eyes. When he dropped his hand, he found himself in another hallway.

"That girl…Must have been Yakumo." Naruto muttered to himself, remembering what Aya had called her. "They weren't kidding when they said she was frail."

"When the blazing Sun is gone…"

There it was again, that same voice, singing that same song. Even though it was a simple, innocent nursery rhyme, the way it was being sung sent chills up Naruto's spine. That voice, quiet and trembling…It reminded Naruto of his fifth birthday. Sitting in his dark, dank, smelly storage closet of a room at the orphanage, with a single, stolen cupcake and a lone candle. Singing "Happy Birthday" to himself as quietly as possible, lest one of the matrons hear him and lock him in the dog cage in the basement.

Unfortunately, he had forgotten to stuff his thin, moth-eaten blanket under the door so no one outside would be able to see the light from the candle…

"When the nothing shines upon…"

Naruto was brought back to the present but the voice and noted a stinging sensation in his right hand. Looking at it, he found that his clenched fist had caused his claws to puncture his palms.

"Then you show your little light…"

Naruto made to follow the voice again, but was forced to stop when a solid steel wall materialized in front of him.

"Twinkle, twinkle, all the night…"

A door suddenly appeared in the wall beside him, with the voice sounding like it was directly on the other side.

"Fuck it." Naruto plowed through the door and into a bedroom. However, he wasn't alone.

On the bed was Yakumo, her right leg in a cast, which she was currently picking at.

"Stop messing with it." a male voice said. Naruto didn't even have time to react before Yakumo's father walked right through him from behind.

"It itches." Yakumo huffed, but did as she was told.

"I know, but you'll just have to deal with it." the man sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Why can't I just go to the medical ninjas?"

"Because you won't learn your lesson. We told you not to play on the bars, you did it anyway, and look what happened. If you won't listen to your parents, then maybe the pain you went through, and the aftermath, will make you reconsider the next time you think about being a little rebel." though his words were somewhat harsh, it was plain to see that he only had her safety in mind.

"…But if I'm going to be a ninja, I'll have to do stuff like that. Aya says they make her and the other kids jump off of high stuff all the time at the Ninja Academy."

The girl's father sighed deeply and pinched the bridge of his nose. Whatever conversation was to follow, it was one they'd had several times before.

"Yakumo, we've talked about this. With your condition…"

"But I can get stronger! Can't I at least try?"

"We have tried, remember? Your body couldn't handle it. You broke your wrist just trying to punch a training dummy!"

Yakumo winced and rubbed her right wrist.

Another bright flash and the girl and her father disappeared, leaving an empty room behind.

"Then the traveler in the dark…"

This time, the voice seemed to be coming from inside the closet in the corner of the room next to the bed.

"Thanks you for your little spark…"

Upon opening the door, Naruto was met with a wall of muscle and fur. Looking up, he saw the huge, drooling maw of a wolf glaring back down at him.

"A werewolf?" Naruto deadpanned. "Are you even trying anymore?"

The creature roared and lashed out with the claws on its right hand, only to have the appendage halted and trapped in an iron grip. It was then pulled forward and slammed face-first into the floor. Before it could mount any kind of defense, a hand closed around its muzzle, while another gripped the back of its head. A sharp twist and a vile 'crunch' later, and the monster was no more.

"Bad dog." Naruto said as he stepped over the already fading corpse.

"He could not see which way to go…"

He entered yet another hall, though the end where the voice was coming from was immediately blocked off by another wall.

"If you did not twinkle so…"

Another door appeared and Naruto went through it without a second thought. At this point, he was certain that someone, or something, was guiding him, creating direct paths through the ever-changing maze. Judging from what he had seen so far, Naruto guessed it was Yakumo herself helping him. Perhaps she wasn't as much of a puppet as Rumare thought.

He found himself outside again, this time in the middle of a training ground, judging from the targets and dummies set up in the area. In the middle was Yakumo, with her father watching from the sidelines.

The girl stood in the same "ready stance" that was taught in the Academy; feet spread a bit more than shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, hands at the sides between the kunai holsters at the thighs, and the shuriken in the equipment pouches on the hips.

"Begin." her father ordered.

Yakumo immediately sprung into action, using her left hand to pull three shuriken out of her hip pouch, while her right took out a kunai from the thigh holster. What was impressive was that while she gripped the kunai with four fingers, she used her pinky to snag the ring of another and bring it out.

She launched the stars first, hitting two of the three targets dead center, with the third weapon going wide. She then flung her first kunai with an underhand toss that hit a human-shaped target right in the head. Her arm continued upward and she used the motion to swing the kunai around her pinky and up into her palm, then her arm came back down and she released the second dagger, which struck the neck of another dummy.

Naruto was impressed with her speed, technique and accuracy, and he could tell her father was as well. But despite all that, none of the attacks were kills. Looking at the shuriken, the ones that hit were just barely stuck into the target with a single tip. And the kunai weren't even in deep enough to support their own weight, falling out of the targets just seconds after they hit.

What Yakumo had in quickness and accuracy, she lacked in power. A ninja needed all three, no ifs, ands or buts.

The girl seemed to lose all her energy as she walked forward to retrieve her weapons, dragging her feet with every step. Her father looked on with a heavy sigh, partially hiding his face behind his right hand.

Another flash and another empty hallway.

"When the blazing sun is gone…"

Naruto set off after the voice, then the floor suddenly collapsed before him, the floorboards falling into a seemingly bottomless chasm.

"When the nothing shines upon…"

He didn't even break stride, running across the walls when he ran out of floor.

"Though I know not what you are…"

Naruto was forced to pick up the pace as the entire hall began to erupt into a spiky deathtrap behind him. Fortunately, the spikes couldn't keep up with him; even when they sprouted from the walls ahead of him, he was already through before they could extend to full length.

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star…"

Another door appeared at the end of the hall and Naruto smashed through it. He chanced a look back just in time to see the threshold disappear just before the spikes reached it.

As he slid to a stop, Naruto immediately noticed a change in the environment. Instead of a hardwood floor, he was now standing on stone bricks, which also made up the walls and ceiling as well. All in all, it looked like a tunnel heading to a dungeon. The foreboding appearance wasn't at all helped by the inky blackness that laid before Naruto, which even his enhanced eyes couldn't penetrate.

For a second, Naruto feared he had been duped and played right into Rumare's hands. But then the voice returned, with the same hushed, quavering tone, but with a different song.

"Ring around the rosie…"

The path ahead was suddenly lit up by torches…Well, a series of floating fireballs, really; the actual torches were nowhere to be seen.

"Pocket full of posies…"

As Naruto walked forward, the wall to his right started to crumble. He readied himself for a fight on reflex, but instead of some horrid creature looking to tear his throat out, he found himself looking at what he assumed were more of Yakumo's memories. It was as if someone had hidden a large television behind the wall and he was watching events unfold as if he were watching a movie.

He saw Yakumo's father and a much older man, whom Naruto recognized from photographs as Unkai Kurama, conversing in what looked to be a kitchen.

"This is the only way, and you know it, Murakumo." Unkai said after taking a sip from the cup in his hand.

"How do you know? Maybe-"

"Because, over the last twenty years, we've tried everything else." Unkai interrupted. "Your daughter, her ability is the key! But as she is, she's of no use to us. Her gift is going to waste, and even she knows it."

"I…I know, but…I can't do that to her! You know how the boy is treated, the people would never understand…" Murakumo tried to busy himself with making what looked to be a cake, but his trembling hands made it a chore.

Naruto idly noted nine small candles on the counter off to the side. Yakumo's birthday, perhaps?

"The people are stupid, Murakumo. And on the matter of the Jinchūriki, that includes our dear Hokage." Unkai sneered. "We will not repeat his mistake; no one outside the clan will ever know."

"You can't promise that."

"No, but I can, and will, do everything in my power to guarantee it. I understand your concern; you're her father, it's only natural. But it's no different for me; she's my niece, and I would never allow any harm to come to her."

"…"

"Very well, if you won't think about clan, then think about what this can do for Yakumo herself. With the power she'll gain, she will never be held back by her condition again. She will be able to do whatever she wants, and live out her dream of being a kunoichi. Would you really take that chance away from her?" Unkai must have been one hell of a salesman in a past life.

"If it means sparing her the fate of having a monster living inside her body, then yes. You talk about all this 'power' she'll get, like it's a foregone conclusion. It's the best case scenario, and we've both been around long enough to know that those don't happen very often. What makes you so damn confident?"

Unkai smirked, as if he'd been waiting for the younger man to ask that particular question all along.

"Come with me, my dear boy. I have something incredible to show you."

Just before the "scene" ended, Naruto caught a glimpse of Yakumo watching through a crack in the door to another room. Instead of a flash, this time the memory just faded away, leaving only empty space behind.

"Ashes, ashes..."

Naruto continued down the corridor, but it wasn't long before more bricks crumbled away to form another hole in the wall, this time on his left.

"We all fall down..."

The next memory started with Yakumo and her father walking through the woods in the dead of night. She looked absolutely terrified, clinging tightly to the man's arm and jumping at even the slightest of sounds. For his part, Murakumo seemed to be on autopilot, his body moving towards some pre-determined location, while his mind focused on other things. And those "other things" seemed to consist of an emotional war raging within. His expression was that of a man who knew he was going to do something terrible, and wished like hell he didn't have to.

Naruto briefly found himself wondering if his own father wore a similar expression on his way to damning his child to a life of torment.

"D-Daddy? What are we d-doing out here?" Yakumo squeaked.

"We're...We're going to make you better, Yaku-chan." Murakumo answered, nearly choking on his own words.

"'Better'?"

"Yes...Uncle Unkai has found a cure for your condition."

"R-Really?" Yakumo's eyes sparkled as she stared up at her father.

Naruto could see Murakumo swallowing the lump in his throat before responding.

"Yes."

"B-But why here? Sh-Shouldn't we be g-going to the doctor?"

"Doctors can't do anything, sweetie. They never could." the man said bitterly. "Medicine didn't work, so your uncle has turned to something more...spiritual."

As he said this, they entered a clearing with a shrine at its center. There was nothing visibly wrong with it, aside from looking a little run down and forgotten, it didn't feel right. Even as an outsider looking in, Naruto himself got chills just from laying eyes on the structure.

"...I'm scared, Daddy." Yakumo whimpered, digging her heels into the ground in a futile attempt to stop her father. "I don't want to go in there...I wanna go home...Please..." at this point, the poor girl was in tears.

"There's nothing to be afraid of, Yaku-chan." Murakumo said as he kneeled down and pulled the girl into a comforting hug. "You'll be asleep for the whole thing, and when you wake up, you'll be strong...Strong enough to be a ninja." now it was his turn to cry.

"...You mean it?" Yakumo mumbled into his shoulder.

"Of course. I'll train you myself."

The memory then faded and Naruto continued on his way.

"Ring around the rosie..."

Gods, somehow the voice had gotten worse, shuddering and almost labored, as if its owner was now struggling to get the words out.

"What do you suppose we..."

More crumbling bricks and another memory, on Naruto's right once more.

It was the training ground again, with Yakumo in her stance, facing the targets, and her father off to the side. Visually, it was virtually identical to the first time, but with some key differences, the first being Yakumo herself. She didn't look any different, per se, but something was amiss...

Ah, there it was. Before, Naruto had noticed a slight tremor in the girl's right leg, the dominant one that she put most of her weight on. Now her thighs and calves no longer twitched and quivered as they struggled to support her, and her stance was far more solid for it.

The other difference was in her father. Where before his expression and general body language didn't give away much in regards to his thoughts, that wasn't at all the case this time. Now, he absolutely radiated unease. He looked anxious, even a little afraid, a notion that was further supported by his voice.

"Begin..."

Yakumo used the same technique as before, which she needed to work on; one of the shuriken still went wide of the circular target, though it at least clipped the edge this time. Just like last time, the rest hit their targets perfectly. Unlike last time, said targets didn't get out unharmed. The two shuriken were buried in almost to the holes in their centers, and the kunai had gone in over three inches.

Yakumo stared, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, an expression mimicked by her father. In fact, Murakumo seemed even more taken aback. So much so that it took him a second to react when Yakumo squealed with glee and ran up to him, wrapping her arms around his waist.

The memory faded just as Murakumo smiled and a single tear fell from his left eye.

"Can do to fight the darkness..."

That...wasn't how Naruto remembered the rhyme going. But before he could question it, another memory further down the corridor, on his left.

Another training ground, though Naruto recognized this as the one used by the Academy. It looked like the sparring matches were underway, with Aya facing a dark-haired boy with scar above his left eyebrow. The other kids were gathered around them, with two Chūnin Naruto didn't recognize overseeing things. And on the outskirts of the field, sitting up in a tree, was Yakumo, sporting a large grin. She seemed quite proud of herself for being able to climb so high up, a good fifteen feet.

Impressive, considering she couldn't even swing on a set of monkey bars before.

Back on the training ground, Aya charged her opponent in what looked like a foolhardy head-on attack. But just as she got within some twenty feet of the boy, she whipped her arms forward and launched a volley of six shuriken. Naruto nearly missed her taking them out of her hip pouches; she had done it so smoothly. The girl had talent. Just judging from this single display, Aya could probably have matched any of the girls in Naruto's own class, despite being a few years younger.

The boy deftly dodged the projectiles, showing commendable reflexes in doing so at such close range. But in taking his focus off of Aya, he fell for her ploy and was wide open for a leaping dropkick to the chest. As the boy went flying back into a tree, Aya landed gracefully and wasted no time in basking in the admiration of her peers, as they cheered for her flashy, acrobatic move.

Yakumo had been right to call her a show off.

But Naruto was paying more attention to the boy she seemed to have on the ropes. His impact with the tree had knocked something loose from one of the branches, which landed next to his left hand. A kunai. Not a practice kunai, made of plastic and rubber, but a live one, likely left behind by some lazy Genin using the field after classes were done for the day.

The boy had no idea he now had deadly steel in his hand as he picked the dagger up. Good practice kunai tended to have metal cores to duplicate the weight of the real deal, so he couldn't have known the difference without checking the blade. Even the Chūnin instructors couldn't have known, unless they had seen it fall from the tree. But with all eyes on Aya, they had missed it.

The boy wound back his arm and let it fly. His aim, unfortunately, was impeccable, and before anyone knew what was going on, Aya was on the ground with a very real kunai lodged in her forehead.

Everyone stood frozen for all of two seconds before the first piercing shriek of horror rang out. It was from the unwitting murderer himself.

The noise startled the Chūnin into action, with one immediately rushing to Aya's body, though there was clearly nothing he could do, while the other tried to get the other children under control and away from the scene.

"Oh God, oh fuck, oh God..." the first Chūnin rambled as he kneeled next to the slowly cooling corpse of the once promising kunoichi -in-training.

While in the Academy himself, Naruto had learned that the Academy training grounds were off limits to anyone who wasn't a student, and even they weren't supposed to be around after classes were out. And after overhearing Iruka ranting about it in the Instructor's Lounge one day, Naruto found out why. Before the ban, recently-graduated Genin liked to use the Academy grounds for practice. That would've been all well and good, if not for the fact that those Genin weren't very good at cleaning up after themselves. They left live weapons just lying around, where any child could get a hold of them and hurt themselves, or someone else.

Depending on how long the ban had been in place, what Naruto was seeing may very well have been the incident that spawned it.

Naruto kept watching as Yakumo barreled through the throng of students and shoved the Instructor next to Aya aside.

"Aya? Aya?! Come on, this isn't funny! Get up!" the girl demanded, lips quivering and eyes tearing up. "Please...Please get up, Aya." a sob broke out, shaking Yakumo's entire body. "Please...Please! Aya!" she struggled as the Instructor pulled her away. "No! Let go of me! Aya! AYA!" Naruto actually flinched at the volume and pitch of the scream.

The memory faded after one last shot of Yakumo's frantic, horrified, grief-stricken face.

Naruto felt a brief ache in his chest at the sight. Was that what he had looked like upon discovering Yuki's fate?

"In which we drown?"

Naruto only had to turn around to view the next memory. This one featured Yakumo sitting alone in a hallway outside of a door, hugging her knees tightly to her chest. She looked terrible, disheveled and depressed, with red, puffy eyes indicating that she had only recently stopped crying.

"This is your fault! You and that damned old man!" a woman's voice rang out from the other side of the door, causing Yakumo to flinch.

"It's no one's fault!" Murakumo's voice countered, though with slightly less intensity. "No one but the person who left that kunai on the field. It was a freak accident, nothing more."

"Right. You put that thing in our daughter, behind my back, and two days later this happens? And you think it's a coincidence?!"

"Because it WAS a coincidence! There were no illusions; Aya-chan was just unlucky. In fact, if she hadn't been so focused on showboating, maybe-" Murakumo was cut off by a loud and distinct "crack" of a palm meeting someone's face.

"How dare you? That little girl is dead, a nine-year-old little girl is DEAD, and you have the nerve to blame her for it?! No, Murakumo. I'm through. I'm through with this clan, I'm through with that power-hungry fossil, I'm through with that monster, and I'm through with you."

"U-Uroko, please-!"

"No! How many more will have to die before you pull your head out of the sand? One is too many, but we're already up to eleven! Yes, that's right, I know. Everyone knows. You thought you could keep a lid on something like that? Feeding children to a goddamn demon?!"

"I-I..."

"I'll be staying with my sister. I don't want to see you until you find a way to fix this...And while you're at it, find the man I married, too." the door suddenly slammed open, causing Yakumo to jump and scream in fright.

An undeniably attractive woman with stormy grey hair stepped through and froze as she looked down at the girl. Concern flashed across her features only briefly, before her eyes narrowed and her mouth set into a thin line. For a moment, it looked like she was going to say something, but she eventually just walked away without a word.

"M-Mom?" Yakumo called after her, scared and confused. "Mommy?" she called again, louder this time, but the woman kept walking. "Mommy, why-"

"STOP CALLING ME THAT!" Uroko whirled on the girl with a snarl and eyes blazing with barely restrained fury.

Yakumo yelped and started to crawl backwards, despite not being very close to begin with. She didn't get far before she ran into her father's legs. She immediately darted around and hid behind him, tears pouring from her eyes as she stared at her mother in pure terror.

"...I think it's best you left. Now." Murakumo said, his tone as icy as his glare.

"I-I'm sorry, I..." Uroko stuttered, eyes wide as she realized what she'd done.

"Now." Murakumo took a menacing step forward. "You're scaring MY daughter."

The memory ended with Yakumo's mother turning on her heel and walking down the hall, then disappearing around a corner. She didn't look back.

"Ring around the rosie..."

The voice had changed again, now slightly louder and cracking. If it was a sound of despair and fear before, now it was migrating to desperation and panic.

On to another memory. This one started with a somewhat older-looking Yakumo in her room, brushing her hair in the mirror. However, it didn't seem to be going too well, since the wind coming in through her open window kept flinging her locks about.

Having had enough, Yakumo stood up and went to close it, but as she stood up and turned, she witnessed something spectacular. From the Northern part of the village arose a massive pillar of fire, turning night into day and bathing everything for miles around in orange light. As it grew higher, the top began to expand like a blooming flower.

Then came the scream.

Naruto had to turn away and cover his ears, lest Yakumo's memories trigger his own. It was hard enough to stay focused on his objective with all that he was being shown, he didn't need his own psyche rebelling against him.

As the unearthly howl ended, Naruto took his hands away from his ears just in time to hear something else: a high-pitched yelp. Turning back to the "screen", he saw Yakumo now pinned to the floor of her room, her mouth covered by a large hand belonging to the dark figure now hovering over her. The girl struggled with all her might, but it was no use; though her body had become stronger, she had no hope of overpowering a grown man.

"I can't take it anymore..." the man said as he released a shuddering breath, "Seeing you walking around everyday...Squandering what you've been given...Spitting in all of our faces..." the last bit was hissed through clenched teeth, "My daughter, my little girl...she died for you. She was sacrificed for you!" his grip tightened around Yakumo's mouth, making her whimper in pain.

The man's free hand reached around to the small of his back, grabbing the handle of weapon and pulling it free with the signature sound of steel sliding against leather. It was a tantō, with the Kurama clan symbol etched into the base of the blade.

Yakumo's struggles intensified, but it didn't matter.

"You know, when I heard Murakumo and Uroko were having…'issues', I took pleasure in it. I was happy knowing that the bastard had lost something in this fucked up deal…But now they're patching things up and the fairytale is back on track!" the man let out a bitter chuckle. "It's not fair. It's not fair he gets to keep his happy little family, when I came home and found my wife hanging from the ceiling. It's not fair that I had to feed my daughter to a demon, so his could play ninja. It's not fair that, even after all that, his daughter is FAILING at it! IT'S NOT FAIR!"

Naruto's entire body twitched as he watched the scene unfold. How many times had he been in this same position? Helpless and terrified, completely at the mercy of some grief-stricken person intent on killing him? How many times had he heard stories like this one while they held a knife to his head, throat or heart, or even when they already had it buried in his gut? How many times had he heard damaged and deranged people spill their guts and tell him why they were going to murder him?

At least this man appeared to be doing it to get back at Yakumo's father, not as misguided vengeance against the demon itself, though that undoubtedly factored into it.

"I know it won't bring my little Miya back…I know it won't bring my wife back…It won't even give me peace of mind. I know I'll be killed for this…I'll probably kill myself for it…And I will have a special place in Hell reserved for me…But I don't care." the man raised the weapon above his head. "I would say I'm sorry about this…but I'm not. It makes me a horrible human being, but I'm not sorry." and with that, the blade came down on Yakumo's head.

The girl's eyes clenched shut, as if she was bracing herself for the inevitable. But as the tantō got closer, her eyes snapped open, now glowing with a malicious red light. Not even a second later, the entire room burst into flames. This was no illusion; these were very real flames, packing all the intensity of a Fire Release technique. The man wailed in agony as he was engulfed. He went for the window, desperate to escape…but there was no window, just a solid wall. Nevertheless, he went for it, jumping head first into the wall where the window had been.

If the audible "crunch" of bone wasn't enough to signify the man's fate, the blood spatter on the wall and the way his body collapsed bonelessly to the floor left no doubt.

Yakumo scurried over to the only corner of the room not set ablaze and huddled there, burying her head in her knees and rocking back and forth.

Naruto noted that she didn't seem to be affected by the ambient temperatures and smoke.

"Yakumo? Yakumo?!" came Murakumo's voice from the other side of the bedroom door.

"Are you in there?! Please, say something!" that sounded like Uroko.

However, it looked like Yakumo was too scared to even recognize the voices as belonging to her parents. As soon as she heard them, her head snapped up and the look on her face wasn't one of relief; it was pure terror.

Naruto knew what was coming next; the Kurama Jōnin had said Yakumo's parents died in an "illusionary" fire.

The door burst off its hinges as Murakumo rammed through it, with his wife right behind him. They never saw it coming.

"No! Go away! GO AWAY!" Yakumo screamed, and the flames bent to the will of their creator. They made the threat go away.

The poor fools barely had time to widen their eyes before they vanished in a flash of blinding light and unimaginable heat.

And just like that, the memory ended, leaving in its wake seeds of doubt planted in Naruto's mind.

"This evil thing, it knows me…"

Naruto moved to the next hole in the wall, taking a moment to steel himself for what he was going to see.

Once again, he was greeted to the sight of the training ground. But this time it was occupied by an older Yakumo, looking to be about Naruto's age, if not a little older based on her developing figure. The other difference was the absence of her father. With him gone, it looked like Unkai had taken it upon himself to personally oversee her training.

"Begin."

Yakumo's reaction to the command was sluggish, her technique was sloppy and the one target she hit wasn't even close to the bullseye. As she shuffled over to retrieve her weapons, she looked like she was just barely holding back tears.

Unkai said nothing, opting to silently watch and wait for the girl to get ready again. His expression, one of grim determination, spoke volumes of his will to see this thing through to the end. He had already proven that he was a man who would go to extremes to accomplish his goals, so he wasn't going to let this setback stop him.

However, not everyone seemed to have his patience.

"My God, she's actually getting worse? How?!" another man appeared next to Unkai, whom Naruto recognized as Jinki Kurama.

The one Kurama who Naruto had been looking forward to actually fighting, but Kakashi had taken that kill…Or at least he had been there when someone, or something, else killed Jinki.

"She's still grieving." Unkai replied.

"For three years?" Jinki countered with a deep frown.

"She lost her parents."

"So did I, but I got my shit together a hell of a lot quicker!"

"You were fourteen and already a ninja by the time your parents didn't come back from a mission. Yakumo was ten, and she didn't just have someone walk up to her and tell her, her mother and father didn't make it. She saw them die right in front of her. Hardly the same thing, Jinki." Naruto was surprised by just how…compassionate Unkai was being. He was even trying to be quiet in his conversation, but obviously Yakumo still heard it.

"...Whatever. Doesn't matter anyway, 'cause it's not grief. Look at her, her heart's in it one-hundred percent; she wouldn't keep trying if it wasn't. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, and whatever you're doing ain't working!"

Unkai rose an eyebrow and turned his eyes towards the sky. "...Yes, you're right."

"I am? Uh, I mean, yes, I am!" Jinki nodded to himself. "Let me train her, Unkai-dono, please! I know I can whip her into shape in no time!"

"We've had this conversation before, Jinki." Unkai sighed. "You're too important to have you wasting your time with such things. We need you out there, representing the clan."

"But you're always saying 'Yakumo is the future of the Kurama'; what sense does it make to keep her floundering around with training methods that don't work?"

"Exactly, my boy. She is the future; YOU are the present. Besides, I think I know what the problem may be. Ever since that night, she hasn't trusted any of us. As far as she's concerned, most of us hate her, others are afraid of her, and those who are left just want to use her. Anything we tell her or try to show her, she's going to be suspicious of. She's spending more time second guessing and looking for ulterior motives than actually learning." Unkai turned his gaze back to Yakumo, who had just recovered her last shuriken from a tree trunk on the outskirts of the training ground. "No, no, what we need is a fresh face. Someone outside of the clan, who has no idea who she is or what's inside her."

"Bah!" Jinki snorted. "You got someone in mind?"

"As a matter of fact, I do." Unkai smirked.

The memory faded just as Yakumo wandered back to the center of the training ground for a reset, but not before casting a wary look at the two men watching her. However, instead of ending, another memory began immediately afterward. This featured Yakumo in one of the Academy's indoor training rooms, standing across from a familiar face: Kurenai Yūhi. And the red-eyed woman didn't look particularly happy.

"Yakumo, are you even trying?" Kurenai grumbled.

"I...I'm trying my best, sensei." Yakumo replied, dropping her head a little.

"That only makes it worse; that last performance was actually a step backwards from where you were when we started." Kurenai huffed and ran a hand through her raven locks. "Your 'best' just isn't good enough."

"I can do this, sensei…"

"If that was your best, then no, you can't."

"I-I know I'm not very good at the physical stuff, but I know I can make it! Genjutsu is my strongpoint anyway, so can't we just train that?"

"You think you can get by with Genjutsu alone?" Kurenai's lips turned upward in a smile so condescending, that Naruto himself felt insulted.

"If Rock Lee can get by with only Taijutsu, then yes." Yakumo nodded firmly. "I just have to work hard enough, like Gai-sensei says."

"Not this again." Kurenai muttered and rolled her eyes. "Look, while it is true that Gai-san's student is incapable of using Nin or Genjutsu, there's a reason he can get away with it. That 'physical stuff' that you're no good at? That makes up a good ninety percent of a ninjas life. A ninja doesn't NEED the ability to breathe fire or make people hallucinate; what they DO need is physical conditioning. They need to be able to hold their own in an up-close fight, both taking and giving out punishment. They need to be able to travel long distances on-foot, sometimes running and/or tree-hopping for hours on end. They need to be able to react to a threat in less than the blink of an eye, sometimes even before their brains actually register what's going on. Rock Lee can do those things, and do them better than ninjas twice his age; you can't."

"But-"

"'But' nothing, Yakumo. There's another difference between you and Gai-san's student: talent. He has it. Gai-san can preach about the values of hard work and determination all he wants, it doesn't change the fact that, that boy is something special. If he wasn't, he wouldn't even survive half of the outlandish things he and Gai-san call 'training'. So even if you could skate by with only Genjutsu, which you can't, it wouldn't matter in anyway. You've got a large chakra capacity for a girl your age, I'll give you that, but your control is abysmal. Your illusions are powerful, incredibly so, but that's the whole problem. They're so powerful that they're lethal, but you can't control them, so they're lethal to friend and foe alike."

By this point, Yakumo was in tears. "D-Did I d-do something to make y-you mad, Sensei? W-Why are you being so mean?"

"I'm not mad, and I'm not being mean, Yakumo. I'm telling you what you need to hear, and why I'm done with this." Kurenai sighed deeply.

"W-What?"

"I'm done, Yakumo. You're just not cut out for this life, that's all there is to it. I can't do this anymore, and I can't let you do this anymore." Kurenai's tone became as cold as her eyes, which were effectively staring the girl into submission.

"N-No! Please, give me another chance, Sensei!" Yakumo pleaded, going as far as to actually get on her knees before the older female.

"I can't, Yakumo. Not in good conscience." Kurenai slowly shook her head. "If you keep going, it's only a matter of time before you hurt yourself or someone else. Again. You're a liability, and I can't overlook that. I'm sorry." and with those callous words, the black-haired woman walked around her now-former student and out of the training room, not sparing a single glance back at the sobbing wreck she was leaving in her wake.

As the memory faded, a low growl rumbled from Naruto's throat. That bitch had the nerve to call HIM cold and unfeeling? Needless to say, Kurenai Yūhi wouldn't be getting off of his Shit List anytime soon.

"Lost ghosts surround me…"

The next memory started with Unkai and Jinki walking through the halls of what Naruto assumed was the Kurama main house, with Yakumo trailing behind them, eyes to the ground.

"How the fuck did this happen?! What happened to the Hokage and the Council not being allowed to stick their noses into clan business?" Jinki was furious, his lips curled in a seemingly permanent snarl and all but stomping along as marched next to the older man.

Unkai's anger was far more restrained, but still plainly visible on his face and in his tense, straight-backed gait.

"It ceased to be clan business when we brought in outside help. In officially signing Yakumo up as her apprentice, we gave her all the rights of a legal guardian, so what she said carried enough weight to spark an investigation."

"With all due respect, sir, there was no 'we'; you handed Yakumo over to the bitch. If you had listened to ME, we wouldn't be taking this walk."

"…Fine, I'll own this mistake, and I'll do what I can to rectify it." Unkai let out a frustrated grunt. "Unfortunately, I don't know how much that will be. They're trying to label Yakumo as a threat to Konoha itself, and they've backed us into a corner for withholding information."

"Fucking hell!" Jinki growled. "So what do they actually want from us? Are we supposed to put her in prison? Execute her?" he glanced back at the girl as he said this. She didn't so much as twitch.

"No, nothing so extreme." Unkai sounded relieved by that. "The Third wants to put a seal on her that will constantly feed off of her chakra, leaving her with just enough in her coils to function normally. She'll be a civilian. Below average, if her condition starts to decline again. I tried to explain that she needs more chakra than that to stay healthy, but they won't listen. They never listen."

"Which is why you've got the Council seat, you fit right in." Jinki snorted. He flinched a little when Unkai rounded on him with a harsh glare, but he stood his ground and returned it with one of his own.

With another grunt, Unkai blinked first and they resumed their trek, now heading outside. They walked across the grounds in silence, heading towards a one-story structure that appeared to be smack in the middle of the compound.

"So what are we even doing?" Jinki spoke up again as the trio stopped in front of the building's door. "If it's an order from the Hokage, that's it, we've got no say in the matter anymore. What good is talking to the Elders gonna do?"

"While Konoha's Council isn't pushing for execution, our own Council is. They agree that she's a liability, but more than that they see her as a blight on the entire clan. To them, she represents our darkest moment, where we grew desperate enough to make a deal with the devil. I won't allow that, but…"

"But something has to be done." Jinki nodded in understanding. "Once that seal is applied, she'll be an easy target and it'll only be a matter of time before someone tries something like before. She'll need constant protection, but you don't know who we can trust as a bodyguard, and I'm not an option."

Unkai smirked and patted the younger man on the shoulder. "And that's why you're the best we've got. It's a shame we only have one of you." he then turned to Yakumo, who had yet to say a word, or even look up. "Yakumo, stay with Jinki."

Yakumo gave only the smallest of nods as acknowledgement of the order, not even bothering to look up.

Naruto frowned as the memory faded out. This wasn't adding up at all with what he'd been told. The way the Kurama woman had put it, and how recent events made it seem, Unkai was a manipulative bastard and a sore loser, willing to endanger his entire clan for his own revenge. However, Yakumo's memories were painting a very different picture...

Before Naruto could dwell on it, another memory appeared before him.

Yakumo sat in the middle of a large, dimly lit room that reminded Naruto of the Council Chamber, head still bowed with her bangs hiding the upper half of her face.

"Kurama Yakumo, you have been summoned here because the clan Elders have decided your fate." one of the five old men seated in the shadows around the girl.

Yakumo didn't move a muscle, which apparently didn't sit well with the Elders.

"You will look at your Elders, your betters, when they address you, girl." another old man hissed.

Finally, Yakumo showed some sign of life and lifted her head. But though she looked in the general direction of the Elder directly in front of her, her eyes were unfocused and devoid of…well, anything.

Naruto's body twitched again.

"For four years, you have brought nothing but shame to this clan. Shame the likes of which normally calls for death, either by capital punishment or Seppuku…" the Elder paused, likely to let it sink in and instill fear. When Yakumo only blinked in response, the Elder continued, his words more curt than before. "However, you have been spared this, and in exchange for your life, we will take your name."

Another Elder spoke up, "You are hereby stripped of the Kurama name and all ties to the clan. Your knowledge of our techniques will be sealed, and you will no longer be allowed on the premises without the permission of each Clan Elder AND the current Clan Head. If you are found on the property without such permission, you will be killed on-sight. You will never refer to yourself as a Kurama, either verbally or in writing, and doing so will result in severe punishment. Do you understand your sentence?"

"…Disowned…Banished…" Yakumo replied, her voice low, raspy and lifeless.

Naruto twitched once more.

"Correct. You have one hour to gather your belongings, and you will not speak to anyone in the compound, unless they deign to address you first. When that hour is up, you will report to the Hokage Tower to have your seals applied. Do you understand?"

"…Yes."

"Good. Now leave us, child."

Yakumo did as instructed, standing from her seat and heading for the door. Outside, she met back up with Jinki, who actually looked concerned.

"Hey…You alright, kid?" he asked almost nervously.

"…"

"Right, dumb question…Come on, let's get you packed up. Unkai's speaking to the Hokage about finding you a place to live."

Yakumo followed along without a word.

"I can't…"

The memory flashed to slightly older Yakumo, by herself in what looked like an attic. She was sitting before a canvas, putting the finishing touches on a vivid, almost photo-realistic painting of…Kurenai. Kurenai, with her eyes closed, head titled back and arms spread out to her sides, looking serene even as a beam of light pierced her heart from above, the light dusting of red behind her indicating that it was no mere metaphor.

One last golden highlight in the woman's dark hair, and Yakumo sat her brush and palette down. She then stood from her stool, carefully picked up the paining and deposited it next to the others that were on the floor, propped up against the wall. Next to eight more equally exquisite portraits of Kurenai's beautiful death.

"Fall…"

Another flash and Yakumo was painting again, but this time it was one of herself…hanging from the rafters by a rope. She paused and looked up, staring almost longingly at the wooden beams above. Then, with a sigh of resignation, she picked up the painting and placed it with the others, of which there were now dozens.

"Down…"

Another flash and Yakumo was back painting once more. Another self-portrait, but in this one she appeared to be sleeping peacefully, with even a small smile on her face. She looked paler than normal, but otherwise she just appeared to be napping. But one only need to look down at her slashed wrists and the red-stained lower half of her yukata to shatter the illusion.

One final dab of crimson and Yakumo seemed satisfied, actually smiling at her work. She then sat down her brush and palette, looked towards the door cautiously, then reached under her stool. The sound of tape being pulled off was heard, then her hand came back up, now holding a kunai. She must have stolen it from one of her guards somehow.

Her smile grew a tiny bit wider as she pressed the blade into the skin of her left wrist. But then her arms seemed to freeze in place and her smile became a look of panic and confusion.

And then, the voice of the being currently at the very top of Naruto's "Things to Murder" list.

"Oh no, my child, I'm afraid I cannot let you do that. Your life is more important than you could ever realize…and it belongs to me."

"…You're Him, aren't you?" Yakumo whispered, tears flowing freely as she continued to struggle to move her body. To end her life.

"I am Rumare. But you may call me 'Master'."

At last, the "screen" went dark. But this time, the corridor remained silent. No more singing, which meant Naruto had nothing to guide him through whatever roadblocks Rumare decided to put up.

Fortunately, it looked like the voice may no longer have been needed. At the end of the corridor, formerly obscured by darkness, was a door. However, this one was quite different from the others. Where they had either been the thin shōji sliding doors or the more sturdy swinging ones, this one looked more like something out of a prison. A large, solid slab of steel, made to make sure nothing got in or out once it was shut.

It took Naruto about a second to put a hole in it big enough to walk through, via Rasen Shottogan.

The first thing he noticed was that he had walked into the same attic-like room from the last memories. The second thing he noticed was that there were a LOT more paintings, and they had gotten…nastier. One in particular caught Naruto's eye, featuring Kurenai being torn apart by what looked like a pack of rabid dogs, the froth around their mouths tinged red from their still-living meal.

And the third thing Naruto noticed was Yakumo herself in the middle of the room, surrounded by the paintings. But when she snarled at him, he knew it wasn't really her. And when she opened her mouth, his suspicions were confirmed.

"Bless it all!" came Rumare's incensed voice from the girl's lips. "Why couldn't you have been an obedient little dog for a while longer?! And you, Halfling! Why couldn't you have been easier to kill?!"

"Maybe you just suck at killing." Naruto sniped.

Rumare paused in his tantrum and flashed a cryptic smile at Naruto. "Perhaps. Afterall, my specialty lies in making people kill each other." the demon chuckled.

"Good for you. But I don't suck at killing. In fact, I'm very, very, good at it."

"I'm sure. But before you start demonstrating your…prowess in the art on me, perhaps you should think about my vessel, hm?"

Naruto scoffed. "After all you've done to her, you think she'll care about what I do to you?"

A peel of laughter erupted from the demon. "Oh, dear, you think I had anything to do with the things you saw in her memories? You couldn't be more mistaken, boy! That's the beauty of this whole situation; I didn't have to lift a finger to so much as help it along, let alone cause it! You, of all people, should know how humans are. How much they fear what they don't understand, and how much they hate what they fear. All it took was a single 'tragic' coincidence, and their imaginations, insecurities, guilt and anger did the rest. I merely watched, frankly stunned by how little I had to do. Heh, had it not been so entertaining, I would have been bored to tears!"

"And what about the last two years?" Naruto's grip tightened on the Black Soul.

"What about them? I have merely stopped her from taking her own life. As well I should, since it is not hers to take; she belongs to me." Rumare then adopted a contemplative expression. "Well, that, and I have taken her body 'for a spin', as the kids say, a few times, as I am now…Oh! And I have put in some requests for her paintings." he gestured to the macabre works of art all around him. "Lovely, don't you think? The poor girl lost her true calling in all that 'ninja' nonsense."

"Maybe she can find it again after I've dealt with you."

"You say that like you think you can do it without killing her as well!" Rumare chortled. "Perhaps you have missed your calling as well? To me, you seem a better comedian than a killer."

"Really? Then I think it's time for that demonstra-!" Naruto's left arm came up just in time to block slash from a kunai that seemed to materialize in Rumare's hand.

"A wonderful idea, but I can't let you have all the fun!" Rumare grinned as he became a whirlwind of slashes, kicks and punches, each one blocked by Naruto's sword, which he had yet to unsheathe. This fact didn't go unnoticed. "Ah, I see you have not loosed your blade, Halfling. What's the matter? Afraid to hit a girl?"

"No." Naruto answered before batting the demon across the face with the covered blade.

Rumare chuckled and spit out a glob of blood, accompanied by part of a tooth.

"Oww." he drawled before launching himself at the black-clad boy again.

Again, Naruto didn't bring the Black Soul out to play, not that he needed to. Though quick, the demon's movements were sloppy, and it's attacks predictable and fairly weak. It was obvious he wasn't used to fighting in another body, which the demon himself must have realized from the beginning, yet he was still doing it. Why? What was he up to?

When Rumare missed a strike and twirled the kunai around for a reverse grip to attack again, Naruto took the opportunity to disarm his opponent. A single well-timed swipe sent the dagger sailing across the room to embed itself in the wall next to the door. But Rumare didn't stop and threw a wild haymaker towards Naruto's face. Naruto responded with a punch of his own and when their fists met, his won out instantly.

The bones in Rumare's hand shattered on impact, his wrist bent at an odd angle and a large lump appeared in his forearm as the radius snapped in half.

The demon backed off and stared at the crippled limb with…glee?

And then it dawned on Naruto. He wasn't damaging Rumare at all; Yakumo would be the one to suffer from what he was doing.

Naruto's jacket suddenly rippled violently, then a coattail shot up to snatch something out of the air. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the tail holding a kunai, which it promptly bent in half. Narrowing his eyes, Naruto whipped his head back around to the front and lashed out with his right hand, catching the wrist of another right arm, this one lithe, bandaged and mostly hidden by a red sleeve. It was also holding another kunai aimed right at his head.

Naruto saw lustrous black hair and baleful red eyes before his attention was back on the kunai as his new opponent dropped it, then caught it mid-fall with her left hand and swiped at his neck. He leaned back, but kept hold of her other arm, then jerked her forward and planted the point of his elbow right into her nose. But just as he felt the bone break, she disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Three identical chakra signatures appeared around him, accompanied by more clouds of smoke. As they came at him, Naruto snorted and went to work. He caught one in the throat with the tip of the still-sheathed Black Soul, crushing the larynx and causing the clone to dispel. The next one was cracked across the head and vanished as well. The final clone was stabbed clean through the chest with the blunt object, and stuck around long enough to look surprised before it, too, went "pop".

"How long are you going to keep this up, Yūhi?" Naruto asked as he turned to face the woman herself, he was standing between him and Rumare, brandishing a kunai. "Nevermind that someone with your chakra capacity should be more careful with such a technique; do you really think it's wise to play the clone game with me?" to prove his point, Naruto summoned a good twenty clones out of the shadows, quickly filling up the fairly large room and surrounding his opposition.

Kurenai's eyes darted around the room, fear evident in them. But she didn't give an inch.

"I won't let you hurt her." she was so focused on the threat at hand, she didn't notice a kunai being pilfered from the holster on her right thigh.

"Okay…But who's going to stop her from hurting you?" Naruto questioned, pointing behind the Jōnin.

"Wha-?!" Kurenai glanced back just in time to see Yakumo lunged at her with a dagger in-hand and a manic grin on her face, showing off bloodied teeth.

Fortunately, Naruto's clones were quicker and rushed the demon, pinning him to the floor and taking the weapon before he got within arm's reach of his target.

"Huh, I guess I am." Naruto shrugged.

"Y-Yakumo?" Kurenai was no thoroughly confused.

"Not at the moment, no." Naruto answered.

"What are you talking about?"

"…You don't know." it was a statement, not a question on Naruto's part.

"No, she doesn't." a third voice answered from above, causing all eyes to turn up to the rafters. There, standing on one of the beams, was Unkai Kurama. "We took great pains to make sure no one outside the clan did, as you saw in her memories."

"…How?" Naruto demanded. He'd had to run through the world's worst funhouse to get here, and if not for his healing factor he would've had the wounds to prove it. But these two seemed to have just walked right on in, though Yūhi looked a little roughed up.

"You thought I had fled the area, I didn't. I simply used a Genjutsu called 'Sanzaru'(4)to totally negate your senses as they pertained to me. Even though I was standing right next to you outside, and following you around in here, your brain ignored your eyes, ears, nose and everything else when they detected me. And since your brain wasn't processing the information given to it, I effectively didn't exist as far you, Hatake, Yūhi or anyone else was concerned." Unkai explained.

Neither Naruto nor Kurenai could suppress the shudder than ran through their bodies. With a technique like that, Unkai, and the Kurama clan as a whole, could've been virtually unstoppable. Which begged the question: Why didn't he just kill them all when he had the chance?

Naruto wasn't about to wait around to find out. In a blink, he was in the rafters next to Unkai, holding his sword under the man's chin.

"You should've run while you could."

Unkai expression didn't change in the slightest as he looked at Naruto from the corner of his eye.

"Why? You slaughtered my clan, and if I showed up at the meeting point alone, the deal I had with Iwa would be null and void."

"Hmph, you and your deals." Naruto snorted.

"Yes, one would think you would have learned your lesson." Rumare spoke up, causing Kurenai to jump.

"Yakumo?"

"No, it's the demon inside of her. The one I and…The one I put there." Unkai said, still totally unconcerned about the blade pressed against his skin.

"What?"

"They sealed a demon into her, Yūhi, and it's taken control of her. Please, try to keep up, will you?"

Kurenai looked towards the "girl" in horror and slowly backed away, causing "her" to chuckle darkly.

"What is that human expression? 'The cat is out of the bag'? Yes, I think that applies here." Rumare then looked up at Unkai with a raised eyebrow. "But I am curious as to how you managed to avoid detection from me."

"…I'm just that good." Unkai replied, smirking when he saw the demon's face twist into a scowl. "But I'll admit I had a little help." he slowly reached into his yukata, looking at Naruto for permission, then produced a book. A worn out, ancient-looking thing, bound in rust-colored leather.

Rumare cocked his head to the side in confusion. "And that is…?"

"The book that allowed me to summon you. As it turns out, it contains quite a bit of information about you. It also details the inner workings of the seal you used…as well as how to break it." Unkai's smirk widened when he saw genuine fear in Rumare's eyes.

"You are lying."

"Am I? Your seal, though powerful, is actually made to be broken. It doesn't bind your soul to your vessel's, so if they're about to die, you can simply undo the seal and jump ship. Sound about right?"

Rumare began to struggle against the clones, but they held fast. That is, until he let out an inhuman growl and his vessel's body began to change. Her skin grew dark and leathery, and her muscles ballooned out under her clothing, tripling in size almost instantly. Her hands grew claws, the broken one healing in seconds, and her mouth widened and elongated. Two massive fangs sprouted from her upper jaw, and bull-like horns burst out from under her hair on the either side of her head.

"Ah, much better! Unfortunately, my vessel will not be able to withstand the strain of this form for long, so let's make this qui-!" Rumare's words died in his throat as Unkai suddenly appeared in front of him with a piece of paper in his right hand.

"Let's." the Kurama Clan Head slapped the paper onto Rumare's forehead and jumped back.

Rumare unleashed an unearthly wail as his host's body began to convulse and writhe. The demonic features disappeared and a pale light began to shine from the girl's eyes and mouth. A second later, her abdomen began to glow orange, which was the only warning anyone got before a sudden explosion knocked them all off their feet and blasted Yakumo backwards.

"You…" Rumare wheezed as he pushed himself off the floor. He was back in his own body, but he felt drained and weak. "You vermin…You insects!" he roared, a surge of anger giving him the strength to stand to his full height of eight feet. "I will kill all of you! I will pull your limbs from your body and watch you squirm!" his muscled, though somewhat lanky humanoid frame swayed from side to side, with a lion-like tail flicking back and forth to try and keep him balanced. "You think I am beaten?! I have already won, and you will not take that from me!" he scanned the room, looking for his first victim. Movement to his left caught his eyes and he saw Unkai trying to stand up, having apparently been flung into a wall by the blast. With a snarl, Rumare stopped towards the vulnerable human, his powerful, fur-covered legs eating up the distance in just a few strides.

He didn't notice the shadows gathering at his clawed feet until it was too late. They shot up from the floor to ensnare his limbs and pull him down. Before he knew what was happening, he found himself on his back, wrapped in a cocoon of solid darkness. He tried to fight against it, but he couldn't move. The shadow's embrace was simply too tight…

"Pierce." a single word, and it was all over.

"Hrk!" Rumare grunted in pain as hundreds of spikes skewered his body from every direction, even penetrating the cocoon itself. His eyes widened and his mouth worked up and down, but no sound came out.

"Still feel like a winner?" Naruto taunted as he walked up next to the fallen demon.

He received only a hateful glare from the beast.

"It worked." Unkai said as he came up to stand beside Naruto.

"You sound surprised." Naruto remarked, absently dismissing the clones that hadn't been taken out by the explosion.

"I can't say that I'm not. The book is written in a demonic language, as was that seal, and though I had help translating it, no translation is perfect. I knew what the seal was supposed to do, but not what it would do."

"You had me fooled. Ever play poker?"

"A few times, but I was never any good. Another reason I'm surprised this gamble paid off."

"Mm…You know, I've been ordered to kill you." Naruto said after a few seconds of watching Rumare cough up dark, foamy blood from his perforated lungs.

"And you're going to. I'm not proud of the things I've done, or how I did them…But I don't regret why I did them. Everything, no matter how cruel, heartless or violent it was, I did for my clan. But now they're gone, and I am to blame." a single tear fell from his eye.(5)

"Huh…I figured you would blame me for that." Naruto said, thrown for a loop for the umpteenth time that day.

"Blame you for what? Doing your job and taking down traitors? They wouldn't have been traitors if not for me." Unkai replied.

Now Naruto was well and truly astonished. And kind of pissed off, too. Half the population of Konoha blamed him for the deaths of family and loved ones at any given time, and tried their damnedest to kill him in the past. But when he actually DOES massacre a man's family with his bare hands, said man not only doesn't blame him, but blames HIMSELF for it?!

Of course, Naruto wasn't about to mention how he had gone a good bit above and beyond the call of duty when it came the Kurama clan…

"All that was left for me was revenge," Unkai gestured to the dying creature at their feet, "and now I have it."

"What about Yakumo?" Naruto nodded towards the girl, who was cradled in an unconscious Kurenai's arms. Judging from the crater in the wall behind them, it looked like the Jōnin had caught Yakumo and took the brunt of the impact when she was blasted back.

"Despite how it looked and despite what my clansmen thought, my intent was never to harm Yakumo herself. My vendetta was against the demon, and it alone; I merely let them think what they wanted to. My original plan was to go into the house alone, apply the seal, kill the demon, then leave, with my clan none the wiser."

"I see…" there wasn't much more Naruto could say, besides perhaps apologizing for the things he'd called Unkai in his head after hearing that Kurama woman's story.

"But before you take my head, I have just one request, if you wouldn't mind."

"Go ahead."

"I want to watch this thing die."

"Granted." Naruto then plunged the Black Soul into the demon's chest, then left it there to feed.

Rumare groaned in pain, not from blade itself, but from the sensation of having what remained of his energy forcibly sucked out of him.

But his groan soon became a wheezing chuckle. "Halfling…What will become of my little puppet?" he spoke surprisingly well for someone who's lungs resembled a couple of sponges.

"That's not up to me."

"Oh, but it is…Do you know why she guided you here? Why she risked raising my ire to bring you right to our door? Why she showed you her memories? Why she didn't do a thing to stop me from using her body to fight you?"

"No…"

"She didn't bring you here to save her, boy…She brought you here to kill her." Rumare laughed, or at least tried to. "She felt your admittedly incredible killing intent and saw an opportunity…An opportunity to do what I would not allow, and finally end her life…Those memories? They were to make you understand why she seeks death…"

Naruto took a look at Yakumo, who still had yet to move. But before he could say anything, Unkai spoke.

"You can't be considering it."

"…If that's what she wants…" Naruto replied. His hesitation didn't go unnoticed.

"But can you do it?" Rumare asked with a twisted grin. "Can you take the life of an innocent in cold blood? Will you, such a sentimental creature, be able to murder someone just like you?"

"…If that's what she wants…" Naruto repeated, getting another hacking laugh out of the demon.

"You forget that I can read your thoughts, boy…Pity I won't be here to see you falter." Rumare resigned himself it his fate, but he couldn't help but contemplate the circumstances surrounding it. 'That book…How could a human even get a hold of a tome like tha…' Rumare's thoughts trailed off as he spotted something, or rather someone, up in the rafters.

A human figure in a black, hooded robe, staring down at him. Icy, glowing blue eyes met Rumare's, then the figure lifted its right arm and…waved goodbye.

"…Should have known…" Rumare said with his final breath as his soul was consumed.

Naruto followed the demon's gaze and looked up, but saw nothing.

A few seconds later, and Rumare's body was little more than a dried husk that started to crumble when Naruto released the Shadow's Embrace and retrieved his sword. He then turned to Unkai, who was staring at the blade and beginning to sweat.

"My sword eats souls." Naruto answered the unasked question with a shrug.

"I-I see…"

"It won't eat yours." Naruto assured, though he wasn't even sure he could promise that…

"Just tell it to let the soul go, that's all." came Nightmare's voice, filling Naruto with a sense of relief.

'Thanks for the info…Kyuubi?'

"…I'm here." the demoness answered.

Naruto could tell by her tone that they would be having a talk later. He was NOT looking forward to that.

"…Thank you." Unkai said, then surprised Naruto once again by bowing respectfully to him.

"Uh, don't mention it…"

Unkai chuckled as he kneeled on the floor. "I don't think that will be a problem." he then leaned forward slightly, bowed his head and pulled back the collar of his yukata, exposing his neck.

Naruto stepped around to the man's left and raised the Black Soul over his head in two-handed grip. But before he did the deed, Unkai spoke up one last time.

"Please, spare Yakumo. You've seen what she's been through; she deserves a chance at a real life. Please…"

"…If that's what she wants." Naruto repeated again, then brought the blade down. For once, he took no satisfaction in the ever-so-slight resistance of flesh and bone, nor the solid "thump" of the severed body part hitting the floor.

He picked up the sound of a sudden intake of air off to the side, and turned to see Kurenai had awakened. There was a pause as their eyes met, then the woman looked away, a light dusting of pink on her cheeks.

Naruto was suddenly reminded that he didn't have his mask, causing a jolt of panic to course through him. He had to find it, but first...

Kurenai was so preoccupied with trying to fight off...indecent thoughts, that she didn't notice Naruto's approach until he was right up on her. She idly noted that, somehow, his heavy boots made no noise as he walked across the floorboards. And then she noticed his sword.

Quick as a flash, Kurenai was on her feet in front of Yakumo, another kunai in-hand.

"Leave her alone, Namikaze!" she ordered. "The demon's out, right?"

"And very dead." Naruto nodded.

"Then it's over and you can leave."

"I don't know if I can leave her with you in good conscience."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means I saw her memories, and I saw exactly why I need to keep you away from Hinata."

Kurenai flinched at that, knowing exactly what he was talking about. But she stood her ground regardless.

"Why do you think I'm here? I know I was a horrible person-"

"'Was'?" Naruto interrupted.

"And I'm here to at least to make up for it." Kurenai chose to ignore the barb.

"After two years of you going about your life, not giving a damn about the one you single-handedly condemned her to. And only after she resurfaced and her little lightshow with the Hokage Tower became the talk of the town."

Kurenai flinched again. "I-"

"Do you know she's suicidal, hm?" Naruto interrupted again. "Do you know that the only reason she's alive now is because that demon kept her from killing herself? Do you know that she guided me through the demon's Super Illusions, just so I would kill her?"

"W-What?" Kurenai croaked, her stance faltering.

"Why don't you take a look at some of the paintings around here? Get passed the ones of you being eaten alive by animals, and you might find a couple self-portraits of her own death." by now, Naruto was actually getting angry. The more he thought about what the woman had done, what she was responsible for, the more the idea of letting his sword taste her soul appealed to him. "So before you try to play the 'savior', how about you ask Yakumo what she wants?"

Kurenai slowly turned to see Yakumo, now awake and...staring at Naruto's weapon. But instead of fear, all she saw in the girl's eyes was hope.

The pain in Kurenai's chest briefly made her wonder if Naruto had stabbed her from behind.

"Y-Yakumo..." the girl didn't react, her gaze firmly fixed on the blade, "Yakumo, please, look at me."

After couple seconds, Yakumo complied with the request, and Kurenai immediately wished she hadn't. That tiny spark of hope vanished, leaving the raven-haired woman to stare back into nothing. No hatred, no anger, no sorrow, not even recognition. It was like looking at a doll; emotionless glass orbs set in a plastic face with only one blank expression.

"Yakumo...I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the things I said to you, I'm sorry for what I did to you. I'm sorry for being a horrible teacher and...And a horrible human being. I...I'm not asking you to forgive me, Yakumo, I'm just asking you to let me help you. Like I should've helped you in the first place. I can have your bloodline unsealed, if it's still locked at all, and I can train you properly. You don't have to like me; you can outright hate me, and I would deserve it. I just want the chance to make this right and help you live the dream I took from you before."

Kurenai's plea actually seemed to get through to Yakumo. She slowly leaned forward and into Kurenai, wrapping her arms around her torso in a gentle hug, which the woman eagerly returned. A sob escaped her lips and tears began to fall as emotion overwhelmed her.

It was a scene that normally would've had Naruto rolling his eyes and looking for the nearest exit. But this time, it was a welcome sight. He finally allowed his body to relax as the weight of what he might have to do was lifted from his shoulders. He didn't want to kill the girl. At all. It ranked up there with making out with Sakura's mother in terms of things he had no desire for. But at the same time, if she had asked him to, he would have felt obligated to do it. She had chosen him to end her suffering, and at the very least he could make it painless.

But now it didn't matter. Bullet dodged, time to go find his mask...And the Black Soul's sheath, which he must have dropped in the explosive exorcism.

"You gotta be kidding me..." Naruto muttered as he began his search.

Kurenai was still basking in the feelings brought on by a chance at redemption, but she knew they had to get a move on. The sooner they were back in Konoha, the sooner they could get everything sorted out. She still had to talk to her former students, though...But they wouldn't be "former" for long; she would win them back as well!

'Oh! If we make enough progress quickly, maybe I could get Yakumo onto Team Eight! We'll need a replacement for Ki-' Kurenai halted that train of thought right there, appalled by it on several levels. 'Kami above, what is wrong with me?!'

Once again preoccupied with her internal conflicts, Kurenai didn't notice the calculating look in Yakumo's eyes as she disengaged from the hug and reached for something on the floor. Then her attention turned to Naruto, now with his back to her, and she moved. She crossed the room with a burst of speed greater than anything she had ever done before, and raised her right arm high as she neared Naruto's exposed back.

"YAKUMO!" Kurenai screamed, body moving seemingly on its own to intercept the girl.

But she was too late. The scream caused Naruto to look back, and all he saw was someone rushing him with a weapon, ready to strike. He reacted on instinct, hardwired into him not only through training, but through a lifetime of assaults and assassination attempts.

The next thing he knew, Yakumo was hanging off of him, her head resting on his right shoulder, her right arm slung over his left shoulder, and his sword through her heart. Her arm slid from his shoulder and her weapon fell from her limp fingers, clattering to the floor and slowly rolling off to the side.

A paintbrush.

Naruto released a shuddering breath. What had he done?

He felt Yakumo's head shift next to his, then felt her last breath on his ear in the form of a whisper.

"Thank you."

Naruto felt his eyes begin to sting as the girl's body went limp. He wrapped his left arm around her and slowly pulled the sword free, an awkward task considering the weapon's length. As he did this, he caught sight of Kurenai and his eyes instantly hardened.

"Don't you fucking dare look at me like that." he growled. "This isn't my fault! You want to look at anyone, I suggest you grab a mirror." after stabbing the Black Soul into the floorboards, Naruto gently laid Yakumo's body on the ground, placing her hands on her chest. "Let her go." he whispered to his sword, feeling its hunger.

One would think devouring a demon would have at least tided the demonic blade over, but that only seemed to whet its appetite.

Naruto noticed the small smile forever frozen on her face and was immediately reminded of the painting he had seen in her memories. She was even wearing the same clothes. He looked away as his vision began to blur and wiped his eyes with his sleeve.

Why was this tearing him up so much inside? If anything, he should've been mocking and ridiculing Yakumo for taking the easy way out! He had gone through much worse than her, and here he was, alive and stronger for it! The girl was weak! Not even worth his time. Not even worthy of dying by his magnificent blade.

So very weak and fragile…and innocent. Completely undeserving of her fate; a victim of circumstance and human prejudice, just like him. But unlike him, she never had the benefit of a compassionate demon, or anyone else to guide her through the hardships. The people who were supposed to, people like Yūhi, only added to them.

It left Naruto to wonder if he could have done something. If he had known about a fellow demon vessel in Konoha, could he have helped her? Maybe pulled some strings with old man Sarutobi and gotten an audience or two with her? If only to show her that she wasn't alone in her plight, and give her a look at the power she could attain if she endured and survived. With Kyuubi and Nightmare's aid, surely he would have been able to drag Rumare out and destroy him without killing her. Then, who knew? Perhaps he could have taken her under his wing, like he had with Hinata. Or at the very least pointed her to a far better teacher than that woman.

Speaking of Yūhi, Naruto turned to her with a glare. She had fallen to her knees and was staring blankly at Yakumo's corpse, tears streaming down her cheeks. With a growl, Naruto took command of the shadows and bound her in position.

Kurenai yelped as she was captured, and once more when Naruto suddenly appeared before her, sword still drawn. She looked up into his eyes with undisguised fear. This was strike three.

But instead of introducing her innards to the outside world, Naruto grabbed her right hand in a vice-like grip, forcing it open and turning it palm-up. His blade hovered over the hand, causing Kurenai to let out a pitiable whimper. She expected him to slice off her fingers one by one, but what he actually did was so much worse.

He dragged the flat of the blade across her palm, first one side, then the other, smearing the blood on her hand. Yakumo's blood.

And then he released her. Without a word, he went around the room, gathering his sheath, Unkai's head and his book, then set the body alight and walked out the door.

Once outside, Naruto paused and took a deep breath. Things had started out so well. Before he had entered this structure, he'd been riding a wave of bloodlust-induced euphoria; a "murder-high". But now? He felt…hollow. He could no longer take joy or pride in what he had done. Like a child gorging on candy, he'd had a few too many and now he was feeling the effects.

For the first time in his life, Naruto had, had his fill of death for one day. It was time to go home. After he found his mask.

After dropping the Black Soul, Unkai's head and the demon book into his shadow, Naruto got moving again. Though Rumare was dead and gone, Naruto still eyed his surroundings warily. He knew that there were Genjutsu that could remain active long after their caster died, and that was just with humans. Rumare's had already proven to be on an entirely different level, so who knew what happened with them after he expired?

As Naruto walked down a small flight of stairs and into a hallway that DIDN'T seem to go on forever, heard a pair of familiar voices.

"Well, it looks like the Genjutsu…or whatever that was, has been lifted." that was Kakashi, followed by the distinct sound of a Shadow Clone dispelling. He had probably used it to walk through a door to make sure the house had stopped shapeshifting.

"I told you I felt something." Sakura, and it sounded like she was pouting.

"I know, I know, I did, too. But you can never be too careful…Huh, is that Yūhi-san's chakra signature?"

"Who?"

"Team Eight's Jōnin Sensei."

"Oh."

Naruto then heard the sound of another door sliding open and light footsteps across the wooden floor.

"Uh-oh, that's…not good." Kakashi's voice took on a worried tone.

"What is it?" Sakura asked.

"Naruto's mask." the Copy-nin's answer was followed by a sharp gasp from Sakura.

"B-But that means…"

"That I lost it in the chaos." Naruto said as he entered the open area of the second floor, overlooking the common room. "Thank you for finding it." he then hopped over the railing.

"Naruto!" Sakura chirped, then ran up and…hugged him.

The world froze for several seconds, which felt like an eternity, before Sakura realized what she had just done and, more importantly, who she had done it to. However, once it dawned on her, she ended up being too scared to move.

'Well, limbs, it was nice knowing you.' Sakura thought and squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that Kakashi would be able to do save her, but knowing it was too late. At this range, no range, there was no way even Konoha's premier Jōnin was fast enough to intervene.

Imagine her, and everyone else's, surprise when Naruto wrapped an arm around her and returned the hug with a gentle pressure.

"It's good to see you as well…Sakura." Naruto said lowly.

"…Creepy…" Sakura whimpered.

"And if you ever tell anyone about this, I'll break you in half." Naruto squeezed just a bit tighter, as if to reinforce the point.

Sakura cracked a smile and let her body relax. "Better." she laughed before disengaging. As she pulled back, she made the mistake of looking at his face, and her brain momentarily shut down.

Naruto chose to ignore the girl's vibrant blush. "That goes for you, as well, Hatake-san." he pointed at the older male.

"Wouldn't dream of it, sir." Kakashi chuckled and held the boy's mask out to him.

"Hm." Naruto grunted as he accepted the accessory and wasted no time in putting it back on. 'Ah, whole again.' he then looked over to Sasuke, who was propped against the wall at the foot of the stairs leading to the second floor, passed out in a small puddle of blood, but still breathing. "What happened to him?"

"Eh, fought a solid illusion of Itachi, got stabbed, nicked an artery and almost bled out." Kakashi answered blithely. "Our own medic-in-training saved him, though."

"…What?" Sakura said dumbly, having forgotten where she was for a moment.

"Yeah…Well, I had a couple Soldier pills on me, and found a medical kit with a Blood pill. Once Sakura had some chakra back, and Sasuke had some more blood to spare, she patched him up just fine."

"Good, good…So, anything special happen to you?" Naruto asked after an awkward pause.

"…Nothing I want to talk about. You?" Kakashi answered.

"...Nothing I want to talk about."

"…"

"…"

"God, I need a drink." Kakashi seemed to physically deflate, exhaustion, on several levels, finally taking its toll.

"My treat." Naruto said, then walked over and hoisted Sasuke onto his shoulders. "Come on, let's get the hell out of here."

"Wait, what about Yūhi-san?" Kakashi asked, but fell in-step with Naruto anyway, absently gesturing for Sakura to follow.

"What about her?" Naruto groused. "The cunt can find her own way back." he ignored the soft gasp from Sakura behind him.

"Well, okay then…" Kakashi didn't press the issue. It wasn't like he was exactly friends with the woman anyway. FriendLY, at least on his part, but from the few times he'd interacted with her, she didn't seem to have a high opinion of him.

Probably thought he was just trying to get into her pants when he greeted her so jovially. Which he was, before he found out about her and Asuma's…odd relationship.

Though it all seemed to be over, the team didn't allow themselves to relax until they were outside. They sniffed the fresh air and sighed in relief, though Sakura gagged at the smell, and sight, of the mangled body next to the entrance.

Seeing it reminded Naruto that he forgot to ask Unkai if he had seen what happened to Jinki. His curiosity was still piqued, and Kakashi was unlikely to be forthcoming.

At Sakura's request, they picked up their pace back towards Konoha. But before they got out of sight of the safehouse, a voice called out to them.

"Wait!" they turned to see Kurenai emerging from the large cabin, carrying what could only be a body wrapped in a dark purple cloth, perhaps a set of bedsheets.

"…Hurry it up!" Naruto snarled, making a show out of looking at his watch. But as he really looked at the time, his brow furrowed. "5:20…" he trailed off, not knowing he had spoken aloud.

"What?" Kakashi asked, brow furrowed in confusion as his mind unknowingly went along the same route as Naruto's.

"It's 5:20…We left the Hokage's office at 3:30. We've been out here for nearly two hours…"

"Ugh, feels like two days." Sakura grumbled as she stretched out her abused muscles, sighing with every "pop" of her aching joints.

"That's nearly two hours, alone." Kakashi said, his heart rate starting to quicken. "An entire clan defected, and only one team, made up of two Jōnin and three Genin, were sent out to stop them…Where's our back-up? They should've been here ages ago, especially since they wouldn't have encountered any resistance."

Naruto and Kakashi shared a look, then shot off, leaving Sakura and Kurenai in the dust and ignoring their protests.

The two ran full-tilt Southward, weaving through trees and other flora with almost inhuman speed and grace. A feat even more impressive considering Naruto was still carrying Sasuke's unbalanced dead weight. As they neared the village, something above the forest canopy caught their eyes. A huge, billowing cloud of black smoke.

"Fuck!" Kakashi swore and ran even faster, prompting Naruto to do the same. They could feel Sakura and Kurenai trailing behind them, but they paid them no mind.

Finally, they broke through the treeline and ended up on a fairly tall cliff, overlooking the Northern sector of Konoha. Which was currently in a very bad way.

An entire block was on fire, and even more was already reduced to smoldering ruins. Other buildings seemed to have been blown apart from the inside, while yet others had been toppled by some tremendous force. And through it all, Naruto and Kakashi could hear people screaming in horror and agony, and see them scrambling desperately in the streets.

Their fears had been confirmed. After years of tempting fate by having such a large percentage of the military force away on missions before the Chūnin Exams, the inevitable had finally come to pass.

Konohagakure no Sato was under attack.

XXXX

And done.

So, how'd you like it? Though the subject matter was kind of…intense at some points, I had fun writing this one. I loves me some character development, and there was heaps of it in here!

I'm aware that frequent use of bold font can get on people's nerves, so I tried to break up Rumare's dialogue as much as I could, so it wasn't all in big, headache-inducing chunks. Let me know how I did. If it becomes a problem, I'll figure something out.

(1): E-cookie to anyone who gets the reference.

(2): A happy Hinata is something no one is going to be seeing for a while, so be ready for a dramatic change in her character for the next several chapters.

(3): Nursery rhymes were taken straight out of the "Lullaby" trailers for Dead Space 1 and 2. Listen to those if you want to know what Naruto was hearing.

(4): "Sanzaru" is a name often given to the "Three Wise Monkeys" of Japanese folklore. "See no evil" – Mizaru, "Hear no evil" – Kikazaru, "Speak no evil" – Iwazaru. This Genjutsu, invented by Unkai Kurama, is named such because it manipulates the brain into ignoring any sensory information pertaining to the user. He is the "Evil", and they won't see or hear him because they can't, and they won't speak of him because, to them, he doesn't exist.

Fun Fact: There is sometimes a fourth monkey in the legends: "Do no evil" – Shizaru….Dat irony, tho.

(5): This reference may be a bit harder to get, since I couldn't make the exact line from the film work here. So double e-cookies for anyone who gets it.

Shameless Plug 2.0! Remember the forum, "Devilkeys' Playground", in the General section. Seriously, come on down, we have fun over there.

Welp, you guys know the drill, so I'll see you next time!

Jason Out!