A/N: Well, here we are again. I cannot believe that I haven't updated in over half a year. None of you really know what's been going on lately, but I've been going through some crazy shit lately, and… Long story short, I've been in a bad situation, and homeless more than once in the past year. I haven't been able to write a whole hell of a lot, but I've kept my shit together lately, and somehow, I managed to stay sane and alive.

This isn't my best chapter to date, not by a long shot. I wrote most of it in August, then just let it sit there. I thought that I should at least finish it, so… Here's what I have. I'll try to write a better chapter in the next few days, but for now, this is all I can come up with.

Posting this on Christmas Eve, by the way, for anybody reading this in the near future.

Not gonna reply to any reviews this time, I simply don't have the energy. Still love your faces, though.

On with the show.

Chapter 45

The Kyuubi's words of encouragement still ringing in his ears, Naruto slashed his sword wildly around him, willing wind-mingled chakra into its edge. His arms became a blur as he hacked the sickening gobs of rancid flesh about him. His time with Gekko was not put to waste; in no more than three or four seconds, he had reduced the whole of it into mincemeat and ichor. He hit the bloodied water, and dashed to his left in an attempt to circle around the shade. Tentacles homed in on him before he could find an advantageous position, however, and he was forced to defend himself while making a backpedaling retreat.

"Your body and soul will be mine!" the shade said, its hands clasped in an unfamiliar seal. Instead of being a focus of chakra, it seemed that the seal was increasing the density of the darkness surrounding it. "I will not be confined here any longer! I will destroy you, and then claim what is rightfully mine!"

Naruto cracked his neck, then began doing some stretching exercises with his arms, all the while making his way to the shade. "Rightfully yours? How do you figure that?" he asked.

The shade snarled. "I am who you were supposed to be! I am what that bastard baby demon was trying to create! But you had to upset the true order of the world!"

"Heh. Yeah, I really messed it up for you, huh? Being happy, being content… Finding security and love and friendship… Yeah, I'm so sorry I'm so emotionally stable right now."

The shade went wide with rage. "I am going to kill you, boy!"

"Bring it on, ugly!" Naruto snarled, breaking out into a run directly at the shade. He loosened his grip on his katana and shifted it into a reverse grip in his right hand. The shade roared, and quite more swiftly than Naruto had thought possible, more of those meat tendrils exploded from his arms while his hands were still clasped. Oh, shit! he thought as over a dozen of them converged on him. He jumped to the left, leaving the ground for a moment. The ends of the tentacles hit the spot he had been on, but without a wasted instant, seemed to rebound up and out off of it and follow his trajectory. They aren't wild, Naruto thought, his mind calmer than his emotions at the moment. He's not just directing them, he has fine control over them. But does he feel them, too? He landed and backpedaled as the tentacles once again homed in on him. He slashed at the closest one with his sword, splitting the tip in half by about two feet. He noticed that there was no recoil in any of the tentacles as he hacked and slashed; though made of flesh, there didn't appear to be any kind of nervous system connecting them. Interesting. But how can I use this?

He abandoned the fruitless attack on the meat puppets and ran once again, trying to escape and circle around to the shade's left. Before he could get too far, though, another set of meat tentacles erupted from its shoulder, straight up into the air. These ones were far thicker than the ones the wrist, and slammed down onto the floor where the shade had projected him to be. Just in time, though, he put on a burst of speed and just managed to slip on by. The splash from the water almost threw him off balance as it impacted on his back.

How am I gonna get close to this guy without using too much chakra? he pondered. I've got some good jutsu for long distance, but his defenses are too solid. If he can summon those… things… continuously, at will, then he could just wait me out. It was then that he noticed that the aura around the shade was less dark now, more translucent. The shade continued to maintain the seal, and as Naruto watched, the aura gradually darkened… but very slowly. That's it! Naruto thought. That's his weakness! He doesn't have an internal source of chakra, so to speak, but he can summon power from the other world around him and use that as his fuel! If I can just catch him and break his seal… maybe…

No, what I have to focus on isn't that, but increasing the amount of tentacles he has to use! He already showed me that it takes longer to summon his power than it takes to use it, so if I can mess up that facet of his technique, then he'll have no choice BUT to come at me head on to conserve power. That's my ticket! But how? How to destroy those tentacles with a minimum of effort… He glanced behind him, and noticed that the pillar-sized meat piles were still there, still connected to the shade's body. That had to mean something, but he didn't have time to think. Thin tendrils shot directly into the air, some two dozen of them. They went up, spiraling around each other, and then as one changed course to shoot straight at him.

"Fuck!" he exclaimed. He had to further retreat as they aimed for him. If he stayed still for even one second, he would be hit by them. They might be simple puppets commanded by the shade, but even so, they would represent real damage to his real body. He didn't know if the regenerative powers that he had used before would be any good to him here… and he really, really did not want to put them to the test if he could help it. He eyed the shade as he leapt backwards blindly. It didn't appear that it had moved one step from its spot.

Something nagged at the back of his mind. Why was he not moving? Surely, the shade would be able to use most, if not all, of the same techniques that his original self was capable of, and its access to further power from hell—or at least something like it—would put it at a distinct advantage. Even before the fight had begun, it had possessed power that gave even the fox room to pause. So… Why was it not fighting already? Discovering this would be the key to his victory, he realized. The only way that he could force the shade into a direct confrontation would be to come at him head on and prove that the meat puppet defenses wouldn't work in the long run, or at least make him think that.

It was then that he remembered one of the jutsu that Kakashi had taught him quite some time before, the Shinkirou Enmu. A sly grin spread his lips across his face. It would take some preparation, and it would put him in more-than-considerable risk, but the payout of such a gamble would definitely be worth it. "Hey, you ugly, limp-dicked bastard!" he shouted at the shade once he put a comfortable distance between the two. "Why don't you pick on someone your own size?"

The shade's eyes narrowed as he glowered. "You never know when to shut up, do you?!" Several times more of the tentacles jutted from the legs and thighs, coming at Naruto in an uneven, flowing pattern. Instead of homing in on him, however, they spread out into a wall of flesh, some twenty feet wide by that much in height—obviously a ploy to restrict Naruto's movements. He hadn't exactly planned on that, but it wasn't surprising. He folded his hands around the sword's hilt and formed the seal for the Kage Bunshin. Instead of cloning himself, though, the sword sprouted copies of itself into the air about him, all bundled together, the tips pointed in the shade's direction. Then, he focused wind chakra around his fist, concentrated, and punched the base of the hilts. The pressure from the wind and the punch themselves sent the swords careening at the shade's very chest.

The look on the shade's face was priceless. Naruto let himself take just a half second to enjoy it before dashing off to the side and away, further out of reach of the tentacles. One of three things would happen: either it would move just out of the way of the incoming swarm of swords, the tentacles already connected to it would move to intercept, or more would sprout to stop the attacking blades. If it moved, then Naruto's glimmer of an idea on why it wasn't moving was wrong, and he had to revise his strategy. If it used what it already had latched , then whatever trap it was trying to spring by faking not being able to use them would be nullified. But if it truly couldn't move or use tentacles already connected to its body, then perhaps there was a surefire tactic that he could use to render them all null and void.

One massively thick column of flesh sprouted from the shade's chest to stop the swords. They sank into it to the hilts, small sprays of fluid misting out from the incisions before they dissipated. A surge of elation rose inside of Naruto. His plan, the one that he needed to succeed, was plausible. He wished that he had more time on his hands to further test it, but there just wasn't enough. He needed to do this fast and now, there weren't any other choices. He slipped a shuriken from his hip pouch, leapt straight up into the air, and threw it in the shade's general direction. "Kage Shuriken no Jutsu!" he bellowed, pouring as much chakra as he could into the technique. Hundreds of shuriken appeared around the original and spread out, peppering the whole area with the deadly steel.

The shade had sprouted another massive tentacle from its other shoulder to absorb the blows and protect its body without missing a beat. It fell forward in front of its body and thunked into the water before it. The flesh quivered and rippled as several dozen shuriken sliced into it; the column remained erect for three or four seconds, then fell flaccid. "You're going to have to do better than these penny-ante tricks!" it shouted at Naruto.

The boy smiled. The universe doesn't often give out straight lines like that, but when it does, you take full advantage of them. He willed into existence one of his father's Hiraishin kunai and silently flicked it over to the other side of the shade from under cover of the blind spot afforded him. It landed some ten or fifteen feet behind the shade, but it didn't seem to notice. Keep talking, just keep talking, he said to himself as he landed with a splash. All eyes on me. He once again willed his katana into his hand and raced directly at the shade, being so kind as to get within its view. Another swarm of tentacles shot at him, but he managed to stay just ahead of them until he retreated and circled back to the shade's twelve o'clock position. He made a show of feigned anger and exasperation as he drew a kunai in his other hand from his bum pouch. "Why don't you just give up?" he shouted at the thing.

"GODS DO NOT GIVE UP!" the monster roared, its voice reverberating all about the room, making the water around it tremble and ripple concentrically.

"Please!" Naruto taunted, forcing humor and condescension into his tone. "You're barely keeping up with me, and you're too chicken shit to face me like a man. You're pathetic, shade, and I'm going to prove it."

The shade bellowed in further rage, and Naruto could actually feel the ground beneath the water shudder with the roar. He wasn't an expert by any means on the metaphysics of the kind of sealing technique his father had placed upon him, but the demon had just released enough wanton power to resonate with the very seal the Kyuubi had been caged in. His stomach plummeted as he realized just how much he had underestimated the shade. If he's got all that power already and he's still drawing more, he thought, then I had better end this quickly, before it gets too out of hand. Naruto took a few precious seconds to scan the state that the shade had put itself in: fleshy tentacles and pillars jutted out from nearly every inch of its body. Once they had been summoned, by Naruto's reckoning, it had only been able to protrude and manipulate the flesh for no more than ten seconds or so, but he had yet to show any evidence of disconnection from them. If its body was acting as a medium between the Kyuubi's seal and the dark realm from whence they came, then it probably couldn't move too far away from its position without losing that connection—that, or the sheer amount of concentration it took to summon them in the first place was too much to allow it to otherwise fight. It also seemed to need to stay stationary to gather its dark energies, probably for much the same reason. I either need to break his concentration, which would require overwhelming force, or forcibly move him from that spot, which would probably call for a bit more effort—effort that I can't afford to expend at the moment.

He allowed a small smile creep across his lips. That, or be exceedingly, deviously clever. Time to put all of my training with Gai to good use.

It had been some two weeks after the three newly-christened Sanseirei had been given body and soul to the tutelage of the Green Beast of Konoha, Maito Gai, and already, Naruto felt like he would much rather have his legs ripped off by a pack of rabid dogs than run another step. Every day with the man was more of the same: running miles that increasingly seemed to stretch longer as they ran, fighting three-on-one spars against him until they were collapsed, bruised and bleeding, in the dust of the training grounds, and doing weight exercises with leg restraints attached to heavy, seal-infused plates strapped to their ankles. Beneath the veneer of audacity and ridiculousness that the man portrayed, he proved to be a merciless taskmaster, pushing all three of his newly-appointed charges to the point of breaking, time and again, only to tell them—and expect them—to soldier on, further on, to exceed his expectations and to rise above their own limitations.

Maito Gai was a monster in the form of a buffoon, simple as that.

Naruto had been held back to train one on one with Gai one evening, after he had sent Sasuke and Hinata back to the barracks. While their taijutsu skills were above Naruto's, their endurance and stamina weren't nearly at the same level. Naruto had brute strength and stamina far and above theirs, a fact that Gai was fully willing to take advantage of. A whole hour after he had been isolated, Gai had made Naruto attack him with everything his body could manage, correcting him, coaching him, and honing his skills without a word, with every casual dodge of his body. Occasionally the man used his forearms to block a strike, or raised a shin to intercept a kick, but beside that, Naruto never made contact with him. Gai never struck him in retaliation, because it wasn't necessary. Naruto was hopelessly outclassed, and both of them knew it.

The sun was about an hour's time from setting, and pangs of hunger stabbed through Naruto's belly as he knelt on the dusty ground. Rivulets of sweat beaded off of his brow to pool below him. His arms quivered in the bare effort to support his weight, his knuckles were cracked, caked with dirty blood, and his left middle fingernail was split down the middle. The effort of breathing was a laborious chore, and Naruto didn't know if he had enough gas in him to go another round.

Maito Gai stood above him, within arm's reach, and glared down at the young Jinchuriki. "Again," he intoned flatly, his usual flare for the dramatic gone from his demeanor. His arms were crossed contemptuously as he loomed, his eyes narrowed dangerously.

Naruto panted as he struggled to collect his breath. "I… I can't…" he panted. "I just… don't… You're too strong, Gai-Sensei." He shook his head wearily. "I… I already did… everything I could."

Gai just stood there without a word. His shadow cast over Naruto like a plague. Somewhere in the distance, a hawk screeched as it shot down to snare a doomed squirrel, or a rabbit, or a mouse. Gai glanced over for a few seconds, then looked down at the boy. "Again," he said once more. "There is no such thing as enough when your life is on the line."

"But… it isn't…" Naruto said. Without warning, Gai scooped him up by the neck of his shirt and raised him, effortlessly, to eye level. Naruto grasped at Gai's hand, trying to break his grip, but there was less chance of that than the poor rodent had against the hawk.

"Should it be?" Gai said, a dangerous glare in his eyes. He cocked his other arm back, and for the first time since he had met the man, Gai struck at Naruto's face.

Naruto reacted on basic primal instinct more than anything else. He tore the shirt in half the instant that Gai had cocked his arm backward, falling to the ground and landed in a three-point stance just as the fist whiffed above his head. He wordlessly flashed through a series of hand seals, thrust one of his closed fists into the earth, and withdrew it in a plume of dirt and debris. A rough semblance of a fist made of stone surrounded Naruto's hand up to the middle of his forearm. He contorted his body, torqued his legs to give him as much leverage as he could muster, then made a short hop and slammed his graveled paw into the older man's face.

Gai's head rocked back.

By about half of an inch.

The stone fist smashed around Gai's head, only marginally more effective than his own bare one. Naruto fell to the ground, to his knees, with a cry of pain, cradling his hand against his belly. He'd heard a loud snap come from his fist as he hit Gai square in the nose, and even through the stone, it was an agonizing impact. His middle and ring fingers, on the knuckles closest to the palm, had snapped cleanly in two.

It is often underestimated just how painful and debilitating a broken hand can feel. About half of all the total bones in the human body are in the hands and feet, and hands are among the most nerve-heavy centers there are. A lance of white-hot pain coursed through Naruto's body as he held his hand against his body, instinctively protecting it from any further damage. Tears fell freely from his eyes as he tried to compose himself, all to no avail. He tried to scream, to cry out, but he just didn't have it in him. He'd given everything he had in that last blow, but all he'd accomplished was mildly annoying the older master.

"This may be a harsh lesson," Gai said tonelessly above his prone body, "but it is a lesson, nonetheless. There is no such thing as 'enough' on the battlefield. There are no enemies that you will ever encounter that will give you a moment to compose yourself and think of a plan. In a fight to the death, the first to strike always has the advantage." He sighed, and shook his head wearily. "Let's get you all patched up, Naruto. Lee!" He called over his shoulder at his young pupil, dressed in clothing completely identical to his own, just scaled down. He had been practicing his forms on a wooden training dummy, but was over by Gai's side within seconds of being summoned. He stood there at attention, his hand raised to his brow in a salute.

"Yes, Gai-Sensei!" he exclaimed.

Gai smiled at his protégé. "Go and find the medic at the barracks, Naruto broke his hand trying to punch me out."

Lee looked down at Naruto with obvious compassion and empathy. "I am truly sorry you broke your fist on Gai-Sensei's face, Naruto-kun!" he said before dashing off, a wake of dust and gravel following in his footsteps.

Gai stood there for a moment, then knelt down beside the boy. "Are you okay?" he said after a few seconds, a note of obvious concern in his tone.

Naruto tried to snap back at him, but all that came out was a pathetic little wheezing hiss. Gai sighed, and gently guided Naruto to sit up. "Open your eyes," he told the boy. Naruto did so, blinking the tears away as Gai held one of his eyelids open and stared into his pupil intently. "You're not going into shock," he explained. "Your body is trying to process this pain right now, but it doesn't have anything to base it on. It doesn't know how to cope with it. You have relied so long on the power of the Kyuubi to bolster your body that it isn't as strong as it should be on its own. This is vitally important for you to know, so pay attention to it. One day, you're going to hurt far, far more than this, and you'll need to know how to deal with it. There are certain techniques for pain management that have nothing to do with drugs or medical jutsu that can help you in the future, but they'll do you no good right now. Pain is the ultimate distraction, after all. My job is to help you overcome those distractions. I've a lifetime of ignoring my body's protests, and if you'll let me, I can teach you."

Naruto began gently rocking back and forth over his broken hand, wincing, but nodding. "Y-Yeah," he said brokenly.

Gai nodded back at him. "Fine." He sat across from Naruto and crossed his legs. "Lesson one." He took Naruto's mangled hand gently into his own and sandwiched it between his other, totally engulfing the boy's. "You will get hurt. Eventually, you will find yourself fighting somebody who is superior to you in every way, someone that you have absolutely no chance of defeating. They will break your body, if not your spirit. They will snap every bone in your body, tear the flesh from your bone, and render you a bloody corpse. The retirement rate of shinobi, worldwide, is less than ten percent. Understand this, and know it for a fact: over nine out of ten people that you know will be killed at the hand of another. This is an inescapable, certain truth. Your friends, your family, your enemies, your lovers, they all have this shadow hanging over them, whether they acknowledge it or not, and there is no running from it. There has only ever been one jinchuriki to my knowledge to survive to retirement, and from what I understand, she had given up the shinobi lifestyle soon after the bijuu was entombed within her." He held Naruto's hand for a long moment and let that sink in. "Uzumaki, you come from a long line of strong men and women, and there is every chance that you will live for a long, long time. I have heard of some Uzumaki shinobi in the distant past who have lived to be a hundred and forty or fifty years, and still be battle capable to their dying day. But those rare few are few and far between, and they are the exception to the rule. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Naruto thought about it for a moment, trying to push the pain away long enough to process the information. "You're saying… it's hopeless?"

Gai shook his head emphatically. "No!" he said. "Not even close!"

"Then what?" Naruto snarled. "What's the p-point of this?"

Gai smiled, and gently squeezed Naruto's hand between his own. "I'm trying to give you hope," he said. "Though the odds are slim and long, there is a chance. Everyone dies, Naruto. Everyone. Whether by violence, or disease, or even happenstance, the end comes for us all. In the eyes of the Shinigami, we are all the same. Our actions are fleeting, and our legacies are but stopgaps in history. We may be remembered for some time for our deeds, but one day, there will be nobody left to remember our names, that's just how it is."

"But what's the point?" Naruto repeated, a little venom in his question.

"Lesson two," Gai intoned, increasing the pressure on the boy's hand. Naruto winced as the pain steadily increased. "Accept the pain. Accept that it will be a constant companion. Accept that it will come to you, again and again, without warning, without compassion, without empathy. Accept that, for the rest of your life, you will see your friends and loved ones drop around you, as you will one day. Accept that you will never be able to run from it. Accept that the pain will always be one step behind you, waiting for you to fail, to fall, and know, in your deepest heart, that it lurks in your shadow. There are many different kinds of pain, Uzumaki: pain of the soul, when all seems lost. Pain of the heart, when it seems as if the world has lost all color and meaning. Pain of the mind, when circumstances are against you, and you have no other thought but to escape. But know that the most temporary, and the least, of all of these pains, is the pain of the body. The heart, the mind, and the soul, these are all incorporeal things, and when hurt, not so easily mended. But the body can be fixed, and sometimes, it can learn from the pain, and become far greater than it was before. Pain, you'll learn one day, can be a great teacher, and your greatest asset."

That physical pain in his hand was all that Naruto was concerned with. "W-what about the third lesson?" he said.

Gai smiled briefly. "Lesson three," he said. "Use the pain. After all, what has this hand taught you today?"

Naruto grimaced. "Not to punch you in the nose," he said.

"Exactly right!" Gai said.

Naruto blinked at him in sudden surprise. "What?"

"The face isn't always the best target for a blow," Gai explained. "It's a relatively small target, and in a fight, someone with presence of mind can keep their head in motion. Humans instinctively protect three areas of the body more than any other: the solar plexus, the groin, and the area around the head. All three have complex nerve bundles in them, and the head is inherently fragile. A well-placed strike to either can incapacitate or kill, in extreme circumstances, but a blow to the gut is the easiest strike to get in.

"With every pain you experience, you learn something new. You learn what your boundaries and limits are. You learn how to handle the loss of a loved one. You learn to handle betrayal, or fear, or even love." He glanced over at the setting sun wistfully. "Especially love." He shook his head, and after a moment, continued. "You never know how you will handle a pain until you experience it. Today, you learned that two broken knuckles would cause you to fall to the ground and cry." Naruto glowered at him, but didn't anything. "Next time you break your hand, you'll know how to manage the pain. I will teach you how. Part of my job with you three is to make sure that you have the fortitude to push past the pains of the body and to rise above it."

Behind Naruto, Gai could see the medic on duty following Lee back to the pair. "How will I know if I can handle the pain when it comes?" Naruto all but whispered to his current sensei.

Gai smiled at him. "That's something that you'll have to figure out for yourself," he said. "Nobody can tell you that. There are as many different kinds of shinobi as leaves on a tree, or so the saying goes. Whether you will be strong enough when the time comes is something that only you can decide. But I have faith in you, Uzumaki. You come from a long line of warriors. Your father…" He caught himself before he said something that he knew wasn't his to say.

Naruto wouldn't let it go, not by a long shot. "You knew my father?" he said rapidly.

Gai winced. "I… yeah, I did. We all did."

"Who was he?" Naruto pressed. "Tell me about him! Everybody tells me that my parents died in the Kyuubi attack all those years ago, but I've never gotten any details! Do I have any living relatives? What clan was he from?" Realization dawned in his eyes. "If you knew my father, then you must have known my mother, too!"

Gai looked at Naruto with guilt, and regret. "I did," he said. "But I cannot tell you. That isn't my place. One day, you'll learn their identities, but not until the time is right. Not until you need to know."

"Bull shit!" Naruto barked. "I deserve to know!"

Gai nodded slowly. "Yes," he agreed, "you do. But there are… certain mitigating reasons why I cannot tell you who your parents were."

"But I need to know!"

The older man smiled sadly, then gently placed a hand on Naruto's head. "That," he said softly, "is the pain of the heart." He stood from his spot in one smooth motion as the medic arrived at Naruto's side.

Naruto's hand ached like hell, but the bones were mended. He'd been warned not to strike anything with his hand, or to even lift anything too heavy. He had always been a fast healer, so to have these arbitrary rules on him did not sit well with the boy.

Instead… he prepared for war. First, he spent the better part of two hours resting, gathering his strength after a hearty meal in the ANBU mess hall. Sometime after that, he sharpened his sword into a keen edge, sharper than it had ever been, razor-wicked. With every pass of the stone, he imagined a swing of the blade. He focused all of his will into perfecting the edge of the sword, into turning it into the ultimate weapon. He gave it all of the focus and attention he could, pouring his soul into it, willing it to strike true in his mind. He uttered the name of the man he intended for it, over and over again, even as he oiled the blade and cleaned it thoroughly.

He spent time on his other paraphernalia, too, taking the time to sharpen his kunai, though they and his shuriken had been purchased with a razor's edge. It was more of a meditative exercise than one of practicality, but he wanted his focus to be on one and only one goal.

At a little past midnight, when the crescent moon was nearing its zenith, and cloud cover made the already-scant moonlight that much more scarce, Naruto opened his window and soundlessly fell to the ground below. It was a testament to his subversive skills that none of the four ANBU on guard within a hundred yards of him noticed his presence, much less intercepted him as he clung to the shadows and made his way to the spot he knew where he would find his prey.

Training ground number thirteen was a wide, open field, roughly circular, and several hundred yards in diameter. Located on the western outskirts of the village, it was isolated and solitary. Here and there stood large boulders, some as high as thirty or forty feet from the ground, alien to the area, and summoned with strong earth techniques. Naruto knew that Rock Lee, Gai's star pupil, had spent untold hours pounding those boulders with his bare fists to hone them into deadly weapons, just as Gai himself had trained his own body in his youth.

Naruto had seen firsthand just how dangerous those fists could be. On the first day of their training, Gai had demonstrated his strength to the Sanseirei by smashing a stone of comparable size. With one solitary blow, without the use of any ninjutsu, he had reduced the boulder into rubble, leaving no one fragment that much larger than Naruto's head. That was one reason that Gai had never struck out at any of them during their spars over the weeks—had he lost control, even for a second, he could kill them, with less thought than anyone else would step on an ant. True, he would be beside himself with sorrow and self- flagellation, but the fact remained that none of them could even compare to the veteran Jounin.

Using those boulders, when Gai's eyes were pointed in the opposite direction, Naruto slipped ever-closer to the man. He called upon every lesson in stealth that he'd ever learned. Gai himself was making no noise of his own, seemingly intently focused on perfecting his movements, committing them to his muscle memory, taking far more care with his motion than an artist with his brush. Naruto timed his dashes with the man's exhalations, using every advantage he could get his hands on, and moved only when he was reasonably sure that he wouldn't be detected.

It took Naruto nearly twenty minutes to close the distance. From one boulder to the next, side to side, and occasionally advancing in the opposite direction, he made his gradual way there. Gai never moved more than ten or fifteen feet from his original position. Naruto, however, eventually snuck up to within spitting distance of his spot. Almost there… he thought ominously as he peered around the boulder. Just a little bit closer… Naruto slipped his mask on, a blank ANBU in the rough shape of a dog, given to him by Izumi Honoka, and secured it to his face. One way or another, he didn't want Gai to know who his assailant was, not until the deed was done.

He looked away and counted his breaths, slowed them down, trying to calm his racing heart. He was sure that Gai could hear his blood thumping in his veins as he prepared to attack, he was sure of it. Steady, steady… He swallowed. Steady… He heard Gai take a step, then, another, then another, the sound getting slowly closer. The man's sedate pacing was a torture to the young Genin, but he held his position firm. One more step… Just one, that's all I'm asking you, work with me here…


Naruto took a chance and peered around the boulder once more. Gai was close enough at this point, and was facing the other way, at the setting moon. Now.

Naruto leapt into the air, straight up, as soundlessly as he knew possible. Without a word, he clasped his hands together in his signature Kage Bunshin seal, and a mass of them, some twenty or thirty, of them, appeared in the air above him in a strange, semi-circle formation. They linked hands, and Naruto, moving somewhat faster than the rest, hit the one closest to the middle with his back to its chest. The impact and his momentum made the half circle collapse on itself, with all of the clones coming together in a strange, aerial pillar formation. Without a signal, they matched each other, foot to foot, and pushed hard against each other, starting from the bottom on up, until Naruto was launched with blinding speed in at the man and ground below. He unsheathed his sword from his back at the last possible instant, aiming for the crook of Gai's shoulder, neck, and head—the ideal spot to aim any katana.

Except… he struck nothing but air. Gai disappeared, and Naruto hit the ground, hard, absorbing the shock of the impact with his hands, a foot, and a knee, landing with a clumsy stance. He sprang to his feet and looked up just in time to see Gai about twenty feet away, his right arm cocked back behind him. Without a single word of his own, Gai thrust his hand forward, and Naruto felt, more than heard, the rushing of compressed air blossom from his fist.

Now, Naruto had taken some hard hits in his young life, and had lived through them all. Training with Kakashi, after all, was no joke, and had been put through the ringer with the silver-haired copy cat. Sasuke and Hinata, too, were formidable opponents, especially Sasuke, when none of them were permitted to use any of their signature nin- or doujutsu. Perhaps Hinata was physically weaker than either of them, but she was more precise, and her intricate knowledge of human anatomy was of invaluable use when taking on the boys. Due to Naruto's lack of skill as compared to any of the three, he had taken the most punishment of the Sanseirei, and was as of yet unused to the healing process.

But nothing, absolutely nothing that any of them had done to him could compare to this one strike.

The ground before Gai's punch blossomed and plumed, as if he was punching all of the earth and air around him at once. Naruto had just enough time to see the condensed air rippling outward, a shockwave that could be more accurately defined as an explosion, crackling toward him. He lost sight of the radius of dismay out of his peripheral vision as the smallest fraction of the impact slammed into him, the whole front of his body absorbing the blow, and the slightest fraction of a second later, his back was thrown into the boulder behind him. He'd had just enough time to reinforce his body with chakra, so instead of winding up as a greasy smear on the rock, over half of him had become embedded into it, his arms splayed out, his legs somehow more or less together. His vision swam as he felt his body break against the stone, and he got the feeling that several major bones had become fractured or broken, perhaps beyond all repair, not to mention the massive amount of damage that his internal organs had sustained.

He'd been crucified in the rock.

He'd expected a follow-up attack, but none came forth. He realized, drunkenly, that his mask had cracked nearly in half. The portion with his eyes remained, and a small sliver of his right side clung to his face, but everything else from the nose down had turned to chips and dust. He felt blood dribble down his face and out of his mouth to trickle down his chin and cheeks, and he coughed it out even as he heard footsteps come his way. He had no power to resist; without the aid of the Kyuubi, he would die there, and even with it, he had no hope of defeating the man, not with the skills and experience he could draw on.

Just… as… planned, he thought.

He felt Gai remove the mask from his face, and though his eyes were bruised, and his left one refused to open, he could see the look of shock and fear on his face. He reveled in that expression, just for a moment, before Gai dug into a pouch on his hip, threw an activated paper bomb into the air with a kunai attached to it, and shouted at the top of his lungs into the sky, "MEEDIIIIIIIIICCCCCC!" The bomb exploded with a wash of emerald light, a signal given to those who trained and had injured who couldn't be moved for fear of their life. As Naruto slipped into a black abyss, he gave the old man a broken grin. "I… I…" he said, unable to articulate his words through the pain.

A tear fell from Gai's eye as he leaned in closer to Naruto. "What?" he said in a hushed whisper. "Blood of the gods, Naruto, what is going on? Why did you do this?"

Naruto's smile grew wider, and just before he passed out, he said, softly, though as loudly as he could manage, "I… almost… had… you…"

Naruto woke up the next day, bandaged and hurting, but alive. Medical electrodes were attached to him at various points of his body, and he felt an oxygen mask over his face. The bright fluorescent shine of hospital lights stung his eyes as they opened, and he groaned as the dull pain of the previous night's escapades came rushing back to him.

He looked to his side to see Hinata, Sasuke, and, to his surprise, Gai beside him. Hinata's eyes were clouded with fear, and though Sasuke tried to put a façade of stoicism on, Naruto knew him too well to let himself be fooled. They were both worried for him, and rightly so. He was in the fucking hospital, after all.

Only Gai was impassive. He stood in the corner, his eyes closed, his mouth set in a thin, hard line. The other Sanseirei made noises of surprise and concern upon Naruto's wakening, and Gai gave them time to express their thoughts, but after a few moments, he put a stop to that. "That's enough, you two," he said to the children. "Leave. He and I need to talk for a while." He gave them a hard look, and with particular emphasis on the word, he added, "alone."

Hinata and Sasuke looked like they were about to protest, but Naruto gave a shaky laugh. "It's okay, guys," he said. "I'll be fine in no time. Give us a little bit, okay?"

"But—" Hinata said, taking Naruto's hand into hers, squeezing it, but Naruto cut her off.

"Go," he insisted weakly. "I'll be fine. Come back when he's done with me."

Hinata looked as if she was going to ignore him, but looked at their taijutsu sensei, and nodded, her eyes still clouded with doubt. "Okay," she said at last, then let Naruto's fingers slip from hers as she backed away. She passed Sasuke, standing by the door, who put a hand to her shoulder to help guide her out.

Gai walked to the door and closed it, and Naruto heard a soft click as the lock latched in place. He felt a thrill of fear for his safety as the man stood there, unmoving, for several long moments. Finally, after Naruto had been given ample time to ponder his fate, Gai turned around to look at Naruto.

Heavy tears streamed down his cheeks. "Why?" he whispered. "Why, Naruto? Why did you do this?"

Naruto inhaled, suddenly all wracked with guilt. He had wanted to make an impression on the Jounin, but this was more than he had bargained for. It hurt to breathe, and hurt even more to speak, but he did both. "I almost had you," he said, repeating his final words from the night before. "I was three inches from beating you. If you hadn't of moved when you did, I would have beaten you."

Gai's eyes widened with confusion and anger, adding to the guilt already there. "But why?" he said again.

Naruto coughed, loudly and painfully. He took a moment to recover from the fit, then answered the man. "Because… I wanted to know… if I could handle the pain."

Gai's eyes widened even further as he understood the boy's words. "You… No, you couldn't have. No."

Naruto grinned to himself. "I did," he said. "You… you think I'm weak. You think… that I can't handle it." He coughed again, and winced. Gods, did he hurt. "But you didn't hold back last night. You used that technique you told me about, the Lotus. That was a killing strike. You had no intention t-to let me survive. Y-you tried to kill me."

The man shook his head in confusion and fear. "This doesn't make any sense," he said. "I could have killed you!"

"T-that's the idea," Naruto said. "I… I had to know."

Gai inhaled sharply. "Know what?"

Naruto looked up at the unfamiliar ceiling. "I had to know the pain," he said. "The pain of an attack meant to kill. Very few have tried to actually kill me before, and n-none of them had it in them to do it. I needed to know the pain, the true pain, of being near death."

"To what point?"

Naruto's cocky grin slipped. "It's like you said, Gai-Sensei," he said. "One day, I'm going to fight somebody out of my weight class, someone who'll have no mercy on me. He or she will have my number, and I'll be hopelessly outmatched. I'll be killed before I reach old age, there's no going around that." He closed his eyes and sighed. "And… before they do, it's going to hurt. A lot. I'll put up a fight, but it's gonna hurt. I'll bleed. Hell, I'll break. Someday, I might get captured, or tortured, or both. I'll be… compromised. I'll fail. They'll do everything in their power to hurt me, and maybe get to those I love through me." Before he realized it, he began to cry his own honest tears. "Without the Kyuubi, I'm a mediocre shinobi at best, Gai-Sensei," he said. It cost him a lot to say those words, more than he would admit. "There's no point in denying it, okay? I don't have the skills of Hinata or Sasuke, and with the Kyuubi's chakra locked away, my own isn't much more impressive than theirs, once you take the waste into consideration. I'm sloppy, I'm impulsive, and I… I…" He sobbed into his mask. "And I'm afraid that I'll get them hurt one day because I'm not good enough!" His tears began to flow more freely down his cheeks to pool on the pillow and sheets. "I'm going to die out there, and there's every chance that the only thing that stands between everyone I love and them is whether I'll break from the pain. And do you know what?"

Gai looked at him wordlessly. He didn't need to prompt the rhetorical question. "I'm going to remember last night," Naruto said, a little more calmly. "I'm going to remember that I took a punch from the strongest man in the world. I'm going to remember that I survived it, and went on to be all the stronger for it. I'm going to remember every shred muscle, every pulverized bone, every shot nerve, and every bleeding orifice. I'm going to remember that you intended to kill me, and I'm going to use that memory. I'm going to think, 'This is nothing compared to that, bring it on, you can't hurt me, because I know what pain really is, and this is absolutely nothing compared to that.' Gai-Sensei, maybe you can't teach me to handle the pains of the heart, or mind, or soul, but that isn't your job. You need to teach me to deal with the pains of the body, to soldier on and rise above it. You need to teach me to fight, and maybe even die with honor. But… I'm not going to go down that easy."

Gai rubbed at his eyes in a vain attempt to wipe the tears away. "But why would you risk your life like so?" he said. "You still have all of your youth before you!"

Naruto laughed through his own sobs. "Because I'm young and stupid," he said, "because I'm so weak, that I would even think of a stupid, stupid plan like this. Because I don't have the strength to take the lesser path, and because I'm afraid of being weak. There are some things that you can't teach me, Gai-Sensei, and there are some things that only you can teach me. And even if it takes a lifetime, even if my weak body isn't ready now, there's one thing in particular that only you can teach me."

Gai's eyes locked on Naruto's in understanding. "No," he whispered. "That's too much! You ask too much of me, Naruto-kun!"

Naruto nodded. "I know I do," he said. "But I'm asking anyway, because I need the power. I don't know if I'll always be able to use the power inside me, and I need a trump card. I need… Listen, I know it's a risk, and I know it could destroy me, but…" He steadied his breathing, and as persuasively as he could, he said, "Gai-Sensei, I need you to teach me the Lotus technique."

Gai stared at him in shock. "You have no idea what you're asking," he said in a hushed, almost reverent tone. "Even opening the first of the gates is a risk. If I teach you to do this, without even a year's worth of physical conditioning, you have more than half a chance of dying in the first few seconds. My own master nearly died the first time he used it, as did I, and as far as I know, I'm the only one in history who has opened as many as six. Uzumaki, if I teach you this technique, it would be tantamount to a death sentence. And I… I would bear the burden of your death."

Naruto shook his head. "No," he said. "I know full well that I can't do it yet. But I need the theory. I need you to explain, step by step, how to unlock the gates, so that I can use my full potential. With you and Lee, it's not that big a deal, because your bodies are nearly perfect. But for me, even in the best case scenario, I wouldn't dream of using it unless everything was on the line. If you could just give me the ability and knowledge, and leave the decision whether to use it up to me, that would absolve you of any guilt, justified or otherwise."

The pained look on Gai's face nearly broke Naruto's heart, but he somehow managed to keep something like an even expression. He could see the older man's eyes darting about as he realized exactly what Naruto was trying to get himself into, calculating probabilities and possible futures. "It doesn't work like that," Gai whispered, almost to himself. "You can't just ask me this and… And not…" He closed his eyes and shuddered. "Naruto, answer me this: What is your nindo?"

Naruto frowned. "I really don't have one," he said.

Gai bobbed his head a few degrees. "I do. It was passed down to me by my sensei, and his on before. 'A student and his master are one', he taught me. A teacher doesn't just impart information, he gives values and wisdom. Naruto, if you ask me again to teach the Lotus to you, I will. But make no mistake, I will bear the responsibility for your use of it."

"Teach me the Lotus," Naruto repeated instantly, his eyes locked with Gai's.

Gai turned away and glared at the wall. He stood there, motionless, for far too long. Minutes went by as he weighed the decision in his head, and tried to rationalize each side of it. The Lotus was a forbidden technique, and for good reason. Every time it was used, it destroyed the human body, bit by bit. Some shinobi could use it for longer than others. Some could go several years while relying on it, even. But eventually, they would all break, every body would fall apart, and… and they all died. That was the curse of the Lotus: none who used such a technique survived for too long, though most thought the reward outweighed the risk.

He exhaled, slowly, finally, and turned back to face his charge. "I understand what you are saying," he said slowly. "And I understand your reasoning. Everything you say is true. You're… strong, in every way that matters, but a mediocre fighter. If I give you the knowledge to use the Lotus, if I curse you with it, you must swear on your mother's blood that unless it's absolutely necessary, and only if the lives of those who matter more to you than your own flesh and bones are on the line, then and only then will I teach you."

"I swear," Naruto said without a second thought.

Gai nodded. "So done. We begin when you recover."

Though his tears still fell, Naruto felt all of the tension in his body release. He collapsed into proverbial jelly, and smiled. "Thanks, Gai-Sensei. You won't regret it."

The Green Beast rubbed at his eyes. "I already do," he muttered. He sighed. "After the dressing down I got from the Hokage…" He shot a frightened look at Naruto. "Listen," he said quickly. "I didn't want to say anything to get either of us in trouble before I had a chance to talk to you, so if anyone asks, I had assigned you a stealth training mission from the beginning, and tasked you to try to sneak up on me when I wasn't expecting it, and I overreacted."

Naruto looked at him with both surprise and amusement, then glanced down at his bandaged, broken body. "Over… reacted?"

Gai nodded. "I was panicking, and it was the first thing that came to mind. Can you run with that story?"

Naruto laughed. "Yeah, I think so," he said. "Do you think that he bought it?"

"Er…" Gai hedged. His eyes darted left and right, as if the old man was hiding in one of the corners, or even behind the flowerpot. "I don't think so. It's harder than you'd think to lie to the Hokage."

"Then why would he—"

"He owes me a favor that I'd rather not talk about," Gai interrupted. "Let's just say that it's big enough to collect on this matter, and leave it at that."

Naruto laughed, causing a sharp jolt of pain to course through his body. He then hissed, embraced the pain, and forced it down. "Um, Gai-Sensei?"


Naruto tried to hold back a smile as he said, "My foot kinda itches. Help me out, here?"

Naruto shook his head as the memory abruptly ended. He'd been forced to swear that he wouldn't use this technique unless and until his own life was on the line and everything he believed in relied upon it, but he truly thought that this was the only way left for him. More than anything else, he needed power and speed, and if it was at the cost of his own life, so be it. He couldn't afford to let this monster run free in the outside world in his body, with his face. It couldn't be allowed.

Kyuubi, he thought.

Yes? the fox replied. Naruto started; he hadn't realized that he could read his mind still within the seal.

If I fall, if I fail, don't let this thing go free.

Naruto could feel the hesitance from the fox as he kept his eyes on the shade. You want me to destroy your body, he said flatly.

Yes. Can you, if you had to?


Naruto breathed a sigh of relief, even as the shade's aura darkened. It had become almost translucent, but second by second, it was growing more stagnant and putrid. Thank you. For everything. You've been—

Shut up and fight! the Kyuubi snapped. You don't have time to chitchat like this! It may not look it, but I'm doing everything I can to retard his power in here! His—it's like natural chakra, chakra you get from entering a sage mode, like your father's sensei can achieve, but it's a perverted version. If you don't strike soon, he'll gain enough of it to overwhelm you!

Naruto felt his stomach drop; he'd heard of natural chakra before, but had no idea that the shade could summon it. He steadied his breathing, nodded, and said to his bijuu, I understand. Without further pause, he roared a cry of challenge at the shade, gathered up his will and fortified his body with all of the chakra he could muster, and dashed straight at the abomination.

For a half second, the waters on the floor all flew away, like the space around him was a point of low tide on a beach. The Kyuubi's chakra, so potent and undiluted, made a shroud around him in the shape of the fox's skull. It's maw opened wide, and Naruto willed it to solidify. Even as the flesh tentacles surrounded the construct, he focused his will on the teeth and jaws, crunching down and ripping everything before him asunder. At the same time, his hands flickered through the motions of the necessary jutsu, and with a defiant bellow, barked out, "Shinkirou Enmu no Jutsu!"

Instead of focusing the jutsu in his hand, as he had been properly taught, he let it ring out through his body, though he gave the technique a proportional amount of chakra to let it resonate with the flesh all around. In a pure effort of desire, he shifted the jutsu from his own body to the solidified form of the Kyuubi's skull, and only for an instant, he saw everything within its bite twist, as if being wrung by a vice.

The air was then replaced by a fine mist of red and ichor, the blood and body of the tendrils rent and vaporized by the assassin's skill. The young shinobi had just enough time to see the shock and panic in the shade's eyes as he closed the distance, and got within inches before it raised its arms, now free of any other restraints, and sent a cascade of fleshy appendages from the entire front surface of its body, save for its face. The shade's darkly mirrored eyes, so very like Naruto's own, widened with victory as it trapped the boy within its vile grasp—

Until Naruto focused on the Hiraishin-tagged kunai on the other side of the creature and teleported to it.

The shade realized only too late what had happened. It had used up enough energy in that one attack so that he could guarantee victory, but had not planned a contingency. It couldn't detach the dead flesh from its frame swiftly enough to turn and face Naruto as he darted at its back. It felt a horror it didn't know possible, but there was little to do but turn a defense into an offense. Nice try, it thought grimly, as its back, neck, and thighs erupted into a similar swarm. But not enough.

There was no impact as the shade's tentacles shot out, and again, the second time in as many breaths, the shade realized what had happened. A ploy! It looked left and right, but no incoming attack was obvious. Lastly, it looked upward at the cage's ceiling… and the bottom of its gut just about hit the ground.

There, thirty or forty feet above its head, a gigantic sphere of Uzumaki clones were massed haphazardly. It was at least twenty feet in diameter, encompassed by clone upon clone gripping desperately to the layer beneath, and so on toward the middle. Crouching upon the bottom, upside down, and peering straight into the shade's eyes, was the original, the first, and the greatest of them all. There was no mercy in his eyes, only a dark determination, as chakra continued to build up inside of his body, quickly focusing on the right side of his brain. The shade could sense this, here, in the center of all of the boy's and fox's power, and it was then that it knew that the fight was all but over.

The shade struggled to gather more power from the dark hell he'd stolen all the rest from, enough in time at least to mount a defense against the boy, but there was no more of it to be had. It felt, more than heard, the concussive explosion above it as Uzumaki Naruto unlocked the first of the Eight Celestial Gates.

Naruto shot at the floor faster than the speed of sound, and some small fraction of a second before he hit, he twisted his body and slammed the heel of one foot against the side of the shade's head. It went parallel to the ground, leaving that one spot for the first time in the entire fight, and flew into the darkness beside the wall. Naruto wasn't done, though, and dashed just after it and below, and just before its head hit the wall, smashed the shade's gut with a striking knee. What little of the tentacles that had remained on its body flew off into the void as it ascended, but it didn't go far: Naruto blurred and appeared above it on the wall near the sewer's ceiling, cocked back his arm, and launched himself at the thing's back. Four clones appeared around him, moving only slightly faster than their originator, and were able to grab it by the wrists and feet. They slammed it downward to the floor, where it landed face-first, a crater over a dozen feet wide appearing around its prone body.

The rubble and water had just flown into the air as the original Naruto drove a fist into the small of the shade's back with all of the force of momentum, his body, his will to win, and wrath he could muster. His fist struck straight through the shade's spine, separating it with loud pops as its vertebrae dislocated from one another. As his hands plunged through its chest, snapping on through under the ribs, bits of bone and a fountain of blood spurted forward and down; much of the energy of the blow got transferred to the floor of the crater, and it deepened and widened even further, shooting more rubble and dust into the air. He didn't remove his arm from the guts of the shade, so much as flung it bodily from the crater toward the cage, and climbed drunkenly up the slope, then fell to his knees.

Naruto ached all over. It seemed that two or three seconds of the Lotus was all that his body could sustain. The amount of chakra he'd poured through his body, he knew, would cripple him, but Gai had warned him that the forbidden taijutsu would probably be the last thing that he ever consciously did.

But it wasn't the worst pain he'd ever felt, and that was all that mattered. He could function on adrenalin for another moment or so, even if that was all he had left in the world.

He forced himself to his feet, and on shaky, unsteady legs, stumbled away from the crater his alter-ego had made. His vision swam, and he listed to one side as he walked, but he somehow managed to return to the Kyuubi's cage and stood over the half-devastated corpse of the creature that had tried to coopt his soul.

Its eyes were still open, its tongue and lips still twitching. Naruto realized with disgusting fascination that it wasn't dead, not really, only robbed of its power. From where its intestines should have been, a long, ugly worm the thickness of a python slithered drunkenly out of the torso. It was a shade of black found on long-putrid cadavers, and had no face to speak of, and stank of offal and feces. The worm didn't look like it came from any reality that Naruto wanted to be a part of; it reeked of malevolence and decay, and just the sight of the thing made him want to heave. He raised a rapidly-swelling ankle to the air to smash it, but before he could, he felt the massive hand of the Kyuubi's human form on his shoulder.

"No," the fox said. "Not yet."

The simple weight of the hand was enough to knock Naruto off-balance. He fell to the side even as his head swam, but he was caught in the Kyuubi's arms. "Naruto!" he said, a real note of panic in his voice. He knelt down and let the boy lean against his thigh. "Boy, you're not done yet!"

It hurt to smile, but Naruto did it anyway. "It… Is…" Naruto said weakly. Blood trickled from his mouth, and he coughed, spraying Kyuubi's face with flecks of red. The fox didn't flinch one bit, only frowned more deeply. "It… dead?"

Kyuubi closed his eyes and bit his lips. "No," he said shortly. "As vile and abhorrent as it is, you can't kill it. I could, if I wanted to, but that… Listen, Naruto. The shade, or what it was before it rebelled, was a part of you. A reflection of your soul. It was… it was your 'darkness' inside of you. I could have killed it, but in doing so, you would have died. Do you understand?"

"You… could have…

beaten…" Naruto's face contorted with pain as he was overcome by a bout of coughs and wheezes. Kyuubi felt his nonexistent heart pulse rapidly, but there wasn't anything that he could do. He had hoped, prayed, that his charge could defeat his evil half without sacrificing himself, but even with the donation of his chakra and the skills that he had learned over the years, it seemed that this was inevitable.

"I could have," Kyuubi whispered. "Yeah. But I would have killed you, too."

Naruto smiled up at the fox. He knew what it meant for the both of them that he had put his faith in the boy. "St—st—stupid bastard," he sighed. "C-Coward. Should have d-done it when you had the ch-chance."

Even as tears began to fall from his eyes, Kyuubi smiled. "Yeah. No way anything that came from you would have beaten me, anyway."

Naruto's lips twisted. "B-Bastard. You and m-me, any time. I'll t-take you on right now."

Despite the situation, Kyuubi laughed at the kid. "Next time," he said. "When you're all fixed up, I'll give you the fight of your life."

"N-next time," Naruto agreed. The air began to feel colder to Kyuubi. He knew of the concept of "sorrow" and "remorse" and "guilt", but he couldn't remember feeling this way, not since he was very, very young. He knew that he had strong feelings toward the boy, but never before did he think that he would miss him. He never thought that…

Naruto's body went limp against his thighs, and a rattle of escaping breath gurgled from his lungs.

Kyuubi blinked. Once, twice, thrice. Naruto was dead. Again.

The air was cold. And so was he.

A/N: Sorry if this ended on a sour note. I just couldn't think of a proper way to end it, and I think I let myself down here. If I think of something, I'll come back and fix it. If anybody has any suggestions, I'd love to hear it. I honestly think I'm tapped out on creativity at this point. I seriously think my writing days are almost done.

I'm not trying to elicit any pity or whatever, I just don't feel the motivation to write these days that I did back when I was just beginning. The... The spark just isn't there anymore. I'm trying to get my head on straight, but it's really, really hard.

Anyway... That's it, for now. Until next time.

Listen to your parents. Brush your teeth. Don't talk to strangers. And most of all, keep calm and carry on.

~dead witch.