Disclaimer: I get to mutilate everything Kishimoto has ever written, since I don't get even a square dime from this.
Written for: Kraken's Ghost 3rd Fanfiction Contest
Crossovering: God of War & Naruto
AU after: Jiraya's death. None of the canonical events following that ever happens.
Readers should: Read, enjoy, and review.
"The Gods themselves have abandoned me… Now there is no hope."
The urban landscape seemed to spread endlessly in front of Him. Far away, surrounded by the deep seas, He could see the -once- proud avatar of Justice and Freedom stare at the remains of her ruined city. The buildings attempting to scrape the sky had no order in the way they rose up from the ground. It was a majestic sight, to say the least, despite the mists that seemed to drown the city in a massive, unbearable vastness.
The shrouded man was in an office of the Old Days, perfectly persevered despite the countless years that coursed through it and the objects it carried. He was gazing out of the windowpane with a pair of strangely orange eyes that seemed like two endless pools of burning magma. His eyes had no iris or sclera and resembled nothing even remotely human.
He waited… and watched.
The mists that drowned the city -His city- almost slammed in their caress against the large window he watched from. A smirk graced His lips; they were eager for what was about to happen… and why wouldn't they?
It was time.
He allowed His gaze to transcend away from the Broken Lands that was His new lair and away, into the land of the Shinobi; and from there, into the Country of Fire. His eyes were all seeing and He was all knowing. After all, He had seen and known the edge of reality itself; nothing was strange anymore.
He gazed at enemies of past and future both. His eyes revealed to Him what others would do and what others would not.
A woman was nurturing her son to sleep. Raven black hair cascaded around her face, and a stray lock was obscuring her naturally crimson eyes from enjoying her son's visage. Her song was beautiful and nostalgic, her voice angelic. In her white dress, she was a sight to behold.
His focus changed.
A rowdy man possessing a face of tattooed fangs made strange grimaces to the woman of his interest in an effort to woo her. She was giggling softly at his antics and begging him to stop. A sharp cough of hers made him stop as he rushed to her aide and carefully patted her on the back. Her coughing fit stopped, and she looked at him with her unique white eyes, eyes that radiated gratitude. He smiled with the insipid emotion of love.
His focus changed.
A petite librarian with short, black hair hummed as she arranged some precious medical scrolls alphabetically, as per request. She was dressed in blue, flowing robes that did nothing but conceal her femininity. A small pig seemed to follow her around in her chores.
His focus changed.
Two step-brothers fought for the pride of receiving a smile from their teacher. One was lively and brash, while the other was the incarnation of silence and professionalism. Powerful fists displaced the air in an effort to make the fight cease, and chakra flared in such volume that it was visible to the naked eye; and yet, despite the deadliness of the situation, they were both grinning happily.
His gaze fell elsewhere.
A silver-haired man stared at a hollow grave with agony in his sole visible eye. He was ignoring the heavy rain falling on him and soaking its clothes in an obvious preference to keep on mourning. He did not speak monologues, like others would do in such a position, but rather kept on staring, emptying his head of earthly matters.
Pausing in indecision, He turned to look somewhere else.
A young woman tossed and turned in her sleep. Her naked form had discarded her sheets off in her sleep. Her dreams were troubled by her slowly waking subconscious and her lightly pink hair matched her pale lips.
His focus changed to the last person of his interests.
The usually relentless, joyful man was swamping his sorrows in massive quantities of alcohol. His blond hair was dirty and his scarred with whisker-like marks face sported days' old filth. His clothes were tattered and unclean, the orange patches' original colour shown here and there barely recognizable. He was obviously a wreck.
By killing him, He would be practically doing him a favour. It was so easy to end them all. To eradicate them.
He did not even wave a finger; He did not even batter an eye. He simply mustered the minimal willpower required and
the woman released her son in order to clutch her chest. Her son inhaled sharply and, as his mother collapsed, his breathing haltered.
They were both dead. The man was in the middle of apologizing from his brash jokes when He decided that there was no need to delay the inevitable.
The man shamelessly screamed in pain as blood oozed from his every orifice. He crumpled in a heap of flesh and bones, dead before he even knew what had happened to him, right in front of the woman he loved.
The librarian did not even have the chance to understand what happened as He channelled the energy required for her to simply
And yet, as He readied himself to destroy the rest of the people in His sight, as He readied himself to extinguish their souls like a malevolent God should and would righteously do to an anthill filled with provoking insects, He paused.
His orange eyes burned with renewed interest.
To kill –no, to annihilate- them in such an extent was futile. There was going to be Pain in their deaths, beautiful pain; of that He was certain. But there was not going to be Agony. No matter how much Suffering he would induce them with, they would not agonize over their defeat; they would not even realize that they were extinct.
"All in good time, then." He promised to Himself. A pleased smile crossed His self-mutilated face, etching the various spikes and rings embedded in it further inside until they hurt him pleasantly. He knew that He had succeeded. No matter what they did, He was going to give them a taste of His namesake.
"Come then," he whispered to the winds, "Come and face me; come looking for a madman only to find a ruthless God of Pain! A God of Ache! A God of Hurt! A God of Torment! A God of Agony! A God of Suffering! I shall savour the Fear in your eyes as you see Death and the Six Avatars of Pain!"
Slowly, He laughed hauntingly, spreading his malice over the ruined towers that decorated the Broken Lands. His laughter did not carry happiness or even madness. It carried the sweet taste and echo of unmentioned victory and certain defeat to those that opposed Him.
It was good to be God.
HELL AND BACK
Haruno Sakura was slowly pulled out of her deep slumber.
She reached with her hand, looking blindly for the light on the nightstand and flicked the switch to 'on', making the device shed light into the shadows of the small room she was at. She narrowed her eyes distantly in the effort to familiarize herself with the space around her, making out a fairly empty room decorated with old posters of half-naked women, a sofa and the bed she was spread out onto.
Where the hell am I?
Next to her clothes, which had been roughly thrown next to her bed, were two empty cups of instant ramen. Slowly, the haze surrounding her senses faded.
That's right; I'm at Naruto's... I really, really need to get my staff unpacked.
"Hello, Sakura-chan. Fancy seeing you here." In moments, the medic had covered her dignity with the bed's sheets, grabbed the spare, obligatory kunai from underneath her pillow, and readied herself for the fight of her life. "Whoa, wait up; it's me, Kakashi."
She looked as if all the Furies had possessed her. "And why should that stop me from emasculating you?" She hissed to him, just noticing that her sensei was casually sitting on the couch cross-legged. He had discarded his usual green flak vest, as well as the sandals and gloves and was instead wearing his ANBU uniform, the white armour tied fitly around his torso and limbs. His sole visible eye had a unique look she could not remember seeing outside of combat, but his mask prevented her from researching her sensei's look further.
"Because I can neither see in the dark nor did I look up, even after you turned the light on. Now can you please drop the kunai and sit back? I need to talk to you." He said with restrained impatience.
There was something more in Kakashi's voice than impatience though, something so divested and lost that made her comply. She let the throwing knife fall on the mattress and got off the bed. "Do that while I get dressed." She told him.
"That can wait," he dismissed. "Agent Sakura, you will listen to the Debriefing five-oh-two."
Her eyes showed surprise as they snapped wide and the light veil from her sleep disappeared as she replied back, verifying that she indeed was Jonin Haruno Sakura. "Agent One-seven-one-three, I am listening to your Debriefing."
"Today, approximately at eight hundred hours, Inuzuka Kiba, Fujiwara Shizune and Yuuhi Kurenai, along with her son, died. The cause of death is fatal internal trauma." Kakashi nodded along to Sakura's understanding gasp, and for once he was glad he had really pushed her back when he had been training her.
She had skipped past the sorrow of knowing that people she knew had died immediately. Kakashi was not certain if that was a good thing as he continued on. "Yes, it's his trademark technique. We fought it again, back when Naruto killed three of his avatars, as you know. If Naruto wasn't his opponent, none of us would have gotten out of there."
"Then that means that he is in Konoha!" Sakura yelled, a slight hint of panic in her voice.
Kakashi shook his head as his shoulders sagged. "Afraid not. He did it remotely."
Sakura's eyes widened as she said with disgust; "You've got to be fucking kidding me, Kakashi."
"I'm serious." He insisted.
"Then why am I alive? Why are you, of all people?" She accused.
Kakashi brought his hands to his mouth and sighed in contemplation. "Our theorists blame it on his megalomania."
"Indulge me, please." Sakura said. Psychology was an issue she seriously lacked in, despite her extensive knowledge of generic medicine. She had left that quite fine art to her friendly rival Ino, whose psionic talent had made her quite the interrogator and combatant.
"It means one thing." Kakashi stared right into her eyes.
"It means he wants us to go after him."
Tsunade crossed the curtain to the exit of the Ichiraku Ramen shop, calling good-night to Teuchi behind her back. He replied in kind, and she gave him one of her rare smiles as she disappeared from his view. "Poor guy," she mumbled under her alcohol-heavy breath. "To have all these awful things happen to him…" It was different, she figured, to have tragedies happen to you when in your entire life you are training to face them.
Sure, even the greatest of people –herself included- could lose themselves into a sea of sorrow -and she had done so when Dan died- but normal people like Teuchi should not have to suffer because of shinobi affairs. Especially the shinobi affairs that her former acquaintances had procured.
The Fifth Hokage shook her pretty head in order to focus on the task at hand. She could not afford to waste time on reminiscing or pitying others, not at a night like this. She had a job to do, one that marked the fate of every single villager of the Hidden Leaf.
She walked down the deserted street, turned into a back alley, and from there she moved to open a door leading to a small ground-levelled apartment.
The three men inside the shadowy room looked surprised at the lack of knocking and whispered password, but upon seeing her form, a form that thanks to her bust was easy to recognize even in the dark, they returned to their game of cards. Only one of them shifted his pointer and middle finger into the notion for dispelling mild illusions. Making certain that she was the Hokage he was sworn to serve, he revealed his straight flush savouring his fellow gamers' groan as he claimed his earnings, grinning as he did so.
"Is he inside?" Tsunade asked heavily.
"Of course, Hokage-sama." The oldest of the men offered. He gulped down the contents of a sake bottle, disrespectful at everything he did besides calling her by proper title, and then reached for a small necklace around his neck before tossing it to her. "Here."
Tsunade looked at the necklace. It was, in fact, a complex key that hang from a thin chain. "Thanks." She nodded swiftly with her head and with a swift turn, walked towards a hatch on the ground and unlocked it with the key the man gave her. With a small summoning of chakra she glued her hands and feet on the vertical passage that opened in front of her, and started a long descend. She did not even give it a second thought when she heard the hatch above her lock. She kept descending.
Finally, the passage ended and she found herself stepping on actual, horizontal ground. She dusted her hands off and moved towards the newfound noise at the end of the somewhat dusty corridor she found herself into. The noises kept getting louder as she approached.
Finally, the door preventing her from seeing what originated the sounds opened, revealing the emotionally dead Sai. He had not changed a lot as the years passed. His usual deadened smile greeted her as he spoke in fake surprise. "Ah, Hokage-sama."
Tsunade gave him a scornful look. "Don't do the '-sama' crap with me, kid. Even if you could hide your actual killing intent, I'd still know what you felt about me and dealt with it accordingly. Now, is he secure?"
Sai's smile fell, replaced with his usual blank face. "Yes, Hokage." Tsunade's lips quirked upwards at the lack of a proper suffix. "As per your request, we found him and brought him in."
"Good. Now get the Hell out of here. If you stick around to report to your boss, I'll break your legs, again, and this time you'll need some of his unique resiliency to walk around. Now get lost – from what I hear, Danzo's shoes need polishing." The Fifth fairly growled her threats -promises- reminding Sai just how the woman in front of him had terrified grown men to tears.
In a puff of ninja smoke, Sai disappeared without a word. "Good riddance," Tsunade hissed before moving inside the room. Entering, she stared at the ironbound prisoner.
Around his wrists, ankles, waist, neck and shoulders were manacles, holding him bound by attached chains that were grafted onto the reinforced walls. His fingers were tied together with iron wires and his hands were kept apart. It was something that could hold everyone from Genin to Kage, and the current occupant of the prison aptly called 'the Iron Tomb' was not an exception to the rule.
Even Tsunade, with her Herculean strength could not escape the thing – and not for lack of trying. She sat across the table where he was chained and she greeted him humourlessly.
"Hello, Nee-chan." He greeted back. From what Tsunade was seeing, Naruto was a mess. His hair had grown longer from the last time she had seen him, and the chaotic tangle it was reached up to his shoulders with ease. It still was as untameable and rough as ever, though. His form was far muscular than it had ever been back when he was still a Genin, an after-effect of constant practicing with the most powerful people of his generation like Lee and Neji, but he could not be considered buff. His face was sharper and his features were toned. A short, gruff beard obscured his normally whiskered face; Tsunade gathered that it had something to do with his falling out.
"I guess that you let them capture you and escort you here all the way from the Wave country?"
"Yeah, and I made certain they knew I was coming willingly, to boot. Fucking medic healed Sai's broken ribs."
"I see. A pity about Sai" Tsunade replied, not bothering to hide her amusement at Sai's demise. She decided to get to the point. "Do you know why I am here?"
"Do you know why you are here?"
"Allow me to explain, then." She relaxed on her chair and dropped an arm down its back. She had a stern look on her face as she started speaking. "You are brought here because you are one of the best ninja the Leaf has."
"…You have a funny way of showing that, Nee-chan." He dryly commented, gesturing towards the chains with a tilt of his head.
"Yeah, well, those are there for other reasons." Tsunade retorted. "You are to be put in a team of three and make an expedition to the Broken Lands." Naruto's entire demeanour changed and Tsunade knew that she had his entire attention. Good. I hate to goad him like that, but he's not himself right now. I'll do what I have to.
"Pardon me, Nee-chan?" Naruto growled almost ferociously. "I thought you said the Broken Lands."
"You're not scared of a ghost story, are you?" Tsunade taunted with the grace of an angry lover.
"Ghost story?" Naruto spat back. "There are no things like ghost stories, Tsunade. There are only misinterpreted truths."
"A place in my unique position should know better than even a Hokage." Naruto explained. His eyes burned crimson for a moment, and the Fifth felt fear creep up her spine. A pissed off Naruto was a no-good-at-all Naruto. She had been at that side in the past, and she could not afford to go there again, especially not under the circumstances.
Tsunade cleared her throat, and then replied to his brag. "Of course you should. Thing is, like it or not, you're going." She calmly declared.
He scoffed. "What's there that would make you send me over?"
She paused dramatically, like the heroines in the plays of the Old Days, before answering in a two-syllable word. "Pein."
"Pein." He repeated the name with as much hatred as he could muster, as if merely speaking it could cause its bearer harm. The fury in his eyes was barely contained as he continued. "So? Nagato's dead, he can't make any more copies of himself. Me and Kakashi dealt with that sonuvah bitch a long time ago. Just let him rot out there. It suits him."
Tsunade reached for a folder inside her jade coat. "Here's the thing, Naruto. The Council doesn't view this your way. Pein inflicted major losses during the last conflict, and lots of families lost members because of him." She paused and drew a collecting breath. "We lost someone because of him, Naruto."
The rage that seethed under his every pore was suddenly restrained in Jiraya's memory, the only man Naruto had ever known as a father. "…Go on."
Tsunade inhaled deeply. Damn her for being weak, but she could go for another round of drinks and the heaviest cigarettes around. "The Council proposed that we send a team against him, to take care of him once and for all." The Fifth finally explained, drawing an inquisitional lift of Naruto's left eyebrow.
"What's the Council's true purpose, though? Those old farts never do something without reason."
Tsunade did not respond for a moment, instead contemplating how the political game in Konoha had made even someone as cheery as Naruto so bitter. "The citizens prefer my ruling over the council's, especially since their latest ideas have screwed us over more than once." Naruto nodded understanding, and she continued. "However, it was the council that suggested hunting down Pein making it so that, if the mission is successful, they'll get the credit for it."
"And thus restore their powerbase as they let Yahiko's corpse rot on a pole."
"Exactly." She confirmed, nodding so with her head.
"I figure you've already told them to go fuck themselves?" He cockily grinned. Tsunade neatly tossed the folder his way in response. It landed open at his end of the table, revealing its content to Naruto's eyes, which widened in surprise. "…No…" There where various photos of people in the page the folder had opened. Naruto had known all of them once, having conversed and sparred with all of them at the rare occasion. To see them dead was hurtful. His obvious resistance to the chains shackling him fell, and his shoulders slacked.
Tsunade morbidly nodded. "This morning, Pein killed Kurenai and her son, Kiba and Shizune." A sole tear run down her cheek. "That's why, Naruto; that's why I need you to kill this bastard. For me; I n-need you to kill him." Unable to speak anymore, Tsunade dug her face in her palms, crying like she hadn't ever since she was a small girl. "I…" She cried, and cried, and bawled her eyes out. She reminisced of Shizune and all the times the two had shared; good or bad. Tsunade had told Shizune to find her a medical file just minutes before it had happened.
The dreaded feeling of helplessness consumed her, and for a moment she forgot where she was or why.
She was taken completely by surprise when Naruto wrapped her in a fierce hug. Uncaring of how he was able to release himself from the shackles of the Iron Tomb, she relaxed in his embrace and kept crying, for once finding sweet release in the arms of a loved person, the last one she had in this world.
"I won't let you down, Tsunade-hime. I promise."
Damn her for being weak, but she believed him.
The morning sun graced the Hidden Village of Konoha with a uniqueness Neji did not know existed. Slowly, he brought his cup of tea to his lips and carefully sipped some of the amber liquid. Predictably, it did not do a very good job on calming his inward anxiety. The sun signalled a big day, and the Hyuuga scion somehow found himself shuddering at the lack of knowledge on what Fate had in store for him.
He recalled a day years ago, back when he had never suffered defeat. Living was easier back then, even if doing so had made everyone he now admitted loving hate him.
Neji sighed, wishing that he had been assigned on this mission with Lee and Tenten; at least them he knew. But Lee's wife was due to grant him a son, something that immediately excused him from shinobi duties, and Tenten was already away in a mission involving her posing as a ronin. At least it hadn't been one of them that suffered at Shinigami's throat now, Neji thought morbidly, immediately cursing himself for doing so. Even if he had not known either of the deceased that well, they were still part of what the Sandaime thought of as his family. To think that they died on a madman's whim, without even the remote chance to fight back…
The Jyuuken master covered his startle as the pink-haired Jonin medic plopped down next to him, gesturing for the waitress to serve her whatever Neji was having. "Morning, Neji." She offered, a little louder than necessary.
"Good morning, Haruno-san," he offered back. "I trust that you are prepared for our mission?"
She nodded and tapped lightly on the backpack she had placed underneath her seat. "Yep. Trail rations, soldier pills and the like, medical supplies and of course, women products."
Neji stared at her with his enhanced gaze, glad that his stare of awkwardness could be misinterpreted because of his ivory eyes. "Of course," he repeated awkwardly, "women products." Even though he could not digest that last piece of information, he understood that if Sakura had brought the absolutely viable for her unique womanly needs, like his usual female teammate did, it should be alright.
"So," he said lightly as the stern waitress poured Sakura some tea, "do you know who our last teammate is?"
"Yeah, Kakashi-sempai told me yesterday. I admit that I couldn't believe it, but I guess with the circumstances being what they were; it had to be that way." Sakura said, taking a whiff off her tea.
"Well then, who is he?" Neji asked, hating to speak up more than he should. Immediately, he felt his unique presence behind him before he even spoke. He tensed lightly as he heard his haunting –as well as haunted- voice drill in his ears with the scratchy hue it had acquired in the years.
"Who else? Hello, Neji."
You killed my wife, you son of a bitch!
Kukuku, is the child angered? Is the little child playing ninja going to cry? Is he?
-llo, Naruto. I trust that you are well." Neji did not need to shake his head to rid himself of the memories. Instead, he turned around on his chair to glance at the person that ironically had drawn him out of the darkness, only to engorge himself within it a few years later.
With his literally peripheral vision, Neji could see that Sakura was as startled by Naruto's appearance as he was, and with good reason. The man standing in front of them was not who he used to be. "Same old, same old." Naruto suddenly dismissed with a casual wave of his hand that could have been a motion for the waitress as he sat on the offered seat. "So, what have I missed in my months of absence?"
The two shinobi sitting across of him looked at each other and then shrugged, not caring to correct Naruto in the aspect of his actual missing for years, not months. "…Pretty much the same, Naruto." Sakura replied vaguely. "How have you been holding up?"
The Jinchuuriki run his fingers through his gruff beard, mumbling about how he needed a shave before giving his order to the slightly trembling waitress. While Naruto seemed oblivious to that, Sakura and Neji figured she had probably seen Naruto in his worst days, two years back.
The trio of trained killers sat in silence after that, even after the shaking woman offered him his order of dango and tea before making a hasty retreat to the back of her store. They needn't speak. To that aspect they were true to their work. As the time came for their mission to begin, Neji could not help but use his exceptional sight to read through Naruto's body language. He was shocked, as the man in front of him showed only minimal anxiety, which probably was because the time to the mission was closing in, rather than caring about what they were going on against.
It was Tsunade that drove him out of his reverie by appearing amongst them in a puff of ninja smoke.
Her youth technique could not hide that she had a bad night, and even if it did, the heavy smell of smoke and sake on her clothes would have revealed that piece of information. Around the Hokage's eyes were black circles and her hair was rumpled. The first thing she did was bring her hand in front of her petite mouth in order to stifle a yawn, completely ignoring Sakura and Neji's formal bows and Naruto's casual wave of hand – he never even got off his chair.
Tsunade took in the trio of shinobi that she was using as a means of extracting revenge.
Neji was as passive yet formally active as always. He had grown to be one of the tallest people of his generation, next only to Lee, the late Kiba and Naruto himself. He had cut his hair to half their length, letting them reach the end of his shoulder-blades as opposed to his thighs. He was clad in proper Jonin attire, equipped with the green colored flak jacket, black shirt and pants. Konoha's swirling Leaf was emblazed on his back, forehead protector and fingerless gloves. His ivory eyes were looking at her, but he was wise enough to keep comments out of both his literal and body language.
Sakura was frowning at her in distaste of her actions, reminding Tsunade of the second person she had loved since Dan. She had grown in all the right places, finally being a woman of herself, and a beautiful woman at that. She was as tall as needed, and was wearing black pants, high leather boots and gloves, and a crimson top that toned her hair and exposed her arms and waist. Her own flak jacket was laid aside, next to her backpack. Tsunade smiled at her sadly, wishing that she, at least, would come back.
Of all the shinobi of his generation, Naruto had gone through the heaviest changes throughout the years. His bright blond hair had grown longer, reaching up to his shoulders and framing his face in a rough way that somehow did not look out of place on him. A same-colored beard, a product of not shaving for a few months at least, tried to 'grace' his chin and cheeks. All that was good about it was that it obscured the whiskers on his face. He was dressed in khaki shorts that ended just below his knees and a black shirt whose sleeves were mismatched, one reaching up to his wrist while the other was imitating a tee-shirt's fashion. The blond consumed the last of his tea and got off his seat. His grin was reassuring and slightly reminding Tsunade of the old days, back when the boy was still innocent and unable to plague her dreams.
"Team 7," Tsunade greeted, "you obviously know why you are here. Know that this is an S-rank mission with quadruple pay. You have been chosen because I think you're going to get the job done."
A moment of silence.
"Your objective is killing Pein. The only parameter is making him suffer while you are at it. The mission is of infinite length, and thus can be stretched for as long as needed as long as the objective is completed. Any questions?"
"Any possible leads to Pein's whereabouts?" Neji asked.
"He has last been seen in the former Wind Country's Broken Lands. It is safe to assume that he is still lurking in there somewhere."
Naruto spoke up for the first time in her presence. "Last time I saw him, he had one more clone standing. What about him?"
Tsunade locked him with her honey brown eyes. "Kakashi is taking care of him; he has been sighted in the Water Country." Naruto looked sceptic for a moment, and then nodded along, his curiosity satisfied. "Anything else?" The Fifth asked.
Neji shook his head negatively.
Sakura said "no".
Naruto seemed indifferent.
"Go!" She ordered with a swift chop of her hand, a gesture reminiscent of Sarutobi's former trademark. They had disappeared in a gust of wind as she finished her order. Naruto… A sole tear fell from the Hokage's face, and she was quick to dry it away with the back her hand. She could not afford to show weakness again. However…
Please come back.
Dejected, Tsunade took the long way towards the funeral pyre of two loyal ninjas, a child that should not have suffered as he did, and her second lover.
The sunset finally greeted the weary shinobi. It was the first time they had stopped in twenty hours of running, and Sakura could readily say that she approved of the stop. Her legs ached, her breath had started catching up with her tiredness now that her team finally paused in their mad dash, and she was sweating more profusely than any self-conscious woman ever should. Neji was obviously as tired as her, but he wore his weariness behind a stoic face. "Naruto," the young Hyuuga spoke up after he took a deep breath, "you're obviously the least tired of us. Would you mind taking up first watch?"
The blond, who had walked a little further up in the forest clearing the trio of ninja found themselves in, turned sharply at the simple request with a peculiar, unreadable look in his eyes. "First watch?"
"Of course," Neji explained, "we may be tired but we're not useless. It's only right if we keep watch as well."
Naruto shook his head. "No, what I meant is that there's not gonna be a 'first watch'. I'll do the whole thing myself; if we keep up with today's breakneck speed we'll reach the Broken Lands tomorrow evening; and trust me, you'll be less help if you add sleeplessness to a day of running."
Neji insisted. "Are you certain?"
Naruto didn't respond. Instead, he leapt high on a tree's branch and sat on it, allowing one of his feet to dangle off. "Sleep well." He ordered with an semi-authoritative voice, and Neji and Sakura had no objection to that. They prepared their sleeping bags in silence and crawled into the uncomfortable material.
"The stars are pretty." Sakura commented drowsily as she lay next to Neji. He did not comment at first, but he guessed that the pink-haired girl would find another way to make idle chit-chat.
"…I guess." Was his vague answer.
"Do you think the deceased watch over us from the stars?" Neji followed Sakura's gaze, staring into the star-lit celestial wonder above them. Did the dead see anything? Were there places for souls to relish or curse the afterlife? Neji turned his head a little, letting the visage of Naruto enter his field of vision. The demon in his friend's belly was proof of something other than the shinobi world's existence, but… Did his father stare at him from the heavens with a smile in his face? Did the Sandaime look down to see his home? Did Naruto's late wife gaze down at him and frown as she saw that he was ruining his life?
"I do not know, Haruno-san. I think it would be nice if they did." He finally answered.
"Mm, you're probably right. Good night, Neji."
"The same to you, Haruno-san."
In the silence of the forest clearing, with only the stars as a means of illumination in the darkness of the ancient pine trees, sleep came with difficulty. Sakura found herself tossing and turning soon enough, unable to clear her mind of thoughts. Finally, she turned on her side to look at the ever-vigilant Naruto, who hadn't moved an inch from where he had sat guard.
Sakura recalled a similar night four years ago, back when they were merely sixteen and their only worry was to find the rogue Uchiha of their team and bring him back. She thought that it should be easier living back then; she didn't have to worry about rent, social events and emergencies in the hospital. She was Haruno Sakura, medical genius. Just that. Not 'Haruno Sakura, medical genius, head of the diagnostic department in Konoha's hospital' or 'Haruno Sakura, one of the cutest spinsters in the Leaf' or whatever it was that guys called her behind her back. She was fairly certain people tended to look at her ass instead of the lack of a ring on her finger anyway.
That night four years ago, Naruto had just won the third part of the Chuunin exams single-handedly, finally getting a desired title to go with his name. She had been in the stands, cheering for him and groaning along with the rest of the former rookie teams for Naruto's luck of facing a Hyuuga in his first match, again. His opponent was Hinata's sister and Neji's cousin, little Hanabi. Well, she was not little now, but back then she was one of the smallest, cutest things, being only twelve. Cruel, talented Hanabi had given out a speech about how she was her genetics made her superior and how Naruto was a failure; who could still bother on the Chuunin exams in the age of sixteen? He should just give up.
Little Hanabi obviously had not heard that a year ago Naruto had single-handedly defeated a powerful member of the Akatsuki, to mention one of his greater feats. Things like learning the Yondaime's most prized technique in a week and a Jonin technique in just a matter of hours were sort of menial compared to that. One could not even mention that one of the Sannin had taught the young man with everything he knew.
Naruto had laughed and promptly given the girl the finger. "If I'm such a failure, how come I trampled your cousin three years ago?" Hanabi's eyes had widened. Hiashi's mind-washing had obviously made her forget that little piece of information and instead think that the Branch family was still filled with trash, where the Main was vastly superior. Losing her temper, Hanabi had charged at Naruto with everything she had, including the Kaiten and the Hakke; Rokujuuyon Shou. Curiously, Naruto dodged the first but was struck by the latter. As he fell to the ground Hanabi had laughed at her success, only to find that the person she had beaten was one of Naruto's fabled clones. The next thing she knew, she was neck-deep in the ground while Naruto and two overly cheery copies of his covered her head with exploding tags.
"Winner, Uzumaki Naruto?" The Jinchuuriki had asked the examiner, who had chuckled and motioned to Naruto as the victor of the fight.
The rest of the exams had been as easy, so the night found Naruto and Sakura in a bar enjoying warm sake. They had conversed, laughed, and teased each other for things only they knew. And then, as Sakura tossed her head back in a bout of laughter, she had seen it. Naruto was looking at a couple behind her with an expression she had never seen before. It carried so much pain and hurt that she was taken aback, the laughter caught in her throat. The person she had come to know as her bigger brother in the short year since he returned from his trip with the Toad Hermit was cheerful, brash, and always supportive. But the person in front of her carried such a torment behind his eyes that Sakura was actually scared. The look on his face disappeared soon enough, but every time Sakura looked elsewhere for more than a moment Naruto would turn to look at the couple with haunted eyes.
Something had clicked inside Sakura, who promptly paid the bartender and grabbed Naruto from the wrist. "Come on, I want to go out!" He had chuckled at her lividness and followed suit. They had roamed Konoha back then, wondering outside long after the times they were used to heading back home. Finally, Sakura found herself leaning against her apartment door, wearing a naughty smile on her face. "Feel like coming in for a nice, warm cup of sake?" She had purred, and Naruto had obliviously responded yes. And so they had gone inside. Sakura figured that the blond had not gotten what she was suggesting because Naruto simply had stopped looking at her as the only woman in the world and instead thought of her as some sort of family; or, as he had dubbed them, "a precious person".
The two had sat in silence, with only a bottle of sake and Sakura's small table standing between them. They had drunk a lot; Naruto for the kick of it and Sakura in order to summon her courage. And then she had finally understood what she needed to do, and she had crossed the small distance between their faces and kissed Naruto so forcefully her teeth hurt. It was not really a sense of duty towards her comrade but rather longing that moved her. She needed this, yearned for the feeling of having someone with her. She had wondered if Naruto had ever kissed anyone with passion before, much like she had done with a drunken Ino a few months prior. The experience, however nice it had felt, was nothing similar to actually kissing a man who loved her back genuinely.
When Sakura realized that Naruto was too stunned to do anything with the young woman kissing him she broke off the kiss, removed her top and bra, and sat on his lap with her long legs hugging his sides before resuming the kiss. Her breath was caught as Naruto groped her ass with both his hands, and before they had even known what was going on, none of them could even make coherent thoughts. They were both on the floor, yelling each other's name. They had done the deed until sunrise, when they fell asleep on Sakura's bed, happy but exhausted.
It had gone downhill from there. None of the two were prepared for the consequences of their actions. Naruto carried some genuine happiness, that was certain, but with Sakura never exploiting the feelings he obviously felt for her, two months passed with both of them avoiding each other's company unless there were other familiar faces around. Then arrived the time for the second Uchiha retrieval mission.
The rogue Uchiha had finally been located by one of Jiraya's spies that were still loyal to the pervert. Sasuke and his group of vagabonds were planning on finding his brother Itachi and assassinating him, but Konoha had decided to intercept using a group composed of Naruto, Sakura, Kakashi, Yamato and Sai. The renewed Team 7 attacked Sasuke's group with success, and managed to bring them to a halt in a field of plains two days north of the Valley of the End.
Sasuke had sneered and warned them that he sought no quarrel with them any more, but if they decided to rob him of his vengeance then he would kill them. Sakura had turned to look at Naruto, and seen him keep his fists to his sides in an attempt to prevent them from trembling. For a second, she had thought that he was crying with despair.
And then Naruto had laughed, shattering her suspicions. For long, he had laughed hard and loudly.
"What is so funny, dead-last?" Sasuke had called out, the old nickname rolling of his tongue with venom that didn't use to be there.
The Jinchuuriki had simply grinned. "Hell will freeze before you have a freaking chance on killing me, Sasuke-chan."
The ground in front of Sasuke had busted, a hand reaching and successfully grabbing the rogue Uchiha's ankle. Sasuke, startled, had woken his Sharingan and had summoned the chakra required to form the Chidori and stabbed at the swiftly rising from the ground Naruto, only to reveal that the young man in his immediate vicinity was in fact a clone. His genetically superior eyes had widened in surprise when he saw the original Naruto slamming his hands on the ground in front of him and calling out a Doton incantation.
From the ground behind him, the earth shifted and moulded and shot out in a spear made of rock and soil, stabbing the Uchiha in the back and right out of his stomach. Sasuke had gasped in the dirty –and quite lethal- trick Naruto had just used.
"Sakura-chan, Yamato, Sai; be ready to apprehend and heal Sasuke; I'll take care of his crones while Kakashi is covering me." That was Naruto's warning an hour before they had moved in for the arrest, and Sakura had finally realized why exactly Naruto had used the word 'heal'. He was done playing nice, if the Uchiha survivor's screaming –and profound bleeding- was any indication.
However, team Snake had another ace up their sleeve, or more specifically, the foreign woman called Karin did. Seconds after the earth spear had impaled Sasuke, she had smacked the spear with a chakra enhanced palm, making it dissolve, and had ordered the bleeding man to bite her arm. Strangely, Sasuke had complied; and the reason for that was immediately crystal clear as the gaping hole in his abdomen had healed in a speed that rivalled even that of Naruto's, if not directly surpassed it.
That day had been marked in Sakura's memories as the second time she had seen Naruto really use the Demon Fox's chakra. He had channelled upon the red energy to surround him and augment his body and it had done so immediately, covering him in a way similar to fire. It had looked as if Naruto's every pore had caught on flames.
"I'm done playing around." Naruto had warned before disappearing from sight. Sasuke, who had just stood back on his own feet, had gasped in surprise as even his Sharingan seemed to have trouble following the speed the blond Jinchuuriki had just used.
Naruto had reappeared amongst the startled group shooting his fist right in Karin's pharynx hard enough for her neck to snap. Blood had immediately risen to her mouth and as soon as Naruto pulled his hand back, she had fallen on her knees, her brain asphyxiating. But it was not over yet. Naruto had span on his heel in a manoeuvre that mimicked Rock Lee's Konoha Reppuu. His knee slammed against the barely standing Sasuke's back, which had bended in an unnatural angle with an audible crack. As Sasuke flew away from the force of the blow, the shock numbing the crucifying pain he should be feeling, the foreign Nin carrying the Headcleaver had rushed to extract vengeance on Naruto.
Zabuza's sword had swung with incredible speed and force hidden behind it. Yet Naruto had captured it between his four fingers and thumb easily, halting it mid-strike while forming a Rasengan with his other hand. The swordsman's eyes had widened in surprise and, as the Yondaime's technique crashed onto his solar plexus, he had tried to dissolve his body into water. With a howl from the Rasengan, a scream of pain from Suigetsu and the spraying of water, Naruto had proven that the Fourth's prized technique worked in assassinating arrogant twerps both in solid and liquid form.
The Jinchuuriki had turned to glare at Sasuke only to find out that the last of his 'comrades', the solemn Juugo, was obscuring his path. There was something in the tall man's eyes that had made Naruto pause. "You don't have to die. Just start running." Naruto had warned.
The man had ignored him. "Sasuke-kun, activate your scroll." Sasuke had groaned and reached for the pouch at his waist. Naruto had growled and rushed forward, but it was too late.
"Goodbye, Sasuke-kun." Juugo had offered as he discarded the shawl covering his torso and mutated his hand into a razor-clawed paw as he reached into the same spot the fallen Uchiha carried his Cursed Seal. The claws of his hand had torn into the flesh of his shoulder with ease, drawing blood. Juugo had hissed and, as Naruto finally reached him with another Rasengan carried in his palm, calmly slapped the Jinchuuriki away with his other hand, which had grown to be twice a horse's size.
"Juugo… What did you do…?" A pained Sasuke had asked.
"I tore my containing seal, the only thing restraining my mutations." Juugo revealed to his stunned audience. "Go now, while I still have my mind. Extract your revenge."
Sasuke had looked glad. "Thank you… Juugo."
In mere seconds Juugo's pained expression had given way to scales, series of teeth and eyes, and a mane. His body had burst with a disgusting rip, sending human skin and muscle bleeding out and giving way to claws, tentacles, more teeth and eyes and even the occasional wing. The human side of Juugo kept on screaming as every last ounce of the power that had been restrained sipped out of his every pore, intent on gashing out like a new wound.
Naruto had gotten up from where he lay with his body crashed with a gasp, the damage done in his cranial cavity having just healed. His eyes had widened in horror as he saw what Juugo had become and was still changing into, and then narrowed with fury as he saw Sasuke recover a scroll from his pouch, smear blood all over it and then disappear into a burst of shinobi smoke.
"Crap." Naruto had stated as whatever it was that Juugo had become rushed at him moving on three scaled legs and a feline one. Sakura had unwillingly screamed as the 'thing' had roared and shot three red tentacles made of muscle and bearing teeth to capture Naruto with. The blond had used his Kage Bunshin to carry him out of the way of the attack, still at a loss on how to fight something so random and chaotic. "I need some help here!" he had called, finally driving the three Jonin and Sakura out of their stupor.
The 'thing' resembled a gigantic brown-skinned lizard of sorts with sprouted, huge tentacles similar to muscle sweeping at everyone and everything from its back. Yellow-black eyes stared at the five shinobi attacking it from every possible angle, and its two mouths opened, one to screech in annoyance and another to spit fire at them. It was difficult to believe that just seconds ago there was an actual person standing where it was now clawing at the Chidori-wielding Kakashi.
Yamato slammed his hands together before proceeding to using one of his unique bloodline abilities in order to make the monster stand still. From all around what Juugo used to be grew wooden pillars that arched around its back and neck.
Naruto's clones were stabbing at the creature with dozens of shuriken and kunai, but it was obvious that he was not doing any more damage than a mosquito would have. From its sides, Sai's summoned Ink Beasts gnawed at it while Kakashi sent Katon after Suiton after Doton against it. "It's not really working!" He had commended offhandedly before jumping away from where he was standing; a tentacle had broken part of the pillar holding the beast at bay and had tried to skewer him.
"Move away! I'll summon the Gamabunta!" Naruto had warned before he had bitten upon his thumb.
From there, Sakura could only watch. The appearance of an opponent of significant size had driven 'Juugo' into a battle frenzy, attacking the Toad Boss –and whatever happened to stand in the nearby vicinity of the huge summon- with renewed frenzy. Sakura, Sai, Kakashi and Yamato had taken cover behind one of the ANBU's wooden walls temporarily, unable to do anything but gawk at the vicious battle of monsters unfolded before them.
Finally, Naruto and the Toad Boss unleashed a series of burning oil at the monster, distracting it. Gamabunta had drawn his 'knife' and chopped the monster in half, where it unleashed a weakened scream. Long before the severed parts could land onto the ground, they had changed back into the torn Juugo.
Another mission had failed. The only thing that they had managed, Sakura had thought as they burned Juugo, Suigetsu and Karin, was that Sasuke would have to halt his plans for now. Once more, the rogue Uchiha had eluded them, and both Sakura and Naruto were alone. That's what Sakura had thought at the time as she had moved away from the funeral pyre in order to cry for their failure, but she was wrong.
Naruto had stopped caring about Sasuke. She didn't know when it had happened, but it had and that was obvious as he approached her in the middle of her sorrow. "Sakura-chan," He had told her, "I'm glad that you didn't interfere," reminding her of four years ago, back when she had firstly interrupted the two rivals' fight. He had hugged her with one hand and kissed her lightly on the temple.
"When we find him next time, I'll keep my promise to you. I'll bring him back." His words had made her freeze. There was a sense of finality in his tone, as if he was trying to say that he was bringing back Sasuke only for her. As if he was trying to say that he understood her feelings and knew what her decision was before she had even made one.
She didn't understand that until after they had returned to Konoha and a midnight bar-run with Ino and Tenten had them running into Naruto and Ayame, the girl from the ramen stand the blond had used to hang out. The two had been kissing passionately...
Sakura's eyes shut tight, trying to hold in tears she knew she was about to shed. Had she not been stupid enough to drive Naruto away in a moment of weakness, he would have not been with Ayame. Had she not alienated him with her stupid childish dreams and her holding onto the image of Sasuke, Naruto would now be his old self as opposed to this alcohol-reeking shadow.
Stop it. She ordered herself just before a sob broke through her lips. Wishful thinking never got you anywhere, Haruno. Go to sleep, rest, and make sure that when you return to Konoha, there's going to be a big bouquet of Ayame's favorite flowers at her grave.
She fell asleep.
Unknowing next to her, Neji had witnessed her internal drama. A combination of her body language and aura told him that she was distressed. The fact that she occasionally turned to look at where Naruto stood guard told him that she was distressed about the blond.
He understood why. From what he knew, Sakura and Naruto had been quite close before the Serpent Initiative, and hadn't really seen each other after that. Neji closed his eyes and remembered happier times.
"Way to go!"
"That's my boy right there, fucking yeah!"
"You did a good job. You deserved that promotion."
"I'm happy for you."
"The wheels of fate favour you, Uzumaki Naruto. That's why I need to destroy you."
The party for Naruto's promotion as Jonin had actually taken a big pause at Neji's comment. The stoic Hyuuga's face promised pain and agony so real that even hardened Jonin like Hatake Kakashi had flinched.
Just as Naruto realized what exactly the Hyuuga had said, leaving him flabbergasted and woozy, Neji had looked elsewhere with an embarrassed look in his face. "See? That's why I don't do jokes. They come off weirdly."
Even then, the occupants of the celebration took five awkward seconds to understand. Then they had all laughed hard at Neji's expense, who had moved away to hide at a corner. Neji hated being in parties. He never knew what he was supposed to say or do, and he always managed to make a fool out of himself. Perhaps he could blame his attitude for that; everyone thought of him as a rock amongst a sea of chaos, unmoving and heedless of everything around him.
Naruto's trouncing the Jonin exams had come three months after his second attempt to bring the Uchiha traitor back to Konoha. He had done so spectacularly, and set a record while he was at it. Neji had been one of the examiners and he could once more see just how Naruto had beaten him back in their first Chuunin exam.
Somewhere in the room, Rock Lee was swinging his hips and making funny sounds in his own unique way of dancing. His spouse was doing the same, mostly for the heck of it. At least he's not wearing the spandex. That would have been embarrassing. The not-so-small Akamaru run around with Kiba hounding him in a –futile- attempt to tie his partner down before he ruined the food table. Elsewhere, Hatake Kakashi was sitting on a couch reading his favorite book and trying to turn the honestly one-sided conversation with Yuuhi Kurenai into a dialogue but purposefully failing. Finally, she told him something that made him hide the orange perversion he called 'literature' into the fold of his pockets and run away to fetch drinks for the pair and something non-alcoholic for Kurenai's newborn.
Elsewhere in the room, Haruno Sakura and Hinata-sama made inaudible conversation while looking at Naruto. The celebrant kept a bottle of a foreign drink with one hand and Ayame around the waist with his other, enjoying the scene unveiled around him with a big grin in his face.
Neji counted the minutes with rhythmic beats of his index finger against his knee. He could not wait for the two hours he needed to stay there in order for his leave to be considered 'polite' to pass. He was in for a pleasant surprise, though.
"Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please?" Naruto had asked in the middle of the celebration – which was signified by almost all the occupants in the room not counting as sober.
"It might have come to your attention that I and the beautiful woman in my hands are dating," Naruto had joked successfully. Everyone, gossiper or otherwise, had known that Naruto had been inseparable with Ayame; they were heedless of their difference in age, social status and the public opinion. "However, I am not one to state the obvious unless I'm talking facts. So, bear that in mind as I announce that Ayame and I are getting married!"
Neji had never seen a declaration of marrying in person, but what had followed that statement was probably the norm. The happy couple had stood in the middle of the room while people gathered around them in order to congratulate them. Neji had been right behind Sakura as she wished Ayame congratulations and then pulled Naruto into a hug. As he wished Ayame his most solemn wishes, Neji had heard Sakura whisper to Naruto that "she's the right one for you. I wish you the best."
Naruto had responded to the hug and kissed her on the cheek. "I expect you to be with me on the altar." Sakura's face had been lit and she had straightened out, as if an actual weight had left her.
Finally, according perhaps to a unmentioned ritual everyone but Neji knew about, Ayame had been dragged over to a cluster composed of grinning women who had hugged, kissed and hugged her once more while saying their congratulations, while Naruto had been pulled into a mob of proud men who patted him in the back and/or winked.
Neji had finally left the party three hours after he intended to leave, drunk beyond belief.
The wedding had happened a month after that, with the happy Naruto waiting for the dashing bride along with Shikamaru as his best man. To the bride's side stood Sakura, who just could not stop grinning. For once, Neji had darkly thought as a private joke, Fate was working in favor of the Kyuubi's Warden.
He was wrong.
From what Neji gathered, little after his obligatory month of vacation that came along with marrying, Naruto had been called into immediate active duty. His mission was to move against the Akatsuki leader called Pein in a preemptive strike. Pein was on his way to Konoha, his purpose to capture the Fourth's Legacy. So, along with his team and two hardened Jonin, Naruto had taken off with vengeance in his heart. Neji did not know all the details, but Pein was an impossible opponent that had more power than any mortal should, including some sort of absolute defense and the ability to turn off peoples' vital organs.
Not 'destroy', 'rip out' or 'harden'.
The Most Surprising Ninja had verified his title as he did not fall victim to a heart attack and instead destroyed three out of five Pein's copies with relative ease, saving his team and forcing Pein into retreat. Apparently, Naruto had killed the Pein that actually carried the bloodline that made him so powerful, hindering the other two severely.
Neji sighed. Apparently, not hindered for good. The funeral of four back in Konoha that we are missing is proof for that.
Konoha found herself relishing a time of peace for a whole year after that.
As some would say, "calm before the storm".
The revived Orochimaru had discarded his medic disciple like a second skin and had pulled one of the worst massacres in the history of the Hidden Leaf, surpassing even the one he had caused back when he was still considered part of the Leaf's roster. No one ever understood how, but Orochimaru had turned about two hundred people into walking time bombs, set to explode powerfully enough to level a building. The casualties were severe.
Tenten's parents were killed as they were enjoying dinner with their daughter. The waitress had suddenly bloated like a balloon before exploding right in front of them. The blast had killed both of them instantly and had scarred Tenten both mentally and physically.
Cousin Hanabi's teammate, a short boy specialized in genjutsu, had screamed and fallen to his knees. The Main family Hyuuga had rushed to his aid only for the boy to burst in flames. She had died after ten days of fighting with her wounds.
From what he knew, never daring to ask her directly, Sakura's father had also suffered a similar fate in his way to visit his daughter.
Neji was certain that the same had happened to Naruto, Ayame and their newborn daughter. A stranger had walked into the Ichiraku ramen and had exploded in the middle of enjoying his meal. Naruto had regenerated from the blast with ease, proving that if anything else, he was a survivor. However, upon seeing the charred remains of his wife and daughter, the Jinchuuriki had snapped. He had gone wild with rage, blood drunk. Naruto's cries of pain at the death of his loved ones were frightening to the core. Neji had found him roaring in defiance hours after the initial attack; his feeble tries to make him leave the bodies had almost gotten the young Hyuuga maimed.
The blond would never be the same.
Ten days of sorrow afterwards, the Hokage had formed an expedition composed of twenty capable Jonin, men and women alike. She was in the middle of her encouraging speech when Naruto had jumped between them.
"I want in."
Neji and Sakura had been part of the team sent to Orochimaru's lair. He had seen the look on Naruto's face and had recognized that the Hokage could not persuade him otherwise.
"Naruto, I ache for your pain, but-"
"I don't feel pain. My tears have dried, my sorrow has diminished. All that remains is hatred." Naruto had looked up into Tsunade's honey-brown eyes with his own crimson ones. "All I want is to make sure that Orochimaru will die."
"…Permission granted," Tsunade had gasped, so the Twenty One had followed the leads to Orochimaru.
Neji, you're the only Hyuuga in the team.
Watch out for Naruto. He's not himself. If he unleashes that in the middle of the mission there's a chance that Orochimaru will be able to escape. Use your Byakugan. Make certain that he'll always be in your sights.
…Of course, Hokage-sama.
Orochimaru had been waiting. The whole thing had been a trap. In his own, egotistical way, he had lured them inside his castle of mazes in order for his men to butcher them. They had infiltrated the castle with ease, prepared their exits and readied their strategies.
It was a shame that even geniuses like Shikamaru and Hatake Kakashi had not anticipated hundreds of missing Nin attacking them.
It was only their battle-honed instincts that had allowed the Twenty One to survive the initial onslaught. Thunder, fire and water had rushed both against them and to their aide. Kakashi's shinobi dogs had torn through six men effortlessly while Sakura had crashed a man's skull with her bare hands. Uzuki Yuugao had sliced her three opponents and then turned to hiss poison at another. Neji himself had alternated between simply tapping men on their vital organs and using his teacher's methods in order to snap their bones and shatter their sternums. Uzumaki Naruto had used killing intent, of all things, to make a female Nin's heart burst in her chest from the insane amounts of adrenaline pumped into it.
And, just as the fight had come to an end and hope had shined upon the Twenty One like the dawn of a new day, twice the amount of enemies, including some familiar faces like Kabuto and more than thirty Curse Seal users had appeared, others screaming obscenities and others calm and collected, aiming for the kill.
As Neji was allocating the strikes of his Hakke; Hyakunijuuhachi Shou, Naruto had used the opportunity to disappear into the shadows, far away from the Hyuuga's field of vision. As soon as he had realized that, Neji had called out a warning that he was certain had gone unheard, and rushed after his blond teammate.
"Kukuku…" Orochimaru's laughter had echoed from everywhere around the room, and Neji had been quite sure that even a wild card like Naruto had been carefully predicted, including his pained accusations.
"Where are you, you bastard? Show yourself!"
A whistle of displaced air to the left had been greeted with a shower of kunai and shuriken. Orochimaru's laughter came from the right. "You fancy yourself capable of catching me like a fly in your web, Naruto-kun?" Another whistle was met with another barrage of weapons.
"It is a shame that snakes eat spiders."
The Kusanagi no Tsurugi had bitten into Naruto's unprepared back with immense speed, cutting flesh so cleanly that even the major arteries situated there took a pause in bleeding. Naruto had hissed as a spray of blood doused the floor behind him. In tiredness or defeat, he had fallen on his knee and hands as he had gasped for air. He was kneeling in front of the man he wanted to kill, and Orochimaru could not be happier about it.
"Finished so soon? Aren't you going to avenge your family, little boy?"
Naruto had whispered a deviant "fuck you' through the blood pooling in his mouth.
"Vulgar." Naruto's arm flew off from a strike so fast not even Neji had seen it coming.
"And yet…" A vertical slice tore Naruto's eye right out of its socket, cleaving deep enough to scar the bone underneath. "…so delightful that I could just give in to you, my little maelstrom." Orochimaru laughed once more.
In the darkness, something had illuminated Naruto's fallen form brightly enough to shatter the shadows covering them and reveal Orochimaru standing in front of the maimed Jinchuuriki. The Kusanagi was raised high, and the Snake had a perverted look in his face as he prepared to deal the final strike. The legendary sword sliced the air in half as it dug in for the kill…
Naruto's hand had shot up and caught the blade in his fist, whereupon he proceeded to squeeze the sword hard enough to ruin it. Orochimaru could only stare in disbelief as the person he had come to know from his former acolyte as 'dead-last' discarded the snapped in two sword's blade away and slammed an instantly conjured Rasengan right into his gut. The explosion that came as a result was so loud in the small chamber that Neji had lost all sense of equilibrium and fallen on his knees as a wave of dizziness overcame him. Trained as he was, however, the Byakugan was kept active even as vertigo consumed him.
"That… hurt!" Orochimaru had shrieked from the wall where he had been blasted on. He was ruined as a person from head to toes, bits of his flesh gone forever and the muscles where the Rasengan had drilled into showing. Blood had been rushing out of his wounds in immense, lethal amounts.
Naruto hadn't said anything to the Snake's protests. He had simply reached for his hacked arm and kept it near the stamp until the fox's power kept it there by actual bone and tissue.
As Orochimaru coughed and spat blood, the Jinchuuriki had arched his back until the torn muscles blended back together. His eye was replaced by a new, dry one, and he had to blink several times until it worked properly. "Cut the crap and do that skin thing of yours. I'm not done with you yet."
The ruined Orochimaru had suddenly smiled. "Saw right through me, hmm?" Then, ripping his way through his own face and climbing out of his ruined self, the Sannin rose anew. "Well that was-" Naruto had never allowed him to speak. He had punched the new Snake as soon as he had appeared. Neji felt, rather than heard, Orochimaru's skull cave in and saw Naruto keep pushing until the Snake's back had snapped back and rushed to the ground, where he was slammed with force enough to create a crater in the stone plaques covering the floor.
"Get up. I didn't come here to be toyed with."
Orochimaru remained on the ground.
"Stop playing and get UP!" The red chakra surrounding Naruto emitted hatred and power in double its amounts, and the visage of it seemingly burning onto his every pore was disturbing. His eyes had turned completely red from iris to sclera, and his nails-turned-claws bit into the skin of his palm with controlled hate.
Orochimaru's smile had echoed from the chamber's edge, where he appeared with the Kusanagi in his hands and a smile on his face. "Excellent show so far, Naruto-kun. Now, however, I seek only one answer to the most recent of my dilemmas; why are you so mad at me again? I mean, what did I do?" Orochimaru asked with mock innocence.
"You killed my wife, you son of a bitch!" Naruto had covered the distance between them in a mere second. A hundred of his copies hounded him like a hive trailed its queen.
Orochimaru had the gal to pull a strand of hair out of his eyes with his free hand. "Kukuku, is the child angered? Is the little child playing ninja going to cry? Is he?" With speeds that Neji had trouble following, the Sannin and Naruto had actively started their battle, shaking the entire foundation of the castle they were into.
The Snake was an artist with his sword, gliding around Naruto's attacks with enough grace for Naruto's carelessness to undo his own replicas. But Naruto's fury was an endless pit. With every second that passed, he tapped more into the Kyuubi's power. With every second that passed, he got even closer to the Snake in exchange for his body shredded to ruins. And yet, with every second that passed, the Snake seemed to emanate even more happiness and glee.
Neji, who had managed to recover some after the initial bang that had brought him down, was able to see through one more of Orochimaru's mind games. "Naruto!" He was silenced by a pale hand on his mouth and a piece of legendary metal underneath his throat. The Orochimaru Naruto was fighting was nothing more but an illusion.
"Let him fight to his heart's extent, Neji-kun. And above all, do not make me stab you. You're a fine specimen; it'd be a shame for you to go to waste." The snake had warned.
The 'fight' kept on and on, Naruto's roar overcoming Orochimaru's laughter. Neji was sure that the Jinchuuriki was no longer capable of conscious thought and fighting on instinct alone. Finally, as Uzumaki's clones fell to the Kusanagi, Naruto saw an opening and sliced Orochimaru's head clean off his shoulders with an inhuman roar.
The fight was over and Naruto, exhausted, fell on his knees once more. His face seemed genuinely happy, a feral grin carrying victory on his lips, and his shoulders had sagged as if a weight had been lifted off them. Orochimaru had thrust Neji aside, and before the Hyuuga could warn him, Naruto had been sliced from intestines to neck. "…Genjutsu…" Naruto had gasped in realization.
"Yes, Genjutsu." Orochimaru had confirmed, the Kusanagi still in Naruto's bleeding guts. "Tell me, you pitiful bastard, how does it feel that- ARHAAAAH!"
"Good enough; thanks," Naruto had smirked through shrill canine teeth. He had twisted through the sword. He kept the real Snake from the throat with one hand while he had steadied the sword in his hands by grabbing Orochimaru by the wrist with his other hand. Soft cracks had sprung where Naruto kept applying pressure while the Kyuubi's chakra surrounding him doubled in intensity.
"What… What are you doing…?" Orochimaru had gasped, fear crawling into his marked eyes.
Naruto had whispered, yet the strength carried in his voice had allowed Neji to hear his words. "I'm killing you."
Orochimaru had clawed at the hand clutching his throat to no avail. "Please…"
"My wife and daughter did not have the decency to beg. Why should you?" Naruto had asked, silencing Orochimaru. With renewed strength, the killing intent Naruto had been emitting flowed over Orochimaru and Neji both; the only reason Neji did not die on the spot was that Naruto had been targeting the Sannin instead of him.
With a roar from Naruto and a scream from Orochimaru, the dark halls were drowned with the Demon Fox's chakra. The Snake had stopped resisting, finally realizing that the man in front of him was not the weakened Sarutobi or the happy-go-lucky Naruto he had known; the man in front of him was a demon of his own making.
And with that final thought, Orochimaru had died of fear.
Neji had come to some vague time later. Naruto had been sitting next to him. "I fucked up." Was the first thing he said to the startled Hyuuga.
"I let my defenses down, thought that I was untouchable. All I could see was my life changing for the best ignoring that, in our time and age, getting involved is some sort of a weakness." Naruto had sighed. Neji had seen that beside him were the ashes of Orochimaru, scattered around the hall. "And yet I ignored that. I said 'fuck it'. I have a beautiful woman, a delightful daughter and people that love me."
A dark chuckle erupted from Naruto's bloodied lips. The Jinchuuriki was covered with the red substance, but his face was the worst; his eyes still carried traces of the Fox's chakra and shone crimson in the darkened room. "I failed them, Neji. I should've been walking around ever vigilant, and yet I ignored the first rule I learned back when I first became a shinobi. My precious people come before me. My ego was my damnation."
Neji had tried to tell him something, but his mind had been clouded with memories of death and the images the fox had burned into his brain. He could only stare.
"Rest. I'll go see what the others are up to." Without the use of hand-seals, Naruto had left behind four clones to look after the tired Hyuuga and left to find the rest of the Twenty One. Neji had woken up in Konoha's Hospital certain that he would never be able to forget the look of pain into Naruto's face. He had made a point to always look after his teammates and family since then.
"Neji, wake up." It was morning in the small camp. Next to him, Sakura kept on sleeping. Above him, Naruto looked at him with a slight hint of amusement. "Heavy sleepers, are we?"
"…Something like that." Neji admitted with a tone of embarrassment in his voice.
Naruto smiled and helped the groggy Hyuuga up. "We leave in ten minutes. Get ready."
The journey had once more been uneventful, with a mere pause of five minutes so that they could dine on trail rations before once again sprinting through the massive forests and, later on their trip, desert dunes of Wind Country. Having done the trip before, they each ignored the heat wave that met them as they kept running and, finally, as they approached the end of the shinobi continent they came to see the mists enveloping the sandy hills in front of them with nothing sort of surrealism.
Neji and Sakura stood, watching on the mists crawling around. They seemed to span for miles in this area of the desert, capturing everything from sand to air. They looked like an ominous cloud, despite the pure white color they possessed. They seemed almost liquid in their movements and their brightness illuminated the desert clear as a torch in the middle of the night the three shinobi found themselves in.
"This is it." Naruto said abruptly. "I won't blame you if you want to sit out of this one."
His teammates glared at him with wounded pride. "We are in this mission as well, Naruto. How can you say that?" Sakura asked.
The blond sighed, something akin to frustration etched in his gesture. "I have been here before." He admitted after a moment as he sat down on the cold sand. "It's not pleasant. The… mists, or whatever the hell they really are, almost absorb you. They haunt you, seek you; learn what you are and what you want. And then…"
Neji recognized regret in Naruto's body language; the way his shoulders slumped, the awkward passing of his hand through his hair, the slight squint of his eyes… Whatever he had seen inside the Broken Lands, he had not enjoyed.
"…Then they give it to you." Naruto said, looking at them.
"What did you see?" Sakura asked curiously.
A glimmer of pain passed through the blonde's eyes. "I…" He whispered, "I don't want to talk about it." Louder, more active, less pathetic. There was a shadow, a hint of the old Naruto in the man's voice as he got up and gestured to his teammates with one hand. "Come on, we don't got all day!" Then he was leaping away, the sand scattering away from his hasty leaps. Neji and Sakura hurried to follow.
The thousand feet separating them from the mists were crossed swiftly. When they were mere steps away from the menacing fog, however, Neji and Sakura paused in uncertainty. Naruto didn't. "You don't have to fear the mist," he said with a soft smile as he walked inside. The rest of his comment came out distorted, as if electricity had jolted through his vocal cords.
The paleness of the fog surrounding them was making them dizzy. They seemingly walked on thin air; there were no limits to where they could see, but all three of them recognized it as an optical illusion.
"I can't see through the fog with my Byakugan." Neji commented with a feeling neither of his teammates had heard in his voice before.
"It's a test. Not one of our skills will work properly for now." Naruto told him.
Sakura raised an eyebrow. "You know too much to have been here only once, Naruto." She said softly.
"I don't know that because I've been here before, though. I have been informed by…" The blond trailed off, making them understand that he was speaking of the Demon Fox.
"Ah." She replied. So they walked in silence from there, all three of them caught up in their own thoughts and concerns. After what had seemed as ages in their stroll –none of their physical needs were present, like hunger or thirst, and they had no outside source of telling time- Sakura thought she saw someone walking towards them. Her teammates didn't notice, so she told them.
They didn't turn to look at her; Neji had a dazed look on his face, while Naruto just closed his eyes and kept on walking.
She turned to look back at the figure, and her own scared gasp barely reached her ears. The man walking towards Sakura sported thin pink hair, emerald eyes and a mustache. He was dressed in what could be called 'civilian' clothes and had his arms spread for a hug.
She ran up to him and fell in his arms. "This is impossible!" His face sported a goofy grin she associated only with him as he hugged her back. Something seemed alien in the situation, so Sakura pulled back, her hands holding her –long dead- father by the shoulders. "Wait. This is impossible."
"I know." He replied, grinning.
She shook her head lightly, her short hair flaying around in the motion. "The dead don't walk."
He copied her motion and kept her by the shoulders. "I know. But it's me. Believe me." He smiled as he reached under her chin with his left hand and pushed her head up to meet his eyes. "Nobody else would feel this way just looking at you."
Sakura smiled, satisfied, and moved in to hug him again. "Daddy…"
Her father chuckled. "I know you have a lot of questions, my Sakura." His grin fell and his eyes reddened. "I just have one."
Then she felt an insane pulse of chakra coming from her father's body, drawn from underneath his skin, which glowed brightly as it tore, sending flesh and blood and bones and unending flames against her as she heard her father scream, "WHY DID YOU LET ME DIE?"
Sakura felt her flesh weaken, give up under the pressure, and she caught on fire, wrapped by her father's stronger arms as she screamed. Her eyes rolled up to the back of her skull and…
She fell into Naruto's arms, mercifully passed out. He looked at her with an unreadable expression and then glanced at Neji. "You won't fall to the same tricks, right?"
"Chakra manifestations." Neji nodded. "My Byakugan saw through them, although I admit that I was close to giving in. Did the Broken Lands offer that to us?"
Naruto lifted Sakura in his arms like a bride, and started walking. "It begins as nightmares, clawing at your worst memories and exploiting them for unknown purposes, much like a genjutsu master would do."
Neji followed from behind him, saying nothing to interrupt.
"I don't know why. The mists are almost sentient in that regard. They are nigh omnipotent; no man or creature can escape that initial, vicious torment. But if you survive, and walk forward into the mists, they reward you."
Naruto shrugged. "If that's what you want."
Neji frowned. "I…" His voice sounded weak, so he cleared his throat. "I saw my father. He complained about Fate, trying to pull me back into the darkness I was possessed with years ago. The one you pulled me from. He… had some points. If I hadn't had the Byakugan, I'm fairly certain I'd given in like…"
The Jinchuuriki chuckled lightly. "Like Sakura. C'mon, Neji, I know you to be a fairly competent speaker. Don't choke on your own tongue because you're afraid of my reactions. Speak up."
Neji was silent for the minutes that followed, contemplating what Naruto had told him. Finally, he spoke up. "Your beard sucks. You need a shave."
Naruto's barks of laughter accompanied them long after that.
The God-King, Pein, sat atop of his throne, glaring at his assassins' every ridiculous antique with his Metempsychosis eyes. Every muscle move, even every blink, was seen, digested, and catalogued in the vast mental libraries he possessed. They were on their way, he mused. Part of Pein wanted to kill the young Hyuuga and the unconscious medic, but he held back. That would only ruin his long term plans. He did not want them dead without every aspect of his beliefs etched onto their features. What good would their deaths give him?
The Yondaime no Izou would simply unleash his demon and rush into his city, seeking murder. And after that, no matter which way Pein used to kill Uzumaki, it would go moot as the boy's fury would disregard both Pein and Suffering. Pein understood now, thanks to Torment's teachings. He would need to give them confidence. The sadist grinned, his onyx trinkets biting onto his flesh. "The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Isn't that how it goes?"
His every servant, hundreds in the room alone, every single one of them bearing Akatsuki cloaks and onyx trinkets pierced on their faces, answered immediately. "Yes, my lord," echoed throughout the room.
With a chuckle, Pein transfixed his gaze back to the entrance of his domain, where the assassins had just escaped the fogs' plights and had just started walking onto the enormous crimson bridge made of metal. "Pein," The God-King whispered, and then his power willed others into existence.
It was good to be God.
The mists had subsided, finally offering the trio of shinobi their visions back. And they had seen that, instead of nothingness, they now walked on metal leading to a city of the Old Days. Buildings reaching the sky were everywhere, standing tall and proud. The heavens almost seemed to reflect their metallic sinew. Underneath the bridge, the now dormant mists covered the sea the bridge had been made to hover for. To their left stood the statue of a woman carrying a book and a torch; the diadem she wore marked her as important, yet…
Her face was mutilated by black spikes similar to Pein's.
If Naruto hadn't been holding Sakura in his arms, he would have moved to crush it to seas that surrounded the small island the statue was stepping on. "Naruto." Neji warned, just in time for him to move.
Underneath him, just where he had been standing mere moments ago, exploded a ball of fire. He landed hard on his feet, unfazed of the assassination attempt. It wasn't like it would have worked on him anyway.
All around them, standing on the bridge's railings and road, had appeared countless copies of Pein, yet each was a man or woman of his or her own. Unique faces and statuses seemed to dominate the grounds around them, everyone dressed in Pein's favored attire, even if they did not sport the Rinnegan or his bright orange hair. It was as if Naruto had used his favored Kage Bunshin technique.
The one who had tossed the fireball, a tall man with a long brown beard, walked forward. "This is our land, shinobi." He was charismatic enough to turn a simple word into an insult. "And you are not welcome here."
"Neji," Naruto whispered, "more manifestations?"
The Hyuuga activated his bloodline limit with will alone, instead using his hands to fall into the gentle fist fighting style. "No, they are actual persons." He whispered back.
Naruto's eyes flashed red as he tossed the still out cold Sakura away and into the hands of a fresh copy of his. "Good." He said with a grin. "Means we can go wild on them."
"Wild?" The sorcerer laughed. "No, Uzumaki Naruto, it is us that will- URGH!" Blood pooled in the man's mouth immediately as Naruto used a strange chopping motion that seemed to manipulate the air between him and his target into a blade. The sorcerer fell backwards, gurgling as his body seized.
"Go!" Naruto yelled, and Neji spurred into motion. Two men fell as he passed between them, tapping them lightly on their temples. He jumped on a railing, attaching himself on it with chakra, and readied for the attacks that were to come. Crudely, nine of the cultists rushed at him, ornamental daggers in their hands. "You're in the range of my divination," Neji declared as he spread a hundred and twenty eight strikes between their vital points. Even as spasms dominated their bodies, Neji had moved elsewhere, into new prey.
The Jinchuuriki had seemed to attract the more powerful opponents; as four of them made the hand-seals for what Naruto recognized as a Katon technique, he sent shuriken against them. The chakra pumped into the metallic stars made them glow for a second, and then there was a storm of the deadly weapons, burying themselves into their unprepared victims.
Even as the tall, masked shinobi charged at him with a sword in his arms, Naruto pulled a Kawarimi with one of the dead bodies and proceeded to stab the then flat-footed enemy with a kunai. "Jackass."
Away, Neji span on his heel in the motion required for the Kaiten. As his momentum came to an end, he reached into the kunai holster strapped to his hip and sent his arsenal against the survivors of his family technique.
Two clones caught the wrestler from his hands and pulled with all their demon-driven might, sending him over the bridge's railings and into the mists below. Whatever he saw there was no pretty, if his screams were any indication. Naruto himself kicked one of his opponents in his back, crashing it and sending him away flying.
Now near Naruto, Neji surprised his three opponents as, instead of a chakra-filled tap to their uncovered areas, they received a blast of fire directly into their face. They screamed as the super-heated air they sucked into their lungs melted the soft tissue.
The clone carrying Sakura had the unconscious woman in his arms dropkick the madman rushing them before kicking him in the face himself. "Jackass," he offered, copying his real self from moments earlier.
Screams and moans from the not-dead-yet-but-soon-to-be enemies. Blood pooling around the dead. Bone and innards exposed for all to see.
"Messy job." Naruto commented as he received Sakura back from his Shadow Clone. Every single one of their enemies was either passed out or far, far worse.
Neji wiped out his leather gloves one a relatively clean Akatsuki cloak and walked towards them. "Indeed, but that comes with the enemies' great numbers." He commented.
"Yeah, I know. I could've killed all of them with clones, to be honest, but I sort of needed a workout."
Neji noticed that Naruto had spoken disturbingly frankly about killing, something that he had never used to do in the past. Then again, he was the same person that had seen him kill a hardened shinobi like Orochimaru using only killing intent. "Let's go then." He offered.
"Lead on," Naruto nodded.
"Ah, Uzumaki… How you have fallen. No matter. You have failed to pass the test. Come to your doom."
"Dad!" Sakura screamed, sitting uptight. Her distressed look subsided after a frantic glance at her surroundings. She was inside a warehouse, covered into her unfold sleeping bag. Everywhere around the room sat large metallic containers, some of them opened, and revealing to have sealed food inside. To the other side of the room, watching out of a broken window sat Neji, who didn't even look at her. The veins around his eyes told her that he knew she was awake. And even if he hadn't seen her, then her cry would have done the trick.
"There is a water bottle next to you if you are thirsty, Haruno-san. Your clothes are in a tidy pile to your left."
She was in her underwear. Despite her constant dealing with male teammates and her actual sexual activity throughout her shinobi career, Sakura had never exactly gotten the hang of having been seen immodestly. "Thanks." She called to him as she pried open the plastic bottle and drunk its content. Then, fooling herself that being looked with the Byakugan wasn't exactly like being actually being seen, she got dressed and moved next to her new teammate.
"So, anything interesting?" She asked, hoping to make herself more familiar with him and get over their strangeness.
"Pein has followers. They are dressed like him, and they all carry the same mutilations he has done to himself." Neji spoke up, as he remembered Pein's descriptions back when he had first of Team 7 fighting him off. "Naruto has moved off to interrogate the survivor of the group we fought against."
Sakura looked impressed. "I… See." She said diplomatically, unsure on what to comment with. "When do you think he'll be ready?"
Neji turned his head slightly and gave her a look. "When he's ready."
"Yeah, but…" She suddenly felt his palm preventing her from speaking any more.
"Haruno-san, I am being as honest as I can here and I'm going to ignore that being a ninja and honesty do not match together in favor of getting this off my chest, but…" He breathed in, and just as his enhanced eyes recognized an outburst in Sakura's body language he butted in and cut her off, knowing that doing so would get in her nerves. "You need to start being a proper ninja. I do not care what perils you have faced, what sorts of enemies have fallen by your hands and what skills you know. You are a talented young woman who needs to wake up. We are in enemy territory. We are about to face an opponent that likely already knows where we are, and we cannot afford you to fall behind."
She opened her mouth to retort and Neji, perhaps the one shinobi of his generation to keep his hands to himself outside of combat, strengthened his grip around the medic's mouth and muffled her response. "Haruno-san, even though I'm quite certain that your cursing will reduce me to a pathetic shamble and that when I finally stand at the end of your rampage I will attempt Seppuku twice, you have to be silent in doing so, the reasons for this are obvious."
Sakura's emerald gaze promised Neji some sort of divine punishment, but soon faded away. Neji withdrew his hand from where it covered her pale lips. Together, they sat in front of the window in silence.
"You're right, Neji. I've been lagging behind, caught up in my little world." Neji kept silent as Sakura explained herself. "I just wish that we were against something different. I've fought Kabuto, Orochimaru's right hand, and emerged victorious in a battle where the slightest tap could cripple you for life; something that you, of all people, should know quite well."
Indeed, the stoic Hyuuga knew what a mere tap could do. Little cousin Hinata-sama had suffered a humiliatingly early retirement thanks to one of his own taps. Her heart had never healed properly for her to go on as an active ninja. The Iwa shinobi who had claimed to be impervious to harm had been standing proudly above the fallen forms of Team Gai until Neji had arrived on the scene in order to jab at the man's throat with three mere chakra-coated fingers. Even Uzumaki Naruto himself, the Immortal, could not work his own legs for six whole hours after Neji had struck him in the nether regions of his spine with a Jyuuken strike.
The dark moments in Neji's mind faded away as he realized that he had stopped paying attention to Sakura's speech. "-ruto hadn't arrived at the last moment in order to shove a Rasengan up that son of a bitch's ass, I probably wouldn't be here. Normally, I'd hold his late appearance against him, but he had been fighting Orochimaru and he had been through a shitload of tragedies." Sakura smiled lightly, as if she had not remembered her relatively younger self lying on a pool of her own blood as Konoha's most surprising ninja shoved her own intestines into her delicate body for her to perform self-surgery.
She had been lucky back then, because if the enzymes provided by the Fox inside Naruto's body hadn't worked their wonders in the crude transfusion that occurred, Sakura would have died on the way home. He had been the only one of the Twenty One to be able to walk by himself after the battle; none of the major players during the invasion had even been able to go to the toilet without professional help, Sakura herself included.
"Naruto's amazing, isn't he?" Sakura asked rhetorically. "He's managed to do incredible things by his own abilities alone, just like had always wanted. He's become renowned because of his abilities as opposed to what's sealed inside him, he has found some friends that would die for him, myself included, and has managed to bounce back from things that would have ripped people like you and me inside out."
"I can tell you of sixty four different things Naruto bounced back, Haruno-san." Neji jested, making Sakura emit a giggle. It was a common secret that Neji was pissed at Naruto for being able to render almost all of the Hyuuga's techniques useless. Sakura guessed that it had something to do with matters of pride. "I can also tell you that the type of emotional scars Naruto has can never be healed, and that I am envious of his ability to act up his part."
Neji raised his hand and counted off with his fingers. "A whole village hated him for something he should not be blamed for. The one person he thought as his brother drove a B-ranked assassination technique through his chest. He lost the closest thing he had to a father to the hands of the madman we are hunting as well as the woman he loved in the Serpent Initiative." Neji withdrew his hands back on his lap and released the deep, sad sigh that he had been holding.
I admit, Haruno-san, that my own list of problems cannot reach Naruto's, and for that I am glad to the Kami, as well as embarrassed. Losing my father was tough; I was what Lee and Tenten call 'a snob, stuck-up asshole' because of that. I almost lost my mind back then. How Naruto manages to keep his sanity is beyond even the Byakuugan's capabilities."
"Speaking of which, both he and Tsunade-sama were heart-broken over Jiraya-sama's death. Shizune told me that the night the assignment was handled out the two were together drinking till morning, speaking low of Jiraya-sama's favourite things and how Naruto should -and would- make Pein pay. Obviously, it was only Naruto that woke up without a hangover the day after.
"Say, Naruto has been gone for a while now. Think he fell onto Peinites?"
Neji's white stare wavered. "Excuse me? Peinites?"
Sakura nodded and looked up in the mist-obscured sky. "Yeah, you know, 'Pein-ites'. A name I thought of the cultists. Makes it easier for us to call them something."
"How about calling them fools?"
They had not heard him arrive, even with Neji's Byakugan active. They hadn't even felt his killing intent up to the moment he spoke. The mists had been covering his scent and visage, while his elite ninja skills took care of the rest. For a moment, Sakura and Neji registered Naruto's ANBU attire. His black sandals, the black cargo pants, the gray flak-vest protecting his chest, the shoulder-long blond hair caught in a ponytail, the porcelain mask ornamented with the delicate markings symbolizing an Oni, a demon from the Pits of Hell perched atop his head, showing off his crimson eyes, dark whisper-marks and trimmed beard.
It was the first time either of them had seen Naruto dressed for what he did best. It was also their first time seeing his ANBU tattoo resembling a leaf, the one Tsunade had written with chakra into his DNA; it was irremovable, even with the Fox's unique abilities.
Neji did not speak. Born and bred a true soldier, he rose into attention.
Sakura kept sitting, but readied herself for whatever Naruto was going to announce.
"I've found their lair. They would not share the information, so I had to carve into their brain to find the exact location. Pein's there." Pein's there and the Hell I'm gonna send him to will seem like Heaven after I'm done with him.
He didn't say it. He didn't need to. Together, the trio departed with Naruto at the lead. After they left, there was no evidence of their ever being in the warehouse. None of them would think back to their conversation ever again.
"Yondaime no Izou… It's a pleasure to meet you once more."
Whatever it was that Team 7 was expecting, it most definitely was not pleasantries. They had approached the tower in which they now knew Pein resided with caution and stealth, and they had climbed to its top floor by sprinting and holding onto the outside wall with chakra. It had been easy. Too easy.
Before they breached one of the windows, allowing the pale mists to climb into the foreign room with them, they had known that they had walked into a trap and were prepared to deal with it accordingly.
Pein walking into the room, alone, and greeting them with a small smile on his face was not something they were prepared for.
"I…" Naruto growled, "…can't say that I share the feeling."
Pein's orange eyes reflected their every move as Pein spoke back. "Of course not. Here you are, speaking to the target you are meant to assassinate, your every honed instinct screaming at you to charge forward, and yet…" Pein's retina seemed to bleed as its orange colour shed itself into his sclera until his entire eye was a pool of neon colour, and they knew that his Metempsychosis Eye was activated. "You feel fear. You hold back, each of you, unknowing of my abilities and powers. Excellent."
Naruto lifted an eyebrow. "Excellent? I thought you brought as here to fight you."
"Of course not. I brought you here to break you, sunder your souls and spirits. You are not here to do 'combat'. You are here to cease existing."
There were no more remarks, not even a hiss of anger as a rough dozen of Kage Bunshin popped into existence and rushed at Pein. The Akatsuki didn't even lift a finger; Neji's Byakugan warned him that an insane amount of chakra was gathered into his retina, and suddenly Naruto's copies were engulfed in flames that moved on to dominate the three shinobi. The Hyuuga had already managed to grab Sakura by her wrist and pull her away from the oncoming fire. Naruto merely summoned energy into his hand and literally slapped the fireball away.
And as Naruto rushed forward to meet Pein head on, Neji and Sakura realized that this was not going to be simple. From all around them –the walls, the floor, even the ceiling- cultists appeared, all dressed in what seemed to be the customary Akatsuki cloak and holding vicious weapons. Together, medic and practitioner of the Gentle Fist, they emerged themselves in battle.
Pein was faster and more agile than Naruto. He dodged the Jinchuuriki's claws with ease sidestepping to the blonde's right side; his Rinnegan was whispering to him what his opponent's move was going to be. His hands on his side and himself unable to form proper hand-seals, Pein twisted his fingers in the proper half-seals -two of them with each hand- before ending the manoeuvre in the Tiger seal and spitting hellish flames at Naruto.
Naruto's eyes widened as he registered the bright blaze right next to him. It was only through the application of a Kawarimi that he managed to avoid being hindered so early in the fight. Appearing ten feet away from the Akatsuki leader, Naruto crossed them in an instant with Kyuubi's red haze surrounding him and a Rasengan at hand.
Pein's hand shot forward and grabbed Naruto's hand by the wrist just before the purple-coloured bomb exploded against his form. The proper application of chakra gave him strength in order to break Naruto's wrist, who in turn dispelled the technique against the sharp pain that flashed through him. Pein's mouth quirked upwards in a smirk and shot his foot forward, slamming it against Naruto's chest with enough power to demolish a small building.
As Naruto flew away from the force of the strike he had just received, a small mass of Kage Bunshin surrounded the wall on which he was going to crash onto and broke his flight. He fell on his feet, which buckled under the sudden force of it all. Seeing that Pein was not moving against him, relishing his victory over the initial brawl, Naruto channelled energy into his shattered wrist and snapped it back into its proper place.
"Not bad." He morbidly commented.
Pein grinned. "Just the beginning, Uzumaki Naruto."
Naruto's hands flashed through the hand-seals and with his eyes empowering him, Pein responded in kind. The building around them roared with the pressure their respective auras applied on it and, as the chakra they each summoned reached a crescendo, they hurled their jutsu at each other. Naruto's technique snarled in the form of a pack of rabid wolves made of the cement surrounding them, while Pein's howled as he spat a blizzard against them.
Each technique cancelled each other as whiteout clashed with raw force; before they could even concede, however, Pein rushed through the chaos that had exploded between them. Naruto was there waiting when Pein emerged from the blizzard, and he met the megalomaniac's blade of crystalline energy with a nameless wind technique that involved a maelstrom akin to his name. The force of their strike boomed against the room, pushing the nearby fight between Sakura, Neji and the cultists outside of the tower where they fell to their doom. With a curse, countless clones dressed in white popped in existence and dived after Naruto's friends, barely grasping them as they plunged to their doom. Together, they dangled from the building like a colourful vine as the chakra manifestations fell all around them.
"Got you!" One of the bearded clones exclaimed.
Sakura let an exasperated sigh escape her lips as she held one of the clones from the wrist. "First thing you're gonna do after we reach Konoha is teach me the Kage Bunshin."
"Sure thing." One of the clones dangling Neji from his ankle called to her. "Now hurry up and attach yourselves to the walls; we need to get dispelled."
Sakura groaned and followed his instructions.
On the –now windowless- top floor of the skyscraper, a titanic duel was unfolded between the two bitter enemies. One of them was fighting for revenge, the other for continuation. The flashy jutsu were discarded in favour of brutal haymakers and vicious kicks. Naruto punched Pein in the face hard enough for the madman's facial ornaments to rip and glide through the air in order to get embedded in the wall behind them. Pein responded with a kick to the sternum so powerful that one of Naruto's ribs penetrated his flesh as it broke and lodged into his heart. Naruto ignored the sharp pain, knowing that it was not going to bring him down. Instead, he saw the brilliant opportunity that Pein had allowed to flash through his defences and exploited it.
In front of Pein's surprised eyes, Naruto's head closed in. For a split second, everything paused as the Rinnegan made everything look crystal clear in the Akatsuki's eyes. And then the head-butt crashed against his skull and he was rocked back by the impact. In the moment it took Pein to reopen his eyes, he had been lifted up by the ankle and slammed against the wall with casual ease, yet powerfully enough to send his cloaked form through the cement and onto the office he habited minutes ago. He crashed down hard on the carpeted floor, dazed temporarily, and began to rise when he heard Naruto's clothes rustle as he jumped after him and landed in a neat crouch ten feet behind him.
"Get up. I came here looking for the same god-damn son of a bitch that was able to take down on of the greatest fighters I've ever known, not some shit-fucking punk that can't even take a punch or two." Obscured by the poor illumination of the room, Pein smiled to himself. Everything was going according to plan. "I said GET UP!"
Despite his affinity to sensing chakra, despite his advanced eyes and skills, Pein was completely unprepared for Naruto's assault. The younger man had channelled the fox's chakra through his vocal cords and had unleashed it in a powerful blast that crashed against the surprised madman with the might of a hurricane. He landed roughly against the polished desk he used to sit at in order to enjoy the view, and stayed there unmoving.
"What are you doing? Stop playing." Naruto's crimson eyes and the weak light's reflection against his white armour were the only source of illumination in the office. There were no human words for the rage he was currently fighting with, no explaining the darkness that his face mirrored. In front of him, unmoving, was the same man that had hurt one of the few persons he had left.
Naruto was going to make him pay.
Laughter erupted from his left, and his eyes roamed the room to locate its source. Pein emerged from the shadowed corners of the room and strolled towards him in what seemed like carelessness. Naruto was not fooled. Both he and the man in front of him were so highly trained in the arts of deception that they were bound to look like amateurs to the trained eye.
The discarded body burst into smoke; Naruto's signature move.
"You can't just die, huh? That'd be too hard for you?" Naruto complained as he dropped into a crouch, his weapons of choice being the claws of his fingers.
Pein's laughter minified to a fit of chuckles. "I'm sorry, Uzumaki Naruto. But didn't I just hear you complain about this being too easy?" No retort escaped Naruto's bloodied lips from when his –already healed- heart started pumping blood into his lungs. He kept staring his opponent, until the orange-eyed man raised his hands in anticipation. "Well then, Yondaime no Izou," came Pein's taunt, "You were able to fend off against a mere fraction of my power. But can you really tackle the force of nature that is an avatar of Pein?"
Naruto's claws sliced past Pein's face, but he had already seen it coming, hopping back as the Jinchuuriki came in. Another furious swipe came at him, but he quickly sidestepped away. "Come on!" Naruto barked. His opponent complied.
With a muffled burst of displaced air, Pein disappeared from plain sight and materialized behind Naruto a moment before he could figure out where he had gone at. A monumental blow blasted across his back as Pein's hand, now transformed into a wall of steel, slammed against him.
Pein dispelled the technique and made use of Naruto's momentary stun in order to produce two kunai from his robe and stab the Jinchuuriki in the throat. The blonde hissed from the pain, and then collapsed as every nerve in his body seemed to turn into mush.
"Deltoid…" Naruto whizzed as he slammed against the floor.
"Of course." Pein confirmed. "Now, on to business." He kicked Naruto in the ribs once, then again as the young man didn't move. "Hmm, I believe that the term you used was 'get up, I came here looking for Jiraya's killer instead of a weakling'. Am I right?"
"You ought to upgrade your linguistics." Pein scolded. "Now then, if you will excuse me, I need to kill your teammates."
"Yes." Pein walked away, leaving Naruto behind.
Sakura had just finished climbing the mirror wall. It had been a tough ascend, especially when the reflecting material rejected the chakra she projected in order to stick on to it, but she had done it.
Pein's orange eyes flashed directly in front of her. It was only her battle-honed instincts that did not allow her to scream.
His left hand shot forward and captured her from the throat. "I believe it's time for you to fly, Haruno Sakura." Between her larynx shut tight and her own primordial fear, her response never breezed through her lips.
From far below, Neji could be heard fending off the cultists that kept spawning from the buildings every pore.
"Everything in this place I have made by myself. Willpower. It is what makes this place breath. They spoke to me." Pein said. "They asked me what it was that I wanted, and I told them that I sought power and command. Power enough to avenge my beloved Konan and my best friend, and command in order to rule the few spots of earth I would allow to survive after I ruined this pathetic planet." Sakura's emerald eyes reflected eerie orange.
"The mists seek to grant you your deepest wish. They always satisfy you at first." The madman continued. "But even after you're done, you cannot get satisfaction." He grabbed Sakura's wrist where she had stabbed him in the solar plexus and then had continued downward, literally gutting him like a fish. "It will be the same with you." With inhuman strength, Pein wretched Sakura's wrist in a very unhealthy angle. Her scream sounded like music to his ears, and the blood that erupted fresh from her wound and washed his hand was deliciously warm.
"NO!" From behind them, standing on the hole on the wall he had made, Naruto stood witness to the entire scene.
"You need to choose!" Pein yelled at him. "Enemy? Or friend?" Then, with Sakura's screams as testaments to his actions, Pein pushed her out of the window and dived behind her head-first.
The three of them, medic, demon host, and madman, glided through the air with the grace of dancers. Blood was pouring towards the sky from Sakura and Pein, and none of them could hear anything else other than the beat of his or her own heart.
"Sakura!" Naruto yelled, inwardly cursing the Fates and Pein and Konoha and everything that had driven him to that position.
The medic in question was concentrating hard on healing her wound, but even that was hindered by the fear of the swiftly approaching ground below them.
Pein was laughing.
"Sakura!" Naruto screamed once more as they popped through the mists that surrounded the building. "Sakura, I need you to listen to me!" She did not respond. Whether with pain or fear, her eyes were glazed and she was unfocused. "Shit." A series of clones materialized between Naruto and his friend, and he grabbed them and literally climbed them down in an effort to approach Sakura faster.
Finally, he grabbed Sakura lightly by the shoulder. He was with her and whether she knew it or not, he was not going to let her get hurt. With a deep breath, he summoned a quite literal cloud of Kage Bunshin around them, hoping that they could work as a cushion for Sakura. With mere seconds on the clock as the ground approached them, Naruto let her slip from his grasp and leapt towards Pein's falling form using one of his clones as a springboard. Pein did nothing to stop him as Naruto tackled him ferociously. He just kept on laughing.
"Here's something for you to laugh about, Yahiko." Naruto warned, as he grasped Pein from the forearms and started spinning them both in the Konoha taijutsu master's trademark move.
The Lotus in Konoha blooms twice.
The pile of clones crashed onto the ground accompanied by the echoing boom of a tangled missile compiled of two spinning bodies slamming against rock. The force of countless human bodies beneath her being crashed by the centrifuge was something Sakura would never forget. She was lucky the power of twenty clones getting dispelled was capable of levelling the pressure on her body, or she would have sported a broken neck. She levitated between ninja smoke and fog for a second, and then she landed awkwardly on the hard pavement, safe but broken. "I'm alive." For a second, she smiled. And then she could not hold her sobs as she wished that she had never been born.
He woke up screaming. His ruined leg, a souvenir from the fight with him was acting up again. Caught up in his own sheets and covered in sweat produced by the anvil's flames burning searing hot, he felt as pathetic then as he had at the first moment of his life. And yet… There was something different going on. He could feel it in the heated air he drew in his lungs. Not for the first time, he wished he could explain what he had seen to his brother and make him understand; make him see what was going on just like he had seen it days ago in his fire-drenched dreams.
But he could not. His brother was long dead, a product of his doings. There was nobody left to grant him the uncertainty of a prophecy now. No one but himself, and he was known to have trouble understanding even the flight of birds. To comprehend and interpret a dream? Impossible. He lifted his eyes and glanced through the window at the merciless sun. "So this is what it feels like to be in your shoes, brother. Wisdom that I don't want is surging through my eyes. Words that I am not meant to pay heed to haunting me with their echoes. Are you taunting me in your afterlife? Are you actually enjoying seeing me hurt like this?"
"Stop this," he ordered himself. "You have seen the impossible, true. But you… You can actually do this. You have seen this for a reason." He glanced at the small container of water he used to quench his works inside. He saw the exact same face he was used to acquainting himself with. "I need to forge the blades once more. Adamantine and steel, magic and hatred, all weaved together in the finest weapons the world has ever known… Well, with a few exceptions." He gave his reflection a shit-eating grin. For what seemed to be eternity in his long, timeless life, he could see reason behind his moves. He was the avatar of creation, the pillar of construction.
He could do this.
Ignoring his protesting leg, he limped towards his tools and conjured the materials required for the smiting of a new artefact in his stead.
There was hope for him yet.
Naruto coughed his aching protests and rose from where he had winded up to with dirty waters cascading down on him; a place that just happened to be the sewers of the grand city above them. A gigantic hole had been torn from above him, where he and his enemy had crashed earlier.
"A fitting place for our final battle, Uzumaki Naruto." Pein spoke up from about three hundred feet away form him. Despite sporting a now ruined Akatsuki clone and most of his spiked trinkets having been ripped from his face, he seemed to be fine; especially for a person who had just received one of the moves that guaranteed death.
Naruto reached for his head with both hands and yanked hard, making his neck pop back in place. He had broken it in his rush to deliver the Lotus, and if it was anyone else but him standing there, they would no longer breathe. "How did you survive?" Pein grinned with his normal looking face as he picked a handful of disgusting water and splashed it against his face in order for the dry blood to escape him. When he looked back at the soaked blonde, Naruto was able to see that he, too, could heal. It was not fast, but Pein was able to regenerate. "How can you do that?" He asked again.
"From observing you in my final moments."
"You killed me, Uzumaki Naruto. Your move was able to do it, but not without harming yourself in the way. And as you lay mere feet away from my dying place, I was able to see it. Analyze it. Understand it. Do it."
"Regeneration." Naruto dryly observed.
Pein smiled. "Yes. My Rinnegan let me see how the Kyuubi's chakra rushed through your inner coils, making your heart pump blood and mending your flesh. I used my actual chakra instead of a demon's, of course, but the principle was the same." The Akatsuki spread his hands wide. "Thanks to you, the Fourth's Legacy, I, Pein, was able to achieve immortality!"
"Perhaps." Pein admitted in response to Naruto's accusation. "I have used up a lot of my chakra in exchange for life, but I can see that you are not far behind me in that aspect. This should be our final battle. This should be the dream of dreams, the End. A decided victor will emerge and take this world for his own."
Naruto shifted into a crouched battle stance. For once, Pein was telling the truth. Whether he liked it or not, his chakra reserves were running low, and exhaustion from the constant healing was grating him down. He would need to finish this, and do so no matter what. He could not allow the madman in front of him to escape. With concentration vast enough to make sweat run down his forehead, Naruto swirled chakra in his palm in the proper summoning of the Rasengan. Sure enough, the small maelstrom span in his hand.
Not enough. Naruto thought as he saw Pein stand ready for his attack. I need to take this two steps higher.
Pumping even more chakra in the Rasengan, Pein saw the miniature typhoon in Naruto's hand evolve into what he knew to be its final step. The Fourth's jutsu evolved into its spiked counterpart, but Naruto was not done.
Raw agony poured down Naruto's hand as the spikes spinning around lazily started shattering into smaller versions of themselves that actually bit into his palm. Blood pooled from where the spikes sliced through his palm, and Naruto knew that there was no regeneration. Slowly but steadily, the swirling knives started spinning around faster, matching the Rasengan's inner rhythm until they were a blur. The Jinchuuriki knew what it felt like to shove one's hand into a blender as the final version of the Rasengan, a maelstrom of energy resembling a Morningstar's head, bit into his palm until his bones were actually visible, and even then it kept digging.
"Ready?" Naruto called to his nemesis, who nodded.
For once, Pein was serious as he answered, "ready."
Naruto sprung into action just as the air where he was standing superheated until the ozone in the atmosphere burned. He jumped above a jet of ice aimed at his feet and run atop the frozen stream until Pein made the earth in front of him wake in the form of a razor maw. Not skipping a single beat, Naruto applied chakra to his free left hand and stuck it on the ceiling that he was now able to reach and stuck to it. Hanging from the ceiling like a monkey would do from a vine, the Jinchuuriki then raised his feet and stuck them on the ceiling as well. He was less than eighty feet away from Pein now, an amount of distance a simple leap could cover.
So Naruto leapt.
Immediately his lungs filled with water that turned into ice; the aqueous humor inside his eyes turned into acid that seared itself in and out of his eye sockets. His head was engulfed in flames that rushed to burn him entirely, and gravity itself seemed to pull him down once and for all.
Whatever it was that Pein did, was not enough to stop him. Naruto stomped hard in front of the madman, and then slammed the most lethal technique in his arsenal right into Pein's sternum, where it tore inside him immediately, sending blood and gore spattering away. He wanted to scream, howl with satisfaction, but there was no taking in air as his own body seemed to collapse on itself.
And then he felt it; Pein's regeneration was able to hold against the Rasengan. "Yes! Feel it, Uzumaki Naruto! Feel your damnation! My chakra is enough to drive your pathetic attack away! I am IMMORTAL!" The madman roared, even as his orange eyes held one small detail.
Naruto was holding another copy of the deadly technique on his free hand, and he was shooting it across the air between them, aiming the Rasengan between Pein's eyes. "No! It can't be! I am immortal! I am undying!"
The Rasengan exploded into Pein's face with more power than even the nuclear bombs of Old. Even if his chakra was enough, it was not potent enough to drive two of the most lethal techniques known to man away in order to save him. Pein's roar of defiance was shot away like a fly under the crescendo of the Ranengan's grinding.
Naruto gagged and fell on his knees even before Pein's headless body could even budge. With morbid satisfaction, he saw that the Rasengan had drilled a hole in the megalomaniac's chest. Chakra exhaustion crept under him worse than the nausea that made his vision swim. "I did it." He declared before he started vomiting whatever it was that he had for dinner and blood and finally collapsing.
He didn't even notice that the entire world around him was shaking. "Naruto!"
"Naruto, I don't know what's happening, but everything is coming down! We need to go!" Naruto whimpered in protest, and suddenly two strong hands were holding him up. "Come on, friend." Neji was sporting a nasty bruise on his forehead and a deep gash in the front of his vest, but he seemed more alive than usual, especially if the flush of his cheeks was any indication. "Where is Sakura?"
He wasn't sure if he could respond, so Naruto tentatively opened his mouth and carefully replied, "…Above."
"Alright, I'll help you up and then you have to run by yourself; I'll be right behind you, alright?" Neji asked. Naruto's vision blacked out from the sheer spinning of the room around him. He was fairly certain he vomited again. "Damn it."
Naruto felt himself gliding through the air and being helped up after their leap ended. He stood on his own feet –barely- as he heard Neji talk to Sakura a little to the left. "Naruto, don't just stand there, run!"
The Jinchuuriki opened his eyes to look around and saw that Neji was not kidding. The Old City was collapsing, it's tall and proud buildings crashing and falling under their own weight. He was not sure what was at fault, age or manufacturing, but he decided to haphazardly follow Neji's instructions. The three of them ran away from the battlefield, Neji on the lead as he carried Sakura by the waist.
"Neji, I need some water." Naruto called after a bit, his vision still blurred and his head still spinning. He was trained in both running and taking care of himself, ridiculous as that sounded, so he knew that drinking was probably going to help him feel better. Dehydration was usually a common trait after having every mince of chakra exit one's body – or so had Naruto heard, never before having felt the disgusting feeling. When Neji didn't reply, Naruto asked again, in what he perceived as a louder voice. Finally, he stopped running blindly and opened his eyes. "Neji?"
The stoic Hyuuga and Sakura were nowhere to be found. "What the…" In his surprise, Naruto failed to notice the ground give in under him. A gigantic fissure opened underneath him, and for once, his end was certain.
Perhaps, he thought, he could see Ayame and his little girl again.
With a tug coming from his still ruined hand from when he used the self-destructing Rasengan, Naruto came back to reality. Someone, probably Neji, had saved him in the last minute. He was hanging from the fissure's edge with nothing but raw, endless chaos underneath him. Were he to fall, he was certain that it would be a long way down. He looked up to thank Neji and had to do a double take. The person holding him from the wrist…
The person that had saved him…
Was no one else but Konoha's Traitor; Uchiha Sasuke. "Long time no see, Naruto. I see you find yourself in deep shit."
With nothing understandable coming to mind as he fought off nausea and what seemed to be madness, Naruto responded in kind. "Hey, Sasuke. Deep shit's an understatement."
The young man holding him smirked, reminding Naruto the Sasuke he had once considered as his brother. "Well, it's usually the type of thing you usually thrive, right?"
Ignoring the surrealistic feel of the whole situation as he dangled from the edge of the chasm, Naruto shrugged. "I guess."
"Listen, Naruto. If you don't mind, I think I'll give you an intake of reality right now."
"I'm not here to save you. In fact, as you probably know, my only goal of life is to kill."
Naruto coughed as involuntary bile rose to his throat, and he spat it out as he finally found clarity. "What's your point?" He managed to ask between coughs, suddenly feeling a sense of dread.
"My point is you are still my best friend, Naruto." Electric blue eyes widened, allowing the Sasuke's Sharingan to reflect in them. "And I'll be damned if I let gravity claim you before I can get what I want from you." Lightning erupted from around Sasuke's hand and forearm, instantly disintegrating Naruto arm from the wrist down into a steaming red cloud. The last thing Naruto saw as darkness claimed him was the Uchiha's victorious smirk and the last thing he heard was his soft whispering. "Power, Naruto. That's all I seek."
Even as Sasuke formed the hand-seals required to close the fissure shut, Naruto's scream of denial still haunted the crumbling city, and it would continue to do so until the Uchiha's laughter of success carried on.
Author's Notes: Like I say in the beginning of the fic, questions will be answered here. I figure that the ones I need to answer/verify are these. 1) Yes, the fic takes part in New York. Go figure, hmm? 2) By referring to Naruto as the "Yondaime no Izou", Pein is in fact, calling him "The Fourth's Legacy". 3) Yes, I am willing to talk about the setting I've unfolded above. All you have to do is ask.
Author's Notes, v1,2: Polished it, somewhat, as well as erased a subplot I had going (that I really think went unnoticed, either way).
-Sizdothyx, 27-1-2010 (holy crap it's been a long time)