A/N: Thanks for the reviews, everyone, even if most people, probably because of the Kabuto threat, just story alerted or favorited. By the way, Kabuto's been fired. Used too much lube, and cost too much for something he didn't do as efficiently as someone else could do easily. I introduce my new manager of reviews, Orochimaru.
Orochimaru: You know what they say, never send a mildly psychotic boy to do a fully psychotic man's job. Have you ever seen any of the wondrous ways you can stick a snake into someone's orifice?
Okay then, Oreo. You get on with that. Just keep those snakes away from my orifices. I pay you to encourage readers to review, not encourage my fiancé to break up with me. On with the story.
Special A/N (author's note): I took a look at my fanfic versus a great many of the others, wondering why it looked shorter than others that are actually shorter without looking like it. I realized that a great many of the stories up on this site don't use the full paragraph format, making them seem longer, and, to me, less rushed-looking. I'm going to try using this style, and if anyone prefers either style, just tell me in a review. If more people prefer the spread-out style, I'll use that. If more prefer the compact style, I'll switch back to that. Sorry, still learning here. Also, for anyone out there who wanted a completely serious story, you're going to be disappointed. I try to mix in a little comedy every once in a while, like the actual series does... as well as many other anime and manga.
Oh, and yes, in the last chapter, that was the wound from Sasuke's chidori.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. If I did, Orochimaru would still be around... and Sasuke would have herpes or something.
"Where's that book of seals?! Dammit, Naruto! Stick with one style of organization! This damn bookshelf is alphabetical by title AND author, organized by color, and age! Stick with one style!" The blond genin flinched. Even if he was smarter, he was still Naruto.
Aside from Tayuya's frequent bouts of anger, the two got along much better now. It had been two days since the incident. She'd saved his life, even if she (sometimes) argued that he'd been the one saving her from her trust problems. After a day of awkwardness and cleaning up the mess, the two had sat down and had a long talk.
Naruto woke up dizzy, the world dim and spinning. His head throbbed like someone was beating it with a sledgehammer. After taking a few deep breaths, his vision cleared enough to see red hair.
"About time ya woke up, ya lazy bastard." Tayuya! What had happened after he had passed out?
"Tayuya, what happened?" He tried to stand up, before remembering his paralyzed legs. Pulling himself up into a sitting position, and then into a chair, he got off the cold stone floor.
"Well, fox boy, I think you helped me there... I guess I should say thanks." Helped her? What, that talk before he passed out?
"No... I didn't save you. By the way, I meant after I passed out." She leaned back, sighing slightly. She looked like she hadn't been up long herself, and she still looked tired.
"An old wound of yours opened, in your lung. I had to heal it, and I'm just a little tired, now, that's all." He knew which wound she was talking about. His lung felt like it had been through a blender.
After an hour or so of breakfast, coffee, and lazing around, he decided to tell her what was on his mind.
"Tayuya, I think there was more to it than that. Kyuubi's telling me that you nearly died healing me. Why did you do it for me?" He'd honestly never had anyone care that much about him, except maybe Iruka. The girl stared off into the distance for a second.
"Well, it's like you said... you're like me, and that's something I'd never experienced before. The anger was my mask, and I still don't know why my life sucked. But you, you showed me that I can still trust people. At least, I can trust you." A slight blush came over the blond's face. Had he really made her see things differently.
"Tayuya... if it's not too hard for you... I want to know your past..." The girl looked up. Her past? Someone was interested in her past? Well, of all people, Uzumaki Naruto was probably the only one that cared. She was about to start, when Naruto held up his hand.
"Before you do, though, I want you to check something. We're friends, right?" Tayuya nearly stared at him this time... friends? Had she ever really had one of those? Well, again, Naruto was always a good bet, it would seem. She smiled, not her usual one, but a soft smile.
"Yeah, friends. We're in this together, Naruto... in for the long haul. From now on, we stick together..." she held out her hand, and Naruto took it. In unison they made their pact.
"Promise of a lifetime."
Tayuya, as it turned out, had had her share of bad memories. Sold by her abusive parents into slavery, she'd run away after the slave-dealer had tried to sell her to a brothel.
Out on the streets, she'd lived by any means she could, learning how to sneak and steal, to fight, and, by playing her flute at a bar, learning a few minor jutsu, as well as how to use her chakra.
One day she'd tried to steal from Orochimaru, who, of course, caught her. By natural reaction, she used his underestimation of her to kick him in the nether regions.
After spending an hour of running away while he tried to punish her, he calmed down enough to notice some small amount of talent in her, and made her an offer she couldn't refuse.
When she came to the village of Otogakure, she'd noticed that, while there were people who pissed her off, like her future teammates, there were some nice people.
Then she found out that the kindly old man who'd been giving her free food wanted her to pay him with sex. Fortunately, she had a kunai on her, but she'd learned her lesson. She couldn't trust anyone.
Or so she thought. Naruto had opened up a whole new world to her. Well, maybe not a new one, but one that had had several hundred Kleenexes applied to it.
Though they were in hiding right now, she felt that maybe, one day, she'd find someone else she could trust. For right now, she had Naruto, which was just fine with her. Not that she'd admit it.
"Dammit, Naruto! Stop spacing out and tell me where that stupid book is" Naruto pointed to the table she was standing next to, drinking his cup of coffee.
"It's right there. I wasn't the last one who had it. You're the one who set the grocery bags on top of it. Why do you even use grocery bags? You stole everything." The redheaded kunoichi blushed in embarrassment for having been the one to lose the book. Trying to pretend the whole thing had never happened, she decided to answer his question and ignore the topic of the book.
"Well, it's because it makes the stuff easier to carry. That's why, Naruto-kun." The boy shivered. No girl ever called him that, except for Hinata.
Hinata and Tayuya were similar in the way that a tree and a burrito are similar. That is to say, not at all. Except trees and burritos didn't have boobs. Well, technically, neither did Hinata, yet, but Tayuya...
Trying not to think any further on that subject, the genin buried himself in a book about the combined use of seals and medical ninjutsu.
'Let's see, draw the seal, stopping every second side to channel medical chakra, then before the last-boobs. Dammit!' Needless to say, it wasn't going well. Perhaps he shouldn't have spent so much time around Jiraiya...
Meanwhile, at the Hyuuga mansion...
Hinata couldn't bring herself to believe that Naruto had done that. She just couldn't. Naruto wouldn't have done that to... him. They were so close beforehand...
She had to get stronger so she could, someday, prove his innocence. Maybe then he would notice her. Maybe even... She quenched that thought.
'Naruto-kun's arms around- Dammit!' Walking down the halls of the Hyuuga compound with an air of determination, she looked around her, at the plain, spartan decorations, done in traditional fashion.
She'd never say anything about it, but she hated pomp and ceremony. Hell, maybe it was time to stop being shy, and start being bold.
Arriving outside Neji's room, she knocked twice. While she waited, she watched the sky out of one of the windows. It was a nice day, partly cloudy so the sun didn't glare down on everything, but still bright. After a few moments, the door opened, revealing a disheveled Neji.
"S-Sleeping in on your day off, cousin?" A simple nod from the stoic boy was all she got. He waved her into the room, trying, and failing, to suppress a yawn. Hinata nearly slipped into her habit of stuttering uncontrollably, but with a firm mental knock managed to avoid it.
"Good morning, err, afternoon, Hinata-sama. Do you need something?" Finally succumbing to his need to yawn, Neji slumped against the wall in a very un-Neji-like fashion. How late had that boy been up?
"I told you, Neji-san, just call me Hinata, or cousin. I'd like you to train me." The male Hyuuga's eyes widened a bit, but he smiled slightly. So Hinata wanted to become stronger.
"So, Hinata, you want to be stronger. Well, I suppose I could help, but what, may I ask, do I get in return?" The female Hyuuga smirked. So he wanted to play this game again.
"Three chocolate bars."
"Six, and I don't tell Gai-san about your porn stash." Neji nearly fell over at this remark. How did she know? That little piece of info was one he needed to never get out. If Gai heard, he'd never hear the end of it.
He didn't even want to know what Lee and Tenten might do.
"... Damn... fine... Just... give me a few more hours." Slamming the door shut with an un-Neji-like vigor, he walked back over to his bed and got back under the covers. He was about to go back to sleep, when he heard his cousin's voice from the other side of the door.
"Don't spend too much time with the porn, okay? I'd like to start training as soon as possible." Dammit, he thought in an un-Neji-like fashion, punching his pillow and laying down. He'd never hear the end of this... After grumbling for a few minutes in an un-Neji-like fashion, he fell asleep.
Chouji sat on a bench in the hall of the hospital, on the third floor. He hated hospitals. Partly because they always contained bad memories for just about everyone, but partly because it smelled like disinfectant and not food.
He'd been waiting for half an hour now, waiting until his father got out of surgery. He was out of the rough part of his stay, but it would be a while before the man could go on any missions.
Chouji wanted not to be mad at Naruto, since, in all fairness, the older Ino-Shika-Cho trio had been trying to kill him.
Somehow, he couldn't stop himself. This had caused a rift to grow between him and Shikamaru, since the other boy was conflicted and couldn't reach a decision on how to feel yet.
After all, he'd seen his father snap Naruto's neck without a second thought, and Naruto had simply retaliated. Still, it was his father, which was probably the only reason Shikamaru wasn't actively supporting Naruto.
As for Ino, she'd been avoiding everyone ever since then, and the two had only seen her at the flower shop her parents owned. Last they saw her, she had dark shadows under her eyes and looked very depressed. Chouji hoped Sakura could cheer her up, though if she couldn't, it wouldn't be from lack of trying. A nurse broke him from his thoughts.
"Your father's woken up. You can come in and see him." Chouji walked through the door on his left, holding two bags of potato chips, one of them for his father. His old man smiled weakly, gratefully taking the chips. Covered in bandages, and barely able to move, due to all the broken bones, he looked like a mere shell of what he looked like a few weeks ago.
"Thanks, this hospital doesn't provide enough food." The attempt to lighten the mood fooled neither of them. The glare from the sun outside the window was almost angry. The two sat in silence for a few minutes, until the younger Akamichi spoke up.
"Dad, please take it easy after this. I'll take care of that traitor, Naruto. I don't care what I have to-" He was cut off by his father.
"Son, listen. That brat's too strong for you right now. Don't go after him. You'll just be throwing your life away." Chouji took this as meaning that his father didn't have any faith in him. He pleaded, half sad, half angry.
"But dad-" Angry now, Chouza cut him off again.
"I said NO! Listen son, there's something about that brat you need to know. It's a secret, and if anyone knew I told you, I'd spend a few year or two in the Konoha prison. The lower cells, if you get what I mean..." The overweight lad shut up at this. The lower cells of the Konoha prison were the torture cells. What secret involving Naruto could be this important?
"You've been taught about the incident with the kyuubi, right Chouji?" Of course he had, everyone celebrated every year the anniversary of how the Fourth Hokage had bravely sacrificed himself to kill the nine-tailed fox.
"Yeah, otou-san, but what does a dead demon have to do with this?" Naruto couldn't have any connection to that incident. After all, he'd been just a baby.
"That... was a lie... the fourth didn't kill the kyuubi. The demon was too powerful, even for him. No, the demon was sealed in a child." Chouji backed up in shock, not stopping until he knocked over a vase. The vase shattered on the floor, like the lie was, to Chouji, shattered, revealing the dirty, murky truth inside.
"Y-you mean Naruto? Is that it? He's the demon fox?" That couldn't be true, could it? Naruto had seemed like any of the other kids, though maybe a bit lonely. He'd played with Chouji and Shikamaru, laughed with them... Was that all the illusion of a fox?
"Yes, we wanted to kill him, but the third refused, nearly causing a riot. For some reason, he didn't want the demon killed. The rest of us tried to tell him that the child would eventually show the demon side, but he wouldn't listen. He felt protective over what the fourth had tried so hard to defeat."
"So all this time... that demon's been fooling us?"
"No, not all of us. Not even most of us, we just weren't allowed to tell our children..." This certainly put a new spin on things. It mattered not. Chouji would still kill Naruto.
A gust of wind slammed against the window as if in protest of Chouji's decision. He could have sworn it had a red tint to it.
The hokage tower
Tsunade was out. She'd spent most of her time drinking after what happened with Naruto. Once again, she was late to work, and Shizune took care of her workload for her.
The door opened with a creak. Shizune looked up from her stack of paperwork. It was an ANBU.
"Danzo-sama believes it is time..." Shizune simply nodded. Taking one of the sake bottles the hokage had hidden under her desk. Slipping the pill into it, she smiled slightly. This would take a while, but a slow acting one, applied over a period of a few months, wouldn't raise the hokage's suspicion.
Or show up on an autopsy.
The Yamanaka household
"Dad... why..." Yamanaka Ino cried into her pillow. The girl next to her, almost out of ideas, simply patted her shoulder.
"I'm sorry, Ino. It was bad luck. They were given the mission, and they took it. I'm sure that they knew it was a dangerous one." Sakura was nearly at her wit's end. She didn't know how to bring Ino around, and she'd been trying every day for the past few months.
"Why did he take it, then?" Ino looked over at her, as if expecting Sakura to know all the answers.
"A ninja's duty is something that no one can avoid..." Sakura sighed, knowing how much of a burden that was. Now both of her ex-teammates had 'kill on sight' notifications.
"A ninja's duty be damned! I just want out of this all..." She collapsed back onto her bed, sobbing again.
"I'm afraid that we don't have that option now..." Sakura noted sadly. All of Naruto and Sasuke's acquaintances and friends were now distrusted by the council. An attempt to resign would be viewed as treason, and answered with execution.
"Who's going to help me now? I don't have anyone to help me grow, to protect me until I'm strong enough to do the protecting." She turned away from Sakura, trying for once to hide her tears. She felt ashamed at what she'd just said.
To her surprise, a pair of arms rapped themselves around her.
"Maybe I'm not strong enough yet, but, if I can, I'll try..."
"Sakura..." Suddenly, everything seemed a little bit better...
It was a good thing that Ino's mother was at the flower shop. She wouldn't have approved of her daughter kissing another girl.
A random Konoha cafe
"Jeez... this sucks..." Asuma took a long drag off of his cigarette. He rarely smoked nowadays, since he had the unusual trait of smoking less when stressed or worried, and he tried his best to enjoy the few he did have.
"Mmm-hmm..." Kurenai sipped at her cup of coffee. She had shared in her secret lover's pain, compounded by stress with her team, and had been losing a lot of sleep these days.
"Truly. The flames of Kakashi's youth have gone out, it would seem." Gai took a bite of his curry. As always, the taijutsu-specialist kept up his upbeat attitude, though even that was strained right now.
The Jounin met once a month in this small cafe near the edge of the village, to talk and discuss their progress with their teams. Kakashi, even though he was often late, had never missed one, and it was way too late even for him.
The copy-nin hadn't been himself since the incident with Naruto. Sasuke still weighed heavily on his mind, and losing a second genin had left him a shadow of the man he had been. These days, one could usually find him sitting next to the hero monument near the training grounds his friends frequented.
After dismissing the waitress when she asked if anyone wanted anything else, they turned to talk of their students.
"Well, Kiba's been quiet recently. He thinks Naruto betrayed Konoha and all his friends... though I personally think something else is going on here. He's a member of the group that eventually plans to kill Naruto, and because of his advanced training he's been undergoing, he's becoming much stronger, but he's not training his mind, and I'm afraid he might never learn to look underneath the underneath." She sipped at her coffee for a few moments, watching the old woman who ran the place harass the waitress for not working faster.
"Hinata is suddenly more determined than I've ever seen her. She's not stuttering as much, and apparently is planning to undergo training from the Hyuuga on top of her normal training. Just as Kiba is a strong enemy of Naruto, she's a strong supporter. Shino, who's as mysterious as ever, helps to moderate between the two." Finishing her cup, she signaled the waitress for a refill. Gai spoke up next.
"Lee's really upset over what happened, but he refuses to believe that Naruto betrayed everyone. I'm going to reserve my judgement on that. I don't see Naruto as being like Sasuke was, but he could have been negatively influenced by him. Lee's working as hard as ever, refusing to let recent events shake his determination. He'll go far."
"Tenten's not so much shocked as angry. She never knew Naruto personally, and all she knows is that her family refused Naruto as a customer repeatedly in the past. As a member of the anti-Naruto faction, this has caused an unimaginable amount of friction between her and Lee, and, surprisingly, Neji. She doesn't argue with Neji, since she idolizes him, but it's put a real distance between her and the other two. I fear for the flame of youth of our team!"
"As for Neji, he refuses to let it show, but he nearly buckled under the pain that the murder caused. Though he shows as little of the flames of youth as ever, he's one of the leaders of the pro-Naruto faction. Since he's one of the top picks for this years chuunin exam, he's expected to gain a fair amount of influence in his campaigning."
The others took in this news rather gravely, since though they supported the last Uzumaki, tension was rising in Konoha, with the council against the hokage, and it could cause a civil war. Asuma cleared his throat and decided to screw it, lighting up another cigarette.
"Well, Chouji's definitely against Naruto. He says he wishes he didn't hate him for what he did, but he still wants to kill the boy. Shikamaru, having seen his father nearly kill Naruto, is struggling to figure out who was in the wrong, because his father was the one who died, even though it was in attack on his friend. Though he's currently undecided, the fact that he's not chosen Chouji's side has opened a rift between the two. No matter which side Shikamaru joins, his intellect is sure to prove a valuable asset." Taking another long drag, he looked over at the owner of the shop, visibly angered by the mention of the factions.
"Well, as for Ino... that girl's reacted even worse than the others. She's locked herself in her room, only letting Sakura and her mother in. Sakura's trying desperately to help her, but I'm not sure how that's going to go. If Sakura can make a breakthrough, she'll inevitably support Naruto, since I'm sure Sakura will tell her about Naruto's... problem... since, whether she knows what causes it or not, she knows what happens to the boy when he takes a mortal wound." At this point the old lady who was the owner yelled at him.
"We don't need any of that talk in here! That demon brat was obviously just waiting to kill! And that brat who got killed by him... he deserved it for being so close to the demon!" Asuma stood up, a strangely blank expression on his face. Kurenai and Gai had the common sense to jump back, having seen that look too many times. It was a killer's look.
Slamming his fist down on the table, shattering it, the jounin stalked over to the bar. Another punch, this time through the bar, left the old woman cowering against the wall. The other two jounin had the common sense to hold him back, as the other customers watched in shock. Asuma had always been rather nice to the owner and everyone else.
"You... You bitch! Don't you even mention my nephew again with that stupid, wrinkled mouth of yours! Naruto taught that kid a few life lessons that he never learned anywhere else! He helped him, and they were like brothers! You want to know what I think?! I think Naruto got set up! The entire village has hated him all of his life, for something he couldn't control, and just for being his friend, my cousin got killed..." The last of the Sarutobis broke down in tears, and Kurenai knelt down to comfort him. Gai could do nothing but look on sadly.
'Konohamaru...' The blond sat sadly, for the first time in what seemed like forever, allowing himself to think about his murdered friend. How could anyone think he had done it? He didn't know, but he would hunt whoever did it to the end of the earth, once he was strong enough.
He crushed the empty ramen cup he had in his hand. Throwing away, he stared at the ceiling.
'Konohamaru... the ones who did that to you will pay with more than their lives. This... I swear to you!'
The genin, now missing-nin, was torn out of his thoughts by the voice of the redhead he was currently in hiding with.
"How did you say you were going to heal yourself again?"
"I was going to try to modify an appropriate seal to concentrate the healing factor of my kyuubi chakra into my legs, why?" The blond looked over at his roommate (or hiding buddy) curiously.
"Because I think I just found something useful! I knew it, this is one of the bases for the cursed seal. Look here, it's made to channel chakra! If we found the seal to modify the cursed seal, we could change it to work with this one!" Naruto perked up. This could work! He, however, wanted to help her before he helped himself.
"Yeah, and if we found the modification seal, we could use it on your cursed seal!" The two started a little victory dance. Well, Tayuya did, while Naruto simply smiled, still sad from thinking of his almost-little brother. An idea popped into his head.
"Hey, Tayuya-chan? Are there any hints of the location of the rest of the cursed seal components?" The ex-sound nin studied the paper intensely.
"It says... Where brute force may fail, the mind will succeed... Damn riddles..." The two lapsed into thought. After nearly an hour of straight thinking, Naruto had an idea.
"Wait a minute. Look over there, at the organs on the wall! Look at all of them. Do any of them have anything special on them?" Tayuya ran over. After a minute of searching, she found what she was looking for.
"Hey, all of the organs have shougi names on the jars! Naruto, check the shougi board over in the corner!" Naruto used his arms to scoot himself across tables and chairs to the board. It was a half played game.
'Let's see, nothing special about the board, it would seem... wait, there are two 'reigning' kings instead of one and a 'challenging'. I don't think Orochimaru, with his eye for detail, would miss that. Hmm... it's a clue. One's in checkmate by a bishop, one's just in check by a rook.'
"Hey, Tayuya, do any of the brains have a bishop on them?" Raising an eyebrow as if wondering what the hell the boy was thinking, Tayuya checked.
"Yeah, there's one... two... damn, there are six of them!" The blond gritted his teeth. Damn, that complicated things.
'Hmm... bishop... kakugyou... kaku... nucleus! That's it!'
"Tayuya-chan, grab the center brain! Look behind it!" Naruto was excited. They were so close now!
"Hmm... nope, nothing." Naruto was not excited. Shit, what did that mean? Unless... no, that sick bastard.
"Tayuya-chan, open that jar!"
"No, you little shit!"
"The information might be hidden in there!" Tayuya looked at the jar doubtfully. It looked normal, it felt normal, it... didn't make a sound when she moved it.
"What the fuck! There's no sloshing from the preservative?" Slowly opening it to check, she braced for the smell of formalin.
She didn't get any. Upon opening, the jar looked empty. She held it upside down and shook it, until a large scroll, larger than the jar, fell out. Looking down at the thing in shock, she realized there must have been a time/space jutsu in effect.
"Naruto!" The girl shouted at her friend, grinning. Suddenly, a strange look came over her face.
"I know, I know, open it... Tayuya?" He noticed the girl was in pain. Serious pain.
"Naru... to... it's... Oro... Orochimaru..." As she collapsed, he could see the cursed seal acting up on the back of her neck. It was glowing red. She looked up at him one last time before passing out onto the cold tile floor.
"Tayuya!" The blond ran over to her, shaking her, trying to get her to wake up. This was bad. Tayuya had never had an attack this bad before. Was Orochimaru trying to kill her?
He propped her forwards against a table, so he could get a good look at the seal. As he gazed at it, the redhead woke up screaming. Naruto tried covering his ears, but the sound still hurt. Orochimaru was trying to kill her! Shaking her, trying to get her to snap out of it, he tried talking to her.
"Okay, Tayuya. It's fine, you're here with me! Wake up! I need your help with this!" Halfway through, she weakly opened her eyes. By the time he was done talking, she'd stopped screaming. He still didn't like the look in her eyes. That look confirmed his suspicions.
"Naruto... forget... about me. Orochimaru's... done... toying around with me... He wants to overload my body... get away... too dangerous for you... just... forget about me..." The seal flared again and she passed out, her arms and legs twitching.
"Tayuya! No! I'm not going to leave you! Stay with me, I told you I'd stick by you, and I mean it. We're in this together, right? It was a promise!" As the girl passed out again, he realized he had to work quickly. If he did this seal wrong, she could die, but if he was too slow, Orochimaru could get her...
Opening the scroll, he found the modification seal first on the list. Setting it, and Tayuya, in front of him, he bit his thumb for blood to write the seal with. Blood seals were usually more powerful than ink ones, and he needed all the power he could get right now. Calming his hand, he began to scribe.
'Let's see, first we put the standard fire seal, overlay it with a water seal, followed by a new moon seal, draw a side, eath and wind overlayed, with a crescent moon. Another side, push more chakra into it, lightning seal with two small water seals to connect it to the sides, full moon, a third side...' Sweat was, by this point, literally dripping down the genin's forehead. His chakra levels might not last through the entire sealing process... He had to keep up anyway. Ignoring the sweat, he focused on the now-convulsing girl in front of him. Pushing every bit of his willpower into the effort, he concentrated.
'... draw a chakra seal on the end of the third side, now a light seal, with three sun seals, a "body" seal on the start of the fourth side. Fourth side... add chakra... dammit, it's sucking in too much of it! I'm running out of chakra!" Reaching deep inside himself, he called to the kyuubi. Realizing the danger involved for all, the fox gave a significant amount of chakra without a fight. Naruto began drawing on the red chakra for the last part of the fourth side, channeling it to the rest of the seal so the chakra could mix and not destabilize his work. It was easier now, but still straining on his mental power.
'Got the fourth side, and a "body", now the final seal, darkness seal, and one smaller moon seal, a chakra seal, and the last line! All of it around the curse seal, and I can get in!' As Naruto pushed chakra into it, the now-open cursed seal pulsed purple, and Naruto, though his body stayed still, felt his mind pulled into it.
He saw himself flashing though a long, dark, wall-less corridor of memories, some of which he recognized from Tayuya's story, and steeled himself for the inevitable confrontation over the seal. Orochimaru wouldn't give up very easily, and, without his kyuubi-chakra, Naruto knew he wouldn't stand a chance. But maybe using red chakra for the seal would give him an advantage... Looking ahead, he saw one final memory.
It was not light, it was not dark. It was colorless, and colorful. It was everything, and it was nothing. Seeing it in spectrums not visible to the human eye, it took Naruto a minute to identify the image.
It was him. As he flew, swam, ran, crashed through the memory, he found himself standing in a circle. He supposed he had working legs with his mental self. The circle was a soft purple, against a backdrop of endless black, broken only by lightning flashes in the infinite beyond. If the situation wasn't so urgent, he would have admired the beauty of it.
The beauty was broken by a cruel laugh. Naruto didn't have to be told who it was. He only knew one person who would go inside someone's mind just to torture them.
In the center, in front of him was a huddled Tayuya. Except she wasn't Tayuya. She was about nine years old, and he could hear crying. Standing by her were two adults who looked similar to her, shouting incoherently at her.
Looking closer, there were strings attached to her, connecting to the people he guessed were her parents, and from them to the person behind it all, Orochimaru the snake sannin.
"What are you doing here, boy?" The snake gave him a glare that couldn't even be described as evil. It was something more. A combination of cruelty, remorse, evil, good, the gray in between, twisted happiness and warped pain. Naruto now knew he was seeing Orochimaru as he truly was. He could see into the snake's heart.
That didn't matter right now. What mattered right now was saving Tayuya! He struggled forward against an unseen wind, hatred, love, friendship, betrayal, malice, compassion all taken form. Feeling his muscles and chakra tearing under the strain, he struggled onward. Each step made a ripple on the purple surface that was neither liquid nor solid.
"I can see it, Orochimaru. You're enjoying this, but a part of you hates it. Do you feel connection to one of your old subordinates? No, this is something else... it's your parents that make you feel this way!" The snake now grew angry, and threw all his killing intent at the boy. It combined with the hatred he felt for Naruto, for seeing into his heart, and turned into an unstoppable maelstrom.
Naruto buckled under it, but held on to where he was. He tried to pull himself forward, and couldn't. But he couldn't let himself slip back now.
"Orochimaru! Losing your parents left a hole in your heart! It twisted you, like my hatred nearly twisted me when I was a child. Let go of it! Sure, it made you strong. But it's also made you weak! You can't fight yourself! Remember what it was like as a child, remember yourself when you had friends! The way you are now, you're killing that child, who was the birth of the ideals you had! All your hopes, desires, came from that! Remember what friends feel like? You'll never live forever unless you're carried on in people's hearts! Unless you can carry others in your heart!" The snake grimaced as if in pain, and though the force against him didn't lessen, another force pushed him forward.
Gaining strength, Naruto pulled himself closer to the girl in front of him. He reached out for her, but slipped away. Trying again, he put all his willpower into being next to her. Finally he reached her side. Putting an arm on her shoulder, he reached out to her.
"Tayuya! Wake up, now! We're friends! We have a bond! If you want to be yourself again, fight! Fight the control!" The little girl looked up into his eyes, and he looked back. Putting his hands on the back of her neck, he channeled the seal's energy into her.
At first, she remained as scared and huddled as before. Then, as seconds ticked by like hours, she began to grow, and to see. Not just see, but bravely look around her. Ever growing, the little girl stood up next to Naruto, not just chakra, but pure emotions, rolling off of her. Finally, the full-grown Tayuya stood next to him. Both gathered up their chakra, their strength, their hurt, their hopes, and their feelings. As one, they took in a deep breath, and screamed.
"Get out! Get out! GET OUT!!!" Red chakra traveled down the strings, ripping the shadows of her parents apart, traveling to the now-weakened snake sannin. Orochimaru fought the energy as best as he could, but, fighting himself as he was, he lost his grip on the strings, and started sliding away. With a final push, he flew out into the void, out of Tayuya's mind.
Tayuya turned to Naruto, who simply held out his hand. Smiling she took it, and then watched in awe as the purple ground turned to purple light. The two watched their surroundings, and each other, as the light pulled them out of Tayuya's mindscape.
Naruto was once again in front of Tayuya. She remained staring at the ground, her face hidden by red hair. Worry overcame him, and he hoped he hadn't done the seal wrong. Then the girl jumped up, throwing herself on Naruto and, in a burst of strength, picking him up.
"Naruto! Yes, I thought I was dead! This is great, I feel it running through my veins! Fire, Ice, lightning, energy! I haven't felt this good since... ever! Thank you, Naruto-kun!" The girl began to swing Naruto around, and he was happy for her, even if he wished she would take it easy.
"Yeah, Tayuya-chan! I'm happy for you! I was afraid I'd messed something up there for a moment..." She dropped him, and he fell. He didn't want to hit the ground, since the floor might crack his spine, so he made a desperate attempt to stop his fall. He landed on his feet and stumbled back a few steps... but he didn't fall.
"I... I can walk again?"
A/N: I hope everyone enjoyed it. I think I might have made a few decisions that some might not like. Like the whole Ino/Sakura thing. But oh well. I don't just think the pairing's cute, it's also an important plot element for later. As a side note, my hand hurts like hell right now... anyway, the next chapter is the last one before the time skip, so look forward to it! Once again, reviews would be appreciated.
Next Chapter: Naruto and Tayuya, along with everyone else, make preparations for training that is going to determine the outcome of the rest of their lives.