Chapter 13: Rising Dawn
Gaara's arm – still covered in sand that had fashioned itself into the shape of Shukaku's clawed arm – flashed forward. His hand was outstretched as if he expected to reach across the considerable distance that separated himself from Han and grab the large man. Truth be told, he did.
Han leapt to the side as the sand claws impaled the spot he'd been standing a split second before. The big man rolled up onto his feet easily, but in the brief time it took him to do that, the sand claw had changed course and was now coming at him from behind while the sand surrounding Gaara's other arm was coming at him from the front. He took a small step back, placing himself in the spot where the attacks would land simultaneously, waited, and then dove out of the way. The two sand claws slammed into each other, forming a big disorganized mess, and then two more formed out of that mess and continued the pursuit.
Han almost looked delighted.
He again waited until the sands were almost on top of him and then avoided them, only this time he rolled onto his feet and was instantly sprinting towards Gaara. The sand trailing in his wake had no chance of catching him in time, but Gaara wasn't worried.
Han's enormous fist pulled back and then swung forward at Gaara's head with such force that had it connected it probably would have decapitated him. Sand sprang up from around Gaara's feet, knocking the punch to the side and then enveloping Han's arm as the trailing sands finally caught up to him. Han twisted to the side and then leapt into the air, using the sand that was holding his arm as a fulcrum to swing his body up and around the two sand claws that were now heading straight for Gaara.
The sands split, parting as though there were an invisible wall around Gaara, and circled around him before shooting up and catching Han before he could hit the ground.
"Damn, thought I had you," the big man grumbled as steam poured out from the mushroom shaped objected on his back. The sands that had just captured him turned sluggish and limp. With little apparent effort, Han slapped at them and was free. He dropped to the ground right in front of Gaara and lashed out with his foot.
Gaara's golden eyes didn't so much as flinch as sand once more intercepted the attack and turned it away. Before it could once more grab hold of the big man, however, Han leapt back and then came at him from a different angle, looking for a weak spot. Three times he tried it and three times he was turned away.
Gaara watched his efforts with visible contempt and well-hidden curiosity. When the sands had caught Han in the air the battle should have been over. Instead, Han's steam powers had done something to the sand, making it hard to control and allowing the big man to escape. In those brief seconds, things had gone wrong in a way he'd never experienced before, but Gaara wasn't completely sure what it was.
Actually, he had experienced something like it once, though it had been many years. When he fought in the Chuunin Exam preliminary matches, he'd faced an opponent who could absorb chakra from people and objects. This wasn't completely the same, but close enough to concern Gaara as Han was far more competent than the boy he'd faced back then.
Finally, Han grew bored of his attempts at finding a hole in Gaara's defenses. Steam sprang from the object on his back, formed into a small cloud, and flew at Gaara.
Gaara rolled his eyes as sand instantly rose up and captured it, encasing it in a thick sphere and then dragging it into the ground.
"I've already beaten this technique," he told the older ninja. "Find something new for me to crush."
In defiance of his words, however, the sands of the road shifted near the spot where he'd pulled the steam into the ground as some of the dangerous cloud escaped into the air once more. A mild annoyance, but still nothing to cause too much concern; the ground in front of him formed into a half dome facing Han, and then curled in on itself, hopefully catching the remainder of the steam and dragging it down as well.
Han tried two more times, steadily increasing the amount of steam he used in each cloud, testing to see the limits of Gaara's ability to defeat it just as he'd tested Gaara's defenses against physical attacks a few moments earlier.
Gaara frowned, capturing steam was harder than he'd thought it would be, even with his new mastery of Shukaku's powers. In fact, Gaara wasn't completely sure he had mastered Shukaku's powers. He had more control of them certainly, but it seemed that he should be able to do more if he was truly in complete control of the demon within.
Regardless, he was more powerful than he'd ever been before, and that ought to be enough to deal with someone at Han's level.
What he needed to do was put an end to Han's ability to use the steam. As near as Gaara could tell, the mushroom shaped object on his back was the key. If he destroyed that, the fight would be over.
As soon as his sands had finished off the last of the steam, he thrust his arm forward, hand outstretched. Sand that had been swirling around him, ready to protect him should any steam get too close, suddenly shot towards Han, forming into a deadly spike. A cloud formed around Han, intercepting the spike. The sand passed right through it, but as soon as it came in contact with the cloud, it lost its cohesiveness and fell to the ground, little more than wet sand.
Han's abilities were beginning to annoy Gaara. For the moment, even with his newfound control of Shukaku, Gaara and Han were in a stalemate.
Gaara had no intention of letting that continue. He pulled his arms back, felt his chakra latch onto the sands around him, and then threw his arms forward. As the new wave of sand hurried towards his enemy, Gaara slid his right foot forward, pushing chakra into the sand at his feet. Han summoned more steam to protect himself, looking as disgusted as ever with his need to rely on his bijuu's abilities, and again the sands were unable to get through. As the last of the sand fell impotently to the ground, Han's steam drifted back behind him, waiting to be called upon to attack. At that moment, Gaara twisted his foot in the dirt, and the sand at Han's feet grabbed onto him and became as hard as stone.
Han looked down, his eyes widening in surprise. He gave an ineffective attempt at pulling one of his feet out and then reached down, grabbed his left leg by the calf and gave a mighty yank, pulling that foot free. Once one was on solid ground, it was apparently quite easy for him to pull the other out.
Not that it mattered.
He looked up just in time to see another spike of sand rushing up on him. Steam rose up to block it, but it was only quick enough to dull the tip, not to stop the attack. The sand didn't impale Han as Gaara had hoped, but it did slam into him, driving him back against a wall.
Gaara spread his hand wide and the lump of sand turned into the claws of Shukaku. He almost smiled victoriously as his hand began to form a fist. He'd won.
Or so he'd thought. At that moment, Han drove his head back into the wall, shattering it and forming a bit of extra space that the sands didn't swallow up quickly enough. Steam once more spread around his body, loosening the sand's grip on him. With a roar of exertion, he broke free.
A second wave of sand slammed into him before he had a chance to take a breath. As soon as he'd freed himself from that one through a combination of steam and insane strength, he was again hit with sand, this time in the form of sharp spike and shuriken-shaped projectiles. The steam kept all of these attacks from being as deadly as they would normally have been, but it couldn't protect him completely. With enough speed and mass, even limp uncontrolled sand was doing damage.
Gaara had always had more chakra than almost anyone else he knew, certainly more than anyone else his own age, but with Shukaku's power now flowing through him, he was on a whole other level from where he'd been before. He was certain he could throw wave after wave of sand at Han until he'd used up the whole desert and still would have chakra left in reserve.
The other jinchuriki obviously had plenty of chakra to go around as well, but he was on the defensive now and Gaara could smell the blood in the sand. Without ceasing the attacks hitting Han head on, he began to bring sand in from other angles as well. Spikes, claws, solid walls… Gaara was dragging it all down on Han, determined to bury, crush, or tear him apart.
Eventually the pile of sand got to the point where Han couldn't get to the top of one attack before another two hit him. Soon he was almost completely buried.
Gaara placed one hand on the ground and pushed even more chakra into the sand. The sand dune that now covered Han constricted until the pressure was more than any body could possibly handle.
He glanced over his shoulder at Roushi, making sure the old man hadn't moved to help his companion or to attempt a sneak attack, but the other Rock-nin was still sitting in the same spot. About the only thing that had changed was that he wasn't looking forlornly at his broken bottle anymore.
Suddenly, Gaara felt something move within the sands. He frowned and turned back to the dune just in time to see a single hand smash through the hardened sand.
Gaara brought his hands together, forming seals. The sand beneath Han would be loosening now; his own weight would drag him deep into the depths of the earth until the pressure crushed him.
Han however, wasn't sinking. His hand flexed, and then he pulled another hand up, followed by his head and shoulders. His body was covered in steam. Within seconds, he was once more free of the sands. Gaara was so surprised that he didn't even attack right away.
Han slowly rose, blood dribbling out of his mouth, but he didn't shake or stagger the way a normal man in his condition might. The mask that covered his face had been crush, pieces of it were still imbedded into the flesh of his cheeks. His hat was gone as well and his short red hair was dripping with sweat and blood. His armor was shredded; those few pieces remaining were now cutting into his skin when he moved. About the only part of his outfit that he'd managed to protect was the steam holder on his back. Gaara had no idea how he'd managed that, unless he'd somehow concentrated the steam back there to protect that piece while sacrificing the others.
Still, he intended to aim for that spot and that spot alone for the rest of the battle. Once that piece of equipment was dealt with, there would be no more trouble.
"You're losing," Roushi called out in a bored and rather cranky voice. "Whacha gonna do now?"
"Shut up, bastard," Han growled, wiping blood away from his lips and turning his red eyes towards Gaara once more. "The kid and I are just starting to have fun."
"Maybe if ya weren' such a sissy, ya'd use yer bijuu the way it's supposed to be used."
"I've told you a million times that I don't need that Fish Dick," Han spat. "His powers are shit! I'm mad enough that I'm even using them as much as I am, if this kid didn't use sand, I'd be better off without them! Besides, it takes forever to push him back down once he starts to come out more than he is now. If he ever got so far out as to make me transform a little, who knows what crap he'd make me do?"
"You sure ya won't even try? Can't hurt now, can it?" Roushi rolled his head towards Gaara, apparently too lazy to use the muscles in his neck to turn it properly. "After all, yer facin'," he chuckled, "a god."
"I'd rather die."
Roushi sighed. "Can't be helped, I suppose."
With what looked like considerable effort, he rose to a standing position, placing his hands on his back and wincing as he rose. "Damn ol' bones," he groaned, "knew I should'a stayed home."
"Stay out of this fight, old man," Gaara warned him in an even voice, "and I will not kill you."
"Ach! Ya ain't gonna kill me, dumbass," Roushi laughed. "Ya don't even know what I am!" He twisted to the side until his back popped and then let out a contented sigh. "Talkin' like ya know anything about anything… bad idea, little one. You ain't nothin' but a wee baby ninja; grow up a little before ya start talkin' like that."
Sand covered Gaara's arm and then shot towards Roushi, claws extended and ready to crush the old man in a single blow. Han was nearly defeated, but still dangerous. Whoever this Roushi person was, Gaara didn't want any distractions until after he'd dealt with the most dangerous of his opponents.
Gaara felt the heat even from a distance as his clawed arm suddenly melted into fiery, red lava. The lava melted its way back towards Gaara, gobbling up the sands of his "arm" like a hungry demon. With a single thought, Gaara allowed the sands to fall apart and scatter to the wind, forming up behind him.
Roushi looked down as fiery red chakra danced up his body like flames, forming a large, bulky shell around him with three tails whipping back and forth in the breeze. "All this sand," he said in a deep, heavy voice as a wicked smile formed on his lips, "that ya think makes ya a god… I'll devour it all." He looked up, revealing glowing orange eyes and sharp teeth. He was the very picture of a demon. "What's that make me?"
Gaara lifted his hands, the sands behind him swelled up to the height of the few still-standing buildings around them. "Still less than me," he replied coolly as the sands surged forward and crashed down on Roushi.
The sand piled higher and higher, forming a huge drift against the remains of a nearby building. Three quick motions with Gaara's hands caused the sand to constrict to the point that it could turn stone into dust; bones and flesh would become a substance similar to paste. It hadn't worked on Han, but it was unlikely that Roushi would also possess the steam powers that made Han so troublesome.
Whatever Roushi's powers were, Gaara could instantly tell that the old man wasn't dead, which meant that he was probably going to be a troublesome opponent as well. For the moment, however, he was contained and that would have to be enough.
Sand surged up once more beneath Gaara, this time lifting and propelling him towards Han. The giant man swung a huge fist at Gaara's face, but still more sand intercepted it while the sand pushing him dipped down so he passed beneath the fist. One of Gaara's sand covered arms swiped at Han's back, trying to take out the steam-holder, but the big man anticipated it and rolled away. Before he could get back to his feet, Gaara's other arm shot forward, extending until it slammed into Han's chest and pinned him to a wall.
Gaara began to curl his hand into a closed fist, intending to squeeze Han to death, but once more the sand lost its grip and Han fell free.
Before Gaara could follow up on his attack, his attention was drawn back to the sand he had buried Roushi in. In the middle of the pile, a glowing red light appeared. Within a few more seconds, the light had reached the surface, burning back the sand as a slowly expanding globe bubbled to the surface.
The bubble burst, releasing a large cloud of steam out of which Roushi stepped, still covered in the fiery red chakra and still smiling.
"I'm called Roushi the Volcano. Ya think a little pile of sand is going to stop me?" He brought his fingers together and then lifted them to his lips. A great spray of lava shot out of his mouth and towards Gaara.
Gaara's sand shot up to intercept it, but the lava burned right through his defenses, forcing him to jump back. The sands caught him and lifted him away from the lava, but it was far closer than Gaara would have liked.
He brought his hands together, formed a few seals and then threw them forward. The sand that was floating around him, waiting to protect him should he need it, suddenly hardened into sharp spikes and shot towards Roushi and Han.
Roushi threw himself backwards. As he fell, his mouth opened again to spew more lava out, this time forming a sort of arch over him as it hardened and deflected the spikes.
A thick mist once more formed a protective armor around Han. The spikes passed through it, but came out the other side as little more than wet clumps of sand. The look on Han's face was one of pure disgust as he glared daggers at the steam that continued to save his life.
Roushi rolled out from under his hardened lava arch and began forming seals once more. Gaara threw more sand towards him, determined not to let him get off another of his lava jutsu, but Han's steam quickly intercepted it. Once more Gaara found that his sand grew too heavy to fly and that it lost its cohesiveness.
As weird as it was, steam seemed to trump sand. If Gaara reacted quickly enough, he could contain it and bury it, but he couldn't attack through it. He assumed that the combination of water and fire type chakra was creating Han's steam, meaning that each of its components was strong against the wind and earth chakras Gaara mixed for sand jutsu. Roushi's lava was just straight eating Gaara's sand, it's fires probably aided by the wind in the sand, and earth against earth was a stalemate. From a chakra-types standpoint, he was at an extreme disadvantage against these two opponents.
The terrain, on the other hand, favored him. He didn't have to spend chakra to make sand, only manipulate it. Han would be working hard to pull moisture out of the air or creating the water himself and Roushi would have to go through a similar process to make the fire. It wasn't a big advantage, but it was something. If he could just take one of them out, it would be enough to completely swing the fight in his favor.
Roushi finished his jutsu and the ground rumbled for a second and then seemed to explode as a giant red dragon erupted from under the street and charged at Gaara. Apparently, making fire wasn't too hard for him in this environment.
Gaara lifted both hands, summoning every bit of sand he could hold up to stop the dragon, but the dragon burned right through his attempt at defense. The wall of sand slowed the attack down, but only for a second. Never before had he encountered something like Roushi's lava attacks. It wasn't something that could be blocked, at least not by any of his normal techniques. In the air like this, with no time to think, let alone form the necessary seals to create a dense enough sand to hold back the lava, there was no way he could protect him for long against such an attack.
He threw himself backwards, falling off the sand that was holding him in the air for a moment as he attempted to use gravity to speed his flight from the attack. The dragon passed through the spot where he'd been and then swooped down towards him. Gaara's sand moved around him to prepare to change his trajectory before he hit the ground, but it didn't look like gravity had sped him up enough. The dragon was right on top of him!
He turned back towards the ground and saw that he had less than a second to live. He didn't have time to think about what he was going to try, he just reacted. His hand reached down, touched the ground, and then everything went dark.
For a moment, he wondered if hadn't failed. He didn't feel dead, but that might just be because he'd hit the ground at such a high speed that he'd been turned into an unpleasant pile of goo and then had Roushi's lava dragon turn that goo into ash.
Gaara let out a slow breath and concluded that he was probably still alive. If he were dead, he probably wouldn't hurt as much as he did.
If he was right about that, then he was safely underground in something similar to the cocoon he used to use when drawing out Shukaku. He'd never tried to form one so fast, nor to do so while falling towards the ground, but apparently his new level of control of the Ichibi's powers had helped him. He closed his eyes – though nothing changed in terms of what he could see – and placed his hands on the wall of sand in front of him. He could sort of… feel… Roushi and Han standing somewhere above him. One of them took a step and the vibration seemed to tremble through Gaara's entire body. A smile slowly slipped across his lips.
With the Ichibi under his control, his power over sand extended beyond just manipulating it, he could feel things through it when he concentrated hard enough.
He spread his fingers and reached towards Roushi. He could feel the sands react. It was possible. He could kill Roushi from beneath the ground, protected from the lava and free from the threat of Han neutralizing his attack with steam. With little more than a thought, he sent the sands racing towards the older ninja's foot, his chakra jumping from grain to grain at nearly the speed of light, bending them to his will as they curled their way up and then sprang to the surface and latched onto Roushi's foot.
The old man was faster than Gaara had given him credit for. The moment the sand moved near his foot, Roushi was in the air. The sand shot towards him, but he hadn't jumped straight up and Gaara couldn't tell where he was anymore. Without being able to actually see Roushi, Gaara couldn't move the sands accurately enough to catch his enemy.
Han had moved as well, unfortunately, but there were a few others who were still on the ground nearby. Some Iwa ninja who had come to watch the fight and those few who had survived his initial onslaught before Roushi and Han arrived.
Gaara pulled them under the ground with the greatest of ease; they didn't even have time to try to escape him. He could feel them struggle, could even feel their terror from this distance. Once, he would have held them for a few seconds, savoring the taste of their fear and the rush he got from ending their lives. That wasn't him anymore. Their deaths were instantaneous and probably painless; the moment they were completely submerged, they were dead.
Roushi and Han would be more difficult, but at least there wouldn't be any potential distractions. Probably the distractions wouldn't have been too much trouble for him either. With Shukaku's powers somewhat under his control – or at least more than they were before – he could handle the other two jinchuriki, keep his siblings safe, and protect everyone else in the village. The invaders' defeat would be just a matter of time once these two were dealt with.
Going back to the surface of the sand was a good way to get killed. Even if he was gaining more and more confidence in his new powers, Roushi's attacks were deadly and Han's defenses were difficult to break through. If he rose up to the surface, there was a good chance that he'd have his face burned off before he got more than half way out of the ground.
Gaara's fingers formed a series of seals and a safe distance away from him the ground began to shift as a sand clone rose out of it. If the clone was destroyed right away, he would at least know where the attacks would come from and could take appropriate precautions. If it didn't get destroyed, it could keep his two enemies distracted while he made his move.
Above him, the clone found that the battle had taken a rather unexpected new twist. His enemies weren't facing him, weren't even looking at the spot where the real Gaara had gone into the ground. Instead, they were looking at two other men standing on top of the ruins of a nearby building.
One of the new comers was almost as tall as Han, his enormous frame covered in a dark cloak with red clouds on it. He carried a large object wrapped in bandages over his shoulder. The other was smaller, but something about his face seemed familiar.
"This is unexpected," the smaller of the two said as his eyes shifted towards the sand clone, "but still not cause for concern."
"What's that?" the taller asked.
"The Ichibi's powers can control the sand, it would seem that he is here as well."
The big man's eyes lit up in what seemed to be delight. "Well, this might get interesting, eh Itachi? Course, Deidara won't like it. I think he had his heart set on capturing that one."
Itachi shrugged. "His feelings are irrelevant… our orders are clear."
"How are they?" Sasuke asked without greeting when he returned to the hospital where Sakura and Ino were still lying on the floor.
Kabuto didn't so much as flinch nor did he look up from Ino. He had either heard Sasuke coming or was exceptionally composed considering the number of enemies in the village at the moment. "Sakura-san is fine. Ino will live, but…" his voice trailed off for a moment and then he looked up at Sasuke. "The damage to her throat was extensive. Her—" he paused, gave Sasuke a measuring look and then shook his head and said, "Her voice box may have been injured beyond what can be fixed."
Sasuke got the impression that his intelligence had just been called into question and that Kabuto had greatly simplified the diagnosis so he could understand. "We're in a hospital," he pointed out, "there's got to be something here that can help her."
"It isn't a matter of supplies, it's a matter of what is realistically possible. I've been trained by both my father and Tsunade-hime, but there are limits to what I am capable of. No one can just heal any injury. Still, whoever was here before you did a very good job. They probably saved both Ino and Sakura's lives. Without their work, Ino would have been lucky to have lived; speaking would have been out of the question. As it is, Ino might recover her voice eventually, given enough time and effort on the parts of the healers."
Sasuke scowled even as he began to nod in understanding. Sakura would take Ino's injuries badly – probably worse than Ino herself would – but Ino would live, so Sakura wouldn't dwell on it for too long. If anything, she would start annoying Ino by always trying to come up with new and better ways of healing Ino's throat… and the normally talkative Ino wouldn't be able to actually tell Sakura to stop.
There was an irony there that might have made Sasuke chuckle under different circumstances.
"Should we move them?" he asked. "This place obviously isn't very secure."
Kabuto looked both women over carefully and then nodded. "They both seem stable enough to move, but I'm not sure if anywhere else in the village is more secure than here."
Sasuke thought about that for a moment. There really didn't seem to be anywhere else in the village that wasn't under attack. Anywhere that was occupied by people, Kumo seemed to be attacking in some way or other. So, the obvious answer was to go where there weren't any people.
"We'll take them to the Uchiha area," he said as he knelt and gently lifted Sakura into his arms. "No one's there, so there's no reason to attack it. Plus, there are plenty of hiding places that can't be found unless you're either an Uchiha or a Hyuuga and even then, you have to know what you are looking for."
Kabuto lifted Ino with equal care. "Lead the way."
A few minutes later, they were standing in the exact spot where Sasuke had stood when he'd seen his parents killed on that night. Dust covered everything so thickly that he and Kabuto had left footprints as they'd walked across the floor. Sasuke knew he could look around and see dozens of different things that would bring back hundreds of memories, both good and bad, but there was only one spot his eyes sought out.
The dark stain on the floor marked where his parents had collapsed, cut down by their oldest child. In the days following the massacre, he'd scrubbed that spot until his fingers bled, but it wouldn't come out. A part of Sasuke had wondered if Itachi had used some jutsu to stain the wood; a way to torture him further, to keep the pain fresh in his heart until the day he died.
Sasuke hadn't wanted to ever enter his old house again, but his father had been the head of the clan, the best hiding places were here. He forced his eyes away from the spot that marked his parents' deaths and moved across the room. He gently pressed a small panel of wood on the wall and was pleased to hear the soft click as a large section of wall slid back and to the side, revealing the top of a staircase.
"They'll be safe down here," he told Kabuto. "Do you need to stay with them, or will they be okay until the fighting is over?"
"If I had it my way, I would stay," Kabuto replied with a sigh, "but even someone who is as weak of a fighter as I am has to set that aside when his village is under attack."
Sasuke nodded and led him down to the bottom of the stairs. The room at the bottom contained a small couch and a few other pieces of furniture. Ino was given the couch; Sakura was placed on the floor. Sasuke scribbled a quick note explaining to Sakura what had happened, where she was, and that he would be back for her as soon as possible, and then pressed it into her hand. A small fire jutsu was used to light two of the torches on the wall before he and Kabuto returned upstairs and closed the secret door.
Though he wanted to immediately go join the battle, Sasuke wasn't about to leave the room with a clear footprint trail leading towards the secret passage. He hurried to a closet in the hallway, found two brooms that were starting to fall apart after almost a decade of neglect and age, and instructed Kabuto to help him sweep the room. He was careful not to appear to care about the dark spot on the floor as he swept over it, not wanting to betray his feelings to someone he barely knew, but he couldn't keep his eyes off of it while they worked.
It seemed to take forever to erase their footprints and when they were done, Sasuke felt like he not actually hurrying to help in the battle to save his village so much as he was fleeing the sight of the dark spot on the floor. Were it not for the fact that Sakura would be waiting for him, he would have let another decade pass before he entered that room again.
Hinata fell to her knees next to her father as Hiroshi carefully set him down under her mother's tree. Hiashi's head rested against the base of the trunk, almost as though he were lying with his head in his wife's lap.
Hinata had very few pictures of her mother, but there was one that she had always treasured above the others. It was of her father and mother when they were much younger, not too much older than she herself was now. Her mother was sitting politely, with her legs tucked under her, and her father was lying with his head on her lap, grinning in a way that she had never seen on her father's face. As far as she knew, their marriage had been arranged, but in the picture they looked happy and in love.
"H… Hinata," Hiashi whispered, pulling Hinata from her thoughts.
She lifted his hand. "I am here, Father."
He let out a pained sigh and blood dribbled down from his mouth. "I am dying," he told his two daughters. "You… you will lead… the clan…"
Every word seemed to hurt him. She wanted to tell him to be quiet and save his strength, but she knew it didn't matter now. The difference would be only a few seconds, maybe a minute. Instead she forced herself to listen closely to his final words.
"I was… your mother would have done better… with you. You are like her. Soft… yet strong. I wasn… I didn't know how to raise you, but I am… p… proud that you are my daughter."
Hinata took his limp hand in her own and brought it up to her lips, hiding her tears behind it.
"Trust your heart," Hiashi whispered as his eyes shifted in the general direction of Hanabi, though they were beginning to lose focus. "Hanabi… you were pushed hard, but… always stood under it. You're determination is fierce… and you haven't seen the peak of your strength. S-stand by Hinata… help her."
Hiashi's head rolled back so that he was staring up into the branches of the tree, seemingly unaware of the rain splashing down on his face. He drew in a deep breath that must have hurt him greatly, but he did not let it show. He was beyond the pain now, too far gone to feel it anymore. Strangely, it seemed to give him the strength to speak more easily, though he lacked the strength to speak in more than a whisper.
"I have never said this to you since your mother died, though I've never not felt it. F-forgive me for only telling you this now, when I am about to leave… I love you both."
Hinata felt her chest constrict and a fresh wave of tears began to run down her face. It had been so long. So long that she had waited to hear those words, that she had dreamed of a day when he would say something like that to her. Why did it have to come as a goodbye? Why now, when she couldn't wrap herself in those words and feel the peace that they were supposed to bring? In her dreams those words were supposed to make her feel complete, now they only signaled that something was being ripped away.
"I… I love you too, Father," Hinata whispered into his hand, knowing that she was using them to say goodbye as well. On the other side of him, Hanabi lowered her head until it nearly touched the ground by his ear and softly whispered something to him.
Hiashi didn't die right then, not for another minute or two, but he also didn't say anything. His eyes just stared straight up; occasionally blinking away the rain, while the rise and fall of his chest began to slow. The pain his body was in must have been immense. Whether or not he could actually feel it was hard to say, but it had to have been there.
Hinata knew, though she wished she could lie to herself about it, that her father's death was a long and unpleasant one.
She was openly crying long before his spirit finally left his body, her tears blending with the rain running down her face.
Hinata had no idea how long she'd sat there, holding his hand while Hanabi did the same on the other side. She was dimly aware of Hiroshi standing behind her, watching for danger and prepared to protect her should the need arise. She was thankful that he didn't try to comfort her and merely let her grieve in peace. It was a proper Hyuuga thing to do.
Suddenly the still standing wall of her house crashed down as a loud curse rang out. Hiroshi started to move between her and the disturbance, but stopped when Naruto stepped out of the ruins, covered from head to toe in mud, soot, and blood.
"Hinata-chan!" he yelled in relief as he ran to her. He looked exhausted and even in the dim light she could see that his face was slightly ashen. The blood on his clothing was obviously not just from enemies he'd been fighting.
She gently set her father's hand down on his chest, and started to stand. About half way up she realized that the emotions and the fighting had caught up with her and had robbed her of the strength to actually make it all the way up.
Naruto didn't seem to really notice. His arms slipped around her before she started to fall and pulled her into a tight embrace, burying his face into her shoulder. "I thought I'd lost you," he whispered, his voice tired but full of relief. "I thought I'd lost you again."
Hinata couldn't find the energy to reply, but she found herself relaxing into the hug. It was strange that only a few seconds earlier, she'd been glad that Hiroshi hadn't tried to comfort her, and now Naruto's arms were supporting her and she wanted nothing more than to continue to rest in them. Even stranger was the fact that only a few hours earlier, his arms had been around her and had left her feeling terrified and confused.
She lowered her head onto his shoulder and closed her eyes, feeling the tears burning between her eyelids.
She wanted to say something, to tell him that she wasn't going anywhere or to let him know how thankful she was for his embrace, but the words wouldn't come. Instead she just stood there in silence, appreciating the comfort, but unable to tell him so.
When her mother had died, there had been no arms to find comfort in, grief was a private matter among the Hyuuga. She had often thought back on those horrible nights when she'd cried in confusion and fear over the death of her beloved mother, and wished that someone had broken the traditions and held her so she knew she wasn't alone. She hadn't had time to wonder if she would be similarly alone in her grief over her father, but to have Naruto there, his arms holding her close as her emotions poured out… she could not have asked for more from a friend.
Perhaps that was why she had been glad that Hiroshi had not tried to comfort her. He was Hyuuga and for him to intrude upon the privacy of her grief would have felt awkward. Naruto, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. Even if she was out of practice at dealing with his completely unHyuuga ways, she expected it from him and actually welcomed it. Hiroshi stepping up and holding her in his arms while she poured out her grief would have been as unnatural as Naruto sitting quietly at a formal clan meeting and following all the proper decorum.
The inkling of an idea or concept was in those thoughts, somewhere, but she wasn't totally sure what it was or what it meant. At the moment, it didn't really matter and her thoughts slowly faded into the warmth of Naruto's shoulder and the faint beating of his heart.
Hinata had no idea how long she stood there, probably less than a minute, though it felt much longer. Certainly it was long enough that she was startled when Naruto's back stiffened and he took a step away from her. She almost expected him to have the look on his face that he'd had when he had almost… done whatever it was that he was going to do back in his apartment. Her brain assumed that he'd have that same look of horror and disgust and it took her a second to realize that wasn't what she was seeing this time.
There was horror, but it wasn't directed at himself nor, for that matter, at her. Naruto's eyes had found her father… her father's body, anyway… and he'd apparently realized what had happened. How he'd missed it or what he'd thought she was crying over before that moment was hard to say. Perhaps he'd just been concentrating on holding her and hadn't thought to look around.
Whatever the reason, he swayed unsteadily and it was suddenly she who had to reach out to hold him. "Shit," he whispered. His blue eyes rose until they met hers and then they quickly shifted away. "Hinata-chan… I'm so sorry."
He was quiet for a long moment, his back stiff, and the strange horrified expression on his face, but then he gave himself a little shake and suddenly looked a little more like the old Naruto.
He swallowed hard and then, in an earnest voice, softly whispered, "He loved you, you know. And I'm absolutely positive he was proud of you."
There was no way Naruto could have known those things, of course. He was only trying to offer her some peace in the midst of her loss. Still, her father had just said the same thing in his final words, so Naruto's consolation wasn't just a nice-sounding lie.
Her father was gone, things would never be the same again, but… he loved her and was proud of her.
She didn't remember saying goodbye to her mother, she'd been very young at the time, but Hinata had always wished that she could have had a final, closing conversation with her. Her father had held on long enough to give her that closure and to give her what she had wanted most from him all of her life.
It didn't make things okay, it didn't take away the years of not hearing those words or the pain of losing him just when he gave them to her, not by a long ways, but it helped.
Hinata let out a slow breath and then stepped back from Naruto, giving him a small smile of thanks. She wanted to sit down under the tree and continue to cry over her father, but there wasn't time for that. He was dead and that meant that she was – for the moment at least – the leader of the Hyuuga. It was a responsibility that she didn't feel remotely ready to shoulder, but there weren't any other options.
"Hiroshi-san, please carry my father's…" the word caught briefly in her throat, but she forced it out anyway, "…b-body for me. The village is under attack and those Hyuuga who are still here will need leadership. We will grieve when the crisis is over."
Hinata lifted her head, squared her shoulders, and then walked towards the gates to the courtyard and out to the spot where the Hyuuga who were not actively defending the village were still gathered. A part of her was sure that she was unfit to lead a genin team, let alone the whole Hyuuga clan, but she couldn't afford to fail them.
She wouldn't fail because she was Hyuuga Hiashi's daughter and, in the end, he had believed in her.
As Yugito was dragged away by members of Root, Danzo almost allowed himself to indulge in a smile and a chuckle. Uzumaki Naruto might have been a strange surprise and Tenzo's refusal to follow orders was an annoyance, but so far things were going well. So long as Kumo was beaten back, the day would be nearly perfect.
Konoha was well on her way to retaking her rightful spot at the forefront of the ninja world. The First, Second, and Third Hokage had done their best to weaken Konoha with their foolish policies, but the damage was already starting to be undone.
The Nibi would be extracted from Yugito as soon as a viable host could be found. Perhaps, in a bit of irony, he would return Yugito's body to Kumo once he was done with her. It seemed somewhat fitting to once again give Kumo a body that did not hold that which they desired.
Uzumaki Naruto was a potential problem, but he would either be brought under control or dealt with in much the same way as Yugito. Danzo knew he would have to be careful about how he gained that control or dealt with the boy, but fortunately Naruto was still mostly known as the Kyuubi's jinchuriki. His impressive victories during the Chuunin Exam would have made him far more popular, but his subsequent disappearance and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it helped blunt that potential danger. His victory over the Nibi could have been problematic, but only a few knew of it and most of them would not speak without permission. Naruto would not be overly missed nor mourned if he suddenly went missing.
The other bijuu would eventually need to be brought back to Konoha in some fashion or other, but that could wait. The Kyuubi was the strongest of them and the Nibi had some powerful abilities as well, with those two under his control, Danzo knew that the other nations would think twice about attacking the Fire Country again. In fact, there was a chance that with those two under his power, he'd be able to form alliances that would allow him to return some of the bijuu to their rightful owner without resorting to attacking the other villages or allowing attacks on Konoha.
He'd been planning this for a long time. He'd even occasionally wondered if he would ever get the chance to put his plans into action. He'd been forced to make political maneuvers that called more attention to him than he normally preferred and had even had to make a deal with Orochimaru, but it would all be worth it if all of the bijuu were under his control.
With the power of both the Senju and Uchiha clans in his body and the might of the bijuu at his disposal, the rest of the ninja world would have no choice but to accept Konoha's dominance. No one would be able to challenge Konoha, and those who thought about it would be crushed.
And then, at long last, there would be no doubt that he was the strongest and greatest of the Hokage. Not only would he have at long last surpassed Hiruzen, but also all others who had come before him.
Finally, there would be peace and Konoha would be secure.
The turning of the tide wasn't immediate, but it definitely began with the fall of Yugito. For almost an hour, few of the ninja in the village even knew for sure that it had happened. The fighting was taking place almost everywhere in the village, both within buildings and in the streets. Messengers (of even just those who were in the know) stumbled into ambushes, traps, and large battles – many of them died before they even managed to tell a single person – keeping that important piece of information from reaching those who needed to know it.
But the news did spread.
Soon, nearly every ninja in Konoha knew what had happened. The Leaf-nin cheered, knowing that the terrifying jinchuriki had been beaten at long last. Those from Kumo felt their spirits fall as they realized that their chances for complete victory were evaporating. It wasn't that they couldn't still win, but it felt that way and feelings gradually became reality as the tide swung farther and farther in Konoha's favor.
The use of the "sleepers" – as the Leaf-nin who had been turned into unwitting time bombs were called by the Cloud-nin activating them – kept the battle from turning into a complete rout, but there weren't nearly enough of them to counter the boost in morale the Leaf-nin had received nor the inherent advantage of fighting in their home village.
Only the greenest of ninja on either side failed to grasp that the battle had already been decided.
Of course, a battle can be decided and casualties still occur. Dozens of ninja on both sides died after the eventual outcome had become widely known and accepted, many more were injured.
Sasuke didn't care that the battle's outcome had been decided. He didn't even care that some of the ninja he fought and killed were trying to retreat. Kumo's ninja had invaded his home, had forced Naruto into a battle that he shouldn't have had to fight until he was more recovered, and had almost killed Sakura. Their attack had also led either directly or indirectly to the death of the Third Hokage and to him having to cover up a key detail in that murder, leaving him wondering if the Fifth Hokage wasn't the real murderer. And, perhaps most importantly, he'd been forced to go back into his parents' house and step across the spot where he'd seen them laying in a pool of blood at Itachi's feet. He intended to punish them for those transgressions.
There were so many conflicting emotions and thoughts raging back and forth within his mind that he'd been forced to grab onto the only emotion that made sense at that moment just to keep his sanity. Instead of allowing himself to feel the fear of losing either Sakura or Naruto, to examine the implications of Danzo ordering the death of the Third, or to wallow in the despair that always accompanied memories of that night, Sasuke chose to get really, really, really angry.
Fortunately, his village was full of people he could take his rage out on.
He ducked low under a lightning jutsu, drew his sword, and sliced the Cloud-nin almost completely in half without breaking his stride. As his sword was still exiting the first body, a second Cloud-nin stabbed at his face with a sasumata. The long pole weapon with the U-shaped blade at the end was an unusual choice for a ninja, but had some advantages against sword and kunai users.
Against a Sharingan, it might as well have been a long stick.
Sasuke's eyes had been following the movement of the weapon before the Cloud-nin even started to swing it forward. He'd known exactly where it would be and when he would need to react. He ducked his head, allowing it to barely miss him, and then thrust his hand up. The wooden pole shattered just below the beginning of metal blade. Sasuke caught the blade before it fell more than a centimeter, turned it, and drove it into the Cloud-nin's chest.
With a flick of his wrist, he shook the first ninja's blood off his sword and returned it to its scabbard. "Let's go," he called to Kabuto.
The medic-nin had briefly knelt next to a Leaf-nin lying in the mud, but at the sound of Sasuke's voice he reached out and closed the young man's eyes and then stood and nodded.
They traveled for several minutes before Sasuke noticed that they were being followed. Their shadow was skilled, but the rain and Sasuke and Kabuto's pace were not ideal for trailing someone. Sasuke was about to signal to Kabuto and turn to face their follower, but at that moment someone large and imposing stepped out of a side-alley.
Sasuke's Sharingan spotted the Cloud-nin instantly and mapped out where the large hammer the ninja was carrying would travel and at what point it would connect with his face. His brain realized almost as quickly that the ground was too muddy and slippery for him to dodge. Since doing nothing would be a good way to die, he tried to plant his feet anyway. As he pushed his weight onto his heels, in an attempt to leap to the side, his feet slid out from under him.
He was falling, but the hammer would still reach him before he dropped low enough to escape the blow. Given the size of the hammer and of the man carrying it, even a glancing blow would break bone and – since the hammer would now hit him under the chin – kill him. His only real hope was to sacrifice an arm in an attempt to blunt or redirect the attack, but the moment he started moving he could see that he would be too late. His hand would hit the back of the hammer, but not the front. The attack would still connect.
It was a strange thing to know in the blink of an eye that you were almost certainly dead.
Stranger still when you were saved in the next blink of an eye.
Two kunai struck the handle of the hammer with incredible accuracy, severing the middle and forefinger on the hand the Cloud-nin was holding hammer with. The shock and pain were enough that he lost his grip on his weapon and it went flying off to the side, allowing Sasuke to reach the ground and go sliding through the mud.
Sasuke didn't bother to breath a sigh of relief or wonder how he'd been saved, there would be time for that later. He slid on his back though the muck for about a meter and then dug his heels and left hand into the mud and scrambled to his feet. His right hand went for his sword.
The Cloud-nin was trained well enough to push the pain out of his mind and do what he could to face his opponent, but he'd been disarmed, couldn't form seals without his fingers, and even when you push pain from your mind, your body still feels it and has trouble moving. He was slower than he probably would have been. Even if he'd been at full strength, Sasuke doubted that he would have possessed too much of a danger.
He was, after all, facing an Uchiha.
The big man swung his bleeding fist, but Sasuke's Sharingan had seen it coming probably before the man was even consciously aware of what he was going to do himself. In less than a second, he'd ducked under the fist and was behind the Cloud-nin, his sword already slick with blood.
Sasuke didn't turn to watch the man realize he was already dead and fall to the ground. His eyes were already searching for his rescuer.
The orange pants made it fairly easy to spot him and the big, stupid grin that had spread across the bond's face made it easy to identify him without looking at any other features.
Naruto was leaning against the wall of a nearby building, everything about him said exhausted, but he didn't look nearly so tired or resigned as he had in previous days.
Naruto stared back at him for a moment and then gave a nonchalant wave of his hand. "Yo."
It was actually a pretty good impression of Kakashi's normal greeting.
Sasuke couldn't help but smile. Despite everything that had happened that day, seeing Naruto like this… it made things better. Of course, it wasn't the real Naruto (the color of the chakra was a little off, something Sasuke had come to associate with Naruto's favorite jutsu), but if the shadow clone was acting like this, the real Naruto probably was as well.
"Where's Sakura-chan?" the clone asked, pushing away from the wall with what looked like a bit of effort and then walking towards Sasuke.
"She was hurt, but she'll be okay. We took her and Ino to a safe place."
At the word "we" the clone glanced at Kabuto, his smile vanishing in an instant. He slowly turned to face the young medic-nin and his eyes narrowed.
"Naruto…" Sasuke started, but was cut off by the clone's hand snapping up in his direction.
He stared long and hard at Kabuto and then brought the hand that had silenced Sasuke up to the back of his head, scratching at his neck as he grinned sheepishly. "Heh, sorry about earlier, Kabuto-san. After spending so much time with Orochimaru, I kinda forgot who I was, who my friends were… even stuff like the Fire Country and the village didn't feel like reality in my mind. I was still a little crazy when I attacked you; I hadn't really remembered who I was again, you know? No hard feelings?"
Kabuto was slow to return the smile, but eventually he nodded in understanding as he walked towards Naruto and Sasuke. "You went through something terrible, Naruto-san, that you are able to realize when you mistook nightmare for reality is a miracle in and of itself. There is nothing to apologize for."
Naruto's smile became less embarrassed and more genuine as he reached out and patted Kabuto on the shoulder. "Alright, let's get going. One of me spotted a small group of Cloud-nin not far from here, we should head in that direction and see if they're still around."
Sasuke let out a sigh of relief. He wasn't as good as Sakura at defusing confrontations with words. If Naruto's clone had attacked Kabuto, Sasuke wasn't sure how he could have stopped him without resorting to violence himself. Thankfully, Naruto's improved attitude seemed to have come with a heavy dose of sanity as well.
With that behind them, they could move on to more important matters. "How are you doing?" he asked Naruto. "You look like you're stretching yourself too thin."
Naruto chuckled. "You've been spending too much time with Kakashi-sensei. Don't worry, besides me there's only a few others out there. Less than a dozen, I promise."
Sasuke nodded in resignation. "Fine, lead the way. The sooner we start helping clean up this mess, the sooner the battle will end." A moment later, he and Kabuto were following the clone onto the roof of a nearby building and then hurrying in the direction that the clone claimed they could find a group of Cloud-nin.
Following behind Naruto's clone, Sasuke saw neither the blond's eyes narrow nor the scowl that replaced the "sane" smile that had previously been on his face.
Gaara's sand clone wasn't sure what to do as the larger of the two newcomers, Kisame, attacked both Han and Roushi. Was he supposed to help Kisame against the invaders, retreat and let them fight it out so he could deal with whoever was left in the end, or just kill everyone and let the gods – if they existed – sort them out. Roushi seemed to be at least similarly confused by the sudden change in the battle as he leapt away from the charging Kisame, but didn't immediately attack. Han, predictably, moved to meet Kisame head-on.
Even someone as large and imposing as Kisame was over a head shorter than Han, though it was hard to say how much of a difference that would make. Just based on their builds (and a fair amount of experience in fighting Han), both men seemed to possess incredible physical strength. The clone felt certain that a taijutsu battle between the two of them would be an epic event, but Kisame wasn't interested in a taijutsu battle. Just before the two of them met, he reached back and grabbed the object strapped to his back, swinging forward what looked like the trunk of a medium sized tree that had been wrapped in bandages.
Han ducked under the weapon with the grace of a seasoned taijutsu user. As he rose, he was still in position to attack, but dodging the attack seemed to have slowed him down considerably. Kisame's foot lashed out at him, sending him tumbling away.
Some of the bandages slipped off Kisame's weapon revealing the top of something the clone Gaara couldn't describe. It was definitely gray and clearly covered in spikes (or something that looked like them, anyway), but beyond that, he wasn't sure what it was. He'd never seen or heard of a weapon that looked anything like it.
Han was slow to get up, his body already injured from his fight with Gaara, but he was chuckling as he rose. "Cute trick," he said as he tilted his head to the side until his neck popped, "I don't know what you did, but I felt myself get weaker right before you kicked me."
Kisame rested his weapon against his shoulder. It looked like he was grinning behind his high collar. He lifted his left hand and waved for Han to try again.
"What are ya doin'?" Roushi yelled from the pile of rubble he'd landed on. "Use the Gobi, ya damned moron!"
"No!" Han snapped back. "He's not using jutsu, so I won't degrade myself by taking any of that bastard's power. This is a fight between warriors."
"He's got a sword!"
Han shook his head and shifted his body to prepare to launch into another attack. "You wouldn't understand, old man. A physical attack is still a physical attack. This is my kind of fight, and I'm going to fight it my way. There's never been anyone who could match me in a straight fight, not even you, and it won't start here."
"Mighty confident, aren't you?" Kisame snickered.
The sand clone couldn't tell if Han was smiling, but his voice made it sound like he might be. "With good reason; every man I've ever faced who's come at me with fist or weapon hasn't lived to learn his lesson."
"Scary. Maybe I should start using jutsu then…" he paused, as if considering the idea, and then shrugged, "Nah. As long as that old man stays over there and the kid keeps out of it, I'll take you on the way you want."
This time it was Han waving Kisame forward. "Then let's see it."
The two of them leapt at each other once more, Kisame's sword cutting through the air while Han's fist was cocked back. Again he ducked under the sword, but this time his speed increased and his fist slammed into Kisame. The large man's head rocked back, but he didn't leave his feet. Instead he changed the direction of his sword and brought it back towards Han. Han leapt away easily, but not quick enough as the blade – or whatever passed for a blade on it – swept across Han's chest.
"What the hell is this?" Han demanded as he fell back, clutching his chest in surprise.
"Samehada doesn't cut people, it slices them to pieces. The next time it touches you, it'll cost you an arm or a leg."
Han smiled, then chuckled, then threw his head back and laughed long and hard. "You're going to cut off an arm or a leg, are you?" He laughed some more and then shook his head. "Ah, I couldn't have asked for more out of an opponent. Strong enough to stand against me and cocky enough to say something so ridiculous! You're my perfect enemy!"
They charged at each other again, Kisame once more preparing to swing his sword at Han. This time the large jinchuriki didn't try to dodge or duck under the sword; he made a sort of small hop and drove his foot down into the street. The earth shattered under the impact. Kisame stumbled as the ground under his feet shifted unexpectedly and his swords path through the air became awkward.
Before he could regain his footing, Han was on top of him. He grabbed Kisame's sword hand with his left hand while he drove his right fist into Kisame's stomach. Kisame doubled over, blood flying from his mouth as the air in his lungs was forced out of his body. Han pivoted and kicked Kisame in the face, sending him flying into the remains of a nearby building.
Kisame hit the wall with a grunt as a spider web of cracks exploded out behind him. He began to slump forward, but couldn't complete the motion before Han on him once again. The large jinchuriki's fist was pulled way back, ready to deliver a finishing blow, but Kisame wasn't nearly as out of it as he appeared. With grace that didn't seem possible in one so large, Kisame slipped to the side just before Han's large fist could connect with his face.
Han's fist went through the stone wall behind Kisame like it wasn't even there. The wall didn't even shatter, Han's hand just created a small hole that most of his arm sank into. Kisame's knee came up into Han's stomach, and then he smashed his forehead into Han's face. Han fell back, but apparently wasn't taken completely off guard by the attack because as he fell, part of the wall that he'd punched a hole in came with him, slamming into the back of Kisame's head and sending the other large man crashing to the ground as well.
Kisame was the first to rise to his feet. He lifted the sword, Samehada, with ease and swung it at Han while the jinchuriki was still struggling to his feet. Han saw the attack coming and ducked low, placing one hand on the ground as Samehada slid through the air just above him. With a growl he dove forward, tackling Kisame and lifting him off his feet for a second before driving him into the ground. He quickly twisted to the side while keeping one hand pushing down on Kisame's chest, pushed off with his feet so he's almost doing a handstand, and then drove his knees down into Kisame's stomach. Kisame gasped in pain as Han quickly rose stepped back, and then kicked him. The kick spun Kisame in the air twice before he crashed back to the ground.
Han began to move in for the kill once more, moving like a man who knows his victory has been assured.
Gaara's clone let his eyes drift to Kisame's companion, wondering if Itachi would move to save the larger man. Itachi was watching the fight with what seemed to be bored disinterest. He didn't look like a man who was watching a friend being killed.
Han reached Kisame and lifted his foot, preparing to stomp on his opponent's head. "Thank you for the fight. Maybe we can do it again in the next life." His foot came down.
Kisame's hand shot up and caught it.
For a moment, they stood there and then Kisame pushed Han away and rose easily to his feet. "Is that all you've got?" he asked with a chuckle.
Han stumbled back in surprise, but quickly recovered. His right hand shot out, fist aiming right for Kisame's head.
Kisame didn't dodge. He also didn't fall back after the blow struck.
Han looked down at his hand and stepped away. "What the hell is this?" he demanded.
"Use your bijuu," Kisame told him with a smirk. It was at that moment that the clone Gaara realized that Kisame didn't even seem to be injured. He didn't have a scratch on him, in fact, despite having been cut and bruised several times during the battle with Han. "Samehada's still hungry and you're already out of chakra for him to eat."
"Kisame, don't waste time," Itachi said in a quiet, but forceful voice. "We still have two more to capture."
Kisame glanced back at him and shrugged. "Yeah, guess you're right. Samehada can fill up on them."
Han was still looking at his hand in surprise when Kisame's sword swung at him. Just before it connected with his knee, he spun and leapt over it, arching his back and landing on his hands before springing up and away. As he landed, red chakra flowed up and around him, forming not only a cloak but also three tails and an elongated head with four prongs coming off of it that almost seemed to be ears or horns.
"Ugh, I'm never going to hear the end of this!" Han grumbled in disgust. He brought his hands together to form seals, but Kisame closed too quickly. In an apparent attempt to buy more time, Han kicked at his oncoming opponent.
As Han's foot lashed out, Kisame planted Samehada in its path. Han's foot connected solidly with the sword and was instantly pierced by several spikes that seemed to reach out for him.
One tail disappeared.
Kisame used his sword as a support and leapt forward, kicking Han in the chest. The large man was sent flying. Kisame pivoted, pulled Samehada out of the ground and then threw it. The handle extended, appearing almost snake like in it's movements, and even the sword bent unnaturally, twisting towards Han like a hungry predator. Han hit the ground at almost the exact moment that Samehada crashed into him.
Another tail disappeared.
Kisame smiled wickedly and flicked his wrist. Samehada pulled away from Han, who roared in pain and blood sprayed out of him. When the sword returned to Kisame, he gave it a sharp shake and something large fell from it.
The sand clone's eyes widened. It was Han's right arm.
Kisame turned towards Roushi, giving them a self-satisfied smile. "Who's next?"
Roushi's fingers instantly came together and a great spout of lava shot from his mouth.
Kisame's hands also came together, forming his own seals. He opened his mouth as a flood of water poured out and formed into a huge wave. The wave slammed into Roushi's lava and then flowed around it and on towards the old man. Roushi quickly formed more seals and then spun in a circle as lava flowed out of his mouth. The wave crashed into the spot he'd stood and then continued flowing down the street a short ways further.
Gaara's clone was certain that never in its history had Suna seen so much water at one time.
As the water level dropped, a large black object could be seen standing where Roushi had previously been. Kisame walked confidently towards it, Samehada slung carelessly over his shoulder. With a mighty kick, the black stone shattered, revealing a cowering Roushi, who quickly backed away when he realized his cover was gone.
Kisame smiled. "Don't worry, it'll only hurt for a moment."
His fist lashed out, connecting solidly with Roushi's face. Roushi melted away as Kisame cried out in pain and jerked his burned hand back. A hand reached out of the street just behind Kisame and grabbed him by the ankles, pulling him down into the ground as Roushi rose up.
"Stupid young 'uns," he grumbled. "Always thinking they're smarter than they really are."
He arched back, his mouth swelling and preparing to spew lava all over Kisame's exposed head. Kisame spit water, hitting Roushi in the face before he could launch his attack. Roushi stumbled back and before he could recover enough to use his jutsu, the ground around Kisame cracked and the large ninja pushed himself free.
He looked down at his burnt hand and then reached down and picked up Samehada. The handle of the sword seemed to twist around his wrist and suddenly the burns on his hand began to fade and then vanished completely.
"You can't beat me, old man," he said with a smirk.
Roushi spit. Steam rose from where it hit the wet ground. "We'll see."
"We already have," a voice said behind him. Before Roushi could turn, he was on the ground.
Itachi stood behind him, Han's limp form hung slung over his shoulder.
Kisame's face fell. "Just when it was getting good…"
"There's still one more and it won't be long before others from both Suna and Iwa arrive. We aren't here to fight the war, just to capture our targets."
They turned towards the sand clone. The clone looked carefully at Kisame, who didn't even seem winded after his fight with Han and Roushi, much less injured, then at Itachi.
"A sand clone, huh?" Itachi said as he calmly walked forward. "The distance you can travel is greater than that of a water clone, but not so great that the real you is outside this village." He looked around, his strange red eyes seeming to take in every detail of the destroyed area. "The real you is very close." He glanced at Kisame and nodded as his own fingers came together.
Kisame threw Samehada at the clone who smiled and reached out to catch it. The strange sword struck the clone in the chest, passing part way through before being trapped. For a second, the clone looked confident that it had just removed a major obstacle, but then all of the chakra that was holding it together began to drain into the sword.
The clone became just another pile of sand and fell to the ground.
Under the street, the real Gaara felt the clone's demise a second before the ground above him was ripped open by Itachi's jutsu. He looked up, shocked, and found himself staring into Itachi's red eyes.
The genjutsu had him before he even realized what was happening.
For the second time that day, actually for the second time in less than an hour, he was trapped in a world in which he was powerless. In this one, he was not being forced to witness terrible memories or completely impossible wounds that refused to let him die, instead he was in a world in which everything was colored wrong and was pinned to the ground by nails through his hands and feet while crows circled overhead. One of the crows circled closer, landed on his chest and began moving towards his eyes which he couldn't seem to close.
"Ashk for help." A slightly slurred voice whispered in his mind as the crows beak began to open and close greedily. "Let me help."
Gaara knew that voice. It was supposed to be gone forever.
"I won, your power is mine!" he yelled into the darkness.
"Our contest won't end that quickly." Shukaku chuckled and then hiccupped. "For the time being, you're ahead. So, I'm yours to command. Let me help, don't fight me for a moment."
"I know what you'll do."
"I'll sshave you."
Gaara was fairly certain the demon meant "save" and didn't believe him, but as the crow began to peck at one of his eyes while another crow descended, he decided that he didn't care. He'd gone through Han's genjutsu, he wouldn't make it through another round of something similar. He relaxed and felt the Ichibi's influence pull at him.
And then his eyes snapped open and he was free of the genjutsu.
Itachi's eyes widened and Kisame swung Samehada down into the hole at him.
Gaara vanished deeper into the sands, surrounding himself in darkness but once more able to see far more clearly than he'd ever thought possible. He could feel Itachi and Kisame where they stood, could feel Roushi's slow shallow breathing where he lay unconscious in the street, he could even feel the bodies of the ninja he'd killed crushed earlier.
He knew he couldn't stay hidden for long. Somehow Itachi was able to track him, which meant that he'd be using another Earth jutsu to try to dig Gaara out again. Gaara pushed chakra into the surrounding area, Itachi was welcome to try to overpower him.
Once again protected, he needed a way to either escape or kill these new enemies. Kisame was incredibly powerful and could either heal himself or couldn't be hurt, given the lack of wounds after his fight with Han. His sword also had a strange ability that would make him very difficult to deal with. And Itachi was… somehow, Gaara had the strange idea that Itachi was even stronger. Taking on both of them at the same time – especially while he was fatigued from his earlier fight and all the chakra he'd used just getting into the village – would not be a good idea. Perhaps if he had complete control over Shukaku's powers, things would be different, but the demon's comment about him only being ahead at that moment made Gaara nervous.
Plus, Temari and Kankuro might come looking for him soon and they would definitely not be able to handle these two. He'd accomplished his mission of distracting Iwa's forces while the ninja he and siblings had saved the previous day did their best to rescue any survivors and possibly even the Kazekage, there was no point to fighting these new enemies.
Of course, if Itachi could follow him, then escaping would probably be pretty difficult. He certainly couldn't go running towards Temari and Kankuro if he wanted to keep them out of this. What he really needed was a way to get Kisame and Itachi to chose to leave him alone. Doing that, however, would require them wanting something more than they wanted him but the only thing they seemed to want was…
A crazy, stupid plan formed in his mind. It was almost worthy of Uzumaki Naruto.
Gaara rose to the surface at what he hoped was a safe distance from Itachi and Kisame. They turned towards him and he scowled. "You took my kills," he informed them in a voice that he hoped sounded the way he used to when he was still trapped in the darkness. "The blood of those two belonged to me."
"Get over it," Kisame retorted.
The ground beneath their feet began to shift, flowing in a spiral as a whirlpool of sand formed. Itachi and Kisame leapt onto a nearby building, but Roushi was pulled into the center.
"My kill," Gaara growled as he closed his hand into a fist.
Itachi and Kisame's eyes were instantly on Roushi. Kisame started to jump from the building but Itachi's hand stopped him. It didn't matter, they'd confirmed what Gaara suspected – that they intended to capture the jinchuriki alive – and they wouldn't have been able to stop him by this point anyway.
Roushi vanished into the vortex and then red sand shot out of spot where he'd disappeared.
"Damn," Kisame hissed. "The Leader's going to be pissed."
"He'll have to be satisfied with two," Itachi replied calmly, turning back towards Gaara.
"He'll be satisfied with none!" Gaara yelled, as the sands of the street rose up and shot towards Itachi and – Gaara hoped it would appear – Han. Itachi leapt aside before it reached him, but the sands simply changed direction and continued the chase. Kisame attacked the column of sand with his sword and some of it fell to the ground, but Gaara simply added sand from a different area and kept up the chase.
A wall of sand rose up, ready to bury Itachi, Kisame, and Han, but the two strange ninja once more avoided death. Gaara they would retreat soon because he wasn't sure how much longer he could keep it up. Besides, if he fought Itachi and Kisame for too long, Roushi would suffocate. It would be a shame to use so much chakra making it appear that he'd killed the old man – even going so far as to move the bodies of his other victims so he could use their blood to add to the illusion – only to actually kill him through neglect.
"This kid is starting to annoy me," Kisame growled as he began to form seals once more.
"Kisame," Itachi said quietly, "enough. We can't take him in the desert while trying to protect the Gobi. Beating him would require sacrificing the piece that we already have."
Kisame looked disappointed, but slung the sword over his shoulder and sighed. "You hear that, bastard?" he yelled towards Gaara. "You're off the hook this time, but next time we meet, we'll suck you dry!"
Gaara replied by shooting several sand shuriken in their direction. "I'll drink sake from your hallowed out skulls!" he promised, quoting one of Han's more bloodthirsty lines to reinforce the image he was trying to portray.
The two ninja leapt from the building they were standing on and vanished from sight.
Gaara let out a sigh of relief and felt his body sag, he needed food and rest, but couldn't get it just yet. He willed the sands to bring the body of his former enemy towards him as he slipped once more beneath the ground, and then they moved Gaara and his captured enemy as far from the two strange ninja as possible.
When he came across a small cluster of people, he rose partially to the surface and found his brother, sister, and several other Sand-nin fighting against a dwindling number of Rock-nin. At the sight of Gaara, the Sand-nin seemed to grow even more confident. At the sight of a limp Roushi next to Gaara, the Rock-nin lost all hope. It was over a few short minutes later.
"We need to go," Gaara told them when the last Rock-nin fell.
Temari nodded. "Father…" her voice trailed off for a second and then she pushed through. "Father is dead. Suna's Kazekage is no more."
Gaara accepted this information without a noticeable reaction. "Then our mission here is done."
"Suna hasn't been freed," Baki pointed out. "Iwa still holds it."
"Suna is lost. There aren't enough of you to retake the village, let alone hold it… and there are strangers here who will make things difficult. We're leaving."
"What are we going to do with that?" a Sand-nin asked, pointing at Roushi.
Gaara glanced down at him. "He's coming with us."
"He's a monster!"
Gaara looked at the man and raised an eyebrow as if to ask "what do you think I am?" The man looked away, abashed.
"Stay if you want, but we are leaving." He looked at Temari and Kankuro and said, "Let's go."
The remnant of Suna followed the three siblings as they made their way quickly and quietly out of the village and into the sands. There were a few small fights before they were safely away, but they managed to avoid the majority of Iwa's remaining forces.
Iwa apparently was aware that something had gone amiss. Less than an hour after Gaara and the remnant of Suna had escaped from the village, a great cloud of dust began to rise above it. The Rock-nin knew they couldn't hold the village, especially now that they'd lost the two jinchuriki who had made the conquest possible in the first place. They also knew that whatever had caused the tidal wave of sand was probably still out there. So they did what any conqueror does when taking a city that it can't hold, they destroyed it so no one else could use it. Buildings were leveled, anything that could be burned was.
By the end of the day, the only thing left of Sunagakure was the mountains that had surrounded it and the ruins of the buildings that had once stood proudly against the sands. Gaara knew that it would only take the desert a few days to erase all but the mountains.
Still, Sand could be removed and buildings could be rebuilt. Many lives had been lost, but those meant less to Gaara than those of his brother and sister who had survived.
Now they just had to figure out where to go next, what to do with their prisoner, and perhaps get some information on who Itachi and Kisame were and why they were attacking jinchuriki.
From atop the head of one of the Konoha's past Hokage, the two men in dark cloaks continued to watch the battle unfolding below them.
"The fighting is winding down," the larger noted.
"Well, it's about fucking time. It feels like we've been sitting here for months and this rain is pissing me off."
"We'll have to move carefully. If we strike too quickly, we'll be attacked by both sides, but if we don't enter the village now, they'll be more on guard against us."
"So, what? We trade waiting down there for waiting up here?"
"For the time being."
"Shit… why the hell did I get stuck with this goddamn mess of a mission? Fine let's just get out of the rain."
"We won't have to wait long, just until the winner starts working on rebuilding. I doubt we'll have to wait past morning."
"Why are you being so cautious? This isn't really like you."
"Can't you tell? Kumo lost."
"From up here, they all look the same to me."
"With a jinchuriki on their side, they should have been able to pull out the victory. Something strange is going on down there."
"Eh, whatever. Let's just fucking get it over with. I'm bored."
"Yes. Let's go."
A/N: No excuses this time, I'm just slow. Also, I have a feeling that this chapter shows my desire to get this war stuff over and done with (and probably my growing boredom with it), at least for the time being. Hopefully it didn't feel as rushed and poorly written to you as it did to me, but it is what it is. Next chapter will have some fighting, but mostly it will be a "character" chapter… something I've been missing for a long, long time. Whether or not that means I'll actually be quicker about getting it out is hard to say. I'm hoping that the summer will bring a timelier update schedule, but with my luck it will just bring more hours of work and school rather than a chance to do things I actually like!