I do not own Masashi-San's very entertaining characters, and only use them for a story meant for entertainment purposes only.
Of all the shinobi in the village.
He knew he should be happy for them.
Hell, he was happy.
Just as he was happy for Shikamaru and Temari.
Gaara and Sakura.
TenTen and Choji, of all people.
Even Ino had finally found a mate with Shino.
Brains, and bugs. Who knew?
Yet in the end. After all the dust was settled, and the world seemed at peace, he was still left standing by himself watching Kiba marry Hinata.
The blushing little Hyuuga heiress that used to fawn over him.
Kurenai gave him a faint smile, but was more interested in keeping her daughter under control. Little Sumi was named for her father, who had died defending the Leaf Village of Konoha, and holding back the Akatsuki who had been after him all along. Not that he had not done his best to track them down, and put paid to everyone who thought they could exploit the jinchuriki, or demon hosts like himself.
In the end, he had been backed by the full might of several ninja villages, but most especially by those he considered friends, and they had finally put an end to the threat of the Uchihas, and those that thought to turn the demons loose on the world to create a hellish vision of utopia they had conjured in their sick imaginations.
It was always about power.
He remembered when Sakura first saw his power.
She tried to be supportive, she had turned away from him. Ironically, she turned to another like him. Gaara of the Sand, that village's new kazekage. Gaara, though he had once almost killed her, was oddly enough less threatening to her in the kunoichi's eyes. Never mind that it had been years now since he had lost control of the dark chakra within him, or the Nine-Tails that fueled it. Never mind he had become a Sage, and had full control of both sides of his mixed nature.
He was still the Nine-Tails.
Still less than a man.
He heard the soft voice of a girl he thought once might make him a fine bride when he realized his dreams were changing with maturity, and saw that she did not fear him. But she was an heiress. A future Clan leader. She could not wed for herself, but had to wed for her people. Kiba was a man with powerful
connections to the Leaf, and an old and distinguished family.
Kiba was also not a jinchuriki.
Which remained everyone's biggest grief with him in spite of the years of service he had given his village.
He forced himself to smile, and bow to the new Lord and Lady of Clan Hyuuga as they passed, and tried not to think that there wasn't really anyone left for him now. That he was just another shinobi lurking in the shadows. A tool waiting to be used.
He started to suspect the old perv must have felt much the same.
No one called on him either unless they wanted something.
Get the job done, then get lost.
Even he had been the same, he had to admit.
He sighed as he recalled his childish antics, not realizing his master would never live long enough to finish training him. Never realizing he would die seeking answers that might help their village, and his apprentice.
He wondered what the old man would think of today.
He'd probably wonder what Hinata was wearing under her kimono.
The old perv.
He smiled a bittersweet smile at his maudlin thoughts, and stiffened, coiling with anticipation as a strong hand fell on his shoulder.
"Easy, runt," the gruff, old woman that was the last of the sanine, and the village's Fifth Hokage drawled. "I'm not looking for trouble."
"So what do you want, grandma," the lean, wiry blonde with bright, blue eyes asked without looking up at her.
"You looked a little down there for a minute. I thought you might want to go get a drink, and relax."
"No. I thought I'd go….train some more," he told her, fumbling for a reason to leave without expressing what he really felt just then.
He had long since stopped blurting out whatever was on his mind.
"We're at peace, Naruto," Tsunade assured him. "Relax. Celebrate your friends' marriage. I'm told they have a grand reception planned."
"They don't want me here."
"How can you say that," she frowned, still looking quite attractive and fit despite the years rapidly catching up to her in spite of her genjitsu which kept a mask of youth over her true face. "This day wouldn't even be possible without you."
"Yeah," he sighed. "Hooray for me. I'm getting out here," he said, and just vanished.
"Damn his clones," the Hokage muttered, knowing Naruto could be anywhere.
It had become a habit of his lately. He sent out clones, saw and heard what he wanted, or needed, and then just vanished. No one was ever sure if the real Naruto was even in the village any longer. She had noticed his trend, too, and it didn't ease her mind that he was becoming so skilled in implementing such ploys. It actually worried her. A lot.
A man with Naruto's potential, left alone for too long? He could well end up going rogue.
Considering what he carried within him, that was the last thing they needed.
Keeping her smile in place, she wandered over to where Hatake was reading one of his favored books. The series had died with its author, of course, but there were copies of the original that most fans like the silver-haired nin kept alive. The authors that had tried to copy Juraiya's original style just did not
have his flair, and those books floundered miserably before fading away completely.
"Problem, Lady Tsunade," the man asked without lifting his single eye from the page he probably knew by heart.
"Naruto disappeared again."
"That's not exactly news these days," Kakashi reminded her.
"He was in a mood," she said tellingly. "I'm afraid of where he might be going lately. He's isolating himself too much, and too often. I want you to find him."
"Why me," he asked in surprise, looking up at her now.
"Because I'm guessing you might be the last man in the village left that he'll listen to if….when you find him."
"I saw this coming, you know," he told her. "In fact, I think I told you and Shizune, what, four years ago?"
Tsunade said nothing as the crowd cheered the couple reaching the reception area, and the celebration of the newlyweds' union began in earnest.
"Well, try to find him. And if you need a lure. I'll tell you what very few know outside the Anbu these days."
"Another secret mission," he asked, smiling faintly behind his mask, though the last missions against the Akatsuki had left him feeling far older than he usually did. And more than ready to retire.
"I am afraid that from reports I've been hearing…..Orochimaru might still be alive."
"He does seem to have more lives than a cat. For a snake," he added somberly.
"True. Believe me, I've seen his tenacity firsthand, so if it's even remotely possible, I have to ere on the side of caution. And experience tells me that the reports I've heard are true. The bastard has likely survived."
"He must have just been waiting out the fallout from our battles with the Fire Village, and the Akatsuki," he murmured.
"It's possible. It's even possible he's the one that helped stir up the Fire Village radicals from behind the scenes."
"Whatever is going on, Naruto remains our best chance of dealing with the snake, and whatever he might conjure up next time. Remind him he remains a shinobi, and bound to Konoha."
She looked around the celebration, releasing no one even seemed to have missed his going, and added, "Even if it doesn't seem like it."
"I'll head out when they cut the cake. No one will notice me by then, either," he told her as his gaze dropped back to his book.
"By the way, did he tell you what he might be doing?"
"Something about….training. I didn't believe it, though," Tsunade told him.
Kakashi only nodded.
Kakashi found him four days later, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the training grounds where Team Seven once met and trained so long ago.
He was staring at the sun, his blue eyes flecked liberally with red flecks, suggesting he was communing with something inside him that Kakashi preferred not to think about even at the best of times. He had seen that demon almost break through more than once before they finally melded, and Naruto found the will and discipline to hold the Nine-Tails in check. Before that had happened, he had devastated whole countrysides, killed and injured hundreds, and likely cost himself whatever friends he had managed to make.
Kakashi could sympathize to a degree. His own pride had once cost him friends and comrades. Still, it just wasn't the same, and he knew it.
"Naruto," he nodded. "Am I speaking to you, or a clone?"
"Can't you tell, sensei," he asked without looking up.
"No. Which is a good indication of how much you've grown, and how far you've come."
"Yeah. Yay, me."
"Naruto, Konoha still needs you."
"You're talking about Kabuto."
"He was sighted in the Land of Mist. He probably is carrying a piece of that snake. Enough to let him regenerate, and eventually become whole."
"So you know why we need you with us?"
"No," Hatake frowned. "This isn't sounding like you."
"Actually, it is. I've put a lot of thought into this, Kakashi-sensei. I waited until Kiba and Hinata's celebration was through so it wouldn't be ruined. But even these extra days did not change anything. Let's be honest," he said, and rose to his feet, dusting off the legs of his black and orange uniform that was distinctive to the young ninja. "I've been unwanted since the day I was born."
"Unwanted, I should add, except for a few power-mad tyrants. Still, you know they all hate and despise me. Even those that look to me to help save their lives now and again. To be honest, though, I'm tired, Kakashi. Really, really tired. If it isn't Orochimaru, or the Akatsuki, it will be someone like them. There are always more. So, I quit. I won't do it anymore."
"Naruto," Kakashi grew alarmed. "If you go rogue…."
"Who said I was going rogue? But since there is not really any more purpose to my life, why should I not go on my own terms," he asked quietly, and before even the copy nin could move, the younger shinobi pulled a sharp kunai, and drove it into his own chest. "G-Good….bye…"Senssssss…"
Kakashi could only gasp as he stared at the young man who fell dead at his feet.
For a moment he waited for a clone to vanish.
For the ninja to jump up, and snigger at his expression.
Only Naruto did not vanish.
Nor did he move.
Instead, his blood flowed out from his chest where he had fallen on his face, driving the blade deeper, and ripping open his chest. Kakashi instinctively moved back as the blood pool widened, and he couldn't help but stare in genuine disbelief at the sight of the dark fluid starting to soak into the ground.
"Naruto," he rasped, his voice thick with shock.
There was no answer.
"Naruto," he shouted, and dropped to his knees to turn him over.
He stared helplessly at the kunai all but buried in his chest. The utter look of misery etched into his feral features. There was, however, not any doubt that he was dead. Lifting his lifeless body into his arms, he turned and started toward the village. He walked slowly, ignoring the dripping blood as he walked toward the gates. The sentries gaped, unable to believe what they were seeing as Shikamaru walked past
just then, and stopped to stare at him in disbelief.
"Kakashi," he gasped. "What happened? Who attacked….?"
"He killed himself," the grieving shinobi told the other quietly.
"Wha…? Why," Shikamaru blurted out, unable to imagine the indomitable young shinobi just quitting in such a fashion.
"He felt….he had no other place in life except as a weapon. He did not wish to be that weapon any longer, so he….."
Hatake said no more as he walked toward the Hokage's offices, Shikamaru following him in silence.
"He'd get a big laugh at seeing how many people showed up for him," Shikamaru commented as he stood among the crowd as they buried the fallen ninja who had begun to seem invincible after all he had faced, and survived.
He might not have always won. Or completed his missions. Yet he had never been beaten. Not truly.
He glanced over to see Gaara and Sakura had come for the funeral, the still pretty kunoichi holding a hand over her swollen belly as tears flowed from her overly bright eyes. Hinata merely stared blankly, as if unable to believe they were really burying him.
"It's a clone," she kept saying as her husband tried to comfort her. "It has to be a clone."
Only it wasn't.
Even the Fifth agreed.
That, and by now, a clone would have vanished.
After nine days of autopsy, burial preparations, and now the funeral, the corpse remained unchanged. And present. Naruto was declared officially dead.
Along with the Nine-Tails he had carried.
Some people were relieved.
They did not voice those feelings as most of the shinobi mourned their fallen comrade.
Naruto Uzimaki, the jinchuriki, was dead.
Naruto Uzimaki actually stood in a distant tree, masked by genjitsu even the Hyuuga's could not penetrate as he stared at the funeral being held for 'him.'
He had been a little worried Lady Tsunade might be skilled, or clever enough to realize he had used a real body substitution for his special clone that emulated his very convincing seppuku. He had been a little surprised at how Kakashi had reacted, but not overly so at the villagers who showed up more to ensure he was really being buried than to actually mourn.
Clad only in black, his distinctive hair and features hidden behind a featureless mask, he was virtually invisible even without his genjitsu as he watched his funeral. It surprised him that so many of his former comrades were genuinely grieving. From the way he had been treated in the past, barely tolerated, in fact, he was certain they would have been just as grateful to have him gone, too.
Still, it hardly mattered.
It was surprising to see Gaara and Sakura.
She was still pretty as ever, and it looked like she was expecting their first child quite soon.
He idly wondered if she had ever truly forgiven him for killing Sasuke the way he had when that Uchiha had tried using his sharingan to control the Nine-Tails, just as his Clansman had before to start the fateful rampage that would cost the Fourth his life, and the Nine-Tails his freedom.
After watching a few moments more, he tuned and disappeared into the forest beyond the village. He did not look back.
"Give it up, Sorimata," Kakashi shouted as the rogue ninja from the land of Mist swung a huge sword at his head even as he ducked back, and easily evaded the massive weapon the lean giant wielded with sublime ease. "Your rampage is over."
"Not in this lifetime, Hatake," the rogue spat as he eyed the three genin moving around him, eyes wide with fear and excitement, but still too uncertain to make a move without orders. "You should have brought jonín with you. These children will get you all killed."
Kakashi sighed. What was it with the Mist and their overlong swords, and giant bullies?
"Don't underestimate us," a dark-haired genin with cold, brown eyes shouted as he threw a handful of shuriken even as he moved past him at a surprisingly swift lope.
"That's right," a pale, silver-haired girl grinned, and simply stood her ground. "We are Leaf shinobi, and we have a proud heritage."
"You have a cold grave, bitch," he spat, and flung a blade half as long as his sword at her.
Kakashi turned, and ran for Tiami's side, but knew even as he did he wasn't going to make it.
"Move," he shouted at the cocky girl who tended to rely on her strength, and had yet to learn finesse in battle.
Maniko, fast as he was, was occupied with dodging another attack, and their teammate Rojin, a lean redhead with a skill at taijutsu, was simply holding back, well aware he was out of his depth here.
"Tiami," Hatake shouted even as a dark blur appeared, and the long blade was abruptly sheared in two, and fell to either side of the girl.
Even before the ruined blade fell, all five shinobi froze as they heard the low murmur from behind Sorimata.
"You screwed up attacking that last village, shinobi," the dark shape behind the rogue ninja told him. "You hurt a friend of mine."
The tall ninja, fast as he was, barely had time to turn to face the newcomer as
he felt the twin swords slam into his chest, and cut in opposite directions. Even as Kakashi and his teammates turned to see the rogue they had been sent to bring in literally fall to pieces, the dark shape that moved like a blur just outside their periphery was gone.
So was Sorimata's sword, and head.
"Kakashi-sensei," Tiami frowned, staring at the broken sword bracketing her. "What….?"
"What just happened," Maniko asked as he stared down at the bloody carnage that had been a man just a heartbeat ago.
Rojin, merely looked around.
"Whoever it was, he was both fast, and unbelievably powerful. What kind of shinobi was that, sensei," the young redhead asked.
"I…..don't know," Kakashi admitted. "I've never heard of anyone like him. Ever. We'd better report back to the Hokage at once. She will want to hear of this."
"But….he's a good guy. Isn't he," Tiami asked as the young girl stared at the carnage. "I mean, he saved us, and killed the bad guy."
Maniko shook his head. "Good guys don't take trophies."
"It doesn't matter who, or what he is," Kakashi told them as they prepared the body for transport back to the hidden Mist. "None of us can allow a man like that to run about freely doing as he wills."
"He said he was….avenging a friend. I think," Rojin remarked.
"We all heard him," Kakashi told him as they got ready to leave. "All the same, he's too dangerous to let run around undirected."
"How do we know he is," Maniko asked pointedly.
"A valid question. Which is all the more troubling. But we won't find answers standing around here."
"We might find them at the village," Maniko pointed out. "And since it is on our way back."
"Let's go," Kakashi agreed, and directed the two young men to carry the litter, and its grizzly contents.
"We found his head impaled in front of the village, atop his own sword," Kakashi told Tsunade who looked far more weary of late than he had ever seen her.
"The villagers claimed to know nothing, and knew nothing of any strangers that might have been behind the attack. With so many injured by Sorimata's rampage, it would have been hard to find someone who had been friends with a ghost, either. So we just left, and came back to report what we did know."
"Was Sorimata connected to Orochimaru?"
"We don't know. Before we could bring him down, or get a word out of him, the….stranger showed, diced him up, and was gone."
"Faster than Maniko," Kakashi nodded.
"This is disturbing, Hatake. We're stretched thin as it is, or I never would have sent your team on such a dangerous mission. But now you are telling me that there's another unknown element at work out
"I think he's a good guy," Tiami told her bluntly.
Both her teammates glared at her.
"You're only saying that because he saved you."
"You weren't doing too well yourself," she shot back at Maniko.
Rojin sighed, and looked skyward.
"Enough," Tsunade stopped their usual bickering with a hard palm slapped on her desk, cracking the surface. Some things, she felt, never seemed to change. "First off, you are certain it is a man?"
"We heard him speak. It was a low, almost growling voice, but it was definitely male," Kakashi told her.
"What did you see with your sharingan?"
He blushed slightly behind his mask as he shrugged at the Hokage, but shook his head. "Lately, it's been….fading. A lot. Age," he shrugged again. "I just don't have the chakra reserves I used to have," he admitted. "But even with what little I still possess, I couldn't see anything but the same blur we all saw. Even Sorimata was caught flat-footed."
"To say the least," Rojin murmured. "He was in pieces before he could blink."
"All right. Kakashi, stay here. I need a private word with you. The rest of you go….do whatever you do."
The three eyed her somberly, and turned to leave.
They weren't out of the hall before their argumentative voices could be heard 'discussing' what they were going to do next.
"Were we ever that young," she asked Kakashi.
"Unfortunately. What's on your mind, Lady Tsunade?"
"You said the voice growled."
"Could it have been a jinchuriki?"
He tensed at that, but admitted, "I don't know. It is possible. Men have raised the kami before now, and they could still do it today if someone knew how."
"Right," the aging ninja agreed.
"Is it possible….?"
"Forgive me, Lady-Hokage," a tall, silver-eyed man interrupted just then as he walked into the office.
"Nedji," she frowned at the head of the Hyuuga branch family. A man sworn never to wed to ensure the branch line expired, and the Clan was made whole again, as it should have always been. "What is it," she asked him.
"I….overheard some of what you were saying," he admitted, "And I might have a possible answer."
"What is it," Kakashi asked him.
"I think Naruto Uzimaki is still alive. He could be your mysterious nin."
Both of them stared at the younger man, absorbing the bombshell as they slowly assimilated his claim.
"What proof do you have," Tsunade asked. "Remember. I did his autopsy myself."
"I don't doubt you thought you did. But, remember, he had access to genjitsu on a level we cannot even imagine," he reminded her, bringing to mind the fact he had once said the Nine-Tails had done more than give him power, or chakra at times, but had even shown him jutsu that were astonishing advanced even for a Hokage. Added to that, his Sage training had made him a force to be reckoned with in any confrontation.
"Again," she murmured. "What proof….?"
"I recall Hinata's outburst at the funeral," he told her.
"We all do," Tsunade said quietly.
"So, I chose to keep an eye on his body."
"For four years," Kakashi exclaimed.
"I have made regular examinations over the years," he told them. "Four years, three months, two weeks, and three days ago, we buried him with the fallen heroes of our village."
"We know, Nedji," she told him as Tsunade felt a growing premonition.
Or was it just dread?
"In all this time, he has not changed. Decay hasn't touched him. Worms haven't touched him. His body remains…..perfect. Dead, but….perfect."
Tsunade shared a glance with Kakashi.
"Dig him up," she said without hesitation. "But do it discreetly. Bring the body to my medical lab. In the meantime, I'm going to do some research."
The two men nodded.
"We'll go just after dark. Everyone will be occupied then," Nedji told Kakashi.
"Too bad we didn't have your Byakugan with us in that fight," the older man told him. "You could have said for certain who that was then and there."
"Maybe. Remember, by now, he's likely to have refined his genjitsu even more."
"If it is him," Kakashi murmured, wondering if Naruto would have gone so far as to 'kill' himself just to walk away from a village where he felt unwanted.
It just didn't seem like him.
But then, those last months he had not seemed like himself.
"I'll meet you at sunset near the memorial," Kakashi told him, and walked away.
Nedji merely nodded, and walked away, too.
Even he was uncertain of how things were going to play out. He had long wondered if he should even say anything at all. Still, the more that he pondered it, the more he realized he still had a duty to the village, and to his comrades.
And like it, or not, Naruto Uzimaki remained a Leaf Shinobi.
Even if he had made himself a rogue if his suspicions were true.
"Who are you, old man," Kiba demanded as he and Hinata dropped from the trees to bracket the bearded man stirring a pot of tubers over a low fire.
"Eh? What's that? Well now, where did you folks come from," he asked as he looked up to see
Kurenai drop down with Akamaru and Shino at her side.
"We asked a question," Kiba told him, eyeing him suspiciously as Akamaru edged closer, sniffing the pot before sneezing, and backing away with a whimper.
"Careful, pooch. I like lots of pepper," the old man cackled.
"Akamaru isn't a pooch," Kiba spat. "He's….."
"Slow down, Kiba. Listen, old man, we're hunting some dangerous shinobi in these parts, and you could get yourself hurt wandering around out here. So tell us who you are, and where you're from, and we can get you back there safe and sound before we get back to our work."
"Oh. I see. You're ninjas," he grinned, scratching at his bearded face. "Well, I'm just Tokisha," he smiled at Kurenai, and winked at her as well, making her roll her eyes. "I make the finest flutes in all the land. I have one here," he said, reaching for his pack, and pulling out a hand-carved flute. "Let me play you a tune," he offered, and before they could say anything, he began to play a slow, mournful melody that made Akamaru howl, and the four stand in silence at the passion in the music.
"What do you think," the old man asked as cheerfully as ever as he finally stopped, staring up at his spellbound audience.
"You play very beautifully," Hinata told him quietly.
"Oh, it's not so much me as the flute. I use special wood and reeds, and…why, I'll bet a pretty little girl like you would really make this instrument come alive. "I'll make a special offer. A real steal," he said, and held out the flute as he named a price.
Hinata blinked, and Shino merely cocked his head as he eyed him.
"No? How about you, gorgeous. A woman like you must have lots of men you'd like to enchant with a little music on a late night," he suggested with a waggle of his thick brows.
"You have to be kidding me," Kiba muttered. "You're out here in the middle of nowhere peddling flutes?"
"Well, I can also make harps, drums, or….."
"That's enough. You shouldn't be here at all, old man."
"Well, I can't too well sell my instruments by sitting in one place. I have to travel. That's what traveling merchants do. They travel. See? So, how about you, dog-boy? Like a flute," he asked, holding up the instrument to him.
"I'll take it," Hinata told him before Kiba's grimace turned into a snarled insult.
"Wonderful," the old man grinned. "I'd offer you supper, but you can see I only made enough for me," he grinned. "I have more flutes, though," he said after taking Hinata's coins, and pocketing them after handing her the flute.
"Look. Old man. Just get out of the woods, and go fast. There have been a lot of attacks in this area lately, and we think a dangerous rogue shinobi is behind them."
"Really? Gee, do you think I might see a ninja fight? I've heard about them, of course, but old as I am, I've never seen one. Always in the wrong place," he sighed. "It'd be my luck to walk through this forest, and not see another when you folks are all geared up to jump on some malefactor."
"Right," Kiba murmured as he turned to their sensei. "Kurenai-sensei," he asked mournfully. "Why not leave him, and let's keep patrolling the area? At the least, he might make good bait," he sneered.
"That's the spirit," the old man grinned. "Sure you don't want a flute," he asked, producing another. "I've got plenty."
Even Shino groaned.
"Let's go," Kurenai nodded at her team given back to her to field experienced shinobi for the threat of another snake-nin in the area attacking unwary traveler's. "Hinata," she murmured even as they leapt into the trees. "Keep an eye on the old man. Just in case."
"Yes, sensei," she nodded, and glanced back even as her silver eyes flared, and gleamed with chakra as she tuned into the world around her.
"We'll head for the river, and parallel the main road, then come back….."
"Sensei," Hinata cried out. "He's gone."
"The old man," she said, looking back the way they had just come. "He just….vanished."
"Let's go," she said, turning in midair, and rushing ahead of her team as she dropped back down to stare at the cold embers.
"The stones aren't even warm," Kiba frowned as he knelt to feel the rocks surrounding the dead ash. "How is this possible?"
They all looked to Hinata.
"He just….vanished. One moment he was there, and grinning, and then the next….."
"Shino," Kurenai turned to the Aburami. "What about you?"
"I'm at as much of a loss as Lady Hinata," the bug-master admitted. "I left a bug back here, but it's as if it just…..disappeared. I can't contact it."
"This is getting weird," Kiba murmured as Akamaru growled his agreement.
"Lady Tsunade said to keep an eye out for weird happenings. I think we found one," Hinata told her teammates needlessly.
"What do we do," Kiba asked Kurenai, who was once more their leader on this mission. Though she'd rather be with her daughter at home.
"We do our job. Hinata, keep an eye on this place. Meanwhile, let's finish our patrol, and see if we can flush out that snake-nin."
"Do you think that was him," Kiba asked.
"Hardly. Whoever, or whatever he was…..if he were Orochimaru's man, he would have attacked us."
"Hinata," Shino asked. "Reexamine your flute," he suggested.
She reached into her pack, and pulled out the wooden instrument.
"Byakugan," she murmured, and focused her skill on the innocuous instrument. After a moment, she relaxed, and shrugged.
"It's just a flute. Well made, by an obvious master, but it is only a flute."
"All right, then," the older shinobi told them. "We finish the patrol, and then report to the Hokage. Who knows? Maybe the old man is a local ghost we stirred up."
"I did not want to hear that," Kiba growled irritably.
Hinata only laughed. "Why, Kiba. I didn't know you were scared of ghosts."
"I'm not scared," he huffed. "I just don't like them."
Shino, as ever, kept his thoughts to himself as the group moved on through the forest, Hinata now and again looking back, but still appearing troubled.
"At the rate we're going," Kiba grumbled. "Kakashi's genin will be taking over the morning watch, and we won't have seen any action."
Akamaru barked his disappointment, too, as Kurenai rolled her eyes.
"At least it means we've managed to keep the nin from claiming any more victims," Shino suggested.
"Well, I didn't expect them to just run away, either."
"Uhm. Guys," Hinata suddenly froze, looking off to their right. "I don't think we ran them off."
"What is it," their sensei asked.
"This way," she said, and leapt into the trees once more to lead them toward a more thickly wooded part of the forest.
Five dead ninja, all wearing the insignia of the now officially defunct Hidden Sound village lay stretched out alongside a narrow path. Nearby, carts of plunder from past attacks were standing just off the path, the horses harnessed to them just idly grazing where they stood.
Not one of the nin had a mark on them. They were just dead.
"Kurenai-sensei," Shino murmured.
"Orochimaru's men," she spat, feeling the familiar chakra from her former mentor radiating from the men even in death. "There's no doubt."
"Sensei," Shino spoke up. "Look," he said, holding up his hand. As he did, a small, black dot landed. "It's the same bug I left on the old man."
"Are you sure," Kiba asked, earning a truly bleak scowl. Which from Shino, was truly something.
"Do you see anything else, Hinata," Kurenai asked her.
She looked around, focusing intently on the world around them, but still seeing nothing.
"Not a thing, Kurenai-sensei. I cannot even find a path of who did this; or how they arrived, or departed."
"What were you saying about ghosts, sensei," Kiba shuddered.
"Ghosts do not kill," she told him grimly.
"Shino, Hinata, load the bodies, and start this….caravan back to the village. We'll try to find survivors who can claim what was rightfully theirs from this lot. Kiba, you're with me. I want you and Akamaru to backtrack, and try to find any scent of that old man between here and the camp where we first found him. Or any scent at all that might explain who did this. And how," she added grimly.
"What about you, sensei," Kiba asked, not liking the idea of leaving his wife behind even with Shino.
"I'm heading back to the village now. Tsunade has to hear of this immediately. Something strange is going on out here, and we have to stop it before….whatever it is gets out of control."
"Right," Kiba nodded, then nodded at his wife.
"Don't worry, Kiba. I'll keep a close eye on her for you."
"That's what I'm afraid of," he grumbled as he turned to leave.
Hinata gave him a smile that suggested he was being silly, but turned to start helping Shino with the bodies even as they parted. None of them saw the cold-eyed shadow that watched for a moment before it slipped back into deeper shadows, and vanished.
They never saw, or heard a thing as they finally headed back to the village, and even Kiba and Akamaru rejoined his teammates admitting defeat after a fruitless search in the forest they had already been over several times before then.
"You're not going to like this," Kakashi said as they walked into Tsunade's private laboratory.
On a table was the desiccated remains of a body that looked to have been long dead.
It was so decomposed that it was hard to tell who, or what it had been.
"I thought you said….?"
"I did, Lady Tsunade," Nedji told her firmly. "And I was right."
"He was," Kakashi nodded. "As soon as we opened the coffin, and pulled the body out, though, it literally went to pieces before our eyes. Until that moment, it looked exactly like Naruto had just died four years ago."
She eyed Kakashi, and slowly shook her head.
"I don't know if I can find anything in this….residue, but I'll try. Meanwhile, keep this quiet. Especially since we had another weird report from the eastern forests near the Land of Water."
"What now," Kakashi asked as she leaned close, inspecting the bits of dust and bone.
"A ghost. Five snake nin that dropped dead in perfect symmetry without a mark on them. Oh, and no trace of who obviously killed them. Let alone how they came or went."
"It almost sounds like the Akatsuki are back," Nedji frowned.
"Except we killed the last of them over nine years ago," Tsunade reminded him.
"I know," the young man nodded. "I was there."
"Hyuuga-sensei," a voice called out as someone knocked on the door. "I need to see you."
"Binine," Nedji sighed. "One of my genin," the jonín told them. "I won't be a moment."
He walked to the door, cracking it just an inch, but it was enough for the young kunoichi to see inside.
"By the gods," she gasped. "It's happening."
"What is it, Binine," he asked.
"You….You asked me to tell you if I saw another vision? I had one last night. A bad one."
"All right, tell me," he said, deciding to let her in since she had already seen the coffin, and he trusted her to be discrete about things that were classified.
"Nedji," Tsunade stopped them. "Are you sure this genin should be…..?"
"Trust me, Lady-Hokage. When Binine is worried, you should be, too. Her visions have saved our lives on several missions now. Binine," he said, closing the door after nodding at the two Anbu who guarded it. "Tell us what you saw."
"I….I saw that, sensei," she pointed at the empty coffin. "I saw an empty coffin that exploded from the ground, and out of it came a monstrous snake, and a huge fox with nine tails that attacked one another. Only they were killing everyone around them as they fought. I saw…..I saw death, sensei," the young brunette told him uneasily as the adults shared telling looks. "The death of the world, and it all started with that."
"How can you be sure it is this particular coffin," Tsunade asked her.
"That mark," she pointed at Uzimaki's spiral crest that he had worn from his youth. "It marked the coffin in my vision."
Tsunade said nothing for a moment, then looked at Kakashi.
"Call in all the teams. All of them," she told him. "Now. We will have a meeting of all team leaders this afternoon," she told Hatake as the man nodded, and left them alone.
"As for you, Binine, tell me more of these visions of yours. And, Nedji? Why haven't I ever heard of this….gift of hers?"
"It's a sporadic ability that she possesses, Lady Tsunade," he told her as the young kunoichi looked uneasy about speaking. "And only seems to manifest when there is great, personal danger coming within reach of her, or those around her. I believe she may have the vestiges of some unknown Kekkei-Genkai. Her primary skills are with genjitsu, and ninjitsu, but now and then at times she has….premonitions. Some so strong they manifest as true visions."
"I see," she murmured, eyeing the girl. "Well, I want a full report on your past missions regarding those visions, and how they've helped you to date as well. In the meantime, I want a full, and meticulous account of this current vision. And until I brief the rest of the squads, Binine, say nothing of any of this. Not to anyone. Understand?"
"Yes, ma'am," she murmured quietly, reminding her of another shy genin who turned out to be far more than most realized.
"All right. Go, and get me those reports before I have to brief the squad leaders," she told them.
"Let's go," Nedji told his genin.
Tsunade didn't doubt Nedji already had those reports, but for his own reasons, simply left out the details regarding his genin's 'gift' until they suddenly became an issue.
A snake and a fox?
A nine-tailed fox?
Naruto, she wondered grimly as she turned to eye the desiccated remains she now believed were not him. What are you up to out there?
The man in black ignored the newcomers into the tavern.
He was sipping saki, and toying with a bowl of rice as the usual crowd came in around him, boasting of their days, and their plans, and ordering pitchers of saki to fuel more of that boasting. A few fights broke out at one point, but everyone grew quiet when a massive mountain of a man entered the commons room of the tavern.
"I'm hunting a certain phantom that likes to chase snakes," the burly man drawled as he pulled a hat from his head, revealing a gleaming, bald head, and a visage that looked as scarred as if it had just been chiseled from stone.
"There are no snake-chasers here, old man," someone sniggered as the crowd relaxed, taking him at his appearance as just another peasant looking for work, a name, or just a bowl of wine.
"Only fools chase snakes," a man in the back drawled. "The wise man kills them where he finds them."
"Sometimes even a wise man can be foolish," the big man drawled back as he approached the smaller man who looked almost scrawny as he sat at the table.
He eyed the man in black a few tables away, frowned at his cloaked head, but disregarded him, and went back to his meeting.
"I come from…."
"No names. The snake has ears everywhere."
"We have an infestation."
"The world seems infested again of late."
The scrawny man held up a hand. "Let us drink. Then we shall talk," the man said as he poured saki for both of them after the fresh pitcher arrived.
Even before the man could lift his bowl to his lips, the man in black was suddenly there, slapping it to the floor.
"If you are going to hunt snakes, old man," the masked stranger told him in a low growl. "First you must open your eyes."
Even as he spoke, his free hand had flashed out, ripping down the scrawny man's loose tunic to reveal a snake insignia looped around his neck over a ninja vest.
The ninja leapt up and back, and fell flat even as the big man jumped to his feet in alarm.
He looked up from the fallen nin who wasn't moving, and back to the man in black. Only he was gone. And the saki the nin had ordered had been dumped onto the floor where the wet puddle actually smoldered like weak acid. The big man grabbed his hat, and ran outside to look into the night.
There wasn't a sign of him.
"We need your help," he shouted into the night.
There was, predictably, no answer.
The man sighed, and dropped his head.
He had to go to the next phase in his village's plan, then. He had to go to the Hidden Leaf. They didn't have much, but maybe it would be enough to buy a shinobi or two to help free their village from the curse that had fallen over it.
"We now have a standing mission. All of us," Tsunade told the chunin and jonin assembled in the war room, surrounded by the Anbu. "And it is S-Class."
The shinobi began to murmur as one of the Anbu produced a photo that most still remembered.
"Uzimaki," Shikamaru frowned.
"Is alive," she told him, and waited for the surprised outbursts to calm before she went on. "We have had suspicions for a while now. And we also have had evidence that Kabuto is finally becoming overwhelmed by Orochimaru, who is returning to his old ways. That, in itself, is troubling enough. Binine, stand up."
The brunette did, though she felt very out of place among the elite of her village, since she was the only genin that was present for this meeting as Nedji nodded at her.
"Some of you don't know it, but Binine Kiamoto is related to a bloodline long thought lost. Her bloodline trait is a power of the mind. She can feel the future. For any of you that don't believe in such things, you can speak with Nedji Hyuuga later, and ask him how many times Binine's visions have saved his team's lives. Which is why she is here now. She has had a particularly potent vision that concerns all of us.
"And when I say all of us, I mean the world."
She nodded to the girl.
"Binine, I think letting you share it in your own words would be more effective just now. Just tell everyone what you've seen, and what you have already revealed to us."
"Hai, Lady Tsunade," she smiled wanly, and turned to face the hardened, experienced men and women of the Leaf who did not look as if they were waiting to mock her as she expected. If anything, they were looking at her as if they were praying she was mistaken.
"I saw a coffin. Naruto Uzimaki's coffin, I only recently learned. And, anyway, it exploded without warning, and out of it came a huge snake, and a nine-tailed fox that were so big they blocked out the sun. And…..And….."
"Just tell us what came next," Nedji told her calmly.
"I saw them….fighting one another."
"Well, that's good, isn't it," Shikamaru asked Kurenai.
"Their fight covered the world," Binine blurted out. "And wherever they fought, every….everyone, and everything died. I saw them fighting, and fighting, and…..neither one noticed they were destroying the whole world while they fought."
"Is that all," Ibiki, head of the Anbu asked grimly.
"I…..I saw….a shadow in the fight. But….before I could understand what it might mean, I woke up."
"So it was only a dream," Ino sighed in relief.
"Binine's visions are like dreams," Nedji told her. "Only I have not yet heard her share one that did not come to pass."
"What a drag," Shikamaru predictably moaned.
"Never mind," Tsunade spoke up. "As of now, we are all on full alert. If you find any hint of anything the slightest bit suspicious, you are to follow it up. We must find Orochimaru, or Naruto, before this vision comes to pass. Because I am afraid either of them has more than enough power to do just as our genin has foretold. Especially Naruto," she added pointedly.
"I knew he had not died," Hinata told Kiba.
"Hey, do you think that old man…..?"
"Lady Tsunade," Shizune burst in holding a paper. "We just got a request from a border village near the Land of Earth."
"Not now," she told her aide.
"Lady. It sounds like Orochimaru and Naruto may both already be there."
Every shinobi in the room tensed.
"What is it," she demanded, taking the paper, but not bothering to read it.
"Five days ago, a villager from that land came looking for a rumored snake-killer. He was almost assassinated, but was saved by a mysterious black wraith that killed without touching the victim. He came here thinking to hire help, but in the meantime heard of a powerful snake master who was headed for his village. He's been putting out word everywhere he stops that his village will pay anything the snake-killer wants if he will only come and help free them. It's almost a certainty that it must be them, and by now, they're headed toward the village to face one another once and for all."
"The last time they met, Naruto leveled half the Hidden Sound village without even trying," Danzou told her. "He should have been neutralized then, instead of being allowed to….."
"Shut….up. It was your kind of thinking that alienated that young man in the first place. As far as I'm concerned, he was one of our best. And you turned your back on him, and encouraged others to do the same. All the same, he is now…..a rogue nin, and you are all ordered to bring him in."
"You're kidding, right? Us? Bring in the Nine-Tails," Kiba asked.
"Would you rather see Binine's vision come true," Kakashi asked him.
"Man," he grumbled.
"He's right, Kiba," Hinata told him. "For all our sakes, we must stop Naruto from facing Orochimaru."
"Ibiki," Tsunade turned to him. "I'm leaving the genin here to coordinate with you and Anbu to hold the village. I'm leading our chunin and jonin to the Land of Earth. Binine. You'll be coming with us."
The young kunoichi looked petrified.
"Well, you wanted action," Hinata told her husband.
"Remind me to keep my big mouth shut next time," he muttered.
Akamaru barked from outside the window, proving he had heard every word.
"It's quiet," Kakashi said as they approached the village from all sides.
"Everyone's dead," Nedji told them as his voice came over the radio. "There isn't even a stray dog left alive in there."
Kiba's low grumble was audible over the line.
"But it looks so peaceful," Ino complained as she came up behind Nedji and Binine, Tsunade standing just a little to their left.
"Didn't your group find five nin left for dead without a mark on them, Nedji," the Hokage asked.
"Yes. And reports of a mystery man who can kill without touching you have really spread of late."
"Like the villager's savior in the tavern," Ino remarked.
"This is getting pretty scary, Lady-Hokage," Ino told her.
"Binine," the sanine turned to her. "Feeling anything new?"
"Not from here, Lady-Hokage," she told her.
"Are you feeling anything," Nedji asked her.
"I….I have a slight…..unease. From that direction," she pointed to the tall, jagged mountain peaks.
He looked up, his eyes catching the sun's light as he focused his vision toward the distant peaks.
"Nothing. I don't see anything," he told her.
"Nor did Hinata that night in the forest," Tsunade reminded him.
"Everyone, surround the peak east of the village. Do not move. Just hold positions. Nedji and I are going up."
"Lady-Hokage," Hinata's voice filled her ear. "Permission to accompany you."
"Meet us at the riverbank. We're going up the north slope," she replied.
"Kakashi, you and Kurenai coordinate the parameter. Don't let anyone pass, no matter how harmless they appear."
"Understood, Lady Tsunade."
"All right, Binine," the Hokage turned to her. "You're with us, too."
"Just the four of us against whatever might be up there?"
"Let's be honest, Nedji. We're talking about the Nine-Tails here. None of us can face that kind of power. The combined Leaf probably couldn't take him. But….I'm hoping friendship might sway him. If he is up there."
"Why do you think he's there?"
"Because you aren't seeing anything," she said cryptically.
Nedji merely arched a brow at that.
They were in prime condition, and even Tsunade remained a power to be reckoned with, and yet they were still panting slightly when they reached the top. Especially Binine, who had yet to truly learn the skills that might make climbing sheer slopes easier in the future.
They were not at all certain what to expect when they reached the top.
They did not expect what they found.
"Naruto," Tsunade spoke warily as they spotted the man in black sitting cross-legged staring into the sun from his perch near the very top of the high peak.
"Naruto," Hinata echoed, staring at him, and frowning.
"I…..I don't even sense him," Nedji frowned. "I'm seeing someone sitting there now, but…. How is this possible?"
"Took you long enough," the cold, blue eyes turned their way when they cautiously approached the man that turned to face them.
"Naruto Uzimaki," Tsunade said, staring into the blonde's familiar, if matured features. "So, you are still alive."
"Why," Hinata cried out. "Why would you….?"
"Hinata," her cousin cut her off as Naruto rose to his feet, and glanced at her as if looking at one of Shino's bugs.
"I left you enough crumbs to find me a week ago. You're not as sharp as you used to be, old woman."
"Why would you lead us here after going to such lengths to mask yourself," she asked him bluntly.
"See that mountain," he pointed.
"It's not a mountain. It's a fortress. A moving fortress. His fortress."
"So big," Binine gasped as she stared down at the huge mound that was currently stationary.
"Naruto, you should know…."
"Your prophetess has foretold the end of the world. Right?"
All four of them stared at him.
"They're making something unholy in that fortress, old woman. If I bust in, they'll be sure to turn it loose, and kill everyone for miles around."
"What kind of weapon…..?"
"Gas," Nedji told Hinata, guessing Orochimaru would still be looking for shortcuts to power.
"Right. Now, I can handle Kabuto. He and the Snake are in a running fight with one another even now over who is running the show. But like I said, if I just bust in, I can guess they'll pump out tons of that
poison they're making. I need your shinobi to find the vents, and close them while I go inside, and stop the snake from ever trying anything again."
"We can't let you face him, Naruto."
"I'm not stupid, old woman," he told her curtly. "I've told you what we're facing. And I've spent days studying that fortress," he said, handing Nedji a map. "If your people close the vents, I can destroy the threat from inside."
"Binine," Tsunade turned to ask her.
She was staring at the mountain.
"Look," she pointed.
The fortress was moving, but it was jetting pink steam from one side.
"Kakashi, get everyone away from the west slope. Now! There's poison gas in the air."
"Kakashi's down, lady," someone replied in a frantic voice. "We have over a dozen people down, but we managed to get them away from that…..smoke. I don't think anyone….."
A burst of static cut off the frequency.
"He knows you're here," Naruto told her blandly. "Even minute exposure is lethal. Whoever got even a whiff of it is dead."
"You don't have to sound so upset," Tsunade told him as he commented on the dead as if remarking on the weather.
He only stared, his blue eyes cold, and empty.
"Naruto," Hinata stepped up to him. "You used to be so….alive. Tell me….Tell me you still have some compassion in you. Surely you haven't lost everything you used to feel. Surely…."
"You shouldn't be here, Lady Hyuuga," he told her, and turned his back on her. "You have one choice. Follow my plan, or let Orochimaru kill every man, woman, and child in the world by climbing to the top of the Northern Mountains, and letting out that gas that will spread to every corner of the known world when the wind catches it."
"How do you know his plan….?"
"I've not exactly been sitting on my hands all this time," he told Tsunade. "Now. Do we have a plan or not, old woman? Because either way, I'm going to finish that snake once and for all this time. But if you let him get that fortress into the high mountains, you're all dead."
"Won't you be dead, too?"
"Haven't you heard," he told the young genin as he moved his hands in a telltale sign. "I'm already dead."
"A clone," Tsunade spat as he vanished.
"Kakashi? Kurenai? Shikamaru? Anyone," she spat over her radio.
"Coms are out, lady," Hinata told her. "Something is still jamming them. We have to go back down."
"All right. We go to every side, and put Naruto's plan into action."
"Just like that," Nedji frowned.
"Do we have another choice right now," she spat. "Go. I'll head down the western slope, and see if I can help those who inhaled that gas, whatever Naruto said. But that means, Binine, you have to take the south slope yourself. Can you do it," Tsunade demanded.
The genin looked down the slope, and shuddered, but she nodded. "I'll do it, lady," she nodded.
"Just keep focused, Binine," Nedji told her. "I have faith in you."
"Right," she smiled at her squad leader, and began her own descent as the other shinobi raced down the cliff at breakneck speed compared to the genin's slower, halting pace.
"Kakashi's dead, lady," Kiba told her when she found them high on the western slope away from the thin misty cloud still covering the valley below. The ninja-hound master was coughing up blood as he lay beside Akamaru, who was stiff and unmoving. He coughed again. "Akamaru warned us….but we….didn't understand until you…..called."
"Hang on, Kiba," she said, checking him as she realized every one of those that had been exposed were already dead. Only the fact Kiba moved as fast as he had kept him from getting a more concentrated dose, so he was only dying more slowly.
And she couldn't seem to stop it.
"Man," he coughed again. "Hinata's going….to kill me. Told her….it was just other….cakewalk."
"Just rest, Kiba. Rest, and I'll be back with an antidote before you know it."
"Sure, old woman," he smiled weakly. "Tell Hinata….."
"Tell her yourself," she snapped, and turned to run off the way she had come after spreading the news about their plan.
The same direction the moving fortress was now moving.
"We have to block every vent," Hinata told the others as she moved around the parameters, sharing the news they had gotten. "Make sure your masks are working. This gas is lethal," she told them, hoping Kiba was all right. She wasn't sure where he was in the long line around the mountain, and without radio contact, she couldn't get any news.
All she could do was keep moving, and hope she found him.
Binine screamed as she felt the rock under her feet shift, and knew she was about to fall. Even as the brittle shale crumbled, she realized something had her by the back of her vest. She looked up to see the blonde man from the mountain.
"You'd better learn to channel your chakra before you try walking down mountains, girl," he told her, and scooped her up to run down the crumbling shale as easily as if walking over a garden path.
"I thought you were….?"
"I guessed you were going to need some help. Tsunade is real big on tossing people in over their heads."
"You sound like you hate her," the young genin murmured.
"Not really. I just don't like some of the decisions she's made in the past."
"Is that why you faked your death?"
"It's a long, complicated story, little kunoichi," he told her, and set her down at the foot of the mountain after they reached a safe level. "Now, you better go warn your friends. And don't forget your mask. The wind might still blow some of that gas this way."
The man paused even as he started to turn away.
The blonde smiled faintly, and for a moment, just a moment, Binine thought she saw a spark of life in his empty, blue eyes.
"Tell your sensei to get off his pompous ass and start teaching you chakra control," he suggested, and then raced into the forest without looking back.
Did that mean he wasn't a clone? That he was the real Naruto?
Reaching for her pack, she pulled out her mask, and pulled it on as she raced toward where she guessed the nearest guard would be. She had to carry out her mission. They were relying on her. The world was relying on her, and she didn't want to see that horrible vision come true.
She still felt something terrible looming before them, but she couldn't tell what it was. There was nothing specific, and she couldn't tell what it might be, except that they now knew what Orochimaru's plans seemed to be.
"Naruto Uzimaki," Kabuto said in a wavering echo of a voice that sounded like two men speaking as one.
"Kabuto. Or is it just Orochimaru yet?"
"Lord Orochimaru to you, demon-fox," he spat.
Naruto only smiled coldly at him.
"I see the rumors of your death are obviously much exaggerated," the man hosting two minds tittered, sounding just a bit mad.
Or maybe more than a bit.
"But I see your years have left you as callous and cold as the tomb that supposedly held you all these years."
"What I am, bastard, is what you, and those like you helped make of me. I'm just here to ensure you don't do it to anyone else."
"Anyone else? There won't be anyone else when we're doing," Kabuto/Orochimaru cackled. "When our gas spreads out over the valleys of the world, carried on the winds to every corner of the world, everyone will die, and the world will finally be ours! Mine!"
"No," Kabuto argued with himself. "You swore I could share in your triumph, Lord Orochimaru!"
"Shame on you, Kabuto," Naruto laughed coldly. "How often have you seen him betray his own men time after time, and you really think he cares anything for you? He's just a cold-blooded, black-hearted snake. He'd kill you himself now, but he needs your body. But I don't think Sasuke left enough of him to regenerate fully, did he? That's why you're still weak. Still not quite whole."
"Just….shut up," a hissing voice sneered. "You know nothing of true power. You've had the Nine-Tails under your sway for years, and what do you do? You hide in the forest, and play games. Fool. I will show you how to use power. I will grind the world beneath our heel, and rule the pathetic people that look to me for deliverance. I will….."
"Who will you rule after your gas kills everyone outside this fortress," he asked.
The fused sanine fell silent, looking truly stunned.
"Kills? Kabuto, you said it would make them all willing puppets," the mingled voice hissed.
"What better puppets than dead men," Kabuto replied in the same mad voice.
The blonde wanted to laugh, but it was too serious. Even fused, the pair were playing the same game, and somehow, neither knew what the other intended.
For a moment, the man/men just stiffened, as if fighting within the mindscape of their joined shell. Then, without warning, he/they turned and leapt at Naruto with dagger-like nails outstretched.
Only Naruto was not there any longer.
"Oh, you're good," Orochimaru's snide tone overpowered Kabuto's as he looked up at Naruto now standing on the ceiling of the great throne room where he had tracked the madman down.
"But not good enough," Kabuto raged as they leapt upward now, and this time moved fast enough to catch Naruto, slamming him through the ceiling, and out the side of the huge, moving fortress as they rolled down the side of the faux cliff.
As they did, Naruto spotted two shinobi from the Leaf, carrying stones to seal the vents in that area.
"Plug that hole," he shouted as his struggles carried him on past the men, refusing to let go of Kabuto as the man struggled and writhed just like a real snake in his hands.
The men gaped after him, but Naruto didn't see if they obeyed. He and Kabuto rolled down the side of the slope, and dropped thirty feet to slam into the forest floor before they finally broke apart, and rose to face one another.
"You can't win," the voices sneered. "Even if I'm not there, the great hall will reach the mountains, and then release our toxin to the winds. You, and everyone you hold dear, will die."
Naruto stared at him, and he knew the man was waiting for him to grow angry. To lose control. To attack wildly.
"The thing, Orochimaru," he drawled, his expression impassive, his gaze implacable. And completely devoid of any feeling. "Is that your plans are already defeated. I killed every man in your fortress before I sought you out, and damaged your machines. They'll not stop your fortress at the high mountains, but go over them, into the harbor, and…..as large as that fortress of yours is, will probably even make it into the ocean. Where it will sink deep beneath the waves, forever ending your threat."
"You're lying," the man/men shrieked. "Even if the engines keep driving it, the gas will be released on schedule. Everyone dies. Everyone," the madman tittered.
"Which is why the Leaf Village is out in force, closing, or blocking every vent in your hall of death," Naruto told him.
Kabuto turned to look back at his death machine, his face contorted with rage. He barely had time for a single glimpse as Naruto drove him face-first into the ground, his talons digging deep into the man's flesh, reaching for his spine. He was somewhat shocked not to find one.
"You think it would be that easy," they howled, twisting around to face him, a long, sword like tongue vomiting out to strike at his face.
"No," Naruto drawled, standing ten feet away even before the sword even split the rogue nin's lips. "It never is with you. Only you won't find me so easy to defeat this time."
Orochimaru's titter filled the air. "You think a few tricks will save you? You'll die, too. Along with every one of your precious Leaf companions."
"You're behind the times," Naruto hissed, suddenly gripping Kabuto/Orochimaru in both hands, seizing the man's wrists as he slid his hands down to cover Kabuto's fluid joints. "I've left the Leaf far behind. Just as I'm leaving you behind. I think I'll remind you of the Third's lesson first, though," he said, and crushed Kabuto's hands in his own.
The man/men howled, and bone audibly compressed beneath his punishing grip. Before the mouth-sword could strike again, Naruto was back standing where he had been a moment ago.
"You think I'm beaten," Orochimaru howled. "You think this will stop me? I will kill you all," the fused voices howled, as the rogue medical ninja began focusing chakra through his damaged hands in an attempt to restore them.
"No, I don't think so," Naruto said, suddenly behind him.
"You…..devil," Kabuto hissed. "You've become one of them, haven't you?"
"Can you think of a better way to control the uncontrollable," he asked, and again drove a clawed hand into his body, this time finding, and ripping out the man's heart.
The rogue gave a faint giggle.
Naruto moved back, crushing the heart in his hand before dropping it at his feet as Kabuto shuddered, and dropped to his knees.
"Ready to quit playing," the blonde asked coldly as he simultaneously heard the grating of the massive fortress now nearing the plateau that would carry it up into the heart of the mountains. He still sensed dozens of shinobi scrambling around the surface, seeking the vents to plug. He hoped they were smart enough to get them all. Even a single vent might cost thousands of lives if it were allowed to spew its deadly cargo into the air.
"Demon," Orochimaru ironically shrieked as the huge, man-sized snake exploded out of the dying medical ninja's body. "Do you understand what you've cost me? Do you?"
Naruto was suddenly behind the viper that carried the sanine's face, twin swords blossoming in his hands as he sliced the snake's body apart until he came to the head, and pinned it down by stabbing a blade down through the flat cranium to keep its mouth shut.
The lips twitched as a hellish shrill keening was muffled behind the gums of the creature, and Naruto stepped back, eyeing the thing even as he heard the thunderous cracking of rock, and the shouts of men and women from not far off.
The fortress had reached the plateau, but it wasn't stopping.
As he had ensured, it was still moving to the steep back of the cliffs where it would fall into the harbor, and be washed out to sea.
So far, he didn't sense any of the toxic vapors in the air around him, but that meant little. The sea was still far enough away that the danger remained.
"It's over Orochimaru. Your quest for forbidden jutsu ends here," he said, applying a sealing jutsu on the monster's skull before he drove a dagger into the temple of the still murmuring creature that would not die. "Time for you to join your fortress in oblivion," he said, and picked up the grizzly trophy by the hair, still pierced by sword and dagger, and vanished.
Kabuto's headless body slowly bled out where it lay, its flesh already graying and peeling as if long dead.
"We have the vents on this side sealed," Choji told Tsunade as they joined. "But Shikamaru is still trying to seal the jagged hole that got blown in the side. We just don't have anything big enough….."
"You will," the sanine told him. "Tell everyone to get back," she said, and raced back to the mountain she had just left, her fists all but glowing with chakra as she prepared to unleash her power as a faint, bitter odor began to penetrate even her protective mask.
The gas was getting out!
Speeding up, she landed on the side of the mountain, slamming both fists into an outcropping that she pulled free by digging her fingers into the side of the mountain. Giving a cry of triumph, she lifted the huge slap of cone-shaped rock, and turned to hurl it in a perfect trajectory toward the gaping side of the fortress still moving along the plateau toward the high mountains as a pale, pinkish-green vapor rose from that puncture.
"Yeah," Choji and quite a few others howled in relief as the rock landed in the very center of the crack, and settled with enough force to crumble the edges around it, sealing the gaping wound in the rocky façade.
"Everyone off that rock now," Binine shouted just then as she came racing around the back of the still moving citadel of rock. "It's not going to stop. It's going over the cliffs when it reaches the peak. Everyone off now," she said, running headlong into TenTen, who just managed to grab her before she slid off the rocky footpath she was following.
"Choji, Shikamaru," Nedji appeared to join them. "This thing isn't slowing. I think it's…."
"It's going over the cliffs," Tsunade leapt back to join them by then. "Your genin told us. Did you warn everyone….?"
"The front slopes are clear, and the vents blocked. We still have two we're working on near the eastern slope, but Shino will have them plugged soon," he said confidently.
"Double back. Without the radio we have to warn everyone who hasn't figured it out to get off this thing before it goes over," Tsundade instructed them.
"Binine," Nedji held out his hand. "Come with me. We can't risk you falling now."
"Just go," Tsunade shouted, and raced back to the south slope to ensure everyone on the rolling mountain of rock was aware they had to get off it.
"Got it," Shino said with a nod even as he turned from the last vent, and looked at the ragged edge of the cliffs not a quarter mile away.
"Shouldn't this thing be stopping," one of the shinobi asked the younger jonín.
"I don't think it is," he said even as Nedji came running around the slope with Binine holding to him.
"Shino. This thing is going over the cliffs. Get everyone off now!"
"You heard him," Shino told the others with him. "Time to go."
Fifteen minutes later, the shinobi of the Leaf stood lining the high peaks watching as the massive mountain of rock simply tumbled over the cliffs into the harbor below, setting off a massive wave that swept the coastline, and inundated more than one village.
They had not had time to warn anyone else. Hopefully, someone saw the thing coming, and was smart enough to act. The thing somehow landed back on its powerful tracks, and the engines, now smoking as water flooded it from below, began to shudder violently as the engines continued to drive it past the inlet, and into the open sea. It had not gone more than a half mile when it shuddered, and began to settle. Before it stopped sinking, only a tiny outcropping remained.
"Won't the ocean spread the poison," Ino asked as she came up beside Nedji, who was watching the fortress sink with the rising tide.
"Let's hope not," he murmured. "Or all of this was for nothing."
"I hope not," Shikamaru said grimly. "We've already lost a lot of people on this one. I'd hate for them to have died for nothing."
Binine suddenly found herself unable to say his name. To even think it. She stared at her sensei, her frown meeting his own.
"I know," she was told. "Come one. Let's find Lady Tsunade. We still don't know if this is over yet," he reminded his companions. "I think we should regroup, and find out what's next."
"Right," Ino nodded as she turned to look for her team, remembering only then she was with her old team on this mission as they spread out to pass the unofficial command to regroup.
"Worried," a voice asked softly from behind her as Binine almost leapt up as she turned from staring out to sea from the rocky precipice where she sat.
"You! We….We thought you were gone."
"I will be soon. My work is done, and you helped bring aid that prevented a major calamity here today. You have courage, and you have spirit, and that is important."
"I just don't have any real skill," she grumbled as she sat back down after the tall, now masked man gestured for her to do so. She suspected he was 'hiding' again, and that not even her sensei would be able to see him just now if he didn't wish it.
Of course, they had found all the dead. Including the ravaged corpse of Kabuto who was missing his head, heart, and much of his internal organs. It looked not unlike he had literally been emptied, and left laying as a butchered animal.
"That will come. Just learn to trust yourself."
"I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but….why are you here now? You did stop Orochimaru, didn't you?"
"He won't bother anyone anytime soon," he nodded, and pulled out four vials. "Take these to the old lady. All four of those still ill will revive if they drink what is in here."
"It's an antidote," she gasped.
"A one-time medication, so it must be used at once, and without delay. And tell Tsunade not to worry about the fortress. The ocean floor will shift soon, and it'll roll that tomb farther out to sea, never to be found again."
"What about the gas inside," she asked as she rose to take the vials from him, carefully sliding them into her equipment pouch. "What if it….?"
"It's of a nature that the sea water will neutralize it if it leaks. And after the rock is saturated long enough, the water will get inside anyway, so you don't have to worry about it. Now, go. You do want to save your comrades," he told her in that same expressionless tone.
She started toward their camp, but turned to ask him why she couldn't think or speak his name earlier, but he was already gone. Vanished like a ghost in the wind.
Shuddering in spite of herself, she turned to run down toward the fires to find the Hokage.
"Kiba," Hinata's tear-streaked face met his as the hound-master woke feeling not unlike a mountain had fallen on him.
"What happened," he rasped, feeling as if he had the strength of a newborn pup.
And not much of that.
"You almost died," she told him, clinging to his hand. "Binine saved you."
"Nedji's weird kunoichi," he frowned, smiling weakly up at her, enjoying just the sight of her face. One he had not thought he was going to ever see again after the last time his eyes closed.
"Yes. She brought an antidote. But….only four survived. The rest of your band…."
"I know. We….We barely got out as it was, and then Kakashi….. Akamaru," he turned. "What about….?"
"I'm sorry, Kiba," his wife told him. "He….didn't make it."
"Damn," he murmured, and for once she didn't chide him about his language. "So, how did Binine find a cure? I thought Orochimaru's venom was incurable."
"I….don't know," she admitted. "I'm just glad she brought it."
"So am I, Hinata," he sighed, and closed his eyes again.
"Just resting, honey," he sighed. "Just resting."
"He'll be fine," Tsunade told her as she walked past them. "Takagama is already trying to get up, and Soki is demanding food," she told her.
"She's demanding someone tend her, because she's in imminent threat of succumbing to her many injuries."
"In other words," Kiba said without opening his eyes. "She's fine."
Tsunade grinned. "Yep. You really gave us a scare, though, Kiba. You must have gotten more gas than most, but you still managed to survive long enough to be treated."
"Akamaru," he sighed.
"I know. I know," he cut the Hokage off. "I was just saying…. That dumb mutt threw me into the trees above the gas. He must have figured out what was happening before we did. He probably saved me as much as anything else."
"He'll be remembered with honors along with all our fallen," Tsunade assured him. "We're still cleaning up a lot of straggling snake nin who don't believe their master has already fallen again, but…. Shikamaru took a lot of fight out of most of them by displaying Kabuto's body on the cliff over the main road into the Land of Earth."
"Sounds like….a lot has happened."
"Yes," Hinata told him. "And you can hear all about it after you eat, and get some more rest. We're staying here to help those who survived the waves after the fortress plunged into the sea."
"Man. I finally get a real mission, and I miss all the action."
"Men," Ino muttered as she walked past just then.
The Hokage nodded her agreement as Hinata only smiled at her husband.
"So, what about that Naruto? Did he ever show up?"
They all stared at him.
"Who," Tsunade asked.
"Naruto? You said he was still alive. Right? Did you guys find him?"
"Kiba," Tsunade told him. "None of us can even think that name right now. Let alone say it. You are the first to be able to do so."
"Why not? It's not that hard a name. Hell, we all know… Know….. Damn. Now I can't say… Say….it."
"It must be something to do with his recovery," Ino suggested.
"Which means you are getting stronger," Kiba was told by his wife as he smelled something vile as she lifted a bowl she had just filled from a nearby cook pot.
"Oh, no. Hinata. Please," he moaned. "I just faced death, and you're going to feed me weeds," he complained loudly.
"Let's go," Ino told the Hokage. "You don't want to hear this one."
They walked off together as the couple began arguing vehemently over meat versus vegetables as a primary diet.
"I take it you've heard this one before," Tsunade asked as they walked past where some of the older shinobi were planning out teams to go to various parts of the coast to assess the damage done by the waves.
"Many times. And Hinata is not quite as shy as she used to be when it comes to getting her way," Ino smirked.
"So, was something on your mind, Ino?"
"Binine had another vision. Nedji sent me for you."
"How bad," she groaned.
"That's just it. Neither of them can decipher it. Not this time."
"Wonderful. Where's Shizune when I need her," she muttered.
The pair walked to the tent near where the others were eating, and sat with Nedji and Benine.
"You saw something else," the Hokage asked her bluntly.
Benine nodded, then cleared her throat before speaking.
"I went back to the cliff to see if I could find….him again. Or….if he would find me. Anyway, I guess….I dozed off," the young kunoichi told the Hokage as she looked embarrassed at having made everyone worry again. "That's when the vision came."
"Just tell her," Nedji told her.
"I saw…..him, but it wasn't him. He was like a ghost, hovering over the whole village, and glowing red like a lightning-lit cloud. Then, he just vanished, and I saw this…huge toad that was sitting on the mountain behind the village where the Hokages are carved into the rock. Only the toad had burning red eyes, and….nine tails. Fox tails."
"What did it do," Tsunade asked.
"It just sat there. Watching."
Tsunade turned to Ino.
"Do you have any idea what that means?"
"Maybe. I can't be sure, but…."
She paused, and looked around the small group.
"Do you remember Lord Jiraiya?"
"Who could forget that old letch," Ino huffed. Then blushed. "Sorry. It's just, every time I saw him, he was usually leering at me."
"I don't doubt it. The day we met, he tried to introduce himself by grabbing my chest."
Nedji wisely said nothing as his eyes flitted briefly down, and back up.
"It would seem as if we might have a Sage watching over us still," Tsunade finally told them.
"Yes. Years ago, before Jiraiya died, he started his…his apprentice on that path. He finished the novice's training just before you all faced the Akatsuki. It would seem that he must have gone back to Hermit Mountain, and returned to finish his training. To become a master. A true Sage."
"Nnnnnn…..? Him," Ino frowned.
"Yes. Him. That would explain his….incredible abilities. And his mysterious ways of coming and going. I've heard it said that mountain sages know a technique that lets them appear and disappear at will, traversing hundreds, or even thousands of miles in an instant."
"That would more than explain some things," Nedji agreed.
"Still, he remains the jinchuriki, too," Ino pointed out.
"True," Tsunade agreed. "He must have found a way to better control it, for not once have I seen any evidence of the Nine-Tails. And I remember that there for a while, it was almost always breaking free, and almost overwhelming him."
"This Sage training must be something…..quite formidable," Nedji remarked.
"Even Jiraiya never told me everything, and he liked to brag," Tsunade told them. "Still, for someone like him to keep a secret, it must be something. And it could explain our sudden inability to even name our champion."
"So, what do we do, Lady Tsunade," Nedji asked.
"We bury….him again. If that is what he wants, that is what we do. We'll explain a kami aided us, and that he was never back at all. Only a guiding spirit that aided us when we needed it most. It'll be a good snub on Danzou's gossip," she smirked. "Naming him a protector from beyond the grave."
"I think he's very lonely," Binine suddenly exclaimed.
All three of them looked at her.
"It's just….when he looked at me earlier. For a moment….I could feel his spirit. For a
moment, it was like he wanted to stay. But then he just turned and disappeared."
"That's….kind of sad," Ino admitted, turning as Shino walked up behind her to eye her in his impassive manner that had yet to relax while in public.
"Nothing to worry about," Tsunade told him firmly, eyeing the three with her pointedly. "Unless you don't like ghost stories," Ino said, taking the hint.
"Ghost stories," he frowned. "Ino, there are no such things as ghosts. "Such things are just wife's tales. Nonsensical ones."
"I wouldn't bet on it," Nedji told him. "Remember, even my eyes have not been able to find….him. Even though it was obviously someone….familiar out there helping us. It was as if there was no one there to see," he pointed out.
Shino, though no one saw it behind his protective eye gear, rolled his eyes.
Binine said nothing as they parted, and she walked over to remain standing on the cliff, staring out to sea where only a small tip could now be seen of the rocky fortress that had almost threatened the world. Nedji came over after a few moments, and put a hand on her shoulder, telling her, "You did well, Binine. When we get back, we will start training for the chunin exams. I think as well as you did here, that the training should prove quite easy for you."
"I would like to start by refining my chakra control, sensei," she told him, recalling his words.
Her master only smiled.
Two weeks after their return, with the coffin buried again, Binine realized she was the only one that even remembered his involvement. As the days passed, their memories grew more and more cloudy until even her sensei didn't remember him appearing before them on that mountain top.
The only thing anyone remembered was the fight with the snake-nin, and someone, who they could not recall, killing Kabuto/Orochimaru while they dealt with the fortress, and the deadly toxin within. Their dead were buried with honors, even Akamaru, and his coffin was returned to its resting place without comment.
Now, she was the only one that even knew he had not died.
That he was still alive out there somewhere, wandering the world that thought him dead, saddened her.
And inspired her.
For if he, a jinchuriki, could overcome such a dark destiny to become a force for good, then perhaps even she had a chance.
"Start by believing in yourself," a voice murmured from behind her, the words seemingly responding to her very thoughts.
She spun around from his grave where she came to lay flowers to find the tall, blonde man standing before her wearing only a mask over his lower face. His blue eyes gleamed bright in the moonlight, but she knew it was him.
"Master Naruto," she exclaimed, surprised to find she could voice his name again.
"That's an unexpected honor coming from you, Lady Binine," he told her with the faintest of smiles.
She smiled wanly. "I'm an orphan," she told him. "I am not…."
"Do not define yourself, except as you wish to be seen," he told her, stopping her as he reached out, and before she could move, placing a small, crystal on a delicate chain around her neck.
"Never show this to anyone. But learn to meditate, and focus on it, and it will help you enhance your chakra, and refine your control. When you learn to focus it properly, as with your genjitsu, you will then find yourself growing beyond needing it. Until then, it must be a secret. One that should be guarded well," he told her as she lifted the small, pretty crystal that now lay atop her dress she had worn here out of respect for the fallen dead of the village.
"Because, kunoichi. It is a gift that must be given to be effective. On the day you know you will not need it any longer, take it to Lady Tsunade, and tell her only that you are passing it on as you were bid. Will you promise me that?"
"Yes, Master Naruto," she nodded.
She stared at him as he stared back in turn, and then he nodded, and started to turn away.
"Wait," she blurted out, "Is it true you are a Hermit Sage?"
"As true as anything else you might hear about me," he answered cryptically.
"Why don't you come back? You're a hero. You….."
"No. My time is done here, Binine. It is your time. Yours, and your friends. You are the future of this village."
"May I ask one last thing, then?"
"If you wish," he nodded, standing half-turned as if about to go.
"Why….? Why me? I mean, I seem to be the only one to remember you. And now you come to me, giving me this….boon. Why…..?"
"Because I see promise in you, Binine. And I see the darkness of doubt that might cripple, or destroy that promise. Your life is much like that stone," he told her. "If you hide it, lurk in shadows, and let time slip past you, you will remain dull, and drab. Lifeless. But if you let yourself find light, you will shine, and even blaze. And you can only do that if you first find comrades that will stand and shine with you. That's one lesson your own sensei never really learned. But maybe you can teach him."
"Will I see you again?"
"Who can say," whispered on the breeze even as she realized he was gone again.
As if he really were a ghost that came and went with the winds.
Binine held the stone in her hands, and for a moment, she could almost feel a flash of something within it. Or within her hand. She wasn't sure which. She tucked it beneath her dress, and turned to the forest where she guessed he had gone rather than to his grave.
"I will shine, Master Naruto," she told him. "I promise," she said fiercely as she put a hand over the hidden crystal.
No one noticed that sometime late one night after their return, someone had placed three small bells joined on a string on Hatake Kakashi's grave. The bells rested on a worn copy of his favorite book. Tsunade wondered at the odd gifts, but knew they summed up the copy nin's life better than all the words she had fumbled over when they buried him. She just never learned who put them there, though, since Sakura was in the Sand village. Sasuke and Naruto were dead, and no one else really knew the man that well.
It would be six years later, as Tsunade consider turning the village over to Konohamaru at last, when Binine would shock her by handing her a necklace she thought long lost. Considering it was the very day the Third's grandson was being honored as her possible replacement, she gave that young shinobi the
stone, and he remembered it well, too.
"It's almost like it was fate," the young ninja said as he put it around his neck after Tsunade gave it to him. "Or like an old friend was giving me his blessing," he added as the aging sanine silently agreed.
"Yeah, kid," she sighed, remembering that old friend, and his long silent boasts that he would be the next Hokage. "Maybe he is," she agreed, still unable to get a straight answer out of Binine as to where the thing had come from. "Maybe he is."