I do not own Masashi-San's very entertaining characters, nor using them for profit or illegal ventures. I'm just borrowing them for a story of my own.
The boy sat on a swing not far from the academy as the excited boys and girls milled around, greeting their parents, and introducing their sensei, and just generally enjoying the day. He didn't even look up. He had looked over once, but all he saw was the mocking gazes and contempt of his peers, and the village elders that had long disdained him for reasons he did not even understand.
He was a kid. What had he ever done to deserve this kind of abuse?
He shot another bleak look toward the crowd as a particularly loud burst of raucous laughter filled the air.
The young genin were gathered around Kiba.
He was one of the talented kids. The smart kids. The popular kids.
Like that bastard Uchiha.
He had thought Sasuke would understand him. Appreciate him. They were both orphans, after all. Both alone. Both outsiders.
But, no. Sasuke was perfect, and talented, and every girl that looked at him did so with calf eyes like a witless heifer in heat before it knew what that heat meant. And Sasuke? He looked back with contempt. For everyone.
But most especially him.
"I had a clan. A family," he had once deigned tell him. "You never have, and never will have anything. You're a loser. And whether you're a ninja, or a peasant, you'll always be a loser."
And of course he made sure everyone heard him. Because when Sasuke Ichiha talked, everyone listened.
Unable to stand it any longer, he pushed to his feet, and walked away from the academy. He knew he would not be coming back. Not again. Not ever.
"You can always practice this winter, and start over next year," Iruka had told him.
Even his sensei….his former sensei didn't get it.
He was considered hopeless by all of them.
He ruthlessly denied the tears that wanted to fall as he walked away through empty streets, most of the village turned out to cheer their family, friends, or just offer support to the village's latest crop of promising genin.
No one even asked him what had happened to him.
Instead of turning west to the tiny apartment he lived in over a moldering warehouse, the only place a loser like him could find to live, he turned north, and walked through the gates.
"Going for a walk, Naruto," one of the jonin guarding the village gate asked with his usual grim smile.
"Just a short one," he told the scarred ninja who considered sentry duty as important as any A-ranked mission the Hokage might hand him.
"Don't wander off. We've had reports of a rogue nin in the area lately. They could be after someone important," he confided.
Naruto glanced back at him. "Then I'll be safe, won't I," he asked bitterly. "Because I'm as unimportant as you can get around here."
The ninja frowned behind his mask, but said nothing as Naruto walked away, leaving Kakashi Hatake to his latest book, and his guard duty.
The Hokage had kept an eye on Naruto Uzumaki for over nine years. In all that time, he had seen the boy grow up lonely, and almost desperate for attention. He had watched as the boy tried being friendly only to be slapped down. Watched as he slipped into an inevitably destructive prankish phase, and when that did not bring him what he sought, he just stopped. When he was selected last year as one of the villager's new genin in training, he had been quite excited, and poured himself into the training and study as few ever had.
Only he was uninspiring and average.
Less than average.
He had once more failed the graduation exam that would have made him a full genin, and put him on the path to the life of a ninja of the Hidden Leaf Village.
The Third Hokage felt a little disappointed.
He should have been watching the boy more carefully. When he had quieted down, and took to his studies, he had felt sure the young man was on his way to a better life. Then he arrived to find that out of all the promising young students, only Uzimaki had not passed. By the time anyone thought to look for him, he had disappeared.
That was one trick the young, blonde had not needed much help learning. He had obviously learned the hard way to disappear, or suffer more beatings and abuse.
True, the village council had passed an edict that no one was to harm him, but there were those who had a different definition of harm than others.
He was more than alarmed when he heard of Naruto's failure. Even more so when he realized the boy had vanished.
"Pardon me, Lord-Hokage," a bashful, blushing child with wide, silver eyes stammered. "I….I saw Naruto leave an hour ago.
"He was headed for the gates."
"Thank you, Lady Hinata," he bowed to her formally. Despite her youth, she was the heir to the Hyuuga Clan. And one of the few that possessed the incomparable skill of the Byakugan. "Do you know if he said anything before he left?"
"What's to say," a dark-haired boy sneered. "Once a loser, always a loser," the sullen genin in a dark jacket with a distinctive house seal on its back drawled.
Those around him laughed, but the Hokage's gray eyes flashed as he eyed the only Uchiha to have survived the massacre of his Clan.
"If that is what you truly feel, young Uchiha, then you are no better than Itachi.
"A true ninja supports and inspires his comrades. He does not turn his back on them."
"Whatever," the sullen boy muttered, and turned to walk off without showing the least bit of respect.
The Hokage eyed the boy's stiff back. He would bear watching. There was something in him that bothered the Third. Something….dark.
"Iruka," he turned to a young man who wore his battle scars openly without a mask. He felt his students should understand the danger of being a ninja from the start. "I believe Naruto has left the village. I think you have better go after him.
"I fear he might do something….foolish if left to his own designs.
"Take Hatake with you. He is at the gates with Byinai, and will be of use if you need help tracking him."
"At once, my lord," he bowed to one of the greatest ninja of the Leaf Village, turning from his students all eager to hear who was going to be their new sensei, and who would be on their squad training with them to become chunin.
More than a few looked disappointed he had yet to mention those assignments as he summoned his chakra, and raced over the rooftops on a more direct path to the gates than Naruto had taken. It took but an instant to inform the seemingly lethargic copy ninja of the situation, and the silver-haired ninja was just ahead of him as they followed Naruto's trail until it vanished.
"It's not over yet, Iruka," Kakashi told him, biting his own thumb as he let blood flow to add power to the chakra he was summoning.
For that was what he did. Summoned a ninja hound who had never failed him.
"Find Naruto," he told the huge mastiff that snorted, and shared the scent from a discarded shirt Iruka had thought to bring.
The big animal barked, and then turned and raced away as if not bothering to cast for spoor. Kakashi knew better. His ninja hounds were the best trained in the five lands. One sniff was all he had needed to catch the scent already in the air.
"We'll find him," Kakashi told the anxious instructor. "He couldn't have gotten far."
Iruka only hoped things were that simple. For he was one of the few that knew what most did not. He knew the truth about Naruto.
And what lived inside him.
Naruto stood on the edge of the abyss that was said to be bottomless.
The cliffs made him a bit dizzy, but he didn't care.
He pulled off his boots, then his distinctive orange jumpsuit, and stood there in his shorts and a thin, faintly gray tee that had not been properly washed in some time. He stared into the darkness that seemed to be rising to greet him, inviting him to join it.
He drew a deep breath, leaving his clothing neatly folded behind him, and stepped into the chasm.
Let them follow him now, he thought, and gave himself to the void awaiting him.
"Oh, no," Iruka moaned, seeing the neat stack of clothing beside the gorge where few even risked climbing, it was so dangerous.
The shale cliffs made it difficult for even trained ninja, and the deep, narrow crack in the earth eventually ended in a deep ravine masked by a deeper river that poured up out of the deep earth before flowing out to sea.
The hound jumped the cliff, sniffing, but turned and whined as he looked down.
Kakashi nodded, and the big hound vanished in a puff of smoke as the summoning seal faded, letting him return to his own kind.
"I'm sorry, Iruka.
"Even I didn't see how upset he was when he walked past me," he told him. "I thought he was just upset over his squad assignment, or something usual like that."
"I didn't even think….
"I told him he'd be fine. That he could try again next year, and….."
Iruka shook his head. "I tried to be his friend," he finally choked out as he picked up Naruto's last remaining possessions, and turned back toward the village.
"The sad things is," the ninja told the older jonin. "I doubt anyone will even really miss him."
"You will," Kakashi told him, putting a sympathetic hand on his shoulder.
"Yes. I will," Iruka murmured, a part of him relieved that the danger Naruto represented was truly gone. Yet a greater part of him would truly mourn the lonely child who never even understood why people instinctively feared him.
"I'd better go report to the Hokage," he murmured, and led the way back to the village.
At the funeral, held in spite of the lack of a body, only four people attended.
Iruka, Kakashi, the Third, and the young Hinata.
Everyone was surprised by the young girl's presence.
There was, however, no denying the grief in her pale visage.
Her cousin Neji was nowhere to be seen.
"What do you think he's like," Sasuke was asked by the annoying, pink-haired girl that babbled in his ear as he, the bigmouth, and the scruffy Kiba awaited their new sensei after the others left.
"What do I care?
"All I care is that he's competent. I've already wasted a year reviewing baby techniques with you losers," he muttered, staring at the empty desk at the front of the empty class.
"Jeez, Sasuke. Way to go with the teamwork skills," Kiba muttered darkly.
A small, muscular ball of white fur barked agreement.
Sasuke only glared at them.
"Whatever," he muttered.
"And I thought Shikamaru was bad," Kiba told Sakura.
Sakura only stared at Sasuke, and sighed tolerantly.
"Girls," Kiba muttered.
"Arf," Akamaru agreed.
Which was when the door opened.
"I can't believe we're chasing Sasuke," Sakura complained not for the first time as Shikamaru, Kiba, Chouji, and Neji merely glanced at her.
"Technically, we're rescuing him," Shikamaru, their team leader reminded her. "But if it's found that he willingly left with Orochimaru's nin, we'll have to bring him back for trial.
Sakura gaped, but said nothing.
Sasuke had not exactly been the friendly type in the past few years of their training.
First, he had almost gotten her and Kiba sent back to the academy when they barely passed Kakashi-sensei's first test. Then he had almost gotten her killed with that Hidden Mist lunatic had ambushed them escorting that bridge-builder back to the Land of Waves. Things had been relatively quiet for a while after that, until the Chunin exams were interrupted by Orochimaru, and the Third was killed in a viciously brutal battle while Sasuke barely managed to drive off Gaara, and his demon twin Shukaku.
After that, the Uchiha seemed to turn darker, and even far less friendly.
Which was really saying something for Sasuke of late.
Meanwhile, the Third had been replaced by one of the legendary sanine, Tsunade herself. She had even been giving Sakura a few tips lately, but it didn't seem to impress anyone who still saw her as just another low-level kunoichi.
"Wait," Kiba shouted, and they stopped instantly, senses alert, and studied the area around them.
"Paper bombs," Neji told them, his powerful eyes spying the traps laid all around them. "They covered a full mile to either side of our path.
"If we go around…."
"We'll lose them for certain," Kiba snarled.
"Nothing for it," Shikamaru said, palming a kunai. "Everyone get back."
More than one head turned to the sounds of the massive explosions, and splintering trees off in the forest. "Looks like we caught another bunch of party-crashers," one of the four ninjas surrounding a small, wooden barrel that was in fact a coffin grinned.
They had already left five others dead in their wake.
They had been no match for the kind of power that Orochimaru had given them.
"One thing for sure, we shouldn't have to worry about being followed for a while," the shapely rogue nin smiled at the massive ninja that looked as if he were carved from stone.
"Yep," the mountain of flesh agreed.
"Too bad," a lean, hawk-faced ninja sniggered. "I was just starting to have fun."
"We're not here to have fun," the other, more dour ninja reminded him. "Remember. We have to have this coffin delivered to Orochimaru by tomorrow morning, or we're probably all dead anyway.
"He doesn't take well to failure."
"Well, we don't have anything to worry about," the big man smirked. "Because who out here is going to be a match for us?"
"How about me," a soft voice murmured out of the shadows.
"Wha…?" The four turned, spinning as one as they sought the voice that had spoken out of the growing darkness.
The four tensed, summoning chakra for a fight even as the man clad completely in black stepped out of the darkness with a cold, cruel smile on his deceptively youthful features.
The tall, lean blonde had cold, blue eyes, and his smile bared overly sharp incisors that looked almost like fangs.
"The forest demon," the rail-thin nin hissed, spinning webs designed to ensnare and kill at once.
The dark-clad young man barely shrugged, and the deadly webs just fell away, or exploded into flame that surged back to their master before he could stop the connection.
He died shrieking as flame that would not go out consumed him until not even ash remained.
"By the spirits," the woman gasped, fumbling for the silver flute at her side as the man-mountain slammed huge fists into the earth. "What manner of jutsu is that?"
Instantly, a dome of rock and sand rose to encase the newcomer.
For all of a second.
Then the deceptively slight figure smashed through the chakra-stealing dome that had never failed until now, and then smashed though the master of stone until he was literally rubble himself. The two survivors gaped as they stood guard over their prize, unable to believe how such a scrawny, young creature could possibly defeat two of Orochimaru's best so easily.
"I'll take this one," the other ninja told his surviving comrade as she started to set her flute to her lips.
"Even he can't stop an attack from the inside," he sneered, and dove into the very flesh of the strange young man with a sadistic chortle.
"Because when I become a part of him, I'll destroy him from…..
"What are dooooooinnnnnnn…….?"
The voice of her companion was lost as it faded away with him, his body somehow being pulled deeper into the stranger that stood so casually before her. He suddenly worked his jaw, and she heard something that sounded eerily like the crunching of bone, and murmured, "Yummy.
Her hands trembled as she put the flute to her lips again, and this time, a single, shrill note sounded a second before a flaming, red-orange hand made of pure chakra flashed out to snare the flute, snapping it into quarters.
"I really don't like music," the young stranger she knew had to be the source of the forest demon tales around here snarled, baring his sharp teeth again.
"What….? What do you want," she asked, backing away from him, and the coffin, and Orochimaru's wishes be damned.
"Him," the demon pointed, and the coffin exploded into splinters, ripping her flesh, and leaving the Uchiha sprawled out lifelessly before them.
She forced herself to her feet, bloodied and battered from the slivers of wood that had cut her from neck to knee, and yet somehow missed anything vital. She didn't doubt it was his doing. That he had guided every splinter that slashed her soft flesh, and somehow managed to rip away her tunic, and much of her pants until she was virtually naked.
"Business before pleasure," he told her, and walked over to stare down at Sasuke's limp body as if examining a new kind of bug that had appeared from under a rock.
Reaching down, the hand lifted the Uchiha by his throat, and held him before him like a rag doll.
"Always hunting power. Never caring about anything but yourself.
"You're not better than Itachi," the blonde sneered as he held the older ninja before him, and slowly tightened his grip. "And you're about to be as dead as him, too."
"You….? You killed Itachi," she gasped even as Sasuke's neck snapped audibly like a twig in that powerful hand.
"He got in my way," the demon drawled blandly. "He, and his pathetic band actually thought they could take my life.
"I convinced them otherwise."
"It was you? You were the one that wiped out the Akatsuki last year?"
"Is that what they called themselves? Little matter," he said, tossing Sasuke's body aside as if it were nothing to him.
"But….why kill Sasuke?"
"I didn't like him," the demon shrugged.
The female ninja backed away from him, every instinct screaming as he eyed her with a cold smile.
"And…what about me?"
"I saved you for last.
"I promised my friend he could have some fun with you."
"Your…..friend," she asked uneasily, her eyes searching the forest as blue eyes began to glow red as he made a complicated gesture signaling a jutsu as beyond her as her power had been beyond the Leaf genin.
Her screams echoed for a long time before they ended.
"I found Sasuke," a broken-hearted Sakura cried out as she carefully arranged the broken body. "They killed him. The twisted monsters just….killed him."
"No, Sakura," Neji told her, looking around as silver eyes flashed, and his view became intense. "I don't think that was the case.
"Look," he pointed, and only then did the young ninjas realize there had been a fight here. It had just been on a level beyond their comprehension.
"This is…..incredible," Kiba exclaimed, finding the remains of the huge ninja all over the place.
As bloody pieces of stone and pebbles.
"These guys would have eaten us alive," Shikamaru realized. "But someone cut through them like they were green genin."
"Weren't there four of them," Chouji asked, not eating for once, as his anxiety was so high.
"There were," Neji agreed, and focusing his Byakugan, he stared around with more intensity. "I think I see……
"Stop," he told Sakura, who moved toward the direction he was gazing first.
His head dropped as he held out a hand, obviously deeply affected.
"Trust me, Sakura. You do not wish to see this.
"Shikamaru. Come with me.
"Chouji, get Sasuke ready to go. We have to take him back home."
"Man, Neji," Shikamaru sighed. "What was so bad that you didn't want Sakura…..?" Shikamaru stopped as Neji did, and the Hyuuga branch family ninja simply pointed.
"Ancestors," the usual indolent young genius gasped, feeling his lunch rise in his belly.
"We are dealing with very powerful forces here," Neji told him. "Let us bury the poor creature, and then get back to Konoha to report.
"The Hokage must know what is going on."
"Right," Shikamaru said as he forced himself to stop to pick up the left arm of the woman's bloody carcass that had stripped, obviously savagely raped, and then literally torn apart and scattered across the small clearing.
"I don't want to meet whatever could do this to Orochimaru's best," he added.
"Nor do I," Neji agreed as he produced a small shovel from a supply scroll he carried to begin digging the grave as Shikamaru gathered the body parts. He did not have to look at the young woman's face to know she died in terror. And in terrible pain.
"Why not kill them, too," a voice demanded. A voice that sounded like gargling gravel in a steel throat.
"I'm not ready for that," another voice replied. A more human voice, but one utterly impassive, as if all emotion had been bled from its tone.
"Why," the ever-eager twin demanded of its host-friend.
"Remember how you were caught? You start rampaging the same way again, and every ninja in the five countries will swarm over this area. I am not ready to face them.
"Are you?" The voice merely growled in frustration.
"Now behave. I know you still have that other snake ninja inside to play with. Have fun with him, and be quiet.
"I need to watch these genin, and make sure they are truly leaving our hunting grounds."
"You forget who saved our lives," the other murmured curtly.
"You forget who still doesn't care," the blonde remarked as he recalled falling into stygian darkness, and seeing only death.
Right before he found himself pulled into his own mind's darkest recesses, and found a huge, sealed gate within. Beyond that gate, monstrous, blood-red eyes, and a scarlet smile filled with teeth leered at him.
"I knew you were weak. Now you take me with you to oblivion before I can even show you what we could have been."
"What are you talking about," he had shouted, daring his fear to face the thing he intuitively realized was actually sealed inside his own body and mind.
The smile stretched.
"Release me, and I will show you."
Resigned, but curious, he had shrugged.
"How," he asked.
Knowledge had filled his mind.
Much of it even he had known was forbidden knowledge.
And he had then summoned the five-tails for the first time from within his own flesh.
Even as he remembered, he never took his eyes off the four ninja burying what remained of his victims before wrapping the hated Uchiha with care to carry him off like a prize. Well, they'd not get anything from him. He had already taken whatever power was inside that one.
For one of his friend's gifts was that he now 'ate' genjutsu. If someone possessed it, or used it, he could absorb and assimilate it. Becoming its master in but a heartbeat. Even a Kekkei Genkai was his for the taking if he could take but a splash of blood, or the smallest piece of flesh from those that carried bloodline traits.
Which was how he now managed to use Sharingan to keep an eye on the visitors.
Not that Sasuke had much to give him.
But Itachi had shown him much.
Sasuke was just a hateful child corrupted with that snake's poison.
He really might have to kill that snake someday. He kept getting in his way.
And if there was one thing neither of them liked, it was someone that got in their way.
Within his mind, he felt the last surviving snake ninja's terror as he fled in circles on an endless plain within his mind, pursued by a genuine demon that loved to play during the hunt. Still, the ninja wasn't that clever, or that strong. He wouldn't last long.
Not as long as that last Akatsuki they had toyed with for a full three days before he had finally died.
Watching, he was finally satisfied the genin were leaving.
A part of him wished the pink-haired bitch was staying. He could have some fun with her.
Of course, she probably wouldn't enjoy his fun. He'd make sure of it.
Maybe next time.
Yes. Next time.
Within him, the demon smiled, and finally pounced on the snake nin who had thought himself invincible.
"Do you think it was the forest demon everyone has been talking about," Sakura couldn't help but blurt out as Tsunade personally examined Sasuke's body.
"Not unless a demon has fingers," she told him, pointing out the very evident bruising now visible about the pale flesh of the body's throat. "Someone grabbed him. Hard.
"They didn't so much break his neck, as crush it."
"Sasuke's pretty strong," Shikamaru told her. "Whoever managed to do this to him had to be huge."
"Strength is relative in the ninja world, young chunin," he was told, the only ninja to make that level during the recent exams.
"From the imprint of the hand here, the killer was not much bigger than you, and probably a bit leaner.
"But he obviously had incredible strength. Or fueled it with massive amounts of chakra."
"We told you about what we found," he added, not saying more as he glanced at Sakura who still paled when she envisioned what had happened to the female. She had demanded Shikamaru tell her, insisting she know everything so she could be better prepared if they had to go back out. Neji had to agree, and they had told her.
She had been pale and quiet ever since.
"That….I cannot explain," the famous sanine admitted.
"We have to do something, Lady-Hokage," Sakura told her recent mentor since she chose to become a medical nin to help her squad. What remained of it.
With Kiba more often going his own way, and Kakashi off on secret missions, she was more often that not assigned to other teams, or left to her own devices. Wanting to be of more use to her fellow nin, and the village she called home, she approached the legendary Hokage to train her.
"We'll wait," Tsunade told her. "I'm sending for…..someone special," he told her. "If there is a demon involved, he'll find out.
"And he'll be better equipped to handle it.
"Meanwhile, I'm issuing a warning to avoid that region of the forest for now. Let everyone know there is something there.
"Meanwhile, Shikamaru," he told him. "You had better get Ino and Chouji. She's back from Kenii, and you have a mission."
"Already? Man, what a drag," the young man sighed.
Still, he left. He knew his duty. They all did.
"What should I do, lady," Sakura asked her quietly as Tsunade removed the rubber gloves she used to explore Sasuke's pale body.
"Today, you get to advance your knowledge, Sakura.
"You are going to autopsy Uchiha, and find out what Orochimaru was doing to him so we can use that knowledge to stop him if he tries again."
Sakura paled all the more as Tsunade handed her a pale of gloves.
She nevertheless took them after donning a medical apron.
She had always wanted to get to know Sasuke, but not like this. Lifting a scalpel, she considered the irony she was finally to find out what had made him tick.
"Careful, Hinata," the white-haired man said as they paused in the forest.
To their right, Kiba and Sakura moved quietly on a path parallel with them. To their left, Ino and Shikamaru.
It was a special formation, with a specific purpose.
"Remember," the older man who had first appeared riding on a huge toad had told them before they walked past the warning barriers, "No one is to do anything.
"If you see anyone, or anything, stand perfectly still, and wait for me.
"Absolutely no reaction.
"If you react, you will die."
"Just what is this," Shikamaru had asked.
"A feral jinchuriki. Unless I miss my guess."
"A….what?" "Like Gaara," Kiba had said gravely.
"Exactly. The Akatsuki really stirred them up a few years ago. I've run into a few since then.
"If you don't react, or try to attack, they won't usually approach you.
"I just hope this one isn't as powerful as the seven-tailed cat I had to destroy last month. That one took a lot out of me."
"There are different numbers assigned with levels of power and importance among the kami," he told the young ninjas as he had briefed them.
"And Gaara only had one, so….he was the weaker one? Man," Shikamaru groaned. "I don't even want to imagine anyone stronger than him."
"Let's go," Jiraiya snapped, for he had prepared them, and then they entered the forest where the alleged demon waited.
"Hinata," Jiraiya, the other legendary sanine who had once been a friend and comrade of Orochimaru himself nodded. "Time to try out your jutsu, lady."
The dark-eyed girl nodded, still more than a little self-conscious after Neji had so easily defeated her in the chunin exams. She had barely gotten off the starting mark before he had dropped her with his perfected gentle fist, and left her stunned, and unable to move.
"Byakugan," she murmured, and her silver eyes seemed to blaze as she found the forest coming alive in details that still surprised her since that day she learned what she could do.
All it had taken was Rock Lee's example to inspire her to keep trying in spite of her cousin's contempt.
"If it is out there," she told the Toad Sage. "I cannot see it."
"Jinchuriki are beyond clever," Jiraiya told her. "Do not relax. Not for an instant."
"I understand," the Hyuuga heiress nodded, still searching the forest around them.
"Something is coming," Kiba told them, Akamaru barking agreement as the big hound that had grown considerably of late began to growl his warning.
"I don't see anything," Hinata told him, still focused on the forest around them.
"Maybe you don't," Kiba told her. "But we can smell it," he told her.
"Remember. No one move. No one attack.
"If you appear harmless….."
The dark silhouette seemed to rise right out of the ground before Jiraiya.
"You stink of toads," the tall, blond man in black snarled, his red-flecked eyes locked on his blue eyes as the old sanine stared at him.
"And you smell of fox," he told him, realizing this young man housed a fox demon. But which one? And more importantly, how many tails?
"Naruto," Sakura blurted out even as Hinata stared at him with wide, silver eyes, frozen at the improbability of the grown child she recalled so fondly. A boy she had long thought dead.
The jinchuriki turned as Sakura faced him, instinctively going for a kunai.
Thin lips stretched into a leering smile as he leapt over twenty feet to land atop her, slamming her to the ground as he easily disarmed her, and took her own kunai to set to her throat.
"Sakura," Kiba shouted, rushing to her side only to be slapped away by a thick, orange tail of pure chakra that slammed him and Akamaru both into a nearby tree with enough force to pulp the bark. Neither moved after they hit the ground.
"Do not move," Jiraiya told Shikamaru and Ino as he turned to the jinchuriki who held a sharp blade to Sakura's throat.
"You have no idea how long I have waited for this exact moment, you pink-haired bitch," he snarled in her face as she fought to control her fear.
"Naruto, no," another voice called out even as the old jonin tried to think of how to get the kunoichi away from the demon host without getting her killed. Or worse.
"Hinata," he hissed as the young Hyuuga heiress moved boldly to stand before the blonde jinchuriki, kneeling before him as she even dared to put a hand on his hand. The one that held a knife to Sakura's vulnerable flesh.
"Please, Naruto. We are not your enemies."
"You came hunting us," he growled, frowning at this creature that did not fear him. Seemed, in fact, to like him.
He could smell the truth of her, and as the pink-hair feared him, and was ready to piss herself, the silver-eyed girl was genuinely offering him her heart.
"Why do you not fear me? Hate me? Everyone else does," he grumbled, leaning back to kneel atop Sakura, but no longer threatening her as he cocked his head to study Hinata as Kiba slowly began to come around.
Jiraiya quickly moved to stop him from reacting instinctively, and getting them all killed. Because he had a very bad feeling about this one. A very bad feeling. "I have never feared you, Naruto. Never hated you.
"I always admired you.
"And when we thought you had died, I never stopped mourning you," she said in her soft voice that warmed him to hear. "Then, seeing you…..finding you here…..
"Naruto, I want to tell you now, while I have the chance.
"I always admired you. Always liked you.
"You worked so hard. Even though no one cared. Even though you never had the chances others did, you still worked hard, and did your best.
"That helped inspire me, because…..because I had everything, and yet…..I was worthless. I could not do anything right.
"Not in my family's eyes.
"Not in my comrade's eyes.
"Not even in my own eyes," she admitted.
"I always hoped, though, that…..that I might find worth in your eyes.
"Only then you died. Or…..Or so we all thought.
"Please, Naruto. I don't know what has brought you here. To this state. But come back with us.
"Return to the village.
He turned to eye the old man. "What of it, old man. It's a name. One I've not even used in years," he grunted, still sitting atop the pink-haired bitch. He enjoyed making her sweat, even though he was not going to hurt her.
"Why not," a voice within complained.
"It's more fun making her squirm," he replied. "What she thinks we might do will torment her far more than anything we do just now," he laughed inwardly.
"And the brunette," his fox companion/twin asked slyly.
"I like her."
The fox chortled.
"Have we finally found our mate," he growled eagerly.
"Maybe," he admitted. "We shall see."
"Naruto," Hinata asked when he seemed to fall silent, simply staring at her.
"Will you come back with us? With me?" Jiraiya tensed, his suspicions making him all the more wary as he waited for the young man to reply.
"But if anyone attacks me," he growled, eyeing Kiba as he spoke, baring incisors sharper than even the ninja hound master's. "I won't hold back again."
That was what Jiraiya had feared.
If this was the Uzumaki, he was afraid there might not be a shinobi in all the world that could manage him. This was going to take care and planning.
"Hinata. Why don't you bring your….new friend back to Konoha. I have to attend another errand before I can return."
"What about us," Kiba growled, looking less than pleased he had just been smashed into the ground by this 'demon,' and was now expected to just let him walk into their village.
"Accompany Lady Hinata," Jiraiya grinned, and vanished.
"Accompany Lady Hinata," Kiba muttered darkly, not missing Naruto's glare as he and Akamaru came up behind him.
"It's not that bad, Kiba," Ino told him. "At least he hit you in the face. That way, no one can tell the difference."
"Wow," Shikamaru grinned, eyeing Kiba's blustering reaction. "She got you there, buddy."
"I thought you were all friends," Naruto frowned, turning back to Hinata who was leading him toward a direction he had never traveled.
"Oh, they're just playing. They like to tease one another. It is part of how we show we care."
"It is….a strange way to show feeling," he grumbled, Ino now sticking her tongue out at Kiba, and then blushing when she realized the stranger was staring right at her.
"So. You're really Naruto? The loser kid that got thrown out of the academy," Shikamaru asked as Sakura stayed well away from him as she followed them back to the village.
She had always loved Sasuke, and been admired by others. Well, except for Ino-Pig. But never had anyone looked at her with such hate and contempt in their eyes. And never had she felt so close to death as when that blonde demon had stared down at her.
"I was not thrown out," he spat irritably. "I left."
"Shikamaru, please," Hinata cautioned him. "Let us remember more pleasant things." "Good idea," Ino agreed. "Leave it to a guy to screw up even when things are looking up."
Sakura said nothing.
"Let's not argue," Hinata asked firmly, and every one of her team understood.
"We're not," Shikamaru drawled in his indolent fashion. "I'm just wondering how you could get thrown out of the academy, declared dead, and then show up with more power than the most elite ninja in the five lands.
Naruto didn't say a word.
He simply followed along beside Hinata.
"Jiraiya? You're back earlier than I expected.
"Did you already find the forest demon," Tsunade asked, her expression slightly mocking.
Not that she didn't doubt there were demons in the world. She had seen the nine-tails herself as a younger girl, and feared seeing it would be her last sight in this world. Only the Fourth's unexpected sacrifice stopped the creature, and ended the devastation unleashed upon their land by the demon fox.
She did believe. She just didn't believe a true demon was hiding in the forest, preying on unwary travelers. Rogue nin, or common thugs, maybe, but not demons.
"I found a jinchuriki, Tsunade," he told her grimly. "It calls itself Naruto."
"Naruto? Wasn't that the kid the Third reported dead years ago in his annals by his own hand," Shizune asked.
"Yes," Tsunade nodded, not really sure, since paperwork was a bane she despised, and she had never bothered reading the stacks and stacks of scrolls left behind by the old man.
Still, if her friend, and often tormentuous aide said it was so, she had little doubt it was so.
"So, Jiraiya, are you telling me he's alive? That he is our demon."
"In more ways than one.
"I saw him hammer Kiba and Akamaru unconscious with a single blow."
"We've both seen fantastic strength before now," she huffed, curling up a tight fist, and reminding her former comrade of her own significant power.
"He did it with a tail of pure, red-orange chakra that emerged from his body in the blink of an eye."
Tsunade didn't reply at first.
For a moment, she was back in the forest, watching the world burn as a massive fox that towered over the tallest trees unleashed fiery destruction with bolts of pure red chakra summoned by the demon's black heart.
She swallowed hard.
"Chakra? Red chakra?"
"Yes, Lady Tsunade," the usually blasé toad sage nodded somberly. "I think this jinchuriki is the nine-tails. And the seal is weak. I could feel it.
"After all these years, the demon-fox is close to breaking free once again."
"Where is it," Tsunade demanded.
"Hinata and the others are leading him in."
"You left those genin….?
"Jiraiya," she started to growl.
"I'm not an idiot," he told her, putting up both hands. "The demon wasn't taking a liking to me. But it was taking a liking to Hinata.
"I think she could be the key to controlling him long enough for the seal to be re-strengthened."
"Are you sure," Shizune asked, knowing enough of the nine-tails to know it was the most feared of all demons. And with good cause.
"It was about to gut Sakura like a fish, but Hinata simply spoke to it, and it listened. She saved the silly girl's life, and probably all our lives.
"I think Lady Hyuuga has unplumbed depths, for no one ever suggested she had such courage. Or daring.
"Even Ino was ready to bolt by the time the jinchuriki revealed himself. Little wonder the common people hereabouts called the forest haunted. It was!"
"All right, Jiraiya. You must have a plan. That's why you're here, right," Tsunade asked.
"Well, my first plan was to run away," he admitted, smiling ruefully. "But what kind of climax would that be for the life of one of the three legendary sanine," he sighed.
"It would fit yours, you lecherous, old pervert," Shizune sniffed.
He shot her a cold glare, and looked back at his former squad mate. "My other plan," he added, "Is to use the apparent bond he seems to have with Hinata.
"If we can use Hinata to keep him calm, we might be able to reseal the demon, and restore the boy's mind to normal."
"All right. We'll try.
"But I'm having Anbu stand by. If he starts to summon chakra, or looks the least bit dangerous, I'm ordering them to kill him instantly.
"With all due respect, Tsunade," he told her. "Even Ibiki could never move as fast as this Naruto."
"Do you have any other ideas?"
"Yes," he told her somberly. "Keep Hinata close."
"No," Naruto told her bluntly after she had explained who she was, and what she wished to do. For his own good, of course.
"No," the Hokage blinked, not used to being denied even before she took the Third's place. "Listen, kid. I don't think you fully understand….."
"No. You don't understand.
"You can't mend a seal that isn't broken."
"Lord Jiraiya himself sensed your power, jinchuriki. He knows what he is talking about, as he has faced others like you before this."
"I doubt it," the blonde drawled as he kept looking around the office as if seeking something.
Behind him, Hinata, Jiraiya, and Shizune were close by, and only she knew the Anbu were lurking in shadows nearby with poisoned darts ready if necessary.
She could have accepted arrogance. Or smugness. But his utter indifference was beyond belief. He was acting….bored.
"All right, Naruto," she asked, rising from behind her desk to come around to face her. "Tell me why I should believe your seal is not broken when a trusted comrade insists that it is?"
"Because it's true.
"My seal did not so much hold the nine-tails within me as it joined us body and soul. We are fused. We are the same.
"But the seal allows us to exist simultaneously in here," he said, putting a finger to his head, "Or even allow me to summon him if I need his aid.
"Which is rare," he added pointedly.
"Do you know how you came to be infused with the demon….?"
"Kyuubi told me.
"He was controlled by the Uchiha traitors who wanted to take down Konoha. Even he has trouble with the Sharingan.
"By the time the Uchiha released him, he was already fighting for his life, and could do nothing to prevent the Fourth from sealing himself in me. That Hokage's own son."
"So. You do know."
"I have learned many things since I walked away from your petty village," he snorted.
"If you dislike us so much," Tsunade huffed. "Why did you return?" "Why did you return, sanine? Still seeking sanctuary from your own debts? Or are you hoping even Orochimaru will not strike at you here?" Tsunade gaped.
"I may live in the forests, old woman, but that does not mean I do not hear many things."
Tsunade was not stupid. She heard the venom in his otherwise neutral tone when he spoke of Orochimaru. She leaned against the desk, eyeing him, giving a 'wait' signal to her assassins as she asked, "And why are you here? You never did answer."
"Answer me first, and I might do the same," he told her slyly, crossing his arms in much the way the Fourth would do when challenging someone.
In that moment, he looked much like his father.
But the crimson flecks in his blue eyes gave him an entirely different presence.
"Believe it or not, I am still loyal to my village, and my people. I came back because I knew someone had to protect them until a new, and stronger Hokage could be found to continue upholding our traditions and our ways.
"And if you know Orochimaru, then you know that hiding in this village would be as useful as hiding in plain sight atop a sunlit mountaintop."
"True," he smiled thinly.
"I answered you," Tsunade told him after a moment, gauging his mood as she studied the somber young man. "How about you talk now?"
"Why did I come?
"I could say a lot of things, and a lot of those things might be true.
"But I suppose if you are being honest, I should be, too," he told her in the same indifferent tone.
"I came because Hinata asked me.
"She did not try to force me. Or sway me. Or threaten me.
"I respect that," he told her as the young heiress standing nearby blushed furiously at the eyes that went to her now.
"There are those that will not believe you are not the demon incarnate," Tsunade told him. "The fact is, we happen to know there are those looking for you, and your kind."
"My kind," Naruto huffed.
"Jinchuriki. Demon hosts. That is another reason we are so cautious of late."
"If you are referring to the Akatsuki, you are behind the times, old woman. They were all killed over a year ago.
"Orochimaru might still be out there being a pest, but those other would-be tyrants are buried under their own mountain."
"How can you be so sure," Jiraiya asked him quietly, knowing well enough that the men of the Akatsuki were extremely powerful ninja. He had barely survived a routine reconnaissance to track down a mysterious figure known only as Pain.
Naruto smiled a chilling smile as he eyed the old man whom he did not care for at all.
"Because I'm the one that dropped the mountain on them."
"You," Shizune gasped. "You dropped a mountain….?
"Literally?" "It's their own fault," he shrugged. "They're the ones that thought hiding inside the mountain made them invisible. Or invincible. Or whatever.
"All it really did was make a very large gravestone."
"I don't suppose…..you could demonstrate your alleged control of the nine-tails," a darkly clad ninja asked, emerging from cover, and obviously acting against the Hokage's orders from the look on the older woman's face.
"You might as well ask your toad sage to demonstrate his control of Lord Gama," Naruto sniggered as Jiraiya had the sense to look a bit embarrassed.
Gama, it seemed even the fox knew, was the one toad that disdained Jiraiya's contract with the toads, and tended to eye him less than favorably. He might show up, but he might just sit and watch the fight as easily as he might aid in it. He was that willful.
"You are saying the nine-tails does have his own control? His own will," the older ninja demanded of him, moving to tower over him as if size alone might intimidate the younger ninja.
"Denzou," Tsunade hissed.
Right before Naruto tapped the bigger ninja in the chest, and put him through three walls before he came to a stop in the fourth, looking more than stunned.
"I see some things haven't changed," Naruto told the four that gaped at him.
"But as the rest of your assassins haven't moved," he remarked as he turned to look around as if noting the position of every shadow that hid a ninja. "I take it you are willing to trust me?" "In fact, Naruto," Tsunade told him. "We could use you."
"Our village is in danger, Naruto," Hinata told him earnestly. "After Orochimaru assassinated the Third, and his attack killed over a third of our shinobi, we barely managed to drive him and his people away.
"Now, he is back, and the rumor is he has a new host body and will soon be leading another attack to finish what he started."
"I don't know what host he took," Naruto shrugged, "But it wasn't Uchiha."
"No. Apparently, he was slain before he could reach his destination. Along with at least three of the Snake's lieutenants."
"Four," Naruto shrugged.
"Yes, well, I know Orochimaru. He won't let such a slight pass.
"He might not care about his own people, but he'll take any slight against himself personally. He'll rally every resource he has, and throw them all against us.
"And, frankly, Naruto," the Fifth told him. "All we have left are a handful of aging Shinobi," he was told, making Jiraiya scowl.
"And even more young genin who are no match for the jonin sure to come."
"I see," he nodded as he eyed the woman.
"You suspected my identity all along. Didn't you, old woman?" "I had a good idea it was you."
"You did," Jiraiya blurted out. "I mean, of course you did. You always were the smart one."
"Which means you must be the comic relief," Naruto drawled, making Hinata giggle.
Jiraiya scowled again.
"The point is, I was hoping it was you, Naruto. Although even the Third thought you had died, the reports were….less than conclusive.
"When the stories of the demon in the forest reached my ears, I began to wonder.
"And to hope.
"I know this village has not given you much cause to care what happens to us, but….you are still a member of Konoha, and….."
"I'll help," Naruto told her.
He glanced over at Hinata, who smiled brightly.
"I said I'll help," he added when Tsunade seemed nonplussed at his being so agreeable when she was ready to argue her point.
"That's…..great," she smiled as she looked over to where two ninja were helping Denzou walk away.
Although, walk might not be the most accurate word. From the look of his left leg and crushed ribs, she didn't think he was going to be on his feet anytime soon.
"Thank you, Naruto," Tsunade bowed to him. "On behalf of the Hidden Leaf, I welcome you home, Naruto Uzumaki."
"Whatever," he shrugged, and turned to Hinata.
"So, Hinata? Would you like to show me around? I'm sure a few things have changed since I was last here?"
"Well, not really," she blushed. "But….I would like to introduce you to my squad. Shino would like you, I'm certain. He's very quiet, but very smart.
"And Rock Lee is not very good at ninjitsu or genjutsu, but he is truly amazing at taijutsu, and incredibly strong."
"I'll be around, old woman," he turned to offer his arm to Hinata, who blushed all the more as she took it. "Just call when you need me."
"Is it wise letting him go like that," Jiraiya asked.
"Who would stop him," Tsunade asked. "I mean, when was the last time you saw anyone handle Denzou like that?"
Jiraiya glanced at the shattered walls that were not the usual paper walls of common houses. The Hokage's house and offices were built of stone. Thick stone. It was a wonder even that tough old man had not been killed.
"You have a point, Lady Tsunade. Still…."
"Keep an eye on him.
"And try to earn his respect, or his favor. Offer to teach him….something.
"Not that," she spat as the old man's eyes lit up.
Jiraiya actually pouted.
"Meanwhile, find Kakashi. I've a job for him."
"Fine. I'll go get the moody brooder, and let you plan dark deeds.
"But don't blame me when you find out I was right about this Uzumaki."
"Right? You still think his seal is weakened?" "Weak? Hell, no. I think its broken."
Tsunade had nothing to say to that.
To Be Continued……