Hey! I'm back! Oh yeah, I meant to explain that Asuma should be dead and Sasuke should be gone by now but well… they're not for the story's sake. But you knew that right? I mean… I'll just shut up now.

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Asuma and Kakashi talked in hushed tones on the other side of the latter's bedroom. Sasuke sat on the bed and swung his legs uncertainly off the edge. His sensei had dragged him here and refused to let him go home. By the heated and panicked way the two were whispering, he guessed something important was going on. His ears pricked up as he caught snatches of their conversation.

"Dangerous…out of hand…Tsunade..."

"Risky… unstable… war..."

Sasuke groaned in frustration. In that sense, Sasuke and Naruto were alike- neither of them could stand to be ignorant. Finally, Kakashi and Asuma seemed to realize his existence and walked over. Kakashi put a pile of pages on the bed next to Sasuke. He recognized them as the ones that creature had taken last night.

"Sasuke. Something very serious is happening." Kakashi said slowly, unsure how to explain. Sasuke just stared at him coldly. Kakashi scratched his head, feeling Sasuke's gaze bore into him.

"Err… Do you remember that thing you saw last night?" he started. Sasuke nodded. How could he forget?

"Yeah. That insane mirage." he recalled. Asuma shook his head.

"That was no mirage, Sasuke." he said. Sasuke raised an eyebrow.

"A genjutsu then?" he guessed. Asuma shook his head again.

"An imposter?" Sasuke refused to interpret what he had seen last night as anything other than some sort of trick. Asuma sighed while Kakashi gave him a look of remorse.

"Unfortunately, that's not the case." Sasuke gave up on guessing and decided to just let them tell him.

"Just read the pages." Kakashi said, pointing to the pile. Sasuke tentatively picked up the now dry pages from the bed sheets. From Kakashi and Asuma's faces, he wondered whether he even wanted to know. But eventually, curiosity got the better of him and he opened the makeshift booklet to read. He read through the introduction and first two stages to reach the third, albeit in disbelief.

'The Third Stage'

A picture of the same girl but this time she was on all fours. Her eyes burned red like coal and two tails whipped around her. Apart from the previous mutations, her canines had grown sharper and her fingernails longer. She looked absolutely feral. Sasuke could barely see the humanity in her any longer.

'At the third stage, the vessel will frequently lose control of herself. Erratic and often violent behavior can be expected. Excess chakra of the tailed beast may manifest itself in the form of shock waves. A highly unstable phase, the vessel cannot be saved at this point of time. Use of a terminus stone is the only alternative.

Sasuke turned a little pale.

"I-Is that possible? Can that really happen?" he stared at the Jounin.

"Read on." Asuma said as if speaking pained him. Hesitantly, Sasuke turned his gaze back to the book.

'The Fourth and Final Stage'

The picture accompanying this title was fairly straightforward. Nekomata, in its full and free demon form roared triumphantly at the moon while the vessel, thin and waiflike in comparison, lay at its feet. She was presumably unconscious.

'The final stage of the escape. At this point, the tailed beast breaks through the seal and regains its freedom. The tailed beast is free and can only be repressed by a sealing in another vessel. The original vessel's death is inevitable.

That was the end of the chapter. Sasuke looked back at the picture of the fourth stage. The girl was not unconscious. She was dead. Kakashi and Asuma watched as Sasuke's expression flicked from shock, disbelief and horror in the span of a few seconds. Then he made the connection.

"Wait, you're saying Kyuubi is breaking free?!?" he demanded, eyes wide. Kakashi nodded.

"If what you said is true and Naruto has four tails, that means he is currently in the second stage." With this Asuma and Kakashi began to discuss amongst themselves, leaving Sasuke to digest his thoughts alone.

'The seal is loosening?' The more he thought, the clearer it all became. Suddenly all of Naruto's strange behavior made sense! The sudden assault on his nose, the garish clothing, the sudden taste for seclusion. Sasuke sat lost in thought and troubled acceptation.

"According to the book, we can only hope to seal the beast in the second stage." Asuma said meanwhile. Kakashi nodded wordlessly.

"Or use a 'terminus stone'" Sasuke cut in absentmindedly.

"But we don't know what a terminus stone is." sighed Kakashi. Sasuke turned to them in surprise.

"You don't?"

"Do you?"

"Well…No. Then what do we do?" he asked in concern.

"We can only assume that as of now, the only means of halting the process is to seal Kyuubi again within the second stage." Kakashi said, with his usual tactful mind and analyzing thought process.

"Can that be done? Honestly, how many people do we know who can perform a sealing jutsu strong enough to hold Kyuubi?" noted Asuma, ever the antagonist. The room was silent for a while when Sasuke piped up.

"Maybe I could do it? I think I have enough chakra and expertise to at least try." he offered confidently.

"No! It's a suicide attempt. It's no wonder Minato died sealing Kyuubi. I can't let that happen to my own student." Sasuke fell silent at Kakashi's words. He was quite firm about it so Sasuke sensed no use in pursuing the argument.

"No… If it comes to that, I will do it." Kakashi said.

***

"N-Naruto… P-Put the k-k-kunai down…" Hinata said slowly and carefully. Naruto pushed the kunai closer to her neck threateningly. Hinata took a fearful step back only to find herself cornered against the wall of the alley.

"Shut up. You're just like all the others!" he cried. Hinata wondered why he was being so hasty and rash. It wasn't like him to condemn his friends so quickly. Then she noticed his eyes. They were mostly blue but this time they were tinged red.

"N-Naruto d-don't do th-this! K-Kyuubi i-is m-manipulating y-you!" Naruto just scoffed.

"Don't play innocent. You're here to kill me." he said. Hinata's eyes widened.

"What? Wh-Who g-gave you th-that idea?" she asked, horrified. Naruto's tails flicked irritably, as if he was getting tired of this. Hinata saw the extra tail.

"Naruto… Th-the f-fourth t-tail." she said. At this point of time, she was more worried about the increasing speed of the transformation than the fact that there was a knife to her throat. Naruto didn't reply but he smelled something on her. Something very unusual. Like a perfume only much stronger.

"Hinata… You smell strange…" he mumbled. His mind was starting to get hazy. Hinata's eyes widened.

'The perfume! It hasn't worn off yet!' she thought, panicky. Naruto's head reeled. His grip on the weapon loosened even while his sub conscience screamed at him to stay alert. Then it hit him.

"Poison! You poisoned me!" he hissed. It took all his strength and willpower just to muster up those words. Hinata turned pale and shook her head. The perfume was taking a stronger effect on him but why? It didn't have this sort of power over Neji. Naruto's head reeled again. He fought for consciousness. Falling unconscious right now could spell the end for him, or so he thought. But he couldn't keep it up. Naruto started to fall. Hinata reached forward to catch him.

"Stay back!" he muttered. In his dizziness, he thrust the kunai further than he had intended. Hinata cried out. He realized his mistake and pulled back but the damage was done. A long red cut ran across Hinata's neck. She stood stock still, thanking her lucky stars that the cut hadn't been deeper. Naruto fell the rest of the way and landed heavily on the cold alley floor. The kunai fell out of his grasp and clattered on the stones. Through the haze, he watched as Hinata tied a piece of cloth around her neck to staunch the bleeding. He suddenly felt a pang of guilt. Had he been reduced to this? Hurting the people close to him? Unknown to him, Kyuubi's strong drive for survival and escape had overcome his own better judgement. Finally, Naruto succumbed to the darkness.

Hinata's white handkerchief was already darkening with blood. Thankfully though, the kunai had missed her jugular or else it would have ended for her. Hinata stared at Naruto's unconscious body. His hair was starting to hang over his face. Was it just her or was his hair getting rapidly longer? His clothes were drenched and blackened at the same time. Curious combination. Hinata knelt down to get a closer look. Apparently he'd been in the rain last night. And he was singed. Maybe it was an explosive tag? He had been fighting, but with whom? Hinata tried to piece the puzzle together. Then his fox ears caught her eye. Despite the fact that they had put Naruto through hell since their appearance, she couldn't help but think that they looked adorable. Unable to control herself, she reached out and touched one. It twitched sensitively from her touch.

'That's so cute!' Hinata smiled. But then she remembered the task at hand. 'What am I doing? I don't have time to mess around!' she scolded herself and picked Naruto up bridal style. She blushed. How many fantasies had she dreamt up like this? Except… She was supposed to be in Naruto's position and vice versa but whatever. She decided to return to Naruto's home. After all, she couldn't go back to the Hyuuga Manor. Neji would have surely have discovered the clone by now. Hinata jumped up onto the roof of a building. There had obviously been some horrible misunderstanding but right now, Naruto needed somebody. So when he awoke, she would set things straight.

***

When Naruto opened his eyes, he expected to be faced with the ANBU Black Ops or the Hokage or maybe even a testing lab. However, he was surprised to find himself in his own bedroom at home. And… he felt empty. In the place of all that rage was just emptiness.

'Was that a dream then?' he wondered. He looked at himself. He was still a mess and his clothes were still ruined. But a neat pile of clean and ironed clothes sat on the bed beside him.

'Odd…' he cocked his head to one side but changed out of his old clothes anyway. Feeling slightly cleaner than before, Naruto exited his room and caught sight of the bathroom door. He decided to take a bath. But when he tried to turn the knob, he found it locked. Naruto froze in his tracks.

'I'm not alone!' he thought, heart racing. Carefully, so as to not alert the person inside, he put his ear to the door. He heard water falling to the floor so it was evident that the shower was on. And curiously enough, someone inside was singing. As he listened, he realized that it was Hinata's voice.

'Of course! Hinata.' she must have brought him home and ironed his clothes too. Naruto sat with his back resting on the bathroom door. So it seemed Hinata had not become a crazed bounty hunter. He didn't know whether to feel relieved or disappointed. After all, if he was handed over to the authorities, they might just put him out of his misery. He sighed and rested his head on the door. They weren't even halfway through the afternoon and he was already exhausted. He let his gaze wander to the window. Outside, winter had officially taken over. Delicate flakes of snow floated to the ground. It looked as though Konoha would have its first inch of snow by the evening. On a day like this, it was easy to lay back with a cup of tea, skip training, ambush innocents with snowballs and maybe spend some time with friends. But Naruto had outlived that stage of his life.

Just then the singing in the bathroom stopped and the shower was turned off. Naruto should've taken that as a sign to leave the door and pretend he'd never been there but the lull of the cold had numbed his brain. The door behind him was pulled open. Naruto, balance offset by the sudden shift of support, fell onto his back. He found himself staring up at Hinata, clad in a towel with dripping wet hair.

"N-Naruto!" she blushed bright red. For a moment, he thought she was going to have one of her fainting spells but she seemed to maintain herself. Naruto didn't know what to say.

"Th-that's i-indecent…" she mumbled, still red. Naruto sat up and laughed abruptly.

"Wh-What?" she blushed even brighter, if that was possible.

"Is that all? Sakura would have called me a pervert and punched me!" he laughed. Hinata stared at him. His violent mood swings were starting to put her off. One minute he was trying to kill her, the next he was laughing in front of the bathroom. But never look a gift horse in the mouth right? Fortunately though, the traces of red in his eyes seemed to have receded. Naruto glanced at Hinata's face. She was still red. He took the hint, leapt to his feet, and ran from the room.

Later, when Hinata had dressed, the two were seated on Naruto's couch drinking tea.

"What was that weird scent on you Hinata?" Naruto asked. He'd been meaning to ask for some time now.

"I-It w-was a p-perfume that n-numbs th-the opponent's s-senses. B-But i-it shouldn't b-be able t-to kn-knock s-someone out…" she said, puzzled.

"Why were you wearing something like that?"

"T-To g-get away f-from N-Neji…" she muttered. Naruto raised an eyebrow.

"Huh? Neji?" Hinata nodded.

"H-He w-was k-keeping m-me under h-house a-arrest. I-I c-couldn't see y-you." Naruto's eyes widened in understanding. So this was why she couldn't see him last night. He felt a bit guilty. Maybe he had been too quick to judge. Hinata noticed he was looking a bit upset.

"B-But th-that's n-not the p-point!" she said, quickly changing the topic. "Th-The thing i-is…" she looked uncomfortable. "Th-This i-is… g-getting out o-of h-hand." she let it out.

Hinata turned to him, watching his expression.

"I know." Naruto said simply. He was staring out the window again, watching the snow fall.

"Wh-What sh-should w-we do?" Hinata felt like she had lost him. He wasn't paying attention. Silence prevailed for a long time.

"I have to die, Hinata." he said finally. Hinata whipped around and stared at him, shocked.

"D-Don't say th-things l-like that!" she cried.

"It's the only way. If I die… Kyuubi will die with me. Konoha will be safe." he continued. Hinata had to admit, he had a point but she didn't want to accept that.

"No. Th-There h-has t-to b-be s-some other w-way." It was then that she noticed. Naruto's eyes had lost that spark. The spark that allowed him to outlast his tormenters, that willed him to keep trying, that never let him give up.

"You say that, but do you have any other ideas? There's no other way. I'm too far gone already." Naruto was trying to give up. Hinata wanted to say something. She desperately did. Something inspirational that would give him a reason to live. But… speaking was not her forte. That was Naruto's department. Suddenly, Naruto turned to face her.

I don't want to hurt you, Hinata…" he put a finger on the cut he had made earlier. Hinata stared back at him. Was he trying to…? "I don't want to hurt anyone for that matter." Oh… He was being general. The moment was broken as Naruto faced the window again. Hinata scooted a little closer to him. He didn't seem to notice. She joined him in staring out the window, watching the flakes spiral to the ground. In the silence and peace, she felt happy just to be with him. The future could wait a little longer. Even then… she couldn't help but wonder whether this was just the calm before the storm.

***

"That's it! It's over for him." Neji paced restlessly back and forth in the living room. He knew there was something off about that woman! But he never expected Hinata to pull off something this daring! Neji flushed with anger in remembrance of the incident. He'd been so gullible! No doubt she'd run off to Naruto's place. He could go there right now and put an end to this… Neji glanced out the window. It was snowing. The scenery outside was white and beautiful… not that Neji could take time to notice it.

'No. I can't go like this. Naruto is dangerous. I'd better be prepared for anything." Neji clenched his hand into a fist.

'Anything.'

***

"No way!" Sakura stared at Sasuke incredulously.

"That's what I said too. But it's true. It's happening." Sasuke sighed from his position across the bed from her.

"So Kyuubi is breaking free of the seal." Sakura sat deep in thought. Her face lit up from the pink floor lamps set up in her room.

"Is there some sort of medical jutsu you can use to stop this?" Sasuke asked hopefully. Sakura shook her head.

"No this is Kyuubi. This is big. I think we should go tell Tsunade." she said. Sasuke shook his head violently.

"No! Kakashi sensei clearly said Tsunade shouldn't get involved!" he cried.

"And why not? She's a perfectly trustworthy person!" Sakura said huffily.

"I know she is…" Sasuke trailed off, panicky. If Tsunade got to know then war would break out.

"Then it's decided. We'll tell her." Sakura said decisively. She obviously couldn't foresee the backlash of her idea.

"Look you've got to trust me!" Sasuke put his hands on her shoulders. Sakura blushed lightly. Maybe she believed him. Maybe she enjoyed the close proximity. Either way she didn't press the matter. Sakura shrugged.

"Fine. But what will happen to Naruto if nothing is done?" she asked. Sasuke sighed. He didn't want to answer that question. An image of the final page flashed in his mind.

'The original vessel's death is inevitable'

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I bet you all can guess why the perfume had a greater effect on Naruto ;)

Anyway, thanks so much for all the reviews! I'm so happy I could hug you but I can't so…

*Virtual Hug*