Disclaimer: Not mine. :3
A/N: This fic was beta'd by Questofdreams . She is brilliant and amazing and I am not worthy. 8D Written for Fearlessfirefly for the sn_exchange on livejournal.
The air was aflame.
This wasn't the first time Konoha had burned in the history of Kakashi's life – the worst wars had seen fighting up against the very gates, fire scorching the outlying buildings but never reaching the heart of the village - not while the man who embodied all of Konoha's power and heart and hope and soul still led them –
And then, of course, there was the day that man died. The sky itself had seemed to boil, destruction all around and screaming, as a creature full of rage and madness and joy roared into the night -
And then sixteen years later, chaos. Unnatural beasts ripping nin to shreds as panic spread and order deteriorated, and then his vision swirled and there was just blackness -
So yes, Kakashi was no stranger to watching his village burn.
But he had never seen it like this.
The flames were alive. They had all the chakra signatures of fire jutsu, but behaved like a summons – animal form, obeying its master's command. They had burned through the walls in a matter of minutes and fallen on Konoha's ninja like a ravenous horde, unharmed by physical weapons and spreading the conflagration to nearly a third of the village. The Hokage had scouts trying to find who was controlling the attack – the easiest way to destroy a puppet was to cut off the head of the puppeteer – but they hadn't been heard from since.
"I'm useless here."
Kakashi glanced to his left as Sai landed lightly, last bits of an ink bird smoldering out beneath him.
"The fire consumes paper and ink instantly," he continued, brow furrowed only slightly. His clothes were charred, and he was drenched in sweat and covered in soot like all of them, but it seemed he'd managed to keep himself out of harm's way. "I'm leaving the battlefield."
It wasn't a request for permission – there was only one person the ANBU took orders from – but Kakashi nodded anyway. "Use your birds. Help Gai get people out."
The boy just blinked at him slowly. "You misunderstand. I believe I can create flame retardant ink, if I have the time." He paused a fraction of a second, scanning the battlefield. "Have you –"
"He's fine. Go."
Sai turned and disappeared.
The Hokage tower was in chaos. Screams echoed from the rooms as medics worked feverishly to heal excruciating burns; ninja ran in and out with reports, staying barely a moment before returning to the battlefield, leaving behind the lingering smell of smoke.
Tsunade worked quietly and furiously, mixing poultices that could heal wounds and send ninja back onto the field, where they were sorely needed. She looked up only to holler irritably at someone to bring her extra ingredients, or to correct a novice's mistakes. They were stretched very thin; genin were being given work, as were civilians.
Sakura surveyed all this from behind a very thin mask of professional calm. Mix herbs, spread balm, wrap injury, perform jutsu, don't worry about Naruto, don't worry about Kakashi, don't worry about Sai, don't worry about – do not worry about –
She turned. Lee had appeared at her side, eyes dark and serious. "They need medicine for the field, and flame retardants –"
She snatched a jar off a shelf, pressed it into his hands, and told him about the civilians on the third floor who had been put to work dousing cloth in fire repellant.
"-And Shikamaru needs you in the Hokage's office," Lee finished. Then he was gone.
Any and all ninja whose techniques were useless against flames had been brought to help with the evacuation efforts. Shino, whose kikaichu would only burn to a crisp; the Inuzuka, and their dogs; Lee, limited to taijutsu. Shikamaru, incapable of attaching a shadow to something that produced its own light, had taken over strategic leadership.
Sakura found him bent over a table, map spread out over one half, the Hokage's crystal ball standing on the other. He looked up as she came in. His face was strained, and there was no trace of laziness in his posture. "We're making escape plans," he said without prompting. "I need you to help spread the word."
Nod, run, explain; stop to help a screaming man; heal, run, help a crying family evacuate. Stay calm. Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry.
Some of the ninja were having no trouble in the battle at all, Kakashi reflected - namely the Akimichi, who with their baika no jutsu were proving the heroes of the battle, able to stomp and smother the flames into nonexistence. ANBU were using techniques never meant to be seen by living eyes, and Yamato had effectively saved them all, shielding the crumbling walls with a waterfall. Neji Hyuuga, frustrated with his useless taijutsu and being borne down on by flames, had invented something new and unnamed on the spot: a kind of chakra blast that the entire Hyuuga clan was now using to considerable effect.
But everyone was slowly and surely draining of energy – and, Kakashi thought grimly as he brought his fingers together for yet another suiton, draining the lake as well. The only jutsu that were working were water, earth, and –
Kakashi dropped instantly as a cyclone of wind roared down the streets, ripping up charred timbers and extinguishing a huge swathe of malevolent flames.
"Ah," Kakashi coughed happily, raising himself off of the ground. His throat stung from the smoke and his voice was sore. "Hokage-sama. The left flank?"
"Gone," Naruto growled. There was something of a reddish flickering in his eyes. "News from Gaara?"
"No." Konoha's remaining messenger birds had been sent with all speed towards Suna By the time they arrived, it would more than likely be too late, but the presence of Temari or Gaara could be invaluable – or, if nothing else, Suna would be prepared in the eventuality of an attack against themselves.
"Damn," Naruto swore quietly, eyes intent as he scanned the field. The ground shook as a giant foot ground another patch of flames into nothingness. Elsewhere, the creatures were flickering as they revived themselves. "Did we find the puppeteer?"
"The Yamanaka were scouting with birds; Inoichi – Suiton Suiryuudan no Jutsu! " Twin dragons twisted up out of the lake, coiling around each other before crashing down on flame-enveloped houses. There was an explosive hissing sound as the fire went out and steam rose into the air. "Inoichi said," Kakashi continued, "the smoke was too blinding – but Kon Hyuuga says the Byakugan is picking up a human chakra signature just outside the gates, hidden in the fire."
"I'm going to stop it," Naruto said. He turned and looked at Kakashi, who nearly smiled, remembering that look from another time, on the face of a man so similar –
"Go. We'll hold them until then."
Naruto spun on his heel and ran towards the flames, orange coat a swirl of light behind him. Instantly the beasts around them veered towards him – he blasted a path for himself, but the fire was coming in like a tidal wave, and then –
A white lion roared past Kakashi's shoulder, landing on the wave of fire and soaking it into the ground in an explosion of black liquid. Kakashi turned and looked over his shoulder, unsurprised at who he found there.
"The fireproof ink works," Sai said.
He'd gathered. Turning back, he saw Naruto had already disappeared behind the walls of flame; walls that were diminishing now, as Sai's creatures rained down on them. Still, he thought with a slight frown. It seemed to be working almost too well –
"Kakashi!" Neji was running toward him, Byakugan activated. Veins strained around eyes red from smoke and overuse; his hair was singed, and normally pristine white clothes turned nearly black. "His signature is gone! They've taken him down!"
"The puppeteer?" Kakashi asked, feeling dread start to creep up on him –
"Naruto! Naruto and the puppeteer, they're both gone!"
They ran, arriving at what had been the great gates within seconds - the flames were now dying away of their own accord - but there was nothing left to find.
Neji's jaw was clenched, eyes staring into nothingness as he searched and searched – Kakashi's Sharingan was straining –
"There's nothing," Kakashi said finally. His companion didn't respond. "Neji." The boy pressed his lips together briefly either in resignation or fury before deactivating his Byakugan. They turned silently back towards the village. Over a third was a smoking hulk. The flames had all but disappeared.
It seemed the enemy had gotten what they came for.
Kakashi had seen Konoha burn before. He remembered Minato Namikaze's smile amid wreaths of flames, reassuring him - "I'm going to stop it" – remembered seeing that man die. Remembered swearing to protect his son.
"I'm going to stop it," Naruto had said.
Kakashi spun once more, Sharingan searching the landscape and finding nothing, nothing at all.