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Inner Hollow speech

Chapter 26: The Temptation of Sound Part Two: Valley of the End

It took less than two minutes for Naruto to catch up with Kimimaro, even carrying Hinata and Tenten as he was. Out of the three of them, he had the greatest facility for flash stepping, and he was able to pull Hinata and Tenten along in his slipstream, boosting their flash steps to the point that they were not much slower than he was. They caught up to Kimimaro in a sizable clearing, short grasses and wildflowers bounded by the dense forest.

Kimimaro had stopped in the approximate center of the field, facing away from them, one hand resting on Sasuke's coffin which was on the ground. Halting a dozen yards from the boy, flanked by Hinata with Tenten, as their sniper, back in the trees. Naruto clenched and unclenched his fists, struggling to suppress the red rage rising within him. Keeping his voice low and trying not to move his lips as much as possible, he directed his words at his teammates, two fingers pressed to the pickup on his throat. "Hinata, hang back and let me test him. Keep me covered from where you are Tenten-chan. Both of you keep an eye for any chances to get that barrel back. Remember, Sasuke is the objective here." Without waiting for them to agree, he raised his voice for Kimimaro to hear and said, "what you you want with Sasuke, bastard? What is Orochimaru planning? Tell me now or I will kill you right here."

He knew that his control was slipping, his voice dipping an octave, acquiring the basso tone that was the precursor to the release of the Kyuubi's chakra. The pale boy turned to face Naruto, his face showing utter indifference. He cocked his head, as if considering whether or not to answer Naruto's question. "Orochimaru has created a technique that gives him functional immortality. However, it is immortality of the soul, not of the body. He requires fresh bodies to inhabit every so often, when his current form begins to weaken and decay. Sasuke is just the latest in the long line of sacrifices required for Orochimaru's continued existence."

"I see. The thing is that he and I are friends. I refuse to let you take Sasuke away from us. MASS SHADOW CLONE TECHNIQUE!" The field was engulfed in a bank of rapidly dissipating smoke, revealing three hundred or more shadow clones.

"Interesting," Kimimaro replied in the detached tone of voice that matched the bored expression he wore. Raising his arms, two edged ivory rods emerged from his palms. His calm announcement of his technique, "the Dance of the Willows," was lost in the roar of the battalion of Naruto's warcries. Fast as Naruto was, Kimimaro was faster, effortlessly dispatching dozens of clones in half as many seconds. His attack routines drew comparisons with the Jyuuken, in that they both were comprised of flowing blocks and parries, although Kimimaro used more footwork, leaping about like a jackrabbit. The clones worked together, slowly limiting his escape routes, hemming him into a shrinking circle of grass. But just when Naruto thought he had Kimimaro pinned down, he spun, more of the off-white spikes erupting from his joints. Having bought himself a brief respite, Kimimaro straightened to explain.

"This is my bloodline limit, the Dead Bone Pulse, the manipulation of my skeletal structure by the infusion of chakra."

Naruto's mouth widened into a shit-eating grin. "Sounds handy."

"Indeed," Kimimaro responded, giving a slight nod at the compliment. "And it is not limited to manipulating bones within me." Pushing his tunic down around his waist, he reached to his left shoulder, the skin and musculature fraying and coming apart, exposing a long protrusion. Kimimaro grabbed it with his right hand and pulled a two-sectioned sword free, the flesh of his should knitting back together as quickly as it had come apart.

"A sword," the blond chunin remarked.

"Correct. The bones of my blade here have been hardened, enough to shatter steel."

"Really? How about we test that assertion then?" The true Naruto stepped forward, the remaining two-hundred-odd clones backing up to create a ring for the two combatants, backing up far enough to put Hinata within the ring.

Back in the trees, Tenten grinned from her perch halfway up the tree, rifle cradled in the crook of her arm. She flipped the cap covering the end of the crude, Jerry-rigged scope, essentially one half of a set of binoculars and drew a bead on Kimimaro.

"Two ninja, only one a chunin, is this the best Konoha can do for the last of their most prized bloodline?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, a sharp crap rang out across the field, Kimimaro's head spinning around with neck-breaking force, stumbling back a step, knocked off balance. Turning to face Naruto and Hinata, he regained his equilibrium, reaching up and prising a lead slug from the skin just below his left eye. Rolling the bullet between his fingers, he look up in surprise. "Not many shinobi use firearms, my compliments on the skill of your sniper."

Naruto grimaced. There went the probability of being able to retrieve Sasuke quickly. He and Hinata heard Tenten swearing over the radio. "Nice shot Tenten. He can reinforce his bones with chakra. You are gonna have to get him in the eye, or in the mouth to put him down." Tenten grunted an affirmative.

Naruto and Hinata drew their swords and separated to flank Kimimaro. Kimimaro, for his part, looked supremely unconcerned, despite the fact that he was outnumbered three to one, facing two swordsmen and at least one sniper. Naruto and Hinata held their positions, his skill already established. "I see that you two at least know enough to not cut yourselves. But I am a master of the Five Dances, an adept of the School of White Blossoms. Do not presume that your skill outstrips my own." His expression had changed from casual indolence to angered arrogance.

"And do not presume that we are without skill either. We are Shinobi of Konoha, and we fight as one. I will give you one chance to surrender, before you die."

"Ridiculous. I am a servant of Orochimaru the White Snake, the greatest of the Legendary Three Ninja. I am the leader of Sound Five, Orochimaru-sama's personal guard. To presume that I would surrender myself to a pair of Konoha-nin is laughable. Now the time for speaking is ended. The only words we will exchange are those spoken by our blades. Come and die."

Spreading his legs, he held his bone sword in a low guard, the point almost touching the grass. Naruto nodded, and as one he and Hinata attacked. Stepping toward Hinata, he parried a thrust aimed at his stomach in a narrow looping parry before whirling on Naruto and thrusting, parried in turn by a downward sweep of Naruto's gladius. With Naruto's blade out of position, Kimimaro thrust his palm at Naruto's face, a Dance of the Willow bone blade emerging from his palm. He was rocked to his right, a gunshot sounding and a bullet drilling into the side of his head, just forward of his ear. Hinata dipped into a low cut aimed at hamstringing him, but missed when he leaped straight up, flat-footed, twisting to land behind her.

Her Byakugan long since activated, she did not need to turn to see him swing at her head, her rapier flashing up vertically, using her off hand to brace the block. Gracefully ducking and allowing Kimimaro's bone sword to slide off her zanpakuto she twisted her sword and awkwardly stabbed at him in reverse over her head. Kimimaro jerked his head out of the way of her stab, and was forced to bend over backwards as Naruto took a flying leap over Hinata's crouched form, short blade leading. He missed, but it gave Hinata the chance to recover. Once again flanking the boy, they both ran at him, Naruto cutting high, Hinata thrusting low. Kimimaro evaded by hopping up on Sasuke's casket. Hinata and Naruto altered their attack vectors, coming at him from opposite angles. Kimimaro was knocked off the casket towards Naruto by a shot from Tenten. Naruto took the chance to try to take his head but was almost skewered when Kimimaro turned his stumble into a lurching pivot, his ribs erupting out of his chest in a move that had Naruto throwing himself to the side in a wild roll. There was an odd curving pattern of lines spread over the middle of his chest now.

Sensing Hinata closing from behind him, Kimimaro dropped to the ground in a foot sweep that Hinata easily hopped over. He followed his foot sweep with an ankle-level cut which Hinata narrowly dodged by going into a one-handed cartwheel. Both combatants righted themselves and were halted by a flare of chakra from the barrel that Sasuke was in. The paper seals burned away right before the barrel itself exploded. Throwing arms up to shield themselves from the wood shrapnel, the smoke was dispersed in a handful of seconds, revealing a pale-haired, dark-skinned Sasuke. He quickly reverted into his normal form, the Cursed Seal retreating into dormancy.

Naruto's appeals were wholly ignored, and he headed into the forest towards Rice Country almost immediately. Kimimaro was shot again, preventing him from cutting Naruto's head off from behind. Jerked back into the present, he swore.

"Dammit. Guys, we gotta take this bastard out now. We are practically on the border with Rice. Sasuke will make it over in minutes."

"Go after him Naruto-kun," Hinata ordered.

"What? No way. We gotta take this guy out together."

"Naruto, as you said, we cannot afford to waste time here with this guy. Sasuke-san will cross into Rice any minute now. Tenten and I can deal with him while you go get Sasuke."

"How are you going to beat him? The three of us together are fighting him to a standstill."

"Naruto-kun, do as Hinata says. If Sasuke gets away, this entire mission will have been for nothing. Hinata and I can figure out some way to beat him. Trust us."

When he hesitated, Hinata spoke again. "Go on Naruto-kun. I still have that technique to use."

Abruptly, he nodded. "Alright. But don't either of you dare get yourselves killed by this bastard. I will be extremely angry if you do."

Hinata grinned and he could hear Tenten chuckling over the radio. "Don't worry about us. Just concern yourself about getting Sasuke back home."

"Will do. Be careful." Hinata and Tenten said nothing as Naruto ran off in the direction that Sasuke had left, Kimimaro letting him go unchallenged.

"So you think that you two can defeat me when three of you couldn't?"

"Yeah. Especially since I wasn't fighting at my full strength." Hinata took a deep breath and closed her eyes, confident that Kimimaro would leave her be long enough gather her will. Opening her eyes and glaring at Kimimaro, she could not feel it, but she knew that the whites of her eyes had inverted to a deep black, her pupilless grey eyes changing to a sickly yellow. Raising her free hand to her face, she clawed her fingers and dragged her hand down. Shadow congealed and formed a oval white mask, marked with rows of split-ended red slashed below the impenetrably black eye-slits and between where her brows were. The black-and-white Garments of the Dead settling around her from. The meager killing intent that she had been unconsciously directing at Kimimaro was radically altered, gravity increasing it's pull, the air thickening around his limbs, making the white-haired teen's hear beat faster in inexplicable fear.

He was almost forced to his knees, gritting and shrugging the sensation of sludge pouring around him off. He blinked, the image of a cowled skeleton wielding a straight, double-edged longsword and scythe hovering behind the masked girl. He blinked again and she was gone, only a slight breeze behind him alerting him to Hinata's movement. His spine grew a series of spikes in the space of a breath, but the slender girl merely seized the spikes and picked him up bodily before slamming him headfirst into the ground.

His bones being what they were, the impact did no damage, but it did serve as a display of Hinata's increased strength and reflexes. He planted his hands to either side of his head and rotated, knocking Hinata back with a tornado kick. But not before he felt a odd wrenching sensation in his back. When he righted himself he saw a two-and-a-half foot length of his bone in one of her hands.

"Impossible!" he gasped.

"You have threatened me and my family, insulted my home and kidnapped a fellow Konoha shinobi. For that, you will die." Kimimaro was Orochimaru's highest-ranking subordinate after Kabuto, and was not accustomed to experiencing fear outside of Orochimaru's presence. But there was something about the black-haired girl that struck a primal chord within, something base and animal, bypassing conscious thought and going straight for the hindbrain. It was a different fear than what he felt in Orochimaru's presence, that a more human, more controlled fear, a fear that could be faced and mastered in the light of reason. This fear, it spoke to the darkness-that-comes-before, the inchoate mass untamed thought and animal instincts dwelling within all souls.

Her mask inspired part of that fear, the utter alienness of her mask, the absence of anything remotely human in the pure white and bloody crimson, eyeslits twin wells of bottomless black, not a hint of her mutated eyes in them.

It was madness, that this masked girl could strike such terror in him. In the end, it was the anger that allowed himself to regain mastery of himself. He was Kaguya Kimimaro, he reminded himself, Captain of the Sound Five, the hand-picked elite of the Village Hidden in Sound, Orochimaru-sama's left hand. All this passed in the space of a breath, and suddenly he was himself again, the trembling weight pressing down on him vanished. He held onto his anger as he and Hinata exchanged blows. She still moved like the wind, flickering around him, striking at his flanks and back, but he could track her, albeit barely.

Even able to track her, he was forced back and back, her slender body powering deceptively powerful cuts and thrusts. He was unable to reply in kind, his whole being bent to keeping her rapier from his flesh. Given that she had snapped one of his thighbone-thick spines with one hand, he had no doubt that she would be able to break even his reinforced bones with her sword.

The mere fact that she was able to so effortlessly match him with his Cursed Seal of Earth activated was an affront. The fact that she was only a genin, judging from her lack of a flak jacket was just salt on the wound. Gritting his teeth, he focused in a certain way and growled "Dance of the Pines," spikes erupted from every single joint, a defensive forest of spikes meant only to buy him enough time to advance his seal to the second level.

Normally advancing to the second level took a few seconds, but he pressed it, forced it to change him as close to instantaneously as he could manage. It probably was not a good idea to force the seal like that, but this masked Hinata did not seem like the type to give him any more breathing room than she had to. And lo and behold, she flickered into sight above him, her falling momentum adding to the already prodigious strength she could summon. It wasn't enough to create impact craters, but at the levels of force they were dealing with, it was the difference between broken bones and shattered bones.

Leaning forward, he took a couple of flashing steps before turning back to where Hinata was about to land. She had jumped too high, giving him time to escape and round on her. He ran around the point she should land, fingers leveled, intending to unleash a withering storm of Drilling Finger Bullets when she alighted. Kimimaro was not the sort to swear normally, unlike his former subordinate Tayuya, but he certainly felt like it when Hinata righted herself in midair and launched herself at him without touching ground. Kimimaro threw himself to the ground in a shoulder roll, catching her in the side with a swipe of his tail. Reaching back to rip his spine free, he wasted no time putting it to use in the first stage of the Dance of the Clematis.

He managed to snag one of her ankles and yank her into range of his Dance of the Clematis: Flower. He grinned in anticipation as the bones of his arm formed into a flower-like drill. His laughter was cut short as he was blasted high into the air by a wall of compressed dirt. Twisting to right himself as he rocketed skyward, he saw a second girl, as dark of hair but darker of skin than Hinata. The sniper he presumed. Come to think of it, he realized that he had not been shot since the blond chunin had gone after Sasuke. The dark-skinned interloper was almost thirty feet away, hands pressed against the soil, an impressive distance to create an Earth Release: Earth Style Wall from.

He almost snarled when she formed several seals and blasted him even higher with a strong gust of wind from almost sixty feet away. He was not surprised when his original opponent, the Hollow-masked Hinata materialized next to him and sent him flashing back towards earth with a flipping ax kick.

He had just landed, Hinata still far above, when a dragon of brown earth exploded from the ground not five feet from him and struck him in the side, sending him tumbling even farther away from from the gunwoman. He was almost angry enough to cry at his apparent impotence, but no matter how hot his rage burned, he could barely get the odd potshot in, between Hinata's speed and overwhelming strength and the new girl's ranged earth techniques, he was plainly outmatched. Singly, he had no doubt that he could kill either one, but whatever holes that were left in one of their defenses was covered by the other.

He had advanced his seal to the second stage and had already used both the all but one of his dances, but it was not enough. Even combining the Dance of the Clematis: Vine to attack with his spine, the Dance of the Larch to add bones to his forearms to punch and slash with and the Dance of the Willow to add bone blades to what joints that did not already have blades growing out of, it was not enough.

He caught a blocked a sidearmed cut aimed at his midsection with his spine, making the whip curl around the sword and Hinata's arm, lashing out with his unoccupied spiked fist, he was blown from his feet by another earth dragon. He ducked under its lunge when he caught himself and destroyed its head with a spike-laden punch only to have to lean into a forward roll to avoid being decapitated by Hinata, catching her across the ribs with his tail. He knew he had a few seconds before the sniper-girl summoned another attack, so he rushed to where Hinata had landed, going into a spin, lashing out with both his tail and his spine. She backflipped out of the way and he pursued her, the pair exchanging a series of lightning-quick cuts and blocks.

He managed to lay her suddenly unmasked cheek open to the bone before she twirled inside his guard and used the first ninjutsu he saw her use, exhaling a stream of fire that blinded him, but otherwise left him unharmed. He felt her fist contact his midriff and he was knocked back several stumbling steps through a Earth Style Wall, the small cloud of dust further obscuring his vision.

Before his vision returned, he heard Hinata's voice, without the screeching tone that she had taken when she donned her mask angrily announce "You are within the field of my divination! Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms!" and begin to count off her strikes. He couldn't do anything but marvel in detached wonder that her pinpoint Jyuuken strikes were able to penetrate his battered internal armor. Between all the chakra he had expended, and his illness, he did not have the concentration, nor the chakra to reinforce his armor. So he was reduced to counting the seconds until her attack ended.

He felt the Cursed Seal of Earth retreat into dormancy as he collapsed to the earth, boneless and with barely enough energy to draw breath. Having suffered from considerable physical abuse from his clan, and later his illness, he was no stranger to pain, but this was positively exquisite. He was dying, some corner of his brain noted, but he could not bring himself to care much, aside from the fact that he had failed Orochimaru. The two girls voices faded into the background as his vision fell out of focus and his breathing slowed.

Slumping forward in her seated position, Tenten sighed tiredly. She had not done much physically, but the Sound of Earth that she had used to track Hinata and Kimimaro and the Earth Serpent were not chakra-inexpensive. While their battle with Kimimaro could have gone better, they were alive, and he was dead, and in the end that was all that mattered. Hell, she had finally gotten to use her rifles in a real fight.

Hinata was not so good though. Tenten had to admit that Hinata scared her a little bit. The spiritual pressure that her Hollow mask summoned had actually knocked her from her perch her tree, dozens of yards away. She had no idea how Kimimaro had managed to shrug it off so quickly. It had taken her over a minute to discard the debilitating weight that the air had taken after Hinata had donned the mask. Even then, she had to resort to her Sound of Earth in order to avoid losing the pair quickly. In comparison to Naruto and his wife, she felt pretty useless. All three of them had their shinigami powers, but Naruto had the Kyuubi and Hinata had her inner Hollow to draw upon on top of that. She, well, she had nothing. While she could flash step, she was nowhere as good as Naruto was, and her guns had proved to be distressingly ineffectual against Kimimaro. Even her earth-natured bullets, which were supposed to be piercing had been only maginally more effective than her regular ones. Granted, it had not been until she had intervened that they had defeated Kimimaro, but Hinata had been holding her own, one-on-one the entire time.

Eventually Hinata rolled over where she had collapsed face down so she stared up into the sky. Hinata grabbed Tenten's proffered hand and let the other woman heave her to her feet. Hinata was barely able to keep her feet, her knees wobbly and a full-body ache from the onset of exhaustion. Tenten pulled one of Hinata's arms over her shoulders to prevent the other woman from going right back down.

The pair crossed the field and reentered the forest, heading in the direction that Naruto and Sasuke had departed. They had barely gone a hundred feet when an equally battered-looking Neji and Shikamaru emerged from the forest behind them. Limping, the four shinobi went after their last teammate.


It did not take long for Naruto to catch up to Sasuke, but he still managed to make it to the Sen River, which marked the border between Rice and Fire. There were two monolithic forms carved into opposite cliffs, both armored, but one with longer, neater hair, the other with a wilder, untamed mane.

"SASUKE!" Naruto roared from his place atop the neater-haired statue. "What the HELL is going on with YOU? Where are you RUNNING TO?"

Across the river, Sasuke alighted on the wild-haired statue and faced away from Naruto. "Hey there dumbass. I guess I should have expected you to show up." Sasuke turned to face Naruto, the stylized flames of the Cursed Seal covering one-half of his face. "What is any of it to you? My reasons are my own, and none of your concern. But I will say one thing to you, my childish games with you Konoha shinobi are over. Go home. I am no longer a shinobi of Konoha."

"What the hell are you talking about? Shikamaru, Neji, Hinata, Tenten, they all came after you, risking their lives to bring you back home! And you tell me to go home? Ridiculous."

"Really? Well good for them."

"GOOD FOR THEM? GOOD FOR THEM? They are your comrades, fellow Konoha ninja!" Taking a running jump, Naruto crossed the intervening space and landed on Sasuke, knocking the other boy onto his back. Sasuke ignored the pain, spitting blood onto Naruto's cheek.

"I told you," Sasuke replied with an arrogant smirk, "I am no longer a Konoha shinobi. I am going to Orochimaru to gain strength that I cannot gain here."

"Ar you kidding? Do you think that Orochimaru is just going to give you power for free? He wants you to become his new body! You would die!"

"I don't care. As long as I can achieve my goal, I don't care what happens to my body. If Orochimaru can give me the power I need, he is welcome to it."

"It's that Cursed Seal. This isn't the Sasuke I know. The Sasuke I know would never run away to a criminal like Orochimaru. The Sasuke I know would train and seize power with his own hands, not go looking for handouts."

"I'm NOT looking for handouts! I am going to Orochimaru because I cannot gain the power I need in Konoha. More power than anyone in Konoha has."

"More power? Are you fucking around with me? You say you need more power? Did you forget that you beat me just the other day? How much more power do you need?"

"I barely beat you, and only because you let your guard down. If a no-clan orphan like you can fight me, an Uchiha! to a standstill, then only lose because I suckerpunched you, then I don't have anywhere near the power I must have."

"Need more power? Come on Sasuke! You are the Last Loyal Uchiha! You could have anybody, anybody! in Konoha train you! Most would consider it an honor, a privilege to teach you. And with your Sharingan, you can learn anything out there. You are the Rookie of the Year, a genius that could learn anything that the teachers showed the first time."

Until now, Sasuke had been calmly lying on his back letting Naruto loom over him. But when Naruto uttered the word "genius" Sasuke's expression changed from one of indifference to rage, knocking Naruto off him with a double heel-thrust to the sternum. "Genius? GENIUS? I am NOT a genius! That man is a genius! Hatake Kakashi is a genius! Hell, even that bum Shikamaru is a genius! But me? I am not a genius. I work hard for my skills. I trained for hours after school every day to be able to hit a target with shuriken every single time. I worked for months to perfect my taijutsu. I pushed myself to chakra exhaustion for weeks after learning a new technique to master it. So calling me a genius belittles all my efforts, insults my work. And yes, I am the Last Loyal Uchiha, and because I am the Last Loyal Uchiha, I am automatically expected to be a great shinobi of Konoha like my father and mother and brother were.

"You say that I have enough power, that I can get anyone in Konoha to train me, except I can't. Kakashi is in charge of my training and he has forbidden anyone else from teaching me. He is limiting my growth when I need to be learning everything I can. Orochimaru promised to teach me anything I wish to learn. That man graduated from the Academy at seven, promoted to chunin at ten, inducted into ANBU at eleven, became a captain at thirteen. When I need to be getting stronger, I am being held back. So that is why I am leaving."

Naruto was silent for a long handful of seconds. When he spoke it was with a growly undertone that set the fine hairs on the back of Sasuke's neck on end. "If Kakashi-sensei doesn't want you going to anyone else to learn, then there is probably a reason. But you don't care. You don't care about anyone or anything unless it helps you getting stronger. The minute you felt that you were being held back, you go running to the first guy who says he will give you power, even if you have to give up your body to do it. But I really don't even care about that. I was given a mission to bring you back to Konoha, and I will do everything I can to complete it. I had to leave Tenten and Hinata to fight one of the strongest shinobi I have ever seen. They are risking their lives, ready to give them up to bring you back. So if you think that I am just going to let you go without a fight, you have another thing coming."

Sasuke simply nodded. "I wouldn't expect anything less." Sasuke threw the first blow, knocking Naruto from the top of the statue into the river below. Naruto caught himself on the surface of the river and immediately dashed back towards the statue's head, where Sasuke was. Sasuke did not stand still, charging straight down the carved stone meeting Naruto halfway down. The pair exchanged blows, neither gaining the upper hand. While Naruto had the upper hand in speed, he was not fast enough to overwhelm Sasuke with the precognitive powers of his two-tomoe Sharingan. Both boys were knocked off the side of the statue, Naruto back towards the river, Sasuke arching high into the air. Naruto twisted as he fell, managing to land on his feet.

Sasuke oriented himself on the blond chunin thirty feet below and formed the seals for the Fire Release: Great Fireball Technique. Naruto easily avoided it of course, but he had not meant for it to hit. The massive gout had distracted Naruto and diverted him, allowing Sasuke to land on his feet instead of on the end of Naruto's fist. Drawing a kunai in one hand and a brace of shuriken in the other, he flung the ninja stars at the blond chunin, which Naruto blocked with his short blade. His sword was longer than a kunai, heavier and with greater weight. So that is why Naruto easily punched through Sasuke's flimsy defense and scored a shallow cut along Sasuke's right side.

Sasuke grunted and stepped in close, jabbing his fist in a short blow at Naruto short ribs. Naruto took the punch in stride and both combatants separated. Pressing a hand to the cut on his side, Sasuke nodded towards Naruto, giving him the point. And in the blink of an eye, the three-tomoe tattoo on his neck exploding into a flame-like pattern covering his entire form.

Naruto could sense the change in the nature of Sasuke's chakra immediately, altering from a normal, natural blue to an ugly, bruised purple. Before Naruto realized it, he could feel the red rage rising within him in response to the evil aura Sasuke had donned. The two charged again, a black flame igniting around Sasuke's hands while a turbulent ball of chakra of a similar shade to Sasuke's aura coalesced in Naruto's left hand.

Sasuke managed to parry Naruto's downward slash aimed at his collarbone while stabbing at the Rasengan in Naruto's other hand. Sasuke's expression changed from one of confidence to pained surprise as the Rasengan destroyed the flame-wrapped kunai and drove into his midsection. Sasuke was hurled backwards and sank below the surface of the water. Naruto dashed forward to where Sasuke had landed, either to rescue him, should his Rasengan seriously injured him, or to continue the battle before Sasuke got the chance to recover if it hadn't. The violent churning of the water was the only warning Naruto had before a ten foot fireball erupted out of the water right where he was standing.

Naruto flash stepped safely out of the way, waiting for Sasuke to resurface. Naruto took several deep breaths as he waited, hyperventilating in preparation to use a wind technique. Almost thirty seconds after Sasuke had gone under, the boy finally broke the surface of the river. Naruto was on him in a flash, but the Cursed Seal enhanced his body and his reflexes to the point that they were evenly matched.

Accepting that he could not beat Sasuke in close quarters, with bare fists or blade, Naruto sheathed his zanpakuto and formed the cross seal, a thirty shadow clones popping into reality around him. They all drew steel and attacked Sasuke, but he was able to dispatch the fragile clones with some effort. Forming seals, Naruto unleashed huge gusts of wind and balls of wind and water along with large snakes, wrist thick and possessing fangs inches long. Seeing the ineffectiveness of their attacks so far, Sasuke having either dodged or blocked Naruto's ninjutsu, several clones concentrated in a certain way, gathering their chakra into their chests and trying to grapple with Sasuke as they exploded. But between the enhanced physical abilities of the Cursed Seal, and the precognitive sight offered by the Sharingan, the only way Naruto was able to land a solid blow against his opponent was through liberal use of flash steps. And even then Sasuke displayed almost unnatural durability and regeneration, rapidly healing the few wounds Naruto was able to inflict.

On the other hand, Sasuke had his hands full with Naruto, shadow clones providing an effective bulwark against the real one. While Naruto was unable to land a blow on Sasuke, the same could be said of Sasuke. Killing clones did not do anything but waste energy, certainly not harming Naruto in any way. Even when that bloody red chakra burst forth, creating a shroud that completely encased Naruto and his clones, a single long tail waving back and forth he was able to keep up with him, the feeling of his Sharingan changing, almost able to sense the third tomoe form in his irises. Wherever that chakra came from, it was a double-edged sword, the destructive nature of the chakra degrading the matrices of the clones, killing all of them within minutes.

But even without his clones, the chakra-shrouded Naruto was able to keep up with Sasuke. As Sasuke quickly found out, taijutsu was a bad idea, the bubbling chakra stinging his fists when he struck. Also, the chakra seemed to have a mind of its own, pulling away from a missed swipe to swipe again, stretching dozens of feet when Sasuke tried to put some distance between himself and Naruto. It even functioned as a form of armor, a Great Fireball Technique just parting around the shroud with no visible effect.

The only thing that saved him from being burned every time Naruto struck with those chakra claws was his Cursed Seal. He realized within seconds that Naruto was not going to allow him within range of his fists, and his ninjutsu had not shown any effect. Sasuke just smiled when he realized this. He would have been severely disappointed had he been able to defeat Naruto utilizing the first level of the Cursed Seal only. Smile widening to deranged proportions, he allowed the seal to go all they way, evolving to the second stage for the first time.

Curling a wing around his body protectively, he lashed out with it, flinging Naruto away. Sasuke snarled in true anger for the first time when it became obvious that even with the power of the fully evolved Cursed Seal, he was not strong enough to land a definitive blow on Naruto. On the other hand, he was able to go onto the offensive for the first time in their fight. While the red chakra shroud gave Naruto some impressive advantages, it also possessed some significant drawbacks. The most prominent of those being, as previously stated, Naruto pretty much lost the ability to create shadow clones. He also seemed to regress somewhat, discarding his sword in favor of his fists. He retained his speech and taijutsu skills, at least enough that Sasuke wasn't able to completely overwhelm Naruto.

Sasuke was caught by surprise when Naruto tackled him, knocking him off his feet and into the river. At first, Sasuke assumed that Naruto was just trying to pin him to the surface of the river and put him into a submission hold, but Naruto disengaged almost immediately. Sasuke blinked at the bleeding hole in his shoulder when he managed to surface again. It was only then that Sasuke registered the distinct stink of a recently discharged firearm, and immediately sought out the source of the attack. He simultaneously swore at the sight of the other Konoha ninja that had been sent to retrieve him and wondered why Naruto had taken the bullet.

"STAND DOWN!" the wounded Naruto ordered. "I REPEAT: STAND DOWN! No one is to interfere with my fight under any circumstances!" The river was not exceptionally wide at this point so Naruto's voice carried easily to the rest of the Sasuke Retrieval Team. Nobody replied, but Tenten did lower her rifle.

Not waiting for anyone to reply in either case, Naruto returned his attention to Sasuke. To the beaten and battered Konoha shinobi looking on from the bank of the river the fight was nothing less than awesome. Naruto had long since eclipsed either of his partners in flash stepping, only flickers of movement perceivable when the two rivals connected. Even Hinata, gifted with extraordinary perception with or without the Byakugan active was not able to track them, her clan's dojutsu not geared towards tracking movement at such high velocity.

Shikamaru had long since been convinced that Team Nine were no longer human, or at least completely so. Between Naruto, who housed the Kyuubi in his soul, Hinata, and her utterly inhuman mask, and Tenten, with her almost sociopathic willingness to harm anyone who got in her way, her fights in the Chunin Exams and any number of times she and her team had attacked his under orders from Anko. He was sure that it had only been instructions from her jounin-sensei that had kept her from doing more than cracking skulls when their teams fought. He had been completely convinced that Tenten would have shot Sakura in the Final Exams, had she the opportunity.

The fight proceeding in front of him simultaneously cemented that thought in his head, while thinking that maybe Team Nine was not the only ones with monsters. The chakra rolling off Naruto and Sasuke was nothing short of terrifying, and it was a testament to his will that he kept control of his bladder. Hinata and Tenten seemed to be almost completely unaffected, of course, but Neji was hardly better off.

Shikamaru had a little experience with a Kyuubified Naruto, not quite to the degree he was experiencing right now, but enough that he was able to process the fear, if not the urge to relieve himself. Sasuke on the other hand, he had never seen Sasuke like this. The corrupt power that was being channeled by the boy was almost as evil as the Kyuubi chakra Naruto was using, but of a subtly different flavor. The power of the Kyuubi was malice condensed, compressed, shorn of any other emotion than rage and hate.

Sasuke's power was more complex, diverse in a way that a Biju could never be. It was hatred, rage, avarice, lust, pride and a dozen other emotions all rolled together until they mixed and melded into something greater than the sum of their parts. The Kyuubi's power was utterly inhuman, both in its intensity and narrow-mindedness, as the power of one of the Nine should be. But Sasuke's power felt more... human, for lack of a better word. It was dark and destructive yes, but undeniably mortal. The Kyuubi's rage was such that it surpassed comprehension, but the emotions of Sasuke's power were small enough to be empathized with.

But no matter how Sasuke fought, Shikamaru simply could not envision him overcoming the titan power Naruto commanded. Naruto and Sasuke were of similar height, but to Shikamaru, the Kyuubi-possessed Naruto towered over his enemy. Shikamaru was astounded that Sasuke could even stand so close to Naruto. He and the others were almost thirty feet away and it was all he could do to keep his feet. The thought of retreating crossed his mind, but he could not persuade his limbs to obey. And for the first time, Shikamaru realized, truly realized, what it must have been like for those who had faced down the real thing, if a mere fraction of its power could send him to his knees.

For Neji, it was no less terrifying but it only assured him that he had made the correct decision in choosing to follow Naruto. He had kept the striated scar passing extending from hairline to jaw, passing over his right eye as a personal penance, a sort of sign to remind himself what had happened that day. Naruto had always been someone of remarkable determination, not resting until he had completed the task he had set before himself, whether it was to steal into the all the Hyuuga's laundry rooms and dye the detergent bright colors or to master a jutsu. From the beginning Neji never had a doubt that Naruto would return to Konoha with Sasuke in tow, no matter what, because failure simply was not an option for him. Possible and impossible meant less than nothing to Naruto. Once he had set his mind on something, he would do it, come hell or high water.

Seeing that Naruto had actually caught up to Sasuke, there was no doubt in any of the Sasuke Retrieval Team member's minds that Naruto would lose to the Uchiha, Hinata and Tenten by virtue of being in love with him, Neji, having lost to Naruto so badly that he couldn't believe that Naruto could lose to Sasuke, and Shikamaru because he couldn't see Sasuke, no matter where he was drawing his tainted chakra from, simply did not have enough power to overwhelm the Kyuubi, because no matter how much chakra Sasuke had, Naruto had more.

Nevertheless, for the moment, Sasuke was holding his own. Tenten and Hinata winced at each echoing crack, the sound of fists meeting at superhuman speeds, and the rapid, almost continuous sounds of feet slapping water. Sasuke launched several large fireballs, which Naruto shrugged off, blocking with his Kyuubi shroud. Naruto replied with Pressure Bullets and Rasengans, both blocked by Sasuke's hand-like wings. Whatever had happened to Sasuke, it had given him impressive durability, able to block tree-felling blows like they were nothing. Everyone believed that Naruto would emerge victorious, but in what condition was up in the air, Sasuke often giving as good as he got. The two powerhouses were reduced to taijutsu for the most part, neither possessing ninjutsu fast enough to catch the other, or powerful enough to break through either's defenses. Even Naruto's Hidden Shadow Snake Hands hadn't been able to pierce Sasuke's thick grey skin to deliver their poisons. More often than not, Sasuke simply caught and destroyed them with his Sharingan.

The battle ground on and on, neither combatant able to gain a clear advantage over the other until it came to a sudden and bloody conclusion. The mismatched pair had been hovering about fifteen feet up above the river, Sasuke hovering with his wings and Naruto by using spirit particle manipulation. Naruto had reclaimed his zanpakuto some time ago and attacked with his silver katana shikai. Sasuke zoomed forward, powered by a strong downstroke and parried Naruto's upwards diagonal slash with his left wing, and with a swooping upward thrust, speared Naruto through his side with his right, pinning him to the statue of Madara that was right behind him. Naruto's eye widened in shock, his zanpakuto slipping from his grip. Smiling victoriously, Sasuke barely had the chance to register Naruto thrusting one hand forward, a familiar vortex of wind reaching out and throwing Sasuke back, cratering the statue of Hashirama.

He fell forward, towards the water, but his attention was in the bloody rent in his side. In any case, his descent was halted by a pair of slender arms, lifting him partway out of the water. Blinking, trying to see past the pain he grinned at Hinata's face hovering inches from his own.

"I trust that you will not complain at our interference, given the circumstances."

"Heh. Sasuke. Gotta get that bloody bastard before he gets away and wastes all out efforts."

Grunting, Hinata helped Naruto to his feet, Tenten pulling his other arm over her shoulders. Shikamaru and Neji had not rushed to Naruto when the two boys had been thrown apart. Sasuke was already restrained, although the bindings were somewhat redundant. The Uchiha's face was a bloody ruin, his face a grim mask of blood. Naruto's Uzumaki Secret Technique: Typhoon Palm had inflicted a hundred tiny cuts on Sasuke's face, any one by itself would have been little more than a papercut but together gave the illusion of a far greater injury.

The damage to his face aside, Sasuke had slammed into the stone statue with considerable force, the blow to his face already having knocked him out, therefore his superhuman endurance had also been lost. On the other hand, he did not come out of it as bad as he could have. A cracked skull and a couple of ribs were the extent of his internal injuries, bruising aside. Either way, he was out of commission for a while. Slowly gathering themselves, they bandaged their wounds and headed home.

A/N: No the black fire is not Amaterasu, just the result of a fire technique powered by the Cursed Seal. And Hollow-Hinata is so fun to write, I gotta find a way to work her into more battles. Lastly, if you need a soundtrack for Sasuke's fight, I had Way of the Fist by Five Finger Death Punch on loop while writing.