Chapter 23: The Maw of Madness


Shikamaru was having trouble shadowstepping far enough away to avoid the devastating attacks of the Nine-tails. His shadow, even at night, could only stretch so far and the sweeping tails and claws were further reaching by almost four times. It was only the harrying attacks of the three great summons and Jiraiya that kept him from being obliterated completely.

His plan to turn it north was working but he was personally having to lead it and he knew his chakra wouldn't hold out. His plans were rapidly becoming obsolete the longer he attacked and he could feel the Kyuubi's will crushing him down like the inevitable weight of an avalanche.

"We'll kill you all!" It roared, slashing at Manda, forcing the snake to coil and leap into the air. Gama Bunta used the diversion to strike a sideways blow that almost connected before the fox's claw came up and caught the blade with a clang that he felt in his feet. Eyes larger than his whole body turned to the toad and the Kyuubi's jaw cracked open.

A man could go mad looking down that thing's gullet. He thought, even as he lined up another attack. He was relying almost completely on the Kusanagi for his offense. While he could see no discernible damage she assured him that he was stripping away it's chakra armor. If it were anything but the Kitsune he would have already reduced the armor to nothing but the unbelievable chakra the thing was capable of was making it an endurance game.

Red flames erupted from the Kitsune's mouth, bathing the hilt of the toad's tanto in sticky fire. Gama Bunta lept back just in time but was forced to abandon the sword as he couldn't wrest it from the Kitsune's claws.

Without looking one of the tails smashed into Katsuyu and the slug exploded apart into thousands of miniatures of itself. That had been a new development, the slug's appearance on the battlefield. It could only signify that either Sakura or Shizune had joined the battle. Since neither one had shown themselves yet he tended towards thinking it was Shizune. Likely she was waiting until one of her poison attacks would have the most effect. If poison will even harm the thing.

Nothing survives inside the Kyuubi but the Kyuubi. The Kusanagi sent to him. She was never speculative, if she said something it was true. At least as far as she was concerned. She'd been wrong before but she'd never said anything that he was unsure of. He chose to take her at her word and was on the lookout for Shizune in order to warn her. As yet he'd been unable to find her.

He brought the sword around in a slash and it elongated, sweeping around in a glimmering crescent. As the weight grew and grew his shadow anchored him to the ground and his armor kept the sword from pulling his arms out of their sockets. One of the tactical advantages that they had depended on came from him. The armor that Kitsune was using was so dense that it slowed the normally lightning quick fox down considerably. So long as he kept pressure on the fox with the Kusanagi, it's physical attacks were still incredibly fast and carried a huge amount of inertia but they were avoidable, if just.

He said, "We'll kill you." Is Naruto still in there somewhere? He filed the thought away, hoping that they could make use of it in the future. Jiraiya had summoned some sort of giant club and his physical appearance had changed somewhat. Not for the better either. Shikamaru observed but whatever he'd done it had increased his strength and speed and he put it to use, smashing the club, which looked like a giant femur capped with a swirling Rasengan, into the Kyuubi's jaw. A dangerous place to be but Shikamaru could see the reasoning behind it. There was just no other place that looked vulnerable on the fox.

His Kagemane was powerless, the Kusanagi, what he considered to be the deadliest weapon second only to his mind was largely in a support role at this point and his chakra was at about a third of it's capacity after his fight with Sasuke.

I should have been a tailor. He thought again, for the thousandth time. A claw came sweeping around at him and he shadowstepped, leaving an explosive tag behind. If the Kitsune even noticed as the explosion enveloped it's appendage it gave no indication.

Too late he realized that he'd been maneuvered into a trap himself. He hardened his armor just in case it might help and fell backwards. His back hit the ground and the Kusanagi shot out, spearing into the tail as it came crashing down. The two hit with a clang that rang in his teeth but the attack wasn't finished. The tail pushed inexorably down until the hilt disappeared into the forest floor. Light blossomed all around them, a bubbling red sphere of fire had appeared overhead, dispersing his shadows.

I cannot stop it. The Kusanagi thought quietly. She wasn't afraid nor was her tone urgent.

"Then I guess we'll be meeting soon." He said, knowing the sword would claim his soul when he died.


Sakura surveyed the battlefield. The sheer volume of information she was getting from Katsuyu had been incredibly confusing. Thousands of different visions at once, reports on different viewpoints. It had all but stunned her but she was readjusting to it. Not everything was pertinent so she skimmed to what she needed and shut out the rest. What she saw now was dismaying.

Shikamaru was in trouble. And what's he doing with the Hokage's hat? She'd ask about that later but she had a sinking feeling that it was his hat now. She took a spool of wire from her thigh pouch and tied the end to an arrow. In a swift movement she turned to Shikamaru and drew the fletching to her cheek. She inhaled deeply and shouted in a chakra enhanced voice, "SHIKAMARU!" She didn't wait for a response before loosing the arrow.

Something struck her in the shoulder, knocking her off balance but thankfully the arrow was already beyond her control. She turned, dropping into a fighting stance only to see Mito Guy shaking his hand and turning red in the face.

"Sorry, Sakura-chan. I didn't know it was you." He said, looking chagrined. She turned quickly back just in time to see a wall of shadow jump up from the ground and her arrow piercing it. She squinted, looking for any hint that he had taken the lifeline. She almost jumped out of her skin when he spoke from beside her. "Thanks, that was...inexorable."

She got her heart under control and looked at him. "What's the plan?"

The sword in his hand morphed into a snake that stared at her unblinkingly. She almost flinched under the gaze, then Shikamaru turned to her, the same reptilian eyes reading her and measuring. She did flinch.

"How good are you with a sword?" He asked, a gleam in his eye.

She felt the weight of a Kagemane settle over her and flinched instinctively. There was something...else that flinched as well. She could feel it, like a fly caught in her hair. Her lips started to move without her biding them.

"Just...relax." Shikamaru said, his voice strained. She let herself relax and the tremor subsided. Her mouth moved with his though no sound came out.

"You can't touch the Kusanagi and I can't use it to it's full potential. I'm loaning my body to you." The snake flashed into a sword in the Nara's hands and she felt her body react, her hands closing over something invisible.

She stared at the Kyuubi, she had little choice. "I don't now how to use a Kagemane."

He sighed, "That's...not quite as important as you'd think. I'm going to explain this to you, and since I'm the Hokage I'm swearing you to silence. If I trap someone with a Kagemane who's stronger than I am they can overpower me. When I don't try to assert my will on them they can move me about freely. I essentially become their shadow."

"There are several rules you'll need to follow. First, I don't have your muscle mass or I wouldn't need to do this. I will have to shield my hand so you don't break the rest of my fingers with your grip. So just bear in mind that each strike comes at a chakra cost. I'll hold out as long as I can but I've been battling for hours now and I'm a bit low."

She thought about this a moment. "Oh! I have a new batch of soldier pills." She dipped into her thigh pouch and heard him grunt as he mimicked her movements. The Kagemane receded and she fished a soldier pill out of the pouch and tossed it to him.

He didn't hesitate, tossing it into his mouth before spitting it back into his palm. "Sweet Kami! Did you follow a yak around all day to perfect the taste?" He smelled the now wet pill and winced again and held it out at arms length.

"It's not chocolate! It's for emergencies." She said, exasperated.

He stared at the ball in his hands, scraping his tongue off on his teeth. He looked at her dubiously and she rolled her eyes. "Would you rather die?"

He muttered something that sounded like 'almost' and tossed the pill back, dry swallowing. He shuddered visibly and took a few steps involuntarily. She offered one to Guy and he waved her off.

"Next..." He dry heaved for a second and then mastered himself. "next is that we can't let it turn towards the wagon train heading for Suna. If that means we sacrifice the village then so be it but I'd rather avoid damaging the buildings as well. The village before us, us before the people. That's our priority.

She nodded somberly.

"I'm the Hokage now, Sakura." He said, sounding annoyed with it. "I wont have time to explain to you everything that's about to happen. I know you were loyal to Tsunade and it might feel like you're betraying her by following my orders without question and after this, if we both survive I'll do my best to earn your trust but for now you'll just have to give me the benefit of the doubt and be my arm." And we'll still probably both be dead in a few minutes. He chose to keep that thought to himself

"Hai!" She said and saluted formaly.

His shadows closed around her and folded inward even as another shadow unfolded a few meters away, depositing her. "That's what a Kage Sochi feels like...we'll be doing quite a bit of that."


Jiraiya knew that they couldn't beat the Nine-tails. Any more than you could defeat a mountain or an avalanche. You could change the appearance of something but you could never reduce it's base self. The Nine-tails was...a threat but it was a threat they knew. If they managed to unhinge it's raw potential he shuddered to think of what new form it might take or if it would simply explode.

No, defeating it was out of the question. He'd explained it as best as he could to Shikamaru. The only way to contain the Nine-tails was to reason with it. Not in a sit down over tea setting but in order to seal it to Naruto and earlier into his mother they had had to make it feel something that was foreign to it.

Empathy.

It was why the tailed beasts tended towards rage. Empathy and circumspection made them vulnerable. It was why the beast was at it's most active in Naruto when he was angry. When they demonstrated human-like emotion they could be bound to a human. When the Jinchuuriki demonstrated inhuman-like emotion the beasts could break free.

If they could make it regret or second guess itself then he could reseal it inside his godson. It would be bound by that empathy even as Naruto was bound by his anger. Two sides of a coin. He refused to think of Naruto as lost. So long as the Nine-tails resided in him he was safe, even if the rest of the world wasn't.

The rest of the world owes me a favor or two and Naruto even more. No, if it was a choice between killing his godson or letting the Kyuubi rampage he'd let the rampage continue. I've given up too much already to give him up.


Shikamaru heard an ear splitting "Kya!" from Sakura and felt his arms sweep sideways in a less than graceful swing. If he had been fighting Sasuke like this they'd already both be dead but the good part about fighting something that was ten stories tall was that you tended not to miss.

The Kusanagi whipped around and crashed into the side of the foxes head. He saw it rock slightly to the side and was buoyed. It was the first indication that they'd even had an effect on it since he'd joined the battle. He shadowstepped them away. It took four leaps to get to the other side of the beast's head and strike again, this time in an uppercut slash to it's chin.

He had little to do other than placement and keep his shadow armor at a steady output on his hand and he reflected on how lacking their teamwork would be if she had been any other nin. Konoha stressed three man teams because they were efficient and made missions that much safer but something like this, where the whole village was at stake, teams made little impact. It was the whole that mattered and in that they were sorely behind. Iwa trained as a village so that any member could work with any other in times of crisis.

This made them less effective in small groups but much more-so as a military force. He vowed to himself that if he survived the night that he'd institute a village wide training regime in addition to the already established team drills. Anyone should be able to work with anyone else on some level with a degree of proficiency. It wouldn't be as synergistic as smaller groups but it would reduce the learning curve in an emergency such as the one they found themselves in.

"Granny can't save you now!" The voice boomed again.

Everything clicked into place and he discarded the plan he'd come up with. He thinks Sakura is Tsunade...and only one person calls her Granny.

Naruto wasn't just inside the fox, he was a part of it now. They were working together but the Kyuubi was keeping him off balance, keeping him in that inhuman rage. An anger that could only be slaked with blood and it didn't matter whose blood it was.

"Take off your helmet!" He hissed through gritted teeth. When Sakura struck she struck with her whole body including clenching her teeth. It made it almost impossible to get out instruction to her but she understood and yanked the helmet off, tearing out the straps that held it in place like they were made out of paper.

Shadows slipped off of the fox like chakra did but he didn't need a solid surface anymore, just a direction. Shadows speared upwards and he folded them into the mass, pushing as far as he could with them until the base was needle thin and in danger of breaking. He folded them out and they hung in middair a moment before plummeting again. He saw a flash of red and white before Sakura screamed in warning.


Shikamaru was never one to let his personal hangups interfere with a plan but he wondered if that was something he should reconsider.

He stood in the middle of the Kyuubi's tongue, the Kusanagi's hilt was pushed deeply into the rough surface, making a dimple in the flesh. The sword had elongated until the tip was pressed firmly against the roof of the Nine-tail's mouth.

He turned to Sakura, "Get up there and talk to him?"

"What the hell am I supposed to say to a fox?" She said, already moving to do as he'd ordered.

He watched the blade tremble, the polished surface wobbling tightly. "Talk to Naruto, he's in there, it's him we have to get to."

She nodded and bounded out of the cavernous mouth of the beast. He felt heat on his cheek and turned to see a roiling wall of flame bubbling towards him like it had been shot from a crossbow.


Jiraiya watched Sakura jumped onto the Kitsune's snout. Not a place he'd ever want to be that was for sure but apparently Shikamaru had come to the same conclusion that he had. Naruto hadn't been subjugated by the fox, he had bonded with it. That bond carried emotion both ways, the rage of the Kitsune and Naruto's own empathy were likely warring with each other.

He just needed the right push. He dared not move and signaled Gama Bunta to cease his attacks though the Toad boss was weaponless.

He couldn't hear what Sakura was saying but he could see that the Nine-tail's mouth was forced open. Flames billowed out of the beast's mouth but it didn't try to shake her off of her perch. The wind was blowing towards her and he strained to listen harder but to no avail. Whatever she was saying she was saying it quietly and calmly.

At least he's listening. He hoped fervently that Naruto could win the fight for supremacy. The foxes jaws clenched and unclenched, trying to close and it's snout wrinkled and smoothed with the effort. As the conversation wore on he could see that the fox was gradually relaxing. Even as he watched it was shrinking, so very slowly.

He allowed himself a little hope and released a breath he didn't realize he had been holding. Mentally he began preparing the seal in his mind that he'd use to afford Naruto some control over the fox.

He didn't notice Manda lining up an attack.


Shikamaru tried to shut out the Kusanagi's inner voice. She was screaming in agony. The Kitsune was trying to close it's mouth and she was keeping it propped open. It wouldn't stop and she couldn't break.

She wanted to break so badly. Her consciousness thrashed in a corner of his brain, like a snake that was held by it's neck. She could switch to her snake form if she chose to but she didn't.

It wasn't loyalty or even fondness for him that stopped her from it. It didn't occur to her to escape the pain. Her entire being was centered around a single concept.

Cut.

He held onto the blade, keeping a connection with her. He'd barely escaped the flames by hiding in the shadow behind the the blade. It had cost him almost the rest of his chakra. Normally when he shadowstepped it was nearly instant. There wasn't enough time for his mass to interfere with the shadow.

He'd stayed there for only two seconds and it had been the single most chakra intensive thing he'd ever done in his life. His legs wobbled but he stayed standing. There was one thing he was growing sure of. If Naruto was regaining control, he couldn't stay here. If Sakura wasn't reaching the Uzumaki then he was a deadman.


Lee felt more useless than when he'd failed to make a simple bunshin at the academy all those years ago. He'd done nothing to help with the battle other than not getting injured. Sakura and the Hokage were doing most of the work with Jiraiya and their summons as backup.

Still, he kept close watch of the battle and when he saw the fox calmed by Sakura's words he moved in as close as he dared. Either they were lining up a finishing strike or they thought to regain control of the Kitsune. In either case the battle was coming to a close and he didn't want anything to go wrong with it.

He was making his way towards Jiraiya when Manda attacked the Kyuubi. He heard Guy yell 'No!' and he was moving. Manda wasn't part of this particular plan. He used every bit of his speed and he almost made it before Manda had entangled himself around the Kitsune's rear legs, looping them in coils and squeezing them tight.

There was a shift in the foxes chakra and it blinked as though coming back to it's senses. Then it's jaws slammed shut. It roared in pain as the Kusanagi's tip exploded out of the top of it's snout and then the sword winked out of sight. Manda hesitated a moment and it cost him his existence on their plane. With no one distracting the Kyuubi it focused it's considerable attention on the snake.

Without moving it's head the foxes tails elongated and turned towards the snake, tip first. They speared towards the Snake boss and just before striking, Manda released it's hold and dispersed in a puff of fog.

Lee's attention was focused on the small spec that had shot out of the Kyuubi's mouth. It was at the height of a parabolic arc that would eventually intersect with a cliff face.

He knew, instinctively that it was the Hokage. Two things had gone into the foxes mouth and only one had come out. The other must be their Hokage. He darted up a small rise, releasing his ankle weights in a plume of dust and rocketed into the air. As he sped through the air he released the first two chakra gates in unison and felt his body's potential rise. When he hit the ground, even as fast as he'd been moving before he tripled in speed, leaving divuts in the earth where his feet touched. In his head he made a best guess as to where he'd have to intersect with the Hokage, who was now only moments from dashing against the rock face and lept, the ground buckling beneath him.

He turned slowly in the air until he was facing Shikamaru just as the Nara hit him. He scooped the unconscious Hokage out of the air and heard the telltale snap of bones but his aim was true and even with the Hokage's weight they cleared the top of the cliff and slid to a halt. For some reason he thought a Hokage should weigh more. He dared not close the gates again, he knew that he'd done considerable damage to his muscles already and was unsure if he'd make it back down the cliff face with the Hokage if he did.

He didn't have anything but the most cursory of medical training but he could tell that the man was injured and would need medical attention. The beautiful and kind Sakura was already on the battlefield, if a little busy so he set the Hokage down and used a red flare to mark their position.

She'd come when she could, until then he'd keep watch.


Shikamaru woke quickly and groaned. He could feel where his ribs had broken but breathing wasn't quite as difficult as it had been.

"How long have I been out?" He asked, his voice raw. He didn't even know where he was but the fact that he was still alive pointed to a favorable outcome to the battle.

Sakura spoke, hurrying to his side. "Just a few hours, Hokage-sama."

"The Nine-tails?" He asked, blinking away the haze in his vision.

"Sealed again." This came from Jiraiya who was smoking a pipe at the periphery of his vision.

He felt the familiar pressure of the Kusanagi around his neck. "Get me on my feet. Is Mito Guy still here?"

Hands lifted him from under his arms and set him on his feet. He turned and saw Rock Lee grinning at him. "He went to inform Kakashi that the village is safe." Shikamaru frowned and the Guy clone's smile faltered.

"How long ago?" He asked, fearing the answer.

Rock Lee thought about it for a moment. "About two hours ago, Hokage-sama."

It wasn't as bad as he thought but he wished he'd had a bit more time to recover. "Lee..." He started and spun around. The chunin was grabbing his hat for him. He took it and patted the man on the shoulder. "Thanks. We're about the same size. I need a fresh change of clothes from the tower. Hokage robes and a fresh hat." He thought for a moment. "Bring those and that dog to the west gate."

His stomach rumbled and he yelled after Lee who was already running. "And a few ration bars!"

He turned to the others, "All of you get cleaned up, you've got an hour and then meet at the west gate as well." He caught sight of Naruto who looked as dejected as he'd ever seen him. "Naruto, come here. You too Jiraiya."

Jiraiya stared at him, his eyebrows drawing downwards. "I'm retired, don't try ordering me around or I'll paddle your ass."

Shikamaru ignored him. "This battle is classified, if anyone asks we stopped a tailed beast from destroying the village. We believe it was due to the actions of Oto and the nin responsible was killed in the attack. You will both, in due time, submit written reports corroborating that story."

"I almost destroyed the village." Naruto said, looking on the verge of tears.

Shikamaru chuckled but not unkindly. "I robbed my entire clan blind when Choji was hurt, Naruto. I think we both need to learn how to channel our energy better when the people we care about are hurt."

"To that end I'm placing you on special training. I want you to learn to control the Kyuubi." He said, ignoring the incredulous look he got for that particular statement.

Naruto threw up his hands, "I can't control it, I can't even control myself!"

Shikamaru shook his head at this. "I saw you control it. I saw you stop a tailed beast from destroying the village. Sakura helped you through it but I believe that in time you could learn to control it yourself and with eight other beasts out there...well it would be nice to have one in our corner."

Naruto looked suspicious for a moment and Jiraiya clapped him on the shoulder. "I think I know someone that could help."

He didn't bother to ask who, he didn't care. So long as it was accomplished. "You two get cleaned up as well. In two days I want you to arrive at my office and report back on the mission to track Sasuke as a failure. Arrive by one of the gates and be seen by plenty of people. I don't want anyone thinking you two were anywhere near Konoha when this happened." He looked at Jiraiya whos eyebrows were drawing down again and he muttered a quick, "Please." and the man nodded, smiling again.

He watched them leave and then touched his ribs tentatively, wincing at the sharp pain. He was desperate for some sleep and a bucket of food but he couldn't be seen as weak after he'd declared martial law and sent the village on a forced march west. No, when they returned, with the council he'd be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

It took him the better part of an hour to make his way to the west gate. He walked at a steady pace but had to stop to catch his breath a few times. When the Kyuubi's jaws had finally clamped down the Kusanagi had reverted to her snake form in a flash. There had been so much pressure on her that her body, when it folded as a snake, had struck him in the chest and sent him careening out of the Kyuubi's mouth. More luck than anything else and it was also luck that his shadow armor had held. If it hadn't he'd have been cut in half. Even as it was he'd broken what felt like five ribs and he doubted that he'd escaped without internal bleeding.

It was likely only Sakura's skill that had kept him from dying at all. As he arrived Sakura helped him wash his face and hands. She combed his hair as he couldn't lift his arms without doubling over in pain and rechecked her handiwork.

"You'll have to rest soon, Hokage-sama." She said, not wanting to order him to bed but more than willing to do it if he didn't relent soon.

"I promise I'll sleep for two days after this. We just have to make sure the village sees it's shinobi as strong. I probably scared them half to death, making them pack up and leave so fast." She nodded and they spoke no more on it.

He explained the classification of the mission to both her and Rock lee and they nodded in understanding. Both liked Naruto and he didn't doubt that they'd keep the secret. He knew that he was manipulating Naruto into a position to be a weapon for Konoha but at the moment he felt like the good was finally outweighing the bad. He could save Naruto from being ostracized and also get what he wanted.

It was a win win but it still made him feel like a bastard.

He wasn't worried about Guy saying anything about the battle. At least not to the general public. Mission details were always kept in secret until a debriefing could be had and since he was the one they had to inform, he could control the information flow to the public.

He ate two ration bars and checked his appearance in a store window. He had bags under his eyes but otherwise looked fine. He was dozing lightly when the advanced guard arrived at the gates. He had placed Lee on guard and the older nin nudged him awake with an elbow.

He had had to abandon his shadow armor, he just didn't have the chakra left to stand up and be protected so he'd made Lee his personal guard until the anbu returned. It felt a little presumptious to have a personal guard force now but he understood, intellectually the need for it. It was still embarassing ordering Lee into the position though.

Yet another reason why Kakashi should be wearing the mantle. He thought acidly. He wouldn't mind ordering a personal guard.

Anbu appeared from...somewhere and began a series of questions and answers that were designed to verify his identity. They needn't have though, Neji had returned with the advanced guard and confirmed his identity for them. He still had to answer the stupid questions though, some about his personal life, some about his missions and a few even that he was supposed to answer inaccurately.

After five minutes of that they finally called a halt to it, satisfied that he was who he appeared to be. They gave him a brief rundown on the village and the time frame for their return. He had about a half an hour before the bulk of the village returned. He began issuing orders, setting people into movement. After a while it all blurred together. He restarted the Konoha patrol with the anbu he had at his disposal, placed guards on the larger shops and the two banks to prevent looting.

He didn't have the manpower to clean up the worst of the rubble but the area around the gate was swept free of glass and dust. As they returned he wasn't sure what he'd expected of the villagers but there was little enough of any reaction. A few ducked their heads as he passed him, a few let out half-hearted cheers but for the most part they didn't have a clue what had happened. They just knew they'd been rousted from their homes and set on a march to what had once been an at-war nation with nothing but what they could carry on their backs.

A few even gave him dirty looks. Better get used to those. He began to doubt why he was even there. He didn't expect blind trust from anyone. A nation full of blind believers was what Orochimaru had. Would have been nice to get a pat on the back though. He took a deep breath and winced as his broken ribs rebelled at the movement.

"Seito!" He heard a high-pitched voice yell and he turned to see Fuyumi running full tilt towards her dog who jumped away from Lee and ran to her as well. They met in a flurry of hugs and licking until she began scolding him for running off. He took this dutifully and Shikamaru found himself grinning.

Fuyumi put a leash on her dog and trotted up to Shikamaru boldly. "Thanks old man!"

He sighed, "That's Shikamaru, brat."

"Don't call me a brat!"

"Don't call me old man." He said, looking annoyed but feeling a bit better about the situation. Of all the things he'd done that day, finding a stupid dog was proving the most rewarding.

Maybe that's what it's about at the end of the day. Finding the little things that you can count as a win.

He reached down to pet the dog and it's hackles went up and it began growling. He pulled his hand back and she stuck out her tongue at him before running back to her class.

"The Hokage took on a D-rank mission from an academy student?" This came from Temari who was grinning at him. He winced as 'Hyakki' fell to the ground next to him. The Suna nin rolled her eyes. "If you're going to behave like then the mask is pretty worthless, Anko."

Gaara who was ignoring the exchange turned to Temari sharply and spoke quietly to her. He couldn't hear what he said but she blushed hotly and didn't meet his eye. Anko's mask came up and she too was blushing. "Come on, I'll find you some quarters."

The two women left and he hoped that the quarters would survive them being in the same room together. Gaara bowed slightly to him and he returned it. If he had met the Kage in his own village he would have been the first to bow. "We came as soon as we felt it." He said quietly. "It appears as though we are not needed, however."

Shikamaru was on unfamiliar ground now. He was saved when Hinata, still in her anbu 'Neko' mask appeared next to him. "I will have tea prepared in your office, Hokage-sama."


Neji could see that Shikamaru was ready to collapse but said nothing as the Nara led Gaara of the sand to his office for tea. He knew about ceremony, it was central to the traditions of the Hyuga clan. Without ceremony, you couldn't honor your guests. Ceremony wouldn't survive him passing out though.

There was nothing he could do about it, however and instead tried to find Jiraiya. The Sanin was known to be an expert in seals and he wanted to bounce a few ideas off of the man regarding the seal on his head. That was something he allowed himself to feel hopeful for. He recalled the battle between his cousins.

Hinata bowed very slightly to Hanabi who had already taken up the sash of the Hyuga. It was a formality that Hiashi had never had to observe. Everyone knew that he was clan leader, he didn't need a symbol to announce it. With Hinata the eldest, Hanabi had felt it important to show that she was asserting control over her sister.

"Remove the sash, Hanabi." Hinata said, straightening from her bow. Her hands were clasped in front of her demurely and her tone was soft but direct. "I am the clan head now."

They had vied for their fathers attention their whole lives, Hinata had tried to form an emotional attachment, Hanabi had simply been the better fighter. Though Neji suspected that Hinata could have asserted control over the clan even from Hiashi had she wanted to.

"The clan head should be the strongest member of the main branch, Hinata. You've ever been my inferior in this, don't push the issue." Hanabi said, looking somewhat confused. Confused for a Hyuga at any rate, Neji was barely able to pick it up without his Byakugan up.

Hinata shook his head. "Physical prowess should not be the defining attribute of a clan head, Hanabi. In that we are at odds. I've always felt that was a...poor way of choosing a leader. It stems from the belief that with experience comes wisdom. In many cases this tends to be true but relying on it as the sole deciding factor in leadership is foolish."

Hanabi listened politely and shook her head. "This is tradition, Hinata. We will not eschew tradition that reaches farther back than Konoha itself."

"And that is the problem I've struggled with for years. Ano...I must appologize. In trying to change our father's mind in this, I've deceived you slightly. I'd always hoped that he'd find it within himself to break with false tradition and I tried to use my relationship with him as the fulcrum for that change." She paused and bowed again, deeper this time, her eyes stayed on the ground as she spoke. "In this I failed. My only success was in the deception, not his enlightenment. You're own perception of me was a side effect that I both regret and cherish. He was very proud of you, Hanabi. I'm grateful that you were able to enjoy his approval. It's something I've longed to indulge in."

She straightened and Neji could see tears brimming in her eyes. "But I will not allow a continuation of flawed ideals and I cannot allow you to continue under the false presumption that I am the weaker of us."

She flowed into a stance that Neji didn't recognize and Hanabi stepped forward. He kneeled in front of them and placed his forehead to the ground. Branch clan members weren't allowed to observe true fights between main clan members but Hinata spoke before he was settled. "I wish Neji to see this, sister. Allow him to watch."

Hanabi hesitated and Hinata spoke again. "It will be your last command as clan leader, make it one of compassion."

Hanabi nodded, looking entirely unsure of the situation now but there was something else in her stance. Neji recognized it as hope. He activated his Byakugan and was still barely able to follow what happened next. Hanabi removed the sash and folded it neatly, placing it on what had been her father's cushion and then turned to her sister. Both bowed formally to each other and flowed to the center of the room.

Hinata used no techniques other than gentle-fist and she handled her sister as easily as Hiashi ever had but where Hiashi was efficient and cold, hitting whatever tenketsu was easiest, Hinata only hit two. They were in Hanabi's wrists and effectively stopped her use of gentle-fist but Neji knew, from personal experience, that they also hurt the least to have closed. Just like that it was over.

Hanabi's hands dangled limply from her wrists as she hugged her older sister and Neji heard a quiet, "Thank kami."

One of Hinata's first acts as clan head had been to call a halt to the branding. There was no one of a branding age at the moment so the decision was largely ceremonial but it called a halt to a tradition that had been in effect since the founding of the clan.

He intended to take that a step further and remove the brands already in place. He didn't exactly have her permission in this but it was better to ask for forgiveness than beg for permission and since she'd outlawed the use of the brand, there was no chance that people released from it would be re-branded. Hiashi simply would have rebranded the branch clan if they'd found a way to remove it. He didn't think Hinata would have him executed but neither did that effect his decision. He would live or die as a free man.

Unfortunately, Jiraiya was nowhere to be found and asking after him got him a stern talking to from an Anbu he didn't recognize. "Jiraiya is on an extended mission and hasn't been seen in three days. He took Uzumaki Naruto with them and they are due back soon." This wasn't delivered in an informational tone and Neji took it to mean that the truth was being commanded.

He could wait. He'd waited most of his life.


Anko's head was propped on her hand and beneath her mask she wore a bored expression. She'd been watching the tea party for fifteen minutes now and already she was ready to start jamming her kunai into her thigh just for a bit of excitement. She heard a soft snoring sound and stifled a giggle.

Gaara stood quietly as Shikamaru snored, still sitting up but slightly slumped. Kankuro started to laugh and Garaa silenced him with a shushing gesture and they made their way out of the room quietly. Gaara was silent wherever he went but she saw him trying to be doubly so and thanked him in the back of her mind. Kakashi and the chunin outside the door would see to it they were led to where she'd housed Temari, THE COW!

She made a few hand symbols to Baku who gave her his own symbol in response and she threw a kunai at him, he snatched it out of the air and stuck it in his pocket and gave her the finger again. Rather than lose another kunai, she ignored him. After making sure the Kusanagi was safely a sword she half carried and half dragged Shikamaru into a side room with a small cot and put him to bed.

Everyone saw the anbu as a faceless mask of dignity and efficiency. It was more like a fraternity for the elite. The masks, she suspected, were so that no one could see them sticking out their tongues at each other. She'd never felt more at home than with the anbu squads. They were almost all as foul mouthed, cantankerous and fun loving as she was. Ibiki, when he'd been one, had been a legend among them. He'd never had the disposition for killing but he could curse a blue streak, out-drink any two other members and had personally socked two Hokage's right in the jaw when they got out of line.

It was past dawn now and she wasn't tired so she grabbed a book and sat down next to the cot to read in the wane light.

"If you weren't such an idiot I could be up to my tits in assassinations." She said, but she muttered it quietly so as not to wake him. She heard Baku snort in laughter and resisted the urge to throw something a bit more permanent at him.


Enjoy,

Dave

P.S.-I'm being a little less rigid with my chapters, stopping them when it seems appropriate etc. I'll keep trying to make them largish...I hate when people post 200 tiny chapters just so they're at the top of the list all the time but I'm not as worried as I was about them being 10k plus words. The story is still ongoing and I'll be sure to wrap it up before I take another year + long break from it. Thanks again.