We made it to the penultimate chapter. I wasn't going to cut it here, but I figure it's long enough for an update, and everyone's been waiting so patiently. I'm finding that I have a lot less free time than ever before, so it's been difficult finding time to work on this. However, there's only one more chapter after this, so you only have one more waiting period before this story is over. Thank you to all reviewers, signed and anonymous alike. I hope this chapter was worth the wait.

Chapter 19

When she arrived at her front door, Ino had a basic idea of how she wanted the conversation with Mika to go. It wasn't a complete dialogue, and even as an outline, it was sparse, but that was all she could come up with on the way over. Nothing was stopping her from staying outside until she came up with the perfect plan, but as a veteran of confrontations of all sorts, Ino knew that even the best-laid plans fell apart within the first few minutes. Staying outside to plan some more would just be putting off the inevitable. With a sigh, she unlocked the door and pushed it open. "Mika, I'm home," she called so she wouldn't alarm her roommate.

After closing the door and turning around, Ino froze at the scene before her. Of all the things to walk into, this was one of the worst scenarios. Mika sat on the couch with Sayo on her lap. Her arms wrapped around the frightened child, and Mika was glaring with angry, teary eyes across the room. At the other end of the living room, Lochia-dono appeared to share Mika's feelings. Both women had similar, red-rimmed eyes and furious expressions. All three of the room's inhabitants turned to face Ino at her call. Silence reigned as they all looked from one person to the next. Ino could feel the tension spiking. No one knew what to say or how to address Ino's inadvertent interruption.

Mika was the first one to recover enough to speak. "What are you doing home so early?" she asked. Ino could tell she made an effort to control her voice, but Mika was still upset and had a small tremor when she spoke. She also couldn't hide the tear marks and her red eyes. "I thought you would stay with Shikamaru today."

"I had to talk to you about something," responded Ino quietly, her eyes flicking from Lochia-dono back to Mika. "But it looks like someone beat me to it."

The performer didn't grasp her meaning, but the queen understood right away. Out of the corner of her eye, Ino saw her stiffen and stare at her with incredulity. "You knew?" she gasped. "And I thought…" She couldn't finish the thought as a fresh sob choked her.

After that display, Mika caught onto what Ino was talking about. All the blood drained away from her face, and the strength must've left her arms because Sayo was able to free herself and run to Ino, who picked her up without her eyes leaving Mika's. "How long have you known?" she whispered. The woman's whole body trembled with the emotions going through her.

"For a while now." Ino wanted to go to Mika and calm her down, but if she approached her, she knew she would only make it worse. In addition, she didn't want Lochia-dono to feel like they were ganging up on her by showing solidarity. "I wasn't sure how to talk to you about it, but I got the nerve to do it today. This isn't the best time to talk about it, but since you're both here…" She took a steadying breath. "You remember when your husband remarried. Toya-dono had to declare you dead when Yukito told him you died. Remember when Sayo was born? The bandits attacked the town we were in and killed so many people."

"But I'm not dead!" cried Mika. In her agitation, she rose to her feet and took a step towards Ino. "I'm alive and he knows! That means we're still married. This woman," she pointed an accusing finger at Lochia-dono, "is the legal mistress of my husband, not his wife! And yet she dares to come into my own home and tell me to give up my position!"

It was quite unlikely that Lochia-dono told Mika to do anything. Ask her maybe, but the small woman wouldn't demand something like that. "Mika, please, calm down," pleaded Ino. Her roommate wasn't in a mental position to think logically when she was this wound up. "You love Sayo, don't you?" At Mika's curt nod, the kunoichi continued, praying that Mika wouldn't close herself to what Ino was saying. "Lochia-dono's family loves her just as much. If they find out that they sent her to Water Country to be a mistress instead of the queen as promised, they will destroy Water Country. I know you know how unstable it is. With most of their soldiers already here and fighting, they won't be able to stand up to Lightning Country's fighters. Your husband loves his country and his people like you love Sayo. How will he feel watching his country fall apart?"

Both women were quiet. Ino hadn't said anything Lochia-dono hadn't already known, but Mika calmed down a little and was doing some thinking. It wasn't the kind that would lead her to the ultimate conclusion Ino and most of the rest of the world wanted her to come to, but she had to hope. Mika wasn't a malicious woman, but they were asking an unreasonable amount of her. Ino, the one who was asking her to give up, knew it was unreasonable. That made it hard to come up with more reasons why Mika should let Toya-dono go. And she would need more reasons; the lone argument she already made wasn't enough to change anyone's mind.

A low rumble that Ino felt through the soles of her feet ran through the ground. Because it was so quiet, everyone heard the tinkling of the silverware and dishes as the low rumble escalated to a full-blow earthquake in a matter of seconds. As the shaking got worse, Ino dove for the closest door, flung it open, and held Sayo to her chest as she braced herself in the door's sturdy framework. Screams erupted from all around them, and Sayo joined her high-pitched screech to theirs as their world rocked them all over. Glassware and porcelain crockery smashed against the ground, littering it with glistening, sharp points promising lameness and lacerations to anyone who had the misfortune to fall upon them.

The shaking only lasted a minute and a half, but it was one of the longest times Ino remembered experiencing. Just like the permanent residents in Konoha, Ino knew that earthquakes didn't occur in Konoha unless they were jutsu-related, and she felt her heart drop. To get quakes that strong and for that range, it had to be a concerted effort of many shinobi, which meant the Earth Country shinobi were here in Konoha. They were out of time.

I have to get them out of here, Ino thought. Outside, deep cracks and uneven surfaces decorated the once-smooth road. Taking note of the treacherous footing below, the kunoichi turned her gaze upward to the rooftops and saw the same dilemma. Many shingles were shaken off, and several houses had the roofs collapse inward. Even from her apartment, Ino could hear the screams of the trapped inhabitants. She wanted to run and help them; they were fellow citizens of Konoha, possibly fellow shinobi that she'd worked with in the past! However, more immediate problems tore her attention away. Looking inward, she saw that Mika and Lochia-dono copied her idea of standing under a sturdy structure and appeared to be unharmed. Ino was lucky that she hadn't removed her boots; the glass and broken pottery littered the ground at the women's feet. Neither of them would be able to walk once the aftershock tremors stopped unless they got something to step on to protect their feet. As it was, Ino could see bleeding cuts already around their legs. She might have cuts on her own legs, but the adrenaline in her blood prevented her from feeling any pain coming from them. A quick check on Sayo showed she was distressed and still vocal about it, but she suffered no harm in the earthquake.

With careful maneuvering to keep Sayo in her arms, Ino used one hand to toss Mika her boots one at a time after she knew Mika was ready to catch, then she repeated the process for Lochia-dono. "We need to get to the Hokage Tower," she shouted to them; the noise of collapsing buildings made normal speech impossible. "Because Toya-dono is there, the Hokage will keep several special shinobi there to protect him and you, Lochia-dono." The last part was specifically for the queen. "There should be people there to lead us to a safer area." While the ANBU would be concentrated where the Hokage and the royal family were, that's also where the foreign shinobi were targeting, so it was the most dangerous place to be. However, Ino had to get her there because she couldn't defend Lochia-dono, Mika, and Sayo by herself. At the moment, they were sitting ducks for any Earth Country forces to pick off if they discovered who they were.

As Mika retrieved Sayo's favorite bunny from the adjoining room to calm her daughter's tears, Ino kept a sharp eye outside the open door for enemy forces. She wasn't about the lead the two women right to the Earth Country army. So far, only concerned Konoha inhabitants were in the streets that she could see, but she knew it was only a matter of time. Already the shinobi around her were either rescuing their buried compatriots or running towards the area with high chakra energy that was approaching Ino's location too fast for comfort. "We'll have to hurry," she told them. "Stay low and follow me."

Burdened with Sayo and two civilians, their progress was slow. Add in the amount of debris and unstable footing outside and their pace slowed to a crawl. It even looked like they were crawling since Ino had them bent over to avoid attracting unwanted attention. Shattered windows left unseen shards of glass on the ground, and all three of them had cut body parts from catching themselves and getting those invisible shards buried in their skin. All the excitement around them had Sayo wound up, but thanks to her bunny, she remained silent and squeezed the stuffing out of the doll. Most of the time, she kept her face hidden in Ino's shoulder so she wouldn't have to see the destruction surrounding them.

Ino was thankful that Lochia-dono and Mika were too distressed to question following her. It wasn't like Hikari would know her way around Konoha better than the other women; she shouldn't know the way better than either of them because most of her time was spent playing babysitter to one man who was stuck inside his apartment all day long while one woman lived at the Tower and the other worked there every night. But because of the earthquake and their heated discussion before she arrived at the apartment, neither woman thought to challenge her. Instead, they were more focused on not tripping and falling and keeping up with the others.

They weren't halfway to the Tower when the fighting caught up to them. A flying shuriken caught the kunoichi's eye, and she had to duck or else catch it in the head. It wasn't aimed at her, she noted, because it wasn't aimed to kill. If she hadn't paused to adjust her grip on Sayo, then it would have missed her completely. The near-miss still scared the other women, and Mika screamed because not only Ino, but Sayo was in danger. So much for avoiding the fighting, Ino thought as she saw people with the Earth Country insignia approach them. "Mika, take her," she ordered, passing Sayo back and getting her kunai ready. It didn't matter if they found her out now. She just needed to keep them alive.

The shinobi who threw the wayward shuriken wasn't one of the approaching pack, and Ino make quick work of the regular military men. They may have been trained to fight, but they didn't stand a chance against a shinobi with incentive to keep them back. One of them was able to block her kunai with his short sword, and she found herself locked in a power struggle with a man who was taller than she by a foot and heavier by who knew how much. He bore down on her, using his height and weight to his advantage to push her down. He was close enough that she could smell the sweat and dirt on his clothes and skin. His harsh breathing rang in her ears as he pressed her towards the ground. Knowing she couldn't win like this, she slid to the side, which made him fall forward since he wasn't expecting the resistance to disappear. As he fell, Ino hamstrung his legs so he couldn't move, then gave him the mercy of a quick death. He was so young, she thought as she returned to her charges. No older than eighteen.

Both Mika and Lochia-dono stared at her with frightened eyes when she got closer. Mika didn't have much interaction with shinobi other than what she witnessed while in Konoha, but Lochia-dono grew up in a nation that had its own hidden village, and she had suspicion in her eyes as well as fear. "Are you really Hikari-san?" she asked.

I don't have time for this! "Yes, Lochia-dono," replied Ino, not allowing her frustration to enter her voice. "Hokage-sama will explain everything once this is all over, but we have to get to her first. Let's continue, but we'll need to watch out for more soldiers. Stay close together."

It wasn't like Lochia-dono could wander off by herself. The woman knew her chances of survival without Ino were slim to none, so she put aside her concerns and stayed with Ino and her husband's legal wife and child. As she passed one of the fallen soldiers, though, Lochia-dono picked up a discarded sword. Ino didn't know if it was to defend herself against Earth Country fighters or against Ino, but it didn't matter. As long as Lochia-dono got to Hokage-sama in one piece, then it didn't matter to the kunoichi what she did with a sword she wasn't sure the royal could use.

With all the fighters available to distract them, the Earth Country forces didn't specifically target Ino's little group as they wove their way around the fighting. Occasionally a free fighter challenged them, but Ino moved to intercept any that tried and took them down, soldier and shinobi alike. Sprinkled among the regular fighters were those black-clothed shinobi with the bat insignia, and those were what gave Ino the hardest time. They seemed to know when Lochia-dono was close and swarmed to them. There were never more than three at a time, but even three were a match for Ino. The women didn't get away unscathed when those were their foes, and Ino gained a limp in her step and a slash through her non-dominant arm. Mika and Sayo remained relatively unhurt due to Lochia-dono taking it upon herself to stand between those two and anyone who got past Ino. It must've been because Mika held Sayo and couldn't defend herself, or else Lochia-dono was defending Sayo more than Mika. Ino couldn't tell what was going through the monarch's mind, but she didn't care why. She did care that the queen was putting herself in danger when she should focus on getting away, but Lochia-dono refused to let any threat near the trio.

Ino's luck ran short as she helped Lochia-dono over one of the wider trenches in the road. Her back was to whoever approached, and she was looking at their feet, which was why she didn't see the blood drain from Lochia-dono's face or her mouth open to scream a warning. What felt like a hammer came down on the base of Ino's skull, and she fell like a stone. What was that? she wondered when the pain receded enough for her to think. The words floated through the haze that wrapped around her mind. As her eyes blearily focused beyond the feet next to her nose, she saw with growing dread a wave of black shinobi gunning right for her position. It wasn't just three this time. She counted at least fifteen, but her view was obstructed from being on the ground.

The feet by her head went flying, and whoever bested him hoisted Ino up by her arms. Liquid was poured down her open throat, sending those icy chills through her again. She shuddered, holding onto the other person for support and gasping. When her head cleared a few seconds later, she saw that she was in the arms of Fye, who smiled down at her as she regained her breath. "I'm glad we made it in time," he said. "That fighter was about to run you through. Can you stand on your own?"

Ino nodded. "I think so."

Fye let her go, and Ino's legs held firm. "Then I will go do my part," he said, waving good bye and drawing his rapier. Syaoran and Kurogane were already in the midst of the enemy, keeping them away from where Ino stood. The black-haired man's eyes flashed with rage as he swung his sword around, making several of the enemy jump back, but one didn't move fast enough and was cut down. Syaoran fought with his sword and his taijutsu, mixing up the two and making his next move unpredictable. Their last companions, Sakura and the white Mokona, were nowhere to be seen, but Ino didn't have time to worry about them.

A voice from behind made her whip around and breathe a sigh of relief. Lochia-dono, Mika, and Sayo stood behind her, looking frightened but unharmed. "Are you okay, Hikari?" asked Mika. Her worry was mirrored in Sayo's face, though she was still too young to know what was happening.

"I'll make it," she reassured them. "Fye gave me something to help, and it worked already. Let's keep moving."

"But…" Mika looked back at the three fighters amidst the sea of black shinobi.

Ino moved forward and pushed Mika away from the fighting. "We can't help them like this. They're strong fighters, you know that. If anyone can survive, they can."

The liquid Kurogane's group used worked like a charm. It didn't heal the wounds Ino had already, but her head remained clear, and she felt like some of her energy returned. Her limp wasn't as bad as before, but she still couldn't grip anything with her non-dominant hand well enough to have a firm grip on it. A couple of fighters locked in combat stumbled next to them as Lochia-dono and Mika used a fallen piece of wood as a bridge to get across the road. The fighters appeared intent on each other, but Ino still moved between them and the other women. They looked well matched, but then the Konoha fighter stumbled to his knees. The Earth Country soldier raised his spear to impale Ino's countryman, but Ino moved first. With a flick of her wrist, she sent a kunai through his skull. The enemy reeled to the side and toppled over. Blinking sweat and hair out of his face, the Konoha fighter met Ino's eyes, and they nodded acknowledgement of each other once before he was up once again and back in the fray.

Ino's little group remained unmolested for a little while, but they were in the midst of a battlefield, so it was only a matter of time. Another group of black-clad shinobi spotted them, and Ino once again moved between them and the rest of her group. Her leg was now almost numb from the blow that gave her the limp and from the constant walking, and she had to keep her weight off it to avoid falling to the ground. Blinking sweat from her eyes, she readied herself to charge and was almost knocked over as her opponents rushed her first. Kunai rang on the short sword carried by her attacker, and she hobbled backward as the attacker pressed forward. Ducking down, she swung her numb leg around to knock the other fighter's legs out from under him and threw two kunai at the shinobi who tried to race past her. They dodged the kunai with ease, but it made them leap away from the three behind Ino, which was her goal. Breathing hard, Ino brought out two more kunai and held them in the ready position. "Come and get me!" she shouted with false bravado. It didn't matter that she was losing strength; as long as they stayed focused on her, the others could get away.

Accepting her challenge, the three shinobi of the bat insignia swooped down on her. She jumped over the low kick sent at her knees and blocked the short sword as it descended on her head. Ino sent out a kick of her own that sent one of them flying, but another caught her outstretched leg and swung her around, sending her careening into a brick building nearby. The wind was knocked from her lungs, and she lay gasping on the ground as the two remaining shinobi approached. With her head still swimming, she tried to bring her hands together for an Earth-style jutsu to stop their advance for even a few seconds so she could catch her breath, but a thrown kunai broke the seal sequence as she defended herself. She stared into the hoods where their eyes were hidden, and they paused as though to honor her in her last moments. Then the moment was over, and they charged, weapons at the ready.

A loud roar echoed around them before an angry force slammed the shinobi sideways. Like Ino, they were sent into a brick wall, but they didn't stop. Instead, they continued through the wall and beyond the wall past that one. Neither one rose. The force that ran into them turned to Ino and exclaimed, "There you are! I've been looking for you!"

"What do you need that you'd look for me in a battlefield, Uzumaki-san?" wheezed Ino as Naruto hauled her up. It was only at the last second that she remembered to use his last name. "I'm trying to get these people to Hokage-sama for protection."

He paused to take in Ino's appearance. "Here," he said, handing her a couple of his huge soldier pills special-made by Sakura. She gagged as she swallowed them, but even as she chased them down with water also provided by Naruto, she felt her numb leg tingling and the gash in her left arm closing. "We'll get these people to Tsunade-baachan, but then I need to you to come with me to the hospital." He helped balance her as she stood on her own. As he turned to help her return to Sayo, Mika, and Lochia-dono, he looked beyond them and froze. Ino watched as his face transformed from worried to enraged within seconds. "You!" he snarled.

"Hello again, Naruto." Atop a canopy sat Dr. Rondart Kyle, Ino's escaped target. His glasses glinted in the sunlight, and his happy expression amidst all the chaos and pained screaming made Ino feel sick. Ino wanted to rush him, as she was sure Naruto did, but the queen and Ino's roommate stood between them. Dr. Kyle seemed content to stay sitting as long as she and Naruto stayed put. "What a stroke of luck it is that I was able to find you in all of Konoha," the doctor continued even as a flaming kunai flew past his ear close enough to ruffle his hair. "I wasn't sure how I was going to locate you in all this mess."

The killing intent rolled off Naruto in waves. It was strong enough that Ino took a few steps away from the man next to her whose face was becoming redder by the minute. "It's your fault!" he roared. "How dare you show your face! It's your fault Konoha was attacked! It's your fault that Sakura is so depressed that she slit her wrists! It's all thanks to you!"

The blood drained from Ino's face. What? Sakura did? No way…she's too strong to do something as dumb as that… But Naruto's angry face didn't show any lie, and Dr. Kyle's lack of concern didn't make the blond man change expression. "Naruto…is that why you were looking for me?" she whispered. In her distressed state, she forgot to use a stranger's formality and addressed him in a way that was too familiar for Hikari to use. At this stage of the game, though, it wouldn't matter.

He didn't look at her. "I caught her before she lost too much blood," he answered. "Shizune bandaged her, but she didn't wake up. I was hoping you'd be able to help, but then this happened." He growled. "Once this is all over, please come with me to see her."

Dr. Kyle chuckled at their exchange. "I'm afraid once this is over, there will be no need for you to see Sakura." Faster than Ino could see, the doctor jumped from the canopy and darted forward. When he retreated, Sayo was in his arms and Mika was on the ground, screaming. The child gripped her bunny with all her might and shrieked in terror. Her scream tore through Ino's soul and chased away all rational thought. She stumbled a few steps forward, but she froze when the doctor pulled out a surgical knife and held it close to Sayo's neck. "I wouldn't make any rash moves if I were you," the doctor stated. That out-of-place smile was still pasted on his face. "Now as I recall, you don't like it when others are hurt because of you," Dr. Kyle addressed Naruto. "If you come without a fuss, I won't hurt the child."

Naruto snarled, and in response, the doctor pressed the sharp knife into Sayo's neck enough that he drew blood. Sayo's scream took on new overtones, and it almost brought Ino to her knees. "Sayo," she whimpered, reaching out to the child. Her baby was in trouble, and she couldn't save her! By the time she reached the doctor, he'd have enough time to cut Sayo's neck, throw her body into Ino's arms, and still get away.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Naruto glance at her before hardening his expression and facing Dr. Kyle again. "You'll let her go?" he asked.

Dr. Kyle nodded and, to show his good faith, removed the knife from Sayo's neck. "But of course," he called. "You're the only one I'm interested in."

None of this makes sense, thought Ino as Naruto took a step forward. He was after Lochia-dono originally, and now he's after Naruto? "Wait, Naruto," she commanded, though it came out more as a tremulous request. When he stopped in surprise, Ino addressed Dr. Kyle, ignoring the painful spikes driving themselves into her heart. "What are you after? First you wanted the queen of Water Country, now you want Naruto. What is your goal?"

"My goal has always been Naruto," the doctor replied. He looked surprised that she didn't get such an obvious answer. "Everything I've done is to get to him. He has something that I need."

The Kyuubi. Ino knew the same thought occurred to Naruto because he jerked away from him. Now Ino was torn with indecision. To allow Naruto to go to Dr. Kyle was unforgivable as a shinobi of Konoha, but if he didn't, then Sayo was going to die, and Ino and Mika would go insane from it. Even more so than asking Mika to give up Toya-dono, this was something Ino couldn't do. She couldn't choose between Konoha and the child she and Mika raised. Her insides tore her apart as Ino's two priorities went to war with each other, leaving her feeling sick and unable to reach a conclusion.

For better or worse, Naruto took the decision out of her hands. Striding forward, he passed Lochia-dono and Mika, who still lay sprawled across the uneven ground still littered with sharp objects, and stopped a few feet away from Dr. Kyle. "Here I am," he growled. "Let the girl go."

"In just a moment." The doctor pulled a spiral object out of his side pouch. Within seconds, Dr. Kyle flung Sayo away, though her rabbit got caught on his belt and was torn from her grip, and summoned more of those black shinobi to pin Naruto against the ground. "Now let's get that feather out of you." He pressed the spiral into Naruto's stomach and seemed annoyed when nothing happened. "Come on, get out," he muttered, pressing it harder into the man's abdomen, making Naruto grunt at the painful pressure. Still nothing. Frustrated, the glasses-wearing villain whacked Naruto with the spiral. "Why isn't this working?" he snarled. He was no longer smiling. "Don't tell me it's defective." With a harsh sigh, he continued to beat Naruto with the fragile-looking spiral. It may have looked fragile, but that spiral left deep cuts in Naruto's body, and blood pooled beneath his struggling body.

Ino didn't witness any of this exchange. As soon as Sayo went flying, she sprang into action. Darting past Lochia-dono and Mika, she intercepted Sayo midair, and Ino skidded to a halt on the ground. She felt the air move around her, but Ino didn't feel any of the pain she should have felt from the ground cutting up her body. Are Sakura's soldier pills really that effective? she wondered. If so, then when this was all over, she was going to start buying exclusively from Sakura and just find a way to get around the bad taste.

But no, it wasn't the soldier pills. Beneath her, a rough voice asked, "Are you okay, Ino?"

Glancing down, she saw familiar brown hair and a worried face. "Chouji!" she cried, scrambling off the big man. "You shielded me?"

He heaved himself off the ground and brushed off some dirt. "I'm glad we made it in time." Behind him landed six Genin and one Jounin without his needed crutch. "I don't know how he does it, but Shikamaru knew where you'd be once the earthquakes stopped."

Before Ino could say anything in response, Sayo shuddered against her and let out another ear-piercing wail. "It's okay, Sayo," Ino comforted her, cuddling her to her chest and rocking her. "I've got you."

"I want Mommy," blubbered Sayo into Ino's shoulder. The words garbled together, but Ino knew enough Sayo-talk that she could guess at the meaning.

"Mika," Ino murmured, scanning the ground until she saw Shikamaru helping the blond woman stand. His Genin stood with weapons ready between them and the doctor, who was still beating Naruto to bits. Somehow Sayo's rabbit got caught on one of the spirals, and it sailed through the air with every stroke. Sometimes it looked like it shielded Naruto from the doctor's blows, but it must not have given much protection because blood still ran down Naruto's body in small rivers. It worried Ino that he hadn't broken free yet. Come to think of it, his infamously fast healing rate hadn't kicked in either. "Chouji, help Naruto," ordered Ino as she moved towards Shikamaru and Mika. Once she gave Sayo back, she would be free to come to his aid, too.

Chouji nodded and ran at the doctor, his three Genin shadowing him. They weren't going to be a match for the bat insignia shinobi, but she didn't call them back, and Chouji didn't tell them to stay behind. She hoped they'd last long enough for her to get there. Shikamaru was doing what he could to help from a distance now that Mika was off the ground. His shadow whipped around, trying to find an enemy shadow to ensnare, but he couldn't differentiate friend from foe at this distance since Chouji and his Genin engaged the enemy, thus entangling their shadows together. Two of the black shinobi left Naruto to intercept Chouji and his three Genin, leaving two to keep Naruto on the ground. Chouji bowled one over while his students took on the remaining one. As Ino predicted, the enemy fighter toyed with the Genin, blocking their attacks and only swiping at them with a short sword to drive them back. They didn't have enough training or experience under their belts to give him even a little trouble. Shikamaru tried to help, but the Genin were all over the place, their shadows entwining with the enemy's, leaving him with no clear marker.

I need to get out there, thought Ino as she stumbled over to Mika and Shikamaru. "Mika, take her," she said, passing Sayo over. The child's arms wrapped around her mother's neck, and she sobbed her unhappiness.

As she readied herself to run over the rough terrain to aid Chouji's team, Shikamaru grabbed her arm. "Watch yourself," he warned, holding her still with his dark gaze. "I can't help you like this."

"I know. I can handle this many." Maybe this wasn't the place for arrogance, but if she couldn't take down one or two enemy shinobi, even if they were Jounin level, then what were the past few years of training for? She deserved whatever punishment the enemy rained down on her if she couldn't do this. Removing Shikamaru's hand from her arm, she withdrew two kunai and ran at the Jounin fighting Chouji's Genin.

The children were breathing hard from exertion and nerves while the black shinobi seemed to be as fresh as when the encounter started. He hadn't made any life-threatening injuries to them, only cuts here and there, but it was taking its toll on the Genin. The enemy was going for another slice at the boy with glasses, but Ino slid between the two of them, catching his sword on her kunai, and knocked his feet out from under him with her legs. As he fell, she pounced, knocking his sword away and cutting his throat open in the same move. He died without a sound.

Turning around to face the doctor and Naruto, Ino saw that Chouji had chased the remaining shinobi away from Naruto, so all that remained was Dr. Kyle. Naruto should have gotten away already once the shinobi pinning him down disappeared, but Ino saw with a sinking heart that the man was unconscious. It didn't stop the doctor from beating him with the now blood-slicked spiral. Ino sprinted at the standing man and tackled him, removing him from Naruto. From the angle she tackled him, he should've been the one skidding on the ground, but the man was more agile than she gave him credit for. Using his blood-spattered glasses to shine sunlight into her eyes, he blinded her and used her momentary distraction to change positions with her so that Ino's back scraped the ground. When they stopped moving, Dr. Kyle sprang away from her. The outstretched spiral extended Sayo's rabbit at Ino, and Ino saw that once this was all over, Sayo would never get her rabbit back. The pattern on its belly was still intact, but everywhere else was ripped and blood-stained. The stuffing was coming out, an eye was missing, and one of its forepaws was only hanging on by a thread. Seeing Sayo's constant companion reduced to such a state made Ino see red. It didn't matter that it was an inanimate object; it was just as much a part of the family as Sayo was. With a roar, Ino threw herself at her waiting opponent.

The rush of adrenaline gave her the speed boost she needed to avoid the spiral and the swinging rabbit. The man was no shinobi, but he was faster than Ino expected, both with his attacks and his defensive maneuvers. He only used that spiral as a weapon, but he gave Ino no openings for a fatal blow. She lunged forward, aiming for his dominant arm, but his spiral was there to block her, keeping her kunai lodged between the rungs. The rabbit swung past her face, its one-eyed gaze staring accusingly at her like she was to blame for the state it was in. Ducking under the toy, she blocked a kick with her raised leg and followed up with a side kick of her own that connected. The doctor caught himself midair and cart wheeled to a stop.

The two held a staring match while the fighting continued around them. "You are one persistent little roach, aren't you?" Dr. Kyle sneered.

"Coming from you, I'll take that as a compliment," panted Ino. The constant movement with no rest had her lungs protesting, so she took advantage of the lull while she could. Her anger still burned as hot as ever, though. "How could you do all this to Sakura? You lived with her for over four years! Didn't that mean anything to you?"

The smirk he gave her made her want to snap him in half even more than before. "How could living with a puppet mean anything? I needed an excuse to get into Konoha, and she happened to be my ticket in. She's been under a light hypnosis this whole time." He shook his head. "She'll remember being with me, but not why she chose to. Not exactly a solid foundation for a lasting relationship, is it?"

If anyone deserved to live like that for so long, it wasn't Sakura. Dr. Kyle seemed to sense that he pushed Ino's buttons and rushed her just as she sprang forward. Their weapons locked once again, and Ino ducked under the sailing bunny only to receive a punch right in the face. She flew backwards and rolled to a stop. When she got her bearings again, she looked just in time to see the spiral and the toy bunny flying at her. Time slowed as she watched their approach and knew she couldn't avoid it. The rabbit's remaining eye seemed to glow red, and the feather outline on its stomach lit up like there was a fire inside. The spiral and the rabbit collided with her body, and Ino's whole world became fiery pain.

Everything from the tips of her hair to the soles of her feet felt like hot coals burned into them. She writhed on the ground, shrieking in agony. The only reason she didn't fall unconscious from the pain was after the initial shock, she felt as though she were in an out-of-body experience. At the moment, she felt her body moving against the ground, heard her own voice growing hoarse because of the prolonged screams, and knew that any minute, she would feel it fully and not through the watery haze that stood between her conscious mind and the pain. When that protective haze disappeared, the kunoichi almost passed out from the pain. Every chakra coil burned, sending white-hot lances of pain through the constant burn.

Two sets of feet landed just in front of her. With their backs to her, Shikamaru and Chouji crouched at the ready, weapons drawn, between her and the approaching doctor. Even as her body convulsed from whatever the spiral did to her, she forced her eyes on the enemy and was surprised to see his surprise. He stopped a good distance away from her and her teammates, but he didn't need to come any closer since his objective was right by his feet. Kneeling, he picked up the spiral with attached rabbit and examined it with a smile. "Well, who would have thought?" he wondered aloud as he turned the spiral so Ino could see. "I thought for sure that Naruto was the one with the feather lending him all that power. Instead it was inside the roach who never stood out at all."

The tip of the spiral impaled what looked like the feather design on Sayo's rabbit's stomach, but this feather wasn't made of stitches. The soft, white edges glowed with a pink aura that matched color of the flowing heart design in its center. Though she was far from Dr. Kyle and the feather, Ino could feel the power pulsing from it. That thing was inside me? The doctor's words seemed to imply that was the case, but for the life of her, Ino couldn't remember swallowing a feather or having one stuffed inside her. If Dr. Kyle was after Naruto because he thought his power came from the feather, then that must mean the feather gave its container power, which meant she had to have acquired it at some point after she left Konoha because she left in order to obtain power that she didn't have back then.

In front of her, Chouji growled, sounding very much like one of the Inuzuka's dogs. "Give that back to her," he demanded as he moved his kunai to a more offensive position. His aggressive display projected his intention to attack should the doctor not comply.

"It wasn't hers to begin with," Dr. Kyle replied, taking his gaze off the glowing feather. "The power of this feather doesn't belong in this world." He reached forward to pluck the feather off the spiral.

Chouji shot forward, Shikamaru a split second behind him thanks to his leg slowing him down. Ino cried out and tried to follow them, but her body convulsed, robbing her of mastery of her own muscles. She tried to at least watch them, but even her vision wavered. Despite her handicaps, she saw them engage the doctor before he could remove the feather from the spiral. The two shinobi circled the doctor, studying him just like he studied the two of them. Chouji feinted to the left as Shikamaru performed a leg sweep from below, but the doctor evaded them both, leaving Chouji to scramble away to avoid being hit by his partner. The shadow user threw a shuriken at Dr. Kyle, but the man deflected it with the spiral and changed its course so Shikamaru was the one who had to dodge his returned weapon. As they moved from testing to true combat, Ino had to blink a few times to make sure her eyes weren't playing tricks on her. He's playing with them. The doctor she fought head-to-head with was toying with her two teammates. Dr. Kyle watched the two of them with a lazy smile and moved around the rough terrain with a languid grace while the Akimichi and Nara wore fierce expressions as they fought to get the feather. The doctor knew that and while he didn't have the time to grab it from the spiral, he didn't allow them any chance to grab it, either.

Breathing hard, Shikamaru shook loose hair from his face and made another attempt at the feather while Chouji had the spiral occupied with blocking his kunai. The doctor should've been no match for Chouji in a weapon lock like this; the thin man didn't have the capacity to pack as much power as an Akimichi. However, not only did he not budge in the face of Chouji's strength, he was able to keep his balance on one leg while the other shot out and nailed Shikamaru in the stomach. The Jounin went flying backwards and rolled to a stop. "Shikamaru," whispered Ino as she tried to get her arms under her so she could crawl to his side. Her little whisper was drowned out by the dismayed cries of his Genin, who she prayed were guarding Lochia-dono, Mika, and Sayo. If she'd been able, she would've screamed his name like they did, but it appeared that her voice had disappeared with all her earlier abuse. With much difficulty, she wormed her way over to her downed teammate.

To her relief, Shikamaru was already struggling to rise by the time she made it over. His uniform was stained with dirt and blood, and he glared murder at Dr. Kyle as his shaky limbs threatened to topple him back onto the ground. "Shikamaru," wheezed Ino as she stopped next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. Her heart ached to see him like this.

His sharp eyes took in her irregular breathing, the muscle spasms that still rippled over her body, her bloodied back thanks to her tussle with Dr. Kyle. If she'd thought he was angry before, the killing intent that he projected when he faced the doctor again put his previous aura to shame. "Stay here," he commanded, then he was off again to close with the doctor and Chouji.

Ino couldn't believe what happened in the next few minutes. After Shikamaru rejoined the fight, it followed the same pattern as before, the doctor holding the other two at bay and making them dodge their partner's attacks. Shikamaru and Chouji were breathing heavily by this time, and the doctor had beads of sweat rolling down his face. The dirty glasses hung askew on his face, and Ino was surprised he could see anything through them with everything that was caked onto the glass. Chouji closed in with his kunai and locked Dr. Kyle's spiral so neither one of them could move their weapons. The doctor just smirked and reached up. Since Chouji was putting all his strength into keeping the spiral still, he didn't have any room to stop him. With a sinking heart, Ino saw Dr. Kyle pluck the feather off the end of the spiral.

Several things happened at once. Now that the doctor didn't have to be vigilant about Chouji or Shikamaru getting the feather, he stopped his careful dance with them. Sidestepping to the right, he let Chouji's weight carry him forward and past the doctor. When he stumbled to catch himself, Dr. Kyle whipped the spiral around and, before Ino could attempt any sort of warning, stabbed Chouji through a chink in his armor, driving the weapon all the way through his body. At the same time, Shikamaru sprinted forward from behind the doctor and, while the doctor's attention was on Chouji, snatched the feather from his grip. He would have continued on and reached Ino, but because of all the stress he'd put on his body, his bad leg collapsed under him, and he fell in a heap not two feet from his opponent and fallen teammate.

Dr. Kyle was not pleased with the theft of the feather. Yanking out the spiral from Chouji's convulsing body and, to Ino's horror, pulling out bits of his insides along with it, he took the two steps that put him beside Shikamaru. The doctor rolled him onto his back with his foot and looked into Shikamaru's grimacing face. This was normally where the villain in a story would make some long monologue about how pitiful the hero was and how all his efforts were wasted and more drivel along those lines. And then, in the stories, a miracle happens, and the hero overcomes all odds, defeats the villain, and saves the day. In stories, everyone, aside from the villain, gets a happily-ever-after. Unfortunately, this was not a story. It was reality, and reality is much crueler than bedtime stories. Villains don't make long-winded speeches and give the hero enough time to make a comeback. Heroes don't always make the miraculous save and live happily-ever-after with the heroine. This villain looked down at Shikamaru on the ground and, without a word or change in expression, cut him open from hip to shoulder.