A/N: My heart and prayers go out to all those suffering in Texas!
I'm not dead!
Finally updating again after my accident and it feels so good~!
Also, writing with one hand sucks, but with luck I'll regain full functionality there. I'm also walking again, so there's that. I got very, very, VERY lucky in that regard. Heaven knows I'd go mad if I were confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life, but I'm not and it feels wonderful! I'm back! We're nearing the climax here, with only a handful of chapters remaining.
Also, let's clarify: Kaguya is very much real and not a figment of Naruto's broken mind. Bear in mind that this is a PIECE of her. Hence the distinct lack of a crazy goddess. She-it?-had to recover and claw her way back from the brink of death. YES she's harnessed power from siphoning off the tailed beasts, which is the only reason she even has sentience in this story to begin with. Kudos to those who noticed! =D
But unfortunately the events in Iwa are about to come back and bite our heroes...
One does not simply annihilate a village without consequences after all...
For those who are wondering, Game of Thrones gave me a LOT of inspiration for the next chapter =D
"I have to stop."
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
"Of course you don't! Don't you get it?! For the sake of argument, let's say I do as you say. Throw myself into mission after mission, with nothing save the next one. Then what? I take on more and more dangerous tasks, all in the hope that I'm following the right path. I take out leader after leader, annihilating whomever dares stand against me. Eventually I get promoted and command others to do the same. Why? What gives me the right to make decisions like that? Nothing. No, if I-we-start to believe we know what's best for everyone, if I allow myself to think that this path is the only path, then I'll become him."
~Naruto and ~?!
I'm losing myself.
Having gone through the last few entries in this old journal of mind, I've come to that conclusion. I gaze upon these tattered pages and I feel nothing for them. No regret. No remorse. Only cold cynicism. Where did the hope go? When did I stop caring for anything more than the outcome? Where did I become cold? When did I turn cruel? Where did I state to value Konoha's existence over that of the other villages-of the world itself? I don't know. I can't even see where it started. Did it begin when the Shinigami pulled me from the afterlife? Or was it slower than that. More insidious? Subtle. I fear the latter and that terrifies me. My memories are my only recourse in this but even they've begun to get fuzzy as of late.
Kaguya-and isn't that another can of worms!-assures me I have nothing to fear. She swears she won't let me lose myself but even so, the fear is still there. My hair has gone white. The color of ash. Even my eyebrows match it now. I don't understand what caused it. The shock? Trauma? Or something more sinister. Am I still myself?
Am I Madara?
Am I Kaguya?
Am I Naruto?
Some strange hybrid of the three?
Gods above, am I even me anymore?
I...don't think I have many entries left in me.
...what am I becoming?
"Open the gates!"
At the sentry's shout, the great green doors of Konoha opened. With a ponderous groan the steel-shod barriers parted in either directions as the crank turned, revealing the village beyond. For Naruto, it felt like an eternity until he could finally glimpse his old home. Faint shards of reluctant morning sunlight peeked through the growing gaps, drawing a muffled yawn from the slumbering babe nestled his arms. Mercifully, little Kurotsuchi-he'd begun to suspect it was her-didn't raise a fuss, nor did the guards deny him entry because of her presence. A few glanced at the child as he passed, but none proved foolish enough to challenge him for her.
Regardless of their thoughts, the time-traveling terror was quietly chuffed by the distinct absence of a crowd. The last time he'd come home, it had been to a teeming mass of civilians. This time around, only a handful of shinobi had gathered to greet his return and of their number many appeared reluctant to approach. Almost as if they were afraid of him. It made a twisted sort of sense, really. He could have outrun the news perhaps, if he had been so inclined, but he hadn't. Hadn't been in his right mind, either. Instead he'd taken a long and meandering path back to the village at top speed, arriving long afterward.
Iwa was gone and he'd been the one to do the deed, damning them all.
It remained to be seen what exactly the world knew of his fall.
'Well, damn. I wonder what they think of me?'
"Many things, none of them good."
Naruto didn't need Kaguya's words.
He could sense it.
Like a shroud of palpable unease, so too did he find himself able to see the concern in the villagers, taste their anxiety roiling in the air. Fear. They were afraid of him, and and the realization rocked his world to the core. This went well beyond anything he could gauge even with his eyes active, or his cloak. Not quite mind-reading, he could just...feel them. It wasn't something he could explain, let alone lend words to. Something had changed in him during his last rampage. Everything was raw and he couldn't find a way to shut it off. Part of him wasn't sure he wanted to. That raised all manner of red flags. Yet another thing to worry about. Damn but it never ended, did it? If he wasn't fighting armies or deposing tyrants he was fighting himself for control of his own body!
Even now he could feel the horns beneath his skin, those red spires lurking just beneath the surface...
"STOP!" Kaguya snapped at him, her harsh words cutting through the fog of his panic, bringing with them a blessed sense of numbness. "Breathe!"
Startled, Naruto exhaled a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. His the world spun back into focus and he found himself detached from it all; separated from the see of heightened emotions he'd been privy to mere moments before. It was not something he ever wished to experience again. Everything was fraying, breaking, and he had to reign it in despite the pain. The alternative was unacceptable. Steeling himself, the whiskered warrior shook his head mightily and straightened up.
"There." he felt a ghostly hand grace his shoulder. "Anxiety's only going to make it worse, you know. Remember what I told you. Calm yourself."
"Kill me now."
The lightest tap between his shoulders spurred him forward to meet his fate.
Spirits, this was going to cause problems for him. You couldn't inspire the masses when they were afraid to speak your name. There would be questions of course and he'd have to answer them whether he wanted to or not. He could already feel the beginnings of a migraine coming on. Though he wanted nothing more than to go home and fall into bed, it it seemed that was no longer an option. A flicker of motion in the corner of his vision informed him that one of the nearby Anbu had finally mustered up the nerve to approach. Several, in fact.
Well, this boded poorly...
"Uchiha Naruto." their bull-masked leader intoned solemnly, stopping just out of arm's reach. "The Hokage wishes to speak with you."
"Where's my family?" much like the man's namesake, the ninja bulled past him, his sandals kicking up dust. "I need to see them."
He barely made it three steps before he found himself facing a wall of Anbu.
"With all due respect sir," their leader replied, "I can't allow that."
Naruto stopped cold.
'I should kill you. All of you.'
Wait, where had that thought come from?
It took a physical effort on his part to maintain his smile in the face of the captain's ire. More so for him to will his muscles to relax.
"Look, I know the old man wants to see me, but as you can see, I'm a bit busy."
A hand clamped down on his wrist like an iron vice, denying him passage.
"He was most insistent, sir. You can leave the infant with us."
Even as the man spoke, he attempted to reach for her.
"No, no, no, I really wouldn't-
Little Kurotsuchi chose that moment to discharge the contents of her breakfast onto the man's mask in spectacular fashion. Baby formula wasn't easy to come by when you were out in the wilds. Thankfully, he'd had the next best thing. To be fair, he wasn't sure how he felt about feeding her from the teat of a woman who claimed to be a living goddess, but in this moment he knew exactly how the captain felt. Nothing like a bit of spitup to ruin your day. Better yet, the babe was actually smiling! Somehow, the sight of it lightened his spirits.
This time, his smile wasn't forced at all.
"On second thought? Let's go."
"Have you taken leave of your senses?!"
Sarutobi's anger was to be expected; taken for granted, even. Naruto didn't flinch as his clenched fist crashed down on the desk, nor did the mewling babe in his arms. He'd known the old man's wrath was coming. From the moment he'd ripped Onoki's soul from his body and ground Iwa to dust he had expected it. By the time he'd been escorted to the man's office he was more than prepared. Ah, and there it was now, as the old geezer leaned back in his chair. The exhausted sigh. That look of silent disappointment bordering on scorn. He'd been on the receiving end of that look far too many times to count in the past. It almost felt like another life now.
It did nothing to quench his anger.
He didn't need the Third to tell him how badly he'd screwed the pooch on this one; the guilt was something a part of him already. He knew. He'd agonized over it during the days it took him to trek back. Every minute of every day had been spent wondering how he could have done things differently and while he hadn't quite come to terms with what he done, he knew tearing himself apart benefited no one but the enemy. Right now, he needed to explain himself lest he risk being thrown into a cell. Or worse.
In the end he swallowed his spite, straightened up, and said the only thing he could think to say.
"Not so loud."
"I said, don't be so loud. You're going to make Kurotsuchi cry."
Sarutobi's gaze flicked to the babe in his arms and his gaze softened. You had to know him to see it, and Naruto knew him very well. He could see it in the way his eyes creased, the slightest hint of hesitation as he laid his gaze on those tiny dark orbs. He'd always had a soft spot for children. Kurotsuchi was no exception. Rising from his desk, the weary kage approached. If she was at all afraid of him Kurotsuchi did little to show it; after all, she was far too focused on tugging at Naruto's vest. After a moment's thought, Hiruzen patted her head and returned his gaze to the ninja in question.
"I was wondering why you'd brought her here." he rumbled. "A survivor?"
...the last." Naruto relented reluctantly. "I aim to take care of her."
"I see. Have one of your clones take her outside, for now."
It took him a handful of seconds to realize it wasn't a request.
As the door eased shut behind his doppleganger, Hiruzen returned to his desk and fixed Naruto with a state of pure steel.
"Tell me what happened."
Ah, and now they came down to it.
"I was captured and forced to fight my way out." Not a lie. He had surrendered and been captured because of it. "I didn't have much room to improvise." No one lived to contradict him and he wasn't about to submit to a Yamanka probe-though they both knew such an attempt would prove fruitless. It still didn't justify what he'd done. They both knew that. This went well beyond a simple reprimand. One way or another he was going to be punished for this, no matter what he said. But that didn't mean he had to go down quietly.
"Your mission was to assassinate the Tscuhikage." Hiruzen repeated flatly, his voice sparking like flint. "Not summon a dragon to devour the souls of innocent women and children! Surely you could have escaped without slaughtering them all?"
'How did he know that?!'
The dawn broke and suspicion came rushing in.
'Was it that crystal ball of his? Damn, I can't remember its range...
"My summons...may have been too enthusiastic." Naruto countered, grimacing at the mention of Alduin. "If I could go back and do it over, I'd spare them."
"That may well be," Hiruzen steepled his fingers stenly, "But you cannot take back what you've done."
Something black inside of Naruto bristled at the subtle insinuation lurking behind those words.
"Hey," he growled, "you were the one that sent me into that hot zone! We didn't even try-
"Need I remind you that you accepted this mission, Naruto?" The Sandaime interjected sternly, silencing him. "You were the one who choose this. The consequences fall upon you. You can't possibly wipe a village off the map and expect to escape the consequences. We can't afford to set an example like this-let alone that kind of a precedent. Its too dangerous. The other nations are already unilaterally condemning your actions-even our allies can't stomach what you've done."
Within his subconscious, Kaguya sucked in an angry breath.
"So that's how it is."
"I'm sorry Naruto, I truly am, but I'm afraid you've left me no choice." As if sensing the unspoken question, the aging kage barreled onwards. "For your crimes against humanity, I hereby strip you of all rank and privilege within the village and place you under arrest...effective immediately." Into the stunned silence, he charged ahead. "Your squad will be reassigned to another jonin after they return from their present mission to the border. Due to your exemplary service prior to this, you will be given a trial...
Naruto didn't hear the rest
The rest of the words faded away into an endless animal bleat, eclipsed only by the pounding of his pulse. Darkness pressed around the corners of his vision and all the color faded from the world, replaced by muted gray. Words escaped him and his mind rejected it so wholly he refused to accept the reality of this betrayal. A dream. This had to be a bad dream. Instead of arguing his side of the story, he'd be thrown in irons. His triumphant return replaced by a cold cell. And while he languished there, Madara would roam free, using his pawns. The world would go on, and everything would end once again. A spark of angered ignited deep in his chest, fanning the flames of rebellion. After all he'd done, this was how they repaid him? His hands trembled.
"That's...I don't even...
What justice was this...?!
His next words were a whisper.
"Is that why the Anbu are waiting outside?"
Pity. He hated the pity in those eyes, turned away from it.
"People are afraid. What you did...Naruto, it was monstrous. They need time to adjust."
"While I rot in a cell?" he challenged.
"You'll only remain there until the council reaches a verdict." Sarutobi argued. "If they find you innocent-
"You're...you're kidding me, right?" Naruto physically recoiled from the statement, genuinely surprised by how much the old man had hurt him with what he doubtlessly believed to be a righteous action. "So that's how it is? I carried out my duties without question! I fought to keep the village safe! I shed blood and tears on the battlefield with my fellow shinobi! I mourned them when they died! Then I make one mistake, one error, a few villagers piss and moan about it, and suddenly I'm a fucking scapegoat? And you expect me to accept this?!"
Perhaps Hiruzen recognized his poor choice of words then; perhaps not.
Regardless, he found himself unable to predict what came next.
Hiruzen blinked in disbelief. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me!" Naruto snarled, rounding on the man he'd once seen as a grandfather with a vicious hiss. "Spare me the lies and inequities! I'm a fucking scapegoat! That's what I am to the world, isn't it?! The Black Death! Reaper of the innocent! Is that what they're calling me now? An oath breaker? Because I broke one of their so-called vows? So many vows," hissing in anger he swung his fist against the wall, cratering it with a single swing. "They make you swear and swear. Defend your Kage. Obey your lord. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your clan. Love your family. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws." Palming his face, the warrior shook his head, a grim scowl etching itself across his face. "It's too much. No matter what you do, you're forsaking one vow or the other. Fuck that! You said it yourself, didn't ya? I'm a monster! Perhaps the people should speak more softly to me then, because these days the enemies of this MONSTER are dropping like flies!"
Panting fro his explosive rant, he turned burning eyes on his old friend.
"Choose your next words carefully, Naruto." Sarutobi warned, his voice echoing into the silence. "I may be a man of peace, but I will not tolerate disrespect."
"Neither will I!" the Uchiha snapped back, baring his teeth in a snarl. "I won't allow you to toss me in a cell with," he swallowed, nearly mentioning Madara before stopping himself, "A bloody war on! I'm needed here!" He could have thrown more than a dozen arguments at the old man, but realized only one stood any chance of changing his mind.
The answer was obvious.
"I have to stop."
Sarutobi glanced at him askance.
"I'm afraid I don't understand what you're saying."
"Of course you don't!" once more Naruto's temper slipped its leash to which he brought a clenched fist crashing down on the table. "Don't you get it?! For the sake of argument, let's say I do as you ask. Throw myself into a cell and wait for judgement. Then what? The war keeps going, more innocents die, and for what? Because your best weapon's rotting in a cell just to satisfy your enemies-yes, enemies, old man! Because they're the only ones who benefit from this! So go ahead. Alienate me, let it all go to hell. If I'm guilty, I'll stay in prison for the rest of my days. But let's say I'm deemed innocent instead. All good, right?"
He paused for effect, letting the weight of his proposal sink in.
"See, I have a very, very, very good memory." the Uchiha continued quietly, leaning forward over the desk to make his point known. "Downright scary, really. By the time I finally get out of that cell, be it weeks, months, years or even decades later, it'll still be there. The memory of how I was thrown away as a political puppet to satisfy the whims of our enemies. What do I fight for then? I'd cease to care about those around me, take on more and more dangerous tasks, all in the hope that I'm following the right path. I take out leader after leader, annihilating whomever dares stand against me, the village, us. Eventually I get promoted and command others to do the same. Round and around it goes. Why? What gives me the right to make decisions like that? Nothing. No, if I-we-start to believe we know what's best for everyone, if I allow myself to think that this path is the only path, then I'll become him."
"My ancestor." he leaned back and away, all the while lying through his teeth. "I refuse to become him. I'll become a weapon, a tool, a knife in the dark if I have to, but I'll never become that. Neither will I be a dupe. I've been down that road once before. Never again. I'm not some sacrifice for you to tend your precious will of fire. As a matter of fact? I'm out!" His peace said, the former blond spun on his heel, turned his back and marched away.
"Where are you going?" Sarutobi's voice called at his back. "I haven't given you permission to leave."
Naruto paused and exhaled a mighty sigh. He turned to face the Third, even as his palm wrapped around the door with enough force to buckle the handle. Spirits he felt old. He'd never thought he'd see the day when he threatened the old man. Never in all his years. It made him feel hollow inside; as if he'd just betrayed someone most dear. He regretted killing those people. More than anything else. If it had been within his power to see them brought back, he would. But they hadn't just been killed; their souls were devoured. Destroyed. There was nothing to return.
Scorn reared its ugly head and he shook it off.
"Where am I going?" he retorted with a dry look at the man he'd once respected above all else, "I'm going home. I'm going to find my partner and fuck her into oblivion. I'm going to hold my son. Then I'm going to talk to my clan, take a long nap, and pretend this conversation never happened. Maybe you should, too. Let the dead rest. Better for both of us that way."
To his credit, the old man didn't show so much as a flicker of killer intent. He didn't have to.
"Naruto," he began slowly, rising from his desk, "Are you threatening me?"
"No. Its not a threat."
"Then what is it?"
For a moment, he thought Hiruzen might actually call for the guards or worse, attempt to restrain him outright. His words bordered on treason and he'd just defied a direct order from his superior. The Third would be well within his rights to do so. Could he fight the old man? Naruto wasn't certain; for he had no desire to do so. But he wasn't willing to let himself be raked over hot coals, either.
"It seems we're at an impasse, then."
"You can try to detain me if you like." the exhausted Uchiha relented, a lone Sharingan peering over his smoldering shoulder. "But I promise you I won't go quietly and you'll pay for it. Dearly. With blood. Buckets of it. But hey," he rolled his shoulders in a shrug, "Who knows? You could succeed. Orochimaru and Tsunade are still in the village. Ya might stand a chance with them at your back. Then again, you might not. Regardless, I don't want to fight you. My loyalty is to the village. Always has been, always will be. I'll gladly place myself under house arrest until you get the villagers in order, but nothing more. My guilt's more punishment than you could ever know. The man I knew would understand that."
This time, no one challenged him when he departed.
Retrieving Kurotsuchi from his shadow clone, Naruto found none of the Anbu barred his presence this time around. A few followed him with their faceless masks when he stormed towards the exit, but whatever doubts or contemptuous thoughts they held for him remained hidden behind the porcelain facades. Good. He'd had enough scorn for one day. Any more of this and he might lose his temper and clobber someone. Who knew where that would lead? No, he chastised himself, he needed to hide get out of the public eye for now. Sarutobi was right in that aspect at least.
'Right, then. No more drama. Just get home.'
Upon reaching the door leading to the street, the whitehead flung it open with his free arm. In that moment, his sole thought was to spirit himself away and wait for the storm to blow over. It never once occurred to him to feel sorry for what he'd said or done-he'd spoken true from his heart and consequences be damned. For all his problems and obstacles that much hadn't changed. His resolve, though briefly shaken by what he'd faced here today, remained firm. He would save the world from Madara's machinations. One way or another. Even if he had to drag it kicking and screaming.
"Hmm, you get points for determination, if nothing else." Kaguya purred.
"Oh, stuff it.
To his surprise, he wasn't alone.
Scarce had he stepped out of the Hokage building than he found the way shut to him; for a sizable crowd had gathered outside the tower to greet his return. Well. This boded poorly. Naruto nearly bristled on sheer instinct before he realized he recognized some of them. He might not know each of them by name, but it was impossible to miss the distinct features of the Uchiha clan. Much to his confusion, a smattering of Hyuuga stood among them as well. Hoshi and Mikoto's doing, no doubt.
Speaking of which, where were-ah.
Mikoto emerged from the throng of shinobi first, little Itachi cradled in her arms. Judging by the bedraggled state of her hair and her rumpled blue dress, she must've woken only minutes before. Hoshi appeared to be in slightly less dire straights where appearance was concerned, or perhaps she'd recently returned from a mission. Regardless, it was unusual indeed to see her clad in her shinobi fatigues. Not a bad look for her. If she was at all perturbed by the sight of the infant in his arms, she did little to show it, thankfully.
"You look terrible." Mikoto sighed, crossing the distance between them in a few quick strides, her dark eyes scrutinizing. "What happened to your hair?"
"Gee, thanks-ever-so-much." despite himself, Naruto couldn't find it in him to scowl. Less so when he saw Itachi. Spirits, he was growing fast! Just the sight of his son-now wasn't that a thought-wiped the tension from his mind like a cleansing tide. Carefully, he reached down to pat the babe's tiny head.
"Hey there, kiddo...
The little boy squealed happily.
"Eh?! Did he just say dad?!"
Mikoto actually laughed at that.
"He's a quick learner. I heard what happened and gathered everyone as soon as we could." his bride-to-be soothed, caressing his cheek. "For what its worth, the Uchiha clan is with you."
Naruto nearly choked on his own spit.
"Hey, now! I'm not trying to start a rebellion or anything. All of you, just go home, will ya!" No, absolutely not. That was one flag he intended to avoid at all costs. "Everything worked out in the end. I'm just...on leave for a-
Kurotsuchi chose that moment to coo softly.
Mikoto's gaze shifted instantly.
"You're holding a baby. Care to explain?"
"Now wait a sec! I can explain! She's not mine. Well, she is, but I didn't...
"Oh, please do." Mikoto was trying very hard to be patient. She was also failing spectacularly.
"Perhaps you should start from the beginning?" Hoshi offered.
Just like that, the migraine reasserted itself with a groan.
"Bit of a long story, that...
(...Near The Border of The Land of Fire...)
Kushina was going to die.
She felt it in every breath, feared it in every step. Her lungs were on fire, begging for relief, relief she couldn't afford to give. If she stopped even for a moment she'd be caught. If she was caught she'd meet the same fate as her teammates. Vanished, seemingly plucked from the very air itself. She had no way of knowing if they were dead or alive, only that she must run. Fighting meant certain death now; she'd seen what happened to their Mist escort when they stood their ground. Their screams still echoed in her ears. No matter how far she ran, she still heard them. Worse, she'd lost her kunai.
Still, she spurred herself on.
No one knew.
Fear spurred Kushina's leaden legs forward even as exhaustion took its toll, darkness creeping in at the edges of her vision. She was drawing almost exclusively from her tenant's power now, pulling as much chakra as she dared without risking her sanity. Even then she feared she wasn't nearly fast enough; though all her world was a blur and though she flung herself through the trees with ever-increasing speed, she still hadn't been able to shake her pursuer. Her heightened senses told her they were still in hot pursuit.
"What the hell?!" she ground out through gritted teeth. "Who is this guy?!"
Where had it all gone wrong? Impossible to tell. Everything was falling apart; their mission was a failure; no, perhaps it had been one from the very beginning. The ambush had been too perfect. Too well-executed. As if the enemy knew exactly where they would be. They'd struck just after dawn, when they were at their most unprepared. That implied a traitor within their ranks, but who? None of that mattered now, she just had to get back to-
The arm came out of nowhere.
One moment she was soaring through the trees with wild abandon; the next a limb closed around her neck from behind, slamming her face-first into the ground. Bucking against her attacker, Kushina slammed her head back with all her might and was rewarded with an annoyed grunt. Nothing more. All her strength drained away a heartbeat later, sucked up into some unseen sieve. Damnit, no! With a feral snarl she pulled more of the fox's chakra to her arms and legs only to find that too had been denied her. Even then she fought on, until a hand closed around her mouth and pressed a foul-smelling cloth to her face.
Eyes rolling, her world spinning, she managed to catch a glimpse of her attacker.
An orange mask filled her vision, a lone eye staring out at her from within.
As she passed out, the masked man tilted his head, giggling madly.
"Sleep well, little fox."
A/N: Aaaaaaand there we go! Repercussions abound. Will there be a civil war? We'll see. And who is this new masked man?!
So...in the immortal words of Atlas...
Review...would you kindly? Sadly, only a small preview this time! 'Tis a surprise! And there be only one, but its intense! AND IT'LL THROW YA FOR A LOOP! Also, next chapter will be super long, as well as giving Naruto a view days to recuperate in the village as well as...this. Expect the unexpected, ya'll!
"No one walks away from me."
Naruto was silent for a long, agonizing moment.
"I don't believe you."
"I'm just a stupid girl, remember?"
Minato exhaled in quiet relief.
"Finally. How many days until we reach the village?"
"That depends." Jiraiya replied, crossing his arms. "Are you going to behave?"
Sorry for the cliffhanger!