A.N. This is a pretty story-heavy chapter, so hold on to your hats, ladies and gentleman. I know it took a bit longer than I prophesied, but I hope the results were worth the wait. I promise that my binge watching of Breaking Bad had absolutely nothing to do with the delay. Scout's honor.

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.

Confession: I was never a scout.

OoOoOoOo

Chapter 8: Believe

Rin had momentarily been stunned into inaction by Obito's kiss, but the medic within her quickly crushed the surprise. She put her hands on his chest, gently pushing the Uchiha back. He didn't resist, instead simply staring at her with wide black eyes.

She took a moment to take in the sight of the young man before her. His t-shirt was on backwards, and he was only wearing one sandal. His pupils were dilated to the point that his irises were only thin, grayish rings around pools of obsidian ink. His face was flushed, but it appeared to be from exhaustion, not embarrassment. She could smell the sourness on his breath, and was now aware of a similar taste on her lips.

Her teammate wasn't well.

The medic glanced around, taking note of the fact that barely anyone had paused to give them a second glance. She needed to take a closer look at him, but she couldn't do so in a crowded street. The hospital was ten minutes away, and that was if she were running all-out. With the Uchiha in tow, it would take at least twenty. If not more...

She grabbed his hand, tugging him in the opposite direction. "Come with me, Obito. We need to talk."

Obito didn't move. "I love you, Rin. Please don't leave me." His voice was desperate, but at the same time, it seemed far away.

Rin felt her heart skip a beat, but ignored it. "Don't worry, Obito, I'm not going anywhere without you. Just come on." She pulled him again, and this time, the Uchiha walked with her.

Her apartment was only a few blocks away, and they reached the complex in less than five minutes. During that time, she kept a hawk-like watch on her friend. His hand was cool to the touch, but his face was covered in a sheen of sweat. Every couple of steps, Obito would falter, and Rin would have to help him maintain his balance.

She thanked whatever gods there were that she lived on the ground-level. In his state, there was no way he could handle a staircase. Pulling a key from her pocket, she unlocked the door and ushered Obito into her living room. He obeyed, looking around in a dumbfounded way that worried her greatly.

She didn't waste any time; allowing a sheath of chakra to form around her hands, Rin placed her palms on either side of Obito's head. "Stay calm," she whispered, her voice soothing.

Obito's eyes drifted closed, and a smile played across his lips. He didn't say anything, only sighing contentedly at her touch.

The conclusion her worry-prone mind had immediately jumped to upon seeing the Uchiha in such a state had been schizophrenia. He was a little young for the symptoms to be showing themselves yet, but it wasn't unheard of for the signs to develop early in life. The tightness that had constricted her chest loosened considerably as her diagnostic checked showed no signs of the disorder existing in Obito's brain.

She moved on, the tendrils of her chakra flowing softly around within his skull. Her confusion grew as more and more theories were proven untrue. It wasn't heat stroke. It wasn't cancer. There didn't appear to be anything wrong with the young man.

Then her chakra probe brushed against something strange. It felt as if it were a solid mass; but at the same time, it had an almost ethereal quality to it. She focused on the mass, trying to determine what it was. A tumor? No..It...It seemed like it was whispering...

"'I'm so sorry?'" she whispered, her eyes narrowed. Is that what she'd heard it say?

Her hands were knocked violently aside by Obito even as a harsh jolt of electricity from the mass surged up her arms. She stumbled backwards, collapsing into a chair as her legs gave out from under her. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she could feel her limbs trembling.

Obito was beside her in a second. "Rin! Are you okay?"

Rin stared into his eyes -eyes that were still dilated, but now clearly lucid- and smiled. Leaning forward, she cupped his cheek with her hand. "I'm fine; but I'm more concerned about you."

The Uchiha looked around, for the first time noticing his surroundings. "We're...In your apartment..." He cocked a brow at her. "Why?"

He didn't remember. His ramblings, or...

"I found you on the street," she blurted, her face flushing with color. "You were mumbling; something about me being dead. Then y-...So I brought you back here to give you a proper examination."

Now it was Obito's turn to blush. "Oh, well...I mean..."

"Obito," she said softly, taking his hand. The Uchiha gasped, but didn't pull away. She could feel him shaking, and she felt a faint buzz of electricity on her palms. "What happened?" Her momentary bashfulness had evaporated. "Your face is covered in bruises. There's dried blood on your shirt -which you have on backwards, by the way- and you're missing a shoe."

Obito looked down, taking in his disheveled appearance with dismay. He then looked back up at her, a grin lighting up his face. "Oh, boy. You won't believe the day I've had. First thing this morning, I found out the power was out. Got dressed in the dark." He scratched the back of his head, taking a step back."Then I had a sparring match with Gai. He got in a couple of good hits, but I took him down." The Uchiha winked at her, then glanced down at his feet. "As for the shoe. Can you believe it? I ran into an old lady whose sandal strap had broken. As luck would have it, we wore the same size..."

Rin had to give the guy credit; he could spin an amazing yarn when put on the spot. She crossed her arms over her chest, giving him the hardest look she could muster. "I'm not buying it, Obito."

He stared at her for a long time, all humor draining from him. She saw emotions play across his eyes: pain, anger...Guilt?

Then he turned away, shaking his head. "I told you. Now get off my case, Rin, I'm fine." He started to walk away.

Rin jumped up and grabbed his wrist, pulling him up short. "No, you're not!" she screamed, pulling him back to her.

The volume of her voice shocked him into stuttering incoherence.

"I find you wandering around the village like a lost three-year-old, and you expect me to think you're fine?" Rin wrapped her arms around his waist, pulling him into a hug. "Why are you trying to shut me out, Obito?"

The Uchiha pushed her away, his expression pained. Tears threatened to fall. "Because I'm ashamed!"

Then Obito vanished.

OoOoOo

Orochimaru stared at his reflection, taking in the sight of his pale skin and the dark spots under his calculating eyes.

Two years ago today. Two years ago, he'd lost the one person in his life that had kept him from falling over the brink of insanity. This world was a cruel place, he'd known that. So why had the death of one woman torn his heart into pieces?

He turned from the mirror, his feet dragging like lead blocks as he shuffled towards his desk. From the drawer, he pulled out a small, leather-bound journal. The man's hands shook violently as he opened it to the first page. His chakra snaked out, undoing the cypher that made the words unreadable to people other than him.

June 5th,

Aya's condition continues to fluctuate from day to day. Some days, she's up and about; full of energy. Other days, her chest hurts her so badly she can't even get out of bed. Her brother, Kizashi, showed up yesterday, his chattering wife in-tow. Him I like. Mebuki grates on my nerves. Luckily, they didn't stay long: Aya was having one of her bad days, and she needed her rest.

My research is showing some promising results. Lesser spirits, when sealed within infected squirrels, cause total recovery within a few hours if the host survives the implantation. Mortality rates are still over fifty percent. Far too much risk to be considered viable...yet.

June 29th,

Aya was feeling well today. We went to the park and had a picnic: we haven't done that in over a year. We didn't have a chance to finish eating, though. One moment she was laughing, and the next she was coughing so violently I thought I would have to bring her to the hospital. When she finally regained herself...There was blood all over her hands.

I've discussed the layout of jinchuuriki seals with Minato. He's expanded his repertoire after his time studying under Jiraiya and me. I daresay he's surpassed me, if not the old pervert. I didn't go into detail about what I'm researching, but from our conversation, I've reaffirmed my thesis. An adult can become a jinchuuriki, though the seal it takes to integrate the demon's chakra with their own is far more intricate than anything I've ever created.

July 4th,

Scaling the process up to larger mammals is proving to be problematic. Dogs are showing no reaction to one or two of the lesser demons. Sealing more than that into one creature, however, has led to a near one hundred percent mortality rate.

In a recent discussion with Minato, he postulated that bijuu chakra is far more refined than that which is found within the lesser demons that slip into our world. I'm beginning to think that the only way for my plan to work is by using the tailed beasts.

I'll be leaving the Leaf for a few months. I hope Aya will be okay.

I hope she'll understand the reasons behind my actions.

July 5th,

I set out for the Land of Lightning yesterday. Nightmares troubled my sleep last night. Aya's pink hair stained red with blood...

I miss Konoha. I miss her.

August 1st,

It took several weeks of planning, but I managed to retrieve the eight-tailed snake from Kumogakure. Their defences were strong, but ultimately ineffectual against a lone infiltrator.

The jinchuuriki seemed weary of life. His mind was frayed, and his grizzled old body was falling apart. He had lingered too long.

What I did for him was a kindness.

September 17th,

I dropped in on Iwagakure late last night. They were preparing the dog to be transferred from their old jinchuuriki to a young boy.

This time, no one had to die.

October 6th,

I arrived back to Konohagakure to find Aya in critical condition. Tsunade said that she had taken a turn for the worse not long before I returned. She said that she and Dan were doing everything they could for her...But that I should probably say my goodbyes.

I refuse to accept this. My work is almost finished. I just need to make sure it's safe. One more test, just one more test...

The pages had become too blurry to read. Orochimaru closed the journal with a snap, unshed tears shining in his eyes.

He remembered the pain as he carved the seal into his own belly. It had been numbed by his worry, but he remembered it all the same.

Pain didn't describe the agony that was the actual sealing, however. His entire chakra system had been stretched, broken, and repaired: this had repeated over and over until the sannin had finally lost consciousness.

It was an ordeal that he wished on no one, least of all Aya. In the end, she didn't have to endure it. By the time Tsunade -who had found him passed out in his home- had managed to revive him, his wife of almost a decade had passed away.

Months of depression had followed. As was often the case, his sadness was accompanied by alcohol. It had been Orochimaru who had admonished Tsunade for getting into the bottle after her brother's death, and she'd quickly returned the favor. He had soon found that every bottle of sake he could get his hands on would turn to water, a jutsu he'd regretted teaching the Slug Princess. In hindsight, he was glad he'd done so. The lack of alcohol had allowed him to perfect his work.

The seal he had used to contain the demon within himself was the best one he'd ever created. It perfectly compartmentalized the bijuu's chakra, only allowing for small bursts to be released to ensure the demon's energy didn't build up too much.

Which was for the best. The Hachibi's chakra had an attribute Orochimaru hadn't accounted for.

It was caustic to human flesh.

OoOoOo

A warm flush had risen to Minato's face. He was on his fourth cup of punch, and the alcohol that his sensei had surely slipped into the bowl was doing is job. He was glad he'd warned Kushina off of the stuff before the night had even started. A smile played at the corner of his lips as he watched his wife chatting amiably with one of Orochimaru's students -Anko, he thought her name was- a bottle of juice in her hand.

A hand clapped down on his shoulder, and Minato turned his attention to the white-haired man who had somehow managed to sneak up on him. How did Jiraiya always do that? "Hey, master Jiraiya. What proof of sake did you put in this? It's going straight to my head."

Jiraiya laughed heartily, shaking his head. "I'm shocked you think I'd do such a thing! Hurt, really! Get my student drunk off his ass on the day he's inaugurated as the Hokage? Perish the thought!"

The blond rolled his eyes, taking another long draught from the clear plastic cup of red liquid. "Whatever you say, sensei."

"Where are those knuckle-head students of yours?"

Minato smacked his lips, dipping out another glass of the imbibed liquid. "Kakashi and Obito are already here. The two of them have been so busy these past two months, I've hardly seen them. Turns out the ANBU and the Uchiha MP program are both quite tedious."

"What about the little girl? The cute one with brown hair?"

"Rin hasn't shown up yet. I suppose she got held up at the hospital, she'll be here soon."

The was a long pause, before Jiraiya said, "I'm jealous of you, you know?"

Minato turned to him, looking over the brim of his cup. Swallowing, he asked, "Why's that?"

Jiraiya took a swallow from a flask the blond hadn't seen him take out. "Beautiful wife, high station, nice house. You did good for yourself, kid."

The freshly-minted Hokage scratched his nose, grinning. "Well, I'm not giving up my title to you, but the other two things aren't out of your reach. You're only what? Seventy? Seventy-five? The dating scene is still wide open for you. Not to mention, there's a really nice retirement community over near the residential district..."

"Hey," Jiraiya said, punching him lightly in the shoulder, "Easy, wise guy. I'm not that old."

Minato laughed, doubling over and slapping his knee. "Ah, I'm sorry, sensei. I guess it's this fine non-alcoholic punch talking." He straightened up, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. "Oh, boy," he said mirthfully, before breaking off into peals of laughter once more.

When he finally regained himself, the blond noticed his wife staring at him with a raised eyebrow. He grinned back, shrugging helplessly. She jerked her head at him, miming a toast with her bottle. Minato nodded, doing his best to sober himself.

Minato stepped away from Jiraiya, moving towards the center of the room. He cleared his throat loudly, "Excuse me, everyone, may I have your attention for a moment?" His voice, though not a yell, carried easily through the noise-filled room. His command-voice had been honed through years in the field, and when Minato wanted to be heard, he was heard. No one was better at it, with maybe the exception of Kushina. "I would like to thank you all for joining me in celebrating this monumental occasion. It is truly an honor to be selected for this office, and I won't let you down."

Uproarious applause erupted in the parlor of the Hokage's mansion. From the shouts and the whistles, it seemed the blond hadn't been the only one to partake in the spike punch bowl.

The Fourth Hokage clapped his hands several times, putting an end to the cheers. "Thank you again, I hope I live up to your expectations," he said, grinning. "Surprisingly, though, my promotion isn't the biggest news Kushina and I would like to share with you tonight." The silence in the room had become palpable. Minato was almost sure you could hear a pin drop. "It is my pleasure to announce that Kushina and I are expecting a baby!"

OoOoOo

Obito's cup froze inches from his mouth. "What did he say?" he whispered, his voice strained.

"Kushina's pregnant," Kakashi answered softly.

The Uchiha set his cup down, counting on his fingers. "Kakashi...I don't know how far along she is, but even assuming it happened yesterday...She would be due at the end of August...Early September at the latest..."

Kakashi's eyes flickered around, evaluating the crowd. "And Naruto was born in October... We've changed something."

"Something very fucking important," Obito ground out, his hands balling into fists.

Kakashi cast about one more time, then grabbed the Uchiha by his wrist and led him towards the door, "Lets continue this discussion in private," he answered calmly, making sure that his voice was low enough not to be heard. As soon as the door clicked shut behind them, Kakashi felt the now familiar tug at his navel. A moment later, both of them were standing in the darkness of Obito's parallel dimension.

"This is bad, Kakashi, really fucking bad!" Obito ranted, pacing nervously back and forth. "Naruto is the savior. He's the only one who can kill Flagg. I know it, you know it. Just how in the hell are we gonna get around this?"

"It's simple, really," Kakashi answered, his voice still cool and calm.

Obito glared at the other teenager. "Oh, yeah? Please enlighten me, oh great soothsayer."

"We abort the fetus," Kakashi said, his voice deadpan. "Miscarriages are common, and there are plenty of ways to do it. Poison would be best, just a little mixed into her food over the course of a few days would kill it. Or maybe a fall, it's a little more risky in regards to Kushina's safety, but-"

"Have you lost your goddamn mind?" Obito all but screamed, grabbing fistfuls of Kakashi's shirt.

"No," Kakashi replied, staring nonplussed back at Obito. "If you want to do something about it, that is your only option. Otherwise," he slapped Obito's hands off of him, "You sit tight, and let ka take care of it."

Obito frowned, sighing and shrugging his shoulders. "You're right. I've never heard that word before, but something tells me it sums up our situation perfectly. Ka." He paused, studying his nails glumly. "What do you suppose happened?"

"It's hard to say," the silver-haired man said, holding his hands up in supplication. "But if I had to guess, I'd say your supposed death in your other self's time-line put a damper on sensei's sex life for a few months. We can't know for sure, though." Kakashi strode several feet away, his eyes turned upward. "Disregarding what we can't do anything about, I suggest we begin discussing what we can do. Any new intel from your side?"

The Uchiha took a calming breath, then abruptly sat down; crossing his legs and pulling a notebook from a pocket in his vest. He muttered something, than opened the notebook and flipped several pages. He muttered again, than activated his Sharingan and turned the book upside down. "Advanced encryption," he explained as his eyes scanned the page, "We can't be too careful." He clucked his tongue. "The elders are gathering all those loyal to our cause. No one new is being initiated, I've warned them about spies hidden within the clan's structure and they know not to risk bringing in fresh blood, though approximately sixty-five percent of the clan is involved in some way, shape, or form." He flipped a page, muttering under his breath. "In addition to this, several of the lieutenants have been gathering resources: weapons, armor, spare scrolls, gold, etcetera. The clan is gearing up for war, just as planned. What about your end?"

Kakashi crossed his arms over his chest, reciting his report from memory. "Root is well into planning their coup attempt as well. Their numbers haven't changed since our last chat, so I'm assuming they're done searching for recruits; likely due to similar reasons as the Uchiha clan. The time-table for the attempt is still several years down the road, however. I'm assuming it's the same for your clan?"

"Yeah," Obito replied. "Looks like three years from now at the earliest, though I estimate it'll be at least five before the elders will entertain the thought of attacking."

"Good," said Kakashi, "That'll give us time to prepare. Moving on, have you seen or heard from Rin?"

Obito blushed a bit, but shook his head. "No, I haven't."

"Well, I hate to be blunt, but didn't you say she was kidnapped in your time-line? Turned into the jinchuuriki of the Sanbi, yeah?"

The Uchiha's face was turbulent. "I've been keeping an eye on her." He wouldn't meet Kakashi's gaze. "She wasn't kidnapped until several months from now in the other time line. Of course, the war lasted longer in-" He broke off mid-sentence, the blood draining from his face.

Kakashi stepped towards his friend, putting a hand on his shoulder. "What's wrong?"

"The shadow clone I had watching Rin was just destroyed. She's in danger!"

OoOoOo

The door to Rin's apartment had been knocked off of its hinges: the smoldering remains of the wood were imbedded in the adjacent wall. Obito rushed in, blind to any potential danger that room may have held. "Rin?" he called, stepping over a splintered chair. As he entered the living room, he saw walls covered in blood and more of the crimson liquid pooling in the floor. "Rin!" he screamed, his voice rising in panic.

"Calm down, Obito," came Kakashi's collected voice. "Rin was hurt, but not badly enough for that much splatter." He indicted several drops that had stained the couch, "This is the only blood that belongs to her." He dipped his fingers in the fluid and brought it close to his face, his nose wrinkling slightly as he sniffed. "There's a little mucus mixed into the blood. Most likely, she was hit in the nose." His eyes scanned the area, "She killed at least one of them, judging by the blood on the floor. There's also blood and hair on the corner of the kitchen counter, whoever took that hit isn't feeling great right now."

Obito's fists clenched. "I should have warned her."

"Hey," Kakashi said, grabbing the Uchiha's wrist. "You didn't know what time she would be attacked. Warning her wouldn't have done any good, you'd have just turned her into a jittery wreck. That's assuming that she believed you."

Scrubbing his hands over his face, Obito inhaled deeply. He exhaled loudly and nodded, "Okay, Kakashi, you're right. What's our next move?"

With one hand, Kakashi pulled a scroll from a pocket in his vest. He dragged the thumb of his other hand across a tiny spike that protruded from the tip of the scroll. Unfurling the paper, the silver-haired man smeared blood across the intricate seal drawn onto the scroll, releasing a cloud of white smoke. When smoke dissipated, a small dog stood in the floor, staring up at his summoner.

"What can I do for you, Kakashi?" it asked.

Kakashi knelt down, scratching the dog behind the ears. "Hey, Pakkun. Can you track someone for me?"

Pakkun nodded, and the jounin brought his blood smeared fingers up for the canine to sniff. "Oh, yeah, no problem at all. There's quite a few bleeding people that went east from here, but she's the only female."

"The Village Hidden in the Mist," Obito growled, his teeth grinding together.

The dog approximated a shrug, "Can't tell ya who they are, but they're moving fast. We might want to get going."

Kakashi nodded, forming a shadow clone that sprinted out the door and out of site. "He'll inform sensei. I hate to ruin his celebrations, but we might need his help." He gave his friend a significant look. "Don't worry, Obito. We'll save her."

OoOoOo

Rin's whole body hurt.

She had been getting ready for sensei's party. She'd been excited and nervous. Obito had been refusing to see her, let alone speak to her, since their discussion several months before. She had been practically tearing her hair out in frustration He would be at the party, and she'd intended to clear the air between them once and for all.

Then her doorbell had rang. She was still down the hall, walking forward to open the door, when it had flown off of its hinges and hit the wall in an explosion of fire. She'd moved with an instinct honed from years of shinobi training. As a group poured in through the newly opened portal, she'd launched herself at one of them, grabbing him by his hair and slamming the side of his head into the corner of the counter. He'd crumpled, but the others had already realized she was there.

Rin had dodged the first retaliatory strike, but a second man's follow up had caught her squarely in the nose. Lights had flashed before her eyes as blood gushed from her broken nose, landing in warm droplets across her face. Despite her situation, she'd found the time to feel enraged: these bastards had ruined her dress. She lashed out, her chakra coated fist responding in kind to the man who'd attacked her, albeit with considerably more force. His face had caved in around her knuckles, blood spraying in all directions and staining her white dress with even more red gore.

She'd blurred through a series of hand signs -a bright flash of light filling the room- and had launched herself at her nearest blinded enemy. The man must have heard her coming, because despite his eyes being squeezed shut, he'd responded with a vicious kick to her stomach that had knocked the air from her lungs. Then his fist had connected with her jaw, sending her flying into the den, where she'd landed face down on the couch.

Before she'd had time to regain her feet, strong hands had seized her behind the elbows and hauled her to her feet. More blows rained down on her face and unprotected torso until she'd lost consciousness.

She'd woken on her back in a wagon, stripped of all clothing with her hands chained behind her back. There was no telling how much time had passed, but judging by the light streaming in through cracks in the wagon's walls, as well as the chill in the air, she assumed it was early morning. Rin struggled to sit up, uncomfortably aware of the rough wooden floor beneath her. The wagon was empty save for her, and was too short even for one of her negligible stature to stand comfortably.

As she attempted to rise to her feet, the wagon hit a sizable bump in the road and nearly caused her to topple over. She regained her balance, then deemed that attempting stand in the jostling cart would be ill advisable. Instead, she took time to focus on the shackles that bound her hands. Iron, judging by the feel of them against her skin.

Rin was attempting to focus chakra into her fingertips, a job at which she was failing horribly, when the wagon came to a jolting stop. This time she did lose her balance, falling over on her side and sliding almost a foot across the wooden floor. She winced as splinters dug into the flesh of her arm and hip.

There was a rattling of chains, and the door to the wagon creaked open. A man climbed up and walked towards her prone form, his boots clicking ominously against the wooden floor. Despite being hunched over, he managed to look inhumanly tall. Without ceremony, he reached down and grabbed her under the arms, hauling her roughly to her feet. "Hi there, Rin. It's good to see you again." He whistled, the sound stabbing into her ears like knives. "Oh boy, did my guys do a number on you." One arm he pressed against her throat, holding her against the wall. The other trailed down her chest, pausing to cup her breast in one calloused hand.

Rin's bruised and swollen face contorted in anger, and she spat a mixture of saliva and blood into the man's face. "Who are you?"

The man grinned, seemingly unperturbed by the fluid on his face. "The name's Ryuu Fugioka," he replied, his hand continuing its course down her torso, one finger lazily circling around her belly button. He clucked his tongue, sounding disappointed as the digit came to a stop above a particularly nasty looking bruise. "I told them not hit you in the stomach, bruises can really fuck up the ink..." He looked over his shoulder at a man whose features were obscured by the light shining behind him. The man jerked his head, long brown curls jostling as he beckoned. "Come here, Ayuta." He turned his attention back to the kunoichi he had pinned against the wall. "I trust you can maintain your feet for a minute or two."

"Yes sir, Mr. Fugioka?" the man asked as he appeared at Ryuu's side.

Ryuu pointed at the colorful bruises that decorated Rin's midsection. "What are these ugly things all over this young woman's body?"

Ayuta swallowed, clearly nervous. "Um...bruises, sir."

"Good, I'm not seeing things. So, I must just be imagining the part where I told you not to hit her in the stomach."

Beads of sweat appeared on the man's forehead. "No sir, you did. She just resisted, we didn't have a choice..."

Ryuu laughed, the sound raising goosebumps on Rin's skin. "You hear that, Ms. Nohara? The man didn't have a choice, I'll bet that will make those bruises heal right on up, yeah?"

Rin didn't answer.

Ryuu chuckled again, even more frightening than before. "I think you owe Rin here an apology, then you can get back to doing what you're good at."

Ayuta sighed, taking the other man's words as forgiveness for his dereliction of duty. "You have my sincerest apologies, Ms. Nohara."

The man before her grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. "What do you say, Rin, do you accept his apology?"

Rin glared back at him, then looked at Ayuta. "No," she spat.

"You heard the lady. I think she wants more than words, don't you?" Quick as a flash, Ryuu's hand snaked out and grabbed a fistful of his subordinate's hair. He forced the man down, bringing his face down level with Rin's belly. "I think if you kiss it, it might make it better."

The man was shaking, obviously terrified. He complied, leaning forward and pressing his lips against one of the many bruises that painted Rin's stomach.

Rin made a noise, somewhere between a yelp and a growl. "Stop it!"

Ryuu tittered, "Doesn't look like you're getting through to her. Maybe you ought to kiss her somewhere else." He pressed down on Ayuta's head until he was level with the fork of Rin's legs. "Come on, show her a little love, why don't ya?"

Rin's eyes darted between the two men, her face incredulous. "No, get away from me!" Ayuta moved his face towards her, and Rin turned her head away from them, gritting her teeth as her face flushed red.

"Looks like she's just not that into you." Ryuu grabbed Ayuta under the jaw and gave his head a vicious twist. There was the sound of snapping kindling and the man fell over dead. "Come on," Ryuu said, pulling Rin away from the wall and wrapping his arm around her slender shoulders. "We've got work to do."

Rin had to step over the body of the man who'd kidnapped her. Seeing his corpse, she took a certain amount of satisfaction in his death. If not for him, then she wouldn't be in this situation. Ryuu led her to the wagon's door, and Rin squinted as the morning's harsh light burned her dilated eyes. Before she could react, the man scooped her up bridal-style and jumped down: the young woman moaned as he jostled her aching body.

"Sorry, love," Ryuu said, not sounding sorry in the least. "I'd take you to the medic," he told her, setting her down, "But we've still got work to do."

Rocks dug into the soles of Rin's feet as the man led her down the wagon-wheel rutted road. She looked around, taking in the sights of what had once been a bustling village. They were in the middle of what appeared to have been a market district, but the vendor stands all stood empty. The road was lined with giant crosses, each one with a man or woman affixed to it with nails through their wrists and ankles.

Rin felt bile rise in her throat as she stared up at the hanging corpses.

Ryuu pushed her between the shoulder blades to get her moving again. "Welcome to the beautiful town of Edo," the man said cheerfully from behind her. "The street decorations are locals who disagreed with my occupation. Not to worry though, the population has settled nicely. Haven't had to string anyone up in over a week now."

A curtain shifted in one of the houses that loomed above the nearly deserted street. Rin caught a brief glimpse of the pale face of a little girl peeking out at them. Then she was gone, but the sight of her little pink ribbon was burned into Rin's mind.

Her breath misted in front of her, and the Nohara was reminded of just how cold it was. She shivered, and Ryuu wrapped his arm around her, pulling Rin to his side. He was colder than the air around them. "Don't worry, love. You're gonna be part of something greater, just be patient."

They came to a raised dais in what had once been the town square. The altar was surrounded by men in heavy crimson cloaks; their faces were obscured by hoods. Several dozen candles burned around the edges of the dais, each one a different color.

"Welcome to your destiny, sugar," Ryuu said, grabbing the shackles that bound her wrists and breaking the chain. Rin immediately started to struggle, but her captor kept a firm grip on her forearms as he pushed her towards the altar. He whistled, and one of the cloaked men moved forward and grabbed her ankles. "Watch it, she's feisty."

They lifted her up onto the stone slab that formed the majority of the dais. Ryuu stretched her arms over her head, re-chaining each of the manacles at a corner of the slab. The cloaked man tried to do the same, releasing one of her legs to chain her ankle down. Her freed food snapped out and caught the man squarely in the jaw.

"I warned ya, didn't I?" Ryuu tittered as he finished binding her wrists.

The other man cursed as he grabbed the foot that had kicked him. "Stop struggling, bitch," he growled as he secured her last free limb to the heavy iron ring at the corner of the altar.

Then they stepped away, leaving her spread-eagled and vulnerable on the cold stone slab. She shivered violently, causing the iron cuffs to dig painfully into her flesh. Ryuu walked away, and she was left alone on the slab for hours, surrounded by her silent watchers. The candles continued to burn, their unnaturally colored flames flickering but never using up any wax. The sun rose high in the sky, reached its zenith, and then began to sink back down into the horizon. She was cold. She was hungry. Mostly she was thirsty.

The sun had sunk below the horizon when Ryuu stepped forward, a knife in one hand and a mortar-and-pestle in the other. Rin's heart-rate skyrocketed, and she began to struggle against her bonds with renewed vigor. Her nostrils flared as her breathing became ragged and forced; her blood-shot eyes focused on the wicked looking blade.

"Shh," Ryuu said softly, dragging the back of the blade across her cheek. "I'm not gonna kill you. You're his, so you don't get off that easy."

The blade trailed down to her navel, where it stopped, the tip pushing a dimple into her skin. Rin glared up at him, "I'm not afraid of you."

"I don't want you to be."

Rin had to bite back a scream as the blade slipped into her flesh. Ryuu's movements were slow and methodological, almost surgical as he carved a spiral that started at her belly button and extended a dozen centimeters in every direction, perfectly symmetrical.

Sweat shone all over Rin's naked body, making her glisten in the candle-light. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, but she refused to make a sound.

"Now for the fun part."

Ryuu moved the blade to just above the where the seal ended. He plunged the blade down to its hilt in her belly. Rin's eyes bugged out, a low groan escaping her mouth as Ryuu yanked his knife free. He plunged it in again, a little to the right and down from the first stab wound. Rin couldn't find the strength to make any noise at all as he continued to stab a bloody ring around the spiral he had already carved. When he'd finished, there were thirteen puncture wounds, one for each candle.

Rin stared dazedly up into the starry sky, her mouth hanging open dumbly, as Ryuu mixed something together in his mortar-and-pestle. He dipped his fingers into the stone bowl and pulled them out black. He slathered the ink onto her wounded abdomen, rubbing it into the multiple lacerations. The ink turned purple as it mixed with her blood.

He gestured towards one of the silent vigils, who stepped forward with an urn. Ryuu opened the lid, and light blue smoke began to drift out into the open air. The cloaked men began to chant, and the smoke swirled around above the altar briefly before descending towards Rin's bleeding abdomen.

Every muscle of Rin's body contracted, her eyes rolling into the back of her head as her back arched painfully. Her hips rose from the slab until the only points of contact she had were the back of her skull and the heels of her feet. For the first time that night, she screamed.

And she kept on screaming even after she'd lost consciousness.

OoOoOo

"I'm beginning to think this is a dummy trail," Pakkun called as he ran along by the two ninjas' feet.

Kakashi nodded, sniffing loudly. "Yeah, I think you're right."

Obito looked over at Kakashi, "What are you two talking about? What do you mean by dummy trail?"

It was Pakkun that answered him. "Rin's scent is getting stale, but the men's aren't. Even if she was dead, her scent wouldn't change in this way. They must have figured we would track them by scent, so they stained a piece of her clothing with blood and took it with them."

"This is stupid, I know where they are. Kirigakure. That's where she was taken before, and that's where she is now." Obito's voice was strained. He was clearly on the brink of tears.

"I'm not gonna pretend to know what you're talking about, but I will say this. Assumptions get people killed," Pakkun growled, "The guys we're following clearly work for the same people who took your girl. We're only a few kilometers behind them now, I say we catch up and you two take you answers from them."

Kakashi dug into a pouch on his hip, pulling out a kunai. "Pakkun's right, Obito. Kushina's pregnant, just like you knew she would be, but the time is wrong. Rin was kidnapped -again, just like you knew she would be- but what if the location is wrong? We could get her killed if we rush off blindly."

Tears stood in the corners of Obito's eyes, but he nodded his assent, doubling his pace and forcing the other two to struggle to keep up.

It wasn't long before the backs of the men they were following appeared out of the shadows. Obito was off like a rocket, a kunai in either hand. He struck the closest man, driving his blade into the base of his skull. Warning shouts rose, but they weren't fast enough to stop the storm of death that had descended on them. A fireball sprang from his lips, catching the next man in his chest. A kunai sprouted from the eye of the third one, courtesy of Kakashi.

The last man was wearing a blood-stained white dress. He backed away from the enraged Uchiha, who stalked towards him with a knife brandished. "Woah, man, I give up!" the dress wearing man screamed, raising his hands over his head.

Obito's fist crashed into the man's nose. "You hurt Rin," his knee rose to meet the man's gut. "You kidnapped her," Obito shoved the man against a tree trunk. "Now, if you don't want me cut you apart. One. Limb. At. A. Time." The Uchiha punctuated each word by thrusting the kunai into the man's thigh. "You will tell me where she is."

The man was screaming incoherently, clearly unaccustomed to pain. His face was flushed red, tears and snot running down his face.

Obito buried the blade into the man's shoulder, twisting it roughly to one side. "I suggest you start talking before I shove this knife up your ass sideways."

"I-it was Ryuu Fugioka. He t-t-told us to kidnap th-the g-g-g-girl," the man sobbed. "W-when we got clear of your v-village, we w-were t-t-told t-to split u-up into two g-groups. I dr-drew the short straw, h-had to t-take off her dress and p-put i-it on."

Obito twisted the knife more, stomping down on the man's foot. "You undressed her," he growled. "If you did anything to her, I swear-"

"I-I-I didn't d-do anything to h-her!" the captive man wailed, his eyes rolling wildly in their sockets. "She was j-just a k-k-kid, I'm not th-that kind of g-guy." His gaze shifted to Kakashi's. "Please, I'm telling the truth. Please don't k-kill me!"

Obito jerked the knife free and buried it into the man's other shoulder. "I would suggest," Kakashi said softly, "That you tell him where Rin is."

"She's in Edo!" the man screamed. "Now please-" He never finished his sentence. Obito jerked the blade free of his mutilated shoulder and buried it in his skull before he'd had a chance.

Obito let the man's bleeding body slump to the ground, pausing to wipe his gore-coated kunai clean on the ruined remains of Rin's dress. "We need to move, Kakashi. Now. Rin's in even more danger than I thought. Flagg has her."

"Flagg?" Kakashi asked, eying the corpse with unveiled disgust. "How do you know?"

"R.F." Obito replied. "It's a kink of his. Ryuu Fugioka. Randall Flagg. It could be a coincidence, but somehow I know it's not."

OoOoOo

Kakashi had never seen Obito angrier than he was at that moment. The Uchiha stalked through the streets of Edo with a stiff, machine-like gait. He didn't flinch at the sight of the crucified bodies, it was clear that he was well accustomed to Flagg's cruelty.

The Hatake stayed hidden in the shadows, on the off-chance that Obito's bravado proved false. Kakashi doubted the Uchiha would need his assistance; with perhaps the exception of Master Minato, Obito was the strongest shinobi in the Leaf Village, bar none. Still, it always paid to be cautious.

A trio of ninjas rushed Obito, not bothering to give him a warning of any kind. They phased through the Uchiha as if he were a ghost, and were dead before they'd had a chance to react. These men were amateurs, Flagg clearly didn't look for quality when recruiting his men. Obito rolled his shoulders.

Arriving at the door of shack they'd tracked Rin to, Obito stopped. His hand rose, gripping the brass handle, and turning it slowly. There was a click, and the door swung inwards with a groan. Obito stepped through, and Kakashi heard his sharp intake of breath from where he was hidden. Giving up on the element of surprise, Kakashi rushed to Obito's side. His chest constricted at the sight that greeted him.

Rin Nohara's bloodied body lay in a heap on the shack's floor. She was stark naked, and every visible inch of her skin was mottled with bruises ranging from purple to a sickly yellow. Obito rushed to her side, dropping to his knees and feeling for a pulse. "S-she's alive," he said thickly, his hand moving from her throat. "Her pulse is strong. I don't think she's in danger right now." His eyes trailed down to her belly, where the majority of the blood was. He prodded around her belly button for several moments, until he was sure that there were no lacerations. Rising to his feet, Obito jabbed a finger towards the door. "Keep watch," he ordered, shrugging out his jacket and squatting down next to Rin's crumpled form.

He gently lifted her back off of the floor, cradling her limp body to his chest as he guided her arms through the sleeves of his jacket. Once that was done, he eased her back down and buttoned the garment closed, his hands steady despite the situation.

The young woman groaned, her eyelids fluttering. "Obito?" she whispered hoarsely, her reddened eyes meeting his. "Please tell me I'm not dreaming." She grabbed a fistful of his shirt, jerking him roughly down to her. "Please tell me this isn't a trick!"

Obito put his hands over hers, squeezing them reassuringly. "I'm here, Rin. It's over."

Tears leaked from the corners of Rin's eyes, and she shook her head jerkily from side-to-side. "Prove it. Prove that you're real." She arched upwards, bringing her face inches from his. "You said you loved me. If that's true, prove that you're not an illusion."

Without thinking, Obito dipped his head down and pressed his lips against hers. She tasted strongly of copper, and Obito hated the implications of that flavor. Rin kissed him back, her lips working desperately against his. When he moved away, Rin was staring at him, a smile on her face.

"It is you. Just like before...Only... You don't taste like puke this time..." she said it so softly, Obito wasn't sure he'd heard her. Before he had time to ask for an elaboration, she passed out, slumping quietly to the floor.

Obito's face burned as he stood up and kicked off his sandals. He'd get an explanation later, right now his prerogative was getting her out of here safely. Undoing his belt, Obito quickly stepped out his pants and brought the garment over to the unconscious kunoichi. Doing his best to preserve her dignity, Obito pulled the trousers up Rin's legs to her waist. He cinched the belt tightly to make up for their significant difference in size.

He put his sandals back on, then squatted down and picked Rin up as gently as he could. He stepped out of the shack, carrying Rin bridal style.

Kakashi eyed the two of them: Rin dressed in Obito's clothes, and Obito in nothing but a t-shirt and his boxers. He seemed unperturbed by the sight. "Are you ready?"

Cruel laughter filled their ears, echoing through the city streets like a siren's wail. A swirl of black smoke appeared before them, clearing to reveal a tall, thin man with curly brown hair. "Obito, you dog!" the man cried, his voice shrill and crazily happy. "Just got to first base three minutes ago, and you've already got her wearing your clothes. Bravo!"

"Kakashi," Obito said, not replying to cackling demon, "Get her out of here. I'll take care of this bastard." He passed Rin's limp body over to the Hatake, who nodded grimly. Quick as lightning, Flagg leapt forward with his arm extended towards Kakashi. Obito was just as fast, appearing in front of the silver-haired jounin and catching the demon's hand. He pivoted, swinging Flagg over his head and slamming him face-first into the dirt. "Go!" he roared, his fist connecting with the small of Flagg's back. Kakashi complied.

Flagg was quickly back on his feet, but couldn't hide the grimace of pain that had contorted his face. "You've gotten better," the thing said simply.

Obito's glowing eyes flickered towards the direction Kakashi had fled. "Maybe," he said amiably enough. His form blurred as he flickered to the side to avoid a ball of energy thrown by Flagg. He darted towards the demon, burning with rage. "Or maybe," his fist snapped out, catching Flagg in the nose and sending blood spraying into the air, "You've gotten worse!"

Flagg began to backpedal, "Hold up, old friend!" he pleaded, raising his hands in surrender. "I wanted to offer you a deal." The air around his shoulder distorted, and the flesh folded in on itself as it was ripped between two dimensions. Obito heard the demon known as Flagg scream in pain for the first time.

"I don't know what happened, but you're not as strong as you were. Not by a long shot." Obito glowered at him, a tight grin forming at the corners of his mouth. "Whatever it was, it'll be the death of you. I'm going to end you. Right here. Right now."

Flagg cradled the remains of his shoulder with his remaining hand, his razor teeth glinting in the light. But not their normal silver. No, this time they were stained red. "You should know better than anyone that I can't be killed." He was forced to throw himself bodily to the side to avoid a molten hot ball of fire spat by the young Uchiha.

"That's what I knew," Obito ground out, stalking over to the scrambling monster, "Back when I knew you were indestructible. I know the latter isn't true, so why should I believe the former?" He stomped down on Flagg's throat, cutting off whatever response he had been formulating. "You're going to die here, Flagg."

And then he froze. For a long moment, his foot remained pressed on Flagg's throat. Then, slowly, he raised it. The demon took a long gulp of air, using it to power the sandpaper like chuckle that emanated from within his chest. "Surprised, my little Uchiha?"

Obito glared at the other figure, hate burning in his eyes. He didn't speak, though. Or rather, he couldn't.

"I suppose you're wondering what's wrong, huh?" Flagg walked up to him, reaching out to pat him affectionately on the cheek. "Do you remember back in the last world, before we made the jump? Back when I still lived in your body? What did I like for you to say? What was the last thing I had you say to me before I left?"

The Uchiha's entire body shook in an attempt to move, but he couldn't do so.

"Suffice it to say, words have power. Every time you said that particular line, you became indebted to me. For every time you uttered 'My life for you,' you were obligated to obey an order from me. And that order is for you to let me go."

Obito's hand twitched.

"Now, my last order to you is this. Let me go."

Obito was practically vibrating with rage as he slowly turned his back on Flagg. Even as his steps carried him further and further away from the monster that had tormented so many people, echoes of laughter continued to reverberate through his mind.

OoOoOo

It took him several minutes to regain control of his own body, at which point he didn't bother turning around and returning to fight Flagg. The bastard would be long gone by the time he got back to Edo village.

He almost didn't see Kakashi, who was crouched in the foliage next to Rin. "Judging by the look on your face," Kakashi began, moving into the moonlight, "Things didn't go very well."

"No," Obito ground out, his face a confused maelstrom of anger, relief, and happiness. He brushed past Kakashi, moving over to where Rin lay unconscious in the grass. He knelt, scooping her up and holding her tightly to his chest as he stepped back onto the path. "Do you smell running water nearby?"

Kakashi sniffed the air, then pointed north-west. "There's a stream in that direction. Two kilometers...Maybe three."

Obito smiled as he began walking in that direction.

"Wait, Obito," Kakashi called. "Shouldn't we take care of her seal before we do anything? It was originally a trap, wasn't it?"

"I'll do more harm than good in this lighting. We need a camp and a fire and a way to clean the blood off of her so I can see what I'm doing. Fixing it should be simple: that is, if he sealed the demon inside of her for the same reason he made it happen before. He knew I was here, so he must know I can fix something like that. He probably did something different in hopes of it slipping by me." His pace didn't slow as he turned his head to lock gazes with Kakashi. In that moment, the Hatake saw both a young boy and a tired man. "I'm not going to let anything happen to Rin."

They reached the stream a few minutes later, and Kakashi quickly cleared a relatively flat area of fallen leaves and sticks. Obito lay Rin down as gently as he could, and began helping Kakashi set up the camp. He collected stones from the bank of the stream and made a fire-pit, and Kakashi took a hatchet from his bag and began chopping down saplings to build a lean-to on the side of the camp he expected to get the most wind that night.

It wasn't long before Obito had a roaring fire built in the pit, filling the camp with a bright orange glow. Kakashi summoned several dogs that split off to patrol the immediate area. Neither of them expected Flagg to press his luck again, but complacency had killed better men than they.

Kakashi had luckily been wearing his jounin vest at the party, they hadn't had time to retrieve their gear before heading off to rescue their friend. Within one of the pouches sewed into the vest was a scroll that contained cook-ware for extended missions. He activated the seal inscribed on the scroll, and a large iron pot appeared in a puff of smoke.

Obito scooped it up, nodding his thanks to the Hatake, and scrambled down the bank to fill it with water. He returned a few seconds later, the pot held almost reverently before him. He set it down on the fire, and the two of them stood in silence for several minutes. Every thirty seconds or so, the Uchiha would dip his fingers into the liquid to judge its temperature. Once he was satisfied, that it was warm enough, he pulled it from the fire and set it down next to Rin's prone form.

He squatted down next to her, reaching into the weapon pouch that was still attached to his belt and pulling out a folded rag. He paused, looking over his shoulder at his friend. "Do...Do you mind looking away?"

Kakashi's eyebrows rose slightly, but he nodded. "Of course, Obito. I imagine she's been gawked at more than enough for one day." He turned his back on them, staring fixedly into the fire.

Obito moved over to the side of her that wasn't facing the fire and quickly unfastened the buttons, peeling the jacket's flaps just enough to see what he needed to. He left the top half of the garment buttoned, but there was very little left to the imagination. Blushing, he dunked the rag in warm water and began to wipe away the blood that clung to her pale skin. There was a lot.

It wasn't long before the water in the bucket was dyed red, but he had cleared away enough of the blood to see what he need to. He lay one hand on top of her seal, allowing a few tendrils of chakra to flow into the tenketsu points hidden there. Thick purple lines appeared on her belly, snaking outwards to reveal an intricate spiral with thirteen short, straight lines surrounding it. Rin moaned, squirming under his touch.

The sun had risen by the time he was satisfied that there wasn't any fault or trap hidden within the seal. Rin didn't wake during the process, but it was clear that she would soon. He saw no reason to further embarrass her, so he quickly re-buttoned the jacket and moved a respectful distance away.

Kakashi was kneeling next to fire. For the first time, Obito realized he was cooking something; and it smelled like succulent fried heaven. His stomach growled audibly, and Kakashi looked back at him, surprised. "Oh, I didn't realize you had finished. How is she?"

Obito scratched the back of his head, moving over to get a better look at what Kakashi was cooking. "I can't find anything wrong with it. I added a few redundancies to it, just in case. I'll have sensei take a look at it when we get back...It's about...Time...We told him..." He trailed off, inhaling deeply. "My god, Kakashi, what are you cooking?"

"I had the dogs do some hunting while on patrol. They managed to catch a few pretty good sized snakes; not to mention a couple of squirrels."

Obito blanched. "Snakes? Squirrels?"

Kakashi chuckled, "This is survival, Obito, you can't be picky. I've got a feeling our patient over there will be grateful for any hot meal," he said, jerking his head over to where Rin was sleeping.

Or had been sleeping. "You've got that right." Obito jumped violently as Rin spoke from directly beside him.

He turned and looked at her, concern overriding his chagrin. "Rin! How are you feeling?"

Rin smiled at him as Kakashi passed her a plate of the fried meat. "Better, thanks to you." She leaned over, pecking Obito on the cheek before turning her attention to her plate of food.

Kakashi passed Obito a plate, too. Obito had only managed a few bites before Rin had cleared her own. She sucked the grease off of her thumb, eyeing Obito's own plate hungrily. He pushed it towards her, and she accepted readily. When Kakashi put what remained of the food on his own plate, he didn't even put up the pretense of eating it himself, he only handed it to Rin with a smile showing in his eyes. Rin blushed, but didn't argue.

After a few minutes, the kunoichi burped and wiped her mouth on the sleeve her jacket. "Thank you, Kakashi, I was starving." She was quiet for a moment, then she grabbed Obito's arm, hugging it to her chest as she leaned against him. "Thank you, Obito, for giving me your clothes." Her voice was thick, and the two young men realized she was on the brink of tears. "Thank you both, for saving me. Again."

"We'll always be here for you, Rin," Kakashi said, his voice soothing.

When Obito spoke, his voice was laced with regret. "We didn't get to you in time though, Rin. What they did you...It can't be undone. Not without k-"

Rin hushed him, squeezing his arm tightly. "I know, Obito. I know. Just, for now...Let me forget about it...

OoOoOo

I hope everyone enjoyed this chapter! I tried to keep it gritty, without devolving into the outright hopelessness seen in ACT I. I hope this shows that Flagg is anything but unbeatable, and the protagonists have a real chance of stopping him in the future.

As you've seen, things are considerably different in this world. Two of the biggest changes being Orochimaru having had a wife, and Kushina's early pregnancy.

You also probably noticed a difference in the Bijuu that were mentioned. I'm following traditional Japanese mythology for the tailed-beasts in this fic, so if you're not familiar, it may be good idea to read up on it.

Kishimoto had an interesting interpretation, but as a whole I prefer the demons from the original. For instance, the eight-tails was originally a snake. Kishimoto actually adapted Yamata no Orochi, creating Orochimaru instead of using the snake as a demon. He also modeled Kisame after the Sanbi, using a coral monster to represent the three-tails instead of the shark from legend.

A more complete explanation on this will come later, as the world Flagg destroyed in ACT I mostly followed the cannon, tailed-beasts included. Naruto and Obito will of course have to deal with these inconsistencies.