Chapter 84:

"My lady…"

The voice startled Akane, making her jerk from the light doze she hadn't even realized she'd been sinking into.

On her lap, Sasame sniffed, curling in on herself at the voice of the Anbu that was now hovering at the threshold of the makeshift medical station.

Akane blinked away the lingering touch of sleep, eyes panning over to the still deathly pale and unmoving Yuugao beside them.

"My lady." The Anbu called again, before taking a knee in a formal bow. "Hokage-sama requests your presence."

For a moment she wondered at the man's formality, then her mind caught up with the reality she'd forgotten came back to her.

Akane… Akane was the Lady of Fire. The Daimyo.

Right.

The young girl's answer was very nearly mumbled, almost inaudible.

"I will not leave." She says, sniffing through the tears still lingering beneath the surface. "The Hokage can come here."

The Anbu shifted where he knelt, and even Akane could see the man's surprise.

His head moved, the mask going from the young girl at Akane's lap to the injured Yuugao.

"I'm afraid… it's a matter regarding the safety of the village… her safety as well." The man added hastily. "It is urgent, my lady."

The manipulation was blatant, but… it was effective, she felt Sasame shift, watched as the indecision bloomed behind the girls eyes as she warred between answering the call and staying by Yuugao's side.

The Anbu noticed too.

"I will stay with her." He declared. "Should her condition change, I will immediately inform you, my lady."

He bowed his head, and there were a few more moments of silence before finally, Sasame sat up.

She lingered in her seat, head hanging low before the little girl that seemed too small stood.

"Where is the Hokage now?"

"Third floor of the hospital my lady. You will be escorted the moment you arrive."

Quietly, almost despondently- the dark haired child started moving.

Akane suddenly stood.

Sasame paused, turning to look over her shoulder quizzically.

The Jinchuuriki shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other suddenly unsure of herself.

It's just….

The girl looked so lonely it was heartbreaking.

The Jinchuuriki put on a smile that she knew looked brittle on her face. "Want me to come with?"

The small, sombre girl stared at her.

Then she nodded.

Akane stepped forward, her hand reaching down.

Hesitantly, Sasame reached up, fingers grasping Akane's firmly as they walked away and towards the hospital.

(X)(X)(X)

She woke with fire down her lungs.

She thrashed, her limbs flailed.

Distantly, faintly; she heard a voice, demanding, screaming

Hold her down!

Then she felt hands clasped around her arms, pressing, holding her down; pinning her limbs in place as her insides burned, as acid surged up her throat and she vomited.

She thrashed and writhed. Shadows danced across her eyes as she felt every muscle going rigid and taut, her whole body heaving, nearly throwing off whatever or whoever was on top of her.

Hold her down! Someone screamed again.

The pain ripped and tore and burned and sliced and seared through her. She felt herself scream until her voice gave out, felt her muscles bunch and tense until they tore.

Finally- after a moment, or eternity, it was over.

She breathed harshly, wheezing, her eyes fluttered open, glazed and blurred.

The late sun beat down over her brow- blinding her.

She could see it, shining overhead, through the clouds. Spears of light and red fire.

A flash of pink- someone hovering over her.

"Kurotsuchi?"

The voice sounded like it was underwater, and she needed it repeated before she understood fully, and had to strain to listen to the others speaking before her ears seemed to remember how to fulfil their function.

"-hy bother?"

"I wasn't about to let her die."

"Incase you didn't get the memo while you two were taking bullshit drugs or whatever you're on- she's one of our enemies in this war."

"Enough!"

Kurotsuchi allowed herself to focus, for a time, on breathing.

She felt the numbness receding from her extremities. Pins and needles spread across her skin as her sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch returned to her.

Finally, she was able to see fully once again through her fluttering eyes.

She recognized Ryoko quickly enough, the silver haired kunoichi stood over her with a scowl that told the Iwa princess exactly what she thought of the fact that Kurotsuchi was still breathing.

The other two she knew by reputation rather than introductions.

Sakura Haruno and Sasuke Uchiha.

Naruto's 'students'

"I'm alive." She was surprised. Her last clear thought had been the poison burning through her, the pain nearly crippling as she snuck up behind Han- willing the weakness to hold off until she could deliver the final killing blow.

She heard her own voice; realizing she spoke aloud.

"Easy." Sakura said, kneeling at her side. "Sasori hit you with one of his custom toxins."

Whatever he'd hit her with, she felt like she'd been run over by a half dozen cargo wagons.

Her eyes trailed towards the three of them. "Just kill me." She whispered after a moment. "I won't be paraded through Konoha for an execution or as a trophy."

At least spare her that final indignity if nothing else.

But at her words Sakura looked genuinely startled.

It was the Uchiha who spoke.

"We're not killing you, or parading you." He muttered simply. "Naruto." He drawled. "You took him, didn't you? Hid him?"

"Why the hell would she do that?" Ryoko questioned.

"Only thing that makes sense." The black haired ninja shrugged. "We were far behind them, with wounded to heal. Even if Lee would have sprinted after them, these were S class ninja. We shouldn't have been able to catch up. But suddenly they're delayed. And when we catch them they're all split up across the forest, spread out. Searching for something." He jerked his head towards her. "Then- she kills Han. All of the other S class threats are dead and none of us can still find Naruto. It's guesswork, but unless you have a better guess-"

Ryoko's lip curled.

Kurotsuchi closed her eyes, letting her head fall back to rest on the warm grass. "The Bingo books said you were smart."

"Where is he then?" Sakura asked.

For a moment, Kurotsuchi considered keeping her silence.

It was a reflex rather than thought, as she lay there still collecting herself.

Then she remembered…

She'd been trying to deliver him to Konoha again anyway…

This had been her goal.

But she had to make sure of something… Or try to.

"Let me go." She said,

She opened her eyes, pink trailing over onyx black and seafoam green, she didn't bother looking at Ryoko.

She wouldn't listen.

On cue, the red eyed kunoichi bit out her next words. "Not a chance in fucking hell."

She forced herself to sit up, even as her muscles screamed and her bones felt like they were splintering. The pain gnawed at her, but she could be in pain later.

Sasuke spoke over Ryoko's protests, though curiously, staring at Sakura. "We don't have a lot of time."

"I don't give a shit!" Ryoko growled. "Charity is the only reason she's alive and her execution is long overdue by anyone's standards."

Despite herself, Kurotsuchi felt herself laugh, even as the action forced more pain to bite through her side and spread thorns through her lungs.

Now wasn't that the fucking truth?

Regardless…

"Let me go." She repeated, now getting to her knees. "You're right. You don't have a lot of time." She swallowed down a mouthful of nails and acid. "With this much chakra, this much power and Han releasing the Gobi… more Iwa nin must be on their way. They'd have sensed it if not been close enough to see it. So unless you want to fight half the Iwa Anbu guard in this forest looking for him… let me go. I'll tell you exactly where I hid him."

"Even if we say yes." Sakura interjected in a tone that seemed genuinely gentle. "You're in no condition to get far. I got rid of most of the poison but some traces are still in your blood and complications… without a proper medical check you can still die, especially if you don't rest."

Hadn't Uchiha been the medic? Or was she misremembering.

Regardless, she chuckled.

Walking away and dying a little ways off…

Sounded fine to her.

"I won't be taken…" She hissed "To be dissected on some slab for my bloodline, for my head to be delivered to Koutou's household for a job well done. If I die-" She shrugged. "Fuck it. At least I'll be in control of one fucking thing before I go."

For some reason, Haruno looked… genuinely sad as she looked at her.

"Very well."

"Bullshit!"

"She's right the Gobi and my Kirin technique must have attracted attention." Sasuke justified. "It would have been seen for miles at the absolute least. Which means that yes every Iwa nin in the vicinity likely sent people this way to figure out what the hell happened." He justified; not even bothering to look at the protesting Ryoko. "We have very little time to argue with her.

"So she just walks the fuck away? After everything? Just like that!" The woman screamed, fury making her skin flush.

Sasuke for his part, didn't flinch. "Yes. Naruto is frankly, more important."

At that, the kunoichi didn't protest.

Sasuke turned his gaze back to Kurotsuchi. "You have my word. You'll be able to walk away. Now.-" He blinked "Tell. Me."

There was something there, a thread of Chakra, a compulsion slithering into the back of her mind like a worm, insidious and uncomfortable.

The words were pried out of her. "Three hundred meters or so." She gasped. "South by south east of here. In the hollow of a dead tree. I tied one of the ropes from the sword sheath at its base. Bright red."

Sasuke nodded, and with a sharp turn on his heel, began marching south by south east."

"You're just gonna take her word for it?" Ryoko shouted after him.

"She's not lying." He called, "Even if I couldn't tell, few use their last words to breathe falsehoods." He answered without looking back.

Sakura stared after him, before turning her gaze to Kurotsuchi. "Kuro, let me hel-"

"I don't need your fucking help." She wheezed even as she swallowed back the taste of copper and metal. She forced one leg to move. Then the other, shambling towards the fallen Han and Koutou's sword.

With a trembling hand, she reached towards it.

She felt a blade against her throat.

She went still

"That sword aint yours bitch." Ryoko's words echoed through her skull once again- the words she'd said… what felt like a lifetime ago.

Sakura slowly reached her feet. "Ryok-"

"Fucking Uchiha said She could walk away." Ryoko growled. "Nobody ever said shit about her taking that fucking sword."

Kurotsuchi huffed a breath, like someone had socked her in the gut, or she didn't have the breath to laugh.

She wasn't sure which.

Ryoko's grip tightened over the kunai red eyes narrowed.

"Go ahead." The woman hissed. "Just give me a fucking reason."

It was Koutou's sword.

Her sword.

The last threadbare link to… anything.

With a resigned, silent despondency- she felt the last bit of something inside of her… crack.

She didn't cry. She wouldn't give the bitch the satisfaction.

Slowly, her trembling fingers pulled back hand falling limply by her side.

She looked at the blade, the dark red hilt, its obsidian blade dripping with Han's blood.

It was there, barely a few steps away… and yet so far.

She stared at the blade, eyes hollow and her insides suddenly cold in a way that had nothing to do with the pain or the poison.

She'd already lost everything.

What's one more piece of her to add to the pyre?

Without another word, with the little dignity she had left… she turned and walked away.

She never looked back as she vanished into the trees.

(X)(X)(X)

When they arrived at the hospital, as the Anbu predicted, both of them were escorted by other Anbu.

If the outside of the hospital was filled with injured, the halls of the hospital itself were even worse.

Lined on both sides with bleeding, groaning men and women, some on beds, most on cots, with parts of the structure having collapsed, it looked more like a ruin than the hospital she remembered.

Nurses, volunteers, doctors, everyone moved in a chaotic mess of noise and rushing hurry.

Their eyes bloodshot, their cheeks gaunt, Akane wondered if some of them were on drugs to keep them going.

Her mother had told her stories about how medics had needed to operate during the worst of the war.

She'd never thought she'd see those stories come to life with her own eyes though…

Even through this chaos, people parted like schools of fish before a predator as the Anbu passed, quickly pressing themselves to walls or sliding out of the way as much as they could to make way.

It wasn't long before they made it to the room.

The only thing that marked it as the Hokage's room was the lone guard posted outside.

The guard caught sight of them, offering a single nod to his colleagues before bowing slightly towards Akane and opening the door.

They entered quietly.

Kakashi-sama was sitting on his hospital bed, papers and reports in hand, single visible eye looking over them before he turned that eye onto them, and smiled beneath his mask.

"Lady-Sasame, Akane-chan. It's good to see you both safe."

Akane floundered for a moment.

While the Hokage had never been cruel, neither could she say they were close and given the nature of their last meeting and everything that had happened since then, the somewhat cheerful tone caught her off guard.

Sasame on the other hand, took his voice and words in stride, straightening her spine and clasping her hands infront of her in a gesture of courtly poise that made Akane's obliviousness to her identity seem painfully obtuse in retrospect.

"You wished to see me Hokage-dono."

Kakashi nodded, the lightness in his eye melting away.

It seemed he was willing to cut to the chase too.

"The Raikage and his men are camped outside our walls."

That made Akane shift with unease.

She'd heard rumors… but to have it confirmed that they were still here…

"Are they preparing for another attack?" Sasame tried to keep her voice even, but the light tremble in it betrayed her fear.

Kakashi settled the pages in hand on a nearby night table, giving them his full attention. "I don't believe they're going to attack again, not tonight." His eye trailed towards Akane. "They suffered a considerable blow and with the Kazekage here providing backup, their position is much more tenuous."

"I see." The young girl said but offered nothing more.

Kakashi eyed her, offering a smile that seemed… almost pitying. "More likely than not, tomorrow they will try to negotiate. I of course will attend, as will the Kazekage."

"You wish for me to attend as well." Sasame, it seemed, was much faster on the uptake than she herself was.

Kakashi nodded, and Akane had to fight the urge to shift nervously from foot to foot.

"The attack bloodied us." The man said. "It was repelled but barely and while the Kazekage has shown little… interest in taking advantage of that situation the delegation from Kiri that is supposedly approaching cannot be counted on to share his cooperative nature. Your presence, under guard and participating, even if nominally in the negotiations, will show other villages that we haven't been cowed by the events today."

"Portray strength where you're weak and show weakness where you are strong." The younger girl quotes, drawing Akane's curious eye.

Kakashi nodded "Your father's writings. Yes."

The young Jinchuuriki couldn't keep her silence anymore. "But-Hokage-sama. They came here for Sasame, you said so yourself. What's to stop them from trying again when we take her outside the walls?"

"As I said, she will be under guard." He said, "I myself will be present, two full squads of my Anbu guard, for her and for myself, the Kazekage and of course- you."

Akane tried not to flinch.

She wasn't sure she succeeded.

Seeing her hesitation, Kakashi decided to press the point. "You slew their Jinchuuriki. It's likely for that reason alone they're still here to negotiate at all. They want her back. At the moment the most dangerous force on the battlefield is the Raikage, A. But even he can't fight you, the Kazekage and myself all at once." He paused, then trailed his eye again to Sasame. "All of this of course, is predicated on your acquiescence… my lady."

The young girl's head bowed.

Before she knew what she was doing, Akane stepped forward.

"She doesn't have to."

Kakashi's eyes turned towards her again raising a slender eyebrow.

The Jinchuuriki felt her tongue turn to cotton in her mouth, her throat close up before forcing herself to speak through it. "You-It's too dangerous, even with all of us there we'd just… there's no way we could guarantee her safety."

"No. There is no guarantee." He admitted candidly. "But if we don't, we risk prolonging the war. A country without at least the appearance of a strong Daimyo the appearance of a strong village is a weak one. Image is part of combat in this theater."

"It'll be worse if we lose her!" Akane protested.

He nodded. "You're right. But appearances isn't the only reason."

"Then what's the other."

"Any agreement made between us without the seal of at least A daimyo… we're hidden villages." He drawled. "Technically, the Kumo Daimyo could simply not acknowledge the treaty and renew hostilities. But with her as a participant, even a nominal one. That- politically becomes much more difficult. Other Daimyo would not like to believe the treaties they put their name to can be ignored after all."

"But-"

"I'll go."

Sasame's voice brought her up short, turning her gaze over to see the girl, trembling, fists clenched, but jaw set and eyes fixed with determination.

"I'll go." She repeated.

Silence reigned.

Akane's decision from there- was easy.

She straightened. "Then I would like to have the position of her guard Hokage-sama."

Kakashi's eye switched between them.

"You already were." He said.

"I mean officially." She pressed… demanded. "I want her to be my mission above everything. The other Anbu, the village… even you."

His eyebrow hiked a little higher over his head.

After a moment he chuffed a barely there laugh shifting where he sat

"Very well then." He said slowly. "Consider it official then lady Senjuu. Your objective, will be the protection of the lady Sasame above all others." He offered her a thin, humorless smirk. "Which, if I'm not mistaken makes you a Fire guardian."

(X)(X)(X)

For Naruto it was a strange feeling, waking to the sensation of light, repeated slaps on his cheek.

"We follow you all this way and you're asleep?" He hears a familiar voice tease.

Opening his eyes is a struggle, but he manages, and he's rewarded with a vision of green.

Green healing chakra… and green eyes.

He blinks, staring up. "Sakura?"

She smiles, and for a moment… it's different, the hair shorter, the mess of scar tissue over her eye is gone, the armor and weapons replaced by a healers tunic.

The vision passes. And she's back… she's normal

But Sakura's eyes glimmer with unshed tears as she looks at him.

"Hey you idiot."

He blinks, staring, eyes trailing down to her hands which still glow with the faint traces of healing energies.

He turns his gaze to Sasuke.

Stoic, grim faced and coldly distant, it's a face that's strange and familiar and wrong on this one that he's known for so long this time.

"Guess you're as weirded out as I am."

The voice makes him turn away, finding Ryoko nearby arms crossed, staring at both Sakura and Sasuke as though she was trying to decide what exactly she was looking at.

Naruto blinks and turns to look at Sakura.

She looked at him with a patient sort of kindness that was alien on… both versions of her.

Seeing him at a loss for words, she's the one who speaks; the one who breaks the silence.

"We could never leave you alone." She smirked. "You get into too much trouble… and we'd be worse than trash- wouldn't we?"

His heart stuttered in his chest.

He sags, the breath wheezing out of him as he strangles down a choked sob, or a choked laugh.

She smiles quietly; with a look that tells him… no. He's not crazy.

He lurches forward, almost pitching before he caught himself, staring into her eyes. "How?"

"Sasuke can probably explain it better than I-"

Her sentence was cut off as she had the wind knocked out of her by the sudden, fierce hug she was crushed into

Naruto wasn't sure when he started crying.

Sakura laughed, hugging him back and planting a tender kiss on his cheek.

After a moment she moved to stand, dragging him up as his legs found their strength again.

He looked to Sasuke.

The Uchiha stared back at him with a raised eyebrow and his lip curling almost into a sneer.

Silence.

"I ain't giving you a kis-"

Just like Sakura his words were stopped as Naruto hugged him too with an audible omph.

Stiff and awkward, Sasuke patted him on the back

Ryoko threw her hands up in the air. "Fucking great, you're all nuts."

Naruto ignored her pulling away and grasping both Sasuke and Sakura by the shoulders. "You guys!" He gasped. "I mean… how are you-"

"Kurama." Sasuke's voice cut in like a knife.

Naruto turned to him and the Uchiha continued.

"Kurama did this…" He said. "Time is…" He pauses, seemingly measuring the words

:-different where we were. Meaningless. An instant or an eternity, he found and dragged the pieces back together."

Naruto turned from him to Sakura, who nodded quietly.

The blonde blinked, brain turning, churning, trying to wrap his head around it.

Kurama had done this?

Kurama was still alive!?

He reached into his seal.

Hollow. Empty.

"He's not here." He whispered looking to them. "He didn't come back with you?"

"No he wouldn't be." Sasuke shrugged as if that answered anything.

Then Sakura spoke. "And we're… not back. Not really." She whispered, almost apologetic as she looked at him. "We're here for a window a moment. This… isn't even us strictly speaking we're… whispers."

He shook his head. "No. No no you're-"

"Remnants" Sasuke cut him off with callous finality.

The look on Naruto's face must have been… something- because even the Uchiha softened his hardline gaze as he sighed. "Look… this is when Kurama decided we should come. It sucks- I get it. But stay focused"

Kurama decided?

The Fox was smart… and he wasn't cruel.

He… he would've had a reason. A good one. He has to trust that at least.

"Why?" He choked.

They were here. They were right here. The thought of losing them again it was… it was just cruelty in a different form.

"Because you're not alone…" Sasuke's answer was cryptic.

When Sakura spoke up to explain; it sent ice through Naruto's veins.

"He followed us, Naruto." She whispered. "Tobi. He followed us through the seal."

(X)(X)(X)

"What the hell are you talking about!?"

Tsunade's voice was shrill, angry even as Orochimaru shifted uncomfortably beside her.

"He loved you." The waters churned and hissed, the sounds coalescing into a haunting approximation of a voice. "But you loved another. So he attempted to leave."

"Bullshit!" She barked back, stepping once more to the defensive water wall.

Nagato turned those strange ringed eyes of his towards Orochimaru.

The water's hissed. "Is it?"

For once, the serpent felt tongue tied, an apple lodged at the back of his throat, choking him.

Tsunade stepped infront of him, staring into his eyes.

"Is it?" She demanded the edge of creeping horror sneaking into her voice as she looked at his face.

He was not one for melodrama, but… seeing her where she stood now, demanding an answer… he found it impossible to lie to her.

When he said the words, he almost coughed them out, lodged as they were in his voice box.

"It's true."

She sagged, stumbling back a single step like he'd struck her.

"He didn't resent you." He said in a poor imitation of being… comforting. "He didn't hate you. He… simply couldn't be around you both."

Even so, she didn't look to have been put at ease. Her eyes trailed, searching, looking at nothing as she was caught in the grips of memory.

He had to wonder…

Was she thinking back on the things she hadn't seen?

On the signs she'd missed?

The pain that Jiraiya had so expertly hidden that even he had barely seen it in time?

Orochimaru allowed her a moment, then, not knowing what else to do, he stepped around her, his touch ghosting past her arm before he withdrew it worried, he would overstep.

He stared at this emaciated creature called Nagato.

"Alright… say you knew him." He allowed- "Beyond… sentimentality… we would still have no reason to spare you. She is still our target and this war is still ongoing."

The waters of the barrier whorled, thrumming with a rumble of power.

"The war is ongoing. But it does not have to be this way." The man breathed. "Spare her, and I will personally guarantee, Amegakure will fully withdraw from this conflict… as you said. Konan is the lynchpin holding the confederation together. Without her… it will fall apart again. Konoha will be safe, your mission fulfilled and you will be free to divert your resources to fighting your true enemy, Iwagakure."

The waters stilled, and silence reigned.

"You've done enough… haven't you? I know you've poisoned our wells and food supplies."

Orochimaru stiffened.

"I know that Tsunade-san has made certain the disease will spread far before it's finally detected. Is even that not enough? Must there be more blood? More death?"

No… not much more… Just one.

Leaving here on nothing but his word, with no collateral… no guarantee?

They would never have another shot at Konan if they let her go now and she decided to go back on her word.

He's about to say such…

But then, Tsunade speaks.

"What happened to him?"

Orochimaru closes his eyes, the question, burning at the back of his mind now blazes, refusing to be ignored, to be shoved aside in favor of the mission, for the sake of practicality.

This… it wasn't the time for this…

"Tsunade-" He pleads.

"I want to know!" She demands stepping to his side. "We… we deserve to know. We thought he was dead. We'd searched for weeks."

"Liars."

The voice wasn't Nagato's… it was Konan.

Through blood stained lips and barely open eyes the kunoichi sneered at them, glowering where she lay across Nagato's root lined lap.

"We waited… he waited. For weeks… and months. Clinging to life… hoping to see you both one more time… none of you came. And when you did- you all decided it was better to have a dead martyr than a crippled reminder."

Suddenly, Orochimaru felt his insides turn to ice.

"The hell are you talking about!"

He didn't recognize the voice at first. It took him a moment to realize it was his own.

He steps forward, a fist slamming into the solid wall of still churning water.

"I looked through those swamps." He hisses. "In the rain and the mud and the muck, with blood and bodies and remnants of battlefields. I looked. He wasn't there!"

He couldn't have been. He couldn't have been there.

Nagato's hand fell over Konan's head- the waters danced. "Peace Konan… rest for now."

The woman struggled against the compulsion, her eyes fighting to stay open.

But she was too weak, too injured, and after a moment of struggle, her eyes shut quietly.

Nagato turned his eyes to them.

"Perhaps you did look." the ripples in the water whispered. "I had not come into my powers then… I could not say. But if you did, we did not find you, even as we searched for you on his behalf."

"How long-?" Tsunade whispers. "How long did he survive?"

"He lingered at the edge of death for nearly one year."

Orochimaru felt the strength in his legs nearly abandon him.

A year.

One. Year

They'd searched for three months.

Before duty… before practicality… before hopelessness had pulled them away.

A YEAR!?

He felt Tsunade's hand grip his shoulder, squeezing tightly.

Nagato stared at them with those fathomless eyes.

"He trained us in that time… as best he could. We learned how to mold chakra, how to remain hidden… techniques that would serve us well in the years to come. Even so…" The young man bowed his head. "When he came for him- we could not save him."

"Who?" Orochimaru asked, fingers clenching into fists. "Who came for him?"

He would rip the man's heart out himself.

Nagato's ringed eyes blinked languidly.

He bore a Konoha headband… we could not recognize him He slew Jiraiya… he slew Yahiko. It was Jiraiya that allowed us to escape.

"Who!" The snake demanded

Nagato's head bowed.

The man in the spiral mask.

(X)(X)(X)

"The process was imperfect." Sasuke explained. "He didn't study the seal as we did, didn't construct it or understand the various theories"

"He's trapped." Sakura said with a firm nod. "Lost, doesn't know how to get out, the only window is-"

"Kurama." Naruto breathed, realization dawned on him.

She nodded.

"He's been fighting." Sasuke whispered slowly. "On a thousand battles across a million skeins of fate and time they've been fighting this whole time. Kurama's been keeping him contained, but occasionally, something breaks through."

"You must have noticed things." Sakura said. "Differences, pieces that don't line up."

Naruto felt cold.

"That's why." She continued. "Whenever he escapes… it's like us, for brief windows, moments and he tries to make things change for the worse, move things to favor chaos, or help him escape."

"More the latter than the former." Sasuke shrugged. "Something happened. Maybe Kurama slipped, or he was busy… gathering us. But a… shard if you will, got out. A fairly strong one. It's been out and it's making its move. Kurama knew it would try to hit you now, If he can get to you… he might be able to use you to finally escape fully."

Naruto felt his heart beating like a fist beneath his ribs.

Suddenly…There's a sound of someone clapping

The three of them stiffened.

Then, they could sense them.

Covered behind a veil of Genjutsu, they hadn't noticed.

But the Anbu were here.

A dozen at least, though that didn't discard the possibility of more still in hiding.

And standing in the shadow of dying leaves…

There he was.

Unchanged, unmoved- exactly as Naruto remembered him.

Tobi.

Beside him, Naruto recognized her by the picture in the bingo books.

The Tsuchikage with her dark raven hair, cold eyes and pale skin.

The spiral mask stared back at them, hands lightly clapping in celebration. "The furball was always sharp, wasn't he?" He drawled. "I'm impressed he was able to dreg up the pieces of the two of you. Enough to make you conscious rather than gibbering lunatics too. Nice."

Sasuke and Sakura took defensive positions beside him, Ryoko cursing as she drew her weapon.

"You know princess." His silver haired teammate said, taking her place at his back. "When this is all over. You owe me one hell of a fucking explanation."

"Don't panic." Sasuke uttered. "He's not fully here. He's not nearly as powerful as he was before and his time is running dangerously low; he may not be able to fight at all. Focus on the Anbu and the Kage"

Slowly the masked devil knelt "My my. You were always sharp too weren't you Sasuke-kun." He trailed his gaze up to his side, towards the Tsuchikage. "Though you'll find I have a few surprises of my own."

The woman smiled, an expression that was malicious and cruel.

She closed her eyes.

When she opened them again, all three one members of team seven gasped in horror.

Spinning within the pupil was the three Tomoe'd sharingan eye mirroring the one now leering through the single eyehole of the spiral mask.

Tobi laughed- a dark cruel laughter that cut through the dark forest as night fell around them.

(X)(X)(X)

Surprise :D

Truthfully, I'm a little nervous, and kinda crossing my fingers that this goes down well. Tell me what you all think.

Just One chapter plus Epilogue left. :)