Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.
Team 7's Ascension
Chapter XVII - Defend the Tree I
A slight shiver ran down Sakura's spine as she looked around the empty yard. She paid no attention to it just like she tried to ignore the way she must look to Naruto and Sasuke. The image her mirror had shown her this morning hadn't been pleasant.
Her lips curled up. The bags under her eyes went hand in hand with the current mood in the village. A tension she couldn't quite describe had settled in Konoha. It made her nervous – very much so.
Jiraiya-sensei had done his hardest to distract them these past weeks, but he had to know just as well as her that it hadn't worked. Paranoia had set in faster than the Sannin managed to dispel it. A side-effect of Kakashi-sensei's training and the Forest of Death. She hesitated to call it a benefit though.
Something was going on. Every member of Team Seven knew it. That they hadn't been told about it only served to show how severe the situation had to be. It was likely far above their rank.
She hadn't minded the secrecy at the beginning. After all, Kakashi-sensei had taught them about protocol. But after days of bad sleep, she started to loathe this mystery bullshit with all her heart.
"We will hate what we learn today." Sakura sighed, looking at the building in front of Team Seven. It was covered by overgrown plants which seemed to strangle it. They were the kind of plants Ino despised because they ruined her family's garden – just several times larger and meaner looking.
"Probably," Naruto said.
He looked resigned, and Sakura's insides clenched. Jiraiya-sensei had done all of them some good – Naruto most of all – but she feared everything would come unbound once they stepped into the building. It was a bad feeling, festering inside of her, and it refused to vanish, no matter how often she wished it away.
"Let's go." Sasuke's gruff voice provided a welcome distraction. Losing herself in uncertainty had become far too easy lately. She did it far too often.
Beside her, Naruto nodded and opened the door. He walked inside the building, and Sakura checked her equipment again. Jiraiya had told them to come prepared for combat.
Her eyes snapped to the entrance. Naruto sounded dead, bereft of all his exuberant qualities. A whisper, nothing more. She rushed past Sasuke, crossing the doorsill. Once inside, however, an icy sensation clawed at her. Sakura's knees weakened; the strength was sapped right out of her.
Sasuke appeared next to her and Naruto. He had his hand around the hilt of his sword. "What is this?" he asked.
"War," Sakura whispered, surveying the hall they found themselves in. It was larger than the one from the first task, but just like then, countless shinobi were assembled. This time though, all of them wore the same headband. They shuffled around, gathered in small groups, only dared to whisper. No one was eager for action.
Kakashi-sensei had told them about some of his war experiences. And she had been naïve enough to believe it would never happen – not to her, not to Team Seven. Now she wished for the secrecy to return, because not knowing would be far easier than this.
"You were right, Sakura." Naruto chuckled weakly. "I hate what I learned so far."
"The Chūnin Exams were rigged," Sasuke said.
Sakura bit her lip. "You mean…"
Naruto glanced at them. "Care to elaborate?"
"They were deadlier than ever before – our research told us as much," Sakura said.
"Too many participants, far too many." Sasuke growled under his breath.
Sakura nodded. "If the exams were like that every time, no village would send teams at all – too many casualties. And so many foreign shinobi must be a security risk."
"Are you telling me they caged us with hundreds of other Genin so we would eliminate one another?" Naruto balled his fists. "Fuck! Fuck."
"It's just a theory."
"Hn. It makes sense from a leading point of view."
A booming voice resounded in the hall. "We have taken count," it said. Sakura turned to it, and saw a pair of Jōnin at the far end of the room. They stood on an elevated platform. She recognized the one who had spoken as Kyojin-san, the examiner of the first task. His countenance had changed drastically from before though.
"Everyone is here. Good," he said, staring at all of them with hard eyes. "Many of you have already guessed the reason for this gathering. For those who haven't – as of this moment, we are at war with Suna and Oto."
His words unleashed terror in many of the Genin in attendance. Two boys in front of Team Seven tried to leave the place, but they didn't get far. The second Jōnin appeared in front of them, clapping his hands on their shoulders. The boys' movements ground to a halt.
"Let's hear us out, eh?" The Jōnin said, then vanished again and reappeared on the platform.
Sakura's heart lurched. Every Genin in their near vicinity was staring at them. She glanced at Sasuke who seemed to have no problem with it. He leaned against the wall as though nothing bothered him.
"Be advised that desertion is punishable by death, most of all in times of war," Kyojin-san said. "Now settle down and let me hand you your assignments." His lips curved into a smile. "Don't worry too much, young ones. Genin have seldom been stationed at the front lines."
Sakura listened to the people around her talk. They still feared, and she couldn't blame them. When Team Seven was called up, Naruto went to the platform and received their orders.
Sasuke pushed himself away from the wall and looked at Naruto as he came back. "Anything interesting?"
Naruto tilted his head, opening and closing his mouth twice before he found any words. "We're being invaded, tomorrow. Orochimaru is the leader."
"I- do you think we'll meet him again?" Sakura asked.
"Who knows? But Kyojin-san said that Orochimaru knows about the old civilian shelters. Each team is assigned to a new location in south Konoha, where the chance of an attack is low."
Sasuke frowned. "Isn't it easy to notice when no civilian is in the arena?"
"We're not sheltering every civilian," Naruto said. "Only children and old people."
"When do we have to be there?"
"Soon. I got the directions. We're to move out immediately, without attracting too much attention."
Sasuke stared at Naruto, then let his eyes rove over the mass of Genin who became louder by the second. "Without attracting too much attention? I doubt that's possible."
Sakura didn't disagree with him, and something heavy weighed down on her. She touched her hairband with the Magatama, steeling herself. War had come to them.
But Team Seven would survive. Of that she'd make sure.
Hiruzen stared at the arena below, observing Hyūga Neji's fight against the Kazekage's youngest. At any other time, a spectacle such as this would have filled him with joy – as seeing the future of his village perform well had always done before. Now, however, neither the slight breeze, nor the soothing shadows, or even the marvelous techniques of both combatants changed his mood.
"I see that the Hyūga continue in their tradition of presenting strong warriors, Hokage-dono."
He glanced at the Kazekage and at the four shinobi serving as the man's protection detail. "Indeed, the Hyūga remain a pillar of Konoha's strength. Young Neji in particular shows a lot of promise. Such mastery over the Byakugan is rare at his age."
"A marvelous achievement," the Kazekage said, tapping his finger against the surface of his throne – first once, then twice. "But as his opponent is my son, Gaara, I fear his eyes alone won't help him to win."
For hours, as the two Kage had battled wits, a slumbering beast awoke in Hiruzen's chest. And as the Kazekage's finger descended for a third time that day, its feral eyes opened, and the hairs on Hiruzen's neck rose.
The time to settle old debts had come at last, and had he been mournful before, despairing over the depravity of his once favorite student, so was he now thankful for the opportunity to right his wrongs, and end this misery once and for all.
A Genjutsu settled over the arena, sand whirled up in a furious tornado from the middle of the stadium, and explosions made his village tremble. The Kazekage – Orochimaru, he corrected himself - didn't need to reach for him. Hiruzen followed all on his own. The four shinobi, slaves to his student's lies, had no chance to work their plan as Jiraiya, his own protection, barreled into them, the righteous fury of Konoha etched onto his face.
"You expected me," the Kazekage said, sibilant hisses working their way into his voice.
Shifting into a fighting stance, Hiruzen threw his robes away, revealing worn armor beneath. "Konoha did."
Jiraiya watched as Orochimaru's hand descended and, shortly thereafter, a rain of feathers swept over the arena. The four shinobi his teammate had brought with him sped away to the four corners of the spectators box.
He let his disguise fall, and stormed toward the first one, a robust guy with an orange tomahawk. Anxiety flashed in his target's eyes as he noticed him. It wasn't unwarranted. The man had to be one of Orochimaru's elite; and, however indirect, he too was at fault for hurting Naruto. When all the dice were cast, this was the only reason needed to destroy him.
Jiraiya crashed into him, catching a short glimpse of a sealing scroll. It flew out of the guy's hands as he shifted to block the attack. Jiraiya reached out, grabbed his wrist, and tried to pull his defense apart. The arm didn't budge an inch. Earth chakra coursed through it, winding tightly around the wrist.
The man smiled, an odd grimace reflecting knowledge about his fate and fear. Foolish. Jiraiya squeezed harder, and the crunch of broken bones rang through the air. Orochimaru's elite screamed as Jiraiya pulled the broken wrist to the side, this time opening a way into his guard. Blue chakra coalesced in his palm and tightened into a small, deadly sphere.
Jiraiya drove the blue ball into his enemy's stomach; the innards sloshed around his hand as they ruptured under the pressure. A moment later, the force became too much, and the dead body shot away and over the edge of the roof.
Turning around, Jiraiya found the other three. They stood next to one another, transformed into beings resembling mythical beasts. He frowned. Orochimaru had come far in his research – too far.
Had the first kill evoked any feelings of failure in Jiraiya, so were they swept away at the sight of those things. The bite that did this had almost gotten to Naruto. Jiraiya closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The circle of hatred – he'd enter it again, with no illusion as to the nature of his coming actions.
War. It always made him wonder whether the circle of peace was only attainable in death.
The tiles under him broke as chakra surged through his legs. With a single step he covered the distance between him and the remaining three of Orochimaru's guard, appearing directly inside of their little formation.
"Ninpō: Hari Jiizuou."
Tenzō bit his lip as he watched the fight between his target, Gaara, and the Hyūga prodigy come to a close. It was a bad habit, which not many knew he had. It also wasn't visible to others because his ANBU mask concealed it.
If the parameters he had received from Hokage-sama were correct, his mission would begin soon. A substantial part of him wished for that 'soon' to last just a little bit longer. But given who the orchestrator of the invasion was, this was unlikely. Orochimaru would use every advantage he could get, and a rampaging Jinchūriki was a big deal.
Gaara. The bingo book called him Sabaku no Gaara – an interesting title for such a young shinobi. But with his own promotion to Chūnin having been at a rather young age, it didn't surprise him as much.
Stopping the complete manifestation of Shukaku was a keystone in the plan to defend against the invading forces. And, luckily for Konoha, the village had someone who could deal with Jinchūriki and Bijū, in theory at least.
Three other ANBU, his temporary team, stood next to him. They were tense, but professional. Who wouldn't be tense in such a situation? They knew of his special abilities, and he had fought beside them before. They also knew, however, that he had never faced a Jinchūriki before. He had the power to suppress and seal a Bijū, but could he use it?
During the month of preparation, Elder Danzō had proposed to have the Uzumaki boy access the Kyuubi's chakra. Curiously enough, this idea hadn't been backed by the desire to make a weapon out of Uzumaki, as far as he knew. Much more, it had been supposed to give Tenzō training possibilities in subduing such powers.
In the end, the proposal died the minute it went before Hokage-sama. There were special circumstances, he had said, that made any further tampering with the seal a fatal mistake. The use of the word 'further' escaped neither him, nor Danzō. None of them chose to comment on it however.
So, his soon-to-come battle with Sabaku no Gaara would be the first test to see whether Konoha still had the power to tame Bijū. An advantage over other villages, and leverage should it ever come that far.
Falling feathers and a subtle intrusion into Tenzō's chakra system alerted him of the start of the invasion. He canceled the illusion, and quickly took stock of the situation. So far, everything had gone more or less according to plan. They hadn't expected a Genjutsu to announce the attack, but shinobi-wise, only Chūnin and Jōnin were present in the arena. An illusion of that caliber, no matter its subtlety, wouldn't hold them up for long.
"Go," Tenzō said, leaping into the arena.
He landed in front of the battered Hyūga, assuming a defensive stance. A few hand seals later, a wooden half-dome covered them against Gaara's sand attacks.
Tenzō received a weary nod from the boy. Blood ran down his temple, but despite the obvious wounds, he held himself upright, too proud to show overt weakness. Hyūga were that way, almost all of them.
"You have been briefed?"
"Yes," Neji answered, staring at the wooden dome. It expanded to the left, deflecting another attack, then shrunk back to its original size. "Where is Gai-sensei?"
"He's held up by hostile forces," said the ANBU who had joined them a second ago, while another one distracted Gaara. A dangerous task. "Tera is helping to free his way now. He'll be here soon."
It took another two minutes until Gai and Tera appeared in a cloud of dust. "I'm sorry for the delay," Gai said, walking toward Neji.
"Gai-sensei," Neji said, staggering forward.
"I'll carry you."
"I can walk on my ow—"
Gai shook his head. "This isn't the time for pride." Before Neji could respond, Gai had lifted him off the ground and vanished.
The ANBU glanced at Tenzō. "That was quick."
"Indeed." Gai would bring Neji to the field hospital near the Hokage tower, before rejoining the troops at Konoha's main gate.
"Let's move," Tenzō said, letting the dome collapse. "Hokage-sama wants this area cleared as soon as possible."
The plan called for his team to watch his back against distractions while he fought Gaara. They were to stay out of the actual fight until the seal matrix Jiraiya-sama had prepared could be applied.
Tenzō turned to Gaara while all three ANBU shifted their focus to other invaders in the arena. The stadium would soon become the battlefield of S-class shinobi. It was better to be out of the way before that happened.
A fist of sand raced straight at Tenzō, and he pointed his arm at it. "Mokuton: Daijurin no Jutsu."
His arm turned into wood and shot toward Gaara, growing in size as it traversed the distance. It met the sand fist head-on, and smashed through it with less trouble than expected. The mass of Shukaku's chakra, which held the fist together, disintegrated quickly in close proximity to his Mokuton.
Once he had broken through the sand completely, Tenzō poured more chakra into the technique. The arm grew again, and crashed into Gaara. The redhead shrieked as the wood reached even his sand armor.
Shukaku's chakra seemed more resistant the closer it was to the Jinchūriki, but Gaara could still not avoid the physical force behind the attack.
A last pulse of energy pushed Gaara into the air, catapulting him out of the arena. As the stadium was close to the wall, Gaara probably landed in the forest surrounding Konoha. Tenzō gave the ANBU a sign that he'd pursue the airborne Jinchūriki, then jumped after him. They would follow once the arena was cleared.
When Shikamaru entered the fortified house – one of the many new shelters – he tried to take in everything at once, searched for the clue that would tell him when they'd get attacked. A month had passed since the Forest of Death, and he still felt the effects of that shithole. Staying alert had been a necessity back then, just as it was now. The forest had been a teacher, both terrible and great at once.
"Soon," Kiba muttered, walking beside Shikamaru. He narrowed his eyes to slits, and bared his teeth in a dangerous grin.
"Remember, we have orders," Shikamaru said.
"Ah yes, of course."
Shikamaru shook his head. He understood the bloodlust and the reason for its emergence. But that would make it even harder to reign Kiba in as the team leader. He sympathized too much, had to fight against his own anger that constantly threatened to bubble to the surface.
Information about the invasion had been the cause for the Hokage to increase the difficulty of the second task. They hadn't been told, but it was easy to infer after the meeting last night. They had been supposed to thin out the masses. And they paid for it - dearly.
Still, the Hokage's plan had worked. Kiba knew it, understood for what cause Akamaru had died in the greater scheme of things. And behind Kiba's fake-relaxed strides, Shikamaru saw the march of a man lusting for revenge, his fury barely contained. Was he angry with the Hokage, or the invaders? Hopefully the latter. It'd be much easier to unleash such hatred there.
"You still remember what we talked about?" Shikamaru asked him.
"Yep," Kiba answered, looking around the house. Soon, a second team of Genin and more civilians would join them. "I'll herd them to a good spot. Hinata paralyzes them once you worked your shadows."
"Right. Hinata, you got that?"
Hinata nodded. She showed reluctance to fight, but it was a lot less than Shikamaru had expected. He chalked it up to the forest, like everything else. She must have reevaluated her priorities, or something.
It wasn't long before the other group arrived. He knew none of the Genin. The gray-haired team leader with glasses looked friendly enough though.
"I'm Kabuto," he told Shikamaru, shaking his hand. "I hope we can work well together."
"We'll be fine," Shikamaru answered. He introduced his teammates afterward, and they exchanged a brief summary of the group of civilians they were to protect.
"A medic?" Shikamaru asked, after seeing Kabuto healing a small scrape on the knee of a little girl. "I thought all medics were sent to the field hospital."
"Not all. We have one of the largest protection details. They wanted a medic with you at all times."
"Good for us then."
"Indeed. I'm not as good as the trained medic-nin – still Genin, you see? But I know a fair bit about healing. I hope I can be of use."
Shikamaru glanced at Hinata and Kiba who were talking to a few of the civilians. Having a healer on board was always good. He just prayed that they wouldn't need Kabuto at all.
Ibiki Morino waited for the single event that would drown the village in blood. He stood on the flat roof of a house half a mile away from Konoha's wall. Behind him, all available ANBU not stationed at the stadium formed groups of ten – easily manageable squads in a battle this size.
He would have preferred to stand his ground on the wall, but that wasn't an option anymore. The Intelligence Department had provided information about a summoning circle just outside Konoha. It appeared to be of incredible size, certainly a threat to be handled with great care.
"The fight between the Kazekage's son and Hyuga Neji began two minutes ago, Sir."
Ibiki turned around, nodding to the messenger who had spoken. He then let his gaze wander over the assembled troops. In ANBU, speeches weren't necessary. All of them knew the stakes. But while that was a truth, it wasn't the only one. Sometimes, necessity was only that. And sometimes, words – even to those who would have fought to their full potential anyway – could ignite a fire, an unquenchable flame that compelled them to give even more than everything.
But he wasn't a public speaker, and they knew that. None of them expected more than a few words. Ibiki turned to the wall behind which the summoning circle lay, and pointed at it. "When they come, match one life of ours with ten of theirs. Shame them, so that no deity, heavenly or otherwise, shows mercy on their souls."
They didn't applaud, and silence descended on the roof. Then, one by one, the ANBU drew their swords. They hit the guards against their chest plates once, before returning the swords to their sheaths.
Ibiki's lips twitched. That had been more of an emotional response than he had hoped for. He turned back into the direction of the wall, just in time to witness a humongous three-headed snake breaking through it.
"You all have your orders," he shouted over the noise of explosions. A few kunai shot his way from the incoming enemies, but a shield of wind surged up in front of him, directing them away. "Make them regret their audacity."
All around him, the elements rained down on Konoha's enemies.
"I don't understand it. We're protecting them. Why do they look at you like that?"
"You know the answer." Naruto glanced at Sakura, then at the group of citizen behind her. A few children and two elderlies.
"Ungrateful," Sasuke said. The civilians flinched back as they caught Sasuke's attention.
Naruto shrugged. "Doesn't matter. They won't change because you stared at them."
"This is ridiculous. How can you stand it?" Sakura asked.
Naruto smiled at her, but he doubted she saw it in the dim light of the bunker. "You learn to live with it. Besides, I found what's important."
An explosion ripped the door to the shelter apart. Shuriken whizzed through the air; a slew of masked shinobi followed. Naruto jumped in front of the civilians, parrying all projectiles until they hit the concrete floor. His eyes darted around the room.
"Don't panic," he said, as an enemy closed in on him. The group listened and stepped back, making place for him to fight. Fear outweighed distaste.
Naruto slid forward, lashing out with his fist, and transitioned into a kick. The reach of his leg was too short, but with a small surge of chakra, the latch at his sandal loosened. It smashed into the backpedaling man's face. A kunai followed the staggered frame, and with a squelch, the man sunk to the ground.
"Hn." The grunt came from a few feet to the left, where Sasuke stabbed his sword through the leg of a kunoichi, then decapitated her as she began to stumble.
"I'm fine, too," said Sakura, cleaning her kunai at the dark uniform of their attackers.
Naruto turned back to the civilians, making a quick headcount. "Everyone's still alive."
"Where did they come from?" Sakura asked, toppling one of the corpses. They had been briefed on the new headbands they'd encounter. "The whole idea of new shelters was that Oto and Suna wouldn't know their locations."
"Leaked information - great. Is there anything on them?" Naruto said.
Sasuke knelt down, searching the corpses, while Sakura positioned herself at the entrance, and Naruto kept an eye on the civilians.
"There's—" Sasuke's hand returned from beneath the bloodied vest, and he stared at a crumpled piece of paper. "… a map, marking the new shelters."
Sakura's eyes widened. "But how?"
"Who knows? Orochimaru will have his ways. Question is, what we do now that we know."
"The others are fighting too, probably. With the map we could help those in our general area at least."
"And what of us?" A civilian spoke up. "We can't fight them. You want to leave us here?"
Sasuke sighed. "He's got a point, Naruto."
Naruto rolled his shoulders and glanced over the group. "Let's take 'em with us. They're safer that way, than on their own."
Sakura frowned at him. "I agree, but it does go directly against our orders."
"The orders changed the moment Hokage-jiji's plan went south."
Naruto's lips curved upward, and he thumbed at the civilians behind him. "Whatever saves us and them."
"I'm fine with that," Sasuke said. "Doesn't make sense to stay here if the enemy knows where we are."
"Right, a regular protection detail then," Sakura said.
"We have to be careful and adjust our speed to that of our charges. Sasuke, can you scout out the way ahead and see if we're clear to leave the bunker?"
As Sasuke unsheathed his sword, leaving the shelter without a sound, Naruto walked up to Sakura. "They don't like me," he whispered in her ear. "Make sure they understand what's going to happen, and that they obey orders should we encounter hostiles."
Sakura nodded and after a moment of contemplation, turned to the group of civilians to explain the situation.
Billowing clouds of smoke rose on the horizon. "It's begun," Ino whispered.
"It seems that way, Ino-san," Shino said, renewing the bandages around his stump.
They sat in the field hospital, leaning against the wooden palisade surrounding it, and watched as dozens of medic-nin readied themselves. Due to their injuries, they hadn't been tasked with protecting Konoha's civilians, but the village still found use for them.
The field hospital was the last station the invaders could get to, which made it unlikely that it'd be attacked at all. The trust in Konoha's troops to keep Suna and Oto at bay was high. But a battle wasn't won on trust alone, and a small squadron of Chūnin and the injured shinobi like Shino and Ino made sure that even this location was defended in case of an attack.
"Have you seen Akimichi-san?" Shino asked.
"I believe he would join us if you were to cease shooting lightning out of your eyes."
Ino's lips pressed into a thin line. "I don't want him near me."
"You are justified in your reasoning, of course, bu-"
"I'm here because of him. I walked on crutches the past month because of him. My team was split because of him. You can be damn sure I don't want him anywhere even close to me."
Shino glanced at the far end of the field hospital, where Chōji and a few others were stirring ladles in huge pots. The Akimichi hadn't been injured in the forest, but as his capability to fight wasn't trusted anymore, he had been assigned to their squad, too.
"As I said, your anger is justified. But anger at your own comrades, justified or not, has no place on the battlefield. Your obvious distaste will only serve to make it harder for him to fulfill his duty this time around."
"I don't care. We're fucked anyway should they reach us," she said, turning away from Shino. "We have what, fifteen Chūnin? And us, of course. The armless, the legless, and the pacifist. Great."
"You are doing us a disservice, Ino-san. While it is true that we are disabled in some form, we still have the power to fight should it come to it."
"Listen to your friend, girl." The deep voice surprised both of them, and their heads snapped around to the man who had sneaked up on them. Half of his face was wrapped in bandages, as was his right arm which hung in a sling. He leaned on a wooden cane, and stared at them through a single, expressionless eye.
"Who are you?" Ino asked.
"Your commander," the man answered.
He lifted his chin, and an ANBU stepped out of the shadows next to Shino. "Danzō-sama, your bidding?"
"Deliver this to Nara Shikaku," Danzō said, throwing a scroll at the ANBU, who promptly vanished as soon as he had caught it.
Then, Danzō turned back to them. "I am in charge of the field hospital, and you should heed the words of your comrade, girl. Emotions have no place in a fight, least of all under my command."
Ino shrunk back. The man was intimidating, but bitterness soon won out against fear. Since her legs had been slashed in the forest, every move had become painful and no medic had the abilities to heal her wound. "Emotions or not, I'm useless at the moment," she spat, pointing at the pair of crutches. "I can't even walk without these damn things."
Danzō stared at her "Desist with your prattling, girl. Your view of a shinobi's capability is flawed. Are you carrying weapons?"
"Of course I am."
Danzō pointed at the wooden palisade. "Should an enemy scale this wall, throw your shuriken at him. If you hit even once, you've become useful."
Ino blinked, but Danzō was already walking away, starting a conversation with two Chūnin nearby.
"That was Elder Danzō," Shino said.
"You know him?"
"My family had dealings with him in the past."
"He scares me."
Shino nodded. "He is a dangerous man. His words, however, have merit, which is another reason not to shun Akimichi-san. I will do my best to keep attackers off you should it come to the worst, but a second person would greatly help in this endeavor."
"That's nuts. How could I trust him with my back again?"
"Can you afford not to? Besides, I doubt Akimichi-san hasn't come to few insights of his own."
"I-" Ino sighed. "I'll try, okay? No promises though."
"That is all I ask."
Minutes ago, the first explosions had occurred and Kabuto took the civilians down to the cellar, where they wouldn't have to witness the fighting.
Shikamaru was kneeling in the hallway, when a group of four Oto-nin pulverized the door to the house. As they crossed the threshold, Shikamaru formed a hand seal.
"Ninpō: Kagemane no Jutsu."
Black tendrils shot forward, snaking over the floor, the walls, the roof. The Oto-nin had no time to react, and struggled as the shadows reached them. Shikamaru stepped back, moving the captured shinobi away from the door.
Hinata, who had hidden herself in a corner, jumped behind the Oto-nin, lashing out with precise strikes to their chakra center. Soon, all but one enemy keeled over, unconscious for the moment. Hinata slid before the last Oto-nin, her outstretched hand hovering in front of his face.
"Do not move," she said, a slight hitch in her voice. "And do not speak either."
The door next to her opened, and Kiba stepped through it with wire gripped in his fists. He snarled at the Oto-nin, and bound the man's wrist as tight as he could.
Shikamaru walked up to his teammates. "Kabuto-san was right. Man, I really hoped this new shelter plan would work."
Hinata hit a point near the Oto-nin's lips, and his mouth slackened. "Speak only if we ask you a question," she told the man, activating her Byakugan for a second.
"Anyway, there's no telling if other parts of the plan are compromised," Shikamaru said.
"So… we'll hand him over?"
Hinata glanced at the Oto-nin. "I- I can't stop you, but this… this isn't a good idea."
"I know what you mean," said Kiba. "Makes me queasy just thinking about it. But we need to know what's going on."
Shikamaru grabbed the Oto-nin by the shoulder, and led him over to a flight of stairs – the way into the cellar. He looked at the frightened expression of their prisoner and sighed. This was distasteful. "I'm sorry," he whispered to the man. "But you left us no other option."
He knocked two times at the door, and it was opened a few seconds later, when Kabuto entered the hallway.
"You got one," Kabuto said.
"Are you sure you can get information out of him?" Shikamaru asked. "This better not be for nothing."
Kabuto stopped inspecting the prisoner, and glanced at Shikamaru. "It's the only way I know to get some intelligence. Medical techniques are useful in that area."
"Fine." Shikamaru turned away from Kabuto, dipping his head low. He didn't want to know what he'd see if he looked up at the faces of Hinata and Kiba. "Make sure to soundproof. No one needs to hear this."
"Will do." Kabuto pulled the prisoner into a room nearby. "For what it's worth… I hate doing this too," he said, before shutting the door.
"Is this really okay?" Kiba said, looking at Shikamaru, who leaned against the wall.
"It has to be."
Before Kiba could reply, Shikamaru's knees buckled, and the food he had eaten in the morning splattered over the floor. His chest heaved up and down; tears streamed down his face. He hadn't had many illusions about shinobi, but he'd never thought he'd order someone to be tortured. Killing someone, yes… but prolonged agony, no swift ending in sight? Just thinking about this fucked up world made his stomach lurch once more.
Hiruzen jumped toward his wayward student who still wore the robes of the Kazekage, and lashed out with his leg. Orochimaru blocked the attack, but Hiruzen followed up with a scissor kick. The steel-padded combat boots lent his combination the force it needed to balance out the weariness in his aged bones.
Orochimaru's body shot away, and Hiruzen raced through hand seals at a pace most would be hard pressed to follow. He smashed his right palm onto the tiled roof, and with naught but a whisper, a raging river of mud flooded the spectators box. As his right hand regulated the technique he threw five shuriken with the left, then weaved through one-handed seals.
"Ninpō: Shuriken Kage Bunshin no Jutsu."
The projectiles that had left Hiruzen's hand, multiplied by the dozens, chasing down Orochimaru who until then had focused all of his attention on diverting the stream of mud around him.
Having only seconds, Orochimaru substituted with one of the shuriken. The moment he had solid ground under his feet once more, he shot forward.
Hiruzen dodged the first punch, weaved around the second and third, and ducked under a kick amplified by wind chakra. He cut down two snakes which tried to ensnare him, then went on the offensive himself. After a lightning quick step, he had closed the distance completely and rammed his elbow into Orochimaru's stomach.
He frowned, as Orochimaru turned to mud. Where was his student hiding? The answer came in the form of Orochimaru's slightly agitated voice. There was anger in it, but also cruel amusement.
"You're holding up well, Sarutobi-sensei. I do believe, however, that we can up the ante, don't you think so? Kuchiyose: Edo Tensei!"
Orochimaru pressed his hands together, and a coffin rose out of the earth. Then a second one. Hiruzen's eyes widened as the third coffin appeared. He tried to stop it, finally understanding what his student was doing, but a sudden weight on his arm hindered him.
Another Earth Clone from Orochimaru held on to his left arm. Sweat trailed down Hiruzen's temple. If that third coffin rose, the consequences for Konoha would be catastrophic.
The hairs on his neck rose as he heard Jiraiya and saw him obliterate the coffin. Orochimaru lashed out at his former teammate, but Jiraiya, having accomplished his goal, jumped back and landed next to Hiruzen.
"You are a pest, Jiraiya. Not much has changed," Orochimaru said, serpentine eyes narrowed.
"I live to make you miserable, that's all."
Hiruzen stared at the two people Orochimaru had summoned, and his heart constricted. The feeling of sadness that permeated his whole body gave way to fury though, as he saw the cold smirk on Orochimaru's face. This had been a deliberate choice, and he'd make him pay for it.
"You sicken me, Orochimaru. But I am far too old to let you have your way that easily." Hiruzen avoided looking directly at his former teachers, lest the sight would weaken his resolve. "Jiraiya," he said. "You know what to do."
"Aye. Don't go easy on him, Sensei."
"I won't. This ends here."
Jiraiya nodded, and jumped away. His spinning kick sent both of the former Hokage flying from the spectators box. They smashed into the middle of the arena, leaving twin craters behind. Jiraiya shot Orochimaru a glare before he leaped off the roof to confront them.
Jiraiya landed in front of the Senju brothers. Their eyes were dead, not a spark of life contained in them. He dipped his head, and balled his fists. This went beyond anything he had imagined prior to the battle. He had expected trickery, they were dealing with Orochimaru after all, but to resurrect the dead?
Every fiber of his being resisted the possibility of fighting them. Those were the legends who had founded Konoha. The men Sarutobi-sensei had spoken about with a passion that burned bright enough to blind a man. Seeing them reduced to such a state made Orochimaru's crime weigh all the heavier.
He willed his body to obey, and settled into a defensive stance. He had to stall them, had to keep them away from his teacher's fight for as long as possible. Sarutobi-sensei was strong, but Orochimaru alone was more than enough for any man.
"Who are you?" Tobirama asked, folding his arms.
Jiraiya stared at him. "You can talk?"
"We can," Hashirama said, smiling. The sallow skin at the edge of his lips peeled away like broken wall paint. "I'm sure the man who called us had a purpose when granting us this ability."
"It is probable," Tobirama said. "I saw young Saru up there."
Hashirama chuckled. "Not so young anymore."
"Indeed." Tobirama looked at Jiraiya. "So, who are you?"
As interesting as their conversation was, Jiraiya focused only half of his attention on it. Ma and Pa had appeared in the shadow of a tree behind the two Senju, waiting for the right moment to jump on his shoulders and fuse with him. Preparations always paid off. Now he just had to position himself.
"The old man's student," Jiraiya said, shifting a bit to the right.
"Ah. And has Saru been a good teacher?" Hashirama asked. "He was frightfully self-conscious back in the—"
Tobirama clapped his hands together, interrupting his brother. "He commands us." His voice took on a deep timbre that resonated in Jiraiya's every bone. "Prepare yourself. Suiton: Suishōha!"
The earth between them broke open. A spiraling vortex of water shot up, towering several feet over Jiraiya, concealing the heaven above. Then it crashed down, the force of a thousand seas behind it.
Jiraiya jumped backward to avoid Tobirama's attack. From the corner of his eye, he saw Hashirama speed past him, toward the spectators box. Jiraiya pumped chakra into his legs and vanished, leaving cracked earth behind.
He reappeared in front of Hashirama, laying into the man with every bit of power he possessed. The first Hokage weaved through his punches with inhuman agility. He tried to slide past Jiraiya, his eyes fixed on the fighting pair on the roof. Noticing, Jiraiya lashed out with a kick. Hashirama blocked the leg with crossed arms. The power, however, sent him skidding back a few feet.
"Suiton: Suiryūdan no Jutsu!"
Jiraiya's eyes widened. He smashed his palms on the ground. Beside him, a wall rose. It shielded him at the same time as earth spikes erupted from the ground, shooting toward Hashirama. Tobirama's water dragon crashed against the wall. Once the danger passed, three Mud Clones formed out of it, and lunged at Hashirama while Jiraiya ran toward the second Hokage.
No punch hit. No kick landed. The reflexes of the younger Senju brother were insane. Tobirama's fist crashed into his face, and Jiraiya reeled back from the impact. Pain ran rampant through his body.
Only instinct saved him from being turned into bloody paste. Hashirama whirled toward him, leg extended. Jiraiya anchored himself to the ground. He blocked the kick. Behind him, his hair elongated and sharpened to keep Tobirama off his back.
Both Senju backed away for a moment as Jiraiya's hair formed a full cocoon around him. Sweat trailed down his brows. He panted slightly. This felt like soloing Hanzō – times two. He'd be able to hold out for a little while longer, that much credit he gave himself… but if the battle continued in this vein, the chances of one of them aiding Orochimaru would only rise. He glanced at the toad elders and sighed. Nature energy would definitely help, but the fight was far too fast-paced for them to fuse with him. A single misstep meant death.
"Saru taught you well," Tobirama said, staring at the feet-long hairs.
Jiraiya blinked. "Thanks, I guess."
"Unfortunately, our orders are to kill you. And now my brother, too, will be part of that."
"Wasn't he before?"
Hashirama shook his head. "Not really. My order was to assist our summoner."
"And that changed?"
"It did. Mokuton Hijutsu: Jukai Kōtan!"
Behind the first Hokage, roots the size of houses broke through the earth, winding around one another. Trees grew everywhere, and half of the stadium crumbled under the weight of his forest.
"I hope you can do more," Tobirama said, clapping his hands together once more. "If not, I fear for young Saru."
And as a tidal wave the size of the Hokage tower bore down on him, it dawned on Jiraiya just why these men had been hailed as the strongest of their time.
Sarutobi-sensei had better hurry. This would get ugly very soon.
One word from a single man. Between the explosions beyond the palisade, and the cries of agony from the wounded inside, it was but a whisper in a raging tempest. Yet, every ear heard, and every hand stilled.
There existed people who needn't raise their voice to get attention. Their presence alone conveyed intent. And, when contrasted against light, nothing was easier to see than the single black flame that had burned away in the shadows.
"Prepare yourselves. Defend the tree."
Shino stared at the man, who with little more than five words created waves. Some people encouraged with rousing speeches. This man, he recognized, had no need for such. Why would he, when each of his words carried the weight of a dozen sentences?
And if you listened closely, you heard what gave his words credence. The one quality that trumped all else, the bonfire on the cliff that defied the storm, flaring high even as rain and lightning raged against it.
Utter confidence in Konoha's supremacy. The absolute belief that no matter what the enemy may visit upon the village, it would always emerge victorious.
Hubris, perhaps. But such boundless confidence resonated. It connected, ignited. It kindled an indestructible faith in their own ability beyond what any deity could have achieved.
Shino faced the palisade, readying his colony and his weapons. Around him crippled shinobi, his friends included, sprang into action.
Shimura Danzō was a dangerous man. But today, Shino was thankful for that. Because Danzō had crushed his fear, his apprehension into powdered dust. And Shino smiled as, seconds later, the first enemy jumped toward him. For even should he perish in this battle, Konoha would never fall.
Of that there was no doubt.
AN: My thanks go out to DLP.