by The SOC Puppet
Part 20 – Power Plays
Summary: As the Leaf found itself under attack, many of its shinobi had to dig deep within themselves to defend their home. Naruto and company took care of the Sand-nin Kunimitsu, and took out Temari and Kankuro before Naruto was "drafted" by the Konoha Forest itself to fight Gaara's completed demonic form. Iruka proved that he was worthy of a place as a teacher of shinobi, by helping Anko and Hinata to finish off three Sound-nins. And as Kabuto led Sasuke off to try and turn his loyalties, Shino began to follow, holding his own suspicions.
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or any of the characters in this story, except for originals like the Uzumaki family. The characterization of the Fourth Hokage is all my creation, as is his relationship to Naruto. All jutsus are also not my invention, other than the ones that Naruto will learn as the story goes on.
" " – Speech
Italics – Thoughts
– Misc. Speech
"Amazing! If I didn't know any better, I'd say Naruto-kun managed to learn the secret of the First Hokage's ultimate jutsu!"
Sasuke was getting heartily tired of this "patrol mission" Kabuto had drafted him on. Between the lack of opponents, Kabuto's constant heaping of praise on that idiot, and now some giant wooden beast springing out of the forest to fight Gaara, he was giving serious thought to deserting his comrade and heading into the city to get some action.
The Genin was also giving thought to what the hell that wooden thing was. Naruto was becoming a great mystery, powers and techniques appearing seemingly out of nowhere. Most of it had happened where he couldn't see it. It didn't matter. The rumors were enough to start churning his thoughts into a froth.
The three Mist-nins in the Forest of Death, taken out in a single attack. Inuzuka Kiba, and then Hyuga Neji, both defeated in one-on-one combat. To have beaten the dog-boy was one thing. To take out the previous year's Number One rookie was another entirely. Next thing you knew, Naruto would be thinking he could win if the two of them faced each other; a wholly intolerable state of affairs.
All the confidence in the world meant nothing without concrete information. The Uchiha didn't create techniques. The Uchiha assimilated techniques. The world was their oyster. Genetic memory compensated for the lack of scrolls and oral instruction. You were taught the basics, and you took in the rest on your own. When his father had actually walked him through the Goukakyu no Jutsu, he'd looked ashamed at doing so. An Uchiha did not know so much as he intuited. Chakra flowed and was shaped, the body aping another's actions, a shadow of a shadow. But without information, eyes that could pierce the deepest secrets saw nothing at all. Nothing was gained, nothing taken. Stagnation. An utter waste of his time.
Orders were orders. Uchiha Sasuke kept listening - and fuming.
Farther away, Aburame Shino watched the silly farce continue. He'd seen Kabuto's little card trick before the Chuunin Exam started. For someone who relied so heavily on tangible data, the bespectacled Leaf-nin was showing himself to be just as comfortable spreading nonsense. First a phantom order to come to the back of beyond, and now praising Naruto to the heavens. None of it made sense. Certainly Uzumaki Naruto was skilled; victory didn't lie. But to have duplicated the First Hokage's tree summoning jutsu when even the Professor himself, the Third Hokage, was unable to do so? Ludicrous.
All of this praise was empty. Empty except in that it fulfilled some ulterior motive of Kabuto's in relation to Sasuke. Everyone knew the Uchiha survivor had it in for his older brother. Everyone could see that he would do anything to become strong enough to do so, even steal a hard-earned move from a shinobi who had little else like Rock Lee. Mentioning something powerful that he couldn't copy in his wildest dreams was guaranteed to get a rise out of Uchiha Sasuke.
But why? The exam was over and Kabuto had pulled out of it anyway. Fighting his own comrade – especially while the village was under attack – was totally illogical. Kabuto was simply not the type of shinobi to do something that made no sense. Those cards alone were proof. So why waste time baiting Sasuke when people were dying?
There was the obvious first impression all children had of adults. Maybe whoever had ordered Kabuto around (if he or she existed at all) was simply a moron. But the Leaf wasn't so hidebound that you couldn't ignore orders that made no sense. If Kabuto had been told to patrol an empty patch of forest, he'd have turned around and been in the thick of the fighting by now.
Next, there was the possibility that Kabuto was just a coward. Pulling out of the Chuunin Exam certainly supported that angle. But nobody was that stupid. Baiting Sasuke like this could lead to a fight, exactly the kind of thing a coward would want to avoid.
That led him to the most disturbing theory. Backstab or otherwise kill Sasuke out here, and Kabuto could probably get away with saying he'd killed a coward or traitor trying to flee. Naruto wasn't the only boy in the village who hated Sasuke and what he represented. In the chaos of an attack, nobody would even find Sasuke's body until it had decomposed enough to eliminate most of the evidence against his killer. Kabuto was just the sort to have all of the details planned out well in advance, including taking advantage of the situation to issue a fake, but plausible order.
Maybe he was jealous. Maybe he was a traitor. Either way, he was up to something. Shino adjusted his sunglasses slightly, moving to give himself a better vantage point and placing a single bug on the tree trunk next to him to take in the scene and report back to his family, if necessary. If Kabuto was to be stopped, he had to have proof of any wrongdoing. One didn't simply accuse the son of a chief medical officer of treason or murder without it.
As for Uchiha Sasuke, if he was really as good as advertised, he could take care of himself for a few seconds until help arrived.
It seems even logical boys are human.
"You seem distracted, student. Has your absence made you forget that I could fight once?"
Orochimaru scoffed at the Third Hokage, even as he brushed aside the slightest hint of irritation. Modifying his plans to attack the village had been dicey, to say the least. A grand illusion was never easy to pull off, and letting a team that hadn't practiced it do it instead of Kabuto was a risk he never would have allowed if the situation hadn't called for it.
The Uzumaki boy was showing his heritage now, one that didn't interest the sage, but would certainly push Sasuke towards finding its better. Finding him. There would never be a better time to turn the boy. He'd changed plans accordingly. Now all that was left was to wait for Kabuto's signal flare, and a new era would be ushered in. His era. Limitless potential for acquiring the knowledge he craved, all under his control. Akatsuki could have their demon. The Sharingan was the final step in making him a living god.
He was no god yet. Gods controlled all they surveyed. The affairs of mortals were beneath them, the swarming of gnats and insects. Gods did not have to depend on lackeys in a faraway forest to accomplish their aims, nor watch as potential tools were taken from them by disease and corruption. To be human was to confront inadequacy, day upon day. To face the specter of death. And if he had to go through a thousand bodies and souls to cheat it, so be it.
Ah, Kimimaro. Tremendous talent wasted in an inferior vessel, destined now to be lost to him. Destined to wither away, never seeing the glorious dawn of his immortality. A pity, but such was the fate of such fools as the Kaguya. It was imperative that he capture the Uchiha now, before human frailties could do their damage. But even if Kabuto succeeded, the man who stood in his way had to be dealt with before the snake Sennin could proceed. A hero, a genius, shrunken and ravaged by age. A fate he would never share. A fate that deserved mercy, in the form of oblivion.
"I was reflecting on the power of chance, Sarutobi-sensei. Who could have foretold this place would endure so long without being undone by its own hubris?"
"There is pride in a job well done," the Third rasped, "and then there is empty puffery. You never did understand the difference."
"Such words! Such pride in fulfilling another's goals! For what? Money? Glory? Nothing endures in this chaotic world. Nothing but life, for those few who find the secret. And when you found that I had discovered it, what did you do? You tried to kill me! Small wonder I found my own way instead."
The Hokage burned with secret shame, his greatest failure staring him in the face.
"And see what you have made of yourself. A mockery of the life you claim to champion, a mockery of a man. Spreading chaos, treachery and death, condemning children to an existence of pain and servitude. If that is life, it isn't worth living."
Mocking laughter. The mirth of a man who could not be bothered with such trivia. The old man gathered what little of his former strength was left.
"Shall I relieve you of your burdens and let you join your ancestors?"
The Hokage removed his robe to reveal armor, the clash of metal drowning out the creaking of joints.
"Death will come for me when I have accomplished all the duties left to me, and not before. You will just have to make do until I join you in the afterlife."
Orochimaru roared his laughter across the roof of the stadium.
"And who is doing the empty puffing now?"
"There is, as always, only one way to find out."
"Is there a reason we're just standing here watching that tanuki wave its tail and giggle like a maniac?"
Naruto stood atop the Avatar's wooden construct, the dragon's inhuman golden eyes staring coldly at its demonic foe. The nature spirit made a noncommittal noise.
'I have never battled Shukaku, though I know of it. It is unwise to enter a battle blind. First blood is for bragging rights, but only heart's blood counts.'
The Genin spat in Gaara's general direction.
"In other words, you don't want to let him make an ass out of you, so you're gonna counter instead of tryin' to use the few seconds we had of surprise to kick his tail."
The dragon's silence was damning.
"Why am I not surprised in the slightest?"
'You will one day learn that politics are not just for humans and animals.'
"Look, we're here to defend this place, damn it! Don't go accusing my mother of shirking her duty if you're gonna stand around and fret about lookin' bad to the other walking leaf-heads!"
'Do not presume to order me around like a minion. The last human to make such a mistake never drew upon my power again.'
"Then show me why I'm supposed to respect you, or slink back into the forest and let me do my job!"
Anything the Avatar would have said was cut off by the cackling of Gaara, or what the Sand-nin had become.
"UZUMAKI NARUTO. YOU'RE NO FUN. YOU'RE GOING TO DIE AT MY HANDS."
'Better beings than you have tried and failed. Miserably.'
The tanuki-thing inhaled a giant breath, then emptied its lungs in a blast of air, drumming its gut with a powerful blow.
"FUUTON: RENKUUDAN (Wind Element: Drilling Air Bullet)!"
Naruto felt branches grab him and draw him inside the dragon's head, his vision becoming an amber haze as he stared through the Avatar's "eyes."
'Fool. The willow bends but does not break.'
The dragon curled its "toes," roots digging into the ground to anchor it as the wooden beast crouched down underneath Shukaku's attack. Wind howled and trimmed stray branches off its hardened surface, its force otherwise blunted. Naruto grinned mostly to himself.
"Now that's more like it."
'Do not get used to this. Shukaku requires a medium to enter the world. For now the medium is in control. but should something happen to the medium to make its consciousness retreat, this battle will become more difficult than anyone could have imagined.'
"Retreat? Wouldn't that happen when he goes to sleep or something? Seems to me your brain ain't working when you're conked out."
'Have you looked at the medium's eyes? Vessels of Shukaku do not sleep, if they wish to keep their souls intact. Any loss of control, intentional or not, is an opening to allow the demon to grasp power. Once it has done so, it does not give back what it has stolen. The ultimate result can only be the death of the vessel's humanity.'
"How is that any different from how this maniac already acts?"
'You do not want to know.'
"Then what are we supposed to do?"
'If the medium loses consciousness, he will have to be disturbed, lest Shukaku enter a state in which even I will have difficulty containing him. Certainly he will do his utmost to keep the medium from being touched or otherwise interfered with. If we are to succeed, Shukaku will have to be distracted. I am told you are good at such things.'
"Yeah, pretty much."
'We will come to that. For now, I shall remind this trash I am no mere beast to be hunted.'
Tree trunks and vines shifting positions, the dragon converted itself from a blocky, stout form to a longer, sinewy body, trading power for speed. The Avatar bunched its now-lengthened tail and hind legs, springing forth at the giant tanuki. Naruto braced himself against the back of his enclosure as momentum pressed him backwards, trying to figure out how best to deal with the creature Gaara had become.
"Don't go for the head straight off! Knowing what you just said, he's gonna expect us to try and take Gaara out. Feint at his head and cut his legs out from under him. While he's reforming 'em I can take a shot at Gaara!"
'Ambitious, but within reason. You will have to be accurate and decisive. I doubt Shukaku would allow you more than one clean attack.'
"I'll think of something."
'Do so quickly. In the meantime, we attack!'
Spikes in the form of roots began to grow all along the charging dragon's spine. Leaping up, the Avatar whipped itself into motion, snapping the spikes off and launching them at Shukaku's face.
'Threaten my lands, will you?'
The giant tanuki smashed aside the rain of wood with another blast of air, forcing the dragon to twist aside to avoid its own attack. The Avatar grumbled something that sounded like a curse as it landed. Naruto looked at where Shukaku was already beginning to prepare for another assault.
"Is wood all you can send at him? One good blast of sand and he's gonna grind through any tree or wall you can put up."
'I am a nature spirit. The elements are easy enough to control. But this place not the village of the Hidden Leaf? It seemed somehow appropriate.'
"Appropriate? We're not trying to score points for sticking to the script!"
'I assume you have a suggestion then?'
"Yeah. Gimme a second or three."
Tenten, watching the action from the forest below, nearly jumped into the nearest tree when a hand tapped her on the shoulder.
"Hey, ya mind if I borrow something from you?"
The black-haired kunoichi bristled at being surprised in the middle of a battle.
"Don't DO that!"
"Do what?" he shrugged. "It's just a Kage Bunshin."
"I meant don't just tap my shoulder from behind in the middle of a fight between giant dragons and tanukis and bears and stuff! Do you want me to put a kunai between your eyes out of reflex?"
The Naruto clone developed a large sweatdrop.
"Um, you did hear the booming noise when I showed up, right? It's kinda hard to miss."
It was at that moment Tenten discovered that Kage Bunshins tended to go pop when you stuck them with pointy objects. She was also to discover that Naruto learned social lessons at a pace only slightly slower than a sloth's. Another clone appeared in a burst of smoke.
"What the hell did ya do that for? I'm in the middle of a battle here! This is serious stuff!"
Face flushed with equal parts rage and embarrassment, Tenten popped this clone too.
"Shut up, you stupid loudmouth!"
Up inside the Avatar, Naruto rolled his eyes. This time he wasn't taking any chances. Two clones appeared to his teammate's sides, holding her arms in place, while a third popped up right in the kunoichi's face.
"Dammit, calm down! I'm sorry already! I just need a Fuuma Shuriken!"
"Get your own!" she snapped at him.
"What do you think, I just walk around with giant flying blades stuffed in my pockets? You're the only one I know that's got easy access to that stuff!"
"What happened to summoning gigantic animals and blowing up the scenery?"
"I used that on humans! Take a damn look! I'm tryin' to fight off a hundred-foot tall tanuki demon thing! I'm pretty sure that calls for a change in tactics! You know, like working as a team?"
Tenten snapped back without even having to consider it.
"Some team. You're not even going to attempt to let us help you. This is our village too, Naruto."
Naruto released her, two of the three clones disappearing. So that was what was behind all of this.
"You all told me you were out of chakra! What was I supposed to think?"
She pointed up to where the real Naruto and Avatar were busily attacking and counterattacking Shukaku.
"How am I not supposed to want to fight? One wrong move and we could all be crushed by that thing! If I'm going to die here, I'd rather do it fighting for something I believe in, even if it's just with a tool. It doesn't take chakra to throw a shuriken."
The remaining clone fixed her with a piercing stare.
"You seriously want in?"
"Would I still be standing here if I didn't?"
"Got a point there. All right, you're in. When the time's right, I'll give you guys a signal and the rest of the plan. You might want to tell Neji and Ino before you rope them in though."
She drew one of her scrolls out warily, eyeing the battle above.
"I don't get it. What are you going to do with one Fuuma Shuriken against a hundred-foot tall tanuki demon thing?"
The clone grinned a fox grin.
"Test out an old wives' tale."
Turning, the Kage Bunshin motioned to Neji, Ino and Lady Sunflower, the bear chief still sitting atop Temari and Kankuro.
"Get under cover! You don't wanna be exposed to the elements when this really gets going!"
"What plan? You make plans and things start blowing up all over the place."
"Exactly, so unless you enjoy hospital food, you'd better get the hell out of here. You can leave the Sand freaks there if you like. I would, anyway."
'Ah, cruelty,' Lady Sunflower chuckled. 'The hallmark of humanity.'
The clone shrugged.
"Step onto someone else's turf and threaten their people, you deserve what you get. Now go already!"
The three Leaf Genin (and one bear) moved into the trees, Neji hogtying the Sand siblings. The Kage Bunshin watched them for a few seconds before turning and hurling the Fuuma Shuriken towards the Avatar. The real Naruto stretched a hand out of an opening in the wooden dragon's head, drawing the weapon inside.
'What exactly do you intend to do with something that puny against a creature of Makai?'
"Brew up a few stormclouds and we'll see. But first, toss as much dust and leaves as you can into the air. I'm gonna need cover to try this out; better to make it look natural instead of me usin' a smoke bomb or something."
'Look at its head!'
Through the dragon's amber eyes, Naruto caught sight of Gaara's hands moving into position in front of him. Something like triumph mixed with horror suffused the Sand-nin's expression as he barked out a command.
"Tanuki Neiri no Jutsu (Spell of Fake Sleep)!"
The Avatar cursed as Gaara slumped over, motionless.
'Thrice-damned demonspawn! We are in for it now.'
The giant tanuki burst into a fit of insane laughter, madness now apparently complete.
"FREEDOM AT LAST! FREE TO PILLAGE, DESTROY – AND KILL! YOU'RE FIRST UP!"
'And here our troubles begin…'
"So unfortunate. Now it seems the fighters are equally matched. Well, I'm sure Naruto-kun can handle himself even in the face of such an opponent!"
A trivial comment, but it was the hundredth one in less than half an hour from Kabuto. Even Shino would have started snapping at the four-eyed Genin by now, to say nothing of Sasuke.
"Would you shut up about that bottom of the class idiot? I don't need to hear about all the things he can do!"
"No, I suppose you don't," Kabuto mused as if to himself. "Especially when there are many more ways to achieve true power."
The Uchiha boy muttered an unrepeatable curse under his breath. Who was this fool trying to puff up now?
"I see you don't believe me. Doesn't that mark on your neck say it all? Orochimaru wasn't born with that power. He had to get it from somewhere."
"How the hell would you know about that?"
"Common sense, which you seem to lack. Never fear, though, that can be learned as well."
"From you?" the black-haired Genin sneered.
Kabuto's reply fairly dripped false cheer.
"Oh, I could try, but you wouldn't want to learn from me."
"If you already know about that, then shut up and drop it."
"Suit yourself," Kabuto sighed. "You'll never get anyone to take you on the path to real power with that attitude."
Sasuke slashed his hand down in the air between the two of them.
"First you drag me along on a crappy mission to the middle of nowhere and now all this talk about phantom teachers? Let's just get this over with so you can annoy someone else!"
He was mildly surprised when the other Genin turned around, eyes hooded and dark even through his glasses.
"I told him you wouldn't understand. I told him you were neither ready nor worthy. But who am I to disagree with the master? All that power to be offered to a child neither deserving nor understanding of its magnitude? A complete waste. And yet here we are."
Sasuke (and Kabuto as well, it seemed) were too engrossed in trying to bore holes through each other with nasty looks to notice a bug on a nearby tree, watching the scene. Shino's eyes narrowed at the mention of "the master." Kabuto was more and less than what he seemed. Less loyal, and more dangerous.
"What master would be stupid enough to have you working for him?"
The Sound spy's retort was sharp enough to cut steel.
"The one who gave you that seal."
Even Shino's eyebrows rose at that one. Suddenly rumors of an S-class former Sennin lurking around the village didn't sound so stupid after all. Sasuke's reaction was a bit less thoughtful. Then again, who would have begrudged him drawing a kunai and attacking the servant of the man who'd caused him all that pain with his cursed seal?
When he attacked, Uchiha Sasuke's strikes were strong and true, fitting of a boy at the top of his class. They were also useless against a shinobi who served as Orochimaru's right-hand man. Kabuto shifted aside sinuously, letting the kunai simply graze his shoulder, the wound healing almost as soon as the knife passed by. The medic-nin's hands passed to either side of Sasuke's head, the barest hint of azure indicating chakra being channeled. The world vanished into stygian darkness.
"If power were determined by blood alone, you would be no better than a mewling kitten right now, Sasuke-kun. What is an Uchiha without his eyes?"
This was fairly spat from the lips of Kabuto, the honorific laden with sarcasm. Shino readied his own weapons (and bugs), preparing to move in as the cavalry, when something stopped him. The sound of Sasuke's voice, uncertain with a hint of intrigue.
"And just what is the power you claim he can teach?"
"What he took away," Kabuto replied silkily, "he can return to you. The seal is proof of your worthiness, and the gate to greater power than even the Leaf could conceive of. Jutsu unseen for centuries. Dark creatures of greatest might. Even immortality."
Sasuke spat at something out of sight, but not out of mind.
"If he knows me, then he knows what I want. He can have immortality. I just want a head to lay before my family's graves."
"Easily done for one such as Orochimaru-sama. You will, of course, have to leave the Leaf. I somehow doubt they would let you join our Sound Village voluntarily."
Shino stayed behind his cover, waiting for the answer. There was still enough time to see whether this was all a ruse to lull Kabuto into distraction.
"How are you involved in all of this?"
"Couldn't be simpler. I served one master, and now I serve another. He wants you – I can't see why, but who am I to overrule him?"
"Fine. Shut up, take me there and then get out of my way."
Maybe it was a flashback of the massacre, or the shock of seeing Naruto controlling powers worthy of a founding Kage. Feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, impotence. Something as simple as frustration. In the end it didn't matter. It was treason. Understandable or not, coerced or not, it was treason. Betrayal. A capital offense. And the last of the vaunted Uchiha leaving the Leaf.
Silent commands issued, and the swarm was loosed. Old Sound-nin and new Sound-nin turned at the sound of Shino's icy tone.
"Your teammate faces a monster to defend the village; you sell it out while others fight and die. Who is the real idiot?"
Kabuto looked back coolly.
"Some say fighting an unwinnable battle is the mark of a fool."
A cloud of bugs surrounded Shino, the tempest stirring, tensed to strike.
"It is only futile if the traitor escapes alive."
"You can kill him fighting two against one? Your bravado is as big as that cloud of bugs!"
Shino's mouth curled into a twisted smile behind his collar, bugs buzzing to his side by the thousands as they responded to his call.
"You were correct. An Uchiha without his eyes is nothing. I will settle for that, something even you cannot heal, if I can achieve nothing else. And if he dies, then he dies. I will mourn his stupidity, but not his memory."
Kabuto made a pass of his fingers over the same spot where he had blinded his new convert, a Naruto-like smirk on his face.
"Something I cannot heal? Don't be silly."
The smile on Shino's face stayed right where it was.
"You cannot heal what will no longer exist. If you could, what need would Orochimaru have of this traitor?"
Old Sound-nin glanced at "new" Sound-nin.
"Well, I'm not the one hindering you now. What are you going to do about it?"
His sight restored, Sasuke's hands did most of the moving.
"Eliminate it. Stray into my path and I won't guarantee you anything either."
"Do what you like," the silver-haired man sighed.
Shino didn't move, even when flames burst forth from Sasuke's mouth, the fireball his first instinctive attack. The cloud of bugs scattered and the bug-user disappeared, a log left behind to burn. The Leaf-nin cursed inwardly at the risk he was taking with his "charges." Fighting Kabuto, with or without Sasuke's help, would have been difficult, but he could have at least used normal tactics. Fighting Sasuke would require much more care – and subtlety. Fighting both? A fool's game at best.
If he wanted to do any real damage, he'd have to separate them – or find a way to control the battlefield. The bug user didn't like leaving his prey behind to try and escape, but if he died now there would be nobody to raise the alarm. Better to back off and try this, than charge forward and waste his weapons – and his life.
There was one saving grace; the Sharingan did not offer full coverage of the battlefield like the Byakugan would have. As long as he stayed out of visual range he could direct his bugs at will; his commands were mental and not chakra-based. Landing on a faraway branch, watching Sasuke and Kabuto search for him, Shino pondered his options. His father's teachings came to him slowly as he thought.
Make the battlefield your weapon.
Hordes of termites scattered on silent command, eating away at breakneck speed inside the great trees of Konoha, unseen and unheard. Beetles and dragonflies carried explosive seals to and fro, inert without the hand seal to ignite them. Shino's caricature of a grin returned.
Fire blossomed as trees exploded, Shino setting the forest ablaze in an instant.
Kabuto and Sasuke were shinobi. Falling trees were easy to avoid with a little aerial gymnastics. But every second spent deciding on a new direction to jump and avoid a falling trunk was another second that a stray bug here or there went undiscovered.
"I think I'll let you have some fun with him," the bespectacled man said. "Orochimaru-sama ordered me to notify him when we were ready to set out."
Sasuke didn't even bother watching him go, preferring to keep looking for Shino. There was no point charging up a Chidori at the moment, as the bug user was nowhere to be seen. Before Orochimaru did anything about the curse seal, he had maybe two or three uses of the Chidori a day, and one of those had already been used to puncture Gaara's sand shell. The best way to do things would be to flush Shino.
"Katon: Housenka (Fire Element: Mythical Fire Flower)!"
Fireballs shot out from Sasuke's position, followed quickly by shuriken and any other thrown weapon he could reach, all spraying outwards in different directions. The missing-nin didn't check to see if any hit. He was more interested in sound than blood – the sound of rustling bushes from an escape, or the clash of metal deflecting his thrown weapons. Shino could hide his bug controls, but not his movements. You didn't need 360-degree vision to see that.
A subtle snapping of twigs was all he needed to hear. Charging a Chidori on the fly, Sasuke flashed across the forest floor towards Shino, landing after jumping out of a tree. The Leaf Genin didn't make a bug clone of himself – that would have been a waste anyway; instead, he began backpedaling quickly, even though he was losing ground steadily to Sasuke's speed.
Sasuke watched as bugs began to layer themselves all over the front of Shino's body, indifferent to the covering.
"I broke through Gaara's defenses with this! You think your bugs will save you!"
Why the hell was he smiling with a killing blow headed for him? Sasuke determined to wipe the smile – and perhaps the face – off this new obstacle. His arm pushed forward through the insect barrier, energy surrounding it with lethal intent – and then his entire world was set ablaze, vision hazy and skin burning as though aflame.
"These are bombardier beetles." Shino said coldly. "They may not save me, but they will be the death of your usefulness. One bug can kill another. A swarm will char you to cinders. But all I need to destroy is those eyes in order to do my duty."
Sasuke struck out in the direction of his enemy's voice, but even he knew it was futile. His fist caught nothing but air. He needed something better. Something Shino couldn't see or prepare for.
Keep him talking. Track his voice or trap him, but get him close.
"You honestly think Kabuto will just let you kill me after all that crap he spewed about Orochimaru needing me?"
"You told him yourself not to get in your way, and he was not inclined to protest. He will take his time getting back from wherever he went. Time enough for you to be dealt with."
True. Even now he recoiled at the very idea of having to be saved by that smug bastard. But speaking of smug…
"What do you get out of it? If you're so strong, you ought to be doing the same thing I am and finding a way to grow even stronger! Don't get mad at me because I'm doing what you're afraid to!"
Sasuke might not have been able to see, but he could detect the slight catch in Shino's voice, still at the same distance.
"Do not try to compare my motivations with yours."
Don't play holier-than-thou with me, bug boy.
"Oh, come on. You think anyone can hear you out here other than Kabuto and me? You got screwed even worse than I did when the teams were assigned. Naruto's an idiot, but at least he's got some power. You got a barely-human idiot with a puppy and a shrinking little mouse. Your sensei's only good at genjutsu, which a smart enough ninja can break through anyway. Admit it. You deserved better and you know it!"
"That is the difference between us. You run from the challenge of working with those weaker than you. I have embraced it. When I am promoted, it will be over with in any event. The only fear here is yours – of honest work."
"What does honesty get you when someone squashes you underfoot like one of your bugs?" Sasuke spat. "Nothing. People remember winners. Winners get things done. Dreamers talk. Winners do. An ideal isn't worth the breath you take to talk about it if you can't back it up."
Shino's thin laugh was pinched by sarcasm.
"Are you trying to turn me or convince yourself?"
"What makes you think I need to do either? What's the world coming to when you can't even try and do someone a favor?"
His eyes narrowed as Shino's voice began to get closer.
"I need no favors from you."
"What a laugh. You want to finish it, then finish it. Just don't blame me when you wake up in bed one early morning and realize you never took a chance!"
Shino took a step forward, in spite of himself.
How dare he equate himself with me?
One step was all Sasuke needed, blindness forcing him to rely on the rest of his senses. Whirling around, he charged the area where the air had stirred – and caught air with his outstretched fist.
"You missed," Shino said.
The bug-user was halfway into sending a final command to his bombardier beetles when his world exploded in pain and azure light.
Sasuke heard the "hunter-nin" slam into a nearby tree, pained grunt bringing a smile to his face.
As much as he hated to give any credit to Naruto, Sasuke owed it to him for even being able to touch Shino in his current condition. The idiot couldn't even complain about one of his moves being stolen. Charging up a Chidori internally wasn't nearly the same as that self-titled bomb. It seemed to work all the same. Better, in fact. Redirecting his chakra out of his feet had given him the burst of speed necessary to make contact with Shino.
He'd lost the piercing power of the normal Chidori, but he couldn't have used it blind anyway. Turning it into a blunt impact was enough for now. Sasuke made another grudging admission – he needed this to buy time for Kabuto to get back. The internal Chidori trick wouldn't work twice and he was fast running out of ideas. If he could get his sight fixed, he could finish it. If not, Shino would get his smirk back.
There were too many things he needed, and too few things under his control. His decision to join Orochimaru was looking better by the minute. The sooner he had enough power to control his own destiny, the sooner he would be free of having to rely on anyone, especially smug assholes like Kabuto. But before then…
Where the hell did he get off to?
Naruto stared as Shukaku continued to cackle in its insane high-pitched giggle. He looked through the Avatar's eyes as he addressed the nature spirit.
"So it's more insane than ever! What's the big problem?"
'The medium is familiar with Shukaku's power, but it does not have the experience to make full use of it in this form. Shukaku knows exactly what it is capable of doing. You had better plan well.'
"You better believe I've planned well. Can you keep this form and still make more things grow out of the ground?"
"Okay. Start brewing up the biggest thundercloud you can, with rain and such. When I give the signal, toss up those spikes or something destructive at Gaara. If he uses that wind jutsu to deflect it he'll have to anchor himself. That's when you grab him with every root you can possibly grow. I'll give you the rest of the plan if this part actually works."
'If? My optimism is dropping by the second.'
"It's my first time dealing with a crazy bastard who's also got a demon. I'm a little out of my element."
'Why? Either you win or you lose. There is only one way to find out which.'
"Fine, brew that storm and grow some vines. I'm going to give the signal to the guys down there to start the plan."
'Some action for once…'
The Avatar's snide comment stopped abruptly. The wooden dragon stumbled and then slumped drunkenly to all fours, some of its outer "skin" slackening and falling to earth. Naruto shook his head to clear the cobwebs, looking around to see Shukaku point at them and laugh even harder.
"What the hell's going on?"
'If I did not know better, I would say someone or something is trying to tap into my power.'
"Yeah. You're talking to him."
'Besides you. It should not be possible, and yet it is happening. I do not understand, but I will have an answer.'
"This shouldn't be happening. It can't be happening."
Orochimaru nearly yawned, nonplussed by the Third's stunned expression.
"And yet it is, Sarutobi-sensei. Isn't that funny?"
Teacher stared in at student – and his own two teachers. His disbelief quickly faded, to be replaced by seething rage.
"To destroy the bounds of life and death for yourself, I could have foreseen. You were never so motivated as when you could advance your own ends. But to desecrate the souls of those already gone…I'm ashamed of myself as a teacher."
The mad sennin waved a hand in dismissal.
"Oh, why do they always resort to petty melodrama? It couldn't be simpler! The world is better off when it's in motion. Entropy drives man to greater heights than he could ever imagine. It drives him to invent, to improvise, but most of all to evolve. In that environment, there is instantly more to learn, more to acquire. It's the perfect place for me to exist. Why begrudge me a little help from the past to get there?"
The Third's face contorted, an unfamiliar look of rage settling upon it.
"Help implies that you asked for it, or were given it willingly."
"Yes, there is that. You always were good at semantics."
The Hokage said nothing, but his insides were twisting themselves in knots, cold logic's effect. He was overmatched; had been overmatched since the day he'd let Orochimaru live. Then, he'd been aging. Now, he was just old.
"Semantics? Right and wrong have nothing to do with words. Compassion, decency, honor! They're not words to be tossed around, they separate man from beast!"
Pivoting quickly, the Third's hands swept across the village from the rooftop vantage.
"This was the place that gave you life! That nurtured, educated, and allowed you to become what you are! It burns, Orochimaru! Blood stains the streets and screams fill the air!
"It wasn't enough for you to disturb their eternal rest! Now, to imply that the men who built this village would ever be party to its destruction is unforgivable, the action of neither man, beast nor savage!"
Orochimaru's eyes lit up with an inhuman glow, the Third's words triggering something in the madman's heart.
"YES! Precisely! I have transcended mere humanity, even nature itself! What right have you to judge me by the standards of my inferiors?"
The Third tightened his focus, drawing in what remained of his chakra.
"The right of a man to fix his mistakes."
"You're welcome to try."
Orochimaru walked away, motioning to his pawns to continue the fight. The Third watched his teachers' hands intently, trying to prepare a counter move if he had to. As soon as he caught sight of the First Hokage, he knew that was a waste of time.
One cannot truly counter what is unique.
"Mokuton Hijutsu: Jukai Koutan (Wood Element Secret Technique: Forest Genesis)!"
'MORIOKA! Arrogant human pest! Even from the grave he plagues me!'
Naruto hadn't been paying attention to the Avatar's ranting. He was too busy trying not to get splattered all over the place as Shukaku batted the paralyzed dragon around. Even so, hearing the nature spirit start screaming at a dead man was enough to confuse him.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
'I knew that touch was familiar! It is the human who I made the mistake of lending my power to, the one who built this cursed place to begin with!'
"The First Hokage? How can he be pulling power from you if he's dead?"
'Gaia's children do not break solemn oaths. Once upon a time I agreed to lend this man my power. Now that he calls upon it again, I cannot but obey, be he man, ghost or demon.'
"And that's what's stopping you here?"
'Summoner's Dissonance. A spirit cannot be called upon twice at the same time and manifest its full power – both summoners will meet with failure.'
Naruto thought it over, but something was nagging at him.
"I remember you saying this wasn't a summon, just you showing up to fight because you felt like it, and I shouldn't get any big ideas about you being at my beck and call. What happened to that?"
'I cannot be summoned in the truest sense of the term. That is why your dragon construct is still standing. My agreements with humans lend power. The one who requests the power can shape it as he pleases. And my power, while greater than humans can comprehend, is not unlimited. If too many call upon it at once, it will be diluted to the point where little or nothing is forthcoming to each caller, as with diminishing returns. Still, whatever that damned fool is trying to do is not working properly, so there is some good out of this.'
"If you have any one-handed jutsu, Sarutobi-sensei, now would be the time to use them."
Orochimaru chuckled to himself as the Third hung in the air, suspended in a tangle of wood, hands and feet apart to prevent him from using any jutsu. Or at least, that was the idea. For some reason, the wood kept going slack every other second, forcing the First Hokage to continually retighten his hold on his prisoner. An annoyance, but a manageable one – for now. Even so, give the old man enough time and he'd figure out a way to escape.
"Very nice, this toying with him, old boy, but I think it's time we finished it, hmm?"
The captured spirit simply turned its empty gaze onto the Third and set its hands to work.
'The fool doesn't know when to quit!'
Naruto was getting really tired of jumping around trying to avoid Shukaku's attacks and watching the Avatar do nothing but gripe about it. As usual, his mouth ran faster than his brain.
"Look, it's just a bigger game of tug-of-war. If the other guy's pulling, then either pull harder or drop the rope and let the bastard fall on his ass!"
The Avatar, never a very forgiving being, chose the latter – and blew the power channel to the First wide open.
The Third had just enough time to hear a cracking noise before the pain sent him spinning down into dark oblivion.
Signal flares are designed to be seen. Whether an observer actually realizes what the flare is supposed to mean is another matter entirely.
The defending Leaf-nins paid the yellow and green chemical light no heed, save to note where it came from in case they had to fight whatever was there later. Their orders weren't given by flare. Iruka, Anko and Hinata, still prowling around looking for a fight, ignored the flare altogether in favor of looking for Sand-nins to pick off.
The attacking Sand-nins also ignored the signal. Most of them were too busy fighting for their lives and their orders had been permanently locked since well before arriving at the Leaf.
That left the Sound forces to realize what was being signaled – that their master's secondary goal had somehow been accomplished. Orochimaru himself, still surveying the Third's limp body, was torn. He could see the old man unconsciously clinging to his last spark of life, chakra flickering dangerously in and out of his senses. Despite his unflappable expression, the mad sennin was really tempted to snuff that spark out.
In the end it was just a brief thought. Mad he was, but Orochimaru wasn't blind to logic. Soon enough the Leaf would counterattack. He'd lived there long enough to know that such a small attack force could never destroy the Village, only wound it. Every Anbu team in the local area would even now be on its way back to turn the tables.
Besides, the Sand would discover what he had done with the real Kazekage sooner or later. Not soon enough to make them retreat from this battle, but he'd be better off being very far away in any case. Something of a touchy subject, that would likely prove. No sense letting greed lead to violence.
"This round goes to me, sensei," he said for posterity. The old man was well beyond actually hearing him. "Do try to be prepared for the next one. I won't give you a warning this time."
He turned to his four minions, still keeping the flame barrier up.
"Uchiha Sasuke is ours. I'm off to meet up with Kabuto. Cover my retreat. The Hokages will assist you while my chakra is still close enough. When they dissipate, leave. I expect the others will be along shortly."
There was no sense wasting valuable resources when they could be used in further plots, after all.
Naruto wasn't gifted with an all-seeing crystal ball like the Third. He had no idea what had just happened back at the stadium, or what might be going on in the village proper. All he knew was that the Avatar had just roared in triumph, and the dragon was whole again.
'Impudent insect! Distract ME, will you?'
"Enough with the pissing contest! Let's finish Psycho Raccoon Boy and go home!"
'If a storm is what you want, a storm you will have.'
The Leaf Genin braced himself and sent a Kage Bunshin back to earth. The clone popped up in front of Tenten and the others to give them a thumbs-up.
"We're good to go! When you see the rain start to fall, start chucking every weapon you can find at that psycho up there. Me and the Avatar will take care of the rest!"
"That's the stupidest plan I've ever heard of!" Tenten snapped. "He just blew up a hundred feet of forest with a sneeze and you think a bunch of human-sized weapons will scratch him?"
The clone gave her a look that bordered on maniacal.
"All it takes is one."
"One in how many chances?"
"I don't know! You're the one who's supposed to have perfect aim. I promise, you'll understand when it's all over. Just don't go tying any strings to 'em. You wouldn't like the ride."
Tenten unlimbered the scrolls in her pouch.
"You screw this up, and I'm going to make you get these all back by yourself."
The clone made a rude noise.
"I screw this up and we're all going to be buried in the world's newest desert."
"Nice incentive," the girl sniffed.
Naruto, up inside the Avatar, snorted.
Clouds gathered overhead, darkening ominously to match the smoke drifting skyward from the Hidden Leaf. The Avatar muttered as quietly as it could to Naruto.
'I doubt I can summon lightning to a specific point without Shukaku noticing somehow. I will say that much for the demon's perception. There WILL be lightning, but it will have to be random if you want it at all.'
Naruto was learning that the Avatar only helped as much as it felt like helping. He'd planned ahead.
"Hey, as long as lightning works like it's supposed to, we still oughta be okay. Can you at least warn me when a bolt's going to strike near him?"
'I said I was being careful, not that I was powerless.'
"Fine! Forget I asked. Let's just get started. Don't bother with the vines; they'll only clue him in. Here's what I need you to do while the guys down there get their weapons ready…"
The dragon roared, its form shifting for what Naruto hoped was the last time. As irrational as the Avatar could get, one of these days he was liable to wind up being skewered by an errant branch. The head, already "bearded" by foliage in the tradition of Eastern dragons, grew multiple horns and something resembling a long, willowy mane. Discarding the sturdy legs required to dig in and ride out a wind blast, the dragon anchored itself with a heavily thickened tail.
Hands flashing together, Naruto looked out at Shukaku and the boy atop the demon's head.
"Time to put on a show. Shame he won't appreciate it."
A Naruto-clone addressed the bear and Leaf Genin below, one last time, with the rain beginning to fall.
"Now I'm gonna sound like Iruka-sensei, or some old fart, but I'm still gonna say it again. One good salvo, with the brightest-looking weapons you have, and then into the trees. I guess you're gonna have to take these two bozos with you after all. Don't need Psycho up there going berserk if he blows those blades away and skewers his buddies. And I certainly don't think you guys wanna get skewered either."
Ino scoffed. She never had been one for lectures.
"We get it. We went to the Academy too."
The clone shrugged.
"Didn't come this far or fight this long just to go takin' casualties now. We might still have to go back and help everyone else. I'm gonna be burned out, and you guys ain't exactly fresh right now either. The less jutsu you use now, the more you're gonna have later."
"Overprotective," Neji said, "but logical. I cannot deflect this many weapons with a Kaiten. I would be drained again halfway through. Simple dodging would be useless with the wind randomly blowing the weapons around. Gaara may be our most dangerous enemy right now, but he is not our only enemy."
The blonde kunoichi arched an eyebrow and hefted a kunai.
"Fine, but if I wind up looking like a pincushion, it's your ass."
The Naruto-clone bowed half-seriously before disappearing.
"If I survive, I'll keep it in mind. Now let's start the show! And if you feel lightning coming, do try to remember, ass in the air is the safest posture."
It wasn't around to hear Tenten say the only way her ass would get that high was if he were kissing it.
Cruel steel hissed through the air, dull metal shaped to human needs. Even without the name of a jutsu echoing in the air, Shukaku felt the first storm coming, demonic instinct holding true.
"STUPID HUMANS! COME OUT AND FIGHT! YOU THINK YOU CAN TOUCH ME WITH THOSE PUNY THINGS?"
Slinger Ozaki would have wept to see so many fine weapons reduced to random debris in seconds. The Leaf Genin were too busy running for cover to care.
As for Naruto, he was in a rather unfamiliar position – out in the open, standing on the Avatar's head. Shukaku turned back around at the sound of the annoying human's voice.
"Not really, but it would've been a nice bonus. I'm your problem now."
Leaping backward, he rebounded off one of the dragon's horns, Tenten's Fuuma Shuriken in hand – as did a dozen similarly-armed Kage Bunshin. Shukaku roared with insane glee.
"STUPID! STUPID! YOU'RE ALL SO STUPID! YOU CAN'T TOUCH ME IF YOU'RE DEAD!"
The second storm ended in a giant cloud of mixed clone smoke. If Shukaku noticed that no Fuuma Shuriken went flying, it certainly didn't say anything. Naruto did – sailing through the cloud with a boost from the dragon's pliant "horns."
"And you can't touch me if you just wasted all your breath busting up empty chakra."
It was easy for Shukaku to simply lean and let the puny Leaf-nin fly by. So why was the fool laughing when he was going the wrong way and heading for a crash landing?
The demon had no eyes on the top of its head to see Naruto nod at the Avatar's silent warning, twist around in midair and throw his concealed weapon, nor the dull gleam of the Fuuma Shuriken embedded at the feet of its sleeping vessel.
"Hey, Psycho Boy! Eat lightning and crap thunder!"
The third storm was the charm. Gaara of the Desert was treated to a distinctly shocking wakeup call.
Naruto kept right on grinning until a sinking feeling called gravity and an onrushing forest intervened.
I knew I left something out of that plan.
I knew this plan had too many loopholes.
Even with Sasuke blind and his heightened-hearing trick revealed, Shino had been unable to finish him off. Nicks, scratches and flesh wounds on the traitor showed how hard he'd tried, but those could heal. Death couldn't. Even down to a fraction of his skills, Sasuke was too good to just roll over and die. If he couldn't attack, he could still run and hide. Every moment spent trying to counter his latest move was more time for Kabuto to catch up.
"I can't leave you alone for a minute. Now do you see why you need our help?"
It was too late to kill the missing-nin, and Shino knew it. Now the question wasn't whether he could stop Sasuke from leaving, but whether he could survive to even tell anyone the other Genin was gone. Fighting Kabuto was suicide. If he was dead, the Leaf would first assume that was related to the Sand attack, and Sasuke would be miles away by the time anyone noticed he was gone.
Get away. Get away NOW.
A push with unsteady legs, and he was heading backwards as fast as possible. Kabuto's head turned, hearing the rustle of leaves and twigs stirred up by Shino's escape.
The brat'll keep as long as he's alive. Time to blow off a little steam.
"Stay here and out of sight. Orochimaru-sama and the rest of the strike force will be coming this way soon enough to pick you up. I'm off to go make sure our little bird doesn't get to sing about you."
The traitor bristled.
"What about my eyes?"
Kabuto was used to dealing with super geniuses. That alone kept him from snapping a retort and clueing the fool in that Orochimaru was only interested in his body – and even that only as a vessel.
"Your eyes can be healed. Your life is a little tougher, and we're not going to have an easy time of keeping it in one piece if half the Leaf is chasing us. So I'd be much obliged if you'd shut up and let me do my job."
You'll have plenty of time to act the diva once we return to the Sound, he pointedly did not say.
Kabuto was medic and advisor to Orochimaru, which left him little time to do any real fighting. When he did get a chance, he preferred to make the most of it. Shino, being Shino, wasn't going to be very cooperative.
"Slow down, little bird, and I may settle for severing your spine cleanly!"
He hadn't expected the boy to respond, and Shino didn't. The silver-haired man shrugged.
"Well, never mind. That wouldn't have been as fun."
Shino heard the weapons before he saw them, the dull thud of metal embedding itself in the trees around him. The bug-user spared one a glance as he went by, noting the odd shape of a scalpel instead of a kunai or shuriken. It might have been fitting for the son of a medical ninja, but it was still a strange choice.
Kabuto swore at the missed shots. He hadn't used physical weapons in a while, as chakra worked much better for his purposes.
A hell of a time to get rusty, fool. And you wonder why Orochimaru-sama never talks about anyone but Sasuke or Kimimaro. Get your act together!
The longer this went on, the closer they got to the Leaf again. He had to end it now. Taking an explosive seal from his pouch, the Sound-nin wrapped it around the handle of his last scalpel, behind his back. The medical tools flew straighter and truer than kunai, which would serve his aims better.
Shino sensed the scalpel as it was thrown, one bug alerting him to the action, another to the weapon's flight path. The Genin didn't change his escape route – the scalpel would miss him by a wide margin. It would have been a fine decision if Kabuto had actually been aiming at him, and not the tree in front of him.
The exploding tree blew the scalpel's remains and a cloud of burning splinters outward in all directions. Gritting his teeth against the loss, the Genin threw a screen of bugs between himself and the blast, switching his body with a log and heading in a different direction – right into the path of the kunai Kabuto had thrown after the scalpel.
Shino felt an alien sensation, fear mixed with shock, as his right leg suddenly refused to respond. Kiba and Hinata were not capable of doing anything better than bruising him while sparring, and Kurenai-sensei rarely went full out in training. Kabuto was capable of much worse, including putting an entire stadium to sleep with one genjutsu.
Duty warred with his fear. If he made enough of a commotion, the Anbu might come to check it out.
Won't be much help with that whole dying part, though.
Shino discarded the thought. If he lived, he lived. If he died, he died. No sense trying to fool himself with false hope.
The last of his bombardier beetles marshaled in a wide span around him, a living minefield against Kabuto. Shino drew one of his last explosive seals from his waist pouch and wrapped it around the whole thing, his smoke bombs included. If this worked, the black smoke plume would remain visible for some time (well, as long as nobody thought to blow it away somehow).
Plus, the whole conflagration would cremate him and the bugs, so he had that going for him, the Genin bitterly added.
The Sound-nin approached leisurely, seeing his target making no attempt to escape, but staying well out of range of the carpet of beetles.
"Ah, Shino. Was it really worth your life to come here and hinder Orochimaru-sama's plans? To keep Uchiha Sasuke in the Hidden Leaf?"
"I swore the same oath you did." Shino said. "To protect this village against all who would dare threaten it, and to defend my comrades against the same. Do not dare to compare yourself with me if you have turned your back on that promise."
"Everyone has his own path, Sasuke included. Judge him and me all you like; that's just how it is. Now if you don't mind, I'll go on my path and you can go to Hell."
Shino tensed as Kabuto drew his arm back to throw more kunai, prepared to ignite his trap at the last possible second – but the blow never came. Instead, his unbelieving eyes and ears were treated to the sight of Kabuto retreating from a hail of steel and fire, and a voice ringing through the forest.
"He might be destined for Hell, but you'll be there waiting for him!"
He looked up to see his savior, and found saviors instead, men and women dressed in long, dark coats, long blades on their backs, all wearing the inscrutable masks of the Anbu. Then, as the shock and blood loss won out, Shino saw only darkness. The lead Anbu sighed as she watched him pitch over in a dead faint.
"Let the traitor go. He won't be coming back here any time soon now that he's been found out, and the village is still under attack. We need to get back, and the boy needs the hospital. Let's go."
Ikegata Tenko kept her eyes focused on Kabuto as her teammates treated Shino's wounds. She mouthed silent curses as the Sound-nin faded out of view.
Thank all the gods the boy made as much noise as he did, or we'd never have known to increase our pace coming back from the Tea Country.
Tenten's mother suppressed a shudder, wondering where her daughter was in all this. If indeed Uchiha Sasuke had gone turncoat, they were all in trouble. In her opinion, the entire Bloodline should have been exterminated as diseased the moment that Itachi had begun to have his delusions of grandeur. Now it was too late, and children were paying for their parents' mistakes.
The veteran kunoichi leapt down from her perch to help shoulder Shino's stretcher. Her eyes took in the still-burning Hidden Leaf as she did so, and Tenko snatched her head away from it as if she had been burned as well.
How much of our future have you compromised for one family, Hokage-sama?
Shouts penetrated the chaos inside the stadium, the remaining Anbu and Jounin turning their attention away from mopping up the last of the Sand and Sound-nins present.
"The barrier is coming down! Everyone stay alert!"
"They're gone! I don't see the Hokage! Where did they go?"
"Anbu to the roof! Everyone else go out and sweep the streets clean!"
"Gods! There are trees bloody everywhere. What the hell happened in here?"
Kakashi wasn't Anbu any longer, but he'd been one long enough to stay on the roof despite the order. There wasn't much place for him to go anyhow, the Jounin reckoned. He wasn't sensing Orochimaru or even the chakra of the barrier-makers anymore, and there were plenty of Anbu out there looking for them already.
The odor of smoke wafted on the air around him. Kakashi ran a hand through his hair and watched the Leaf burn. So many miscalculations they had all made – were still making. His three students were scattered so badly he wasn't sure where any of them had gone. Did he even have three students anymore?
It's official. I'm a lousy sensei.
That could be remedied – if they were all still alive. Fixing the damage done to the village was going to be the tricky part.
A faint groan brought him out of his thoughts, and Kakashi looked around for the source. Seeing nothing, he reached up and uncovered the Sharingan, questing for a chakra source.
If it hadn't been flickering so badly, Kakashi never would have found the tiny amount of chakra the Third still possessed. Immediately, he wished he hadn't. The sight of the Hokage's crushed, mangled body would stay with him for the rest of his life, another in a long list of nightmares. For now, the Jounin counted himself lucky he was so conditioned to doing his duty, head snapping around to shout commands to the gathered shinobi.
"Get a medic team up here! Now! The Hokage won't last much longer!"
The Anbu flashed away, fleet as ever. Kakashi watched them go, kneeling to do what he could for the old man, hoping it would be enough to keep the Third alive until the medics came. As he did so, the village continued to burn, and the unfamiliar chill of despair settled upon his thoughts.
Even if the Hokage lives, will it matter?