Alrighty. I took some time to recharge, but now I'm back on that grind. Let's close out this arc properly! Some important announcements will be at the bottom regarding the future of this story, so if you're invested at all, make sure you stick around to the end to read them.

The still bodies of Naruto and Hinata lay near each other, joined unconsciously on a twin-set of bedrolls that Jiraiya had scrounged together for the pair and mashed close by. Their hands remained joined despite Tsunade's own half-hearted attempts at separating them; the lengthy chain that Naruto had deployed to connect the two remained stalwart, linking itself together around their linked hands, tangling at the rose-gold band on Hinata's wrist, and winding down to their forearms.

Tsunade's palm hovered over one, then the other, with little sign of activity in either aside from a faint twitch of discomfort as the carriage they rode in jumped just a bit.

Good enough.

Tsunade pulled away from them, rocking fully to her feet with a huff. Glancing back at a waiting Jiraiya, she shrugged. "They're fine- just as they were the day before…"

And the day before that. Though, she suspected Jiraiya would be pestering her to check on them tomorrow and the next day too until they awoke, proper.

"They just need some bedrest." Her eyes panned up and down, taking in the man's somewhat disheveled appearance. "You on the other hand- you should shower-" Eyeing the faint bits of stubble on his chin, she scoffed. "And shave. You look like a hobo."

Jiraiya remained perfectly still for a moment, unblinking as if he hadn't heard her at all. Then he blinked rapidly and shuddered, returning to his senses. "Ah, sorry…" His fingers trailed up, scratching at the dotting of fuzz that was sprouting atop his face. "I'm just worried, I guess."

"A worried hobo," Tsunade corrected herself, a faux-air of cheer taking hold. "It's only been a few days. That's about the norm for chakra exhaustion."

Jiraiya was quick to contradict her. "If it were just chakra exhaustion, then they probably should have at least woken by now, even if they still needed to recover after."

Tsunade twitched faintly. "I think you oughta leave it to the legendary turbo medic to make the diagnostics, Mister Worried Hobo-man." He wasn't all wrong though. But it was complicated. "Their chakra systems were rapidly expanded by a large influx of chakra, amassed by Naruto's jutsu. Then at its peak, that surge was rapidly drained from them in an instant. Because of that, their bodies are responding in shock to a disparity in how much chakra they can naturally hold, and how much their bodies think they need." A shrug. "Maybe if I weren't on the scene at the time of, it could have been a problem. But I've sorted them out just fine, so it's all moot. At this point, all they need is a little extra time to- I guess you could say 'recalibrate', but there's no lasting damage."

If anything, she suspected their coils might settle somewhere close to the middle, leaving them a little better off than they started.

They would be fine.

Jiraiya said nothing though, merely continuing to gaze at the two. Tsunade was starting to wonder if it was her who had missed the mark here. She followed his gaze, taking in the placid features of Naruto. Between the ash, blood, and sweat, getting the kids cleaned up had been a major chore- doubly so, with that damn chain in the way. But looking at him now, donned in simpler clothes and with his face wiped clean of grime and makeup in equal parts, he actually fully looked his age for the first time since she'd met him.

And wasn't that a disturbing thought? The boy was only thirteen, and already he had been made to experience so much…

Ostracization at the hands of Konoha's finest; his near death experience, courtesy of Jiraiya; Konoha's invasion and Hiruzen's mortality; witnessing their clan's fall; his run in with those S-ranked criminals…

And now, the grisly fall of Tanzaku town. So many people, killed at the helm of Orochimaru's heartless whimsy… Of those who had survived, their homes were destroyed; their simple, common lives had been pulled apart and turned inside out. Even if they rebuilt, that trauma would last with them forever-more.

The only good news out of all of it- Ryuko Oshimura had made it out of the chaos intact, and Tsunade simply thanked her lucky stars that Shizune had managed to pull through with the young man. Already, the Daimyo's nephew was being shakily escorted back to Fire Country's capital city with news of Tanzaku's fall; Tsunade's apprentice had agreed to reconvene with her back in Konoha, once the message had been passed alongside an official request for audience between the Great Lord Oshimura and the soon-to-be minted Fifth Hokage.

And god, was Tsunade dreading that mess.

But just like that, Tsunade understood where Jiraiya's real concerns lay. "He's-" She sighed. "He's a tough kid," She told the man. "Damn tough…" Panning over from the boy to his partner, she grinned, just a little. "And he chose one hell of a girl to have his back. They'll be fine."

"Mhm." Jiraiya took a deep breath, finally rising to his feet with a muted grunt. He stumbled in place for a moment as the rickety thing they'd commandeered swayed a touch roughly, looking a bit lost. "His connection with the toads was broken- er, when he fell. Pa said he- erm, that he died."

There was something leading in the man's tone, and Tsunade needed a moment's pause to chip away at his hidden thoughts. "You're wondering if I'm gonna let him sign Katsuyu's contract." Jiraiya didn't say anything, though Tsunade could sense the man's apprehension just fine.

Contracts between major clans within the summoning realm were a big deal. They were not just a pact or agreement, but an adoption of a worthy summoner into their clan and under their banner as kin. For an arrangement of that magnitude-

While Katsuyu and the Toads of Mt. Myoboku had fought together in the past, their allegiance was purely a matter of happenstance due to the relationship of their summoners; while hardly hostile, Tsunade highly doubted Katsuyu would be keen to share with a rival clan of any sort of status. Certainly not one as renowned as the toads.

"Katsuyu wants him- that much I'm sure of. He really impressed her back when they fought together; she hasn't stopped asking me about him since- keeps calling me to ask if he's woken yet." She let out a huff. "But that's not really my or her choice to decide for him. All either of us can do is present the option to him."

Unspoken was the fact that she wanted him too; there was no one else more suited to succeed her. Shizune was a phenomenal medic, absolutely worthy of her status as Tsunade's apprentice within that field. But that was where her ambition began and ended. What's more, her apprentice had never really meshed with Katsuyu either; Shizune was simply too normal, as silly as that sounded. For all that Katsuyu might respect the girl's talent in healing, their bond was shallow; Shizune could barely summon even a fraction of the slug matriarch's strength, despite the girl's own impressive potential.

But despite their differences, Jiraiya was still her friend. "I'll let you talk to him first. Make your pitch, but don't bullshit him, alright? If he still wants the toads, then I'll support you."

She glanced back at Jiraiya, and spotted a small smile developing on his face. But then a new wave of bitterness crept up on his chakra, weighing down on the corners of his grin. "Yeah, he won't." The man laughed a little, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. "Once you pointed it out, I couldn't really unsee it anymore; he tries not to let on much, but the kid can barely even be near me most of the time without flinching. Hell, he didn't even notice the bond was broken, it was so weak."

Neither had the toads, to the boy's credit. No, Jiraiya had had days to come to terms with that fact. "Pa wants to meet him- probably to convince him to re-sign. But I'm starting to wonder if that's even what's best for him…" His large, stocky body seemed to deflate a great deal as he sighed. "Nah, I'd rather not burden him further with all of my selfishness. Just- just take care of him for me, please?"

"Idiot…" Tsunade sighed. She squatted down a bit, a delicate thumb brushing the boy's hair out of his face. "You don't have to beg me for that."

Naruto had popped into their shared space not long after casting his final jutsu, but even within the sanctity of the realm within his mind -or was it his soul? -Even within that space, he'd remained so thoroughly exhausted that Kushina had hesitated to do much more than let the boy rest limply on the sandy beachside, gazing with half-lidded eyes into the unyielding skies above.

Not knowing what else to do for him, she'd finally settled for gathering the boy's head into her lap, idly combing through his thick locks with her fingers and letting him have his peace.

Though, eventually her own impatience caught up to her.

"You did well," She finally spoke, a play-by-play of his fights running in her mind's eye. "You maybe played a bit too much at some points, but we made it out in one piece; I can't complain much with that end product…"

He did not immediately respond, though the fluttering of his long eyelashes told her clear enough that she had been understood.

So she carried on. "It was smart of you to use Hinata as an extension for the circuit; I'm pretty sure it's the only reason you were able to make it out with minimal injuries."

Certainly better than transforming again into a giant metal spider.

"Hey, the spider was cool as shit," Naruto grumbled, a light slur clinging to the ends of his words.

"Yes of course, X'omaa. It was very cool." Kushina grinned, and she felt Naruto's own amusement through their link. "But maybe you can double back to kaiju fights when you can do them without popping like a balloon."

"Mhm…" Then Naruto's eyes fluttered open, a hardening look settling in his visible eye. "When were you going to talk to me about Shukaku?"

Kushina raised a brow, sensing his meaning, but questioning its purpose. "You didn't peep the second giant sun in the sky and put two-and-two together?"

"I figured-" Naruto sat up, shaking his head like a dog and parting his hair from his face. "But you knew. You've been interacting with it- but you didn't think it was worth bringing up?"

He knew through their link that she hadn't tried to hide it from him; she had presumed he would figure it out, himself. If only for that reason, he tried to keep the judgment out of his tone. Surely, she had her reasons. Still- "It's still something we shouldn't have left on the backburner for so long."

Kushina frowned. "I've been keeping an eye on it; if I thought it was a problem I would've brought it up. Meanwhile, you went from a hospital bed, to traveling on crutches, to getting ambushed by a pair of S-ranked ninja; then you fought a Sannin, then watched our clan's genocide, and then survived Orochimaru's discount zombie apocalypse. When do you think we had time to just sit down and discuss this at length? This is the first time in days that we're getting to sit down and talk without other people around to interrupt or more pressing things on the table."

… Well when she put it like that, he supposed it did sound a bit dumb of him to have expected anything else…

"It's not dumb, but it is illogical." Kushina stood as well, dusting sand off herself to meet her son eye-to-eye. "You know I wouldn't lie to you; now that we're like this, I couldn't even if I wanted to. I really thought you knew and we were just waiting to handle it properly."

Right. Sure enough, the yin-release projection he'd allowed her to hijack remained persistent, the connection that they had struck unwilling to simply fizzle out over time; Naruto suspected it would remain as such until one or both willingly broke the link. But he was remiss to snip it at his end, and he knew instinctively that Kushina would not either…

But it was only further evidence that she was right. He knew her thoughts almost as closely as his own, and they confirmed what she had said many times over, to both his relief and irritation.

Maybe he was a bit jaded, but he'd gotten a little too used to being lied to, it would seem.

Naruto sighed.

"I- uh… I retract my complaints; my bad."

Kushina merely smiled, and he knew that the matter was resolved in her mind. "You're right about one thing though- now that we do have some time on hand, we really oughta do something about it." She took his hand in her own, then the scene around them began to shift; the beach melted away like blotches of ink, steadily giving way to a darker space adorned with cold stone tiles that spanned outward and climbed the walls beyond, past a point that he could see. The sand that had previously settled beneath their feet began to creep away from the pair, tinting a pinkish color as it retreated closer to a central, rectangular space which was gated on all sides. Within, Naruto spotted an odd, misshapen form, vaguely wisplike and clad in a warped, rose-gold shell, of sorts. Vein-like streaks of color adorned the mass, running a dull, purpling glow.

It was small- relatively speaking, not much larger than Naruto, himself. Though between its shallow breaths and shuddering form, he found it hard to connect the writhing, salivating thing before him with the manic, cruel intelligence who had tried to kill him and his friends just a few weeks prior. But all the same, he knew its form intimately.

For it was one of his own creation.

"It started manifesting a few days after you defeated it; likely the remnant dregs of all the chakra you stole from Shukaku, anchored by your own chakra and given form by your perception."

Naruto bent low, fingers grazing over the rose-gold sand. He palmed some of it, bringing it close. "This is adamantine- the same stuff as my chains… What gives?"

"I told you, didn't I? It's based on your perception. Shukaku was the blueprint. But what you became that day; what you made it become- that was something else entirely.

"But how does that even work?" Naruto questioned his mother, his brow furrowing as he inspected the thing.

She thumbed her chin in thought. "Bijuu are all chakra. Chakra by its very nature is as much physical as it is, spiritual… By stealing Shukaku's chakra for yourself, you overrode the- er, the imprint of the original with your own impression. You twisted the innate shape of its essence, and so it has changed to better match that perception." Kushina pulled her son forward with her, stopping just a few feet off from the enclosure. As they approached, Naruto spotted a few of the beast's beady, multi-colored eyes, glaring up from its crumpled position. Its wary gaze followed them as they drew closer, and it forced itself still in spite of the discomfort that he knew afflicted it. Still, he noted the subtle twitch of chelicerae beneath its body. "As you can see, it's still very much affected by what you did to it, even separated from the original and reshaped as it is. But it's been growing pretty rapidly; when I first found it, it wasn't much larger than a small dog."

So it had not just been responding to his chakra, but had been feeding off his chakra to restore itself, then… So why had he not noticed?

Naruto was silent for a moment, taking in his mother's words, but never looking away from the immobile thing that had once been of Shukaku. A long moment passed, then he sighed. "Aren't you going to say anything?" He questioned the weakened creature, pacing forward even closer and gripping one of the thin bars that housed it.

Quick as a flash, it snapped into action, scrambling onto its feet and lunging fang-first to cleave his limb away. Naruto sighed, reacting just as quickly to intercept its attack; his fingers closed firmly around its jaw, pinning chelicerae together and holding it back with minimal difficulty even as the misshapen aspect of Shukaku thrashed and flailed against the bars. A shrill scream sounded from it, halfway between a whine and a snarl. Its eight legs thrashed about, banging furiously against the bars of its cage, and Naruto's own lips curled with distaste as its pinkish drool rolled off its maw and clung to his fingers.

"Yeah, that's about what I expected," Naruto sighed. He released the thing with a light shove, allowing it to scramble back from him with flailing limbs and wild eyes. All the while, it snarled and shrieked at him. "Use your words, buddy. Come on."

"It can't speak," Kushina informed him with a frown, and he looked her way curiously. "Er- I don't think so, at least… See, Bijuu are all chakra. Even if you separate them into pieces, those fragments remain unified, to some degree or another. When you blew up the original, the damage you did was designed specifically for its yin chakra, damaging its spiritual essence and mental faculties; I'm suspecting that the chakra you stole resonated with that of the original due to their proximity, causing it to mirror that experience as it occurred. Now, there doesn't seem to be much higher thought coming from it beyond its base instincts. But it's exhibiting clear signs of distress, commonly found in wounded animals."

Ah. So it was just running on auto-pilot, then. A shred of Shukaku's chakra, damaged and devolved down to its most basic programming, and lacking the Bijuu's true intelligence to temper it. Then twisted in his own image… "So I gave the raccoon brain damage; that's great for my guilt, I guess…" No doubt it remembered what he'd done to it- or at the very least, how it had felt. Even if it could not put the puzzle pieces together in full- "I guess it simply knows to be afraid."

If that were the case, then it was merely lashing out, out of self preservation… "Is there anything we can do to help it?" He asked, after a moment. He felt Kushina's surprise at the idea and frowned right back. "There's no point in tormenting it, and I really don't need any more Bijuu after my neck than the one I've already got." Another thought, then. "Does the fox know?"

Kushina shrugged. "Unlikely. As soon as I realized what was going on, I did everything I could to make sure they stayed very separated. This little guy hasn't moved much, and the seal is holding up to keep the fox's influence locked down tight; I run checkups every evening to make sure it stays that way. It's pissed, by the way."

The fox's thrashing tails and gravely roars stood out in Kushina's mind, and Naruto winced a bit in solidarity.

The fox had quite the litany of taunts and insults, it would seem…

"Please be careful."

Kushina chuckled. "I'll be fine. I've got a lot of experience keeping that furry jerk in check."

"Noted." In that case- "Keep it in the dark for as long as you can, please." Naruto turned his full attention back towards the panting, salivating Shukaku that wasn't even Shukaku anymore- this uncanny thing, whose eight, peculiar eyes so closely mirrored his own. "I'm gonna assume you don't understand me, but you might in the future…" Thinking for a moment, he reached out with his chakra, deliberately molding yin-chakra with intentionality. Slowly, the strands of thought assembled themselves; muted, clumsily strewn colors on a canvas.




Casting genjutsu was quite a bit harder than just shaping raw chakra, but Kurenai had tutored him well enough for this, at least.

His chakra intermingled with the beast's own, creeping along the edges of its fragmented mind and settling. Just a few moments, and its distress began to ebb, just that little bit.

I'm not gonna hurt you; just- er, well- just behave and don't do anything dumb, and I'll see if I can't help you out, alright?" Again, he settled a hand on the bar, and the spider-like creature eyed him warily, but this time did not attack; instead, it remained pressed firmly against the bars at its back, stubbornly immobile. Sighing, he finally stood, wiping his still-salivated-on palm onto his pants-leg and regarding his mother.

"What do you want to do?" She asked him, grinning somewhat at his disgusted gesture.

"The right thing to do would be to reunite it with the original, wouldn't it?" He shrugged, cutting a glance back to the oversized arachnid, which had thankfully begun to settle a bit more. It returned to its earlier position, tucking its body in on itself and resting its chin beneath its front legs. This time though, Naruto was at least glad to see that its shuddering had died down a bit. "It shouldn't be too tough to get a hold of Gaara to make the transfer; I'll want to check his new seal out in a couple of weeks, anyhow. Maybe it'll go back to normal if I reunite them."

He felt Kushina's disdain for the idea before she spoke. "If you do that, Shukaku will likely kill it- devour its chakra to restore itself." At her son's questioning glance, she turned her gaze fully onto the creature. "I said before that even the tiniest fragments of a Bijuu remains connected to the original. But I guess that isn't the full picture. The differences in its form are sign enough that this isn't just Shukaku anymore; its chakra has intermingled and been conquered directly by your own; it's been completely reforged, given new life and purpose in the image of what you made from it. What's more, it has been feeding on your own chakra to continue growing; as it continues to develop, those differences will only become more apparent.

"If it's eating up enough of my chakra to grow this much in such a short time, then why haven't I been suffering for it?" Naruto stared intently at the creature. "I've got a lot of chakra, but I doubt I've got enough to sustain you, this one, and myself while fighting as much as I've been… What gives?"

Kushina thought about it for a moment. "I guess I'd say the connection is two-ways, here. It's not taking from you intentionally, but instinctually; honestly, I doubt it's intelligent enough at the moment to be hoarding what it's been getting. In other words, anything it takes, it eventually gives back, in time."

So the relationship was not parasitic, but symbiotic, in a sense.

"In some ways, it's both more and less than the original, and those differences will likely only get more apparent as it continues to grow into the shape you've given it." She frowned again. "But all of this to say: If you try to introduce it to the original, there are good odds that it dies, either to feed the One Tails, or out of disgust for what you've inadvertently made from it.." Another thought, and her frown only deepened. "In the event of the former, you'd be giving it this one's memories, which means it would know about me since I've been interacting with it. Do you want that?"

Not particularly. Even still- "So what, then? I just house a second Bijuu in my body? Even assuming the Kyuubi doesn't eventually find out and start meddling, you said it's been growing- getting stronger. Eventually, there are good odds that it regains its intelligence. You don't think that might eventually grow to be a problem?"

"Not if we teach it better." Kushina's words had the desired effect, and she stifled a giggle as her son turned to gape at her. "I told you before, didn't I? While the blueprint is there, it has ultimately been shaped anew by your own influence; in this, we have an opportunity, of sorts. Like you said, eventually, it may begin to develop its own intelligence. When it does, it may remember that you treated it kindly."

An opportunity for what- to keep a Bijuu in a kennel like a dog? Naruto's nostrils flared in disgust at the idea. "So will we teach it tricks too while we're at it?" He rolled his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Honestly- If you already knew what you wanted to do, then why even ask me for my opinion?"

"If you want to give it up, then that's what we'll do," Kushina told him, firmly. "I asked you for your opinion because you have the final say here… I'm just telling you what I think would be best."

He thought about that for a moment.

Damnit. Sasuke would hit him again if he ever found out about this… Still though, he trusted his mother's judgment; if she said it was a good idea, then it probably was… What's more, he was still feeling a touch guilty for doubting her intentions earlier. She opened her mouth to dissuade that thought, but he raised a finger, shutting it down.

"It's fine. I just- We're a team here; if you say it's a good idea, then I'm willing to try it."

Kushina merely nodded slowly, and again, Naruto frowned. He didn't really like the idea of keeping it caged up like this though. "But it's not a pet."

Which meant no cages.

"Should I go let the Kyuubi out while we're at it?" Kushina asked him, just a touch snidely.

Naruto waved her off. "That's not a cage. A cage implies something is a pet, or lesser…" Thinking about the monstrous, deific fox and what he could only even imagine it was capable of- "That's a jail cell, because the Kyuubi is a jerk who probably eats babies and punches grandmas. It's completely different…" Plus, he didn't exactly favor his chances with that one. Not yet, at least. "And don't sass me, lady."

Just like that, the bars fell away, snapping apart by the fixtures above and crumbling away as they toppled. The diminutive Shukaku startled as the bars broke apart into dust, throwing wild eyes about as if expecting an attack. But when nothing came, it slowly settled down again.

Looking toward Kushina who raised an eyebrow his way, Naruto shrugged. "Do you think you'll be able to keep it in check while I'm not around?"

His mother rolled her eyes. "Just who do you think you're talking to? I've got it covered."

He'd hold her to that.

In the wake of Tanzaku's fall, Tsunade had been quick to sort their business, sending the shaken young lord on his way with a message on his tongue- her attendant would be his escort back to the Daimyo.

From there, she'd all but bullied an old man for his carriage and a few horses to carry the two unconscious Konoha kids rather than wait for them to awaken. In an ideal world, they could have let the two awake before doing any intensive travel. But time simply was not on their side anymore. Hiruzen's condition was still dicey, and Konoha needed leadership.

Before certain unsavory types got too confident in its absence…

Thus, they were off. Trailing them had been a great number of civilians as well; whether through personal loss or just plain trauma, a good amount of people seemed unwilling to stay in the ruins of Tanzaku, even if only to try recovering what had been lost. Which meant Tayuya and her team were working around the clock keeping those civilians in check while they all traveled to Konoha.

Unfortunately, petty squabbles had quickly become the norm among the frazzled masses.

"Goddamn, we ain't even been given headbands yet and we're already getting gruntwork," Tayuya complained, dragging a pair of young men apart by the scruffs of their necks. "What are you pussies fighting about, anyhow?"

The one to her left, a long-haired man with cheap glasses that had crooked frames, snarled. "I didn't do anything! I was just trying to eat in peace when this jerk started harassing me!"

Tayuya glanced at the other man, larger and heavier than the other and glowering heavily between her and him both. "Well?"

"He took two servings of soup! I was just trying to correct him!"

"Are we out of soup?" Tayuya questioned the man with an edge in her tone.

"Well no, but-"

"Then mind your own damned business, you nosy, rotund fuck!" The heavyset man paled at the sneer on her face.

"Wha- but I- The rules!"

"We're all recovering from shoveling shit just a few days ago and you think this is the hill to die on? Over some fucking soup!?" She shoved the man, bowling him over with a growl. "Quit wasting my damn time with your bullshit!"

"Oi!" A familiar hand cracked across the back of her head, and Tayuya flinched before whipping around with a snarl that dimmed only slightly as Kidomaru's own scowl matched her own. "Don't go assaulting the civvies."

Tayuya nearly hissed at the boy, cutting a glare between the two civilians she'd had to pry apart in the first place. Spotting the still steaming bowl of soup in the long-haired man's stupefied hands, she lashed out in a fit of pettiness, snatching the bowl from him. "Gimme that shit!"


"Fuck you, it's mine now! Since you idiots wanna bullshit, now only I get soup!"

Not waiting around to enjoy the reactions, she stormed off, shoveling the gruel into her mouth as she did so. Her footsteps quickly took her to a stop just a the outskirts of the camp they'd made, thankfully silent and remiss of the last few days' nonsense. Tayuya parked herself atop the skeleton of a withered log, making to spoon another mouthful of soup and groaning as her utensil came up empty.

"Oh what-the-fuck-ever…"

A soft crunching of footfalls over leaves caused her to perk up a bit, and Tayuya growled a bit as her mind put a name to that sound. "Piss off, Arms."

"What crawled up your ass and died?" Kidomaru ignored her order, winding around to sit beside her.

"Your ugly-ass mother. She must've gotten lost rummaging about up there for flies n' shit."

His eye twitched, but he quickly mastered himself. "... Is the soup really that bad?"

"It's fucking delicious," She bit out, mournfully shaking the mostly empty bowl. "And I'm all out."

Her spider-like teammate sighed. "I'll get you more if you tell me what's up."

A tempting offer.

"Sakon and Ukon are treating me like the damned plague." While the threat had been on the table, they'd seemingly been willing to put their fury aside and do as she'd asked of them. But now that it had passed- well, it was a fight just getting them to look at her.

And it wasn't like she could just give the pair space; their roles demanded they work together to keep the civilians from panicking or fighting while they continued the slow journey to Konoha. Many civilians had hitched a ride in the chaos of organizing their return, gravitating after the woman proclaiming herself to be their Fifth Hokage. With the imminent backing of Fire Country's Daimyo, the validity of Tsunade's crowning was not even remotely in question; likely, they hoped for some sort of aid or shelter in the wake of Tanzaku's fall.

Beyond the civvies, the Hyuga and Flaming-hot Femboy were thoroughly out of commission and needed to be moved in a dedicated carriage and cared for in the evenings via a dedicated medical tent.

"You can't expect them to just shrug off everything that happened," Kidomaru lectured her, almost exasperatedly.

"In my defense, I did get us out in the end," She grumbled, struggling to contain her own frustration with the pair.

Kidomaru mercilessly shut her down. "Yeah, and it only cost us Jirobo, and like- a third of the town."

Tayuya flinched, remembering why she had been avoiding him to begin with. Kidomaru was only slightly better than the twins; he seemed content to speak to her at least. But he was hardly friendly about it. The asshole stuck by her side like a cancer, if only to remind her yet again of how hard she'd screwed up.

Logically, he added- "We still don't even know if Tsunade will keep her word and hook us up. For all we know at the moment, we got into all of this mess just so she can eventually get around to snapping our necks."

Tayuya winced. He wasn't entirely wrong about that. At this point, their futures were held together with duct tape and a prayer. Still- "If she were gonna kill us, she woulda done it once she no longer needed us-"

"Unless we're still useful," Kidomaru quickly cut her off. "She's likely thinking we know a ton about Orochimaru and his resources. Give her a few weeks to wring us dry and we're probably dead."

"Oh for fuck's sake-" Tayuya groaned. "If you were just coming here to piss all over me, then why bother pretending to give a shit about what's bothering me!?"

"Because I do give a shit… I'm just pointing out the situation Tayuya." Kidomaru frowned, raising his palms defensively.

Like hell. "I didn't force you to do shit! You knew what you were getting into when you asked to join me! Fuck, you could've just ditched me when shit started going south. If you guys were gonna be such negative pricks about everything then why even bother helping me in the first place!?"

"Are you stupid?" Kidomaru groaned right back. "No, don't answer that, you dumb-dumb, stupid idiot."


Kidomaru barreled right along. "I helped you because you're our party leader and you needed my help. Why the hell else would I put my life on the line?"

Oh… Tayuya blinked a few times, trying to sort that out. "Then why are you guys upset-"

"Because we put our trust in you, and you let Jirobo die!"

Ouch. "H-he ain't dead!" Tayuya bit back. "Slug mommy said he's got a shot!"

"Oh bullshit! I know you aren't that naive." Kidomaru growled. "You saw what he looked like before Katsuyu took him away. You and I know damn well that guy doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell at this point. Unless the freaking sage backflips out of his casket and passes him a damn phoenix down, Jirobo's just dead with extra steps!"

"Oh for fuck's sake!" Tayuya felt her face getting hot. "What exactly do you want me to say then?" Had he really just followed after her to lambast her some more? "I did the best I could! What do you guys even want from me!?"

"Oh, I don't know- how about sorry!?" Kidomaru jumped to his feet with a hiss. "Have you ever thought that maybe Sakon and Ukon just wanna hear you apologize? One of our own died following your shitty plan and in all this time that you've been having your whole pity party, not once have I heard you swallow your pride and just admit straight up that you screwed up! All I want is something- anything that shows you give a damn that one of our own got the axe when you said you'd save him!"

Ah… That took the wind right out of her sails. "I-I am…" Her voice was small and hurting, in a way he'd never heard from her before. "I never wanted any of us to get hurt. I am sorry…"

A long moment passed between the two, a huffing and puffing Kidomaru working to compose himself against Tayuya's now muted demeanor. The pungent odor of shame clung to her mood as she stared after the lowering skyline. Seeing her look so defeated- so hurt…

He believed her.

"Good… That's all I wanted." There was relief in the young man's tone, and Tayuya wondered painfully if he'd really thought she didn't care. "Sorry, I really did mean to be comforting but I-" He shook his head. "Look- I shouldn't even be giving you such a hard time, really," He awkwardly tried to backtrack. "I'm just pissed because some stuff is going down with the spiders and- well, it's not looking too good, I guess… They're not happy about the ones I lost during the attack; my liaison is telling me they're thinking about cutting ties…"

Even if the contract could only be fully broken on both sides, the spiders could refuse to answer his call when he summoned them. Unless he could regain their confidence, that meant his contract was just dead with extra legal tape…

He sat there with her for a moment, feeling like he needed to say more. Babbling on, he sympathetically added- "I don't blame you for that though. You had a tough call to make; I-I believe that you were doing your best for us, even if your plan was trash." He left a moment open for her to respond to his jab, but nothing came from the girl. "I don't think Sakon and Ukon really hate you either. You know how those two are- they'll come around with enough time."

Tayuya wasn't quite sure about that… "You really think he won't make it?"

"Ah- I don't-" Kidomaru shrugged, a somber shadow overtaking his features. "No… Not a chance in hell."

The instant denial- and the plainness with which it was spoken- that was an icepick in her heart. "I shoulda been there with him. Maybe I could've talked him down or something- I don't know…"

Kidomaru thought about that for a moment, then shrugged, lamely. "Probably not. You saw what that battlefield looked like; you would've just gotten yourself killed, more likely."

"Piss off. I ain't helpless," Tayuya grumbled. "I've got hands too, ya know."

"Hands that are attached to delicate little noodle arms," Kidomaru teased her, playfully prying one of her limbs from where they'd cupped around her knees; he shook her arm, letting it flop about with a laugh. "Couldn't hurt a fly."

"I'll fuck that fly's whole extended family if it keeps talking shit."

"Ooh, psychic damage; nice choice." Then he patted her back before rising to his feet with a groan, stretching his spine with a light 'pop'. "I'll get you some more soup."

"Lots of meat and potatoes. I'm a growing girl, ya know."

"Yeah, yeah…"

She let him depart, silently casting her gaze beyond.

Just a moment later though, she heard the telltale 'clack' of heels approaching. Investigating the noise, she raised an eyebrow at the sight of Tsunade, pacing towards her. "Heh, well aren't I popular today… What do you want, Mommy- I mean Tits- I mean- Toots?"

"Some of your blood, preferably." Tsunade said without missing a beat, even as Tayuya balked at the sudden and deliberate demand. "I've got a theory I'll want to test once we get to the village."

What was it with medics and 'tests'? Tayuya couldn't quite fight down the sneer that found her face. "If it's all the same to you, I think I'll pass on being anybody else's guinea pig, thanks."

Tsunade gave her a curious stare. "You afraid of needles, or something?"

"Totally. My mother was actually killed by a rabid needle. Twenty-seven stab wounds; didn't wanna give her a chance." Tayuya scoffed. "More like afraid of your whole damn species. Medical ninja are a different breed of demon." She saw Tsunade blinking slowly, unknowing of how to take that accusation. Actually- "Y'know what? I'll give you your damn blood if you cut the bullshit and tell me for real: Is Jirobo going to survive?"

Tsunade frowned, closing the last bits of distance. "Budge over," She ordered the younger girl, taking a seat beside her on her log as she did so. "It's complicated."

"It's a yes or no question and I'm getting damn sick of all the non-answers," Tayuya growled. "Why do people always gotta make shit tougher than it's gotta be?"

"Fine, yes or no question? Yes, he'll survive." Tsunade growled right back. Tayuya glanced her way, a smile tugging at her lips that crashed and burned away as she took in Tsunade's own hardened stare. "But surviving isn't the same as living, I'm sure you know." Sighing, the Slug Sannin cast her gaze downward, inspecting her fingernails in deliberate distraction from the topic at hand. "I know the signs enough to know that whatever metamorphosis Orochimaru forced onto him was a bastardization of my own jutsu. His yin-chakra was consumed in its entirety as fuel for his parasite in its infant stages. Due to the length of his possession and the voraciousness of the parasite, itself-" Tsunade's gaze was truly sympathetic as she regarded the redhead. "Even if we can restore the body to full functionality, there isn't any of him left in there, I'm afraid."

Oh… For a while, she found her brain was stuck on that one word, replaying Tsunade's explanation over again and struggling, or maybe not wanting to understand. When she finally found the words though, they came laced with so much anger. "W-well ain't you supposed to be some kind of legendary healer or something!? Can't you just fix his brain or whatever?"

Tsunade shook her head, slowly. "Maybe if I had more to work with, but you're asking me to completely reconstruct the psyche of a boy I don't even know with no reference of how he was before, and with none of the pieces of the puzzle left to begin with.

"I've got a whole ton of memories of that fat tub of lard!" Like the time they'd watched him eat twelve sirloins, vomit, and eat four more. "Just do some of your healer witchcraft with that!"

"That's not how it works-"

"Bullshit!" Tayuya snarled, eyes red and stinging as she leapt up to her feet and thrust a pointer finger between Tsunade's frustratingly placid eyes. "You just don't wanna keep up your end of the deal because a bunch of ex Sound scum ain't people to you, right!? But we busted our asses to save your kids! The least you could do is have some fucking balls and-"

"Listen." One word, spoken with such authority that the rest of Tayuya's rant shriveled and died on her tongue. The sudden fear that wafted away from her softened Tsunade's tone. "I'm not mad… I know you're hurting. Look, I will keep my word for you, and I will do everything I can for him… But you asked me not to bullshit you, so this is the reality of things. Even if I could somehow reconstruct a spitting-image replica of his personality through a bunch of memories or whatever -which I can't-, but let's say I could find a Yamanaka skilled enough to walk through your minds and build a one-to-one copy of the guy… It wouldn't be the real thing. He'd just be a lame puppet laid over the dregs of the original, piloting the body of your friend.

That explanation sapped the last bits of strength from Tayuya. She stumbled back, falling to her butt and staring off into space. "So he's gone."

"Unless you think you can somehow fish the pieces of his mind out from the scattered ashes of the thing that took him, then yeah… I'm sorry."

It had to have been the most gently-delivered sucker punches Tayuya had ever received. Tayuya hastily threw a palm over her face to hide the buildup of tears that had threatened to spill over. "I-I…" She tried to speak twice, choking on her words both times as she toiled after the words. Fighting down a sob, she merely thrust her other arm out to the Sannin, finally choking out- "Just take your damn blood and leave me."

Sighing, Tsunade shook her head. She stood up, extending an arm to awkwardly pat the girl's shoulder. "It can wait until we get to the village. I'll give you some space."

When she was finally gone, Tayuya found she could no longer hold back. Her grief spilled over entirely, twisting her face and clawing from her throat in a stifled shriek. She tried to wipe her face with her sleeves, grimacing as an ugly mix of tears and snot stained the length of the fabric.

Maybe if she were stronger- braver, she could have found confidence in Tsunade's remark. A more optimistic- more resilient person would be huffing it back to that damn crater and scraping through ash with dirtied hands and feet, just on the chance she could find something.

But Tayuya was getting damn tired of having to be strong all the time.

It was on the fourth day that Naruto finally woke, his eyes slowly blinking themselves clear of the debris of sleep. For a long couple of moments, he stared blankly above, taking in the contours of the cloth that he knew belatedly to be the ceiling of a tent. It was an off-white, with a bold red strip that started at the center and ran down on four separate sides.

"It looks like a medicine tent. Our healers would carry these around during the war; they come with a bunch of amenities for emergency healing out in the field."

"Well do these things come stocked with emergency ramen? I'm starving."

"As a matter of fact- Check that fabric pouch on the side across from you."

Naruto followed the path she'd set with his eyes, not expecting an actual answer to his jest. "Seriously?"

"Being the wife of a Hokage had its perks. I nagged Minato for days to include instant ramen among all mandatory rations."

He made to rise, but jerked to a stop as a surprising weight halted his ascent. Gaze following the interruption, he blinked twice. "Oh, hello dear."

Hinata's arms both wrapped tightly around one of his own, the girl's cheek squeezed against his bicep. She was still asleep, as evident by the trail of drool she'd left in his bare arm. The wounds he'd seen on her before were nicely healed, with only the faintest bits of swelling in her brow remaining as evidence of the gash she'd once carried. Her hair was a bit messy, unkempt in sleep, and with just an extra bit of length that he'd long-since seen but never quite noticed.


Judging by the stirring of her chakra at his movement, he knew she would awaken soon. Eyeing the chain that still linked the two- the one that he'd used to keep them together as they flew- he grinned, following the length of the thing to regard the bracelet he'd given her.

It was as much a symbol of their bond as the poncho she'd made for him. No matter the shape it took or how he wore it- he scanned the room for it, thankfully being satisfied as he found it neatly folded close by.

Before that though, ramen was calling. Unfortunately- "I don't think she's going to let go."

"You might need to amputate it."

A worthy sacrifice, if a bit messy.

Then the flap to his tent's entrance crept apart, and Tsunade's stern eyes froze him in place. "Whatever you're planning to do, stop it."

Eyes cutting between Hinata and Tsunade, Naruto chuckled nervously. "She won't let go."

"You need to stay in bed anyways." Rolling her own eyes, she stepped into the tent, following the desperate, grabbing motions the boy was making toward the food stock. "Can't you just use your chains?"

"Well I figured you'd get on my case for using chakra before I've been cleared, but if you're gonna be a smartass about it-"

"I've got it." She unzipped the folds, peering inside. "Do you want the ramen or the emergency tacos?"

"You have tacos!?"

"Emergency tacos. From my personal emergency stash… Is it an emergency?"

"Is it Tuesday?" Tsunade nodded, and Naruto nodded back, furiously. "It's an emergency."

She unzipped the folds, revealing an intricate series of seals that he knew on sight to be a copy of his mother's work.

"That'd be my preservation matrix. It's a cluster of minor seals programmed to simulate the ideal conditions to keep resources fresh. Medicine; food… Every tent that's made these days use my work."

It had been part of the deal made between Minato and herself, implementing her methods in exchange for her silly request.

"Worth it."

Tsunade unsealed an unmarked paper bag, stuffing it in his waiting hand and giving him a few precious moments to scarf down his first meal in days; she smiled fondly as the boy set aside some of his meal for when the girl awoke. But when she was sure she had his attention once more, Tsunade sighed.

"You've been out for a few days; we're the next evening or so off from Konoha; depends if the damn hanger-ons can get their asses into gear." Naruto nodded hesitantly, so she continued. "Katsuyu has been on my ass for days about getting to meet with you again, so expect her to come calling before long… Speaking of which, Jiraiya told me your contract is dead."

It took Naruto a moment to connect the two. "So she wants me as her summoner then…" Tsunade nodded. "It's generally considered bad practice to poach another clan's summoner, but considering the rather poor quality of your bond with the toads thus far- well, Katsuyu seemed really taken with you. Plus, she's never really been one to follow other peoples' rules, much."

Naruto snorted, amusement twitching at the corners of his lips. "A slug after my own heart."

"She's quite single; I could put a word in for you."

The boy's grin grew to match Tsunade's own. "That's a little too much slug for me for the moment. I'll keep that offer in mind though." Then frowned, suddenly serious. "So what do I do about the toads then? Won't Pervy Sage throw a fit if I accept somebody else's contract?"

"Jiraiya and I have discussed this; regardless of how you might feel about him, he does want the best for you, kid… He agrees that you and the toads probably aren't suited for each other." A brief pause. "Unless, you disagree?"

Naruto thought about that for a moment. The closest he'd even been to summoning any within the toad clan had been summoning Gamakichi and a handful of tadpoles, many too young to even speak. So no, he wasn't particularly attached to them. Even still, it felt a bit cold, didn't it? "I think-" He startled away from his thoughts as Hinata stirred yet again, and when he glanced her way this time, he was met by two lavender moons. "Heya hot stuff."

"U-um- Hello?" Hinata croaked, awkwardly. She jumped away from him as she finally noticed the closeness with which she'd been clutching to him. "S-sorry! I didn't mean-" She fell silent as her boyfriend plucked what remained of his meal and stuffed it into her waiting hands.

"Munchies. Then words." Turning away from her quizzical face as she inspected the peculiar arrangement, he regarded Tsunade once again. "I think I have nothing against the toads, but nah, we probably aren't a good fit for each other…"

Yeah, he'd had far more chemistry in like 10-minutes with Katsuyu than he'd had with any of the toads he'd actually managed to summon in the days that he'd been training with Jiraiya before his fall. What's more, they had let him fall…

"That's not fair, ya know…"

'True', Naruto begrudgingly admitted. He had failed to summon them, plain and simple; that had resulted in his death. Even still, he couldn't quite help but associate them with that moment.

It was irrational, he knew. But that was the truth. Even if he didn't quite resent them, he doubted he'd ever rely on them much, if at all.

"I'll let Jiraiya know you're breaking up with them. I imagine their elder will still want to speak to you; just don't let anyone bully you into signing anything. Not Fukasaku, and not Katsuyu either, alright? Contracts are a two-way street."

He'd keep that in mind. But there were other more pressing things in his focus at the moment. "What about the Sound guys? Er- did that Jirobo guy-" Naruto stopped, noting the dark look on Tsunade's face. "Yeah, I thought not…" Hinata laid a hand over his own, a small comfort against that disappointing realization.

"His mental faculties were poached by Orochimaru to feed his parasite. Katsuyu was able to recover his body quickly enough to mostly put him back together, but there's no mind left to do much with it. I had to declare him brain dead last night." Sensing his thoughts at that moment, Tsunade dropped down beside him, palming the boy's shoulder in a gesture that she hoped was comforting. "It's not your fault, alright? You did everything you could."

"... Nah…" He'd screwed around too much. His mother had said as much, herself. He'd thought he was being efficient or whatever, but he still wasted too much energy.

"You've got power and even skill in spades, but the greatest factors that high level combats often come down to are the tiny micro-decisions that transition a small advantage to a smooth victory. You waste opportunities too much; you second guess yourself when you're behind and you play too much when you're ahead… If you want to breach the realm that separates you from a jonin and above, you need to learn to instantly recognize and seize those advantages to their maximum." She let him stomach that critique, then added- "It's all about intuition…"

It was why she had never been able to beat Minato, no matter how hard she tried. Kushina had prided herself rather strongly in her strength as a warrior; if it came down to mere statistics, she should have stood head and shoulders even above a monster of Minato's caliber.

But that wasn't how fighting worked- certainly not battles between ninja. When it came down to raw intuition and combat-intellect, he'd always simply outclassed her.

"Until you can learn to do that more consistently, no amount of raw power will let you compete with the likes of Orochimaru or those Akatsuki guys. They're not just overwhelmingly strong; they're elites who have seen and prevailed in more battles than you can imagine. You could get twice- no, ten times as strong as them and they'd still find ways to best you, every time."


"I think- I think I had a chance to save him, the first time I cast my hellfire. But I screwed it up; I let myself lose focus, and because of that, the snake was able to recover… If I'd been better, it wouldn't have been able to leave with his chakra like it did; he probably would have lived."

He spoke clinically, trying to keep his feelings out of the picture, but that was hard. Maybe he was simply too soft for his own good, but- was it wrong, to wish that he'd been better? Their training at the academy had taught them to guard their emotions; to slay their hearts and act only for the betterment of their village. Kakashi himself had often told Naruto that he let his emotions cloud his thoughts too much. But- He thought of that Tayuya girl, and how hurt she'd looked when he'd told her he failed. "And the others? How are they handling that?"

Tsunade winced.

Yeah… "Thought not."

No doubt they resented him for that… He wouldn't blame them at all, if that were the case.

"... Worry about yourself for now," Tsunade finally ordered him after a moment. "I'll give you both a routine checkup; let's see if I can get you out of here sooner rather than later.

"Yeah, okay."

Tsunade was nothing if not thorough. Even still, she was quick, perhaps sensing both his and Hinata's discomfort as she ran them through a number of tests. Her palm glided over vitals, soothing remnant aches and double and triple checking for damage that she knew well to be healed, and even in spite of it, Naruto found he did not have the heart to complain much about it.

When she was done though, she stood with a huff. "Try and get some exercise, but keep your chakra use to a minimum." She glanced between the two, shuffling a bit awkwardly. "I'll give you lot some space…" Then she was gone.

Only moments after the older woman had left, Hinata found she could no longer stay silent. She parted her lips to speak, shaking her head in disappointment as the words that came simply didn't sound right to her.

'Are you okay?'

Of course he wasn't okay; he had watched a guy die! Surely, she could do better than that!

"I'm such an idiot," Naruto spoke, hollowly, before she could properly find the words. Her first instinct was to interrupt him- to tell him how smart she thought he was! But Hinata knew by now that her boyfriend wasn't fishing for validation.

Sometimes, it just helped to vent.

"Me and my bleeding heart, ya know?" He shakily added, after a brief moment. "I'm here feeling sorry for a guy who tried to kill me… I didn't owe him anything. I gave him plenty of chances to back down, and he just kept coming… So why do I feel so guilty?"

Oh, that was easy. "Because you care about people." Hinata gripped his elbow, tentatively shifting to link their arms together and lean against his shoulder. She hoped the gesture was as comforting as she'd imagined it being. "Sometimes I think-" She began unsteadily, hunting for the words as quickly as she spit them out. "Sometimes I think I hate being a ninja." Naruto's eyes snapped over to her, the boy tilting his head quizzically. But he knew as well by now to give her time, and she appreciated that.

"That feeling when chakra points pop on contact; t-the way organs kind of 'slosh' apart when I hit them just right; erm- the sound of my heart in my ears…" She looked a bit green as she described it all. "B-but… Sparring with you has been so fun though, so I guess I don't really hate fighting so much as how they have to end…"

She wetted her lips, thinking back to their youth. "You remember when- erm, when they blooded us at the academy, right?"

Naruto frowned, sensing where she was going.

It had been one of the few times that Naruto had thought he hated Iruka; back before the two had learned to understand each other better… He remembered the betrayal he'd felt as his sensei had revealed their assignment. "They gave us all pets as a class project; we named them, and Iruka-sensei made us care for them for a month. Yeah, I remember."

"Mhm… And at the end of the month, he made us kill them." Hinata sucked her teeth, hunching over and pressing her index fingers together. "My father- he-he made me do it with my hands. He said it would get me used to killing the enemy with my gentle-fist. B-but I- I messed it up."

Naruto remembered her pet. A rather large rabbit with a rich brown coat. "T-that… Must have been awful."

She nodded, speaking a tad hollowly. "It- it squirmed and it- it was screaming in pain, bec-'cause I broke its neck wrong. My father wouldn't let me correct it; he called it a learning experience."

"Tch, figures… Your dad's such a salty butthole."

Hinata chuckled, just a bit bitterly. "Mhm…"

It had taken several minutes for the poor creature to die properly. After that- "The only mercy he showed that day was in letting me bury it."

Naruto clutched her hand, giving it a light squeeze. "I-uh… I never killed mine."

That shocked her. " B-but you got credit for the assignment- I remember!"

Her boyfriend shrugged. "Iruka-sensei had us all do it at home, 'cuz he thought having family close by would help us cope. I don't have a family." He laughed, shrugging again. "So I just came to school the next day red-eyed and miserable and I guess he cut me a break."

An obvious oversight in the system. "We weren't really close back then… I guess at the time, he figured the Kyuubi oughta have no issue killing some dumb bird."

She winced at that, remembering more. His had been a crow with a crooked beak. "Munin," She breathed in remembrance. She remembered how ecstatic he had been; how proudly her then-crush had paraded that tiny bird around, announcing her name for all to hear, whether they wanted to or not. "You saved her?"

"Fat lot of good that turned out to be," Naruto snickered, bitterly. "I only kept her for about a month longer before they found out and killed her."

It took Hinata a long moment, but she sensed he'd just given her a piece to a puzzle. Thinking on it for a moment longer, she startled, and a frown slowly took over. "The Inuzuka… That's why you attacked them, right?"

A nod. Naruto let a thin chain extend from his palm, snaking outward to grip his poncho in its natural state and throw it over himself, snapping its braces shut around his upper biceps. He thought to transform it again, to don it like he'd worn the last few days. But there was something comforting in that moment about wearing it, exactly as she'd made for him. "Yeah." He was silent for a moment, considering something that he did not voice. But then he shook his head. "Thing is, the Inuzuka take the blooding very seriously. I guess it's 'cuz they've got a history as big hunters before they joined the village as ninja, or whatever Kiba says about them. But I guess 'cuz of that, trying to dodge it is a pretty big shame, I guess. They sent their hounds to break into my apartment and kill her." He shrugged. The pain had long-dulled. So-too, had the fury. Now, all that was left was a detached disappointment… In them, but also in- He shook his head, dissuading that particular thought. "It's my own damn fault; I shouldn't have told- Whatever, I definitely shouldn't have responded the way that I did."

Hinata remembered Kiba's documenting of her boyfriend's response. How he had gone after the dog ninja's clan, tampering with their food supply for several weeks before they'd finally caught him. Many of the clan's ninja hounds had grown sick and miserable in that time, directly as a result of the boy's actions. Kiba had seemed so angry, just talking about it in hindsight. But still- she knew in her heart that there was more to the story. How had they found out about the bird? "They broke into your home-"

"I poisoned their food for weeks. It's a miracle none of them died," Naruto cut in, stoically. "If they hadn't stopped me, I probably would have kept going until one of them did die, and it would have been too late to regret it… I guess they'd have had it coming but-" He sighed. "But that's not me. I don't wanna be the guy who goes nuclear on people because I get hurt; I don't wanna be the guy who kills people just 'cuz I'm angry, or who puts people down because it's convenient… I can acknowledge that it's a shitty thing to have happened and his clan were a bunch of assholes while still owning up to my own screw ups."

It was a rather mature way to think, she decided, and Hinata squeezed his hand back. "D-do you hate them?"

He thought about it for a moment. "It probably sounds a bit pathetic, but that bird was the closest thing I had to a friend, back then… When you come home to an empty house every day- I guess even some dumb bird screaming at you will make your heart skip a beat." He shrugged. "I think it's really hypocritical of them to hurt one of mine and then raise a stink about what I did… But no, I don't hate them. Maybe it's a bit naive, but I like to imagine they were trying to help in their own twisted sort of way…" That felt like a bit of a stretch… "I don't forgive it, but I don't hate them." He shrugged, and unbidden, he thought of Haku and Zabuza, back during his very first C-ranked mission. "I-I-" It came suddenly, a revelation like no other. "I think I hate the system that glorifies teaching kids to kill their hearts- to break the things they love, and encourages their peers to punish them for wanting to be better. O-or the system that made a monster like Orochimaru, who could do all that messed up stuff in Tanzaku and not bat an eye; or betray his own followers like they're nothing…"

Or a system that betrayed its allies in their times of need; one that would hand out living, thinking, feeling creatures like the Tailed Beasts as mere bargaining chips for a peace that would not even last; one that would use those very same bargaining trips as weapons of mass destruction, all to kill a people who couldn't have been more out of the way if they tried…

A system that taught a father to stick a Tailed Beast in his son for the sake of a people who would spit on him for that burden, and hailed him as a hero for doing so…

"Yeah, I guess I kinda hate being a ninja too."

"Mhm…" It was the first time she'd ever seen Naruto comment on anything like that. She remembered their academy days, and how Naruto would so often proudly declare that he would be a ninja; that he would ascend to the very top of it all by becoming Hokage. She remembered leeching that energy from him every day, pushing herself to try that little bit harder, to chase after an ideal that had been spoon-fed to them from a young age…

But things were changing, huh? The reality of the ninja world was far crueler than she could have ever imagined. And when she thought like that, Naruto's sudden shift in perspective didn't feel out of place at all; not when she found herself agreeing. "I-I only became a ninja because my father told me- he told me that that was what I was going to do; I wanted to make him proud of me, so I did it, even though I was bad at it." A thought. "Even now, even though I've gotten a bit better, I still- I-I guess I'm trying to say that being a ninja isn't really all it's- um, what it's said to be… It feels like I was set up to fail."

Naruto seemed to think over her words for a moment, then he snickered. "Yeah, I hear that."

Even with all that he'd said so far, having him concede so readily surprised her. "Y-you agree?"

"Mhm… For the longest time, I only really wanted to be Hokage because I wanted to be acknowledged. I looked at the old man and how much people adored him, and I wanted that for myself; I guess I figured: If people would look at me like that too, I'd do just about anything. Now, I guess it's kinda out of spite…" He laughed, hollowly. "But if there's anything I've learned from Gramps- '' A sigh- "From Hiruzen, it's that ninjas do some awful shit to each other… Sometimes, just because…" He trailed off, meaningfully, and she understood. She still remembered the Cloud village, and what they had done to her- how they had hurt her clan.

Yeah, she knew quite well…

"A-and now I've been wondering for a while now-" Naruto shared his gaze with her, and she saw his discomfort, worn plainly on his person. "I'm wondering: Do I really have the stomach for all of that?" A shrug, then this time his laugh came again, a bit more genuinely than last. "Don't get me wrong. To be Lok'haathe- to fight freely and without restraint- I live for that stuff. There's nothing more thrilling than fighting tooth and nail against impossible odds!" His grin, this gorgeous thing that ate up his entire face- Hinata never got tired of seeing it. But then it dimmed just a bit. "But hurting people without cause just doesn't sit well with me, I guess." He rocked backwards, bracing his weight on a palm and staring up at the cloth-ceiling. "If it's to protect something precious to me, then I guess I'll do what I gotta do, but I think the day it becomes my first choice is the day I stop being me…"

"Yeah," She muttered back, somewhat lamely. She remembered Tayuya's words- how baffled the girl had seemed, just at the implication that being kind should be the norm. "Then I guess…change the way it's done?" Naruto blinked rapidly, tilting his head with inquisitiveness that forced a giggle out of her.


"It- it's just- I've- I've been thinking that maybe the reason I l-lo-love you so much is because you've always done things differently. And you don't care whether people like it or not… You do what you think is right, even if it makes people mad; even if some people think it's dumb… Even if it makes you the villain to some people, you always stay true to yourself. When I think about how you do things, I think- I think that being a ninja- maybe it isn't so bad.

He listened to her, humbled not just by her words, but the authenticity with which they were said. She'd always been like that, even back when they weren't as close- just a pair of strangers who got along. Shy as Hinata may have been, there had always been a certain earnestness to her that he'd found himself respecting. Or if not that, at least appreciating.

"She's incredible," Kushina readily agreed.

Yeah… Thinking again of that Jirobo guy, Naruto wished he'd shown the guy a bit more warmth; screwed around a bit less and saved him properly, if only to better live up to the example he'd seemingly set for her.

"Never too late, yeah?"

Yeah… "Let's make a pact then, yeah?"

Hinata blinked. "A pact?"

"Yeah!" Naruto turned to face her fully, leaning forward until their faces were mere inches apart. To his glee, she held his gaze; she barely even blushed! "A pact to live freely; live how our hearts demand and stand proudly with the consequences. And if anybody has a problem with that-" He clapped his fist against his palm. "We'll stomp a mudhole in their ass! From here on, that's my ninja way!" Extending a pinky to the girl, he grinned. "How about it? You in?"

As if he needed to ask! Hinata intertwined his pinky with her own, grinning shyly, but proudly. "Always."

The following evening, they finally reached a point where Konoha's mountain of stone-faces could be seen in the far distance. The carriage that had been used to carry Naruto and Hinata throughout their unconsciousness had been repurposed to accommodate the luggage of some of the civilians, hopefully lightening a bit of their burden and speeding up their pace. Instead, the pair had been delegated to sleep in the trees above the clearing they'd chosen, where the lion's share of civilians had taken refuge for the evening.

Hinata had already settled down for the evening in the tree above, sleeping off the sparring the two had worked on throughout the day as exercise. As for him, he found that like usual, his own bruises had long faded, and he still had far too much energy to rest like a regular person.

"Lovely," He grumbled. The makings of a rasengan swirled to life at the tips of his fingers, slowly rotating with an audible whirl as he stared into its rose-gold core. It was smaller than the average, and feather-light, compared to the usual weight of the jutsu as he'd grown accustomed to. But the brilliant thrum of chakra, however diminished, was as addicting as ever.

He supposed a bit of extra training was a fine enough option.

A loud puff of smoke stole his focus, causing the jutsu to fizzle out; Naruto knew he would see Katsuyu even before she spoke.

Or not…

"Young Naruto-kun, I've come to bargain!" The diminutive form of the slug guardian rose up atop the boy's knee, which he raised to meet her at eye level.

"Heya," The boy greeted, pleasantly. "Auntie told me I might see you soon."

"Indeed! I would have been here much sooner, but I'm afraid I got stuck in traffic." Katsuyu's eyestalks dropped in a show of faux disappointment. "I'm sure you know what I'm here for?"

"Mhm… You've come to collect your compliments."

She perked up quickly. "You remembered! Oh, but they can wait." A bridge of seriousness built between both parties. "Have you spoken with Fukasaku-san?"

Straight to the point then… "Yeah. He was pretty pissed; he kept saying it wasn't with me, but I really thought he was gonna bash my head in with that stick of his." Other than that, the old toad had been agreeable enough- likable, even. But their conversation had only confirmed his beliefs. He and the toads could not work.

They were simply… Too tame.

"I'd like to say we parted for good on mostly good terms though."

Katsuyu gave the slug equivalent of a shrug. "In that case, may I begin with my sales pitch?"

That took Naruto out of the moment. "You have a sales pitch?"

"Indeed! My accountant wrote it for me." He was not given even a full second to process that before she hurriedly moved along. "Ahem. Dear Young Naruto-kun of the Ancient and Noble House of Uzumaki!"

Naruto twitched. "Laying it on a bit thick, eh?"

Katsuyu ignored him. "I was very impressed by your performance against the giant, eight-headed killer snake that will henceforth be referred to as 'Mister Danger Noodle Guy'. You displayed a formidable intuition for combat, something that I would like to see flourish… More importantly than that though, you laughed at my jokes. Between that and Lady Tsunade's personal recommendation, that's good enough for me! But before I offer you my contract, I'd like you to understand- I do things a bit differently from the other major clans you'll find offering their contracts to sign."

"For better and for worse, I imagine," Kushina piped up, and Naruto found himself nodding.

"In what way?" Naruto pulled his knees in to draw the slug closer, giving her his full attention.

"Well for starters, you need to understand that my title is Guardian of Shikkotsu forest," She started, bidding him to understand. "I protect and govern that territory; in a sense, you can think of it like a home and sanctuary that I open to lesser clans and those in need. While I hold authority within that realm, my subjects, varied as they are, are ultimately not included in the contract that I typically offer… Which is a pretty decent segway into the next thing: My contract is not the 'Slug Contract'... It's the 'Katsuyu Contract'. My contract is for my aid, and my aid alone… But there's a- I suppose you could call it a catch."

Naruto thought he sensed where she was going. "Contracts are a two-way street, yeah?"

Katsuyu beamed. "That's right! Contracts can be compared to an adoption, of sorts, just as much as they are a partnership. "To become my summoner is to inherit many of the privileges and responsibilities that I currently manage. When Lady Tsunade took up my contract, it was fortunate that my people were experiencing unprecedented times of peace… But that may not always be the case. Just as you may call on me as needed, so too may I call on you, if the situation calls for it."

Naruto thought on that for a moment. "So a contract that promises an equal exchange of aid and effort… I'm not seeing the downside here. Do other clans not also do this?"

"Typically, no." She shook her head. "In most cases, clans that offer summoning contracts prefer to keep their summoners out of the direct line of their business and conflicts, barring rather extenuating circumstances. This is largely because the ninja world is typically a bit more conflict-heavy than the planes belonging to the summoning realms tend to be and thus favor to simply hammer the nail, often in times where brute force simply isn't necessary. Instead, those clans benefit from the prestige of their summoners' accomplishments, which honestly is a formidable weapon in itself… I'm sure you understand the 4th Hokage's fame as the latest summoner of the toad clan." He nodded, and she nodded right back. "There you go. Between Jiraiya-san and Minato-san, the toads are currently experiencing an unprecedented height of prestige, not seen in centuries. I'm sure you get the point."

"I see…" Naruto frowned, thoughtfully. "So if clans can gain prestige through the mere threat of a strong summoner, then it's in their best interests to not only aid that summoner in their growth as much as possible, but also to be seen working with those summoners often!"

The tiny slug beamed. "Correct! And it's also a fair bit of incentive to frequently choose strong summoners with tons of potential, usually the apprentices of stand-out summoners of old."

Which explained why the toads, despite apparently being of such high prestige, would have been content to work with him just off Jiraiya's whim alone. No doubt, they would have been keen to have the son of Minato and the Kyuubi jinchuriki under their banner. Suddenly, Fukasaku's insistence on meeting him made a lot more sense. Doubly so, his fury with Jiraiya for losing them such an opportunity.

But if that were the case, and clans could benefit from a strong summoner, then- "Then it works in reverse too, right?"

Katsuyu tilted her head. "Pardon?"

"Clans that have lame summoners or no summoner at all can lose prestige, in the eyes of the other clans." Naruto raised an eyebrow challengingly. "Right?"

"Ah… Yes, that's correct." Katsuyu's eyestalks drooped. "It's a slug-dissolve and drink via bendy straw-slug world out here, Young Naruto-kun. The perception of power and authority is important to us as a deterrent for conflict amongst other- er, more ambitious clans, let's say. Without such deterrents, violence continues unabated, and not all can weather such conflict, I'm afraid. Which brings me to Shikkotsu forest…" She trailed off leadingly, and Naruto knew she expected him to continue her thought.

"You called it a sanctuary. So it's a safe-haven for clans within that realm, which have fallen out of favor amongst their peers." Then a morbid thought came to him, supplied by a morosely listening Kushina. "And likely been trampled by others with the power to back it up." Guardian? No kidding, then… "You're the only thing standing between these guys and complete annihilation."

Katsuyu's squishy white hide seemed to pinken just a touch. "I wouldn't say I'm the only thing. But that is where the likes of Lady Tsunade and even Shizune-san come in- and hopefully, where you might follow. "I won't mince words. I am quite strong. If I had arms, I bet I could do at least ten pushups."

"That's pretty strong," Kushina marveled.

Naruto certainly hadn't been complaining about her strength, seeing how she'd handled Orochimaru's giant snake. "I won't argue there."

"What's more, my unique abilities also make me well-equipped to watch over all of my territory at all times… But I am not infallible, and even my abilities have limits. I have reason to believe that hostilities are brewing." Like a powder keg near a lit match, all it took was a single spark… "That is why I must do my due diligence to ensure that my interests are well-protected, preferably well before they can get out of hand. Now more than ever, I need the other clans to know my strength- to understand that Shikkotsu forest is protected. Lady Tsunade, formidable as she is, is simply not enough anymore. Certainly not when her old teammate and equal just opened the gates of hell on Tanzaku town on a whim." The sudden darkening of her tone made Naruto jump a bit. Katsuyu's flesh seemed to almost bubble as she continued, scathingly. "Word of Orochimaru-san's evil has already begun to circulate, and fear of the snakes that claim him is rising, emboldening their leader, Manda. However-" Then her tone brightened. "You put down Mister Danger Noodle Guy; you fought alongside me and we won! That is circulating as well!"

Naruto was speechless for a moment, humbled by the praise."I was- I mean, I couldn't have done any of that without Hinata, and even Tayuya and Spider guy- Kidomaru."

"Irrelevant!" Katsuyu cheered. "Your strength is true, and your potential is enticing! Now, to quote a warrior of unfathomable power: 'I likes ya, and I wants ya. Now we can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way; the choice is yours.'"

"Erm-" Naruto paled a bit at the threatening undertone. "What- what's the hard way?"

Katsuyu's eyestalks drooped. "I start begging, and I won't leave you alone until you sign. I can be everywhere, and I am quite persistent."

Oh. That was far less insidious than he was expecting… "And the easy way?"

She perked up. "I've got an exclusive copy of the newest Princess Gale movie back at my place, complete with deleted scenes. Oh, and I'm an excellent cook; I did dedicated culinary practice for about a decade during the warring states era. Do you like tacos?"

Kushina's voice came with absolute authority. "If you turn down that contract, you're grounded."

That was all he needed to hear. "I'm in. Give me that damn scroll."

Katsuyu squealed.

The full moon loomed overhead as Sasuke ran, too-small legs tripping over one another in desperate flight for salvation. He stumbled forward, palm clapping against the familiar, gnarled wood of his cousin's cabin home; even as the roughened texture scraped the flesh of his palm, its familiarity stabilized him for just a brief moment as he found his feet and rounded the outer perimeter of the building. A wheeze tore from his tiny lungs, lightheadedness pulling at the skeletal remnants of his strength and unraveling it like a ball of yarn.

Doubling over, his wheeze devolved into a painful, hacking cough that spewed thick spots of red-tinged saliva; his raw throat burned, a reminder of its origins. His knees shuddered, and Sasuke had to slam his wounded palm against the cabin's side once more to brace himself.

A moment. Then another.

The saliva in his mouth dribbled to a pause and Sasuke nearly let himself relax, but then a 'click' sounded overhead, and his panic clawed its way up his throat anew. Something close to a whimper found its way out, and Sasuke began stumbling forward again in a raw panic.

"How many times are we going to do this, Sasuke?" A cool monotone sounded above him, and Sasuke tried to ignore it, but the battle was short-lived, for head snapped up in spite of his wishes, traumatizing him anew with the sight of twin, crimson orbs. "I am not made of time, I'll have you know."

"The-en j-just leave m-me- al-one!" Sasuke whined, his childlike fingers clutching painfully against his stuttering chest. He tore his gaze from his mad brother finally, stumbling along with only the aim to make further distance. "P-please!"

"I'm not going to do that." Itachi smiled, darkly. "You have something I want, and I won't let you rest until I have it."

"Wha-aaat!" The younger boy begged. "What do you want!" Angry tears fought their way free, their overflow spilling over his face and staining his cheeks an angry pink. "WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME!?"

A whirl of metal came too quick to comprehend, and both of Sasuke's palms clapped over his face as his cheek split apart. He ducked down with a scream, curling in on himself, as if to ward away the world, itself.

"What I want-" Itachi careened downward, landing before the downed boy with a 'thump' that was feather-light, but far too loud. His footsteps ground their way after his younger brother, a merciless grip snapping out to lay its strangling burden upon the flimsy guard of his forearms. Prying his thin arms away from his face, Itachi bored his way into the younger boy's space until their foreheads were nearly touching. His scarlet glare imposed on Sasuke's own crimson-tinted plea, three-tomoe eyes staring back with visceral disgust for Sasuke's lesser gaze. "What I want is for you to stop running!" Slowly, the patterns of his eyes began to contort, warping together and lengthening to adopt the shape of a three-pointed shuriken; its cruel edges whirled with speed, the young man's pupils shrinking until they were little more than pinpoint pricks in a sea of crimson. "I want you to stand up and face me! Challenge me! If you can't even do that, then what good are you!?"

"I don't want to!" Sasuke cried, trying to pull away from him. He hacked wetly on his own coughs, trying to dive back to the ground, but his brother was too strong, the eldest hauling Sasuke back up until his toes were barely dangling against the ground. "Please! I don't want to! I just want to go home!"

"What home!?" Itachi roared, ekes of spittle splashing across the youth's tightly scrunched eyes. "The home full of our parents' corpses!? The home I took from you? Look at me! Open your eyes, now!"

Sasuke flinched, prying his eyes open against his better judgment; twin pools of hatred stared back at him, a touch of madness alight in his elder brother's gaze.

"This is the home that waits for you, Sasuke," Itachi cooed, turning away from the boy to kick down the door of the cabin. Sasuke knew what he would find, just as it had before, and every time before that too; but he was always too slow to look away. A pile of bodies, hauled together and crumpled at the center, assembled together as if on display. Their corpses were tinged with a morbid, blackening char. Underneath the body of his elder cousin, he could see the shriveling lump that had become of the young man's wife; under her, their daughter, no older than two-years old…

It was like it had been just the day before that he had seen them whole. Now-

Bile burned in the back of his throat, rolling across his tongue and making him gag. He tried to be strong- to be defiant, but he lost the battle long before it had started, collapsing down until he was little more than dead weight in Itachi's grip to wretch painfully onto their macabrely-stained tatami mat-floor.

"Get up." Itachi ordered him, yanking Sasuke back to bare feet that lacked even the strength to stand. "I said get up!" His younger brother stumbled with a wail as he jerked the boy towards him, gripping his collar and dragging him up until they were eye level.

"I will never leave you alone. Run from me all you like- I will find you. Build a new life- I will barge right on in and tear it all down again, and again, and again until you stand up and stop me!" Itachi's foot snapped out with gruesome efficiency to crush against the boy's ribs. Sasuke's scream tapered off into this pitiful, choked gargle as he tumbled back, knees pulled up to protect his swelling sternum; his body rolled until the impact had rolled him right beside the pile of bodies.

The smell-

A new wave of sickness hit Sasuke all over again, stinging at his sinuses and loosing itself beneath him.

"Make new friends- I'll kill them. Hide away in a hole for all I care; bury your head beneath the sand like a coward- I'll come around with a bloody shovel and drag you out by your ankle if I have to! You don't get to be free of me! I may have spared your pathetic life, but don't think for a second that you get to live! Not unless you find your spine and kill me, yourself! Do you understand me!?"

"Please-" Sasuke whimpered. His suffering was a chisel against the base of his skull, invoking a headache that seemed to pound harder with every breath. His mother's warm smile flashed through his mind, suddenly painted with tones of her blood; her corpse, keeled over atop his father's, both so heart-wrenchingly still. One by one, he envisioned their faces: His aunt, his cousins; even his brother's girlfriend, who had often treated him so kindly. Each and every one, a vision- a testament to his brother's immeasurable cruelty. If he could kill his own partner; children; hell, their parents, even!

What hope did Sasuke have against a monster like that?

"Please, I don't want to-"

"I don't care." Itachi's tone was calm again, like the stroke of a knife, it cut into Sasuke's plea like the shuriken through his flesh. "I'm not asking…" He stalked forward again, his calloused fingers snatching the boy by his hair and dragging him closer until they were face-to-face. Sasuke's knees scraped and bled as he was hauled against his will. His brother's breath wafted in his face with a bull's fury, stinging his bruising cheeks as he sobbed. "Unless you need a bit of extra encouragement?"

Chasing his query, the debris outside began to meld together, twisting itself to match a pair of visages that the young Uchiha knew all too well.

"N-no… Don't hurt them," Sasuke whimpered.

Heedless of the boy, Itachi stood, the telltale 'click' of a kunai gracing his palm. Sasuke traced his brother's path with mounting panic as he walked down the two paralyzed figures of Naruto and Sakura. The former wore an expression of fury, fingers twitching but helpless, up against the killer's whim. Sakura's eyes looked past the man, begging Sasuke to respond.

"Please, please," Sasuke whimpered. "If you never listen to anything else that I say, I'm begging you; don't do it!"

"I think you've misunderstood your position a bit, little brother," Itachi chided, almost distantly as he rounded their petrified forms. "The weak don't get to make demands."

Then Sakura's throat split, parting itself like an opened zipper and loosing her life without fanfare. God, even the way he cut her- the way he let her body flop forward, twitching in a widening puddle of red.

"NO! NO" Sasuke screamed. "NO PLEASE! TAKE ME! NOT THEM! NOT THEM!"

"Tut, tut… You still aren't getting it." Itachi stepped over the spasming girl, not so much as a glance for her body as she drowned in her own blood. "None of this would have happened if you hadn't gotten close to them to begin with. They hold you back; make you weak… I'm simply resetting the scales for you; I'm doing you a favor, Sasuke."

His steady gait took him just behind Naruto, who had seemingly given up entirely on fighting. Instead, the boy smiled for Sasuke. "It's okay, Sasuke… It's going to be okay."

Then the boy fell as well, a glasgow grin painted scarlet on his neck.

"ITACHI!" Sasuke howled, fingers clawing for leverage now. "ITACHI! I'LL KILL YOU! I SWEAR TO GOD I'LL KILL YOU!"

"That's the spirit." Itachi smiled, and somehow, some way, it was the most genuine he'd ever remembered him ever being. Itachi strode forward, smacking aside Sasuke's furious hands to wrench an iron grip around his face. Forcing his gaze upon him, something close to perverse affection had overtaken his gaze, "Come find me when you have eyes like mine, and face me properly. If you don't, I'll come find you instead… And you already know what I'll do."

Then he dropped the boy, letting him flop against the ground, runny-nosed and sobbing. Sasuke's eyes trailed from his elder sibling, charting a terror-stricken path to the cooling bodies of his only two friends.

Once again, he was all alone…

Sasuke curled up and clad his face with his two, rail-thin arms, a shriek developing in his throat that burned, but could not touch even a fraction of what lay in his heart. He flinched again as Itachi rose to his full height and stepped over him without a care. The older boy's hands found his pockets as he strode on, cutting a sneering glance back to the pathetic shape he'd left in his wake. "I'll be waiting…"

Trying to enter the village with well over a hundred civilians and four known ex-Sound ninja apparently had a process, of sorts.

Who knew?

Naruto and Hinata found themselves parked just outside the village walls, the former watching on with barely shored patience as each civilian was individually registered and checked into the village by the two Chunin guards that manned the north gate.

All the way at the front was Tsunade, a steadily growing scowl on her face as the poor Chunin in charge of it all fought to hasten his team's pace.

"You wanna just sneak in?" Naruto whispered to Hinata, tilting his head toward the walls with intentionality. "Shouldn't be too hard, yeah?"

Hinata looked between him and the wall, something close to consideration lingering in her eyes.

The right thing to do would be to discourage anything that would get them in trouble. Her boyfriend especially was a Chunin; as the clear authority between the two, he would likely get more than just a mere reprimand if they got caught in derelict of their duties…

But they had also been standing out there for nearly two hours already.

She was just on the fence about it when a sullen redhead barged in between them, glaring at Naruto.

"If you do anything to fuck this up for us, I'mma bite all two-inches of your pretty little dick off."

Kidomaru trailed shortly behind the redhead, one of his many hands hovering as if to palm his own face at any second. Sakon and Ukon were nowhere in sight, seemingly still unwilling to even be seen near their other two teammates.

There was a vague fog of sorts that lingered on the girl. It took only a moment for Naruto to recognize its source.

Had she come to him for comfort?

Naruto grinned at Tayuya, unperturbed by her grisly threat. His teeth were as sharp as ever, clicking against each other. "You leave my pretty little dick alone. I bite back."

A grin of her own came in turn. "You've got freaky meat eating teeth. I've got elite, eighth-prestige dick-biting teeth. Don't play with me, shithead!"

Naruto snickered, then sobered up just a bit. "How are you fe-" He paused, nose curling with distaste for himself. "Nah, that's a stupid question; don't answer that…" His features warmed, adopting that kindness Hinata knew him for. "Is there anything we can do to help?"

"What, like you helped Jirobo?" Tayuya grumbled back, too quick to stop herself. "Er- I-" She hadn't meant to sound quite so bitter, but she regretted her words instantly, spotting the wounded look that Naruto bore for just the moment before he was placid. "S-sorry; that was real shitty of me. I didn't mean it like that…" She chanced a look at the Hyuga, and Hinata's glower did not help her feel any better. Kidomaru too looked less than impressed with her. "I- uh, I guess you could tell us about this place? I mean- if the offer's still on the table and all…"

Naruto shrugged, forcing himself to overlook the jab.

He guessed he deserved it, a little.

Perking up just a bit, he waved carelessly toward the entry-gates, where the myriad gaggle of stray civilians slowly continued to shuffle further in. "It's nice enough. I guess the people here will be well taken care of, if Auntie is looking out for them."

Tayuya followed the gesture with a frown. "Yeah, but you know I don't give a damn about the baby ducklings." When she looked back at him, Naruto noted something close to apprehension- a plea, hidden behind her eyes. "Will my team be safe here? And don't you dare bullshit me."

Responding to a request so poignant surely demanded a mature, well-measured response…

"Probably!" Naruto chuckled a bit when Tayuya growled a bit at him. "Look, you guys helped us out of a pretty tough situation. It'd be pretty shitty of us if we didn't reciprocate. I think you'll be fine."

"Um-" Hinata butt in, looking uncomfortable for just a moment as all eyes found her instead. A gulp, then she mastered herself yet again. "T-Tsunade…" A breath. "I don't think Tsunade-sama will go back on her word- er, if that's what you're worried about?"

"Yeah…" Kidomaru spoke up, looking a touch unconvinced. "But what guarantee do we have that we're not about to walk right into T&I?"

Torture and Interrogations… Orochimaru had often mentioned his old student, whom he had marked while he was still a Konoha ninja. According to the Snake Sannin, that woman worked for Konoha's interrogation team; he wasn't keen to be stuck alone with anyone that might have a grudge with his old master.

"Well- I suppose there isn't any way we can guarantee, but…" Hinata trailed off, suddenly looking to be at a loss. Naruto was quick to jump back in though, waving the question off entirely.

"You guys made your decision when you chose to help us instead of running off in all the chaos. You don't need a guarantee- you need to stop second-guessing shit." Kidomaru glared at him for his lackadaisical response, and Naruto merely shrugged back, in kind. "We have no guarantees that'll satisfy you. Even if Hinata and I promise to vouch for you, I doubt it'd make you feel any better. But Auntie wouldn't have slaved away trying to save your guy for so long if she wasn't committed to helping you guys out."

Kidomaru frowned. "But in the end, she failed."

The blonde's eyes narrowed just a touch, and Kidomaru gulped. "But she tried, and she wouldn't have tried if she didn't give a damn. So quit asking dumb questions already and just accept that you can't control how stuff plays out here. Be on your best behavior and don't piss her off, and I'm sure she'll protect you guys."

Asking for blind faith at a time like this- Kidomaru pinched the bridge of his nose.

He was right though. There wasn't much else to do but roll the dice and hold out hope. He cut his gaze to Tayuya, the two sharing a glance with each other.

But once they walked through the gates, there was no going back… They'd thought they were sure of their decision… Honestly, it felt a bit foolish to be second-guessing themselves so late into the game. They'd already cut ties with Orochimaru. If they tried to go on their own, he would no doubt find them and then-

Well, the less that was said about that, the better…

What's more, they still needed a seal master.

"These seals on our necks-" Tayuya stepped forward, fully breaching Naruto's space to glare right into his eyes. He had to lean back just a bit as she approached well past what could be considered appropriate, their faces mere inches apart. "It's only a matter of time before Orochimaru tries to fuck with us, using them."

Honestly, it was a small miracle that he hadn't tried to do so during his bloody corpse parade. Tayuya could only chalk it up to him splitting his focus too much on the Edo Tensei. Now, it must have had something to do with the distance between them…

But she wasn't keen on testing their luck anymore than they already had.

"Do you think that someone in your village- er, maybe that pervy old toad can get them off for us?"

"Good question!" Taking advantage of their closeness, Naruto boldly gripped the collar of her shirt, causing Tayuya to squawk with indignance as he pried it apart from her neck.

"Ack! You asshole!" Tayuya pried angrily at his fingers. Her nails tried to bite into his flesh, but made little headway. "Let go, you little sissy bitch!"

"Chill out. I'm damn good with seals, myself. But I can't give a diagnosis unless I see it."

The implication behind his words was all it took for the girl to calm down just a touch. "Well maybe just ask then, instead of copping a feel, you whore."

"Maybe don't get so close I can taste yesterday's breakfast, whore." Naruto rolled his eyes, glancing down at the ink-black blemish, just above her jugular. It was about time he'd gotten to take a look at Orochimaru's work. Sasuke's own mark had been sealed off by Kakashi long before he'd been in any state to inspect it, and even after, Sasuke was fairly reticent to let him get more than a cursory glance. But with Tayuya sporting an unsealed mark, he had his hopes he'd be able to figure it out. "Right then, let's say what it is we're dealing with-"


"What the hell is that?" Kushina demanded, her tone almost accusatory.

'I don't- what kind of infernal moon runes is this shit!?'

Work with any seals for long enough, and your eyes get damn good at parsing out the meaning behind the ink. It was simple enough to look into the mark- to see through the iconography to witness the myriad strokes that dwelled beneath the surface. Even condensed as it was, his eyes could spot the vital points of it all with at least a vague accuracy; adding Kushina's own mastery to the mix, and it should have been child's play to come up with something.

And that was the first problem.

"He's encrypted the entire thing. It looks a lot like a splice of different sealing styles are being used as a front. We'll need to crack its defenses if we want to find its root."

Easier said than done.

The second problem though- something close to alarm bells were ringing in Kushina's head, though neither of them couldn't trace the source. Naruto's thumb ghosted across Tayuya's marked flesh, the tiniest application of chakra agitating the mark.

Cold, yellowing eyes peered right back, a serpent languidly uncoiling itself to bear down on him. Its oversized maw peeled back, revealing a mouthful of teeth that dribbled with blackened venom. As it reared up to loom at its full height, Naruto gulped.

"He didn't…" Kushina's voice was shaky in a way he rarely heard from her.

Then it lunged.

Instantly, Naruto pushed Tayuya away, only just remembering to be a tad gentle as he did so, so that she would only stumble back a bit instead of falling over completely. "Nope!"

"Hey!" Tayuya instinctively gripped at his own forearm to stabilize herself and he let her; she stumbled to a stop now just within arm's reach of him, her nostrils flaring. "First you grope me, now you're shoving me around- Konoha hospitality is ass, man!"

Naruto rolled his eyes, forcing a veil of composure. "First off, I grabbed your collar 'cuz it was in the way. And quit with that damned agenda of yours; I could chop food over that cutting board of yours, so hang that shit up already." Her fist snapped out, impacting audibly with his shoulder. It didn't hurt, but he feigned a wince nonetheless, if only because he did deserve it.

"Quit making fun of the poor girl's nonexistent boobs."


Softening his tone, Naruto continued. "Secondly, I didn't mean to push you. I- uh… I panicked a little."

'You should apologize.'

Right… "S-sorry," Naruto tacked on. Tayuya's own irritation ebbed just a touch, at that. "That mark needs to come off as soon as possible." Or barring that, they'd need to seal it up as tight as possible.

"Well duh! I could've told you that," Tayuya grumbled. "Anything coming from Snake-guy can't be good, ya know?"

"No-no-no, you're not getting it." Naruto fidgeted a bit, trying to find the words. His gaze searched for Hinata, and she started forward as she spotted the terror in his gaze. Her fingers intertwined with his, offering him a bit of her comfort that helped him center himself. "Alright this time, I swear I'm not trying to piss you off. You guys are diseased." He immediately winced, anticipating their reactions.

"Couldn't think of a better way to say that, huh?"

Sure enough, Tayuya had gone pale, so much so that he could clearly make out the veins beneath her flesh. Cutting his gaze to Kidomaru, he could see the spider-like boy wasn't much better.

"Diseased- What the fuck do you mean diseased!?" Tayuya shouted, so loudly that a number of the civilians up ahead turned back to regard her, curiously. "Mind your damned business, assholes!"

They quickly looked away.

"There's not much other way for me to put it…" Naruto wetted dry lips, tentatively reaching for Tayuya again, but stopping just short of her. "Er- I guess possessed works too, but that doesn't quite explain how bad it really is, I think." He drew his arm back, feeling guilty, but all the same unwilling to touch the girl.

Not after what he'd seen.

"The seal is heavily encrypted; there's only so much I can parse out while it's dormant like it is, and even if I can get a better look, I'll need a few different examples to decode it fully. Only then could I even start to find the root cluster to unravel it at. But none of that actually matters, because just trying to interact with that thing as it is, is suicide."

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Tayuya whined, her own palm snapping up to clasp offensively at the blemish on her neck. From the corner of his eye, Naruto saw Kidomaru mirroring the gesture, his eyes a touch unfocused.

It was clear that neither of them understood yet, and he was getting impatient trying to explain it. Picking from Kushina's mind, he thankfully offered- "I think- He implanted a piece of his spirit-"

Tayuya and Kidomaru both flinched, and he hastened to complete his explanation before they could get a word in. "-Into those marks of yours; it safeguards the 'gate', as it were. The second I even touched that seal of yours, it tried to infect me, and I don't know what it'd have done, but when I say you guys are somehow diseased, I'm really not playing here…" A breath. "Look, I'll see what I can do, but I can't even begin to decode this thing unless I can get past it. Even if I can, I'll still need to unravel it from your own bodies without triggering a number of failsafes I haven't seen but know damn well exist, which will probably kill you if they are set off... If -and I really mean if- I can get past all of that, I might be able to do it. Until then though, I can probably seal it off, at least."

Visibly calming himself, Kidomaru stepped forward. "Do you think Jiraiya might be able to do it? Take it off entirely- I mean."

"Unlikely," Naruto and Kushina immediately replied, to both Tayuya and Kidomaru's frustration.

But that didn't feel quite right. Naruto coughed, trying to reorient himself. "Er- it's like- He's got the skill for it, I think -much more than I've got, at the moment. But see- without my natural sensitivity toward chakra, I wouldn't have even noticed something was wrong until it was already too late. Even if I warn him about the guardian, there's any number of other defenses beyond it that might catch him unawares… Even if he manages to get them all off, there's no telling what might slip under his radar and come back to bite him later, especially 'cuz Orochimaru knows how he works and probably prepared some stuff specifically for him. Nah, It's way too risky to ask him to handle this."

Just the thought of what might have happened to him, had his mother been less aware…

What's more, there was no doubt in his mind that Kushina was the superior sealmaster between herself and the old pervert. Relying on her aid was a safer bet than Jiraiya's, here… Still though- "I guess I can consult with him. Maybe he'll surprise me and know exactly what to do."

But not a chance in hell was he letting anybody else touch those things.

When a startlingly subdued Gai-sensei had returned to the village with Sasuke's unresponsive body in tow, Sakura feared the worst. Kakashi-sensei had already been interned in the Intensive Care Unit by an unknown threat, whom the higher ups were still refusing to name within earshot of her.

Now Sasuke- She fought back the pinprick-tears that struggled to the surface. From the very moment that her ebony-haired teammate had fled from her, she'd regretted dragging him to visit Kakashi.

But she hadn't been able to help herself; not after she'd dropped the ball so heavily with Naruto.

"I swear, I just wanted to do right by you guys," Sakura whimpered, her fingers tentatively climbing outward to clasp at Sasuke's hand.

He was cold and dry, like cubes of ice had been stuffed under a wad of rubber. She flinched, tearing her hand away on reflex, and felt all the more guilty.

"I should have gone after you…"

Of course, Kurenai-sensei had been quick to stop her. Likely, the woman had saved her from sharing Sasuke's fate, though she couldn't help but resent her actions, even still.

First Kakashi, now Sasuke- Was Naruto okay? No one would tell her anything- not where the blonde had gone, or who Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei had encountered.

At least, not until news about Tanzaku Town had come in.

Sakura wasn't stupid, and while little had been disclosed regarding the exact details of the tragedy, she could read between the lines that Naruto and Hinata had somehow been involved. If not through the shaky-toned Ino, who had allegedly heard more than she should have from her father, then through the demeanors of Kurenai or Iruka themselves, who both seemed as tight-lipped as ever, but these days looked nearly sick with worry.

She hoped he was okay… Was she allowed to hope that he was okay? The last they'd spoken, the boy had seemed placid enough, and perhaps that had been more worrisome than if he'd been shouting his displeasure to the very heavens.

Glancing back down at Sasuke, Sakura's breath hitched again, a new wave of guilt coming unbidden. "I'm sorry," She whined again, her voice cracking as she once again took her crush's hand. This time, she forced herself not to flinch, as if fearful that he would somehow notice and take offense. Sasuke's expression had not smoothened even a bit since the first day she'd found him here. "I've been practicing, I swear. Kakashi-sensei has-" She flinched at her own words. "Er- he was teaching me some stuff. I swear, I'm going to catch up to you guys, a-and… Next time, I'm not letting you go alone. I swear to god, Sasuke-kun. I won't let you guys-" She sniffled, clamping her jaw shut and gritting her teeth.

God, if he were awake now, he'd probably tell her she was annoying. And that hurt, but it wasn't entirely wrong.

She- she liked to think she was getting better though.

"I want to- I want to visit Kakashi-sensei too, so I'm going to have to leave you soon… But I'll be back tomorrow, ok?" Sakura squeezed her crush's unresponsive hand once more, her heart breaking all over again when the boy remained as still as ever. Then she stood, dutifully tucking him in, proper, and heading for the door.

Her fingers were just about to touch the round head of the doorknob when it suddenly twisted.

"Careful," A familiar voice sounded from the other side. Heeding the warning, Sakura startled back just barely as it swung open, and a familiar face pushed his way in. "Heya."

She simply stared at him for a moment, having to convince herself that her eyes weren't playing tricks on her. "Y-you're back…" Eyes glanced up and down, taking in the fine clothes that he wore, and his features that were almost unfairly pretty. Then- "You're back!"

She couldn't help herself. Sakura rushed forward, throwing both her arms over Naruto's bare shoulders and sobbing into his neck. "I- I'm sorry! I don't know what's wrong with me- I'm just." She sniffled, holding onto the boy like he was a lifeline. Forcing herself to calm even just that little bit, she shakily told him- "I was so worried!"

"Er- Sorry for worrying you?" Naruto awkwardly glanced away from the girl, searching for aid in the myriad faces behind him. When none came, he tentatively palmed his pink-haired teammate's shoulders, gently making a bit of space between them. "Uh- are you okay?"

In spite of his clear discomfort, there was something so gentle in his voice- it was nearly at odds with what she thought she knew of the boy, who had often been so crass and brazen that she'd often convinced herself that he simply lacked the ability to be gentle.

It was yet another reminder of just how little she actually knew him- or either of her teammates, really.

"I'm-" Sakura started, a palm snapping up to protect her image as her nose started to run. "Y-yeah, I'm okay. I know I'm being annoying. S-sorry, I just-"

"Stop that," Naruto chastised her, gently prying her hands away. Part of her worried the boy would tease her, and she needed to painfully remind herself again that she didn't know him at all when he pulled a pristine white cloth free from his inner sleeve and diligently cleaned her face. "It's gonna be alright. Believe it, yeah?"

"Y-yeah… Yeah," She tried to reassure herself, and it was easier than she thought, hearing the blonde speak that phrase of his. Finally, she found it in herself to look back at him, and Sakura frowned a little at the rich, dark hues above his eyelids… "Are you wearing makeup?"

"Snrk… Is that jealousy I'm hearing?" Naruto laughed back without missing a beat. "Mad 'cuz I rock it better than you, huh?"


"W-whatever!" Sakura let him walk her back a bit more as he entered further into the room, and she blanched as she spotted the many bodies that began to follow the boy in. "W-who are all of these people!?"

The redhead scoffed, looking Sakura up and down. "This your side-bitch or something, Twinkie?"

Sakura's eye twitched.

"I'll punch you," Naruto warned the other girl without pause. "Like- really hard."

"What a feminist," The redhead facetiously spit right back. Glancing back at a pretty girl that Sakura realized with a start was Hinata- she looped an arm around the Hyuga girl's shoulders. "If you ever get tired of this piss lord, I'm very available."

"E-erm…" Hinata shifted uncomfortably. "I'm flattered?"

Naruto's own eye twitched. "Sorry, but I don't think she's into boys with vaginas."

"Whoops. Just chicks with dicks then, yeah?"

"Cut it out." Absolute authority washed over the room, and Sakura gaped as even Naruto readily obeyed. In walked the most gorgeous woman she had ever seen, fairly tall and with a litany of curves that had the girl unconsciously patting herself down in comparison. Amber eyes surveyed the room, sifting between the other present faces; they lingered on her for only a moment before passing on to regard Sasuke's bedridden form behind her. And her face- humble as the woman's clothes appeared to be, she seemed like she was cut from royalty. She strode into the room like she owned it, and Sakura didn't doubt for a second that she just might. Her hair was a rich blonde, not terribly unlike Naruto's own, and for one traitorous moment, a terrifying thought came to Sakura; it left her lips before she could stop it.

"N-Naruto, is this your mother?"

She swore, for just a moment, she could have heard a pin drop… Then Naruto snickered.

"Heh-" The redhead began to chuckle too. "More like mommy."

Sakura blanched, half-expecting the still-nameless redhead to be punished.

Then Naruto joined in. "This old deadbeat? Hell no."

Sakura felt indignant on the woman's behalf, and she didn't even know her name! "Naruto! You can't say that!" She chided him, thumping his shoulder; she winced as her fist ached, the boy not even flinching at the gesture. But she put it out of her mind in favor of bowing deeply to the woman. "I'm so sorry! He's a little rude, but he means well, I swear!"

The woman snickered, finally deigning to look at her again, and the coolness of her features melted just that little bit. "It's fine… I've been stuck with this little goblin for a good week or two now. I know how he is."

"She's my aunt," Naruto supplied for her, and Sakura gaped at the confirmation that the two truly were related. "She's also a damn good medic. She's here to heal old man Hokage, but I got her to heal Sasuke and Kakashi as a personal favor."

"Damn good medic-" The woman snorted. "I'm the damned good medic." She strode past Naruto and Sakura both, and Sakura's eyes widened as she spotted the emblem worn at her back.

"Y-you're Tsunade Senju…" She trailed off, hesitantly glancing between the woman and Naruto. "You're related to Tsunade Senju!?"

Naruto nodded, waving off her awe like it was nothing. "The annoying redhead is Tayuya."

"Sup?" Tayuya nodded the girl's way, striding towards the window and sitting at its edge.

"The guy with all the arms is Kidomaru."

Only then did Sakura even notice the brown-skinned boy. Two sets of arms lay crossed in front of him, with a final set depositing their hands in his pockets. He awkwardly glanced her way, wiggling a set of fingers in what she assumed was some kind of greeting.

"Hey…" Then he pointedly leaned against the door, ignoring all else present in favor of the ceiling.

"I think we lost Sakon and Ukon…" Naruto observed, peering around Kidomaru with a frown.

"Tch! Those twin sissies made a break for it the second we took our eyes off them," Tayuya noted, bitterly. "Great."

Then Hinata spoke up, shortly bowing her head in greeting. "Good… Good evening, Sakura-san."

Sakura winced at the rather stiff greeting. It was clear enough that Hinata still didn't like her very much; with how close she and Naruto seemed to be as of late, she didn't have to wonder much as to why.

"All of you shut up. I'm trying to focus." Just like that, the room fell silent, heeding Tsunade's rather brusque demand. The woman leaned well over Sasuke, fingers tracing invisible patterns over the boy's face. "Yeah, his condition looks familiar to Hatake's," she muttered. "Naruto, you said it was a genjutsu that did this?"

Naruto nodded. "He wasn't facing me, so I don't know exactly what he did, but it was definitely based on eye- contact. At the moment of casting there was a huge spike of yin-chakra- erm, then Sasuke started screaming…"

Sakura felt a chill go down her spine. "You saw what happened?" She whispered to him, to which Naruto merely nodded.

"His brain is in a loop," Tsunade muttered. "Repeated psychological attacks; sensory overload inflicting and perpetuating trauma to the prefrontal cortex."

Naruto frowned."So- er, like a coma?"

"No, a coma would mean he's shut down. It usually happens when the body needs to heal, reallocating resources and putting the brain into a state of inactivity to better heal wounds to the body." Tsunade growled. "He's very much conscious."

Naruto paled, and though she did not quite understand yet, Sakura felt herself starting to sweat too.

"Whatever genjutsu is affecting him has been persistent since he was hit with it; repeatedly inflicting damage so that the brain cannot heal. Right now, his body is in a state of paralysis, but his brain activity is continually spiking."

"S-so…" Naruto stepped forward, and his posture shifted. A bone-chilling sound began to emit from the boy, like the dull clang of chain, rattling beneath his flesh. Sakura peered around him and flinched away as she spotted his face. "So he's been torturing him… All this time?"

'Who?' Sakura wanted to ask, but she could not even find that one word, afraid to even speak up and draw his attention.

When had Naruto become so scary?

Tsunade merely nodded, solemnly. "Severity aside, it's the exact same condition as Kakashi… I can wake him. However-" She raised her voice, just as a lick of hope touched Sakura's heart. "There's no telling how extensive the damage may be for him to recover from."

Her fingers ghosted over the boy's forehead, pinching at something none of them could see. For a moment, there was no reaction at all.

Then the boy's chakra spiked

"Why isn't he waking up-" Sakura began, cutting off and a shout as Naruto lashed out, snapping his grip around her forearm and dragging her to the ground. "Hey! What are you-"

"Down!" Naruto and Tsunade shouted as one, the latter diving low as well. Hinata obeyed without question, with Tayuya and Kidomaru sharing a brief glance and hesitation; it lasted only long enough for twin spools of metal to extend from Naruto, forcibly dragging the pair to the ground beside him.

Then Sasuke shot up, rising out of his bed with a bloodcurdling scream.

"Stay away from them!" He howled, twin streaks of scarlet that denoted the glow of his sharingan swirling into his sightless gaze. Crimson tears spewed forth unabated, then the temperature of the room spiked as it was engulfed in pitch black flame.

"Well would you look at that, everything's on fire!" Tayuya howled, arms flaring up to cover her head as she instinctively rolled underneath the boy's bed. "Konoha sucks, man!"

Sasuke's scream persisted, a torturous wail so intense that Naruto's skin ached with an ice-cold chill. With his sensory jutsu, his raven-haired friend's suffering was rot on his tongue, creeping along the walls of his throat and making him gag.

"What's wrong!?" Sakura tried to rise, and Naruto tightened his grip on her, dragging her back down.

"Are you crazy!?" He shouted at her, looping his arm around her shoulders and holding her down to the ground. Eyes trailing to the immolating heat that was spreading all around them, he hissed- "Try to stand up and he'll flash fry your ass!"

"What's wrong with him!?" Sakura wailed, yelling again as Naruto rolled with her to join Tayuya under the bed.

Just as the molten remains of the light fixture crashed down where they'd been. Ebony sparks bounced away from it, building up along the ground and dancing in place. At that distance, both members of Team Seven could feel its unbearable heat; they watched the flames begin to rapidly eat through the ground.

"He's panicking." Naruto huffed, taking a long breath as Sasuke's screams abruptly cut. "Auntie got him."

"G-got him?" Sakura whimpered. "What does that mean?"

"She knocked him out. He's fine." Another light fixture slammed down just at the side of the bed, and Naruto and Sakura both flinched. "Room's fucked, though…"

Tsunade's voice sounded from just above. "Don't move a muscle… Is everyone alright?"

Naruto looked Sakura up and down, then nodded. "We're good."

"No burn status on me," Kidomaru confirmed.

"Your floors are surprisingly comfortable," Tayuya chimed in. "Y'know, when they're not laced with fire."

"I'm- I'm okay," Hinata wheezed, unknotting that bit of tension in Naruto's gut. "It's right by my head."

"Don't move," Tsunade ordered the girl once again. "Naruto, seal the flames below while I secure what's left."

Naruto nodded, fingers shakily clasping together. A horde of metal burst free from his back, snaking out from under the bed and splitting off to encircle the offending flames.

A fire-style vector point should work to amass it all; from there, a grade-three storage seal for transporting caustic or volatile items…

Just a few moments, and- "Floor clear."

A moment later, and Tsunade sighed in clear relief. "Everything else is clear too. You can all move now."

All at once, a series of long breaths left everyone in the room. Cutting a glance Tayuya's way, Naruto let loose a shaky cough. "So- uh… Welcome to Konoha, yeah?"

"Oh fuck you," Tayuya groaned.

So uh… So that's the chapter.

A lot happened in this one, despite the general lack of action. You can think of this chapter as a bridge for content moving forward, so try to be patient with me while I work to set the stage, likely over the next few chapters.

That said, I really oughta get announcements out of the way before I forget, so let's do that:

First off, you guys can expect that I'll be taking a bit of a break from this story for a while. I can already recognize that a lot of people are gonna be upset about that, but truth be told, I'm tired. I've been writing ABD nearly nonstop for about 9 months or so now without any pause, and the burn out is real.

Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy the story a ton, but the simple truth is that the pace I've set for myself is unsustainable, especially with life demanding so much. I write the story for free, and I wouldn't have it any other way; but that means I take a ton of personal time to do so, and I haven't even gotten to do simple things like pursue my other hobbies or even write other stories since I started working on this.

I'm tired.

But I do love this story. So understand that when I say "I need a break," that means I will be back. And I don't mean "back eventually", only to disappear for like- 4 years like an absentee father.

Just give me like a month or so of not touching this story with any deadlines in mind and I'll be back on that horse. For you guys, that means it'll probably be no more than like- two months of 'hiatus', if you can call it that. During that time, I'll likely still be working on ABD from time to time, but it'll be at my own pace, specifically to accommodate for other things that I might want to write! Specifically things that may very well end up on FFnet as well! So even if this story is getting a bit of a break, know that the story isn't dead and I'll still be active, cooking up some mighty fine meals for you guys.

For those of you who want some further insight or want to remain up to date with my plans for the story or other projects, the discord is available to all on my profile (some assembly required.)

There, I will likely talk about any other projects I'm handling that I can share, including but not limited to higher quality rewrites of previous chapters, and maybe a few one-shots or shorter works that I might find time to do. Details about that stuff and where you'll be able to find them can also be found in my discord, as I get around to putting together more official announcements.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take some much needed rest.