Chapter 3

Sasuke snarled. "What makes you think I'm here looking for you, you creep?" he asked Orochimaru. "I'm here looking for Tsunade to help my friend, I want nothing to do with you or your power!"

Orochimaru couldn't quite cover up his surprise at this declaration. "Oh well, no matter, you're here, and your timing, as I said before, is perfect, so why you're here exactly doesn't really matter," he told the Uchiha. "As you can see, this body no longer meets my requirements, so I'll be taking yours!"

Sasuke assumed a fighting stance. "I don't think so," he said simply. Jiraiya, Tsunade, and Shizune joined the boy, each in battle stances.

Kabuto, who was standing beside Orochimaru, entered his own battle stance. "Lord Orochimaru needs your body as his new vessel, Sasuke," the glasses-wearing ninja said. "And what Lord Orochimaru needs, he gets." At his words, Orochimaru nodded once, and Kabuto bit his thumb. Spreading his blood down Orochimaru's arm, Kabuto ran through a series of hand signs. "Summoning Jutsu!" he called out.

A puff of smoke appeared at the young medic's words. When it cleared, Sasuke was shocked to see a giant snake, much like the one that attacked his team in the Forest of Death, looking down at him with Kabuto and Orochimaru standing on its head.

"What is the meaning of this, Orochimaru?" the snake hissed out. "You know I don't like to be summoned!"

"Please, don't be angry, Lord Manda," Kabuto answered. "I'm sure you will be adequately repaid for your assistance."

Manda, as the snake was apparently called, was in no mood to be toyed with. In the blink of an eye, its tail flew up and slammed Kabuto off his head and to the ground, where the traitorous medic remained, unconscious. "You could never repay me!" Manda hissed out. Then, to the summoner still on his head, he said irritably, "I will expect a hundred human sacrifices when this is over, Orochimaru." Orochimaru simply nodded.

Sasuke smirked. "Don't bank on it, snake. He won't be around to give you any sacrifices after today!" he yelled. The snake and his summoner turned at the voice, only to see Gamabunta and Katsuyu before them, each with their respective summoner standing upon them.

Manda laughed. "This might be fun," he hissed out.

Gamabunta laughed as well, from deep in his belly. "Oh, this is rich!" he cried out. "Jiraiya, would you care to explain how this one happened? How the hell did the old crew ever end up together again? And who is this kid here? I thought your apprentice was your godson!"

Jiraiya snarled, but he got the message. The toad wouldn't have mentioned that in front of the snake Sannin if he intended to let said snake live to see another day. "He is, but let's talk about all that later," Jiraiya responded to the toad. "We have business to attend to here!"

Tsunade voiced her agreement from atop Katsuyu. "Yes, indeed. The business of making sure that after today there is one less Sannin!" she said, her anger and hatred for the snake clear in her voice.

Orochimaru appeared to be pondering what Gamabunta had said. "Oh, I see," he said. "So that's why you took that worthless Genin as your apprentice, is it, old friend? Still got that same old soft spot, I see. Now, though, it won't matter. You have something I want, and I intend to have it!"

Jiraiya looked down at Sasuke. "Sasuke!" he called down. Sasuke looked up at the toad sage, eyes curious. "Don't get anywhere near him. He'll take over your body if you do."

Sasuke nodded, then Tsunade called down, "Shizune!" Said assistant looked up at the slug summoner. "Get Sasuke back. We don't need to be worrying about you two, and you'll just get in the way here!"

Shizune nodded, then grabbed Sasuke by one arm and dragged him back out of the way of the three huge summons and their summoners. Sasuke snarled about it, but he didn't really resist; even he could see Tsunade's words were true. Turning to his companion, Sasuke asked, "Shizune, do you know any wind techniques?" When Shizune nodded, the Uchiha grinned. "Good. I've got an idea."

While the two plotted, Tsunade and Jiraiya glared at their old teammate, rage and hatred obvious on both their faces. Orochimaru chuckled. "Good plan, now I don't have to hold back for fear of hurting my next body!" he told them. Neither of the two loyal Sannin had thought of that, but neither showed any concern about it, either. Orochimaru looked down at Manda and commented, seemingly idly, "I've always wondered what toad meat tasted like."

Manda gave a slight hiss, then the large snake moved. It was shockingly fast, given how massive the animal was. It moved toward Gamabunta first, but the toad saw him coming and blocked his bite with his blade, which he had drawn so fast no one saw it happen. The huge snake was pushed back, and the toad swung his blade, nicking the snake on the side as it nimbly dodged the relatively slow attack.

Next, Manda's tail swung at Tsunade, who dodged the attack by jumping onto the snake's body. As she ran up the snake's back, Katsuyu was ensnared within the snake's coils. He kept enough of his body free to keep trying to attack the large toad, only using two coils to hold the slug in place. Tsunade grinned. Just as she'd planned. Just as she reached the snake's head she turned to Katsuyu and said simply, "NOW!"

As Tsunade began to attack Orochimaru with punch after punch, which the snake summoner dodged with infuriating ease, the huge slug exploded into thousands of smaller slugs. Most of the slugs fell to the ground and began making their way back to where Tsunade had been. Some, however, landed on the snake itself and began spewing acid on the snake's body. Manda hissed loudly in pain as the acid began to burn him.

Jiraiya yelled, "TSUNADE!" The legendary kunoichi looked at him for a split second. "GET OUT OF THE WAY!" Unfortunately, Orochimaru used her distraction to attack himself. Tsunade found herself held aloft by the snake Sannin's tongue.

Orochimaru threw his head, sending Tsunade flying around, his long tongue wrapped around her neck and getting tighter as he moved. He snarled. "Anyone else would be dead by now! Why aren't you?" he commented, which sounded really weird with his tongue the way it was.

Tsunade growled at herself, then reached up and managed to get her hands between her neck and the appendage around it. Gripping the fleshy thing, she yanked. Orochimaru, not having expected her to do that, lost his balance and tumbled from Manda's head. Tsunade pulled again on his tongue and threw a punch at the same time, which caused the snake summoner's face to collide with her fist hard.

Tsunade grinned and began to pummel the snake's face, punch after punch landing hard on his jaws. Surprisingly, the snake summoner seemed to take little damage from her furious assault. With one more attack, she sent the man flying toward the ground, then yanked him back up and punched him once more, hard, using his tongue again to throw him around.

Free of Orochimaru, Tsunade leapt backward. Jiraiya and Gamabunta, who had been fending off Manda while Tsunade pummeled Orochimaru, pushed the snake back and let loose a collaboration jutsu. Gamabunta spewed oil, which Jiraiya lit with a fire jutsu. The result was a mobile explosion, which slammed into Manda hard. Jiraiya took a deep breath and commented, "There's no way he'll be that easy." Sure enough, once the smoke cleared, Jiraiya and Gamabunta saw a charred skin on the ground, which was rapidly crumbling. "I thought not, but where is he now?"

As if in answer to the toad sage's question, Manda's tail shot from the ground and wrapped itself around Gamabunta's body. The toad attempted to slice at the snake, but Manda's head showed itself and bit the blade, yanking it from the toad's grip. The blade was sent flying and landed a short distance away. The huge snake turned and was about to make a bite for the toad when Tsunade's loud roar was heard. She came from above, Gamabunta's blade in her grip. The snake tried to dodge, but Tsunade's blow landed, severing the huge serpent's head. Tsunade turned her attention up to Jiraiya. "One down, one to go," she commented. Jiraiya nodded with a smirk.

Just then, Jiraiya noticed that Kabuto was coming around. "I think not," he said, forming a Rasengan quickly, which he plowed into the medic's head. The silver-haired boy's head exploded from the sheer force of chakra being plowed into him. "You're a medic, heal that," Jiraiya told Kabuto, grinning slightly. The medic's body simply fell to the ground, never to rise again.

Just then, Orochimaru rose from the ground where he'd landed after Tsunade's vicious attack. With a snarl, he launched himself at Jiraiya and Tsunade, who were about to attack him when a huge amount of chakra came from behind the snake summoner. Rather than attacking, they dodged what they assumed was an attack meant for them. A huge fireball flew at the snake Sannin and engulfed him. Unable to use jutsu to escape, the snake Sannin burned in the chakra-powered flame. As his final screams were heard, Shizune and Sasuke emerged from the small hill where they had been hiding.

Jiraiya turned to the two and asked, "What in the world was that?"

Sasuke answered, "When we saw him launching at you like that, I knew it was our best chance at hitting him, so Shizune used a wind jutsu to enhance my Fireball Jutsu. You saw the results."

Tsunade nodded. She and Jiraiya turned to their respective traveling companions and nodded, acknowledging a job well done. Jiraiya sealed Orochimaru and Kabuto's bodies into a scroll, then the group of four turned to leave the battlefield. They weren't about to camp there, not after that. They moved a short distance down the road they'd been following and made camp for the night. They would be back in the Leaf Village in two days' time.

xxxxxx

Sasuke, Jiraiya, Shizune, and Tsunade had returned. Hinata had been waiting in Naruto's room when the procession of four people and one pig entered. Gasping at the sight of Tsunade, Hinata moved aside quickly, knowing this woman was the only one who could bring Naruto out of the coma he had been in for almost a week now.

Turning to the dark-haired boy, Hinata asked him while gesturing at Naruto, "What happened?" Sasuke gave her a brief overview of how Naruto had gotten into the Tsukuyomi in the first place, then related how he and Jiraiya had gone in search of Tsunade, found her, and convinced her to come back to look at Naruto. He left out the part where Jiraiya told Tsunade they wanted her to be the Fifth Hokage, knowing somehow that Hinata wouldn't care about that.

Hinata pondered, then commented to Sasuke, "You owe him big, don't you?" Sasuke nodded; he was fully well aware just how much he owed Naruto for this one. Hinata sighed. "I hope he's still...himself when he wakes up."

Sasuke rested a hand on Hinata's shoulder. Hinata looked up at him, confusion evident in her eyes. "I remember when Itachi used this jutsu on me, years ago," he said quietly. "It nearly broke my soul. I believed after that that the only thing left for me was hatred and revenge. It wasn't until I got put on Team Seven with Naruto that I realized there was more than that, that I could have friends and be happy again. I spent years alone, isolated, with no one and nothing to care about." He shuddered, looking at Naruto. "I don't even want to think what would have happened to me if I'd been stuck in Tsukuyomi again." He paused a moment, then, sighing, turned to Hinata again. His hand on her shoulder squeezed slightly. "I believe you can be for Naruto what no one was for me, Hinata. You can be his anchor, the one to bring him back to himself. I'll help him, too, any way I can, but I know I can't bring him back on my own. He'll need someone to love and care for, and, Hinata, you'll have to be it. I believe in you, Hinata. I believe you can do it." Pulling back from her and releasing her from his grip, he gave a slight smile and concluded, "And who knows, just maybe you'll earn his love in the process."

Hinata blushed a crimson that would make blood seem dull in comparison. She answered Sasuke quietly, "Thank you, Sasuke." With that, the two turned to check on Naruto.

Tsunade was hovering over the blond's body, her hands glowing green. She was breathing slowly, deeply. As she continued her work of exterminating the foreign chakra in Naruto's body, her forehead beaded with sweat. Hinata watched in trepidation as the legendary medical ninja worked hard on her long-time crush. Sasuke's words to her kept echoing in her head. "I believe in you, Hinata," he had said. Hinata felt the pressure of those words like a two-ton weight. Sasuke was placing his trust in her. He was taking a gamble on her. He was entrusting Naruto's future...to her! It was a weight so young a girl should never have had to bear.

Hinata sighed deeply and thought to herself, "Yes, I will help Naruto return to himself. I will make him happy again. I will help him forget whatever awful things he experienced in there. I will show him that the future can be good, happy, and full of love. I will be there for him, always. I WILL!"

Sasuke watched in awe as Hinata drew herself up and gained a look of such fierce determination that he couldn't help but think of Naruto. He chuckled. "They'll be just fine," he thought to himself.

Sasuke and Hinata both focused on the hospital bed just then as they heard Naruto let out a loud groan. Tsunade and Shizune both let out small sighs of relief. Naruto sat up, shook his head like he was in pain, and looked around, blinking. Hinata froze as her and Naruto's eyes met...his blue eyes, once so full of life and joy, were blank, cold, and empty...