It’s Just That Any One of Us Is Half Without Another One Is You – Chapter Twenty

Madara attacks Konoha with the aid of Zetsu and Danzou. Foxes, demons, dragons, tailed beasts, generations old grudge matches, and other kinds of hell break loose. Action, Drama, I-4

Alarms were ringing through Konoha’s night, hurrying the civilians to the shelters, raising the lights in the village center, calling the close patrols in to defend their homes. Shinobi of the village ran to guard the wall and ranged through the training grounds beyond, searching for the attackers.

“Where the hell are they?” Naruto demanded tightly, crouched on the wall over the east gate, glaring out into the night.

“I think the question is what are they,” Sakura said quietly, standing against Sasuke’s back to guard him as he swept the Sharingan over their assigned sector.

“Not here yet, apparently,” Sasuke answered, though he didn’t stop looking for a moment. “The trees and earth seem empty. Do we know, yet, if they can camouflage themselves at all?”

“Unknown,” Aburame Muta reported after a moment, from below the lip of the wall where he waited and listened to his bugs. “No one reports it so far.”

“Injured coming in,” Sasuke said, voice flat. Naruto hissed through his teeth. This was the third injured party and they still hadn’t been able to kill whatever was out there.

He dropped down inside the wall to his medical station to meet the two stretchers, hands moving fast as he cut away cloth and sutured deep cuts like claw rakes. That was the easy part, though. Most of the injuries he’d seen tonight were broken bones and crushed organs from where people had been punched or hurled into trees.

Or by trees. The reports were a little fuzzy on that.

Naruto held his hands over the side of the worst-hit one where ribs had shattered and a kidney was ruptured, and fought one more time to control the wild rush of the fox’s chakra through his own. It was exhilarating; he wanted to lose himself in it, and that was the hardest part. He had to concentrate, had to keep his mind on the mirror between his body, his chakra, and his patient’s.

You do seem to match me well in this, Nine-tails observed, and Naruto had the impression of an ear cocked at him curiously. Unusually so.

Sakura says that’s what Leaf’s seal is made to do, Naruto answered, leaning against his table and panting as he waved to two of the inner line to come take his patients to a recovery station until they woke up. To shape your host a little, with the chakra that seeps through. I guess it took really well on me, because it was done so young.

Perhaps it was not entirely a bad thing then, the fox murmured, and Naruto wanted to take the time to tease him, to be loudly shocked by the admission, but he didn’t have time right now. He shook his head sharply, trying to throw off the floaty glow that healing left these days, and sprang back up to the wall. Can’t you see where these guys are? I mean, you’re a spirit of the land and they’re moving through earth and trees!

And they appear to belong there, the fox answered dryly. There is corruption on the night’s wind, yes. But not from these attackers.

Naruto growled in frustration as he landed beside Sasuke again and got a raised eyebrow. “Nine-tails can’t feel them,” he answered it. “He says it’s like they really are wood and earth or something.”

“Some kind of summons?” Sakura wondered. “Or even a jutsu, like the Shadow Clones, only with an elemental chakra?”

“Or a bloodline limit,” Sasuke suggested. “But I don’t think that matters as much as the fact that the Sharingan and Byakugan can still see them!” On those last words, he launched a flight of Chidori Senbon, catching the arm of a figure emerging into the shadow of a tree. It vanished back into wood at once, but left blood on the ground as it did.

“Team at the east gate has marked one of the white ones,” Sakura relayed to Muta. “Left arm is injured.” She frowned and added, “And this doesn’t make sense. They’re injuring us more than we are them, but mostly because it’s night. As soon as there’s more light we’ll have the advantage, and however many there are, they aren’t attacking strongly enough to finish us off by dawn. Not by a long shot. They’ve got to be softening us up for something else. Muta-san, ask that a warning be relayed, please. Everyone needs to keep an eye out for whatever the real attack is.”

Tsunade’s mouth quirked. “How many was that?”

“Four, more or less at the same time,” Aburame Katou murmured, looking just a little amused himself, even behind his high collar. “Haruno, Nara Shikamaru, ANBU’s Deer, and Nara Shikaku.”

Tsunade scowled. “Shikaku put himself on the wall, didn’t he? No, don’t answer that. I suppose I knew he would.”

Katou coughed delicately. “He, ah, also requested that we relay his observation that you are on the wall as well, Hokage-sama.”

“The Hokage isn’t chosen from among the strongest so she can always lead from the rear,” Tsunade said with dignity, glancing only a little guiltily down at the tall main gate below them. “In any case, yes, relay the warning to be on guard for a second attack. I wish Jiraiya hadn’t taken a wide patrol this week,” she added quietly.

“I imagine the attack came now because he’s gone,” Kakashi murmured, watching the trees with his Sharingan uncovered beside her. He winced just a little at the creaking explosion of wood to the west of them. “Short of the Swordsmen being gone, Madara probably thought this was his best opportunity to see the village weakened at all.”

Tsunade grinned with rather more appreciation at those sounds of enthusiastic destruction, remembering a few bars and other landscape she’d busted up in her time. “They are energetic, aren’t they? I like that in a ninja. Maybe I won’t give them back to Terumii.” Her designated successor gave her a rather dour look, and she laughed, patting his shoulder. It was good for him to be on the receiving end of teasing, she thought; it seemed to have been far too long since he last had been.

In fact, the more deeply she dug into Kakashi’s background, the more guilty she felt about choosing him. He was undeniably the right choice, by every measure of strength, of responsibility, of care for the village. But he had far less of a support network than he was going to need when he became Hokage. She’d been thinking about how to alleviate that, but it would be a slow process.

She was turning over the other jounin in Kakashi’s age range in her mind when she felt the faint stickiness of her train of thought. The stubborn clinging to a topic that wasn’t the one she should be concentrating on right now. Her breath hissed in and her hands flashed out to touch Kakashi and Katou as she surged her chakra, spilling it through them too. “Kai!”

There was a shadow in the trees across the cleared zone from the gate and a kunai singing toward her, trailing a seal behind it. She caught the knife between two fingers and shaped her chakra to lightning to char the seal. “Subtle,” she observed, clearly enough to be heard in the trees. Behind her, the subliminal hum of Katou’s insects rose a notch, no doubt relaying word that the second attack had appeared.

“Clearly an approach that’s wasted on you,” answered the shadow, an old voice but still a strong one. And edged with contempt. Even without the flash of red eyes, that would have told her who this must be.


The old man—who should be dead damn it—strolled along a branch into the wash of light from the walls. The red-cloud robes of Akatsuki were abandoned. He wore a short, indigo robe now, and a battle fan she remembered from the picture her grandfather had kept until his death. He was smiling. “It will be satisfying, after all this time, to watch the last of Hashirama’s line die. All of you have been far too wood-headed to appreciate subtlety. The village deserved better.”

From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimmer of light down wire and found herself abruptly in the heart of a dome of seals. All in a breath, a cyclone howled down around her, edged with knives of flame, deadly force pouring through the seals and darting for her in a hundred strikes, poised to tear aside her defenses.

Tsunade smiled.

Lines of ink flared up under and around her feet as she stood where she was, and twisting streams of force rose to wrap her in the second stage of the Sun on the Ocean seal. When the clap and thunder of chakra faded, she stood untouched and Kakashi was looking up from where he knelt behind her, hand pressed to the seal’s activation point.

“I appreciate subtlety just fine.” She held Madara’s eyes, level and challenging, daring him to try an illusion technique on an alert medic of her caliber. “I’m afraid you’re just not very good at it.”

His smile twisted. “Shimura-kun,” he ordered softly.

Danzou emerged onto the branch behind him, and as much as she hated the man it was still a blow to see him standing calmly there beside Konoha’s attacker. Exactly as Madara had meant it to be. She locked down her reaction fiercely. Behind her she heard the soft hiss of Kakashi’s breath.

“A preset trap only works once.” Danzou nodded to them, casually. “But so does a preset defense. Let us test your expertise.” His hand flickered and three kunai with seal tags slammed into the top of the wall in a triangle around Kakashi, and Danzou raised two fingers in the activation seal.

As tearing vacuum wrapped around Kakashi, Tsunade kept her eyes locked on Madara, watching for an opening, and prayed that Kakashi’s rage at Danzou would strengthen and not weaken him tonight.

Sai slipped down from the roofs and landed lightly in front of Cat, their current Commander. “No sign of the intruders in the inner village on my sweep,” he reported.

“Strange that they’re refraining from that,” Cat murmured. “The black one that goes through earth could reach the civilian shelters; it would be a far more efficient strike than all this.” He flicked disdainful fingers at the faint commotion beyond the walls they could hear even in the administrative quarter. “All right. Grab another route.”

Sai nodded and picked another paper slip out of the bag tacked to the mission board with a kunai. It might not be the most sophisticated way to randomize their patrols, he thought with that new mental lilt that sounded just a little like Kakashi-senpai in his head, but it was fast, portable, and unbreakable and ANBU knew the value of that. “Section six, outer ring,” he read off the slip and looked over at Torune. “Tracker bug still good?”

“Good for two more sweeps,” Torune agreed, perfectly calm even though Sai knew it probably frustrated him to be relegated to communications during an attack like this. He approved. All of Root was held back from the most critical work right now, but that was no excuse for losing discipline. Which was, after all, why Fuu was confined completely at this moment and likely several times as frustrated as any other member.

And then Torune stiffened. “Second attack at the south gate,” he said, voice sharpening. “Targeting the Hokage and Kakashi. It’s Madara.” He cut off abruptly for a moment, and Sai saw him swallow and breathe in slowly. “And Danzou with him.”

Mission awareness spiked in Sai’s senses, sharpening them, crystallizing the night around him. “Are all of Root accounted for?” The question whipped out before it was even complete in his mind.

Torune’s mouth tightened faintly as he listened to his network of insects. “Fuu. Hyou. Shin.” A pause. “Kana. Terai, yes.” A longer pause. “Dajimu and Tera are out of their patrol areas and near the south wall.”

“General signal,” Cat snapped, “all ANBU to the south gate!”

Sai was already running.

Kakashi danced with his opponent, the deadly, precise dance of the elite who were trained to silent and perfect death. ANBU’s dance. He had never thought to take up these steps again, but for tonight, for this death, he would return.

This was the dance of fine techniques, of calculation and timing that slid down the edge of a knife, of silence and cunning, each move set against the shape and weight of the opponent with utmost care and blinding speed. Half the jutsu they started were never initiated, turned aside into another path as the ground between their minds shifted and shifted again.

There had been a time when Kakashi had found this exhilarating, better than any drink or drug. Tonight, it was water to a thirsty man, more necessity than pleasure but the only thing that would satisfy him nevertheless.

The Tiger’s Teeth closed on nothing but the Diving Fisherbird, and in the wake of that clap of annihilation Kakashi and Danzou paused for one breath. “You’ve grown subtle indeed in your use of seals,” Danzou observed, breathing considerably harder than he had when they’d started this Kakashi was mildly pleased to note. “But you still trust the wrong things.” The twist of his fingers summoned, not only another seal from under his robe, cast straight on at Kakashi, but a flash of weapons on either side, ones Kakashi recognized—Dajimu’s wire-strung kunai and Tera’s darting flames. Kakashi’s calculation of his possible counters sped down the lines of decision, and he bared his teeth behind his mask. He was going to get hit; Dajimu’s wires could change the trajectory of his kunai too unpredictably to try to dodge when Tera’s flames were waiting, shuriken buried in their hearts more often than not. And Danzou was too canny to be casting a bluff at him. That seal absolutely must be met.

He would be hit, as Danzou wished. But it wouldn’t stop him. Danzou had forgotten who and what Kakashi was; Hound had been stopped by nothing when Kakashi had worn that mask. He pulled the Phoenix seal from his vest and activated it in a single motion, threw it to consume Danzou’s attack, and spun into the oncoming kunai, preparing to choose which one he took as his hands flashed through the seals to shape water and counter the flames.

And then Sai was there.

It reminded Kakashi of the years he had loved this dance, the clean, perfect line of the leg sweep that brushed aside the wires and spun Sai through a complete turn to meet Tera’s flames with a precise dousing seal. Sai touched down, poised, at Kakashi’s feet and looked up at Danzou and his companions in Root, cool and distant. Kakashi heard others landing on the roofs inside the wall and dared a glance back, relaxing to see familiar masks and equipment. ANBU.

“Sai!” Danzou barked. Sai ignored him, not so much as an eyelash flickering in response.

“Dajimu. Tera.” Sai’s words dropped into the night light as leaves into a pool. “You break your oaths to think only of the good of the village.”

“We aren’t the oathbreakers,” Tera shot back. “Danzou-sama acts for the good of the village. It’s you who’ve lost your way, Sai.”

“On the contrary,” Sai answered quietly. “Hatake Kakashi will protect Konoha and all its people at any cost. He will wield ANBU correctly, when it comes into his hands.” He stood, fluid, still ignoring Danzou, and stepped around to Kakashi’s shoulder. “Do whatever is necessary," he said softly. "I will hold Dajimu and Tera."

Kakashi touched Sai’s arm lightly as he stepped past. “I will.” And he was grateful. Sai’s words pulled him a little back from the edge, reminded him of what he was now as well as what he had been. The absolute ice of calculation eased a little around his heart, flowing again instead of freezing. ANBU, he was pleased to see from the corner of his eye, was deploying to cover Tsunade but leaving him room.

Danzou was scowling. “Your interference makes this less complete than it could be,” he told Sai roughly. “But so be it.” He pulled off his overrobe, with its woven-in wards and dozens of sequenced seals and flipped it open on the night wind, good hand flicking out to unfurl a seal scroll.

And as the robe fell to Danzou’s side, covering him, he turned and cast the Lion Closing Roar straight at Madara.

Except that Madara was already gone, flickering out of the seal’s center, and the sweep of his fan caught the lash of Tsunade’s lightning whip even as a kick threw Danzou back against the tree trunk with bone crushing force. Kakashi could hear, in the agonized edge as Danzou coughed for breath, that ribs were probably broken.

“Shimura-kun, I was really hoping you would be more effective before it came to this,” the old man sighed, strolling casually along the branches toward Danzou. “Ah, well, I suppose old age comes to us all. I’m sure you understand, though, why I can’t leave you alive behind me now.” He smiled down at Danzou, hanging his fan back over his shoulder with an easy swing that belied the remark about old age. “A shame that none of your erstwhile comrades will have any interest in leaving you alive at their backs either, hm?”

Sai stirred at Kakashi’s side, and the hand that held his tantou was white knuckled in the lights of the village.

“Danzou-sama!” Tera lunged over the wall.

Madara turned his head and, without forming a single hand seal, blew an actinic torch of flame over him. What fell out of that fire wasn’t breathing any longer. “Now then,” he murmured, turning back to Danzou.

Calculations wound through Kakashi’s mind, taking in the tautness of Sai beside him, the suddenly unbalanced stances of some of ANBU around them, the tightness of Tsunade’s lips, so clearly torn between her own rage at what Danzou had done and her awareness of why he had done it this night. Kakashi had no doubt Danzou was a traitor, that he had truly been trying to kill both Tsunade and Kakashi. But it was ANBU watching this, and they also knew the stakes that a deep cover mission played for, knew by that last attack that Danzou hadn’t completely abandoned Konoha. Death on a mission like that was also known and accepted, and Tsunade would never allow anyone to risk themselves saving Danzou now. Madara might even be distracted by killing Danzou and give them another opening to attack.

ANBU could do it. Could stand and watch and do nothing but hope for an opening. But what they were capable of wasn’t always what they should be asked to do. A single conclusion locked into place, sure and solid, and Kakashi set his feet, watching Madara’s chakra with his Sharingan.

He waited while Madara drew his sword, waited while it was lifted, listening to the uneasy silence around him, and as Madara committed to his downward cut, Kakashi moved.

The world telescoped as he flickered forward and he wound chakra through his feet to stop him on the branch between Madara and Danzou, around his arm to brace him against the force of Madara’s cut as it rang off the steel on the back of Kakashi’s raised fist.

In the shocked moment of silence that followed, he said quiet and clear, “You are not the executor of any Konoha shinobi who has not yet been declared traitor. Not any.” He yanked Danzou over his shoulder by the front of his robe and leaped back for the wall, past a flight of kunai hastily thrown to cover his retreat.

And in the middle of that suspended moment when Danzou’s own body was covering Kakashi’s other hand from sight, he opened it and struck with the Gentle Fist, half crushing Danzou’s heart.

The next moment he was past the wall and down on the first roof inside it, letting Danzou slide off his shoulder. The old man glared up at him, gasping, breath already laboring, face already gray. “Kakashi…” he rasped.

“You die as a shinobi of Konoha,” Kakashi told him, cold and soft. “It’s more than you deserve. But I won’t have their hearts tainted by giving your life to Madara.” He flicked a hand at the still figures of ANBU all around them, watching.

One of ANBU’s medics flitted up to the roof with them and ran quick hands over Danzou before wincing behind his mask. “It’s too much,” he reported, clear enough to carry to all of them. “Tsunade-sama or Shizune-sama might be able to save him but this is beyond me.”

Tsunade’s jaw clenched, and she spoke without turning. “Shimura Danzou chose his actions, and I cannot endanger my village to let him avoid their consequences. Offer him mercy.” Her voice was rough; no medic liked the last resort. But she was focused wholly on Madara again, unwavering, and Kakashi nodded to himself, satisfied.

“Shimura-san?” the medic asked quietly, knife in hand and glowing with the edge of his chakra.

Danzou’s mouth twisted for a breath, but finally he nodded, eyes fixed on Kakashi. Kakashi watched him in return, standing straight and still, and carefully hid his rush of furious vindication as the knife went home.

A faint rustle ran through ANBU.

Cat joined them on the roof and told the medic, “Take his body back to the inner line and rejoin us as soon as you can.” As the medic gathered Danzou’s body up, Cat turned to meet Kakashi’s eyes for a long moment. “Senpai,” he said at last.

Kakashi’s mouth quirked behind his mask. “Not for a long time, now.”

“You have been again, tonight.”

The thread of tension in Kakashi relaxed. Tenzou, at least, guessed what he had done and accepted it. “I will be what is necessary,” he said quietly, the core of his service that had brought him to ANBU in the first place. Cat nodded, touching his fist to his chest in brief salute before they both turned and sprang back up to the wall. Sai met him there, turning back from handing off the securely bound bundle of Dajimu to another ANBU. He paused one moment to look up at Kakashi, dark eyes not quite as blank as usual.

After a long, still breath, Sai bowed in a formal salute.

“No need for formalities on a battlefield,” Kakashi murmured, a little wry, suspecting Sai had realized too. Sai nodded and slipped around to guard Kakashi’s back again.

Madara was standing with folded arms, engaged in his staring contest with Tsunade again. Kakashi watched the flare and jab of their chakra and thought Madara was still trying to lay illusion on her, even as ANBU was flickering through the trees around him, closing in. “Stubborn girl, aren’t you?” Madara sighed at last, “Well, I suppose I’ll need this after all.”

The only seal he made was the basic activation, but Kakashi suddenly had to squint his Sharingan shut, nearly blinded by the vast upwelling of chakra that gathered in the forest behind Madara.

When it erupted upward into the shape of a nine-eyed demon, Kakashi couldn’t quite manage to be surprised.

Sakura had just returned from stringing an extensive trap through the trees and Naruto was arguing with Nine-tails over why they couldn’t abandon their post to go hunting the corruption he scented when Muta suddenly stiffened.

“Second attack, at the south gate, on the Hokage and Kakashi-san,” he relayed. “It’s Madara.”

I told you so! the fox snapped, and Naruto whirled, poised to sprint and never mind the damn white and black bastards. That was his teacher over there!

Sakura snatched his arm. “Naruto, we can’t abandon our position! If the first attackers get through a hole in the line here they have a clear path to the civilian shelters!”

“Perimeter to hold their positions,” Muta confirmed. “ANBU is moving to support the Hokage.”

The fox whined and Naruto nearly whined with him, vibrating with both their needs to go, to find Madara and destroy him.

“Naruto.” Sakura slid both hands into his hair and turned his head toward her, holding his eyes. “Listen to me. Tsunade-sama isn’t reckless. She has our very best going to help her, and Kakashi-sensei is there too. Right now, we’re needed more here.”

Naruto took a shaky breath and leaned into her, steadying himself against her presence. “Okay,” he agreed, husky.

Interfering female, the fox growled, glaring in the back of his head. He kept tugging Naruto’s eyes toward the south, straining to see/smell/hear/know what was happening there.

Sasuke was tense, too, jaw set even as he kept scanning their assigned area in silence.

Seconds dragged past like minutes, like hours, and Naruto waited. Jittered. Flexed his hands and tapped his toes, and briefly wished for the tails so he could lash them. Bit his lip and wondered what was happening, and fidgeted until Sasuke growled at him to cut it out before Sasuke cut something off.

When chakra/scent/light exploded at the south gate, it was so massive it was still a shock.

“Naruto?” Sasuke grabbed for him as he stumbled and fell to his hands and knees on the top of the wall. “Naruto!”

A tremor shivered the wall under them.

“Summons,” Muta snapped, crouched and tense. “It’s Madara’s summons, at the south gate!”

My kin, the fox whispered in Naruto’s head like the first whisper of a typhoon wind. He’s bound my kin!

“Oh fuck,” Naruto said, very low. “It’s the tailed beasts!”

It only took one glance between the three of them, and they were running, racing south over the roofs of the village.

Nara Shikaku swore viciously under his breath. He’d already had to leave his old teammates at the wall and pull back to the roof of the Hokage’s Residence to coordinate while his Hokage was busy fighting monsters out of history with her own two hands. Now word came in that Uzumaki had left his position and was making for the south gate too, and that this might be a very good thing.

“Pull Kawanishi’s team off the inner line to replace them,” he snapped, “and Endou’s to replace Shikamaru’s team. Tell Shikamaru to get down to the south gate and coordinate that mess as best he can. At least,” he added, exasperated, “there’s a chance Uzumaki will listen to him. Have the Hyuuga found the core of that damn black and white thing yet?”

“Not yet,” Aburame Shibi reported calmly, head cocked just a bit as he listened to his insects.

Shikaku weighed needs in his head and blew out a breath. “Hiashi swore that some of his clan could protect themselves against Madara’s insane illusions. Tell him to break some loose from the search and send them to the south gate, too. Contact Chouza and tell him to follow with any other Akimichi that can be spared to see about this summons. Ask Cat to send me back at least ten ANBU to search outside the wall for the first attackers.”

And he would just have to pray, he thought, staring over the black slate tiles of the roof and toward the south, that he wasn’t about to lose his Hokage. Again.

Naruto and his team cut through the commotion in the south quarter like it wasn’t there, but all three of them jerked to a halt when they hit the top of the wall again.

“Oh shit,” Sakura said, very quietly.

Too many things burned in Naruto’s senses. The vast demon-shape with seven glaring eyes and two more closed was tearing through the ribbons of the biggest binding seal he’d ever seen with appalling ease. The vast trees of Konoha’s valley bent like saplings under its feet. And in the increasing clearance, Tsunade lunged between lashes of fire, fighting hand to hand against a man in a shadowy robe with a huge fan. ANBU masks ringed them, but Tsunade and her opponent were moving too fast for anyone to intervene unless she pulled back.

“Madara,” Sasuke said, low, sounding like someone had just hit him in the stomach.

Sakura caught his shoulder. “If anyone can beat him it’s Tsunade-sama,” she said, low. “It’ll be all right.”

Sasuke shook his head sharply. “I know, but… you don’t know what he was! I don’t know if even Tsunade can take him!”

“Trust her.” Naruto wanted to say more, but the fox’s attention kept dragging his eyes back to the demon. The demon who, he was starting to realize, must be holding the seven captured tailed beasts. Hosting them? Or were they bound down, the way some villages did between hosts?

Kakashi-sensei and an ANBU with a cat mask flickered up to the wall from the forest, both of them breathing hard.

“It’s got their strength,” the cat mask said, grim. “I can barely trip it, and I won’t be able to hold it for more than an instant. We need someone to hit it right then, hard enough to stop it.”

The summons was drawing on them, then. The fox snarled, and Naruto took a step forward. “We can hit it," he said quietly.

“That’s what Madara is probably counting on.” Kakashi looked over at them, one eye black and one red, but both hard. “It’s too risky.”

“But I can help Nine-tails keep him out!” Naruto argued, waving a hand sharply at the demon. “How else are we going to beat that?!”

Kakashi actually smiled, if a lot more grimly than usual. “I think the answer to that is just coming.”

Shikamaru’s team touched down beside them, and another Akimichi was a breath behind them. One more breath, and Hinata and Neji arrived too. Shikamaru glanced around, taking in the destruction and the litter of broken techniques. He grimaced and turned to Kakashi-sensei. “Do we know what that summons can do, yet?”

“We know it’s got seven of the tailed beasts sealed inside it, and can use their power, if not their particular abilities,” Kakashi said, looking out over the increasingly flattened swath of forest, fires starting here and there from Madara’s deflected attacks. He nodded to the cat mask. “Cat can bind it, but only for a few seconds before it breaks free.”

Shikamaru took a slow breath, in and out, eyes dark. “Chouji. Chouza-sama. Can you coordinate an attack on it at that speed?”

Chouza laid a hand on Chouji’s shoulder. “We can.”

Cat nodded. “Signal me when you’re ready to strike, then, and I’ll hold it still as well as possible.”

“Go,” Kakashi told them and turned to the Hyuugas as the three of them vanished over the wall. “You’re here to back up Tsunade-sama.” His eyes flickered toward the trees through which Tsunade and Madara were stalking each other. “I don’t know, yet, what you’ll be able to do; keep an eye on them.”

Neji nodded silently and drew his cousin a little way down the wall, both of them watching Tsunade and Madara with Byakugan activated.

“This is the biggest clusterfuck ever,” Shikamaru muttered, kneeling on the wall beside Ino, eyes flicking over the forest and their forces. “I’m just mentioning.”

“Eloquent,” Kakashi noted dryly. “And likely accurate.”

Naruto was chewing his lip, trying to listen to the mission banter, trying not to let the fox’s lengthening silence alarm him. He had such a bad feeling about this.

A red flare burst over the trees, and suddenly Chouji and Chouza were rising out of the trees, almost as tall as the demon. Lines of darkness whipped up from the ground, wrapping around the demon’s legs, thickening as they went.

“Wood jutsu,” Sakura said, sharp and startled.

“Induced,” Kakashi answered, voice distant. “And not even Hashirama himself could have held seven of the beasts at once.”

For one breath, though, it was holding, and Naruto bit down harder on his lip, hoping. Chouza charged the demon from the front, massive arms wrapping around it. “Chouji!” he thundered. Chouji was coming from behind, and even Naruto could see the perfect timing of it, the moment when Chouza braced to keep the demon from recoiling, from wasting any of Chouji’s strength. The crack of Chouji’s fist hitting the demon’s back echoed off the wall.

For a moment, Naruto thought it might work.

In the next, though, the demon roared wordlessly and threw both the Akimichi back, snapping the wood binding like string. Sasuke cursed under his breath and Shikamaru’s jaw tightened.

The fox was still silent.

You don’t think anything but us can stop it, do you? Naruto asked.

I am the strongest of the tailed beasts, and there are seven of my kin locked in that thing. It wasn’t an answer. Except that it was.

So we’ll do this for them, Naruto promised. And for my important people, here. Okay?

The fox stirred, the sense of him uncoiling up Naruto’s spine and down his fingers. Naruto reached out and touched Kakashi-sensei’s arm.

“Tell Tsunade-sensei I’m sorry I couldn’t get her permission first, okay?” he asked softly.

Kakashi was still for a long moment, in which Chouji, Chouza, and Cat landed back on the wall, all of them wincing and moving carefully. Kakashi finally sighed. “Try not to step on any of our people while you’re out there.”

“We’ll follow as soon as you’re done changing,” Sasuke said, stepping up beside Naruto. “If the Nine-tails will accept it, I can help shield you from Madara.”

The fox snarled and Naruto winced, and Sakura put her fists on her hips, glaring. “I’m very sure that such an old and experienced spirit will have at least as much sense as a yearling squirrel and will accept that assistance,” she said in a dire tone.

The fox didn’t quail, which was better than Naruto managed when Sakura spoke like that, but there was a sense of grudging respect from him, if not exactly agreement. “We’ll try,” Naruto promised.

“Sasuke, what are you going to have to do, to shield them?” Shikamaru interrupted. After a silent moment, Sasuke sighed.

“I’ll have to be… with Naruto and the Nine-tails. In our minds and spirits.”

“Thought so.” Shikamaru was actually smiling, just a little and crookedly. “Well, we’re used to that. We’ll cover you.” His eyes locked on Sasuke’s, almost as black as his in the darkness. “So don’t hold back.”

Sasuke smiled back, dark and sharp. “I never hold back.”

Shikamaru snorted. “Yeah, Team Overkill, that’s the three of you.” He beckoned Ino and Chouji closer with a tilt of his head and the three of them whispered and gestured among themselves for a minute, hands tracing sight lines and formations.

“Be careful,” Kakashi told Naruto and his team, quietly. All three of them nodded, and Naruto would bet that all four of them knew how little that would probably help.

Naruto stepped to the edge of the wall in the flickering night, hearing Kakashi-sensei behind him, telling the Aburame here to call the shinobi in the south forest back behind the wall and warn everyone the Nine-tails was on their side this time. He breathed slowly, stepping ‘down’ in that way that took him to the place the fox lived. This time, not blinded by the pain of tearing out the inner seal, he could feel the fox rising past him, a brilliance of fire and wind and the power of mountains, and he leaped out from the wall, arms spread like he could embrace the night itself. As the fox rose over him he felt like maybe Nine-tails was doing just that. The fox’s chakra swept through him, around him, merciless and wild, and now it was the fox’s head lifted in the wind, the fox’s paws on the ground.

And yet… this time it was Naruto too. He wasn’t in darkness. He felt the wind, the ground, the lash of the fox’s tails. It was a little softened, a little distant, but it was all there.

So he saw when Madara turned from his fight with Tsunade. She took the opening instantly, landing a punch that tore away Madara’s arm and shoulder and slammed him into the ground hard enough to crater it. Black fire blasted out from where he landed, speeding away in two directions, ringing in the demon and Nine-tails. And Madara.

And when Madara stood up, he was whole again.

The only thing that shook Naruto out of his shock was feeling Nine-tails’ chakra slowing, around him. They were looking right at Madara, he realized, and yelled, “Nine-tails! Oi, stupid fox, look away!”

He got only the faintest, distracted grumble back.

“Oh fuck.” Naruto reached out with immaterial hands and seized the fox’s chakra, the chakra he was as familiar with now as his own, or Sakura or Sasuke’s, and fought to surge it and shake off the Sharingan, to reclaim his partner’s mind.

Kakashi-sensei slammed a fist down against the wall, actually cracking the capstone. “Regeneration,” he spat, red eye fixed on where Madara had vanished behind the black flames.

“We have to get through,” Sasuke said tightly. “I’m going to try to go over.”

Sakura snapped out of her suspended moment of horror, and closed a hand around his arm. “Wait.” She took a slow breath as he rounded on her, staring out at those flames. “Wait. I’ll get you through.”

“How?” Shikamaru demanded sharply. His fingertips were set together and Sakura could almost see the thoughts racing behind his eyes.

Her mouth quirked. “Why do you think I asked Jiraiya-sama to teach me some of his sage techniques?” she asked softly. From the moment she’d seen Amaterasu for the first time, from the moment she’d heard Madara still lived, she’d feared they would see it again if Madara ever came; it was the perfect answer to the problem of keeping Leaf’s shinobi away while Madara subdued the Nine-tails.

Her response wasn’t as perfect, but she thought it would work.

“Sakura,” Kakashi said, low, from the edge of the wall, eyes fixed on the still figure of the Nine-tails, “you don’t have any helpers for that one.” It wasn’t a denial; just a reminder of the risk she ran.

“It doesn’t matter.” She let Sasuke go and stepped to the edge of the wall herself. “Don’t count on me for anything after this,” she tossed over her shoulder at Shikamaru and didn’t look back around until he nodded slowly.

“Sakura.” Sasuke’s hands slid over her shoulders as he came to stand close against her back. “Tell me what you’re going to do.”

She stood straight, breathing deep and steady to ready her chakra. “I’m going to remind the world that this fire doesn’t belong in it. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to put it out or just suppress it for a while, so when I tell you to go, go fast.”

His hands tightened. “All right.” Softer, “I’ll keep him safe.”

Sakura smiled into the night, heart sure and strong even as her breath wavered in her throat. “Yes.” She took one last breath and let her hands flow through the familiar series of her activation and spread them out toward the half a ri of land she needed to protect.

Using nature energy was not a matter of rote, where the right seals and concentration would always produce the same form. She thought perhaps Jiraiya-sama was right when he called it a matter of faith. She opened her own spirit to the inrush of utter wildness and shaped it with her heart, with her need, with the bared strength of her own life and will, holding the open spiral of this jutsu’s seals, its shape, steady in her mind. Her three-ply chakra flowed into the shape easily; too easily. The danger of this technique was not burning out her subject, this time. No, this time it was the momentum, that it might sweep her away in the exaltation of being one with everything the world was, here on this night. This was a technique to touch, not only the energy of the land, but it’s own chakra.

“Earth,” she whispered into the bell of her jutsu, and almost cried out as it resonated, rang out over the forest drawing her chakra to it’s own, recalled the very soil to itself. “Wood,” she gasped, trembling, wrestling back the need to open her heart wider, to give all of herself to the trees as the smallest particles of them recalled what world they belonged to and shrugged free of the hell-grip of Amaterasu. “Wind…” It was almost a moan, and she sank to her knees as the air sang before the gate, dancing away from the all-consuming black fire, spreading her chakra just as fine and thin as it was.

Amaterasu guttered and sank, and finally flickered out.

Sakura gulped a breath, and pulled herself just far enough back to gasp, “Go!” Sasuke shot forward off the wall without question or hesitation, flickering across the seared strip to land at the Nine-tails’ feet. Tsunade-sama was already lunging straight for Madara again. Shikamaru’s team followed Sasuke, and relief swept through her. That was the last thing she needed to wait on. Sakura prepared to pry herself out of this wild jutsu before she forgot why she should want to.

An intrusion slid through the earth that her chakra embraced, and she flinched.

“Sakura?” Kakashi asked at her side, low and sharp, and she could feel his chakra too, like this, could almost see the hand seals poised and waiting in his palms to try to pull her out.

“Intruder,” she gasped, and, after a moment’s struggle to remember the word, “First!”

“The first attacker is coming into this area?”

She nodded, distantly relieved that Kakashi-sensei had understood, and closed her hands into fists, trying to hold onto that trace, to track it, even as it seemed to split.

“Earth,” she rasped again, fiercely, to her jutsu and rocked back on her knees with shock when nothing happened. Her control wavered for a ragged breath and she gritted her teeth.

“I’ll try to see them,” Hinata’s voice said softly on her other side. “Sakura-san, can you hold on?”

Sakura swallowed and nodded, and almost lost her grip anyway when Hinata pressed gently against her back and her hands came to rest on Sakura’s forearms, three fingers down from her wrists. “Permit me,” Hinata whispered. “Life of our land, Will of Fire, permit me.”

The words resonated delicately through Sakura’s technique, and Hinata’s chakra slid down the path they made, light as a bird on the wind. Sakura reflected distantly, through her amazement that anyone else could affect the technique without burning them both out, that now she understood why Neji had consented to follow his cousin.

“All of them,” Hinata murmured, distant. “All of them are coming. But they are only two. Only two that we need to find.”

Yes. Yes, that made sense of what Sakura felt from the earth, from the trees. Two, and then a… haze around them. She could feel exactly where those two were, like she’d have felt a knife against her skin, but there were no words for it! Nothing she could tell them!

“I see it,” Hinata whispered, and then, sharper. “I see them! Neji! They’re coming for the Hokage!”

Abruptly she was gone and it was only Kakashi speaking to Sakura, low and sure. “Bring it down, Sakura. The technique. Let the pattern go. Come back, Sakura, your team is going to need you. Can you hear me? Naruto and Sasuke are going to need you.”

Kakashi-sensei, Sakura decided, really fought dirty. But he had a point. She let go one finger at a time, pulled herself away bit by bit from the wild, singing being of the world’s chakra and finally, with a deep, sobbing breath, snapped her hands together in her deactivation.

The brilliant awareness of the world went away and it was only with her eyes that she saw Hinata and Neji land on either side of Tsunade, spin like water flowing, and strike in perfect unison. A black figure and a white one flew back from their hands and were pounced on by ANBU as Tsunade bared her teeth at Madara and punched the tree he was in hard enough to fell it.

Sakura shuddered as the cold of chakra depletion hit her and heard Kakashi calling sharply for a medic as she fixed her eyes on the enormous, nine-tailed fox that was finally moving again, rearing up as if to claw the moon from the sky.

Sasuke barely spared Madara a glance as he landed at the Nine-tails’ feet, barely even noticed Shikamaru’s team following him. He had more important things to worry about right now. The fox had shaken its head a little when Amaterasu died, and he hoped that meant Naruto was already pushing Madara’s control back. He sucked in a breath and shouted up at them, “Naruto! Nine-tails!”

After a moment of heart-sinking stillness, the fox turned its head and looked down at him.

There were no seals associated with what Sasuke did next, no gestures to key it, but he reached out anyway, open hands stretched up toward the huge red eyes that met his as he cast his chakra out to touch the Nine-tails’ and walked forward along that path.

There was another chakra already there, icy and sticky, flowing in strange curls and hitches to Sasuke’s sight. He slipped past it, contorting to avoid its touch like he would have climbed through a thicket of poisonous vines. When his chakra met the Nine-tails’ at last he gasped with the blaze of it and stumbled through brightness for a few steps before Naruto’s hands caught his arms.

“There you are, finally, Sasuke we gotta hurry up, this asshole’s Sharingan almost has a grip on Nine-tails!”

“Yes, I noticed that,” Sasuke muttered, straightening. He was standing on a plain of water, broken here and there with rock formations, under a brilliant sky. It was the first time he’d walked into a mind so clear and unconstrained.

There was also a constant, harsh growl rolling out far over his head. He looked up to see the Nine-tails again, glaring down at him with furious suspicion. “Look,” he said, running a frustrated hand through his hair, “I swear I don’t want to control you! You’re contracted with my own teammate!”

Naruto looked up at the fox, bouncing urgently on his toes, “Yeah, it’s okay, really! I mean you’re kind of like me right now, and Sasuke wouldn’t do anything bad to me, right?”

“Humans who have power use it,” the fox snarled.

“Not like this,” Sasuke snapped, cutting his hand through the air, abruptly almost as angry as the fox; he was living his life as best he could to make himself and Uchiha into something that wasn’t Itachi, wasn’t Madara, and no furry, nine-tailed menace was going to say otherwise. “Not to harm my own!”

Narrowed red eyes stared down at him. “Your own?” the fox finally rumbled, low and dangerous. “You would dare claim that I am your own?”

“You live inside someone who is,” Sasuke growled back. “You’ve helped him. For that, I’ll protect you as I would him.”

The fox’s glare sharpened. “As you would him?” Abruptly, he leaned down, and a nose half as tall as Sasuke was sniffed at him, hard enough to tug at his clothes. When the fox drew back, it actually sat down and cocked an ear at him. It looked thoughtful. “I see.” A lot of the snarl was gone. “You love him.”

Sasuke stared, caught entirely flat-footed. “I… what?” The thought that the Nine-tails had figured that out from how he smelled rose embarrassingly in his mind.

“My idiot kit of a host,” the fox specified, watching him closely. “You love him. That’s why you do this.”

Sasuke flushed, really not wanting to have this conversation with a demon beast, for crying out loud, and also not while Naruto was listening, watching them with wide eyes. The intuition his clan sharpened on the Sharingan was jabbing him hard, though, so he took a breath and made himself say out loud, “Yes.”

The Nine-tails lay down on the surface of the water. “Hm.”

“Is that what it takes, for you to accept?” Sasuke asked quietly.

Naruto’s eyes widened further, and he spun around to point at the fox. “That’s it! That’s what it is! That’s why you keep getting all mellow and shit at the weirdest times!”

The fox eyed its host with some exasperation, and Sasuke was reminded of all the times Naruto had compared the two of them. “I would say, rather, you keep having love-fests at the strangest moments. Though I suppose life and death combat does tend to remind one of the important things.” His eyes narrowed. “And if you’d just said that my part of the bargain was to help you protect what you love, instead of blithering on about your ‘important people’, this could all have gone much more smoothly. Humans.”

Naruto turned a little red. “You don’t just say things like that outright, that’s… that’s… I mean…”

“Idiot kit,” the fox growled, ears at a resigned angle.

Sasuke took a slow breath and stepped forward to rest a hand on Naruto’s shoulder, looking up at the fox. “I love him,” he admitted, low. “And I love Sakura. My teachers. A lot of the village is full of total idiots, but I… I love the quarter where I live. I never thought I would, again. Will this let you accept my protection?” Part of him flinched to be saying all this out loud; this was the truth he held silent in his heart. But if this was what it took to guard his place and his people, he would do it.

The fox’s lip curled and it glanced away over the water and stone of this space. “As long as you don’t start thinking I’m yours or any such nonsense. Yes, yes, get on with it.”

Naruto smacked the fox on the shoulder affectionately. “Well then you have to look over here, already. Quit being difficult.”

Nine-tails bared his teeth at Naruto, but Sasuke could tell it was mostly for show. “Insolent brat.” He did meet Sasuke’s eyes again, though, and this time when Sasuke cast forward his chakra it sank into the fox’s and the Sharingan’s marks faded up into the Nine-tails’ eyes. The fox shuddered the whole length of his body, ears flat against his skull.

“My protection,” Sasuke promised, very softly, already feeling the drain on his chakra of holding this seal over such a vast being, and feeling too the cold corruption of Madara’s chakra against his, like rotting flesh pressed against his own. He pushed back against that violently, and the fox’s ears unfolded just a little. That gave Sasuke an idea, and before he could think better of it he pulled Naruto tight into his arms. “My protection,” he whispered again, against unruly yellow hair. “Our strength is your shield. Defend our home.”

Naruto’s arms locked fiercely around him, nearly crushing his ribs, but that was all right. Besides, the fox’s ruff was smoothing, no longer bristled. Sasuke smiled, wryly; whatever worked. He pushed Naruto a little away. “Get going, then.”

Naruto laughed and Sasuke found himself back kneeling on the dirt and splintered wood outside the south gates with Shikamaru’s team standing guard over him. One of the black intruders was melting into the dirt a little ways off. Ino glanced down at him.

“He’s back,” she said, clipped, and then, seeing the direction of his gaze, smiled tightly. “One of them tried to attack you just before Neji and Hinata nailed the two that controlled them all. Not a problem.”

Having seen the three of them work together, their whiplash speed and precision, Sasuke could believe it.

“Is your technique still running or done?” Shikamaru asked, eyes still scanning the woods around them.

“Still running,” Sasuke said, breathing slowly and focusing the outflow his chakra to keep his seal on the Nine-tails, over the flowering of its rage and against the increasing pressure from Madara.

“We’ve got you,” Shikamaru said quietly. “Just work.”

Sasuke nodded and focused his eyes on the fox and nothing else as it bounded toward the nine-eyed demon.

Tsunade’s heart had turned to ice for one moment, when the marks of the Sharingan appeared over the Nine-tails’ eyes. But in the next she heard Madara’s snarled curse and saw the fox lunge toward the demon to rip at its arms, and knew they might just win this one after all. She spun in between Madara and Sasuke as the old man turned to make for his descendant with an unholy light glaring in his eyes, and threw him back with a scything kick.

And she knew, knew damn it, that she’d broken his breastbone with that kick, but it was whole when he came back at her and she couldn’t sense his chakra doing anything that would account for it! Madara smiled nastily at her bared teeth as they closed again in a whirl of fire and knives and the wild strength that had always lived in her bones.

“Ironic, don’t you think?” he breathed. “Senju’s strength undone by… Senju’s strength.”

“What the fuck are you babbling about?” Tsunade pulverized the ground under his feet to dust and leaped after him as he retreated.

“Before I left Hashirama at the Falls, I took a sample, you see.” Madara spread his arms wide and she felt the hideous, insinuating strength of his chakra again, shaped by that damn Mangekyou Sharingan. Forcing it out of her own chakra pathways distracted her for one crucial moment and she snarled as she pulled his shuriken out of her leg.

And then she actually heard what Madara said. A sample. From her grandfather, the strongest user of Wood natured chakra the world had seen in generations. Something that could defeat her own combat strength. Decades of knowledge in the healing arts gave her the key that connected the two things. “Regeneration,” she whispered.

“You always were a clever child, if led carefully enough,” Madara murmured.

Fury blazed up in Tsunade’s heart like the sun, fury too wild for any shouting to encompass and so her voice was low when she spoke. “First you betray him, and then you steal from his very blood.”

“I would never have had to if he’d just seen sense.” Madara’s words were soft and calm and mad. “But it’s all right. I will rule the world, once all the tailed beasts are mine, as it should have been from the start. And he will be with me, as it should have been.”

Tsunade locked down a shudder of horror. There was no time for that; she had a duty to perform, here. Not only for her village but for her blood.

Yes. Her blood. That was the way.

She screamed as she lunged at Madara, letting her punch go slightly awry, letting him retreat with a laugh. While he was laughing, she sliced her fingers on her own kunai and swiftly traced seals in blood over her palms, down her arms. She drew the last one over her own heart.

“You shouldn’t have told me that,” she said softly, gathering her chakra and her will.

“Ah?” Madara hovered just out of range, taunting. “And why not?”

Tsunade’s hands flashed through twenty-eight seals and ended in the Snake. “Because blood calls to blood.” She lifted two fingers in the initiation and, as fire spread down every vein from her heart, released her Yin seal. The lines on her arms blazed up and there were no more words.

Blood Song was a forbidden technique, locked away for three generations since the villages were first founded. It was a legacy of the warring clans period, and the cruel expedients that century of conflict had driven the clans to, to protect their own blood. To control their own blood.

Madara fought her, silent and vicious now. She could feel his chakra prying at hers, feel the dizzy warping of the world as he tried to tear himself free of her grip, and she spent her own chakra like water into the desert to hold him, to reach into his body and claim what was hers. To tear it away from him—all that was blood of Senju.

And perhaps the years had taken their toll on this one of the most powerful ninja ever known, regeneration or no, because at last she felt it. As her vision darkened, she saw it. The red eyes fixed on hers lost focus, and the steel and stone chakra that wrestled with hers slackened. The blood of her clan slid into her control and she tore it free in one last burst of rage.

When she could see again, she was on her hands and knees, breath heaving hoarsely in her chest. In front of her was a withered body, barely more than skin stretched over bones, with red eyes. Still conscious eyes.

Tsunade’s long years of training prodded at her, and her grandfather’s teaching joined in. The way of Senju was one of honor and compassion. That was why she had become a healer. Every breath Madara took was wracked, cut short with the pains and breakdowns of decades all catching up at once. She should, at least, ease Madara’s passing. The practical part of her knew she didn’t have the strength to offer any kind of mercy, but breath, at least, remained to her. Breath and time for a few words. “My grandfather loved you,” she whispered.

And then her lips pulled back off her teeth in a hard smile. “I don’t.”

Madara’s eyes glinted at her past the Sharingan for a moment, before he closed them. Another shuddering breath, and the body before her was still and empty.

Tsunade let her head fall, sliding down to the ground, suddenly aware that her transformation had drained away and every bone in her body ached like something was gnawing on them. A rest would be good. Yes.

“Hokage-sama!” Gloved hands caught her, turning her gently, and even through the masks she could hear the hisses of her ANBU around her, shocked. She imagined she didn’t look too very different from the dead body right now.

It took two attempts before she managed to swallow and husk out, “Kakashi.”

“I’m here.” Her chosen successor knelt beside her, and she smiled just a little to see the straightness of his spine, the mission awareness that wouldn’t let him show his fear for her or his relief that she still lived. Stubborn brat that he was.

“In command,” she whispered through dry, cracked lips, vision starting to gray again. “Shizune. To me.”

“She’s coming.” Kakashi looked up at the masks surrounding them among the dark trunks. “Will you accept my command until the Hokage recovers?”

Cat stepped forward. “We will.”

“Then get the civilians out of the shelters and up to the roofs, and call the patrols in to guard them. I want every citizen of Konoha somewhere they can see what’s happening at this gate. Bring the twenty strongest shinobi still uninjured here to the gate to support Naruto and the Nine-tails. Go.”

ANBU vanished, except for the two medics already working on her, and Tsunade made a mental note to tease Kakashi later about what a good leader he would make. And then Shizune was beside her, eyes furious and wet, swearing at her in three dialects as her glowing hands pressed over Tsunade’s heart. Tsunade just smiled, looking up past the trees as her vision faded, to where a giant fox lashed nine tails across the sky and attacked the demon that threatened their village.

This time it was different. This time Naruto wasn’t in darkness, catching moments of action here and there. Instead he felt like he was sitting on a boulder on the water plain and at the very same time standing right behind Nine-tails’ eyes as the fox leaped through Konoha’s forest, savaging the demon. He could feel the flex of the fox’s haunches, the clench of his jaw as he seized an arm and tore at it. He could certainly feel the shift of their chakra as the fox breathed a blast of fire at the demon, wild and exultant.

“How can you be calmed down by someone’s love and still like destruction this much?” he wondered as they leaped to evade the demon’s fist and the fox lashed out with a tail to throw it backwards.

You call this destruction? the fox sneered. Pah! I raise tsunami and level mountains, kit. I bring fire and death and change, and I sweep corruption from this world. That’s what I am!

Tailed beasts, Naruto decided, were even weirder than noble clans. “Well you’re not being very much yourself, then, are you?” he prodded. “I mean, after a mountain, one demon shouldn’t be too hard to level.” Secretly he was kind of wondering if the fox was drawing it out so he could keep his own form for longer. And he couldn’t blame Nine-tails at all, but they had work to be getting on with, here!

You were the one who wanted me to be careful where I put my feet, the fox shot back, silkily. And then, with a deeper growl, And watch. He caught hold of the demon’s arm again, shaking his head fiercely, and this time he actually ripped the arm all the way off.

There was no blood or anything like it. Nine-tails might as well have torn the arm off a statue, except for the weird, shifting glow that showed through the gap. “What’s that?” Naruto asked warily, experienced enough by now to be suspicious of anything that looked this strange. It was usually bad news.

That demon is only a container. The fox’s tails lashed grimly. It is animated by the strength of my kin, but it is not host to them or anything like. And what truly binds them lives inside it.

Naruto planted his hands on his hips, annoyed. “Well then why haven’t you busted it up yet?”

There was enough roar in the fox’s response that Naruto winced. Because, you insolent brat, the moment I shatter the container the binding dragons will escape it! Even I can’t catch seven fleeing prey in the same instant!

And, if Naruto was any judge, the fox was immensely pissed off about that. “Okay, okay.” Naruto patted the air soothingly with raised hands. “We’ll figure something out. Look, what if we switch really fast, and I can do binding seals…”

Someone coughed. It was a teacherly, pay-attention-children cough, and so startling in the circumstances that Naruto and the fox both blinked. The fox turned his head and there, standing on top of a tall pine, was Kakashi-sensei.

“Do excuse my cutting in on the conversation,” he said blandly, “but if the binding elementals are not drawing a great deal of power from their captives, I believe we can help with that.”

Naruto nearly fell off his boulder laughing. “You said it out loud! After all that pissy growling at me for talking out loud, you said it out loud!”

Shut up, kit, the fox rumbled, examining Kakashi-sensei, and Naruto heard him when he spoke, just a little bit distant or muffled. “Help how, little shinobi?”

Kakashi spread his hands. “If you can shatter that demon, I think we have enough people to catch seven dragons at once.”

“Only to bind my kin again.” The fox’s lip curled up in the start of a snarl, and Naruto was really kind of impressed that Kakashi-sensei was still looking the fox steadily in the eye instead of backing up.

“Have you gained nothing from your own contract, youko-san?”

Naruto actually felt the fox’s ear tilt with startlement, and then Nine-tails threw up his head and laughed like thunder. “I see where the kit gets his insolence from.” He looked down at Kakashi again, teeth bared. “Very well, shinobi. Ready your people.”

This time Naruto felt clearly the wild surge of chakra as the fox tipped his head up and breathed out, building a ball of force over his mouth. He really hoped Kakashi-sensei wouldn’t let people get too close too soon. The demon had pulled itself back to its feet and was coming for them again, remaining arm spread wide, mouth gaping as if it wanted to take a bite out of Nine-tails. The hunger in that silent charge send a shiver of nerves down Naruto’s spine, and he found himself reaching out, adding his chakra to the fox’s until the ball of it roiled. He could feel the fox’s approval and all nine of the fox’s tails spread in a fan to shape their attack.

The demon was three strides away when the fox whipped his head down and released the sky-shattering blast of power.

Demon-shattering, too. Naruto punched the air, right along with the fox’s howl of triumph, as blasted fragments scythed outward into the forest.

And then they were surrounded by nine huge dragons, colorful and transparent like glass ornaments, seven of them wrapped like knots around seven tailed beasts.

That, and by shinobi leaping out of the trees.

Temari was the first one to call out her target, as the colored dragons started to rush apart from each other. “Indigo!” and Shikamaru knew exactly what the imperious glance she flicked at him meant.

“Massive pain in the ass,” he muttered. They’d only just gotten Sasuke back up to the wall, after all, and the stubborn bastard refused to terminate his seal on the Nine-tails and hadn’t been any help at all. "What do you need me for?"

"To hold it still so I don’t hit the One-tail," Temari snapped. "Hurry up."

Shikamaru groaned. He’d known it.

“Oh quit complaining,” Ino told him, hip-checking him in Temari’s direction. “I’ll make sure Sasuke doesn’t kill himself with stubbornness. Go on.”

Shikamaru muttered under his breath about pushy women, glumly reflecting on how much his father was going to tease him about this when he heard. But he knelt by Temari as she coiled into a leaping stance and set his hands in the seal to initiate Shadow Binding. “Someone give me a flare!” he called. At least seven people sent up bursts of fire from the roofs behind him, and he knew in that moment that Kakashi-san had been wise. The village wanted to save itself, not just be saved, and those who helped in this last part of the fight would remember fighting alongside the Nine-tails.

He drove his shadow across the broken trees to lock around the indigo dragon and set his teeth hard at the tearing resistance. “Do it fast,” he gritted out.

Temari sprang into the sky like lightning in reverse, and her fan cut the air into vast knives around their target, over and over, slashing the dragon summons into pieces until the beast it held broke free with a roar. The One-tail was just fine, Shikamaru noted distantly, catching himself with a hand on the wall as he released his technique, panting for breath. She hadn’t even scratched it.

Maybe that was why the tanuki just glared around before dissolving into a gritty blast of sirocco wind.

“Whoohoo!” Suigetsu hollered, leaping from the wall, and Choujuurou winced. He really hoped Suigetsu wouldn’t get too carried away, and would remember what they were and weren’t supposed to kill. That was always a bit of a problem with him.

“Tsururi-san, I think the light green dragon is for us,” he told his other companion politely, seeing Suigetsu headed in the general direction of the dark green one wrapped around the Three-tails.

Tsururi, who had retrieved and thus inherited Ringo-senpai’s Fangs, flexed her hands around the grips, grinning. “Let’s do it.”

The dragon they targeted was actually starting to unwind a little, perhaps understanding that it had enemies to face. “Pin the head!” Choujuurou called as they leaped, unbinding Hiramekarei. They needed to do this fast.

“I’ll fillet it, you tenderize it!” Tsururi called back, and Choujuurou only refrained from rolling his eyes because this was the middle of a fight and despite what Ao-san thought, he was as dedicated a swordsman and shinobi as any of his lost senpai. So he just narrowed his eyes, shifting his balance in the air to let breath, chakra, force flow through him, through his sword.

Tsururi drove straight up from below the dragon, swords crossed, and caught it under the jaw, slicing in deep. “Now!”

There was no need for words. Choujuurou felt the moment, like a cord snapping taut, pulling his arm down. Chakra blazed around his blade, and he bared his teeth with satisfaction as he struck the dragon’s spine and the force of it whiplashed along the summons’ length. It uncoiled from the Six-tails like a pulled string and shattered into shards of green light.

And Choujuurou swore that, for one moment, the Six-tails looked at them. At him. Perhaps even recognized them. It was only a single moment, though, before the great slug was diving through the sky, making east for the lakes and the sea. He shook himself, flicking the bindings back around his sword as he touched down on one of Konoha’s great trees and looked to see how Suigetsu was doing.

Suigetsu was laughing among the fading mist of the dark green dragon, and Choujuurou thought he might be reaching out to pat the Three-tails as he went past. At any rate, the Three-tails spun on one foot, amazingly fast for a huge sea turtle, and smacked Suigetsu out of the air with one of its tails. Choujuurou winced at the plume of debris that rose from Suigetsu’s landing and sighed as the Three-tails raged off through the woods and a squad of Leaf-nin darted over the wall to fetch Suigetsu.

He knew his unit was still rebuilding itself, and that the Mizukage was far too wise and compassionate to expect perfect decorum out of the Swordsmen in any case. But he wasn’t entirely looking forward to reporting this to her.

Kiba had never seen his mother quite as pissed off as she was tonight. Apparently obaa-san hadn’t been joking when she’d said Tsume had the instincts to lead the clan after her, and that mostly meant a whole damn lot of Mine. First it was hide and seek with those damn black and white things, then demons, now dragons and tailed beasts scattered all over their damn territory; it was enough to make his claws itch, too, and he wasn’t any kind of alpha. His mother hadn’t stopped showing her teeth all night.

“Yellow,” Tsume snarled, and Kiba and Hana both sprang on her heels without protest, bounding over the trees toward the yellow dragon with their partners. Everyone was growling low in their throats as they leaped up to slash and worry at the dragon, pulling it loose from the beast coil by coil even as it hissed silently and slashed back with long talons.

When one of those talons hit one of the Haimaru triplets, Tsume threw her head back and howled, absolutely outraged by the scent of her pack’s blood. Kiba yelped a little under his breath, and sprang with Akamaru to pin down the dragon’s tail while his mother and Kuromaru whirled into a stupendous Fang Passing Fang and hit the dragon just behind its head.

And that was pretty much that.

The Four-tails shook itself loose from the fading coils and shot for the sky like a comet going home, and Tsume looked just a little calmer when she landed. Enough that Kiba and Hana both straightened up and smiled at her. She smiled back, showing her teeth lazily, and rested a hand on Kuromaru’s back. “Well, come on, then. Let’s see if any of these other slackers need help.”

His mom was definitely scary, Kiba reflected as they bounded back toward the wall, but that was okay. He kind of liked it that way.

Kakashi watched, taut, as Konoha’s uninjured jounin and their support dove outward from the south gate to catch the dragons the Nine-tails had broken loose. In some cases, that support was less than he would have liked.

“Come, my student! Let us defeat this foe with the fiery passion of youth!”

“Yes, Gai-sensei!”

Okay, not in that case, he had to admit. Kakashi spared a hidden smile for the sight of his ‘rival’ and Gai’s student, spinning through Gai’s extravagantly proclaimed Leaf Coiling Whirlwind with perfect synchronization. He’d almost swear the dull blue dragon’s eyes bugged out as two explosive kicks landed on either side of its head. At any rate, it toppled, already fading, toward the ground, and the sleek form of the Five-tails sprang free and galloped east toward the faint beginning of dawn.

No, Kakashi wasn’t worried about Gai. What he didn’t like was Genma’s insistence on taking on the orange dragon that held the Two-tails alone. He knew Genma had known that host, had respected her, but the hard light in Genma’s eyes when he’d brushed off any assistance suggested there was something deeper there than he’d thought. That didn’t make Kakashi a happy commander. Genma’s expertise was with small weapons, and while his water knives were cutting deep, they weren’t enough to disperse the dragon.

Just enough to enrage it.

Coil on coil slid free from the Two-tails as the dragon struck after Genma again and again. It was a virtuoso performance of speed and precision to evade and strike, over and over. Even so, Kakashi was poised to call for long-distance support from the watching shinobi whether Genma liked it or not. Just before the measure in his head that weighed Genma’s need for revenge against his life tipped, though, one last coil slipped loose.

And the Two-tails struck.

With a yowl that echoed through the valley, the demon cat pulled free and spun to sink claws and teeth into the dragon, ripping it into orange mist. Finally, it stood, stiff-legged and bristling, glaring around the torn ground, and Kakashi had to bite back a curse as he realized Genma was standing right in front of it, out in the open at the top of a half-seared pine. He was talking to the enraged Two-tails, and Kakashi’s eye widened a little as he read the movement of Genma’s lips.

I remember her. I remember you. We didn’t realize, in time to save her. I’m sorry.

The cat stared down at him, and slowly it’s hackles lowered. It leaned down to sniff at Genma, and Kakashi’s hands wove through the long distance body-switching seals as fast as they ever had in his life, ready to swap himself for Genma, who seemed to have lost his mind.

The cat blinked and slowly dispersed into mist, curling through the trees and away.

Kakashi slumped, leaving the seals just barely uncompleted. “Going to give me a damn heart attack,” he muttered, and gave Tenzou, standing beside him, a dour look at his faint breath of a laugh. “Easy for you to laugh. ANBU was never this kind of trouble.”

From the angle of Tenzou’s head, he was smiling behind Cat’s mask. Only for a moment, though, before he stiffened. “I wouldn’t be too sure of that.”

Kakashi’s head snapped around to see Anko diving down, short sword first, on the red dragon currently wrapped in the grip of her snake summons. It would have been the perfect finishing attack if the dragon hadn’t torn its head free, jaws opening to meet her.

Anko bared her teeth as the dragon pulled its head loose. It was too late to alter her attack in any way but by aborting it completely and she was damned if she was going to do that. Down the throat it was!

She almost lost her aim when a water rope snaked around the dragon’s muzzle and cinched it closed in one yank. In the next moment, she had to focus on her strike, knifing the dragon through the spine with all the force of her descent, but as soon as the damn thing burst into red shards she got a foot against the Seven-tails and pushed off to leap for the wall, ignoring the outraged insectile hiss behind her.

She touched down in front of Kurenai and glared. “What the hell was that?!”

Kurenai was bent over, hands against her knees, breathing hard. “That.” A breath. “Was me saving.” Another breath. “Your ass. You’re welcome.”

“You only got out of the hospital a few weeks ago!” Anko hollered, gesturing with her sword, other hand jammed on her hip. “You’re still on restricted duties! You’re still in the middle of postpartum chakra drain! Goddamn it, Kurenai!”

Jounin, honestly! She swore there was nothing as much of a pain in the ass as a jounin!

Kurenai straightened slowly, tossing her hair back. “I’m a shinobi of Konoha, and I was here when my comrade needed help.”

Anko stared at her for a long moment and finally sighed. “Fuck.” She slung an arm around Kurenai’s shoulders. “Thanks. I owe you one.” She watched as Kurenai relaxed, and promptly re-focused her chakra and swept the other woman up in her arms.

“Anko!” Kurenai yelped.

“And I’ll just repay you now,” Anko said sweetly as she sprang down inside the wall, “by taking you to the medic station to be checked over. Just to be sure.” She grinned as Kurenai growled in her ear. A little irritation would help Kurenai recover faster. That was her story and she was sticking to it.

The fox watched the last of the other tailed beasts making tracks away from Konoha and shook himself all over, settling his fur. Well? he asked. Satisfied with our bargain, kit?

Naruto looked through the fox’s eyes at the slowly lightening sky and the mess of torn ground and splintered trees, at the shinobi lining Konoha’s wall, and the ones who had just arrived on the cliff over the valley. All alive. He felt a last, weary brush of Sasuke’s chakra as the Sharingan seal withdrew, and spotted the pink of Sakura’s hair at the top of the wall. “Yeah,” he said softly. “Yeah, I am. Thank you.”

One more thing, then, before you go back to those ‘important people’ of yours. The fox bent his head down to something on the ground, and Naruto made a disgusted face as he realized it was Madara’s body, all withered and yuck.

“Eew!” he yelled as Nine-tails closed his teeth lightly over the body. “Ew, ew, ew, what are you doing?”

What I live for, the fox rumbled, and tossed his head up, throwing the body up in the air, battle fan and all. Naruto felt the ingathering of chakra as the fox inhaled, and then Madara’s body was seared out of existence by the exhaled burst of fire against the sky. Mm. Better, Nine-tails growled, tails lashing with satisfaction.

He tilted an ear at the faint cheers from the wall and snorted. Humans. You can deal with that nonsense, kit.

Again there was a strange, sliding moment of rising, of feeling the fox brush past him, and Naruto was standing in a newly made clearing, blinking with his own eyes. Hearing the rising cheers of victory with his own ears. He laughed out loud as he took a running leap up two trees to the top of Konoha’s wall and catapulted into Sasuke and Sakura’s arms. He held on tight as the first rays of light slid over the horizon and touched Konoha’s roofs to color and life again. His village. His people. Alive. He felt the fox settle, in his soul, and smiled.

His home, now and always.