[FFML] [Naruto] Memories Lie 9-11

Nugar nugarwrites at gmail.com
Thu Aug 7 17:57:06 PDT 2008


Again, been a while.  Here, we have a flashback to what really
happened at the end of Clients Lie, and the climax of hostilities
between Team Lie and Team Gai.  There's a lot of action in these three
chapters.


When last we left our lovable liars, Hinata and Neji had pushed each
other too far and fought, leaving them both lying on the ground,
bleeding.




	There was a deep thud of chakra on flesh and a staccato
series of slaps as Hinata and Neji came together in a blur of
motion, and everyone instantly leapt back to clear the area as the
two intimately contesting bodies whirled together.

	An elbow brushed Tenten's shoulder.  Blood splattered across
Sasuke's face.

	And suddenly Neji hit the ground hard, flat on his back,
whuffing as air exploded out of his lungs and his back arched high
into the air, his arms quivering, flung wide to each side.  Blood
sprayed from a long, deep cut rising from his left thigh across
his stomach.

	At the same time Hinata spun twice like a top and fell on her
face, her left arm flopping unnaturally, her right hand clutching
at her chest.  She made a series of little mewling noises of
intense pain, like a kitten crushed under the hoof of a horse, her
legs scrabbling, one knee repeatedly coming up to her chest then
kicking out beneath her as if she were trying to rise, smearing
the blood on her toes into the freshly tilled earth.

	Finally, she grew still, even as Neji's convulsive quivering
stopped and his back ceased to arch, leaving him limp in the dirt.

	Naruto collapsed by her side, his fingers frantically
searching for a pulse as he checked her neck and her wrist at the
same time.

	"Hinata?!  Hinata?!"

	He was dimly aware that Tenten was doing the same thing with
Neji, and her own cries of alarm were getting more frantic as she
desperately pleaded for him to wake up.

	Naruto looked up and met her eyes.  "I don't have a pulse!"
he exclaimed.

	"I don't either!"

	"Come on, Hinata," he urged, flipping her over and beginning
chest compressions.  "Damn it, you weren't supposed to fight to
the death!"

	Lee took one look at the chaos, Tenten pressing on Neji's
chest, Sasuke tearing at his shirt to make a bandage for the big
bleeding cut, and Naruto and one of his clones doing CPR on
Hinata.

	"GAI-SENSEI!"



Memories Lie chapters 9 through 11.

This is the third story arc of People Lie, earlier chapters of
which may be found at
http://www.fanfiction.net/s/3745099/1/People_Lie

Sometimes news and previews are posted at my blog

http://nugarwrites.livejournal.com/

Naruto belongs to Kishimoto Masashi.  Fanfic writers get paid with
reviews, so if you like this story, how about some comments and
criticism?





	xxxxxxxxx
	xxxxxxxxx  Begin chapter nine.


	She remembered that night well.

	It had all began with an explosive note and a tripline.

	The bears had attacked the day before.  Two waves, fourteen
bears, the last four of them gigantic beasts that lumbered out of
the swamp with their shoulders as high at the treetops.
Fortunately, Kakashi was there for that wave.  Bears, even thirty
five foot tall chakra bears, don't give anyone much trouble when a
spear of earth leaps out of the ground and drives up through their
skulls.

	Then they had investigated the local temple.  Kakashi had
stood back and watched as the genin did it on their own,
acknowledging Naruto's skill with disguise and acting.  Where once
it had been a small local temple devoted to Shinto spirits, now
they had seemed to focus on just one.  A bear with seven well
defined, though no longer than average, tails.  And where once,
incense was burned and bells were rang, now organs from animal
sacrifice were left to appease the spirits.

	More interestingly, the head priest and his subordinate
seemed to have some way of teleporting away involving large jade
magatama over a foot across.  None of the genin had been foolish
enough to blindly follow, so they'd reported their finds to their
sensei.

	As a result, the trio had been left at the farm to guard it
while Kakashi took care of the problem.

	But the problem came to them not long after he left with his
nin dogs.

	It happened so slowly.  So deceptively slowly.

	They were eating onigiri brought to them by Midori, the
daughter of the Higurashi family that owned the abandoned farm.
She was a sweet girl, about 16, somewhat traditional, yet clearly
enamored of Sasuke despite his youth, since he was exotic and
beautiful and strong, traits not often found among the farmers and
ranchers of the area.

	The explosion went off, one of the last tags they had.
Sasuke told Midori to get to the house, and Naruto made a half
dozen clones to make sure she got there while Team Seven ran
towards the trouble.

	They heard it before they saw it.  Trees fell, their limbs
crackling and popping.  Swamp water splashed and mud glorped.

	It was big, there was no mistaking that.  But, it didn't roar
in anger like the giant bears from the day before.

	It trilled.

	Tekili-li!  Tekili-li!

	"Hinata!  What is it?!" Naruto called.

	Hinata formed a seal and activated her byakugan.  She said
nothing for several moments.

	"Hinata?"

	"I don't know," she admitted, and there was a tremor of fear
in her voice.  "Something terrible."

	"You don't know?" Sasuke asked incredulously.  "What's it
look like?"

	"I don't know," she repeated, turning her head slightly to
look at him and Naruto.  Her voice fell to a whisper that just
barely reached them over the shrill piping sounds and the pops and
rustle of falling trees and sloshing muck.

	"You can't see it?  What do you mean you can't see it?"
Naruto demanded, his fist clenching as he looked up at her.  "You
can see everything!"

	"I can see it," Sasuke said suddenly, his voice gone cold in
terror.  "I wish I couldn't."

	"Wha-OHHHhhh  SHIT!" Naruto cried as he got his first look at
the thing…  flowing, for lack of a better word, out of the swamp.

	It was mostly mottled black and grey, but it had streaks of
yellow and blue and red running through it that shifted as it
moved.  Sometimes a piece of it would glow some color for a second
like a firefly, then dim and disappear.  It moved like a amoeba,
extending itself out front, then flowing to it almost like a slug,
except much, much faster.

	At first, it was hard to tell what shape it was, because it
wasn't just one shape, it was many, like a thousand animals and
fish chopped coarse and liquefied, then given a new, terrible
mobility.  When a pseudopod reached out for new ground, it
sprouted legs in all directions, clawed and suckered and covered
in fanged cilia, with pinching claws and large ivory spikes that
reached for the ground almost hungrily, only to be reabsorbed in
moments as the main body flowed into it.

	It was also quite large.

	As in over ten feet wide, eight high, and none of them could
see how long.
	
	Any tree that got in its way was attacked by toothy,
misshapen mouths and cruelly hooked, unnatural beaks and pseudo-
tentacles many feet thick which pulled the defenseless tree over
and left a black ichor residue that smoked and popped as it
dissolved the tree into a slurry that was absorbed by the thing
before it had flowed past.

	Naruto was the first to snap out of his shock.  "Hinata…"  He
turned to look at her again.  Her face was pale and shaken.  "You
really can't see that?!"

	She shook her head violently.  "I don't understand it," she
replied quickly, her voice shrill.  "I can hear it and smell it
and I know something is there, but I just can't look at it!  It's
like I won't let myself!"

	Naruto took one look at the oncoming horror and didn't argue.
"Hang back, run if you have to.  I don't know what it is, but it
looks nasty.  Kage bunshin no jutsu!"  He made forty clones, and
sent them forward, then leaped into the branches of a nearby tree
to better watch the action.

	"Sasuke!" the clone closest to him called.  "If you get a
shot, hit it with a katon.  Don't worry about my clones, I can
make more."

	"What are you planning on doing?" Sasuke demanded, torn
between looking at the tree where the original had disappeared and
the clone that was talking to him.

	Naruto grinned.  "I'm gonna poke it and see what happens."

	The clones spread out in a rough semicircle around the front
of the shoggoth, which noticeably slowed, then stopped.  Holes
opened in its gelatinous body and made an almost inquisitive
piping noise as newly formed eyeballs rose on stalks and more
holes suddenly drew in massive amounts of air and other, even
stranger organs formed all over its body.

	"Tekili-li?" it piped, the eyes and tentacles swaying gently
back and forth as if to a music only it could hear.

	One of Naruto's clones darted forward three steps and hurled
a kunai at a huge eye in the body of the thing.  The kunai hit the
pulpy eye and sank out of sight in an instant, causing a thin
clear liquid to run a few inches down the membranous skin before
it was absorbed.  The eyestalks never even twitched from their
hypnotic swaying dance.	

	Naruto's clone straightened from the throw.  "Huh.  That
didn't do much."

	Three viscous, ropy masses of tissue leapt from the part of
the thing closest to the clone and impaled it through the stomach
and into the ground, leaving it suspended there for a moment with
a stupid look on its face.  Then the mouths opened inside his body
cavity and started to feed.

	Naruto, all of the Narutos, started screaming, high, shrill,
exactly like they were being eaten alive from the inside out.  All
of the clones except the impaled one disappeared.  Three seconds
later, it disappeared in a burst of chakra as well.

	Sasuke's eyes widened.

	Twelve feet to the side, Naruto fell out of the tree he was
hiding in, hit several branches, and flopped onto the ground on
his side like a rag doll.

	"Naruto!" Hinata shrieked, running to his side in an instant.

	"Uuuu," he moaned, his voice rising slightly in pain as she
turned him onto his back from his side.

	She gasped.

	His shirt and jacket had three large holes in them.  Holes
that exposed bulging intestines that threatened to spill out of
his ruptured abdomen.

	The world seemed to stop.

	"SA-SU-KEEEE!" she screamed.

	Sasuke was standing right behind her, looking down at his
fallen teammate.  Naruto, probably the physically toughest of
them, taken out in a single hit.  Maybe even killed.

	"Run," Sasuke whispered quietly, turning his attention back
to the oncoming… thing.

	His whisper, more of a personal wish than an order, was all
it took to restart the world, and suddenly it was moving very,
very fast.  Hinata scooped Naruto up into her arms, flinching but
briefly when she felt the blood on his back that told her the
wound was identical to that his clone had gotten, and took off for
the farm house at top speed.

	Sasuke ran forward, making seals as he did.  He took in a
tremendous breath, put his fingers to his lips, then blew with all
the power in his lungs and his chakra.

	It was the biggest fireball he'd ever made, and it engulfed
the thing, burning off tentacles and eyes and boiling away fluids
in seconds.  And still he kept up the power, putting more of
himself into that one technique than he'd ever done before.
Seconds counted by, and he was running out of air.

	And it came through the wall of flames in front of him,
smoking tentacles covered in toothed suckers and mouths full of
cilia reaching for him just like it had reached for Naruto.

	Fuck it, Sasuke ran.


	xxxxxxxxx

	"Hinata?!  Hinata wake up, please!"

	xxxxxxxxx


	Hinata hit the door of the farmhouse with one foot as she
flew through the air, right at the level she knew the peg lock was
on the inside.  The wood shattered under the force of her chakra
enhanced kick and the momentum of her and Naruto, leaving her to
land gracefully on her feet in the entryway and sprint into the
main room.

	"Midori!  Everyone!  We've got to go now!" she called loudly,
looking around wildly.

	There was no one in the main room, so she quickly activated
her byakugan and darted out, frantically looking around.

	Midori stood in the hallway to the master bedroom, her arm
held by a lanky young man with dark red hair.  Hinata's heart
fell, realizing that the man was Bacchi, the servant of the head
priest.  He was here, her family wasn't, and things were rapidly
going to hell.

	Hinjo, her fiancé, stood to one side, his face twisted into a
snarl.

	With a start, Hinata realized that he was snarling at her,
not at the man holding his bride to be.

	"You," she said simply.

	"Me."

	Her byakugan had made her aware of the man in the next room,
but it was only her carefully honed reflexes that enabled her to
bend herself backwards to avoid the arm that came through the wall
beside her.

	It wasn't an arm, exactly.  Truthfully, she didn't know what
it was.  She couldn't see it, only the splintering of wood had
given her warning.  But given what had happened to Naruto with the
thing she couldn't see earlier, she didn't want it touching her.
She hopped backwards, hopefully out of range, as Midori screamed
and struggled.

	What Hinata couldn't see was a ropy, ever shifting mass of
black and grey mottled flesh that twisted around the hole,
releasing black ichor that melted the wall down to the floor and
beyond, forming countless little mouths, claws, and pinchers that
tore at the remaining wood until the man could step through.

	It was the head priest, Ude-sama.  And he had a piece of
shoggoth in place of his right arm.

	It twisted and whirled around him as if it had a mind of its
own, then suddenly it compressed and shrank down into a perfectly
normal human arm, even with a sleeve that matched the one on the
other side.  She could see it again.  Somehow that scared her
more.  She shifted Naruto into a slightly more secure position.

	"Fufufu, you have quick reflexes, my dear," he said, smiling
gently as he put his hands together and let them be hid by the
large, flowing sleeves.  "But if I could just convince you to come
along with Higurashi-chan here, I'll let you see the rest of her
family."  He bobbed his head slightly.  "You do want to make sure
your clients are safe, do you not?"

	"Not really what's on my mind, no," she heard herself say, as
if from very far away.  She turned and ran just as he flung his
arm in her direction and it seemed to explode towards her, and
there was no natural way anything with the volume of the human arm
could create the volume of membranous flesh reaching for her.
Instincts alone let her dodge.

	She ran for the closest exit.  It was the front door, the
same one she'd entered through, and the same one Sasuke was
running for at full speed.  If it wasn't for the byakugan, she'd
have run into Sasuke, but she saw him coming fast enough to throw
herself to one side as he barreled through the door.

	 "Don't come into the house!" she screamed.

	"Don't go that way!" Sasuke screamed back, disappearing into
the house.

	Abruptly, Hinata realized she couldn't see anything in front
of her.  The tree walking exercises came in handy as she focused
chakra to stick to the ground and make the fastest change of
direction she'd ever made, her muscles screaming in protest as she
killed her momentum and raced back into the house, ignoring
Naruto's moan of protest.

	Something huge hit the front of the house seconds after she
ran through the door, smashing the doorway and wall to splinters.

	In front of her, she heard a new scream.

	"AHHHHHOOOF!"

	More wood splintered as Sasuke came crashing through the
frame around the doorway leading to the kitchen and the back door.
He hit hard, rolled once, and came up on his hands and feet,
bleeding from shards of wood in his back.

	Hinata paused beside him, unsure of the best direction to go
now that they were trapped in the house.

	Ude came through the door, the twisting mass of protoplasmic
flesh that was once his arm flopping and morphing wildly around
him.

	"Ah, I see you met the shoggoth," he said, still keeping to
his mien of an amiable old priest.  "It's a servant of the God
Bear just like we are.  You ninja should convert.  We have a use
for people like you."

	"Sorry, I've already pledged my faith to another," Hinata
replied distractedly, looking around quickly with her byakugan.
If she could just find a good weak spot in a wall, she could
probably break through with juken, but it'd take time she almost
certainly didn't have.

	Sasuke started to form seals for another grand fireball, but
unfortunately, he realized that trapped in a small enclosed space
like they were would result in them all being burned together.

	"Then you will be sacrificed as infidels to the God Bear,"
the younger man said, stepping out from behind Ude.  He pulled
open his vestments and raked his hands across his chest, sharpened
nails tearing through his skin.  Immediately, dark red blood
poured from the wounds, but instead of dripping down the floor, it
spread across his skin in all directions.

	Hinata could easily see the chakra infused into the blood,
and realized he had some sort of technique for manipulating it.
He didn't move like a ninja, but it wasn't out of the question for
him to have a bloodline of some sort.  That, or it was just more
dark magic.

	"That won't be necessary, Bacchi-kun," Ude said gently,
holding out one hand to stop his apprentice.  "We'll let another
handle this."

	Rows of holes appeared in the formless ooze that dangled from
his right shoulder, and they began drawing in and blowing out air
in succession, sometimes widening, sometimes shrinking, all the
while piping the same tune they'd heard in the swamp.

	"Tekili-li!" his arm trilled.

	Hinata looked around wildly, then, slowly, directed her
attention down into the ground.

	"SASUKE!  OUT THE FRONT DOOR!" she cried as she jumped.

	Sasuke was a split second behind her, delayed long enough to
feel the tremor beneath his feet as a battering ram of flesh tore
through the wooden floor, reaching for him even as he dodged.

	Hinata's feet hit suspiciously soft earth the moment she left
the house, and she was just barely able to stumble and leap into
the air as the ground grabbed at her feet.

	Sasuke wasn't so lucky.

	His feet hit the rising mound of earth layered over something
definitely not ground as he ran, and he tucked into a roll,
intending to come up onto his feet and copy Hinata's move, leaping
away from the subterranean shoggoth beneath their feet.

	A suckered pseudopod lanced out of the dirt and hit him in
the legs just as he went horizontal, not so much wrapping around
his feet as flowing around them and grabbing on with hundreds of
sucker-like mouths that bit into his calves the instant they came
in contact.  It pulled back almost as fast as it had launched out,
and Sasuke hit the ground flat on his belly with an oof and a
startled scream.  Ground that was already quivering and moving as
if it was alive.

	Hinata wasn't able to jump as far and as fast as she'd have
liked, having traded planning for instant momentum.  She hit the
ground hard, twisting herself so she took the impact on her
shoulder and back rather than letting Naruto hit directly.
Naruto's legs got in the way of a smooth roll and he was torn from
her grasp as she flipped and came up on her feet, leaving Naruto
to tumble limply across the ground and slide to a stop, his feet
pointing her direction.

	"Uhhhh…" he moaned, his wounds tearing open even more from
the rough treatment.

	Then a glistening black pseudopod streaked with dirt welled
out of the ground and engulfed his head.

	"Naruto!" she shrieked.

	Earth crumbled underneath his chest in an ever widening
circle as the shoggoth began pulling him under.

	Sasuke screamed high and long, reaching out with his hands to
claw at the dirt as the pseudopod flowed up his legs, pulling him
backwards at the same time.  Thousands of tiny pinchers and mouths
and indescribable organs with no earthly analogue nipped at him
from all directions, just barely nicking his skin, though his
boots dissolved in seconds.

	It was even worse when it got to his waist, as his shorts and
equipment pouch was torn away and dissolved by the strange fractal
acids the shoggoth secreted, letting the unnatural, newly formed
organs reach places he never wanted in a shoggoth's mouth.

	Then it quit playing around and the ground simply swallowed
him up, cutting his scream off mid breath.

	Hinata dove for Naruto's feet just as his torso dropped into
the hole, getting one hand on each of his shinobi shoes as he slid
over the lip of the hole.  For a moment his progress paused, but
there wasn't even time for false hope before the shoggoth exerted
a tiny fraction of its strength and pulled him in.  Hinata was
forced to let go at the last minute to avoid being pulled in as
well.

	She was left on her knees at the lip of the pit, staring down
into darkness.

	The darkness stared back.  It may have even blinked.

	Frightened beyond anything she'd ever felt in her entire
life, she threw herself backwards and ran.

	It was many long minutes of panicked flight before she was
able to get control of herself and stop, collapsing on her knees,
hugging herself as she trembled in shock.

	It had eaten Naruto.  Sasuke was nowhere around, and it had
eaten Naruto.

	She had to go back.

	It was the hardest decision she'd ever made.

	But she had to go back.  There was still a chance.  She would
gamble her life on that chance, because living without Naruto
wasn't living at all.  She'd put all her faith in him.

	She had to go back.


	xxxxxxxxx
	xxxxxxxxx

	
	Hinata slowly, silently crawled across the roof of the
tunnel, clinging to the rock like a limpet.  The rock was
corrugated, but relatively smooth despite the ripples.  It was no
natural tunnel.

	She moved slow not just for silence and concealment, but also
because it was very hot and she didn't want any sweat to drip down
on the acolyte walking below her.

	Forcing herself to turn around and try and find the shoggoth
was hard.  Finding it, or at least its trail, was easy.  It didn't
take a Hyuga to find a swath of destruction ten feet wide, where
everything was dissolved away down to the dirt.

	There were a lot of possibilities to why there was no effort
to conceal the trail.  Either they assumed she would never stop
running, which, admittedly, was a pretty likely event, or they
were setting some kind of trap, or they were just supremely
confident in their pet monster's ability to deal with any sort of
trouble.

	If it was the first, her chances went up.  The other two made
little difference.  She wasn't going to be reckless.  Too much
relied on her for her to be stupid.

	The floodplain swamps that marked the ranch area gave way to
drier forest on the hillsides, then ended abruptly in rocks and
scrub as the ground sloped up into the mountains.

	There was a cave.  It wasn't even concealed all that well.
The only thing that kept it from just being a big ass hole going
into the mountain side at a downward angle was that there was a
three walled wooden shed build over it to keep rain from flooding
it.  Rock tailings from earlier excavations lay strewn around
downhill from it, and there was a clear path leading away towards
the city.

	Hinata almost stopped feeling scared long enough to be
embarrassed that her team hadn't found this place earlier.  There
was no effort made to hide what was apparently some sort of secret
base.  These people…  they were not ninjas.

	There were, however, two guards, what looked like local
townspeople armed with yari, at the entrance.  It was almost dark,
so they'd built a fire to one side.

	Hinata circled wide, found a single trip line attached to
bells on the upside of the slope, carefully leapt onto the roof of
the building, and used chakra to cling to the wood as she flipped
upside down and crept in, then dropped soundlessly into the cave.
She used henge to turn her grey outfit into a kind of sooty color
to match the ceiling of the cave, and alternatively bounded down
the tunnel in a series of lightning quick hops, or crept slowly
across the ceiling as the occasional acolyte ran through.

	The young priests seemed to have been called from all over,
and they came through singly or in small groups, hurrying to some
appointment.  None of them were leaving, so apparently something
important was going on.

	None of them looked up.

	But when she finally crawled out of the over half kilometer
long tunnel and started up the inside wall of the large cavern,
she was in for a shock.

	The cavern was big.  It probably took up most of the base of
the mountain, being over three hundred feet tall.  It was largely
filled by the gigantic stepped pyramid, though, which went all the
way up to the top and fused into the rock of the cavern roof well
before it reached an apex.  Light came from torches around the
base of the pyramid, but the top was dark, and would be impossible
to see if it weren't for her bloodlimit.  It was covered in
carvings, strange, angular symbols, caricatures of people and
animals, and dozens of bear images.  Freestanding bears, sitting
patiently, standing on their hind legs, snarling with one paw
raised.  Stylized bears with oversized stone claws a foot long and
mouths full of twisted humanoid figures.  Bear reliefs and bear
line art.  And three real bears lounging like piles of shaggy
carpet on the lowest 'step' of the side of the pyramid.

	A pyramid, no a temple, of sorts, build inside of the
mountain.  Or, perhaps, built long ago, and covered with a
mountain by the gods.  It didn't matter, Hinata wasn't in the mood
for archaeology.

	She climbed the wall of the cavern over halfway to the top,
using her chakra ruthlessly to bypass the comings and goings of
the worshippers and bears below.  The soot and smoke from the
torches actually helped her, as she carefully rubbed it onto her
exposed skin and clothes.  The cavern was like a bubble, so the
wall of the cavern was closest to the side of the pyramid at the
bottom and at the top.

	Hinata neared the top, gathered herself, and leapt, landing
silently on the stone less than twenty feet from the top.  She
used her byakugan to look inside, but there was nothing but stone.
They must be keeping their prisoners at the bottom.

	Naruto and Sasuke probably weren't prisoners, but if that was
the case, nothing mattered any more anyway, so best to act as if
they were.  She would assume that they had been taken captive, and
she had to find and rescue them.  To think otherwise was to invite
madness.

	But she did allow herself one moment of utter clarity to
contemplate the alternative.
	
	If Sasuke died, she would kill everyone in the temple.

	If Naruto died, she would kill everyone.

	Everyone.

	Slowly, making absolutely no noise and no sudden movements
that would attract a watcher's eye, she slid down the wall,
staying as far away from the bears as possible, wary of her scent.
Fortunately, the air seemed to be moving up and out, probably
through holes cut somewhere in the top of the cavern, and the air
from below was musty and foul with bear and smoke and offal,
especially the taint of blood, both old and fresh.

	As she descended, she became aware that the stone changed,
from the fine grey granite of the cavern wall and the top of the
pyramid, to a coarser grained, reddish stone.  The construction
shifted as well, showing that the pyramid shape came from building
onto an existing column of natural rock, which had been
incorporated into the design at the top and carved to match.

	Fortunately, between the darkness and the elaborate carvings,
Hinata had no trouble climbing down the side of the pyramid
undetected.

	She even discovered a possible way in when she heard the
incoherent chanting chorus coming from it.

	First, she used her byakugan to examine it thoroughly.  It
was a shaft, probably an air shaft, a little over a foot square,
that exited the pyramid right behind a complicated statue of two
men, a woman, and a naughty grizzly.  It went down, then angled
slightly, but was otherwise straight for about fifty feet until it
opened up into a large room on her side of the pyramid.  It had a
slow but steady stream of smoky, incense laden air wafting from
it.

	It was hard to see details so far in, even with her
bloodline.  The byakugan offered the ability to change the focus
of perception to almost any point in quite a wide area, but it was
limited in range.  And while she, personally, was more than
capable of using it to see a paltry hundred feet away, peering
through fifty feet of solid rock wasn't quite the same as fifty
feet of air.  She could see through it, but she also saw all the
rock in between at the same time.  And while the deep structure of
the rock used to build the pyramid wasn't nearly as interesting to
her as the location and number of people and things in the room
below, at the same time, she couldn't not focus on it.

	In the end, unless she contorted herself and crawled down the
air shaft to look, all she could tell was that there was a large
room, it had life in it, but it wasn't big enough to take up all
of the space available inside the pyramid.

	Careful listening at the entrance to the shaft allowed her to
pick out at least two dozen distinct human voices, all chanting in
a language she didn't understand, and one bear, which roared
suddenly, echoing throughout the entire temple.

	The chanting ceased.

	Hinata held her breath, straining her ears to the very limit
to try and catch conversation from below, but she wasn't Naruto,
with keen senses beyond her eyes.  Her hearing was only human.

	The scream, when it started, was low and full of despair.
Then it became snatches of desperate pleading, to no, please stop,
don't do this.

	It was female.  Older, most likely.  If it was someone she
knew, it was most likely one of the farm wives from the two
families who had been staying together.  It certainly wasn't
Naruto or Sasuke.

	She decided to look for another air shaft when the pleads
turned back into screams and rose in pitch.

	With luck, she could find Naruto and Sasuke in a holding cell
and spring them while most of the cult was busy.

	Using the byakugan, she began looking around at the surface
of the pyramid more closely.  She finally spotted a second air
shaft that was actually worked into a stylized bear relief, where
it came out as the bear's mouth.

	Unfortunately, it was on the same side of the pyramid as the
three bears lounging below.  She could kill them if need be, but
probably not silently, and it almost certainly would be noticed.
She hadn't seen any more evidence of the thing that had taken
Naruto and Sasuke, but if it was still around, and not dispelled
like a regular summon, the last thing she wanted was to get its
attention.

	She held her left ear up to the air shaft and listened
closely.  Wherever this air shaft lead to, it was a lot quieter
than the loud chanting and screaming of the other place.  The only
thing she could hear clearly was a sharp smack, repeated at odd
intervals, and maybe a few sounds that might have been words
before they bounced around through over a hundred feet of narrow
rock tunnel.

	Her byakugan revealed a smaller room than the other one, with
a lower ceiling.  There were four people inside.

	One of them was Naruto.  She'd recognize those enormously
overdeveloped chakra coils anywhere, even through all the rock.

	He was alive!

	Alive!

	ALIVE!

	For several long minutes all she could do was kneel there,
almost overcome with relief.  He was alive.  The thing that took
him hadn't eaten him.  There was still hope.

	All she had to do was go get him.  She felt a surge of
strength and conviction.

	Some clever artisan had carved the rock so that the opening
of the shaft had 'teeth', to better fit with the bear relief that
it formed the mouth of.  It was actually sort of vindicating when
she wrapped the sleeve of her jacket around a tooth, focused her
chakra, and snapped it off at the base, soundlessly.

	Then she did it again with the other three.

	With a little luck, she would get to come back, along with
Naruto and Sasuke, of course, and really deface the god damned
temple.

	Oh, and kill everyone inside.

	With the sharp and pointy bits gone, Hinata had ready access
to the shaft.

	Air ducts weren't exactly common features in buildings in the
elemental countries, so crawling through them, or something
similar, wasn't exactly taught in ninja school.  However,
prolonged crawling through tight, narrow passages such as between
a roof and a decorative ceiling, and even tighter gaps such as in
caves or between structural beams, was taught in several classes.
Mobility was a ninja doctrine.  Everyone was required to be able
to move through tight spaces, although what was tight to an
Akimichi was an easy crawl to a girl like Hinata, and what someone
like the even slenderer Sakura could squeeze through could be
impossible for a larger boy like Sasuke.

	The problem, of course, was that the air shaft was really
quite small.  Like the other, only about a foot square.  If she
turned her shoulders diagonal, she'd be able to fit, but that
wouldn't exactly make movement easy, fast, or silent.

	Her idol, Naruto, was no fool, though.  He'd learned a jutsu
that, while intended for disguise, had broader applications.
And, because you just never knew, he'd spent several weeks
teaching it to Hinata.

	She formed several seals, focused her chakra, and used the
advanced transformation technique to make herself slightly shorter
and much more willowy, with narrower shoulders and smaller
breasts.  There were limits to the technique of course, unless you
were Naruto and had god chakra, something Anko had never bothered
to tell him when she gave him the scroll.  But even with a normal
ninja like Hinata, it was sufficient to, coupled with her already
slight frame and great flexibility, allow her to slide headfirst
into the air shaft like a sooty ferret girl.

	As long as she moved slowly, she was able to use her toes,
knees, and back to inchworm her way through the shaft with no
noise at all.  There was a layer of dust and grime all through it,
the product of countless years of neglect, and it actually made
the cloth of her now baggy clothes slide across the gritty stone
more easily.  As she went farther down the shaft, the noises grew
clearer.

	The sharp smacks stopped before she made it very far, leaving
her in silence for the ten minutes it took to cover the first
twenty feet, then negotiate the bend.  She saved her chakra, not
bothering to use the byakugan when she was still so far out.  But
eventually she heard voices again, along with the squeaking and
rattling of what was probably chains, this time clearer.

	Then, suddenly, one phrase became perfectly understandable.

	"Shut up, Naruto.  You're not helping."

	Sasuke.  He sounded tired.

	Naruto's reply, if he made one, was too low for her to catch.
Possibly, his wounds made it so he couldn't talk very loudly,
though, if he was able to talk at all, it meant his wounds weren't
as bad as she'd feared.

	They were all going to be okay.

	She crawled closer.

	"Fufufu, what a filthy tongue you have, boy.  Do you kiss
your mother with that mouth?"

	Ude, the old priest.

	She froze, not breathing, her mouth hanging open as she
strained with every fiber of her being to hear what was said next.

	It was Naruto, and he sounded weak, so terribly weak, but
there was still a fire, a defiance in his voice, just like what
had first attracted her to him.

	"Sorry to disappoint you, old man, but I already killed my
mother.  I'd be happy to kiss yours, though.  Yeah, not just kiss
though, unf unf."

	Hinata snorted once in startled, almost panicked laughter,
then clamped both hands over her mouth, her eyes wide with horror.
She'd made noise at a time when she absolutely could not afford to
make noise!  What was she thinking?!

	Viciously, she pinched the side of her neck, the only place
she could reach, with her fingernails, catching the flesh between
forefinger, thumb, and middle finger to draw three crescents of
blood.  The pain woke her up, sharpened her mind.  She resumed her
silent infiltration, noting without rancor that Naruto's insults
were far more effective than her own.

	The next words she heard was Naruto again, louder and
stronger, but punctuated by great wracking coughs.

	"Yeah, you old bastard, I would.  *cough* *cough*  I'm dying
anyway, and I'd just as soon get it over with than hang around
here and watch your pathetic attempts at torture.  *cough*  I was
trained by a master torturer, you fuck.  Watching Hinjo hit Sasuke
with those weak punches offended me as a craftsman.  *pause*
*coughing fit*  Kill me, you son of a bitch.  I'll catch up with
you in hell."

	"Fu fu fu!" came the priest's creepy, annoying laugh.  "I
love ninja, they always think it's about them.  Torture, pain, the
God Bear cares not for these things.  I'm given to understand
young Hinjo simply resented his fiancée's attraction to your
friend there, and wished to make himself clear."

	There was a pause.

	"Ouch."

	That was Sasuke, and even distorted by forty feet of tunnel,
Hinata could feel the disdain and arrogance dripping from the
word.

	 "Fu fu fu!  I'm not here to torture you, boy.  I assure you,
any pain you receive is purely incidental.  I like you, actually.
Without you, we wouldn't have the life forces of two vibrant young
shinobi to offer to the God Bear.  Sacrifice is all about caring
and respect, you see.  Respect for the God Bear, and caring for
the offering.  To think of it otherwise would be an insult,
sacrilege.  Being a priest is all about love, even for boys like
you."
	
	"We'll, that's it, Sasuke.  A priest, a pretty boy like you,
you knew there had to be rape somewhere."

	When Ude finally spoke again, his tone was lower, angrier.
"Very good, boy.  You seem determined to go first, and I don't
mind granting a last request.  You shall be the first to die."
Abruptly, his tone became lighter.  "In fact, I've already decided
to grant one, on request of young Higurashi-chan.  Bacchi will
bring her presently, after her fiancé…  Fu fu fu, I should say,
'ex' fiancé, is finished saying his goodbyes to her."

	Silence reigned.

	Hinata slowed her approach.  When people were talking, you
could usually make more noise on a sneak, but silence heightened
the attention people paid to their ears.  Still, she was close,
now, very close.  Only ten feet remained between her and the dim
hole that opened up into the room below.

	Close enough to use the byakugan to really look inside the
room, even with the remaining rock in the way.

	Hinata formed seals and sent chakra to her eyes, then cast
her focus outwards.

	The room was only about a third the size of what she'd come
to think of as the main ceremony room where all the chanting had
come from earlier.  Dim lighting came from three bronze braziers,
each about three feet across, that were held aloft by tripod
stands.  There were only three people in the room now, Naruto,
Sasuke, and Ude.

	Naruto and Sasuke were each strapped upside down and naked to
roughly star shaped skeletal metal frames.  Their legs were spread
so that their feet were a little more than shoulder width apart,
clamped in place at the ankles, knees, and thighs with thick
leather straps that were clearly pulled tight enough to bite into
the flesh.  Another set of straps crossed their stomachs, securing
them to the central junction of all the cross bars.  Their arms
were held out straight, held similarly at the wrists, elbows, and
shoulders, and a strange set of metal clamps held their heads
straight.  The arrangement was restrictive enough that they could
move less than an inch, and that was more muscles flexing than
actual movement.

	Her heart lurched when she really examined Naruto.  The three
holes that went through his torso were bleeding only slightly, but
his intestines bulged out noticeably.  Gut wounds were rarely
instantly fatal, but they often produced lingering deaths that
could draw out over several agonizing days or more.  Naruto might
well have been serious when he said he was dying anyway.  She had
to get him out of there, and to a hospital.

	She was a little surprised to see them both naked, but it
wasn't a real distraction.  A side effect of the byakugan was
that, with a long enough association with anyone, you'd get a
pretty good idea of what people looked like without their clothes.
It wasn't exactly like just seeing them naked, but close enough.

	Them being upside down was a little more puzzling.

	At least part of the strange contraption they were strapped
to was explained when Ude, who had been pacing back and forth,
casually reached out, grabbed Sasuke's foot, and gave it a hard,
sharp tug.

	The rack he was strapped to was connected to an upside down U
shaped bar by a crossbar that ran horizontally across his back.
The bar formed an axle, allowing Sasuke to spin head over heels as
the metal squeaked.  The pull had also been off center, and the U
bar was hung from a chain attached in the top middle, so he
rotated slightly around the long axis with a lot more squeaking
before he stopped, facing away from the priest.

	Amused, Ude gave him another hard tug, flipping him end over
end again.

	"You know," Naruto said weakly, who could kind of see the
action out of the corner of his eye, "You should baste him
regularly or he won't cook even."

	Ude sighed quietly, shrugged, and walked over to Naruto,
raising his right arm.

	Hinata's vision went blank once again as the arm transformed.
Her hearing wasn't affected, though.

	"Wha-NNNnnngh-"

	There was a quiet, muffled crunch, like breaking a stalk of
celery under a sheet.

	Hinata's heart froze, and she strained her eyes trying to see
what had happened.  She was actually able to see the erratically
transforming mass of flesh for a few seconds as it resumed the
size and shape of a human arm, and her bile rose in her throat at
the horrific sight.

	But what really grabbed her was Naruto.

	His mouth was open slightly, his chin smushed in and his jaw
at an odd angle.  Blood trickled from his mouth, across his upper
lip, and into his nose, where it bubbled with his labored breaths.
	
	Ude had broken his jaw.

	"furllry… nnnciidental…  iight?" Naruto mumbled, spitting
blood with each word.

	Ude shook his head slightly in disbelief.  "Ah, my boy, that
mouth of yours is going to get you sacrificed to an ancient ursine
god of blood and power one of these days."

	He paused.

	"Oh, hey!"

	Naruto's answering glare was murderous.

	Hinata, in fury, crawled closer to the entrance of the hole,
moving extremely carefully to insure that she didn't dislodge
something and send it rolling down the slope to fall into the
room.  She stopped two feet from the edge when she saw people
coming.

	There wasn't a true door, only a doorway, so Bacchi simply
dragged Midori in by her wrist, trailed by Hinjo.  Midori's face
was red and bruised, and tears still coursed their way down her
cheeks, though she didn't cry openly.  Her long pink hair, the
exact same shade as her classmate Sakura, was mussed and hanging
in front of her face, and she quickly brushed it out of her eyes.
Unlike Sasuke and Naruto, she wasn't naked, though only her free
hand kept her kimono from flapping open.  Her eyes visibly lit up
when she saw Sasuke, who was tilted at an angle so that he
couldn't see her in return.

	"Sasuke-kun!" she cried, and would have went to stand by him,
except for Bacchi's hand on her wrist.

	"Ah, goodbyes said, I assume?" Ude said complacently.
"Excellent.  While I regret your decision, Higurashi-chan, it is
yours to make.  The God Bear only wants willing worshipers to
carry out his will here on earth."  He shrugged.  "The unwilling
are only fit as sacrifice."

	Midori whimpered and shrank away from him, staring up at him
through wisps of pink hair.  "My wish…" she whispered, almost
accusingly.

	Ude smiled gently, rotating Sasuke so that he was upright,
then turning him to face the group.  "As close as I can get
without actually letting you go free to marry Sasuke-kun, have
kids, and grow old.  I'm not the God Bear, you know, just his
servant.  But I promise you'll be happy."

	Midori stared at him dully, without comprehension as he
lifted his right arm and it began to change.  Bacchi grabbed both
her wrists.

	Hinata, startled, found herself staring at the floor of the
shaft, her byakugan no longer active.  Once again, the only sense
she had that could tell her anything about what was happening in
the room below was her ears.

	And they told a disturbing story.

	Midori's shriek was loud, but even it wasn't able to drown
out Sasuke's bellow of rage.

	"NO!  Don't you touch her!  Don't- MIDORI!"  The metal rack
squeaked slightly as Sasuke flexed with all his might, throwing
all his strength against the straps over and over again.

	"AaaAAAaaaaglk…  glk…"  Midori's strangled voice faded out.

	"Shh, shh, there, there, Midori-chan.  The first part is
always the worst, but it's over now.  Now, tell Sasuke how you
feel."

	"Sasuke…" Midori began, her voice small and hesitant, but not
actually in any pain.  "Sasuke, I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry my family
got you into this."  She sobbed quietly.

	"Midori…  What has he done to you?"  Sasuke's voice was
strained, almost as if he was holding back tears of his own.

	"I just wanted you to know…  I'm kinda glad, really, because
I would have never met you otherwise."

	Sasuke sobbed once, then his voice choked off.

	"Sasuke?  I just want one thing…  before I go."

	"Tell me."  His voice was stronger.  Mastering his fear, for
her.

	Hinata didn't know he had it in him.

	"A kiss, Sasuke-kun."  She sounded embarrassed by it.

	What followed was a long period of silence that nearly drove
Hinata mad.  There were faint sounds, maybe the kisses she spoke
of?  A kiss sounded innocent enough, but what had Ude done?  Why
was Sasuke so upset, when he'd taken everything else with that
same stoic mien that he always did?  Hinata crawled even closer,
to within inches of the hole, though she didn't dare let any part
of herself peek over the edge.

	"Midori…" Sasuke said, sounding muffled.  "Midori, you should
stop."

	Her only answer was a moan, not of pain.

	"Midori, that's my ear.  Please stop."  His voice sounded
strained.

	"My wish…"

	"MIDORI!"  The rack rattled again, as if Sasuke was fighting
to be free.

	"You bastard!  What are you doing to her?!  Stop it!  She
doesn't deserve this!" Sasuke screamed.

	"Me?  I'm not controlling her.  I'm just letting her have her
wish.  All her desires, unchained and unfettered.  She'll do what
she wants."  Ude sounded bored.  "But, she'll die happy, just as I
promised."

	"I will kill you for this," Sasuke promised.  "Midori!  Stop!
You don't want this!"

	"Sasuke…  I want you…" her voice was low and husky.  The
sound of a kiss, then several more followed.

	"Nnng!"	

	"Shhtoop…"  That was Naruto, his broken jaw turning his
protests into mush.

	Hinata shuffled uncomfortably.  She wanted to charge out
there and stop what was happening, but to do so might well be
suicide, for her and her teammates.

	"Midori, stop!  Can't you see that he's eating you?!"

	"Sasuke…"  Midori's voice didn't sound pained.

	"He's EATING YOU!"

	What followed was a scream of primal terror that shook Hinata
to her core.  She activated her byakugan again, desperate to see
what was happening, even though, on some level, she knew she
didn't want to.

	Ude and Midori were joined.  The old priest's arm had
transformed into a massive trunk of protoplasmic flesh which
extended down from his shoulder, nearly to the floor, then back up
where Midori's legs should be.  The kimono was gone, forgotten on
the floor, leaving her breasts on display.  Her arms had
disappeared, gone, only the widening of her shoulders to indicate
they'd ever been, and her whole body writhed unnaturally, like a
snake.

	Her legs had fused into the arm.  There weren't even any
hints that they were there.  Only at her stomach level did the
mottled, membranous surface turn into the milk-with-just-a-hint-
of-coffee skin of Midori, but the flesh under the skin writhed and
bulged unnaturally, like a nest of snakes, or shoggoth tentacles
running through her guts.

	All of her organs were gone.

	Her moans of lust drew attention to her face and head, which
was kissing its way down Sasuke's stomach in an obscene parody of
love.

	The outer scene had nothing on the level of horror within,
though, as her body was steadily shrinking, being absorbed into
Ude's shoggoth arm.  Mouths ate at her from within, and five
fingerlike bulges extended from under her neck, cupping her head
as if it sat in the palm of his hand.

	Suddenly, all of it hit Hinata at once.  She was alone, the
lives of them all depending on her, the weakest, the loser, faced
with things man was never meant to see, trapped in a tiny shaft
buried under thousands of tons of rock-

	Hinata screamed and jerked back, slamming her head into the
top of the air shaft with enough force to leave a blood stain.

	She had to get out!  She had to get away!

	Her shrieks of panic were incomprehensible, less words than
primal noises of fear.  For several long minutes she fought the
constricting rock around her, twisting and turning and pushing
with all her might-

	A hand popped up in the opening of the shaft in front of her.

	It wasn't just a hand.  The index and ring finger curled
forward, towards her, bringing the eyeballs on the tips of the
fingers into line with her.  There was a mouth set in the center
of the palm, complete with lips, full and feminine, still smudged
with traces of the makeup Midori had worn earlier that day.

	"Hinata-kun?  Why are you here?" Midori asked, proving that
there was no true comprehension of her situation left in what was
once a pretty young woman.

	Dimly, Hinata noted that drool trailed from the corners of
the mouth, as if from particularly enthusiastic kissing.  She
shrieked again and began scrabbling backwards.

	The mouth and eyes disappeared in an instant and the hand
exploded into ropy strands of flesh that reached for her.  She
tried to defend, but they only sprouted sucker-like mouths and
latched onto her frantically warding hands, swarming up her
forearms until they got a good grip.

	Then it began to pull, even as Hinata screamed obscenities
and fought with all her might.

	With her arms trapped, the only form of resistance she had
was to spread her legs and try to brace her knees and ankles
against the sides of the shaft, but since there was only the
faintest of join lines between the stones, there was no real
purchase to be had.  She'd only managed to scrabble backwards
about five feet before she was caught.

	Panicked, mad with fear and horror, Hinata was still a ninja
of Konoha.  Half training, half inspiration, and all instinct, she
realized what she could do to salvage the situation just as her
arms were dragged over the lip of the hole.

	It was like the Kaiten, the Hyuga family ultimate defense
that she'd been trying to piece together in secret with Naruto.
Hinata flared the chakra in her hands and arms, expelling it with
all the force she could muster, and twisting both of her arms at
the same time.

	The alien tissue of the shoggoth flesh was forced off her
skin by the rotating chakra, and her arms slipped free just as she
was about to be pulled headfirst into the room, leaving her
hanging upside down from the hole by just the pressure of her feet
against the sides of the shaft.

	She had just enough time to see startlement on Ude's face as
her hands flashed to her equipment pouch and tore it open, letting
dozens of senbon and kunai fall free.

	Lightning quick, she grabbed them as they fell, hurling the
weapons at the old priest and his two minions.

	Bacchi, standing behind Sasuke and apparently holding the
rack steady, went down with a kunai in the side of his throat.
Hinjo went down a second later, three senbon sprouting from his
face, one embedded almost out of sight in his right eye.

	She also sent two kunai at Sasuke, specifically, at the
straps at his elbow and wrist.  She wasn't a master of thrown
weapons, so she had to err on the side of caution.  Better to be
sure of slicing the leather strap and deal with the cuts to his
arm than to miss entirely.  They caught him in the underside of
the arm and the top edge of his wrist, respectively.

	The rest she threw at Ude as fast as she could.

	The writhing, ever changing mass of inhuman flesh that made
his arm enveloped him like a shell even before the first needle
hit.

	Hinata wasn't especially strong for a ninja, but she was
fast, and when it came to thrown weapons, speed counted.  Every
one of the kunai and senbon sank out of sight into the mottled
shoggoth flesh.

	Which immediately opened pores and began to make that strange
piping music it had before.

	"Tekili-li!  Tekili-li!"

	Panicked, Hinata dropped from the ceiling and flipped to land
on her feet, then launched a series of blindingly fast juken
strikes at the protective envelope.  Her chakra flared over and
over as she directed it into the alien flesh with all the speed of
the 64 palms technique.

	The problem was, while the shoggoth flesh might have internal
organs of a sort, they weren't like anything she'd ever been
trained to attack.  They moved.  They changed shape.  Just trying
to see them made her eyes burn.

	Abruptly, the shell seemed to explode outwards in more of the
tentacle-like pseudopods, all of them reaching for her at once.

	Desperately, she performed the first steps of the Kaiten,
expelling chakra from every tenketsu on her body and whirling into
a spin as she threw herself to the side.  It was enough to throw
them off, and none touched her.

	She felt it coming before she saw it.

	A veritable tsunami of horrid, shifting, massive flesh surged
through the door and engulfed everything in sight.

	She screamed.

	Then she didn't scream any more.


	xxxxxxxxx
	xxxxxxxxx


	When Hinata woke up, the world was upside down.

	A few seconds later, her mind reoriented itself, and she
realized she was strapped, upside down and naked, to another one
of the swinging racks like Naruto and Sasuke had been.

	Chanting hit her ears.

	She couldn't turn her head, but her peripheral vision was
unmatched.  She was able to see that she was in a large room lit
by dozens of braziers heaped high with wood and incense.

	Sasuke hung nearby in a similar state to her own, unconscious
or unresponsive.  His eyes were open, but he wasn't moving.  The
straps she had cut had been replaced, and blood stained the new
restraints.

	Naruto…

	Naruto hung upside down, suspended over a bloodstained marble
altar in the center of the room.

	Ude was standing on the altar, carving on him with a short
bladed bronze knife, chanting as he worked.  As his words rose in
pitch, so did the chorus from around him, providing an eerie
harmony to the macabre scene.

	"NARUTO!" she screeched.

	Naruto visibly twitched in his restraints, but Ude had
practice dealing with uncooperative people, and his restraints
didn't offer much freedom of movement.  The knife never wavered as
a new angular rune was cut into his skin over his collar bone.

	Hinata must have been out for a while, or Ude worked fast.
Naruto was covered with blood from his feet down to his upper
chest, where Ude was currently working.  The rack had apparently
been hoisted higher so the priest wouldn't have to stoop to work
on Naruto's chest as he hung upside down.

	"Mmm…"  That was Sasuke, stirred from insensibility by her
scream.  He took in the sight in moments, then screamed as well.
"NARUTO!"

	The chanting never wavered.

	Twenty people in ceremonial robes were arranged in four ranks
split on each side of the altar.  At one end of the room sat a
bear, large by bear standards, though nothing like the immense
summons they had fought the day before.

	The room was tall, the ceiling over fifty feet over their
heads, supported by immense stone columns carved with curving
decorations.  From the ceiling dangled dozens of heavy black
chains.  From some hung more braziers, from others…

	Empty racks, like those she was in.  Like the one Naruto
dangled in.

	And in the far corner, discarded and all but forgotten, lay a
small pile of bodies.  Five, maybe.  Just five, tossed casually
aside.

	She screamed.  She pleaded.  She quite lost herself in
mindless babbling for many long minutes as Ude worked, ignoring
the distractions.  Beside her, Sasuke did much the same thing,
more futile pleading for Naruto to hang on, despite it all.

	It felt quite unreal when Ude finished one particularly
elaborate, spiraling rune, then, with a complete ceremonial
anticlimax, drew his knife across Naruto's unprotected throat with
the casual motion a man might use to kill a chicken.

	Naruto, who against all odds had still been conscious despite
the blood loss, gurgled shock and surprise, his face instantly
awash with his remaining life's blood.

	There was surprisingly little of it.

	The chorus rose to a fever pitch…

	And absolutely nothing else happened.

	This caused some clear consternation, but Hinata was too long
gone into grief and madness to notice or care.

	Naruto, her idol, her love, her life…

	Was gone.

	Had just been killed before her eyes.

	Dimly, over the faltering chant that surged and faded, she
could hear Sasuke quietly going nuts beside her.

	It didn't matter.

	Nothing mattered any more.

	But she would not go quietly.  Not like Naruto, who'd borne
the cuts without the slightest trace of pain or discomfort.

	She screamed her rage and anguish.  She howled threats at the
cultists as they unceremoniously unstrapped Naruto and dumped him
in the corner with the rest of the bodies.  She spit at Bacchi,
who, against all odds, turned up with a large scab over his neck
to lift her rack up and off the chain hook it had been hanging on,
then put it on the one over the altar, replacing Naruto's.

	"Now, my dear, I'm afraid this will hurt quite a bit," Ude
began conversationally, patting her consolingly on the side of her
bare stomach.  "We need you alive and conscious throughout the
ritual while I apply the ancient prayer, and, well, as you've
seen, there's a lot of cutting involved.  That's why we hang you
upside down, you see, so your remaining blood will go to your head
and you won't pass out."

	She snapped at him with her teeth, though, since she was
unable to move her head, it was more of a gesture than anything.

	Ude smiled at her.  "Give my regards to the God Bear when he
eats your soul."

	Hinata screamed in rage, and he began.

	She didn't even feel it.

	Compared to the searing ache in her heart from watching
Naruto die, the minor sting of a strip of skin being delicately
cut off was nothing.

	Nothing at all.

	She twitched and fought, of course, but under the vice like
grip of that inhuman hand, she wasn't able to interfere with his
artistry.  She screamed, of course, and distantly she could hear
Sasuke scream as well.

	But unlike the other victims of the ritual, her screams
weren't for herself.

	They were all for Naruto.

	She screamed again, balling her hands into fists so tight
that her nails bit into the palms of her hands.

	Blood trickled down her stomach and dripped off her breasts.
Not all of the cuts were as superficial as they looked.  On some
level, she realized that she was getting weaker.

	Only one thought dominated her mind.

	With all the blood she was spilling, her most fervent wish,
the one thing she thought of, was that she wanted to be able to
give that blood to Naruto.

	The world dimmed.  Her ears pounded.

 	Something…  Naruto?  whispered in her mind.

	"Not just Naruto…" it answered, and there was a sudden burst
of images and sounds and smells, memory visions a thousand times
more potent than real memory, of a fox that stood as tall as a
mountain, of a fox with nine tails, of a spiky haired man with
eyes like pools of flame standing at the top of a flat-topped
pyramid much like the one she was in, his arms spread wide as
thousands of naked worshipers abased themselves around him.

	The Kyubi no Kitsune.  The demon sealed in Naruto's belly.

	"Demon…?  …no demon…   GOD…" it whispered back.

	A god?!

	"You wish to offer your blood…"

	Yes!

	"You devote yourself to this one…"

	Yes!

	"You would serve me/he/us…"

	"YES!" Hinata cried out loud, startling Ude enough that, for
one moment, his blade paused.  He shook his head, then continued.

	"You two shall be my/our Heralds…  you will serve, you will
bring about a new age…   And in return…"

	 More images, not memories, visions of the future, flashed
through her mind.   Of power, primal and ageless, coursing through
her coils.  Bowing before Naruto as he was seated on a throne of
gold and bone.  Running with foxes beneath dark forest canopies,
being taken by a man with Naruto's face and eyes like pools of
flame.  Of slaves, handsome men and beautiful women serving their
every need, and their enemies lying broken before them.

	"YES!" she and Sasuke both cried at the same time, and she
realized that she was not alone in the vision.

	Sasuke worked beside her in the visions, sharing in the
battles, the slaughter, the gold and glory and wanton pleasures,
left and right hand followers of Naruto, avatar to the Kyubi, the
most powerful demon god the world had ever known.

	"Your every wish, your every desire, my/our lover…  general…
guardian…  priest…"

	Kyubi/Naruto paused.

	"You have but to offer your life…  the blood that flows in
your veins…  and worship me/us…  And you will command my/our might
and crush this cave of bear worshippers!"

	Her consent wasn't verbal, but it was completely
wholehearted.  Devote herself to Naruto?  She would gladly give
him all of the blood in her veins.  Blood that, even now, ran down
her naked body.

	Her consent was all it took.  She could actually feel
Naruto's eyes open.

	And she began to laugh.

	Ude paused in his carving of a curving symbol that trailed
from her right breast down to encircle her neck.

	Her pale, liquid white eyes focused on him, and she smiled in
such a way that it reminded him that smiles had started off as a
way of baring the teeth in threat.

	"Your pathetic, shambling bear that you love so much will
never see my soul," she assured him, the words coming easily to
her tongue.  "I belong to another."

	He blinked at her, startled. He had seen no mark on her or
the boys.  Yet…  she was right.  There was something indefinable
about her, something he couldn't see, but the knowledge he got
from his arm, the false shoggoth that had been gifted him, told
him that she was not like the others.  Perhaps that was why the
summoning had failed with the loud blond one?

	"Oh?  And what do you worship, then?" he asked, toying with
the bronze ceremonial knife.

	"My God is a god of foxes and fire, of ninefold power older
than even your seven tailed bear.  He will eat you and your
followers and your god and your soul…" she said in a sing-song
voice.  "For He is more powerful than you can imagine, and your
bear is just a cub before Him.  He will save me from your knife,
and He will allow me to crush you all in His name."  Her eyes were
wide and bright.  A single drop of blood ran down the side of her
face, past her left eye, and disappeared into her short dark hair.

	Ude frowned slightly, keeping his shock at the mention of the
Kyubi no Kitsune off his face.

	"Hmm.  Well, perhaps your soul is spoken for."  He smiled in
return, and it was every bit as vicious as her own.  "But your
body is still here, with me.  And I'm still going to feed you to
the bears."

	She struggled briefly with her bonds, as if impatient to get
on with his slaughter.

	Ude quirked one eyebrow at her as he readied the bronze knife
to cut her throat.  "Where is your god now?"

	Hinata giggled, her eyes mad… and focused beyond him.

	"He's right behind you.  And he's angry."	

	Naruto seemed to levitate to his feet, going from sprawled
out on his back to upright in one smooth, inhuman motion.  His
eyes burned like pools of flames in the darkened corner of the
ceremonial chamber, and his mouth twisted into a snarl, letting
his elongated fangs shine in the flickering firelight.  His hands
twisted into claws even as the whisker marks on his cheeks
deepened and darkened.  His posture changed as well.  Though he
started out up like a man, he hunched forward, his back curving,
his arms reaching out, and he became more and more beastlike until
finally he stood on all fours, his head twisted to growl his anger
at Ude and the assembled congregation.

	Chakra burst to life like a sudden wildfire all over his
body, red and dense.  It coalesced into an outline around him, an
outline of a fox.  A single tail of pure demonic, or godlike,
chakra fluffed and waved behind him.

	Naruto snarled.

	The bear guarding the entrance way whuffed rage and started
lumbering towards him, intent on doing battle with the sudden
intruder.

	Without even looking, or raising his true hand, a hand of
pure red chakra leapt from him and slammed into the ton of
shambling, enraged bear, and crushed it into a smear of blood and
meat that coated the stones.

	"He's gonna eat yooouuuu…" Hinata sang.

	A row of holes opened on Ude's arm and the false shoggoth
piped madly.

	Naruto seemed to explode from the corner, flying through the
startled ranks of the assembled acolytes and scattering broken and
bleeding bodies to all sides.  The demon fox arms reached out in
front of him, stretching impossibly far to slap angrily at the man
who threatened his female.

	Ude's arm wrapped around him instantly, but this time, it
couldn't stop the ferocity of the attack.  He was sent flying,
brushing the rack Hinata was strapped to and setting it to
jangling and bouncing back and forth, even as he rolled across the
floor and slammed into the wall.

	"Teliki-li!  Teliki-li!  Teliki-li!"

	Like an ocean tide, the immense mutable body of the shoggoth,
always waiting just out of sight, came flowing in through the
entrance to the temple, its pseudopods reaching out and forming
fangs, claws, spikes, and slavering mouths in its eagerness to
feed on the opposing god.

	Naruto ran towards it even as it extended its mass towards
him, drawing in breath as he did so.  His chest swelled and he
threw his head back, then snapped it forward again as he spat an
explosive mixture of power and air at the reaching shoggoth.

	His mighty exhalation blasted away the pseudopods in a shower
of unnamable parts and black ichor, then he was on it, his clawed
hands raking at the membranous flesh even as the chakra fox he
wore like a shroud tore and bit with its giant claws and fangs,
ripping into the body.

	The shoggoth recoiled from the unexpected power and ferocity
of the attack, shedding pieces of itself as it formed a layer of
armor beneath the terrible wounds Naruto was inflicting, then
forcing the chakra claws away.

	Naruto's fury could not be shed so easily, and his tail
lashed back and forth, bringing fire to the thing.

	In a desperate move, the shoggoth formed a fresh tentacle
somewhere behind the area Naruto was attacking and sent it lancing
forward.  It missed Naruto's body, but it tore through the back of
the chakra outlining him.

	Naruto screamed in pain and rage, his head mimicking the
chakra fox as it turn and bit the tentacle in two, then he leapt
away, landing on all fours and shaking himself, a move that
actually caused a tremor to run through the ground itself.

	"Teliki-li!" the shoggoth piped.

	Naruto roared defiance.

	More tentacles exploded from the shoggoth, spearing towards
him.  Naruto spun and dodged, faster than anything human could
hope to be as he weaved through the temple pillars, then raked the
flesh with chakra claws six feet long.

	A club like extension of ivory and black, knobby flesh caught
him a glancing blow and sent him spinning across the room into a
wall with a bone-jarring thud.  He rose in seconds, but was
slower, more cautious when he approached on stiff legs.

	The shoggoth trilled.

	Naruto snarled.

	He sent an arm of chakra at it, slashing at the thick wall of
flesh it put up to defend.  It immediately fired jagged barbs and
toothed suckers at him, but he suddenly disappeared underground
with a rumble and earsplitting crack of shattered stone.

	The shoggoth appeared to hump upwards in the middle, slammed
by some attack from below, then, trilling once more, it seemed to
drain away, chasing Naruto through the tunnel he'd ripped through
the rock and earth.

	Hinata and Sasuke hung in their restraints, swaying with
quiet metallic squeaks in the violence of the two titans' clash.

	Hinata, pushed past her limits from blood loss and stress,
quietly sagged in the straps, her eyes wide and staring.

	Many long minutes passed.  Sometimes Sasuke could hear a
rumble somewhere, and once something happened that rocked the
place enough to cause a single squeak from the chain holding him
up.

	After over twenty minutes had gone by, something red
glimmered in the hole Naruto had disappeared down.

	Its ears laid back, the head of the Kyubi appeared in the
hole, quickly followed by Naruto's head and the rest of its/their
body.  The chakra outlining him seemed to have gaps in it, wounds
in the very nature of the Kyubi itself, but they slowed it down
not at all.

	Naruto was power incarnate as he padded silently to the
interrupted sacrifice and his newest worshippers.

	"Is…  is it dead?" Sasuke whispered.

	Naruto turned fox eyes on him.  "I will hunt and kill it
soon…  I am needed."

	The leather straps holding him to the rack smoked and cracked
under the wave of power Naruto pulsed, and suddenly Sasuke was
falling, barely retaining enough presence of mind to grab at the
rack and land mostly on his hands and knees, shivering and
tingling with renewed blood and sensation.  He turned to look at
Hinata.

	The Kyubi…  or was it Naruto?  reached up with surprising
gentleness to grab Hinata's waist.  The straps let go without
protest as he pulled, and the pale, bloody girl came loose to be
cradled in his arms.  He lay her down on the bloody altar, and
stood staring down into her pale white eyes.  She wasn't
breathing, and her heart did not beat.  She'd given too much of
herself to bring Naruto back.

	"But what is mine to take is mine to give," he growled in a
deep voice, leaning down and sinking his, and the chakra teeth of
his fox counterpart, into her shoulder.  Chakra pulsed like a
heartbeat, and Hinata's heart beat along in time, her chest
resuming its rise and fall of breath as if it had never stopped.

	Naruto let go, and blood welled up from the tooth marks in
her shoulder, even as all of the other wounds on her body began
closing at an incredible rate.

	Still, her eyes remained dead.

	He reached up with his right hand, fingers still twisted into
inhuman claws, and tore viciously at his left forearm.  Blood,
bright, lustrous red blood, welled up in the cuts and flowed
slowly down his arm as he let it hang.  The vibrant red of the
blood trickled down his wrist and hand, then hit streaks of black
on his claws, ichor from the wounds he had inflicted on the
shoggoth, and mixed, forming a deeper red that darkened as it
reached the tips.

	"I gift my power to your eyes," he intoned, holding two claws
over her face, one over each eye.

	A single drop of his blood, no longer red, fell from each
claw and splashed into her sightless eyes like a drop of India ink
into a cup of milk.  But the ink did not dilute and mix.  It
spread, his essence, and something extra, darkening those orbs of
solid white into purest, empty black.

	Hinata rose, her black eyes wide and furious as she prepared
to serve Naruto and crush all who threatened them.  Her killing
intent spiked hard as she focused it on everyone around her except
Naruto and Sasuke, prepared to kill first and ask questions later.

	Such was the fury of her dread new gaze that even Gai stepped
back in alarm, raising his fists to fight or defend as needed.
Lee's heart thudded in his throat, and Tenten felt like an ant
under a magnifying glass, about to be smote with a power not of
her understanding.

	It was worst of all for Neji, weakened due to blood loss from
the cut given him by Hinata's chakra spike driven by her savage
kick.  CPR had restarted his heart shortly after Gai had managed
to clamp off the bleeding arteries and pack the wound with
bandages, but he was only barely conscious before Naruto had done
his thing and suddenly Hinata had woken up broadcasting death and
power like nothing he'd ever experienced.

	Overwhelmed, he fainted once more.

	"UDE!" Hinata raged.  "WHERE IS HE?!"

	Naruto took it all in stride, smiling in such a feral way as
to show his elongated canines.  "Ude is dead, Hinata.  You killed
him."  He held her hitai-ate out, letting it dangle from his hand.

	She stared at him uncomprehending for a moment, then
awareness of her situation came back to her, chasing away the
nightmare memories.  After a moment, she nodded, then took the
forehead protector.  The metal of the sealed plate felt cool under
her fingers as she dropped it into position over her eyes, and the
terrible power of her vision abated.


	xxxxxxxx
	xxxxxxxx   Begin chapter ten.


	Tenten strongly preferred weapons to any other form of
combat, and although she relied on storage scrolls to keep
literally hundreds of weapons on her, she also kept a number of
smaller throwing blades on her.  There was one set of three, thin,
small throwing knives, razor sharp, that fit in an arm sheath
hidden by her shirtsleeve that she liked best.  Not because she
used them much, they were actually a last resort type of weapon,
but she liked them because, when nervous or bored, she would play
with the sheath.

	It calmed her to pick at the leather straps that held it in
place, to run her hands over the tight stitching, and to trace the
handles of the trio of knives.

	She tried not to make a habit of it, but sitting in the
waiting room of the hospital and worrying about Neji left her
twitchy.

	It didn't help that Naruto and Sasuke sat across from them,
sitting calm and composed.  At first she wanted to berate them for
not taking the situation seriously enough, but then she realized
that they were.  Earlier they had both been talkative and snarky.
Now they just sat there.

	They were watching her, that much was clear.  She slid one of
the knives out slightly, then reseated it, making sure it would be
instantly available.

	If there was one thing she was sure of, it was that they
wouldn't give her time to think anything over if they suddenly
attacked her.   She couldn't imagine why they would suddenly
attack her, but she wasn't taking any chances with them.

	Not anymore.

	Lee sat beside her, drumming his fingers and bumping his knee
at the same time.  He normally wasn't this irritating, but he was
upset and she couldn't blame him.  Lee always had a hummingbird's
level of energy, and when in any kind of stressful situation he
was happiest when he knew who to fight.

	But who should they fight?  Naruto and Sasuke hadn't raised a
finger to them, yet.  They'd mocked and angered them, but not hit
them.  Hinata had only fought Neji, after deliberately trying to
provoke him, and now they were in a kind of limbo.

	Should she say something to them, give them the chance to
apologize?  Were they even sorry?

	She didn't know what to do, so she sat there, glowered at
them, and waited for Gai to come back.

	He finally did, with Hinata in tow.

	Hinata's left arm had been broken in the fight, and that more
than her stopped heart had spoken to how seriously Neji had fought
back.  Lee broke bones, it was a part of his fighting style.  He'd
cracked her ribs once with a kick, and that was on accident.  He
did far more damage when fighting for real.  Neji used the gentle
fist style, which could be used to break bones with projected
chakra, but Neji usually paralyzed his opponents with ease.  He
must have been getting desperate to stop Hinata's attacks to do
something as inelegant as breaking her arm.

	After Hinata had woken up, broadcasting killer intent like a
monster, Gai ordered Team Seven apart from them while he put out
the burning field with a water technique Tenten had never seen
before.  Then he grabbed Neji and ran for Konoha, ordering them
all to follow him to the hospital.

	Gai reached the hospital long before they did, but when they
got there, Sasuke had lost little time grabbing a nurse.  Hinata
had been hustled away in moments, leaving just the four of them in
the waiting room.

	Now Hinata was back, her arm in a sling, and she quickly took
up a position to Naruto's left as he and Sasuke stood.

	Gai stopped in front of them, staring at them all
impassively.

	Tenten couldn't help but smirk a little, because now, now
they were nervous.  Gai was an easygoing teacher most of the time,
but he could be stern, and the others weren't so confident
anymore.  She could actually feel Naruto's eagerness to talk, to
explain himself to Gai, because that was what he did.

	He explained things.  He talked people into things and he
talked people out of things.  If Gai gave him an opening, he'd
jump on it.  He'd probably talk for ten minutes straight, spinning
some wild story about how it was all just a big misunderstanding
or some other lie like that.

	She was there.  She'd seen how they'd gone after Neji.

	Like assassins.

	She shivered just a little.  Genin were not supposed to be
asssassins.

	But it's hard to reason with, and by extension lie to, a man
who won't listen.

	Gai didn't say a word.  He just stood there, looking at them
with an expression of purest disappointment.  She'd felt a
fraction of that look before.  It wasn't pleasant.  But that was
good, because her fellow genin weren't pleasant people.

	Team Seven stood there nervously under that stern glare for
what felt like hours, but was probably only a few minutes.

	And Gai turned away, dismissing them without a word.  She saw
them hurry away down the hall towards the exit as he walked
towards her and Lee.

	She gulped, hoping he wasn't mad at her for not preventing
what had happened, though how she could have accomplished such a
task was a mystery.

	"The doctor says that Neji will have to stay under
observation for at least two days, then he'll be released.  But no
training for at least five days and no missions for at least
nine," he said without preamble.  "You may go see him now."


	xxxxxxxxx
	xxxxxxxxx


	By the time they made it out of the hospital, they had slowed
to a walking pace again.  As soon as they got outside, Naruto
suddenly stopped, whirled, and grabbed Hinata into a fierce bear
hug, careful not to crush her injured arm.

	"Naruto…" she said quietly as Sasuke put his hand on her
shoulder and kind of stood there awkwardly.

	Naruto suddenly released the hug, but grabbed each of her
shoulders in an almost painful grip.

	"Don't.  You.  EVER.  Almost die on me like that again," he
growled, punctuating his first few words with rough shakes, his
eyes flickering red has he stared at the metal of her hitai-ate.

	"I-"

	And suddenly she was drawn into another crushing embrace,
which she returned with her good arm.

	"I think he's trying to tell you that you scared the crap out
of him," Sasuke noted wryly.

	"Thank you, Obvious-san," Naruto hissed, turning his face out
of her hair just enough to give Sasuke the evil eye.

	"Not everyone gets your oh so subtle little insights, so I
figured I'd start helping out."

	"Fuck you, Sasuke.  Just…  fuck you, alright?"  He finally
released Hinata.

	"I'm sorry for worrying you, Sasuke," Hinata said politely,
turning to the black haired boy.

	Sasuke opened his mouth, then closed it again and gave them
both a sour look as Naruto started laughing.

	"She read you like a book, Sasuke, don't deny it," Naruto
gasped out between giggles.  He stopped laughing as Sasuke hmpfed
and turned away.  "No, no, don't be like that.  It's cute that you
care."

	Sasuke sighed at the irritation.

	"How's your arm?" Naruto asked.

	"When you set it, your chakra healed some of the internal
bleeding and swelling," Hinata explained.  "It was only a simple
break by the time the medic looked at it.  He used a technique to
speed it up further, and said it'd be healed within a week or so.
But since he didn't know about the healing you gave me…  probably
only a few days.  I wish Sasuke could have copied the jutsu.  We
could use some healing techniques."

	"True," Naruto agreed.  The Kyubi's chakra gave them an edge,
but it wasn't instant regeneration, even for him.  Given the
damage he'd already survived, though, it was possible that a
normal physical attack could not kill him, but he never wanted to
push his luck.  And that was just normal attacks.  Even the Kyubi
itself had been brought down by the Fourth.  Hinata and Sasuke
were far more vulnerable, and that concerned him a great deal.

	 Sasuke nodded, finding no fault with her logic.  "So, what
now?  You go home and metaphorically toss Neji's head at your
father's feet?"

	"That was the plan.  I didn't really win, but I definitely
didn't lose, since he's still in the hospital and I'm walking
away," she said.

	Naruto shook his head.  "This isn't over."

	They both turned their heads to him.

	He made a clone, which immediately scampered off into the
bushes.  "Come on.  Let's talk about this over lunch.  Yakitori,
anyone?"


	xxxxxxxxx
	xxxxxxxxx


	"The problem is, Gai is pissed at us," Naruto explained,
gesturing with a bare skewer.  "Now it may be that he just won't
have anything else to do with us, but it also may be that, at some
point in the future, he will use his power and influence to fuck
us."

	Neither of the other two said anything, instead dipping their
yakitori into tare sauce and eating it.  They were at another
outdoor stall, sitting on stools and eating slowly, but
deliberately.  Sasuke was slower than the others, but he didn't
currently have demonic chakra sending his metabolism through the
roof.  The chef wasn't especially friendly, but he was willing to
put up with the demon brat given he was also in the company of two
of the most famous clans of Konoha.  Still, he spent most of his
time at the other end of the shack, which was actually appreciated
by the team.

	"So, as I mentioned earlier, it's not about us.  Gai brought
us along with his students because they're supposed to learn
something from it.  I don't know what, specifically, but I can
guess.  Neji…  He's just a dick, and he's sort of indisposed at
the moment, so forget him for now.  Hinata can use her influence
on him later.  But Tenten, a girl with a mind like that should
lead those two idiots, and she's clearly falling down on the job."
Naruto paused and tore into another skewer, washing it down with
tea.

	"She said she wasn't the leader when I made a comment.
Seemed upset that I assumed," Sasuke noted.

	"Yeah.  She was confused when I first mentioned it, then got
defensive," Naruto replied.  "Other than not being in charge, she
seems pretty decent.  Smart, intuitive, logical, and able to look
underneath the underneath.  I mean, I can't speak for her combat
ability, but there's no way we could fix something like that in
the time we have left.  Gai could be talking to the Hokage about
us right now."

	"You like her," Hinata noted.

	"…Yeah.  I think I do," Naruto replied thoughtfully.

	"You gonna kill her?" Sasuke asked, turning to look at
Hinata.

	Hinata made a big show of thinking about the question.

	"Hah, hah.  No, she's just the first genin I've ever seen
that I can stand.  Present company excluded, of course."  He
paused.  "Except Sasuke."

	Sasuke snorted.  "Double negatives?  Really, Naruto?"

	"Our other problem is Lee," Naruto continued, ignoring his
friend.  "Lee…  Gah, where to begin?"

	"He's not hopeless," Hinata offered in counterpoint.  "If his
taijutsu is anywhere near what rumors say, he's probably a force
to be reckoned with in battle.  And his mind isn't a total loss."
She sat her yakitori down and took a sip of her soda, dutifully
paid for by Sasuke.  She'd told him Neji was too controlled to
immediately attack him, no matter how he pushed, but he thought he
could do it.

	"He fooled you with that fake jutsu," Sasuke reminded, and
the cool professional way he said it only emphasized the amusement
he clearly felt.  He honestly hadn't minded losing the bet with
Hinata.  It was only a coke, and Neji's anger had been so worth
it.

	"Yeah.  I won't deny it," Naruto said ruefully.  "He's not a
loss.  Gai wouldn't have picked him as his pet project if there
wasn't something there.  And that's exactly why I think we need to
come up with something major for Lee.  If we fix Tenten, that'll
help their team the most, but if we fix Lee, that'll probably
please Gai the most.  Maybe even enough to forgive us."

	"So we fix him.  But what, exactly, do we fix?  Teach him
some ninjutsu?" Sasuke asked.

	"I'm honestly pretty fond of the idea of giving him some of
my chakra and seeing what happens," Naruto admitted.  "It did
wonders for enhancing your natural abilities.  But somehow I don't
think that's the answer."

	"Gai would murder you."

	They looked at Hinata.

	She shrugged.  "He watched Lee with affection and pride,
especially when Lee made a comment about hard work.  He wants Lee
to rely on his own efforts."

	Naruto nodded slowly.  "It does make you wonder what he's
doing with Lee, though.  A pure taijutsu specialist?  Abandoning
ninjutsu and genjutsu?  What kind of benefits could outweigh the
obvious drawbacks?"

	"I want to fight him," Sasuke said.

	"Yeah.  Me, too."  Naruto tore the last piece of chicken off
his skewer, then sat it to the side with the others.

	Hinata also finished her skewer and sat it down on the
countertop.  She then wiped her fingers and raised her hitai-ate,
revealing her now solid black eyes, like a perfect sphere of
obsidian, only they didn't reflect the light.  She studied the
wooden stick for several moments, then gently brushed the tip of
one finger along its length.

	The skewer turned into a long, skinny pile of splinters.

	Naruto watched the process with a neutral gaze.  "So you're
back to seeing the flaws in things."  It was not a question.

	"Yes, and my chakra seems easier to manipulate," she replied.
"I wonder what techniques this will influence."

	Naruto shrugged.  "Honestly?  I bet you'll be able to create
a whole new style of juken.  That'd be fitting for a future clan
leader, right?"

	"Does it work on metal as well?" Sasuke asked.  "We've seen
wood and rock, but what about-" he fished in his equipment pouch
for a kunai and held it up, "steel?"

	Hinata turned to look, and Sasuke didn't flinch at meeting
those eyes.  It was Hinata, after all.

	She studied the blade intently.  "It is made well, I didn't
see any obvious flaws in it when I examined it the other day," she
said, referring to having checked the quality on all their
equipment when they restocked.  "But…  I believe…" she trailed
off, extending one finger and tapping sharply on one of the flat
surfaces of the kunai.

	It wasn't just her finger, though.  She also projected chakra
from the tenketsu in her fingertip, which she used to target a
fold line where the steel's crystalline structure changed and
strike at the join.

	With a quiet crack, a jagged break appeared where she'd
tapped and about a third of the blade fell off.  Sasuke caught it
before it could hit the ground and looked at it closely.

	"Nice," he said.  "But too slow for battle."

	"But too slow for battle," she agreed.  "I need time to train
and see what can be done with it."

	Naruto sighed.  "Time, time, ask me for anything but time."

	"We have been sort of occupied lately," Sasuke noted with
some amusement.  "I look forward to figuring out some of my clan's
dojutsu techniques, and seeing how my own new abilities work, but
first things first."  He changed the conversation back to the
original topic.  "Do you know what to do about Lee?"

	Naruto shrugged.  "Not exactly.  One thing that jumped out at
me is that he's not one hundred percent behind the idea of
devoting himself to hard work and taijutsu."

	Sasuke raised an eyebrow.  "He certainly seemed insistent."

	"He was defensive, repeating rote answers to convince himself
as much as us," Hinata replied, covering her eyes once more and
resuming her meal.  She was hungry.

	"Ah."

	"Yeah.  So that's a weak spot.  Also, as a group, they've
never really been tested.  They've done, what, a dozen Cs?  And
only four of them saw any kind of combat at all, just bandits and
thugs.  Given Gai's emphasis on physical ability, if they had even
a moments trouble I'll be surprised.  So it's no wonder they're
such a crappy team.  I mean, look at us before the mission."

	They said nothing.  Though they hadn't discussed it much,
they were each aware that something fundamental had changed within
them.

	"Remember what they did when Neji went down?"

	"Nothing."  Sasuke's tone was dark.

	"Exactly.  They knew, they actually realized that we'd
provoked Neji into fighting, and Hinata took him down.  And what
did they do?  Nothing.  Tenten ignored us as if we weren't a
threat and focused all her efforts on Neji.  Lee's only
contribution was to scream for Gai-sensei.  We could have killed
them all with no resistance.  And did you see Tenten in the
hospital?"

	"Threatening us with those hidden kunai?" Sasuke asked.

	"No, she was nervous," Naruto explained.  "Her eyes kept
darting around.  And Lee was even more upset, yet she did nothing
for him."

	They all stared down into their food for several moments.
Hinata sat her last yakitori skewer down and pushed it away before
she'd finished it.  Somehow, it didn't taste so good anymore.

	"So, I think we should confront them and explain exactly what
they're doing wrong in the strongest possible terms," Naruto
continued.  "Originally, I'd planned that, if we had to fight Lee
or Tenten, we'd throw the fight so they'd get their mad out and
not harbor as much resentment.  But I don't think we should do
that, now."

	"They don't deserve to win," Sasuke said quietly.

	"They don't deserve to win.  But we've got to teach them.  It
is our duty and obligation, to them as our sempai and to Gai as
our temporary sensei."

	"Not to mention that, ideally, it'll get Gai-sensei off our
backs," Hinata noted.

	Naruto nodded.

	"So…  just to make sure I'm understanding you," Sasuke began,
"your clever plan to fix Tenten and Lee is to beat the hell out of
them and show them exactly how and why you were able to beat the
hell out of them thanks to their own personal faults, and they'd
better get better before they get killed?"

	Naruto nodded.

	Sasuke's expression brightened.  "Well, I like it."

	"If violence doesn't solve your problems, you didn't use
enough," Hinata said quietly.


	xxxxxxxxx
	xxxxxxxxx
	

	Naruto sat on the rooftop of a large, flat roofed store on
the edge of the merchant district.  A taller, more traditional
style apartment building loomed beside the store, with multiple
levels of brightly painted ornate woodwork and red tiled roofs
that provided a wedge of shade from the hot afternoon sun.  It was
still quite warm, despite the shade, and Naruto had slid down the
low wall that ringed the roof and leaned against the hot brick,
getting comfortable to the point he had actually fallen asleep.

	Hinata sat on his left side, far enough away that she was
able to all but completely lay on her side and put her head on his
stomach, her bandaged left arm draped over her side and her right
hugging his leg.  He'd draped one arm over her shoulder casually,
and his other hand was tangled in her hair.  Her breathing was
peaceful, and she, too, was asleep, recovering her strength from
the events of the morning.

	Sasuke sat on the brick above them, looking out across
Konoha.  He was the only one awake, though his eyelids drooped and
his motions languid.  If asked what he was doing, he'd say he was
guarding against pigeons.  Really, he wasn't doing much in
particular, except being awake, and waiting.  Naruto hadn't gotten
much sleep that night, Hinata had done all the fighting, and
someone had to keep watch.

	They waited patiently, until finally, across Konoha, Naruto's
clone that had been assigned to follow Tenten and Lee finally
dispelled.

	Naruto twitched visibly and opened his eyes, rubbing at his
face with one hand.  The motion instantly woke Hinata, who pushed
herself upright, and drew Sasuke's attention.  They looked at
Naruto expectantly.

	"They're at training ground Thirty-one," Naruto said after a
brief pause, reviewing his newest memories.  "Both are training,
so we'd better hurry.  Wouldn't want them to get tired before we
get there."


	xxxxxxxxx
	xxxxxxxxx


	Sweat poured off of Lee's limp hair, droplets flying through
the air from the force of his exertions as he threw dozens of
straight right punches into the upright log, mentally counting
them off.  The sun was starting its journey down the sky, and the
air was still, with cicadas droning on all around them.

	Across the clearing, Tenten had the weighted end of a
kusarigama blurring in mid air as she whipped it back and forth,
then, with a twist of her wrists and forearms, she wrapped it
around her own training log at about chest level, then leapt into
the air and pulled on the now entangled chain to send herself
flying at the log.  The sharp scythe blade ripped across her
target's 'throat' in a spray of splinters, and she jumped away,
recovering the chain and weight as she did so.

	"What in the hell is wrong with you people?" Naruto asked,
his voice ringing out across the clearing.

	She whirled, startled, to see Naruto, Sasuke, and Hinata
enter the clearing.

	"What?!" she exclaimed.

	Lee simply turned and ignored them, going back to punching
the log, although with more force than before.

	"I just don't get it," Naruto said loudly as he walked
closer.  Suddenly, he flicked a kunai he'd palmed at Lee's back.

	Lee instantly darted aside, and the kunai sank into the post.
He balanced on the balls of his feet twenty feet to one side, his
fists raised.

	"Good, you are paying attention," Naruto said mildly.

	"What the hell do you want, Uzumaki?" she spat.  "Haven't you
caused enough trouble today?"

	He sighed and shook his head, as if in real regret.  "No,
apparently not.  Because you're still not taking us very
seriously."

	 "Go away.  You are not wanted here," Lee said darkly.

	"Actually, your sensei did want us here.  Did you ever stop
to wonder why?" Naruto asked as Sasuke moved about ten feet to one
side and Hinata held back, letting the two boys advance.  "Or did
you just accept it as one of those things?  Don't you get it?
You're supposed to learn something from all this."

	"Gai-sensei did not bring you in to hurt Neji-kun," Lee
denied firmly.

	Naruto shrugged ruefully.  "That's true, and I'm glad you
noticed.  That was our agenda, just some Hyuga family business.
It was important, otherwise we'd have been glad to spare you the
hassle.  Gai-sensei is, admittedly, a little peeved at us right
now.  But, we still have a job to do.  We just don't have any time
to do it the easy way."

	Tenten narrowed her eyes and began spinning the weight of her
kusarigama again in slow, menacing arcs.  "You lie."

	Naruto shrugged.  "I'm a ninja.  Deception is part of the job
description.  But I'm not lying now.  You three are a terrible
team.  Individually, I'm sure you're all quite talented.  But
together?  You're terrible.  Neji gave away Lee's weaknesses.  Lee
was more concerned about calling for help than helping.  You just
stand there lost in your own little indecision while everything
goes to hell around you.  Neither of you stood up for Neji when we
attacked him," he snarled.  "What the hell kind of team acts like
that?!" he shouted.  "Where were you when you needed each other?!"

	"We don't owe you any kind of explanation, Uzumaki," Tenten
growled, hoisting the scythe part of the kusarigama into a ready
position.  "And we damned sure don't want to hear any of your
bullshit."

	Naruto smirked.  "It's not about what you want, Tenten.  It's
about what Gai-sensei wants.  And what Gai-sensei wants, Gai-
sensei gets.  So now, we're going to show you exactly what you're
doing wrong, by beating the lesson into your thick skulls."  He
made a motion at Sasuke.  "Sasuke?  Be my guest."

	His sharingan eyes started to spin faster, and his whole body
tensed in preparation for the oncoming fight.

	Tenten's heart pounded in her chest, but it was Lee that made
the first move.

	"I know Gai-sensei," Lee said quietly, "and Gai-sensei wanted
us all to be friends."  His eyes hardened.  "I'll be your friend,
Naruto-kun."  His voice was deceptively soft.  Then he seemed to
disappear before Naruto's eyes, darting to one side, then forward
at a speed no genin should be capable of, his fist coming up from
his waist and twisting at the last possible moment before it
slammed into Naruto's face.

	Naruto's nose splintered under the incredible impact and the
follow through sent him cart wheeling backwards to slide across
the grass in an ungainly heap.

	Tenten gaped at the ferocity of the attack Lee had just
performed.  She hadn't known Lee could be so vicious.

	"That's the only kind of friendship you know, right?
Punching people in the face?  That's what you said."  Lee shook
his head.  "I pity you, Naruto."

	Naruto groaned, spitting blood, and raised his face up.  His
nose was flattened and split, blood running freely down the sides
and out his nostrils.  "No, Lee," he said in a nasal tone.  "I
pity you.  My teammates don't just watch when the fight is on."

	That was about the point Sasuke finally finished carefully
sneaking his wire through the grass and got it around Lee's ankle.
He formed a half seal and seemed to glow from within, sending a
massive burst of electricity down the wire and into Lee's body,
causing smoke to rise where it touched the grass.

	Lee stiffened and cried out, his muscles locking into
paralysis as the electricity overwhelmed his nerves.

	And finally, a shuriken sank into the earth near his ankle,
cutting the wire and stopping the electrocution.  Three more
quickly followed the first, but Sasuke had no trouble spotting
them in mid air, dodging, and he quickly sent two flying back at
her in return several feet apart, and two more hidden in the first
ones' shadow.

	When the technique was cut, Lee collapsed to his knees, his
whole body feeling like so much jello.  Naruto's flying kick took
him full in the chest and laid him out on his back, gasping.
Naruto didn't give him any time to rest, though, and quickly leapt
into the air, performing a showy full forward flip as he extended
one foot, intending to bring it down across Lee's chest, but Lee
was Gai's student.  He kicked with his feet and threw his whole
lower body into the air, lashing out with both feet and hitting
Naruto's calf before he'd reached maximum speed and extension.
The interruption caused Naruto to hit the ground on his back,
giving Lee time to throw his body into the air again and use his
hands to spring away.

	Tenten saw the two incoming shuriken and quickly flicked out
two more of her own, sending them unerringly on an intercept
course.  Both shuriken were deflected and sent spinning into the
ground.  The two behind them were an unpleasant surprise, but they
were still far enough away she'd be able to deflect them as well.
She held the kusarigama with her left hand and drew out more
shuriken.

	It was luck that she caught the twist Sasuke's wrists made.
It was skill that told her what it meant, for that was one of the
moves used to control wire guided weapons, something she had a
good bit of experience at.  And it was quick thinking that
reminded her of what Sasuke could do if he got wire on you.

	Her left arm blurred and she sent the kusarigama spinning
away from her in a loose tangle of chain that expanded as it
rotated, tangling the wire trailing behind the shuriken and
bringing them all down in a hopeless tangle.  Her right cocked
back, jabbing the point of one of the shuriken into her upper left
arm through the cloth, then it whipped back down, sending three
weapons she'd palmed at Sasuke's position as she leapt into the
air, pulling a small but thick storage scroll out of her equipment
pouch.

	Sasuke suddenly grinned and pulled a double handful of senbon
from an equipment pouch behind his back.

	Lee charged at Naruto as the blond flipped to his feet,
throwing a series of quick jabs, one of which was blocked by
Naruto's forearm, and two of which connected with his gut.  Naruto
grunted at the impact, and it was suddenly Lee's turn to dart away
again as a razor sharp wakizashi slashed through the space between
them.

	Naruto grinned.  "Come on, Lee, let me cut you down like that
tree Gai-sensei was talking about."  His eyes lit up and his voice
grew louder.  "For I am a farmer of men!"

	Lee drew himself up to his full height, his eyes hard.  "Come
then.  Reap the whirlwind.  Konoha senpu!"  He charged forward
once more, ducking at the last moment to avoid Naruto's slash,
twisted and lashed out with one foot to strike Naruto's chest,
then, as the shorter boy started to fly backwards, spun and kicked
him again in the stomach, launching him across the clearing,
nearly to the trees.

	Naruto took only a few seconds to regain his feet, and they
were all the time he had before Lee hit him again, but this time
he exploded into chakra smoke, leaving Lee standing there warily,
looking back and forth as he tried to anticipate the next attack.

	Back across the clearing, Sasuke flung two dozen senbon in a
wide spread at Tenten, only six actually aimed at her directly.
Then he prepared to dodge as Tenten slapped at the small cut on
her arm with her right hand, then put a streak of blood down the
scroll she unrolled in her left.  Three kunai were sent at Sasuke,
who rolled out of the way, and the fourth weapon unsealed was a
large folding tessen two feet across, which she used to block
several senbon that came close to hitting her.  The other senbon,
which had been aimed to block escape routes and distract, were
rendered moot as she simply landed back on the ground and ignored
them.  Instead of pressing her attack, though, she immediately
spun and threw the tessen in a side arm throw at the bushes
directly behind her, just as five Naruto clones leapt out and
charged.

	The fan wobbled through the air erratically and struck one of
the clones in the throat.  It disappeared with a gurgle and a pop.

	"You throw differently from Sasuke, Naruto!" she called,
quickly unsealing more weapons and flicking them at the charging
clones.  Each one dodged one or two, but she threw three dozen
kunai, shuriken, and senbon.  The last visible clone died in the
middle of the barrage, but she continued to throw, peppering the
bushes with weapons.  Three more soft cries were her reward, and
she turned back to Naruto-as-Sasuke.

	Two Naruto clones leapt out of the bushes and charged at Lee,
quickly followed by four more behind each of them in a straight
line.

	The front one on the left reached him first, and he casually
disrupted it with a quick kick.  His right fist lashed out at the
one on the right.

	It ducked and slammed an elbow into his floating ribs.

	Lee dropped his own elbow on its head, and was able to graze
it hard enough to disrupt the henge and reveal Sasuke flipping
backwards to lash his foot out at Lee's face.  Lee leaned
backwards, and four Naruto clones slammed into his other side in a
concentrated effort, tossing him forward enough that Sasuke's kick
caught him under the jaw.  His head snapped back and he fell
forward, pinned under three Naruto clones as one dispelled in the
impact.

	Lee was made of tough stuff, though, and Sasuke's kick, while
powerful, was nothing compared to a tap from Gai.  He twisted left
and backhanded with enough force that he was able to destroy all
three clones at once, and his straight right punch had enough
reach to force Sasuke to abandon his next attack and block it with
an open handed slap.  His movements unrestricted again, Lee
performed an improbable forward roll, came up on his hands, and
lashed out at Sasuke's head with his feet.  Sasuke read the move
and dropped low, sweeping his leg at Lee's arms, but for all his
prediction, Lee was faster, and his hand flashed out to catch
Sasuke's foot, leaving him supported by only one arm.  Two Naruto
clones had darted to one side and threw senbon at him, but Lee
used the momentum from Sasuke's attack to push his shoulders
sideways as he directed Sasuke's foot into the ground.  His other
hand flashed from the ground to his opponent's shirt and suddenly
Sasuke found himself jerked bodily forward in between Lee and the
flying senbon, his eyes wide.

	Three hit him in the shoulder and passed through as he
dispelled into smoke, striking the suddenly empty handed Lee in
the side of the stomach as he landed on his head.    More senbon
were already flying at him.

	"Teamwork's a bitch, ain't it, Lee!" one of the clones called
as Sasuke picked himself off the ground where he'd been tossed in
the hasty kawarimi.

	'Sasuke', or possibly Naruto or one of his clones, charged
Tenten as she was throwing weapons into the bushes, throwing more
senbon at her from his right hand only.

	Tenten reached the end of the scroll abruptly and a dozen
weapons filled the air, mostly kunai, but a bo and a jian
longsword were among them, and another tessen was the last thing
unsealed.  The heavier kunai met the incoming senbon and bounced
them off course, but the flights of the kunai were actually
corrected by the impacts, sending them all flying at 'Sasuke'.

	Sasuke's run changed instantly into a kind of half step
stagger, and suddenly he spun once in the air, chakra becoming
visible as it rippled and tossed the kunai harmlessly away.  'His'
run was but momentarily interrupted by the first rotation of the
kaiten and the attack was resumed, one arm held ready to strike
and the other dangling loosely.

	"Kaiten!  But that's a Hyuga-" she cried as she kicked the
butt of the bo staff and sent it like a javelin at who she now
suspected to be Hinata, keeping the sword in her right and the fan
in her left as she prepared to ward off the gentle fist style.
Two more Naruto clones leapt out of the bushes and charged her.

	"Yes, it is," 'Sasuke' agreed, becoming Hinata, her hitai-ate
still on her forehead.  She advanced.

	"That's not very fair, three on two!" she complained as she
ran, adjusting her run to intercept the clones.  Better the clones
than close up with a Hyuga, and with luck she could kill them
quick and get some distance.  She already knew she was faster at
covering ground that Hinata, all she needed was enough space to
break out one of her larger storage scrolls.  It had never worked
against Neji, but Hinata had only used the first stage kaiten, and
had a broken arm as well.  Maybe it would work this time.

	"With me around, our enemies are always outnumbered," one of
the clones replied disdainfully as they both attacked by throwing
right haymaker punches.

	Tenten blocked with her fan and lashed out with the jian.

	One of the clone's right hand suddenly tripled in speed and
glowed with chakra, slapping down hard on the flat of the thin
blade near the tip and bending it far enough that the point
whistled by harmlessly.  The one who had spoken's fist was blocked
by the fan, but his foot came around, also glowing with chakra,
and slammed into the side of her thigh, doing more than just
surface damage.

	Tenten lurched to the side, crying out in pain, but she
called on strength she didn't know she had to reverse the long
straight sword, and sweep it back through the first clone's chest.
It died in a burst of smoke.  She twisted her grip, turning the
sword ninety degrees and completing the swing by swiping at the
remaining clone with the flat of the sword.  Her iron fan was
wrenched out of her left hand by the clone's right and thrust at
the blade in time to block the sword's swing.  The flexibility of
the thin, springy blade, which had helped the first clone block
her attack, now worked for Tenten, and the blade bent around the
edge of the fan and delivered a stinging slap the clone's left
shoulder, leaving behind pinked skin and one thin but stinging cut
where one edge struck slightly before the other.

	The impact dispelled the henge as the blade rebounded and
vibrated in Tenten's hand, and the fan lowered just enough for
midnight black eyes to peer over the edge.

	"You were wrong about one thing.  That wasn't me," Hinata
said mildly, flicking the fan closed with her right hand and
lashing out with the blunt instrument to jab at Tenten.  Though
her left arm wasn't healed enough to fight with, it was strong
enough that she could lift her hand and perform seals. "He told
you we share techniques, and the kaiten does not require the
byakugan."  She smiled.  "Only power."

	It was the foundation of Naruto's team fighting style he'd
developed with Hinata in their time together since the academy.
They couldn't share all of their techniques evenly.  He could only
mimic the rudiments of the juken style, because he couldn't see
the chakra coils or tenketsu, and Hinata couldn't make mass
numbers of kage bunshin because she didn't have the chakra for it.
But they could each perform each other's styles enough that it was
almost impossible for an enemy to tell them apart when they used
henge.  They hadn't had time to integrate Sasuke yet, but Naruto
figured it was just a matter of a few weeks practice for him and
Hinata.  Sasuke could probably already do it for them, the
sharingan gifted bastard.

	The real Naruto, unknown to Tenten or Lee, was actually
hiding in the bushes away from the fighting, catching his breath
and letting one of his clones straighten his nose.  Lee's punch
had caused some damage, blocking his nasal passages with blood and
sending spikes of pain through his head.  The spin kick had been
worse, though, knocking the wind from him and possibly cracking
some ribs.  It didn't impair his fighting ability, much, but it
looked bad.

	Naruto drew on his chakra, which was even more wild and
plentiful than usual, thanks to Hinata's blood from earlier that
day, and repeated the process he'd used when he'd hid his
animalistic traits, this time turning himself into someone that
was completely uninjured.  The life from Hinata's sacrifice was
already working its magic on his injuries, and by the time he
dropped the hensou, he'd probably be healed.  It burned chakra
like mad, but he had chakra.

	He had lots of chakra.

	He charged from the trees, making a dozen kage bunshin as he
did so.  They all peeled off and went to make sure Sasuke had
things well in hand, and he advanced on Hinata and Tenten.  As he
ran forward, he noticed the clone that had swapped with Sasuke
earlier in the fight was standing still and not doing much.  It
looked at him, he nodded, and it dispelled, having exhausted its
own chakra reserves performing the incomplete kaiten.

	It'd be nice to know the finished technique, but even Hinata
was still puzzling it out.  It was just another reason why they
needed to wrap everything up, fix things with her family, and let
her get on with learning the rest of the Hyuga family secret
techniques.

	Lee tensed when he felt the senbon hit him, but they had been
slowed considerably by the impact with the clone, and only stuck
in part way, which he could feel as he quickly regained his feet
and put some space between him and the clones.  One part of his
mind noticed that Sasuke was having to climb to his feet as well,
and he deduced that a clone must have used kawarimi or a similar
technique to swap him out before the senbon hit, while the rest of
his attention was devoted to removing the senbon and checking the
damage, which was minor.  Just three bloody holes about a half
inch deep.  He had trained to the point his muscles were like
bundles of steel cords, so he was as hard to stab as the dense
wood of the training posts.

	Sasuke seemed to know every move Lee was going to make, and
had started to block, evade, or counter it before Lee had even
decided to use the move.  However, he was not as fast, and while
Lee might not have the prediction abilities of the sharingan, he
was used to fighting people as fast as he was, or in Gai's case,
incomparably faster.  It was no real problem at all to react to
Sasuke's movements after he'd already made them and still have
plenty of time to counter.

	The clones made it harder.  Not hard, exactly, but…
challenging.  Lee found himself smiling.

	"As expected of an Uchiha," he said with respect.  "Your
moves are most fluid.  And your teamwork with Uzumaki-kun's clones
is unexpected."

	Sasuke inclined his head, accepting the compliment as his
due.  "I thought you would be an interesting opponent," he
grudgingly admitted.  "I'm glad to see I was right."

	Lee hesitated.  "Did you really mean it when you said you'd
rather fight me than Neji-kun?" he asked, feeling a strange sense
of hope.  "I must confess, I have never beaten Neji-kun in a
fight."

	Sasuke eyed him carefully, wondering if he was lying, and if
he should call him on it.  He decided it was Naruto's place to
provoke.  Instead, he would see if a little friendliness got Lee
to lower his guard.  "I didn't lie.  I've fought Hinata, I know
the style.  I wanted to fight…"  He hesitated as a thought
occurred to him that might not go over so well.  Ah, well.
Sometimes you needed to poke people to see how hard they poked
back.  He smiled.  "I wanted to fight an unconventional genius for
a change."

	Lee stiffened at the hated word, then relaxed and bowed
slightly.  "You honor me, Uchiha-kun," he said stiffly.  "I will
do my best to perform to your expectations."  He placed one fist
behind his back and held the other out, palm up, and made a come
motion with his fingers.

	Sasuke charged, and Lee closed on him in a blur, arms
crossing and legs intertwining in a blinding display of hand to
hand moves.  Even with his sharingan, the speed difference was too
great, and Sasuke took a dozen blows to his body and head in quick
succession.

	That was when Lee noticed that Sasuke's failed attacks were
actually cover for a short string of hand seals.  He'd
deliberately closed and taken the blows to set Lee up for a
ninjutsu attack.  Lee's foot took him in the side as his hands
came together in the last seal, and Sasuke was sent flying, only
to be caught in mid air by one of the clones.

	Lee advanced warily.

	Tenten was hard pressed to keep Hinata from getting too
close, and only the extra reach given her by the sword was enough
to keep the Hyuga at bay.  The jian's strength was its
flexibility.  Attacks flowed like water as she twisted the hilt in
her hand, using the blade's momentum against the direction of
travel to create slices that seemed to follow Hinata's every move
and blocks that reached where her own hands couldn't.

	A downward jab and a twist caused the tip to reach out and
leap for Hinata's stomach, plucking a bouncing, dangling tog off
her jacket as she thrust her hips backward to evade.  A quick
reverse and a thrust made the pommel slam into the suddenly open
tessen, and two fingers of her other hand pinned the blade and
twisted, sending a sine wave of motion through the jian that made
it possible for her to perform a horizontal slice where the blade
bent out of the way of the blocking fan like a dancer swaying her
hips, the edge coming close enough to Hinata's head as she bent
backwards to part a few errant strands of hair.  Again she whirled
and thrust, using her other hand to dampen the vibrations of the
jian and bend the blade, corkscrewing the tip at a new, unexpected
angle, arrowing it past the flashing fan.

	Hinata was not trained in the art of the fan, which was an
equally elegant, flowing style.  However, the two foot fan was
only slightly shorter than the sword Tenten wielded, and when
unfurled it could block the entire torso from view.  She quickly
learned to parry close to her body, blocking the deadly kiss of
the jian's tip.  This only added more strength to the waves of
motion that traveled up and down the blade, but her hands blurred
and blocked the strikes again and again, then flashed out, the fan
folded up into a roughly square rod, and prodded Tenten in the
chest or slapped her arm with bruising impact.  She blocked or
evaded every one of Tenten's attempts, waiting patiently to launch
her own attacks in ways Tenten never stood a chance of blocking.

	There were no time for recriminations, but if given the
chance she would have spent a lot of time regretting the decisions
she'd made that lead to a close fight with Hinata.  Though she'd
pretty much dismissed the girl, long rumored to be pathetically
shy, with a few pitying thoughts when she thought of her at all,
the wounded, implacable opponent she fought now seemed to be made
of springs and braided rawhide.  And her eyes!  Those creepy,
empty, black eyes disturbed and frightened her every time she
caught a glimpse of them, and she knew Hinata knew it.  Tenten was
good with a sword, even the fairly unique style of fighting that
the flexible jian required, but she'd fought Neji before.  The
only way for her to fight a Hyuga on his level was distance,
distance that Hinata's rapid, shuffling step advancement denied
her.

	And then, suddenly, Hinata stopped, leaving Tenten to thrust
the jian to parry attacks which never came.

	Naruto stepped out from behind Hinata and stood by her side,
looking amused.  "Sasuke's doing fine with Lee, so I figured I'd
come play over here with you two."  He cocked an eyebrow at her.
"You're pretty good with that blade, and with all those kunai too.
But, you know, you're still not giving it your all.  I can tell."
He shrugged ruefully and drew his single wakizashi, holding it in
a reverse grip and looking at it fondly.  "Hey, I get it.  I have
the same problem sometimes.  You see, my real strength is in edged
weapons, too.  But you can't just use that kind of thing on people
you're not planning on killing.  It's too dangerous, so those of
us that specialized for the field give up a lot of advantages when
we're in a spar."

	Tenten eyed him warily, her free left hand finding its way
into her pouch and finding a certain pair of scrolls by the
symbols carved into their ends.

	Naruto smiled at her and resheathed the blade.  "Now, we
didn't come here to kill you, just show you a few things.  But I'm
gonna do you a favor.  I'm gonna give you what you really need to
develop your real skills: an unlimited supply of thinking, moving,
fighting targets that you can kill…  without actually killing
anyone."  He winked at her.  "You'll thank me later.  Taiju kage
bunshin no jutsu!"
	
	Orange.  And black.  It was a veritable sea of orange and
black, and Tenten was in trouble, facing down literally hundreds
of Narutos.

	"LEE!  DROP YOUR WEIGHTS!" she screamed.

	Naruto's, all of the Narutos, smile widened.  "Now, that's
the first thing you've done right all day."

	She threw the sword at him and ran, and with an eerie,
harmonious chorus of excited shouts, the clones raced after her.

	Lee heard Tenten's shout.  Given that the sudden mass of
orange clad clones that had appeared out of nowhere and swallowed
up both Sasuke and the remaining two clones who'd been supporting
him was a little daunting even to Lee, he didn't argue.  After
he'd ran back far enough to be safely out of range, he quickly
bent and unfastened the straps that held the rolls of chakra
infused lead weights around his ankles, dropping the pair of two
hundred pound weights right there.  He'd retrieve them later.

	After he won.

	And yet, he was slightly astonished when over half the clone
army simply ignored him and ran away into the woods in all
directions.

	There were still about a hundred clones of Naruto…  no, wait.
Spots of black and grey started appearing in the loosely assembled
mass of orange.  Dozens of Hinatas turned empty black eyes on him.
Dozens of Sasukes smirked knowingly at him.

	One of the Sasukes started picking its nose, and another one
nearby hit in on the back of the head, causing it to die, an
unexpected burst of motion from the otherwise patiently waiting
crowd.

	"I assume you're faster now," one of the Sasukes called out
in Hinata's voice.  "But are you fast enough to beat all of us?"

	"We are Team Seven," a Naruto called out in Sasuke's voice.

	"We are Legion," a Hinata called out, this time in her own
voice.

	Lee blinked.  "You surprise me again and again with that
technique, Naruto-kun.  You must be a genius of the shadow clone."

	"Aww, flattery will get you everywhere, Lee-kun," a Naruto
called back.  "Yeah, I love this technique.  Sometimes, when I'm
watching TV and the remote is on another cushion, I make a clone
get it.  Ninjutsu is awesome."

	Lee flushed angrily.  "You take such delight in mocking me,
Uzumaki-kun."

	"None of us are as cruel as all of us," came the reply, lost
in the crowd.

	Lee slowly spun his arms in wide circles as he twisted his
torso, stretching the muscles and loosening his joints, assessing
the wounds from the senbon, then slowly brought both hands to the
ready, one in front of the other.

	The first charge killed ten clones before anyone could even
react, and twenty more spent their lives just slowing the insanely
fast movement down to a level Naruto could actually see.

	Sasuke and Hinata didn't have the same trouble.  Sasuke's
sharingan had been jumpstarted to the mature three tomoe stage by
Naruto's chakra in the bear temple, and he was still able to see
and predict Lee's movements…  when he was able to see him at all
through the crowd of clones.

	Hinata's vision didn't have the same ability to capture
movement like Sasuke, but her field of vision covered more than
the entire training field.  With her white eyes now turned to
black by the influence of Naruto's chakra and the impurities that
came from the shoggoth ichor mixed with his blood, her vision was
expanded in ways even other Hyuga would find odd, enabling her to
see beneath layers upon layers of movement, material, chakra, and
strange, angular planes she'd never even heard of.  He was fast,
but he was always in sight.

	As fast as Lee was, he still had to take an extra fraction of
a second to punch or kick a clone to death.  He did it
efficiently, but there were a lot of clones.  And they quickly
started making more to replenish the losses.

	Naruto was the one doing the fighting, or attempts at
fighting, and he wasn't doing very well.  Lee darted past the most
determined attacks, using his extra height to reach past punches
that, to him, seemed to be frozen in mid air and slam his bandaged
fists into the snarling face of what he'd gradually decided was
his nemesis.

	Naruto, for his part, realized that massed attacks just
weren't working.  They needed a new plan.  He made new clones with
new instructions, and they spread out to find his teammates.  Soon
he, Hinata, and Sasuke were all jerked out of the crowd by a
series of kawarimi and deposited safely into the trees surrounding
the clearing.

	"We need a new plan," Naruto announced quickly.  "What have
you noticed?"

	"He says he's never beaten Neji," Sasuke offered, just as
quickly.  "Weak against juken?"

	They looked at Hinata, whose face was frozen in
concentration.  She blinked slowly, her actual focus still on Lee.

	"He only had leg weights, not wrist.  His punches are no
faster than before, he just moves more quickly.  I am probably
faster at hand to hand, but his kicks and movement are a problem,"
she said thoughtfully.

	"Weights…" Sasuke began.  "He's used to wearing weights.
That threw his balance off.  I can use that.  And he's moving
faster than he can think.  He's fighting with trained kata and
reflex.  Once he starts moving, he's committed."

	Naruto nodded sharply.  "Hard work, right?  Repetitive
training.  Muscle memory."  He grinned suddenly.  "He's been
fighting Neji.  We give him the 64 palms and he'll react the way
he's been trained.  I can't use the real 64 palms, but his
conditioning won't let him ignore the attacks, and when you know
the pattern, you'll be able to predict his moves further ahead in
time than his muscles show.  Hinata can only use one arm, but
he'll react as if he's blocking two, wasting movement."

	Hinata smiled and nodded.  Sasuke smirked, his tomoe spinning
faster in anticipation.  Together, they leapt back into the fray.

	
	xxxxxxxxx
	xxxxxxxxx  Begin chapter eleven.


	Lee sensed the tide of the battle shifting even as he killed
another dozen shadow clones.   The remaining ones stopped
launching their futile attacks and retreated, forming a loose ring
around the clearing.

	Four Narutos, four Hinatas, and ten Sasukes landed in the
newly created space, facing him.	
	One of the Narutos opened its mouth to say something, and
Lee's punch all but took off its head.  The clone disappeared in a
burst of chakra, and the fight was on again.

	"Hey, he is learning," one of the watching clones noted in an
amused tone.

	Lee had a strong suspicion that his real opponents were
finally facing him, so it didn't come as a complete surprise when
his fist slammed into a Naruto's face and met with actual flesh.
When the Hinata beside it suddenly displayed lightning speed and
struck a nerve junction in his right hip, causing his leg to go
numb, that was also not completely unexpected.  But then his
counter punch missed as a Naruto finished pulling her away by the
back of her jacket, a move that must have been started even before
his punch hit the first Naruto.  A Sasuke made a leg sweep at his
feet and his good leg flashed up, then down with ruthless
efficiency, stamping on the knee.

	It turned out to be a clone.  There were three more behind
it, and suddenly he was forced to defend again as Naruto, or was
it Naruto?, the one he'd hit straightened from the stomach blow
and started attacking with a slow version of the 64 palms juken
technique.  It wasn't anywhere near Neji's speed, though, so he
was able to block all the two fingered strikes and still counter
and kill the three clones behind him with an elbow and a back spin
fist, then throw the fist forward again and catch Naruto in the
chest.

	Another Naruto came flying down through the air, and its fist
caught him in the temple with a resounding smack.  He saw stars
for a brief second, but he didn't have to see well to whip both
hands up, grab the orange and black jacket, spin and slam it into
the ground.

	It turned out to be Sasuke, and then Hinata was flying at him
from the side, her speed boosted tremendously by the combined
efforts of a spin by three clones.  Her hand cocked back into half
of the stance of the 64 palms and she seemed to flow around his
punch, her hand jabbing at his belly even as her right knee came
up in a sweep that slammed into his good leg.

	His own knee came up a split second later and caught her
under her breasts, even as a fierce punch from Naruto caught him
in the kidneys and Sasuke's prone kick slammed into the back of
the knee of his numb right leg.  Grimacing with effort he snagged
the shoulders of Hinata's jacket and repeated the spin and slam
he'd used with Sasuke.  Three clones exploded into smoke as their
efforts to kawarimi Hinata away were thwarted by his grip and
speed.

	They were not successful.  She was slammed back first across
Sasuke, who caught her as gently as he could, the air exploding
from both their lungs.  His right hand flashed back to pound into
Hinata's vulnerable stomach.

	A clone, propelled by another three clone spin, flew feet
first at his chest, its hands already making a familiar seal.  It
exploded into four clones in mid air, their arms interlocked, all
flying at him at the same speed as the original.  He was kicked
away by their combined momentum and rolled backwards across the
grass, stopping himself before he rolled into the crowd.  Several
clones, sensing opportunity, leapt forward and threw senbon, but
Lee quickly rolled away, his eyes darting around wildly.

	He pounded feeling back into his leg with a few practiced
movements, having spent quite a lot of time on the receiving end
of juken strikes.  He tested the limb, feeling pins and needles
run down it as he shifted all his weight to his good leg, lifted
his right leg and held it straight, then pivoted and placed his
foot back on the ground.  Chakra surged through his body, and he
concentrated some of it in his feet, sticking himself to the
ground so he could move at speeds normal traction wouldn't allow.

	Team Seven was forced to be truly on the defensive for the
first time, as Lee had come off the worse for being suckered in
close where they could successfully counterattack.  Sasuke faced
him directly, his sharingan spinning.  Naruto turned slightly, at
Sasuke's side but turned away at an angle, and Hinata took up the
other corner of the triangle, facing directly away from Lee,
relying on her byakugan to see him coming.

	They all pressed together so they could feel each other's
movements, Sasuke's predictive abilities focused on Lee so he
could guide the others with as little as a lean or a brush of his
arm.  Hinata insured that Lee could not gain an advantage through
the simple expedient of getting behind them.  A loose scattering
of other clones, all Naruto this time, surrounded them, their main
purpose to distract and slow Lee down, and to rescue a real body
if Lee got too close.  Naruto's self chosen role was to fill in
the gaps and take the hits.

	Without his weights, Lee was more than twice as fast than
even Sasuke, the fastest of Team Seven.  He owned the open ground,
his speed giving him mid and long range dominance.  But when he
charged, zipping through the clones as though they were standing
still, then launched a blisteringly fast kick at Naruto, Team
Seven moved as a whole, muscles pulling on muscles pulling on
muscles as a chain of four arms, Sasuke in the middle and leaning
forward, contracted at once to pull Naruto and Hinata out of
harm's way.

	Lee sailed by harmlessly, landing, spinning, and returning,
this time attacking at Hinata's left, her weak side and the only
chink in the team's armor Lee could immediately identify.

	Hinata saw him coming and jumped into a sideways roll across
Sasuke's back even as he read her intentions and pulled across on
Naruto's hand.  Naruto had already began an involuntary spin from
the momentum caused by the three man pull and his own contracting
body.  He followed Sasuke's pull, adding to the spin as he swept
his other hand into a vicious backhand powered by the speed of his
whole body.  Hinata's good hand flashed out to grab his other arm
just as Sasuke let go of it, speeding up her roll as she was
effectively dragged across Sasuke's back.

	Since she was able to see everywhere around her at once, she
blocked Lee's punch with the soles of her feet as they trailed
behind her, and Naruto's back fist slammed into his right arm as
he threw it up in a guard, his reflexes still incomparably better
than Naruto's own, but sickening pain radiated from the impact,
which was stronger than he'd expected.  He also failed to consider
Sasuke's left, which had just let go of Naruto's hand and came
under and across Sasuke's chest as he pivoted towards Lee,
straightening at the same time.  His uppercut slammed into Lee's
completely unguarded solar plexus.

	It was like hitting steel.  Lee absorbed the blow with a
grunt and began a counter as Naruto completed his movement,
putting himself in between Sasuke and the incoming blows.  No
kawarimi saved him this time, his clones literally thinking the
same way he did.  His hands flashed through the movements of the
once secret Hyuga family technique, but he was too slow to
connect.  Of his team, only Hinata was quicker with her hands than
Lee, and she was regaining her feet on the other side of Sasuke.

	Blow after blow rained down on his face, chest, and stomach,
and he might as well be unprotected for all the good his blocks
did him.  But Naruto was much like Lee in that he could take the
pain and keep coming back for more.  It also helped that Lee's
rage was primarily focused on Naruto.  He wouldn't break off now,
not with his most hated enemy so close and available.  Naruto was
forced back against Sasuke, but made no move to evade, only block.

	Loops of wire flew forward past Naruto's side, seeking to
entangle Lee in their coils.  Warily, Lee danced back and avoided
them.

	Naruto sagged for a moment, supported by Sasuke, his nose
split and bleeding again.  It only lasted a moment, though, and he
lifted his head, wiped blood off his lip, and grinned at his
success.

	Lee found it just a little disconcerting.

	Naruto anchored his feet, held out his hands for Hinata and
Sasuke, then with a combination of chakra and sheer raw strength,
launched them all at the green clad boy.

	Besides inhuman chakra reserves and endurance, Naruto's
strength was far beyond that of most of his classmates.  While
meals at the orphanage had been hit or miss, often missed, Ibiki
had taught him the importance of proper nutrition on a growing
body.  He'd been given plenty to eat and, more importantly, taught
what to eat with the kind of careful consideration that might be
given to the foal of a legendary racehorse.  Also, since he
shunned all but the most casual contact with his peers, but was
not allowed to simply loaf, he'd thrown himself into more than
just his studies.  Naruto's body, kept hidden under baggy orange
clothes, was thicker and stronger than either of his two
teammates, though not at the level of Gai's favorite student.

	Naruto used that strength to the fullest, lashing out at Lee
with kicks and punches that Lee could not ignore.  He could evade,
he could block, but he had to counter in some way.  And behind
Naruto came the true attacks in the form of Hinata, never
surprised, never outmaneuvered, always able to turn and strike at
him with her hand or a well timed chakra imbued kick.  Her moves
lacked the raw ferocity of Naruto's, but they were, if anything,
even more dangerous if they connected.  And then Sasuke would come
in, flowing through Naruto and Hinata's movements like it was
choreographed.  His strikes were not so powerful as Naruto's nor
so deadly as Hinata's, but they were harder to evade for all that,
and he was already starting to incorporate elements of Lee's own
style.  When faced with the choice between letting Sasuke hit or
one of the other two, Lee had to pick Sasuke every time.

	Team Seven whirled and fought as one, coming together back to
back to back in a neat triangle when Lee retreated to plan a new
move, then blooming like a chrysanthemum to hit Lee with bruising
force.

	They fought together as if they'd been doing it all their
lives, and it was only due to their bloodlimits that they could do
it at all.  Naruto, as the least gifted, found himself leading
from the front, initiating the attacks and taking the hits.
Hinata was the guide, seeing how the fight fit together as a
whole, then adding her own swift blows to force Lee into a
compromised position.  And then Sasuke, whose main virtue as a
fighter was an incredibly powerful gift of prediction that was his
only because he'd been born with a certain genetic quirk, would
read their movements and Lee's at the same time and see where he
would be most useful, lashing out with stolen taijutsu and copied
ninjutsu.

	Accidents of birth.  Two of the most powerful dojutsu, and
one imprisoned demon powering it all.  It was completely
unbalanced.  It was horribly unfair.

	It was, Naruto thought, the most beautiful thing he'd ever
seen, and he was a part of it.

	Accidents of birth.
	
	The universe was an unfair place.  Most of the time, whether
it was being blamed for the actions of the demon sealed in you, or
watching your family get murdered, or just being blamed for not
being good enough, it was unfair in ways that made you bitter and
cynical and, deep inside where no one could see, sad.  Lee didn't
stop to complain, but he understood immediately that despite his
speed and skill being far superior, he was at the disadvantage,
for they were pitting their strengths against his weakness, his
own accident of birth.

	The fight was just as unfair for the members of Team Seven,
but as had happened fighting for their lives in the bear temple,
it was unfair in a wholly unexpected, new kind of way.  A way that
actually gave them the advantage.

	They grabbed it and exploited it ruthlessly.

	But Lee would not go down.  He had been fighting unfair
fights all his life.

	And he'd been winning.

	Lee fought with a fierce pride given to him by the first
person to ever see worth in the skinny, lanky boy who wanted to be
a ninja but didn't have what everyone said it took.  Despite
Naruto's opinion that Lee was too much of a nice guy to be the
kind of effective killer that a ninja had to be, Lee was no
pushover when it came to just pain.  He'd experienced it enough
himself to know it quite intimately, and while he might regret the
necessity of inflicting it on others, regret was something you did
after the fact.

	Hinata's sudden use of a new ninjutsu, Spit of the Cobra,
surprised him, left him open to a kick from Sasuke and a brutal
punch from Naruto, and left a seven inch wide, though
insignificant, cut across his chest, parting the green material of
his jumpsuit and stinging like fire.

	So he punched her in the throat.

	Even Team Seven, which gave no quarter and expected none in
return, was surprised by the sudden viciousness of the strike.
That gave him a split second of time, and it was all he needed.
Sasuke took the second use of the Konoha Senpu of the day, and
seeing it coming didn't mean he could do anything about it as
Lee's feet took him in the chest and stomach, knocking him flying.
Hinata was still gagging, and he finally got in a good punch to
her injured arm, making her gurgles briefly more intense.  Clones
were probably already starting the seals to kawarimi her away.

	That left Naruto and several clones as the only active
fighters still in the clearing.  If Naruto followed his usual
pattern, a clone would substitute with him so that he could
regroup with his team.  Lee didn't intend to give him the chance.

	He darted forward, his feet flashing out with a series of
surprisingly light kicks, disrupting the clones and sending Naruto
staggering back.  He used kicks because his hands were busy
tugging at the white cloth bandages wrapped around his hands and
wrists.

	He knew it was the real Naruto because he hadn't disrupted
when he kicked him, so he didn't hold back.  He'd practiced his
next technique enough that it had become almost instinctive, and
the initial chakra gate flooded open.  His strength multiplied and
he used his chakra grip on the earth to literally pull himself
low, faster than he could just fall, and pistoned his leg up into
Naruto's stomach, sending him high into the air.

	All of the air was driven from Naruto's lungs from the force
of the kick, the shock from the impact radiating through his soft
organs and causing internal damage that didn't even have time to
hurt yet.  And suddenly Lee was there, behind him in mid air,
flicking his wrists and wrapping the bandages around Naruto's limp
body.  He grabbed them tightly, and wrapped his legs around Naruto
as he threw his body to the side, starting the devastating spin of
the Primary Lotus.

	Panicked, dozens of watching clones attempted to perform the
kawarimi.  But the substitution technique, so common, yet used so
effectively by Naruto and his team, required a willing target.
Naruto was more than willing, even desperate, but he was held so
firmly by Lee that the clones couldn't grab him.  Every one that
tried died in an explosion of chakra as the stress of the failed
technique overwhelmed them.

	But as he once told Hinata, back in the earliest days of Team
Seven when he was still figuring out what the technique could do,
the real power behind the shadow clone wasn't that it could throw
a punch or cast a ninjutsu.

	It was that it could think.
	
	From the moment he realized he could send a clone to interact
in his place while he was really doing something else, Naruto had
realized the possibilities of being able to think more.  It wasn't
just little things, like using them to scout.  It wasn't even his
own bastardized attempt to copy some of the uses of the sharingan
or the byakugan, like the way he had dozens of clones watch Anko
perform her jutsu, so each clone would catch a slightly different
view of the technique and he could put all the memories together
as a whole in his mind.  It was that he could break a puzzle down
into little pieces and assign each piece to a different copy of
himself.

	When he planned things with Hinata or Sasuke, he needed
different ideas and a new way of looking at things.  Using clones
was no more accurate that thinking by himself.  It was, however,
faster.  And, most important of all, it let him focus on any
number of problems at once.

	Naruto hadn't made the watching crowd of clones because he
wanted an audience or needed them all for his network of as needed
kawarimi, though redundancy never hurt.  No, while he'd fought,
he'd also been thinking.  About Tenten and what to do about her
running battle through the trees, about the lesson that, at least
in theory, was why he'd decided to beat the hell out of Lee, and
about how to beat Lee himself.  The problem of his Lee driven
headfirst plunge towards the ground was a new problem, but it was
given priority.

	The crowd of clones surged into the field, converging on the
spot Lee's spinning drop was rapidly taking Naruto.  When they
reached the target point, they jumped upwards, aiming towards Lee.
More filled in the gap behind them, then leaped in turn, like a
splash from a rock hitting a pond, except this splash started
before the rock hit, and it leapt up to stop it.

	Lee and Naruto plowed through the first clone to try and
catch them.  And the second, and the third.  But there were over
sixty clones still remaining in the clearing, and even their
combined weight wasn't enough to destroy all of them.

	They were caught almost gently.  Then, while Lee struggled to
get his bandages unwrapped from Naruto, the clones began to hit
him.  But Lee was still riding high off the power gained by
opening the first gate, and he shrugged them off like water,
killing most of them in the process.  Naruto was dragged away
safely by the crowd, and Lee killed them until the last few backed
away.

	Lee's attempt to end the fight hadn't been successful, but
this time, it was the members of Team Seven that came out the
worse for wear.

	Naruto staggered as he regained his feet with the help of a
few clones, Hinata and Sasuke at his side.  Sasuke looked ragged
and dirty, having been tumbled the most as he ducked and jumped
around the others.  Hinata wasn't yet tired, but she rubbed at her
throat even as a clone tied a hastily whittled tree limb to her
newly rebroken arm.  She lifted her hand and squeezed it
experimentally, ignoring the pain, though her empty black eyes
were set in a grim expression.

	Naruto's mind reeled as he attempted to process the flood of
information from all his destroyed clones.  It was disorienting at
best, and he'd just been kicked really hard in the gut, so he
wasn't at his best.  One thing was clear, though, even before the
recent exchange.

	They were losing, slowly but surely.  They were being hurt
faster than they were hurting, and Lee seemed to have stamina
every bit as limitless as Naruto himself, so they couldn't even
turn it into an endurance contest.

	If Lee had moved then, he'd have won.  But Lee stood on the
opposite side of the field, wrestling with his own sudden weakness
as a wave of exhaustion hit him.  He hid it well, standing proud
and tall and giving his three enemies a cool, confident glare.

	"Shit."  Naruto sighed and reached out his hands for Sasuke
and Hinata.

	To Lee, it seemed like a plea for support.  To Hinata and
Sasuke, it was Naruto's way of passing on a silent message in the
subtle series of squeezes he made with his hands.

	A small smile spread across Naruto's face and he drew himself
up straighter, ignoring the pain in his gut as he seemed to take
strength from his teammates.  Letting go of their hands, he formed
a tora seal and made a dozen more clones, which surrounded him and
his teammates.

	Lee tensed for an attack.

	"Carry Hinata back to the village and get her looked at.
Bring back a medic," Naruto told them all seriously.  "Hurry.
This is going to get ugly."

	Sasuke nodded gruffly.  Hinata hugged him briefly with her
good arm, and in the sudden stillness Lee heard her whisper 'good
luck' into his ear.

	"So," Lee began as the others left.  "You're finally going to
fight me yourself."

	Naruto shook his head, a small, feral grin twisting his lips
as he began to walk boldly forward.  "Now does that sound like
something I would do?  Oh, no, Lee.  This is something else,
something I don't use often.  It's sort of my own bloodlimit, at
least as far as I'm the only one who can use it."

	Lee balanced on the balls of his feet, his eyes darting back
and forth.  Instinct told him to charge forward and strike Naruto
down, but Lee knew Naruto couldn't face him in a straight up
fight, so there must be some reason the blond asshole was so
confident.

	"You see, there's another branch of ninja techniques besides
taijutsu and ninjutsu that I also happen to be good at ," Naruto
said confidently, and his hands started flashing together into a
string of seals.

	 "Demonic Gifts, False World Illusion!" Naruto howled as he
finished the last of the short string of seals.

	Lee poised to charge, but he suddenly felt a massive burst of
chakra and killing intent that seemed to come from all around him.
He raised his fists, looking around wildly, but the sun never so
much as dimmed or flickered.  A single green leaf drifted from one
of the trees and fell to the ground, and that was it.  Not even an
extra breeze.

	Naruto smirked at him.  "You are now trapped in my demonic
genjutsu.  72 hours compressed into a few seconds, and I control
it all!  But don't worry, I'm not here to hurt you, Lee.  I just
want you to see everything in your head that you know to be true,
but you just won't acknowledge."

	Lee blinked, then smiled.  "Ah, but Naruto-kun, there's
something you forgot to take into consideration.  Just because I
cannot use genjutsu does not mean Gai-sensei did not teach me how
to break it."

	Naruto's eyes widened.

	Grinning, Lee's hands came together in a seal and he
concentrated on his chakra.  "Kai!" he cried.

	Naruto winced, then, when nothing happened, relaxed.

	Lee looked around wildly, but nothing changed.  He tried
again.  "KAI!"

	"Heh, had me worried there a moment," Naruto admitted.
"Kakashi-sempai broke this like it was nothing, but I guess you're
just not that good."

	Lee frowned and raised his fists again.  "If I cannot break
it, I can still break you."

	Naruto laughed.  "You think to fight me?  You can't fight me,
because it's all in your head.  I'm not even here.  It's just you,
and the  uncomfortable truths from your darkest subconscious."

	Soft sounds came from behind Lee and he spun to see himself,
and Gai-sensei, and Neji, and Tenten, and two blonde girls, one
with two pigtails and one with a ponytail, and an absolutely
devastatingly cute pink haired girl run out of the woods as if
they'd sprung from his darkest subconscious.

	He twisted his head back around to Naruto and gaped,
astonished, as the blond boy winked at him, then seemed to unravel
from the inside out, vanishing with the softest of chakra puffs.

	"Ah, my youthful students!" Gai called out joyfully as his
group spread out once they hit the clearing, running directly for
Lee as if they couldn't see him.  "Twenty miles is far enough for
now.  Let us cool down with some calisthenics!"

	"Gai-sensei?" Lee asked in a small voice.

	Gai ignored him and stopped, immediately beginning to run in
place.

	"Yes, Gai-sensei!  You're the best!" the assembled crowd
cheered more or less unanimously, running in place or stretching
as the mood hit them.

	"Sakura-chan?" Not-Lee asked in a cheerfully concerned voice.
"You're looking a bit pink."  He paused.  "I mean, more so than
usual.  Is there anything wrong?"

	"Oh, Lee," she giggled.  "You and your jokes.  Nothing is
wrong.  I guess I might be a bit hot, though."

	"Ah, I know just the thing!" Not-Lee cried out, jumping back
and flashing through a series of hand seals.

	Immediately on completion, a stiff gust of wind picked up and
blew across the clearing, causing clothes to flap and leaves to
fly off the trees.  Everyone had to lean into the wind slightly,
but they combed fingers through their limp, sweaty hair and
generally seemed to enjoy the break from the heat.

	"That's amazing, thank you, Lee-kun," Sakura said shyly as
she ran over and gave Not-Lee a quick peck on the cheek.

	"You're the best, Lee!  I'm gonna marry you one day!" the
smaller blonde with the ponytail said brightly.

	 "No, I'm gonna marry him, Ino!" the buxom blonde girl with
pigtails in her hair cried, grabbing the other girl in a headlock.
	
	"I'm so proud of you, Lee-kun," Gai cried, tears literally
springing to his eyes.  "They said you'd never learn ninjutsu, but
you proved them wrong again!  My little genius of hard work, and
so popular with the youthful ladies!"

	"I knew he could do it," Tenten added.

	"He's not useless now," Neji admitted grudgingly.

	"Tell me, my youthful students!" Gai boomed suddenly, his
tears gone.  "What is the best way to end a run on a hot day like
today?"

	"I know!" Not-Lee exclaimed cheerfully.  "First, there's the
cool down, which we've already done.  Then…"

	"Then?" the girls all asked as one, hanging on his every
word.

	"The naked jumping jacks!" Not-Lee said gleefully.

	"Naked jumping jacks, yay!" the girls all cried, immediately
starting to take each other's clothes off.

	Alone, on the other side of the clearing, a single tear
rolled down Lee's cheek.

	It would soon be joined by others.


	xxxxxxxxx


	"That should hold him off for a while," Naruto said in a
grimly amused tone as he and Sasuke followed Hinata through the
woods, disdaining the obvious trail of broken branches, scuff
marks, and discarded weapons.

	Why follow a wandering trail when you can go directly there,
guided by someone who can see forever?

	"Are you actually trying to beat Tenten?" Sasuke asked
curiously.  "Or just giving her a workout?"

	Naruto shrugged as he ran.  "At first, no.  I figured I'd
just make a bunch of clones and they'd run around screaming at her
until she killed them.  Turns out she's pretty good with thrown
weapons.  I turned up the heat, and she just kept killing me."

	"She throws a little differently than we do," Sasuke noted.
"More efficiently."

	"Have to practice that, then," Naruto replied.

	"She's in the next clearing.  It's a training area," Hinata
announced, slowing her pace.  They could all hear the clang of
weapons and the cries of Naruto's particularly noisy group of
clones.

	Together, they leapt into the branches of a largish tree
overlooking the training ground.

	Tenten spun and danced in the clearing, a wild network of
weapons darting back and forth at the jerks of countless wires all
held in her hands.  Clones died within ten feet of coming in
range, no matter how many there were.  If they'd had real bodies
to leave behind, she'd have stacked them up like cordwood.

	She'd been more than a little panicked when she fled the
clearing, pursued by the clone army.  She was faster, she knew
that, but there were just so damned many of them, and she couldn't
be sure that one of them wasn't really Hinata in disguise.

	It was really disgusting how much Hinata's creepy eye tricks
had freaked her out.

	But she'd unsealed weapons and used them, and Naruto had
'died' in great numbers.  Only, not really.  They were just
clones.  No flesh, no blood, just moving, reacting targets.  She'd
lost herself in the game, pitting herself against the devious
massed tactics Naruto seemed to invent on the fly.  Pincher
movements, treetop attacks, ground attacks, ambushes and being
ambushed and being completely and utterly surrounded.  Tenten was
in the zone, killing everything that moved, her body flowing
faster and more smoothly than she'd ever moved before.

	It was everything he'd promised.

	She was too busy to reflect on how much that scared her.

	She had been herded to and trapped in the clearing, where
there was room for hundreds of clones at once.  But where there's
room for clones, there's room for Tenten, and she'd finally
brought out the twin scrolls of her best technique.

	They rushed her all at once, they died all at once.  They
came in twos and threes while others attacked her weapons.  They
died by the dozens.  She was the weapons mistress, and they were
just targets.  They weren't going to kill her, and she wasn't
actually going to kill him.  All the joy of a good fight, without
the stress.

	The sky darkened, and she looked up, just as the ones
surrounded her rushed forward.

	Orange filled the sky, Narutos raining out of nowhere.

	"UZUMAKI CLONE RAIN!" one called.

	Grinning, she tugged at her weapons once more.  She didn't
know how they'd got all the way up there, but it didn't matter.

	As clones fell from the sky and swarmed on the ground, they
just died faster.

	Hidden in the tree, safely out of reach, Naruto watched the
spectacle and laughed delightedly.

	"Wow, do you see that?!   That's awesome!" he cried, sounding
extremely pleased with himself as Tenten slaughtered him hundreds
of times over.

	"She is quite skilled within her range," Hinata agreed
thoughtfully.

	"Hell yeah she is!" Naruto added emphatically.  "Ne, Sasuke!
Can you do that?" he asked, gesturing at where Tenten controlled
dozens of large kukri, jian, kunai, dao, butterfly swords,
kusarigama, and even spears and naginata.  Edged and pointy
weapons of a dozen martial arts danced at the ends of her wires,
each requiring a different set of skills to wield properly, and
each moving in concert with the others.

	"I can now," Sasuke said modestly, his sharingan spinning.

	That just caused Naruto to laugh harder.

	"Except you'd need the weapons," Hinata reminded them.

	That sobered Naruto up for a moment.

	"Yes, except for the weapons," Sasuke admitted.

	Naruto watched ruefully as Tenten killed most of the
remaining clones, and the ones still active were getting low on
chakra to the point of instability.  He could make a bunch of
clones, and each would have more chakra than most jounin, but when
each of those clones made clones, and those clones made more
clones, the chakra got split up evenly between the clone and all
its children, getting progressively weaker at each level.  If he
made ten clones and those clones each made ten, the resulting 110
clones would still only have the chakra he'd put into the original
ten, and each individual one would be weak and slow compared to
himself.

	"Well, are we going to take her down?" Sasuke asked.

	Naruto shrugged.  "Right behind you, Sasuke."

	Tenten pulled hard on the wires, using chakra and momentum to
keep the weapons flying back and forth, menacing the remaining
clones.  She tensed as she realized they were trying something
new.

	Three shuriken leapt from the bushes, looping around in mid
air through her weapons, aiming right for her.  She tugged ten
wires with one finger and brought the wire guided weapons down
hard.  If Naruto thought he could tangle her wires he had another-

	Electricity arced from wire to wire, then up her arm into her
body.  Her muscles all locked and went rigid for several
excruciating seconds as her other weapons fell to the ground,
impotent.  Sasuke came out of the bushes, wires in his teeth, one
hand formed into an unfamiliar half seal, and a kunai in his other
hand.

	"You're dead," he announced, but didn't throw, instead
dropping the technique.

	Reeling with shock, she dropped the now dangerous wires and
stumbled backwards.

	"You're dead," Hinata said quietly from directly behind her.

	Tenten darted aside, tensing for a juken strike that never
came.

	Naruto landed on her from above, driving her face first into
the grass as his strong, calloused hands found her wrists and
pinned her arms behind her back.  He quickly began tying her hands
together with loops of thick, strong wire.

	"You've just been captured," he said into her ear.  "You will
be tortured for information, then used as bait for your teammates.
They will die.  Then you will die."  He leaned in closer, letting
his breath tickle the fine hairs of her skin.  "All because you
did not work together."

	Tenten struggled, but Naruto's grip was too firm, and he
quickly tied up her legs and feet, binding her in such a way that
her struggles would just make the wire tighten more.  "You're not
going to kill anyone!" she protested, twisting her head back and
forth, trying to see him.

	"This isn't a game, Tenten," he said quietly.  "And that's
why we're here to show you that."  His head snapped up. "Hinata!
Show her."

	Tenten watched in growing horror as the Hyuga girl pulled up
the hem of her jacket, undershirt, and mesh armor, baring her
stomach from the waistband of her pants all the way to the black
sports bra she wore underneath.

	She was covered in pink scars, smooth and slightly puckered
in places where the skin hadn't had time to grow supple again.
They were similar to the seals Tenten carefully inked on her
storage scrolls, being angular in places and curved, almost
spiraling in others, but she could see they weren't inked on.
Someone had carved seals into Hinata's flesh, and bile rose in her
throat at the thought of it.

	"I told you they were very bad memories," Hinata repeated
softly, letting the cloth fall.

	"We were captured," Sasuke told her quietly.  "We should have
died. We very nearly did."

	"Before that mission, we were petty and foolish," Naruto
added.  "I was the biggest fool of all.  I deserved to die, but I
didn't because Hinata kept the faith.  She came back for us, and
she suffered for it.  But we lived.  We all lived, we broke free,
we killed everyone we found, and we came back together."

	"Where was your sensei during all of this?" Tenten asked
incredulously.  "Why didn't he rescue you?"

	Naruto looked at her oddly.  "And that's your first thought,
isn't it?  You run to Gai-sensei when you have a problem.  Well
look around you, Tenten.  Gai isn't here.  It was just you and
Lee, and you know what?  Lee was kicking our asses.  The fact that
you had a crazy powerful guy like Lee on your team and you STILL
lost to us means you are doing it wrong."

	"What did you to do Lee?" she asked in sudden worry.

	Naruto smirked.  "He's in a little hell of my own creation,
but he'll live.  Don't worry about Lee."

	"You should worry about Lee," she warned.  "Lee will come for
me.  He doesn't need ninjutsu or genjutsu to beat you."

	"I figured he'd have something hidden in his sleeve for when
things got serious.  I can't see Gai-sensei neglecting that.  But
Tenten, Lee is already lost.  Without you or Gai-sensei there to
point out the things he can't see, Lee isn't dangerous at all."

	"You wait.  You think you've seen him angry?  You wait," she
insisted, glaring at them.

	Naruto nodded.  "So let's go provoke him some more."  He
stood and pulled her upright.  "You're coming with us."

	
	xxxxxxxxx


	Lee watched in quiet desperation as everything he'd ever
wanted was paraded in front of him as if he didn't exist.

	Not-Lee…  he carried himself differently.  He moved the same
and looked the same, yet there was an air of confidence and
superiority about him, just like Neji always had.  He'd finally
learned ninjutsu from Gai-sensei, and practiced them with the same
fervor he'd always practiced taijutsu.  Neji was still cold and
unfriendly, but he was no longer as dismissive.  Even he watched
as Not-Lee swept everyone up in his boundless energy and drive.
Sparring, jogging around the clearing, teaching the fangirls how
to throw a punch and spit fire…

	He'd always wanted fangirls, even though Neji didn't seem to
like them very much.

	The naked jumping jacks were especially nice, with a lot of
giggling and bouncing on the part of the girls.

	Tears streamed down his face.

	Off to one side, Naruto, Sasuke, and Hinata crouched in the
branches of a particularly bushy tree, hidden by the leaves as
they watched the little play Naruto had concocted with his clones.
Several dozen yards behind them, a trio of clones kept watch over
Tenten's bound and gagged form.
	
	Naruto leaned forward, putting his hand down on the branch to
steady himself as he watched Lee's anguish and confusion.

	"Mindfuck you no jutsu, Lee," he whispered, then grinned.  "I
win."

	Sasuke glanced at him with an air of amused tolerance.  "I
think you deserve extra credit for making him cry, but that's just
me."

	Hinata, who'd been watching patiently, turned to the boys.
"Why are all they all naked?
	
	Naruto shook his head, not knowing the answer.  Sasuke
shrugged as if it didn't matter.

	Down below, Lee seemed to be coming to some sort of
conclusion as he wrestled with himself.

	"Naruto was right," he whispered.  He'd always known things
would be better if he'd just learn ninjutsu.

	Not-Lee said something else cool and youthful, and one of the
blondes and the pink haired girl pressed themselves under his arms
as he took up the naked nice guy pose.

	"I will practice ninjutsu every day until I get it right," he
swore to himself as, almost without him noticing, he started
walking forward to claim the dream he'd always wanted.

	"No, Lee," came Gai's voice from behind him.

	He whirled.

	Gai, once more dressed in his green suit and vest, walked
towards him slowly, reaching out to put a fatherly hand on his
shoulder and point at the tableau with his other.

	"It is a trap, Lee.  Don't be fooled by it."

	"Gai-sensei?" he asked hesitantly.  	

	Gai looked at him with serious eyes.  "I am the Gai in your
heart, Lee.  The one who never leaves you, no matter where you
are."  He gestured at Not-Gai and Not-Lee and all the others.
"Lee-kun, what have I told you about ninjutsu?"

	Lee hesitated, then nodded.  "That I can be a good ninja
without it."

	"That's right, Lee.  And would I lie to you?"

	"No, Gai-sensei," Lee answered, his voice growing stronger.

	"And would I have you ignore ninjutsu if it wasn't for the
best?"

	"No, Gai-sensei!" Lee replied, some of the cheer coming back
in his voice.

	"That's right, Lee.  You've doubted me in your secret heart,
and that makes me sad," Gai continued, frowning.

	Lee looked horrified.  "I don't want to make you sad, Gai-
sensei!"

	"Then believe, Lee.  Believe in me and what I am teaching
you.  I am showing you how to become truly strong."  He turned a
stern look on the cavorting, naked clones.  "Do know what I think
about that dream, Lee?"

	Lee blinked, then looked carefully at all the naked people,
trying not to focus too hard on the not very bouncy but still
really cute pink one.

	"Uhh…  It…  needs…  more youthful fire…?" he hazarded.

	Gai nodded seriously.  "Needs more youthful fire.  And who
needs to give it more youthful fire and burn away that lie?"  He
looked at Lee expectantly.

	Lee looked back in confusion.  "Uh, I do, Gai-sensei?"

	"You do," he confirmed.  "Now, raise your hand and sweep
those false dreams away!" he boomed loudly.

	Hesitantly, Lee raised his hand and made a kind of weak
shooing motion at the illusory people.

	All of the clones poofed out of existence.

	Lee blinked and looked at his hand in awe.

	"Very good, Lee," Gai said proudly.

 	Back in the tree, Naruto and Sasuke reviewed their new
memories.  Naruto had made most of the clones, as usual, but he'd
gotten Sasuke to make a single contribution, since no one pulled
off cool arrogance like Sasuke, and he'd need access to his larger
variety of ninjutsu to convince Lee that he was truly some sort of
ideal version of himself.

	Naruto stopped and stared at Sasuke incredulously.  "The
naked jumping jacks were your idea?"

	Sasuke shrugged again, his sharingan spinning in sympathetic
memory.

	"Damn it, Sasuke, what have I told you about getting off the
script?" Naruto demanded in exasperation.

	"Everyone wants to see naked jumping jacks," Sasuke replied
reasonably.

	Naruto opened his mouth to argue, then kind of slumped.  "You
suck, Sasuke."

	Sasuke smirked.

	-tits-

	Down below, Gai was still talking to Lee.

	"Now, Lee, I will strip this illusion from you so that you
may fight with your full strength," he explained, reaching into
Lee's own equipment pouch and pulling out a kunai.

	"My full strength, Gai-sensei?" Lee asked doubtfully.

	"Trust in me, Lee," he replied, plucking at the green
material over Lee's shoulders with the fingertips of his free
hand.  "And trust in yourself.  You know that killing is not
something to be done lightly, as I have taught you.  I trust in
your ability to control yourself.  Unleash your full potential!"

	"My full potential," Lee whispered, his eyes distant as Gai
inserted the tip of the kunai between his jumpsuit and his neck,
then began carefully cutting across his shoulder and down his
right arm.  He noticed as the material was peeled back, revealing
pale skin that had not seen sunlight in many months.  "Gai-
sensei?" he asked doubtfully.

	"I am peeling back the layers of the illusion, Lee, do not
worry," Gai assured him.

	Nodding, Lee stood perfectly still, absolutely trusting as
Gai cut the green jumpsuit off him, the razored edge of the kunai
millimeters from his skin.  If he'd had murderous intent, Lee
would have died in between breaths.

	Back in the tree, Sasuke and Hinata both looked at Naruto
with respect, and not a little curiosity.

	He shrugged.  "It's ugly.  I've been wondering how I could
destroy it since we first met him."

	Lee sighed as the cloth was parted down his chest, the slice
from Hinata's earlier technique flapping slightly.  Gai continued
down, carefully cutting only the tough green material, and soon
the jumpsuit fell away entirely.

	Lee was left standing in his shinobi sandals and a pair of
tight, white, knee length long undershorts.  Oddly, he was wearing
a bright red and black tiger striped thong on top of it.

	None of Team Seven was surprised, having already known about
Lee's strange dual underwear choice from Hinata's use of the
byakugan, but it did give them cause to wonder, yet again, what
strange combination of peer pressure and shame had caused him to
do it.

	Lee stood still, his arms raised to the sky, basking in the
sun on his pale, wiry body.  The blood stains from the three
senbon wounds, the red stripes on his thong, and his blue sandals
were the only colors on him.

	Gai stood behind him, holding the kunai, Lee's equipment
pouch on the ground beside him with the shredded remains of the
green suit.

	"It's addicting, this power," Naruto confessed quietly to
Sasuke and Hinata.  "Knowing that, with some effort and research,
you can break anyone."

	They glanced at each other, but didn't say anything.

	"What I…  what Kyubi really wants to do is go down there and
bite him, to mark him and take his blood.  You saw how he moved.
What would he be like with my power running through his coils?"

	"Gai wouldn't like it," Sasuke reminded him.

	Naruto shrugged, his eyes blazing red and his whisker marks
darkening as the new surge of demonic chakra disrupted the
transformation he'd used to hide his animalistic features.  "I
find myself less and less concerned with what Gai wants, to be
honest."

	Hinata put her hand on his shoulder.  "Sasuke is right.  You
shouldn't, not now.  Gai has already claimed him.  There will be
others."

	Naruto looked poised to object, but nodded instead.  "…you're
right.  You're absolutely right."  He shook his head, regaining
his senses, glad that Hinata and Sasuke were there.  What would
have happened if they weren't didn't even bear thinking about.

	"Lee, you have to go and be free from dreams that will only
lead you astray," Gai finished, his eyes full of compassion.
"Trust in me and trust in your teammates.  They need your
strength, even if they don't always know it.  You're the spine for
the whole team.  Everything relies on you being there, being
strong."

	"Yes, Gai-sensei," Lee replied, his eyes tearing up again,
but this time in happiness.

	"Now go."  And with that, the fake Gai turned and walked out
of the clearing, leaving Lee standing in his underwear.

	Lee spun slowly, taking in the beautiful day.  It was
probably about five in the evening, but the days were long and the
sun was still high in the sky, spreading warmth and light across
the land.

	Naruto and Sasuke landed in the clearing, carrying Tenten's
bound and gagged form between them.  She struggled and grunted
incoherently.

	"Tenten!" Lee said with a gasp.

	"What the hell?!" Naruto said in shock.  "How did you get
free of my illusion?!"

	"Never mind that, what are you doing with Tenten?!" Lee
demanded, ignoring the question.

	"Oh, don't worry, we haven't hurt her," Naruto assured him,
putting her down.  "Yet."

	Sasuke stepped forward slightly to guard them both from Lee
if he should charge, and Tenten gasped when Naruto pulled her gag
down.

	 "Lee!  Are you okay?"

	"Do not worry, Tenten!  I am better than ever!  I will rescue
you, and that is a promise!"  He smiled at her, both hands giving
the thumbs up, and the sunlight sparkled off his white, even
teeth.  "More importantly, are you injured?"

	"I'm fine, Lee, but I don't like what they're thinking," she
said, biting her lip and looking up at Naruto.

	Naruto grinned at her madly.  "Good instincts."  He looked
back up at Lee, still in the nice guy pose.  "Well, Lee, I've come
to a decision.  You're just not cut out to be a ninja.  Gai knows
it, but he's too nice to tell you.  So I'm going to do him a
favor.  I'm going to make you quit right now."

	Lee frowned and shook his head sharply.  "I will never quit!
Gai-sensei believes in me, and he's taught me to believe in me,
and Gai-sensei is never wrong!"

	Naruto laughed.  "Yeah, whatever, Lee.  You'll quit, because
you're too much of a nice guy to be a real ninja.  Sometimes a
real ninja has to watch a teammate be tortured or killed right in
front of them, and they can't do anything about it.  Could you do
that, Lee?"

	Lee frowned.

	"It's an important question, Lee," Naruto said seriously, his
eyes hard, "because you're about to find out what that's like."
He made several seals, then put his hand on Tenten's head.

	"AaaaaAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII!" she shrieked, her voice
rising in a fever pitch of excruciating pain as she spasmed in her
bonds.

	"Tenten!" Lee screamed in shock, taking three steps forward,
then stopping as Naruto held the blade of his wakizashi to her
throat.

	"Ah ah ahh," Naruto admonished as Tenten's shrieks faded and
she began sobbing quietly.  "You may be fast, Lee, but you're not
fast enough to stop me before I slice her pretty throat.  Besides,
it's just pain."  He fixed Lee with a cold look.  "It's more pain
than she's ever experienced before in her life.  It's knives
slicing you in your most intimate places, it's fire being spilled
over bare nerves, its acid dripping its way into your heart.  It
hurts, Lee.  It can drive people insane.  But it won't kill her."
He glared.  "Quit, Lee!   Admit you're not cut out to be a ninja
and quit!"

	"I can't quit!  It's my dream," Lee cried back.

	Naruto jerked his hand slightly on Tenten's forehead and she
erupted into fresh screams, tears streaming from her eyes, snot
streaming from her nose.  She blubbered about fire and knives and
centipedes for several long moments as Naruto held Lee's gaze.

	Lee twitched madly with the urge to run forward and save her,
but he couldn't.  Not without killing her in the process.

	Naruto cut the technique again, and this time, instead of
going silent, Tenten started to wail like a lost child.

	Naruto's tone turned soft and compassionate.  "It's hard,
Lee.  Just quit.  You can spare her all this pain if you'll just
give up and go home.  I'll let her go, she'll get over it,
everything will be fine."

	Lee clenched his fists in frustration.

	"It's hard being a ninja, Lee.  It's too hard.  No one in
their right mind would want to do it.  It's all hard work and pain
for no real reason, no reason at all."  He looked down at Tenten
and stroked her cheek softly.

	She squeaked and flinched away from his hand.

	He looked back up at Lee, and his eyes hardened again.  "But
I guess you don't care about her after all, do you?  You ignored
her fight while you were fighting Sasuke, right?  She's not as
important as your fights, your goals.  So I guess you won't mind
if I do this."

	His hand found her forehead despite how she twisted and
squirmed, and Lee cried out in sympathetic pain as Tenten shrieked
until she had no more breath left to scream, blood spraying into
the air and flecking her lips as she bit her own tongue in agony.

	Finally, after many agonizing moments, Naruto stopped, and
Tenten was left gasping, too weak to even squirm any more.  He
glared at Lee once more.

	 "Choose."

	Tears streamed down Lee's face, all but blinding him, and he
dashed at them with his bandaged hands.

	Being a ninja was all he'd ever wanted, all he'd ever
dreamed, all he'd ever worked for.  And he'd worked hard, worked
harder than anyone.  Gai said so, and Gai never lied.  Didn't he
deserve to get his wish?

	Didn't he?

	But his dream was killing Tenten, and she was his friend and
teammate.  He'd do anything for her.  He'd die for her if that was
what it took.

	But giving up his dream?

	That was something he didn't know if he could do.

	He looked up, and through his blurry tears, he thought he saw
Gai behind Naruto.

	He thought he saw Gai give him the thumbs up.

	Lee wiped at his eyes and looked again, but Gai wasn't there.
But that was okay.  He knew that Gai was in his heart.  He could
hear him.  His sensei was telling him how he could save Tenten and
his dream, too.

	He looked back at Naruto, still hovering over Tenten with
that insufferable grin, as if he wasn't torturing Tenten, and Lee
too.

	 "I'm going to hurt you," Lee promised him.

	"Before or after you quit being a ninja?" Naruto asked,
clearly dismissing the threat.

	"I am not going to quit being a ninja," Lee replied
seriously.  "Because a good ninja could save Tenten, and I am a
good ninja!  First gate, OPEN!"

	For the second time that day, he felt his strength increase
as he found the mental block in his mind that corresponded to the
first chakra gate and blew it open with sheer force of will.
Dimly, he was aware of Sasuke biting his thumb and forming seals.

	"Second gate, OPEN!"

	The Heal chakra gate burst open like a dam, and he felt his
weariness fall away like the green jumpsuit he'd discarded.
Sasuke's eyes seemed different now, with flecks of white in their
dark depths. Naruto also seemed to be changing, red chakra
enveloping him like a shroud.

	"Third gate, OPEN!"

	The Life gate in his throat flew open, and he felt his eyes
grow sharper, his hearing more acute, his reflexes more accurate,
and his thinking faster.  His skin flushed bright red as his heart
rate quadrupled, and his feet crunched into the ground as he
focused more chakra in his feet, grabbing the ground so he'd be
ready for instant movement.  Sasuke seemed to be crying?  No, he
was bleeding, blood falling down his cheeks in thick, hot
rivulets.

	"Fourth gate, OPEN!" Lee bellowed, his voice deeper with his
new power.

	The gate of Harm blew open like a loose shutter before his
sudden will, and his lungs began pumping like great bellows,
mirroring his increased heart rate.  Air whooshed in and out with
great speed, giving him a heightened sense of focus and drive.  He
felt strong.

	"Fifth gate, OPEN!" he roared.

	The Limit gate, the farthest he'd ever been able to go in
practice, slammed wide under his titanic will, and chakra, heavy,
dark blue chakra, erupted within him like an explosion, leaping
from his skin and hovering over him as an aura of pure power.

	And Lee felt it.  He could go farther.  The next gate, the
gate he'd never found before, was there.

	"Sixth gate, OPEN!" he thundered with the force of a hundred
shouts, and even the leaves on the trees surrounding the clearing
blew back under his power.

	The View gate opened deep in the pit of his belly, filling
him with warmth and strength.  He felt more powerful than he'd
ever been before, his body literally thrumming with its own secret
energies.  Somehow, he knew he'd need every bit of it.

	But he wouldn't use it to kill.  Gai trusted in him,
otherwise he'd have never taught him the incredible secret of
opening the eight chakra gates.

	Red demonic chakra wrapped itself around Naruto like a living
thing, twisting and lashing out at the air as it gave him the
outline of a human sized fox.  A single tail of pure power flicked
back and forth, waiting for Lee's attack.  He jabbed his wakizashi
down into the dirt beside Tenten's head and snarled defiance.

	Sasuke's white tomoe spun wildly, noting how Lee's chakra
poured more from some tenketsu than others, how his muscles
expanded with blood and tension, and how his chest fluttered like
a butterfly with the speed of his breathing.  He dearly wanted to
know what and how Lee had done to unlock such power, but the
reading abilities of his kyubi enhanced sharingan were no better
than the unenhanced.  Blood poured from his eyes as the surge in
power popped the tiny capillaries in his eyeballs, but it mattered
little.  He felt stronger, faster, and better rested than he had
even at the beginning of the fight.

	His sharingan was good enough to capture Lee's movement, but
he still wasn't fast enough to do anything about it as Lee
suddenly appeared in front of him and bonked him on the head with
one balled up fist.  He'd have to remember the fight later if he
wanted to think about it.

	Sasuke hit the ground like a boneless sack of shit.

	And Lee was flying at Naruto.

	Lee had been gentle, almost absurdly so, given how his
strength was exponentially increased from before.  He'd hit Sasuke
just hard enough to rattle his brain inside his skull and put him
out like a light.  Sasuke had honored him with his respect.

	He hit Naruto like a sledge hammer, slamming into the blond's
body, freaky red chakra and all.

	Naruto screamed in sudden shock and pain as he was knocked
back, but he was now powered not just by his own body, but by the
blood sacrifices of his two closest friends.  He twisted in mid
air, and the red chakra arm of his kyubi form flew out and slammed
into the earth, dragging him back to the ground.

	His other swiped at Lee, five chakra claws three feet long
raking at Lee's red body.

	Lee flowed around it like water, coming within a hair's
breadth of being gutted by the incredibly fast chakra, but evading
just the same.  He jumped forward and slammed his foot into
Naruto's side, through the hazy red shell.  Then, as the impact
threatened to twist him around, he swung his other leg from the
other side, then again, and again, alternating sides and bouncing
Naruto back and forth between his feet as he fell slowly through
the air.  Each kick was slightly higher on Naruto, until finally
he brought his right foot up, then down on Naruto's head, flipping
himself backwards.  He landed in a crouch, then sprang forward
again, driving all the power of his body behind a powerful right
punch that caught Naruto squarely in the face.

	Naruto flew back once more.

	The Kyubi's heavy red chakra flared in anger and he caught
himself again, and then it was Lee's turn to defend.  Naruto
exploded from the ground at nearly the same speed of Lee, far
faster than he'd been before, and much faster than even Lee before
he'd opened the gates.  He ran across the ground on all fours, his
tail of chakra streaming behind him.  Lee whirled and spun,
sprinting with all of his new speed to evade.

	One of the arms of chakra suddenly extended from his body,
impossibly long, and grabbed one of Lee's legs, stopping him in
his tracks.  It squeezed painfully tight as it drew back, either
to bring him closer or slam him into the ground.  Lee kicked
sharply at the solid chakra with his free foot as he pulled at the
other, and just as the other hand came around to rip into him he
popped free, his leg bruised and scraped but still working fine.

	Lee didn't have time to wonder how Naruto might be capable of
such feats.  He simply concentrated on ducking and weaving as he
was chased briefly around the clearing, dodging the incredibly
quick chakra arms that seemed intent on rending him limb from
limb.

	He darted back as one hand clawed at him again, the tips of
Naruto's claws coming within inches of him, then aside as the
other hand erupted from the ground beneath him, seeking to grab
his legs once more.  He saw an opening.

	Naruto frantically pulled in his chakra arms, punching
forward with his real arms in desperation as Lee raced towards
him.

	Lee simply dropped on his back and slid across the grass,
directly under the punch.  Naruto had just enough time to see the
determination in Lee's eyes before his feet shot up into his
stomach.

	For the second time that day Naruto found himself flying high
into the sky, powered by Lee's incredible kicks, but this time he
had the resilience of the kyubi chakra in him.  He whirled,
expecting Lee to come from below him like before.

	The first time, however, Lee had used the Primary Lotus, the
first technique Gai had taught him that took advantage of the
extra strength given by opening a chakra gate.  This time he used
the Secondary or Reverse Lotus.

	The first punch caught him in the center of the back, and
Naruto cried out in pain, unable to respond.  Lee seemed to hover
over him, punching him over and over again with the incredible
speed and power given him by the six open gates.

	Then as Naruto started to fall, Lee spun in the air, lashing
out with one arm and one foot to hammer into Naruto and send him
rocketing to the ground like a meteor.

	He hit with a mighty thud, sinking partially into the ground
with the force of the impact.

	Lee landed beside him with deceptive lightness of foot, and
quickly strode over and lifted him by the front of his shirt.
Naruto's eyes were dazed and unfocused, and there was a trickle of
blood at the corner of his mouth, but he was still breathing.
Most people would have died from the titanic force Lee had brought
to bear on him, and even with the incredible strength granted by
the combination of the his friends life force and Kyubi's own
demonic chakra, Naruto was hurting.  Lee shook him like a hound
might shake a fox, then turned and threw him beside Tenten.

	He stalked over on stiff legs, his blood still boiling even
as he let the gates close.  He'd never been so angry in his entire
life, and even the sudden wave of exhaustion and pain from
severely overtaxed muscles couldn't stop him now.  He'd pay the
price for his power later.

	Right now, Naruto needed to pay for his sins.  No one hurt
Lee's teammates like he'd done to Tenten.

	He turned Naruto onto his back, then sat across his chest,
his left fist balled in the collar of Naruto's orange jacket.

	"For what he has done to you, Tenten, I will punch him in the
face five hundred times!" Lee swore.  "And if I cannot punch him
in the face five hundred times, I will kick him in the stomach one
thousand times!"

	His right fist drew back, then slammed forward.

	"One!"

	Naruto's nose shattered under the force of the punch, and his
already dazed grasp on consciousness wavered.  Lee's fist flew
back, then forth again, like a metronome, his voice loud and angry
as he counted off the punches.  He reached seven before Tenten's
voice snapped him out of it.

	"Lee!" she cried.  "Stop that and untie me, please!"

	His head snapped up.  "Tenten!  I am sorry, I forgot myself!"
He hurried to her side and began pulling at the wires, quickly
removing all of her bonds as she moaned in pain.  "I am so sorry,
Tenten.  Are you hurt terribly?" he asked considerately, helping
her sit up.

	"Just… just help me up," Tenten gasped, reaching out and
grabbing his bare forearm.  She attempted to rise, pulling on his
arm, but suddenly her breath hitched and she squeezed hard,
digging her fingernails into his skin.

	Lee considerately made no effort to pull away, tensing his
muscles instead as he gave her a steady arm for support.

	"Thanks…  Lee," she said, her voice ragged, "for not leaving
me.  You're a good guy."

	"I will always be there for you, Tenten," he replied, just
before his eyes rolled up in his head and he collapsed to the
ground.

	Hinata sat up straighter, dismissing the disguise
transformation and carefully wiping the poison out from under her
fingernails.  She looked up at the tree branch where two Naruto
clones held the real Tenten, still bound and gagged, up where she
could watch.

	It was amusing, she thought, since they had just jumped into
the tree with their captive after Naruto had hit the ground.  If
Lee had continued his revenge punches much longer, he might have
knocked Naruto out, and then his clones would have dispelled,
leaving Tenten to fall helplessly, and it would have been Lee's
fault.

	She smiled, imagining Lee's reaction if he'd found out his
own actions had been what actually got his teammate hurt.  Tenten
could learn a thing or two from the way Naruto thought ahead.

	"He needs your leadership if he's going to be truly
powerful," Hinata told her.  "But not bad.  Not bad at all."
Actually, to her void-like eyes, the sight of Lee's gates opening
and the candle of his life force flaring up like a bonfire was
absolutely gorgeous, alike and unlike the way Naruto's power
exploded within his own body.

	She knelt by Naruto's side and carefully straightened his
nose with her good hand.

	"Nnng, thrrks," he mumbled thickly, his lips split and numb
and his eyes threatening to swell shut.  The life sacrifice chakra
still surged wildly through him, healing him from within, but it
had a lot of work to do.  Despite the power of the kyubi, Lee had
pounded the shit out of him.  More clones were already moving out
of the bushes to check Sasuke, but she already knew he was alive,
just unconscious.  Being able to see heartbeats and chakra flow
helped with the worry she felt when her teammates fought
impossible to defeat monsters sometimes.

	The clones jumped down from the trees, bringing Tenten, whose
eyes were dark with worry for her fallen teammate, and a little
bit fearful for herself.  They didn't remove her gag.

	"Don't worry, we're done here," Hinata assured her, having
fallen into her role as final protector of the team.  "He's just
sleeping.  I'm not going to hurt either of you."  She shrugged
wryly.  "The way I see it, you'll either learn from this, as we
did, or you won't, and one day it'll get you killed.  Either way,
we did all we could.  I hope Gai recognizes that."

	She signaled the clones, one of which immediately started
working on Tenten's bonds, but stopped before it had completely
untied her.  Hinata pulled out a small medicine container, which
she sat on Lee's bare chest.

	 "The antidote, for when you finally get free.  Just smear
some in his cuts."  She looked Tenten over carefully, then
shrugged again.  "Shouldn't take you more than fifteen minutes,
half an hour tops, and by then we'll be long gone."

	Tenten watched in silent astonishment as more clones picked
up Sasuke and Naruto, and together they followed Hinata.

	Team Seven left the training ground, every bit as in control
of the situation as they'd been when they entered it, looking for
a fight.


	xxxxxxxxx
	xxxxxxxxx  OMAKE OMAKE  OMAKE

	
	Wind ruffled the leaves around her.  At least she hoped it
was wind, the alternative was a little scary.  But, at least it
had cooled off when the sun went down and the stars came out.

	Tenten still sweated fiercely as she struggled with her
bonds, trying to get that first damned loop over her knuckles so
she could unravel the rest of the rig.  Beside her, Lee snored
peacefully.

	"That bitch lied to me," Tenten grumbled to herself.  "Thirty
minutes my ass."


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