It started off as a small shift, just enough to make you plant your feet and wonder what was going on.
Hinata? Naruto questioned, heading towards her.
He had almost reached her when the snow really started to move. The entire sheet of snow they were standing on started to slide off the face of the mountain. Naruto reached out and grabbed Hinatas hand as they began to fall. She screamed and pushed her way up against the snow.
Push out! Push out! Sora yelled, as she turned herself so that she was parallel to the cascading waterfall of snow. She bent her knees and pushed off, sending herself sailing off into the open air. Twisting around, Naruto grabbed Hinata around the waist and they pushed off as well, shooting out away from the mountain. They watched in awe as a third of the mountain slid away.
The snows still going to be moving when we land! Try to stay on top as best you can! Use chakra! Sora yelled as loud as could over the howling wind in their ears. Hinata looked down at the snow moving along the ground underneath her feet. She gulped, closed her eyes, and concentrated her charka on her feet.
They hit the snow at a dead run. The second the snow made contact with their feet it would break away, leaving them once again with nothing to stand on. The snow smashed into their bodies and faces, completely whiting out their world. Only the fact that Sora had made them walk though rapids kept them from completely losing their footing. It was almost like walking on air. Narutos arm started to slip from around Hinatas waist and they fought to keep in contact with each other. Naruto had to turn his back against the snow to keep them from getting pushed down.
And that was when he saw it. Through the rivers of snow whipping past them, he could just barely make out snow that was going up towards the sky and back towards them. It arched over their heads, and he was willing to bet anything that it was coming back down to hit them again.
Shit. This wasnt an avalanche; this was an attack. It wasnt going to die down eventually if they just tried to ride it out. It was just going to keep coming.
He looked to his left and was just barely able to make out Sora struggling against the snow a few feet away.
Its coming back! he yelled, for lack of a better way to describe it.
What the hell do you mean its coming back? Sora yelled back.
Naruto pointed behind them. Sora looked towards the upsweeping snow. Aw, SHIT! She started trying to move towards them. Weve got to counter it somehow!
How the hell do we do that? Naruto yelled.
Hinata yelped as she lost her footing. Naruto gripped her hand as hard as he could and tried to pull her to him, but instead he got yanked down with her and they both went tumbling through the snow.
He managed to get his hands around her waist again, pulling her back against his chest and curling around her. Damn it!
Hold on, he heard Hinata say, hunching her shoulders and trying to make space between them for her hands. She pushed her palms together and started forming seals, fighting against the pounding of the snow. They kept sliding farther and farther down the mountain, pushing desperately with their feet to keep themselves from being swept under the snow.
Finally, she finished the last of the seals and jumped up to wrap her hand around his neck. Realizing what she was trying to do, Naruto grabbed Hinata tightly and lifted her up higher, so that she was leaning slightly over his shoulder.
She raised her hands to her mouth. Phoenix Fire no Jutsu! she yelled, and blew over her fingers, sending a ball of flame into the air. Instantly, the snow around them began to melt. Water rushed past them, carving out pathways in the snow while white swirls of steam rose above them. The fire effectively cut the snow, clearing a path for them to stand, although the banks of snow around them seemed to rise higher and higher.
Then, suddenly, the pounding of the snow simply stopped. They stared for a second, not believing it was over, before Hinata finally slid down to the ground. Slowly, they looked around them. They had apparently melted not only the snow coming around them, but the snow underneath their feet as well. The water from the melted snow had run through the banks behind them, cutting out a thin gorge with high walls.
Walking over, Naruto tested the walls of snow with his hand. It crumbled away easily under his hand. Its not going to support our weight, he said, looking back at her over his shoulder.
She bit her lower lip and nodded. So were stuck? she asked.
Naruto rubbed the snow out of his hair. Of course not!
Then how are we getting out?
He grinned sheepishly. I havent quite figured that out yet.
She sighed and looked up at the walls of the ravine. The sky showed clear and blue above them.
Such a pity, a silky voice said.
Naruto and Hinata turned to look down the length of the ravine. Standing about a hundred feet away were two men; one slender, the other huge.
Narutos breath sucked in as he looked at the mens coats; black, with dark red clouds swirling around them. They had evaded them for so long that it almost seemed impossible that they could be here, but there was no denying who they were.
I must say that I didnt really expect that little trick to kill you or your sister, but I had hoped that it would rid us of that little friend of yours, the man continued. It was impossible to see his face; the collar of his coat met the brim of his wide straw hat almost perfectly. His companion was hatless, wild black hair sticking out from his head in every direction. His nose was hawkish; his eyes deep-set and dark. He stared down at them from his great height wordlessly, but with a face full of contempt.
The man with the hidden face continued to speak in his soft, lilting voice. It was almost hypnotizing. Allow me to introduce us. This is Nadare, formally of the Hidden Village of Stone. Ha paused, lifting one hand to indicate his companion before bringing it back up to his own chest. And I am Shiraku. I suppose you could say that I was from the Hidden Village of Cloud, but I was there for such a brief portion of my life, it hardly seems relevant.
Hinata desperately started searching through her mind, trying to remember if there had been anything in the bingo book about either of them. Only the name Nadare rung a bell, and then only vaguely.
Havent heard of us? It isnt all that surprising. Our home villages arent terribly found of talking about us for some reason.
HA! I know why! Naruto said, startling Hinata, who had started to get drawn into his voice. You guys must not be worthy of being heard of! You must not be that strong!
Naruto! Hinata breathed. How many times had she and Sora tried to pound it into his head that he shouldnt start fights by telling the opponent how bad they were? She looked over at two men standing there. If they were Akatsuki, then they werent in the bingo book because they chose not to be, not because they werent worthy.
Shiraku reached up to grab the brim of his hat, sweeping it down off his head as he tilted his face down. Ah, dont underestimate us! He spoke quietly, almost in a whisper, but with an intensity that sent shivers down their spines. His hair was rod straight and steely gray. Hinata could almost swear there was a light blue sheen to it where it reflected the light. It fell forward, just long enough to hide his face from them. After all, he started to tilt his head, hair moving back to uncover his face. You dont even know what we can do yet!
Hinatas eyes widened as she stared at the man. He was absolutely the most beautiful man she had ever seen, almost feminine in appearance. His features were fine and narrow, almost surreally so. As if he wasnt quite human. At first the man seemed to be ghostly pale, almost white in color. But then he moved his face slightly and she realized that it was not just his natural skin tone.
The man was tattooed. White symbols had been inked in all over his face, just barely visible in his already pale skin. They covered his face almost completely, running in fanciful designs up and around the ridges of his eyes, swirling down onto his cheeks before plunging down towards his neck and disappearing into his high collar. Naruto grimaced. Why would anyone want to do that to themselves?
The man smiled icily. You think you can beat us? Youve only been allowed to roam free for as long as you have because we let you.
What do you mean? Naruto demanded.
Shiraku laughed. Do you think we havent been able to keep track of you for two and a half years? Are you so naïve that you think the Akatsuki THAT incompetent? Weve had our eye on you for a long time.
What do you mean youve had your eye on us? Naruto yelled.
His smile widened. You never did figure out why the tower collapsed on the Lady, did you?
Naruto and Hinatas jaws dropped. Were they saying that they were the ones who
No, Hinata whispered. But that would mean they had known where they were for a year! How much of their training had they watched? How much about them did they know? How could they fight people who were so skilled that the three of them didnt even know they were being followed?
Shiraku laughed again. You really are amusing. For all your training-
Shiraku. The man behind them finally spoke, his expression never changing, his eyes never leaving them. Cant we just get to it?
The slender man looked annoyed for a second and then sighed. Youre right, youre right, go ahead and get them. He turned to walk away, waving his hand in a dismissive gesture.
Nadare brought his hands together in front of him, his left hand wrapping his right fist. He breathed in deeply, then exhaled with a rush of breath. Naruto and Hinata backed up a pace, trying to figure out what was going to happen. Nadare turned and slammed his fist into the wall beside him. It began to shake, snow starting to break away from the tops of the ravine, falling onto them in huge clumps.
Shit! Weve gotta get out of here! Naruto yelled. Bending their knees, they jumped as high as they could onto the wall of snow and started trying to work their way up. The snow crumbled under their hands as they tried to keep their charka spread wide enough to keep them moving.
The walls continued to shake harder and harder as they went up, seeming to bend in illogical ways. They found themselves sucked in with the wall as the snow fell around them, closing out the sun.
Naruto! Hinata screamed and reached for his hand. Their fingertips just barely made contact before the snow buried them both.
It was cold, it was dark, and it was difficult to breath. Naruto turned his head slightly, and tried to calm his breathing. There wasnt much oxygen in the snow, and every breath he took depleted it more. He reached out with one hand trying to find Hinata. Finally, he managed to brush the tips of her fingers and hook them with his just up to the first knuckle. He could feel her shaking.
He pushed his other hand down into the snow a little, trying to make room for him to move it freely. He had never been so grateful that he knew how to use one handed seals. Without them we would be stuck. With them, he had a small chance of survival.
He started to feel himself go slightly lightheaded with lack of oxygen. He started to run through three quick seals, then opened his palm flat down. Wind of Fire no Jutsu, he whispered.
The hot air blasted out of his palm, melting some of the snow and almost burning his skin. But with it came much needed oxygen. Naruto turned his hand to blast the snow from under him. As the snow underneath him gave, he fell to his feet and turned the blast to the snow under Hinata. He pulled her towards him and she came crashing through the last of the snow, landing on his chest with a shriek and a thump.
He closed his hand, ending the juts, while she panted hard and clung to him. Two more seals and he had a small ball of chakra glowing like a light bulb over his hand. He looked around the little room he had made. The melted water had frozen again, turning the walls and floor to glittering sheets of ice.
I think we have enough air to last us for a bit. He reached up with his free hand to rub along her shoulder blade. You okay?
She nodded into his shoulder and then pulled away slightly to look up at him. Thank you, she said.
He squeezed her with one arm and then looked up at the ceiling. So theoretically, if we go straight up, well get out of here.
But we dont know how far up it is. Plus, we dont know if well destabilize something and end up crushing ourselves again, she protested.
Well, theres got to be some way out of this! he said crankily. Maybe we can signal Nee-chan somehow.
How would we keep from signaling the men too? she asked.
I dont know, but we have to do something! he yelled. She winced and took a step backwards.
Hey, hey! he said, slightly panicked-sounding, hauling her back up against him. Im sorry! I didnt mean to yell. He tilted his chin to run his cheek across the top of her head.
She chocked back on the tears that were threatening to come out of her eyes. I know, its just
I dont see how were going to get out of here!
There has to be a way out.
But how do you know that? How can you be so sure?
He grinned down at her, almost apologetically. Because if things are still the same as last time, they want me alive.
Her eyes widened as she stared up at him. Then she set her features and nodded firmly. Let me see what I can see, she said, backing up out of his arms. She turned to one of the walls and activated her Byakugan then the echoes. Instantly, her world was transformed into one of colored lines and shadows. She could see the remains of the chakra from Narutos jutsu around her, filling the cavern. Focusing her eyes outward, she tried to see what lay beyond the walls of snow.
The snow itself was full of chakra lines. She squinted slightly, trying to make out exactly what form they were taking. Waves, she realized; two different types of them. Not the kind of wave that went up and down while it moved forward, but also the kind that pushed things together and then pulled them apart, like the waves the Sound Nins used.
She suddenly became even colder. They werent up against Sound Nin, were they?
Hina-chan? Narutos voice cut through her thoughts. Can you see how far it is to the surface?
She blinked at him and then turned off the echoes and looked into the layers of shadows surrounding them. There was solid snow around them on three sides. One direction seemed to offer air if you dug. Wed have to go through about 50 feet that way, she said, pointing.
What about up?
She tilted her head towards the ceiling. About twenty
Her voice trailed off as the shadows seemed to shift slightly. Her brow creased and she tilted her head slightly, trying to get a better idea of what was going on. Raising her hands, she turned the echoes back on again.
Hina-chan? Naruto asked, as her eyes went wide.
Move! she yelled. Theres something coming through-
But it was too late. A large glob of snow landed right on top of his head, covering him almost completely. Light streamed into the caverns from the large round opening. Sora stuck her head in upside down.
Okay, so I understand that you two havent gotten a lot of time alone with each other recently, but isnt this a bit much? She grinned.
Dammit! Naruto burst out of the pile of snow. Did you have to do that? he yelled at Sora.
She had already started to climb out of the tunnel. Sheesh! If Id known I was going to get that that kinda reaction, I wouldve left the two of you down here longer!
He growled at her, the tension still coursing through his veins. Hinata laid a hand on his arm. She smiled slightly. Can you give me a boost? she asked.
Still scowling, he bent his knees and threaded the fingers of his hands together. Lightly placing her hands on his shoulders, Hinata put one foot up into the cup of his hands. Making sure his feet were firmly planted, Naruto threw her up through the tunnel Sora had created. She landed with a soft crunch in the snow.
Leaning over the edge of the tunnel, she watched as her boyfriend climbed up the wall, still grumbling about sisters. She smiled and reached out to offer him a hand over the edge.
Great, now that were all done playing in the snow, lets try to figure out what the hell just happened and get on home, Sora said, turning to look at the snowy horizon.
Hinata and Naruto looked at each other questioningly, then back to Sora. Onee-chan, you didnt see them? Hinata asked.
See who? Sora asked, turning to look at them over her shoulder.
The two men! The Akatsuki! Naruto yelled, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Soras eyes narrowed. What do you mean, Akatsuki? she asked through clenched teeth.
I believe he means us, a voice said.
Turning back towards her front, Sora looked at the two men standing before her. And you are? she asked.
Shiraku rolled his eyes. I already went through all of this with your young companions. Is it really necessary to go over it again? he asked, as if he were some type of long-suffering martyr.
Well, why not? Honestly, you dont seem like the type of man who would really mind introducing himself over again.
Her smile had an edge. Well, you know, with your whole look
She let her voice trail off.
What whole look?
It took Hinata a minute to understand exactly what the hell Sora was doing. She was trying to give them a chance to figure out what the hell to do. They knew nothing about these guys, and fighting blind had the potential to get them into a whole lot of trouble. Hinata continued to watch with rapt attention, as if captivated by spectacle that Sora was making, while secretly activating her Byakugan)and the echoes.
Sora kept right on talking. The whole Im a big bad guy look. Seems like you would be like most other villains in the East, most of whom seem to be thrilled to introduce themselves over and over again. At least in my experience. Honestly, what is it with you guys in the East? I mean, I was looking through that bingo book thing that you guys use over there, and it was, quite frankly, rather disappointing.
Shiraku arched one eyebrow high up on his forehead. Disappointing? I must confess, you have peaked my interest. I hope that you are able to elaborate on that subject.
Well, you guys lack unique characteristics.
Unique characteristics? The eyebrow arched impossibly higher. Behind him, Nadare started to growl, although it was uncertain if it was directed at Sora or his partner.
There was something funny about the echoes surrounding the tall, thin man. The other mans were fairly straightforward. He reverberated with the kind of waves that she had found in the snow. If he was from Rock, then it must be some sort of earth-related ability. Earthquakes, or something like that. But the other mans echoes didnt make any kind of sense. Almost every echo that surrounded him had the characteristic marks of a scroll, the combination of twisted strings; solid chakra patterns that suggested lifting part of the power from marks of some sort, and the twisted knots that came from using blood. Hinata gulped. Those knots were everywhere.
Soras voice was calm and patient, as if she was talking to little children. See, in the West, we have villains with large personalities. One walks into a bar, everyone knows who he is. He has his own trademarks; his own special things that he does that make him different from all other villains out there.
She dropped her voice to a low whisper. You certainly wouldnt catch them dead wearing matching coats. She shook her head, as if still disappointed in the idea. Honestly. Matching coats are for gangs, clans; that sort of thing. Not for a collection of high class criminals. It takes away from your individuality. Yasu and I certainly never wore matching outfits. And we almost never had to introduce ourselves.
Hinata focused in on the echoes of one particular jutsu whose echoes were still fairly strong. There were the knots caused by the blood, but they didnt seem to form a pattern of binding, so he wasnt using it for summoning. She tried looking at the base of the pattern, the solid frame that gave the jutsu its basic structure. It was too regular, too perfect to have been created at the same time as the rest of the jutsu. It had to have been lifted from somewhere else; a scroll or some other type of drawn pattern
She gasped lightly and took an involuntary step back.
Naruto turned to look at her. Hina-chan? he asked quietly. She turned to look at him. Her eyes were filled will a myriad of different emotions: confusion, horror, disbelief; they all played in her wide pale eyes.
Well, that is an absolutely fascinating theory you have on how to be a villain, and I must say that you certainly have a rather unique view of things, but matching coats aside, I have to say that you exhibit a rather disappointingly limited view.
Limited view of what?
Of ways to handle you enemies. He laughed. Did you think that I would not realize what you were doing? I have been trailing you for months now. I know how the three of you do everything. You stall by making an idiot out of yourself while she evaluates whats going on using that nice little scanning thing. He grinned wickedly at Hinata. Go on, little girl, tell everyone what youve learned. Hinata just stood staring at him in horror. Cat got your tongue? Well, I suppose I can just demonstrate.
Shiraku reached up and took off his coat.
There were half a million jokes that Sora could have made about the situation in front of them, but something held her back. Maybe it was the fact that this situation had now gone well beyond the realms of bizarre. She almost wished she had time to haul out her camera and take a couple of good snapshots of this guy; even with corroborating witnesses, no one was going to believe her when she described him.
He was wearing a loincloth, for heavens sake! Or maybe a miniskirt was a better description. Whatever it was, it wasnt covering much more than the bare essentials, leaving the rest of his body out in the open air. He seemed to be striking some sort of pose, like a model in some sort of macabre fashion spread. It would have been absolutely hilariously funny if it wasnt for the fact that he had just established himself as being the one in control of the situation. The enemy knew all about them, down to how much information they were going to be able to collect.
It turned out that his face had only been the beginning. His body was completely tattooed. Every inch of skin was covered in white markings, forming patterns all over him.
Sora tilted her head slightly to one side looking at the marks. Maybe she shouldnt have made the cracks about lack of individuality.
He grinned, sending a shiver down all three of their spines. It was just plain creepy.
Now, perhaps you will learn how to look beyond the coats, he said, his silvery-blue hair shifting over his shoulders. Out of nowhere, a kunai appeared, spinning around in the fingers of his right hand. Suddenly, he grabbed it firmly and sliced across the fingers of his left hand.
He was starting something. But what, they didnt know.
Sora turned to look over her shoulder at the pair standing behind her. Hinata! she yelled.
I think its the tattoos. I think he utilizes them like you would a scroll and uses them to bump the power of his jutsu, she said somewhat hesitantly.
You think! You cant be more specific? Sora questioned.
Ive never seen anything like it before! I cant be sure of exactly what he does!
Oh, youre quite right about what I do, little girl. His smile broadened. Allow me to demonstrate.
He raked bloody fingers down his arm. Lighting Storm no Jutsu.
It had always struck Sora as rather odd that Fire Country was the most habitable of all the lands of the East. For somewhere that sounded like it should be covered in volcanoes and molten lava, Fire Country had surprisingly little fire and a surprisingly large amount of trees. She had heard from Naruto about the training with the leaf that gave the hidden village its name, but she suspected it had more to do with the fact that the founders had wanted to make sure that the rest of the world knew that there were, in fact, leafy green things in Fire Country. Because there sure werent in a lot of the other countries.
The Hidden Village of Rock in Earth Country was exactly what the name implied; rocky. However, the full extent of this rockiness was almost impossible to understand unless you went there yourself. Earth Country was huge and sparsely-populated because there was so little vegetation to keep anyone alive and Rock barely would have counted as a village. Most of the people lived in houses carved into the sides of the deep canyons that dredged their way through the country, making due with the sparse vegetation that grew along the riverbanks. They lived away from the light of day, stripped away from the rest of the world.
This was where Nadare had grown up; a huge, hulking man who towered over the rest of his brethren. Within the confined space of the tunnels of rock, his sheer mass had startled people, but nothing more. He was well-known for being a rather gentle giant, and while he had not proven to be anything special, he was generally liked and respected. He didnt seem to connect with others very well, but that was not too great a cause of concern. After all, he loved his country. He was something of an outcast, not someone you would personally hang out with, but not someone you would object to being around.
That is, until the day he killed his entire family and more than half the people in the small village he lived in. With one giant wave of chakra, he collapsed part of the cliff where two hundred or so Rock villagers had made their home. Then he turned and walked away, leaving the survivors to scream after him one question he refused to answer; why?
By the time Shiraku had partnered up with Nadare, he had become a quiet giant in the underworld, partially because he was simply such an enigma. He was a mercenary, but he turned down some jobs and accepted others with seemingly no logical pattern. He would settle down for a few years and not work at all, once even going so far as to take a wife and have a child. And then one day he killed them both and left to wander again. His unpredictability was one of the things that made him so feared. You didnt know when he was going to turn.
To Shiraku, Nadares shifting personality was an almost insufferable secret. He was constantly trying to decide if Nadares actions were part of a carefully-crafted persona or truly the random splattering of things they seemed to be. It was actually this that had brought the two men together. Shiraku was the king of carefully crafted personas, and he was constantly trying to decide if Nadare had somehow managed to create one that was actually better than his. Nadare, for his part, was the only other member of the Akatsuki who could stand Shiraku.
Shiraku was fond of saying that he had always known he was evil, a fact that he enjoyed telling people about in length; multiple times if possible. He used to stare at the mirror, looking at his pale hair and skin, and simply know that he was destined to be one of the most evil men to walk the face of the earth. It was an attitude that made a number of the other members of the Akatsuki rather irritated, but they couldnt deny the mans skill. Whether it was a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy or not, Shiraku was one of the more truly dastardly men among them, and, most importantly of all, he was willing to go to great lengths to prove it.
And so Shiraku always did the dirty work. He was proud of the fact that he was a villain worthy of striking fear into the hearts of his victims. He was an absolute sadist, among other things. But Cloud nins had always brought a certain level of extra unease to those around them.
Lightning Country was thus named for a very simple reason. In some bizarre twist of nature, the basin in which Lightning Country sat was filled from mountain peak to mountain peak by a constant storm that laced the sky with lightning. Strategically, it was one of the best protected of the countries in the East. The sun never shone, the lightning flashing frequently enough to provide sufficient, if sporadic, light. It was a generally considered fact that the lack of a clear day and night drove everyone in Lightning slightly batty.
The government of Lightning was one of the most corrupt of countries of the East. It was not, as many believe, ruled by a Kage, but in truth secretly run by a few clans who possessed bloodlines and put a king of straw on the throne. The clans had inter-married and complexly inter-connected, but always struggling with and within each other for greater power. As a result, the rest of the country was lawless and falling apart. It was a no-mans land that few dared to enter.
The Hidden Village of Cloud was so called because it was in a virtually permanent fog. As opposed to Mist, where there was a light haze of water, the air in Cloud was almost permanently in a state of saturation, the streets difficult to navigate in a fog so dense that it seemed almost impenetrable. People simply disappearing in the fog was not an uncommon occurrence. Many were the tales of people who had been seen entering the Hidden Village of Cloud but never came out again, sometimes vanishing from a group of companions in the time it took to walk a single block.
Shiraku had left Lightning Country at the age of six in order to find the answer to a simple question; how to compensate for his lack of bloodline limit. If he wanted to be evil, he was going to have to be powerful as well; after all, what was the point of being evil if one was weak? He could be cruel, and even among the Cloud nins he was considered one of the cruelest, but that wasnt going to get him where he wanted. As long as he stayed in Cloud, he was going to be treated as sub-standard for his lack of a bloodline limit and never admitted to the ranks of the ruling clans.
So he left Lightning behind in search of a way to truly become powerful. And while he was only a fair hand at most things, he found he had two strengths; his active attempts to do the cruelest things possible in every situation possible, and an uncanny talent with scrolls. He could even tweak what he wanted the scroll to do beyond the writing. But scrolls were awkward; they needed to constantly be re-made, and they didnt quite have the finesse he was looking for.
That was when he came up with the idea for the tattoos.
By the time the Akatsuki began to form, creating loose plans and gathering their members, Shiraku was completely covered in white tattoos running in lines and curves all over his body. A slice of a knife across his fingertips, and he was ready to draw the line of blood down his thigh or across his stomach. He knew exactly where to draw to get the desired jutsu; just where to tweak it to get the desired effect.
He was however, much to his disappointment, not much more than a common criminal. He had killed a number of people with powerful bloodline limits and eliminated entire clans down to their children, but he wasnt the legend he wanted to be. He wanted to be someone whose very name sent shivers down the spines of grown men. He wanted to be someone whose legend would live on long after he was gone.
So when the chance had come to join the Akatsuki, he had jumped at it.
Itachi had protested his being brought in. Shiraku, however, had some very valuable assets when it came to setting up the plan that united the original ten Akatsuki together. It was his skills with scrolls that made the plan possible at all. However, his part was finished, and as soon as that happened, watching his back had become a top priority.
The Akatsuki were not some brotherhood of S-Class criminals who wanted what was best for the group. They were not people who believed in fair rewards for good work. They were even more cutthroat with each other than they were with the rest of the world. Shiraku knew that it was only a matter of time until someone within the organization stepped up to get rid of him. He was the weakest of the group, and unless he made a statement that said that he was still of potential value to the plan, he would not live to see its end; and if he died now, he would be lucky to get a footnote in history.
And so he was making his play to remain valuable now, while there was still time. Now, before Itachi could nab the boy, he was going to bring Akatsuki the keystone to their plans. Then when the time came to reap the rewards of their actions, he would still be alive to receive his share.
His destiny was at hand.
The tattoos on his arm seemed to glow slightly and rise off the skin as he called out the name of the technique. The marks twisted on his arms, swirled around, and then started to stretch as Shiraku lifted his hand away from the skin. They started to grow and pulse, stretching longer and longer between his arm and his hand.
Scatter! Sora screamed.
They all ran in opposite directions, trying to get away from the two Akatsuki members. The heat from the lightning was starting to heat the air and the snow around Shirakus feet. As the power built, the lightning started to strike out away from him, sending deafening claps of thunder into the air. They increased into a frenzy as he pumped more and more chakra into the jutsu.
Finally it reached its peak, and Shiraku turned towards Sora, now a good fifty yards away. He grinned. This was what he lived for.
Release! he screamed; the sound waves from the thunder were enough to throw someone to the ground, and the sudden shock of heat from the bolts of lightning shot past them It extended in all directions in a wide circle, and it was growing faster then they could run.
Shit! Sora cursed. She looked back over her shoulder at Shiraku. He was focused on her, and from what she could make out through the light, the lightning was moving towards her because of it. Good; that gave the kids a chance to get away.
She gasped in pain as one of the lightning bolts hit her shoulder. Gritting her teeth, she continued to run, trying to apply pressure to the wound with the opposite hand. Another bolt hit her ankle. She staggered, but kept going. Finally, she got out of the range of the lightning and collapsed to her knees.
Peeling her hand away from the wound, she grimaced and hissed. Her shoulder was a bloody mess. Her ankle, protected by the leather in her boot, seemed to be in better condition, but still not good enough to walk on.
She couldnt go back to fight like this; she would be more of a hindrance then a help. But self-healing was hard and took time; time she wasnt sure she had. But she was going to have to take it.
Come on Hinata; keep Naruto out of trouble, she muttered to herself, and set to work on her ankle.
Naruto got about two hundred yards away from the man and stopped. He seemed to be at the limit of the jutsu, but he was so far away that he could barely make out the two men standing there, and he couldnt see Sora at all.
He stared at the men in the center of the jutsu. Akatsuki. The men who had been chasing after him for over three years had finally caught up to him, and apparently theyd been watching him for a year. All this time they had been watching, waiting for him to get to a point where they could easily snatch him. And they were going to kill Hinata and Sora to do it.
An odd feeling of panic rose up in his throat. They were his family; the people who were more precious to him than anything else in the world. The three of them had gotten into a lot of tight situations together; first with the Kaze, and then in their excursions together into the west. He had vowed that he would never let them die, and had never doubted his ability to keep his promise.
It was easy for him to be fearless when he didnt know what he was up against. But knowing that these were the best of the best, and having seen people who gave him chills with their abilities, there was a small nagging section in the corner of Narutos mind that said that he wasnt going to be strong enough to save them.
He shook his head, as if trying to jar the thought out of his head. He was talking about keeping Hinata and Sora safe; he was going to do it no matter what. It didnt matter what he came up against; he was just going to have to keep fighting. No matter what.
He knelt down to try and hide himself while he thought. He squinted at the two men. They looked to be about the same height. He frowned. Nadare had been significantly taller than Shiraku when he had seen them before. The coat billowed out around him, partially hiding it, but he was definitely crouching down. And the lightning wasnt hitting him.
Naruto drew his gaze back to look at the jutsu. Shiraku had his hand raised up as far as he could and the lightning extended from his wrist in a flat plane for a good ten feet. That flat area was where Nadare was hiding. From there it expanded in width up to the edges until it was thirty feet tall where it stopped in front of him. The pattern was hard to see because the lightning was so random, but it was there.
All the theory Yasu and Sora had insisted that he and Hinata had to learn came flooding back to him. That was too large an area for him to keep complete chakra control over, no matter how good he was. There had to be holes in control where he could slip into the center of the jutsu, and once he was there, he only had to stay low enough that the lightning wouldnt hit him. He just had to find the holes.
And to do that, he had to find Hinata.
He brought his hands up, index and middle fingers pressed together. He formed a cross in front of his chest. Kage Bunshin no Jutsu! he yelled.
Instantly there were three Narutos standing on the mountainside. The real one backed away slightly, while one crouched back down and the other one ran off around the edge of the jutsu towards Sora.
Camouflage no Jutsu, he whispered, setting one hand down on the snow. The white of the snow started to bleed up his arm, turning him and his clothes the same color as the landscape. It wasnt a perfect disguise; your body was covered in a repetition of the colors below your palm. There was no way that it would work up close, but from a distance it generally succeeded in hiding your presence.
He started off towards where he had last seen Hinata.
As he approached her location, he swung his head around looking for her, nearly running into her in the process. There was a whispered, Naruto-kun? and the sound of a footstep to the side before a hand grabbed his wrist to stop him. He looked up, and there she was holding onto his hand.
Ignore me? he asked. She nodded.
Naruto felt rather stupid. Seeing through genjutsu still wasnt a strong point of his, but he should have been able to see her. The technique was one of her favorites. It was actually called Gliding Eyes no Jutsu because it caused people around you to simple glide over you without really noticing you were there. But ignore me was what you were supposed to project out.
Learning it was a particularly fond memory; one from right when they had move in with Nori and Yasu. Yasu had explained it to Hinata, with a large amount of buildup, telling her how complicated but effective it was, and how it called a very specific mindset that was very difficult to maintain. Hinata had sat there nervously, fidgeting with the hem of her shirt, waiting for Yasu to tell her what the horribly hard to maintain mindset was. Finally, it came out. She had to keep concentrating on getting the person to ignore her. Hinata stared at her for a second, and then said simply, I can do that.
But the jutsu wasnt supposed to work very well if you were trying to look specifically for the person. The opponents could not be concentrating on you, and that was exactly what Naruto had been doing. Albeit, Hinata was very, very good at the technique, but he couldnt quite excuse himself because of that. He had nearly run right into her!
He shook the thought out of his head. Hed chalk it up to being distracted for now and work on it later.
Hina-chan, are there holes in the jutsu? he asked, grabbing her by the shoulders.
Holes? she asked, startled eyes wide.
weak spots where we can sneak in. If we can get into the center, then the lightning cant get us. He cant maintain that level of chakra control for that entire area; there has to be a way that we can slip in.
its the Akatsuki! she whispered harshly. There wasnt a limit to what these men were able to do, was there? They were the stuff of nightmares.
Just look! Naruto begged,turning her back towards the men. She gulped and activated her Byakugan
She watched as the chakra circled around the man, then closed her eyes and turned on the echoes.
The two men were still standing there in the middle of the snow, waiting for them to attack. She watched the echoes, the lines forming swirling patterns across the air. Shiraku had apparently stopped concentrating the chakra towards Sora. That was good; it meant he wasnt sure where any of them were and she could see how the lightning strikes moved naturally. The path that each lightning strike took left an echo of its presence behind, making it easy to see the form of the jutsu; a flat circular disc that expanded into walls of lightning. But what she was able to see that Naruto had not been able to was that the walls did not end at thirty feet. They werent flat; they were curved, reversing back to form a thick discus of chakra that completely surrounded them.
It took her a good five minutes of staring to see how it worked. The whole disc was filled with chakra, and it was only when it clashed together at an odd angle with other chakra that the lightning could be formed. Shiraku was sending out waves of chakra that got bigger and bigger as they reached the edge of the circle. That was the only part of the jutsu he was really controlling. So that meant that when he concentrated the lightning in one direction
She turned back to Naruto. The only pattern that is there is the one you can see because he has only partial control over where the lightning bolts go. He triggers them more than anything else with waves of chakra. He can change the direction of the chakra hes sending out, but there isnt any pattern once they are created.
There arent any holes, she concluded, almost apologetically.
What! But there has to be! he exclaimed. Its physically impossible for him to maintain that level of control over that large an area!
When he concentrates it in just one area, it opens a gap, she told him.
I told you there were holes! Naruto said triumphantly, only to see Hinata shaking her head.
There are temporary gaps, but as soon as we get in range, well move into the area his chakra is occupying, which is basically the entire area around them. We wouldnt get more than a few feet in before he changed the direction of the lightning towards us.
Well, is there any place its only a few feet thick? he asked.
No; even at its thinnest, its twenty feet or so! she said, tears in her eyes. She hated to be the one to dash his hopes.
Starting from where? he asked.
What do you mean? she asked.
Where is it centered? On his hand? She nodded. So with his hand up in the air, the centers only a few feet below the surface of the snow. Well be able to tunnel in!
Hinata just stared at him. Tunneling under someone who had been using the earth and snow against them a few minutes ago didnt sound like a good idea to her. What if they detect us? she asked, trembling slightly, eyes wide with fear.
How would they do that? he asked, dismissing her fears, although he couldnt deny the fact that she was right. But he would not let the Akatsuki take him away from his family! He didnt care what the odds; he was going to push through. He started to form the seals to start Wind of Fire no Jutsu.
Naruto-kun, this is the Akatsuki! We
we dont know w-what they can do! she cried, voice low and slightly panicked-sounding. She tugged desperately on his jacket sleeve.
At the sound of her stutter, almost unheard of these days, he stopped and dropped his arms. Fine; then well just wait here outside his range and let him tire himself out, Naruto ground out between his teeth. He hated waiting.
Hinata shook her head again. He has that jutsu set up perfectly. The chakra goes out and then doubles back to form a sphere around him. It converges above and below him and then feeds back in a loop. Because the chakra hes putting out is retuning back to him, hell be able to maintain it for a very long time. She bit her lower lip, then dared to offer a suggestion. We should get Onee-chan and run.
But Naruto didnt think they could run. This was the Akatsuki; they had apparently been following them for months. Running wasnt going to do any good. He was shaken by the idea that men so powerful wanted to kill Hinata and take him away. So he pushed logic aside and went with pure faith in his own abilities, just like he was a kid again.
What! Run! No way! We can take these guys! he exclaimed almost angrily.
But, Naruto-kun! she whispered, and cringed. She hadnt seen him this reckless in a long time. Normally he thought things through these days, but sometimes
sometimes it felt like they were twelve again, and just getting their forehead protectors.
Well go in under the snow so that they wont be able to see us. Ill set up some shadow clones to get them to concentrate the lightning in one area, and then we can come up through the snow and grab them. It will just be a few feet. I know we can do it! Once were in, Ill hit them with the Rasengan and you can seal up their chakra! Piece of cake! He flashed her his trademark grin.
But it wasnt going to be a piece of cake; that much Hinata knew. Tears threatened to well up in her eyes. Nervously, she pressed her index fingers together, looking off towards the Akatsuki. She didnt want to fight them. Their presence threatened to take Naruto away from her, and at their level, she was sure that she had a better chance of keeping him if they ran away. Werent they supposed to be hiding from the Akatsuki? Wasnt that the point of Naruto being here with Sora rather than back in Konoha?
He was charging in blindly again, counting on the force of his will alone to get them through; refusing to look and analyze the situation before beginning the attack. He never thought about what was going to happen in a fight for more than the next five minutes, and while his five-minute plans were often brilliant, they were nevertheless short-sighted. Over the past two and a half years he had gotten better and better, and so far they had always managed to squeak through, but there was no way that it could always work.
But if she didnt go in with him, he would go in alone.
She held back the tears and nodded, indicating that she would go ahead with his plan.
He grinned and crossed his fingers in front of him, calling up more shadow clones. Then, he ran through the seals and activated Wind of Fire no Jutsu, pushing his hand into the ground and melting the snow around it. He forged ahead into the snow bank, creating the start of a tunnel, before he turned and held his free hand out to her with a grin.
She hesitated for a second, then took his hand and allowed him to lead her into the tunnel.
Theyre not attacking, Nadare said in a low rumble.
Just wait a bit longer. Its been fifteen minutes since he sent the shadow clones out toward his sister; he wont be able to hold himself back much longer.
It would be smarter for them to leave and try to position themselves better.
Shiraku rolled his eyes in frustration. Nadare, Im telling you, theres no way that the boys not going to attack; especially considering that hes separated from Sora. Hes never been able to put fights into perspective.
What about the other girl?
Shiraku gave a contemptuous snort. That little thing? She does whatever he says! She probably knows that its a bad idea, but will let him lead her onto the battlefield by the hand anyway.
No more buts! Shiraku snarled. Just be patient; he wont be able to hold himself back much longer.
And sure enough, a few minutes later Nadare felt movements just a few feet under the surface of the snow. He could feel the slight shifting below their feet. Theyre tunneling in under us, he said quietly.
His partner sneered. How pathetic! As if they could sneak up on us! He ended the lightning storm. Go ahead and force them up.
Nadares brow creased slightly; then he brought his hands together, building up the chakra in-between them before slamming one hand down into the snow.
Naruto estimated that they were about halfway there when the quake hit. He had just enough time to shout What the hell! before the tunnel collapsed and he found himself being pushed through the snow, moving every which way. He struggled again the currents of snow, trying desperately to keep hold of Hinatas hand, until they were pulled in opposite directions and it was ripped out of his grasp. He couldnt even yell out to her; he could barely even breathe.
He felt himself being thrust violently in one direction, which way he couldnt tell, until he suddenly broke through the surface of the snow and went catapulting through the sky. He gulped for air and tried to twist himself to where he could see the enemy. He landed lightly on his feet facing them and howled in rage.
They had Hinata.
Nadare was holding her in a full nelson, his huge arms going under her small ones and his hands clenched together behind her head. Her arms had been forced wide so that they couldnt come together to perform seals and her head was pointed down at the snow. She looked dead, hanging like a cross from the huge mans arms, legsdangling helplessly in the air.
Hinata! Naruto yelled and charged at the two men head on, summoning more shadow clones. The bowl of the mountain filled with clones, littering the snow and all heading towards Nadare and Shiraku.
Shiraku pulled out his kunai, and, flipping it through the air, cut small gashes on the inside of both arms. He then brought the gashes together, hands to elbows, staring at the advancing clones from over his crossed arms. Lightning Whips no Jutsu! he yelled, raking his arms down each other. As they parted at his hand, a massive bolt of lightning formed between his palms. He thrust them apart, lengthening the lightning, sizzling and twisting in the air, crawling up to his elbows.
With a snap of his elbows he separated the bolt into two separate ropes, hanging like twisting snakes from his elbows, crackling in the air.
He raised one arm up across his face, watching as the clones advanced. His eyes narrowed and he brought his hand down and out in an arch. As it traveled, it grew until at the crest of the arch, it was almost fifty feet long. It swept through the army of clones, destroying each one it touched, taking out half.
Hanging back off to the side, Naruto growled. He was going to have to maneuver himself through Shirakus cover in order to get the man.
Hinata was going to have to hang on.
He charged again, keeping his eyes on the whips of lightning. Shiraku started to move his arms in wide circles and spirals, moving the ropes across the plane in front of him. Naruto dodged and ducked, watching as the less-skilled shadow clones disappeared in puffs of smoke around him. He was getting closer and closer; twenty feet
he was almost within striking distance.
He reached down to the pouch on his leg and pulled out a kunai. He pulled back his arm and prepared to strike.
Both whips hit him at the same time; one across the chest and one across the face. He screamed in pain as they stung and burned at the same time, searing through his shirt to the skin below. Their force picked him up off his feet and propelled him through the air. He went flying into a snowdrift, mercifully cold on burns that were red and blistering.
Shiraku laughed at him, lightning still hanging from his arms. Are you really so naïve as to think that youd be able to get me with something as simple as that?
Naruto struggled to stand up against the pain in his chest. The burns were already starting to heal, but they were still stinging and itching like mad.
He needed a new plan.
Reaching down into the snow, he drew a line in the snow, followed by the curves and loops that formed the western script, spelling out the world grow.
He held his hand up and started making seals, a different one in each hand. Two streams of chakra grew, flowing out of each palm. The chakra formed spiky balls in each hand, resting in curled fingers that formed a one handed seal. The center of each ball glowed blue, but at the ends of the spikes, one turned faintly green and the other orange.
Naruto brought the base of his palms together and raised them up over his head. The chakra balls banged against each other, protesting their proximity to each other. Naruto gritted his teeth and pushed his hands together, forcing the balls to become one. The force of the power vibrated through his entire body, but he held on, continuing to compress the chakra into a smaller and smaller ball.
Iron Bamboo Forest no Jutsu! he yelled, slamming his hands down into the middle of the word written in the snow. From just in front of his hand, tall stocks of black bamboo stared to spring out of the ground, shooting up into the sky. Naruto remained crouched, squinting through the rapidly growing bamboo towards his enemies, guiding where the trees grew.
The first line of bamboo shot out between Nadare and Shiraku, cutting them off from each other. Then it spiraled in, growing thick and dense around them, pinning them into place.
Shiraku reached out and touched one of the stalks of bamboo. It was shiny like regular black bamboo, but harder and colder. It wasnt living; it was made of cold iron, but somehow the jutsu allowed the iron to retain the flexibility of bamboo, bending in the wind. The snapback of the bent bamboo would be deadly and the leaves would slice through your skin easily.
The man smiled. Hed watched Naruto learn this technique. It was an impressive one, combining the life energy with the iron effectively when they were such opposites naturally.
Naruto ran through a few seals and then grabbed the nearest stalk of bamboo. Red hot heat surged down the length of the stalk and into the ground, melting the snow around it. It traveled through the roots, connecting from plant to plant, running the heat up the length of the bamboo and into the leaves.
The forest swayed and crackled with heat. The snow melted away, leaving the ground a tangled network of iron roots.
Shiraku smiled. Very impressive indeed. He had effectively cut the two men off from each other and changed the landscape completely. The boy was a fast thinker with quick reflexes; he would be able to navigate the treacherous ground and use the bamboo to his advantage, controlling where the heat went. It tilted the playing field in his favor.
Naruto jumped up and grabbed a hold of one of the stalks, holding on with one hand as he put his feet up and balanced on its side. He had Nadare boxed in, and hopefully that would prevent him from going off anywhere with Hinata while he dealt with Shiraku. Plus, he could still move through the forest without much trouble, so he should be able to strike where his enemies could not. He had the upper hand.
But it wasnt going to be enough.
He started moving though the trees, trading bended stalk for bended stalk, slowly coming closer and closer to Shiraku. The man just stood in the close confines of the bamboo, watching the trees around him. He smiled slightly and nicked his finger on his kunai, then ran the bloody finger across the small of his back.
High in the bamboo above Shirakus head, Naruto prepared to attack. He didnt expect to actually get Shiraku with his next onslaught. But with any luck he would be able to drive him into the bamboo. So far the tattooed man had shows no indication that he liked to use taijutsu or even genjutsu. In the bamboo forest, he would have to work hard enough to keep from getting burned or whacked that he shouldnt be able to use seals or his damn tattoos.
But Shiraku beat him to the opening move. Out from his back ripped two long knives of chakra. With a yell, he turned in a tight circle, moving the knives in a wide arc. They sliced through the iron bamboo stalks easily, sending them toppling to the ground.
Naruto yelled as the stalks fell on and around him. The iron sizzled against his already torn skin as his plan backfired. He managed to release the heat aspect of the jutsu as he fell, but not before he had sustained several bad burns.
He collapsed, slightly dizzy with pain, under the weight of the iron bamboo. Damn it! He couldnt even move under the weight.
Shiraku walked over to where Naruto lay prone underneath the bamboo. A few more slashes of chakra cut away the bamboo on top of the boy. He reached down and hauled Naruto halfway to his feet.
Youre lucky you have that Kyuubi, you know that? Anyone else would be dead by now, between the lightning and these burns. But you survive without fail, which is a good thing for me, because I intend to capture you, not kill you.
He grinned. Still, it takes a little time for the wounds to heal, does it not? And until they do, youre still paralyzed by the pain, arent you? He raised one hand, glowing blue with chakra. Lets just see how long we can keep you like that.
The hand landed over his face with a sickening hiss and horrible sting.
Still holding onto Hinata, Nadare watched dispassionately as Shiraku toyed with the boy. They should just capture him and leave, but Shiraku always had to do it his way, and his way was always dramatic. Evil couldnt just win. Evil had to triumph. But Nadare was starting to wonder if Shirakus theatrics werent going to make things take too long.
The sister could return at any minute. And she was one they were going to have to look out for.
Suddenly, his world started to melt before his eyes. The sky bled down, covering everything in a pure blue. Then a knifes edge of wind stabbed him between the shoulder blades.
Nadare stiffened and loosened his hold on Hinata just enough for her to flow out of his grip. His world went back to normal, the genjutsu ending. His eyebrows pulled together. He had forgotten that she used one-handed seals, and therefore his normal way of holding captives wouldnt work.
Hinata flipped slightly in the air, landing on her hands and kicking her legs out, hitting the inside of Nadares knees. She turned back over onto her feet and started to run towards Naruto, winding her way through the bamboo.
The man bent over and rubbed his knees. There had been some sort of chakra spike in those kicks, making his knees spasm painfully. He could push in some elementary healing chakra, but it was still going to be a few minutes before he was able to move.
Ducking her way through the bamboo, Hinata tried to make her way over to Naruto. Her bloodline limit was on and her mind completely focused on getting to him. A curiously strong protective instinct had been awakened in her and she was filled with a determination and fearlessness she had never felt before.
She cleared the bamboo and slid across the ground past Shiraku, aimed for the hand that was wrapped around Narutos neck. The base of her palm landed firmly against Shirakus elbow, shooting chakra through his arm and breaking the tendons.
But just as her hand make contact, Shirakus hand, still pulsing with the burning chakra he had been using to torture Naruto, shot out from under his opposite arm and hit her in the stomach. They both yelped in pain, Hinata flying out into the forest again, Shiraku dropping Naruto and clutching his elbow to his body.
Shiraku watched the petite girl fall in the bamboo forest. He grinned and looked down at Naruto. Lets see how your little girlfriend does in an earthquake in all that lovely bamboo, he said, raising his hand to signal Nadare.
Naruto could see the power gathering in his fist. No! he yelled and lurched to his feet, ignoring the tremendous pain that shot through him; but he knew it was too late. There was no way he could get to Nadare in time to stop him, and he wouldnt get to Hinata in time to protect her.
Suddenly, an invisible hand grabbed Nadares arm and started to pull him off through the trees, banging against the remains of the bamboo forest as he went. Shiraku watched as the huge man cleared the trees and was thrown like a feather across the snow and out of their range of sight.
The three who remained turned and looked at the voice. Sora stood thirty feet away, arms crossed over her chest, sunglasses pulled down over her eyes.
Naruto jumped to his feet and started after Hinata who was struggling to her feet.
Sora and Shiraku continued to stare at each other. When she spoke, her voice was low and dark. You two go hide. Ill take care of this asshole. She jerked her head towards Shiraku.
The words stopped Naruto in h