Waiting with Hope

The 'Phoney' War

Chapter Eight: The 'Phoney' War

The roaring wall of water forced Gai's team to retreat further to avoid it crushing them and Kisame took the initiative. Standing atop the massive wave and catching his sword again in one hand, he comfortably maintained his balance as the water hit the ground with a low booming sound, sending spray flying everywhere. Within an instant the dry, arid valley had been transformed into a huge lake.

"Pakkun, stay back," commanded Gai, settling into a taijutsu stance and keeping his eyes fixed on the shark-like man on the water's surface. The small tracking hound did as requested, leaping up the side of the valley, out of range of the impending fight. Gai nodded, satisfied. "Everyone else, stay on your guard. To create a lake of that size using only a single Suiton jutsu means that he must have a huge store of chakra! Now, let's go!"

Before the water's surface had even settled, Lee and Gai moved in tandem, vanishing in the blink of an eye. Launching himself forwards, Lee attacked first with a volley of powerful punches and kicks, keeping Kisame on the defensive. Gai was close behind, giving the Akatsuki member no time to create an opening for himself to swing his mighty blade. The swordsman blocked the attacks from both taijutsu experts with ease using his free hand, but was unable to find an opportunity in which he was able to make an attack of his own. The two spandex clad ninja were keeping so close to him that he couldn't swing Samehada around and he was forced to wait for an opening.

Hissing in frustration, Kisame blocked a powerful elbow strike from Lee using the spiked blade of his sword. He was forced back by the power of the blow but grinned widely at the sight of Lee's ripped uniform and bloody arm. However, before he could regain his balance, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a cluster of shuriken heading right towards him, thrown with unerring precision by Tenten. Ducking into a crouch, the shuriken passed just over his head, but again the ninja swordsman had no chance to regain his footing as a cry of, "Hakke Kuushou!" sent a blast of air at him, sending him sprawling across the surface of the water.

Neji lowered his raised hand, satisfied with the contact his attack had made. Gai-sensei had drilled his students into the habit of not letting their opponents rest for even a second and to keep battering at their defences with controlled, co-ordinated attacks, preventing their enemies from obtaining any sort of momentum. The strategy seemed to be working well so far, but Neji knew that it was far too early in the fight to take anything for granted, and settled back into a Jyuuken stance.

Kisame finally managed to straighten himself up, glaring at the Konoha ninja and Temari. "You pesky small fry… you're getting in my way…"

Snapping her fan open to its maximum size, Temari shouted back, "That's just what I was going to say! Fuuton: Dai Kamaitachi!"

The swing of her fan whipped up a powerful, cutting whirlwind, the air slicing apart as it whistled towards Kisame, sending up a spray of water. Kisame gritted his pointed teeth, using chakra to anchor himself to the surface of the lake he had created, and held his weapon in front of his body to take the brunt of the attack. With a mighty heave, the Akatsuki member swung his sword around and the cutting effects of Temari's jutsu were diverted to either side, the blade acting as a windbreaker.

As the mighty gale settled down, Kisame smiled ferally. "Nice try, little girl, but Samehada is sharp enough to cut through even the air! Your little breeze won't work on me." Making a few quick handsigns, Kisame clasped his hands together. "Now it's my turn! Mizu Bunshin no Jutsu!"

From the surface of the lake, five tendrils of water slowly rose and coiled together, but all of a sudden their upward progress halted and they fell back into the lake with a splash. At the same time, Kisame found that he could no longer move his body even an inch. It felt as though he had been completely paralyzed.

With an effort, he turned his head to the side, and saw the tall, lanky ninja at the back of the group with his hands clasped together, an intense look of focus on his face and the shadows from the overhead sun pooled around his feet. Looking down at his own body, Kisame could see these shadows stretched out in a line from his own body back to the kid.

Shikamaru slowly unclasped his hands. "Kagemane no Jutsu, success."

"Excellent work, Shikamaru," smiled Gai, walking up to Kisame's rigid body. "Now, who are you and why are you here?"

"Still don't remember, eh?" remarked Kisame, sounding completely unconcerned, despite being captured and surrounded. "You really are infuriating."

Shikamaru grunted at the sudden strain placed on his jutsu, and Neji's eyes widened as his Byakugan vision picked up the spike of intensely powerful chakra emanating from the Akatsuki member. "Everyone, get back!" the Hyuuga boy shouted in warning, jumping away from the shark-like man himself as he spoke. "That chakra is too strong to contain!"

Shikamaru's jutsu was indeed not strong enough to keep a grip on the ninja swordsman and the shadows released Kisame, retreating back to Shikamaru as the jutsu was overwhelmed. Kisame rolled his shoulders, working the stiffness caused by Shikamaru's jutsu out of his body, then straightened and smiled. "Now, where were we?"

-o-o-

Itachi stood completely still on the edge of the forest, carefully watching the faces of his prospective opponents, searching for a weak spot. His eyes lingered on the elderly Chiyo for the longest, wondering if he could use her age against her somehow, before dismissing the idea. Age meant experience, after all, and the way that the Suna kunoichi was focusing only on his feet and body made him fairly certain that she must have fought against an Uchiha in the past at some stage.

As the tension cranked up further and further, Naruto flexed his fingers and blinked away the cold sweat that was trickling down his forehead. Where had that come from? Just a minute ago his skin had been bone dry, but under the cold, unnerving gaze of the Uchiha genuis he felt like he was going to lose his mind. Naruto growled under his breath. He was letting Itachi psyche him out before the fight had even begun! Taking a deep breath, the orange clad shinobi tried to calm himself down. He could do this. Itachi wasn't so tough. Kakashi-sensei and the rest of his team were there to make it four against one. So why did he feel so nervous?

Before he could think any further, Kakashi barked out, "Naruto, cover me!" and rushed forward towards the Akatsuki member, Sharingan eye gleaming and a kunai gripped in his right hand. Attempting to banishing all his previous fears and doubts now that the battle had begun, Naruto reached into the pouch attached to his leg and hurled a brace of kunai at Itachi's right, preventing him from dodging the copy nin's attack in that direction. Itachi shimmied to the left, easily avoiding Naruto's weapons, and with a flick of his wrist a kunai was in his own hand too. A loud clash of steel on steel was heard as Itachi diverted Kakashi's forward lunge with his own blade and the Uchiha traitor continued the momentum of his parry, smoothly flowing into a powerful counterstrike and slashing in a fluid downwards motion. Kakashi jerked his head back to avoid it, taking care not to look directly at Itachi's face, and threw his kunai into the Konoha missing nin's chest, where it lodged firmly. But before Kakashi feel any sort of triumph the kunai fell to the floor as Itachi dissipated in a high pitched puff of smoke.

'A Kage Bunshin!' thought Kakashi, whirling his head around, searching for the real Itachi. He didn't have far to look – the Uchiha clan member was running purposefully towards the rest of the group, kunai poised in front of him like the stinger of some demonic insect.

Seeing Itachi get past his silver haired sensei, Naruto tensed his muscles and launched himself forward, gathering chakra into a tightly compacted ball in the palm of his hand. A spiralling sphere of bright blue light appeared in his hand, and Naruto roared, "Rasengan!" at the top of his voice, hammering the mass of whirling chakra into Itachi's stomach.

Naruto expected to see Itachi fly backwards from the force of the blow, but the Akatsuki ninja didn't even move an inch. Instead, his body seemed to flicker for a second, before splitting apart into a flurry of… feathers? The missing nin had transformed into a flock of large birds with dark plumage and they were circling overhead, cawing and crowing mockingly. Naruto looked around nervously. What was going on? Chiyo, Hinata and Kakashi-sensei had all gone totally still, and the leaves in the trees behind him, previously rustling in the light breeze, were frozen in place. It was as though time was standing still, other than for the wheeling birds overhead.

Itachi's sad, melancholy voice sounded from overhead in amoungst the bird calls. "You are caught in my genjutsu, Naruto-kun. There is no hope of escape for you now."

"Genjutsu?" Naruto shouted, mind whirring. "That's impossible! I made certain not to look at your eyes!"

The voice sounded again. Naruto tried to pinpoint its source, but it seemed to be coming from multiple directions at once, as though several people were speaking all at the same time. "My eyes are not the only method I have of casting genjutsu, Naruto-kun. Think back to when I raised my kunai against Kakashi…"

Naruto's eyes widened as he realised what had happened. "You used the kunai as a distraction for the hand seals you were making!"

The birds in the sky began to group together and reformed into Itachi's body, floating in mid air. The Akatsuki member smiled humourlessly. "An astute observation. But a little late for you now…"

From inside Itachi's robes, another flock of birds flew outward, this time streaking at Naruto like bolts of black lightning, their cruel, sharp beaks outstretched and ready to tear into him. Breathing deeply, Naruto formed a seal with his hands, drawing as much of his chakra as he could without tapping into the Kyuubi's essence. He thought back to the lectures Ero-Sennin had given whilst they were away on their travels on how to break out of genjutsus. According to the Toad Sage, if you could overwhelm your senses with chakra the illusion would be broken. Simple, right?

With a roar that resonated with power, Naruto let the chakra flow outwards from his body, attempting to overpower his sensory relay and shatter the genjutsu… and then shatter Itachi too, if he had anything to say about it. The birds diving towards him slowed down, flickered, and vanished. Naruto breathed a sigh of relief, releasing his hand seal.

But then, where the birds had been, a cluster of shuriken took their place, hurtling towards him at point blank range. Naruto felt a searing pain as they penetrated all over his body – legs, shoulders, arms, ribcage. The blonde haired boy coughed and a thin trickle of blood dribbled out of the corner of his mouth. Fighting through the pain, Naruto gritted his teeth and tried to flex his fingers, but even attempting this smallest of movements sent a jolt of agonising discomfort down his arm.

Itachi rematerialsied in front of Naruto, a look of almost inhuman calm upon his face. "It's no use struggling Naruto-kun. This may just be a genjutsu, and on the outside world none of this will be happening at all, but what you are experiencing here, in the mind, in my world… this is reality."

"Screw you, asshole," spat Naruto, wishing that he could wrap his fingers round the Uchiha's neck and wring the life out of him. But his body just wouldn't obey him at all. The genjutsu had reduced him to being a helpless puppet inside his own mind.

Itachi's face remained perfectly still and composed, like a mask. Like a death mask. Then, slowly, the Akatsuki member raised a hand and gripped the skin under his chin, digging his painted nails in. There was a hideous, fleshy tearing sound as, bit by bit, Itachi tore the skin off his own face.

Naruto watched on in horrified confusion, unable to even shut his eyes to avoid seeing the horrible scene unfold in front of him. Gradually Itachi pulled more and more of his skin away and Naruto realised, with a thrill of dread, that there was another face underneath.

The face belonged to Uchiha Sasuke.

Twisted into an expression that was a mixture of rage and sadness, with his cursed seal actived, the fake Sasuke spoke in a voice almost dripping with hatred and malice. "You couldn't save me, could you Naruto? I always knew you were weak…"

"No," Naruto whispered, appalled. "You're not real. You're not…" He tried shutting his eyes again, but even that movement was beyond him.

The vision of Sasuke under Itachi's skin faded, replaced with the face of Sakura. "Naruto, why? Why couldn't you keep your promise to me? Why did you fail?"

"No," Naruto breathed, unable to blink away the tears now streaming down his face. "It's just a genjutsu…"

The face changed again, becoming Kakashi. "You couldn't save your teammate, even though I had faith in you," he announced in a disappointed voice. "You let me down, you let the village down, and you let Sasuke down. You really are nothing but a worthless demon."

The face transformed for a fourth time, this time belonging to Gaara. "I thought you understood me…" he said in a dry, weak voice, his eyes closed. "But you couldn't save me when I needed you most."

"S-Stop," Naruto pleaded, his entire body shaking. "P-Please… just stop!"

Itachi's head wiped itself of all features yet again, becoming another face. This time, it belonged to Hinata.

"Hinata-chan…" croaked Naruto desperately, trying with all his might to move even a finger. "Please… help me…"

The copy of the Hyuuga heiress looked on at Naruto with wide, frightened eyes. "Stay away from me, you monster!" she screamed out fearfully.

Naruto couldn't take it any more. He had reached his breaking point.

"NOOOOOOOOOOO!"

-o-o-

The water surrounding Kisame began to bubble and froth as the shark-like ninja called upon more and more of his chakra. His Byakugan active, Neji could barely believe the amount of power that he could see the Akatsuki man possessed, it was almost unimaginable. The only person he had seen with a chakra capacity of even close to this size was Uzumaki Naruto, but even he had less than this man.

"Gai-sensei, what should we do?" asked Lee worriedly, turning towards his jonin instructor. Gai grimaced but didn't answer, instead reaching into a pouch on his jacket and withdrawing a lethal looking set of nunchaku. Lee's eyes widened. His sensei was getting serious.

However, Kisame wasn't focusing on Maito Gai. Instead, moving surprisingly gracefully over the surface of the water as if he were skating, the missing Kiri nin launched himself towards Tenten, a fierce smile stretching his grey lips. Thinking quickly, the Konoha kunoichi unfurled a scroll from behind her back and bit into her thumb to draw blood. Wiping her bloodied digit on the scroll caused a puff of smoke, from which Tenten pulled out a kusarigama to block the Akatsuki member's sword strike. The weighted chain weapon did its job of halting the forward slice, but Tenten's knees almost gave way underneath her at the sheer force behind the blow. The chain quivered as Kisame put more and more downwards pressure onto his sword, intent on breaking through the thin links of metal and tearing her in half, and Tenten hissed in pain, her arms straining to keep the chain aloft.

"Tenten, drop!" shouted Neji from behind her, running across the water as fast as he could to come to her aid. The weapon expert's eyes widened in understanding and she obediently cancelled the chakra flow to her feet and dropped down into the lake, Kisame's downward slash passing inches above her head. The cold water submerged her and the sound was blotted out for a second, before her head broke above the surface. She breathed in deeply and wiped a few wet strands of hair, which had come loose from their buns, out of her eyes. She saw that Neji had jumped over her as she fell and forced Kisame to retreat with a spearing Jyuuken strike, and that Lee and Gai-sensei had rejoined the fight too, attacking with their Gouken style taijutsu.

Gai was manoeuvring his nunchaku at a speed so fast that they were just an indestinguishable blur, but the Akatsuki ninja was using his bulky sword to block all of Gai's attacks. Neji and Lee were faring no better – Lee's twirling jump into the air and shout of, "Konoha Senpuu!" was halted as Kisame grabbed hold of one of Lee's legs in mid air with his free hand, preventing him from spinning. With Lee's leg still gripped in his hand, Kisame swung the Konoha chuunin around, swatting both Neji and Gai away like flies before releasing Lee and sending him bouncing and skidding acoss the surface of the water.

"Hah," snorted Kisame, holding Samehada aloft like a trophy. "You kids are out of your league here. I wonder how much you'll scream when I chop you all up?"

But before the Akatsuki swordsman could launch another attack, he noticed a shadow passing over his head. 'Oh shit!' he thought, realising too late what was happening. 'That shadow user must be trying to pin me down again… But wait, I don't need to panic; I can break out of it again by overwhelming the jutsu with chakra, like I did last time.'

Shikamaru smiled grimly as he saw his shadow connect with Kisame's again, whilst keeping his hands firmly clasped together. "I think that's checkmate," he drawled, making sure to keep his distance still, in case Kisame were to break out of his jutsu. But this time he was almost certain that wouldn't be the case; he had an ace up his sleeve.

"Checkmate?" laughed Kisame. "I'll just break out of your shadow grip, exactly the same as I did last time. You can't stop me!"

"That's what you think, bastard!" came Temari's vehemently reply… from above?

Hampered by the jutsu, Kisame forced his gaze upwards. To his surprise, he saw the Suna kunoichi's fan was floating in mid-air with the blonde haired girl standing on it, gliding in place on the air currents like a bird, between Shikamaru's shadow and his own. The shadow the fan cast was overlapping with the link binding Kisame to the Nara boy and unless the swordsman was imagining it he could have sworn that the shadow binding him was thicker this time.

Gathering his chakra, Kisame unleashed as much as he could, attempting to shatter the Konoha chuunin's concentration. But this time, although Shikamaru began to sweat and breathe deeply, the shadow didn't rescind at all – if anything it actually tightened on the sword weilder.

"What's going on?" asked Kisame angrily. "You can't hold me down, my chakra is much too strong!"

Shikamaru smirked, infuriating Kisame even more. "That won't work this time. The the shadow cast by the fan overhead allows me to extend my shadow greater distances… or at the same distance but with more strength behind it. Face it, you lost." Shikamaru's smirk grew even wider. "To a bunch of kids."

Releasing his clasped hands, Shikamaru slowly and delibrately opened his right hand, palm facing downwards. Forced to mimic his captor's movements, the enraged Kisame did the same, dropping his sword.

That was all the invitation Gai needed.

With a roar of, "Kai!" Gai unlocked his celestial gates and burst forwards in an explosion of chakra and movement. Kisame didn't even have a chance to blink as the spandex clad jonin landed a powerful kick on the missing Kiri nin's jaw. Kisame was rocketed up into the air and Gai followed him into the sky in an instant. The last thing Kisame saw was a barrage of lightning fast fists, forming an aura of blue and gold as they hurtled towards his face. With a cry of, "Asakujaku!" the Akatsuki ninja fell, landing on the rocky ground away from the lake in a smoking crater. He was dead before he even hit the ground.

Slowly Gai's team gathered around Kisame's corpse, still slightly in awe of the spandex clad jonin's finishing move. Lee in particular was starry eyed as he gazed up at his sensei, who released the chakra flow granted by the celestial gates, his skin complexion returning to normal.

But something was clearly wrong with the Akatsuki member's body. Where there had been grey skin, slitted cheeks and bulging white eyes before, there was now a beaten, bloody and bruised man in his late twenties, with a Suna hitai-ite and a tightly cropped beard.

Neji scanned the body using his Byakugan. "This man has been dead for at least a day before he encountered us and judging by his fairly narrow chakra network some of the techniques he performed just now should have been impossible… Who is he?"

Temari frowned. "I think I remember seeing him on the Suna Village Council. I never knew him by name, but I recognise his face…"

The group lapsed into silence. Gai stared at the body, troubled, before startling everyone with a booming laugh. "Well, I don't know exactly what is going on here, but I do know that it is definitely… fishy!"

Everyone gazed at Gai in silence, before Pakkun poked his head out from behind an outcropping of rock. "Is it over yet?"

-o-o-

Hinata was struggling not to panic as the fight unfolded in front of her. After Itachi had managed to get past Kakashi-sensei, Naruto had launched a spiralling ball of chakra into mid-air, not even close to the Sharingan weilder. Chiyo had blocked Itachi's knife slash by grabbing his wrist, showing impressive reflexes in doing so, but the Akatsuki member hammered a knee strike into her stomach, sending the elderly Suna kunoichi to the floor with a pained grunt.

However, before Itachi could follow up his first blow Kakashi had made some frantic handseals, shouting, "Shinjuu Zanshu no Jutsu!" Immediately the masked copy nin disappeared into a hole in the ground, and in less than a second his hand pierced through the surface of the soil right next to Itachi's standing foot. He made a grab for the Akatsuki ninja's ankle, intending to pull him down into the ground, but Itachi was too fast, jumping back to a safe distance as the rest of Kakashi's body burst upwards from underground.

But Hinata was only vaguely aware of these details. After standing bemused for a few seconds, Naruto had fallen, collapsing to the ground in a boneless heap. Hinata had felt her heart almost stop and had only just prevented herself from screaming. His face had gone completely blank, with the light absent from his eyes, and if not for her ninja training she would surely have given in to her rising fear.

Luckily, the experienced Chiyo had risen back to her feet and immediately jumped in front of Naruto's prone form, acting as a shield for him whilst he was defenceless, and Kakashi had re-engaged in taijutsu combat with Itachi, forcing the Akatsuki member away from his student with a ferocious barrage of kicks and punches. Seeing the rest of her team perform their roles to protect Naruto without any hesitation on their part had reminded Hinata of her own duty to help defend him too and without any further thought she had rushed over to his side.

After calling his name fearfully and shaking him in an effort to wake him up, Hinata remembered Kakashi's advice and forced chakra into her hands, letting it flow into Naruto. She wasn't certain how much she should to use in order to awaken Naruto – it would depend on the strength of the genjutsu being used on him – but she knew the Uchiha clan were famed for the power of their illusionary techniques, so she resolved to use as much as she possibly could. With a shaky breath she placed her hands firmly on Naruto's back. Her chakra flowed into Naruto, glowing a soft, pale blue colour, and for a chilling moment there had been no reaction. Hinata had been terrified for that long, drawn out second that Naruto couldn't be snapped out of the genjutsu and that she couldn't help him. She had only proven to be a burden once again, the mission would end in failure and, worst of all, she had let Naruto down.

Then Naruto's eyes shot open, and he yelled out, "NOOOOOOOOOOO!" at the top of his voice.

Hinata jerked back in surprise at his shout, but let out a breath that she hadn't even realised she had been holding. Thank goodness he was awake!

Heart jackhammering, Naruto lurched into a sitting position, breathing heavily, as though he had been running for hours on end. His skin was covered in a sheen of cold sweat at what he had just witnessed in his mind and the sudden difference between the genjutsu and reality was so disorientating that he cradled his head in his hands and moaned. The film of sweat on his face mixed with the tears winding their way down his cheeks, and his body shook with repressed sobs. The after images of the genjutsu were still flashing in front of his eyes, like sheets of coloured glass. He knew that what he had seen wasn't real, that Itachi was just manipulating him, but the images had been so real… he shuddered violently, unable to stop his body from trembling.

"N-N-Naruto-kun… are… are y-you ok?" Hinata asked timidly. His traumatized reaction was certainly not what she had been expecting, and she didn't know what to do. She had never seen the spiky haired ninja in a state like this – he always seemed so resiliant and unbendable to her, and seeing the strongest person she knew in this state was horrible. 'What could possibly have frightened him so much?' she wondered concernedly.

Naruto heard her voice and suddenly realised there were a pair of hands resting on his back. Removing his hands from his face he looked up to see Hinata leaning over him and clutching onto his jacket, looking unbearably worried.

"Hinata-chan? What's going on?" Naruto asked hoarsely, looking around. "How did I escape from the genjutsu?" Behind the Hyuuga girl was Chiyo, standing with her back to the two of them and focusing on something ahead of her. Beyond her, Naruto could hear the clash of metal against metal… the fight! He'd almost forgotten about Itachi! What had happened in his mind must only have taken seconds here on the outside world, he realised.

Hinata watched Naruto slowly regain control of his breathing with a mixture of relief and worry. "K-Kakashi-sensei is still fighting Itachi," she answered, her blush growing slightly as Naruto rested his hand on hers for extra support and struggled to his feet, legs trembling beneath him. "I m-managed to break you out of Itachi's genjutsu, like Kakashi-sensei s-said."

Naruto looked up at her, his watery, blue eyes meeting her silvery-white ones. "Y-You were the one that… saved me? Protected me?" he asked, his voice cracking and his eyes shining dimly with tears. His gaze looked so lost and uncertain, completely unlike the sunny confidence that usually exuded from him.

'Me? Save Naruto-kun?' thought Hinata, her face turning red. 'Naruto-kun actually… needed me?' Hesitantly she nodded.

She was almost knocked to the ground by the force of Naruto's arms wrapping tightly around her, engulfing her in a bone-crushing hug. Hinata let out a squeak at the shock of his sudden embrace and her blush grew even more intense, but she timidly wrapped her own arms around him, returning his hug.

"I don't… I don't think I can do this…" Naruto whispered, in an agonised voice that made Hinata's blood run cold. "Itachi is… too strong… I don't think I can fight him…"

The raw fear and self-doubt in Naruto's voice was enough to make Hinata's hands tremble, but she tried to quell her quivering body, for Naruto's sake. "You can do it Naruto-kun," she murmured, tightening her grip around him ever so slightly. "I know y-you can."

"But what if I'm not good enough?" asked Naruto, his panic making him blurt the words out desperately. "What if Itachi's too powerful for me to win against? What if we can't save Gaara?"

Hinata took a deep breath. "Ano… the N-Naruto-kun I know always found a way to win, no m-matter what, because he always tried his best and never gave up. If you g-give it your all, I know you can win… I b-believe in you!"

Naruto's throat felt so constricted that he could barely speak, but he managed to choke out, "Thank you," with face hidden from view in the crook of Hinata's neck. His body wracked with a sob and his eyes were clenched tightly shut. Seeing the total contrasts of between the two different Hinata's in the genjutsu and in reality, combined with seeing all his most deeply rooted fears dragged to the surface by Itachi, was enough to move him to tears.

Hinata could feel her skin becoming moist as the spiky haired ninja leant on her shoulder and cried and she hesitantly rubbed Naruto's back, eliciting a whimper from the blonde haired boy. "Thank you, Hinata-chan…" he croaked unevenly. "For saving me."

His tears were making her want to cry too, but Naruto needed her to be strong for him now, so she forced herself to remain as composed as she could, continuing to rub his back and whisper soothing words into his ear. "N-Naruto-kun… it will b-be ok… I promise…"

After a few lingering seconds, Naruto broke the physical contact, straightening himself out from the hug and standing tall. There were still tears on his face, but he was no longer crying and he had stopped trembling. But most important was the change in his eyes. They no longer looked lost and afraid, instead filled with determination and courage.

Looking back at Hinata, he caught her eye again and she was struck by the powerful intensity of his gaze. They seemed to be both warm and cold at the same time, and were the deepest blue Hinata had ever seen.

Naruto spoke in a low, quiet voice. "I'm really sorry, Hinata-chan, I didn't mean to break down like that. I was scared just now, really scared. But I'm not afraid any more. Thanks."

Naruto's words left Hinata speechless, and she could feel her heart almost bursting with pride. Naruto strode past her and stood beside Chiyo, eyes alert for any sign of Kakashi and Itachi, whose fight seemed to have spread into the treetops surrounding the clearing. Hinata stepped into place on Chiyo's other side, Byakugan eyes active and keeping track of the fight between the Sharingan users.

"Oh, you're awake?" asked Chiyo, noticing Naruto standing alongside her. "Hinata-san was able to break you out of the genjutsu, I take it?"

Naruto nodded shortly, scanning the area closely in case the fight came back towards them. Then, at that moment, Itachi and Kakashi fell from the treetops, slashing at each other in mid air with kunai blades and locked in combat. Both ninja had minor cuts and rips all over their body and clothing, and were breathing heavily. Just before they hit the ground both of them jumped back a few metres, putting some space between each other. Itachi had a nasty looking gash down his left arm, whilst Kakashi's right leg was stained with blood, but their injuries didn't seem to be slowing either of them down at all.

"Naruto, are you able to fight?" asked the silver haired jonin, glancing at his student out of the corner of his eye and wiping a minor cut on his forehead with the back of his wrist. "I know from personal experience the strain Itachi's genjutsus can put on your mind."

"Yeah, I'm ok," Naruto answered firmly, stepping forward so that he was alongside the masked copy nin. "Now let's finish this bastard off!" The blonde haired ninja formed the hand seals that he knew so well and roared out, "Tajuu Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

Instantly the clearing was completely filled up with dozens of shadow clones, covering every available space. Kakashi's eyes widened, Chiyo took a step back, Hinata whispered, "A-Amazing," under her breath, and even Itachi raised his eyebrows at the sheer amount of chakra that Naruto had used for the technique.

"That's quite impressive, Naruto-kun," said the Uchiha traitor, voice as monotonous as always, "But it won't be enough. Katon: Housenka no Jutsu!"

Itachi completed the hand seals he had been making, hidden from Naruto's sight by the fabric of his Akatsuki robes, clasped his hands in front of his face and blew out sharply. Hinata, Kakashi and Chiyo quickly took cover as a cluster of small but searingly hot fireballs jetted out from the Akatsuki ninja's mouth in every direction, impacting with the shadow clones with a series of scorching explosions.

But Itachi didn't even have time to unclasp his hands before Naruto grabbed onto the sleeve of one of the Kage Bunshin and hurled it through the smoke as hard as he could, directly at the Sharingan weilder. The clone flew out of the haze and landed a brutal uppercut to the Itachi's chin, launching him into the air with a grunt of pain. Just before he hit the ground a second clone kicked him hard in the small of his back with a grunt of, "U –" that sent him airbourne once again. A second cry of, "– Zu –" announced another painful kick in the back, lifting Itachi higher into the air, and further shouts of, "– Ma –" and, "– Ki –" sent the Akatsuki ninja even further upwards into the sky. The Uchiha traitor twisted in mid air, looking above him as he heard a roar of aggression. The real Naruto was just above his head, leg drawn back for a brutal axe kick. With a final bellow of, "Naruto Rendan!" the heel of the blonde haired ninja's foot flashed down and came into contact with Itachi's skull, halting the Akatsuki member's upward momentum with a sickening crack and sending him sprawling to the ground, with Naruto landing beside him in a crouch.

Ignoring the shocked faces of the rest of his team at the sudden, vicious end to the fight, the orange clad shinobi let out a sigh of relief, though he couldn't help but still feel unnerved, even though the fight was over. It had only been for a brief second, but Naruto was certain that Itachi had been smiling ever so slightly before the final blow. But it didn't matter now. There was no question about it – Itachi was dead.

Author's Notes: Chapter Eight is up and running! I'll be honest and say that this chapter was the single most difficult thing I have ever written, I've been close to tearing my hair out at times, though that's not to say I haven't enjoyed it. That's probably because this has been the most fight scene intensive section of the story so far, though I tried to fit in a little romance as well, to spice it up a bit – Naruto was pretty emotionally weak after Itachi's mind games, so I saw a chance for a little relationship building here, with Naruto relying on Hinata rather than the other way around, as is usually the case. I tried to make this quite a pacy, non-stop, action packed chapter, so I hope I kept the fights flowing and the tempo high enough for all you readers out there; it was certainly fun to write, although unbelievably tricky to keep the tension slowly building, since the fight scenes were both quite long. I'm not certain by any means that I've even managed it, though I'll admit to thinking the worst about some (ok, all!) of my past chapters too when I first published them… at least until you guys convinced me I was doing a good job! I guess I just need reassuring that I'm doing well, or need to be given a kick up the ass if I'm not. Normally I don't really mind that much if my work isn't the absolute best I could do it, so long as it's of reasonable quality, but writing this has turned me into a freaking perfectionist, so I think this is just about as good as I could make it. Any comments, tips or whatever would be appreciated as usual, so until next time I'll just keep banging my head against the brick wall of perfectionism! Peace out, y'all!

List of Jutsu:

'Hakke Kuushou' = 'Eight Divination Signs Vacuum Palm'

'Fuuton: Dai Kamaitachi' = 'Air Release: Great Cutting Whirlwind'

'Mizu Bunshin no Jutsu' = 'Water Clone Technique'

'Kagemane no Jutsu' = 'Shadow Imitation Technique'

'Konoha Senpuu' = 'Leaf Whirlwind'

'Asakujaku' = 'Morning Peacock'

'Shinjuu Zanshu no Jutsu' = 'Double Suicide Decapitation Technique'

'Katon: Housenka no Jutsu' = 'Fire Release: Mythical Fire Phoenix Technique'

'Uzumaki Naruto Rendan' = 'Naruto Uzumaki Combo'

Joke Corner: If online instant messaging is the spice of the internet, 'lol's' are that painful burning sensation.

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