[FFML] [Naruto] One Hundred Days - Chapter Sixteen: The Hundredth Day [REVISED]

Aaron Nowack anowack at mimiru.net
Sun Mar 23 23:15:18 PDT 2008


Oh boy.

Anyone remember this fic?  No?  Not surprising.  It's a Naruto story,
set during the beginning of the timeskip.  I released the final chapter
and an epilogue, both of which were rather sub-par, around the middle of
last year.

Now I've finally finished revising the final chapter, and the changes
are substantial enough, with numerous altered and several added scenes
(mostly in the second half of the chapter), that I think it's worth
submitting to this list again.

Previous chapters (all 300,000+ words of them) are available at
http://www.fanfiction.net/s/2663204/1/One_Hundred_Days

An epilogue will follow, hopefully within a week.  After that, I've got
over half a year's worth of C&C to catch up on.  After _that_, I've some
ideas for what I'm going to write next, but that can wait...

As is ever the case, I am grateful for any C&C, positive or negative,
long or short.  Even one sentence "liked it"/"didn't like" it replies
are much appreciated.

As is also ever the case, you have my deepest hopes that this doesn't suck.


One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 16: The Hundredth Day

***********************************************************************
Disclaimer:  Naruto does not belong to me, strange though that may seem.
Instead it is Kishimoto Masashi's creation.  However, the text of this
fanfic is mine, and may not be used without permission.  Also, bunnies!

***********************************************************************

[Day One Hundred]

        Yakushi Kabuto frowned as he stepped into the narrow hallway of
cells.  Mitarashi Kimi had not returned from her mission to find her
wayward student Ren.  There were two equally disturbing possibilities to
explain this.  First, that he had not only misread Kimi's plans and
trustworthiness, but he had also missed some manner by which her
betrayal could accomplish something.  Kimi did not strike him as a
stupid woman, and she would not have betrayed the Sound without some
clear purpose in mind.
        The second potential explanation was that Ren had somehow
defeated her teacher.  A more foolish man than Kabuto might have
rejected this possibility out of hand, but Kabuto had witnessed enough
upsets to know that it was hardly impossible.  If Ren was truly that
determined and strong, no doubt she would already be preparing another
attack.
        Kabuto favored the still form of Kimi's sister, chained to the
wall in back of one of the cells, with an irritated glance.  Her
breathing was slow but steady, a sign that he had indeed dosed her
correctly.  It would be several more hours before she awoke, which would
give him enough time to engage in a few preliminary investigations
before drugging her again.  There was no one in the world who had borne
one of Orochimaru's cursed seals longer than Mitarashi Anko, and there
was no telling what examination of her body would reveal.
        From the next cell over, Aoki Saburo glared at the Sound ninja
as he opened the door to Anko's cell and carefully unchained the woman.
Kabuto gave the captive Mist ninja a slight smile, and the boy's anger
became almost palpable.  It was interesting to consider just what Saburo
would say when his reserve finally broke.
        It was the third prisoner who spoke first though.  His voice was
tired and bleary, but Uzumaki Naruto's own anger was clear as he said,
"What are you doing with her?"
        Kabuto almost dropped Anko, but instead he gently set her down
and turned around to face the blond boy.  Kabuto's face was perfectly
smooth as he studied the rapidly more alert seeming Leaf ninja.  "It
seems," he said, almost to himself, "that Jabisen-kun is not as reliable
as I'd thought."  With the unfortunate death of the ninja who had been
watching the prisoners, Kabuto had given the silent boy the duty of
ensuring that Anko and Naruto remained sedated.
        "The one who doesn't talk?" Naruto asked, still a little sleepy-
sounding.
        Kabuto just stared silently at the waking boy.  If Jabisen had
failed to drug the prisoners last night, Anko should be waking as well.
It was possible that he had dosed the special jounin but failed to do
the same to Naruto, but Kabuto found that more unlikely than the
alternative.
        The Kyuubi's presence inside Naruto gave the boy extraordinary
healing capabilities.  It could even prompt unnaturally rapid
regeneration - to an incredible extent if Sasuke's report of the battle
at the Valley of the End was trustworthy.  He should have guessed that
it might also reduce the effectiveness of the sedatives and planned
accordingly.  It was fortunate that his oversight had been discovered
before it could cause any damage.
        "What?" Naruto asked, sounding a little nervous.
        Outwardly unconcerned, Kabuto unlocked the door to the boy's
cell and stepped inside.  The Leaf ninja tensed, clearly considering
trying something even though he was chained, but before he could Kabuto
laid a hand on his shoulder.  "Sleep," the Sound ninja commanded, and
Naruto's eyes rolled up, his body collapsing against his chains.
        Kabuto frowned as he stared at the sleeping boy.  Though all his
data noted the Naruto's weakness against genjutsu, Kabuto knew that the
sleeping technique would only hold the genin for minutes at most under
these circumstances.  The technique worked best when the victim was
unaware and already calm.  A ninja of almost any level would recover
quickly otherwise.
        Giving the still-unmoving special jounin a mournful glance,
Kabuto relocked the door to Anko's cell, then proceeded to unchain and
pick up Naruto.  Ignoring Saburo's angry, silent gaze, Kabuto left,
ascending through the labyrinthine corridors to his laboratory.  He
barely had time to secure Naruto to the examination table before the boy
began to stir.
        Kabuto ignored his prisoner's protests and questions as he drew
some blood for testing and confirmed that the levels of sedative in his
bloodstream were much lower than should have been the case.  He had just
finished mixing an extra-strength dose when he was interrupted.
        "Sasuke!"  Both Sound ninja ignored Naruto's angry shout, and
the muttering that followed.
        "I'm not to be disturbed when I'm working, Sasuke-kun," Kabuto
said mildly.
        "We have a situation," the Uchiha stated flatly, not
volunteering any other information.
        "Explain."  Kabuto reached up to adjust his glasses.
        "Tayuya and Kidoumaru came back from patrol.  They found Shimano
Ren."
        "And?"
        "She's with a party of Leaf ninja, heading straight for us."
Sasuke's voice still didn't show any emotion.  Naruto's grumblings
stopped instantly.
        "Anyone we know?" Kabuto asked, a small smile coming to his
face.
        Sasuke hesitated only a fraction of a second before responding.
"The leader is a woman; I didn't recognize her from Kidoumaru's
description.  The others..." This time he did pause, but after only a
second he began to coldly list names.  "Hyuuga Neji.  Rock Lee.  Nara
Shikamaru.  Yamanaka Ino.  Haruno Sakura."
        "Sakura-chan!"  Naruto's startled shout turned into a growl, and
his eyes flared crimson as he began to struggle against his bonds.
Chakra began to flicker in the air around him.
        Kabuto reacted quickly, injecting the boy with the dose he had
prepared.  For a moment it seemed it would have no effect, but then the
boy's eyes turned blue and shut.  "That should hold him at least until
we deal with this," Kabuto commented to himself before turning to
Sasuke.  "Well, then.  Shall we greet our guests, Sasuke-kun?"
        The Uchiha just nodded.

***********************************************************************

        The four masked ANBU - the only full ANBU squad with the war
force - bowed shallowly to Tsunade.  "Report," the Hokage ordered,
masking her nervousness with brevity.  There was at least an even chance
that she was about to walk into a trap, and that might even be
preferable to the alternative, that the Mizukage's offer of peace talks
was genuine.
        The reason for that was because, inevitably, the shape of a
peace reflected the shape of the battlefield, and that was hardly
favorable to the Leaf at the moment.  The last reports from the east -
unfortunately, over a week old - were that the treacherous Rain and the
Sound had overrun the Grass Country, tying up both that country's ninja
and those of the Sand.  There were even more disturbing whispers that
the Rock alliance had invaded the Waterfall Country, further weakening
the Leaf's allies.
        Here on this front, Tsunade's forces had been holding their own,
but the Mist easily had twice the manpower she did, and the Mist's
allied villages had yet to take the field beyond a few raids by the
Hidden Haze in the Tea Country.  If the full weight of the Mist alliance
descended on the Leaf, Tsunade had little doubt that she would be forced
to order a retreat - or worse, a surrender.
        With those as the facts on the ground, the Mizukage had little
reason to be generous in his terms.  Worse, with those facts
acknowledged, Tsunade knew she had little choice but to accept anything
remotely reasonable, and she the Mizukage would know that also.
        The ANBU squad leader, wearing a deer mask, bowed a little
deeper than his subordinates before responding to Tsunade's request.
"We went over the prepared grounds with a Mist hunter ninja squad, as
agreed.  There's no sign of a trap, and to all appearances the Mist
forces are encamped where they should be."
        Tsunade grimaced, then she nodded.  "Thank you."  If the
Mizukage indeed intended an honest offer of peace, there was at least
one factor she could leverage to improve her situation - the Rock.  In
the long run, a weakened Leaf Village would be a much preferable
neighbor to the Mist than a conquered one.  It would be a distant
threat, but ultimately an expansionist Rock that had subdued the Fire
and Wind Countries would turn to the east and move on the Mist and
Cloud.
        If only the Cloud showed some sign of stirring, the Leaf's
position would improve immeasurably.  If the Cloud threatened war, the
Mist would be forced to make peace quickly so they could defend their
islands against their most hated enemies.  Otherwise, the Leaf could
form an alliance of convenience with the Cloud and possibly destroy the
Mist forever.  Yet, there had been no news from Lightning Country, and
as that silence continued the chance of intervention dwindled.
        "Dismissed," Tsunade finally told the ANBU, and they obeyed,
though they did give a curious glance to the four ninja she had selected
as her honor guard.
        "We're going in, then?" Yuuhi Kurenai asked softly.
        Tsunade nodded at the jounin.  "I have to hear him out, at
least," she said.  She glanced at younger woman's students in turn, her
gaze finally resting on Hyuuga Hinata.  "You know what to do," she said
simply.
        "Yes, Hokage-sama," the girl almost squeaked, and Tsunade
favored her with a gentle smile.  To avoid offering open offense to the
Mist, the Hyuuga's silver eyes were covered by bandages, making her
appear to be a member of the Leaf's Tobitake Clan, which - though famed
for its blind-fighting techniques - had no Bloodline Limit.
        Tsunade nodded.  Besides herself, these were the only four who
knew of the discovery of four faceless, unidentifiable bodies in the
forest outside the Leaf's encampment.  Thanks to cautious use of
Hinata's Byakugan, Tsunade was reasonably sure that most of her
commanders were themselves, but she had decided on a risky course.  By
avoiding any sign she knew of those bodies, she had at least an idea of
what her former teammate was planning, an advantage he did not know she
had.
        Orochimaru was the wild card in all of Tsunade's plans, and she
needed to be prepared for whatever he was trying.  She had no doubt that
he would want to upset the peace conference, and only luck had given her
warning of how he might do it.  His men, disguised as Leaf, attacking
the conference could end all hope of a peace.  But if he did that, and
if Tsunade could somehow turn that attack against him and use it to
drive a wedge between the Mist and the Sound... then the situation would
change dramatically.
        "Let's go, then," the Hokage said after a few moments, and the
five ninja reached the neutral location agreed upon for the talks only a
minute late.  A large tent had been set up by the ANBU and their Mist
counterparts, but they did not enter, instead waiting for the other side
to arrive.
        That happened mere instants later.  The Mizukage, accompanied by
four uniformed Mist ninja, was dressed in his formal robes - unlike
Tsunade.  He bowed shallowly to his counterpart, but Tsunade had eyes
only for the sixth member of his party.  She hadn't been expecting this,
and his presence forced her to reevaluate her expectations of what was
about to happen and all but ruined her half-formed plans.
        "Such a pleasure to see you again, Tsunade-hime," Orochimaru
stated, smiling a smile that might have been comforting on any other
face.
        "It hasn't been long enough," Tsunade replied acidly, wishing
that circumstances allowed her to kill her former teammate here and now.
She didn't glance backward at Aburame Shino, but she knew that a single
bug was already flying back to the Leaf encampment.  It had been agreed
that there would be a Sound representative present, but not that that
representative would be Orochimaru himself.  As soon as the bug reached
one of Shino's clan mates, the Leaf forces would move into a position
where they could better intervene in case of treachery.
        "Forgive my ally's unplanned presence," the Mizukage said
smoothly.  "He arrived on unrelated business yesterday, and he insisted
on coming himself."  He paused, then added, "If you wish, I will send
one of my guard back."
        It took all of Tsunade's training to keep from showing anger.
One guard was hardly an even trade for the presence of a man as
dangerous as Orochimaru.  The whole set up was a deliberate ploy, a way
of driving home that, despite the fact that the Mizukage had requested
the talks, it was the Leaf who were the supplicants here.  "No need,"
Tsunade said, forcing a confidence she didn't feel into her voice as she
stepped forward toward the tent.  "Shall we begin?"
        A few moments later, the three powerful ninja were inside the
tent, seated around a rough wooden table.  There was silence for almost
a full minute, all three observing the others carefully.  It was
Orochimaru who spoke first, amusement in his voice.  "Before we move to
more serious matters," he said, "please allow me to discuss some...
personal matters with my old friend here, Mizukage-dono."
        The leader of the Mist just nodded, though Tsunade thought she
saw a few traces of surprise in his face.
        "What do you want, Orochimaru?" Tsunade asked bluntly.
        "Merely to return a prized possession of yours that happened to
find its way into my hands," the renegade Sannin replied.  Smiling
widely, he pulled out a necklace, and Tsunade's blood ran cold as she
stared at it dangling from her former teammate's pale hand.
        "You," she snarled, almost forgetting where she was and
attacking.
        "You should take better care of things like this," Orochimaru
chided, tossing it at her.  "A gesture of my good will," he continued as
Tsunade reflexively caught it.
        Unthinkingly, Tsunade studied the necklace for any hidden trap
before placing it around her neck.  If Orochimaru had this, then
Naruto... and Jiraiya...
        "Once we're done here," Orochimaru said, "perhaps I'll have time
to tell the story of how I came across that."  He laughed.  "If we reach
an... acceptable agreement and end this war."
        Tsunade's hand clasped around the necklace, and she took a deep
breath.  "Perhaps," she said, forcing calmness into her voice, but she
knew rage was blazing in her eyes, and she couldn't make herself care.
        The Mizukage glanced curiously between the two Sannin.  Then, he
spoke.  "Well, then.  Shall we discuss the status of the Wave Country?"

***********************************************************************

        "Three."  It was Shikamaru who was giving the count, and Sakura
forced herself to take a deep breath.  There was no time to be nervous
now, she reminded herself as she checked her distance from the small
building that held the entrance to Orochimaru's lair.  It looked the
same as the one she'd seen on her first trip to Rice Field Country,
though it was in a different location.  Somewhere out there, Shizune was
preparing the opening strike, but Sakura couldn't penetrate the jounin's
genjutsu.
        "Two."  The veins around Neji's eyes bulged, but he did not give
the signal to abort.  There was no sign that they were about to walk
into a trap, then.  Beside Sakura, Ino finished wrapping an explosive
tag around the hilt of a kunai.
        "One."  Rock Lee's body tensed, and Sakura knew that in an
instant he could go from standing still to moving faster than she could
see.  Ren raised one hand to brush against the Mist sigil on her
forehead protector.
        "Go!" Shikamaru said, and in unison the six young ninja burst
from the trees, charging straight for the seemingly unguarded building.
That small structure vanished in an eruption of fire, the pillar of
brilliant flame seeming to bridge the sky and the ground.
        Sakura almost stumbled, unprepared for the raw power of
Shizune's attack, but she recovered, not slowing any more than her
companions.  The tower of fire vanished, and the building was gone.
Instead a shallow crater was before the charging ninja, a passageway
deeper into the Sound's underground compound revealed.  Whatever traps
had guarded the entrance were no longer an issue.
        What was an issue were the two people who suddenly appeared in
between them and the crater.  Without thinking, Sakura slowed, spreading
out with the others to encircle the pair.  A boy and a girl, Sakura
noted, and after a moment she recognized them from the descriptions she
had been given.
        "You fuckers didn't think you could just sneak up on us like
that, did you?" Tayuya asked sourly, her eyes flicking between her
numerous foes.  A tendril of shadow raced at her from Shikamaru, but the
Sound kunoichi danced out of the way.
        Her companion spat a ball of webbing at the shadow user, but
Neji interposed himself between Shikamaru and Kidoumaru's attack, easily
countering it.  Ino tossed her kunai at the six-armed boy. He stopped it
with another web, then jumped back out of the range of the explosive
note wrapped around its hilt.
        There was a blur of motion, and Shizune appeared mere steps
behind the two Sound.  "You two had best surrender now, or I'll be
forced to hurt you."
        Kidoumaru twisted around, a kunai appearing in his hand, but
Shizune easily dodged.  She grabbed the boy's arm, expertly disarming
him and wrenching the captive limb behind his back.  Then there was a
puff of smoke, and all she held was an oddly shaped piece of deadwood.
The jounin's eyes narrowed.  "Replacement Technique?"
        Kidoumaru reappeared on the other side of the new crater, held
by another boy.  "Thanks, Jabisen," the six-armed ninja said as he
stood.  The other boy just nodded silently.
        Tayuya backed away from the momentarily distracted Shizune, and
Sakura traded a look with Ren.  The other girl nodded, and they charged,
tendrils of flame streaming from their hands.  From behind, Ino tossed a
handful of shuriken to cover their advance.  Tayuya spun about to face
them, only to freeze as her own distraction let Shikamaru snare her.
        Then she too was picked up and carried away to the relative
safety of the far side of the crater.  "You owe me one," Haruno Midori
said mockingly as she released the other girl.  "Or did you want to get
captured again?"
        "Shut the fuck up," Tayuya grumbled in response.
        Releasing her Claw of the Fire Dragon, Sakura looked to
Shikamaru and Shizune for a signal, and so it was Ino's gasp that
alerted her to the next arrivals.
        Sakura swallowed.  "Sasuke-kun," escaped from her lips as she
stared at her former teammate.  His crimson eyes didn't even twitch in
her direction.
        Beside Sasuke, Yakushi Kabuto smiled.  "Well, then," he said.
"Now that we're all here, shall we begin?"

***********************************************************************

        "What do you see, Hinata?" Kiba asked under his breath as he
stared uncomfortably at the four Mist ninja standing on the other side
of the tent containing the three village leaders.  The Mist in turn
seemed just as ill at ease as the Leaf, muttering among themselves as
they studied the Hokage's surprisingly young honor guard.
        "I can't tell," Hinata replied after a moment.  "It might just
be that they're what they appear to be, or it might be that they're
using some sort of genjutsu."  Her teacher had given her more than one
lesson on how a skilled-enough genjutsu user could deceive even her
eyes.  "Maybe if I was closer, I'd be able to tell."
        "We can't do that," Kurenai said softly.  Both honor guards were
to stay equidistant from the tent.  "What about inside?"
        "They're sitting and talking.  Hokage-sama is upset about
something," Hinata reported.  "No signal, though."
        Kurenai bit at her lip.  "I don't like this."
        "I would be surprised if you did," Shino commented after a
moment.  He glanced at the Mist from behind his dark glasses.  "I could
-"
        "No way," Kiba interrupted.   "I know you're smarter than that,
Shino.  They'll be on the look out for insects heading their way."
        Shino's gaze turned to his teammate.  "Listen to yourself," he
said.  "I am smarter than that."
        "Sorry," Kiba said.  "I'm just on edge."
        "I know."  Shino turned to Kurenai.  "I can send a messenger bug
to my father and ask for an update on our force's position."
        The jounin nodded.  "Good idea.  They should be almost in place
if they haven't run into any trouble.  Ask them for regular status
updates."
        "Understood," Shino replied.
        A moment later, Hinata tensed, and despite the bandages that
covered her eyes her teammates knew that she had once more activated her
Byakugan.  Akamaru, resting at Kiba's feet, stirred, slowly rising.  The
Mist honor guard began to tense, and Hinata said, "It looks like they
sent their own message somehow.  Probably they noticed the bug."
        "I wouldn't be surprised," Kurenai said.
        Hinata relaxed.  "They're calming down," she said.
        "Our forces are in position," Shino stated suddenly.  "They can
be here within a minute of being signaled."
        "Good."  Kurenai frowned.  "I just wish I knew what Orochimaru
was planning.  Keep studying the Mist, Hinata," she ordered.  "If it is
a genjutsu, you'll be able to see through it if you keep trying."
         The Hyuuga heiress nodded, and the next half-hour passed in
near silence.  Inside the tent, the leaders talked quietly enough that
no words could be made out, but from the tone of the discussion and
occasionally raised voices Tsunade was very unhappy.  Still, each time
voices were raised in anger they eventually calmed down, and after a
while Kurenai began to wonder if - against all her expectations -
Orochimaru had no hidden trap prepared.
        Then Hinata let out a soft gasp.  All eyes on her, she grimaced.
"Their genjutsu slipped," she said quietly, barely moving her mouth.  "I
can't be certain, since I haven't seen the technique before, but it
looks like they're Orochimaru's."
        "All right," Kurenai said.  "Shino, send word to your father,
but don't tell them to move yet.  We don't want to -"  The fake Mist
stirred, and Kurenai stiffened.  They must have noticed that Leaf's
reaction and guessed that the game was up.  What were they going to do?
"Be ready," she warned her team, then took a single step forward.
        The face Mist noticed her motion and one called out, "Is
something wrong?"
        "I was about to ask the same," Kurenai replied calmly.  "You
seem distressed."  The dull murmur of conversation inside the tent
stopped, and Kurenai knew the ninja inside had heard the conversation.
She could only hope Tsunade could keep things under control in there.
        There were several tense moments, then one of the false Mist
spoke loudly.  "Nothing is wrong," he said, "unless you have some
problem."
        "None," Kurenai responded, backing away.  They couldn't afford
to make the first move, not now.  What was Orochimaru planning?
        "The main force is alerted," Shino said quietly.
        "Good."  Kurenai's face was smooth as she studied the fake Mist
ninja on the other side of the tent.  "Thoughts?" she asked quietly.
Her team was silent, and Kurenai wanted to sigh.  How were any of them
supposed to guess the mind of the legendary renegade Sannin?  For all
she knew his plan was for them to uncover his men and in doing something
about it make the Mist see treachery.
        The voices in the tent rose again, but this time it was
Orochimaru's voice that was loudest.  Kurenai still couldn't make out
the words, but the false Mist reacted instantly, charging the tent.  A
moment was lost to surprise, then Kurenai snapped, "Stop them!"
        Bugs poured out of Shino's coat, and Hinata ripped the bandages
from her eyes as she charged, forming seals.  "Shadow Replication
Technique!" she breathed, a perfect duplicate appearing by her side.
Akamaru had already been transformed into a copy of his master, and the
two Kiba charged past the girl.  Kurenai's own hands blurred and she
faded from view, rapidly moving to circle around behind the enemy.
        Kiba attacked first, he and Akamaru becoming whirling tornadoes
and slamming into one of the fake Mist.  There was a puff of smoke and a
small boulder shattered under the attack, but when the enemy reappeared
he still had a few bloody wounds.
        Kurenai was behind him, and she thrust a kunai into his back.
The man barely managed to avoid a fatal blow with an awkward last second
half-dodge, but Kurenai knew that she could kill him in a matter of
moments.  These men weren't nearly as good as she'd expect if Orochimaru
was planning assassination, but perhaps the Sound were running short of
good ninja.
        That was when the tent behind her exploded in a burst of water
and powerful chakra.  The force of the blast sent Kurenai stumbling
forward, and one of her opponent's teammates would have gotten her if a
wall of insects hadn't suddenly interposed itself.  "Thanks, Shino," the
jounin gasped as she straightened herself, noting that another false
Mist had taken advantage of the opportunity to rescue her fallen foe.
        Three blurs of motion erupted from the ruins of the tent. For an
instant, the still forms of the three leaders were visible, then
Orochimaru and Tsunade were gone, their battle carrying them away.  The
Mizukage stood silently for a moment longer, then he said, "I'll finish
you four off quickly."  At a curt gesture from him the false Mist backed
away.  "Unless you'd care to surrender and spare yourselves."
        Kurenai returned to her team.  "This isn't good," Kiba said
nervously.
        "If we don't keep him busy," Hinata said, "he'll fight Hokage-
sama with Orochimaru."
        "Shino," Kurenai prompted.
        "The main force should be on its way."  Even the normally
impassive bug user let more than a little distress into his voice.
        "A shame," the Mizukage said.  "I really was hoping not to have
to kill anyone today."  He stretched out a hand, and suddenly the grassy
plain where they all stood was the surface of lake.
        Kurenai was able to react instantly, channeling chakra to keep
herself from falling, but none of her genin were fast enough.  "Katon:
Fire Wave Technique," the jounin hissed, extending both hands in front
of her.  A wall of fire burst out from her hands, clouds of steam
boiling off the suddenly created lake as the flames swept toward the
Mizukage.
        The Mizukage only sighed.  "Suiton: Water Collision
Destruction," he intoned, and a pillar of water descended from the sky,
instantly extinguishing Kurenai's attack in a massive burst of steam.
        The Leaf jounin cursed to herself.  The Mist's leader wasn't
even taking this seriously, wasting chakra by creating even more water
when he could have used the liquid he'd already created - unless...  her
eyes widened.
        "I see you figured it out," the Mizukage's water replication
said from behind her, pressing a cold kunai at her back.  "That counter
distracted you long enough for me to do this."  Kurenai glanced about
and saw that her students were similarly indisposed.  "Please
surrender."
        "I," Kurenai began.  Before she could finish, she was in the
branches of a nearby tree, cradled in someone's arms.
        "Your students are safe.  Get them and get out of here.  It's
going to be dangerous to stick around," a vaguely familiar voice
ordered.  Her rescuer vanished in a puff of gray smoke.
        "The famed Toad Hermit," the Mizukage said slowly, the water at
his feet beginning to swirl, "Jiraiya of the legendary Sannin."
        "I'm so pleased you recognize me," the old ninja replied as he
stood unconcerned atop the lake's surface.  Spinning talons of water
erupted up out of the lake, only to be shattered as a wall of wind rose
to protect him.  "Let's begin," Jiraiya said grimly, and the battle was
joined.

***********************************************************************

        Nara Shikamaru took a deep breath as, for several moments, all
the combatants stood still.  He took advantage of the brief pause to
assess the Sound team arrayed on the other side of the crater Shizune
had created.  The Sound had a slight disadvantage in numbers, but not
nearly enough of one to just charge in without a plan.
        The most dangerous opponent was probably the oldest, Yakushi
Kabuto.  Shikamaru had a vague recollection of the man from the exams,
but though he hadn't seemed too tough then, Shizune had assured him that
the traitor was not only jounin-level, but Orochimaru's right hand man.
He was Shizune's to deal with, Shikamaru concluded.  None of the chuunin
could hope to defeat him alone if he was truly that powerful.
        Two of the younger Sound Shikamaru remembered from the race to
stop Sasuke's defection.  The six-armed boy, Kidoumaru, was a problem.
His webs could snare anyone but Neji, and the Hyuuga had reported that
if Kidoumaru was allowed distance and time to prepare a shot, he would
be deadly to anyone without a defense to match the Heavenly Spin.  He
had to be kept busy in close combat, and because of those annoying webs
Neji was the only one who could do that.
        Tayuya was less of a difficulty, but still she could not be
ignored.  Her genjutsu could wreak havoc if she wasn't taken out of the
fight quickly.  Shikamaru knew her tricks, though, and he doubted she
had picked up any new ones while she'd been rotting away in an ANBU
cell.  Hopefully, he could deal with her again, or at least keep her
busy.
        The other Sound kunoichi wasn't too impressive, but it was vital
that Haruno Midori be kept away from Neji.  They could not allow her
doujutsu to force Neji to not use his Byakugan.  If she managed that,
the Leaf would be left with no counter to Kidoumaru's webs, except
perhaps Lee's speed.  He'd known she'd be here, though, and the choice
of who to fight her had been easy enough, though.  Shimano Ren would
likely fight Midori regardless of orders, and Midori was likely to go
after Sakura, so it fell to her to keep an eye on Ren and get Midori out
of the area.
        There had also been an obvious choice to fight Uchiha Sasuke.
Shikamaru allowed a slight smile to show on his face as he saw that Rock
Lee had already removed his weights and was studying the traitor.  The
Uchiha's Sharingan eyes might be able to read and copy Lee's moves, but
if Sasuke's body wasn't fast enough to keep up, it wouldn't do him any
good.  If Sasuke was that fast, Lee had the best shot at staying alive
long enough for the other Sound to go down.  Then they could use
superior numbers to take the traitor down.
        That left one member of the Sound team, whose name was
apparently Jabisen.  Shikamaru knew nothing about him, and it was left
to Ino to handle him.  If anyone could, the plan was for them to help
Ino and distract the Sound boy so she had a better chance of using her
family techniques, but beyond that there was little that could be
arranged in advance.  Shikamaru studied the unfamiliar opponent, and he
noted with a little surprise and distress that the other boy was staring
back at him, anger visible on his face.
        Jabisen glanced sideways at Kabuto, and the older ninja smiled
slightly.  "Yes, Jabisen-kun," he said, loudly enough for Shikamaru to
hear.  "That's the one who killed your sister."
        Shikamaru couldn't stop himself from blinking, and in that
instant the pause in the fighting ended.  Jabisen jumped over the
crater, charging straight at Shikamaru.  He darted out of the way of the
shuriken the oncoming Sound ninja hurled to cover his attack,
reflexively sending a tendril of shadow toward Jabisen.  He wasn't so
easily caught, and he jumped once more, throwing more shuriken.
        As though the charge was a signal, Kabuto and Shizune hurled
themselves at each other, meeting in midair over the crater.  There was
the sound of metal striking flesh, and the two older ninja seemed to
hang impossibly in the air for a moment.  Then they both vanished,
leaving behind two logs with kunai stuck in them, and Shikamaru couldn't
follow their motion past that.
        All around him the rest of the ninja were fighting, but
Shikamaru didn't have time to focus on them.  Jabisen was coming at him
fast and hard, using simple physical attacks to drive him away from the
rest of the fighting and never pausing long enough to get caught by a
shadow.  He wanted to fight without interference, Shikamaru concluded
with a snort.  Only to be expected if he thought Shikamaru had killed
his sister.
        But why did Jabisen think that?  He wasn't well known enough for
someone to bother concocting that sort of lie out of nothing, Shikamaru
knew, so there had to be some truth to it.  After he managed to snare
Jabisen with a clever bit of fakery and usage of a tree's shadow - the
other boy clearly not knowing as much about the Shadow Imitation
Technique as he thought he did - Shikamaru took a moment to study
Jabisen's features, and the answer became clear to him.
        "The girl I fought in the preliminaries in the Chuunin Exam,"
Shikamaru said as he made the other boy drop the kunai he held.  "I
doubt you'll believe me, but I didn't kill her."  He hadn't even known
she was dead.  The other boy snorted, but he didn't say anything.
Shikamaru took a moment to look around and realize that the path of
their battle had taken them out of sight of the others, though not out
of earshot.  "Listen," he began.
        Then Jabisen opened his mouth, and all sound ceased.  Something
hit Shikamaru and he found himself flung into a tree.  As he shook his
head to clear it and struggled to rise, he caught a self-satisfied look
on Jabisen's face.  "What the hell?" Shikamaru muttered as he took a
stumbling step forward, a part of him noting that Jabisen also looked a
little shaken.
        Shikamaru barely rolled out of the way of a hail of kunai, then
disappeared into the tree.  The other boy was smarter than he seemed.
He hadn't just drawn Shikamaru out of the way for a one-on-one fight,
but so that he could use this sonic attack without endangering his
teammates.  This might get a little tricky.
        Before the other boy could strike again, Shikamaru retreated,
hoping to buy himself time to think.  He let Jabisen keep an eye on him,
not wanting the other boy to despair and head back to the main battle;
not when he had a powerful attack like that.  The problem was figuring
out a safe distance.
        Jabisen opened his mouth again, and Shikamaru fell to his knees,
his vision wavering and his hands reflexively covering his ears.
"Damn," he mouthed, but he couldn't tell whether he spoke aloud, the
ringing in his ears drowning out all noise.  This time Jabisen stood
straight, seemingly unaffected.
        "Underestimated your range, huh?" Shikamaru said, then he
released a smoke bomb and used the Replacement Technique to get to cover
and regain some distance.
        The trees shook as Jabisen unleashed a blind attack, and
Shikamaru took a deep breath.  His techniques couldn't do anything to
stop someone from making noise, short of snapping their necks with the
Shadow Neck Bind, and Shikamaru wasn't certain he could do that quickly
enough to do him any good.
        There was probably still a weakness to Jabisen's techniques -
something to do with the difference between the time Jabisen had been
affected and the time he hadn't, but it would take a while to figure it
out.  "I'm counting on you, everyone," Shikamaru muttered, and then he
jumped away a moment before another sonic blast shattered the branch
he'd been sitting on.

***********************************************************************

        The sounds of battle filled the air all around the two powerful
ninja, but neither had ears for it.  Only the barest handful of the
hundreds of ninja fighting in the surrounding woods could hope to
intervene in the fight without dying in short order.  This was the type
of clash that would be remembered for years, even if it ended
inconclusively.  If one of the two Sannin fell this day, legends would
be born from it.
        Tsunade cautiously surveyed the large clearing, finding no sign
that she had been lead into a prepared trap.  It wasn't surprising,
given that she'd had at least as much control of the course of their
conflict's travel as Orochimaru, but it was always better to check.  One
of Tsunade's hands went to the accursed necklace she once again wore
around her neck.  "You're going to die today, Orochimaru," she said
flatly, her eyes cold as they returned to her former teammate.
        The snake master laughed.  "Don't make promises you can't keep,
Tsunade-hime."  He smiled mockingly.  "I have no intention of dying."
        "I know," Tsunade answered, "but we can't always have what we
want."  Her fists clenched.  "I think I'll enjoy denying you your
desires."
        "You're still as cruel as ever," Orochimaru replied.  "I hope
you've improved since the last time we fought."  He raised one of his
arms.  "As you can see, I found another way to achieve the last thing
you tried to deny me."
        "I know," Tsunade said again, her eyes narrowing.  "You
monster."
        Orochimaru's smile turned into a smirk.  "Jealousy doesn't
become you, Tsunade-hime."
        "Jealousy?" Tsunade snarled.  "Why the hell would you think I'm
jealous of the... the abomination you've become?"
        "We're more alike than you care to admit," Orochimaru stated.
"Unless you want to claim that youthful visage is your true face."  He
smiled again.  "Would you like to learn my immortality technique?" he
asked.  "You could be truly young again, like I am.  You could take your
pick of the Leaf's ninja, to find the greatest of hosts."
        Tsunade spat.  "You're more insane than I thought if you think
that offer is even tempting to me, Orochimaru."  She shook her head.
"Even if I wanted that sort of immortality, I would never do that to my
people."
        "Yes," Orochimaru agreed.  "You always were... limited."
        "Limited, huh?" Tsunade asked.  "I'll take that as a
compliment."
        Orochimaru nodded.  "You would," he said.  Then, with deceptive
casualness, he raised an arm, and countless snakes poured out from under
his sleeve, twisting in the air as they grew, hungrily reaching for
Tsunade.
        The Hokage's arm flung out in answer, and dozens of kunai, an
explosive tag dangling from each hilt, flew through the air.  Each
perfectly found a gaping snake's mouth, and a torrent of small
explosions filled the air with smoke and snake blood.  A final kunai
found its way to Orochimaru's heart.
        The male Sannin laughed, the ensuing explosion only spraying the
area with wet mud.  As he emerged from the earth behind Tsunade, he
said, "That wasn't even a challenge."
        Tsunade smirked.  "It wasn't supposed to be," she said, her hand
twitching.  Less than a second later, all the kunai she'd thrown were in
the air, converging on Orochimaru from all directions.
        His eyes just narrowed, and a sudden burst of wind knocked every
weapon aside.  "Pathetic," he commented, bringing one hand to his mouth
and spraying a jet of fire at Tsunade's back.
        Then Tsunade wasn't there, the fire flying on to impact against
a tree trunk.  Orochimaru barely had time to dodge as Tsunade came down
on him from above, he foot leaving a massive crater as it struck the
ground.  Tsunade didn't let up the attack, following her former teammate
and delivering a solid blow to his stomach.
        Orochimaru's body bulged unnaturally, then exploded into a
torrent of snakes that writhed around Tsunade, biting frantically.  They
lasted only a few instants, as an aura of flame sprung into being around
the Hokage, turning the snakes to ash.  Still, the bloody evidence that
at least a few bites had struck home was more than evident as Orochimaru
reappeared.
        Tsunade just snorted as she turned to face him.  "Poison of that
level won't work on me," she said simply.
        "I suppose not," Orochimaru said.
        "Katon: Fire Lance," Tsunade intoned in response, extending one
hand.  A bar of solid white flame sprung from her palm, making the air
shimmer as it flew at Orochimaru.  The dry leaves scattered across the
forest floor caught flame from the sheer heat radiating from the bright
beam.
        The renegade Sannin's hands blurred.  "Suiton: Water Encampment
Wall," he said, a jet of water escaping his lips and expanding into a
torrent that met Tsunade's attack in a cloud of steam.  Even as the
flames died, water kept spewing from his mouth, streaming toward the
Hokage.
        Tsunade's foot stamped on the ground.  "Doton: Earth Style
Wall!" she shouted.  The ground shook, and not just because of her
unnatural strength.  The earth twisted and deformed, a massive rock wall
pushing up.  Orochimaru's attack crashed harmlessly against the
barricade, but Tsunade wasn't done, her hands rapidly forming more
seals.  "Doton: Spear Wall!"
        Orochimaru danced back from the jagged protrusions that suddenly
grew out of the wall, aiming for him.  "Raiton: Thunderbolt Technique!"
he called out, and a bolt of lightning descended from the heavens in
answer, shattering Tsunade's earthen wall.
        The Hokage didn't seem surprised, her hands still moving.
"Doton: Rock Avalanche!"  The crumbling wall began to fall toward her
foe, the shattered pieces picking up speed and growing in size as they
descended.
        Orochimaru's hands froze on a single seal.  "Fuuton: Divine Wind
Technique!" he called, and a powerful wind picked up the oncoming wall
of boulders and flung them miles away.  For hundreds of yards in front
of him, the forest was flattened by the force of the wind, and when the
dust cleared Tsunade was nowhere to be seen.
        Orochimaru sighed, turning around to face Tsunade as she slipped
out of the earth.  The Hokage smiled.  "Starting to get serious, aren't
we, Orochimaru?" she asked.
        "Serious?"  Orochimaru smiled.  "Hardly.  But if that is your
wish..."  He slowly began to form seals, thick ominous chakra beginning
to fill the air around him.  "This once," he continued as Tsunade backed
away cautiously, "your wish shall be my command."

***********************************************************************

        Neji let out a quiet curse as Jabisen charged Shikamaru and
proceeded to drive the strategist away from the rest of the ninja.
There went the neat little division of labor Shikamaru had worked out
the last night.  It wasn't completely unexpected, though.  The lazy
ninja himself had told them after giving them their assignments, "It's a
cliche that no plan survives contact with the enemy, but it's a cliche
for a reason.  Don't sweat the details; just concentrate on taking your
target down fast.  If you can't get to your target, help someone else."
        Wishing he didn't have to wait for Haruno Midori to be driven
away before activating his Byakugan, Neji took Shikamaru's advice.  The
six-armed Kidoumaru was his responsibility, and he would deal with him.
Moving with a speed that almost matched his green-clad teammate's, Neji
charged the enemy ninja, who opened his mouth into a wide grin as he saw
who was coming.
        Webs spat out of that open mouth, and Neji risked activating his
Byakugan for just an instant.  Half that split-second he spent
confirming that the chakra pattern of Kidoumaru's webs hadn't changed;
the other half he spent shattering the web with a chakra-charged strike
to its weak point.  His charge didn't slow, and one mighty leap carried
him over the still-smoking crater and to Kidoumaru.
        "You're making a mistake," the six-armed ninja said.  "I'm not
going to waste time playing games with you this time."  Like the
tendrils of a vine, thin, curving black lines began to spread over his
skin.
        "You were just about to, you fucker," Tayuya said as she
interposed herself between Kidoumaru and Neji.  "Stop wasting your
fucking time on the one guy who can break your webs.  Go kill the rest
of these bastards; I'll take care of the Hyuuga."  After a moment,
Kidoumaru's black marks retracted, and he nodded, though he seemed more
than a little upset.
        Neji's eyes narrowed as he remembered what Shikamaru had said
about the kunoichi he had assigned himself to deal with.  She used
genjutsu and was weak in close combat.  She wasn't going to be a
problem.  After a brief glance to ensure that Midori was nowhere in
sight, he activated his Byakugan.  "You don't think I'm just going to
let him get away, do you?" he asked as he settled into a Gentle Fist
fighting stance.
        "You're not going to have a fucking choice, asshole," Tayuya
stated, pulling out a flute.  She jerked her head, and Kidoumaru raced
away.
        Or at least, he did until Neji suddenly appeared in front of
him.  "Eight Divination Signs," the Hyuuga said calmly.  "Sixty-four
Palms of the Hand."  He smiled.  "Two strikes."  His hand darted out,
closing two of Kidoumaru's tenketsu.
        Explosively, the dark lines of the cursed seal spread over the
Sound ninja's skin, and Neji almost faltered at the terrible chakra
spreading through the other boy's bodies.  "Four strikes," he stated
grimly, but with each strike the markings of the cursed seal spread
further and the dark chakra intensified.
        One of Kidoumaru's elbows rammed at Neji's gut with surprising
speed and strength, but the Hyuuga prodigy danced out of the way.
"Eight strikes!"
        Before half the blows had landed, Neji's vision suddenly
blurred.  In an instant, the six-armed ninja was gone, but Neji had
other matters on his mind.  His hands clasped together into a seal as he
hissed out, "Release."
        His vision returned to normal, and he saw Tayuya standing in
front of him, her flute by her lips and the jagged lines of her cursed
seal marring her skin.  "Your eyes aren't so useful against my genjutsu,
are they?" she asked mockingly.  "This one won't be so easy to escape."
Then she pressed her lips to her flute again, and the world vanished,
replaced by a dark, featureless void.  "Demon Flute," the Sound kunoichi
said, "Infinite Darkness."
        Neji snorted, pressing his hands together and stating calmly,
"Release."  The darkness didn't break, and Neji nodded to himself.  It
was only to be expected from a genjutsu expert.  The seal his hands
formed changed.  "Byakugan."
        Perhaps because of its sonic source, the darkness did not lift,
but even through it Neji's eyes could see the pale glow of his
opponent's chakra system, choked by torrents of black, foul chakra.
Feigning disorientation, Neji stumbled about and almost smirked as he
saw his opponent draw near.
        Then she halted.  "You're an idiot, you realize that, Hyuuga?"
Tayuya asked, her arms moving in a motion that had to be bringing her
flute back to her lips.  The dark chakra in her surged.  "That little
rat Jabisen wants to kill tried the same sort of trick on me.  I'm not
going to fall for it."
        Neji straightened.  "It doesn't matter.  Your genjutsu is
useless against me."  He began to charge, then Tayuya sounded a high
note.  He couldn't see what it was, but her felt something wrapping
around his legs, tying them together.
        The Sound kunoichi laughed mockingly as he fell over.  "Don't
they teach you about genjutsu at the academy in the Leaf Village?"  Her
arms dropped.  "The longer you let an opponent's genjutsu persist, the
more powerful it is and the easier it is for her to trap you in another
technique."
        Neji just grunted, struggling to move his legs, but he only
managed to wriggle a little.  His concentration turned inward, his eyes
focusing on his own chakra system.  If he could see how Tayuya's
technique affected his chakra, he might be able to close tenketsu and
break it without closing so many he wouldn't be able to fight.
        "A ninjutsu like the Paralysis Technique would take all my
concentration to hold you," Tayuya commented as she drew nearer.  "I
wouldn't be able to do this.  Demonic Flute: Flames of Illusion."
        Even knowing it was only a genjutsu, it took all of Neji's
willpower to focus past the anguish as the dark void turned into a sea
of fire.  Compared to the genjutsu Midori had used on him in the exams,
it was nothing, but despite her occasional step closer Tayuya showed no
inclination to get close enough for him to use the same tactic.  Worse,
he could see no way to break the technique by closing tenketsu short of
the same desperate measure of closing almost every one, which meant it
wasn't worth doing if he couldn't end the fight with it.
        "What a pity," he heard Tayuya say.  "You're not nearly so much
fun as that vermin.  You could at least scream to make it more fun."
She sighed.  "I suppose I'll finish you off quickly."
        Neji focused through the illusory pain, bringing his hands
together once more.  "Release!" he shouted, but his voice was drowned
out by a loud series of notes.  The infinity of fire surrounding and
consuming him didn't even waver, and whatever bound his legs didn't
release him.
        Tayuya's dark chakra pulsed, somehow conveying a sense of
amusement.  "Strong will," she commented.  "I almost broke a sweat
holding the genjutsu, but you haven't the chakra strength to escape that
way.  No matter what you try, you're just going to dance to my tune."
        Neji forced a deep breath, then his hands danced over his body.
Each time they touched his body, they forced a tenketsu wide open, and
when they were done they formed a simple seal once more.  "Release,"
Neji whispered, and this time the fire and the pain vanished.  He stood,
his legs moving freely once more.
        "How?" Tayuya asked, backing away.
        "You talk too much," Neji said.
        "I see."  The Sound kunoichi's eyes narrowed.  "You can open
tenketsu to increase chakra flow as well as shut them to stop it.
Interesting.  That can't be healthy, though."  The black lines on her
skin writhed for a moment.
        "You're one to talk," Neji said, knowing she was right.  This
was similar to - though less effective than - what Gai or Lee did by
opening the gates, but if anything it was more dangerous.  It put more
strain on a smaller portion of the chakra system.  In a matter of
minutes, he would be doing serious, possibly permanent damage to
himself.  He'd only need minutes, though, if he was immune to Tayuya's
genjutsu.
        "I suppose those eyes are famous for a reason," Tayuya said
after a moment, putting away her flute.  She smiled.  "It's a good thing
I know more than just genjutsu," she said, the lines of her skin inching
forward to cover ever more of her body.
        "You won't get a chance to use it," Neji said, suddenly behind
her.  She started, and Neji struck her with a Gentle Fist strike to the
back even as she tried to dodge.  "That grazed your heart," Neji warned.
"You can't hope to avoid my next strike.  Stay down."
        Tayuya began to laugh painfully, the lines crawling over her
skin.  "You won't touch me again in this life," she promised, one hand
pressing to the ground.  "Summoning Technique."

***********************************************************************

        "Uchiha Sasuke-kun."  Rock Lee's voice was calm as he began to
unwind the bandages wrapped around his arms.
        The traitor stared impassively across the crater with his
crimson eyes.  After a moment, Sasuke said, "Come."  Lee spared just an
instant to observe the battle beginning around him, then he was raising
his arms to block a spinning kick just a moment before it would have
been to late.
        "That was unexpected of you, Sasuke-kun."  Lee backed away,
keeping his guard up.
        "This isn't a game or an exam," the Uchiha said seriously.  "You
haven't time to look away from me."
        "I suppose not," Lee said sadly, his eyes going to the single
note on Sasuke's forehead protector.  Then he was gone, and Sasuke
almost started.
        "Where," he muttered, his crimson eyes flicking about.
        He was ready when Lee came at him from the left with a cry of,
"Leaf Whirlwind," catching the other boy's leg and throwing him over his
shoulder.
        As Lee rolled back to his feet, Sasuke tuned to face him and
smiled.  "Leaf Whirlwind," he intoned, coming at the green-clad ninja
with a perfect copy of his own attack.  Lee blurred, vanishing and
reappearing behind Sasuke as he landed.
        Sasuke turned around again.  "Come," he demanded again, his eyes
spinning.  "Show me your techniques."
        A smile appeared on Lee's face.  "Let's see how fast those eyes
are," he said, and then he was moving, running circles around his
opponent.  The only sign of his passage was the massive ring of dust he
kicked up.
        Sasuke stood unmoving and unconcerned in the center of the
clouds.  There was a blur of motion and a clash of steel, and when the
two ninja were still again Sasuke had turned around to face Lee,
perfectly parrying Lee's strike with a kunai of his own.  "You're fast,"
the loyal Leaf ninja said.
        Sasuke snorted.  "It's not that," he said, and his eyes began to
whirl again.  "You give yourself away with a thousand tiny motions, the
instant you decide to move.  I had all the time in the world to
respond."  He formed seals with one hand.  "Shadow Replication
Technique."
        Lee was moving in an instant, his roundhouse kick sweeping the
legs out beneath the three Sasuke in front of him, but all three
vanished in clouds of smoke.  Then he threw himself to the ground a
second before Sasuke's kunai would have pierced his heart.  Lee was back
on his feet and facing his foe in an instant.
        "That's my speed," Sasuke said.
        "I see," Lee replied after a moment.  "You truly are
extraordinary, Sasuke-kun."
        "Stop holding back, then," Sasuke stated.  "You won't beat me if
you don't fight with everything you have."
        "And why do you want that?" Lee asked.
        "To prove I am stronger than you," Sasuke answered, "and to take
your techniques for my own."  He smiled mirthlessly.  "I can kill you
whenever I like, but I would prefer to gain something from this fight."
        "We'll see, Sasuke-kun," Lee said.  Then he was gone, an instant
before a spray of webbing would have pinned him where he stood.
        "Kidoumaru," Sasuke said, his voice flat.
        The six-armed ninja rolled out of the way of Lee's flying kick,
spitting out another web as he stood.  Lee blurred, vanishing and
reappearing inside the Sound ninja's guard, his leg arcing up to kick
Kidoumaru high into the air above the crater.  The green-clad ninja
vanished, reappearing floating behind his new foe.  Kidoumaru's eyes
widened.
        Lee's bandages, moving as though they were alive, tightly
wrapped the other boy, capturing all six arms.  Lee's weight flipped the
two over so that their heads faced the ground, and they began to spin
rapidly.  "Primary Lotus!"
        "Shit," the six-armed ninja gasped out, and then they plunged to
the ground.  Mere instants before they hit, Lee kicked himself away,
landing in a crouch on the other side of the crater.  Kidoumaru hit the
bottom of the crater headfirst.  He toppled over, and did not rise.
        Lee took a deep breath and stood, turning to face the impassive
Sasuke.  "You didn't help your teammate," he said after a moment.
        Sasuke shrugged.  "I don't care about him."  He smiled coldly.
"I want to fight you."
        Lee stretched, ignoring the familiar ache in his muscles from
the strain of the Primary Lotus.  He could deal with that, but it was
going to make this fight even more difficult.  He hadn't had much
choice, though.  He'd needed to overwhelm the spider ninja quickly,
before a lucky web snared him.  "Then let's fight, Sasuke-kun," he said,
and before the words had faded he was upon the Uchiha.
        Sasuke smirked, blocking Lee's first attack, and for the next
full minute they danced.  Lee was a blur of motion, attacking his foe
from every angle so swiftly that sometimes it seemed he struck from two
directions at once.  In contrast, Sasuke hardly moved and never
attacked, simply deflecting each strike with arrogant ease.  "Is that
all?" he asked, sounding bored.  "That's the speed that wounded Gaara of
the Desert?"
        Lee paused for just a moment.  Moving so fast it hardly seemed
he moved at all, Sasuke hurled a handful of shuriken at the other boy,
but just as swiftly a kunai appeared in Lee's hands and parried them.
"No," he said.  He paused, then added, "You really can see my moves
before I make them with those eyes."
        "Yes."
        Lee smiled, but there was no warmth in the expression.
"Interesting.  Would it make a difference if I came at you at full
speed?"
        Sasuke shrugged.  "Perhaps," he allowed.
        Then Lee was gone, a massive cloud of dust the only sign of his
direction.  Sasuke's eyes narrowed, then widened.  He spun about,
raising an arm to block a blow that didn't come, then jumped away from a
low spin kick that would have knocked his legs out from underneath him.
He turned once more to face Lee.  "It is harder," Sasuke allowed, "but
you can't keep that up for long."
        Lee was breathing heavily, but didn't show any other sign of
exertion, even as his body, still aching from the strain of the Primary
Lotus, protested.  "If you read my intentions with those eyes," he said,
"I just have to keep moving faster and faster until you don't have time
to react."
        "Easier said than done," Sasuke said, and then Lee charged.  It
was a straight charge, with no subtlety too it, but it was fast and
strong.  Sasuke had less than a second to form seals.  "Katon: Great
Fireball Technique!"
        A tiny spurt of flame became a massive, roaring fireball, but
Lee was much too fast to be caught by it, jumping high into the air
above the rolling flames.  Sasuke smirked, then exploded into a puff of
smoke, the flames dying down a second later.  Lee's eyes widened as
Sasuke reappeared, seeming to float behind him in mid-air.  "Leaf Shadow
Dance," he said.
        "Yes," Sasuke said.  He struck at Lee, who pushed the blow
aside.
        "Your Lion Combo," Lee said.  Sasuke struck again, but this time
Lee caught his fist.  "It won't work on me," the green-clad ninja said,
and then he somehow threw Sasuke away.  The traitor spun in mid-air,
eyes widening as he realized Lee was flying straight at him.
        "You might be able to see what I'm about to do," Lee said, "but
it won't matter."  He hissed in what might have been pain, and then
shouted, "Second Gate... Open!"
        "This," Sasuke began, and then Lee kicked him further up into
the air.  In less than an instant, Lee had landed and leapt again,
flying back toward the still-rising Sasuke.
        "Third Gate," Lee growled out.  "Open!"  His skin began to
darken, the strain he was placing on his muscles visible to the naked
eye.  "Secondary Lotus!"  A punch pushed Sasuke even higher, then Lee
landed on top of a tree, then he was back in the air, delivering a solid
blow past Sasuke's helpless attempts to block.  Sasuke went flying
toward the ground, but Lee was waiting for him with another blow.
        Lee's fist passed right through Sasuke, and the other boy
exploded into a spray of wet mud.  Lee passed through the wet ooze, then
landed gently on the ground.  He took a deep breath, then relaxed, his
skin returning to its normal shade.  His eyes went to the real Sasuke,
and Lee let out his breath.  "I hit you a few times," he said.
        Sasuke nodded, clearly in more than a little pain despite his
efforts to hide it.  One of his hands was briefly encased in pale green
chakra, and he passed it over his chest.  "You won't be moving so fast
after that."
        "Medical ninjutsu?" Lee asked.
        "With these eyes, it's simple to learn the basic techniques,"
Sasuke said.
        Lee nodded.  "Let's continue."  It took a struggle to hide the
weakness in his limbs, but everyone was counting on him.  He had to keep
fighting.
        "I think I've gotten all I need from you," Sasuke said.  "It's
time to finish you off."  Then he sighed.  "But it seems we're about to
be interrupted," he said.
        "Uchiha Sasuke," Hyuuga Neji said flatly as he appeared beside
Lee.
        "Did you -" Lee began, but then a changed Tayuya also appeared
on a treetop next to Sasuke.  Lee would have started at her demonic
appearance if he hadn't seen a similar transformation before.
        "There are... difficulties," Neji admitted.
        Tayuya smiled.  "Running to your friend won't help, Hyuuga," she
stated, bringing her flute to her lips, sounding a single note.
        "Move," Neji hissed, and then an inhuman roar came in response
to Tayuya's playing.

***********************************************************************

        Unsurprisingly, Midori didn't try to avoid Sakura and Ren.  When
the other two girls came at her, she stood her ground, and when they
tried to lead her away she followed.  Less than a minute later, the
three girls stood in a clearing a few hundred yards away from the rest
of the fighting, putting the rest of the battle well beyond the range of
Midori's technique..
        If Ren, Neji, and Shikamaru's conclusion on that matter was
accurate, Sakura reminded herself.  They'd taken that distance and
doubled it, just to be safe, but that didn't mean much.  It was far more
helpful that Midori couldn't see Neji, and the distance simply served to
reduce the chance that the course of battle would bring the two into
contact.
        "Keeping me away from the Hyuuga freak, huh?" Midori asked.
        "Of course," Ren answered.  "We aren't stupid."
        Midori shrugged.  "I suppose not," she agreed.  "Smart of you to
double up on me.  I can't snare both of you at once."
        "No, you can't," Sakura said.  "Give up.  You can't beat us
both."
        Midori nodded.  "You're right," she said agreeably.  "The way I
was before, I wouldn't have been able to defeat the two of you at once."
She raised her hand, displaying the three black rings on the back of it.
"I'm not the way I was before anymore."
        Ren paled.  "Don't, Midori.  Mitarashi-sensei -"
        "You saw her?" Midori asked.  "I suppose she's dead then."  Her
voice was flat.
        "Yes."  Ren swallowed.  "It was her cursed seal that killed her,
Midori," she warned.  "That... that thing is dangerous.  Please.  Let us
help you."
        "No," Midori said.  She let the simple rejection stand for a
moment, then added, "She died fighting you and these Leaf?  Kabuto-sama
will be pleased, I suppose, to learn that she didn't betray us."
        "Don't you even care that your teacher is dead?" Sakura asked.
Her eyes flicked about the clearing as she calculated the fastest way to
get behind Midori.  She couldn't imagine the talking lasting much
longer, and it paid to be ready when the fighting began.
        Midori shrugged.  "Not particularly," she admitted.
        "You," Ren snarled.
        "You shouldn't be angry at me," Midori said mockingly.  "I'm not
the one who killed her."
        Ren took a deep breath.  "Listen to yourself, Midori.  You...
this isn't like you."  She paused.  "You... you always said that
Mitarashi-sensei was the first adult to treat you like a person and not
just -"
        Midori froze.  "You're right," she said after a moment, sounding
almost confused.  "She was."
        In that moment, she dropped her guard, and Sakura charged,
flames streaming from between the fingers of one of her hands.
"Sakura!" Ren snapped angrily, but the Leaf kunoichi didn't stop.
        The flames struck Midori, and there was a hiss of steam.  She
smiled, even as her form began to waver, the water that constructed it
visible.  "Silly little bitch," she said mockingly, and then she
exploded.
        The blast of water sent Sakura flying, but Ren was there to
catch her.  "You idiot," the Mist kunoichi snarled.  "For a moment there
I was getting through.  A moment longer and I might have gotten the real
one to come out."
        Sakura shook her head.  "Talking to her like that isn't going to
work," she said, disentangling herself from Ren and standing.  "Any more
than it did on your teacher."
        "That was Suicide Water Replication Technique," Ren said after a
moment.  "But Midori never had the chakra for that.  And the control to
keep it stable for that long -"
        Sakura tackled Ren, a moment before a hail of kunai passed
through where the two of them hand been standing.  "You've become
unobservant, Ren," Midori said as she walked into the clearing.  An
instant later, four more Midori joined her from other directions.
"That's the second time she's saved you so far."
        "Second?" Ren asked as she stood, but the Midori just laughed.
"Remember, we don't have to worry about the clones' eyes," Ren hissed to
Sakura as the two moved to stand back-to-back, the five Midori prowling
around them in a circle.
        "I'm not an idiot," Sakura replied.  "I listened to what you
said yesterday."  Midori's doujutsu - most importantly the Gaze of
Torment - couldn't be worked through a water replication's eyes.  If
Midori was using her usual tactics, none of the five that surrounded
them were real.  She would be using a cloaking genjutsu to hide and
direct the clones.  But Midori knew Ren was familiar with her tactics,
which meant -
        "Now," Ren hissed, and she charged, flames wreathing both her
hands.  Together, they plunged into one Midori, and the clone dissolved
into water and steam.  Ren turned to face another Midori, and for a
moment their eyes met.
        Not bothering to form a seal, the Midori stated, "Haruno Ninpou:
Gaze of Torment."  She smirked, and Ren screamed.
        Sakura's arm moved, and three kunai embedded themselves in that
Midori's side.  She wavered for just an instant, then dissolved into
water.  "A replication?" Sakura hissed.
        "I warned you," another Midori said, her voice light, "I'm not
the same as before."  She sighed as Ren shakily stood.  "I haven't
worked out how to keep the technique active once the clone is disrupted,
though."
        "I can't believe," Ren said, "that you'd use that technique on
me."
        "Maybe now you'll believe that I'm serious," a Midori said.
"I'm not some prisoner to be saved, Ren.  I'm with Orochimaru-sama of my
own free will, just like Mitarashi-sensei was."
        "And what about Saburo?" Ren asked, and all three remaining
Midori were silent.
        Shuriken filled Sakura's hands, as her gaze danced between the
trio of Midori.  Not seeing any tell-tale sign that one was real, she
loosed her weapons at all three, and a moment later they were all
puddles of water.  "Too much to hope for, I guess," Sakura muttered as
she tried to concentrate on piercing Midori's cloaking technique.
        "Midori wouldn't just come out like that," Ren said as she moved
to once again stand at Sakura's back.  "She knows this is over once we
find the real her."
        "Yes," Midori's voice came.  "If that happened I'd probably be
forced to kill you, and I'd prefer not to do that."
        Ren stiffened.  "Is that so?" she asked.
        "I've no use for your fake friendship anymore," Midori said,
"nor whatever tiny amount of real affection you have for me.  But you
and Saburo helped me many times, and I owe you... and him that much, at
least."  Even though Sakura couldn't see Midori, she could feel the
other girl's smile.  "The same does not go for the pink-haired bitch, of
course."
        "Of course," Sakura muttered, her eyes narrowing.  Which
direction was the voice coming from?  Was it the real Midori or another
clone?
        Before she could answer those questions, the small puddles left
behind by the destroyed water clones rippled.  Sakura and Ren leapt into
the air mere instants before spiraling jets of water erupted from the
puddles, colliding where they had been standing.  The liquid tendrils
twisted around each other for just a second, then sped at Sakura as she
landed in a tree.
        Sakura just formed seals before bringing one hand to her mouth.
"Katon: Fireball Technique!"  The burst of flame hit the water head on,
erupting into a cloud of steam.
        The branches above Sakura stirred, and in an instant Ren was
there, claws of flame streaming from one hand.  Cloaking technique
discarded, Midori - or a Midori at least - flipped out of the way of the
fire, diving toward the ground.
        Sakura jumped from her own perch, tackling the other girl in
midair and shoving her into a thick tree trunk.  Midori recovered
quickly, raising her eyes, but Sakura averted her own gaze.  The
distraction gave Midori enough time to force Sakura away with a sudden
kick.  The Leaf ninja lost her footing, but a bit of wire work saved her
from a potentially dangerous fall.
        Ren landed behind her on the same branch.  "That's probably not
her," she commented.
        Sakura nodded.  "Replacement technique after I hit her," she
agreed.  "She switched places with a water replication and re-
established her cloaking genjutsu."
        The visible Midori smiled.  "Clever," she said.  "I suppose I'm
not supposed to notice that you transformed into Ren and created your
own genjutsu?" she asked.
        There was a puff of smoke, and Ren became Sakura.  "You're tough
to fool."
        The real Ren seemed to appear from nowhere, disrupting Midori's
clone with a sweeping kick.  "This is getting us nowhere fast," she
said.  There was a sudden loud rumble and a blast of hot air.  "What the
hell?"
        "Shizune-sama, I think," Sakura said, letting her motionless
genjutsu clone vanish.  "That's not our concern right now."
        Ren nodded, then pointed downward.  After a glance, Sakura
nodded, and the two were on the ground.  Despite straining all her
senses, Sakura wasn't able to catch any hint of motion from Midori
following them down.  "She's good," the Leaf kunoichi admitted.
        Ren nodded.  "I'm not sure we can beat her like this."
        "She could be heading back to Neji-san," Sakura said quietly,
"and we wouldn't know."
        "I heard that," Midori said from somewhere.  "Fortunately for
him, I'm much more interested in you."  Sakura could feel her enemy
smile.
        "I'm so thrilled," Sakura said.  "I always wanted a violent
psychopath with a personal vendetta against me for no particular reason
other than happening to be related to her."
        "No particular reason?" Midori growled, and it took all of
Sakura's willpower not to exchange a glance with Ren.  "You ruined my
life, bitch!"
        Sakura's will wasn't strong enough to keep her from blinking.
"Ruined your life?" she asked quizzically.  "How the hell did I do
that?"
        "Our mothers were sisters," Midori said with a snarl.  "It was
your mother who was to marry my father, before she ran away.  It was you
who should have been the mistake with too-strong blood.  You!"
        "That doesn't make any sense at all, damn it!" Sakura shouted
back at her, pushing away the sadness that welled up at the mention of
her mother.  "You do realize that neither of us would have been born
otherwise?"
        "Shut up!" Midori screamed, and Sakura had finally heard enough.
        The pink-haired girl spun around to stand beside Ren, in one
smooth motion loosing three kunai at where Midori had to be.  There was
a clatter of metal, and Midori's own weapons knocked Sakura's kunai
aside, but the action destroyed Midori's cloaking technique.
        Ren took a step back.  "Midori," she breathed.  Black, curving
lines traced almost circular patterns on Midori's skin, covering one
arm.  The hint of more arcs peeked out from the collar of her shirt,
threatening to expand across her neck and face.
        "I'll kill you," the Sound ninja said, her voice flat as her
green eyes sought out Sakura's matching gaze.  "And maybe then you too,
Ren."  An ominous pressure filled the air, nothing compared to the power
Mitarashi Kimi had displayed or even what she'd felt from Sasuke in the
Forest of Death, but far more than Sakura had ever felt from Midori
before.
        Sakura swallowed.  "Plans?" she asked.
        Then Ren was at her back, wrenching one arm behind her and
placing a kunai at her neck.  "Don't move," she hissed at Sakura before
speaking to Midori.  "You might want to rethink killing me," the Mist
kunoichi said without emotion.
        Midori laughed, though there was something hollow in the
laughter.  "What's this, then?"
        "The Leaf are far too trusting," Ren said, her voice still
perfectly composed.  "They're my enemies.  What do I care what happens
to the kid they're trying to rescue or to Sakura-san here?  The only one
I care about is Saburo.  At this rate, helping the Leaf won't get me
what I want.  Helping you, on the other hand..."
        "A trade," Midori said.  The markings of the cursed seal pulsed,
then rapidly retreated until they vanished entirely, leaving only the
black rings on the back of her hand.
        Sakura tensed, searching for an escape, but Ren only pressed her
kunai tighter, drawing a hint of blood.  "Stay still," Ren said softly,
and Sakura had no choice but to comply.  "Give me Saburo, and I'll give
you her and leave you be.  I'll even report that you and Mitarashi-
sensei died escaping the Leaf Village, so no hunter ninja will be sent
for you."
        "I like the idea," Midori said.  "We both get we want."  She
shook her head.  "I'm not sure I could get Kabuto-sama to agree, though.
I could just beat you and we'd have all three of you."
        "Is his approval so important to you?" Ren asked.
        Midori rubbed at the cursed seal with her other hand.  "This is
my home now," she said firmly.  "I'm not going to ruin what I've been
given here for you."
        "I heard the Leaf talking," Ren said after a moment.  "Sakura-
san is the Hokage's apprentice.  Tsunade of the legendary Sannin's
apprentice."  She paused.  "And I'll help deal with the other Leaf.  I
know their strategy for this battle."
        Midori hissed, and then she grinned widely.  "That does change
matters slightly," she agreed.  "We have a deal, Ren."  She stepped
forward, grabbing Sakura's chin with one hand and forcing the pink-
haired girl's face up to meet her gaze.  "Haruno Ninpou," Midori said
cheerfully, "Gaze of Torment."
        Sakura screamed as the pain consumed her, every bit as bad as
she remembered from the chuunin exams.  Ren released her, and she fell,
another scream escaping her lips as she hit the ground in an explosion
of even worse pain.  As she writhed on the forest floor, she felt
movement above her.
        "No," Midori said, "let her suffer."
        "I'm not going to let her give away our position," Ren said, and
a moment later her hand struck the back of Sakura's neck, and the pain
faded away into blackness.

***********************************************************************

        For Yamanaka Ino, things began to go wrong almost instantly as
the battle started.  Her designated target went for Shikamaru, and
before Ino could react the two were gone.  She immediately searched for
Shikamaru's target, even as a part of her mind reminded her just how few
options she had against a ranged fighter with strong genjutsu.  When she
saw that Neji had already engaged her, she searched for his opponent,
and moved to intercept as the six-armed ninja headed to interrupt Lee
and Sasuke's fight.
        Kidoumaru casually spat a web at Ino, but the kunoichi darted
out of the way, throwing a kunai at him.  Without breaking his stride,
the Sound ninja caught the weapon and sent it on a return path.  Again
Ino dodged, running closer to the boy as she formed seals.  "Katon:
Fireball Technique!"
        For the first time the Sound ninja seemed concerned about her
attempts to stop him, rolling out of the way and coughing up another
burst of webbing.  Ino dodged once more, but this time Kidoumaru
followed up with a second web an instant later, snaring her.  Not
wasting any further time on Ino, the six-armed boy went on his way
toward Lee and Sasuke.
        The kunoichi lay still for what seemed like hours but could only
have been a minute.  It was the wet, disgusting sensation of the sticky
webs covering her skin that finally pushed Ino out of her brief stupor.
Her first attempts to break the web proved predictably futile, but after
a while she got one arm free enough to take out a kunai and start
cutting away the webs.
        The going was painfully slow, though, even as the sound of
battles all around her drove Ino to more furious efforts.  She had to
saw away for some time at each strand of web to weaken it before it
would break, and there were dozens or hundreds of stands binding her.
Worse, if she wasn't careful the blade would get stuck in the thicker
strands, and it took quite a bit of struggling to wrench free.  If any
enemy's attention fell on her, she would be helpless.
        Not that she was worth paying attention to, it seemed.  Snarling
at the thought, Ino put a bit too much strength into her blade work, and
she almost cut her bound arm.  After taking a quick pause to calm
herself, Ino went back to work more carefully, and soon enough her
second arm was free.
        With that, she could now form seals, and she reflexively ran
through the techniques she knew, hoping to find one that would help her
now.  "Spider webs burn, don't they?" the blonde asked herself
dubiously.  Could she manage to burn away the web without hurting
herself too badly?  It didn't seem likely.
        A sudden, inhuman roar disturbed her thoughts.  Ino started,
gasping as she looked across the crater.  Kidoumaru was nowhere to be
seen, but Sasuke stood near the crater's edge, seemingly unconcerned and
staring at Lee and Neji.  For once almost none of her attention went to
the Uchiha.  Instead it went to the inhuman-seeming girl that had to be
Tayuya.  The cursed seal's second stage had been described to Ino, but
that hadn't prepared her for it.  She'd never seen anything like it.
        Then there was another roar, and an even more demonic figure,
easily four times the height of a grown man, burst from forest,
brandishing an oversized warhammer and charging at Lee and Neji.  Its
skin was almost a human color and more disturbing for the closeness.
Crimson, liquid-seeming markings ran up and down its limbs, occasionally
appearing to shift and move.
        The demon paused, sniffing at the air, and bile rose in Ino's
throat as she saw that its eyes were sewn shut, blood or some fouler
substance oozing from them.   Tayuya played a rapid sequence of notes.
Faster than Ino could see, the demon's hammer came crashing down, flames
exploding out from where it hit the ground, but Lee and Neji were
already gone.  There was a high-pitched note, and Tayuya and the demon
followed.
        For just a moment, it seemed like Sasuke's crimson eyes focused
on Ino, and she froze in fear.  Then the moment passed and the traitor
was gone.  It took Ino several seconds to recover her breath, but
eventually her heart stopped racing.  She looked about, confirming that
the battle had carried all the other ninja out of sight, and then she
drew her kunai once more and got back to work.
        Less than a minute later she froze again at the sound of
footsteps and indistinct voices.  If some enemy were approaching, her
only hope would be for them to believe her already dead.  She held
herself perfectly still as the footsteps grew louder.  There were two
people, Ino noted coldly.  Sound reinforcements?
        When the two came into Ino's field of vision, it took all of the
blonde's willpower not to show any reaction, to keep every muscle still.
She watched glumly as Midori and Ren carried a still, unconscious Sakura
down into the crater, fury rising in her.  As soon as the other three
kunoichi were gone, Ino attacked the webs binding her with newfound
energy.  She was damned if that bitch Ren was going to get away with
betraying them like this.  Everyone else was busy with their own
battles; it was up to her to save Sakura.
        It took her less than a minute to clear away enough of the webs
that she could break free.  Brushing a few strands still stuck to her
away, she looked around to ensure that there were no enemies in sight,
then jumped down to the bottom of the crater.  She landed right in front
of the rubble-strewn, shadowed entrance to the underground corridors.
        There was a groan behind her, and Ino spun about.  When she saw
Kidoumaru slowly sitting up, she didn't freeze.  She was on him in an
instant, a kunai in her hand.  Then she was flying away to slam into the
rough cavern wall.
        The six-armed ninja yawned, as he finished standing.  In one
hand he held Ino's kunai.  "You again?" he asked, another of his hands
rubbing at his eyes.  "I suppose I'll take the time to kill you this
time before I go find that Lee kid.  He won't get so lucky this time."
        Ino stumbled away from the wall, fumbling for another kunai.
Kidoumaru yawned again before tossing the weapon he'd from the kunoichi
back at her.  Ino rolled out of the way, starting to form seals.
        A moment later she was pinned against the wall, one of her
enemy's arms around her throat while two others shoved her own arms
against the rough rock.  "You're not seriously trying to fight me, are
you, little girl?" Kidoumaru asked.  His hand tightened around Ino's
throat.
        With desperate strength, Ino brought up one foot, kicking at the
Sound ninja and shoving him away.  The boy took a half-step backward,
grunting slightly, but didn't release Ino - until the blonde's other
foot came up between his legs.
        "Bitch," the boy hissed, stumbling backwards.  A kunai appeared
in one of his hands, embedding itself in Ino's stomach.
        Ino gasped in pain, but her now-free hands still froze on a
seal.  "Mind-Body Switch Technique," she said painfully, and then she
slumped to the ground.
        Kidoumaru froze for an instant, and then he stumbled.  "Damn,
this body is weird," Ino muttered through his lips.  "Bad enough that
he's a boy, but this one's got even more extra parts."  She moved one of
Kidoumaru's arms to rub at a strange burning sensation on his back, then
knelt over her own still body.
        She stared down at her wounded, weakly breathing self with
Kidoumaru's eyes.  Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she pulled
the kunai out of her body, then tended to the wound as best she could.
She wasn't going to be able to fight well, but it should keep her stable
until Shizune could heal the wound.
        The burning sensation on Kidoumaru's back grew, and Ino began to
feel something stirring in the back of her mind.  "It's not going to be
that easy," Ino muttered as she opened her packs, pulling out a small
canister of knockout pills Shizune had given her the night before for
just this purpose.  She quickly unscrewed the cap, then poured out two
into Kidoumaru's hand and made him swallow them.  His vision began to
blur, and Ino barely managed to force two of his hands together and gasp
out, "Release."
        A short while later, Ino was back in her own body.  She stood
weakly, then almost collapsed.  Gritting her teeth through the pain, she
bound Kidoumaru's unconscious form before forcing herself to step
forward toward the entrance into Orochimaru's lair.  "I'm coming,
Sakura."

***********************************************************************

        There was laughter ringing in Naruto's ears as he awoke.  "Not
here again," the young ninja grumbled as he stood up, ignoring the warm,
murky water he had been lying in.  His eyes traveled to the moldy, dark
walls, wondering not for the first time where the dim, too-warm sunlight
that poorly lit these halls filtered in from.
        "Shut up, you damn fox," he muttered back at another low,
rumbling laugh.  Knowing there was no other choice, he started walking,
not caring what direction he traveled in.  All paths lead to the same
destination in this place.
        Before too long, Naruto once more stood before the massive gate
that constrained the demon fox.  Within moments, the demon's giant face
was pressed against the bars, huge, crimson eyes staring down at the
tiny ninja who contained their owner.  "Brat," the Kyuubi rumbled.
There was a hiss as a drop of spittle fell from the demon's fanged maw,
a cloud of steam erupting where it hit the foul water.
        "What do you want?" Naruto demanded, struggling not to show the
primal terror growing inside him.  The demon's presence filled this
place, an aura of malice and hatred that dwarfed even the foulest, most
terrible power Naruto had felt from a human being.  Even the twisted
chakra drawn out by Orochimaru's cursed seals felt less evil.
        The Kyuubi's breath was heavy, the foul stench making Naruto
wince.  "What do you want?" it echoed.
        "I want you to shut up, let me out of here, and never bother me
again!" Naruto shouted at the giant fox.
        The demon laughed loudly, and the force of its laughter pushed
the much smaller ninja back.  "You cannot lie to me, brat.  I can smell
your feelings.  You are worried and not for yourself."  Its eyes began
to glow.  "Fool."
        Naruto took a step forward, his hands clenching into fists.  "So
what?  My friends are in danger!  Of course I'm worried!"
        "Friends?"  The Kyuubi's face pressed closer against the bars.
"Do you wish to save them?"
        "Of course," Naruto repeated, but his voice was hesitant.  What
was the demon up to?
        "Then merely step inside," the fox stated, drawing back from the
gate slightly.  "Else, your body will merely lie sleeping while your
soul remains here."
        "'The only way out is through,' again?" Naruto asked, rolling
his eyes.  "Enough.  I didn't fall for that before, and I'm not going to
now."
        "Only my power can burn the poison from your veins, brat," the
Kyuubi said.  "Only I can grant you the strength to defeat all your
foes.  Come inside or tear down this seal, and all this will be yours."
The sudden wave of power knocked Naruto down, the immaterial pressure
stronger than any physical blow.  Behind the bars of the gate, an
infinity of crimson, demonic chakra burned, and for just an instant
Naruto could see the demon in its entirety.
        After a moment, the young ninja managed to rise.  "No.  I'm not
going in, and you aren't coming out."
        The Kyuubi snorted and, high on the gate, the fragile-seeming
slip of paper with the word 'seal' on it began to smolder.  "You believe
your will matters in this, brat?  Not in the slightest; not anymore."
        Naruto stumbled back as the water before him began to boil,
crimson chakra seeping out from behind the gate.  "What?" he asked,
swallowing nervously.
        "Did you think there were no consequences when you called upon
my power in the past, brat?" the Kyuubi snarled.  A drop of blood fell
from its lips, landing with a giant splash on Naruto's side of the gate.
The blood began to swirl in the boiling water, fusing with the glowing
chakra that still poured out from the gate.  "Every time you brought my
chakra through, you let a piece of me out as well, brat.  Every time,
this accursed seal your so-called Fourth Hokage gave his life to create
weakened."
        "If you don't need me," Naruto asked, "why try to get me to come
through?"
        "Your cooperation would hasten my release," the demon said, "but
it is not necessary for it."  The swirling mixture of blood and chakra
began to rise up out of the dark water, forming itself into monstrous,
twin-tailed fox that stood almost half again Naruto's size.  A second,
then a third monster began to form behind the first, though these
boasted only one tail.
        Naruto swallowed again, and his hands blurred.  Before he could
finish forming seals, one of the one-tailed foxes swiped at the air with
one paw.  Its leg lengthened, stretching unnaturally and twisting around
to slam Naruto back into the far wall.  Even as the ninja struggled to
rise, the blood-and-chakra foxes advanced.
        The Kyuubi laughed loudly, and the two-tailed fox leapt into the
air, passing over Naruto's head and racing into the dark corridors
behind him.  "What?" the ninja asked, as he slowly sat up.
        "For me, just as for you," the demon answered, "the only way out
is through."  Its amusement filled the air.  "I will teach you a lesson,
brat, while these two of my children keep you busy."  The remaining
monsters began to slowly advance on Naruto.
        "A lesson in what?"
        "Of the gifts I will grant when you obey me," the Kyuubi said,
"and of the punishments I will exact when you defy me."  It grinned
widely, its teeth seeming to glow in the dim light.  "All your enemies
shall perish," it promised, "but so shall your friends."
        Naruto stood, all fear and nervousness gone from his face.  Pale
blue chakra flickered around him as he faced down the two remaining
monstrous foxes.  "No," he said firmly.  "That's not going to happen."

***********************************************************************

        "What the hell are you planning?" Tsunade asked, taking an
involuntary step back at the dark nature of the chakra Orochimaru was
channeling.  Whatever tiny doubt remained in her mind that the foulness
released by the cursed seals was connected to her former teammate
vanished.  The mere aura of Orochimaru's power made the Hokage sick to
her stomach.
        "You need to ask, Tsunade-hime?"  Orochimaru grinned, pausing
briefly in his forming of seals.  "I'm going to kill you."
        "You're going to try," the female Sannin corrected grimly.  She
frowned.  "This is no ordinary technique."
        "No," Orochimaru agreed.  "It's the same technique I used to
kill Sarutobi-sensei."  He smiled again.  "It seems appropriate."
        "You think I'm just going to let you finish it?" Tsunade asked,
and then she was in the air behind Orochimaru, her foot spinning toward
the side of his head.  His body wavered, then erupted into a storm of
serpentine forms.  Several snakes perished from the force of Tsunade's
kick, but the rest slithered away to reform once more into Orochimaru's
form.
        "Let me finish?" Orochimaru said.  "I don't need your
permission."  His hands settled into a final seal.  "Summoning:
Resurrection to the Impure World."
        Tsunade's eyes widened, and she backed away as two glowing
purple holes opened in the ground between her and Orochimaru.  "This,"
she breathed.
        "Yes," Orochimaru said.  "I see you've at least heard of this
technique."
        "You're a monster," Tsunade said.  Orochimaru just let out a
wordless cry, power flowing from him as two wooden coffins slowly rose
up out of the holes.  The Hokage grimaced, then charged her former
teammate.
        "How pointless," the renegade Sannin observed, dancing out of
the way of Tsunade's first blow.  The coffins stopped rising, but the
snake master seemed unconcerned, rapidly forming a short set of seals.
"Summoning Technique."
        The massive snake that appeared lunged at Tsunade, forcing the
kunoichi to jump away.  Three seconds later, a storm of fire had
consumed the summoned beast, but that was long enough for the coffins to
have finished emerging.  Tsunade turned to them, then froze, a look of
horror appearing on her face as the lids fell off, revealing the bodies
within.
        "I promised you I would bring them back," Orochimaru said
cheerfully as his former teammate's legs wobbled and she almost fell to
her knees.  He smiled.  "You're welcome."
        "Nawaki," Tsunade said painfully as she looked at the young boy
who was stumbling out of one coffin.  Then her eyes turned to the older
man emerging from the second.  "Dan," she added, her voice breaking.
        The silver-haired man, clad in an outdated Leaf uniform, glanced
first at Tsunade's young brother, then at the man who stood behind him.
"Orochimaru," he said darkly.  "I see I was right about you all along."
He stared at Tsunade's grief-stricken face for a moment before adding,
"Or perhaps even I misjudged the depths of your evil."
        "Tsunade-neechan?" Nawaki asked confusedly, staring at the woman
in front of him.  "Is that you?"
        She nodded wordlessly.  "Orochimaru," she hissed.  "Why bring
him back?  He was only a genin."
        Nawaki blinked, turning backward.  "Orochimaru-kun?" he asked.
"Are you... why are you fighting Tsunade-neechan?  Why are... what's
going on?"
        Orochimaru ignored the dead boy, instead answering Tsunade's
question.  "Merely to cause you more pain... Fifth Hokage-sama," he
stated.
        "Hokage?" Nawaki said in awe, only to be echoed by a "Fifth?"
from Dan.
        "How long -" Dan began, only to cut off.  "I suppose it doesn't
matter."
        "No, it doesn't," Orochimaru agreed as he stepped forward.  Two
kunai appeared in his hands, red tags covered in arcane sigils dangling
from them.  "I think that's more than enough catching up."
        "If there is any justice in this universe, Orochimaru," Dan
said, "I will be able to travel to whatever hell your foul spirit is
destined for so that I may enjoy your suffering when you perish."
        Orochimaru smiled.  "I don't intend to die, Dan-kun," he stated.
"Ever."  Then he thrust both kunai into the heads of the two dead ninja,
his hands and the weapons passing into them as though they were
insubstantial.  Almost instantly, the gray, pale skin and clothes of
Nawaki and Dan began to brighten, the strength and vitality they had
possessed in life returning to them.  At the same time, though, all
emotion vanished from their faces.
        "You," Tsunade growled, but despite her anger her voice wavered
as her eyes flicked between her brother and her lover.
        "Prepare to die, Tsunade-hime," Orochimaru said, and as though
that were a command the two dead ninja charged the Hokage.
        Reflexively, Tsunade weaved around their blows.  She
unthinkingly blocked a weak punch from Nawaki, then counterattacked.
The young genin almost exploded from the force of her punch, ash and
dust streaming out of his body as it landed on the other side of the
clearing, behind Orochimaru.  Tsunade froze.  "Nawaki."
        "Raiton: Lighting Palm."  Dan's cold words made Tsunade's eyes
widen, but her moment of distraction kept her from dodging.  Electricity
crackling around it, Dan's open hand lightly struck at Tsunade's
stomach.
        The kunoichi stumbled backward away from the blow, almost losing
her footing, and there was a crack like thunder as Dan's technique
expended itself on empty air.  Dan moved into a low, sweeping kick, but
Tsunade just barely managed to recover quickly enough to dart out of the
way.  "Dan," she said, her voice breaking once more.
        "Katon:  Fire Dragon Blast!"  One of the man's hands went to his
mouth, guiding a jet of white-hot flame at Tsunade.  The Hokage raised
her hands to shield her face and channeled chakra into the air to force
the fire away from her body, but the force of the attack still pushed
her back against a tree.
        "You can't afford to be distracted by sentimentality,"
Orochimaru advised.  "Besides, your brother is already recovered."
Indeed, the young genin stood once more, and Tsunade's eyes widened in
new horror as she watched the last bits of ash flowing back into
Nawaki's body.  Orochimaru grinned.  "Since they're already dead," he
said mockingly, "they can't die in battle either, Tsunade-hime."
        Tsunade stomped at the ground, her strength making the earth
crack open.  Dan jumped backward, out of the way of the suddenly opening
chasm.  "You'll... you'll pay for this, Orochimaru," Tsunade said.  "I
swear it."
        Orochimaru laughed.  "Tsunade-hime, I already told you not to
make promises you can't keep.  The way you're fighting now, there's no
way you could defeat our dear Dan-kun even if he could be killed.  All
you're doing is delaying the inevitable."
        "Shut up," Tsunade snarled.
        "Dan-kun was a swordsman, wasn't he?" Orochimaru asked as his
two summoned ninja charged Tsunade once more.  He smiled, and then his
mouth gaped open, a snake's head emerging from it.  The renegade Sannin
reached up, pulling a straight sword from the snake's mouth.
        Even as he did this, the two dead ninja reached Tsunade.  She
avoided their blows, but didn't strike back, instead leaping away.
There was no hesitation in her opponents as they followed her, neither
anger nor sadness on their faces.
        "Catch," Orochimaru said simply, tossing the legendary sword
Kusanagi into the air.
        Wordlessly and without pausing, Dan reached up and snagged the
hilt in midair.  Then he did hesitate, but only for a moment before
jumping into the air above Tsunade.  "Dance of the Crescent Moon," he
intoned, his form blurring as flickering, illusory copies emerged from
it.
        Tsunade countered the wrong strike, and all the images save the
real one vanished as Dan thrust Kusanagi through his lover's shoulder
and into a tree, pinning the woman.  His hand tightened on the hilt.
"Raiton: Sword of Thunder," he stated, and Tsunade screamed as
electricity exploded along the blade.
        Orochimaru smiled widely.  "And now, Tsunade-hime, just as I
promised... you will die."

***********************************************************************

        Uchiha Sasuke's eyes narrowed as the demon drove Lee and Neji
away.  "I didn't ask for your help," he said coldly to the almost as
demonic-looking kunoichi who stood atop the tree next to him.
        "Sorry, Sasuke-sama," Tayuya spat unrepentantly, then she played
a high note on her flute.  The inhuman demon below vanished, and Tayuya
followed a moment later.
        Sasuke's eyes swept the battlefield.  The only person remaining
was one ninja trapped in Kidoumaru's webs.  Sasuke grunted to himself.
No point in staying here, if that was the case.  His body tensed, and
then he leapt away in a sudden whirlwind of leaves.
        He landed atop a tree next to his nominal teammate.  Tayuya
didn't even glance at him, playing a rapid sequence of notes on her
flute, directing the demon below.  Sasuke glanced at the battle, and it
took him less than an instant to notice that something was wrong.
Hyuuga Neji wasn't using his clan's famed Gentle Fist, instead using his
comparatively clumsy abilities at more standard taijutsu.  Why?
        A moment's further thought, and Sasuke determined the answer.
The Hyuuga's opponent wasn't human.  What need had a demon for tenketsu
or even internal organs?  The physical form it presented was just a way
for it to interact with the real world.  Any organs it had were
merely... ornamental.  Damaging them would be pointless.  The only way
to defeat the monster was to damage the body enough that it couldn't
hold together, and that took strength, not precision.
        Not that the pair of Leaf ninja were having much success with
that, though.  The demon was large and powerful, and even without its
weapon it had an enormous advantage in reach.  With the warhammer and
the flames each strike with it produced, coming to blows with the
monster was a tough struggle all by itself.  Neji could only serve as a
distraction, and Lee was already tired from his... exertions against
Sasuke himself.
        So, what would the two do?  Sasuke smirked, and he wasn't
surprised when the demon's hammer struck Neji, nor when the Hyuuga
dissolved into wisps of gray smoke.  Instead he was moving, catching the
real Neji's arm as he struck for Tayuya's heart.
        "You," the Hyuuga snarled.
        The Sound kunoichi echoed the Leaf ninja a moment later, but it
was surprise instead of anger in her voice.  "You.  Wh -"
        "If the puppet is too strong," Sasuke said dryly, "attack the
puppeteer instead."  He snorted.  "Basic."
        Neji wrenched his arm free, leaping away and landing atop the
tree where Sasuke had stood a moment ago.  "As you say."
        "Fight me," Sasuke commanded the other boy, then he glanced at
Tayuya.  "Keep Lee busy, if you can at least manage that."  Without
waiting for a response he jumped at the Hyuuga.
        A few moments later the two boys were on the ground, out of
sight of Tayuya and Lee's battle.  "You can't take my techniques," Neji
said flatly.
        "I know," Sasuke agreed.  "But I can test myself against you."
        "You've changed," Neji said, the veins around his eyes bulging.
"And not for the better."
        Then Sasuke was behind the other boy, a kunai pointed at his
neck.  "Who are you to determine that?"
        Neji's eyes didn't move, but Sasuke could tell the other boy
still looked at him.  "A man," he said, "with the eyes to see."  Then
Sasuke was flying away.
        The traitor spun in midair, landing on his feet.  "That wasn't
Gentle Fist," he said, amused.
        "I use my bloodline.  I am not defined by it."  Neji's hands
blurred, and a ball of flame spurted from his lips.
        A massive firestorm emerged from Sasuke's mouth, obliterating
Neji's attack.  "You seek to use that sort of technique... on me?"  The
Uchiha snorted.  "Don't waste both our time."
        Then he was dodging Neji's flying kick from behind.  A kunai
flew from his hands to pierce the heart of the first Neji, who vanished
in a puff of smoke.  "Shadow Replication," Sasuke said as he regained
his feet.  "You're not bad; it took me almost two seconds to know you
were using that technique."  An open handed strike disrupted the second
Neji.  "I know where you are," Sasuke said.  "Come out, or I'll make you
come out."
        After a moment, the real Neji melted out of the earth, settling
into a Gentle Fist stance after emerging.  "Let's do this, then."
        "Let's," Sasuke agreed, and the two boys came together in a blur
of motion, exchanging a rapid series of blows.
        Then the earth rumbled, and they broke apart.  "What -" Neji
began.
        "This power," Sasuke muttered.  He smiled, and dark lines moved
across his skin, foul chakra seeping from him.  "Go," he told Neji.
"Run.  Or die.  I care not.  I've more pressing matters than playing
with you."
        The Hyuuga took an almost involuntary step back, and then Sasuke
was gone, heading for one of the secret entrances to the Sound's
underground base.

***********************************************************************

        "We're here," Midori said, stopping in front of a wooden door.
She fished out the ring of keys she'd lead Ren on a brief detour to find
and opened it.  She gestured, and Ren, still carrying Sakura's
motionless form, stepped inside.
        "Ren!" Aoki Saburo yelled from one of the cells lining the
narrow hallway she found herself in.  When the other girl stepped
through, the Mist prisoner's eyes widened.  "Midori?  What's going on?
Is that -"
        "Shut up!" Midori growled as she stepped past Ren and Sakura.
"See, Ren, there he is."  She took another key and unlocked an empty
cell.  "We'll stick her across from the other one."
        Ren finally noticed Anko's still form lying on the floor of
another cell.  "Mitarashi-sensei's sister?" she asked.  "She's still
alive?"
        "Kabuto-sama wanted her for experiments," Midori explained,
gesturing impatiently for Ren to drop Sakura in the cell.
        "What the hell is going on?" Saburo demanded.
        "I'm trading her for you," Ren said, taking a step closer to the
cell.
        Midori stepped aside.  "Go ahead," she said.
        Ren nodded.  She walked past the other girl, then stumbled,
dropping Sakura.  As the limp Leaf kunoichi hit the ground with a soft
thud, Ren almost tripped again over her former burden, falling to one
knee.  Midori snorted.
        "It's been a long couple of days," Ren said, taking a deep
breath.  She glanced down at Sakura, and added a soft, "Sorry."
        "What was that?" Midori asked, taking a step closer.
        Sakura's eyes opened and her hand shot out, grabbing Midori's
ankle and pulling the former Mist ninja down on top of her.  The cell
keys went flying from Midori's hands as the surprised girl fell.
"Bitch," she snarled as she grappled with Sakura briefly before throwing
her away and flipping back to her feet.
        The Leaf ninja grunted as her back hit the door of an empty
cell, but she recovered before Midori could attack, regaining her
footing.  As Midori charged her, her hands formed a rapid sequence of
seals.  "Katon: Fireball Technique!"
        Midori crossed her arms, shielding her face from the worst of
the weak blast as she stumbled backward.  "Ren!" she shouted.
        The Mist kunoichi shook her head, opening her hand to reveal the
ring of keys Midori had dropped.  Wordlessly, she threw them as straight
and true as any kunai, through the bars of Saburo's cell.  Grinning, the
boy began to work his way through the keys, searching for the one that
would free him.
        "You traitor," Midori growled as she backed away down the narrow
hallway, glancing between her two opponents.  "Is this what your
friendship is worth, Ren?"  The dark, curving lines of her cursed seal
exploded from her hand, racing up her arm.
        "You're the one who chose to be my enemy instead of my friend,"
Ren said flatly.
        "How?" Midori asked.  "Or was she ever knocked out at all?"
        "Yes," Ren said.  "I put her to sleep with my own genjutsu, and
woke her while you were searching for the keys.  We'd... discussed the
possibility of a similar strategy."
        Sakura grimaced.  They'd discussed it, all right, and Sakura had
refused to go along with it, due to the obvious chance of betrayal.  She
was lucky - very lucky - that Ren hadn't just betrayed her after all,
but there was no point in letting Midori know all that.  "There's no
room for you to hide from us here, Midori," she said, forming a seal in
one hand and sprouting talons of flame from the other.  After a moment's
hesitation, Ren followed suit.
        "Idiots," Midori snapped, forming seals and channeling enough
chakra that a physical pressure could be felt.  She shoved out her arms,
shouting, "Suiton: Crashing Wave Barrier!"  A massive wall of water
appeared between her and her foes, pouring out of her hands and sweeping
the other kunoichi away, their flames vanishing into wisps of steam.
        When the wave was finally finished and Sakura and Ren were able
to regain their feet, the hallway was covered in ankle-deep water.  "You
don't have the chakra to create so much -" Ren began.
        Midori interrupted her with laughter, the dark arcs of the
cursed seal peeking out of the collar of her shirt and creeping up her
neck.  "Idiots," she repeated.  Her hands formed more seals.  "Water
Replication Technique."
        Sakura formed seals of her own, breathing, "Mist Concealment
Technique."  With so much moisture around, it took less than a second
for thick coils of mist sprung into being.  Sakura reached out, grabbing
Ren's shoulder moments before the rapidly thickening mist hid them from
view.
        "What's that supposed to accomplish?" Midori asked, casually
forming seals to seize control of Sakura's mist and disperse it.  When
it vanished, two clones were staring directly into Ren and Sakura's eyes
and grinning.  They formed a seal and stated in unison, "Haruno Ninpou:
Gaze of Torment."
        Everything was still for just an instant, before Ren and Sakura
vanished.  Most of the Midori dissolved into water, leaving only one,
who doubled over in pain as the cursed seal expanded even further along
her skin.
        Ren appeared behind her, roughly grabbing her and placing a
kunai at her throat.  "I see you still suffer backlash when you miss
with that technique," she said.  "It's over."  Sakura dropped down from
the ceiling in front of Midori, but she stumbled as she landed.
        "You okay?" Ren asked.
        "I'm fine," Sakura said.  "Just... a little drained.  I usually
don't try to change the appearance of my Perfect Replications like
that."
        Midori snorted.  "You think I'm just going to stand here?"
Foul, corrupt chakra burst out of her.  There was a blur of movement
Sakura couldn't follow, and then Ren was on the ground, a bloody gash
torn across her stomach with her own kunai.
        "Orochimaru-sama gave me more than enough power to defeat you
too fools," Midori said, the cursed seal's markings now crawling over
her face.  She tossed Ren's bloody weapon aside as she stepped forward,
her eyes seeking out Sakura.
        "Sorry," Saburo's voice came, and then he was behind Midori,
pulling her into a tight bear hug.  Midori struggled for just an
instant, then relaxed.
        "What are you trying to do?" Midori asked.  "I know the drugs in
your system are keeping you from using chakra.  I could kill you at any
moment."
        Saburo tightened his grip.  "But you won't," he said firmly.
"Midori, I'm -"
        With one arm, black markings flowing up and down it, Midori
broke Saburo's grasp.  "How many times do I have to prove that I'm not
some victim for you to save?" she shouted at him, as she threw him
aside.
        The instant Saburo was loose, Sakura struck.  "Katon: Claw of
the Fire Dragon!" she shouted, the fiery talons hitting the distracted
Midori perfectly.
        Screaming, Midori whirled about and forced her way through the
fire, and Sakura raised her other one arm to ward off a punch as the
other girl neared.  She tried to bring her fire claws back to strike
Midori again, but the dark-haired girl somehow grabbed her wrist,
forcing that arm away.
        "It's not going to work again," Midori growled, sweeping
Sakura's legs out from under her with a sudden kick.  Instantly, Saburo
was upon her with a flurry of blows.  Midori just laughed, dancing and
weaving though them to deliver a single palm strike to his face, sending
her former teammate stumbling backward.  "You can't beat me.  Not
anymore," she said, the black arcs writhing across her skin.
"Particularly not now, when you're still half-sedated."
        Sakura hurled shuriken as she rose, but Midori merely leaned
aside to let them pass, then sent Saburo flying with a sudden kick and
spun back about to face Sakura.  "You're next, you little bitch.  This
is going to be fun."
        Sakura took a step back.  "I don't understand why you hate me so
much, but it's obvious you do," she said.  "But what about your friends?
Ren-san is -"
        "My friend?" Midori snarled.  "Don't you understand?  They were
never my friends!"  She took a step forward.
        Then, from the ground, Ren grabbed her leg, throwing her
teammate to the ground with a loud splash.  As her other hand snared her
bloody kunai, she rolled on top of Midori.  "Do you... really believe
that?" she asked, gasping for breath.
        "Yes," Midori said flatly.  The cursed seal's markings were
still.
        "Would I do this if I wasn't your friend?" Ren asked, and then
she very deliberately looked her former teammate in the eyes.
        The dark arcs of the cursed seal danced over Midori's skin,
retreating and advancing fractions of an inch.  "Ren... I... I..."  A
pained expression passed over her face, and for just a moment the cursed
seal retreated entirely.  Then it surged back, and Midori's eyes
widened.  "I can't -"
        The hilt of Ren's kunai slammed into the side of Midori's head.
"Sorry," Ren gasped as Midori fell unconscious.  She rolled off of her
former teammate and sat up, clutching at the gash on her stomach.
        "Are you okay?" Saburo asked her, and Ren nodded weakly.
        "Let me have the keys," Sakura said, glancing at Anko's cell,
and a minute later she had freed her sometimes teacher, though the
drugged kunoichi didn't stir.
        Saburo had bound and blindfolded Midori, then turned to tending
Ren.  "What now?" he asked, but before anyone could answer there was a
loud noise and a sudden feeling of danger.  The whole room rumbled
briefly, and for a moment it almost seemed like the whole complex was
about to cave in.
        There was a sense of great power and evil, but it didn't feel
anything like a cursed seal's release.  Sakura paled as one possibility
occurred to her.
        "What's going on?" Ren asked.
        "I... don't know," Sakura lied.  "I'll go check it out.  You two
try and wake up Mitarashi-sensei and get out of here."
        "Sakura-san -" Ren began.
        "I have to -"
        Saburo interrupted her.  "Kabuto took him to his laboratory," he
said.  "One level up the stairs, turn left."  Not that she really needed
directions, not when she could feel that aura of power.
        Sakura nodded.  "Thank you."

***********************************************************************

        Sasuke smirked as he reached Kabuto's laboratory and found
Naruto waiting, crouched on all fours atop the cot he'd been bound to.
Crimson chakra shrouded the other boy, thickening with every moment as
it formed ears and tails.  "Two tails, huh?" Sasuke asked, knowing as he
stared into his former teammate's crimson eyes that the other boy was
beyond hearing.
        There was a sensation of movement, and then Sasuke was hurtling
through the open doorway and down the hall, crashing through another
door and into the large dining room.  A wooden table shattered under him
as he landed, and the Uchiha cursed.  He stood, the cursed seal erupting
over his skin as its power filled him, numbing the pains of those
injuries it hadn't been able to prevent.  Green chakra encased one of
Sasuke's hands as he started to mend what he could.
        Before he could finish, Naruto was upon him, but this time
Sasuke was ready for the rapidly expanding arm of red chakra that moved
independently of Naruto's real limbs.  Sasuke's eyes turned crimson as
he flipped out of the way of the blow, landing lightly on another table.
"No point in holding back," he commented, and the cursed seal's black
corruption spread further, until the pattern covered his whole body.
        A jet of flame escaped his lips, but all it hit was the scarlet
afterimage Naruto left behind.  The possessed boy reappeared in the air
behind Sasuke, but his furious blow only shattered the stone wall that
rose up to protect the Uchiha.  As the two halves of the now-sundered
table fell away, Sasuke leapt again, flipping in midair to land on the
far wall, facing Naruto.
        The cursed seal's markings flowed across his skin as he formed
seals.  "Chidori," Sasuke hissed, and he charged down the wall and
straight at Naruto.
        A crimson limb moved to intercept him, but dense chakra
flickering around Sasuke's outstretched hand shattered the demonic
chakra.  It reformed behind the boy, but not before Sasuke had reached
his goal, his hand plunging into the chakra shroud surrounding Naruto,
hungrily pushing forward toward his chest.
        There was a moment of perfect stillness.  Then Naruto howled,
and Sasuke jumped away seconds before two scarlet tails would have
ensnared him.  There was a tiny rip in Naruto's shirt, and through it
for just a second a small, bloody gash was visible.  In the blink of
eye, it was healed, and Naruto jumped after his opponent.
        Sasuke's hands flickered through seals as he landed back on the
wall.  "Fuuton: Gale Wall!" he shouted, and still air suddenly stirred
with the force of a mighty storm, shoving Naruto back into the far wall.
         The possessed boy wasn't fazed at all, charging back at Sasuke
before a full second had passed.  A kunai met him halfway, a powerful
explosive tag dangling from its hilt.  The blast destroyed the few
remaining unbroken pieces of furniture, but when the smoke cleared
Naruto still stood unharmed.
        Three more kunai slammed into the chakra shroud an instant
later, and three more explosions pushed Naruto back.  This time, Sasuke
was in motion the instant they hit, using the smoke and debris to cover
his advance.  He formed seals as he moved, using genjutsu to throw his
sound and smell to the other side of his foe.
        Crimson limbs flailed in that direction, and before Naruto could
realize his mistake - if he was even capable of that in this state -
Sasuke struck.  A kunai plunged into Naruto's back, dense chakra pushing
it through his crimson shroud.  As Sasuke's hand left the hilt,
electricity crackled around it, spreading over Naruto's body.  The boy
spasmed wildly, the red chakra losing cohesion and becoming just a storm
of loose power.
        In that moment of vulnerability, Sasuke charged again, the sound
of a thousand birds chirping drowning out Naruto's roars as a Chidori
plunged through his heart.  There was stillness, then Sasuke withdrew
his hand and leapt away, mere instants before the reforming demonic
chakra would have consumed him.
        The gaping hole in Naruto's chest closed swiftly, and he turned
to face his foe once more.  "So this is the Kyuubi's power," Sasuke
said, no fear showing in his voice.  "Not even a direct strike to the
heart can kill you in this state."
        Naruto stood still, and the chakra around him stirred.  Then,
slowly, a third tail began to emerge.

***********************************************************************

        Naruto's eyes moved slowly between the two blood-and-chakra
foxes that slowly advanced on him.  The foul water beneath his feet
stirred, disturbed by the power still emanating from the massive gates
before Naruto.  Behind those gates, the immense bulk of the demon fox
Kyuubi waited, its anticipation filling the still, warm air, a sensation
like someone's hand was constantly hovering over the back of Naruto's
neck.
        "What's happening?" Naruto asked.  "Out there?"
        "Destruction," the Kyuubi rumbled, pleasure evident in its
voice.  "Destruction and death."
        One of the demonic foxes charged Naruto, and the boy leapt away.
The fox's single tail whipped around, extending in length and following
him, but Naruto rebounded off of wall to avoid it.  Chakra filled his
hand as he plummeted at the demon.  "Rasengan!" he hissed.
        The fox seemed to shatter and the whirling orb of chakra hit it,
streams of crimson flying through the air as it broke apart.  Panting,
Naruto landed on the water, turning to face the remaining fox.
        His eyes widened, as even without turning around he could feel
the first fox reforming behind him.  He reached for a weapon that wasn't
there until his hand closed around it, and an instant later the two
foxes pounced on him.  Naruto vanished in an explosion of smoke.
        The foxes spun about, easily finding Naruto perched on a wall.
"Damn it," the ninja muttered, his mind racing for options.
        "They cannot be defeated," the Kyuubi commented.  "Not without
defeating me."  The monstrous fox mouth opened his mouth, revealing
white fangs that seemed to glow in the darkness that lay beyond the
gate.  "And you cannot defeat me."
        "We'll see about that," Naruto replied, but the words rang
hollow in his own ears.  Below him the foxes paced, but they made no
move to attack.  He glanced back at the entrance to this chamber, but he
knew escape was futile.  No matter how he fled through those twisting
passages, he would always return here.
        "The only way out is through," the Kyuubi stated.  The smaller
foxes parted, leaving Naruto a clear shot to the gates.
        "I'm not stupid," Naruto said.  "If I go in there, you'll
destroy me."
        "And if you don't do something," the Kyuubi replied, amused
malice filling its voice, "your friends will die.  If you let me out
willingly, perhaps I will change my mind and spare them."  It turned
away from the gate.  "But I am content to wait.  My power has already
escaped this prison.  In the end, I will be free, regardless of your
decision."
        Naruto glanced back at the entrance again, remembering the two-
tailed fox that had vanished down that dark hall.  "For me, just as for
you," the demon had said, "the only way out is through."  His eyes
returned to the foxes prowling below, and then he moved.
        "Futile," the Kyuubi observed as the boy dove, another Rasengan
spinning in his hand.  The fox he targeted didn't even try to dodge,
letting the spiraling chakra disrupt its form.
        "I'm not done yet," Naruto growled.  "Shadow Replication
Technique!"  In less than an instant, five Naruto faced the second fox.
As one, they reached down, touching the murky water.  When their hands
came up, a globe of water followed.
        "Suiton: Pressure Bullet!" they shouted, releasing the missiles.
The blast pushed the crimson fox back to the bars of the gate, and the
five charged it, headless of the chakra claws that rose up to rend them.
        A sixth Naruto instead turned to face where the first fox was
reforming.  He took a deep breath, then ran into the center of the
pooling, scarlet chakra.  The atmosphere changed suddenly, and Naruto
could feel the Kyuubi's surprise in it.  "What?" the demon roared, even
as the second fox destroyed the five clones.
        Naruto ignored the fox, instead concentrating on the burning
chakra that surrounded him.  "You're on my side of the gate," he
snarled.  "That means... you do what I say!"  It shouldn't be any
different than when he controlled the red chakra in the real world.  He
was in charged here.
        The second fox raced at Naruto, but too late.  There was a
sudden shift, and then Naruto's arm moved unthinkingly, somehow forcing
up a massive wave of water that washed the second fox back behind the
gate.
        "Boy," the Kyuubi rumbled angrily.  Crimson chakra burned all
along the barred gate, and the whole room shook with the force of the
demon's rage.
        "Shut up," Naruto said.  "The only way out is through for you
too; that's what you said, isn't it?"
        "This is only a temporary reprieve, and when I am free," the
Kyuubi promised, "you will beg for the release of death before I am done
with you."
        "I just have to let your power take me out," Naruto finished,
smiling and ignoring the demon's threat, and then at his command the
crimson chakra lifted him up and -
        Naruto's eyes opened, barely able to see through the shroud of
crimson chakra enshrouding him.  It burned every inch of his skin, but
Naruto forced through the pain, focusing on the figure standing before
him.  "Sasuke," he breathed.
        Then he collapsed, and everything went dark.

***********************************************************************

        Sakura couldn't believe at first that it was Naruto she was
looking at.  She could barely make his small form out beneath the thick
crimson chakra that covered him.  He was bent over on all fours, and two
scarlet tails waved through the air behind him.  He growled, and there
was nothing human in the sound.
        The air was hot, pregnant with power and rage, and Sakura
couldn't make herself talk.  If she did, Naruto might notice her, might
turn to face her, and then... then...  It was almost inconceivable to
think of Naruto hurting her, but she could feel the evil that possessed
him now.
        She realized who Naruto was growling at, and for a moment all
thought left her.  There was Sasuke, looking almost as she had last seen
him.  Perhaps paler and harder, with colder, hungrier eyes, but still
the Sasuke she had known.  Then she noticed the musical note on his
forehead protector, and her heart sank at the reminder.
        The Uchiha didn't seem to notice her either, his red eyes fixed
on the monster before him.  "So this is the Kyuubi's power," he said,
emotionless.  "Not even a direct strike to the heart can kill you in
this state."
        Naruto froze, and as if to make up for it the chakra around him
thickened and stirred.  Waves of power emanated from his still form, and
Sakura raised her arms to shield her face even as the pressure forced
her back.  A third tail began to grow, first slowly and then rapidly,
and Sakura fought back the urge to scream.
        "Sasuke," she heard Naruto gasp, and then suddenly the pressure
was gone.  She lowered her arms and saw Naruto collapse.
        "Hmph," Sasuke said, staring at the other boy's unconscious
form.  A kunai appeared in his hands.
        Sakura swallowed nervously.  "Sasuke-kun," escaped her lips.
        Only now did Sasuke seem to notice her, his crimson eyes
glancing dismissively at her.  Sakura searched his face for any sign of
emotion, finding nothing.  "I should have expected to run into you,"
Sasuke said.  Sakura searched for words, unable to find any.  After a
moment, the Uchiha snorted, his attention returning to Naruto.  He took
a step forward, his grip shifting on his kunai.
        Sakura matched the motion, one shaking hand going for a kunai.
"Don't... don't touch him."
        Again Sasuke's crimson eyes took her in, and Sakura's blood
chilled.  "And if I do?" he asked, sounding bored.  "Do you propose to
stop me?  Don't think that chuunin uniform you're wearing means you're
suddenly my equal."
        "Sasuke-kun," Sakura breathed, unable to stop her voice from
sounding pleading.
        "He doesn't mean anything to me any more," Sasuke said.
"Neither do you.  Those bonds are broken.  Get in my way and I'll kill
you first."
        "If I... if we didn't mean anything to you," Sakura said,
"wouldn't you kill me anyway?"
        Sasuke snorted.  "You're more valuable alive as fodder for
Kabuto's experiments."
        "Experi-" If Sakura's blood had been chilled before, it was
freezing now.
        Sasuke took another step forward toward Naruto's still form,
then leapt backward to avoid Sakura's kunai.  Sakura stared, almost
disbelievingly, at her thrown weapon as it landed.  "Don't touch him,"
she said weakly.
        "Probably the wiser course," Sasuke observed.  "This swift death
will be less painful than what Kabuto would have done to you."
        Shaking, Sakura moved to stand protectively over Naruto, drawing
another kunai.  "Don't do this, Sasuke-kun."
        Sasuke laughed harshly.  "You're an idiot to think I'd turn back
from this path now."
        "You still can," Sakura said.  "Come back home -"
        "Home?" Sasuke asked, and he laughed again.  "Home to an ANBU
isolation cell, only dragged out to serve as breeding stock?  I'd have
to be an idiot to want that."
        Only instinct warned Sakura, and she ducked just in time as the
real Sasuke attacked from behind.  A lighting-fast kunai strike passed
over her head as the Sasuke she had been speaking with vanished in a
puff of smoke.  Instinct guided her again as she counter-attacked,
kicking up at Sasuke with strength and speed born of her training with
Gai and Lee.
        She hit only a shard of a shattered table.  Sasuke landed out of
easy attack range.  "Strong Fist Style," he observed, then he brought
one hand up to his lips.  "Katon: Great Fireball Technique!"
        Sakura grabbed Naruto and jumped out of range of the massive,
rolling ball of flame.  After safely depositing the unconscious boy on
the other side of the room, she turned back to Sasuke and considered her
options.
        "You can't win," the Uchiha observed.
        "We'll see about that," Sakura replied, and she charged.
        "Genin-level genjutsu?" Sasuke asked, disgusted.  "You expect
the Displacement Technique to work against me?"  He formed seals.
"Katon: Fire Dragon Blast."  A thin line of flame escaped his lips,
flying to pass through the air a few feet to the side of Sakura.
        Sakura kept on moving, and almost managed to hit Sasuke with her
kunai, but he batted the blow aside.  A palm-strike forced the kunoichi
back, and Sasuke snorted.  "Clever.  Using that technique to cloak a
replication, then hiding yourself in the replication's displaced image.
It almost worked, but against these eyes it's just as futile."
        As she skidded back, Sakura formed seals of her own.  "Katon:
Fireball Technique!"
        Sasuke didn't even bother to dodge, the small blast of flame
evaporating into wisps of smoke before it hit him.  "Foolish," he began,
then his eyes narrowed.  He spun about, blocking another kunai strike
and sending the real Sakura flying into a wall.  The other Sakura
vanished.  "Perfect Replication Technique.  That one won't work,
either."
        Sakura painfully rose.  "I guess not," she said.  Sasuke didn't
advance, and the brief pause in the battle left Sakura shaking as she
had a moment to reflect.  How could she possibly win against Sasuke?
Thus far, he'd done nothing but effortlessly defeat her attacks.  When
he began his own offense -
        In an instant, Sasuke was in front of her, casually placing her
own kunai against her throat.  "It seems there's no point in waiting for
you to show me an interesting technique," he said.
        Sakura clenched her fist.  "Katon," she growled, "Claw of the
Fire Dragon."
        Sasuke somehow dodged the flames, but his strike left a bloody
streak down Sakura's arm instead of slitting her throat.
"Surprising," Sasuke said, "but not interesting.  Orochimaru taught me
those techniques months ago."  He created a Claw of the Fire Dragon
himself, then slowly advanced.
        Sakura clutched at her wound, feeling the blood creep down her
arm.  She fell to her knees.  "Don't," she breathed.
        "Pathetic," Sasuke observed, then he moved in for the kill.
        Sakura raised her wounded arm.  "Hidden Snake Hands!"  Sasuke
froze for just an instant as the snakes flew at him, then his fiery
talons destroyed them.  Before he could recover, Sakura's arm slammed
back to the ground, her other hand smearing the blood across the tattoo
hidden by her shirt sleeve.  "Summoning Technique!" she shouted, panic
giving her new strength as she drew forth all the chakra she could
spare.
        A massive snake - larger than a grown man - appeared out of the
cloud of white smoke and hurled itself at Sasuke.  The boy's hands moved
through seals, and there was a pulse of power as the snake collided with
him.  Sakura raised her unwounded arm to shield her eyes, and when she
lowered it only Sasuke remained.
        The Uchiha's crimson eyes almost seemed to glow, then faded to
black.  He was clutching at a bloody bite on his shoulder, and he
staggered slightly.  His hand glowed green, and he straightened.
"Powerful poison," he said.  "Those techniques, how did you..."
        Sakura slowly stood, forcing herself not to show the weakness
she felt from the chakra drain of summoning such a huge creature.
"Sasuke-kun," she said.  "You don't have to -"
        "Have to what?" he interrupted harshly.  "Come to Orochimaru for
power?  You think you've proved something?"  He laughed.  "The only
reason you've even touched me is because I've fought too many battles
against far more powerful opponents today."  He closed his eyes for just
a moment, and when they opened the Sharingan stared out once more.  "I'm
done playing now," he said.
        Sakura took a step forward.  "Sasuke-kun," she said yet again.
She knew there had to be something better to say, but no other words
came to her mind.
        Sasuke's hand pulled away from his shoulder, blood dripping from
it, and for a moment it hovered over his other arm, where Sakura knew
Sasuke's snake tattoo was, before moving to rest at his side.
"Orochimaru has taught me many techniques," Sasuke said, the black
corruption of the cursed seal spreading across his skin, "but I still
find this one my favorite."  He slowly, deliberately began to form
seals, power seething about him.
        Sakura swallowed as she recognized the seals and remembered
Kakashi's advice.  "Sakura-chan... if he uses Chidori, run.  I can tell
you've grown, but Sasuke-kun's been training with Orochimaru.  If he's
willing to strike to kill you..."
        "You won't," Sakura said, trying to believe that she wasn't only
trying to convince herself.  Sasuke didn't say anything, instead simply
concentrating chakra into one hand, the sound of chirping birds filling
the air.  Sakura stood still, trying to trust in her own words.
        "Chidori!" Sasuke hissed, and Sakura closed her eyes.  Running
would only mean she'd get hit from behind.
        The blow never landed, and Sakura's eyes opened.  Naruto stood
between her and Sasuke.  He had grabbed hold of Sasuke's arm, and the
last sparks of Chidori faded away harmlessly.  Crimson chakra flickered
around Naruto, but his eyes were blue as he turned to Sakura.  "You
okay, Sakura-chan?" he asked.
        Sakura nodded, as Sasuke wrenched his arm free and leapt back.
"I'm fine," she said forced herself to say, taking a deep breath and
trying to keep from shaking.
        "Good," Naruto snarled, and then he took a step toward Sasuke.
        The cursed seal's black markings twisted and grew, and the
Uchiha smirked.  "So eager to die?" he asked.
        Naruto ignored him.  "You ready?" he asked Sakura.
        The kunoichi slowly nodded.    Almost unthinkingly, her hand
went to a pouch and pulled out a soldier pill.  She swallowed it
quickly, hoping that it would be enough to keep her going through the
rest of the fight.  "Ready.  This time -"
        "- we do it together."

***********************************************************************

        Nara Shikamaru waited for his pursuer in a small clearing, over
a mile from where his friends were fighting.  His ears strained for any
sound of Jabisen's approach.  The Leaf chuunin smiled grimly as he heard
trees shaking.  "That's right, you mute son of a bitch.  I'm out of
energy to run.  I'm right where you want me."
        Then he rolled to one side, out of the center of a sonic burst.
Even so, he was thrown into a tree trunk, and he couldn't rise before
Jabisen appeared, looming over him.  A grim smile of his own on his
face, the other boy kicked Shikamaru's hastily-drawn kunai out of his
hand.
        "Taijutsu too, huh?" Shikamaru asked.  "I guess you aren't any
more willing to believe I didn't kill your sister, are you?"  Jabisen
opened his mouth, and Shikamaru laughed harshly.  "Didn't think so."
        His entire store of explosive tags, each one hidden high on a
tree trunk, exploded, shaking the forest.  Jabisen stumbled backward,
mouth open in a silent scream, then collapsed.  Shikamaru stood,
stumbling a bit before straightening.
        "I figured your ability had to have an exploitable weakness.
Otherwise your clan would be more famous."  Jabisen began to try to
crawl away, only to be snared by Shikamaru's shadow.  "Then I noticed
that you were channeling the sound around you to make your attacks, and
the rest was simple.  If the sound was too chaotic, too unexpected, too
loud - like a nearby battle or some carefully timed explosions - you
couldn't handle it and you got hurt."
        Shikamaru sighed as black markings began to spread across
Jabisen's skin.  "For what it's worth, I really didn't kill your sister.
Shadow Neck Bind Technique."  For a moment there was silence, and then
Shikamaru sighed again.  "That's that."
        He stepped away from the corpse, staring up at the sky through
the trees.  "I suppose I need to go see how troublesome things have
gotten," he said, his eyes tracking a cloud's progress.  He stood still
a moment longer, then he was jumping from branch to branch.  There
wasn't any more time to waste.
        He heard the sounds of battle before he saw it, a familiar,
haunting melody floating avoid them.  "Tayuya, huh?" he said.  He paused
atop a tree, eyes narrowing as he studied the sounds.  "Lee," he said.
"Neji.  And something that isn't human.  One of her demons."  He shook
his head.  "Troublesome."
        He hid his presence as he approached, taking several moments to
watch the battle from safety.  It took only a handful of seconds for him
to analyze the fight.  Tayuya was hard-pressed - unsurprisingly given
her opponents - but was able to use the demon to keep the two Leaf ninja
at bay.
        Shikamaru shook his head as Lee took on the hammer-wielding
monster head on.  The strategy was much too obvious to succeed, and
indeed a moment later the demon jumped away in response to a handful of
sharp notes, just in time to block Neji's attack on its mistress.  The
Hyuuga took a backhanded blow from the demon's hammer, but a puff of
smoke revealed that he had used the Replacement Technique in time to get
away.
        Shikamaru carefully circled the battle to get behind Tayuya,
occasionally sneaking worried glances at the kunoichi's inhuman body.
She was strong enough in this form to overpower his techniques, probably
faster than before, since she had experience at it.  He was only going
to get one shot to affect her, and it was going to have to be timed
perfectly.  To make things worse, he couldn't risk communicating with
Neji or Lee to let them know what to do.
        "Come on," he mouthed silently as he got into position.  "Be
dumb or desperate enough to try it again."  He watched Tayuya carefully,
drawing a kunai and bringing it up to his lips. His shadow writhed under
him, creeping toward the girl, but careful to keep its motion out of her
field of view.
        This time it was Neji who distracted the demon, using an earth
element technique to try and ensnare its weapon.  It took only a second
to wrench the hammer free, but in that second Lee flew past it, heading
straight for Tayuya.  The kunoichi grinned, pressing her flute to her
lips -
        - and then she tossed it away, unknowingly mirroring Shikamaru's
actions.  "Got you," he said with a smile, even as the Sound ninja broke
free, diving from the treetop after her instrument.
        Lee met her in midair.  "Leaf Whirlwind!" he shouted, the
spinning kick knocking his opponent toward his waiting teammate,
standing beside the still, impotent demon.
        "Eight Divination Signs," Neji intoned, "Sixty-four Palms of the
Hand."  Ten seconds later, a once-again human Tayuya was slumped against
a tree trunk, and the demon vanished in a puff of foul, acrid smoke.
        "You little vermin," Tayuya muttered weakly as Shikamaru landed
beside the other two Leaf ninja.  Before any of them could move to
secure her, she weakly tossed a smoke bomb on the ground in front of
her.  When the smoke cleared, she was gone.
        Shikamaru knew that with her tenketsu closed she'd be unlikely
to return to bother them.  "What's the situation?" he asked.
        Neji formed a quick seal.  "Byakugan."  He paused.  "Tayuya's
running away.  Kidoumaru's down and bound.  He's out of the fight.  I
don't see anyone else."  He hesitated again.  "Wait.  Shizune-sama and
Kabuto are... move!"
        The other two didn't hesitate, getting away before a sea of
flame consumed the clearing where they'd been standing.  A second later,
Shizune landed, kneeling in the center.  "Going underground won't help
you, traitor," she snarled, raising one fist.  She slammed it into the
ground, and the earth gave way.
        Shikamaru stared into the dark hole that she'd vanished into.
"I guess we should follow."
        Lee suddenly grimaced.  "What if the Sound kunoichi frees the
other one?"
        Neji shook his head.  "We've got bigger problems than either of
those," he said.
        "What is it?" Shikamaru asked grimly.
        "This fight's gone on too long.  There's company coming, and
lots of it."
        "Sound ninja?" Lee said.
        "Who else would it be?"  Neji deactivated his Byakugan and
turned to Shikamaru.
        "Well," Shikamaru said, then he trailed off.  "This could get
troublesome."

***********************************************************************

        Ren gasped as she struggled up the narrow stairs, hand over the
poorly bandaged gash on her stomach.  "I need to rest," she said as
Saburo and she reached a landing, even as new pulses of power from below
demonstrated how poor an idea that would be.  For a moment, she wondered
if Sakura was all right, but she pushed the thought aside.  The Leaf
girl could take care of herself.  What was important now was getting out
of here.
        Saburo gently set down the still forms of Midori and Mitarashi
Anko .  "Just a second or two," he said softly, though Ren knew he was
also tired from the strain of carrying the two kunoichi.  "But we can't
wait for long."
        "I know," Ren said.
        "She'll be all right," Saburo added, and Ren gave him a half-
hearted glare.  "Fine," the boy said, "I won't try to cheer you up."
        "Sakura can take care of herself," Ren said, echoing her
thoughts of a moment ago.  "But if we run into trouble -"
        "There's not a lot of Sound here.  They tried to hide it, but I
noticed that much while I was their... guest," Saburo said.  "And they
should all be busy dealing with Sakura's friends.  We just have to get
out of here and head straight for the coast."  He paused, then gestured
to Anko.  "I guess we should take her with us."
        Ren laughed.  "As if we could stop her from leaving when she
wakes up."
        Instead of answering, Saburo suddenly pounced, shoving her to
the ground.  Ren landed painfully on her wound, and before she could
protest her teammate had a kunai at her throat.  "Sakura," he growled.
"Where is she, traitor?"
        Ren's eyes narrowed.  "Yamanaka-san?" she said, and Saburo
grunted in response.
        "Answer me.  Or I'll stop wasting my time."  The boy's eyes were
flat, and Ren didn't doubt for an instant that the girl possessing him
was willing to kill.
        The underground complex rumbled, the stone walls seeming to
flux.  "Can't you tell?" Ren said.  "There."  She paused.  "You should
probably look around before you kill me," she added, risking a nod of
her head at the two unconscious kunoichi.
        Saburo looked aside for an instant, seeing the two - and more
importantly, that Midori was bound and Anko was free.  He relaxed a
hair, though the kunai didn't move.
        "We're on your side," Ren said.  "Sakura and I were tricking
Midori.  That's all."  There was another flare of power from below.
        Saburo released her.  "I'm not letting my guard down," he
warned, then he formed a seal and stumbled slightly.  "That was...
weird," he said, himself once more.
        Ino emerged from the shadows, a kunai of her own in her hands.
"What happened?" she asked, and Ren began to explain, as quickly as she
could.
        "And then Sakura left to go find that Naruto kid."
        "You let her go alone?"  The question came from Anko, and all
three young ninja started, turning to see that the woman had opened her
eyes.  The special jounin stood, though her legs trembled.  She almost
fell as the Sound base shook yet again.  "Idiots.  We have to go after
her."
        "We're not really in any shape to help," Ren said dryly.
"Except for Yamanaka here."
        Anko glanced at the younger Leaf ninja, then held out a hand.
"Soldier pill," she demanded.
        "But," Ino began, then handed one over without further protest.
        Anko swallowed it.  "I'm not the type to give you some stupid
speech about teamwork and friends.  But I'm not going to leave anyone in
Orochimaru's hands.  You two take Midori and get out of her.  Yamanaka,
you're with me."
        "Yes, sir," Ino said, though her voice was nervous.
        Saburo looked at Ren.  She just nodded.  "The pill will
counteract the drugs the Sound gave me?"
        "Close enough," Anko said.
        Ino shook her head.  "It's dangerous to use them like -"
        "Please.  We owe her," Saburo said, and Ino sighed before
pulling out two more.  "Here," she said, tossing them at him and Ren.
Then she threw another pill at Ren.  "For the pain."
        Ren gave a weak smirk.  "Thank you."
        "What about her?" Saburo asked, gesturing at Midori.
        Anko formed seals.  "Shadow Replication Technique."  The second
Anko roughly grabbed the bound girl, then vanished.  "She'll be fine,"
the real Anko said.  "Now, let's move."

***********************************************************************

        "Together?"  Uchiha Sasuke laughed sharply, the cursed seal's
taint writhing over his skin.  Foul chakra boiled out of his form, and
his crimson eyes whirled.  "You really think it will matter whether you
fight me together or alone?"
        "Yes," Naruto stated.  A hint of crimson flickered in the air
around him, but his eyes remained their natural color and even Sakura,
standing right beside him, could feel no malice in it.
        "You won't be reckless enough to unleash that power now," Sasuke
said, his eyes resting for only an instant on Sakura.
        "He won't have to," Sakura said, her bravado sounding false even
in her own ears.
        Naruto glanced sideways at her.  "You-"
        Sasuke took advantage of the momentary distraction vanishing and
reappearing behind the other boy, a kunai stabbing for his guts.  It
found only a shattered piece of wood.
        "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" Sakura snapped, but the Uchiha
flipped out of the way, a stream of small fireballs spewing from his
mouth at her.
        Before she could react, Naruto was in front of her, hands
forming a single seal.  "Whirlwind Shield!" he roared, and the still air
erupted into a storm that flung the flames aside.
        "Interesting trick," Sasuke said, "but I know a better.  Fuuton:
Desert Knives."  Blades of wind flew throughout the room, grinding the
stone walls to sand wherever they hit.  Within a second, a fierce
sandstorm consumed the two Leaf ninja.  They exploded into pale, gray
smoke.  Sasuke snorted.  "Shadow Replication, huh?"
        Then the stone floor under his feet rose up.  As he leapt away,
the moving rock formed itself into two massive hands, hungrily grasping
for their prey.  They met two hurled explosive tags and collapsed back
into piles of rubble.  As the echoes of the blast faded away, Sasuke's
crimson eyes found his prey.  His feet rested for just an instant on a
wall, and in that moment his hands blurred through seals.  Then he
descended, chakra sparking around one outstretched hand.
        Naruto knelt, both hands pressed to the ground, and the rubble
of his last technique shifted.  A massive, muddy barrier sprung into
being, blocking Sasuke's charge.  With another snort, the traitor jumped
once more, hardly slowing as he vaulted over the wall.
        Fiery talons met him in midair, forcing him to change course,
landing on another wall as the chakra in his hand died out.  The cursed
seal's markings writhed on his skin, then slowly retreated.  Despite
this, no warmth showed in his red eyes as he looked at Sakura.
"Foolish," he said.
        "It stopped you," Naruto said.
        "She pulled her blow."  Sasuke snorted.  "Didn't want to kill
me.  Made it even easier to escape it."
        "You're my... our..." Sakura swallowed.  "We want you to come
home, Sasuke-kun.  Not to kill you."
        Sasuke laughed.  "If you want to survive for much longer, you're
going to have to try to kill me.  You won't succeed, but you'll have to
try."
        Naruto snarled, scarlet flickering around him once more.  "Do
you really want that snake bastard to steal your body this badly?"
        "If that's what it takes to accomplish my purpose," Sasuke said.
"I've already severed my bonds with you.  With all of the Leaf Village."
He took a deep breath, and dark, flame-like markings began to spread
across his skin once more.  "You mean nothing to me anymore, and if you
persist in annoying me I'll kill you both."
        Naruto exchanged a glance with Sakura, and the kunoichi nodded.
"Let's do this," she said, though her voice wavered slightly.
        "All right, then."  Naruto's eyes flickered closed, then opened,
power pouring out of him.  "Mass Shadow Replication Technique!" he
roared, and moments later dozens of clones were flying at Sasuke.
        A smirk appeared on the other boy's face.  "Predictable."  Both
of his hands touched the wall he crouched on.  "Doton: Temple-Destroying
Technique."
        There was a loud rumble, and then the stone ceiling began to
cave in.  Large, jagged rocks rained down, and soon the air was filled
with white smoke as Naruto's clones were destroyed.  Sasuke jumped up
through the hole his technique had made, only to find three Naruto
waiting for him in the room above.
        One was disrupted by a spinning kick.  The second took advantage
of Sasuke's distraction, diving in at him.  A burst of flames destroyed
that clone, but then a fourth Naruto emerged from the wrecked room
below, chakra already spinning in his hand.  "Rasengan!"
        Sasuke whirled about, hands forming seals.  "Raiton: Thunderbolt
Technique!" he shouted, and the lightning struck the oncoming Naruto in
the chest.  There was a burst of smoke, and then the third Naruto was
behind Sasuke, wrenching the traitor's arms behind him.
        "Got you," Naruto growled, for just an instant his eyes flashing
red.
        Sasuke snorted, for the moment not resisting.  His eyes barely
moved as Sakura joined the two.  "Is that really all you've improved,
dead last?" he asked.  The cursed seal's taint writhed over his skin.
"I guess that thing inside of you is your only real strength."
        "Shut up."  Naruto's grip tightened on his former teammate's
wrists.
        Sasuke's foot stamped down, and the already weakened floor gave
way completely.  As they fell, he broke free of Naruto's hold, kicking
off of the other boy, and jumping back up.  Fiery talons met him in
midair, and he summoned a pair of his own just in time to block them.
"Hmph," he let out, his crimson eyes seeking out Sakura's as their
techniques shoved against each other.
        The kunoichi knew better than to meet his gaze.  Her eyes stayed
fixed on his torso, giving her plenty of warning as Sasuke's other hand
sprouted a second set of flaming tendrils.  Sakura dropped her own
technique, shifting in midair toward the closest wall.  Sasuke's attack
swept through the air mere inches from her, but didn't hit.
        The traitor landed, then almost instantly rolled aside, dodging
the shower of shuriken Sakura had thrown.  Two Naruto were waiting for
him, and one delivered a powerful kick to Sasuke's jaw, knocking him
into the air.  "Uzu-" he stated as he vanished in a puff of smoke, the
second Naruto leaping to follow his opponent.  Another clone popped into
existence, knocking Sasuke higher even as it vanished.  "-maki-"
        "It won't work," Sasuke said, somehow spinning in midair,
disrupting a just-formed clone with a powerful blow.  "Katon: Great
Fireball Technique," he intoned, and the real Naruto fell back to the
ground, battered by the flames.  "Pathetic," Sasuke said, and then his
eyes widened at a sudden presence behind him.
        "Forget about me?" Sakura asked, striking at him.
        Sasuke parried the punch with a perfect block.  "Leaf Shadow
Dance," he observed, then blocked another attack.  "Followed by a
sequence of blows to force me into a defenseless position.  Trying to
use my own Lion Combo against me?  Foolish."  He caught Sakura's next
blow, and using that for leverage he spun them around so he was above
her.  "Lion Combo," he said amusedly, then slammed his foot into her
stomach.
        There was a burst of faint smoke, and his kick shattered a small
boulder.  "Not bad," he observed.  From a perch on the wall, Sakura spat
a small fireball at him, and Sasuke answered with a torrent of his own
flames.
        The kunoichi leapt away, but not before tossing a kunai,
explosive tag dangling from the hilt.  It flew unimpeded through the
flames, then blurred, becoming first a handful, then dozens of blades.
Sasuke rebounded off a wall, throwing a single needle that narrowly
missed where Sakura had landed.
        Sakura winced, suddenly standing half a foot to the right and
pulling the needle out from her uniform jacket.  "Poisoned," she
observed.  "Lucky for me it didn't penetrate."
        "It doesn't matter how many genjutsu you use," Sasuke said as he
landed between Sakura and the rising Naruto.  "These eyes see through
them all.  I knew that all your weapons were fake, and I knew that you
were trying the Displacement Technique again."
        "Heh," Naruto said as he finished standing.  "If you're so good,
why aren't we dead yet?"
        "Because I'm giving you a chance to give me all of your
techniques," Sasuke observed coldly.  "Surely this pathetic collection
isn't everything you've learned these past months."  He half-turned and
took a step back, placing both of his opponents in his field of vision.
"She's had... more than expected, but you should have more.  You have
been studying with one of the Legendary Sannin."
        Naruto was silent for a moment.  "There's more to being a ninja
than just techniques," he said, though he sounded more as though he was
trying to convince himself.
        "A lot more," Sakura said firmly.
        Sasuke laughed, the cursed seal's marks retreating once more.
"What?  Stupid little lessons like Kakashi's?  Ninja who don't follow
the rules are called scum -"
        "- but those that don't take care of their friends are worse
than scum," Naruto finished, his voice strong once more.
        "The first lesson we were taught," Sasuke said.
        "You were the one," Sakura said weakly, "who passed that test
for us."
        "I was, wasn't I?" Sasuke replied.  "Not because I figured out
that lesson, though."  He snorted.  "I thought that dead last here would
be marginally less useless if he'd been fed."
        All three ninja were silent for several moments.  "I met a
ninja," Naruto said suddenly, "who was out for revenge."
        Sasuke smirked.  "On his brother?" he asked.
        "On her grandmother," Naruto corrected.
        "I suppose this is a real story, then," Sasuke said, "and not
you trying to spin my own tale into a lesson."  He snorted.  "You're not
clever enough for that, though."
        "I helped her get it," was all Naruto said.
        Sasuke said nothing.  Sakura swallowed, then added, "We want to
help you.  You aren't alone.  We..."
        "You're going to say you know how I feel, aren't you?" Sasuke
said.  A brief flash of anger showed in his eyes.  "Neither you have
ever lost anything.  Not like me."
        "We lost you," Naruto said.
        "You knew me for less than a year," Sasuke said.  "Don't
protest.  We went to academy together, but neither of you had a full
conversation with me until the day we became a team.  Losing me is...
nothing.  Not like -"
        "Like losing your family?" Sakura said weakly.
        Sasuke froze, standing perfectly still for a moment.  "What -"
        "My mother was a spy," Sakura said.  "She betrayed the village,
to the Sound and the Leaf."
        "Sakura-chan," Naruto began, but the kunoichi just talked over
him.
        "I killed her," Sakura said, and now she let herself look Sasuke
in the eyes.
        Naruto's mouth opened and closed wordlessly, and Sasuke spoke
first.  "Congratulations," he said flatly.
        "It didn't... it didn't make me feel any better," Sakura said.
"I still wish -"
        "This isn't about making me feel better," Sasuke interrupted.
"Kakashi tried to give me that speech too."
        "What is it about, then?" Naruto shouted.  "Why do you have to
do this?  Why betray us; why come here?  You know what Orochimaru really
wants!  He isn't your friend!"
        "I know," Sasuke said softly.  "And it's for the best.  Bonds
like friendship only make you weak.  Even now, you can't strike to kill
me.  But I've broken all my bonds, and I'm free to do whatever it takes
to kill him.  Even if it means giving Orochimaru this body."  There was
silence, and the Uchiha laughed.  "You see?  You can't even imagine that
I would really go through with it.  You two don't understand me at all."
        "Words aren't going to make you see how stupid you're being, are
they?" Naruto asked after a moment.
        "No."  Sasuke's voice was cold.  Then he jumped in the air, an
instant before another Naruto emerged from floor, Rasengan spinning in
one hand.  "Surprisingly treacherous," he observed amusedly as he landed
beside the other Naruto, "but I knew this was a shadow replication from
the beginning."  With a casual spinning kick, he disrupted the clone.
        Then his eyes widened as a real kunai Sakura had handed to the
clone fell to the ground, explosive tag sparking.  Sasuke had just an
instant to shield his face before the powerful explosion threw him back
against a wall.
         Before he could recover, Sakura raised one arm, snakes flying
out of it and into the cloud of smoke and dust.  There was a pained
scream, and Sakura winced, then retracted the snakes.  When the cloud
settled, Sasuke sat still, pale and clutching pointlessly at one snake
bite.
        Naruto swallowed, then advanced on him.  "It's over," he said,
glancing at the bloody mess the explosion had made of Sasuke's legs.  He
grimaced.
        "You were able to contain the first dose of my snakes' poison,"
Sakura said weakly.  "But it's harder the more poison is in your system.
And with your chakra control weakened by it, you can't use medical
techniques to heal yourself."
        Sasuke let out a bitter laugh that dissolved into fit of
coughing.  "More clever and more ruthless than I expected.  Both of
you."
        "Come on, Sasuke," Naruto said, a hint of pleading entering into
his voice.  "Come back with us."
        "You're giving me a choice?" Sasuke asked.
        "No," Naruto answered coldly.  "I told you before that I'd save
you from Orochimaru if I had to break every bone in your body to do it.
That hasn't changed, but it would be better if you cooperated."
        "I won't," Sasuke said, "and you're foolish for thinking this is
over."  His eyes turned crimson once more, and the cursed seal erupted
over his battered body.  "But now it will be," he hissed, and the
darkness spread all over his skin, the sudden outpouring of power
shoving Naruto and Sakura back.

***********************************************************************

        Inuzuka Kiba breathed heavily as he leaned against a tree trunk.
It was barely high enough to hide him, the top half of the tree lying on
the ground a dozen yards away, sheared off be some technique.  Akamaru
laid down by his feet, panting weakly, and Kiba grimaced as his eyes
traced the numerous wounds that marred his partner's small form.
        "Sorry, boy," he whispered, resisting the urge to reach down and
pet the dog.  With that many wounds, it would only cause him unnecessary
pain.
        Hidden behind another tree, Hinata sighed softly.  "We're safe
for the moment."
        "Good," Shino said coldly.  "We rest for now, then."  With their
teacher gone with a jounin squad to target the enemy commanders, the bug
user had taken command once more.
        "Do either of you have a spare soldier pill?" Kiba asked after a
moment.  "I'm out."
        "It's not safe to take so many," Hinata said.
        "Worry about that after we live through today," Shino stated.
He pulled out three small pills, swallowing one and then tossing the
other two to his teammates.  "You need one too, Hinata."  The Hyuuga
heiress didn't object, taking the pill, then letting her eyes close for
just a moment.
        All around the trio of genin was war, and it was like nothing
they had seen before.  They had fought before, and they had killed
before.  They had participated in the still-bloody, still-deadly
replacement for war that was the Chuunin Exams.  But never before had
they seen hundreds - thousands - of ninja, from lowly genin to the
mightiest jounin, unleashing their most powerful techniques with deadly
intent.
        This place, on the outskirts of one of the Fire Country's deep
forests, had been beautiful only hours before.  Now it was a wasteland.
Low-lying areas were choked with pale clouds of poison, remnants of some
of the Mist's techniques.  Acres and acres of forest were nothing but
ash, littered with the skeletons of those caught in the firestorms the
Leaf had summoned.  Summoned beasts and fouler spirits prowled the
battlefield, and they were less deadly than the ninja that hunted each
other through the desolation.
        "Is there any sign of Hokage-sama," Shino asked, "or -"
        Hinata shook her head, and Kiba didn't know whether or not to be
relieved.  The return of the Hokage or Jiraiya could turn the
increasingly desperate battle around, but the arrival of the Mizukage or
Orochimaru could end all hope of victory.  So long as those battles
continued, either could still happen.
        "So, what next?" Kiba asked.
        "As soon as we get the word," Shino began, but then Hinata
stiffened, and both boys knew something bad was happening.
        "They've brought up reinforcements," the kunoichi said shortly.
"At least ten fresh squads.  They're advancing and starting to circle
around us."
        Even though he couldn't see them, Kiba knew that Shino had
closed his eyes.  After a long moment, Shino spoke, his voice oddly
somehow more stiff and more human than Kiba had ever heard before.
"It's been good," Shino said, and then he stepped away from his tree
trunk.
        Kiba straightened, nodding to himself.  "One last time,
Akamaru," he said, lifting the dog up onto his shoulders.  He walked
over to Shino's side.
        Hinata was still for a moment.  "Thank you," she said, and then
she joined her teammates.
        Now the other two could see the Mist emerging from cover all
around them, squad after squad of gray-uniformed ninja. The Leaf didn't
emerge from cover to be counted, but Kiba knew well enough how badly
they were outnumbered.
        There was silence for a long moment, before one Mist stepped
forward from the enemy ranks.  "In the name of the Mizukage," he said,
his voice carried by a technique across the shattered battleground, "I
am authorized to offer quarter if you lay down your arms and surrender."

        "Not unexpected," Shino said softly.  "The only reason to show
themselves so boldly is to intimidate us."
        "Now we wait," Kiba muttered.  "Again."
        "Not for long," Hinata said, and indeed less than a minute of
silence later the Mist faded back into cover.
        "Here it comes," Shino stated.
        Tendrils of sickly green and pale crimson mist began to form,
advancing across the battlefield at the Leaf positions.  In answer, a
mighty windstorm shoved the toxic fumes back, kicking up small storms of
ash.  As the dispersing poison clouds revealed the Mist advancing behind
them, the dancing ash caught flame and rained down on the enemy ninja.
        Screams floated in the air, but the Mist kept coming, and blasts
of water and other techniques began to pummel the hidden Leaf squads.
Kiba ducked back behind a charred tree, then poked his head out to loose
a small fireball at the advancing Mist.  Even as three kunai carrying
powerful explosive tags embedded themselves in the other side of the
tree, Kiba was racing to another piece of cover.
        Hinata screamed a warning, and four Mist shimmered into
existence in the center of the genin squad's position.  "Genjutsu," Kiba
cursed, even as his tired hands formed seals, channeling chakra though
himself and Akamaru.
        Shino raised his hand, thin streams of bugs pouring from out of
his jacket, only to be knocked aside by a blast of water from one Mist.
Hinata fell into a fighting stance, even as Kiba forced himself to
finish his technique, turning himself and Akamaru once more into a
monstrous two-headed wolf.
        He charged the Mist squad, flames spewing from his mouths,
ignoring the bolts of cold water that splashed off of his thick hide.
Then one of the enemy drew a long, curved sword, and the temperature
seemed to drop.  "Fuuton: Freezing Blade Technique," the ninja intoned,
and with two swipes of his weapon, unnaturally chilled blasts of wind
pushed Kiba pack.  One of his paws struck a puddle, and suddenly it
became an icy snare.  He ran out of chakra, and his transformation was
broken.
        Hinata had one of the enemy on the ground, helpless, but the
other two were circling around her, searching for weakness.  Shino had
stumbled to his feet, but the ninja who had defeated Kiba was behind him
in an instant.  His cold blade went to Shino's throat.  "It's over," he
said.  "Tell the freak to surrender."
        Beside Kiba, Akamaru whined softly.  Grimacing, Kiba struggled
futilely to free his foot from the ice that bound it.  Then he stopped,
his nose tingled with new scents, penetrating even through the stench of
death and other smells of battle.  The enemy didn't notice anything, but
both Hinata and Shino could read Kiba, and their stances shifted
slightly.
        It was hard to put into words, but suddenly the sounds of battle
changed.  Then a female voice called out, "The Third Stance: Calling the
Wind."  The ninja holding Shino captive reacted instantly, jumping away
moments before a blade of wind sliced through where he had been
standing.
        "Heavenly Spin!" Hinata roared suddenly, taking advantage of her
opponents' distraction, the Hyuuga secret technique sending them flying.
        Three ninja emerged from cover, and Kiba grinned as he
recognized them.  "Allies of the Hidden Leaf," Hiraki Arata said with a
matching grin, "the Hidden Village of Waterfall."
        "Looks like we're lucky," his teammate Yuhara Maya said, her
naginata in a ready stance.  "We get to pay you guys back for the favor
in the exams."
        "Convenient," Chiba Ikkei observed.
        "Waterfall ninja?" the Mist who had captured Shino asked,
grabbing at his sword.  "But you should be -"
        "I'm afraid not," Arata said.  The sounds of battle continued to
change in tone.  "That's the whole weight of the alliance coming down on
you bastards," he added.  "Waterfall, Sand, and Grass."
        The Mist ninja gave a muttered curse, then suddenly dissolved
into water.  "Water clone," Shino observed.
        Kiba finally wrenched himself free, as two more of the Mist
ninja dissolved as well, leaving only the one Hinata had originally
pinned.  As that last enemy stumbled to his feet, Shino spoke again.
"In the name of the Hokage," he said, "I am authorized to offer
quarter."
        After a moment, the Mist ninja raised his arms in surrender.

***********************************************************************

        Black lightning arced through the underground chamber, a sudden
storm of malignant power consuming Sasuke's fallen form.  There was a
sudden blur of motion, and something tackled Naruto, sending him flying
through an already weakened wall and into the hallway outside.  Sakura
stood frozen for just a second, then raced through the broken wall, but
Naruto had no eyes for her.
        He rose, red chakra blazing around him, and between him and
Sakura stood something that - even having seen it before - he didn't
want to believe believe was Sasuke.  Grotesque, massive wings, formed
like some mockery of human hands, sprouted from his back.  The
Sharingan's crimson iris floating in a field of black in his eyes, and
he smirked as he met Naruto's gaze.  His legs were still badly injured,
but he stood on them with seemingly no concern for the immense pain that
should have caused.
        "Which of you dies first?" Sasuke asked, amusement in his voice.
        Naruto's hands formed seals, three clones of him abruptly
appearing.  "No one's dying," he said flatly.
        The clones vanished in explosions of smoke, and Sasuke's smirk
widened.  "That's not an option," he said.  He stretched out both hands,
one pointing at each of his foes, and waves of darkness poured from
them.  Sakura was hit first, and Naruto heard a pained scream before the
blackness consumed him as well.  He felt himself falling backward, into
an endless void.  Falling for what seemed like an eternity -
        - and he was back before the Kyuubi, only now the bars of the
gate were bent, almost broken.  The paper seal was aflame, and the demon
fox strained against the gates, wordless roars shaking the dim maze
outside.  The air was hotter than an oven and wetter than a rainstorm.
Arcs of burning, crimson chakra crackled through the air, the water
erupting into steam and the walls catching fire as they struck.
        Yet, all this was not what Naruto focused on, his eyes going to
the figure of Sakura, kneeling in the foul water, facing him and the
gate.  Tears flowed from her eyes, and Naruto took an unthinking step
forward.  "Sakura-chan!"
        In the blink of an eye, the kunoichi was on her feet, standing
atop the water, a kunai appearing in her hand.  "Stay away, you
monster!" she screamed.  The Kyuubi hurled itself once more against the
gate, and a massive stone fell from some distant, unseen ceiling.  It
landed with a massive splash, and Naruto raised one arm to shield his
face from the water.
        Then Sakura was upon him, her kunai finding its way into his
shoulder, fiery claws sprouting from her other hand and slashing burns
across his chest.  Naruto stumbled away, and Sakura pushed her attack,
forcing him further and further back until he was shoved up against one
of the gate's bars.  With unnatural strength, the pink-haired girl
grabbed his neck and lifted him with one arm, her fingers tightening
around his throat, almost choking him.
        "Sakura-chan," Naruto forced out, "why are you..."
        "Now I see what you really are, demon," she snarled, and as if
in answer the Kyuubi drew back from the gate, a low rumble in its
throat.  "Murderer.  You belong in there, with your true self."
        "I... you..." Naruto couldn't think, couldn't move,
        "You disgust me," Sakura continued.  "The Leaf disgust me, for
creating you.  They're no better than Orochimaru."  She laughed.  "Maybe
I should join him.  Then I could at least be with Sasuke-kun, and that's
all I ever wanted, anyway."
        "No!"  Naruto's hands went to his throat, trying to pry loose
the girl's fingers, with no success.  Why was Sakura doing this?  Even
at her angriest, she wasn't like this.  It wasn't -
        "You're not Sakura," Naruto said flatly.  His body stilled.
"This isn't real."
        Sakura smirked, and it was Sasuke's smirk.  Her eyes flickered
closed, and when they opened again it was the Sharingan that stared out
of her face.  "Now, that's surprising," she said, still with Sakura's
voice.  The cursed seal's black marks spread across Sakura's skin, as
the Sharingan began to whirl.  "You breaking my genjutsu, even to this
limited extent."
        "Let me go," Naruto said, but no matter how he tried he couldn't
get Sakura's... Sasuke's hands loose.
        Sasuke shook Sakura's head.  "I don't think so," he said in her
voice.  He glanced around.  "Your fears, I must admit, are much more
entertaining than hers.  I wouldn't have thought you had the creativity
to construct such a place."
        "What's happening to Sakura-chan?" Naruto demanded.
        Sasuke laughed, the laugh a disturbing mix of his own and
Sakura's.  "We're attacking her.  Along with another woman - her mother,
I presume."
        "How could you do that to her?" Naruto asked.
        He shrugged Sakura's shoulders.  "She's doing it to herself," he
said, "and it's not like she means anything to me.  Neither do you, for
that matter."
        Naruto looked into Sasuke's red eyes, staring out of Sakura's
face, and then he smiled a tight smile.  "Liar."
        "You're wrong."  Sasuke tightened his grip.
        "Liar," Naruto repeated.  He managed to pry one of Sakura's
fingers loose from his neck.  "You didn't kill me before," he continued.
        "That was before," Sasuke said, "and even then, it wasn't
because of you.  It was because he wanted me to."
        "He?"
        "But now I will," Sasuke continued, forcing an utterly alien
smile onto Sakura's lips, a strange light dancing in his gaze.  "And
when these eyes don't change, it'll prove that you mean nothing to me."
        "You aren't making any sense," Naruto said.
        "I'll kill you both," Sasuke announced, suddenly throwing Naruto
away, through the gate.  Both the gate and the Kyuubi's still, forgotten
form faded away into blackness, as Sasuke charged, the cursed seal's
markings writing across Sakura's body.
        His first punch was wild, uncontrolled, and Naruto caught it.
"I won't let you hurt Sakura-chan."
        Sasuke laughed again as he wrenched Sakura's arm free, malign
chakra churning around the false form he wore.  "I already am.  You
can't win.  Both of you are caught in my genjutsu.  You can't escape on
your own, and you can't help each other.  It's over."
        "No it isn't," Naruto said, chakra gathering in one hand.
        "That's meaningless," Sasuke said, finally letting Sakura's
shape melt away into his true form, though twisted into a demonic
mockery by the cursed seal.  "None of this is real."  He stretched out
one hand to touch Naruto's chest.  He drew back his hand, and a Chidori
formed around it.  "But this is," he said, and with agonizing slowness
the dense mass of crackling chakra reached for Naruto's heart.
        And stopped.  Sasuke froze, and dark void surrounding the two
shattered, replaced by the hallway deep inside Orochimaru's fortress.
Sasuke remained still, the Chidori fading away, as Naruto stumbled back.
He ran into Sakura who caught him, her arms wrapping around him.
        "Naruto?" she asked, her voice quavering.
        "It's me," he said.
        Sasuke ignored both of them, his wings beating once as he slowly
turned his head to look over his shoulder at Yamanaka Ino.  The kunoichi
was kneeling, her hands frozen into the final seal of the Paralysis
Technique.  "You?" Sasuke asked flatly.  "Pathetic.  By joining this
battle you've only caused your own death."  There was a burst of malign
chakra, and Ino was flung back, her hands breaking the seal.
        Mitarashi Anko caught her.  "She's not alone, idiot," the
special jounin said.
        Ren and Saburo appeared next to Naruto and Sakura.  "Are you
okay?" Ren asked.  A shaking Sakura released Naruto, as though she'd
suddenly realized she was still holding him, and nodded.
        Sasuke's crimson eyes darted around the room, and then he
smiled.  "I'm not alone, either," he said, and Kabuto emerged from the
wall behind the monstrous boy, followed a moment later by Tayuya and
Kidoumaru.

***********************************************************************

        Tsunade's pained eyes stared into the vacant expression of her
dead lover.  Wordlessly, Dan twisted the blade that pinned the Hokage to
a tree trunk, unaffected by the gasp of pain she uttered.  Nawaki's
small form approached, then without hesitation he punched his sister.
        "You will die," Orochimaru said, "and I will take a sample from
your corpse to add another Hokage to my... collection."  He laughed.
"It's a shame I was preoccupied and forgot to take Sarutobi-sensei."
        Tsunade's eyes focused on her former teammate once more.
"Monster," she said.
        "You say that like it's something I would be ashamed to be,"
Orochimaru observed mockingly.  "Unlike you, I've never felt any
particular compulsion to be limited by human morals."  He shook his
head.  "We could have been a wonderful team, if you'd accepted my offer
instead of Jiraiya's."
        Now it was Tsunade who laughed, weak though her mirth was.  "If
I were that type of person, I'd have turned on you the moment you no
longer had anything I needed."
        "And I would have done likewise," Orochimaru said, a faint and
disturbingly genuine smile crossing his face.  "That's what would have
made it so entertaining... and fruitful besides.  We both know how
powerful a motivator the fear of death can be."
        "And yet you leave me in this position long enough to have this
pleasant chat?" Tsunade asked.
        "True; it is rather foolish," Orochimaru agreed.  "Finish her
off, Dan."
        "Too late," Tsunade snarled, one of her fists planting itself in
Dan's chest.  The dead ninja stumbled back only a few feet despite the
strength of the blow.  Her other hand caressed the rough bark of the
tree Kusanagi still pinned her to.  "I don't die today."
        "Oh?" Orochimaru asked, then his eyes widened as Tsunade formed
a strange sequence of seals in one hand.
        "Mokuton: Entangling Grasp Technique," the Hokage hissed and
new, vine-like growths sprouted out of tree trunk.  Rapidly growing,
they ensnared both Dan and Nawaki, securely binding the two dead ninja.
        "Wood element ninjutsu," Orochimaru growled, surprise and anger
warring in his voice.  "How?" he snapped, as Tsunade casually pulled
Kusanagi out of her shoulder.  Her free hand glowed green, hovering over
the wound, and it closed.
        "You didn't think that a ninja of my rank didn't have secrets
even you never learned, did you, Orochimaru-kun?" Tsunade asked, false
sweetness in her voice.  She swung Kusanagi, testing the unfamiliar
weapon's balance and weight, her other hand grasping the cursed necklace
Orochimaru had returned to her.
        "It isn't possible!" Orochimaru shouted.  "I tested you; I
tested your brother; I tested your father; I tested every blood relative
of yours in the village!  I dug up and sampled every corpse in your
family's graveyard!  None of you shared the First's unique abilities!
None of you!"
        "We didn't," Tsunade agreed, "though perhaps if my father had
been born later in Grandfather's life it would have been passed on and
become a Bloodline Technique."
        "The abilities must have been acquired after your father's
birth, then," Orochimaru murmured.  "Then, you..."
        "I followed in Grandfather's footsteps, after Dan died," Tsunade
said sadly, "because his notes implied that one of wood element
ninjutsu's highest techniques was a resurrection technique."
        "Notes?" Orochimaru asked, his voice strangled.  "The First
Hokage left... notes?  Detailing how he learned wood element ninjutsu,
and its secrets?"
        Tsunade nodded.  "There was a time," she said, "when I would
have given them to you, if you could have humbled yourself enough to ask
for help."
        Orochimaru let out of bark of bitter laughter.  "Do you have any
idea how many years I spent pouring over the samples I took from the
First's body, searching for those secrets?"  He shook his head.  "Cruel,
cruel woman."
        "Thank you," Tsunade said grimly.
        "So," Orochimaru said, "why didn't you use this resurrection
technique?  Surely it didn't cost too much, not when the sacrifice my
technique requires didn't stop you from considering it."
        "It only works within a short time of death," Tsunade answered,
"and it wasn't the sort of resurrection technique I thought it was."  A
dark smile appeared on her face.  "But thanks to you," she said, then
trailed off.  Stabbing Kusanagi into the ground, she began to form a
long chain of seals.
        Orochimaru took a step back.  "Interesting," he said, watching
the seals closely and making no move to interfere.
        "Mokuton," Tsunade intoned, "Peaceful Sylvan Rest."
        The still forms of Dan and Nawaki suddenly began to writhe, ash
pouring out from under their false skin even as the vine-like growths
released their bodies.  The two dead ninja slumped to the ground, and
tiny saplings sprouted, growing up through their bodies as they
dissolved into ash.  The young trees grew swiftly, until they were both
over a dozen feet tall.
        "Fascinating," Orochimaru breathed.  "More of a reincarnation
technique than a resurrection technique.  You use wood element
ninjutsu's ability to create life to remove the need for a sacrifice,
binding their spirits to the new trees.  No doubt originally designed to
put ghosts and other disturbed spirits to rest, or even to bind a demon.
I've never seen anything quite like it."
        "I'm glad you're impressed," Tsunade said.
        Orochimaru bowed shallowly to her.  "Thank you," he said.  "It's
a rare joy these days to encounter a technique that's truly new to me."
He smiled.  "It's enough that I don't even feel bad that you've most
likely placed those two beyond the reach of my technique, since in some
sense they live again."
        One of Tsunade's hands went to Kusanagi's hilt.  "Enough
pleasant words, Orochimaru.  We aren't done."
        "I suppose not," the renegade Sannin said.  "I'll take my sword
back, then," he said, and he gestured vaguely.  Kusanagi dissolved into
a cloud of smoke, then reappeared in Orochimaru's hand.  "Shall we
continue?"
        Before Tsunade could respond with either words or deeds, the
forest around them rumbled, and both of them turned to look at the
massive toad that had landed much too close for comfort.
        "You're making a habit of these little reunions, Jiraiya,"
Gamabunta grumbled as he shifted his weight, the nearby trees
shuddering.
        "Jiraiya?!" Tsunade stared up at the comparatively tiny figure
who stood on top of the summoned beast in shock.  "What -"
        "I see you made it," Orochimaru said cheerfully.
        "Present for you," Jiraiya growled, throwing a still body in
tattered robes to land at Orochimaru's feet.
        "Excellent," Orochimaru smirked.  "I had hoped that I'd get a
chance to add a Mizukage to my collection before today was over."  With
one slice of Kusanagi, he severed one of the dead ninja's arms, then
with a gesture he made it vanish in a puff of smoke.  "I'll leave the
rest for your medical ninja to study," he said.  "Farewell."
        "Not so fast," a new voice stated coldly, and tendrils of sand
sprung into being, wrapping rapidly around Orochimaru.
        The renegade ninja's eyes narrowed as his captor stepped into
view.  "Gaara of the Desert.  Now, that's unexpected."  He smiled,
seemingly unconcerned by the coffin of sand that was encasing him.
"It's a shame; if I'd known you were coming I would have prepared a
reunion with your father."
        "He didn't come alone, Orochimaru," Jiraiya said. leaping to the
ground as Gamabunta vanished in a giant explosion of white smoke.  "I've
brought the entire Leaf alliance here to play."
        Orochimaru shrugged.  "I got most of what I wanted.  So far as
the Mist are concerned, their Mizukage just died from a treacherous Leaf
attack at a peace conference.  Thanks to this victory, the Leaf will be
in a stronger position, but this war will not end anytime soon.  If you
really brought the whole alliance here, your enemies in the Rock and
Valley will have struck before those forces can return. There will be no
period of peace for you to recover your strength and strike at me to
reclaim the Uchiha.
        "And," he added, "I still have poor Naruto-kun if you think to
try."
        "Die," Gaara said flatly, closing his fist.  The coffin of sand
constricted, and there was a wet splatter, but it was mud, not blood,
that emerged.
        "You didn't really think I would die so simply?" Orochimaru's
voice mocked, and then all sense of his presence was gone.
        "Damn," Jiraiya muttered.
        "Jiraiya!" Tsunade nearly shouted.  "What the - why are you
here?  What happened?  Does Orochimaru really have -"
        "There will be time for questions later," Jiraiya said.  "Right
now we still have a battle to finish."
        "Does Orochimaru have Naruto?" Tsunade demanded.
        "Don't worry," Jiraiya said.  "Orochimaru doesn't know
everything."

***********************************************************************

        For just a moment, Yakushi Kabuto studied the Leaf and Mist
ninja facing him, a faint smile on his face as he stood a step behind
Sasuke's monstrous form, despite one arm that dangled limp and useless
at his side.  Then the medical ninja formed a seal with his good hand,
before prodding a spot on Sasuke's shoulder with two fingers.
        The boy grunted painfully, his skin turning a black-ish purple,
the grotesque wings on his back shuddering and melting into his back.
The darkness covering his skin broke up, becoming the familiar pattern
of the cursed seal, which rapidly retreated.  As it vanished, Sasuke
almost screamed, his eyes fading to black.  "Wh-"
        "I'm sure it would have been an interesting fight, Sasuke-kun,"
Kabuto said, "but it's time for us to regroup."  The younger traitor
stilled, rage apparent in the subtle shaking of his body.
        "Kabuto-san," Naruto said coldly, taking a step back.  The other
Leaf and Mist gathered around him and Sakura, facing the Sound.  "He's
dangerous," Naruto added unnecessarily.
        "I want," Sasuke began.
        "What you want doesn't matter," Kabuto said.  His hand gripped
Sasuke's shoulder, and now the Uchiha did scream.  "It stopped mattering
the instant you swore yourself to Orochimaru-sama."  Sasuke collapsed
into the medical ninja's good arm.  "Tayuya," he called, and the Sound
kunoichi took him.
        "Idiot," she muttered at her burden.
        "Kidoumaru," Kabuto continued calmly, "if you would, a web to
slow these six down."
        The six-armed boy made as if to comply, but then one of the
remaining walls crumbled, and Shizune stepped through the rubble and
into the hallway.  "You can't hide from me, trai- Naruto-kun!  Anko-
chan!"
        "Heya, Shizune-sempai," Anko said.
        "What a touching reunion," Kabuto said, adjusting his glasses.
"Shame I'll miss the rest of it."
        "You're going nowhere, traitor," Shizune snapped, "and neither
is the Uchiha."  Her eyes flicked toward Sakura and Naruto.  "This all
ends here."
        Kabuto stood.  "We'll see," he said calmly.
        "Shizune-sama, are the others -" Sakura began.
        "Why don't we rejoin them and see?" Shizune asked, lightly
touching the ground with one hand.  The floor rumbled, and suddenly
began to rise, becoming a rapidly growing pillar that lifted all five
ninja.  The ceiling above, then the next, and the next, opened,
revealing a bright blue sky.  In a matter of moments, they stood in the
open air once more.
        "Impressive," Kabuto allowed, shifting his weight, "if
pointless."
        "Hardly," Shizune said.  There was a blur of motion, and
Shikamaru, Neji, and Rock Lee joined the rest of the Leaf and Mist
ninja.
        "Everyone," Naruto breathed.
        "Naruto-kun!" Lee exclaimed in greeting.
        Kabuto still seemed unworried.  "I admit that it would be most
difficult to deal with all these children while fighting you and
Mitarashi-san," he said, "particularly since none of my allies are in
much condition to help"
        "Do you surrender?" Shizune asked.
        "Don't be silly," Kabuto said.  "You haven't won anything.  With
the havoc we've caused, every Sound ninja in this part of the country
will be coming.  We're overstretched, but unluckily for you we've been
preparing an attack to end the Fuuma Clan's little rebellion.  There
will be reinforcements arriving here shortly, enough to make short work
of you.  Even if you flee now, you can't hope to escape this country
alive."
        "He's right," Shikamaru said softly.  "Neji's already spotted
ninja incoming."
        "What do we do?" Sakura asked nervously.
        "Running and hiding won't help you," Kabuto said evenly.  "It
would be better if you all surrendered now.  Otherwise, some of you will
die."
        "I think not," a new voice said, and even Neji started,
surprised.  The Sound leapt away, mere moments before the ground under
their feet exploded.
        "Who -" Kabuto started, as he landed on a tree branch.
        "For the moment, allies of the Hidden Village of the Leaf,"
Iwakuro Hojo said as the settling dust from the explosion revealed him,
"the Hidden Village of Rock."  More Rock ninja emerged from the forest
all around, cloaking genjutsu discarded.
        "The Tsuchikage?!" Sakura exclaimed as she took in the robes the
man was wearing.
        "Hojo-sensei!" Naruto called out.
        "Surprising," Kabuto said, his voice still eerily calm.
        "You and I have unfinished business," Hojo said dangerously, a
large metal staff appearing in his hands with a puff of smoke.
        "True," Kabuto allowed, "but it won't be finished today."  The
other Sound ninja converged on his position, and then he formed a seal
with his good hand.  There was a sudden storm of leaves, and then they
were gone.
        "After them," Hojo commanded, and the Rock ninja obeyed.  "I
suspect he'll get away," the Tsuchikage said wearily.  "He's a slippery
one."
        Shizune relaxed, and suddenly seemed much more tired, barely
able to stand.  "He's strong," she said.  "I take it you received
Jiraiya-sama's message?"
        Hojo nodded.  "You're very lucky I was able to convince the
village council that Orochimaru was a greater threat than what's left of
the Leaf's power."
        After a silent moment, Shikamaru spoke.  "What next?"
        "You can rest," Hojo said.  "My ninja will secure the area for
the night, and then we'll head for the Fire Country border."
        Shizune nodded.  "You have our thanks.  And once she learns of
this, Hokage-sama's as well."
        "Don't thank me," Hojo replied.  "Thank the old pervert.  He
called in every favor I still owed him, and promised more than a few
besides."  Hojo's gaze turned toward Naruto, who squirmed under his
examination.  "One of them I can call in now."
        Sakura swallowed nervously, and the other Leaf ninja stiffened.
"What do you want with Naruto?" she managed to ask, wondering just how
they could stop the Tsuchikage from taking whatever he wanted.
        "Nothing you would object to," Hojo said gently.  "Naruto-kun,
you probably noticed that there was something I was trying to find out
about you when you trained with me."
        Naruto nodded.  "I did," he said.
        "It's part of the reason I agreed to train you in the first
place," Hojo said, "and Jiraiya offered to tell you to answer my
question if I aided you now."  He shrugged.  "He said you could summon a
toad to confirm, if you wished."
        "I trust you," Naruto said simply.  "What do you want to know?"
        "There's only one man who's ever beaten me in single combat, and
you... remind me of him, Naruto-kun," Hojo said.  "So, tell me... who is
your father?"
        There was a moment of silence as Naruto blinked several times.
"I... I have no idea," he said quietly.  "I never thought about it
before."
        Silence fell again, only broken when Hojo began to laugh.
"Jiraiya, you clever bastard."

***********************************************************************

Author's Random Ramblings

1) That ending had a bit more impact before Kishimoto had the bad
manners to not only reveal who Naruto's father was, but also his name,
while I was busy slowly revising this chapter.  Ah, well.

2) This took way, way too long, both for the first draft and the
revision.  I have numerous excuses, some related to real life, some
related to Kishimoto doing his best to make me lose interest in Naruto.
None of them really account for how long this took, so my deepest
apologies.  I can only hope it was worth the wait.

3) The first draft of this chapter was only beaten out by Chapter 12 for
longest chapter.  This revision beats Chapter 12 by almost 20 KB.

4) Writing this chapter reminded me of why, in my original conception of
this story, Kabuto was Naruto and Sakura's "final boss" and Sasuke never
appeared at all.  This was more dramatic, but it was very hard to try
and make the fight satisfying while still ending with all the characters
where I wanted them.  I didn't succeed with the first draft, and I'm not
sure if this draft is much better.  I sure hope so.

5) Thanks to everyone who commented on the first draft, in particular
Eimii.  Their suggestions are responsible for a great deal of any
improvement in this version.

6) Next time in One Hundred Days Epilogue, The Night After... well, I
suppose you'll just have to wait and see.

Draft Started: January 17, 2007
Draft Finished: July 14, 2007
Draft Released: July 15, 2007
Revised Draft: March 24, 2008
Final Released:


-- 
           Aaron Nowack
"Never let reality get in the way of a good hypothesis."
http://www.mimiru.net/


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