If all goes as planned, this will be the last chapter in "Koorikage". After that, it'll be on to part two of my little trilogy. In reality, that's the part I'm looking forward to writing the most. All the good stuff happens in there, and there's some really cool characters I can't wait to get to. But alas, the need for exposition is ever-present, and we are slaves to its unbending notions.

With that in mind, a lot of shit is going to go down in this chapter. The entire purpose of Koorikage was to set up the previous chapter, which was solely meant to set up this chapter, which exists only to set the groundwork for the real story that lies ahead. That's a lot of pressure. On the bright side, I get to have a lot of fun with scenes I've been waiting to write ever since I started this little project. Oh boy!

See you at the end then, whenever that may be. Just as a reference, as I'm writing this intro, I just came back from the premier of Serenity a few hours ago. God, what a great movie. I'm still geeking out over it.

Chapter 8 – War

"Hokage-sama!" Aoba shouted. Smoke and debris flew everywhere, and the smell of burnt wood and clothing filled Naruto's nostrils. He, along with the rest of the leaf ninja with him, made ready to leap to their Hokage's aid.

"Sorry, can't go that way," said a deep voice from in the smoke. It was cold and…mocking? A silhouette appeared to them as the smoke cleared and they could see baggy clothes, and a long, thin weapon strapped across the speaker's back.

"So that's how it is," Genma remarked calmly yet angrily. "The Mist have betrayed us after all."

"We can't betray those who were never our allies to begin with," the man in their way remarked. The smoke cleared a little more and Naruto could see nine other men standing with him. The blond boy swore under his breath.

"But tell me, why have you allied yourselves with Orochimaru?" Shizune demanded. "Surely you know what he did to the Sand when he fooled them into following his schemes?"
"Of course we do; everyone knows how that fool of a Kazekage allowed himself to be manipulated and killed by Orochimaru," the man spat. "As for our current alliance with him, it is a means to suit our own ends. A temporary alliance of mutual benefit."

By now the smoke had cleared completely and they could see out onto the stage. Tsunade and Gaara were facing off against the other three Kage, and Arima, the new Koorikage, was staring down what looked to be five Sound jounin. On the other side, they could see Temari and Kankurou surrounded by the escort squads from the other two villages.

"So, you've roped the Cloud and the Stone into your designs as well," Genma drawled.

"It didn't take much convincing," the mist commander almost laughed. "They're not overly fond of the Leaf, and the Raikage in particular was upset at a Jinchuuriki being proclaimed Kazekage."

"Pfft. Idiot," Genma spat.

"Well, prejudice or not, it helped our Mizukage to sway him to our side," the man was smirking openly now. He slowly pulled his right arm back over his shoulder and grasped the hilt of his nodachi.

"I recognize you," Genma suddenly said. "Kurowaza Tourou, one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist." Naruto's eyes widened. He'd only ever encountered two of the infamous Swordsmen of the Mist, and he'd never harbored a desire to meet any more of them.

If possible, Tourou's self-satisfied smirk grew even more smug. "It looks like the Leaf's information-gathering abilities are at least competent," he said as he slowly drew his ridiculously long sword. The way it gleamed even in the dust-filled twilight was unsettling. All around him, Naruto could hear the sounds of battle raging, for the explosion had surely been a cue for a full-scale assault, but all he could focus on was the dominating figure of the tall man in front of him with the eerie, blinding sword.

"If you know that much," the swordsman continued, "then you know you won't leave here alive. These men I have with me are some of the best in our village, and I plan on personally taking a few heads myself."

"Things won't go the way you planned," Genma told him resolutely. This somehow shook Naruto from his stupor and he was able to focus once more. He cursed himself even as he felt Sakura tap him on the shoulder.

"He used some kind of Genjutsu," she whispered to him. "I managed to release you from it, but I don't think he noticed. As soon as they're done talking, you'll have a few seconds to act."

Naruto could have kissed her. Of course it was Genjutsu. He was a fully qualified ninja and did not freeze up at the sight of a dangerous opponent. On the contrary, he relished the opportunity to test his skills. He would have felt excited, had the lives of so many of his important people not been on the line. As it was, he couldn't say anything for risk of drawing his enemy's attention.

"We need to reach Hokage-sama," Aoba said to the team as a whole. "Only once we've united can we fully face this threat."

Tourou laughed out loud. "You may be right about that, but I've already told you that you won't be getting past this point alive." He raised his sword so it was pointing at him, and the nine ninja standing around him sprang into action.

While his comrades immediately took up the defensive, Naruto waited an extra second, making the enemy believe he was still incapacitated. When one of them – his focus on Neji – ventured too close, he struck out as quickly as he possibly could and struck the man in the chest with the fastest Rasengan he'd ever formed. The technique drilled into the man, who was sent spiraling and flying toward his commander. Tourou waved his sword almost casually and sliced the already dead ninja in two, each half continuing on past him on either side. He did not look happy.

"You'll pay for that, brat," he snarled, and then vanished from view. Naruto looked around wildly, trying to place his foe. He felt a distortion of air to his left and looked to see the long sword already coming down on him.


Two crossed straight swords held up the offending blade mere inches from his face.

"Are you all right, Naruto-kun?" Sabu Yukiko asked, even as she struggled to hold her weapon in place against the mighty pressure being forced down upon it.

"Y…you guys!" He exclaimed in the utmost relief and surprise.

"Why are you here? Your leader's in danger!" Aoba yelled at them from where he was fighting another mist nin.

"Our mission was to guard and protect the emissary from the Leaf, no matter what," Saburo struggled to say through his physical exertion. "We will carry out that mission until we are no longer needed or we die. That is the way of the Snow." He pulled his sword suddenly away and made a swipe at Tourou's gut, who dodged easily away by jumping backward.

"How touching," the swordsman said. "But I have no qualms about killing you as well." He swung his sword in a downward arc and when it hit the ground, a jet of water shot out toward Naruto and the twins. There was no time to dodge, and Naruto gurgled as he tried to move away before the next attack came.


Hinata and Neji, meanwhile, had managed to split off from the rest of the group enough where they could use their skills to their fullest potential. The two of them stood back to back facing off against a pair of Mist jounin and a swath of Sound ninja of unknown rank who'd appeared moments before.

"Hinata-sama, as soon as we escape from this situation you must find a safe place and remain there," Neji said as they waited for their opponents to make the first move.

"No!" Hinata argued back. "I cannot do that, Neji-niisan. Not while my comrades are fighting. I will not hide like a child when I can help them."

"Hinata-sama," he said quietly, hoping their enemy wouldn't overhear, "my Byakugan will be sealed in the event of my death; yours will not. If you were to be killed or captured – "

"I understand, Neji-niisan," Hinata said solemnly. Then she turned her face upward into an ironic sort of grin that would have looked alien on her face even a year before. Even now it was a rare thing to see. "I will simply have to do my best not to be captured or killed."

Neji had nothing to say to that. His smile was one of resigned acceptance of her words, and his closed his eyes a moment to indulge, and even felt a flicker of pride for his younger cousin. She truly had come a long way.

"Very well," he said. "I shall also do my best to ensure that does not happen." For more than just my duty to the clan, he added in his head. His eyes shot open again. Byakugan!


The two of them, their bloodline activated, had another moment to wait before their enemies launched a coordinated simultaneous physical assault. After all, with such a large group, two opponents were a minimal threat. Clearly their intelligence had been lacking as far as the Hyuuga clan was concerned.

Neji parried three strikes and countered each of them with a juuken strike of his own within the first few seconds, and Hinata fended off another two. The second wave, taken completely off-guard, did not have time to pull back before they, too, were repelled. After that, the entire enemy force took a moment to pause and rethink their strategy.

"We must do our best to keep them using mostly taijutsu," Neji murmured over his shoulder. "Under those circumstances our techniques can handle any number of them, but if this many were to start using ninjutsu, we would be in trouble."

"Understood," Hinata replied in the same fashion.

The apparent leader of their foes broke signaled to his men and then spoke. "You Konoha brats don't know what you're dealing with," the Mist nin said. "We may have underestimated you, true, but not so much that you have any chance of winning this fight." He signaled again, and three of the Sound ninja threw projectiles while three more and the other Mist nin charged in again. It was going to be a long battle.


Sakura, meanwhile, had her hands full as well. She and Shikamaru were clearly outmatched by their opponent and Aoba and Genma were busy with two jounin each. Shizune was fighting another, desperately trying to reach Tsunade, and Naruto and the twins were fighting for their lives against Kurowaza Tourou.

Naruto! How could she have forgotten? He was no match for a guy like that and even he knew it. She had to help him, but how? The jounin they were fighting was incredibly skilled, and Naruto's opponent was even stronger. What could she do to help?

That's not the way to be thinking right now, she told herself angrily, avoiding a concentrated burst of water shot in her direction. The important thing is that I have to help; right now it's not even important how. She leapt back to avoid another attack and there was a brief pause in the fighting. She had to think of a way to end this battle quickly, but how?

Think! What resources are available? The only things she had were her own skills, weapons, and those of…Shikamaru! If she could distract their opponent long enough, there was a chance Shikamaru could ensnare him with that Kagemane no Jutsu of his. She made eye contact with him for a brief instant to let him know her intentions, and then dashed into action.

She charged her opponent with all her speed, and formed seals as she went. Bunshin no Jutsu! She formed three clones, each running as she was toward her enemy.

"You have to be joking," the Mist ninja chided. He formed seals and performed a jutsu that made a seeming wall of water in front of him. Sakura kept up her attack, taking the opportunity to switch places with one of her clones.

When she was just a few yards away, the Mist ninja burst through the water to cleave her in two with the axe he carried. As she expected, he hit the clone she'd switched with, and the real her jumped over his head and delivered a kick to his neck.

Except that when the kick connected, her opponent's body turned to water and splashed to the floor. She barely had time to swear before the axe swung down from her left and sliced through her skull.


Temari and Kankurou looked around with contempt at the ninja that were encircling them. Six ninja from the Stone and six from the cloud had suddenly turned on them when the explosion rocked the stage. It wasn't difficult to discern what was going on.

"You guys like overkill, it looks like," Kankurou taunted. "Are you really so weak that you need twelve shinobi to handle the two of us?"

"It's not our fault the Sand was stupid and only brought the two of you along," one of the Cloud nins replied.

"There are two missing from each group," Temari observed casually. "Watch for them to appear later."

"Aa," Kankurou said, reaching around his back to unhook the burden he carried. He slammed his puppet down on the floor.

"It's to bad, though," another Cloud nin said. "I was hoping this would at least be an interesting fight."

"Too bad for you for underestimating us," Kankurou said as he tugged a little on the bandages that kept his puppet contained. "We don't need anyone else to help us with the likes of you."

"Kill these arrogant bastards!" one of the Stone nin shouted. A mad wave came at them, and Kankurou yanked hard to remove the bandages in one stroke. A figure shot forward, and an instant later, three enemy ninja were on the floor in pieces.

"It's about time you let me out of there," Baki said, his wind blade dissipating. "Remaining immobile for so long is exceptionally uncomfortable."

"There's a third one!" One of the nine remaining enemies shouted unnecessarily.

Kankurou laughed and placed his hands on the scrolls he'd already laid out on the floor. "That's what you get for making assumptions about your enemy," he said. He infused chakura into the scrolls and a second later had summoned his three puppets: Karasu, Kuroari and Sanshouuo.

"He's a puppeteer, be careful!" another enemy shouted. They pulled back to regroup, but Temari had already hit and wounded a couple more of them with a Kamaitachi. It would seem their enemy had grossly underestimated them indeed.


While all this was going on all around, up on the stage it was a standoff. Even though it was three kage against two, not one of them knew where to begin. It would seem that the Raikage, Mizukage and Tsuchikage were all aware of Gaara's unique…abilities and none of them wanted to be the first to take him on. Tsunade's lip curled in disdain. Such cowards were not fit to be kage.

"This was a foolish move, Mizukage-dono," she said coolly, unknowingly resembling her former sensei during the attack which led to his death three years prior. "Even if you're victorious here, the combined power of the Leaf, the Sand and the Snow will be enough to bring you down."

"That's where you're wrong, I'm afraid," the Mizukage answered cheekily. "For you see, we have more allies than simply Orochimaru. We are not so foolish as to place our full trust in him as the Sand did."

"Are you trying to start a war across the entire continent?" Tsunade asked in disbelief.

"If that comes about, then there was nothing that could have been done to prevent it," Mizukage said. "The Leaf have been too powerful for too long. Even after you suffered staggering losses three years ago, you remain the strongest shinobi nation. The balance of power must eventually shift, as that is the way of the world. No one entity can remain the strongest for too long, or it disrupts the natural order of things. We simply wish to restore balance and order to the world."

"And you want the Mist to emerge as the strongest too, of course," Tsunade jeered.

"If that is the way of it, then so be it. Doubtless the Cloud and the Stone have similar ambitions; we will have to wait and see who comes forward as the strongest at the end."

"How can you so easily enter into an alliance that you know is made to collapse?" Tsunade asked the three of them. It was Tsuchikage who answered her.

"Do not try and sow dissention among us, Hokage-dono. We have considered what you are saying already and in the short term it makes no difference. Konoha must fall. In the long term, we may indeed come into conflict with our current allies, but as far as this current campaign is concerned, none among us will be prepared to continue hostilities at its immediate resolution."

"You have to remember, Hokage-dono," the Raikage spoke "that alliances within the shinobi world are only ones of convenience. When two factions share a similar goal, they can work together to achieve that goal, even if their aims are typically not the same. Your own alliance with the Sand will inevitably dissolve once there is nothing more you can gain from each other."

"You're mistaken," Gaara said, as calmly as if they were discussing the weather. "Such bonds are not to be cast aside lightly. An alliance of convenience is not an alliance at all; it is both sides attempting to manipulate the other. To be an ally to someone is to take that someone as one of your own, and protect them as you would protect your family. To be an ally is to trust that they will do so for you in return. A debt owed to an ally can never be repaid, and likewise can always be called upon. When one has an ally, one is never alone and need not fear destruction."

"Such idealism from such a misguided youth," Mizukage sneered.

"I don't know; I thought it was very insightful," came a new voice to the conversation. All eyes turned to where Arima Shuichi – the Koorikage – had a kunai held to the side of the Mizukage's throat.


Twin clangs reverberated around the backstage wing as two halves of a stage light hit the floor. Sakura's kawarimi had been just in time, and now a flurry of shuriken rained down on her assailant.

"Impressive!" He yelled as he deflected them with a jet of water shot from his mouth. The jet also hit Sakura, still in the air, and sent her reeling to the ground. "However, your elementary skills are still no match for me. He prepared the seals for another jutsu, when suddenly his body froze.

"What? What is this!" he struggled to free himself, but it was no use; his body was not his to control.

"For a jounin, you aren't very good at keeping track of all your surroundings," came Nara Shikamaru's taunting voice. "I wonder if all the jounin from your village are this easy to defeat." He made another set of seals, and the shadows at the Mist nin's feet began to curl upwards until they encircled his neck. His cries of protest and begs for mercy were choked out by his death rattle as he slumped and fell to the floor. Shikamaru let out a huge sigh of relief.

"That one had me worried for a moment," he said.

"You just said he was easy to defeat!" Sakura raved at him. Shikamaru merely gave her an exasperated look.

"Well, I was worried about what Naruto would've done to me if you'd been killed as much as anything," he said.

"Naruto!" Sakura suddenly remembered. "He needs help!"

"What could you possibly do against that guy he's fighting?" Shikamaru asked.

"I don't know, but we have to do something!" she persisted.

"Look, the best way to help Naruto right now is to help the others," Shikamaru patiently explained. "And then let them help him."

Sakura seemed to take a moment to consider this, and then nodded her head in agreement.

"All right," she said. "Let's go."

They ran toward where the jounin from their group were fighting three-on-five; somehow, during the course of only a minute or so, they'd managed to become separated significantly, which was not a good thing. Dead or not, perhaps the ninja they'd been fighting had been better than he'd seemed after all.


Completely on the other end of the platform now, Naruto was learning that the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist certainly earned their reputation. He and the Sabu twins were using everything they had in terms of ninjutsu and taijutsu just to stay alive. It was safe to say that this opponent was too much for the three of them and they wouldn't last much longer without help.

"If we can hold him off for just a little longer, the others can help us," Yukio said as she parried a sword strike and dodged a cannon-like burst of water. Either Tourou's attacks were coming closer together, or theirs were slowing down; either way it wasn't looking good.

"Do you really think we can hold out long enough for help to arrive?" Saburo asked, leaping over a clawing hand of water and blocking three kunai with his sword. He'd already taken a shuriken to the thigh, and though it was not a very deep wound he was slowing the most of the three of them.

"We have to," Naruto said, his face set in grim determination. He avoided a dragon made from water aimed at him and hurled off a handful of shuriken that he wasn't really expecting to hit anything. "I've fought some of these swordsmen guys before. They all have some sort of special technique or whatever. If we stay in close enough to him, maybe we can keep him from using it."

"Hopefully preventing him from using his strongest techniques will be enough to protect us," Saburo said, following the idea and dashing in to attack directly with his sword. His sister joined him a moment later. Naruto said nothing, but he agreed. Not for a long time had he so heavily doubted his chances of surviving a fight. He made it his practice to avoid such lines of thought, but in this situation it was difficult not to have the idea cross his mind.

I hope you're doing better than I am, Baa-chan. Sakura-chan.


Sakura and Shikamaru raced across the platform, but the enemy's now-obvious plan to spread them out had worked very well. Already they'd encountered two individual Sound chuunin – who were dispatched easily enough, but every second they stopped to fight allowed more time for their comrades to move farther away.

"They were over here!" Sakura yelled as she pointed to the stage entrance where they'd all been standing earlier, watching the announcement. They passed by an area where two ninja were being swamped by a large group, and on a second glance they realized who those two ninja were.

"Shikamaru! It's Hinata and Neji!"

The Nara stopped to look, and sure enough, the two Hyuuga were fighting like demons, blasting back enemies at every turn, who forced themselves up only to get knocked down again. There had to be at least twelve of them, and yet the two leaf chuunin were fighting them off as if they were mere street thugs.

"That's…amazing," Sakura stammered, momentarily forgetting her agenda and staring transfixed at the spectacle in front of her.

"The Hyuuga bloodline would lend itself well to fighting multiple enemies at once," Shikamaru said. "With their fighting style, a single hit will damage one foe long enough to move to the next, and as such it's difficult to defend against since the enemy does not know who or where they will strike next. Also the Byakugan allows them to see all around them, showing any openings in the enemy's group defense, even behind them."

And it did indeed appear that the two juuken users knew exactly where every enemy around them was, where to hit them and when. There wasn't a single break in either of their movements; it was like they were just flowing from one strike to the next in a sort of dance. It was beautiful to watch.

"We should go," Shikamaru said. "They can handle themselves, since they've obviously managed to restrict their enemies to taijutsu, and the others still need help."

"Right," Sakura nodded. She turned just as Hinata performed a kaiten to knock back three Sound nins who'd been coming at her at once. It really was incredible.

"The others are over here, I see them," Shikamaru called to her. "We should plan an attack before we alert them to our presence, though. Surprise is our best weapon right now."

"Right," Sakura said again.

"Couldn't agree with you more!" Came a voice from above them. Two mist nins were dropping down on them from above, but before they could even react, a ridiculous amount of kunai and shuriken landed all across their fronts, sending them flying backwards and landing on the floor with two big whumps. Sakura and Shikamaru watched this happen, and then behind them another figure dropped.

"It's nice that you came when you did," Musuka said. "I was waiting for a clean shot at them."

"I was wondering where the other two of them were," Shikamaru drawled lazily. "Only ten of them showed up at the first explosion, even though twelve of them came to the village."

"Are these really jounin?" Sakura asked in disbelief, going over to kick one of them in the foot.

"They do seem easy to kill, don't they?" Musuka remarked. "I suppose it must be overconfidence."

"No jounin worth his salt should make a rookie mistake like that," Shikamaru said disdainfully.

"I know," Musuka grinned. "Works out well for us though, doesn't it?"

"So that's two here," Sakura counted on her fingers, "plus the one Naruto killed earlier, the one we killed a minute ago, and the two that Hinata and Neji are fighting…"

"There should be five of them left, plus that one Naruto and the twins are fighting," Shikamaru finished. "I don't know how much longer they can last against him; we should get moving again."

The three of them made a beeline toward Shizune and the others, hoping they wouldn't run into any more ambushes. They just didn't have the time.


Five against three was not good odds. Shizune, Aoba and Genma had clustered together shortly into the battle, but things still looked bad. They hadn't managed to kill any of their opponents yet, and they were starting to fatigue.

"It looks like you planned this out very well," Genma remarked to one of their adversaries during a lull in the fighting. "But what will the ultimate cost be?"

"If you're referring to a counterattack, it will never happen," a Mist nin said. "No one in your village knows what has happened, and so they will be completely unprepared when we attack."

"That is of course assuming you manage to kill us all here," Genma retorted. Inwardly, he was processing what the enemy ninja had just told him. So they hadn't coordinated an attack on Konoha with the attack on Yukigakure. That was interesting. He assumed it was because they didn't know the particulars of the Snow's plans and couldn't pinpoint a time to strike. It also meant that a message had been sent or soon would be, giving the go-ahead for the second offensive.

"I wouldn't worry about that," another mist ninja said. He formed a few seals and a thick fog came up and surrounded them all.

"Look out!" Genma shouted. Immediately after he fended off attacks from at least two of their enemies with exceptional difficulty, as he couldn't see them until they were about a foot away. There were some clanging noises and a few grunts and the like, and all of a sudden the fog lifted – the result of a whirlwind jutsu Shizune had used.

Genma looked over and saw what he'd been dreading: a mist nin lay dead at Aoba's feet, but Aoba had been impaled from behind by another, apparently while his attention had been diverted. The offending mist ninja had an unreadable look on his face.

"Aoba!" Shizune shouted desperately. The shinobi in question coughed up a frighteningly large spurt of blood.

"At least I managed to get one of them," he choked out, forcing his mouth into a grin. "Make sure to…protect Hokage-sama…" and Aoba slid forward off his killer's sword, and fell to the ground, dead. He almost landed on top of the ninja he'd killed only a moment before. Genma and Shizune only had a few seconds to look on in horror before they were attacked again, with even worse odds than before.


The stage was silent for several moments after Arima's declaration and no one moved. The whole situation was a taught wire waiting to snap.

"Hmm, as expected from someone wishing to call himself kage," Mizukage declared idly, barely glancing at the kunai on his neck. He then splashed to the ground in a puddle, and the battle began.

All six of them were moving at once. Tsuchikage performed a bizarre jutsu that raised two stone golem-looking things from the ground, even as Gaara sent a wave of sand in his direction. Raikage had vanished in a flash of light, and Tsunade summoned a slug twice her size, still managing to turn and defend against his attack afterwards. The Mizukage's puddle had split into five separate ones, and now each of them was rising into a new clone. Arima just smiled and performed a few seals of his own.

Koori bunshin no jutsu! Four clones swirled into being around him, presumably forged from the water vapor in the air.

"That won't be enough," Mizukage said. "Even supposing you were a match for me, Tourou and his subordinates will have finished off the other delegations soon enough and then he'll be here to help finish you all off."

"Depending on outside help?" Arima jeered. "A kage should be able to handle himself in a battle against any opponent."

"I don't need someone like you to tell me what a kage should be capable of," the Mizukage spat, and launched five different water jutsu at the real Arima – one from each clone. However, only moments later they were all frozen solid, and looked like nothing more than elaborate ice sculptures. Arima's ice clones rushed forward to engage the water clones in melee combat.

"You'll have to use techniques from outside your village if you hope to defeat me," the Koorikage declared calmly as he spun around behind a clone and stabbed at the real Mizukage with a large icicle. It speared through a podium and the ground underneath him began to crumble.

"If that is what it takes," Mizukage said, emerging from the floorboards under Arima's wavering feet. He reached out at Arima's throat with fingernails lengthened and sharpened like daggers, only to have them shatter on a wall of ice that shot up in front of the Koorikage. It seemed as though they were evenly matched, which was not according to plan at all.


"That's the last of them," Kankurou said as Karasu released its final victim and he put his puppets away. "Be on the lookout for those last four."

"No need," came a deep masculine voice from the shadows about ten feet away. Temari turned and all but had an attack off before she noticed the snowflake on the man's hitae-ate. His silhouette was all that was visible of him aside from that at first, but he quickly stepped into the light and Temari felt her pulse rise. This was one of them most handsome men she had ever seen.

"My siblings and I were assigned to guard the emissaries of the Cloud and the Stone," he said, even as he casually chucked the body of a dead Stone ninja at their feet. "When the Sound attacked, they turned on us, but we finished them easily enough. We were coming here to help you, in fact. Your guard detail was unfortunately intercepted and killed by Sound ninja on their way to you. We dealt with them as well."

"Where are the rest of you?" Baki asked in his usual hard voice. Temari jumped as three more ninja suddenly appeared from the shadows next to the man as if they'd been there all along. Each had a dead ninja and threw it toward them as the first had. The man who'd been speaking to them smirked.

"Forgive my siblings, they love to hide. Please allow me some introductions. I am Sabu Daiichi." If there was ever a name that could fit this man, that was it, Temari concluded. He was as tall as Baki but nearly twice as broad in the shoulders, and his muscles looked almost too big to be real. He had no weapons on him at all save his kunai holster and shuriken pouch, and he wore spiked metal bands across his knuckles. Despite clearly being an accomplished warrior, not a single scar marred his chiseled face. He wore a sleeveless vest – madness! – and had thick bands around his forearms, from which feathers dangled. A loose sleeveless shirt underneath and loose-fitting pants completed his casual appearance. He gestured to the woman on his right, and introduced her as his first younger sister, Sora. Sora was a mature-looking woman of about twenty with fairly small breasts, and she had short black hair that curled outward just below her ears. She was dressed in a form-fitting white top with colored prints on it that looked sort of like a kimono that stopped at the waist, and her pants (if they could even be called pants) were of some sort of sleek, shiny material Temari had never seen. Her boots came to her knees and had knives of various sizes holstered in them. Finally, she had a very large and ornate scythe strapped to her back.

"Next is our younger brother Kenji," Daichi went on. Temari gasped, for if anything this man was even more good-looking than her brother. He wore a long coat that nearly touched the ground but again had short sleeves Do these people even feel the cold? Temari wondered. He was much slimmer than his brother, though just as tall and his muscles were just as well defined if not as large. He carried a sword at his waist and what looked like an ice pick was strapped across his lower back. His hair was short and spiked, and the his one flaw (if she were being truly nitpicky) was that his nose seemed slightly too large for his face. He grinned at her in a way that made her pulse race and she fought to keep her face from flushing.

"Last is our little sister Sango," Daichi said. "She's a chuunin, but skilled enough.." He gestured to a girl shorter and clearly younger than Sora, though better endowed. Her hair was black like her sister's, but went halfway down her back in a ponytail. She was dressed in a tight black material with bits of pink over the joints that looked like armor of some sort, and she wore an enormous boomerang even larger than Temari's own fan across her back.

"It's good you were here," Baki said, and quickly introduced the three of them. "Do you have any idea what set off this attack?"

"The jerks were planning this all along," Kenji said in a voice that sounded like he wanted to laugh. "The Mist were in on it too, from the looks of things."

"How did they get the Sound to help them?" Kankurou asked.

"Actually, it seems exactly the sort of thing Orochimaru would be interested in," Baki said. Temari had managed to get herself under control and stop staring at the two brothers. She didn't think they noticed, but their sisters might have. Just great.

"In any case," Daichi said, "now that we're sure you're all right, we're going to go help our siblings."

"What? You have more siblings?" Temari asked in amazement. Sora smiled at her in a way that said she had noticed something earlier. Fantastic.

"Quite a few more," she said. "But two of them were assigned to guard the Leaf delegation, along with a cousin of ours."

"The Leaf?" It was just now dawning on her that her friends in the Leaf would have been attacked as well. Of course they would have been. "We'll come with you."

The older woman looked at her quizzically for a moment before nodding slightly. "All right, do as you wish." And the four siblings jumped off. Temari shared a look with her brother and former teacher before they hurried off after their new allies.


The timely arrival of Shikamaru, Sakura and Musuka had surely saved the lives of the two remaining Leaf jounin. But on their way to help Naruto and the twins, they were waylaid by yet more Sound ninja.

"Orochimaru never seems to suffer from a shortage of subordinates, does he?" Genma asked as he fended one off.

"On the bright side, they never seem as well-trained as they could be," Shikamaru said, fending off another one with Musuka's help. Sakura and Shizune were working together on a third.

"Still, they're managing to tire us out effectively," Genma remarked. "It won't be long before even a genin would be able to finish us off.

"We have to get to Naruto," Sakura said desperately, sinking to the ground under an attack. She sprang up behind her opponent even as Shizune came in where she had just been. With the Sound ninja's focus on the older woman, Sakura plunged her kunai into his neck, ending the fight.

"If that's the last we see of them, we still might not make it to him in time," Shikamaru said. Naruto's fight had drifted from them even more over the chaos of the last several minutes.

"Don't even say that!" Sakura chastised him. "Come on!" They hurried off again toward where they could see Naruto and the twins still managing to fight for their lives against the deadly swordsman from the Mist. Along the way, they passed Hinata and Neji. The two Hyuuga had managed to kill five of their opponents, but were finally beginning to succumb to fatigue. They were being overwhelmed.

Just as Sakura and her group were about to intervene however, a boomerang of ridiculous proportions flew from the other side of the stage and took two of the Sound ninja out of the fight. Sakura could hear their ribs shatter. Almost the same instant, bizarre-looking knives planted themselves in the faces of two more. A strong gust of wind blew, and suddenly Baki of the sand and a large man with spiked knuckles she'd never seen before appeared as suddenly as the boomerang – now flying back to where it had come from – and killed all but one of those remaining. The Karasu puppet that she knew belonged to Kankurou appeared from one of the stage curtains to finish off the last one. The entire assault lasted all of six seconds. An exhausted pair of Hyuuga were catching their breath and speaking words of gratitude when Sakura remembered what they'd been doing before coming upon the fight.

"Naruto!" She looked over to where he was frantically, but she heard chuckling as a beautiful woman in a white top with a very large scythe on her back appeared and said, "If you're worried about your friend, don't be. We sent help to him, too." Sakura didn't even have time to ask what she meant before she saw for herself.


Tourou had managed some sort of jutsu that burst Naruto and his companions back as if shot out of a cannon. From the corner of his eye, Naruto saw Saburo hit his head hard on a support beam or something and not get back up. Yukiko was slammed into a wall and slumped down to the ground. She was still moving, but not very well.

As for himself, he fortunately only hit the ground, but it was bad enough. He was completely exhausted and that last blow knocked whatever wind was left out of him. He was having trouble focusing; he had to keep blinking and wiping water out of his eyes, and his body ached too much to get up. He tried anyway, but kept slipping on the wet ground. Tourou was stalking toward him purposefully with a grin on his face. And in a blink, he vanished and reappeared right over Naruto, his sword drawn back for the killing blow. Naruto instinctively began molding the chakura for a kawarimi no jutsu, but he knew it was too late. He wasn't getting out this time.


Naruto wiped his eyes again and, confused to why he was still alive, looked up and saw Tourou's sword being held by a standard-sized – if somewhat straighter than normal – sword. This sword was being held backhanded almost casually by a young man in a long coat with spiked hair and a hawk-like nose and a snowflake on his hitae-ate. He looked vaguely familiar for some reason, but at the moment Naruto couldn't think (or care) why.

"You all right?" the man asked.

"Of course!" Naruto blustered with infinitely more gusto than he felt. "Thanks for the help!" He figured he'd better add that last part. No need to be rude.

"No problem. Thanks for keeping my little brother and sister alive," he said.


"And just who the hell are you?" Tourou growled, interrupting. His sword was still pressed down against the newcomer's.

"I would say it's polite to introduce yourself first, but I already know who you are, Kurowaza Tourou," the man said. "My name is Sabu Kenji, and it's time for you to leave this village."

"Is that so?" Tourou seemed almost amused. He could have pulled it off if he wasn't so obviously annoyed at being caught off-guard.

"Absolutely," Kenji smiled amicably. "Even if by some miracle you managed to get by me, your subordinates have all been killed, along with your allies from the Stone and the Cloud. As we speak another dozen ninja are on their way here to make sure you're dealt with."

Tourou's face slipped almost imperceptibly. Clearly things had not gone the way he expected them to.

"That's not possible," he said. Kenji smiled again.

"Either you've overestimated your own strength, or you've underestimated ours. Either way, you're going to die unless you run now and take your Mizukage with you."

Tourou hesitated for another second before vanishing in the direction of the stage where Naruto could only presume the kage were all presently fighting.

"Whew," Kenji sighed and relaxed his muscles. It was a surprise; he'd looked so casual that Naruto hadn't noticed until now he'd tensed them at all.

"What are you doing, sighing like that?" Naruto demanded. "And why did you let him go? You should have just finished him off right now! Now he'll come back!"

"Well, you sure got your energy back fast, didn't you?" Kenji said wryly, holding his sword over his shoulder. "If I could've killed him, I would have. As it was, all I had time to do was stop him from killing you. If I'd fought him from there, I don't know if I could've beaten him."

"What! After all that you just said?"

"I was bluffing, Naruto-kun," Kenji grinned again. "I hear it's something you do quite a bit, too. I'm surprised you didn't recognize it."

"Well, yeah, I guess, but…wait a minute! How do you know my name?"

"Are you kidding?" The man laughed. "How could I not know your name? You're all Musuka talks about. The twins seem to really like you, too."

"Oh, right, you said you were their brother," Naruto remembered.

"Yes, and thank you for looking after them," Kenji said. That's what he'd said his name was, right? It was the first serious expression on his face since Tourou left.

"Well, they kinda saved me," Naruto admitted. "Just like you did, really."

"Is that so?" Kenji suddenly got a rather fond look on his face and drifted off for a second before saying, "well, my family is especially adept at lurking in the shadows and catching an enemy off-guard. To be honest, the two of them together would have had less of a chance of beating him than me."

"Really?" Naruto didn't know what to be skeptical about. He thought this guy stood as good a chance as anyone against Tourou, but he also thought the twins together could probably have taken him if they'd attacked from the start instead of moving to defend him. There was a hole in all that somewhere, but he couldn't figure out where.

"Naruto!" he spun as he heard the familiar voice calling to him. Sakura was leading a good dozen people over toward him at a run. Some of them looked like Snow ninja, and the Sand siblings were there as well. So this Kenji guy's bluff had had some truth behind it, too. That was good, because it probably meant the part about all the other enemies being dead was true as well.

"Are you all right?" his teammate asked as the group arrived. All the tension and stress he'd built up throughout the battle vanished with the sound of her voice.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he said with his usual confidence. "This Kenji guy got here just in time." Something occurred to him. "I hope the twins are okay. They got hit pretty bad with that last jutsu."

"I'll check them," said a slender woman with short black hair. She was off in a blink to do so.

"Hey, where's Aoba?" Naruto asked. All the Leaf ninja present lowered their heads.

"He didn't make it," Shizune said.

"Those bastards!" Naruto cursed. "This is all Orochimaru's fault!"

"No, it isn't," Genma said. "It's more likely the Mizukage's fault than anybody else's."

Shizune's eyebrows shot up. "Tsunade-sama!" She made to leave, but a burly guy with spikes on his knuckles grabbed her by the arm.

"You all are too tired to help. You'd just end up getting in their way. We'll go." He looked at Kenji, and Naruto knew from looking at them that they must be brothers. The two of them nodded, and were about to leave when they looked at the third Snow nin Naruto didn't know, a pretty girl with long black hair, nice curves and an absurdly huge boomerang.

"Stay here, Sango," the big guy said. She started to protest, but Kenji cut her off.

"You're only a chuunin, and there's no place for you in a battle of the level that's going on out there. You know that." She held his gaze for a few seconds more before reluctantly nodding.

"Send Sora along when she gets back," the big guy said, and they were off. Baki went with them, after indicating to Kankurou and Temari that they were not to follow.

"Jerks," the girl named Sango muttered. She really was very pretty. If Sakura hadn't been standing right there, Naruto might even have been tempted to say something to that effect. As it was, he just offered her an understanding smile. He'd been left behind before, too.

"You know they're right, Sango," Musuka piped up. Naruto had forgotten his friend was even there. "Even I can't go." She nodded again, and the woman apparently named Sora reappeared, carrying Saburo and supporting Yukiko.

"They're both hurt pretty badly," she said, handing Yukiko off to Sango so that she could lay Saburo down gently on the ground. "Yukio should be fine with some rest and basic treatment, but I'm afraid Saburo is seriously injured. His skull has been cracked and he's bleeding a great deal."

"We'll take care of him," Shizune said at once. "Sakura, Hinata!" The two named girls nodded, and bent down over Saburo together with Shizune.

"They're three of the best medical ninja in Konoha, next to the Hokage herself," Genma said comfortingly. "He'll be fine." Sora looked at him for a moment, then glanced back at her brother before saying, "thank you," in the softest voice possible.

"Your brothers wanted you to join them," Genma went on. "They went to help your Koorikage and the Hokage."

Sora's soft smile immediately took on the qualities of a smirk. "Oh did they? How completely like them. I suppose I should go help them, then." She reached down to her right side to grasp the handle of her scythe where it stuck out from behind her back.

"Be careful, Onee-chan," Yukiko said weakly from where she was sitting with Sango. Sora smiled at her sisters and disappeared.

"We've managed to stabilize his condition," Sakura said without looking up. The three of them hunched over Saburo's unmoving form made quite a scene. "He'll live for certain now, though he'll have to take a long time to fully recover.

"I wish we could have done more for him," Shizune said as she stood up. "But we all used up most of our chakura in that fight."

"No, thank you," Yukiko said. Even in her weakened state she still had her ever-present smile. "You've saved my brother's life, and for that I'm forever in your debt. And yours, of course, Naruto-kun." She smiled warmly at him.

"Huh? What? What did I do? You guys are the ones who saved me!" he protested.

"We were only doing our job," Yukiko explained. "We'd been assigned to protect you all. It was you who kept us alive. That man would have killed us for sure."

"Well, it's not like I was going to run away or something after you saved my neck," Naruto grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. "Even if I didn't like you I couldn't have done that." Yukiko smiled at him again, and for some reason Sakura did, too. That made him feel pretty good, even if he still didn't think he'd done anything special.

Yukiko hissed in pain and her hand shot to her side, and Sakura, Hinata and that girl with the boomerang – Sango – were at her side in moments.

"You shouldn't be talking so much, Oneesan," Sango admonished. Naruto subconsciously logged that she was younger than the twins, but by her…assets, she surely was older than Shiro. It was so hard to keep track with this family.

"Three of her ribs are broken," Sakura announced. "We can heal them, but we've used up too much chakura to do a very good job of it right now."

"It'll have to wait," a familiar voice announced from the direction of the stage. Naruto looked up to see Tsunade approaching at a swift walk along with Gaara, Baki, the older Sabu siblings, and Arima, the new Koorikage. Since she instantly had everyone's attention, she didn't wait to reach them to continue speaking.

"The attack has been repelled for the moment. Apparently our strength, along with that of the Sand and the Snow, was underestimated, but we're still in danger here."

"They wouldn't have planned something like this lightly," Arima said. Their group had joined Naruto's now. "They know that if anything goes wrong here, they'll have the full strength of all three of our villages to deal with. Since they'll definitely want to avoid that, they're going to make sure no news of the attack can be carried out of here until they've put the rest of their plans in motion – whatever those are."

"So we're penned in," Genma remarked.

"So it would seem."

"Koorikage-sama," said the really big guy who looked kind of like Kenji. He was probably the older of the two. How big was this family? "Perhaps we should fall back to the safety hole. The village can be patrolled by minimal scouts, and our strength will be concentrated should we be forced to defend ourselves again."

"Yes, Daiichi," Arima said. "That is what we will do. Inform your father. I'll be trusting him to arrange for getting everybody there, and for setting up a lookout perimeter."

"At once, Koorikage-sama." And he vanished.

"Of course the rest of you are welcome to join us in the hole," Arima said to the Leaf and Sand ninja. "It's much nicer than its name implies, I assure you, and it is the safest place in the village, even when not full of ninja."

"You trust us, then?" Gaara asked, quite casually. "A village's last line of defense is its greatest secret, even beyond its bloodlines and techniques."

"Well, it would seem we have no choice regardless, since the alternative would be to abandon you to your own devices in the midst of our enemies, but from what I have seen, I do trust you, yes." Arima almost smiled, and seemed more like a wise old man than the powerful young warrior that he was. "Of course you can always attempt to flee, but I would not recommend it. The village is most likely already surrounded, and there's no way of knowing what type of ninja are out there, or how many." Especially with Orochimaru involved, Naruto thought.

"We accept your offer, of course," Tsunade said. "It will give us time to rest and restore our chakura, and devise a plan to warn our own villages."

"We'd best be off quickly, then," Arima said. "Sora, can I ask you and your brother to sweep the village and bring in any of our wounded you find?"

"Of course, Koorikage-sama," the slender woman with the scythe replied. They sure got used to addressing Arima like that quickly. They must have practiced before. "Let's go, Kenji." The two of them vanished like their brother had.

"Can you walk, Oneesan?" Sango asked Yukiko, who was trying to struggle to her feet. The older girl waved her off. "I'll be fine. Look after Saburo."

"You can carry him," Sakura piped up, "but be careful not to move his head too much." Sango nodded and stepped over to gingerly pick up her brother. The rest of the group was scanning the area, preparing to leave and head for this hole – whatever it was. Well, most of them were.

"You're certain you're fit to walk?" Neji asked Yukiko, who had finally managed to stand. "We need to move quickly, and it will do you nor us no good if one of your broken ribs punctures a lung." The kunoichi turned her head to look up at Neji, and for some reason, she seemed to be smirking. No, he must have imagined it.

"You can help me if you want," she said. No, she wasn't smirking; she was just smiling like she always did. Of course.

Neji seemed to stutter for a second – unusual for him – before taking her right arm and draping it over his shoulder. "Very well," he said plainly. Yukiko's smile changed, and now it looked like it always did, only bigger. So what had it been before?

"Are you really all right, Naruto?" Sakura's voice to his right made him jerk his head. He grinned at her.

"Yeah, just a little tired, I guess. Are you okay, Sakura-chan?" It was a simple question, but for the first time since everything had happened, he realized that Sakura had been as much in danger of dying as any of the rest of them. Of course she had been. Terror suddenly struck him as he contemplated what could have been.

"Yeah, I'm just tired too." She smiled at him, but then her look changed to one of concern. "Are you cold?" She asked. "You're shivering like crazy."

"Huh?" He was. If Sakura had been hurt…killed…

"We should get you inside fast," Sakura said firmly. "You've used up so much chakura that you don't have enough left to keep warm."

"Well, we're ready to move," Tsunade said, standing over them, "so hurry it up then."

Sakura reached out and took his arms, bringing him to his feet. All this time he'd been crouching in the spot where Tourou had nearly sliced him in half. She rubbed his arms with her hands and then brought him into an embrace. Any other time this act would have sent joy surging though his veins, even if she was only trying to keep him warm. He shakily raised his arms and clutched her to him, holding her tight.

"I'll be all right, Sakura-chan," he said in the steadiest voice he could muster. What kind of wimpy ninja was he, anyway? "Let's go, we're holding everyone up." He reluctantly let her go, and her face said she doubted whether he was really okay or not, but she nodded and the group set on their way.


The Hole turned out to be a massive cave under the village, with only one entrance directly below Arima's tower. With the whole village in there, including civilians, there was still room for half again as many people before it would start to seem cramped. There was only so much food available though, so they wouldn't be able to stay for long.

It had been a full day and then some since the assault, and the scouts were reporting that the enemy was setting up to attack again as soon as they could find a way in. There were enough Snow ninja above ground to give the illusion of a solid defense, but that wouldn't last for long.

The Leaf and Sand ninja had gathered together with Arima and the elder Sabu siblings to decide what to do about warning their respective villages. Shikamaru didn't like what he was hearing so far.

"Hokage-sama," he said, "I think it would be best if you remained here. It's the safest place we know right now, and in the event of an attack, you'll be able to pool your strength with the Kazekage and the Koorikage. A small squad should be able to break through unnoticed much easier than a large one, and move faster as well."

"You're right, of course," Tsunade said. "And at a time like this, I have to think strategically and not with my emotions. All right then, Shikamaru, who do you want to go with you?"

He'd been afraid of that. It was his idea, so of course he would have to lead it. Well, nothing to be done about it now.

"All I'll need is Neji, Naruto and Sakura," he said. Neji and Naruto would hopefully be able to handle any enemies they ran into, and of course Neji had his Byakugan. Sakura had to be their medical nin, since Shizune had to stay with the Hokage and Hinata couldn't be risked, even though having another Byakugan would have been handy.

"We should go with you," Temari said to him. She looked worried and determined at the same time. He would never understand that woman.

"I don't think that's a good idea," Shikamaru said. "As I said, the smaller our group, the less chance we have of being detected. Besides, it's an additional hard three days to Sunagakure. It would be easier and faster to send out birds from Konoha."


"Don't argue, Temari," Gaara said without looking up. "His plan works best for all of us. And we will contribute to the defense here. Our best chance at killing the maximum number of enemies before they can threaten our village lies in stopping them now before they can advance their plans." The Sand kunoichi was quiet after that.

"When are we going to leave?" Sakura asked.

"Dusk," Shikamaru answered. "Koorikage-sama, is there another way out of this cave?"

"There is," he answered solemnly. "It was meant as an emergency escape tunnel in the event that we were completely overrun. It comes out about a kilometer and a half south of the village, but with how things are right now, it could put you out right in the middle of one of their camps. Aside from exposing you, you would be exposing our only other way out."

"We'll have to go through the village, then," Shikamaru spat. This was going to be very troublesome.

"I could get you out!" A young voice shouted from somewhere behind him.

Daiichi looked up toward the voice and frowned. "Goro, you shouldn't be eavesdropping on conversations. Especially one like this."

"But I can help, Oniisan!" the kid, now visible, wailed. He looked like a miniature version of Kenji with tame hair and a normal-sized nose. He wore no hitae-ate.

"I don't think so," Daiichi said firmly. "Go wait back with the others, and if you don't want me to tell Chichiue you've been listening in on high-profile conversations, you'd better do it yourself."

"Now now," Arima said calmly. "He says he can help. It's possible he may know something. Come here, Goro." The young boy, who couldn't be more than ten, came over nervously, but with a smug look at his older brother.

"What do you know that can help, Goro?" The Koorikage asked once the boy had fully joined them. All nervousness flew from the child's face and he was radiating excitement.

"There's a tunnel that goes from inside the village to way outside it in the forest," he said. "My friends and I found it last year and we play in it. It would go way past where any enemies are. It's not connected to the Hole, though, so we'd have to go up into the village so I can show them where it is."

"Above ground?" Sora asked. "I don't think so. It's not safe up there."

"Come on, Neesan!" Goro wailed. "Aren't you and Tousan and Arima-sama always saying that it's every ninja's duty to do whatever they can to help the village? Huh?" The eldest Sabu daughter seemed to ponder that for a minute, but the plea was answered by Kenji.

"He's got a point, Neechan," the hawk-nosed jounin said. "All right squirt, if it's all right with Koorikage-sama, you can go. But don't tell Chichiue. And I'm going to send Shiro's team with you." The young boy's face lit up, and the next few hours until dark were spent planning the operation.


When the time to depart was at hand, a small group had gathered together to see them all off. Shikamaru just wanted to get it over with, but with dangerous missions like this, that never seemed to be possible.

"If anything happens, make sure to get him out of there," Daiichi was saying to Shiro and his teammates, obviously referring to young Goro, who had donned all his gear that Snow cadets were normally not allowed to wear outside of the academy and looking like he'd just been named the next Koorikage. The young chuunin team were all nodding seriously, even though they'd been told that a good dozen times throughout the afternoon.

"Neji-niisan, be careful," Hinata was saying a few paces away from the other exchange.

"And you, Hinata-sama. Remember, if anything happens, you cannot allow them to –"

"I know what I must do, Neji-niisan," the usually demure girl said firmly. "I understand my responsibilities. But I do not plan to be put in such a situation."

"Then I wish you well," Neji said. "And I will see you again." He bowed to her, and then it was time to leave.

"Lead the way, squirt!" Naruto shouted. Shikamaru had no idea whether he'd picked up the nickname from the cadet's older brother, or if he was just being himself. Goro furrowed his eyebrows and scowled at Naruto, but didn't say anything. He and Shiro's team started walking toward the exit from the Hole under Arima's tower, and Shikamaru and his team followed.

"Wait!" came a female voice from behind them. Shikamaru turned and saw Sabu Yukiko running toward them.

"What is it, Yukiko?" Kenji asked.

"I'm coming, too," she said, addressing not just Kenji, but everyone in the group and daring them to contradict her.

"Don't be ridiculous," Daiichi said. "You're still recovering from three broken ribs, no matter how well Hokage-sama healed them."

"I'm fine," she said icily. "And I'm going. I want to protect my little brother." As she said this, her eyes flicked from said little brother to the rest of the group, and Neji was pointedly looking in another direction. Shikamaru rolled his eyes.

"Fine, whatever," he said. How bothersome. "Let's just go, already." And so they were off, before any of Yukiko's siblings had another chance to object.

Aomaru was the first out of the Hole – or at least one of him was. Apparently if one of his clones were killed, the other would be all right, though he would be unable to utilize his bloodline limit for a time while his cells recovered. Shikamaru knew none of them expected an ambush under the Koorikage's tower where three ANBU (or whatever the Snow called their ANBU) were constantly standing guard, but none of them were willing to take any chances with Goro along on the mission.

"It's clear," said the Aomaru still in the exit tunnel with them. "Let's go." They filed out of the Hole, and Aomaru rejoined with himself. Even after having seen it a few times, it was still really weird to watch.

"It's this way, on the south side of the village, near the ice rink," Goro said, leading them out of the tower. That was another thing Shikamaru would never get used to; people in Yukigakure had this weird form of recreation where they would strap metal blades to their feet and slide around on ice. Just bizarre.

Things were mostly quiet as they made their way across the village. They passed several landmarks Shikamaru had come to be familiar with over his time here, and occasionally they'd pass by a scout ninja or two. He was impressed at how adept Goro was at moving stealthily, even though he hadn't graduated yet. Another boon for the education system of the Snow.

As they neared the ice rink, Neji suddenly called for everyone to stop.

"What is it?" Shikamaru asked.

"Enemy scouts, over the wall," the Hyuuga said. "It looks like they're done prepping and are beginning to probe into the village. It won't be long before they realize there's nobody up here."

Yukiko cursed, and so did Naruto. Shikamaru joined them in his head. Their one chance at warning the Leaf village was getting out through that tunnel before the first wave of enemies came in, but they were barred off.

"We need to go around," Aomaru said. "I can create a clone as a diversion while you all go though that warehouse across the alley."

"I can do that too, and it won't take anything out of me if I get caught," Naruto said. He formed the seal for kage bunshin, and nine clones sprang up. Each one transformed into a member of their group.

"We'll need to synchronize this exactly," Shikamaru said. "Naruto, send your clones on my mark." He didn't even wait for the nod accepting the order before looking to Neji to get the enemies' positions. When it was as good as it was going to get, he gave the word. "Mark."

Nine shadow clones took off, looking for all the world like the group of people he was now standing in. Another couple of seconds…

"Go!" He hissed, and they all made a break for the warehouse. Goro, playing out his first real shinobi mission, looked a strange cross between utterly elated and frightened out of his mind.

The warehouse was large and empty like the rest of the village, and they passed through quickly. There was a small street to dart across to get to the ice rink, which really just looked like a large, frozen pond with stadium seats all around it. Goro was leading them toward the seats at the far end.


Yukiko's side ached as she ran. As adamant has she had been before, she really hadn't fully recovered yet, though the Hokage's healing techniques were amazing. She was farther along already than she would have been in a week, otherwise. She didn't know why she'd insisted on coming along; it had been an impulse she couldn't ignore.

Well, that was a lie. She knew very well why she'd been compelled to join this mission, and it went beyond concern for her brother, but that didn't make it any less stupid.

"Look out!" shouted a familiar voice, and before she knew it, Hyuuga Neji was behind her, holding a kunai he'd caught that otherwise would have impaled her neck.

"They found out my clones," Naruto-kun grumbled.

"You should be more careful," Neji admonished her, not turning to face her. His veins were bulging around his eyes the way they did when he was using that technique of his, and he was glaring murder at two ninja with music-note hitae-ate, either one of whom could have thrown that kunai.

"Naruto, there's more of them!" The girl called Sakura shouted from near the front of their group, and Yukiko looked in horror as three enemy ninja dropped in front of her little brothers.

"Goro, get behind me!" Shiro yelled. He tried to move to get in front, but Goro had already drawn a kunai.

No, Goro, she pleaded in her head. Listen to Shiro. Please don't try to fight them. She didn't know why she couldn't yell, but her voice had seized up.

"Yah!" Her littlest brother shouted, throwing the kunai as hard as he could. It flew straight as an arrow, and missed its target by more than a foot, striking the edge of the stadium under the front row of chairs.

"What was that?" The enemy ninja laughed. "Is that the best they can teach you in this village?" He pulled two kama from his belt with chains connecting them to his back, and hurled them at Goro. Before she, or Shiro, or anyone else could move, the kama had caught him behind the shoulders and were yanked back by the chains, lopping off his arms. Goro screamed louder than she'd ever heard anyone scream. Her heart wrenched, and she drew her sword without thinking. But even as she charged at the Sound ninja, she was beaten to it.

"You bastard!" Shiro cried, and rushed forward, creating two ice clones along the way. Time slowed as she ran as fast as she could despite the pain in her side, and watched her second-youngest brother collide with the Sound ninja. It looked like she was going to lose two brothers in one day, but Naruto appeared out of nowhere and took the guy's head off like it was nothing. She turned at a sound behind her, fearing the worst again, only to see that Neji had already dispatched the two from before and was coming to join her. She put her sword away so she could draw it again when necessary. The draw was her best technique.

"Can you fight?" He asked her. There was something about his voice that was different from usual, but she didn't have time to think about it.

"Of course I can," she answered defiantly. "And even if I couldn't, I'm not about to let these bastards get away with killing my little brother!"

"Your brother will live," he said simply. And before she could ask what he was talking about, he continued. "We must cut our way through this batch of enemies before more arrive. Quickly."

Without even thinking of disobeying, she leapt off in one direction while he leaped in another. She came upon Teiko and Aomaru fending off another pair of Oto-ninja. Coming up behind them, it was all too easy. With one swift motion, her sword was drawn and both enemies lie on the ground in two pieces.

"They must have been chuunin," Teiko said as Yukiko wiped her sword clean on one of the dead ninja's clothes and resheathed it.

"Some of them, surely," Yukiko agreed. "These two, definitely. But I would not be surprised if a few of them are jounin."

"We should move," Aomaru said.


But by the time they rejoined the others, all the enemies had been defeated, and Sakura was standing up from sitting over Goro. It had been a remarkably quick and decisive battle.

"He's unconscious, but I've managed to slow the bleeding considerably," the pink-haired Leaf ninja said. "If you can get him back to Hokage-sama quickly, he should be all right."

"But his arms…" Yukiko protested. She was actually starting to tear up.

"I don't know if anything can be done about that," Sakura said apologetically, "but at least he'll live."

"He'll never become a shinobi," she whispered to herself. "It was his greatest dream."

"If it is something he desires enough, it is possible, no matter the circumstances against him," Neji said. She had not realized he'd been standing next to her. She hadn't really meant anyone to hear that last part.

Aomaru picked up Goro carefully, following Sakura's instructions to make sure his wounds were covered and slightly raised.

"Get going, then," Shikamaru said.

"But what about you all?" She asked, sniffing back one last sob. "You don't know where the tunnel is; it could take hours to find."

"Oh, yes we do," Shikamaru said, almost smirking a little. His eyes drifted to the kunai still stuck under the chair that Goro had thrown. Surely, he couldn't have…

"That was a brave move your brother made," Shikamaru went on. "He knew he'd probably be attacked and maybe killed but he made sure to do everything he could to finish his mission. He has the makings of a great shinobi." She had to bite back another sob. No matter what they all said, it was impossible to believe her little brother could ever be a shinobi now.

"We need to go if Goro's going to have a chance," Aomaru said to her.

"He's right," Sakura agreed. "He's stable right now, but without more treatment he won't last long. And the longer you wait, the more likely you'll be attacked again." Yukiko finally nodded, and it was time to go.

"We will see you again," Neji said. To all of them, she suspected, but he was looking directly at her. Any other time she would have taken the opportunity to kiss him goodbye and let him think that over on the way home. As it was, all she could do was nod again, and smile at him as much as she could manage. It wasn't much.


"How did you know the kid was showing us the tunnel, Shikamaru?" Naruto asked as they made their way along it. It was very narrow, and Sakura knew that if Genma or Shizune or Tsunade had come along, they probably wouldn't have been able to move through it very fast.

"Because no one's aim is that bad," Shikamaru said simply over his shoulder. "And no cadet is stupid enough to challenge an enemy ninja of any rank alone, let alone with nothing but a kunai and out in the open. Except maybe you." The last bit seemed like a last minute addition, and surprisingly Naruto didn't blow up at it.

"Heh. You're right, I guess," the blond said instead. "It's a good thing you notice things like that, Shikamaru."

Sakura couldn't take it. "Naruto, that's the exact same sort of thing you would do," she said. "How could you not notice?" Granted, she hadn't picked it up right away either, but she would have quickly enough afterwards, and she'd known as soon as Shikamaru spoke up about what had happened.

"I don't know," Naruto admitted freely, grinning up at her. "I guess I just need more practice at reading into things. Kakashi-sensei always said I wasn't very good at it."

Sakura groaned in exasperation. Nothing got to this guy. How could one of his greatest and most endearing traits also be one of his most annoying?

"We're approaching the exit," Neji announced from the rear. "No nearby enemies, and I estimate our distance from the village at six point four kilometers."

"It'll have to do," Shikamaru said. "When we get there, we're going to have to press as hard as we can. I want to cut at least a day off of what it should take to get to Konoha. Since we don't know exactly what the enemy's plan is, every second counts. They could be attacking already for all we know, but likely a messenger was sent at the onset of the assault on Yukigakure. Even if we assume that a second was sent to overtake the first to bring news of the setback, we still have some catching up to do." He came to a stop below a small hole, and Sakura could see starlight shining down through onto the snow that had fallen into the tunnel.

"There's also a chance we're being pursued," he said gravely. "That attack by the ice rink was by a scouting patrol, and their superiors are going to wonder when they don't come back and investigate. We covered our tracks, but even so, there's always something left to follow for someone who's good enough to find it. We can hope we're better at following trails than them and they won't catch anything that we missed, but hoping for the best can get people killed. Therefore, we will operate under the assumption that we are being followed, and that we have enemies in front of us as well. Until we're inside Konoha's walls, we're to be considered surrounded." Everyone nodded in understanding, and they set off through the trees.


It had been a full two days at a grueling pace, but they'd managed to close the gap between themselves and the enemies they now knew for certain were in front of them. Shikamaru still insisted on operating under the assumption that they were being pursued, though no sign of a tailing party had yet been detected. Sakura was clearly exhausted, but she wasn't about to say anything, and Naruto couldn't bring himself to damage her pride by bringing it up. But he could call for a rest.

"Oy, Shikamaru!" He called. Quietly, of course. "We haven't stopped all day and it's past noon. What do you say to five minutes, huh? I'm hungry and I get a stomach ache if I eat while I'm moving." It was true enough, and he had no qualms about shaming himself a tiny bit if it was for Sakura's benefit. As long as she didn't find out about it.

"You're such an idiot," Shikamaru groaned as he came to a stop on a large tree limb. But he did stop.

"Hehe, sorry," Naruto said, scratching the back of his head. He reached into his pack and pulled out one of the last onigiri he had left. That was just as well, as they hardly seemed appetizing anymore anyway.

It was a sign of how tired Sakura really was that she didn't berate him for making them stop. But since she'd had to help that Goro kid, she'd started the trip with depleted reserves, and hadn't really had any chance to build them back up. And she probably had the lowest endurance of any of them to begin with. He watched her out of the corner of his eye as he ate. She wasn't breathing particularly hard, but she was sitting completely still with her eyes closed as she slowly munched on a ration bar.

"We have pursuers," Neji announced. He'd taken to activating his Byakugan only sporadically, so as not to deplete his chakura completely.

"How close?" Shikamaru asked.

"At their present pace, they will be upon us within six minutes if we do not move, and within fifteen minutes if we resume our prior pace right now."

Shikamaru cursed. "They must be pursuit specialists," he said. "As it stands, we stand a better chance if we stage an ambush here than if we try to run away. They'll catch us anyway, and we'll have had no time to rest or prepare. How many are there, Neji?"


Shikamaru cursed again. "We need to start setting traps now," he said.

"No," Naruto said, having reached a decision. "I'll stay, you guys keep going."

"What?" Sakura said, jerking her head up and in his direction.

"Don't be stupid, Naruto," Shikamaru said. "You can't stop them by yourself."

"Maybe I can't, but if we don't keep going, those guys in front of us are going to get to Konoha before we do. We need as many people as we can manage to stop them, so that means only one person can stay behind. I'll hold these guys off as long as I can."

There was a long pause, and then Shikamaru nodded. "You're right, even though I hate to admit it," he said. "But it should be me staying. I can use Kagemane no jutsu and hold them back."

"Yeah, but what are you gonna do when you can't hold it anymore and Asuma isn't there to save you?" Naruto countered with a grin. "I let you get away with this once before, Shikamaru. It's my turn now. I have the best chance of any of us besides Neji of stopping these guys, and you need his Byakugan. Besides, Ino would never forgive me if we made it back to Konoha without you. You need to get home because there are people there who are waiting for you."

There was a tense pause, and Shikamaru nodded. Naruto let out the breath he'd been holding. If he didn't make it out of this, then there was no way he would've been able to take Sasuke down anyway.

"What about you, Naruto?" Sakura burst out suddenly. Her eyes fierce and her chin was set firm. "What about the people who will care if you don't come back? What am I supposed to do if you get killed because you wouldn't let us help you? Did you ever think of that?"

"Sakura-chan…" he hadn't expected this, and he wasn't sure how to deal with it.

"You say Ino will be upset, but what about me?" she went on. Her eyes still held fire, but were beginning to glisten, but her voice wavered slightly. There was an awkward silence when Naruto couldn't come up with an answer. Then Sakura set her jaw again and looked him straight in the eye. "I'm staying with you," she said finally.

"Sakura-chan…" he started. There was no way he was going to let her stay behind, too. No way.

"Whatever we do, we need to decide now," Neji said, "or our enemies will arrive and decide for us."

"Naruto," Sakura began, her voice steady again, "you know what it's like to risk everything for people important to you. You know what you'd be willing to go through for the person who's more important than anyone." He did. He would and had more than once put his life on the line for Sakura's sake. He was doing it again right now, in a sense. But why would she bring that up?

"Of course I do, Sakura-chan," he said. "But why-?" He saw Neji standing behind her giving him a significant look. He knew what that meant, but he wanted to hear what she was going to say, first.

"Naruto, I need to do that too. If I'm not willing to put my life on the line for those people who are precious to me, then I don't deserve to call myself a ninja any more than you would if you didn't. And…my most important person…is you. If you stay behind now and I don't stay to help, I won't…I couldn't…I couldn't live with myself. Please." She was and pleading with him now, and holding back tears as best she could, but her voice had not wavered again. He was struck dumb. Ever since he'd been a child, he'd dreamed of hearing those words come out of Sakura's mouth. Fate was cruel to have it happen now, but at least if he died, he would die happy. He could feel the beginning of tears in his own eyes as he smiled at her for what could very well be the last time.

"Sakura-chan…arigatou." He nodded almost imperceptibly at Neji, who immediately struck a pressure point on the back of Sakura's neck, rendering her unconscious. He caught her as she slumped forward and hoisted her over his shoulder.

"We'll wake her up once we're far enough away that she can't come back," Neji said. Naruto nodded his thanks.

"After all that, you'd better make it out alive," Shikamaru said to him with a scowl on his face. "Otherwise she'd never forgive us for not letting her stay."

"I'll do my best," Naruto said with a grin. "Hurry up and go."

"Good luck, Naruto," Neji said. And then they left.


Katan came to a halt barely ahead of his squad. The enemies they were pursuing had clearly stopped in this same spot only minutes ago. Only one of them appeared to have left, which meant there was an ambush nearby. He laughed to himself. As if three ninja could get the drop on them.

Just then he felt something grab his left ankle. Looking down, he saw a hand reaching out from the limb he was standing on. He prepared to cry out, but another hand came from somewhere to his right and slit his throat with a kunai. He choked on his own blood for a few seconds, and then fell from the tree and saw no more.


The seven sound ninja standing in the trees began communicating with each other using hand signals, coordinating how they were going to spring the trap and catch those who had said it. They had noticed immediately of course, that their point man had disappeared.

"He must've gotten caught already," one of them said.

"Fool," said another. "He should have known it was a trap. Why didn't he wait?"

"He did," said a voice none of them could see the source of. "But it didn't do him any good."

"Over there!" said one of the squadmen. He threw a kunai into the trees where the voice had come from, and was hit in the head from behind by another. He fell to the ground dead.

"They've got us surrounded!" The squad leader yelled. "Scatter!" The best thing to do when surrounded by unseen enemies was to not give them one big target. As he sprang from tree to tree, he shouted more orders. "Fan out and bring them down!" The remaining Sound ninja immediately followed those instructions and began searching the area in pairs. This was as close to a textbook situation as any of them had been in since academy training, so theoretically everything should go all right. But theoretically rarely worked in the ninja world.

A minute or so later, shouts rang out from three different directions, all saying the same thing: "They're over here!"

"Shit!" The squad leader cursed. "There's more of them than we thought, or they're using clones! Regroup!" The six of them reconvened where they'd started, spread out enough so as not to be a group target, all breathing hard. They planned strategy with hand signals, and when finished, the squad leader had one final order.

"Shirai, Haitani," he said. "Go on ahead when you get the chance. We can't let that last one escape."

"Can you guys handle the ones here?" the one named Shirai asked.

"Of course we can," the leader snapped. "They've caught us by surprise up until now, but we're on to their game. Wait until they attack again and then go."

"Understood," said the two of them in unison. Just then a large smoke bomb erupted in the middle of the clearing, but the cloud wasn't large enough to envelop all of them.

"They're coming again!" The leader shouted. "Stand ready!" He was one of the few not trapped in the cloud, and so could see the half-dozen enemies making their charge into the smoke.

"They disperse when we kill them!" one of the men shouted. "They're clones!"

"Shit! Find the originals, hurry!"

One of his men performed a jutsu to disperse the smoke, and when it cleared, he saw that only three of them remained. Shirai and Haitani were gone, which meant they were either dead or following their orders. Hopefully the latter.

"We need to take these guys down, now," said the squad leader. "Fan out and lure their attack again, but stay close enough that you can come to another's aid when they do strike." They split again, in an attempt to bring their attackers out in the open. The squad leader himself stayed very close to the initial staging area, trying to watch the other two members of his team to see if any movements were made toward them. Thus it wasn't until he was already landing on the branch that he saw the spiky blond man swing down from the limb above him with arms outstretched – arms that grasped his head and snapped his neck in one motion.

The other two saw their commander fall, and rushed to see if they could help him. When they saw it was too late, they shared a significant look.

"We're outnumbered now," one of them said. "Which means we're as good as dead if we don't get out of here."

"You're half right," said the other. He then pulled out a kunai and stabbed his comrade in the chest. In a puff of smoke he transformed into a blond young man with whisker marks on his cheeks. "The numbers are even." He gave the kunai a sharp upward jerk, and then a hard shove, sending the last Oto-ninja to join his companions on the forest floor. And then Uzumaki Naruto took a few moments to catch his breath before chasing after the one that had gotten away.


"I can't believe you did that to me!" Sakura wailed furiously from Neji's back. In order to give the illusion that only one of them had continued on, she had remained there after they woke her up and Neji followed in Shikamaru's footsteps exactly.

"If we hadn't, you would have insisted on staying," Neji explained to her calmly. "With the possibility of Naruto sacrificing himself to save us, the least you could do is fulfill his desire to see you escape alive."

"Besides," Shikamaru said from in front, "If you'd stayed, he would have been worried about you. It would have distracted him." That made her even angrier.

"I'm not helpless, you know!" she shouted. "It's not like I need him to look after me."

"I know that, and so does he," Shikamaru answered. "But he would anyway, and you know that. Besides, however capable you may be, you're not at Naruto's level. Neither am I, for that matter." She knew he was right, but it didn't make her feel any better at all. She was half furious for what they'd done, and half afraid out of her mind for Naruto. There was no way he could handle eight enemy ninja by himself. No way.

"We have one behind us again," Neji announced. She hadn't even noticed him activating his Byakugan, even though she was right next to his face. Fear and loss shot through her like lightning. If one of them was still chasing, that meant…

"Into the canopy!" Shikamaru ordered. He shot up with a powerful leap and Neji followed with her a second later.

"If there's only one of them, it's possible he was sent to keep following our trail and lead the others on while they fought Naruto's ambush," Shikamaru reasoned. Sakura grabbed on to that thought like a lifeline. She had to hope.

"That means our deception was successful, at least," Neji said. He let Sakura down onto one of the thin branches they were sitting on. "Otherwise they would not have risked a single man. They must think he is capable of defeating the lone remaining enemy alone."

"That means he's more than likely a jounin, and could still be dangerous to us," Shikamaru said. Sakura was having a difficult time following the exchange; she was too worried about Naruto. She knew she shouldn't be, that she should be more focused in a crisis, but she just couldn't help it. He had to be okay. He just had to be.

"He's here," Neji said, and a moment later they saw a lone Sound ninja come to a stop almost directly below them in the trees.

"It's not going to take him long to figure out where we went," Shikamaru stated, "so we need to-"


Sakura didn't even think before obeying Neji's shout, and she dropped down through the trees, landing on a large limb about ten meters away from the enemy they'd just been observing. A loud crash resounded overhead, and she looked up to see the top of the tree where they'd just been falling after her, sliced clean through as with a razor. She saw the reason why shortly after, as Kurowaza Tourou appeared on the limb next to the Sound ninja. He was laughing in a very mocking way.

"I'm surprised you noticed my jutsu in time to dodge," he said derisively, "seeing as you aren't even skilled enough to notice when a quarry has doubled back on you." So he was the one they'd been chasing. What would they have done if they'd caught him?

"They set an ambush for us a while back, Kurowaza-sama," the Sound nin said. "At least two of us were dead when my partner and I left, and he was killed just as we were leaving." This news fueled the hope that was burning in Sakura's heart. If he could kill three of them, maybe there was a chance he could kill all of them.

"Disappointing," Tourou said. "But I should expect nothing more of Oto-nin, I suppose. Orochimaru doesn't train you enough before setting you out on missions." The Sound ninja looked furious, but was apparently too smart to refute someone who could kill him with a gesture.

Sakura heard a slight rustle behind her and remembered what Shikamaru had said about sending a second messenger to overtake the first. Even considering that Tourou must have been the second, the first would still be one chosen for speed rather than combat ability, and judging by the sound she'd just heard and the trail that had been relatively easy to follow, this other messenger was a chuunin at best. She spared a glance at Neji, who still had his Byakugan activated, and knew she was right. She would have to time this perfectly.

"What do you hope to accomplish by coming back to face us?" Shikamaru asked casually. "If you die, you won't be able to carry your message to your companions outside Konoha."

"The risk is very small, you see," Tourou said. "So small in fact, that in this case it is not worth considering." He smiled a wide, frightening smile, and a kunai hit Sakura in the back.

Instantly, the log that had taken her place reverted to its true form and bounced once on the limb she'd been standing on before falling to the forest floor. Flying backwards through the air, she had a matter of seconds to pinpoint the location of the thrower before he recovered. Spotting him behind her, she readied a kunai of her own, and dropped down on him, extending a leg back to hit him in the face, knocking him back, even as she jammed the weapon into his abdomen. He let out a muffled gurgling wail, but that was all he had time for while she brought her other leg up to join the one still near his head, enclosed the pair around his neck, and twisted hard. She was back on her feet and headed towards her teammates before he even finished falling.

When she arrived, all hell had broken loose. It had all started with the kunai, it seemed. Neji was fending off Tourou, while the Sound ninja was jumping around seemingly at random. Seemingly, that is, until she noticed how Shikamaru was moving. So he'd managed to pull off a Kagemane no jutsu, even with a shinobi like Kurowaza Tourou standing right there. Maybe he was wrong about not being at Naruto's level.

"Can you buy me a few seconds?" he asked in a strained voice.

"I don't know," came Neji's reply. That was when she noticed that all of the swordsman's movements were attempts at getting to Shikamaru, and Neji was just managing to hold him off. So the Mist nin was aware of what had happened after all. A good thing he hadn't noticed before the technique had taken hold.

Sakura tried to help as she could, firing off some shuriken and kunai, but the legendary swordsman batted them away like flies, and there was no way she could survive even for a few seconds if she got in close to him. She would have to hope Neji could handle him long enough.

Just as she thought that, however, Neji was kicked to the side and Tourou rushed forward and slashed his sword vertically in a move too quick to see…right through Shikamaru. He laughed triumphantly even as Sakura screamed in horror, but even with the limb he'd been standing on severed and falling away, Shikamaru smirked.

"Too late for you," he said, completely unharmed. "Well, too late for your ally, anyway." And then, Sakura watched in awe as Shikamaru fizzled into a silhouette, and then settled as a shadow, while at the same time his shadow, which had captured the other enemy ninja, solidified into his body, holding the Sound ninja in a headlock with a kunai at his neck. "Kagekawarimi, the Shadow-replacement jutsu," Shikamaru announced, and slit his captive's throat. Sakura leaped over to join him, and Neji followed a few seconds later when he managed to get to his feet.

"It's three against one now," Shikamaru said coolly. Sakura knew he had to have a strategy – Shikamaru was never one to bluff, that was Naruto's tactic – but she couldn't fathom what it might be. "Do you still think you can escape alive?"

Tourou looked angry, but he wasn't the type to lose focus due to emotion, so that couldn't be it. But what, then?

"Try to stall me all you want, your little shadow tricks won't work on me," Tourou said. "Especially now that I've seen it already. Honestly, why didn't you go after me first and be left with the weaker one afterwards?"

"I had no chance of capturing you," Shikamaru explained. "The only reason you didn't notice your ally being caught was because I was able to use the tree to approach out of your line of site."

"For one who so readily recognizes my skill, you seem overly confident of victory," Tourou commented. He wasn't angry anymore, but…amused. What on earth was Shikamaru playing at?

"If you go into a battle expecting to lose, you've already lost," Shikamaru quoted from the ninja handbook. "Therefore, it stands to reason that if you go into a battle expecting to win, you've already won. There's a difference between overconfidence and cold logic."

Tourou actually laughed now, and Sakura couldn't blame him. What ridiculous nonsense was this? Was he just trying to delay the inevitable?

"You're too much," the Mist ninja said after his laughter subsided. "Can shinobi as naïve as you truly exist?"

"Everything has to exist somewhere," Shikamaru countered.

"Indeed, otherwise there would be nothing at all," Neji added. So he'd figured out the plan. Whatever it was. As soon as he spoke though, Shikamaru's eye twitched. Had Neji guessed wrong and somehow ruined the plan?

"That's enough, I have things to do," Tourou said. Apparently Shikamaru's inane ramblings had ceased to be amusing. He drew his sword slowly, as if to force them to dwell on it.

"Sakura, Neji, attack!" Shikamaru ordered. Sakura didn't understand, but she obeyed, and unleashed a volley of shuriken while Neji did the same and Shikamaru prepared some kind of jutsu.

"Pitiful!" Tourou said, batting their shuriken away once more and preparing to make the leap that would finish them all.

Only he didn't make that leap. As he was about to jump, his eyes bulged outward and his chest expanded greatly. He began to spin around rapidly as if on a spit, and then his chest burst and he flew forward, sailing past them and crashing into a tree twenty meters beyond, stone dead.

And standing where he had been, hand outstretched and still smoking from the energy exerted, was the most beautiful sight Sakura had ever laid eyes on, with blond spiky hair and whisker marks on his cheeks, wearing a black coat and pants with orange trimmings, a Konoha hitae-ate and one of the biggest grins she'd ever seen. Her heart nearly exploded in her chest.

"Naruto!" she exclaimed. It was all she could get out, but she wanted to say it again and again, to prove to herself that he was really there, that he was really alive and standing there, saving them.

"Sorry I took so long, guys," he said, scratching the back of his head. Even in that pose he was still breathing incredibly hard. He must have pushed himself to the absolute limit to catch up to them. "They kept scattering and regrouping and it was tough to get all of them." Unable to contain herself any longer, she leapt over to him and flung her arms around him, burying her face in his chest. She'd been so afraid she was never going to see him again, it was overwhelming to see him safe and unharmed. Tears leaked out of her eyes even as she laughed and she felt him return the embrace. He was okay. He was okay and he knew and they were going home. That was all she could have ever asked for.


"How did you know Naruto was coming?" Neji asked Shikamaru after the reunion celebration had concluded and they were taking some time to rest before setting out again.

"That's a good question," Sakura asked as she swallowed the rest of the ration bar she'd been unable to finish earlier. She was sitting much closer to Naruto than usual – which was close enough – yet fortunately no one had called her on it. She didn't think that they would, after what they'd just gone through, but still she worried.

"I didn't," Shikamaru said simply. "I just played it out hoping that he was."

Sakura nearly choked on her ration bar. That was not the way Shikamaru operated.

Evidently Neji agreed with her, because he indignantly demanded, "You mean you set all our chances on a gamble?"

"That's not like you, Shikamaru," Naruto frowned, opening his eyes from where he was leaning against the trunk of a huge tree, exhausted. "You always have three or four plans ready. And you never count on something if you don't know for sure."

"No matter how skilled at devising strategy you are, you can't win without any pieces," Shikamaru said, sounding for all the world like some great philosopher. "There are times, when you're backed completely into a corner and you have no way out, that you just have to grit your teeth and hope for the best. So I gambled that Naruto had succeeded and would be following us, trying to buy as much time as I could for him to arrive. When Neji started playing along, I knew it was because he could see Naruto and had figured out what I was doing. So that's when I knew that my gamble was a success."

"What would you have done if Naruto hadn't come?" Sakura demanded. Thank all things sacred in the world that hadn't been the case. "Or if you couldn't stall long enough?"

"Well…" Shikamaru shrugged, "I guess we all would've died." Sakura felt her eye twitch.

"Haha!" Naruto just laughed. "I don't know why you were counting on me so much anyway, Shikamaru," he said. "I wasn't any match for that guy either, remember? As it is, I just got a lucky shot."

"That's exactly why I was counting on you, Naruto," Shikamaru said. "The one thing we had that he didn't was knowledge that you might come to help. Clearly even he didn't expect you to overrun the entire Sound squad, no matter how incompetent he thought they were. So that was our only element of surprise, and if we could keep him distracted long enough for you to strike, we'd have him."

"And even if that didn't work," Neji put in, "four on one is better than three. All of us together still might have overpowered him."

"An extra piece never hurts," Shikamaru nodded, continuing his earlier metaphor.

"Well as long as we don't have to rely on any more blind leaps of faith," Sakura said dryly, "we should be able to make it to Konoha in another two days."

"That's true," Shikamaru agreed. "We've made good time, but that fight has worn us out, so two days is a good estimate."

"We should sleep now," Neji said. "I'll take the first watch."

"I'll go next," Naruto said. "And then you guys don't worry about it. As long as I get a little bit of sleep, I'll be fine."

"Naruto…" Sakura tried to protest, but he wouldn't let her.

"You know it's true, Sakura-chan. We've been on the same team for years. Let me have an hour and a half and I can take watch for the rest of the night." She wanted to argue some more, but he really could get by on very little sleep – provided he didn't do it too many times – and she was just too exhausted anyway. So she let him have his way and went to sleep, and when he woke her the next day, the blush on her face when she saw him must have been glowing. Her dreams had been…interesting.

Thanking all kami she could name that he hadn't commented on her blush, Sakura spent the day traveling in relative silence. After what she'd admitted yesterday, it was difficult to move back to normal, casual conversation, and trekking through the woods on an A-rank mission wasn't really the time or place for what needed to be said. So she spoke little to anyone, Naruto least of all, and felt awkward when she did. Thank the kami again he didn't comment on that, either.

Her dreams the next night were less embarrassing, but she found herself feeling simultaneously relieved and disappointed at the fact. Shikamaru wanted to push hard to make it to the village by nightfall, so thankfully there wasn't much chatter and she didn't feel as awkward keeping silent. She noticed Naruto looking at her oddly from time to time, though. She would have to discover what that was all about.

It was nearing twilight when Neji announced the presence of other ninja. For a moment she was frightened that the attack on Konoha had already begun, but he soon added that they were Leaf ninja.

"It is Aburame Shino and Inuzuka Kiba," he said. "They are aware of our presence, and will be upon us momentarily."

Sakura heaved a huge sigh of relief, and stopped to wait on the ground with the others for Kiba and Shino to arrive. It only took about twenty seconds.

"It's you guys!" Kiba declared in his usual boisterous manner. He and Shino dropped into the clearing where they were standing.

"Why have you returned so early?" Shino asked – much more calmly. "And where is Hokage-sama and the other team?"

"Yeah, where are they?" Kiba asked as if just noticing that particular detail. "Why aren't Hinata and the others with you?"

"Things haven't gone exactly to plan," Shikamaru told them. Leave it to him to deliver the understatement of a lifetime.

"What do you mean?" Kiba demanded. There was a fire growing in his eyes. Sakura was beginning to think leaving Hinata back in Yukigakure might not have been the best idea after all.

"The Mist, the Cloud and the Stone have betrayed us," Shikamaru said. "Congruently. And they seem to be allied with Orochimaru as well."

"So…what happened?" Kiba pressed. "Was anyone killed?"

"Yamashiro Aoba is dead, but no other Konoha ninja had been killed or injured by the time we left," Shikamaru answered.

"The siege is still in effect then, correct?" Shino inquired.

"Yes. The village is surrounded, and synchronous attacks were planned against Konoha and Sunagakure as well. We managed to kill the messengers on their way here, but that won't buy us much time."

"You will need to inform the village council of all this when you return, of course," Shino said. "They can send a message to the Sand."

"Of course we're going to do that!" Naruto yelled indignantly. "You don't need to tell us, you know! Besides, what are you guys going to be doing that you can't come with us?"

"We're going after Hinata of course, idiot," Kiba declared. "As soon as we're done talking to you."

"I would advise against that," Neji said. "She was safe when we left, and getting into the village undetected is next to impossible. The council will surely send aid if for no other reason than to extract the Hokage. Wait and go with them."

"We're not waiting an extra two minutes more than we have to," Kiba snarled. "If they send help along, great. They can catch up. We're going."

"You morons!" Naruto shouted. "There's three enemy kage there, plus who knows what else! How do you think you can get in by yourselves?"

"How we intend to enter and indeed whether or not we even succeed is none of your concern, Uzumaki Naruto," Shino said. "But we will go."

"Good luck, then," Shikamaru said. He then handed them a piece of paper. "The coordinates for a tunnel leading into the village are written on that. The enemy has probably found it by now, but even if they have, you'll stand a better chance through there than anywhere else."

"Indeed," Shino said, slipping the paper into his coat pocket. "We depart, then." He leapt into the trees.

"We'll try and get them out, but we probably will need help," Kiba said. "Make sure they don't take to long with it, okay?" He then followed his teammate, and Sakura and the others were left standing watching after them.

"Idiots," Naruto mumbled. She had to admit she kind of agreed with him, though she admired their devotion to Hinata.

"There's nothing we can do about them," Shikamaru said. "We need to get back to the village now and report everything, including the two of them leaving."

He led the way back into the trees, and when they arrived, they went straight to the Hokage's tower, where the council was administrating the village in Tsunade's absence. Upon hearing their report, a state of emergency was declared, all missions cancelled, and all jounin summoned to the tower. By sunset, the Fourth Secret World War had officially begun.




Well, I'm finally done. Ironically, over half of this was written within the past 48 hours. All those story ideas I've been kicking around and rewriting in my head for the last several months finally came together. Geez, Serenity? My god it's been a long time. But Koorikage is now officially complete and you can now agonize over when I'm going to upload the sequel. Haha!

Mad props again to my prereader SJR, without whom this chapter would have looked like it was "written by George Lucas". As it is, I may have managed Tolkein on a bad day, which isn't really much better. Ah, well.

Glossary below, as always:

Waza – skill

Kuro – black

Tourou – mantis

Daiichi – "Great first son"

Kenji – "Strong second son"

Sora – sky

Sango – coral

Chichiue – respectful paternal term. Equivalent to saying "father" as opposed to "dad".