Wow…I didn't think I'd ever get to posting again, but as fate would have it, the muses have spoken to me over the course of several long months, and I finally developed enough material to provide you with a new chapter. However, I feel I must issue the same disclaimer I issued last chapter. So here's the deal: this story has become pretty AU by now, although not entirely. If you don't read the Naruto manga and just watch the anime, you may continue reading at your leisure. On the other hand, if you have been keeping up with the manga, two things must be done before you can sufficiently continue.

1. Think back to the Hidan and Kakuzu arc in the manga.

2. Forget everything that happened in the manga after that.

Once you have done these things, you should be able to read and comprehend this entire story without running into any confusion or having to think to yourself, "I thought such-and-such's character was different in the manga…"

And now I proudly (and finally) present chapter 12. As for next chapter, who knows? Maybe it could appear sometime during our lifetime, like Halley's Comet.

Chapter 12

"Raikage-sama, shinobi from Konoha have arrived and they wish to speak to you. For negotiations."

The Raikage rose from his chair. "I see."

"Shall I have them detained, Raikage-sama?"

He held up a hand. "No, they have come peacefully, and wish to discuss terms. We will honor their request."

Proceeding down the stairs to the front entrance of the tower, the Kumo leader opened the doors and was met by the four shinobi. His own shinobi encircled them unthreateningly, but warily.

Kakashi stepped forward and bowed. Raikage-sama. I am—"

"Hatake Kakashi, yes, I know who you are," The Raikage interrupted him curtly. He turned to look at the others. "And this must be the esteemed heir of Shodai Hokage's legendary Mokuton jutsu—Yamato, I believe they're calling you now…and the Hokage's student and aid, Shizune, no doubt one of the finest medic-nins in the five great nations."

When he got to the fourth member, he paused, his uncovered eye glinting curiously. "…and the progeny of the illustrious Hyuuga Clan—Hyuuga Neji. Yes, I have been informed about all of you and much more. Now please, tell me what you have come all the way across both our countries to discuss."

"We know you have been providing asylum for the sannin Orochimaru, an S-ranked criminal in Konoha's bingo book as well as many other countries. We ask that you release him into our custody. In exchange…" He drew out a scroll from his vest, opened it, and formed a hand sign. Three bound and unconscious Kumo shinobi emerged from the scroll in a puff of smoke. "We will return prisoners from a three-man cell that ambushed us within our borders a few weeks ago. Normally, this violation would be considered a hostile action on the part of your village, but if you agree to this exchange, then the incident will be forgotten."

The Raikage nodded thoughtfully and paced for a few seconds in silence. Finally he spoke, frowning slightly. "This exchange—you really don't think it fair, do you? Three chuunin for a sannin? Surely you must have more to offer."

"Raikage-sama, we also know of the plan you have for invading our village." Kakashi replied calmly. "We know that you are conspiring with Orochimaru to destroy Konoha, and have been augmenting your troops by use of his forbidden techniques. As I said before, if you agree to this trade, all will be forgotten. We can still maintain the peace that has helped to stabilize our countries."

The Raikage laughed harshly. "Now you're only mincing words. Masking a threat to look like an exchange. What makes you think we want to forget the history between our villages? Konoha is an eyesore, a village full of pompous fools who dangle their power in front of others and don't bother to share their wealth of knowledge and techniques."

"Raikage-sama, both you and I are well aware of the code that binds all shinobi villages to keep their secret techniques within their respective clans. It is for our protection that we do this, not our greed."

The Kumo leader narrowed his eyes at the jounin, his frown deepening. "On the contrary, Kakashi-san. I know all about your village and its insatiable lust for dominance. It's what led you to genocide—a complete massacre of the clan known as Uchiha. You used their powers when it was to your advantage, but when they became mindful of your control and began to resist, you had them wiped out, so that the power couldn't be used against you. All that remained was a pair of wayward brothers…and you, the Hokage's faithful lackey, who out of a twisted fate received the Uchiha's powers for your own use. Tell me, how does this fit in with your sacred 'code?'"

"Every village has done things it is not proud of. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and take further steps toward peace."

"Peace? You know nothing of peace!" The Raikage's face was now contorted in anger. "This world has known only war for the past six generations! It is the reason why the five great shinobi nations were created! It is the reason why powerful monsters are harnessed in humans and kept as pets! And it is the reason why you stand here now, telling your lies. As long as Konoha stands, we will only live for conquest. Go back and tell that to your Hokage, and give her the chance to save a few lives in your pathetic village while she can."

"Raikage-sama, please…if you truly wish to save lives, then—"

"The only way to ensure our future is to wipe you off the map. That and only that has been abundantly clear from the beginning."

"You leave us no choice, then."

Kakashi's team put their hands together, and several puffs of smoke exploded in the positions of the Kumo shinobi surrounding them. When the smoke had cleared, there were Konoha shinobi standing in their place.

Kamereon's eyes widened as he instinctively stepped in front of the Raikage. One of the guards standing next to him brandished a kunai. "They're only bunshin! There's no way that many shinobi could have gotten through our defenses!"

Kamereon shook his head. "Impossible. They have no idea what our shinobi look like, and there have been no reported casualties or missing-nin in the past week. Prepare yourselves! Send word to the battalions that we have been infiltrated!"

Kakashi reached into his bag and pulled out a kunai of his own. "You are not the only one who possesses information about his enemy, Raikage-sama. Now, hand over Orochimaru and Uchiha Sasuke, and no more of your village's blood will be shed."

Kamereon reached behind his back and pulled out a pair of kamas. "Raikage-sama, please return to the tower! We will handle this."

"I advise you to heed Kakashi-senpai's words, aide," Yamato spoke up in reply. "You are outnumbered, and will only be leading yourself and your guards into suicide."

"Silence, lab rat!" Kamereon spat back at him. "I am more than a match for you and your…"

His voice trailed off as he realized that the Raikage had started laughing.

Kamereon turned and stared at him in shock. "Raikage-sama, what are…"

The Kumo leader gently brushed his aide aside. "Valiant effort, Kakashi-san. Your genius certainly has not been exaggerated. Unfortunately, my amusement has run out. You may release the genjutsu."

Kamereon continued to stare at his master in bewilderment, "Raikage-sama, I sense no gen—"

"If you hadn't been so quick to launch yourself into battle Kamereon, you may have noticed that those Konoha shinobi have not moved since we arrived here, not even when they were still under the supposed guise of my soldiers. That is clearly a sign that they are under the influence of some sort of genjutsu."

"But Raikage-sama," one of the guards spoke up, "Why would they put their own soldiers under a genjutsu?"

The Raikage shook his head. "Because they aren't Konoha soldiers. The technique you saw was actually the rest of Kakashi's team creating bunshins around our soldiers to conceal them. They only made it look like they had released a henge no jutsu. Of course, only Kakashi-san has the power to use this high level of a genjutsu on so many people at once, so the rest of you must have created the bunshins. A total team effort that you should be commended for, to be sure. Now…" a projectile was suddenly launched from the Raikage and implanted itself into Kakashi, who promptly dissipated. "Where could your real body be, Kakashi-san?"

The Kumo leader paced the length of the motionless soldiers in front of him. Suddenly, three shuriken appeared in his hand, which he threw at one of the soldiers in the back. The soldier broke from his statue-like stance and dodged the shuriken, causing the Raikage to smile. In a puff of smoke, Kakashi appeared in the soldier's place, his sharingan eye already uncovered.

"Your bluff has been called, Copy Ninja," The Raikage's smile faded. "It's time to lay your cards on the table. Surrender Konoha, and you won't have to watch your precious friends die."

Kakashi shook his head, still glaring confidently at the Raikage, but hiding his fatigue from holding the genjutsu. "Our mission is to find Orochimaru, and we will not leave until we complete it. You'll have to kill us first…if you can."

Kamereon stepped forward and grinned maliciously. "That can be arranged."

"Why the hurry, Raikage-sama?"

A sniveling voice came from the steps of the Raikage Tower, and all turned to see Orochimaru standing with Sasuke, Kabuto and the hooded child Hinoki.

The Raikage bowed slightly in deference. "Orochimaru-sama. There is no need to concern yourself with this minor annoyance. I assure you that our plans will continue unhindered."

"Of course," the sannin replied, "It's just that Kakashi-san here has said he and his team wishes to find me, and I didn't want to leave him completely disappointed. Although…" he turned to the copy ninja. "You would be wise to listen to the Raikage. The time has come to set the windmills of Konoha's fall in motion once again."

"What makes you think you will succeed this time, Orochimaru?" Kakashi inquired. "You have already failed once in destroying us through an alliance with another village. You clearly underestimated us then. Are you going to make the same mistake again?"

"Very well, I will admit that I was too hasty then," Orochimaru replied. "I did not accurately gauge the strength of your village and Jiraiya's ability to undo my seal and free the demon chakra within Naruto-kun. However, I now have the weapon that I should have acquired then—the nine-tailed fox itself. And what better a vessel to store it than one of the heirs to the most powerful clan within the five great nations?"

He walked down the steps of the tower and continued to eye Kakashi with his snake-like gaze. "I have also come to a very important realization, and it happened to come to me when I was first able to obtain the demon. Konoha's Will of Fire is strong only when it is able to see a victory on the horizon. But when you come face to face with certain death, you crumble and lie broken at the feet of your enemies, just like anyone else—just like Naruto-kun when he brought me the body of his precious teammate."

"You're wrong!" Shizune burst out. "Tsunade-sama will not let you destroy her village! She has faced death many times, she can face you again!"

Orochimaru shook his head, his eyes narrowing evily. "Naïve to the last—that is Konoha's only true legacy. Do you want to know the real reason I showed myself today, Kakashi-san? It was to see you confront that inevitable end that you deny, and watch your face as you lose all hope." He turned to Kamereon and his guards. "Destroy them! No one escapes here alive!"

The Kumo shinobi surrounded the four-man team from Konoha as everyone prepared themselves to fight, but all were suddenly torn from their battle-readiness as the ground began to shake. An explosion could be heard in the direction of the south wall.

A shinobi suddenly appeared and bowed next to the Raikage, his face contorted with anxiety. "Raikage-sama! The wall…enemies have broken through the southern fortifications…five of them…"

"Five of who? Konoha ninja? Catch your breath and continue!" The Raikage barked.

The shinobi nodded and calmed himself. "No, they aren't from Konoha…they bear the robes of Akatsuki!"

The Raikage's eyes widened, then he frowned and gritted his teeth. "Reinforce the southern gate! I don't want anyone—"

The Kumo leader was cut off as another explosion rocked the earth only meters in front of him. Both Kumo and Konoha shinobi were blown back as a cloud of dust rose from the spot of the blast and obscured their vision. As the dust began to clear, five black and red figures emerged: Kisame, Hidan, Kakuzu, Tobi, and Zetsu.

The blue-skinned man known as Kisame turned to the Raikage, grinning and glaring through his beady eyes. "Pardon us for the interruption, but we were looking for the nine-tails jinchuuriki. Hand him over, and we will spare your village. Refuse to do so, and we will cut all of you to pieces. It's a simple request, Raikage-sama. It shouldn't be too hard for you to comprehend."

The Raikage brushed the dust off from his cloak. "Looks like your Uchiha protégé is quite popular, Orochimaru-sama," he sneered. "Maybe it was a mistake to let him into this village."

The Uchiha ignored him and instead turned his attention to the robed newcomers. "Where is Itachi?" he demanded.

A smug laugh came from the Akatsuki member with slicked back white hair. Hidan turned to his partner, still smirking. "That's all he ever talks about, this guy. I'll tell you what…we'll bring you to him after we calm you down a bit. What do you think, Kakuzu?"

"I think you should watch yourself," Kakuzu replied. "This jinchuuriki shouldn't be played around with."

Hidan waved him off, but Sasuke took a step forward, his eyes suddenly blazing red with the sharingan. "I'm going to ask you one more time…where is he?"

Hidan narrowed his eyes. "Talk is cheap, kid. Why don't you try acting on those threats?"

Sasuke frowned and shook his head, piercing Hidan and the rest of his team with a deadly gaze. "I gave you a chance…" black firey markings began creeping up his skin and black chakra began seeping from his pores. "I gave all of you a chance, but you still underestimate me. No more…I'm through playing games with you."

The aura the new jinchuuriki gave off was thick and palpable. Members of the Kumo guard began trembling uncontrollably, but the Raikage merely grinned.

Shizune turned to her team leader, her face visibly damp with sweat. "Kakashi…what's happening…?"

"We're facing the gates of hell," He replied, his tone more grave than anything she had heard from him before. "And they're about to open."

With a feral roar, Sasuke leaped into the air and lunged at the five Akatsuki members, who immediately scattered. He landed on the ground hard as bits of rocks and dust flew into the air, leaving a crater in its place.

Hidan grinned and giggled like a wicked child. "This guy's gonna be fun! He might even enjoy causing pain as much as me!"

As the Uchiha shifted his glare amongst the black robed shinobi, Kakashi looked around at the Kumo shinobi, still visibly shaken by Sasuke's presence. He glanced over at his teammates who were already eyeing him expectantly and he signaled them wordlessly.

It's now or never.

The four Konoha ninja sprang into action, blowing past the distracted guards and Akatsuki members and surrounding Sasuke. "Now, Yamato!" Kakashi called out.

Yamato slammed his hands together, forming the snake seal. Giant slabs of wood rose from the ground, incasing Kakashi's team and Sasuke. At the same instant, snakelike branches sprouted from the wooden walls into every direction and tangled themselves around the jinchuuriki, who managed to shatter the first few that reached him, but was soon overcome. As Yamato's jutsu tightened its grip around him, Sasuke's eyes grew heavy and the evil chakra surrounding him began to recede.

Yamato struggled to maintain his chakra flow against the jinchuuriki's resistance. "I just have to hold this for a few more seconds until--"

He was cut off as a spearlike object sliced into his foot from the ground, causing him to grunt in pain. "Ugh, what the hell was that?"

Neji looked down at where the object had emerged, his veined white eyes suddenly widening. "Shit! Yamato, move!"

The Hyuuga barely had time to dive into his teammate and knock him out of the way before several enormous clawlike branches erupted through the ground at Yamato's previous position. They tore at the captain's makeshift wooden barrier and through Sasuke's bindings, causing the other teammates to jump back. After the gnarled wood became still, Shizune rushed over to Yamato and tended to his wound. He stared in confused shock at what had appeared.

Shizune looked at him warily. "That…wasn't you, was it?"

"No," he replied, "but it's definitely mokuton. I've never seen it take that form though. The branches look…dead."

Two figures suddenly emerged from the tree's trunk: Kabuto and his child companion. The silver-haired traitor adjusted his spectacles and grinned, gesturing to the girl. "How do you like our recent product? Subject number 244, aka Hinoki. She was created much like you Tenzou-san, except this time we used a fresh sample of your blood in addition to the DNA we still possessed from Shodai Hokage. I found a way to compensate for the genetic drift, thereby producing a specimen with power closer to that of Hashirama himself. However, the gene enhancement had some unfortunate side-effects, rendering her sanity…questionable, at best."

Shizune glowered at him. "Barbarian," she spat.

Kabuto held up a finger condescendingly. "Barbarians do not possess the mental aptitude necessary to outmatch their opponent. While Shodai's mokuton jutsu was originally designed as both a weapon and a construction tool, my experimentation has removed all superfluous aspects of his chakra, which means Hinoki's jutsu is designed purely for combat. Needless to say Tenzou-san," his grin widened, "she is more powerful than you."

Yamato's eyes narrowed. How did they manage to get a fresh sample of my blood? His memory drifted back to when he first met Kabuto on the Bridge of Heaven and Earth. I remember now, he sliced at me when I was disguised as Sasori and cut me on the arm...damn…

His thoughts were interrupted as an explosion blew out a section of his wooden barrier behind him and a flurry of kunai shot toward him. Before the captain could react, a spinning flash of white chakra appeared and deflected the knives harmlessly to the side. Neji stood between a squad of Kumo shinobi and his teammates. "I will hold off the Kumo shinobi while you two deal with Yakushi and the girl," he spoke, still facing the enemy. "For the time being, it looks like Akatsuki has their hands full dealing with Kumo."

"That won't last long though," Kakashi warned. He turned to his former student who was still recovering from Yamato's jutsu.

"Sasuke…long time no see eh?"

He looked up at the jounin, no warmth in his blood-red eyes. "Stay out of my way, Kakashi. That's all you have to do, and I'll be willing to let you and the rest of your team live."

"For how long?" he answered him. "I already know how far you're willing to go, but with the kyuubi…you're not even bothering to hold back its chakra. Once that demon gets control, there's no turning back, even if you do manage to kill Itachi."

"I don't care," Sasuke drew his sword slowly. "My life has already been dedicated to the purpose of avenging my clan."

"And how many lives are worth your revenge?" Kakashi questioned. "A hundred? A thousand? You can't just expect us to sit back and let you do as you please."

Sasuke's face turned up in half a smile. "I guess not. But you Konoha ninja and your bonds only serve as an annoyance. Come, then! Stop me if you can."

Kakashi took a step forward, but stopped as he felt a different chakra draw near. Orchimaru emerged from the remains of Yamato's wooden barrier and approached them. "Now now Sasuke, you have bigger game. Akatsuki has come here in full force because they fear your power."

The Uchiha hesitated, then lowered his sword.

"Why don't you go play with them," Orochimaru offered, "and I'll handle this one."

Without another word, Sasuke leaped beyond the wooden walls, leaving the snake sannin and his opponent.

"I imagine you were a little disappointed when I declined your first challenge back in Konoha," Orochimaru said, smiling. "So I thought I would give you another opportunity. Although, the stakes are a little higher this time, it seems."

Kakashi glanced to his side and located his team, all of whom were locked in battle. I expected it would come to this. I guess this was nothing more than a suicide mission.

Ignoring the powerful chakra that had appeared a few yards away, Neji patiently and methodically fought his way through the gathering squads of soldiers, always managing to remain one step ahead of next opponent with his expertly placed gentle-fist strikes. As his attackers continued to bear down on him, his senses suddenly flashed. Instinctively, he swung toward his blind spot and barely managed to parry a blow aimed at his backside. However, the force of the blow caused him to lose his footing and put him out of position to defend against an incoming strike from another shinobi's sword.

"Kaiten!" Neji bellowed, activating his chakra points and spinning, knocking back the sword and the shinobi and creating space for the Hyuuga to recover. What was that just now? That strike earlier was right in my…

"Excellent, as to be expected from one of the prime wielders of Byakugan."

The voice of the Raikage seemed to come from nowhere, which caused Neji to tense. He wasn't used to hearing a voice and not being able to see its source.

Nor was he used to flying through the air after being hit by something heavy, which this time around he hadn't seen coming at all.

Neji grunted as he felt a second impact, his body smashing through the wall of Raikage Tower and sliding across the floor. The Hyuuga rose slowly, trying to regain his bearings. He looked up to the Raikage's image coming into focus, standing in the hole he had just careened through.

The Raikage approached him, his eye giving off a malevolent light. "I was looking forward to meeting Konoha shinobi in battle, but to have a member of the Hyuuga clan present was quite a bonus. It's even more of a bonus that the member was you, Neji."

"You seem to have taken a special interest in me," Neji replied, matching the Kumo leader's gaze, "even though more important matters could use your attention. What do you want?"

"Why, to study you, of course," He grinned without a hint of warmth. "I am interested in seeing how the skills of the branch house have progressed."

With that, the Raikage quickly sprang into movement, appearing to phase out of existence. Neji stood poised as the veins around his pearl eyes thickened.


Sakura rose from her chair as she heard three knocks on her door. She opened it to reveal someone she had seemingly only met yesterday.

"Ino-san? What can I do for you?"

"Hey Sakura. We need to talk."