Holy crap, it has been a long time since my last update. I've been working on this chapter on and off for nearly a year, and I finally finished it. What can I say, college can be a little time consuming. Unfortunately, the next (and last) chapter will probably take just as much time. So keep this story in the back of your mind, but don't check it anytime soon.

I don't own Naruto or any of its characters, so on and so forth.

Chapter Fifteen: Irresistable Forces and Immovable Objects

Temari was released from the hospital five days later. Gaara and Yashamaru were unable to visit her because the Kazekage returned the day after she was attacked, and point blank forbade anyone to enter her room. Most would have thought that it was the behavior of a concerned parent, but Gaara knew better. Temari belonged to him, and nobody harmed what was his. Of course, with his father back, Kankuro was unable to make any more visits. He turned up about a week after the attack to deliver Temari's thanks to Gaara. That was the last Gaara would see of his siblings in the month preceding the chunin exam finals. He and Yashamaru spent the rest of the month either training or relaxing as the mood struck them.

Naruto returned on the day before the finals were to start…on the back of a giant toad accompanied by Jiraiya.

"I can't believe you call him pervy-sage!" Gaara hissed, "Do you have any idea who he is?"

"Sure I do," Naruto replied easily, "He's a sage, and he's a pervert. So: per-vee-say-juh."

"Naruto, half of our history lessons at the academy revolved around him and his team! He's one of the Sannin, for crying out loud!"

"Doesn't change the fact that he's a pervy-sage."

"I could cry right now. I just want you to know that."

"I'll give him this, though: the old man knows his jutsu. You wouldn't believe some of the tricks he taught me."

"Such as?"

Naruto grinned. "You'll see tomorrow. How about you? What have you been up to?"

Gaara told Naruto about the assassination attempt against his sister and his training with Yashamaru. He skipped over his experiments with his sand, though. If Naruto wanted to have surprises, then Gaara wanted some too.

"Damn," Naruto said.

"I know," Gaara said.

"Well, at least you've made nice with your brother and sister now."

"I'm not sure that's really a good thing."

Naruto frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Before, they thought I was dead and I didn't think about them at all. Now that we're friends, or at least not enemies anymore, what happens when they go back to Suna?"

"Oh. I hadn't thought of it like that."

"And it's not only the distance that bothers me. When they go back, they'll be with my father. You saw him in the alley. That's how he is twenty-four-seven. It's a miracle he hasn't turned them into sociopaths already, but if they stay with him forever he'll destroy them."

Naruto whistled. "Sounds like you really need to hit something."

Gaara heaved a sigh. "Damn straight."

"I'm glad you're paired up with Sasuke, then," Naruto said cheerfully.

"You seem awfully cheerful considering your opponent."

Naruto's grin took on a forced edge, making it into more of a grimace.

"Oh, I'm just imagining what I'm going to do to Neji tomorrow."

"That's…somewhat disturbing."

"You must be rubbing off on me then."

"Oh, that stung."

"Ha," Naruto said, "I'm going home. Big day tomorrow. I need to rest up."

"Yeah. See you tomorrow."

Gaara and Naruto walked silently towards the stadium where the finals would take place. The blonde genin was being unusually silent today, and he seemed more focused and still than Gaara could ever remember him being. Whatever training Jiraiya had put him through must have really had an effect.

Surprisingly, Sasuke joined the two of them halfway through their walk. The Uchiha prodigy gave brief nods to his teammates before facing forward with his usual stoic silence.

The three genin were not the first ones to arrive in the stadium. Gaara's siblings were already there. They glanced at him briefly, but did not otherwise react. Of course, Gaara could feel the Kazekage's eyes boring into him, so he understood their discretion.

One by one, the other competitors joined those already gathered, until they formed a neat line facing the audience. It seemed that the whole of the village had crammed itself into the stadium, and every last one of them was cheering at the top of their lungs. Near the Hokage's seat, a few dozen brightly dressed nobles had their own private box and were surveying the young shinobi as if they were racehorses about to be auctioned off.

"Where's that Dosu guy?" Shikamaru asked.

"Perhaps he isn't feeling well," Gaara said.

Kankuro and Naruto snickered.

The proctor for the finals was not Hayate. This man was blonde, and he chewed a senbon as if it were a piece of straw.

"The first match," he said, "is between Neji Hyuga and Naruto Uzumaki. Everyone else, please go up to the observation deck and wait your turn."

Gaara clasped Naruto's shoulder and squeezed it tightly. "Good luck."

Naruto smiled warmly in response. "Thanks."

As he walked away, Gaara could see that Naruto was totally calm as he squared off against Neji. His training must have had more of an impact than Gaara had originally thought.

Naruto stared hard at Neji as the rest of the genin left the arena. Gaara paused and gave Naruto a final nod, which he returned. It was funny. He had been expecting to be angry when he finally faced Neji again. But now he felt cool, calm, collected.


"Do you have anything to say?" Neji asked, mock respectfully, like an executioner talking to a prisoner on the chopping block.

"We can talk after," Naruto said, "I came here for a fight."

Neji charged at Naruto in a blatant frontal assault. He was fast, so damn fast, but Naruto could see him. Barely. He crossed the distance between them in the blink of an eye, and a flesh colored blur dominated Naruto's vision as Neji's palm rocketed toward his face in a blow that a month previous would have taken his head clean off.

But not today.

Naruto slapped the side of Neji's forearm with one hand, sending the Hyuga's strike whistling past his cheek. Neji had presumed that he could defeat Naruto in one blindingly fast blow. Instead, his momentum carried him forward faster than he could stop, so that Naruto's head butt caught him square on the nose. Neji staggered back clutching at his face, blood seeping out between his fingers. His nose was broken. He snarled at Naruto, hatred burning in his pale eyes.

If he had been expecting a response, he was disappointed. Naruto stared at him, blank-faced and calm, his arms crossed over his chest.

"I said I came here for a fight," Naruto said in a bored voice, "If you want to play tag, wait until later. Too many big-wigs watching us to play games, don't you think?"

Neji's glower was replaced by a blank expression to match Naruto's. "May I ask you something?"


"A month ago, during the preliminaries…why were you so angry after my match?"

"You know damn well why," Naruto growled.

"Allow me to rephrase, then: why do you care? Hinata is not a member of your clan. As far as I know, you are not even close friends. What concern is it of yours what happens to her?"

Naruto frowned. "You really don't understand, do you?"


"If you had just defeated her in the match, it wouldn't have been as big of a deal. It would have been a bummer if Hinata had just lost, but that's all. You crossed a line. You tore into her from the get-go. And when you knew that she couldn't win, when we all knew she couldn't win, you didn't hold back. She's your family, and you tried to kill her."

"But why do you care about that? Why does her fate matter to you?"

"Because she tried! She fought with everything she had, and you all but spat on her. You did your best to make her feel like nothing, to convince her that she'd always be nothing."

"She will."

Now Naruto felt angry. "What?"

"What happened to Hinata was as much her doing as it was mine. She could have stopped, but she refused to accept her fate. From the moment we were paired up against each other, she was destined to lose, just as you are destined to lose right now."

"You believe in fate? You struck me as more of a cold, calculating bastard type than a fortune teller."

"Mock all you want; it doesn't hide your ignorance. I know how this world works. Each and every one of us is inescapably bound by our own fate. We can fight it, we can hate it, but we can never change it. I understand your empathy with Hinata now. She is a failure, just like you. You cannot accept her loss, just as you refuse to accept that you will lose now. Once a failure, always a failure."

Naruto pulled his lips back from his teeth. His canines had lengthened into fangs. "Shut up and fight."

This time it was Naruto who charged at Neji. He closed the distance between them and threw his right fist at Neji's face. Neji launched himself backwards, lifted both of his feet from the ground and planted them firmly in Naruto's gut. The blonde had seen the blow coming, though, and rolled with the hit, somersaulting in midair and landing in a balanced crouch. The instant his feet touched the ground, Naruto threw himself to the side. He felt Neji's follow-up strike brush one of his pant legs, barely missing him as he sprang into a cartwheel. Naruto gave ground, backpedaling madly to build distance between himself and his opponent. Neji pursued him mercilessly, throwing gentle fist blows every time Naruto paused for even an instant. Naruto just barely managed to stay ahead with a series of acrobatic flips and rolls, but still every strike brushed his clothing or hair. A glancing shot hit his ankle, and tingling numbness consumed Naruto's foot and shot up his calf. He lost his footing, and Neji descended on him with a vengeance.

Neji's fist crunched into Naruto's left cheekbone. He struck Naruto's thigh with a sharp chop, bloodied his nose with an elbow strike, and bashed him square in the sternum with both hands, cutting off nearly all of Naruto's chakra. Naruto flopped onto the ground as his entire body went numb and shaky. He felt as if all of his strength and chakra had left him at once. Naruto struggled to stand anyway, and after a few moments managed to regain his feet even though it felt like glue had been poured into his muscles. Neji stared at him perplexedly, a mild frown creasing his brow.

"Why bother standing?" He asked, "Why get back up? You can't use chakra anymore, you can barely even stand. It is pointless."

"Blah blah blah," Naruto said thickly. He could barely feel his tongue.

"Why do you do this?"

Deep inside his mind, Naruto could feel a stirring, a subtle shifting of energy. A voice spoke to him, deep and resonant, as if each word were a clap of thunder.

Foolish child. Must you always involve yourself in conflicts you know you cannot win? This is not the battle I warned you of, but I shall lend you power all the same. Useless brat…

Naruto felt as if a bomb had gone off in his chest. His blood had been replaced with fire. His own heartbeat sounded like cannon fire to his ears. The world seemed to crystallize around Naruto; no detail escaped his gaze. He could see every speck of dirt and blood on Neji's clothing, every line and shadow on his face. Every muscle in Naruto's body hummed with strength. The numbness Neji had inflicted on him was gone, evaporated like morning dew in the face of the noontime sun. Red chakra formed a sheath of crimson flame around Naruto, causing Neji to flinch violently away.

"Why?" Naruto asked, reiterating Neji's question. He met the Hyuga's pale eyes. In them he saw shock, and not a little fear. "Fuck you, that's why."

Neji stared at Naruto warily. He was squinting, as if a bright light was being shined into his eyes. Naruto supposed that was the result of his Byakugan being able to see his chakra. For the first time, it appeared that Neji was finally viewing him as a threat instead of a bug to be squashed. Without warning, the Hyuga rushed at him, hand thrust forward, trying to cut off Naruto's massive chakra supply before he had a chance to use it.

Naruto grabbed Neji's wrist, and in one fluid motion he kicked Neji's legs out from under him, whipped him up and over his head, and slammed him into the ground. Before he could recover, Naruto launched a kick at Neji's ribs in the hopes of breaking them, immobilizing him and ending the match. Neji saw the kick coming, though, and spun. At first, Naruto thought he was trying to roll away. Then blue energy appeared around the Hyuga's body, and his rotation increased in speed until he was spinning like a top. The energy Neji had surrounded himself with made it seem as if he was a solid ball of crackling chakra. When his attack connected, it felt to Naruto as if he had kicked a ball of oiled ice. His foot slipped out from underneath him, and Neji leapt at the opening.

Using the momentum from his spin, Neji drove his stiffened fingers into the base of Naruto's spine. Instead of going through the energy surrounding Naruto, Neji's attack only caused a hole the size of his fist to appear in Naruto's crimson aura. Neji's surprise gave Naruto the instant he required to recover. The blonde executed a backward flip in midair and kicked Neji on the point of his chin. The Hyuga's teeth clacked together as his feet left the ground. Naruto drove his left fist into Neji's exposed stomach, leaning into the punch so that Neji was folded over his shoulder. With a twist of his shoulder, Naruto tossed Neji onto the ground behind him. The Hyuga prodigy flopped onto his back and did not stand up. The older boy was clearly defeated.

As the danger passed, Naruto could feel the Kyuubi's chakra fade away. Despite the intense combat, he did not feel tired. He felt relaxed and invigorated. He walked over to Neji and nudged him with his foot. He had blacked out. The Hyuga groaned as he woke up. His forehead protector had been knocked off, and a black mark was visible on his forehead. It looked like a tattoo of some kind.

"I lost," Neji said. His voice was flat.

"Looks that way," Naruto said without malice.

"I failed."

"You asked me why I was fighting, and I answered you."


"I think it's only fair that you return the favor. Why are you so obsessed with fate? Why were you so hard on Hinata?"

"Do you see this mark on my forehead?"


Neji concisely told Naruto about the recent history of the Hyuga clan. How the cadet branch was made to serve and protect the main branch. Hinata's kidnapping at the hands of a visiting envoy, and how Neji's father was sacrificed to save his uncle. How the curse seal on his forehead had bound his fate, and his father's, and directed the course of their lives.

"After my father died," Neji whispered, "I swore to myself that I would become the best shinobi I could be, to humiliate the main branch. To surpass them. To punish them for what they did to my father."

"You're an idiot."


"You let those 'all-seeing' eyes of yours be blinded by your pain. You think that you're the only one suffering? Hinata has suffered just as much as you have, for different reasons. You're smart, I'll give you that, but you aren't unique. You are alone, and that is you own doing and nobody else's."

"What do you know about it? You can't possibly know what it's like to have the course of your entire life determined by something forced upon you; that is completely out of your control!"

Naruto snorted. "You don't know me any better than I know you, so don't make assumptions about the way I've lived. Everyone has burdens they have to bear, some are heavier than others. Only a few are completely alone. Do you know why? Because those people have allowed their burdens to consume them, and driven everyone else away. Most people reach out to each other because of their burdens, and the bonds they form make them strong enough to keep moving forward. You have refused to form bonds with anyone, and that is why I beat you today. The bonds I share with other people make me stronger than I could ever become on my own. That's why a failure with friends can, and will, beat a genius who stands alone."

Gaara smiled fiercely as the crowd roared in approval at Naruto's victory. He was too far away to hear what his friend had said to Neji, but the defeated genin looked confused. It seemed that, once again, Naruto had changed his opponent's outlook in addition to ringing their bells.

Once the noise had quieted to a dull roar, the proctor announced, "The next match is between Sasuke Uchiha and Gaara."

The two teammates descended the stairs to the arena floor. Gaara could see several of the nobles whispering to each other, no doubt excited about the last of the Uchiha clan fighting the Kazekage's exiled son.

Gaara and Sasuke gave each other respectful nods. The Uchiha sank into a fighting crouch, and his eyes widened when Gaara assumed a similar pose. The audience fell silent, holding its collective breath, not daring to upset the balance of such an anticipated match.

"Begin!" the proctor barked.

Sasuke's hand darted down to his weapon pouch and withdrew three shuriken. Gaara had left the cork to his gourd on the observation deck, leaving his sand an open avenue to escape its container and block the thrown weapons. Both combatants were grinning. Sasuke's opening salvo had been little more than a formality, like moving a pawn as the opening move in a game of shogi; it had to be done before the players could get down to business.

In retaliation, Gaara gestured sharply with two fingers. A stream of highly pressurized sand shot forward at the other genin. Sasuke easily tumbled out of the way. Seamlessly, Gaara formed the sand into a ring around his teammate and tightened it ruthlessly, trying to catch Sasuke in its crushing grip. The Uchiha launched himself into the air and expelled one of his signature fireball jutsu at Gaara's head. Gaara went down on one knee and raised one forearm in a high block. A dome of sand formed over his arm, and the fireball glanced off, impacting the ground behind Gaara and sending a burst of heated dust against his back.

Sasuke landed gracefully and smirked. Gaara grinned back amicably and pointed at a spot just over the Uchiha's left shoulder. Frowning, Sasuke looked behind himself to see a sand clone of Gaara charging at his back. Eyes widening, Sasuke performed a spinning kick so fast that Gaara thought he could feel the wind even from nearly twenty feet away. The attack took his clone's head off, and a succession of similar blows amputated the arms and ripped the torso in half at the waist. Gaara started to get a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Sasuke had never moved nearly as fast as he just had, and as he had straightened up, Gaara thought that his posture had been highly reminiscent of Lee's attack stance.

When the Uchiha turned back toward Gaara, he had activated his Sharingan. Originally, Gaara had thought that his match would be an easy victory. Sasuke was undoubtedly a skilled shinobi, but none of his jutsu were powerful enough to overcome Gaara's sand shield. Unfortunately, it appeared that between his own fight with Lee and observing Gaara's match with him, Sasuke had been given ample opportunity to use his kekkei genkai to copy the older genin's moves, and had used his month of freedom to gain the speed necessary to use them.

However, Sasuke was not the only one whose taijutsu had improved.

Using a trick he had developed while sparring with Yashamaru, Gaara stared hard at Sasuke's feet. No matter how fast the opponent was, their feet would always indicate not only when they would move, but often in which direction they intended to go.

The instant Sasuke took his first step, Gaara began his maneuver. Gripping the sash that held his gourd on his back, Gaara pulled the cloth over his head, spun in place, and swung it as hard as he could at the space that had previously been behind him. Sasuke, despite his Sharingan-enhanced sight, was unable to overcome his momentum, and the sand gourd smashed into his side and sent him sprawling to the ground.

Gaara smirked as the Uchiha rolled away. Because Shukaku's senses were at least partially tied into Gaara's own, the sand shield always responded more quickly to attacks that happened within his field of vision. It was a pattern that melee fighters seemed to spot fairly easily, and one that only high-speed fighters like Haku, Lee, and Yashamaru were able to exploit. All three had charged at Gaara's front to activate his defenses, and then whipped around behind him faster than the sand could keep up. It was only after his training with Yashamaru that Gaara had realized the pattern his enemies had fallen into, and had devised a plan to take advantage of it.

Sasuke rolled to his feet and resumed his taijutsu stance. The arrogance was gone from his face. Gaara decided that with his opponent's offense ground to a standstill, it was time to go on the attack himself.

Still griping his gourd by its sash, Gaara whipped his hands up and let the sand container fly into the air. Curling his fingers so that his hands resembled claws, Gaara sharply dropped his arms so that they were parallel to the ground, releasing a large spike of chakra. The gourd detonated like a giant-sized smoke bomb, filling the air with sand and momentarily submerging the two combatants in shadow. Gaara slashed his hands downward, and the sand plummeted toward the ground to crush Sasuke beneath it.

Gaara's vision was momentarily obscured by a tremendous cloud of dust as his sand impacted against the ground. When it settled, he could see Sasuke crouching on the ground halfway across the arena. The other genin was down on one knee. Gaara did not know if he had taken a glancing blow or if he had simply been knocked over by the blast of air generated by his sand crashing into the earth. What he did know was that his opponent was completely immobile. Summoning up a wave of sand beneath his feet, Gaara began to glide across the ground, gathering up another mass of it behind his right shoulder to slam into the Uchiha like a wrecking ball.

Gaara was towering over Sasuke, an instant away from striking, when Sasuke attacked first.

The attack happened so fast that Gaara could not fully comprehend it. One minute Sasuke was kneeling at Gaara's feet, staring at his hand as if he had a broken wrist. The next, he was lunging at Gaara with one arm extended. There was a flash of bluish-white light, the stench of ozone, and the most unusual sound Gaara had ever heard. It was like an entire menagerie of birds chirping at the same time. He felt Sasuke's hand press against him…

And Gaara's right shoulder exploded in pain.

Gaara supposed that under ordinary circumstances, it would have hurt to have his shoulder blades hit the ground so hard without his sand to cushion it. These were not ordinary circumstances. It felt like someone was trying to rip a chunk out of his shoulder with pliers made out of molten lead. He did not dare look at the wound. He was out of breath, but it hurt too much to inhale. He could feel Shukaku trying to break free. The demon was feeding on its host's weakness, but Gaara stubbornly clung to consciousness. It would be a near thing, but if he could hold on until the medics got to him, Gaara could win.

Something fluttered at the edge of Gaara's vision. He narrowed his eyes and looked harder. It was a feather fluttering in the wind. No, two feathers. Then three. The sky was suddenly full of feathers, twisting gracefully through the air. It was mesmerizing to watch them.

Gaara's eyelids felt heavy. His shoulder suddenly did not bother him as much, painful instead of agonizing. His limbs felt like they were filled with lead.

He was falling asleep!

The last thing to go through Gaara's mind before he succumbed to his exhaustion was a single word, and even though it was being bellowed throughout his mind he could not make it out.

Sasuke winced as he looked at the bleeding crater in Gaara's shoulder. He had tried to cut back on the force of his jutsu, but apparently he had not done well enough. He felt bad that he had caused such a grievous injury to a teammate. Still, it was not a fatal wound, and he had won his match with plenty of energy left over for his following bouts. He was satisfied.

Then he glanced around in confusion. The Sharingan allowed Sasuke to see chakra as color. Gentle indigo waves permeated the air around the stadium like a tinted heat shimmer. Sasuke had seen it once or twice before. It was a common result of a wide-range genjutsu.

Sasuke looked at Gaara. The other genin was still on the ground. He had even stopped moving, and appeared to have fallen unconscious.

And then the other genin was on his feet, his arms stretched up over his head. Sasuke was sent flying backward by a shockwave as Gaara roared louder than it should have been possible for a human being to shout. As he skidded to a halt, Sasuke could see flames of chakra, similar to those that had covered Naruto, enshrouding Gaara. Unlike Naruto's aura, this chakra was gold instead of red. Even at a distance, Gaara's voice was so loud that Sasuke had to cover his ears. Several painful seconds later, as Gaara's voice began to trail off, Sasuke could understand what he was saying.

Gaara was jubilantly, triumphantly shouting one word, "FRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"

Orochimaru smiled as he surveyed the shattered front gates of Konoha. Two of his largest snakes had shattered the doors, killing the guards and smashing several buildings just inside the walls. He was holding three more in reserve, hidden in the trees along with three-quarters of his Otogakure jonin. The former Sannin was disappointed that he could not see the look on Sarutobi's face as he died, but ultimately the Hokage was only one man. The pleasure of his demise could not compare to the spectacle of the destruction of an entire village.

The Konoha shinobi Orochimaru had sensed waiting in ambush leapt out of windows and charged out of alleyways to attack the giant serpents. The shinobi threw volleys of kunai and launched streams of fire from their mouths. The snakes only bothered to stop some of the more well-aimed attacks from hitting them in their eyes, relying on their thick scales to protect them from harm. Two shinobi were lost to the jaws of one of the snakes, and six more were swatted aside from the sweeping tail of the other. Grinning smugly, Orochimaru made a casual waving gesture over his shoulder.

Dozens of Otogakure jonin sprinted past their leader to enter Konoha through the newly created breach in the wall. Once inside the city, they scaled the nearest buildings in an effort to outflank the Konoha shinobi who were caught in the open. Even including the ones who had been killed by the snakes, the village defenders were outnumbered at least three-to-one.

Orochimaru's view of the battle was abruptly cut off by a sudden explosion of dust and grit. When the debris settled back to the ground, he saw two enormous toads the size of small hillocks pinning his snakes to the ground. One of the toads was forest green with swirling black lines around its eyes, and it held a long dagger in each hand. The other was the more common shade of orange and was carrying a spear that was as long as its body was tall. Each one had pinioned a snake's head to the ground with their weapons, causing the two serpents to disappear in puffs of smoke.

The smile slid off of Orochimaru's face as he watched a dozen more toads, these only the size of large horses, bound onto the rooftops and start cutting through his troops. The amphibians shot thick gouts of water and oil from their mouths, knocking the Oto-nin back onto the streets. Those who were soaked in oil were immediately set ablaze by fire jutsu from the Konoha shinobi.

Over the screams of the dying and the din of battle, Orochimaru could hear faint laughter. Not faint from any attempt to stifle it, but faint due to distance. Looking up at the top of the wall, Orochimaru saw a tall man with a long mane of white hair staring directly at him, chuckling in amusement. It was his former teammate, the Toad Sage Jiraiya.

"Hello there, Orochimaru!" Jiraiya called down.

"Jiraiya," Orochimaru responded with amused contempt.

"You just can't resist stirring up trouble these days, can you?"

"It's a personal flaw, I will admit," Orochimaru said. He casually stepped onto the head of one of his reserve snakes and led the rest of his troops forward toward the gates. "Somewhat like looking in on the ladies' bathhouse, I think."

"Don't compare my research to anything you might do!"

Jiraiya performed a backward dive and landed gracefully on the head of the green-skinned toad.

"Hey, Gamashin!" he called over his shoulder.

"Yeah?" one of the smaller toads shouted back.

"Round up your brothers and head on back to Myobokuzan. Tell your pa that Jiraiya-chan needs a little help."

"You got it!"

The smaller toads all disappeared in puffs of smoke, only to be replaced a heartbeat later by another toad even bigger than the two that had killed Orochimaru's snakes. This one was a shade of orange so dark he was almost red. A white scar ran from the corner of his mouth to his left shoulder, and a scimitar was belted to his waist.

"Jiraiya-chan," the toad rumbled, "Whatever you called me for, it had better go more smoothly than the last time."

"Oh, don't be so sensitive, Gamatatso. If you asked me-"

"I didn't."

"-that scar makes you look really distinguished."

"Whatever," Gamatatso growled, drawing his sword, "Let's just make this a quick one, okay?"

The Third Hokage watched as the arena descended into chaos. Jonin from Konoha, Suna, and Otogakure flashed around the seating area as they fought. Although he could tell that those of his village were trying to minimize civilian casualties, their efforts were not enough. Countless dozens were engulfed by rogue fireballs, crushed by chunks of earth, or stabbed by deflected kunai and shuriken. The entire scene quickly devolved into a bloodbath, and in the exact center of it, Gaara was giving off massive waves of demonic chakra as he lost control of the beast within him.

Sarutobi turned his head to look at the Kazekage, only to find that his fellow village leader was already staring right at him. His eyes were as they had been for as long as Sarutobi had known him: blank, soulless, lacking any kind of emotion that could be read.

"It has come to this, has it?" Sarutobi asked sadly.

"It has," the Kazekage replied.

Sarutobi leapt sideways out of his chair. Before his bodyguards or the Kazekage's could react, he rapidly formed a sequence of hand seals and issued a stream of fire from his mouth. The Kazekage's reaction was immediate. He chopped sharply at shoulder level, and a concentrated blast of air split Sarutobi's fire attack in two. The pair of shuriken Sarutobi had concealed within the flames were deflected away from the Kazekage, but they did strike his bodyguards in the neck. The two fell gurgling to the ground in the same instant that the Hokage's bodyguards fell backward. Sarutobi looked at the two jonin with surprise. Each of them had a perfectly round hole in their forehead protectors, as if a surgical drill had been pressed into their skulls.

The Kazekage casually rose from his chair and removed his kage uniform. Underneath his white robes, he wore only a long sleeved mesh shirt with a short sleeved black shirt and black pants. With his face revealed, Sarutobi was struck by how much the Kazekage looked like an older version of Gaara.

"Surely there is some way that we can negotiate a truce," Sarutobi said, shucking his own robes to reveal his black bodysuit and helmet.

"No," the Kazekage replied, "This war is necessary."

"I find that hard to believe."

"Lord Hokage, not all hidden villages are as prosperous as yours. Konoha has been lucky since the conclusion of the last great shinobi war. Suna has not. Your offices are flooded with missions while ours nearly run dry. This lack of revenue has caused our daimyo to order a military downsizing that has robbed my shinobi of their jobs. While your village swells and prospers, my people starve in the streets!"

"I know of your troubles," Sarutobi said grimly, "But there are other solutions than this. If you had asked, Konoha would have gladly shared missions with you and your village."

"Do not preach to me. A client that is directed elsewhere is a client that does not return a second time. I have no doubt that you would have diverted a fair amount of small-time, low ranking missions to Suna if we had asked for aid. But you would not have given up the higher ranking missions that truly provide sustenance for a hidden village; you could not afford to do so. Do not pretend this is not the truth."

"We would have found a way to help you!" Sarutobi shouted angrily as he watched the battle in the arena increase in ferocity, "For pity's sake, Lord Kazekage, those are women and children dying down there!"

"Yes, they die silently and painlessly in their sleep while mine fade away to nothing over years! Face it, Lord Hokage, our two villages are too large to coexist. We both require too many resources to live. One of us has to die. I say that Suna has suffered long enough, and that if one of us has to go that it be Konoha that finally takes a turn suffering!"

"Is this really only a matter of economics, or do you still harbor that same grudge against Konoha for what happened at the end of the last war?"

"That is not the reason," the Kazekage said levelly. Then a smile split his face. "Although it is a perk, I will admit."

"Damn you," Sarutobi said exasperatedly, "We have been over this before. The shinobi that killed your unit and captured you were not acting under Konoha's directive! They were stripped of their rank and executed as soon as we were able to find them!"

"Yes!" the Kazekage snarled, "How convenient! The criminals are caught and punished, but only after the best and brightest amongst your rival's military have been killed!"

"I have never operated in that manner, nor have my predecessors," Sarutobi said stonily.

"Oh, of course. Other, lesser beings may resort to such tactics, but not the saintly shinobi of Konoha! I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now! You and your people have taken everything from me. Everything! I was powerless to stop you when I was a child, but I'm all grown up now. And I want it all back!"

It was obvious that the Kazekage had completely lost his cool. Until now his face had been composed, but now his eyes were bulging out of their sockets and his mouth was locked in a snarl. Sarutobi realized that his younger colleague had suffered trauma far greater than he had originally let on. He was beyond reasoning, which left him only one option.

Sarutobi drew a shuriken and threw it at the Kazekage. While the projectile was still in the air, the Hokage formed a hand seal and expended a small amount of chakra. In a flurry of smoke puffs, two dozen more shuriken appeared out of nowhere. All of them were aimed directly at the Kazekage.

The younger shinobi snorted derisively. With an upward swipe of his hand, the Kazekage generated a nearly solid wall of wind in front of himself. The shuriken all bounced off, but Sarutobi was already preparing his next jutsu. Inhaling deeply, the aged Hokage expelled a stream of white hot flame from his mouth. When it impacted against the Kazekage's shield, the combination of wind and fire chakra caused a massive explosion. Sarutobi had jumped well before the jutsu had collided, and he simply used the shockwave to leap onto the arena roof. The Kazekage stood a few dozen paces away, looking none the worse for being in the epicenter of a firestorm.

"You cannot possibly win," Sarutobi said, "It is true that you are renowned for your mastery of wind jutsu, but we both know that my fire style techniques will overwhelm yours every time."

"Don't be so sure," the Kazekage said. He slashed at the air with one hand, and a blade of wind the size of a small tree hurtled at Sarutobi. The edge of it sheared through the tiles of the arena roof as it approached the Hokage, making it easy for him to leap out of the way. Clenching a fist, the Kazekage made a pulling gesture that caused a blast of wind to catch Sarutobi on his flank and send him flying toward his enemy. The Kazekage loosed a flying kick that hit Sarutobi square in the stomach, folding the older shinobi over his leg. As the two kages fell back to the rooftop, the Kazekage pinned Sarutobi facedown with one hand. With his free hand he made a stiff-fingered blade. Using his chakra to guide the air, the Kazekage formed a spinning pinpoint of air around his fingertips, essentially turning his hand into a wind-encased drill bit.

Then he buried the point into Sarutobi's back with such force that it came out of his stomach and dug into the rooftop beneath them.

Sarutobi stiffened in shock, and then turned into a shapeless mass of flame. The Kazekage barely had time to comprehend what had happened before the fire was sucked into his vortex of wind, causing a smaller but still powerful explosion. The Kazekage was sent flying backward, but still managed to land on his feet. He had managed to avoid serious burns on his hand by quickly severing the chakra to his technique.

"I'm impressed," the Kazekage called, "Fire is an awfully unstable element to create a doppelganger out of."

Suddenly, the roof beneath the Kazekage's feet turned to liquid. He instantly sank up to his knees, and then the rooftop morphed back into stone, cementing him in place.

"This ends now!" Sarutobi yelled from behind the Kazekage.

The trapped shinobi did not know if his opponent was planning to stab him in the back or burn him alive with another fire style jutsu. Given his predicament, the Kazekage used the one tool he had always been trained to use in uncertain situations: overwhelming force.

Extending his arms out to the side, the Kazekage let out a roar as he painfully expelled wind chakra from every single chakra point in his keirakukei. The result was a tremendous, multidirectional wave of destructive force that shattered the arena wall beneath his feet down to ground level and destroyed everything else within a like distance in every direction. An entire eighth of the circular arena, and everyone in it, was ground down to nothing in an instant. Using a much smaller surge of chakra, the Kazekage created a gust of wind that carried him through the air and gently set him down on the intact roof some distance away.

When he landed, the Kazekage was towering over a prostrate Sarutobi, who had just managed to throw himself to the fringe of his enemy's attack. Despite his efforts, several deep cuts still marked his torso and arms, and he was breathing hard from the effort.

"Well now," the Kazekage said smugly, "That was a fair warm up, wouldn't you say?"

Kakashi flipped the kunai in his left hand into a reverse grip, spun, and buried the blade in the throat of the Sand-nin that had been trying to sneak up behind him. He faced forward again just in time to plant his foot in the stomach an Otogakure jonin who had been trying to take advantage of his brief distraction and send the man flying into the lower rows of arena seats. Three more enemy shinobi were arranged in a semicircle in front of Kakashi, silently waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Sakura and a pair of Asuma's genin were huddled on the ground two rows behind Kakashi. He had been doing his best to protect them since the fighting had started, but his lack of movement had caught the attention of many enemy shinobi. Killing them to defend the students was making him burn through too much chakra.


Might Guy flipped though the air and landed next to Kakashi. The eccentric jonin already had splatters of blood on his vest and the sleeves of his jumpsuit, none of it his own.

"I was wondering where you had gotten to," Kakashi said.

"A couple of them were circling around behind you to try and flank you from a distance," Guy admonished, "You should take better note of your surroundings."

"Sorry, it's been a bit busy around here."

"So I see. Some of our genin have managed to resist the enemy's genjutsu, eh? The fire of their youth is truly inspiring!"

"Yes, but it has also attracted a lot of attention. I think that I've killed ten of them already."

"What!" Guy shouted, aghast.

Kakashi looked at him in confusion. "Something wrong?"

"I have only gotten four! You're beating me! Ooooh, I will not allow you to bring our contest to a draw! If I do not kill at least five more enemies than you do by the end of the battle, then I will complete the next D-ranked mission assigned to me while walking on my hands!"

"Er…good luck with that."

"You three!" Guy thundered, pointing at the three enemies Kakashi had been facing off with, "You will be the first to experience my newest technique, Dance of the Roaring Lions!"

The three shinobi immediately tried to turn tail and run, but Guy was too fast for them. The jumpsuit-clad jonin leapt into their midst and started to gleefully beat the tar out of them, bellowing at the top his lungs about the fire of youth and making catlike growling sounds. Kakashi watched the entire spectacle in dumbfounded silence.

He is fucking insane, Kakashi thought to himself, but at least he's good in a fight.

Kakashi used the reprieve to rest his body and hide himself amongst the unconscious spectators. Six more enemies noticed Guy and converged on him in an all out frontal assault. When he noticed them, Guy enthusiastically hurled himself into the exact center of their formation, sending blood and teeth spraying into the air with every blow he launched. As he watched his colleague demolish his opponents, Kakashi detected movement in the corner of his eye. A seventh shinobi was sneaking around behind Guy. The hidden enemy launched himself at Guy's back, but the Konoha shinobi had seen him coming. He spun around with blinding speed, but before he could strike, a crutch came whirling through the air and struck the enemy jonin just behind his ear, knocking him out cold.

Kakashi looked at where the makeshift projectile had come from and saw Rock Lee in a hospital robe, his arm and leg in a cast, waving energetically at his mentor.

"Yosh, Lee! I see you have taken your anti-genjutsu training to heart! The fire of your youth burns brightly!"






Kakashi felt a prickling sensation on the back of his neck as almost a dozen enemy ninja took notice of his two exuberant allies. They immediately began to converge on Guy, who hurled himself into the entire group of them without a moment's hesitation. Grumbling curse words the entire time, Kakashi followed his eccentric friend into the melee to cover his back.

I hate my life.

Shukaku let out a roar of victory as Gaara fell asleep. As the smothering blanket of his host's consciousness was pulled away, Shukaku let the entire bulk of his chakra flow freely. Golden energy radiated from his host's body in waves so intense that the ground beneath his feet shattered. Great cracks slithered up the surface of the arena walls. Using the barest modicum of its chakra, Shukaku gathered up a boulder sized mass of sand and hurled it against the wall, just for the fun of it. It cackled when the sand caused chunks of stone to rain into the arena.

As much as it hated its host, Shukaku did grudgingly admit to itself that being inside of a jinchuriki had its advantages. While being inside of a human did decrease a demon's power by a small margin, it also allowed the demon's mind to become more focused. On their own demons were so powerful that they were practically a force of nature, but they could often be beaten by humans because of their bestial natures. While inside of a jinchuriki, Shukaku possessed the advantages of both species: a demon's incredible power and a human's mental focus.

Coming back to itself, Shukaku looked at the dark haired human boy its host had been fighting. The child was staring at him with wide eyes. Gaara's memories confirmed that the boy possessed the Sharingan, one of the few tools humans possessed that were able to overcome a demon. While it was obvious that the little ninja had yet to fully master his eyes, he was still a slightly greater threat than anyone else in the arena because of them.

"Such pretty eyes," Shukaku said through Gaara's mouth. It had decided to refrain from assuming its true form so that it could enjoy the more cohesive thoughts a human body provided for it. After all, what was the point of murder if it did not have the attention span to appreciate the act? Clumsily, Shukaku forced Gaara's squishy human face into a smile. Because of his lack of experience at using a human body, the expression came out warped and uneven, making it all the more unnerving. "I wonder what they'll taste like."

Shukaku sent a tidal wave of sand at the little Uchiha. Sasuke threw himself out of the way, causing the sand wave to crash into the arena wall. The demon formed a cluster of pellets out of sand, holding them in the air and compressing them with its chakra until they were nearly as hard as diamonds. Then it fired them at the boy with blinding speed. The makeshift stones smacked into Sasuke while he was still in the air. He was knocked onto his back, several bloody spots marking his arms and legs where the projectiles had hit him hard enough to break the skin. Shukaku sent another wave of sand, this one smaller and faster, intending to crush Sasuke and end the fight for good.

A pair of blood red, clawed hands slashed through the sand. Shukaku felt its chakra being forced out of the sand, causing the wave to collapse into a harmless cloud of grit.

Naruto was crouched in front of Sasuke, his entire body covered in red chakra. It looked like a translucent red fox was enveloping the young shinobi, with a single crimson tail swaying behind it.

"Kyubi," Shukaku greeted.

"Shukaku," Kyubi said through Naruto's mouth, "Stop making such a mess of things."

"Or what?" Shukaku scoffed.

"You dare to question me?"

"Oh, I dare. Look at you! You can only use a fraction of your true power, but I have all of mine at my disposal. It's hilarious, the big bad fox being forced to play at the same level as its youngest sibling!"

"You consider it to be advantageous that you possess only a fraction of my power? You are even more of a fool than the last time we met. I had hoped you might have gained at least some intelligence in the last two hundred years. Of course, you did spend a considerable amount of time in a tea kettle, so perhaps my expectations were too high."

"At least I've always chosen my battles! No matter how many times I might have been implanted in a human; my mind always remained my own!"

"Watch your mouth, Shukaku, or I will kill you!"

The Kyubi's aura flickered abruptly, like a candle flame caught in a strong breeze. It briefly gripped the side of its head with one hand before growling softly to itself and resuming its crouch.

"Your human giving you a little trouble?" Shukaku sneered, "You've become pathetic, Kyubi. My host has lived in a state of constant fear of me, as any human should."

With a roar, Kyubi launched itself at Shukaku. The sand demon inhaled sharply and expelled a bullet of air and chakra at its enraged kin. The bullet hit Kyubi in the forehead, but the demon simply continued to charge through the resulting explosion. Panicking slightly, Shukaku picked itself up with sand and began to carry itself away while firing waves of sand. Kyubi simply swatted each wave with its clawed hands, expelling Shukaku's chakra from any sand it touched. The attacks did prevent it from catching up to Shukaku, giving the other demon time to build up chakra.

"The brat came up with a couple interesting sand techniques this last month!" Shukaku shouted at Kyubi, "Let me show you my favorite!"

Shukaku used its chakra to turn the ground underneath the Kyubi to sand. It grabbed the fox's back legs with the newly created sand and dragged the other demon deep underground. Then Shukaku squeezed Kyubi as hard as it could, compressing all of the sand it controlled at once.

"Gyahahaha! I killed him, I really killed him!"


Kyubi exploded from the ground at Shukaku's feet. The tanuki squealed in terror, desperately summoning up a shield of sand in front of it, but to no avail. Kyubi slashed at Shukaku with all of its strength, sending the other demon flying across the arena and smashing it into the wall. Deep lacerations ran across Shukaku's jaw and upper chest, but healed rapidly due to the flow of demonic chakra.

"Dammit!" Shukaku screamed, "I forgot how much pain hurts! Screw this!"

Shukaku summoned a massive quantity of sand to itself, and began to layer it over its host's body. In seconds, Gaara's body was completely covered in sand that was shaped to make it look like a miniature, upright Shukaku. The demon bared its fangs in a predatory smile at Kyubi, which the other demon returned.

"Feeling a little vulnerable, Shukaku?"

The sand demon responded by launching itself at Kyubi, arms spread wide to ensnare it in a crushing grip. Kyubi caught Shukaku's wrists with its front paws, skidding backwards across the ground from the collision. The two demons snarled and grappled with each other, but neither was able to gain an edge over the other. Out of sheer frustration, Shukaku bit Kyubi on the shoulder. Its fangs were unable to penetrate Kyubi's aura, and they shattered from the pressure of Shukaku's bite. The sand demon threw its head back and howled in rage as it formed new teeth from sand. Kyubi took the opportunity to sink its teeth into Shukaku. Its fangs, made of pure chakra instead of sand, scythed through Shukaku until they hit Gaara's body, breaking his collarbone and puncturing his chest and shoulder.

Shukaku shrieked in pain and fear. Desperately, it tried to back away from Kyubi, but the other demon's hold was too strong. With a muted snarl, the demon fox lifted Shukaku into the air with its fangs alone and shook it like a rag doll before tossing it aside with a flick of its head. Shukaku hurled across the arena and crashed into the wall, shattering it at the point of impact and causing chunks of rubble to follow it to the ground. It landed facedown, dazed and in pain, barely managing to keep its host alive.

Kyubi gave its fallen sibling no quarter, sprinting across the arena at breakneck speed. Its mind was completely lost to battle fury. The demon leapt into the air, claws raised, fully intending to end the fight.

"DIE!!!" the demon roared.

Shukaku rolled onto its back just in time to see Kyubi descending on him. It quailed, covering its face with its paws and mewling in despair.

When, after several moments had passed, Shukaku realized that it was still alive, it uncovered its eyes and stared in shock at Kyubi.

Kyubi was staggering around in the center of the arena, clutching its head and snarling. The sheath of crimson energy that gave it the shape of a fox was sputtering out like a dying fire. Hardly daring to believe its luck, Shukaku watched with a rising sense of victory as Naruto suppressed the Kyubi's mind, regaining control of his body and suppressing the demon's power.

With one final roar of effort, Naruto forced the demon fox back into its mental prison. He stood panting for a full minute from the exertion that even his exceptional stamina was hard pressed to cope with. When he had caught his breath, Naruto lifted his head to stare at Shukaku, cold fury etched into his face.

Naruto pointed at Shukaku and shouted, "Gaara! I know you can hear me in there, so listen up! Enjoy your rest while you can, 'cause I'm gonna wake you up right now!"

Keep an eye out for the epic conclusion! (and please review!)