Happy Thanksgiv- *Sees calendar* -Shit!

Sorry, I wasn't expecting this chapter to be nearly as long as it turned out to be. If it seems a bit rushed in some places it's probably because I've been forcing myself to finish it before the holidays get here. Hopefully it's not too bad.

As always, big thanks to all the readers and reviewers, sorry again if I missed responding to you.

And now (for real this time), the moment you've all been waiting for!



The Hokage stood on the top balcony of his tower, watching over his village. Something was nagging at him; making him quite nervous, though he couldn't seem to pinpoint what exactly it was.

He knew it wasn't the Demon Trio, because he could recognize that feeling in a heartbeat nowadays. The Chunin Exams were running smoothly from what he had heard; sure, some kids had died horribly, but that's what becoming a chunin was all about really.

He'd finished all his paperwork a few hours ago while eating lunch at his desk, so he was pretty sure there were no urgent documents that he'd neglected. He was ninety-nine percent certain he'd turned the stove off after eating, and the lack of smoke helped confirm that.

His eyes widened. Where had he last seen his copy of Icha Icha Violence? He hadn't accidentally slipped it into the box of peace offerings he'd sent off to Kirigakure, had he? Dashing back inside, he inspected the area around his desk, breathing a sigh of relief upon finding the book in question under his chair. That certainly would have made for an awkward future summit meeting.

But even with that crisis averted, the feeling of unease remained. Something was amiss in his village, but even as he returned to his vigil on the balcony, he simply couldn't figure out what it could be. He knew that the feeling was familiar from somewhere, but where... who?

"Sir, emergency!" a nameless jounin shouted upon Shunshin'ing onto the balcony. "We've received word that Orochimaru has infiltrated the village!"

"Thank you!" Hiruzen cried, letting out a sigh or relief. "God, that's been driving me crazy for nearly an hour now! Yes, that's definitely what I was sensing!"

"Glad to uh, help, Sir. ...What would you have us do?"

"Well, the smart thing would be to gather up a squad and track him down as soon as possible," Hiruzen said calmly.

"But Sir, according to Anko he's somewhere in the Forest of Death. As big as that place is, where would we even begin to start looking?"

A ground shaking explosion cut off any response the Hokage might have made. Turning toward the forest, the two men easily spotted the mushroom cloud rising high into the sky. Hiruzen wasted no time in moving away from the balcony's edge, so that he was standing underneath the awning. The nameless jounin didn't bother to follow his lead until the first piece of gore rained down on his head with a loud splat. Quickly joining the Hokage, the two watched as more dirt, rock, wood, flaming rubble, blood and bloody chunks continued to fall all around the village.

Once the hideous rain began to let up, the jounin moved to look back out, only for Hiruzen to stop him with a hand on his shoulder. His look of confusion vanished an instant later when something enormous crashed to the ground right in front of the tower. Giving the okay, the two moved back to the ledge (being careful not to step in anything) and peered over, finding themselves staring down at the titanic disembodied head of a giant purple serpent. It wasn't quite as big as the Hokage knew Manda the Serpent King to be, but it was still huge all the same. The purple snake's jaws snapped futilely at the empty air twice before going still.

The Hokage and the jounin stared calmly and in slack-jawed awe respectively for several seconds, then simultaneously turned their eyes back to the still rising mushroom cloud miles off in the distance.

"I believe there would be a good place to start," Hiruzen stated, causing the man to shiver weakly.

"W-what about you, Sir?" the jounin asked.

"I'll be along shortly. There's something important that I need to do first. You and the others go on ahead."

"...Do I have to?"

"Get going."

Hanging his head, the jounin reluctantly Shunshin'ed away, leaving the Hokage alone with his thoughts once again.

"As if I would be stupid enough to get involved in a fight between those four," he muttered calmly to himself. "I didn't live this long making horrible decisions like that."

He glanced around at his village and back down again to the giant snake head.

"This is going to be a real bitch for someone else to clean up."


Surprisingly, the damage at ground zero was relatively small. Apparently the extra-thick scales of the giant snake had done a good job of suppressing the explosion of the bomb that had gone off inside of it, causing the blast to be directed mostly upward rather than outward.


Sasuke slowly pulled himself out from under a pile of rubble and glared up at Sakura, who was hanging from a tree branch by the end of her red skirt. "Was that really necessary?" he shouted over the ringing in his ears.

The pinkette shrugged, trying to rearrange herself without losing hold of her basket or falling out of her dress. "Well, the stupid thing ate Naruto-kun. How else was I supposed to get him back out?"

"Where is he?" Sasuke asked, searching for but not seeing his other teammate.

"I think that's him in the crater," Sakura answered, pointing down toward the newly made hole where the tail end of the snake carcass still remained.

Walking over to the crater, Sasuke stared down and spotted Naruto, blood-stained and a little singed, slowly crawling his way to the top. "Didn't even drop the lantern," he muttered with a modicum of respect. "Hey idiot! Be more careful next time, those explosions hurt my ears!"

Had Naruto held the emotional capacity for it, he probably would have flipped Sasuke off.

"Yes, that was rather deafening, wasn't it?"

The three chunin hopefuls looked around, trying to pinpoint where the unfamiliar voice was coming from. Sakura spotted him first; an older man, his long black hair dangling below him as he stood upside-down from a tree branch not far away from her. He was staring into the crater, his face contemplatively blank.

"I had a feeling that the three of you could end up causing trouble for me-" He Shunshin'ed away just as the tree he was hanging from exploded.

"Damnit, I missed again!" Sakura whined, glaring at the grenade-launcher in her hands. "You are worthless," she grumbled as she tossed the weapon away.

"But I have to admit that I never expected this amount of trouble," the man said from his new position on another tree, which he also had to vacate in a flash before a blue fireball burned a perfect circle through the trunk. He reappeared on the ground.

"And now I'm going to have to try to explain to Manda why one of his sons is painting a forest in Konoha," he continued unhindered, sounding more like he was talking to himself than his audience. He frowned, formed a chain of seals and raised a giant demonic gate from the ground. The swarm of purple wraiths that were flying toward him vanished harmlessly against the gate, which crumbled away a moment later.

"Would you all mind allowing me to finish speaking before launching any more attacks at me, please?" he asked, finally starting to show some irritation in his voice.

"Why would we want to do that?" Sakura asked, pulling out a more reliable semi-automatic from her basket.

"Are you not even the least bit curious as to why I'm attacking you? Or who I even am, for that matter?"

"I assumed it was because you wanted us to kill you," Sasuke told him. "And why should I care who a dead man is?"

The pale man smirked. "Ah, but you should care more than anyone, Uchiha Sasuke, because you're the one I'm here for."

Sasuke's bland expression didn't change. "Okay. ...Are we free to attack you now?"

Orochimaru sighed. "Children these days..." Without warning, he Shunshin'ed again, appearing next to Sakura and delivered a kick that embedded her into a nearby tree trunk.

"Ooow~! You play rough!" she cried, sending a spray of bullets back his way. All of them hit, but revealed him to be a simple mud clone that crumbled away.

On the ground, Sasuke activated his Sharingan and barely avoided the kick that came from behind him. Charging a Raikiri into his fist, he sharpened it to a bladed point and swung it out in a wide arc, missing his enemy's neck and only managing to shave off a couple inches of black hair. In response, the man formed a seal and a long black snake shot out from his sleeve, wrapping itself around Sasuke's outstretched arm. It incinerated before it could so much as bare its fangs when Sasuke's forearm flashed blue, which had the unfortunate side-effect of canceling out his Raikiri.

"Figures that would be too awesome to be practical," he grumbled, sending another gout of intense flame at his enemy, which was avoided once again. As he tried to chase down the slippery ninja, he felt something wrap around his leg. Looking down, he found that the snake he'd incinerated had reformed from its ashes.

"That's different," he muttered, jerking his leg to no avail. Despite being made of ash, the creature was surprisingly durable.

"It is, isn't it?" Orochimaru asked conversationally as he walked back toward him, casually deflecting bullets from Sakura with a kunai as he did so. "Just a little something I created some time ago. I call it an Ashp."

"...I can't tell what's worse: The name itself, or how proud you sound for thinking of-" He didn't get to finish before a sharp blow sent him skidding across the ground and into the crater.

"Yes well, everyone's a critic, aren't they?" the older man commented. He idly tossed his kunai behind him, the weapon bursting into multiple copies causing the recovered Sakura to dive for cover. "Well, I've had my fun. I suppose it's time I get down to business. ...What am I forgetting here?"


A fraction of an inch was all that separated him from a crippling stab in the back. Fortunately, a Kawarimi log took that stab wound for him.

"Ah, right. You," he said from his spot behind the blond boy, who turned to face him. "Quite the little terror you must be, if the stories I've heard are true."

Naruto merely stared at him.

Orochimaru stared back at Naruto.

Naruto stared.

Orochimaru stared.

Neither moved.

Neither blinked.

The Snake Sage smirked. That had been almost a little too simple. Honestly, it was never this easy to get someone to look into his eyes long enough to cast this particular genjutsu; a genjutsu he'd modeled after Uchiha Itachi's accursed Tsukuyomi. The boy hadn't even tried to fight it off during their little stare down. In fact, he didn't seem to have noticed it was happening at all. What a shame, and now the boy was trapped within his own mind, lost in a world of nightmares built upon his own greatest fears and traumas, an illusion world that would only grow worse and worse the longer he remained in it until his mind finally snapped under the unrelenting torment-


"The fuc-!" This time the knife came within millimeters of piercing flesh before he managed to avoid it, and that was only because he'd literally fallen backward in shock and thankfully out of the boy's reach. He backpedaled away from the creepy child as he tried to regain his composure.

How in the crimson bloody Hell had he broken that genjutus so easily? Everyone else that he'd ever tested it on had either gone halfway insane before they broke it, or didn't break it at all and went completely insane! Even Kabuto had needed a good two minutes before shaking off the effects, and yet this boy does it effortlessly? For the jutsu to have so little effect, the boy would have had to literally feel no fear and no pain whatsoever, and despite the fact that he was a biju-


"Gah! Son of a bitch!" he howled, clutching at his left shoulder, which now sported a sizable hole in it. Growling, he twisted his body and fired a Daitoppa toward the red-clad bitch that had finally managed to tag him. The girl held strong against the hurricane-force winds; the tree she was standing on, however, did not.

"Daaamn yooouuu!" she shouted as she was blown out of sight among several broken trees.

Without wasting another moment, Orochimaru puked out a long sword, spun around and began slashing through the new wave of wraiths Naruto was sending his way. The legendary blade succeeded in vanquishing each one of the vengeful spirits, but it also kept him occupied enough for Sasuke to appear behind him and bury his sharpened claws deep into his neck.

"What do you think, freak?" the Uchiha asked. "Medium rare or charred black?"

The pale man smirked, twisted his head all the way around, and extended his neck far enough to latch his teeth onto Sasuke's neck in one fell swoop. The boy snarled in pain as a seal formed on the skin under the man's mouth.

Orochimaru's smirk widened in satisfaction. Things hadn't gone exactly as planned, and the team of children had wound up being even more dangerous than he'd thought, but he'd accomplished what he'd come here for nonetheless. Now, he just needed to make a quick retreat, get a new disguise, wait for the Curse Seal to work it's magic, and then...

How did Sasuke still have his hands around his throat when he should be writhing in agony on the ground? Releasing his bite, he tilted back far enough to see a very malicious grin on the boy's face. The glowing, empty eyes were a bit disconcerting as well.

"Charred black it is then," he growled as Orochimaru's entire body ignited in blue fire.

He didn't scream the way most were wont to do when set on fire, but he did thrash wildly before breaking Sasuke's grip on his neck and scrambling to put some distance between them. He then brought his hands up to his mouth, stretched it out and pulled down, peeling the flesh off his body and revealing new, uninjured skin and clothing underneath.

"This... is not how... this should be going," he groaned, gasping for breath and leaning against his Kusanagi as he glared at Sasuke. The boy was hunched over even further than usual, his flaming hands nearly touching the ground and his body trembling in pain or, more likely, fury. The deranged smirk and and bright glow in his eyes were still present, but what really got his attention was the steam coming from his neck, where the newly placed Curse Seal was rapidly dissolving away into nothing, as if it had never been there to begin with.

He was also laughing a very foreboding laugh, but that was temporarily ignored in favor of wondering how the Goddamn Hell his Curse Seal had been rendered completely ineffectual against the one person he needed it used on the most!


"Cut that shit out!" he bellowed, side-stepping the knife and whirling around to slice a deep gash from shoulder to hip into the young demon who had crept up behind him yet again. Blood sprayed from the grievous wound, but Naruto didn't fall, so Orochimaru lifted him by the neck of his robe and flung him head-first into the nearest tree.

Satisfied that the boy would surely stay down after that, Orochimaru was now free to focus on the excruciating pain in his side, where it felt like someone had just tore away a chunk of flesh with a burning hot-


On the bright side, the flaming talons had cauterized the wound, so at least he wouldn't bleed out. He'd have to be thankful for that once he finished murdering these little shits. In the meantime, he swiped his sword through the air toward his intended target, and hit nothing but air.


Another burning pain spread across his shoulder blades, almost causing him to drop his sword. In an act of frustration (and certainly not desperation) he Shunshin'ed into a tree to get some breathing room. What he got instead was a maniacal face already there, waiting for him.

"Burn to cinders!" he snarled, slashing at him again.

Orochimaru dodged, just barely, and a large chunk of the tree trunk beside him burst into flames. The boy was somehow much faster than he had been during their first little scrimmage. If he hadn't known better, he'd almost think that the Curse Seal had worked in raising the brat's abilities. But since he'd seen the seal vanish with his own eyes, he had to conclude that something else was augmenting the boy's strength and speed.

"Bleed for me!"

The Oto leader's sword flashed three times, scoring what should have been debilitating cuts into Sasuke's arm and chest, before he jumped to a higher branch. Sasuke followed immediately, unaware or just uncaring of his own wounds. How irritating. Not only was the boy shutting out pain, but those white-hot flames were a problem, as well. His skin was always extra sensitive right after using his Skin Shedding Jutsu, and heat was the worst thing for it. With the boy's entire arms shrouded in flames, it made counter-attacking somewhat difficult when he couldn't put any breathing room between them.

"Show me your insides!"

On top of that, he still wanted Sasuke's body, so he couldn't risk damaging it too badly anyway. With the Curse Seal proving useless, he needed to come up with some other way to not only incapacitate the Uchiha, but also insure that he would seek him out at the proper time. There was always bribery, he supposed, but considering the boy's current mental state, that probably wouldn't be an option either.

"Give me a hug!"

Orochimaru accidentally paused in mid-leap. "What?"

Then Sasuke was on him. "And die."

And then he was on fire.

On fire, and plummeting.

On fire, plummeting, in great pain, and wondering what the Hell sort of training the academy had starting drilling the children through in the time since he'd left. Because this? This was some bullshit.

And now, to really add insult to injury, there was an annoying beeping sound right by his ear. He tried to ignore it in favor of attempting to snuff out his burning flesh and breaking his fall, but the beeps only increased in volume and frequency. Turning his head, he found himself staring at several small, spherical metal objects; red lights blinking in time with the beeps coming from them. Looking to his other side, he found more of the same. And, with a sense of impending doom, he looked back up to where he had fallen from.

Sitting on a branch, her legs swinging beneath her and a not-so-happy grin on her bloodied face, was Sakura. And in her raised hand was a small remote.

"Shannaro, motherfucker!" she called down, pressing the detonator.

"I hate this village," he muttered just before his world became a chain of explosions, blasting him left, right, up and finally down to the ground, where he lay twitching, bleeding, smoking and charred inside his own personal crater.

Okay, screw the new body; all three of them were going to have to die. Painfully. Horribly. Sinisterly. There just was no two ways around it anymore. Damned to high Hell if he was going to allow this humiliation to continue. The pain that they were going to experience was going to be legendary. He might even be able to coin a new term for it. Yes, before long, whenever someone witnessed a man getting eviscerated beyond all recognition, he would turn to his companion and proclaim "Damn, that guy just got Team Seven'ed!"


"I think one of those explosions may have given me a concussion," he muttered weakly. "I don't usually go into rants like that to myself." All the more reason to kill the children brutally and get the Hell out of here before something else went wrong.

That's when the vengeful wraiths reappeared.


Meanwhile, not so far away...



"It sounds like all the explosions have stopped, and I'm not hearing any more yelling. Do you think we ought to go see what's happening now?"

"...Huu, yeah, I suppose we should probably-"

A bloodcurdling scream ripped through the relative silence of the forest.

"-wait another five minutes and then go check it out."

"Sounds good."


The three jounin sat back down on a fallen log, waiting for the fireworks to die down so that they could go in and assist.

Assist by identifying the bodies, of course.

A few seconds later, they all fell over backwards as someone leapt into the clearing in front of them.

"What the Hell are you three doing here?" a disheveled Anko demanded.

Having been caught flatfooted in not following orders handed down by the Hokage, the three men could only stammer out unintelligible excuses.

"Okay, let's try an easier question," the Special Jounin growled. "Why are you over here when you should be helping to catch Orochimaru over there?"

The very same unintelligible mumbles played again until one of them actually came up with something to say. "Well, why aren't you over there?"

"I was!" she shouted, making them all stumble backward again. "I got there just in time to see Pinky shove a bomb the size of me down a giant snake's throat, and then I woke up a mile away under a pile of branches and snake intestines!"

The men grimaced. "Gross."

"You'll think 'gross' if you don't get your collective asses over there right now!" Anko assured them. "Because if Orochimaru escapes I'm going to tie you down and force-feed them to you!"

Properly cowed, the three turned and headed off to almost certain doom, Anko following with grim determination.


The trio sat peacefully; Sakura humming softly and rocking her basket in her lap, Sasuke with his head held in his hands, and Naruto's dead-end gaze again focused on his lantern. One would almost think they hadn't just finished a grueling battle to the death with one of the most powerful men to ever come out of Konohagakure.

"Did we ever find out who that guy was?" Sakura wondered aloud, making Sasuke growl and lower his head further.

"Quiet. Headache."

Naruto, of course, said nothing, so Sakura shrugged and went back to humming before something else came to mind. "You know, in all this excitement, I forgot what we were supposed to be doing."

"Hn," Sasuke muttered.

Naruto stood up and began walking away, which was odd until she looked down and saw that the ground they were sitting on was glowing red. "Uh-oh."

Sasuke looked up. "What's 'uh-oh'?"

The answer came in the form of a red pillar of light surging with black lightning shooting out of the ground, missing Sakura by inches but catching Sasuke dead-center. The Uchiha writhed and convulsed in mid-air for several seconds before the jutsu ended and dropped him motionlessly to the ground.

Sakura didn't even have time to reach for a gun before Orochimaru himself burst out of the ground, one hand already forming seals, while the other hand hurled the Kusanagi like a javelin toward Naruto. The force behind the throw was so great that not only did it impale him straight through the chest, it also lifted and carried him backward until he was pinned securely to a tree trunk. The young demon spasmed once before going limp.

Not wasting a second, the Snake Sage finished his seals and pressed his palms to the ground, causing two large sheets of solid rock to jut up on either side of the startled Sakura. Then he clapped his hands together.

"Ah, crap," was all the girl got out before being sandwiched between the two rocks.

Orochimaru clapped three more times-


-and then lowed his hands back down, sending the rock back into the Earth, taking Sakura along with them.

Taking one last look around to ensure that none of the monsters would be getting back up any time soon, Orochimaru dropped to his hands and knees in exhaustion, trying to get his ragged breathing under control. Either he was getting old, or the young ones were getting better as the years went on. Kabuto was going to receive one Hell of a beating for failing to keep him up to date on these three, that was for damn sure.

This whole excursion had been a nightmare and complete waste of time on top of it. Sasuke had rendered his Curse Seal useless, Manda was going to be pissed over his offspring's death, which would mean no more snake summoning until the big guy calmed down, everyone in the village would surely know he was here by now and would be on the look out for him, and most insultingly of all, he'd gotten his ass kicked by a trio of preteens! He was going to have to kill any possible witnesses before leaving, because if word of this humiliation should somehow reach Tsunade or Jiraiya he would never be able to face them again.

His entire body ached, his skin was blistered and bloodied, and he honestly didn't know if he had the chakra reserves left to perform a second Skin Shedding and still have enough left over to make good on his escape. His best bet for the time being would be to find a secluded place to hide out for a few days, and then get back to the more pressing matters at hand once he recovered.

That in mind, the Snake Sage staggered back to his feet and walked over to retrieve Kusanagi, which was still pinning the blonde boy's corpse to the tree. He had known the moment he recognized the boy for who he really was that he could be trouble, but he hadn't expected anything like this. Those wraiths had hurt to high Hell, and he never would have guessed it would take so much effort to kill the little bastard.

Having thought that, he was really glad that no one was around to hear him scream like a child when the 'corpse' lifted its head up to stare at him.

"How!?" he demanded while backpedaling away from the boy. "What- you shouldn't- that sword is clearly impaling you through the heart! You should be dead!"

In clear defiance to what the man was saying, Naruto lifted his two ever-present weapons and began walking forward. Unfortunately, he didn't make it far before running into the hilt of the sword and, with the blade buried so deeply in the tree, impeding him from going any further.

Orochimaru took a moment to consider his options. He could simply cut his loses (his horrible, horrible loses), and beat a swift retreat before Sarutobi or anyone else showed up, then regroup and wait for a new opportunity...

On the other hand, he really liked Kusanagi and would hate to have to leave it behind. But to remove it would mean freeing the immortal child, and then he... then he...


Now there was an idea. True, the boy didn't have the Sharingan that he wanted, but the ability to brush off impalement through the heart as a minor inconvenience did seem like a nice trade-off. The only question was how he was going to incapacitate the little monster long enough to get him safely to Oto. Not to mention doing it without anyone spotting him-


"Oh, Goddamnit!" he hissed, turning to face the newly arrived jounin and his former protege.

As the two sides faced off, none of them noticed as Naruto gave up the futile effort of pushing past the sword hilt. Instead, he slipped his knife back into his robe and slung the ring-handle of the lantern around his wrist.

Then he raised his hands and formed a seal.

The pre-fight greetings between missing-nin and Konoha nin were cut short by an all-consuming explosion of smoke. Thankfully, it dissipated quickly enough. Unfortunately, the sight they beheld next caused Orochimaru's pupils to shrink down to pinpricks and his jaw to go completely slack. It also caused the three male jounin to scream, soil themselves, and pass out.

Anko held her reactions to a respectable stunned silence.

Yellow and brown dominated their vision. In front of them, behind them, to either side, above them and even in the craters below them, everything else was blocked out entirely by hundreds, possibly even thousands of clones.

Thousands of clones who were all holding flaring purple lanterns. Thousands of clones who were all pulling out identical butcher knives. Thousands of clones who were all staring right at Orochimaru of The Sannin.

The traitor looked back to Anko. "Anko..dear... I realize in the past we've had our differences... some of us were deceived, tortured, abandoned and left for dead... But I'm sure that if you looked deep into your heart, you'd find it in you to forgive me, and find me a way out of this befo-OHMYGODNO!"

And as Mitarashi Anko watched in rapt awe of the systematic dismemberment of her former sensei, only two thoughts came to mind.

1. She was going to adopt this demonic little orphan. And 2. The next time she witnessed someone get eviscerated beyond all recognition, she'd have to be sure to tell everyone 'Damn, that guy just got Orochimaru'ed'.



Odoshi Yozuma ran blindly through the forest, looking for the exit, or the safe haven in the center, or a large hole that he could climb into and stay for the next week and a half, anything to get away from this horrible place.

Giant leeches, giant snakes, even gianter explosions, his two teammates just had to jump into that lake to wash all the slime off...

Needless to say, he wasn't going to be advancing to the next round, especially since the Heaven Scroll they were carrying was now at the bottom of aforementioned lake, and in that lake it was bound to remain for a very long time. So the only option he had left was to get out before getting out was stopped being an option.

Then someone appeared in the clearing in front of him.

"AAAHH-oh, oh it's just you!" Ushio exclaimed, clutching his hand over his pounding heart. "God, for a second there I thought you were those other three. Oh wow, I thought I was about to die horribly, hahaha!"

Sabaku no Gaara said nothing, simply uncorked his gourd and watched his sand cocoon and then crush the stupid boy into chunky paste.

Standing outside of the splash zone, Kankuro sighed. "Well, looks like he's finally back to normal."

Temari nodded. What a shame; she was really starting to like the newer, much more docile, much less homicidal version of her littlest brother.

Gaara laughed triumphantly. Finally, after a full week of silence mixed with various whimpers, whines and other sounds of pain and fright, Shukaku was pulling himself back together enough that Gaara no longer had to rely solely on his own chakra to move his sand. If he were being honest, it was rather nice having the insane beast out of commission for a while; he'd slept better in the last eight days than he had in his entire life, and not being bombarded by endless screams to kill the nearest living thing to him was a pleasant change as well. But at the same time, he'd felt somehow... incomplete without it. After all, Shukaku was practically family to him. Psychotic, blood-lusting family who presented the constant possibility of devouring his soul any time he let his guard down, but family nonetheless.

Much more importantly, and this was something that he and Shukaku could both agree on: Now they could find the boy who had done this to them, and they could show him the true meaning of pain and terror! They could wipe that empty expression off of his face, and replace it with one of hopelessness and despair! They could-


Shukaku shrieked, and the floating sand dropped lifelessly to the ground.

Shocked beyond reason, Gaara turned his head just slightly to the left, where Uzumaki Naruto stood, staring at him. Before he could gather the brain-power to react, the boy vanished in a puff of smoke. The redhead jinchuriki stared at the empty spot, then to his unmoving sand and back again. Not knowing what else to do, he sunk to the ground for another round of laugh-crying.

"I don't know if I should kiss that boy, or cave his skull in," Temari admitted.

"I say do whichever is less likely to make him come after us," Kankuro stated wisely.


And elsewhere still, Yakushi Kabuto ran like he had never run before, a pack of worthless card tossed away in his wake so as not to weigh him down any further.



I think I understand now why so many people prefer writing overpowered, curb-stomp battles instead of trying to write actual fight scenes.

It's because trying to write actual fight scenes is hard!

I think I'll go back to the curb-stomping from here on out. That sound good?

And in case you're not aware: Sasuke's little freak-out during the fight was Iori's Riot of the Blood. Like the Curse Seal, it makes him faster and stronger, but makes him go berserk and causes him pain at the same time.

Next Time: ...Well, I'm sure you've picked up on the pattern by now.