A/N: Oi. Four months. AGAIN.
So, yeah. This is now my third promotion at work, I'm now running the store where I work. Yay... ish. I haven't gotten a corresponding raise yet, 3ish weeks in... But I have been working more than 50 hours a week. Would be nice if they could afford to pay me the overtime, or even the base pay, for all of it. Lol

But, good news! In return for the wait, I have what I promised: An extra long chapter (for me).
It's... oh, 9 pages single-spaced, so about 180% of a regular chapter for me, without ANs.

Edit: Chapter now betaed by Mouse. Thanks, dude. :)

Oh, one more thing. Tanaka's a dick, and is not above 'interrogation'. Read = Torture. This chapter might be squicky for some people, but the scenes are short and not in detail. Only one specific nasty (ie, uncommon) brand of torture is mentioned, as well... but there's also some psychological torture going on. So if that bothers you... sorry, but you can skip anything with Tanaka or Inoichi in the first few lines of a scene without TOO much of an issue.

Enjoy!


Chap. 56 To Quell the Gale

Sakura was really starting to feel it. Not just exhaustion; she'd passed that state hours before, simply from the stress of working in a life-and-death situation with one patient after another, while the wounded continued to pour into the aid station.

No, what she was feeling now was battle fatigue, which in many ways was far worse. "Alright, you bastards," she growled through clenched teeth, taking a moment to wipe blood from her mouth, never breaking from her half-crouch.
Ahead, behind, to each side, were seventeen more Suna ninja. At least Chunin, judging by their gear and the skills that had kept them alive so far. Behind and around them lay a ring of corpses, in some places seven deep and four bodies high, each scattered as if thrown like a rag-doll.

Because they had been.

Sakura, after all, was Senju Tsunade's heir in more ways than one.

What did it take to fling a two-hundred-kilo pound of a man, with another fifty pounds of weapons and gear on him a hundred feet, shattering the bodies of the two men the corpse had struck on impact? Not a lot, really. At least as far as physical strength went.

Any fool that looked at Haruno Sakura's arms, which were frequently bare anyway, could tell she stayed in shape and was quite fit. Any moron that noticed her weapons pouches, the medical kit, and the thin stilletto-style kunai she carried on the back of her belt would note that she was a ninja, and therefore probably adept at boosting her physical abilities far beyond the norm with chakra.

That was, after all, a prelude to learning jutsu.

But, like Tsunade, Haruno Sakura had proven her intense mastery of that technique several times over in this skirmish. A small bit of chakra, barely enough to draw a single breath, the kind anyone could produce- even those not able to use chakra as a ninja could- without straining, focused just so, at the precise moment in time necessary could create incredible kinetic force. The first man she'd thrown, who had been alive (if only moments from death, since the other medical teams had withdrawn in the face of Suna's flanking maneuver) at the time had been the two-hundred-plus man, and he had just been passed through triage with the large, red mark on his forehead that Hinata was using to denote "not worth saving".

Cruel, perhaps.

But any battlefield medic knows there's only so much time, only so much energy to consume, and so those with the greatest chance of survival have to be helped first. At least, those that don't count as 'walking wounded', which are typically shunted to the side for nurses at best to work on, before being thrown back into the fray.

Sakura, though, was no nurse, no mundane doctor. Her chakra control was so precise that the two-hundred-and-fifty pounds or more of humanity and equipment had effectively weighed about as much as a kunai.
And again, any idiot knows just how hard, and how fast, a ninja can throw a kunai.

Really, it was a wonder she hadn't ripped the man's arm off in accelerating his body to that speed in that short a time span.

But she had run out of corpses, her equipment pouch was nearly empty, with only a few dozen feet of wire and a single explosive tag- her 'last resort'- and the seal on the inside of her thigh that would act just like said tag, were she under a high amount of duress and came under contact by a foreign (not herself) flesh.

In other words, she and any would-be rapists would explode violently as soon as they tried going for it.

But that was the least of her worries. Because the Suna force knew exactly who she was, now, and they were being quite cautious. She was running out of options, time, and energy.

The few seconds she'd gained to catch her breath helped, but it was far too late for much else. Her own supply of soldier pills had been used on the wounded to help them survive the escape, barring one she'd already taken. In just a few minutes, the crash from that would heap onto her already overwhelming exhaustion, and she would be easy prey.

At least the explosive tag and anti-rape seal were already charged, because Sakura didn't think she had enough to blow either right now on her own.

Of course, that also didn't mean she was quite defenseless. There was a tree... a large one, three feet at the base, that she'd been using to keep them from attacking her back. She was still surrounded, but...

It was a good idea. If only... "You bitches sure you can handle me?" she scoffed, smirking confidently, now. It was... unlikely that her plan would work, and less likely that she would be returning home to Tsunade, Shizune, Jiraiya, Sasuke, or far more importantly, Naruto and Ino. But damn it, she would take out as many of these invaders as she could.

They were ninja. It was expected to use underhanded, dirty tactics to win. So attacking an aid station was not, by any means, out of line. But they had attacked hers, and that Sakura just did not like.

"I'm pretty sure we can, girlie," the ranking Suna Jonin growled, his tone aggressive and commanding. He was an older man, gray at the temples, with a much sun-weathered, angular face and deep lines under his eyes. Those alone spoke to the man's strength. It took a lot to survive being a ninja until you went gray. "You've done pretty well, I can see that old lady trained you pretty well, but you're done. You have to see it. Surrender, and we'll make it quick... or you can come back to Suna. Without being raped, tortured, or otherwise interrogated in a harsh manner. We could use your skills."

Sakura nodded, "I'm sure you could," but her eyes did not lose the cold glint. But every moment she kept them talking, every second gave her another breath, a small fraction of the chakra she would need for this... "But you have to realize I can't trust you. And even if I could, I wouldn't betray my family, my friends. Would you? If I offered you the chance to surrender, would you take it, throw away your whole life, just to live another day or week?"

She could hear the three ninja behind her edging closer, but they were still on the other side of the tree. It was a wonder they hadn't blanketed it in paper bombs, yet, even if that would cause as much damage to them as her. They could afford it, she could not.

The Jonin shrugged, "Your loss, I suppose. We followed orders by giving people a chance to surrender, especially high-profile targets like you. The Kazekage would have been quite lenient, since adding even a portion of this small Village's forces to our own would push us back over the line ahead of Oto, but... it's your call. Get 'er, men."

The flat delivery of the older Jonin's speech fit well with his world-weary expression, but the excited, "Hai, Isago-taicho!" that the younger ninja delivered before the lot of them rushed her at once told Sakura she might just succeed.

After all, enthusiasm like that can lead to mistakes.

And her particular brand of precision was great for capitalizing on that.

Not because of the fine control... but because of what the fine control allowed.

With a grunt of effort, and a flash of azure that surrounded Sakura's body in a thin halo for a brief moment, her bear-hug shattered the low end of the tree. The ninja had taken one step, and closed about one of the four yards between them.

By the time they had taken another, the tree was falling, and Sakura was also being forced to send eighty percent of her remaining supply- about one percent of her full capacity, as far as she could tell- just to remain upright against the pull of gravity on the tree, which she was also swinging laterally even as it fell.

The was a brief flash of pain across her back, and another a moment later that settled in one of the ribs just under Sakura's left scapula, right between her T-5 vertebrae and the bottom of her shoulder blade. But she could not stop, even if she wanted to. She'd gotten the tree moving, and had the remaining chakra to guide it's path for a brief moment more, but she didn't have the energy to stop it. In fact, Sakura didn't even hiss in reaction to the pain of the kunai, every ounce of energy her body was producing was gearing toward swinging a fifteen-meter tree in a wide, powerful arc.

Each impact against a body as she spun sent shock waves down the trunk of the tree and into Sakura's body, throwing off her control just a little.

But she was, as has been said, Tsunade's heir. She was, to the end, damned good.

So even as she started to pass out from extreme fatigue and exhaustion, Sakura subconsciously compensated for every tremor and vibration, and, knowing this was her last ditch effort, her body kicked in a little more, beyond the adrenalin factory it had been for hours already.

And as she spun, the tree trunk accelerated.

In under two seconds, before one of the Jonin had crossed within a meter of her even with his arm and weapons outstretched, the tree had made one full revolution. That Jonin, alone among his fellows, had significantly less of an impact to suffer through due to the simple physics of a spinning length of, well, anything. To put it bluntly, a rod, staff, or in this case, tree, any object with a measurable length, when spun from the end will travel faster at the side farther from the point of rotation.

Simple physics saved that man's life. In return, it also promised that his last few moments were going to be incredibly painful.

Because he might have survived the tree-blow, and even survived the much softer impact with the branches as he continued to roll, nearly every bone in his body shattered, down the trunk of the tree.

Again, simple physics.

Why was he unluckier to have survived longer? Well, his compatriots, barring Isago himself, were killed much more quickly, most of their bodies completely pulverized into something resembling red-and-beige jelly before they could even register pain.

As the trunk started to slip, and time un-dilated even as Sakura's tunnel-vision kicked in, she let go, hoping she was not going to hit an ally or some defenseless, cowering woodland animal.

Hoping, as well, that she would take out the enemy captain.

But as the tree spun off like a whirling knife, crashing through several other trees its own size or larger before coming to rest in splinters at the feet of a true giant of the forest six dozen yards away, Sakura was upset to see that Isago was several meters away, staring in awe at the destruction around her. "Well done, girlie," he muttered quietly, "but I know you're spent. That was your last try... and I doubt I'll have any problem taking you for Suna now, willing or no."

"Leave it, Isago-san," a newcomer growled from the trees behind him, "Just kill her. This is taking too long, most of my team is dead and yours has been wiped out barring you... by one little girl. The Kazekage wants this over, and so do I."
"Baki? Glad to see you made it... did your grudge match live up to your expectations?" the hard-jawed man asked over his shoulder, not taking his eyes from Sakura in the process.

She was not pleased at all to see a much-bloodied man, still shucking the remains of ruined armor from his torso, and with only one remaining eye, the other covered by one old and one very new wound and a lot of blood, arrive, followed by nine more men. "Crap..." she muttered.

"I'll do it," the newcomer said sternly as the last of his breastplate fell away in two pieces. He rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck, "Haruno, if you see Sarutobi Asuma in the next life... tell him, for what it's worth, he's as much a bitch as the girl he-"

But whatever the commander, Baki, had been about to say, it was interrupted by the sight of his sternum erupting toward Sakura in a spray of blood.

"You can tell me yourself, you bastard," one of Baki's men said, even as his arm fell from the high-powered throw of a trench knife, "Once I find my way there... long after you."

Baki looked down in shock at the welling of additional blood from his chest, took one step around to face his killer, and fell to his knees. "Saru-" he coughed, blood flecking the killer's leggings as he did, "How... killed you..."

The newcomer's visage wavered, and he stood up tall. "Dumbass... same way I beat you last time. Ash Clones... they don't have to look like me. That's the advantage of a physical clone, after all. That girl you said you were in love with, that you murdered? Kurenai? That was my sister-in-law... not my lover. I hope you see her in the afterlife, too. Her and her husband both. Goodbye, Baki," the scraggly-bearded man said harshly, even as he twitched a finger to send his trench knife flickering back into his hand via a ninja wire. "Now," he turned toward Isago and the remaining men, "Not just you Suna pricks against me or a single kunoichi anymore, is it? Let's see what you can do!"

Despite being overwhelmed with relief, somehow, that the commander of the next unit over had survived to rescue her, Sakura was simply not able to sustain consciousness. But the last thing she saw as she faded out with a small smile on her face was the sight of the masters of wind-based ninjutsu falling like sheaves of wheat at the hands of Sarutobi Asuma.

(O)(O)(O)

Temari desperately parried the blow from her enraged kinsman, using the momentum generated by his gigantic axe to slide backward and away from another blow by one of the few shinobi attacking her she wasn't related to in any way, then dropping to one ankle and sweeping her left leg out behind her to hopefully catch the third and final Jonin off-guard enough to be able to back away.

Luckily enough for her, that was exactly what happened, allowing the blonde teen to use her already-coiled right leg to power a prodigious leap away from the her cousin and more distant relation, landing more than a dozen feet away thanks to her mastery of wind chakra and powerful jump.

"Tch, you never were any good close-in, Temari," the oldest of the Suna trio growled, wiping his jaw with one hand to clear it of blood she'd drawn with a vicious kick a moment before they had surrounded her, "Don't know how you keep getting lucky enough to escape the three of us. Still, you won't be disappointing your father any more... you can't get more disappointing than a traitor."

Projecting bravado the kunoichi certainly didn't feel, Temari stood tall and replied, "Like you'd know anything about skill, Katsuyori. Just because I prefer range doesn't mean I'm defenseless up close. You'd know that if you weren't a coddled fool. Being the Kazekage's daughter isn't the easy life you always seemed to think, cousin. But I'm stronger for it... stronger than all of you."

Around the battling foursome, the evidence seemed to support that, because in every direction there was a multitude of corpses. Some were Ootori, the last member of her bodyguards had supplied the blood that still dripped from her cousin's huge Ono. But the majority were definitely Suna. Once her chakra had run too low to maintain the whirlwind that held the sandstorm at bay over their area, her guards had closed in around her, preparing to be surrounded by hostiles.

Then, as if by a miracle, the storm had dissipated within minutes, only to reveal a unit of quite surprised Suna samurai, warriors, and ninja. The grunts, no matter how well trained, had largely been ripped or cut to shreds by Temari's jutsu while her guardsmen had kept the kunoichi safe. The three ninja in her guard- she assumed to keep her 'allegiance' to the side she'd openly declared days before, but in reality to protect her from being captured by ninja- had been harder to kill than her own non-ninja guards, and had each felled more than five Suna ninja before they had died.

That, alone, was a feat Temari felt worthy of recognition. Suna may not have the best track record compared to the other Great Hidden Villages, or the largest force, but they had some of the harshest, toughest training available in the entire world.

That they had been slaughtered by these relative nobodies said a lot about the value of defending your home, if nothing else.

"Always a smart response, eh, Temari?" her cousin snarled, "Well, I'll be putting a stop to that soon enough. Your father didn't make any request regarding your own safety, after all. At least he knows how to deal with traitors like you."

When he started advancing, his compatriots, once again, spread out to either side to flank her, just as they'd done three times previously.

Unfortunately, as far as Temari was concerned, she had no better plan than any of the other times. The terrain, what was left of it, was unfavorable to her. The stumps and shattered remains of the trees in the area would break up any high-powered wind jutsu, limiting their effectiveness, and the bodies made for poor footing. What was worse was that her chakra was too limited, and her fan too damaged, to simply take off and fly away.

If that had even been feasible. Her cousin, while not someone she was close to, had been someone she had trained with extensively, and he knew her tactics. Knew how to counter them. And if he was not as skilled as she was in elemental manipulation, he was much, much fresher.

The axe raised over Katsuyori's head once again, and Temari's fan slid behind her, held with both hands. The others were already at her sides, waiting for that one moment of distraction when her last line of defense was busy fending off the two-handed battle axe, the one moment she was most vulnerable.

Wind, natural this time, whistled through the impromptu clearing, stirring Temari's tattered robe.

In that brief moment, she felt...

Clarity.

Perhaps it was, she would muse in later years, simple serendipity. Just chance.

But in that moment when she felt the wind brush across her chin and throat, cooling the sweat of much exertion, felt it whistle in the hollows of her ears, felt the slight tug on her banded hair, Temari knew how she would come through this.

She could not win against the three of them by playing defensive.

That was not really her style, anyway.

And she had enough chakra left... for one more attack. But it would put her down, unconscious for several minutes, at least.

It was her best chance, though.

The breeze quieted.

The axe fell.

Temari's fan, fully closed and already battered, rose to meet it, held over her head with both hands.

With a sharp clang of metal-on-metal, the axe stopped, Temari's knees buckling under the strain slightly. There was a low, soft screech as the outer edge of her fan began to buckle and crack under the weight of the blow.

Then Temari deliberately relaxed her knees, falling to them on the sand-covered forest floor, tilting her crescent-moon fan to allow the axe to slide to the side, and bringing one hand forward.

Her uppercut, awkwardly delivered at best, still had the power of a Chunin or Jonin behind it, and quite a bit of chakra at that. It caught her cousin underneath the codpiece of his battle armor, and lifted him a full meter into the air, likely liquifying several organs as the wind chakra passed through his body from the bottom up.

It was hardly a clean blow, she knew, but efficient nonetheless.

The problem was, as she struggled to stand under the weight of her own body, armor, and now-fractured fan, it had taken the last bit of usable chakra she had. She was good for maybe five minutes of actual combat, if that.

Her distant cousin and the unknown Jonin were... well, normally she would call such a battle child's play. She was the Kazekage's oldest child, after all, and as well-trained as any Jonin of Sunagakure could be. But she was wiped out.

In fact, it was starting to be quite tempting just to let the kodachi being swung by the younger of the two shinobi to strike her side, just to have the excuse to sleep.

There was a cry of pain, and the kodachi fell from twisted, shattered fingers to clatter harmlessly on the ground, a moment before the last Jonin's body stopped moving quite suddenly.

"It's not like you to give up, sis," a disturbingly familiar voice echoed through the clearing, "What would dad think, after all this, if you just gave up and died?"

She could hardly believe her luck. Or was it? Kankuro was, of all her family, probably the most loyal to their father. As skilled as she was in Wind manipulation, she knew her younger brother and last surviving sibling was at least her equal in Suna's other main art, that of puppetry. And she was so, so tired... if he wanted to bring her back, there would be nothing she could do. "Hey, Kankuro," she said, voice trembling slightly with the sheer effort of speaking while looking around for her still-hidden brother, "Did you give your unit the slip to help me, or are they waiting to carry me back to our father when you knock me out?"

"Neither," either he or his puppet said as it walked from behind a tall stump, "They're waiting to see what I do, like any good ninja. I have to ask, though, before I decide myself... why? Is he that important to you? Do you love him, or something? Give me a reason, something to convince me you didn't turn traitor for nothing."

Temari shrugged, "Don't think I can do that, little brother. Of course I love Naruto... you might be too young to remember, but in the six months he spent with us years ago, he was our mutual best friend. The only one all three of us could play with without fighting with all the time. But I'm not in love with him, no."

"Then why?" he repeated, fingers twitching to hold the two still-living but effectively neutralized victims of advanced puppet-master techniques at bay.

Temari just looked up at the sky, now surprisingly clear and crystalline blue, "Because he's right. We fell off the path, and he wants to set us back on it. All of us, every one of the Nations, all the ninja. And I think he can do it. At least, if he has help."

Kankuro shook his head, which Temari had never admitted she found comical in his cat-hooded outfit, "Dad's not gonna buy that, and you know it. I know I don't."

Temari just smiled slightly, turning to look her younger brother in his battle-painted face for the first time in what felt like years, "Maybe... but it's the truth. Whatever you're gonna do, do it. I'm too tired to fight any more, and I've said my piece."

Kankuro just shook his head, and watched his sister for several minutes before declaring, "Mission complete, squad. I'll keep her locked down here. The rest of you report to my father, tell him what we both said. He can deal with her or both of us himself, I don't get paid enough to off my own sister."

Temari never saw the puppet squad melt out of the trees, but she felt them leave all the same. All she saw was the clear, clear blue sky from flat on her back. The last thing she heard before passing out was the sickening crunch of two spines, twisted in ways they were never meant to be bent, by her brother's manipulation of chakra strings.

(O)(O)(O)

"Shitheads! You're all shitheads! Damn it, Sakon, why can't we just kill all these fucktards and get on with it?!"

"A lady shouldn't curse, Tayuya," her bulkiest 'team mate' said before their nominal leader could respond.

She, of course, merely resumed cursing in a long, unbroken string for several seconds, until she ran out of breath. When she paused momentarily to inhale, the head at the back of Sakon's answered for him, instead, "Because, Tayuya, Orochimaru-sama instructed us to weed out the chafe, that's why. Or did you forget all he's done for each of us, already? We don't need another reason."

For once, the red-haired teenager's growing tirade fell silent, and she looked away, glaring softly into the shadows of the massive chamber, before returning a sullen look to the clashing, skirmishing tide of once-humanity below them. Each of the 'Sound Four' were at one corner of the huge room's upper balcony, which circled the combat chamber, while the vast majority of Orochimaru's current test subjects and grunts battled it out for supremacy... and the right to aid their mutual master in his grand designs.

The 'rules', such as they were, were simple. Each had been instructed to fight another to the death. The winner would aid Orochimaru, the loser, being patently less useful, would be dead.

Simple, effective.

Then again, Otogakure was not known for recruiting the best order-followers in the best of times, and these, the dregs of Orochimaru's experiments, cast-offs from society, and so on, were hardly going to follow that instruction. So they did what each of the Four knew they would, and turned on each other in a grand, wild melee.

That was alright, they would simply stop the fight with one of their powerful jutsu when the numbers dwindled to about half. Those that were lucky or strong enough to survive would be the 'victors', and the effect would be the same.

At least as far as Orochimaru, and by extension they, were concerned.

After all, they were on a time limit.

"Hurry up, maggots!" The previously silent, six-armed Kidomaru screamed down into the battle below, "Die faster, Lord Orochimaru needs this finished in an hour!"

Some might call such a command ludicrous, even insane.

Those people had no idea what they were talking about, because the two hundred or so surviving combatants redoubled their efforts at slaughtering everyone around them.

After all, psychotic or not, Orochimaru got what Orochimaru wanted.

One way, or the other.

(O)(O)(O)

"Excellent, that will be all, Inoichi-san. Now, one final choice lies before you," Sabaku no Tanaka said with an almost-lazy drawl that belied how anxious he was to disseminate the knowledge he'd just gleaned from the captured blonde jonin.

"The choice is fairly simple. I'm aware that you have a wife and daughter in Ootori, and you would like to see them one last time. I am prepared to give you that chance, if you will simply agree to carry a large wrapping of armed explosive tags with you. Of course, that would kill your family and any surrounding ninja," Tanaka continued to speak calmly, ignoring the faint whimper that escaped the now-broken Jonin's lips, "But at least you'll be able to see them again, one last time. Won't that be nice?"

This time, the gray-and-brown-haired man stood from the stool in the interrogation tent to stand tall over his prisoner, who hung, as he had for hours, limply from chains attached to the center pole. "The second option is even simpler. I can simply kill you right now, you don't have to help kill your family, but you don't get to see them again, one last time."

Again, Inoichi whimpered, this time more softly.

"Finally, option three. The one I would most like you to take, I must admit. You return to Sunagakure, with us. You will have women- more than you could probably handle without drugs to that effect, to be honest- on a daily basis, for several years. You would then be required to train any suitable offspring in your family's arts. Then we will allow you to die peacefully, in your sleep, after living at least a decade or so in the greatest comfort Suna can afford. I'll give you a few minutes to think about it, Inoichi-san. After all, I have a battle to wrap up."

The precise moment the tent flap closed and the guards resumed position outside of it, Inoichi's lips began moving. An astute lip reader might have been able to see a few simple words, a sequence, actually.

"Ichi. Ni. San. Shi. Go. Roku. Shichi. Hachi. Kyuu. Ju. We're coming, Daddy. Just sit tight."

Then, Inoichi's face slumped even further against his chin as his daughter's jutsu was released.

A few seconds later, the entire tent collapsed as the pole was yanked underneath the ground.

For a few brief seconds, there was stunned surprise on the half-hidden faces of the two guards, and several other command personnel in the forward command base.

But as the alarm went up, the quicker of the two guards yanked back on the tent's outer covering, a hand already on his tanto, only to be squished into something resembling a flapjack made of tan armor, bone, and blood when a fist the size of three of him ripped the tent from the ground and smashed down atop him.

Immediately afterward, a spinning gray-and-black tornado ripped out of the hole the huge appendage had left when it shrunk back to normal, striking the remaining guard with enough fury to rip his hed and left arm from his torso.

When the tornado spun to a stop, it revealed a tall young man with a black leather jacket and ripped gray jeans, blood dripping from long, claw-like fingers and a feral look about him even without the fang-shaped tattoos below his eyes, half-crouching between the two guards. "I smell surprise... and fear. Let's do this! Chōji, Henna-san! Attack!"

The female Uchiha sprung up beside him, landing in a low crouch of her own, but this time a more solid, less animalistic combat stance, followed by a huge, shaggy white dog, and then the bulky, red-haired form of Akimichi Chōji.

After exactly one minute of the three human and one canine assault part of the team wreaking havoc in the mostly-unprepared command area, they hopped back into the hole and ran, Chōji bringing up the rear.

They had gotten about a hundred yards down their entry tunnel when a soft but firm voice called out from behind them, "Oh, children... surely you didn't think that would escape unnoticed, did you? Besides, we already got all we needed from Yamanaka Inoichi, and the new orders have already been sent. But hey, at least you get to be killed by the Kazekage, not some low grunt. Isn't it an honor?"

"Keep the condescension, old man," Inuzuka Kiba growled, "Besides, we can take you, can't we, Akamaru? You get out of here, Chōji."

Tanaka smirked. "You think, just because we're underground, that I'm weaker? Boy, haven't you ever heard of a wind tunnel?"

As the dust started to pick up in the loose earth around them, Kiba, Akamaru, and Chōji all paled.

One thought went through two human and one canine brains, more or less in unison. Crap.

(O)(O)(O)

"Daddy! Daddy, are you alright? Can you hear me?"

"Doesn't matter," Inoichi tried to mumble, but his daughter, who was helping to carry him down the tunnel with a vaguely familiar-looking young man on his arms, were both panting to hard to have heard him. "Already... told him... told him everything... sorry..."

That part, his daughter seemed to catch. "No, Daddy! You didn't! I told him, and I told him everything wrong! It wasn't you! I looked, sorry Daddy, I looked and I saw what he did, and it was horrible, and you stood strong, and you didn't break, Daddy! You never did!"

Behind them, the only non-ninja on the infiltration team limped along, nursing a stitch in her side but desperate to return to Ootori. Shiho was quite certain she was not cut out for field work, and the few seconds they'd spent listening in on the misinformation they had fed to Tanaka was of very limited use, but at least they had something.
A small clue, but something... to make it worthwile.

Unfortunately, by the time a thoroughly wiped-out Nara Shikamaru and Yamanaka Ino reached the last remaining relief tent, Inoichi was gone.

But his daughter lived on to tell her mother how her father had stood against the worst interrogation techniques she'd ever heard of or imagined, and never broken.

His name would go on the memorial stone of Ootori, the first one carved there.

It would not be the last.

(O)(O)(O)

The front lines had shattered. The rear guard had broken.

The only problem for Suna was, neither side knew it.

Naruto's team had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, though not without cost.

Konohamaru and Zankako were fine, both barely more than flesh wounded. Their 'archers' had both come through with nary a scratch, but for a new dent on that spunky Inari kid's pot-helmet, one which he worried at constantly, trying to push it straight again, as they straggled away from the command center, muttering about how his mom was gonna kill him for ruining her best pot.

Karakui, the girl who had learned to shoot to feed her family, was the only member who had come out completely unscathed, though from the haunted look in her eyes, Naruto knew the fourteen year old would need someone to talk to later.

And as squad leader, that fell to him, unfortunately. Her family would not be able to help, civilians as they probably were. Like she had been, before today. Not anymore, he mused. Never again, because you can't go back.

Blue eyes continued to rove. His squad had succeeded in their mission, but it was at such a high cost. Minamoto was there, sobbing into a red-and-white handkerchief. His vanity was shattered along with his morale. He now sported a profusely-bleeding gash from just ahead of his left ear down and into, then through, the center of his right lip. Speaking was painful, but just looking at the ragged wound made Naruto cringe... and he was nowhere near as conceited about his appearance as the once-handsome young man had been. But maybe, just maybe, the ladies will like the battle scar... and he'll be more popular than ever.

But so many others were gone. Shuki, Rekota, Dende, Ichimaru, Shogi, Tsutaro... they were gone.
"All in all," he muttered softly to himself as the last of the Suna tents passed by their slow 'retreat' back to their own command post, "this was a success... but it sure doesn't feel like it."

It would be many, many days of talking to Jiraiya, Tsunade, and several other more experienced ninja before he realized that was why war was so terrible. Even the victories, well...

There was no such thing.


A/N2: As usual, not too much to say. Too much work, not enough time or energy left to write. But at least, as store manager, I'm mostly working days again. Helping out my gpa at night (he's diabetic and elderly, had a valve replacement surgery and a small stroke while recovering from that) the first half of every week has REALLY cut down on my sleep time, since I don't sleep well anywhere but in my bed and he's about 50 min away so I just stay there.
But... at least I can write a little bit at a time. So, before I head out...
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