A/N: Thanks to everyone who reviewed so far! I know that this is my first fanfic, so any feedback is greatly appreciated. I'll try and improve as I go.

**********Chapter 6: Soldiers of the Dawn*************

Speeding through the forest, the Konoha expedition knew that time was of the essence. Naruto wasn't about to let his friend die, especially because of the monster inside of him. In a way, he felt detached from the rest of the group, and could not explain to them why this was the case. A bond between jinchuuriki was as unique as it was strong; it could not be explained to others. The experiences and mentalities that jinchuuriki's shared was only something that could be lived through.

A question shook him from his thoughts, "Naruto, you seemed to already know about Akatsuki and what they're after before the mission briefing. Why?" Shino was a curious individual and sometimes too keen for his own good, Naruto surmised. 'Well, no point in hiding it anymore. I'm done running.'

"Because I'm the jinchuuriki for the Kyuubi no Youko." There was no use mincing words or skirting around the issue. Bluntness had been something he was known for, after all.

At that, nearly every one of the Konoha 11 stopped dead in their tracks. It shouldn't have surprised him, given that they had just found that not only had their academy lessons about the fox been a lie, but that their eccentric friend held none other than the most powerful demon in the world within him.

"What?" asked a startled Sakura. "H-how?"

"The Yondaime didn't kill the fox; nobody could. His only option was to seal it away-into me."

The shocked faces and looks of surprise didn't unease Naruto in the slightest; he was used to odd glares. For his friends, pieces of a puzzle they didn't even realize existed began falling into place.

'Now I understand,' thought Sakura. 'Those looks from the villagers, they weren't from the pranks or his rudeness. And why he cares so much about Gaara.'

Neji recalled something he had been told during his fateful Chuunin Exam match years ago.

-Three Years Prior, Chuunin Exam Finals-

The Hyuuga prodigy pointed an accusatory finger at the 'dead last.' "You could never understand what it's like to be burdened with a symbol that you could never rid yourself of!"

But the retort was something he had never expected. The blond looked up at him, and smiled. "Yeah, I can. And? So what?"

-Present Time-

Now he finally understood what his opponent had meant by that.

Naruto studied the faces of his friends. Despite his calm exterior, he was extremely worried. If the villagers were any indication, he could expect them to act like nothing more than professionals on a mission, by necessity. After that...

Sakura put a stop to those thoughts. "Naruto," she said, hardly above a whisper, "I'm so sorry. I should have realized...I shouldn't have acted so coldly towards you."

Before Naruto could assure Sakura that none of that was her fault, Hinata spoke up (much to the surprise of everyone around her). "Y-you're not a monster, Naruto-kun." Pasuing for a brief moment, she did something that shocked Naruto even more. "B-besides, y-you couldn't possibly be more of an animal than Kiba-kun."

Kiba nearly fell over at that. "O-oi! What the heck is that supposed to mean?"

Shino spoke next, immediately getting everyone's attention. The stoic shinobi wasn't exactly much of a talker, so everyone listened in when he decided to say something. "It would be illogical to have a different mentality towards you after knowing of your status as jinchuuriki. Had it been an issue before, we surely would have known by now. Why? Because news of demonic chakra and collateral damage would spread like wildfire."

Naruto looked down, and said in an unusually quiet voice, "Thanks, everyone. I've...I'm really glad to hear that. Thank you."

As they continued on in deafening silence, Hinata called out from the lead position. "I see movement; several contacts two kilometers out, southwest. They appear to be moving for the Wind/River country border!"

The Sand Siblings, as they had become known as over the years, tailed the ones who had captured their brother at a safe distance. As they neared the edge of the forest that marked the boundary between the Wind and River countries, Temari had her own nagging feeling.

Not wanting to wait to find out, she reached for her iron fan, bringing it to bear in a well-practiced, single motion and swung. The attack was not meant to do damage, but reveal any potential traps.

She should have made a bet with Kankuro, she mused, as she had just hit the jackpot. With the top layer of sand blown away, half a dozen shinobi burst from their hiding spot, cover blown, and weaved seals. Her brother was already prepping his puppets, so Temari swung her fan again, this time with the intent to cause some serious damage.

Seeing the trap was sprung, Deidara smiled to his partner. "See, sempai? I told you I should have done it myself. They wouldn't stand a chance against my art!"

Sasori was about to retort, when a familiar sensation spiked in his mind. 'Sasori, report,' said the mental voice of their leader.

'We have the target in custody and are heading to the hideout as we speak,' replied the puppet master.

'And have they been engaged?'

'Yes, they're going to have their hands quite full. It seems that you were right when you created this force.'

'Indeed. By the time the rest of the rescue force arrives, they will be just in time to meet the Soldiers of the Dawn head on.

Kankuro decided to start with his tried and true, old friend: Karasu. He'd made many modifications over the years, but it was his improved skills that made this puppet all the more deadly. As the puppet opened its mouth, poisoned senbon launched at the nearest enemy, who was already in the air, and thus could not dodge. Not able to parry two dozen senbon at once, the shinobi was peppered and fell to the ground, lethally poisoned.

Bringing his Salamander puppet to bear, he activated the launchers in its mouth, which fired off round projectiles at a pair of hostiles still in the air. Though they were far less accurate than the senbon and much slower, they were impossible to defend against with traditional means. They found their mark, and exploded on contact. 'Three down.'

But before he could bring his third and final puppet into attack position, the remaining shinobi unleashed the jutsu they had been preparing. A thin but concentrated stream of water shot out at the Karasu puppet, and Kankuro desperately maneuvered it away, but not before two of its limbs were severed clean off. Another shinobi fired off several fireballs at the fleeing Karasu, igniting it and severely damaging it. Officially pissed at the destruction of his old friend, Kankuro launched poison gas bombs at the offending shinobi, forcing them to flee from the gas. As they tried to jump clear, they were peppered by kunai launched by the Salamander puppet.

The final shinobi blew a large stream of water at Temari, only the wind-user's attack to slice through the water and straight into the enemy, lethally wounding him. She dodged the failed attack and regrouped with her brother. "It appears that they have allies, though they aren't nearly as powerful as the ones in those cloaks," said Temari.

Kankuro didn't have time to respond, as a large gust of wind shot out towards the pair, sending a cloud of sand up in the air. Temari quickly swung her fan to clear away the sand, but almost wished she hadn't, for a dozen more of those unknown hostiles were waiting at the edge of the forest.

"I can't believe you didn't wait for me; I'm offended." Temari and Kankuro turned around to see none other than their jounin-sensei, Baki. "But still, there is plenty of action left, so I forgive you." Behind their teacher were another half dozen Suna jounin. Things were only just getting started.

As the Konoha team neared the enemy patrol, Kakashi ordered operational silence. He sent Neji, Shino, and Naruto out to gather any information they could.

"...We're nearly at the end of our patrol route. We'll have to report back to Leader-sama if no one shows up within the next three hours," said one of the shinobi. They were all dressed in a red and black uniform with cloud designs. Naruto noted that they were distinctly different from the signature Akatsuki cloaks he'd seen in the past; these were much more subtle in their design, and were not nearly as large or voluminous. Neji and Shino, however, seemed to be scared out of their wits as they had no way of reaching a similar conclusion.

"When we report back, we'll regroup with the forces stationed in the forest near the river."

"But our orders-"

"If they aren't here within the next few hours, then Konoha will be too late anyway. I'm giving you all an order. Understood?"

"Hai!" they all barked in unison.

Naruto knew that there was no time for debate; if they were to get the info they needed, they would need to get it now. He signaled to Neji and Shino that they were going to attack. Though Neji was a bit flabbergasted at this, as he was the superior ranked shinobi present, he knew that he had no choice. If Naruto was going to attack, then they should at least help rather than sit idly by.

Naruto flung a few shuriken at the patrol, forming a few seals. The shuriken then multiplied into several dozen, raking the patrol before they knew what hit them. Shino unleashed his kikaichu swarm at the rest, while Neji went down to take on anyone still willing to fight, and disable those who were wounded by the shuriken. Naruto formed half a dozen clones, who proceeded to mop up the rest.

Hinata quickly reported what happened, and the rest of the team from Konoha joined the trio. "What's going on? Why did you attack? We gave explicit orders to observe and gain information, not give away our position!" Kakashi was agitated, he thought his student had changed.

"We have all the information we were going to get. Besides, we seem to have only a few hours before the sealing process is complete. If we can do a quick interrogation, then we have plenty of prisoners to do it with," Naruto said. Surprised, Kakashi waited a moment to collect himself before speaking.

"Very well. Ino?"

"Hai." Using techniques she had honed under her father's tutelage, she approached who Neji pointed out as the leader, and palced her palm against his forehead as she concentrated. A minute later, she broke the technique and turned to her team. "They were going to head to an area not too far from here, to the south. It's what looks like a small cliffside overlooking a river, except there's a huge boulder protruding from the cliff."

"Then that's where we're headed." Kakashi paused a moment before sighing. "There rest of you go on ahead for a bit, I'll finish up here."

"No," Neji interjected, "I'll do it. I can end their ability to be a threat for the rest of their lives without killing them."

Knowing that the Gentle Fist could do some serious damage to more than just the chakra system, Kakashi nodded. This decision seemed to put many of the team at ease.

After the deed was done, the team headed south at top speed. 'A few hours' was not nearly enough for Naruto's liking.

"Leader-sama, we seem to have intruders."

The wispy silhouette known to his subordinates as 'Leader' turned to face his plant-like minion. "Report."

"Several teams of shinobi have breached the perimeter; their headbands make them out to be from Konoha. I recognize a few of them; namely Kakashi of the Sharingan and Maito Gai, Konoha's leading taijutsu specialist. We would not do well to underestimate them."

After mulling the situation over for a few moments, Nagato delivered his order. "Sasori, gather three of the Soldiers of the Dawn from outside the cave. We're going to stall for time."

He turned to three other members of his organization. "Kakazu, Konan, Itachi; I'm going to need about one third of your chakra."

A/N: Hope you liked it. Things will get really intense from here on out; it's going to be a lot of action. Before you go any further, remember to take nothing for granted. Just because something happens in canon doesn't mean that anything of the sort will happen in this story, and vice versa.

I'm also going to make Sasuke more of a human being here. I definitely found it unrealistic that he so easily discarded all emotion and feelings after a single fight. Nothing will be immediate, so don't worry.

As for potential parings, this story will not focus on that. It may play a part, but again, if you want to influence that decision, review and let me know.

You'll also notice (hopefully) that things are more organized in this chapter. This is the first chapter that is outlined; the first five were basically done by the seat of my pants, with only a few general points to guide what direction I went with it. Now, though, I have an outline for the rest of this arc, and hopefully it will reflect that.

Until next time, please review!

Next chapter: Angel of Death