A/N: HORRY FAKKK! How long's it fuckin' been my friends, followers and fellow Fanfiction cultists? Too long? Well I should say! Over a year ago I got on Fanfiction and uploaded chapter 15 of Konoha's Silver Shinobi. Then, I got working on chapter 16, and let me tell you it fucking SUCKED. Between school, gaming (which is more distracting that I'd like to let on), work, and now school again, my free time has been critically limited to the time I'd otherwise be spending playing games. Regardless, I'm happy to announce that now, today, this very moment, chapter sixteen is a go! Jump up and clap hands with glee!

I'll be honest, this chapter made me want to puke, since I didn't want to do any of it, but I knew I had to to progress the storyline. And I know some of you might say "Well if you didn't like it you could have just made stuff up," but for me that's a cheap way out. I'm sticking to my guns as far as storyline and continuity. And unfortunately, you get situations like this where I don't like splitting chapters up, and I don't like doing the chapter at all. You all know I've had this problem before, but this is the worst I've ever had it. Oh well, it should be over now.

To make up for how long the wait was, you get a WHOPPING FIFTY PAGE chapter to dig your literary fangs into!

Now, should I add anything more about my life? You probably want to get onto the story don't you? WELL TOO BAD! Here's what's been going on with me lately.

Well, last year I was still at community college, and during the summer I got a job at a Honda Packaging Plant in Ohio. That job sucked, since it was second shift, but it could have been worse. Much worse. And then after that I get shipped up to Huntington Indiana at Huntington University. Fun times, since it's my first time leaving away from my family, but we'll see how long it takes me before I break down and cry :(

That's my time away from you guys in a miniscule nutshell.

Now then, let me do you all a service and thank all the many fans who took time out of their day to comment on my humble story: ElfenSky, Pyromania101, baynard, NorthSouthGorem, Fangking2, Chewie Cookies, Quick-n-Popular, Leaf Ranger, reven228, Apocalyptian Scribe, Freal17, Rake1810, irnzenmonk, Hee-Ho Master, Impstar, Hypothetical Spiritual Entity, PokeNarutoDbzguy, Culebra del Sol, Skelo, RisingSolstice, cmcwiki, OBSERVER01, Uraharaisgod, unrealwarfang, Godschildtweety, lxde, OldMasterSaru, KageIchimaruNamikaze, Kage no hon'no, MonkHerrick, pucflek, Theunfunny9, Pure-chan, ImagineBreaker7, ShinigamiMaster, Zexs, Ethyrin Kairos, SelenaWolf, Apocalypse Legionaire, NaruHinaInfinity, master1941, Ten no kaitou, Shisarakagem, DarkPirateKing69, Dis Lexic, Agrond, Kittens Kat, blasterdog, Wolf1989, erching, Drakius Marethyu Damnati, darkkrt, and the three Guest reviewers. Thanks for your patience and your criticisms. They are much appreciated and loved!

Some final notes:

1) Apparently Brown Phantom is running a "Who is the Best Naruto Fanfic Author on this site?" pole, AND I'M NOT ON IT! However, he's told me that you are allowed "write ins" meaning you can send him a PM saying who you want to vote for. So far, I have (drum-role please) TWO votes! So now I know that there is at least one person other than myself who likes my work :') So if you think I'm work voting for, head over to Brown Phantom's profile and send him a short PM. Otherwise, disregard this message :)

2) If there's anyone out there who wants to make some or maybe even fund some artwork for this story, or any of my other stories, please by all means go ahead; you don't need my consent! Just tell me where the art is so I can see it :D

3) Speaking of poles, if you can quickly go to my profile and vote on the poll, that'd be awesome! It's super helpful!

Now that that's over, I'm sure you all have some intense reading to do so get to it!

Enjoy guys!

Chapter 16,
Frontlines of War

Match one of round one: complete.

The cheers were deafening as the crowd roared with approval. The conclusion to the highly anticipated fight between Uzumaki Naruto and Hyuuga Neji had ended with a resounding bang, leaving only Naruto standing in the ring.

Sarutobi had to admit; the boy was strong. 'Naruto… I can't believe it was only a few months ago you became genin… now you're this far already.' He smiled a melancholy smile as he watched the boy wave to the crowd. 'If only your parents could be here…'

Apparently though, he wasn't the only one with his own opinion on the match. The Kazekage's face was masked, but his eyes showed great surprise.

"I must say Sarutobi, that boy is remarkable. I've never seen techniques like that before in my career." He looked askance at the Hokage. "Who did you say he was?"

Sarutobi smiled proudly. "That boy is Uzumaki Naruto. At the moment, I could hazard a guess that he's one of the strongest competitors this year."

"Clearly," the ruler of Suna remarked as he turned back to the blonde below. "He would make a fine opponent for our Gaara."

The ruler of the Sand blinked and turned toward his aged counterpart. "Speaking of which, where is Uchiha Sasuke? His match is up next right?"

The Hokage groaned slightly under his breath as he turned to his aide, as if asking the same question. "So far… we don't know. He hasn't arrived yet."

Sarutobi sighed and rubbed his brow. "I guess we'll have to continue on without him. A shame really…"

"Hold on a moment, Hokage," the masked official advised. "Wouldn't it be possible to push his match back until he arrives? I think he deserves a fighting chance, don't you?"

Sarutobi narrowed his eyes. "Anyone who take punctuality lightly isn't fit for chunin. Besides, we can't be seen to show favoritism; that wouldn't go over well with our allies."

"I see…" the Kazekage said after a moment. "If that's the case, then there is another reason," he offered. "The majority of the shinobi leaders and lords, myself included, are here mainly because we want to see the next fight."

The Wind Shadow's voice seemed to brighten a bit. "He is after all, a member of the prestigious Uchiha clan, and we, as the Wind country, request that our Gaara be given an opportinuty to fight him."

Hiruzen held in his sigh, with great effort it might be noted. It wasn't something he wanted to do, but if what the Kazekage said was true, then it wouldn't be a good idea to disqualify Sasuke too soon.

"…Very well. We'll make an exception and have this match later on." His hesitation was clearly evident in his voice. 'I hope this doesn't bite me later…'

"N-Naruto! What are you doing up here?! Or… rather, why is a clone of you here?" Hinata stuttered out in shock. 'How long as he been there? Was he there the whole match?'

Everyone turned in their surprise to the blonde, including other observers and civilians (who were just as shocked as her).

"Wha-?! Naruto, what are you doing here?!" Ino cried in surprise, not at all having expected Naruto to suddenly appear behind her out of nowhere.

Naruto smiled and waved at them obliviously, like he hadn't a care in the world. "Nice to see you guys too!" He opened an eye and appraised Hinata, a move that did not go unnoticed by her, though it took a second to register. "Wow, you look beautiful, Hina-chan! I guess you didn't just train your skills over the past month, eh?" he said with a charming smile that left her blushing mad.

"I-I… um… thank you… O-oh, that's right! Congratulations on winning Naruto-kun!" She said happily as she kneeled on her seat in reverse so she could look her boyfriend in the face.

Naruto simply waved it off. "Haha, thanks! I refuse to lose to assholes who go around hitting nice girls after all."

Hinata blushed, knowing he meant her, but before she could respond, he interrupted her.

"And it seems," he began, his smile growing, "that you've got a new accessory there."

Instantly Hinata's face lit up at his noticing. "Ah, that's right!" she reached behind her and took her sword off its strap and held it up close, as though she were hugging a precious possession (which she was). "And I even learned her name; it's Shōmetsu!"

"Shōmetsu huh?" Naruto began, as if testing how the name tasted on his tongue. "That's a nice name," Naruto smiled gently. "…for the sword of a beautiful girl."

Hinata blushed and looked away, thoroughly flattered… and embarrassed. "Y-you're going to make me faint again Naruto-kun…" she mumbled with half a smile.

Naruto grinned brightly, his eyes squinting closed as his smile stretched across his face. "Haha, sorry, sorry! But I really love seeing that face of yours…" he said, his eyes opening just enough to give her a look. Immediately, Hinata felt her knees weaken; something about his knowing, admiring gaze just made her feel lightheaded and fuzzy on the inside.

"I hate to break up the foreplay here," Kiba began sarcastically, "But why are you here when you're also over there?" he said, pointing to him and then the Naruto in the stadium.

Naruto smiled and turned his gaze to the Inuzuka. "Ah, well, it's kind of a cool thing I figured out while training. See, the Byakugan gives a 360° field of vision, right? Meaning it basically has no blind spots. I realized that would be major advantage to him and just as big a disadvantage to me. But I learned that when I use shadow clones, I see everything they see too."

Kiba blinked. "See everything they see? You mean like your vision is linked?"

Naruto shrugged an affirmative. "Kind of yeah. So I snuck a bunch shadow clones, like me, into the crowd before the match so I'd have a spectators view of the whole match."

"Ohhhh I see, so that's how you knew he was going to attack you from behind!" Chouji said as he chomped on his chips.

Naruto smiled and nodded. "Haha, exactly."

"So… since your match is over… does that mean you're going to leave?" Hinata asked disappointedly to the clone of her boyfriend.

"Yeah you'll leave, right? I mean there's no need for you to be here anymore," Sakura said, hoping to get rid of the blonde. For whatever reason, she felt extremely uncomfortable when he was around, especially when he and Hinata interacted.

Naruto gave the bluenette a look before smiling wryly. "Welll… I guess I can stay to keep at least one you company," he said as he reached forward and ruffled her hair, a feeling she actually enjoyed, much to her surprise. And Naruto, in true Naruto-fashion, surprised her again by swinging over the row and sliding behind her, landing in her seat, sitting her on his lap.

"There we go! That's much better, right?" He asked her, knowing full well that she'd agree with him… and blush. Especially the blushing.

Ino felt a tick mark appear on her head as she watched them. "Hey! What the hell?! You're just going to let him sit you on his lap like that? You pervert Naruto!"

Hinata immediately wanted to argue that she didn't mind it, but quickly realized how perverted that would make her seem, forcing yet another blush to her face.

Naruto turned to respond but was cut off by Kiba who waved off his comrade's comment. "Don't mind her bro, she wouldn't be complaining either if it was Sasuke who sat her on his lap." He finished with a smirk, causing both Sakura and Ino to blush at the thought.

Naruto laughed loudly at that. Not so much at his comment but at the thought of Sasuke's annoyed face with having a fan-girl sitting on his lap. "Hahahahaha! Sorry to break it to ya Kiba, but Sasuke'll never let anyone sit on his lap, even if it kills him!"

Kiba chuckled in response. "No kidding? I wouldn't either, especially if it was these two!"

Both boys roared with laughter, while Hinata took the opportunity to settle into her boyfriend's lap. However, there was a bit of trepidation in her action. Naruto was probably as equally aware as she, but she knew that they were treading on thin ice; what with many of her family here at the exams, it was unlikely they wouldn't see her and him together, and she was fairly certain they wouldn't take kindly to her sitting on a hot-blooded male's lap, even if they were dating (or courting in their words).

Naruto seeming to pick on her concerns simply leaned forward, resting his chin on her shoulder as he looked over it, his Rinnegan eyes leering at her knowingly, as if to say he wasn't concerned at all, and neither should she. Gazing into his purple orbs, she could only nod and take his word (or look in this case) for it. Knowing it would do no good to worry about it, she did her best to relax in his lap, however impossible it seemed to be.

"So… you're not leaving?" Sakura asked, sounding (to her credit) only a slight bit disappointed with his continued presence.

Naruto's grin faltered and his eyes rotated to the right. "…You know, I get the distinct impression you don't like me very much," he stated with an almost-serious tone.

Not really wanting to answer his jab, she turned away silently, trying to ignore him. The clone simply smirked with a shrug and returned his eyes the arena.

Hinata watched as the real Naruto down in the ring continued smiling, his gaze turning to sweep over the audience as he waved to the still-applauding crowd.

The real Naruto's smile widened in satisfaction of what he saw through his clone in the stands. For whatever reason, Sakura annoyed him. It might have been the fact that she was so hopelessly "in love" with Sasuke to the point of exclusion of all else, or it might have been the not-so-subtle display of irritation at his presence just now; it was a toss-up.

"Ok, Uzumaki. Enough crowd-pleasing. We need to get the next match underway."

Naruto turned to Genma with a quizzical look. "What? Has Sasuke arrived yet?"

Genma blinked at the question and shrugged his shoulders. "Not that I've been told."

"Then I'll take my sweet time," Naruto replied with a smirk as he began moving, albeit slowly, to the stairway that led back up to the waiting box.

Genma merely sighed as the blonde moved like a slug out of the arena. However he was surprised when he looked up to the Hokage box and saw the old man give a subtle motion to him. 'We're postponing the match? That's showing a bit too much favoritism don't you think Hokage-sama?' he mused to himself.

But, it was the Hokage's decision after all; he had no reason to question it.

With a sigh, he let out a little smirk and threw his head back, speaking loud enough to address the crowd.

"Due to an absence, we will be postponing the match between Uchiha Sasuke and Sabaku no Gaara! Said match will take place at the end of the first round!"

He idly noted the surprised, yet excited expressions of many spectators, and the mildly curious look the Uzumaki boy threw back at him before he ascended the stairs.

'Well, I guess he doesn't need to bother trying to convince the other participants to take their time 'till Sasuke gets here,' he thought with a laugh. From what he knew of the blonde, there was a small rivalry between him and the Uchiha progeny, but not an unfriendly one.

Such a thing was rare these days.

Naruto smirked as he ascended the stairs to the waiting box, his visage being met with the anxious looks of the others who were already there. He flashed a smile and shoved his hands into his pockets.

"What? Don't look so surprised; it's your own fault if you underestimated me."

His gaze was met by Gaara and his siblings, though opposed to their brother, their looks held a bit of fear and anxiousness in them. Gaara… it was as if he were appraising a potentially phony antique. But Naruto simply shrugged off his gaze, letting his eyes linger a few moments more on the other two, enjoying their expressions at the (admittedly) strange pattern of his ocular orbs.

Opposite of them, Shikamaru and Shino welcomed him with warm smiles, and Shikamaru even gave him a pat on the back.

"Well well, looks like you were a kick-ass type after all. Totally out of my lame-ass type league," the Nara boy commented with a begrudgingly admiring expression. Shino, for his part, nodded his head respectfully. "Congratulations Naruto-san. As I expected, you're very strong."

Naruto beamed at their praise and rubbed the back of his head. "Aw geez guys, I don't know what to say!" Wrapping his arms around their necks he pulled them into a man-hug, laughing as he did so.

"I can't help but wonder however, why you didn't use your sword…" Shino said as he pulled out of Naruto's embrace and adjusted his sunglasses. "Even though you've had it since as far back as the academy, I don't believe I've ever seen your draw it."

"Yeah, what's up with that?" Shikamaru chimed in.

Naruto blinked at the both of them. "Huh? What're you talking about? I use it all the time! Well, maybe not in public, but I do use it. I just don't want to use it when I don't have too."

"So that's why you didn't use it in your fight against Kiba. Even so, you got pretty beat up because of it."

Naruto laughed sheepishly. "Yeah… that was kind of my own fault. I'm sure your sensei already filled you in, but I only awakened this Rinnegan recently, and I decided to test out my powers during the fight."

Shikamaru looked at him like he'd just seen the stupidest thing in his life. "You tested your new powers in a fight where killing is totally permissible?"

Naruto simply laughed nervously and nodded an affirmative, causing Shikamaru to pour all of his willpower into not palming his face.

In truth, he understood where the boy was coming from; Naruto was a chivalrous guy, and he probably didn't want to use his sword on a fellow classmate. In fact, Naruto probably had never thought he'd need to. So Shikamaru understood his choice when he was suddenly faced with the decision; use a weapon meant for killing on a comrade, or come up with a new strategy.

Regardless of his thought processes, it had worked, however narrowly. Naruto had nearly bought the farm, and if it weren't for that last blast of telekinesis, Kiba would have probably won. 'Telekinesis…' he wondered silently. 'That's the sort of thing you only hear about in comics and on TV.'

Naruto had guessed right; Asuma had filled the Nara boy in… at least, as best he could. Even though he wouldn't be fighting Naruto in the first round, it was likely he would in the second or third rounds, if he even got that far, and he knew it would be foolish of him to think that he might not have to face the Uzumaki. However, Asuma had been of little help on the matter.


"Yeah. When Naruto got his contacts knocked out, it looked like every Jounin there knew what it was. So I figured you could tell me about it. What's up with him?"

Asuma took a deep drag of his cigarette and breathed it out in a puff of smoke. "It's called the Rinnegan. As you've probably guessed already, it's one of the three great doujutsu. Along with the Sharingan and the Byakugan, they're the strongest eye techniques in the world." He paused to let the information sink in. "Normally eye techniques are genetic; the Sharingan is passed down through the Uchiha, and the Byakugan through the Hyuuga."

"So you're saying the Rinnegan is passed down through the… Uzumaki?" As far as Shikamaru knew, Naruto was an orphan, save the man he called "father" (whom he safely assumed wasn't his genetic parent). Plus, he'd never heard of an Uzumaki family or clan before…

"No, I don't think so," Asuma corrected, causing Shikamaru to blink. "The Uzumaki were once a great family; they even comprised a whole village; Uzoshigakure. However…" he paused as his face turned sad. "Their power was coveted, and they had many enemies. That village was wiped out long ago." He breathed out a regrettable sigh.

Shikamaru's eyes narrowed in realization. 'Is that why Naruto's an orphan? Man… that's horrible.' He suddenly felt a great amount of sympathy for his blonde classmate. Naruto was always a loner, never participating in group activities or gatherings. And Shikamaru wasn't blind to the way adults acted around him and directed their children to stay away from him. Even his own mother had once told him not to go near him. Predictably, his father, Shikaku, didn't bother enforcing his wife's wishes, and told him not to worry about it. Because of the majority of the village's adults, Naruto was always alone. 'Fuck… now I feel like a total dick…' he mentally berated himself, though he wondered what warranted the hateful expressions and attitudes from the citizens. Was the Uzumaki clan that hated?

"However," Asuma continued, "I don't recall ever hearing about them possessing the Rinnegan before… In fact, the Rinnegan hasn't been seen in hundreds of years. Most people believed it was just a legend… until now."

Shikamaru gave his sensei a brief look. "…So, basically, you have no idea what it does."

"Not a clue."


However, knowing that it was so legendary as to be considered one of the "three greats," even after all this time, he supposed telekinesis wasn't outside of its grasp. However, at the same time, what were those other abilities Naruto had used. Extra arms? Explosive projectiles? And he hadn't been so awestruck not to notice that seal-less wind technique he'd used. However, even as he wondered these things, he knew that there was at least one common denominator for these things.

Ichimaru Gin.

All of these things that now surrounded Naruto had started not long after his "father" appeared. His and Hinata's becoming an item, his slight change in personality, his new techniques (which he'd never even heard of before), and of course the appearance of the so-called Rinnegan in his eyes. Of course, it was entirely possible that he'd had the gene for the Rinnegan all along…

But Ichimaru Gin was different. He wasn't indigenous to Konoha; Shikamaru knew that for a fact. But even though he was a jonin, he wasn't part of any of the social circles jonin usually tended to form. The odd circumstances revolving around him and the team he was helping to lead were considerably abnormal, and led Shikamaru to suspect something strange was going on, with Gin somewhere near the center.

But such ideas were half-formed and immature. Nothing he figured was worth wasting his precious time delving into too deeply.

"But surely you considered using your sword on Neji. I can't imagine you'd not," Shino commented to Naruto.

The blonde sighed and leaned over the railing. "Yeah, I had thought about it. But even if I don't like him, he's Hinata's family; it wouldn't be right to go at him trying to kill him. Besides, I figured if I could beat him without resorting to my sword, it'd be all the more demoralizing, and discourage him from trying anything like what he did in the prelims again."

"…That's surprisingly well thought-out for you…"

"Shut up."

"Perhaps it was simply that Naruto didn't want to hinder his relationship with Hinata-san by killing one of her family," Shino surmised.

Naruto felt his check brighten a bit, and he rubbed his nose with a smile. "Well… that might have had something to do with it, hehe."

Gaara fidgeted where he stood, his eyes roaming from Naruto to the arena, and then back; circling in his skull like a bird of prey circles its meal.

Kankuro was getting concerned. Not for Gaara of course, but for himself. The more unstable Gaara became, the more danger they were all put in. Granted, that was kind of the point, as far as the whole "plan" went, but Kankuro really, really didn't want to end up becoming a sand-encased dead man before his time.

It was bad enough that Gaara was stoked to fight that Sasuke guy, but what made it even worse was that he also wanted to fight the very man standing not five feet away from him. Having to stand next to such an anticipated opponent and not being able to fight him… it was probably driving Gaara nuts. Well, more nuts than he already was.

But in a way even more concerning was the fact that because of the delay in Sasuke and Gaara's match, his match was up next; against the creepy Aburame fellow. 'Crap, I don't want to reveal the new gimmicks I put in Karasu… What the hell, this match doesn't even matter.' Regardless of how he knew the crowd wouldn't be too pleased, he knew that if he fought now, there was a strong chance he'd be forced to use his most iconic ticks to come out on top, which would severely hinder him in the coming invasion.

"Proctor!" He shouted to the jounin in the arena. "I forfeit!"

The shock on the faces of Shikamaru and even Shino would have been Kodak worthy, had the displeasure of the crowd not distracted them with boos and shouts.

Naruto took his surprise in stride and smirked at his bug-wielding comrade. "Looks like he's scared of you Shino-san. How's that make you feel?"

Shino didn't respond, but Naruto could tell his eyes were glaring pointedly at the puppet user behind his sunglasses. "If anything, I suppose it is wise…"

Kankuro had to bite his tongue from retorting. 'Like hell I'm scared of you pricks! If it weren't for this plan, I'd happily wipe the floor with all of you!'

Shikmaru on the other hand, was having his own internal episode. 'Oh shit! That means my match is next! Fuck! I don't really want to fight a girl….' He looked over to where Temari was looking at him as if daring him to do the same thing as her brother. 'Actually, that's not a bad idea… Yeah who cares, I'll just give up too. No point in fighting a boring batt-'

He never got to finish his thought as he felt the world revolve around him and a sudden feeling of vertigo take him, followed by a "Do your best Shikamaru!" from behind him.

It wasn't until he hit the ground with a painful thud that he realized Naruto had shoved him over the railing. He glowered up at the waving blonde as he lay on his back. 'Oh you are sooo going to get it later,' he threatened mentally.

As he stared up, a shadow leapt from the waiting box he'd just been occupying, floating down to the ground in the center of the ring. He gazed at his female opponent impassively, even as Genma practically ordered him to get up.

He sighed and rolled over. "Do I have to? I mean, it's a girl…" he grumbled, his back against the wall.

No sooner had the words left his mouth that the blonde girl, Temari growled and ran at him, her fan raised above her head.

He sighed. "Geez…"

Fan met ground and dirt and dust exploded into the air. Temari waited for it to settle before noting that her opponent had disappeared.

"Well, since you're so eager, I guess I'll do it. No way I'll lose to a girl after all." Shikamaru smirked down at her from where he had attached himself to the wall above her.

Temari wanted to growl at him, but despite herself, she felt a sense of joy radiate from the pit of her stomach. She wasn't like Kankuro; she'd enjoy any challenge posed to her.

Chouji raised an eyebrow as he sucked the cheesy residue from his chips off the tips of his fingers. "Wow, that's weird."

"What is?" Ino asked.

"You know, seeing Shikamaru in the finals. It's really out of place."

Ino looked at her teammate, nearly appalled and looking ready to punch Chouji in the gut. "Don't say that! He may not have any sort of special techniques, but he's smart, right? He'll beat her for sure!"

Chouji sniggered as he reached into a new bag of chips and withdrew a handful. "Hehe, you don't know Shikamaru like I do. He'll definitely give up, just watch."

Naruto eyed them humorously, quite proud of what his original did in giving the Nara boy the little nudge he needed to get into it. He shifted a bit; the, quite frankly, hot girl on his lap, while completely welcome, was killing the circulation in his legs. Hinata realized this as he moved and resituated herself so her weight was sitting higher up, sparing his thighs further torment. However, even as she did so, she could help but wonder why Naruto was so blatantly acting… well… not intimate, but very affectionate towards her, especially in the presence of nearly her entire clan, and her immediate family.

She trusted Naruto with her life; that wasn't in question, but she found the potential excuse of left over bravado from his win over her cousin to be a bit too much to believe; Naruto wasn't known for making overly stupid mistakes, especially when it came to their relationship. Even at the hot spring, when no one but themselves were together, Naruto took great care in protecting their secret. So why he was now doing almost the exact opposite (at least as far as she was concerned) truly confused and concerned her.

She couldn't help but give voice to her concerns. "A-ano… Naruto-kun?" she asked quietly, not wanting those around her to hear her.

He started, leaning in to hear her dim voice. "Hm? What is it?"

"N-not that I really… really mind this, but why are we suddenly…?" she left the question unfinished, but she motioned with her eyes down to where she was using him as a makeshift chair.

Naruto blinked and smiled. But it wasn't a smile Hinata could say she'd seen him wear before… at least, not many times. It wasn't quite the smile of happiness, nor the smile of joy. It seemed to be the sort of smile that came from feeling… smug. He let out a short laugh and let his right arm snake around her waist and pull her closer to him.

"Oh, this? What's wrong with having a wonderful girl like you sitting on my lap?" he asked, a slight twinge of pink coloring his cheeks. Hinata also blushed a bit, mostly in response to his praise.

He cut her off before she could try to correct him. "Don't worry, Hinata," he said more seriously. "I'm just…" he trailed off, his gaze turning far to the left of the stands, where, she realized, her family was sitting. "…making a statement."

And he accurately guessed that it had not gone unnoticed.

Many of the men around him were getting… very uncomfortable, for lack of a more appropriate word. Hiashi knew why, of course. He was feeling very similar. All it took was one active Byakugan to alert the others of the heiress'… predicament.

It was probably clearer to Hiashi than to anyone else that Hinata wasn't the one to instigate it, but that probably meant little to his fellows. Rather, the fact that they were acting so… familiar with each other, and in broad daylight was an embarrassment to the rest of the older Hyuuga. They'd clearly designated the boundaries for both children.

Though Naruto was a potential candidate, his relationship with Hinata wasn't set in stone; the Hyuuga council could easily change their minds about who she could and couldn't marry. Because of the tenuous state of their relationship, the council couldn't condone any actions beyond the very basic of social behaviors. Holding hands was fine. Hugs were… tolerable. Kissing? Oh hell no! Kissing would only cement their (the children's) relationship deeper than it needed to be. In such an event, separating them would end up being far more difficult than necessary.

Yet here they were, siting on each other's laps like a couple. Not that Hiashi could really argue, morally. When he'd given Gin free reign to protect and raise his eldest daughter, he'd meant it. Anything he could let her get away with (provided it was what she wanted) was his way of apologizing for her harsh upbringing (regardless of how apathetic he felt in doing so). It would be difficult to hold back the council from trying to openly do something to stop, or at the very least forcibly regulate their relationship now.

But Hiashi was less concerned with that than he was with trying to keep the incredulous smile from appearing on his face.

No one else would notice but a Hyuuga; all of the various Naruto clones around the arena (now being noticed by the clan) had their Rinnegan eyes trained on them. Naruto knew they were watching… and he was staring them right back in the face. It was as if he was saying, "Yeah? Got a problem? Wanna do something about it? Try me."

If anything, the victorious smirk that seemed to grow on the boy's face spoke more than any words possibly could. With the startling and very public revelation of his Rinnegan, now visible firsthand to the cynical eyes of the Hyuuga clan, Naruto knew that he was an even greater potential boon to the Hyuuga clan; a boon that, in effect, swung the pendulum almost entirely in his favor.

Naruto was now of greater blood.

The clan could try to stop him now, restrain him, regulate him… but it would all come to naught. Naruto's abilities already bordered on the incredible… seen by this fight alone. Even in its immature form, his Rinnegan-granted powers could only grow from here. And as much as they hated to admit it, Neji was the prodigy of the Hyuuga clan; for Naruto to so completely defeat Neji like he had… it spoke volumes of Naruto's already accrued powers.

'Ichimaru Gin… your prodigy has succeeded our own… and already he understands that great power he wields…'

That power was authority. It was a simple rule of nature; those who possessed power were both respected and feared by those who did not. More so, that fear and respect scaled.

Hiashi knew what Naruto was doing. He would force the Hyuuga clan to acknowledge his authority; to respect him; to fear him. And then he would have complete freedom to take whatever he wanted.

That thing that he wanted was his daughter.

Hiashi's gaze zeroed in on Naruto's, and he felt as if the boy could tell that he was looking at him, for no matter what angle Hiashi looked at him from, Naruto's eyes seemed to stare straight into his. Actually, it was more likely it was just his imagination; his head was already swimming with the strategic planning he'd have to do to calm down the clan after this.


Hiashi blinked out of his inward musing by the voice of his youngest daughter. "Hm?"

"Your smiling… weird."

As soon as the words left her mouth his face went hard as stone, back to its original impassive form. "Oh… yes… I'm just humored by the irony…"

"Irony? Irony of what?" Hanabi said, a strange expression appearing on her face.

Hiashi sighed, allowing his face to soften (which was as close to a conscious smile as he passively allowed) as he directed his gaze further back, eyeing the ever-grinning visage of his silver-haired acquaintance. As always his grin made the Hyuuga's skin crawl, even as it widened, possibly thinking the very same thing he was.

"Let's… let's just say… I lost a bet."

He flexed his hands tightly, feeling the power well up within him, as if on instinct. It was already becoming second nature to him. 'Naruto… this power really is incredible,' he thought as a grin split his lips.

"Sasuke, c'mon, we've gotta get moving, or you'll be late."

At the sound of his name, the Uchiha stood with a grunting sigh. He felt his muscles flex and stiffen before relaxing. The formerly foreign feeling of a blade on his hip reminded him of who he would be fighting in the tournament. After he beat Gaara, and then either Temari or Shikamaru, it would be him against Naruto.

'Heh, I'm gonna love seeing his face when I whip out my own-'

"Sasuke, let's go!"

"Yeah yeah, I heard you the first time," he retorted to his cyclopean sensei. With a flash of light, both were gone in an instant; their forms already too distant to be seen.

For the next fifteen minutes, the crowd watching in (surprisingly) growing interest as Shikamaru and Temari battled it out, culminating in the Nara child using the hole in the ground Naruto had used to latch onto Neji's ankles to subtly weave his web of shadows through his opponent's defenses, only to stun the crowd with a sudden surrender. However, his explanation (consisting of a combination of laziness and lack of chakra) pacified the crowds, and in a way, even impressed them. The ability to calmly analyze the tides of battle and know where one's limits lie was an oft coveted, rarely blessed gift. Though they all agreed that he stood to lean at least a little motivation.

However, to see the absolutely shocked face of the Suna girl was quite cathartic for TenTen, who silently sent a thank you to Shikamaru, and a sudden urge to send him a gift basket or something. 'No, he probably wouldn't know what to do with a gift basket… a pillow maybe?'

Regardless, the match completed with a round of genuine applause as Shikamaru made his way up the stairs, followed closely, though dimly by his opponent. He was greeted at the top with congratulatory looks and words from Naruto and Shino. He waved them off, of course.

"More importantly," he countered, "Sasuke's match is up next, right? So where is he?"

However, Shikamaru hadn't expected Naruto's reaction. He'd expected Naruto's grin to twist into a frown, his expression turn to one of concern. However, when he saw Naruto's grin brighten, he knew something was up.

"Oh, he's coming," he said with an anxious grin of excitement.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at him, but was suddenly distracted by the crowd cheering with such great intensity that it completely dwarfed their cheers from earlier. As he leaned over the edge to look for what they were cheering for, he noticed a lone figure striding confidently into the center of the arena. At first he couldn't recognize who it was, but then the somewhat-familiar black hair revealed his identity.

Uchiha Sasuke. Though with a significantly different wardrobe than what he'd ever seen the boy wear before; he was dressed in loose black shorts that fell just below his knees, a black shirt with the left arm a long sleeve, and his right a short one. His shirt was loose and had a high collar, for which he was known to wear. On the back, the proud Uchiha insignia was stamped for all to see. Around his waist was a white belt, and on his back hip was a katana, which was clearly new.

Odd… he'd never seen Sasuke use a sword before… he couldn't possibly have learned enough in a month to be able to wield it properly, even if he was a genius. However, when Shikamaru turned to ask Naruto about it, he was startled to see Naruto's knuckles turning white from the force he was gripping the railing. In his eyes were a mixture of anxiety and excitement.

What he could never know however, was that Naruto was practically vibrating with anticipation.

'Sasuke… if you're wearing that, you must have completed your training…' The fact that Sasuke was wearing a sword that Naruto could clearly identify as a Zanpakuto, meant that he had to have finished the preliminary training from Gin, which required Sasuke to communicate with his Zanpakuto.

The very idea excited Naruto quite a bit. At first he thought the idea of Sasuke gaining Shinigami powers would be a bad thing, for many reasons. But here he was realizing that Sasuke was getting close to his own level, and he was actually excited by it.

Then again, he was easily excited by various things. Ramen being one of them, so this wasn't entirely surprising if he thought about it.

"There, see? He made it. Just like I said he would!" Naruto exclaimed as he gave Shikamaru's shoulder a nudge.

The Nara boy simply grunted away his defeat and leaned over the railing, resting his chin in the palm of his hand. "At least I didn't bet money on it…"

However, Naruto was not blind to movement to his right. His eyes shifted ever so slightly and he spotted Gaara, about-facing and striding toward the door. One of his siblings made to reach out to him, but was stopped by the other. Though he couldn't hear what they were saying, he figured it was some kind of warning. Not exactly surprising. Gaara certainly seemed like the kind of person who could be very unstable.

"Sasuke-kun made it!" came the rejoicing cries of Sakura and Ino, along with a sigh of relief from Hinata. Naruto's confident gaze and smug smile only became more apparent as he watched his teammate walk into the center of the ring.

Naruto gave a little look to his girlfriend. "I think you can relax now," he laughed lightly at her. She blinked at him, not realizing that he'd been able to feel the tensing of her body the entire time she'd been sitting on his lap. She gave a short blush and turned away, back to the arena. As much as she might have otherwise enjoyed reacting in such a way that amused Naruto, her mind was preoccupied with Sasuke. Unlike Neji, that Gaara boy was far more dangerous looking. Her Byakugan could see far more than any mortal eye, and she could see the vast difference between their chakra. When she'd first seen it, she'd been so stunned, she didn't know what to say; it was the first time she'd seen anyone with chakra coils as big as Naruto's.

However, while she was worried, she also trusted that Gin and Kakashi-sensei had prepared Sasuke as best he could for this match. Thinking of which…

"Where's Kakashi-sensei?" she asked looking around. If Sasuke was here, then in all likelihood so was he.

"Closer than you think," said jounin spoke up as he descended the stairs towards them with a smile.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto and Hinata exclaimed with brightened faces as he approached, causing the other genin to turn and acknowledge his presence.

"There ya are," Gin commented as he shifted over a seat, giving room for Kakashi. The one-eyed man politely obliged and sat down next to him. "Oh? They're already starting? That was fast."

"The match hasn't started yet… I don't think," Rangiku observed unsurely.

"So, Kakshi-sensei," Kiba spoke up, turning halfway in his seat to look at the man, "what kind of training did you give Sauske? After watching what Naruto learned, I'm totally stoked to know what you and… Gin-sensei?" he trailed off, unsure how to address Gin formally. Ichimaru have a short nod and Kiba continued. "…you and Gin-sensei taught him together!"

Kakashi laughed. "Oh we didn't teach him much. In all honesty he's a rather boring student; what he didn't already know he picked up just like that."

"Like what?" Ino asked, turning to speak to her superior.

Kakashi gave Gin a pointed look and smiled. "Oh… this and that."

Ino's look of frustrated indignation was worth the remark as she turned around in her seat, huffing and crossing her arms over her chest. "For a sensei, you're a horrible source of information."

"Oh come on Ino," Chouji placating said, "If he told us, we wouldn't be surprised when Sasuke actually does it." He turned back to the Cyclops. "Right Kakashi-sensei?"

Kakashi gave a short laugh and shrugged. "What can I say? I'm a hopeless theatric."

Sasuke watched as Gaara came to a stop in front of him. The Uchiha regarded him carefully; his narrowed eyes, his firm expression… it was a little different from what he remembered about the red-head from before the second exam.

Opposed to his original expression which showed interest but seemed to remain largely uncaring, Gaara's current expression was much darker.

"You look strained," Sasuke commented casually. "If you need a few more minutes, that's fine."

However, instead of impassive ignorance like he expected, Gaara's face twisted into a snarling chuckle. "Hehe. I couldn't wait any longer if I tried. Come on…"

He raised his head, eyes wide and grinning sickly.

"…Mother's hungry!"

Immediately the gourd on his back opened, spilling the precious sand around him.

Sasuke took a tentative step back as the sand flared up like lava-fountains, the undulating grains clearly taking on aggressive movements. However, he knew his battle plan. He'd had the fortune of watching Gaara fight Lee in the preliminaries. Quite the show, if he was honest. And more than amusing, it had been very helpful; it showed Gaara's so-called absolute defense had one glaring weakness; speed.

If one was fast enough, as Lee was, the sand shield wouldn't be able to keep up. However, if the sand shield failed, Gaara's sand armor would reduce whatever happened to get through the shield. In effect, it was a two-layer defense. As Lee demonstrated, speed alone wasn't enough to penetrate the sand armor; it would take power as well, and generally speaking, most ninja weren't proficient in both.

However Sasuke had ample time to prepare. Knowing was half the battle after all. For the past month he'd practiced and perfected the techniques taught to him by Kakashi and Gin. Thanks to that difficult and grueling training, he now had two main weapons against the Suna nin.

The sand surged forward, lashing out like whips. Sasuke quickly stepped to the side, leaping away as the sand followed him. The Uchiha was careful to keep tabs on Gaara's movements as well. Sure he didn't have to move to direct the sand, but a persons' expression can say a lot about what they'll try to do, and with the Sharingan, reading those intentions was much easier.

'First though, let's test out how strong that shield is…'

Flipping away, he put some distance between himself and the sand wielder, simultaneously weaving through familiar hand signs. Before he'd even come to a stop, his lungs were already filled with air. 'Katon, Gōkakyū no Jutsu!'

Rich, orange flames spewed from his mouth, coalescing into a great sphere as they blasted forward. The sand quickly doubled back on itself and rose in front of Gaara just in time to block the blazing sphere. Heat washed over and around the pan-shaped shield, though its singing intensity wasn't enough to even cause Gaara to blink.

As soon as the flames ceased, the sand shifted again, sliding across the ground before spiking towards Sasuke. Despite the fact the perspective of the incoming spikes would have been unnoticeable to the normal human eye, Sasuke's Sharingan was able to see the minute movements and shadows they created, and quickly leapt away quickly. However, the spikes abruptly bent at a hard 90-degree angle, following his trajectory and aimed for his landing point.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed as he saw it. But scarcely had his toes touched the ground that he heard the rushing of sand coming up from behind him. A slight glance that direction told him as much. Tch-ing, he quickly lowered himself to the ground just in time to feel the stray grains of sand pass over his head. But Gaara wasn't done yet; as soon as the sand collided, it conjoined into a sphere, before dropping like a rock, intent on spilling over Sasuke's lowered form.

But Sasuke couldn't have that.

With a smirk, and to the astonishment of everyone in the stadium, he vanished, just as the sand slammed into the ground.

Gaara blinked in surprise. He shouldn't have been able to get away from that. However, even as far gone as Gaara's sanity was at the moment, his sense did not betray him as he felt the faint wisps of air on his neck, his own sand sliding behind him to block an incoming fist.

It barely made it in time. Before Gaara could even retaliate, Sasuke had vanished again. Without even thinking, Gaara made his sand form up behind him, expecting the Uchiha's next attack.

However, Sasuke reappeared in front of him again, as if he hadn't even left. Gaara's eyes widened as he fought to change his body's rotation the other way.

"Too slow!"

Faster than a blink, Sasuke smashed his foot forward, the disoriented sand shield offering only the flimsiest of defenses. In an instant, his foot connected with Gaara's solar plexus.

To his credit, the sand wielder didn't make a sound as he slid across the ground to a stop many meters away.

Naruto smirked as he watched over Hinata's shoulder. "As expected, Sasuke's doing his thing."

Hinata nodded in agreement. "H-he's definitely gotten more proficient with Shunpo."

"I'd be worried if he didn't," Gin commented. "Tha' was one o' the biggest things we worked with 'im on."

Kakashi nodded as the genin turned their heads toward them. "That's right. Of all the aspects, speed was the most crucial for bypassing that sand shield."

"But, what about the sand armor?" asked Sakura, eyeing the crumbling layer of sand that was now visible on Gaara's form. "Speed might beat the shield, but…"

"Well, it wasn't just for that," Kakashi added. "It was also important for another reason."

"Another reason?" Ino parroted. "What do you mean?"

Naruto's eyes narrowed curiously, knowing that something was up. "You taught him something… didn't you? Something big."

Kakashi averted his glance and made to scratch his neck. "Ah, well… its possible."

Naruto smirked at his sensei's ambiguity. Hinata saw it and wondered what it was for. "Naruto?"

The boy in question merely smiled more. "Don't let your eyes off the fight Hinata," he said with excitement palpably laced in his voice. She blinked in surprise as he continued, "We're probably gonna see something cool."

She turned back as per his prompt, and diligently activated her Byakugan. Instantly she wondered what kind of training Sasuke had gone through with Gin and Kakashi sensei. His reiatsu had nearly tripled!

"Sorry, was that all?" Sasuke said with a smirk as he stood, triumphantly before the sand wielder.

Gaara simply stared at him defiantly. However, it wasn't the customary type of defiance Sasuke had come to expect from fellow genin. Like Naruto, he might have expected him to bear the sort of expression that said I'm not going to give up, regardless of what you throw at me. On my pride! or something. But the look the Sand nin was throwing at him wasn't given lightly. This was different. It was as if he was saying I acknowledge your skill, and now I'll get serious.

It was only going to get harder from here on.

However, as he slowly, almost methodically stood, his stare was so intense, it seemed to draw Sasuke in. "You're dead," Gaara responded coldly, a sickening smirk flickering over his face for the briefest moment.

With a fling of his arms, sand surged from his chest, like a spear. Sasuke quickly leapt up above it, feeling the wind on his toes at it narrowly missed them. However, just as he was about to land on it, his Sharingan spotted the minute grains of sand gather together below, him shooting out of the spike perpendicularly.

'A vector?!'

Though he saw it, he was still in the air, and was unable to dodge the strike completely. With a sharp pain, the spear-ling slashed upward, grazing Sasuke's left eye and cheek. The Uchiha quickly backed away, his expression now grimmer than before. "Sneaky bastard," he grumbled as he wiped the blood from his vision.

Gaara however, only smiled darker. "That's right, mother. And that's just a taste of what's to come!"

Sasuke blinked curiously. "Who're you talking to?"

Gaara didn't answer, only pointed and arm forward, directing the sand to attack. Sasuke quickly dashed aside, narrowly missing the wave of sand shoot past him. He ducked below as it circled around and up, trying to smash him from above. Sasuke narrowed his eyes as he leaned forward, his toes gripping the ground solidly with chakra. Before Gaara could blink, Sasuke was gone.

It wasn't until he felt the sand suddenly star back towards him that he realized Sasuke had gotten behind him. The -shing- of metal sent a chill up his spine.

Sasuke withdrew his zanpakuto, aiming to slash Gaara's spinal column. 'Game over.'

The blade connected, but not with the almost satisfying -splurch!- of blood he'd expected. Instead, it landed with a solid, and resounding -clang!-.

Sasuke's eyes widened as a massive wall of sand rose in front of him, fanning forward like a bowl to shield Gaara, who's expression was unreadable. However, the Suna nin slowly, almost meticulously, brought his hands together, interweaving his fingers, save his index. Without even turning to acknowledge Sasuke's presence, the sand returned to him, wrapping around him like a dome, curving downward until it encompassed him in a sphere.

Sasuke's eyed narrowed. 'So he can even harden his sand like this? What insane compression.'

There wasn't even an indentation from his blade. 'Even so, all he can do is keep me out. If he uses the sand now, it'll leave himself open, or at least weaken his own defense.' He looked down at his hands which held his sword. 'I'm still not capable of using my Zanpakuto yet. Not exactly surprising since it took Naruto nearly six years to do it on his own. A part of me hoped I could use it by the end of the month with Gin training me. That means all the training with Kakashi wasn't a waste after all.'

He took several steps back, planting his blade in the earth in front of him, lowering his hands to his sides and breathing deeply. 'Alright… Here goes.' With a blur of motion his hands met. 'Saru, tatsu, ne, tori, ushi, mi, inu, tora, saru!'

For a brief moment, nothing happened…

But, presently, small blue sparks began to dance across Sasuke's flesh, growing intensity until they were sending large arcs of electricity around him, gathering in the palm of his hand. Slowly, a large blue light of energy manifested in his grasp.

"Whoa!" Naruto explained, Hinata gasping at the same time, all the other's simply gaping at the cyan light in his hand.

"Holy crap…! The hell is that?!" Kiba shouted in shock.

"Is that… electricity?" asked Sakura, her brow furrowed as she tried to analyze what it was.

"Naturally as his teacher, I'm expected to teach my students. But there's one very specific reason I chose to dedicate all of my time to Sasuke during the past month," Kakashi began, everyone's gazes needing to be torn from the sight below. Kakashi turned and gave them a sort of smile. "Because he's the same type as me."

He returned his eyes to his student. "Of the thousands of jutsu I've copied over the years, there's one particular jutsu that only I know, one I created myself."

As the technique intensified, it began to let off a strange sound.

"The chakra's clearly visible…!" Ino gasped.

"And what's with that sound?!" Kiba added, placing a hand to his ear. Akamaru shook his head to clear it of the annoying sensation the sound made in his sensitive drums.

"Kakashi-sensei, isn't that the one you used against Zabuza?" Naruto asked, vaguely remembering the technique Kakashi used in that epic fight.

Kakashi nodded. "It's called Raikiri, though that's just a nickname it picked up. Its true name, because of the bird-like chirping sounds it makes, is Chidori."

Sasuke breathed deeply as he felt the slight tingle of energy traverse his skin. It felt… good. A technique that can pierce any defense; an absolute attack. 'Now… let's get this done.'

Stepping forward, he walked by and gripped his katana, focusing the energy through the length of the blade. He stared at it for a moment and smirked. 'The technique is compatible… perfect,' he thought with a smile. Truthfully, he'd not tested the idea of using the Chidori in tandem with his Zanpakuto blade. It was something he'd come up with that very morning. He'd been contemplating how to take advantage of his newfound powers, and how he might be able to increase the reaching length of his Chidori, which for all its power, was only as long as he could thrust it. The idea of fusing the technique with the blade had been in his head all morning. However, as reiryoku and chakra were different, if simultaneously similar, the idea could have failed easily.

'It seems that object of spiritual properties can fuse with chakra. I wonder if Naruto knows this, or even Hinata.' His eyes glanced to the crowds, knowing they were mixed among the mass of people somewhere.

'Well, if they didn't before, they do now.'

Naruto's eyes widened as his Rinnegan revealed to him the chakra pouring through the Uchiha's Zanpakuto. 'Incredible! I didn't even think of trying to mix chakra techniques with Shinsō!' As far as he'd ever been concerned, spiritual techniques and chakra techniques were two different things, and while they had similar form and function, couldn't mix well.

'Clearly I was wrong…' he mused.

Sasuke steadily lifted the blade up to his face, pointing the tip towards the imposing sphere of packed sand. Knowing that Gaara's sand could take any form, and its potential speed and lethality, he needed to make sure he wouldn't get caught by any sort of counter attack.

He spread his stance and breathed deeply. Slowly, his recently awakened spiritual power boiled to life, circling around him invisibly, manifesting as a pressure around him. The wreathed blade lit up his face like a blue sun, sending flickering shadows across the ground.

The sphere stood there, unmoving, as if patiently waiting… waiting for him to attack. Gathering his strength, Sasuke narrowed his eyes at his target, and with a grunt, shunted all of his aggregated power to his feet and leapt.

With a cerulean flash, he vanished from sight and sound. 'Shunpo!'

In an instant he was inches from Gaara's sphere. Already the sand was shifting to intercept his attack… and to impale him.

Unluckily for Gaara, while it might have worked on any normal ninja, trying to surprise an Uchiha isn't easy.

Before anyone could blink, sword met shield, and the shield yielded.

Temari and Kankuro both could only stand there wide eyed and dumbfounded as Sasuke's sword pierced the, until now, impenetrable sand sphere. Of course, they'd been worried before when Gaara had actually invoked its creation, since that was only done when he was about to use the Tanuki Neiri no Jutsu to unleash the Shukaku. But even so, as worried as they had been, they were now even more so.

Gaara had never been interrupted during the transition phase of the transformation process; the phase when his consciousness is switching with the Shukaku's. And as if to add insult to injury (or perhaps the other way around), Sasuke had just pierced Gaara's "absolute defense" with a sword that clearly had the range (and apparent piercing power) to hurt Gaara.

"Holy shit…! He pierced the sand wall!"

"This is bad," Temari said through gritted teeth, though she admittedly realized it was an understatement. Gaara wasn't supposed to try to turn into the Shukaku until the signal had been given. But Gaara had clearly thrown caution to the wind in his fight with Sasuke; he was just too bloodthirsty for his own good. Worse yet, he was now, in all likelihood, injured, perhaps even critically. Gaara was essential to their plan, and she could even go so far as to say that without Gaara, there was no plan.

"Temari, what do we do?! We can't get through this without Gaara! If he doesn't play his part the whole plan is for nothing!"

"I know that already! What do you want me to do about it?! After all this has never happened before…!" She trailed off as the sand below began to crack, break apart, and melt away.

Sasuke watched carefully as the sphere seemed to shift, if only slightly, in response (or perhaps shock) to the sudden intrusion into its space. However, even as the shield seemed to deliberate on its predicament, Sasuke knew he hadn't missed; there had been a meaty sound as his sword pierced flesh within. He might not have known what he hit, but he knew he hit something.

"Got you," he smirked victoriously. With his newfound powers, Gaara's so called "absolute defense" was completely worthless. As long as he could keep a charged Chidori-blade, he was virtually unstoppable.

Granted though, he wasn't capable of using the Chidori many times, nor in quick succession. Not to mention its incredible energy requirements.

Sasuke was about to withdraw his Zanpakuto from its sandy sheath when it suddenly stuck fast, followed by a blood curdling scream from within.


Knowing how cold and merciless Gaara had proven to be, hearing this sudden reaction highly disturbed him. Planting his foot against the sand wall, he pulled on the hilt of his sword, finally managing to wrench it free.

No sooner had he done so than a wicked, clawed hand followed it, covered in blackened spines and veins. Sasuke's eyes widened as he tried to deduce what the strange undulating mass might be. It certainly wasn't sand. Like an undulating noodle, the strange limb slowly snaked its way back into the dome of sand, vanishing within. Sasuke's eyes narrowed as his enhanced vision tried to penetrate the darkness inside the sphere. What he saw sent an immediate shiver down his spine. With a terrifying roar that reverberated throughout the arena, Sasuke felt his legs weaken beneath him, almost causing him to fall onto his back.

'Those eyes… what the hell were those eyes?' No sooner had he wondered those very words when, unbeknownst to him, a heavy blanket of soft feathers began to descend from the sky.

'Looks like Gaara's in a bit of a pinch. I suppose now's as good a time as any…' the hooded and masked figure thought as he raised his hands together.

'Nehan Shōja no Jutsu.'

Naruto watched gleefully as Sasuke dealt a blow right through Gaara's seemingly impenetrable shield. Indeed, everyone around him seemed to be on the edge of their seats, wondering how the attack turned out. Had it struck a critical organ? Had it only shallowly missed? But as he continued to watch, despite himself, he couldn't resist a sudden drowsiness. His eyes suddenly felt heavy and fought to close, the edges of his vision blurred by floating white feathers. But even as he fought it, wondering how he could even think of sleeping at a time like this, he felt so… at peace. Like falling asleep was what he wanted more than anything on earth. A peaceful, quiet sleep…

Sarutobi felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle, his eyes turning left, only to meet another pair looking back at him.


The masked man smirked, presumably, under the mask. "Shall we begin, Hokage-sama?"

Without warning, the Kazekage's aids leapt to action.

Slowly, the dome began to collapse around Gaara, the sand falling like rushing water around him. The Sand nin clutched his left shoulder tightly, blood pouring from the deep wound.

"I knew it! A wound! The cocoon was broken while he was still incomplete!" Temari worriedly exclaimed. "T-this has never happened before!"

"What do we do…?" Kankuro asked, though he already knew she didn't have an answer.

However, before either of them could come to their own conclusions, they noticed the light, feathery blanket falling from the sky in front of them. 'The signal!'

Knowing their orders, they wasted no time in vacating the waiting box and leaping down into the arena, breaking for Gaara's wounded form. They were at his side in an instant, though not too close, lest he forget who was friend and foe. Baki was already there.

"Gaara, the plan…" Baki began, but just as soon quieted. Gaara was on his knees, clutching his head tightly.

"Hey, what do you guys think you're doing? This is my match, wait your turns."

They nearly jumped at the sound of Sasuke's voice as he stepped up to them, only to be stopped by Genma as he stepped between him and the four Sand ninja. "Consider your match canceled. Looks like the Sand doesn't play well with others, am I right?" he asked pointedly at Baki, who eyed him, but turned back to Gaara.

"Fool…! Trying to transform into your complete form before the signal!"

Temari cautiously lowered herself to examine her younger brother. "He's experiencing the side-effects… it's impossible to proceed now," she announced grimly, looking back up to Baki as if begging for him to say she was wrong.

"So what are we supposed to do now?! Do it without Gaara?!" Kankuro cried. If Gaara was out of commission, the whole plan was practically shot! Sure they might still succeed, but Gaara was the linchpin of the whole operation.

Baki gritted his teeth and glared hard at Gaara. He already knew what the answer was, though he hated to be the one to decide it. If Gaara couldn't play his role, there was no point in keeping him around.

"Abort the mission," he announced at last, his words hissing through clenched teeth. "You guys take Gaara and retreat."

"What about you?" questioned Temari as Kankuro lifted his brother by the arm with a curse.

"I'll join the battle. Go!"

Temari nodded and left, Kankuro following an instant later, both of them leaping over the walls of the arena with their cargo between them.

"Hey!" Sasuke cried after them, grabbing his sword and following them over the wall. "Get back here!"

Kakashi and Jiraiya reacted immediately, their eyes instinctively searching for the jutsu's caster. "Jiraiya-sama, this is…!"

"Yeah, genjutsu." Simultaneously they raised their hands in the tiger seal, breaking the effect of the illusion.

"Gin, are you alright?" Kakashi questioned as his silver-haired compatriot stood and looked around, as if in a daze.

"Seem so. Guess 'llusions don't work on th' dead," he commented idly, casting a glance to Rangiku in front of him. She similarly stood unaffected by whatever technique was being cast on the whole arena.

"Kakashi-sensei, what's going on?!" came Sakura's bewildered cry.

The one-eyed man looked at her in praising. "Ah, looks like Kurenai already taught you how to deflect genjutsu. Well done." He turned his attention back to the manifesting enemies around them. "Sakura, take Naruto and Hinata and get them someplace safe."

"W-what about the others?!" she cried, even as she tried lifting both classmates over her shoulders.

"As long as they're asleep they'll be fine. They aren't a threat to the enemy. Besides, we'll stand guard here until the enemy's been mopped up."

He was about to continue when a bright purple column of light shot into the sky atop the Kage observation box. "That's barrier ninjutsu…!" he gritted his teeth beneath his mask as he peered inside the walls of the rectangular prison. "Gin, our targets are the Sound and Sand ninja. They've started a war, and we're going to give it to them! Rangiku-san, defend the ministers on the upper level!"

Both Shinigami nodded to him. Though they were far more experienced than either of the two humans with them, this was a whole other breed of war. In the past, they'd fought strict one-on-one battles, but in this world, it seemed that double or triple-teaming was the way to go; dirty, underhanded tactics that would most likely be looked down upon by the Soul Society elite.

'I've got to get used to the ways of this world,' Rangiku thought to herself. Though she detested the concept of being ordered around by a human, she had to remember unlike the humans she was used to; these were far more capable of both defending themselves, and attacking others, even spiritual beings like herself. Moreover, these humans were born and bred in a world of war and espionage. They weren't some powerless hunks of meat she had to make sure to defend at the cost of her own life.

Below them, a dozen or so enemy shinobi were forming up around a hooded and masked individual. "Looks like we have a traitor or two in our midst," Jiraiya commented idly as he propped a foot on the back of the seat in front of him.

"Probably more than that. If there're this many Sound already here, then it's likely there are also tons of Sand hiding as well. Be on your guard."

Sakura ducked her head down as a Sound ninja leapt over her, narrowly missing her ear with a kunai. Before he could rebound and return, a flash of light swung out from Gin's sheath as he impaled the ninja to the wall.

"T-thank you, Ichimaru-sensei!" she nearly screeched as she dragged her two classmates up the stairs and to the wall the now dead shinobi was slumped against. "We'll run interference fer ya. When yer ready, head towar's Sasuke's location."

"B-but where is Sasuke-kun?! Which way did he go?"

"They'll be able ta find 'im, just wake 'em up." And with that he leapt away, intercepting an enemy and throwing him to the ground before following after.

Sakura grunted as she dropped the two genin to the ground, falling to her knees and catching her breath. However, she quickly put aside her sudden fatigue and placed her hands on Naruto and Hinata's foreheads, tapping them with a pulse of chakra. 'Kai!'

Almost immediately they opened their eyes, blinking in confusion. Naruto sat up instantly, shaking his head and looking around at all the chaos that was now forming around him. "What the hell…? I fall asleep for one minute and everything goes to shit."

"N-No, I think it was an enemy genjutsu," Hinata correctly deduced as she too lifted herself off the ground, rubbing her eyes drowsily.

Sakura nodded in confirmation. "Someone used a genjutsu on the whole arena, and now there are Sand and Sound ninja everywhere. Ichimaru-sensei said that as soon as you two were up we should go after Sasuke-kun, though he didn't say which way he went…" she said askance.

Naruto stood up slowly, testing his limbs. "Sand and Sound? What the hell is going on here?"

"I think it's a war," Sakura said, ducking as a kunai whizzed overhead. "Everyone's fighting each other so…" she let the obvious explanation trail off.

Naruto frowned. 'War, huh?' he looked around as the few Konoha shinobi fought hand-to-hand, tooth and claw against their opponents, blood and screams filling the air as death was dealt on both sides.

Hinata looked around nervously, almost terrifyingly. "W-war…?!" she stuttered out. 'So this is war…?' she wondered as she watched the bloodbath form around them. She'd long since mentally prepared herself for the day she'd be forced to take a life, but she'd never anticipated that today might be that day.

Naruto's eyes narrowed, now absent their usual jovial light. Their darkened ringed forms glared forward absently, looking at nothing yet seeing everything. "Hinata, follow me. Sakura-san, you stay here."

Sakura looked at him as if he were crazy. "Stay here?!" she parroted. "Are you insane?! I… I can't do anything on my own!" she painfully admitted. "If I stay here alone I'll die! B-besides, Ichimaru-sensei said to go together!"

Naruto eyed her for a moment before sighing. "…Fine. Both of you then, follow me." With that he rushed forward and leapt out of the stands and into the carnage-filled arena, a nervous Hinata and bewildered Sakura behind him. However, as Sakura slid down the wall and hit the ground, she noticed that the blonde individual she was following wasn't the only one in her line of sight. In fact there was another one fighting right in front of her.

Naruto didn't need to turn his eyes away from the Sand ninja in front of him to know Hinata and his clone were coming up from the side. He parried a kunai strike with his sword before slashing back at his opponent, missing the vital spot but hitting flesh nonetheless. Injured, but no less mobile, the ninja leapt away, probably expecting a comrade to replace him, though any that might have done so were being handled by the many Leaf jonin elite. Naruto took the pause and allowed his friends to catch up.

"Naruto?! How come you're awake? Why did only your clone fall asleep?" Sakura questioned as she approached.

"Are you alright Naruto-kun?" Hinata questioned as well.

Naruto gave a nod to Hinata and addressed Sakura. "The genjutsu was only for the spectators. Everywhere else was unaffected, that include the waiting box where the contestants were." He turned back to Hinata. "I've got a fix on Sasuke's location! He's chasing after Sabaku no Gaara and his team. We need to catch up as quickly as possible!"

He was about to leap off when Hinata' caught the sleeve of the jacket tied about his waist. "But what about here? Shouldn't we help here first?" she questioned worriedly.

"Ichimaru-sensei said to go after Sasuke-kun right?" Sakura asked Hinata almost accusingly. "So that's what we should do!"

"You kids aren't going anywhere!" came the gruff voices of four Sand and two Sound shinobi as they landed across from them. "We've got orders to bring you two back with us," one said, pointing to Naruto and Hinata. "No one said anything about Pinky, so if you don't want to die, then scram."

Sakura stumbled back in fright while Hinata clutched Naruto's shirt for comfort. "Naruto-kun…"

Naruto's eyes narrowed at the six enemy ninja in front of him for several seconds. "I can't imagine those are standing orders."

"Just issued after your match," the second Sound nin said with a nod. "Preferably alive, and regardless of how strong you are versus one genin, you're up against six jonin level ninja now. Even if by some miracle you do beat us, there's no way either of you're walking away from this alive."

Naruto glared at them darkly. "And what's the goal, huh? Take my DNA? Use her to spawn your own Hyuuga army? Dissect us and discover the secrets of our eyes?"

He felt Hinata stiffen next to him at the mention of "spawning a Hyuuga army" her mind knowing full well what that entailed.

"Honestly? Who knows? I don't, and I also don't care. So just come along quietly, and we'll make sure nobody hurts ya." Replied the first Sound nin nonchalantly.

Naruto felt a small smirk split his face for a moment before it disappeared. "Well, at least your honest. Regardless…" a sudden pressure hit the battlefield, emanating from Naruto's still form. His clothes fluttered as the powerful waves of energy whirled about him like the wind. "You're wrong about two things."

The jonin blinked at him as they too began to gather their chakra.

"Firstly, you're a terrible liar," the blonde said with a dark smirk at the one who said he didn't care.

The man smirked back in what might have (if not for the mask) been a lecherous grin.

"And secondly, it's five versus six."

The men blinked in confusion as Naruto smirked wickedly. "The hell're you talkin' about?"

Naruto raised his hands and snapped through four simple seals before clapping his hands together. Hinata, recognized what he was doing immediately. "Naruto-kun, you're really going to…?!"

Of the few things Naruto kept secret, she was privy to most of them, including the dirtier secret that when Naruto had stolen the Forbidden Scroll at the behest of Mizuki, he's subsequently and sequentially copied down a large portion of its contents before he'd been interrupted. What he had copied he kept in a very secret place not even she knew where. But he had given her a copy of it, and told her to learn some of techniques; not so she could use them per say, but so that should Naruto ever use them, and they backfire, she'd be able to be best prepared to help him.

However, there was one particular technique that had caught her eye while studying the scroll, a technique she had also learned.


Naruto slammed his hands against the ground hard enough to rupture the earth beneath him.


Without warning the ground erupted in front of them, sending dirt and dust into the air, the force of which caused the six opposing men to shield their eyes from the debris. "Wha-?!"

When next they opened their eyes, their view of the three young genin was eclipsed by the sight of two tarnished and dirtied caskets, both standing upright and facing towards them.

"What the hell…?"

A loud creaking sound sounded out as the lids to both caskets fell to the ground, revealing their contents.

"Wait… those are-!" the Suna nin didn't get a chance to finish his sentence before his neck was sliced wide open, the blue-clad figure that had just a moment earlier been in the coffin now behind him, a bloodied kunai in hand. As the other five turned to address the sudden threat a pair of senbon slammed cleanly into the skulls of two more of them.

Suddenly registering the imminent danger they were in, the remaining three leapt away, putting a good twenty meters between themselves and their new opponents.

"The fuck was that?!" one of the two remaining Sand ninja exclaimed with evident fear. "How the fuck should I know?!" the other responded. However, the Sound ninja, looked at the two new figures hard. Though he recognized them, he couldn't for the life of him understand how they were there. They should be dead after all.

The taller of the two figures looked around, as if in a daze, before his gaze fell on the mop of blonde hair nearly hidden behind the two caskets he and his partner had emerged from.

"Oi…" he began slowly as he were unsure of what he was saying. "You're that Naruto brat… from the bridge…"

Naruto stood from his squatting position and nodded, rounding the now empty caskets and approaching them.

"Naruto…-san?" the other began his expression clearly perplexed.

"That's right," Naruto began, almost sadly. "I resurrected you both," he said with a strange smile. "Hope you don't mind."

The taller of the two blinked as he looked down at his own body. "Resurrected…? Why…?"

Naruto opened his mouth to explain before he, as if he'd forgotten something, reached into his equipment pouch and pulled out a scroll. Opening it, and unsealing a pair of kunai, he quickly replaced the scroll and stepped up to the two figures. As if frozen, they stood there as he inserted the kunai into their skulls. The reaction was immediate; an explosion of steam and color exploded from their bodies. Their darkened skin brightened back to a healthier color and their decomposing flesh seemed to repair itself as if of its own accord.

"It's a technique called the Edo Tensei. It allows me to bring back people from the dead. Since you're already dead, you can't die again, and you have unlimited chakra. The kunai I just put in your heads had special command talismans attached to them. You should be able to move on your own, right?"

The smaller one looked at his arm and rolled it this way and that, nodding. "It's true, I have command of my own body."

The taller one looked down at himself and grimaced. "Summoning the dead to do your dirty work… I thought you had more character than that, kid."

A sorrowful look appeared on Naruto's face. "Trust me, I'm not too keen on the idea either. But our village needs help now, and I know I can rely on you two."

"You mean besides the fact that you can make us do whatever you want?" the smaller one said, trying to make a joke that unfortunately fell flat.

Naruto rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "Yeah… that…"

The taller one sighed in exasperated annoyance and rolled his neck. "We'll talk about the terms of our summoning later. Since we're here now, I guess there's no point in arguing." He turned and faced the three remaining men.

"I'm assuming those guys are the enemies?" he asked, to which Naruto have a nod. "Suna and Oto just launched a surprise attack during the chunin exams. Sasuke went after one of the Sand ninja who was also his opponent. Tou-san said to go after them both, so…"

The man nodded and took a few steps forward. "Well, looks like you guys picked the wrong day to be a bad guy. Let's go, Haku."

The smaller one nodded and stepped up to his senior's side. "Hai, Zabuza-san."

Naruto smirked at the two before the grabbing Hinata and flashing over to Sakura and Shunpo-ing away.

"Just turn around and kill them already!" The voice in his head screamed. He winced and tried to ignore it. Didn't it know that that was what he wanted to do?!

"It's just one single human! Kill the girl and then kill him! And kill the other one too!"

But Gaara brushed it off. He'd have no entertainment from killing those two who called him "brother." They were an annoyance, nothing more. Hardly worth killing. Could he do it if wanted? Yes. Would he do it if he wanted? Definitely yes.

"Just fuck the bitch and turn around! Kill 'em all you shit-faced bastard!"

Gaara briefly wondered if the voice was being literal or not. Sometimes he never really knew. Though even if it was, he'd get no pleasure out of the carnal action. What was the point anyway? There was no feeling that compared to the bliss of erasing someone's existence completely.

Besides… 'Uchiha Sasuke… ' he had more interesting prey to attend to. 'Yes… you will make me feel truly alive!'

"I looked for her everywhere, but she'd vanished." Hitsugaya recounted as he kneeled before the first division captain-commander. His head was bowed and his voice was even, but even the least observant of the ten individuals present could detect a hint of insecurity in his voice. Which was understandable of course; if their vice-captains had suddenly vanished from under their noses as Tōshirō claimed to have happened to Matsumoto Rangiku.

"Hmm…" The old man at the head of the two columns murmured to himself quietly. "Kurotsuchi Mayuri, as the foremost knowledgeable expert on the Dangai, do you have any preliminary hypotheses regarding the current situation?"

The white clad captain gave a sigh and scratched his forehead. "Normally, I'd consider the disappearance of a vice-captain below me and not bother with it, but the possible correlation between the vice-captain's disappearance and the recent detection of foreign reiatsu within the Dangai intrigues me. As far as preliminary hypotheses go, I can't make any solid, sensible conclusions until I obtain first-hand data."

"Shall I take that as a request to investigate the situation personally?" The wizened old warrior questioned with a raised brow.

"Of course," was the simple reply.

The nod that came from the first division caption was slow and authoritative. "Very well. Permission granted."

There was a long sigh from the captain of the eighth division as he tipped his hat over his eyes. "Sheesh… we finish a war and return to mysterious disappearances… Can't seem to catch a break, can we?" He finished with a smile directed to the individual on his left.

Said individual, Ukitake Jūshirō, simply opted not to respond, and instead continued to stare that the bowed back of the head of the tenth division. "Are we certain the Dark Ones, or others like them aren't responsible for this? As beings who knew the Dangai extensively, is it not prudent to assume-?"

"-Assume?" the voice of the twelfth division captain interrupted, his eyes finding those of the white-haired man. "It's never prudent, nor safe, to assume anything. Simply because we know of a single individual, or group of individuals who might potentially be involved in the current situation, doesn't mean it's correct to believe they are responsible."

Ukitake narrowed his eyes at the make-up wearing captain, but didn't interrupt him.

"Besides, from previous research I've conducted, the reiatsu currently infesting the Dangai is so far foreign to that of the Dark Ones we've come across that I couldn't even dream they would be involved, though there is always the miniscule chance…"

He shrugged and waved off his own comment. "However this is just off the top of my head. If you want to blindly speculate while I do my work, you're welcome to, but until I've completed my analysis, there's hardly any point in continuing this conversation."

"Is that a hint of impatience I detect in your voice?" came the eerily soothing voice of the fourth division captain, her slight smirk showing her confidence that it in fact was.

Mayuri frowned at her. "Of course it is. Your incessant conversation is keeping me from my work; naturally, anyone would be impatient."

"Then let us not keep you from your work any longer," Kuchiki Byakuya, head of the sixth division coolly commented as he turned and made his way out. "We are not the only ones keeping others from their work," he added with a pointed look towards the scientist captain.

Mayuri gave a "tch" and glared at the back of the retreating captain. Before he could respond however, the voice of the captain-commander sounded again. "Very well, from this moment forward, only assigned personnel will be authorized to access the Dangai, until such a time a Kurotsuchi Mayuri has found the cause of the strange reiatsu… and the disappearance."

The meeting ended with the bang of the old man's cane on the wooden floor.

Though that had been the way it went down, Toshiro didn't appreciate being kept out of the loop as Mayuri and his lieutenant Nemu poked around the Dangai, along with several members from the scientist's division. Sometimes they were silent, while other times they're speech was so thick with science and technical babble he couldn't understand a word of it. However, he knew it wouldn't be wise to interrupt the twelfth division captain without due cause (like reminding him what they were there for, for instance).

"And you say you were about this far in when you stopped to investigate?"

Toshiro perked up at the realization that Mayuri was talking to him now. "Yes, about this far. We detected that this was where the leak was strongest; I went one way, she went another. Only a few seconds after we parted, I lost track of her reiatsu."

Mayuri scratched his chin idly. "Hmm… it does seem as though this is where the greatest condensation of reiatsu is located, but I don't see how a vice-captain's reiatsu can vanish as instantaneously as you claim is did." He turned aside and eyed his own vice-captain. "Nemu, bring up that gear we brought along."

"Hai, Mayuri-sama."

Sasuke stood away from the red-headed boy and his sister. He eyed them both carefully. 'It's a good thing Shino showed up when he did… Taking care of that puppet user helped me catch up quickly.' Poor Shino… in all honesty, he'd completely forgotten about the Aburame when the match had suddenly been interrupted.

"Temari… put me down…" came Gaara's voice, a mere groan compared to his usual tone.

"But Gaara-"

"I SAID GET LOST!" He roared, his right arm lashing out and sending the fan-user crashing into the hard truck of a tree, his cold eyes burning with the desire to slaughter.

Temari hit the tree with a harsh crack, her echoing scream of pain indicative of something snapping inside of her. Gaara paid her no heed.

Neither did Sasuke. If he could claim to know anything about the relationship between the three siblings, it was that they were deathly afraid of Gaara, and for good reason. "You're not a very nice guy are you?" he asked rhetorically, not expecting an answer from the unstable sand-user.

"Uchiha Sasuke…" said user began, surprising the Uchiha. "I told you before… You have the same eyes I do… eyes that seek to prove your own worth to the world… to prove that your very existence has meaning beyond simply living. You know the pain I do… the emptiness, the loneliness…"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed at the boy. Clearly he was having a moment of mental clarity… or perhaps his insanity was a conscious choice?

"You're eyes are filled with hated and death… Just like mine, they tell me how badly you want to kill the one who put you through this empty hell…"

Sasuke nearly flinched at the sudden onslaught of memories from that night so many years ago. The blood on the streets and the walls… The burning houses and bodies… The lone figure of the man who was his brother, standing amidst all the carnage, staring at him, as if daring him to do anything other than sit there and watch.

"You… you want to determine if you deserve to live… you wonder if you're really stronger… stronger than the one you're dying to kill!"

A sudden heat surged in Sasuke's gut as he recalled the face of the man who slaughtered his family… the face of the man who was his family.

Gaara cried out, gripping the sides of his head with both hands as dark black lines crawled up the right side of his body, like poison in the vein. "Grrr… Graaahh!" He growled out painfully as the gourd on his back began to shift, the sand it was comprised of sliding down to cover his body.

Sasuke's eyes widened as his skin suddenly took on a gritty, sand-like texture, but unlike when he used his sand-armor. No, this time his whole body began to morph, changing into something completely inhuman. Half his face took on the muddled visage of a deranged rabid raccoon, while his right arm grew vicious looking hooked claws that jutted out at odd angles.

Presently Gaara's cried died away and he opened his eyes. In his right was a strange four-starred pattern that didn't belong on the eyes of any normal person, surrounded by a sea of black sclera.

"Now…" Gaara raised himself up, roaring at Sasuke. "LET ME FEEL ALIVE!"

Sasuke felt his eyes close as he felt the pure vehemence roll off of the creature in front of him, and it in turn stoke his own, long-since-cold fires of hatred. The burning heat in his gut, the euphoric feeling of nostalgia, the fires of rage…

"…I owe you thanks, Gaara of the Sand…"

Gaara paused at the sudden statement.

"…You've reminded me of what I am…" Sasuke placed a hand on the sword at his hip, lifting the gleaming blade from its scabbard. "I'm nothing more than a vessel; a container that holds all the vengeance of my clan. I am anger… I am hatred…"

The blade lifted cleanly from its sheath, twisting around and pointing at the demon of sand in front of him. "I will kill you, and reaffirm my ambition to kill my brother and avenge my family.

Sasuke felt a smirk split his face as he allowed his reservoir of power burst from within him. "And if on the off chance I fail, just remember…" A brief image of a white, masked face flashed in his mind. His eyes narrowed. "…Without fail, another monster is on its way."

Kakashi winced as a kunai nicked his shoulder, even though he should have been able to dodge it. 'Damn, I need to pay more attention!' With a whirl, he flung another two blades back at his attacker, one being blocked, the other sinking deep into the man's temple. Kakashi allowed himself a short second's breather as he gathered himself. 'I can't be worrying about those three right now…' He turned his gaze toward the purple rectangular cage atop the Kage-box that held the impossible challenge of containing the Hokage and Orochimaru. 'That's right… Otogakure is Orochimaru's village… this whole plot is part of his revenge on the Leaf.'

Despite the dismaying sensation he felt at what cost of life the village must have already paid by the surprise attack, he allowed himself a hidden smile at the thought of the Third Hokage fighting his former pupil. 'Even so, Orochimaru has another thing coming if he thinks he can take out the Hokage so easily.'

If there was even a chance of Orochimaru winning, it would be at too high a cost for the Sannin's preference. 'That man is the Professor after all.'

"Kakashi, behind you!"

Jiraiya's warning was too late to Kakashi's ears; he grunted in pain as blood splattered over his mask , falling backwards over the row of seats behind him. He landed with an "oof!" his right hand sporting a nasty little senbon right through the palm. 'Even when I tell myself to pay attention…' he admonished himself silently.

But before he could react, his eyes spotted the form of an enemy Sound ninja above him… falling?

He rolled to the side as the body of said shinobi toppled over limply, sliding down the rows of seats until it came to a stop. Kakashi's eyes widened as he spied a senbon (identical to the one in his hand, he noted) also imbedded solidly in the enemy ninja's skull. 'Friendly fire…?' Had he been hit by the same attack mean to hit him?

But before he could react, a second enemy materialized in front of him, blades in both hands and charging. This time however Kakashi was ready; he pulled out the senbon in his hand and blocked the first strike, then the second, but before a third attack could be tried, Kakashi was shocked by a third figure landing atop the second, pinning the Otogakure ninja to the ground through his neck with a wicked kunai.

"Too slow!"

The attack landed solidly, along with the body as both killer and killed hit the floor, the killer crouched like a pouncing tiger over its prey.

At first Kakashi blinked, thinking his eyes were deceiving him for a moment. However, as he blinked second and a third time, he realized something was very, very wrong. "Za-Zabuza?!"

The fellow masked man looked up from his kill, only to instantly blast past the stunned Cyclops, kunai slashing the throat of a Sand nin trying to sneak up from behind.

"What's wrong with you Kakashi? You were never this slow when we fought before," he decried humorously as he let the body of his new victim fall from his grasp.

"Zabuza… h-how are you…?"

"…Alive? I'm not," he stated simply as he idly reached up and pulled a jutting kunai out of his ribcage. "Not technically anyway. Your stupid little student summoned us back from the dead."

Kakashi blinked in shock. "Naruto did this…?" And though he didn't say so vocally, for a brief moment in time, Kakashi's thoughts trailed off towards Gin. Gin was a god of death, and Naruto was his student… did that mean that both had the ability to summon the dead back to life? He remembered specifically when Gin saved Hinata's life by pouring his own energy into her after their first battle with the Hidden Mist nin.

"What'd he call it…? Edo Tensei or something like that," explained Zabuza, dashing Kakashi's sudden theories. However, that was an even greater revelation to the co-sensei than what he had been thinking.

"Edo Tensei?! You mean the Second Hokage's most forbidden jutsu?!"

The zombified man in front of him shrugged. "I guess. Hell if I know… Though I don't like the idea of summoning people back from the dead to do your dirty work, I suppose for the sake of my village I'd do the same." He looked out at those battling in the arena. "Damn brat didn't even give me my sword either."

He flexed his hand, the feeling of it without his iconic blade seeming all too foreign to him. "Whatever… He told us to protect Konoha, so I guess we don't really have a choice."

Kakashi, barely getting over his shock at the resurrected Zabuza (let alone the fact that Naruto allegedly used a technique long since sealed away by the Second Hokage), managed to collect himself and respond.

"'We?'" he parroted, his mind not yet up to its normal speed. His question was answered for him as another, much smaller figure landed beside them. "Zabuza-san, are you alright?"

"Fine," was his simple answer.

"Haku…!" Kakashi exclaimed with wide eyes.

The young lad turned with a not-quite-surprised smile. "Ah, Kakashi-san! I'm glad you're alright. You moved slightly in the way of my earlier attack, so I worried I might have hit you."

"Uh…" Kakashi's eyes narrowed at his bloodied hand and hid it behind his back. "Don't worry, it's just a scratch," he stated as though he were trying to make a joke, though he had a feeling it didn't work. "I… I'm just getting my head around the fact that you're alive."

"I already said I'm not. Though I suppose I'm alive enough to make sure you survive," the Demon commented as he turned around, placing the kunai in his hand back in his pouch. "What'll it say about me if you die to some no-name shinobi?"

Kakashi had the decency to smile at the man. "I suppose you'd roll over in your grave."

Zabuza grinned and brought his hands together. "I'm already rolling; Ninpou, Kirigakure no Jutsu!"

A thin mist gathered almost immediately as Zabuza lowered his hands. "Let's go, Haku."

"Hai," the young bishounen replied, leaping off with his master into the fray.

Kakashi watched them go before turning his head suspiciously. "You knew about this didn't you?"

Gin stepped out of the shadows of the mist, throwing a Sand ninja's body from his shoulder to the floor. "It don't matter what you think's right an' wrong; only what's right fer Naruto," he explained simply as he tapped the blunt end of Shinsō against his shoulder.

Kakashi's eyes narrowed. In that instant, he wondered if he wasn't given a rare peek into Gin's true character. Though he was what he was, a death god with no loyalty to anybody but himself, he held a very soft spot for Naruto. Of course this was obvious, but clearly it went deeper than that. Gin must have known the Edo Tensei was morally "wrong" to allow Naruto to use, and yet he must have known Naruto knew it. 'For that matter, why does Gin even care for Naruto…?'

He'd never considered that question before. Sure, he'd found the boy half-dead on the side of the road, but even so, being the Good Samaritan didn't fit with Gin's style. What's more, beyond getting Naruto to a hospital, Gin had no apparent motivation for taking care of the boy, let alone acting as his adopted father.

Something about Naruto must have drawn Gin to himself, that much was now clear to Kakashi, though he didn't dare let the thought 'could he be doing this to obtain the Kyuubi?' enter his head; Gin truly did care for Naruto, and Kakashi knew that for a fact.

And Kakashi had been beholden to the strange dynamic of Gin's "girlfriend," though calling her such might be a bit inaccurate.

There was just so much he didn't understand about Gin, or his goals for that matter. If he had a chance in the future, he'd have to ask the man personally. 'For now, just focus on surviving this war.'

"They're called forbidden jutsu for a reason you know."

Gin gave a nonchalant shrug as his buxom blonde lady-friend ran up the stairs to meet them. "Gin something's wrong, there's a large amount of reiatsu coming from the west! Isn't that where the kids are going?!"

If Gin's eyes weren't permanently closed, he might have blinked in surprise. As it was, his head turned toward the direction Sasuke had pursued Gaara and his smile dimmed only slightly. "Don' worry. Whatever it is, they c'n handle it. We've got ta make sure they got a village to come back to."

Kakashi frowned as his priorities went back to their correct order. "Right."

"An' Kakashi," Gin continued, making sure he had the Sharingan user's attention. "The world ain't always black an' white; sometimes it's orange 'n' blue."

Kakashi said nothing as he watched Gin turn away.

"Let's go, Rangiku."

She gave a sharp nod and followed after him.

"So, Sasuke is your goal…" deduced the Hokage, his voice hoarse and his breath ragged. "You want to possess his body, and the Sharingan along with it."

Orochimaru grinned. "That's the idea anyway, though it's looking harder and harder to choose as time goes on."

"You mean Uzumaki Naruto, don't you?"

Orochimaru sighed and closed his eyes. "Yes… both Naruto-kun and Sasuke-kun possess eyes I've long coveted. Honestly if I had a choice, I don't know which one I'd choose."

Sarutobi raised an eyebrow at his former student. "You're saying you don't have a choice? That's unlike you."

Orochimaru shrugged. "It's true that if I were to choose logically, I'd want the Rinnegan, but there's still a part of me that longs for the Sharingan. Regardless, I've already given Sasuke my mark. He'll come to me sooner or later for power; power to kill Itachi; power we all know the Leaf can't give him."

Sarutobi's eyes narrowed at his student. "You're relying a bit too much on the darkness in Sasuke's heart aren't you?" he asked with a grin. "I think we both know that that darkness has been brightened beyond corruption by now."

Orochimaru was silent for several seconds. The undead bodies of the First and Second Hokage stood nearby, waiting for the Sannin's mental command to continue the fighting.

"I suppose you're right…" Orochimaru admitted at last, his grin skewed strangely and eyes closed in resignation. "As long as he has those two with him, revenge is only a dark thought in the back of his mind."

His eyes opened suddenly, and a cold chill ran down Sarutobi's spine. "But what would happen if old wounds were suddenly reopened? What would happen if Itachi suddenly became Sasuke's only priority?"

Hiruzen clenched his teeth. "What exactly are you saying?"

"I'm just asking a simple question," he offered. "Do you really think Sasuke could stand to stay as he is when he finds out how utterly weak he is compared to his brother? I've fought with Itachi myself. What hope would Sasuke have?"

Sarutobi felt a sigh escape his lips as he continued to gather chakra. "You still don't get it, Orochimaru…"

The Sannin's eyes narrowed at his former master.

"All your life you've relied on your own power… your own strength, and all your life you've missed the bigger picture."

"And what is this 'bigger picture,' Sarutobi-sensei?" Orochimaru asked, leaning on the Kusanagi blade at his side.

"Make no mistake, Orochimaru," Sarutobi began, grinning victoriously, "no one is born into this world alone!"

Orochimaru let out a sigh of his own at his old master. "You really have grown old, Sarutobi-sensei…"

"Holy shit…" Naruto exclaimed as he looked on at the massive form of Gaara's so-called inner demon. "What the hell is he…?"

Hinata held Sasuke steady as he rested against a tree, the crawling, flame-like black marks tattooing his entire left side, beginning to spread over his right. "T-there… I loosened him up for you," the Uchiha said with a smirk as Hinata checked him over briefly.

"Gee, thanks," Naruto grimaced as he a stabbing pain shot through his temples. "Gah, what the hell is going on…?!"

Ever since the giant sand-creature appeared on their way to meet up with Sasuke, Naruto's head hadn't stopped pulsing in pain.

"... more importantly," he said as he tried, in vain, to rub away the pain, "what exactly am I supposed to do with that?"

The giant creature in front of him raised a massive paw into the air, causing Naruto to start. "Scatter!"

His cry was immediately responded to as Hinata quickly grabbed Sasuke's limp form and Shunpo-ed away, just in time for the great paw to hit the ground with a resounding crash.

"You fools! I'll kill all of you, one by one until there's no one left!"the demonized voice of Gaara echoed through the forest.

Naruto landed on the branch of a tree away from Hinata in hopes that Gaara would focus on him. In the brief interaction he'd had with the sand-user, he'd never shown any visible interest in Hinata, and he hoped that with Sasuke now unable to fight, Gaara would seek for his twisted sense of living in himself.

"Come on you fat bastard! I'm standing right here!" he shouted up at the creature.

"Shut up and die!"

Another swipe took out a large amount of trees, sending splinters and wooden shrapnel flying throw the air. Naruto leapt up to the tops of the trees, landing on an unsteady branch as he glared at the monstrous tanuki.

"Leave my family out of this, monster!"

"Don't lie to my face! You're a monster too!"Gaara replied, startling Naruto with his proclamation. "Fūton, Daitoppa!"

Gaara suddenly inhaled, and with a pound to his stomach, released a giant sphere of air directly at Naruto.

'Holy shit! That thing's got an enormous amount of chakra in it!' Naruto realized as his Rinnegan eyes saw the energy-saturated attack.

Naruto braced himself and faced his palms forward. "Hadō no Gojūhachi, Tenran!"

The wave of wind shot forward, impacting against Gaara's, only to be instantly broken as the opposing wind technique blasted right through.

Naruto eyes widened as he raised his hands to block. He got hit by the attack full on, his body screaming in pain as he shot through the air, crashing through the forest for several hundred feet before coming to a stop.

Naruto grunted aloud as he fought to bring his hand beneath him in support. 'Damn! I didn't think a level fifty-plus spell would be broken so easily! And that's my strongest one too!'

He raised his gaze to the tanuki towering above him. 'I guess I shouldn't be surprised though, since he's transformed into that…'

"Is that all you have?! UZUMAKI NARUTO! I expect more from a monster like you!"

Naruto ground his teeth and shouted back, a long pacified anger forming in his gut. "Who the hell're you calling a monster, huh?!" Quickly he lifted himself from the earth and got back to his feet, drawing Shinsō from her sheath and Shunpo-ing back into the trees toward Gaara.

"I saw you!" Gaara replied, as if that was all that needed to be said. "I saw all the looks of the villagers; their looks of hatred and anger, their unspoken rage pointed at you with their eyes!"

Naruto's eyes widened at Gaara's revelation. 'The villagers…? But why…?'

Then he remembered… He remembered that night half a year before when Mizuki tried to kill him.

"You've been lied to by everyone!"

Naruto nearly tripped at the phantom voice of his dead instructor.

"You were sealed up by the Hokage you admire so much…! You ARE the Nine Tailed Fox!"

A sudden panic rose from Naruto's chest, spreading to his limbs as he sat their frozen, unable to move.

"No one will ever accept you!"

"Tch…!" Naruto clenched his teeth as he remembered. 'How could I forget… what I am…?' he wondered to himself. 'The Kyuubi no Yoko… I… I am the Nine Tailed Fox… I tried to destroy the village…'

"You're just like me! They looked at you the same as they do at me! WE'RE BOTH MONSTERS!"

Naruto barely felt the distant rumbling of Gaara's form lumbering over to his location.

'I… I'd forgotten them… The looks… the hate…' He remembered the glares… the dirty glances… pure hate-filled comments…

He'd just been so blissful when Gin returned… and when Hinata became his "One." It had all come so quick and so sudden, he'd completely forgotten everything.

His stomach felt like it was on fire. His left hand gripped his belly tightly, remembering what lay sealed inside.

'That's right…' he realized, his head raising to look at the incoming demon. '…I'm a monster too.'

He turned his eyes slightly, feeling for Hinata's reiatsu. Like echo-location, he felt the strong pulse of her signature, alongside Sasuke's. 'Good.'

Naruto paused for a moment, breathing in a deep lung-full of air. It smelled of forest, animals, and smoke. The slight hint of sand's neutral scent… the harsh winds caused by Gaara's technique… the rumbling tremors of his stomping feet…

'This is reality…' he affirmed to himself as he stared down at his hands. 'I am a human, a shinigami, and a demon.'

He looked back up at Gaara. 'He may not be a shinigami, but he is a human… and as a human, I know what it's like to feel like a demon.' The light of his eyes dimmed as he remembered back to all those blissfully forgotten days of his early childhood; running from mobs, crying in corners of alleyways, fearing for his life on dark, moonless nights… His soft sobs crying to the heavens, wondering why he existed…

'I was unwanted…' he let out the breath he'd been holding, '…unloved…' he stepped forward. '…despised…'

His pace picked up, each step coming quicker than the last. '…Probably… just like you…'

His body flickered into the sky, landing on one of Gaara's massive arms. "Let me guess, they sealed this damn thing inside you when you were born?!"

Gaara threw his arm to the side, trying to fling Naruto from it, but the blonde latched on tight.

"They cursed your name with every look they gave you?!"

He dashed up the arm, dodging the other massive paw that came from the side.

"They spurred your very existence?!"

Naruto shouted, feeling his emotions well up inside him.

"I know that feeling!" he shouted at Gaara. "I know the pain of knowing nobody loves you!"

His Rinnegan eyes narrowed at the red head as he advanced towards the head where Gaara was exposed, half-submerged in the body of the sand-construct.

"If things had gone differently, I might be just like you now!" He cried, the knowledge that he could have turned into a murder-loving killer a frightening, yet very true fact.

The sand along the arm of the monster shifted, rising and forming into smaller versions of itself, each one snarling, with wicked blades of black-tipped sand sprouting from their bodies.

Naruto growled, bringing Shinsō to bear as he clashed with the first of the manifestations. Blade met hardened sand with a resounding clang, and for a moment the sand resisted. But with a shift of weight and surge of reiatsu, Shinsō cut right through it, slicing the mini-clone in half. No sooner had he dispatched it then he was swarmed by four more.

Naruto ducked low and brought the index and middle fingers of both hands up in front of him in a cross. "Tajuu Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" Instantly, through a cloud of smoke, clones of himself dashed out, meeting the incoming wave of sand clones as the original raced onward.

"But I had people there for me! People who loved me, even if I didn't know it!" His Zanpakuto pulsed, in-tune with his emotions, flashing brightly in the clear, sunny sky.

"They saved me from the darkness! They gave me the love I'd always wanted!"

"I love only myself!"Gaara cried out, smashing his right arm atop his left, attempting to squash the blonde. Naruto stopped on a dime, narrowly missing the crushing weight of the arm as it hit. "That's the meaning of this name my mother gave me before I killed her! To love only myself! I exist only for my own sake!"

Naruto leapt up and switched to the demon's other arm, continuing up the elbow and to the bicep. "I can't comprehend existing only for yourself!" Naruto admitted as more sand-clones manifested in front of him. "I have friends now! Family! I it's not just my life anymore!" A few remaining shadow clones leapt after their creator, intercepting their mini-clone counterparts.

"That's why, even at the cost of my life, I will stop you!"

Gaara, the real body's eye twitched as he ground his teeth together. "NO ONE WILL DENY MY EXISTENCE!" he roared before bringing his hands together. "Tanuki Neiri no Jutsu!"

Naruto nearly stumbled, caught off guard as the sand clones suddenly fell apart, and the giant body stopped moving. 'Tanuki neiri?' Naruto wondered silently. 'What's he up to?'

"He is the container for the Ichibi, Shukaku,"a beautiful flowing voice spoke from behind Naruto. Naruto nearly jumped as an ethereal hand gently landed on his shoulder from behind.

"Shinsō?!" Naruto exclaimed in surprise, though he quickly forced himself to get over his Zanpakuto's semi-manifestation. "What do you mean by Ichibi?"

"In the same vein as the Kyuubi, it's a tailed beast; a Bijuu. One of only nine of its kind." Shinsō gazed that the creature from over Naruto's shoulder. "The container for the Ichibi is always restless, to the point they develop insomnia. The Shukaku constantly tortures them in their dreams, meaning they never get a good night's sleep of it."

Naruto's eyes narrowed. "That might explain why he's so insane…"

"His insanity is born of the hatred of humans, not the Shukaku itself. Shukaku's only goal is to terrorize its host."

"To what end?" Naruto questioned quietly, the giant beast still not having moved. "Wouldn't that hinder its host, placing them both in danger?"

"Shukaku can only escape from its host for the brief time the host loses full consciousness. That is why he drives them on, so they will one day succumb to either him, or to pure sleep. Either way, he escapes."

Naruto blinked. "Then… that jutsu he just used…"

"That's right… it forces him to sleep, releasing the full might and consciousness of the Shukaku."

As if on cue, the roar of the Shukaku echoed through the forest and beyond. With raised head, it laughed to the heavens, pure delight tangible in its voice.

"HYAHAHAHAHA! I'm free! Finally fucking FREE!"

It raised its hands to its side, and an ocean of san rose from the forest floor at its will.

"Finally! The little shit let me out! I've been dyin' for some blood!"

Naruto felt Shinsō's voice grow more worried. "Be careful, Naruto. This isn't like anything you've faced before."

"You sure know a lot about the situation, Shinsō," Naruto said with a grin, but was startled when Shinsō shook her head.

"This knowledge doesn't come from me…" she began with a downcast expression.

"Then… who else-" Naruto was cut off mid-thought, and his question was answered. "The Kyuubi, huh?" he said with disdain. "First time he's ever helped me," he commented begrudgingly, though he smiled again. "Guess that means it must really be important."

Shinsō didn't answer as the blonde stepped forward. "Now, how the hell do I stop it…?"

"You must wake the medium before the Shukaku can cement its consciousness. Any amount of pain would be enough."

Naruto's eyes narrowed. "Pain, huh…?" He clenched his teeth as he prepared himself. "Guess there's no two ways 'round it…" he commented idly.

The blonde's eyes glared up at the possessed form towering above him. "Sorry, buddy, but this monster isn't losing any time soon."

Hinata carefully laid Sasuke out along a sturdy branch, making sure to rest his head carefully. As far as she could tell, the Uchiha had lost all control of his body, and as she stared at the curse mark covering his left side, she realized just how far Sasuke must have been pushed to end up in this state. "Sasuke-kun..." she mumbled softly as his eyes clenched in pain, various spasms rippling over his muscles.

He breathed difficultly, but managed to crack a smile and open an eye at her. "Don't give me… that look…" he panted. "I gave… that guy… hell."

"And you got hell in return," she retorted, causing him to smirk painfully.

"I guess I did…" his voice trailed off and his smile dimmed. Hinata blinked as Sasuke's countenance fell abruptly, his grinning face, darkening into a deep frown. "It's not nearly enough…" she heard him mumble under his breath.

"Eh…?" she questioned in surprise. Sasuke eyed her, not realizing he'd said the words aloud. "Oh… nothing… Never mind."

Of course it was a lie.


Both were startled by Sakura's sudden cry as she leapt up to the same branch, quickly kneeling beside the Uchiha. "Are you alright Sauske-kun?!" she asked worriedly.

Sasuke merely rolled his eyes in the direction of Hinata, whose unenthused expression wordlessly stated "we didn't have a choice."

Sakura kneeled down and propped Sasuke's head on her lap, an action that wasn't wholly uncomfortable for him. "Wait, where's Naruto?" the pinkette questioned, looking this way and that.

Her question was answered by the flattening force of energy surging from beyond, loud roars and booms sounding from deeper within the forest. Hinata and Sakura both braced themselves against the intense pressure. When, after a few seconds, it subsided, they all looked in the direction it'd come from.

"W-what the hell was that?!" Sakura cried, half in a panic.

Hinata however looked worriedly in the blonde's direction. "Naruto-kun…"

Sasuke gritted his teeth. "Forget it Hinata…" he preemptively warned.

Hinata looked at him in surprised protest. "But he-"

"-Doesn't need our help!" he shouted back. He sighed and eyed the Hyuuga carefully. "Trust me… You should know best of all… that reiatsu didn't feel normal."

The look he gave her made her wonder exactly what he meant. She had little time to wonder as the ground shook beneath her, the entire forest floor quaking as a tsunami of sand smashed against it.

Naruto floated in the air, though only temporarily as the waves of sand spread out below him. "Tch, turning your whole arm into a geyser of sand? That's dirty!" He grimaced as he began his decent. With a single step of Shunpo, he'd managed to evacuate to the air, though his position hadn't gone unnoticed by the beast below.

"FUCKING PEST!" The creature bellowed up at him. With a great inhale, it raised its arms above its head, fists formed in either hand.

Naruto's eyes widened as his Rinnegan witnessed the massive accumulation of chakra suddenly massing in Shukaku's gut.

And with astonishing speed, the creature slammed both arms against its bloated belly, blasting out a hurricane into the sky.

Naruto's face went white as he raised his arms in front of him. 'Shit, this is bad…!' All his eyes could see was the concrete wall of chakra barreling towards him.

With a rush of energy, he straightened his hands forward. "SHINRA TENSEI!"

The two opposing walls of energy smashed into each other, an ethereal unstoppable force meeting an invisible immoveable object.

The resounding blast of energy from the colliding forces was impressive. A wall of wind spread out in a line, severing the forest in two as it split in opposite perpendicular lines. The cacophonic windstorm billowed up and around, whipping at Naruto's clothes as he withstood the great storm.

Finally the wind died down Naruto fell to one knee, panting. "Fuckin' A… that bastard packs a punch! But how the hell am I supposed to wake that ginger up now?" He eyed the head of the Shukaku, reaching out with his senses to detect the presence of life within the construct of sand. Sure enough he found it –Gaara- buried deep within the skull.

'There he is… Now how to get him…?' Of course, he already had a solution in mind, though it wouldn't be the most pleasant for Gaara.

With a blur, he drew Shinsō from her sheath, holding the blade at his side. Gathering his strength, he felt power surge through his veins, the familiar spiritual energy flowing around him as he stared straight ahead at the lumbering behemoth. "Alright… let's dance!"

With an explosion of energy, Naruto rocketed into the air, soaring straight toward the animate sculpture.

"Get lost you pest!"

Naruto grimaced as he dodged the massive clawed paw of the raccoon's hand. With a shout, he stabbed Shinsō into the arm, dragging it along as he flew forward, using it like an anchor to direct his movement. More mini-Shukaku rose from the flesh of the beast, the first wave too slow to catch him. The second caught up with him and he slid to a stop on the creature's arm. But he didn't stop. With a battle cry, he rushed forward, hacking and slashing at the manifestations like a whirling death machine. Never hesitating, he brought the full arsenal of his Rinnegan to bear. Splitting his left arm into two, one reformed into a missile launcher while the other rotated into a steel drill. With plumes of smoke and whirring steel, Shukaku's clone army was decimated, some before they could even form.

Naruto rushed forward, battering the front lines with missiles and diving in after with his blades. Terrible claws lashed out at him, meeting flesh and slicing through, unable to deter him.

"Shinra Tensei!" With a blasting force, the mob of monsters were blown away, Naruto's from speeding past.

Naruto blinked as he raced up the elbow, spying the unguarded head of the Shukaku above. 'Here we go, just reverse the weight of the pull and…' With an outstretched hand, Naruto reached toward the distant creature's snout, feeling his powers activate and his eyes brighten.

"Banshō Ten'in!"

With a blur of movement, Naruto was thrown into the air, pulling himself toward the Shukaku's forehead like a bullet.

"GET LOST!" With a cry, the beast threw its head back, flinging Naruto even further into the sky.

Naruto's eyes widened as his technique nearly backfired. He steadied himself as he felt himself continue to rise… perfectly above the Shukaku's form. 'Perfect.' With a smirk, Naruto took a deep breath, allowing calm to enter his body as he gather from the well of power within him. 'That armor's thick… I need to hit it hard to break through.'

With a snap, a second arm split off from his right, and his left arms returned to their normal form. Reversing the blade and bringing it above his head with two arms, he flung the other two out, palms facing behind him. His eyes narrowed dangerously as he aimed at the ground. "SHINRA…"

Shukaku recoiled as its eyes went wide, a strange chill creeping up its spine. 'W-wait, this feeling is…!'


Naruto's Rinnegan blazed brightly as he descended, the blast of telekinesis firing like an invisible jet behind him, Shinsō gripped in both hands and pointed downward. "IKOROSE, SHINSŌ!"

With a blinding flash of and repulsion wave, the blade shot out like a beam of light, tearing through the air so fast, the giant creature didn't have time to react. The blade crashed against its hardened sand skull, shattering the shell and piercing it.

SHukaku had just enough time to register the eerily familiar aura in the air, and the stabbing pain of its host before its consciousness slowly faded to black. 'It… it couldn't be…!'

Naruto held onto the hilt of Shinsō, one foot pressed against the dull edge of the blade, as supported himself while he waited for… something to happen. 'I know that got him good.'

Presently the body of sand began to lose its coloring, its "flesh" sloughing off in torrents as it fell to the forest floor. Finally, the faint spot of red appeared amidst the sand. Naruto quickly retracted his blade as he fell from the sky, landing on the top of one of the few trees that hadn't been destroyed in the devastation.

The rustling of leaves alerted him to the presence of his opponent as he crashed through the canopy, breaking several branches as he did so. Naruto quickly leapt over and caught him, sliding along the ground as he landed on the now sandy ground. With the wounded boy now in his arms, he could see the single strike he'd just inflicted had pierced straight through his shoulder, which was bleeding rather profusely at the moment.

Naruto looked down at pained face of the red-head in his arms and grimaced. The expression of pain and sorrow made Naruto's heart sink as he remembered the boy's words earlier. With a grunt, he gently laid him on the soft ground and kneeled beside him, reaching into his pouch and pulling out some white bandages. Though Gaara grunted unconsciously, Naruto carefully rolled him onto his side and began even more carefully dressing his wounds. After a few minutes, a groan from Gaara drew Naruto's attention.

"Ngh… why…?"

Naruto blinked in surprise. "Why what?"

"I'm your enemy," Gaara explained as though it was obvious. "Why would you help me…?"

Naruto's hands slowed in their work as he heard him. Gaara's eyes opened marginally to stare at the blonde.

"I… I don't really know why I want to help you. I just… do." He stated unsurely. "Although, if I had to give a reason, I'd say it's because…" his eyes suddenly brightened and he returned his gaze to Gaara, a beaming smile splitting the blonde's face. "…we're the same."

Gaara's eyes widened at that. "You mean, as monsters? What does that have to do…?"

Naruto quickly shook his head. "We're not monsters. Just because we're different from others, doesn't make us evil." He leaned back and propped a knee up as he sat on his butt. "But we both know the pain of being their 'monsters.'"

Gaara's eyes narrowed in confusion. "What are you saying…?"

Naruto smiled wistfully as he stared at the blue sky. "I'm saying I understand you. You said it earlier, right? I'm a monster like you. "


Naruto turned at Hinata's voice as she landed several feet away, jogging to reach his side. Behind her was Sasuke, supported by Sakura.

"Are you alright Naruto-kun?" she asked as she kneeled at his side.

Naruto gave her a smile and nodded. "I'm fine, don't worry. More importantly, you're better with medicine than me," he commented as he turned his eyes toward Gaara. "Would you help patch him up for me?"

Hinata started at his request and hesitated for a few seconds before eventually nodding. "I-if you're sure…"

Naruto gave her a reassuring smile and nodded, so she got to work.

Gaara immediately made to resist her help but a sharp pain in his shoulder screamed at him not to. He winced with a sharp intake of breath and his left arm reached over to his wounded limb. However, to his shock, his hand was forcefully held away from the injury. His teal eyes found Hinata's pale orbs as she stared at him sternly. His body went still as he saw the emotions in her eyes. If there was one thing he'd become adept at during his short life, it was reading the emotions behind a person's actions. Oddly, here was a short, timid girl who he knew wouldn't stand a chance against him in a fight, yet she was practically tempting him to kill her with her commanding expression.

'Does she think that just because I'm weak now that she can take advantage of me?!' He mentally raged. 'Fuck her…! I'll fucking kill-'

"P-please, let me help you."

Her words alone meant nothing to him, but her tone stunned him silent. Her tone was quiet, hopeful, sincere… The last time he'd heard a voice like that was-

An image of his uncle Yashamaru flashed through his mind like shattering glass; a long repressed memory of abandonment and betrayal.

"'…Help?'" he parroted dumbly.

"Yes, let me help you," she repeated carefully.

"Why?" Gaara's eyes narrowed at the blonde. "Why do you want to help me… Uzumaki Naruto?!" Gaara pushed the girl at his side away, despite the excruciating pain the action caused him. "Monsters don't help other monsters fool! Monster only live to consume others! To rip them apart, tear them to pieces and devour them!" he growled loudly as he managed to raise himself into a kneeling position. "What does a monster like you want to help me for?!"

Naruto was silent for several moments, his expression dimming as he considered that very question. "Why… should monsters kills monsters?"

Gaara recoiled in surprise, but wasn't given a chance to respond.

"You're right, y'know… I've always been a monster, at least to everyone else in my village. But I met people who thought I was something more… something better." His eyes drifted to Hinata and Sasuke behind him. "I found people who accepted me… loved me. Soon enough, the pain I'd once felt disappeared."

He reached over and placed a hand on Gaara's shoulder. "But I still remember the pain, and that's not something I'd wish on anyone. So, if you'd let me, I'd like to help you erase that pain."

Gaara blinked in stunned silence. His mind tried to grasp the scope of what his blonde counterpart was saying but he just… couldn't.

'Wounds of the heart are difficult to heal…' Gaara's eyes shot open at the phantom words invading his mind. 'You can only heal them with a special kind of medicine.'

'What kind of medicine uncle? How can I get some?'

'It's already been given you, Lord Gaara.'

'It has…? What is it?'

'It's love Gaara.'


He blinked back to reality, his wide-eyed expression still on his face. He looked to Hinata, who'd called his name.

Her hands were now carefully placed on either side of his wounded shoulder, though when she'd moved them there he didn't know. His eyes slowly closed and a breath, vaguely reminiscent of a sigh, exited his lips.

He couldn't understand these people. In all of his life he'd never encountered anyone who, even after being threatened with death would turn around after a victory and extend a hand of genuine friendship. More than that though was Naruto's words. They were logical, yet so confusing… Why would someone who knew true pain like he did not wish that pain on others? Add to it they were spouting the same hypocritical trash that his treacherous uncle had spoken, prior to his assassination attempt.

'That's right… I can't trust them… I can't trust anyone.' He flexed his left hand, a few small grains of sand rolling over to it. 'I'll kill them, with this sand my mother… my… mother…' his mental threat trailed off as a sudden understanding dawned on him; a thought he'd long ago forgotten. Yashamaru had said that the sand that protected him was manifested will of his mother; a will to protect her child whom she loved. 'But Yashamaru lied about her… did he also lie about love? Was only some of it true?'

His uncle had lied to him about many things, but this boy… this Uzumaki Naruto was saying the exact same things! Was he lying as well? No, that wasn't likely… Then… was Yashamaru telling the truth?

He gripped his forehead with his good hand as he racked his brain for answers… to make sense of this confusion he'd suddenly been thrust into. All he'd thought to be true was now up in there air, and he couldn't make heads or tails of it.

"Do you think I'll just forget my pain? That it'll magically disappear?"

Naruto smiled brightly and shook his head. "Haha, naah. The pain sticks with you forever. But, if you're lucky, you'll find people who can make you forget it."

"And you… will make me forget?" he questioned cynically.

"I can't guarantee anything," Naruto shrugged honestly. "But, will you at least give me… us a chance to try?"

Gaara's gaze was icy as he looked from Naruto to Hinata to Sasuke. To his surprise, even Sasuke's face was soft. Well softer than he'd ever seen it. Was even the Uchiha willing to go along with Naruto's offer?

He closed his eyes again and took a breath, ignoring the stinging pain in his still untended shoulder. He held it in, savoring it before releasing. He finally spoke the only words he could think of.

"Do as you wish."

Though to Sakura it seemed as if everything they'd just said had been in vain, it clearly didn't seem that way to Naruto, as his expression brightened by several magnitudes, his eyes closing from the size of his great smile. Even Hinata had a relieved smile, and even Sasuke smirked from his place on her shoulder.

That seemingly concluded, Gaara allowed himself to be laid down and his arm to be tended to by the Hyuuga princess.

'I can't be sure of anything… but if they're right…' Gaara allowed his thoughts to drift off as he lay there.

'Maybe… I…'

A/N: And there you have it, chapter sixteen! I hope you all liked it! There were some great parts in the chapter I loved writing and there were some I just abhorred. Some of you who are familiar with my writing style might recognize those moments, but hey, if YOU didn't like it, you wouldn't be reading this note, now would you? NO! No you wouldn't! So, that in mind, if you got this far, you MUST have liked it. And since you liked it, who am I to keep you from writing a shiny little review about it? No one good sir, no one!

That said I wish you all a happy October and I hope to write to you again soon! PEACE!

PS. Don't forget to vote on both my, and Brown Phantom's poll! :D Later!