A/N: Hello readers, reviewers, and assorted Internet trolls! A lot has happened since the last time I've updated this story. Most significantly, I tested my mettle during National Novel-Writing Month, and well… my mettle failed. Apparently my muse doesn't operate on command, and trying to put aside fanfiction for original fiction only accomplished the goal of depressing me while turning my writing into disgraceful, unreadable mush. I haven't given up on my dream of publishing a novel, but in the future, I'm definitely going to listen to my muse when it tells me to work on different ideas.

I'd also like to shamelessly plug my new story, Reign of the Serpent. It's a semi-dark, bittersweet (yes, I always describe my stories in terms of chocolate) epic set in an alternate version of the Harry Potter universe, and I'm trying to incorporate some of the lessons I learned while writingRise of the Uchiha.I'm only a few chapters in, but it's going to be big. If you like Harry Potter, and you like the way Rise of the Uchiha includes most of the main Naruto characters while spinning their loyalties around, then I can almost guarantee you'll like Reign.

Now on to the battle between Kiri's youngest Swordsmen and Kumo's badass bruisers, where not all is as it seems. The next chapter pits Sandstorm against Kimimaro's righteous anger, and then we move on to the Preliminaries (otherwise known as duels-on-duels-on-duels). Finally, this chapter has one movie quote and one historical reference (because hey, why not). Kudos to anyone who spots both!

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto

Chapter 38

The forest around Sasuke was a gallery of frozen horrors. Uncountable thousands of spiders, birds, and even squirrels were suspended in Haku's ice, the glow from their unnatural red eyes refracting through ice crystals. It was an undoubtedly eerie spectacle, but Sasuke was glad to see it. As long as Haku could neutralize Deidara's pets, they could fight freely – so long as they kept any elemental attacks below the branches of Konoha's mighty trees, which were covered in explosive clay.

Darui, C, and Yugito waited for the Swordsmen to make the first move. All three of the Kumo shinobi looked confident, almost complacent. Perhaps they had a right to be. They had age, experience, and a jinchuuriki on their side. But Sasuke and his teammates had a few tricks of their own.

"I've heard that Kumo shinobi are honorable," Sasuke called out, "but so far all I've seen from you is shameful thievery. Assassinating a fellow competitor to cut out his eye? How can you live with yourselves?"

C snorted in apparent disbelief. "A Kiri shinobi lectures us about honor?! And a former rebel, at that. How much of your countrymen's blood did you spill during your revolution, traitor?"

If the sensor-type shinobi was trying to get under Sasuke's skin, he was going about it the wrong way. In fact, Sasuke was hard-pressed not to laugh. "Actually, it was a surprisingly bloodless revolution," he said cheerfully. "In our final assault on the city, the only casualty was Masanori the Tyrant, and I don't think he was greatly missed."

"Enough chatting," Suigetsu snarled, his sword pulsing into a dozen different deadly weapons as if it, too, couldn't restrain itself any longer.

"Any objections to one-on-one duels?" Darui asked lazily. "Believe it or not, we do abide by a code of honor."

"Sounds fair," Sasuke agreed. "If we win two out of three, you give us your scroll and leave the Forest without targeting any more teams – that is, if you're still alive. If you win, you get our swords and our scroll."

Darui tossed his head, shifting the lock of white hair that covered one eye. "I like your terms. Our own little tournament, with the honor of our villages at stake. Who will be my opponent?"

Sasuke hefted the Lightning Swords Kiba, feeling the sword's own eagerness like a jolt through the hilt. "I will."

"Let me face the jinchuuriki, Captain," Haku spoke up.

Right… Sasuke thought. Out of the three of us, Haku is a jinchuuriki's apprentice and has the most experience sparring with one.

"Fine by me, Haku."

Suigetsu pointed his sword at C, his blade morphing into an enormous cobra with hood flared. "That means you're mine, pretty boy."

C, who seemed to be, like Suigetsu, the most outspoken and aggressive member of his team, replied with a suggestion that was both vulgar and anatomically impossible.

"Before we begin," Haku interjected, "there's still the chance that a particularly wild attack might detonate the explosive clay up in the trees. Are there any objections if I deal with that possibility?"

"Fine with us," said Darui. "Do as you like."

"Captain?"

When Sasuke nodded his assent, Haku made a rapid series of seals. "Ice Release: Glacial Arena!"

Ice flowed from him in waves, expanding until it ringed an area of about a hundred square meters, and formed a translucent dome that ended just below the first level of branches. As for the tree trunks located within the makeshift arena, Haku's ice encased them, turning them into white pillars that looked like they were holding up the gigantic dome of ice.

"Nice work, Haku," Sasuke said, impressed at how much his teammate's control had improved. He smirked at Darui, who looked almost bored, as though he fought under giant ice domes every day. "Every tournament ought to have a proper arena, don't you think?"

"Trust a Kiri shinobi to make ice sculptures when he should be fighting," was Darui's only response. "I'm sorry, but we've wasted enough time here." He freed his sword from the strap that kept it lashed to his back. It had a cleaver-like blade that was somehow folded in two, but it snapped straight as Darui swung it through the air.

By unspoken agreement Haku and Yugito moved to one end of the ice dome, and Suigetsu went with C to the other, leaving Sasuke and Darui to fight in the center.

"Let's see if you've earned the right to be called a Swordsman," said Darui. He made a one-handed seal before hefting his sword with both hands. The blade lit up with a yellow glow, the air around it crackling with electricity.

Sasuke was not impressed. "Mine do that too… and I don't need hand seals." The Lightning Swords Kiba roared to life in his hands, shooting bolts of lightning at the white-haired Kumo shinobi.

Darui dodged effortlessly, and closed the distance with Sasuke.

"You think your fold-up cleaver can match the sharpest swords in existence?" Sasuke scoffed. "Your funeral."

"You are not the only one who can enhance your sword's cutting power with lightning chakra," Darui replied, swinging his massive blade at Sasuke's neck. Sasuke parried with both swords at once, and he was still driven back two steps with the impact. Darui was strong, belying his slight frame and apologetic air. "A sword is only as effective as the one who wields it."

"Spare me the platitudes, old man."

The center of the dome lit up with the brilliant golden flares from their duel. Sasuke tried to bring his superior weapon into play by extending small lances of lightning with each blow, but Darui proved adept with the Body Flicker jutsu and avoided them time after time. The Kumo shinobi dictated the pace of the battle, appearing out of nowhere to slash at Sasuke, then disappearing again before Sasuke's counterattacks could catch him.

Lightning played around them with a terrible, fierce joy, while they enacted a deadly dance in the heart of the storm. Sasuke could not use his sharingan to help him intercept new attacks, but he was used to that. And Darui, unlike Itachi, did not disguise his every attack with interwoven layers of genjutsu.

"This is not a battle you can win," Darui said, pausing momentarily out of the range of Sasuke's blades. "Just as Iwa shinobi excel at Earth Release and explosions, the shinobi of Kumogakure are experts in Lightning Release and kenjutsu. You cannot match me when you fight against my strengths."

"And how do you know they're not my strengths, too?" Sasuke demanded. "Not every Kiri shinobi uses Water Release, and you certainly don't have a monopoly on swordsmanship."

As if to emphasize his point, Sasuke went on the offensive. He stopped shooting lances of lightning, instead coaxing every bit of speed from his lightning-infused blades. Darui responded to the challenge, weaving an incredible defense against two swords with his one. It seemed incredible that such a large, bulky weapon could move with such liquid grace.

Despite the fury of their duel, it began to seem like a stalemate – Darui could not do more than defend, nor did he have time to escape with a Body Flicker jutsu. But no matter how hard Sasuke tried, he could not so much as scratch the Kumo jounin.

I wouldn't mind activating the sharingan about now, Sasuke thought ruefully. But it was too great a risk, and besides, he was just getting warmed up.

The swordsmen sprang apart, breathing heavily and regarding each other with wary respect. "You have skill," Darui acknowledged. "Yet you're too young to be so sure with a blade. How can this be?"

Sasuke shrugged nonchalantly. "I trained under Kisame-sensei and the Mizukage himself. They're good teachers… and I'm a good student."

Of course, he had a bit of an advantage in that he could replicate a new kenjutsu technique instantly, after seeing it with his sharingan activated. When training to become Swordsmen, Sasuke and Itachi had mastered in days what it would normally take months to learn. It had frustrated Suigetsu to no end – the Hozuki clansman had spent most of his life learning the art of the sword, but Sasuke had overtaken him before long.

"As much fun as this is," – and Sasuke had to admit, it was kind of fun to see how he matched up against an elite jounin of Kumo – "I think it's time to stop playing around."

He joined his two swords at the hilt, where they fused into a single weapon. Sasuke channeled his own chakra into Kiba's new form, which drank it in eagerly and demanded more.

Electricity flared from the swords and covered Sasuke like a cloak, leaving him unharmed while ramping up his reflexes. "It's not exactly sportsmanlike," said Sasuke from inside his lightning armor, "but then, neither is gouging out someone's eye."

He moved even faster than before, swinging Kiba with both hands. Darui's cleaver came up to meet it, and as they clashed Sasuke channeled a pulse of Lightning chakra through Kiba's hilt and along the blade.

White light flashed, and Darui's sword shattered into a hundred fragments, some of which bit into him as they shot away. Sasuke, protected by his lightning armor, was unharmed.

Darui leaped away, discarding the useless hilt that was all that remained of his sword. "I have never been disarmed by a swordsman other than the Third Raikage," he said slowly. "It seems the Swordsmen of the Mist deserve their reputation. But I am not done yet."

Lightning gathered around Darui, but nothing like the seething golden armor that encased Sasuke. No, this was something primal, alien, and infinitely more strange. As Darui lifted his hands, black lightning erupted from him and took the shape of a huge animal that roared at Sasuke with the sound of a thunderclap.

A second more of astonishment, and then Sasuke recognized the creature.

"Black Panther lightning?!" he exclaimed. "Are you serious?"

oOoOo

Suigetsu needed to win this fight. As the newest member of the team, he hadn't fought alongside Sasuke or Haku during the rebellion. He was untried, untested, and very likely the weak link of his team, though he hated to admit it. Sasuke could tie him in knots with his genjutsu, and the one time Suigetsu had fought Haku, the bastard had turned his entire body to ice!

Suigetsu knew he was good – damn good. He was used to being called a genius. But he was unquestionably the rookie of the newly-formed Seven Swordsmen of Kirigakure, and he needed a big win to prove that he wasn't all talk. So it was just C's bad luck that he was fighting Suigetsu today, because this rookie Swordsman wasn't going to lose.

"A real man doesn't hide behind a mask, Kiri dog!" C taunted, settling into a defensive taijutsu stance. His hands were empty, so he apparently felt no need to match Suigetsu sword-to-sword. That was a smart choice – Suigetsu's Twinsword had an almost unfair advantage over mundane weapons, which couldn't morph into new shapes mid-strike. By far the best strategy was to avoid his blade entirely… not that Suigetsu was about to let that happen.

Suigetsu bared his filed teeth behind his hunter-nin mask. "Maybe I'm just not as pretty as you, Goldilocks," he said scornfully. "Besides, the real man will be the one left standing."

Suigetsu attacked first, using his clan ability to swell his right arm to four times its normal size. The increased strength allowed him to swing Hiramekarei as if it weighed no more than a toothpick, though no toothpick could sprout a covering of pure chakra shaped like a cobra as big as a horse. His sword swept toward C in a rapid arc, opening its unhinged jaws to swallow the Kumo medic-nin in a single gulp.

C kicked off from the ground in time to dodge, and somersaulted backward to avoid Suigetsu's follow-up swing. "Quick little bastard, aren't you?" Suigetsu muttered. He pursued C across the grass, harrying him relentlessly with his Twinsword. He couldn't afford to let the fight stretch out, because wielding Hiramekarei for too long sapped his energy.

Suigetsu began moving faster, his swings growing wilder, in the hopes of catching the elusive medic-nin. His swordsmanship became a little sloppier as he moved faster. After a particularly wild swing which carved a tremendous chunk out of an ice-covered tree trunk, C made his counter-attack.

The Kumo shinobi reversed direction so quickly he looked as if he'd been yanked by a wire, slipping inside Suigetsu's reach. There was no way Suigetsu could get his sword around in time – he'd overextended himself.

C lunged in, palm extended for a crippling strike to his midsection. Sucker, Suigetsu thought with satisfaction. He had wondered if the medic-nin would see through his sloppy swordsmanship for the trap it was, but it seemed his opponent was over-eager.

Suigetsu's midsection turned to water and burst outward and around C, refusing to dissipate like normal water. "You're trapped in my Water Globe," Suigetsu gloated, approaching his defenseless opponent. "Shouldn't have underestimated me like that. No Swordsman would really overextend his attacks like I did. Die!"

He tried to compress the watery prison, forcing liquid into his victim's brain through his nose and eyes, only to find that C had disappeared.

Shit! Suigetsu cursed. He's a Kami-damned genjutsu user!

"Of course I saw through your strategy," C's voice floated through the air. "Subtlety isn't exactly your strong point, is it? I set up that genjutsu when I dodged your last strike. I wanted to see if you'd reveal the ability that allowed you to blow up your arm to increase your strength. Your entire body can turn to water, it seems… an interesting ability, but probably vulnerable to Lightning Release techniques. You're at a disadvantage, Kiri dog, even with your fancy sword."

Suigetsu grimaced, glad that his mask hid his frustration. He was actually at a double disadvantage – a good hit from a lightning jutsu would end him, to be sure, but C also seemed to be accomplished at genjutsu, which was another of Suigetsu's weaknesses. It was almost enough to make him wish he'd picked the jinchuuriki instead!

C appeared from behind one of the ice-pillar tree trunks, a smug smile on his face. "I won't kill you with a lightning bolt," he said, as if he were being kind. "It's much too clumsy. A battle worth winning is worth winning with style. Lightning Illusion: Flash of Lightning Pillar!"

A bright light seemed to emanate from C's body, blinding Suigetsu and making him cry out in pain. He jumped back and, still blinded, used an advanced technique with his sword that turned it into a giant anaconda coiled around his body like a living coat of armor.

As his vision returned, spotted and hazy but undamaged, Suigetsu saw C charging toward him, his right hand crackling and sparking with some kind of lightning jutsu. Suigetsu lashed out with the Twinsword, turning the blade into a chakra shark to meet his opponent head-on, when he experienced a terrible sinking feeling.

Sasuke always uses nested illusions – never just a single one. What if this guy…

Sure enough, C's form abruptly disappeared when Suigetsu's arm was fully extended, brandishing his sword at empty air. A familiar crackling sound came from behind, and Suigetsu knew he wouldn't even see the lightning jutsu that ended his life.

oOoOo

Haku tried to observe Yugito as Itachi had taught him, analyzing the way she stood and identifying any hidden weapons. As a jinchuuriki, her greatest weapon most likely wasn't concealed anywhere on her body, but it was the principle of the thing that counted. Losing to a jinchuuriki wasn't necessarily a disgrace, but getting surprised by a kunai that he had missed certainly would be.

As he took the measure of his opponent, Haku was impressed by her poise. He considered himself a fairly good judge of character – years of serving Zabuza, never an easy man to know, had served as a base for Itachi's more nuanced lessons in reading people. Yet Yugito was a closed book to him. Anything could have been going on behind those appraising eyes, and even though Haku wore a mask, he was sure that the Kumo jinchuuriki was taking his measure every bit as surely as he was trying to take hers.

"You puzzle me," Haku said, using the flat, uninflected tone that always drove Suigetsu up the wall. "You seem like an intelligent and honorable kunoichi, but your actions paint a different image by far."

"Such a flatterer," Yugito said, a genuine smile flitting across the older jounin's face. "But we haven't known each other long enough to have any idea of our relative levels of intelligence. As for being honorable, that is a quaint ideal, but ultimately a fallacy. A shinobi has no need of honor, only obedience."

Haku nodded, in acknowledgement if not in agreement. "Once I would have agreed with you whole-heartedly," Haku replied. "How could I not? I, who made of my life a sacrifice to lay at my master's feet. But the burden of moral obligation should never wholly disappear. If the servant replaces his conscience with absolute loyalty, that only adds to the responsibility of the master to act rightly – otherwise, he betrays the precious gift entrusted to him. That is the essence of leadership, and where it exists not, there lie the roots of tyranny."

By the end of this speech, one of Yugito's eyebrows had risen a fraction above the other. She looked highly amused. "Such wisdom, and from one so young! Your sword ill becomes you, child. You ought to wear a long, white beard instead, and write treatises on philosophy."

Haku sighed. "The reign of Masanori the Tyrant made philosophers of us all. And while I truly believe that the pen is mightier than the sword…" – Haku smiled beneath his mask, blaming Sasuke for infecting him with the tendency to banter – "I forgot to bring my pen." He hefted Nuibari, the Longsword, and sank into a fighting crouch. "I trust that this will suffice."

"You will need more than a sewing needle to beat me," Yugito said calmly.

Haku swept her a mocking bow. "As you say, so do I obey." He took one hand off Nuibari and executed a flawless series of one-handed seals. "Hidden Mist jutsu."

In the seconds before the mist thickened enough to erase visibility, Haku was mildly gratified by the impressed look on Yugito's face. It was always nice to be appreciated. Not even Zabuza could create complex one-handed seals as well as he could.

Haku centered himself, taking slow, silent breaths in order to assume the frame of mind necessary for the Silent Killing technique. He was swift as the wind, lighter than mist, and merciless as death itself. Haku zeroed in on the sound of Yugito's breath, which might as well have been a homing beacon to his well-trained ears. He sped into motion, quiet as the grave, with Nuibari extended for the kill.

Haku was not altogether surprised, but definitely impressed when his sword met something metallic rather than the weak, yielding flesh. He exchanged a dozen quick, furious blows with Yugito, neither able to see the other's weapon, each reacting to the impossibly subtle displacement of air as blades flashed through the mist.

"You're good," Haku said, retreating for a moment and speaking loudly, the better to distract Yugito while he prepared his next strategy. "Have you studied Silent Killing before?"

"Not at all," Yugito's voice floated eerily through the mist. "But when I desire it, I can have very sharp hearing."

"You're referring, I suppose, to your demon," Haku said, hoping that his opponent would try to track his voice for just a few moments more. "Are you the host of the Two-Tails? It has a feline form, I believe, which would likely be able to grant enhanced senses to its host."

"Very astute." Yugito's voice was very dry. "May I ask why you're trying to distract me? You've been circling me this entire time, and I rather doubt you were trying to discover a weak point in my defense."

Haku came to a stop, suppressing a sigh of relief. Yugito had figured him out, but not quickly enough. She was trapped, but she couldn't see it yet because of the mist. Haku dispelled the technique, allowing the chakra-infused mist to fade away. He felt it was the gentlemanly thing to do.

Yugito circled slowly, unable to hide a small flicker of unease as she saw Haku's trap. She stood in the center of a dome comprised of huge mirrors made of ice – twenty-one mirrors, to be precise – each of which held an image of Haku. Yugito recovered instantly, composing her features into a confident mask.

"So the mist was only a diversion," she said, nodding like a teacher acknowledging a particularly clever response from a student. "It was meant to keep me from seeing you raise this dome."

"I had hoped to finish things with the Silent Killing technique," Haku answered. "But you were quick enough that I had to make other plans. But now you're trapped, and when I fight within my Demonic Mirroring Ice Crystals my speed increases exponentially."

Yugito only smiled and crouched down, lowering her center of gravity. Haku now saw that the weapons she had used to deflect Nuibari in the mist were not swords at all – rather, they were her nails, which had grown like claws to almost a foot in length. A feral light shone from Yugito's eyes, and chakra emanated from her like heat from a roaring furnace. Haku recognized the sensation from when Zabuza initiated a Partial Transformation.

"Trapped, am I?" Yugito purred, sliding her claws together and creating a horrific screeching sound. "We'll see about that, little one. You're not the only one whose speed can increase exponentially."

In reply, Haku flitted from mirror to mirror far faster than the unaided eye could track, and threw hundreds of ice spears at Yugito from every direction. She whirled with inhuman grace, her claws weaving a defense that turned aside every single spear without fail. When the volley stopped, Yugito switched effortlessly from defense to offense.

"My turn," she growled, forming a hand seal and exhaling with a rush. A burning projectile flew from her mouth towards one of the ice mirrors in the second row, angled downwards. It wasn't moving particularly fast, at least not compared to Haku, and he had plenty of time to move out of the way. He also had time to identify the projectile as a hairball – a fiery hairball, to be sure, but a hairball nevertheless – before it impacted the mirror and exploded with deadly force.

The ice mirror, which was strong enough to withstand high-intensity Fire Release jutsu and multiple exploding tags, shattered like a window pane meeting a hammer. The edge of the blast caught the neighboring mirrors, causing spidery cracks to spread across their glossy surfaces.

It was the work of less than a second for Haku to replace the mirror with a new one, but Yugito had definitely made her point. She looked around at the twenty-one mirrors, each containing Haku's image, and laughed.

"What's the matter?" she said, a sly glint in her eyes. "Cat got your tongue?"

oOoOo

With death coming at him from behind, Suigetsu had only time enough for a few final thoughts, the foremost of which was self-loathing. His first fight against a high-level shinobi from another village, and he was suckered by a nested genjutsu. All that sparring with Sasuke and his thrice-damned sharingan mind-melding, and Suigetsu hadn't learned a thing! It was embarrassing, really.

Wait for me, Mangetsu, Suigetsu called out silently to his brother. I'll join you soon.

But there was no sharp, stabbing pain in his back, no copious blood loss followed by oblivion. Suigetsu whirled around and saw C barely a meter away. But the Kumo medic-nin was not closing for the kill – instead, he leapt away as a small, winged shape dove between him and Suigetsu.

"Tada!" cried Sevaron, or Sev as he preferred to be called. The son of the leader of the Ninja Vampire Bat clan came out of his dive and posed in midair, displaying a flair for the dramatic that he had to have learned from Sasuke. "Sev saves the day again!"

"What the hell, Sev!" Suigetsu yelled, shaking the Twinsword at the little bat. "Stop interfering with my fight!"

Sev stuck his tongue out impudently. "Shut it, you waterlogged wannabe! I saved your ass, and you know it. Captain said I should fight with you…" Sev's red eyes lit up with smug satisfaction, and he spoke in a way that made it clear he was quoting, "since you're rubbish at genjutsu."

Suigetsu snarled. "Tell Sa- the Captain to mind his own business," he shouted. "I'm doing just fine!"

"No offense," C called out, his back to one of the vast, ice-covered tree branches, "but the summons has a point. You'd be dead without its help."

"Silence, Kumo sheep!" Sev commanded before Suigetsu could respond, bristling with sudden anger. "My name is Sev, not summons, and I am a he, not an it. I will drain the blood from your veins one drop at a time, and leave your dried-out husk for the vultures to pick at!"

"Wow," said C, eyes widening. "You're a feisty one, aren't you?"

Sev bared his teeth, and swooped to land on Suigetsu's shoulder. "Enough empty words. Quit stalling, Suigetsu. Do you really want to explain to the Captain that you refused to follow his orders?"

Suigetsu winced. Sasuke would rip him in half if he ignored an order. There was also the fact that the bloodthirsty creature was almost as skilled with genjutsu as Sasuke, and he had saved Suigetsu's ass just now. It looked like there wasn't much choice… but damn, even if he ended up winning, Haku and Sasuke would hold this over his head forever.

"All right, you little winged rat, let's do this. You're on genjutsu patrol."

Sev dug his claws into Suigetsu's shoulder, which Suigetsu manipulated to remain solid instead of liquid. It hurt, but it meant that Sev would keep his grip even if Suigetsu had to change direction quickly. "You can count on me!" Sev said, entirely too happy about the coming battle. "Since sudden pain can dispel an enemy's genjutsu, I'll just bite you every time he activates one."

"You're too kind," Suigetsu said drily.

Sev tightened his grip, drawing a little blood. "Oh, my pleasure," he said innocently. "But don't worry. He'll be too busy countering my genjutsu to try anything too tricky on you. You just swing that sword like the muscle-bound simpleton you are."

"Once this is over, you and I are going to have words," Suigetsu promised.

"Oh, I'm shaking in my boots," Sev retorted. "Forward, slave!"

Muttering heartfelt curses about interfering vampire bats, Suigetsu nevertheless did as he was told. He went after C with all the speed he possessed, swinging Hiramekarei with more skill than he'd shown before. But C was also faster than he'd let on, and eluded each questing strike with ease.

C tried several more genjutsu on Suigetsu, but Sev's fangs offered a painful anchor to reality and allowed Suigetsu to free himself each time. Suigetsu realized that there were now two fights going on at once – the visible one in which he hunted C across the length of the battlefield, and the invisible one in which C and Sev matched wills in a genjutsu duel. The fact that C could focus on both at once was extraordinary, and in spite of himself, Suigetsu was impressed by his opponent's chakra control and mental fortitude.

"Your pet is much better at genjutsu than you are," C panted, pausing for an instant just outside of Suigetsu's reach. "I think, just this once, I'll forget about style and win this fight with brute force. I wonder, with a body made entirely of water, how you'll fare against lightning?"

He brought his hands together and shaped a swirling ball of yellow chakra that crackled with the essence of lightning. "Lightning Release: Electric Spear!"

A bolt of lightning, shaped like a boar spear complete with cross-brace and three-foot-long blade, shot out towards Suigetsu. Finally, thought Suigetsu. This was what he'd been waiting for.

With desperate speed, he pulled a Sealing Scroll from within his flak jacket and unrolled it with one hand. It blocked Suigetsu from C's field of vision, and the metal spike just beginning to emerge from the scroll drew C's attack like a lightning rod. The crackling energy disappeared, conducted by the spike into the scroll itself, where it would dissipate harmlessly. The scroll had been Itachi's idea – the crafty bastard had worked out the sealing jutsu himself, and given the scroll to Suigetsu for use against a shinobi with Lightning Release.

Suigetsu closed the scroll one-handed and charged, hoping to catch C off-guard before he recovered from his technique. Face contorted in a snarl, C prepared to jump away, but he was too late.

Sev had taken advantage of that single instant when the scroll blocked them from view to reposition himself behind C, while Suigetsu had performed a simple clone jutsu to make it look as if the little bat were still latched on to his shoulder.

The vampire bat's auditory genjutsu, conveyed by a piercing shriek, took C completely by surprise and froze the blond shinobi in place for just an instant. It was a potent genjutsu that had gotten the better of Suigetsu more than once in the past, fooling the brain into thinking that one's muscles were rigid and incapable of motion. Suigetsu's sword, assuming the shape of a giant boa constrictor, wrapped around C before he could dispel the genjutsu, pinning the Kumo shinobi's arms to his sides and squeezing tightly around his neck. A second went by, then ten, then twenty, and C went limp, eyes rolling up in their sockets.

"Give it a second more," Sev suggested, hovering over the trapped shinobi. "He could be faking."

"Teach your grandmother to suck blood, why don't you," Suigetsu retorted. "You'd think I never knocked anyone unconscious before… I get no respect." But he did wait a few more seconds before recalling his sword and allowing C to slide, unconscious, to the ground. "I think I may have broken a few ribs," Suigetsu said, walking cautiously over to observe his fallen opponent. "Good thing he's a medic."

"Not bad, Suigetsu," said Sev, the bat's eyes brimming with mischief. "Maybe one day you'll win a fight without someone there to hold your hand."

"Oh, that's it, you bloodsucking pipsqueak…"

oOoOo

Sasuke was fairly sure that black lightning was pushing the limits of the possible. After all, lightning was energy, right? It was a light source – 'light' was half of the name, for Kami's sake! How the hell could lightning be black and still act like lightning?

But he couldn't argue with the evidence of his eyes. Darui was using lightning, and it was black. Acceptance: check. Next step: figure out how to beat it.

Sasuke met the obstacle head-on, by firing a giant lightning bolt from Kiba's joined form directly at the panther standing before him, crackling with equal parts electricity and menace. The panther absorbed Sasuke's attack, with no visible effect except to grow slightly larger.

"Sorry, but that's not going to work," Darui commented lazily. "I am the inheritor of the Third Raikage's Black Lightning. The Lightning Swords Kiba are powerful, but not against this technique. You're just giving me more voltage."

Sasuke moved faster than the eye could track, his reflexes supercharged by the lightning chakra coursing throughout his body, yet he barely avoided the panther's initial rush. Though it held the shape of a monstrous beast, it moved with the speed of lightning.

Sasuke paused for a moment, considering Darui's words. If his opponent spoke true, then his sword was useless for attacking. "Well… shit."

Sasuke slung his sword over his back, though he maintained the connection to its chakra that powered his Lightning Armor. Perhaps lightning bolts couldn't defeat Darui's Black Lightning, but the incorporeal armor would at least keep Sasuke from getting fried if the panther got too close.

"Though I acknowledge your swordsmanship," Darui said, slouching casually while his panther gathered itself for another charge, "you were simply unlucky to run into shinobi from Kumo. Swords and lightning… that is what we do. You cannot win while you fight to my strengths."

"Very well," Sasuke said, pulling off another last-second evasion as the panther flickered past him. "I'll change my tactics. In truth, I prefer fire to electricity. Fire Release: Burning Phoenix Jutsu!"

Sasuke exhaled a dozen fireballs that swung wide and looped back in towards Darui. To Sasuke's surprise, the Kumo shinobi reacted instantly with a series of hand seals that Sasuke recognized from his many duels with Kiri shinobi.

"Water Release: Guardian Snakes."

The panther disappeared, replaced by a seething tangle of whips of water shaped like snakes, which met Sasuke's fireballs and doused them with hissing clouds of steam.

"Fire and lightning," Darui mused. "A strange combination for a Kiri shinobi."

Sasuke shrugged. "No stranger than water for a Kumo shinobi."

"Quite the contrary, actually. A storm is as much water as lightning."

"So it is…" Sasuke reluctantly decided that his repertoire of Fire Release techniques, like the Lightning Swords Kiba, were also useless in this fight. Kami on a stick, were there any techniques that would work against this bastard?! "Are there any other techniques you want to throw at me? Maybe shoot some Wind Release jutsu out your ass?"

Ah, sarcasm. The weapon that never failed, no matter the opponent.

"No Wind jutsu, I'm afraid. But I do know something you don't know."

"And what's that?"

"I… am not left-handed."

Sasuke stared at him blankly. "Huh?"

Darui sighed, tugging at his white hair. "Alas, the younger generation has no culture. But back to your question. In fact, I have one more ace up my sleeve. Remember what I said about storms? It was more than a nugget of meteorological wisdom. Storm Release: Laser Circus!"

The Kumo shinobi brought his hands together and began to generate a halo of bright energy. Acting on instinct, Sasuke took a tremendous risk by activating his sharingan. This technique looked dangerous, tremendously so, and there was nowhere to run in this dome of ice.

Dozens of beams shot out from the halo around Darui's hands, faster than his black lightning and obedient to his will. Sasuke's sharingan allowed him to track the paths of the beams, which changed in midair according to Darui's will. Without the precision afforded by his sharingan, Sasuke could not have avoided the attack.

Instead he danced like a leaf in the heart of a storm, avoiding death by the slightest of margins.

It's too late to back down, Sasuke thought, as he evaded beam after questing beam. He'll figure out I have the sharingan, if he hasn't already. Time to end this, with everything I have.

He began rushing forward, dodging the deadly beams of Darui's Laser Circus while maneuvering to secure eye contact with his opponent. As long as Darui still believed he was a kenjutsu and ninjutsu specialist, there was a chance this could work.

Darui was controlling his Laser Circus like a conductor leading an orchestra, redirecting literally dozens of beams simultaneously. To do so, he had to stay alert for Sasuke's changing position, which finally allowed Sasuke to gain a direct line of sight to his opponent.

He bet everything on his best genjutsu, one subtle enough that even Itachi had praised it. Drawing on the power of his sharingan, which swirled with all three tomoe, Sasuke cast a visual genjutsu that didn't require any hand seals at all. He projected the image into Darui's mind of one of his beams catching Sasuke and charring him to the bone.

He cast a second genjutsu alongside the main one, the purpose of which was to change the apparent color of his eyes. Making eye contact ensured that Darui would see his eyes, and even through the mask they would appear red. Sasuke's nested genjutsu made his eyes appear a deep green, at least until the primary genjutsu made it look as though his body withered away under the onslaught of the Laser Circus.

Meanwhile, the real Sasuke used Body-Flicker while erasing all trace of his motion directly from Darui's brain. He appeared behind Darui, who began to dispel his powerful Storm Release technique now that Sasuke was apparently dead. Sasuke's kunai caught him in the back of the head, and the Kumo shinobi fell to the ground, unconscious.

Sasuke put away his weapon, breathing heavily.

Thank you, sharingan, he thought fervently. Thank you, Itachi.

Though Sasuke was glad to be alive, something about the way the fight ended nagged at him – it seemed almost… too easy. On the other hand, Itachi had always told Sasuke that many strong shinobi could be fooled by a skilled genjutsu user. If you fought for a long time without using any genjutsu whatsoever, and displayed high-level ninjutsu techniques, your opponent often lowered his guard against mental assaults, even if he wasn't conscious of doing so. Perhaps that was what happened to Darui… the Kumo shinobi had seemed very laid-back, after all. Maybe he had just let down his guard.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes, looking down at his fallen opponent.

Maybe…

oOoOo

Haku needed to take action quickly – clearly, Yugito was not as trapped as he'd hoped. With enough of those burning-hairball projectiles, she could break out of his Ice Mirrors, and Haku would lose the increase in speed that was, right now, his only edge against the jinchuuriki.

Luckily, Haku was nothing if not adaptable. He began shooting across the dome, projecting himself between mirrors with every bit of his incredible speed. Each passage across the dome brought him within striking distance of Yugito, and each time Haku attempted to skewer her with Nuibari.

Yugito turned aside each strike, but Haku moved so quickly that Yugito had no time to do anything other than defend. Every fraction of a second included an attack from a new direction, and Yugito had to keep both clawed hands in motion to keep Nuibari from running her through. The benefit, for Haku, was that the Kumo kunoichi was unable to form any hand seals.

"Stop killing time!" Yugito called out, keeping pace with Haku's relentless attacks. "You can't keep this speed up forever – all I have to do is defend until you run out of chakra."

Haku stopped attacking, though he kept moving between mirrors to disguise his true position. "You're right about this technique requiring a lot of chakra. That used to be its greatest weakness – I couldn't sustain it for too long without moving slower over time. Then I received Nuibari. Its ability works quite well with my Ice Mirrors. Tell me, did you notice the wires trailing behind me? They're anchored around the Ice Mirrors. This entire dome is now one gigantic game of cat's cradle."

Yugito stopped trying to track Haku's image in the mirrors and instead examined the interior of the dome. What Haku had said was true – there were literally hundreds of wires running to and fro between the mirrors, though they were so thin as to be practically invisible.

"It took me months to learn how to unlock Nuibari's true potential," Haku said. "Normally it's only meant to string corpses together, but I always wanted to use the wires themselves as a weapon in conjunction with my Ice Mirrors. You can defend against my blade, but can you protect yourself from a hundred simultaneous attacks from every direction? Not even a chakra cloak is an ultimate defense, after all."

Haku lifted Nuibari, channeling his chakra through the unique blade, and forced the elaborate maze of wires to contract. Yugito was in the very center of a death trap that would slice her into dozens of pieces.

As the wires closed in, Yugito jumped into the air and curled herself into a ball. She screamed in defiance, and claws burst from her sandaled feet, just like the ones already sprouting from her hands. Somehow, Yugito contrived to position her hands and feet so that the incoming wires snarled around her claws, coming to a stop before they cut her flesh. It took all four of her claws to do it, but she was unharmed.

Haku raised an eyebrow, impressed. Seriously quick thinking on the part of his opponent, although now she was suspended in midair, helpless as a deer tangled up in a net.

"What are you waiting for?" Yugito snarled, trying and failing to cut through the wires with jerky motions of her limbs. "Finish it."

Haku obliged, coming out of the mirror directly in front of her and aiming for her heart with Nuibari. He was less than a foot away when Yugito's eyes lit with satisfaction, and she shot another burning projectile at him at point-blank range – without any hand seals at all!

Haku burned before her eyes, withering away into nothing more than a scattered pile of scorched bones. "Foolish child," Yugito said, falling to the ground now that the wires trapping her were no longer taut. "Just because one uses hand seals once, doesn't mean one has to. The strongest shinobi are never unarmed, even without the use of their arms."

Yugito had barely finished speaking before feeling a slight prick in the back of her neck. Weakness flooded her limbs, and darkness overtook her vision. "Genjutsu," she whispered, even as consciousness left her. "Not… bad…"

Haku came out from the mirror where he'd been hiding, waiting to see whether Yugito had bought his genjutsu or not. She certainly hadn't dodged his senbon, which had hit a vital point that induced a death-like state.

"I don't know about the strongest shinobi," he said, while channeling chakra once more through Nuibari to coil the wire back up into his sword's hilt. "But the shinobi of Kiri know better than to attack straight on, even when our opponent is supposedly immobilized."

Haku looked around at the larger battlefield, and saw with relief that his was the last duel to finish, and both of his teammates stood victorious. He met with Sasuke and Suigetsu in the center of the dome, carrying Yugito's limp form carefully.

Suigetsu was considerably less careful with C, dumping the Kumo medic-nin unceremoniously at Sasuke's feet. Haku winced, seeing the deep purple bruising around C's neck. 'Subtle' just wasn't in Suigetsu's vocabulary.

"So we all survived," said Sasuke, laying Darui down next to his teammates. "Did any of you…" he paused, and his body language spoke of uncertainty. "Never mind."

Haku thought he knew what Sasuke was getting at. "Do you think it was too easy?" he asked quietly.

Sasuke shot him a sharp look, then nodded. "Yeah… I mean, I had to use my sharingan, but still…"

"My battle wasn't easy!" Suigetsu protested. "I almost died!"

Sev did a little victory dance in midair. "But you didn't, thanks to everyone's favorite vampire bat! Bow before me, mortal!"

Suigetsu growled a curse and began chasing Sev around the dome, throwing volleys of kunai at him. Sasuke let them go. He figured Suigetsu needed to settle his nerves, and Sasuke wanted the chance to talk to Haku alone.

"What did you think?" he asked Haku. There wasn't anyone else whose insight Sasuke trusted more, except perhaps Itachi.

"My fight was also difficult, yet… not quite in earnest, if I may use such a phrase. It was almost like Yugito was… testing me, working through my skills one by one like a teacher evaluating a student. It hurts my pride, but I believe she wasn't giving her all. To be sure, she didn't undergo a full transformation into her Tailed Beast Form. Although, I suppose she could have been holding back to avoid breaking the ice arena and opening us to the risk of Deidara's creatures."

"I'm glad it's not just me," said Sasuke. "I find it… difficult, if not impossible, to believe that a shinobi of Darui's experience did not notice when I activated my sharingan."

Haku stared soberly at Sasuke. "If you suspect that he knows your secret, why leave him alive?"

"Because of the nagging feeling that he's… testing me, I guess. Like how you felt Yugito was testing you. Damn, it makes no sense!"

But in his mind, Sasuke could hear an echo of Darui's voice, saying "Believe it or not, we do abide by a code of honor."

Haku waited patiently. "So what are you going to do?"

Sasuke looked from Darui to Yugito, then up at Haku. His resolve firmed. Maybe the choice he was about to make was the wrong one, but he couldn't afford to second-guess himself.

"I'm going to trust my instincts," said Sasuke. "We leave them alive."

Though Haku did not speak or even move, somehow Sasuke knew that his teammate approved of his choice. Then again, Haku was a closet romantic who never killed anyone if he had a chance to avoid it. Ah, what the hell. Sasuke would toss the dice, and deal with whatever happened when they fell.

"One way or another," Haku said quietly, "we'll find out what the honor of a Kumo shinobi is worth."

"I suppose we will." Then Sasuke got an idea. He pulled a brush, ink and a blank scroll from one of the many pockets in his hunter-nin robes, and knelt down to write a short message. Once it was complete, he tucked it into an inner pocket of Darui's vest.

"What's that?" asked Suigetsu, who had returned after a stress-relieving game of try-to-kill-the-bat.

Sasuke stood up, face a grim mask. "A random variable."

"Ah." He waited expectantly. When Sasuke didn't explain further, Suigetsu merely shrugged. "I hate those."

"On the bright side," Haku said, kneeling down next to Yugito and fishing a distinctive scroll out of her belt pouch, "we now have an Earth scroll."

"Thank Kami," Suigetsu breathed. "I'd hate to think we went through all that for nothing. It's about time we got out of this shitty forest."

"You never said a truer word," said Sasuke, taking hold of the unease he felt and trying to banish it to the back of his mind.

I'm taking a hell of a gamble… with everything on the line. Ah, look on the bright side. If it backfires, I won't live long enough to regret it.

"Hey, Suigetsu," he said brightly, turning to his brash teammate. "How pissed do you think these Kumo dorks would be if we'd told them that Kiri has its own byakugan user? I can't wait to tell Ao about these fools!"