A/N: I have received several extremely offensive anonymous reviews that I have since removed – I believe they are from the same person, and I'll ask you right now to stop posting reviews. Nothing condoning rape or abuse will ever appear in my work, whether in my stories OR in the comments, and I was deeply disturbed and offended by the reviews in question. If this continues, I will disable anonymous reviews.

This experience, while relatively minor, is frighteningly common on this site, and it shouldn't be. The anonymity of the Internet is not a license to spew sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise intolerant poison. Please take ownership of what you write on the web.

Back to the story. I've left you all with a pretty twisted cliffhanger for longer than I would have liked, but now midterms and a pile of essays are behind me and business can resume as usual. I meant to post this much sooner, but it was harder to write than I thought. This chapter gave me one headache after another, as all the various fights are beginning to take shape, and the carefully crafted plans of the different factions begin to fall apart.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto

Part 8: War Zone

Chapter 44

Madara could have sworn he was dreaming. He actually jumped to his feet when Naruto was injured by his opponent. Not once during the entire fight had Madara actually feared for Naruto's well-being. The Oto kunoichi had an extremely powerful style, to be sure, but Naruto should have been equal to it. He was equal to it, damn it! That final blow should have seemed like an attack in slow-motion to the blond Uchiha, whose speed was considerable even without the Kyuubi's chakra.

Naruto… why didn't you defend yourself?!

The attack should not have been difficult to dodge. No, Naruto had simply failed to protect himself. The conclusion was obvious - somehow, Naruto knew this girl. He knew her well enough to be shocked when she revealed her identity. And she had used that moment to try and kill him.

When Madara disappeared from the Kage's roped-off section with his fastest Body-Flicker jutsu, he wasn't thinking about how his plans might now be derailed – the only thought in his mind was to get to his son before the Oto kunoichi could finish him off.

Naruto's opponent detected Madara's attack, even moving fast as he was, and jumped backwards with a surge of chakra. It was an impressive show of awareness, but then she had an advantage in that area.

Damn byakugan… I should have had Orochimaru kill the bitch before the final Tournament!

But "should have" wouldn't save Naruto. Madara planted himself between his son and the Oto kunoichi, ignoring the confused cries coming from the spectators. He wanted nothing more than to squash the girl like a bug, but his first priority was to protect Naruto, who was losing a lot of blood and vulnerable to further attack.

As if to underscore Madara's thoughts, Naruto loosed a primal scream that sounded as if it had been torn from his resisting throat. Madara spared a glance over his shoulder to take in his son's condition.

Naruto was bleeding freely from his gut – it was a wound that would surely kill him if left untreated. But more worrying still was the chakra bubbling from Naruto's very skin and surrounding him like a cloak of fire. Naruto's head was thrown back, his back arched, and the veins in his neck bulged as he wrestled with an invisible force.

Madara was puzzled for a moment – Naruto's control of the Kyuubi was advanced enough that even a mortal wound shouldn't have weakened his hold. The wound had completely destroyed the seal on Naruto's stomach, the one that had kept the Kyuubi constrained all of Naruto's life, but that shouldn't matter. Naruto was a master of the Mangekyou sharingan, just as Madara was, and he should have been able to seal away the Kyuubi's energy with his doujutsu. Then Madara remembered.

The damn Oto seal!

Naruto was still affected by the remnants of the seal he'd received from Kabuto in the Forest of Death. It blocked Naruto from accessing the Fox's chakra, and now it was undoubtedly keeping Naruto from accessing his mindscape to subdue the raging demon within.

The plan had been for Naruto to erode that seal himself, little by little. That plan had to change now.

"Naruto!" Madara shouted, gathering a massive amount of chakra and preparing to shape it into his most powerful defensive technique. "You have to destroy the chakra-suppressing seal! Once the seal is destroyed, you can subdue the Kyuubi and harness its healing abilities to fix your wound. Focus, Naruto!"

The only answer he received was the first of the Fox's nine tails sprouting from the back of Naruto's chakra cloak. The level of killing intent and chakra emanating from Naruto spiked proportionately.

There was no time to give Naruto more advice, and no guarantee that he could hear it anyway. All Madara could do now was protect him from external enemies, and trust that his son could defeat the internal one.

All Naruto needs to do to is reassert dominance over the Kyuubi with his Mangekyou sharingan alone… as I once did. Although I never intended this, it will be his crucible. His final test. As the coming war shall be for Konoha.

You can do it, Naruto. You're my son, the pride and hope of the Uchiha clan. Fight!

Madara crafted his Susanoo faster than he ever had before, forcing it away from his body even as the ribcage formed. Ghostly bones snapped shut around Naruto, enclosing his chakra cloak and the first of the Kyuubi's tails within. Madara summoned layer after layer to complete his Susanoo, grafting flesh and armor and anchoring his guardian to the ground. This was Susanoo as it was meant to be, in its perfected, final form – even Naruto, who could create multiple Susanoo with his tremendous chakra reserves, could not create an armored behemoth as strong as Madara's.

In seconds the technique was complete, and Madara was free to survey the field and take stock of his opposition. The Hyuuga brat was there, of course, still in the monstrous form granted her by her curse seal. She was not alone, however. Madara was unsurprised to see that she had been joined by two of the Legendary Sannin.

Jiraiya, the meddling fool, stood between Hinata and Madara in a warlike pose. Sinister red markings darkened his eyes and cheeks, and his nose was unnaturally bulbous and warty. If that weren't enough to signal to Madara that the Sannin had entered the Sage Mode for which he was famous, the two elderly toads perched on his shoulders would have clued him in.

Tsunade stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Jiraiya, blonde hair tied back in pigtails and a sleeveless gray shirt revealing her muscular arms. At her shoulder was a young, dark-haired kunoichi Madara didn't recognize, though she shadowed Tsunade like a bodyguard.

That wasn't all - behind the two Sannin and their student was the full might of Suna's Sandstorm corps. Twelve shinobi in matching armor, except for Suna's jinchuuriki, who had demonstrated in his tournament battle how redundant it was for him to wear armor. Gaara looked a little the worse for wear after his battle with Sasuke, but he stood with his teammates and appeared ready to fight.

Sandstorm formed a loose semicircle behind Hinata, ready to attack in any direction should anyone come to Madara's aid.

Fifteen against one… Madara mused. I could almost feel sorry for them.

Tsunade turned briefly to stare at Hinata, who watched Madara with an all-consuming anger burning in her white eyes. "What were you thinking?" the Slug Sannin demanded. "You weren't supposed to reveal yourself until the serum takes effect!"

"She wasn't thinking," Jiraiya answered in her place. "The damned curse seal must be feeding off her anger, amplifying her emotions. She's not in control of herself."

"Don't talk about me like I'm not even here!" Hinata growled, lips curling back from gleaming fangs.

"Shut up!" Tsunade snapped. "You've already screwed things up enough. Another word and I'll end you myself."

Hinata scoffed but remained silent, her gaze never leaving Madara's mask.

"The situation is still salvageable," Jiraiya declared. "The serum will activate any minute now, and Sandstorm can signal the forces outside the wall. The Invasion can begin."

Madara thought it was about time to speak up. "Finally we meet, Jiraiya," he said. The entire arena became silent as the grave at the sound of his voice. Even the wind seemed to still, as if the world itself listened. "You've done an excellent job of running away thus far. It's nice to meet you in the flesh."

"No more running," Jiraiya declared. "Today you answer for your crimes."

Madara paid no attention to the threat. "Sandstorm…" he mused, drawing out the word. "Are those really the children you kidnapped all those years ago? Ah, where does the time go?"

Several of the armored figures stiffened at Madara's words. Even Jiraiya looked a bit shaken, though he recovered quickly.

"It doesn't matter what you think you know. It's too late to change anything."

Madara chuckled darkly. He wanted to spin this out as long as possible, to give his son time to destroy the remnants of Kabuto's seal. "Oh? Change what, exactly?"

Tsunade took a step forward, the earth underfoot shivering with the sheer force of the chakra she emanated. "You're outnumbered and outmatched. The forces of Suna, Oto, and Konoha's loyal shinobi can destroy the Military Police many times over, even with your allies from Ame. You face the combined might of three armies, led by the Three Sannin, reunited at the height of our power. Face it, Madara – your time is over!"

"Oh?" Madara said scornfully. "I see no armies. I see two failures, a crazy girl, and a pack of runaway brats. If the Legendary Sannin are truly my opponents, where is the last of your number? Where is the famous Orochimaru?"

"I believe that's my cue."

Those words, spoken in an amused drawl that caused the blood in Tsunade's face to drain away, came from the Kazekage. The turbaned, tattooed Kage arrived in the arena with a Body-Flicker jutsu, letting his robes billow behind him dramatically. He stood several paces in front of Madara, leaving his back open and vulnerable to any strike by the Hokage. It was the clearest possible indication of where his loyalty lay.

There were several flashes of motion, then the Kazekage's guards appeared in a tight cluster around him. Puffs of smoke signaled simultaneous Transformation jutsu, and then the newcomers were revealed. All wore the purple ropes of Oto around their waists, and together they made a strange tableau indeed.

One was vastly overweight, with cruel eyes and orange hair. The only girl in the group had red hair that partially covered one eye, and a taunting smirk. A dark-skinned young man had two extra pairs of arms, and the final bodyguard had what appeared to be a second head sprouting from his neck.

Two slight flashes of motion signaled the arrival of Kimimaro and Kabuto, who took mirrored stances in front of the Kazekage.

Now it is fifteen against seven.

The redheaded jinchuuriki from Suna took a halting step, then stopped, restrained by his comrades. "Father… no!"

The Kazekage grinned, casting aside his turban and revealing yellow eyes with slitted pupils.

"Orochimaru," Jiraiya spat. "You- you snake!"

Hinata shot forward, keening a war cry, but Tsunade caught her by the shoulder and held her still.

The Kazekage laughed, and kept laughing as his face split down the middle. Flesh sloughed away, and clothing as well, until the Kazekage's body pooled on the ground like a freshly-shed snakeskin.

Orochimaru was revealed, standing straight and proud in his Otogakure uniform, an expectant grin on his pale face. "You know," he murmured, glancing down at the rubbery mess that had once been the Kazekage, "for one of the strongest shinobi in the world, he was embarrassingly easy to kill. Some people have no subtlety."

Tsunade's face was set and grim. "I expected you to betray us… but I didn't think you could possibly be stupid enough to turn on your allies before we defeated Madara. Don't you understand what you've done? There's no way you get out of this alive. If we don't kill you, Madara will. Do you think he could ever trust someone who covets the sharingan?"

"I once thought the same… but you solved that dilemma, Tsunade dear."

"I did? What insanity are you spewing now?"

Orochimaru chuckled evilly. "You healed Kimimaro, did you not? He was always my favored vessel, even above an Uchiha. The sharingan is a beautiful ability, but it is not the only one worth having. The Hokage understood that, and offered his hand in friendship if I was willing to acknowledge his authority. Madara is a different man than we thought. Much more… open-minded."

Orochimaru craned his neck and gave Madara an ironic bow. Madara lowered his head a fraction, keeping a grip on his anger. Orochimaru was not in his good books right now, even if they were technically working together.

Orochimaru seemed to sense his mood, and was smart enough to guess its cause. He spread his hands apologetically. "Ah… I am sorry about what the girl did to your heir, Hokage-sama. Had I the least suspicion that she would actually manage to land a hit, I would have instructed her teammates to kill her in the Forest. I thought that Naruto would surely kill her. I… I hope that this won't damage our agreement. It was a mistake on my part, but you must believe me, it was never one I intended."

Madara raised an eyebrow, assessing the fear in Orochimaru's eyes. It seemed genuine, which was good. If he'd had the least suspicion of Orochimaru trying to have his son assassinated, he would kill him on the spot. But that explanation didn't hold water – it was undeniable that the current situation was Naruto's own fault.

When Naruto regained control over his demon and used the fox's chakra to heal his injuries, Madara was going to have some very severe words with him. No matter how well he'd known the girl, there was no excuse for not dodging a straight shot to the gut.

"If my son survives and the rebels are crushed, then I'll honor my part of the deal," Madara said coldly, fixing Orochimaru with his gaze. "If he dies… I hold you fully responsible. No amount of body-snatching will save you."

Best to keep Orochimaru off-balance, just in case. He's an ambitious one, even worse than Pain. At least that bastard is straightforward. Orochimaru will try to twist and turn until he finds a path that puts him on top.

"In that case," Orochimaru said smoothly, "may I offer an additional layer of defense while your son, ah… wrestles with his inner demon, so to speak? My bodyguards are barrier experts, and they can create a strong defense around your Susanoo, if it will make you feel more at ease while destroying this rabble."

Madara considered for a brief moment. With at least two Kage-level opponents facing him, extra layers of defense only seemed prudent. He was confident in his own skills, but he couldn't really let loose as long as Naruto was exposed. Madara didn't like the idea of anything else separating him from Naruto, but the risk was minimal as long as his own Susanoo remained intact.

He felt a vague chakra spike, muffled by the obstruction of his Susanoo, and turned to see Naruto sprout another chakra tail.

"Do it," he ordered Orochimaru. "And remember that your life is directly tied to his."

Orochimaru's bodyguards sprang into action, forming a small square around Naruto and Madara's Susanoo. They began their preparations for a combination barrier requiring massive amounts of chakra and pinpoint precision.

Jiraiya, Tsunade, and the three Sandstorm jounin moved as if to interfere, but they didn't get far. Another team of shinobi appeared in their path, moving with speed far beyond that of your average jounin. It was Pain and his cronies: Kakuzu, Deidara, Sasori, and Konan. They radiated menace while blocking Sandstorm's path, dark robes fluttering slightly in the breeze.

"Well, look at this," Orochimaru drawled. "It's turning into a regular circus down here."

Sasori spared him a withering glance, but didn't deign to respond. Deidara laughed appreciatively, rubbing his hands together with savage anticipation.

The Sound Four completed their technique, and a four-sided barrier of translucent violet chakra materialized in the air around Madara's Susanoo. The barrier stretched high in the air, far higher even than the walls of the stadium, so that anyone within miles of Konoha would see the shining construct against the skyline.

Jiraiya gestured to a Sandstorm kunoichi, the one with the giant fan. "Alert our forces," he said urgently. "They're about to be ambushed!"

"Too little, too late," Orochimaru declared, even as the Suna kunoichi Summoned a sickle weasel and sent it with desperate speed over the wall of the arena. "That barrier was always the signal for our surprise attack, though we originally planned to enclose the entire arena. Your ground forces are in for an unpleasant surprise."

The audience had been deathly silent, watching in shock as the arena filled up with a steady procession of incredibly powerful shinobi. Now that silence was shattered as a chorus of screams arose. They were not screams of fear, nor of surprise - these were screams of agony, of soul-destroying pain that obliterated all thought.

Orochimaru surveyed the stands, a half-smile stretching across his face. He listened with a kind of discerning pleasure, like that of a music-lover hearing a particularly fine performance. "Sounds like the serum has taken effect."

Dozens of Konoha shinobi in the stands clutched their heads and writhed in sudden agony. Not all were affected – some recoiled in fear, watching their comrades suffering yet perfectly fine themselves. However, the majority of the Sealed shinobi in the arena were gripped by crippling pain.

When Tsunade turned to Orochimaru, her shoulders were bowed and pain was etched in the lines of her face. She seemed broken, defeated. "How did you do it?" she whispered. "We tested the serum ourselves. Damn it, we watched you for a year and a half!"

Orochimaru shrugged, while Kabuto, standing by his side, looked smug. "I did exactly as I was told," Orochimaru said. His yellow eyes gleamed with malice. "I invented a way to neutralize the seal, and modified it to remove the risk of death. But Kabuto, who in certain areas is my equal in skill, had other orders. I knew you would be watching me, so I put my trust in Kabuto. He didn't let me down… as you can see."

Hinata circled helplessly, her second pair of arms clapped over her ears in a vain attempt to block out the screams. "What… I don't understand. I gave them the antidote! What's going on?" Her voice rose at the end into almost a shriek.

"Tut, tut, tut," Orochimaru clucked, drawing her attention. "I understand that you're not at your best right now, but do you still not get it? The serum you delivered neutralizes the seal… by killing the host. All of the pain of the curse seal I gave you, with none of the extra power. Your comrades will die suffering, and you were the vehicle of their destruction! Quite a wonderful irony, is it not?"

"No." Hinata shook her head back and forth with desperate abandon, as if to deny the horror unfolding before her eyes. "No, no, no!"

Madara could see the moment when her grief and rage, fueled and twisted by her curse seal, overwhelmed her rationality. It was like a light went out of her eyes, leaving cold, dead orbs. He prepared for her attack, though Orochimaru probably wouldn't need any help. An unthinking shinobi was easy to dodge.

He needn't have worried. Even before Hinata could take a step forward, the toads on Jiraiya's shoulders hit her with a sound-based genjutsu that froze her in place. "The shock was too much for her," the bearded toad said sadly. "The curse seal has overwhelmed her mind. She's a liability now."

Tsunade hit Hinata with a precise blow to the temple, knocking her unconscious. "Shizune, take her. Test that technique… it's her only hope now. If it works, we'll use it on the rest."

Shizune took Hinata's limp form, which had reverted to a more human shape after she lost consciousness. She used the Body-Flicker jutsu to position herself behind the Sandstorm shinobi, disappearing from view.

"You won't live to regret this," Jiraiya spat at Orochimaru.

Madara took a step forward, once more drawing all eyes towards himself. "We'll see who lives and who dies." He crafted a powerful Wind Release technique, one that would carry his voice to every corner of the arena and beyond.

"Shinobi of Konoha: we are at war! Suna is our foe, and the shinobi of Ame and Oto are our allies. The Uchiha commanders have their orders, so follow their lead and fight for your village!

"Sealed shinobi – you see many of your comrades suffering. That is because they committed treason against Konoha, intending to rebel here today. This is their punishment.

"For those unaffected, you have a choice: you can fight with the rebels and die with them; or you can fight for Konoha. Stand with me, and your Seals will be removed. You will be welcomed, rewarded for your bravery, and all past wrongs will be forgiven. Choose wisely. To all representatives from other villages – leave this place immediately. When the fighting starts, there will only be friend or foe. If you are neither, you have no place here."

The Uchiha captains began to mobilize, gathering their forces to head for the walls. They would be useless here in the arena, and they knew it. Madara would take care of things personally.

In this moment, years of planning had come to fruition. Madara's enemies were revealed, outmaneuvered, and committed to a losing offensive. He was about to keep his promise to Naruto, and usher in an era in which no shinobi bore the stigma of the Seal. And yet Madara did not feel an ounce of triumph; only fear for his son.

I promised you I was done with the Seals, Naruto. I will keep my word. Those who fight with us this day will become free, respected shinobi of Konoha, even more so than our allies from Oto and Ame. This is what you wanted. Live, Naruto! The world you dreamt of is at hand!

oOoOo

Itachi knew something was wrong when he saw the violet barrier materialize in the center of Konoha. His three most trusted lieutenants gathered seconds later, looking to him for orders.

"A bad omen," said Lord Sevaroth. The leader of the Vampire Bat clan would fight with Itachi today, as Zabuza had determined that the flying warriors would be more useful against the Military Police than fighting Madara in the arena. Not that he had ordered Sevaroth; he'd only asked. Politely.

"What should we do, Commander?" asked the captain of Itachi's hand-picked Hunter nin. He was far too experienced to look distressed, but there was also nothing that upset a veteran more than unforeseen complications.

"Prepare to move out," Itachi said calmly. "We'll wait two minutes for Sasuke's signal. Tell the men to prepare for heavy resistance on the walls. I have a bad feeling about this…"

The Kiri strike force left their camp intact, and gathered by the bank of the Naka River. Itachi had only chosen Hunter nin and elite warriors of the Kanchiki clan, all of whom could mask their chakra signatures while moving through water faster than most jounin could sprint over solid ground. Following the river would take them close to Konoha's outer walls, while the vampire bats would fly far above them.

Itachi scanned the sky periodically for Sasuke's signal, but it wasn't coming.

Damn it, what's happening in the arena?

He turned to his strike force. Three dozen Kiri jounin, and about half that number of warriors from the vampire bat clan, assembled in ordered ranks beside the river. They were about to put their lives on the line for his revenge. Itachi owed them far more than a few words, but that was all he had.

"I don't know what that barrier means," he announced, "but at the very least, we should count on the enemy being prepared. That means Uchiha on the walls, and fighting in the streets. But that's exactly what we've trained for. The Uchiha are not gods, no matter what they think. With foresight and strategy, they will die like anyone else. Are you with me?"

Human shouts mingled with the warlike keening of the vampire bats. Itachi's heart filled with pride and sorrow, as he prepared to lead so many brave men and women into battle.

He had always thought of himself as an avenger, with Sasuke as the only person he cared about. But his time in Kiri had changed him more than he knew. The sword he now bore was a symbol of his new loyalty, of his acceptance into a new village, if not a new family. Was it right to ask these shinobi, the people he was supposed to protect, to give up their lives for a personal vendetta?

But it was far too late to ask that question. All Itachi could do was make sure that as many survived this battle as possible.

A gasp from several of the Hunter nin caused Itachi to look back in the direction of Konoha. Twin bolts of lightning split the sky, extremely close to the purple barrier. They were not natural, for they originated somewhere within the village and struck upward.

"There's the signal," Itachi declared. "Two bolts at once means they know we're coming, and the opposition is stronger than we believed. Prepare yourselves!"

Itachi was the first in the water, and he surged upstream with an ease that was the envy of many Kiri shinobi who had trained their entire lives without attaining Itachi's skill with Water Release techniques. Soon the riverbank was empty. The Naka River burbled as it ever did, without a trace of the highly trained killers drawing ever closer to Konoha's outer walls.

For better or worse, this is it... good luck, little brother. I hope you'll forgive me for what I plan to do.

When the red walls of Konoha came into view, Itachi was surprised that there weren't all that many shinobi on the walls. From Sasuke's signal, he expected to see the full might of the Military Police waiting for them, possibly with Madara at their head. Was it a trap?

Don't get ahead of yourself, Itachi chided himself. It might be a trap, but they might just be somewhere else… like the arena. If things have really gone to hell, then Zabuza and Mei will be unleashing merry hell. THAT would certainly hold up the cavalry for a while.

Itachi didn't issue any orders as he emerged from the river. His men knew what to do. He began the Hidden Mist jutsu, pulling water from the Naka River and spinning it into the thick, white mist of Kiri's most famous technique. Itachi had enough power and control to swathe a large area with mist, but he wasn't alone. With three dozen of Kiri's best adding to the jutsu, the cloud of mist spread until it engulfed the entirety of Konoha's front gate. The outer walls were shrouded by mist for hundreds of meters on either side, and with every second the mist spread hungrily into the city streets and over rooftops.

The sentries were well-trained – Uchiha military policemen all, and they knew better than to shout in fear or surprise and give away their position. Unfortunately for them, there was no way to hide in the Bloody Mist.

Thanks to their clan ability to sense the presence of water, the Kanchiki knew instinctively where the mist stopped and enemy bodies began. It was an ability that didn't often translate into combat options, but in an environment shrouded by mist it had frightening potential. It wasn't only enemy shinobi that would register against the mist – they could sense the direction and momentum of projectiles and area attacks, and anything else that caused a disruption in the uniform spread of the mist.

Itachi and his hunter-nin lacked that natural advantage, but they were all well-trained in Silent Killing techniques. Most shinobi had neither the time nor the skill required to learn to fight without relying on sight. For the Uchiha, especially, such a thing would be almost sacrilegious. An Uchiha's fighting style centered around the sharingan. It was their greatest strength… and Itachi knew it was also their greatest weakness. A weakness he and Kiri's finest would make them regret before the day was done.

The first of the sentries died without ever knowing why, as Itachi danced by him and slit his throat with a delicate motion of a single kunai. More followed. The Hunter unleashed a devastating, yet silent volley of poisoned kunai. Many of the Kanchiki favored a more subtle approach, thickening the mist around an enemy's face into a globe that cut off their breath. The first wave of Uchiha sentries fought and died in bewildered silence, never seeing their assailants.

It was not an entirely one-sided battle, of course. Those sentries lucky enough to survive the first wave struck back as best they could, with area-wide attacks including blasts of fire and a few lightning bolts. The fire fizzled out quickly, but Itachi heard the agonized cry as one of the Kanchiki was fried by a lightning bolt.

More sentries came sprinting from further down the wall, bravely charging into the mist to help their comrades in their one-sided battle. With more and more sounds mixing and getting distorted by the mist, Itachi began to lose his ability to keep track of everything that was going on. It was difficult enough knowing who was within his own reach, as even his finely-tuned senses struggled to make sense of the cacophony.

He did, however, hear the shriek when one overly clever sentry tried to use a chakra-aided jump to get above the mist, presumably to get a feel for the scope of the battle. Itachi didn't have to see him to guess what happened next: an oversized bat swooping down like a streak of black lightning, squeezing the sentry with powerful claws, and casting the corpse over the battlements like any other piece of trash.

Itachi and his men began moving clockwise around the wall, aiming to eliminate the sentries as they arrived. Their goal was to be as noisy a distraction as possible, attracting the attention of as many of the Military Police as possible. That way, Kisame would meet with little to no opposition on his way through the walls to Konoha's heart.

The Kanchiki lieutenant arrived by Itachi's elbow, remembering to announce himself before Itachi counter-attacked by instinct. Not everyone could tell someone's identity from the way the mist molded to the contours of his face.

"A larger force is coming," he snapped out hurriedly. "Four dozen Uchiha. Officers, from the chakra levels my sensor reported. They're marching towards the front gate along the main road… it's like they don't even care about catching us."

Itachi sighed. "I was afraid they'd figure that out. As long as they chase us around the wall, they're easy prey. Their commander wants to force a confrontation now, before we have a chance to whittle away the stragglers."

"They're marching right into the mist," reported the lieutenant. "We still have the upper hand. Counting the bats, we outnumber them."

"I doubt this fight will be about numbers," Itachi said cryptically. "Gather the men, and deliver my orders to Lord Sevaroth. Infiltrate the village, staying out of sight of the Uchiha officers. Surround them on all sides, starting far out, and close the net. Lord Sevaroth will attack from the air, which will be your signal to engage. Understood?"

"Yes, sir! Ah… you speak like you won't be going with us."

"A trap needs suitable bait," Itachi replied, turning in the direction of Konoha's main gate. "That's my job. Just make sure you're there when I need you."

"Understood, sir! We won't let you down."

Those words echoed in Itachi's mind as he made his way to the front gate.

We won't let you down.

Itachi felt the weight of those words, the burden they imposed upon him. So many people were fighting for him, trusted him, and would die rather than disappoint him. Yet he was far more likely to betray them. With his failure, his weakness… No.

I will not die with so much left to be done. I will not betray the trust placed in me… not again.

Itachi reached the front gate, which he recognized from the large guardhouse built into the wall. He leaped down to the open area before the gate, which in peaceful times would have seen a steady bustle of traffic in and out of the village.

Now Itachi could sense the approaching Military Policemen. They made no particular attempt at stealth or speed, and he could hear them easily. It was a mark of Uchiha arrogance that they came to battle openly, deliberately, as if daring the world to attack them.

A familiar voice, made strange by the passing of time and the distortion of the mist, reached Itachi's ears.

"Together, all of you! Get rid of this damned mist!"

Ah… so there was a reason for them to stay together besides arrogance. I underestimated you, Father.

Dozens of voices joined together, and chakra pooled in the heart of the mist. Itachi used an Earth jutsu to hide underground as the combination attack began. It started as a small whirlwind, sustained and given force by the Uchiha officers who could manipulate pure Wind chakra. Veteran Uchiha sometimes achieved proficiency in three or even four of the elemental styles, although Fire would always be their favored vehicle for destructive attacks.

The whirlwind grew, and the rest of the Uchiha added streams of fire that burned white-hot in spite of the dampening effect of the mist. The whirlwind became a house-sized tornado of fire that swept down the street.

The concentration of chakra, the combination of Wind and Fire energy, and the relentless momentum of the combination technique proved too much for the integrity of the mist. It dispersed in the face of the tornado, which passed over Itachi's hiding place and went on to smash directly into the main gate.

Once Itachi sensed that the Bloody Mist was completely gone, he emerged from underground. Konoha's main gate was ablaze. The passing of the fiery whirlwind turned it into an enormous torch that cast a long shadow at Itachi's feet.

Itachi turned away from the blazing gate, settling his cold gaze on the mightiest warriors of the Uchiha clan. His family. But Itachi had eyes for only one, the man who stood at the head of the opposing force. His face was deeply lined, his hair was a steely gray, and he leaned on a walking stick that drew attention to his missing leg. But there was no questioning the power that radiated from him, or the cold air of malice that General Fugaku wore like a cloak.

He spoke in a curt, gravelly voice. "So you've come home."

Itachi bowed his head. "So I have… Father."

Fugaku snorted. "You're no son of mine. You're a traitor, a thief, and a despicable coward."

Fugaku's dark eyes ignited with red, the pupils becoming an intricate tracery much like a spinning pinwheel.

"What do you see with those eyes, Father?" Itachi asked softly, as the tomoe of his own sharingan began to swirl. "Do you see your wife, murdered for no other reason than to satisfy your lust for power? Do you see the bodies of the innocents you massacred?"

Fugaku leveled his cane at Itachi, holding it rock-steady, like a weapon. "I see your death, boy."

Itachi laughed harshly. "Then you see falsely. Only the ignorant believe that sharingan eyes can see the future. Come, let us test the worth of your Mangekyou. It was bought at a dear price, but I think you were cheated – or rather, you cheated yourself."

Fugaku looked around at the houses lining the main road. "We've been talking long enough for your followers to set up their pathetic ambush. What's the matter – are they scared?"

"No," Itachi laughed. "They're just waiting for the signal."

"What sig-"

Fugaku's words were cut off as Lord Sevaroth descended from the sky, unleashing a supersonic Wind jutsu at the lowest point of his dive. The attack caught an unwary Uchiha officer in the center of the enemy formation. His body was reduced to a red pulp in less time than it took to blink.

Military Policemen scrambled to defend themselves, while Itachi's strike force materialized like ghosts from every direction. The Battle of the Gate had begun.

In the midst of the erupting chaos, father and son faced each other in silence, preparing for a clash that would leave only one of them alive.

oOoOo

- Twenty-five minutes before the Battle of the Gate -

Furo Tamaji waited impatiently for the Oto Summoners to finish their technique. The violet barrier shone high above the Arena, which meant the time was at hand.

A successful battle meant a brighter future for Suna… and, of course, for Tamaji. He already knew how he was going to decorate his office when he won his seat on the Council.

"Can't you hurry up?" he hissed at the creepy Summoners. He doubted they even heard him, but he needed to vent some of his tension. Thirteen Summoners, pooling their energy to unleash one of Manda's oldest offspring to destroy the walls. It would be a glorious sight.

The delicate tracery of chakra linking the thirteen Summoners brightened, and Tamaji felt his heart race.

This is it!

But when the Summoners added their blood to the scrolls before them, completing the technique, the result was not at all what Tamaji expected. Instead of a giant puff of smoke and a three-headed snake that towered over the trees, there were thirteen puffs of smoke and a corresponding number of lightning-quick vipers that flew through the air toward Tamaji.

Reacting instinctively, he slashed one in half with a kunai and got halfway through a one-handed seal with his other hand. But he was too slow. A viper bit his arm, and a second later his joints froze as the venom spread through his system. His vision started to fade, as more of the snakes bit his arms, legs, and neck.

Tamaji could just make out his subordinates, the Suna jounin he had beat out for the position of Commander. They were scrambling to get to him, but the Oto Summoners had moved to the offensive. Tamaji knew, with the clarity of approaching death, that it was too late for him.

I'll never sit on the Council now… he thought as the darkness claimed him.

The Oto Summoners were not skilled in battle, perhaps only high chuunin level. In other circumstances, the five Suna jounin who had been with Tamaji to begin the invasion would have made short work of them. However, the vipers fighting with them were fast and deadly. They burrowed underground where they could hide from shuriken and Wind Release jutsu alike, then leaped out from underfoot to take the Suna jounin by surprise.

The element of surprise proved its worth, and in less than a minute after the initial summoning, the command structure of Suna's ground forces had been killed to the last man.

Several hundred meters away, in a clearing sheltered by some of Konoha's monstrous trees, the bulk of Suna's army heard the shouts and the clash of weapons and knew they were betrayed.

The preliminary attack came from below, as the Summoned vipers burrowed up and began attacking indiscriminately. The ordered camp turned into a chaotic mass.

Everywhere men and women screamed in rage and desperation. The Oto Summoners joined the fray, sticking to the trees and throwing braces of exploding tags that detonated with more than usual force. Alert shinobi turned these attacks away with defensive jutsu including gusts of wind and shields of earth, but these quick-witted few only left themselves open to sneak attacks from the vipers. It was chaos, and only the fact that there weren't actually that many attackers saved the Suna forces from complete carnage.

Among the Suna shinobi currently fighting for their lives was a young man named Toshiro Mifune. He was a career chuunin who had repeatedly turned down promotion to jounin, though he probably could have passed the exam. He didn't like operating alone, as most jounin had to do, and instead preferred to carry out guard duty or patrol for bandits with his best friend, Akira.

Toshiro had already been feeling uneasy, because during the entire march from Suna to Konoha, Akira hadn't said a word. His friend had simply cut him off, refusing to answer any of his questions. Toshiro had chalked it up to anxiety about the coming war, and tried to respect his friend's silence. People dealt with fear in different ways, after all.

But now Oto had betrayed them, and Toshiro might die without ever hearing his friend speak again. Still, if he had to die, it was good that he could die fighting back-to-back with his best friend.

Toshiro launched one of his throwing spears at the cowardly Summoners in the surrounding trees. One of the Oto shinobi was overconfident, dodging just enough so that the throwing spear passed harmlessly by his turban. That was when the explosive tag embedded within the wooden shaft detonated, leaving a headless corpse to fall to the ground. Beside him, Akira actually cracked a smile, which was the first expression Toshiro had seen on his friend's face since they left for Konoha. Toshiro let out a cheer.

Unfortunately, that cheer drew unwanted attention. Two vipers emerged from the ground, propelling themselves through the air towards Toshiro and Akira. Toshiro, who already had another throwing spear ready, thrust forward. The snake, jaws unhinged to strike, couldn't dodge in time and actually swallowed the blade. It dispelled with a puff of smoke as its body shredded.

But Toshiro was too late to stop the second snake. He whirled in fear, yelling out for Akira to dodge. His friend had only barely made chuunin, and his speed was not equal to these vipers. Toshiro's heart broke when he saw the snake reach his friend and bite deeply into his neck – but nothing happened. Akira merely stood there, eyes swiveling downward to inspect the venomous snake currently dangling from his neck.

Toshiro gasped at what happened next: a sharp spike emerged from Akira's neck, impaling the snake just underneath its jaw and killing it instantly.

Toshiro could only stand there, gaping, until Akira pointed a finger at him and shouted, "Down!"

He obeyed, dropping to the floor even as he registered that Akira's voice was that of an old woman. A needle shot out of Akira's finger and entered the space where Toshiro's head had just been. The enraged hiss of a viper chilled Toshiro's blood, until the hiss cut off when the needle took it through the eye.

As Toshiro stood up, recovering from his brush with death, Akira split open. Arms, legs, torso – all detached and hovered in the air, then rearranged into a horrifying mishmash of limbs. Standing where Akira had been was a wizened, tiny woman.

"Focus, you blithering idiot!" she snapped. "Leaving yourself open like that… what were you thinking?"

"E- Elder Chiyo?" Toshiro stammered, feeling poleaxed. Then his overtaxed brain put together the clues and came to a horrifying conclusion. "You… you killed him! You made my best friend into a puppet!"

Elder Chiyo snorted contemptuously. "Where did you get that stupid notion? I merely modeled a puppet after him when I received word that Sasori of the Red Sands received safe passage in Konoha. He wasn't happy to stay behind when the army marched, but I didn't give him much choice. He's back in Suna, in charge of coordinating the defense if our army is defeated and Konoha marches on our village."

Toshiro felt weak with relief. "Oh…"

"I meant to kill my treacherous grandson myself," Elder Chiyo muttered grumpily, "but it seems you fools need someone to take charge. I'm too old for this nonsense, but I suppose I'm all we've got."

Elder Chiyo twitched her fingers, which were attached to chakra strings that disappeared underground. Soon afterward, the remaining vipers appeared all at once, fleeing from the subterranean puppet that hunted them through their own turf. Nine other puppets appeared in a giant puff of smoke, a startling collection of misshapen terrors all controlled by Elder Chiyo.

In seconds, the vipers were destroyed, and the shell-shocked Suna army was able to take to the trees to make short work of the Oto Summoners.

"To me!" Elder Chiyo shouted, her reedy voice somehow carrying across the battlefield. "We are betrayed! Oto's forces will be on us any moment!"

Toshiro hefted another throwing spear and prepared to search for his immediate superior for new orders. Chiyo stopped him, however, with an imperious wave of her hand.

"Where are you going? From the looks of things, you're one of the few left with any skills. Consider yourself promoted to jounin. You'll relay my orders to the captains, since Tamaji and his ambitious cronies are all dead."

Toshiro could only bow his head, appalled at the ease with which his lifelong avoidance of promotion had been circumvented. At least Akira is safe. How he'll laugh… he always told me I should try for jounin.

For the moment there were no foes in the clearing, and the Suna shinobi let out a cry of victory. It cut off soon enough, however, when an answering chorus of bloodthirsty cries arose, coming from the direction of the Otogakure camp.

"The enemy is coming!" Elder Chiyo cried, her puppet brigade mustering in the air above her. "We are outnumbered, but not outmatched. Remember you are shinobi of Suna, forged in the desert heat and bred for battle!"

This time their war cry seemed to shake the very earth, as the unbroken core of the Suna army gathered themselves in a tight formation centered around Elder Chiyo, her puppets, and Toshiro.

The first sign of the Oto army was the pink crystal that came creeping through the forest like a living thing. It bent tree trunks aside and snapped them like matchsticks, clearing a path with irresistible power. Hundreds of shadowy forms appeared behind the crystal wave, led by a man and a woman.

The woman was clearly controlling the crystal, as she was flying on a dragon made entirely from the pink substance. The man next to her was something out of a nightmare – half of his body was normal, but the other half writhed and changed before Toshiro's eyes. He was a half-human, half-monster hybrid, and his eyes were devoid of any human feeling whatsoever.

"Leave the small fry to the others," Elder Chiyo told Toshiro. "You take the creepy one. I'll take the crystal bitch."

Toshiro checked the bundle of throwing spears on his back, and the poisoned senbon he kept in a pouch on his hip. "You're sure you don't want to promote someone else? I'm not really the command type, you know."

Elder Chiyo spared him a long glance, lip curled with admirable scorn. "I'm supposed to be retired, remember? You're not getting any sympathy from me."

oOoOo

- Twenty minutes before the Battle of the Gate -

Sasuke was starting to feel cheated. He'd been gearing up for the main event, when Zabuza would try to assassinate Madara and he would signal Itachi to begin the invasion. Then some random girl almost killed the Hokage's heir, and the next thing he knew, Kiri had been upstaged by a completely different set of rebels!

That could have been a good thing, technically speaking, if it didn't seem that Madara had been planning for this all along. Now the ambushers were ambushed, and everywhere the stands were filled with Sealed shinobi dying a painful death. Sasuke was not following the details of the various backstabbings, but he knew that Kiri and Sandstorm were against Madara, and basically everyone else was bad. That seemed to be all he needed to know.

Well, that and the fact that the situation looked pretty bleak. Sandstorm was strong, and the two old shinobi leading them were probably even stronger, but Sasuke had read his Bingo Book. Madara's allies included some of the continent's most fearsome missing-nin… and that was only the group from Ame. Sasuke didn't know how many shinobi this Orochimaru commanded, but if they were about as strong as Suna's forces, the invaders were in trouble.

"We should help them," Suigetsu urged his captain, just as Madara began to make his announcement to the stands. "We know we're on the same side, and they need allies they can trust."

"Wait for Zabuza," Sasuke said confidently, while Haku only nodded. "He'll make his move soon. We'll take our cue from him."

When Madara finished delivering his ultimatum, the stadium became a flurry of movement. Uchiha officers who had hung back now began to gather, and the Sealed shinobi not afflicted by crippling pain made their choices. Some, a select few, threw themselves in doomed attacks at the Uchiha, but many of them were cut down – some even by their comrades. The other shinobi, those that chose to side with Madara, looked to the Uchiha officers for orders.

Meanwhile, civilians and shinobi from neutral nations made their way to the exits as fast as possible, trampling each other in their haste to get away from the battleground.

Down in the arena, the two sides visibly tensed, wondering who would attack first. Sasuke held his breath, and he knew he wasn't the only one. There was enough firepower in the arena to level half the village, let alone one relatively small stadium. He pitied the civilians trying to run away – it was possible there wasn't anywhere in the village that could be considered safe.

At that moment, when the tension seemed impossible to sustain any longer, Zabuza made his move. The Mizukage appeared in the stadium, followed an instant later by Mei. Zabuza had unwrapped the bandages around the lower half of his face, and he bared his filed teeth in a wicked smile.

"You're having a party and you forgot to invite me? How rude. Don't you think that's rude, Mei?"

Mei shrugged with languid grace. "I don't know, Zabuza. Maybe they know you're a mean drunk."

"Everyone's a critic."

Sasuke signaled his teammates while his superiors were still bantering and kicked off of the balcony, arriving a heartbeat later between Zabuza and Madara. He held Kiba in its conjoined form, ready to wield. Haku and Suigetsu took up positions two paces from his left and right side, respectively.

"I advise you not to get involved in this, Mizukage-sama," Madara said, his voice a warning growl. "You may think to profit from this situation, but I will treat you as my enemy if you do not leave this place immediately."

Zabuza breathed an exaggerated sigh of relief. "So you don't know everything… thank Kami. From that trick you pulled on Suna, I half-expected you to have another ambush set up for us. Seems our invasion hasn't been compromised, at least."

"Your invasion?!" Jiraiya and Tsunade exclaimed at the same time.

Zabuza shook his head and gave a disappointed sigh. "Yeah… you know, Jiraiya, it seems to me you could have done a better job picking allies. How much better if we had teamed up, instead of you and that scaly excuse for a shinobi?"

Even Orochimaru looked surprised to hear Zabuza declare Kiri's intention to fight Konoha. Zabuza shrugged. "Oh, well… no use crying over spilled blood, is there?"

Suigetsu nudged Sasuke. "Does he mean spilled milk?"

"No."

Madara spoke up suddenly, as Jiraiya was opening his mouth. "I see… I thought your nation would be too weak for a full invasion less than two years after a rebellion of your own. I was wrong. You have my congratulations on what must have been a very difficult initiative."

"Oh, it wasn't as bad as all that," Zabuza said calmly. "We had deep resources to draw on, and some very inspirational military leaders. In fact, one of them is waiting for the signal to attack… Sasuke, care to help out?"

"Of course." Sasuke tore off his Hunter nin mask and cast it aside.

I will never wear a mask again.

Win or lose, live or die, it would be as himself: Uchiha Sasuke. He raised Kiba overhead and sent two lightning bolts into the air. It seemed that Madara hadn't prepared specifically for the Kiri invasion, but Sasuke didn't want to take chances. Konoha's defenses were stronger than they had anticipated, and Itachi needed to be aware of that.

"Sasuke…" Madara rumbled. "So you and your brother were in Kiri. I had my suspicions after you disappeared in Wave, but I couldn't be sure."

The news that Madara's agents had managed to track him to Wave Country unnerved Sasuke, but he tried to keep it from showing. "We've returned to make you pay for your crimes," he said. He tried to sound confident, though he knew he couldn't entirely erase the fear that Madara's presence inspired.

"Excuse me, Hokage-sama." This came from Pain, who approached Madara respectfully as the man stared at Sasuke as if he were an insect.

Madara craned his neck to look at the leader of Ame. "Yes?"

"I don't believe you need any help here. Besides, if I were to use my techniques in your defense, they would certainly harm your allies as much as your enemies, and might threaten the integrity of the barrier around your son. Do I have your permission to take my people elsewhere?"

"Good thinking," Madara replied immediately. "Tell General Fugaku to take the strongest Military Officers and head for the outer walls. He is to engage any and all Kiri forces he encounters. As for you and your men… do as you see fit. You are allies, not subordinates."

Pain paused, as if surprised by Madara's lenience. "Very well. After relaying your orders to the general, I will reinforce the Otogakure army against Suna's forces. I have a hunch that, despite their numerical advantage, Oto will need the most help."

From his position a few meters away, Orochimaru gave a short, ugly laugh. "You're right about that. There are only a few strong fighters in my group of misfits, and most of them are here in the arena with me. Do whatever you have to, Pain. If your techniques kill a lot of my henchmen, well… I can always find more like them."

With his sharingan active, Sasuke could see Kimimaro give an involuntary flinch, and begin to look towards Orochimaru before reverting his gaze. Aside from Madara and perhaps the girl with the byakugan, Sasuke didn't think anyone else had sharp enough perception to catch the motion.

Pain disappeared a second later, and his entourage left a series of after-images as they followed him.

"Jiraiya!" exclaimed one of the Sandstorm jounin. "What should we do?"

"We can't let Pain engage the Suna army," Jiraiya said. "They're going to have enough on their hands against Oto, especially since our enemies have the element of surprise. Go, Kakashi. Take Sandstorm and stop Pain and his men – no matter what. We cannot afford to fail."

Sandstorm sprang into motion. Orochimaru moved as if to interfere, but Madara stopped him with one raised hand. "Let them go. Pain has yet to prove his worth in this alliance. If he can't take care of a few brats and their baby-sitters, then he's of no use to me."

"What are your orders for me, Hokage-sama?" Orochimaru asked, his voice oily and obsequious.

"Kill your former teammates."

Orochimaru bowed low. "Of course."

He turned to Jiraiya and Tsunade and offered them the same bow, this time full of mockery. "Would you care to follow me to your deaths? I'd prefer not to fight in this arena, as I'm sure the Hokage won't care who gets in his way when he's protecting his son. We'll be waiting for you… ah, see that lovely tiled roof? Yes, I believe that's the perfect place to kill you."

Orochimaru, Kimimaro, and Kabuto left the arena, ascending to the sloping, red-tiled roof above the Kage's Observation Box.

Now Madara was the only Konoha shinobi in the arena – apart from Naruto, Sasuke amended, but he hardly counted. "Does he really expect us to go after him?" Jiraiya snorted. "Our enemy is right here."

But Tsunade inched closer to him, and spoke in a voice too low for any but Jiraiya to make out. His face looked like a thundercloud, but eventually he nodded.

"You're right - there's no other choice. But if Shizune isn't fast enough… they'll all die."

"She'll be fast enough." Tsunade turned to Zabuza and Mei, eyes flashing with deadly purpose. "Do you think you two can hold off Madara for a while? Jiraiya and I need to save our shinobi."

Zabuza looked once more at the arena, where dozens of Konoha shinobi were locked in their drawn-out death throes. "Isn't it too late?"

"It may be," Tsunade said grimly. "But we haven't tried everything yet. And as long as Orochimaru lives, he'll get in the way of our plans. So we'll take care of him while trying to save as many of the Sealed shinobi as we can. That is, if you think you can take Madara."

"That was our plan all along," Zabuza said nonchalantly. "This lovely lady and I were supposed to attack Madara, kill him if we could, and otherwise inconvenience him until the cavalry arrives. We never expected any help, and it seems you have an important task of your own. Go to it, and give that snake-eyed bastard a kunai in the neck from me."

Jiraiya and Tsunade were gone almost before Zabuza finished speaking, bolting off to meet Orochimaru's challenge. Shizune still carried a comatose Hinata, and Sasuke saw out of the corner of his eye that Shizune's right hand was wreathed in green chakra and holding steady above Hinata's forehead.

And what is SHE doing, I wonder?

"Is it bravery that allows you to face me," Madara asked Zabuza, "or is it ignorance? Are you truly foolish enough to challenge me in open battle, even with your concubine to help you?"

"Concubine?!" Mei demanded, wreathing one hand in lava and the other in poison gas. "You senile old bat… killing you will be my genuine pleasure."

Zabuza put his hand on Sasuke's shoulder, and gave him in the opposite direction of Madara and the violet barrier. "You've hung around long enough, kid. The plan hasn't changed. Take your teammates and collect the rest of the Kiri genin at the rendezvous point. Then meet your brother at the walls. If you're lucky, you can catch the Uchiha policemen from behind. Good luck, punk."

"You too, asshole."

Sasuke spared one last look over his shoulder as he sped away from the arena. Standing at the foot of the immense barrier, looking tiny against the immense construct, were a Kage and a Kage's daughter, facing a living legend. Would they be all right on their own?

They have to be.

oOoOo

It was funny, Naruto reflected, how one's dearest hopes often turned out to be one's worst nightmares. His current predicament was the perfect example. For weeks leading up to the tournament, Naruto had worked to erode Kabuto's seal little by little, all for the purpose of regaining access to his mindscape and the power within. Now Naruto was in his mindscape… and he couldn't get out!

I guess I should be careful what I wish for.

Naruto had never seen this particular part of his mindscape before, which wasn't all that strange. Humans used only a portion of their brains, after all, and one's deepest desires were often hidden from the conscious mind. What was strange, was that Naruto was conscious and in control of his thoughts, yet incapable of molding his mindscape to his will.

The levels of his mind only seemed to be real places – he could shape or mold them at will, with training and discipline. Yet Naruto had been trying to exert control over his mindscape ever since Hinata's attack had separated him from reality, sending his mind reeling inward.

Words will be had, Naruto promised himself, just as soon as I get out of this cell.

For that was where he was. Rock walls surrounded him on three sides, and in front were thick metal bars that he couldn't budge no matter how he tried.

"You deserve everything you get," Naruto said, his voice echoing oddly in the cramped cell. "Dropping your guard just because it's a girl you- Kami, she didn't even stab you in the back! Stupid fool…"

"Talking to yourself again?"

The voice, sinister and amused, came from outside the cell. As Naruto focused, the cloudy whiteness beyond the bars of his prison cell dissipated. He saw a narrow corridor with a low ceiling, constructed of the same dark stone of his cell. Across the corridor was another cell.

Try as he might, Naruto couldn't quite see into the other cell – it was shrouded in shadow. But he had no problem identifying the reddish-orange chakra bubbling and frothing out of the cell and spreading across the stone floor.

The cell has nine bars, Naruto realized a second later. Etched into the stone above the bars was a glowing seal, an exact copy of the seal that had, until recently, been inscribed on Naruto's stomach. This seal glowed weakly, intermittently, like a torch threatened by a heavy wind.

One of the bars bent outward, as if pressed by an tremendous but invisible force. It broke free and clattered across the stone floor, crashing into the bars of Naruto's own cell with an ear-splitting clang. A silhouette became visible in the other cell. It was patch of darkness visible against the lesser darkness around it, and Naruto could just make out the outline of nine waving tails.

Acting on instinct, Naruto tried to activate his Mangekyou sharingan and suppress the Fox with its power. Nothing happened. It was like flicking a switch to a burned-out bulb.

"How does it feel to be trapped, Host?" the Kyuubi's voice rattled the bars of Naruto's cell. "To be separated from your friends? To be hopeless to decide your own fate?"

"It's not very nice," Naruto said cautiously. He was just saying whatever came into his head, playing for time as he tried to make sense of the situation. From what he remembered of Hinata's last attack, he had a very limited amount of time before he bled out. Maybe a medic nin could save his life, but that didn't solve the problem of the ruptured seal.

That's why the Kyuubi's cell is breaking down – the integrity of the lock on its prison is destroyed.

But if the Kyuubi could break out of its prison, pushing past the remnants of the seal, then Naruto could free himself as well.

This prison is my mind's approximation of Kabuto's seal, Naruto realized, and it's keeping my chakra from interacting with the Kyuubi's.

Indeed, the red chakra boiling from the Kyuubi's cell did not pass through the bars trapping Naruto. That wasn't much comfort, though, because the chakra could and did flood down the corridor in both directions, out of Naruto's sight.

That's my mind!

The more the Kyuubi's chakra spread, the less chance Naruto had of surviving. And of course, once the Kyuubi broke free from the last vestiges of its seal – which it would do very soon – it would be unleashed on an arena full of innocents. Naruto was not about to let that happen.

Naruto focused his will once again, and hit the bars of his cell with all his might. Forget wearing down Kabuto's seal little by little – Naruto was going to throw everything he had at it, and damn the consequences.

An idea occurred to Naruto then, looking at the hissing chakra coming from the Kyuubi's cell. He gathered his own chakra, as much as he could, and forced it out of himself. He breathed a sigh of relief as it became a veritable flood, flowing out of his cell through the bars.

His blue chakra and the Kyuubi's red acted like oil and water, never mixing, except that the Fox's chakra hissed and steamed whenever it encountered his.

Naruto punched the leftmost bar of his cell again, wincing involuntarily as his fist began to bleed.

Go away, he told the pain. You're an illusion. This is my mind.

He knew that the physical pain from punching the bars in his cell most likely corresponded to damage to his mind and chakra system from forcibly attacking Kabuto's seal, but that was not something he needed to worry about right now. One more punch, and although Naruto's hand felt like it was broken, one bar of his cell shattered.

"So it's a competition, then," came the Kyuubi's amused voice. "I will not be denied my freedom again!"

"I'm very disappointed in you!" Naruto shouted, even as he pumped more chakra into the stone corridor and switched his attention to the next metal bar. "If I'd known you were going to be like this, I would never have fed you all that chakra! Remember Hidan? I didn't have to do that, you know!"

"You think I should be grateful that you used MY power to destroy your enemies? Think again, my Host."

After that they both fell silent. There seemed nothing more left to say. The Kyuubi had freedom in sight, and Naruto knew only one way to stop it from going on a rampage. He had to free himself first.

The competition seemed to take hours, even though Naruto knew that in the real world it was probably a matter of minutes. The Kyuubi broke bar after bar of his cell, and with each one the amount of chakra he could force into Naruto's mindscape increased.

It wasn't a question of destroying enough bars to fit through them, Naruto knew. He simply had to destroy all of his own cell bars – thereby destroying Kabuto's seal – before the Kyuubi did. It was a question of how much chakra each could bring to bear, and how quickly.

But as the hours stretched on, it seemed that the Kyuubi was winning. When he broke the seventh bar of his cell, Naruto had only destroyed five. Naruto redoubled his efforts, switching to kicks after both of his fists became useless, mangled messes of broken bone. He wondered what that meant in terms of damage once he returned to the real world – was he damaging his ability to mold chakra? Perhaps his brain? It was not a question he much wanted to find the answer to, but it hovered at the edge of his consciousness no matter how much he tried to avoid it.

Naruto's despair increased in proportion with the Kyuubi's triumph, as the eighth bar buckled and strained. When it broke, the Kyuubi gave a roar of triumph in anticipation of the final bar. Naruto poured his rage and frustration into a donkey kick that ripped the sixth bar of his cell away from its stone anchor.

The bar flew across the corridor, and Naruto was seized by the petty hope that it would hit the Kyuubi in the nose. Instead, there was a flash of light, and then a hand snatched the bar out of the air.

A man stood in the corridor, equidistant between Naruto's cell and the Kyuubi's. Though red and blue chakra continued to struggle for dominance, none touched him – instead, it swirled around his feet in a controlled whirlpool.

This man wore the flak jacket of a Konoha jounin, and though he didn't appear very old, his eyes contained the wisdom and grief of many years. He had sun-blond hair the same shade as Naruto's own, and when he smiled, it completely transformed his face. For some reason he looked familiar, though Naruto could not say how.

The man looked down at the cell bar in his hand, and laughed. His laughter, full and carefree, drew an angry snarl from the Kyuubi.

"Quiet, you," the man said, flapping a hand vaguely over his shoulder. "I'll deal with you in a minute."

To Naruto's amazement, the Kyuubi subsided. Even the flow of red chakra from between the bars seemed to recede.

The blond man looked up at Naruto. His smile was half encouragement and half wonder, and Naruto could not think how to respond.

"Who are you?"

Naruto's breath caught when he saw a tear trace a solitary path down the older man's cheek.

"Oh, my brave Naruto. I'm Namikaze Minato, Fourth Hokage of Konoha… and your father. What's left of him, at least."

With those words came another flash of light that made Naruto blink, and when he opened his eyes the cell was gone. The Kyuubi was gone too, as well as the stone corridor of his mindscape.

There was only formless whiteness, and across from him, the man who claimed to be his father.