Author's Note: This is not a dead story! I'm going to try to conclude it this summer. Since it's been so long, I've updated the summary of events to date. I know that when one of my favorite stories updates after a long time I have trouble remembering everything that happened.



Black Cloaks, Red Clouds takes place in a post-time skip AU where all the characters start off three years older than they did in canon. So Tenten and Neji are almost nineteen, Naruto is eighteen, Konohamaru is fifteen, and so on.

Orochimaru is the Yondaime Hokage, and the Elemental Nations are a very different place as a result. He forged an alliance with the other villages based on self-interest and accumulation of power, and oversaw the obliteration of all of the minor villages (Kusagakure, Takigakure, Hoshigakure, etc.). In the years that followed he expanded Root's reach inside Konohagakure and brutally suppressed internal dissent. Obviously he never founded Otogakure; he didn't need to. Minato was never Hokage but still defeated the Kyuubi at the cost of his life and Kushina's, sealing the bijuu into their infant son. In the wake of that event Orochimaru and his wife Anko adopted Naruto and raised him to be a weapon of the Leaf.

Overall, the Elemental Nations are a darker and grimmer place than in canon. Namikaze Naruto is not a beacon of hope but a product of his upbringing; a remorseless killer.

First Arc (Chapters 1 – 21) – The Chuunin Exam:

Tenten reached the rank of jounin at eighteen and immediately chose to become a jounin sensei, wishing to follow in Maito Gai's path and protect young shinobi of the Leaf as they grew. Her team consists of Uchiha Amaya and Aburame Kaede, young kunoichi raised in clans, and Isamu Ken, the son of civilian farmers who has adopted the nindo of Maito Gai and Rock Lee (the Genius of Hard Work) as his own.

On Team Tenten's first mission in the field – guarding the Leaf embassy in Sunagakure – Tenten encounters the Akatsuki Sasori and Deidara. She foils their attempt to abduct the Kazekage Gaara but is captured in the process. Expecting to be interrogated or killed by the notorious missing-nin, she learns instead that the Akatsuki's goals of opposing the villages and removing the power of the bijuu from their hands align closely with her own beliefs about the need for regime change in Konohagakure. Reluctant to violate her oaths as a shinobi of the Leaf, Tenten nonetheless agrees to join the Akatsuki as Sasori's apprentice.

Four intense months of training and missions follow, and during that time sparks fly between Tenten and the blond bomber Deidara. The budding relationship is interrupted by the loss of Sasori's most prominent spy in Konohagakure. Given the choice between helping Sasori subvert other Leaf shinobi and place their lives at risk or returning to the village herself Tenten chooses duty despite her personal preference to remain with Deidara.

In order to go undercover Tenten is required to become a full member of Akatsuki. Thrown into a no-holds-barred duel with none other than Uchiha Itachi, Tenten narrowly survives the assault of her fellow Konohagakure defector and earns her cloak and ring.

With the help of the other Akatsuki, Tenten simulates horrific injuries and has her memories sealed by Sasori. Afterward she is left in an abandoned Akatsuki facility for Leaf forces to find. By a trick of fate she is discovered by Hyuuga Neji, her longtime teammate, friend and lover.

On her return to Konohagakure the Akatsuki's extensive preparations pay off; Orochimaru's suspicions are allayed. Afterward Yakushi Kabuto, another of Sasori's agents, restores Tenten's true memory.

Once she is recovered Tenten is given a task by the Akatsuki almost immediately: take her genin team to the upcoming Chuunin Exam in Kumogakure. She is unsure of their readiness, but trains them to the best of her ability and enters them in the Exam. Departing from Konohagakure offers Tenten relief on at least one front: Neji still loves her, and she can't tell him the truth, that she's fallen for a member of the Akatsuki. Instead she avoids intimacy by playing the role of the trauma victim everyone in Konohagakure thinks she is, an act that hurts her as much as Neji.

In the Chuunin Exam Team Tenten excels despite being the youngest team entered. Kaede's shrewd perception sees them through the first round, building a temporary alliance with genin from other villages gets them through the second round, and in the elimination matches all three genin shine. Death and injury stalk the exam however; a brutal genin of Iwagakure named Grun seems determined to kill or cripple anyone he faces.

Amaya shows mercy to an opponent from Cloud and is almost killed by the humiliated young shinobi for her trouble. Haruno Sakura is summoned to heal her, and Tenten is reunited with an old friend, a talented medic left brutalized and scarred by Namikaze Naruto during their time as genin.

Kaede survives her encounter with Grun and puts out one of his eyes in the process. Amaya, incensed by Grun's cruelty, challenges him to a death match and finishes him with the same lightning jutsu that almost claimed her life.

The final match of the elimination rounds is between Amaya and Ken, and there tragedy strikes. Orochimaru manipulates both young genin at a crucial moment. Amaya strikes a blow far harder than intended, killing Ken and awakening her Mangekyo sharingan.

Despite her personal grief at the loss of a student, Tenten completes her mission for the Akatsuki, impersonating Kumogakure's jounin commander Darui and using his mien to lure Yugito, jinchuuriki of the Nibi, into the sewers where she is defeated by Hidan and Kakuzu.

Second Arc (Chapters 22 – 29) – Love Built on Lies:

After the sealing of the Nibi (during which Tenten and the White Zetsu capture Temari and her genin returning from the Exam) Tenten receives her next mission from the Akatsuki: rekindle her relationship with Neji, who is to ascend to leadership of the Hyuuga Clan. Doing so would place Tenten next to a member of Orochimaru's inner circle and allow her to gather information more effectively. It's a mission she is loath to take, but when presented a choice between seducing Neji or allowing him to be assassinated she chooses the former even though it causes a painful rift between her and Deidara.

While Tenten charms her way back into Neji's heart, Kaede and a remorseful, grieving Amaya are offered a job: the daimyo of the Land of Lightning wants them in his bodyguard. Kaede convinces Amaya to accept the offer, and they travel to the Land of Lightning to spend three years as the soldiers of a foreign ruler.

While Amaya is away, Tenten gets to work collecting intelligence for the Akatsuki. She recruits Yuuhi Kurenai to aid her information gathering in Konohagakure, and the information she gathers from Neji leads to the smooth capture of both of Iwagakure's jinchuuriki. On the personal front, however, things get more complicated for Tenten as she falls back in love with Neji and the act becomes an agonizing reality. Neji – now the head of the Hyuuga clan – unexpectedly asks Tenten to marry him. Since becoming his wife will grant her even more access to the information Akatsuki needs Tenten accepts his proposal, knowing that it will all end in tears.

Tenten sends Deidara a letter explaining her choice and apologizing for it, but Sasori intercepts and destroys the missive before sending Deidara on a mission far from the Land of Fire. By chance Deidara comes across mention of Tenten's wedding, and confronts her the night before her wedding. Despite her resolve to cut ties with Deidara, she can't bring herself to do it when he stands before her, and Deidara swears to take her away from Konohagakure and Neji once the Hokage is beaten. The next day, she is married to Neji.

Third Arc (Chapters 30 – 38) – The Uchiha Massacre:

In Sunagakure, Sasori and Deidara confront Gaara and defeat him. In the aftermath Sasori convinces Kankuro to become the next Kazekage, while wielding his influence from behind the scenes, including over Temari herself who has been implanted with fuuinjutsu seals as Sasori's guard against Kankuro's eventual betrayal.

In Konohagakure the Hyuuga elders have arranged for Hinata to be married to Naruto. Tenten and Neji oppose the idea but are ultimately forced to accept it when Naruto offers to marry into the Hyuuga clan, a political coup.

In the Land of Lightning Amaya, Kaede and Kaede's fiancée Kutsuku Kiran depart the capital to return to Konohagakure. They are ambushed on the road by Grun's mother Kusana and her clan, the Toma. Kiran escapes to summon help, while Amaya and Kaede are captured.

Kaede finds herself at the mercy of a shinobi she crippled in the Chuunin Exam and facing dissection by the Kamizuru clan, ancient enemies of the Aburame. Amaya is in equally dire straits, as the Toma matriarch Kusana tortures her to remove her contraceptive seal and then orders her sons to rape the Uchiha, intent on forcing the conception of a child as a means of stealing the sharingan.

Kaede is rescued by her fiancée and relatives, only to discover that Amaya was hidden elsewhere by the canny Toma matriarch and time is running out. Meanwhile, a depraved medical ninja arrives at the Toma hideout to cut out Amaya's eyes and take them for himself. Before he can blind her permanently, her Mangekyo sharingan activates in response to her desperate thoughts of her deceased teammate Ken, summoning an alternate-reality version of him from a world where she died in the Chuunin Exam and he lived. Ken frees her and they flee from the Toma, with Ken killing one of her rapists in the course of the escape.

In Konohagakure, Tenten has barely has the chance to absorb the suspicious death of her sister Rika - killed by the ruthless Root agent Sai during his investigation of Tenten's past - when Maito Gai arrives bearing grim news of Amaya and Kaede's capture. She sets out to find her students only to be stopped short of the village walls when an attack is launched on the Uchiha compound by the other Akatsuki. Rushing to the village's defense, Tenten discovers the wholesale slaughter of the Uchiha, perpetrated by Mist ninja acting under the orders of the new Mizukage, Terumi Mei. She learns that the Akatsuki's goal was only to remove Uchiha with Mangekyo sharingan, but the Mizukage betrayed her agreement with the Akatsuki, seeking to see the Uchiha wiped out entirely.

Amaya returns to Konohagakure physically intact, but haunted by the trauma of her captivity, torture and repeated rapes, compounded by the murder of her entire clan. Left as one of only two Uchiha shinobi alive, Amaya enters ANBU intent on gaining the strength to kill Itachi and take revenge for her clan's slaughter. Amaya is hampered by her personal demons however, which adversely affecting her training. Hatake Kakashi orders her to seek psychiatric treatment from Yamanaka Ino, who aids the young Uchiha down the path to recovery. Meanwhile, Ken assumes a false identity and becomes a Leaf shinobi in Amaya's world to stay close to her.

Tenten uses her Akatsuki connections to locate the Toma in their Land of Earth hideout, taking vengeance for Amaya's mistreatment and exterminating the renegades with Hidan's help. In the aftermath of that adventure she bows to pressure from the Hyuuga elders and conceives Neji's child despite her misgivings about bringing a baby into a marriage built on lies. Once she is well into the pregnancy, Tenten and Neji find out that they will in fact be the parents of twin girls. Hinata and Naruto are married, and at first the union is civil, if loveless.

The collection of the bijuu continues; Yagura is captured by Itachi and Kisame, while Pein himself confronts Utakata. Despite a relationship tested by deception and rifts over the handling of Tenten's mission, Sasori and Deidara successfully capture Fu.

Before Kaede leaves for the Land of Lightning with her new husband Kiran, Amaya and Ken share the secret of her Mangekyo sharingan and his seeming resurrection. Kaede extracts a promise from Amaya to visit her in Sky City before seeking out Itachi.

Amaya – her recovery complete – is re-admitted into ANBU at roughly the same time that Tenten gives birth to her twin daughters Azuna and Rika.

Fourth Arc (Chapters 39 – 50) – The Fourth War:

Amaya's first ANBU mission takes her to the Land of Water along with Hyuuga Hanabi, Moroshi Tanai and their enigmatic commander Tenzo. Their goal is to help a band of pirates overthrow the Water daimyo's rule in the north of the Land of Water. On the eve of her departure for a mission that will ultimately last more than a year, Amaya confesses her feelings to Ken.

Amaya's mission calls on her to do difficult things, including sinking dozens of the Water daimyo's ships with her fire ninjutsu, actions that fill her with guilt and plague her sleep with nightmares as Tenzo drives her on. She reaches a breaking point when she witnesses some of the pirates taking slaves, opposing the captains in question and freeing their captives. That action places her at odds with Tenzo and risks her membership in ANBU.

Back in Konohagakure, Hinata – who has grown increasingly unhappy in her marriage to Naruto – discovers while pregnant with their first child that he is cheating on her. Her former teammate Inuzuka Kiba convinces her to get a divorce in spite of the consequences for her standing in the Hyuuga clan. Before she can do so, however, tragedy strikes.

Terumi Mei, displaying a greater mastery of her kekkei genkai – the Boil Release – than anyone suspected, launches a sneak attack on Konohagakure's Inner Council that fells half of its members, including Naruto and Neji. With both men in a coma and no cure available, Tenten and Anko set out to find Senju Tsunade, the lost Sannin and the only person who knows how to cure exposure to the Boil Release. Tenten begs the Akatsuki for help and is given clues by Deidara and Konan in spite of the objections of Sasori, who points out that the Boil Release has made Naruto vulnerable and curing him would be counter-productive.

Amaya's last battle in the Land of Water is a full on naval engagement between the pirates and the daimyo's navy. A new ship, the ironclad, enters the fray, and Amaya's team leads the boarding action. In a harrowing fight with the Swordswoman of the Mist Ameyuri Ringo, Amaya summons an older version of herself from a dystopian alternate world where the Akatsuki have laid waste to the Elemental Nations. In spite of her doppelganger's aid Amaya loses her left hand and is blinded; with the loss of her sharingan Ken is sent back to the world she plucked him from.

Alone, deep in despair and troubled by the revelation of her older self that Tenten is an Akatsuki spy, Amaya is offered salvation by none other than Shimura Danzo, master of Root. Inducted into the organization herself, Amaya is made whole with transplanted sharingan once belonging to Sasuke's mother Mikoto and a hand grown from a White Zetsu.

Meanwhile, Tenten, Anko, Sakura, Kurenai, Hyuuga Ko and Kakashi search for Tsunade in the Land of Rice. Tenten discovers that she is pregnant again, a child conceived just days before the attack on the Hokage tower. The same night Sakura encounters Tsunade's apprentice Kato Shizune, and the team pursues her into the mountains on the border with the Land of Rain. They capture Shizune but are ambushed by mountain guerillas and Shizune's husband Juugo. Despite their experience the team is nearly beaten before Tenten cuts loose with her full power to subdue the chakra-fueled titan.

Out of tricks, Shizune is forced to take them to Tsunade. Upon reaching the mountain temple that houses the Sannin Tenten and Anko are devastated to discover that the legendary Senju suffered a stroke years earlier and languishes in a coma with no prospect for recovery. After the reason for their quest is revealed Shizune offers to attempt a cure in exchange for her and Juugo's freedom.

Back in Konohagakure Amaya splits her time between worlds, sneaking away to Ken's side to spend time with him when she can, and running missions for Root when she's home. One mission takes her deep into the Land of Earth with Sai to visit the graves of the Toma. It is there that Amaya's second Mangekyo power manifests, an ability to call up an image of the past of any area she focuses it on. Gazing into the past she witnesses Tenten's fight with the Toma and her sensei's unmasking.

Returning to Konohagakure ahead of Tenten, Amaya makes further use of her window into the past to discover Yakushi Kabuto's complicity with Tenten's treason, arresting him and finding out that Tenten was a willing traitor.

When Tenten returns to Konohagakure Amaya waits until the cure is delivered and then shocks her unconscious. Kurenai flees with her son in the wake of Tenten's arrest, surreptitiously aided by Asuma. Tenten is interrogated and tortured by Inoichi, Ibiki and Sasuke, and miscarries due to the strain on her body.

Fifth Arc (Chapters 51 – 57) – The Shinobi Soul:

Giving up on torturing useful information out of Tenten, Orochimaru sentences her to die on the Scale, a cruel device that slowly tears the body apart. After suffering on the Scale for hours, Tenten is saved by the Akatsuki who launch a bold rescue in the heart of Konohagakure. Amaya crosses blades with Itachi during the rescue, and the elder Uchiha promises her answers if she comes to find him on Blue Sand Isle in three months' time.

Left half-dead by the Scale, Tenten faces a life of being crippled and in constant pain. Deidara refuses to let that happen, however, and reveals to Tenten his greatest secret. Deidara's clay-molding kekkei genkai was not a gift of his genetics. Rather, it was artificially bestowed on him as a teenager by a powerful artifact known as the Shinobi Soul. Having stolen the Soul from Iwagakure during his flight from his home village, Deidara has kept it hidden from the Tsuchikage ever since, telling no one of its existence, even the Akatsuki. His feelings for Tenten prompt him to retrieve the Shinobi Soul from its hiding place and use it on her, since the gem not only bestows power but heals any wound.

After being exposed to the Shinobi Soul Tenten is transported to the realm of the Ape Tribe. There she meets King Enma, the personal summon of the Sandaime Hokage Sarutobi Hiruzen. After telling Enma of her past, she is invited into his forge and instructed to create whatever her instinct directs. Tenten forges a sword named Saru no Tsume [Monkey Claw], and in the process is reforged herself. The Shinobi Soul bestows upon Tenten the powerful and long-lost Steel Release that allows her to make her body metal at will and channel chakra to create magnetic fields. Enma bestows upon Tenten the sword she forged and his summoning contract as well before sending her back to the Akatsuki.

In Konohagakure, Neji awakens to a life in shambles. His wife is gone, and revealed as a traitor who lied to him for years. He is left a single parent to a pair of traumatized twin daughters, and both his clan's elders and the Hokage treat him with disdain for being fooled and used by the woman he loved. On top of that, the radical treatment that cured him of exposure to the Boil Release also gave him a dangerous and unpredictable new power: lunar chakra that waxes and wanes with the phases of the moon, allowing him to wield powerful but dangerous energy blasts. Training with Juugo to control his new power, Neji must also come to terms with his deepest wound; the emotional pain and loss of trust in himself and others created by Tenten's long deception.

With Naruto recovered from his coma by Shizune's cure as well, he returns home to a wife who remains less than pleased by his infidelity. Hinata serves Naruto with divorce papers on the night of his return, but he refuses to let her leave with their son Tomaru. Instead Naruto attacks Hinata and imprisons her in the basement of their home while his Root operatives quietly kill the judge who granted the divorce and destroy the associated paperwork. Naruto has Hinata tortured to lower her mental resistance before forcing Ino - who has been an unwilling Root agent for a decade - to wipe Hinata's memories, making her a 'devoted wife' compliant to Naruto's will.

Bound to obey Naruto, Hinata is compelled by her jealous and cruel husband to seduce Kiba and kill him for encouraging her to seek a divorce. She obeys, slaying Kiba mid-coitus and cutting down Akamaru as well, while the small part of her true self that remains screams in the silence of her mind.

At the same time, Amaya crosses the veil between dimensions to Ken's world, travelling to Iwagakure and meeting there with his version of Tenten, who is Deidara's wife. From the other world's Tenten she learns more about her own sensei's possible motivations in betraying Konohagakure. Amaya returns home with deepening doubts eating at her certainty in her loyalty to Root and the Hokage. Shortly thereafter she leaves Konohagakure, travelling to Sky City. Collecting Ken, Kaede and Kiran, Amaya sails to Blue Sand Isle to seek out Itachi, and answers.

In the wake of her miraculous recovery from the ravages of the Scale, Tenten is ordered by Pein to take some time off. Kisame invites her to his clan's home, an island on the far edge of the Land of Water. Spending time exploring the beaches and jungles of Blackwall Isle - the stronghold of the Hoshigaki Clan - Tenten starts to heal emotionally from her ordeal, but continues to be tormented by thoughts of being hated by her beloved Neji and the possibility that she might never see her young daughters again.

Tenten's vacation is brought to an end when a ship carrying Karui, Samui and Omoi wrecks on Blackwall. Saving the lives of the trio from a savage storm, Tenten is advised by Kisame that the three Cloud ninja are likely searching for their mentor, the missing jinchuuriki of the Hachibi Killer B. Since the Akatsuki are looking for B as well, Tenten plays on Samui's ambitions by posing as a homeless-nin with a rare bloodline. She is invited to join the trio on their search as the first step of eventually being taken back to Kumogakure and taking service there.

Back in Konohagakure, Shikamaru and Choji's routine visit to their friend Ino ends in shock and tragedy when they discover Ino in her quarters bleeding out from a self-inflicted stab wound. Before dying Ino passes her memories on to Shikamaru, who learns that his teammate and friend was betrayed by her cousin Fu and enslaved by Root's master Shimura Danzo. Forced for years to do horrible things in service to Root and prevented by a clan seal from telling anyone about it, Ino reached the end of her rope when she was forced to alter Hinata's memories. With Ino dead and the truth revealed, all three Noble Clans - Nara, Yamanaka and Akimichi - conspire to defect from Konohagakure, fleeing the rule of a Hokage they can no longer support. Leaving the village en masse, the Noble Clans' first stop is Hozuki-jo, the Blood Prison. They release Yakushi Kabuto from captivity and through him reach out to Sasori, seeking to work with the Akatsuki to overthrow Orochimaru's rule.

In the company of Samui, Karui and Omoi, Tenten travels to the gambling center of Tanzaku, where she stumbles across Killer B in disguise. Pursued and interrogated by her quarry, Tenten narrowly manages to preserve her cover. On the way back to Kumogakure Pein and Tobi ambush B with Tenten's help, but the jinchuuriki of the Hachibi displays surprising amounts of knowledge about the Akatsuki's plans, including the fact that Pein is not the true founder of the terrorist organization.

With Tenten in tow B is brought to meet the true master of the Akatsuki, who turns out to be none other than Senju Hashirama, the Shodai Hokage. Having dwelt in hiding since killing Uchiha Madara in the Valley of the End, Hashirama became increasingly dissatisfied with the actions of the Hidden Villages and their treatment of the bijuu, leading to his instructions to Tobi and Pein to create the Akatsuki and reclaim the bijuu. Deciding to help make Hashirama's plan a reality for the sake of his partner the Hachibi, B joins Akatsuki and is partnered with Tenten. Their objective: to capture Naruto and free the Kyuubi.

In Konohagakure, Neji is removed from his position as clan head of the Hyuuga. The clan's elders replace him with Hinata, and order that Azuna and Rika be branded with the Caged Bird Seal. Because Shikaku shared with him the revelations from Ino's memories, Neji knows that Hinata's will is no longer her own. He arranges a diversion to distract Naruto and then kidnaps Hinata, fleeing Konohagakure with her and their children as well as Sakura, Shizune and Juugo. Travelling west to join the Noble Clans, Neji lures Naruto and a chunk of Konohagakure's forces into pursuit.

Meanwhile Amaya reaches Blue Sand Isle and confronts Itachi. She learns that Itachi left the Uchiha clan because of their deliberate efforts to create Mangekou sharingan by compelling promising clan members to murder their newborn daughters. Amaya also learns that her father Kaiba - whom she had been raised to despise as a failure and a drunk - had been ordered to kill her as a baby and refused. Not wanting to believe Itachi, Amaya is forced to accept the truth when Kaiba himself appears before her, resurrected by Orochimaru and sent to kill Itachi and capture her.

Two battles ensue, as Kisame, Kaede and Kiran try to kill the snake that summoned Kaiba. Unfortunately, it is guarded by the resurrected Hokage Hiruzen. At the same time Amaya and Ken flee from her father before being forced into combat. Bolstered by a stolen sharingan that compels other Uchiha, Kaiba forces Amaya to turn on Ken. Ken subdues Amaya and Itachi arrives to strike down Kaiba, but Orochimaru uses Kaiba's control to force Amaya to perform her father's ultimate assassination technique, trapping Amaya, Ken and Itachi in a shrinking ring of fire.

Amaya manages to break the compulsion of her father's eye, transforming one of her Mangekou sharingan to a rinnegan in the process. She uses her Unmei no Ito to send Ken and Itachi to safety, but Orochimaru reveals to her that he engineered Ken's death in the Chuunin Exam to force her to develop the ultimate dojutsu. Amaya tries to flee across dimensions, but Orochimaru plays his trump card, paralyzing Amaya with the same snake venom in her bones that he put there years earlier when he arranged for her to kill Ken. Itachi is returned to the battlefield when Amaya falls, but is unable to prevent Orochimaru from spiriting Amaya away.

Paths begin to converge as Neji's band and the Akatsuki join the army of the Noble Clans, camped on the border between the Lands of Wind and Fire. Tenten and Neji are briefly reunited, but while Neji forgives Tenten for deceiving him, he forbids her to go near their children until she's ready to give up being an Akatsuki. Tenten and Itachi, both anxious to rescue Amaya from Orochimaru's clutches, attempt to engage in battle with Naruto, who leads the forces standing between them and Konohagakure.

Events far away, however bode ill for the Akatsuki. Orochimaru has worked quickly, brainwashing Amaya into 'Yoki', his slavishly obedient 'daughter'. Making clever use of Yoki's Unmei no Ito, the Hokage transports a small army into the heart of Kirigakure, carrying out a decapitating strike on the rebel village and ending the threat Terumi Mei poses.

With the armies of Konohagakure, Iwagakure and Kumogakure no longer needed to fight the war with Kirigakure, Naruto makes use of the Kyuubi's endless chakra to summon the forces of all three villages, hurling them at the vastly outnumbered Noble Clans. The Akatsuki manage to buy enough time for their allies to flee across the Yellow River into the Land of Wind, guided through the desert by a reluctant Temari. Sasori departs, vowing to return in three days' time with enough power to reverse the seemingly hopeless situation...

Chapter 58: The First Child

Sabaku no Temari loved the desert at the heart of the Land of Wind. It had been home her entire life, and her playground since she had been old enough to skim across the dunes with nothing more than blades of air generated from her feet. She loved the desert best at night when the dry, chill air kissed her skin and drew away the heat of the day. Night, when the sky was a shimmering wash of stars, the plants and animals of the dry waste came alive, and the sand turned silver in the moonlight.

The desert, in short, was the closest thing to a holy place that an amoral, irreligious taker of lives like Temari was ever likely to find. More recently she'd found new joy in taking her son out of Sunagakure to discover the desert, teaching him to surf the dunes as her mother had for her before birthing Gaara had taken her life.

Temari's musing was interrupted by a high whistling from above that terminated in the bone-shaking BOOM of a mortar impact nearby along with a flare of orange light in the darkness and a spray of sand, blood and screams. She was aware that her holy place was being desecrated, and she wasn't sure if she was angrier at Sasori of the Red Sand or Orochimaru the Yondaime Hokage for profaning it. But the rage burning in her chest didn't change the orders literally carved into the fabric of her mind by Sasori, so she put aside the fruitless task of assigning blame and drifted down the slope of one dune at speed, driving her chakra through her feet to accelerate up the side of the next and propelling herself high into the air when she reached the crest. She was followed a split-second later by four other Sand ANBU including Poe and Sira, once her students, now Sasori's young disciples. She'd dubbed them the 'chibi Akatsuki'.

Below Temari was a hellish tableau of battle. Rebel shinobi of Konohagakure's three Noble Clans – the Nara, Akimichi and Yamanaka – were fighting a desperate rearguard action against the numerically superior forces of their own village as well as Iwagakure and Kumogakure. That those three villages had dared to invade the Land of Wind pissed Temari off almost as much as Sasori and the damned Ataksuki giving them a reason to. Temari made that displeasure known, filling each hand with a long battle fan, snapping open the serrated steel weapons to reveal the brightly painted silk they concealed. Each fan was painted with the image of a sickle-wielding weasel and the motion of opening the fans made shallow cuts in her fingers. Drops of Temari's blood stained the silk, joining the chakra she fed into the metal. "Kill the invaders, my lovelies," Temari whispered fiercely, swinging both fans downward.

Blades of wind chakra sliced into a knot of Cloud ninja being held off by a stalwart if bloodied pair of armored Akimichi and a handful of Nara and Yamanaka behind them. Neither the Kumogakure shinobi's armor nor their ninjutsu could stop Temari's wind blades, and only a few managed to dodge the near-invisible projectiles. That was only the beginning of the misfortune facing the Allied shinobi who had incurred Temari's wrath, because in the wake of the wind blades came a dozen man-sized weasels, floating on currents of wind born from their own chakra, wearing fierce rodent grins and carrying massive, ugly-looking sickles and scythes. They plowed into the mass of shinobi beyond the range of Temari's own attack, and reaped a bloody harvest. In their wake bisected bodies, detached limbs and severed heads sprayed the white sand with dark blood before falling to meet it. The weasels carved a gory path some thirty meters wide down the length of the front line of Cloud ninja before disappearing in puffs of smoke.

Poe, Sira and the other Sand ANBU charged in the wake of the weasels to take advantage of the chaos their butchery had created. Temari skidded to a stop near the Noble Clans shinobi. With the immediate attack broken, Nara shadows flickered out to impale and crush survivors. The last few Cloud shinobi abruptly turned their weapons on their fellows before falling in behind a trio of blond shinobi, their faces wooden and blank. Temari couldn't help a sympathetic wince; those unfortunates would be Yamanaka mind slaves for the rest of their undoubtedly short lives.

"Thanks for the help," one of the Akimichi called out to Temari. He was a burly man with a wild mane of graying red hair. His partner, an equally stout kunoichi who was probably his wife, nodded her thanks as well.

"Don't… don't thank me," Temari managed. She wanted to say more, to berate these foolish Leaf rebels for bringing their stupid, hopeless war to her desert. Sasori's obedience seals were exquisitely crafted however, and they'd punish her for being unpleasant to his allies. So Temari held her tongue rather than suffer bouts of nausea. Sometimes she hated herself for how little she fought the obedience seals after years under Sasori's thumb, but a battlefield was no place for introspection so she shook off the despair that occasionally threatened. "The main force has withdrawn," Temari said after a pause, pointing south and west. "Go catch up, we'll keep an eye on this front."

The Noble Clans force withdrew quickly. Poe and Sira skated back out of the Allied shinobi formation before it could retaliate, and Temari accelerated to join them, fleeing as they had for the past three days with a vast shinobi army in hot pursuit. They'd held off from being overrun by the Allied force in a fighting retreat, and bled them for each dune they crossed. But the Noble Clans had lost almost a fifth of their fighting shinobi in the process, and the dozen Sand ANBU Sasori had left Temari with were down to just the four flying across the sand ahead of her.

Several kilometers to the north a vast, constant rumbling was audible from where the Akatsuki were fighting the main body of the Allied army and their leader, the jinchuuriki Namikaze Naruto. Glancing in that direction Temari could see lightning falling in sheets from a clear sky. She shivered, glad that at least her duty was supporting the outer elements of the rearguard rather than being anywhere near that.

"The preparations are complete."

Sasori's eyes snapped open at the words. He rose fluidly to his feet despite having spent hours sitting on the bare stone floor, deep in contemplation. "Then let us begin; there is no time to waste."

The slender, almost cadaverous figure who had addressed Sasori nodded, his eerie purple eyes glowing in the dimness of the cavern around them. Sasori had followed Pein as a member of the Akatsuki for many years, but he had only seen the Leader's real body a handful of times. When the true wielder of the Rinnegan moved, it was with the occasional hesitation and wince. The long metal rods jutting from holes in the back of his robe provided more than ample explanation for his awkward gait.

Pein's steps were was slow as he turned and led Sasori out of the antechamber and deeper into a section of the base the spymaster had never seen before. They passed through Pein and Konan's personal quarters, through the room where the Six Paths slept in individual alcoves. Sasori watched the Leader open a hidden door in the wall and followed him down winding stone stairs lit by odd, glowing green crystals that seemed to grow from the thick wooden roots adorning the walls. At the bottom of the stairs they emerged onto a wide stone ledge overlooking a vast cave filled with an underground lake and enshrouded with thick tree roots that coated the ceiling, walls and lake bed.

Sasori drew a sharp breath. "The Cave of the First Life," he exhaled softly. "Well, it's a good place to grow the Children. I always thought this place was a myth, and all these years we've been living on top of it." He looked at Pein sharply. "You kept this hidden from even me all of these years? Why?"

"My students kept this sanctuary a secret at my request, Sasori of the Red Sand." A desiccated voice spoke from behind Sasori, and the spymaster wheeled in shock. Upon entering he hadn't sensed any presence other than the cave's natural energy and Pein's potent chakra. A hunched-over figure emerged from the shadows, leaning on a cane and trailing a long, fleshy tendril of wood that was fused into his back and connected him to the throne formed from living roots on the far side of the ledge.

Sasori recognized the face in an instant, even though it was lined and spotted with age. "Senju Hashirama," he said, failing to conceal his surprise. Wheels turned quickly in the spymaster's mind, processing this new information. "'Your students' are Tobi and Pein?" Sasori guessed.

Hashirama nodded. "You were right, Pein; he is a clever one."

Sasori crossed his arms. "You controlled all the bijuu before the shinobi villages even formed; why not enact the Akatsuki's plans a century ago, before so many lives were lost and so much blood was shed over the power of the bijuu?" His tone was faintly accusatory towards the end.

"Sasori," Pein growled warningly, his thin but powerful hand falling on the puppeteer's shoulder.

"It's all right, Pein," Hashirama murmured in his voice like dust. "I deserve such recrimination." He looked at Sasori squarely. "In my youth I did what I thought was right; I had more faith in humanity than I do now. I believed the power of the bijuu could be used responsibly if it was split between the factions of shinobi that were starting to form even then." He sighed. "Orochimaru has given me ample cause to regret that decision. I bade Pein and Tobi to create the Akatsuki to remedy my error."

Sasori was silent for a moment before sighing. "Further debate will have to wait, I suppose." He turned back to Pein. "Do what we came here for."

"Are you certain you wish to rush the bonding this way?" Pein asked with concern in his voice. "Given just a few more days I can form your bond with the First Child the way it was meant to be done."

Sasori shook his head. "Our friends and allies don't have the luxury of days. It must be done now."

Pein frowned. "The procedure will hurt, Sasori, and the pain will never fade entirely. You will suffer for the remainder of your days. Your body is not adapted to bear the implants as mine is."

"Our fellow Akatsuki are fighting for their lives as we speak," Sasori replied evenly. "All three of my apprentices do battle in the Land of Wind; one or more may already be dead. I will not wait. If I must carry a penance for haste…" Sasori shrugged. "Well, there are many sins in my past to justify that. Do it."

Pein nodded gravely. "Very well; let us begin." He raised his hands, and the cavern shook. Gently at first, then with more force as the Demonic Statue of the Outer Path emerged from the ground, taking up most of the ledge when it was fully revealed. It extended its hands, and Pein guided Sasori to the right palm. "Lay down," he instructed, and the puppeteer complied.

Meanwhile, Hashirama stepped up to the edge of the platform. The natural chakra of the cave pulsed as he raised one emaciated hand. Splashes from the lake below were followed by a massive root rising from the depths, tipped with a pod that glowed faintly. The root positioned itself over the left hand of the statue. The pod burst open, depositing its contents in the statue's left hand.

What was revealed was a Zetsu, though it was neither white nor black. Instead its short, spiky hair was pale blue, and its skin was tan with blue whorls of the same color decorating it from head to toe. Its eyes were closed and the slow rise and fall of its chest was the only sign that it was alive.

Hashirama moved to stand on one side of Sasori while Pein stood on the other. In his hand Pein held a pair of slender metal rods that absorbed light, smaller versions of the ones that jutted from his back. "You must form the sockets, sensei," Pein murmured. "Else the damage to the surrounding tissue will kill him."

Hashirama nodded calmly. "This will hurt a great deal, I am afraid," the Shodai Hokage apologized. "Brace yourself, Sasori of the Red Sand."

Sasori watched as two fingers of Hashirama's right hand turned from wrinkled flesh into smooth wood, their tips sharpening to narrow points. Those fingers were carefully positioned just above eye level. Sasori had only a moment to understand what was about to happen before the wooden fingers started to grow. The prick when they pierced the skin of his forehead was followed by a sharper pain as they bored through the bone of his skull. Then they pierced the dura mater and the agony really started.

Sasori screamed as Hashirama's fingers slowly bored into his head. While the brain itself was immune to pain, what Hashirama was doing was affecting his chakra network, and the invasion produced its own kind of discomfort. Through the pain he was distantly aware that he should be dead, but the natural chakra pouring into his skull was actually shifting the tissues of his frontal lobes instead of piercing them.

The pain made the procedure seem lengthy, but after just a few minutes Hashirama withdrew his fingers. Sasori felt slight trickles of blood on his face, but nothing like the amount such wide punctures should have produced. As soon as Hashirama was done, the pair of black spikes in Pein's hand leapt into the air, positioned themselves over the holes in Sasori's forehead, and slid home in the cavities. That hurt as well, but when Hashirama pressed his hand to Sasori's forehead, much of the pain faded in a wave of healing chakra that surprised Sasori in its intensity. It was magnitudes or order more potent than he could manage on his best day, and it was coming from a shinobi well into his sixteenth decade of life.

When the Shodai Hokage lifted his hand, a sharp headache pulsed through Sasori's skull in time with his heartbeat, but the agony of the implantation was gone. "The rest is your task," Hashirama said to Pein.

The Leader of the Akatsuki nodded, turning his gaze up to the massive statue. He waved a hand, and the statue's mouth opened with a groan. A torrent of dense reddish chakra poured forth from its maw, and Pein held his hands out to either side. Obedient to its master's will, the statue's gout of chakra split. Most of the chakra poured into the unmoving Zetsu in its left hand, while a smaller stream flowed down almost delicately to touch the two metal stubs now fused into Sasori's skull.

Shukaku's chakra inflicted a different, more familiar kind of pain on Sasori; having known multiple jinchuuriki of the Ichibi he was familiar with the sensation of its chakra second-hand, but as it poured into his body and flooded his chakra network, he got his first direct taste. Tenten had once described it to him as akin to the underside of one's skin being scoured with sandpaper, and he found the description apt. Still, it was barely a tickle compared to what he had just experienced, and he endured with gritted teeth.

Time lost meaning for Sasori in the flowing waves of power. As an adult with a fully formed chakra network, anything approaching the full measure of Shukaku's power would have killed him if he were foolish enough to attempt to absorb it. Most of the power he was receiving would remain within the metal rods invading his skull, but enough of it was mingling with his own chakra to attune him to Shukaku's essence, and in the transfer, more than just power poured into his mind.

Shukaku's first memories were of being young and small and awkward, gazing up with loving eyes at the imposing yet kind figure of the Rikudo Sennin. When the bijuu spread across the globe at their creator's behest, Shukaku chose the vast desert to the south as his home, eons before it had been the Land of Wind. Shukaku grew older, wiser and larger while roaming the dunes. Long after reaching his full growth he first witnessed tiny, frail creatures venture into the desert, wrapped in cloth to shield their delicate hides from the sun. At first they feared Shukaku and avoided him, for his strangeness and size frightened them.

In time, however, some of the braver humans approached him. Shukaku knew nothing of mortals and their belief in the kami in that ancient era, so while he tolerated their presence trailing in his wake as he wandered the desert he didn't understand at first what it was to be worshipped. Both the Rikudo Sennin and his fellow bijuu had exchanged thoughts and ideas through pulses of chakra. It wasn't until descendants of Shukaku's original worshippers were born with chakra of their own – imparted by his presence near their mothers as they grew in the womb – that he was able to understand first the concept of spoken language, and then of his status as their deity.

Nothing the Rikudo Sennin had taught Shukaku prepared him for being worshipped, but after watching over 'his' humans for so many years – driving away others who sought to harm them, guiding them to hidden oases and using his power to shield them from the desert's fiercest storms – he came to believe that protecting them would not disappoint his father and creator. It amused Shukaku to watch the tiny mortals paint dark circles around their eyes and tattoo their pale skin with imitations of the blue whorls on his hide. Communion with the priests who possessed chakra of their own made the years less lonely for Shukaku, and he taught them to use their power to manipulate the winds as he did.

Time passed, and on the northern edge of the desert other tribes of men settled down to farm arable land. They built city-states, warred with one another, and formed alliances that became small nations. To the south on the edge of the vast ocean, the same thing was happening. Coastal cities grew as men became more adept at building ships and braving the seas. Eventually, a great lord from the north unified every city-state under his rule, then marched south along the Yellow River and conquered the trade cities on the coast. The warring consumed all of his life and much of his son's, but when the last battle was fought, the Land of Wind was born. Only the great central desert and the bijuu-worshipping nomads who lived there remained free of the Wind Daimyo's control.

The end of Shukaku's people began after a schism in his self-appointed clergy. Ambitious young priests of the nomads turned their backs on their faith, leaving the desert behind. In the Wind Daimyo's court they found favor and power, for generations in the bijuu's shadow had made the wind chakra in their blood strong. The daimyo promised the renegades even greater influence and wealth if they could bring the desert and its people under his rule.

Reto, the youthful priest who led the renegades, took up the challenge. He knew that Shukaku's presence and protection were all that shielded the desert nomads, for they were too few and primitive to resist the daimyo's army. Steeping himself in the forbidden lore of other lands, Reto learned of a ritual used to contain Shukaku's kin. Lying with the Wind Daimyo's youngest daughter, Reto fathered a child upon her before returning to the desert with his fellows and his pregnant wife. Confessing repentance and asking forgiveness, Reto and his band were welcomed back into the fold by their kin.

Reto bided his time until his wife's time of birthing grew near. When that day arrived Reto and his allies turned on the loyal priesthood – often their own family members – and slaughtered them. Shukaku's anger was great, but so was his puzzlement. He hesitated to strike down the traitors, for he still saw in them 'his' people. He wished to understand their decisions, but all they desired was his power. Reto's dark ritual destroyed a piece of his unborn child's soul, and all of Shukaku's strength availed him not in resisting the pull of the spiritual void that resulted. His own soul and chakra were drawn into the womb of Reto's wife, repairing the grievous damage done to the infant inside and creating his first jinchuuriki; his first prison.

Shukaku slumbered for years after the first binding, and when he awoke to see the world through his young prison's eyes it filled him with horror and despair. Most of the desert nomads had been slaughtered; the survivors were enslaved by the Wind Daimyo and toiled away in the Land of Wind's quarries to hew the stone with which the daimyo built monuments to his greatness. Their culture and history were forgotten. Reto and fellow renegade priests, now calling themselves 'shinobi', had built a village they called Sunagakure deep in the desert. Reto was known by then as the Shodai Kazekage, and answered only to the Wind Daimyo himself.

The years that followed were a parade of misery for Shukaku. Most of the shinobi of Sunagakure were descendants of his tribe, but Reto succeeded in erasing the truth of their past. Few of them knew who they had once been, and viewed his prison with a mixture of awe and fear. Shukaku took little joy in witnessing Reto being betrayed and murdered by the man who would take his place, the Nidaime Kazekage Shamon. When Shukaku's first prison died he fought to free himself but was bound into another vessel and another after that. Despair ate at the bijuu's mind, and he became ever more savage and feral, until little remained of the gentle child brought into being by the Rikudo Sennin.

When the flow of red chakra from the statue faded and Sasori could think again, he turned his head to look at the Zetsu lying on the statue's other hand. He saw its eyes open, black sclera with four-pointed gold pupils gleaming in the center. He knew in the instant their eyes met that even as he had been reliving Shukaku's long span of existence, Shukaku had been experiencing his life in turn. When Sasori climbed to his feet, so too did Shukaku. The bijuu was unsteady in his new body at first, but when his lips parted he spoke clearly.

"Those are the people you love, the people you want to protect." Shukaku growled as he stepped forward to face Sasori. "They are nothing but the get of betrayers." The bijuu snorted. "You really believed that the Shodai Kazekage was somehow 'better' than the last few? They were all monsters, Sasori. The madness of the Sabaku didn't make them any worse than those who came before. They were only less precise in whom they hurt."

Sasori accepted Shukaku's derision and burning anger calmly. "It would seem that even I, who prided myself on knowing so much, was unaware of certain truths. The victors write the histories, and the Shodai Kazekage appears to have buried a multitude of sins. But yes. Sunagakure is my home, its people are my people, and I will do whatever I have to if it ensures their safety."

"Those people were accessories to my long imprisonment," Shukaku snarled. "So were you. Even without your memories I know you, Sasori. I saw you through the eyes of my prison. Never did you express a concern about my suffering."

Sasori spread his hands. "When I still served Sunagakure, what did I know of you, Shukaku? What I was taught, what I read; lies, in summary. Reto did the work of hiding the truth well, even from someone as inquisitive as I."

"This is the man you intend to be my Guide?" Shukaku demanded of Hashirama angrily. "No," he shook his head. "Pick another."

"Who would you have me choose, Shukaku?" Hashirama asked calmly. "None of the other Akatsuki possesses Sasori's knowledge of the domain that shall be yours to protect."

Sasori stepped forward, his hand falling on Shukaku's shoulder. He could feel the bijuu's rage. "Having lived your life through your eyes, I understand all too well your distaste for me personally and Sunagakure in general. Answer me this, though. You have seen my life through my eyes now, not just the warped perspective your jinchuuriki afforded you. Do the people of Sunagakure deserve to suffer and perish for the crimes of their ancestors?"

"I have seen your memories, Sasori," Shukaku responded angrily, "so I know why you rushed into this bond; I know what you want me to do. Why should I? What will it change, even if we succeed?" Shukaku's long fingers, which ended in wicked claws, closed into fists. "What makes you think this latest Sabaku to wear the Kazekage's mantle will be any different than the last three of his blood?"

"I believe Kankuro can be better," Sasori replied, "and if not I will stand over him and make him be a better man until he can be succeeded."

Shukaku spat in disgust; Sasori noted with interest that the gobbet of fluid ate into the stone it landed on with a soft hiss. "Why should I care about that village, Sasori? Give me a reason."

"Beyond the simple fact that it will most likely be home to your Guides going forward, I suppose you don't have much reason to care. But you should care about opposing the tyranny that grips the other villages. Orochimaru still holds your brother the Kyuubi in bondage through his son Naruto. The Hachibi and its host fight to free him as we speak. Will you do less?"

"Kurama can take care of himself," Shukaku replied dismissively.

Sasori shook his head sadly. "It would seem Reto won after all."

"What did you say?" Shukaku bristled.

"His cruelties succeeded, it seems. He's made you cold and hard." Sasori glanced at Pein. "Shukaku's right, this isn't going to work. I'm going to return to the desert and make what difference I can. You should alert Hidan and prepare the Second Child." He saw the alarm and confusion in the Leader's expression, but Hashirama seemed to understand, quieting his student with a touch. "It's a shame, Shukaku," Sasori said as his gaze returned to the fuming bijuu. "In those memories of yours I felt such love for your brothers and sisters, before time and human greed changed you. I had hoped to earn the right to be called your brother one day." Sasori turned his back on the bijuu and headed for the door.

"Wait." Sasori paused at Shukaku's voice. "My archons are ready?"

"They await only your summons," Hashirama confirmed.

Sasori felt a clawed hand fall on his shoulder. "Those mechanical wings of yours won't get you anywhere in time to make a difference, puppeteer." The bijuu's chakra surged, and sand swirled around both men. With his back still turned to Shukaku, Sasori allowed himself a slight smile before the lurch of transport knocked him off-balance.

In a covered wagon that lurched and tilted as it rolled across the sand dunes of the Land of Wind, oil lanterns shed light and a bit of heat against the desert's pre-dawn chill. Inside the passengers were quiet, watching a middle-aged man whose long yellow hair was streaked with gray work over an unconscious young woman with dark hair and a lush body shrouded in expensive clothing, as befitted a clan head. Manacles around her wrists and ankles secured her to the floor of the wagon. When awake she had been less than cooperative; she had been kidnapped, after all.

In one corner of the wagon the twins Azuna and Rika were asleep, curled up against their father Hyuuga Neji as he watched Yamanaka Inoichi labor over his cousin and adoptive sister, Hyuuga Hinata. The patriarch of the clan of mind readers was attempting to undo the conditioning that his daughter Ino had been coerced into implanting in Hinata's mind. Ino was dead now, having committed suicide as a means of warning her family and friends of what she was being compelled to do. Her death and her prior enslavement by Shimura Danzo of Root had set in motion the defection of the three historically allied Noble Clans – Nara, Yamanaka and Akimichi – from Konohagakure.

In another corner of the wagon sat a kunoichi with heavy facial scars and a shaved head. Her name was Haruno Sakura and in her arms was a sleeping blond baby named Tomaru, Hinata's son by Namikaze Naruto. In a third corner of the wagon, a petite woman with short raven hair was dwarfed by a massive redhead, sitting in his lap and looking like a child by comparison, for all that Kato Shizune and Juugo were husband and wife. The last corner held a napping young Inuzuka named Min, her large, shaggy ninken curled up against her.

Veins stood out around Neji's eyes, and his gaze was faraway as he took in the battle raging behind and around the fast-moving wagon train. With his byakugan he could see a group of Rock and Leaf shinobi approaching the right flank. Outnumbering the defenders badly, they quickly began pressing through the defensive perimeter surrounding the noncombatants and supplies. "The right flank is going to collapse soon," Neji murmured.

Inoichi looked up for a moment, his face tight with the same fatigue they were all feeling. "There are no more reserves," he replied bleakly. "What are those Akatsuki doing?"

"The Akatsuki are the only reason the rearguard isn't being overrun," Neji replied. The main battle between the Akatsuki – including his wife Tenten – and the main body of the allied shinobi army trying to kill them all was on the edge of his vision range, and it hurt to look at too closely. With his byakugan active Neji could see chakra, and the flares of it in and around the main battle were painfully bright.

So far in the flight through the Land of Wind's deserts Neji's concern had been the safety of his children, cousin and nephew, but if the pursuing army broke through there would be no safety for any of them. "I'll go shore up the flank," he murmured before gently extricating himself from the grasp of Azuna and Rika without waking them. Min stirred to alertness at the movement and at Neji's nod she scooped up the toddlers.

"Not alone," Sakura replied, handing off Tomaru to Shizune even as Juugo nodded silently and slipped his bulk out of the back of the wagon with Neji and Sakura followed in his wake. Outside of the wagon the distant sounds of combat were louder, but the main battle was not their concern; the Noble Clans and the Akatsuki had that under control for the moment. Neji broke into a sprint to the northwest where the right flank was collapsing, and both the diminutive, scarred medic and the red-haired behemoth followed in his wake.

Cresting the next dune Neji could see the overwhelmed Noble Clans shinobi falling back in the face of superior numbers. They were already in a fighting retreat up the slope of the dune. Neji's eyes narrowed in distaste at their opponents: a mix of Rock shinobi and Root regulars from Konohagakure. Turning his gaze skyward for a moment, Neji looked up at the three-quarters waxing moon shining amid the stars above. Standing in its silvery radiance Neji could feel a throbbing pulse in his chakra network, almost like a second heartbeat. During the day and on nights when the moon hid her face the pulse faded, but the larger her luminous surface, the faster and stronger the lunar chakra beat as it flowed through his body.

Letting loose the chakra blocks he maintained in his own network whenever he was awake at night, Neji heard shouts of awe from his allies below and dismay from the attackers as his whole body began to shine with the same argent light as the moon above. "You've already got them shaking in their boots, 'Prince of the Moon'," Sakura observed, prompting a groan from Neji. He'd only taken part in a few nighttime sorties and skirmishes so far, but the sarcastic moniker Sakura had stuck him with seemed to have spread through the ranks of both armies.

"Don't pretend you aren't enjoying this," Neji growled. Turning his gaze back down to the approaching enemies Neji raised his hands, and the Noble Clans shinobi climbing the dunes wisely hit the sand, or at least crouched. A moment later lances of argent light flew over their heads to rake the enemy shinobi. Most didn't even have time to scream as the energy blasts cut through their ranks like hot knives through butter. With his byakugan tracking every enemy before him and ally below, Neji eradicated the entire attack force in seconds before the jets of light from his hands faded.

"Well that was horrifying. As usual," Sakura noted clinically, surveying the dismembered bodies with cauterized cuts clean across them littering the sand.

Panting a bit from the sudden and drastic exertion of his chakra, Neji was about to issue a cutting reply when he noticed the sand suddenly boiling and shifting all around the dune where they stood with the surviving Yamanaka, Nara and Akimichi. "Not over yet," he gasped, looking underground with his byakugan and wincing at what he saw. "This was a feint; a test to see what we'd do."

As Sakura and Juugo gave him puzzled looks, hundreds of shinobi literally boiled up out of the sand in every direction. All wore the red and brown of Iwagakure, and most were also adorned with the golden knots of rank that signified jounin in the Rock village. Quickly scanning the corpses he'd just created, Neji noted only a handful of gold knots. "They sent in the cannon fodder to draw out the convoy's last defenders," he realized, cursing himself for not checking under the sand before revealing himself.

Neji set himself for the fight to come when a new movement from above caught his expanded vision. "Scatter!" he yelled, suiting action to words by tackling Sakura, both of them rolling down the back of the dune as pale light erupted from the night sky. Juugo followed Neji's lead, surfing down the back of the dune after them, but the surviving Noble Clans shinobi didn't react fast enough, and a falling cube of ephemeral light with a bright spot in its core engulfed them. When the cube vanished as quickly as it had arrived, not only the shinobi but the entire top of the dune were simply gone.

"That was the Dust Release!" Sakura gasped as she got to her feet, shaking off sand from their tumble. Neji nodded grimly as the trio looked up to see a tiny old man in richly embroidered robes and a bald head save for a white topknot. He was floating in midair, the wind whipping at his garments.

"It's been so long since I've had the pleasure of killing Leaf shinobi personally," the Sandaime Tsuchikage Onoki jeered. "Goodbye, rebels."

The old man's hands rose and a pinprick of deadly light formed and expanded between them. Neji cursed the fact that there was nowhere else to run, not fast enough to avoid Onoki's infamous voids of annihilation. "His power resonates with natural chakra!" Juugo called out.

So does mine! Neji completed the thought instantly. Onoki's power burst forth as a thick beam this time, aimed at the three of them. Neji retaliated with the strongest lunar chakra blast he could manage, praying it would work. Where the Dust Release and the lunar chakra met they splashed off of one another in a dazzling spray of silver and white light. Neither broke through, and neither ceased. Neji could see the shock on Onoki's face, but the old man kept pouring on the power, and he did the same. Their dueling energy blasts were deadlocked, and Neji could see instantly that whichever of them faltered first would be unable to avoid annihilation.

"What are you morons waiting for? Kill him!" Onoki snarled to his men. The Rock shinobi shook off their surprise at the awesome display before them and charged. Neji was entirely focused on the wild lunar chakra pouring forth from his hands, too much so to even move. Thankfully he was not alone. Sakura and Juugo stepped between him and the Rock ninja.

The attacking shinobi had a choice in their path to reaching Neji: charge a monstrous behemoth of a man whose skin was darkening to gray as he swelled past three meters of height, grew another set of arms and transformed all four of his hands into wicked axes… or take on a tiny woman with no visible weapons. Those shinobi could thus be forgiven for making the last unwise choice of their lives.

Sakura's back was to Neji, but his byakugan showed him the snarl of rage that crossed her face as she blurred into motion. The torso of the first Rock ninja she punched disintegrated into a cloud of gore and bone, and fragments of the latter hit the shinobi behind him with enough force to fell half a dozen more. Sakura followed up with a high kick that exploded the skull of a bulky for. Half a dozen more closed in from all directions, so her next blow was directed straight down. The shockwave and accompanying torrent of sand drove them back, and before the grains could fall Sakura burst through their obscuring veil and resumed her grisly slaughter. Wading into the enemy ranks Sakura couldn't avoid every enemy attack, and accumulated a number of serious wounds, but the injuries only made her pause for a moment to tap the center of her broad forehead with one finger. A black diamond like the one that had graced Senju Tsunade's brow appeared there, and the bleeding holes and gashes adorning her pale skin simply sealed themselves back up as she continued the fight.

I didn't know she could do that… Neji mused. He knew Sakura had spent a lot of time with Shizune learning more of Senju Tsunade's secrets, but he hadn't been aware her skill had grown so much in a short time. The expression of mingled rage and glee on Sakura's blood-spattered face as she carved through Iwagakure's ranks, however, was less of a surprise. Neji understood as all of Sakura's close friends did that the horrors and abuse visited on her by Namikaze Naruto – followed by years of his crimes being ignored while she was forced to keep quiet and pretend nothing was wrong – had broken something inside the bubbly, happy girl they remembered from the Shinobi Academy. Most of the time her rage was hidden under her stoic exterior, and certainly her patients never saw that side of her, but in serious fights like this one the emotions Sakura repressed since the first time Naruto had raped her came out, and wise men simply got out of her way.

Juugo's opponents were faring no better. In Neji's experience, men who were very big and very strong were usually very slow as well. Pile enough muscle on a man and eventually he'll lose speed and flexibility. Juugo defied that rule, as well as possibly the definition of a 'man'. Fully transformed, he was more of a force of nature. The axe-blades that all four of his arms terminated in blurred, and where they approached whole men, they left split bodies and severed limbs in their wake. Watching Juugo fight was unnerving, the more so because the smile on his face spoke little of his usual compassion or even sanity. His eyes, however, remained human. Juugo had gravely warned his allies that if his sclera turned black, they would no longer be safe near him.

Thus, two shinobi held off dozens at a time while Neji's power dueled with the Tsuchikage's, and soon the sands beneath their feet were so soaked with blood that it ran down the dune in rivulets. Their defense couldn't last forever, though. Sakura and Juugo could only be in two places at once. Eventually some of the Rock ninja worked their way around the pair and charged the wagons full of supplies and noncombatants.

Not my children, Neji resolved grimly. Shizune, Min and Inoichi were in the nearest wagon, but he couldn't rely on them to hold off that many troops. Turning ninety degrees, Neji pulled one hand back from his stalemate with Onoki and extended it towards the Rock ninja nearing the caravan. His power sliced through dozens in less than a second and drove the rest into retreat.

In that moment however Onoki pressed his advantage and the Dust Release bore down with relentless force. Before Neji could turn back to deploy the full might of his lunar chakra the fulcrum of their terrible duel moved too close. Neji watched his left hand disintegrate in the furious light of the Dust Release. He bit back a cry of pain, and braced himself for oblivion. But instead of the Dust Release's light, he was enveloped in hissing, writhing darkness. Clutching his left arm to his chest, Neji's byakugan showed him what ordinary eyes could never have perceived. Countless grains of dark sand were erupting from the dunes around him and forming themselves into a constant spray that met the Dust Release and consumed its disintegrating energy, frustrating its advance.

Neji felt slender hands on his shoulders, and was pulled into a shunshin. When the world stopped blurring his knees buckled, and he was eased down to the ground next to the wagons by a plain-faced young woman with brown hair, shrouded in a black cloak with red clouds. "You held the line long enough," the stranger murmured. "It's our turn now."

"Sira, we've got work to do!" That shouted reminder came from a stocky young man in an identical cloak with softly glowing threads of chakra extending from his outstretched hands. One was connected to a puppet wearing the uniform of the Kazekage, the numeral '3' on the front of its arched hat. With the other hand he was controlling four more puppets that were reinforcing Sakura and Juugo.

"I'm coming, Poe," Sira replied, darting back into the melee.

As Shizune emerged from the wagon and started tending to the cauterized stump of his left hand, Neji watched the new arrivals turn the tide of the battle. The strange puppet that was dressed like a Kazekage seemed to give Poe the power to draw grains of iron from the sand and direct them. That might not have been enough to frustrate Onoki on its own, but the old man was also forced to dodge and weave through the air. Even with the byakugan it took Neji a moment to spot yet another puppet, this one resembling a hand-sized flying scorpion. It was zipping about trying to sting the old man, venom dripping from its spiked tail and claws.

The tiny flying puppet was amazingly agile, and it only had to make contact once. With the Kazekage puppet protecting him from the Dust Release, Poe had the time he needed. Eventually the flying puppet scratched the fleeing Tsuchikage with one of its claws. Discolorations spread along the surface of Onoki's skin in seconds. Neji's byakugan showed him the instant the old man's heart gave out and he fell from the sky.

Sira unclasped her cloak and let it fall before entering the fight. Underneath she wore no clothing, but her body was wrapped from neck to toe in writhing, animated wood. As Neji watched the living armor sent out tendrils into the sand, breaking off from her body. Each one quickly sprouted into a pale, woody clone of the girl, and while she slipped a pair of cat claws onto her fists, the clones simply grew long fingers with wicked talons. Original and clones alike met the Rock ninja and exacted a gruesome toll. Sira laughed as she fought, glee in her eyes at the simple joy of cutting down Rock ninja, and she seemed as impervious to wounds as Sakura. Even being run through completely didn't do much more than slow her down for a few seconds.

As the adrenaline of combat faded, Neji really started to feel the pain radiating out from his wrist. "Regeneration is faster the sooner after the injury it's done," Shizune told him calmly, "but I'll have to put you under. Let's get you back into the wagon."

Neji shook his head. "There's no time, and I don't want the girls to see this. Just give me a sling and a painkiller."

"Neji…" Shizune began with a frown.

He shook his head again, raising his good hand and pointing south. "The Akatsuki's reinforcements have arrived. I can see them now. That means I need to be conscious a while longer. Just get me on my feet."

Muttering bad words under her breath about stubborn, obstinate males, Shizune bandaged the stump and bound it across his chest. Then she jabbed him in the neck with a senbon tipped with something that made the pain fade. Neji almost felt like he was floating as Shizune helped him to his feet. "If you're doing this I'm coming with you; otherwise you'll fall flat on your face. Where are we going?"

"Not far," Neji murmured, "just up onto that ridge there." He pointed to a rocky spar jutting up out of the sand; most of the convoy of wagons was halted in its shadow. Suiting action to word, he headed for the ridge at a walking pace with Shizune beside him.

When Shukaku's swirling sands faded they were replaced by darkness and noise. Sasori took a wary step back as a kunai whistled past his face. He felt a bit naked without his puppet armor, but while he'd rebuilt it after the fight with Fu, he hadn't worn it to the bonding and Shukaku had given him no time to prepare. Shrugging mentally, Sasori let a pair of scrolls drop from his sleeves and unroll as they fell down the dune on which he stood. Dozens of puppets leapt forth in puffs of smoke and pale white threads connected them to his body. The ache of the implants in his skull was an unwelcome distraction, but he pushed past it.

Assessing the battlefield around him, Sasori drew a few puppets bearing massive shields to stand around him, while the lighter, more offensively oriented mannequins waded into combat. He split his force in three directions, sending one group to back up Hidan and Kakuzu, another to reinforce Itachi and Kisame, and a third to relieve Tenten and Killer B. The latter pairs were trading off, with one utilizing wide-effect ninjutsu to keep the Allied army at bay while the other defended and picked off any enemy shinobi who got too close. Hidan and Kakuzu were reinforcing the retreating defensive line of the Noble Clans, moving rapidly to plug gaps and drive back assaults wherever the forces of Konohagakure, Iwagakure or Kumogakure threatened to break through. Deidara was aloft and riding a bird crafted from dark clay that made him nearly invisible against the backdrop of stars as he bombed the Allied shinobi.

In a blur of motion Tenten appeared by Sasori's side. Even with her face shaped from steel he could see the fatigue dragging at her. The sword gripped in her hand gleamed faintly with the light of its own chakra; blood and gore stained the sands at their feet when she gave it a flick. "Good to see you sensei," she murmured, "and you, Shukaku-sama."

Shukaku snorted at the honorific. "I remember you," he growled. "You look different, but you were there when Gaara died. I could feel your chakra and Sasori's smothering his." He sniffed the air. "Your chakra is different now."

"The Hokage did his best to cripple me not long ago, and afterward I was offered a kind of rebirth," Tenten replied politely. "That sort of thing leaves a mark."

"We can compare notes later," Sasori gently chided his pupil and new partner. "Where is Namikaze Naruto?"

"Here and there," Tenten replied grimly. "He keeps-" she turned sharply as purple light flared on a high dune half a kilometer to the south. Tenten blurred and vanished again, appearing in front of Killer B and swinging her sword. The blade met a brilliantly shining marble of purple light and deflected it back into the ranks of the attacking army. When it met flesh it punched through the bodies of four Cloud ninja in a row before exploding violently and killing a dozen more.

"He keeps doing that," Tenten explained when she returned to Sasori's side. "Trying to pick one of us off; he knows we're the only thing keeping his troops from overrunning the Noble Clans."

"Interesting," Sasori murmured. "Well, let's see if we can't pull his teeth, shall we?"

Shukaku scowled. He was about to speak when the air shimmered behind him, and a Cloud jounin abandoning the cover of a stealth jutsu lunged at his back with a cracking blade in hand. Sasori's lips parted to call out a warning, but Shukaku was already moving. He caught the weapon in his bare hand, and the electrified blade that should have sliced his fingers clean off simply stopped. Without changing expression Shukaku backhanded the stunned shinobi, and Sasori winced at the wet 'crack' of a broken neck. Shukaku turned away as the corpse rolled down the dune behind them. "As I was going to say before that interruption, I suppose you expect me to deal with Kurama's vessel and this well-armed rabble?" His tone was dry and directly challenging, his gold eyes boring into Sasori.

The puppeteer shook his head. "Subduing Naruto is Tenten's task, alongside Gyuki and his vessel. We would appreciate your aid in driving this invading army from the land that will be yours to safeguard, Shukaku." Sasori flicked his fingers absently, sending a few puppets to intercept a Leaf squad trying to close in on them.

"What if I make use of this freedom you have given me, Sasori? Say that I choose not to intervene? Choose not to be used by you, as I have been used for centuries?" Shukaku inquired sharply. Sasori saw Tenten recoil slightly in surprise, and held up a hand before she could retort.

"You could do that, yes. Our bond only allows us to share thoughts and experiences. I cannot compel you to do anything. You ask what happens if you choose to do nothing? Good men and women will die." Sasori nodded to the forces of the Noble Clans arrayed below them. "Shinobi who were betrayed by their leader and dared to stand up against him will perish. A man every bit as perfidious as the Shodai Kazekage will win." He glanced at Tenten, who was scowling at the bijuu. "If you do nothing, the lives lost tonight will pale in comparison to the terror that will follow. Orochimaru has captured a young kunoichi possessing a rinnegan. If he is not stopped he will eventually claim that power as his own. Among other things, I suspect he will use it to bring your brothers and sisters to heel and put them back in mortal prisons under his control."

Shukaku studied Sasori for a moment. The spymaster could feel the bijuu examining his memories, and did nothing to resist it. "You speak of an Uchiha… one of yours?"

"Amaya is my student," Tenten replied promptly, "a daughter of my spirit, if not my blood. I will see her freed… but if this battle is lost I may fall here, and even if I survive, I cannot face the fury of Konohagakure alone and succeed."

"Hmmph," Shukaku muttered, looking out over the raging battle. He did not speak again, but after a moment he raised his hands. A deafening roar rose to drown out all other sound on the battlefield. Sasori knew what was coming and simply flipped up the hood of his cloak. The lines of battle pulled apart as both sides tried to identify the growing sound. Suddenly fighting was no longer anyone's primary concern as the warring shinobi noticed the growing wall of inky, howling darkness approaching from the west with terrifying speed. The Noble Clans rapidly retreated to their wagons in the lee of the ridge where they had taken shelter. The Allied force hadn't made any camp, but they had the bulk of Iwagakure's regular forces with them, and the Rock ninja hurriedly raised domes of stone from beneath the sand for their comrades and allies to take shelter in.

"Well damn," Tenten murmured softly, barely audible above the growing howl of the night-time sandstorm. "I guess it's not going to do more than polish me, but… I've never heard a sandstorm that loud, and I've seen a few."

"There have been none this powerful since before the founding of Sunagakure," Shukaku replied placidly, looking pleased. "Even the most potent of my jailors could not compel me to do this. It is a gift and a curse… that can only be given freely." He gave Sasori an amused look. "You should draw your allies close to where we stand. Beyond the aegis of my presence… few will survive unsheltered."

Tenten wasted no time unsealing a flare gun from a scroll on her belt, loading it and firing into the sky. The shrieking projectile of red phosphorous climbed high, briefly illuminating the remorseless wall of sand bearing down on them. Itachi, Kisame, Killer B, Hidan, Kakuzu and Deidara all converged on their location.

"Should we be thinking about some fairly serious shelter, un?" Deidara inquired bluntly.

Shukaku shook his head. "Near to me there is no cause for alarm; the sands will not bite," he explained with an amused glance at Sasori, "unless you don't trust me 'brother'."

Sasori didn't respond, save to reach up after a moment and pull his hood back down, baring his face to the wall of howling sand. It reached the assembled Akatsuki – and parted around them. Twenty meters from where Shukaku stood the storm raged, grains of sand flying with enough force to flense flesh from the bones of the corpses littering the sand. None of the Akatsuki was touched however, and the wind that washed over them was only robust enough to stir the hems of their cloaks. The light of the moon was snuffed out, and both Itachi and Tenten formed glowing chakra globes to illuminate their assemblage.

"Well, this will pin down the Allied army and give the Noble Clans a reprieve," Tenten assessed, "but I'm afraid Naruto will use the hiraishin to retreat and leave the jounin commanders in charge."

Shukaku drew every eye with his nasty chuckle. "Oh, Kurama's container tried to flee just moments ago; he failed."

Tenten blinked. "Say again?"

"This desert is my land," Shukaku stated with emphasis. "It was mine before the first humans laid eyes upon it. We bijuu have been prisoners and tools for so long that you mortals have forgotten what it meant to trespass upon our domain uninvited. The wild places of this world were ours when you were still living in caves and cowering in fear of the dark. The natural chakra that flows beneath the land recognizes us. This 'Naruto' is attempting to form a long-range chakra connection with nodes of his power he has left elsewhere. I am severing those connections before he can use them." Shukaku paused, enjoying the stunned looks on the faces of all the Akatsuki save Hidan, who was less concerned with chakra than the others. "If you wish to confront Kurama's container," Shukaku pointed lazily, "he's hiding over there."

Shukaku started walking, and Tenten kept close to him along with the other Akatsuki. They passed between the domes sheltering the Allied forces unnoticed; so fierce was the storm that the Rock ninja had closed even the east-facing doors in the lee of the storm's path. They made their way up onto the high dune where Naruto's last shot had come from, and there found another rock dome standing alone. "Tenten? Deidara?" Sasori murmured.

Tenten cracked her knuckles with a series of metallic 'pops' and Deidara's expression became a feral grin. The pair exchanged a wordless glance, and then both formed hand signs, pressing their palms to the ground when they were done. Ahead of them – and beyond the protection of Shukaku's presence – the rock dome crumbled and fell on those inside. Most of Naruto's cohort were crushed by their falling shelter, and those who managed to climb free of the rubble were at the mercy of the scouring sand. Sasori watched men and women die with little concern; if they were near the Kyuubi's jinchuuriki then they were the guiltiest of Root.

One section of crumbled stone abruptly exploded upward, revealing a blazing aura of sooty orange chakra. Naruto climbed free from the collapse and stood defiantly against the storm, his fox cloak warding off the elements.

"Yeah, it's show time," Killer B murmured, filling his hands and tentacles with crackling blades.

"Right," Tenten said with a slow breath, seeking her calm center. "I'll set the stage while he's disoriented."

"See you inside," B murmured before taking off toward Naruto at a sprint. When he left Shukaku's bubble of protection a halo of ionized air sprang up around him to ward off the sand.

Tenten, being made of metal, needed no such protection as she dropped a few kunai on the dunes and then pushed down on them with magnetic force, bearing herself aloft. The sand tore at her clothes but couldn't harm her steel hide. When she reached the apex of her leap above both Naruto and B, she threw a trio of kunai to the earth that together marked three points on a circle some two hundred fifty meters in diameter. Each had a very special scroll wrapped around its handle, and once all four had landed, Tenten formed the hand signs of a jutsu she had created for this very encounter. "Doton: Dai Kyogi-Ba [Grand Arena]!"

Tenten's words were lost to the wind, but far below the scrolls around the kunai unfurled, lines of light arcing between them to form the circle their positioning had hinted at. The sands of the desert shook, and the groaning of the earth rose to match the howling of the storm. In a vast ring around Naruto and B, stone walls rose above them. This was no hastily assembled construct like the domes below, but a seamless union of fuuinjutsu and earth ninjutsu that expressed itself in the rapid construction of a sandstone coliseum complete with thousands of seats for spectators that would never arrive, hallways and passages without feet to walk them, and every other architectural amenity.

As the wide roof began to close over top of the Grand Arena, Tenten released the magnetic suspension holding her aloft and fell towards her partner and monstrous nemesis. She latched onto B's blades as she fell, tugging on them enough to alter her course slightly. As she fell Tenten drew Saru no Tsume, the sword sheathed across her back.

B's sudden grin surely perplexed Naruto as he maneuvered the younger man into position, and a moment later Tenten landed on the jinchuuriki, roughly eighty kilos of metal plus her gear travelling close to terminal velocity. She felt bones break beneath her boots as she landed hard on his shoulders, plunging the tip of her sword through the base of his neck and into his body cavity. The blade savaged his internal organs as it went in, and flayed them further when she yanked it free. Naruto was driven to the ground, blood pouring from the terrible wound. Mindful of what had happened the last time she'd hurt him that badly, Tenten flipped backward through the air as orange chakra exploded around Naruto's fallen form.

"What is it going to take to keep him down for good?" Tenten complained to B as they watched Naruto slowly lever up onto his hands and knees at the heart of the maelstrom formed by the Kyuubi's chakra.

"I'm not sure," B replied. "I've been getting a really weird feeling from that brat ever since we crossed blades in the forest. Something's wrong; what you just did should have killed even a jinchuuriki. Same with that kunai you put through him days ago."

"Bitch!" Naruto cursed as he clambered to his feet, cracks and pops and squishing noises coming from his body as his shattered collarbone and ravaged organs mended themselves.

"Sticks and stones, Naruto," Tenten shot back, her words audible as the arena roof closed over their heads, sealing them in away from the storm. "Besides, don't I get one word of thanks for crafting you such a nice place to die?"

Naruto shook his head, blood from half-healed wounds spattering the stone floor of the arena. "Better than you have tried to kill me, Tenten. I'll send you to meet the shinigami too."

Tenten dodged a small bijuudama that Naruto cast from his hand, and it sailed past her to strike an empty section of stands, obliterating dozens of empty seats. "You know, I put a lot of effort into this place," she said with a sorrowful shake of her head, "you should be more respectful. Besides, it's not me you need to worry about. It's him." Tenten pointed to B. "He's the one who's going to kill you and free the Kyuubi."

Naruto started shaking, almost like he was having a seizure. He lowered his head for a moment, and when he raised it, the left side of his face was covered in red fur from hairline to jaw, and the slit-pupiled left eye blazed with inner light. "You keep saying you're going to free me," Naruto rasped, and Tenten shivered. It was as though two voices were coming out of his mouth, the second a deep, bestial growl. "You seem to think I want to be free of this glorious carnage!"

Killer B took half a step back, plainly shocked. His shoulder bulged, and a moment later the armor plate there popped off, revealing the head of a bull, but covered in the moist, translucent skin of an octopus. "You don't have to be a slave to the mortals anymore, Kurama," Gyuki urged. "Our brothers and sisters are free already; they're waiting for us to join them. The Akatsuki are making sure we'll never be bound into mortal prisons again."

"So that's your plan?" This was only Naruto's voice. "You've taken all those bijuu, and you're… what, just going to free them? Kami you're all stupid. Besides, you must have put the Ichibi back into a vessel to summon this sandstorm."

Gyuki and B both shook their heads. "Shukaku is free now," they replied in unison. "He has a powerful body that he alone controls, suited to encompass his vast chakra. With a body of his own, Shukaku can never be bound into a jinchuuriki again, a fate we were all vulnerable to when we were pure chakra constructs. The Akatsuki are already preparing to do the same for our sister Matatabi and the others after her. The era of the jinchuuriki is coming to an end. Once this mad butcher you're chained to is dead, that ancient perversion will be no more."

Naruto just stared for a moment… and then he started laughing. "Oh… oh my… you truly believe that this frail mortal child is the villain, and I the innocent victim?" The dual-toned voice was back, and Tenten started to get a very bad feeling. "Oh Gyuki… you are as naïve as the day the Rikudo Sennin spawned us." Naruto grinned savagely, and as Tenten and B watched, the red fur spread over his body. He grew slightly, until he was a few centimeters taller than B. His clothing bulged and split in places to accommodate the bulkier, furred limbs underneath. His knees 'snapped' backward as his feet became sturdy paws and shredded his boots. "Orochimaru – ambitious snake that he is – sent his 'dear son' into the seal when he was six years old; how do you think that meeting went?" Naruto laughed at the expression of horror on B's face. "Oh yes… do you now understand? Namikaze Naruto's mind has not been his own since he was a boy. I shaped and molded him into my tool even as his adoptive father was doing the same; our goals even dove-tailed nicely most of the time. Orochimaru wanted a weapon, and I… well, I just wanted to kill."

"No…" B murmured.

"Kurama!" Gyuki cried, aghast.

"Why would I go back to roaming the forests and razing the occasional farmstead when I get to nestle in the hearts of mortal cities and bathe in their terror whenever I please?" Kurama roared. "When the blood runs ankle-deep and the stench of opened bowels sets strong shinobi to vomiting, I'm praised and asked to do it again!"

"Kurama, why?" Gyuki demanded, sounding aghast and heartbroken. "This… this is not what Father wanted for us!"

"I don't care what that addled old sage intended," Kurama snarled. "I hate the mortals! You try spending more a century in a cage with no light, no contact and no outside stimulus. After a few decades, the thought of slaughtering men until there aren't any more of them will be the only thing that keeps you going!"

Tenten gasped, recalling the conversation between Hashirama and B. How Mito and Kushina had refused to be anything more than jailors to the Kyuubi that had ravaged their homeland. "Oh kami…" she whispered in horror.

"I should thank you in a way, metal girl," Kurama growled, his form swelling further as nine budding tails emerged from the base of his spine. "That meddling idiot Minato built the seal containing me to keep the blond brat alive at all costs, but even he didn't anticipate how violent his son's life would be. Every time little Naruto is brought to the edge of death and my power brings him back this mind holds a little less of him, and a little more of me. After the last two mortal wounds, this is practically my body."

B and Gyuki started to grow as well. Their heads merged together as B's body changed into a humanoid torso and arms with a bull's head and supported by eight writhing tentacles instead of legs. "I swore I'd save you brother," Gyuki rumbled, "and I will; even if I have to save you from yourself."

"Shut up, you self-righteous prick!" Kurama snarled, and then his jaws parted. A bijuudama taller than Tenten formed between his fangs with terrifying speed. Gyuki's blunt teeth parted to form another in retaliation. Both bijuu fired at the same moment.

A blinding flash of light was followed a split-second later by a shockwave that picked Tenten up like a leaf in a gale and hurled her backward until she hit the low barrier around the arena. Her metal body shattered the stone wall in passing and cratered against the back wall of the room behind it. She blacked out for a moment and came to lying on the floor covered with rubble and nursing an aching skull.

"Oww…" Tenten complained quietly as she climbed to her feet. Shaking her head to clear the stars dancing across her vision, she turned to see the impression of her body in the wall behind her, cracks starring out from the edges. "If I wasn't made of metal I'd just be a red smear on that wall," she muttered. Slipping from her pocket the slender rod of black metal that was linked to Pein, Tenten pressed it to her jaw and magnetized it strongly enough to stick there. "You listening, boss?"

"Hard not to," was the somewhat tinny reply vibrating through her jawbone. "Sensei and I can feel the energy from here. I assume B and Naruto are engaged?"

"Naruto… seems to be out of the picture," Tenten replied grimly. "After listening to Kurama's speech, I'm not even sure anymore how much of the man I knew was Naruto. What you're feeling is Kurama and Gyuki fighting. For the moment, their containers are the passengers, not vice versa." She stepped out of the hole her body had made and back into the arena. She'd designed the place to be bigger than she thought they'd need, and now she was glad she had. Two full-sized bijuu filled up a decent fraction of the space, and the ground shook when they collided. As she watched, Kurama took a bite out of Gyuki's shoulder, getting gored through one foreleg in return by the bull-octopus' horns. "I think we need to be prepared to perform the extraction here. I'm not even sure Kurama is going to shrink back down to size if we do take him down."

"Understood; we'll come to you. Good luck."

"Thanks…" Tenten muttered as the link went dead. Watching Kurama and Gyuki trade blows, Tenten felt like an ant witnessing a duel between elephants. "Now what am I even supposed to do to help?" Tenten mused. "Time to trot out the big guns, I guess." She'd never sheathed Saru no Tsume. Now she synched her chakra to the energy pulsing through the imbued blade and raised it to her lips. "I beg your aid, King Enma." She reversed the blade and plunged it into the stone floor before her. It sank into the solid rock like water, and then warm, bright light poured forth from the hilt and exposed blade. A moment later the entire weapon vanished.

Summoning King Enma normally took so much of Tenten's chakra that it wasn't feasible in a combat situation, leaving her too drained to fight. However, she'd discovered after training and experimentation that the wily king of the Ape Tribe had provided her with a shortcut. He'd put his own power into the sword she had crafted in his forge, and she could use that power to send the sword to his domain, and bring him to hers for a greatly reduced chakra cost. No sooner had Saru no Tsume disappeared than King Enma appeared in its place.

The Ape King took in his surroundings and sighed. "You know, one of these days someone's going to summon me to, I don't know, sit down for tea or something, as opposed to fighting a bijuu or an army. I might just keel over from shock when that happens."

"Sorry," Tenten apologized.

"At least tell me you're not up against both of them," Enma asked with a resigned smile.

Tenten shook her head. "No, just the Kyuubi; the Hachibi's jinchuuriki is my partner. So, how do you usually fight a bijuu?"

"Nothing in my arsenal will make much of a dent," Enma replied, "but when I become a part of your arsenal, well that's a different story." Before Tenten could ask for an explanation Enma made hand signs she'd never seen before, and in a puff of smoke transformed into a long staff of black metal that landed in her hands. Even with the added strength of her steel form she could feel Enma's immense weight dragging on her arms. An eye opened near one end of the staff. "Strike your foe with me, and I guarantee even the Kyuubi will feel it." Tenten decided not to ask how Enma was speaking with no visible mouth.

Tenten considered the staff, and then the massive fox. "Not sure I can hit anything higher than his ankles." An idea occurred to her and she looked at Enma speculatively. "Can you get bigger, too?"

Enma chuckled. "Aren't you a married woman?"

Tenten was glad that her steel cheeks couldn't turn red. "That's not what I meant," she exclaimed.

"I know, sorry; and yes. Why?"

Tenten tossed Enma into the air, and formed hand signs of her own. "Doton: Goremu [Golem]!" The arena floor before her erupted into the massive form of her stone construct; she'd made it even bigger than usual, straining the limits of what she could control effectively. Seeing her intent, Enma grew in midair, and by the time the golem caught him he was of a size proportional to its body.

Taking a few steps forward, Tenten raised one leg and stomped down. The massive golem did the same, catching two of Kurama's tails under its multi-ton foot. Even as the giant fox started to turn, Tenten raised her hands and brought them down sharply. The golem mirrored her movement and slammed the business end of the staff into Kurama's lower back. Tenten heard vertebrae crack with a sound like a tree being felled, and a high-pitched howl escaped Kurama's throat. His rear legs sagged, limp and unmoving. The wound started regenerating in seconds, but Gyuki took advantage of the opening, capturing Kurama's rear legs in the coils of his tentacles before the fox regained enough mobility to resist.

After evading a snapping bite Gyuki slid his body around Kurama's torso, snaring his foe with more suckered tentacles. Displaying considerable flexibility Kurama turned his head to bite again, but before his jaws could close around one of Gyuki's arms Tenten guided her golem into another swing. This one caught Kurama right between the eyes and slammed his head down onto the stone floor. That let Gyuki get his full weight on Kurama's back, his muscular arms locking around Kurama's neck and muzzle.

Kurama lashed out with his tails once his spine healed from Tenten's first blow, but Gyuki's tentacles wrapped those up too. Tenten hit Kurama a few more times, bruising and breaking limbs so Gyuki could tangle those as well. Once Kurama's legs were immobilized the golem dropped Enma and grabbed some of the lashing tails, sitting on the last few.

"Kill you! I'll kill you all!" Kurama raged as he struggled.

Enma transformed back into his natural form, and then Tenten was treated to the odd sight of her summoned companion performing the summoning jutsu himself. Half a dozen massive coils of thick steel cable appeared around him, and Tenten grinned. "You're a genius," she crowed.

"I know. It's a burden," Enma replied. Tenten froze her golem in place and severed her connection to it. That freed her up to work with the cables, lifting them with her steel chakra and setting them to wrapping tightly around Kurama's tails and limbs to tie down the giant fox as he ranted and raved.

Tenten was almost done when Kurama managed to jerk his head free of Gyuki's grip. He bit his captor's hand viciously, nearly severing it at the wrist. Gyuki recoiled with a howl of pain and Kurama's head turned to Tenten, his eyes gleaming with malice. A bijuudama grew to terrifying size between his teeth in an instant.

Kurama released the bijuudama point-blank, but a large male figure appeared in front of Tenten and Enma, his black cloak with red clouds fluttering from the high-speed motion. Tenten had time to register that it was one of Pein's Six Paths as it spread its arms wide. The bijuudama struck, but instead of exploding, it shrank and was absorbed.

Gasping in the wake of the last-minute rescue, Tenten grinned weakly as the Preta Path turned to her. "Nice save," she said shakily. The remote corpse nodded in acknowledgement. Looking up into the empty stands of the arena she'd created, Tenten saw Konan and the rest of the Paths in attendance. The Deva Path gestured at Kurama, and a wave of gravitational force slammed the fox's head into the stone floor again.

Stepping around the Preta Path, Tenten focused her chakra on the last coil of cable Enma had summoned. She quickly set it winding around Kurama's snout, binding his fanged maw shut. "No more bijuudama for you," she chided the giant fox.

When all of Kurama's weapons were out of commission, the other Akatsuki made their way inside the arena. Pein's chakra surged, drawing the Demonic Statue of the Outer Path from its extra-dimensional home. Kurama's struggles became more frantic, but between Gyuki and the steel cables, he wasn't going anywhere.

"Well, you appear to have this in hand. Well fought, Tenten," Enma commented.

Tenten pressed one fist into an open palm and bowed to the Ape King. "I couldn't have done it without you, your Majesty. Thank you so much."

"Come by for a visit some time," Enma chided her, "goodbye until then." With that he vanished, and Saru no Tsume reappeared. Tenten picked the sword up and sheathed it across her back before releasing the steel form. Fatigue hit her as she became flesh and blood once more, but she took her place on top of the statue with the other Akatsuki.

Channeling her chakra into the Demonic Statue of the Outer Path with the others, Tenten saw Kurama go absolutely wild as the reddish energy washed over him. "No," he howled, "I will not be caged! Not again!" His tails thrashed wildly, and Tenten's eyes widened in alarm at the sound of steel cables groaning.

One of the cables snapped with a sharp report, and Kurama's single freed tail lashed angrily before arcing up and around. "No!" Tenten cried out as the sharp tip plunged into Gyuki's broad back. The bull octopus shuddered, blood pouring from his muzzle. Kurama's tail burrowed deeper, erupting from Gyuki's chest, its fur slicked in blood.

Looking up at the statue Gyuki saw Tenten about the abandon the extraction and shook his head. "Don't stop," he gasped in B's voice. He pulled himself closer to Kurama, and used the hand of the arm wrapped around the fox's neck to firmly grasp the tip of the tail impaling him. "Extract Gyuki too."

"No!" Tenten cried out. "You'll die!"

Killer B let out a bloody laugh. "I don't have long to live anyways," he gasped, "months maybe before my chakra network burns out. Turning back to human with this wound would kill me anyways. Extract both of them. Let Gyuki and Kurama join the others in the statue. Now that we know what happened to poor Kurama, his brothers and his sisters may be able to help him."

Pein commanded the statue, and he was in charge of the extraction. She felt him alter the ritual, and the red light pouring from the statue's mouth expanded to encompass both bijuu. Gyuki shuddered, but didn't release his grip on Kurama.

"No…" Tenten murmured. The double extraction placed an even harsher demand on her chakra, and she dropped to one knee, but her eyes never left her partner as the ritual she and the other Akatsuki had begun slowly killed him.

As the extraction neared its end both Kurama and Gyuki started to shrink, lacking the power to maintain their transformations. When the red light faded entirely, Naruto and B lay side by side on the stone amid the tangles of steel cable, stirring and gasping weakly. Tenten leapt down from the statue and ran over to B. Kneeling beside him she lifted his upper body in her arms, wincing at the ragged hole punched through his sternum.

"Thank you," the dying man said quietly. "Got done the last thing I needed to do because of you."

"No," Tenten replied, shaking her head. "It was all you, B; you were amazing."

B managed a weak laugh. "Didn't that ape just say something to you about being a married woman? But hey, sorry to disappoint; no tentacles anymore, I'm afraid."

Tenten couldn't help but laugh at that, and this time her face was made of flesh that could turn red. At some point the laughter turned to tears, and she bowed her head over B and wept. He lifted one hand to touch her cheek, catching a single tear on his finger. "Look at that," he rasped, his frame shaken by a bloody cough. "Never figured there'd be anyone who'd cry for a weapon like me in the end."

"I'm not crying for a weapon," Tenten replied quietly. "I'm crying for a man; a musician, a philosopher, a great teacher, a true friend and a trusted partner. And what's this 'anyone' business? Do you think Samui, Karui and Omoi won't weep for you when they hear the news? Don't know if I'll ever see them in person again, but I'll make sure word reaches them about how you died… and how you lived." Killer B was smiling faintly when his broad chest stilled. Tenten's shoulders shook as she gently eased his eyes shut.

Soon after, Tenten heard footsteps behind her. "You okay, un?"

Tenten nodded mechanically. "I'm not hurt."

A warm hand rested on her shoulder. "Not what I asked," Deidara said.

Tenten was silent for a moment. "I'm tired of watching good people die while the monsters sit smirking on their thrones," she said at last.

"Then let's go dethrone one, un," Deidara replied.

Tenten looked up from B. "Everything's ready? The Allied army has been neutralized?"

Deidara nodded. "It was all taken care of while you were fighting and during the extraction; your husband's one hell of a planner."

A regretful expression crossed Tenten's face. "Yes; he is." Rising to her feet, she took a few steps back from B and formed hand signs. When she released her chakra, the stone floor of the arena swallowed him up, closing over his still body and placid features. She raised a simple stone marker over the spot; there would be plenty of time later to return for his remains and arrange a more suitable burial. For now, Konoha was waiting to be freed.

In the silence that followed the movement of the earth, Tenten heard another sets of lungs panting weakly. Turning in surprise, she realized that Naruto was still clinging to life. His appearance was changed somewhat with his bijuu extracted. The whisker marks on his cheeks were gone, and his eyes were blue with ordinary, round pupils.

"Should we put the bastard out of his misery, un?" Deidara asked with quiet menace.

"Who…" Naruto gasped, staring at Tenten, "who are you?"

She tilted her head, curious in spite of her dislike for the man. "You don't recognize me?"

Naruto shook his head weakly. "Are you… one of mom's friends?"

Tenten blinked. "Anko?" Naruto nodded weakly. "I don't believe she'd call me a friend at the moment, no."

"Did it… did it work?" Naruto asked.

Tenten knelt beside the dying man. "Did what work, Naruto?"

"Dad said I had to go inside the seal, to meet the fox that lives inside of me." Naruto smiled brightly, an oddly childlike expression for the cold, cruel butcher she'd always known. "I'm going to get strong enough to protect everyone in Konohagakure!"

"Is… is that the last thing you remember?" Tenten asked carefully.

Naruto nodded. "I feel strange," he noted, trying to lift his head and failing. "It's hard to move. Did something go wrong?"

Kami… Kurama said that Naruto was six years old when Orochimaru sent him inside the seal! Has he really lost all of that time? Tenten glanced up at Deidara, and saw that his eyes were as wide and startled as hers.

Naruto tried to raise his hand, and Tenten caught his wrist gently, stopping the motion. Something told her that seeing a limb that didn't belong to a young child would distress him. With her fingers on his wrist Tenten could feel Naruto's pulse; it was thready and getting weaker. "It's so cold," Naruto whispered. "Mom? Mommy, where are you? You said you'd be here when I was done."

Giving comfort to B in his final moments had been natural and instinctive, but Naruto? Part of Tenten, the part that remembered the scars on Sakura's face, the child of rape growing in Hinata's womb, the countless innocent lives Orochimaru's weapon had claimed, wanted to simply walk away from the child in a man's body before her, to leave him to breathe his last confused, afraid and alone. Tenten dismissed that notion as uncharitable and beneath her. After Kurama's confession, it was a bit harder to hate Naruto. Had he ever really had a chance?

"Anko is proud of you, Naruto," Tenten murmured quietly. "She's always been so proud of you."

"Mom's proud of me?" Naruto whispered.

Tenten touched his smooth cheek with her right hand, and he nuzzled against the warmth of her skin; his was cold to the touch. "Of course, Naruto; your mother and father love you so much." The falsehood almost stuck in her throat. Anko had perhaps loved Naruto for all that she had never opposed Orochimaru's machinations. Naruto's only 'father' had been Namikaze Minato; to Orochimaru he'd only ever been a tool. "Everyone in Konoha is so proud of everything you've done to protect them," Tenten lied.

The brilliant, boyish smile returned to Naruto's face. While it lingered Tenten let a kunai drop from her left sleeve and slid the tip between Naruto's third and fourth ribs in a smooth motion, angling upward. The tip of the blade found his heart, and there wasn't a bijuu inside of him to repair what was broken anymore. Naruto shuddered, a few drops of blood trickling from his lips, and then he was still, his last breath rattling in his lungs.

"Tenten…" Deidara murmured.

"Jinchuuriki don't live long without their bijuu," Tenten replied mechanically, wiping the blade clean on Naruto's shirt before returning it to her sleeve and rising to her feet, turning to Deidara. "His mother's heredity is the only reason he lasted this long. Should I have let him realize the truth before the end? That something did go wrong?"

Deidara shook his head. "No, I… I wasn't criticizing. That was a kind and merciful thing you did, Tenten. More than anyone could have expected of you."

Tenten sighed. "Thanks, but I don't think I'm going to feel better until we put Orochimaru in the ground. One more crime added to his endless list of atrocities shouldn't bother me, but it does. I'm tired of losing good people, but that old snake? Him I'm going to bury with a smile."

Deidara's hand rested on Tenten's shoulder. "Let's get to it, then, un." Together, the two of them crossed the arena to rejoin Pein and their other comrades shrouded in black cloaks with red clouds.

Neji had seen the sandstorm coming while he was climbing the ridge with Shizune. They'd taken shelter in a small cave near the top, waiting out the worst of the storm. When its fury started to abate, Neji climbed to his feet, wincing at the pain that jostling his lost limb caused. "Neji, we can't go out there yet," Shizune cautioned him. "That storm is still dangerous."

"Have faith," Neji replied with a mysterious smile. He heard Shizune swear at him under her breath, but she rose to join him. At the cave mouth Neji started to expel chakra from his tenketsu and set it spinning. A softly glowing dome surrounded the pair, and when they stepped into the open it deflected the sand and wind away from them.

"I thought you had to spin in place to do this?" Shizune commented as they resumed their climb.

"So did I, back when I was a genin," Neji replied. "It's much harder this way, and no one in the Main Family of the Hyuuga ever tried it before, to my knowledge. I have to expel the chakra at a steady rate and spin it without any physical aid. On the plus side, this way I can move while protecting myself, and offer the protection to another."

"Yeah… you've never tested this with someone else inside the dome before, have you?" Shizune grinned unexpectedly.

Neji gave her a perplexed look. "No, why?"

"I don't recommend it outside of a truly desperate situation," Shizune informed him laconically. "The flow of your chakra as it passes over my skin is like being tickled on every part of my body, all at once. If I didn't know how to control my peripheral nervous system with medical chakra I'd be curled up on the ground laughing, crying and unable to move."

Neji blinked. "I… oh."

Shizune clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it. Do what you came up here to do."

At the top of the ridge, Neji's byakugan showed him the Noble Clan's army huddled behind the hill, and the Allied forces sheltering in the rocky domes the ninja of Iwagakure had made. He could also see the fierce battle taking place inside the huge stadium Tenten had apparently conjured from nowhere, but he put his wife's fight from his mind. He had his own task to perform in order to finish the plan he'd worked out with Sasori, Nara Shikaku, Inuzuka Tsume, and several others.

Raising his remaining hand, Neji carefully fired controlled bursts of lunar chakra at one stone shelter after another. The argent beams only punched a small hole in the roof of each, passing above the heads of those sheltering inside and illuminating the interiors for a moment. Neji did so only for the domes that held the bulk of Konohagakure's regular forces. Most of the people inside were Inuzuka, Sarutobi, Senju or Neji's own branch Hyuuga. A slight smile crossed his face as he watched those shinobi – loyal to the true destiny of Konohagakure and the Will of Fire – turn on the few foreign shinobi trapped with them, efficiently incapacitating and binding them. Their most vicious attacks were saved for the Root forces that were trapped in the domes with them. For Orochimaru's secret police and private terror squads, no mercy was offered. Neji winced at the sight of blood soaking the sands in dozens of domes, but it was a reckoning a long time coming.

When Neji was done signaling to the forces loyal to Konohagakure he lowered his hand. Within minutes the sandstorm died down, and new figures started rising from the sand near the rocky domes that had not been pierced. There were more than a hundred, and their appearance mirrored the body that Shukaku now inhabited, their tan hides decorated with blue whorls. They possessed only a fraction of the power of Shukaku's main body, but that still left them with far more power than all but the strongest of individual shinobi. The modified Zetsu that Sasori had called Shukaku's 'archons' clustered around the domes holding the forces from Iwagakure and Kumogakure, as well as the remaining Root shinobi.

The archons raised their hands in eerie synchronicity, and pillars of sand enveloped the domes, swirling more and more thickly until they were obscured from sight entirely. Neji could feel and see the staggering amount of chakra the archons put out. The sand twisters obscured the sight of even Neji's byakugan, and when they collapsed, the domes they had concealed were simply gone.

"How is that possible?" Shizune breathed in awe, "and where did they go?"

"From what Sasori explained to me, near-limitless chakra and a great deal of study and knowledge made it possible," Neji explained. "As to where they were sent, it depends."

"Depends on what?" Shizune asked.

Neji shrugged. "The Rock and Cloud ninja were just sent home. This was never their fight. As for the Root forces," Neji continued with a stony expression, "Sasori offered to send their domes to the bottom of the South Sea. Shikaku and I accepted that offer."

Shizune winced. "That's… moderately horrible," she commented.

"Better than they deserved," Neji replied harshly.

"Hey, you'll get no argument from me," Shizune muttered. "Every interview they dragged me into when I was in the village made my skin crawl."

"What's done is done," Neji said. "We need to go touch base with the Akatsuki and get ready to liberate Konohagakure."

Shizune obligingly supported Neji as they started walking back down the ridge. "Yeah… so how's that going to work?"

Neji smiled confidently. "Well for one thing, those tan-and blue fellows who haven't discovered clothes yet can send people to a lot more places than Iwagakure, Kumogakure, or the ocean floor…"