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Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...

Chapter 18

Temari set as hard a pace as she could manage with Gaara as they tried to slip out of Konoha as quickly as possible. Just thinking about needing to slow down for Gaara had her suppressing hysterical laughter.

She’d never had what you could call a normal family life. Her father treated his children like his personal soldiers: lives to be expended furthering his ambitions. Just thinking about her mother’s fate drove that point home. Neither of her brothers were anything close to normal, but it said a lot that she had a closer relationship to the one that wore more makeup than she did.

Her relationship with Gaara was normally built around fear. Fear of his anger. Fear of inciting his automatic defense to lash out. Fear of being hurt. Her first memory of him was that of a cute baby with strange eyes, but it wasn’t until Gaara had killed her uncle that she really understood. The demon inside her brother ruled his existence. Only her loyalty as a Suna Kunoichi prevented her from actively hating her father for what he’d ordered Chiyo-sama to do to her brother - as well as to her mother.

But that fear had also brought with it a sense of confidence. Sabaku no Gaara was simply unstoppable. In every mission that her team had performed, he’d never even been scratched. As long as she and Kankuro stayed on Gaara’s good side, they shared in that strength. With Gaara on their team, they were unbeatable.

Until Konoha.

The first sign came during the second exam, with the manhandling they’d received from a small horde of fearless clones that overran their ambush as they waited for unsuspecting genin near the tower. There were so many, and they came so fast that the blond one actually got his hands on Gaara before his sand lashed out and destroyed them all. She never thought she’d see anyone run their knuckles across his scalp like that. Even if he couldn’t feel it through his Armor of Sand, the concept was simply ludicrous.

But it was more like a glimpse of things to come.

Her match had gone about as well as could be expected. She hadn’t had to display any abilities someone couldn’t guess from just seeing her battle-fan. Kankuro being the odd man out and not having to fight was just a stroke of luck.

Gaara’s fight was actually the hardest. That weird kid in the green stretchy suit was incredibly fast, and for a while there Gaara hadn’t been able to touch him. But eventually the kid had gotten winded and his sensei stopped the match before Gaara could kill him. That only made her brother angrier.

She hadn’t paid too much attention to the kid whose clone had gone after Gaara outside. He did score the quickest victory in the preliminary matches. But at first, she’d just thought his opponent had been overrated or hurt. Now she wondered if her twinge of fear hadn’t been caused by Gaara’s lingering frustration. 

She was almost looking forward to Gaara’s first match in the finals, hoping a little bloodshed would calm him down before they needed to use his other half. It wasn’t like it really mattered how many he killed – they’d just as likely die in the attack anyway. She was not going to question the Kazekage’s decision to turn on Konoha, and calming Gaara down was something she considered a very good cause.

What she hadn’t expected to see was her youngest brother getting beaten like an unwanted stepchild.

This Uzumaki kid had obviously done his homework during the preceding month. He’d handled that Hyuuga like he was nothing, and left him bleeding in the dirt. But she didn’t expect to see someone ever fight Gaara so effectively. His attacks tied up most of Gaara’s sand, making his automatic defense less and less effective. That swamp summoning jutsu had to have been jonin level, and, with all of the clones he had created, she wondered if he was a ringer inserted into the test to take Gaara out. Had Konoha ferreted out their treacherous alliance with Otogakure?

In any event, Uzumaki had really battered Gaara, right through the Armor of Sand, before her brother could reclaim most of his sand. He’d finally had to draw on Shukaku for a moment to even get some breathing room. Between that and maintaining his armor through that ferocious beating, Gaara’s chakra reserves were depleted worse than she could ever remember.

Aside from the surprises in the arena, the changes within herself were no less striking. She found she couldn’t watch the match with the dispassionate gaze of a professional kunoichi. This was her youngest brother being battered left and right. This was her mother’s last child getting punched so hard he was launched backward off his feet. It didn’t matter if his demon made him a psychotic killer when he became angry. Or bored. He was still her blood.

It was almost a relief when she felt the genjutsu start and the creepy bug guy tried to attack them. Watching helplessly galled her more than she wanted to admit. Leaping down into the arena before his bugs could catch her, she’d still been surprised to see Gaara so weak and disoriented. He had actually needed her help to stand up straight.

He needed her.

She tightened her grip around Gaara’s shoulders as they leaped from a rooftop to the outer wall. Kankuro was on point, ready to unleash fully articulated hell on anyone that got in their way, but Konoha’s defenders were concentrating on the people leaping into their village, not out.

She almost stumbled in surprise when Gaara’s hand tightened for a moment on her shoulder. She could sense that his chakra reserves were replenishing moment by moment. Hopefully his head would clear as well. They still had a mission to perform, one vital to the success of the attack.

But with respect to Sabaku no Gaara, her fear of him was slowly being counterbalanced by fear for him.

OoOoO

Shino was on point, since they were following the scent trails of his bugs. Hinata was right behind him, using her Byakugan to warn of any ambushes. Shikamaru trailed behind her, grumbling at the pace they set, while Naruto brought up the rear, along with half a dozen clones running interference. Normally, he’d have made more, but Shino reminded him that they didn’t want to gather too much attention from unknown hostile forces.

Not that it stopped him from dropping twenty or thirty clones every time a foreign shinobi even looked at them funny.

The extra clones were instructed not to follow them, but to instead, help Konoha’s defenders. The scattered reports as they were dispelled painted an interesting picture. The Suna guys were tough as hell, but the more numerous Sound shinobi didn’t seem to be quite as well-trained. Taijutsu training aside, he never expected thirty of his clones to be able to disable a jonin, even if they got extremely lucky. The first time it happened, he nearly stumbled when he received the memories. But he couldn’t imagine them letting lower-ranked ninja operate alone. Well, even if they did act stupidly, including attacking Konoha like this, he’d still tell Kurenai-sensei about it. Her and Gai-sensei’s efforts hadn’t been wasted.

After the second set of clones had been dispatched to help out a team of chuunin, Shikamaru dropped back for a moment and began talking to the clone in the center of the shifting formation.

“Naruto, just how many times can you do that before you start running low on chakra?” the lazy genin asked. That clone and two others nearby turned their heads along with Naruto. His classmate’s tone was thoughtful, but with an undercurrent of worry.

“I don’t know,” the clone replied. Naruto decided to let it do the talking, since it was the one Shikamaru addressed.

“You still can’t gauge your own chakra?” Shikamaru asked in a disgusted voice.

Naruto frowned. His chakra control wasn’t that bad.

A stray kunai nicked the clone, dispelling it. Receiving its memories, Naruto knew it was just as annoyed as he was by the implication. Turning, he saw another pitched battle between two sound ninjas and an ANBU with long purple hair and a cat mask.

“Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!” he snarled and thirty clones appeared in his wake, immediately vectoring towards the melee. He turned toward Shikamaru, who was now looking over his shoulder at him. “No, it just didn’t drain me enough to notice,” he said sarcastically.

Shikamaru grunted something under his breath that Naruto didn’t really want to hear and moved back up in the formation. When they left the stadium, Shino told him to be ready to immobilize any dangerous enemies and he’d acquiesced to that role with a shrug and a wave. Naruto figured he found this whole situation to be too troublesome for words.

OoOoo

Uzuki Yugao landed a solid kick right on the Sound ninja’s forehead protector, dropping him like a rock. Spinning towards his partner, she brought her sword around in a wheel-cut that had him leaping backwards to avoid evisceration. Striding forward in a deep stance, she was just beginning her follow-up attack when the scrape of metal on stone warned her that the first ninja was only faking.

She was pivoting back toward the threat when a third ninja slammed into her, knocking her off her feet. Striking the roof knocked her ANBU mask slightly askew, so she only got a glimpse of the blond-haired enemy’s face before he exploded into a cloud of smoke.

An instant later, the wedge of nearly solid sound waves that passed through the kage bunshin slammed into the roof just past her head, sending fragments of clay tiles flying through the air.

Yugao rolled to her feet, blade up in a defensive posture, but found both of her opponents fully occupied by over a dozen clones each. The green-clad genin were displaying some impressive Taijutsu skills, each one dodging like crazy to avoid being disrupted. At first glance she had no idea which one was the real one, but she’d take any help she could get.

Bringing up her blade for a lunge, she closed in on the one who’d been faking before. He evidently saw her coming out of the corner of his eye, because he spun to avoid the attack, raising the shiny metal devices on his wrists…

Only to have two of the clones kick the backs of his knees, pitching him forward to be neatly impaled on her blade. He dropped to his knees, vomiting blood, and slowly toppled backward off her sword.

The other Sound ninja was taking a beating from the clones, but managed to dispel six of them. He didn’t see Yugao’s leaping strike before it was too late.

Turning to the clones, she took a deep breath. “Thanks, but who are you?”

Most of the clones were warily scanning the rooftops around them, but one in the middle folded his arms and announced, in a deep growling voice, “We are legion!”

The two clones nearest to the speaker both turned to look at him. He shrugged. The one on the left smacked the back of his head and he disappeared in a cloud of smoke. The one on the right just shook his head. “Sorry, ANBU-san. We’re clones of Uzumaki Naruto. He assigned us to help you for as long as we last.”

Yugao blinked. “You’re all clones? Then where is he?”

“Chasing the Kazekage’s children,” the clone answered sourly.

OoOoO

The ANBU prowled around the edges of an elaborate chakra barrier that had been erected on top of one of the arena buildings. The Hokage and the man who’d been disguised as the Kazekage were both inside but they had no way through the deadly energy. The only success they’d experienced was when that odd wave of chakra had washed over the roof. The barrier had fluctuated for a moment, thinning out in some areas. A single hole large enough for a person had appeared, but only for a split second. Only one shinobi had been quick enough and near enough to exploit that weakness, one of Ibiki’s chuunin wearing a proctor uniform.

Now the Hokage wasn’t alone, but it wasn’t enough. Especially since they could now see that his attacker was none other than Orochimaru, his former student. Some ANBU had already gone through the interior of the building, seeking to break through the roof from below. However, the barrier had reinforced the roof substrate with that same deadly energy, which had almost killed the first one to attempt a jutsu to breach it.

The ANBU stationed at the arena were left to prowl around the edge of the barrier like restless wolves, looking for any sign of weakness. The few enemies still within the arena were being dealt with by Konoha genin, chuunin, and a couple of jonin. To make things worse for the treacherous enemy, many visiting dignitaries had their own contingents of bodyguards. None of them were very happy about being put to sleep.

No, the Hokage’s need was greater. He was fighting a deadly enemy and none of them could help. What use would a mere chuunin be in such a battle?

OoOoO

Things went fairly smoothly for Naruto and his friends until they entered the forest surrounding Konoha. They were barely past the walls before Hinata signaled they had pursuers. Shikamaru offered to hang back to delay them, but Naruto shook his head.

“Shino, can we afford a couple of minutes?” he asked.

Shino nodded. “We’ve been steadily gaining. They won’t get out of my range that quickly.”

After a quick whispered consultation, they dropped down to the forest floor, traveled a little further, and then took cover.

Naruto got a little worried when eight Oto-nins ran into the clearing, but Shikamaru managed to snag all of them with his shadow. It looked like Temari hadn’t been the only one holding back earlier.

No sooner had they jerked to a halt than the kikai bugs Shino had spread in the branches above them descended like black ashes. Naruto smiled at the chagrined expressions he could see on what little of their faces was visible.

“Naruto! Above and right!” Hinata’s voice snapped like a whip-crack. Her normal hesitancy and manners were nowhere to be found.

Naruto and his remaining clones were moving before what she’d said even registered. One of Shino’s kamas deflected a thrown kunai right before it pierced Shikamaru’s head, but a ninth Sound ninja was hurtling down out of the canopy behind it.

Two of Naruto’s clones were dispelled in mid-air, not even slowing the man down. But they’d distracted him just enough for Naruto himself to get a clear shot. His leaping uppercut slammed into the underside of the man’s jaw before his feet even touched the ground. His head snapped back as his momentum reversed itself.

Naruto channeled his body’s rotation into a spinning back kick that drove his heel into the ribcage of the already-rising shinobi. There were multiple cracks as the man catapulted backward. His flight was stopped by the tree trunk he impacted with a dull thud. He crumpled to the ground and did not move.

Naruto landed in a deep crouch, his feet kicking up dust as he finished his spinning motion. He wondered what Lee would think of his version of Konoha Senpuu. One glance at his target and he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be moving any time soon. Looking back at the rest of the enemy, he saw that Shikamaru hadn’t flinched or released any of his victims. Each of them had kikai bugs crawling across their heads and shoulders, and none of them could even move as long as they were held by Shikamaru’s Kagemane no Jutsu.

Within thirty seconds of the start of the ambush, they were trembling. At forty-five seconds their eyes rolled back in their heads and they slumped in place. Shikamaru released his Shadow Bind and they collapsed bonelessly to the forest floor.

“They won’t be capable of movement today without medical assistance,” Shino said as he recalled his bugs. “But they may hold information valuable to Konoha. We should resume our pursuit.”

Shikamaru shook his head when Hinata offered him the small packet of pills and canteen she fished out of her bag. He sighed as they took to the trees again. “That was less troublesome than it should have been,” he muttered. “But now they will expect us to do things like this all the time and that is even more troublesome.”

Naruto snorted. It was nice to see someone keeping their perspective on things.

OoOoO

The Sandaime paused to catch his breath. The black uniform he wore under his formal robes seemed to fit a little looser every day, but at least the metal arm guards and kabuto protecting his head were still secure.

He’d been able to stop the resurrection of his successor, but Orochimaru had still successfully summoned the first and second Hokages. But just as he had been about to insert the tagged kunai that would bind them to his service, the entire barrier rang like a great bell, going from dark purple to blood red for an instant.

In a flash, a blur he barely recognized as Ibiki’s newest apprentice managed to breach the barrier. More importantly, his senbon ripped through the prepared tags dangling from the kunai in Orochimaru’s hands. Sarutobi’s most disappointing student was momentarily caught off guard, but the rage visible on his face when he realized what had happened was gratifying.

Sarutobi launched the jutsu he’d been building up the chakra for as the boy leaped clear. A grand fireball forced the Snake Sannin to leap back as well, but the motionless bodies burned to ash.

The old man turned to look at his former student. The second greatest regret of the Sandaime’s life was allowing Orochimaru to flee Konoha when his crimes were exposed. Some part of him still remembered the boy he had trained, but it died a little more every time rumors of new atrocities reached his ears. The murder and impersonation of the Kazekage was merely the latest, and now he threatened the village Sarutobi loved.

“Stay clear of this,” he murmured to Haku. A strange boy, but one he was glad he’d taken a chance on.

“I will not allow you to be harmed, Hokage-sama,” Haku whispered. “Your life will not end before mine.” The air chilled around the chuunin as the moisture within the air crystallized.

The Hokage shook his head at the boy’s stubbornness. Some had questioned the wisdom of allowing Kakashi’s prisoner a place within the Leaf, but his mercy was being repaid a thousand-fold today. However, he would not allow another person to die for Orochimaru’s ambitions. He hefted his battle staff, the alternate form of his summons, Enma the Monkey King, and prepared himself.

OoOoO

Temari called for Kankuro to stop when Gaara grabbed her shoulder again. Worried that he was concussed worse than she thought, she carefully landed them both in the nearest clearing.

“Are you all right?” she asked in an urgent whisper.

“Get… get away…” Gaara murmured.

“What?” she asked. She wondered if it was already starting.

“Get away!” Gaara screamed, roughly shoving her aside. She stumbled back, almost dropping her fan. Then she noticed the shadows landing on the tree limbs overhead, almost obscured by the greenery.

“Mother wants blood,” Gaara rasped, holding his head.

Temari edged away from the clearing, following Kankuro. Their original plan was to get far away as soon as Gaara started to use… it. Now she was not as assured of Gaara’s invincibility. She shook her head when Kankuro tugged on her sleeve.

OoOoO

Naruto frowned as he watched Gaara’s brother and sister move away from him. Even if they were enemies, it bothered him that they seemed ready to abandon him. He thought again about Hinata’s guesses as to why Sabaku no Gaara was so bloodthirsty and shivered a little. To be totally alone, with absolutely no one precious to him?

It was with mixed feelings that he saw the fan and puppet users halt at the edge of the clearing. It might make it harder for his team to deal with Gaara, but watching them simply abandon him would be disgusting as well.

“You have betrayed your village’s alliance with Konoha,” Shino said, interrupting Naruto’s thoughts. “Our assignment is to place you under arrest if possible, or terminate you otherwise. Immediate surrender is your most logical option.”

Gaara screamed again, and Naruto suddenly realized why Temari and Kankuro had moved away from their brother. The sand from his seemingly inexhaustible gourd began to flow out, covering his body in a tan-colored mass that looked disturbingly like flesh, complete with weird blue markings.

Already one arm was completely covered with sand, forming a huge misshapen claw way out of proportion to the rest of Gaara’s body. But instead of being unbalanced, he shot forward with surprising speed, smashing through the trunk of the tree they were standing on.

All four of them scattered, but Naruto leapt down into the clearing. Taking down Gaara was his job. His team would make sure the others didn’t interfere.

OoOoO

Hinata felt her stomach twist as the air seemed to swell with unnatural chakra and insatiable bloodlust. Gaara was in the midst of some monstrous transformation, and she wasn’t sure there was any way they could stop it.

Of course, that didn’t keep Naruto-kun from trying.

Her own hesitancy vanished when she saw the Suna kunoichi angling to take a shot at her teammate with her enormous fan. She wasn’t really equipped up for a mission, but she was far from helpless. No Hyuuga was ever truly unarmed. Temari leapt aside right before Hinata landed on her, chakra flaring from her hands.

“You will not harm Naruto-kun!” Hinata snapped in a voice she barely recognized.

The older blond girl’s lip curled in annoyance. “Do you really think you can stop me?”

Hinata stared at her with her Byakugan, taking in every detail, every nuance of her foe’s appearance. She wasn’t as good at reading people as she should be, but she was pretty sure Temari was anxious about something – even more than would be normal for combat circumstances.

She thought of her father’s voice when he was quietly angry with someone, the forbidding but restrained tone. When she spoke, she tried her best to assume that voice.

“Naruto will stop Gaara and I will stop you.”

It was a pathetic attempt, really, but it still made the older girl flinch a little.

OoOoO

Kankuro wasn’t quite as quick to move in, but neither Shino nor Shikamaru thought he’d abandon his team.

A multi-limbed apparition of wood and cloth descended from the trees, angling toward Naruto’s back… right up until Shikamaru’s shadow reached out and captured it.

“How long can you restrain his proxy?” Shino asked in a whisper.

Shikamaru didn’t answer directly, but twitched three of his fingers together as sweat began to bead on his forehead.

A mass of Shino’s bugs descended onto the wooden puppet, intent on rendering it down to sawdust. However, no sooner did they reach it than a small door opened in the side of its chest and dark purple mist spewed out, killing them almost instantly.

OoOoO

“Damn that is one ugly technique,” Naruto said as he dodged Gaara’s misshapen claw. It slammed down into the forest loam, compressing it nearly a foot.

If anything, Gaara moved faster, despite all the extra flesh, and it was spreading out over his body as well. Particularly disturbing was the portion starting to cover his face. One eye had been covered with something sporting a monstrous diamond-shaped pupil. That eye had locked onto him with an alien hunger Naruto could feel in the pit of his stomach.

Naruto put his hands together and began creating clones as quickly as he could, even as he leapt backward from another swipe.

OoOoO

Growing old, the Sandaime reflected, is not an occupation for the weak.

He struggled to regain his breath and glanced around. The canted roof of the arena building looked like a war zone. Craters had been blasted into the tiles, and fragments of scorched clay ground under their feet like gritty ashes. The barrier, however, was still completely unmarked.

His former student had planned well, intending their confrontation to occur in such an enclosure meant no one could intervene, as well as limiting his options to disengage. However, that also meant that Orochimaru was similarly limited, even if his arrogance blinded him to that fact.

Haku flitted around the periphery, never missing an opportunity to attack or distract Orochimaru. As a near miss made their enemy turn toward the boy, Sarutobi began another technique.

Haku barely managed to dodge the summoned snakes that shot out of Orochimaru’s sleeves. But the distraction was sufficient to let the Sandaime complete his technique without hurrying too much, and the blasted tiles surged upward into a wave that sped toward Orochimaru. Given a little extra time, Sarutobi could select his attacks with care, carefully managing his chakra reserves for maximum effect.

The fact that it seemed to infuriate Orochimaru suggested that rushing the old man had been part of his strategy. Foiling this tactic made his rage even more satisfying.

This Hokage had put up with enough nonsense.

Orochimaru started to counter the modified Doton jutsu, but hand seals are a little difficult to complete when you suddenly find senbon needles shooting toward your vital points. With a strangled cry, he threw himself to the side as the tiles exploded where he was standing. He fluidly rolled to his feet, holding his wrist. He yanked out the needle and shot a venomous glance at the Hokage.

“I see you still need a young boy to keep up with me,” he snarled, his voice thick with insinuation. “I wonder what your lackeys think of you now?”

Whatever the years had stolen from the third Hokage’s speed, young Haku more than made up for. The chuunin hadn’t pressed the attack so far, more likely out of deference to his superior than any real fear, but Orochimaru seemed to find it increasingly difficult to complete the seals for his techniques. The confined nature of the conflict also limited his ability to complete a technique from cover.

But now, icy needles crystallized out of midair around the chuunin and shot toward the Sannin almost too fast to see. In a flash, he was riddled with senbon, falling to the ground with his breathing and heart stopped…

…only to dissolve into a mass of mud as the substitution technique expired.

Orochimaru emerged from a crater in the tiled roof behind them. With a growl of frustration he drew a straight-bladed sword from his own mouth and charged directly toward Haku. His speed was such that Sarutobi had to push himself to block the strike with his battle staff.

“That blade is poisoned,” Enma growled, opening an eye between Sarutobi’s hands. Orochimaru’s swordsmanship was much better than Sarutobi remembered, but that was hardly surprising given the time that had passed.

The scowling Snake Sannin launched a combination of cuts that Sarutobi barely managed to block, though he was forced backward several steps. Haku circled warily, careful to stay out of the blade’s reach. His hands blurred together in a series of seals, executed with speed that Sarutobi found surprising in someone so young.

With Enma helping, the Third blocked a wheel cut with enough force to stagger his foe, and then went on the offensive. Sarutobi ignored the chill in the air that made his facial skin tighten as his young ally formed a dome of ice mirrors around them.

A barrier within the barrier, and Orochimaru directly in the middle.

OoOoO

Naruto dodged another clumsy but terrifyingly fast lunge from Sabaku no Gaara as he distributed autonomous clones all around the clearing. They’d been useful against Orochimaru, so he hoped they’d work here as well.

Even as he prepared, more and more sand flowed over Gaara’s body, further transforming him into something out of an expired milk nightmare. One great golden eye rolled crazily in the socket as the misshapen creature flailed around the clearing, smashing anything between it and Naruto. The blond couldn’t help but stare as the monstrous form grew larger by the second.

For a moment, Naruto wondered if the missing-nins he’d killed had looked at him the same way.

He shook his head and leapt to the side as Hinata shouted a warning. There was enough danger here without distracting his friends by acting stupid. For a moment, he wondered how she knew which one was him. Then it hit him.

He was the only one making more clones. Idiot. The next batch all mimicked the seals the next time he did Kage Bunshin.

Gaara screamed his frustration in a voice loud enough to shake leaves from the trees. He swept his misshapen arm in a circle and the claw of sand detached, shooting out toward Hinata. The nearest clones were only beginning to react when she back-flipped out of the way, letting the sand smack harmlessly into the bole of a massive tree.

Naruto didn’t even have to tell his clones to attack.

OoOoO

Hinata was growing increasingly frustrated with her opponent. Temari obviously had extensive training as a distance fighter, and used every bit of that training to maintain the distance between them. In a long-range fight, her Jyuuken was practically useless.

Of course, it wasn’t all one-sided. Hinata’s agility, honed by hours and hours of training, made it almost impossible for Temari to catch her with one of her wind blasts. Unlike her earlier battle with Tenten, now Temari was fighting in a heavily forested area and the Hyuuga always had cover available.

But Hinata was never so glad of her Hyuuga heritage when, right after shouting a warning to Naruto-kun, her eyes helped her track and avoid the sand Gaara had hurled at her. She swallowed heavily when she saw it smash the bark from the tree it struck.

“You kids are going to get killed if you stick around,” Temari shouted at her. Hinata’s ears weren’t as well trained as her eyes, but, mixed in with the sincerity in the kunoichi’s voice, she thought she detected undercurrents of fear and anxiety as well.

“I am a kunoichi of the Leaf,” Hinata announced in a chilly formal tone. “My sensei has ordered my team to apprehend yours. We will succeed.” She hoped the nearby clones were watching. She wouldn’t let her team down again.

OoOoO

Shikamaru was mostly conserving his chakra. This was something he had a lot of practice doing. Sometimes he’d spend entire days just conserving his chakra.

But that didn’t stop him from flicking out his shadow every so often to trip up that freaky puppet. After watching the damn thing spew out a cloud of poison gas, neither he nor Shino were eager to get too close to the thing. The Aburame was pretty adamant about shutting down the puppet master though.

He could have sworn the boy was looking to avenge his dead bugs, if the idea wasn’t patently absurd.

Shino and the puppet were dancing around, leaping from branch to branch, in an exercise that looked far too troublesome for him to join. He knew without guessing that it was just a distraction while Shino’s bugs closed in on the puppet master.

On the other hand, they’d also tipped their hand a little on the balcony. A wave of angry kikai bugs tended to make an impression on people. If Kankuro and Temari hadn’t been obviously set to jump the instant that genjutsu swept the stadium, the bugs might have caught them before they cleared the railing and forestalled this whole troublesome mess.

Of course, watching Gaara continue to change out of the corner of his eye, Shikamaru wondered if chasing him out here might have been less of a pain than dealing with him back in Konoha.

Despite just missing them, Shino’s attack had obviously given Kankuro some warning of what to expect. The puppet user seemed to be moving around a lot himself. Maybe he was keeping an eye out for more bugs.

Shikamaru ducked as the puppet suddenly whirled away from Shino and launched a spring-propelled spike right at his head.

“Maybe I’d better pay more attention,” Shikamaru said with a grunt as he edged away from the melee, looking for any sign of the puppet master.

How troublesome.

OoOoO

Clones poured out of the trees, swarming toward the steadily growing monster that was Sabaku no Gaara. The body of the Kazekage’s son wasn’t really visible within the huge mass of sand that was already as tall as the Hokage’s tower, but that didn’t stop the whole thing from flailing around like a wild animal, knocking down trees in an ever-widening radius.

Even weirder were the high-pitched cries echoing from within the mass of sand. The occasional yips didn’t sound even remotely human, more like a raccoon or…

A tanuki. The damn thing looked more and more like one of those odd little raccoon-dogs.

It was so weird it was almost funny. But that didn’t stop it from obliterating the first row of clones to reach it. Naruto ignored the memories of incredible pressure as they expired and circled around behind the monstrosity.

Eight kunai with explosive tags made a neat circle as they embedded in the behemoth’s back.

The massive explosion when they triggered made the still-expanding sand tanuki stumble forward, but the crater left in the creature’s back was already filling in before Naruto’s eyes.

A tail almost as large as his apartment building swept out and crushed the trunk of the tree where Naruto was perched. The surprised Genin was pitched forward, along with several tons of tree. Some hastily created clones were able to hurl him free of the falling debris…

Right into the grasp of the sand demon’s left forepaw.

OoOoO

Hinata screamed when she saw Naruto caught and crushed within Gaara’s paw. From the way the clones had acted to save that particular one, she knew it was the real Naruto.

Temari obviously wasn’t a kunoichi to ignore golden opportunities, because her wind blast caught the distracted Hyuuga and slammed her into a tree trunk.

Stunned by what she’d seen as much as by the impact, Hinata struggled to her hands and knees as the Sand girl moved in to finish her off.

OoOoO

A large hunk of wood slammed into the puppet, knocking it off balance and giving Shikamaru time to jump clear.

Shino dropped down from above, one of his kama held in both hands, poised to swing down and do as much damage as possible to the wooden puppet while it was off balance.

A spike emerged from the puppet’s back, shooting out to impale the Aburame. Shino’s kama fell from his suddenly lax fingers and stuck in the tree limb with a muted thump.

OoOoO

Naruto barely had time to take a breath before the paw closed. As the chakra-controlled sand of Gaara’s new body flowed around him, a flash of inspiration struck.

As the pressure mounted with frightening speed, he frantically concentrated chakra into the center of his coils.

Fox, if you don’t want to die here today, you damn well better help!

Kyuubi no Kitsune seemed awfully well informed to Naruto. Too knowledgeable by far to not be at least peripherally aware of what was going on around his prison. The surge of red chakra that slammed through his coils only confirmed this.

For an instant, his veins felt like they were full of molten steel. Naruto couldn’t help but scream as he released the technique, even if sand did start to pour into his mouth.

OoOoO

Temari pulled out a kunai as the stunned kunoichi crawled around a tree in a pathetic attempt to avoid her fate. She didn’t relish killing, but orders were orders, and her brother…

She shook her head and stepped around the trunk. The Hyuuga girl was still on all fours. For someone her teammates had defended so fiercely as not being weak, she sure hadn’t shown much strength. She shook her head and steeled herself for what she had to do.

And then she heard the… thing her brother had turned into let out a shrill scream as its left arm exploded.

Temari’s eyes widened as sand rained down all across the forest. The defeated Hyuuga at her feet disappeared in a puff of vapor and Hyuuga Hinata came charging down the tree trunk, her left hand spearing out in a Jyuuken strike.

OoOoO

Kankuro grinned under his face paint. One down and one to go. His fingers twitched and one of Karasu’s segmented arms looped out, reaching for his other victim.

Then the impaled genin on Karasu’s back, who looked like a fitting trophy, exploded into a mass of bugs that immediately began burrowing into Kankuro’s pride and joy.

“What the hell?” he murmured. His eyes glanced back toward the kama stuck in the tree limb. It was still there. Did Aburames just turn into bugs when they died?

“An effective tactic to reinforce the illusion of the kikai bunshin,” a voice proclaimed just as a blinding pain erupted in the side of Kankuro’s head. It took an instant before he realized he’d just been clubbed in the head.

The Suna genin crumpled forward, allowing himself to fall off the limb where he’d been concealed. A twitch of his fingers in free-fall was enough to summon the heavily damaged Karasu to catch him.

At the moment, he wasn’t capable of finer manipulations, so he sagged to the ground to play for time. “How did you find me? Even if they can smell me, I moved every time I saw your damn bugs get close.”

“You are correct in that my allies can track you by scent,” the creepy bastard said as he cautiously moved in. “However, the bugs within my body are more than capable of tracking that scent as well, and I can move somewhat faster when the situation calls for it.”

The lazy bastard that fought Temari landed next to the creepy one and handed him the kama.

“Loaning a weapon to your bunshin was smart,” Kankuro admitted as his vision began to clear. Creepy or not, that bastard hit harder than Temari at her time of the month. “When I saw it was solid, I thought I had you.”

Kankuro blinked away the last of the double images. “Just like you think you have me,” he said as he dropped the smoke bomb he’d palmed.

OoOoO

The Hokage ducked under a strike that would otherwise have decapitated him. He was starting to wonder if going hand to hand with his much younger student was such a good idea. He was off balance to parry Orochimaru’s follow-up backhand cut, but a senbon needle forestalled the attack by protruding from the rogue ninja’s elbow.

Haku was flashing from mirror to mirror faster than the eye could see, peppering Orochimaru with throwing needles every time he had a clear shot. It was a major distraction, and just enough to keep them on an even footing.

Even as Orochimaru yanked out the needle with a snarl, Sarutobi brought Enma’s staff form around at knee level. The snake summoner, his attention momentarily on the supremely annoying chuunin, was an instant too slow dodging backward. With a crunch of bone, he was swept off his feet, sword flying into the air as he landed in a crumpled heap near the edge of the ice mirrors.

Sarutobi drew in a ragged breath as he looked around, wary for substitution techniques or other tricks. Orochimaru let out a low groan, but did nothing else.

Slowly the old man approached his former student.

OoOoO

Naruto spat out the sodden sand as he tumbled through the air. He hadn’t expected that to work so well, but he guessed the way the sand wrapped around him magnified the effect of the pulse.

Opening his eyes to orient himself, he saw a flash of red atop the beige juggernaut. It was Gaara’s hair. The upper half of his body was sticking out of the sand demon’s forehead like some kind of reversed pimple. He looked to be dead or asleep, but he was pretty sure Gaara being dead would kill the demon too.

So why was he asleep?

The rapidly approaching ground jolted him out of his thoughts. He quickly formed another batch of clones, finally beginning to feel a little drained after the countless hordes he’d created – not to mention two full strength chakra pulses. He wondered briefly if this was how everyone else felt all of the time.

‘Why does almost getting killed make me so thoughtful?’ Naruto wondered as a clone grabbed the sleeve of his jacket and hurled him toward another clone.

“Gaara!” a voice screamed from below.

Naruto’s head pivoted even as another clone caught him and hurled him toward the others waiting on a tree trunk. The blond Suna kunoichi ran out into the clearing, ignoring the sand still raining down from the explosion. She stopped and swung her fan behind her, blasting a wind attack back the way she’d come. However, the technique came out very weak – one of her arms didn’t seem to be working right and an entire section of her fan had the paper torn out.

Then he saw Hinata emerge from the trees, rolling to the side to avoid the attack. She was sweating and breathing heavily, but her eyes were hard as diamonds. Naruto didn’t think he’d ever been so proud to be her teammate.

Naruto shook his head to clear it as he landed on the side of a tree-trunk, hanging there by the chakra in his hands and feet. With them fighting this close to Gaara… he needed to end this quickly.

Naruto ran down the bole of the ancient tree, letting gravity accelerate him even more. He saw Shino and Shikamaru chasing a battered wooden puppet out of the corner of his eye, but their presence here only hardened his resolve.

The sand demon’s wails were trailing off, only to be replaced by shrieks of rage. Behind him, Naruto heard Temari shouting as some of his peripheral clones were drawn into the running battle between her and Hinata. The memories he received as they were dispersed made his stomach hurt. The anguish on the girl’s face bothered him, but it wouldn’t stop him from killing her brother.

OoOoO

Sarutobi stared down at the man who’d once been his hope for the future of Konoha. But that was a long time ago, and now he’d become more of a nightmare.

“Are you going to gloat now, old man?” Orochimaru demanded with a sibilant rasp.

The bones protruding from his shattered legs were a sickening sight, but a relief as well. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could have kept up with him. “I take no pleasure in this,” Sarutobi murmured as he hefted his staff. His former student appeared to have also suffered spinal damage from his landing. His left arm was outstretched at his side, only the fingertips twitching. For a moment he considered just taking him prisoner, but he ruthlessly crushed the thought. As long as that genius brain was alive, Orochimaru would be a deadly threat. He raised his battle staff. At least he could give his greatest failure a quick end.

An eye popped open on the staff between his hands. “Look out behind you!” Enma shouted.

Sarutobi spun. Orochimaru’s sword wrenched itself free of the tiles where it had landed and hurtled through the air at him. His eyes barely had time to see this before the view was blocked.

Haku was now standing between him and poisoned blade.

OoOoO

When Naruto reached the forest floor, he switched to horizontal travel without slowing. Once he was no longer flirting with free-fall, a quick thump to his weight releases sped him up until the greenery at the edges of his vision blurred.

He could feel his other chakra, still agitated from the chakra pulse, surging through his coils, seeking release. His fists trembled with a desire to punish Gaara, to beat him senseless for threatening his village, his friends.

The reddish tint sliding across his eyes, even as his sense of smell became even more acute, scared Naruto almost as badly as the monster in front of him. The demon inside him was something he could never escape. Gritting his teeth as he closed in on the screaming monster, he forced the red chakra down into his feet, away from his head.

Naruto could tell his prisoner didn’t like that one bit, and the chakra surged even harder for a moment. But he had more important things to worry about, because he was now running up the side of the giant sand tanuki’s ankle, using the extra chakra to maintain traction. The red chakra was actually helping, because he noticed that the sand seemed to absorb a lot more chakra than was normally required to maintain contact on a vertical surface.

He hoped he could move quickly enough to reach Gaara before the sand grabbed him. But as he ran up the demon’s leg, he noticed that while the sand near him surged toward him, the stuff immediately around his feet stayed still.

Still, the sand farther away was reacting to his intrusion, rearing up and arcing forward to crush him like a bug. He poured on the speed as he climbed the bulging torso, past the arm that was still reforming even as it ponderously swung down at him.

Naruto changed direction with a sharpness only someone gluing themselves down with chakra could manage, angling toward the opposite shoulder. The whole world seemed to shudder as the demon’s arm slammed into its own stomach, yards behind the charging genin.

Even as the demon yowled at ear-splitting volumes, Naruto saw the sand ahead of him rearing up like a wave. The sand tsunami crashed down across the monster’s chest, but Naruto had changed directions again. He was breathing so hard he couldn’t hear anything else, but he finally made it onto the demon’s shoulder.

But the closer he came to the demon’s head, the quicker it seemed to react. Sand began to spring up all around him in grasping tendrils, so he crouched down and leaped upward right before they smashed down on him.

Naruto’s awkward and hasty jump got him clear of the trap, but now he was airborne and helpless. However, he was also very close to his objective. He arched his back as he carefully molded chakra. Slowly turning in the air, he got a very close look at a face several meters wide, complete with freaky diamond-pupiled eyes that were crossing trying to see him.

Then he was past them, drawing closer and closer to the forehead. Naruto completed the seals and then stuck out his arm and braced himself for impact.

“Raiton: Shokkingu Haji!”

OoOoO

Sarutobi was moving before what he saw fully registered. His left shoulder smashed into Haku’s ribs, the unexpected blow shoving the young chuunin aside. But he was still in the way, and no time left to use his staff…

Moving with a precision he thought he’d lost a decade ago, the Sandaime Hokage brought his right arm up in a picture-perfect inside forearm block just as the sword reached him. Sparks flew from the metal bracer as the poisoned blade was diverted to the side. The metal was heavily scored, but the attack had missed.

“So noble, even to the end,” a voice said behind him, dripping with scorn.

He spun to see Orochimaru standing behind him on two perfectly fine legs, swinging the sword he had just caught at the Hokage’s head.

Fooled by a simple henge, he thought in disgust. With Enma in his left hand, there was no chance of bringing the staff around in time. He got his forearm up in time to block, but this time the blade bit into the damaged metal. He barely felt the cut as the blade pierced the sleeve of his uniform, but the burning agony as the poison seeped into his veins made him gasp.

“You’re dead already, old man,” Orochimaru sneered.

“No!” Haku snapped. The chuunin grabbed the Hokage’s upper arm and the burning was replaced by numbness as the old man’s entire arm was frozen solid. The ice encasing the bracer climbed up the sword and in a flash had enveloped Orochimaru’s right hand. His left hand barely let go of the blade before it too was captured.

Out of the corner of his eye, Sarutobi could see the boy’s face twisted into a rictus of hate. The ice around his arm advanced no further, but it moved steadily up Orochimaru’s as he tried to pull free. Still, the Hokage’s entire limb had been frozen solid, and the cold began to seep into the rest of his body, draining his flagging energy and making him very, very tired. “Haku?” he said.

The fury melted away from the boy’s face. “I am sorry, Hokage-sama, but that is the only way I can think of to stop the poison,” Haku said in a soft voice. “But the ice on him will advance until it stops his heart.”

Orochimaru tugged harder, pulling both of them forward. Despite his frantic efforts, they were still joined together as the ice passed his elbow and moved toward his shoulder. “Let me go, you freak!” he hissed.

“For attacking my Hokage, you will die,” Haku said, his soft voice as implacable as any Sarutobi could remember.

With a snarl of frustration, Orochimaru raised his free hand and smashed it down on his frozen forearm. It shattered into grisly chunks, as did the sword.

The snake summoner leapt back as the barrier suddenly flickered and died. Four shadowy figures leapt in from the corners as the ANBU just started moving. Haku moved to guard the Hokage, who was sinking to his knees and beginning to shake, but all four of them converged on Orochimaru. Sarutobi lost sight of them as the ANBU moved in.

He thought he saw them leap away with ANBU in pursuit, but his vision was getting cloudy. He blinked as one of the masked shinobi angrily demanded that Haku explain himself. “The arm was poisoned,” the Hokage said in a shaky voice. “Orochimaru wouldn’t use any venom that has an antidote.” He coughed and shivered again. “It will have to come off.”

The day seemed to be getting darker, but Sarutobi knew better. He hoped things were going better elsewhere in the village he loved.

OoOoO

If the situation wasn’t so deadly, Naruto would have laughed out loud.

Sabaku no Gaara, demon container and terror of the sands, was now wide awake. To go with his wide eyes, his short red hair was now standing completely on end. It was even worse than Hinata’s had been, that time they’d sparred.

Of course, Naruto had a clear view of this since one arm was wrapped tightly around Gaara’s shoulders and the other was holding a kunai up to his right eyeball.

Despairing wails from the demon below them nearly shattered his eardrums, but they also told him that waking up Gaara had been a smart move. The mass of sand below them seemed to be softening, losing cohesion, even as it reared up to crush the green-clad genin. His legs were already enveloped.

“Don’t even think about it!” Naruto snapped. “Unless you think you can kill me before I push this through your eye. No sand there to stop it.”

It was a calculated risk. He wasn’t sure that even the threat of instant death would deter the crazy jinchuuriki. But the sand stopped rising – for the moment at least. He could also feel the mass below them trembling as the demon let out a mournful sigh… at a deafening volume.

What he wasn’t prepared for was Gaara’s dark-ringed eyes to focus past the kunai and lock onto his own. “Why haven’t you killed me?” he asked in an eerily calm voice. “My existence has no meaning.”

The utterly emotionless way the question was asked made Naruto’s stomach turn over. He remembered Hinata wondering what it would be like if he’d been raised with no one who cared about him, no one precious to him.

If he’d been raised as a weapon, like it seems Gaara was.

For an instant, Naruto was struck by a thunderbolt of déjà vu.  This… this was… not right. He remembered sitting by Hinata’s bed at the hospital, hearing her describe her family. This was wrong and he had to fix it.

Somehow.

The sand was still losing cohesion, but Naruto was more concerned about Gaara. The empty teal eyes were looking past the kunai, focusing on him now. If he decided that Naruto lacked the will to kill him…

Naruto blinked as he received the memories of another clone. This one had been helping Hinata with the fan-user, Temari, the one Sensei’s dossier identified as Gaara’s sister. His clone had been caught on the edge of a wind blast, but before he dispersed, he’d gotten a good look at the kunoichi. She was trying desperately to get past Hinata and into the clearing, even though she moved like she’d taken more than a couple of Jyuuken hits.

Even as he saw Gaara’s eyes take on a calculating look, Naruto scowled and snapped “Idiot!”

Gaara blinked.

“You say your existence has no meaning?” Naruto snarled, “Then why the hell are your brother and sister trying so hard to save you?” The look on Gaara’s face was so bewildered that Naruto felt a little sick inside… but he didn’t let that show on his face. “Your sister can’t even move one of her arms and she’s still trying to get past my team mate.” He grimaced. “She’s crying and screaming your name, you idiot. And your brother is facing two to one odds as well. Maybe you don’t think your existence has any meaning, but they sure as hell do. And they’re going to get killed if we keep this up much longer.”

The Suna genin, whose hair was finally returning to normal, leaned forward, totally ignoring Naruto’s kunai. “She’s crying?” he asked, his hollow voice a little less remote than before. “She never cries.”

“Well she is now,” Naruto snapped, pulling back the kunai before the oblivious demon-container hurt himself. “She obviously cares about what happens to you, even if you don’t. Are you going to get her killed?”

Gaara’s eyes focused again on Naruto’s, with an intensity he found really creepy. “You won’t hesitate to kill me, will you?”

“Not if it will keep my friends safe,” Naruto replied, his voice cracking despite his best efforts.

“Then why did you stop just now?”

“Because…” Naruto’s voice trailed off. “Because you’re like me. Or what I’d be like if I didn’t have my friends. One of them pointed that out to me. I had a chance to give you a choice, so I did.”

Gaara stared at him for a long moment, and Naruto tightened his grip around the kunai. Then the Suna genin slowly nodded. The sand moved away from them both, releasing Naruto’s legs, and slowly lowered them to the ground.

When they reached the ground, most of the sand dispersed while the rest moved to re-form the calabash on Gaara’s back. Naruto warily released his hold on Gaara and pocketed his kunai.

The other battles around the clearing had slowly ground to a halt while this was happening, so it was mostly silent when Gaara raised his voice.

“Our mission is ended.”

Author’s Notes:

Dang that was hard to write. Interweaving multiple action sequences and not having them suck (and hopefully having all of them contribute to building the tension) was surprisingly challenging.

Before anyone else asks: Yes, the Hyuuga clan is a lot nastier than in canon. The reason is directly related to the AU divergence point, which as I have said, occurred well before the story begins. (Even before Naruto was born.) In fact, his behavior is a major clue that one reader has already used to figure out the plot. Complaining that you think Hiashi is out of character is like complaining that the story events haven’t exactly mirrored canon. The exact sequence of events will eventually be revealed, but feel free to speculate on the Viridian Dreams forums.

Temari isn’t a weakling, but she had an ideal matchup in the preliminaries, a real stroke of luck. She certainly didn’t dominate her match against Shikamaru, and now she’s facing someone who doesn’t like to fight at long range with easily deflected weapons, and in terrain that limits the effectiveness of her techniques. (And no, I don’t think she has her summon yet, or she’d have used it against Sasuke in canon.) Hinata has also been through her own crucible of sorts, but this was only a preliminary test of her true mettle.

Why did Shino club Kankuro instead of slicing him up? Three reasons: Information in his head could be valuable, and with his kikai tearing up Karasu Kankuro is much less of a threat. Finally, he is a blood relative of Gaara, and holding him captive might give them some small leverage against the Tanuki version of Godzilla. Probably not as much leverage as Shino might hope, but he doesn’t know quite how messed up Gaara’s childhood really was.

No, this isn’t Haku’s first appearance in the story. Remember the chuunin that led Naruto to the bathroom? The one Sakura looked startled at? Yeah, that one.

Yes, Orochimaru’s plan has kind of fallen to pieces…  but in canon I found it to be rather overly-complicated and not failure insulated. Someone needs to remind that megalomaniac that no plan survives contact with the enemy. (And yes, I enjoyed chucking a couple of monkey wrenches into things.)

Regarding Shukaku’s paw: Light a firecracker and let it go off on the open palm of your hand you will get a bruise and a minor burn. Let it go off inside a clenched fist and you will likely need help picking up your fingers. The chakra-enriched sand also mostly contained that pulse, so it didn’t travel very far. Not that Naruto could see too much at the time…

Temari… there were hints of her concern for her brother in canon, but they were battling with fear of him and overconfidence in his abilities. As she said, seeing him get manhandled awoke her to the fact that he isn’t invulnerable… which led to her reaction when it looked like Naruto was about to kill her brother.

A minor rant: Why do people ask me questions in unsigned reviews with no valid email address? Do they not really want an answer?

One thank you to my father, from whom I borrowed one of the Sandaime’s pithier lines. I’m sure he’ll recognize it when he sees it. He got me started on reading Heinlein at a very impressionable age, so most of what you read here is indirectly his fault anyway.

Happy Birthday, old man!

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