Disclaimer: For real, I don't own anything.

Piccolo and Orochimaru slammed together then clasped hands before shooting straight up into the sky, slamming knees and feet together, trying to work their way out of the clench and kick their enemy into submission at the same time. Piccolo could feel the power of the Kaio-ken running through him like a shot of electricity, supercharging him for the fight.

Piccolo was better at aerial fighting and managed to slip Orochimaru's guard, seize the Sannin by the shirt, and hurl him earthward in a classic shoulder throw. The Sannin tumbled, straightened, then came at him again. Piccolo shot to one side, a bright red bolt against the sky, feinted, then vanished and reappeared on the ground before blasting right back up and hitting Orochimaru in the spine with a knee.

He arched with the blow and presented Piccolo with his unguarded stomach, a target that the green warrior happily attacked, hitting with a flurry of fast blows. Orochimaru recovered, lashed out, but missed as Piccolo, moving with speed enhanced by King Kai's technique, spun inside the Sannin's guard and laid his shin right at the base of Orochimaru's neck.

The ninja howled, eliciting a grin from the Namekian, who followed through with the attack, hurling Orochimaru earthward once again. This time, the shinobi didn't recover and hit home hard enough to make the very air tremble with the thunder of impact.

That might have been overdoing it, Piccolo thought apprehensively, flicking a fast glance at the lonely mountain and its mine, the only thing sheltering the village from the wrath of the two feuding titans. If he hits the ground too hard it might cause a collapse in the tunnels. His lip curled in a snarl. He hated fighting with handicaps. It was so much easier just to cut loose and damn the consequences but damning the consequences here would mean the loss of innocent life, Shuu's life specifically, and that was counterintuitive to what Piccolo wanted. I have to move the fight away from the village, he realized, watching as Orochimaru clambered out of the dust below, glaring bloody murder at the hovering warrior. Question is, can I get him to go for it?

Orochimaru's fingers flew through a sequence.

"Futon! Fuujin no Jutsu!"

The huge cloud of dust Orochimaru had thrown up when he landed suddenly surged for Piccolo as if it had a mind of its own. Piccolo's Kaio-ken aura flashed into being as he shot for the earth below, cutting under the swiftly moving technique. He landed for a fraction of a second before pushing off again and speeding straight for his target. Orochimaru saw him coming and changed the direction of the technique.

Piccolo poured on the speed, snapped to one side in a burst of red light, then hooked around Orochimaru and hit him in the face. Orochimaru shot backwards, speeding a few feet above the ground. Piccolo went high and came down hard, slamming a foot into the other man's stomach hard enough to cause him to splinter rock.

Orochimaru popped, revealing him to be a shadow clone.

Piccolo ducked, Kusanagi's blade whistling through the space his head had just occupied. The Namekian swept one leg out, shooting blind for Orochimaru's legs. The shinobi didn't fall for it, hopping over the sweep, and cutting down with a hard overhead stroke. Piccolo rolled for his life, the blade cutting deeply, but harmlessly, into the vacated spot.

The green warrior kicked back to his feet, flowing into a simple front kick that probably would have decapitated a normal man. Orochimaru mimicked Piccolo's evasion from earlier, spinning to the outside of the warrior's attack and hacking down with the sword in his hand.

Piccolo acted fast, shortening his kick, planting his foot, and ducking low, raising his hand and catching the pommel of the Kusanagi in his palm. He stopped the blow then shoved Orochimaru back with a sharp grunt, slamming his shoulder into the other man's chest, making him stumble back a few paces, opening him up for Piccolo's follow-up punch, which catapulted Orochimaru away as if fired from a cannon.

Red flame blazed to life once again as Piccolo flew forward like a bullet. Orochimaru snapped himself upright, slowing to a near standstill in a heartbeat, too wide mouth drawn back in a poison-smeared snarl, his hands glowing with power. Ki streamed at the onrushing Piccolo, the attack backed by Orochimaru's scream of rage. Piccolo smirked. It was oddly comforting to be attacked like that. A barrage of ki blasts he could handle. He sped up, diving headlong into the attack then vanished right before he met it, reappearing behind Orochimaru, who only had enough time to begin to face his assailant before Piccolo's heel slammed into his skull, throwing the shinobi forward.

Piccolo let out a yell and ki blast of his own, the streak of yellow catching the tumbling Sannin full in the chest. Orochimaru braced against the attack, preventing an explosion, but that wasn't Piccolo's true aim. It was immensely satisfying for the Namekian to watch as he saw Orochimaru put the pieces together and shoot an alarmed glance over his shoulder.

The green warrior had decided to turn Orochimaru's own attack against him. The ki blast fired from Piccolo had been intended to throw the ninja into his own barrage. Rapid fire balls of fire drew a line of thunderclaps through the forest as Orochimaru collided with his own energy. The detonations concealed the shinobi from view, but Piccolo wasn't so naïve as to believe the Sannin was really dead. Not from that. So Piccolo flared his Kaio-ken again, gathered ki to his fists, and launched a barrage of his own.

It never hit. Instead the balls of yellow light stopped dead in the air all around where Piccolo thought Orochimaru to be. The alien kept up the attack until dozens of points of light the size of beach balls hung all around like will-o-the-wisps.

Orochimaru's ki flared with his scream of anger, blowing away the concealing smokescreen. He glared bloody murder at Piccolo, who regarded the other fighter with calm indifference. "You are a thoroughly annoying man," Orochimaru snarled. "Why are you so strong!"

"The Kaio-ken," Piccolo replied. "I should congratulate you actually. You're the first person aside from Goku and Gohan to make me use it." His lip curled in a sneer as he remembered the training he'd gone through on King Kai's dust ball after dying at the hands of the saiyans. Piccolo had opted out of the training at the time, but he wasn't stupid. So he'd pretended not to be interested in what the rotund blue kai had to teach while at the same time watching closely as Tien, Yamcha, Krillin, and Chiaotzu all learned the enhancement technique.

Piccolo had hated King Kai's training methods and therefore hated the Kaio-ken, having never used it after learning it, but decided to shelve his pride and use the technique in order to better prepare Gohan for his return to the other dimension. To use it in open combat really, really, REALLY, grated.

"Don't get so cocky," Orochimaru snarled, fingers shooting through a seal sequence. "You're going to die now."

"You first," Piccolo answered smirking, nodding to the balls of light. "Or did you not notice?" Before Orochimaru could do more than comprehend his situation, Piccolo sprang his trap. "Hellzone Grenade!" He clenched a hand into a fist. As one, every single ball of ki shot into Orochimaru. The detonation of that much energy was more akin to a nuclear blast than any conventional explosion. When it faded it revealed a crater nearly half a mile wide and hundreds of feet deep. It stretched nearly to the outskirts of the village. Piccolo had managed to force the fight outside of it and had taken a risk using a blast that big, but it had been a necessary one. Orochimaru was not an opponent to hold back against.

Orochimaru emerged from the ground, bruised, bloodied, battered, but still very much alive. His outfit was torn to rags, his pants torn, flack vest burned away entirely, showing off a mass of scar tissue, and the tanto at his belt was naught but a warped mass of burned wood and melted steel. Large patches of Orochimaru's skin were burned severely, so severely that Piccolo actually felt a little guilty for it. Only a little though.

The Sannin lurched upright and drifted drunkenly into the air, wobbling to the lip, only a few feet from Piccolo, who folded his arms and raised a brow. He can't be that depleted, can he? The warrior had his doubts. From everything he'd heard, shinobi were a deceitful lot. He'd be stupid to take this at face value, but at the same time, Orochimaru was on one knee, trembling so hard his teeth were chattering.

When Orochimaru raised his head and locked eyes with Piccolo was when he knew. Something was wrong with the Sannin. Exactly what that was, the Namekian had no idea, but nevertheless, something was wrong, horribly, deathly wrong. A more charitable man would have walked away, content that Orochimaru's threat was dealt with, but Piccolo had ever been the pragmatist.

Something inside Orochimaru had rendered him unable to fight.

Piccolo would be a fool not to take advantage of the situation.

He leaned over, seized Orochimaru by the throat and jerked him up, lifting the smaller man clean off his feet. "Dammit," Orochimaru gurgled, seemingly unable to get his trembling limbs to obey him. "Of all the times to have an episode now. Kukuku. You got lucky."

Piccolo raised his free hand, pointing his fingertips at Orochimaru's heart. "Maybe," he answered. "But there are times it's better to be lucky than good." His muscles bunched, preparing to drive his hand clean through the sadistic shinobi.

His hand shot forward.


Piccolo jerked short, fingernails just barely breaking the skin on the Sannin's tortured chest. He glanced over at the voice and felt his blood run cold. Shuu was on his knees in front of the kid with the dark hair, a kid who had one firm hand on the boy's shoulder and his naked sword laid across Shuu's throat with the other.

"Let me guess," Piccolo said angrily. "Let him go or Shuu dies?"

"Something like that," Sasuke answered. "Kabuto and the other one are in the mines right now. Let Orochimaru go or we'll slaughter the whole village."

"I thought that was your plan to begin with."

"His idea," Sasuke jerked his chin at the trembling Sannin, "not ours. I'm not interested in what one little mining village does. I'll trade your life for all of theirs. You come as our prisoner and we won't kill the villagers."

"Kukukuku," Orochimaru chuckled weakly. "Splendid Sasuke-kun. So then, Sensei-san…what will you do I…"

That was as far as he got. Piccolo drove his forehead into Orochimaru's nose, breaking it and knocking the helpless shinobi out in the same motion. Sasuke made to slit Shuu's throat but before he could, Piccolo tossed the limp Sannin to Sasuke. Orochimaru landed in a painful-looking heap but didn't even stir.

"He's all yours," Piccolo snarled. "Now release the boy."

Sasuke released his grip on Shuu, who scrambled away from the teenager, tears streaming down his dirty cheeks. He latched onto Piccolo's leg. "Don't hurt Mr. Piccolo!" he screamed at the top of his lungs.

Piccolo didn't take his eyes off Sasuke's. The most comfort he could offer the kid was to lay one hand on his head and gently push him away. "Don't worry about me, kid. Get out of here."



Shuu jerked as if slapped then scampered off.

Piccolo was sorely tempted to attack the teen across from him, but he knew that he would be forfeiting the lives of the villagers the second he tried. He was willing to bet that that radio collar around Sasuke's neck was on and transmitting everything. All Sasuke had to do was give some kind of signal, a word, a sharp inhalation, a grunt of impact, anything to let the others know that Piccolo wasn't cooperating, and the villagers would all die.

"You have your boss back. Now what?"

"Now?" Sasuke asked, his eyes suddenly a bright crimson color. "Sleep."

Something hit Piccolo, something he wasn't expecting, something he'd never encountered. Before he could do anything to resist, the world went black and Piccolo knew no more.

Gohan flashed from one side to another, feinting high before dropping low and slashing out with one leg. His attack took the feet of a puppet out from under it, sending it down, clattering with every movement. A slight weight hit his back and vanished, Sakura, using his hunched shoulders as a springboard.

The kunoichi let out a bellow equal of any martial artist and drove her fist clean through the puppet's head, shattering the wood and clay with nearly no effort. Gohan didn't watch her finish the strike.

He was dealing with hundreds of other puppets. They filled the air around him and Sakura, the clattering so pervasive that the two of them had to shout to be heard over it. The Super Saiyan suppressed a growl of frustration and anger. They'd shattered scores of puppets but dozens of scores more remained. They would be fighting until nightfall before they made even a slight headway against the overwhelming odds.

Gohan felt Sakura's back hit his and she let the snarl that Gohan had resisted some out.

"We're not getting anywhere!" She shouted. "Can't you blast them with one giant wave or something?"

"Sure," Gohan replied, "If you don't mind getting blasted with them!"

Sakura shot him a quick, wry, look over her shoulder. "I think I'll pass!"

Gohan returned his attention to the swirling morass of clicking and clattering forms. Chiyo was nowhere to be seen. She'd summoned up puppets of her own a little while ago and gone into battle. She'd summoned ten. Sasori had answered by summoning hundreds and using them as a shield. The vast majority had gone for Gohan, and Sakura when she'd come to back him up, and twenty or so had peeled off for Chiyo.

That had been nearly ten minutes ago and the intervening time was a mass of swirling colors, flashes of light, explosions, clattering, and shattering puppets. The really galling thing was that they weren't even that hard to take down. Gohan could have wiped out the entire group with one big pulse, just like Sakura had suggested.

He just didn't feel like wiping his friends out with it too.

A puppet flashed by, a feint, but it got too close. Gohan seized it in one powerful hand, spun in a full circle, the puppet whispering by over Sakura's head as she ducked out of the way, then hurled the weapon into another, tangling them up. A flash of ki turned them into ash and cinder a few moments later.

Sakura grunted behind him and Gohan heard the sharp crack of breaking wood.

"What are we up to?" She asked.

"Twenty apiece?" Gohan ventured.

"Sounds right," Sakura said. "Just once, I would like to go on a date that didn't involve death battles and explosions!"

"We've had a few of those," Gohan protested.

Sakura snorted. "Yeah," she replied, "and the last one involved a giant dragon!" He heard her gasp. The next second, she shot by him, working a kunai in a rapid defense against a puppet with what looked like circular saws for arms. Gohan seized her as she passed him, grabbing her arm, whirling her out of the way and added her weight to his momentum.

Gohan's foot cracked out and struck the puppet's head from its shoulders. The decapitated weapon staggered but didn't fall.

Not until Gohan hurled Sakura into it. The kunoichi overbore the puppet, slamming it down, breaking it into dozens of pieces. She hopped back into the center of the ring of debris they'd been creating.

That was another couple of puppets down, but there were still so many more to go.

Naruto's battle wasn't going much better.

Deidara's explosions were nearly constant, both from above, where the missing-nin crouched on a bird of clay and hurled clay bombs, and from below where he'd hidden land mines during the course of the battle with Shukaku, which was, in turn, alternating between trying to strike down Deidara's bird and trying to crush Naruto, Kakashi, and Temari.

Naturally it occasionally set off a land mine as well, which resulted in a billowing pillar of fire that would immolate anything that had the bad luck of being to close.

All too often, Naruto almost ended up being one of those somethings.

"Whaaaaah!" He yelled as he dove out of the way of yet another pillar of fire. He landed face first in the dust and rolled over, panting. Thus far, the battle had been a whole lot of dodging and not a lot of fighting. Naruto's horde of clones had borne the brunt of the explosions but with everything going on, there wasn't a lot of time before they ceased to be much help. He rolled over, panting, granted a brief reprieve as Shukaku took another swipe at Deidara. The bird the renegade rode rolled around the arm, letting out mocking caws the entire time.

"Tell me again why we didn't let Gohan handle this guy?" Naruto demanded of Kakashi when the jounin landed next to his fallen student, concerned that Naruto's luck had finally run out.

"I didn't think he could fly," Kakashi replied. He dropped flat as the Shukaku's arm swept by, nearly slamming into them. It hit the ground hard enough to fling them into the air briefly.

"Dammit!" Shukaku howled. "Hold still so's I can flatten you!"

"I'll pass!" Kakashi called back.

Naruto pushed himself back to his feet. "Isn't there anything we can do? Couldn't Temari do something about the Mad Bomber up there?"

Kakashi nodded. "She could, but I don't know where she went." Gaara's sister had vanished in the opening moments of the fight. A landmine had gone off underneath her. It was what tipped them off to the mines in the first place. Naruto didn't think for a second that Temari was dead. She was most likely hiding somewhere, planning and waiting for her moment. She was scary like that.

"What about Gohan?" Naruto asked.

Kakashi pointed over Naruto's shoulder. When Naruto looked, all he could see was a swirling mass of black fabric. Occasionally, a gap in the mass allowed him to see a flash of orange gi or pink hair but that was it. "I guess not," Naruto answered for himself.

A shadow fell over the two Konoha shinobi. Shukaku was on the attack, paw coming down from above this time. They sprang apart, right as it slammed down. Naruto snarled a curse then decided he'd had enough of the Shukaku's crap. He sprinted for the arm, latched himself to it with chakra, and skittered up it like a spider.

"There should be a superhero who does this," Naruto muttered as he climbed. A series of clay beasts, fashioned to look like some kind of stylized hyena, dropped onto the arm in front of him. They growled and yipped at him. Naruto snarled in reply. "I hate dogs," he muttered under his breath.

The hyenas came at him all at once. Naruto's fingers flashed through a seal sequence. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" An equal amount of clones met the hyenas mid-charge. They started wrestling but the clones managed to open a hole just large enough for Naruto to slip through. Once he was on Shukaku's shoulder, he turned and flung a handful of shuriken at the hyenas. They didn't like that. In fact they didn't it like it so much that they exploded, taking the clones with them. But they also severed Shukaku's arm just above the elbow, blowing it into useless sand.

"GAAAAH!" Shukaku howled, though if it was in pain or anger, Naruto couldn't tell. "You little shit! I'll squash you for that!" Its other hand tried to do just that, but Naruto managed to get out of the way.

"Yeah," he replied, sticking his tongue out at the raging demon. "You've done so well with that so far!"

"I'll kill you!" Shukaku screamed, its voice going up an octave or two. It started wrenching its body from side to side, flinging itself all over the place in an effort to throw Naruto off. Naruto's arms flailed as it almost succeeded but he managed to hold on both with chakra and his own muscles.

But it was too much movement to risk trying to get to its forehead, where Naruto was fairly certain that Gaara was. At least he'd been there the first time. Naruto hadn't seen the Kazekage hanging around on the Shukaku's forehead like some kind of outsized zit this time around but that didn't mean he wasn't there.

Still, first things first. Naruto had to stop Shukaku from trying to throw him off. Naruto couldn't do it himself but he knew someone who could. He'd done it once before even.

The landmine explosions had left Naruto with more than a few scrapes and cuts, some of them real bleeders, and one was still leaking red out all over his uniform. He swept a hand through the blood then walked his fingers through the seal sequence. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

One tremendous explosion of smoke and haze later, Naruto found himself perched on the nose of one very large and very grumpy red toad. Shukaku howled as he found himself buckle under the immense weight of Gamabunta, the chief toad of Naruto's summoned animals.

The monster didn't fall fully, instead bracing himself with his remaining arm.

"Hmmm?" Gamabunta said as his massive gold eyes swiveled down to take in the situation. He chuckled, the deep basso rumble enough to shake the leaves of some nearby trees. "Well, well, well. I remember you."

Shukaku trembled against Gamabunta's weight as it tried to look back at what had pinned it down. One gold eye went wide when it beheld the new arrival. "You! You're that damned toad from before!"

"It's been awhile, demon."

Shukaku's massive shoulders began to shake until it burst out laughing, the sound a sick parody of real laughter. It grated across Naruto's eardrums like a band of fingernails and chalkboards. "Oh I cannot tell you how much I've wanted to kill you since that day!"

Gamabunta shifted his seat, making Shukaku bear more of his weight. The demon trembled and nearly fell but somehow managed to stay upright. "I haven't given you a second thought, demon," the boss toad replied. "You're small fry compared to the Kyuubi."

"Don't compare me to that damn fox!" Shukaku howled. "Now I'm really going to tear out your heart!"

Two things happened in quick succession then.

First, Kakashi shot into the Shukaku's remaining arm, a swirling blue sphere of chaos held in his palm. "Rasengan!" The Yondaime's technique didn't sever the arm, but it did blow a massive enough hole that the arm dissolved anyway, something that Kakashi's own Raikiri couldn't do because of its element.

Second, Temari made her move.

She pelted up Gamabunta's back, launched herself into the air and unfurled her fan though where she'd been hiding in the first place Naruto didn't know. The wind kicked up, swirling in unseen torrents around her tessen. "Fuuton!" She screamed. "Daikamaitachi no Jutsu!" With one wave of that fan, she hurled a massive blade of wind that could level forests for miles around.

This particular one was much more focused but no less powerful, driving the power to cut a forest to lumber through the Shukaku's neck. The Shukaku looked shocked for a moment, then its head slipped from its shoulders and slammed to earth, dissolving into a massive dune.

Temari wasted no time in dropping down. She started digging frantically, looking for her brother so she could wake him up before Shukaku had a chance to rebuild himself. Naruto landed a moment later and began helping.

They found the Kazekage quickly enough.

"Gaara!" Temari called, shaking her brother. "Gaara!"

"Wake up you bastard!" Naruto shouted.

Then he punched Gaara square in the face.

"Hey!" Temari yelped.

"What?" Naruto demanded angrily. "We gotta wake him up, right?"

"So you punched him in the face?"

Naruto took in Temari's anger for a moment then he shrugged. "What? It worked last time."

Temari opened her mouth to reply but was cut short by a small cough. Both ninja looked down and smiled. Gaara's eyes were open and they were their usual color, not the haunting gold of the Shukaku. "Uzumaki Naruto," Gaara said then coughed again. When he spoke, his voice contained a hint of wry humor. "Always with the direct approach."

"Yep!" Naruto said happily, grinning down at the other jinchuuriki. He held out a hand, which Gaara took and used to lever himself upright. Together they faced Deidara, who had landed and was regarding the two demon hosts with much less aplomb then before. Naruto cracked his knuckles. "Well now, should we get started?"

Gaara crossed his arms over his chest and fixed Deidara with the glare that had spelled doom and fear for many other ninja in the last seconds of their lives. "Let's," he said simply.

And the battle began anew.

Okay, so, um...hi? It's been what, nearly a year since the last update? And what a year it's been let me tell you. I've had life just up and smack me around for awhile there but I think I've managed to chuck a few lemons back in its face that it should be less of a problem now. Or at least I hope so. And there have been long stretches where I just didn't want to write. Seriously. I would call up Word on my computer and stare at it for an hour and couldn't think of a damned thing to type. I think that's over with too so with any luck I should be getting back to a semi-regular schedule again.

Finally, a big thanks to everyone who reviewed and PM'd me and kept on telling me how much you enjoyed the story. That was what got me going again and it's no lie. I'd thank you all by name if I could but the truth of the matter is I don't really remember all of the names, so I'll just say THANK YOU in big capital letters and leave it at that.

~WingedFreedom 622