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

Chapter 13

Naruto flew backwards, his ears ringing from the heavy blow. Arching his back he managed to get his hands and feet in front of him before he smacked into a tree-trunk with stunning force. Bits of bark shot into the air and he barely managed to concentrate enough chakra to stick his hands and feet to the wood before he fell. That freaky grass genin was strong.

He shook his head to clear it, scanning the clearing for his teammates and allies. They’d only been traveling an hour before things started to get hairy. They’d avoided one team by using some forest leeches as a distraction, and were circling around to ambush them when Shino’s colonies sensed the pheromones of a single kikai bug approaching at high speed.

His super-sneaky teammate planted his kikai on all the other participants, but they should have been together in groups of three. Whether a lone competitor was a threat or an opportunity, they decided to see who it was.

Whatever it was that they had expected to see, it hadn’t been Kiba being chased by a giant snake.

OoOoO

Shino could see that the Inuzuka was clearly winded, and the snake was gaining on him. As the monstrous reptile reared up to strike, Naruto came in from the side, tackling Kiba out of the way. Unfortunately, Akamaru went flying from the sudden change in momentum. But Hinata was a heartbeat behind, and caught the tumbling canine with little more than a startled yelp. The snake, angry at being robbed of its meal, turned to pursue them, but that mistake proved fatal.

Shino dropped out of the trees above the snake, his arms trailing behind him. His hands flexed and a long baton of dull black metal shot out of each sleeve of his jacket. He caught the ends with the sureness of intensive practice and there was a distinct click as narrow, slightly curved blades folded out of each baton. They locked at a right angle to what were now the shafts of the modified kamas, the razor sharp metal pointing downward. With his arms above his plummeting body, they resembled scythe-like wings. Shino’s sandals landed on the back of the snake’s head, but before it could even register his presence, the blades continued their trajectory, curving into tight arcs as he straightened, his arms snapping downward.

The blades buried themselves in the snake’s eyes, ramming deep into the creature’s brain. The carcass slammed down, skidding on the ground. Shino extracted his weapons with a sharp jerk, cleaning the blades on the grass before folding them up again. By this time, his teammates had circled back into the clearing with their ‘prisoner’ – though by this time Kiba had reclaimed his dog.

But not before it had licked Hinata’s face several times, to her visible embarrassment.

Naruto let out a low whistle before speaking. “Is that what Misato-sama was teaching you?” he asked, clearly impressed.

Shino nodded as he slid the hafts of his weapons into his sleeves again. With an audible click, the spring-loaded holders locked them into place.

“You have the coolest parents,” Naruto muttered as Kiba got his breath back and began to explain. He’d been separated from the rest of Team Seven by some freaky wind attack, only to find himself on some monster snake’s dinner menu. As he talked, he began to lead him back to where he’d been attacked.

As they approached the clearing where Team Seven had been separated, Akamaru began to bark and Shino started scanning the greenery around them. “Something is wrong,” the boy murmured, “my colonies are sensing a large amount of chakra being expended up ahead.”

“Akamaru senses it too,” Kiba added as he patted the puppy that was now burrowing down into his jacket.

“Up above,” Hinata whispered, her Byakugan gleaming with the bits of late afternoon sun that filtered down past the leaves.

Shoving a bit of chakra into his legs, Naruto leapt into the canopy in a single bound, the others less than a step behind. Entering a potentially hostile situation at ground level was to be avoided whenever possible. Iruka-sensei’s lectures on tactics seemed so boring back at the Academy. Now, it was all Naruto could do to keep the remains of his last meal down.

Landing on a thick bough in a stealthy crouch, Naruto scanned the branches. Sasuke and Sakura were there, still alive too. On the other hand, Sakura looked like she’d seen better days and Sasuke had a bloody wound on his thigh. He ignored the slight twinge in his stomach and examined the third person, who was standing on a separate bough.

The Hidden Grass genin stared right at him with a look that was simultaneously bored and contemptuous. Naruto hadn’t made more than a whisper of sound when he landed, but he’d still been detected. He swallowed as the stranger’s eyes bored into his with a mixture of mild annoyance and more killing intent than even Sabaku no Gaara generated. There was no way this creep was a normal genin.

“More insects here to interfere?” he… it murmured in a peculiarly androgynous voice. “I’ll have to talk to my friend about his performance. I send him to kill one, and instead four come back. Very disappointing, but I’m only interested in testing Sasuke’s potential. I’m afraid you’ll all just have to die. Maybe Sasuke would like to watch, hmmm? Just like before…”

Sasuke launched forward a fraction of a second before Naruto. The Uchiha threw a rapid flurry of punches that the genin blocked with a single hand. The instant before Naruto’s fist connected with the back of the freak’s head, the other arm whipped around in a backhanded blow that sent him flying into a tree trunk.

OoOoO

By the time Naruto had regained his bearings, Sasuke was stumbling backwards from the freak’s counterattack. Naruto frowned. Since when were Sasuke’s eyes red?

The Grass ninja’s follow-up was interrupted by a spread of kunai thrown by Kiba. Shino was circling around the fight, no doubt spreading his kikai-bugs, but Hinata was darting in toward the enemy’s rear, her hands up for a Jyuuken strike.

Naruto almost shouted for her to stop, but he had to trust that she knew what she was doing. Instead, he put his hands together into the ram seal and summoned a score of kage bunshin, spread around the nearby branches. They instantly began circling as well, waiting for an opening.

Hinata almost made it, but at the last second the freaky genin pivoted and drove a back-kick into her stomach, driving her off her feet so fast she didn’t even have a chance to hit any of the tenketsu on his leg. Fortunately, one of Naruto’s clones was close enough to catch her, and pivoting, tossed her to a second clone on a higher branch right before the freak’s follow-up spin-kick drove through the first clone’s chest, making it explode.

“Kage bunshin?” the weirdo said in a voice that was really getting on Naruto’s nerves. “Maybe you aren’t as boring as you look.”

“Get out of here!” Sasuke yelled, “All of you! He’s way above our level!”

“I don’t think it will be that simple,” Shino said as he threw a pair of kunai. At first, they looked to be underthrown, but when they embedded in the wood to either side of the Grass ninja’s feet, they each had an explosive tag that was already flaring.

The explosion filled the air with smoke, but not flying body parts as Naruto had hoped. He couldn’t even smell any blood. When the smoke cleared the bough was gone, but in its place was an even larger snake, with the Grass-nin standing on top of its head.

“Oh hell no!” Kiba yelled. “You have got to be kidding me!”

Sasuke looked like he was about to explode. He kept glancing at his teammates then shook his head and his eyes faded back into their normal black color. “Fine,” he snapped, as he pulled something out of his pouch. “You want our scroll, you can have it.”

“No!” Kiba yelled. Even Sakura looked dismayed.

“This is not worth us all getting killed like Tazuna,” Sasuke snarled.

“I suppose that goes for us as well,” Naruto said, slinging his backpack off his shoulders and rummaging around in it. He knew Hinata and Shino were staring at him, but he just ignored them for the moment. It took a little digging, since he had their scroll in the very bottom of the bag for safe-keeping. He even had to get one of his clones to step around the tree and help him for a moment.

All the while the Grass freak had this amused little smirk on his face, one that made Naruto’s knuckles itch. But now was not the time to scratch them on his way-too-pretty-to-be-a-guy face.

Meanwhile, Kiba and Sasuke had gotten into a heated argument, one that culminated in Kiba grabbing the scroll away from Sasuke and tossing it back over his shoulder to Sakura. Amazingly enough, she didn’t immediately hand it over to her crush. When Sasuke started to argue again, Kiba told him to shut up and used the index and middle fingers of his right hand to doink him on the forehead.

Sasuke went completely rigid when the slightly taller Inuzuka did this, and for a moment Naruto thought he was going to go after his teammate. Instead, he turned away with a glare.

“Fine,” Naruto announced in a loud voice. “My team was just passing by. Here’s our scroll. We can go now, right?” He carefully tossed the scroll to the Grass genin.

“That is the way of prey,” the weirdo said in response as it weighed the scroll in its hand. “When confronted by a predator, they offer up something in their place, hoping to be left alone.”

“But there is no guarantee that you will do that, is there?” Shino asked in a very chill tone. Hinata had regained her breath and moved away from his clone. She was frowning at Naruto, and that bugged him more than a little.

“No, there isn’t,” the Grass ninja agreed with a leer.

“Good,” Naruto announced brightly. “Then I won’t feel bad about this.”

With a poof, the outer seal on the Heaven scroll disappeared, revealing explosive tags wrapped around a blank scroll. They promptly exploded, enveloping the creepy shinobi in a ball of fire.

The enormous snake let out a hiss that sounded like a boiler explosion and lunged for Naruto’s branch. Naruto timed his leap for the last second and managed to vault over the snake’s head and land on its neck, chakra gluing the soles of his sandals to the undulating scales.

No sooner did he land than he was in the middle of a hurricane of fists and feet. Effeminate or not, that weirdo still hit as hard as Gai-sensei. Naruto blocked as best he could, but the blows that slipped past to clip his head were making his ears ring. Finally, a kick to the stomach knocked him loose from the snake, and the instant his feet lost contact the snake was rearing back to swallow him.

Naruto barely had time to use a substitution technique with one of his clones to keep from being swallowed. About half his clones were gone now, most of them crushed by the snake thrashing around. As he created more, he saw Kiba and Akamaru make some kind of spiraling wind attack that gouged into the snake’s belly scales. Elsewhere, Sakura was throwing kunai at the eyes of the giant reptile, without much luck.

Sasuke, surprisingly enough, had decided to fight once more. He’d thrown some kind of weird shuriken trailing wires around the snake. Not only were they starting to cut into the thick scales, but he was swinging around the snake’s body, pelting the Grass shinobi with fireballs as he swung overhead. Shino wasn’t immediately visible, but a wide section of the snake’s scales were beginning to gleam wetly with blood, making Naruto shudder as he recalled Shino mentioning carnivorous strains of kikai bugs.

The Grass freak managed to sidestep the worst of the fireballs as Sasuke flashed overhead, so Naruto sent a brace of shuriken his way to keep him off balance. A trio of his clones contributed as well, even though they were quickly dispelled. He noticed that the ninja’s left hand, which had been holding the scroll, appeared to be horribly burned, with the skin sloughing off in places, but it didn’t seem to slow him down at all.

On Sasuke’s next trip around the snake, his wires had wrapped around the thick body, pulling him low enough that he managed to put both feet into the side of the Grass-nin’s head. For once, their enemy’s eyes widened a little as it was knocked off of the snake and into free-fall. Hinata darted forward out from under cover, leaping at the freak’s back, right hand pulled back for what could well be a lethal Jyuuken strike.

Naruto leapt forward as the snake’s tail caught Kiba and Akamaru right after they’d gouged a wide trench in the armor-like scales on its underbelly. Two of his clones shot down after them, hopefully in time to break their fall.

There was a visible flash as Hinata sent a massive burst of chakra into the center of their enemy’s back. Naruto tried not to think of the mess that must have made out of the freak’s insides. The Grass shinobi arched his back, but instead of signifying death throes, it was just the prelude to him reaching back with one inhumanly flexible arm and grabbing Hinata’s shoulder. Still in free-fall, he hurled the kunoichi at the tree trunk they were falling past. The recoil allowed him to land on a branch, while Hinata struck the tree with a sickening thud. She fell limply away from the trunk, leaving a splotch of blood on the weathered bark. One of Naruto’s clones caught her, but she hung limp in the horrified bunshin’s arms.

Naruto let out a scream of rage just as the snake reared up and swallowed him.

OoOoO

Shino watched as Sasuke leapt after the imposter, his movements even faster than before. Not only was he moving with greater speed, he seemed to anticipate his opponent’s actions by a fraction of a second. After flipping backward to escape his opponent’s counter, the Uchicha came to rest on a higher branch for a moment, facing in Shino’s direction. The gleam of red in his eyes indicated that the class genius had managed to activate his bloodline, the Sharingan.

His first colony had managed to get several kikai onto their opponent while his attention was otherwise occupied. However, the anomalous genin didn’t even seem to notice the chakra they’d managed to drain from him. This meant that either their opponent was another jinchuuriki, which was highly unlikely, or it was a very advanced shinobi, of at least upper jonin rank.

His second colony was working its way towards where he estimated the enormous reptile’s vital organs would be located. But their rate of progress did not bode well for a timely end. As it was, without its master guiding it, it did little more than thrash about, trying to shake them off without much success.

His eyes also tracked the progress of the kage bunshin carrying his teammate Hinata. She wasn’t moving and the clone’s face seemed unusually grave. Shino frowned. He was the last member of Team Eight still in the fight, but his efforts thus far had met with limited success.

“Good, good,” the Grass shinobi murmured as he blocked another combo from the Uchiha heir. “Your skills have progressed nicely, all things considered.” The overly familiar tone of voice seemed to be calculated to induce discomfort and fear. Shino merely found it to be a childish affectation.

Finally, Sasuke began to show signs of fatigue and his attacks slowed. Shino wondered if he’d ever had to spar someone as inexhaustible as Naruto. The Grass ninja grabbed Sasuke’s arm and twisted, locking the joint. His other hand drew back for a strike as Shino soundlessly descended.

The Aburame boy felt a twinge of annoyance as their enemy jerked his head aside an instant before the blade of his kama transited the space it had been occupying. Displaying an inhuman degree of flexibility, the shinobi flipped backwards.

“Yet another insect interferes with my test,” it sneered in an insinuating tone.

“Your statement implies that is supposed to be an insult,” Shino said as he stepped forward, beginning one of his mother’s intermediate attack patterns. The Grass ninja stepped back smoothly, dodging each blow almost as soon as it was launched. He supposed one might consider this frustrating, but he did not deviate from the kata. Overextending a strike in an attempt to catch his elusive foe would only give him an opening to launch a counter-offensive. Instead, Shino stuck with the pattern, the whirling blades giving no opening to his enemy as he steadily forced the unarmed shinobi backward.

“Ah, so those annoying little creatures are yours?” He asked. “Well, it’s easy to deal with such… infestations.” With that he leapt backward and up, bringing his hands up to his mouth at the apogee of his flight and sending a dense stream of fire down at Shino.

Shino crossed his weapons in front of himself and pushed as much chakra into them as he could in an attempt to duplicate one of his mother’s more advanced techniques. The kamas glowed pale blue for a moment before they were engulfed in flames. However, his hands were not burned and the stream of fire seemed to part around him. When it was over, the wood on either side of him was smoldering, but he was untouched. He did, however, fall to one knee as the sudden expenditure of chakra had left him drained and weakened. For all that, he’d only barely repelled the fire technique.

As soon as he landed, the Grass shinobi was charging again. Shino took a deep breath as he regained his feet, but his foe was intercepted by Sasuke, who flung a double-handful of shuriken. They arced out in a seemingly random pattern, none of them coming close to their target – unless one noticed the wires trailing behind them. Before the Grass shinobi knew what was happening, he’d been bound to an adjacent tree trunk and the Uchiha fired off a massive stream of flames that raced down the wires to engulf his enemy.

Shino felt his eyebrows rise over the tops of his glasses. The katon jutsu had actually burned a hole completely through the five meter thick trunk, leaving their foe little more than a smoldering corpse.

And then the corpse darkened and slumped into a pile of mud and Shino felt something strike his back, sending him flying through the air. He held onto his weapons though, and despite acute shortness of breath was able to hook one blade into a passing branch and swing his body up. He landed carefully, then deliberately took a deep breath, wincing as tender ribs flexed. But he was still combat effective, so he waved off Naruto’s clones as they moved to help.

Most of the remaining bunshin were circling around Sasuke and the Grass shinobi. Occasionally one would see an opportunity and attack, but most of them were destroyed without landing a blow. Given the extent of Naruto’s taijutsu training, Shino found this worrisome.

When Sasuke was knocked clear again, all the clones dog-piled the Grass shinobi, only to have it use an advanced variation on the substitution technique. In this case, the enemy’s body was replaced by a log festooned with explosive tags. The ensuing conflagration destroyed most of the remaining clones.

With no immediate sign of their foe, Shino and Sasuke both headed toward Sakura’s perch, a wide bough where the last clones had deposited Hinata, as well as Kiba and Akamaru. All three were unconscious. As they circled around the still-thrashing snake, Sasuke spoke up. “Do you think we should… well, try to recover his body?”

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Shino answered.

Sasuke turned to glare at Shino as they landed on the wide bough.

“His clones are still here,” Shino murmured. Sasuke’s eyes widened slightly and he turned to look at the snake as Shino knelt by his teammate. Hinata had a split lip, a bloody nose, and the whole side of her face was bruised. At best she’d have a mild concussion. Shino looked up at the worried clone hovering protectively over her. “She’s badly hurt,” Shino said in a flat voice. “If this battle goes on much longer she may die.” Which was the literal truth: the young Hyuuga was in no condition to defend herself.

The clone spun toward the snake, its features drawn into a rictus of fury. It had barely taken a step forward before Shino stabbed it in the back with his kamas. The clone dispersed before it could even change expressions.

“What the hell was that for?” Sakura asked, outraged. Standing this close, he could see how watery her eyes were, and wondered if she’d thought things through.

“Naruto told me something interesting at dinner last night,” was all Shino could say before the Grass shinobi dropped onto the branch beside them. The bug user barely had time to turn before a two-handed combination sent him skidding along the rough bark. But even as he tried to roll with the blow, his colonies registered a massive chakra spike nearby.

OoOoO

Sakura felt worse than useless, pulling out her last kunai and taking a wobbly defensive stance over her unconscious classmates. She knew when it was her turn she wouldn’t last nearly as long as Shino, who was only now coming to a halt in a small blizzard of bark chips. Sasuke and the weird grass guy were moving so fast she could only see blurs now. It was amazing that Sasuke-kun was even holding him off this long.

That was when the giant snake’s head exploded.

A sudden wave of… something… washed over her and she felt her hands trembling. In spite of herself, she found her head turning toward that sickening crunch. Surprisingly, so did the two battling not ten meters from where she stood.

A section of scaly skin at least two meters wide was missing. She could just make out a fist sticking up, coated in thick red fluid – with chunks. Before her gorge could finish rising, the whole snake’s body began to glow brightly and then exploded – just like one of Naruto’s clones.

Sakura flinched away from the explosion, just in time to see that Grass weirdo take advantage of the distraction to attack Sasuke-kun. A huge snake shot out of his sleeve and wrapped around Sasuke’s torso, trapping his arms. The massive body flexed and Sasuke dropped to his knees as the air was forced out of his lungs. Sakura was about to charge forward, hoping her sacrifice would buy Sasuke enough time to escape, when a reddish blur shot past her.

“Get away from them!” something shouted in little more than a guttural roar. Sakura felt her knees turn to water as something, some instinct, made her want to turn and run until she died of exhaustion.

Sakura blinked. Standing in front of her was a rather rumpled-looking Naruto. He was facing away from her, but the hands fisted at his sides were trembling with what had to be rage.

There was a loud crack and the Grass genin went flying backwards to slam into the tree trunk hard enough to make an impression on the wood.

The genin flexed its arms and the wood literally exploded around it. “Those eyes,” it murmured. “So that’s what happened to it.”

“Shut up, you bastard!” Naruto growled.

Sakura rubbed at her eyes, but there was nothing wrong with them. Naruto was not only wrapped up in enough chakra to see, but it was red. What the hell would make him have red chakra? Was it some weird blood limit she hadn’t heard about. Inner-Sakura, the, uhm, more assertive voice inside her head, demanded to know how Naruto, of all people could have a blood limit. Then again, Kiba said he’d heard Team Eight had been in an incredible fight on their patrol mission.

As if to prove the point, Naruto charged forward, punching and kicking in a blur of motion. He was moving even faster than before, and this time he was holding his own, at least for the moment. Snapped out of her daze, she spun toward Sasuke-kun, gripping her last kunai.

The last Uchiha in Konoha was getting red in the face as the snake continued to squeeze. It hadn’t even tried to bite him; it seemed more like it was playing with him, holding Sasuke down for its weirdo master. But it spun and snapped at her as she approached, the sharp fangs missing her by inches.

“Sa-Sakura,” Sasuke gasped. “Get… out of here. Just… go!” he said in a wheezing voice.

Sakura’s eyes widened. Did he think she’d just leave him like this? Who did he think she was? Did he think she was a coward? But his voice didn’t seem angry or disappointed, just… worried. Afraid. Not of the snake, either. But maybe… for her? On one hand, such a realization warmed her slightly, and gave her hopes for the future. On the other hand, Inner Sakura was pissed. Did he think she was that useless?

Sakura scowled, shifting the kunai so it lay under her wrist. She held out her free hand, taunting the snake. This was no different than the slapping game Ino had taught her when they were young. The python took the bait, and lunged at her free hand, even as Sasuke tried to jerk backwards to stop it. Sakura pivoted at the hips, drawing back the empty hand even as the other one shot forward.

The kunai slammed down through the top of the snake’s head with a sickening crunch. In a flash, Sasuke was free of the loosening coils. Sakura spared him a glare as he raced past her, trying not to think too hard about what she’d just done. Throwing up would rather spoil the effect.

“Thanks,” Sasuke murmured as he charged back into the fight.

As the summoned snake disappeared, Sakura scooped up her now free blade, which she decided was her ‘lucky’ kunai. Then she spun to follow her Sasuke-kun into battle.

OoOoO

No matter how angry he was, no matter how much of the freaky red chakra he used, Naruto couldn’t seem to get a clean shot at this Grass bastard. The freak’s taijutsu was very different from Gai-sensei’s Goken, but it was effective nonetheless. It was hard to stay centered too – the anger that came with the chakra seemed to undermine his control at every opportunity.

But it was down to him again. Shino was down and Hinata was unconscious, maybe dying if Shino was right. Kiba was out as well and the rest of Team Seven was struggling. A hard backfist strike clipped his jaw, sending him stumbling backwards. Even as he regained his footing, the bastard was finishing his seals. So fast. And the next instant Naruto was borne aloft on hurricane winds, glancing off of one tree trunk and slamming into another one. Not bothering to use chakra this time, Naruto dug his fingertips into the bark, only slightly surprised when blunt claws found enough purchase to hold him there.

He had to be careful this didn’t go too far. There was no telling what might happen if he used too much of this. But so far, this wasn’t enough. At least, not enough to put down the bastard that hurt Hinata-chan and Shino.

Sasuke was fighting it now, dodging more than blocking, but still clearly outclassed. Naruto hit the release on his weights and launched himself forward like an arrow.

OoOoO

Sakura was a step or two behind Sasuke, so she saw everything. The Grass weirdo knocked Sasuke tumbling backwards, and then palmed a kunai. It drew back to throw, clearly not aiming at Sasuke, but at their unconscious comrades.

Sasuke, who was about to charge forward, hesitated for an instant. That fatal indecision gave their enemy time to do a complicated seal with his other hand. Sasuke-kun had said that Haku could do seals one-handed, but this seal was not one Sakura had ever seen before. Even as she was racing forward, her muscles locked in place and she was frozen, completely helpless.

“I think it’s time to draw this game to a close,” the weird shinobi murmured. And then its neck began to stretch, impossibly long, carrying its head forward. As it approached, Sakura could note, to her dismay, that the skin of its face was coming off as well, revealing another one beneath it. The mouth yawned wide, just like a snake’s, as the canines enlarged. It dipped toward Sasuke’s neck as it was intercepted by a green blur outlined in crimson.

OoOoO

Naruto didn’t know what the hell that thing was trying to do, but knocking its head off seemed like a great idea. Unfortunately, he’d slightly underestimated his own speed, so rather than having his fist impact the freak’s skull, he’d just grazed its nose. Still, he had the satisfaction of hearing an audible snap of breaking cartilage, right before something clamped down on his forearm and injected molten steel under his skin.

OoOoO

Sakura’s eyes weren’t good enough to see what happened, even if she could have done something. There was a crack, the head snapped back, blood streaming from its nose, and Naruto collapsed to the ground, screaming until he passed out. She could see Sasuke’s hand’s shake with the effort of trying to move, but he was held just as helpless as her.

The Grass weirdo, head retracted again, glared down at Naruto, and then he said something that made no sense to her. “Well, thab’s juds ab well. All I’b done id tick a fuz in their petty liddle bomb. Led the olb man deal wid it if he can.” He scowled suddenly, then reached up and grabbed his nose, ignoring the blood streaming down. With an even louder crack that turned Sakura’s stomach, the Grass shinobi wrenched it back into position. Then he looked back at Sasuke, smirking at the Uchiha’s helpless glare. “Now where were we?”

Sakura could only stare in horror as that awful head extended toward her Sasuke-kun, dipping down to bite at his neck like some creature from folk-tales.

As that freakish head withdrew back towards its body, Sakura finally found her voice. “What did you do to them?” she shrieked. Sasuke groaned and slowly collapsed, twitching violently.

“I gave Sasuke a little goodbye present,” the strange shinobi answered. He didn’t even glance toward Naruto. “Sasuke will seek me out someday. He will come to me for power.”

He smirked at her again as he began to sink down into the wood. “I haven’t had this much fun in a long time. I have so much to look forward to now.”

With that, the Grass shinobi passed from sight. Sasuke let out a final agonized cry before he fell unconscious, leaving the canopy in silence.

OoOoO

Shino climbed painfully to his feet. His ribs ached with every breath he took, no matter how shallow.

“Are you all right?” a voice asked hesitantly.

He turned to see Haruno Sakura, who had just moved Naruto and Sasuke’s bodies over near Kiba and Hinata, who was finally beginning to stir. Shino nodded and then asked, “What happened? I couldn’t see very clearly.”

“He… he bit them!” she replied with a shudder. “And then they collapsed.” She peered at Sasuke’s neck and then carefully pushed up Naruto’s sleeve. “It left some weird design on their skin as well.”

Shino frowned and carefully made his way over to see. “It appears to be a seal of some sort,” he observed. “But I have no idea as to its purpose.”

“It can’t be good though,” Sakura fretted.

“That is a valid assumption,” Shino agreed. “Logically, we should withdraw from the exam. We have four disabled allies and only the two of us currently conscious. I myself am injured and not fully effective.”

Sakura’s lips pushed together mulishly as she shook her head. “I… I don’t think Sasuke or Kiba would like that,” she said after a moment.

Shino nodded slightly. “For that matter, my teammates are also highly motivated to do well in the exam. While I am unsure as to the status of Naruto and Sasuke, my allies indicate that Hinata and Kiba should be awake soon.”

Sakura’s head came up with an almost audible snap. “But you said Hinata was dying.”

“I said she might die,” Shino corrected. “And if the fight continued on much longer, she may very well have been killed while she was unconscious.”

“But… you told Naruto… I mean his clone...” Sakura asked, frowning.

“My teammate doesn’t always think things through, particularly when he is anxious about a friend,” Shino explained while minutely straightening his glasses. “I surmised that information would provide sufficient motivation to… expedite his release from the summons.”

“What did he do?” Sakura finally asked. “That red chakra… is it a blood limit or something?”

“You will have to ask Naruto,” Shino said firmly. “That information is confidential, and not mine to disseminate.”

“Okay,” Sakura replied in a clearly dubious tone. “So what do we do now?”

“I will recover Naruto’s equipment,” Shino replied. “I believe he has some smelling salts in his backpack. If we can revive Kiba and Hinata, we should be able to move the others to a more defensible locale. At that point we can see if there is a change in Naruto or Sasuke’s condition.”

Sakura nodded.

OoOoO

Hinata couldn’t ever recall her head hurting this much before. Not even after the worst of her family’s special training sessions. One eye refused to open all the way, and the skin around it felt puffy and tight. Her mouth was foul with the taste of blood and her upper lip was caked with it. Her body ached as well, feeling like her bones had been pulled apart, ground up, and then shoved back into her abused flesh. She supposed she should be grateful to even be alive, but she didn’t think it was possible to hurt this much and not be dying.

All that went right out of her head when she saw who was lying on the tree limb next to her.

“N-Naruto-k-kun!” she lisped, her swollen lips making her own voice sound alien in her ears.

Shino leaned back, discarding the sachet he’d been holding under her nose, as she sat up. She ignored Sakura’s curious looks as she quickly laid her hand on her somnolent friend’s chest. The steady rise and fall of his respiration reassured her, even as her head reminded her why sitting up quickly was a bad idea.

Shino handed her a red pill and a blue pill. “I’ve recovered our packs,” he said quietly. “Your chakra is low enough that it’s advisable to take the soldier pill, and the analgesic is definitely warranted.” Farther down the bough, Hinata could see Sakura start ministering to Kiba, who in turn attended to Akamaru.

Shino returned to peering into the largest pack. “I don’t know why Naruto brought the collapsible tents, but it is a good thing that he did so.”

Naruto and Sasuke showed no signs of waking, so they were carefully bundled up into sections of tent, hoisted by their teammates. Hinata was a little shaky at first, but she insisted on helping to carry her friend.

This, of course, meant that Kiba insisted on carrying Sasuke by himself.

After a very cautious descent, they reached the forest floor. Shino dispatched a fair number of flying kikai bugs, and a few moments later declared the area safe. He led them with a sureness that had Sakura and Kiba a little confused, but he didn’t stop to explain until after they were getting settled into a surprisingly spacious cave left by a partially uprooted tree.

“Some of my allies can comprehend simple images, and transmit back to me rough impressions of what they have seen,” he said without preamble as he helped her settle Naruto down onto the soft earth. “I propose a temporary alliance, at least until our teammates have recovered. Each team will keep their own scrolls and act together for mutual defense. At the moment, both teams are weakened, and many will see us as easy prey.”

“I suppose we can help you guys out,” Kiba drawled, “right, Sakura?”

Sakura winced at the Inuzuka’s arrogant tone.

“I should probably point out,” Shino replied, straightening his glasses in a manner that Hinata had come to associate with him being irritated, “that the only person to actually strike that false genin and still be conscious at this time is Hinata.”

Hinata swallowed as all three of her classmates turned to stare at her.

“A-ano, I only hit him by surprise, I-in the back…” she explained.

“You are a ninja, correct?” Shino asked.

“Uh, yes, Shino-kun,” Hinata answered, dropping her eyes.

“Then the fact that you struck from surprise in no way diminishes your accomplishment, correct?” Shino continued.

“Yes, Shino-kun,” Hinata answered, her voice more sure this time.

“That said, the sentiment Naruto ascribed to your… taijutsu tutor… is an admirable one,” Shino concluded. “It is only appropriate that we offer assistance to fellow shinobi of the leaf. While I believe it would be more prudent to withdraw from the exam, given the circumstances, I will abide by the desire of the majority to continue. If anything, it will be a fair test of our ability to cope in adverse circumstances.”

Kiba frowned and grunted. Sakura turned to Hinata with a questioning look.

“Shino thinks Konoha shinobi should stick together,” the Hyuuga girl explained. She supposed she was just used to the way her friend spoke – he was usually laconic around strangers. 

OoOoO

Their first night in the Forest of Death passed quietly, though it was still very tense. After a short meal of ration bars and summoned water they split the night into shifts in which two stood watch at all times. Hinata’s watch was set for the latter part of the night so she’d have time to recover.

While Kiba promptly went to sleep, curled up with his dog, Sakura and Shino used the remaining daylight to set up traps in the area surrounding their refuge.

For her part, Hinata tried to sleep, but found it difficult. Both Sasuke and Naruto began to tremble slightly as their unnatural slumber became increasingly agitated. Both appeared to be running fevers. Though wet cloths applied to their foreheads did little to help, Hinata and Sakura kept reapplying them – if only to have something to do, the Hyuuga realized.

Hinata had been through many unpleasant experiences, many of them related to her family. So it was a surprise to realize that the worst feeling she’d ever experienced in her short life was caused by Uzumaki Naruto.

It was this feeling of profound helplessness that she couldn’t stand. She supposed she’d felt something similar when her mother had died, but that had happened long enough ago that she couldn’t clearly remember that awful day. But now… she could look at Naruto-kun’s face, contorting in pain, and feel like she wanted to die. He was hurting, and she could do nothing to stop it. She tried to remember her father’s face the day her mother died, wondering if he had felt like this… but she couldn’t recall ever seeing him at all. She remembered the branch family servants who came to her room with the news, the old woman who held her as she cried, promising she’d tell no one of her lack of composure.

It was sad how she can remember that old woman’s face more clearly than her mother’s.

Hinata’s breath caught in her throat as she followed her thoughts to their logical conclusion. She didn’t just admire her teammate.

OoOoO

With the light failing, Shino and Sakura armed the last of the kunai traps and returned to the cave. Their task took longer than expected due to the simply ridiculous number of extra kunai and shuriken Naruto was carrying in his pack. But Shino was determined to make their lair as secure as possible, so they used most of them as ammunition for their traps.

Surprisingly, Haruno Sakura seemed to have a gift for designing and setting up traps. Her plans and layouts indicated that she possessed a grasp of tactics and spatial awareness not usually found in kunoichi of her age. This was very much at odds with the persona she’d projected at the Konoha Ninja Academy, where Shino’s memories of her were primarily those of a squealing fan-girl chasing after Sasuke along with the rest of her peers.

Perhaps she had changed, or his initial estimate of her had been as flawed as his opinion of Naruto. In either event, her stock in his estimation rose, even as the sun set.

As they returned to the cave, she displayed yet another net improvement. Hinata had finally managed to fall asleep, but had apparently done so while tending to Naruto. She was curled up on the ground next to her teammate, her head pillowed on his left shoulder. His right forearm, with its peculiar wound, was still propped up on his stomach, the sleeve pushed up to the elbow.

“Awww…” Sakura whispered. She silently made her way to the packs and retrieved an all-weather blanket that she carefully draped over the indigo-haired kunoichi. Looking up at Shino, she silently gestured that they should move back to the entrance.

Once there, Shino silently checked with his allies. The immediate vicinity was still clear of any hostile presence. He looked back when Sakura quietly cleared her throat.

“She really likes him, doesn’t she?” the pink-haired girl asked. “Hinata, I mean.”

Shino just nodded, remembering Haruno’s disparaging attitude toward Naruto that evening at Ichiraku’s.

“That’s so sweet,” Sakura whispered with a wistful smile. “He doesn’t have a clue, does he?” she asked.

“I think he has some inkling, but not explicitly, no,” Shino answered in a guarded tone.

Sakura sighed. “She seems like such a nice girl, I hope he doesn’t hurt her.”

“Uzumaki Naruto is constitutionally incapable of acting with malice aforethought,” Shino declared with what he admitted was some heat.

Sakura frowned at him, but then shook her head. “No, I suppose not. Not intentionally, anyway.”

“That’s an… unexpected admission, coming from you,” Shino replied.

Sakura actually blushed a little. “I’ve… had a few things pointed out to me. There have been times that Naruto really got on my nerves, but I haven’t always been fair towards him either.” She sighed. “I’m trying to be a better person,” she admitted.

“That is… an admirable goal,” Shino allowed.

“So…” Sakura asked, clearly wishing to change the subject, “how far away can your bugs sense trouble?”

Shino inclined his head politely and began his standard lecture on kikai bugs and their capabilities.

OoOoO

By sunrise, Hinata’s head had stopping aching quite so badly. Her face was still a mess though, and it even hurt to blush when she woke up with her unbruised cheek resting on Naruto-kun’s shoulder. To her disappointment, both he and Sasuke’s conditions were unchanged.

Shino said nothing when she’d relieved him at midnight, and she’d fortunately risen before Kiba. Sakura, on the other hand, gave her a smile as she headed back into the cave to rest. Despite her misgivings regarding the kunoichi’s previous behavior, Hinata felt Sakura was being sincere.

A few moments later a yawning Kiba joined her at the mouth of the cave. Shino gave her a brief summary of the traps that had been set, and she was able to double-check them using her Byakugan. Though Shino was sleeping now, he’d assured her that his colony had been instructed to wake him if his pickets encountered anything. Just how that wake-up would occur wasn’t something she really wanted to think about. In the meantime, she would also periodically use her eyes to scan for intruders that managed to elude everything else.

Kiba nodded as she explained their precautions, and then yawned again. “You two are pretty useful to have around,” he said with grudging respect. He hesitated, and then added, “My mom was pretty impressed with your team, and that’s not easy to do. I… appreciate you all helping us yesterday.”

Hinata swallowed and struggled to keep a blush away from her battered face. “We’re all Konoha shinobi,” she replied. “It’s only right that we should help each other.”

Kiba shrugged as he scratched the back of Akamaru’s head. “I don’t think the older genin teams feel that way. Maybe the rookies from our class. And that other team, is that Hyuuga your cousin or something?”

Hinata nodded, not really wanting to think about meeting Neji out here in direct competition. He seemed to resent both her and Naruto, albeit for different reasons.

After a while, they just sat in a semi-comfortable silence, using their enhanced senses to stand watch.

It wasn’t until late morning that their perimeter was breached.

OoOoO

When Naruto gained awareness of himself again, he was lying in what appeared to be a basement. He slowly sat up, wincing as blood began to flow into areas that had been cut off by the hard concrete beneath him. His right arm felt like it was on fire, and he could barely move the shoulder or flex his fingers.

There was no sign of Hinata or Shino, nor of Team Seven. Had they been captured? Had he? Somehow, he didn’t think they were anywhere near.

The air felt damp; like this place had been flooded and only recently had the water receded. The lights were muted, and the illumination they cast lent a gray pallor to everything. At first Naruto thought there were circulating fans that ran roughly, but soon he realized that the sound he was hearing was too irregular to be mechanical.

Turning around, there was no break in the patterns of hallways that surrounded him, but the sounds seemed to be slightly louder in one direction. With nothing better to do, he slowly walked toward the source of the noise.

As he shuffled along, he kept trying to flex the fingers of his right hand. They barely moved and the pain grew worse. Looking down at his forearm, he could see a weird black seal that looked like three tomoe in a spiral. The skin around them was angry and red, and he swore a faint ribbon of vapor appeared to be rising from the center of the design.

The further Naruto walked toward the source of the noise, the more uneasy he became. It was a sensation that was both disturbing and oddly familiar. It was a little like being around Gaara again, but not quite. If anything, it was even worse.

Finally, the hallway opened into a room with a very high ceiling. Dominating the far wall was a huge metal gate with vertical bars at least fifteen meters high. The two halves of the portal were closed, but there was no bar or lock. Instead a thin strip of paper held the massive gates together. The paper seal was adorned with a single kanji character that was, oddly enough, the symbol for ‘seal’.

As Naruto peered at the seal, that oppressive feeling spiked again and an enormous pair of red eyes appeared over a mouth full of huge teeth. The features were shrouded in a haze of red chakra and Naruto began to put the pieces together.

“Boy, come closer,” a deep voice rumbled, resonating in Naruto’s bones.

“I think I’ll just stay right here,” Naruto answered in a wary tone.

A set of gigantic claws moved out of the darkness, sliding between the bars of the gate. As one, they slammed down onto the concrete, the points scarring the unyielding floor.

“I’d like to eat you, but this gate won’t open,” the voice growled. “Damnable seal.”

That only confirmed Naruto’s suspicions. “Well I’m not real happy about having you here either, asshole!” He glared right into eyes that were bigger than his body as a lifetime’s worth of frustration and anger filled his mind with flames. “If you’d just had the decency to freaking die when the Yondaime kicked your ass, I wouldn’t have been putting up with crap from everyone as long as I can remember!”

The huge eyes blinked. Whatever reaction Naruto had been expecting, it wasn’t the rusty chuckle that echoed from behind the gate. “You didn’t mind it when you were using my chakra to save those two weaklings you run around with.”

Naruto scowled. “Well, if you know that, then you know that one of those weaklings is probably the only reason I didn’t slit my wrists afterward. Practically every crappy thing that’s happened in my life is because of you, you damned fox.” Hinata had been badly hurt getting a solid hit on that freak – he wasn’t going to let anyone call her a weakling. He just hoped she was okay, wherever she was.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve saying that,” the Kyuubi no Kitsune growled, “considering that it was your precious Yondaime that ruined both our lives with his little technique.

Naruto bit back his first response. That was at least one lecture of Iruka-sensei’s that he’d paid close attention to. Despite all that had happened, the story of the Fourth had only strengthened his desire to become Hokage some day. “And whose village were you destroying at the time?” he asked sarcastically.

“That’s a long story, you hairless monkey,” the demon growled. “But we have more immediate problems. Look at your arm.”

Naruto glanced down at his paralyzed forearm. The seal was burning now, covered in purple and black flames, and the pain was getting worse.

“You managed to let my den get marked with another seal, you careless buffoon,” the Kyuubi growled.

“What the hell is it doing?” Naruto asked nervously. The fact that the demon actually sounded a little worried was setting off all kinds of warning bells in his mind.

“It’s trying to tap into your chakra coils. It seems to be designed to strengthen the wearer by adding its own chakra to the body’s inner coil system. I’m not sure where it’s pulling that black chakra from, but its bad news.”

“How is more chakra bad?” Naruto asked cautiously.

“It’s… not… normal chakra. Portions of it seem to be gravitating toward your pea-sized brain. In addition to whatever it might try to do to your alleged mind, your coils are already under stress from holding your chakra as well the fractions of my chakra that leak out of this cursed seal. There isn’t room for a third chakra in here.” The huge lips twisted into a feral sneer. “You don’t want to explode, do you?”

Naruto shook his head slowly. “So what can we do about it?”

“Well, if you hadn’t wimped out and gone unconscious, I’d suggest just cutting the arm off at the elbow,” the fox suggested. “Oh, stop making faces. I bet I could grow it back. Eventually. Anyway, due to your pitiful pain threshold, we have to do this the hard way.”

“The hard way?” Naruto asked, feeling a bit ill. If cutting off his arm wasn’t the hard way, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what was.

“I push as much chakra as I can past this seal and hope that seal gives before your inner coils explode,” the demon explained.

Naruto felt his mouth drop open. “That sounds like a really bad idea to me!” he protested.

“I’m not overjoyed either. If you die, I die. But as much as being inside of you is an exercise in torment,” the voice continued, “being inside of you while you are being controlled by whoever put that seal on you would be worse.”

“How do I know I can trust you?” Naruto finally asked.

“Can you afford not to?” the voice asked as the eyes narrowed. “If you fall under that seal’s influence, who do you think will be in the most danger?”

Naruto took a deep breath and let it out. The pain in his arm was growing worse by the second. “What do I do?” he asked.

“Just stand there and don’t resist,” the voice replied, the deep reverberations dropping away as the volume lowered. “I need you to act as the conduit for this,” it continued as a flood of red chakra began to seep out from under the gate, heading toward Naruto’s feet.

“And try not to die,” the Kyuubi’s voice concluded as the chakra reached Naruto and his world exploded in agony.

OoOoO

Hinata heard Shino stirring in the cave behind her even as her eyes picked up a trio of fast moving shapes through the canopy. Shino had roused Sakura and made it to the mouth of the cave when the first traps went off.

Amid the twangs and whooshes there were muted curses, indicating that some of the projectiles had found their mark. Finally, there was a loud yell of frustration followed by a cry of Zankūkyokuha as a copse of trees near the mouth of the cave was obliterated.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” a female voice asked in a plaintive tone. “That note might not have been from sensei.”

“Yes I’m sure, Kin,” a deeper voice answered. “I can feel the echoes of a cave from my ground waves. That’s probably where they are hiding like little rodents.”

“That’s good enough for me, Dosu,” another male voice replied. A thin man wearing a tan tunic over a grey camouflage jumpsuit stepped out into the clearing. Hinata didn’t need to see the symbol on his forehead to recognize one of the sound genin they’d encountered before the first exam.

“Yo,” he said in an arrogant drawl, “we’re here for the Uchiha.”

“Well you can’t have him!” Sakura snapped, clearly incensed by his cavalier attitude.

“We’re here to kill him,” the bulkier leader in the grey tunic, bandages, and fur mantle said as he joined his subordinate, “a few more bodies doesn’t really matter to us, does it Zaku?”

The skinnier sound-nin shook his head, smiling.

“Why are we even bothering to talk to these brats?” the long-haired sound kunoichi asked as she joined them.

Hinata glanced at Shino, who didn’t even open his mouth. She knew from experience that he’d have kikai bugs seeded all around the clearing. It was only a matter of time before they began draining the chakra from the sound nins.

Then Dosu stuck out his right arm and rapidly spun in a circle. “We were warned about your tricks, freak,” he snarled. “But it’s not that hard to figure out the resonance frequency of your bugs’ shells, is it?”

Kiba and Akamaru both let out low cries, Kiba grabbing at his ears as Akamaru whined and put his paws over his ears. Shino winced visibly as well and Hinata wondered how many of his allies he’d just lost. He’d have to pull the remainder inside his body as well, if he wanted to protect them.

Her feet were in motion before she even finished that thought. Her audacity appeared to have caught the sound nins off guard, and she was only a couple of steps from the leader, her hand drawn back for a Jyuuken strike, when a solid wall of air sent her flying. Hinata rolled when she struck the ground and flowed back onto her feet to see Zaku moving his open palms to point at her.

Hinata had just registered the presence of the metallic air nozzles embedded in his palms when he shouted Zankuha and a ripple of air began racing towards her. She leapt to the side as the shockwaves demolished a tree where she’d been standing. Glancing back toward the cave, she could see Shino charging out with his kamas unfolded, followed by Sakura as Kiba struggled to his feet. She hadn’t heard the ultrasonic waves the Sound leader had used to destroy Shino’s kikai bugs, but evidently Inuzuka had a wider hearing range than normal. Only now it was proving to be a liability.

Kin began throwing senbon needles at Sakura as Shino stalked toward Dosu. He couldn’t use most of his jutsus until that one was disabled. Unfortunately, that left her facing an opponent with a strong long-ranged attack.

Hinata might ordinarily have been concerned, since she was facing someone who was not a good match-up for her skills. But she had no doubt what would happen if they made it into the cave while her Naruto-kun lay helpless. Both of the unconscious boys would be dead in moments. That was not something that would happen while she had breath in her body.

So she began stalking her opponent, carefully dodging his attacks as she worked her way closer and closer. Zaku’s mounting frustration as he continued to miss her seemed to distract him from his growing peril, a realization that brought a slight smile to her cracked lips.

Remembering Kurenai-sensei’s lectures about maintaining situational awareness, she spared a glance for her teammates as she rolled away from another hurricane blast.

Sakura seemed to be having some trouble with her opponent. She’d been struck in the leg by one of the needles, but her movements suggested that she was at least a little disoriented. Hinata hoped the needles weren’t poisoned.

Shino, on the other hand, had managed to close with his foe. His weapons flashed in the morning light as they spun in his hands. Dosu was blocking with two kunai and his right forearm, which appeared to be armored, but he was unable to counterattack and his uniform was dotted here and there with blood from minor wounds. Shino-kun seemed quite intent on avenging his fallen allies.

Hinata dodged another blast, moving in even closer, when Kiba leaped out of the bushes and slammed into Zaku. The sound nin let out a grunt as they slammed into the ground with Kiba on top. The Inuzuka was moving a kunai toward the sound nin’s throat, either to take him prisoner or kill him, when the whole point became moot. Hinata didn’t even have time to shout a warning as Zaku got one of his upturned palms onto Kiba’s stomach and blasted him into the air.

She charged forward as a second blast caught Kiba in the air, tearing off a piece of his jacket and sending him tumbling toward Shino and Dosu’s battle.

Fortunately, Shino heard Kiba’s grunt of pain, and stepped back before his swinging blades accidentally eviscerated his ally.

Unfortunately, that seemed to be the opening Dosu was waiting for. The sound nin quickly swung his right arm around in front of him and Hinata could almost see the ripples coming off of it and converging on Kiba and Shino. Kiba let out a strangled cry as they converged on his head, making blood shoot out of his ears as his eardrums ruptured. Shino bent forward as the sound waves slammed into his torso with a visceral crunch. He barely retained hold of his weapons as a bright gout of blood exploded from his mouth.

Zaku watched this as well, and didn’t realize her proximity or his own peril until the last second. As Hinata made her strike, he was just raising one palm to stop her. She launched the index and middle fingers of her right hand, wreathed with a visible glow of chakra, at her foe. At the last instant she diverted her strike, sending the chakra spike lancing into the nozzle that was just being brought to bear. The results were spectacular.

The back of Zaku’s hand exploded into a spray of aerosol blood, coating his face and blinding him, even as his other hand came up and fired blindly at her. Unfortunately, as close as she was, she couldn’t completely avoid his counterstrike, and was launched back toward the cave.

Hinata struck the ground hard, knocking the wind out of her. She made it to her hands and knees in time to see Sakura catch Kin in the side of the head with a very solid punch that dropped the sound kunoichi to her knees. But the next instant a kunai thrown by Dosu buried itself in Sakura’s upper arm while another ripped through her hair, narrowly missing her skull.

But neither that nor the screamed curses of Zaku could distract Hinata from what was happening inside the cave. Landing where she did, she had a clear view of both Sasuke and Naruto. Both were wreathed in dark purple chakra that flickered and waved like some sickly fire.

Suddenly Sasuke stood up, a black silhouette amidst the purple flames, but with blotches of glowing red oozing across his skin like flowing embers. The flames around Sasuke died down a little, but glowing red marks on his skin remained, eventually fading to black.

Naruto jerked awake and screamed as the purple flames around him spiked even higher. He made it up to his hands and knees. Despite his violent trembling, Hinata could see that the seal on his arm was replaced by a jet of purple-black fire that extended nearly a foot from his skin. With her Byakugan active, she could see that his coil system was now under attack, with red chakra fighting black chakra, and blue chakra caught in the middle. His tenketsu were opening on their own and vomiting out mixed and contaminated chakra. His coils heaved and began to crack.

Naruto was dying.

“Naruto!” Hinata gasped. She didn’t think she’d even spoken aloud, but he looked up, directly into her horrified eyes.

And he smiled.

“Hinata… chan…” he groaned as he sat back and gripped his forearm with his left hand, right around the seal. He took a deep agonized breath. Then he pulled a kunai from his pouch and slammed it into his forearm, directly into the seal.

There was a loud explosion that rocked Hinata backwards. It even made Sasuke step back as his chakra flames wavered under the onslaught. He turned to look back at Naruto as the kunai was ripped from his fingers and the half-melted fragments were imbedded in the wall of the cave.

The purple-black chakra expanded outward in a shockwave that covered the clearing. It was just blind luck that Sasuke’s aura blocked Hinata from the worst of it; because she could see the others shiver and twitch as it passed over them. The tongue of flame extruding from Naruto’s forearm abruptly switched from purple to red flames as his aura became completely red. And to Hinata’s relief, his chakra coils stopped pulsating like they wanted to rupture and explode.

Sasuke nodded and stalked out of the cave, his altered skin making him look more than a little monstrous. His roving eyes stopped moving when he saw Sakura wrenching the kunai from her arm. “Sakura,” he said in an eerie voice. “Who the hell did that to you?”

Sakura’s eyes widened but she didn’t answer. Hinata was a bit distracted herself as Naruto slowly walked out of the cave. He reached out and oh so gently let his fingertips touch a fresh scrape on her cheek. “Who?” he asked in a far too calm voice. He looked over toward Zaku, who was wrapping a bandage around his wounded hand.

Sakura seemed to remember that they were still in a fight, because she quickly turned to check on Dosu and Zaku. Sasuke’s eyes narrowed as he seemed to recognize the crumpled form of his teammate at Dosu’s feet.

Both Naruto and Sasuke seemed to disappear as Zaku fired a massive blast with his uninjured hand. Dosu was just starting to swing his right arm around when Sasuke appeared behind him. The number one student of his class reached over, grabbed each side of the sound-nin’s head and gave a sharp twist. When he let go, Dosu dropped to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, blood pouring from the corpse’s nose and mouth. Zaku was pivoting for another blast when Naruto appeared beside him, grabbed his wrist in a chakra-wreathed fist, and crushed it utterly.  

Sasuke glanced over at Naruto, and then began to stalk toward the remaining sound ninja, his face impassive and his tread as implacable as an executioner’s.

Sakura seemed to realize what he planned because she lurched forward at the last second and wrapped her arms around Sasuke, pleading with him to stop. “Sasuke!” she finally whispered, “what’s wrong with you?”

“I… I feel pretty strong right now. He gave that to me. Now I can truly be an avenger.” Sasuke glanced down at a smear of blood on Sakura’s leg. “Now it’s her turn.”

“You are not the Sasuke I know!” Sakura said in a tearful voice. “Just… just stop this. Please, Sasuke?”

Kin had finally recovered at this point, and looked like she’d rather be semiconscious again. She was visibly cowering until Sasuke finally grunted. “All right, Sakura,” he quietly acquiesced. But when he looked back at Kin his voice was hard again. “Get your teammates and go. Now.” The black marks slowly began to fade from his skin.

Naruto turned to glare at the now-disarmed Zaku. “You’d better help her,” he added with a glare.

It was only after they left that anyone noticed that, accidentally or intentionally, they’d left behind their scroll.

Author Notes:

A big thank you to my betas, Runsamok and Bibliophile!

As always, progress on the current chapters can be found on my blog.

This was a fairly combat-intensive chapter, but I managed to sneak a little character development in between the fights.

This story doesn’t really have a benevolent Kyuubi in it. The nine-tailed demon is, however, a pragmatist. It knows its remaining existence will end when Naruto dies, and even if he could survive the Cursed Seal, Orochimaru’s lackeys have an abysmal life expectancy. So… it will cooperate when the choice is between that and dying.

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