Agent's Spiel: For those wondering about the last 'Non-Interlude' I left it kind of vague just to confuse you guys (my version of an April Fool's joke). I explained on the blog that I wrote it after a reviewer asked about Kakashi burning down his father's house. It's set 7-8 years before the current story.

This is only about ten pages long right now and I wasn't intending to post it in sections but some people didn't like my April Fool's joke so I figured I would show you that I really am working on the Forest of Death. To those who at least went along with the joke and giggled at Kakashi, thank you.

Oh! Will someone please tell me why everyone decided last chapter was the chapter to defend Kushina in? I'm just going to put this here and up on the blog, but this fic was started before Kishimoto named Naruto's mother in canon and I came up with a different character for the role. By the time Kishimoto came out with Kushina, the non-canon character I was using was already being introduced slowly as Anko's aunt and Jiraiya's student and I wasn't (and I'm not) going to change it. (I think I managed to write back to all of you explaining this, but if I missed you, sorry)

Naruto will be using alternate means of communication:

Single quotation marks '' will be used to represent sign language and other forms of communication (Amarante Code begins to be used in this chapter). I'll denote which is being used but you'll probably pick it up quickly on your own.

Front slashes / will denote Naruto writing what he is saying.

Italics mean you are reading the characters thoughts; congratulations on becoming telepathic.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.


Snakes

XX Day 1: 30 minutes in Forest XX

"Naruto."

Naruto turned slowly to look at his teammates as Sakura finally spoke up loud enough to catch his attention. He waited patiently for her to continue as Sasuke stood next to her, glaring harshly in his direction.

"I don't care what I said in the tower about this being a mission. You're still not well. It sounds like it's getting worse. And this could be very dangerous if the Cloud ninja target you. We're in it now; there's no turning back. We can either go through with the mission, or go straight to the tower at the center and surrender. I have no problem doing the latter, but I'm not doing the former until you tell us exactly why you don't want to meet with the medics. I've waited patiently hoping you would tell us on your own, but you haven't, so now I'm asking. Trust us," Sakura stated firmly.

Naruto tilted his head for a moment before shrugging. 'They can't help me. They've told me that. Only one healer can and she isn't here,' he told them.

"Help you with what? Is this about the poison?" Sasuke asked.

'It won't go away. It keeps spreading. I either deal with it or quit and I'm not quitting. I won't put you in danger. I know I can do this. Kakashi trained me to,' Naruto signed.

"That's what you worked on?" Sakura asked in disbelief.

'I can't avoid Tails. I can use it. On my terms and only my terms.'

"Do you really mean that?"

"He's not lying to us," Sasuke stated, turning from Naruto to Sakura.

"You like this less than I do," Sakura pointed out.

"Yes, and I trust him as well. If he says they can't help him, then they can't."

"But do you trust Kyuubi?" Sakura asked. "Because I don't."

'I don't,' Naruto admitted. 'But I don't need to. I know what I can do. Coughing up blood won't stop me. It's just annoying.'

"And Cloud?"

'We'll deal with them as a team. I promised Orange I wouldn't do anything stupid. I'll stay with you. We'll handle the mission and get through it together,' Naruto promised.

"If we say that we need to abort after helping Team 8, will you do that? Will you fail the exam if it means completing the mission?" Sakura asked.

'Yes. If you say we should then I will.'

His confidence in her gave Sakura pause. "And if Team 8 refuses our help? This is Kiba we're talking about; Hinata might want our help; Shino might accept it; but what about Kiba?"

"If Inuzuka doesn't realize how much trouble his teammate could be in then he was lied to about the exam," Sasuke stated.

Naruto nodded and quickly signed, 'Shout might not like help. But he likes Stutter, he'll let us help her.'

"Shout and Stutter?" Sasuke repeated with a snort.

'And Bug,' Naruto signed grinning.

Finally, Sakura nodded. "Let's do this then. As quickly as possible. If you're still doing fine when Team 8 is done, then we'll continue and try to pass on our own. If you aren't…we're aborting and entering the tower with them. We can wait for our promotions until after we help find this medic," she decided gaining nods of agreement from both of her teammates. "Let's start by finding them."

"You aren't using Houkou?" Sasuke asked, moving up towards Naruto.

"Let's face it: he's not a nin dog. He can help, but not in here. I told Kakashi-sensei to take him back to my house. Besides Naruto's a better tracker than Houkou is. We'll go with that for now," Sakura answered. "So where are they?" she added catching up.

Naruto pointed to his right. 'They started here. Moved inwards, we can catch them soon,' he promised, moving into the trees.

Sakura and Sasuke quickly followed without further questions. Naruto figured neither of them was pleased with the answers he had given, but he knew they would wait to ask more until they were on safe ground. He just hoped he had the answers they wanted by then, because he and Kakashi hadn't been able to come up with many of them on their own.

Idiot.

You keep saying that. Just keep me breathing. Kakashi will come up with something, Naruto thought derisively as the fox made itself known.

He's the dog's whelp.

But his sensei stuck you with me. He'll help, Naruto insisted. He didn't have to like Kakashi to trust him.

And the one I warned you about?

We'll avoid him for now.

Coward.

Naruto grinned a bit at that but he wasn't dumb. Gorou had been bad enough. Gaara…Naruto wanted to be at his best if he went up against him. Kyuubi had finally told him what Gaara's weird chakra meant and Naruto didn't want to start something he couldn't finish without the fox's direct help. He just wanted to prove that he could keep doing missions. Keep being a ninja. Even without that woman's help.

Naruto raised his hand suddenly as he came up short, scanning the area in front of them. He could see two other ninja on the forest floor, both unconscious and covered with leeches. "Eww, this is obviously Shino's work," Sakura commented.

"If they acted this quickly…Shino knows something is wrong. We might not need to do much. How long since they left here?"

Naruto grinned and shook his head, pointing off to his right and then waving cheekily. "They didn't get the right scroll then," Sakura muttered as she jumped one tree in front of her teammates. "We don't have a scroll you can take. We aren't taking the exam, we're just here to help," she stated, as Shino appeared in front of her.

"Who asked you to help?" Kiba asked, from a branch above.

"The Hokage and the Council. I don't know who asked them. It might have been your sensei. It might have been her father. They might have even acted on their own," she explained.

"Why were you chosen?" Hinata called up from the ground. Sasuke switched on his Sharingan when he noticed her Byakugan was activated.

"It's our mission. We can't take the normal exam, so we're only here for this. We'll help you pass if you want. But if all you want is for us to run interference with Cloud, we'll do that too," Sakura told her.

"It's fine," Shino spoke up, shifting nervously as he glanced down at Hinata. "The less time we spend out here, the better. Do what you need to."

"Oh come on! We can handle this on our own. Kurenai-sensei said so!"

"We don't know what they're capable of," Shino countered. "If Team 7 can help us, let them help us."

"What about Neji-san? Does he get help too?" Hinata asked nervously.

Naruto snorted in amusement at the thought of Neji accepting help.

"He doesn't need it. He and his team, we've seen what they can do," Sakura assured her, ignoring Lee's dismal behavior during their only meetings. "Gai-sensei, he's weird but I've heard my dad's stories about him. He wouldn't send his team in just to prove a point. He sent them because they're ready. Us, we're rookies. We're here to prove a point and it's a risky one that we might not be ready for. But all six of us, we can manage together. And if we do that, it'll prove it just as well as if we had competed on our own."

"I said we'll take their help. We're taking it," Shino stated before Kiba could speak up again.

"Then let's get the second scroll you need and get you to the tower," Sasuke said, "And let's get out of here. You've already taken one team down, you won't catch another one in this area."

"What would you know?" Kiba asked.

"Use your nose, there isn't anyone around. We're better off if we keep moving. It keeps Cloud guessing and makes it easier to find another team. Between us, we can do that regardless of how well they're hiding."

"Not if you don't even have the Sharingan," Kiba scoffed.

"I don't need it to be a good ninja," Sasuke stated, flinching when Naruto sent a spark of chakra through the insignia of their new gloves. He didn't remember the old bracelets being so sharp, but that was probably because they had had to use so much chakra to get a response with the old ones.

"Let's go. If you want to pick a direction, do so, otherwise follow us."

"We'll head towards the tower," Shino stated, waiting just long enough for Hinata to join them in the canopy before setting a pace his team could handle. Within minutes he could already tell that it wasn't fast enough for the other team but he wanted his in good condition as well and figured Sakura or Sasuke would complain if they really needed to hurry up. If Naruto was up to it, he could keep Kiba distracted from complaining as well but after the way he behaved during the first exam…it isn't going to happen. The forest wasn't making Shino feel very comfortable either. A place with so much life in it should never have felt so quiet.

"We have a team closing in to the left," Hinata whispered as the others closed in ranks around her. She frowned at the obvious action but squared her shoulders and continued moving as swiftly as she could.

'Anemone'

"Up! Move up!" Sakura shouted when Naruto used the new code. That had been the first word that Kakashi had insisted they learn. If the woman had been sent then he had figured it likely that her students would share her tactics – ones Naruto had learned all too well.

They shot up through the branches until they were balancing precariously above the treetops. "What was that for?" Hinata asked in confusion as she struggled to maintain her position – it didn't matter how good one's chakra control was if the branches they were on weren't meant to hold a human's weight. The only reason Akamaru was even managing was that Kiba was already holding him.

"Poison. These guys use poison," Sasuke explained. "We need to move as carefully as possible. Not all villages are as good in the trees as us. They might not be able to follow and attack as easily."

"I take it we're not bothering to finish the exam," Kiba muttered.

"Would you rather pass or lose a teammate?" Sasuke asked.

Kiba was caught of guard by the comment. How did he even hear me? "Live of course," he finally answered as they took off again.

They were much slower on the tops of the trees. The branches swayed unsteadily and cracked as they took off again, but Kiba could no longer smell their pursuers. He saw Sasuke fiddling with his necklace and Sakura finally held up a hand indicating that they could pause. What the hell have they been learning?

"They've either fallen behind or they're hiding. Shino can your kikai scout below us?" Sakura asked.

"I don't see them anywhere," Hinata offered as Shino let a few kikai trail out of his sleeves and into the canopy below. "But there is a team about forty meters west of here. If we've lost our followers, then we should try and take them."

"If we've lost them," Sakura agreed sending Hinata a sympathetic look. If I felt like dead weight when we started…she must feel like crap.

"I don't- Kiba!"

Shino's shout was just a moment too late as Kiba suddenly lost his footing. He barely had time to throw Akamaru to Hinata before he plummeted through the branches.

Naruto, who had been closest to Kiba, dove after him controlling his drop as much as he could. Thirty feet below he managed to grab Kiba's coat as he came up short and hard on a branch thick enough to hold their weight. "Holy crap man. We are not meant to do stuff like that," Kiba muttered as he glanced at Naruto thankfully. Naruto barely had time to catch his own breath before it was stolen from him again.

"No. That's what makes you monkeys so easy to catch."

The sudden smells caused Kiba to retch as he looked over towards the muted voice. A girl, a few years older than them was suddenly behind Naruto holding a rag over his mouth.

"Your bloodlines are all so interesting. But they don't help much when we can go intangible," the girl grinned as her teammates materialized on a branch across from them, all three were wearing gas masks.

Naruto managed to send one code word, 'Anemone' as his vision started going spotty. Switching gears as quickly as possible, he snaked his arms behind him and onto the girl's arms. He pulled as hard as he could, bending sharply at the waist and knees as he hoisted her hand away from his mouth and threw her as far as he could manage before sinking the rest of the way to his knees.

Sasuke caught him before he could fall off the branch but Naruto was still struggling to breathe.

"What's this? A Hyuuga too?" the girl asked, already recovered from Naruto's throw.

"As if you weren't after her in the first place," Kiba growled, ignoring the stench of poison still lingering in the air. How is he still conscious?

"Why would we go after her? Bloodlines aren't interesting anymore. He is. How'd you do it Uzumaki? Kimiko-sensei's furious that you lived."

'Tansy'

Receiving Sakura's orders, Sasuke hoisted Naruto to his feet before pushing him into Hinata's arms. "Keep him as far away as possible," he hissed. "He'll recover quickly but do not let them near him again!"

Without a second glance, he pushed more chakra at his eyes and feet and moved straight towards the girl who had been talking.

Sakura was already moving towards one of the others, Shino right behind her. Kiba was moving backwards towards Naruto and Hinata.

One on one the Cloud team seemed far less capable and Sasuke was beginning to wonder how they had managed to sneak up on them in the first place.

X

Naruto couldn't see anymore. He couldn't hear very well either. Sasuke handed me to someone else so he could fight. Who?

Stutter.

The fox was snickering and answering: that was a good sign; he wasn't in danger. Let me take care of them. When I'm done, you'll be back to normal.

Not in front of the other team. Not while Gaara is still here. They'll know.

You can stop me at any time. I don't need to fight the Tanuki yet. I can wait. We'll get the chance again.

What's going on? Are they hurt?

I know no more than you. Idiot.

Joking again. His teammates were handling themselves then. Someone else had managed to get close while he had been talking to Kyuubi but the kitsune hadn't said a word so he knew it had to be one of the others. Probably Kiba. Definitely Kiba, his hearing was returning and he could hear the other boy whispering. You don't need to come out yet, he finally told Kyuubi as his breathing became less labored.

He could hear the sounds of fighting. Heavy breathing. Weapons clashing.

"He's…he's getting better Hinata. I can barely smell the poison anymore."

He can barely smell it? Maybe I can see now. Slowly he opened his eyes and blinked at the hazy world in front of him.

"Crap he's actually coming out of it. How the hell did you do that Naruto? That could have killed you," Kiba whistled.

He's not worried either. The fights are going well.

Naruto held up a hand and tried to take his weight off of Hinata's shoulders. He was saved from plummeting to the ground when Kiba grabbed his arms and forced him back onto his knees. "Take it easy. They've already got the team on the run. As soon as you recover, we'll head off again," he offered bending down and waving his hand in front of Naruto's eyes.

Naruto's vision had returned enough that he caught the obnoxious gesture and reached up to grab Kiba's hand, wrenching it away from his face in warning. "Ow, that hurt man!" Kiba shouted, wincing when Sasuke suddenly appeared in behind Naruto, glaring down at both of them.

'You win?' Naruto signed, turning to face Sasuke.

"Of course, don't hurt Kiba anymore. We'll need him."

'Pinky?'

"She's doing fine. The girl I was fighting ordered a retreat after I stabbed her in the arm. Sakura's opponent is trying to stay and fight but…no she just took off with Shino's opponent. As soon you can move again we need to get out of here."

Naruto nodded and paused suddenly when he caught the smell of blood. He squinted as he tried to clear his vision but Sasuke's form was still too fuzzy for him to tell if he was injured. 'Were you hurt?' he finally signed ignoring Kiba's muffled curse as he figured out that Naruto wasn't just waving his hands around or using some random code.

"Just a cut to the forehead. It's not even bleeding anymore but that girl tried to take my eye out."

"She must have realized you're an Uchiha," Hinata spoke up.

Sasuke stilled when he realized that Hinata was glaring at him. "You have the sharingan. I can see the chakra you're channeling to your eyes and it can't mean anything else. Why are you hiding it? Why lie to us if you're supposed to be helping us?"

"Because they lied to us from the beginning. You weren't even sent here to help us, were you?" Shino accused as he and Sakura finally joined the group.

"Yeah that's right! That chick said they were after Naruto!" Kiba added.

"She was lying," Sasuke stated. "The Hokage and Council told us to come in here and help you."

"Here, look at this for proof," Sakura offered, pulling out the blank scroll that Anko had given them.

"There's… nothing on it," Kiba replied, rolling his lip up in confusion.

"Exactly, we weren't given either the Heaven or Earth scrolls because we aren't really competing. We're just here to help you," Sakura said earnestly.

"Not according to that chick. She said she wasn't interested in the Hyuuga," Kiba said.

'Lied,' Naruto signed quickly, catching Sasuke's arm so someone could interpret for him. 'Their sensei thought I was dead. She didn't know before they got here.'

"They couldn't have been given orders to go after him by anyone but their sensei. The Hokage was aware of a threat before that. That points to you," Sasuke explained.

"And why couldn't they have been given orders before that?" Shino asked.

"Because Hidden Cloud thinks Naruto is dead. They couldn't have known otherwise before…before that team's sensei saw us before the first exam," Sakura said, ignoring the growing pit in her stomach. That man was from Hidden Cloud…did he tell them?

"You expect us to believe that?" Kiba sneered.

Naruto sighed and turned away in frustration. Without one of his teammates interpreting, he couldn't even defend himself. And he didn't like the area they were in. It wasn't safe to stay there.

"I didn't even tell you that Naruto was our teammate just a week ago," Sakura pointed out. "We didn't tell anyone about it."

"But Cloud is still after him too."

Naruto grasped the charms on his necklace sending a quick code, 'Mandrake'.

"It's petty and we don't have time for this right now. The team Hinata spotted earlier is gone but there are two others close enough that you can take them out," Sasuke cut in, getting Naruto's message.

"We aren't going anywhere unless you tell us what's going on," Hinata stated firmly.

Naruto squared his shoulders in an attempt to ease his discomfort and stay on guard. He created several clones, sending them out to look around. He had never felt something like it before. It wasn't the same as Gaara or Gorou. If it was a demon Kyuubi would have been yelling already, but the fox was clearly content and hadn't said a word since Naruto had recovered from the poison. This…he didn't know what this was. The forest was too quiet except for the occasional rustling of the undergrowth below. And that was the problem. He couldn't smell anything other than snakes. It didn't make sense for there to be so many that it would drown out…his eyes widened suddenly and he sent a shock of chakra into the bracelet, completely the missing the pained shouts that both Sasuke and Sakura let out upon reception.

"What was that for?" Sakura hissed angrily before seeing the look on her teammate's face. "Naruto?"

Naruto looked over at his team, the white's of his eyes showing a bit too clearly for the look to be anything other than fear. He raised his hands several times as the dread continued to grow in his stomach. They don't know him he thought in a panic. 'Orange's teacher. He's here,' he finally signed.

"What did he just say?" Shino asked.

"Orange…Anko's sensei?" Sakura repeated in confusion.

"But he's a missing nin," Sasuke said.

When Naruto only nodded, the other two shared a look of comprehension. "What's he here for?" Sasuke muttered under his breath.

"We go now," Sakura ordered. "No arguing Kiba, we go straight to the tower."

"Who-"

"No, Shino we move. This isn't Cloud. We leave," Sakura ordered.

Kiba did a double take at the edge in her voice and Akamaru actually barked in agreement with the girl. "Then let's go. Let Hinata set the pace, she's the slowest," he offered, ignoring how bad it felt to actually insult his teammate.

Hinata hesitated at his comment but a quick glare from all three members of Team 7 and Hinata took off in the clearest direction that would still lead them towards the center tower. The others matched her pace, but Naruto could still smell the snakes. Not fast-

"Look out!" Sasuke shouted a moment too late as his sharingan picked up the chakra being dumped into a large jutsu. The wind jutsu hit them a moment later scattering the six genin.


Agent's Spiel: Notes are up on the blog. For future reference check April 2010's archives for "Juniper: Snakes II".

Translations for Amarante code:

'Anemone' – poison

'Tansy' – take them out

'Mandrake' – possible danger, on guard