"What do you think of him?" Izumo whispered to his partner.

Izumo and Kotetsu hung back from the large group of genin standing just outside of Training Area 44, otherwise known as the Forest of Death. Their temporary teammate stood about four feet in front of them both, holding the marked scroll in one hand.

"Don't know," Kotetsu said shortly. "He hasn't done much of anything yet."

"Do you think Hokage-sama is right about him?"

Izumo didn't quite know what to make of Uzumaki Kaeru. He certainly hadn't heard much of the teenaged genin before the Hokage called Izumo and Kotetsu into his office with a mission. Uzumaki supposedly had information about a planned attack on Konoha coordinated around the Chuunin Exams. The attack featured one of the sannin, Orochimaru, rather predominantly. The Hokage had been quick to assure both Izumo and Kotetsu that Kaeru had been through Interrogation with the information and had passed all the tests thrown at him. On the surface, Izumo and Kotetsu had been partnered with Kaeru to lend him support as he combated potential threats to Konoha genin during the Exams.

In reality, the Hokage's words still rung through Izumo's mind every time he looked at Uzumaki Kaeru.

"His mind is very heavy with the knowledge of what may come. I want you to make sure he stays in line with his orders."

Having to watch a teammate for any missteps was putting Izumo on edge. He was glad that he and his teammates hadn't been expected to display their cheating skills in the last test. As far as Izumo knew, all the proctors knew about Izumo and Kotetsu's undercover mission. Ibiki probably would have encountered Kaeru already, since the kid had been forced through Interrogation. Heck, Kaeru might have even met Mitarashi Anko, who was currently explaining the rules of the second test to the genin. Kaeru, instead of paying a whole lot of attention to Anko, was scanning the crowd of genin. Part of Izumo kind of knew how the kid felt. Kotetsu was avoiding looking at Anko's outfit as well.

The Konoha teams far outnumbered any other country's kids in the Exams, Izumo noted as he followed Kaeru's gaze. But that wasn't unusual for the Chuunin Exams. Kumo wasn't going to send any young, vulnerable genin to Konoha after the Hyuuga incident; and Iwa sure as hell wasn't going to send anyone to Konoha since the war. Izumo was a little surprised there was a team from Ame in the Exams, seeing how badly that entire country had been ravaged in the last war.

Then, Kaeru's eyes fell on Hatake Kakashi's team as the boy in an orange outfit complained loudly about the time limit. Izumo tapped on Kotetsu's shoulder to get his partner's attention.

"Hey, if Kaeru's an Uzumaki," Izumo said, "ya think he's related to . . . y'know?"

Izumo jerked his head in an obvious gesture toward the loudmouth genin. As Kotetsu fixed his attention on the younger genin, Izumo looked back at Kaeru. The teenager had an amused smile on his face, but he didn't look like he was laughing at the younger boy. This was fond, the way an older brother would be with a younger.

"They got the same eyes and nose," Kotetsu finally said.

Izumo nodded thoughtfully. He didn't know a whole lot about the name Uzumaki. Just that it had once been a clan very closely allied with Konoha, and that it was the name of the kid that was the Kyuubi vessel now. Izumo knew the specific laws governing that situation: no one over a certain age was allowed to talk about the jinchuuriki, and absolutely no one was allowed to harm the jinchuuriki. Izumo himself didn't really have an opinion. The kid was loud and obnoxious, and not a very good shinobi. But Kaeru seemed to look at the kid like he was the best little brother since little brothers had been invented. It might have been possible that Kaeru knew nothing about the Kyuubi or the kid's relation to it, but that was pretty unlikely, especially if Kaeru really was an Uzumaki.

"You'll each be taken to a different entry point in the forest, so you won't all start out in the same place," Anko was saying when Izumo thought to pay attention like he was supposed to.

A chuunin, Izumo thought he recognized him as a Hyuuga, gestured for Izumo's team to follow him to a point at the edge of the forest about one hundred yards to the east of Anko's position. The closest team was the Ino-Shika-Chou to Izumo's right. Kotetsu glanced at their temporary teammate, who was scanning the large trees in front of the three of them with a frown.

"Something wrong?" he asked.

Kaeru tilted his head to look at Kotetsu while Izumo watched the teenager's expression closely. He already thought Kaeru was weird, and he wanted to make sure this mission went off without any incident.

"I remember the trees being a lot taller," said Kaeru.

Scratch the weird. Kaeru was downright bizarre. Izumo shot a puzzled look at his partner behind Kaeru's back, but Kotetsu just shrugged quickly and looked back at Kaeru.

"I didn't know you were here before," Kotetsu prodded.

Kaeru raised one hand and scratched the back of his head sheepishly.

"Ah, well," he began slowly, "I was younger."

"Ready?" The chuunin glanced at a stopwatch in his hand, obviously used to coordinate the test. "Begin."

At his sharp command, Kaeru tensed and then leaped into the forest, heading straight for the dense branches instead of running along the forest floor. Kotetsu and Izumo both followed by a half a second, even as Izumo wondered where the heck the Hokage had found this kid.

Kaeru paused on a branch when he noticed his teammates halt halfway into the forest. That had been a pretty stupid slip outside of the Forest of Death; Kotetsu and Izumo obviously didn't know anything about Kaeru's background, including what he had told Hokage-jiji. Kaeru had to learn to keep his mouth shut.

Kotetsu and Izumo landed next to him on a large branch and looked at him expectantly. Kaeru didn't know a whole lot about the two jounin — he suspected Kakashi might, but that wouldn't help him now — but he trusted them to have the same goal as he did: protect Konoha from Orochimaru. In the meantime, he was still in the middle of an exam.

"So, I guess we actually need both scrolls to get to the next round." Kaeru glanced between the two jounin for confirmation.

Kotetsu shrugged carelessly.

"Hey, we're the only ones here pretending to be genin." His mouth twitched like he was trying very hard not to smile at Kaeru.

"Right." That was so not a pout on Kaeru's face.

Terms like genin and chuunin didn't really mean much to Kaeru anyway, not when he knew how strong he had been after training on Mount Myobokuzan and then afterward, when the seals on his arms brought him back down to the level Naruto currently was: unable to do much more than Kage Bunshin and nothing above C-ranked jutsu.

But at least he had some tools at his disposal. Kaeru manipulated his fingers into a simple seal and sent the three copies of himself in three different directions.

"My clones can scope out the area, see what teams are around us," he explained to Kotetsu and Izumo.

That would at least give him a sense of what his surroundings were so he wasn't working blind. Kaeru remembered enough of when Kotetsu and Izumo worked with Shikamaru and then Kakashi's team against the Akatsuki to know that both of them were more combat-oriented than scouting and spying types.

Kaeru's right arm started to tingle, as if the nerves had fallen asleep. He grit his teeth and curled and uncurled his fingers quickly, just to check that everything was working.

"Are your arms okay?" Kotetsu asked suddenly.

Kaeru jerked his head up from studying his arm and noticed both Kotetsu and Izumo studying his forearms carefully. Kaeru still had both his arms wrapped to the elbows in bandages, like they had been on the mission to Hakui. He didn't actually need them, since the senbon wounds had healed quickly, but it was more comfortable than his long-sleeved shirt, and it did the job of covering the seals on his arms.

"Yeah, just some scratches from my last mission," Kaeru answered as he shrugged deliberately, lowering his arms to hang at his sides. "They're fine."

Kotetsu nodded, apparently accepting Kaeru's explanation.

"I saw one genin team enter the forest about a hundred yards that way," Izumo offered with a wave of his hand.

"Yeah, but I don't really want to sabotage another Konoha team, y'know?" Kaeru recognized who the jounin was talking about. "Besides, that's Shikamaru's team."

"So?" Izumo demanded.

Kaeru almost rolled his eyes at the thought that Izumo, of all people, should know what Shikamaru was capable of. But then, that wasn't right quite yet because Shikamaru was still a genin and neither Kotetsu nor Izumo had worked with him yet. Kaeru huffed out a sigh and tried to explain Shikamaru.

"So, he may be lazy, but if Ino convinces him to actually fight he'd knock us all out," Kaeru said.

"How do you know?" Kotetsu asked suddenly.

Behind tightly closed lips, Kaeru ground his teeth together to keep his first thoughts from spilling out of his mouth. That brief time of searching for Akatsuki team members with his comrades in Konoha was almost the best time in the last five years of his life. He had the respect of his classmates, as well as some of the jounin he worked with. His village had still been standing and strong — before the attack by the leader of the Akatsuki — and he had finally figured out how to complete his father's jutsu: the Rasenshuriken. Now it was far out of his reach.

Kaeru lifted one shoulder in a shrug as he forced an uncaring expression on his face for the benefit of his temporary teammates.

"He was in Naruto's class," he answered. "I've heard a lot of stories about the Nara genius."

That seemed like an acceptable answer. At least Izumo nodded at it, and Kotetsu tilted his head in the direction of Shikamaru's team, but he didn't do anything else. Kaeru squeezed his right hand into a fist and shook it out again. He had to concentrate if he was going to get through this Forest. Suddenly, his eyes widened with brand new knowledge. Kaeru shot a sly smile over his right shoulder, toward the northeast.

"Hey, I found a team from Oto." Kaeru turned his grin on Kotetsu and Izumo. "That sound good to you?"

He really hoped it would be. There was a chance that Kotetsu and Izumo wouldn't want to tangle with a team they knew was under Orochimaru's jurisdiction, but as far as Kaeru knew, Orochimaru didn't care a whit about his genin. He was too focused on getting the Sharingan for himself.

Luckily, Kotetsu nodded thoughtfully and toyed with the holster on his thigh that held most of his weapons.

"All right," he agreed. "Why don't you take the lead on this?"

"Really?" Kaeru hadn't really expected it to be that easy.

"You're the genin," Izumo said with a shrug.

Kaeru shot him a look but stopped just short at sticking out his tongue at the jounin.

"What's your plan of attack?" Kotetsu said.

Kaeru pursed his lips together and thought. This wasn't someone asking him to go up against a god or facing down a madman with too much power, so any of his old and standard plans went out the window. This was just facing down a trio of genin. He didn't even have to kill them, just incapacitate. What were these kids' skills anyway? He hadn't paid much attention to the fights in the original Chuunin Exams that didn't have to do with his teammates. Shikamaru had faced off against the girl; he remembered that much. And the big guy with bandages around his face had nearly blown out Lee's eardrums, but Kaeru only knew that secondhand.

Then, an idea started to percolate in Kaeru's mind. Not for nothing had he once been known as Konoha's greatest prankster.

"Lemme see the scroll?" He held one open hand out to Izumo hopefully.

The short scroll Izumo handed over had the kanji for "heaven" on it, but other than that it looked like a standard scroll available to anyone chuunin and above. Kaeru himself had a couple in his pack for his own scrolls. He started to grin in anticipation as his hand dove into his pack and withdrew a scroll the same shape and size as the one in his hand.

"Okay, this is the hook."

"What do you mean, you need a break?"

Naruto ducked his head sheepishly at Sasuke's obvious anger. It wasn't his fault how his nerves decided to express themselves.

"Would you relax?" Naruto grumbled back at his teammate. "I'll just pop in the bushes and be done in a second."

"Naruto!" cried Sakura. "That's disgusting."

"What?" Where else was he supposed to take a bathroom break when there was no bathroom?

Sasuke heaved a sigh as if he couldn't believe he was stuck with Naruto and Sakura. Naruto wrinkled his nose at Sasuke but didn't say anything.

"We can't afford to wait for you, dobe," Sasuke said finally. "The test is timed, and we haven't run into any other teams yet."

"No problem!" Naruto already had a solution for that.

In one poof of smoke, Naruto suddenly had a twin looking at Sakura and Sasuke.

"You guys can take a clone with you," Naruto explained. "When I'm done, I'll release the jutsu, and I'll know right where you are."

Since Sasuke was twisting his lips instead of calling his teammate an idiot, Naruto figured that was as good as a yes from the bastard. It wasn't really like Naruto could help his situation, anyway.

"Don't be too long," Sasuke finally commanded.

Naruto stuck his tongue out at Sasuke on principle — he couldn't just let Sasuke think he wasn't taking this test seriously — but he turned and hurried into the undergrowth of the forest as he heard three sets of footsteps take off into the trees.

Taking care of his business as quickly as possible, Naruto jerked back onto the animal path as he zipped his pants again. Before he could do anything more, though, he heard a crunch of branches and leaves, like someone very large was walking through the forest. Naruto studied his surroundings carefully. That crazy lady-proctor had said something about the dangers of the forest, crazy animals and poisonous plants and such. Naruto looked down at the packed earth beneath his feet and wondered what kind of animal would make a trail like the one he stood on. It looked too narrow for something like a deer.

Suddenly, a sinuous body slammed through the underbrush and snapped towards Naruto. Naruto tried to jump out of the way and tripped backwards instead when his heel caught on a branch at the edge of the path. He lost his breath only in the time it took him to get his hands under him while he kept facing the giant creature.

"Snake!" he cried, scrambling backwards like a crab. "Giant snake!"

Naruto's yells didn't do anything as the snake's head sailed where he had just been standing. The giant head gave a little jerk and then remained perfectly still while the sideways eyes fixed onto Naruto. Naruto pushed himself to his feet and gave one huge leap to get out of the line of sight.

He felt and heard the snake's lunge for him as Naruto sailed into the tree branches. He bounced around between three trees in a manner that was more distraction than anything. It usually worked when Naruto had still had the time to run away from shinobi who chased him after one of his pranks.

Naruto launched into a somersault and landed on the forest floor, darting behind a large trunk. He tried to catch what was left of his breath silently, which made it really hard to get in all the oxygen his lungs seemed to think he needed. But he didn't want to attract any more attention. No one had shown up after his yells, which meant that Sasuke and Sakura-chan were probably already too far away to hear him. Naruto supposed that was good in a way. At least they weren't going to meet a giant snake. You'd think that would be something the proctor should have mentioned. None of this you-must-sign-forms-because-you-could-possibly-die crap; that was way too vague.

Naruto opened his mouth and drew in a deep breath, feeling confident in his ability to keep his limbs steady now. All he had to do was dispel his clone and find out where his teammates were.

Suddenly, he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Naruto turned just in time to see a cave of pink flesh; a cave framed by long fangs and moving quickly toward him.


Sasuke planted his feet on a large tree branch and looked over at where Naruto's figure had frozen mere feet away.

"What?" Sasuke snapped.

The clone lifted one hand and scratched at his temple, just under the hitai-ate.

"Something feels weird," Naruto's clone said.

Sasuke wrinkled his nose at the first explanation that popped into his head.

"If you say you need to stop for a bathroom break just because Naruto—"

"That's not it!"

It was a little weird conversing with Naruto's clone and having the figure respond just like Naruto would. Sasuke was familiar with the technique only because Naruto used it almost every time the two of them sparred — at least when they agreed that ninjutsu was permitted. Some of the time they just stuck with taijutsu.

Sakura landed next to Sasuke and took a few deep breaths as she glanced between Sasuke and Naruto.

"Maybe something's wrong with Boss," said the clone.

Sasuke was vaguely aware of the memory transference that occurred in Kage Bunshin, but he didn't think the knowledge passed the opposite way. How was the clone supposed to know when its creator was in danger?

"Sasuke-kun," Sakura whispered suddenly.

Sakura's tone — urgent and wary — made Sasuke pay attention where normally the suffix alone would encourage him to ignore Sakura. But he followed her eyes to his right, almost opposite of the large tree where his team had paused. A young man stood on another branch, close to the large, thick trunk. The genin had the symbol for Kusa, Grass Country, on his forehead, but he looked older than Sasuke. Maybe Kaeru's age.

"Well, well." The Kusa-nin smiled widely, his lips stretching into a sly, pleased grin. "Look what I've stumbled upon."

Sasuke barely registered his own movements until he realized that he was in front of Sakura, standing between her and the newcomer.

"It's one against three, you bastard," Naruto called from just behind Sasuke.

The Kusa-nin's eyes rolled lazily to gaze just over Sasuke's shoulder.

"Oh, I hardly think you count," said the foreign genin.

Sasuke saw the new guy's arm snap upward and reached behind himself a bit to grab onto Sakura's wrist. He dragged his teammate behind him as he jumped off the branch to avoid the attack he knew would be coming. Releasing his brief hold on Sakura's wrist, Sasuke landed on a large branch just below where they had been standing. Sasuke jerked his head up to make sure Naruto had gotten out of the way as well. But the Kusa-nin seemed to be concentrating on Naruto more than either Sasuke or Sakura. Naruto hopped from branch to branch like a cricket, trying to avoid all the senbon flying toward him.

"What's with all the needles, yarou!" Naruto yelled as he swung around the trunk of a younger tree.

When Naruto reappeared around the trunk, his eyes widened suddenly as one of the thin wooden weapons caught him right in the stomach. Sasuke leaned forward, almost ready to leave Sakura behind so he could catch Naruto when he fell. But then Naruto's body disappeared in a cloud of smoke and a haze of used-up chakra.

Sasuke ducked his head and hoped no one had seen his momentary panic. He had forgotten that Naruto wasn't even real. The real Naruto was probably still constipated somewhere.

"Much better," the Kusa-nin said in an oily voice. "Now to take care of the small fry."

The Kusa-nin turned his attention onto Sasuke and Sakura, looking down his long nose at the younger genin. Sasuke stood up straighter and reached for his shuriken holster. If this guy favored senbon like Hake had, Sasuke could use his Sharingan—

Suddenly, Sasuke felt a horrendous pressure in the center of his chest. He could feel blood running down his face, but the Kusa-nin hadn't done anything to him yet. Worse, Sasuke couldn't even find the strength to move. His heart was going three times its normal speed, and he was paralyzed — his muscles seized up, and he only knew that he was going to die.

Out of the corner of his eye, Sasuke could see Sakura's body, pale and trembling but wide-eyed and frozen in her place beside him. She was apparently trapped the same way as he was, but Sasuke knew they weren't in a genjutsu. His eyes were good enough already to at least tell if there was a genjutsu present. He had felt this once before, on the way to Nami. Killing intent. He forced his hand to move, inch by inch, until he felt his fingers wrap around the solid, cool metal of a kunai.

"Ugh." Sasuke groaned as the world snapped back into focus.

"Oh, how marvelous."

Sasuke barely heard the Kusa-nin crooning above him as he withdrew the point of his kunai from his thigh. The open wound throbbed with every pulse of his heart, but it was at least more real than the nightmare world that the sakki had him under. Shifting, Sasuke positioned himself in front of Sakura so that he blocked the Kusa-nin's view of her. The Kusa-nin didn't seem to care.

"What splendid prey you're turning out to be." The genin smiled proudly down at Sasuke.

Sasuke clambered to his feet and pulled out the Heaven scroll his team was in charge of.

"Here." He held the scroll level with his head so that he was sure the Kusa-nin could see it. "Just take our scroll and go. We won't fight you."

Sasuke really doubted he could, anyway. Naruto wasn't here, and Sakura would be no help in her current state. The scroll wasn't worth Sasuke's life. It just meant that he and his team would have to work twice as hard to get both the scrolls they needed before the five days were up.

"Clever." The Kusa-nin smiled with his lips pressed tightly together. "You must know the only chance to get away from a predator is to offer up more interesting prey."

Sasuke wasn't very fond of this guy's penchant for referring to everything as prey and predator. They were ninja, not stupid animals.

"But I'm not interested in the scroll." The older genin abruptly stopped smiling. "I came for you, Uchiha Sasuke."

Sasuke's eyes widened as he took in the sudden change in the Kusa-nin's eyes. For a moment, they looked feral; yellow irises with slit pupils like a snake's. A rain of senbon sailed toward Sasuke, and he launched himself backwards, catching Sakura around the waist so he could drag her back to safety. It seemed like it wouldn't matter if Sasuke thought he couldn't fight against the older genin. He would have to anyway.

Sasuke propped Sakura, who was still pale and shaky, against the trunk of the tree while he took off around the large trunk to face the Kusa-nin again. He already knew that he had a dozen shuriken, ten kunai, and a spool of ninja wire in his pouch. That ninja wire could possibly be useful. Sasuke closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. He refused to die here.

Sasuke snapped his eyes open and saw everything.

Doku glared at Kin for a long moment. It had been her idea to take a break, even though it was still the first day of the test.

"We're going," Doku announced.

Suddenly, a tall figure appeared in the clearing just in front of Doku's team.

"Hey, kids," the newcomer called jovially.

Doku didn't know why the guy was so happy, since the hitai-ate just under his red hair clearly displayed his allegiance to Konoha.

"Who're you?" Doku demanded. He saw Zaku crouch down and spread his arms in anticipation of a fight.

"Relax." The Konoha genin held up his hands in a pose of surrender. "My name's Uzumaki. I got separated from my team. Ya seen any Konoha genin around?"

"Just you," said Doku.

"Which means you're out-numbered," Zaku added with his wild grin.

"Not really," replied the Konoha-nin.

Doku's eyes widened as he watched three more figures, identical to the teenage redhead in front of him, pop out of the underbrush behind the Konoha-nin. They were clones, obviously, but one had his arm slung around another, which meant they were solid. Likely elemental clones, harder to dispel and useful for much more than the diversionary tactics normal Bunshins were used for.

"Hey, look." The Konoha-nin held up his hands again. "I don't really want to fight if I don't have to."

"Why not?" demanded Kin suspiciously.

The Konoha-nin just shrugged, as if explaining would be a bother.

"I've done this before," he said. "So I know that next they'll have us go through individual fights. I don't want to waste my energy fighting you, so I have a proposal."

Negotiating from a Konoha shinobi? Doku supposed that it wasn't unheard of. Everyone in Otogakure said Konoha shinobi were peace-loving fools who didn't have the guts to take on the heavier subjects, like Mist did.

"What?" Doku asked, his curiosity peaked.

The redhead reached into his pack slowly and withdrew a small scroll, sealed and edged in black on both ends. He held the label out so that Doku could see the label of "Heaven" in the center of the scroll.

"We both have a scroll, right?" began Uzumaki. "So how 'bout we each look in our scrolls so that we can make a copy to present at the Tower. That way we both get through the test."

Beneath the bandages that covered his mouth and chin, Doku smirked. Everyone was apparently right. Konoha shinobi were a bunch of pansies.

"I got a better idea," he said confidently. "We take your scroll, and then we'll get through the test and you can rot in this damn forest."

Behind his back, Doku made a sharp movement with one hand, signaling a chance to attack. As Zaku jumped forward, Kin released the razor-thin strings her bells were attached to. The bells wrapped around one of the clones at Uzumaki's side and dispelled it as the wire cut into the fake flesh. Zaku took down the other clone, and Doku powered up the amplifiers on his arm and charged the main opponent: Uzumaki himself.

The older ninja dodged away from the blow, but Doku's amplifiers ensured that even a glancing blow would allow the sound waves to cause their damage. Sure enough, a moment later, Uzumaki stumbled backward with one hand raised to cover his left ear. Doku seized the opportunity and swung his other arm in a wide sweep that ended in a hit to Uzumaki's soft midsection. Uzumaki groaned and fell to his knees, his arms wrapped around his stomach. Blood oozed slowly from his ear.

"Well, it seems you weren't quite up to the fight, after all," Doku crooned as he stood in front of the kneeling Konoha genin.

Kin and Zaku strode up to stand on either side of Doku while Uzumaki pulled together just enough strength to glare up at Doku. Kin reached down and plucked the scroll from Uzumaki's pack, studying it for a moment to be sure of the symbol.

"It's the right one," she said. "Our mission's done. We can head for the tower."

Zaku suddenly grabbed the scroll from her hands.

"C'mon," he whined. "I wanted to see that kid Orochimaru-sama is so crazy about. What's so special about a damn Uchiha?"

"Give that back!" Kin reached for the scroll, but Zaku danced out of her reach with a wide grin.

"Hey, you think he was telling the truth about copying the scroll?" Zaku asked suddenly.

Doku tried not to roll his eyes too much.

"Obviously, he was just trying to get out of an actual fight," he said. "You saw how easily he went down."

"Oi, I'm right here," grumbled Uzumaki.

Zaku slid his thumb under the edge of the scroll, peeling off the symbol that held the paper shut.

"Maybe we can report this to someone else," mused Zaku, "like Yakushi-san."

Doku growled from beneath his bandages.

"That double-crosser can find his own way through the test if Orochimaru-sama wants him to," he said.

Zaku didn't pay much attention to Doku as he starting to lift the paper away from the tightly-rolled scroll. Kin craned her neck closer to Zaku, trying to read over his shoulder in curiosity. Doku glanced back at their opponent to make sure the Konoha-nin was staying down. Then, he saw one corner of Uzumaki's mouth turn up in a very sly, secretive smirk. Doku spun around to his teammates.

"No, don't!"

The cry was too late as Zaku pulled the scroll open with a jerk. A flash of light made Doku throw up his arms to protect his face, and he felt hurried movement coming from the Konoha-nin on his knees. When the light faded, Doku lowered his arms and blinked again to clear his vision. Uzumaki had disappeared, and both Zaku and Kin stood frozen in their positions, like they couldn't move. A large circle covered the ground surrounding them, but Doku couldn't make out the symbols that decorated the circumference.

"Ha, ha!" cried a triumphant voice. "I did it! I did it!"

Doku looked up and saw Uzumaki standing confidently on a low-hanging tree branch. The blood from his ear had slowed to almost nothing, and he wasn't acting as if his stomach was hurt at all.

"I knew I could figure that seal out!" Uzumaki shouted.

"You said you were sure it would work," grumbled a new voice.

Doku's head snapped to his right, where another Konoha-nin, almost the same age as Uzumaki, stood on the trunk of another tree.

"I was," Uzumaki protested. "At least I was sure it was gonna do something."

"You should've told us."

A third voice now; apparently Uzumaki's team wasn't as separated as Doku had thought. Doku glared at the redhead as the older boy just shrugged.

"This whole setup was meant as a trap," Doku hissed in realization.

Uzumaki grinned and held up a finger triumphantly.

"Point for the Oto-nin!" he cried.

His fingers then came together in the same seal Doku had seen him make before. Suddenly, there were 12 identical figures dotting the ground and the trees surrounding Doku, standing between him and his trapped teammates.

"Told ya I don't need to waste my energy fighting you." Uzumaki's grin looked almost as evil and bloodthirsty as Orochimaru-sama's could.

Naruto pushed against the warm, slimy flesh pinning him in.

"Let me out, ya stupid snake," he hissed through his teeth.

He would've screamed at the giant animal, but he was surrounded by slime and trapped in a pitch-black tunnel that pressed in on him. There was some kind of liquid splashing at his stomach, but Naruto didn't really want to think about what that could be. He balled his fists and tried to maneuver his arm around for an elbow slam instead, since he didn't have enough room to punch his way out.

Suddenly, large trees and branches flashed in front of Naruto's eyes. He even thought he saw Sasuke out of the corner of his eye, but then the scene disappeared and he was surrounded by a darkness that seemed to squeeze the breath out of him. Naruto blinked and tried to find a light before he realized that what he had seen was actually happening. It was just happening somewhere else. His body froze as his brain took a moment to process the memories that were both his and not quite his. He saw Sasuke and Sakura both fighting some tall, creepy guy that was definitely not from Konoha.

His teammates were in trouble.

Naruto straightened both arms and slammed his palms against the wall of flesh in front of him.

"Get me frikkin' outa here!" he cried. "Last chance, snake! You're gonna be sorry!"

Something soft and warm hit him in the face, and Naruto immediately pressed his lips closed as he recoiled as best he could in the limited space he had. He had to find a way to escape before he got turned into snake juice and his teammates got hurt.

Then, Naruto thought of the mission to Wave and of Kaeru sitting on top of a still lake, trapped inside a prison made of water. Kaeru had said that he cut his way out, that Wind chakra was really good at cutting. Naruto hadn't really had time yet to do the training that Kaeru had promised him, but if he kept his eyes closed, he could clearly picture the tiny swirl that Kaeru had painted on the palm of his hand. Kaeru had said to concentrate on channeling charka to that point as part of Naruto's training. Surely, Naruto could take it from there.

With his palms resting on the walls of the snake's stomach, Naruto closed his eyes in the darkness and pushed all the chakra he could to his hands. He thought about the inked, black swirl on his skin and how it was kind of like seeing the black seals on Kaeru's arms and hands. Naruto's hands started to grow warm.

Suddenly, the wall gave way, and Naruto tumbled forward into the bright light of the open forest. A squelching sound followed after him, and he opened his eyes just in time to catch the puff of smoke that replaced the snake as it disappeared like one of Naruto's clones. But Naruto still saw the slash that cut right through the snake's belly. He had done that himself.

But there was no time to feel proud of himself. Naruto shoved himself to his feet and quickly shook his head to try and get ride of the slimy stuff in his hair. He still smelled like the inside of a snake. But that didn't matter. Sasuke and Sakura were still in trouble, and Naruto had to get to them.

"It's always the stomach."

Kaeru tentatively rubbed his hand across his stomach, dispelling the phantom pains. It was probably a good thing that only one of his clones had taken the hit to the gut before the battle was all said and done.

"I gotta get some Akimichi armor or something," muttered Kaeru.

"That would pretty much look ridiculous," said Kotetsu. "You don't have the body for it."

Kotetsu seemed pretty laidback for the first time since entering the forest, but Kaeru thought they had a good reason, seeing as two of the Oto-nin were still frozen within his seal. The only remaining one — the guy with bandages around nearly his whole face — went down pretty easy for Kaeru's clones. Except for that one lucky blow.

"But they always go for my stomach," he whined.

"Then you should know when to block, shouldn't you?" said Izumo from Kaeru's other side.

"Nyah." Kaeru turned and stuck his tongue out at Izumo, just because he couldn't quite let that go without doing something.

In truth, the hit hadn't hurt that much at all. Whatever pain his clone had felt should have dissipated as soon as the Kage Bunshin had disappeared. But his stomach was still hurting. As Kaeru lowered his hand deliberately — Izumo was starting to stare like he expected to see Kaeru sprout a wound — Kaeru knew this wasn't just leftover pain from his clones.

His seals were hurting.

He should've guessed this would happen since his very fingertips had tingled after he performed the Rasengan in front of Neji. But if even clones were too much for him, he was very soon going to be in very serious trouble.

"Well, what now?" Kotetsu asked as he stretched his arms over his head.

"Hey, I got the scroll," complained Kaeru. "How 'bout you guys take it from here."

Kaeru placed one hand on the back of his head and rolled his eyes so that his head rolled back on his shoulders. A sudden movement on the ground caught his eye, and he snapped his head to the side, worried that one of the Oto-nin might have escaped his seal. But it was just a snake slithering through the grass under the tree. Kaeru dropped his hand slowly as he stared after the snake.

"—as long as we do that, we'll be good," Izumo was saying.

"Hey." Kotetsu nudged Kaeru on the shoulder. "Dispel your clones. We won't need the extra attention while we're traveling."

Kaeru stared at his two teammates while he processed their words. That's right, they were going to the tower in the middle of the Forest now that they had both the scrolls. He wasn't supposed to get involved in any extra fights this time.

Well, screw that.

"Sure." Kaeru grinned widely and hoped his devious plan didn't show through his smile.

One Kawarimi Jutsu later and Kaeru stood in place of one of his clones on the forest floor. Quickly, he cancelled out the Kage Bunshin Jutsu and made sure to include a cloud of smoke around himself before performing a Shunshin. Kotetsu and Izumo were leading a shadow clone away from the battlefield and toward the tower as Kaeru, cloaked by the dense leaves of the canopy, watched just long enough to make sure they didn't suspect anything.

Then, Kaeru turned and took off, searching for any sign of a too-creepy ninja with a fixation on Uchiha eyes.

A/N: What's this? I'm alive? * surreptitiously checks surroundings* Yep, I seem to be alive. Shocking, I know.

I do apologize for my lack of updates in the past *mumbles* months. I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo again this year (or was it last year by now), and then Real Life decided to kick my butt. I've even fallen behind on the manga reading.

Although considering how long the final battle is taking, I'm not that worried about the Naruto manga.

Thanks for stickin' with me!