Oh man, I lost all my notes for this chapter half way through. Totally sucked trying to re-gather my thoughts for such a busy, action-packed one.

Managed it though, so I hope you all enjoy The Forest of Death!

WARNING!: In this chapter, there is a mention of Senjutsu, and natural chakra. Read the relevant bit carefully. No, Naruto will not be learning Sage Mode. Not for a very long time - at least until past time skip. I put this here to try and stem the worries about me making Naruto overpowered, which is not what I'm intending to do at all.

Chapter 27

The Chunin Exams II

The Tenth Question, as it turned out wasn't really an exam question at all - more of a test of the Genin themselves. You see, they had been given a choice - either take the question or don't. If they chose not to, they failed, and would be free to try again at the next Exams. If they chose to take the question and answered correctly, they passed the First Exam; if they were incorrect however, they and their team-mates would fail, and never be able to take the exams again, remaining Genin for the rest of their lives.

Really, his squad had an unfair advantage. He had long ago decided that he would bet everything on becoming Hokage in order to protect his village, and wasn't about to back down at the first hurdle put in his way. Hana on the other hand, dreamed of being a medic-nin, and truth be told, medic-nin didn't actually need to be any higher ranked than Genin, as long as they were good enough at their job.

As it turned out, it had been a trick either way. The question was actually the decision on whether to advance or not. Simply put, those that chose to take the question passed.

"Say you guys become Chunin, and you get a mission to steal a secret document with information vital to the safety of your village. There could be traps all around you, and any number of enemy ninja of any level... Because you don't want to die, because you don't want your comrades hurt, can you avoid this dangerous mission? The answer is no! There are missions you cannot avoid no matter the danger. To be courageous in the face of such tasks, and survive hardship - that is the ability required of a Chunin. Those cowards who aren't willing to put their hopes and dreams on the line, those who cling to the comfort of 'there's always next year'... Those kind of people don't have the right to become Chunin. That was the point of the Tenth Question. Those who chose to take it remain, and have passed; those without the courage have failed... I wish you guys lu-"

Ibiki's speech was cut short by the sound of smashing glass as a figure moving almost faster than Naruto could follow darted into the room, throwing kunai that lodged into the classroom walls as she did so. The kunai were attached to a mass of black cloth that stretched out as the figure came to a stand before the room, creating a banner behind the mysterious woman.

Newly Arrived Second Chief Examiner Mitarashi Anko!

Naruto very nearly burst out laughing at the the woman, Anko, on the spot. He couldn't for the life of him decide whether that entrance was cool, lame, or the single funniest thing he'd ever seen in his life. Either way, he decided there and then that he liked Mitarashi Anko. It helped of course, that he was pretty sure she could be trusted too, given that she worked in the Torture and Interrogation department with Ibiki. The woman wearing a tan overcoat with almost nothing underneath but a mesh bodysuit that went down to her thighs, and a short, tan skirt; had managed to endear herself to him by doing something so quintessentially Naruto, that Naruto hadn't even done it yet.

He may have grown up, but this was still the guy who had painted the Hokage Monument, and rigged 200 stink bombs to explode simultaneously throughout the village so that there was literally nowhere to run, after all.

"It's way too early to be celebrating!" Anko shouted out over the din caused by her entrance. "You left this many behind Ibiki? You're slipping."

Ibiki barked out a laugh. "There were some outstanding ones this year, Anko."

"Well, no matter." Anko began, gazing almost bloodthirstily at the remaining Genin. "By the time I'm done, their numbers will be cut by half."

Suddenly, Naruto couldn't help but feel that he didn't like Anko quite as much as he thought he did.

"Now follow me little Genins, I'll explain everything once we get to the location of the second exam."

Jiraiya almost smirked as he glanced around the room he and several of the other Konoha Jonin were waiting in whilst their Genin took Ibiki's little test of character.

Every single one of them, except perhaps Kakashi - the unflappable brat that he was - was looking decidedly flustered at his decision to wait for Naruto and the Inuzuka girl to finish the first stage of the exam with the rest of them. It was rare enough that he was in the village at all, after all, and he was known as one of the most powerful shinobi that Konoha had to offer - but Jiraiya wasn't really as vain as to think that these seasoned shinobi were all quite so tense just because the Great Jiraiya was in the room. No, his taking an interest in something as trivial as the Chunin Exams sent a message to all the Jonin here that none of them could misinterpret.

Something big, and something dangerous was going down, and now all your cute little Genin are right in the middle of it.


The Sannin turned to meet Ibiki as he entered the room, sounding particularly grave.

"Something happened already?" He asked, not quite believing that even Orochimaru would have made his move in what was essentially a written exam.

"Not... Exactly." The scarred interrogation expert started hesitantly. "Though I have to admit, you have one hell of an interesting student - he aced the test, by the way, and we still have no idea how. Kid went to the bathroom, accompanied, was in there not even a minute before coming out, sitting down, and filling out the entire damn test. The other proctors are tearing their hair out trying to figure it out. More importantly, he gave me this." And with that, Ibiki handed Jiraiya his student's exams, complete with the fuinjutsu message still inscribed onto it.

"Pretty clever bit of fuinjutsu, if I'm honest. I've not seen anything like it before... One of yours?"

"Actually, no." Jiraiya answered, allowing a small smirk to form on his face out of pride in his student - plus, he knew full well that every other Jonin in the room was listening in. "Naruto came up with it himself. It's still in development mind you. He's looking for a way to send messages over longer distances - for now it's limited to short range communication. Still, pretty good for his first original seal, with only a few weeks of learning the art, no?" Jiraiya asked, deliberately utterly understating the impressiveness of the accomplishment - especially if you were unaware of the blond's little Kage Bunshin trick.

"Hang on-" The Jonin sensei of Team 8, Yuuhi Kurenai, couldn't help but interrupt. "You expect us to believe that Uzumaki Naruto - who graduated last in the Academy and spent his entire childhood pranking the village rather than train - has managed to learn fuinjutsu to a greater degree than most Jonin do, in a few weeks? Jiraiya-sama, I'm sorry, but that's impossible - even for someone taught by a Sannin."

Jiraiya narrowed his eyes at the Jonin - both at the questioning of his integrity, and at the doubting of his student; of whom he was becoming increasingly proud of. But the sound of a little orange book snapping shut stopped any thought of Jiraiya needing to reply on his student's behalf.

Because after all, though the village council had managed to block Kakashi's attempts to adopt Uzumaki Naruto, then block his attempts to get in contact; and though fate had decided to intervene and see to it that it was Jiraiya, not Kakashi that was to train Naruto, Hatake Kakashi had spent a good part of his ANBU career defending his sensei's son. From villagers who would wreck his apartment, and even attempt to get violent (though Kakashi and the ANBU had seen to it that Naruto never knew about attempts to physically harm him, few as they were); to a kidnapping attempt from a visiting foreign shinobi whom had been informed that Naruto was Konoha's jinchuuriki, and had decided to take advantage of his new found knowledge (though once again, Kakashi had stopped the attempt before it had even reached Naruto) - Kakashi had always done his best to at least defend Uzumaki Naruto.

"No, Kurenai, he doesn't." Kakashi spoke up, his usual idle-sounding voice conspicuously absent. "He expects us to believe that the Uzumaki Naruto who mastered the Kage Bunshin in a few hours without any guidance at all did that. Or maybe it was the Uzumaki Naruto who managed to create and learn the fundamentals of a taijutsu style tailored specifically to him - despite having spent his entire time at the Academy being intentionally tutored in a style specifically designed to ensure that he would be killed by an enemy in combat."

"But then Jiraiya-sama could also have meant the Uzumaki Naruto who relearned the entire Academy syllabus in a few weeks; or the one that in only a few months as a Genin has already successfully completed a solo B-rank infiltration mission, an A-rank solo mission, and quite possibly saved the lives of both of his Genin team-mates on yet another A-rank mission, that I happened to have led."

"I suppose that given your casual dismissal of Naruto's ability that your team's mission record must be at least as impressive as his - though really, I imagine it must be that much better."

Kurenai could do nothing but stand open mouthed as he rebuked her in a tone that only ANBU recruits had heard from Kakashi.

"Anyway, as much as it makes me proud to hear a few of my student's accomplishments listed like that, I believe I was actually in the middle of discussing something with Ibiki." Jiraiya spoke before Kurenai could respond to defend herself, or even apologise, so that Kakashi's words would have even more impact, but also so Kakashi could say anything more. Judging by the contemplative look on her face - and some of the other Jonin for that matter, Kakashi's speech had managed to have the desired effect.

"I take it the second phase is still being held in Training Ground 44, Ibiki?"

"Yes. Mitarashi Anko's proctoring that exam - it should be due to start any minute now." Ibiki replied, still smiling slightly after Kurenai's reprimanding at the hands of Kakashi. He had particularly enjoyed the implied slight on Kurenai's efforts with her own team - it had been a perfect bit of psychology on Kakashi's part.

"He'll likely make his move during this test - it's the easiest place to get his target alone, so we'll make ours too. Mobilise the ANBU. Have Anko lead a squad into the forest after this Kabuto - I have complete faith in my student's observations, he's likely a spy, and a damn good one if you couldn't tell, Ibiki. I'll be going in after the Snake myself though." Jiraiya paused in contemplation briefly, before adding. "Kakashi will back me up, in case he's not alone. A full team is too great a risk while fighting him, he's on a whole other level, and I can't afford to be protecting ANBU while trying to take him down."

Ibiki nodded sharply, before turning on his heel and leaving the room to carry out the Sannin's orders; whilst Kakashi moved next to Jiraiya as they themselves prepared to head out in search of the traitorous Sannin that had most likely infiltrated the Chunin Exams to abduct Kakashi's student, Uchiha Sasuke.

"Wait, Jiraiya-sama, before you leave... What Kakashi - what you said about Naruto... Is it true?" Kurenai asked, just as the pair was leaving the room.

"You still doubt me? You doubt Kakashi's word too now? To be honest, I don't much care whether you believe it or not, but I will say this: Naruto is streets ahead of just about any Genin I've ever seen other than maybe Minato himself." Jiraiya announced loudly enough for the entire room to hear, to a series of widening, disbelieving eyes.

"But unlike Minato who I tutored really pretty closely until he hit Chunin - I had very little to do with it. I just hope none of your Genin get him in the finals, Kurenai. Kakashi already dressed you down well enough - I'm not sure your pride deserves to have Naruto take apart one of your students right in front of you on top of it."

And with that, Jiraiya left; marveling at Naruto's ability to cause a scene without even being there.

Inuzuka Hana stared at her and Naruto's entrance into Training Ground 44, aptly named 'The Forest of Death', and couldn't help but feel more than a little bit intimidated. The forest canopy let almost no light into the area itself, so below it was very nearly pitch dark, even in the middle of the day. The trees, even on the outside of the ground were among some of the largest she had ever seen, but their branches twisted and turned around each other, giving the forest an ominous unnatural feel.

A glance at the Haimaru triplets told her they were feeling the same, eyes roaming the forest, bodies stiff and alert before they had even entered yet.

Anko had been bad enough. Making them sign release forms in case they died, making sure to mention the various different creatures that could eat a person that live within what was probably the largest training ground in Konoha. And then there was the way she had licked Kiba's blood from his own face after she had cut him with a kunai - all because he had made been acting a little confidently for the woman's liking.

Needless to say, he hadn't spoken up since then.

The actual task they had was straightforward enough on the face of things. Each team would be give one of two scrolls, and earth scroll, or a heaven scroll. All they had to do, was take one of each to the tower in the centre of the forest-covered area - essentially forcing the teams to fight each other in order to get the scroll they do not have. They were to be given a five day time limit in which to get the scroll they needed from another squad, and get to the tower, or they would be disqualified. Also, if a team has a member incapacitated when they reach the tower, or they try and take a look inside one of the scrolls; that team would also be disqualified.

The proctor had promised to cut their numbers by half after all, and this task would accomplish that at a minimum.

Despite all this however, Naruto looked utterly calm and unworried by the nature and location of the task ahead of them. In fact, the only hint of worry she had managed to spot on her friend's whiskered face was only for a moment, where he had met Gaara's eyes during Anko's speech on the dangers of the Forest. She had very nearly forgotten that her team-mate had been singled out by who was probably the most dangerous Genin here.

"How do you want to do this? Everybody knows about Gaara, so hopefully we won't have to worry about him - we've just got to do this fast so he doesn't get a chance to find us. I don't really feel like fighting him without any Jonin around unless I absolutely have to." Asked as they waited to gain entrance to the Forest of Death.

"Well, the teams from the smaller villages tend to be far more average than those from the major ones. Six out of ten teams from Suna got through the first test, which probably means they sent a very good set of candidates, so we should avoid them. We're not going to go after any Konoha teams unless we absolutely have to, so that's almost 20 teams out of the way straight away. I also think we should avoid the Oto and Kusa teams if we can possibly help it - especially that Kusa team." Naruto responded, never looking away from the forest in front of them.

"Which essentially leaves us with the teams from Amegekure, and the one team from Takigakure, then?"

"Yeah. I couldn't tell if there was anything special about any of them really; but how about since we're technically allied with Taki, we gun for the Ame teams?"

Hana smirked, having already guessed how Naruto would view the situation. "I thought you might say that, so I had one of the triplets each get a feel for the scents of one of the Ame teams. That means we can track at least three teams fairly easily once we're in the forest. Hopefully, at least one of hem has the Heaven scroll we need."

"Brilliant thinking!" The blond exclaimed, his grin matching her own, and not leaving his face even as the gates to their entrance opened before them. "Pick a team then, and let's go kick their asses."

Thirty seconds since the gates had opened.

That was all the time it took for Yakushi Kabuto's team to come under attack - far too soon for it be another team in the exam. They had barely even gotten into the forest before his two Genin team-mates had been felled by a flurry of poisoned senbon, as they walked straight into an ambush.

Kabuto had known the second he had sensed the strikes aimed at him, that somehow his old village had discovered he was a spy for Orochimaru - how, he didn't know - but there wasn't a Genin alive that could have set up an ambush that he couldn't detect; and the fact that he had walked right into this one unawares told him all he needed to know.


Things hadn't even really started, and already they were looking grim. Still, Kabuto had spied in countries and villages all across the elemental nations, and had been a ninja for as long as he could really remember, performing highly dangerous, behind enemy lines missions. He hadn't gotten this far without being damn good at what he did.

He immediately ducked under the first slash from a Katana wielding ANBU that had appeared on his left, losing a shave of hair as he did so, and launched himself into a forward roll to avoid the kunai strike aimed at his spinal chord; and almost in one motion, launched a kunai at each of the first two attackers, giving himself enough time to activate his preferred ninjutsu.

Chakra no Mesu.

Blue chakra formed around both his hands as the silver haired spy settled into a loose fighting stance. The chakra that surrounded his hands formed teh basis of his taijutsu technique, and was one of the reasons that he could be so deadly in combat. It allowed his hands to act as scalpels that made internal cuts on the victims body - allowing him to damage organs, cut blood vessels, and sever muscle tendons with even the slightest touch.

Kabuto allowed a small smirk to form on his face, as he sensed a third ANBU making his move behind him.

Despite his apparent confidence however, Kabuto was worried. He had killed more than the four ANBU that had ambushed him before in one go before - the trouble was, he had always been on the front foot, ambushing two or three at a time and killing them before they could react. Now, he had been forced into an open battle, and Kabuto wasn't sure he'd be able to come out on top like this.

He span suddenly, turning to face the masked man that had attempted to take him from behind, and blocked the man's punch with his right palm, before dropping into a crouch, and striking at his leg with his left, dropping the man to the ground, the tendons in his leg ripped to shreds by his scalpels. He wasn't given time to finish the man however, as the katana wielding ANBU that had attacked first attacked with several jabbed thrusts, forcing him to immediately go on the defensive, and take his focus from his felled enemy in order to weave in and out of the strikes. A costly mistake on his part.

"Doton: Ganban Kyū."

Kabuto cursed as the downed man finished the hand signs for the Doton technique, and pillars of stone burst out of the ground around him, trying to form into a dome-shaped prison. Silently, Kabuto began his own sequence of seals, and activated a Doton jutsu of his very own - Doton: Shinjū Zanshu no Jutsu - allowing him to sink into the ground and escape the makeshift prison.

The cat-masked, katana wielding ANBU tensed as he saw the stone enclose around their target, extending his senses, looking for any sign of the spy. He was simply too good to be caught by something so simple. All it had done was bought them some time to regroup, and tend to their wounded comrade, which his other two team-mates had already begun to do, leaving him to cover them.

In fact, his target was so good, he didn't even notice the man emerge from the ground behind him until he had cut both his Achilles tendons, dropping him to the floor with a cry of agony.

Kabuto was grinning, as he raised his kunai to finish the first of the ANBU squad. They had given him the opportunity to slip into the shadows and turn the tables, and like a true shinobi, that was exactly what he had done. Next came the fun part, where he would pick them off one by-


Kabuto gasped in pain as a muddy brown scaled snake clamped down onto his wrist, and another sunk it's teeth into his neck, and immediately felt the fiery hot venom of the creatures enter his bloodstream. His immediate reaction was to attempt to use medical ninjutsu to combat the poison long enough to escape, but it was no use. The pain had almost instantly overwhelmed him, destroying his ability to concentrate. Mere seconds after being bitten, the last thing he saw before he lost consciousness was a woman in a large tan overcoat walking towards him.

"That's quite enough of that, I think. Yakushi Kabuto: Captured."

Anko's snakes dispelled themselves as the bespectacled spy hit the floor unconscious, giving the ANBU a chance to securely bind him, and apply the chakra restrictive seals used for shinobi prisoners. Given the man's obvious ability, that had gone surprisingly well in Anko's opinion. No casualties, and the muscle injuries sustained could be healed relatively quickly. More importantly, the Cat-masked ANBU's suggestion that she wait in the shadows to look for an opening to incapacitate the man with no fuss had been an excellent one.

Kabuto was an elite, that much was clear, and likely easily a match for her. But he had gotten confident - too confident in his own abilities, and assumed that he would be able to sense any hidden threats that had held back. He was wrong. Anko wasn't Konoha's most gifted assassin for no reason after all. Very few people could find her when she put the effort in to hide herself.

Still, now she had more important things to concern herself with.

"Come on, Kabuto-kun. I think it's time you and me went somewhere quiet - somewhere private - that way, you don't have to be embarrassed when I get you screaming..."

Masuda Miyazaki knew full well that he was never going to be a famously strong or powerful shinobi. He simply didn't have the ability to become a Kage. Hell, he didn't even think he really had the potential to make Jonin, if he was being totally honest with himself.

The 24 year old Amegakure Genin however, had never been one to let that stop him from trying to improve himself. He knew he didn't have any prodigious skills or abilities; but he had ground himself into the ground perfecting his few ninjutsu, and had all but entirely mastered his favorite senbon techniques through hours upon hours of agonizing hard work.

"We've been moving for hours, Miyazaki, surely it's time for a break?" His rather rotund team-mate whined from a few feet behind him, obviously struggling to keep up.

He bit back a tired sigh.

While he had spent a decade taking his career as a shinobi at least somewhat seriously, his team-mates had not. They had, after a few years, come to the same realisation about their potential as he had - but that realisation had crushed their drive. While they were happy to stagnate as Genin, below average, and maybe retire early having done their part for their village; Miyazaki was determined to push on beyond what he considered his own limits to be, and even more determined to become Chunin at this time of asking. And he knew he wouldn't be able to achieve that with his teammates driven to exhaustion trying to keep up with him, so he signaled to them to drop to the ground from the trees they had been traveling in to take a break.

And naturally, that's when everything went to hell.

The second his two team-mates' feet touched the moss covered forest floor, two blond figures broke out of the muddy ground, landing a solid punch to the underside of both of their chins - knocking them both out cold. Having barely enough time to even think, he leapt to his side - just dodging the third emergent blond - only to just barely get up a guard in time to block a frontal assault from a giant whirlwind of white that had been waiting to attack any stragglers. Despite his guard however, the attack sent him barreling back into the nearest tree, and left him struggling to move, face first in the dirt.

Lifting his head, he saw the the blond's that had attacked him and his team disappear, leaving a brown haired girl standing alone with her three nin-dogs.

Kage Bunshin then. His entire team had been taken apart by a Kage Bunshin, and what looked like an Inuzuka girl and her dogs. Of course, it made total sense that the Konoha shinobi would be experts at setting up ambushes in a forest ambush - in that respect, this test had been designed to give them the home advantage it seemed

He tested his arms, only to hiss in pain as he realised that the strike had broken both of his arms when he blocked it. Using chakra to reinforce his arms would perhaps have saved him - given him a chance to fight back, though by himself, it was likely that he would have lost - but the ambush had been absolutely perfectly timed. He hadn't been given the chance to think, and he didn't use chakra reinforcement enough for it to have been instinct.

That still left the location of the girl's blond comrade, how-

"I'm really sorry, by the way!" A voice, far too cheerful for his liking chirped in his ear. "I would have liked to fight you guys properly, but we can't really afford to take unnecessary risks considering the kind of guys that are still in this forest. Don't worry though, you'll be able to try again at the next exams!"

And with that, Miyazaki's world went black, as the ring end of a kunai struck against the back of his head.

"All that for another damn Earth Scroll." Naruto groused loudly, after he and Hana had searched the three downed Ame shinobi for their scrolls.

"Oh stop whinging, Naruto - After all, it's not like we didn't get anything out of this, is it?" Hana answered with a wry grin as she checked over the Haimaru triplet that had launched the attack on the remaining Ame ninja, just to be certain he wasn't in any way injured before they moved on.

Naruto laughed at Hana's reminder. She was after all, perfectly right - and Naruto was really quite happy with what they had gained from the encounter.

While it perhaps wasn't entirely ethical to loot the teams they defeated, Naruto figured it also wasn't against the rules, and had decided they should take the opportunity to add to their own stocks; especially since it wouldn't add any weight to their carry loads since Naruto had been sealing everything anyway, and what they had found on the Ame ninja rather vindicated the decision in Naruto's opinion.

On top of a healthy stock of kunai, shuriken, ninja wire, and other standard ninja gear (including a Fuuma Shuriken, something Naruto had never been able to afford on top of the standard gear he required before); the trio had also had on the possession a collection of umbrella's, that after a simple investigation, had turned out to be weapons. They used a fuuinjutsu trigger, storage, and release mechanism that meant that the umbrella's could be made to fire a veritable storm of senbon at an enemy from above.

This in itself was useful as a one-shot attack in a battle. The attack would have a large spread, and timed right, it could take out an entire group of enemies. But that wasn't what had really caught Naruto's eye. What had done that was the fuuinjutsu mechanism that made the weapon function.

He wasn't a fuuinjutsu expert by any means, but after several weeks of tuition under Fukasaku and Jiraiya, and using as many Bunshin as he could muster, he had become really quite proficient in a very small amount of time; and just by looking, Naruto could tell that the seals used while not particularly complex were unique to Ame. Not only that, but Naruto could already see several ways to modify and change the weapon so that it would work in different ways.

This meant several different things. Firstly, Konoha (and all ninja villages for that matter) paid what was in effect a bounty, for recovered foreign techniques that Konoha didn't already have. So, if Konoha truly didn't have these seals archived, he could submit them for the bounty, making the seals available to the village as a whole. Secondly, Konoha did the same for weapon designs and the like in order to encourage innovation; which meant that should Naruto find ways to change and modify the weapon, he would be able to get payment for the design as well.

Hana had taken one for herself, and Naruto had taken two - one to use, and the other to tinker with once they had gotten out of the forest, and Naruto couldn't help but look forward to it. He loved to set up traps, and the mechanisms of the umbrella could almost certainly be reworked into different kinds of traps and weapons.

Naruto was however broken out of his thoughts by the sound of all three of the Haimaru brothers growling, hackles raised, trying to locate whoever it was they had caught the scent of.

Naruto almost almost laughed. Hunter to hunted in the blink of an eye. Still, all of them were still totally fresh, and the triplets weren't going to allow them to be caught off guard easily. Whoever it was about to attack them, they had probably been hoping to get the jump on a team exhausted after fighting.

"Ah, we were hoping to catch you by surprise - especially since we know you have an Earth Scroll... Don't suppose you could save us the trouble of fighting and give one to us? I'd hate to have to kill a bunch of kids and their pets." Drawled a voice from the treeline, revealing a Suna Genin leaning up against one of the giant oak trees of the forest. He was dressed in standard Suna shinobi wear - much like Konoha's, but with a colour scheme of greys and sandy yellows; but most importantly in Naruto's eyes, was the curved blades of the tekko-kagi, shinobi claws, the Genin wore strapped to his right hand.

As taijutsu specialist then. Which of course meant that at least one of his unseen team-mates was likely a long range specialist, and would probably try to attack them from out of sight.

Unfortunately for them, Naruto hadn't only been learning seals and taijutsu with the toads.

Closing his eyes, he tried to focus on the life around him, allowing it's energy to surround and envelop him - but never actually enter his own system.

This apparently was the first stage of learning an incredibly powerful technique taught by most of the clans of summons that shinobi tended to use. Learning to take in and manipulate the energy of nature itself as if it was chakra, and amplifying your own natural abilities untold amounts. It was unbelievably risky to learn, and took a great amount of time - but the risks were worth the benefits.

Unfortunately, this put an unbelievable strain on ones own mind, body, and even chakra system - and quite simply, Naruto's body was too young to be able to handle the strain, and it would remain that way for at least another few years. That however, didn't mean he couldn't learn to interact with the natural energy that saturated pretty much everything, learn to sense the fluctuations of the energy, and what they meant. Fukasaku had been insistent that he learn to meditate, and this was why - the focus required to interact and eventually manipulate natural energy was immense, and without being able to meditate properly, to become utterly peaceful and at one with nature - it was impossible.

But once Naruto had begun to do this, he found it to be one of the most enjoyable experiences of his life. Being able to sense life itself, the very essence of existence was utterly magical to the blond - and it became even more so when he arrived in Konoha. With the help of a good hour of meditation, he found that he could sense almost the entire village, and how it heaved with the life and energy of the people that lived there.

He was just lucky that he was being given time by the Suna shinobi to focus enough to sense his immediate surroundings. He could only do it remaining utterly still, and even then, it still took him about a minute before he could really get a sense for what was going on in the tree line surrounding himself and Hana. But almost as soon as his senses stretched that far, he felt the other two presences. They were surrounded, trapped in the middle of an equilateral triangle of Suna ninja, with the one that had spoken at the point.

It was a very good ambush, but one that relied on the fact that two of their team was hidden, and ready to ambush. Unfortunately for them, Naruto now knew where all three of this team were hiding. Giving Hana a surreptitious signal behind his back to tell her to let him take the lead, he fingered a set of smoke bombs before grinning confidently at the Suna-nin, in order to try and unsettle him.

"Normally we would give you our spare - you know, to save ourselves some energy you know? But there's two problems with that. The first, is that you just revealed that you have the scroll we need by letting us know which you were looking for. The second..." Suddenly, the blond's smile morphed into a glare just as his smoke bombs hit the ground, obscuring the Konoha shinobi from view.

"You just threatened one of my comrades. And for that, you're going down."

"Now, let's begin the battle for each other's scroll..."

Uchiha Sasuke watched, frozen in morbid fascination as the lone Kusagakure shinobi that had approached Team 7 swallowed his own team's scroll whole, meaning Team 7 would likely have to kill him to get to it. Something that to be honest, bothered him more than he'd ever admit. Glancing to his left, Sakura was in even worse shape than he was, trembling at the knees in undisguised fear. He would have scoffed at her inability to keep her fear under control, if it wasn't for the fact that something about this enemy had chilled him to the very bone.

"...With our lives on the line." The dark-haired woman veritably hissed this last sentence at them, twisted smile emerging onto her increasingly crazed expression.

And then, without warning, she turned her gaze on him; the sheer blood lust contained in her eyes freezing him to the spot.

He swallowed back a mouthful of bile as he felt her chakra slither over him, trapping him in a blanket of fear, fear and promises of death. Her killing intent was suffocating, on a whole other level than anything he'd ever felt before - and he had faced down Momochi Zabuza, an A-ranked Jonin on his first C-ranked mission. Christ, it was even worse than the blood lust he'd felt from his brother on that night. The night where that man had cut down his entire clan.

But before he could even try and move, the visions started. He felt the blinding agony as his entrails burst from his chest in violent explosion of gore. He felt the searing pain of a thousand katana piercing him simultaneously. The blissful release as he died over and over again, taking the pain away for just a second before it started all over again.

"Oh Sasuke-kun, such a disappointment."

And just like that, Sasuke was back in the forest, trembling on his hands and knees, wondering why he could taste and smell vomit until he focused enough to realise that he had thrown up at some point after collapsing.

Sakura was no better off. Her gaze had become vacant, even as a steady stream of tears fell from her eyes, and she too had collapsed. She hadn't been able to claw her way back from the visions like he had, she was still there in her mind dying, over and over...

"Orochimaru. S-ranked missing-nin. Traitor to Konoha. One of the Densetsu no Sannin, and former team-mates of Tsunade and Jiraiya under the tutelage of the Hokae. I take it you are here for the Sharingan?"

Sasuke stared at his other team-mate in barely disguised shock.

He was still standing, despite having been a victim of the same jutsu he and Sakura had been. The only thing that gave it away was the slight gritting of his teeth, and the minute shaking in his hands as he pulled out the scroll and brush he used for his ninja techniques. But more importantly than that... Orochimaru? S-ranked missing nin? Sharingan?

How the hell would Sai, his usually stoically silent team-mate, whose abilities even Sasuke had begun to respect, know any of that.

The ninja, Orochimaru, merely chuckled from his position in the tree ahead of them, apparently amused by the accusations. "Oho, apparently Danzou is keeping his minions rather more informed than he used to."

Sasuke glanced back at Sai. Danzou? But the pale Genin's faced hadn't so much as twitched.

"It is the duty of all Konoha shinobi to be aware of threats to the village. And to eliminate them when they appear." And with that, Sai's paintbrush began to move over the surface of the blank scroll he'd readied with practiced ease. "Ninpo: Chōjū Giga."

The moment Sai's brush left the scroll's surface, a pair of lions constructed from ink burst forth, roaring in fury, and charged at the Sannin. But this only made his sickening smile grow.

"What a wonderful technique!" He exclaimed loudly, like a biologist who had just discovered a curious looking species of animal. "But... I do believe I of all people have been underestimated..."

But Sai was already focused on his work, brush furiously moving against paper, causing even more creatures to emerge and attack the shinobi who was dispatching them in an astonishingly casual manner - lions, snakes, various birds, and other animals Sasuke didn't even recognise all emerged and attacked, all apart from one. An giant ink eagle stayed and lowered itself before the Uchiha, inviting him to ride.

"Uchiha-san, you must leave now. Take Haruno-san too. He cannot be allowed to take the Sharingan from you."

"Sai, you can't beat him - you need help!" Sasuke practically shouted, grabbing Sai by the shoulders and forcing him to face him.

"You are right, Uchiha-san, I cannot win. But ensuring he does not gain possession of the Sharingan is far more important than my life. And besides, it is my duty as your comrade to protect you, is not? The eagle will carry you for as long as I am alive. You must get to the tower. You must-"

"Are you children quite finished? I do hope I haven't been forgotten about... Unfortunately, I can't allow you to leave, Sasuke-kun."

Sai's eyes only widen a fraction as he turned to face Orochimaru, only to see that the area surrounding the Sannin was covered in splashed pools of ink, that Sasuke couldn't help but superimpose blood over. It was as if a massacre had taken place in their location in the canopy of the forest.

"It really was a wonderful technique by the way, child. But you have become a nuisance."

Sasuke and Sai moved almost at exactly the same time into a panicked retreat - neither had seen the man move, but suddenly, he had just appeared in a blur in front of them, sick grin still attached to that face of his. Unfortunately, Orochimaru was not willing to allow Sai the time to escape, and in a flash he had landed a vicious, bone-crunching kick to the boy's ribcage, and grabbed him nonchalantly by the shirt.

"I'm sorry child, but Danzou should really know by know to keep his tools out of my way."

And with that, he simply let go, allowing the boy to fall to the ground below.

Sasuke watched in horrified fascination as he realised that Sai had fallen unconscious, and that they were high enough up that the fall would kill him. Time slowed, even as his sensei's words came into his head.

"Those who disobey the rules are trash, but those who abandon their comrades are even worse than trash." ... "Sasuke, don't worry, I'll protect you even if it costs me my life - I don't let my comrades die!" ... "Besides, it is my duty as your comrade to protect you, is it not?"

Comrade? Is that what drove the impossibly strong Kakashi? Is that what drove Sai? Could something like that ever match the hate of Uchiha Itachi?

More importantly, for the first time in a long time, the ever present weight of his family's massacre had lightened since he had become a part of Team 7 - since he had gained comrades. Once again, there was some kind of light in his life, three of them to be exact - could he fight for them? Was he willing to die for them?

His gaze focused in on Sai still falling, and Sharingan finally blazing, Uchiha Sasuke found his answer.

"I don't let my comrades die!"

"Hana, take the guy in front of us. I know where his team-mates are, so I'll deal with both of them. Watch out for the tekko-kagi on his right arm - given that they're from Suna, it's probably poisoned."

Hana was on the move instantly without even a moments hesitation. If their first mission together had taught her that she could trust Naruto with her life, every single encounter with him since had proven to her beyond all reasonable doubt that this was a ninja who she could follow without question.

In their spars, he had proven he was a natural in combat - practically born to fight - and far above the level most Genin were expected to be at. But more tellingly for her, in their preparation for the Exams, he had proven to not only be a strategic expert well out of her league; able to prepare situation specific strategies or the two of them in combat for almost any situation she had been able to come up with, but also come up with various ways for them to maneuver and get around as a two man team that best protected them from an ambush.

Not only that, he had proven himself to be an utter font of knowledge on just about everything shinobi, and had been able to brief her on every participating village and their likely combat styles and tendencies.

So when Naruto had muttered instructions in her ear as he rushed past her under the cover of a smoke bomb, it was without even the slightest shred of doubt or resentment that she obeyed, despite her age, despite her experience.

After the battle, she would think back and marvel at how natural it felt for her - naturally aggressive and stubborn as an Inuzuka, resistant to being commanded by just anybody - to follow what may as well have been an order. And with a wry smile, she would decide that she should get used to it.

Because after all, it was a Hokage's job to provide orders for their shinobi in battle.

But reflection would come later. Blood was pounding in her ears, and her heartbeat raced, as she felt the excitement of battle hit her for what felt like the first time in an age. Spars were exciting enough - especially when Naruto was involved - but her med-nin training and duties had kept her out of battle for such a long time that she had forgotten the exhilaration of it, the joy her Inuzuka side took from fighting.

She couldn't help but grin ferally as she emerged from the smoke, charging straight at the tree that the Suna shinobi still stood in, arrogant smirk still plastered on his face.

She'd have to do something about that.

The timing of the Haimaru triplets was perfect for just that task in fact, as all three emerged from the smoke behind her and leapt into the air, and began spinning, until all three had blurred into one single, enormous tornado like attack. They had been moving faster than her, and Hana didn't need to adjust her speed as the snowy white triplets barreled over head, straight into the trunk of the tree the Suna shinobi had been in, tearing it to ribbons in an explosion of wood and leaves.

The Suna nin jumped out of the tree, but that was what Hana had been waiting for, and leapt to intercept and attack while he was unable to dodge and shaken from the blast.

"You're not going to get me with the same move you used on those Ame ninja!"

The Suna shinobi had apparently realised her plan, and met her attack in midair, resulting in a brief exchange of punches and kicks before their momentum took them apart again. Hana wasn't willing to relent however, and spun on her heels the second she landed, darting straight back at the enemy, who was only just turning to face her, even as the Inuzuka made up the distance.

He ducked under her first kick, and lashed out at her leg with his claw forcing her to jump with her standing leg in order to avoid. However, before he could capitalise on her position, he was forced to leap back in order to avoid the razor sharp claws of one of the Inuzuka dogs.

And just like that, the Suna shinobi was on the back foot, forced into being heavily defensive as the foursome attacked him all at once, and just about relentlessly. He was fast enough land a glancing blow on one, but the others would cover for the downed dog, until he was well enough to rejoin the attack; and not only that, they were being exceedingly cautious about his claw, not allowing him to even scratch one of them with it. He was doing well enough - he was good at taijutsu after all - but he was taking more and more damage as the onslaught wore on, and soon, all the body blows would add up. The Inuzuka didn't look like she was tiring.

He needed some space. Some room to use ninjutsu. Fortunately, he had planned for such situations.

Reaching into his equipment pouch, even as he blocked and parried as many of the blows as he possibly could; he palmed the item he needed and withdrew it, all the while channeling his chakra through it.

Hana cursed as she recognised what the enemy was trying to do, and paused to shout out a hurried warning. "Close your eyes, it's a flash tag!" But the warning had come too late, and the scene of their battle was enveloped in a blinding white light, with only Hana and the enemy managing to shield their eyes in time, effectively leaving the triplets disabled for a short amount of time.

Unfortunately, the Suna shinobi had fled back up into the trees and was already rushing through hand seals.

"Katon: Housenka no jutsu!"

A volley of small fireballs spewed out from the Suna nin's mouth, aimed in a spread pattern across the entire clearing, and for the first time in the short fight, Hana felt a spark of anger. He was aiming at her partners. The partners he had already effectively incapacitated. That, she could not allow to slide.

Crouching slightly, she formed her own seal, and practically snarled out the name of her own jutsu as it began to take effect, making her appearance and nature even more feral. "Gijū Ninpō: Shikyaku no Jutsu." She leapt into the air aimed straight at the oncoming fireballs, taking full advantage of her now chakra enhanced movement and reflexes, and launched straight into the whirlwind like motions of the trademark Inuzuka taijutsu move. "Gatsuuga!"

She torpedoed straight into the flames, drawing them into the tornado of her technique, forcing them to die instantly; and just before she impacted with a tree, she pulled out of the Gatsuuga, using chakra to stick herself to the surface of the trunk in a low crouch, poised to strike.

"You want to see a real set of claws, scumbag?" She growled, brandishing her elongated, chakra reinforced nails that had developed into dog-like claws; but gave no opportunity for the Suna nin to answer before launching into an attack straight at him using her increased speed. His eyes simply couldn't keep up, and the enemy didn't see her until she was actually in his face, delivering a left-handed slash across his cheek, followed almost instantly by a devastating right hook, that sent the boy tumbling away from her, unconscious.

She let out a slight breath and released her Gijū Ninpō: Shikyaku no Jutsu, her eyes narrowed in frustration. She had been too eager to fight, and lost herself in the rush of it. Rather than end it straight away like she should have, she had drawn it out, and it had been the triplets that had paid the price. A dog's sight and hearing were easily damaged, and while the flash tag wouldn't have done anything permanent, it would have been seriously painful, and it was likely that they'd not be fit to actually fight for at least a day.

She sighed, and decided she ought to restrain the enemy and see to the triplets, before making sure Naruto wasn't in any trouble. She hadn't gotten any messages so she assumed everything was alright. Plus Naruto was even better than her, so there really wasn't any rush to go find him.

But then, this was Naruto. The kid who on their very first mission together managed to get attacked by a pair of Jonin and their army of messed up stone warriors; before pissing off an ever so slightly insane Jinchuuriki with blood lust issues, who had entered this very exam to take his head, and was now wandering this very forest looking for him.

On second thoughts, maybe she should hurry.

Sasuke moved without thinking, instincts driving his chakra enhanced leap after his falling pale team-mate, narrowing his body and making sure his body was perfectly vertical to reduce the air resistance slowing him, allowing him to gain on Sai. Reaching behind his back even as he fell, he took a kunai and a spool of ninja wire from his equipment pouch, and with practiced ease tied one end of the wire to the ring of his kunai, and the other to his left arm. And then, he waited. Timing would be everything.

His sharingan eyes showed him a hundred different outcomes of each and every move he could make from here, and his brain processed them at highly accelerated speeds, telling him the precise timing that would allow him to do what he was about to do without causing massive damage to himself or Sai. He'd caught up with the black haired Genin now, and another few seconds was all it took until he was falling ahead of him a few meters away.

His eyes narrowed. And then the moment arrived. He sent his kunai at the tree branch he had fallen past a few moments earlier, and felt the line instantly tight, and his momentum pull him into a swing towards his team-mate, the angle of the swing perfectly arranged so he could be caught at the the fastest moment to reduce the stress on the wire.

Seconds since he had jumped, Sasuke landed on a tree branch far below, Sai held under his arm.

"The Sharingan's ability to process information is remarkable, isn't it, Sasuke-kun."

Sasuke stiffened as he felt both the cold steel of a kunai pressed against his throat, and the warm breath of the Sannin on his neck at the same time. The man had beaten him here while he had been in freefall. That kind of speed was inhuman, almost unbelievable in fact. And the fact that Sasuke hadn't sensed him at all...

"But killing you like this would be ever so boring, I want to play."

The very moment the kunai left his throat he moved, dropping down into a crouch, using his left hand to move into a handstand and launching a trio of kicks at the man stood behind him, that were all swatted aside as though they were blows made by a toddler.

Sasuke paid it no mind.

Pushing himself into a forward flip, he landed on his feet and immediately leapt away to the next branch, putting some distance between him and the Sannin, and allowing him to put Sai down so he could fight properly - and then turned his head to glare at his enemy, Sharingan alight in the dark forest that existed below the canopy.

Orochimaru's smile only grew. Sasuke hadn't realised, but there was now a third tomoe in those eyes of his. It was time for him to truly test the limits of those eyes.

The Sannin leapt forward at the Genin, and was within striking range in seconds, immediately launching into a slowed version of a brutal taijutsu combo. Right jab, blocked with left; leg sweep jumped over, follow up series of punches danced around and blocked. The fierce exchanged continued, Sasuke working purely on instinct and Sharingan fueled anticipation; Orichimaru's antagonising, casual expression never even faltering no matter how Sasuke tried to attack him.

And suddenly, just like that Orochimaru leapt back and ran through a series of hand seals that even without the Sharingan, Sasuke recognised; Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu.

The Uchiha set himself to dodge, but could only gape at the size of the fireball the Sannin had directed at him. It flew towards him bigger than anything he had ever seen Kakashi or Itachi produce, and he suddenly realised that he wouldn't be able to dodge the deadly ninjutsu in time, let alone get his team-mate out of the line of fire at the same time.

He raced through his own set of seals, and launched a much smaller fireball at Orochimaru's before immediately turning and picking up his fallen teammate, and throwing himself off the branch they had been on, hoping he had done enough.

The sound of the fireball colliding with the tree was cataclysmic, and the roar of the blast rang in Sasuke's ears as he fell. The jutsu was designed to explode upon impact for maximum damage, and that was exactly what it did, and the resultant shock wave, more than the explosion itself, was what did Sasuke the most damage in the end. It pulsed out from the area of impact, throwing the Uchiha and Sai sideways at the nearest tree, and all Sasuke could do was maneuver his body so that it was between Sai and the tree, taking impact damage himself, and dropping to the forest floor along with his team-mate, which was now close enough to be a survivable distance.

He tested his arms first, trying to move through the pain, knowing that he only had a few moments before Orochimaru would be right there with them.

"Oh Sasuke-kun, such a disappointment." Sasuke froze, and his breath caught in his throat. He was already here, standing, nonchalantly across from him leaning against a tree. "You will never get your revenge at that level, Sasuke-kun. You'll never get it with this village, and the people in it holding you back." The man's eyes gleamed dangerously as he began to move through hand seals at a leisurely place, freezing the Uchiha in place with that terrifying killer intent once more. "Do no fear though, Sasuke-kun. I am here, and I will help. I will show you power."

The Sannin finally stopped his sequence of seals, and suddenly, his neck began to extend from his body, like a grotesque boneless snake; and began slithering through the air towards him, the man's teeth becoming razor sharp fangs that oozed a terrifying pitch black venom. He could only watch as the man's head snaked towards him agonisingly slowly, his heart pounding harder and faster against his chest, as those deadly looking fangs got ever closer, and the predatory gaze of Orochimaru penetrated further and further into his very soul.

He couldn't think, he couldn't breathe - the only thing that he really knew with any certainty, the only thought that penetrated his mind with any real clarity, was that he was going to die. Orochimaru was going to kill him, and it was going to happen right this second.

He closed his eyes tightly, unable to bring himself to witness the moment of his own demise.

"Maa, Sasuke; don't look so worried, didn't I tell you that I wouldn't let one of my cute little Genin die?"

That voice. He knew that voice. Rationally, Sasuke knew that he couldn't be here in this forest. And yet, that voice, that casual, airy tone that never changed even in the most serious of circumstances - it was utterly unmistakable.

He dared to open his eyes, and there he was, Kakashi-sensei; facing Orochimaru, but looking at him over his shoulder with that god-forsaken ridiculous smile on his face. He had thought it ridiculous, that expression; but when facing Zabuza, and even more so now, Sasuke was infinitely reassured by it.

"Now Sasuke, I need you to try and move for me. You need to get Sai and Sakura away from here. We'll take care of Orochimaru from here, so you don't need to worry about him. None of you are seriously hurt, so leave the area and try and carry on with the exam. Orochimaru won't get past us."


And then Sasuke saw him. The sealing scroll that hung at waist height on his back. The unmistakable spiky white hair, and the red haori that had become synonymous with the man over his many years of service to Konoha.

At that moment, he had never been more grateful to his sensei in his life. Kakashi had bought with him the only man in Konoha, other than perhaps the Hokage, that stood a chance against someone like Orochimaru. Sasuke was no expert on all of the powerful and famous shinobi Konoha had produced over the years - there were a great many after all, and he was more focused on joining them in that category, rather than learning about them - but he was certain that not a single person in Konoha could fail to recognise Jiraiya of the Sannin.

And judging by the furious look on Orochimaru's face, Jiraiya's former teammate knew that he wouldn't be able to get past the Toad summoner without some serious effort. Effort that would of course attract even more Konoha shinobi. Even for someone like Orochimaru, those odds weren't good, and he was a man that liked to ensure that the odds were stacked firmly in his favour.

Either way, Sasuke decided it was time to heed his sensei's advice. He climbed shakily to his feet, and turned to pick up Sai, before heading up into the trees after Sakura, who hopefully hadn't moved from her earlier position.

With any luck, he and his team wouldn't be hearing from Orochimaru in a very long time.

Kakashi's sharingan eye never left the two Sannin before him as he listened to his student make his escape. Even with Jiraiya here, he couldn't risk a single lapse of attention, or he or one of his Genin could end up dead.

"I suppose you think you've stopped me, Jiraiya. As ever, you are nothing more than a simpleton. I will have Sasuke-kun, and I will acquire the sharingan." The pale, serpentine man hissed at his former team-mate; and it was only years of war and danger that allowed Kakashi to suppress a shiver at the sheer bloodlust the man had begun to admit in the face of his old comrade.

"Maybe you will, maybe you won't. But we both know you can't afford to fight me seriously here. Sarutobi-sensei would be here in minutes, and even you wouldn't last long against the both of us."

Orochimaru hissed angrily in response to Jiraiya's claim but didn't try to deny it either. But then, a thought seemed to strike the man, and his mouth formed a cruel grin.

"And yet you don't seem to want to bring me down either, Jiraiya. What's the matter? You're usually so eager... Feeling your age perhaps? Or is it..." The Sannin's reptilian eyes sharpened, and his grin only grew at Jiraiya's now narrowed eyes. "...You're worried about the Jinchuuriki, yes? Two tailed beasts in one exam, how... volatile. And one of them - you're newest precious student. You can't fight me seriously just in case one of them breaks free from their containers! You are after all the only one with the knowledge and ability to stop it if it does happen, now that Sarutobi-sensei is ever so old."

Jiraiya said nothing, but that in itself was telling, and Orochimaru's cackle at the tacit admission was proof enough of the truth of the matter.

"Well then, old friend, I suppose I'll be taking my leave." The snake Sannin stated, maddened smile never leaving his face, even as he slowly began to melt into the ground. "But know this, Jiraiya. I will have the Sharingan. From Sasuke, or from his children, or from his children's children - It matters not. I can wait for as long as it takes, and you will not be around to stop me forever. I have all the time in the world."

And with that, the Sannin was gone, and Kakashi allowed himself a small sigh of relief, before he realised that he had been sweating ever so slightly. The Copy-nin was world famous, one of the elite, and had beaten a good many of the world's best shinobi in his time. But Orochimaru? That was a whole different level, a whole different world to the one that he was currently on.

Unfortunately, it would seem that Kakashi would have to reach that level as soon as possible, or it would be his students - Sasuke - that would pay the price.

Naruto sidestepped yet another arrow aimed at his head as he continued his all out sprint towards the first of the enemies he had to deal with. She was moving through the trees just ahead of him, stopping only momentarily every few moments to fire a Fuuton chakra reinforced arrow at him. She was apparently rather good, being able to shoot on the turn with just about pinpoint accuracy; and the Fuuton chakra was increasing the speed and power of the arrows to rather uncomfortable levels, and the closer Naruto got, the less time he had to react.

On the flip side, he'd gotten close enough to be able to make out her quiver properly, and he grinned even as he dodged another arrow that punched a hole straight through another tree behind him.

That had been her last shot.

He slowed almost instantly as she reached into her equipment pouch, and after throwing him a glance, threw a smoke bomb at her own feet, enveloping her in a thick white smoke. He suppressed his irritation. That was his trick.

It was the noise that gave away her plan of attack however. A master of the sword like Yuugao-sensei was can draw a sword silently, without even a hint of noise, and strike in the same way. This girl was no master, and in the natural quiet of the forest, he had heard everything. The subtle 'click' as the drawing motion began, the slight sound of friction between the blade and scabbard indicating her draw was not as clean as it should be, and the near silent whistle of the blade as it traveled through the air towards him, telling him she had not perfected the movements yet.

If she had just been a little better, her plan would have been a good one.

As it was, Naruto had already focused chakra to a small storage seal on his right wrist, and within a fraction of a second, his Sansetsukon was in his hands in it's staff form, parrying her opening strike, and the two follow up thrusts as she launched her assault. Ducking under a broad slash aimed at his throat, he aimed two thrusts at her stomach with the end of his staff, before flicking it upwards into her jaw sending the red-headed Suna ninja staggering backwards. Spinning, the blond capitalised on his advantage, sweeping the girls legs out from under her, and striking her again in the stomach even as she fell, sending her tumbling across the thick branch they had been fighting on.

She looked up at him, a furious expression on his face, which only increased at his slight smile.

"They told us you Konoha-nin were pathetic, but to not finish off your opponent like that when you had me on the back foot... I'll make you pay for that mistake." She ground out at him, pulling herself to her feet and taking up her stance.

"Go right ahead. I just didn't see any need to be all merciless with an opponent who already lost is all." He answered, easy going smile never leaving his face, knowing that it would infuriate her all the more, and goad her into rushing into her attack carelessly, and without thinking.

The girl only snarled in response as she lunged at him, chakra enhancing her speed, making her even faster than she had been, momentarily taking Naruto aback. He didn't even react with anything other than widened eyes as she completed her attack, driving her katana straight through the Konoha Genin's heart.

"You underestimate me, asshole, and you die - didn't I tell you?" She asked the dying blond, smirking as he struggled to breathe through the pain.

"And didn't I tell you? You've already lost. Oh, and by the way..." Naruto looked straight into her eyes, with that casual smile that had gotten her so angry in the first place. "Boom."

There was a flash of golden, fiery light, and then the world for the second member of Suna's Team 17 went black.


Naruto grimaced mid-block, as he tried to process the memories of the Bunshin Daibakuha that he had sent after the other member of the Suna team that had attacked them, even as he stepped back out of the way of the follow up punch of his own opponent.

To be honest, he had only really intended for that clone to be a distraction to buy him and Hana some time to deal with their individual opponents. The girl had been decent enough, but not nearly on his level with a weapon. He had kept up his sansetsukon training with Yuugao-sensei whenever he had been in the village, and often sparred with her as part of his normal routine anyway. Not only that, but there was a Bojutsu using toad on Mt. Myoboku that had been willing to help him fit a style to his sansetsukon while it was still in it's staff form, essentially meaning he had started to learn two different weapon styles at once, and could switch between them with the same weapon.

That same toad had recommended that he go to the Hokage for help, as apparently, the old man was one of the best Bo staff users in the entire Elemental Nations.

Still, he had decided that since he had never actually used Bunshin Daibakuha in a combat situation before, he may as well test it here to see if he could get some damage off on his opponent, and it had worked even better than he had expected. The Bunshin had lured the girl into striking at him so she was close enough not to be able to dodge the explosion as the Bunshin blew up.

He was just grateful that he had thought to under power the clones slightly. At full strength, that blast would have killed her. As it stood, she was probably burnt a little bit, and would hurt like hell when she got up, but would be able to take the exams next time.

Not only that, but the four Bunshin he had sent as support underground had not dispelled, and were probably on there way to him and Hana right this very second to make sure neither of them were having any trouble, so Naruto had decided that he didn't need to try anything particularly risky against his current opponent - a teenager with short black hair, and the Sunagakure symbol shaved into the side of his head - and simply defend while waiting for an opening.

And so he blocked, dodged, and parried as he searched for a clear opportunity to strike, resolving to himself that he was going to try and beat this opponent without his Kage Bunshin as part of his style like he was supposed to.

Or at least, that was the intention.

His Bunshin however, had other plans; and he almost sighed as one of his underground Bunshin used Doton: Shinjū Zanshu no Jutsu to drag the Suna shinobi down into the ground by his ankles, effectively stopping the fight dead.

He just sighed. "If he has the scroll, you're digging him out of there."

The second day of the exam soon dawned, revealing a Training Ground 44 considerably less populated with competitors than it had been on the first.

The first day was always the bloodiest.

Eager teams of Genin would dash out of the gates, and taken up with enthusiasm, or adrenaline, or determination, would throw themselves into battle at the earliest opportunity.

The lucky and the strong had already made their way to the tower, scrolls in hand, and the weak had been immediately dismantled. All that remained on a normal second day were those slow getting to the tower, perhaps injured from the previous day's fighting, and the mediocre. Those not weak enough to have been immediately found, but also not strong enough to have taken down enough enemy teams to have located the required scroll.

It was these teams, the mediocre that suffered the most, and the longest. They would have to slug it out in the forest, as exhaustion, starvation, and paranoia began to set in over the next several days - gradually running out of supplies, chakra, and determination as time went by, as each ambush attempt and fight revealed more and more scrolls identical to one's own, and as it became harder and harder to find other teams.

On an ordinary Exam day, it was the period after day two that gave this portion of the exam it's brutal reputation. But this was no ordinary day. And the competitors left, for the most part were far from ordinary.

Naruto and Hana had elected to camp overnight in the forest, the Haimaru triplets being able to take watch meaning they were able to put together a relatively comfortable lookout schedule. That, added to the fact that their injuries from yesterday's fighting, as well as the fact that they now had the scrolls they needed as the Suna team had relinquished a heaven scroll, as well as an earth scroll to spare, meant that Naruto and Hana had woken in considerably good spirits.

Not that they planned on leaving the forest just yet.

Their plan was a pretty simple one, really. Yesterday, after getting the scrolls they needed within the first few hours of the exam; they had managed to make it all the way to the tower with very little trouble. Once there, they had found a spot in an older looking, larger tree, in which it was possible to set up a temporary outpost if you will.

The branches were big enough to set up crude, A-frame shelters among, and provided enough cover so that they couldn't be seen from below. After shelter was sorted, Naruto and Hana had set about setting the surrounding area up with various traps in order to keep their position safe; a security system supplemented by large amounts of Naruto's Kage Bunshin, henge'd into duplicates of the six shinobi they had already defeated patrolling both the immediate area, and the area surrounding the tower.

This meant that for the most part, a team wouldn't even be able to breathe in the area without Naruto knowing; allowing Naruto to check off Konoha's rookie teams as they passed through to ensure they all made it through the forest alive. The pair could stay in the tree for the remainder of the Exam, and essentially act as a rapid response back up team to any of the teams that had one of Naruto's Kage Bunshin with them.

Naruto blinked as he received the memories of two Bunshin dispelling almost simultaneously.

"Hana." The blonde muttered quietly - if they wished to remain undetected, they had to remain as close to silent as possible, even with Naruto's Bunshin around - his eyes narrowed as he took in the implications of the memories he had just received.

"What is it, Naruto? News from your Bunshin?"

Naruto nodded in response. "Team 7 have made it out of the forest okay - they looked exhausted, but safe. Given what one off my other Bunshin found out, I'm not surprised they look a little worse for wear..."

Hana just raised an eyebrow. The blond was tense all of a sudden, his fists clenched with worry of the kind she had only seen from him when they had been making plans for facing Gaara. "They run into Gaara's team?"

"Christ, I almost wish they had... Jiraiya-sensei's in the forest until the exam ends, and he just found one of my Bunshin scouts to give me a message - apparently, Orochimaru infiltrated the exams and attacked Team 7 to try and get at Sasuke's Sharingan. He arrived just in time to stop him from succeeding."

The Inuzuka couldn't stop the slight shaking in her hands as Naruto's words hit home. "Orochimaru - the S-ranked traitor, the Sannin - is here?"

"Yeah, it's messed up I know. Jiraiya-sensei doesn't think he'll try anything in the forest now that he knows Jiraiya's around... But he won't have come alone. He'll have others in the exam to try and stir up a bit of chaos, and they'll most likely be targeting Konoha shinobi."

Their eyes met, and Hana almost instinctively knew what Naruto was asking. "Naruto, it's not even a question at this point. We stay until everyone's out safely. Orochimaru's men aren't going to be Genin level - they're going to need us."

Naruto nodded in thanks, an uneasy and forced smile on his face, but the tension never left him, and Hana placed a hand on his shoulder in comfort.

"Stop worrying so much, you've already done everything you can to be ready in case something happens. And if it does, they've got the two of us looking out for them - and there's nobody here I'd trust more than you to protect them. Everyone's going to be just fine."

Finally some of the tension bled out of Naruto's frame, and a more genuine smile found it's way onto his face. "You're right, with the two of us here, nobody's going to be able to get to our friends. We won't let them."

Hana just nodded firmly, and turned to get back to her previous position on lookout with the Haimaru triplets.

"Hey Hana... Thanks."

"Don't mention it, Naruto. What're friends for, right?"

Naruto couldn't help the delighted smile that broke out on his face at the girl's words, no matter how casual or nonchalant they might have been. She had been one of the first people around his age to accept him, Kyuubi and all, and that she would still call him a friend meant the absolute world to him.

Third Day of the Second Exam

Hinata clutched her kunai, the henge'd Kage Bunshin, tightly in her hands; her breathing laboured, as she tried to get up from her position on the forest floor. It was however, an attempt made in vain.

She was weak. Pathetically so, really. Her father had always said it, and it was an opinion echoed by almost every one that resided within the hallowed halls of her clan's compound.

Her Jyuuken was poor.

Her Byakugan was ineffectual - her mastery over the fabled Dojutsu of the Hyuuga clan, was negligible.

Her emotions made her soft, made her feeble.

She would never succeed, either as a clan head, or even as a somewhat reputable shinobi; no matter how hard she tried, no matter how long she trained, and regardless of the number of times she dragged herself back to her feet after working herself to exhaustion, and tried to push past her own meek limits.

She would always be weak.

Except now, in this awful place, it wasn't just her that was being punished for it. Her barely functioning Byakugan meant that she didn't even need to look up t see her team-mates breathing hard, but standing valiantly in front of her fallen form - protecting her from the two Kusagakure shinobi that had attacked them.

And what terrifying shinobi they were. Hinata almost didn't believe they were Genin.

The one standing on the left had taken her to pieces. The ninja looked to be around fifteen years old, and was wearing the uniform that his entire team had been clad in, a loose, beige shirt and black combat trousers. He had looked incredibly plain and average, with black hair cut short and neat, and no weapons or equipment of real note.

That is, until he had crouched onto all fours and launched himself at Hinata at a speed that she had barely been able to follow with her eyes, and unleashed a barrage of animalistic taijutsu that she hadn't been able to predict or outmaneuver. She dodged where she could, and even managed to strike back a few times in the furiously fast taijutsu exchange, but she was taking too much damage, and too fast.

Worse still, Shino and Kiba hadn't been able to get past the second shinobi; a katana wielding Genin dressed the same, but with shoulder length grey hair, and milky white eyes that indicated blindness. Hinata hadn't been able to get a glimpse of his abilities with all her focus on her own opponent, but when her enemy began to relent, leaving her crumpled on the floor unable to move through the pain - the grey haired shinobi looked utterly unscathed, whereas her team-mates were breathing hard, albeit otherwise uninjured on the surface.

"You okay Hinata?" Kiba's voice, uncharacteristically worried, broke her from her thoughts; and she tried and failed to move once more.

"I- I can't move... But I d-don't think- I mean I'm not hurt fatally."

"That, can be remedied."

The katana wielding shinobi's voice broke into their conversation, monotone, and blandly; and he began to walk towards Team 8, even in the face of Kiba's animalistic growl.

"The hell it can, you asshole! Shikakyu no jutsu!"

The Kusagakure shinobi watched impassively as the Inuzuka boy leapt without thinking.

He was inferior. Yet another inferior enemy.

He almost sighed out loud at how disappointing this venture had been. Not that he would ever voice hat to his master. He knew full well the consequences of complaining about one's missions to Orochimaru-sama. No, he would do as he had been asked, and spill as much Konoha blood as possible in this forest, before escaping the village. His master had predicted that Konoha would have figured out that they were not really Kusa Genin by the end of this test, and therefore progression in the Exam itself in order to kill even more under the guise of the exam would be impossible.

Besides, they would be back in a months time regardless, and on that day, he would have as many victims as he pleased.

That however did not mean he was satisfied with the meager pickings he had already claimed in the forest. His master had sent him to spill blood, and he relished the chance to do so in the name of the snake Sannin; and already, he had cut down several weak Genin in this forest. But what he really wanted was someone worthy, somebody who deserved the honour of joining him and his master, somebody strong enough to have earned the privilege of his company for all eternity.

But all he had found, was trash.

This Konoha team before him, were obviously a cut above the standard of Genin in the forest. The girl's defense against his teammate's taijutsu attack had shown him that. He had used chakra to massively exceed the limits of his own physical training and attack with a veritable storm of chakra enhanced blows, and even then, the girl had managed to keep him at bay for an impressive amount of time.

He couldn't see them - any of them, but he could feel them. He could sense their capabilities, their power. They were fairly strong.

But they weren't strong enough.

He didn't even blink as the Inuzuka was blindsided by the animilistic charge of his teammate; who ironically, from what he had gathered from the man's inane talking as they had searched for victims, was using a style of combat that arose from trying to imitate the Inuzuka jutsus and way of fighting. He too used chakra to enhance his movement speed and strength, and based his movements on those of a wolf. If he could care less about the skills of those weaker than himself, he might have found it an interesting match up.

As it was, all that he noticed was the vague background noise of the weak fighting the weak. The sound of strikes landing and being blocked, the heavy din of combat, was all but entirely tuned out. Their fight was below his notice. He began to walk towards the remaining standing Konoha shinobi, who stood stoically tense at his approach. He detected no fear from this one, though he couldn't see him, just a certain tension in his chakra that belied his state of alertness to the katana wielding shinobi's casual movements towards him.

"You are not here for our scrolls." The boy's voice was terse, and ever so slightly nasally, and there was an ever so slight buzzing quality to it, so subtle it was possible that it was entirely imagined.

"No. We are here for your blood, and then your lives." A pause that two the two ninja standing opposite each other seemed to create a silence that dwarfed the sound of battle around them. "You are tense. Does that frighten you?"

"Your perception, for somebody who is visually impaired is exceptional. But in answer to your question, no. An Aburame does not fear death when fighting for one's allies. After all, an ant must be willing to die for the greater good of the hive, to protect the queen."

"Somebody who is not afraid to die..." He smiled softly. The Aburame boy was weak, but his resolve was better than all of the trash he killed in Orochimaru's name up until now. He just might be worth keeping. "Show me that resolve when you are drawing your last breath, in pain, and alone. Show me that you don't truly fear death's cold embrace - and I will give you a reward beyond your wildest imaginations. I will show you immortality."

He idly tilted his head to the side as the girl threw a kunai aimed straight between his eyes, and felt her finally pass out from exhaustion as the weapon disappeared into the canopy above.

Slowly, he drew his katana. It was time to end their lives as Orochimaru had commanded.

This was his master's whim after all, and it was his purpose to ensure his master's goals were accomplished.

He'd known. This whole time, he'd known that she was a traitor this whole damn time.

In retrospect, Tsuchi Kin had been a total moron to believe absolutely anything else. Orochimaru, the leader of the village she had betrayed, was a Sannin. A Kage level ninja.

She was a 14 year old Genin, whom he had known since she was ten, when he had bought her from a bunch of scumbags that dealt in human trafficking.

Of course he'd known.

Back then, she had a lot of hate, pure venomous rage bottled up inside; and he had seen it, and tried to exploit it. He took her in, and had her trained, and promised her her revenge against those bastards that had gutted her parents and her little sister right in front of her.

She had only been three years old at the time - too young to be useful to them, apparently, and Kin had loved her more than anything in the world. And Orochimaru had known exactly how to take advantage of that. Under his watchful eye, she had fought for every scrap of skill and power that she had, bled and cried for it, totally obedient and entirely grateful to the man that had not only rescued her, but given her the opportunity to get revenge against the people that had ripped her family apart.

And then she had stumbled, quite literally, into the realisation that she had been tricked, lied to, and manipulated by her supposed savior. She had found out all too suddenly just what kind of man he was.

She had walked into one of the people that had broken into her house that night, right in the middle of their own base. She wasn't strictly supposed to be there - she was stationed somewhere else, and had been on a nothing delivery mission for Otogakure, and this base made a good waypoint between her destination and where she was stationed - but she walked right by him in the middle of one of the many corridors, walking casually like he owned the damn place.

At ten, she would have charged him there and then. After two years with Orochimaru however, her instincts as a shinobi were far, far better than that. What on earth was he doing here? She could tell he was a civilian, that he wasn't trained, so he wasn't infiltrating. So, naturally, she followed him.

Right into the labs that they had in every base, the labs that she had always been forbidden under pain of death from entering.

And just like that, her world was flipped upside down all over again.

Tanks filled with pale green liquid lined the walls, each one containing a child between the years of eight and ten, eyes frozen open in a vacant expression of pain, and terror; and the center of the room had three autopsy tables, each with the body of a child upon them, two already carved open, and left alone, and a scientist and the slaver standing next to the third, muttering quietly to each other.

The girl wasn't any older than seven, and it was only far to late, seconds after the scientist used a scalpel to carve the girl open, that Kin realised that she was alive.

The image would stay in her brain for the rest of her days. A little girl, her impossibly long, blonde hair cascading over the edge of the autopsy table; tears streaming down her face, entirely unable to move at all - unless of course, you count the steady rise and fall of her exposed ribcage as she breathed through the sheer agony of what was being done to her.

And just like that, her mind connected the dots. The slavers, Orochimaru, everything.

They worked for him. Taking children for his sick human experiments, for his twisted, fucked up game of hidden village. Those he saw no value in, became this. Those that had something he found interesting, an enduring hatred perhaps, or maybe a peculiar ability, or will to survive, he rescued. Tricked them into gratitude, and into obedience.

More than anything in the world, and most likely because of her love of her sister, Kin loved children. Even as she embraced the callous, cold-hearted way of the shinobi for her revenge; she had never been able to shake or get past her love of spending time with kids. She even harbored dreams of setting up an orphanage, helping kids like her without homes to go to anymore.

But before she could do that, she had to do what she could to stop this. Not what was happening right now - she could tell that the little girl couldn't be saved, and she wasn't strong enough to break out any of these kids. There were Jonin stationed at this base after all. But even if she couldn't bring down the operation herself, she could undermine it.

So she became a spy. A traitor.

She approached several agents of the minor hidden villages - the major ones were too dangerous to try because of Orochimaru's own agents - and began leaking information. Base locations, security protocol, number of shinobi - everything she could think of. For a full year and a half she had done it, before she struck big time.

She had been contacted by an agent of Jiraiya of the Sannin.

The man's reputation as a spy was utterly infamous in the shinobi underground, and not only that, but giving information to Konoha, the first victims of Orochimaru's betrayal, was the best way to bring down the bastard himself. It was almost too good to be true, and she had spilled her guts to the man, who had then passed the information on to the Sannin.

She paused in her frantic run through Konoha's Forest of Death to glance over her shoulder, ensuring that her pursuers were not right on top of her still, and tried to catch her breath,even as the sweat poured down her face. A moment later, and she heard the sounds of her two team-mates, ordered to kill her for her betrayal, and couldn't help but wonder if it had been too good to be true after all.

She set off again at a breakneck pace.

However, she knew she was dead. Her hunters were both stronger than her, if a little slower, and she was lost with no time or way to set up an ambush, or counterattack. It was only a matter of time before she would be too exhausted to run, and she was banking on a miracle to save her.

Thing was, if her time with Orochimaru had taught her anything, it was that miracles like that simply didn't exist.

Shino dropped to his knees, his legs simply unable to take the strain of his weight any longer, and gazed out from behind his pitch black sunglasses, at the scattered remains of much of his kikaichu insect colony that normally resided within his own body, their corpses strewn out across the battlefield. What was left - which was not an unreasonable amount, truth be told - buzzed dangerously behind his long, grey overcoat, ready to defend their exhausted host.

Trouble was, he simply did not have the strength to command them properly; and if they attacked without strategy, they would simply die all the faster.

The Kusagakure genin was almost impossibly good for somebody of their level - in fact, Shino was certain that he was not their level at all. Most likely a Chunin level shinobi posing as a Genin for an as yet unknown purpose. Their fight had actually begun somewhat evenly matched, Shino's thorough drilling in use of his colony, and in combat techniques from his clan, as well as his own innate ability to strategise, allowed him to fight on even terms with his more skilled and more powerful opponent.

He had scored several good hits, and forced the Kusa shinobi to expend a good amount of chakra using ninjutsu to defend against the onslaught of his colony of insects. But to be frank, the enemy was on a different level to him, one that Shino had never anticipated encountering so soon into his career. They had never really stood much of a chance of winning at all, especially after a glance at Kiba.

The Inuzuka was in worse shape then he, littered with deep, still bleeding gashes and bruises; crouched protectively over the unconscious Akamaru, struggling to stay on his feet. His opponent was winded, and had obviously taken a reasonable amount of damage, as well as having expended a fair amount of chakra; but was the clear winner.

Shino admittedly wasn't in a much better shape. The enemy was fast, and attacked mercilessly and relentlessly, aiming to kill. He had been hard pressed to dodge when he got close, and was sporting numerous shallow cuts from near misses where he had moved just in time to avoid a strike aimed at his vital points. Worse than that however, was the deep cut on his left side that he was currently clutching in order to try and prevent some of the bleeding. It was an effort in vain however - he was already feeling weakened and slightly faint, and it wouldn't be long before he lost consciousness. He however, suspected he didn't even have that long.

His plan had been to try and occupy the enemy for as long as possible, and wear him down, if he could. There was no escape with Hinata out cold - not from shinobi this strong - but Hinata's last waking action might just have saved them, if he had been able to last but a little bit longer.

That kunai she had thrown. He had known instinctively, exactly which kunai it was that she had thrown, and Shino had planned accordingly.

If only he had lasted just a bit longer. Just a moment longer would have given them even more of a chance of getting away alive. Unfortunately, it appeared he had failed. He felt the icy touch of cold steel press against his throat, and he couldn't find the energy to try and escape. He was going to be executed here, defeated in battle, and his team-mates would soon follow him. And there was absolutely nothing he could do. He had been weak, much too weak to protect them - the first two people to accept him as friends, despite his stoic nature, despite his status as a Kikaichu host. They were going to die because he hadn't been good enough.

Shino didn't know it, but Kiba was echoing those thoughts regarding himself even as his own opponent approached him, kunai drawn, ready to snuff out his life; and Hinata's last waking thoughts had been just the same.

"You were more than worthy." The Kusa genin's voice was absent of it's blank monotone quality for the first time in their entire meeting. He seemed excited, eager, and Shino couldn't help the feeling of apprehension that overtook him as he listened to his opponent speak. "And as a reward, you will stay here, by my side, for eternity. Do not fear your death, because after it you will never be alone again."

Shino braced himself as he felt the tensing of his enemy's arms through the blade pressed against his throat, readying himself for death.

In that precise moment several things happened so fast that it took Shino until much later to process them all alongside the improbable idea that he and his team had survived their brush with death.

First - but only by the slightest fraction of a second - Uzumaki Naruto struck from above, leaping onto a loudly announced flying kick that Shino only realised had been to take the enemies attention away from the defeated Aburame, and force the Kusa-nin back just enough to allow a second Uzumaki Naruto to burst from the ground in front of him, and tackle Shino away from the flick of the deadly enemy's katana as he tried to finish Shino quickly before dealing with the new arrival.

At the same time as all this had happened, Naruto had pulled the same maneuver with Kiba's opponent, and had moved him back to where Inuzuka Hana had already launched into treating Hinata - apparently trusting in Naruto completely. Their level of cohesion actually impressed him somewhat.

Once again, Shino didn't have a chance to fully understand exactly how precise Naruto's timing had to have been, how well executed the rescue was, until he had time to reflect much, much later on.

For now, he was just grateful to be alive - and that his team had been given a chance. The blond's arrival, just his presence, seemed to reassure him in a way that he didn't fully understand yet.

He had, however, fully expected Naruto to launch into combat against the enemy - but he just stood protectively in front of him, fists clenched, eyes focused entirely on the enemy; and it struck Shino that he had never seen Uzumaki Naruto truly angry. Oh, he had seen him frustrated, annoyed - loudly and explosively so - but never like this.

Hands curled up into fists, nails digging so hard into his palms that they were drawing blood, his body so tensed that he was actually visibly shaking; and on top of all that, he was bleeding chakra - so much that it actually agitated his kikaichu bugs. Shino had done his research into Jinchuuriki after Naruto's revelation, too, in order to better understand his comrade's burden and it's consequences as best he could. He knew what demonic chakra was supposed to feel like, to look like. This was not it. This was all Naruto's own chakra.

Shino had noticed that Uzumaki Naruto was somewhat more capable than he had shown in the Academy. Now, he was forced to conclude that he may have drastically miscalculated, and couldn't help but wonder just how much the blond had been underestimated by them all. The Genin in question's voice broke him out of his reverie.

"Hana, are Kiba and Hinata okay to be moved?" His voice was hard, and intense, but none of the anger he clearly felt had been directed at his team-mate.

"They've been beaten pretty hard, and are exhausted - but it's nothing dangerous, nothing that needs to be treated immediately, and certainly nothing I couldn't fix. They'll e safe to transport as they are." Hana's reply came out strangely as though she were delivering a report, and a niggling thought began scratching away at the back of Shino's logical and ordered mind, like he had just been struck by an unbelievable sense of familiarity, but he couldn't quite place just where this familiarity came from.

"Great news. In that case, get Shino a soldier pill, and try and heal up that wound on his side - at the very least get him mobile, and I'll get them out of here. Once that's dealt with, we'll deal with these assholes together. Shino, what can you tell me about their abilities."

Shino found himself answering Naruto before he had time to comprehend why he was so compelled to listen to the blond's plans, and simply accept them as the right options. He trusted Naruto; his judgement, his capabilities, his ability to get his team out alive, and he didn't know why - the impulse went against every scrap of data he had available on Uzumaki Naruto from the time in the Academy, and was entirely illogical - and for an Aburame, that was practically a sin. Yet, one that he continued to commit, either way.

Partly because he didn't seem to be able to stop himself, and partly because he was aware that the shock that Naruto's arrival, and his subsequent taking control of the situation, had caused in the enemy was beginning to wear off; and therefore the time in which he had to disseminate the information that Naruto would require to fight such an enemy, was running distinctly low.

A short 20 second breakdown of the enemies abilities and level that he was rather sure Naruto should have been more concerned about, but the confident nod of the head in response, and calm but assured way he continued to speak to himself and Hana, stopped him from voicing that belief. He wondered if it had something to do with the fact that Hana also didn't appear to be worried - nor was she perturbed that she had followed Naruto's instructions to heal his wound and get him ready to travel without even a moments hesitation, trusting in his admittedly fairly sensible plan completely.

Although he still wasn't sure how they were going to escape.

"You appear to believe that I am just going to let you all leave, almost as if you were under the impression that you were able to get past me, never mind my team-mate."

Naruto faced his enemy, and looked him in the eyes, and the anger that had left him while talking to the Konoha shinobi seemed to emerge once more as he was forced to focus completely on the Kusa-nin.

"Actually no. You're only going to let the three you already hurt leave. You're going to let them leave, but that won't matter, because you'll be far too busy with me to worry about them." Naruto ignored the disbelieving scoff from the enemy, and turned back to Shino. "Now, Shino, I'm going to summon a toad that will transport you straight to the tower. He's an expert in stealth and infiltration, so you should be safe until you get there, but you need to stay awake until you do just in case he does run into trouble, okay? Also, what scroll do you have?"

The Aburame nodded and answered that he had an heaven scroll, even as his mind raced. The Toads were renowned summons, but were also notoriously difficult as a clan to master the technique. Summoning toads took phenomenal amounts of chakra, even for the weakest; and summoning individually took no small amount of skill.

There was after all a reason that the only two prominent Toad summoners in all of shinobi history were Jiraiya of the Sannin and the Fourth Hokage - both legendary shinobi.

His attention was drawn back to Naruto, who handed him an earth scroll, claiming it was a spare that they had obtained, before he began flying through hand seals with a bloodied finger, at a speed that surprised Shino - it spoke of years of practice that Naruto simply hadn't live long enough to obtain - and slammed is palm into the ground. "Kekkai: Gama Hyōrō."

The small, dark red toad toad with a cork in it's mouth that appeared however, solicited a rare raised eyebrow from the stoic Aburame. Toads were difficult to summon of course, and it was highly unlikely that Naruto was proficient with the technique as he claimed to be; so it was not difficult for Shino to begin to doubt Naruto's plan once again, though once again, his calm and unsurprised demeanor at the appearance of the toad that was clearly too small to take them anywhere prevented him from speaking out.

"Hyōro-chan, I need you to get the three injured Konoha-nin to the tower a few kilometers north-east of here as soon as possible - without being seen if at all possible. Two of them can't fight, but Aburame Shino here-" Naruto placed his hand on Shino's shoulder as he spoke, in order to point him out, "- should be able to at least give you a fighting chance if you are spotted."

The toad just smirked, though his eyes never left the enemy, even as he began to speak with the cork still in his mouth. "Please, Naruto-kun. Who do you think you're talking to here? Seen? Me?! You should know better than that. But I will do as you ask, of course. I take it the Inuzuka will be fighting alongside you?"

Naruto nodded. "They're not so injured that they need immediate medical attention, so yeah, Hana'll be fighting with me. Looks like I'll have my hands full with just this guy, let alone his buddy."

"Hmm, good to see you won't be taking these two by yourself. That said, Gamasenso is itching for a fight - and has been looking forward to fighting by your side since you first summoned him, so don't hesitate if you need help."

"Good to know he's so eager - I'll keep it in mind!" Naruto chuckled at the thought of his first proper sucess, and the fun he he'd had sparring with the blue toad since. Now get them out of here. I have a feeling this guy isn't gonna wait any longer."

"Right you are, not then, Aburame-san - this always feels a little weird the first time it happens to you, but just bare with it. I'll have you and your team-mates at the tower in no time."

And before Shino could question exactly what was going on, the toad reached for the cork in it's mouth and removed it; and the moment he did so, the world around the Aburame began to blur and darken, disorientating him slightly, and he suddenly felt a peculiar sensation - as though he were being squeezed through a particularly narrow tube.

And just like that, Team 8 wasn't on the battlefield at all.

Naruto's face dropped into a scowl as the toad nodded at him and set off, activating some kind of camouflaging technique as he did so, and turned back towards his opponent, who was looking at him with a calculating look in his pale, damaged eyes.

"I can sense your chakra, and through it, your strength. You are strong, nearly as much as I - you will be infinitely more worthwhile than any of them. I shall spill their blood on another day - today though, I shall make you mine."

Naruto didn't know what to make of the maddened tone the Kusa-nin's voice had taken on, nor the excited trembling of the hand that held his blade; so he shot a glance over at Hana and her dogs, who had formed up opposite the shinobi that had been about to kill her brother, Kiba. He couldn't help but smile at her resolve, and rather unbelievable control in the face of the man who had hurt her brother - he was almost certain he wouldn't have been able to focus on her duty as a med-nin with the guy just standing there like that.

Hana had however. She had made sure everyone was okay, done her duty; and judging by the smoldering look in her eyes as she faced the other Genin down, she was about to get her reward.

"You might be more powerful than me, but there's a lot more to battle than power." He began, as he felt a familiar feeling of dread and self loathing - the very same feeling he had just before his assassination mission, the mission he had been trying so hard to just forget and suppress the memories of, even as his resolve took hold of him in the face of the threat to his comrades. "Either way, doesn't matter. From what I can tell, you came here to this Exam to kill - to satisfy some kind of twisted blood lust - not to compete. Worse still, you've singled out my comrades as targets, and even now you continue to threaten them. You're an active, present threat to the lives of my comrades, and those that live in my village."

Naruto summoned his sansetsukon as a counter to the Kusa-nin's katana, and he tried to prevent his voice from wavering as images of a peacefully sleeping man moments before his own death forced their way into his mind's eye.

"And because of that, you can't be allowed to live."

Holy smokes, I didn't expect this chapter to be this long! I also didn't expect to only get this far into the Forest of Death segment of the exams - there's still a fair bit left to go, plus the prelims!

On the other hand, the flow of the chapter was starting to feel a it forced to me, and I feel I left it at a good place to resume the story in ch.28. Really glad that Orohimaru's student is getting his fight - which will serve as a replacement 'boss fight' if you will to Naruto duking it out with the Ame nin and Orochimaru in canon.

Also, when thinking about how easily Naruto and Hana took down the two teams at the start, try and remember that Naruto's been training with Jiraiya and Yuugao and Kage Bunshin since graduation, and that Hana's been training with Tsume on top of having been a Genin for several years already. Add to that the fact that both the Suna and Ame teams were basically fodder - some of the weakest teams in the Exam that made it to the forest - and it starts to seem fair enough.

Orochimaru's student is to be the true test for Naruto at this point.

Also, hows about that Sasuke?! It's most likely that I'll be weaving some of Team 7's history into the future story, so that Sasuke's change can be explored a littlemore thoroughly - but fot the most part, I think I did a fair job of expressing Sasuke's thoughts as he decided to save his team. No curse mark! Sasuke's loyal! At least, for now...

Orochimaru isn't the only bad guy that can offer Sasuke power after all, and let's not forget that he also needs sharingan training...

Anyways, hope y'all enjoyed. Until next time!

Jutsu List

Sen'eijashu (Hidden Shadow Snake Hands) - Snakes emerge from the user's wrists and attack from a distance. They can bind the enemy as well as bite them, and depending on the snakes summoned with the technique, can administer a wide variety of poisons and paralysis agents.

Doton: Ganban Kyū (Earth Release: Bedrock Coffin) - An Earth Release ninjutsu where pillars of earth form out of the ground, and trap the target within, unable to escape. The multiple sections of rock can also be used to crush the target.

Doton: Shinjū Zanshu no Jutsu (Earth Release: Inner Decapitation Technique) - This technique allows the user to conceal themselves underground, and attack their enemies from below, including being able to drag them down into the ground too, trapping them.

Ninpo: Chōjū Giga (Ninja Art: Beast Scroll Replicas) - The user draws pictures of animals on a scroll, and uses chakra to animate the drawings and control them as thought they were real animals. Any number of creature can be drawn, such as lions, hawks, fish, etc.

Katon: Housenka no Jutsu (Fire Release: Phoenix Sage Fire Technique) -The user spews several small fireballs from his/her mouth, in a spread pattern, in order to make the technique more difficult to avoid.

Gatsuuga (Passing Fang) -The user, by themselves or with their ninken partner, spin at a ferocious speed and deliver many powerful beast-like attacks when contact is made with the target.

Bunshin Daibakuha (Great Clone Explosion) - The user overloads a Kage Bunshin with chakra upon creation, resulting in a Bunshin that can detonate - either by itself or on command. The strength of the explosion can by modified by varying the amount of chakra used.

Kekkai: Gama Hyōrō (Barrier: Toad Gourd Prison) - The user summons a toad that can use space/time ninjutsu to safely bring people and objects into it's own stomach. It's stomach itself is protected by a barrier ninjutsu, making it nearly impossible to escape from if placed with against your own will - but also incredibly difficult to penetrate from the outside.