Naruto was feeling an unmistakable mix of nervousness, confidence, courage, and fear. It made absolutely no sense how all these emotions that were completely opposite of each other could swirl around his head at once.

He was nervous because this mission was hugely important for Konoha. Orochimaru had declared war on the village. Everyone in Konoha would judge Naruto, and his friends, on the outcome of this mission.

He was confident because he trusted every member of the team. He knew their skills, their drive, and their loyalty to Konoha. The team Tsunade-baa-chan had assembled was awesome.

He was brave because he knew that he couldn't fail. Sasuke was one of his best friends. Naruto had to be brave to save Sasuke not only from Orochimaru, but from himself. Sasuke's willingness to throw his very soul away shook Naruto to his core.

He was afraid because if they failed, Sasuke would throw his life away and Orochimaru would score a massive victory over Konoha. Naruto could not bear the thought of his friends being hurt on this mission. The thought of Neji and Sasuke being seriously hurt really scared him. The thought of Hinata being hurt filled his veins with ice.

'I cannot fail,' Naruto declared to himself.

"Shikamaru! Naruto! Akamaru and I smell blood to our east! We're sure it's Konoha shinobi!" Kiba shouted from up front.

Shikamaru was silent for several moments. "We can't afford to stop. If we slow down for even a second, Sasuke will escape."

Tenten, Kiba, and Chouji were about to protest when Naruto spoke up. "Shikamaru is right. We can't afford to stop." Naruto's declaration shocked everyone. "We also can't afford to not investigate. The other Konoha shinobi could have info we could use. I'm going to send a few clones."

"Good call," Shikamaru agreed. Naruto quickly created several Kage Bunshin who rushed to the front of the line to confer with Kiba. The clones dashed in the direction Kiba pointed out.

"How will your clones get us the intel, Naruto?" Tenten asked the original.

"Kage Bunshin can transfer memories when they dispel. That's why I sent so many, just in case," Naruto explained.

Tenten didn't turn around, but Naruto could tell that she was impressed. Suddenly, Naruto saw Shikamaru raise his hand and signal the group to a halt.

"Just as I thought," Shikamaru growled. "They were prepared for Hunter-nin pursuit."

Neji paused on the ground next to Chouji and Tenten. "Explosive tags. There is something off about them."

Shikamaru nodded. "This is a high level jutsu. If we had continued through the trees, they would have blown us all to hell."

"They have also left numerous wire traps," Hinata reported. Naruto headed to one of the traps Hinata pointed out and carefully observed it.

"Double tripwire," Naruto pointed out. "I used a few of these in the past to prank Mizuki and a few of the other Academy teachers. Looks like we aren't up against the scrubs of Oto."

Tenten shook her head. "These are really good traps, but we're probably dealing with a rush job. If they had taken a little longer, they could have hidden everything better."

"It is very likely that our adversaries are resting after their probable encounter with the Konoha Shinobi. Thus, I believe the Oto force cannot be far," Shino added.

Naruto took a quick breath. "The wounded Konoha nin definitely encountered some Oto Shinobi. They had a really weird technique and if I had to guess, I'd say it was that Cursed Seal Sakura-chan mentioned."

"How many enemies are we dealing with, Naruto?" Kiba asked.

"Four, but Sasuke wasn't with them. There was a very large jar or keg with them." Naruto shrugged his shoulders.

"I've found them!" Neji exclaimed. "They are less than five hundred meters from our current location!"

Hinata struggled to focus. "I can't see any more traps! I think these are the only ones they set up."

"Alright, I have a strategy. We'll divide into two squads. Shino, Kiba, and Hinata are with me. Team Eight has the most experience working together and are the best ambushers we've got. Chouji, Neji, and Tenten, I want you guys to follow Naruto after Team Eight lays down a smoke screen," Shikamaru ordered.

"It's a good idea, but I'd switch up the squads, Shikamaru," Naruto jumped in. "You're splitting it up into a smokescreen team and an an assault team, right?"

Shikamaru nodded and Naruto continued. "I think the assault team should have Kiba in it. Tenten probably carries a ton of smoke bombs and would probably be able to provide better support from a distance. We need the assault team to hit really hard. Kiba and Neji have natural ways to negate the smoke. Kurama can boost my senses, so I'm good. Chouji can simply use that boulder technique he showed off in the Chuunin Exams to scatter the enemy."

"Good idea," Shikamaru agreed. The Retrieval Team split into two squads and prepared to ambush the enemy. "There's no sign of Sasuke. Hinata, could you check that casket?"

"I-I can't see through it. There is some kind of barrier. Maybe they knocked Sasuke-san unconscious in case he had a change of heart?"

"Probably. Orochimaru wants Sasuke really bad. He wouldn't kill him," Shikamaru agreed.

There was suddenly a hissing sound and Hinata grabbed Shikamaru. Hinata jumped clear of their hiding spot right as a massive explosion destroyed a chunk of the forest.

"Well, well, look what fell out of the bushes," the lone enemy kunoichi sneered.

"We didn't come to fight! We're only here to negotiate!" Shikamaru lied.

The sole Oto shinobi wearing a hitai-ate shook his head. "Oh, really? Then how do you explain...this!"

As soon as the words left his mouth, the shinobi jerked down and Chouji, Tenten, and Shino were drawn from their hiding places. Shikamaru ground his teeth in frustration. That technique had caught him completely off guard. Worse, the tanned Oto ninja seemed to have complete control over the technique. Neji, Naruto, and Kiba leaped clear of their hiding places and dropped a few smoke bombs.

"You think you can hide from Kidōmaru with smoke bombs?" The physically largest enemy asked sarcastically.

"They can't! I have perfect control over my webs," Kidōmaru laughed.

"Who knew there was a technique like that!" Naruto shouted. The Oto ninja furtherest from the Konoha shinobi raised an eyebrow.

'That brat was definitely acting out, brother, but why?' Sakon thought.

"You trash do..." Kidōmaru started to speak, but was suddenly cut off. "I-I can't move!"

"Kagemane no Jutsu success," Shikamaru announced with a smirk. "Thanks for cooperating with this trap."

Sakon chuckled. "Thank you for cooperating with this trap. Jirōbō!"

Jirōbō didn't say a word as he slammed his hands on the ground. Tenten barely had time to shout a warning before a enormous sphere imprisoned the Konoha shinobi.

"Damn it, we're trapped!" Shikamaru cursed. "I should have been prepared for a technique like that!"

"I think you trash will make a good meal," Jirōbō taunted.

Inside the earthen sphere, the Konoha shinobi were caught in a whirlwind of emotion.

"Neji-nii-san, are you seeing this?" Hinata asked nervously.

"The walls are reinforced with chakra, but for what purpose?" Neji simultaneously confirmed and questioned.

Kiba growled. "Let's see how that chakra reinforcement handles this! Tsūga!"

The Inuzuka's attack roared towards the dome and created a nearly impenetrable wall of dust upon impact. Neji and Hinata watched the impact with their Byakugan. They gasped at the aftermath. Everyone else saw the incredible damage that Kiba's attack had caused. Naturally, they believed the two Hyūga's reaction was at the damage. The truth quickly dawned on the Sasuke Retrieval Team as the dome repaired itself nearly instantly.

"The walls, they are siphoning our chakra away!" Neji hissed. Naruto noticed Shikamaru in his 'thinking pose' and quietly approached his fellow Chuunin.

"We've got to get out of here or panic is going to beat us before the Sound bastards do," Naruto whispered to Shikamaru.

"You're right," Shikamaru agreed. "I have a plan, but I need to confirm it."

"It'll need to be quick." Naruto nodded towards the others.

Shikamaru nodded back. "Kiba! I need you to do that jutsu again. This time, aim at the other side of the dome. Neji, I need you to tell me exactly what happens."

The two young men nodded and Kiba attempted his technique again. Neji observed the attack and the dome with his bloodline. "The chakra reinforcement is thinnest at the rear of the dome. Kiba-san's attack did more damage and the recovery rate was far slower."

'Kurama, what would happen if I started pumping your chakra into the dome?' Naruto asked the Kyūbi.

'With the seal as it is now? It would out...from...the inside. I'll start pumping out some of my chakra when you give the signal,'Kurama replied with a bit of glee.

"Shikamaru, Kurama is ready to add some of his chakra to the mix. It'll make whatever you're planning go smoother by disrupting the chakra in the dome," Naruto added.

"Chouji, are you ready?" Shikamaru asked. The Akimichi Genin nodded. "Good, when I give the signal, do it! Naruto, start it up!"

Naruto smirked as he slammed his hands onto the side of the dome. Kurama began to channel its chakra through Naruto into the dome. Everyone could see the effect that the Bijū's chakra was having on the dome. The earthen material was cracking as if it were being burned from the inside. The immediate area around Naruto's hands was becoming blackened and was peeling away.

"Now Chouji!" Shikamaru shouted. Chouji grew to immense size and rolled up into a ball. The Akimichi Human Boulder Jutsu smashed through the weakened dome.

"Looks like this group of trash has a working brain," Jirōbō sneered. "Too bad none of you will be a good meal."

"Naruto, take everyone with you. I'll stall this guy." Shikamaru immediately began calculating the best angles to attempt his Kagemane jutsu.

"Heh, you're in charge? What kind of idiot are you to think you can catch me with that jutsu again? Unless, we've already beaten the hope out of you? Heh, if you're willing to die alone, so bit it!"

"I've got plenty of tricks up my sleeve," Shikamaru assured his enemy.

"What? Hoping I choke on your blood when I beat you to death? You are nothing. You are less than trash! I don't know what to call you other than a suicidal..."

"Shut up!" Chouji roared. "You're mine."

"Hehe, looks like the only decent meal is the only one with a backbone!" Jirōbō laughed.

"Shikamaru, take these soldier pills and give them to everyone," Chouji said resolutely. "I'm going to take this guy down."

"Not alone you aren't," Naruto jumped in. "Tenten, stay behind and support Chouji. We're about to enter the woods. Your fighting style doesn't mix well with woods and these guys all have Cursed Seals. Chouji will need the backup."

"Sure thing, Naruto," Tenten responded to the order. Shikamaru tossed her a soldier pill. Tenten quickly swallowed the pill and turned her attention to Jirōbō.

"Don't think you'll get away that easy!" Jirōbō shouted.

"You're going to have to deal with us!" Chouji shouted back as he fished the Three Colored Pills out of his pouch. 'I'm going to have to use these,' he thought as he consumed the Spinach Pill.

As Chouji prepared to meet Jirōbō's bull charge, Tenten leaped into the air and unfurled the first of her storage scrolls. She chose to release the scroll containing Makibishi and other forms of caltrops. The sharp metal objects wouldn't do any severe damage, but they would perform two important tasks. Immediately, they slowed Jirōbō's charge and allowed Chouji to get much better leverage on the foe. Secondly, the small wounds on the soles of the Sound shinobi would limit his mobility as the battle wore on.

Chouji noticed what Tenten was planning and ducked under Jirōbō's wild swing and used his enemy's momentum to throw the Otogakure through a nearby tree.

Jirōbō managed to climb to his feet and growled at the two Konoha ninja. "Nice tricks, but it won't save you."

Tenten reached for a second scroll as Chouji entered his fighting stance. Jirōbō seemed a bit annoyed that neither enemy shinobi rose to his taunting. "Fine, be silent. I'm still going to bury you. You're going to die alone! Abandoned by your friends!"

"Shut up," Chouji barked. "You don't know anything about how Konoha shinobi work!"

Tenten stood straighter at Chouji's declaration. "We have the Will of Fire. What do you have?"

"More than enough to kill you two!" Jirōbō charged once again. The two Konoha ninja were ready to meet the challenge.

Akamaru's whine broke the thick silence as the rest of the retrieval team rushed to catch up with the other Otogakure ninja.

"I think you might be right, buddy," Kiba responded to the ninken's 'words'.

"What's going on, Kiba?" Naruto asked from his position.

Shino surprised everyone by answering. "I assume that Akamaru is worried about Tenten-san and Chouji-san's battle against their enemy."

"Yeah, you're right, Shino. Akamaru can tell how strong a person is by scent. That guy is really strong. We're pretty sure Tenten and Chouji couldn't take him one-on-one," Kiba replied.

Shikamaru nodded, thought the gesture went unseen. "Chouji volunteered to face him alone because he wanted to help us in anyway he could. He...thinks he's the weakest among us."

"If we analyze the situation, we don't have any accurate information about our enemy beyond the limited information Naruto's Shadow Clones provided. The odds of either Tenten or Chouji defeating him alone are almost nil, but they are not alone. Tenten's shuriken jutsu and weapon skill compliment Chouji's taijutsu and physical Akimichi jutsus very well. Their pairing gives them the best chance for victory," Neji explained.

"I concur with Neji-san," Shino added simply.

"We all knew our lives would be on the line for this mission. We're lucky that Shino hadn't begun that Aburame ritual yet and that Tenten and Hinata were available. We'd have to take on each of the enemy one-on-one if they weren't here," Shikamaru added.

The group fell silent once again. Naruto, wanting some more information on Sasuke and the Otogakure ninja, spoke up. "Hinata-chan, Neji, are we gaining ground on the enemy?"

"We are gaining ground. The container is slowing them down," Neji reported.

"We can catch them, but we have to be wary of traps," Shikamaru warned.

Chouji impacted against Jirōbō's earthen barrier with incredible force. Tenten felt the aftermath of Chouji's attack from her distant position. This was the most intense battle Tenten had ever taken part in. She had been as unprepared for Orochimaru's invasion as the rest of Konoha. After she had awakened from the genjutsu, she had been engaged by a single Sound Genin. Tenten had been in civilian-style clothing at the time as part of her blindingly-obvious-to-everyone attempt to catch Neji's eye. Even then, she had not been unprepared. She had two weapon scrolls with her. A combination of bojutsu and explosive tags quickly finished the only adversary Tenten had faced.

It had definitely been a great boost to her confidence after Temari had demolished her.

That one-sided battle had not prepared her for a fight this desperate. Jirōbō had not been in position to attack her directly without leaving himself open to Chouji's ninjutsu or taijutsu, but he had not forgotten about her. Occasionally, the Sound ninja would throw a boulder or a shattered tree at her. The speed of the throws had been astounding.

As the smoke cleared, Chouji and Tenten noticed that Jirōbō's left side was decorated with a barbed-wire-like tattoo. Jirōbō was radiating killing intent and rage. "I can't believe trash like you made me use my seal."

Chouji fell back towards Tenten. "I'll need you to cover me. I need to fish out those pills again."

"Alright Chouji," Tenten agreed and grabbed one of her scrolls. "Let's do this."

Jirōbō sneered at the kunoichi. "I'm going to break you in half. You both are idiots that were discarded by your 'friends'."

Tenten glowered at her enemy and channeled a bit of chakra into her scroll. The scroll she had chosen shot dozens of kunai at incredible speed at her target. The Sound ninja's speed had increased an incredible amount after the Cursed Seal activated and, he managed to dodge enough of the kunai that he wasn't turned into a pincushion. It pleased Tenten greatly to see that her kunai had managed to inflict several nasty cuts on his torso.

Her elation was an unfortunate mistake. She relaxed for a fraction of a second and missed Jirōbō substituting with some of the debris littering the battlefield. The Otogakure ninja exploded from his position with a chakra-enhanced leap. Tenten only avoided taking a strike directly to her heart by a divine miracle. The punch may have only been a glancing hit, but Jirōbō's attack had still broken several of Tenten's ribs. She screamed out in pain as she landed on her side and did even more damage to her broken bones.

Jirōbō was laughing as he charged and his bloodlust allowed him to ignore the multitude of cuts littering his body. "I told you! I'm going to break you in half!" The physically largest member of the Sound Four reared back for a devastating strike that would undoubtedly finish Tenten if it connected. Despite the pain, Tenten quickly rolled over and threw a kunai with every ounce of strength she could muster. There was no way Jirōbō could physically dodge or substitute away from the attack. Tenten's injuries reduced her usual flawless accuracy, but at this range she couldn't miss. The kunai embedded itself in Jirōbō's forearm.

"That's it?" Jirōbō sneered as he lowered his arms. "Is that a..."

"Boom," Tenten whispered as the flash bomb detonated. Jirōbō cursed as he was blinded.

"You're going down!" Chouji roared as charged in. He had taken the Curry Pill and his chakra capacity had exploded. The Akimichi pummeled Jirōbō with a taijutsu combo that sent him flying. "How badly hurt are you, Tenten-san?"

"I'll live," Tenten growled. Chouji nodded and charged after Jirōbō. The kunoichi rose to her feet and awkwardly reached for another weapon scroll. 'I hope the rest of the team is okay. I hope things are going okay back home...'

Hiashi was barely controlling the urge to pace in his office. He had not been pleased by Tsunade's order to stay in the village while his daughter, nephew, and Naruto went to pursue the traitor Uchiha. The reinstated head of the Hyūga Clan knew that the retrieval team was supremely talented. However, he couldn't stop worrying. Neji was the living memorial of Hiashi's beloved brother, Hizashi. Naruto had risked everything for Hinata, and during the assault, had taken great pains to protect the innocent of the Hyūga Clan. Hiashi didn't need the Byakugan to see that Naruto and Hinata would be in a relationship soon. The Clan head wasn't sure it would be a long term relationship, but the foundations were strong.

And then there was Hinata; his daughter. Hiashi had nearly lost her less than twenty-four hours ago. Now, she was fighting in a desperate war. The Cadet family members had spoken in glowing terms about Hinata's skills. Truly, Hiashi thought with pride, Hinata had greatly improved. Her defeat of Hanako proved without a single doubt that Hinata had truly become skilled. Still, he was her father and it was his duty to worry.

The knock on the door was a welcomed distraction. "Enter."

"Hiashi-sama," Miyako entered with a bow. "I...I have the reports you asked for."

"Thank you, Miyako-san. Did you uncover any irregularities in the Clan's financial ledgers?"

The young woman shook her head. "No, Hiashi-sama. I believe Hanako and the other usurpers wanted to ensure the information they presented to Tsunade-sama could withstand any scrutiny."

"If there had been alterations, I know you would have found them," Hiashi complemented the young woman.

"Thank you, Hiashi-sama," the young woman bowed again. "I-I thank you for having such faith in the Cadet Family."

"I have faith in all loyal members of our Clan," Hiashi assured the kunoichi. "Miyako-san, you are released from all Clan duties. I believe you have a journey to prepare for..."

Miyako looked up with wide-eyes and mix of surprise and hope dancing across her features. "H-Hiashi-sama?"

"I do believe Ieyaso-sama would be most disappointed if his bride was delayed. Tsunade-sama could not keep all news from leaving Konoha about the conflict between Uzumaki-san and the Usurpers. Ieyaso-sama would no doubt wish to hear of the particulars and the state of the Clan from you rather than a gossiping merchant or...agencies with objections to your union."

"Of course, Hiashi-sama," the Branch member agreed eagerly. "I, I just..."

"Was worried that because the Usurpers were the primary negotiators for the marriage, that I would cancel the contract?" Hiashi finished.

Miyako nodded slightly. "I-I am sorry for doubting you, Hiashi-sama."

Hiashi kept his expression neutral, but inwardly he seethed. The Elders had likely been far more cavalier in how they used, or more likely threatened to use, the Main Family's Juinjutsu. "The Clan has been in disarray. Your concern was not unfounded, but I have no intention of delaying or voiding the engagement."

"Thank you, Hiashi-sama!" Miyako shouted with relief and joy. She bowed yet again to the Clan Head and was dismissed. Hiashi took a single breath and looked to his left without turning around.

"You are very skilled to avoid detection by two Hyūga for as long as you did," Hiashi praised the ANBU who had practically materialized in the corner of the room.

"Thank you, Hiashi-sama," the ANBU wearing a boar-mask responded with a polite nod of the head. "Hokage-sama wishes to inform you of the situation with the traitors from your clan."

"What is the latest on Takehito and Hidake?" Hiashi asked with venom.

"Tsunade-sama and her trusted agents believe that the two traitors had assistance from rogue elements in the village. It is the most logical explanation for how the two Chuunin escaped," the ANBU reported. Hiashi thanked the ANBU. The special ops ninja disappeared in a swirl of leaves and Hiashi was left with his thoughts.

'The Hokage gave me an order to remain in Konoha and help contain the political fallout of Naruto's attack and Sasuke's defection. I don't have to like it, and I refuse not to take action to protect the retrieval team and bring the traitor to justice.'

Hiashi entered the commons area. There were a few Cadet branch members working to repair the extensive damage from Naruto's overwhelming assault.

"Hiroaki-san, a moment?"

The elderly Cadet approached Hiashi respectfully. "Yes, Hiashi-sama?"

"Do we have any members, either branch, available for missions?"

"I believe Tokuma, Kō, and Chiasa are mission capable," Hiroaki reported.

"Excellent," Hiashi said warmly. "Collect them if they are mission capable. If not, do not press. Once you have a team ready, I need you to ask the Hokage permission for a mission to support the Uchiha recovery team. I'm sure she would want to deploy medics as well."

Hiroaki blanched. "You believe Hinata-sama and Neji-san are in that great of danger? Hiashi-sama, they are both very talented and are supported by the finest shinobi of their generation."

"And my faith in my daughter, my nephew and their comrades is the only reason I am obeying my Hokage and not leaving to support them myself," Hiashi admitted.

"I understand Hiashi-sama," Hiroaki said and bowed. Hiashi gave the elderly cadet member permission to depart. The Clan Head turned on his heel and prepared to meet with the civilian merchant guild. He had heard that the merchants had once attempted to cheat Naruto. Hiashi was in a sour mood, and part of him was hoping they would still hold onto their negative opinions.

'I need an outlet to support my family and Naruto. I would much rather be on the battlefield beside them, but this will have to do...'

Chouji had to give both Tenten and his opponent credit. The Oto shinobi was one of the strongest opponents Chouji had ever encountered. The Akimichi was sure that Jirōbō might even give Asuma-sensei some trouble. The Cursed Seal had really boosted Chouji's enemy's strength to incredible levels. Ironically, the increases in strength were actually helping Chouji. It was true that Chouji had been forced to used the Three Coloured Pills, but Chouji had landed several huge hits on the other ninja.

'I can do this!'

Jirōbō had just dodged a kunai Tenten had thrown. The Hidden Sound ninja laughed as Tenten had finally missed. His laughter died as the explosive tag wrapped around the handle went off and the force of the explosion knocked him off balance. A curse had barely finished escaping his lips when Chouji's hammer blow came down on Jirōbō's scarred face.

The power of the Cursed Seal of Heaven was terrifying, in all honesty. Jirōbō should have collapsed from blood loss several minutes ago. Instead, he had continued to fight. The Akimichi prepared to finish off his opponent, but an explosion of black corrupted chakra knocked Chouji back.

"There's a second stage?!" Tenten shouted in alarm. Chouji jumped back, but felt his muscles burn in protest. The Curry Pill was beginning to take its toll on his body.

"I told you! I have more than enough to kill you!" Jirōbō roared.

"We're going to need a miracle!" Chouji groaned.

Tenten jumped over to Chouji's location. A fresh wave of pain wracked her body. "I've got a plan. It's stupid and incredibly risky."

"I think we arrived at stupid and incredibly risky a long time ago, Tenten-san," Chouji chuckled humorlessly.

"Short version, I need you to hold out in taijutsu for a little bit. When I shout Hashirama, don't resist and let me do my thing," Tenten said quickly.

"What are you really planning?" The Akimichi asked.

"I'm not really sure..."

Shikamaru was convinced that things were balanced on a razor blade. A single act or mistake could send the mission in one of two very different ways.

If the team screwed up, everything would go to hell in a hand basket.

If the team got a break, they'd all be home in under twelve hours.

Unfortunately, the situation had basically decided to skip the hand basket and simply jump feet first into hell. Shikamaru's attempt to fool the Sound Team by acting as Jirōbō failed, because he had acted with insufficient information. The resulting slip had put the team in incredible danger. Kiba and Naruto had been incapacitated by Kidōmaru's webbing. Shino had shouted a warning about the strength of spider webbing.

The warning had all been a distraction for Neji's attempt to attack Kidōmaru. Somehow, the Sound Nin had avoided the Hyūga genius's attack. It was a minor miracle that caught Neji completely off guard.

Fortunately for the Konoha Team, Kidōmaru's arrogant rant was cut off by a powerful Vacuum Palm. The Sound Four had completely ignored Hinata. She almost effortlessly blended into the background. Hinata's attack knocked Kidōmaru off of his perch and into another tree with a loud crash.

"Stupid Hyūga," Kidōmaru spat. "I'm going to rip the eyes out of your head!"

The Nara Chuunin heard Naruto growl dangerously. Naruto was very protective of Hinata and seemed to have become friends with Neji despite the brawl the two had had in the Chuunin Exam Finals. Shikamaru was about to shout something to calm Naruto down, but Neji and Hinata cut him off with their actions.

The two Hyūga launched a vicious combined Vacuum Palm at Kidōmaru. The attack was less of a blast of air and more of a roaring wall of chakra. Kidōmaru leapt out of the way and barely avoided the attack. The Eight Trigrams Vacuum Palm Wall obliterated several trees. It also had the added benefit of freeing Kiba and Naruto from Kidōmaru's web by stretching the web far enough.

Naruto immediately moved to support Neji and Hinata, but Hinata shook her head. She wasn't looking directly at him, but her Byakugan was active. Hinata could see him in a way almost no one else could.

"Naruto-kun," Hinata said firmly. "Go with the others! They'll need your strength to recover Sasuke-san!"

Naruto looked like he was about to protest, but Shino placed a hand on his shoulder. "Trust them."

"The Hyūga Clan is the strongest in Konoha for a reason! This fool will learn to respect our strength before the end!" Neji declared.

"Oh great, I'm stuck with a pair of low-tier idiots! This won't even be a tutorial level," Kidōmaru sneered.

If there was one thing Naruto had come to despise, it was people underestimating Hinata. He also considered Neji to be a friend, now that he wasn't a fate-preaching ass.

"Hinata-chan, Neji," Naruto said firmly. "Kick this guy's ass."

Kiba growled and motioned to Shikamaru, Shino and Naruto. "We have to go. I have their scent!"

The other two Oto Shinobi had abandoned their teammate. Shikamaru shouted an order to Kiba and quickly took off after the Inuzuka. Shino gave a quick nod to Hinata and took off. Naruto flashed a wistful smile before taking off after the rest of the retrieval team.

He had to have faith in her abilities as a kunoichi.

'The sooner I rescue Sasuke, the sooner I can get back and help the rest of the team!'

Chouji was on the defensive. Jirōbō had really gotten a huge boost in power. His speed was so far above Chouji's that it was insane. Chouji's confidence from earlier was slipping away. The Sound ninja had landed several solid hits. Chouji's retaliation had been minor at best.

"I'm going to break you!" Jirōbō roared. Chouji was growing very tired of his enemy. In fact, Jirōbō was the first person Chouji had ever hated.

"Go to hell!" Chouji growled. The Akimichi heir felt his rage bubbling in his gut. His anger burned white-hot. Chouji lashed out with a vicious swing and caught Jirōbō in the gut. Jirōbō had been swinging at Chouji's head and overextended. Jirōbō grunted as the blow landed.

Tenten jumped in and threw a batch of kunai at Jirōbō. The Sound Ninja jumped away from Chouji and punched into a nearby boulder. Jirōbō threw the boulder at Tenten. Tenten managed to substitute away. The kunoichi growled in annoyance and pain. She had nearly been in position.

Chouji used the distraction to launch another assault. He landed a solid blow on Jirōbō's cheek. The giant, monstrous shinobi stumbled under the force of Chouji's fierce blow. Unfortunately, Orochimaru's Cursed Seal gave Jirōbō increased pain tolerance as well as increased chakra capacity and strength. The shinobi-turned-abomination used the momentum of the hit to fuel his spin and backhanded Chouji.

Jirōbō stalked forward as Chouji landed roughly on the ground. The Otogakure ninja shook his head as he stood over the thoroughly injured young man. "Pathetic."

Chouji was almost out of energy and began to reach for the final pill in his case. However, Jirōbō smacked the Akimichi's tool away. The enemy shinobi picked up Chouji's pill case and crushed it. "You're out of luck." He reached down again and grabbed Chouji's bag of chips and opened it.

The white-hot rage returned, but Chouji's body protested every movement. Pain shot through his body with every grinding of his teeth and twitch of his muscles. However, there was something that overrode the pain. The white-hot rage was supplemented by the most grievous insult an Akimichi could suffer.

That bastard had stolen his food.

Honor demanded that Chouji retaliate somehow. Sadly, Chouji was bloodied, exhausted, and almost out of chakra. Fortunately, Jirōbō was standing over Chouji and had completely lowered his guard. As a small gesture of defiance and hate, Chouji lashed out with his left foot. The Akimichi ninja had never felt such overwhelming anger and hate before, but Jirōbō had pushed Chouji deeper into the dark corners of his mind.

Truthfully, the kick was aimed at Jirōbō's knee. Chouji had hoped to cripple him so that Tenten could carry out whatever idea she had come up with and win the battle.

Chouji's aim had just been a bit off.

The kick had struck Jirōbō right in the nuts.

Jirōbō gasped for air as the impact caused him incredible pain. Chouji hadn't expected that to happen, but it accomplished his goal.

"Hashirama!" Tenten shouted. Chouji remembered that Tenten said not to resist. He lowered all his barriers. An eyeblink later, he was across the battlefield.

'I still have no idea what the plan is,' Chouji silently joked as he attempted to prop himself up.

If Tenten was completely honest with herself, she would have admitted that she had no idea what her plan was either. Tenten was certain of only one thing. The battle had to end very soon or Jirōbō was going to kill both Chouji and herself. Tenten quickly unsealed one of her kanabos. In a single fluid motion, she placed an explosive tag on both sides of the giant studded club. Jirōbō was still staggered from Chouji's brutal kick to the groin.

'I have no idea what the plan is,' Tenten admitted to herself.

The kunoichi had a vague theory of how her attack would work. Theoretically, the outside explosive tag would add a great deal of force to Tenten's swing. The second explosive tag would detonate and finish the bastard off.

Tenten just hoped the explosion wouldn't kill her in a fiery ball of failure.

Still, she was completely out of options. There was no way Chouji and Tenten could beat Jirōbō in their current condition. The Cursed Seal's power had caught them completely off guard. Naruto's limited intelligence and the information Sakura had provided hadn't prepared them for the sheer power of Orochimaru's abomination.

A grim determination fell over Tenten as she swung her kanabō. The first explosive tag detonated according to Tenten's hasty plan. She was as unprepared for the extra momentum of her swing as she had been for Jirōbō's power. It was a miracle that she didn't lose complete control of her weapon.

Jirōbō managed to growl as he made eye contact with Tenten. The giant of a shinobi knew that even with his enhanced power he could not stop or survive the impact. Tenten's strike smashed Jirōbō's skull. An unmistakable sound of breaking bone filled the air and was drowned out only a moment later. Tenten's second explosive tag detonated.

Jirōbō's head was suddenly no more. It had ceased to be.

Tenten let go of the kanabō and collapsed. She couldn't believe that had actually worked.

"Chouji!" Tenten called out. "Are you alive?"

"I think...I think so," Chouji groaned from his distant position. Tenten managed to drag herself over to Chouji's position. The two Shinobi could barely move, but they managed to get to their feet. "We won."

"We won," Tenten agreed, painfully through broken ribs. She looked towards the ancient woods where their friends were no doubt fighting their own desperate battles. Chouji started a little bit Tenten let out a choked gasp.

"What is it?" Chouji asked in alarm.

"L-Look at the tree," Tenten managed to force out the words.

The Akimichi smiled despite his fatigue and injuries. "We...we have really good friends."

"The best," Tenten agreed as the two Genin stumbled towards the tree. "I-I don't think they'd mind if we took a minute to recover."

Chouji nodded and collapsed next to Tenten. The comrades-in-arm at quietly under the note and arrow carved into the bark.

'Tenten! Chouji! Catch up after you win!'

Tenten and Chouji rested easily.

Author's Note: Well, this took long enough. No excuses really. I just hope you enjoy. This fic probably won't slow down on the action front for a while. We've still got the other fights against the Sound Four and the contractually obligated Valley of the End showdown to go. I'm not sure how many chapters that will take, but I will get to work on it soonish! I'm trying my hand to reawaken my muse's interest in Twelve Shattered Mirrors. I'm also working on Misstep in the Right Direction, The Hyuga's Hound*, and going to see what my muse wants to work on more, Dichotomy of the Soul, Echoes of Blood, or Hanyou: The Musical!.

Please continue the amazing support for this story! It is really inspiring!

*Holy smokes! Hyuga's Hound's next chapter will likely be around 11-12 thousand words or more!