NARUTO

Drifting

Better Late Than Never

Back in Takigakure…

Dashing across the shallows, Shibuki gave a quick glance over his shoulder before reaching into his pouch and throwing a hail of shuriken across the water. The second he let the barrage fly, he then saw the distinct form of his former teacher and opponent spring out of the water directly in front of them, a notable look of surprise appearing on his face when he saw the hail of deadly weapons baring down on him. Reacting immediately, Suien brought his hand around and, once again summoning a sword of water, smacked the projectiles out of the air before pitching his elemental weapon at his target.

Seeing the man throw his water sword at him, the young Chunin gave an alarmed reaction and barreled out of the way, rolling across the water's surface when he avoided the blade before stopping crouched atop a much deeper part of the lake. As soon as he stopped, he threw his right hand around, at the same time dragging a length of water compressed into a rope with him, which continued to extend like he was drawing it from a spool.

"Suiton: Suiben!" (Water Release: Water Whip) Shibuki shouted while the length of water coiled around him before whipping out with lightning speed and precision.

Falling in line of the incoming attack, Suien gave a frustrated snarl and dashed to the right, quickly dodging the whip that slammed into the lake around him as his young opponent lashed at him with it repeatedly. The stream of water struck this way and that, before attempting to blindside him and catch him in the ribs. Reacting quickly, the Jonin managed to avoid it and, crouching down on top of the water, flew through hand seals before beginning to chuck his hands forward.

"Suiton: Mizu Kamikiri Rendan!" (Water Release: Rising Water Slicer Shots) At the same time as he struck out, blades of water began flying out from the lake around him and towards Shibuki in a salvo. The crescent shaped blades of water followed a straight, almost arrow like path towards their target, threatening to cut him to ribbons one after the other should they make their marks.

Gritting his teeth at the incoming onslaught, Shibuki responded immediately by raising his hand and throwing it towards the lake in front of him. As if on cue, a large explosion occurred directly in front of him, sending up a wall of water that stood between him and the barrage of water blades, which quickly began slicing the blast of perspiration apart. The offensive shots tore into the wall of falling water, cutting it and the mist away and giving Suien a moment of pause.

Stopping his attack, the enemy ninja remained crouched in place glaring across at the spot where he believed his student to be, and narrowed his eyes when he saw the air clear and saw that he was no longer there.

"This is getting frustrating," Suien thought while making a spitting noise. He never suspected Shibuki to have become this strong over the last few months, going into a year now. The boy had certainly improved since the last time he'd seen him. He was no longer the one-dimensional fighter using the same direct approaches and retreats he did before when he was on the learner's trek. The kid had actually gotten good at holding his own in combat against a supposedly superior foe. As much as Suien prided himself on his own abilities to take on several opponents at once, his student had seemed to have added a few more tricks and skills to his resume.

Confidence, elusiveness, stamina and speed appear to be the prevailing factors.

Eyes cutting across the field, Suien then looked behind him sharply and leapt forward, avoiding the two kunai pitched at his back before returning fire with one of his own while flipping through the air. His knife was knocked out of the air by another held by Shibuki, who was in the process of clambering out of the water he'd submerged himself in to pull that fast one over his opponent. Once both ninja were back on the surface of the lake, the two glared each other down, at the same time breathing out a sigh of exhaustion.

"Master's fighting prowess is exactly the same as I remember it," Shibuki thought, brushing the water off of his face and resting his arm over his knee. "Strong, sharp and fast… just like a shinobi should be." His frown deepened when he recalled his memories as the man's student and how much fun he used to have under him. Back then, Suien was a completely different person, always smiling, laughing and making jokes. But the ninja standing before him now was not the same teacher he'd come to idolize, at least… not in character. The man had become cold, cruel, ruthless and sadistic, unafraid to put others in harm's way to get what he wanted. This was just a shadow of his former teacher, a demon forged by all the ill influences of his life. "I still don't understand why you left us."

Suien chuckled and stepped forward, "Everyone wants more out of life, Shibuki. Those with the strength to achieve greatness will do whatever it takes to climb to the top of the food chain."

"But strength achieved through short cuts isn't worth anything," the Chunin replied, clearly in reference to his village's sacred artifact that he currently had in his possession. "Real strength is achieved through hard work, pain and time. It's something that my father and Fu-chan taught me."

"Well, your old man is a fool for thinking that."

"You're wrong," Shibuki shot back, jumping to his feet. "My father is a great man… much greater than this thing that I see standing before me."

Suien balked before snarling, "What was that?"

"You heard me!" Shibuki said in volume, slamming his hands together and beginning to fly through seals one after the other in a blur. The speed at which he exerted each sign had his teacher grit his teeth in annoyance. "The Suien I once knew was a great shinobi from Takigakure, who put the safety and wellbeing of his village and its people before himself. He taught us many great things and would have sacrificed everything to keep us safe from danger. But that man is long gone, and now all that stands in his place is the one and only mistake he's ever made." The moment Shibuki finished flying through seals, the water behind him started to churn and ripple, with waves forming and crashing together, growing steadily in size till the undulating water came to tower over him. "I will not let you harm another living soul, not as long as there is breath in my body and strength in my arms! Suiton: Suiryūdan no Jutsu!" (Water Release: Water Dragon Bullet Technique)

In an epic show of force and power, the lake behind the Chunin erupted in the form of a twisting pillar of spinning water, which warped and swelled as it came to stand ten stories above the pool's surface. This mass then quickly took on shape and form, the tower of aqua transforming into a snake-like dragon with glowing yellow eyes, whereupon it let out a bellowing roar that sent ripples across the lake in all directions. The force of its howl had Suien cover up and the stunned villagers watching from the shoreline look on in awe.

Growling, Suien then began flying through hand seals of his own, "Don't get conceited brat. I may have taught you a lot about being a shinobi, but there are still many things you have yet to learn." He then finished and grinned. "For starters, never take me on in my element! Suiton: Suiryūdan no Jutsu!" (Water Release: Water Dragon Bullet Technique)

Another enormous water dragon leapt out of the lake, this time behind the rogue ninja, letting out a bellow that shook the area before the serpent rounded on its rival hovering just several yards away. The two dragons leering at each other with eyes blazing the fire of life, the two attacks then charged each other down, uncoiling through the air before, with concussive force, the two collided with the other above the lake's surface, sending a shockwave out in all directions. The water release attacks drilled into one another in a tug-of-war match between two strong water release users, with Suien grinning all the while and Shibuki holding his ground with his game face on.

Both adversaries holding a hand seal, the young Chunin on his end looked to his left across the lake, where he saw another explosion erupt a great distance away from them somewhere in the deeper parts of the area. Seeing the fiery blast fill the air, the boy could only grit his teeth in frustration, as he was unable to do anything about that due to having to face his former teacher.

"Come on Fu… you can beat him. I know you can," the boy thought, placing his full confidence on his friend.

Even so, the girl was still going up against one of the former members of the Seven Ninja Swordsmen of the Mist; one of the strongest shinobi Kirigakure has ever produced. That fact alone was enough to make him worry as his fight raged on.

OOO

(With Fu)

An explosion occurring in the water and sending a massive wave several meters high in all directions, the mint haired jinchuriki responded immediately to the incoming attack by turning heel and getting the hell out of range as fast as she could.

Dashing across the lake in a green blur, Fu avoided most of the enormous wall crashing down on top of her and barreled to a stop in time to see it settle, the remnants of it washing against her ankles when she held her new position and looked back towards the pillar of mist and smoke rising from the point of combustion. Waiting it literally block out the sky above them, casting a shadow over the entire region inside of Takigakure, the green haired kunoichi could only search the area from a distance and try and find her opponent.

"Damn it," the heavily damaged girl thought desperately while grinding her teeth in frustration. "I guess his swordsmanship title and that massive… thing he carries around with him isn't just for show." This man was far more powerful than any other person she'd ever encountered and her prolonged battle with him was costing her big time.

The moment their fight was underway and the two charged at each other to meet in the center, the swordsman began bombarding Fu with explosive after explosive. Despite his average size, frame and the supposedly weighted weapon he was lugging around on his back, the man was incredibly nimble and was easily able to keep pace with the jinchuriki. He wielded the blade with great speed and precision, not to mention with a single hand. This showed that he wasn't just fast but physically strong to boot, and Fu was feeling the strain from engaging the man in repeated, on and off close quarter sessions that almost always saw her taking a hit at the end of them.

Their entire engagement thus far had been contested at middle range, where the rogue swordsman just kept hurling paper bombs her way. After fighting him for well over half an hour now, the girl had come to the conclusion that using explosives and bombs was part of his fighting style.

It was an integral part of his primary weapon too. As it turns out, the massive sword on his back Splash, otherwise known as the Blast Sword and one of the legendary weapons wielded by the Seven Ninja Swordsmen of the Mist, was capable of producing explosives tags along the platform length of its blade opposite its cutting edge. Every time Jinpachi struck with that end, the explosives would detonate on impact or command, blasting apart anything in the immediate direction and vicinity of the strike. The paper bombs would then automatically be reloaded along the length of the sword, an amount that was apparently infinite in quantity.

"The guy just keeps coming after me," Fu growled, wiping the blood running down from the corner of her mouth away before crouching lower to the lake's surface. "This is getting ridiculous."

Unfortunately, she didn't have much time to dawn on the issue of her relentless adversary, as the jinchuriki's senses were prematurely drawn to the lake directly beneath her. Responding in alarm, the mint haired kunoichi leapt into the air as high as she could, avoiding a stream of paper bombs that unexpectedly floated up to the surface in an attempt to wrap around her, before the several dozen slips all went up in flames. Seconds later, another great explosion enveloped the entire area of water, sending a blast of water and fire into the air. In spite of managing to avoid getting caught by the seemingly sentient weapons, Fu still managed to get wrapped up in the blast radius and sent spiraling through the air.

It would be several stories later that the girl eventually regained control of her flight and, upon sprouting a pair of wings, suspended herself in the sky.

World spinning in a haze, the girl shook her head to clear her senses. "Damn… that was close." The reverberation of the 'boom' ringing in her ears, the girl hovered in place and attempted to seek out her foe from above. When she saw the smoke and waves die from the explosion that would have done way more damage to her had she not moved when she did, she saw that the entire area was devoid of life. Completely ignoring Shibuki and Suien's fight going over on the other side of the lake closer to the island, Fu focused her attention on the water's depths. "Where the hell is he?"

It was a good question, and one that her opponent was more than happy to answer.

While Fu had her back turned, several stories down on the lake below, a collection of water rose up from the surface and formed into the shape of a person. Once the outline was complete, color returned to the figure to reveal a slightly banged up Jinpachi standing there with a smirk on his face and one eye fixed on his airborne opponent. As soon as he'd surfaced from using the Hiding in Water Technique, the rogue swordsman reached behind him, drew a cluster of shuriken, and chucked them straight up at his opponent hovering plain in sight.

When it seemed like the projectiles would hit however, the girl suddenly disappeared in a green blur, shooting off to the side to avoid the hail of deadly ninja stars. When she reappeared, she materialized at low altitude directly above the lake and flew straight towards the swordsman like a rocket, her wings beating like a hummingbird's with a low hum filling the air.

"BUSTED!" Fu shouted, tearing a trench through the waves and cranking her right fist forward as she closed in on her enemy, who responded to her approach by drawing the enormous sword from his back.

Taking up the massive weapon in two hands, Jinpachi swung at his opponent with the cutting edge, aiming to slice her in two before she even reached him. However, his swing came in too little, too late, as the girl plowed her fist straight into his face and knocked him off of his feet. But when a shockwave sound was expected to ring out from the impact of the attack, the kunoichi only heard a loud 'splash' and felt the cold sensation of wetness ripple over her when her opponent suddenly transformed into water.

"A Mizu Bunshin?!" Fu thought in alarm while she was halfway through the dispelling clone, only to realize the full extent of her blunder when she felt something else run over her face and body. Looking down at her chest, she saw that a collection of paper bombs had been hidden inside of the clone and had now spread across her. The sparks of their tips igniting was the only warning she got before they all detonated at once, a fireball enveloping her in an enormous, concussive blast.

The 'bang' of the dozen paper tags going off sent another wave washing out in all directions, with a brief flash of fire lighting up the center and filling the air with smoke. The force of the blast sent Fu hurling out of the epicenter of the calamity trailing fumes and flames, her body tumbling and bouncing across the lake a great distance before crashing into the lake and vanishing into it. She was gone in a splash, allowing the aftermath of the explosion to settle.

A minute or so later, the jinchuriki hit by the attack waded onto the shore, digging her fingernails into the soggy ground, panting and shaking her mental self out of the daze of the blast. Scolded, burnt and all manner of banged up, Fu looked about momentarily to regain her bearings before eventually turning and staring out over the now still lake.

"Shit… that was too damn close," the girl thought, expressing a small manner of relief at her continued existence. "I'm so glad that those tags came out of a water clone. The conditions were able to dull the explosion." Thanks to the chakra imbued water, it made the original makeup of the clone thick and heavy, and cushioned the shockwave. There'd also been a significant lag in the blast and the fire wasn't as effective as it would have been on dry land. It'd given Fu enough time to brace against the flames before she was sent rocketing off in some random direction.

However, the mint haired teen was willing to bet that that explosion wasn't meant to kill her. No, her opponent was having far too much fun with her to let it end so easily.

Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, the girl slammed a fist into the ground and pushed herself up onto her knees. The moment she did, she saw her opponent rise out of the shallow water directly in front of her like a phantom, before coming to stand on it with his sword held at his side.

Scoffing at the sight of the charred and severely burnt girl, Jinpachi spun his enormous blade and propped it against his shoulder. "Boy. You're a tough one, kid. A hell of a lot tougher than that sorry bunch I fought with earlier. You're actually giving me a great deal of trouble here." He then picked at a series of deep cuts in his shoulder, which had actually managed to rip his sleeve clean off and get through to his skin. Fingering the marks and taking note of his teeth-shaped entry wounds, the man grunted and turned to the girl again. "But I guess that's to be expected, considering what you are."

Fu spat to the side and glared distastefully, "Even if I didn't have my Seven-Winged friend inside of me, I'd still be trying to clean your clock right now."

"I'll bet you would be," Jinpachi chuckled, bringing his enormous blade about and stepping forward. Wallowing further into the shallows, he stopped several feet from the girl and raised the tip of his menacing weapon at her. "However, you're still too reckless and far too direct to go toe to toe with me. Even though you're a strong fighter, definitely worthy of whatever rank you've managed to attain as a kunoichi, there's much more to being a shinobi than hardheadedness and grit. You have to be smart… and know how to fight your enemy. Not everyone fights the same way as each other."

This had the girl smirk and nod upwards toward the older shinobi, "You don't need to tell me that. I know exactly how to deal with war dogs like you. Even though you're carrying around such a heavy piece of artillery, you're pretty damn good for an old man."

The swordsman frowned at the girl's remark and raised his sword ever so slightly, taking a moment to stare at her before continuing. "I'll admit it's been a blast fighting you this past hour. Though I usually like to play around with my food and watch it squirm underneath my heel, a lot of my opponents die right from the get-go without putting up any kind of resistance. Maybe that's because I'm so overwhelmingly powerful… or that I'm just too good at my job." He then narrowed his eyes and cracked some more explosive tags along the base of his blade, which extended and began to spark. "In any case, I think I've eaten my fill in this one. We're done here."

The mint haired Fu, managing to recover from being smacked around, chuckled at his glare and boldly stared back at him as she tried to push herself up, "Getting right to it? I like that." The girl grinned at him childishly as she prepared to make her escape. "You'd better not miss on the first swing… otherwise you're going to regret it."

Jinpachi scoffed, "I doubt it." He then raised his sword to drop down right on top of the girl.

That is… until a series of dull thuds rang out and the man reeled forward with a cry of agony. Reaching for his neck where one of the kunai had landed and buried itself, Jinpachi then leapt back as fast as he could when Naruto exploded out of the shallows beside him and attempted to drill a kunai right into the side of his head. Managing to avoid the initial swing, the swordsman jumped again, but overshot his leap and ended up tripping over his own feet, bouncing across the mud and shoreline before tumbling to a painful stop several yards away. Rolling onto his feet, the rogue ninja growled in anger and pain, and started individually pulling the kunai out from his back.

"Fuck! Where the hell did that brat come from?!" Putting distance between him and his enemy, while at the same time keeping a close eye on them, Jinpachi went on to catching his breath at the same time as his adversaries, giving everyone a moment of reprieve.

Skidding to a stop, a thoroughly beaten, exhausted and wet Naruto panted heavily and looked down at the surprised Fu kneeling beside him. At that exact moment, several shadow clones came to land all around him, before each of them dispelled one after the other, giving their master a few seconds to wipe his arm over his face and focus upon his shaken friend from Takigakure.

"Damn, this place wasn't easy to find. Good thing I asked Mikuru-chan for directions," the boy said while extending a hand to Fu. "Are you alright."

The mint haired kunoichi stared silently at the boy for a moment, looking like she'd just seen a ghost, before eventually accepting his gesture. Getting pulled to her feet, Fu looked the thoroughly ruined boy over, "W-What happened to you, Naruto-kun? Why are you all beaten up?"

Breathing out, the blonde pointed over his shoulder, "I was attacked in the woods outside of your village by these two freaky looking guys working for Orochimaru. I would have beaten them easily if they didn't know all of my tricks and abilities. They were able to counter me at every turn and spent the better part of the last hour beating the stuffing out of me. I'd have been carted off to Otogakure if it hadn't been for old fuzz-ball in here." He slapped himself in the gut gratefully.

Fu blinked in surprise, "So that's what those two presences I felt earlier today were." She then frowned when she ran it through her head a few times. "No wonder they smelt so foul. I could practically feel them staring at me from wherever they were hiding. So they chased after you?"

"Yeah… and they apparently wanted to bring me back with them too," Naruto answered and shook his head. "There's no way in hell I was going to let that happen. I'd rather die than be turned into some stinking lab rat."

Smiling at his tone, Fu then balked a little and stared at him again. "Wait a second. We left you back at the base of the waterfall and went our separate ways. How did you find your way into our village?" Fair question. No one had ever successfully infiltrated their village before, at least not before today. There hasn't been a shinobi outside of Takigakure that had been able to enter their territory and look upon their little community without receiving a thorough lashing at the entrance. This place was next to inaccessible, save for a handful of tunnels. So how did Naruto manage to find them when hundreds of other shinobi before him have tried and failed?

Recapping briefly on his search, the boy grinned and held out his finger, allowing a small finch flying circles overhead to land on his extended digit before he pointed down into the lake. "It's called the Village Hidden by a Waterfall for a reason, right? Sometimes the best way to find something is to either follow your instincts," he then pointed at the bird resting on him, "or ask for directions." He then made a climbing gesture with his fingers, showing how he'd made the vertical ascent into their other, less used 'entrance'.

Or at least from his point of view. For others, it was more like an exit.

Fu blinked at him again, "You found your own way in?"

"Yep. There was a cave entrance behind the waterfall about ten stories up that was big enough for a small child to fit through. It was a good thing I'm so flexible otherwise I never would have made it in. There was a small colony of finches living in there too." Naruto then added to this by coughing out a few feathers he'd swallowed from clambering through the dozens of nests before grinning wryly at his fellow jinchuriki, who stifled an amused giggle.

After thanking his newfound finch friend and bidding her farewell, the blonde then focused his complete and utter attention back on the swordsman he'd nailed and watched the man get up from a distance. "Anyhow, I think I've rested up long enough. Problems?"

"Oh yeah… big time," the kunoichi chirped while limping forward, something that Naruto noticed and took a few seconds to look the girl over for. "Watch out. This guy is ridiculously strong. He may not look it, but he's powerful… and really knows how to move in this terrain."

"Who is he anyway?" Naruto asked, glancing briefly to the left at the tug-of-war match of water dragons between Suien and Shibuki across the way, before fixing his sights back onto Jinpachi, who was right now yanking the kunai that remained out of his upper back. "He's obviously working with the guy fighting your friend… but he's wearing the headband of a Kirigakure ninja. What beef does the hidden mist have with this place?" He thought Konoha and their allies were on good terms with that village. That's what the old man Hokage said to him last time they met.

"Well, that's easy. He's a rogue ninja who's getting by working as a hired hand," Fu answered, her expression becoming more serious. "Not only that, but he's also a former member of the Seven Ninja Swordsmen of the Mist." Taking a stance, the girl ignored the slight recoil in her friend's expression and just kept all her attention focused on the enemy.

"Seven Ninja… Swordsmen-" Naruto murmured before his eyes completely widened and he gazed across at the bearded man in shock. "Oh shit… so… he's just like… Zabuza Momochi? Right?"

"Yeah. That's right," Fu replied, glancing at the boy briefly in surprise. "Wait. You know the guy?"

"I met him in the Land of Waves along with his apprentice, and became friends with them. He'd left the hidden mist a long time ago during one of their wars and spent the last few months working for a guy named Gato, but was killed in a fight against a silver haired, immortal bastard carrying a scythe," Naruto replied and gave the man an intent stare. "So… he's from where Zabuza came from?"

Shaking his head of the damage and biting back the pain, Jinpachi looked across the several yards of space towards the newcomer and narrowed his eyes dangerously. "Another one? Where in the… hang on a minute! Isn't he that kid? The one those two were supposed to take care of? Why is he here?" the swordsman asked, before his brain eventually worked out what may have happened and gritted his teeth, ignoring the blood dripping down from the corner of his mouth. "So… they fucked up. They couldn't kill him."

That was a surprise. From the way those two Oto guys had spoken to him before with such confidence, he figured that the pair were quite strong. Knowing that they were working for one of the Three Legendary Sannin, Orochimaru, he'd assumed that any subordinate working under that snake was at least competent. However, seeing their target standing before him and seeing that his former associates were nowhere in sight, made Jinpachi believe that most of the things they'd probably said to him were just talk.

If not, then this kid that they were supposed to have rubbed out was a lot stronger than they'd previously anticipated. Either way it made his job of fighting these lowlifes a lot more difficult than he'd initially hoped.

Managing to regain his sense of balance, the swordsman huffed and faced his now two opponents, "It looks like you managed to fight your way out of your little dilemma," Jinpachi said with a smirk. "Impressive."

Naruto frowned, "So… you guys really were working together." His displeasure increased when he saw the disgusting grin thrown his way. "Well, isn't that just fun?"

"You got out of a fight against two of Orochimaru's elites. That's a good effort, considering you were outnumbered and matched against an enemy force that knew exactly how to fight and bring you down. However… it's not like you'd been able to emerge completely unscathed," Jinpachi said. He took a moment to look him over, noting the number of wounds and bruises that had been inflicted upon him in his scrap. "It looks like those two had put you through hell."

"Funny. I almost ended up on a one-way trip there," Naruto shot back.

"Regardless… even though you managed to dodge the metaphorical arrow, you've now fallen into my line of sight," the swordsman continued with a hard gaze, taking a stance and preparing to set off. The older man surveyed his young targets and chuckled excitedly. "Unlike those two mongrels, I'm no amateur, and I'm not near foolish enough to fall for the same tricks twice. I'll be sure to finish off their half-assed work and blast you into the next world."

Tensing up, Naruto then skipped on the spot and dropped into another stance, bringing his hands up and glaring, "I'd like to see you try, bastard." He was still pissed from the shit he'd heard spouted by the younger brother of the Sakon/Ukon pair and still hurting from his fight. This was more than enough to give him the adrenaline boost he needed to put an end to this battle.

Even though he was half-past dead before, his sudden transformation into his three-tailed mode had managed to heal over the most serious of his wounds and plug up the massive holes that had been punched into him by his opponents. In spite of his exhaustion, he was still good for another round.

Seeing Naruto was pumped up like she was, Fu smiled at him before frowning when they saw their opponent also prepare for a charge. "Be careful, Naruto-kun. This guy is really strong for his size and has a ton of explosives under his belt… and he's really good at using both. You see that sword he's carrying?" She nodded towards it, drawing the jinchuriki's gaze to the larger than average cleaver. "That thing has a cutting edge on one side and cycles through explosive tags on the other that he uses to increase his range and power. If he hits you with the latter, it's game over in one shot."

"So basically… dodge when he swings?"

"Yeah. Duck, jump, sway, run like hell… whatever you do, just don't block. Believe me, I found that fact out the hard way," Fu replied with absolute certainty in her voice.

"Alright. Good to know. Thanks," Naruto nodded, flexing his hands and widening his feet. "If I remember correctly, the Seven Ninja Swordsmen use their weapons like they don't weigh a thing. Even though that blade of his is massive, I'll bet he can wield it like any ordinary kunai or sword. How are we going to get past something like that?"

"Here, I'll show you," Fu stated, flying through hand seals before reeling forward. "Stay behind me so you won't get hit. Hiden: Rinpungakure no Jutsu!" (Secret: Hiding in Scale Powder Technique) She then cracked open her mouth and began spewing out a cloud of what Naruto initially believed were spores. However, what she did expel was a large quantity of fine powder, which flooded towards the swordsman in a wave, who then looked around at the dust in momentary bewilderment.

Then, all at once, the powders lit up in a flash of blinding white light, which pretty much hit the entire area around the lakeside all of them were positioned on. Simultaneous shouts rang out from the victims of the attack, an effect which lasted for a good long minute, before the sounds of dull thuds rang out, followed by the sight of two bodies flying out of the veil and hitting the ground and shallows. Kicking up water and dust as they tumbled to a stop, both Naruto and Fu ended up lying flat on their backs and looking up at the sky in a daze.

Groaning and rubbing her chin, Fu glared up through bloody teeth and spat out a tooth. Not caring at barely being able to block the punch thrown at her, seeing as how she would easily be able to grow back her mauler, she then looked towards the area both she and her partner had previously been standing in. "Geez. What the hell just happened?"

Wondering that very same thing himself, Naruto also looked up at the blinding white cloud floating across the way, where they then saw the form of their sword wielding opponent cut through the wall and come to stand clearly before them. The grin he wore showed how unaffected he'd been by the flash bang, which had the youngsters questioning how he'd been able to get them, until realization struck the blonde.

Clenching his jaw, the boy rubbed the bruise on his forearm from blocking the kick he'd been able to telegraph in the mist and stared hard at the swordsman, "I can't believe I forgot about that. All of the Seven Ninja Swordsmen are masters of the Silent Killing technique." He remembered from what Zabuza and Haku had told him back in Wave, which had the blonde curse his stupidity at not being able to remember that important detail and warning Fu about it prior to the start of their second round.

Apparently even the mint haired girl had forgotten that fact and bounced her fist off of her forehead. "Ah shit. Of course blinding him wouldn't work. I'm such an idiot. Jonin from the hidden mist don't need their eyes to see their opponents. They've trained their other senses to do that for them."

"Well then, I guess that rules out trying to take pot shots at his blind spots and trying to disorientate his senses using flash bangs. I don't think we can outsmart him either, since anything we can possibly do to attack him with his guard down won't work, and I used up all of my poisons trying to take down Sakon and his partner," Naruto said, remembering how his previous opponents had showed a strong immunity to his toxic gases and weapons, before pushing himself to his knee when they saw their opponent strolling towards them with that arrogant grin on his face. It had the two teenagers grit their teeth and take up defensive positions on the ground. "We can't beat him using subtle tactics or sneak around. We have to attack him hard and fast, and get him from all sides at once."

Fu grinned, "Oh. So we're going to do this the fun way then?"

Naruto smirked, "That's the idea. Do you think you can keep up with me, Fu-chan?" Now that he was going up against an opponent who didn't know a single thing about him or how to stop him, he felt like he could completely cut loose now, and show exactly how strong he really was.

"Heh. We'll see who's trying to keep up with whom," the green haired girl stated, sprouting a pair of wings from her back and starting to beat them hard. Kicking up dust behind them, the kunoichi stood. "I'll hit him high, you hit him low."

"Alright. Let's do this!" the jinchuriki shouted, also rising and crouching low.

As soon as both kids were on their feet, the blonde went right and Fu went left, before both vanished in their respective colored blurs. The sight of the kids disappearing from directly in front of him had Jinpachi grin and his one good eye cut around quickly. Following the two flashes across the field aiming to flank him, the man swung his sword around and forward.

"So you kids are finally starting to take me seriously? Very well then!" Spinning his sword above his head, the man then did something completely unexpected and unfurled a whole line of explosive tags. Like a sheet, the line of paper bombs trailed through the air in an enormous arc, before beginning to spin and twist, surrounding him on all sides. "I'll destroy you both!" He then flung the sheet of explosive tags outwards like a wave, the wall of thin paper spreading over the area before separate parts of it ignited all at once. "Bakutō Jutsu: Happa Rokujūshi!" (Blastsword Technique: Blasting Bridle Repeating)

A chain of explosions then encompassed the entire area, hammering the lake and shore with concussive blasts that tore the place asunder. Fire and smoke choked the air, attempting to knock whatever was traveling in range of the shockwaves out of the time space they'd entered and back into the real world, preferably in many pieces. The series of fireballs linked into one ring when the tags were used up, flashing the area and attempting to nail the fast-moving jinchuriki.

Jinpachi figured he'd gotten his targets, grinning proudly at the destruction he'd brought, before he suddenly picked up a series of footsteps approaching from behind and glanced over his shoulder in surprise. When he did, he saw Fu break out of the cloud of black smoke and fly right at him, before being joined by a platoon of Naruto shadow clones emerging from the smoke all over. Filling the air at ground level and above, the legion of doppelgangers all yelled out at once and launched a barrage of shuriken and Hien rounds towards the man, hoping to box him in.

Reacting quickly, the swordsman brought his sword around, blocking the first barrage of blades before dodging the simultaneous wind bullets fired at him. Managing to avoid the invisible rounds that hammered the lake surface, the smirking shinobi then focused his attention on the still approaching Fu and attempted to clothesline her with his blade, only for the girl to sail directly under it and cause the man to miss big time. Attempting to come around and nail her while she was passing, Jinpachi spun with the swing of his weapon, only to have to deal with the onslaught of shadow clones that began to descend upon him one after the other.

Naruto and his copies started attacking from all sides at close range, running circles around the swordsman at the same time he began cutting them down with his enormous blade. Both shinobi executed superb tact and agility, with the rogue adult in the middle fending off the army of copies with elaborate swings of his blade to defend himself from all of his flanks while his adversary confused him with a continuous assault, using his superior numbers to upset the man's fighting style. While some copies got some descent shots in and managed to bury a kunai in different parts of his body, the swordsman managed to rid himself of the annoyances by slamming his platform side of his sword into an incoming clone before unleashing a chain of explosions in a swing that took out a whole platoon of them.

The shockwave was enough to send whatever remaining clones were still standing away and bouncing across the water, dispelling all of them while the original stopped and looked up in frustration.

Chuckling, Jinpachi swung his sword out to his side and charged in. Dragging the tip of his weapon through the water and kicking up a spray, the bearded shinobi lunged in at the jinchuriki with a series of swift, wide attacks, which Naruto swayed, ducked and leapt around. Weaving around a stabbing motion and ducking a decapitating strike, the blonde looked up to see the Jonin raise his sword up before swinging down at him with a downward blow. Reacting fast, the jinchuriki vanished in an orange blur, zapping behind the man in time to see his sword crash into the water's surface with a splash, giving him the perfect opening for a strike.

Spinning around, Naruto cocked his hand and thrust it forward for a palm strike, right for the man's lower back. "Got you!" He closed in on his target.

However, expecting a counterattack from behind, Jinpachi used the momentum from his last swing to plow his sword straight through the water and spin him around, where he then struck towards the approaching Naruto.

It was a simultaneous attack from both fighters. Unfortunately for Jinpachi, his swing came in too late, as the blonde jinchuriki was able to sway right under his sword and strike him full in the chest with his hand. The second he did so, a wind ejection point exploded directly from the center of his opponent, the sudden blast causing a sonic boom to ring out before the man was lifted off his feet and sent spiraling across the lake. Cart wheeling and bouncing across the water, the swordsman eventually crashed into the shore.

When the dust eventually settled and Naruto was hoping to see their enemy either unconscious or dead in a crater of his own design, the blonde was disappointed when he saw a battered log lying in the place of the man. Eyes widening somewhat, the boy stared ahead of him momentarily before glaring over his shoulder. "A replacement. So he was waiting for me to get his back?" When his gaze snapped behind him, he saw Jinpachi materialize out of water. Upon emerging from the lake in the blink of an eye, the man swung at him with a diagonal slash, only for the blonde to leap backwards out of reach and avoid the enormous blade from either cutting him in half or blasting him into oblivion. Gritting his teeth, the jinchuriki narrowed his gaze. "Damn it! Even though I'm more agile than this guy, he's still insanely quick!"

Managing to land, Naruto leapt forward again to attack his opponent, only to receive a spin kick to the stomach that sent him off his feet and into the lake. The blonde let out a shout of pain as he was sent rolling into the water, where he vanished with a splash beneath the glistening pool.

Laughing, Jinpachi spun his sword in a single handed grip and held it above his head. "The second you surface, I'm going to incinerate you!" the man bellowed out, his one eye searching the area around him carefully for the blonde until a loud hum from behind caught him by surprise. Turning, he saw Fu drop down from the sky and charge at him at speed, her wings beating furiously as she drove a kunai straight into him, only for the man to hastily block with the bladed side of his weapon and be driven sliding away across the water from the force of the impact.

"You've still got me to worry about, oji-chan!" Fu shouted, before beginning to mercilessly drive into the swordsman with swings and stabs of her duel weapons. Her kunai strikes powered by the momentum of her flight, the girl was able to knock the man staggering with every blow he blocked, driving him across the lake and kicking up water with their engagement.

Having his balance broken by the first attack, Jinpachi attempted to reestablish a proper stance, only to find his feet knocked out from under him by his persistent foe. He was smacked sliding over the stretch of lake, kicking up a spray of water as Fu lashed at him with repeated and continuous blows. Sparks flew when he clumsily held his blade up, hand on the handle and the other on the back of his sword as he tried to fend her off, but was pushed further and further away at an alarming rate.

Eventually, the attacking Fu managed to smash her opponent's blade out of the way, the swordsman stumbling with a shocked look coming across his face when his adversary plowed through his defense. In that moment, the mint haired jinchuriki seized the opportunity presented to her and lunged in for a final blow, a yell escaping her lips as she swung in with her knife.

Spotting an opening in his target bearing down on him, Jinpachi gave a cocky smirk before performing another unorthodox maneuver. With the exploding pad of his sword pointed back and away from having his guard broken by his adversary, the man used his disadvantageous position to take his opponent by surprise, and set off the explosive tags lining the platform. The kick from the tags going off simultaneously knocked his blade forward again in a swift and explosive counterattack, swinging it towards his enemy at speed and, at the same time, bringing him back into the game.

The maneuver stunned Fu, prompting the girl to stop her attack midway and bring her two kunai up to block. She barely managed to defend against the enormous cutting edge slamming into her guard, which knocked her flying across the lake with a loud 'clang' ringing out. A shout escaped her lips when she crashed into the water, vanishing moments later in a splash.

"I keep telling you… you're too reckless," Jinpachi shouted, bringing his smoking weapon out to the side, "You won't beat me by being reckless!"

Just as the man was feeling comfortable with his advantage, a pair of hands suddenly jumped out of the water beneath him and grabbed him by the ankles. Caught completely by surprise, the swordsman looked down in shock, where he saw the distinct face of a still alive and well Naruto Uzumaki pop out of the lake and grin at him. The second he did so, the blonde's expression then became serious.

"How about creative?"

Recoiling in shock, the only response Jinpachi gave was a sudden shout of shock when he was pulled straight into the water. The suction was so great a pillar of water shot straight into the air and settled seconds later, leaving barely a ripple in the pool's surface. After several moments of complete and utter silence, the water then exploded upwards and a chain of over four dozen Naruto shadow clones began to spiral through the air, with their swordsman opponent attached to the end of it.

Spinning around in circles like a whip several stories above the ground, awing the nearby villagers at the display of strength and dexterity, the original Naruto holding the other end of the chain then bellowed out as he changed the rotation pattern and pulled sharply to the side, hurling the whip end towards the enormous tree on the center island.

"Try this! Bunshin Kusari Nagenawa!" (Clone Chain Lasso) Naruto hollered before ramming the end of the weapon straight into the tree.

The impact of Jinpachi's body was marked by a loud crack ringing out across the entire village, causing the villagers watching to cringe. Upon burying their victim into the thick of the trunk, the chain of shadow clones holding onto the man's feet then released him, with the entire platoon going up into puffs of smoke. The dispelling copies eventually bled down to the original Naruto, who crouched upon the lake and panted heavily at the energy he exerted performing that move.

Sweating, the boy looked up at the tree and frowned, where he saw the dust clear and Jinpachi step out of the hole he'd formed.

Bleeding from the head and covered in splinters, the man growled and yanked his sword out with him. "Damn you!"

Clicking his tongue, Naruto stepped forward, before his body vanished in an orange flash. His sudden take off was marked by a spray of water, indicating the direction he was traveling, a sight that had Jinpachi balk in shock.

"Fast!" Leaping out of the way, the man barely avoided the orange dart that slammed into the area of trunk he was previously in, a blast of dust and debris kicking up from the boy ramming a kick straight into the wooden surface. Upon dodging his ridiculously quick opponent, the swordsman ran down the side of the trunk before leaping out across the lake. His jump was long and far-reaching, managing to get him all the way out to the middle of the water where he then landed safely on the glistening stillness.

Rising from his crouched position, Jinpachi glared back up at the tree, where he saw Naruto standing against the trunk and glaring down at him.

Frown deepening, the swordsman spat out the blood from his mouth, "What a pest." He then leapt away to avoid the shadow that fell upon him and moved just in time to see Fu dive straight down at him from above, crashing into the water with an enormous splash. Skating backwards, the swordsman grinned. "Nice try. But like I told you, I won't fall for the same tricks twice!" Spinning his sword, the man then swung his sword down in time to intercept the water beneath him exploding upwards and Fu lunging up at him, kunai first.

A loud clang rang out when the girl collided with his sword, sparks flying when she then flew off. Coming around in a sweeping arc, the girl began a continuous onslaught of hit and run attacks, where she would ram into the man with a single hit and trade blows with him, before shooting off again in flight and getting some distance so as to possibly avoid any fatal counterattacks he had waiting for her.

Fu circled him persistently, hitting the rogue from all sides repeatedly and tirelessly causing sparks to fly as the pair traded shots. The attack frustrated Jinpachi completely, especially when his other opponent also joined in, materializing out of the air behind him and swinging in with his blade.

The two jinchuriki began attacking the swordsman from all sides, forcing him to fight at his absolute best in close combat to try and shake them off.

Ducking a swing from his sword, Naruto dove at him with two body blows. His hits rang out on impact, causing the swordsman to reel forward in shock before countering with another swing of his heavy blade. Skipping on the spot, the jinchuriki flashed away and reappeared directly behind him using his untraceable speed. With Jinpachi losing sight of the blonde, he was then forced to block a hit from Fu ramming into him from the front, the girl growling as she ground her kunai into his weapon before flipping over him and kicking him in the back, sending him stumbling forward.

Frustrated, Jinpachi let out a roar and sent another swing behind him, only for Naruto to spring off of his blade when it passed and rammed a knee right into his face. This blow cocked the man's head back with blood flying from his mouth, before a sharp sting in his front had the Jonin bend over forward when Fu came in immediately after Naruto and buried her blade into his stomach. The two hits staggered the man who, after biting back the pain, countered with a kick straight towards the mint haired jinchuriki, who flew off before his blow could land.

Managing to pass Jinpachi, Naruto stood behind him while Fu hovered on the other side, forcing the swordsman to split his attention between the two.

After seeing them stop, the hidden mist ninja then spat out the blood in his mouth again and yanked the knife buried in his abdominals out as well. Upon tossing it into the water, he sheathed his sword onto his back and flew through hand seals. "You brats have been trying my patience long enough! I'm wiping all of you out right here and now!" Ending on the dragon sea, Jinpachi then threw his hand straight up into the air above him, and grinned when he saw the two teenagers react defensively. "Let's see you dodge this! Suiton: Suiryūben!" (Water Release: Water Dragon Whip)

All of a sudden, the lake around both Naruto and Fu began to kick up, with massive waves blasting outwards that smacked into the blonde haired jinchuriki and sent him barreling across the now churning water. The mint haired girl however had to avoid a wall of water that suddenly exploded up around Jinpachi and began to twist around him, before the lake he summoned formed into an enormous orb of water that he then held above him. The flying kunoichi eyed the undulating sphere with concern when it spun and turned, as if it had a life of its own.

However, the technique being used was not sentient, as it was being dictated completely by its wielder. A wide smirk forming on his face, Jinpachi then let loose his attack and began firing numerous jets of water from the orb above him. These whips shot towards Fu, homing in on the girl who reacted in alarm and took off at full speed, intent on staying ahead of the spears.

The girl tried to outmaneuver the streams, but the jets were able to change directions in midflight and stuck to her like missiles. Cursing her luck, Fu then tried to put some distance between herself and her enemy, avoiding a few more whips coming around from ahead and ascending higher into the sky.

Grinning manically, Jinpachi then looked over his shoulder towards Naruto, who had just recovered from being knocked away by the waves and was now glaring towards him. Staring snidely, the man then sent several whips in the boy's direction.

Spotting the jets shoot out of the orb on his side, the jinchuriki's hair bristled and he barreled out of the way, avoiding the initial shots before taking off in an orange flash to avoid more of them. However, the sheer number of water whips that shot out cut off any escape attempts and forced Naruto to change directions repeatedly, pissing the boy off and prompting him to put more distance between himself and his enemy, just as Fu had done. Back flipping across the lake to avoid water spears coming down from above, the jinchuriki then threw both hands forward and blasted back using his ejection points for an extra boost, which allowed him to dodge several more whips coming in from the side.

"Damn it! This guy's jutsu is ridiculous!" Naruto thought before dashing off again, using his Body Flicker technique to repeatedly dodge the attacks through use of his after images. He had the privilege of watching the transparent copies of himself get hit by the attacks before fading away, showing just how fast this damn jutsu was. "How can water move so fast? Is it even possible?"

This just showed what kind of level this man was really at. He was strong, surprisingly quick, and insanely durable. Even though he could avoid well, he could also take kunai to the body and keep on coming, staying true to the fact that Kirigakure shinobi were incredibly vicious and relentless fighters. Along with his unique kenjutsu skills and weapon, the guy also had a good set of skills on him and a great deal of experience in combat. If Naruto had to guess, this guy could definitely give his teacher a run for his money.

"Kakashi-sensei would have a ball fighting hi-AH SHIT!" the jinchuriki thought, only to be cut off when more whips of water jumped out of the water ahead of him and forced him to dodge to the right, vanishing in an orange blur and sliding to a stop now several hundred meters away from his opponent still standing in the same place as before. "Okay. You know what. Screw this!" Forming his cross fingered hand seal he produced an entire battalion of shadow clones and sent them all forward at once, the mass of bodies charging out with a resounding battle cry.

Laughing at the copies, Jinpachi watched the army come into range and, while he was still playing around with Fu, sent a whole array of whips flying at the approaching copies.

One after the other in quick succession, the shadow clones were impaled by dozens of water whips, the fast moving spears wiping them out in droves. Even though the doppelgangers attempted to fan out, they were immediately sought out by the jet streams and struck down almost instantaneously. The sight had the original Naruto curse before he summoned some more copies and lined them up.

Taking a stand, the clones then began firing Hien rounds towards their target, the blasts of wind cutting across the lake at bullet speed.

As if coming to their user's defense at their own volition, the water whips from the orb above the swordsman jutted out and intercepted the blasts. The streams were blasted into nothing, but at the same time managed to stop the invisible wind attacks. This shoot off continued on for well over a minute, with Jinpachi sending out more whips to disperse the nuisance clones and helping to block a barrage of shuriken from the still airborne Fu, who attempted to strafe him with sweeping aerial attacks of projectile weaponry.

Seeing their efforts getting them nowhere, Naruto and Fu joined up on the lake again, with the green haired girl landing right next to her fellow jinchuriki and taking a stand. Both keeping their eyes locked onto the swordsman and the ball of floating death above him, the pair took uneasy stands and began a quick breakdown of their situation.

"The longer this goes on, the more chakra we burn up," the blonde stated, out of breath and shaking his head, "I'm already really tired from my fight with those two Sound ninja from earlier… and you've been fighting this guy the entire time I was away."

"Yeah, and he was kicking my ass until you got here. I was really lucky you showed up when you did. Thanks a lot for the save, by the way," Fu breathed out with sweat dripping down her face. "But even if we were in top condition, this guy would still have us running around like headless chickens. I guess his title as a member of the Seven Ninja Swordsmen of the Mist really does stack up in the world."

Eyes cutting over the field and the jutsu the man still had active above him, Naruto took stock of what they were up against and frowned, "This technique he's using is way too fast for us to work around. We'll need to overpower it before we can get to him, and that means going at it head first. But I don't have a technique powerful enough to use without hurting everybody else in the area or one that doesn't put me at serious risk."

Looking across at the blonde momentarily, the mint haired jinchuriki locked gazes with him in an effort to deduce what he had in mind. After several seconds of silence, the girl then grinned and turned back to their adversary. "I think I may have just the thing you're looking for."

Staring at the girl in confusion, the blonde then took note of the determined expression she wore and responded to it in kind.

OOO

(With Shibuki)

With their tug-of-war involving the dragons resulting in a stalemate, Shibuki and Suien wasted no time in taking the rest of their fight across the lake's surface on their side, and to the shore of the island under the watch of the terrified and hopeful villagers. Ever since Naruto's arrival, the pair have been hammering away at each other with their best moves, trying to one-up the other and outpace their adversary. The showdown between the former teacher and student pair was really making its mark on the area, about as much as Naruto and Fu's battle was with the rogue ninja from Kirigakure.

Gritting his teeth irritably and backing off, Suien waded into the shallows before glancing over in Jinpachi's direction. Having received a few bruises from his bout, the man was getting tired of this run around he was having with his student, and was now just waiting impatiently for the mercenary he'd hired to finish up before coming over to help him.

Unfortunately, things weren't going as planned, as both fights were dragging on for far too long.

"For Kami's sake, what is that man doing?" the leader of the renegades growled as he saw from his spot the mist swordsman harry his opponents around with his powerful water release whip technique. "I'm not paying him to babysit."

This was becoming ludicrous. How could one of the strongest members of the Kirigakure force be losing to a pair of children?

Unable to dawn on it any longer than that, Suien was forced to jump back to avoid the sneak attack from Shibuki, the boy advancing on the man and swinging at him aggressively with one blow after another. Using precise, powerful strikes, the teen hammered away at his teacher's defense, loud 'cracks' of the two water blades smashing against each other before his ex-instructor met his blade in mid-swing, ending in a grappling match between the two.

One water blade grinding against the opposing, the teacher chuckled when he saw the boy grit his teeth and start to struggle. "You're looking tired there, Shibuki? Have you reached the limits of your training already?" The man laughed and began to push back, their weapons holding firm as they tried to stick it to the other. "Just like I thought. You're all bark and no bite… too weak to handle something as great as the responsibilities of the future village leader and the Hero's Water. Why don't you just hand it over and spare yourself the pain of defeat, rather than carry on with this pathetic charade? You've run out of time."

Seeing their beloved village leader's son take a step back and begin to sweat heavily, the alarmed villagers leaned forward in anticipation and prayer. The children began to cheer, with one of the older ones calling out in desperation. "Don't give up, Shibuki! You can beat him!"

"Yeah! Beat him, Shibuki!"

"Show him what you're made of!"

"Don't let that traitor win!"

Growling against the opposing force that was his former instructor, Shibuki clenched his teeth and gave a hard push, forcing the man back, "If you think I'm just going to throw in the towel just like that… you're sorely mistaken!"

Suien laughed and pushed back even harder, watching as his student took several steps this time as opposed to one. "You've definitely grown a bigger pair on you, Shibuki. I commend you for that. However… it'll take far more than guts and bravery to defeat me. You're a thousand years too early to fight your former teacher on equal footing!" With a growl, the man suddenly slipped his water blade around and swiftly nailed the boy across the arm, cutting a deep scar into him.

The sting of the blade biting him, the son of the villager leader let out a yelp and stepped away, only to receive another serious blow across the chest. A second spray of blood occurred when his former teacher managed to cut him good, but not deep enough to hit anything vital. Stunned, Shibuki stumbled, before recovering and responding to his teacher's two blows by spinning on the spot and striking out, only for the man to spring away and gain some distance from him. It then came as a moment of confusion to all those present when the man dispelled his water sword and began flying through seals.

Ending on the snake sign, Suien grinned as the water around him began to churn. "Let me show you the power of a real shinobi." Crouching down, the Jonin thrust both hands into the water, the act of which causing a massive wall to rise up behind him before arcing overhead. The enormous wave had the villagers gawk in disbelief and Shibuki stare in shock. "Suiton: Haran Bansho!" (Water Release: Stormy Blockade)

All at once, the very apex of the wall came crashing down into the lake directly in front of Suien and charged towards his student, who crossed his arms over his face as he was hit flush by the rampaging torrent. The copious amounts of water sent the boy barreling through a vortex of disorientation and pain, knocking him around before spitting him out the other end when the tsunami eventually subsided and sunk back into the lake, its waves effortlessly reaching the shores of the surrounding land and leaving the young Chunin to struggle out of the water, coughing and spluttering.

Soaked to the bone, Shibuki crouched there in place atop the now still pool, giving himself several minutes to rest and recover. After a moment of silence however, the boy then jerked up when he felt a shadow fall over him and looked to see Suien standing directly in front of him. Towering over the boy, the Jonin then held up a kunai and suspended the tip directly in front of the boy's surprised face, just a few centimeters from his eye.

The villagers looked on fearfully as the rogue ninja stared the boy down at point, all of them holding their breaths at the sight of their beloved Shibuki kneeling defeated before the enemy. Many thought about calling out to him, to try and will the boy the strength through words to rise up and continue fighting. However, the overwhelming dread of watching their defender getting cut down right before their eyes was even greater than they'd anticipated, and the people wisely held their tongues.

Suien grinned, "You're beaten Shibuki… stand down."

Eyes shimmering as he stared at the kunai, after several moments of thought and stress, the boy then wisely lowered his gaze and dropped the kunai he held in the hand he had held at his side. Upon seeing his concealed weapon drop into the lake and sink, the victorious rogue smirked and, continuing to keep his adversary in check, stepped closer. "Good boy." Suien then reached out with his free hand. "You made a wise decision, Shibuki. I did tell you that you had much, much more to learn before you can even think about facing someone of my caliber in battle. I'll consider this our final lesson."

Crouching down, his hand grabbed Shibuki's tunic to begin searching him for the object he desired, the very thing he spent the past few months planning to get his hands on and the past year dreaming about. The Hero's Water was right there, sitting directly on the edge of his grasp, just underneath the boy's vest.

However, just as his fingers were close to scraping against the surface of the long sought after gourd, a loud 'squelch' sound ringing out followed immediately by a spray of blood had Suien stop dead in his tracks and his eyes widen in horror. Continuing to hold his position, both his extended hand and his kunai at Shibuki's eye, the rogue Jonin stood in place looking into his student's eyes, until he spat up blood all over the boy's clothing and face.

The Taki villagers on the shore were stunned.

"W-What…?" Looking down, Suien saw the exact reason for his sudden stoppage, paralysis and agony. Buried deep in his stomach was a water blade, the same kind he and his student had been battling with for the past hour, and one he was now bleeding all over. However, his body wasn't the only thing it had gone through in its brief, one second journey. It'd also gone straight through the Shibuki crouched down in front of him and was sticking right out of the boy's chest, including the hand holding onto the blade. "Th-That's… impossible…"

The Shibuki in front of him grinned cheekily before his form suddenly transformed back into the water it'd been formed from. The glistening, liquid figure fell into the lake from whence it'd come, revealing that the blade and arm that had impaled it and Suien had come straight up out of the shallows behind it, along with the real Shibuki, who'd cleverly hidden himself from his opponent behind his clone.

In his partially surfaced position, the real Shibuki kept his blade buried in Suien's stomach before a smirk formed on his tired face and he glared up at his wounded opponent.

"Consider our final lesson over."

Choking up blood one last time, Suien's eyes then rolled into the back of his head, giving the Chunin the cue to remove the blade from the man's chest and dispel it, at the exact same time his instructor's body hit the water with a resounding splash.

Clambering out of the lake, the young Chunin stood over the enemy leader's body and in front of the crowd of shocked villagers. Upon breathing away his fatigue, Shibuki then looked over at his people, and saw their faces slowly light up all at once. To join their reemerging delight, a chorus of cheers rang up in a storm, marking the end of the Chunin's battle and an end to one of the conflicts taking place on their land.

Of course, remembering they still had one more problem remaining, all eyes quickly trained back to Fu and Naruto's position, and their opponent still standing dead center of the lake.

Thoroughly exhausted from his bout, Shibuki stood and watched as the swordsman recalled all of the water whips he'd sent out after his targets, and remained fixed in place glaring at them. The young Chunin of Takigakure clenched his fists with worry, looking on from his place just like everybody else, as he saw Naruto and Fu prepare for a final confrontation.

"Win," the boy thought with a determined expression coming into play.

OOO

(With Naruto and Fu)

Frowning at the sight of the two kids whispering, Jinpachi grunted and formed a new hand seal with one hand. "Oi. You two are getting awfully comfortable over there. Stop talking!" The moment he made the gesture, the sphere of water above him undulated violently until it shot forward in one giant mass. Coiling through the air like a stream, it then suddenly formed into an enormous dragon like creature with a gaping maw. The creature let out a roar as it charged towards its two stationary targets, who watched it approach in surprise, as they weren't expecting their foe to move so soon. The swordsman wasted no time in setting his technique upon the hapless pair, and grinned maniacally while doing so. "Suiton: Suishu Gorugon!" (Water Release: Water Attacking Strong Flow Downpour)

The enormous serpent dove straight towards the jinchuriki and collided with them in an enormous splash. The impact was marked by a shockwave that sent water tearing across the field in all directions, shocking the observing villagers and entertaining the blasting swordsman Jinpachi.

When the lake eventually settled, the rogue ninja initially believed he'd managed to wipe out his targets in one shot. However, when the mist from the exploding water dragon hitting them eventually cleared, the man recoiled in disbelief when he saw that they were both still standing, and that one of them was leading the duo in a completely new form.

Looking at Fu in surprise, Naruto saw that the girl had incased herself in a bubbling orange chakra cloak with two wings sprouted from her back. Hands extended forward defensively, the girl had held her ground against the full force of the attacking dragon, and continued to stand in front of her friend while glaring across at their swordsman adversary with great anger and focus.

Upon taking in the girl's new appearance, the blonde then smiled when he saw the more feral looking kunoichi glance back at him. "Whoa."

The glowing, mint haired jinchuriki grinned and nodded to herself, as if feeling the need to point out her new form. "Pretty cool, huh, Naruto-kun?"

"Yeah," the Konoha Jonin exclaimed before staring at the kunoichi with a little more enthusiasm. "Is this what a jinchuriki can do when they have full control over their friend's powers?"

Fu shrugged, "Well… not 'full' control… but enough practice to do this consciously without hurting yourself." The girl then turned to look ahead of her again. When she saw Jinpachi back down at the sight of her fixed gaze, the kunoichi frowned and flashed him a wave of killing intent, which caused a visible ripple to blast out from her feet. "Anyway, I've gotten rid of the water dragon. Let's take him out now while he's still scratching his head."

Remembering they had a battle to finish up, Naruto's expression became serious again and he nodded in acknowledgement. "Right!" Once their eyes had locked back onto the rogue ninja, both of them crouched down and vanished in a flash, kicking up an enormous splash of water as they both rocketed towards the enemy at invisible speed.

Seeing them begin their counterattack, Jinpachi quickly jumped into action. Getting serious, the man drew his sword from his back and with a yell, swung it through the air in front of him. The resulting maneuver pulled a great length of explosive tags in the form of a sheet through the air across him. This trail of paper filled the space above the lake ahead of the rogue and created a flying barrier between both him and his approaching targets. As soon as he'd drawn enough, the Kiri Nin formed a hand seal.

"Don't get conceited, you cocky brats! Bakutō Jutsu: Happa Rokujūshi!"

The chain of explosions that followed produced an enormous wall of flames that shot outwards and covered most of the lake, boiling it and sending a shockwave ripping out in all directions. It tore through the water in the form of a wave, with the potential to decimate any targets lying in its path. However, when the blast rang out, it was immediately blocked by an opposing shockwave from Fu emerging out of her charge with a howl, the girl tearing head first into the approaching explosion with the chakra horn that appeared out of her head.

While she was plowing through it, two more wings sprouted from her back and increased her speed, giving her enough force and power to push through the flames licking at her chakra coated and protected form, allowing her to burst out the other side. The wall of explosion parting suddenly had Jinpachi respond in panic, as the transformed girl let out a roar of anger and flew straight at the swordsman at full speed, who attempted to counter her with a swing of his enormous blade.

"Mushikui!" (Bug Bite)

A loud crunching sound immediately followed afterwards, with Jinpachi stumbling backwards with his eye widening in horror. The reason why wasn't because he just missed and his opponent had managed to hit him, but because the girl tore straight through him and bit off his sword arm from his shoulder. A spray of blood followed his instantaneous dismemberment, the man's mouth opened in a silent scream as he looked over to see his limb, his sword and his opponent fly past him.

Gritting his teeth in anger, the man staggered to a stop and glared ahead of him, where he saw Naruto shunshin directly in front of him with his hand held back.

"These two… what superb teamwork," Jinpachi thought, his remaining moments passing by in super slow motion as he watched the boy lunge at him with a look of blind fury on his face. "The girl used her biju's chakra cloak to increase the offensive power of her attacks and plowed straight through my defenses, disarming me and leaving her partner a big enough opening to take me out!" This entire fight the two of them had been in sync, attacking him together and disorientating him throughout. It was a thrill that brought a wide grin to the man's face, even with the face of death baring down on him. "Heh… defeated by the jinchuriki of Takigakure and a Jonin from Konohagakure… what a way to go."

Cracking his one good arm back, Jinpachi drew a kunai and swung down at his approaching enemy, attempting to make one last stand. However, using his superior reflexes, taijutsu speed and timing, Naruto ducked right under it and thrust his hand forward. Expression showing absolute intensity, the boy drove his palm right into the man's chest, a yell escaping his lips for the grand finale. "JET HAND!"

A shockwave ringing out like a thunder clap, Jinpachi felt the full force of thousand kilometer winds tear into him at a single point, a blast that had the man yell out in agony with blood flying from his mouth and eyes bugging out before he was lifted off of his feet and sent rocketing across the lake at bullet speed. Fu managed to get out of the way in time to see the swordsman shoot right past her, grinning in triumph as she then saw him rise in altitude, and slam into the massive tree in the center island… and blast right through it.

Punching a hole into the hidden waterfall's great tree, Jinpachi emerged spiraling out the other side, trailing blood, dust and debris, and his body completely broken. Naruto's ejection point burning out, the man's corpse was then allowed to plummet back to ground level, where he crashed into the lake on the other side. With a splash, the man landed in the shallows, his body surfacing to float lifelessly atop the pool.

He was done.

Seeing the final clouds settle from the execution of the final move that defeated the swordsman, Fu allowed her four tailed transformation to drop and return to her normal state. Breathing out in relief as she stood in the water close to the island, she then turned to see Naruto approaching her from the point he'd sent their powerful adversary flying.

Stopping to collect the legendary blast sword that was embedded in the shallows, the young Jonin took a moment to look over the impressive weapon before setting it against his shoulder and finishing his approach of his fellow jinchuriki. When he came to stand in front of the girl, the two gazed at one another for a good moment of silence, until both grinned, giggled and, upon raising their fists, bumped knuckles against each other.

Their snickering transforming into full blown laughter, the two youngsters spent the next minute in that position, enthralled by their victory while the biju inside of them mused at the delight of their respective containers.

Having seen and participated in what had taken place on the outside world in the past few hours, they saw no reason to speak up and interrupt their little moments of triumph. After all, they deserved it.

The villagers now being untied by Shibuki shared this sentiment and after seeing the defeat of the last of their community's most dangerous captives, gave a loud and much deserved applause. Their clapping and cheering drew the pair's attention to the liberated people, earning blushes from the jinchuriki who returned their expressions of appreciation with delight and enthusiasm. When they eventually approached the adults and children watching from the sidelines, they were both greeted by handshakes, pats on the back, and exclamations of praise.

Standing beside them as he too received praise and thanks from his beloved villagers, Shibuki smiled along with his two friends, at the same time reaching up to subconsciously pat his chest. It was only then he made a startling discovery and began checking the inside of his tunic in a frantic manner. "The Hero's Water… it's gone!" Looking up in alarm moments later, the teen then looked back towards the lake and scanned it, hoping to catch a glimmer of the bottle. But his quick search came up with nothing, and he was left standing in place fearfully, overcome by a great sense of dread. "It must have been washed away when I was hit by Suien's water release technique…"

Great. Even though they managed to achieve victory over the mercenaries, he'd managed to lose the one thing that they were after. The very thing that they were here for and had put countless lives in danger.

Hopefully the bottle broke when he was being tossed around inside of that crushing vortex of a wave…

OOO

Meanwhile…

At the base of the enormous waterfall that served as the main landmark of Takigakure, the ripples fanning out from the cascading falls crashing into the pool carried with them the very item that Shibuki was tasked with protecting. Having indeed slipped from his grip during his fight with Suien, the bottle had unintentionally been sucked into the riptides created by the Jonin's water release techniques and towards the falls, which exited from the enormous lake sitting in the heart of the village.

By the miracle of the water spirits that carried it, the bottle managed to avoid hitting any rocks and lake beds it traversed, before inevitably arriving at its final destination of its solo journey at the shores of the pool at the bottom of the high cliffs. Washed by the currents carrying it, the gourd became embedded in the soft sand and remained standing in plain sight under the sun for several minutes.

It would have remained sitting there until a passing Takigakure shinobi came across it and picked it up, were it not first picked up by the shadow of a wounded, but still very much alive, Kotohime. Reverted back to her normal form and covered it various cuts, bruises and splinters, with bits of wood sticking into her battered body, the kunoichi reached down and took a hold of the treasured artifact. Weighing it in her hand for a few good seconds and getting a feel for the total weight of the liquid, the beaten up girl then gave a toothy grin through bloody teeth, before looking back up at the waterfall the bottle had traveled down.

"I'll consider this my consolation prize," Kotohime chirped, giving one last giggle and pocketing the item, before slowly limping back to headquarters. It was a good thing that luck was on her side today. Now she didn't have to waste time and energy killing Suien and his crew and acquiring her prize that way.

Once she got home, she was going to have one hell of a story to tell and a really long recovery time spent in the medical bays. Being thrown through a whole row of trees was not something she'd expected to have happen to her during her fight.

Hopefully her punishment would be less severe when she made her final report to Orochimaru.

XXX

Late afternoon…

With the sun setting over the distant horizon, a now thoroughly bandaged up and mostly recovered Naruto stood drying himself off from journeying through the 'actual' tunnel in and out of the village, while at the same time being seen off by his friends from the hidden waterfall.

Though his escort out of the community had mostly consisted of a lot of swimming and making their way through an incredible labyrinth of caves and tunnels, which the jinchuriki noticed had quite a few skeletons lying around from the many poor souls that'd ended up trapped in them, probably from one of the most recent raids about twenty years ago; they finally made it out into the world beyond. As much as it looked like Takigakure had actually been built above ground, the enormous tree that was in fact the heart of the village grew out of a cave at the very top of the cliffs, and shielded the community from sight.

The hidden waterfall was basically constructed inside of a large pothole, one that had gone on unnoticed and unexplored by outsiders for years now. Thanks to the combined natural and manmade defenses of the surrounding forests and countryside, this essentially made Takigakure one of the hardest villages to invade and attack in force. Unless you had prior, inside knowledge of the network of tunnels surrounding the community and knew all about its routines and protocols like Suien did, the villagers would be able to live on and prosper without any fear of attack for decades.

Now that the assault by the mercenary force had come and gone, and the ones responsible for the incident that were still alive and kicking had been rounded up and taken to the stockades, village life in Takigakure could quickly return to normal. When reinforcements finally arrived from the nearest outposts, the entire conflict had already come to a close, leaving the shinobi and kunoichi of the village to finish clean up. It'd been a rough day for everyone that'd been involved.

Wincing when he adjusted his jacket, as he was still sore from having the crap pounded out of him and being stabbed repeatedly by hair senbon and kunai, Naruto then gave a lighthearted chuckle when he turned to face Shibuki and Fu standing nearby, who were also accompanied by Ken and Yuna, the two children he'd also met outside the village. Upon looking at all of their faces, including the bandaged one of his fellow jinchuriki's and the slightly bruised one of the village leader's son, the jinchuriki breathed a sigh and ran a hand through his hair.

"Man… after today's mission, I think I'm going to try and take it easy from now on. Those last two fights nearly killed me… literally," the blonde exclaimed, giving his friends a bit of a cringing grin before reverting back to a less than enthusiastic smile. "If I told Tayuya-chan or Isaribi-chan about what happened to me today, they'd probably chew my ass out. I probably still will if I walk in looking like this." He gestured to his partially mummified state.

Upon listening to his drab speech and processing his statements, Fu gave a childish giggle and hopped over to him, tilting her head right in his face and getting the blonde to balk at her sudden teleportation to him, "Be careful, Naruto-kun. You're starting to sound like an old man." Holding back a laugh, the jinchuriki of the seven tailed beast gave her blonde companion the 'V' sign and grinned, "Whatever happened to that boy I played tag with by the river when I first met him all those months ago? Where'd that awesome guy go? Surely he hasn't up and vanished, and been replaced by this geezer of a shinobi, because that would never happened. He was the kind of guy a girl like me could fall for, the kind of person who could take on the world, no matter what hardships he encountered, and move aside any obstacle that stood in his path! Aren't you that guy, Naruto-kun… or have you forgotten all about him?" The girl winked at the Jonin in the end.

Hearing her words loud and clear, especially with her face hovering directly in front of his, Naruto responded to her passionate exclamations with momentary surprise, before a sudden spark of clarity hit him like a ton of bricks and shook him out of his fatigued reverie. Shaking his head as well to rid himself of whatever negativity was infecting his system the boy then sprang onto his toes and glared back determinedly. "Hey! You're right! Whatever happened to that little, blonde haired bastard?" He then took Fu's extended hand in his and stepped closer to her, so close that his nose became suspended just in front of hers. His action surprised the girl so much that she actually blushed at how close he came. "Sorry, Fu-chan. I don't know what came over me."

Eyes shimmering, Fu gazed back into the boy's sapphire blue eyes and gulped, "N-No problem."

"I shouldn't be saying or thinking such depressing things. No way. To me… that's just the first step to admitting defeat." Naruto then looked up momentarily before giving the girl a firm and unflinching stare, which made her heart skip a beat. "Well, I'm not going to let the fact that I just had my butt skewered and handed to me today stop me. I need to keep pushing forward, just like everybody else."

"Y-Yeah." Seeing the young man grin at her up close had Fu's knees tremble, and for a second she started regretting getting him pumped up and prompting him to grab her hand.

Geez. For an afternoon where the sun was starting to set it sure was getting hot.

"I… I think… I can see why a lot of girls have fallen for him…" The boy was completely regal… absolutely glowing.

"Getting my face pounded into the ground never stopped me. It didn't stop me when I was five and it is not going to stop me now," Naruto said, at the same time releasing his friend's hand and stepping away. Bringing up both, he slapped himself in the cheeks a few times to get some red back into them, before gazing up at the Takigakure crew and beaming. He saw Fu step back and rub her arm in an anxious manner, at the same time he saw Shibuki look at the kunoichi strangely and the two children next to him look at the young Jonin in awe as he stood before them with renewed vigor and confidence. "I hope you guys will be able to fix all of the damage that idiot Suien caused."

His attention drawn, Shibuki beamed at his former escort and newfound friend, "Don't worry. Even though a lot of the village was damaged in the attack, as long as the people survive and they have strength in them to move on, Takigakure can be rebuilt." The boy nodded toward the blonde when he saw the young Jonin nod in understanding. "Thanks a lot for your help today, Naruto. If it hadn't been for you, I don't think our victory today would have been possible."

The young, brown haired boy Ken stepped forward with a happy glimmer in his eyes, "Yeah, you were awesome!"

"Thank you so much, Naruto-san," the young girl Yuna chirped as well, her eyes shimmering as she smiled up at the shinobi from another village.

Blushing under the praise, Naruto gazed at them in kind, "I'm just glad I was able to help out. Even though I technically lost my battle against those other two we were still able to win the war… and that's all that matters." He then looked toward Fu, seeing the girl rocking on the spot with a notable shade of red still in her cheeks as she shot furtive glances in his direction. "By the way… were you guys able to find the Hero's Water?"

Seeing Fu glance at him, a small frown returned to Shibuki, who then shook his head. "Unfortunately… the bottle got washed away in my fight with Suien. The scouts searched high and low for it… but couldn't find anything. Hopefully… it was broken in the currents." That's what he was really hoping for, because if someone had been able to pick it up…

The blonde standing in front of him grinned, "Well… you don't need a bottle of water to help you out of a tight spot." Seeing the surprised look Shibuki returned, Naruto then responded with an upward nod. "The Hero's Water is something that strengthens a person's chakra for a short time, right… and you guys have been using it for centuries to defend your homeland from invaders? That's a pretty good fallback to have when your village is facing tough times during war and stuff. But… I wouldn't go relying on it too much."

Shibuki blinked, "Hm. How come?"

"I mean, sure, the Hero's Water has helped you and your village out of some tricky situations in the past, but if you become too depended on it, then the quality of your shinobi will decrease and you'll be forced to rely on an old relic for the rest of your lives," Naruto said, looking into the young man's eyes with a strong smile and absolute certainty in his gaze. "Don't let some jug of water be your courage and your savior. If you become too attached to it, then you'll lose sight of everything else that's important and, eventually, you'll hit a dead-end when you run out of it. The Shibuki I saw fighting today was awesome; a future leader who relied on his own strength to achieve victory, and not some cup of chakra boosting juice." The boy made a fist and, stepping forward, jabbed it into the young man's chest. "Rely on the strength you can achieve with your own two hands… and the strength of your friends."

Drinking this in, the Chunin from the hidden waterfall then cracked a smile and nodded at the blonde's words of encouragement, "I'll… keep that in mind. Thanks." He then took note of the other object the boy had on his person and pointed it out. "Will you be alright carrying such a massive sword back to your village? It looks pretty heavy?"

"What? This thing?" Naruto asked while shrugging the enormous Splash blade he had slung over him further up his back. After weighing it a little, he snickered. "Nah. This little baby is as light as a feather. Besides, I love collecting souvenirs from my wilder and more dangerous adventures. It reminds me of the good old days." He then looked up in momentary contemplation. "Hmm… maybe I should turn it in to Kirigakure for a reward or something? I'm pretty sure they're missing a couple of their swords since Zabuza and Jinpachi ran off with them." After going it over for a bit, he then shook his head and grinned at Shibuki. "On second thoughts, I think I'll hang on to it and show to my friends. I don't need the money right now. But I think you guys will be able to cash in on that swordsman's corpse if you've got nothing better to do with it. I hear missing nin like him are worth a lot of gold."

Shibuki nodded, "Yeah. I think you're right."

"Give the money to some poor children or use it to help somebody out. It'll be good for you guys," Naruto waved, earning another chuckle from his friend before then turning his attention to the others not part of their conversation. Crouching down in front of the two kids that were present, the jinchuriki then held a hand out. "You two did super today. Make sure you behave yourselves and look after your families." He gave each of them a high five, earning giggles and laughs from the ankle biters when they stepped up to him.

"We will," Ken chirped.

Still beaming, Yuna nodded to the blonde when he glanced in her direction, "When I grow up, I want to become a strong ninja like you and Fu-chan!"

"I'm sure you will. Work hard, alright," the Jonin laughed, rising to his feet and grabbing the strap of his bag. Biting away the pain and testing his legs to make sure they were alright, Naruto then turned heel and faced both his friends and the road ahead of him side on. When his eyes cast over the smiling Shibuki and back down to Fu, who was still struggling to face the blonde for some weird, unexplained reason, the whisker-marked boy then waved to her. "See you around?"

Jumping a bit at his sudden question, Fu took a moment to think before bucking up the courage to smile back at the Jonin and nodded affirmatively, her face still glowing red, "Y-Yeah. I'll… see you soon, Naruto-kun."

"I'll be sure to write this time. That's a promise," Naruto saluted, earning another nod from his fellow jinchuriki before deciding to take off. With great speed and haste, the boy exploded from his spot and disappeared into the forest, leaving the Takigakure group under the fading light of the sun.

Upon waving their friend from Konohagakure off, Shibuki then instructed the kids to return home. While he was walking away and the children ran ahead, he then noticed Fu was still standing in place and looking in the direction her friend had vanished in. When he spotted the faraway expression she wore and the way she stared off into the sunset, the boy chuckled and spoke up. "I can see why you like him so much. That Naruto… he's pretty incredible."

Visibly cringing, the girl lowered her head to hide the shade of red that came and lit her face up like a light bulb. "Sh-Shut up, Shibuki…"

XXX

Later that night…

Standing before a desk covered in all sorts of scientific clutter, including flasks, a 'potion making set', medical equipment, and bodies of countless small animals of all shapes and sizes, the tall, long-haired form of Orochimaru could be seen smiling down at the newest addition to his collection. Holding onto the oddly shaped bottle containing the Hero's Water from the hidden waterfall village, the man allowed a wide grin to spread across his face as he juggled it in his hand before setting it onto a neatly placed stand provided. Upon tentatively brushing his fingers over the cool surface of the container, the man then wordlessly looked over his shoulder towards the second in command of the Sound Four, Kotohime, kneeling directly behind him.

"It seems you had quite a tough time on your mission, my dear… despite its success," the man exclaimed in his hoarse, snake-like voice as his yellow eyes pierced the dark of one of his many laboratories. "I take it things didn't all go according to plan."

The girl lowered her head humbly, "Unfortunately not, my master. Our intention to invade the hidden village of Takigakure started off as we'd intended and was well on its way to becoming a complete success… however… events we did not account for caused the entire expedition to spiral out of control."

"Hmm? How so?" the Sannin asked curiously.

Ignoring the injuries still covering her, the girl bit her bottom lip nervously before looking away. Just being in the presence of the Sannin was nerve rattling enough as it was. "Sakon and Ukon were killed in their battle against Naruto Uzumaki… the young Jonin from Konohagakure whom you wished to have brought in to be tested on, should any of us encounter him on the field. Apparently, he was sent on a mission from his village to escort the leader of Taki's son back home. We attempted to subdue him… but he proved to be much more powerful than we initially thought."

Eye twitching at the news, Orochimaru murmured uncomfortably as he then glared ahead of him. Kotohime remained as she was, swallowing silently while at the same time dreading the man's ultimate response to her brief, retelling of the account. After several seconds of waiting, the girl eventually heard the man speak up again, and instinctively braced herself.

"That's such a shame," the snake Sannin breathed out while shaking his head pitifully. "I expected so much more from young Sakon and Ukon… hoping they would be of further use to me in the future. After all, I gave them more than enough power to be able to defeat even the most stubborn of opposition from the hidden leaf. Even you, Kotohime, I consider to be on the same level as Kimimaro-kun in terms of combat prowess. But even with the Cursed Seal of Earth I bestowed upon you on top of your augmented abilities, you still let me down." His seemingly sincere words had said kunoichi bow her head even lower and grit her teeth fearfully, sweat starting to drip down her head in buckets. "However… I cannot reprimand you for this. Naruto Uzumaki has obviously exceeded my expectations. How was he?"

Surprised by the sudden question, having been expecting the man to lash out of her in anger, Kotohime clenched her fist tightly before speaking up, "He was incredible, Orochimaru-sama. The boy's speed and combat strength is exactly as you described it to us. Had we not had prior knowledge of his abilities and had not come up with a strategy to defeat him beforehand, I am positive he would have defeated both of us swiftly. I'd even go so far as to say he would be able to defeat all the members of the Sound Four at once. I'm pretty certain he can give Kimimaro a run for his money as well."

Chuckling with his characteristic chortle, the Sannin allowed his tongue to run over his upper lip excitedly before widening his grin. "Interesting."


Five days later…

Land of Water…

"Mo… this is so boring," the groan of a familiar kunoichi spoke up as she sat on the balcony of a restaurant overlooking the pier. Picking at her seafood fried rice with her chopsticks absently, the girl plucked a piece of fish before sticking it into her mouth, chewing slowly before swallowing, with an equally dissatisfied moan following immediately afterwards. "Meh, Chojuro-kun, why are we all the way out here again?"

Looking across at the blonde haired girl in amusement, the meek, blue-haired new Chunin accompanying her adjusted his glasses while at the same time answering the girl's tired sounding question. "We've come to this island to meet up with the shinobi team from Kumogakure we're supposed to be going on a mission with today, Kiyoko-chan."

"Mmm… but why Kumogakure shinobi?" She sounded disappointed, like she didn't get the present that she wanted for her birthday.

"Well, since a lot of our forces have been stretched out across most of the other islands to reestablish connections with the country, Mizukage-sama has very few ninja to spare for a mission like this," Chojuro answered while pointing at the girl with his own chopsticks and picking up his bowl of rice with the other hand. "She also wishes to rebuild a relationship with the other nations from the mainland. So by asking for assistance from the other hidden villages, not a lot, just a little, we can slowly restore trust between each other, and form a potential alliance with those parties involved. Because we're also still recovering from our last civil war, you should know how important something like this is-"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. I know," Kiyoko sighed before scrunching her face up in annoyance.

Chojuro chuckled, "You still sound disappointed. What? You don't like Kumogakure getting involved?"

"No. Of course I do!" the girl replied quickly, looking back at the boy in slight surprise. "I love meeting new people and making new friends, no matter what country they're from!"

"Then… what's the problem?"

Kiyoko puffed her cheeks out indignantly, "It's because I'm bored, Chojuro-kun!" She almost cried his name in tears as she dropped her head down onto the table. The clatter of their plates and utensils from her sudden head fall had a lot of people in the restaurant on that balcony glance in their direction, where they saw one of their village's Chunin grinding her forehead into the wood. Noting her age as well as her appearance, a lot of the people present shrugged it off as just another ninja being weird and went back to eating.

"I'm so, so bored waiting. I want to go out on the mission now!" Propping her chin up and looking across the table with half-lidded eyes, the girl puffed her cheeks out again and spoke, "Hmm… I wish Tsubaki-chan and Utakata-kun was here."

The blue haired boy sitting directly across from the girl with zero-vitality in her system laughed and propped his elbow on the table, "You're such a child, Kiyoko-chan."

Apparently, it was busy all over. Not only was Konohagakure hard at work getting all of their missions and problems out of the way, every single country with a laundry list of baggage had stuff they needed to do. Kirigakure was no exception. After just recovering from the wounds of an internal conflict, the country was still struggling to get back to its feet. With a new daimyo and a new Kage in power, the people were determined to start anew and to reestablish their bonds with the rest of the world, which had since been severed when they were busy fighting amongst each other.

Being so far out of the way, it wasn't like they were close enough to be too involved with the political rollercoaster taking place on the mainland either. But now that times have changed and all disputes over differences and what not had been swept away, it was now a time of hard work and change for Kiri. The Mizukage, Mei Terumi, had big plans for her country and was now going about fixing up all of the wrongs from the past as best as she could and as peacefully as possible.

Returning order to every corner of the Land of Water was a start. But there was another order of business that her people also needed to address in order to ensure that the protection of the villagers and their country was made strong and certain again. The very spearhead of this endeavor and the responsibility of its success lay on the shoulders of both Chojuro and Kiyoko.

After sitting there for several more minutes, eating, chatting, and generally trying to get the blonde kunoichi to snap out of her boredom, the pair was soon joined by a group of all too familiar faces. Emerging at the top of the stairs at the end of the balcony, three ninja, two carrying swords, one of them holding a sucker in his mouth, and another, blonde haired one rubbing the back of her neck irritably, Team Samui appeared at the resort that was their meeting place before approaching the table. Spotting each other easily, the two respective groups waved to get the other squad's attention before moving toward one another.

Pulling up chairs alongside the two Kirigakure Chunin, Samui, Karui and Omoi took up seats alongside the people that they were there to deal with.

Kiyoko's head immediately perked up when she recognized the trio and grinned across at the blonde, "Samui-chan! It's you!"

The abovementioned girl from Kumo smiled at the teen with the mane for hair and nodded courteously in response, "Hello, Kiyoko. You're looking well. How are you doing?"

"I'm doing great," the youngster chirped, her face glowing as she threw the newly arrived group a cheerful grin. "Wow. I didn't know you guys were the ones coming to meet with us. This is fantastic!" She was obviously delighted at seeing that the people that she and Chojuro would be working with were shinobi she already knew. This at least eliminated the need to make multiple introductions.

However, in spite of her boisterous and cheery greeting of the foreign team, her sudden beaming responses had Chojuro sweat-drop and give the girl a wry grin for her efforts. "Heh, and here she was complaining about being bored ten seconds ago. Now look at her." Radiating like the sun itself on a bright, summer's day. This girl really did make it a habit of bouncing back and forth from being completely cheerful to being absolutely devoid of all life.

Even though she was a Chunin, she still acted like such a child.

Karui sighed as she propped an elbow on the table and stared at the now sparkling Kiri girl across from her. "So it's you guys. Tsk. I figured that after the ordeal we went through, it would be a hundred years before either of us ever saw each other again. This is kind of cutting my hopes and expectations a little bit short."

Her partner, the boy with blonde hair and the sucker in his mouth, rolled the stick between his lips a couple of times before giving a shrug towards his kunoichi teammate, "To be honest, I'm not that surprised at all. It's a small world out there, and being a part of one of the most active generations of shinobi, it makes sense that we would be running into a lot of familiar faces across the continent. When not partaking in the competitive industry known as the five great shinobi nations, we're instead coming together as an allied group to perform missions and assignments as a favor to a nation who wishes to establish friendly communications and trade channels." Omoi then scrubbed his head thoughtfully and trained his gaze elsewhere. "Hmm… I still wonder if this is all just a play by Kirigakure to get Kumo to lower its guard and to take advantage of our kindness. Maybe this whole thing is just part of some sinister scheme to overthrow our country. I mean, call me crazy, but-" CRACK!

He was thankfully silenced from his rant by Karui driving her knuckles across his cranium.

Tick mark throbbing, the girl glared at her now whimpering teammate, "Shut up, Omoi." Her scolding of the normally negative youngster was an action that went unimpeded by Samui, who allowed her friend to discipline their squad mate and get his train of thought back on track. "God. You can be so annoying."

Omoi groaned and raised his head from the table to show off his tear strung eyes, "Your strength hasn't let up one bit, partner."

Shaking her head at her wounded teammate, the Jonin from Kumo then turned her gaze to the blue haired boy sitting alongside her. "We received the message from your Mizukage requesting our assistance and have been dispatched to the Land of Water to meet up with the team from the hidden mist assigned to the joint mission between the two villages." She pulled out the scroll on her person and handed it over. "The specifications asked for us to rendezvous with the squad here at this restaurant."

"Yes. That's right," the hidden mist Chunin responded as he took the document from the girl, rolled it open and read the contents drawn across it. Nodding affirmatively that this was the genuine article, he then handed it back over and bowed to the three teenagers. "I'm Chojuro: newly promoted Chunin of Kirigakure and captain of the squad for this mission."

Acknowledging the boy's rank and assignment, Samui took a moment to look around and stared back firmly, "I'm… assuming that it's just the two of you?" She pointed between the kunoichi and shinobi.

"Correct. Due to the fact that most of our forces have been dispatched to other islands, we are only able to assign teams of two to the overflow of missions our village is receiving from various clients. Some of these include jobs being assigned directly to groups by our village elders and daimyo, which is the mission we've called you three in for support." This statement had Samui and her two squad mates look back at the boy attentively, prompting him to adjust his glasses anxiously from the attention and clear his throat. "I… believe you've already been given a brief of the request?"

"Of course," Samui answered.

"Good. That means we can get straight down to business," Chojuro concluded, leaning forward across the table and getting Kiyoko's attention as well. When the kunoichi gave her undivided focus to the group discussion, the boy led on. "Our country is in the process of rebuilding and recovering the strength it once had as a nation. In order the help with the reconstruction and restoration of order, our forces have been dispatched to different parts of the ocean to set up new bases and to reestablish contact with f the villages that have dropped off of the map in the wake of the last civil war."

Karui drummed her fingers against the table impatiently. "So… what's the problem?"

"One of the scouting parties we sent to the islands in the north easterly regions of our territory has unexpectedly fallen off of the radar," Chojuro stated while lacing his fingers together uneasily. "All explorer teams were instructed by our Mizukage to send a carrier pigeon to the nearest outpost every three days to report on their progress and, for some reason, the group we sent to that area has suddenly ceased all communications. This was about two weeks ago. We think they may have gotten trapped somewhere on one of the islands… or have encountered insurgents in the region. Our job today is to go investigate the problem, and try and restore contact with the squad."

Curious, Samui gave the boy a serious look. "Perhaps the messages are being intercepted?"

Chojuro shook his head, "We considered that possibility, but none of the other squads or stations is experiencing these problems. Since we're still receiving clear and prompt responses from the other teams, we've come to suspect that this squad has hit a snag." Adjusting his glasses again, the boy nervously bit his lip. "The higher ups are incredibly concerned. We are aware that the seas around the islands are hazardous and unpredictable, but we've never experienced a serious break in communications like this before. All of our shinobi and messengers have been trained to survive and work in these conditions."

Nodding in understanding, Omoi looked over at the kunoichi member of the Kiri pair. "Then that means the squad that has been dispatched to those islands has either been killed, captured, or have entered an area where they're unable to make contact with the outside world." That was some serious Devil's Triangle shit right there. All of this sounded like the start to a very terrifying horror movie.

"If it's any of the first two, then it's our job to find out who is responsible," Kiyoko stated firmly while raising a fist. "There may be some unsavory characters up there, so we have to be extra careful."

"Has your village ever experienced issues or conflicts with those islands before?" Samui asked, wanting to get as much information about this as possible before jumping into anything. Seeing Chojuro and Kiyoko fix on her, the girl tapped a finger on the table. "Were they ever inhabited by villagers, shinobi or pirates at any point in the past?"

Chojuro rubbed his chin, "None that we know of. There is an outpost currently stationed in the area, south of the border islands. The soldiers posted in that tower were the ones who received the messages from the scouting parties and patched them back through to Kirigakure. When the messages from the squad that went missing stopped, they reported the problem and requested another group be sent immediately to check it out, since they can't spare any men for an extensive search and rescue mission. That's where we come in." The boy looked back at the Jonin to see her expression steel. "We're to rendezvous with the lieutenant at that outpost before moving out to the islands. I was informed that another squad from Konohagakure will be joining us, as there are quite a few islands that we'll have to search."

A groan came from Karui, "Perfect." So they weren't being sent on a pesky hunting trip, but they also had morons from the hidden leaf coming in to play as well. That spelled nothing but annoying to the swordswoman.

Throwing the girl a hard look, Samui then fixed back onto Chojuro, "A Konoha squad you say?" Seeing the boy nod, the kunoichi then smiled and leaned back in her seat. "That's fine. I'm sure we'll be able to cover much more ground with a few extra hands."

"We sent an envoy to the hidden leaf to collect the team we have requested for the job. They'll arrive at the outpost a day after we get there," Chojuro said, quickly finishing up his meal before sliding his plate away. When Kiyoko finished hers, scoffing down the rest and placing her plate on top of his, the boy then straightened up. "Do you three have any questions or inquiries before we set off?" Seeing them shake their heads and receiving a quiet gesture from the Jonin of the group, the young Chunin nodded and rose to his feet along with his teammate. "Good. That means we can get moving. We'll brief you more on the location and the islands on the boat."

Once their meals had been paid for and the brief of the mission had been explained, the Kirigakure pair then led their Kumogakure ambassadors down to the docks and to the boat that would be taking them out to the borders. Collecting any supplies that they needed and picking up whatever food the trio of new arrivals wanted, the group began making tracks for the islands where the shinobi squad vanished, not knowing who or what they were likely to encounter when they arrived there.

XXX

Meanwhile…

A whole ocean and country away…

Kin and Tayuya sat watching in interest as their jinchuriki roommate practiced some interesting moves with the new toy he'd managed to acquire several days ago. Their posteriors comfortably planted on a fallen oak on the edge of Training Ground Three, the pair stared across the field as the boy swung his bladed weapon around in various arcs, spins and slashes, grunting with every attack he launched and elaborate move he executed. Even though he wasn't the kind of person to pick up a sword and use it in battle, or had even practiced any particular form of kenjutsu in his life, Naruto was showing some rather masterful yet unorthodox work with the weapon that once belonged to the former member of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist he and Fu had defeated back in Takigakure.

Having strongly considered returning it to Kirigakure, as it was rightfully their property, Naruto instead chose to hang onto it for a little while and have a little fun with it. After all, how often do you come across a legendary weapon like the Blast Sword and not pass off the chance to swing it around like a madman?

Tayuya, having had the chance to use the weapon as well, giggled when she saw the boy slash the thing wildly like a bat before slamming the bladed edge into the ground like an axe. "Don't strain yourself, shithead."

"And try not to throw your back out either," Kin also called, grinning in amusement when she saw the boy literally hand stand on the handle of the weapon before flipping over it and drawing it from the ground in a single motion. Seeing him spin the weapon in a single-handed grip like it weighed nothing, the kunoichi shrugged. "Though… considering you're more animal than man, it's highly unlikely that you will."

"Ha! Very funny, Kin-chan," Naruto shouted, grinning across at the girl, spinning the sword once more before driving it into the floor. An ear-splitting crack rang out at the impact of the blade. "I'm all man. That's the difference between me and every other male in this village."

Tayuya barked a laugh, "I'm pretty sure a lot of the guys will have something to say to you about that. They'd probably come chasing you down every single ditch and furrow around the neighborhood until their feet start to bleed and their legs snap in half." And she was absolutely confident that Naruto would be able to outrun and outlast every single person in this village, farmer and Kage alike.

"Well… I won't deny that that truth might come to upset several of my colleagues, but it is what it is. I can't help nature." You could tell Naruto was just teasing and riding the waves of his irritating yet lovable ego. It was a defense mechanism he'd come up with to fight back against people who'd ever called him names, talked down to him or doubted him. Being confident and showing that confidence through words and appearances was one of the defining points of his character, and one of the things his friends have come to identify him with. "Anyhow, since my body is perfectly adapted for sudden and erratic movement, and I'm used to carrying around a great weight, I don't have to worry about damaging anything valuable on my person."

"Unless somebody stabs you of course, then that's a completely different story," Tayuya said, grinning over at Kin and earning a nod in agreement. "Try swinging through trees with a kunai buried in your side."

"I once had a branch impaled in my stomach at one time and had to rush to the hospital straight from the forest," Naruto added as a side note, looking up contemplatively before shrugging it off. "That was a pretty shitty day for me… plus I was only starting to live out in the wilderness and with the monkeys, so I was still new to a lot of the stuff going on. My worst would probably have to be recently when I got a back and front full of metal."

"I had a knife slice through my side one time when I was younger and come out the other side," Tayuya said with a shrug. "Training accident. It ricocheted off the target I was aiming for at close range."

"Well… if we're competing over worst stab wounds suffered in our time as ninja, then I think I win this contest," Kin cut in while raising a hand and pointing down at herself. "I don't think I need to remind you guys of my last fight that put me in hospital."

"Yeah. Man…" Naruto chuckled, rubbing the back of his head uneasily at the same time. "You had holes punched all over you. Not only that, but your muscles were also shredded. As far as being impaled goes, you trump both of us by far."

Tayuya nodded before gesturing towards the raven haired girl next to her, "The only one who could really compete with her is Ino?"

Clicking on that note, the jinchuriki pointed across at his girlfriend with a congratulatory grin. "That's right. First round of the tournament."

"Didn't she come out of that with mostly internal injuries?"

"Yeah. Even so, those attacks still cut through her like a knife." Naruto then padded his chest down with a cringing expression. "My clones got hit by her fingers at point blank range and were killed instantly. Imagine a hot poker with a sharp tip drilling through your muscles, bones and your very soul before coming out the other side." He visibly shivered at the memory. "There's a benefit to actually being able to receive flashbacks from your clones. You get to avoid the hit that felled them and learn from their mistakes."

Kin smiled at that before bringing a knee up to her chest and wrapping her arms around it. "The worst is taking the shots in person though. It leaves a much deeper impression."

"Here-here," Tayuya responded while raising her fist like a gavel. "Cracking bones sucks ass."

"Damn straight," Naruto chirped, leaping forward with the enormous sword and swinging it across, spinning it immediately upon execution before digging it through the ground in an upward strike. A spray of debris and dirt flying upwards from the close cut, the boy then took it into a two-handed grip and thrust the weapon in a stabbing motion. "Heh. I think I've finally gotten the hang of this."

"Nice moves," Tayuya remarked happily.

"Still… I don't think I'd want to use something like this," the blonde continued, stepping out of his stance and digging the sword into the ground next to him. Turning to the girls waiting on the sidelines, he saw them both smiling at him, expressions he returned with equal vigor. "It's too bulky and impractical. I'd rather just leave it on my bedroom desk with the rest of my collection rather than carry something like this out onto the field and have it weigh me down. Then again, I think it would be better if I returned it and got the reward to spend it on a lighter weapon."

"You're more of a speed type than a power type," Tayuya led on while propping her chin in her hand and elbow on her knee. "Even though you can hit like a train, carrying large weapons onto the battlefield was never your style. You always went in with a set of kunai at your side and your bare hands."

Kin could also attest to that. "It doesn't really suit you either. I think you should just stick to what you know."

Upon listening to what his friends had to say, the young jinchuriki then gave a cheerful smile before turning his gaze to the side. "I agree." Sensing a group of people approaching them from afar, Naruto spared a few seconds to gauge who they were before a wide grin appeared on his bright visage. "Oh? It looks like we've got some company." His question had Tayuya and Kin look off in the direction he was staring in, and from there waited for the abovementioned visitors to arrive.

A minute or so later and the people that had tripped Naruto's senses eventually arrived on the scene. Stopping inside of the same clearing, Sasuke, along with Sakura, Shikamaru and Kiba appeared. Spearheaded by the Uchiha, who now had an eye patch worn over the side of his face on top of his regular uniform consisting of the black, figure-hugging, high-collar suit and vest, the group stood looking across at the jinchuriki and his friends now fixed on them from their spot over by the log.

"Hey there, guys," Tayuya greeted with a wave, a gesture that was gleefully returned by a smiling Sakura.

"Hey, Tayuya," the pinkette replied.

"Yo!" Kiba also answered with an exclamation that was immediately followed up by a 'yip' from Akamaru perched on top of his head. "What's crackin?"

"Not much. Just came out here to stretch my legs and mess around a little," Naruto replied, pointing to the enormous weapon next to him and his two audience members before nodding towards the newcomers. "What's up with you guys? Training?""

Shikamaru grunted and rubbed the back of his head, before then jabbing a thumb over to Sasuke standing next to him with his hands in his pockets. "We saw Mr. Brooder over here making his way out to the fields in a hurry and decided to follow after him. He looked like he had something gnawing at his back and… well… you know… we got curious."

"Being the sharing and caring type myself, I also decided to tag along," Kiba also added with his usual, characteristic grin in play. He then waved in an off-handed manner, "Plus I was bored, so there's that."

Seeing that there were seats available, Shikamaru quickly and wordlessly made his way over to where Tayuya and Kin were and sat up against the fallen trunk, slipping his hands behind his head and locking his attention onto the field. The girls sitting alongside him didn't say anything against his actions and just let him be, allowing them to watch as Sasuke stepped forward and Sakura and Kiba also decided to move over to the sidelines.

It soon became glaringly obvious to all those present why the four teenagers were here. Everyone had apparently followed Sasuke out to this training ground because he was looking for someone, and that someone just happened to be the blonde wielding the enormous clever in his sights.

After standing and staring across at each other silently for about a minute, the blonde with the sword smiled and nodded to his former teammate. "What's up, Sasuke?"

The raven haired Uchiha narrowed his eyes, "I remember you saying to me a few weeks ago that after I got out of the hospital and fixed myself up that the two of us would be able to meet and have that match we promised each other." Seeing the jinchuriki's expression harden then brought a smile to Sasuke's face. "I sure hope you haven't had any second thoughts about it, because I'm here to collect on it."

Having expected this for some time after all the training sessions his rival had gone through after being excused from his bed, the boy with whiskers on his cheeks remained quiet for several seconds until a smile tugged on his lips. Seeing as how they were all there and his friend was looking much better now, the jinchuriki didn't need to think long to come up with an answer. "Alright then." Taking up the sword he had and spinning it, he then wordlessly tossed it over to Kin, who caught it with both hands and set it down in front of her. While the weapon did hold the attention of a few of those in the area, when they heard Naruto crack his neck, all eyes eventually set back onto him in time to see him limber up. "If you feel like you're up for it, then let's do this. We'll need a ref though."

Nodding, Sasuke then glanced toward the fallen tree. "Guys?"

Jolting out of their reveries, the group sitting on the sidelines looked at one another quickly before Tayuya breathed out and stood up. When she stepped into the light, she quickly took up position in the center between the boys and waved, "I'll do it. Since you guys are both so strong, you'll need someone who'll be able to stop you two if you decide to take this too far."

Sakura, feeling a little on edge, decided to speak up, "Are you sure you two want to do this?" She was aware of how strong Sasuke had become, and Naruto… damn it if that boy hadn't set the bar so high for all of them. Though there was no doubt in her mind about her confidence in both of them, it was quite clear to all those present as to who the strongest out of the two of them was.

"Don't worry about it. We don't intend to kill each other," Naruto stated while training his gaze onto his rival once the mediator had been decided. "However, neither of us plans on holding back against one another either. Since Sasuke was the one who called me out, I'm going to make good on our promise and see this thing through to the end. If he wants to do this, then I won't argue against him."

Sasuke lowered his head in agreement and pulled his hands out of his pockets. "This is just a spar. Nothing else." Stretching out for a few seconds, he then stepped back into an orthodox position yet kept a straight posture. Seeing the Uchiha warm himself up had those on the sidelines brace themselves, particular Sakura and Kiba, whereas Kin and Shikamaru remained impassive, yet kept their full attention glued onto the scene.

"Rules?"

Naruto smiled and turned to Tayuya, "No hitting below the belt for obvious reasons and keep all attacks away from any and all bystanders. Other than that, everything is legal. When Tayuya-chan calls the fight, there will be no disputes."

The Uchiha had no problems with this. "Time limit?"

"Since we're all free for the rest of the day, I'm going to give this thing an hour. That should be enough time for the two of us to blow off some steam." Seeing the raven haired boy nod, the jinchuriki then pointed into the woods. "Just like with Kakashi-sensei, we have this entire clearing and the forest. But just so the referee doesn't lose sight of us, we're going to keep it inside this area. If we go too far, Tayuya will call us on it. Okay?"

"Agreed," Sasuke replied, a second later dropping into a wide and ready stance. When he saw the jinchuriki ahead of him start to skip on the spot with his arms at his sides, it drew a nervous bead of sweat from the prodigy as he activated his Sharingan. "Let's do this."

"On your whistle, Tayuya-chan," the jinchuriki spoke, bringing his right fist up to his cheek while his lefty swung out in front of him.

Smirking at the enthusiasm both opponents held and looking between the pair eagerly, the redhead then raised a hand. Under the simultaneous intakes of breath from Sakura and Kiba tensing up, the Jonin kunoichi gave her last words. "You boys have half an hour: Uchiha Sasuke versus Uzumaki 'Shithead' Naruto." This got the blonde to take on a sour expression and glare at the girl, who stuck her tongue out at him teasingly before turning back to the middle, at the same time ignoring the snickers from Sakura, Kin and Kiba. After a moment of pause, she then dropped her hand in a clean and swift motion. "GO!"

The musician jumped back for space. The moment she did so, Sasuke took off from his spot with a running start, kicking up dust and dashing at Naruto at full speed. The blonde visibly responded to his charge by stepping away, with the raven haired Uchiha setting up his left for an opening swing.

"This is it! Time to see how far I've really come!" As he closed in, Sasuke saw the jinchuriki begin to sway left and right, at the same time hopping from foot to foot in a methodical pattern. "I've been your teammate for over half a year now, dobe. I've had plenty of time to get a firm grasp of your fighting habits and abilities. I'll be sure to use them to my advantage."

Unfortunately for him, and Sasuke was pretty sure the blonde knew this as well, but that advantage fell both ways. While the Uchiha had a good idea of how his teammate fought, the jinchuriki had a good idea of how he fought as well. This was what happened when you both trained under the same master. You're able to see everything and learn everything about them, especially when you were essentially best friends.

However, this was not going to stop Sasuke from capitalizing on what he knew were his friend's weaknesses. All he had to do was form a counter to his counter, and get him when his guard went down.

Sasuke swung in with his left shooting out, only for Naruto to slip around it and strike at him with his right in a perfect counter cross. Expecting an attack from over the shoulder of his extending jab, the Uchiha gritted his teeth and quickly blocked with his other hand, a loud 'crack' ringing out at the impact of the fist being deflected before the raven haired boy spun in with a kick. The jinchuriki quickly checked with his left and stepped in, his left coming over in a downward overhand.

In an instantaneous exchange of numerous hits, which took place in the span of a second and echoed out with a series of loud and sharp thuds one after the other, both boys eventually separated with their eyes fixed firmly on the other, and each of their arms held up in different positions, indicating the attacks they'd both thrown and blocked at the same time. Sliding across the ground, Sasuke managed to stop himself short about twenty meters away and lunged in once more. His increase in speed stunned the shinobi and kunoichi watching from the sidelines, but didn't faze Naruto at all as he watched the Uchiha close in from behind his guard, which covered his serious and unflinching expression.

Going in low, Sasuke frowned. "I need to dig in deep. If I have a chance of getting him, I need to be aggressive and aim for simultaneous exchanges up close, and that means taking some damage of my own." He had no choice after all. Since his opponent was so bloody quick, as fast as Lee in taijutsu alone, there was no other option available. "If I act passively or hold back in even the slightest, I'll lose out at middle range. The only way to damage him is to get under his shadow…" He then tightened his jaw and dove in, his guard up and head down. "And grit my teeth!"

Naruto frowned and, with his left arm, began to swing it from side to side like a pendulum. His death scythe of a limb alerted Sasuke to danger, who threw both his arms up in a cross arm block as he closed in, while his opponent held his ground.

"Tracer!" The moment Sasuke fell into his range, the blonde fired off two swift jabs through the air. His whip of an arm slammed into the raven haired boy's guard, a loud 'cracking' sound ringing out on each impact when the jinchuriki tested the boy's defenses. While the Uchiha shuddered to a stop on the first two hits, he began weaving and bobbing his head while taking hits from the whip like punishes, his one Sharingan eye piercing through his guard and towards his opponent, tracing the line of lefts flying his way.

Stepping away and continuing to hammer Sasuke with sharp blows from his flicker jab, Naruto frowned and fired another jab. His opponent however slipped under it and pressed in, shouldering his way into the jinchuriki's range and opening up with a body blow. The Uchiha growled and rammed the hook straight into Naruto's side, only for the boy to block it with his elbow and cringe at the force.

"Smart move; using the cross arm block to take those hits. I can't cut through a guard that strong, since the punch is supposed to irritate, not knock a person out," Naruto thought, before seeing his opponent swing up at him with an overhand. Slipping to the side to avoid the blow meant for his face, the jinchuriki gritted his teeth when he saw Sasuke's face pop out from behind the one arm he was using to defend and, upon pulling his fist back, came swinging up at him with another hook. "So he's taking this to an in fight? Very well."

Sasuke had assumed a crouching stance and lowered himself closer to the ground to avoid the hail of jabs sent his way. Knowing that he couldn't win in a taijutsu fight at middle range, he'd shouldered up against the blonde for a close range fight instead, and intended to seal Naruto's deadly speed and footwork. While this meant that the distance he'd acquired had cut off his own footwork and essentially sealed his ability to use excessive kicking, it did leave his upper body open, allowing him to concentrate only on Naruto's fists.

However, what the Uchiha had forgotten was that Naruto's original fighting style from days long past was brawling, and that he could in fight at super close range without the need for footwork.

Crouching down and meeting Sasuke on even ground, the jinchuriki slipped under the boy's hook, bringing his left hand up to his chin to guard while he weaved under the punch before uncorking his right straight up into the Uchiha's face in the form of an uppercut. When the raven haired Chunin dodged it by a hair, he responded with a right punch, which Naruto slipped around, as well as the jab, left hook, right uppercut and the left elbow to follow.

Slipping and weaving around the punches coming in at him, the blonde frowned as his eyes traced the blows, telegraphing their motions and gauging his distance to his target. Dodging Sasuke's attacks at only a few inches apart, the blonde then swayed back at an impossible angle to avoid the boy's right cross, at the same time countering with a left hook right over his extended shoulder and nailing the Uchiha in the temple.

The blow impacted with a crack that had Sasuke's head cocked to the side in momentary surprise. Shaking his head and ridding himself of the veil of unconsciousness that threatened to pull over, the genius gritted his teeth again and responded with a downward hook at the still bent backwards Naruto. The blonde however, expecting the counter, slipped around it, clenching his jaw when he popped up on the outside of Sasuke's shoulder when he missed and, upon bringing up his right fist, nailed his overextended opponent with a swift, concussive blow to the head. This swift, lightning fast punch landed with another sound of a rifle cracking, which had Kiba and Shikamaru cringe at the angle it landed and the blast of sweat that exploded off of Sasuke's head from the impact.

Nearly blacking out, a stunned Sasuke stumbled forward at the counter and bit his teeth together tightly. "Holy shit, his fists cut like blades. A single punch is enough to put an ordinary person down. Not only that, but he's fucking fast." Eye opening wider, it then glanced to the side to see Naruto still leaning back after landing his punch and loading it for another. Time slowed for both opponents in their engagement, allowing them to feel and see every millisecond of their fight. "That wasn't one attack he just threw. That was three!"

The speed Naruto landed those three right punches to his head looked and sounded like he'd only thrown one. But no. That wasn't the case. With his Sharingan, Sasuke was able to count three punches. That was a ridiculous level of agility, even by their standards.

Growling, Sasuke came around with another hook, attempting to deck his opponent into the ground. However, his big mistake came from him over flourishing the attack in frustration, which allowed Naruto to sway under the punch and, while he was bent over sideways and his opponent's arm was still sailing over him, he nailed the genius with an uppercut straight into his face, sending blood and spit flying from his mouth. After missing big time with the attack and seeing stars, the Uchiha recovered as fast as he could and came back with a right body shot, only for Naruto to nail him three times in the head when he came around followed by a right overhand right on top of Sasuke's cranium. Blows landed, Naruto sprang away to avoid his staggered attack and watched Sasuke stumble forward, blood dripping down his chin and a dazed look on his face.

Choking in surprise, the Uchiha shuddered to a stop, leaving Naruto an appropriate opening to follow-through. Seeing it, the jinchuriki went right in with a left roundhouse kick for the boy's bent over head, which was perfectly set up to take off.

Unable to see the blow coming due to having his brain smacked around, Sasuke was in no position to parry or defend against. However, with the shade of unconsciousness drifting over him from trying to take the boy in close combat, the Uchiha quickly remembered the whole point of the pain he was enduring right now and, upon experiencing a rush of memories from his past, including his defeat at the hands of Tsubaki and then those two women from the band of mercenaries, clenched his teeth once more and allowed a snarl to escape his throat.

Fists forming, the prodigy's eye flew up from under the bangs of his hair and towards his opponent kicking at him. The red eye of his Sharingan shone like a hot poker.

"NO! Not yet!"

Reacting instantly, the Uchiha sprang away, barely avoiding the attack aimed for his temple and skidding to a stop several yards away. When Naruto brought his foot back down from his kick and gazed across at his opponent curiously, with the audience also joining in, all observers and bystanders got the biggest surprise for that day when they saw Sasuke straighten up and fix his one, good eye onto his opponent, only this time… it was different.

The two tomoe spinning with a mixture of anger and intensity, Naruto, Tayuya and everyone in the area had the pleasure of seeing the eye evolve to its next stage, a third tomoe sprouting and coming to complete the circle of the famed Uchiha kekkei genkai. When the wheel around his pupil stopped rotating, the group of teenagers was finally able to marvel at the now tri-pronged quality of his eye and admire its piercing gaze. It was a change that Sasuke immediately felt in his sight and body, a sensation that brought a new grin to his badly bruised face.

"Let's kick things up a notch," Sasuke said enthusiastically upon breathing away his shocked reverie and sliding into yet another stance.

Astonished at seeing his friend's Sharingan ascend into its next level, Naruto allowed another smile to form and also fell back into fighting finesse. Left arm swinging in front of him and right fist held up to his chin, he then began skipping on the spot once more. "Alright, teme. Round two!"

Smirking, the Uchiha then allowed his expression to become dead serious again and wiped the blood from his chin. Feeling the sting of the punches still affecting him, the boy clicked his tongue as he watched his opponent continue to hop, both their faces firm and all their attention fixed completely on one another.

"His taijutsu and his speed are his most dangerous weapons. He's so damn fast, even Kakashi-sensei's Sharingan finds it hard to keep up with him because of his unpredictable nature and movements," Sasuke thought, a realization that prompted him to quickly change his strategy as he dug his feet into the earth and watched his adversary continue to skip. "It's suicide to go head to head with him in taijutsu if you're not on Lee's level, and even then he completely controls the pace of the fight. That means I need to fight him with ninjutsu at middle range."

Naruto used wind nature chakra and, as he made absolutely clear in the Chunin Selection Exams, he could completely nullify any and all lightning based attacks. That meant Chidori was out of the question, not that Sasuke planned on using that move on a friend. However, there was still one avenue the boy could take.

"Hit and run attacks from blind spots," Sasuke thought with a nod of certainty, his now three tomoe Sharingan giving one last spin when he saw the jinchuriki begin to sway. "I'll use ninjutsu to slow him down and take away his use of the field, and pour on the pressure little by little until he gives!" He then saw the blonde's form suddenly flicker, his erratic movements coming into play before he vanished in an orange flash, disappearing completely from sight. Just like Tayuya and everyone else, Sasuke balked in shock at the show of speed, as even his Sharingan lost track of him. "Fuck! No time."

Crouching low and putting all his power in his legs, Sasuke just jumped. He didn't care where he was going or where his opponent was, he just had to get off of the ground. And no sooner that the Uchiha left the earth, Naruto rematerialized out of the air directly beside him swinging with a punch, only to realize then he'd missed when the raven haired boy took to the sky above.

Skidding to a stop, the jinchuriki looked up and saw his foe glaring down as he slowly climbed in altitude, earning a hard stare from the blonde.

"Good move, teme," Naruto thought, giving his praise to the boy.

Breathing out, Sasuke took aim. "This is my one chance!" Slamming his hands together, the genius flew through hand seals one after the other before ending on the tiger seal. That was pretty much the cue for Tayuya to hightail it out of there along with the rest of the audience, at the same time the raven haired Chunin sucked in air and his chest inflated to an unnatural size. As soon as his tank was full, the Uchiha unleashed his attack upon his foe. "Now! Katon: Gokakyu no Jutsu!" (Fire Release: Great Fireball Technique)

Like a dragon, the boy exhaled an enormous ball of flames straight towards the ground, the attack pushing him further skywards while at the same time the blast descended upon Naruto. The jinchuriki gave a momentary look of surprise before he was struck full on by the incoming blast, which hit the ground with a similar affect to how a meteor would strike the earth. An enormous explosion took place as the shockwave spread with a wall of flames in all directions that cooked every inch of ground it was able to cover. Due to it being stopped by the surface of the field, the shockwave traveled to the very edge of the forest, where Tayuya and the others took cover as they saw the land covered by the raging fires blasting outwards get scorched to a charcoal black, with the telltale signs of areas still burning left behind when most of the jutsu finally lifted.

After setting the field ablaze, Sasuke descended back to ground level safely at the edge of the burning zone, landing in a crouched position before rising up and staring across the affected plains. Due to the impact and spread of the attack, the genius was confident that he was able to get his opponent and that he'd somehow been knocked about within the blast radius. However, while his three tomoe Sharingan searched the field, he suddenly felt a tremor at his feet, looking down with a start when he finally picked up on his opponent's trail just in time to see the ground at his toes explode upwards and Naruto come flying up at him with a punch.

Leaning back quickly at the last second to avoid the blonde's lightning fast, jumping uppercut, Sasuke gritted his teeth and spun on the spot, before sending a killer roundhouse kick straight into his opponent's side. The blow rang out with a deafening thud accompanied by the blonde's shout of agony as the Uchiha sent Naruto spiraling across the field before crashing across the grass, where he tumbled violently to a stop and ended up in a cloud of dust. Upon sending his foe away, Sasuke landed gracefully on the ground and smirked at his success at finally being able to land a hit.

But just as the boy was getting smug, he suddenly felt a cold sensation come over him before his legs buckled. The next thing he knew, Sasuke was on his knees and staring ahead of him in shock, as his lower body shook from a loss of feeling. "What? W-W-What's… happening to me?" With Tayuya and everybody else looking on in bewilderment, wondering what was going on with the boy, the victim eventually realized what had happened and clenched his hands against the grass in frustration. "D-Damn it! So that's it! He was aiming for my chin!"

Though it looked like he had missed in his sneak attack from underground, Naruto was dead on with his blow and was able to graze the Uchiha's chin, which had been his aim all along. With his experience in taijutsu, the jinchuriki knew that if you got hit in the chin, because of the unique structure of a person's nervous system, the reverberation shakes the brain up in a way that makes the body freeze up, effectively paralyzing them and taking away their legs. So basically, even if the victim is conscious, their body would not be able to respond how they wanted it to. That pretty much made the Uchiha a sitting duck… literally.

"Shit!" Sasuke thought, his Sharingan snapping up when he spotted another figure hiding underground, a split second before the earth ahead of him exploded upwards and the real Naruto came flying out at him. "He sent a clone at me first! He knew I would be able to counter him so he sent a decoy first to set me up!" Cursing at his inability to move, the boy slapped his hands together and flew through hand seals.

The instant the last seal was pulled, the real Naruto was now directly in front of his target. Once he was in range, the jinchuriki cocked his foot back and kicked the boy straight in the face. The blow rung out with an earsplitting crack, and the raven haired genius was lifted off of the floor and sent flying across the field. Hitting and bouncing off of the grass in his travel, the boy eventually hit the base of a tree at the edge of the clearing and crashed into the trunk in a shower of dust and debris. Seconds upon making landfall, allowing the blonde to touch back down from his awesome surprise attack, everyone eventually watched the veil of the impact lift, where they then spotted a log lying in place of where Sasuke should've been.

Blinking at the sight of it, Naruto then gave a smile as his eyes began cutting around the clearing. Taking note of the scorched field behind him and the holes he'd sprung out of, the jinchuriki began searching for his adversary. "A replacement technique, just like the one he pulled against Tsubaki. I figured he would be fast with his jutsu, I just didn't know how fast." Looking around the area, the blonde then grinned and crouched down, placing his hand on the floor to begin reading the vibes traveling across the area. Closing his eyes, he continued his assessment. "Since he couldn't move using his feet, he instead relied on the Kawarimi no Jutsu to transport him to cover. It'll take him a minute or so to recover from the blow to the chin, and by that time he'll have another strategy cooked up." And by which point, the blonde would be ready for him.

The audience on the sidelines waited and watched with baited breath to see what would happen next. All eyes were glued on Naruto, who continued to hold the center of the ring with his knee and hand placed against the floor, and a serious look on his face. Tayuya also looked on intently, wondering what both teenagers had planned next as they waited for a response from the opposition. Eventually, after waiting a couple of minutes for something to happen, the viewers were finally rewarded for their patience with action.

All at once, a hail of shuriken flew out of the woods from the side, which Naruto turned to and batted away with his kunai. Deflecting the stars one after the other with his blade, the jinchuriki fixed his attention on the area where they'd come from, only to lean back suddenly to avoid the kunai wielded by a reappearing Sasuke lunging at him from the side. The attack was fast and decisive, with the Uchiha glaring after his foe when he back stepped to regain his balance, before going after him again.

Seeing the raven haired prodigy come around, Naruto gritted his teeth and leapt into the air, planting his hand against Sasuke's shoulder when he lunged in a second time with a slash of his kunai, before flipping over him and landing on the other side. The moment he landed, the raven haired boy was right on him once again, rushing forward with leading blows from his kunai arm, which forced his jinchuriki opponent to back down due to the increase reach of his attacks. Sparks flew as the pair danced across the clearing, the blonde retreating step by step when Sasuke pressured him with repeated strikes from his weapon and forced him to block with his own kunai.

"Continuous and compact attacks prevents you from throwing counters properly, and keeping you on your toes stops you from using your awkward swaybacks effectively. That's the main weakness to your wild fighting style!" Sasuke said as he continued to chase his opponent away with his blade. "An increase in an opponent's reach also messes up your depth perception and makes you hesitant about attacking!"

Naruto gritted his teeth as he then held his ground, meeting Sasuke with slashes of his own kunai and ducking around his. "You were hiding for so long… and you've had more than enough time to analyze my fighting style. Was that your strategy, teme?"

Eventually, after a swift exchange of blows, both boys eventually slammed their blades together and ended in a grappling match. Their kunai grinding against the other, the two of them held their ground and glared across at their opponent, gritting their teeth as they attempted to overpower their wily foe. As they fixed onto the other's gaze, Sasuke responded to his friend's question.

"Yeah. It's impossible to fight you on open ground and in the trees on your terms, so I had to change my approach," the Uchiha stated, the strain in his voice indicating how much the two of them were struggling against one another.

Expression serious, Naruto hardened his gaze before pressing further forward. "You really are perceptive. I expected nothing less from you, Sasuke."

After a minute of trying to force their adversary away to get some distance, Sasuke opted to give first. Breaking their engagement prematurely, the Uchiha caused Naruto to stumble forwards while he leapt away at speed. The moment he leapt back, the prodigy then drew a large, folded up blade from his back and snapped it open, revealing it to be a Fuma Shuriken. As soon as he drew it and pulled it back, he then threw it forward in a wide arc, the massive fan blade cutting through the air and flying towards his off balanced opponent and coming at him from the side.

Using his messed up stance to his advantage, the jinchuriki was able to telegraph the trajectory of the large blade and acted accordingly. Falling forward, the boy slammed his hand into the ground and flipped himself to the side and onto his feet, effectively avoiding the first Fuma Shuriken. Having seen this in action already and sensing a disturbance in the air, the boy was also able to leap to the side to avoid the second Fuma blade that came immediately afterwards from under the shadow of the first, and would have buried itself into his chest had he not moved.

However, the direction Naruto leapt in turned out to be a massive blunder for him. As he was descending back to the floor to land on his hand from jumping out of the way of the two windmill shuriken, the jinchuriki looked down in shock when he realized he was falling towards a floor covered in explosive tags at a spread of twenty meters, all of which were igniting. Realizing that Sasuke had forced him to dodge in the direction of the trap and that it covered a wide, open area with nowhere to grapple on to, the blonde was unable to stop himself from descending towards it.

Having landed a distance away, Sasuke formed a single handed seal and grinned, concentrating hard as he then set off his master trap. "There!"

In slow motion, Naruto saw the sparks fly off of the tags now beginning to detonate. Responding quickly, the boy opened up both his palms and aimed them in front of him. As he spread all his limbs, his expression became dead serious when he focused his chakra at certain points along his body and fired off his next jutsu. "Tsubame no Koto!" (Soaring Swallow) A split second later, ejection points for wind exploded from his palms, knees and chest, blasting him away at bullet speed a split second before the explosive tags went up in an enormous, concussive explosion. The blast was so large that it took down several trees in the forest they were placed near, while igniting the entire area in orange flames.

Flipping through the air after the quick burst of wind that was easily able to get him out of the blast's radius, Naruto landed safely on the ground. Crouching down, the blonde glared in the direction of the calming fires he'd avoided, which left a thick black cloud of smoke hanging in the air above the crater the explosion had formed. It was while he had his attention set on the area his eyes widened in surprise when he saw a barrage of shuriken fly directly out of the haze and towards him. Pulling up another kunai, the boy began deflecting the stars one after the other in quick succession, sparks flying as metal clashed against metal.

Upon avoiding and blocking the barrage, Naruto's eyes widened when he felt a presence appear behind him and looked over his shoulder to see Sasuke materialize out of thin air with a jumping side kick. "What?" Reacting instinctively, the jinchuriki brought both arms up and blocked the attack, the force of which pushing him back along the ground. After which, the jinchuriki threw his opponent off, watching Sasuke land against the tree behind him before leaping off of it and at him with an axe kick. The Uchiha then pressed home with a kunai in hand, slashing and kicking out at Naruto, forcing him to duck and sway around hits, before back flipping to avoid a series of high and low kicks thrown by the genius.

Hopping back onto his feet, Naruto frowned when he saw Sasuke jump at him with a backwards spin kick, a blow he caught before swaying back to avoid another kick that came around from the other side. With his timing memorized, the blonde landed a hand behind him when he flipped upside down and pivoted on it, throwing a kick straight into the still airborne Uchiha's side, which the boy barely parried and was knocked away from the force.

Both boys jumping back into upright positions, Sasuke immediately drew a kunai from his pouch and hurled it straight at his opponent, who quickly leapt out of the way and landed against the trunk of a tree nearest to the forest. As soon as he landed, he vanished into the canopy, just in time to avoid the volley of fireballs Sasuke began lobbing at him from his lips.

"Katon: Hosenka no Jutsu!" (Fire Release: Phoenix Sage Fire Technique) Sasuke focused, sending more and more small shots hurling into the canopy. The attacks impacted against the branches and leaves with explosive force, lighting up the forest as he peppered the area at random.

Continuing to fire more and more rounds from his lips, with his Sharingan guiding him, the Uchiha then saw one of his fireballs get knocked out of the air by an invisible ball of wind launched from inside the forest, which caused it to detonate before even touching the trees, but with a lot more force than it originally would. The blast choked the air with smoke, seconds before an orange blur landed back out onto the open ground outside of the woods and darted towards the Uchiha with invisible speed. Alarmed, Sasuke formed another seal and began spitting more miniature fireballs, attempting to hit the orange blur, only for it to dart between them and stop once his barrage ceased.

As soon as he made it through the assault, Naruto uncorked a right cross and hurled a ball of wind straight towards the raven haired boy, smashing him in the chest and bombarding him with more bullet fast attacks. The miniature wind blasts of the jinchuriki's Hien smacked Sasuke repeatedly before one last round knocked him off his feet, sending him tumbling to the ground in a cloud of dust.

Skidding to a stop on all fours, the Uchiha coughed in shock and glared up, where he then saw his opponent leap forward with his right hand cranked back before throwing it forward.

"Fūton: Senpūken!" (Wind Release: Whirlwind Fist) With the sound of a hurricane, Naruto unleashed a tornado of wind from his open palm in the form of a narrow blast that ripped across the field towards his adversary.

Seeing the twister of wind tearing towards him, creating an enormous trench on its path towards him, Sasuke responded to the approaching attack as fast as he could. Jumping to his feet and flying through hand seals, the young man then slammed both hands into the ground and focused his chakra into the earth. "Doton: Shoheki!" (Earth Release: Enclosing Wall) A shockwave in the form of a tremor then rang out, followed a split second by an enormous wall of earth jutting out of the floor to form a protective barrier in front of him in the blink of an eye. The wall came to his defense just in time to block the tornado, which struck it dead on and cracked it.

Upon cushioning the blast, which struck the earth made obstacle with the sound of a cannon firing, the wall eventually fell to pieces, revealing Sasuke finishing a series of hand seals.

Landing on the bird seal, the genius then concentrated hard before unleashing his next attack. "Here's another from Kakashi-sensei. Suiton: Suiryudan no Jutsu!" (Water Release: Water Dragon Bullet Technique) Upon making the incantation, the water in the lake directly behind him exploded upwards and the sky was filled with an enormous, snake-like dragon, which whipped left and right until its eyes set on its target and a loud roar escaped its throat.

Seeing the giant dragon fill the sky, Naruto frowned, corked his right fist back, and threw it forward, unleashing another twisting gale of wind that struck the dragon in the center of the chest. Blasting a good chunk of water out of it, the jutsu gave a wounded cry before charging straight down, striking the ground directly in front of Sasuke with concussive force. The impact with the field dispelled the water creature, but the copious amounts of lake used in it blasted forward in the form of an enormous wave, which caught the jinchuriki by surprise and forced him to bring both arms up front. The wall of water soon smashed into him, knocking him off of his feet and sending him tumbling violently through the currents.

The wave reached the very edge of the forest, where Tayuya and everybody else stood and backed up when the lake's shore was effectively extended to them. Upon seeing the water flow stop at their toes, everyone looked up to see a thoroughly drenched Naruto still in the middle of the field rise up out of the shallows and glare across at Sasuke standing perfectly well out of reach of his water release attack that hit the ground.

Smirking, the Uchiha rushed forward and across the ruined ground, choosing to restart his engagement with his opponent. Responding in kind and quickly recovering from the disorientating hit, Naruto blurred out and charged in as well, both opponents sprinting to meet directly in the center of the field until the two of them suddenly slowed to a crawl. When they eventually stopped several meters away from each other, both boys blinked in surprise at their sudden decrease in traction and looked down at the water at their feet to see what was happening… or at least… what used to be water.

The shallow pool formed by the dragon bullet impacting with the ground kicked up all of the burnt earth, dirt and grass making up the surface of their arena and mashed it all together into a form of slurry. Due to the sheer size of the jutsu and the mass amounts of lake used to create it, it'd left a very deep, thick pool of mud stretching across pretty much all of the field around them, and when the pair attempted to meet each other in the middle, it became glaringly obvious to the both of them that their feet couldn't decide whether or not they were treading in water or ground.

Since the dragon had been created with chakra, when it crashed into the ground that chakra infused with the earth, creating an adhesive sludge that canceled out the shinobi's ability to walk on it.

Attempting to shunshin out of there, Naruto jerked left and right a couple of times, grunting in effort before giving a harsh chuckle and looking up to see the unpleasant glare on his opponent's face. "Well… this is a fine mess you've gotten us into, teme."

Clicking his tongue, the Uchiha looked back at his opponent. "Speak for yourself. I'm perfectly fine with these conditions. Besides…" The boy's Sharingan flashed dangerously as he took another fighting stance. "In this, you won't be able to use your ridiculous speed against me."

"True. But we're all slow when we're thigh deep in mud," Naruto shot back, dropping into a stance and rushing forward, still able to cover a significant amount of ground despite the drawback.

Sasuke responded by swiftly drawing a cluster of shuriken from his pouch and hurling them at his opponent, only to see him duck right under the barrage and tackle him straight in the stomach. The blonde knocked both of them into the mud, the pair disappearing under the surface in a splash and remaining out of sight for several seconds, until the Uchiha surfaced with a gasp and absolutely drenched in crap. Snarling, the raven haired youth began digging through the mud, looking around wildly for his opponent through the chakra infused shithole, until a figure surfacing behind him pulled his attention around, where he then received a right cross to the face.

Stumbling backwards from the clean hit, the Uchiha then rushed forward with a right cross, which promoted Naruto to parry with his right before throwing a backhanded jab that smacked his opponent in the face. He then followed up with a straight and a hook, which Sasuke blocked, before he buried a body blow into the boy's exposed stomach, causing the prodigy's guard to drop and opening him up to a left hook. Seeing spit fly from Sasuke's mouth, Naruto attempted to kick him, only for the boy to block his sloppy blow and counter with a left cross, nailing the blonde in the face, then in the stomach with a body shot. After which, the raven haired boy then locked both hands together and rammed them across the jinchuriki's mug, sending him falling backwards into the mud with a splash.

When Sasuke advanced, Naruto swiftly rolled to the side and got up, swinging in with a left jab that cocked the teen's head back before the Uchiha nailed him in the stomach with a side kick, knocking the wind out of the blonde. The staggering blow didn't stop the jinchuriki though, who managed to brace against it and jumped into the air, nailing his opponent across the head with a downward elbow that had Sasuke stumbling in turn.

Growling, Sasuke drew a kunai and swung in with a yell, watching the blonde slip around it before throwing an elbow when he attempted to counter from the outside. The jinchuriki blocked with his arms, along with the hook that followed, until he saw his opponent start to swing in with his kunai again, which prompted Naruto to counter accordingly. He stepped in deep to throw off his foe's approach and slammed both hands into both sides of Sasuke's head, giving him a thunder clap that had the Uchiha's bell ringing.

Yelling out in agony and dropping his knife, Sasuke grabbed his ears in an attempt to stop the pain, only to look up and see Naruto step toward him again and snap a kick straight into his face, sending him toppling into the mud with another splash.

Standing on the sidelines, Tayuya, Kin, Sakura, Shikamaru and Kiba watched on silently and in awe as the two teens continued to trade blows evenly in the soggy pit. There was no grace, form or any of the superb evasiveness the pair had displayed beforehand. It was just straight up fighting, with the two teenagers beating the crap out of one another with their fists. The audience just sat there watching the fight go down, until the Inuzuka cracked a grin and pulled out a rations bar from behind him. The opening of the muesli item had everyone turn to the boy and throw him a strange look, to which the Genin with the puppy on his head looked across at them in turn and shrugged.

"What? It's just a snack." Kiba then saw the Nara shake his head at him, which he responded to with a frown and his typical exclamation. "Oh, come on! You can't pay for entertainment like this; watching two guys slugging it out in a mud pit. You girls should be screaming your heads off and waving your underwear around in the air right about now."

In a way, Kiba was right. Sakura, Kin and Tayuya were rather enjoying the sight of Naruto and Sasuke beating the crap out of each other while they were caked in mud. The only way the picture would be complete is if the two guys were shirtless and in Speedos. However, being girls, the three of them chose to keep these sorts of remarks to themselves and their mouths shut. Imaginations running wild regardless, the kunoichi went back to watching the match and Kiba dismissed the opinions of his colleagues and went on to eating his arena-side snack.

Both absolutely filthy, the Uchiha jumped at Naruto with a right overhand, nailing the boy in the guard and breaking it with the force, before hooking him across the face and sending him spinning into the pond. When he saw his adversary land on his hands and knees, Sasuke stood behind him and flew through seals, sucking in air for an immediate fireball technique.

Sensing his opponent's jutsu, Naruto gritted his teeth and spun around, at the same time dipping his hand through the mud and activating his jutsu. "Jet Hand!" The effect ended with his wind spraying mud in the form of a wave right into the Uchiha, covering him from head to toe but the blast of slurry also catching him in the eye. The jinchuriki ended up countering the raven haired boy in the middle of executing his next move, and with his eyesight being knocked out in the same instant, resulted in Sasuke firing his Gokakyu no Jutsu (Great Fireball Technique) in the form of a flamethrower. It effectively missed his opponent when the blonde quickly circled around to avoid it and nailed the Uchiha in the head with a left cross. The blow cracked the teen in the noggin and sent him into the mud.

Falling onto his face, Sasuke growled and looked back, seeing Naruto rushing at him and, taking aim, nailed the blonde in the stomach with a kick that sent him toppling into the swamp. As soon as the jinchuriki was felled, the raven haired prodigy jumped to his feet and slogged on over to where he landed, only to get caught by surprise when he felt something land on his back and cling to him. Glaring over his shoulder, the Uchiha saw another Naruto with his arms looped under his and holding him open, effectively occupying him while the other Naruto he'd knocked over jumped back up from where he landed and charged at him with a kunai.

Frustrated, Sasuke reached up and grabbed the blonde doppelganger on his back by the head and violently threw him into the incoming copy, knocking both over and sending them into the mud with a splash. When he saw them dispel, the Uchiha was then blindsided by another, which he staggered from a blow to the face before quickly deflecting its follow up attacks and grabbing the blonde on his last one, kicking him in the face in response and sending him into the mud. Downing that nuisance, the genius then ducked to avoid another clone diving at him from in front. Flipping from the mud, the raven haired boy drew a shuriken and pegged it at the one who jumped over him, nailing the copy in the chest when he spun around and took it out. He then switched to ducking and avoiding the punches from the other clone he kicked away, backing down a few steps before countering the clone with a few swift punches to its face, hiking up its chest and kneeing it in the chin, sending it to the ground and dispelling it just like the others.

Panting, Sasuke looked around the field wildly and attempted to search the soggy area, but shook his head in annoyance. "Damn it! Where are you?" To this point, they'd traded an even amount of blows in this swamp. If there was any chance the Uchiha had of beating the blonde, it was right here, right now, where both of them were slow and able to fight on equal footing. Sure, it was technically a brawl, but a fight was still a fight.

After several moments of looking around, Sasuke then became aware of a shadow behind him and spun around to see Naruto had risen out of the mud once more. As soon as he was up and in sight again, the jinchuriki gave a smirk and rushed forward. "Here I am!" He then charged at his foe, leading with a backwards spin kick that slammed across the boy's face, followed by a body blow he buried into the Uchiha's stomach, and then a hook he crashed across the raven haired teen's mug.

Gritting his teeth, Sasuke recovered quickly and kicked up at Naruto, seeing him block and then feel him bury two more body blows into his left side. Bending over slightly from the hits, the Uchiha then parried a hook aimed for his face and roundhouse kicked the blonde in response, smacking him to the side and staggering him. When the jinchuriki stumbled, the prodigy advanced on him in a rush, jumping into the air and kicking down at him. Naruto slipped the blow, but then had another kick planted in his stomach that sent him barreling backwards into the mud.

Rising out of the soup, Naruto met Sasuke head on. The pair traded more killer blows, both fighters blocking, parrying, circling the area and punching it out. When the Uchiha broke the engagement, he kicked at his opponent, who blocked the attack, and then the haymaker to follow. Upon catching the swing, the jinchuriki then shoved his opponent away, watching him stumble and drop his guard. Spotting the opening, the jinchuriki jumped at him, cupped both hands over his head and slammed them into the Uchiha's shoulder, a loud crack ringing out and a shout of agony escaping the genius's mouth.

Staggered, Sasuke gritted his teeth and spun around, lashing out and missing his opponent when he weaved around him. When he missed with a hook, the Uchiha was rewarded with repeated shots to the body. The blows landed with deafening cracks again and again, drawing a response from the prodigy in the form of a swift one-two, only for Naruto to counter with two swift shots to his face, followed by a left hook to his jaw that disoriented him and then a right cross to his face, which knocked the Uchiha recoiling away.

Trekking blindly, Sasuke growled and brought his arms up for another bout, until he saw Naruto jump and spin at him with a kick, which he planted into his collarbone and knocked the wind out of him. His guard broken, the Uchiha tried to regain his bearings, only to respond with a right cross when he saw his foe lunge in once more, only this time to plant his hand against his chest. This action immediately had Sasuke's eye widen in horror before the feeling of a hurricane storm concentrated around a single point exploded against his ribcage.

"Jet Hand!" Naruto roared, launching Sasuke from his spot in a gale of wind. He watched the raven haired boy fly over the mud pit and grinned after him, only to spot the shimmer of something thin and transparent reflecting light on the wind and looked around him quickly. It was then the jinchuriki realized his opponent had managed to loop ninja wire through the air around him, and with the boy blasting off at speed, resulted in the strings snapping his arms to his sides, binding him, and connecting him to his rival turned projectile. The blonde had only a split second to contemplate his enormous mistake, which came to his face in the form of dismay. "Oh. Not good." He then grunted when he was suddenly yanked off his feet and dragged through the mud, on his face, at speed.

Using Naruto as an anchor, Sasuke was able to slow his ascent down by a bit as he blasted across the muddy swamp for several dozen yards. Upon traveling that distance, the ejection point attached to his chest eventually let up on its own accord, ending with the Uchiha bouncing and tumbling across the soggy ground, before coming to a painful stop at the very edge of the ruined pit. Groaning in agony, the Uchiha pushed himself to his feet, picking chunks of glutinous mud and twigs off of him and glaring up at where his foe was.

Hilariously enough, Naruto was still lying face down in the pit several meters away, having been dragged all the way through the slurry and ended up stopping his target from sailing out of their area. After staring at the teen's lifeless form for a moment, Sasuke seized his opportunity and slogged on over to where he was, panting exhaustedly.

Taking a moment to catch his breath, the genius gazed down at his opponent's fallen form and grinned, at the same time drawing a kunai from his pouch. Wordlessly, he held it out to the jinchuriki and kept his unconscious body squarely in his sights. "That's it. We're done."

"Yeah. We are."

Recoiling in shock, Sasuke looked over his shoulder. When he did, he saw the original Naruto, the real one, slightly grungy from their fight in the mud but still in perfect condition, standing directly behind him with a kunai held to the raven haired boy's neck and expression set firmly onto his. As soon as he saw the genius's eye lock onto him, the blonde smiled.

"This is my win, Sasuke."

Blinking in astonishment, the raven haired boy eventually relaxed when he saw his friend smile at him and looked around to the one he initially believed to be the original. The moment he fixed back onto the Naruto with his face in the mud, he saw the copy go up in a puff of white smoke, indicating a shadow clone.

Upon seeing the doppelganger leave their plain of reality, the Uchiha breathed out. "Damn. I thought I had you there." He looked back over his shoulder and towards the jinchuriki still standing behind him. "You swapped out with your clone the moment you first tackled me into the mud. While I exhausted myself fighting your copies, you swam around and waited for the right moment to strike." The fact he couldn't see him through the sludge even with his Sharingan was all the reason for him to believe the jinchuriki did just that.

Taking advantage of your blind spot was exactly the blonde's style.

Grunting, the jinchuriki looked off to his left, where he saw Tayuya and the others quickly rushing over. Knowing that they could see exactly what was going on, Naruto then tucked away his blade and fixed his sights back onto his friend. "Yeah. When both fighters are struggling in the same area, it's common practice to change your strategy and come up with another way to defeat your adversary that wouldn't cost you too much. In any case, I had you pegged the moment the fight started."

It was this that had Sasuke raise an eyebrow. "What do you mean?" He then saw the blonde wordlessly point towards his shoulder, which inevitably drew the Uchiha's gaze. When his eyes landed on the spot his rival was gesturing towards, the teen got quite a shock when he saw a senbon no bigger than an injection needle buried in the back of his shoulder, which prompted him to reach over and pull it out. "But… when did you…?" He then looked up in surprise when his mind eventually worked around it. "Back when I tried to ambush him and started attacking him with my kunai." He didn't plant his hand against his shoulder just to jump over him. He injected him with poison at the same time, making sure that if anything happened in their match, he would be able to take him out regardless of the outcome of the fight.

Seeing Sasuke's concern, Naruto quickly reached into his pouch and pulled out a berry from a bamboo tube he had on him. Holding it in front of his rival, the blonde continued to speak, "I knew you were going to be a stubborn opponent, so I had a counter measure ready and waiting for you in case I didn't knock you out in the first fifteen. That poison was designed to slowly spread through your body from the point of entry the harder you fought and paralyze you if the match dragged on for too long. It's not fatal, but it would've definitely gotten the job done. This Kiri Berry will counteract the poison." When he dropped the fruit into his friend's hand, the jinchuriki grinned. "I did the same thing to Kiyoko-chan in our match, and tried to do the same to Sakon and Kotohime… but it didn't work on them."

Looking at the fruit for a moment, the raven haired genius chuckled and popped it into his mouth. Chewing and swallowing the anti-toxin, he fixed his good eye on his teammate again and deactivated his Sharingan. "It's so like you to fight using these underhanded tactics. You can pull them off right under an enemy's nose, even when you have a whole crowd of people standing in front of you, and they're none the wiser. If you're not beating the crap out of them with brute force, it's with stuff like this." Breathing out a sigh and rubbing the back of his head, the mud covered Sasuke folded his arms and looked away. "In any case, it's obvious that you're much stronger than me. The only way I can ever match you is if we're in an area where both of us are at the same disadvantage."

"True. But you still fought a great fight," the blonde said, wiping the mud from his face. He then grinned at his raven haired counterpart. "If it were up to me, I'd say on fighting skill and strength alone, you're easily Jonin class. But putting our ranks aside, I think we can both agree that we still have a long way to go before either of us is done with this. Am I right?" The tone he said this with spoke more about their objectives than anything else, and it was something the Uchiha was easily able to pick up on.

Considering his friend's expression and words, Sasuke nodded his head in agreement and looked away, at the same time Tayuya and the others arrived at their side. "I don't care how long it takes, but I'm going to become strong enough to defeat that man one day… and that means knuckling down even harder and pushing my body beyond its limits. I won't let him lead me around like some puppy. I'm going to do this right and surpass him my own way." He then smirked and looked over at Naruto. "But for now, I'm satisfied. Good fight, dobe."

This drew a laugh from Naruto as he patted his rival on the back, "You can still call me that after all this?" He then ran his hand through his hair and down his jacket, brushing off the mud now starting to dry off. "Come on. Can't you do a little bit better than that?"

"Hmph. I'll think about starting to call you by your proper name the day you become Hokage."

Deflating slightly, Naruto then gave the boy a half-grin, "Well… I guess that's better than nothing." Stretching out and flexing his arms, the jinchuriki then acknowledged the arrival of the others. While Sasuke chose to ignore them, as well as the attention he got from Sakura coming over to check on his condition, the blonde smiled at his friends. "Hey fellas. What did you think?"

Shikamaru, looking over the field, then gave a shrug and smirked back at him, "It was dirty."

"Oh, dude. That was WAY too easy," Kiba remarked with a roll of his eyes and a bark from Akamaru. "If anything, it was ugly. They were both running around like crazy and tearing up the damn place until they decided to drench the entire field and started hitting away at each other. I honestly thought Sasuke was going to win that a few times."

"But it's clear who came out on top in the end," Kin spoke up, smiling over at the blonde when he was greeted by Tayuya with a punch to the arm and a peck on a clean cheek. When his eyes fixed on her, the raven haired former Genin from Sound shrugged. "There was never a doubt in my mind."

Naruto chuckled, "Honestly, it was a rough one. Teme really knows how to throw down when he wants to, especially in a fight like this." The blonde nodded across to his rival, who grunted back at him in respect and looked away to allow himself to get fussed over by a concerned Sakura. After a moment of seeing the pink haired kunoichi try to clean the Uchiha off, the jinchuriki then turned to his smirking girlfriend and nodded to the redhead. "Well? What do you think?"

Looking him over, Tayuya then picked at his jacket and flicked away some grime caught on his collar. Giving him a moment of consideration, the girl stared at him. "I think you could use a bath."

The blonde grimaced and nodded, feeling the unpleasantness of mud inside of his pants and… well… everywhere else. "Yeah. Same here."

OOO

Meanwhile

Thousands of miles away…

In a dark chamber inside of an unknown fortress, with its windows closed over by steel doors and most of its lights put out, a mysterious figure sat motionless atop an enormous throne built upon a raised platform, with his head resting against his hand and elbow on the armrest. Eyes piercing the dark above the belted, white, high-collar trench coat he wore, and the bandages covering almost all of his body except his eyes, the person had all of his attention fixed on a strange, human-shaped mannequin sitting directly in front of him.

Hooked up to an enormous life-support machine, with various IVs, tubes being fed by an unknown liquid and electrical wires plugged into it, some of which were sparking, the figure was in fact revealed to be a sickly white, human body of some kind. Unconscious, the artificially created human protruded out of the enormous block of metal with a single, Sharingan eye, Sasuke's, staring ahead of it lifelessly.

However, after seemingly sitting there and staring at the half-dead body for hours, the man then raised an eyebrow when he saw a green gem wedged into the clone body's chest glow and its stolen eye glow red. The next thing he saw was the two tomoe Sharingan mature into a three tomoe one, a sight which brought about an excited gleam to the man's own gaze. He then opted to sit there and watch the tomoe spin and the eye move around on its own accord, at the same time the machine behind it buzz as it recorded the phenomenon.

"Excellent… most excellent…" the figure cloaked in shadow chuckled excitedly.

Now for the next step.

TO BE CONTINUED…


Author's Note: And that's another chapter. Naruto, Fu and Jinpachi's battle comes to an end, and Kotohime succeeds in her original objective by returning with the Hero's War. She's a tough girl, so of course she'd still be standing.

I really enjoyed the Naruto and Sasuke fight, taking inspiration from Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations of Minato and Kakashi's fight, which was awesome by the way. It shows Sasuke's determination and tactics matching up against Naruto's, and since both knew what the other was capable of, made it for a long, but ultimately decided match. The outcome gives Sasuke confidence and more of a cause to train even harder, and with his friends there to help him, it's had a profound effect on his point of view, keeping him from going down that dark path.

However, he is still pissed at Itachi, and is now even more pissed at the person who took his eye. Expect hell to be brought down upon that person in later chapters.

Let's see… Fu has apparently fallen for Naruto's magnetism. His personality perfectly complements hers. It helps a lot that he's good looking as well. Now those feelings are brimming at the surface.

I think this story is going well, and I think it's becoming much more interesting. The next arc is the final arc before the three year gap.

So far, Naruto has been through a lot. I wanted to write a story where Naruto actually fulfils his role properly as the hero and main character.

I've noticed in the original canon of the manga that Naruto has not been able to defeat any of his opponents without any help from either his friends or Kurama (besides Kiba, which he did quite stupidly if I'm honest). He defeated Gaara with Sasuke's help, he defeated Kakuzu… with help from Yamato and the others, which annoyed me the most, and the fight was stupid too, he couldn't fight Sasuke or Neji without Kurama's help, and he was beaten by the former twice, he couldn't fight Tobi without being saved by Kakashi and Gai, and to this point he keeps relying on Kurama's power.

I find it really hard to support a protagonist who keeps losing every single time and needs a boost from somebody else's chakra that isn't his own, which is what I've fixed for this story. He doesn't use Kurama's chakra unless "absolutely" necessary.

I think the numbers are satisfying enough.


Naruto's Battles (Various):

Naruto vs. Noriko, Kureha and Shuko (Won)

Naruto vs. Jako and his Gang (Won)

Naruto vs. Crow (Won)

Two Year Gap:

Naruto vs. Kureha and Shuko (Won)

Naruto vs. Mizuki (Won)

Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura vs. Kakashi (Lost - Passed Genin Exam)

Naruto vs. Kajika (Lost)

Naruto vs. Neji (Draw)

Naruto vs. Zori and Waraji (Won)

Naruto (with Kurama), Isaribi, Zabuza and Haku vs. Hidan (Won)

Naruto vs. Lee (Draw)

Naruto vs. Jiraiya (Lost… badly. lol)

Chunin Exams:

Naruto vs. Samui (Won)

Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke vs. Kurotsuchi, Akatsuchi and Shirotsuchi (Undecided)

Naruto vs. Neji (Won)

Naruto vs. Temari (Won)

Naruto vs. Kiyoko (Won)

Naruto vs. Tsubaki (Won)

Naruto (with Kurama) vs. Gaara (with Shukaku) (Won – Promoted to Jonin)

Post-Chunin Exams:

Naruto vs. Nadare Round 1 (Undecided)

Naruto vs. Nadare Round 2 (Won)

Naruto vs. Sakon/Ukon and Kotohime Round 1 (Lost)

Naruto (with Kurama) vs. Sakon/Ukon and Kotohime Round 2 (Won)

Naruto and Fu (with Chomei) vs Jinpachi (Won)

Naruto vs. Sasuke (Won)

There. That seems accurate. Fights where Naruto won under his own power and fights where Naruto had help. Every fight I consider Naruto winning with his own chakra, and not relying on Kurama's chakra, I consider a real win, since technically he isn't using his own power. Summons can go either way, as long as the person summons them with their own chakra. Kurama is his own person (despite being a giant fox) with his own thoughts and his own life, and I can respect that. Hope you're all looking forward to the next chapters.