Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto

Team 7's Ascension

Chapter XII – Grow the Tree II

"This is the proctor?"

Ino's eyes were fixed on the man standing in front of the large main gate leading into the Forest of Death. The dark-green vest identified him almost immediately as a Jōnin, and it had been impossible not to notice him as soon as the group arrived on the grassy plains opposite the large fence. A sword was fastened on his back, implying that he was versed in the art of Kenjutsu, yet his sickly countenance – as well as his perpetual coughing – fiercely contradicted the imagery of danger a weapon of such sort usually evoked.

Hinata glanced at Ino; then directed her gaze back to the Jōnin. "I hope he is alright; the cough sounds dreadful."

"She's right," said Kiba, furrowing his brows. "It sounds like he's puking his guts out."

"It's either real, or he's faking it." Shikamaru yawned. "In any case, he can hear you."

Loud chatter drowned out anything the others wanted to say, as the rest of the participants arrived. Once they saw the area of the Second Task though, it stopped and they were quick to take in their surroundings. Only a few teams had come as early as the group of nine, and those were mostly their seniors from Konoha. The broad mass however, had preferred to arrive exactly on time – just as the antiquated, yet highly valued shinōbi code dictated.

The Alliance – a cheesy name by right, if oddly fitting – stood in a slightly altered formation on the morn of this day, having rotated the combatants on each side. In the mass of foreign competitors a similar concept had taken hold, apparently, as they too banded together in larger groups. The most notable being the ones made up of several teams belonging to the same nation. Kumo, Suna, and surprisingly Kiri were among the largest.

Not everyone adhered to this pattern though, and Naruto also saw a single team of Suna-nin standing several feet away from the larger group of their nation. This new development of the opposition forming own alliances was worrisome. Most of them now equaled, if not surpassed the group of nine in numbers, and Naruto hadn't even begun to enter their skill and combat experience into the equation.

He elbowed Shikamaru softly in the stomach. "You see it too?"

"Of course I do." Shikamaru sighed. "This will become very troublesome soon. I hope you have some good ideas, future Hokage."

"Maybe, but let's hear what the proctor has to say first," answered Naruto.

They didn't have to wait long, as the Jōnin soon straightened up and uttered a piercing whistle. In the blink of an eye, several dozen Chūnin stood ramrod straight behind him, their appearance pristine and their faces set in stern expressions. The proctor now looked like the leader of a small army – a sickly leader, but a leader nonetheless.

"Could I have your attention, please? My name is Gekkō Hayate, Jōnin of Konohagakure. Listen carefully to my instructions. I won't repeat them a second time."

Naruto and Sasuke glanced at each other. Then, the Uchiha nodded and activated his bloodline. This would make it easier to recall the information later on. Sasuke, who focused on the Jōnin's face, was surprised by what he saw – the lesson about observation Kakashi had taught him in the streets of Tanyu was still vivid in his mind. And Gekkō Hayate, no matter his weak physical constitution, was at least as dangerous as the senseis of Team 8 and 10. There was an inexplicable strength hidden behind the Jōnin's gaze that belied his ailing posture.

"The instructions are simple – each team receives three of these chips." Hayate held up a few chips that were as large as poker cards and glinted in the sunlight. "And, in the next six days you'll do your damn best to get more and more of them. There's a large tower in the middle of the forest and we'll await you there on the eve of the sixth day at the latest. Killing is allowed, so be aware that an incomplete team will get disqualified immediately, no matter how many chips it gathered. It also doesn't matter whether you're the fastest team or not. Only the eight teams with the highest amount of chips will be admitted to the next task."

Hayate then pointed at the rows of Chūnin behind him. "These guys will bring you to your gates and hand out the chips; and, before I forget it, a last incentive to give it your best – these chips are made of real gold. After you're through, you can keep them."

Most members of Konoha's group looked at one another, quite repulsed by the idea of killing. Shikamaru and Naruto though had blanched the very moment Hayate mentioned the different gates. To them, the implications of that statement were all too apparent.

"Listen up," Naruto whispered fiercely, quickly getting the attention of everyone. "We don't have much time!"

"What's up? Scared, Dobe?" Kiba grinned, but was ignored by the blond.

"The guy said that we start at different gates! We're not going into the forest together, which is bad, really bad." Understanding of their situation dawned on the rest of them and they quickly came closer to hear more. "We need to meet up somehow, but the forest is large and you have next to no idea where to go…"

Kiba's grin had vanished in the meanwhile. "What's your plan?"

"You'll go through the gates and wait there. Don't wander into the forest alone! Sakura, Sasuke, and I will come and get you," answered Naruto.

"What about the other groups then, Naruto-san?" Shino stepped forward and the buzzing under his coat intensified. "They too will have similar ideas. It is not far-fetched to think they will attack us should we be seen."

Chōji nodded. "Shino's got a point."

"That's why you won't be seen," said Sakura. "Conceal yourself the best you can. Only leave your hiding place once you see it's us."

"And if we are spotted?"

Naruto stared at Shino, but the Aburame gave nothing away. "Should you be attacked, hold them off as long as you can. We'll get you, definitely."

Looking over his shoulder, Sasuke noticed that three Chūnin were already making their way over to the Alliance. "We don't have time to argue about this."

"What about you? You'll have to fight at every gate should others do the same. We could be miles apart!" Hinata's sudden outburst came as a surprise to most, but the anxious look on her face told a story of its own – at the moment, her timid nature seemed to be buried deeply beneath her concern for Team 7.

Sakura smiled at her. "It's guaranteed that they'll go after us; age-wise alone we're all officially branded as rookies."

"But then-"

Naruto interrupted Hinata. "Trust us, we'll get you."

The Uchiha next to him patted his blood-red armor once and shared a smirk with the rest of his team. "We've been trained by Kakashi-sensei after all."

When the first Chūnin reached Team 7, the trio followed him obediently, giving the remaining group a last wave over their shoulders.

"This is insanity," said Ino. She looked helplessly toward her team.

Shikamaru watched Team 7's retreating backs with narrowed eyes. "Perhaps it is."

"Can't you say more than that?" Ino asked incensed. "I thought Naruto is your friend! They're walking to their deaths!"

"Troublesome woman… we'll have our own problems soon enough. Besides, if anyone can pull it off, it's them; or have you forgotten Nami no Kuni already?"

Shikamaru noticed another Chūnin approaching and looked over to Shino. "I suggest you go with Naruto's plan, Shino. Alone we're just prey in there."

"It appears that our only chance is to trust in their ability to survive."

While Team 10 was led away, Hinata smiled at her teammate. "Have faith in them, Shino-kun. He'll do it."

Then, the last Chūnin arrived at their position. "Team 8, please follow me."

"You know, I only smiled to calm them down," said Sakura. "This plan will probably kill us."

Naruto looked straight ahead and smiled. "Maybe. We promised them though."

"The promise is going to be hard to keep," said Sasuke. "Not that I think we'll die… just that it's going to be difficult."

Sakura put a strand of pink hair behind her ear. "Difficult is a nice euphemism… well, I guess we do have an advantage when it comes to this place."

"Exactly. I'm more worried about the others. If they meet good sensors, they'll have to fight. I hope they can hold out until we reach them." Naruto frowned. "I hate that we don't even know which gates they got."

Sasuke scratched his chin. "I take it there's no element in our plan besides running alongside the fence until we find them?"

"There is. No playing around. We try to avoid fights if possible and should they force our hand, kill them quickly, take their chips and move along."

Any further argument was interrupted by the Chūnin who had escorted them to the gate. He favored them with an encouraging smile and presented them with their three chips. "Prepare yourself, Team 7. The signal will sound soon."

It was a unanimous decision that each member of Team 7 received exactly one of the chips. Naruto, once he had received his own, looked at it in wonder. All too soon, the Forest of Death would reaffirm its name in the mind of everyone, all because of these little things. He had no doubt that rivers of blood would literally coat the area. Still, he was somewhat confounded by the fact that the chips were apparently made of gold. Simple metal would have done the trick, so why did they use such a precious metal… to make the task seem more realistic? To enhance the sense of greed in the participants, making bloodshed even more likely?

Sasuke interrupted his train of thoughts. "Which direction are we taking, left or right?"

"Doesn't really matter, does it?" Naruto shrugged his shoulders. "Sooner or later we'll find them."

Sakura chuckled. "Right it is then."

They made a quick last minute check of their equipment, reassuring themselves that every bit of armor was fastened and all weapons were at their right place. When, moments later, the siren echoed loudly through the forest – frightening a few birds out of their trees – Team 7 vanished immediately from the Chūnin's side and raced through the gate. One turn to the right later, they sprinted alongside the large fence and into the direction where their former classmates would hopefully be.

Two abandoned gates were passed quickly as soon as the trio verified that no member of the Alliance was hidden somewhere in the underbrush. The third gate, however, held a surprise as Sakura spotted a lone team of Suna-nin. She stopped on a branch not far away from them and waited for her boys.

As he was guarding the rear, Naruto arrived as the last one and crouched next to his black haired teammate. "Sasuke?"

The Uchiha activated the Sharingan and observed the foreign team intently. After several moments, his red eyes turned back to black. "They're nervous, but also prepared to defend against an ambush."

"Probably waiting for reinforcements," Naruto mused. "Any ideas?"

Sakura looked at the Suna team and furrowed her brows. "They don't seem to be much older than us. I could layer a Genjutsu around them to distort their hearing. They'll notice eventually, but it would give us enough time to slip by."

Naruto nodded. "Do it, please."

It took Sakura several hand seals, a small amount of chakra, and a bit of focus, but soon the foreign shinōbi weren't able to hear them anymore. Theoretically, Team 7 could have stood right next to them and from an auditory perspective, the Suna-nin wouldn't have noticed at all. The illusion projected realistic sounds that fit the environment into the victim's ears. It wasn't long-lasting, but it had no need to be. Sakura gave her teammates the sign that she was done and without taking any detours, the trio sneaked past the Suna-nin.

The same method was applied to the next gate, but failed horribly. The team from Kiri they encountered had at least one shinōbi who was a Genjutsu user himself. He came to the conclusion that his team was under attack before Team 7 had the chance to avoid them. After alerting his teammates, the first volley of shuriken soon forced Team 7 to split up and deal with their single opponents.

Naruto landed in front of a brawny looking guy wearing plated gloves and immediately set out to attack him. He threw a straight punch with his left, but missed his target as the Kiri-nin moved away. A retaliatory jab flew toward his face, and his right arm rose to block it. The enemy's fist crashed against it with quite some force and Naruto was driven back several inches. His right arm however was still raised, and with barely any movement, he pulled a kunai out from under his shoulder plate; a deft flick of his wrist later and the weapon sailed toward his opponent.

The older boy had good reflexes though and showcased them, throwing his head to the right. There was only a small distance between him and Naruto, but despite this, the kunai only managed to cut a very thin line into the Kiri-nin's cheek before it buried itself in the ground behind him. As he exhaled a sigh of relief though, he made his first mistake.

Naruto had started a hand seal sequence as soon as he saw his weapon miss its target. Pulled through space and time, he substituted himself with the kunai and appeared behind his opponent. Again, the shinōbi from Kiri showed a surprising agility. The moment he had processed the kunai falling down in front of him, he was already turning around and assumed a defensive position to protect himself against the worst of Naruto's furious assault. Nevertheless, it gave the Uzumaki the short-lived edge he needed, and punch after punch rocked the guard of his opponent, slowly driving the older boy toward the position where he had noticed Sasuke finishing off his own enemy seconds earlier.

He threw his last punch, then abruptly backed off and jumped toward Sakura who was still locked in a Genjutsu contest with the guy that had spotted them. Naruto's former opponent only had a split-second to be surprised about his behavior, before Sasuke's sword stabbed cleanly through his throat. With two of the three hostile shinōbi dead, it didn't take Team 7 much longer to subdue the third one.

"I heard you laughing, Sakura. Something funny?" Naruto asked.

Sakura was still chuckling lightly as she answered, "He tried to frighten me with a Genjutsu involving tigers."

Sasuke snorted. "You showed him a tiger from this place then?"

"Yep, worked like a charm. He wasn't bad, honestly; just made the wrong choice."

Naruto shuddered briefly as he gathered the three new chips they won through the battle. "It would have worked on me; damn tigers."

"Let's go. We still got something to do." Sasuke jumped into the trees, once more being the vanguard.

More gates were passed in a similar manner when the option to use stealth became unavailable. The discrepancy in strength was easily visible in most cases, but didn't do much to reassure the trio. It was noon already, and while they now held twelve chips, they still hadn't found the rest of the Alliance. Team 7 wasn't exhausted just yet by all the fighting – even though their clothes had become quite bloody over the last hours – but they weren't invigorated either. No one of the trio had any illusions… soon exhaustion would set in, and the search for Team 8 and 10 would become that much harder for it.


Kiba delivered a powerful blow to his opponent's side as soon as he noticed that his teammate was in mortal peril. The shinōbi from Kusa buckled under the force of the attack, but didn't sink to the ground. In true Inuzuka fashion, Kiba bared his teeth. He feinted to the left and his enemy – reeling from the blow but still standing – fell for it. The Kusa-nin moved to block Kiba's attack, but when nothing happened, his eyes opened wide and he searched frantically for his opponent. He had lost sight of the Inuzuka.


The famed technique of his clan alerted his former opponent as well as everyone else on the clearing to his new position. Standing next to Hinata, the kunoichi from the enemy team was about to slit her throat, when she perceived the incoming danger. She barely managed to roll away and Kiba stopped his spin, crouching low in front of the Hyūga heiress.

Shino got distracted by the sudden noise and was flung toward a tree, but substituted himself in the last moment before impact, landing in a straight posture next to his teammates. There was a short lull in the battle and Kiba nodded toward his former opponent who had received the debilitating blow.

The fight between Team 8 and the team from Kusa had been going on for a while now, several minutes at least, and exhaustion was clearly visible on each of their faces. Luckily, they weren't the only ones plagued by sweat and laboring breath. Nevertheless, the circumstances leading to the fight were rather unfortunate. The kunoichi of the enemy team was a sensor, and it had taken her barely a second to notice that someone was hiding near the gate. Correctly believing Team 8 to be rookies, the Kusa-nin attacked and the battle ensued. They were Hunters – according to their own admissions – and cared nothing for the second task, but only for the value of the golden chips. Their tactic was simple, yet effective – prey on the weaklings that were waiting to meet up with their alliances.

Kiba arrived in front of the stunned Kusa-nin he had fought before, and directed a series of blows at spots that were difficult to guard against. Shino took but a single instance to appear next to him and encased the surprised shinōbi in a cocoon of his bugs. Never in his wildest dreams, had the Inuzuka imagined such a complex dynamic would develop during the beginning stage of the Second Task. It was sheer insanity.

"Shino-kun!" Hinata suddenly cried out.

The warning came just in the nick of time and Shino ducked under the deadly slash of a large sickle. He had no time to further engage this new opponent though, as once more his female teammate came under attack from the kunoichi that had early on established herself as being superior in combat. Also, while Hinata's strikes seemed to be fast and precise, Shino knew that her somewhat timid nature still leashed her true potential; as a result, her strikes were sluggish and easy to avoid.

Once more however, the woman wasn't able to finish the young heiress as a volley of shuriken separated them and drove her directly into Shino's waiting Kickaichu. The Kusa-nin jumped toward the bugs, but there was no fear visible on her face. She quickly sped through hand seals and formed a circle in front of her mouth.

"Katōn: Gōkakyū no Jutsu!"

The resulting wave of heat stopped Shino in his tracks, and he could only watch on in despair as a third of his colony died in the glowing jaws of a gigantic fireball. Behind his sunglasses, green eyes narrowed into slits. The woman grinned cruelly as she appeared in front of him – this time her victim wouldn't escape.

Shino was prepared to defend himself until his last breath, when – suddenly – blood trickled out of the Kusa-nin's mouth, soon becoming a river of red that stained her face. Her eyes widened comically, then she fell to the ground; dead. When the body didn't block his sight anymore, he was astonished by what he saw – Hinata, shy and timid Hinata had killed the woman with a precise strike to the heart.

"Hinata-san, are you-"

"Y- Yes! We have to help Kiba-kun!"

Remembering the third member of Team 8, Shino looked for the Inuzuka. Something told him that the large opponent with the sickle wasn't an easy one either. He glanced at Hinata and noticed the sweat and dirt matting her face.

"Please, remain calm and rest, Hinata-san. I will assist Kiba-san."

There was no trace of doubt in Shino's words, and Hinata sunk exhausted to the ground. She watched horrified as the Aburame joined the fight, nearly being cleaved in half by the Kusa-nin's sickle. But, even though the weapon demanded its tribute to be paid in blood, the fight soon turned in their favor.

"Now!" Kiba screamed.

Nothing more had to be said, and from both sides the boys – nay, young men – stabbed their kunai through the unguarded enemy. It wasn't a clean kill – both wearing the red visor of bloodlust, rage and vengeance – and their faces were drenched in the red essence of life. After quickly scavenging the golden chips from the dead bodies, both limped over to Hinata and threw them into the dirt between them.

"Damn things. Was this really worth it?" Kiba looked at the bloodied chips in disgust.

Shino hummed, but made no move to pick them up. "We need them to advance."

"We need them." Kiba growled and pointed at the corpse of the dead woman. "They were just in for the money… have you heard what she said to Hinata?"

"I heard it."

The Inuzuka spat on the ground. "It's disgusting. And where the hell is Naruto? It's nearly afternoon and still no sign of Team 7."

Hinata, who had looked at the corpses with forlorn eyes since the end of the fight, picked up the chips and looked at her teammates. "He will come. I know it."

Shino raised his hand to stop Kiba from retorting. "We better bury the bodies quickly, and hide ourselves again. There could me more of these Hunters around."

"Damn," whispered Naruto.

He stood next to his teammates on a large branch, and observed a group of six shinōbi hailing from Suna camping in the clearing below them. The last two gates Team 7 checked had been deserted; this one wasn't.

"Sakura, can you layer a Genjutsu around them?" Sasuke asked.

"Unlikely. The odds of them having a capable Genjutsu specialist are high. They're also older than the last groups and could detect it before we made it through."

Sasuke sighed. "A detour then?"

"Out of question," said Naruto. "It's nearly evening and we've yet to find Team 8 and 10. You know the nights in this forest, Bastard. I'm not going to break my word like that."

"So we fight?"

Naruto nodded. "Yes, we fight."

"The odds aren't in our favor, you know? They're not just mercenaries but trained shinōbi like us," remarked Sakura.

"I know. Luckily they don't have a sensor, or they would have found us already. Sasuke, what can you see?"

Once more the Sharingan activated in Sasuke's eyes. "They seem relaxed. Or, at least not as nervous as the last groups we encountered."

"Probably because they already found each other and now are just waiting for the rest of Suna's teams. We have to be quick. Can you match any of them to the descriptions we've got from Team 8?"

Sasuke nodded. "I can identify three of them; two Taijutsu users and a Ninjutsu specialist. The other three are unknown."

"Sasuke, how likely are you to win against the two Taijutsu guys?"

"You have to ask?"

Naruto grinned. "That's what I wanted to hear. Okay, listen up. Even if we ambush them, it's unrealistic to think that we'd get all three of them. Let's go for the sure kill."

When his teammates nodded, he continued, "Sakura, I want you to layer a distracting Genjutsu around the Ninjutsu specialist. I'll kill him while Sasuke deals with the two Taijutsu guys. Sasuke, don't hold back. Try to kill one of them as quickly as possible to even the odds."

"What about the other three, the unknowns?"

"Sakura and I will deal with them as soon as the Ninjutsu gall is dead. We've got enough in our arsenal to take them on, or at least stall them until you're finished."

It was a good plan for their current circumstances; truly, nothing more could be expected when there were unknown factors like the three people they had no intelligence over. Nevertheless, the time-old adage held true – no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Sakura wove the Genjutsu expertly around her target, but the moment Naruto tried to slit her throat, he was hit by a large gust of wind. It carried him into the direction of a large rock and he swiftly sped through the necessary seals for a substitution. It saved him – he barely avoided becoming a bloody smear – but it brought him into the striking range of three hostile shinōbi.

One was a slender man with a tan complexion that nearly cleaved him in half with his blade. He avoided such a miserable fate by the timely intervention of Sakura, who had distorted the man's senses enough for him to miss. Naruto looked up, ready to dive away at any moment, when he spied the nature of the other two unknown factors – a woman and a man, racing through hand seals and focusing directly on him.

Two further Ninjutsu specialists, when they hadn't even managed to kill the first one? Something clicked in his mind and another gust of wind blew him away. He saw the other two finishing their seals and once more substituted himself. Fiery tendrils fed on the wind around him; a combination technique.

Again, the Kawarimi saved his life and he reappeared not far from them. His eyes widened. Only one had fed the flames, the other had already anticipated where he'd end up after the Substitution. The wall of flames neared with incredible speed and he jumped back, racing through seals of his own. He wouldn't be beaten in a Ninjutsu battle. No way.

"Suitōn: Teppōdama!"

Naruto spat out the large water bullet and focused all his chakra on making it big enough to protect himself from the fire. The techniques met, and his quickly improvised Jutsu was barely enough to hold off the prepared fire of his opponent. Mist covered the field – good. Now he could pick them off one by one.

A Fūton technique destroyed his plan the second it was formed, and once more he dodged various flames spurred on by the winds behind them. He barely had the time to look around as all his focus was required to survive the onslaught of three Ninjutsu specialists. Where was Sakura? Had Sasuke managed his two opponents?

"Suitōn: Teppōdama!"

"Suitōn: Mizu Bunshin no Jutsu!"

He spat another bullet in the general direction of his enemies and quickly combined it with another technique through a change of hand seals. The water bullet crashed onto the ground and two Mizu Bunshin emerged. Hopefully they would buy him some time.

"Katōn: Endan!" That wasn't Sasuke's voice.

Naruto quickly prepared a counter technique and once again fire met water. This time though, his Jutsu overpowered his opponent's; a victory, albeit a small one. Nevertheless, he'd take what he could get in this situation. The stream of water hadn't inflicted a lot of damage, but it was enough to disorient his enemy for a moment. He raced toward her and attempted to slit her throat, when suddenly Sasuke crashed into him and both tumbled over the ground.

"Bastard?" Naruto asked, instantly jumping to his feet and readying a kunai.

Sasuke took a moment longer, but joined Naruto soon enough. "Nothing. The two are tough, but nothing to worry about."



"Katōn: Endan!"

"Fūton: Hassha-tai Nōshuku!"

They shared a short glance and immediately dived into opposite directions, avoiding the flames. Naruto rolled around on the ground, dodging a sudden volley of shuriken, fervently looking for Sasuke. He found him at the other end of the clearing, guarding and deflecting the punches and kicks of two Suna-nin

"Bastard," he shouted. "Switch out!"

Naruto was no expert in Taijutsu like Sasuke, but he had a very unorthodox fighting style that could come in handy against these opponents. He also counted on the Sharingan's inert ability to make the user predict most movements and copy techniques. It was a gamble – he had no clue if the switch would bring success or not, but there wasn't much else to be done anyway.

In a move they had trained to exhaustion under Kakashi's regime, Naruto sprinted over to Sasuke, gripped him by the shoulders and lifted himself over the Uchiha with enough strength and agility that his plated sandals crashed into the guards of Sasuke's two enemies. As a result they were pushed back a few feet, which gave Naruto the time to stabilize himself and Sasuke the possibility to concentrate on his new foes.

Naruto dodged an incoming kick by leaning backward until he formed a bridge. Two simultaneous punches were avoided as the bridge formed into a handstand. Another kick was aimed at his head, and the two-handed stand became one-handed as he managed to grab the leg.

With tremendous effort, he pushed himself up with his remaining hand on the ground and performed a kick with both his feet. One Suna-nin managed to guard in time, the other – however – flew away at high velocity.

Naruto was so unbalanced by this acrobatic feat though that he also received a hit in return and was smashed into the ground. It hurt. But he was no stranger to being hurt and would there be any time to talk, he'd probably tell the Suna-nin that Kakashi-sensei hit them like that when he was making jokes. In any case, both his hands were finally back on the ground and he instantly pumped chakra into the earth.

The enemy shinōbi, ready to stab him, only saw his mouth move but couldn't hear the inaudible whisper.

"Suitōn: Mizuame Nabara!"

The stick puddle immobilized the enemy long enough for Naruto to roll himself out of the kunai's range. From the corner of his eye he saw that the other Taijutsu user was already on his way back into the battle. This couldn't go on forever. He needed an idea.

He glanced at the restrained shinōbi, who was already in the process of freeing himself although it would take him several seconds still, and then at his pouch. That was it! That's his idea. Naruto reached into his pouch, rolled forward to dodge the desperate kick of his opponent and then jumped directly over the boy, letting two slips of paper fall onto him while he landed on a low-hanging branch.

"Fūin: Kai!"

The explosion rocked the clearing and for a second everyone looked over to the large smoking crater at the far end of it. Naruto smiled. It had worked even better than expected, as Sasuke used the surprise to finally take out one of the three Ninjutsu specialists with a clean decapitation. Katōn Jutsu they could deal with, but at least the Fūton guy was dead now.

"Magen: Narakumi no Jutsu."

"Haven't I told you already that these won't work on me?"

The tanned shinōbi shrugged off Sakura's Genjutsu as if it was nothing more than an annoying bug and within four steps stood once more in front of her, his blade poised to deal the lethal blow. Sakura didn't respond, her narrowed green eyes following each moving muscle in the arms of her opponent. This focus was the only reason she was still alive and hadn't been skewered by the extremely pointy weapon.

She had acquired a few slashes on her arms and legs, but those were only superficial. The longer the fight lasted, the less she got hit; an easy ticket to victory, if not for the guy's stamina which – even after Kakashi-sensei's training – still exceeded hers. Exhaling harshly, she readied herself, a kunai held in her right hand.

His arms moved, but before the blade reach her, she had already sidestepped and threw the kunai at his legs. Over such a short distance she shouldn't have missed – nevertheless, she did. The Suna-nin's exceptional reflexes shone as he saved his foot by shifting slightly to the left. Sakura had already come up close again though, crouched low and tried to sweep his legs. Her opponent jumped over the failed kick, and his blade slashed downward in the direction of her head. She quickly pulled the formerly thrown kunai out of the ground and scarcely managed to parry the blow, diverting the blade to her right.

She hated this fight. It couldn't go on forever like this, she knew.

More slashes and stabs were dodged as she rapidly flipped back until she stood with the back to a tree. Damn. He had boxed her in. She tried to dive to the left, but had to abandon midway as his blade closed in once more. Sakura saw his grin, and the small flame in her became a torrential storm of anger.

She needed space, at least some. Up until now she had tested several Genjutsu from D to C-class, but none of them had worked. She didn't know if it was a general immunity, or if he was simply trained to detect and dispel all Genjutsu of these classes. Well, there was one way to test it – she had one B-ranked illusion in her repertoire, but to use it she'd need a bit of breathing room.

Another slash was avoided to the consternation of her enemy, and Sakura used that time to pull out the hidden knives from under her dress. One after another she threw them, forcing the Suna-nin to shift back step after step until her hands were empty.

The shinōbi advanced toward her. "No knives left now, little lady."

Sakura clasped her hands together, then smashed her palms on the ground. "Dotōn: Doroku Gaeshi!"

"You think this little wall will keep me away?"

Sakura, not finished just yet, went on with one of her favorite combinations. She left a simple Bunshin behind the wall, then vanished into the earth and reappeared a few feet away from the guy. It would only take him a short moment until he'd notice the switch, but that was all she needed.

"Magen: Jigoku Gōka no Jutsu!"

Her theory was right. The Suna-nin had been trained to resist most low-level Genjutsu, but the B-ranked one she just used wasn't as easily shrugged off. Sakura heard the cry of misery, as the swordsman truly believed that a gigantic ball of flame fell down the sky toward him. With great speed, for she didn't know how long he'd be influenced by the Genjutsu, Sakura ran toward him and just as it seemed that he finally managed to escape her illusion, she rammed her last remaining kunai directly through the guy's head.

She panted heavily as she picked up his chips and returned the knives and kunai back to her inventory. This fight had been more exhausting than she would have liked, and they still hadn't found the other teams. With a jolt she realized that she'd been separated from her own team for quite some time now and immediately set out to find them.

Something that wasn't all that hard, especially after a large explosion echoed through the forest area right next to her.

In a small clearing only a few minutes of travel away from Sakura's position, the male members of Team 7 had a stand-off with their remaining enemies. The mangled lumps of flesh that once had made up the Suna-nin before Naruto blew him up, were splattered all across the place and left trails of blood on everything surrounding them. His comrades' pain and agony could not have been more visible under any circumstance. Naruto even noticed budding tears in the eyes of the two women. He blinked once, then steeled himself. Kakashi had trained them in a lot of things, showing sympathy to the enemy however wasn't among them.

To Naruto's right, Sasuke held his ninja-to aggressively in front of him; the blood on his red armor glinted at times, when small beams of the evening sun managed to penetrate the thick canopy. Looking at their three adversaries, Sasuke asked, "Two Katōn, one Taijutsu... switch back?"

"Sure, but make it quick. We still have to find Sakura," answered Naruto.

His words couldn't have sounded more callous to his enemies' ears, even had he tried. The remaining Ninjutsu specialists – Naruto shortly entertained the notion of them being sisters – immediately attacked him, as did their brawny comrade. And, while the close-quarter combatant ran toward him in a wide arc, the women finished their hand seals nearly instantaneously, driven as they were by the horrid mixture of hate and despair that now resided in their hearts.

"Katōn: Gōkakyū no Jutsu!"

"Katōn: Endan!"

Naruto saw their tear-stricken faces one last time, before the invoked techniques conjured up a wall of flames that had no other aim but him. It wasn't a combination technique per se. But, even if the destructive force wasn't multiplied tenfold, it doubled, maybe tripled at the least; which therefore made it doubly as dangerous as it had been before. A small part of him wondered if he should let himself be burned as punishment for bringing so much grief into the world; this part, however, was speedily silenced. In this world and probably any other which held as much on violent alterations, repentance on the battlefield was something unthinkable. Besides, after all these months he would like to think that at least some people would grieve in the case of his demise. Truly, what did the sadness of these strangers matter to him, when compared to the possible anguish his death would visit upon his friends?

With firm resolve, Naruto stared at the incoming wall of destruction and bent his fingers into the necessary signs. The Taijutsu specialist would reach him before he finished his preparations, but there was no hesitation in his actions for he knew of the great abilities of his teammate. Just before the Suna-nin had the chance to interrupt Naruto, Sasuke appeared in front of him and pulled the guard of the distressed and vengeful shinōbi apart. In the same movement, he lashed out with his leg and kicked the enemy directly into the incoming flames, before substituting himself to get out of range. Now, as the fire was nearly upon him, Naruto formed the last sign and slammed his palms together.

"Suitōn: Suijinheki (Water Wall)!"

There was no stream nearby, nor was there an underground river from whence the water could come. Nevertheless it appeared, and the eyes of the two remaining Suna-nin widened in response. The humid nature of their surroundings and Naruto's unnatural reserves were all the resources needed for his technique. A wall of water as tall and wide as a small tree surged up between him and the fire, saving him from being burned alive.

His voice was toneless as he spoke up from behind the wall he still sustained to save himself. "Now, Sasuke."

The Uchiha understood and was about to kill the women while they were distracted, when the fire abruptly stopped. Had their reserves finally run dry? Naruto collapsed his wall of water and stared at the two new corpses lying face-first in the dirt. There, standing over them, was Sakura – a blood-smeared knife held in each hand.

"I'm back and I've got all their chips."

Naruto smiled relieved. "We've wondered what happened to you. Was the sword guy much of a challenge?"

"Of course he was, Dobe," said Sasuke. "He wouldn't have had all the chips otherwise."

"He was... dangerous." Sakura then pointed at the various corpses in the clearing. "Anyhow, I hope those won't become a problem for us."

"I don't think so. At least not in the Chūnin Exams..."

Sakura frowned. "Still, we've been in a formal alliance with Suna for years now. Perhaps we could have asked them to let us pass without incident."

"That's the peaceful idealist in you," commented Sasuke. "Had we asked them, we would have lost the moment of surprise in case they disagreed."

"The ambush didn't work anyway."

"That's not the point he's making Sakura, you know that." Naruto sighed and combed with his fingers through his hair. "The argument's moot now anyway. They're dead, and we're alive."

Sakura cleaned her knives while looking at her teammates. "I'm not a fan of carnage for carnage's sake."

"In a different situation we might have acted differently – but, be honest, did the sword guy give you the impression that he'd surrender anytime soon? I know our opponents didn't," said Naruto.

"Dobe's right, Sakura. They were pretty aggressive themselves."

Sakura deadpanned. "We ambushed them; of course they'd be aggressive."

"Had they valued the old treaties between our nations at all, they would have said something, anything," explained Naruto. "They were just as eager to kill us, as we were to kill them."

Sasuke sheathed his ninja-to and looked toward the sky. "The sun's stopped coming through; it's nearly nightfall now."

"Damn. Let's move, and pray this was the last enemy for today."

It was fortuitous indeed, that at the time when the moon rose to prominence, Team 7 finally managed to find the first group of their hastily crafted alliance. Huddled together in the underbrush, and till then unmoving out of fear to reveal themselves to unsavory adversaries, Team 8 breathed a collective sigh of relief as their senses picked up a very familiar group of three. Upon such a sight of succor, which could not be anything but soothing to her eyes, the Hyūga heiress deactivated her bloodline and a smile stole itself across her lips.

Shino, the stoic Aburame, observed bugs of different colors and patterns landing on his arms before they vanished into the sleeves of his coat. "It seems as if Naruto-san has proven beyond doubt that his promises have merit to them."

"I knew he'd make it," said Hinata, a hue of red coloring her cheeks.

Kiba snorted; and, surely, had not a very distinct smell assaulted his nose this very moment, he would have uttered something quite disparaging. Because, rivalry, even if put aside for a monumental mission like the second task, was not easily subdued. Such thoughts vanished with the wind however; as he inhaled through his nose once more – deeper than before.

"You smell something, Kiba-san?" asked Shino.

The Inuzuka processed what his senses revealed to him; but, as soon as he realized from whence he knew the smell, his countenance changed considerably. His face – as far as it could be seen in the light of the rising moon – paled and his eyes widened minutely.

"So much..." Kiba shook his head and took a second to gather himself; then he looked at his teammates. "Blood – a lot of it and some is theirs."

Shino sought to clarify, "They're wounded?"

In the meantime, the heiress crouching next to them had stiffened; and, as soon as Kiba had answered Shino's inquiry, she sprinted out of their hiding place, revealing herself boldly on the branch of a high tree Team 7 would inevitably pass soon. It happened only a few seconds thereafter that Naruto landed next to her, Sasuke and Sakura right beside him.

Her first words were timid in nature; all the boldness from before long gone, now that the object of her affection stood in front of her. "Naruto-san..."

"Hinata!" Naruto smiled relieved. "Thank Kami, you're alright. I'm sorry for the delay."

"You better-"

"It is of no consequence, Naruto-san," said Shino; he then looked at the other members of Team 7. "This first day has shown me quite clearly the need of our alliance, and I am glad to finally have all of you back as my shield-brothers and sisters in arms."

The emotion that rose in Sasuke's chest was one he had felt many times before, at this moment though it differed slightly from the norm; he felt a hitherto unknown sense of pride. Was it the trust of the Aburame? For the first time in years he felt proud about something unrelated to his clan or mastery over techniques.

Naruto, too, was quite taken by the words of his taciturn classmate. "I- thank you."

Sakura, while not unaffected by the small speech, had been reading between the lines and narrowed her eyes. "You ran into trouble then, I take it?"

Kiba, who had been interrupted by Shino before, took the chance and integrated himself into the conversation. "You can say that again. There was a team of Kusa-nin; nasty bastards. They called themselves Hunters."

"As in...?"

"Exactly. They didn't care about the exam, only about the gold in the chips."

After hearing of Team 8's encounter with such loathsome opponents, Naruto's gaze immediately fixed on Hinata. His mission from the Hokage was to protect her. Perhaps, that was only meant against her cousin, but his personal code of honor forbade such superficial specification. The Hyūga heiress had to be protected against everything that lurked in this forest – and there was plenty of danger abound.

"Are you wounded, then?" Naruto asked, addressing the team as a whole.

Kiba shook his head in the negative. "Only a few scrapes and bruises. Can't say the same 'bout you though... I smelled your blood from quite a distance away."

"Most of it isn't ours," replied Sasuke.

"I- I have a salve which could alleviate some of the pain if you want..."

Hinata began searching for the jar in the pockets of her beige jacket, but was stopped as Naruto put his right hand on her shoulder. She looked up, startled by the sudden contact, and the red hue on her cheeks intensified.

"Don't worry 'bout us, Hinata. We're fine, and the few scrapes we have can be addressed once we found the others."

"Team 10 has eluded you so far, then?" Shino asked.

"Unfortunately." Sakura sighed. "We needed all day to find you. I just hope that Team 10's gate isn't far from here."

Sasuke nodded. "True. This running on the edge of the forest is becoming bothersome."

"On that notice." Naruto looked at Team 8. "I hope you're not too tired, 'cause we need to move on. Throughout daytime, Team 10's combination attacks will have been enough to detract any aggressors. Shikamaru's abilities are depended on light though, and it's night already. Their combat efficiency is effectively halved at the moment."

Shino righted his glasses, glanced at his teammates once, then nodded. "We're right behind you, Naruto-san."

"Haven't I told you already? Just call me Naruto!"

AN: And that's it. You might have noticed that I experimented a bit with my vocabulary and writing style, especially in the beginning of the last part. Anyway, a lot of stuff is going to happen in the Forest of Death and this chapter was just the beginning. Stay tuned!