Naruto: Bloodlines

by The SOC Puppet

Part 19 – Buried Legacies

Summary: As the Sand and Sound began their attack on the Leaf, several battles began - and one ended. Sasuke began chasing Gaara and his siblings, while Iruka's fight with three Sound-nins was evened out when Anko and Hinata joined in. And Setsuna and company fought off a group of Sand-nins, only to chase them into the waiting arms of Naruto and his friends! Let's get ready to rumble!

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or any of the characters in this story, except for originals like the Uzumaki family. The characterization of the Fourth Hokage is all my creation, as is his relationship to Naruto. All jutsus are also not my invention, other than the ones that Naruto will learn as the story goes on.

" " – Speech

Italics – Thoughts

' ' – Misc. Speech

"Now, now, my boy. I'm sure we can reach a peaceful resolution of this little tiff."

Naruto rolled his eyes at Kunimitsu, as the Sand "Jounin" knelt begging in front of him.

"You want to tell me why I should even consider letting off someone who was planning to kill unarmed people and pass them off as shinobi?"

"Well," the older man ticked off on his fingers, "I'm a gourmet cook, I play hanafuda like a professional, and I know every courtly insult in the book. Oh, and I play a mean shakuhachi in the village quartet! Just like I told that nice young woman in the restaurant before she beat us up and sent us your way. I'd be a great prisoner of war."

Lackey 1 groaned and cradled his face in his hands.

I went through five years of training at the Bodyguard Academy for THIS?

Ino looked at the thug and back at Kunimitsu.

"What's his problem?"

"Oh, nothing," the Sand-nin shrugged. "I think he just regrets taking the job of protecting me from my Uncle Kumataro. I doubt his contract covers getting captured."

Naruto was about to ask again, when something Kunimitsu had just said hit him. Girl in the restaurant? Beat him up?

"You got beat up by my aunt? If your uncle didn't even give you enough protection to get past my Aunt Setsuna, I think you might be better off staying here after all."

Another explosion out in the direction of the forest shook the air. Neji strode up to Naruto, jerking a thumb back where the noise had come from.

"We've no time to be chatting. There are battles going on everywhere. It would be best to help before something should go wrong with one."

Tenten pointed a finger at the four men still arrayed across from them.

"What about Bozo and the Clowns?"

Naruto turned to look at Kunimitsu's group, a rather nasty gleam building in his eyes.

"Okay, we got one willing prisoner and three question marks. You guys want a fast track to the afterlife, or would you prefer to hang out up here for a while?"

Blank looks greeted him both from the Sand fighters and his friends. A vein popped up on the blond Genin's forehead.

"LOOK, EITHER LET US TIE YOU UP AND GET BACK TO THE REAL FIGHT OR I'LL RIP YOUR FUCKING LUNGS OUT!"

Lackey 1 sighed, holding his arms up in surrender.

"Will you at least do me the courtesy of saying for the official record that I fought to the last?"

Naruto rolled his eyes as he reached for a discarded laundry line on the rooftop.

"Yeah, sure, for all the good it'll do you. Now go hide in a corner somewhere out of sight. I don't need your deaths on my conscience if some Anbu squad finds you before we get back."

Thinking about all the opponents – and friends – he still had out there, the blond Genin grimaced.

"If we get back."

If there was any one fight Naruto would have worried about on paper, it was the one Iruka faced with three very real Sound-nins. That wouldn't have changed even with the addition of a psychotic Special Jounin and a formerly timid Genin on the Leaf side. Seeing the three enemies arrayed against them, Anko hissed an aside to Iruka.

"Hey, Big Sensei Man, you got a plan or did you just decide to jump into the fight for the sake of great justice?"

The Chuunin flushed bright red.

"Um, does it really matter?"

Mitarashi Anko considered his response and then shrugged.

"No, just curious. I'll kill them anyhow. Just checking to see if you know what you're doing."

Iruka looked over at Anko's companion, hefting a kunai and glancing warily at the Sound-nins.

"What about Hinata?"

"Get real. She's here to observe and for numbers. Guppies don't kill sharks. Your problem is half your students take after you and your prissy, hugs-for-everyone teaching style. They all lack practical slaughtering experience. A little blood never hurt anyone."

"Even if it's their blood being spilled?"

"You have to learn to duck eventually. Better early than late. Hinata! Watch over Iruka. I'd hate for him to have nothing to break his fall if he faints from watching me work."

The Special Jounin turned back to face their foes, biting her thumb as she did so.

"You think Orochimaru is the only one who can summon serpents? Think again. Ninpo Kuchiyose! Doton: Dokuga no Jutsu (Earth Element: Poison Fang)!"

A cloud of smoke billowed forth from where Anko's hand slammed into the ground, resolving into a twelve-foot long serpentine form, dull brown with black markings over a white belly. The snake's head wove a slight circle-eight pattern in the air as it tracked new prey. Anko stroked its body idly, a too-serene smile twisting her face.

"This is a Habu pit viper. Normally they grow about a meter long, maybe a little more, and getting bitten by one is like getting dipped in acid. This is an ancestor spirit, about four times bigger. Its venom can bring agonies that make Hell seem like Paradise. So if you thought you had the advantage…think again."

The Sound-nins displayed no outward signs of anxiety, but Hinata could see how tense they were, Byakugan working overtime to catch the kinds of clues Neji was always spotting in her. Why would Orochimaru's people be so wary of snakes when they'd summoned a giant one already? Jabbing an elbow into Iruka's side, she nodded over in the enemy's direction.

"They look spooked. Maybe we should attack now?"

Anko ordering him around was one thing, but to lose the initiative to a student was something even Iruka couldn't abide.

"You stand back. Anko wanted you to watch, remember? With her snake it's three against three again. Stay behind cover and let me worry about these fellows."

The purple-haired Genin rolled her eyes and moved behind a stack of boxes in the alleyway.

"Whatever."

Oh, the shame. For even the most timid of his former students to think him a wimp? Not even as battle-ready as Anko? Umino Iruka burned with a silent rage. It was time to open a can of Super Hyper Triple-Strength Whoop Ass on his foes. Unfortunately, all he had was a bunch of kunai and his wits. It would have to do. The Chuunin walked over to where Anko and her snake stood, fixing her with the same look he'd used on Naruto so many times.

"Just because I'm a teacher doesn't mean I've forgotten what to do with a good blade."

The Special Jounin's face twisted in a maniacal grin.

"Don't tell me. Show me."

Obviously, straight-up fighting was out. He'd tried it, had just about managed to get himself killed before Anko had stepped in, and was only average at it. But what was forming in his brain right now had to be initiated somehow. Reaching below his usual belt pouch, Iruka felt the bulge of one of the two special packs he'd strapped onto his legs before leaving the Academy to escort his students, divided into six separate slots. Snapping one container open, he snagged the kunai that sprang into the air. With a smirk to disguise his unease, Iruka gestured to his ally.

"Just try and keep up."

Not bothering to listen to the curse she yelled back, he set his sights on the lone enemy Jounin, who was probably the biggest threat. If he was going to have to fight, it might as well be with the commander. Who knew how insufferable Anko would become if she took out a Jounin with him just watching?

Readying his kunai, Iruka hurled it at the Sound-nin, who predictably dodged, letting the weapon thud into the side of the alley. The Chuunin had anticipated that, and his foot smashed into a convenient rain barrel underneath a nearby gutter, destroying its cover. As he did so, his hands were already running through a complicated set of seals.

"Suiton: Haru Kasumi no Jutsu (Water Element: Springtime Haze)!"

Completing a spin kick in midair, Iruka knocked the barrel over, the water inside dissolving into a misty fog that quickly enveloped his opponent. Not giving the Sound-nin a chance to react, Iruka released the rest of his right-side kunai one at a time, forcing the Jounin back and drawing a wild tracery of metal along the same wall of the alley.

It vaguely occurred to Iruka that the mist kept him from seeing the other man's movements very well, but his plan was nearly complete. All he had to do was stay intact and moving long enough to set it off. The Jounin wasn't about to go down that easily.

"Katon: Hakka Dan (Fire Element: Flash Point Bullet)!"

Tiny fireballs spread outwards from the Sound-nin's mouth (at least Iruka hoped it was his mouth), incinerating the mist and boiling large portions of the cloud away. What didn't strike mist shot out towards Iruka, forcing him to leap up onto the left-hand wall as he reached for the kunai pack on his left leg with one hand. The other reached for his normal shuriken and kunai, behind his back. Jumping off the wall, he rained steel down upon the Sound-nin, special kunai flashing perilously close but impacting the left side of the alley harmlessly even as the weapons in his other hand kept his foe on the defensive. As his hands emptied, Iruka planned his next move.

Now it gets tricky.

If what he'd planned worked right, he would have to watch his step as well. Thankfully he at least knew where to step in the first place. To draw the Jounin into the trap, he'd likely have to absorb at least one hit and go back on the defensive. Looking back to where Anko was, he saw her engaged with the two Chuunin with her snake's help, keeping the fight well away from the boxes where Hinata was concealed. If all went well, he could concentrate on his fight and not worry about being knocked back into hers.

All right, have fun, asshole. This is your chance to whale away.

Iruka did his best to land awkwardly, as though surprised he was out of things to throw at the Sound-nin. That was all the opening the other man required. The Jounin vanished into thin air, even his footsteps untraceable.

Okay, so I didn't connect that Sound Village forehead protector to his being able to mask the sound of footfalls. A minor setback. I hope.

Orochimaru's people being who they were, they weren't about to waste time on little old him. The enemy would want to finish this fight quick, and that probably meant knifing him in the back. But when you couldn't see your foe, what side was that supposed to be? There had to be a way to counter this sound-muffling jutsu.

Here goes nothing.

"Suiton: Yuudachi no Jutsu (Water Element: Sudden Shower)!"

Molecules in the air around him condensed in a flash, a miniature torrent of rain cascading down into the alley. The Sound-nin might be able to fool his ears, but the impact of his feet upon water, even if he managed to balance himself out with chakra, would become noticeable soon enough.

There! A splash too great to be caused by a mere raindrop. Iruka leaned back just in time to keep the Jounin from splitting his head in two, somersaulting down the alley, past the weapons still embedded in the walls. Once he'd passed the last stuck kunai, Iruka released the tiny packets of chakra he'd been holding in place upon the rings and handles of the special kunai. A brief shing rang in the air, a whisper of metal on metal he hoped would be too soft for the Sound-nin to take notice of. Frantically weaving out of the way of a further assault, Iruka's hands leapt into one final sequence of seals, finishing by slamming them both to the ground, palms down.

"Suiton: Shouryu Goku no Jutsu (Water Element: Tidal Prison)!"

The water raining down upon both men coalesced into a wave as tall as the buildings around them, enveloping the Sound-nin in an aquatic cell. The Leaf Chuunin shook his head resignedly and pointed a finger in the opposite direction, the wave moving at his command.

"Die."

Without the cover of rainfall to dull their presence, wires gleamed in the sunlight, spreading outwards in a haphazard web, connecting the "missed" kunai Iruka had previously thrown, held in place at each end by smaller magnets. By the time the Jounin registered that, it was too late to do anything but impact Iruka's net of razor wire.

A torrent of blood painted the alleyway crimson, Iruka's net neatly slicing the Sound-nin into a pile of twitching body parts, the head's expression frozen in wide-eyed horror. From behind her boxes, watching the scene with the Byakugan, Hinata could not see Anko's savage battle frenzy in her old sensei's eyes, nor sadness at taking a life. All Iruka's expression betrayed was fatigue and mental exhaustion. She couldn't hear him speak, but she could read the words his lips formed.

"A little blood may not hurt anyone, Anko, but it's no miracle cure."

The Special Jounin hadn't heard him either, but she'd certainly taken in the sight of Iruka dicing his opponent into shinobi finger food. Hissing something in an alien tongue to her snake, Anko drew a second kunai to join the one in her left hand and charged, screaming as she moved.

"Enough dancing around! You're meat!"

The viper's tail whipped around and forced one of the two Chuunin back, Anko hurling her kunai at the other one. The brown-haired man vanished in a cloud of smoke, Kawarimi no Jutsu countering her attack. Snarling, she set her hands in motion.

"Hijutsu: Sansei Jouki (Secret Technique: Acidic Vapor)!"

A sickly purple cloud jetted out from the sleeves of the kunoichi's jacket, shaking it all over with its force. The "missing" Sound-nin reappeared as the vapor spread outwards, whipping the top of his outfit off to shield him from the acid and drive the lethal fog away from his position. It charred the thickly-woven shirt into a smoking ruin, but that was a small sacrifice to avoid much greater damage. Anko ground her teeth.

Any other opponent, that at least gives them pause. Orochimaru's men WOULD know the counters to everything he taught me – probably because he's known this day was coming for a lot longer than I have.

When she realized what else that might mean, the two Chuunin were already in position to prove her own point.

"Konton Ha (Chaos Wave)!"

The world began to swim, a ringing in her ears steadily building into a chorus of random noise under the Sound-nins' sonic assault. It wasn't as powerful as the Sound attack from the exam reports, the one that had knocked the Rock Lee boy for a loop, but it was more than enough to throw her sense of balance completely off-kilter. Looking about, she could see her serpent thrashing about aimlessly, trying and failing to center on its target.

Damn! They lined us both up!

Where the hell was Iruka? Sitting with his thumb up his ass gloating at her misfortune? No. She shook off the brief flash of irritation. He had to be careful coming to her aid. That razor net worked both ways, and getting around it would be tricky. There was no time to dismantle it now anyway. Besides, she wasn't completely helpless. The enemy might have hindered her movement, but they hadn't silenced her.

"Senei Jashuu (Sublime Snake Hand)!"

A call to another of her allies worked. Four pythons shot forth from one outstretched sleeve, instinctively wrapping around the nearest heat source that wasn't their mistress. Gathering her feet under her, Anko pushed off randomly, pulling the arm with her snakes attached back towards her body. Without a sense of direction, it was the best she could do. It worked – sort of.

The ringing in her ears cranked up a notch with an impact that would leave a nasty bruise on her forehead. Leading with her head by necessity, she had smashed straight into the Chuunin's nose, which broke with an obliging crack and a steady flow of blood, covering both of their faces. Dazed, having to keep an unsteady eye on her foe, Anko mouthed a silent curse. With her viper down, there was nobody to handle the last Sound-nin until Iruka made it past his net. At least that was the logical conclusion.

Thankfully, Hyuga Hinata hadn't been entirely logical for weeks. Her vantage point had shown her the same grim picture Anko had seen: Iruka gingerly tiptoeing through the wires, her current sensei lying in a woozy (and disturbingly erotic) position on top of one Chuunin, and one last Chuunin advancing on the downed pit viper with kunai upraised. Hinata didn't much care for the slithery part of Anko's training, but losing an ally would just make her teacher even more unstable. Besides, she was still steaming at Iruka's assumption that she was useless in a fight.

The last Chuunin turned from stalking Anko's viper when he heard the scrape of Hinata's shoes on the ground, the purple-haired Genin emerging from her hideout. The snake could wait. This girl was a much easier target. And who would want to approach a zoned-out snake with venom that could rot his flesh into pulp?

Hinata considered trying her eye genjutsu, but thought better of it. She knew Hanabi's weaknesses. Orochimaru's people probably feared him much more than they respected him, but that wasn't enough to work on. It'd take too long to freeze him in place, and that would only expose her to attack if she failed. Plus, she knew how to use it. If she was going to take a risk it should be with a jutsu she still needed to master. Hinata took a deep breath, looking tensely at her opponent. Then she extended a sleeve of her own.

"Senei Jashuu!"

Iruka, Anko and the two Sound-nin all shifted their attention when they heard the young girl call out one of Orochimaru's signature jutsu. Whether they were looking at her in shock, pride or disdain, all eyes were on the former Hyuga heir to see what she could do. At least, they were until ten seconds had passed with nothing emerging from the girl's dark jacket. Large sweatdrops emerged on the two Leaf adults' heads. Hinata didn't have time for that; she was too busy looking inside the sleeve she'd thrown outwards, an irritated expression on her face.

"Look, how are you ever going to grow if you don't try to fight?"

Anko heard a faint hiss of displeasure – and a little fear - from inside the jacket. Hinata kept arguing with the unknown serpent.

"If they had big snakes, they'd have brought them out by now!"

The last Chuunin was tired of waiting. Raising his kunai, he charged. Taken aback, Hinata stumbled backwards and tripped over her own feet. As she fell, the purpled-haired girl whipped her arm outwards, hurling a gray, wriggling form out of the jacket's sleeve, barely two feet long. The snake hissed as threateningly as it could, its head flashing upwards as the Chuunin passed, sinking tiny fangs into his ankle.

The Sound-nin cursed at the sudden pain in his leg, shaking off Hinata's snake and turning back to its fallen mistress. But as he did so, the leg refused to respond. Wide-eyed, he stared back down at the snake, which had drawn itself up to hiss at him again. Suddenly it was getting hard to breathe.

"What…the hell…kind of snake…is that?"

Anko's eyes flew wide open as she recognized the baby snake.

A black mamba?

The Special Jounin sighed to herself. Only Hinata would have the dumb luck to survive summoning the wrong kind of snake with a Senei Jashuu – by calling on one of the deadliest snakes known to man. Sensing "her" Chuunin stirring, Anko headbutted him again to keep him quiet. Stunned again, it took her a few seconds to react to her student's…well, you couldn't call it a failure, but it was no huge success either (even if the mamba's venom would kill the Chuunin in mere minutes).

"Damn it, Hinata! I said pythons! The Senei Jashuu involves pythons!"

Gingerly rising to one knee, her student shook her head and kept an eye on the last Sound-nin, who had staggered to his knees, breathing ragged.

"But they're scary!"

A vein popped up on Anko's head, in the same place Naruto's had earlier.

"THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT!"

Iruka's hand latched onto the back of Anko's jacket, lifting her bodily off the first Chuunin and propping her up against the alleyway.

"Argue the point later. They're not dead quite yet."

"If I could move without tipping over, I'd do the deed, you know."

"Yes, yes," the Leaf shinobi humored her. "I know. Another time."

Picking up a kunai from the ground, Iruka bent down and laid the prone Sound-nin's throat open with one fluid slash, the muted look on his face unchanged.

The Special Jounin looked at her comrade with more than a little curiosity. Iruka didn't react, too busy making sure Hinata's foe he didn't do any more damage before the mamba's venom finished paralyzing his muscles and killed him from lack of oxygen.

"Hey, Big Sensei Man."

He didn't even bother to look back at her.

"What?"

"That net wasn't something you just came up with on the fly. You've got skills way out of line with a low-grade Chuunin just teaching kids the ropes. How come you're not in some hotshot Anbu squad?"

Iruka dropped the bloody kunai back on the ground, stepping over the paralyzed Sound-nin to help Hinata up. When he spoke again, his words were measured and quiet, almost too low to hear.

"Finish teaching Hinata. When you have, you'll see for yourself."

That took what was left of Iruka's adrenaline rush out of him, the Academy teacher staring off into space.

I suppose Naruto and his classmates ought to get most of the credit for this little transformation.

They had taught him that legacies were important, things to use as stepping-stones for one's success. He'd gone back after seeing Naruto fight Mizuki and others, sifting through the things his parents had left behind, scrolls and weapons that he'd always been unwilling to disturb, and tried to see what his parents had been, not simply keep a memory stagnant in his mind. A legacy had to be explored, understood, and accepted. If you wanted to move on afterwards, well, that was a normal human thing to do.

Unless you understand where you come from and do something with it, you'll always be leashed to the past. That's no way to live.

How many legacies would be made today, and how many would never get off the ground?

A pair of eyes watched Uchiha Sasuke as he dashed through the forest, focused intently on the Genin prodigy as he passed by. Contempt, respect and even envy roiled behind Yakushi Kabuto's eyes. Orochimaru had changed his plan upon seeing Naruto summon the giant ferret, intent upon seizing what chance he could of seducing the Uchiha boy away right now. When the disguised Sakon had slipped him the note with his new orders, he'd left the stadium, turning the mass genjutsu duties over to a fellow Sound Anbu member.

Kabuto cursed as he saw Sasuke's targets, the Kazekage's brats. Did the man have no control over his own creation? The point of the joint operation had been to crush the Leaf utterly, or at the least to cripple them. What shinobi and summoned creatures that were already in action would do damage, but nothing on the scale Orochimaru had envisioned. All because of the frailty of one stupid boy's mind.

Kimimaro, Orochimaru's last great prodigy, would never have backed down from a demon if it had been sealed inside him. Even Naruto, stubborn and rash, had achieved a little control over the Ninetails, if his performance just now was any indication. But now that Kimimaro's body was giving out, all they could have used was Gaara.

And he's done a lovely job of destroying a perfectly planned surprise assault.

If there was one thing to respect about Orochimaru, it was his efficiency. If a pawn or a tool stopped being useful, the snake Sennin replaced it immediately. Now that Gaara was useless to them, it was Sasuke's turn to take his place in the great game, and Kabuto's job to put him there. If he couldn't bring Sasuke in, someone else would – their value to Orochimaru rising at his expense.

Yakushi Kabuto had not gotten where he was without stepping over a few bodies on the way. He would be damned if someone ever got the chance to do the same to him.

You WILL join us, Sasuke-kun. And when you do, I'll be more than happy to keep you in line – and in your place - until Orochimaru gets what he wants from you.

"Okay, Super Eyes. You said there were battles going on everywhere. Point us in the right direction."

Naruto looked over at Neji as their little group sailed over the village rooftops. The Hyuga prodigy was squarely focused on the forest, out past the Leaf's walls. After a long pause, Neji nodded his head to the northeast.

"Gaara and his teammates are trying to flee the area. Sasuke is behind them, and he's catching up. Perhaps he wants to continue their fight."

The blonde Genin shrugged.

"Let him have his fun. There's a lot more dangerous stuff out there, and more civilians still heading for the shelters. We oughta at least help clear the city out before we jump into a duel."

'I'm afraid that's not possible, Naruto.'

The four Genin stopped short as the Ebon Shadow emerged from the treeline in front of them, backwinging to land on Naruto's shoulder.

"What're you talking about?"

'Ask your friend to take another look at this Gaara. I sense something…odd…about him. You might even say he is not entirely human. As though his spirit were that of a tanuki, oddly enough.'

Ino strained her ears, but heard only scattered bits and pieces of what the giant raven said to Naruto. The bird sage noted her confusion.

'Has the young lady a question?'

Naruto looked over at his confidant with a worried squint.

"What's up?"

"I don't know," she shook her head. "I can only hear parts of what he's saying, like a radio fading in and out."

Naruto repeated it to him; the Ebon Shadow chuckled.

'It appears human ingenuity only goes so far.'

"What's that supposed to mean?"

'You remember,' the raven said, 'how she only began hearing me after she read your mind?'

"What about it?"

'Well, it is only a theory, but I think in order to understand your thoughts, her mind had to take on the shape of your mind, however temporarily. This allowed her to hear me, even if she could not speak the tongue of Nature. Now that she is no longer in your mind, her thoughts are regaining their unique shape, and her ability to understand me is fading.'

Ino caught enough of it to understand what the raven meant, pouting in disappointment. Tenten, not knowing the background, looked at both of them like they were nuts.

"Naruto, it was bad enough when you were the only crazy one. Don't tell me you're contagious now?"

He made an irritated noise, pointing to the bird on his shoulder.

"Look, you saw me summon that ferret. I have a kind of animal magnetism. That's my Bloodline Limit. I can speak to them and summon different animals once I have their trust. Ino took a trip into my brain with her new jutsu and came out of it with half that power, but it's fading away now. Simple enough."

"Riiiiiiiiight."

"Oh, come on. Neji having X-ray vision you accept without a second thought, but I can't talk to furry creatures from the forest?"

"Neji's family has been doing it for centuries. I only saw you summon that ferret three hours ago. You tell me."

Naruto threw up his hands in exasperation.

"I'm surprised your dad gives you weapons sharp enough to break the skin."

"Of course he does! Using them is more sophisticated than prancing around the woods in a bearskin thong like you probably do with those animals!"

Rather than argue with her again, he turned to Neji, and motioned out in Gaara's direction.

"Take a detailed look at that Sand freak if you can. Shadow's saying something's wrong with the guy that makes him seem inhuman."

The long-haired boy shrugged.

"Something tells me it would take an encyclopedia to record everything wrong with him. Let me check."

Reactivating his Byakugan, Neji's enhanced vision bored through the forest, seeking out the fleeing forms of Gaara and his siblings. The girl with the fan and the boy with the puppet looked normal enough, if slightly twisted. But Gaara was unique. No, scratch that. Unique didn't even begin to describe the Sand Genin's chakra.

Naruto had manifested an evil aura when he'd broken through the Hakke Rokujuuyonshou, but Neji had gotten the sense that it was more a controlled spirit, not the other boy's soul itself. Gaara carried a similar influence, but his "second" aura was darker, jet black with the hint of abyssal depths. Roiling and pulsing, it crashed against its vessel's human soul like a neverending tide, spilling over with increasing frequency to taint and corrupt what was left there.

Neji shuddered visibly, turning off the Byakugan. Tenten leaned down to check on him.

"What did you see?"

He turned to look at her and the rest of the group, voice shaken and disturbed.

"Something that cannot be contained by Sasuke's skill alone. Its essence alone reeks of pure evil. Unless I miss my guess, it is mere moments from being released into the open. We had better prevent that, or at least try to minimize the damage."

Ino watched as Naruto ground his teeth, logic warring with emotion.

"Naruto, this is no time to get into a pissing contest. We all saw what that kid did to Lee. If he's capable of worse, he has to go down."

Gently nudging the Ebon Shadow off his shoulder with a shrug, the blonde Genin took his jacket off and tied it about his waist, revealing the tattoos running down one arm.

"Fine. Let's get this over with before he pulls a win out of his ass and becomes Grand High Master Emperor of Bishonen Land, where the bimbos dwell."

Biting his thumb, Naruto swiped the digit over the middle tattoo, that of Raven, morphing the bird sage into a giant-sized version of himself.

"Get on! We strike from the air and the bastards'll never know what hit 'em."

Tenten looked at the humongous raven a little dubiously.

"You sure about that with a bird this big?"

"The only thing I'm sure of is before we're done with them, they're gonna regret the day they set foot in our village. Now come on!"

Fear. Loathing. Bloodlust. All of that and more, in an ever-quickening cycle, turned and turned about in Uchiha Sasuke's head. He was tracking Gaara and the other two Sand Genin on Genma's orders, of course, but even if the Jounin hadn't ordered him to fight, the voices in the depths of his psyche would have demanded it.

That explained his irritation at hearing a familiar voice call out to him, distracting him from the coming battle.

"Sasuke! Turn back!"

He spared a short glance at the source of the command. Kabuto. What was a voluntary failure doing ordering him around in the middle of a war zone? Best not to simply ignore an order if it existed, though. Stopping atop a nearby tree, the Uchiha heir turned to look at Kabuto.

"What do you mean, turn back?"

"Exactly what it sounds like," the bespectacled Genin said. "Look up. Someone's already been reassigned to take on Gaara."

A large shadow swept overhead, the Ebon Shadow speeding in the same direction Sasuke had been seconds earlier, with Naruto's group aboard. Kabuto smiled to himself at the flush that crept all the way up Sasuke's neck to his face. Amazing, the kinds of tools you can pick up just by being observant. Envy trumps duty with enough time and opportunity. Sasuke looked dubious.

"What's going on? That idiot's never been able to do anything as advanced as that."

"When you grow up with medics, Sasuke, you learn that blood eventually breeds true."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Kabuto's inner smile widened, the Sound spy twisting the knife.

"The Leaf has all kinds of bloodlines. Some are just a little slower to develop than others."

Before Sasuke could digest that news, the other shinobi heaped more salt on the festering wound.

"We're to scout the rest of this area to see if Gaara and his team were trying to set up an ambush with other Sand shinobi. Naruto's squad will signal us if they need reinforcements. We ought to move before anything gets out of hand."

Without waiting for a response, Kabuto moved off into the forest, on a parallel track to Naruto's. Sasuke hesitated before following, unwilling to disobey even an unjust order.

As they moved off, another pair of eyes watched impassively from behind dark glasses, suspicions building within. Aburame Shino waited until there was enough distance between them, and began tracking Kabuto. It was the first time he'd heard of such an order being given to Naruto – and the first time he'd seen the other Genin since the second stage of the Chuunin Exam.

Coincidences that big in the shinobi world were illogical. Illogical things were threats, more often than not. And threats are made to be dealt with.

'I KNOW YOU WANT THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE, BUT UNLESS YOU WANT TO JUMP DOWN SEVERAL HUNDRED FEET INTO A STAND OF TREES, WE NEED TO GET CLOSER.'

Even as huge as the raven's voice had grown, Naruto could barely hear it over the sound of the wind rushing by, and the beating of his ally's wings.

"What'd you say?"

The bird sage shook his head. He had quickly learned after meeting Naruto that the Speaker's tactics were anything but ordinary. Perhaps it was time to follow a winning example. If experience is any example, he'll cope with what I'm about to do. Banking to give himself a good angle on the tiny forms of the Sand shinobi, the Ebon Shadow folded his wings and began to drop down to earth, shouting out a call even Naruto could hear.

'GET YOUR FRIENDS READY TO JUMP! I'LL BUZZ THE TARGET AND YOU CAN JUMP DOWN AS THE WIND HITS. IT'S ALL THE SURPRISE YOU'RE GOING TO GET IF YOU'RE USING ME AS TRANSPORTATION!'

The Speaker nodded, turning to Ino and the others.

"Shadow's going to buzz the treetops! When he does, get ready to jump off. Pick a target and get the drop on 'em!"

Neji motioned down in Kankuro's direction.

"I will take the puppet user. He can't do his little trick if I can spot where his chakra is."

Tenten snarled as she saw Temari and the fan on the Sand Genin's back.

"It's payback time for that bitch with the fan. She's mine."

Naruto shrugged as he looked over to Ino, who arched an eyebrow. Some people handle losing differently than others.

"I'd ask you to help me out with Psycho Boy, but I think you've had enough of demons and nutcases for one lifetime."

The blonde girl watched Tenten clench and unclench the kunai in her right hand, violent intentions evident.

"I'd say the girl with the fan is going to take extra effort."

"Keep your eyes open and your reflexes primed," Naruto muttered. "That chick's plenty twisted."

"Oh, Naruto," she said, voice syrupy sweet, hands clasped together in front of her and batting her eyes at him in exaggerated fashion, "You care! You really care!"

He had the grace to look embarrassed.

"Don't get too excited. I need someone around who thinks I'm sane. Helps me feel normal."

Naruto recovered by looking down and assessing the angle the Ebon Shadow was taking. You only get one shot to surprise anybody. Make it count. He brought his hands together, waiting until the raven began to level off.

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

Nothing appeared on top of the Ebon Shadow, which was exactly what Naruto intended. Instead, a dozen clones, curled up like cannonballs, were dropping down upon the Sand siblings. Gathering his legs underneath him, Naruto motioned to his friends to jump, and set up his attack.

"Naruto Bakuretsu Otaki (Naruto Explosive Cascade)!"

A rustle of leaves pushed aside by falling Kage Bunshin was all the warning Temari and Kankuro got before the clones descended and began to explode. Saving what was left of his chakra, Naruto hadn't made many of them. The chained explosions were still enough to send the Sand shinobi flying apart, Temari and Kankuro barely avoiding hitting nearby trees - and losing their grip on Gaara, who was thrown deeper into the forest.

Tenten was the first to take advantage of the opening, twin scrolls out of her pouch and fluttering in the wind, murder in her eyes. Weapons of all types poured out of them as she swiped her hands across each hidden pocket in turn.

"Die, you sadistic bitch!"

Weapons alone wouldn't be enough to kill Temari, already recovering from the concussion and readying her fan. It would be enough to occupy her and keep the other Sand Genin away. That'll do for now.

Riding the wind down, Ino watched Temari shield herself with a gust of air, directing Tenten's weapons back at her or throwing them into the surrounding trees. The pigtailed girl didn't look like as easy a mark as Sakura had been; the Dream Weaver might work, but she had no clue where to start looking for soft spots. Better, at least for now, to just run interference for Tenten and wait for an opportunity to show itself. She had just the thing in mind to help.

Taking out two kunai, Ino reached back into her waist pouch for two exploding seals, rolling them halfway over the handles of the throwing knives. Fisting the weapons in one hand, she reached into the pouch again, drawing forth a pair of smoke bombs. Inserting one each under the exploding seals, she finished wrapping the kunai handles. Cocking her wrist to throw, Ino put two fingers of her other hand in her mouth, letting loose a piercing whistle in Tenten's direction. When the other Leaf Genin looked over, Ino nodded her head sharply toward Temari – and let fly.

God, I hope she's a little psychic.

The Sand Genin rolled her eyes as the kunai split apart, coming at her from two distinct angles. She spared Ino's attack a lazy backhand wave of her fan, knocking the kunai back – but why was the other girl smiling with hands steepled together? Oh, no.

Temari's view of Ino vanished in a cloud of inky black smoke, the Leaf Genin detonating the exploding seals on her kunai – and the smoke bombs underneath. Unknown to Ino, her distraction worked even better than she'd thought. Temari had seen what the Dream Weaver had done to Sakura – and had plenty of demons of her own to dredge up. That prospect forced her to shift her attention away from Tenten. The black-haired girl took the hint and hurled a handful of her own smoke bombs.

Hemmed in by the smoke, Temari waved her fan straight up. A cone of air whipped up around the pigtailed girl, drawing in the cloud around her and pushing it up to restore her line of sight. Ino grimaced.

So much for a distraction.

Something didn't feel right. Why was their opponent so worried about being able to see if she didn't consider Tenten a threat and Ino couldn't use the Dream Weaver? Then again, it wasn't like she'd come out and said she couldn't use it…

Unless I'm completely off base, she's afraid of the Dream Weaver! She'd have to see me in order to avoid my probe.

Ino twisted her mouth in the most evil smile she could muster, hands moving in the Yume Oriko no Jutsu's special sequence.

Who am I to disappoint a waiting audience?

"Ninpou: Yume Oriko no Jutsu (Ninja Art: Dream Weaver)!"

Temari set her feet and prepared to jump away from the probe when it appeared - then Ino's hands froze in place, one seal before the end of the sequence, her smile dark and nasty.

Why'd she stop?

The answer came from behind her, Tenten screaming a warcry.

"Hijutsu: Tsurugi no Mai (Secret Technique: Dance of the Blades)!"

Training with Neji had its benefits – such as making her work on circling behind an enemy as fast as possible. Other than the Hyugas themselves, she was probably the only one who knew her teammate's Byakugan had a blind spot behind his head. She'd never actually gotten anything into that spot, but it wasn't for lack of trying. Now all that work was finally paying off.

The Sand kunoichi did the best she could to bring her fan into play and shield herself - playing right into Tenten's hands.

Every last attack and defense the pigtailed girl used involved that ridiculous fan. Destroying it might well be the key to destroying its mistress. This time, there would be no scrolls, no flashy pretense. Just steel on steel, weapon against weapon.

Her father had minced no words when she'd asked for the weapons she was going to use. Use these wisely. If you don't, you'll be tarnishing legacies – mine and your mother's. Kazumasa didn't have to worry. They're going to a good cause.

Her parents' Shijin blades bit into the edge of Temari's fan and kept on going with chakra-enhanced speed, cutting half the giant weapon off. Staring at the damaged weapon in her hands, the Sand Genin's eyes shot wide open, murderous intent rising in an instant. Tenten blanched. Suddenly I'm wondering who's really the craziest of all three of them… In a flash the pigtailed girl was upon her, not even bothering to use the broken fan, just frantically trying to get her hands around Tenten's neck.

"YOU BITCH! YOU UNBELIEVABLE FUCKING BITCH! YOU'RE DEAD! I SWEAR TO EVERY GOD IN EXISTENCE I'LL KILL YOU A DOZEN TIMES OVER! THERE WON'T EVEN BE ENOUGH LEFT OF YOUR ASHES TO FIT IN AN URN!"

A light tap on her shoulder shocked Temari out of her savage frenzy, turning her head to see the threat. Ino screwed her face up in an exaggerated pout.

"Don't I rate any notice?"

The Sand kunoichi didn't get a chance to answer. Ino's fist, clutching a kunai for added impact, crashed into her jaw even as she was trying to turn, spinning the older girl around to slump face down on the forest floor. The blonde Leaf Genin swung her kunai around on one finger as she helped Tenten up.

"If you were going to cut anything, you should have cut her, not the fan. The last thing we need is a girl who's gone batshit crazy about losing her toy."

A crazed scream from Temari's position drove Ino's point home.

"Toy this!"

It was stretching things to say the Leaf girls were surprised to be blown across the clearing. But considering Temari had waved her ruined fan hard enough to summon a hurricane and only gotten a stiff breeze, there were some eyebrows raised. Ino cursed; it hadn't hurt her, but Temari, broken fan or not, now had an open route to hook up with Kankuro, who Neji had backed up a fair bit.

"Neji! A little help with Psycho Girl here?"

The Hyuga prodigy ducked another weapon attack from Kankuro's doll, shifting his Byakugan to put both enemies in view. He immediately regretted it. Karasu sprayed an entire brace of bombs at him, just as Temari waved her fan in his direction.

Only shinobi could make children's toys into deadly weapons.

With two Genin after her hide, Temari wasn't going to waste time sending normal smoke bombs at him. No matter what was in them, he didn't need to be inhaling it. Digging a toe into the loamy dirt, Neji spun in a quick Kaiten, throwing up a cloud of earth and dust to knock back the unknown bombs. With that counter move blocking his view of the Sand-nins, he took the hint and moved back to where Ino and Tenten stood.

"Suddenly I wonder if I should still be asleep underneath the stadium."

"And miss all this fun?"

All three Leaf Genin looked up as an explosion rocked the clearing, driving Temari and Kankuro further back. A golden-haired form shot through the smoke, sliding to a crouch beside Ino. Naruto grinned at his friends' surprised looks. Ino spared a brief moment to smack him upside the head.

"What happened to going after Gaara?"

"Time enough to do that once we take these two out. You wanted help, didn't you?"

"I also wanted somebody to take that freak out already!"

"Some people," Naruto shook his head ruefully, "don't know what the hell they want. Let's just finish these two off. When we do, the odds against Gaara will be a hell of a lot better."

Neji damped down his ally's enthusiasm.

"I don't have much chakra left. One large Kaiten will probably take the rest. Even if we finish these two quickly I won't be able to contribute anything to fighting Gaara."

"Then we'll make it count. I've got a bit of a plan. If it works right we can take them both out at the same time."

Tenten didn't look too convinced.

"How do we get close enough to do that when she can still blow us back here with one wave of her fan?"

"Patience, O Hair-Bunned One. That's what I'm here to do. How much speed can you get behind a kunai or shuriken with all your weight behind it?"

She bristled, but did the sums in her head.

"Plenty fast. The only reason Psycho Girl dodged my throws in the first place was because she had that wind to deflect everything. I know she never actually saw what I threw at her."

"Not good enough," Naruto grunted. "At least not for what I've got planned. You're gonna need an assist. Neji, you ever try doing something other than deflecting stuff with your Kaiten?"

The other boy's eyes glinted with a hint of understanding.

"No. But I have no problem with a little improvisation."

"That's what I'm talking about. Now, Ino, what's your opinion of amusement park rides?"

That question got Naruto nothing more than a dozen confused eyeblinks from her.

"Huh?"

The spiky-haired Genin sighed and threw another handful of smoke bombs into the clearing, taking Ino's hand and walking a good distance backwards with her in tow.

"Never mind. Just try not to scream."

Tenten crooked an eyebrow.

"What the hell are you doing?"

"Shut up and back up halfway between Neji and me! Give me a five-second head start, and then start running forward! You'll get the point."

"You know, Naruto, now I'm curious," Ino said, hand still clutched in his. "What are you doing?"

He turned and gave her the strangest smile she'd ever seen.

"You trust me?"

"Um, I guess so."

"Good. Then hang on."

Before she could ask why, Naruto seized her about the waist and hoisted her over his shoulder, running towards Tenten and Neji. Hoping Ino would take the hint and free his arms up, he released her body and brought his hands together in front of him, first in one set of seals, and then another, before bending his knees and leaping headlong at Tenten.

The black-haired girl, barely understanding what Naruto was doing, took off running herself – and then Naruto and Ino exploded into a puff of smoke, leaving only a Fuuma shuriken behind. Her eyes shot wide open, finally understanding what Naruto was planning to do.

Is he INSANE?

It was too late to stop him anyway. Considering what she'd been able to do against Temari on her own, why not try something new? Plucking the "shuriken" out of mid-air, Tenten too left her feet, three Leaf Genin now bearing down on Neji, just now beginning to spin at maximum speed. Tenten braced herself for the impact, expecting to bounce right off Neji's ultimate defense mechanism – until she saw the smirk on his face, and the telltale glow of his chakra shield fading away. Opening one hand, the Hyuga prodigy grabbed his teammate by one ankle and swung her with all his might.

Temari readied her fan as the smoke began to clear. She could hear noises from the Leaf-nins. What was going on? Tenten's scream and a Fuuma shuriken exploding out of the dispersing smoke were her only answers.

"Let's see you block this with your broke-ass toy!"

The Sand girl didn't know whether to be insulted or amused. The damage to her fan hurt, but she could compensate with chakra. Motioning Kankuro back, Temari began to manifest a slight battle aura, pumping as much chakra into her fan as possible. For a brief moment, pure energy replaced the missing half of her tool, before she waved it in a contemptuous backhand to swat the "Fuuma shuriken" down.

When the shuriken kept on coming, the two Sand Genin realized something might be up – a moment too late to do anything about it. The thrown weapon split, blurring and resolving into two forms: Naruto and Ino, a glowing, angular field surrounding them and redirecting Temari's wind blast. Naruto gave his blonde target a brief wink before his flying kick blasted her to the ground.

"Who knew there was a use for studying math after all?"

Kankuro tightened up his chakra strings, ready to switch places with Karasu and dodge Ino's move.

"What the hell?"

He might as well have tried to eat soup with a fork.

"Ninpou: Shitenshin no Jutsu (Body-Mind Switch)!"

Ino spared him one last thought before leaping into his body, pinpointed by Neji just before Tenten had released them.

Sometimes old tricks are the best tricks.

Naruto brushed dirt off his pants as he stood up, glancing over at Neji.

"Still feel like taking a nap?"

"More than ever."

"We've really gotta work on your sense of adventure."

Why did that inspire a look of surprise on the prodigy's face?

"Naruto!"

Turning sharply, the blonde boy had just enough time to see Temari lunge at him, weapon drawn. But before the attack could connect, a massive brown form shot out of the treeline, sending the Sand girl flying into a nearby oak with one swipe. Lady Sunflower watched her target slump to the ground before turning to Naruto.

'Just how were the wolves were pacified by a boy who cannot tell if his enemy is actually finished?'

"Politics," he muttered, "is a game, not a fight. It's a lot easier to kick a game board over and start again than it is to stop a war."

Lady Sunflower made a amused noise deep in her throat.

'I will remember that the next time you attempt to settle a dispute. Perhaps a ball game with these intruders' heads?'

The Speaker snorted at the giant bear's attempted humor.

"You want to take out your aggression, do it on a hunt. A soldier's only there because someone made him go. Defeat's a good enough punishment until they prove they can't take the hint."

'Fair enough. The last time we retaliated against you humans it brought nothing but grief. We are even now, young one. You saved my people, and I have saved you in return.'

Naruto rolled his eyes.

"Great friggin' timing, I might add."

'Who can tell when you humans have lowered your pride enough to accept help?'

"When I have to stop chasing one demon to beat down two psychos, it might be a good sign."

'I shall make a note of it. Then again, you will be the one calling me from now on, so why bother?'

The Speaker could take a hint.

"What happened to us being even?"

'We may have more need of you in the future. It seemed prudent to ensure your cooperation.'

Naruto threw up his hands in amazement.

"Wow. And you're lecturing me about pride?"

Shaking his head, he turned to the others and jerked a thumb back.

"Meet Lady Sunflower, head of the local bear tribe. Talks a good game. I suppose we oughta thank her for backing us up."

"Is it wise," Neji grinned, "to be arguing with an animal three times your size, even when you understand what she's saying?"

"Hell no. But when you're bargaining favors, you gotta expect a little tension. Especially from something with more pride than a star of stage and screen."

'Flattery will get you nowhere. We are wasting time with banter. Did you not say you had been chasing a demon of some sort?'

"Well, yeah, but it's not like he's actually going to be that hard to find."

Still in Kankuro's body, Ino intended to respond – but that died in her throat as something burst out of the forest, rising out of the trees, even smashing some flat through its sheer size. Obviously it was something Kankuro feared, his body spasming and flinching in sheer physical panic. Pointing up at the new addition, Ino managed to croak out a retort after all.

"Naruto, you suck as a prophet."

Lady Sunflower, as proud as ever, made a rude noise.

'Tanukis. When they're not stealing your food supplies, they're trashing your territory. Let us go and, as you humans so inelegantly put it, "waste that thing."'

'you will do no such thing.'

A disembodied voice floated by on the wind, the trees all around the boys, girls and one bear rustling in unison, almost speaking into their minds. Tenten covered her ears in reflex.

"Don't tell me! He really is contagious!"

Naruto bristled, going bright red in the face.

"Aw, shut up already! That's no animal I've ever heard talking."

'correct.'

Even Ino was surprised to be hearing the voice loud and clear. Wasn't her ability fading?

"Well then, what are you?"

Still rustling, the trees around the Leaf Genin exploded upwards, growing and lengthening, weaving together in a canopy so tight the sun barely trickled through the few openings. The voice spoke again, this time seeming to echo.

'i am konoha. the avatar of this land, the source of the speaker's power.'

Neji arched an eyebrow.

"You are the very forest itself?"

'not merely the forest. all of this place, from the mountains and streams to the forest, even the wasteland, is mine to watch over. watch over it I shall. the interloper shukaku presumes to believe he can threaten my charges, my creations, without consequences. this is an insult most grave. insults are to be punished.'

"Interloper?" Naruto muttered. "Since when is that thing a part of Nature?"

'it is not. it is of makai. the creatures of makai exist only to defile, to slaughter and destroy. they must be purged. speaker, you shall come with me. there is work to be done.'

Lady Sunflower looked shocked.

'Lord Avatar, this is unprecedented. No Speaker has ever called on your power. None of them has even been allowed to do so. What's more, I was here first. Do you doubt my ability to fight?'

'there is no time to debate whose power is supreme, child, though you know what the answer would be. threats from man, or from another avatar's creations, i trust my children to deal with. but to deal with makai is my duty. intrude not upon it.'

The bear chief grumbled, but sat down. Naruto didn't quite know where to address the Avatar; he settled for talking straight up.

"So you're going to let me summon you?"

'incorrect. i cannot be summoned. my duties preclude such behavior. i appear only when i am most needed in my lands. such has only occurred once before now, when the first of your kind settled this place. in exchange for my aid, he agreed to respect nature as much as possible – for a human.'

Tenten nudged Neji with an elbow.

"Is it talking about who I think it's talking about?"

The Hyuga boy shrugged.

"It does explain why the First Hokage – the Fire Shadow – had a Wood Element jutsu as his trump card."

'the one you speak of was somewhat respectful for one of the younger races. however, after some time even he began to see me as nothing more than another tool. i realized my mistake then. no man or beast has been allowed to use my power so freely since. the mother's creations should exist by their own means. it is only when such things as shukaku and others of makai that my power is truly required.'

"Then why," Naruto grumbled, "don't I ever hear of the forest rising up to fight the Ninetails?"

'the previous speaker preferred to concentrate on her allegiance to the human world. as i was not apparently needed i allowed the humans to do what they would. fortunately for them, they succeeded.'

Naruto muttered a curse to himself.

Great. First a bear with more pride than Sasuke, and now a forest with more pride than the bear.

"Forget I asked. Can we just go fight that thing and get this over with?"

'first you must decide what form i shall take to battle. as you are speaker you are granted this privilege, which the other human was not.'

"How the hell do I do that?"

'it will come to you. choose wisely.'

Expecting his arm to start burning again, Naruto was stunned to feel the sensation coming from his forehead – right between his eyes, in fact. Tearing off his forehead protector, the blonde boy slapped both hands his head, cradling it and breathing in strangled gasps as the mark burned its way into his skin and soul. Angrily he demanded answers from the Avatar.

"What the FUCK is the idea of branding my forehead?"

'did you think the mark of man you wear is the only one you owe allegiance to? you are a speaker. to forget that is to abandon a duty as solemn as the one you have sworn to the human world. such is the price of your power.'

Naruto bristled at the implied insults to him and his mother.

"When have I ever forgotten my duty? I saved the bears, didn't I?"

'better to nip a problem in the bud than struggle to correct it when it appears.'

The Speaker rubbed the new mark on his forehead.

"I'll remember that the next time Konohamaru gets out of line."

'attend to human affairs later. there is no time to waste.'

Tenten looked at Naruto, wondering if she'd just stepped through some kind of weird dimensional portal without looking. Where a few minutes before his brow had borne the symbol of the Leaf Village, a character had appeared on the blonde's forehead: Moku (Wood). Another mark had flashed briefly on his arm near the others, most likely for the bear that had saved him, but it was impossible to miss the Avatar's sigil.

Naruto didn't say much of anything, keeping his own counsel.

This isn't over, you overgrown, twig-brained asshole. For now, you get a pass. Saving my friends and family comes first.

What mattered was taking down whatever Gaara had become, defending his people, human and animal. Pride could wait. And if indeed the Avatar was going to stir itself to fight, it might as well do so looking dignified – or at least badass. Naruto bit his thumb and smeared his blood slowly over the Avatar's mark.

"All right, I've got something. Can you pull it off?"

'the choice is made. prepare yourself.'

The forest floor roiled beneath him, more trees emerging from the ground to shelter Ino, Neji, Tenten and Lady Sunflower. Hundreds of roots began to explode upwards, questing for sunlight, weaving and winding together. One large mass formed underneath Naruto, lifting him up as the Avatar continued to build itself into what he'd chosen.

Watching beneath the tree canopy, Ino transferred herself out of Kankuro's body. Disoriented, the Sand Genin staggered about for a brief moment – before Lady Sunflower rose lazily from her seat and cold-cocked him with a backhand paw to the face. Rising groggily, Ino opened her eyes to see the Avatar was still shaping itself.

"What could you possibly make with a bunch of trees, Naruto?"

Neji chuckled in amusement.

"Given his imagination, we'll be surprised whatever happens. Sit back, enjoy the show and make sure these two Sand Genin are really out of the fight. That's what I recommend given the condition we're all in."

Naruto crossed his arms in front of his chest, as the bed of roots he stood on continued to rise into the air. Looking down, he felt and saw whole trees rising from the earth, trunks becoming limbs, the Avatar becoming what he had seen in his mind. As the creature built itself higher and higher, the Speaker could see a tanuki-shaped thing in the distance, standing still with tail waving in lazy menace, as though waiting for a target.

The blonde Genin bared his teeth, rage boiling over inside.

All of this pain, having to kowtow to some tree god, just to kick your ass. You're going to wish you'd never been born.

The Avatar spoke and brought him out of his thoughts.

'it is done, human. the battle is joined.'

Towering above the forest, a massive form now stood ready for battle, eyes glowing with a baleful green light, maw full of spiked roots, one giant oaken foot smashing into the ground in challenge.

Naruto's mouth twisted into a terrible, savage caricature of a smile.

"Mokuton: Mokuryu no Jutsu (Wood Element: Wooden Dragon no Jutsu)."

As he spoke, the dragon lunged forward, claws outstretched for battle.

BONUS: Naruto's Wild Kingdom!

Habu Pit Viper (Trimeresurus flavoviridis)

Description: Light brown or olive-yellow with black markings and a yellow or greenish-white belly.

Characteristics: This snake is responsible for biting many humans and its bite could be fatal. It is an irritable species ready to defend itself. Its venom is hemotoxic, causing pain and considerable tissue damage.

Habitat: Found in a variety of habitats, ranging from lowlands to mountainous regions. Often encountered in old houses and rock walls surroundings buildings.

Length: Average 1 meter, maximum 1.5 meters.

Distribution: Okinawa and neighboring islands and Kyushu.

Source: SurvivalIQ Handbook

Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis)

Description: Most mambas are uniformly bright green over their entire body. The black mamba, the largest of the species, is uniformly olive to black.

Characteristics: The mamba is the dreaded snake species of Africa. Treat it with great respect. It is considered one of the most dangerous snakes known. Not only is it highly venomous but it is aggressive and its victim has little chance to escape from a bite. Its venom is highly neurotoxic.

Habitat: Mambas are at home in brush, trees, and low-hanging branches looking for birds, a usual diet for this species.

Length: Average 1.8 meters, maximum 3.7 meters.

Distribution: Most of Africa.

Source: SurvivalIQ Handbook

AUTHOR'S NOTES

Well, here it is. Four months, ten thousand-plus words, and one new real life job later, Chapter 19 is finally finished. If you enjoyed it, great. If you didn't, at this point, I'm too tired and worn out to care anymore. Flame all you want.

Oh, and I hate FFN. What the hell happened to being able to use symbols, for Christ's sake? And would it kill them to be able to recognize asterisks as scene breaks?

Next chapter: Naruto vs. Gaara, Avatar vs. Shukaku! The most monumental showdown to date…plus, where is Kabuto taking Sasuke?