Chapter Thirty-Two

Clash of the Titans

Disclaimer: Eventually we will get to a point where every sensible combination of words will be used. What will happen then I wonder since everything written from that point forward will be plagiarism. At this point in time though I will not claim the plot as completely my own since it is not completely my own. However, the original characters, jutsu and plot differences are.

A/N: Over a year...I'm ashamed at myself for letting this slide so far. I won't make excuses as it was mainly my own fault this hasn't been continued in so long. Here is proof though that I have not abandoned this story. Hopefully the next chapter will not take nearly as long.

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Immediately the Konoha ninja switched to guarding against this new threat as well. If the pale guy simply showing up was enough to scare the chick then he was obviously the bigger threat. That didn't mean they knocked Tayuya completely out of the picture though.

"Who the hell are you?" Kiba shouted as he readied his claws. He ignored Akamaru's whining from inside his coat as he tried to gauge the guy's intentions.

Kimimaro merely looked at him, dismissed the boy, then turned back to his previous conversation partner. "Orochimaru-sama has been waiting for too long for this prize. Now he has run out of time and patience. Even so, I shall take it to him."

It was at that point that the group realized exactly where the man had landed. Kimimaro was standing right on top of the container that held their mission goal. Tenten and Naruto both rushed him, but their weapons were blocked as the man simply leaned back, causing the coffin to tip up into the path of their strikes. With an amazing feat of aerial acrobatics, Kimimaro flipped backwards and kicked the barrel away from the group. They could only watch in awe as it went sailing up into the air, only to be caught by the Oto-nin after he recovered from his flip and jumped after it.

He landed next to Tayuya with the coffin safely in his hands and looked at her out of the corner of his eye with what could only be disgust. "Because of your incompetence, Orochimaru-sama had to switch to an undesirable host. I don't know where your teammates are, and I really couldn't care less, but when you all get back you will face my full wrath."

"Wh-what do you think you can do, y-you half dead piece of shit! You shouldn't even be able to move!" Tayuya called out with what little confidence she could muster.

"For Orochimaru-sama, I will go beyond my own limitations and succeed. My muscles are no longer what moves my body, I function on his will alone." Kimimaro leapt forward one branch before half turning his head back to her. "You haven't outlived your usefulness to me yet though. Keep them busy while I deliver him to Orochimaru-sama. Once you're done, come back to Oto and receive your punishment." With that he was gone.

Tayuya clenched her fists and lowered her head. 'Fuck. If I go back they'll kill me for failing. If I run away, they'll hunt me down, torture me, then kill me. Dammit. If I'm going down then I'm just going to have to take as many as I can down with me, starting with these little fucktards. Maybe if I stop them and catch up fast enough they'll at least let me live...' She lifted her head up and glared at the group of four in front of her. "Alright you little wannabe fodder. Let's see just how long you think you can last against someone of my caliber."

Despite her thoughts, Tayuya still doubted the length of her life in the future. Even so, she would take this fight seriously. 'If I had to guess, the blond with the swords or the guy with the ponytail is the leader. Judging from the slices they made, the blond and the bun-head are weapon specialists in training. The brat who's shirt is whimpering is from that Inuzuka clan that uses animals and would be a close range fighter. Now...what about Mr. Pineapple guy? What's his specialty? Oh yeah! Shadow manipulation. That's why I couldn't move.'

While she was assessing their strengths and weaknesses, the Konoha team was coming up with their own plan of action. Shikamaru turned his head slightly to hide his mouth from the enemy. "Well this is just getting better and better. Right when I thought we'd get an easy fight another one shows up that seems to be even stronger, so troublesome."

"Hey if you're just going to stand there and gripe, I'm going to beat this chick myself and go finish our mission." Tenten was annoyed at the Nara's lazy attitude.

"Go ahead and rush in without a plan then, see where that gets you." Kiba shot back.

"Oh like the great Inuzuka would do any better. I swear your dog has more upstairs than you do."

"Enough." Shikamaru scolded, quieting them both. "We already know we can't all stay here with her so we need to figure out who's staying and who's going ahead. It's safe to say that I'll be staying back at least."

"Why's that?" Naruto inquired. He had a feeling that it was because the boy just didn't feel like going any farther, but he wasn't going to insult someone that he actually had some respect for.

"Well, that new guy moves far too fast for me. I doubt I would be able to keep up with him in any form. Add to that the fact that we'll be coming up on open ground soon. My attacks will be more effective here where there's more shadow to take advantage of. Besides, I don't really feel like running any more. It would be nice to finish my part early and just sit and watch the clouds from here." The Nara looked up through the holes in the canopy and sighed as he thought of things he would rather be doing right then.

"Well, you actually had me impressed until that last reason. Now we just have to figure out who else will be staying behind before she decides to attack." Naruto looked between Kiba and Tenten. "Well, I'll be going ahead for certain."

"What! Why do you automatically get to move on?" Kiba demanded.

"Because mutt, I'm the only other chūnin here. If Shikamaru decides he's going to stay here and play with the redhead then I need to continue on. Aside from that, the new guy must be comfortable with close range if his actions were anything to go by. Since I have knowledge of multiple close range fighting styles I would be the best suited to go up against him." Naruto glared at Kiba, emphasizing the points of his rank and fighting knowledge.

"Naruto has a point." Shikamaru admitted, with Tenten nodding her agreement. "Having numerous fighting styles under his belt, even if only partially for some, he can probably figure out what the guy uses far faster than the rest of us. On the other hand, you Kiba, only use your families form of taijutsu along with you families beast mimicry jutsu. If what that guy uses can defend against your claws in any way then you've already lost."

"Who's to say he won't easily defend against Naruto's skills."

Shikamaru sighed. "We can't, but out of all of us Naruto is the most diverse. Now we just need to figure out who'll go with him. We've already determined that I won't be going and that Kiba wouldn't be the best choice so it looks like it's you and Tenten, Naruto."

Naruto looked over at Tenten with a much more critical eye than usual. "She may specialize in weapons, but she does have ranged attacks and I'm sure she can defend herself in close range long enough for me to back her up. The only problem comes if Sasuke somehow gets out. If that happens, one of us will have to follow and fight him. I'm sure he won't stick around and I highly doubt he'll be willing to come back quietly."

"That's also the reason Tenten should go. I think, out of the rest of us, she has the best chance to at least hold out for backup to get to her."

"So it's me and you against a chick?" Kiba muttered. "Seems kinda like overkill to, hurk!"

Tenten pressed the tip of her freshly drawn kunai a little further into Kiba's neck. "I know you didn't just downplay the strength of kunoichi Kiba. That will get you killed very quickly, understand?" Kiba just nodded frantically in acceptance while the other two shook their heads at his stupidity.

"Ok then, here's what we're going to do..." Everyone leaned a little closer to Shikamaru as he explained the small trick up his sleeve.

Before he could even get his first words out though, the group was forced to dodge and deflect a shower of kunai. "Did you really think I would give you time to plan?"

"Not really, but you did give us time to improvise something..." Kiba actually smirked for once...when Naruto and Tenten both puffed into smoke. "Sometimes it's useful to have a prankster in our age group."

Tayuya spun around to find the retreating backs of the two missing Konoha ninja. "God dammit! Get back here you little fudge packers!" Before she could complete her turn and push off towards them, Kiba appeared before her and sprang. She was forced to backpedal and leap to another branch to keep safe. "Fucking mutt. I'm going to neuter you for that." When the boy grinned back she knew something was off. Again she jumped a few more branches away, just in time to see the Nara's shadow snake back from where she'd just been.

"Damn. Almost had her."

'Don't think I'm a pushover just because I've got tits asshole."

"Wouldn't dream of it, but he might." Shikamaru lazily pointed behind the red-head.

She turned to see the spiraling form of Kiba quickly bearing down on her. "What the hell!" She was forced to leap farther away as the twister closed in. Kiba twisted around as much as he could in his state and kept her on the run, which was fine with her. All she had to do was jump away. Someone else however, wasn't so happy about the arrangement.

"Kiba! You're taking her too far out of my range. I can't do anything if you keep playing cat and mouse with her!" The instant the words left Shikamaru's mouth, all movement stopped. Had he deemed the Inuzuka a threat by any means, he may have listened to the little voice that was telling him to run. Not that he would have listened to it anyway. It would take far too much energy to run, better to hide.

"Don't you ever compare me to a cat. Those evil little demons should all be skinned and used as fertilizer."

Not knowing the exact abilities of the boy, Tayuya couldn't help but feel a little chill go across her skin. Not enough to cause her concern, but enough to let her know that he would try his hardest to follow through on his threat.

"Whatever, just don't run off. Why I had to get stuck with you..."

"Hey you're the one who chose to stay, then reasoned that the asshole and his bitch get to go after the traitor." Kiba growled again at the fact that Naruto had shown him up once more. 'Why is he always one step head of me. What is it that he has that I don't?' Kiba shook the distracting thoughts from his mind just in time to hear their opponent speak.

"I may not have been willing to give you all time to plan, but you seem more than happy to spare me a moment. For that I'll privilege you by showing you some of my friends. I'll play you a dirge, we'll see if you still look down on us from your place in the dirt. Mateki: Genbusō Kyoku." Shikamaru cursed as she brought her flute to her lips and began her tune. Three puffs of smoke appeared and soon cleared off to show three monstrosities standing around their summoner. Tayuya didn't even stop her music to acknowledge them, nor did she stop when her branch shook as the three leapt towards their targets.

The two Konoha ninja were forced to leap away as a large, spiked mace crashed right through the branch they had been standing on. They weren't prepared for the second doki to smash into Kiba's shoulder, sending him into Shikamaru before both were flung into a nearby tree trunk. They were given no room to breath though as the three giants came rushing at them again.

Shikamaru did his best to lay out a plan while they continued to dodge attacks. "We'll have to split up. They shouldn't have such an easy time cornering us if we do. Since she's still playing that flute we'll have to assume that this jutsu is only active because of the music. If we can split up and take these things out of range of her music we should be able to at least stop her control on one."

"So we're going to force her to chose which of us is more important. I don't see why we can't just go after her though." Kiba replied as he dodged a thrust from one of the doki that had a spiked shield on its arm.

"If you think you can get close enough, be my guest." The Nara's point was quickly proven when Akamaru attempted to jump from Kiba's coat and run between the doki's legs. He didn't even make it a foot before he was forced back to his master by a heavily bandaged doki landing in his path. Despite not having the use of its arms, this doki was incredibly fast. No sooner had it blocked Akamaru than it was on the offensive with its brothers once again.

With Akamaru leaping into his arms, Kiba jumped backwards off the branch he was on and stuck to the trunk of a nearby tree. "Well we need to do something or we're toast. These guys don't look like they're going to run out of energy anytime soon." He grit his teeth as the mace wielding demon plowed right through the tree in an attempt to surprise him.

Shikamaru simply nodded in agreement and took off in the opposite direction that Kiba was headed. Keeping an eye on the mace wielding giant, since it was easier to follow the large form than to follow Kiba, he attempted to circle around Tayuya's side. Clearly she saw him as the bigger threat since two of the three doki were after him. "You certainly like to pick on the lazy ones don't you?" He asked to no one in particular as he dodged another swipe. He could only hope that Kiba would keep circling the redhead since he was having no luck thus far.

Kiba on the other hand was having a bit of fun with his opponent. Sure the thing was fast, but he'd been trained for combat in trees like this in the past so it took little effort for him to dodge and jump from branch to branch. He was having so much fun with their little game of tag that he almost forgot it was a fight. Almost. Keeping an eye on their real opponent, he noticed that Shikamaru and himself had indeed split up, even if it was a bit unintentional on his part. 'Well he should be happy that I'm at least following his plan.' He glanced once more at the Oto-nin and watched her eyes travel back and forth between him and his teammate. Now and then she would look at Shikamaru a little longer. 'Wait! I get it. So that was your plan. Well here's hoping it works.' Kiba sped up his jumps, trying to gain even more distance.

Shikamaru spared a glance across the battlefield once more and saw the Inuzuka had increased his speed. 'Good he got it finally. Now let's see if he can use the advantage.' The two doki chasing him jumped at him from both sides in an attempt to pincer him. Realizing he would be trapped if he stayed, Shikamaru released the chakra holing him onto the tree and let himself fall to the branch below him before quickly kicking off to avoid the falling debris from the foiled attack. Once again he glanced at the flutist and narrowed his eyes. Quick glimpses were all he could get thus far and it wasn't enough.

Tayuya on the other hand was watching both of them like a hawk. 'They think they can win with such low level strategies? It's almost insulting. Have to admit though, that lazy one was able to get the rash one to follow him quickly in a tight spot. No doubt their split with the other two was his idea as well. No sense taking any chances though.' With a quick glance behind her to get a view of the surroundings, Tayuya leapt across the branches while keeping her targets in sight. 'You're a few years too early to outsmart me.'But just in case... She smirked at the look on the Nara's face. How she loved to ruin peoples plans.

"Shit." Shikamaru could almost feel her smirk from his perch. 'If this keeps up she'll just keep jumping around to keep us in sight until we tire out.' His eyes widened as he saw black lightning etch across the girl's skin. 'That's just like...Aw man. This is just too troublesome.'

She was laughing her head off, well inside her mind anyway. The look of realization that crossed the boys face was almost too much to bear. She had to wonder though how he had known what was happening. Not many people saw a curse seal appear and lived to tell the tale. It didn't really matter, they would fall either way. Tayuya sped up her music as she pushed her chakra a bit further. In response the doki began attacking their opponents more aggressively, slowly forcing them to lose sight of her.

"Grr...What the hell is up with these things?" Kiba was never one to back down from a fight, but this was ridiculous. The monstrosity that he was up against wouldn't let up for an instant and he was really getting annoyed. Another swing from that huge metal mace made both him and Akamaru split up or risk becoming living baseballs. Kiba grabbed a food pill from his pouch and tossed it to Akamaru, thanking whatever deity was watching that his partner caught it. The last three had been turned into dust by the mace wielding demon. "Ok Akamaru, lets show this freak of nature just what we Inuzuka are made of! Shikyaku no Jutsu!" Akamaru leapt over to his master, taking a bit of a scenic route to avoid any large, blunt objects that may come swinging his way, and landed on Kiba's back. "Jūjin Bunshin!" A puff of smoke cleared and showed the now duplicated Kiba snarling at the mountain of flesh in front of them. "Gatsūga!"

The doki simply stood in place as the twin tornadoes split to either side before turning back around and heading straight for it. For the first time since it was summoned the demon dropped its club. Instead of falling though, the large object managed to balance precisely on the branch below without so much as a tilt in any direction. The beast itself brought both of its arms up into the path of the incoming attacks and waited.

The twin tornadoes hit the outstretched hands with punishing force and to their credit the doki's arms actually bent slightly on impact. The titan let his arms bend even more before thrusting them both straight out again. Kiba and Akamaru were sent back the way they came, but once again made their turns and rushed back towards each other. This time they opted for a dual frontal assault and lined up right next to each other before heading in for the strike. If their target had any feelings about its possible doom it hid them very well. Picking up the iron mace again it waited until they were too close to abort their attack. With a step to the side it simply spun around and swung the huge mace at the back of the double twister, sending the duo on an unintended course across the treetops.

Shikamaru was quickly finding his own situation to be rather troublesome as well. Despite his being out of line of sight of their controller, the doki seemed to have no trouble navigating the confusing array of branches that he was trying to lose them in. If he had to mention one break he'd been given through this ordeal it would have to be that his opponents were very easy to keep track of. Of course that only helped him to see where they were coming from. His dodging so far had been more of a matter of luck and instincts than skill, and he was slowly running out of the luck half.

Dodging another near miss, Shikamaru held his hand up to check his new wound. "Just a light scratch, good. At least their weapons aren't poisoned." Landing on a new branch he did the best he could to assess the situation but without getting the time he needed to plan he was forced to think on his feet, a situation he was not at all used to. 'Dammit. Can't I just get one break?'

The Nara's thought were interrupted by the sound of crashing branches, whining and a yell that was getting closer. He looked up just in time to see a shaggy brown coat slam into him, knocking him off his branch and into another tree. They both managed to slap either a foot or a hand onto the underside of the branch they landed on, stopping their momentum with a sudden jerk.

"Arwrawf!"

"S-sorry Akamaru. Just a minute. Dammit Shikamaru get off me!"

"You couldn't have picked a worse time to jump in Kiba..." Shikamaru looked from the Inuzuka he'd just dislodged from to his previous opponents to see that their numbers were now up by one. "...and I really could have done without the added challenge."

"Like I had a choice in the matter."

"Enough! We'll just have to deal with it. Right now we have other things to worry about."

Kiba stopped his griping long enough to take in his surroundings for the first time since his flight through the treetops. "Aww shit..."

"Hmpf. Shit is right little boy. Now that you are both in my sights again I'm not going to let you try that little trick again so easily." Indeed, the three doki were now blocking off all exits save for the way back towards Konoha. Tayuya brought her flute back up and continued her melody.

With their joints creaking from the strain of their own weight, the three giants got into a ready stance before pushing off when their master hit a high note in her dirge. Shikamaru's eyebrow cocked up at this moment as he noticed the extreme difference in pitch and the obvious action that followed.

"Kiba, do you think you can hold them off for a while by yourself?"

"WHAT! Are you insane!" Kiba shouted back as the two Konoha ninja leapt away from the ongoing onslaught. "There's no way I can do that. Just the mace ugly was kicking my ass alone."

"You can't just run around in a circle for a bit to give me time to think? It's not that tough Kiba, just keep them occupied for a while. I was able to do it with two of them while you were trying to attack yours. I know you're a lot more physically fit than I am so you should be able to run away without much trouble."

"You want me, an Inuzuka, to run away from a fight?" Kiba's face showed a mixture of confusion and anger as he deciphered his teammate's words. "You're joking right?"

"No Kiba, I want you to keep them occupied without getting yourself hurt. The best way to do that is to run them around and not attack."

"I'm not a chicken dammit. I'll kick all three of their asses easily just you watch!"

Just as Kiba was about to leap off to what would no doubt be a heroic victory...his arm was grabbed by Shikamaru and he was forcefully pulled back. The action had two effects. First, it saved him from the leg swipe of the bandaged doki. Second, it turned him straight towards the face of Shikamaru, who happened to look rather angry at the moment.

"That wasn't a suggestion Kiba! You are under my command and, while I may not be able to control the safety of the rest, I can make sure that you stay as safe as possible. Now, I order you to dodge those three until I can think of a way to end this. Do it or I swear I'll report you for insubordination!"

Kiba growled back loudly, but looked a bit surprised when the white lump at his feet growled back at him in response. "A-Akamaru?" Kiba knelt down low enough for the dog to hop back inside his jacket before he started barking up at his master. "...Fine! We'll do it your way, for now. This isn't over though."

Shikamaru simply nodded back as an attack came from behind him. Kiba's eye's widened when the club hit his superior, smashing him into a million pieces of...bark? "Damn sneaky bastard. Giving me a heart attack before I even start his little operation. Oi! You lazy asshole! You have ten minutes. After that I attack." Kiba called out as he stated jumping away.

'So, they're going to try splitting up again, only this time one managed to slip away...it doesn't matter. I'll just deal with the loudmouth first, but just in case...' Playing out another tune, she split the doki up once more. This time the heavily bandaged one dropped down next to her, standing guard as the other two leapt after their prey.

Shikamaru sat on a high branch, overlooking the fight's progress below him. The redheaded Oto-nin was keeping an eye out for him, but most of her concentration was set on trying to pound Kiba into paste. If there was anything that he would give credit to the young Inuzuka for it was definitely the fact that he kept up on his physical training. 'Good thing I didn't have to go up against him in a situation like this. I wouldn't be able to stop the momentum of his Gatsūga with my Kagemane before it would reach me.' His eyes hardened as he turned his attention back on the problem at hand. Kiba would be alright for now, but if he turned back to attacking like he said he would the battle would be over in seconds. 'I only have a few kunai and some of Naruto's seals, plus...' The Nara took inventory of his remaining weapons before assuming his planning pose.

Digging into his own supplies, Kiba laced an explosive tag around another kunai and tossed it over his shoulder. He was running low on weapons and running out of time. Meanwhile, his pursuers seemed to be having a bit of a difficult time getting near enough to try for a decent attack. The recently thrown kunai took out a branch that the mace wielding doki was about to land on, causing it to tumble down a bit before it could regain its footing farther towards the ground. The long fall didn't stop it, but it gave Kiba enough time to gain some more distance. He let a small smirk cross his lips as he saw the Oto kunoichi's forehead wrinkle at the difficult time he was giving her. "That'll teach ya to mess with an Inuzuka!"

"Arf!"

"Huh?" Kiba let his most intelligent phrase leak out when Akamaru poked his head up. Looking up he found out just why his partner decided to speak up. He was headed straight for the giant with the spiked arm guard. He gave a startled yelp and ducked on instinct as the weapon tore the hood from his coat, causing the zipper to tear from its stitching from the stress until the material split. Skidding out to the side, he was able to slip under the branch and jump to the trunk of the tree before another swing came at him. "You son of a bitch! That was my favorite jacket!"

Growling, he shrugged off the now useless garment. With Akamaru under his arm for the moment he ran along the underside of the branch he was just on and leapt away just as the wood exploded into splinters. Looking behind him as he flew through the air, Kiba saw the mace wielding doki had smashed through the branch from below as his partner stood close by to judge which way he would escape. As it quirked it's head in his direction he swore and got ready to jump once more as soon as he hit something solid. Stealing himself with a yell, he pushed backwards off the next surface and flipped over the rushing pair. A prayer for safety went through his head as he fled back in the direction of their controller, never noticing the incoming attack from behind.

Tayuya picked her mouth off her flute and smirked. "I'll admit you're somewhat impressive Konoha mutt, but skills of that level will only get you so far against someone like me. Nobody who has listened to this next melody has lived to tell the tale. This is the ninth verse." Placing the flute to her lips once more; a new, haunting melody echoed through the treetops. Despite not having all of her doki in her sights anymore, Tayuya knew that this attack didn't require her to see the three for them to function.

Shikamaru watched as the bandaged doki stopped and jerked a bit while lifting its head up a higher. With some amount of effort the mouth of the thing began to force its way open. He didn't have to ponder long as to what was happening as a translucent cloud poured forth from the maw of the giant. 'What troublesome attack is this now?' He watched the cloud in morbid fascination as mouths began to open up across its surface. Once the tendril was a few meters long it began to move about, almost like it was searching for... 'Shit!'

Shikamaru had just enough time to jump back as the doki hopped forward, bringing the tentacle within striking distance of where he was just crouched at. Even a genius could see that the new appendage was sniffing him out somehow. The tentacle pulled itself back a bit as the doki lurched forward, only to shoot out once more and go right through the limb that Shikamaru was crouched on, forcing him to jump backwards. He threw a couple shuriken at the thing but they passed right through. 'Is it just a scare tactic?' He wasn't completely sure what to make of this new development, but he didn't want to have to figure it out one way or the other, if he didn't have to.

Waiting as the doki jumped a few branches closer, he let loose a kunai that seemed horribly off its target. Tayuya just narrowed her eyes, but she didn't have to wait long as she heard the sizzling from behind her. Immediately she jumped away, playing straight through the explosion that rocked the trees behind her. A small volley of shuriken flew in from the side but in the blink of an eye her doki was there kicking them away. Another kunai came at her, but it looked rushed as it sped by her. The redhead spared it a brief glance to make sure there were no tags on it before focusing her music once more.

Had she seen the other side of the kunai though she would have noticed the small piece of paper with an odd symbol on it. The kunai clunked into the trunk a short way from the fight before the tag glowed and a small ball dropped from the seal. With a single hand sign, Shikamaru activated the detonating tag on the ball and the forest was filled with a bright light. 'Perfect.' With another set of seals his shadow was on the move. The light was dimming a bit but he would get there in time. With seconds to spare his shadow latched onto another and all movement stopped.

Tayuya had to squint her eyes to keep from getting flash blinded by the flash. It didn't help that her minion was standing a little in front of her and the reflection of the flash off its bandages was directed right at her. 'That little fucking asshole. I can't see a damn thing.' As the light dimmed she opened her eyes again and got ready for her next note when her fingers stopped in mid placement. 'The hell...?'

"Kagemane success." The Nara answered her unasked question, earning him a glare as she found his position easily. "Your summons are a pain, I admit, but without their controller they seem to be pretty docile."

Tayuya managed to pry her mouth away from her flute enough to spit back at him. "You shithead. Like it matters that I can't move, It doesn't look like you can move much either without your little trick breaking."

"That's true, but then, I don't have..."

"...ahhhhhhHHHH!"

Shikamaru shot his head to the source of the yell just in time to see an object smash through the branches directly at his opponent. Right before it hit he released his jutsu and watched as the missile struck home. Tayuya and her assaulter tumbled over and over along the branch before coming to a stop with a resounding thud against the tree trunk. Then gravity took its toll and the bundle of body parts tumbled down until it hit a branch wide enough to support it. Shikamaru wasted no time in connecting his Kagemane no Jutsu with the doki before leaping down towards the wreckage. The sight that greeted him was about as comedic as it was cliché.

Tayuya lay on the branch, holding her head in pain, while Kiba straddled her waist, one hand on his own head and the other on her...

Suddenly realizing there was something soft in his hand, Kiba gave the object an experimental squeeze. Not understanding what could possible be soft in the branches of a tree, Kiba looked down at the object in his grasp and stopped dead in his tracks.

Tayuya groaned as she tried to get her bearings back. She wasn't sure what hit her but she knew it sure as hell hurt. Squinting her eyes against the pain she cracked them open to see a blurry object above her. As her vision cleared the object took shape and she realized it was on of the ninja that she was fighting. 'Shit! I'm so dead. He looks ready to...faint? Why the hell does he look so scared. His arm looks like it's going straight at my...Oh HELL no!' Forgetting her own pain, Tayuya lifted her knee and had the satisfying view of watching Kiba's face turn from stunned fear to agonizing pain in less than a second. "Pervert!" With a clenched fist she sent him flying once more across the branch.

Before she could even stand up to get her bearings, a large body landed right next to her. She tried to turn but quickly found herself unable to do so. "Dammit, you are so annoying. When I get out of this I'm going to cut your dick into tiny pieces and feed them to Orochimaru-sama's snakes!"

"As much of a joy that would be for me, I don't think you'll be doing anything like that while your caught."

"You could have done that before she decked me you asshole!" Kiba grumbled as he picked himself up, cracking his bruised back from where the mace had batted him into Tayuya. He was just lucky that he was already jumping in that direction or it would have probably broken him in two. Two... "Dammit, Akamaru!" Kiba shot off back the way he came, looking for his companion.

"Dammit Kiba! Get back here...Tch, troublesome."

Tayuya smirked. "Not so hot now huh? Back to one on one."

"You forget I have your...big...friend here." Shikamaru nodded over at her doki. "Or I can just drop you off the edge." He made his point clear as he moved forward, walking her out the branch where she could easily tell it was getting thinner."

"The hell do you want dipshit, and it's still one on one. Tai." Drawing her chakra back, the doki poofed out of existence. Much to her irritation, the lazy bastard only smirked. "What the hell's so funny asshole?"

"You just helped me keep you trapped longer. Binding that thing was such a drag." Shikamaru watched her grit her teeth in aggravation. The only problem was that he didn't have all that much chakra left, and if he dropped her the shadow would break allowing her to most likely catch herself on another branch. He had no more weapons and the few tags he had left only held more flash bombs. 'Kiba you couldn't have picked a worse time to run off.'

"Don't think I don't have an ace up my sleeve too dumbass." Her smirk unsettled him but what happened next made him pale. A surge of chakra assaulted him as he watched her change. The skullcap shredded to pieces as horns grew from underneath her lengthening hair. The tone of her skin darkened as well while her eyes shaded to black. "No one has heard the melody of my flute and lived, and I plan on keeping it that way."

He could feel the pulse of chakra strain against his shadow as she tried to force him off of her. 'This is bad. If she keeps this up I'll have no choice but to release her. Kiba...' Shikamaru took a glance to where Kiba had disappeared to but saw no sign of the Inuzuka. He wasn't going to give in without a fight though. "Ninpo: Kage Kubi Shibari no Jutsu."

The shadows attached to the redhead slowly began to creep up her body as they formed into clawed hands. Just as they neared her neck she pushed out more chakra and forced the hands back. Showing her pure strength of will she brought her flute back to her mouth and began to play once again. Only to force out a yelp of pain and surprise as she felt something attack her ankle.

Shikamaru smirked as his shadowy hands redirected to his captive's arms and forced the flute away from her mouth. Now that they had company he wouldn't need to kill her, yet. "It's about time you got back. I was starting to think that you decided to mark every tree in the forest."

"Arf, arf!"

"Screw you Shika. We only marked half of em." Kiba smirked at the growling kunoichi.

"Fucking perverted mutt! Wait till I'm loose and I'll give you a close-up of your testicles after I pull them out through your mouth!" Tayuya screamed as Shikamaru got a hold on his captive again.

"Ouch...that's actually kind of disturbing." Kiba shivered at the thought of going through the ordeal as he cautiously moved over to their opponent. 'I should just tie her up, but I really want to have some fun with her first. Hmmm...I wonder if I could get away with something Naruto-like.'

Kiba walked over to Tayuya and started to circle her slowly as she glared at him. "What the fuck do you want shrimp dick? I know you're not going to rape me, you Konoha ninja are too soft for something that drastic." Despite her smirk and her own words Tayuya was a bit unsettled by his gaze. He seemed more predatory than before.

"Oh, your little description just gave me some ideas. I mean, if you can actually do that with my testicles then I should be able to do the same with your ovaries right?" He gave his own smirk as he watched her pale a little.

"Oi, just tie her up and lets get this over with. We have more important things to worry about then scaring her. She'll be more useful in interrogation." Shikamaru grumbled.

"True, I just wanted to get a good look at her body before they ruin it. Such a waste." Kiba gave a mock sigh as he shuffled through his pouch for some wire.

While Kiba was tying her up, Shikamaru quirked an eyebrow at the fact that the girl was blushing. He couldn't really see it well until a chakra suppression seal was on her, but after that it was rather obvious. Thoughts of her conversation with the other Oto-nin flashed back through his head. "You...don't actually like Orochimaru, or Oto, do you?"

She shot her head towards him. "What the hell do you think, sloth-boy? How would you like to be unwillingly subservient to a power freak that is obsessed with immortality and has no qualms with throwing others lives away to further his goals? Maybe you'd like him to give you a hickey that screws with your chakra and gives him the ability to control you completely. Oh, I just love being a puppet for someone else. Greatest thing in my life, really."

By this point the seals had drained almost all of her chakra that wasn't necessary for her life supporting organs to function, thus her cursed seal completely sank back into itself and her features returned to normal. Still, her glare could melt mountains and it didn't ease the feeling of danger that either boy was getting from her.

"Just like Kin then from what Naruto's told me. Too bad you don't have the same leverage as she did. Kiba, take her back to Konoha, I'm going to continue on with the mission. First, give me some of your gear though. I'm almost out and you shouldn't need it to get back."

Kiba just grunted, not willing to argue at this point. He pulled some of his weapons out along with a few explosive tags and handed them off to the Nara before picking up his new charge in a fireman's carry.

"Hey what the fuck do you think you're doing! Put me down, I can walk just fine!"

"Shut the hell up woman. I'm planning on getting back fast and this will be the easiest way so stop yelling in my ear or I'll just knock you out. Oi, Akamaru, let's go!" Said dog gave a bark as he jumped up on the makeshift perch of Tayuya's side.

"Get this fleabag off me before I make it into a new hat! This is prisoner abuse right? You Konoha softies follow that shit don't you?"

Kiba shot a pleading look at Shikamaru, but the shadow user was just standing there smirking. "Oh come on, you can't expect me do deal with..."

*Clang*

Both boys were surprised when a large metal object slammed into the redhead's skull, effectively silencing her.

"Troublesome."

"There you go. Happy now? Stop bitching and get going, Slow-mo and I are needed elsewhere." Temari said as she strapped her fan to her back.

"You're one of those Suna genin! What the hell are you doing here? Aren't you with them?" Kiba jostled Tayuya a bit to indicate who he was talking about as he slipped a foot back, preparing to lash out if he needed to.

Shikamaru sighed. "Apparently Suna is trying to make amends and they sent a team to help us out a bit, right?"

"More or less, brains. Now I suggest we get moving unless you want the rest of your team to risk death alone while we're here talking. That little tap on the she-devil didn't do nearly enough to satisfy me."

"Sure, you two go ahead and find a nice place to get busy while I become the beast of burden and trudge back home." Kiba shivered slightly as Temari glared at him. "Fine, fine. I get it, I'm gone." He leapt off into the trees, leaving the two pony-tailed ninja behind him. At least he got away from that glare. Women were scary.

"Now that he's gone, let's move." Temari ordered.

"Are you even a chūnin? And why are you ordering me around anyway?" Shikamaru asked, a little annoyed at her tone. Temari turned her glare to him and he looked away sighing. 'Women are troublesome. She's scarier than mom.' He kept his opinions to himself as they lept off in pursuit of the remainder of the Konoha team and the last Oto-nin.

· · ·

Naruto and Tenten sped through the treetops after their query. They were able to pick up the trail shortly after leaving Shikamaru and Kiba with the Oto kunoichi. The foul chakra leaking from the coffin left a sense of unease in the air that was easy for Naruto's heightened senses to follow. At the beginning it was almost strong enough for Tenten to track as well but that eventually tapered off, signaling to the duo that their query was pulling away. They sped up after that revelation but now the trail was slowly dying out and it was obvious that Tenten was already pushing herself harder than she was used to. Considering her sensei, that was saying quite a bit.

"Are we getting any closer Naruto?" Tenten broke the chūnin out of his thoughts.

Naruto looked over at her, considering her slightly sweat dampened form before turning his eyes forward again. He never said a word as he tested the trail again.

"Naru...?"

"They're getting away. Tenten, I can catch them but I'll be leaving you behind. I'll at least try to stall them until you can catch up. I'll leave a trail for you to follow just...don't be afraid..."

Tenten was about to ask what he meant, but when she looked towards him she had to fight to keep her footing. She watched as his whiskers became more pronounced and his face took on more of a grimace. His fingernails grew and thickened into a more claw-like appearance and from the flopping motions of his foot she figured that his feet were going through a bit of a transformation as well. It wasn't until he looked her way though that she let a gasp slip out of her mouth. His eyes were bloodshot and the blue seemed a bit darker than before. She flinched at the saddened look that crossed his face but before she could say anything either way, he was gone from sight.

She turned front again to see him bounding into the distance and already nearly out of sight. 'So fast...' He didn't even need to tell her what the trail to follow would look like. Already she could easily see the numerous claw marks that marred the trees that he passed by. "He could have just carried me instead...Oh well." Pouting slightly, Tenten slowed herself to a more steady pace. It would do no good to be completely tired out when she caught up.

Naruto on the other hand, was adjusting his sense of smell in order to locate the direction of the foul chakra. It took only seconds to find the trail and already he could sense it getting stronger. He wasn't liking his options as it was and now he would be up against an opponent that he knew nothing about other than his name and that the group that broke the Uchiha out of prison saw him as someone stronger than themselves, asuming the girl's reaction was to be believed. On the positive end of things, he could tell he was catching up to the albino quickly now. He would be on his target in seconds, with Tenten probably coming through a few minutes into the near future.

Crashing through a final line of trees, Naruto found himself in a large clearing. It didn't take him long to find his query, the man was standing with an arrogance he would liken to the eldest of the Hyūga members. "You must be Kimimaro."

"And you are a persistent and rather annoying pest." The Oto-nin replied.

Naruto just gave a nonchalant shrug. "I've been called worse. So...how do you want to do this? I doubt you'll just hand the bastard over."

Instead of an answer, Kimimaro shucked the shoulder of his shirt away. His skin started to bulge and split while he moved a hand up to catch the bone that was poking through. Slowly the bone pushed out from under the skin until he was able to grip it properly, at which point he quickly pulled it out the entire way. Instead of producing a typical bone he was now holding what resembled a bleached katana.

Naruto quirked an eyebrow at the unconventional weapon as well as its means of production. Letting the Kyūbi influence go for the moment, he decided that a bit of testing was in order. A brace of shuriken was sent out at his opponent who easily blocked them all with his sword. The man held his weapon in a ready position, showing that not a single scratch marred the blade.

"With my chakra, I make my bones as strong as steel. Your weapons will do you no good against me."

"Impressive. Anything else you want to tell me about your abilities before we get serious?"

Kimimaro didn't even flinch. "Either way it would not matter. You will be dead soon so I will not waste my breath. The vessel is already overdue and Orochimaru-sama is not one to be kept waiting."

"You all keep talking about him as a vessel. What do you mean by that?" Naruto drew the black blade of Kafu as he spoke. One way or another he was going to be trading blows with this albino and he preferred to have something between him and any pointy objects.

"That is something that a worthless being like yourself need not know. Just know that your friend will be useful in the completion of Orochimaru-sama's goals. Now do us both a favor and run away. I would rather not waste my time playing with you." Kimimaro's uncaring eyes bored into Naruto's own cerulean orbs, portraying his thoughts on just how low he believed the blond was beneath him.

"Sorry, but that's not going to happen. Just for the record though, your little package there is no friend of mine." Bringing an end to their conversation, Naruto created a small set of clones. Considering how afraid of this guy the redhead seemed, he wasn't about to take any chances. Finding out just what the guy was capable was top priority right now.

Without any signal needed from their creator, the clones ran into battle, katana held ready to strike. They easily surrounded the older teen, not a huge feat considering he made no move to allow otherwise. The clones attacked him in pairs to test his skills and reaction time. The albino boy swerved around and parried or blocked every strike that came his way. After all the clones had passed and turned to try once more he jumped up, intercepting a couple of airborne clones as others rushed in to confront him.

It happened in the blink of an eye. One second there was an overwhelming number of openings for the clones to strike at, in the next there were sharp bones sticking through each one. Despite the brutal slaughter, both combatants stayed stone-faced.

"Yanagi no Mai." Kimimaro calmly stated as he landed on solid ground again, allowing the bones protruding from his joints to settle back into place. Off to the side, the coffin holding Sasuke began to smolder a bit. Both sides noticed but neither said anything or made a move towards the object.

"So you are a swordsman that can make his own weapons. I admit myself impressed, but I'm still not going anywhere. I have a mission and I intend to complete it." Creating more clones, Naruto himself joined the assault.

"Tsubaki no Mai." Kimimaro shifted his bone sword and rushed into the charge. With the memories of the blocks from the previous set of clones, the new group proved slightly more difficult. Even so it was only a matter of minutes before the new set were destroyed and the Oto-nin found himself crossing blades with the real Naruto. "You seem to be slightly more skilled than your copies." He dully noted. If he were honest with himself though he would admit to being slightly impressed that the boy was holding up so well against him. Of course he wasn't going all out either. It was unnecessary for such a fight.

"I'm not sure that I should take that as a compliment considering how little difficulty you had with them. I'm not the best swordsman, that's true enough, but don't count me out just yet." Naruto jumped back to gain some distance and took a new stance. "This was one of my kaa-san's and not really meant for such a long blade, but let's see how it works since this blade seems to at least nick yours."

Kimimaro didn't want to take the bait, but his curiosity got the better of him due to the confidence Naruto seemed to have now. Looking at his bone sword his eyes narrowed at the small, but noticeable, dents and scratches on the edges and surface where he had blocked and been blocked. Quickly analyzing his opponent, he judged himself as having just enough time to make another sword. Having two would not be a hindrance in this situation.

"Kyokusui no Yōshiki." Naruto swayed a bit to the side as he began his approach. One moment he was walking, the next he was headed forward at a quickened jog, only to slow to a crawl a moment later. He could see the older boy's confusion start to set in, but he also saw him steel his resolve when he got within striking range. Naruto locked eyes with his opponent and began his assault.

Much to Kimimaro's consternation, the blond didn't come in with an explosion of attacks. Instead the strikes were much like his approach. Random, unpredictable and somewhat annoying. It didn't help that he felt compelled to keep their eyes locked. Even with his two blades he was getting pressed. It wasn't that the boy was more skilled than himself, he just couldn't seem to get the rhythm of his style.

When fighting another swordsman, Kimimaro always found it easier to handle them if he got them into a rhythm, a common mistake for an armature fighter. He could then break them easily and slip inside the holes he would make for himself. It was his main strategy for this type of fight, but for some reason he couldn't seem to force the blond to settle into anything that even remotely followed a set rhythm. Narrowing his eyes in frustration as the attacks began to wear his own weapons down, the Oto-nin jumped back to disengage, only to have to jump even more as Naruto started weaving towards him again.

After a few more attempts to get close, the two were forced to cease there attacks as a small explosion of wood and smoke blew through the clearing. They both looked at the source to see a freakish sight. It confused Naruto a bit as he was, at first, unsure of who he was looking at. Once the smoke cleared off though it was obvious who the being was, despite the grotesque changes.

"Sasuke..." Naruto stared at him in a slight rage. "Where the hell do you think you're going?"

Despite Naruto's shouts, Sasuke simply started laughing. He inspected his own hands as though he were seeing them for the first time. Dark toned skin and claw-like nails met his gaze as he flexed his hands. Turning towards the two combatants he gave a sneer as he saw who was chasing after him. "Dobe..." He turned to fully face the pair and ready himself for a fight, but a body showed up between him and the blond.

"Uchiha-sama, you need to get to Oto now. Orochimaru-sama does not like to be kept waiting and he has already been waiting far too long for your arrival. Your survival at the moment is top priority." Kimimaro saw the boy about to protest so he did his best to steer him in the desired direction. "If you don't go soon you won't be able to begin your training as quickly. Orochimaru-sama may even see fit to punish your tardiness by making you wait longer." The teen smirked inwardly at the Uchiha's sneer as said boy ran off and disappeared into the brush at the side of the clearing.

The albino was forced out of his musings as a black blade came towards his head. He easily ducked and rolled since he never actually took his full attention away from his opponent, but did not get away without the loss of a few strands of hair. He calmly swept the strands out of the air as they fell, inspecting them with mild interest. "You continue to impress. It has been a long time since anyone has damaged me even this much."

"Yeah well, get ready for more because you're going to have a whole collection of damage when we're done with you." Naruto smirked as he readied himself.

Kimimaro on the other hand noticed the little slip up and was able to flip out of the way of the collection of projectiles that now stuck out of the ground where he had once been. "Such an attack is useless without the element of surprise. The sheer number of weapons might as well be a raging river against me for the amount of sound they produce."

Landing next to the blond, Tenten cursed at their opponent's quick brush off of her attack. Naruto took a quick glance over at her and was glad to see she hadn't pushed herself. "Careful Tenten, he uses his bones as weapons. I don't know what all he can do with them, but so far he's brought spikes out of his joints and created a pair of swords with them." He saw her nod in acknowledgment.

"Anything else I should know? If he's creating swords I'm guessing he uses kenjutsu."

"The bones are infused with his chakra. They're hard as steel according to him and were able to block shuriken without a scratch. My sword was able to make some dents, but that's as far as we've gotten. Tenten, he's good." He had to admit that much. Though the man had yet to touch him, he did take out many of his clones. All Naruto managed was dislodging a few bits of hair.

"Well then, if that's all it shouldn't be too much of a problem." Tenten perked up a bit despite the bad vibe she was getting from the albino. "I'm the weapon mistress of Konoha after all. A little sword dance shouldn't be too difficult."

Naruto wanted to berate her for her aloofness, he really did, but right now was not the time as Kimimaro decided then would be a good time to charge in. "Weapon specialist or not, a child like you has no hope of defeating a true extension of Orochimaru-sama's will." His double blades swung over his head only to come swiping down quickly between the two, turning to the sides as soon as they got in striking distance. The Konoha ninja were forced to separate, or find themselves a head shorter.

Now, normally a single opponent facing multiple enemies would want to keep both well in sight. It is extremely difficult to fight on two fronts with swords, whereas fighting on one front enables one to use one's weapons to full effect with the added benefit of limiting the enemies movements on account of their proximity to each other. In Kimimaro's case though he could see that the blond had another sword and he really didn't want to risk it getting into the hands of his teammate. For now, the safer option was to keep them as far away from each other as possible.

Even with the two separated though he still had to take care of the duo and quick, he wouldn't be able to keep up with them long in his condition. They weren't about to give him the chance to plan though as they both sped in to engage him directly. Tenten quickly unsealed a pair of kama as she rushed in from his left. Naruto meanwhile readied his blade and came in from his right. Once again the Oto-nin hopped back just enough so that they were no longer just in his extreme peripheral vision.

Now with both in sight he was able to block their initial attacks, though he was forced to shift aside when Tenten brought her second kama around in an attempt to take out his knee. "You indeed show some skill girl, but it is futile against me." Bones once again crept out of the joints on his elbows and knees.

Grimacing at the new threat, Tenten stowed her kama and released a ninja-to into her hands. There was nothing that made it stand out more than any other standard issue military weapon, but it had never failed her before when she was in need of quick blade work. Lowering herself into a stance, she nodded to Naruto and hoped for the best.

"You traded two weapons for one while mine have multiplied. You are more foolish than I gave you credit for. Now come, I don't have all day." Kimimaro threw his arms out so that each was facing a different opponent.

Naruto glared at the Oto-nin. "Sometimes it's not the number of weapons."

"But the person who wields them." Tenten finished. It was a lesson that he had run into her one of the times that they were training together. It had hit hard when he was able to deflect the majority of her onslaught during their spar, and he drove the point home when he recounted her match against Temari. Sure the Suna girl had used ninjutsu, but Tenten was still unable to hit her with any long range attacks. Thus she began working on mastering some of her close range weapons along with her speed as per his advice. Now, if she could have that match again, she would have run in for a close range fight after the first attack failed instead of simply using more weapons.

Naruto's eyes shifted over to where Sasuke had entered the forest on the opposite side of the clearing. He was their main objective and as the one in charge now, he had to make a call. Their target was getting farther away with the more time they were held in this stalemate. As much as Tenten had improved though, he knew she would be no match for Sasuke and his sharingan. On the other hand, this opponent was over her level as well. His debate was answered the moment Tenten had changed weapons and given him a nod.

Tenten got very good with her ninja-to, but only in one area. While she still had a long way to go as a swordswoman, something he would not be able to help her with much longer, she could defend against nearly anything he and his clones could throw at her. She was probably the only one out of their entire group that could hold this bone freak off, solo, until she got backup. Assuming backup would come of course. His return nod let her know that he understood her plan and would allow it, but the concern in his eyes let her know he wanted her to be careful.

Silent conversation over, the two Konoha ninja shifted their positions slightly causing Kimimaro to ready himself for the impending attack. He watched as they ran at him, the girl in front as they wove back and forth slightly. His arm shot out in an attempt to stab the female only for her to parry it to the side and step a little closer. She was now within reach to strike him, but oddly she just stuck to him at that distance no matter which way he moved and the strikes he threw at her were all being blocked no matter their timing.

Knee bones were tapped the minimum amount to make them miss. Elbows were shifted to the opposite sides giving her his back, but still she didn't strike. Kimimaro became so engrossed in trying to strike the bun-haired girl that he almost missed the blond as the teen ran around the dancing duo. He tried to intercept but the infuriating brunette got in his way. His eyes narrowed at her as he swiped at her with his blade again. His goal this time though wasn't to hit her, so as she dodged his arm stilled, pointing straight at Naruto.

"Naruto!" He heard Tenten's scream of warning and dodged to the right. As soon as he did the sound of four impacts met his ears and pain came from his left shoulder before he disappeared into the brush. Leaping to a branch nearby he looked for any pursuit, but found none as Tenten was once again engaged with the Oto-nin. He checked the damage quickly to see that there was a small piece of bone sticking out of his shoulder near the joint.

Gritting his teeth, he gripped the bone and pulled. He looked at it with a little surprise as he'd expected it to be longer. Instead he saw that it was a rather blunt finger bone and dropped it in mild disgust. Looking at the fight once more he could see that, while Tenten was fairing well, she wasn't making any headway. He sighed a bit. She would do better once her battle haze lifted a bit and she realized he left a gift strapped to her back.

Turning from the fight, Naruto sped away with a silent prayer for all his friends to be alright. He had his own battle to fight if he wanted this mission to be successful, and he wasn't about to let that bastard get away after all the aggravation he caused everyone in Konoha...well everyone that didn't worship the ground he walked on anyway.

Tenten, on the other hand, had seen the small spray of blood from Naruto's shoulder and had instantly moved between her opponent and his target to block any further attempts on his life.

"It would seem that your boyfriend left you here to die alone. No matter, once I finish you off he will be of no challenge to catch and defeat." Kimimaro, truthfully, was a little worried that the boy may catch up to Sasuke. He couldn't allow them to injure Orochimaru's future vessel thus he would be forced to speed up his own fate in order to make certain that his master's prize was won.

"First, he's not my boyfriend. Well, at least not at the moment. I'll admit he would make a good candidate, but we've both got too much on our plates already for me to think about such a thing. Second, I don't plan on dieing, so he left me here in full confidence that I can hold you off until he's finished with that bastard or backup arrives. And last, even if you manage to beat me, Naruto-kun would wipe the floor with you. It doesn't matter how strong you are, he wouldn't give up until you are a pile of bonemeal." While she would admit she liked Naruto, she knew that his life was crowded enough with the four girls that were currently with him. Even if Ino was seeming to be on the edge right now, she still couldn't justify sharing herself with three other girls. It was unfortunate that her ideals wouldn't allow her to join them, but there were other guys around that were at least trainable to be to her liking.

"It matters not. He will meet his fate just as Orochimaru-sama planned. He cannot defeat the power of the sharingan when it is coupled with Orochimaru-sama's cursed seal. By the end of the day you will both be together again in death." The albino teen readied himself to fight once more, confident in his master's seal to overpower anything in its way.

"Yeah, he also wasn't supposed to be able to beat my teammate at the chūnin exams, or send a released bijū packing or ruin your master's plans for invading Konoha. Face it, your views on fate are just as bad as my teammate's though you may be a bit more delusional. You probably get that from your master though." The only effect her words had on the boy in front of her was a tightening of his knuckles just before he sprang at her.

· · ·

The door to the hospital opened to give Tsunade entrance to one of their more serious cases as of late. "Rock Lee...so you're the one I've been hearing so much about."

Lee looked at the Hokage with unbridled hope shining in his eyes. "Hokage-sama! I was not told that you would be the one doing my checkup today!"

'And every bit as energetic as I've heard too.' Tsunade thought a bit ruefully. "Don't get too excited. I just happened to be taking a break from paperwork for the time being and with most of the ninja currently out on missions, and the recent escaped prisoner, I don't really have many people to order around at the moment. I see you have quite a few fractures in your arm and leg. I'm just going to go over them and see how they're healing."

Quite frankly, the expectant look in the young man's eyes unnerved here a great deal. It was as though he knew without a doubt that she could heal him. Times like this often made her wish that she wasn't such a well known medic. To see them light up when they saw her only for her to crush their hopes, it wasn't her favorite feeling.

Her hands glowed as she checked his bones, finding that they were setting but far from properly. With time and operations he might be able to function mostly the same as he had before, but such things cost time and money. Things that an orphan like him simply didn't have. She sighed as she prepared to give him the news. "Lee-san, your injuries are just as bad as they described, in some areas they are worse. With this amount of damage there is almost no chance that you will be able to function as a normal ninja again. I'm sorry."

Lee's head lowered at the news before determined eye looked back at her. "You said almost, Hokage-sama. If there is even a remote chance then I will defeat the odds against me and become the ninja I promised myself I would be! I will not let my youthful flames dim in the face of this obstacle. I now know there are those that have faced worse than I have and have come out stronger because of it. I shall follow Naruto-san's example and allow my youthful flames to shine brightly in spite of what may come. I will never give up!"

The two had to look over at the door as a third party made his presence known. "Lee!"

"Gai-sensei!"

"Not while I'm here!" Tsunade immediately got between the two and forced them to remain apart. "Listen, I'm glad you're so passionate about getting healed and all, but the truth of the matter is that it will take a long time and quite a bit of money in order to get you back into working condition. That is also only if the operations are a success."

"I will never give up." was Lee's simple reply.

"The recovery time alone will set you back behind your peers by months. You will be one of the weakest of your age group." Tsunade countered.

"I will never give up!" Lee stated a bit more forcefully.

"Then there is the possibility of death on the operating table. A sliver of bone could slip into your bloodstream and cause a clot that could in turn cause heart failure. You could die!"

"I WILL NEVER GIVE UP!" Lee shouted this time.

Tsunade glared at him a bit. Didn't this idiot realize that his life could be ruined more than it already is, that is, if he even survived? "Even if your resolve is so stalwart, there is still the matter of cost."

"I will cover any medical expenses!"

The Godaime's glare shifted to the boy's sensei. "Gai, as nice as that is, this isn't a simple resetting of bones. There will be surgery costs, rehabilitation, medicine, room fees. It will not be a cheap stay."

"With all due respect Hokage-sama. When I took the position of sensei of my team, I made a promise that I would do everything in my power to help them reach their dreams. Even if it means that I must take mission after mission in order to keep my team on the paths to their dreams then I will happily sleep in a tent year round in order to see their futures shine! That is what I believe as a sensei." Gai stood resolute in the face of the woman's narrowed eyes.

"You realize that you may be sentencing your pupil to death Gai?" Tsunade tried to guilt the man into relenting.

"Then it will be a death striving towards his goal. A death worth having." Gai countered in a lowered, almost threatening, voice. Daring her to try and move his beliefs.

The two adults stared at each other for a while, each studying the others resolve. Finally Tsunade relented with a sigh. "If that is how you feel Gai, then I won't try to dissuade you anymore. I just hope you both know what you're getting yourselves into."

Gai's expression turned serious as he nodded at her acceptance. "Godaime-sama, I will never abandon one of my precious students as long as there is some hope left." He soon did a complete turn around though as tears began to leak out of Lee's eyes. "Besides, Lee still has an eternal rival to prove himself to!" Teeth shines and a thumb rose into the air as the jōnin smiled at his student.

"Gai-sensei!"

"Lee!"

"Gai-sensei!"

*Slam*

Tsunade beat a hasty retreat as the pair went into their bonding session. 'I came here to get away from my work for a bit and now I've just created more for myself.' Before she could have any more additions to her workload she made her way quickly back to her office. She would have Shizune look a bit more in depth into Lee's case and bring her materials on the subject, just to make sure they covered every avenue. Since she was now roped into such a large operation she would have to make sure that she did everything she could to, at least, keep the boy alive. She wasn't going to let others bear her pain if possible.

· · ·

Tenten was breathing heavily already and now sported a few cuts across her body. As proficient as she was with her ninja-to, her opponent simply had a larger arsenal and more skill. She ended up doing more dodging than blocking as he would constantly attack with one of his swords and a leg at the same time, or any other combination of multiple pointy objects aimed at her.

Things had gotten a little easier once she realized that Naruto had strapped his blade on her back as he left. She would have to be giddy about using such an exquisite weapon later though as right now she was too busy trying to stay alive. Her blocking proficiency went down a bit with the longer blade, but now she had more reach and the chances of her weapon breaking on Kimimaro's bone was infinitely lessened.

On Kimimaro's part, he was getting rather annoyed with his lack of success in finishing this fight. So far she had been able to block almost all of his attacks and while she did look winded, he too was running out of time. If what she'd said about the blond was true then he may need whatever time he had left to assist Sasuke in his escape.

"You have done well today, however it is obvious that you are on your last breaths. Stand aside now and I promise your end will be swift."

"You know you would do great as a motivational speaker. Ever think of changing professions?" Tenten was glad for the talking as it allowed her a slight reprieve. Every second she kept him at bay was one more second for backup to arrive. She already knew that would be one of only two outcomes for this fight. The older teen was just too good, and with his bloodline the scales only tipped further in his favor.

"You're only delaying the inevitable. It matters not. Like so many stray branches I will simply push you out of my way."

"You've done a fine job of that so far, seeing as you're already helping you're master's new groupie. Now how about you shut your mouth and let's have some more fun." The Konoha kunoichi's grip tightened on the black blade as she attempted something that she'd only heard about previously. Channeling chakra into the weapon in her hands, she was caught off-guard by the amount it seemed to suck up as she quickly stopped channeling. 'I should have guessed a chakra factory like Naruto would have no issues with something like this while us normal people would get sucked dry. I wonder how long Kafu was able to use this thing before it drained him dry.'

Her ace in the hole seemingly gone, Tenten charged in recklessly in order to hide her growing weariness. Try as she might though, Kimimaro was too well practiced at swordplay for her to land a blow. He easily had the upper hand, at least he did until she noticed something peculiar happening with her sword. The edge of her blade had a slight glow to it despite her stopping her chakra flow to it. She couldn't feel any pull on her reserves but she did notice that the glow was growing brighter, if only slightly.

As the glow seemed to peak, her Oto opponent shifted his stance. "That I would have to use such an attack on such a low ranking kunoichi...It would seem that my inability of being Orochimaru-sama's vessel may have been my destiny from the beginning if I have only come this far. Regardless, I must have faith in Orochimaru-sama that he has chosen a strong vessel and I will use what strength is left in me to keep any more of your kind from attempting to ruin his plans. Yanagi no Mai!" Once again the albino teen used his first dance in order to strike quickly at his opponent.

Tenten, upon hearing the name of the dance, quickly brought her ninja-to back out. Using the longer blade to block attacks from one side, she made use of her ninja-to to keep the rest of her body covered as best as she could. Unfortunately her best was slightly lacking as more cuts appeared on her clothes and skin, one coming so close to decapitating her that it ended up cutting the tie on one of her buns allowing for the hair to fall freely down her back.

She was surviving on instinct now. There wasn't time for rational thinking anymore as the strikes came faster and faster. One thrust from Kimimaro was able to get through her guard and shot straight at her head. Tenten's eyes could only watch as the object of her demise seemed to magnify itself during its approach. Then all she saw was tan.

Tan...funny she'd heard you saw a white tunnel, or nothing but black when you died. Grainy tan was definitely not something she had expected.

"Are you alright Harusada-san?"

An emotionless voice behind her. It was much like she'd expected a messenger of death to sound, but this one held a hint of familiarity. Turning her head in a daze, she chanced a glance at her celestial guide only to look into a pair of green eyes. She took in the rest of the form and her confusion was apparent until a spark of recognition lit in her own eyes. She quickly looked at where her assaulter should have been, only to see a wall of sand blocking her view.

"Gaara..." She sighed with some relief. If he protected her then he obviously wasn't here to kill her. That meant only one thing, her backup had arrived.

"I am sure you are relieved however we must end this fight if we are to assist Uzumaki anytime soon." Gaara got a swift nod in response as the girl took up a ready stance with her weapons, waiting for the barrier to fall and the fight to resume anew.

Without so much as a blink from its controller the sand wall shot out towards where the Oto-nin had been previously standing. It split into tendrils as it got closer to its target, allowing for Tenten to shoot out after it and sway between the dancing grains. In an instant both kunoichi and sand made it to their goal only to find that their target was no longer there. Tenten looked around frantically for their enemy, keeping her guard up to cover as much of herself as possible.

"Where did he go!"

"Teshi Sendan."

*Piff* *Piff* *Piff* *Piff*

Tenten turned her head towards the soft sound of cushioned impacts in time to see four small white objects fall from the other side of the sand tendril that met her gaze. Snatching one out of the air she found it to be a small bone about the size of her fingertip. "You can shoot your fingers too? That's just not fair!" She whined. "Thanks for the save Gaara-san."

"I still owe Konoha a large debt. I will not allow you to be harmed as long as I am able." The stoic boy replied as his sand moved to give the girl a better view of their opponent.

With his position discovered, Kimimaro made no move to hide himself again. "You are both very persistent, however it is pointless as neither of you, even combined, are a match for the greatness of Lord Orochimaru." He watched in satisfaction as the younger teens' eyes narrowed. Black marks spread out from the cursed mark on his chest. A vine with thorns seemed to etch itself across his flesh as the seal went into a partial release of it's first stages. "Nothing you can do could possibility match the perfection of Orochimaru-sama's juin jutsu."

Tenten once more rushed in with her guardian sand at her side. Her blade swung out in a wide, but powerful arc as she attempted to bisect the older male. Much to her surprise and dismay, the blade was caught in a new set of spiny protrusions sticking out from pasty-white skin. Before any retaliation from the Oto-nin could connect though, she was pulled away with a surprised yelp by a tendril of sand around her waist, compliments of Gaara.

Kimimaro wasn't done though as he rushed the allied teens, only to be stopped as sand encased his ankles. "Suna Funsha" The Oto-nin had just enough time to put his arms up to guard his face from the sand blast that came his way. A cloud of dust and blood obscured the vision of all on the field as the attack poured on for a few more seconds before Gaara stopped the flow of sand and readied himself for the next assault.

"Think you got him?" Tenten sounded hopeful as she didn't like her inability to lay so much as a scratch on their target.

"It would be best not to underestimate an opponent such as him. I have learned not to assume an enemy is done until they are no longer breathing. Naruto-san proved that to me." Gaara kept his gaze impassive as he waited for the debris cloud to clear off enough to see. They didn't have to wait long to see a shadow standing in the clearing dust.

Kimimaro was glaring at the two in front of him. No one had done this much damage to him since Orochimaru-sama's testing of his abilities. His skin was now covered in thick, forking lines where it was still whole. Where it wasn't there were boney plates now showing through the gaps, silently explaining how he had survived the onslaught of sand. "You have done well to do this much to me, however I will not be caught again."

Tenten moved to strike once more, but got no closer than half way to the albino before he disappeared and she found a fist in her stomach for her efforts. As a consolation prize, Kimimaro's foot sent her careening back towards Gaara. She was saved from a harsher impact with the ground by a cushion of sand, but even with the added padding she could feel the soreness on her ribs from where she had landed on them as well as where the Oto-nin kicked her.

"That's definitely going to leave a mark." Tenten managed to wheeze out.

Gaara however was no longer paying attention to her after saving her once again. His arms were raised as a defensive perimeter of sand flared up around them. The wave of sand shot higher and wider as his arms raised towards the sky, almost having his concentration break when something hit him in the head.

"Don't you dare turn our forest into a desert. Despite you helping us out, I doubt Hokage-sama would take too kindly to you trying to claim some of our territory for your dessert. She's already a bit angry about the area that you went demon on us." The bun-haired girl scowled as he made no motion that he heard her, but the sand at the edges of the wave began to curl inward.

Slightly irked at the kunoichi, Gaara tried his best to modify his attack midway through. It wasn't going to have much of an affect towards the final result, but it may keep the devastation a little more localized. With a grunt he threw his arms down. "Ryūsa Bakuryu." The sand, already casting the field in shade, began to collapse in a wave of punishment towards the Oto-nin.

Kimimaro merely scowled at the new challenge and began to dodge the wave, but his eyes opened wider as tendrils burst from the crest and aimed to drag him under. He may have been able to outrun them while dodging had they been going in a straight line, or hop in one of the massive trees nearby to get above the cursed wave, but the slight curl at the edges proved to be just what the attack needed to smother such ambitions. In seconds Kimimaro was no longer only dodging the forward running tendrils, but also those attacking from the sides. It proved to be too much as they drug him under before he even made it to the treeline. All traces of him being near were wiped away in the following flood of man-made desert.

Gaara and Tenten watched as the sand overtook their opponent, the former looking a little pleased at the modified attack's result. When the flow finally stopped, Gaara looked at the brunette with his head cocked towards the sand, as if asking her if that was good enough for her. His response was seeing her wide eyes narrowing before she snorted and turned her head away. Not really caring either way, Gaara simply placed his hands on the sand for the next portion of his attack. "Sabaku Taiso." A series of waves flowed along the top of the sand, doing no justice to the devastation the attack was causing below the surface.

Another snort came from the side as Tenten looked at the new sandbox of her country. "You sure know how to go overkill don't you?"

Gaara was silent for a moment, keeping his hands on the ground. After a moment of silence his eyes narrowed. He attempted to push his chakra out and crush their enemy again, but an explosion in the sea of sand in front of the pair proved it's lack of effect. Both ninja watched as the cloud of dust started to settle from the blast, outlining a monstrous silhouette. A beast, as that is the only thing that could describe what stood in front of them, heaved some heavy breaths as it glared back at the two.

Bone spikes came from its back and its skin was darker with more of a grey tint than anything that could be considered human. As though those features weren't enough to distinguish it from humanity, a tail swung into view behind the creature. Despite all that they could still tell by the face and the clothing that was left that their fight with Orochimaru's fanatic follower was still going. With that revelation, Tenten readied her...Naruto's...sword as Gaara began shooting tendrils of sand at the mutated being running towards them.

Kimimaro was significantly faster in this new form but still managed to get caught in the sand once. Not that it mattered. The sand was easily broken through before he continued on to his targets. Due to the number of times Gaara tried to catch him, Kimimaro was able to start reading the Suna-nin's hand movements and react before the sand even got close. A wall of sand shot up in a last-ditch effort to stop the bone juggernaut but it proved to be ineffective as the sand exploded towards Gaara and he received a hard shoulder tackle, sending him flying back.

Seeing her backup being so easily handled shook Tenten out of her spectator's daze and she threw herself into the fight once more. The monstrosity may be fast, but her teammates were faster and she could see the attacks coming. Even so, she found the same problem that Sasuke discovered against Lee back at the academy prior to the chūnin exams. She could see the attacks, but she wasn't fast enough to completely stop them. A swing of a tail towards her and it was all she could do to get her blade up in defense as the power behind the attack flung her away. A cushion of sand appeared beneath her, ready to ease her landing, but due to the weapon taking most of the blow she was well enough to flip herself and land on her own two feet. Even so, fending off the attack was sending shock waves through her arms.

With both of his opponents still in fighting condition, Kimimaro kept his eyes focused. His chest was flaring with pain and he was already feeling the strain of his cursed seal and his sickness, but he would do Orochimaru-sama's will no matter the cost to himself. He would not fail his mission. Both his opponents were still mobile and looked to be ready for anything he would throw at them. It was just too bad they never met something like him before. Reaching back, Kimimaro grabbed his spine and pulled. To the astonishment and disgust of the two teens, his entire spine was wrenched from his body.

The albino twisted the new, flexible weapon behind him while looking at his target. "Tessenka no Mai." With a quick thrust forward, the whip-like bones were flung at the redhead too fast for him to dodge. He didn't have to worry though as his sand came to his defense and sheltered his sides from the new weapon. This didn't deter Kimimaro one bit as the whip curled around the construct and held the Suna-nin in place. "Your sand can only help you so much. With you stuck in place I will be able to use my strongest attack to remove you from Orochimaru-sama's way." As Kimimaro spoke, bones concentrated around his free arm in a large twisting spike. "This bone is the strongest in my body. There is nothing that can stop it from destroying all in its path."

Gaara looked at the attack, unimpressed. "So it will be the strongest sword against the strongest shield, so be it. Saikyō Zettai Bogyo, Shūkaku no Tate." Like Kimimaro's attack, Gaara's defense build up slowly in front of him. A large construct of sand began to take form until there was a giant tanuki standing between him and their opponent. "If you believe your attack to be stronger than my shield, come. I will show you how the culmination of the densest minerals in the ground fare against your ultimate sword."

While the two were droning on and creating their respective constructs, Tenten was looking on in awe of the skill and strength both showed. She could do nothing but roll her eyes at the display of power though. 'Really, does it always have to come down to bigger is better?' The lone kunoichi thought as she took advantage of their lack of attention of anything, aside from their techniques, to ready her own strike. She took a battōjutsu stance with the still unfamiliar sword. If they wanted big, they would get big. She concentrated as much chakra as she dared into her hands in preparation to send it into the black blade in her hands. Since the sword seemed to take so much chakra to use effectively she would simply send as much chakra as she could to it right at the moment she struck.

Everything in the clearing was quiet as the three took their last breaths. Then, as one, they all opened their eyes and focused on their targets. As soon as Kimimaro took his first step, Tenten was on the move. The bone wielder brought his arm back in preparation for his thrust as Tenten brought her own weapon back for her strike. They both swung their arms forward at the same time, both on a collision course for their intended targets. Gaara watched on impassively, doing his best to not look at Tenten and give away her intention.

In a fraction of a second the strikes were decided. Grinding was heard as it echoed off the trees. Kimimaro's spear was able to dig into Gaara's shield almost halfway before Tenten's strike hit it with a resounding crack. Kimimaro couldn't help but stare in surprise that his attack was not only stopped, but his strongest bone was completely crushed by the weapon mistress's blow. Tenten had hit the bone halfway up, unable to hit him as her attack was aimed to calculate the position he would have been in had his attack succeeded in penetrating the shield. Due to their speed she was unable to change her strike's direction, thus the spear took the full hit.

'If that had hit me, I would have been unable to counter the blow.' The Oto-nin looked from his destroyed weapon to the one who had shattered it. He was about to tell her that it didn't matter and he would kill them anyway, but something else came out of his mouth. He was forced to bring his hand to his mouth as a fit of coughing hit him. Pulling his hand away he stared at the blood coating it. Looking at his opponents, he sees that Tenten is breathing heavily after her attack. Gaara on the other hand looks as stoic as ever, though his own breaths seem to be coming a little deeper than normal as well. "So it comes down to this after all." Kimimaro all but whispers.

"You may be strong, but it is hopeless now. We have beaten your strongest attack and destroyed it. Give up and you may yet live to see tomorrow." Gaara tried to reason with the boy as he was once reasoned to, but he could only stand and wish he had the blond's ability to change people.

"It will not matter in the end. I was once chosen to be Orochimaru-sama's vessel, but an illness took hold. Now I can only spend the last minutes of my life ensuring that his new vessel is able to make it to Otogakure to serve him as I once did."

"You underestimate Naruto!" Tenten shouted at the Oto-nin. "He it much stronger than that Uchiha. Hell kick his ass and bring him back to Konoha easily."

Kimimaro gave the girl an unimpressed look. "You underestimate the power of the cursed seal. Even if that boy were ten times stronger than Uchiha-sama, he will fall to the power of the cursed seal."

"You are pathetic. Serving such a master in this way shows you to be nothing more than a mindless pawn. It is people like you that I despise most. Naruto-san will win against the Uchiha as he is a hundred times stronger. He is stronger because of his bonds and it will be that which gives him victory over the Uchiha." Gaara told Kimimaro as though it were a known fact. "He will defeat him just as easily as he was able to defeat me, and easier than I was able to defeat you." With that he brought his hand up and clenched it part way.

Kimimaro looked down as he felt the sand lock onto his legs. The Suna boy had made a sand cylinder around his feet only to constrict it and grab on when the sand was high enough that the albino would be unable to escape from it. With his feet secured he was unable to pull out as the sand beneath him began to stir. Slowly, Kimimaro started to sink. He glanced back at his opponents to see them standing side-by-side, watching him as the sand pulled him down.

Gaara watched impassively as his enemy sunk deeper. "This sand pit is over two hundred meters deep. You will be pulled to the bottom where the mere pressure will make you unable to move a finger even if you encase your entire body in bone. You were a worthy opponent, but I will not allow you to do any more harm upon those that I've come to call...friend. Farewell Oto pawn." The sand tumbled over Kimimaro's head and continued to stir for a few more seconds before the area was still once more.

Tenten brushed her hands together as though cleaning them of dirt. "Well that takes care of hi..."

"Mai. Sawarabi no Mai!" The shout took the two ninja by surprise, but the large bones popping up from the ground caught them completely unaware as they were forced to dodge the spikes. As soon as they were close enough to each other Gaara made a sand pad under them and took to the air, now panting hard from the exertion. Floating sand was not something he had mastered yet and it was taking all his concentration just to keep them afloat near the tips of the bone spires.

The two allies continued to float, but found themselves lowering slowly as Gaara's reserves started to dwindle. Just as they lowered under a large bone spur on their way down, they heard a splintering sound. Turning their eyes behind their back they saw Kimimaro back to his normal form, if a bit paler, holding another bone spear, this one aimed right at Gaara.

"You know nothing of Orochimaru-sama's greatness. His will is not what drives me, but my will to make his dreams come to be! Someone like you would never understand!" Kimimaro thrust the spear at Gaara's head, intending to pierce the head of the bigger nuisance of the pair.

"Kuchiyose: Kirikiri Mai!" All three sets of eyes went wide as a fierce wind blew through the forest of bones. Then everything seemed to collapse. Gaara did his best to hold his sand platform together and land it safely on the ground as Tenten watched the form of Kimimaro flail around like a rag doll, still connected to the boned he had sprouted from. Everywhere the spires were being sliced apart by an invisible blade and came sliding, tumbling and rolling down around them. The bun-headed girl could only squeak a bit, and grab on to the nearest stable hold, at some close calls as the wind blew them both around.

Then, as quickly as it had started, it was over. Both were breathing hard now in both exhaustion and fright as they collapsed to the sandy ground side by side. This was what another pair of ninja came upon as they made their way through the field of calcium.

"Otōto!" Temari jumped down amongst the bones to where her brother sat, taking deep gulps of air. "Are you alright?" She was concerned as this was the second time she had seen him in such shape. Not since Naruto had he looked so beaten, and he had been training a lot harder since then.

"We are fine Temari, thanks to your summoning. For now we must find our opponent and make sure he is taken care of." Gaara replied as he took her offered hand and pulled himself up, turning to help Tenten up as well.

This action shocked Temari a bit as Gaara, recently, would simply use his sand to help another up. The lack of it showed her just how exhausted he truly was.

"Don't worry about the bone man. He's just over there." Shikamaru said from on top of a toppled bone. "He won't be getting back up. Where's Naruto?"

Tenten answered him quickly. "He went after Sasuke. He ran after that damn Uchiha but he got hurt on his shoulder right before he disappeared into the trees. We need to catch up to him and help him. If we're fast enough we should be able to catch up before they get too into their fight."

"Don't worry too much about Naruto, he can beat that bastard with both arms tied behind his back." Shikamaru tried to assure her.

"I don't know. Right before he took off I saw him. He's different Shikamaru. He's like them." She inclined her head in the direction Shikamaru had indicated their last foe was. "If he's that powerful, it's going to be difficult."

Shikamaru lowered his head in thought before staring her right in the eyes. "Even if he's stronger, Naruto will find a way to beat him because Naruto himself is stronger than he lets anyone know. Even so... You're right, we need to catch up just in case." He didn't want to doubt his comrade but something was nudging the back of his mind, telling him they needed to get to the fight quickly or they would miss something important.

Gaara stared straight ahead and began to talk. "Kimimaro, he was like Naruto."

Tenten looked at him incredulously. "In what way was that brainwashed freak like Naruto?"

Gaara's eyes shifted to her before looking back to his path once more. "He had the same devotion to Orochimaru that Naruto-san has to his precious people. The same devotion that I hope to gain some day."

"But Naruto isn't working for an evil madman like Orochimaru. He knows the difference between good and bad." Shikamaru stated.

"Is that true? I'm not so sure. Someone's precious person may not always be considered good. Even Naruto-san's precious people may be considered evil by someone at some point. The Hokage's are not always seen in the light that Konoha shines upon them. Iwa, Kumo even Kiri and Suna to an extent don't always look favorably upon Konoha and it's leaders. It was that which drew us into doing Orochimaru's bidding, even if he was under the guise of our own Kage.

"But we can choose who to follow and for what reasons. We aren't forced to follow an evil person." Tenten attempts to defend.

"When one is in the depths of loneliness, one looks for acceptance anywhere it can be found. Even if that person is evil, it is better than the hell of the alternative. I know this, Naruto knows this and it's possible that the Kaguya knew this as well."

Everyone pondered Gaara's words in silence as they wondered if those they knew would really have followed such a man if that was the only place they were able to find acceptance.

The quartet of ninja were about to leap away when another thump of feet on bone was heard behind them. Temari looked up at the newcomers and smirked. "So you're here too."

· · ·

His patience was wearing thin as the hours ticked by. His Glare was nearly penetrating the wall in front of him as his assistant appeared by his side once more.

"You don't think Kimimaro has..."

"Whatever may have happened to Kimimaro is inconsequential now. Sasuke-kun, he's the one I am waiting for and he will make it here even if he's alone. He is most like me. He will do anything for the power he so desires."

· · ·

Naruto heard the sound of rushing water as he neared the edge of the forest. As soon as he broke through the foliage he was forced to jump up the various boulders in order to continue his chase. Reaching the top of a smooth rock face he looked out over the crest of a large waterfall. He couldn't help but see the irony displayed in front of him. On the opposite shore, on a carved statue that had the demon inside him growling, stood Uchiha Sasuke on the crown of Uchiha Madara's stone head. From the statue carved into the face of the cliff, he knew exactly where he was. The Valley of the End. The site of a legendary battle of decades past and soon to be the site of another battle that will decide the fate of two new shinobi.

"Sasuke!" Naruto called out over the roar of the falling water.

The Uchiha turned towards his counterpart slowly with a sneer marring his face. Black marks had already spread from his neck and one of his eyes was dyed black with his sharingan active. "Dobe..."

· · · · ·

Kyokusui no Yōshiki – Form of the Meandering Stream

One of Uzumaki Kushina's sword forms. The swordsman, or woman, takes an indirect path towards their opponent, randomly increasing and decreasing their speed but never going at a full run. Once upon the opponent the attacker uses a combination of slashes at varying speeds. All of this is done to confuse the opponent and make their guard waver.

Suna Funsha – Sand Spray – C-Rank

Gaara forces his sand into a jet stream at high velocity, causing it to strip away at anything in its path be it clothing, skin or even lesser made weapons.