Do I? Hmmmmmmmmmm... nope.

Plucking Strings

"There are strings in the human heart that had better not be vibrated." - Charles Dickens

Team Seven didn't enter Training Ground Forty-Four under the best of relations. Sasuke was annoyed at Naruto for, in his own mind, one-upping him while the blonde in turn was irritated at Sasuke for second-guessing him. Sakura on the other hand was helpless against watching her teammates silently brood. One she was frightened of, even if she wouldn't admit it, and the other she admired, and couldn't bring herself to doubt. It put them in a stalemate situation for almost two minutes as they hopped through the trees in the direction of the tower, none of them speaking. Surprisingly it was Sasuke who finally pulled them to a stop in a relatively enclosed clearing, turning back to the others with grim-faced irritation as he overcame his own stubbornness.

"We need a plan; we can't just run in here without any idea what we're doing." Dropping down from the trees to join him Naruto and Sakura briefly shared a glance before nodding, although somewhat reluctantly in the case of the former.

"I agree with you, for once." Sasuke's eye twitched but he didn't say anything against the baiting comment.

"Good, then you can hold the scroll." He flipped it out of his pouch and tossed it over to the blonde who examined it momentarily before slipping it out of sight in his jacket.

"I'm not complaining, but why me? I would have thought Sakura would make a better choice." He questioned lazily, not really caring one way or another but interested in the Uchiha's thought process. Catching Sakura's confused expression he smirked at her and quickly clarified. "Nobody would think you'd have it, after all." The pinkette blinked owlishly before scowling as she realised the underlying insult. Again, Sasuke ignored Naruto's attempts at riling his teammates up; he wasn't even sure why the blonde was doing so.

"Because you have so many pockets that even you lose track of things; it will force any teams trying to get our scroll to waste time." To his explanation Naruto just shrugged, seemingly accepting it without qualm. "So next we need to decide how we tackle this challenge; I think we should head to the tower and set up an ambush for other teams, take their scrolls quickly and deal with less risk because we're already close to the end point." He looked about, spotting Sakura get over her irritation to nod acceptingly and Naruto tilt his head slightly.

"Sounds like a solid plan." The blonde intoned blandly, making Sasuke nod as he made to speak only to be cut off as Naruto continued. "Unless…" Sasuke's eye twitched more prominently this time as he caught the blonde's smirk, even hidden under his hood's shadows as it was.

"Unless what?" Naruto made to speak before seemingly thinking better of it, waving his hand dismissively. Sasuke eyed him for a moment but the blonde's face was deceptively blank; however yet again as he made to continue, the puppeteer cut in.

"Unless you consider the fact other teams think of the same idea. We're the youngest in these exams so that gives the other participants an edge in height and leg length. If they decide to set up ambushes then they will get there first and there's nothing we can do about it. If we try to do the same it will only draw us into their traps." He shrugged neutrally before raising his hands up in mock placation. "But, of course, as team leader you have final say right? I'm just going to get some water." He flipped a small canteen out of one of his many pockets and moved over to the stream that cut through the small clearing.

"Fine then what do you…" Sasuke trailed off as he watched the blonde collect water, thinking back to the map the proctor had briefly shown them. "Okay then; we'll head for the stream that runs through the training ground. Other teams will need to go for water and it will be an easy place to set up a loose ambush; plus we'll have a more or less straight shot for the tower after we get another scroll." Naruto walked back with a now full canteen and Sasuke just stared at him, daring the blonde to challenge him this time.

However the puppeteer remained silent, only giving a curt nod as he hid a small smirk with a sip of water. They spent another few minutes just ironing out details such as code-words if they got separated, how they would deal with the night if they couldn't get a scroll by the end of the day and other such things. By the time they were done it had been almost ten minutes since the exam started and they were all eager to get moving again. However as they began to move through the trees again, using the sun to navigate their way in the direction of the stream, Naruto noticed the wind change rather suddenly.

However before he could even warn his teammates of the anomaly the sudden breeze became a torrential gale. It actually picked him up off his feet despite the fact he was sticking to the trees with Chakra. A few rather painful impacts with too-sturdy branches later and Naruto was picking himself up in an unfamiliar clearing, teammates nowhere in sight. By the time he determined where he had come from though by the trail of wooden debris it was too late as a voice broke the tentative silence.

"Just like Orochimaru-Sama predicted right Dosu?" The blonde whirled, his eyes narrowed as he easily picked out the three shadowy forms that emerged from the surrounding trees. They were the team from Otogakure, their headbands gave away that much, and they didn't look all that surprised to see him here alone. However it was that last part that caught his intrigue as he carefully manoeuvred a hand into one of his jacket's outer pockets.

"Orochimaru?" The hunch-backed one who had been addressed as Dosu by the other boy with spiky brown hair simply growled as he swatted the other boy on the back of the head.

"This is why I say you talk too much Zaku; you reveal everything." Naruto would have used the opportunity to act but their third team member, a girl with long black hair reaching almost down to her feet, was watching him like a hawk.

"Like it matters much; the kid's gonna be dead in a few minutes anyway." Naruto's eyes narrowed at Zaku's tone, mostly the sadistic glee with which he said it. That, combined with the fact the boy had death written all over his shirt, quite literally, didn't paint a good picture of his personality.

"Would you two shut up already and get on with it? This wasn't the only task he set us you know." It was the girl who spoke, finally diverting her attention from him enough that Naruto was able to whip out a concealed scroll, spread it out in front of him and slam his palm into the sealing matrix all in a single second. Suddenly it wasn't three on one as Ramia appeared, coiled around his body protectively as Naruto kept his cold eyes on all of them. The clearing became incredibly tense at that point as the three realised they had wasted too much time and allowed Naruto to prepare.

"What other tasks?" Naruto asked almost conversationally as he brought his goggles up to his eyes in a slow, deliberate movement. The three Oto Shinobi sneered at him, but surprisingly it was the seemingly reserved girl that answered.

"Orochimaru-sama asked us to deal with you while he entertained your friends; that's all you need to know little treehugger." She spat with enough venom that told Naruto that she hadn't had a pleasant past with Konoha Shinobi. However for whatever reason Orochimaru, of the Densetsu no Sannin no less, wanted his teammates and him separated from them. That couldn't be good, for either of them.

"You're right, that is all I need to know." One of the scales on Ramia's tail suddenly opened, dropping a smoke bomb that immediately enshrouded the clearing with a thick, noxious white smoke. Before it even cleared Zaku could be heard yelping as Ramia's tail suddenly appeared out of nowhere, aimed directly at his head. He ducked and dived back as the puppet came full circle and lashed out with its claws; the slight purple sheen they had showed even a single scratch wouldn't end well. By then the smoke had cleared and Naruto was nowhere to be seen.

Instinctively, thanks to advice offered by their master, all three Oto genin looked to the puppet in an attempt to trace back the Chakra threads that must be attached, only to find none. From the trees Naruto found this reaction highly interesting as nobody outside of Konoha and Nami should have known about him being a Puppeteer; their actions and lack of surprise implied prior knowledge. His attention was diverted as Zaku suddenly raised his hands at Ramia and, knowing that no Shinobi ever just raised their hands in a fight for no reason, Naruto forced his puppet to curve its body out the way.

"Zankuuha!" It proved the right choice as a few splinters of wood were suddenly shaved from Ramia's side by a seemingly invisible blast that ripped a dangerously large hole in a tree on the other side of the clearing. Naruto blinked in surprise as he spotted the two holes in Zaku's palm as he shot another few successive blasts of the technique, with Ramia writhing out the way each time thanks to her flexible body and Naruto's overview of the clearing. The other two were holding back though; whether it was because they believed their partner could handle it or because they didn't think their techniques would be effective on a puppet he didn't know.

"Why don't you actually show yourself little treehugger, instead of hiding behind your dolls?" Zaku called out, a grin on his face as he continued to blast away at the slithering puppet in his attempts to reduce it to sawdust.

"But you look like you're having so much fun already." Naruto's disembodied voice called out from the trees; it was immediately met by a salvo of senbon that thudded uselessly into an empty tree. From his real hiding spot Naruto raised an eyebrow, glad he had thrown his voice; why was it always senbon users? "That was a good throw, nearly nicked me there." Deciding to mess with them this time Naruto threw his voice to the opposite side of the clearing. Yet again senbon dropped from the girl's sleeves and into her hands before she let them all fly with deadly, if not misplaced, accuracy.

"Stop underestimating us!" the girl called out, anger clearly clouding her judgement as she began throwing senbon in seemingly any random direction.

"Kin, don't get so angry." Their apparent leader, Dosu called out; he still hadn't made any big moves during the course of the fight. Naruto just watched in slight amusement as the thin metal tools thudded uselessly into trees all around the clearing. He did, at least until a few embedded themselves in the trunk next to him, causing him to blink at the near-miss.

"Is that a bell?" The blonde thought, not a moment before Kin suddenly pulled on the nearly invisible threads of Ninja wire tied to her fingers, causing the bells attatched to some of the senbon around the clearing to tinkle softly. However as a wave of nausea washed over Naruto he could hardly describe it as such; it turned into a clanging gong within his head that immediately causing him to unbalance, tipping right over the branch he was on and falling right into the ground in a pained heap.

"Damn… I hate Genjutsu." He groaned as he flung himself to the side in time to avoid the spot he was just occupying being smashed into dust and bits of plant matter. Moving proved rather difficult as he attempted to get to his feet only to find himself unstable and the world moving in confusing ways. What he did spot was Zaku's hands, strange metal tubes included, pointing in his direction. Shakily his fingers twitched and Ramia was suddenly interposed between them, ready to absorb the blow.

"Surprise." His eyes widened at the sudden, gruff voice to the side and he was only just fast enough to bend his head out the way of a vicious right-hook, only to realise his mistake moments later as the familiar metal gauntlet passed a few inches from his face. Immediately a rush of nausea worse than Kin's attack tore through him, sending the world spinning and his insides twisting as he fought down his stomach's contents. Unfortunately this also meant he lost control of his fingers, causing Ramia to slump over; Zaku immediately took the opportunity to bombard the defenceless puppet with his invisible and deadly wind blasts.

Naruto had built Ramia strong and she was able to absorb a few of the hits, the natural design of her body allowing the force to be distributed evenly and allowing her to bend with the blasts, reducing their impact. However without Naruto to control it, there was only so much the puppet could take before Zaku scowled, setting his feet and squaring his shoulders.

"Zankuukyokuha!" A much more powerful blast of wind ripped from his hands, tearing across the clearing and smashing right into the hapless wooden construct. Instantly everything below the snake-like puppet's head and most of its tail were shredded apart into nothing but chunks of wood and splinters. In the only good turn of events that brought though, the countless senbon hidden away in Ramia's body were instantly scattered by the massive blast, forcing all three of the Oto-nin to take cover from them.

Naruto took the unprecedented opportunity to scrabble away from Dosu, holding back his vomit and blinking rapidly to try and dissuade the dizziness that had come over him. By the time any of his attackers realised he was gone, he was already up in the trees, scrabbling through his pouches to find something to deal with the nausea he was feeling. He had developed poisons to simulate the effect so he could only hope the corresponding antidote would do something. Thankfully only a few moments after he had injected himself directly in the neck, he felt his vision correct itself and his balance issues fade away; it didn't do much for how sick he felt but that wasn't too debilitating.

"Come out little treehugger! We destroyed your puppet so you might as well come quietly." Naruto chuckled softly, still instinctively throwing his voice to make it sound distant from himself.

"Foolish…" All three Oto-nin's ears pricked up, trying to locate the boy now that they were savvy to his little ventriloquist act. Naruto on the other hand simply reached into his pocket, withdrawing another scroll that he quickly opened an unsealed. "…to assume I only have the one." The three could only ponder on his words before they heard an unsettling skittering sound. It was Kin who spotted it first, it most definitely being the best way to describe the monstrosity that emerged from the trees.

Long, dank white hair that stuck together in messy clumps hid dark, glassy eyes that stared at them almost as if the thing was alive. However that was all Kin ever got to see as it raised one of its long, spindly legs and shot a single senbon, faster than any human could ever throw, from the tip. It landed with deadly accuracy, embedding in the Oto Kunoichi's neck and causing her to almost instantly slump to the ground like a sack of potatoes. Zaku and Dosu were more on guard for the next barrage, the former sending them careening off course with his wind blasts and the latter batting them away with his gauntlet. The new arrival quickly scuttled back into the darkness of the trees, leaving the two alone again.

"Do you like her?" Naruto's voice called out, taunting them further as they continued to hear that unsettling skitter all around them. "I call her Arakune." Dosu's eyes nervously glanced around into the trees, never once noticing the shadow that as slowly descending over his own. "Say hello Arakune." Dosu wasn't ashamed to say he screamed as he looked up, right into the emotionless wooden face of Arakune. Under the right circumstances he might have said that face was beautifully sculpted. However the four smaller glassy eyes above the main pair and the disgustingly segmented jaw shattered any illusions of beauty.

"W-W-What the fuck is this thing?" Dosu tripped over his own feet as he back-peddled away from the puppet, which he now saw to be hanging by a long silvery thread emerging from its bulbous black abdomen. It opened its mouth, much wider than should have been possible for any human, and hissed at him, what looked to be thick, viscous saliva dripping from its mouth. Suddenly it spat at him, a great glob of that same substance, and Dosu automatically raised his gauntlet to protect him only to watch in fear as whatever the substance was ate right through the metal like it was paper.

In his shock he didn't even make a move as Arakune dropped to the ground, scuttling forward and picking him up in her two human arms. It was only when she opened up her impossibly wide mouth again, the cheeks and jaw literally unhinging, did he begin to struggle, closing his eyes in fear. However the wad of acid to the face never came, instead he felt something vaguely soft and moist envelop his head, before moving across his shoulders and arms. It was only by the time his entire torso was enveloped did he snap out of it, kicking and struggling in vain. He opened his eyes to see only darkness; a pungent smell invaded his nose that made his eyes heavy and his movements weaker until his vision blurred right into unconsciousness.

Zaku watched on in fascination and disgust as his teammate was eaten in front of him. The plates that formed Arakune's body shifted and moved with the lump he knew to be Dosu's body, revealed to be attached to some membranous material that could expand and contract to accommodate the prisoner as they were 'swallowed'. He guess Dosu ended up in the dull black abdomen the woman's torso was attached to, along with eight skittering black legs that were deceptively fast. As that same puppet turned its eyes on him he immediately raised his arms warningly, aware he was the last one of his team left standing.

"Your teammate isn't dead." Naruto intoned dully, causing the brown-haired boy to start, arms raised as he spotted the blonde drop into the clearing, strategically keeping Arakune between him and Zaku. "He's just lying in a gaseous blend of various drugs that will keep him asleep as long as he's inside Arakune." Naruto smirked as Zaku's hands twitched and Arakune in turn moved her laden-down torso into his line of fire. "Don't be too hasty, one wrong move and you'll blast your friend into little bloody chunks." At that Zaku sneered, motioning towards Kin's limp body without ever taking the eyes off the blonde. He really wished the puppeteer's long jacket wasn't covering his hands; he couldn't know what the boy was doing with his fingers and it unnerved him.

"It doesn't matter anyway; one of my teammates is dead so it's not like we can proceed." He shot back only for Naruto's eyes to quickly glance at Kin, a small smile growing on his face.

"She's not dead, just unconscious; hand over your scroll and leave peacefully and I'll give you back both your teammates. There's still four days for you to gain two scrolls; it's better than having no chance." Zaku's eyes narrowed; there was no way to know if the blonde was telling the truth, or even if he would simply stab them in the back the moment he tried to leave. It wasn't the usual style for a Leaf Shinobi but Orochimaru had told them to be specifically aware of this one. "Might want to decided quickly, one twitch of my fingers and Dosu there gets a taste of something a little more lethal." Naruto offered in a faux-friendly voice, causing Zaku's eyes to narrow as he went for the pouch on his hip.

"Fine." He removed his earth scroll, trying to see by Naruto's expression if it was the one the blonde needed only to get stone-walled by the puppeteer's expressionless mask. Suddenly though he threw it up into the air towards Naruto, the blonde's eyes naturally flicking up to follow it's trajectory. In that moment Zaku grinned viciously, arms coming up as he built up an enormous amount of Chakra in his arms. "I change my mind." Naruto realized too late that he had made a mistake trying to barter the lives of the boy's teammate against his own safety.

"Zankuukyokuha!" A concentrated gale thundered out of the experimental tubes in Zaku's arms, slamming right through Arakune's exposed abdomen. The weakened blast caught Naruto in the side as he tried to move out the way, too slowly though. He was sent careening through the air, all sense of direction torn from him as the word spun for a brief but tumultuous moment before he slammed bodily into a tree. The tree didn't give, his body did though as he slumped to the ground, vision swimming and intermittently darkening. It all snapped into blinding clarity though as a sudden sharp pain caused his head to snap up only to see Zaku's smirking face sneer down at him as the boy shoved his sandal into Naruto's shoulder.

"Not so conversational now eh little treehugger? Not when I'm the one in control right?" Naruto's head lilted slightly and the blonde knew very well he was likely concussed at the moment. It didn't help that he could see and feel something warm and wet dripping over his right eye. Zaku brought his attention back to him by pressing harder on his shoulder where he realised he had a large and bloody gash, given the warm sensation dripping down his left arm. "I couldn't give two shits about those teammates of mine; our orders were never to proceed in this stupid test, just to deal with you." He raised his hands and grinned, giving Naruto a good view down the barrels of his surgically-implanted tubes.

"What was that?" The grinning boy asked imperiously as he heard Naruto murmur something weakly; the boy obviously wasn't all there after his impact.

"I said… do you have clans in Otogakure?" Zaku leaned back a little, his brow furrowing as he stared at the blonde in confusion, watching as he looked up at the Oto-nin with his cracked goggles.

"What the hell are you talking about treehugger? How hard did you hit your head?" Naruto chuckled weakly, unnerving the other boy.

"I just wanted… to know if you had… clans." His voice was a little shaky and he was mumbling a few words but it still got the point across. "I always admired… the Aburame… myself. I love the way… they manipulate their… insects. Like a swarm of tiny… little… puppets." Zaku blinked and brought his hands up straighter, almost pressing them right into Naruto's face.

"What the hell are you going on about now?" Naruto grinned slightly; it was a manic, desperate kind of expression that only served to unsettle.

"Nothing much… I'm just trying to keep you busy… while I direct a miniature puppet disguised as a fly onto your shoulder." As he spoke his words gained confidence and clarity, revealing himself to be not as nearly injured as he pretended to be. However before Zaku could even manage an ineloquent 'eh?' he suddenly lacked a head with which to say the words. The tiny little insect-shaped puppet on his shoulder exploded with the force of the exploding seal inscribed meticulously on its body and the boy's head was reduced to a messy red paste, thankfully scattering away from Naruto.

For what felt like a long few minutes Naruto just sat there, still slumped against the tree and surrounded by the remains of his puppets and the Oto-nin. After a few disgruntled noises from somewhere in the back of his throat he schlepped to his feet, swaying slightly as he clutched at his shoulder. A grimace made itself known on his lips as he stared across at the wooden wreckage around him. His puppets were pretty much unsalvageable at this point; Ramia lacked a torso and most of her tail and Arakune lacked her body, most of it lying in bloody splinters around the limp construct.

That was when it all really slammed into the puppeteer; right now he was completely alone. He had no puppets, no defences against the people and dangers around him, nothing separating him from the world. For just that brief, fleeting moment Naruto was truly terrified. This wasn't like Nami; there was no convenient period to recuperate and fix everything, no time to plan. At any moment other genin, drawn by the sounds of their conflict, could come through those trees, spotting him there injured and defenceless.

His breathing became faster as his heart hammered in his chest, not knowing what to do now. However the wold seemed to slow down as his yes caught sight of Kin's limp body; all three of the Oto-nin were dead, Naruto was just bluffing earlier. However where Dosu's body was just scattered chunks of meat and Zaku was currently missing his head, Kin's body was pristine, the only damage being a slight senbon wound to the neck. She just lay there, a full moveable, operational body… just going to waste.

It took around five minutes for Naruto to collect up the useable remains of his puppets, collecting the Oto team's earth scroll on his way out of the clearing. It was another five minutes of backtracking through the trees though before he found his team. He almost wished he hadn't. There were obvious signs of a conflict, destruction of trees and numerous scorch marks and kunai scattered about. Just as he was wondering what happened to his teammates he spotted Sasuke's limp form on the forest floor.

He dropped down next to him, noticing the dark-haired Uchiha was twitching and writhing in place, obviously unconscious but still in a great deal of apparent pain. A light sheen of sweat coated his body and he had a few tears across his clothing and skin, most noticeably a stab wound in his thigh. It all seemed to stem from the angrily pulsing seal on his neck, a seal Naruto recognised all too well from seeing on Anko's neck only hours ago. A rush of exhaustion overcame Naruto's body as he thought of that; it seemed like so much longer since then.

However he fought it back, examining the seal as it writhed and pulsed an ugly orange colour, something Naruto never thought he would hear himself think. To be honest Naruto couldn't make heads nor tails of it, it was far too complex and he simply lacked the necessary knowledge. However it looked as though it was killing Sasuke and he couldn't let that happen. Quickly using his fingers to sketch out various kanji in the air that lingered for a few moments as a faint, wispy blue mist, he gathered them up and swiftly slammed them onto the seal. It seemed to literally twitch and writhe in panic before falling still, softening into a dull black.

Naruto may have lacked the skill to remove the seal, but even a novice could put a barrier around it to seal it off from the rest of Sasuke's body. With another twist of his fingers the seal seemed to almost eat itself, vanishing into flawless skin like it was never there. Naruto figured if he hid the seal so Sasuke didn't know he had it, then perhaps he would never try to use it; there was a lot of malevolence contained within that innocuous mitsudomoe design. Sasuke also fell silent, his body falling limp as he gave into less fretful unconsciousness, allowing Naruto's attention to turn to locating his other teammate.

He found her up on the branch of a tree and once again, he wished he hadn't. She was dead, there was no kind or easy way of saying it. Her neck had been cleanly snapped, leaving her lifeless body to lie draped over the branch like some sick ornament. He carefully retrieved her, bringing her down to where Sasuke lay and setting her body on the ground. If Naruto was honest with himself, the next few minutes passed by in somewhat of a blur, his mind refusing to acknowledge what he was seeing. Instead he focused on bandaging up his wounds, cleaning off his bloodied clothes in a nearby stream and making sure the clearing had a few traps to deter other teams.

However Naruto eventually ran out of things to do and Sakura wasn't getting any less dead, or so the morbid part of his thoughts helpfully informed him. Eventually he found himself sitting next to her, his face twisted into a scowl as he stared at her almost serene features. Aside from her cold, pale skin, he could almost imagine she was sleeping; he wished that was all it was.

"Dammit." He suddenly turned and threw the earth scroll he had been tightly clutching across the clearing, as much good as it did them with a dead teammate. His chest heaved for a while as he simply glared at nothing, as if he were trying to burn a hole straight through one of the forest's oversized trees. He clenched his teeth and looked back at Sakura, still scowling and wondering just why he cared so much. He cared little for Sakura as a teammate, less so as a person. So why did he care if she was dead? What difference did it make?

"You can't progress in the exams without all three team members." A helpful little voice in the back of his mind offered, allowing Naruto to latch onto that thought. Yes, he cared because it was a hindrance, he needed her alive otherwise they were stuck, the two scrolls completely useless. He looked back down at Sakura's cold form as he began to pace, agonising over what to do and all these irritating little feelings that kept sweeping over him weren't helping. His mind offered up images of a crying little pink-haired girl being comforted by a youthful, innocent blonde only to be swatted away. Naruto didn't have time for the sentimental thoughts, he needed to stay focused.

"What's going on?" Naruto almost wanted to groan as he heard Sasuke speak up, the dark-haired teen propping himself up on an elbow and placing a hand on his forehead. "Naruto?" Sasuke questioned as black eyes locked onto blue; Naruto's goggles were down because they were useless in their cracked state. "Wait!" The boy's eyes snapped open in alarm as he jerked about, eyes scanning this way and that for an invisible threat. "Kusa-nin! Sakura! Orochimaru!" He shouted fervently only to quiet as he saw Naruto shush him with a scowl; things were bad enough without alerting any nearby teams of their distress.

"Quiet down; Orochimaru is gone. I found you guys like this." Naruto hissed out in a quiet but surprisingly authoritative tone. Sasuke took a moment and calmed himself before locking eyes with Naruto heatedly.

"Where were you?!" Thankfully he managed a hoarse whisper.

"I was ambushed the moment I got to my feet back there; I only managed to beat them and get here around half an hour ago." Sasuke narrowed his eyes at him but Naruto held his ground and eventually relented, his eyes naturally falling down until they rested on Sakura's unnaturally pale form.

"Wait, Sakura! Is she okay?" Naruto was surprised by the genuine concern that seemed to come from the self-proclaimed avenger. He hadn't thought the boy cared much for Sakura; he was about to tell him the truth when his own mouth betrayed him.

"She's fine." At that time Naruto had no idea why he straight-out lied to the boy; later he would look back and realise if he hadn't, things would have gone so very differently.

"But, she isn't breathing." Naruto grimaced at the Uchiha's observation, his mind whirling at a mile a minute; he was committed to the lie now.

"She was badly injured when I got here, I needed to give her a drug to relax her body; it's a side effect. You remember what that hunter-nin did to Zabuza?" Sasuke looked down at Sakura's body for a second before nodding slowly, unnerved by how much it looked like she was actually dead. "Don't worry about her, I know enough to treat her; but we'll need to get to the tower soon." Sasuke was still staring at Sakura but was snapped out of it by Naruto's voice.

"But we…" he trailed off as he saw Naruto hold up the two scrolls they now had.

"I took it off the team that ambushed us; we just need to get to the tower now." Naruto quickly supplied, sliding the scrolls back into his Jacket and picking up Sakura. Awkwardly he swung her limp body onto her back, a chill going down his spine at how cold she was. Sasuke took one look at him before nodding quickly.

"Alright, let's go."

It took more time than Naruto would have liked to cross the distance to the tower, a few hours at least. However in his hyper aware state thanks to losing his puppets and feeling extra vulnerable he made sure to stick clear of anything that might be an ambush. His extreme paranoia managed to get them to the tower without interference, letting both boys release a sigh of relief as they crossed the threshold into a warm, barren room. Between them it didn't take long to solve the riddle and soon, after a large puff of smoke, they found none other than Iruka in front of them. The man had a proud smile on his face as he took them in, only to frown as he spotted Sakura hanging on Naruto's back.

"Is Sakura okay? Do we need to get her to a medical-nin?" Eyes widening imperceptibly Naruto quickly shook his head, forcing an apologetic smile onto his face as he pulled down his hood.

"No need Iruka-Sensei, Sakura-chan is fine." Sasuke looked across at him strangely, wondering when his blonde teammate had become so familiar with Sakura. "But, I gave her a rather delicate cocktail of drugs when she took a nasty injury so I think the med-nin will do more harm than good if they try to treat her, you know?" Iruka looked worried but Naruto dissuaded his concerns with a dismissive shake of his hands.

"It's nothing serious Sensei, but she's going to need a lot of rest, so can I get her to the rooms?" Iruka nodded slowly, a frown on his face as he began walking with the two out into the tower proper.

"Are you absolutely sure Naruto, you don't want the medics to look her over?" The boy just smiled disarmingly, hefting Sakura up a little higher as the girl began to slide down his back.

"Come on Sensei, you know I learned a lot of medical techniques during my time in the academy; I know exactly how to treat her. Plus, this is a survival exercise right? There won't be any convenient medic-nin out on real missions." Again Iruka nodded slowly, the troubled expression not leaving his face which left Naruto to bring out the big guns. "It's okay Sensei; she's my teammate, I won't let anything bad happen to her." Finally the academy instructor's features softened and he gave a small, encouraging nod.

"Well alright then; but if she hasn't recovered by the end of the remaining four days then bring her to the medics, okay?" Naruto nodded enthusiastically as the chuunin finally left them alone to find the rooms. Sasuke was still giving him slightly odd looks but he must have been too tired to care as he quickly separated into his own room, allowing Naruto to slip into one of his own, a double, and breathe a sigh of relief. Carefully he lay Sakura down on the bed before walking over and unsealing Kin's body and laying it on the one across the room.

"At least Sensei would be proud I managed to get two girls into bed." Naruto murmured to himself humourlessly as he wished, and not for the first time, that he had a clue what he was doing.

A/N: Link to Arakune's picture now on my profile.