Until that moment, Sakura would have described their time in the Forest of Death as unpleasant but not unmanageable. They hadn't gotten separated. No one had gotten eaten by any of the ludicrously massive bugs. They'd avoided at least one ambush by another team. So far, so good.

Then the Grass-nin had cornered them. And the woman's face was entirely wrong, but she'd said her name was Orochimaru, and the unnatural way her tongue had lolled from her mouth-

Sakura's stomach was full of ice, and her ears were full of static. She remembered that entry from the Bingo Book and the words printed in red at the top:

DO NOT ENGAGE – RUN ON SIGHT

Sasuke and Naruto were shifting, getting ready to defend themselves. The woman was still talking, but Sakura wasn't listening any more.

"Training Field 16," she breathed, just loud enough that her teammates could hear her.

Sasuke's eyes widened.

"But, Sakura-chan, I thought you said-" Naruto started to protest.

"Just trust me," Sakura interrupted.

The fireball was even bigger than before, yellow-orange with edges of red, but Sakura paid it no attention. As soon as Sasuke and Naruto had completed their respective parts of the joint attack, she wrapped her arms arounds around both of them and shunshin-ed the three of them away in a desperate wrench of will and chakra.

They landed in a tangled pile on the large branch that they'd stopped on to eat earlier. Sakura rolled away from Naruto and Sasuke and threw up over the edge of the branch. Her hands were shaking badly. No wonder Iruka-sensei had always warned them against trying to shunshin with more than one other person unless you absolutely had to.

"Are you all right, Sakura-chan? What was that about?" Naruto patted her back. Sakura reluctantly sat up.

"Orochimaru is an S-class missing-nin. He has 'run on sight' orders in the Bingo Book."

Sasuke swore and ran a hand through his hair.

Naruto blanched and then rallied,

"Right. Okay. We need to-"

There was a creak. Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura all looked up with a jerk. A figure was crouched on a branch above them, head cocked to one side. Its skin was burnt and blackened but was flaking away to reveal an entirely new face underneath the ruined flesh. Sakura's stomach dropped as Orochimaru smiled.

"Nice try."


Naruto was, by nature, an optimist, but even he could admit at this point that – barring a miracle – they were probably going to die. Haku hadn't really had his heart in it when he had tried to kill them. On some level Haku had wanted to be talked down. Orochimaru clearlywasn't on the same wavelength. If anything, Naruto got the distinct impression that the missing-nin was enjoying himself. He had set a pair of giant snakes on them. Giant snakes. Purple and black snakes the size of trees! And he was just watching to see what they would do.

Sasuke was pulling out every fancy trick he could think of, Sakura was wielding a kunai like a dagger since senbon and genjutsu weren't going to do a damn thing against those tough reptile scales and non-human minds, and Naruto and his shadow clones were trying to mob one of the snakes. Naruto's wind jutsus were proving to be about as effective as Sakura's senbon against the snakes' scales. Honestly, another Training Field 16-style attack would be nice about then, but Naruto and Sasuke still hadn't figured out the recurve problem, and Sakura probably didn't have enough chakra left to transport the three of them out of harm's way again so soon. If Orochimaru wasn't infinitely faster than them, Naruto would be tempted to suggest they run for it.

"Senbon in the mouth?" he shouted at Sakura as he landed momentarily near her.

She shook her head.

"Don't have anything with a high enough dose- wait! We're being stupid! Eyes! Forget the scales – aim for their eyes!"

"Got it!" The slam of one snake's tail dispersed five of Naruto's shadow clones at once, and he grimaced. "If we can hold one still, is your aim still steady?" Sakura gave a curt nod. "Find a good vantage point – I'll tell Sasuke."

Naruto created another ten clones to provide Sakura with cover as she fell back to a better position. Then he bounded up to Sasuke's branch as Sasuke blew another Grand Fireball at the snake on the left.

"Should've packed more explosive tags," Sasuke snarled in frustration. "I'm ready for one of your dumbass ideas, dobe!"

"We hold one still, and Sakura takes out the eyes."

"Got it." Sasuke glanced up at where Sakura had situated herself. "Start on the left – you keep its tail still, and I'll take care of the neck." He pulled a fistful of shuuriken and a spool of chakra wire from his weapons pouch.

Naruto leapt down to help his shadow clones. He and his clones shouted encouragement at each other as they hauled on the snake's tail, keeping it as immobile as possible. Overhead Sasuke's shuuriken spun through the air weaving an almost invisible web of wire between tree branches and around the snake at throat height, and then Sasuke set the web on fire. The snake froze for just a fraction of a second. That was all Sakura needed. Two kunai flew true. The snake thrashed its head violently in blind pain, snapping the chakra wire with its flailing. Sasuke leapt from his branch and plunged a kunai into the soft, vulnerable underside of the snake's chin. It wasn't clean, it wasn't neat, but it worked. One giant snake down – another giant snake and a missing-nin left to go.

Naruto and his shadow clones scattered to avoid the giant snake's corpse as it collapsed to the ground. Together they swarmed back up the nearby trees to the illusion of safety that high ground gave.

Orochimaru was still passively watching and… smiling.

"Oh, Sasuke." The words weren't loud, but they somehow carried across the clearing. "I had my doubts, but I think I might be impressed. With the power I could give you, you could go far. And to think Itachi told me that you were worthless."

Worthless.

Worthless.

It was a word that had been bandied around so often in Naruto's life – less so since he'd met Kakashi-nii and Iruka-sensei and then Team 7 – but it still scraped at something deep and incredibly painful and still raw in Naruto's chest. And to have that awful, ugly word directed at one of his teammates, one of his friends, on top of everything else-

Naruto saw red. He roared in fury, his skin feeling like it was burning, his bones feeling like they were melting. He screamed a wind jutsu, and instead of glancing off thick scales, the snake's delicate underside was torn open. Then he lunged at Orochimaru with no thought in his head except stopping the man from ever laying a single finger on one of his friends ever again-

"Ah, ah, ah – none of that."

A hand slammed into Naruto's stomach, and the world went dark.


Sasuke had never so fervently wished that they could be back in Wave Country. At least during that disaster of a mission they'd had Kakashi with them when the S-class missing-nin attacked.

His sharingan had permanently etched Naruto's unconscious body tumbling from Orochimaru's hold and Sakura's chalky, terrified face as she dove after him into his memory with distressing clarity. Sakura was now hauling Naruto's limp form up to lean against a massive tree root while Sasuke kept watch. Orochimaru had disappear like a wrath after incapacitating Naruto, and they'd put a little distance between themselves and the bloody remains of the giant snakes. Sasuke's eyes darted around their surroundings looking for any hint of their attacker – the slightest flicker of foliage or whisper of chakra. He was positive that Orochimaru was toying with them – it was the only explanation for how they were still alive. Where had he gone?

Sakura stood and moved so that she was watching Sasuke's blind spot. She was breathing heavily and so was Sasuke. Naruto lay unmoving between them.

"I must admit, you've been even more entertaining than I was expecting, Sasuke." Sasuke's limbs involuntarily froze. He gritted his teeth and tried valiantly to fight the grasp of the paralytic jutsu that gripped his body without warning. "I think I should give you a reward – a gift."

And then a face was flying towards him, neck grotesquely long and jaws gaping, and fangs sank into his neck.

The paralytic jutsu abruptly released Sasuke as the fangs retreated. He collapsed to his knees screaming as brutal pain tore through his body. It felt like acid had been shot into his veins. His vision was graying out.

Distantly, Sasuke heard Sakura shouting as blackness welled up and engulfed him.


Kakashi wandered down the street heading in the direction of Ichiraku's. He didn't usually go out for lunch by himself, but it was the second day of the second exam, and his kitchen was too quiet. He missed his students which was a little ridiculous, because he'd gone longer without seeing them than this and been just fine.

A figure in a red coat went streaking past him, gheta clattering frantically on the road. Kakashi turned to watch the figure go.

Apparently Jiraiya was back in town.

Kakashi stepped out of the way of the stampede of furious, half-dressed, and, in some cases, heavily armed women just in time. The kunoichi in the lead had the pale lavender eyes of a Hyuuga, her hair was dripping wet, and she was brandishing a katana. Ah – no wonder they had caught Jiraiya in the act. And presumably taking notes. The man never learned. How he'd managed to become Konoha's spymaster, Kakashi would never know.

"He likes to hide in the rushes in Training Field 17!" he called after the angry mob. Maybe it was petty, but Jiraiya deserved it.

"Thanks, Hatake-san!"

Jiraiya and the mob disappeared around a corner. There was a distant scream and a crash.

Kakashi shook his head and continued on his way toward Ichiraku's. Maybe he should go kidnap Iruka from the Mission Room to come join him.

He hoped his team was doing all right in the Forest of Death. Yesterday he'd thought he'd sensed a flicker of distant chakra that had almost felt like the Kyuubi… but it had been so incredibly brief that he must have been imagining things. If something had gone wrong with Naruto's seal the effects certainly wouldn't have been brief.

Kakashi hesitated and then abruptly changed direction towards the Mission Room. He clearly needed some company.

His students would be fine. His students would be fine. His students would be fine-


The walls were splattered with blood. His parents' bodies were tangled on the floor, and Itachi's words rang through the air.

Run. Live your miserable life. Hate me.

"You need power." Sasuke whipped around as the young voice spoke up behind him. He stared down at his own eight year old face. "Who cares where it comes from? You can't avenge them without power. That's all that matters." Purple chakra was burning around the younger Sasuke's hands. "Can't you feel it? He's given us so much. We could crush Itachi."

"Fuck that, teme." Naruto stepped out of the lengthening shadows on Sasuke's other side. "Where's the justice in that?"

Sasuke took a step back from both of them. His foot splashed in something dark and viscous. Another step and the shadows were sucking at his back.

"You're an avenger," the younger Sasuke told him, reaching for his arm. His eyes were becoming increasingly sunken, his cheeks hollow, his skin sallow. "All we have to do is kill Itachi, and then we'll never have to be frightened again."

"Come on, teme. Let's go train." Naruto held out a hand. There were green leaves in his hair, and his arms were smudged with flour.

"Don't you think you've stayed here long enough, Sasuke-kun?" Sakura had appeared next to Naruto. Flowers were twisted in her hair, and her dress was dark purple with a pale green shuuriken over the heart. The shadows and blood twisted and shied away from where she and Naruto stood.

Sasuke hesitated. Reach for Naruto's outstretched hand-

Small hands snatched his arm, fingernails lengthening into claws, tearing into his skin. Heady, nauseating power ripped through Sasuke's body, and he burned like the heart if an inferno.

"Can't you feel it? Can't you feel it?" demanded the younger Sasuke. His lightless eyes were wide, his expression manic. "This power – it's everything we've ever wanted!"

"You can use this power." Kakashi was crouched next to Sasuke's parents, gently closing his mother's unseeing eyes. "And I suppose you even may, but, Sasuke," Kakashi straightened up and turned to face Sasuke, his mangekyou seeming to glow in the darkness, "should you?"

Sasuke was burning, burning so fiercely it felt like his bones might turn to ash. He flung out his hand toward Naruto. His fingertips brushed his palm.

It felt like peace.

Ever so briefly he glanced back over his shoulder at the younger version of himself-

Sasuke screamed as the claws in his arm tore him away and dragged him down, down, down into the shadows and blood and burning purple, his team a fading speck of light above him. A few green leaves drifted down into the shadows after him like tears.


Sakura adjusted her hold on the kunai in her hand. Her head was probably woozy from lack of sleep rather than a concussion, but given the way her left eye was starting to swell shut after her head had been ricocheted off a tree trunk, she couldn't be sure. If not for Lee's miraculously timed arrival, Sakura and her teammates would probably already be dead. She had managed to get the Oto kunoichi with a few paralytic-dipped senbon, but the other two Oto-nin were made of sterner stuff. After the first genjutsu Sakura had caught them in, they hadn't given her a chance to weave another.

If she survived this, she was going to start learning earth jutsus, because she desperately wished she had some way of avoiding these soundwave attacks that didn't involve dodging. Every time she dodged it gave their attackers another chance to get to the still unconscious Sasuke and Naruto.

This had gone so far passed Wave Country wrong, and it was terrifying. What had Orochimaru done to Sasuke and Naruto? Why had he left them alive? His Bingo Book entry had mentioned that he'd been expelled from Konoha for illegal medical experimentation. But Sakura couldn't afford to think about that right now. She couldn't afford even the smallest slip in her concentration – her teammates' lives depended on it. She desperately wished that Naruto and Sasuke would wake up.

A few feet away from her, Lee was struggling to get to his feet. Blood was trickling from one of his ears. The last soundwave attack had clipped him badly.

One of the Oto-nin raised his hand for yet another attack. Sakura wasn't sure that she'd be able to dodge this one in time.

Behind her, chakra suddenly flared, poisonous and corrosive and massive. Sakura whipped her head around and suddenly regretted wishing that Sasuke would wake up.


Sasuke's body was burning, but his mind was icy cold. He tilted his head as his sharingan noted every detail around him. The bruise darkening around Sakura's eye and the blood oozing from a cut at her hair line. Lee's struggles to regain his feet. Naruto's unconscious form lying on the cave floor next to him. The foreign kunoichi crumpled by a bush with three senbon protruding from her shoulder. The two Oto shinobi staring at him with shocked eyes.

Sasuke tilted his head to the other side.

"Which one of them hurt you, Sakura?"

They both needed to die, but the one who had hurt his teammate he would kill slowly. Painfully.

(And inside part of Sasuke was screaming – screaming – because this wasn't him.)

Power glowed around Sasuke like a corona, and he reveled in it. Compared to him, these two shinobi were nothing – mere ants beneath his feet.

(Make it stop! Make it stop! He didn't want this!)

"Sasuke-kun, your face-"

He turned away from Sakura. If she wasn't going to answer his question, he'd just take his time with both of them. It was a better idea anyway.

"There's no way he can control it," snapped one of the Oto-nin. He raised his hand. "I'll just blow them all away."

"Zaku, no!"

Sasuke was already moving. The other shinobi seemed pathetically slow to his eyes. He caught both of the shinobi's arms and twisted and wrenched them behind his back.

"You seem awfully proud of your arms," Sasuke commented. He considered their position for a moment. From this angle it would be so easy to break his opponent's arms. It wasn't necessary-

(No, no, no, please, no!)

-but Sasuke wanted to.

He placed a foot in the center of the other shinobi's back.

"I concede! I concede!"

"Just take our scroll!"

"Sasuke-kun, STOP!"

SNAP.

It felt good.

Nausea abruptly overwhelmed Sasuke as Sakura yanked him back.

What had he just done?


Team 7 was huddled in the cave that Sakura had found. Sasuke had his back pressed firmly against one stone wall and was hugging his knees to his chest. His chin was tipped so that his bangs hung down to hide his eyes.

Sakura's head was still throbbing with exhaustion. After the Oto-nin had fled, Ten-Ten and Neji had arrived looking for Lee. Sakura had sent them on their way after assuring Lee and Ten-Ten that her team would be all right. At the time, she'd done it because the longer Team Gai was there, the more panicked Sasuke had looked. She'd been afraid that his agitation would send the black flames burning across his face again. Now she strongly regretted that decision. It would have been infinitely smarter to stick with the other Konoha team.

Next to her, Naruto stirred at long last. Sakura stiffened. It hadn't looked like Orochimaru had done the same thing to Naruto as Sasuke, but what if it had been something equally as bad?

"Ngh." Naruto raised a hand and rubbed his face.

"Naruto?" Sakura asked hesitantly.

"Did you let me sleep through my watch?" he mumbled. Then his eyes snapped opened, and he jerked upright. "Oh my gods, are you guys all right?!" he demanded.

"No." Sasuke's voice was dull.

Naruto's head snapped around to face Sasuke, his eyes wide.

"Orochimaru, he… did something to Sasuke-kun after you were knocked out." Sakura bit her lip.

Sasuke's hand reached up and clenched the fabric covering his left shoulder. Sakura had done the best she could for the puncture wounds with the antiseptic wipes, antibiotic cream, and gauze from their med kit, but not even Sasuke had thought to pack a general anti-venom or… whatever you were supposed to use to treat a wound like this. Neither Kakashi-sensei nor the Academy had ever covered what to do in a situation even remotely like this. The marking on Sasuke's shoulder… it looked like a seal.

Sasuke's fist was white knuckled in his shirt.

"He said it was a reward. A gift."

"Teme?" Naruto reached a hand out towards Sasuke, and Sasuke flinched.

"Are you feeling okay, Naruto?" Sakura asked. "You and Sasuke-kun were unconscious for close to a day."

"I've got a bit of a headache, but otherwise I just feel well rested." He peered at Sakura. "Sakura-chan, when was the last time you slept?"

"The night before the second exam started. Who else was going to keep watch with you both unconscious?" Sakura rubbed a hand over her face. "We need to get to the Tower as fast as possible. This has gone way past Wave Country wrong. Notifying someone that an S-class missing-nin has infiltrated the village definitely takes priority over scoping out the exams."

"Can we even get into the Tower without a second scroll?" asked Sasuke.

"Anko-san wasn't very clear about that. We're in no shape to take on another team, though."

Naruto was staring into middle space, his eyebrows bunched together in a slight frown.

"You know, they never said that we actually have to fight the other teams to get the second scroll. We're shinobi – what if we just stole one?"

Sasuke finally lifted his head and looked at Sakura.

"Our storage scrolls are about the same size as the Earth and Heaven scrolls. Could you put a genjutsu on one so that the other team didn't realize that anything had been taken?"

Sakura pulled out her storage scroll and looked at it thoughtfully.

"Yeah. I think so." She stared out the cave entrance from a moment. "If I caught the whole team in the right genjutsu, I could probably walk straight in and switch out the scrolls without anyone even knowing I was there."

Naruto grinned. There was a hint of viciousness to it.

"Then get some sleep, Sakura-chan, 'cause tonight we're hunting down campsites."


Gin had drawn the short straw and ended up with the midnight watch. His team had finally acquired their second scroll and decided to rest that night before making the final push for the Tower in the morning. He scrunched his nose. He didn't like the massive trees of the Forest of Death or its giant centipedes. He was glad that they were almost done with this place.

Gin didn't notice the slight shiver of chakra as the genjutsu settled over their campsite. Perhaps his team's sensor, Aki, would have noticed, but she was sound asleep. He didn't hear the noiseless footsteps. He didn't see the pink-haired kunoichi walk right into their camp, because, in the genjutsu woven around him, there was no one but his team to see. Gin didn't notice as the satchel containing his team's scrolls was carefully eased open. He didn't see the sweat running down the kunoichi's face from the effort of maintaining the genjutsu. He didn't hear the faint snap as she gently closed the satchel again. He didn't feel her carefully muted chakra behind him as she stood and left as silently as she had come.

After a few minutes, the genjutsu dispersed softly into the midnight air.

Gin rolled his shoulders and wished that his watch would be over already.


"That was so badass, Sakura-chan!" whispered Naruto. He and Sasuke had been watching, ready to jump in and back up their teammate if she was discovered.

"I think I burned through almost half the chakra I had left doing that," Sakura admitted shakily. "I'm going to need to sleep again before we head for the Tower."


Kakashi was just about to consider the issue of breakfast when he felt the first tugs of the summoning jutsu. He had just enough time to swap out his apron for his jounin vest before he was whisked away. Either his students had decided to sneak a peek at their scroll or they'd only taken four of the five days to reach the Tower.

Ah – they'd made it to the Tower.

"Congratulations, Team- OOF!"

Naruto and Sakura both slammed into him and clung.

"Nii-san, it went Wave Country wrong," Naruto mumbled into his jounin vest.

"He said his name was Orochimaru. He matched the description in the Bingo Book, and he did something to Sasuke-kun. It looks like some sort of seal." Sakura let go and looked up at him. The ugly purple bruise ringing her left eye was starting to fade to green at the edges. The only thing stopping Kakashi's knees from folding was years of experience in ANBU.

Kakashi's eye snapped to Sasuke. He was standing just behind Naruto and Sakura, his face ghostly pale. A rectangle of gauze was taped to the side of his neck. His eyes were bruised like he hadn't slept in days.

"I broke someone's arms. Just because I could." Sasuke's voice was quiet and shocky.

Naruto let go, and Kakashi stepped towards Sasuke.

"Show me." Sasuke pulled the collar of his shirt to one side. Kakashi stared in horror at the S-class curse seal on his student's shoulder. He took a deep breath. He had to be calm about this – his team was already scared enough. He settled a comforting hand on Sasuke's head. "Okay, Sasuke, your chuunin exams are over. I need to take you to a seals master." Sasuke's shoulders slumped in relief, and he nodded. "Naruto, Sakura, do you want to pull out of the exams or keep going?"

Naruto looked down, hugging one arm to his chest. Sakura bit her lip.

"Don't we need a full team to continue?" she asked.

"No. The last exam is one-on-one matches, so the choice is up to you."

"You guys should finish."

Naruto looked up at Sasuke.

"You think so?"

"We completed our priority objective, but we're not done with our reconnaissance mission, yet." Sasuke quirked up the corner of his mouth in a tenuous hint of a smile. "I'll keep gathering information from the stands."

Naruto offered a shaky grin in return.

"You're right – we can't just abandon our mission halfway through. You in, Sakura-chan?"

"Yeah," Sakura nodded.

Kakashi really wished he could stop treating his students like adults and just stick them all in a box of bubble wrap. Maybe keep the box in the Ryouken Bakery's kitchen because with their luck the Raikage would try to steal it for some random reason. Right, focus.

"If you're both continuing, you have to stay here until the time limit for the second exam is up. The proctors will have rooms set up for you. You've all done incredibly well, and I'll be back tomorrow when the second exam official ends. The proctors don't want jounin sensei hanging around the Tower cluttering up the place."

"Okay, sensei."

"You'll let us know how Sasuke-teme's doing, nii-san?"

"Of course."


Once Naruto and Sakura had been delivered to the proctor, who would show them where they could rest and have a proper meal, Kakashi placed a hand on Sasuke's shoulder and prepared to transport them both outside the limits of Training Field 44.

"Hatake-san, wait!"

Kakashi paused and glanced at the chuunin proctor.

"Hmm?"

"You can't leave with your student – he'll be automatically disqualified!"

"I know. That's the point."

"But-!"

"What do you think I care about more – a biannual exam that my student can take again in six months or getting the curse seal off his shoulder as quickly as possible?"

Kakashi formed the necessary seal, and he and Sasuke disappeared from the Tower before the proctor could respond.

Was it incredibly rude?

Yup.

Did Kakashi actually give a single damn about that at the moment?

Absolutely not.