AN: So…yeah. It's been years since I've posted anything here, but I had this idea bouncing around in my head for a while. All it took was some convincing from a friend of mine (Y'know who you are =P) to get my lazy ass to write it down. This is an AU, beginning at the Chuunin Exam; but I will assume it will eventually contain spoilers all the way up to and past the current Manga (Chapter 221). Also, before anyone says anything, I don't plan to have any romance in here. Maybe later down the line when I feel more confident in my writing ability, but not now.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. You know it…I know…and now the lawyers know it….

--------

Slow Burn

Chapter One

He couldn't bear to see those eyes anymore. Those cold, accusatory eyes that followed him everywhere he went. They reminded him that his sins could never, and would never be forgiven. They reminded him he had been too weak to save them.

"Damn it." He cursed, as he gazed at his hands. For all the power he supposedly had, when it all came down to it he had accomplished nothing. He had trained so hard and for so long; had it really made no difference at all? He had failed to protect those important to him…again.

He winced as he felt their gaze fall upon him again. It seemed that no matter where he went, they were always right there beside him. But they were…dead. They couldn't be following him, right? Was he insane? Had he simply gone mad and was imagining things? Or, was this his…punishment? For failing them?

For being…too weak?

He couldn't help but glance over at them, to see if he really was just imagining things. For once, they weren't there behind him. Instead, there stood a perfect double of himself. Perhaps he truly was insane…

"They didn't have to die." His double spoke, suddenly.

"What?"

"If you don't have strength, nothing matters in the end. And because you were too weak…everyone died." He double spoke coldly, "You let them die. You just sat back and watched!"

"No! That isn't true! It isn't! I would never let them…" He responded, the desperation in his voice clear even to him.

But his double cut him off, "If only you weren't so weak, they wouldn't have died."

As those words repeated themselves over and over in his mind, he found he could do nothing but curl into a ball on the ground. His double looked down on him and sneered, before hammering the final nail into the coffin.

"If you weren't so weak, Sakura and Sasuke wouldn't have died!"

Naruto could do nothing but sob quietly.

---------

Sasuke sighed as he finished up the last trap he was working on. Not even a full day had passed, and yet the moron was already slowing them down. They could have been out searching for another group of Genins and completing the Chuunin Exam, but instead they had stopped in this clearing so Naruto could rest. Not as if Sasuke understood what was wrong with him, but Naruto had been screaming so loudly he had probably alerted everyone within the Forest of Death of their presence.

It had all begun with their encounter with that strange man, Orochimaru. He had attacked them with clear intent to kill, and he certainly had no interest in the Chuunin Exam itself. He had seemed to expect something from Sasuke, but he didn't know what. Orochimaru had seemed truly disappointed when…that moron had saved him from the giant snake.

Sasuke glared at the forest floor.

(Flashback)

Sasuke stared in disbelief at Naruto, who stood in front of him after stopping the giant snake from striking him. "Naruto…"

"Are you…alright…scaredy-cat?" Naruto asked in-between breaths, mockingly.

Sasuke immediately recalled when he had said those exact same words to Naruto.

"There's no way that such a stupid coward like you is the Sasuke I know!" Naruto's words rang in his head over and over. He was shocked out of his daydreams when suddenly; that man grabbed Naruto with his serpent-like tongue and lifted him into the air.

"Let go of me, damn it!" Naruto shouted, to no avail.

Sasuke watched as the man started forming seals and mumbled something he didn't hear.

"Five-Part Seal!" The man shouted, before slamming his palm into Naruto's stomach. The intense feel of Naruto's Chakra faded, and he went limp in the man's grip. With a casual shrug he released Naruto from his grip and dropped him onto the snake's head, before his gaze turned towards Sasuke. "Hehehe…what will you do now, Sasuke?"

Sasuke let out a small gasp as he realized the man's attention was now on him. He attempted to will his body into motion, but one thought kept ringing through his mind, "If I attack him I will die."

After several moments of inaction, the man's amused expression became a frown. "I'm disappointed in you, Sasuke. I had come to test your powers…but you hardly live up to my expectations." He sighed before continuing, "At this rate you'll never surpass Itachi."

Sasuke's reaction was immediate; his Sharingan activated and he shouted, "Who the Hell are you?!"

"My name is Orochimaru…" The man grinned in amusement, until he felt a sharp pain in his leg. Looking down, he was surprised to find Naruto had stabbed him with a kunai.

"Don't…underestimate me, you…snake-loving bastard…" Naruto sneered, weakly.

Orochimaru seemed shocked for a moment, but then grinned sardonically. "Interesting…very interesting."

He picked Naruto up by the collar of his jacket, before turning to Sasuke. "Watch closely, Sasuke. This power could have been yours."

Before Sasuke could respond, he bit into Naruto's neck.

"W-What?" Sasuke thought, as he watched.

Orochimaru then tossed Naruto onto the tree trunk, beside Sasuke. Sasuke watched in sick fascination as three small, black symbols appeared on Naruto's neck, where he was bitten.

"What…the hell was that all about?" Naruto asked shakily, before suddenly placing his hand on his neck. "Agh…AHHHHH!"

Sakura quickly turned and shouted at Orochimaru "What did you do to him?!"

"I gave him a going away present." Orochimaru casually replied. He then turned to Naruto and spoke, "If you want to see me again, you'll have to make it through this Exam."

"What...? We never want to see your face ever again!" Sakura shouted.

"Hehe…you don't. But he" Orochimaru gestured towards the screaming boy, "will seek me, for power."

Before anyone could reply, the snake-man sunk into the tree branch and disappeared, along with his massive snake.

(End flashback)

"God damn!" Sasuke growled to himself, "If I can't even handle these types of situations, how will I ever be able to face him?" Sasuke was shaken out of his thoughts when he heard someone approaching from behind. "…How's the moron?"

"He's…doing better. He still has a high fever, and his seems pretty restless."

Sakura said quietly. "That mark on his neck is still there, though…"

"That mark…what did he mean by 'power'?" Sasuke thought to himself. He glanced at Sakura briefly; she seemed to expect him to say something. Suppressing a sigh, "Get some sleep, Sakura. I'll take watch."

Little did they realize they were being watched.

---------

(Morning, Day 2 of the Exam)

Sakura sighed deeply as she changed the washcloth on Naruto's forehead. She hated to admit it, but seeing her loud, obnoxious, irritating, and inept teammate in so much pain had frightened her. It had made her realize that she was holding them back; that she was so far a spectacularly pathetic excuse of a ninja. During their battle with that man…Orochimaru, she hadn't done anything of use. And she wanted that to never happen again.

"Have a lot on your mind, babe?" A male voice to her left chuckled, interrupting her line of thought. Whipping around, she found herself looking at the trio of Sound Genins she had seen before, at the start of the Exam. What on earth could they want?!

"We wish to fight with Uchiha Sasuke. Bring him out." The man wrapped in bandages commanded.

Ignoring him, Sakura drew out a kunai. "What are you talking about?! I know some guy named Orochimaru is pulling the strings behind all of this! What does he want with us?!" She shouted at the Sound ninjas.

To say they looked shocked would be an understatement. Not getting an answer, Sakura pressed on. "What is with that weird mark on Naruto's neck? Why do you want to fight with Sasuke?!"

The bandaged man mumbled something she didn't hear, but the other man was loud enough. "…Hearing that, we can't let you go. Looks like we'll have to kill you, and the comatose kid too."

The man began to approach, but was halted by the shorter man. He had seen through the trap, and even had the nerve to lecture her! "Too bad for them they didn't notice it was a diversion!" Sakura grinned to herself, as they leapt forward to attack. She cut the wire for her secondary trap, and a massive log swung down from above.

"Another trap?!" The bandaged man shouted. Sakura couldn't help but smile; in mid-air they had little chance to avoid the log at this point. However, the Sound trio merely used their sonic devices to blow through the log, and emerged unharmed.

"To be frank, you have no talent. Weaklings like you should work harder, or you aren't even worth our time." The bandaged man taunted her, moving in for the kill. Just as Sakura thought it was the end, a black-colored blur flew in and smacked the Sound away. It was…

"Sasuke?!" Sakura cried.

He looked toward the quickly recovering Sound.

"Then you guys need to work much harder." He snorted.

"Heh…just the guy we wanted to see!" The taller male grinned, seemingly unfazed.

"Is that so?" Sasuke replied.

"We came here to kill you, on Orochimaru's orders." The shorter male commented.

"Perfect." Sasuke thought with vicious glee, "I'll show them how strong I am."

"Humph. Go ahead and try."

Perhaps too eagerly, Sasuke rushed toward the Sound, as he began performing the seals for a jutsu. "Katon: Housenka no Jutsu!"

---------

"If only you weren't so weak."

"…I wish I was strong." Naruto muttered quietly.

"If only you weren't so weak."

"…I wish I was strong." Naruto repeated. This had been going on for quite awhile, as far as Naruto could tell. He wasn't totally sure who he was speaking to; perhaps no one at all. But he meant what he said, though. At this point, he'd give up anything if only he was strong enough to go back and save his friends.

"I wish…I was strong." He whispered brokenly to himself. If he had power, would people respect him? After all, the Hokage had to be the strongest ninja in the village. Did that mean…if he been strong when he was younger, he wouldn't have been so hated? That he could have had friends? That he could have been happy?

"Do you want power?" A voice suddenly boomed in his head.

"W-What?"

"I said do you want power?" The voice repeatedly, sounding irritating.

"…Yes. I want power." Naruto replied after only a moment of hesitation.

"Heh. Then you'd better entertain me, kid." The voice chuckled.

---------

"D-Damn it…" Sasuke growled. In his zeal to fight, he hadn't stopped to attempt and gauge his opponent's abilities. And because of it, he now laid helplessly on the ground due to the bandaged man's (He now knew as Dosu) gauntlet, which had messed up his sense of balance with sonic waves. He was forced to sit by and watch as numerous Ninjas had to come to his aid; Sakura (Who had attempted to fight off two of the Sound, earning her a bloody face and cut up hair), Ino, Shikamaru, and even Chouji had tried and failed to protect him.

"Damn damn damn damn! Am I really that weak?! What…what have I been doing all this time, then?!"

And now it seemed as if that Rock Lee and his team had shown up. He focus, however, turned to trying to locate the massive build-up of Chakra he was feeling. It was growing larger by the second…

"It seems that won't be necessary." He heard Neji comment in the background.

"N-Naruto! You're awake-" Sakura shouted, before stopping suddenly.

"What the-?"

Sasuke rolled over; realizing the Chakra he was feeling was standing behind him. What he saw made his blood run cold. There stood Naruto…who was covered in strange black markings, who currently had blood-red animalistic eyes, who was sitting inside a sea of chaotic red Chakra. What on earth was that power he felt? That couldn't no, he refused to believe that was Naruto. Wait…

"Watch closely, Sasuke. This power could have been yours." Is this what Orochimaru had meant? This…power?

Then Naruto seemed to come to his senses, and looked at Sakura.

"Sakura…? Who did that to your face?" He asked coldly, as his red Chakra grew even more chaotic.

To be continued

---------

AN: Heh…hope that didn't suck too badly. ; I assume its obvious by now that Naruto's sequences in this chapter were just delusions; Sakura and Sasuke didn't die. Just the Curse Seal screwing with his head. Sorry if Sasuke seems a little OOC, but I kinda want to start him on his little breakdowns earlier than he does in Canon. He's trying to redeem himself now, but obviously it's making him act recklessly. Any comments or suggestions would be very helpful, but flames will be ignored. Also, any suggestions for a better title? I suck at that sort of thing. Thanks for your time…

By the way, I'm going to stop rehashing the Manga so much next chapter. I just thought it'd look bad if I simply skipped those particular scenes.