Chapter 25: Self-Blame

Sasuke swallowed hard under the Hokage's piercing gaze. With the events of the past few days, he felt the stress pressing down even harder under the man's attention. He was sore, tired and confused, but mostly just worried. Worried about his teammates.

His friends.

"Take a breath." The Sandaime said slowly, peering across the deck. "And start again. From the beginning. Slowly, and with as much detail as you can."

The last Uchiha nodded, taking the breath and blowing it out slowly. "We entered the forest from the west, moving in at a fast pace for the first hour. We covered almost two kilometers before we stopped for a break…"

Naru stiffened, her head cocked to one side as if listening to something. *We're being followed.*

Sasuke slumped against a nearby tree. "Okay, we need a plan." He said aloud. *Track him.*

"Well… We can do one of three things." Sakura said slowly, keeping her eyes locked on one spot on the ground, so as to avoid giving the follower a chance to realize they'd been made. "We can rush to the center of the training area and ambush a team as they get there."

"But only the strongest teams will get there in any sort of reasonable time, and the rest might not even make it." Naru said with a frown, her eyes narrowed in concentration.

"Well, we can search out another team out here in the woods, and ambush them there." Sakura continued, pulling out a kunai and starting to scratch a rough map into the dirt.

"But we might not find anyone, and we're not really suited for tracking people down." Sasuke finished with a sigh.

"What's option three?" Naru asked. *He's stopped. I don't think he'll hit us unless one of us gets separated from the others.*

Sakura grinned. "We bring the other teams to us."

Naru blinked and snorted a very unladylike laugh. "Mayhem and mischief. I like it."

Sasuke gave a long yawn, startling the two girls. "Well, I'm gonna go take a leak." He said bluntly, turning on his heel and walking off into the bush. "Be right back."

"It was a genin from hidden rain." Sasuke said. "He tried to ambush me, but I turned it around on him and knocked him out. We were lucky, though, and he had the other scroll we needed."

The boy paused again, rubbing at his shoulder and wincing in pain. "Take your time." The Hokage said calmly, though the glint in his eye said otherwise.

"We made camp about a kilometer away from the tower, under a big tree root." He closed his eyes and forcedly suppressed the urge to shiver. "That was where he attacked us…"

The burst of wind came out of nowhere. One second, the three members of team seven were moving around in the small clearing, setting and checking traps for the night. The next, Naru was swept away into the depths of the woods, a massive tunnel of broken wood trailing her flight path.

"Naru?!" "What?!"

The two remaining genin had barely enough time to utter their startled exclaimations before having to leap out of the way of a barrage of flying kunai. Sasuke snapped his gaze in the direction the weapons had come from, red bleeding into his vision as his Sharingan activated reflexively in response to the threat. Sakura leaped out of his sight just as their attacker stepped around the trunk, a tiny smirk on her pale features as she stared out hungrily from beneath her Grass headband.

"I see you take this seriously, Sasuke." She intoned, amused by the way the boy bristled before her. "But what else can one expect from the last of the great Uchiha clan, hmm?"

Sasuke replied with silence, his hands twitching closer to his weapon pouches.

The Grass nin shook her head in amusement. "Oh? Not one for small talk? Fair enough. I had other plans anyway."

She vanished. Even enhanced with the Sharingan, Sasuke couldn't track the motion of the genin, and it was only the trained reflexes that he'd been instilled with that allowed him to move in time to avoid the blow that shattered the meter-thick branch he'd been standing on.

And the one that hit the branch he landed on immediately after.

The third strike was met with a slash of a kunai, and Sasuke's legs nearly buckled from the effort of stopping the axe kick, his blade digging into the enemy genin's sandals.

"Oh? He has some fight in him after all." The woman commented with a predatory smile. The foot moved too fast for a reaction at this range, catching the Uchiha in the sternum and launching him through the air, where he barely recovered in time to land shakily on another branch, panting already from the blow forcing the air from his lungs.

One thing was certain, all things considered. This gennin was good.

Sasuke coughed, one hand reflexively moving to his chest, cradling his cracked rib. The Hokage's face reflected sympathy even where his words might not have. "Please continue, Sasuke."

The raven child nodded, shaking his head a little to clear his thoughts. "We exchanged blows for a few more minutes before Sakura intervened for the first time. The enemy froze the pair of us with their killing intent alone." He almost spat these last words, shame clear on his face. "I cut myself on a kunai to boost my adrenaline and break out of the technique in time to knock Sakura out of the way of the next attack."

A small smile appeared before he spoke his next words. "That's when Naru showed back up."

"Tcha! Eat this!"

The Grass gennin, for the first time in the fight, looked truly surprised as the metal staff connected under his jaw and catapaulted him into the air. The blonde blur that followed him swung over and over, short, quick blows meant to stun and disorient her target connecting from multiple angles before a final spin bringing the pair of them into a downward arc.

Naru snarled ferally, her eyes flashing red as she followed through with her attack. "Driving Spear!" She cried as her target impacted with the branch, twisting her weapon in midair and bringing her full momentum into a single crushing thrust that pierced through the Grass nin's torso and the branch beneath it.

The gennin's body slumped into a mass of mud as Naru landed on it, and she let out a low growl as she tore her staff from the wood and mud, her eyes snapping up and to the right where the Grass nin stepped out from behind another tree, rubbing at the small lump under her jaw.

"Well, that was most impressive." She commented, a slight hint of anger in her voice. "It's certainly been a long time since I've met a gennin that can actually land a hit on me before I notice them."

"Well, get used to it, freak, 'cause-!" Whatever Naru was going to say was cut off when the Grass nin reappeared in front of her and slammed her into the trunk of the tree by her neck, the staff falling uselessly to the ground.

"I should think not, child." The Grass nin spat, squeezing just enough to cause pain, but not enough to close off her captive's airways.

This was proven an instant later. The blood drained from Naru's face in that instant, and her pupils contracted to tiny pinpricks in a sea of crimson, before rolling back into her skull.

And she screamed.

Not a normal scream. Not one of pain, or plain old fear.

A scream of such mortal horror, that those who heard it would never forget it for all their days.

Something inside Sasuke broke, and his body was in motion faster than his brain or eyes could comprehend. The Grass nin went flying into another tree, a brace of windmill shuriken trailing wires following his flight through the air and wrapping her firmly to the trunk as her attacker flashed through a set of handseals that he'd memorized, but only successfully used once or twice in practice.

Dragonfire Jutsu! Sasuke focused all of his rage and energy into the attack, and the flames that trailed down the wires burned white-hot at their core.

The Grass nin, and the three meter thick tree she'd been tied to, vanished in a flash of fire that outshone the sun for an instant.

Sasuke's mind caught up just as the technique fizzled out, and he sank to one knee, panting. One attack, and he'd spent most of his remaining chakra. He stared at the tree trunk as it collapsed on itself, the upper half of the tree falling to the forest floor below, still burning.

His eyes tracked over to his teammate, who had fortunately collapsed onto the branch where she laid, pale and sweating, her body convulsing, her neck red and raw where she'd been grabbed, almost as if she'd been burned.

He reached for her, intent on getting her out of the area, but his hand never made contact.

The same trick he'd used in his haste to attack the Grass nin was used on him, kunai assisted wires dragging him off the branch and slamming him tightly against the tree. The gennin was there, looking no worse than when the fight had started, save the red mark on her chin from Naru's first strike.

"Now THAT is truly promising." She said hungrily, reaching up to peel away her whole face. The face beneath it was clearly male, and the voice changed ever so subtly as the clearly-not-gennin chuckled out loud. "The power of an angered Uchiha is truly something to behold."

"Who are you…?" Sasuke grunted as he struggled to move and escape from his bonds.

"I am someone who can give you the power you crave, boy." The… man, he supposed, said, licking an overlong tongue across his lips. "I am Orochimaru, and I have a small… Gift, for you."

Sasuke faltered, gathering his thoughts as his hand moved from his rib to his shoulder.

"I… I'm not sure how what happened next came to pass." He admitted slowly. "It… I would have expected him to be prepared for another sneak attack after Naru's first strike… Maybe he was too focussed on me, or his technique. Or maybe he didn't consider the threat to be enough to merit paying attention to…"

The Hokage glanced up at the boy's Sensei stepped into the room. Sasuke turned immediately, half rising from the chair despite the fact that it was the villages leader that was questioning him.

Kakashi raised his hands to halt the boy. "She's fine. Both of them are, actually." He said calmingly, fighting a smile as concern he had never expected to see out of the once-jaded young Uchiha rolled off the boy in waves. "They might even wake up in time for the deadline."

Sasuke nodded once, swallowing his concern and sitting back down in front of the Hokage, not noticing the pride in the old man's eyes.

"What happened next?" The 'God of Shinobi' asked softly, and he was surprised when the raven child smiled smugly.

"A masterful strike, or the dumbest luck in ninja history." He replied. "Take your pick."

Orochimaru never saw it coming. Even as his neck extended freakishly long, and his fangs enlongated for the strike, never in his wildest dreams would he have expected what came next.

An open-palm strike.

Sakura had never been great at taijutsu, but this was the one thing that came into her mind to deflect the bite attack away from her teammate.

Fate, it seemed, had other ideas.

Somehow, some way, Sakura misjudged her speed, or the distance, or both. Her strike ended up in the one place that it never should have gone.

In the snake-nin's mouth.

Fangs clamped down reflexively on the girl's wrist, and the chakra-laced venom started to flow, the man's jutsu automatically completing despite connecting with the wrong target.

The momentum of the attack carried the girl into her crush, her full body weight slamming into his upper torso, torqueing his shoulder even as it loosened the wires holding him down.

It was over in an instant. Orochimaru's neck retracted, the snake-nin's face a mask of disgust as he watched the girl collapse with a whimper. The man had only prepared enough of his special sealing poison for a single dose, and here it was, wasted on an unimportant kunoichi with no useable skills. (Her successful "deflection" of his technique notwithstanding)

"Feh." He spat. "What a waste. Still, if she survives, this could prove… Mildly entertaining…"

"What did you do?!" Sasuke demanded, standing over Sakura's trembling body in a defensive stance.

"Oh, I've basically killed her." He replied calmly, smirking. "Only the strongest survive these seals. But at the very least, I've made you aware of my intentions. Someday soon, I will come for you. And you will come with me. Willingly."

The leaves swirled as Orochimaru's body wavered and vanished in the breeze, leaving behind only a dark laughter that weighed heavily on his heart.

Sasuke sighed heavily as he trailed off. "The rest you know, sir." He finished. "I carried them both here with the last of my strength and a soldier pill, and the rest… Well…"

Sarutobi sat back in his chair, his years of service showing on his weary face for a moment. This was the worst of omens. These actions, he recognised, were more than enough to be a precursor for war. Sasuke's strength in the face of danger was a tribute to his strength of character, and proof positive that even an icy Uchiha could possess the Will of Fire.

This didn't help him to reconcile that two of his shinobi were effectively out of commission and in dire health, let alone one who he considered to be like unto a granddaughter to him.

Still, there was some good to be drawn from this. He now knew without a doubt that Orochimaru was still actively working against the village. And that he would be attacking sometime soon.

Most likely during the exam finals.

The Hokage stood, and Sasuke rose as well, in deference. "You have done well in caring for your teammates, Sasuke." He said carefully. "You continue to uphold the honor of the village and your clan. You are dismissed."

Sasuke held his tongue at the remark on his clan and bowed stiffly before turning on his heel and rushing from the room towards the hospital wing.

Kakashi watched him go. "Strange how things turn out." He commented idly.

Sarutobi had to agree. "Gather the shinobi council." He commanded, and watched the masked jonin vanish in a burst of smoke.

Dark times loomed ahead.

But they would not be caught unprepared.

A/N: Okay. Here's the God's honest truth.

I write mostly when I'm depressed. And back when I started this story, I was depressed A LOT.

The boost I got from the reviews of my readers was sometimes the one thing that let me press on.

So I would write.

I am in a better frame of mind now.

A healthier frame of mind.

Be happy for that, please.

But I haven't forgotten all of you, and I would definitely be the worst kind of hypocrite if I didn't finish the story. So it's coming. Definitely not as fast as you guys will inevitably desire it, but it WILL come.

Thank you all for your patience, and for sticking with me for all this time. You have helped me more than you'll ever know.

So, as ever before, R&R, and Stay Frosty. –E. Red