AN: FreeTheKyuubi looked hesitantly around the corner. "Do you think that anyone is even still out there to read this? They probably think I'm dead." From his side, Jagaa pokes his sunglassed face over FTK's shoulder. "They just might. It's been forever since you updated. They might not even like your story anymore." FTK starts crying. "But it's not, my fault! I've got responsibilities! School! Work! Family! I want to write all the time, but I can't!" Jagaa smacks the author upside the head. "Quit making excuses. You could have worked in time to write. You've just been a lazy bastard. You should be ashamed." FTK rubs the back of his head. "You're a mean character." Jagaa shrugs in response. "I am what you and Rhea made me. Speaking of which, where is she?" FTK shudders. "Knowing her, probably at a weapon's silo stocking up on ammunition." Suddenly an angry roar sounds in the distance and Jagaa turns to FTK. "Isn't that Kyuubi?" FTK's eyes widen. "Oh shit! He was supposed to get to open the chapters with his Kyuubi's Corner for a while. He's gonna be pissed! Quick, get back in the story like you're supposed to be and I'm gonna go hide in closet and pray he doesn't find me." FTK runs off, leaving Jagaa to stare after him before he shrugs and jumps back to the story.

Disclaimer: Jagaa here. Just wanted to remind you before this kicks off that FTK does not own Naruto. He owns me, much to my dismay, but not Naruto or any other characters from the series. Not even Princess. (a shout rises from the story and Jagaa sighs) I'm coming. I'm coming. Sheesh. Even outside of the story she still bitches at me. (Jagaa disappears back into the chapter)

Chapter 14: Tango in the Tree Tops

"I've been looking for you...Sasuke-kun."

Sasuke's mouth was dry and his throat tight. Every fiber in his being was telling him that he needed to run from this person. Run as fast and as far as he could and not look back lest he invite his own death. But Sasuke would not. He would not, because he was the only thing standing between this person and his teammate. His resolve hardening with this knowledge, Sasuke moved to better shield Sakura and glared at the sinister person. "Well, you found me. So who are you and what do you want?"

A trace of amusement flitted across the woman's face at Sasuke's actions. "I am simply one who seeks entertainment. And I feel you would be most amusing indeed. Besides..." the woman reached into her pouch and pulled out an earth scroll, a malicious grin coming to her face. "I have something you need, right?"

Sasuke eyed the scroll and forced himself not to show his surprise that the Kusa woman had known which scroll his team needed to find. "What makes you think that's the scroll we need? Wont you have wasted your time hunting us down if we have the same scroll?" His exterior calm was a sharp contrast to his internal apprehension as he silently prayed that the woman be fall for the bluff. His prayers were proven unheard as the woman's smile widened sickeningly.

"No need to worry, Sasuke-kun. I'm certain that you are in need of this scroll."

Sasuke mentally cursed and prepared for the fight he didn't want but he was sure was coming.

Sakura's own fears were growing exponentially as well as she listened to the conversation. She was already fearing the worst about Ino after that huge blast of wind had carried the other girl to some unknown location, and now there was some strange Kusa kunoichi who not only appeared to have tracked them down specifically, but even knew what scroll they were carrying. She didn't need inner Sakura's fearful warnings to know she was facing a very dangerous person.

"So, shall we begin?" Both Sasuke and Sakura watched in horrific fascination as the woman lifted the scroll above her face and wrapped her grotesquely long tongue around it before, slowly, swallowing it like a snake devouring its prey. Sakura felt the bile rise in the back of her throat at the display.

"Let's enjoy ourselves, shall we." The woman continued, dropping her gaze to the ground. "In this battle for the scrolls." She slowly looked back up at the pair, her finger tips pulling down at the skin below her left eye. "In which we put our lives on the line."

Her chest exploded.

His throat was torn open.

Her heart was ripped out.

His lungs were impaled.

Her body was ripped apart.

His skull was split in two.

The last thing she knew was pain.

The last thing he saw was blood.

She died.

He died.

Sasuke fell to his hands and knees, the disgusting taste of bile filling his mouth as he vomited on the forest floor.

'I'm...alive?' Sasuke's vision was shaky, and his body refused to cooperate, only his head moving enough for him to put his terrified gaze on the Kusa kunoichi. 'Was that...a genjutsu?' His eyes met with hers only to widen when her malicious smile made him realize the truth. 'No! It was just pure blood lust! She did this with nothing but her killing intent!'

Sasuke forced his head to turn so he could see Sakura, finding the girl simply staring straight ahead, her eyes blank and tears running down her face, and he grit his teeth. "Again...again because of me."

Gathering all the will power he possessed, Sasuke, slowly, forced his unresponsive body to stand and draw a kunai from his pouch. He knew it was futile. He knew he was no match for this person. But he had made a promise to himself. And he would keep that promise no matter what the cost.

The Kusa kunoichi eyed Sasuke in a way that as both malevolent and strangely disappointed as she watched him struggle to move his body. "Is this it? Is this all you are capable of?" Her hand dipped into the pouch on her back and reappeared with two kunai. "If you can't even amuse me, then there is no point in keeping you alive." What's an almost negligent flip of her wrist, she sent the blades flying.

Even before she released the weapons, Sasuke knew that, this time, they really would die. Both him...and Sakura. He could be the blades coming. Each millisecond meaning less time he had to save himself and his teammate. Only pure desperation was forcing his body to follow his mental screams to move. Only unbridled terror was enough to get him to drive his kunai into his own leg. But it was enough. Feeling returned to his limbs and with a mere hairs breadth to spare, he grabbed his teammate and leapt to the safety of the trees.

Sasuke wasn't sure how far he had run. Nor did he care. All he cared about was putting as much distance between them and the lethal kunoichi as possible. Feeling that they should be safe for the moment, Sasuke stopped on a large tree limb and leaned Sakura against the trunk. A quick slap was all it took to pull the girl out of her shock and have her staring directly at his face, terror and confusion shining behind her emerald eyes. "Sasuke...kun? ...Are we...alive?"

Sasuke nearly cringed at the pleading behind her eyes. "Yeah. We're still alive." Sasuke looked back over his shoulder. "But I don't think we lost her yet."

Sakura stared at Sasuke for a moment, still not sure if she should believe yet that she really wasn't dead. She was about to at least ask him if he knew anything about their pursuer when he turned back to her, his head slightly bowed so as not to meet her eyes.

"I'm sorry, Sakura."

Sakura's original question froze in her throat at the sudden apology and for a moment, she could only stare at him again. "Why?" She finally asked.

Sasuke continued to look down and his voice was low as he spoke. "After...that day...I made a promise to myself. I promised that I would never make you have to feel fear like that again...but, because I'm weak, I failed in that promise."

At first, Sakura wasn't sure which day he was talking about, but the sudden image of a blazing fireball sent a shiver down her spine and made her we realize what he meant. But before she could say anything about it, Sasuke continued.

"But, even if I failed that promise, I won't fail this one." This time, Sasuke did look at her, his onyx eyes burning into her own. "I promise I will protect you, Sakura, even if it costs me my life."

Sakura's breath caught in her throat. His gaze was so determined, so sincere, that she felt a fluttering in her heart that she had thought would be impossible for him to ever cause again. "Sasuke...I-"

Sasuke suddenly threw himself on her, wrapping his arms around her and jumping away from the tree. Sakura's shout of surprise at his actions morphed into a scream if terror when she saw a giant snake snap through the branch were they had been only a second before.

'Damn it! She found us already! Sasuke mentally swore. He had known that they wouldn't be able to outrun her forever, but he'd been hoping to at least have enough time to make a plan of some sort.

He didn't notice the giant tail coming toward him until it was almost too late. Knowing there wasn't enough time to get both him and Sakura out of the way, Sasuke threw the girl towards a nearby branch and brought up his arms to guard. The assault slammed the Uchiha into giant tree trunk and his pain filled shout echoed through the forest before he fell to the large limb below, going to his knees and coughing up blood.

"I'm disappointed, Sasuke-kun. Is this really all you are capable of?"

Sasuke's eyes grew large as he watched the Kusa woman slowly emerge from the top of the snake's head like a scene from a nightmare, her grotesquely long tongue hanging from her mouth sickeningly assets she stared straight at him. "After all, this game is only fun you continue struggling to survive."

"Sasuke-kun!"

The shout drew both his and the kunoichi's attention to Sakura, who was leaping through the foliage and heading towards them.

"Sakura! Get out of here!" Sasuke shouted, the sudden yell bringing the girl to a halt. "I'm the one she's after! Get out of here while you can!" Looking back to the Kusa nin, he felt panic rise when the woman's eyes narrowed on his teammate. With no thought of self-preservation, Sasuke sent several shuriken flying at the foreign Nin, pulling her attention off Sakura and back to himself. "I'm the one you want, right? Then just try and get me!"

A wicked smile came to the woman's face. "Then here I come, Sasuke-kun."

His unconsciously activated sharingan was all that gave Sasuke time to dodge the fist that would have landed between his eyes. A quick duck to let the fist pass over him followed by a swift leap away to avoid the following knee had him moving through the air away from his opponent. Grabbing several kunai, Sasuke spun once in the air for extra power and launched them at the foreign nin.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed as he watched her casually knock the weapons away. "I need to keep my distance!" He threw a few more shuriken to try to get a gauge on how she moved more that with any intention to hit. "If I can somehow figure out her style, I might be able to do something."

"You're too naive, Sasuke-kun." The woman smirked and her tongue shot from her mouth, wrapping around Sasuke's right leg before he could react. The Uchiha's curse at being caught was short lived before being replaced with a cry of pain as he was slammed into a tree. The impact leaving him dazed, he barely registered that the woman's tongue had been removed from his leg and retracted into her mouth. "Did you think you could defeat me with such simple tactics?"

Sasuke grit his teeth against the pain as he glared at the woman who's smirk had yet to leave her face.

"Well then, shall we continue, Sasuke-kun?" As soon as the words left her mouth, the Kusa nin shot forward. Knowing that he couldn't dodge in his current condition, Sasuke pulled out a kunai and braced himself.

"Hey batter batter! Swing!"

Sasuke stared as the Kusa woman stopped and leapt backwards just in time to avoid being pummeled by a very large broken tree limb being simultaneously wielded by five identical blondes.

"Tch, strike." The closest Naruto commented in disappointment.

"Then I shall be the next batter!"

A green blur landed directly in front of the Kusa woman, Lee's form being clearly visible for only a moment before his body spun and his leg shot out. "KONOHA SEMPU!" With a frown of annoyance, the woman once again jumped back to easily avoid the attack.

"Strike two!" Naruto shouted. "We need a pinch hitter!"

Almost as soon as the words left his mouth several shuriken flew from the foliage making the foreign nin jump back a third time. As soon as he landed, Tenten fell from the tree tops wielding a massive spiked club. Rotating her entire body in order to move it, the girl attempted to smash the Kusa woman, who avoided just in time, and utterly destroyed the tree limb she hit instead.

"Damn! Almost had her!" Ino's voice rang out just before the girl joined Tenten on what was left of the tree limb. "Looks like our combo play was a bust."

"Don't worry about it." Naruto said cheerfully. "It wouldn't be any fun we kicked her ass too fast."

"Yosh! Now is the time for me to show my power of youth!" Lee's eyes had flames of passion burning in them as he clenched his fist at the foreign nin.

"Naruto?" Sasuke said in surprise, still reeling slightly from the sudden arrivals. "What are you doing here?"

"We picked your teammate in the woods a ways back." The whiskered boy grinned in response. "So we came to give her back. Now we're gonna help you kick that weird bitch's ass so we can all get back to our exam."

Sasuke's eyes lingered on the other boy for a moment before unconsciously shifting to Sakura. Seeing that Ino had already moved to the girl's side, he let a small sigh of relief before refocusing on Naruto and giving him his best glare. "No one asked for your help, Moron?"

If Naruto noticed the Uchiha's sigh, he didn't show it. Turning instead towards the Kusa woman and flashing a feral grin. "Yeah? In that case it's a contest on who takes her out first."

Sasuke smirked as moved to stand next to Naruto, cracking his knuckles as he did so. "Agreed."

"Hey, don't go leavin us out!" Kiba shouted as he and Akamaru, who was henged into a double of Kiba, ran up the base the base of the tree from below. The Kusa woman, an annoyed scowl adorning her face, had just looked down at the pair when they both sent themselves into a high speed spiral. "GATSUGA!"

The foreign nin let out a short curse as she leapt away before the pair destroyed yet another thick tree limb she had been standing on. Using chakra to hold herself on the base of another tree, woman glared at the assembled genin with no small amount of annoyance. "I came here to play with Sasuke-kun. I have no interest in any of you."

"Well too bad for you then, creepy lady." Naruto shot back. "Cause we've all got plenty of interest in kicking your ass."

A wicked smile lit up the woman's face. "Is that so? Well then, my bothersome little genin, I hope you can at least provide me some entertainment before you die." The woman and raised her hand and pointed at the young blonde.

A loud, snarl-like hiss sounding from below was their only warning. Sasuke and Naruto leapt from the tree limb just before it was bitten through by the enormous snake.

"Holy crap!" Kiba shouted from another tree. "That's a big snake!"

Ino recoiled in revulsion. "Eww! I hate snakes!"

Naruto's hand flashed to his pouch and he sent four kunai towards the massive reptile, the tags attached them immediately beginning to smoke and sizzle. The snake barely seemed to notice the weapons stabbing into it, but the explosion that followed made the creature his in agony and crash into the trees, a significant amount of its face lost in the blast.

"Anybody need a new pair of boots?" The boy asked, a large grin splitting his face.

With another hiss of pain, the snake disappeared with a huge burst of smoke that nearly knocked several of the genin from the trees.

Her hair being blown back in the aftermath of the summon's disappearance, the Kusa woman tilted her head and gazed at Naruto in mild interest. "You defeated my summon so quickly."

"Don't make it sound so impressive." He boy shrugged before his grin widened. "A target that big was just ASKING to get blown up."

The woman looked like she was about to say something but was forced to quickly jump away as a massive fireball incinerated the branch she had been standing on.

"Don't think I'm just going to sit back and watch." Sasuke said, his hand still held near his mouth from his attack and his sharingan spinning. "I am the one you came looking for. Remember?"

The woman smirked from her new perch. "Don't worry, Sasuke-kun. I haven't forgotten you." The woman licked her lips. "You are my prey, after all."

"I don't think she means that in a good way." Naruto muttered to the Uchiha who quirked a curious eyebrow.

"What would be a good way?"

Naruto paused and tapped his chin thoughtfully. "I'm not really sure. But I heard Nii-san say something like that once."

"Quite yapping and move!"

Kiba's shout pulled the pairs attention to the Kusa nin who was descending upon them from above. They moved apart just in time to avoid being landed on but were quickly forced to defend when the woman's arm and leg shot out in a double attack.

Naruto crossed his arms to block the punch to his face at and Sasuke's knee shot up to deflect the kick to his abdomen. Without pause the woman pulled her leg back from Sasuke and sent a round house to Naruto's ribs. The boy blocked by dropping his elbow and the woman used the rebound to swing her leg back around at Sasuke's head. The Uchiha ducked the attack and launched a punch at her stomach, but the woman easily deflected it even as she jumped to avoid Naruto's attempt to sweep her legs. Once in the air she spun and sent a back hand at Sasuke who leaned back just in time to avoid it but was not able to avoid the following kick that landed squarely in his chest and sent him reeling backwards. As soon as she landed, the woman ducked down to avoid Naruto's flying punch to the back of her head. After the attack passed harmlessly above her, the Kusa woman grabbed the front of the boy's shirt and threw the Uzumaki into the still staggering Uchiha. With a pained yell from both, they crashed onto the tree limb in a heap.

Grunting, the pair got back to their feet as quickly as possible, but found the woman merely smirking down at them.

"I'm disappointed, Sasuke-kun, Naruto-kun. I thought you would have more to offer than this." The boy's glared defiantly at the smirking woman.

"Don't forget about us, you bitch!" Kiba and the transformed Akamaru charged along the branch at the woman their bodies poised for a spin. "GATS-"

Her hands already flashing the moment Kiba yelled, the woman launched her own attack before the Inuzuka could launch his."Fuuton: Daittoppa!"

Both Kiba and Akamaru were blasted back by the sudden explosion of wind, the puppy's transformation breaking as he slammed into a tree.

"I'LL SHOW YOU THE POWER OF YOUTH!"

Lee dropped like a bomb from the trees above, the heel of his foot sending wood fragments exploding outwards as it impacted where the woman had been standing.

"Must you yell all the time?" Tenten questioned as she sent a volley of kunai at the Kusa nin to prevent her from attacking Lee's back.

"How do you put up with that?" Ino asked as she and Sakura tended to Kiba and Akamaru.

"Painfully." The older girl admitted.

The foreign woman looked mildly displeased as she stared at the looked between Lee, who was standing in ready stance and sporting a confident smile, to the remaining four behind him. "You children lack manners. I'm playing with Sasuke-kun and Naruto-kun right now." The woman's eyes narrowed. "So I think it's time for you to leave."

The teens tensed as the woman crouched slightly, but before either party could move, Sasuke and Naruto landed between her and their teammates.

"Naruto-kun? Uchiha-san?" Lee's questioning tone betrayed his surprise at the sudden blockade.

Sasuke looked over his shoulder, his activated sharingan making his glare more piercing than usual. "You're in the way. Get lost."

"Hey, you don't have to be an ass." Naruto reprimanded before turning to the other genin behind him. "But he's not completely wrong. You all should get out of here and let Teme and me handle it."

"What are you talking about, Chibi?" Tenten shouted. "It's obvious that this woman is strong! You can't beat her alone!"

"Yeah, you might be right." The blonde confessed, shocking every genin other than Sasuke. "But the lady want's to dance with us." Naruto clenched his fist, his knuckles cracking threateningly. "And gentlemen shouldn't refuse a lady, right?"

"Ku ku ku. Well said, Naruto-kun." The foreign Kunoichi smirked amusedly.

"You heard them. Now get lost." Sasuke order Lee who was still standing directly behind him and Naruto. "Fighting this woman is the job of me and the moron. Yours is to protect our teammates if we fall."

Lee looked like he was about to argue but his protests were stayed by the final words. "Uchiha-san?" He asked, not sure how to react.

"Please." Sasuke said in a low voice. "If we fail...keep them safe."

"...I understand, Uchiha-san." Lee said in a subdued tone that was quickly replaced by his usual exuberance. "Yosh! I will protect our friends while you battle this nefarious lady! Show her the power of YOUTH!" The green clad genin leapt away leaving Naruto, Sasuke, and the Kusa kunoichi alone. Vaguely they could hear the others trying to get Lee to tell them what Sasuke had said, but they ignored it for the sake of focusing on each other.

"Well done getting rid of the interference, Sasuke-kun." The woman praised with her smirk still in place.

"I agree." Naruto said jovially and giving Sasuke an approving look. "Guess I was right when I said there might be hope for you, Teme." Sasuke only grunted in response at which Naruto grinned broadly then turned back to the Kusa nin. "Speaking of interference though, why am I being invited to play when you came for the teme? Shouldn't I be getting driven off too?"

The woman's smirk never left her face. "Because, Naruto-kun. It is more entertaining this way."

"Woman has a bad sense of entertainment." The blonde muttered to his ally who nodded in response. "But okay then. If the lady, creepy as she is, wants to play..." Naruto formed a cross shaped seal and grinned. "Then let's get wild! KAGE BUNSHIN NO JUTSU!" The forest filled with pops and smoke that left nearly everyone gaping in shock as roughly three hundred Naruto clones came into existence.

The Kusa woman smirked as she took in the sight. "Most amusing indeed."

The real Naruto, still standing next to Sasuke, pointed at the woman like a commander. "Kick that bitch's ASS!"

With a roar of agreement, the clones attacked.

The Kusa woman avoided the punches of the first two clones by leaping over them, flipping in the air and negligently tossing a kunai into each of their backs. As she landed she caught the wrist of a third and used a quick spin to throw him into the face of a fourth, dispelling both. Her left foot lashed out, catching a fifth clone in the chest before she rotated and slammed her right foot into the head of the sixth. A kunai appeared in her hand instantly to deflect several shuriken flying at her then, without pause, she flung her arm back to drive the kunai into a clones chest before righting her grip and driving it in front of her into the forehead of another clone.

The clones split off into groups of three, two grabbing each arm of the third. "Eat this, bitch! Uzumaki missile!" Wrenching forward with all the strength they had, the two launched the third towards the woman. Each of the flying clones pulled out a kunai, aiming it directly towards the enemy nin like human javelins.

The foreign nin smirked before lazily raising her right arm. "Senai Jashuu." Several snakes burst out from inside her sleeve and struck the sailing clones, dispelling them instantly and leaving only puffs of smoke where they had once been. With a slight raise of her eyebrow, she questioned the nearest Naruto. "That attack was rather useless. Is that really the best you can do, Naruto-kun?"

Naruto grinned back cockily. "Useless? It got your attention, didn't it?"

The woman's eyes widened slightly as a Sasuke's voice rang out directly behind her. "Katon: Goukakyu no Jutsu!" The Kusa nin screamed in pain as the fire blasted into her back and engulfed her. Before any thoughts of victory could enter the Genins' minds, the woman burst out of the fire and landed on a tree limb above them, her left arm charred and smoking from the damage.

"Too hot for you, bitch!" Naruto shouted. "Then we'll cool you down!" Three clones burst from the leaves above the foreign nin, each of their hands locked in the bird seal, and shouted all at once. "Suiton: Suiryuudan no Jutsu!"

"A water technique of this caliber here?" The woman questioned in surprise as three dragons made of water formed for the attack.

"Those clones have been gathering the moisture in the air for most of this fight." Naruto smirked as the three liquid beasts were unleashed.

"Hmph." The woman sniffed as she jumped away from the branch she was on. "I can dodge it easily enough."

Naruto smirked. "It's not that easy." As if to prove his point, the dragons suddenly veered away from the branch and once again started heading straight for the woman.

Eye's widening slightly in mild surprise, the Kusa nin jumped again immediately after landing and watched as the dragons once again changed course. "Impressive control, Naruto-kun."

"You haven't seen anything yet!" The boy declared. The three dragons that had been running almost side by side suddenly banked away from each other in large arcs before veering towards the woman again all from different directions.

The woman's eyes calmly shifted through the attacks before holding out her arm once again. The snakes the burst from her sleeve wrapped around a nearby tree limb allowing her to pull herself directly through an opening in the attacks just before they crashed together, blasting out water in all directions. "Still not good enough." She said with a smirk as she landed on another branch, but she was soon raising a questioning eyebrow when Naruto replied with a smirk of his own.

"Nope…we got you."

She heard it just before she saw it, but it was too late as the shuriken came out of the foliage and wrapped around her, the nearly invisible wires trapping her arms at her sides just before she had her back slammed into the tree trunk from a sudden pull. Following the wires upwards, she saw Sasuke with the ends of the wires in his teeth and hands while he formed the dragons seal. "Katon: Ryuuka no Jutsu!" The fire that spewed from his mouth traveled directly down the wires path and slammed into the woman with the force of a train. Screams of agony filled the area as the woman was engulfed in the intense heat and her body spasmed erratically before going limp and silent, stilled tied to the charred and smoking section of tree.

"That looks like it hurt." Naruto commented offhandedly.

Sasuke leapt from the higher branch and landed next to the blonde, his sharingan fading as he looked at the body. "I wasn't sure if that would actually work." He admitted.

"You doubted your own plan?" Naruto raised his eyebrows in surprise.

Sasuke smirked. "There was always the possibility you would screw something up."

"Hey! I did most of the work here, Teme!" The blonde shot back indignantly.

"I did the killing blow." Sasuke shrugged. "Besides, I've been fighting her longer, moron. So I'm better than you by default."

"What the hell kind of logic is-" The argument came to an abrupt end as the two boys heard a low, sinister laughter from the person that thought dead. Snapping their attention back to the body, both boys' eyes widened as the Kusa woman began to slowly walk forward, snapping the strong wires as if they were the weakest of twigs.

"Wonderful." She said in a happy tone. "The two of you have impressive abilities for your ages. However, you are still lacking. Especially you, Sasuke-kun." As she spoke the Kusa nin's voice began to change, becoming deeper, silkier, and far more sinister. Looking up, the person revealed a reptilian eye surrounded by pale white skin underneath the face that had been partially melted away. "You should not be relying on others in order to defeat your enemy. You will never succeed in killing Itachi that way."

Sasuke's body went rigid at the mention of the name, something that did not go unnoticed by Naruto, but before either boy could do or say anything, the foreign nin had formed a seal. "But don't worry, Sasuke-kun, I have present for you." The Kusa nin's neck suddenly stretched out at lightning speed towards Sasuke and his teeth bit into the base of the Uchiha's neck before Sasuke even had a chance to react.

Sasuke screamed in pain at the sudden attack and Naruto was jolted into action. "Asshole! Get off him!" Naruto sent a kunai at the foreign nin's extended neck but only hit air as it retracted as fast as it had extended. Another scream in agony and Sasuke was on his knees, clutching at his neck where he had been bitten. Concerned for his companion, Naruto immediately examined the area and his eyes widened at the sight of a strange marking that looked like three tomoe in an almost circular patter just above where Sasuke's fingers were clutching at his skin. Looking up, he glared at the foreign nin. "What the hell did you do to him, you son of a bitch?!"

The kusa nin raised a finger to his lips conspiratorially. "As I said, Naruto-kun, it is a present for Sasuke-kun. It will give him power, and he will come to me for more power."

Naruto's glare did not lessen. "Who the fuck are you? Why would Sasuke want anything to do with you?"

The Kusa nin smiled and brought a hand up to the hitai-ate on his forehead. When it was removed, the symbol for grass was gone and in its place was a symbol of a music note. "I am Orochimaru. Leader of Otogakurei. And Sasuke will come to me. He will come to me because he desires power. Because he is an avenger."

"Bullshit!" Naruto growled. "Teme wouldn't go to someone like you."

The man, now known to be called Orochimaru, laughed in amusement and his body slowly began to sink into the branch he stood on. "In time, you will understand, Naruto-kun. Until then, I hope you will help Sasuke to become even stronger than he is now." The last thing Naruto saw was the man's sinister, snake like eye before it too disappeared into the tree. "Continue to amuse me in the future, Naruto-kun."

Naruto stared at the spot that the Oto leader had vanished into and then down at the writhing Sasuke. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear the voices of his friends shouting in concern and steadily getting closer, but he was too concerned with the one beside him and confused as to everything that had just happened to respond to them. Gritting his teeth, he dropped to his knees and punched the tree limb in frustration.

"Just what the hell is going on?"

X

Kurenai wasn't exactly aware of her surroundings as she moved through the bustling streets of Konoha, the knuckle of her right thumb held lightly beneath her teeth in silent worry for her students. Even though she knew she had been the one to suggest their participation, and still thought the experience would be good for them, she had started fearing for her students' safety since the moment they entered the Forest of Death.

The woman sighed and removed her thumb from her teeth in order to rub her eyes. It would be nice if she had someone to talk to about it, but she wasn't sure who she could talk with now. Normally Kurenai would seek the company of her dango loving best friend, but Anko was overseeing the second exam. Kakashi was definitely out, since it'd be a miracle if he could pull his face out of his smut book long enough to even listen, and Asuma, while being a considerably better listener than Kakashi, would simply shrug everything off in his normal laid back manner.

The woman was about to sigh yet again at the mannerisms of her colleges but it was prevented when she suddenly realized she had stopped walking. Blinking a couple times, she glanced around the area to find out where she was...only for her eyes to widen when she realized where her feet had unconsciously taken her.

"No! No way! Worst idea possible!" The woman turned quickly to go the opposite direction. "What could I even be thinking...?" She stopped after a few steps, her mind going through the possible scenarios that could result of knocking on that door. None of them ended well. Despite that though, she found herself walking towards that very door and all too soon she was standing directly in front of it.

"This is a bad idea." She told herself again quietly. Despite that though, she raised her arm and knocked solidly. After a few seconds of silence, Kurenai started to think maybe he wasn't home and that she had escaped her bad decision, but that was quickly dispelled when his muffled voice came from the other side of the door.

"Just a sec. I'm coming."

For a wild moment Kurenai considered using shunshin to make an escape, but her chance was erased when the door opened and Kurenai's thoughts took a drastic turn.

"Eh? What are you doing here, Princess?" Jagaa asked, his sun glasses moving a bit as he rubbed the side of his head with the towel wrapped over his shoulders.

Kurenai didn't answer. In fact, she had barely even heard him due to the fact she was too busy staring at the man's naked torso. She had always grudgingly admitted that he had a great body, but somehow, maybe due to the way the un-dried water droplets glistened in the sunlight, she found herself completely unable to tear her eyes away from the sight. Even the many scars that ran down his body were only serving to add a primal allure. Despite the protests of her rational mind, Kurenai's gaze slowly traveled downwards to the black, baggy sweatpants he had probably hastily thrown on, and she unconsciously licked her lips.

"Uh, yo, Princess." Kurenai was ripped out of her thoughts by Jagaa's voice and the hand now gesturing upwards in her vision. "The face is up here."

"I wasn't staring!" Kurenai shouted as her eyes snapped up to the man's face. It was only after the man's mouth fell open in shock that she realized exactly what she had just yelled out and her face slowly started to turn bright red.

It started slow. At first, a couple quick explosions of breath through the nose soon followed by many more at a rapid pace. Then his mouth opened and the half restrained laughs forced their way through. Finally, that also gave way and Jagaa was leaning against the door frame with his forehead on his arm while the other arm held his stomach as he laughed uproariously.

Kurenai's face went from bright red to deep scarlet as the man laughed and, for the first time in her life, she desperately wished she could simply fade into nonexistence. "You can stop laughing any time." She muttered in an attempt to retain even the slightest trace of dignity.

"S-sorry...that was just...wow!" The man attempted to force himself to calm down, failing miserably at first, and wiped his eyes underneath his sunglasses. "Oh man. That just made my day. Possibly my week." Jagaa chuckled again at Kurenai's scowl and gestured over his shoulder. "Anyway, come on in, Princess."

Kurenai was in the middle of contemplating whether the current situation would count as justifiable homicide when she was brought up short by what he had said. She also couldn't help but blink in surprise when he walked back into his apartment while gesturing for her to follow. Something was just...WRONG, with the whole situation. Normally, she would have expected the man to use this against her as much as possible until she finally snapped on him, and yet here he was just letting it pass by. It made no sense. She did feel it would be impolite not to accept his invitation though so, still feeling wary, Kurenai followed after the man into his apartment.

"Have a seat." Jagaa said with a gesture of his hand before moving to the kitchen. "I'm afraid to say we don't have any tea, but we do have some juice if you'd like."

"...Yes. That's fine." Still taken aback by the politeness the man was showing. A few seconds later he came out with a glass filled with red fruit juice that he handed to her. It was then that she also realized that he had already put on a loose black shirt for modesty's sake. Kurenai found herself completely speechless at the man's apparent consideration of her and was staring slightly wide eyed as he sat down on the chair across from her.

"So what brings you to my humble abode, Princess?" Jagaa said with a curious tilt of his head. "I don't think I've done anything to really piss you off...well, today anyway."

Kurenai couldn't help the quick exhale of amusement that met his final addition, but it was soon replaced by the feeling of awkwardness as she tried to find the words to explain her being here. She still wasn't sure those was a good idea, now even more than before for some reason, and so she hesitated. Several silent moments passed by as the woman struggled with her thoughts and doubts. She was even considering apologizing and leaving, when Jagaa suddenly stood up and broke the silence.

"Hey, since you're here anyway, you mind giving me a hand with something, Princess?"

Startled by the sudden request, Kurenai answered quickly. "O-of course." It was only after that she realized she didn't know what the request entailed. This did worry her some, but she took heart in the fact that, if it was yet another prank, it would at least make the situation more normal again. So, with only the smallest of reservations, she got off the couch and followed him into the hallway.

"First," Jagaa said when they came upon the first bedroom door, shooting it a gesture with his thumb. "Could you look in there and tell me what you think of the, uh, decor?"

Kurenai eyed both man and door suspiciously. "There isn't a pie throwing machine on the other side of it, is there?"

Jagaa snorted before crossing his heart and holding up two fingers. "Not this time. Scouts honor." It was funny the way his teasing smirk actually reassured her. She mused on that peculiarity as she opened the door...only to scream and slam it closed again before glaring at her partner instructor.

"Not liking Naruto's color of choice, I take it?" Jagaa chuckled.

"How...how can he STAND that!?" Kurenai almost yelled. Cracking open the door to peek inside, she shuddered and quickly closed it again. "So much orange. Even the CARPET. I think my retinas were burned." She once again glared at Jagaa. "Why would you let him do that?"

Jagaa shrugged. "It was a deal we made. He could put as much orange in his room as he wanted as long as he stopped wearing it all the time. We made the deal after some friends of mine begged me to get him out of an orange jumpsuit he was obsessed with wearing."

Kurenai winced at the mental image. "Why did you let him in the first place?"

Another shrug. "Never really bothered me. But Hitomi got him into the blue he wears now, so everybody is happy." He moved to the next room and opened the door. "Now to get to the real thing I'd like some help with. Come on in." Kurenai followed without hesitation, certain that he wasn't planning any pranks further than the one he just did, but as soon as she walked into the room, she once again found herself in a state of shock as she stared around the room.

Every wall in the room from top to bottom, save some space where he had yet to place any, was covered in pictures hung in their frames. But that wasn't all. As she moved closer, she realized that there we're actually two pictures in a curious duel frame. On the left of each frame was a color photo that she could only assume to be the original, but while the photo's themselves were well taken, it was what was in the right half of the frame that took Kurenai's breath away.

Carved into the solid piece of wood that made up the rest of the frame, was an exact replica of the adjacent photo. No, Kurenai could admit that 'replica' didn't do the work justice. Every contour of the skin, every eyelash, every single strand of hair had been recreated with such exquisite care and detail that Kurenai wondered if the figures would turn and wave to here at any moment. It so beautifully done that she found herself thinking of the color photo next to it as almost a mockery of its perfection.

"Impressive, aren't they." Jagaa's words cut into her thoughts. She could scarcely manage an agreeing nod as she stares mesmerized by what she was seeing. "I met this young kid about, oh, I'd say eight years back, who had a hobby of reproducing photos as wood carvings. I was so impressed that I started paying him to redo my photos and from there it became a business for him. He's doing pretty well from what I hear."

"They're beautiful." Kurenai breathed as she slowly moved her eyes over each photo/carving. She faintly heard him chuckle but she knew there was no ill intention behind it.

"Glad you're enjoying it." He said just before the sound of a box being ripped open drew her attention to him. She watched as he carefully pulled out a stack of more photos like the ones hanging his walls. Setting it on the floor, he pulled off the top one, examined it, the placed it off to the side. "Yes." He muttered to himself before he picked up the next one. "...maybe." He set this one on the other side of him and grabbed the next.

Kurenai watched him do this several times before her eyes were once again pulled to the pictures on the wall. "So what are you doing?" She asked as she leaned in close to a picture.

"Sorting." He answered as he picked up another one. "I only have so much space on the walls, so I only put my favorites up and the others go in storage." He set that one on a pile and grabbed the next. "I was going to ask for your help, but it might be better if I do it myself after all. So feel free to look at the ones I already have up."

Kurenai simply nodded and continued scanning. She was surprised by how many scenic pictures there were on this wall. Landscapes, horizons, the clouds, the moon, and more lined this particular wall. There were a few with people in them, including a very cute younger Naruto, but mostly it was just the scenery. As if he just wanted a picture of everything the world had to see. To be honest, Kurenai found it somewhat endearing.

Looking to another wall, she noticed that this one was all pictures of people. Moving over to it, she smiled at what she first found.

Almost in the middle of the wall where it could be quickly spotted was the Team 7 photo they had taken earlier that year. Jagaa, as usual being unable to do anything normally, had grabbed her around the shoulders and pulled both of them down so that their heads were almost on their students' shoulders just before it was taken. Kurenai chuckled as she looked at all their expressions. Sasuke was scowling at Jagaa due to the man's proximity, Sakura looked completely surprised, Ino was laughing in amusement, Kurenai herself looked like she was about to yell at him (which she had), and Jagaa wore a grin that showed he was enjoying himself immensely. Shaking her head at the memory, Kurenai moved to other pictures, marveling at the variety.

Jagaa and Naruto sparring. 'Probably before they came to Konoha.'

A young Jagaa being hugged by an older woman while three older men stood behind them. 'It looks like he's being restrained more than hugged though, for some reason.'

A self-picture of Jagaa smirking after doodling on a sleeping Naruto's face. 'Typical.'

Naruto and the woman who had been hugging Jagaa eating ramen together. 'I wonder who she is. She's in quite a few pictures?'

Naruto and the Hokage glaring at each other in the Hokage tower. 'Is that electricity sparking between them?'

Naruto bashing a smaller, brown haired boy over the head. 'Isn't that the Hokage's grandson!?'

The Hokage laying in pool of his own blood. 'What in the world gave him a nosebleed like that?'

Ino, Sakura, and Sasuke collapsed on the ground and looking thoroughly exhausted as they glared at the man behind the camera. 'Probably when he kidnapped them in Wave country.'

Jagaa attempting to force feed Naruto a stem of broccoli and the boy himself defiantly trying to fend his brother off with his right hand while his left clutched a cup ramen protectively. 'Naruto is so small in this. I wonder if it was soon after they met. And who took the picture?'

Kurenai was laughing silently at the scene as she moved on to the next picture, but what she saw instantly froze that laughter as a sight she would never have believed greeted her. Taking a couple steadying breaths, she tried to keep her tone as casual as possible as she spoke. "You have quite a few good pictures on this wall, Jagaa."

"I know right." He said, still working on his sorting. "I call that my 'Best of the Best' wall. It's were I put my favorite photos."

Kurenai swallowed at that, her eyes still on the picture. "So...would you ever put up a picture of someone...you didn't like? Even if the picture was well taken?"

"Hell no. Why would I want the ugly mug of someone I hated on my wall where I had to see them all the time? I'd probably only take a picture of someone I didn't like so I could have the pleasure of burning it with a katon jutsu." He paused and she got the feeling he was turning to face her. "Why would you even-" The man's words came to an abrupt halt and Kurenai thought she heard the splintering of wood, leading her to believe he had just realized what picture she must be talking about.

Her eyes were calm and her face serene as she stared out over the land scape with a gentle smile on her lips. A single hand had been brought to the side of her face in order to gently push a stray lock of hair behind her ear while the rest of it danced playfully in the wind.

Kurenai had no idea when this picture could have been taken. She guessed it was on the training grounds though, judging by the trees in the background. Several moments passed in awkward silence and just when Kureniai was starting to regret saying anything about the picture, Jagaa cleared his throat.

"So, you know, I have this partner that I have to work with as an instructor for a team of genin, and the two of us are always fighting. In fact, it's so bad, that we've actually pulled weapons on each other before."

Kurenai blinked a couple times in surprise at being spoken to like a third party, but she had to admit that it removed a bit of the tension and so she decided to play along. "Is that so?"

"Yeah, it's definitely been a ride." He laughed a bit before continuing. "I suppose it's only natural though. I can't stand conforming to rules and she's a stickler for them. Not the best combo by any means." Jagaa went silent for a moment, picking up a picture and examining it. "But, despite our differences, I've never once disliked her."

Kurenai was certain that if she had been holding something just then, she would have dropped it. "E-Excuse me?" She heard him snort lightly and knew that her fumble of the tongue had not gone unnoticed. Thankfully though, Jagaa didn't feel the need to bring it up and simply continued.

"Well, why should I? She's actually one of the main reasons that I've been enjoying my time in this village. I've met a lot of women in my traveling. Some were infatuated with me and clung to me like lost puppies. Some detested me and wouldn't have anything to do with me. Others just didn't care either way." He paused, his head tilting towards the ceiling slightly. "Her though, I can never really pin down. Most of the time we're fighting, mostly my fault I'll admit, but then there are times where we get along fine. If nothing else, I respect her. Not only because of her care for both her village and our students, but because she's one of the few people that will never back down no matter how much crap I give her." Jagaa chuckled. "Yeah, she makes being here fun. That's for sure."

Kurenai wasn't sure how she should feel about that last part. "So, you keep her picture up because you respect her?"

"Well, that and…other reasons." Jagaa's voice became almost shy and Kurenai couldn't help but turn to look at him. "I mean, I'd never seen her like that before. Calm…serene…her face filled with warmth and joy. It was…surprising. I'd always known she was attractive, but when I took that picture…" Jagaa hesitated and took a long, steadying breath.

"I thought she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen."

Kurenai froze and something felt as if it had just shifted inside of her chest, but she didn't know what. She knew she felt like she should say something, anything, but no words would come. Leaving her only able to stand there in an awkward silence.

"But don't tell her I told you that. I'd hate for her to think I actually like her."

And just like that, the awkward feeling vanished and a soft breath of laughter took its place. "We wouldn't want that, would we?"

"Of course not." Jagaa's smile was playful and she got the distinct impression he'd just winked at her. "Might ruin our entire hate and violence filled relationship."

"And you would lose your primary source of entertainment, I suppose?"

"Exactly!"

Despite the fact she was rolling her eyes, Kurenai couldn't help but marvel at the man in front of her. She felt she may never understand how a person could take such a potentially uncomfortable situation and turn it into a type of inside joke, but she was glad that he had. She also had to admit she felt a large amount of her resentment towards him slipping away and knew it wouldn't be coming back. After all, it was a little hard to hate someone who had said they respected you and called you beautiful, no matter how round about the way they did it.

Kurenai then had an idea that she could only attribute to prolonged exposure to the man in the room with her. Smiling mischievously to herself, she turned back to the picture and made her voice as innocent as possible. "So there was a time you thought she was beautiful. Was there ever a time you thought she was, say, incredibly sexy?" This time there was a distinct splintering of wood and she hoped it wasn't an important picture. Looking back over her shoulder to see his reaction she almost burst out laughing.

Jagaa, the Jagaa, was sitting as if he had been frozen in place and blushing from head to toe. It was the cutest thing she had ever seen.

All too soon, in her opinion, Jagaa cleared his throat noisily and, despite the fact he was still blushing, raised his chin thoughtfully. "Dunno. Was there ever a time you stood in a man's doorway and eyed his bare torso like a starving she-wolf eyeing a piece of meat?"

This time it was Kurenai's turn to blush and clear her throat. "Yes, well, I suppose we don't need to share everything with each other now, do we?"

"Agreed."

The pair once again fell into silence, but not an uncomfortable one. Instead, a soft smile had made its way to Kurenai's lips as she thought about the man behind her and all that she had heard and seen that day.

"You two are so cute together."

Two simultaneous shouts of surprise rang out as the pair snapped their faces towards the window to find Kakashi smiling at them over the top of his book. "I'm rather glad my curiosity led me to hide my presence when I sensed the two of you here together, and I'd really love to keep watching and see if you end up acting out a scene from Icha Icha, but Hokage-sama is summoning all jounin to his office immediately."

"...Kakashi, how long have you been there?" Jagaa asked dangerously.

The silver haired jounin smiled wider. "Since you started your third person story. See you at the Hokage tower." With a single wave, the other jounin disappeared with a swirl of leaves."

"...I hate him."

Kurenai was inclined to agree.

X

"Oroki-who-za?"

"Orochimaru." The Sandaime sighed at the question. "Surely you've at least heard of him?"

Jagaa stroked his chin for a moment. "Nope. Can't say that I have." The incredulous stares he was receiving made him look around in confusion. "What?"

"You really don't know about Orochimaru?" Asuma asked. "He and the other members of the Konoha Sannin are very famous in the ninja world."

Jagaa tilted his head. "Members of the who?" If they had been staring at him before, they were outright gaping at him now. Jagaa's lips pursed in annoyance. "Seriously. What?"

Sarutobi cleared his throat. "I'm sure everyone is just surprised that you don't know of the Konoha Sannin. They are the three of the most powerful Ninja our village has ever produced. They were all trained by me and were a crucial power in the last war."

"Oh." Jagaa scratched the back of his head. "I guess I don't really pay attention to hero stories or reputations. It doesn't matter in a fight anyway since the stronger person is going to win whether they have a reputation or not. Reputations just invite trouble." There were several agreeing nods to the man's words. Mostly by those who had reputations of their own.

'Spoken like one who knows.' Sarutobi mentally smirked. If he hadn't learned of the man's identity, Sarutobi would have passed Jagaa's words off as simple uncaring. However, now, he knew that wasn't the case. Still, it wasn't his place to bring that knowledge to light and they had more important matters to discuss. Clearing his throat again, the old man's face became serious. "Getting back to the matter at hand, Orochimaru is also one of the most evil ninja our village has ever produced and has sworn vengeance upon Konoha and its people for when he was driven out before. Now, it seems, he has come back and is moving amongst the Chuunin Exam." The Sandaime brought the pipe to his lips, slowly blowing the smoke out before continuing. "What's more, according to Anko, Orochimaru has stated that, should we try to stop the Chuunin Exam, he will launch an attack on Konoha."

There was a stirring of murmurs through the room and one man wearing an ANBU mask stepped forward. "My apologies, Hokage-sama, but is it wise to trust the word of the traitor's former apprentice." Several sets of glares, Kurenai's being the strongest, as well as the Hokage's irritated scowl settled on the man, but he continued without heed. "It's possible that Anko is working with her former teacher and is plotting with him in order to destroy Konoha. I suggest we arrest her and-" The rest of his words were never heard as a fist slammed into the side of his skull, slamming him against the wall with a sickening crack before he fell limply to the floor, twitching slightly in unconsciousness.

"Anybody have a problem with what I just did?" Jagaa asked, his relaxed tone sounding more threatening than if he had been growling. No one did…or they were simply smart enough not to voice it if they did.

"Man's certainly got a way with words." Kakashi noted with amusement as he turned a page in his book.

"YOSH! My second eternal rival's passion burns hotly with youth in defense of our friend and comrade, Anko!" Gai declared as he broke out the infamous 'Nice Guy' pose. Asuma just chuckled, and Kurenai was making no effort to hide her pleased smile.

"I'm sure it goes without saying," Sarutobi continued without comment on Jagaa's actions or even giving the insulting ANBU a glance, "that all Jounin and Chuunin are to be on high alert during the duration of the exams. Keep watch for any suspicious activity and report immediately if you notice even the slightest thing out of place. Understood?" There was a chorus of "Yes, sir!" and the Hokage nodded approvingly. "Now, the next thing I would like to discuss is-"

"Hokage-sama!" A Chuunin burst into the room and kneeled down in front of the desk. "Forgive me for interrupting, but we have word on the exam participants!" The Sandaime nodded his consent for the news to be shared and the Chuunin continued. "The first to arrive was the team from Suna, who set a new record time." There was a murmur of amazement through the room but the Chuunin continued. "The next to arrive were the teams led by Hatake Kakashi, Sarutobi Asuma, and Maito Gai, as well as the team led by Yuuhi Kurenia and …Jagaa-san. They arrived collectively."

"So they formed an alliance, huh?" Asuma said as he thoughtfully scratched his beard. "I suppose it's not surprising, considering it's them."

"With all due respect, Asuma-san, it's possible that it was simply a coincidence."

All eyes fell back to the Chuunin. "Please explain." The Hokage ordered.

"Well, Hokage-sama, reports indicate that Uzumaki Naruto created an army of kagebunshin that attacked every team in the vicinity, that wasn't a Konoha team, and demanded that they hand over any scrolls they had or, quote, suffer the worst beat down of their meaningless existence, end quote. The few who tried to fight were…regretful, that they had not listened." The Chuunin winced a bit from the memory of the report and continued. "It's possible he simply gave the other teams any spare scrolls he acquired."

This time all eyes, some holding an air of accusation, turned to Jagaa who just shrugged and grinned proudly. "That's my brat."

X

Naruto, Ino, Sakura, Kiba, Hinata and Tenten sat outside the door to the medical room where Sasuke had been taken for an examination as soon as they arrived at tower in the forest of death. Or rather, everyone except Naruto was sitting. The blonde was, instead, pacing back and forth and constantly throwing half worried, half glaring looks at the door. Worried for his comrades condition, angry at himself for allowing it to happen, the boy could barely contain his desire to break down the door and demand to know Sasuke's condition.

"Calm down, Chibi." Tenten said suddenly as if reading his thoughts. "You've done all you can. Hell, you took out every team in the area to make sure you had the scrolls we all needed and then practically bulldozed the way here to get him to the medic nin. No one could have done more."

"It shouldn't have happened at all." Naruto grated out. "I should have been able to do something. Anything! But I just stood there and let it happen!" The boy slammed the side of his fist on the wall, cracking it in a rough circle just bigger than his hand.

"From what I understand," Hinata commented, turning the boy's eyes to her, "your opponent was no ordinary Shinobi. The fact that you were all able to survive at all is an accomplishment in and of itself. You should at least be grateful for that."

Naruto grit his teeth, wanting to retort in some way, but he knew she was right. They had only survived because that Orochimaru guy had let them. As much as Naruto didn't want to admit it, there was no way they could have ever beaten him if he had seriously been fighting. Plus, as Hinata sat there with her arms folded, Naruto could see the way her finger tips were digging into her biceps just a bit harder than they should be, and he knew that those words were for her as much as for him. She was angry at herself for not being there to help, even if she knew it wouldn't have made a difference. Naruto knew, because that's how he would have been feeling.

There was a clicking sound and all eyes turned towards the double doors where Anko was now coming out of. Without a moment's hesitation, Naruto was standing directly in front of her. "Crazy Lady? How's Teme?"

Anko looked down at the boy as well as the others closing in behind him and sighed. "He's alive…for now." Several audible gasps echoed through the hall as she continued. "That mark that was left on his neck is known as a Curse Seal. It's something that Orochimaru puts on people he wants as subordinates and could potentially give him a large power increase. However..." Anko looked back at the doors she had just walked through. "There is only a ten percent chance he will survive the process. And even if he does…" Anko trailed off, her hand unconsciously going to the nape of her neck. Catching herself, she jerked it away and looked back at the gathered Genin. "As it stands, it might be best for you all to prepare for the worst."

Several gasps sounded and Ino instantly began to tear up, her face dropping into her hands while others looked down in silence.

"He'll make it."

The sudden proclamation pulled all eyes to Naruto who was looking at Anko in a manner that bordered defiance. "He's not going to die. He'll make it." The blonde shifted his gaze to the double doors again. "We've got a promise. The only one allowed to kick his ass is me. So he'll make it." His fists clenched again as his eyes seared the door.

"He has to."

X

It burned.

Sasuke's whole body felt like he was trapped in a fire.

He couldn't move. He couldn't breathe. He could only burn.

'Am I dead? Did that person kill me?'

The last thing Sasuke remembered was the disguised man sinking his teeth into the base of his neck before pain flooded his senses.

'Is everyone else okay!? What happened after I blacked out!?'

"They're dead."

Suddenly, Sasuke found himself floating in a sea of golden fire and staring at a younger version of himself that was on his knees and crying.

"They're dead, because I wasn't strong enough to protect them."

Sasuke's eyes widened as the forms of his dead parents materialized in front of his younger self.

"They're all dead. Because I didn't have any power."

'No!' Sasuke took a step back, his eyes completely horrified as the dead bodies of his friends and teammates appeared. His gaze going to one body in particular that appeared charred and smoking. 'No! That didn't happen!'

"If I don't have power, I can't save anyone. I can't help anyone." Sasuke's younger self stopped crying and looked at Sasuke himself. A crazed glint coming to his right eye as his hand covered up his left. "I need power." The young Sasuke drug his left hand down his eye and revealed the same reptilian eye of the shinbobi that had attacked him. "You need power."

The burning sensation of his body intensified and Sasuke's mind went blank again as he screamed in pain.

X

"Anko-san! He's waking up!"

All eyes turned to the medic nin that had just burst through the double doors, several loud sighs of relief being heard.

"Hah! Told you the teme would make it!" Naruto cheered proudly.

Anko, though, could tell something wasn't quite right. "What happened?"

The medic nin shook his head. "We don't know. We just know that as soon as he started to show signs of waking, his body began releasing large amount of chakra."

She was passing by the medic nin before most of the others in the hall had even realized she moved. "Keep them out. Things could get dangerous in there."

"Hai, Anko-san."

"Wait a second!" Naruto's voice sounded behind her. "What the hell is going-" The last of his shout was drowned out as the doors shut behind her. She would apologize to the boy later, but at the moment, she had to get to the Uchiha boy and make sure he didn't go out of control. She could already feel the foul chakra of her traitor sensei permeating the air and she knew the power that the curse seal could bestow on someone. It could very well be too much for the boy to handle psychologically. Especially considering his past.

As she opened the second door to the room the Uchiha boy was in, Anko felt her blood chill. Sasuke was on his feet, her old sense's disgusting chakra swirling around him. His body was half covered with black markings that almost looked like flames, and his sharingan was activated. As his red, swirling eyes locked on her, Anko tensed. Ready to take the boy down if he became violent under the seal's influence.

Sasuke looked around the room slowly. He could feel power coursing through his body. It was intoxicating. But he didn't have time to revel in his new power. He needed to find them.

He looked around the room. His sharingan slowly rotating as he examined each figure clad in white that surrounded him. Somewhere, deep down, he knew they were not the enemy, but he also knew that there were no signs of those he sought amongst these figures.

'I have to find them.' His eyes locked on a woman in a trench coat that he felt he should recognize. He noticed her battle ready stance and his eyes narrowed. 'Is she trying to stop me from finding them?'

Anko felt a chill run down her spine and she knew that she had just been marked as an enemy. She saw the black markings slowly spread further over the boy's body and grimaced. Stopping the boy without hurting him was going to be extremely difficult in this situation, but she couldn't see any other way. She saw his foot shift slightly and knew he was about to attack, but before either of them could make a move, the door behind Anko burst open.

"Sasuke!"

All eyes turned to Naruto who was standing in the doorway, flanked by every other genin that had been in the waiting room. After her initial surprise, Anko's first thought was to question how the group had gotten there when there were supposed to be guards outside, but quick glance down the hall revealed the hall revealed the said guards to be unconscious on the floor and looking like a stampede had run over the top of them. If it were any other situation, Anko would have laughed at the sight.

Sasuke's eyes roved over each face of the genin who had just burst into the room. It was them. He had found them. He focused on a single head of pink hair before his eyes dropped him to meet a set of bright green ones. "You're safe." He said just barely loud enough to be heard. He's then turned his attention towards the boy in the middle, whose bright blue eyes where is locked on him with surprise. "You're all...safe." He closed his eyes, relief flooding through him even as his body went weak and he began to fall forward.

Naruto was already there to catch him, having seen the way the other boy's legs had begun to buckle. The blonde genin watched as the weird black markings that had covered Sasuke began to recede back to the 3 tomo like marking on his neck. Naruto then looked up at Anko, confusion in his eyes as to what happened, but her expression showed that she was just as confused as he was.

Anko gnawed on her lip as she looked down at the raven haired boy in Naruto's grasp. She had no idea how he had done it, but the boy was able to subdue the curse seal's influence. No. That wasn't right. It was more like the seal had attached itself to a certain desire he had, and then disappear once the desire had been realized.

'You're safe.'

Anko's eyes widened in realization as the boy was put back on the hospital bed by Naruto and Kiba. If she was right, the curse seal had actually attached itself to his desire to protect his friends. While most of the time this could be considered a good thing, the fact that it was her old sensei's tainted chakra that he was drawing on could have serious negative consequences, depending on the situation. Either way, Anko knew she would need to discuss this with the Hokage as soon as possible.

X

"Jagaa! Wai-" The Hokage winced as the door to his makeshift office slammed shut.

"He didn't take a very well, did he." Kakashi noted off-handedly, turning a page in his book.

"Maybe...I shouldn't have mentioned my encounter with Orochimaru." Anko said. Her voice low as she rubbed it the hand she had stabbed through in her attempt to kill her old sensei along with herself.

Kurenai shook her head. "No. It's probably best that we learned about it now as opposed to later." Kurenai wasn't sure if her friend had caught the 'we' she had used instead of 'he', but whether she did or not really didn't matter. Kurenai knew why Jagaa had reacted the way he had to what Anko had said. Because it was the same way Kurenai herself had reacted, though with less display. When Anko told them all that she tried to use a suicide technique to kill the snake sannin, and then apologized to the Hokage for coming back alive, it was all Kurenai could do to keep herself from slapping her friend. Hearing that, on top of hearing that his brother, as well as their team, had been attacked by the same person she had tried to suicide with, had probably forced the openly emotional man to make a hasty exit lest he lose himself to that anger.

So, yes, Kurenai could understand how he felt.

"I can perform the sealing on him as soon as he wakes up." Kakashi's voice pulled her from her thoughts, making her realize she had missed a significant portion of the conversation.

"Do it." The Hokage ordered. "We must take every precaution to ensure Sasuke-kun isn't corrupted by Orochimaru any further than he already has been." He then turned his eyes to Kurenai. "And I'll need you to keep an eye on Jagaa, Kurenai-san. Make sure he doesn't do anything rash."

Kurenai honestly wasn't sure if she could, or would even want to in this case, keep her partner jounin from reacting rashly, but she decided it would be best not to say as much and simply nodded as she answered. "Hai, Hokage-sama."

After seeing the Hokage's acknowledging nod, Kurenai turned back to her friend and she was reminded of something that she couldn't quite understand. That being the strange knot she had felt in her stomach when the thought crossed her mind, when he had gotten so angry about her attempted suicide, that Jagaa might see Anko as more than just a friend. She knew that wasn't the case, of course. After all, the pair had made it clear, on several occasions, that they had no romantic inclination towards each other besides friendship, despite their physical encounters, and that they had no intentions of changing that. What bothered Kurenai the most though, was that it felt like she was seeking reassurance with that knowledge.

X

Sakura sat silently as she watched over her unconscious teammate. She and Ino had been swapping out on being in the room with Sasuke in case he woke up. Not that one of them had to be in there all the time. That second examiner, Anko, had assured them it was highly unlikely the boy would wake up in a similar fashion to his last. Plus, with the doctors and guards outside the door, he was about as safe as he could be. So it was more about their duties as teammates to be there for him than a concern for his safety.

Truth be told, Sakura didn't really like being alone in the room with Sasuke. Not that she wasn't worried about him or wanting him to recover, of course. She was just as hopeful as Ino that their raven haired teammate would soon awaken.

No, the reason she didn't like being alone with him, was due to conflicting emotions at war with in her.

When she looked at him, she could still see that enormous fire ball bearing down on her. Still feel the terror that filled her that day. Memories that only fueled the small amount of animosity she had developed for the boy for nearly killing her.

But now, she was also seeing something else. She could see the truth in his eyes as he swore to protect her in the face of death. She could feel his sincere desire to do so. And, even more than that, she could recall the fluttering and her chest at those words. A sensation she didn't think the raven haired boy lying here now could have ever produced in her again.

"What's wrong with me?" She questioned silently, gripping the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger.

A loud slam echoed through the hallway and Sakura jumped to her feet, her hand already dipping into her weapons pouch as she looked to the open door to the room.

It only took a second for a very familiar figure to pass in front of her vision. Her green eyes widening surprising, she quickly went to the open doorway and looked down the hall where her male sensei had gone. She got there just in time going to see him punch one of the concrete pillars as he walked by, creating the same loud slamming noise she had heard earlier.

Sakura winced and unconsciously rubbed her knuckles when she saw the cracks left behind in concrete. Obviously he was using chakra to enhance his fist, but it still looked painful. For a moment she wondered what might have happened to put him in such a mood, but quickly shrugged it off as probably another fight between him and Kurenai-sensei. Shaking her head, she turned to go back to where she had been sitting but then paused, her mind drifting back to that night by the fire and the words he had said to her.

She once again looked down the hall in the direction he had gone. She knew this was probably a bad time. Just as she also knew there was a possibility he would have no insight as to what she was going through. However, even more than that she knew that, at this time, she trusted him possibly even more than she trusted her parents.

Taking one deep, calming breath, she quickly followed after her scarred sensei.

X

Jagaa had to admit, violently kicking open those main doors had left him feeling slightly satisfied. Not much, but slightly. Although, he did get the feeling that that two guarding it weren't all that pleased with him. However, whether do to his reputation or his mood, they wisely chose not to press the issue.

He walked out until he was just beyond the tree line before stopping. Tilting his head up slightly and letting his arms hang loosely at his sides, he took comfort in the feel of the gentle breeze flowing over his skin and the sound of rustling leaves filling his hearing. He took a long, deep breath in through his nose and held it for a moment before slowly exhaling through his mouth, letting the slow release and the wind on his skin wash away his anger.

It had taken all the willpower he possessed not to blow up on Anko back in that room. Not that he was angry at her for trying to sacrifice herself to kill an enemy in order to protect her village and the people she cared about. Especially if what he had been told about this 'Orochimaru' guy was true. Besides that, he could understand the desire to protect those you care about even at that cost of your own life. No, what had made him so angry, was that she apologized for coming back alive. That suicide had been her first choice. Not her Last. No matter what the reason, Jagaa could not easily forgive someone, especially someone he cared about, for simply giving up on life.

The other problem, and somewhat added to his anger, was that he couldn't blow up on her about it without having to explain why he blew up on her about it, and that really wasn't something he wanted to get into. He was happy with the way things were between him and the people around him.

Jagaa sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose, his sunglasses raising slightly as he did, and wondered what consequences his sudden exit might bring. Kakashi and the Old man didn't really matter. He wasn't too concerned with what conclusions they might draw. Anko would probably question him about it later, but he was certain she would understand it was just a friend getting mad for a friend. The only one he was really concerned about was Kurenai. He hoped that she wouldn't misunderstand...

Jagaa froze in his actions as the thought struck him before pulling his hand away and raising his head slightly. "Where the hell did that come from?" He muttered to himself.

"Where did what come from, sensei?"

"Fukinshifukdamnit!" Jagaa's unintelligible shout of surprise echoed through the forest as he wheeled around to face an equally surprised teenage girl. "Sakura!? You scared the holy hell out of me!" He put his hands on his knees and panted slightly for affect. Truthfully, he wasn't all that surprised someone without harmful intentions had managed to sneak up on him, considering how lost in his thoughts he was. But he still couldn't help but wonder if he was getting too relaxed since joining this village. It seemed like everybody was sneaking up on him these days.

"Sorry, Jagaa-sensei." Then girl apologized quickly. "I didn't mean to startle you. I had just hoped but I might be able to talk to you about something. But if this is a bad time..."

Jagaa waved off her ending while shaking his head. "Nah, this is actually a great time. I had some things on my mind I would rather not think about at the moment." Walking over to any particularly large tree, he flopped down to the ground, leaning his back up against the trunk, and patted the ground next to him while grinning. "Pull up some earth and let's have a chat."

Sakura smiled at her sensei's demeanor, glad to see that his angry mood from before seemed to have passed. Feeling much more comfortable about talking to him, Sakura sat down on his left side and lightly hugged her legs. "Jagaa-sensei," She looked over to him, hesitating a moment before continuing. "I think there might be something wrong with me."

Jagaa tilted his head slightly, displaying his interest. "What makes you say that?"

Again she hesitated, not completely sure how to explain. "...do you...do you remember how I used to be in love with Sasuke?"

Jagaa grimaced a bit. "How could I forget? My ears still ring when I think about your self-introduction." He wiggled a finger in his left ear to emphasize his words.

Sakura frowned slightly at the action (mostly because she couldn't deny it) but simply continued with what she wanted to say. "Well, after he almost...after that incident, I couldn't look at him that way anymore. Instead I started to look at Naruto. I admit, at first it was just because he saved me, but now I've also come to realize how great a guy he really is. So I was able to completely put Sasuke behind me...at least, that's what I thought."

Sakura's chin dropped onto her knees and she stared ahead blankly. "But, yesterday, Sasuke showed me a side of him that I had never imagined I would see, and my heart skipped a beat in a way I didn't think he could ever make it do ever again. And now, it feels like I'm being torn in half between who I actually like." Her voice took on a note of self-loathing. "For my feelings to be so easily swayed like this. There really must be something wrong with me."

"Yep. There is definitely something wrong with you." Jagaa agreed immediately. "Would you like to know what it is?"

Sakura looked over to the man quickly, only to get a surprise finger flick to the forehead.

"You, my dear Sakura, are fickle." Jagaa said with a smirk.

"Fickle?" She echoed uncertainly, rubbing her forehead while giving the man a look that was part surprise, part indignation, and part curiosity.

"Yep. Fickle." Jagaa scratched his chin thoughtfully. "But it might not be entirely your fault though. Tell me, Sakura, is it possible you were picked on when you were younger?"

Sakura pressed her hand a bit harder into her forehead, but not because of the flick. How could he possibly know how much she had been teased about the size of her forehead when she was little?

"I thought so." He said, taking her silence as confirmation. "You've shown a lot of signs of it. This is just another one of them."

"What...do you mean?" Sakura asked hesitantly. Not sure she wanted to know how he had so easily seen through her.

"Just little things you've said or done here and there. I can't remember any specific examples of the top off my head though." He said with a shrug. "As for your easily swayed feelings, I think it's because you are drawn to people who make you feel safe or important. Make you feel better than you think you are."

Jagaa rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "It makes sense, if you think about it. Sasuke is an attractive and talented genius that all the girls want. So you pursue him because, if you can win him, it proves all those who used to tease you, wrong. As far as Naruto goes, and now Sasuke again it seems, they protected you. They make you feel safe. You don't need to worry about what other people say about you if you have someone there to keep you safe and protect you from it." Jagaa turned his face back to Sakura. "Long story short. My guess is that your attraction to a boy is driven by your insecurities."

Sakura stared at the man in silence for some time. She wanted to protest his words, but deep down she knew he was right. Even inner Sakura had gone silent. Sakura cast her eyes to the ground, hugging her legs tightly. "Am I really so shallow?" She asked in a quiet voice.

Jagaa chuckled and shook his head. "Not shallow. Young." He smiled when Sakura looked at him again. "There is something very important that you just haven't learned yet." He reached across his body with his right hand and grasped Sakura's own right hand with it. He then guided her hand to her chest and placed it over her heart. "Before you can truly love anyone else, you have to truly love yourself. And I don't mean looking in the mirror and finding features you think are good, or telling yourself what good qualities you have. I mean, love all of yourself, both the good parts and the bad, because, when you love someone, that is what you are doing for them and asking them to do for you."

Jagaa removed his hand from on top of hers before he continued. But before you can start on that, you first need to figure out who you want to be, and why you want to be that person."

Sakura blinked in surprise at the sudden shift of direction to the conversation. "Who I want to be and why?"

"Exactly." The man nodded. "Before you can love yourself, you need to know who you are and who you want to be." He looked back over to her, a small smirk playing at his lips. "So tell me, Sakura, who do you want to be? Without worrying about what Sasuke or Naruto or me or princess or even your parents might think. Who do you want to be? And, even more importantly than that, why?"

Sakura gave the man a strange look. What kind of question was that? Obviously she wanted to be a great kunoichi. She opened her mouth to say as much, but stopped when she remembered his words. He had not asked her 'what' she wants to be, but 'who' she wanted to be. And, more importantly, even if a person didn't make a distinction between what and who they wanted to be, he had also asked her 'why'?

Sakura frowned lightly and she thought about the question. Why did she want to become a kunoichi? The answer before had been easy. She wanted to impress Sasuke. She had thought that, if she became a great kunoichi, that he would fall in love with her the way she was in love with him. But, after the incident, that reason really hadn't held much value anymore. So why had she still wanted to train?

She could say that it had become been to impress Naruto instead of Sasuke, but she knew that wasn't true. Naruto wasn't the type that would need somebody to be strong in order to like them. He liked people for who they were and never asked them to be anything else.

She could say it was because Jagaa-sensei had forced her to train, but that's also wasn't true. From what she had learned of the man since then she knew that, if she had truly wanted to quit being a ninja, he not only would have been okay with it, he would have supported her completely. Sakura also believed that Kurenai-sensei would have as well.

Her parents? No. They had never wanted her to become a ninja in the first place. Actually, they would have been thrilled if she had told them she wanted to quit.

So why didn't she want to quit it?

For some reason Jagaa-sensei's comment about her latching on to people that made her feel protected ran through her mind again and her frown got a little deeper. She had never really thought about it before, but he was completely right. Even before Sasuke and Naruto, Sakura had once latched on to Ino for the very same reason. During her early childhood when she was being picked on the hardest, the blonde girl had swooped and saved her from her life of being teased by giving her confidence and becoming her best friend. The only reason Sakura was able to become who she is today was because of Ino.

Sakura's eyes widened slightly. 'Always...protected?'

Ino had protected her from being bullied. Naruto had protected her from Sasuke's attack. Sasuke protected her from the foreign ninja. Even Inari, a 10 year old civilian, had protected her from those mercenaries with his cross bow. Also, when they had started the mission to wave country, she hadn't been expecting to be protected by the jounin and not have to do any fighting herself.

'Is that who I am? Someone who always has to be protected?' Sakura's teeth clenched and her finger nails dug into her arms. 'Yes. That's exactly who I am. But that's not who I want to be!' She raised her gaze towards the sky she could see through the tree tops, her green eyes seeming to shine as felt her determination grow. 'I don't want to be someone that has to be protected by others all the time. I want to be someone that is strong enough to protect others. I want to be a great kunoichi that can stand on my own feet no matter what life may throw at me. I want to be someone that people can be proud of. To be someone 'I' can be proud of!'

"So you've started to understand who you want to be, have you?"

Sakura jumped visibly at the sudden comment before looking over to her sensei who was smiling in amusement at her reaction. She had been so deep in her thoughts that she had actually forgotten the man was there. "How did you know?"

"I was watching the 'Sakura facial expression theater'. It was rather entertaining." He gave her a wide grin, which made her pout a little bit, before continuing. "I'm glad that you were able to find out who you want to be, though."

Sakura frowned slightly at that. "Is it really supposed to be so easy? To figure out who you want to be, I mean?"

"Actually, yes." He said easily. "The problem is that most people don't sit and take the time to figure out who they want to become. They just complain about who they wish they were."

Sakura tilted her head is she thought about that. It was actually pretty true. She could remember when all she did was cry about being teased and how she wished she were someone else, but never actually tried to be someone else. If it hadn't been for Ino...she shook her head to clear away those thoughts. She owed the blonde girl more than she could say, but that could wait till later. Instead, she looked back to her male sensei and smirked. "That's true. You know, you are really good at this whole 'sensei' thing, Jagaa-sensei."

The man scratched the back of his head and let out a small chuckle. "I don't know about that. But I do have a lot of practice being a big brother. So maybe some of that experience just tends to leak into this job."

Sakura stood up, dusting of her pants off she did, and looked back over to her sensei. "Well, either way, I'm really glad you came to Konoha, Jagaa-sensei." She could tell that the comment surprised him by the slight raise of his eyebrows and she giggled silently as she walked. She had only gone a few steps when she was suddenly struck with an idea and turned back to him. "So, Jagaa-sensei, if you think you are better at being a brother than a teacher," She struck as seductive a pose as she could, her fingers tips lightly touching her bottom lip as she fluttered her eyelashes at him and spoke in her cutest voice, " should I call you Onii-chan?"

Jagaa laughed, grabbing a handful of leaves and throwing them at her. "Get out of here you little vixen."

Sakura laughed as well as she ran out of the range of leaves before stopping to look back one more time. "Thank you, Jagaa-sensei." He responded with a simple wave and, with one more smile, she ran back to the tower.

Jagaa kept his hand raised until he saw the girl disappear through the doors. Once she had, he slowly let it drop onto his lap and tilted his head back against a tree so that his face was pointed towards the sky. "...Onii-chan, huh?"

X

Jagaa yawned loudly, his right hand making a fist in front of his mouth to partially conceal it, only to jolt in surprise at when a slim elbow jabbed into his ribs.

"Stop that!" Kurenai hissed as several of the other jounin standing in the line behind the Konoha leader glanced their way. "The Hokage is giving an important speech right now. Yawing like that is disrespectful."

Jagaa shrugged uncaringly, rubbing his ribs as he did. "Yeah, yeah. Representatives of each country. The exam symbolizes warfare between the nations. Yadda, yadda, yadda. I can hear, Princess."

"Then quit yawning like that. You're embarrassing us in front of the foreign jounin." Kurenai chastised, earning yet another yawn for her efforts.

X X X

Naruto yawned loudly, his right hand clapped over his mouth in an attempt to stifle it a bit, only to jolt in surprise when he felt a light blow to the back of his head.

"Stop that, Chibi!" Tenten hissed at him as several of the other genin standing in the formation glanced over. "The Hokage is giving us a speech right now."

Naruto shrugged uncaringly, rubbing the back of his head as he did. "Yeah, yeah. We represent our countries. The exams are a form of war between the countries. Blah, blah, blah. I heard it all, Bun-chan."

"Then stop yawning. You're making us look bad in front of the other teams." The bun-haired girl scolded.

"Whatever." The boy grunted before attempting to stifle another yawn.

Up behind the Hokage, Asuma and Kakashi shared a chuckle as the watched both very similar events transpire.

"Yo, Teme," Naruto suddenly whispered, lightly jabbing his finger into the Uchiha's back, "how are you feeling? Is that weird mark bothering you at all?"

Sasuke's hand went up to rub the base of his neck. "Not really. Not after Kakashi-sensei did the sealing."

"Oh yeah. How did that go?" Kiba asked from the side. "None of us were allowed to go in and you were knocked out again for another three days when it was done."

Sasuke's eyes went distant as he remembered the day he Kakashi had sealed the curse mark on his neck.

/Flashback/

Sasuke was a bit nervous as he sat in the middle of the large array of words and symbols drawn on the floor while Kakashi-sensei finished adding the remaining lettering to his shirtless body so that it all seemed to connect to the strange mark on his neck. Sasuke shifted his eyes to the left, getting a better view of Kurenai-sensei, Jagaa-sensei, and Anko that were observing the process. Neither they nor Kakashi-sensei had said much during the hour or so that it had taken for the seal to be drawn out, making Sasuke feel even more tense than he otherwise might have. It had been especially bothering to see Jagaa-sensei making such a serious expression. Especially since the only times the young Uchiha had seen that expression directed at him in the past was after the scarred man had either beaten him down or threatened to kill him.

"Okay. It's finished." Kakashi-sensei said after putting the final touches on the array. "Let's begin." Sasuke heard him take a step back. "SEAL!"

Pain shot through Sasuke's body, spreading out from the base of his neck that felt as if the seal was being seared into his flesh. After what felt like hours of agony, the searing finally stopped and Sasuke dropped to his hands and knees, panting heavily and trying to fight back the exhaustion that was trying to overtake him as well as the residual pain from the technique. As he struggled to maintain his consciousness, Sasuke could only really think of one thing.

'Why the hell does EVERY sealing technique have to hurt so damned much!'

"It's done." Kakashi-sensei said. Sasuke looked up to the silver haired man as he continued. "However, the effectiveness of this seal depends entirely on you, Sasuke. It is directly controlled by your own willpower."

"Make sure you listen, brat." Sasuke looked over to Anko who had taken a few steps towards him. "Orochimaru's curse seal will give you power. There is no doubt about that. However there are dangers in using it. The seal will pull out your darkest desires and twist your perceptions. Just like it did in the emergency room." Sasuke only nodded as he remembered his inability to recognize either the Konoha medic nin or the woman talking to him now. "Also, in your case, you are in a state that could be considered a gamble. The curse seal has attached itself to your desire to protect your friends. So it is possible that you may be able to maintain your sanity and use the seal for good purposes. However, it is also possible that the seal could twist your protective desires so badly that you actually believe the only way to protect them is to injure them. Possibly even kill them." Sasuke felt his blood run cold at that. He wanted to protest, but the woman was ahead of him. "You may not think that's possible, but believe me, I have seen some pretty twisted shit done by people who thought they were protecting someone. I even remember a mother who murdered all five of her children in order to 'protect them from this evil world'." Anko looked the boy dead in the eye. "The best thing you can do, is never use that cursed power. Don't take the risk."

Sasuke's fingernails dug into his shoulder just under the seal. He could remember the power that had flowed through him in that room. It was beyond anything he could have imagined before. He knew he could use it. He could use it to protect his friends. He could use it to avenge his clan. He could use it, but now he didn't know if he dared to. He had already lost everything he cared about once. The very idea that he could lose it all again by his own hand…he was already feeling sick at just the thought.

"Ah, don't worry so much, Anko-chan. He'll be okay." Sasuke's eyes darted to the source of the voice and found his scarred sensei smirking confidently. "He's stronger than some lizard bastard's curse."

Sasuke was more grateful than he could say at the confidence the man had for him. The young Uchiha felt a pride well up in him and a sense of relief flooded through his body. Pride that he had earned the man's approval. Relief that he believed Sasuke capable of overcoming the curse placed upon him. This relief allowed the exhaustion he had been fighting to take hold and he felt himself slipping into unconsciousness. The last thing he heard before darkness claimed him his senses was Kurenai-sensei saying something about "snakes, not lizards."

/Flashback End/

"So really nothing then?" Naruto asked.

Sasuke continued to rub the base of his neck. "Well, I feel strange twinges now and then. Not painful. More like a pressure. But other than that, there hasn't been any problems." Sasuke removed his hand and smirked. "So, sorry, Moron. You won't be getting a handicap if we fight. I know you were hoping for one since it's the only way you could beat me."

Naruto gave the Uchiha a smug look and matched Sasuke's smirk. "I was just making sure you weren't planning to use it as an excuse after I've kicked your sorry ass."

"You two should really start paying attention." Tenten warned, pointing past Naruto's head to the front of the formation. Both boys followed her gesture to see a sickly looking man who they didn't know standing in front of the assembled Genin.

"Thank you Hokage-sama. I, Gekkou Hayate, will explain the rules of the preliminary matches."

Naruto's eyes widened slightly. "Preliminaries?"

AN: FTK stood with his back to a wall as a massive, and angry, fox glared into his eyes. It's very large and very lethal teeth only a few feet away. "You said I would get at least three chapters, you damned human! I only got one! I haven't even gotten an appearance in your pathetic story yet! Give me a reason I shouldn't eat your soul this instant!" FTK sweated profusely as he answered, his eyes never leaving the enormous teeth. "Uh, because, from now on, you'll always help me out when we introduce and close the chapter in the AN?" The Kyuubi thought about it for a moment then grudgingly nodded. "Fine. But only because I don't want to anger Rhea by eating her partner. It might ruin our date next Friday." FTK's eyes widened. "You're dating my muse!?" Kyuubi growled lowly. "You got a problem with that, mortal? I admit, I have an attraction to the murderous tendencies she possesses. Just think of the beautiful destruction we could make together." FTK shuddered, but forced a smile. "Nope. No problem. Glad you two are getting along." The Kyuubi's eyes went distant, possibly imagining death and destruction on humanity, and FTK muttered under his breath. "Just great. My homicidal muse is dating the incarnate of death and destruction. I'm fucked." FTK then turns to the reader. Meaning you. "So, that's the end of this chapter. Sorry it was short. I just wanted to show I was still alive. Hopefully I'll be able to write more. I'm trying to work time into my schedule and I FINALLY know where I can go to get stuff done. But no promises on update speeds. However, I hope you all also enjoy this Omoke. I plan on doing more. You know. Things that I wanted to put into the story but couldn't fit into the story line or things I just thought would be fun to write. Also, if anyone has any ideas of an omake they would like to see, feel free to send it via PM or Review…assuming anyone is still reading this story."

Omake: The Fly

Kurenai wasn't overly pleased with the Hokage as she approached the apartment of the notorious blonde brothers. She could understand that he needed to talk to the pair, but couldn't he have sent a chuunin to deliver the message instead. It figured that she would just happen show up in his office when he was looking for someone to send. Sometimes she seriously wondered if Kami had something against her. She had just opened the gate to the apartment complex when she was startled by a sudden shout from her partner jounin.

"It's over there! Get it!" The shout was followed by several loud crashes and several curses. Worried that there was an attack happening, Kurenai leapt up to the doorway and kicked open the door. She was greeted by the sight of both brothers standing in the middle of the living room, weapons at the ready, and staring intently at the surrounding space. All around them, the walls were covered in slashes and impaled by kunai. The furniture was in a similar state with a few chairs and the table having been tipped over. She was just about to ask what was happening when it was Naruto who suddenly shouted. "There it is!" The boy launched several kunai, impaling nothing but the wall.

"Got it!" Jagaa launched forward, his sword swinging through empty air before he spun around and swung again. "Damn it! I missed again!"

"Don't worry, it's mine!" This time it was Naruto slashing at the air with a kunai held in each hand. "Shit! I couldn't get him. This thing has to be a summon! There's no way it could be this good otherwise!"

Kurenai was beyond confused. What in the world were they talking about? She, once again, was just about to ask when a small, black dot passed in front of her eyes, made visible by the white wall behind it and she could only gape in disbelief. "…a fly?"

"There's the bastard!" Both blondes launched themselves towards where the fly had landed. The wall and nightstand took heavy damage, but the fly remained unharmed. "SHIT!" They both shouted in frustration.

Kurenai watched the chaos in numb silence. How in the world could two highly trained ninja be having so much trouble killing a single fly? It was just ludicrous. She was in the midst of following the 'battle' when she saw something out of the corner of her eye, just behind the nearest chair.

Naruto and Jagaa were stalking their enemy carefully. The little bastard had just landed on the wall near the entryway. Perhaps planning to make a hasty escape through the door after their next attack. They knew this could be their last chance to get it. They crouched, poised to pounce. Everything would come down to this final rush.

SMACK!

The blondes stared in shock as their nemesis was destroyed. Crushed under a squareish, net like rubber attached to a long handle. They looked to the woman holding the woman holding the weapon and their jaws dropped.

Kurenai held the flyswatter in her left hand, her arm across her body due to the angle of the strike, and watched the shocked faces of the two brothers. Jagaa was the first to finally speak. "Princess? How the hell did you manage to kill that bastard?"

"…I used your flyswatter." She deadpanned, her eye twitching slightly in irritation.

Jagaa turned to Naruto, his brow raised in surprise. "We have a flyswatter?"

Naruto just shrugged. His own expression revealing that he hadn't known about it either.

"…the Hokage wants to see you." Kurenai dropped the flyswatter and walked back out the door, shaking her head. She wasn't paid enough for this.