A Fox's Deception

Hi! Thanks for wanting to read this fanfic. I hope you like this story.

PS: This is a joint story with NkyOT, formerly known as OokamiTsume, so we both have it in our account.

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Chapter 9 A Blast from the Past

Sasuke's face was the picture of shock. How, just exactly how, could that dobe stand there with his back to the enemy like that? Was he insane? He could hardly believe the nerve of that loser! He was an unfathomable idiot, and Sasuke's brain was for a moment preoccupied with his imprudence, but then something in the back of his mind began to whisper. Was the dobe right? Was he really acting like such a coward, bargaining their lives on a roll of paper?

He mentally shook his head. No. This had nothing to do with cowardice. The enemy was clearly at a level way above their own. If lowering himself from his high horse and surrendering meant surviving, he'd do it in a heartbeat. After all, they could always ambush the other participants and get another scroll — they could still have a chance to pass the exam. If they kept trying to fight off this crazily strong woman, however, they… they would most likely die. Sasuke scowled. That idiot just didn't know what he was talking about. This wasn't like the fight with Zabuza and the hunter-nin where they had Kakashi as a backup to save their skins when things went wrong.

He gritted his teeth, and in a low voice — as if he hoped vainly the enemy wouldn't be able to catch his words — he spat at the blonde, "You idiot, Naruto. Don't you see we can't win here? I'm saving our skins!"

Naruto's face was almost a snarl. The Uchiha's show of cowardice clearly not agreeing with him at all, no matter the small issue of survival. "Doesn't look like it to me, teme! Are you seriously giving in to a slimy bitch like that?" Naruto jerked a thumb over his shoulder, and had his teammates not been preoccupied with fearing for their own safety, they would have probably been stricken with heart attacks at the blonde's sheer recklessness. He was insulting possibly the strongest enemy they'd ever faced, whilst presenting his back to her.

However, forebodingly, the woman was smiling. It was an ear-splitting, malevolent grin, and a pointed tongue was lapping at her lips, saliva dripping from its deep pink flesh. A deep, throaty chuckle was shaking her slim shoulders and forcing its way around her teeth.

Behind Sasuke, Sakura was brought to her knees, trembling violently. "P-please, Naruto, stop yelling…" she whimpered, but the blonde (who was focusing his anger upon the stubborn Sasuke) did not hear her. Unnoticed by the two boys, the woman shifted, and Sakura let out a high-pitched cry, "Look out! Naruto!"

Gasping in surprise, Naruto twisted to his left, and not a split second later there was a dull thunk as, mere inches from where his throat had been, a kunai embedded itself deeply within the bark of a nearby tree. The three children were silent, all eyes now turned to their enemy, who was walking towards them with measured, taunting steps. With a short growl in his throat, Naruto gripped his own blade tightly in his hand, his knuckles turning white. She stopped.

"I see you escaped my friend…" there was a long, steady slurp, followed by an amused chuckle. "…boy."

Naruto smirked past his apprehension, his mouth twitching as he tried to keep his face bluffing confidence that he only half-felt. "So, that snake was yours?" he said, the corners of his lips curling upwards discreetly. "Well, I'm afraid it ate something that its stomach really didn't agree with." Then he subtly sniffed the air. "You really reek of snakes, y'know."

There was a slight shift in the air, but the woman only seemed amused by his lack of tact. She hummed out a curious chuckle of laughter. "My my, I guess they didn't bother teaching you how to hold your tongue, did they? Poor, neglected child…" Her voice was gleeful, mocking — and knowing. Naruto's eyes narrowed. How could she know about the villager's contempt? Was she hoping to probe a rise from him? Inadvertently, caught by the comment, he took a step back to steady himself. The smirk had slipped from his face.

Well, he wasn't going to let her get to him! Putting on a foxy grin, he replied, "And how about you? You seem pretty powerful. And yet, here you are, in such a low rank. Your sensei must think that you're still not up to par."

Something about his words struck a bitter chord. Dark eyes narrowed, glinting dangerously. "You don't know a thing."

"Oh, really?" the blonde gloated further. In the back of his mind, he could hear Musha groaning in apprehension, but Naruto simply wasn't able to stop his motor mouth from running once it started. The darkening look on his enemy's face only spurred him in. "I actually think I do. If I was your sensei, I wouldn't promote you either. Come on, who'd promote a crazy bitch like you? Only the insane or the stupid, that's who. And I'm betting your sensei is neither of those."

The Kusa-nin's face contorted at those words, hitting a deeply hidden nerve, and for a moment Naruto had to wonder if she was remembering a different incident entirely. She snarled, baring her sharp, almost canine teeth, and detachedly Naruto wondered if she was from a clan like the Inuzuka. Her abnormally long tongue darted out to wet her lips. Spittle flew from her teeth with every word. "My sensei was a fool! A damn, wretched old codger!I- I was perfect for that job! And then he promotes that young bastard instead, that- that-" Her eyes, widened with rage, focused on Naruto's face, and Naruto thought that her maddened eyes might pop out of her head; the anger directed at him was unmistakably lethal, and he gulped. He'd pushed it too far. She— she didn't even seem to be seeing him anymore, but another person entirely. "You!" she screamed, and with a livid hiss, the Grass kunoichi formed a series of hand seals in the blink of an eye. With a large puff of smoke, another one of her gigantic snake summons appeared.

Naruto lurched backwards, swearing, as the snake launched itself towards him. "Holy shit!"

There was an almighty, splintering crash as the serpent collided headfirst with the thick, oversized trunk behind the position Naruto had been in only moments before. The snake let out a deep, throaty hiss, and drew back slightly, ready to dive again. Wood peppered its nose, thick, arm-long splinters sticking out of its scales like quills on a porcupine. It whipped its great head around, and a few large shards fell, tumbling to the floor far, far below. When the resulting impact reached his ears an eerily long time later, Naruto gulped. He hadn't realised just how far up they were.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, the snake's tail hit him broadly across the side. Naruto yelled out as he was flung into the air, legs kicking out for a foothold that was no longer beneath him. He barely managed to get his bearings in time to twist so that his back was the first thing to hit the tree he was flung into. Feeling the bark crack against his skin, Naruto cried in pain. He was sure the sharp fissures would draw blood.

Sure enough, when he climbed out of the significant hole his body had created, he could already feel the warm liquid spreading pools across his clothes, and running in trembling rivulets down his skin. He clambered onto a nearby branch, and coughed at the dust he inhaled. Naruto groaned. His eyes stung with the dirt, but he couldn't rub them for fear of forcing splinters into his eyes. His eyes misted, trying to clear the particles away, but Naruto could no longer see.

He shook his head violently from side to side. "Godammit!"

"Kit, look out!"

Naruto jumped, blinking furiously, and just in time. Long, thick fangs sank into the wood he had just been crouched on, venom sliding viscously down their yellowed surface to pool in stringy globules upon the dirty bark. The dust clung to the shining poison like flies to berries. Seconds later, wisps of smoke rose from the bark as it began to steadily corrode from the acidic substance. There was a growling, hot rush of air as the snake eased its teeth from their mark. With his eyes clearing too slowly to be of any use, Naruto felt his way more than seeing it, and leapt with not-so-metaphorical blind faith to an adjoining branch.

All of a sudden, silence fell. Naruto's eyes finally cleared, and he looked up from where he had landed. The giant snake had disappeared. But Naruto knew it couldn't have gone far. He could still smell its foul stench in the air. The blonde glanced around cautiously, adrenalin screaming through his veins as he tried to pull air into his lungs fast enough to keep up with his viciously pounding heart.

Abruptly, the branch trembled. "Ah!" Naruto leapt upwards as the mammoth branch exploded in two, and suddenly the snake's pulsing, slimy mouth was chasing him into the air. His momentum was failing; those fangs were inches from his heels, its pronged tongue lapping at his ankles.

"Oh no you don't!" he yelled angrily. Red-hot chakra surged through his veins, his stomach burning. Twisting in the air, he smashed his fist into the snake's scraped nose. The beast's head jerked shut with a menacing hiss, its tongue trapped lolling from its jaw. Naruto was filled with a vicious strength, feeling fury well up in his limbs. He unleashed a hail of blows onto the snake's face, lashing out with his clenched fists and kicking at its jaw. The feeling was familiar, and he knew it was Musha's strength flowing through him. He had no doubt his eyes were bleeding red across his blue irises, his pupils narrowing to feral slits.

All of a sudden, the tip of the beast's tail caught him across the throat, whipping his body sideways. Naruto snarled and yelled out. The impact was so sharp and sudden that he felt sure he would have a large, nasty bruise spreading over his neck in no time. He smashed through three lots of branches, this time unable to protect himself in the least. When he finally crashed to a stop, he was stunned, his body wracked with pain. He lay still, waiting for Musha's chakra to do its work.

From high up above there came the sound of chuckling laughter, and the Kusa-nin looked down upon her snake's work with glee in her eyes. "Well, well…" she murmured, looking at the boy's small, dishevelled form. "Earlier, I did wonder if it was you. Who would've thought you'd still be alive…"

But the Jinchuuriki didn't respond, and after a moment the assailant turned her attention to where, a little way away, Naruto's two other team mates still sat, frozen in place. Moving forwards, she locked eyes with the Uchiha. As a wild grin spread across her face, killing intent filled the air.

Sakura choked, her whole body trembling violently; she could barely breathe. Her mind was screaming at her to run, but she couldn't move; she was fixed in place, paralysed with fear. She couldn't take her eyes off of her enemy's, and from the corner of her vision she saw Sasuke fairing the same; he was stricken, too, eyes widened and mouth slightly agape with fear. She'd never seen him scared. To her right, in her peripheral sight, Sakura could just see Naruto's distant form struggling upwards.

'Oh please,' she pleaded in her mind, 'Naruto, please!'

Below her, Naruto was indeed stirring from his shock, thanks to the Kyuubi's panicked yells, "Get up, you lazy brat! Now!" Complying slowly, Naruto struggled onto all fours, coughing. His knee stung, and there was blood dripping into his eye from his forehead. He tried to focus on what Musha was saying. "You've got to send for help, Naruto, now! This- this woman, she's not who you think!"

"W-who is she, Musha?" Naruto replied shakily, pressing a hand to his forehead to dull the throbbing ache.

He sensed Musha shaking his great head, muzzle snapping in agitation. "Just do it, Kit, and then get out of there!"

Taking a steady breath, Naruto hastily formed a few seals. He didn't have to draw blood; he was already splattered with it. "Kuchiyose no jutsu," he murmured, and with a small puff of smoke, a canary appeared before him. It chirruped quietly, sensing the danger around them.

"Hello, Natsu," Naruto whispered as he leaned over the bird's tiny form. "I know I don't call you out often, I usually just take your form myself, don't I?" The canary cocked its head at him, fixing him with a beady eye, chirping once. "Don't worry," Naruto continued. "But I need your help, alright?" Bending closer, Naruto whispered. "As soon as this maniac bitch reveals any indication of who she really is, you fly away, okay? You fly as fast as you can and warn Anko. She's somewhere nearby. If anyone knows how to deal with a crazy bitch, it's her. Got it?" Natsu chirruped again, and hopped away to nearby safety.

Sighing in a small lapse of relief, Naruto then turned his attention back to his adversary. The wild woman was in the canopy up above, eyes fixed hungrily upon his two teammates. Naruto swore, struggling to his feet, and as he did a few words reached his ears.

"Your turn."

Sakura and Sasuke's hearts skipped a beat, and suddenly the great serpent's face (bloody, grazed, and bruised, but still terrifyingly malicious) turned towards them. It hissed, open mouthed, its fangs glinting in the shafts of light breaking through the dense leaves, its acidic poison gathering at the tip and dripping heavily to the forest below. Suddenly, with a rush like thunder, the beast launched its gigantic body towards them, amid its mistress' fanatical laughter.

Paralysis broken without eye contact, Sakura screamed, "Sasuke-kun, look out!"

The Uchiha, roused by her frantic cry, lurched backwards with panic in his onyx eyes, and stumbled. His legs were still weak at the knees, and he cursed a blue streak as he struggled for a weapon. It was no use! Those fangs were inches from his body! He couldn't escape! He couldn't run! He was going to—!

"Move, idiot!"

A fist clenched his collar, and suddenly he was propelled backwards as a deafening smash resounded through the air. Panting, Sasuke looked up. Feet away, there stood Naruto, the enormous beast braced upon his back. Kunai were anchored deeply into the snake's nostrils, and Naruto was holding on for dear life, grounding the beast. A look of pain was splashed across his face, and he flinched as the creature struggled to throw him away.

"D-dammit, Sasuke!" Naruto growled through gritted teeth. "Why the hell are you always getting in the way?" Sasuke said nothing, transfixed by the blonde's gnashing, pointed teeth and his blood red eyes. Naruto scoffed, and managed a rough laugh, tinged with an animalistic rumble. "You're not scared, are you, bastard? You scaredy-cat!"

"Naruto…" was all Sasuke could say, his voice hoarse. And then his eyes went wide. "Naruto!"

A hand scraped at his hair, and the blonde Jinchuuriki was yanked upwards onto the beast's head. He struggled and scrapped in the grasp, immense pain shredding at his scalp; he felt clumps of hair rip loose. Suddenly, the grip let up, and Naruto tumbled to the scaled head below him, groaning in pain.

Feet were inches from his nose, and there came a smooth, murderous laugh. Naruto was almost afraid to look up.

"Well well," the lady drawled, her tongue cascading back down her throat with a sickly gulp, "look what we have here..."

With an iron grip, scarily stead-fast and irremovable, she hooked her fingers into the back of Naruto's collar and lifted him to her face, the black and orange material of his jacket tearing slightly in protest. The blonde let out a small, feral growl of discomfort as sharp nails scraped at the skin of his neck, angry scratches, prickled with blood, blossoming on his nape. The woman's eerie smile split into a wide, wide grin, teeth, glinting white and pointed, creeping out from below stretched, pale lips.

"Looks like the Kyuubi brat lives." She chuckled, laughed, and her very voice seemed to morph into something so devious and so smooth that it was barely human, amused by every little quirk of warped nature the world had to give – including him, the unwitting brat infused with a demon. "Your name… all these years and I've not forgotten the little demon spawn, Uzumaki Naruto."

Naruto's red eyes widened, and with anger, and disbelief, he growled out, screamed, "Who the hell are you? Hebi!"

"You want to know who I am, boy?" The woman said, her face suddenly grave, her eyes flashing dangerously. "Well, let me show you." And suddenly, as the woman's hand (now eerily pale) reached up to her forehead, Naruto was filled with the most intense sense of dread he had ever felt. But he couldn't move. He hung limply from her— from this creature's grasp, and watched with horror as her fingers bit into her own skin, and began to peel it away.

"W-what are you?" Naruto cried hoarsely. The shape shifter in front of him only laughed. The laugh was still the same. It was a silky, guttural laugh that echoed smoothly in his eardrums and struck fear into every fibre of Naruto's being, causing his very atoms to resonate with a terrible sense of terror.

Slowly, torturously, the face of his enemy was peeled away, and Naruto stared into glinting, hungry, yellow eyes.

The tanned skin of the woman fell away, revealing a sickly, moonlight-pale flesh, and those eyes flashed with mirth. A smooth, deceptive voice mocked his trepidation.

"Do you know my face now, Naruto-kun?" The chameleonasked innocently. "Have they taught a child like you to fear me yet?"

Naruto's eyes grew wide, and his mouth went dry as everything suddenly clicked into place. He remembered the stories he had overheard, whispered in the corners of the village between grown men who trembled as they spoke, and he remembered the way those inhuman eyes, that monstrous smile, has leered with a sickly humour out at him from the pages of his stolen Bingo Book. He remembered Musha's voice, layered with raw disgust and fury.

Dimly, he was aware of Musha calling to him now, growling at him, yelling at him to get away. This ninja — this creature — was too strong for him to face. He was laughing now, his eyes, unblinking, never leaving Naruto's face.

"Can you name me now, Naruto-kun?"

Naruto didn't notice that the pale, spindly hand at his nape had been replaced by that long, wet tongue, flexing its muscle tighter and tighter around his waist. He didn't notice the seals being formed. He couldn't tear his gaze away from that biting, mocking stare. He gulped.

"I know who you are," he answered, the sound barely audible as more than a whisper, but there was still a tremor of hatred in his voice. His throat was dry, but he was defiant. He snarled, "Orochimaru!"

The man laughed, the sound cold and bone chilling, and suddenly pain ripped through Naruto's stomach. He screamed. Lights burst in front of his eyes, and his vision tunnelled.

He threw his head back, thrashed, he could head Musha yelling,"Get away! Get away!"But it was no use. He wanted to cry back, desperately, "I'm trying!", but darkness was rushing in, sounds dimming, his skin was cold. For a second, all he was aware of was blinding pain spreading through his veins, setting his very blood on fire — and then nothing. Consciousness left him, and he surrendered to oblivion, his lasts thoughts hoping desperately that his canary would make it on time.

Sakura, being too far away to have heard anything going on between Naruto and their adversary, let out a startled cry as the enemy ninja released her grip on the unconscious form of her team mate. Without thinking, the pink-haired kunoichi whipped out a kunai and released it. The kunai flew through the thick air, cutting the sudden, heavy silence with a slicing hiss, and with a resounding thunk, it ripped a hole through Naruto's shirt and anchored his plummeting form against a nearby tree trunk.

Sakura let out a shaking, relieved breath, a sob rising up on its heels. With tears glistening in her emerald orbs, she turned to look at her other team mate, still frozen where he sat. "What are you doing, Sasuke-kun?" she exclaimed, her voice budding hoarsely from her parched throat, twin streams of tears beginning to trickle down her dirtied cheeks. "How can you just sit there and let Naruto be beaten like that?" The words were a desperate, frightened keen. Her vision of a prince-like warrior, her Sasuke-kun, was slowly being disillusioned, and was being replaced by the reality — the pitiable image she saw now — of Sasuke staring at her with blank, unregistering eyes, panicked and afraid, as if not knowing who they were, where they were. Sakura was almost angry by his unusual, lost appearance. "You're supposed to be the strongest in the team, right? The strongest of the Rookie Nine! So why is Naruto the only one protecting us?"

Slowly, very slowly, she saw life returning to his eyes at her words, and hope bubbled up inside her to replace her despair. She carried on, despite being acutely aware of the amused yellow orbs a small distance away, staring at their pathetic forms. "That woman, she's powerful, and I'm terrified! But haven't we faced strong people before? Zabuza and Haku? They were both monsters in their own right, too, and… and we won. So get up, Sasuke-kun! Get up! Get up and fight! Or do you just want to die here?"

Finally, something broke through. Her words seemed to have struck a chord within the Uchiha, and he blinked. "You're right…" Slowly, he rose to his feet, using a nearby tree trunk as support. The bark splintered under his grip as he clenched his fist. "Sakura…"

"Yes?" The kunoichi hastily wiped her tears away. Her Uchiha ouji-sama was back!

"Take Naruto to somewhere safe." Hand seals flashed. Sasuke brought his hand to his mouth. "Now, Sakura!"

"Hai!" She leapt clear.

"Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu!"

Orochimarumerely observed with mild interest as the gigantic fireball roared towards him, not even bothering to dodge. Within seconds, man and jutsu collided, his silhouetted engulfed in blistering flames as the tree's bark baked in a massive burst of scorching smoke.

Cautiously, with a kunai ready at hand, Sasuke waited for the smoke to subside. When it did he saw, to his satisfaction, nothing but burnt trees remained.

Wait. He gritted his teeth. Shouldn't there be a body? And just as that thought left his mind, the air shifted.

Instinctively, he whipped round, weapon clutched defensively in his grasp. The two kunai collided with a clang, and an amused yellow gaze was suddenly staring into determined onyx. The smell of burnt flesh was pungent in Sasuke's nostrils, and now he was close enough to realise the ninja's change of face — this person wasn't a Grass kunoichi, whoever they were! Sasuke's mouth drew back in a snarl. With effort, straining under the pressure of the blow he was blocking, he grunted out, "Who the hell are you?"

His adversary simply laughed, and pressed forward harder with his weapon. He showed no great effort at all, made it seem like he was simply toying with Sasuke — which, the Uchiha guessed, he was. Involuntarily, Sasuke let out a soft grunt. This monster was really strong. He was straining to keep the kunai away from his person. He couldn't keep this up for much longer! With a burst of strength, he parried the kunai away and leapt backwards. From the corner of his eyes, he spotted Sakura carefully place Naruto onto a lower tree branch, sweat covering her face. Dimly, he thought how weak girls were. She was already exhausted from lifting the heavier Naruto.

"You have no time to look away, boy!"

Sasuke barely had time to dodge as the same kunai he had just been blocking tore through the air. He tumbled forward to a lower branch, but the blade caught him across the jaw. He winced.

Laughter echoed around the forest, followed by mocking disappointment, "I didn't think avoiding conflict was the Uchiha's way…" There were footsteps, but Sasuke couldn't see the enemy. "Don't tell me your family legacy is left to a coward, Sasuke-kun?"

Sasuke scowled. "Shut up! How do you know my name?"

"Oh, I know you, Sasuke-kun…" suddenly, there was a sound at Sasuke's back. He span round. "I know your brother too. How very disappointed he would be, to see you caught so easily, so defenceless…"

"Don't talk to me about him!" Sasuke spat, Sharingan activated. Speeding through familiar hand seals, he spewed out another gigantic fireball at his adversary, point blank, whilst leaping backwards to avoid the explosion. With a weapon in hand, the Uchiha looked rapidly from right to left, still paying attention to the smoking area. If it was like before, the weird Kusa-nin would've escaped the attack. But was that scum really strong enough to take it head on?

Sudden laughter behind him answered his question. "What are you aiming at, Sasuke-kun?" Amused yellow eyes stared at the Uchiha, tongue licking pale lips in appreciation. Yes, the boy was definitely much easier to obtain that his prodigal brother. Too bad about the eyes though — they weren't nearly as powerful as Itachi's yet.

Still, from what he could judge of Sasuke's eyes: "Yes," he mused out loud, "Your eyes have so much more potential than Itachi's…"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed, tomoe spinning rapidly. "I told you, don't talk to me about my brother!" And with an angry yell, the last Uchiha launched himself from the leaves he crouched upon, and threw a raging punch wildly in the snake-summoner's direction. Orochimaru simply sidestepped the hasty attack, and with smooth, deft movement, grasped Sasuke's outstretched wrist and threw him from him.

The Uchiha instantly twisted his body around, gathered chakra in his feet, and pushed himself off as soon as he touched a solid surface. Still grinning, Orochimaru, once again, sidestepped the human missile, this time allowing the boy to fly past. Turning, the missing-nin flashed through a set of hand seals, and summoned another snake. Fangs glistening in the light, the serpent launched forward without needing verbal command. From his awkward landing position, Sasuke's eyes widened as he quickly scrambled away; the snake missed him by a hair's breadth, snapping down on bark and leaves, sending wooden splinters hurtling on impact.

Regaining his composure, Sasuke spewed out two gigantic fireballs in succession before the snake could get back up. His attack struck true, and within seconds, the wooden splinters, embedded within the reptile's skin, caught on fire, sending the flames into the snake's flesh. It hissed in pain as its body thrashed around in its agony, destroying a few more trees in the process. Soon enough, it stilled, and its body vanished in a puff of smoke.

Getting up from his half-knelt position, Sasuke turned his eyes upwards to his opponent, smirking cockily with a small flicker of relief dancing through his gaze. His opponent, however, instead of being dismayed at the thwarting of his beast, seemed…pleased.

"Oh yes…" Orochimaru muttered hungrily, licking his lips, "you'll do nicely, Sasuke-kun…"

Not hearing this, however, Sasuke spotted his chance to attack again, his enemy seemingly distracted by his own thoughts. He flicked silently through a succession of seals, before propelling himself from his position, whipping a few shuriken from his leg holster.

With a frontal attack, of course, Orochimaru saw him coming. He smirked in delight, and leapt out to meet the Uchiha — but as soon as his feet left a solid platform, Sasuke disappeared from sight. The Sanin was taken aback for a second, surprised that the tiring Sasuke could still have the energy to move that fast. He landed lightly on a branch below. The boy was impressive. Then, suddenly, there came the whoosh of fast-spinning shuriken to his right. He leaned to the side, casually avoiding their trajectory, and found a fist throwing itself at his face from the left.

It hit.

Sasuke smirked arrogantly as his blow landed, feeling the pale ninja's flesh twist under his knuckles. The Kusa-nin staggered from the force, and the Uchiha quickly followed up with a kick to the stomach, thrusting his enemy into a tree. Whilst his adversary appeared stunned, Sasuke leapt backwards, pulling out a number of larger shuriken as he did. He flung his arms out with a large sweeping motion, setting his weapons in flight towards his enemy; at the same time, his earlier hand seals came into play, and a sharp series of hisses and twangs alerted Orochimaru to the wire attached to each spinning set of blades. His eyes widened, taken aback.

"SharinganSoufuusha Sannotachi? The Sharingan Windmill, Triple Blade attack?" he asked, surprised and delighted at the same time. Yes, this boy's body definitely had potential. "I didn't think the clan taught that to their children so young."

"They didn't!" Sasuke's voice rang out triumphantly as the wires wrapped themselves around his opponent, biting into Orochimaru's skin as he was crushed against the tree trunk. "I learnt this myself, from the scrolls they left behind!"

Orochimaru's eyes flashed. "Well, well," he drawled silkily. "Fancy that, that is an achievement. I was beginning to get a little bored, but there's hope for you yet."

Sasuke scowled and bit back, "You're one to talk, all trussed up like an animal! I'm not done yet!" And in one fluid movement he brought the wires to his mouth, wiped sweat from his brow, and formed another set of hand seals. 'Combined with a fireball, this attack becomes the Dragon fire technique!' Inhaling deeply, the Uchiha then let loose a large roar of flames, charging down the wire from his mouth as if it were a zip line. They torpedoed towards his enemy; there was no escape. "Let's see you get out of this! Katon: Ryuuka no Jutsu!"

An ear-splitting screech hit the air as flesh met fire, a thousand million nerve endings set on fire amid white-hot flames. Sasuke, Sharingan deactivated, let out a large, exhausted sigh, and flopped down onto the branch at his feet. He rubbed his lips tentatively, the skin tender, and a few flakes of ash were set falling from where the wire had burnt and disintegrated in his grip. He winced; he could never execute that jutsu without scorching himself a little. Still, it was worth it — the flames cleared, and through the residual smoke Sasuke spied the huddled lump that had been his enemy. Over. It was finally over.

"Sasuke-kun!"

With adrenaline still running through his veins, the tired Uchiha jumped slightly as his pink-haired teammate landed beside him, reaching out to touch his shoulder.

"Sasuke-kun, are you alright?" Sakura asked excitedly. "You did it! You really did it! You're amazing, Sasuke."

Sasuke brushed her words away and turned to look up at her, changing the subject. "You've left Naruto somewhere safe?" he asked, noting that a conscious blonde wasn't standing beside her, sharing in their relief. He started to get up, Sakura helping him when he realised his knees ached from all the moving about he had had to do. She caught him by the elbow. "Ow— Ah. We should find somewhere to camp until he wakes up."

Sakura nodded eagerly. Her relief from staying alive was so immense that, for once, something overthrew all thoughts of being near Sasuke-kun, touching Sasuke-kun, supporting Sasuke-kun. "Of course, but Sauske-kun do you know what that ninja did to hi—Ah!"

"Going somewhere?" Suddenly, a smooth voice cut through their dialogue, and foul, murderous intent burst through the air as easily as a sharpened knife through water. The two Genin were stricken, their whole bodies freezing in position where they stood, their legs trembling and their hands shaking under the pure malice in the air. There came a high, cruel laugh, and in horror, Sasuke fixed his eyes on the burnt lump of what he had assumed was the remains of their enemy. It was mud.

"N-no…"

The laughter continued, growing wilder and happier at their sudden despair. As one, both children sucked in a short, breathless gasp as the tree trunk in front of the charcoaled sludge began to crack away. There, rising from the wood like a large, lazy serpent from a basket, emerged an undisguised Orochimaru. Unhurt. Unscathed. And with an expression of pure exaltation. They couldn't run, they couldn't move, and slowly the man advanced upon them.

"Now then," he coaxed happily, "there's no need to be frightened. I most certainly don't want to kill you…" He walked right up to their paralysed forms, and leaned down until he was staring Sasuke right in the eyes. "I was so very impressed by you, Sasuke-kun, and after such a pathetic start." Reaching out, he ran a cold hand down Sasuke's face affectionately, and licked his lips with his lolling tongue. A shiver raced down his spine, but Sasuke couldn't draw away. "Oh yes, I'm convinced now you're just what I'm looking for. So this is my parting gift, Sasuke-kun, to ensure you'll see me again…"

"W-we don't want to see you again!" Sakura suddenly cried beside them, finding her voice upon seeing the menacing, hungry glint in the Sannin's eye. Orochimaru, however, simply laughed, never taking his eyes from Sasuke's.

"Oh," the Sannin whispered, licking his lips in appreciation. "Yes, you will." His canines prolonged as he leaned in, towards Sasuke's neck.

"No!"

Suddenly, with a bout of courage as she saw her Sasuke-kun in danger, Sakura quickly leapt forward, pushing the frozen Sasuke out of the way. Orochimaru's golden eyes widened at the unexpected display, but the momentum was already in place, and his body wouldn't stop. In a spilt second, just before his teeth sank deep into the kunoichi's upper arm, he instantly switched the seal he was about to use.

Sasuke could only choke in horror and confusion as he stared at the scene. Orochimaru drew back, licking a few droplets of Sakura's blood from the points of his small fangs as he retreated.

Suddenly, the girl seized up in pain. "Ah! S-s-stop!" She clapped a hand to her arm, feeling the small puncture holes flex disgustingly against her palm. Sheer, piercing pain tore through her limb and began to shoot in spasms through her whole body, forcing her to collapse to her knees. She screamed out again, and Sasuke, paralysis finally broken, bolted to her side in uncharacteristic fear for his teammate.

"Sakura!" he blurted with panic, helplessly watching his team mate writhe in pain. "What did he do? W-wha—?" He twisted to yell at the amused ninja. "What did you do?"

"Oh," Orochimaru chuckled innocently, "Just gave her a little present for her interference. Don't worry, though, the Earth's Seal I've gave her is only in its experimental stage. Unlike you, she gets to be just a little guinea pig. Now, let's get back to business, shall we?"

And suddenly, Sasuke forgot he had been that close, because he tried to back away, tried to gather the writhing Sakura up and run, tried to hoist Naruto onto his shoulders and flee, flee with his tail between his legs and his knees quivering beneath him, because there was no way he could fight this monster. But that monster was too close. The second Sasuke twitched, showed any sign of movement, and Orochimaru grabbed him by the arms and pinned them to his sides.

Gritting his teeth, Sasuke fought him, squirming and kicking, but it did no good. All of a sudden, killing intent crushed itself down onto his form, and he couldn't move, he couldn't breathe. His eyes were wide, and Orochimaru's glinting teeth and shining, murderously gleeful eyes were inches from his face. He could feel the man's hot breath as he laughed. Sasuke wanted to scream.

Suddenly, there was searing pain, and the Snake bit hard into Sasuke's neck. The boy choked out a scream. "A-Ah, n-n-no! Argh!" The Uchiha began to buck in the Sanin's grasp, his eyes rolling up into the back of his head, the whites of his orbs gaping blindly in horror. On the floor, Sakura screamed out a desperate plea, still clutching her arm, sweat and tears drenching her face.

"Ya-yamero!" she cried out hoarsely, "Bakemono, stop!"

Orochimaru dropped Sasuke's withering body to the floor, with a disinterested tut. "Oh dear," he drawled pityingly. "It looks like maybe neither of you will survive after all. Oh well."

He took a step back and began to sink tauntingly into the nearest surface, wild laughter seared all over his face. As best as she could, Sakura crawled laboriously over to Sasuke, and tried to sooth him. "Shh, Sasuke-kun," she comforted him, gulping back her own gasps of pain. "It's alright. It's—" but then Orochimaru began to laugh, and Sakura snapped. "Shut up, you foul brute! Just what have you done to us? What have you done to my Sasuke?"

Orochimaru simply laughed again, and pausing slightly in his disappearance, he announced with a sure boast of supremacy: "I just gave him a parting gift, to remind him who to come to… when he decides he wants more power!" And with a wild cackle, he began to sink out of sight again, down into the bark he had emerged from. With an air of causality, he threw out teasingly, "See you soon, Sasuke-kun, try not to disappoint me too much…"

Sasuke himself did not reply, collapsing in on himself as he screamed in pure agony. He couldn't even use his tongue if he wanted to, his brain losing the ability to recognise words and sounds, all thoughts flying from his head except for the pain. 'It hurts, it hurts, stop it please, it hurts!'

"S-Sasuke-kun?" Sakura stuttered helplessly, staring down at his hyperventilating form. "T-tell me what to do! What do you need? Tell me, please! Sasuke!"

But Sasuke didn't answer; his screams and yells of torture died away into choking gasps and wailing moans of distress. His hand still clamped onto his neck with a vice-like grip, and he refused to let go. Sakura prised hopelessly at his fingers for a few seconds, trying to see the wound. He wouldn't budge.

"For Kami's sake, Sasuke-kun!" she cried. And then she saw Sasuke's face contort in a fresh wave of pain, and for a second his eyes cracked open, and he looked at her with an emotion in his glance that Sakura didn't want to recognise. Her Sasuke-kun didn't get scared, didn't get hurt, didn't need anyone. But she grabbed his free hand anyway. "Hold on, Sasuke," she whispered with a sob. "J-just hold on, it's okay."

And then, suddenly, Sasuke fell still. He buckled into her arms with a forlorn moan, and relaxed. Sakura's heart stopped, and she resisted the urge to shake him roughly. Her heart kicked back into life, though, as soon as she heard his breathing begin again, albeit shallow and gasping, and too irregular to be okay. He was beginning to burn up.

"Oh God," she whimpered to no one. "Oh God, please, someone. Naruto! Naruto, please help me! Please, wake up and help me!"

But of course, Naruto didn't answer either. She was alone; alone with two unconscious team mates, the eerie forest, and the searing pain coursing through her body.

Meanwhile, not too far away, Anko was just finishing up her forty-seventh stick of dango when, of all things, a small, bright-yellow canary toppled out of the sky directly above her, landing with a soft thud in her lap.

"Ah! What?" she cried, jumping at the touch. "I've warned you, Ebisu, if that's you sneaking again—!" Then she glanced down and spotted the exhausted bird, its little chest heaving from its hurried flight. Blinking, Anko recognised its blazing plumage immediately. "Hey!" she huffed. "You, young man, shouldn't be outside of these gates!" But at her chiding voice, the bird on chirped shortly.

Anko frowned, scooping the little animal up in her hand. "You're not Naruto, are you?" she asked it, watching it stagger to its little feet and shake its feathers out. "You must be the one he's always imitating… Why are you here?" It was small enough to have pushed through one of the tiny, weaker pockets in the chakra barrier. A jolt of fear struck her suddenly, and she tried to keep her composure. She knew there was only one reason why Naruto would contact her in the middle of the exam, and why he would send his bird instead of going himself. "Something's happened, hasn't it, birdie? What is it?"

With a short, sharp series of tweets and cheeps, the Jinchuuriki's small familiar relayed the information its master had confided to it, and hopped anxiously as Anko (who was not as accustomed to its language as Naruto had to be) deciphered its message. The Chuunin proctor struggled for a few minutes, and had to ask the frantic bird to repeat itself a number of times, but she soon had a clear picture of "Danger!" lurking inside her forest. But... wasn't danger always present in there? It wasn't called the Forest of Death for nothing.

Getting impatient from the lack in progress, the canary flew down to the ground, and using its beak, etched the word 'Orochimaru' into the soft soil. Anko's reaction was instantaneous. She leapt up with a loud cry of shock, stamping on the name.

"Him!" she exclaimed with panicked disgust, "What on earth is that-that- monster doing here?" With quick movements she fastened her shin-protectors tightly, and then reached out her palm to the canary, which, upon her standing, had hopped to the roof she had been sat on. "C'mon, bird!" she said, picking it up as it stepped with obligation onto her fingertips and placing it onto her shoulder. "Tell me where! Tell me where I can find that bastard!"

Sinking effortlessly through the chakra barrier, she dived into the dark canopy of the deadly forest, face fearless and determined as she sped off to intersect her long-estranged master. 'Orochimaru…' she growled silently. 'If you hurt any of these children, there will be hell to pay, my dear master!'

Sakura's nerves were on fire, as was the rest of her body. The pain from earlier had lessened, but it was still there, a stinging reminder of the earlier events. She felt as though something, a liquid something, was flowing through her veins, starting from her right arm where the huge bruise was. It was a cold fire, burning her inside out, and yet, at the same time, numbing her down.

With painstakingly slow progress, she crawled over to her blonde team mate, who was still lying unconscious a few meters away. She had tried to rouse Sasuke, but it had been to no avail. Perhaps waking Naruto up would be easier. She was propelled by a sense of urgency, because black spots had already entered her vision and were slowly increasing by the second, whilst her head pulsed with an agonising thump - they were both a sure sign that she was going to join her teammates in the realm of unconsciousness soon, and she couldn't afford to leave them all unprotected. Not when Kaka-sensei wasn't there. Not when they couldn't reach anyone for help. Not with that snake man still roaming around.

She slumped down beside the blonde, not even having enough energy to prop herself up anymore. Strands of hair were stuck to her sweaty face, and her breath came in short, wheezing gasps. It was okay, she told herself, all she had to do was get Naruto up, and then everything would be fine. But a small voice in the back of her head groaned – she knew how hard it was to wake Naruto at the best of times. Still, knowing there was nothing else for it, Sakura reached out and gripped Naruto's shoulder with a shaking hand.

"N-Naruto…!" she called him as loud as she could with her raw throat. Her head spiked with pain at her effort. She tugged on his arm as hard as she dared, not wanting him to roll off the branch and to his death hundreds of yards below. "Oh, please, Naruto!" She began to despair. "I-I'll work harder, I promise; you guys won't need to protect me again! Just please — Ah!" Pain jolted suddenly through her whole body. Tears began to drip down Sakura's face in desperation and despair. "P-please, Naruto, we need you… I need you to wake up. Please…I'll… I'll treat you to ramen?"

Suddenly, Naruto groaned, and his eyelashes quivered.

Sakura blinked through her tears. "R-really?" She couldn't quite believe it had worked. Still, she called Naruto's name again. "Naruto? Naruto!" Sakura began to sob quietly in relief as she saw Naruto's blue eyes flutter open. Her own vision was blurring heavily, and everything was starting to go dark and close in. She let her head flop to the tree bark. "Thank goodness…" The whisper slipped from her mouth as her green eyes dropped closed, and Sakura let herself subside into blackness.

Naruto was quickly startled awake when his teammate suddenly slumped over in unconsciousness and slipped over the edge of the tree branch. Without thinking, he launched forward, grabbing her arm in the nick of time. A loud pop sounded throughout the air suddenly, making Naruto wince. Not wanting her to be in anymore pain than she already was, Naruto immediately grabbed onto her other arm and pulled her up.

Setting her down quickly, the blonde winced upon seeing her abnormally limp arm. It was dislocated. He was no expert on patching up injuries, but still, he had to try. Naruto steadied Sakura's unconscious form against the tree trunk at her back, barely taking notice of the slightly blood-smeared, large bruise on her upper right arm because of his other concerns. With ginger movements, Naruto positioned one hand upon her left shoulder, and gently gripped her elbow with the other hand. He then paused and took a deep breath, and with a mental count of three, he forcefully pushed her arm upwards. With another pop, her arm was back in its socket, and her face grimaced with pain, though she stayed unconscious.

Wiping away the non-existing sweat off his forehead with a sigh of relief, Naruto did a quick 360° scope of his surroundings. Their enemy was nowhere in sight, but then Naruto had to wonder: just what had happened? As far as he could see, no help had come to them, and yet they weren't all dead.

Looking at his unconscious teammates, he sighed. He guessed he'd have to wait until they woke up to get his answers. But first, before anything else, he'd have to get them to safety. There was no way he could protect them on top of the trees like this. Holding his hands in a familiar sign, Naruto gathered his chakra and smoke quickly filled the air. But something was wrong. He frowned.

When the smoke dispersed, the Jinchuuriki found not three (which had been his intention) but six Kage Bunshin staring back at him, also bemused. Naruto stared at his copies. What was going on? He shook his head. Oh well, no matter. Perhaps he was still too out of it.

Shaking his thoughts away as two of his clones hooked Sakura's arms around their shoulders and hoisted her up, Naruto called over, "Watch her arm guys, I can't be responsible for hurting her too much!" He had a sneaking suspicion that his clones were rolling their eyes as they turned away from him, but before Naruto could think of how to retaliate, one of his other clones was waving him over to where they had gone to retrieve Sasuke. The blonde vessel quickly made his way along the branch towards them, for they looked quite urgent.

All of a sudden, Naruto's foot slipped. He let out a short yell as he missed his stepping, a jolt of dark surprise curling sickly in his gut. Like a knee-jerk reaction, he summoned chakra to his feet. But suddenly it was as if he'd never summoned chakra before in his life, there was no reaction, no immediate sticking, he—! He was falling!

Naruto lashed out wildly for a handhold as he slipped from the bark, and for a moment, he thought he was going to plummet to his death. Then suddenly one of the spare clones, who had stuck to his side like glue, not knowing what else to do, caught his wrist and tugged hard. (Fortunately, his arm didn't dislocate like Sakura's, and upon remembering that incident later, Naruto vowed with every bone in his body that she wouldn't find out about it.) Naruto was pulled back to safety in no time at all, and he collapsed to the tree branch in relief.

"What the hell was that?" he asked all seven of his selves, hoping that if not he, then his six clones would come up with an answer for him. Said clones, however, simply shrugged. "What a useful bunch you are!" he chided angrily, shivering as his heart still pounded wildly from the shock. After a moment, he closed his eyes, and concentrated. He focused his attention on his chakra network, because now he knew something definitely wasn't right. Immediately, he recognised a struggle; his chakra was pulsing irregularly through his body, sometimes in useless trickles, other times in large floods. It was as if something was hindering what should have been a steady flow of creation.

'Something must have happened in the fight,' Naruto thought to himself for a moment. 'And its messed up my chakra control. I didn't know anything could do that…' Then something clicked in Naruto's brain. 'Musha will know!'

"Hey!" he inwardly called towards the back of his mind, where the Kyuubi lurked. "Hey, Musha, what's going on?"

But there came no reply. Irritated, Naruto called again. "Oi! Musha! This is no time to be fooling around, answer me!" Naruto's voice, however, remained the only one inside his head. He blanched. The Bijuu was never one to not reply during crises, so to hear silence now from the great fox only revealed one thing – Naruto couldn't get through to him.

The blonde began to curse wildly, but suddenly, thinking of that large fur ball in his belly made his realise something. Now that he thought about it, didn't he have abysmal chakra control like this before? Due to the seal, his chakra used to fluctuate wildly with the unsteady flow of Musha's chakra. However, once he started on the chakra control exercises, and the seal somewhat figured out a balance between the two chakra flows, he didn't have as much problem with it as before. That's when Naruto suddenly recalled how, through a large blur of fighting and fuzzy-headedness, his stomach had exploded in pain before knocking him unconscious. He remembered seeing Orochimaru's lips move, sneering, saying some kind of jutsu.

Eyes widening in realization, Naruto quickly lifted up his shirt. There. Surrounding the Shiki Fuujin was another sign, consisting of five comma-like marks. Another seal, without a doubt, somehow hindering his chakra flow. With a short growl, Naruto let his shirt drop again. That Orochimaru was up to no good. He'd have to talk to the Old Man later about getting rid of the seal.

It was then, Naruto realised, that his clones were still calling him over to Sasuke's side.

Quickly, but carefully, he made his way across the tree branch. He didn't need to ask them what was wrong, because they were already pointing to an unusually large, dark bruise on Sasuke's jugular; Naruto frowned, and bent closer. The more he looked at it, the more it looked too shaped to be a bruise at all. And that's when he realised there had been a similar mark marring Sakura's upper arm. It looked too much like Sakura's to be a coincidence. He breathed in sharply; everything about the situation now reeked of danger. Did Orochimaru do something to his teammates as well?

That was all the more reason to get out of there quickly. Gesturing to his clones, Naruto led the group swiftly, but carefully, down the tree.

A few hours later, Orochimaru had completely disappeared from the forest, and Anko was limping back to the exam's headquarters, nursing her speared hand, which contained a few broken knuckles also. The curse seal on her neck throbbed painfully. She felt terribly angry at herself, for letting that man escape, but she knew had she hunted him any further, she would be dead, and there would be no one to inform the Hokage of his plans.

"Godammit," she muttered, sounding scarily like her blonde, orange-clad parallel. "God-dammit! Damn that man! Damn that cursed, evil creature! Not now! Not after we've finally got some peace in this country!" Next to Anko, dutifully sticking by her side, Naruto's canary cheeped with sympathy. It flapped its tiny wings as it stuttered through the air beside her, highly aware of all the presences about them.

With a sigh, Anko hopped out of the border of the forest and into the large plains that surrounded the wire-fenced death-pen for miles; large, lonesome rocks burst wonkily and haphazardly from the ground about her, casting long shadows in the newly emerging moonlight. Groaning quietly, and rubbing her aching neck, Anko turned to the little bird.

"Go back, now," she told it bluntly. "Return to Naruto, make sure he's not in any danger still. Tell him I'm sorry I couldn't make it to him while Orochimaru was still there." The canary chirped its assent, but still didn't move. Anko frowned, and glanced around. "What's the matter?"

Suddenly, there came a low, curious growl, followed by a lower, hungrier one. She cursed. "Dammit, not now! I don't have the time!" But the mammoth tigers, creeping upon her from both sides, paid her tone no heed, and simply prowled closer. A jolt of pain sizzled through Anko's neck, paralysing her. "Oh, no! Ow!" She shut her eyes, waiting for a blow from a giant claw.

It never came. Instead, there was a high-pitched moan, and the thunk of two large felines collapsing to the floor. Anko opened her eyes. 'Paralysis jutsu?'

"Anko!" came a cry. "There you are!" And out of the steadily falling darkness, two ANBU alighted on the grass in front of her. "Your proctors thought something bad had happened when they couldn't find you," continued the first one. "Eventually they called us in to look."

The second, nodding, added, "Apparently Kotetsu found the bodies of three participants, around a week old, way before these exams even started. He's insistent that you take a look— hey, are you listening?"

But Anko wasn't. Pain had suddenly erupted along her shoulder, and with a shocked gasp, she tightened her grip upon her neck, falling unsteadily to the ground.

"Anko!" Both specially trained assassins dropped to help her up, propping her trembling form between them.

"The mark on your neck…" one murmured in shock. "Don't tell me that he—?"

"Y-yeah…" Anko gasped, sweat beading on her forehead as she struggled to lift her gaze through the pain. "I-I need to speak to Sandaime. Now."

"Right!" They hefted her up, slinging her arms about their shoulders, when suddenly Naruto's bird let out a small, concerned shriek from atop one of the large stones. The ANBU turned back. "What's this bird doing, Anko?"

Anko looked back over her shoulder, and smirked slightly through her distress. "It's just a friend," she uttered as casual as she could manage, pulling on a coping face. "I'll be fine," she said to the canary, "Go back, now, like I said. Don't you worry about me." The bird cocked its head to one side for a second, before letting out a small cheep and flying off with a flap of its bright wings.

The three ninja turned back to the way they were headed, and as they sped away with a jutsu aiding their haste, one ANBU adjusted his grip around Anko and laughed, "Why Anko, never had you pinned as Konoha's Bird Whisperer!"

Anko growled, scowling. "Shut it, you."

Meanwhile, the small bird in question was hurrying back as fast as it could, worried at the state its companion might be in. However, by this time it had been flying almost non-stop for hours, and even the short rest it had had upon Anko's shoulder hadn't managed to cure all of its exhaustion.

Its small wings flapped helplessly as it began to loose momentum, gradually drooping down through the air. Its miniature stomach grumbled ravenously, and the bird decided to stop and see what morsels it could scrounge to eat before taking off again. With a soft, twittering sigh, the canary landed upon the forest ground; even in the moonlight its bright yellow feathers stood out against the dirt.

Scrabbling here and there, digging with its sharp little beak, searching with its beady eyes (their black colour the only differing feature between itself and Naruto's henge form) along the ground for an array of small bugs, the canary began to hop to and fro along the forest floor, growing happier as it realised what a feast the deadly woods provided. Suddenly, though, a sharp crack resounded through the quiet clearing, and the bird let out a sharp squawk of distress as its feet were swept out from under it.

Netting snapped up from the leaf-strewn floor, encompassing the small bird in a dangling prison of thick rope. Its feathers ruffled and a mess, the small bird let out a fearful chirp of distress. It was still evening time, so no doubt the trap had been set to catch the evening meal. How on earth could he reach his master now? Its wings flapped hopelessly, tangling up further in the trap, and the further it got stuck, the harder the little bird struggled.

All of a sudden, though, footsteps were approaching, and a twig snapped not too far away. The canary froze. It looked like the hunter had been lurking not too far away, and now the little bird managed to spot light from a small campfire through the trees. It had been foolish to land here.

The person was right up close, now, and there was the soft thwip of a kunai being drawn from a holster. With a dizzying thunk, the netting and its cargo thudded to the floor. From its crumbled position on the ground, all that the bird could see of its captor was the glint of the kunai, and hear their even breaths whispering in and out beneath the hood of their cloak.

A voice carried through the clearing from the trees not far away, in the direction of the camp. "Hey, what've you caught?" The ninja who had set the trap didn't reply to their teammate, and simply crouched to untangle the small bird from its rope bindings. With a muffled tweet, the canary hopped to its feet and stared up at its captor, wondering why it hadn't been seized yet.

Instead of grabbing the bird, the Genin was leaning in closer, and the canary heard a gentle intake of breath. "Oh!" the ninja uttered softly with surprise. "It's you!" A palm was extended and, curious, the canary hopped on. It recognised that voice. "Long time no see, Natsu-kun."

Elsewhere in the Forest of Death, Hinata, with her Byakugan activated, glanced around nervously for any signs of danger. She was on-edge and desperately straining all her senses for any whisper of trouble. Earlier in the exam, Team 8 had had a run-in with a team of Taki-nin. Fortunately, they had gotten away as the victor, as well as obtaining an extra Earth Scroll, but they did not get away unscathed.

Noticing Team 8's obvious reliance upon the Inuzuka of the group, the foreign ninja had targeted Hinata – obviously the weakest member. However, being both very smart and yet very dumb, Akamaru leapt from his master's jacket to protect the girl. Stabbed in the side, the dog was quickly put out of commission. Kiba, in anger and without a partner, attacked recklessly, leaving many openings for their enemies. He took one down and heavily injured another, but not before receiving several slashes, some which were rather deep.

But Kiba, not one to be easily put down, kept right on attacking. With his active movements, his blood pumped rapidly through his veins and poured from his wounds unchecked; he shortly fell unconscious from blood loss. After that, only Shino-kun and his kikaichu were left to defend the team, as Hinata, the one with the most medical knowledge, tended to her wounded teammates through apologetic tears. Shino-kun easily won the battle, and was currently setting traps around their new temporary hideout.

Just then, another team entered her vision, about fifteen meters away. Hinata's heart gave a jolt, and immediately she whispered this discovery to the kikaichu left behind by her teammate, where it perched upon her shoulder. Instantly, it flew away.

Hinata watched the team wearily with her Byakugan, observing how they paused for a moment by a large tree. Her eyes tired from the earlier battle (and still slightly misty with tears), she could not see clearly whether they were friend or foe. They seemed to be discussing something, although Hinata could neither hear nor guess what. Unfortunately, unlike her prodigious cousin, and much to the disappointment of her father, she had never mastered the art of lip reading. Suddenly, the team split, and with a short gasp of dismay, Hinata realised that one of them was speeding in their direction. Be it coincidence or not, Hinata didn't want to find out who this ninja was- not without Shino as backup.

She turned on her heel quickly and began to make her way back to their hideout; however, with her nerves on edge, she failed to spot the uneven ground where a tree stump burst out into the clearing. She tripped, and fell. With a soft cry, Hinata thought she was going to land face-first on the ground, but suddenly there was an arm, catching her about the shoulders. She gasped in surprise.

"Are you alright?" a voice asked her anxiously, "Are you hurt?"

As Hinata recovered from her surprise, she realised that the boy who caught her must've been the ninja speeding towards their group. She glanced up at his concern, and hoped that the shinobi wasn't just luring her into a sense of comfort.

She gasped upon recognising him: he had been one of the ninja that Sasuke had asked that Kabuto guy about — Rock Lee. More importantly, he was also her cousin's teammate. Hinata pulled away from him in sudden fear.

"Oh, no!" Lee suddenly gasped, seeing her anxious face, "You're Neji's cousin, right? I'm not going to fight you!"

The kunoichi looked up at him uncertainly. It was no secret that her cousin disliked — no, loathed the main branch of the Hyuuga Clan — and Hinata, being the weak heiress that she was, was also the target of his hatred. "You're not?" she asked quietly.

"Of course not!" Lee replied resolutely, getting into his Good Guy pose — his legs apart, his fist out and his thumb up; his set of white teeth sparking in the light gleaming through the dense forest canopy. Suddenly, it occurred to Lee that they were alone, and glancing around the clearing, he asked, "Where are you team mates? Why did he leave a pretty lady like you all alone?"

A pink hue made its way across Hinata's pale cheeks, and she looked down in embarrassment. Poking the tips of her index fingers together, like she always did when she was nervous, she replied quietly, "Shino-kun is off placing traps, and Kiba-kun is…He— he got injured. He's lying over that way; I wanted to look out for enemies because… because it was my fault he…" She broke off with a shake of her head, and fixed her eyes on the ground. "…They aimed for me because I'm the weakest…"

Suddenly, Lee's hand touched her shoulder. Surprised by the sudden action, she looked up. "Do not blame yourself," he told her kindly, flashing her his shiny white teeth once again.

Smiling shyly, her eyes darted to the ground again. "Thank you," Hinata said softly with a blush decorating her pale cheeks. A few seconds later, she asked, "Why did your team spilt up, Lee-kun?"

Lee shrugged his shoulders slightly. "Neji thought it would be best to see how many scrolls we could each gather, and going separately will cut our time in getting to the tower."

Hinata blinked up at him. "That's…ano… a little unfair, isn't it? Collecting scrolls?"

The other ninja seemed surprised at her assumption, and was taken aback a moment before replying, "Well, you could call it that outside of this competition, but in here it will be better in the long run if fewer teams pass. And we can use the extras as bribes if we get into trouble. It's all about narrowing the threat, Neji says, and in this case I have to agree with him. It makes sense."

It seemed Lee had still said the wrong thing, however, as Hinata's gaze returned to the floor, and she began twisting her hands fretfully. "There's even less of a chance, now…" she mumbled forlornly.

"What do you mean?" Lee asked her, concerned.

The kunoichi shook her head, and suddenly she was tearful, her voice brimming with shame. "With me on this team, Kiba-kun and Shino-kun were already disadvantaged, but now with teams collecting more than one scroll, there's no way we're going to be able to find one for ourselves…"

"Not necessarily," Lee replied softly, and suddenly he was digging in his pouch. Hinata's eyes went wide with disbelief as he drew out a scroll. "Is this the one you need? Take it." She shook her head slightly, mouth agape, but Lee pressed it into her hands. "We picked this up earlier, I'll easily replace it. I…" he paused. "Girls shouldn't cry. And besides, what's the point of collecting scrolls if we can't help out fellow Konoha teams?"

Slowly, Hinata took the scroll from him. "T-thank you, Lee-kun," she said hesitantly, "but I don't know if I can get through this forest…"

Lee just smiled at her. "You can," he said. Hinata blinked as his hand gripped her shoulder reassuringly. "To get this far already, I know you can. You need to prove that to yourself, and here's your chance." The Hyuuga gulped slightly at his words, but her eyes were clearing of tears. Lee flashed her another dazzling smile, and caused her to blush. Her heart was beating just that much faster. "I think" he said, "you could even face Neji."

Her eyes widened and she shook her head vigorously. "There's no way I can face Neji-niisan!" she said matter-of-factly, raising her voice for the first time. "I'm weak..." Hinata looked downwards, ashamed. "Even my younger sister, Hanabi, can defeat me. And Neji-niisan is much stronger than her."

Lee shook his head slowly, disappointed by her lack of self-confidence. "Strength isn't all that counts, Hinata-san," he explained to the girl gently, bending to her eye level. "Bloodlines are bloodlines, but even kekkai genkai can be beaten if you just have the courage to face them."

Hinata blinked at him, disbelievingly. "But…" she stammered. "But I don't have the courage to face Neji-niisan. He's too…" She trailed off. She could only think 'scary', but didn't want to seem cowardly, even more so than she already was. Lee, however, seemed to read her mind, because he chuckled. Hinata blushed in embarrassment. "G-gomen."

"Don't apologise," he replied as his humour abated. "You may not know it Hinata, but you've already got that courage. At the moment, its only leaking out in little drops – just look at what you've accomplished in this exam already – and I think that whoever you face in the future, you'll face up to them as an equal. You may not win the first time, but you'll know you can do it when the next time comes."

Despite his encouraging words, Hinata still looked doubtful.

"Trust me, Hinata-san," Lee reassured her, placing a hand on her shoulder. "I believe in you." He smiled, and pushed the scroll into her hands. "So, take this scroll back to your teammates, and I'll see you in the next round."

Tentatively, she wrapped her hands around the scroll. "Thank you," she said softly, before declaring suddenly with determination in her eyes, "I'll make it up to you, Lee-san."

Lee chuckled, because he could tell from the sudden conviction in her voice that she would be adamant on repaying him. "Alright," he replied light-heartedly, getting to his feet. "Then I shall meet up with you some time in the future, Hinata-chan!" Then, with a cheery wave, he sped off into the forest.

Meanwhile, Naruto crouched in the hollow of an old tree, looking out onto an eerily quiet clearing whilst his two teammates lay unconscious at his back. He couldn't deny that he was worried for them, just as much as he couldn't deny the throbbing ache shooting through his navel. He still felt shaky and weak from the battle, but he knew that, until Sasuke and Sakura woke up, it was up to him to protect them.

Alone with his thoughts, he tensed at every small snap of a twig, every rustle of the leaves surrounding them. There was a constant shadow falling over him, nothing more than the threat of Orochimaru still conquering his mind, but it was enough to make him jolt at the slightest thing, in case it was the Hebi Sannin's return.

He didn't know how long he knelt there, every muscle taunt and twitching, his hand gripping his weapons with white-knuckle tension; the seconds blurred into one another, and he couldn't tell whether seven minutes was seven hours. Every single one of his senses was on fire, and the ache in his gut pulsed with his rapid heartbeat. His eyes darted across every inch of the forest he could see, and there was a static in his ears from the ferocious silence.

For all his vigilance, though, he didn't sense the enemy until they were mere meters from him. He cursed, realising how much he had relied on Musha to alert him to these things. He leapt to his feet, and easily slipped into a defensive stance, his kunai held outstretched to the approaching chakra signatures.

They thrust themselves to the ground with an eagerness that made Naruto queasy in his disadvantaged state, and he had to swallow a few times before the pressure in his throat lessened enough for him to speak without hoarseness in his voice.

"Who are you?" he demanded of the three Genin in front of him, his voice steady despite his inner apprehension. "What do you want?"

They stepped forward slightly, spreading out around him as one, before the stopping guy to his left replied with a menacing curdle to his smooth voice, "You'd think, from the state of your two teammates over there, you would already know what we want, Uzumaki Naruto. Orochimaru-sama wants to see how you're fairing after your little… encounter with him."

Naruto's eyes narrowed as he crouched down slightly lower, flexing his free hand; his nails had grown longer and sharper. He bared his pointed canines and a low rumble escaped his throat. Even with these changes, there was no large surge of chakra, and it felt a struggle for even these automatic changes to take place. Naruto was reminded harshly of Musha's silence, and he grew angry. This was all Orochimaru's fault!There was no way in hell that he was going to let these subordinates mess with his team. He'd beat the crap out of them. That was for sure! And he'd find out everything they knew about Orochimaru and his plans.

"Well then," Naruto spat at the three Genin before him. "What does Orochimaru want? And just what the hell has he done to my teammates?"

The first ninja, undeterred by the Konoha-nin's changes, just shrugged one shoulder in a noncommittal gesture. "Who knows," he replied simply. "We're just here to fight you."

Naruto's whole being tensed at his words, and although he knew these guys were here for a fight, he started to grow apprehensive. Who was to say this team was really at Genin-level? Sometimes, a rank was merely a label and nothing else. He should know. However, with the state he was in, he didn't know if he could take all of them at once. Still, he shifted his weight, ready for a quick spring, and growled determinedly, "What are you waiting for then?"

The Jinchuuriki didn't want an answer, though, because as soon as the words left his mouth, he leapt forwards with a short yell, meeting his assailants before they could advance any closer to his unconscious team.

A loud clang rang through the clearing as his kunai met the mummified ninja's metal arm guard. Suddenly, a large gust of air struck the blonde from the side. He staggered slightly before managing to spring away. Taking a glance, he spotted the other male with his arms outstretched towards him. To Naruto's astonishment, a hole, lined with metal, was bored into each of his palms – most likely where the wind hailed from. It amazed Naruto sometimes, the lengths some ninja would go to in order to achieve higher power.

He had no time to retaliate against the second male, however, as the whisper of slicing air alerted Naruto to a flurry of senbon hurtling towards him. The Jinchuuriki ducked and rolled to avoid the pinpoint accuracy of the kunoichi's needles, but as he jumped to his feet again, a fist flew towards his face. He gave a short growl; his momentum was carrying him straight into the punch. He quickly formed a sign, and a shadow clone appearing in a puff of smoke, hooking its fingers into the back of his jacket and pulling him out of the path of the mummy-man's assault. The enemy's fist barely grazed his nose, but just as he was about to laugh in the ninja's face, something sharp twanged deep in his eardrums and Naruto gave a short yelp, reflexively gripping at his ears.

The Oto-nin laughed as he arrogantly explained the function of his weapon. Naruto growled in frustration – how on earth could he protect himself against sound waves? Those buggers could get anywhere! And he didn't expect they responded to kunai or a mouthful of swearwords. Desperately, Naruto tried to call Musha again, but it was futile.

'Well,' he thought as he slipped into a defensive stance, 'Looks like I'll just have to fight with burst eardrums.'

With a fierce, jutted jerk of his chin, Naruto, scowling, beckoned his enemies to come at him. Had they been ordinary Genin, the blistering scorch of Naruto's glare and the killing intent he was unconsciously emitting would've had the Oto-nin at the very least hesitating to confront the Jinchuuriki. However, these three ninja were bred to carry out Orochimaru's bidding, no matter what it was. Naruto's fierceness only proceeded to make them more eager to fight him.

The girl – Kin, they called her – suddenly leapt forwards, unleashing another flurry of senbon in Naruto's direction. At the same time, the mummy-man returned on the offensive with his weapon fully at the ready. Naruto dug his heels into the dirt, enforcing them with chakra much like the tree climbing exercise, and prepared to meet them with his fists.

The sound of their fighting was cacophonous, and the noise pierced through Sakura's groggy limbo with unpleasant precision. Involuntarily, she groaned, and her eyes cracked slowly open.

Through her blurred vision, Sakura could just make out an orange splotch, moving to and fro against a dark green backdrop. Metallic clangs and grunts cut through her bleary mind.

'Nani?' She blinked several times and brought a hand up to rub her eyes. Suddenly, a dull but disabling ache blossomed in her arm. The kunoichi gasped, and clutched the limb to her chest. She stayed like that for several moments until the ache eased off, and by that time, her vision had righted itself. She was met with the sight of a heated battle. Naruto was fighting three strange, foreign ninja.

At first, she was confused. Questions flashed across her mind, one after another. Then, as if a switch had been suddenly turned on, everything came back to her — the Chuunin exams, the Forest of Death, the weird Kusa-nin. With sharp, uneasy clarity, she could also remember taking an attack for Sasuke-kun, a huge surge of pain, and then nothing.

'Did Sasuke-kun and Naruto manage to fight that Kusa-nin off?' she wondered.

A rustle of cloth by her side distracted her from her question, though, and gave rise to her fangirl mode. She squealed in delight. She was lying next to Sasuke-kun! He must've been so worried about her!

"Sakura?" Naruto's voice brought her out of her reverie. "You're awake!"

That was a mistake. Naruto's exclamation alerted the Oto-nins' attentions to the girl. There came a sharp word from mummy-man — Dosu — and his male teammate flitted around Naruto and leapt forward, leaving Kin to destabilise the Jinchuuriki with her special bells. Sakura gasped, realising that he was headed for her and her comatose Sasuke-kun, and tottered to her feet. Her legs felt as heavy as lead, and her hands trembled with the sudden action as she whipped out a kunai.

"D-don't!" she cried. "Don't come a step closer!"

Her assailant only grinned maliciously, and took another taunting step forward. "What're you going to do about it, girlie?" he sneered. "Now, get out of my way, or I'll move you myself."

Sakura stared at him with anxious, fearful eyes as Naruto, hindered by the effects of Kin's bells, cursed on the sidelines. Simultaneously, they both realised what the Sound ninja wanted.

"You— You want Sasuke-kun…?" the Konoha kunoichi stuttered. "N-no!"

The youth just laughed, and advanced upon the girl and his prone target. He jeered, "Guess I'll have to get rid of you first—!"

"Zaku, wait."

Zaku stopped short, twisting to stare incredulously at his teammate. "What?" he asked. "Why?"

Dosu, however, was staring at Sakura. Or to be specific, he was staring at her arm. His visible eye had narrowed into a suspicious slit that made Sakura feel extremely uncomfortable. She glanced around her, but saw nothing worthy to be stared at — except for her precious Sasuke-kun, of course! She couldn't let them harm him!

But, Dosu knew differently. He knew the purplish splotch on her arm was no bruise. It was Orochimaru's signature mark, a gift for his best ninjas — his cursed seal. Only, there was something different about this one. It was a symbol Dosu had never seen before, though, and it was poorly formed — not nearly as sharply defined as his master's usual works. Just what on earth was going on? Then, he realised, and a wicked smirk curled his face beneath his bandages. This girl was a mistake. And Orochimaru would reward them greatly for getting rid of his mistake.

"Kin! Zaku!" Dosu called out, catching their attention. "Kill that girl!"

"Oh no you don't," Naruto said, darting in between them, a kunai at the ready. "Not a step closer!" he threatened. "Or I get serious!"

Kin laughed. "Do you think we're idiots?" she rebuked, using her senbon to point challengingly at him. "You're struggling. You have, what, a drop of chakra left at best? And pinkie there, she doesn't look of much use."

Shielded by Naruto, Sakura suddenly felt a lot more confident. "What?" she cried, a vein pulsing in her forehead. "Pinkie?"

"Steady, Sakura," Naruto murmured over his shoulder. "These guys aren't in this exam for the promotion. They have other motives entirely."

The kunoichi blinked, feeling her confidence drain. "Like what?" she whispered back. "Are they—? Do they want t-to… hurt Sasuke-kun?"

Naruto shook his head, keeping his eyes on their enemies. "They aren't here to kill him, Sakura."

She gulped. "B-but, how can you be sure?"

"They're underlings of Orochimaru—"

"Orochi…maru?"

"—That man who attacked us. He doesn't want Sasuke dead, or he would've just killed all three of us when he had the chance. That, and…"

"And? Naruto?"

Naruto twisted around to look at her. She was trembling with exhaustion and fear, and he could see anxious tears swimming in her eyes – but she was still standing, kunai in hand. Her stance was solid and steady. Naruto smiled.

"And," he said, "I won't let them." He turned back to the three Oto-nin, his jaw set and a ferocious glare in his eyes. "I'll only say it once," he told them. "You won't get further than me."

They laughed in his face. "Big words," Kin sneered, "for such a little man. How much strength do you have left?"

"Enough for you circus freaks!" Naruto barked back. He glanced over his shoulder again and said quietly, "Sakura, don't move from this spot." She nodded, and Naruto heard her grip tighten around her weapon.

Suddenly, the Jinchuuriki leapt forward. He moved quickly, the balls of his feet digging at the dirt and stamping stones into the earth. Kunai in hand, he threw himself bodily at Dosu, aiming a wild stab at his side, below his outstretched arm. Dosu, however, was just as fast, and managed to smash his sound device into Naruto's neck with a heavy swipe of his forearm. Undeterred, the blonde used the momentum to place his hands on the floor and donkey-kick the mummy-man square in the chest. He stumbled backwards, and Naruto darted away to intercept Zaku, who was hurtling towards his teammates.

Naruto collided with the other boy and tackled him off his course, rolling with the Oto-nin through the dirt. The Jinchuuriki slammed his fist repeatedly into Zaku's body as they rolled, a particularly hard punch to the stomach allowing him to wind Zaku and pin him to the ground. Settled astride the boy's chest, every muscle in his body tensed for a struggle, Naruto smashed his knuckles across Zaku's face once, twice, and felt the Oto-lackey's nose crunch. Zaku howled out, his hands scrabbling blindly around him for something to cave Naruto's skull in.

All of a sudden, Naruto let out a choked gasp as someone grabbed his collar from behind and pulled him forcefully off his enemy. He kicked his legs out, trying to gain a footing, and strained to yank the person's hands from his collar.

"You-ack sonofa—!"

His captor pressed the tip of her senbon to his jugular. "You move," Kin hissed next to his ear. "You even think about moving, and I skewer you through the neck right now." She tightened her grip on his collar, causing Naruto to have an even harder time catching his breath. He pulled at his zipper as he glared up at her.

"Like you could," he spat, anger boiling through his veins. Suddenly, his eyes flashed a deep, blood red, and Kin yelped in surprise. Too bad that in his current state, cut off from Musha, it was nothing more than a parlour trick. The split second lapse was all Naruto needed, though, and he jabbed his elbow into her navel. Kin doubled over with a cough, and Naruto twisted on his knees, sweeping her legs from under her. He scrambled away quickly, feeling his leg scrape unpleasantly against a rock. He pushed himself quickly to his feet and dodged a few senbon sent hurtling his way — Kin obviously recovered quickly from surprises.

Naruto sidestepped to the left and twisted to face the kunoichi. He began to form hand seals, but a sharp cry from Sakura made him falter. The ground exploded under his feet. He was thrown through the air like a ragdoll, and smashed heavily into the trunk of a tree. The bark splintered against his back; he could feel the wood ploughing under his skin. Gravity then showed itself, and he landed on the ground with a thud.

Zaku was laughing at him through the bloody stream flooding his nose and mouth, hands outstretched on the ground, palms down. He had channelled his sound waves into the earth, and caused them to compress the dirt beneath his feet. Naruto cursed, and rolled to his feet slowly. His leg twanged with pain, and he could feel the small gashes on his back throb sorely — they were pitted with grit and splinters, and would get infected if they weren't treated soon, especially without Musha. Damn Orochimaru's seal!

The Jinchuuriki snarled at Kin and Zaku, who were closing in on him slowly. They were grinning; they knew he was out of chakra, and they knew they had him cornered.

"Musha…" Naruto muttered beneath his breath. "Dammit, you lousy fox…"

Suddenly, Sakura screamed.

Naruto blanched, and whipped around. Sakura was in a headlock, half-dragged to her feet, and a kunai at her throat. The blonde had forgotten all about Dosu, and now his teammates were going to be killed! Naruto felt a sick panic rising in his throat. There was nothing he could do!

"Well, kid," Dosu leered. "Any last words you want your precious teammate to hear?"

Sakura whimpered as the kunai bit at her soft neck. "N-Naruto…" A few tears tumbled from her eye; she didn't dare take her gaze from her captor.

"I know," Dosu continued, tightening his grip on her. "How about you apologise? For letting her die?"

Everything happened so fast. Dosu plunged the blade towards Sakura's exposed neck. The girl's eyes widened. Naruto screamed her name, launched himself towards her. There was a flash of yellow. Zaku caught him by the waist, threw him to the ground. Another yell. A thud. Sakura cried out.

She was on the floor. Sakura was on the floor and Naruto yelled her name. She was wailing and trembling in the dirt as Dosu cursed, thrashing about. A small, yellow bird was chirruping loudly as it flew at the Oto-nin's head, pecking at his fingers and his arms.

"Natsu…" Naruto breathed. That must mean he had brought Anko! Without waiting to look around, Naruto darted to Sakura's side, picking her up off the floor and grabbing her firmly by the shoulders. "Sakura," he said. "Sakura, you're okay, you're fine." Sakura was whimpering still, her face marred with dirt that stuck to streams of salty tears. Her hands were shaking terribly as she reached out blindly for Naruto.

"N-Naruto," she gasped, clutching his shirt tightly. "Naruto, he— he almost—"

Naruto checked her over quickly, only half-registering the sound of fighting behind him and the yells of Kin and Zaku. No doubt, Anko had arrived hot on Natsu's tail. Sakura's neck was red and raw from the tight headlock Dosu had her in, but other than a thin scratch, the kunai hadn't harmed her. Naruto breathed out a heavy sigh of relief, rubbing a comforting circle on the kunoichi's back. As Sakura reached up to scrub at her eyes, though, Naruto caught sight of what had set Dosu off. It was the mark on Sakura's upper arm, the one Orochimaru had put there. He had assumed it was the same as Sasuke's, but now Naruto had the chance to look at it closely once more, he realised it was different — not only in shape, but in clarity. Naruto also realised what Dosu had not — had Sakura's mark been an accident, Orochimaru would have simply killed her. Naruto cast a discreet glance over Sakura's face, feeling dread creep up upon him. She wasn't a test of loyalty for Orochimaru's lackeys, to see if they could clean up — she was an experiment.

Naruto's thoughts were suddenly cut off, however, by a shadow falling across him and his teammate.

"Oi," came a voice Naruto recognised. "Still fighting here!"

Naruto stood, relieved to finally have some back up, even if it was the lewdest chuunin proctor he had ever met. "Anko," he uttered as turned to her, "it's about time you—" but the words died in his throat. It wasn't Anko. Instead, one of the Mist ninja, the hooded one, from the first exam stood in front of him, poised to fend off any attacks, addressing him over her shoulder.

"If you can still fight," she barked with frantic impatience, "then help me!"

Naruto leapt to his feet to oblige; strictly speaking, Kiri and Konoha weren't exactly allies, but the blonde wasn't one to kick aside help when he absolutely needed it. He and the Kiri-nin bolted forwards towards their enemies. They were outnumbered three to two and his chakra control was a wreck, but Naruto paid the odds no heed; he was pissed, and they were going to pay for it!

"Wait!"

All of a sudden, just as he was about to launch on forward, a hand pulled him back by the shoulder. Naruto spun around to face the Kiri-nin with a cry of dispute, but the shout died on his tongue as, through the gap of her heavy cloak, Naruto spied a familiar chainabout her neck. Shock froze his limbs, and for a moment he stared dumbly at the hooded ninja, unaware that she was saying something.

That wasn't hers. How could she have that…? Did she— did she steal it? Anger began to boil in his gut, but before Naruto could act upon it, something entirely different caught his attention – it was Sasuke. The Mist kunoichi had tried to tell him earlier. The Uchiha was awake, on his feet with a wild, hungry look in his eyes. Dark markings spread like flames across the left side of his body, and an evil, malicious chakra emanated from him. Naruto felt all his other thoughts and worries simply fly out of his head. Just what had Orochimaru done to Sasuke? And would that happen to Sakura as well?

Said prodigal child looked about him slowly with something akin to amusement in his eyes. The Oto-nin almost blanched at his cool disposition. Orochimaru had bestowed something special upon him, no doubt about it. A heavy scowl began to darken his face, though, as he caught sight of Sakura trembling on the ground beside him.

"Sakura…?" the Uchiha asked quietly, taking in her reddened, bruised neck and her shaking body. "Sakura, who did that to you?" But Sakura was struck dumb by the monstrous sight of her Sasuke-kun. His voice grew sterner. "Who, Sakura?"

Suddenly, Zaku began to laugh. "Are you stupid?" he spat with a chuckle. "Can't you read a situation?"

"Actually…" Sasuke replied evenly, his face splitting into a wild half-grin. "I just want to know which of you to kill first!" In the blink of an eye, he was in front of Zaku. Sakura screamed Sasuke's name, finding her voice at last, but it was too late to stop him grabbing the Oto-nin and propelling a knee into his gut. As the momentum caused Zaku to stagger forward, Sasuke elbowed the ninja in the temple, and he hit the floor.

Instantly, Kin darted forward and leapt on Sasuke, but the Uchiha was too fast. He simply caught her by the throat, lifted her, and propelled her backwards with such force that she crashed into the undergrowth, and didn't get up.

"Sasuke-kun!" Sakura cried again. "Please!"

Zaku ran at Sasuke again, diving to tackle the Uchiha's legs. Sasuke sidestepped him easily, however, and with a soft snort of amused contempt, stomped Zaku's head into the dirt. Zaku struggled for a moment, choking on a mouthful of dirt. As he struggled, however, he somehow managed to place his palms on the earth.

Dosu's uncovered eye widened as he saw what his teammate was about to do; if Zaku blew the ground from under Sasuke, he would catch himself in the blast too! Even so, before Dosu could intervene, Zaku exploded the earth below him and his assailant. A giant cloud of dust filled the air. Naruto and Sakura looked on in horror; there was no way Sasuke could have escaped that blast!

But he did. The dust cleared, and Zaku was lying unconscious in the middle of a small crater whilst Sasuke was nowhere to be seen, until—

"Last one," Sasuke declared as he appeared behind Dosu.

The Oto-nin span quickly on his heel, jumping at Sasuke's sudden appearance. "Wait!" he entreated with an open-palmed gesture. "I'll give you our scroll. It's clear you're too strong for us. So, take it."

His offer made Sasuke pause.

"Sasuke-kun," Sakura called out as she pushed herself to her feet. "Sasuke-kun, please stop. All we need is their scroll, you don't have to— you don't—" Sasuke turned his eye on her, and Sakura lost her voice. There was something in his eyes that made her cringe, some deep hunger, deep anger, that she felt she shouldn't be seeing. She lowered her eyes to the floor. "Please, Sasuke-kun."

For a moment, no one said a thing. Then, very slowly, the markings receded from Sasuke's skin, and as one, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Without another word, Dosu dropped his scroll to the floor, picked up his teammates and left.

Sakura immediately ran forward, her previous trauma forgotten. "Sasuke-kun!" She threw her arms around him, thwarting his attempts to shrug her off, and said, "I was so worried! What did that Kusa-nin do to you?"

However, before Sasuke could say anything, an angry yell interrupted him. The two Genin jumped, and twisted round just in time to see Naruto grab their rescuer by the collar of her thin cloak. There was an intake of surprise from beneath the girl's hood, but she didn't retaliate.

"Naruto!" Sakura cried. "What on earth are you doing?" But her cry went unheeded.

"Where did you get that? It's not yours!" Naruto hissed, jabbing the girl's chest, just below her necklace. "It doesn't belong to you! Did you steal it? Huh?"

For a moment, the girl said nothing, but when she did answer, there was a curious laughter in her voice that really pissed Naruto off. "But it is mine," she said in amusement.

Naruto growled in anger, feeling his inhibitions snap. "It's not!" he rebuked, taking her by the shoulders and shaking her violently, his rage exploding. "It's not yours, it's—!" The words died on his lips. His hands fell to his sides as he stumbled backwards in shock. The Kiri-nin's hood had fallen from her face, and Naruto couldn't believe his eyes. He found it hard to draw breath as he stared, dumbfounded, at his rescuer. His heart pounded in his ears from shock.

"Naruto?" Sakura said. "Naruto, what's wrong? Who is she?"

Naruto's voice stuttered slowly to life. "T-this…er… this is… She…"

Slowly, the Mist kunoichi let her cloak fall from her shoulders, to reveal herself clearly to the three Genin. There was nothing spectacular about her, from what Sakura could see. Her appearance was reminiscent of Haku's: she was wearing a blue haori, which was fastened with her hitai-ateinstead of a regular sash. The cloth of her headband was white, matching her snow-coloured hair. She wore plain black trousers that cut off at her knees. Her hair was tied back off her face, except for her bangs. A few seconds later, a small yellow canary (where had that come from? Sakura wondered) perched on the kunoichi's shoulder and chirped at Naruto. Whilst Sakura didn't find anything particularly remarkable about her, the blonde couldn't take his eyes away. He was still in shock, and shaking his head slightly.

"Naruto?" Sakura asked again, moving forward slightly in concern. "Are you okay?" When Naruto didn't answer, however, she turned to the Kiri-nin in suspicion. "Who are you?" she demanded from the kunoichi. "What do you want?"

The kunoichi didn't answer, she didn't even look around. However, Sakura's voice seemed to break a spell, and instead, almost in reply, the Mist-ninja took just one small step forward, and laced her arms around Naruto's neck, hugging him. The blonde let out a shaky gasp, and he finally found his voice.

"I— I thought you—" His arms hesitantly wrapped around her waist in response, and pulled her closer to him. There was that scent again, the one he recognised in the first exam. Now, though, he could place it. She was still a bit taller than him — his head only reached the bottom of her eyes. He waited for a crack about his height, but it didn't come. He took a breath, and tried to speak again. "T-they told me you had— that you were—" He couldn't bring himself to say it.

The girl shook her head. "No," she murmured. "No." Then she pulled back, and suddenly her face split into a wide smile. "You're still an idiot I see, Naru-chan."

Naruto blinked, almost laughed (there was the taunt he'd been expecting), and then his face darkened. "Hey! I'm not an idiot, Kaede!"

"Are too," she rebuked with a smothered giggle, smiling fondly at the sudden familiarity.

"Am not!"

Sakura and Sasuke looked from one to the other, really confused, as the duo continued on bickering. What's more, their voices were rising (Naruto being easy to provoke, as usual), and Sakura couldn't get their ambush from her mind. Jolting to her feet suddenly, she yelled, "Shut up!"

Naruto and the girl, Kaede, blinked at her. They would've had good cause to be offended if they hadn't seen the panicked look in her eyes.

"Do you want more enemies to come?" the kunoichi demanded weakly, still trembling. "And— and just who are you?" she asked, jabbing a finger at the mist ninja. "How do we know you aren't an enemy, too? Did you save us just to pick us off now we're weak? Is that it?"

Kaede said nothing for a moment, looking the girl up and down. Sakura was dirty and bruised, her pink hair tangled and matted and her eyes wide and wet with shell-shock, but her mouth was a grim line. Seeing this, the Mist kunoichi let her face relax in a smile, and showed her palm in a peaceful gesture.

"I'm not here to fight you, girl," she said. "My team has enough scrolls, and we're not collectors." She brought up a hand to scoop the little yellow bird from her shoulder. "I just followed Natsu…" she passed him to his master "…to where I was needed." All of a sudden, she held out her hand with a smile. "I'm Higurashi Kaede. Nice to meet you."

Sakura looked from Kaede, to Naruto, to the bird (Naruto had a bird?), and then back to Kaede. Slowly, she took the hand that was being offered to her. "…Sakura," she replied with uncertainty, more than a little bemused by the situation. "Ano, you… know Naruto?"

The Kiri-nin laughed, "Oh, yeah, me and sparky go way back!"

"Oi!" — Naruto was ignored.

Sakura still had a confused frown creasing her brow. She looked awfully pale. "You know Naruto… but you're from Kiri? And…"

"Yeah," Kaede said, moving forward. "Are you feeling alright? You look sick." She put her hand on Sakura's arm, and steered her to the tree hollow where she and Sasuke had first been laying. "You're still shaken up from the fight, no doubt. Sit."

As Kaede tried to settle Sakura's nerves, Naruto moved over to Sasuke, who seemed not to have noticed the brief words between the kunoichi. He was staring at the scroll in his hands, and wondering.

"Sasuke," Naruto intoned as he stopped by the Uchiha's side. "Are you alright?"

"Hmm?" The other boy didn't seem to hear him the first time, didn't even look at him, so Naruto asked again, reaching out to touch Sasuke's shoulder – to touch him, and to sneak a glance at the mark on his neck. At the Jinchuuriki's touch, Sasuke jumped as if the blonde had shocked him. "Idiot!" he snapped, swatting Naruto's hand away. "Why wouldn't I be fine?"

Naruto shot him a look – the 'don't bullshit me' look – but he didn't press it. Instead, he said, "Sakura's got the right idea. Let's rest up before we head to the tower."

The Uchiha gave him a hard look, before he begrudgingly agreed. It was only when he'd sat himself down – Sakura miraculously materialising at his side with a self-satisfied giggle, despite her still slightly peaky appearance – that he realised the absurdity of Naruto's words.

"You realise we can't head to the tower, don't you, dobe?" Sasuke shot at him with an arched eyebrow. "This scroll makes one. We need the other of the set before we even start to think of heading there." Sakura nodded beside him.

Naruto, however, grinned, causing his two teammates to gawk at him. "No sweat!" He plonked himself down, a small cloud of dust rising from the impact of his ass, and announced in a sing-song voice, "I have another scroll!" And with teeth-baring grin, he drew out the scroll he had obtained from their first enemy, the Ame-nin. "Surprise! I didn't show you it before 'cause it was the same as ours, but now— ow!"

Both Sasuke and Sakura – hell, maybe even Kaede – slapped him round the head.

"Why the hell did you keep that to yourself?"

"Don't you think we should've known that?"

"We could've used it as a bargaining chip!"

"Idiot!"

"Usuratonkachi!"

Naruto's ears were assaulted by a howl of reprimand, but all he could do was laugh. Eventually, Sasuke and Sakura's excess steam – born possibly from pure relief as their current safety dawned on them – wore out, and Naruto quelled his laughter enough to explain, "It's alright now, none of that matters anymore! We're going to finish the exam, and with all three of us still alive – just a few hours ago, we weren't sure of either!"

However, his words brought a heavy silence as Orochimaru crept into their minds. Sakura unconsciously covered her arm. Thankfully, Kaede broke the silence. She stood and announced, "I have to let my teammates know where I am. You guys should rest here for today. There's enough time for you to take it easy whilst making your way to the finish."

She dusted herself down and made to pick up her weapons (she had been cleaning a few), but Naruto caught her by the hand. She met his eyes, and smiled reassuringly at his unasked question.

"I'll be back, Naruto," she assured him quietly. "I'm not leaving you this time." She straightened. "Besides, all three of you — that includes you, dear Naru-chan — are in too rough a shape to be fending off any more enemies like those Oto-nin, even after a rest. This place still reeks of battle, people will steer clear for a little while, and then I'll be back to help you to the tower."

Sakura smiled with obvious relief. It seemed she had been worrying over the same thing. "Thank you, Kaede-san," she said. Sasuke said nothing, not even looking her way. She didn't take offense. With a quick, parting pat on Naruto's shoulder, she leapt into the trees for a fast getaway. The blonde watched her go for a moment, before turning to his teammates.

"I'll keep watch," was all he said. They didn't argue.

Later, just as dusk was falling around them, Sakura suddenly woke up. She gasped slightly to realise she had slept longer than she intended, wanting to relieve Naruto of his watch so that he, too, could rest. Despite how robust he appeared, she knew he must need recuperation too. She sat up and glanced around.

Not too far away, Sasuke was sleeping. Sakura bit her lip, suddenly inexplicably nervous to see her Sasuke-kun looking so… relaxed. But no. She looked closer, and saw that despite his limp, slumbering posture, his hands were clenched, and a painful frown flickered across his face. She let her eyes slip down from his face, to his collar. There on his neck, the mark Orochimaru had caused stuck out with harsh obviousness against the Uchiha's flushed, almost clammy skin. He looked like he was burning up. Concerned, Sakura moved to place a cold compress dutifully against his skin. She was relieved to see him relax immediately.

After Sasuke quieted – he had been groaning slightly, too, she realised in the silence – she stood, testing out her legs. They no longer shook beneath her, and she felt stronger. The kunoichi let out a relieved sigh, stretching, but cut herself off with a soft yelp, her arm burning slightly.

With soft fingers, Sakura poked at the similar bruise marring her arm, just below the ball of her shoulder. The skin was sore to the touch, and felt hot beneath her fingertips. It wasn't causing her much pain, just a dull, aching sting, but she decided to bandage it nonetheless. This done, she stepped from the tree hollow and out into the evening air. The trees were thick around the small clearing, but even so, the air was fresh.

Not far away sat Naruto. He sat on the stump of a tree, his small bird, 'Natsu' she believed it was called, hopping to-and-fro on his wiggling fingers. Sakura couldn't help but smile slightly as she approached him. He was talking to the little bird, like some kind of bird-whisperer, or—

"What are you, Naruto," she teased him lightly as she sat beside him, "some kind of Cinderella?"

"Hmm?" Naruto turned to her, blinking in bemusement. "Who's that?"

Sakura stared at him. That, she wasn't expecting. "Geez, your parents never tell you fairy-tales?" she asked him, dumbfounded. "They were my favourite bedtime stories!"

Naruto shrugged, a half-bitter smile playing at his lips as he toyed with Natsu again. The bird cheeped. "I'm an orphan, remember, Sakura?" he said quietly. "No parents, no bedtime stories."

Sakura's face fell. She'd just put her foot right in the centre of the crap pile. "Oh— damn, I— I mean…" She hesitated, before she tried to explain, "I know you don't have any parents now, but I thought maybe, like Sasuke-kun…" She paused to look at him. "You… didn't know your parents at all?"

"Nope," he replied, shaking his head. And that was all he said. Sakura had to hold back a wince at her own stupidity, but thankfully Naruto noticed her awkwardness, and smiled. "I don't mind being asked, you know, it's fine. Forget it."

The pink-haired kunoichi visibly relaxed. "Anyway…" she said, tactfully moving on. "I… um…" Suddenly, she began to scuff the dirt with her sandals, causing Naruto glance at her curiously. Natsu flitted to the floor and started to pick through the small stones she was overturning with his beak. After a moment, she spoke.

"Thank you, Naruto," Sakura mumbled quietly. "I… I don't know how you did it, but you really saved us. You got us to safety, you defended us… I…" She skimmed his face from the corner of her eye. He knew she was embarrassed, and he knew she realised he knew it. She took a breath. "I was wrong about you," she said. "That's all I wanted to say."

Naruto was looking at her with an almost astonished look on his face. Suddenly, Sakura felt put out. "What?" she defended herself. "I can be gracious, you know!"

"I never said you couldn't be!" the Jinchuuriki exclaimed, trying to keep the laughter from his voice – unsuccessfully. A vein pulsed in Sakura's forehead, and she leapt to her feet.

"Why you—!"

"Am I interrupting something?"

Sakura was cut off mid-exclamation by the return of Kaede. She hadn't even heard her approach.

"Not at all," Naruto replied, his voice suddenly quiet. Sakura looked between the two, and knew it was her cue to leave.

"I'll leave you to it," she excused herself. "I should rest some more." She wasn't sure if they had even noticed her leave.

Kaede silently took Sakura's place beside Naruto, and turned to him. "I've… got so much to tell you, Naruto," she murmured quietly.

"Ah," Naruto agreed, his voice low, subdued. Suddenly, he felt very grave. "You've got a lot to explain."

"But so have you."

They looked at each other for a moment, neither knowing who should go first. Then, Naruto suggested, "Question for a question?"

Kaede nodded, knowing what his question would be. "What are those marks on your teammates?" she asked.

Naruto fixed her with a level stare. There was no humour in his face, only solemnity. "Why did your parents tell me you were dead?"

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What do you think of our ninth chapter? Please Read and Review. We would love to know how good and how bad our fics are. If you want to flame us, at least make it constructive criticism.

Disclaimer: Any characters you recognize form the Naruto Series aren't ours, they are Kishimoto Masashi's. Only the plot, etc... are ours. Please ask for permission and getting it before taking our things.

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May fantasy guide your writing through it all - Dementra