A/n: Hey, it's been a while. I apologize, even though I'm pretty sure it'll happen again sometime down the future. It's getting harder to write this now and I can honestly see why there are so many abandoned fics out there. Not to mention that NARUTO hasn't been worth following for a while, ugh. Plus, the phenomenal response to my other Naruto fic, The Daddy Thing, has done its part in diverting my attentions. But worry not! I DO plan to finish this, no matter how long it takes. Now I realize that some of you may have forgotten what happened previously, so here's a quick sum:

Ed is stuck in Konoha and becomes friends with Uchiha Itachi. When Itachi defects, Ed promises to look after Sasuke and at the same time, find the truth of what happened the night of the massacre. His investigations lead him to Danzo, who manages to manipulate Ed into working for him. Also during this time Ed gains guardianship of Naruto.

More recently, Team Seven and Ed travel to the Land of the Waves, and get ambushed by multiple enemies, including Akatsuki's Kakazu and Tanto. They called in Team Nine as well, and the pairings of Lee and Sasuke, Tenten and Sakura, Neji and Naruto face off against higher level ninja. Neji dies in the resulting fights and Team Nine is left heartbroken. After a talk from Naruto, Haku decides to join Konoha in repentance. Zakuza makes an ominous comment about Water Country to Ed and disappears, and Kakashi discovers some of Danzo's manipulations. The chuunin exams begin.

p.s. I heard somewhere that Neji died! In cannon! I can't believe it.

Chapter 16 - Will to Win

"Man! So much came out! I feel great now!"

Sasuke didn't even glance over, he knew he'd see the clothes and shape of his brother, but he also knew that it wouldn't be him. He felt a smirk flit across his face; this chakra-sensing ability that Aniki taught them was very useful.

"I said not in front of a lady and…!"

Inwardly, Sasuke snorted; honestly, Sakura was so clueless. Their teamwork was getting better yes, but not that horribly well. Oh well, he supposed he was to blame as well. After all, it was hard to trust anyone other than Aniki and Naruto. First things first though, he needed to take care of the imposter.

In an instant, he body flickered to the imposter's side, slamming the make-shift blond into a tree. Sakura's eyes flickered, and instantly she fell into a fighting stance. Good, she knew that he would never randomly hit Naruto like that, and that Naruto would be good enough to dodge it.

Smirking, Sasuke flew to the imposter's side, and delivered a quick kick to the head. The imposter went out like a light, his illusion falling away to reveal a dark haired Rain nin.

"Tie him up," Sasuke ordered, "Naruto should be back really soon."

Sakura nodded, and proceeded to do as Sasuke asked. Sasuke frowned a little at the compliance, but shook it off. After all, that meant he didn't have to do any of the grunt work. It was when the Rain ninja was fully immobilized, that Naruto came back.

He took one glance at the tied up ninja, Sasuke's smug look, and Sakura's wary expression, before he grinned, "Hey guys, what'd I miss?"

"Some stupid imposter pretending to be you," Sasuke shook his head, "Even if I didn't have Aniki's abilities… this guy transformed with his holster on his left, when you're clearly right handed, and he missed the mark the crazy examiner gave you. He's even more of an idiot than you."

"Hey! I resent that!"

Sasuke cocked a brow, "You think you're more of an idiot?"

"Wh-what? No! That's not what I mean at all! You stupid bastard! Don't go twisting around people's words like that!"

Sasuke burst out laughing, and Naruto joined in a moment later. Sakura simply looked between the two of them, and sighed, "Okay, what do we do with this Rain nin? I've checked, and he doesn't have a scroll."

"Oh that's simple Sakura-chan," Naruto walked up to the Rain nin, and slapped him on the face. When the ninja didn't respond, Naruto slapped him a few more times.

"Hey!" Sakura protested, taking a step towards Naruto, obviously intending to stop him, "Just because he's our prisoner, doesn't mean we should abuse him!"

Sasuke reached out for Sakura's arm, holding her back. He ignored the blush that spread across her face, and focused on the moaning Rain nin, who had just regained consciousness, "Naruto just wants to question him, don't interrupt."

Naruto grinned, rubbing his hands together and his face stretching out cheekily like a fox's, "Time to get to work!"

Fifteen minutes and a long list of terrifying pranks that could easily be done to an incapacitated ninja from another village later, and they had gotten the information on the scrolls. Naruto could be intimating by sheer insanity alone.

"I'm surprised you haven't done that to anyone yet," Sasuke quipped when Naruto finished and the Rain nin went unconscious once again, referring to what Naruto had actually threatened the Rain nin with.

"I'm glad you haven't done that to anyone yet," Sakura muttered in reply, "I could see… hm, just about anybody really avoiding the public for the rest of their life if something like that happened to them."

Naruto only grinned in reply, "See, Sakura-chan understands! Nobody's pissed me off that badly yet. Ya know, I'm not upset that we got the info, but I can't believe that the Rain nin sold out his teammates like that! They deserve to have their scroll stolen! It's so-"

Just then, a sudden wind blew through the opening, cutting off Naruto's words. Sakura quickly hit the floor, instantly accessing the situation and reacting to it. Naruto held his hands up, trying to block the winds. With his strength, he might be able to do it too.

Sasuke gritted his teeth and quickly crouched low, trying to keep his center of gravity low so he wouldn't be blown away. The winds railed against him, but it did fail to move him.

Darn! He had sensed those nins a long time ago, but had hoped that they wouldn't bother Team Seven. He had been too naïve. Then, he saw the seals Naruto was forming, and the words on the blond's lips, though he couldn't hear.

Sasuke grinned. Good Naruto!

The wind around them abated, or at least, they did within a certain radius around Naruto. Outside of Naruto's jutsu's perimeter, the trees still blew wildly. It stopped however, when it was clear that it wasn't having any effect. Naruto grinned, and looked to Sasuke, who jerked his head towards his left. Naruto let up his jutsu, and turned towards that general direction, putting his hands on his hips, "You can't defeat a wind master like me by using wind jutsus! Believe it!"

A low, amused chuckle rang through the air, a Grass nin wearing a large straw hat jumped from a tree, landing gracefully on his feet. "Neither tired nor ill prepared, are we? This will be more fun than I thought."

Sasuke tensed; there was something about this ninja… something that seemed off. That had been the main reason he had been wanting to avoid the Grass trio. Sasuke couldn't yet sense chakra levels like Aniki could, but even he could feel something dangerous about the Grass nin. He wanted to subtly signal Naruto, but the idiot wasn't even looking at him.

Sasuke frowned; well then, he'd have to be obvious. This was too dangerous to ignore. "Hey Naruto, careful around this guy."

Sakura tensed, seeming to understand that something was wrong, but it was the blond's reaction that Sasuke was watching for.

Naruto turned to him, narrowing his eyes. The blond had to know that Sasuke wouldn't degrade him around an enemy like this unless it was a real emergency. Slowly, Naruto shifted to a warier stance.

The Grass nin chuckled, digging into his pack, "That scared are we? Or maybe just that perceptive…? Anyway, you want my earth scroll right? Since you guys have the heaven scroll…"

Then, he did the grossest thing Sasuke had ever seen; he swallowed the earth scroll whole. They all tensed; he knew it, something was seriously wrong with this guy!

"Kukuku, now let's begin, the battle for each other's scrolls," The air suddenly became thicker, tenser, harder to breathe in. Suddenly, Sasuke got a very bad feeling about this, worse than the one he already had. Licking his lips, the rain nin widened his eyes crazily, "With our lives on the line!"

He was dead. A kunai went through his forehead, splattering blood, precious red blood. Sasuke gasped, lurching forward and wrenching when he realized that it hadn't actually happened. Was this… genjutsu? No… no, if it had been genjutsu, he would have seen through it. This was… pure fear.

"HA! Is that the best killing intent you've got? I've felt way worse!"

Sasuke's eyes widened as his head snapped to his blond teammate, who seemed almost completely unaffected by the monstrous killing intent. He'd felt worse…? Oh yeah, because he was the Kyuubi container. Sasuke felt his fists clench; he was going to kill the bastards who did that to his brother.

The Grass nin looked shocked, which Sasuke took some satisfaction in, "You've felt worse…? Wow, I actually feel bad for you."

"Don't make fun of me, bastard!"

"I was doing nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, your teammates can no longer move."

"Not. True." Sasuke struggled to his feet, digging out a kunai from his pack. Heh, he wouldn't lose to Naruto.

"Oh-ho, I am impressed. Just as I thought, you are very interesting prey…"

Sasuske channelled chakra to his eyes, allowing the coal black to slowly bleed to a blood red, "Naruto, I think we need to go all out on this guy. Sakura, stay as backup."

Sakura nodded, fading into the trees. She knew enough of their skills to know that she couldn't keep up quite yet, and would only be in the way. Besides, Aniki had taught her some medical jutsus, so she had to be protected as a healer.

"Naruto, that day we decide to surprise Aniki because he promised to bring back a red herring but couldn't find one—"

Naruto grinned, making a horde of shadow clones, "I'm on it."

That said, they all charged. Sasuke joined in the fray. The rain nin actually looked surprised at the speed, but that didn't stop him from dodging out of the way. Swiftly, he delivered a number of counter-attacks; his taijutsu was impressive.

Still, Sasuke's speed was no joke either, nor was his form. However, even helped by the clones, Sasuke was getting outmatched. The Grass nin was dispelling each and every one of Naruto's shadow clones systematically, while still countering Sasuke.

But they weren't done yet.

As the last shadow clone dispelled, Sasuke jumped away, watching the real Naruto crouch to the ground, gently touching a thin line that was gorged into the ground.

Sasuke didn't waste any time. He quickly formed the handseals just as Naruto's seal lit up, activating, "Fire Release: Dragon Fire!"

Naruto quickly leapt back as the fire roared towards the Rain nin, adding his own jutsu to the mix, "Wind Release: Torrent!"

The Grass nin's eyes widened, and he struggled to move; but couldn't. Sasuke held back a smirk; Naruto's seal had worked perfectly. The fire engulfed the Grass nin, made more potent by the raging winds. The enemy ninja would have to have a medic on Lady Tsunade's level to make it out alive.

On that day, Naruto and Sasuke had wanted serious to teach Aniki a lesson. They knew his medical skill was impressive, and he could heal himself just perfectly afterwards. Sasuke had charged with the clones, making sure to mask the fact that each clone when they weren't fighting, were drawing the lines for the seal. An original invention of Naruto Uzumaki's; one that stopped the person within it from moving, at least for a little while. Then, they had performed this sequence perfectly. Or at least, semi-perfectly.

It turned out that when Aniki had seen Sasuke jump away, he made a shadow clone to replace him, knowing something was up. Still, that was due to the fact that Aniki was jounin, and this Grass nin was no jounin.

Sasuke's eyes widened at what happened next. No way.

A giant snake surrounded the Grass nin, burnt to a crisp. A head emerged from the top of the snake's defensive wrap, revealing the uninjured head of the Grass nin. The wild thrashing of the dead snake had wiped away most of the seal, and now the enemy ninja was free to move as he pleased.

"Genius sealing, blond hair, blue eyes…" The Grass nin jumped down from the snake, narrowing his eyes at Naruto, "Minato? No… no way. Still, you're about the right age for…"

Suddenly, Naruto was slammed into a tree, gasping as the Grass nin held him by the neck. Sasuke took a step forwards, but the warning glare the Grass ninja gave him stopped him in his tracks. The look told him that if he dared move so much as a pinky, Naruto would die. Sasuke gulped, shaking.

"My, my, my," The Grass nin licked Naruto's cheek, ignoring the blond's disgusted face, "I almost don't believe this. Really, I should eliminate you right now, before you grow to be a threat… but then, I suppose that wouldn't be very fun, would it?"

Smirking, the Grass nin turned to face Sasuke, "You'd be upset if your friend died, correct?"

Sasuke tensed; what kind of question was that?

The enemy ninja nodded knowingly, "Ah yes, I see. You'd never forgive me. Well then… I suppose I can't kill him. But… he is in the way right now. I can't have you two pulling off another stunt like that; I might just be killed next time."

Without warning, the Grass nin slammed Naruto's head back, hard enough to shatter bits of the tree. Naruto's eyes rolled back, and his body slumped forwards. Grinning, the Grass nin tossed the blond aside, as if he were a useless rag doll. Sasuke felt his body shake from anger; how dare he?!

"My, my, you're angry aren't you?" Suddenly, the Grass nin's eyes crystallized with desire, "Very well then, show me the power of the Sharingan!"

"What are you on about?" Sasuke growled at the female ninja, "Why are you here?"

It was apparent by now that the Grass nin was no ordinary genin. Sasuke was not being overconfident in saying that he and Naruto's combos would have never failed against a regular opponent.

They had even had an affect against Baruna—the jounin that they'd fought in the disastrous Wave mission. It was only how they had handled it afterwards that had lost them the battle.

"Oh I want many things Sasuke-kun," the Grass nin purred, which was just freaking creepy, before she launched himself again and creepiness turned into fear fear fear.

Sasuke hurriedly leapt out of the way, just barely dodging the Grass nin. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sakura's terrified form, and he suddenly realized that he couldn't stay. The Grass nin was completely out of her league, and she'd end up just like Naruto if she tried helping.

And she would end up like Naruto. She'd improved over the past few weeks, but she was still nowhere near either of their levels, and the Grass nin had managed to trounce them both soundly without much effort at all.

Tsking, Sasuke took to the trees, leaping away from his teammates and deeper into the forests. He tried to ignore the gasp he heard from his pink haired teammate, a sound that was carried to him by the winds. He tried to ignore the betrayed emerald eyes and the sinking look of helplessness on a face that had somehow become one that he remembered.

"Sasuke-kun—no!" Sakura called out, but Sasuke didn't listen.

For one horrifying second the Grass nin didn't follow, and Sasuke wondered in dismay if his tactic had failed, but then the female ninja had let out a chilling laugh and leapt after Sasuke.

"So," the Grass nin whispered silkily, "trying to draw me away are you?"

It was all Sasuke could do not to stiffen, because to do so would slow him down. With a snarl he turned around, sending a slew of shuriken the Grass nin's way. He never slowed, having well mapped out the aerial road before he turned.

The Grass nin only laughed as she dodged each and every one of the projectiles. It was just as well, since Sasuke had never intended to hit her with those anyway.

"Honestly this works out better for me, since all I wanted in the first place was to be alone with you," the older nin said, bemused. Quite suddenly she stopped, not moving anymore as suddenly, her expression sharpened, "Now, this is far enough, don't you think?"

"Agreed," Sasuke intoned without inflection, and, without a single pause in his step, suddenly changed direction and flew towards her. The Gass nin didn't even have the grace to appear surprised.

"Sasuke-kun," The Grass nin practically sang as he flipped to yet another branch. "Shall I tell you something very interesting?"

Sasuke didn't respond, simply sending yet another slew of shuriken at the girl as he dashed after her.

She dodged out of the way, of course. Grinning, the Grass ninja avoided each and every one of Sasuke strikes, somehow managing to continue talking all the while, "Five years ago, there was a fascinating event in Konoha. It spread all over the world, until even the most secluded of hermits knew about it. Because, you see, it was most unusual, even for the ninja world. In just one night, one of the most famous clans in the entire ninja world suddenly disappeared—leaving only one, lonely eight year old boy."

Don't pay attention, don't pay attention, don't pay attention, Sasuke told himself as he charged forward yet again.

"Except he wasn't the only one left of the clan, now was he? There was another—a secret kept to all but most trusted members of Leaf Village. The reason that the clan suddenly disappeared -the reason that the name of this prestigious clan vanished from the records—was because one of the members went insane, turned absolutely mad, and killed each and every one of the clan. That is, except for his younger brother. He disappeared after that, leaving his eight year old sibling to fend for himself."

Sasuke gritted his teeth, and aimed a kunai at the Grass nin's eye. As the Grass nin moved to dodge it, Sasuke flashed through a number of handseals, then released his jutsu. He knew the Grass nin was just trying to get to him, he knew that. And yet…

The Grass nin danced out of the way, somehow, laughing as she spun, "That boy raged, cried, and cursed the name of his brother—perfectly vengeful. But then that older brother had a friend, a very concerned friend who decided to take over the care of the younger brother. And so the younger brother did not grow up with vengeance and hate, but instead grew up with the belief that his older brother was forced to murder his clan somehow."

He wouldn't listen. He wouldn't listen. He wouldn't listen.

"And he was right."

what? Sasuke faltered, and almost lost an arm because of it. Seeing Sasuke's hesitation, the Grass nin had fired off a spew of kunai, which had actually almost hit him because Sasuke wasn't paying attention.

Inwardly, he cursed himself. No matter how he felt, he couldn't allow himself to be distracted in battle. Naruto's life was on the line. The Grass nin was only purposefully trying to startle him.

The Grass nin chuckled as Sasuke narrowed his eyes, throwing three more kunai. She twisted her body this way and that, not even bothering to move as the weapons whirled past her. "Is this the best you can do? I must say, I'm disappointed…"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed, and then he pulled. The Grass nin suddenly stiffened, her eyes seeming to bulge out of her face. She looked around, her situation finally dawning on her.

Sasuke didn't give her any time to think of a solution. He put his hand to his mouth, almost kissing his knuckles, and blew. Fire sprang across the invisible ninja wire he had tied around his weapons, and streamed towards the Grass ninja.

When he had let all those kunai and shuriken fly, it hadn't been without purpose. He had been systematically planning this spot and the angles so that the Grass nin couldn't see what he was doing.

And then, at the right moment, all Sasuke would have to do was apply a little bit of chakra to the ninja wire, and they would trap his opponent. Unfortunately, it would only trap them for a few seconds at best.

As soon as the fire left his mouth, Sasuke let the ninja wire drop. The fire would roast anyone, but Sasuke also knew that the Grass nin wasn't just anyone. The dark haired boy dropped into a stance, letting his breathing level out. He clutched his right arm, and slowly, he started to hear the sound of chirping birds…

"What I am about to teach you is very dangerous, do you understand? As you have seen with Lee's Gates, advanced techniques also have very advanced consequences. However, in an instance like the one we encountered in Wave Country… I would hate to lose my promising little bunnies just because I wasn't there.

"What I am about to teach you is an assassin's technique, and as such I do not want it to be treated lightly. You must tell no one you are learning this, not even Naruto. Maa... what's with that look? Do you think I'm favouring you? Please, don't be conceited, it's nothing like that. As much as I'd hate to say it, Naruto has the Kyuubi when all else fails, and the nine tailed fox will not let him die. Sakura's level is unfortunately too low right now to learn anything like this. If the time comes, it will be up to you to save your teammates.

"Do not use it for showing off. Do not use this for missions, even if it means failing. Only use it when you or your teammate's life is in danger. Only use it when you have no other choice."

His right arm was vibrating, sending little jolts of pain throughout his body, but he was used to pain. All he was worried about was getting there fast enough... finishing this fast enough...

The fire had just went out, leaving a charred corpse behind. The corpse was the real one- Sasuke could feel it. But he also knew it wasn't a corpse... and it would only take an instant for the Grass nin to be on her feet again.

Sasuke charged, racing full speed towards the incapacitated ninja. He had picked this path for the least resistibility, the least obstructions in his pathway. Sasuke ran without hindrance, readying his right claw for the fatal strike.

Soon, the Grass nin was in front of his eyes, and without a moment's hesitation Sasuke struck his lightning covered hand towards the Grass nin's heart-

His hand stopped an inch from the Grass nin's chest, but it wasn't he who did it. A cold, sinking feeling spread through Sasuke's body as he realized he couldn't move his arm. A bony hand was clamped around his right wrist, blue veins bulging out as it held Sasuke in its grip. Sasuke jerked his arm back, but it would not move.

The blue lightning dissipated.

A high, wicked cackling filled the air, making Sasuke's skin crawl. Suddenly, another bony hand arose from the charred body, moving in quick jerky movements as if it were a puppet. Sasuke flinched back, but it didn't go to him.

Instead, the hand rose to the Grass nin's head, one long fingernail resting at the center of the girl's forehead.

Sasuke watched in horrified fascination as the hand fell, and the fingernail with it. There was a horrible, screeching sound of nails on chalkboard, as the charred skin rippled and ripped away.

The Grass nin licked her lips, which were wholly unblemished. She looked different from before- and now Sasuke really doubted she was a 'she' at all. 'Her' strong hand certainly didn't feel like a woman's hand, even for a female ninja.

The Grass nin had long, shoulder length black hair, which plastered to her skull and the sides of her face. Her eyes were narrow, almost snake-like in their appearance. Sasuke recognized with a shiver that they were the same gold as Aniki's- but they couldn't possibly be related, could they?

"That," She smiled, her voice the same high pitched tone as before, "was dangerous. You could have killed me."

"You were playing with me," Sasuke spat.

Because yes, he realized it now- there was absolutely no way he could defeat her. He'd always known, but never had he known it so clearly until she'd caught his chidori easily and somehow managed to avoid the watchful trap of his Sharingan. She'd been holding back on him for some purpose, and his only way to defeat her was to find that purpose.

"Yes," The Grass nin (or was she even a Grass nin?) frowned, "I suppose I was. But we mustn't underestimate your efforts. Truly, I didn't expect you to do so well. You remind me so much of Itachi..."

Sasuke tensed, "Don't say his name."

The Grass nin smiled, "And why not? I daresay I know him better than you do. Shall I finish my story?"

"I don't want to hear your lies or-"

"There really was a conspiracy, and your guardian discovered it."

That shut Sasuke up.

"You see, the Uchiha clan were a high and proud species, and they had an extensive history. Along with the Senju clan, it was really the Uchihas who built Konoha. And so, they had a right to it, so to speak. However, it was the Senjus who won in the end, so it was a Senju who got to become the first Hokage. Still, the Uchihas remained a central part of Konoha, even if they weren't leading it. This, you know.

"What you probably don't know though, is that Uchiha eyes –the Sharingan- is capable of controlling the tailed beasts... Yes, I can see from your expression that you know what this means. After the attack of the Ninetails, many people started to suspect the Uchiha, seeing their police forces as control agents. This greatly isolated the Uchiha clan, and pushed them further from the villagers. Soon, the Uchiha couldn't communicate with the villagers at all, and it was only one lone Uchiha who had establishments both within the clan and without.

"Itachi Uchiha was one of a kind, though I personally think you have the potential to be greater. He was an ANBU Captain... but he was also the spy for the Uchiha clan. But, Sarutobi found out, and instead converted Itachi to his own cause. Itachi became a double agent, and it was very taxing on him I'd imagine...

"Ah, are you starting to remember something? Well, anyhow, the Uchiha clan had thoughts of rebellion- had been having them for a while, actually. Any way that the Sandaime could think of to resolve the issue would be messy, because despite the ninjas' isolation, the villagers loved the Uchiha. If the Sandaime were to deal with the Uchiha forcibly, he'd have a peasant's revolt on his hands. Besides, the Sandaime never liked to use violence; the old fool always thought there was a peaceful way to things.

"Unfortunately, his top three advisors who also knew about the situation did not think like he did. Danzo, the commander of ROOT ANBU, secretly gave a set of instructions to Itachi Uchiha one night and told him it was the only way to save Konoha. Those instructions were to annihilate the Uchiha clan by himself, so that the Uchiha died with the Uchiha, and Konoha could not be blamed."

The Grass nin had let go of Sasuke's hand by now, but Sasuke could still not move. He was stunned by what he heard. Could... could it be true? It would explain everything, and yet... "Why- did I- me...?"

The other ninja smiled, seeming to understand Sasuke's meaning even with the confusing words. "Because he loved you. Itachi Uchiha loved his little brother above all else. After the massacre, Itachi went to Danzo and threatened to reveal the whole thing if he were to touch a hair on your head. And then of course, there was Edward-kun's nifty little trick in getting you out of Konoha. Ah, you didn't expect that? Yes, Edward Elric's reason for taking you out of Leaf Village was far from 'just exploring'. They both knew you were in dangerous waters; they were far from stupid after all."

"How do you..." There were so many questions he wanted to ask. Too many. His throat was closing. He didn't know what to say. But, he couldn't afford weakness. "Know Aniki? Edward Elric?"

"How do I know your brother?" The Grass nin blinked, "Well, I have met him a few times. As for Edward-kun, I've never met him per say, but I've heard enough about him that I feel like I know him quite well..."

"And you said," Sasuke forced himself to continue. After all, the longer he stalled the ninja for, the higher chance that someone would come to rescue them, right? At least, that's what he told himself to think. Sasuke didn't want to think about his actual reasoning for actually conversing with the person who had almost killed Naruto. "Ani- Edward Elric discovered this."

"Right," The Grass nin blinked owlishly- or what would have been owlishly if not for the snake-like eyes, "I did say that, didn't I? Yes, your guardian did discover this little conspiracy, but unfortunately at the same time, Danzo discovered him. Danzo defeated him, but Edward-kun begged to live. Again, it wasn't for himself- it was because of you. He was afraid of what would happen to you if he died, and so Edward-kun pledged his services to Danzo if Danzo would let him live. Funny isn't it, how all these geniuses sacrifice themselves for you.

"Edward-kun has been busy these past few years- I wonder if the Sandaime realizes. The dirty work Danzo has him do... my, my, even I would not put my subordinates through that. Oh, you're looking rather angry. Remembering the times your guardian came home late perhaps, or maybe Danzo even personally visited your home?"

"How," Sasuke finally grounded out, "can I believe you?"

"To put it simply, you can't. But Sasuke-kun, look in your own memories. Don't listen to my words, look at your experiences. Or perhaps... you could ask your guardian about certain events. I'm sure you're smart enough to pick up on hidden meanings. You'll find that I'm not lying."

Could... could what the Grass nin be saying true? But... but the Grass nin had already fooled them so many times and-

"I see that it'll take you a while to digest this information. Well, unfortunately I don't have that time to wait. How 'bout this? I'll come back again- or better yet, you can come see me. I'll leave a little present for you. My name is... Orochimaru."

Sasuke's thoughts ceased. Orochimaru?

There was a nasty smile. A flash of pale skin. A sharp pain on his neck.

And then, a world of torment.

A scream split the air.

Settled in a small clearing beside her blond teammate, Sakura startled at the sudden sound. Her head whipped towards the direction of the disturbance, green eyes wide with worry. Before she knew it she was half way up, in an awkward sort of crouching position as she angled her body towards the sound.


She hesitated. She wanted to go after him, to see if he was alright, but—

She looked at Naruto. He looked so helpless lying there, propped up against the log because he himself had no strength to shift his position. Naruto was always so full of energy, bounding around and keeping up an endless stream of chatter, and now that he was so still it almost seemed as if it'd never come back again.

Sakura shook her head, forcibly shoving such depressing thoughts into the deep corners of her mind. No, she couldn't afford to think like that now. She was, quite possibly, the only one of her teammates left with any ability to defend them at all.

That thought sent a sinking feeling to the pit of her stomach. If Naruto and Sasuke, whom she was sure were the strongest genins of the year, were no match for the mysterious Grass nin, what chance did she have?

She plopped back down, defeated before she could even attempt to fight.

But minutes passed and she heard nothing else, and nobody came back to finish the job.

The forest likewise stayed silent.

She tried not to think of the reason that was. She really, really tried. But she couldn't. Sasuke wasn't one to show his pain, and normally he'd never scream like that, and the Grass nin had already managed to so easily take down Naruto…

Surely if Naruto were awake, he'd demand that she go check on Sasuke…?

But that thought sounded an awful lot like an excuse, even if it were completely true. It felt too much like she were going to abandon Naruto for her crush, and she didn't want to be that girl any longer.

But she couldn't leave Sasuke alone and pretend that nothing had happened. Something obviously had, and what if it were serious? She'd never forgive herself if she didn't go.

Gritting her teeth, Sakura walked determinedly over to Naruto, and with a huff, hauled him over her shoulder. She staggered underneath the weight, but somehow did manage to stay standing, if not a little bent over.

Taking a few deep breaths, she began walking towards the direction she heard Sasuke's scream.

It was slow going. Naruto's feet dragged in the gravel beneath them, but there was little that she could do about it. It was already all she could do to keep walking without sending them both falling to the ground.

Finally, finally she made it to Sasuke. The sight that greeted her was not a happy one.

"Oh my—!" Tears sprung to her eyes, and before she knew it she had dropped Naruto and was rushing over to the prone form of her other teammate. He was lying on the ground pale as death, accentuated all the more by his dark clothing.

Quickly she fell to her knees, taking his wrist in her hands and passing two fingers over his pulse. For one horrifying second she thought she felt nothing, but then, there it was, the beat that informed them that he was still there.

It was a weak, spluttering pulse, but it was there at least.

Sakura felt like crying in relief. She thanked whatever gods there were that the Grass nin didn't appear to have killed Sasuke outright.

"Alright, alright, what was it that Edward-sensei said?" She muttered to herself, taking a breath as she struggled to remember the lessons the grinning blond had given her. It felt so far away. Her brain was stumbling, slow with fatigue and worry.

She was frustrated with herself. What good was her oversized brain if she couldn't even think?

Finally, and much more slowly than she would have liked, she remembered the jutsus Edward-sense had taught her for unknown comas. They'd only started on the basics, and she knew there was no way she was at the level where she could even hope to bring Sasuke out of it, but she could definitely make him feel more comfortable.

Nodding determinedly to herself, she put her hands over Sasuke's chest and half closed her eyes in concentration. Her hands started to glow slightly with concentrated energy as she brought forth her own chakra, doing her best to redirect the flow of her raven haired teammate's.

She was rewarded with a rebound so powerful it actually sent her flying across the clearing. She landed in a heap at the base of a tree, groaning as she struggled to right herself again. When she finally did, she couldn't help but look at Sasuke's body in horror.

What was that?!

When she'd tried to redirect the chakra flow, she'd been hit with a wall so thick that it'd made her feel like an ant. Actually, it wasn't even a wall, but more of a tornado. And it felt… awful.

Wrapping her arms around herself, Sakura fought back a shiver. She wasn't exactly scared of Sasuke, but that chakra.

"What did she do to you, Sasuke?" She whimpered, closing her eyes. She couldn't help but acknowledge bitterly that while she knew all four hundred and nine rules of being a ninja like the back of her hand, she didn't actually know anything useful like how to access what the problem was with Sasuke. Even Naruto had more knowledge of chakra manipulation than her.

Green eyes widened in horror as the thought reminded Sakura of something she'd neglected in her shock. Sakura whipped her head back to her blond teammate, who was lying exactly where she had dropped him.

She felt a stab of guilt. In her hurry to check on Sasuke, she'd forgotten about her other downed teammate! Could she do nothing right?

But… but this wasn't the time to pity herself. They were still in the middle of the chuunin exams, and it was dangerous. It was with bitter clarity that Sakura recalled that the grass nin did not even deem her enough of a threat to knock out, but she was glad for it now.

She was no Sasuke who could take on the exam all by himself, nor was she Naruto who could likely turn all the enemies on each other and allow them to escape, but she was the only one conscious. She would protect them until they were well enough even if it was the last thing she did.

Nodding determined, Sakura took in a deep breath and got up. She pushed back her fear, her worry, her self-hatred. She had work to do.

Setting up the basic traps did not take long at all. It was basic Academy knowledge after all and she had always done well in the Academy. She wasn't sure how well it'd hold up against the participants of the chuunin exams though. As she'd seen from Team Ten, ninja were far more complicated than the Academy would lead them to believe.

After making sure she had at least some form of base protection for Naruto and Sasuke, she began on more complex traps. She utilized the seals that Naruto had seen fit to show her, and hoped beyond hope that she wouldn't foul it up. She was about halfway through her third one when suddenly, a squirrel ran out from seemingly nowhere.

Her eyes widened as she caught a glimpse of something that was definitely not natural attached to its back. She might not have caught it a few months ago, but Naruto was fond of using any and everything to get the results that he wanted and she had long since grown used to looking for unexpected things in the most common of places.

She let out a hiss and sent a kunai flying towards the squirrel, intending to scare it away. Her aim was true and her kunai landed half a step in front of the critter, stopping it in its tracks. With a startled cry the squirrel ran back the way it came, carrying the explosive tag with it.

Her whole body tensed, because now she was aware that someone had to be watching her even if she hadn't heard them, and she dropped the trap she was setting up.

"Show yourself!" She screamed, and it was only a moment later that she realized that it might not have been a good idea to announce her knowledge of her stalkers so quickly. But she couldn't think of how it would be any better to react differently, and at least this way she would know what she was dealing with.

There was a rustle to her left, and a moment later, a team of three appeared just at the perimeter of her traps. She recognized them. How could she not? They had caused such a commotion during the first half of the chuunin exams.

"Hehe, up all night?" The bandaged Sound nin grinned, crouching low on the branch of his tree, "But it's no longer necessary. Wake up Sasuke. We want to fight him."

"Let's see if you can get through me first," Sakura said grimly, taking out her kunai as she waited for them.

She didn't have to wait long. They came to her, and she did her best to counter. They had the advantage in numbers, but she was being underestimated and she used that. There was also the handy little traps which she'd set that she would spring every once in a while to catch them off guard. And it was working.

What was it that Edward-sensei had said? Map, wait, strike.

He'd told her that her advantage was in intelligence. Normally in a battle between two ninja, one would not have enough time to observe their opponent. But with Sakura's intellectual capabilities, Edward-sensei had reasoned that she could potentially figure out someone's thought process and fighting style within minutes. That was enough time to stall without being killed in the process.

Edward-sensei had admitted that he'd never been a person with a small amount of chakra himself, but there had been times when he'd been running low, and besides that, he knew how to fight to conserve.

He'd explained that the key to medical combat was in the opportunity. Every fighting style had a weakness, and while sometimes that weakness could be nearly impossible to exploit, there was always that split second of chance. A medical ninja's job was to recognize that second before it happened and strike to end the battle.

She felt her vessels threaten to pop underneath all the pressure her heart was pumping through her veins, and her head felt woozy from adrenaline. But her mind felt clearer than it ever had, and the knowledge that it was now or never sent a dizzying thrill through her body.

She was both horrified and exhilarated.

Was this what Sasuke and Naruto always felt like? No wonder they liked fighting so much.

And there! She saw an opening!

She struck, aiming for where he would be rather than where he was, knowing that his reflexes were likely much better than hers. She was ecstatic when her blow landed, and with a cry of pain, the spiky haired Sound nin collapsed.

But he didn't have teammates just for show. They were waiting for the moment for their spiky haired teammate to get down so that they could strike without worry. Out of the corner of her eye she caught the female nin fire off a slew of senbon, but Sakura ignored it in favour of her trap.

She made a split second decision. She knew she was going to have a hard time catching the spiky haired ninja off guard again, and she was willing to shoulder some pain in able to take him out of the picture.

Hurriedly she activated the seal that she'd led him into. It was the same one that she'd learned that fateful mission in the Land of the Waves, but the Sound nin was not Fujiwara and he didn't emerge from the chains that suddenly suffocated him.

Sakura let out a cry as a slew of senbon from the girl hit her shoulder, causing her to stagger directly into the path of the bandaged boy. He spun a kick at her chest, but she wouldn't be taken down so easily!

Quickly she snapped her hands together in the most basic of seals, ignoring the throbbing of her arm. He reached her just as she switched out with a Replacement Jutsu, appearing directly behind the female Sound nin.

With a cry she leapt towards the Sound nin, who turned just in time to catch Sakura falling towards her with kunai high in hand. The Sound nin snarled and sent more splatterings of senbon, but Sakura ignored them all.

She didn't care what happened to her body, as long as she could protect Sasuke and Naruto!

She hit the Sound nin and sent both of them tumbling to the ground. But, she wasn't able to land a crippling hit with her kunai.

They grappled on the floor. Sakura was determined, and that fuelled her despite the fact that her body should have fallen long ago. But the fact of the matter was, her body was running out… of everything.

A moment of distraction was all it took. One moment Sakura was struggling with her kunai in hand and in the next, she was pinned down beneath the Sound nin with her weapon knocked out of her hand. Sakura gave a cry of dismay, but that only seemed to fuel the Sound nin further as she dealt a heavy blow to Sakura's face, putting up stars behind the pink haired girl's lids.

"You're not bad," the female ninja said snidely as she straddled the pink haired girl, one arm pressed harshly against her throat to prevent her from moving. "It almost makes me sad to dispose of another female—there are so few who are serious after all. But you're at a disadvantage. You're much too arrogant if you think you alone can take on the three of us."

"I—I won't give up," Sakura spat.

"There's determination, and then there's stupidity," the bandaged boy drawled. He looked at Sasuke, "Well, no matter. You don't have any say in what happens afterwards anyway. Goodbye."

He raised his arms, no doubt intending to do that deadly wind jutsu of his, when suddenly—

The female Sound nin suddenly dropped her weapons, her body straightening, and the bandaged ninja froze where he stood.

Sakura tensed, not knowing what was happening but knowing that this was her opportunity. She pushed her damaged limbs to the limit, jerking upwards to strike at the female ninja before she could regain her sense.

But the female ninja stopped her easily, smiling a familiar smile that should definitely not have been on her face.

"Really Forehead," the Sound nin said, her voice bemused, "is that any way to treat your saviour?"

Sakura stared, "I—Ino?"

It was then that Team Ten emerged from the bushes. Chouji was carrying the slackened form of Ino's body, which was always unresponsive whenever she was using her Mind Transfer jutsu. Shikamaru was in a weird stance, and with every step he took, the bandaged ninja took also. It was then that Sakura noticed the thin black shadow connecting the two of them.

"Sakura," Ino said with a grin, getting up off Sakura and offering her a hand, "I won't lose to you. I've already told you that. I won't let you be the only one who gets to look good in front of Sasuke."

Sakura could only blink back tears.

This all felt so unreal. She could not believe that Ino had come to her rescue like this.

But then again, why not? Ino always been Sakura's protector, and once again, Ino had showed when Sakura most needed her.

She swallowed. She knew she hadn't been fair to the blond kunoichi. Ino had been with her through thick and thin, and Sakura had given all that up for… what? A dream that was never meant to be anything?

She wasn't giving up on Sasuke, of course she wasn't, and she was never going to hand him over to Ino, but even she had to admit that breaking off their friendship as she did was a huge mistake on her part.

It'd come to her one day while she was training under Edward-sensei. She'd just suddenly remembered her former best friend and realized that the way that they were no longer fit into her life goals.

Tenten had showed her how a ninja could be serious, and Sakura had realized with an abject horror that she'd been terribly not serious in the way she dealt with Ino.

She hadn't had the courage to go find Ino and apologize. Even when they'd first saw each other at the chuunin exam entrances, Sakura had held back, not wanting to get into such a long overdue conversation when they were about to be enemies once again. If she were honest, she had been scared.

But now that Ino had showed up—compromised her own safety to help a worthless friend—how could Sakura keep denying?

Sakura took the hand and allowed herself to be helped up, and she couldn't stop crying the whole time.

By then Shikamaru and Chouji had made their way over.

"Five minutes time limit is up," Shikamaru whispered to the form of the female Sound nin, to which Ino just nodded and took out a kunai.

She stepped to the side, away from the rest of the group, just as Shikamaru released whatever jutsu he'd used to hold the bandaged guy in place.

"Don't move!" Ino commanded, moving her kunai to her possessed body's throat, "If you do, I'll end this girl's life! If you don't want it to end here, then leave your scroll and get out of here! When I can't sense your chakra any longer I'll let her go!"

The bandaged nin only smirked, and suddenly Sakura got a very bad feeling about this.

A second later a blast of air forced Ino backwards, and Ino let out a cry as her back hit the tree behind her. Her head made a sickening crack against the hard wood, and then Ino made no more movements as her possessed body slumped to the floor.

The cries of her teammates were nearly drowned out in the laughter that followed by the man who'd done that to his own partner. Chouji nearly dropped her body as a big black ugly spot of blood appeared at the back of the blond's head, signalling to Sakura that yes, whatever damage her possessed body sustained, her true body did also.

Sakura could only stare in shock, not able to believe it. After she'd finally reunited with her best friend, when it seemed like things were finally going to be OK… it couldn't end like this!


But Ino gave no response, either in her captive body or her real one.

"She's… she's still breathing," Chouji said shakily. He looked to Shikamaru, his big eyes round and earnest, dependent. He looked lost.

Shikamaru wasn't faring much better.

"It—it wasn't," he muttered to himself, "I don't understand, how did it end up like this?"

Sakura turned her attentions to the bandaged Sound nin instead. Her face was a picture of righteous fury, her eyes filled to the brim with tears, "How—how could you? Your own teammate? You monster!"

The bandaged ninja just snorted, "Are you daft? Our goals are not the stupid scrolls or even to complete this exam. It's Sasuke-kun!"

Sakura swallowed. The man had just taken Ino away, and he thought he was getting Sasuke too? She wasn't going to let him!

"It's not," she said through clenched teeth, forcing herself up to an upright position, "going to happen."

"And who's going to stop me?" The Sound nin asked with a raised eyebrow. His voice was dripping with disdain, "A guy whose main technique can't be used again, a girl whose body's broke, and a big fatso freak… do you really think you can defeat me?"

Sakura opened her mouth to angrily retort, but Chouji beat her to it.


There were tears in Chouji's eyes, and Sakura knew then that it wasn't really the fat comment which had gotten Chouji riled up. He was furious about Ino too.

Gently, the kind hearted Akimichi laid down Ino's body, and the next instant, Chouji had spread out his arms and then all of the sudden, he'd rolled himself up into some kind of gigantic ball. Sakura could only watch wide eyed as he went ploughing towards the bandaged Sound nin.

But instead of running, like every other sane ninja might have done, the bandaged ninja simply raised his arms.

He took a deep breath, and let out a blast of pressurized air.

Chouji suddenly swerved and went crashing into a nearby tree, sending up a spray of shrapnel. When the dust cleared, Chouji was revealed to be uncurled from his ball form and unconscious at the base of the trunk.

"NO!" Shikamaru screamed.

"It'll take more than that to get me," the bandaged ninja chuckled, only to freeze. His eyes widened, "What…?"

"You were wrong when you said I can't use that technique again," Shikamaru said, smiling grimly. A shadow extended from his feet, stopping the other nin's movements with his own. "NOW SAKURA!"

The bandaged nin's eyes widened as Shikamaru let him go at the last second possible, and he barely had time to look up before Sakura fell on him, pushing her body to the limits as she struck out where she knew it would hurt most. He didn't stand a chance.

His body crumpled beneath her, knocked out cold from the blow.

Sakura was atop him, breathing harshly. Her body tinged and protested with every movement, threatening to shut down. But it was nothing compared to what the others had suffered.

Turning her head, she allowed her eyes to skim the vicinity of the area. Sasuke and Naruto were still unconscious where she'd lain them, and Chouji had joined their state at the base of his tree. Ino was the worst of all. She wasn't just sleeping, she was—

Sakura choked.

They'd beaten Team Sound, but at what cost?

This didn't feel like a victory at all.

And then Naruto opened his eyes.

Square for stability, obviously, circle for flow. Should he add a star too? Nah, he didn't need that unpredictability. Strongest seals were blood seals, and to combat the three brackets, he needed a nine point seal. Okay, this could work. Nodding to himself, Naruto walked around, biting his thumb and drawing the details for his seal, making sure he didn't miss a single line. When he finished, he applied as much chakra as he dared, and took a few steps back as the makeshift seal flared and steadied.

The sound of light footsteps signalled somebody else's approach, and a moment later Sakura appeared at his shoulder, looking worriedly at his work. Or, more accurately, she was looking at the figure who was lying as still as death at the center of the seal he'd just made.

"Is she going to be okay?" Sakura whispered, her green eyes filled with sorrow as she gazed upon the fallen form of Ino, her one time best friend. Shikamaru raced to Ino's side, only pausing to give a nod of thanks to Naruto.

Naruto let out a breath, wishing he had better answers, "She's stabilized, but I wouldn't recommend moving her. I think we need to get Edward nii-san to have a look at her."

As soon as he'd awoken with a headache large enough to put down a Bijuu and confused about what exactly had happened, Sakura had been on him. She blabbered on about some things that Naruto didn't understand, but didn't stop because he liked her voice, until she said something about Ino being hurt.

Naruto had frozen over then. He'd hurriedly gotten up, demanding to know exactly what had happened in relevance to Ino's injuries as he dashed towards her. Shikamaru and Chouji were there to and while he was confused about their presence he hadn't had time to question it.

Sakura explained as best she could, with Shikamaru adding a bit more. After years with Edward nii-san Naruto had picked up something about diagnosing and what he found about Ino's injuries weren't good.

He'd done the best he could with a seal that would stop any progression of further damage, but it wouldn't heal her. He felt pretty darn terrible.

"This is all my fault," Sakura said glumly. "If I were only better at medical jutsu…"

"You've only been training for a month!" Naruto quickly reassured, because while he was worried out of his mind about Ino he wasn't going to let Sakura take blame. "Look look, I've been studying for years and I still haven't gotten the hang of it. Sasuke's better than me, but neither of us are qualified to help Ino."

"That's too right," Sasuke winced, coming up to join them. His hand was on his neck, where the sorta Grass nin had freakin' bit him.

Naruto was sooo glad he wasn't an Uchiha right now.

Sasuke had awoken some time while Naruto was drawing up his seals around Ino. During the parts that didn't require intense concentration for Naruto, Sasuke had haltingly explained what had happened after Naruto had fainted.

Mainly, the sorta Grass nin had completely trounced him and left a mark to prove it.

"Now let's get working on that," Naruto declared, jerking a thumb at the ninja hickey.

Naruto had accurately guessed that it was a cursed seal, and from the way it was formed, he knew it had something to do with chakra control. That was only confirmed when he had Sasuke attempt to do a jutsu to disastrous consequences.

"Can you…" Sasuke gritted his teeth, "Remove it?"

Naruto shook his head, "It's really advanced stuff. Orochimaru knew what he was doing. Maybe a seals master might be able to remove it, but I'm far from a master. However… I can add something to it, and seal it off. It might be a little wonky though, since I'll have to make it up on the spot. Do you trust me with it?"

Sasuke snorted, shooting Naruto an annoyed look, "Do you see any other seals specialists around?"

Naruto huffed; he knew what that look meant. Do you even need to ask? Yeah, he shouldn't have. But he was really, really nervous about this. "Sakura, please move out of the way, I'll need a wide space for this. Sasuke, take off your shirt, I may need to er… draw some stuff on your body."

Sakura must have been really out of it, because she didn't so much as give one ogle to Sasuke's body. Not that there was much to ogle at. Sasuke might have been a teensy bit more well toned than Naruto, but he was still a pubescent boy!

"Alright…" Naruto said warily when he was done, "Try doing a jutsu now."

Sasuke shrugged his shirt back on, and used a sequence of familiar hand seals, "Fire Release: Giant Fireball."

A pool of flame erupted from Sasuke's mouth, warming Naruto's skin. Sasuke stopped the jutsu, and threw a smirk at the blond. Naruto couldn't help the grin that split his face; perfect! Man, he was so awesome!

"Alright," Sasuke breathed, "now that I can do jutsus again, I take it we can leave?"

"Well, we could have left anyway," Naruto said, sticking out his tongue. "I can totally take on anyone who tries to get us."

Sasuke rolled his eyes.

"We should stay," Sakura said hesitantly, glancing at Ino.

Naruto followed Sakura's gaze and his mood fell.

"We can't," Naruto replied grimly. "Look, we'd just put them in danger. What if the Sound nin aren't the only ones who've been contacted by Orochimaru to test Sasuke's abilities? We need to get out of here as soon as possible."

Sasuke grimaced, "I hate how this sounds like it's all because of me."

Naruto couldn't help but snort at that, "You wish. Sorry but it's because of Orochimaru-teme."

Sasuke still didn't look convinced, but the shaky smile he gave Naruto was promising. Naruto let it slide. Sasuke had a real bad tendency to try and shoulder everything himself, but that was something Sasuke also knew and had to deal with.

"Alright," Sakura said, "but let me just… say goodbye to Ino?"

Sasuke and Naruto exchanged a glance.

"Sakura," Naruto began hesitantly, "you know that Ino's not… she's not gonna die, ya know? I won't let it happen!"

Sakura smiled sadly, "I know, but I won't feel right unless I say something now. She's done so much for me and I'd rather say it to her than to myself."

Nodding at her teammates, Sakura rushed over to Ino's side. Shikamaru glanced up as the pink haired girl took a position beside him, and to give the two girls a moment, he rose.

He walked slowly over to Sasuke and Naruto, fiddling with something in his pockets. It became apparent a moment later when he took out a thick green roll—the object they had all been tasked with before the exam started. "Here, take our scroll."

Naruto opened his mouth to inform Shikamaru that they'd already gotten their scrolls when Sasuke kicked his shin and took the scroll from the Nara. Naruto let out a curse and glared.

Shikamaru let out a sigh, though there was a tinge of amusement in it that had not been present before, "Why is this even troublesome?"

Shaking his head, the dark haired Nara walked back to Ino and Chouji, but not before nodding to Sasuke who just nodded back.

"What's with the secret nod thing?" Naruto complained when Shikamaru was out of earshot. He didn't want to admit that he wasn't in the loop.

"Idiot," Sasuke muttered, shaking his head, "I don't get how anything manages to get through that thick skull of yours. Shikamaru knows that we already have the required scrolls, but he wants us to have theirs anyway."

Naruto's eyes alighted with understanding, "Ohh! It's because Team Ten can't go on, isn't it? So it's like they're passing on the torch!"

"You would think of it like that," Sasuke snorted.

Sakura finished saying her goodbyes and they were on their way. Thankfully they weren't ambushed by any more crazy weird ninja on the way to the tower. They had almost a stupidly easy time of it.

It was also easy to solve the riddle that presented itself at the top of the tower and soon enough, they had Edward nii-san poof in to greet them.

"Hey," he grinned, only for his smile to falter slightly as he glanced sharply at Sasuke. "Okay guys, what happened?"

Team Seven exchanged glances and launched into a quick explanation, with Sasuke even tugging down his shirt collar to show Edward nii-san the twin seals that now adjourned his neck. Edward nii-san's smile had dropped completely by the end.

"We need to see the Hokage," he sighed.

"What about Ino?" Sakura asked worriedly, "Will you go see to her?"

Edward nii-san blinked, and then paused, looking as if he'd only just remembered Ino. Finally, he nodded, "Alright, I'll amend my statement. You need to go see the Hokage."

Sakura's relief was nearly palpable, "Thank you."

But Edward wasn't done yet. He turned to Sasuke with a discerning eye, his expression serious, "Sasuke, you've been through an experience. You're sure you're alright?"

Sasuke smiled weakly, "I will be."

Some sort of message seemed to pass between the two of them and Edward nii-san nodded. "Alright, but Sasuke, Naruto, this isn't over alright?"

Long used to Edward nii-san's ways, the two boys nodded. They knew that Edward nii-san was going to check over their injuries himself after he finished up with Ino, and they were resigned to the fate. He could be seriously overprotective.

To be honest Naruto didn't mind. He was even actually really, really happy about it. He didn't like being poked and prodded and having medical jutsu performed on him, but it always made him feel warm and giddy to know that someone cared about him so much.

"Then off you guys go," Edward nii-san said, making a shooing gesture. "Go report to the Hokage and tell him everything that you told me, and then you can go home and rest. There's one more day left until the end of the exams and then you'll have to meet back here."

All Naruto really wanted to do was curl up in a ball and sleep right there, but he knew about the importance of village duty and how was he going to be Hokage if he didn't heed them? So he just nodded and followed Sasuke who was already halfway out the door.

Sakura lagged a little bit more but when Edward nii-san disappeared in a puddle of water she seemed to decide that he'd gone to see to Ino and that there was nothing more she could do. She obediently followed Sasuke and Naruto, moving like the living dead.

Naruto winced because he hated seeing her like that, but no amount of foolhardily would get her to cheer up. And besides, with all the events in the Forest of Death, he hardly felt like playing the fool at the moment.

It seemed that the Sandaime was expecting them, because nobody seemed surprised when Team Seven went in declaring that they had important news to tell. The Sandaime dismissed all the ninja he was meeting with and prompted Team Seven to his office, looking old and weary and not at all like the fun loving grandpa Naruto had grown up with.

They each gave their individual accounts. Sasuke was as stoic as ever in retelling Orochimaru's attack on him, but Naruto knew the other too well and for too long not to see the fact that he was leaving something out. The blond made a mental note to interrogate the Uchiha later, but he also knew that Sasuke would never keep something to himself that was potentially harmful to the village, so at the moment, Naruto let it slide.

Naruto was impressed by Sakura all over again when she explained her role after he and Sasuke were knocked out. He so knew he liked the right girl!

Things sobered up as they got to Ino's condition and what Naruto discovered about Sasuke. The Sandaime didn't really let anything slip, but Naruto had known the old man for ages and he could see the faint worry lines that were forming on his brow.

"Sasuke-teme's going to be OK, right?" Naruto couldn't help but ask, disquieted by the reaction.

"Yes yes, don't worry. You've done a wonderful job with your seal Naruto. As long as Sasuke doesn't consciously call on that power, then it shouldn't affect him."

They'd been shooed out immediately after. Naruto had wanted to stay to ask more questions about Orochimaru but Sasuke kicked him in the ankles and whispered that the Hokage needed to discuss top secret things with his ANBU. Well okay, Sasuke hadn't exactly phrased it like that, but Naruto thought that his interpretation was much more interesting.

Sasuke and Naruto planned on researching Orochimaru by themselves. Edward nii-san certainly had enough files on anything and everything, although Naruto blanched at the thought of going through them all.

They said goodbye to Sakura on the way, who was still looking morose with the events of the day. Naruto wished that he could cheer her up, but he'd tried everything already and he knew that the only thing left was for her to come to terms with what'd happened in her own time.

The two other members of Team Seven arrived home and flopped down on their respective beds immediately. The day had taken its toll with the near inhuman speed Naruto had pushed on them to get out of the forest and the events previous. They were out before their heads had even hit the pillows.

They only awoke to Edward nii-san shaking them, telling them that the official times for the second portion of the chuunin exams were over and they were expected to meet down at the tower.

Naruto could hardly believe it, because it meant that he'd slept for over fifteen hours and had completely forgotten to research Orochimaru! The only consolation was that Sasuke appeared much more annoyed by this fact than he was.

They were ushered to this big bad room where Jiji proceeded to give a huge speech about the purpose of the chuunin exams. Naruto couldn't help but tune it out, instead opting to check out who else had passed.

To his surprise, he only found two other teams in the room with him. One was the sand team with the creepy Gaara guy and the two more fun teammates. He favoured them with a grin which was aptly returned.

The only other team to make it was Kabuto's team. Naruto was kinda glad for it, because he did like Kabuto, except that Kabuto decided to forfeit and not participate in the next round.

Naruto could only stare in shock. He couldn't understand why the other nin would do something like that! But then he remembered Wave Country and Orochimaru and grimaced, conceding that maybe there was reason to not want to advance in rank and therefore danger. He'd never bow down to the fear himself, but he could see why somebody else would and he wasn't going to judge.

And then the semantics were finally done and they were finding out who they were going to be matched with for the third and final round of the exams.

Despite everything that'd gone wrong in the Forest of Death, Naruto couldn't help but grin as he saw the name that alighted next to his.

It was Kankuro. The sand puppet guy.

He was going to have a fun third portion.

A/n: As much, you know, I don't like things staying the same, I just don't see Orochimaru giving up on Sasuke's eyes. The chuunin exams is the perfect time to attack, so why wouldn't he? And if he were going to attack, then there would obviously be some differences in how it was executed, so this chapter had to be done. Minimal Ed this chapter, but the next is solely his!

End note: For everyone who reviewed, thank you. It probably got me to write this chapter when I did. The pleasant surprise of finding review alerts in my inbox months after I'd kinda forgotten about this fic has made me get off my ass about this and write another chapter.

Then again, this chapter felt soooo crappy. Would you guys prefer I update more often but have terrible chapters or wait for long periods and have better quality ones?

And Happy New Year.