Even after standing up as quickly as possible, ignoring the annoying pulsing in his head, the giant snake was already above Naruto. Its forked tongue tasted the air, eyes trying to bore a hole through the genin.
"Huge…" was the only sound escaping the blond's lips as he stared at the creature for an interminable second. It seemed like the whole forest had stopped to see what would happen and the ninja found himself holding his breath in anticipation before springing into action.
The snake moved swiftly to attack, his head coming down to swallow his body whole, but Naruto had already jumped backwards and out of the way, his hands forming the seal for his Kage Bunshin no jutsu. He created a dozen clones, and as soon as he was reasonably sure they would have at least slowed the serpent down, he turned on his heel and put some distance between them. Stopping upon a solid tree branch, still in line of sight, he watched as his huge opponent crushed his copies to death, its tail flicking around to intercept the few that its head had missed.
Naruto cursed, created another batch and sent them to the slaughter. The snake was already slithering towards him, body almost flowing like a river through the undergrowth, but the Kage Bunshin were better prepared this time, not to say better positioned, and managed to hit the enemy with their Ice Materia before being dispelled. The creature hissed in anger and discomfort as the techniques struck it mostly on its body, ice shards flying everywhere, but Naruto wasn't sure if it had gotten hurt or just annoyed. There was no visible injury he could see and the thing had certainly not slowed down as it reached for him.
Running away once again, the blond tried to weave through the trees in the hope of shaking it off, but the snake simply barrelled through any hindrance it found in its way, catching up to him in little time. Like a huge scaly whip, its head lashed out at terrifying speed, mouth opened so awfully wide as to look like a dark, bottomless pit. Naruto barely avoided it, only to be hit by the tail a second later. It was a glancing blow, fortunately, and although it hurled him fast through the air and eventually against the ground, the genin knew he could have ended up much, much worse.
Still, a sharp pain pierced his left shoulder and arm as he landed, rolling through the forest a few more feet before awkwardly coming to a stop. Staying down would mean being as good as dead, he knew it, so he stumbled up and kept on moving, not slowing even half a step while using the Restore Materia to heal his injuries. He kept on sending Kage Bunshin at the snake, and some were finally getting results with their jutsu, but it was pretty clear they could never win against that opponent. What he really needed was a little time, and the clones looked like they could at least grant him that.
He didn't realize he was running towards his teammates until he saw them, standing still in a clearing and looking panicked and more than a little bruised as they faced a single shinobi. The blond felt a pang of annoyance as he compared the lone guy to the giant beast coming after him, and that was when he finally noticed that he had actually a bit of a lead on it. Hoping that it was enough to give him the time he needed, he jumped to the edge of the clearing, dug his heels into the forest floor and whirled as steadily and quickly as he could.
Then he called up chakra.
It took an eternity for the green light around him to vanish, together with the strange colourful orbs floating through it, and it took probably as much for the Sea God to finally materialize from inside the enormous block of water that followed.
Leviathan looked at him and then at the snake quickly approaching them. Naruto would later swear that the sea serpent arched an eyebrow at him as if to ask for confirmation. He would also swear that his next order didn't come out high-pitched at all, as he hastily pointed at the incoming enemy.
Leviathan turned his head and hissed his threat, and just as the creature reached them, a very high tsunami rose in front of it, apparently out of nowhere. It wasn't nearly as big as the one produced in the Land of Waves, but Naruto was already expecting that, having tested the Materia in the forest of Konoha after his return. Not boosted by the ocean, the Sea God's attack was hardly as impressive, but it was more than enough.
A veritable wall of water crashed against the snake with the power of a freight train, sweeping everything away almost effortlessly. The creature writhed desperately against the current for a few seconds before finally stopping its struggle. The tsunami continued to roll forward, anyway, carrying its body and everything it met on its path away from them.
Even through his panting, Naruto let out a sigh of relief.
He nodded at Leviathan gratefully before he could disappear, then he turned around.
He found that Sasuke had taken advantage of his flashy entrance to drag Sakura towards him, while the foreign shinobi simply stared intently. Now that he wasn't being chased by a huge beast anymore, the blond could take a moment to observe the ninja, recognizing him as the creepy Grass one with the long tongue. He only broke eye-contact when his teammates joined him at the edge of the clearing.
They looked scared.
"What's going on here?"
"Naruto," Sasuke said urgently, "don't even think about fighting that man. He's just… on a whole other level."
As a kind of reply, the ninja in question laughed ominously. "Looks like my pet snake lost to yours, eh Naruto-kun?"
"That was yours?" the blond snapped in surprise and anger, and he suddenly noticed how much… snake-like the enemy actually looked. He scowled harshly at the creepy shinobi and took a step forward.
"Don't!" the Uchiha hissed at him immediately, putting a hand on his shoulder to grip it firmly.
"What are you-"
The orange-clad genin didn't finish the sentence, as he looked down at the fingers digging painfully into his flesh.
They were shaking.
More than a little unnerved, Naruto raised his gaze and met Sasuke's.
"Just… just check on him with the Sense Materia."
"Just do it, okay?"
Naruto frowned at him before bringing his attention back to the lonely man in the middle of the clearing. With barely a conscious thought, he watched as colourful bars of different size unfolded all around him…
… and then lengthened impossibly.
His eyes widened in shock at what he saw, a shiver of dread slithering up his spine. It looked like Kabuto wasn't the strongest ninja participating in the chuunin exam, after all.
The guy in front of him was as strong as the Hokage.
Sasuke watched the colour drain from the Dobe's face and couldn't help another shiver from reaching his hands and making them shake, imagining what the blond could have seen. There had been no doubt in his head that the Grass ninja they were facing was on a completely different league from theirs, but having it actually confirmed by Naruto's Sense Materia and seeing his consequent reaction was… simply blood-chilling. If he hadn't had the sharingan on, he would have probably missed the tensing of his shoulders and the slight shift in weight of his body, all things the Dobe had probably tried to hide.
Moving his eyes back to the enemy, Sasuke observed him for a long second before coming to a decision. Shrugging off the last trace of the killing intent's attack he and Sakura had been subjected to, he deactivated the sharingan and reached for the heaven scroll in a pocket of his jacket. He swallowed.
"Here's our scroll," he said, struggling against the dryness of his mouth. He held the object up for the enemy's inspection. "We will give it to you if you leave us alone."
The sentence seemed to shake Naruto out of his frozen state.
"What?!" he snapped, taking a step towards him. "Why would we give the scroll to the enemy? What the hell are you doing?"
Sasuke actually growled at the blond's idiocy, a surge of annoyance and anger making their way through his fear and uneasiness.
"What am I doing?!" he grumbled. "I'm saving our necks, retard, that's what!"
"Saving our necks before they can even be in danger!" his teammate said angrily. "And by making us fail! That's a great plan, Teme, really a great plan!"
"We wouldn't fail, Dobe," the Uchiha retorted. "We'd just need to take two other scrolls instead of one."
That put a temporary stop to Naruto's protest.
"Are you sure?" he asked eventually and then his eyes widened. "What if- what if this is just another trick? Like the one in the first test!" He pointed at the Grass shinobi expectantly but the man only looked amused by their discussion. "That guy is too strong to be a genin! What if he isn't? What if he's an examiner in disguise, like those who knew the answers to the written test?"
It was Sasuke's time to hesitate now. He glanced back and forth from his teammate to the enemy and thought about it. Sakura too seemed to be considering the idea.
"I-it could be," she muttered quietly. "This second test is… a field-simulation of a message-delivering mission. That proctor-woman said so herself."
Naruto nodded quickly.
"As chuunin," Sakura continued more assuredly, "we will be asked to handle classified information, hence the rule about not opening the scroll and reading its content. But surrendering it to the enemy is actually far worse than that." She looked back at the ninja. "This could be a trick to see if we're willing to protect the information when threatened."
Sasuke mumbled noncommittally, unsure. "Underneath the underneath, huh?"
They all turned towards the lone man to see whether he would confirm their theory or not but… he just cackled, long and slow, and even his laughter had a snake-like quality to it.
"That's quite amusing… and smart," he said eventually, dark eyes boring into each one of them with incredible intensity. "However, you are only half-right. True, I'm not really a genin participating in this exam. But I'm not an examiner in disguise, either."
In the silence that followed, Sasuke could hear the distant rushing of water, remnant of Naruto's summon. He swallowed nervously, fiddling with the scroll a brief second before putting it back in his pocket. It had become a useless bargaining chip, now.
"Why are you here, then?" he asked, and once again the Grass ninja laughed ominously.
"I'm here for you, Sasuke-kun."
The simple sentence made his heart skip a beat.
"Well, that wasn't creepy at all," he heard the Dobe say, but he didn't have the nerve to move his eyes off the enemy. It came as a surprise, then, when his teammate shouted more forcefully, "Tajuu Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"
A sea of Shadow clones appeared in front of them, an orange barrier of genin ready for battle, while the original blond tilted his head towards the forest.
"Let's get the hell out of here."
Sasuke wholeheartedly agreed and had barely the time to see the first line of Kage Bunshin surging forward before he turned on his heel and ran for the trees. He took the lead with Sakura a little to his left and Naruto behind, and they followed him to the portion of forest not completely destroyed by Leviathan's attack. The ground was still flooded in many spots, swamped areas in which it could have proven difficult to navigate, so they kept to the branches and moved as silently and fast as possible, chased by the sounds of jutsu and screams all the while. It didn't take long before the Dobe let out a stream of curses.
As soon as he heard the warning, Sasuke jumped out of the way, bouncing on another branch before dropping back to the ground. There was a loud crack above him and he looked up to see that the tree they had been on had disappeared entirely under the body of another enormous snake. The Grass ninja was standing calmly on its head, looking comfortable and unscathed, while the huge summon appeared definitely worse for wear – compliments of some of Naruto's techniques, no doubt – but far from severely wounded or hurt.
Sakura landed next to him a second later, a simple kunai in her hand. Sasuke would have snorted at such a pitiful weapon in front of that gigantic creature if he hadn't realized he wasn't much better-equipped himself. So he drew a kunai of his own and tried to take some comfort in re-activating the Sharingan.
Naruto was nowhere to be seen, but a large and loud puff of smoke by the tail-end of the snake informed them he was still alright. Sasuke didn't know whether his plan was still to buy them some time with his copies, but he wasn't so sure anymore that running was the best way to go, either. Besides, knowing the Dobe, he was probably going to battle it out this time.
Countless clones resumed their attack, green light flashing around their body even as they charged, but the summon was fast, relentless and simply too big to miss when it moved, and although that went both ways, the blond's Materia seemed to barely scratch its scales, while even a glancing blow from its head was deadly to multiple Kage Bunshin. The shinobi on top of it didn't stay idle either, easily avoiding ninjutsu and retaliating in kind.
Sasuke's sharingan whirled hungrily when the man used a powerful technique to first sweep away and then burn to a cinder a large batch of Narutos, but most of the attacks were snake-related and resulted useless to the copying ability of his doujutsu. He ignored that for the time being as he moved in to help his teammate, hands going up to his mouth to breath out a large fireball directed at the enemy. The jutsu struck true on the summon's body, but the creature seemed to shake it off after a hiss of annoyance, and Sasuke and Sakura had to jump away to avoid a retaliating lash of its tail.
As soon as he landed, the Uchiha shot towards a couple of nearby clones who were just waiting for an opening to attack.
"Launch me up!"
Without even waiting to see if they understood, he closed the distance between them and jumped on their outstretched hands. Kicking hard, he was flung upwards and in the snake's direction, hovering above its tail for what felt like an eternity as he flipped through the air. In the meantime, his fingers were moving rapidly to form seals while he built up the chakra needed for the technique. Once done, the remaining water that had flooded the area earlier swirled around and bundled together, soon rising from the ground in the shape of a dragon. The Suiton creature sprang into action and rushed the summon, crashing against its midsection like a muddy, roaring punch.
The snake hissed – definitely in pain this time – and its head whipped around to bite at the offender, but the water dragon had already served its purpose and simply dispersed, lifeless. All the counterattack really did was to put Sasuke in a more favourable position, as he ended up much closer to the Grass ninja than he would have otherwise.
Landing on the head of the beast, he ignored the water splashing around and ran up to the enemy shinobi, applying chakra under his feet to better stick to the wet, scaly ground. Even despite the resumed wild movements of the creature, he managed to stay on top of it and get closer to the target. The Grass ninja had looked busy against a fresh batch of clones, but Sasuke's first swing with a kunai from his blind spot was swiftly avoided. Still, the sharingan had predicted that and the next jab shot up immediately to strike the man's face. This second blow was parried, instead, but the Uchiha followed it with a combo of kicks and punches that managed to keep the enemy from taking the initiative.
Trying to sweep the shinobi off his feet, Sasuke was satisfied to see him jump further down the snake's body to put some distance between them. He was probably expecting to be chased after, judging by the surprised look on his face when, on the contrary, the Uchiha turned left and ran for the summon's face. He reached for the fuuma shuriken in his holster, and before the creature could even realize it, he stabbed one of the four sharp ends of the weapon deeply into its left eye.
The blade plunged into the yellow around the pupil, a surface much softer than its scales, and the snake reared its head up, thrashing madly and hissing like never before. The clones surrounding it cheered at the scene, their attacks fuelled by the successful hit and by the moment of hesitation on the creature's part. Meanwhile, with a new fuuma shuriken clutched between his fingers, Sasuke ruthlessly went for the remaining eye.
Almost magically, something appeared to stop his hand, and the Uchiha looked down in surprise at the arm sticking out of the snake's skin. It was soon joined by the rest of the Grass ninja's body, seemingly rising up from his summon as if from a water surface. The man laughed, a chilling hum that together with the cold fingers gripping his wrist, sent shivers down Sasuke's spine.
"Not bad, Sasuke-kun," he said, actually sounding pleased, and the genin's fingers slackened completely to let go of the shuriken. "I see why you would go after my pet's eyes instead of pursuing me. If you'd neutralized it, you and Naruto-kun could have joined forces against me and hopefully have a chance." His smile widened some more. "Just as I thought… I want you."
The Uchiha couldn't move, pinned by a gaze so intense that he had to wonder if it alone was enough to keep him frozen or if there was also a genjutsu at work. The summon's movements were a bit sickening now that he was completely still on top of it and he realized that the snake had gone back to its normal attacks on Naruto's clones, but he couldn't even turn away from the man staring into his eyes, much less do something – anything– about it. His wrist had finally been released but it didn't make a difference. It seemed like the only two things his body had no problem doing were blinking and breathing.
"Oh yes, you really are brothers" the shinobi resumed. "I sense power in your eyes that surpasses Itachi's."
The simple name shocked Sasuke to the bone and he could feel his own sharingan blaze angrily as his eyes widened. He tried to talk.
"Who the hell…" he slurred, struggling to move his mouth and tongue, "are you?"
"My name is Orochimaru," the ninja said, fingers moving to form the crossed tiger hand-seal. "If you want to see me again, then survive the exam… and the Sound nin trio on the way."
And before Sasuke had the time to say anything more, the man's neck sprang forward as if made of rubber, extending freakishly to strike at him. Heartbeat thundering in his ears, the Uchiha watched, helpless, as a gleaming pair of fangs closed on him.
Naruto materialized to take the attack in his stead.
Sasuke had barely the time to feel surprised, both at the sudden appearance of the blond and the unexpected freedom that followed. Whatever hold this Orochimaru had had on him disappeared as if it had never been there, while the Dobe's copy went up in smoke. Instincts kicking in, Sasuke punched forward and inside that cloud, and felt like cheering when his fist connected solidly with the face of the enemy.
"Watch out, guys!" he heard Naruto's warning over the ruckus of techniques and hisses. "The bastard bites like his snake!"
He ignored it as the elongated neck pulled away, retreating to the not so distant body. The Uchiha didn't waste a single second in throwing a bunch of shuriken at him, and as the Grass shinobi was forced to dodge, he took advantage of the break to drop quickly off the snake's body and to the safe – or safer – ground below.
Landing in a boggy patch of dirt, he stumbled a little before sprinting towards his teammates. They were standing near a fallen tree, looking on with weary expressions as the remaining clones got slaughtered under their eyes. Sakura had large red blotches splattered all over her left shoulder and arm, but there was no visible injury anywhere on her body. Her face looked extremely pale, though, giving the impression that she had indeed lost a lot of blood and only Naruto's Restore Materia had hidden the cause. The blond next to her, presumably the original, had a look of frustration on his face and – for the first time as far as Sasuke could remember – a real strain in his voice.
"He's… he's a freak," he panted quietly. Almost absently, he rolled up his right sleeve and let what looked like rock shards fall to the ground. Sasuke recognized that as the sign of one of his Materia's upgrade – most probably the Ice one, he reasoned, since he knew it was next in line. "That snake… is tough."
Sasuke wasn't sure whether he was referring to the actual snake or its master, because, frankly, it applied to both of them, but he nodded his head in agreement all the same.
"Teme… you've got… one more of your thingies, there."
He looked at the Dobe in surprise, briefly taking his eyes off the enemy. He hadn't really felt it in the heat of battle and the frenzy of the moment, but now that he thought about it, he could feel something different in his perception of the world. His doujutsu had improved. He allowed a twinge of pride to twist his lips before focusing on the matter at hand.
Sakura's voice was shaking a little when she spoke up. "N-Naruto, can't you summon Leviathan again? If only we could get rid of the summon…"
The orange-clad genin frowned, concentrated and then exhaled loudly, dropping his shoulders in weariness. "Not yet… Downtime is… still up."
"What are we going to do?" the girl wanted to know in a feeble voice.
As an answer of sorts, the Grass ninja chuckled creepily. All the Kage Bunshin were gone now and only the three of them remained, standing in an area that had been full of vegetation until a couple of minutes before and that now looked like a smouldering desert, devoid of any life. Trees had fallen everywhere under the weight of the snake or the power of ninjutsu, and columns of smoke were lifting from all around, where high, hot flames were licking up at the sky like flickering tongues. The enemy's laughter resonated through the destroyed battleground.
"Very entertaining, I must say."
He smiled amusedly, in odd contrast with the summon's one-eyed glare. The creature lowered its head towards a nearby rock and the shinobi stepped off gracefully, appearing absolutely calm in all that mess. Sasuke would have probably felt smug for the swelling on his tanned face if he hadn't been so pissed and, mostly, so afraid. He was caught completely off guard when the ninja put a hand on his pet and dispelled it. He was even more shocked when he realized that, once again, the muscles of his body weren't answering his orders.
"Ah! I can't move!" Naruto's mumbled cry confirmed his suspicions, as did Sakura's gasp. He tried to talk too but only a gurgling sound escaped his mouth.
Orochimaru laughed, advancing towards them. His tongue flicked out to lick his lips, shooting out of his mouth much like a snake would do. Sasuke couldn't even move his head to follow the appendage as it disappeared out of the corner of his eye.
"Wah!" Naruto mumbled in anger through a half-closed mouth. "Let go of me!"
The ninja was now standing very close, right in front of the blond who looked to be hanging upside down, helpless. The Uchiha was only able to see his face, rage written all over it, but there was nothing he could do, still totally frozen.
"Just as I thought," the Grass shinobi murmured, peering intently at the Dobe. "You are him."
"Put me down…" his teammate ordered, struggling to keep on talking, "you bastard!"
He was, of course, ignored.
"Oh, my… the seal is visible and it's-" And here the man stopped talking for a second. "Hm? What are these?"
There was another moment of silence, a rustle of cloth and then a quiet click. Sasuke only saw Orochimaru's hands reach out for something and then withdraw with a round stone clutched between his fingers.
It was one of Naruto's Materia.
"Don't-" the blond shrieked, completely jumbling the following words. There was a note of panic in his voice, this time.
The ninja turned the sphere around as he studied it closely.
"Is this… no…" He started making one-handed seals with a speed that would have put Haku to shame. "Interesting…"
He looked sharply down at the still dangling Dobe and a slow smile started spreading on his tanned face. He pocketed the sphere.
"Hmmm… I'm afraid I need to borrow these little rocks of yours, Naruto-kun," he said. "Just for a while."
But as his hands reached out for the Materia holsters, a deep, rumbling growl came out of the blond's throat.
"Give. It. Back!"
The chaos that followed left Sasuke astonished. Faster than even his sharingan could see, a clawed hand of red chakra shot at Orochimaru and simply… ripped his face off. He watched that hideous mass of skin fall to the ground and crumble to pieces, but was extremely surprised when he realized the Grass ninja was miraculously alive. No, scratch that.
He was fine.
He had jumped backwards and out of reach, his tongue regaining normal proportions and size. Instead of the copious amount of blood one would have expected, there was a new face in place of the destroyed one, as if that hadn't been nothing more than a mask. He appeared extremely pale now, like a porcelain doll, and his features were sharper, more angular. Even the swelling, compliment of Sasuke's punch, had disappeared as if it had never been there. The dark eyes were exactly the same, though.
The Uchiha watched in trepidation as Naruto stood back up, apparently free to move. He had changed too, not as drastically as Orochimaru had, but certainly enough to surprise him. His pupils were slitted, his nails longer, his whisker marks more prominent. There was an aura of power surrounding him, very similar to the red claw that had already attacked the Grass shinobi, but also wilder and less controlled. Most of it seemed to be directed at the enemy ninja, but the latent killing intent that washed over Sasuke was enough to take his breath away.
Sakura's whimper was almost completely drowned out by the blond's subsequent roar, as he pounced on the enemy like a furious beast. His first punch missed Orochimaru's face by a matter of inches, but Naruto wasn't done. He kept on attacking and attacking, actually hitting the ninja with a kick at one point, before disappearing out of Sasuke's field of vision while still pursuing the enemy.
And was that a tail coming out of the Dobe's ass?
Stunned by the unexpected turn of events, the Uchiha could only listen helplessly to the fading sounds of battle for another few more seconds, as he tried to think of something.
"Sakura," he mumbled. "Can you… move?"
"N-no," the girl answered him from his right. He couldn't see her at all but she sounded scared. She mumbled a few more things but he only got one word out of it.
"Shibari?" he repeated.
He remembered that genjutsu, one conceived to bind the target and prevent them from using self-harm to get free. What was the way out of it again? He couldn't remember. He tried to capitalize on the discomfort of the position he had been frozen into, but he couldn't even shift his weight or centre of mass. He thought of biting his own lip or tongue but his mouth wouldn't cooperate.
"What… do we do?" he asked then, and felt like screaming at Sakura's unintelligible answer. "…what?"
"…breathing…" she tried again amidst something incomprehensible.
Breathing? How would breathing get them out of this shitty-
An explosion resonated from somewhere behind them and his heart jumped to his throat at Naruto's feral cry. There was something so animalistic about it that it chilled him from head to toe, and even despite the genjutsu binding, he found himself shivering. Beside him, Sakura whimpered quietly and he couldn't help but let out a distressed moan himself. He didn't know what was happening to the Dobe, although he had a good guess. What he knew was that he hated feeling so helpless.
"…okay…" he whispered, exhaling.
Then he stopped breathing.
It took much, much longer than he had expected, but, eventually, he got to the point where his mind started getting sluggish and his vision got swarmed by black and white spots. A sharp burning sensation spread from his lungs, enhancing his urge to take in air and give them relief, but a part of him still remembered that it was that excruciating stab in his chest that would give him freedom, so he held onto it with everything he had. The pain became unbearable as he started losing first awareness and then consciousness.
He didn't know how long it took him to regain his bearings, but when he did, he found himself curled on the ground, gasping for air. Every intake of breath was like a handful of needles shoved down his throat and through his lungs and he stayed where he was for a long while, the right side of his face sunk in mud.
He was free to move.
Rolling on his back, he looked up at the clear sky and tried to order the jumbled thoughts in his head. His sharingan had deactivated, he thought idly, and he wasn't sure he would have enough chakra left to bring it out again. His body felt tired and heavy and his brain was still struggling to wrap around what exactly had happened and why.
Sakura's sudden gasp drew his attention, and when his eyes met hers, he finally remembered what was going on, realizing that she had just come to, herself, after escaping the genjutsu. Her figure, kneeled on the forest floor with her hands in the mud, trembled in pain and effort as she struggled to take in air.
He sat up.
Where was the Dobe?
As if on cue, the dead last in question arrived in the clearing with the speed of a bullet, landing awkwardly on his back and rolling a few more feet before crashing against a fallen tree. A mask of pain marred his bloody features as he tried to stand up, only to stumble back to the ground while fighting to regain his bearings and breathing. The red chakra swirling around him had all but vanished, while his changes in appearance had become far less evident. No tail was visible anymore, for example, and the marks on his cheeks had gone back to being just that, marks, instead of actual whiskers. Even his low, animalistic growls were quickly transforming into more human-like grunts and moans.
Rising up to one knee despite the spinning of his head, Sasuke mustered what was left of his wits and strength and pulled a kunai out of his holster.
"Naruto," he gasped out and his teammate's blue eyes owlishly shifted to him, unfocused. "Dobe, where's-"
He couldn't help but flinch when Orochimaru suddenly landed in front of him, an amused glance directed at the blond. Beside an injured and bloody shoulder he was currently massaging, the ninja seemed to be fine.
Dammit, the Uchiha thought in resignation. He wasn't even that surprised.
"Such a feisty one," the Grass shinobi commented, another cackle leaving his lips. "Your little trick must have alerted quite a few bothersome people I don't plan to meet just yet. I'm afraid I don't have any more time to play with you."
Sasuke was just about to throw his last, desperate attack, when the man turned towards him and once again froze him in place.
"Now," he continued, drawing out the word, "where were we?"
Grin widening and fangs growing sharper with it, he stared down the Uchiha in evident eagerness.
Sakura's gasp was completely ignored as Orochimaru's neck stretched forward for the final bite.
Sasuke closed his eyes. This time, no clone materialized to save him.
As the Kyuubi's chakra receded back behind the seal, Naruto was finally able to think straight once again. It felt like waking up from a surreal dream where everything had been misshapen and out of place, and where every action he had taken was ridiculous if looked at from a normal perspective. Fuelled by his anger at having one of his weapons stolen under his nose, that powerful red energy had simply taken over, and he hadn't been able to do a thing about it, not as surprised and irrational as he had been, at least.
The simple lingering effects of that sensation, that rush of animalistic fury and power, were enough to make his body shiver in both need and fear. He decided that he didn't like that feeling at all.
Shaking his head as if to clear it from invisible cobwebs, he was finally lucid enough to truly elaborate the horrible screaming registering in his ears.
It was Sasuke's.
Without the Demon's chakra fogging his thinking process, his brain was back to spinning on its usual wheels… too bad it was his body, now, that wasn't answering him properly.
Watching helplessly was all Naruto could do as the enemy ninja retreated, his freakish neck snapping back to its rightful place like a rubber band, leaving behind the agonizing Uchiha. The Teme was clutching the side of his neck in pain, eyes wide open and barred. His whole body started trembling and convulsing a second later, falling stiffly into Sakura's arms as she appeared next to him.
"Sasuke-kun!" she cried out, sounding out of breath. "What did you do to him?"
The Grass shinobi was already disappearing from sight, sinking into the muddy ground with a grin on his face.
"I gave him a going away present," he said in evident amusement.
Then he was gone.
"Bastard!" Naruto shouted angrily, desperately. He tried to stand up again, but his legs wouldn't hear any of it and he fell back down with a grunt of exertion. "Answer… answer Sakura-chan's question! Give the Materia back! I'm… I'm not done with you!"
Frustration rose up from the heating in his chest and he punched the ground hard, barely feeling the pain on his knuckles over the sharp burning of the rest body. Blood was running down his face, he realized, looking down at the red spots under him, and it took him a moment to remember he actually had the means to do something about it. He had practically forgotten about it in the Demon-induced rage he had been subjected to earlier on.
As the healing green sparks washed over him and his Restore Materia worked on his injuries, he let out a sigh of relief, glad that the bleeding, at least, had stopped. He touched the stone gratefully through his drenched and dirty jumpsuit, but couldn't help but scowl harshly when his fingers brushed against the empty slot where the Leviathan sphere had been until minutes before.
That freak bastard… he had stolen his Materia! His summon! How could he have let something like that happen?
The thought haunted him for just a moment, though, before reason could break through annoyance, anger and guilt. Forget about Leviathan, he told himself… he had been lucky to keep his other Materia and his life! The enemy had simply been on a whole different league from his. Not even the meddling of the Kyuubi had been enough to reverse the outcome, and Naruto had no doubt that if he had used his Sense sphere to check on himself at that point, the results would have been off the charts compared to his standard ones.
No… there was no reason to complain about his situation when it could have easily been much worse.
Brushing the upsetting matter aside, he gave the Restore Materia another go before trying to stand up. His legs still felt sluggish as hell, but he finally managed to put his feet under him and stumble towards his friends. He kneeled carefully beside them, Sasuke, writhing on the ground, and Sakura, holding his hand next to him, bright tears in her eyes as she whispered soothing words to the agonizing Uchiha.
"H-hang in there, Sasuke-kun. It's going to be f-fine… you a-are going to be fine."
"Sakura-chan," the blond called, putting a hand on her arm. "Stand back for a moment."
The pink-haired kunoichi looked up questioningly at him before realization could make its way through her panic and worry. She let go of Sasuke's hand and leaned back a little, expectantly. The Uchiha was gasping and moaning now, seemingly too tired and out of breath to even keep up with the screaming.
Naruto glared at the bite marks on his neck and the strange symbol that had appeared just beside them. It looked somewhat like the sharingan and its tomoes in shape, but it wasn't quite the same. The blond didn't know what it meant, all he knew was that it hurt his friend and he was going to stop it. Ignoring his own weariness, he called up chakra for the umpteenth time in the last few minutes and concentrated.
It took a little longer than usual, but then the green light appeared all around Naruto, followed by the rain of sparks of the Restore Materia. It cascaded onto the Uchiha as a soft jingle resonated around them, a way too cheerful sound for the moment and the place. When the effects of the medical jutsu disappeared, Naruto was shocked to see that the injury hadn't changed at all.
"Huh? It didn't work?" he asked in irritation, scowling down at his teammate. "Oi! Wake up, Teme! What's wrong with you?"
"N-Naruto, l-look." Sakura sniffled. "T-the injury on his leg has healed. He had done that to h-himself to get free from a genjutsu, after that Fuuton technique separated us." She pointed at Sasuke's right thigh, where only a tear in the fabric of his trousers was visible, the flesh underneath unscathed.
The blond looked back up at his friend's neck.
"But the bite didn't-" And then he remembered the lizards. "Oh…"
She nodded. "He must have been poisoned."
Naruto nodded as well. "Alright, leave it to me Sakura-chan."
He took a deep breath and gathered chakra once again. This time, together with jingle and sparks, also a green cloud of smoke fell onto the Uchiha as the Heal Materia worked on the injury. The results were immediate as the bite marks closed entirely, but the strange symbol remained.
The blond repeated the process again and again, every time feeling more frustrated and light-headed, until he was swaying dangerously, crouched beside Sasuke.
'Naruto, you idiot! Do you plan on killing yourself? And me with you? Stop burning chakra this instant!'
But the jinchuuriki would have none of it.
'Shut up,' he sent back through the mental link he shared with the Kyuubi, but the simple task required an abnormal effort in and of itself.
A low growl was his only answer and the genin went back to casting his healing jutsu.
Only Sakura's hand gripping his shoulder managed to put a stop to his attempts, and by that time, he had to blink his eyes repeatedly to truly focus them on her face. He felt so… tired. It had never happened to him before… not to such a degree. But he didn't think he had ever created so many clones in such little time, either, or used so many Materia at once. And he certainly had never channelled the Kyuubi's chakra to fight off a Kage-level monster of a ninja.
The simple notion seemed impossible but… he was completely worn out.
"Naruto, stop it," the pink-haired girl said forcefully. She looked more composed now, also because Sasuke had stopped moaning and gasping and had fallen asleep, the blond reasoned. "I don't know what that thing is but it's not going to disappear. Let go."
He hesitated a moment before complying, gratefully accepting the way out. He put his hands against the soft ground and leaned on them, breathing in and out slowly in the hope to find some strength.
"Are you okay?" she asked him quietly. "What happened before... Was that… was that the Kyuubi?"
Naruto nodded silently, red-coloured memories suddenly surfacing to the front of his brain. "Yeah... I didn't mean to. I got so angry I unconsciously drew from his chakra reserves," he explained. "He had warned me about it in the past, but… I wasn't exactly thinking straight when it happened." He lowered his eyes, staring at the mud slipping between his clenched fingers. "It was… overwhelming."
"But you're okay now, right?"
He easily caught the note of desperation in her voice and didn't waste a second to beam at her reassuringly.
"Yeah! I'm totally fine. Just, ugh…" he hesitated, "let me rest for a minute."
Careful not to hit Sasuke, he sat down properly, stretching his legs while focusing on breathing in and out in a regular rhythm. The ache in his limbs settled down to a bearable level and he closed his eyes to shield them from the setting sun.
"We need to get out of here."
Sakura's voice woke him from his unintentional slumber. He had dozed off without even realizing it, but he figured not much time had passed since she was in the exact same position in which he had left her, sitting with Sasuke's head on her lap. It didn't look like the sun had moved much, either.
"We're in the open and vulnerable," she continued softly. "We can't stay here."
Naruto looked around dizzily and agreed, and before he could find an excuse to fall asleep again, he pushed himself up to his feet and slapped his own cheeks energetically.
"Damn…" he said, embracing the stinging. "Being tired sucks."
Sakura seemed to smile a little at that, as she stood up herself.
"Welcome to my world."
The blond grinned at her and then crouched to pick Sasuke up. He grunted with the effort as he slung him on his shoulder and turned to the kunoichi.
"Ready," he puffed out.
"I'll help you-"
"No," he interrupted her. "Leave this to me. It's better if you take point and look out for any trouble. I'm… I'm not feeling, uhm, great, right now."
He smiled weakly as she hesitated, biting her bottom lip in silence.
Then she turned around and they started walking.
No more than five minutes could have passed when they had to stop. Sasuke was moaning again, his face drawn and even paler than usual. They put him down to rest under a tree, figuring that being transported had been the problem, but when a few more minutes passed and his condition seemed to only worsen, they couldn't help but thinking differently.
"What has that… that snake done to him?" Sakura whispered harshly, staring with watery-eyes.
Naruto shook his head. He was making the most of the break by sprawling against a tree, but he too was staring at the Uchiha in worry. He all but crawled the few feet separating them and shook the boy.
"Oi, Teme," he called quietly and then more forcefully, "Teme!"
He waited a moment to see whether Sasuke would answer, but the boy only groaned pathetically. Then, before he could change his mind, he pushed against his own tiredness and used his Heal Materia again.
"Naruto," Sakura called, but the reprimanding tone was barely there. She peered down hopefully as the green cloud and sparks disappeared.
The Uchiha was resting peacefully once again.
"The poison must still be in his system," she mused. "And the Materia can only slow it down, it seems."
"Better than nothing," he said cheerfully, trying to hide the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm him. Something must have shown on his face, though, because Sakura was splitting her concerned gaze between both her teammates, now.
"Don't push it, Naruto, please," she said quietly, finally averting her eyes. "Let's find someplace safe, first, so you can rest and then help Sasuke."
He grinned at her, struggling to make sense of her words. He eventually accepted the hand helping him up.
He didn't know how long they marched, it could have been minutes or days to his drowsy mind. He remembered stopping once or twice and Sakura asking him questions. He vaguely recalled using a jutsu once more but he had no idea what for. There was something heavy slung on his right shoulder but he knew it was there for a reason and he couldn't just drop it and be done with it.
It was important to him.
The next time he blinked, he found himself in a cave of sorts, lying on cold rock. Night had fallen and it was dark in there, so it took his eyes a moment to see Sakura kneeling beside him, looking over Sasuke. She had put a wet cloth on the Uchiha's forehead but he was still shaking as if he had a fever.
Naruto felt absolutely fine, instead.
"Sakura-chan," he called, sitting up. "How is he?"
The girl was startled by his voice, tensing visibly for a moment before relaxing again.
"Oh, Naruto, you're awake. How do you feel?"
"I'm great. Honest," he added when she looked sceptical.
And he was.
He could feel his chakra, now back to an acceptable level, he imagined, and his body felt much more responsive as well. It was such a relief. Being tired… he really had hated that.
He moved to kneel on the other side of Sasuke and didn't waste any time before hitting him with his Heal Materia. The green glow of his jutsu showed him the inside of the cave more clearly, as well as Sakura's taut face. He smiled up at the kunoichi and gave her a thumb up as a second circle of light preceded yet another shower of sparks and smoke.
"I got it," he said confidently.
She mumbled something unintelligible before shaking her head. They watched as colour slowly returned to Sasuke's face, which relaxed immediately together with the rest of his body. Sakura exhaled a long, relieved breath.
"Naruto… thank you," she said, suddenly sounding dead-tired. "Still… don't overdo it with your Poisona, okay? I don't think I could take it if you went back to that drunken zombie state."
"Drunken zombie state? Poisona?"
She snorted lightly.
"I guess you don't remember." She leaned back against the wall of the cave and brought a hand up to massage her left shoulder. Naruto had healed the gash the snake had opened there, but there was no doubt she was still sore and stiff. "You were pretty out of it, mumbling nonsense and shambling around like that. I thought 'drunken zombie' fit perfectly. You named your jutsu- yeah, that one," she added when he gave his Heal Materia another go. "You named it Poisona, I have no idea why. You were very insistent about it, though."
The blond blushed a little, glad the place was very dark now that the green light of his technique had died out. It sounded like he had gone a bit crazy on the way to their shelter. He barely remembered walking.
He decided to change the subject.
"Did the bastard wake up at all while I was out?"
Sakura didn't seem to have the strength for a full-blown glare, but her half-hearted one still earned a sheepish smile from him. She didn't keep it up long, anyway, her eyes lowering to their sleeping teammate as she shook her head.
"He's gotten worse while you rested," she said in a very small voice, as if actually afraid to wake him. "The pain came back, with a fever this time. It has only gone up since we got here." She forced a smile to her lips, and Naruto had to wonder if it was real. "But Poisona is going to help him. He'll be fine soon, won't he?"
He didn't make her wait an instant before agreeing. "You can bet on it! He'll be back to brooding as normal before you can say 'Materia'!"
His next kick-ass declaration froze on his lips as he finally realized something. He looked out of the cave and then to the other side, where the stone walls disappeared into the darkness. Wondering about how deep the place actually was, he blinked his eyes at the black passage carved through the rock.
"Sakura-chan?" he asked in puzzlement. "Did I create a clone before… well, before I came to?"
"A clone? In the condition you were in? Thank God, no."
He mirrored her frown.
"Then why is there a- holy shit!" he shouted. He shot up quickly, standing so fast he startled her badly. "How the hell did we get here?"
"What's wrong?" she asked, alarmed. A kunai had already appeared in her hand. "What's the matter? Are we in danger?"
"What? No! No, no, sorry. It's just… that... this…" He put his shock in check and tried again. "There's a Materia here!"
She looked confused for a moment. Then understanding flashed in her eyes and she lowered her weapon. "Oh. That makes sense."
"How did we get here?" Naruto asked again. "Did we stumble here… by chance?"
"'Stumble' sounds about right. You were the one to lead us to this cave," she said, sitting down again. "This explains why it looked like you actually knew where we were going."
"So…" he started, looking for confirmation, "I was unconsciously following the pull of the Materia? Which is somewhere in this place?"
She shrugged. "Seems like it."
"That's freaking awesome!" he cheered. His loud voice echoed throughout the narrow passage, making Sakura wince. He toned it down, smiling guiltily. "Sorry."
She dropped the slight glare almost at once, looking away. "It's alright. At least one of us will come out of this nightmare with something good."
He had to frown slightly at that, hesitating only a moment before speaking up. "It's not that bad."
"No, I'm serious," he said more forcefully. "We're still going to kick ass and pass this exam."
She shook her head slowly, and in the darkness of the cave, he had to fire another... err, Poisona to see her face. He didn't like her expression at all. It looked like defeat.
"You can't give up, Sakura-chan!" Standing up from his kneeled position, he walked around Sasuke lying between them and sat right in front her. "We are much better off than I feared when we were fighting that freak. I… I honestly thought – just for a moment – that we… well, that we wouldn't have passed the exam."
She shifted her eyes to him as if to check that he was sincere. He shrugged. He didn't like to admit it but he had actually despaired during their confrontation with the Grass shinobi. Death had looked quite certain for a moment, there.
"But… we're okay now," he continued, putting the upsetting matter aside. "Sasuke is going to be fine by morning, we still have our scroll and soon we'll get our hands on the other one we need."
She bit her lower lip hesitantly. "We do have still a lot of time to get to the tower."
"But… what about your Materia?" she asked. "The one that got stolen? Which one was it?"
Naruto's face darkened fractionally as he recalled his missing summon.
"Leviathan," he grumbled quietly, but it took him barely a second to replace his scowl with a determined expression. He looked at her straight in the eyes. "Sakura-chan… I swear to God, I'm going to get it back if it's the last thing I do! Maybe not now or even soon. But I'm going to get stronger. And then I'm going to find that freak and take what's mine." Lit up by the green glow of Poisona, Naruto's grin turned feral. "Believe it."
He beamed at her when she looked somewhat cheered up and then sent a clone to retrieve the Materia hidden somewhere down the cave. When he glanced at her after using his healing jutsu for the umpteenth time, however, she had gone back to the grim expression of before.
"That ninja…" she said, and her bitter face made it clear who she was talking about. "What do you think he meant when he said he was here for Sasuke? He could have easily killed us… killed him." She looked down at their sleeping teammate, frowning. "Was poisoning him his plan?"
Naruto thought about it for a moment before shaking his head. "I don't know, Sakura-chan."
"He went out of his way to put that mark on him. I wish I knew what it was."
"Kakashi is going to get rid of it as soon as we tell him," he said immediately, resolution once again lacing his voice. He thought back at the results of his Sense Materia when he had used it on the snake-freak. "If not him, then the Hokage certainly will."
Much to his surprise, the girl's voice didn't sound relieved at all at those words.
"Sensei is going to help Sasuke. You are helping him right now." He couldn't quite see her face, but her eyes were shining brightly in the darkness of the cave. "What am I doing?"
"What does that mean? You are helping us! We're a team and-"
"I'm useless!" The forcefulness of the sentence echoed against the rocky walls in the silence that followed. Getting over his surprise, Naruto was about to reply when she continued. "I'm always in the way, needing to be protected. You guys got hurt because of me, because I can't do anything good! I'm no good!"
"That's not true, Sakura-chan!"
"Yes, it is!" she fired back. She stood up quickly, hands closed tightly into fists at her sides. "We've been in this forest for a few hours and if it hadn't been for you I would be lying dead somewhere! If not by the poison of those lizards then swallowed whole by that summon!"
The blond stood up too, struggling to find suitable words to express his disagreement. "What-what about afterwards, then? Who took care of us when Sasuke and I couldn't?"
"Who did?" she repeated, as if that proved her point, not his. "If you hadn't woken up, what would I have done for Sasuke-kun? Changed the cloth on his forehead? All I could really do was booby-trap this place!" She took a deep breath and her voice shook a little when she continued more softly. "I can't believe I even thought of becoming the greatest kunoichi ever. I'm such an idiot. The team would be better off without me…"
Naruto's mouth worked silently for a second before finally speaking.
"The first test, then!" he said triumphantly. "What would I have done without you, there, eh, Sakura-chan?"
She growled in the darkness. "Don't get me started on that… that farce! It spat on everything we ever learnt at the Ninja Academy! On the only thing I was ever good at!"
The blond was more than a little taken aback by that.
"What?" he said simply.
"All the years I spent on the books, studying like an obsessed… all the grades I've ever earned… they don't mean anything at all to them!" She was practically shouting now, her words bouncing off the narrow passage of rock with unpleasant effects, but she didn't seem to care at the moment. "The first part of that test was all about cheating and stealing the answers, as opposed to actually knowing them. It would have been alright, though, if they had been worth something in the end, but guess what? They weren't... because all you needed in order to pass was deciding to take the last damn question!"
Naruto was speechless. He hadn't thought that far ahead – or underneath – and he forced himself to do it then. He considered the first test and what it had really been about, and found himself agreeing with her friend's assessment. Trying to put himself in her position, in the position of someone who took pride on her knowledge and on her past of best student, he couldn't quite understand how the girl must have felt. That was why she hadn't looked very happy after passing the test, probably, not because of his stunt of stealing her answers, like he had thought at the time.
As he realized this, Sakura slid back to the ground, leaning tiredly against the cave's rock.
She shook her head while he tried to think of something to say.
"It wasn't enough that the real world had already made it crystal clear that all I had done in school meant nothing…" she said very quietly. "It had to be made official."
Slipping down further, she rolled on her side until she was facing away from him.
"I'm tired of being useless."
Naruto tried to talk and found himself unable to. He felt uncertainty and worry gnaw at his stomach and he didn't know what he wanted more, whether to hug or shout at her.
He felt useless.
"I want to sleep a little, Naruto," she all but whispered, interrupting him, but to his ears, her soft voice sounded a hundred times scarier than the previous angry tone. "Goodnight."
He could only stare at her in distress before looking away.
"Goodnight," he whispered back.
He didn't even care when his Kage Bunshin returned with a new green Materia.