Chapter 15

Morning came far too soon for one Uzumaki Naruto, the feeble sunlight filtering inside the cave failing to actually brighten his mood.

He straightened his back, tossing the umpteenth Poisona Sasuke's way, and wondering how much longer the Uchiha would keep on sleeping. He looked perfectly healed now, strange symbol aside. The fever had gone down, shivers and moans had stopped, even his complexion had become healthier and healthier until he had gone back to his usual pasty-self. He had yet to try to shake him awake, but the temptation was strong. Still, he didn't think Sakura would approve.

Shifting his gaze to the kunoichi, the blond once again fought off the urge to do something – anything – to lift her morale. She hadn't changed position at all since going to sleep a few hours earlier, and he doubted she would be much more rested now, considering all that had been on her mind, but it was still better than nothing. He hoped that the reaction of the night before would turn out to be just a passing moment, a temporary answer to the stress of the exam, and that today she would wake up and… be back to normal.

The sun hadn't directly hit the inside of the cave yet, but light was aplenty, and he took advantage of it by reaching for one of the ramen cups in his bag and preparing his breakfast. Two minutes later, when the marvellous aroma of his favourite food started drifting in between the rocky walls, Sakura finally shifted. She rolled on her back and let out a heavy sigh, eyes firmly on the stone ceiling. Then she sat up.

Naruto froze with the chopsticks halfway between his mouth and the cup, a steaming bunch of noodles held in the air. He wondered whether to say something or not.

"Good morning," she mumbled, rubbing her eyes.

"Good morning, Sakura-chan," he said happily. He moved the cup towards her. "Breakfast? I haven't touched it yet."

She looked at the food and then finally at him, smiling a little.

"You're going to give me your ramen?" she said. "I must have really scared you, last night."

He scratched the back of his head, smiling awkwardly. "Maybe a little."

She took the noodles. "Thank you."

She ate in silence as Naruto prepared another cup, mumbling nervously under his breath as he went. When a new pair of chopsticks was finally in his hand, he realized that the kunoichi had stopped eating.

"He looks better," she said quietly, staring at Sasuke.

As an answer of sorts, Naruto used his Heal Materia one more time.

"I kept this up all night," he said through a mouth full of noodles and a rain of sparks.

After a long second, she eventually nodded and resumed eating.

He was about to mirror her when he finally saw the squirrel at the entrance.

"Hey, little guy!" he called, and strangely enough the small animal took a couple of steps inside. "Ah-ah! I bet you're hungry! Come in and-"

And then he noticed the piece of paper stuck to its back.

While Sakura turned around to see what he was talking about, Naruto's instincts simply kicked in and had him diving forward to tackle down the girl. He was more or less covering her body when the explosive tag went off.

The few seconds afterwards were very painful and incredibly disorienting. What felt like a thousand senbon prickled the left side of his body in a burning sensation that immediately spread to the rest. He was flung at an angle against the back wall of the cavern, before falling to the ground with large chunks of rock in his wake. He idly realized that someone was calling his name while the cave seemingly collapsed around and on top of him.

A hand gripping his was what brought him back to reality from the dazed and pained place he had been visiting. Soon, the voice echoing in his ears started to make a little bit of sense, as did the situation he found himself into.

"-you out of h-here!" Sakura was saying, and the odd weight on his face shifted enough to let him see her blurred form standing over him. She threw the large rock in her hands to the side and went back to him.

'What happened?' he tried to say, but only a mangled whisper escaped his lips.

She lifted a second rock and moved it away with a grunt. The newfound movement of his right shoulder made him realize that she was trying to free his body.

"D-Don't worry," she said, and his vision got clear enough that he saw she was crying. "You'll be o-o-out… you'll be out before you can say 'M-Materia'."

He wheezed out a laugh through the weight on his chest but it didn't come out right. Strangely enough, his brain went first to the squirrel and only then to his other teammate.

"Sasuke?" he gasped out.

The pink-haired girl took a moment to wipe the tears out of her eyes.

"H-He's okay," she said and tried to smile. "It was you who took both the explosion and the cave-in dead on."

"Cave in?" he repeated feebly.

So it was the sun the bright yellow circle he saw behind Sakura! Were they out in the open, now? He tried to ask that but the words probably didn't come out right because her next sentence wasn't an answer at all.

"I saw you shrug off worse, you know? You'll be jumping around in-"

Suddenly, another voice added to hers, making both of them absolutely incomprehensible. It repeated again when the girl stopped talking, and this time, the blond was able to grasp its origin and meaning.

'Naruto, can you hear me?' the Kyuubi sent through their mental link, sounding like he had been saying that for a while now.'The ninja who have attacked you are still out there and the explosion hurt you badly. You need to start spamming Restore as fast as you can. Do you hear me?'

The blond did and agreed. The numbness was starting to wear off and what was leaving behind was far from pleasant. Still, his first healing jutsu went to Sakura, much to her surprise and to the Demon's anger. He ignored his growl when he also heard a loud blast and a female voice coming from little distance.

"Zaku! Are you okay?"

A pause was followed by a stream of curses.

Naruto watched as Sakura's eyes shifted to her right and widened, and she quickly brought a rock up to her face to block the senbon thrown at her. She looked down at him in panic and then back towards the enemy. She couldn't protect herself if she wasted time on him, and they both knew it.

"I'll be alright," he slurred, using the Restore Materia – on himself this time – as if to make a point. "Go!"

He saw her working her bottom lip between her teeth and then shoot to the side as another barrage of senbon flew through the air. As soon as she was out of sight, Naruto called up chakra for his healing jutsu. Green sparks started showering him, the pain receding with them, but as he tried to force his way out of the rubble, he realized it would be easier said than done.

With both his arms and legs pressed down to the ground, he could hardly muster up the physical strength to move the boulder-like rocks from on top of him. Making hand-seals was out of question, as was looking down his body to find a suitable spot in the rubble to attack with his offensive techniques. If he tried it without knowing what he was going to hit, then he seriously risked killing or maiming himself. After hearing Sakura's angry screams, though, the option started sounding better by the second.

As if sensing his foolishness, the Kyuubi spoke up again.

'I know it goes against your character, Naruto, but try not to do anything stupid, okay?'

The genin grumbled under his breath, annoyed. He had healed himself as best as possible, but the weight on his body forced him to use the Restore Materia every so often. A loud snap and the whooshing of ninja-wire alerted him that another one of Sakura's traps had been set off, but then the sounds of battle started getting a little fainter as if the fight was moving further away. Gnawed at by worry and helplessness, Naruto pushed with all the strength he had to get the rocks off himself.

'It's no use,' the Kyuubi said.

The blond stopped struggling, cursing in frustration. He was only going to waste energy and time with that. Still, what else could he do?

He was actually reconsidering the idea of using the Lightning or maybe Ice Materia, when the bijuu made his offer.

'Use my chakra.'

'No,' Naruto said without pause.

'Listen to me, first,' the Demon continued more insistently. 'It won't be like yesterday, I promise. I know you hated it… I could feel it. But this time it will be different.'

Even restrained as he was, there was no stopping the shiver from rattling Naruto's body.

'How can it be different when it's the same chakra?' he said, recalling that addicting, awe-inspiring rush of energy.

'That had been you drawing my power under the stress of your emotions, and I had no part in it,' the Kyuubi explained. 'If I lent it to you willingly and you accepted it while in a stable state of mind, you would be in complete control and only minor changes would affect your body.'

But the genin was far from convinced.

'What if this is some kind of trick to get out of my navel? Would that break the seal or worse, let you control my body? Or-'

'Impossible,' the Kyuubi said matter-of-factly. 'As you experienced, there's the chance my chakra would temporarily influence you, but it would still be you, even in the most extreme of cases, which this one wouldn't be, anyway.

The blond hesitated, his attention shifting to the distant sounds of battle for a moment.

'I… I don't know.'

'It would be child's play to get rid of the rubble, my chakra alone would simply disintegrate these rocks.' There was a moment of silence before the bijuu continued. 'It will be only a matter of instants.'

Naruto swallowed, struggling a few more seconds against the weight on his body before giving up. 'A matter of instants' was probably cutting it close, already. Sakura might have had even less.

'Alright,' he said quickly, hoping that the decision wouldn't come back to bite him in the ass. 'Lend away.'

And as the words echoed in his mind, the Kyuubi's chakra started seeping through the seal.

The Fox had been right.

It wasn't like the first time.

Not overwhelmed by fury and rage anymore, it was much easier to grasp the magnitude of the power currently coursing through his coils and, fortunately, it was much easier to resist its allure as well. 'Raw' seemed like a suitable adjective for that flow of chakra. So were 'immense' and 'destructive', and he had to fight off the impression that anything was possible and within reach thanks to it.

Naruto simply stood up, when an instant before he could have barely shifted, the rocks around him crumbling up to fine powder. A red aura enveloped his body, swaying wildly in the air like a cloak of raging flames, but it felt like a large portion of it was concentrated on his hands, where his nails had left place to unbelievably long and sharp claws. He peered at them for the briefest of seconds, both fascinated and horrified, before shaking his head angrily.

"Take it back," he said out loud, and the voice reaching his ears sounded nothing like his.

The chakra subsided at once, perfectly under the Kyuubi's control, it seemed, aura receding together with his claws. A heartbeat later, nothing remained of that incredible power, and the blond had to wonder if he had ever felt so empty and defenseless.

He couldn't help but shudder at the loss of such energy, but he had more pressing matters to think of at the moment. After an hesitant 'Thank you,' to his inner tenant, he shifted his attention to the world around him.

The cave had indeed collapsed on top of him, he realized, impressed in seeing that such a big chunk of the rocky face was completely gone. Sasuke was lying a couple of feet from him with a few scratches on his face but completely untouched otherwise. There seemed to be actual steam rising up from his body, though. Not a good sign in Naruto's opinion. A massive log of dark wood was dangling from a nearby tree, tied to the highest branches with multiple ropes and ninja-wire, while in front of it, a deep trap-pit led to a bunch of pointy weapons all facing upwards. Further away, the first line of trees had been battered with shuriken and kunai, and a genin, presumably one of the attackers, was lying on the ground, definitely out cold with a nasty bruise running across his nose and eyes just underneath the Sound hitai-ite.

Sakura was nowhere to be seen, but he could hear her fighting somewhere in the forest in front of the cave, or what remained of it. She must have lured the enemy away so as to protect him and Sasuke.

After making a clone and ordering him to tie the unconscious enemy before coming to help, he sprinted in the direction of the noises, moving through the trees as fast and at the same time as stealthily as he could.

He didn't have to run for long before reaching the new battlefield, a small clearing that already showed signs of the struggle. Sakura was standing there, facing the bandaged Sound ninja who had attacked Kabuto before the first test of the exam.

"Heh. You proved a bigger challenge than what I would have thought," the Oto genin was saying, strangely curved on himself, almost like a hunched old man. "But you're still little more than an insect. It's over, now. You can barely stand."

And it sure looked like it. Sakura seemed hurt and tired, her chest rising and falling very rapidly as she kept her left arm close to her body. Blood stained her clothes in multiple places, but it was the trickle rolling down her left ear that worried Naruto.

"I won't… I won't let you hurt my friends!" she panted, and at those words, a mix of anger, guilt and pride started boiling in the blond's gut.

He sneaked resolutely towards them and to a cracked tree nearby, but he almost gave his presence away with a gasp when he saw another Sound genin – this one female – leaning against the other side. The girl sat unconscious, if not dead, in a pool of her own blood. There were several cuts on her arms but not nearly deep enough to have caused that much of a blood loss. The mouth and ears still dripping red might have, though. Locks of pink hair were slowly drifting away from her, and Naruto's attention snapped back to Sakura at once, finally noticing her new impromptu haircut.

Forcing himself to ignore both that and the bleeding girl, he turned to the enemy just in time to find the opening he needed. As the Sound shinobi charged his teammate with a cry of "Let's end this!", the blond got out of the protection of the trees and pointed grandly at him.

"Hey, asshole!"

The ninja skidded to a halt, twisting his body so he could face him and whatever attack would come.

"Another Konoha instect," he said. "Too bad I'm-"

Too bad he didn't see the Kage Bunshin charging at him from behind, right fist connecting solidly with his temple. The bastard was lifted off his feet by the punch, his body hitting a tree before dropping to the ground.

"Ah-ah!" Naruto shouted. "You've just been sucker-punched, sucker!"

He signalled the clone to make sure the genin wouldn't stand up anytime soon and created another to check on the unconscious kunoichi, before turning to his friend.

"Damn, Sakura-chan, you are useless!" he called. "Only two out of three?"

But he was beaming at her with a proud expression on his face.

She smiled back faintly before sinking to her knees, exhausted. The blond rushed to her and immediately started drowning her in green sparks.

"H-how did I do?" she asked feebly.

"Great!" He jumped up and down around her. "I knew these guys were strong when I scanned them after they attacked Kabuto, but you got them good!"

She shook her head tiredly at those words.

"I only got the one outside the cave with a trap, while the girl…" She nodded in the Sound kunoichi's general direction and then looked away. "You didn't see it, Naruto. That bastard, the one you dropped… he attacked her without hesitation, to get to me! His own teammate!"

The blond opened his mouth, then closed it again, words escaping him. He glanced at the bleeding kunoichi before scowling harshly at the genin who was being restrained by the clone.

"That's messed up," he said, trying to keep the growl off his voice. "But you won, Sakura-chan, that's what matters now."

They shared a brief smile, while one of the Kage Bunshin cried out in exultance from the other side of the clearing.

"Hell yeah! Hey Boss! Guess what?" he called, showing off the object he had just retrieved from the unconscious Sound shinobi.

"Heaven scroll?" Naruto tried with a grin, and the clone returned it full force.

"Right in one!" he said, tossing it to him.

The original caught it out of the air and cheered on. He turned to his teammate.

"See? We even got the scroll we need! Thanks to you, Sakura-chan!"

She smiled more widely this time, struggling to stand up. The injuries on her body were all but a memory now, but she had used up almost all her chakra during the fight and Naruto's Restore Materia could only help so much in replenishing her reserves. She needed some rest.

Unfortunately, it wasn't to be.

They felt it at the same time, a strong, malicious chakra moving towards them at great speed, not even bothering to hide its presence.

"What the-"

Naruto took a step forward to position himself in front of Sakura, soon mirrored by his clones, both of them ready to intercept the approaching enemy. When it appeared at the edge of the clearing, no one could contain the gasp of surprise in seeing that it was Sasuke.

Only, it wasn't exactly Sasuke.

Perched on the sturdy branch of a nearby tree, the Uchiha would have looked perfectly normal if not for the black stains spread like ink blotches on the skin of his face, legs and arms, and for the deranged grin twisting his lips.

Before they could even process that, Sasuke had landed beside the tied-up Sound ninja, stared down at him for a brief second, and then crushed his skull with the heel of his right foot.

Naruto practically jumped, startled and shocked in front of the unwarranted attack, and he struggled to make his mouth produce intelligible sounds as blood and brain matter sprayed out of the genin's head.

"Teme!" he eventually sputtered. "What the hell is wrong with you?! He was unconscious! He was tied-up!"

For the first time since his appearance, the Uchiha looked at him, sharingan activated. Naruto's blood ran cold, and Sakura taking a step backwards told him that he hadn't been alone in noticing the likeness of their friend's gaze to the snake-freak's who had bitten him.

"They are working for Orochimaru, the grass shinobi," the dark-haired genin told them, voice hardly sounding like Sasuke's. "Sent here to kill me. Or… to test my skills, more likely. Pathetic weaklings…"

"Sasuke-kun…" Sakura started quietly. "You… I know you're angry, but you can't… you aren't like this."

He glared at her.

"What the hell would you know?" he said softly, but something in his tone set off every alarm bell in Naruto's head. His eyes travelled to the Sound kunoichi leaning against a tree nearby, as he saw the Uchiha glance at her. "I'm an Avenger. That's what I need to be."


The blond jumped in front of the unconscious girl before his teammate could move. He took a stance in front of her and warned his friend with a look.

"You better move, Dobe," the Uchiha threatened, an irritated expression replacing his malicious grin.

From so up close, the blond could see that the stains covering his body weren't actually stains. They looked, instead, like extensions of the weird symbol on his neck. They travelled up his throat and down his arms like a tiger's stripes, giving the boy a quite feral look. Naruto's anger deflated a little in realizing that they must have been behind his teammate's behaviour.

"Sasuke, stop! There's something wrong with you!" he pleaded. "Can't you see you're not acting like yourself? You're-"

He was caught completely off guard when Sasuke's foot impacted with his stomach.

"You're annoying."

The Uchiha had moved unexpectedly and so fast he had been little more than a blur to the blond's eyes. The power of the kick sent him flying away, as whatever air had remained in his lungs was forcefully pushed out as soon as he impacted the tree-trunk behind him. He dropped to the ground, gasping for breath, but refused to go back to that numbed state of mind to which he was getting extremely acquainted in the past few days.

He stood up carefully, using his Restore Materia twice in a row before launching himself back into the clearing. There was Sakura now in front of the unconscious girl, together with his two clones, and Sasuke actually looked uncertain about hitting her. A growl rising from his chest, Naruto charged at him from his blind spot in the hope of putting him to sleep like he had done to the Sound genin. The sharingan wasn't so easily fooled, unfortunately, and his teammate ducked under the punch, whirled on his left foot and kicked him again, this time in the side.

The blond shifted with the blow, more prepared, but the strong hit still forced him to move out of the Uchiha's reach, to give himself some time to recover. Sasuke stayed hot on his heels, and if it hadn't been for the Cover Materia finally activating on one of his Kage Bunshin to save him, the following punch would have probably put an early end to the fight. Sasuke certainly wasn't pulling them.

Before the smoke could clear completely, Naruto created a large batch of Kage Bunshin and sent all of them attacking. He stumbled back towards Sakura and the Sound kunoichi, but it wasn't at all surprising that so many sets of memories were popping in his brain in so little time. After only a few seconds, the clones had already been halved in numbers.

"Naruto, are you okay?"

"I'm pissed, dammit!" he said. "That thing on his neck is making him super-strong and I bet it's also influencing him or something!"

"Yes, Sasuke-kun would never act like this!" she agreed, a pained grimace marring her features. "He's not even listening to us!"

They watched as their friend continued slaughtering Kage Bunshin with disarming ease. The clones weren't using offensive jutsu yet, but it seemed clear that they wouldn't get far without. Still, using the Lightning, Fire or Ice Materia on his teammate… Naruto didn't want to do that if he could help it.

"Poisona!" Sakura exclaimed suddenly. "If it's the seal making him do this, then we just have to stop its effects!"

"Sakura-chan, you're a genius!" he cheered.

He left her there, then, charging the army fighting Sasuke and slipping past the rearguard to make his way to the Uchiha. He immediately took a glancing blow for the trouble, a punch that grazed his shoulder and still spun him around.

"So the real one has finally joined the fray?" the bastard asked, deranged smile back in place. He dispelled two more Bunshin in the time it took him to say that. "Are you going to take it seriously now or what?"

As only answer, Naruto started calling up chakra, immediately rewarded by the circle of light surrounding him. Sasuke's eyes widened but the mass of clones charging behind him slowed him down long enough for the jutsu to hit. The look of complete surprise on his face was priceless when, instead of whatever force of nature he was expecting, only a rain of sparks and a cloud of smoke swarmed him.

"Are you kidding me?" he snarled then, attacking him.

Naruto withdrew in a hurry behind a group of his copies, making his way back to Sakura. Immediately picking up on it, all the clones around started spamming the Heal Materia, not always hitting but not even disheartened when their attempts didn't seem to gain any immediate response. Soon, the little clearing was shrouded with green light, fog and glimmers, countless jingles overlapping with each other as if born from multiple tiny bells.

A huge fireball roared in their midst, much bigger than Sasuke's usual Katon technique or even the second level Fire Materia. It scorched the ground in a circle where it hit, after dispelling probably a good half of the Kage Bunshin in the area. Shooting out of the smoke with quick, short leaps, the Uchiha soon found himself in front of Naruto, far too fast for even the nearest clones to catch up. The blond took a stance, ready for the rough-and-tumble that he was sure would follow, when instead Sasuke halted the charge and performed a seal.

There was very little time to process what was going to happen and even less to react accordingly. Desperately turning on his heel, Naruto grabbed Sakura and got the hell away from there, his Kawarimi bringing them to the other side of the clearing. From there they could only watch in horror as both the tree and the Sound kunoichi sprawled at its feet disappeared inside the flames of Sasuke's jutsu. It was the technique that he and his clones had had to endure quite a few times during their fight against the snake-freak. Apparently, the sharingan had managed to copy that.

Nothing survived on its path.

Anger welled inside Naruto, replaced a second later by revulsion when the charred body of the Oto nin reappeared beyond the flames. For the third time in only a few hours, the Kyuubi's chakra started flowing through his body, but he pushed it back at once, recalling the alien and terrible sensation that had pervaded him earlier and ignoring the shudder of need that threatened to break his resolve.

"Sasuke-kun…" he heard Sakura whisper against his shoulder. "No…"

Making up his mind, the blond let go of the girl and turned to the Uchiha. Some clones had finally caught up to him to keep him occupied, but they were bursting up in smoke constantly as he watched. Creating a few more, he narrowed his eyes in resolution and charged as well.

A Kage Bunshin was swept off his feet and kicked away, and Naruto had to duck under his body before it could go up in smoke. He leaped forward only to be greeted by a right hook closing in on his face. He braced for the worst and prepared for the best, and the briefest of sighs escaped his lips when one of his Cover-equipped clones eventually appeared to intercept the blow. Barrelling blindly through the smoke, Naruto grabbed Sasuke's back with all the strength he had. It felt like trying to hold onto a tree during a earthquake but he eventually managed to restrain his left arm before taking an elbow to the jaw.

"You!" the Uchiha snarled when he saw he wasn't dispelled. The crazed genin hit him again with his free arm and spurts of blood sprayed everywhere as Naruto's nose broke with a snap. "Get the fuck off me!"

Fighting off the black spots threatening to overwhelm his vision at every one of the bastard's attacks, the blond scowled and spat a mouthful of blood at his teammate.

"Shut up."

And as he said that, a circle of red light flashed all around them like a wall of flames, the telltale sign of his Enemy Skills Materia activating.

"With what water, Dobe?" Sasuke asked derisively, expecting the Water Prison technique. After all, until the day before it had been the only jutsu the yellow sphere had managed to capture and copy.

The Uchiha could only gasp in utter surprise, then, when his whole body froze mid-spin, his free arm raised to punch a nearby clone.


All the Kage Bunshin stopped attacking at that point, stepping back and away from the immobilized boy as their boss let go of him and proceeded to spit and cough blood to the ground.

"Is that…" At the sudden stillness in the clearing, Sakura had taken a few cautious steps towards them. "Is that Shibari?"

"Neat genjutsu, huh?" one of the clones said, smirking at Sasuke. "How to get free of it will be the second thing to ask Kakashi."

"The first one being how to get Sasuke back to normal," another blond continued darkly.

Sakura had finally reached the immobilized boy, but couldn't hold his furious and hateful gaze more than a second. She lowered her eyes.

"Check that he doesn't stop breathing in," she said. "That's what we did when the Grass ninja used it on us yesterday."

The original Naruto had finally stopped his bloody sputtering, also thanks to a repeated use of the Restore Materia.

"Let him, if he wants to try it," he said. "Tying him up will be safer if he's half-unconscious. I don't want him to get out of the genjutsu just because we make him uncomfortable enough with rope or ninja-wire."

He walked around Sasuke so as to face him, then sat down with a sigh, peering up at the weird stripes still covering his skin.

"Dammit, Teme…" He passed his hand through his hair in frustration, only to wince in pain when his palm brushed against his swollen nose. The healing jutsu could only help so much.

"What do we do, Naruto?" Sakura asked quietly. She chanced another look at his crush and immediately averted her eyes again. "It's like… he's not himself."

As an answer of sorts, the Uchiha started mumbling something through his half-frozen mouth. The blond didn't get exactly what he was saying but it couldn't have been anything benevolent, judging by the tone.

He ignored him.

"Then we'll make him himself again. Guys!" he called to the Kage Bunshin around, his eyes resolute. "Start spamming Poisona like there's no tomorrow!"

As soon as he said that, the clearing began resonating with the cheers of the clones and the jingling bells of the Heal Materia. Green sparks and clouds of smoke showered Sasuke from all directions, to the point of hiding him from view. Sakura watched on hopefully but had to shake her head when it looked like there was no point.

"It's not working," she said in anguish. "Look at him, Naruto. It's not working!"

The blond gritted his teeth and made a quick seal to create more clones.

"Keep it up, everyone!" he ordered. "Continue firing it until you run out of chakra."


"Sakura-chan," he interrupted her, not taking his eyes off his frozen teammate, "trust me. I have an idea."

It took them a couple of minutes, but clones started going up in smoke, eventually, their chakra exhausted. Loud pops and puffs added to Poisona's jingling sounds as Naruto started nodding his head in excitement.

"Come on," he called. "Someone is slacking off! Go at it! We need some more!"

He rolled up the left hem of his trousers and watched as the Heal Materia grew bigger and bigger inside its leg-holder's slot every time a Kage Bunshin was dispelled. The experience of all those spheres, each one a copy of the original like for the blond genin, flowed back to the real stone not dissimilarly to how the streams of memories reunited in Naruto's mind. Soon enough, the equipped Materia had practically doubled in size.

"Here we go!" he cried out, and felt more than saw Sakura holding her breath right beside him.

When the umpteenth clone disappeared into thin air, the Heal Materia finally reached its next level. The blond watched it fall apart like a shattered crystal, shards of its outer shell dropping to the ground in fine pieces, leaving behind a sphere a few inches smaller and who knew how much more powerful. The stone barely shifted in its slot as the holster adjusted automatically to the new size, locking it firmly with a soft click and pressing it against the proper tenketsu.

And just like that, the new power of the Heal Materia became accessible to Naruto.

He blinked.

"Alright, stop! Stop!" he called, and in a handful of seconds there was silence all around. A few clones were panting wearily while others seemed to be just fine, probably those out of the last batch of copies he had created. The blond dispelled both without preamble, sighing quietly at the chakra flowing back to him together with dozens streams of memories. Then he walked up to Sasuke, now standing alone in the middle of the clearing.

"Let's see what this does," he said.

And he called up chakra and waited for something to happen. He had to pump energy into the sphere, more than he had actually expected, perhaps five or six times the amount he needed for Poisona, but he felt the stone's resistance give in eventually, as the usual circle of light flashed all around him.

He had expected some kind of jingling - it seemed to be a theme for all the Materia that had something to do with health - but was almost startled when a much more metallic tinkling sound preceded a gush of green globes springing from the spot Sasuke occupied, passing through his body as if he wasn't even there. Naruto watched it rise for a moment - peering at the fluorescent sparks glimmering inside each and every one of the spheres - but it disappeared as suddenly as it had come, and he was left staring at the empty air.

When he brought his eyes back to his teammate, he saw that he had no marks on his skin anymore. The Uchiha blinked a few times, and from the look on his face - not to talk about the lack of sharingan and of that malicious chakra - it seemed clear that their friend was back.

"Sasuke-kun!" Sakura called happily, stepping forward, and Naruto cancelled the genjutsu.

As soon as that happened, their friend fell forward, dropping like a puppet whose strings had suddenly been cut. He groaned piteously, twitching all over as if trying to move, but his body wouldn't hear any of it.

Naruto rolled him over as Sakura called his name again, but his eyes were unfocused now, lids dropping despite their efforts, while he mumbled unintelligible words.

"Naruto!" she cried. "What did that thing do to him?"

"I-I-I-I don't know! It was the first time I used it, obviously." He snapped his fingers. "Restore!"

And that said, he called up chakra again, this time to try and heal the Uchiha. The usual jingle and sparks followed, leaving behind a slightly more coherent Sasuke.

"...sorry I...did...chakra was..."

"Shh, don't worry, Sasuke-kun," the kunoichi hushed him gently.

"...I'm... tired..."

And he passed out after that. The blond freaked out for a moment, fearing the worst, and he used his restorative Materia once again. And again. Sakura shaking him, eventually, drew enough attention that he was forced to listen to what she'd been saying for a while.

"Naruto, give it a rest!" she snapped, then continued more softly when she saw he was finally paying attention. "He's just sleeping. He's okay."

He frowned at her and at the still Uchiha. "Are you sure?"

"This to me looks exactly like Kakashi did after his fight with Zabuza. The first one," she explained. "It's just chakra-exhaustion, and Restore can't help more than this. He needs rest."

The blond checked Sasuke's even breathing and sighed deeply. His recently healed nose was still throbbing a little, and he scratched it gingerly in more than just physical discomfort. "Goddammit."

"Look, the mark on his neck is still there," she said quietly, and he cursed again, "but we know how to stop it, now. We're fine. Well... we're a mess, really, but we will be fine after we recover from this."

They stared at each other and shared a long sigh. Even Naruto was starting to feel weary, now, emotionally more so than physically. His eyes inevitably moved to the gruesome bodies of the Oto genin, and finally shifted back to Sasuke.

"There's another Materia not too far from here," he said. "Should we try our luck there?"

"We got poisonous lizards the first time," she pointed out.

"But decent shelter the second," he countered, and she bit her bottom lip hesitantly before conceding.

"We can make our way there, then. But, be on the look-out for any good cover on the way. We're too vulnerable as we are."

Naruto nodded, made a bunch of clones and organized the party, assigning a couple of copies to Sasuke-carrying duties. He took the rear and sent more Kage Bunshin to scout ahead for trouble, hoping against hope not to find any.

"We're all set."

Sakura nodded, passing her hands through her new haircut for what was probably the first time.

"Let's move out, then."

And as they started marching forward, he couldn't help but smile a little at the resolute expression he saw on her face.

Yes, he thought. They really would be fine, after all.