Disclaimer: Shit not mine.

Author's Aside: I apologize profusely for the length of time it took me to finally write this chapter. Had some trouble deciding the direction I wanted to go in and a few other problems that kept distracting me (Cough error of soul cough). Hope you enjoy, and sorry for making you all reread the whole thing.

Chapter Ten

Kakashi Hatake stared through a telescope at the ball of chakra that had hovered in the sky for the better part of two days now. He, along with much of Konoha, had been silently fearful of what it was and what it meant for the future of the exams.

The chakra was malevolent, though it seemed content to remain perched in the sky. Whoever controlled it, ridiculously powerful though they might be was a master at chakra manipulation and control. Scouts had been sent in a ten mile radius scan of the entire city and found nothing. No hint of the master capable of turning such demonic chakra into a weapon and keeping it like a hearth kept a fire alight.

In truth, he'd been distracted by it. The moment it appeared he, along with many other Jounin and Chunin had been summoned and sent out to find the source.

They'd found nothing of course. Whoever would dare to raise such an obvious weapon in the middle of a village like Konoha had to be a madman or a genius at stealth. Nothing else could account for the sheer audacity it would take to do something to one of, if not the most powerful of the hidden villages.

"Any ideas?" asked the horse faced man in a red coat and faded grey pants. He was a little rotund but Kakashi had gone on many missions with him in the past. He was not in the bingo book but he'd killed more men than Kakashi could count, and saved his life several times when he'd been younger.

"Not a clue," Kakashi confirmed regretfully. "We've searched the whole damn village. No chakra cords, no puppet strings. Not even any chains feeding it. Its just... one massive ball of chakra. Its growing, but for the life of me I can't figure out how."

"Same thought," said the man. Kakashi, oddly, didn't know his name. He was one of the few ANBU around that he had never been highly ranked enough to know, so Kakashi, rather rudely, had always thought of him as the 'horse faced man.'

"The Hokage's not going to like it," said Kakashi. He grimaced, knowing somehow he'd be the one suckered into telling the old man. No one liked to give the Sandaime bad news. While the old man would take it in stride –there was nothing Sarutobi didn't take in stride– no one liked to see that worn, weary look in his eyes. Another impossible problem. Another mission, likely to end in failure and the deaths of some of his precious leaves. The Third would handle it as he always did. But it was a slow and steadily crushing weight that rarely grew lighter.

Kakashi, nonchalant as they came, would be nominated in a heartbeat to give such news. Nevermind the fact that he wasn't actually ANBU anymore; never mind the fact that his genin were due to participate in the exam that this chakra bomb would likely destroy.

Konoha couldn't appear weak. The other teams weren't packing up and leaving, regardless of the chakra construct. The exams would go on as planned, and Konoha would cross its proverbial fingers and hope.

Idly, somewhere in the back of his mind, Kakashi dreaded that his students might somehow be the cause of this mess.

Weirdly, Kakashi had found himself... afraid.

Not for them but actually afraid of what his students were and were becoming. The Kyuubi had seeped into Sakura's soul, yet she seemed more carefree by the day. Indoctrinated, perhaps brainwashed? Sasuke, cold as they came, seemed ever so slowly to become more warm, as if maybe Naruto's curse were spreading to him as well...

Naruto himself. Levity given life, Kakashi had seen what lurked beneath. The cold rage of a demon that had been perfectly willing to saturate his teammate's soul.

Kakashi... was afraid.

He didn't want to be a slave to the Kyuubi's manipulations any more than a cat wanted to seek out a dog.

The chakra mass above swirled with red and blue. Sakura Haruno had a bloodline that let her repurpose active chakra. The puzzle pieces weren't hard to fit together but Kakashi didn't want them to fit.

Fear. That was one thing. He was very familiar with fear. Obito's death, and Rin later, had left him paralyzed by it, once upon a time. He'd found himself hardened to it. If he was called, he would still teach the demon children that were growing in his Team 7, even if he was afraid of becoming another thrall to the Kyuubi.

Affection was a whole different story. He hadn't felt affection since... well since Obito really.

Knowing the corruption that was seeping through at least two of his cute genin, and being powerless to stop it, rendered him terrified. If his suspicions proved true, Kakashi Hatake knew that for the first time in his life, he would be utterly incapable of fulfilling his duty to Konoha.

If his suspicions proved true, he would let the trio of children he had grown to care for strike him down, rather than raise a hand against them.

"I... can't think of anything that might cause this," he lied once again, more for his own reassurance than any need to let his companion know.

The horse faced man nodded, completely ignorant of the guilty lump forming in the silver haired ninja's throat. Nor did he notice the solemn, worried hope that lit his eyes. Hope that some evil figure in the shadows had leveled challenge at Konoha.

Hope that his genin team was still... well...


Hinata stood staring high at the moon above. It glowed full lighting the darkness of the forest. Sounds echoed from all around in the forest far below her. Fireflies danced, glowing yellow, blue, red, and orange in the evening. Wind swept the grass and her eyes glowed their unearthly white, as she looked out across the forest of death.

She felt warm. Confident in a way she had never felt before. Honestly this was the first time Hinata had ever felt she could really amount to something great. She'd floated on air ever since that day. That day when he had said "yes."

Of course that was before they discovered that the exam would be a five day trek through the woods and would skip Saturday entirely but somehow she didn't think that mattered. She had meant next Saturday of course. Because he had said yes, she was certain that things would go well. Everything would go well.

From now on.


Oh, this confidence thing kicked ass.

"Kiba-kun. Up for a spar?"

"Hell no!" he hissed clutching Akamaru to his chest. The puppy whimpered in a rather adorable imitation of his master. "Those pokes of yours are getting way too painful!"

She grinned. "But Kiba-kuun! I'm bored!"

"Its the middle of the night!" he retorted hotly. "Honestly! I liked you more when you stuttered."

She pouted, a small smile on her face. She poked her fingers together expectantly. So similar and yet so different from the nervous twitching of her hands it had once been. It could be said that she employed puppy dog eyes on the puppy dog owner, but that could be said of almost any look Hinata gave to anyone. No. This smile was the grin of a girl who knew that her teammate would cave, and was patiently waiting him out.

"D-did you K-K-Kiba-kun?" She bated.

He flinched. No. No he didn't.

"Fine!" He barked after a while of awkward silence, setting Akamaru on the ground. "But Akamaru's not fighting. He needs to keep up his strength!"

Hinata beamed at the boy's yelling. Kiba was always yelling. She thought she was really coming to understand him though. Shino too. Honestly, Shino yelled just as much as Kiba in his own way. He was just a thousand times quieter about it.

Sliding into a ready position, offensive rather than defensive, Hinata really felt that things were looking up.

Her team had finished first. FIRST. That meant that of all the other genin her team was among the very best. And she had helped with that. Naruto wanted to date her. Her skills as a kunoichi were improving by the hour rather than the day. Even Neji had noticed her change in attitude.

For the first time in her life, Hinata had confidence that she could impress even her father.

Now she stood atop the tower at the center of the forest, sparring her teammate for practice. Two days left. Naruto's team still hadn't arrived but that didn't worry her. Naruto was awesome. He would make it.

"Alright Hinata. No important ones. If you're going to block tenketsu then leave my chest alone, okay?" Kiba's voice was actually a bit of a whine but Hinata found it funny, and her laughter made him sputter.

"Just dodge me, Kiba-kun, and you won't have anything to worry about!"

"Easier to dodge the wind..." he muttered under his breath, and Hinata preened.

Kiba took his stance.

And suddenly, far in the west, a segment of the forest exploded.

Startled, both she and her teammate jumped, turning to face the threat in ready stances before realizing how distant it was. Miles away, yet the heat from the geyser of flames erupting from the forest lit the night itself. They felt its warmth on their skin.

Silently they stood watching as fire consumed the portion of forest in a maelstrom, swirling to create a column of smoke and ash that volcanoes might envy.

'Oh Naruto,' thought Hinata worriedly. 'Please be safe. I hope you don't have to face whoever made that..."

"WHOOO HOOO!" hundreds of Naruto cried as they sailed around the firestorm laughing madly as everything in the area burned. "Did you see that, Sasuke!? Huh?! Did you see that?!"

An Uchiha's eyebrow twitched as he rushed the three genin of Team Gai away from his insane teammate and the equally insane Orochimaru.

Ino faced off against her opponent. Chouji and Shikamaru backed her up, and she took point against this trio of enemy ninja. Or... that's how the blond wished it was happening at any rate.

"Look. Just leave, and we won't hurt you," said the one Ino had dubbed the leader. His face was covered entirely in bandages and she assumed he might be bald beneath them.

"I don't think so," Ino said. "Ya see, we've been having trouble finding any opponents. "You guys seem to be in good health as well. I'm sure you're in need of a scroll. Why so eager to get away?"

The deep of the night would've drowned everything in darkness if not for the light of a great moon above and a thousand stars that made the world seem alight. Ino felt no fear of the night. Having a shadow user on your side meant that you quickly lost your fear of darkness. She almost felt more at home in the moonlight than in the day.

The bandaged man sighed. "Fine little girl. If you need to get yourself killed that badly then I suppose we could spend a little time."

"Caution," said the calm faced girl behind him. "Our mission does not involve passing this test. We have thus far been unable to find our target. Time is running out."

"Shut up, Haku. You've only been a Sound nin for a few weeks. Barely even worth the headband, so keep quiet. It would be... advantageous to pass this test," said Bandages, practically ignoring Ino and her team.

"As you wish, Dozu-san. But we must not fail. If this side objective pressures us, I will not hesitate to withdraw."

"I'm with the cross-dresser," Shikamaru droned from the side. "C'mon Ino. Can't we just fail? I'm sick of this forest."

"Shut up Shikamaru! You're not going to ruin this fight for me! … Wait cross-dresser?"

A munching sound came from the left and all five members of the clearing noted Chouji's new bag of chips. Dozu barked a laugh and the other girl who had remained silent until now grinned as well. Ino failed to suppress the tick that formed on her brow.

"Chouji! Could you at least try to act less lame than you are?"

"Sounds like your teammates are a bunch of losers. You've got a bit of spunk though. Ever think of switching villages? You'd do well with us in Sound."

Ino's glared. "Fat chance. Nowhere is stronger than Konoha!"

Under her breath though, Ino couldn't help but mumble about how the choice of teammates couldn't possibly be worse in Sound than it was here. Idly, she threw a curse Shikamaru's way for good measure.

Dozu's face wasn't visible but the smirk in his tone was clearly evident. "Tell you what blondie, since both our teammates seem to be complete blowhards, how about just you and me fight? Winner takes the scroll."

Confidence brimming in the sound nin's voice, he procured an earth scroll and balanced it on one finger.

Ino hesitated, looking back to Shikamaru. Sudden nervousness snatched her. She was confident with them at her back, but all on her own?

Eh... she would probably be alright. He wasn't a goddamn skyscraper sized raccoon. After that, it was becoming hard to take any human opponent seriously.

"Hey, fuck that. I want a piece of this little bitch," said the brown haired girl, the third member of the sound team. Ino instantly felt a sharp burst of loathing for the other girl.

"Shut up Kin. You're worse than little Haku back there," said Dozu thumbing the blue-haired quiet spoken nin behind them. "Save your strength for the pinky on Sasuke's team."

If Haku was annoyed by Bandages's comment, the girl –crossdresser?– didn't show it. Still it was clear these three cared about each other less than the dirt on their shoes. Ino idly took note of this and began to formulate a small plan. Their opponents had obviously been thrown together at the last minute. They weren't a team. They didn't even have a semblance of teamwork. She could use that to her advantage.

Her fingers lay down at her side and twitched in a way that looked spontaneous. Shikamaru noted the signal for plan delta and sighed. "Ugh. I probably don't even have to say it but this is so..."

"Troublesome, we know. Well, lets get this started then, eh?"

Before another word could be said, an explosion sounded in the distance. Fire erupted in the sky and night turned to day.

Orochimaru was annoyed.

These genin were far more troublesome than he had expected. Worst of all he hadn't even managed to witness Sasuke fighting yet. Instead he had to weather the effects of an inferno created by a nincompoop.

The blonde's easy smile as his hundreds of clones sailed around the firestorm set Orochimaru on edge. The boy was weak, he knew. Kyuubi gave him the power for this ridiculous attack. However, the similarity between this boy and another boy he'd once known, now deceased, was unnerving.

His clones showed competence in that some of them could see him coming, and dodge. Few, but few was still more than he found acceptable. As he decimated their ranks, he seethed at the multitude of fake Sharingan shining in the boy's eyes. A minor genjutsu, probably concocted by the pink-haired twit no doubt, but a clever one.

The battle with the Hyuuga and his team hadn't really pushed the Sanin much but he'd wasted one of his snake-form copies.

Now, having shed a second skin, he was actually fighting with his true body, and that worried him. Added to that, this firestorm would likely cause the proctors of the exam to investigate. For any genin, such a power was impressive. It was likely they would want to know who had caused such rampant destruction, not to mention what sort of opponent had been powerful enough to require such an act.

The whole point of this excursion had been to test Sasuke but so far he'd found the three most powerful specimens for their age that he'd ever run across in his life, and had only managed to glimpse Sasuke Uchiha fleeing the scene with one of those three.

Not a fully wasted time. He was interested now to see what would become of the crippled boy now that he'd been healed. Oh, what a carrier he would make. He'd easily replace any of the sound four with a cursed seal of his own.

The Kyuubi brat was a powerhouse. That was unsurprising really. Of course Orochimaru was interested in the Jinchuuriki. Everyone with half a brain should be, but it seemed Konoha had neglected the boy, if his clone's wild strides and pathetic taijutsu were anything to go by.

Cute burn trick though. Clones with fire. He'd even synced them all to fire in the same direction to create a wind funnel, effectively trapping Orochimaru with the pinkette for the duration of the jutsu. Smart mid-battle tactics on that one.

Now the flower. The pink-haired doll. SHE was a prize. How was she not burning inside all these flames? He of course, had shed his second skin once the fire had died down to manageable levels, but she had weathered it without even seeming to notice. She stood unhindered and unburdened by the touch of the flames. A useful trick that one. He would have to dissect her slowly.

"I come for one prize and find three entirely different ones. Sakura Haruno was it...? I'll be watching you."

"Will you now?" She replied without the slightest hint of fear at being surrounded in a flaming cyclone, or that she was trapped alone with one of the greatest ninja to have ever walked the land.

The girl flung a slender arm into the air and her eyes shimmered with the glare of the burning wind. To his utter consternation the girl turned her eyes away from him. What kind of elite ninja turns their eyes away from one of the greatest–!?


As if pulling down the moon itself, the girl tugged. The ground split around her in a ring and she sunk a foot into it, earth cracking as if under an enormous weight. Orochimaru's eyes widened as he felt an enormous surge of chakra. What in...?

His eyes widened in sudden horror as he realized exactly what the girl was doing. The giant ball of chakra that had been hanging in the air for the past several days... it was hers!

He chanced a look skyward, towards where the small opening could be seen at the top of the swirling vortex, and found what he'd expected. The red and blue glowing ball hurtled towards them like a missile. Orochimaru, for just a moment, felt fear.

The ball of chakra impacted and the forest exploded.

"Genin… you're no g-genin."

Sakura stood firmly in the middle of a crater that had once been a large portion of the forest of death. Around her stood walls of flame towering a mile into the sky and roaring like a twister. Rubble, rock, dirt, and tree branches, all hung suspended in midair, made lighter by the dense remains of the Spirit Bomb. They all glowed an unholy red, stones boiling like a blacksmith's anvil and hovering over the heavy chakra that saturated the storm. In this imitation of hell, Sakura stood unburned, the harsh flames unable to touch her.

Orochimaru did not fare so well.

He stood with difficulty on wobbly legs. His eyes flared with a hatred so profound that it struck Sakura, who had stared into the eyes of the Kyuubi himself. Blood trailed down pale lips...

Orochimaru of the Sanin was enraged. Even as his face melted off and was replaced by new flesh that only melted away once more in a sickening display of seemingly limitless burning, that rage held as strong as Sakura's stance.

"A trap laid." the Sanin snarled before his mouth melted, jaw detaching and dropping to the scorched earth, only to light with powerful flames and bubble and rot like plastic before melting into the charred dirt below them.

Pressure stung Sakura and it felt heavy. Her bloodline stretched to the limit to divert the heavy chakra away from her body and into that of the melting Sanin. Keeping him in a perpetual state of death and rebirth with his grotesque snakeskin technique.

"...a w-well planned trap. Konoha knew. Cle–" here his newly formed face melted off once again, finally showing the disgusting bones beneath. His words quaked and quivered in pain.

"You are a blight on this world," Sakura said firmly, her eyes laced with passion. "I've seen the children you've tortured. I've seen your disgusting labs and your cursed stables, where boys and girls are treated as cattle and guinea pigs. You're an abomination,"

A dry laugh escaped his lips the next time they formed. "No one... ever reached immortality without a few broken bones..." hissed the melting man. "I won't d-die... not here. Not to a little girl like you."

Sakura glared harder and diverted more and more of the firestorm and ambient chakra in the air to become a heat on par with hell itself, melting away at the Sanin's exposed flesh. Hexagonal barriers appeared everywhere, absorbing chakra and granting it unto her. She purposed it well. She made him burn. Raw chakra burning so hot that it could make steel melt, grafted to his skin and bones.

He screamed then, throwing his head back in pain, pale new skin cracking and bubbling before falling off of another miraculously smooth face that once again began to burn.

Sweat trailed down Sakura's brow. Her limits were huge now but this was straining even for her. All her vast chakra pools were still not enough to end his vileness. Last time she'd used poison which bled him of his ability to regrow. The poison had limited his ability to use chakra to a trickle. Much like closing a tenketsu, the poison she'd used had been famous for suppressing the natural flows of chakra, but unlike the Hyuuga technique, the poison stopped it at the source.

At the time, her bloodline had been fresh and new. Experimental, but her fist had been trustworthy. Her team, a full seven in total, had been beaten to rags before the Sanin had gone down by sheer luck, even with his chakra suppressed. Five of them died.

She and Neji Hyuuga alone had survived.

Now she was wiser in the ways of her hidden talent. A talent so powerful that even the Sharingan had bowed to it, robbing eyes of the ability to activate. Robbing chakra from the very body itself, her barriers could be so tiny that they could be forced into anything.

She narrowed her eyes.

"This is where you die."

And suddenly, Orochimaru let out a howl that defied reason or logic. His chakra dampened as she exercised her power over him. Chakra that was desperately working within the confines of his foul and demented body was stolen and repurposed.

Inside him, one of her Hexagons had appeared. Sapping all of the ambient Chakra and stealing Orochimaru's lifeline, then redistributing it as heat into his body, melting him from the inside out while Naruto's firestorm burned him. Regrowth and regeneration stemmed to a sudden, horrible halt as Orochimaru's anger turned to terror.

Burns scalded a face that no longer reacted like melting plastic. Instead, flesh, real flesh was burning and melting. Sakura glared, her eyes more intense than the fire that whipped her hair. That stare had a... sound to it. Like a crumbling mountain, or perhaps a volcano.

"I... will not... DIE!"

A sudden burst of power flared from the Sannin, and wind buffeted Sakura off her feet like a physical blow. She sailed, losing her grip on her bloodline as she did so and sliding roughly along the molten earth. She screamed too, but the heat was not nearly as intense for her as it had been for the Sanin. She didn't have fiery chakra being sown, laced into her very skin. Still the heat ravaged her and the pain of raking her back along the ground scalded her furiously. It was a full moment before she could gather the sense to ward the fire off of her body with her armor of hexagons, but that was all Orochimaru needed.

With a yell like a banshee, Orochimaru leapt, feet carrying him through the slowly dying tornado of flames and out like a fish might leap from the water, madly running, running, running from the burning of the girl, and her fearsome teal eyes.

Orochimaru had never been terrified. He was now.

"No!" Sakura exclaimed, lashing out and throwing a burst of raw chakra at him, stolen from Naruto's firestorm.

It hit nothing but scorched air as the Sanin dodged, far too nimble for his nearly emaciated form. Sakura fumed in rage at herself and at the slippery Sanin. He would be almost impossible for her to face in the future. He would know of her ability and would account for it somehow. The man was a genius. She had to best him here, now.

But he was already gone.

She rushed to where she'd last seen him. Fire parted around her, impacting on her armor if transluscient hexagons as she leapt through.

She reached out her chakra senses, but of course, found nothing. She'd robbed the Sanin of a huge portion of his chakra, almost enough to kill him. A rabbit would leave a stronger trail than he did right now.

So the mundane methods. Footprints. No, the ground itself was molten charred dirt. Plus he was a Sanin, even if he was weakened. They'd caught him unawares, completely flat footed after fighting Konoha's best genin team. They'd never find him. The snake had gone to ground and the only option was to wait for him to surface again.

"Damn!" Sakura screamed. "You snake faced coward! Come fight me!"


Turning away with a huff she strode through the dying embers of the firestorm, flame sliding away from her as if walking through a screen of falling water.

Naruto leaned casually against a tree a few feet away waiting with a smirk on his face and his eyes tilted in an unnaturally Sasuke-esque look. His Sharingan spun three tomoe easily sliding across her flame-licked form.

"Ya get him?" He asked.

She hissed. "Bastard got away. He's probably not even in the forest anymore."

Naruto, still using his Sharingan to mime Sasuke's manner leaned his head to the side. Idly he cocked his thumb towards himself and said. "Good. Next time we fight him, I want to be the one in the storm."

The hell!? He... Naruto looks kinda cool.

It came all at once. In all of the space of a moment her rage at her own incompetence, her failure, evaporated into helpless unbridled laughter.

"Hey! C'mon its exactly what the bastard would say...! S-Stop laughing! Sakura-chan!" Naruto whined.

As tears streamed down her eyes she wrapped a slightly injured arm around her teammate, a hand clutching her heart because she just couldn't stop laughing. Whether at Shannaro-chan or Naruto's Sharingan enhanced acting, she couldn't tell.

She'd survived a battle with one of the strongest ninja in the world without hardly taking a scratch. Not only that, she'd beaten the pedophile to a pulp. And she was thirteen. Honestly, it almost felt like cheating. Even so, it was a damn good day.

When she finally gained some semblance of control she turned to her partner and wrapped the other arm around him, lovingly piggybacking onto his neck and letting her feet drag on the forest floor. "C'mon you idiot. Lets go see where Sasuke got off to and finish this exam."

"Sure Sakura-chan!"

Ino stared wide eyed at the tornado –an honest to god tornado!– made out of fire. It stretched far beyond the trees blotting out the moon with red fire. Her jaw almost dropped and would've if not for the years spent conditioning herself to never look stupid.

She wasn't alone.

The Sound team before her stared openly in shock, or at least what passed for shock to ninjas. Only the blue haired girl in the back seemed unafraid. The bandaged boy and the brown haired girl both backed away in fear of what... of who could create such an attack.

"Naruto. That fearsome genin..." said the blue haired girl, paradoxically calm in light of the situation. Shikamaru had called her a crossdresser right? What had the bandaged boy called her earlier? Haku?

"Dosu," the possible-boy barked, her eyes no longer passive. "We have no time for this. We are leaving. Come, we shall seek easier prey."

"Why should we!? Whoever made that is way over there, and these kids are still easy!" Dosu barked in return.

"Hey!" Ino roared, snapping out of her own fear, her eyes having trouble focusing on the genin in front of her rather than the blaze. She was largely ignored.

"Make no mistake. That attack was made by one of the members of the team we target. Just. One. We will need our strength if we… no, if I am to face him again."

Dosu's eyes widened a visible fraction and he flinched, his eyes edging towards the inferno perhaps a mile away from them. Even Ino could tell it was little more than an attempt to save face. "Che. These losers are a waste of time anyway... Fine. Let's go."

The three genin leapt into the trees, leaving Ino's team alone in the clearing.

Ino let out a sigh of relief she hadn't known she'd been holding. She had wanted to fight but that tornado had sapped the will straight from her. She was afraid. Whoever could do something like that…? Who wouldn't be afraid?

'Maybe I'm in a little over my head." she thought sadly.

She didn't notice the red-haired boy hovering nearby, sand ready to strike and maim the sound nin in her defence.

Shikamaru Nara did. Wisely, he kept his mouth shut.

"You cannot have it."

Neji Hyuuga, currently wrapped in more bandages than Lee wrapped around his arms in a month, glared sharply at the pink haired girl hovering over him.

"You guys are already disqualified with Lee still down for the count, and far too injured to participate any further. No one will blame you for losing to an S class missing ninja either. Plus, you can't really stop us from taking it." Sakura reasoned with a calm smile.

Sunlight bathed the clearing that team Gai lay in. Broken and defeated, bandaged beyond recognition, Neji Hyuuga struggled and grit his teeth angrily as the girl rummaged around in his rucksack.

"Stop it! That's private! Ack-!" Neji barked from his place on the ground before hissing in pain. Yelling definitely wasn't a good idea.

"Oh settle down. I"m just looking for the scroll. Now lets see here. Change of clothes. Oooh is that string cheese? Awesome. Dibs! Oh, hey a picture of Tenten's in here!"

"THAT'S PRIVATE! You can't do this!" Neji bellowed, drawing further giggles from he pink haired girl.

Honestly Neji wasn't nearly as angry as he was implying. He'd been horribly certain that his spine had been injured beyond repair. That his limbs weren't and might never again function properly. Or at all. The pain wasn't good but knowing that he was still in control of his limbs was doing wonders for him. That and the fact that he was alive at all. He couldn't really complain.

But it burned his soul to watch a fellow team take his scroll, his ticket to becoming Chunin without even being able to put up some sort of fight. Verbally, it seemed, was the only avenue left to him.

His eyes wandered over to his companions, both more damaged that he. Tenten… she looked so strange with her hair down. Neji wanted to reach out and touch her cheek, and he might've done so if not for the searing pain it would cause.

Lee. What the hell had the Sanin done to him? That yellow chakra, like poison flowing into Lee's body and dissolving, was one of the last things Neji could remember. That, and the feeling of Tenten being squashed beneath him by the sannin's foot.

"Ah! Here we go! A perfect pair of Heaven and Earth scrolls and one second stage Chunin exam passed! Shannaro!"

"Are you even listening to me?" Neji asked sighed, resigned but still unwilling to let the matter go without some resistance.

Sakura settled her eyes on the Hyuuga, making a point to meet his unnerving eyes in a way that few were capable of doing. The boy was complaining for the sake of complaining and he knew it. Orochimaru had decided to attack his team. He got dealt a bad hand and that was that. No reason for Sakura's team not to capitalize on it either.

"We could have just left your team to die, you know. No bandages. No recovery. Just your team bleeding to death in the middle of the forest. Orochimaru probably wearing Lee's skin like the monster he is. If I were you I'd be happy you're alive to try again next time. Stop complaining. You're not in the competition any more. You can't even move! And on top of that, your teammates are still–!"

"Ugh… what the hell hit me?" Came a sudden moan from the bundle of bandages that contained Tenten.

"...Unconscious." Sakura finished lamely.

While Sasuke had dragged the beaten and bloodied members of team Gai away from Naruto's Firestorm and Sakura's battle within it, Tenten had been the only one capable of moving on her own. Barely managing to sling a little bit of Lee over her arm while Sasuke had draped the fully comatose Hyuuga over one shoulder and helped Tenten with Lee using his other. They'd limped away slowly. Tenten had been crying with horror at her two half-dead companions, but despite her fear it had not taken her long to pass out from her own exhaustion.

Forgetting Sakura entirely, Neji brought his entire focus onto his recovering teammate. Something almost akin to concern crossed his features for the barest of moments.

"Tenten. Are you well?"

"N-Neji…? What happened?" A moment passed where Tenten's eyes clouded in complete confusion as she stared between her teammate and the pink haired girl fiddling with their bags. Memory was a slow and sluggish thing but she remembered. Timidly, the girl hugged her shoulders as if seeking warmth despite the jungle's heat.

Tears welled in the girl's eyes as she stared mutely the injured but very much alert form of her brooding teammate, remembering his eyes flutter shut. Eyes she'd been terrified would never open the night before.

"Oh god…"

A sharp thud. Her back burning as she skid across the ground, Neji trying vainly to take the damage for himself. Skidding to a halt as dirt and grime seeped into her back. Her breath being choked from her as she felt the Sanin's foot slam down on Neji's back. His wide, pain filled eyes. A moment of bitter insanity overtaking her. She'd wanted to embrace the Hyuuga so much. For so long… she'd gotten her wish.

Heedless of the boy's injuries, memories of their brush with death haunting her vision, she flung herself to the Hyuuga and wrapped her arms around him, bawling like a baby into his hair.

"I thought… I thought you were… N-Neji! Neji!" She wailed piteously.

The Hyuuga, unwilling to showcase the pain her jostling him caused, grunted instead. The girl immediately noticed her blunder but couldn't bring herself to break the embrace entirely. With a stammered apology she lay the boy's head down on her lap, gingerly stroking his hair and staring down with a smile as wide as the edge of the world, and tears draining like rivers down her cheeks.

"You'realright you'realright you'realright… By the six paths you're alright," the girl slurred, breathily. Her words ran together to the point of incomprehension but the emotion in her eyes made them unimportant.

Sakura felt a moment of pity, remembering a time when she'd been forced to take care of both her boys when they'd been unconscious in this very forest. Suddenly guilty at how blithely she'd been about taking the team's scroll, she turned and moved to inspect Lee once more. This had been no normal fight. No. Team Gai might've been shattered beyond repair, and here she was treating it like a game. Lee and Neji both had become jounin in her own future, Neji being one of the seven who'd helped her take down Orochimaru. But Tenten…? Sakura barely remembered the housewife she'd become. A civilian. A washout. Not that she scorned the girl for her choice but… had it been something like this? Maybe a fight that had been too much for her had pushed her away from her path as a Shinobi. Would this break her? Sakura feared it might. Perhaps even earlier this time. For a moment, she felt remorse. Not for the pain they had experienced but for the sister kunoichi she might have lost once again. The ally she'd failed to protect long enough to ready her for the rigors of the Shinobi world.

"Those who abandon their friends are worse than trash," the words echoed hollowly in the back of her mind.

"I got fish!" Came an exuberant cry from the east. Effectively ruining whatever moment Neji and Tenten might've been having, Naruto came spilling out of the foliage with a literal hoard of fish carried in a net that looked far too weak to support the ridiculous load he'd acquired.

And just like that, Sakura found her heart lighter. Her guilt evaporated as if it had never been. Naruto. Silly joyous, and heartwarming Naruto. An idiot he might be at times but she knew, she just knew, that if anyone could get team Gai through this on their feet, he could.

She fiddled with Lee's bandages, checking them for loose holds. For the most part the boy was undamaged save for what opening the gates caused to himself. Whatever Orochimaru had done to him though was keeping him down for the count. Even so, his breathing was steady and even. The rhythm of sleep, not near-death.

"You sure do pack a punch, don't you Lee?" she asked the unconscious boy, brushing a hair of his bowl cut out of his eyes. He actually was a little cute.

"How's fuzzy brows doing, Sakura chan?" Naruto asked, plopping the fish down by the fire with a fleshy smack.

'Nowhere near as cute as you Naruto.' thought the pinkette with a smile. "Oh he's-"

"Fixed." Neji interrupted, his eyes fixated on the green clad member of his team. Tenten had finally let go of him and was wiping at her tear-stained cheeks, embarrassed. She couldn't seem to bring herself to stop looking at Neji though. The boy, on the other hand, had his Byakugan active and focused sharply on Lee. "His coils aren't twisted anymore. They look normal. Flooded and burned from his use of the gates but still. Normal."

"Fixed? What was wrong with him? He seemed pretty awesome to me. What I saw of his fight anyway." Naruto asked, scratching his head.

Sakura watched him and abruptly realized the boy wasn't wearing his usual orange jacket. Despite the closeness she'd shared with Sasuke only a few days ago, she found herself unable to deny the sudden rush of attraction the swept over her. She sharply turned her view back to Neji, trying to mimic Naruto's confusion and desperately trying not to blush.

'What is this shit? I'm a god-dammed Jounin! Sasuke and I in the Tsukiyomi just three days ago did... and now I'm...!' She chastised herself sharply. It didn't help the blood rushing to her face. She still recalled the things she'd done in her true body before leaping off the edge of the world with awe. The fearlessness she'd felt when trapped in Sasuke's Tsukiyomi, his skill making her what she truly had been without all the baggage and hangups of her Genin self.

Her battle with Orochimaru had been a joke. He'd been unprepared and Naruto's Firestorm –holy shit that had been cool!– had caught the sannin off guard. Despite their victory, what she could do now was still a pitance compared to what she'd been capable of before.

Before... The sannin wouldn't have escaped.

She was 'not' a jounin, though sometimes she felt like she was. During her better moments. But the truth was she was still Sakura. Which Sakura, she wasn't sure. The tiny girl, embarassed by the presence of a good looking boy, or the kunoichi madly in 'love-and-hate' with a now-deceased Hokage.

'The Kunoichi one. Definitely. Chaaa! Sasuke's hot! But Naruto... he's really sweet sometimes.' Shannaro-chan blared in her mind, then the split personality became indignant. "Hey, stop confusing me!"

In her mind, Sakura barked a bitter laugh. "Oh Shannaro-chan. I have no idea what I want, do I? I feel like I'm at war with myself. Part of me is genin and full of life while the other part is ashamed of being so childish. I've faced being unable to make children and now I'm barely a teenager! Why am I so…? God, if even you are confused. Naruto… Sasuke. They both mean so much to me, now."

Shannaro-chan's thoughts hesitated for a moment, which she almost never did.

After several moments, Sakura actually started to worry about the little figment in her mind. What could've silenced her? "Shannaro-chan?"

The burst of words came like an alarm.

Stop thinking about it so much, dumbass! So you love em both? Big whoop. They're both on your team. Keep them safe, and help them with their dreams. Stop trying to micromanage the whole world! Just because you know 'a' future doesn't mean you know 'the' future! Get your head out of that 40,000 year old girl you used to be! You're thirteen and have your whole life ahead of you again! Stop trying to plan it and live it!

Sakura blinked. Hard. Where the hell had that come from?

She felt Shannaro-chan pull back in her mind a little, bashfully. Still the figment continued on, brazenly.

You're always so wound up on what might happen if you don't do things right. Like, if you flirt with Sasuke a little you'd end up hurting Naruto. If you find Naruto attractive you feel like you're betraying that other Sasuke but that isn't how life works. You can't make a script that will lead you to either of their arms! You don't have to have a plan when it comes to your heart. Just do what you feel and everything will work itself out. Even the Sakura you used to be could've told you that.

Unexpected tears began to well in Sakura's eyes and she had to fake a sneeze to hide them. Unexplained tears. Why did she feel so touched? Kyuubi hovering inside her, slowly hoping to lead her to Naruto's arms. Sasuke returning as if from the dead, showing her the warmth there could be between them. She hadn't realized she'd been holding in so much stress, but Shannaro seemed to know right where to hit the dam in order to spring a leak.

'Th-thanks… thanks Shannaro-chan."

Yeah, yeah. Can we be done with this touchy feely stuff now? Its not really my department you know. Get back to looking at Naruto before he puts that hideous jumper back on! Shannaro!

The conversation had gone on without her. She'd long known about Lee's lack of Ninjutsu or Genjutsu and found herself drifting in and out as Neji explained Lee's weakness, bored by information she already knew well. Meanwhile, Naruto listened while skinning fish before laying them over the fire to cook.

While the other members of team 7 and team Gai spoke, Sasuke spent his time training a short distance away. He hung upside down from one of the trees, perfecting familiar Uchiha kata while making sure to never let himself fall from the branch, his brow dripping sweat onto the ground below.

They'd fled the battle scene, Sasuke grumbling all the while about his mandatory 'non-combatant' status with the snake sannin. His memories of the man, the ones that came from his future self, did not speak well of their first meeting. Despite the slight wound to his pride, Sasuke had no problem staying out of that particular battle.

He didn't want Naruto to have to die pushing out Orochimaru's influence. Again. Shinobi 101: Keep the target as far from opposition as possible. From his older self's memories, he knew he'd been the target. It only made sense for him not to show himself.

His thoughts ran a little too far from him for comfort at the moment, and all of them centered around his two teammates.

Naruto. He'd been so annoyingly passionate about his value before he gained the Sharingan that Sasuke almost found himself agreeing with him. Either way, that was irrelevant.

Somehow Naruto had gone and become his brother. Fuck, he was going to have to watch out for the blonde for the rest of his life. Still. His dream of reviving the Uchiha clan literally twice as likely now so he couldn't complain. He wasn't entirely certain that whatever his older-self had done to Naruto would affect the blonde's kids but he knew for a fact that he never did anything half-way. If he were ever forced to give away his eyes, he'd want to affect the recipient's blood so the line would live on as well.

Even more surprising was that Naruto's eyes hadn't changed. Still the same blue they always were, but he could activate the Sharingan just like Sasuke could. Incredible. It must have taken years of research to figure out how to use the Tsukiyomi for such a thing. He was certain. His older self had become strong enough. He had become Hokage after all.

And that meant that he could become strong enough. Strong enough to wipe Itachi off the map. But therein lay the problem. Sasuke had used the Tsukiyomi which meant that he had killed… his best friend. And which also meant that he would have to kill Naruto or Sakura. But there was a major difference between him and his older self now. For him, killing Naruto was no longer acceptable. Killing a fellow Uchiha would make him just like his brother.

Which left him with just one other option.

He had no choice but to soar beyond her. He would use her. Use her and learn from her, this Jounin kunoichi who hailed from a distant, and largely hidden future. He would until he rivalled her...

...and then he would cut her down.

He didn't even notice the tear sliding down his cheek as he realized where his future lay, and began to firm his heart to what would have to come to pass. He'd always been hard. But now he would have to make himself cold as well.

Naruto would probably never forgive him.

"I… have a task for you. A task you will… ahh… accomplish or die trying."

"My lord Orochimaru. My will is yours."

"Kabuto has failed me, his team eliminated in the first round. The weakling team is unreliable. They are not strong enough to handle this request. Luckily, I entered you three into this little exam."


"Your previous orders are rescinded. You will complete the second stage of this exam. During the third stage or before, you will murder the genin Sakura Haruno."

"Really! Fuck yes!"

"Understood, Lord Orochimaru."

Author's Notes:

I know people seem to like this little ficcy, and I have also noted that you can apparently add cover art to your fanfics now. Cool and all but I suck at drawing. So I thought, hey. I have a shitload of fans, some of whom probably would be willing and able to draw a relatively badass Kyuubi-fied Sakura and paste a title over it. Why not ask?

So I'm officially requesting fanart. I found that artwork helps me visualize how to write what I want. I'll spend hours on Google images or deviantart looking for that one piece of badassery that can define an entire scene. Hehe.

I've developed a new system of writing that has been working out very well for me lately. Its very simple. Each night I lay down in bed but don't wanna go to sleep so I usually end up reading a fic or looking at reviews or something. So I thought, why don't I use that time for something more productive?

Got a cheapo laptop and have literally been writing at least 500 words a night ever since. One week and I doubled the length of this chapter and finished it after letting it mold on my for nigh on a year. Still didn't get the chapter quite as far as I wanted to but thats okay. Preliminaries come next! We're down two teams but I'm calling AU and adding one for the funzies!

Once again. Apologies. Feel free to kick me in any reviews you decide to leave!