"Oh, oh, how about we plant a couple of fake teams and-"

"Can't. Violates the non-interference clause."

"Tch. What if we threw in some fake objectives and-"

"Can't. All teams must start under effectively the same conditions."

Anko growled in annoyance as he shot down another idea. "Then we could poison them at the start of the exam and-"

"Did you even read the rules for this?"

Anko didn't reply immediately, instead looking off to the side as she avoided his gaze. "... Maybe?"

Kuushou fixed her with a glare, which just caused Anko to start cackling to herself.

"Ah, relax Blondie, I'm just screwing with you. Although some of those ideas would have been fun," she finished ruefully.

"What do you have then?" he asked pointedly. Anko had given him a day to familiarize himself with the rules and regulations regarding the International Chuunin Exams, then pulled him into a meeting at a "highly secure location" – her favorite dango stand, which probably was a more secure place than most since she'd kill anyone who damaged it – to discuss their plans. Supposedly she had other people drafted to help her, but he was the only one who was here at the moment.

"Well, I want it to happen in the Forest of Death," she said. "That's pretty much set. I have to put the teams in direct conflict with one another, so I was thinking giving each team one of a pair of scrolls. That would ensure the numbers are cut in half at a minimum, and probably a lot more than that."

"Alright. What else?"

"Well... that's it, really," Anko shrugged. "Covers all my bases, and the rest is just the genin trying to survive the forest and each other."

Kuushou nodded slowly. That plan did meet the requirements based on what he had read, but it was a little boring for his tastes. After spending the last few months torturing his students into something resembling competence, he also wanted to give them a real challenge.

"That sounds a little too simple. Couldn't someone just steal the scroll from another team? There wouldn't be any real conflict there, just stealth."

Anko hummed thoughtfully as she devoured another stick of dango. "Maybe. Any team who can't hide their scroll properly deserves to fail, though. Stealth is just as vital out on a real mission as combat skills, after all. You got something in mind?"

He didn't, not yet. He just knew that he wasn't going to let this opportunity to be paid to put ninja – Konoha or otherwise – into potentially lethal situations pass so easily. The opportunity for bloodshed and mayhem was- ah, there was an idea.

"Actually, yes. What is we added a little twist to the scroll idea? We could place them in containers that are keyed to the blood of each of the genin on the team such that you need a bit of blood from all three in order to open them. It's still possible to use stealth to acquire that blood, but it would require a lot more ingenuity and skill than mere thievery."

Anko sat back, her eyes half-closed as she thought it through. "Also adds some interesting opportunities for deception," she mused. Then she shook her head. "Nah, it just makes stealth a lot more difficult but doesn't add a whole lot to the combat side of things. With that setup everyone would open the container on the spot to confirm that the scroll is actually there."

Kuushou shrugged. Then another idea occurred to him. "How set are you on the scrolls idea?"

"Not very. Why?"

"What if we used a set number of locations instead?"

"I'm listening."

"... and the winners will be determined by which teams have control of one of the locations at the end of a four-day period."

The Hokage nodded slowly, his eyes thoughtful. "What locations do you intend to use?"

"Three small caves, two hills, two bridges, and a large clearing. We've already scouted the forest and identified suitable areas."

"And if one of these locations were destroyed or damaged to the extent that no one can be said to control it?"

"Then no one can use it to pass."

"And if all of them are like that?"

Anko shrugged. "It's always been a possibility that no one makes it through."

"True," the Hokage conceded. "What are your criteria for determining control?"

"All team members must be physically present within the confines of the area and alive, and at least one member of the team must be conscious and capable of fighting. In addition, there can be no active hostile elements of any kind, human or otherwise."

"Ah, to account for animal attacks and the like, I assume."

"Yes, Hokage-sama. It also allows for the possibility of prisoners and hostages."

Kuushou's eyes narrowed as he noted the small smirk on the Hokage's face. The old man hid it quickly, but he found something amusing in what Anko had just said. Had they missed something? They had originally restricted it to just other teams until Anko pointed out the many aggressive animals that lived within the Forest. Was there some other threat they had overlooked that wasn't defined by "active hostile element?"

"In that case, I believe we have our second phase. I'll need the full details written up by tomorrow, and a complete listing of all the personnel who will be assisting you during the course of those four days by the end of the week. Other than that, I believe we're done. Congratulations, and good work, both of you."

"Thank you, Hokage-sama," Anko said, smiling and bowing. Kuushou echoed her, though he was more focused on figuring out what the Hokage had noticed. Maybe he just thought they were being over-prepared?

"Hello, Hinata," Kuushou greeted as he entered the clearing.

"Hello, Naruto-kun," Hinata answered clearly, a smile on her face.

Kuushou paused a moment to examine her. It had been nearly a month since they had last met and he was curious to see how she had improved in that time, both physically and mentally. Up to this point he had been meeting with her once a week for the training sessions and often had several brief meetings on top of that as they ran into each other during their duties. This would be the real test to see if the changes he had wrought had truly taken root or not.

From what he could see, they'd done far more than just take root. Her jacket was nowhere in sight, leading him to believe that she had not worn it at all – that alone would have been unthinkable to her before he had started teaching her. She was wearing a loose, blue, short-sleeved shirt and loose gray pants that ended just above her ankles. She had moved her forehead protector from around her neck and was now wearing it as a belt, along with two more tool pouches, one joining her original kunai pouch on her right leg and the other attached to her left hip.

More than just the clothing change was her demeanor. She was calm and confident, standing with a straight back and her arms resting at her sides. Despite that, though, there was something else, an undercurrent of tension. It wasn't until she began to walk forward to meet him that he saw it for what it was. She was practically stalking across the clearing, her muscles coiled and ready to burst into action at any moment. Her hands never strayed far from her pouches, and her finger brushed against the handle of a kunai that was sticking out of one as she moved.

She had been improving steadily over the months in their sessions before he left, but this was a massive leap forward.

"Something happened." It wasn't a question.

Hinata nodded, her smile twisting into something feral. "Father had me spar against my little sister while you were gone on your mission. He does that every now and then, and I always lost before. It was one of the reasons he decided to name her as the heiress."


"This time I didn't."

"Of course you didn't," Kuushou said. There was no surprise in his tone, and he didn't sound impressed. He said it like it was a foregone conclusion. To him, after the training he had put her through, it was. "What happened after you won?"

Hinata's smile widened. "Father seemed upset that I ended it so quickly, but he has always told me that I should be more aggressive." Her hand seemed to caress the kunai that was sticking out of her pouch for a moment. "After I won, he just told me that we were done for the day and left."

Kuushou wondered just what the girl had done to her opponent, but shrugged it off. "Well then, I think it's time to see how well you have done while I was away. You can be-"

Hinata blurred forward, her chakra flaring as she simultaneously activated her Byakugan and reinforced her muscles. Three kunai ripped through the air, one aimed at his left eye, another along the right side of his throat, and a third at his crotch. Even as he dealt with those, he twisted his body sideways to avoid her jabbing hands. He tried to grab her wrists, but Hinata anticipated his movement and actually landed a Jyuuken strike, her fingers jabbing into the tenketsu just above his elbow and closing it.

He responded with a palm thrust to her sternum, but even as it landed he could feel her body rolling backwards with the blow, minimizing the damage. As her torso arced backwards her right foot came up, once more aimed for his groin. He blocked with a knee and pushed, their legs straining against each other a moment before his strength won out, spinning her body slightly and disrupting her balance.

He heard the soft thump of her hands hitting the ground and felt her chakra flaring again as her arms strained. Her other leg came up, knee aimed at his ribs. He took the hit and wrapped his arm around her knee, trapping the limb. A spin pulled her hands off the ground, but her leg twisted and wrapped around his back, preventing him from throwing her. He felt the limb tensing as she pulled her torso up, using his body as leverage, and could see her hands practically glowing with chakra as they struck out at his chest.

His other arm, the one that should have been hindered by her previous blow, came up and intercepted the attacks. He took another hit from her left hand, though it missed any tenketsu, and managed to grab her right wrist. A sharp jerk outwards, along with a strike from his left hand that dislodged her leg, sent her towards the ground. She couldn't get her feet under her in time and landed face-down. Two quick twists had her arms immobilized, though he had to keep adjusting to prevent her from slipping out of the hold as her arms continually twisted and pulled against him.

"-gin at any time," he finished. "You have improved, I see." He released her and backed up a few steps, allowing her to pick herself up off the ground.

"Of course," she replied as she stood up and turned to face him, "though I still can't break your holds."

Kuushou smirked for a moment. "I would be more careful about grappling with opponents, especially someone stronger than you. Still, if you had managed to bring up your other leg I would not have been able to dislodge you so easily."

Hinata nodded.

"Now then, I want to make sure you haven't lost any of your skill with the strings. Start with lifting a kunai."

Hinata's eyes narrowed in concentration as she held out her hands, fingers spread. She kept her Byakugan active as it would greatly improve her effectiveness with the technique, and one of his mandates was that she increase the length of time she could keep her eyes active as much as possible.

To his eyes, it appeared that Hinata was doing nothing even as she began to sweat lightly. To his senses though, ten threads of chakra were waving through the air, shifting back and forth in basic patterns. It wasn't much, but still a clear improvement from where she had been a month ago. One of the threads made contact with a kunai lying on the ground, lifting it and moving it through the air. Hinata let out her breath slowly, as she brought the other threads in contact with it, all of them combining into a single strand.

The kunai began to move more easily, whipping back and forth as if striking at invisible foes.

"Good. Next step," he called out. Before he'd even finished speaking the kunai was darting towards him. He sidestepped it with a grin, then moved into the trees. Hinata herself didn't move from her original spot, but the kunai pursued him doggedly as he jumped into the branches, slid around tree trunks, dove through thickets and even tossed loose branches and rocks at the kunai. Hinata guided the weapon towards him without pause, her Byakugan allowing her to continue her assault where most ninja would have been stopped cold.

He watched the kunai carefully as he varied the distance, noting that she began having serious issues maintaining control of the kunai at roughly the forty meter mark. Since she had completely lost it at the thirty meter mark only a month ago, he would count that as acceptable progress.

He burst back into the clearing, heading straight for Hinata while the kunai flew through the air behind him. He was nearly upon her when a second kunai leapt from the ground, aiming unerringly at his throat.

He caught the second one before it could strike him, then plucked the first one from the air as it closed in on his back.

"Good!" he praised, grinning widely. "Two at once, and no warning before you attacked with the second one." She matched his grin, her face slightly flushed. "Now, make one string as dense as you can."

Hinata gathered herself then let out a slow breath, her chakra flaring slightly as she began putting more and more into the technique. At first it simply appeared as if there was a faint flicker in the air, then, slowly, the whole string became visible as the chakra became denser and denser, eventually reaching the point where it was plainly visible even without the benefit of the Byakugan.

He waited a few more seconds, but the chakra string didn't change. "Better than last time," he acknowledged. Then he stepped forward and swept his hand through the string, causing it to essentially snap in half, one end whipping back towards Hinata while the other half dissolved into the air, the chakra that had made up that piece beyond recovery.

That particular reaction represented the beginning and end of the vast majority of ninja's interest in advanced techniques that relied upon raw chakra.

As any Hyuuga could attest, using raw chakra to do anything to an enemy ninja was very, very difficult. Quite a few ninja, both allied and enemy, had seen the Gentle Fist at work and correctly deduced its basic principle – pushing chakra into the enemy to cause damage. Their efforts to actually replicate that feat had met with complete and total failure, and it all came back to the fact that they were trying to use raw chakra to do it.

Most ninja relied on ninjutsu, which took raw chakra and used it to manipulate nature, turning it into fire or gusts of wind or even manipulating the earth. This allowed the ninja to reach a certain level of efficiency when using their chakra, but it also grounded their abilities in the physical world – even when it is manipulated by chakra, fire still behaves like fire.

Raw chakra, as Kuushou knew very well, could ignore those limitations as the user wished. It could pick up solid objects or pass through them, assume any shape and stretch to any length limited only by the user's skill. What it couldn't do was ignore other chakra. As he had just demonstrated yet again to Hinata, if one source of chakra came into direct contact with another, the denser source would win and disrupt or even subsume the lesser source.

Chakra is rarely denser than when within a ninja's body.

The Hyuuga had overcome this limitation by honing their Gentle Fist until the chakra projections which characterized their style were exceedingly dense, and then utilized the Byakugan to target weak points within their opponent's bodies. The focus of their attacks is small enough and the chakra used dense enough that they can overcome the natural resistance of the chakra within the opponent's body.

Most ninja who utilized chakra strings kept them invisible and had numerous tricks to reconnect strings that were lost or to avoid having them disrupted in the first place. Those same tricks limited the potential of the art by essentially conceding that they would rarely if ever be useful directly against an opponent. The most advanced style he had ever heard of using chakra strings was Suna's puppet arts.

He was leading Hinata down another path entirely. Her Byakugan allowed her to utilize the strings at ranges and in situations other ninja could only dream of, but only if she could overcome that problem. The tree-walking exercise trained ninja to project raw chakra to effect the physical world and the Gentle Fist proved it was possible for humans to reach the density required – all that was left was to push that density into a string.

And, if she ever managed to create a string that could survive passing through him, there was not a ninja in the world who would be able to break it.

"You still have a long way to go on the density," Kuushou noted. "Work on that whenever you have the time. Start testing the technique against Kiba, then your teacher. If you can get it to survive passing through her, try with Shino. I suspect his kikaichuu will make that task exponentially harder."

Hinata nodded, her expression determined.

"In the meantime, I'm giving you a challenge."

Her eyes snapped to his.

"I want you to use this technique to attack me with a single kunai. If you can keep up the attack for five minutes, I'll teach you a secret technique that I think will meld very well with your current taijutsu style. I'll be doing my best to disrupt your control, though, and every time the kunai hits the ground the time resets."

She didn't even wait for him to say begin, immediately forming the densest string she could and whipping a kunai towards him.

He grinned to himself as he began dodging, his hands cutting through her string with unerring precision. There were several possible answers to this challenge, and it would be very interesting to see which ones she attempted.

"So, I understand that congratulations are in order," Kuushou said as he walked into the clearing. Sasuke was already waiting, a confident smirk plastered on his face. Kakashi wasn't here – the jounin only attended about half the training sessions, even when he was still in Konoha – but Sasuke's watchers were. There were four of them again, two new ones and two that had attended every session regardless of whether Kakashi was there or not. He had yet to meet those two face to face, but the few times they hadn't been near Sasuke he'd actually sensed them under Konoha, along with quite a few other ninja. He'd also been around them long enough to pick up that something was slightly off about their chakra, though he couldn't quite figure out what.

"So you've heard," Sasuke said, his smirk growing slightly.

"Yep, activated your Sharingan fighting an enemy ninja and ended up saving both of your teammates lives in the process. Quite the accomplishment."

"Hn," Sasuke grunted, dismissing the praise. "I've been waiting for you to get back ever since it happened. It's time to see how much stronger I've really gotten."

"Oh, so you think your Sharingan is going to make all the difference, do you? I have faced the Sharingan before, you realize."

Internally, Kuushou felt a sense of anticipation growing. He hadn't had the chance to properly prepare for this moment the first time it had happened, but this... this he would be able to savor every moment of.

"All the better," Sasuke replied, slowly setting himself into a stance. "You'll see that I'm not the same as I was before!"

Kuushou sank into a stance of his own, unable to completely keep the grin off of his face.

Sasuke's chakra flared as he called out, "Sharingan!" It wasn't required to call out the name, but either Sasuke hadn't mastered it well enough yet or he just liked saying it.

His eyes focused on Sasuke, taking in every nuance of his expression.

First there was triumph, then a brief flinch as his eyes took in Kuushou's youki aura for the first time. That shifted to determination as the eyes opened fully once more. That held for nearly a second before the confusion set in. The confusion grew, and grew, then gained an edge of disbelief. The eyes widened further, the mouth opening as the jaw dropped. He lost the stance, drawing his feet closer together and one hand raising to point accusingly.

"What the fuck?"

Ah, there it was. Complete disbelief with a dash of frustrated anger; perfect. The fact that the other Sasuke had said the exact same thing when it happened to him four years ago made it that much better. It was just a shame that they didn't have a better audience this time.

Still, let it never be said that he wasn't a good teacher. He leaned forward, pushing with his legs and closing the distance to Sasuke while the boy stood stunned. One punch to the stomach, a kick to the knee, a twist that popped a shoulder out of joint, and then down with a kunai at his neck.

"I don't know," Kuushou said musingly. "It looks to me like you've gotten worse. You sure you're using those eyes of yours right?"

Sasuke coughed, then sucked in a harsh breath. "Seriously, what is that?" Like all of Kuushou's other students, something as simple as the pain from a dislocated shoulder wasn't going to distract them. Not after he'd done it to them a few dozen times, anyway.

"That would be one of the side effects of a certain condition of mine. You should have thought to consult with Kakashi or one of the Hyuuga about me; you might have been prepared for it. As it was you froze and got yourself killed. In fact... yes, this was your single worst performance of any of our spars."

Kuushou removed the kunai and took hold of Sasuke's arm, forcing his shoulder back into its socket with a sharp shove. The genin barely made a sound as Kuushou worked, waiting until his teacher had healed any strains or tears before pulling himself to his feet.

"Why can't I see how you're going to move?"

"Because the Sharingan uses the body's chakra emissions to predict that movement. In my case, I'm surrounded by chakra already, so whatever chakra I'm using to move is hidden from your sight."

Sasuke just glared at him in response.

"Just be glad it happened now with someone who wasn't actually going to kill you. There are other ways to avoid or negate the Sharingan, and now you'll be prepared when it happens again."

"Like what?" Sasuke asked belligerently. He clearly wasn't happy to learn that his Sharingan wasn't as powerful as he had thought.

Kuushou just shrugged. "Never bothered to find out. It-...," he paused, wondering if he should mention just who had told him that. Not right now, he concluded, though it could be useful later on. "I've sparred with other people who have the Sharingan in the past, and they mentioned they'd had to deal with that situation before."

Sasuke frowned at the news, but eventually nodded in acceptance.

"What happened on your mission?" he asked suddenly. "There have been a lot of rumors flying around, some of them frankly absurd."

Kuushou tilted his head curiously. "Such as?"

"Hn. You and Mitarashi went insane and killed everyone in Wave, and Konoha is trying to cover it up. You took over some shipping business and are going to quit the ninja forces to become a merchant. You were experimenting with a new exploding tag and ended up blowing up some important bridge. You-"

"I think I got it," Kuushou said drily. "In order: vaguely true, no, and someone else did it."

Sasuke looked interested in spite of himself. "How is 'you killed everyone in Wave' vaguely true?"

"We did technically depopulate a village and then execute the majority of the bandits in Wave. Oh, and in case you were wondering, civilian bounties are insultingly small."

"That bad?"

"D-ranks pay better."

Sasuke shuddered momentarily. "Bandits are worthless, got it. And the bridge?"

"Some nuke-nin called Zabuza Momochi and his partner sabotaged it as part of a trap. It failed, but not by much."

Sasuke frowned and opened his mouth to ask another question, but Kuushou cut him off. "Enough talking. Now that you've got your Sharingan, I expect you to use it as much as possible. You need to build up stamina with it and get used to what it can and can't track well."

Sasuke nodded, recovering some of his earlier enthusiasm. He settled into a stance again and activated his Sharingan, the tomoe in each eye spinning slowly.

Kuushou returned to his apartment after the latest training session, his thoughts distant as his body went through the routine of stripping off his equipment and sealing everything away. The Chuunin Exams would begin in a few days, and all of his students would be participating. He would be interested to see how they fared against the other genin of this world, but that was ultimately nothing more than an amusing diversion.

He had made good use of the security clearance provided to a chuunin, combing the reports on foreign activity to search for any mention of jinchuuriki or his brethren. He had only managed to confirm two jinchuuriki for certain – a ninja known as Kirabi in Kumo, and the Mizukage. Iwa supposedly had two jinchuuriki, but they had not been sighted for some time and were believed to have retired from active service. Suna was also stated as having one, but the identity of the container was not shown.

He was certain Konoha had better intelligence than that, but his current clearance did not allow him to access it. A tokubetsu jounin might be able to learn more, but that promotion was still several months out, at best.

He patted his flak vest, making sure that the small scrolls placed in hidden pockets on the inside were still present. He had enough funds to last at least a year and enough equipment to fully equip himself three times over. He even had enough materials to craft nearly a thousand seals if he needed to. He had no real need to continue performing missions for the money, though he continued to do so.

As he was doing more and more often lately, he weighed the benefits and risks of leaving.

The greatest risk would be his status as a missing-nin. He was powerful, far more powerful than anyone would suspect given his age, but he was also limited greatly by the seal. The first ninja they sent after him, the first team even, would likely die before they truly understood what was happening. Every one he killed, though, would result in stronger teams being sent after him, and they would eventually be able to overwhelm him and destroy his body. He would need to avoid detection and keep a low profile, which would complicate his search immensely.

On the other hand, leaving Konoha would remove some of his restraints. He wouldn't have to waste time performing missions for Konoha that had nothing to do with his own goals. He would be able to move far more freely than he could as a ninja of Konoha, even assuming he was promoted to full jounin and could take any mission he desired. He also wouldn't have to conceal the full extent of his abilities nearly as much when operating on his own.

Many possibilities floated through his mind, but, as he had so often before, he ended up delaying his decision. There was still more information to be gained from Konoha, and he did not have a clear plan for what he would do should he leave the village yet. His situation within Konoha was improving, at least in some respects, and additional time just meant he would be better prepared when he finally did make his choice.

"Man, Ibiki sure picked a boring way to do this," Anko complained. They were sitting in a small room with a few other ninja, including the teachers for the Konoha teams, watching the exam take place through a small bank of monitors. There were several different views that, taken together, allowed them to see the entire room where the written test was taking place.

The other ninja were focused on their own teams, watching their performance and noting flaws in their techniques. Anko was just sitting back and rapidly demolishing her stack of dango, not really concerned with which teams made it or not.

Kuushou, on the other hand, was focused on two specific people.

The first was someone he had felt enter the village yesterday, a red-headed boy from Suna who wore a large gourd strapped to his back. His physical appearance wasn't all that remarkable, but his chakra was unique. There was a clear demonic taint to it, though it was not one that he recognized. It was a foul, twisted thing, and it spoke of a demon that he would have put down himself, if only to keep it from befouling his senses.

He hadn't known that demons other than himself or his brethren could cross the realms safely, but it was just one of the many oddities in this new world, he supposed. He wasn't at all surprised to find that the humans had taken to sealing any demons they could get their hands on, however. If anything, now that he knew there were other demons around, he was surprised he hadn't come across more ninja like this Gaara.

As unusual as that one was, however, it was the other chakra signature that he was really interested in. This second one was strong, possessing more raw power than the Hokage and nearly as refined. The first time he had seen it, it belonged to the jounin sensei of the single team from the Hidden Sound, a new minor village that had recently appeared.

Now it belonged to a genin taking the exam, a female from the Hidden Grass village. The signature was suppressed, tightly controlled, and it wouldn't surprise him if Sasuke and any of the Hyuuga taking the exam failed to see it for what it was. It wasn't enough to fool him – suppressed or not, the signature was the same, and he wasn't about to ignore someone that powerful.

"See something interesting, Naruto?" Kakashi asked lazily, flipping a page in the book he was reading. His question drew the attention of the rest of the room.

Kuushou turned to look at the gray-haired jounin, pondering how to respond. He had kept the fact that he could sense chakra a secret, since doing so greatly increased that particular skill's effectiveness and allowed him to discover a lot of useful information with no one the wiser – he wasn't about to give up that advantage. On the other hand, he doubted someone who could rival a Kage was taking the Chuunin Exams because it amused them. Whoever it was wanted something, and once the second phase began they would most likely be able to get it. That person could likely slaughter every ninja in the exam room, proctors included, without breaking a sweat.

Which would be... annoying. His time training the Clan Kids of this world had been more satisfying than expected, and he wasn't about to just throw away his work – on Hinata especially. He was expecting to see his efforts really bear fruit in this exam, and it would be quite interesting if it came down to her and Sasuke in the finals. The others weren't bad – even Sakura and Ino had improved greatly, the former scared enough to let go of some of her delusions and the latter no doubt plotting revenge on him every step of the way – but they also weren't in the same league as those two. Sasuke had the same innate talent as in his own world and Hinata had acquired – or perhaps simply revealed – a level of viciousness that was quite beautiful to behold.

He had eventually heard form other sources just what had happened during that spar between Hinata and her little sister. Kurenai had heard from one of the Hyuuga who witnessed it, and she had told Anko, and Anko had relayed the story to him gleefully. It seemed that Hinata had barely even fought back in prior spars, unable or unwilling to actually strike at her own sister. Hanabi had entered the spar expecting an easy win and aiming to take out Hinata quickly and with a minimum of force – her own form of kindness, he supposed.

Instead, Hinata had sealed half her tenketsu, almost broken the girl's left arm as she pulled it out of its socket, and ended up standing over her with hand poised at the younger girl's temple, all in a matter of seconds.

He wondered if this was what proud teachers felt like. Not only had she completely dominated her opponent, but she had done so without causing any permanent harm. It wouldn't be appropriate to truly damage family, but as it was, her actions reminded him of his own fights with his brethren. Given proper adjustments for human frailty, of course.

Which brought him back to the ninja infiltrating the exams. If it came to a true battle, none of the genin even had a hope of surviving. His eyes narrowed as he contemplated his options.

"Naruto?" Kakashi asked, actually looking up from his book. "Is something wrong?"

"It's just...," he said slowly, frowning. "There's something off about that girl, the Grass-nin in the fourth row."

Kakashi turned, his eye sweeping the monitors as he tried to locate the genin in question. He found her after a few moments and began studying her. "Is she sabotaging the exam somehow?" the masked ninja asked. Anko also sat up, taking an active interest in the exam for the first time.

"No, nothing like that," Kuushou replied, shaking his head. "It's just... I dunno. She looks normal enough, for a ninja, but there's just something off. Like she's different from the others."

The room watched in silence for a few moments, then, "She's a ringer," Kakashi announced, shrugging as he turned back to his back.

"What?" That had not been the reaction he was expecting.

"Yeah, I see it," Asuma muttered, looking unhappy. "Figures Grass would pull something like this."

"What do you mean by ringer?" Kuushou prompted.

"All the villages do this to some extent," Kakashi began to explain. "They'll have ninja officially ranked as genin whose skills and experience is more along the lines of a solid chuunin. It's technically not illegal, though most villages don't go overboard with it. The team from Suna with the Kazekage's children, for instance, really should be chuunin already. They aren't here to get promoted, they're here to show off."

Asuma spoke up next. "This one doesn't look old enough to have a lot of experience, but if you look closely, the way she moves gives it away. She's a little too relaxed, a little too graceful. And if you check out her exam sheet, she's already done."

"Good catch, Blondie," Anko said.

"So... what now?"

Anko leaned back in her chair, losing interest again. "Now? Nothing. Like Cyclops here said, it's not illegal, nothing we can do, officially."

Kuushou picked up on that immediately. "And unofficially?"

"Hypothetically, a rumor or two about how strong the team from Grass is might make its way around by the time we get to the Forest of Death. Of course, as a proctor I am supposed to report any signs of tampering with the exams I witness," she continued, leaning back and closing her eyes with a theatrical yawn, "so I'm sure that won't happen."

One of the ninja slipped out of the room, closing the door quietly behind him.

"As for the exams themselves," Anko said, opening her eyes again, "I daresay that team will be one of the ones to pass. If the other teams have any sense, they'll give them a wide berth and look for easier prey. If the Grass team is here to show off, they'll wait until the third round when they have an audience."

Kuushou frowned but nodded in agreement.

After the first exam concluded and Anko had made her entrance – he wasn't sure what purpose that had served, other than to amuse her – they led the remaining teams to the Forest of Death and Anko began explaining the rules for the second phase.

"Any questions?" Anko asked after she had finished, her tone heavily implying that actual questions would not be welcome.

The assembled genin remained silent, some of them looking worried and others eager. Kuushou was studying the fake Grass-nin, trying to figure out what their goal was, but the ninja wasn't giving anything away, appearing to listen with as much interest as anyone else.

"In that case, if you'll step into this tent you will be provided a map of the forest that has the locations of all of the key points clearly marked. I suggest you don't lose it, as you will not be getting another. Once you have your map, you will be escorted to a gate and will wait until the second phase begins."

It took almost an hour to get all of the genin in position. Anko gave the signal, a sadistic grin on her face, and the gates were flung open.

There wasn't exactly a whole to do after that, Kuushou noted. The chuunin – other than himself – started breaking down the tent and carting away all of the tables and chairs. Anko had to remain here for a while in case any of the other proctors encountered issues, but her job was over for the most part.

It was about thirty minutes later that one of the proctors entered the clearing, a frown on his face. "Mitarashi-san!" he called out. "We found three bodies just outside the testing area."

Anko frowned. "Someone getting an early start?"

The chuunin shook his head rapidly. "No. They've been dead for at least a day, and they're... weird."

Anko sighed. "Fine, show me."

Anko knelt next to the body, studying the corpse closely. For his part, Kuushou was more interested in the symbol on the headband – Grass.

Suddenly, Anko jumped to her feet and started cursing. "Fuck, fuck, fuck. What the fuck is that asshole doing here, now? What could he want in the-" Her head snapped up, her face pale and eyes wide.

"You!" she shouted, grabbing one of the chuunin standing nearby. "Alert the Hokage that Orochimaru is in the Forest of Death!"

The man gasped and nodded sharply, disappearing in a shunshin. "The rest of you, start alerting the rest of our forces! Move!"

The other ninja disappeared, leaving him alone with Anko.

"And what are we going to be doing?" he asked curiously.

She startled and turned to face him. She stared at him for a moment before she set her face into a glare. "I ordered you to alert the rest of our forces, chuunin! Now move!" she snapped, then leapt away, heading south parallel to the high fence surrounding the forest.

Kuushou raised an eyebrow curiously, wondering at the sudden shift in Anko's attitude. It wasn't until she abruptly swerved and jumped into the forest that he realized what she was doing. Apparently she was going after Orochimaru herself and didn't want anyone to know. The question was, for what purpose?

Kuushou snorted and leapt into the forest, following behind her at a distance. Her current course wasn't quite in the right direction if she wanted to catch the signature that must belong to Orochimaru – no doubt the owner of the powerful signature he had noticed during the first test – but it would get her close. It would be interesting to see just what she expected to accomplish.

He frowned when he noticed that Orochimaru was near Sasuke and Sakura's position. He probably wasn't there to kill them, else they would be dead already, but what was he trying to do? Why go through all this trouble just to get close to them? Wouldn't it have been simpler and easier to just wait until they were out of the village on a mission? Or was he specifically trying to get to them while they were away from Kakashi from some reason?

Orochimaru began moving away, leaving both of them – and their teammate, this one a genin Kuushou actually recognized from his world, Kensuke Ogawa – behind, alive. Sasuke's chakra was behaving very oddly, though. He'd never sensed anything quite like that before.

Still, the boy was alive, so he returned his attention to Anko, continuing to trail her until she managed to intercept Orochimaru roughly thirty minutes later. He settled into the trees high above their position and listened to their conversation.

"Yes... you and I will die..." Anko said as she began performing a technique – a suicide technique, based on her words.

Of course, there was a problem with that, Kuushou noted. She had a clone pinned to a tree while the real Orochimaru watched from some distance away.

"Hehe... planning to commit suicide?" Orochimaru called out. He didn't speak himself, though; he used yet another clone instead while letting the one Anko had pinned to the tree dissolve. The real him... was actually making his way towards Kuushou's position.

"You are a tokubetsu jounin of this village," the clone called out, "you shouldn't be using all of those forbidden jutsu I taught you." Then the clone did something and Anko's chakra acted like it was seizing. Kuushou's eyes narrowed as he noticed a foreign chakra flooding into Anko's system. It definitely hadn't been there before, or at least not enough of it to detect in all the time he'd been around her, but it was pouring into her now. It seemed to be originating from a spot high on her left shoulder.

The clone continued to taunt Anko, revealing that he had given a "cursed seal" to Sasuke, said seal presumably why the genin's chakra was acting so oddly and why Orochimaru could freeze Anko in place at will. The real Orochimaru had come to a stop roughly ten meters away from his own position, probably observing him even as he observed the scene below.

Anko continued to weaken, eventually dropping to her hands and knees while the clone continued to taunt her. Feeling the real one form yet another clone and send it towards him, Kuushou made his move.

He pitched forward, rolling around the branch he was crouched on then launching himself straight down towards the ground. His hands flew through seals as he dove, and the moment he was close enough he launched a massive blast of wind that crushed the clone to the ground. He landed himself a moment later, kunai digging into the clone's head and heart as if he was finishing off his opponent.

"Are you alright, Anko?" he snapped, withdrawing the kunai and stepping towards her. The clone's chakra was dissipating behind him, but the real Orochimaru flitted through the trees with ease and landed on a branch roughly twenty meters away... then made another clone and sent it forward.

Meanwhile, Anko was staring at him in horror. "No... get out of here, you idiot!" she screamed. "I told you to go with the others!"

"Technically, you ordered me to help alert the other ninja. I figured I would alert any who were inside the forest," he countered, smirking.

Anko didn't look amused. If anything, her fear grew. "You think you killed him like that? He-"

"Kukuku..." the clone interrupted as it stepped forward, "what's this? Does my little Anko-chan have a student of her own?"

Anko tried to rise to her feet, but only managed to stumble forward a few steps before falling again. "Why won't you just fucking die?" she screamed in rage.

"I'm hurt," the clone taunted. "Is that really the sort of thing you should be saying in front of an impressionable boy? The things he must be learning from you! As his teacher's teacher, I feel that it's my duty to step in and... correct the deficiencies in his education."

Anko somehow made it to her feet this time, moving to place herself between Kuushou and the clone. "Get the fuck out of here," she snarled at him before turning back to the clone. "You wo-"

Whatever she was about to say was lost as the clone raised its hand and formed a seal. At the same time, the foreign chakra in Anko's system surged and her body convulsed. She dropped to the ground and began to shake uncontrollably.

"Failures should be silent when the teacher is speaking," the clone said calmly, walking forward. "I've heard a great deal about you, Naruto Yamanaka, visitor from another reality. Tell me, how is this Konoha treating you, hmm?"

Kuushou raised an eyebrow curiously, wondering where the man was going with this. He also noted that Anko, while in pain and struggling to counteract whatever Orochimaru was doing to her, wasn't suffering any physical damage from the experience that he could detect.

"What must it be like, to constantly endure the reminders of how things used to be, to see the faces that you know but that don't know you? Friends who have become strangers, a sister who can no longer stand your presence, a father and mother who know nothing about you?"

Ah, so that's what he was after; the man was actually trying to recruit him! This should be an interesting experience, being on the other side of such a conversation.

Anko coughed something, clawing at the dirt feebly as she tried to move. Her eyes were focused on him, her expression fearful and pleading, and she kept mouthing the word "Run."

Kuushou met her gaze for a moment, then walked forward and stepped past her.

"Quite terrible," he replied honestly. "I used to be respected, did you know that?"

"Oh, do tell," the clone said, a smile growing on his face. Anko let out a choked scream from behind him.

"Yes. It used to be that I was the one everyone looked up to, the one everyone desired to emulate. I was smarter, faster, stronger, better... and everyone knew it. Ever since I got here, it's just been one insult after another as I have to constantly prove myself again and again."

The clone made some agreeing noises, and the real one shifted closer, moving from one tree to another as he did so. "I can sympathize," the clone said smoothly as it nodded knowingly. "It is always the greatest who are the subject of envy and jealousy. Lesser ninja seek to pull us down, deny us what should rightfully be ours."

"You do understand," Kuushou said. Behind him, Anko made a strangled whimper and began clawing at the dirt even more fiercely, and the real Orochimaru shifted closer again, close enough now to observe the conversation directly. Kuushou took another step forward. "I've heard of you, you know. They called you a monster and a traitor, a madman who experimented on his fellow ninja and innocent civilians."

"Yes... I have heard what they say about me," the clone replied, sounding saddened. "I'm afraid that my techniques and skills were too far ahead of my peers for them to properly understand my work. My methods have also been... exaggerated over time."

Kuushou nodded again. "I've had extensive medical training myself," he noted, "and many of the techniques I was taught would no doubt seem barbaric to the uninitiated. And, without experimentation, how could we possibly improve our techniques?"

The clone's grin widened. "Precisely!" It seemed to think to itself for a moment, one finger tapping its chin, then it nodded. "You know, someone like you is really wasted in this sort of place. A talent such as yours would really... flourish in a more, shall we say, flexible environment?"

"You may have a point," Kuushou replied, taking another step closer.

"It just so happens that I could provide such an environment. I am not without means, and I could always use someone of your particular talents in my work."

Kuushou nodded, a small smile on his face. "That does sound tempting..." he said, trailing off, "but there's a small complication," he finished, sighing in disappointment.

"Oh? And what would that be?" the clone asked curiously.

"Well, it's nothing major, but..." Kuushou said, leaning forward. The clone matched his movement, and Kuushou met its eyes with a rueful grin on his face.

The clearing erupted into a firestorm without any warning, obliterating the clone and catching the original as well. Fire and wind swirled together, spreading rapidly as they ignited the dry leaves, the sticks, the trees, the grass, the very air. Orochimaru dropped underground the next moment, but found no escape there as the dirt and stone suddenly compressed, trying to crush his form into paste even as water flowed over him, turning into acid as it tried to burn his flesh and seep through his skin to strike at his insides. Spikes lanced toward him from all directions, seeking to impale him and tear him asunder. The stone erupted outwards as he burst from the ground, only to find the fires turning in midair to surround him, the blaze pressing from all sides as lightning bolts flashed through the air.

For one brief moment Kuushou thought he had actually succeeded – he could feel the flames burning through the man's skin, the stone striking bone as it tore through his body, the lightning cauterizing his flesh as it burned through him – then he was gone, some unknown technique removing him from the conflagration to nearly a kilometer away. His signal fluctuated wildly for several seconds, then he was moving, retreating rapidly. And another clone stayed behind, high in the trees.

A thought snuffed out the fires, leaving the smoldering grass and the charred and twisted landscape behind. Only a small area was left unscathed, and Anko lay within it, her eyes bulging as she took in the destruction and Kuushou's unmarked form.

"... I'd rather just kill you," Kuushou finished to himself, his eyes narrowed as his gaze tracked the man's progress. That had been his best shot short of manifesting his youki, and he wasn't entirely certain he'd even seriously wounded Orochimaru – the man certainly didn't seem hindered if his speed was any indication. He knew some of those attacks had landed, but there was no evidence of that now.

"Kukuku..." the clone said as it appeared, standing on a branch high above them. "I had thought my own dear teacher had arrived with some of his minions to interrupt our little chat, but here I find that it was only you. How very... interesting."

The clone dropped from the tree, landed on the ground with barely a whisper of sound and then began walking forward slowly, a smirk on its face. "I had considered my work done with my little present to Sasuke-kun, but you... you are quite the prize yourself, aren't you? Perhaps my failure of an apprentice has some use after all, serving to bring you to my attention.

"Who knows," the clone continued, spreading its arm wide, "I may find it in my heart to accept you even after your deplorable lapse in judgment. Still, if you want to stick with the failure and the fools of this village..." the clone trailed off for a moment as it leveled its killing intent on him, "I can always get what I want as I dissect you piece by piece."

The clone let out another evil laugh even as it collapsed into dirt.

Kuushou stared at the remains of the clone for a few seconds, his eyes narrowed, then moved to help Anko back to her feet. She took his hand, her body still shaking from the aftereffects of whatever Orochimaru had been doing to her, then he suddenly felt himself flipping through the air. He landed on his back, Anko straddling his chest a moment later with a kunai in each hand pressed against the sides of his neck.

"What was that?" Her face twisted with fury as she leaned closer, the kunai breaking his skin and releasing small rivulets of blood as she increased the pressure. "Why were you listening to that bastard?" she snarled, her eyes glinting with madness and rage.

"So I could get close enough to kill him," he replied calmly, looking into her eyes without hesitation or fear.

Her face twisted again, her hands shaking and making more small cuts along his throat. None were deep enough to be truly serious, but his skin was starting to get rather bloody.

"I told you to run!" she screamed.

"And leave you to die? I refuse."

"Don't you-" she started to scream, her face twisting again. Her hands were shaking badly now, but she had moved the kunai away. "Don't," she repeated, her voice faltering as tears started to well from her eyes. "Don't you dare do something like that again," she finally gasped out.

With that, the dam broke, great heaving sobs racking her form as she collapsed on top of him.

Well. He hadn't expected this to happen, but then Anko had never said a word about Orochimaru, or her cursed seal, or any of this. Given how Orochimaru had talked about her as his student and a "failure," some of her offhand comments about not getting along with the Council and other little things now made a lot more sense. He wondered if she'd ever actually talked about any of this, with anyone – given how thoroughly she had avoided the topic or anything remotely related to it before, he suspected not.

Thinking back on it, she hadn't been properly in control of herself since they found those bodies outside the Forest of Death. He never would have expected Anko to sacrifice herself to kill anyone – she'd always struck him as the vengeful type, true, but also as a survivor. He'd also known she saw him as a friend, but she'd never actually said it outright; the only fondness she'd ever openly expressed was for dango.

Things would be different once she'd calmed down, he knew – assuming she didn't immediately try to kill him for witnessing her breakdown.

Depending on how different, he might just need to reevaluate some of his earlier assumptions regarding her potential.

Some time later, Anko had recovered enough to get her emotions under control and let him off the ground. They had moved a short distance from the destroyed section of the forest and were now seated against the trunk of a large tree, Anko staring into the distance as her mind wandered.

"What was that, at the end?" she asked quietly. "For a moment I thought a squad of ANBU had decided to unleash hell on Orochimaru, not caring whether or not we got caught up in it. Wouldn't have blamed them if they did," she added, frowning.

Kuushou turned to stare at her, and after a few seconds of silence she tilted her head to meet his gaze. "That was a technique I have told no one about, shown to no one," he said earnestly. "I thought it would be enough to catch him... it may have been, if the one we were talking to hadn't turned out to be a clone." He snorted. "All of them were clones, it seems."

Anko scowled, one hand clenching into a fist unconsciously. "That's one thing about that bastard... you almost never see the real him. I thought I was good enough to tell the clones from the real one, but..."

"Still, it was enough to scare him off at least. I almost thought he was going to kill us both after he survived my attack, but he just left. Well, after the grand promises and menacing threats, of course."

Anko shook her head, fixing him with a serious gaze. "You should have run when I told you to. He wasn't going to kill me; he gets too much amusement out of leaving me alive to suffer," she admitted, her voice and expression filled with loathing. "He might have withdrawn this time since you managed to surprise him, but he already knew more information about you than he should have. Now he'll be coming for you specifically. All you did was waste a trump card and bring more danger down on yourself."

"He already knew about me," Kuushou countered. "He was likely going to come for me sooner or later anyway, and at least this way I know about it. I'm much more interested in what he did to you... if that cursed seal is so dangerous, why hasn't it been locked away?"

"I didn't know he could do that," Anko muttered. "As for why I still have it, no one could figure out how to remove it. As long as I left it alone, it never did anything more than ache on occasion. I thought it was ultimately nothing more than an unwelcome tattoo."

Kuushou stared at her, an idea rapidly taking root.

"What?" she asked.

"Can I examine it?"

She drew back slightly, one hand coming up to cover the mark. "Why?" she asked uncomfortably.

"Because it's obviously a lot more than you thought, and I honestly don't know what to make of that."

She stiffened. "What do you mean?"

"It's just a thought at the moment, but if I can examine it, I might be able to say for sure."

She stared at him for nearly a minute, her face carefully blank and betraying nothing of what she was thinking. Then, slowly, she drew hand away and turned to give him a clearer view.

Kuushou moved until he was kneeling beside her, one hand framing the mark while the other was poised above it. The Cursed Seal of Heaven, as Orochimaru had named it, really did resemble a tattoo at first glance – the seal consisted of three tomoe, the narrow ends all facing outward giving it a vaguely spiraling shape. It was the color that gave it away, though. The tomoe were pitch black, the color not faded at all with the passage of time.

He lowered his hand, pressing gently against the seal. He could feel Anko stiffening beside him, but she made no protest. It took several minutes before he could coax a reaction from the seal, but eventually a dark, densely packed circle of script appeared around the tomoe.

He pulled several scrolls out of his pack, quickly writing out a decompression tag which he applied to the cursed seal in sections. What appeared on the scrolls was densely packed and complex, but it was, unlike the seal on her skin, legible.

"What are you doing?" Anko asked quietly, the first words she had spoken since he started working.

"Creating a copy of the seal that I can examine in more detail later."

"What about what you said earlier? About not knowing what to make of it?"

Kuushou nodded, allowing the seal to revert back to its normal state and putting away the scrolls. He settled back against the tree even as Anko pulled up the collar of her coat and tugged it more tightly around her frame.

"Did they say why they didn't place any sort of barrier or restriction around the cursed seal?"

Anko looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook her head. "I can't remember it ever coming up... but until the bastard showed back up it hasn't been a problem."

"Hasn't it? You just said that it ached on occasion."

"Well, yeah, but after the first few times where there wasn't any difference I stopped worrying about it."

"What did they tell you about the pain?"

"That it wasn't causing any physical damage they could detect, and to let them know if it got any worse. It never did, though."

Kuushou sighed quietly, shaking his head.

"What?" Anko growled, some of her normal attitude returning as she grew irritated.

"In less than ten minutes I can already tell you that the Cursed Seal of Heaven is very complex, both in design and function. I can also tell you based on the overall design that there are several basic techniques that could be applied to limit its functioning and ability to influence your system."

"Good." She nodded firmly. "I want all of them."

"I can do that," Kuushou agreed, "whenever you like. But," he said quickly, seeing that Anko was no doubt about to ask that he do it immediately, "that wasn't my point."

"Then what was your point, Blondie?"

"Suppose you received a package – just a normal, harmless looking box addressed to you – and you found out it was from Orochimaru, what would you do?"

"Burn it."

"Suppose you couldn't. Suppose you couldn't damage the box itself for some reason, or even open it yourself."

"Lock it up in the deepest, darkest hole I could find. Where are you going with this, Blondie?"

"Suppose you wanted to find out what was in the package."

Anko frowned. "I can't break it and I can't open it, so I'd just have to watch and wa-"

Kuushou watched the horror flitting across her face. "Did you ever ask them to remove it?"

"Of course I did! But... they said they didn't know how, couldn't do it without possibly killing me."

"And they never offered to seal it off? Not even Jiraiya-sama?"

Anko slowly shook her head. "Not that I remember, no. But, maybe they tried while I was still out of it, and failed."

"What has Jiraiya-sama said about it?"

"He... I...," Anko seemed to be getting more and more agitated. "I've never talked with him directly about it."

Kuushou remained silent for several seconds, a deep frown on his face. Then, slowly, he asked, "Did Jiraiya-sama look at it at all?"

"He... maybe? I was in and out of it when I first got back, he could have done it then. He must have."

"But nothing since then? No follow ups about the seal itself, rather than its effects on you? With anyone?"

Anko shook her head. "I talked to some med-nin about the pain, and they did a bunch of tests, but... they said as long as I didn't mess with it myself, everything would be fine! It was fine!" She was on her feet now, pacing back and forth and making sharp motions as she talked.

Kuushou shrugged and spread his hands. "Like I said, I don't quite know what to make of that. It just seems odd that they didn't take any precautions. You could have died today because there was nothing stopping Orochimaru from doing whatever he wanted with your cursed seal."

"But, there was no way they could have known! I'm the only person we know of who even survived getting this fucking thing!"

Kuushou cocked his head to the side and nodded slowly. "Perhaps it's as you say. Still, even if I'm not a seal master like Jiraiya-sama, there are some things I can do to make the cursed seal safer for you." He paused then, his eyes narrowing. "The only one who survived? Didn't Orochimaru say he gave one of those to Sasuke earlier?"

Anko latched onto that distraction, leading him through the Forest towards the area where Team Kakashi was likely to be. It took her another thirty minutes of searching before she found them – they had holed up in a small hollow under the giant trees that populated the Forest of Death.

"We can't actually interfere," Anko said quietly as they watched Sakura and her other teammate, Kensuke, arguing quietly as they set up a thick series of traps.

"I believe we aren't supposed to be in here at all," Kuushou pointed out. "That didn't stop you earlier."

Anko shot him a dirty look, but didn't respond to his comment. "He must still be alive," she said instead, "otherwise they would be trying to leave the forest. Can't pass with a dead teammate."

"I would like to examine him," Kuushou said. "A chance to observe the seal newly applied or, even better, as it is taking root could prove invaluable to neutralizing or even removing it."

Anko's head whipped around, her eyes wide. "You can-" she started to shout before she cut herself off. She drew in a deep breath, then continued much more quietly, "You think you can remove it?" It was impossible to miss the desperate hope in her voice.

"I don't know nearly as much about seals as Jiraiya-sama, certainly, but I'm not completely ignorant and I am fairly certain I know more about medical jutsu than he does. From what I saw earlier, there must be a physical component to the seal. I plan to approach the problem from that angle."

There was also the option to utilize his youki, but that could end up doing more damage than the cursed seal itself.

Anko swallowed thickly, then tore her eyes away to stare down at the scene below. "What about his teammates? Do you think you can keep them from talking about our interference?"

Kuushou smiled darkly. "Sakura, absolutely. The other kid, probably. But it seems much simpler if we just incapacitate them before they see us at all."

Anko smirked, nodding to him. "That'll work."

The traps – fairly skilled for genin work – were easily evaded, and two quick blows had both Sakura and Kensuke unconscious before they even had a chance to react. They moved them inside the hollow and placed them against the walls, then Anko took up a lookout position, splitting her attention between him and their surroundings.

Kuushou knelt next to Sasuke, noting that he could easily feel the foreign chakra flowing within Sasuke's system. It was far from dormant, which meant that it was still trying to perform its work.


He started with a basic diagnostic jutsu, trying to get a read on Sasuke's physical state. The moment he did so, however, the foreign chakra reacted violently, lashing out and attempting to expel his own chakra. No, not just expel... expel and infect. He drew his hand back, noting the darkening flesh and burning sensation as the chakra attacked him. He heard Anko draw in a sharp breath, but he was more focused on what was happening inside his body.

The foreign chakra – Orochimaru's, though the signature was somewhat different from what he had felt from the man himself – was traveling along his chakra network, attempting to take root in his tenketsu and attacking the rest of his body from there. It was paralyzing his muscles and destroying his flesh; necrosis was already starting to set in, and he had no doubt if he let it continue unabated it would destroy the rest of his body with equal facility.

He allowed it to spread nearly up to his elbow before he was satisfied he knew how it worked; once he was, he pushed back with his youki. The foreign chakra tried to infect that as well, but failed miserably, and instead it was in turn consumed and destroyed.

Then the foreign chakra pulled back, and Kuushou knew he was dealing with something entirely different from what he had first thought.

The foreign chakra stopped moving entirely, almost as if it was thinking. Rather than allow it to regroup, he flooded his arm with youki, repairing the damage and flushing the foreign chakra out of his system entirely. It struggled as he did so, pulling itself together into a dense ball, but that just made his job easier as he surrounded it and crushed it.

"-ammit Naruto, don't you fucking do this to me!" he heard, and he realized that Anko was shaking him back and forth, her voice tense and worried.

"My apologies," he said, turning to look at her. "The cursed seal has a defense mechanism of sorts that I had to deal with. Everything is fine."

"Don't fuck with me," she snapped. "Your arm is-" she cut off abruptly, noting that his arm was healed and that no sign of the damage remained.

"Med-nin, remember?" he pointed out, smirking.

She stared at his arm for a moment, then glared at him. "Once we get out of here, you and I are going to have a long conversation about just what it is you can do."

Kuushou nodded; she had seen too much to just wave it away at this point. "In the meantime, let's see what else Sasuke here can tell me."

He reached out his hand again, but Anko jerked him back. "Like hell you will," she snapped, causing him to frown in annoyance.

"Whatever it tried to do failed already, and I now know how to stop it from happening in the first place. I've also discovered some vital information that will be invaluable in dealing with the cursed seal."

Her eyes narrowed. "Like what?"

He paused, then shook his head. His theory as to why the chakra behaved like it did made sense to him, but Anko's likely reaction would be... extreme, especially she had a cursed seal of her own that in all likelihood worked the same way. "I'll explain later. Every moment we waste is more information lost."

Anko looked torn, but finally stepped back. "Fine."

Kuushou nodded and resumed his examination of Sasuke. This time when the chakra tried to infect him, he pushed it towards a mass of youki he kept in his hand, not allowing it a chance to react or retreat. This proved sufficient, as it had no time to damage his body and the rest of the chakra in Sasuke's body did not react.

With that problem resolved, he focused on what the cursed seal was doing to Sasuke. There were trace amounts of Orochimaru's chakra throughout Sasuke's system, but the concentration was miniscule everywhere he scanned. Finding no answers there, he moved to examine the area directly around the seal, and there he found plenty of changes.

The seal was attempting to force itself into his chakra network, and not just by means of injecting chakra. It was already halfway done with dissolving one of Sasuke's major tenketsu and rerouting the chakra network to feed into and out of the seal itself. Chakra – both Sasuke's and Orochimaru's – was leaking out into Sasuke's body in the meantime, and he could see where the surrounding flesh was being poisoned and damaged by the conflicting chakras and fluctuating concentrations. The entire process was putting a massive strain on Sasuke's system – his heart rate was extremely high, as was his blood pressure. Given the physical damage the seal was causing, it wouldn't surprise him if most of those who had died did so from ruptured arteries or heart attacks.

He went ahead and healed the damage that had already accrued in Sasuke's shoulder and neck. He also short-circuited the seal's efforts, creating two new tenketsu and splitting the connections to Sasuke's network while healing his original tenketsu. The end result was that the seal was connected to the network as it had been trying to do, but not by replacing the tenketsu as originally intended. Sasuke's chakra was flowing through both his own tenketsu and the seal in equal measure, and the seal could be cut out of the loop at any time.

He stopped there, noting that Sasuke was already noticeably improving and that the seal was going dormant. Satisfied with his work, he stood and moved to the entrance of the hollow to stand next to Anko.

"I've got what I need," he said quietly, "and Sasuke will survive, especially after I helped him out."

"Alright, let's get out of here." She moved over to Sakura, pulling out a senbon and scratching her arm. With a quick motion, they both left the hollow, though not before he heard Sakura jerk awake with a startled yelp.

They met up with a group of ANBU outside of the forest, Anko reporting that she had encountered Orochimaru personally. He was somewhat surprised when she excluded his involvement in the confrontation from her report completely, instead claiming that he had found her after Orochimaru left.

After that, Anko left to report to the Hokage directly while he, as someone who hadn't been in contact with Orochimaru, was directed to resume his duties. Of course, since his duties for the duration of the second phase had been to act as Anko's personal assistant, that really meant that it was time for him to return home.

He immediately began studying and dissecting the seal once he had returned to his apartment, and was still doing so when Anko approached a few hours later.

"Alright, Blondie," she said once he had let her in and closed – and sealed – the door behind her, "start talking."

A/N: Major thanks to the folks at the spacebattles forums for providing feedback on this chapter.

We're starting to move further and further away from canon now, and there are certain events coming up that are going to derail things completely, though hopefully in ways that aren't completely obvious.

Next chapter will be the convo between Anko and Kuushou and some scenes to establish what's been going on in the background while Kuushou's been busy. Hopefully I'll make it to the finals, though that will depend on how much space those scenes take up.

FF dot net is being really bitchy about line breaks for some reason. If you notice any of them missing, please let me know.

As always, thanks for reading and thanks for all the reviews!