Synchronicity

A Mad Tea Party

Snakes and bones

In the back of your room

.

charm the wolves

with the eyes of a gambler

.

"N—Naruto?" Sakura whispered, from where she lay crumpled on the ground.

The blonde didn't acknowledge her, focused intensely on the man in front of him. Her thoughts raced, too fast for her to catch up to. Perhaps most noticeably, he'd divested himself of his orange jumpsuit in exchange for a sharp, impenetrable black uniform. His expression turned grave and resolute, features set decisively into a frown. He looked nothing like the Naruto she remembered—existing in her memory as a bright, buoyant character in a splintered moment in time.

But nothing in the character before her struck her as familiar; he had wide, furious blue eyes, and an unwavering and indomitable composure. Nothing spoke overtly of the blonde she used to know; everything she remembered lost within the quiet repose before her.

Orochimaru tilted his head, giving him a quick, appeased, once over. "You're not what I expected," He regarded, rapping his fingers against the hilt of his sword.

Naruto narrowed his eyes, studying the Sannin in turn. He privately admitted to himself that it might have been slightly remiss of him to barge in here with no back up—but in his defense he hadn't expected Team Seven's opposition to be one of the three legendary warriors of Konoha. And he'd be damned if he let this guy walk over him to his team.

He took a step around the snake; a slow and patient circle around his opponent. The gesture came naturally to him, something he'd seen his Captain do time and again when engaged in a one on one.

"Something tells me that a Jounin, missing-nin of Konoha isn't supposed to be in the Chuunin Exams, much less in Konohagakure in general," And then, bluntly, "Why are you here?"

It was no great surprise that the Sannin didn't answer him, giving nothing away, slowly running his tongue against his bottom lip. The gesture was… unnerving.

Naruto scowled, unmoving for but a moment—then he struck for the kill.

He was no great master with the sword, however, and it was with significant difficulty that he fended the snake off. He held his own, though, even when it became clear that Orochimaru had stopped playing around, attacking him in earnest. Blades struck, darted away and then struck again. Naruto matched him strike for strike, throwing in a couple well-timed kicks that connected solidly. It appeared Orochimaru was not all that accustomed to fighting against ingenuity—fortunately, that was practically Naruto's best and only skill.

Orochimaru snarled, wiping blood off his cheek from where Naruto had gotten a good hit to his nose. In retaliation the Sannin came at him faster than he thought he would, diving towards him and catching the blonde in surprise. He ducked under Naruto's guard and drove his sword underneath the blonde's, sending it sailing into the air. It lodged itself into the trunk of a large pine some ways up, and Naruto cursed as he launched himself after it. Orochimaru followed, and Naruto pivoted in mid-air to parry his strike, as the two barreled into a match of taijutsu.

The blonde landed a left hook to his face, and they sprung apart, dropping onto opposite trees, heaving loudly. Naruto grabbed for his sword, as Orochimaru climbed to his feet, horizontal on the surface of the tree, brushing his hair out of his face as he caught his breath.

His attention turned to Sasuke, swiveling his head to fix his interest on the young Uchiha.

All the hairs on the back of his neck rose at the look, and the grip on his kunai tightened furiously.

This is bad… The Uchiha thought, as he looked at his teammates and ex-teammate. Sai lay some distance away, unmoving; Sakura was opposite of him, struggling into a defensive position; Naruto had dislodged his sword, and dropped out of the canopy to Sasuke's side. He didn't know where the blonde had been for the past few weeks, or how he managed to change into this person Sasuke felt he'd never seen before, but he doubted that whatever he had learned, and wherever he'd gone, that it'd be enough to match the monster in front of them.

Sasuke stood, holding out the scroll. "Take the scroll." He tried as hard as possible to keep his voice level. "Just… take it and leave us."

Sakrua's breath hitched audibly.

Naruto's eyes widened.

"Sasuke, what the hell are you talking about?" He rounded on him, incredulous. "Why would you give the scroll to the enemy?" They'd worked hard for it—the exams had not been kind to the team who hadn't that the chemistry from years of working together. Not to mention, finding another would be impossible this late in the exams. To forfeit…

"I see…" Orochimaru tutted. "Very smart of you Sasuke-kun. The only way for prey to escape a predator is to give the predator a different meal."

But Naruto had worked around high profile criminals long enough to know the game Orochimaru was playing. He wasn't the kind of predator to be distracted with a scroll for an exam he didn't need to pass—he was the kind who had one prey in mind, and wouldn't stop until he had it. And something told Naruto that the scroll wasn't what he was after—but then why bother? Why was he in the exams at all? Who bother Team Seven at all? If he truly wanted to, Naruto was sure he could have found a less obtrusive way of killing them off.

Unless, that wasn't his intention at all.

But then what did he—

Orochimaru lunged for the Uchiha—Naruto intercepted, propelling them both into the bramble. In his absence a Naruto clone dropped into existence, turning livid eyes toward Sasuke.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" He hissed, stalking forward. In the interim, the real Naruto flew out of the trees, soaring through the clearing. Orochimaru was quick to follow. The clash of swords began anew. The clone descended upon the Uchiha with an uncanny fury. "Do you even understand the situation?"

"Do you?" Sasuke reputed, equally as angry.

Naruto snatched the scroll out of his limp hands, throwing it violently into the trees, where it disappeared from sight. Sasuke sputtered. Naruto turned back to him. "You'd forfeit the Exams?" He accused. "Your dream? How are you supposed to get stronger if you can't even pass this exam, huh?"

"That's not…" His face clotted red, incensed.

"But isn't it?" Naruto challenged.

"Don't let him get in your head, Sasuke!" The ANBU began anew. "What guarantee is there that he'll even let you leave if you give it to him?"

He looked successfully cowed at his words. Naruto would be a little more enthusiastic that he'd finally gotten the Uchiha to listen to him—for once—had they not been sort of fighting for their lives.

Before the Uchiha could reply, the Naruto in front of him erupted in a cloud of smoke. The real Naruto skidded to a halt in the middle of the clearing, Orochimaru sprang after him; Naruto caught his strike with the flat side of his blade, using the Sannin's momentum to toss him off. He wiped hastily at his mouth, leaping back to gain some distance between himself and the sadistic missing-nin.

Orochimaru stood to his full height, head lolling slowly on his shoulders until the hair slid out of his eyes. He lowered his guard. "He is correct, Sasuke-kun…" He purred.

"Since I can…" He drew one hand to his mouth, and in the next moment bit through his thumb. "Simply kill you and take it."

His hands flash through handsigns; an explosion of smoke exploded into the clearing.

Sasuke's eyes widened as he watched the large berth of a monstrous head part the sea of clouds, two sets of bright yellow eyes staring down upon him. One from the enormous snake, and one from the Sannin. He staggered back, unable to train his gaze away from the beast slowly uncoiling off the ground. It was massive; it dwarfed everything in the clearing, and when it leveled itself to its full height it could almost touch the tops of the trees.

Orochimaru smiled upon them, indulgent and beatific. "Go ahead and eat, my dear," He crooned. The snake veered its head towards Naruto, who was still climbing to his feet.

He doesn't even have time to shout a warning at the blonde before it struck.

The dust clears; the forest is devoid of noise, the birds and small life have fled in the duration of the battle; his teammates are unmoving figures flung onto the far sides of the clearing; what little light is diffused into an indeterminable, archaic gold with the upturned forest flooring—

And he couldn't see Naruto.

He jumped to a branch some ways up, steadying himself with a hand to the trunk as he searched hysterically for the blonde on the ground. There was nothing.

He can't be… Sasuke thought, numb.

It couldn't be.

Naruto couldn't just… die. Gone. Just like that.

All at once he felt sick to his stomach, incapable of breathing. The tremendous length of the snake shifted in the retrograde light, scales smooth and shimmering, the color of coal; spitting noises incomprehensibly loud in the death-quiet of the forest. He suddenly couldn't stand the sight of it.

"Naruto…" He choked out.

"Ah, pity," Orochimaru digressed, shaking his head. "Such wasted talent."

He returned his attention once more to his prize.

"But you, Sasuke-kun," He began, demure. "You could be great. You have potential; don't you see? And I am more than capable of directing it towards a greater purpose…"

He jumped up to the boy, frozen in the trees.

"We could be great, Sasuke-kun," He smiled, again; it was a rather alarming sight. "Sasuke-kun, we can—

The snake shook, suddenly. It's scales rippled as it began to quake violently.

A moment—

And then the middle erupted in a volcanic explosion.

The snake shuddered apart, ripped wide open as Naruto cleaved his way inside out. The scales flayed away as if burned by the air itself, an electric, corrosive chakra that boiled blood red oozed down the side in his wake, steaming against the ground. He launched himself in the air, surging towards the Sannin.

He caught the missing-nin unawares—Orochimaru had little time to throw his guard up, and Naruto carved into him from hip to shoulder. The Sannin plummeted to the ground, and Naruto stuck himself onto a nearby tree.

"That fucker tried to eat me!" The blonde yelled, hysterical, peeling away at the intestinal fluids sticking to his arms.

Below them, Orochimaru lay unmoving.

"Ugh, holy shit, holy shit, holy shit." Naruto cursed, wiping at his mouth, heart beating furiously in his chest. He could have died in there. If Kyuubi hadn't… ugh… that was a fate too horrible to even contemplate right now.

He shook out his hair futilely, attempting to regain his composure. This was no time to start lamenting life and death; not when he was walking the tight rope between the two in that very moment. He had to find a way to get a message to his team… and where the hell was Yugao? He didn't have any delusions that he was that good at evasive maneuvering, there was no way he could have thrown her off his trail so successfully.

Could he send a bunshin? Maybe while Orochimaru was recover—

His eyes snapped open.

"Sasuke!—

Two snake summons. It had completely escaped his notice. The corpse on the ground, and its thinner, more agile counterpart. He hadn't even realized Orochimaru had summoned two—too caught up in trying to battle his way out of the stomach of the other one. It reared back, and he could see its glowing yellow eyes fixated wholly on the Uchiha up in the trees, frozen in fright.

There was no time.

He threw himself into its trajectory.

Sasuke, startled, crouched into a defensive position as, if possible, his eyes grew even more surprised.

The snake was towering, impossibly so. Its face surely must have spanned the large branch Sasuke stood upon, eyes larger than his whole length and body so tall that he couldn't see the bottom past the shadowed ground. As it loomed in front of him, ready to strike, his mind raced as to how he could possibly defeat such a monstrous creature. He couldn't. He wouldn't even have time to jump out of the way.

There was nothing left but silence.

Was this death? So quick, so painless; it was as if not even a moment had gone by, but perhaps an eternity or two had passed in the interim. Nothing but an intense, deep silence. And the barest of cracking wood beneath his feet, as the tree groaned with fervor as pressure collided with it. The maw of the snake hung wide in front of him, a dark abyss trailing down from between narrow, razor-sharp fangs. Between the nostrils a thin blade split its face in two, it's gleaming eyes unfocused, and beneath it, framed in the dark gullet, a familiar figure.

The blond, his dobe, the academy drop out who's uselessness was only rivaled by Sakura, with a penchant for saying dumb things and whocouldn't even make a fucking Bunshin, the one who he had believed dropped out of their team because of him and his pompous attitude, the one he felt guilty for ever doubting, for antagonizing—

Silence, silence, silence, and cracked armor just above an ANBU seal—Naruto was ANBU?— and wide, unyielding red eyes, leviathan and luminous as if they could burn through his very soul.

"Are you scared,"

Their eyes met.

"Chicken?"

Two pairs of unnatural, inhuman eyes, red to red (infinity to infinity) and something was there, bubbling just beneath the surface, a world unknown, a world full of demons and sharp teeth and ravens taking to the sky, where the moon was full and (it was saying something to him)—the man with the not-Sharingan, and the demon with nine-tomoe.

But the dream slipped away from him, the besotted, gossamer veil drifted across and Sasuke blinked back into reality. The snake was dead but an elongated tongue wrapped itself around Naruto's torso and dragged him away.

"I underestimated you, little fox," Orochimaru grunted, drawing the blonde closer. The skin at his chest had peeled away, revealing a second skin below.

He twisted in his grip, but Orochimaru had anticipated the danger of allowing him too much leeway and had clasped both his hands and feet. And fuck, he couldn't get a good angle to slice through the tongue—Naruto gritted his teeth.

"I will not make such a miscalculation again…"

He felt something ominous grip him, and he found his gaze falling to Orochimaru's hand. He could almost sense the chakra growing there, and an apprehension that felt foreign crawled into his skin.

And then, loitering in the narrow channels of blood, a demon stirred to life.

Naruto stopped struggling, and Orochimaru tugged him closer, close enough to see the blonde's eyes had dropped shut as he lay motionless. Was he scared? The thought brought him great pleasure.

"It's alright, Naruto-kun," He murmured, chakra growing in his hand. "It'll only hurt for a little bit."

He plunged it to the boy's stomach.

Naruto's eyes snapped open.

He struck, catching the Sannin by the wrist and twisting in his grip to roundhouse him in the face. He howled, clutching at his temple; the tongue fell to the ground, and Kyuubi stabbed a kunai through it into the ground for good measure, before darting out of the way when the Sannin came after him. Orochimaru wrenched the blade out of the ground, furious, freeing his tongue. He did not appear particularly indulgent any longer, spitting in fury.

"Oh, now you decide to show up, eh?" Naruto bitched, though without any significant nettle to his voice.

Kyuubi sneered. "It became clear you were incapable of handling the situation yourself." Naruto thought he could hear a frisson of trepidation in there, and wondered just exactly what Orochimaru was about to do to him that had Kyuubi so alarmed.

Normally Naruto would have taken offense to this. As it were, he was not entirely sure how it could have been any more obvious. "No shit!" He retorted. "Do you have any idea who this—

"I do, in fact," Kyuubi straightened. "How very unwise of you to blunder your way into this mess."

"He was trying to kill my friends!" Naruto retorted hotly.

"No… they would have been dead long before had he been truly trying to kill them," Kyuubi murmured, thoughtful. "But perhaps that would have been the more merciful option."

Naruto turned curious at that, but Kyuubi did not elaborate, wordlessly dropping back into position.

Orochimaru met him strike for strike, throwing jutsu that Naruto had never seen before at the blonde with a relentless efficiency. No, clearly he wasn't playing around anymore. Naruto would have marveled at the sheer magnitude of jutsu in his repertoire, had he not been facing the full brunt of them. Fortunately Kyuubi had taken complete control, darting through the spray with a pragmatic agility, brisk but controlled. Unlike Naruto, Kyuubi appeared to have absolute domination over his facilities, evading through the barrage and under his guard.

Orochimaru leapt back before he could make contact, harried, tossing a genjutsu in his wake to stall the blonde. It worked for a moment or two, before the blonde awoke and caught himself in freefall, landing on his feet. The Sannin jumped;the blonde followed, indifferent expression as unyielding as his assault. Orochimaru had not expected such a worthy adversary to reveal itself in the young ANBU—or anyone out of Konoha at all. The blonde was too fast to pin down, and though he used no Jutsu he was more than capable of holding the Sannin at bay with his sword alone.

Orochimaru cursed under his breath, eyes darting towards the Uchiha, still rooted to his spot above, observing. His prize was so close, and yet infinitely far away. He turned back to the blonde, who continued without deterrent, nor legitimate zeal—every strike determined and utilitarian. That above all else was worrying; he'd heard from his spies that Naruto had always been a dramatic and emotional child. But the blonde in front of him was sharp and calculating, and if he had any sentiments that Orochimaru could use to manipulate, he could not see them.

The blonde propelled himself towards him, and he caught the wakizashi with Kusanagi, close enough to see the searing red eyes turning towards him, indomitable. Red? That was interesting. What could it mean?

But Naruto did not give him time to consider this deeply, as he watched with stilted disbelief as the blonde dropped beneath Kusanagi, letting the blade graze his shoulder before he struck at the unguarded Sannin.

Orochimaru recoiled in shock, pulling a Kawarimi to disappear onto the opposite side of the clearing.

"You impudent little brat." Orochimaru spat, false skin pooling down at his feet. His real skin was marred with one sliding gash across his collar. Not enough to cause significant damage but still cause for worry. The clinging flesh sagged on his face, and he drew a hand to tear it all off. This disguise had been useful; he had successfully evaded almost the entire examinations staff… it would be quite tedious to find more inventive ways to do so for his escape.

He stilled, attention shifting to the trees.

On the subject of escapes…

He could hear ANBU calls in the distance, and knew that the blonde's team was undoubtedly looking for their wayward comrade. He cursed once more under his breath, eyes sliding to Sasuke. He was running out of time.

Naruto lunged towards him, and he allowed the blonde to take the offensive, steering them farther and farther away from his teammates. He kept a fair distance between the two of them, unwilling to let the blonde have yet another chance to pull something unpredictable. Pity he was already so well trained; potential like this would have been a lovely prize to have indeed…

Kyuubi snarled, surging towards the Sannin when he saw an opening in his shoulder, driving his sword up to plunge it through the tendon and down to the heart.

His relish was short lived, as the man beneath him looked up, mouth dropping open, before he erupted into smoke.

Kyuubi roared, kicking the log away as he turned furiously around the clearing, searching for the Sannin.

He found him, in the trees.

Naruto felt his heart shudder to a halt.

Orochimaru had dropped his second skin, standing in the center of the clearing with the remnants of a dead woman draped across his feet, exonerated neck twisting upwards… clasped onto Sasuke's neck.

"Sasuke!"

He catapulted himself at the Sannin, but Orochimaru dropped Sasuke in favor of his retreat. Without the other man to hold him up, Sasuke plummeted out of the canopy, and Naruto had only a moment to make his decision. He leapt after the Uchiha, catching him before he could drop to the ground. Orochimaru took the opportunity to dart out of the blonde's range, establishing distance between them, chuckling heartily.

"My name is Orochimaru," He began as Naruto laid Sasuke down onto a patch of grass, the Uchiha's eyes fluttering closed as his breath turned ragged. No shit, Naruto wanted to say, but his attention as focused on finding Sauske's heartbeat, erratic as it was. "If you ever want to see me again… then survive and pass this exam…"

A tread of unease shivered down his spine at that.

Something told him those words weren't meant for him.

His laugh was haunting and hollow in the clearing, even as his body dissipated into smoke, just as the ANBU tore through the trees.

An escape, Naruto sneered. That fucker. The next time they met, he definitely wasn't going to let him get away unscathed.

Naruto turned his attention once more to his ex-teammate; breathing erratic and unsteady. He could see a mottled, ugly mark making its way to the surface of the skin on his neck, though he didn't know what it could mean. The tendons were still a furious red from where Orochimaru—Naruto made a face—bit him, tiny indents left from his teach.

He looked up. "That sucked," He opined, for lack of anything useful to say.

Yamato looked as if he would have found Naruto's indubitable lack of professionalism endearing, had he not been so concerned over the blonde's life. "I'd imagine it did," He agreed, solemn, as he made his way to the blonde.

He peered down at Sasuke. "He's alright?"

Naruto shrugged, biting his lip.

"Casualties?"

His eyes snapped open, and he looked around the clearing. The ROOT member was still unconscious, but Towa had slung him over his shoulder with no small amount of complaint. Koga was opposite, rousing Sakura.

"None," He breathed a sigh of relief. And then, threading a hand through his hair, "At least not from this attack. He said something about…"

"The other ANBU," Yamato finished, sighing. "Yes. Unfortunately, he took them by surprise."

Sakura struggled to her feet as a crowd of ANBU dropped elegantly from the trees, unrecognizable and almost inhuman with their bone-white masks. Only one was unmasked. She had removed it to hang loose upon her neck, revealing lissomness features and a livid expression. Sakura was struck by her perfect violet hair and thin, sculpted body, looking infinitely lethal with swords strapped to her back and an ANBU tattoo on her right shoulder.

This was a kunoichi, beautiful, elusive, and deadly.

"Naruto," The woman approached her teammate, holding a fox mask in her hand.

The blonde took it wordlessly, mouth open but nothing to say. His eyes watched Sasuke's prone form unwaveringly, turning back to a sky-water blue. The ANBU team immediately revived Sai, who began to cough and sputter to life once more.

"Yuago, about before, I'm sorry, that was unprofessional," The blond seemed to find his words in a hoarse whisper, eyes never leaving Sasuke. "But I—

"You did good, Naruto," The black ops praised. "That man was a wanted S-class Criminal, you were only doing your job," And, as she looked back at Sakura and the broken Team Seven. "And protecting your friends."

"Some ANBU I am," The blonde spat furiously. "Can't even protect my friends…."

"You did what you could," The purple-haired woman argued, furious herself. She should have followed him. They both should have had communication systems. Those other ANBU in the first place should have called it in, or found a way to inform the rest of the security detail. This whole thing was one giant cluster fuck of a mess.

She digressed. No point in rehashing the past; not when there was still half of the exams left to go.

"Towa," She directed. "Locate Mitarashi Anko; get her to the hospital."

She motioned towards the unconscious Uchiha, and the debatably conscious ROOT member. "Make sure these two receive medical attention. And find Hatake Kakashi—I don't care if you have to uproot him from a bathhouse, tell him to take a look at this seal."

"Yes," Towa replied, toneless, but Naruto could practically feel him rolling his eyes at Yugao's imperiousness. He almost felt rather fond at the sight; it was nice to see his ANBU team again.

The relative cheer dissipated when Yugao turned all that attention on to him. "And you," She addressed, darkly. "Don't think we won't have words. Next time, you bring me, yeah?"

"Right," He nodded, serious and somewhat cowed. And then, apologetically, "I just… I knew you were right, Yugao. Maybe I wasn't overreacting—but how were you to know? I had a feeling; that's not really something you go breaking rules for. What happens if it wasn't Orochimaru? If they'd just encountered a regular Gennin team that had more experience than they did?"

He shrugged, looking away. "It wasn't enough to go on."

"You make a fair point," She allowed, at length. "But, that said, this time it did work to your favor. Your hunch was correct. However, you do need to explain to your supervisor beforehand, and only with their command do you go running off on one of your 'feelings'. You realize how dangerous that was, right? Had that not been a missing-nin, you could have jeopardized the whole exams, and possibly Konoha's relations with other villages."

"Yeah," He agreed, voice small, slightly horrified.

She gave a single, stern nod. "Good."

Naruto could feel Sakura's unwavering gaze, silently bracing himself for the inevitable. She drew towards him hesitantly, wringing her hands in a gesture that was so very familiar to him; a nervous afterthought she always did when particularly concerned.

"Naruto, I…"

She bit her lip, suddenly unable to form proper words. It was difficult to comprehend anything at all of the situation; she'd watched him take on one of the most dangerous criminals arguably in the whole five nations, hold his own even. She couldn't relate to him any longer, nothing in him reminding her of that childish little blonde from an eternity ago.

"Are you okay, Sakura-chan?" He asked, pleasantly enough. She couldn't read anything off of his bone mask, however.

Her hand trailed up to rub slightly at her shoulder, which had turned a clotted purple. "Fine," She answered, timorous. Her eyes flew to him—he appeared mostly (miraculously) unscathed, aside from a few noticeable tears in his armor. "But are you—

He waved her off. "I'll be okay," He pointed behind her, to where his teammates had gathered up Sasuke and Sai and were heading over into the forest. "You should go with them."

She faltered.

"Sakura., He said. "I'll see you soon, okay?"

She nodded. "Right," And then pivoted, taking off into the trees.

He rubbed a wary hand through his hair, resigning himself to a long and difficult conversation with his captain. From the looks of things it seemed he did not appear to be in any mood to have a row with his team. Still, Naruto prepared himself.

"Taichou," He appealed to the man with the tiger mask. "This was all my fault."

Yugao looked at him sharply. "Naruto—

"It's true," He interrupted his teammate. "Yugao tried to stop me, but I intentionally diverted her to help my former team." And, defeated, he added, "Which is against both the rules of the Chuunin Examinations and ANBU regulations."

Yamato took this all with nothing but a slow nod, no discernible reaction as of yet. "Cat?" He drawled.

"It's as he said," She admitted, wary. "But ultimately, his foresight stands correct. I only apprehended him only on the assumption that he was acting off of obligation towards his former team. As it stands, the event itself was something against the rules of the exam and as a result Naruto was only acting as supervisor of the examination."

Yamato nodded again, folding his arms. "And what in particular was against the rules of the exam?" And then, prodding, "Kyuubi?"

Naruto startled, incredulous. He gestured broadly to the clearing, torn asunder by the events of the last half hour. "…Everything?"

Yamato chuckled slightly. "Humor me, Naruto."

"Orochimaru successfully infiltrated the examinations, killed an ANBU squad and severely injured the second proctor; apprehended a Gennin team and placed an unknown seal on Uchiha Sasuke's neck. He is still at large." He summarized.

Yamato threw him an approving look. "And that's exactly how it's going to go down in the mission report." He concluded. And then, brightly, "How do you feel about writing up the report, Naruto-kun? I think you're more than ready to take on the challenge."

If possible, his look turned even more incredulous. And slightly horrified.

.

.

.

Sakura was panting heavily as they reached the towers. Their black ops escort—Koga, if she remembered correctly—gave a signal to one of the guards at the top of the tower, and they immediately sprang from their location to inquire their comrade. The ANBU motioned to his charges and explained that they had been attacked by an infiltrated S-Class criminal and under orders of Captain Yamato of Team Shiroi the Gennin were permitted to pass the Second Round without the requirements. At the mention of one 'Captain Yamato' the Chuunin guards were immediately cowed, and allowed them entrance.

Sakura followed with some difficulty, still shaking visibly. Sasuke let out another groan of pain.

He'd gone absolutely mental some minutes ago, bellowing in pain and regaining his strength in a sudden show of force, wrestling violently out of the ANBU's grasp. That… that thing that Orochimaru had put on his neck had begun to twist ominously, crawling up his shoulders and face. The ANBU took him down without much fanfare, and he'd since hovered the fine line between completely comatose and occasional bouts of confused awareness, broken intermittently with his incoherent murmurs. It was disconcerting to see Sasuke reduced to this state; she'd never imagined someone like Sasuke as anything other than infallible. She'd thought the opposite of Naruto—but look at circumstances now…

She gathered her courage, and jogged up until she had leveled pace with the towering ANBU member.

"Excuse me," She clasped her hands tightly behind her back, "But, um, I had a question."

He gave no sign of acknowledgment, but she took this as a sign of encouragement. "Why is Naruto on your team?"

"Who?" He grunted, bored.

Equally frustrated and frightened, Sakura tried again. "The blonde."

"What about him?"

"Do you know why he's on your team?" She pressed, quickening her pace to keep up with his long strides. "When did he become a black ops?"

He turned his mask to her; its expression was marmoreal and unforgiving. "I don't think that's really any of your concern," He observed, somewhat caustically.

Sakura's reacted immediately with her first, knee-jerk defensive reaction, "It is! He's my teammate—

"Not anymore," He noted, moving onwards even when Sakura came to an abrupt halt.

Sakura paused, coming to a stand still at the apex of the enormous entranceway. The tower sprawled into darkness around her, but her gaze was unfocused. He was right. Kakashi had explained it to them; Naruto was under direct orders from the Hokage now. As typical of her sensei, the explanation was convoluted, vague, and ultimately useless. Sakura had given up in trying to get a straight answer out of the Jounin, coming up with her own conclusions. No matter how much she badgered, he'd only hold up his hands and point out that it was out of his jurisdiction, and all he could do about the blonde's absence was find a replacement. This was met with first her staunch annoyance, and then her serious concern.

Perhaps there was no reason to be concerned, however. It was clear Naruto could hold his own.

"Sakura-san?" Sai paused in his tracks, turning to her.

She shook her head. "Right. Sorry."

She caught up to their escort party.

The moment Sasuke showed signs of waking he was hauled off to Kakashi, and apparently by extension the Hokage, the entire tower abuzz with rumors. Or at least, the entire tower aside from the actual participants of the exams; most of the Gennin were too tired or too uninformed to care. Sakura and Sai had no time to enjoy the relative respite, as the moment that Sasuke had been whisked off their sickly examinator, Hayate, ushered them into a large, concave room full of the rest of the particpants.

It became clear there would be no rest for them at all, as Hayate then informed them of the rules of the third exam and the set up for the prelims. Sakura didn't actually listen to a word he said; completely incapable of pulling a coherent thought together at all. She still couldn't believe… that had been Orochimaru that they'd seen in the forest. She didn't even know the kind of bounty he had in the bingo book, but she knew it topped seven figures. God, they could have died. No, they should have died. If Naruto hadn't shown up, who knows what fate could have fallen upon her.

She sighed. How could these exams get any worse?

The answer should have been obvious.

Sasuke was spit up out of the bowels of the tower some moments later, mostly conscious but clearly in no small amount of pain. He refused to acknowledge her, much less explain what the hell happened to him. Sai wisely kept his distance. She could make out a shock of blonde hair up by the Hokage, but it was hard to say if that was Naruto or not. From this distance, it could have been anyone. That said, the blonde was noticeably the smallest figure on the podium, and standing there lined up against the burlish figures of the other black-ops it was a fair assumption to say it was her wayward teammate.

This became clear when Sasuke's name was called for the first fight of the prelims, and the figure immediately darted off into the shadows.

"Are we right to let him go?" Yugao wondered aloud, watching Naruto escape into the shadows, undoubtedly to interrogate his Sensei.

She watched him with no small amount of concern. Even Towa, an oblivious individual by definition, had recognized his grief.

Yamato watched the boy out of the corner of his eye, before sighing. Naruto was easy to read, even with his mask tightly covering his face. He was worried for his team—worried for Sasuke, and the boy's crazed obsession with power, rekindled and doubling in size and fervor with the awakening of his curse seal—worried for Sakura, who looked ready to keel over.

Yamato shrugged. "That would depend on whether you believe those kids are a beneficial influence, no?" He left the question—and the answer—in the air between them.

To be honest, she didn't know. Kids were inherently difficult and mean-spirited. Whether intentional or not she couldn't imagine that they were the most receptive group, doubly so for someone like Naruto, who came with a palpable stigma. She didn't see anything particularly noteworthy about them, Uchiha included, but perhaps she simply weighed their merit differently than he did. She scowled. She wished someone had tore her away from her own Gennin team; rotten influence, the lot of them.

It was atypical, actually, how intensely Naruto valued his Gennin team. But perhaps given the circumstances, not particularly surprising. After all, for the majority of his life he had no acquaintances to speak of his own age, involuntarily living through a solitary upbringing.

She tensed, watching an illicit black mark pulse against the Uchiha's neck.

"Hokage-sama?" She inquired. "Should we detain him?"

The Sandaime waved her off. "It hasn't taken over him yet." He remarked. "I'd like to see this play out."

She nodded. "Yes."

Naruto emerged from the shadows behind his Sensei.

He flipped a page. "That's impressive, Naruto. You almost got the jump on me." He appraised, mild and in complete and utter over-exaggeration. Since joining ANBU Naruto had heard stories about his former Sensei; he'd spent most of his time as a Gennin attempting to wrangle information about his Sensei and the moment he'd stepped into the black-ops HQ the stories about him were wild, rampant, and completely prolific. He doubted there was anyone who could truly get the drop on Hatake Kakashi. "You appear to be getting quite the handle on ANBU."

He wasn't quite feeling up to the praise, though. "Because I'm not completely incapable of silence? Thanks." He replied, devoid of any real heat.

"No, really." Kakashi turned slightly, snapping his book with something approaching finality. "The seal on Sasuke's neck was not fully integrated into his system."

Naruto blinked. "Huh?"

"Orochimaru didn't have enough time to merge his seal into Sasuke's chakra, is what I'm saying. Hopefully, as incomplete as it is, we'll be able to reverse it."

Some of the stiffness in his frame fell with the words. "Oh. Shit, okay. That's good, right?"

"Yes, yes it is," Kakashi returned, amused. "Like I said; good job."

Naruto bit his lip, shaking his head. "Kakashi-sensei… you weren't there. You didn't see how close we all were to…"

He swallowed, looking away. He didn't see how Kyuubi had taken over. He didn't see how close to dying Naruto was if Kyuubi hadn't.

A swell in the crowd; the bellow of noise rose, and then collapsed into vague murmurs of disappointment. Naruto pushed his way to the front, where Sasuke and a Gennin he'd never seen before were duking it out center stage. The seal looked wild and erratic, and Naruto thought that he could feel the chakra, untamed and violent as it was. His head snapped to the Hokage's seat, where the impassive ANBU masks watched the match without expression. He knew that once the Hokage gave the signal, Sasuke's dreams of promotion would be crushed. He cursed. Even when they'd made it all this way…

Don't make me do this… He pleaded silently.

But just as quickly as it had arisen, Sasuke crushed it backwards, ending his match with a rather impressive display of Taijutsu—shamelessly stolen from Gai, Kakashi muttered by his side, amused and impressed nonetheless. Sasuke skidded limply across the flooring, and in the next moment the Jounin by his side had flickered down in the clearing, catching the Uchiha with his knee.

Kakashi hoisted the Uchiha over his shoulder, tossing a vague salute to the Chuunin proctor before he flickered back to Naruto's side.

A deafening roar of applause took to the air, and from the din he heard two other Gennin called down for the next match. Kakashi pushed past him, making for the opposite corridor.

"Sensei—?" He started, but the words fell apart in his mouth when Kakashi looked over his shoulder towards him, motioning for silence.

Naruto's brows furrowed, confused for a moment until he recalled Yugao's words in the forest. Something about asking Kakashi to take a look at the seal… his eyes widened. A sudden thought came to him then, and he shot off after the silver-haired Jounin.

"Kakashi-sensei," He whispered, slightly alarmed. "Listen, about what you said about Sasuke's seal…"

"Hm?"

"It's incomplete?"

"Yes."

"So Orochimaru is going to come back to finish the job," Not particularly a question.

Kakashi nodded again. He tilted his head to the shadows, and through the darkness Naruto could make out the glimmer of bone white masks. Ah. A trap, then.

Naruto readied himself for a fight, keeping pace with Kakashi. He turned his attention outwards, surveying the area for the chakra he'd felt in the forest. He thought he could smell snakes—but they were in the forest of death, it was fair to say that a lot of snakes lived in the surrounding areas. He tried to recall the way the scent had been when he stood close to Orochimaru, so much more overpowering than just a forest full of reptiles. Naruto scowled. He'd ripped apart Orochimaru's original disguise; who knew what he'd look like now.

A few moments and half an unsealing process later, and Naruto wasn't entirely sure what the trap was.

Orochimaru lifted himself out of the shadows, and though neither Kakashi nor Naruto were entirely surprised to see him, nothing happened when the missing-nin revealed himself.

"Long time no see, Kakashi-kun.,." He greeted.

"Not long enough, unfortunately," Kakashi returned with unnecessary cheer.

"And young Naruto-kun," Orochimaru addressed, brightly. "I'm impressed. ANBU already? You're shaping up to be quite the Uchiha Itachi…"

Naruto bristled.

"I see the resemblance too," Kakashi nodded, solemn. "You know, it must be the hair."

Naruto rolled his eyes, unsurprised that Kakashi didn't seem to be taking this seriously. But Kakashi's demeanor had always been deceiving.

"Ah, yes, it must indeed," Orochimaru echoed, absently, his gaze fixated upon Sasuke.

"Why do you want Sasuke-kun?" Kakashi asked, dropping to the floor to sit cross-legged, propping an elbow on the unconscious Uchiha. The seals draped along the floor pulsed along, connecting themselves to Sasuke's neck. Orochimaru must have realized as well what those seals were doing to the one he'd placed on the Uchiha's neck.

He shook his head. "Ah, how typical you don't see how fortunate you are, Kakashi-kun. You've already gotten your hands on it…" He digressed. "You didn't always have it, no? That Sharingan."

Kakashi nodded. "Ah. The Sharingan. Understandable. Who doesn't want one? They're so fashionable…"

Orochimaru's brow twitched slightly.

"And Konoha?" Kakashi tilted his head.

"Surely you must know," Orochimaru demurred. "The newly created hidden Sound Village… that's my village. You should understand just from that."

"Foolish ambition?" Naruto threw out, rather meanly.

Orochimaru narrowed his eyes. "Something like that," He waved his hand. "Building a village takes time… and many pieces. Important pieces."

"Like Sasuke," Naruto noted, sensing where this was going.

"Yes, like Sasuke," Orochimaru agreed with relish. He shook his head, sighing dramatically. 'You understand, don't you? What you do, what you say… it won't work."

Naruto frowned.

"To achieve a goal… the heart will accept even the most evil power."

"I'm an avenger, Naruto."

The blonde gripped his katana, suddenly unable to play along with this charade any longer.

"A hidden village, truly?" Captain Yamato mused, revealing himself, crouched upon the ceiling. "You didn't strike me as the type to be particularly enthused with paperwork."

"Perhaps you've misjudged me," Orochimaru smiled, thinly. He clasped his hands behind his back, peering around the room. "Ah, but, perhaps I've misjudged you as well."

"My warmest felicitations, Konoha ANBU," He greeted to the room around them.

Someone snorted. Naruto was fairly sure it was Koga.

"Who says shit like that?" Another muttered.

Orochimaru bowed low towards Kakashi and Naruto. He leaned towards them, crooning, "He will eventually seek me out… to have that power."

And then he lunged towards Naruto. In reflex, the blonde unsheathed his sword and drew it into the Sannin. Orochimaru smiled largely at him, before he erupted into smoke.

"So that was the game?" Naruto muttered. "Use the Bunshin to give you information?"

Kakashi shrugged. "People like Orochimaru," He gave a vague wave of his hand. "Are very narcissistic. They're game is all about having power over others, and they relish the chance to show it off. If you can get them talking… you never know what you'll end up hearing come out of their mouth."

Naruto rolled his eyes. "I'll say. What a weirdo."

The ANBU emerged from the corners of the room—at least half a dozen of them.

Yamato flipped off the ceiling. "Either way, good work, Naruto," He patted him lightly on the shoulder. "You might even be able to get into recon work. It's an art, you know?"

Naruto scoffed. "Something tells me this was just a one time fluke." He couldn't imagine himself being particularly good at lying and espionage. He'd always been much too brash and headstrong for that sort of work. Not to mention he significantly lacked the patience to follow through effectively.

Yamato motioned towards the other operatives. They disappeared as quietly as they had come; before Yamato followed suit, he turned to Naruto. "We're briefing the Hokage," He explained, tilting his head questioningly at the blonde.

Naruto made a gesture towards Kakashi and Sasuke. "Uh, I'm just gonna…"

Yamato held up a hand. "No worries." And was gone without even a clout of smoke to mark his disappearance.

"I don't understand what he wants with Sasuke," Naruto remarked once the ANBU were gone. "His eyes?"

"The Sharingan, yes," Kakashi sighed. "Maa, well. It's up to Sasuke now."

"You don't think Orochimaru will try to lure him out?" Naruto asked, curious.

"Oh no, he will," Kakashi affirmed, bland. "But there's not much to do about it. We could, of course, attempt to shadow Sasuke for every waking moment of his day. But as it is, I plan on taking him out for extra training before the third round, as isolated as possible."

"Will that be enough?" Nauto considered, more than a little concerned.

Kakashi shrugged. "Naruto," He began, noticeably more austere and yet significantly more resigned, "We can try all we like to keep him here. And I agree, he is an asset to Konoha and not just because of his bloodline… but if someone really wants to leave..." He shrugged again.

Naruto sputtered. "You'd let him go?"

"No." Kakashi asserted. "He would most certainly be hunted by our hunter-nin before we allowed him to sell village secrets off—or in this case, village bloodlines."

Narut paled.

"Obviously we'd prefer not to have to use that option."

"Right," Naruto agreed, hollow.

He wanted to stick around longer, but he was viscerally aware that his obligations were to his ANBU team now. Sasuke was… important to him, unfortunately. Whether he wanted to admit to it or not he was the closest thing he had to a friend.. to family.

He eventually made his way back to his team, still lost in his thoughts and unable to work his way around anything else. Kakashi was right; what could you do to stop someone who wanted to leave from leaving? Change their mind, of course. But that in and of itself was a daunting task.

He didn't bother with the rest of the exams, lost in his own thoughts. The curse seal—and by extension, Orochimaru—was alarming, regardless of how lowly Kyuubi seemed to appraise him. Naruto was also well aware that what Kyuubi deemed a threat to himself and what Naruto deemed a threat to Konoha were two entirely different sides of an equation.

He followed Yugao listlessly out into the open air, once the preliminaries were over. The third exam was set to begin in a month's time; Naruto wondered what would happen in such an inordinately long span of time.

The two met up with Hayate, to which Naruto was genuinely surprised to find was Yugao's boyfriend. He certainly looked a lot healthier in the picture in her living room.

"Honestly, I told you to pack the coat, didn't I?" She remarked testily in response to his sickly appearance.

Her boyfriend coughed with an eye roll. "It's Suna, Yugao. Honestly, what are the chances of it raining in fucking Suna?"

"You never know," She was mother-henning—the worst part was, Yugao was good at it. "Have you even taken any medicine yet?"

"Well no—

"What the hell do you mean, no?" Without her mask, Yugao could look just like a normal girlfriend.

Naruto smiled at the two, before leaving them to their arguments, wandering down the street alone. He wondered what Sakura and Sasuke were up to…and he hoped they were alright. After what Orochimaru had said in the backroom…he wondered about Sasuke, and his intentions. Sasuke was an avenger, he already knew that, but would he go so far to seek out Orochimaru? After tasting the power of the curse seal?

Naruto shook his head.

Sasuke wouldn't—

"What the hell? Miki-chan! There's an old man spying here!"

"What?!"

"Eek!"

Naruto barely had enough time before an old man leapt out from the bushes, high-tailing it out of the bathhouse's manicured lawn and throwing the telescope at Naruto. "Catch, kid!" He winked, before jogging off.

Naruto blinked, stunned. "What…?"

That was, until a horde of angry, scantly clothed large-breasted women trampled out of the bathhouse to skewer the blonde with the most scathing looks he'd ever see.

"That's him!" A blushing buxom brunette was saying to her friend. "I saw that telescope! That must be him!"

"What the hell?" Naruto cried in surprise as the amassed group of women charged at him.

"Get him, Miki-chan!"

He sprinted for dear life, tossing the stupid telescope and making for the trees.

"Kick him in the balls!" The girl with the towel was crying out to her blonde friend; Naruto turned around with no small amount of disbelief to see the girl was gaining speed on him.

Scowling, he jumped into the trees, leaving the girls without a trace of where he had gone to.

"That bastard," Naruto hissed to himself, sniffing the air for the old pervert's scent. "I'll get him for that one."

He sped around Konoha, a bit surprised at how far that old guy could travel. He finally made it to a bridge near another hot springs, not entirely surprised to see that the old man in question was once again spying on women. This time with binoculars.

"What the hell was that for, old man?" He spat, dropping from the trees.

"Hmm?" The man replied absently, attention focused on the sight in his binoculars. Naruto wiped them out of his hands, and then vaulted them as far down the river as he could. "Hey!" The old man protested. "Those were my best—

"Pair." He finished, belated, staring at Naruto like he was staring at a ghost. "Oh. It's you."

"Yeah. It's me," Naruto repeated, annoyed. "Thanks for that, by the way."

"Quite welcome!" He grinned, brightly. "I couldn't let them get me; it'd ruin my work! I'm writing a novel…"

And then, with more theatrical flair than Naruto thought possible, he struck a pose and held up a very familiar orange book into the sun.

"My life's work!"

"You're fucking kidding me," Naruto deadpanned.

"Ah? You know of it!" The old man began to laugh. "Hah! As I expected, my novel has received rave reviews from fans of all ages—

"My perverted Sensei reads it," He interrupted. "It's total crap! You must be the most perverted guy I've ever met—not to mention the least original writer on the planet!"

"What the hell does that mean?" He had the gall to say, appearing far more affronted than necessary, considering the material at hand. "Listen kid, people from all over the five great Shinobi nations read my literary works, I figured even a…" And then, with surprise. "ANBU like you would have read its great plot."

"I'm offended you'd think so low of me," Naruto replied, clearly unamused—and growing even more so when it became clear the man wasn't paying attention to him at all.

Naruto blinked as the man dropped his binoculars in favor of looking at him curiously. He took note of the big, bright blue eyes, outrageous blonde hair, and whiskered cheeks. Yes…this was Minato's kid, alright. What was surprising was that the boy was a black ops already. Last he'd heard he was a dumb failure who had painted the Hokage mountain (certainly was his mother's kid, eh?) and not a prodigy ANBU at age twelve.

Naruto took a step back, concerned. "Uh…? Can I help you?" Good god, this guy wasn't a pedophile too, was he?

"Well, you certainly look like someone I used to know," He shook his head.

"Eh?" If possible, the blonde black-ops became even more confused.

But the super pervert only rubbed his nose and smirked. "Follow me! I'm going to teach you a special technique."

Wary, Naruto crossed his arms. "Do you think I follow people I don't know around on a daily basis?"

He rolled his eyes. "I'm no ordinary stranger! I am—

"Jiraiya, the Sannin, yes I know," He interrupted, bored. But he was trying to make a point. Having an illustrious reputation meant very little—look at Orochimaru. People could argue the guy was famous. They could also argue he was a raging pedophile.

"Good!" He smiled wider. "Than you should know I have great and powerful things I could teach you?"

Like porn? He thinks but doesn't say.

"Alright," Naruto allowed. "What?"

"The Rasengan!"

And then, anticlimactically,

"What the hell is that?"

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