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Of Harrowed Hearts

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An hour before the exams start, Kakashi finds himself taking up a whole couch in the Jounin standby station across from Asuma and Kurenai, his book draped most of the way over his face so no one else will try to talk to him. He doesn’t mind Kurenai and Asuma’s soft conversation, even if he does have to endure the pair’s unsubtle flirting in between speculation about the exams.

“I don’t think Ibiki’s question will trip them up. Kiba and Shino may fight, but only the way siblings do. They’re loyal where it counts.” Kurenai is saying. They’d all gotten a summary of the current test parameters, and after looking through it, Kakashi had scoffed and set his on fire.

“They’ll be fine. They’ve got strong bonds going into it. They’ll make the right choice.” Asuma assures.

“You’re right. Of course you’re right.” Kurenai assures herself, and sends a narrowed look at Kakashi. “You’re awfully calm about this, Hatake.”

“Of course I am.” Kakashi agrees easily.

“You’re not worried? Not at all?”

“Not remotely.”

“Not even about them getting disqualified for disobeying superiors?” Asuma asks. “Your brats aren’t exactly known for being rule-followers.”

“They know to listen when it counts.” Kakashi defends. “I’d like to think I’ve taught them that much.”

“Yes well that’s not all you’ve taught them.” Kurenai counters. “Genma tells me that all three of them have ‘inherited your electric personality.’ I think I’m more worried for the proctors than I am for the students.”

“I did give them limitations before the test started.”

Asuma tilts his head in confusion, eyes narrowing. “What kind of limitations?”

“I’m sure you’ll find out.” Kakashi mutters boredly from underneath his book, his arms crossed over his chest.

Kurenai is about to say something else when she visibly stalls, eyes tracking to somewhere over the back of the couch Kakashi is camped on. A second later he finds out why– Gai’s chakra is abrasive on the best of days, and sticks out like a sore thumb just like the man himself.

“WHAT A WONDERFUL DAY FOR THE YOUTH OF KONOHA!” He bellows, and Kakashi lets out a long drawn-out groan low enough to be mostly lost under the echos Gai’s voice sends bouncing off the walls. “Three teams, fresh faced and still filled with vigour!” He laughs and comes to stand at the end of the couch by Kakashi’s feet. “Isn’t it glorious, my friend?”

“Yes Gai.” Kakashi responds dryly, with patience he doesn’t actually possess. “Glorious.”

“Bets!” Genma calls as he comes around the corner into the lounge area. “Speak now or keep your ryo to yourself!”

The room is instantly flooded with Tokujo and a couple of Chunin that really should be in here, along with every Jounin in earshot.

“What a splendid idea!” Gai chortles. “I will place 1,000 on my team reaching the final stage of the test.”

Asuma actually laughs– Gai has been gone for the last month training his Genin out-of-village, and was never really involved in the joint training sessions he Kakashi and Kurenai all put their brats through. He has no idea what he’s up against, and Asuma clearly plans to use that to his advantage. “I’ll put the same on team 10 all walking out with a Chunin rank.”

Gai, predictably, looks surprised. “I admire your faith, my friend, as unlikely as it is to be wise.”

“Same bet on my team. 1,000.” Kurenai adds without missing a beat, and Genma nods, writing her bet down.

“Interesting.” Gai muses, turning to Kakashi, who has yet to remove his book from his face. “Are you going to make a similar bet, my friend? This is the first of your Genin teams to pass your test.”

Kakashi doesn’t answer him, instead he raises a hand so that he can wave at Genma over the back of the couch and murmurs, boredly; “5000 ryo on team 7 taking the entire exam by storm.”

 

<><><> 

 

Ibiki, as a general rule, likes to think himself a pretty decent judge of people. He can look at a ninja, and after a few interactions or a handful of minutes assessing their behaviour, he can usually get a good read on their mettle. He’s seen hundreds of candidates come through the Chunin exams, most of which fail in the first section of the test, this section of the test.

And none of them have ever look quite so bored.

Out of the dozens of candidates that line the seats of the Chunin exam’s first portion, Ibiki had clocked about eighteen of them as having enough potential to reach the end of the exams. Three times the usual number.

And there are nine in particular that stick out.

If he didn’t know better, he would assume they were his own Chunin plants– except for his plants would be better actors.

He recognizes a great many of them as either clan heirs or members of head families, including the Ino-Shika-Cho triad. Both Shibi and Tsume’s boys are here as well, with the Hyuuga heiress herself parked between them. He gives Kiba an appropriate evil eye– he still hasn’t forgotten the pantsing incident, but the Inuzuka has the nuts to counter his normally withering glare with a careless grin and sticks his tongue out in taunt.

Ibiki’s temper flares and Kotetsu, one of his actual Chunin plants, has to cough to cover his snicker.

The balls on these kids. He thinks. No respect for authority.

Which reminds him of the strange little warning Anko had given him this morning.

“Do not take your eyes off Kakashi’s brats. Seriously. Don’t.

To be honest Ibiki had thought it was a joke– Hatake Kakashi, with Genin? The idea is so ludicrous he’d dismissed it outright, despite the other Tokujo’s whispers of a trio of terrors being trained under the ex-anbu’s wing for the last handful of months. He has access to the man’s psych profile– the parts of it that aren’t slathered in Anbu black-out ink, anyway, and he knows Kakashi to be the epitome of a socially inert loner– no loved ones to speak of, friends he can count on less than a full hand of fingers, and no desire to forge new bonds outside of mission requirements.

A man like that mentoring kids? If the rumors were true, Ibiki would almost feel bad for them.

But while Anko is a lot of things, a liar isn’t one of them, and her warning had been uncharacteristically serious.

Ibiki doesn’t know much about the Genin team line-ups on purpose– he prefers to judge teams and potentials with in-person snap assessment in order to prevent colouration from outside sources, but now he wishes he’d paid a little closer attention.

By process of elimination, he knows which brats must theoretically be Hatake Kakashi’s, which just fucking figures.

He knows two out of three of them already– one is the infamous survivor of the massacre, the last of the Uchiha, and the other is the Kyuubi container and orphaned son of the last Hokage. The third he doesn’t recognise; a pink-haired kunoichi with steely green eyes and body language more reminiscent of a twenty-year old than a twelve-year-old.

They’ve been pinging some deep rooted warning bell in the back of Ibiki’s head since they walked in– normally he would mentally dock them points for being unprepared; each of them is only minimally armed with the typical shinobi tools of kunai and shuriken and have no visible survival supplies on their person.

But there are sealing scrolls on each of them that don’t look anything like the regular store-bought variety that he himself uses, and all but the blond jinchuuriki have some kind of specialized weapon on their person.

They’re also dressed disturbingly like Jounin, which is what started Ibiki’s double-take. Minimalistic clothing and equipment, most real supplies hidden or tucked neatly out of all range of motion, almost carelessly calm. At least the other six are showing some form of restless tick after sitting still for so long (excluding the Nara of course).

It takes fifteen additional minutes for the other applicants to figure out what the nine clocked within the first sixty seconds– that cheating on the test is not only necessary, but expected. It all progresses quickly after that, and as soon as he sees that most of the clued in students have gotten at least a few answers down he calls time.

Time for the true test of the evening.

 

<><><> 

 

What the fuck is wrong with this test? And is there a fucking dress code I didn’t know about?

Temari has only been in Fire Country for a handful of days and she already hates it here. It’s not the disconcerting amount of green everywhere, or the bugs, or even the vicious wildlife. No, of all the things that had hammered her Suna-born dislike of Fire Country into hate, it had been the humidity.

She wipes the back of her neck with a hand again, and resists the urge to snarl aloud in the half-quiet of the testing room. Her back is sticking to the stupid plastic chairs though her mesh shirt, her hands are clammy against her pencil, and this test is stupidly hard. If it weren’t for Gaara’s sand eyes, she and Kankuro wouldn’t have managed to answer a single question.

What’s worse? Their team seems to be the only one around them struggling.

She sends a glare at the back of the Konoha-nin’s head two seats in front of her, a boy with dark hair tied in a severe tail, who seems to have fucking already finished.

He’s lounging back in the uncomfortable chairs like he’s fucking bored, and he’s not the only one. The blonde girl to his right is drumming her fingers restlessly against the table, her test turned face down so that the Kusa-nin on her other side can’t lean over and peek. The bigger boy to his left has his test covered in the wrappers of no less than four energy bars.

And they all look different, stick out from the rest of the new hopefuls like an oasis stands out from barren desert.

They’re all in black for one, which is pretty ballsy. Tan and green blends in and fades into backgrounds, but these ninja seem to have forgotten that basic survival tidbit and are covered in deep black or, in the case of the larger boy on her left, vibrant red armour.

Morons.

But they're not the only ones who seem to have forgotten the tactic, and Temari counts at least six other Konoha-nin in similar garb.

Temari hates being stuck in enemy territory.

To top things off Gaara has been antsy since they got here– something about this village makes him uneasy, and whatever had caught his attention when they crossed through the gates holds it still. When Temari had worked up the nerve to ask, Gaara had only vaguely mentioned something about ‘strange energy’ and hasn’t spoken since then, not even to Baki.

Temari hates this kind of mission. Too many things that can go wrong.

<> 

Answering the final question is easy, since leaving the test– for her and the rest of her team– is out of the question, and after a few minutes the room clears out.

The first portion of the test is over and fifty-four candidates remain, her team included.

Half of the eighteen remaining teams are Konoha, including the three teams dressed in black. The other nine consist of her team, a team from Kusa, one from Taki, and two teams each of Kumo, Kiri and Oto.

They’re directed out of the building after that, to congregate deep in the woods at the edge of the village outside a section of trees penned in by fences and seals.

Their proctor stands with her hands on her hips at the edge of the fence, dark purple hair pulled up into a tail and sharp eyes tracing over the crowd of Genin. When she’s satisfied with her headcount she nods to herself, popping her gum, and addresses the rabble.

“Welcome, poor unprepared sods,” she shouts cheerily. “And Rookie Nine,” she adds absently, “to the Chunin exams part two!”

“Rookie Nine?” Kankuro asks Temari lowly, painted eyes narrowed, “You don’t think she means…” Kankuro makes a sweeping gesture in front of him with the back of his hand, including five of the nine black-clad Konoha-nin in the motion.

“Maybe.” Temari allows. “Must mean this is their first time taking any kind of Chunin exam.”

“Maybe.” Kankuro echos, but he doesn’t sound entirely convinced.

“Now!” The Kunoichi proctor announces. “My name is Mitarashi Anko and this;” she gestures grandly to the fenced in wood behind her, “Is training ground 44, fondly known around these parts as the Forest of Death. To you? It’s the battlefield for this portion of the exam.”

With a single swift motion, Anko unhooks two small scrolls from her hip and sends them whirling into the air, catching both in the same hand and holding them up for all to see. One is pale gold with the symbol for heaven stamped on the front, and the other is dark blue with the symbol for earth.

“At the beginning of this exam, each team will be given either a heaven scroll or an earth scroll to protect. Your goal is to reach the tower in the center of this forest with both a heaven and an earth scroll in your possession. If you do not make it to the tower within the five day limit, you fail. If you do not possess both scrolls upon entering the tower, you fail. If you attempt to look inside either the scroll you are given or the scroll you obtain, you fail. If any member of your team dies before reaching the tower, you also fail.”

“Now.” Anko says sweetly. “You have one hour to prepare, after which I expect to see you all lined up at this gate.” She jerks a thumb over her shoulder at the gate set into the sealed metal fence. “If you’re late, guess what? You fail.”

 

Kankuro turns to Temari just as the Konoha Tokujo leaps off the rock she’d been using as a soapbox. “If every team only gets one scroll, that means they’re thinning the herd. Only half of us will make it.”

“I’m not worried.” Temari dismisses, looking around the other teams. “There are plenty of weaklings to pick off, from what I can see.”

Kankuro nods, but it’s hesitant. “Fair enough, but I say we give the guys in black a wide berth.”

Temari ticks an eyebrow up skeptically. “And why is that?”

Kankuro just shrugs and crosses his arms behind his head, but his eyes are serious where is posture isn’t. “Call it a feeling.”

 

<><><> 

 

“What the hell are we supposed to do for an hour? Just sit here?” Sakura whines, shifting her shoulders and tapping her foot irritably.

“I don’t think they expected us to be prepared for a five day stint in the forest of death.” Naruto reasons.

“It’s not going to take us five days.” Sasuke counters.

“Not us, no.” Naruto allows, and plops down in a sunbeam filtering against the trunk of a nearby elm, tucking his arms behind his head. The seals woven into the black fabric of the bandages flicker warm gold and cool sapphire in the light, glittering with chakra.

“I think we probably over-prepped.” Sakura says as she sits down on Naruto’s right, legs stretched out in the opposite direction of the blond’s and her arms braced behind her. Sasuke makes himself comfortable on Naruto’s left, settling himself cross-legged in the elm’s shade.

Sasuke is aware that this test is supposed to be a big deal, that it determines their future and he should take it more seriously, but then he has moments like this; the world seems to quiet, time seems to slow, and even though it’s only for a moment, the peace he feels is bone deep.

He’s never really been sure of anything in his life, but right now, more than anything, he’s sure that this is where he belongs.

Naruto and Sakura talk a little over strategy and avoiding giant centipedes, but Sasuke is content just to listen, eyes closed, to the sound of their voices, and to let the familiar rush of their chakra wash against his senses.

This test doesn’t stand a chance. He thinks to himself. And neither does anyone who stands in our way.

 

He’s interrupted from his pleasant moment by an unpleasant shuffling and the patchwork flicker of still-developing chakra systems. He groans, mood already soured, and turns his head a bit in Naruto’s direction.

“Your fan club is here.” He hisses lowly, nearly a growl with all the irritation he’s holding behind his teeth.

Naruto’s shift and sideways glance tells him he’d already noticed. “I don’t know why they bug you so much.” He mumbles back.

“They’re annoying.” he returns, and this time it is a growl. “Especially their little snot-nosed leader.”

“What’s wrong with Konohamaru?”

“I’m not answering that.”

Sure enough, a minute or so later Sasuke spies them slithering unsubtly over the uneven ground toward them beneath a chakra sheet set to look like a granite boulder– glaringly out of place with all the sandstone gravel.

Sakura bursts their bubble as soon as they wander within reach, snatching the sheet off their collective heads with a playful grin, revealing the messy tops of Moegi, Udon, and Konohamaru in all his snot-nosed scarf-dragging glory.

“Awww!” Konohamaru whines, stomping his feet back and forth like a civilian brat about to throw a tantrum. “How did you catch us?”

“You’re kidding me, right?” Sasuke mutters derisively, and Naruto sends him a glance that is half pleading half admonishment.

Sasuke rolls his eyes with a whispered “Fine,” but leans a little closer into Naruto’s space anyway so he can keep a sharp dark eye on the twerp.

“Iruka-sensei said you had your big test today!” Moegi says brightly. “We thought we’d surprise you and say good luck!”

“Doesn’t look like we surprised anyone though.” Udon adds.

“We appreciate it, guys.” Naruto says kindly. “But you know you’re not supposed to be out this close to the forest of death, especially not during the exams.”

“And especially not you, Konohamaru.” Sakura adds. “Where exactly did you three leave poor Ebisu?”

Konohamaru grins and rubs the back of his head sheepishly, a tick he picked up watching Naruto, Sasuke notes sourly.

The three twerps bicker with each other and Sakura equally while Naruto laughs at them and encourages them in turns. For a while Konohamaru is held at bay from his idol by Sasuke’s presence and occasional glares, until he seems to scrounge up enough courage to brave Sasuke’s temper for Naruto’s attention.

“Hey, hey, what are the bandages for?” he asks, hoping as close as he dares, scarf dragging like a ratty blue snake behind him.

“I don’t see how that’s any of your business, twerp.” Sasuke rumbles, keeping an eye on the brat as he leans against Naruto’s shoulder and forces some of the tension out. Like hell he’s going to let the little shit ruin the whole of his mood just with his presence.

Konohamaru is about to open his mouth, probably to squeak something furious and incoherent, when Naruto adds; “Tactical secret, bud. Can’t tell ya.”

Sasuke’s not sure how that’s much different from what he just said, but the kid eats it up, nodding and snapping his mouth shut.

“What are you three doing here?” Comes a hiss from just on the other side of the cluster of trees team seven is resting in, and Anko stalks towards them, ducking under a maple branch, and leveling a finger at Konohamaru’s team. They all freeze like a couple of startled deer and Sasuke snorts.

“Academy students are banned from all areas regarding the exams.” Anko continues. “I know Iruka told you little shits that.”

The mere mention of Iruka makes all three of them jump, and Naruto snickers. “Uh-oh.”

Anko chases the academy students off with the threat of informing their teacher of exactly what they’ve been up to, and then turns to team seven.

“Hey, you little monsters. I’ve got some instructions from your sensei.” She growls, hands jammed pointedly on her hips like she resents being used to deliver a message.

Sasuke opens both eyes as Naruto perks up from his slouch, and Sakura pulls her legs in so she can straighten her back all the way.

“Kakashi-sensei?” Sakura questions. “What’s up?”

“More parameters for your test, apparently.” Anko says with a disinterested wave of her hand. “He says he told you this might happen?”

“He wants the exams to challenge us.” Sasuke says by way of explanation, and Anko barks out a harsh laugh.

“Yeah, good luck with that.” She says seriously, throwing up a hand, sharp fingernails painted with shiny black polish. “Anyway, Hatake is a cryptic bastard, so I’m just going to tell you exactly what he told me; ‘You three may participate as a team, but you must pass as individuals’ whatever the fuck that means.”

Sakura blinks, looking over at the boys. “As individuals? Do you think he means…” She makes a vague gesture like she’s weighing an object in each hand that goes right over Sasuke’s head but that Naruto somehow interprets more or less correctly.

“You mean two scrolls?” He questions.

She nods.

Sasuke catches up to what they're talking about fairly quickly and shrugs. “It’ll take longer, but it shouldn't’ be too hard. It means we can cast a wider tracking net too.”

Anko is blinking, looking down at them with wide wary brown eyes as she tries to follow even a single train of what the hell they’re talking about. They seem to come to consensus, and then they all nod at the same time and turn back to her.

“Thanks for telling us Anko nee-san.” Naruto adds brightly, and Anko blinks again, mostly because the ‘big sis’ tacked into the end of her name is weirdly endearing and she’s still trying to hold a grudge about that one time the little shit sealed up all her chakra.

She settles for a grudgingly fond “Yeah yeah,” before she stalks off to continue overseeing the foreign teams.

 

Sasuke hums contemplatively after she leaves, a sharp smile creeping onto his face. “So…” He murmurs. “Six scrolls instead of two.”

“There are a weirdly high number of applicants this year.” Sakura adds. “It’ll help weed out the teams who aren’t really ready for this stuff before the test gets dicey. Third stage is supposed to be the hardest.”

“If we’re handed a scroll at the start of the test…” Naruto muses. “Then that’s five teams to take out. Assuming each one has the exact scrolls we need.”

“Excluding teams 8 and 10, that’s fifteen to choose from.” Sasuke points out, and Sakura grins, shark-like.

“Odds say we can’t lose.” Sakura agrees. “Even with the time limit and our restrictions, I say it takes us two days, max.”

“Less than one.” Sasuke counters.

“That a bet, Uchiha?” Sakura challenges.

“Loser has to de-fur all the ninken beds.” Sasuke states. “Without chakra.”

They slap palms, hard enough that Sasuke winces. “Deal!” Sakura says happily. “One second over twenty-four hours and the bet is mine. Any longer than two days and we both have to clean. Naruto will keep time.”

Naruto laughs his agreement and slaps his hand over their two, solidifying the bet.

 

<><><> 

 

Something is wrong.

Naruto has been feeling something strange since the second portion of the exam started, something that rubs dark and foreboding over all of his nerves.

He felt it first at the beginning of the test, right before they’d been released into the forest of death, when the teams were rounded up at the gates.

He’d chalked it up to all the mixed up foreign chakra and dismissed just as quickly as he’d registered it.

An hour later, as they were claiming their first earth scroll, he felt it again. A flash of something dark and heavy and cloaked, something that smelled of wet clay and cut grass and the acrid tang of poison.

A hand on his arm brings his attention down to Sasuke’s face, to dark eyes narrowed warily.

“That’s the second time you’ve done that.” He states. “What is it?”

Naruto shakes his head, at a bit of a loss. “I… I’m not sure. I could have sworn I felt something weird for a second.”

“Weird?” Sakura asks, wringing water from the Kiri team’s suiton jutsu out of her ponytail and clipping the earth scroll to her belt, stepping over one of their unconscious bodies. “Weird how?”

“Chakra. Heavy.” He says firmly. “And strong. Too strong for a Genin or a Chunin.”

Sasuke turns, keen eyes scanning the thick tree limbs around them. Naruto can tell he wants to activate his sharingan by the way his eyes crease at the corners, but the dojutsu says leashed just behind his irises, just like Kurama is still napping beneath Naruto’s seal and Sakura’s chakra lattices are still dim and dormant.

It had been Kakashi-sensei’s condition for passing his test. They were to complete the Chunin exams using only the abilities they’d gained through hard work, through blood and sweat. Outside of emergencies, they were restricted from any chakra-based asset that they were born with.

“Jounin level?” Sasuke questions.

“At least.” Naruto confirms. “And it wasn’t one I recognised from around the village.”

“The only foreign Jounin that are supposed to be in the village right now are the exam participants and their Jounin instructors, if they even have them.” Sakura says quietly. “Maybe the Kages if they care to show up. No one else should be in village limits.”

“Might be nothing.” Naruto says uncertainly, and Sasuke slaps him on the arm for it.

“Don’t be stupid.” he growls. “Even if you don’t trust your instincts all the way, I do, so if you feel it again, tell us.”

The completely unhesitant declaration leaves Naruto staring dumbly at the back of his friend's head as he steps away to give the canopy another once-over.

“Sure.” He returns, a beat off kilter and quieter than he intended.

Sakura rolls her eyes at them both, like she knows something they don’t, and steps around Sasuke to tap vaguely at one of Naruto’s scrolls.

“Water.” She demands.

Naruto unrolls the scroll on his other hip and unseals Sakura’s lime green canteen, passing it over. She takes a long draw and hands it back, and Naruto reseals it as Sasuke walks back towards them.

“That Kumo team in nearby.” He states.

“The one with the redhead?” Sakura asks.

Sasuke shakes his head. “The pack of blondes.” He corrects, and Naruto remembers the team with the two strawberry blond boys and the ashen haired kunoichi from before they’d opened the gates.

Naruto rolls up his scroll again and grins. “One down, four to go. We’d better get after it.”

And just like that, it’s easy. The three of them click like a well-oiled machine, three pieces that are so much greater when they come together to make a whole.

 

<><><> 

 

“Well that was anticlimactic.” Shikamaru drawls as he stands over the half-dead remains of the Taki team that had been unfortunate enough to cross their path. “The monster triad must be having a blast.”

Ino toes one of the limp bodies over primly, leaning almost casually on her nagamaki. “Not on this one. Choji?”

“I’ve got it,” their teammate confirms, straightening and tossing the scroll at Shikamaru, who catches it one handed.

“Shit.” he mutters, frowning at the earth symbol inked into the scroll.

“Should we keep it anyway?” Ino asks.

“Better than leaving it here.” Shikamaru confirms, hooking it onto his belt. “Status check?”

“You kidding me?” Ino chuckles. “Didn’t so much as get nicked by a shuriken.”

Shikamaru rolls his eyes. “Gotta ask. Plus I saw you take that knock to the ribs.”

Ino makes a face. “Choji and I both did, and you're not fussing over him.”

“Choji is wearing armour five centimeters thick.” Shika returns patiently, and Ino grumbles, looking to Choji for assistance, but the Akimichi just chuckles and shakes his head.

“Oh, fine.” She concedes, shifting her polesword to rest on her other arm and rolling up her armour silk top. Shikamaru steps forward to examine the blooming bruise along the bottom edge of her ribs, still red but quickly fading into purple territory, and flicks his fingers through a handful of signs. Pale green chakra floods over his hand, and he presses his palm gently over the affected area.

Ino hisses a little but otherwise doesn’t move, and after a moment of letting the chakra seep through her skin the red fades, then the shades of purple, and she lets out a sigh of relief. “Thanks Shika.”

“Yeah yeah,” he deflects, changing the subject. “Come on, we’ve got another team to track down before sunset.”

<> 

Because it’s just their luck, the next team they run into is Kiba’s.

“Goddamn it.” The Inuzuka snarls, swiping a gouge out of the tree to his right in irritation.

“I think I feel insulted.” Shino drawls, hands stuffed deep in the pockets of his steel lined jacket. “Fifteen teams to choose from and they all run from us like rabbits.”  

“You guys haven’t caught anyone?” Ino asks, leaping up to stand on a branch by Hinata.

The Hyuuga shakes her head. “No, we did catch one team. They just didn’t have the scroll we wanted.

“Sounds like what happened to us,” says Choji. “You seen the trio since we started?”

Kiba shakes his head. “Naw, they took off like shots as soon as the gates were open. We haven’t sensed them since.”

“You three don’t happen to have two heaven scrolls, do you?” Shikamaru interrupts, and Shino’s eyebrow shoots up as he pulls twin heaven scrolls out from within his jacket and waves them back and forth.

Shikamaru takes their own earth scrolls from his hip pouch in turn, waving them back.

Shino’s mouth twitches into a small smile at the corner, the Aburame equivalent of a grin. “Trade, Nara?”

Shikamaru tosses their pilfered scroll into the air in answer, and Shino snaps one of his their way in response.

“Niiiiiiice.” Kiba chuckles as he snatches the earth scroll out of its arc.

Choji grabs the heaven scroll between both palms and rolls it back and forth with glee.

“Thank you Shikamaru.” Hinata says with sincerity. “This should save us a lot of t–”

Hinata’s words are cut off instantly on a sharp intake of breath as the cradle of branches they’re in is hit by a wave of crushing chakra, a seething tide of angry clashing energies, surging and crashing. The furious tangle is breathtaking, it rends the air from Shikamaru’s lungs like a blow to the chest, and his stomach drops into his sandals because he recognises parts of it.

The river rush power of Sakura’s chakra, the cold fire burst of Sasuke’s, the storm-wind roar of Naruto’s. It’s all wrapped up and twisted against another force, something that reminds him of looking at his mother’s shelf of medicines and toxins, organic and sterile and poisonous.

It’s strong, far too strong to have any place in the exams, and something is very very wrong.

“Shika!” Ino shouts, and just like that Shikamaru’s brain is working again, the gears are turning, and he spins to face their Inuzuka.

“Kiba! Can you track it?!”

Kiba just nods sharply and unzips his jacket, allowing Akamaru to hop down and get his scent-bearings, not hard considering the chakra is still permeating the air. The ninken barks and takes off, and as one, all six of them follow.

Because it doesn’t matter who was stupid enough to do it, or how strong they are, because whoever decided to attack a member of their group is going to find out real fast just how bad an idea that is.

 

<><><> 

 

It happens so fast even Sasuke isn’t exactly sure where the attack even comes from. He’s not even the one who sees it coming.

One second they’re leaping through the thick canopy of the forest, five scrolls to their name already and only eighteen hours into the exam, ducking crows and giant centipedes with ease. The next Naruto is crashing into him, an arm barred around his ribs, and he hears something fly so quickly over his head that he can feel the current of air that just misses his temple. They land hard, tumbling over the massive sprawling branch of one of Konoha’s legendary Bodhi trees– gigantic and sacred, and humming with the same old power that makes this forest so dangerous.

Sakura dives after them without hesitation, skidding over, and she obviously sees something they don’t because her hands are snapping through signs even as she throws herself bodily on top of them both, digging her powerful fingers into the flesh of the tree branch for purchase.

“Suiton: Surge Shield!”

Emerald water arcs out of the air over their heads, coloured by the chakra that saturates the space around the Bodhi, twisting into a sphere around them a fraction of a second before a snap-fire jutsu smashes into them hard, hard enough to actually char the branch around their shield.

“What the fuck!” Naruto snarls as they flip to their feet, and without thinking, without hesitation, team seven smacks shoulders, a back to back triangle formation, chakra roiling up through their young bodies, rubbing electric friction into the air as they slide and mix with each other and the chakra of the Bohai, spreading the scent of ozone into the air.

“My my...” The rumbling purr of the voice is oil-sleek and teasing, and Sasuke’s eyes fix on a form standing stick straight across the glade as the shield dissipates, a figure with pale skin and long dark hair under a bamboo cone hat. “That was impressive, even I must admit.”

“That’s one of the Grass ninja.” Sakura whispers under her breath next to him, and Sasuke feels Naruto shake his head.

“Not possible. I saw grass lady before, no way this is her chakra.”

Sasuke keeps his eyes fixed on the figure in the tree. The Kusa-nin is standing stick-straight, too straight, eyes shielded beneath the steep curve of the hat, arms hanging at their sides limp like overcooked udon.

“You three show some talent…” the strange voice lilts, the figure’s arms coming up as they clap their hands together in a coy imitation of admiration. Except the movement is all wrong, the bones bend in all the wrong places, and a shiver of fear chases down Sasuke’s spine as the brim of the hat tips upward.

The strange ninja’s eyes are predator yellow and slitted like a snake’s, and cold dread pours into Sasuke’s stomach like liquid nitrogen, freezing him in place. For a fraction of a second he forgets where he is, forgets everything except the unnatural fear that grips him like a fist around his spinal chord, that makes him feel like a mouse staring down a cobra.

But then two hands grip his wrists, firm familiar fingers, and the feeling shatters. Warmth rushes back through veins gone cold, and he remembers where he is, he remembers who’s with him.

“Me.” He chokes out, the realization hitting him hard and fast, instinct working with the obvious intent radiating off the strange shinobi. “They’re after–” but he doesn’t get the chance to finish the sentence because the shinobi rushes them, surging forward without warning or hesitation.

But his teammates must understand him anyway, because Sakura pulls his arm around her shoulder and launches them sideways, just as Naruto steps into his place. The shinobi twists unnaturally, honing in on Sasuke like some kind of demented heat-seeking missile, but Naruto anticipates that, takes Sasuke’s word and warning as law, and intercepts the strike with his own.

Naruto spins on his heel and his elbow cracks hard into the attacker's cheek, sending the ninja spinning sideways. By now Sasuke’s shaken off the worse of that strange feeling– jutsu, it had to be– and he plants his feet, flicking his fingers through hand signs, even as Sakura spins a roundhouse at the ninja’s side.

The Kusa-nin dodges the kick but not the fireball Sasuke sends right on it’s heels, and that forces the shinobi back, with a fluid leap to put distance between them and avoid the worst of Sasuke’s jutsu.

The three of them use the distance to pull back, assess the situation, and it’s Sakura that says what they’re all thinking.

“Yeah, I think this definitely counts as an emergency.”

Naruto nods heavily, eyes trained on the shinobi as they begin to right themselves. “He’s crazy fast. And I get the feeling he’s not even trying yet.”

“He?”

“Look.”

It doesn't take long for Sasuke to see what he’s talking about. The shinobi's face, where Naruto’s strike and Sasuke’s fire had both caused damage, is cracked open.

Spiderweb fissures crawl along the cheekbone and up around the orbit of the left eye, flaking and crumbling like a shattered porcelain mask. Beneath the veneer of the first face is a second one, paint white skin cut by the vibrant purple curl of a clan mark arcing over the single exposed eye.

The shinobi is still for a moment, hand coming up to touch the edge of the fracture in what might be surprise, and Sasuke’s mind works fast.

He catches Naruto’s arm before he can move to unlock the seal keeping Kurama asleep. “He underestimates us,” he whispers. “We need to use that.”

Naruto grits his teeth but nods grudgingly and drops his arm. “Fine.” he mutters. “But if things get bad I won't hesitate.”

“I know.”

“We need a plan.” Sakura mutters, unhooking her chakrams from her hip. “Or this is going to get out of hand really fast.”

Sasuke thinks he has one, formed halfway already in the back of his head, but if they’re going to pull this off, they have to be more in synch than they’ve ever been, have to put every ability they’ve trained into practice. The timing has to be perfect.

Because given the way the shinobi’s chakra is rising, the way it rubs like a physical entity against the air and exerts its pressure on their lungs, they’re only going to get one shot.  

Funny though, how after that first strange lapse of judgment, the idea of running away hasn’t even crossed his mind.

“Those flow-splitter seals you made…” Sasuke murmurs to Naruto, keeping his sharp eyes fixed firmly on the enemy. “How long will they hold up?”

“Long enough for something big.” he responds, the quirk of his mouth half smile half snarl, one sharp canine exposed, like he already knows exactly what he’s planning. Sasuke’s not sure the thrill of that is ever going to wear off.

“We need to be completely in synch.” He warns, and Sakura snorts.

“Three Monkeys, anyone?”

“Risky.” Naruto says. “But it’ll work. I don’t like you playing bait though.” The last part is directed at Sasuke, and he wonders if Naruto really can read his mind, because that’s the only way they’re going to get this crazy powerhouse in close enough for a trap.

“You’ll get over it.”

“No, I’ll blow shit up and tell Kakashi-sensei it was your fault.” Naruto fires back.

Sakura laughs and flicks her chakrams, widening her stance, and Sasuke feels immortal again.

 

<><><> 

 

“Now this is interesting…” Orochimaru purrs as he observes the little team of children before him, not caring that he’s speaking the words aloud. He admits to some fairly heavy underestimation on his part– he had expected skill from the little Uchiha, albeit less than is evident, but from the other two? The pink haired kunoichi and the Kyuubi container? He’d expected very little.

A mistake, he admits, though not enough of one to be terribly troublesome. The reflexes on the Uzumaki are formidable, and the kunoichi is stronger than she looks, but they are still Genin, and it is easy to accommodate his strategy.

They managed to strike him, which alone would normally be enough to make him rethink things, but what truly surprises him is something else– the Uchiha had broken his first jutsu; a fear based paralysis that has never once failed him before, especially not in a victim this young, with as many doubts as his background should leave him with, as many pitfalls.

But he’d shaken the effects like water off the feathers of a kestrel, snapped an attack back as fast as his feet were solid under him.

And… they aren’t running.

Orochimaru had expected them to bolt as soon as they were given the opportunity– that would have been fine with him, he enjoys a chase every now and then, but the Genin’s feet are planted, their stares are hard, and they’re communicating in snatched whispers and gestures that Orochimaru can’t interpret.

He waits, primed on the balls of his feet to strike as soon as the little creatures drop their guard, but they never do, and all three of them begin work small-scale jutsu.

He watches, wondering what little scheme they have cooked up; he’s bored, he admits, and he has a while before he can enact the next portion of his plan, so he can indulge the time to play with his food.

Except the signs he sees make no conceivable sense– they are sensory deprivation jutsu, meant to be used on the enemy, but the three children are using the arts on themselves, a blinding jutsu for the Uzumaki, deafening for the Kunoichi, and little Uchiha Sasuke renders himself mute.

What stupidity is this?

He finds himself instantly disgusted; he had hoped for something interesting out of them at least, and readies a jutsu to bury the two unimportant ones so he can get what he came for.

He uses the location to his advantage, a waterspout jutsu to counter any fire the Uchiha may attempt to conjure. It blasts against their foothold, sending bark ripping from the branches with the force of it. Overkill maybe, but Orochimaru has always had a temper, as his teammates were fond of reminding him.

Except for when the spray clears and the mist dissipates, all three of them are gone.

Somewhere deep in the back of his mind he hears Jiraiya's voice, remembers the exact order and variety of the sensory deprivation and the phrase of that stupid rhyme catches on his instincts.

Hear no Evil, See no Evil, Speak no Evil.

A deafening whoosh and a wave of searing chakra is the only warning he gets before the air blasts hot and bright overhead, a vicious katon jutsu bearing down on him fast and hard.

No, not just a fire technique.

It’s combination of Katon and Fuuton jutsu, he recognises the composition, Red Sun Flare and Mountain Rush, and the two jutsu twist and tangle, feeding off each other until the sky above Orochimaru’s head a seething mass of crimson flame and searing wind. He flicks his fingers through a pair jutsu of his own, wind and water to counter, but as the steam clears he finds the trio has vanished once more, flickering through the surrounding branches.

They don’t seem stupid enough to engage him in close quarters, to their credit, but even as he counters another elemental bout with the ease of long practice he finds himself growing irritated with the tactic.

His own lack of patience surprises him; it would be easy enough to wait until the brats tired themselves out against his defences, but something about the way they’re moving as he tracks them through the trees kicks at some emotion inside him, dark and bitter.

They should be tripping and fumbling, falling over themselves trying to move the way they are, but even deprived of a primary sense apiece the move with enviable grace and surety, more so than even he possessed at that age.

The back and forth volley of jutsu goes on for a long stretches of minutes– it seems like the children have no further strategy, but just as he’s about to close ranks and finish the game, plant the seed of control and pain he’d come here to sow, they switch tactics.

Kunai rigged with razor wire launch themselves from the leaves, followed by more ninjutsu, and as Orochimaru trains his eyes on them, on the flicker of dark and light hair and the ripples of chakra, he senses something he does not understand.

Their chakra signatures… are speaking to one another.

It is not something so complex as any form of language, it is something different, something subtle; shifts in flow and radiation and energy that are read and responded to, so soft and suffused that if Orochimaru were not as well versed in reading chakra as he was he would never have noticed it.

He razors his attention on the odd phenomenon, hones his chakra-sense as the interactions become smoother, cleaner, the flares and responses more refined by the moment, and he understands.

The lack of special senses forces them to rely on other abilities they posses, forces them to rely on each other, and it is this rhythm that they are cultivating, this gathering of potential energy that was the goal.

He needs to end this now. Before things get any more complicated, before the stirring bitter green of envy makes him reckless.

He stamps the pesky bloom of emotion out with prejudice, and draws Kusanagi.

The Uchiha is easy to pick out from the tangle of chakra, steady and flickering and diamond hard, and he must admit he lucked out with this one– the boy is strong, stronger than he expected, and even if he has yet to see the fabled sharingan manifest, he can already tell the boy’s sight is even keener than his brother’s.

 

He expects getting close enough to the boy to plant his seal will be easy.

It is not.

The Uchiha matches him for speed and is protected fiercely by his teammates, who dog his heels and force his hand and it is starting to genuinely piss him off.

The Uzumaki is a fucking menace, because no matter how many times Orochimaru strikes him down he does not stay down, and the kunoichi blocks him from his prize at every turn as the Uchiha spits fire at him from behind her.

Finally his temper gets the better of him, fury overwhelms him at being kept at bay by mere brats, and the fire that leaves him is nothing short of a supernova.

It is a lack of control that has never ceased to aggravate him– he values subtlety and planning in all the things he does, but his Katon jutsu is about as subtle as a slap to the face, vicious blue-green flame that eats through moisture in the air and burns the lungs with it’s heat. It spirals out in an unchecked galaxy of acid bright flame, dangerous and instinctive; Katon: Poison Holocaust.

The fire does not so much burn as it does eat, gnawing through leaves and bark and atmospheric oxygen. But even now the children’s first instinct is to protect each other, and it is this that Orochimaru cannot understand– fear should override that instinct, self preservation, a living thing’s first prerogative is to protect itself, it is the base instinct that fuels life and its survival, a constant that Orochimaru has always relied on. People are, at the core of their beings, selfish.

But the Uzumaki throws himself into the blast instead of away from it, an anti-chakra seal painted over the back of his hand in what must be his own blood, pulling the kunoichi out of the way of the worst of it and tucking her behind him, and the Uchiha grabs hold of both of them and launches them backwards from the blast as it sweeps outward.

It's a jutsu that has sent greater ninja cowering, and he’s expecting as much from the children– they are out of their league, out of their element, and he’s expecting it to register now, expecting them to finally bolt.

They do the opposite. Less than fifteen seconds after the release of the jutsu a wheel of water comes spinning through the flames, a sawblade of emerald liquid that clips Orochimaru in the shoulder with startling force. It cuts the flaming atmosphere in half, whirling into the air, and as the water dissipates Orochimaru catches sight of gleaming metal– the kunoichi’s chakram, already spinning back towards her as if by magnetic pull. They’d taken shelter from his jutsu within the cage of the Bodhi’s branches, nearly indestructible at their iron heartwood cores, the sacred bark scorched but intact.

But Orochimaru sees his advantage in that moment– the pink haired child has thrown herself forward for her attack, and the Uzumaki had been knocked apart from his fellows by the impact of the blast, leaving Uchiha Sasuke temporarily exposed.

Finally.

He dives, going in fast for his strike, and bites.

But it only goes half-right– only one seal-charged fang sinks home– the other feels like it strikes right into solid metal; the black fabric the boy is wearing is thick and reinforced with something heavy, and Orochimaru doesn’t have time for a second attempt before the menace of an Uzumaki is there, strike cracking again into Orochimaru’s cheekbone and sending him reeling. There is more chakra in the blow than there had been before, the resonating energy between the three Genin reaches a crescendo high, and for a moment Orochimaru almost knows what's going to happen before it does.

He rights himself just in time to track the kunoichi honing in on his blind spot, and he turns, aims a crushing kenjutsu strike designed to break bone and shatter steel even as he readies an earth jutsu to bury the remains.

But something is wrong–his strike hits the kunoichi’s cross block and holds, denying him the satisfying crunch of pulverising bone. When he turns to look he finds the skin across the girl’s arms blooming with chakra lattices, feeding matrixes of hardened skin linking and overlapping like the scales of a dragon.

He moves to release his earth-style Catastrophe but the chakra never makes it past his fingers, the Uchiha’s eyes are spinning, Sharingan fully formed, and the boy’s fist smashes into the chakra with a perfectly calculated counter-force, neutralizing the earth chakra with an opposite spin of lightning chakra before it even manages to take any kind of form. That requires chakra the boy should not have, technical prowess he should not possess, and before he’s even finished he’s whipping out the katana from the sheath on his lower back, using the extra reach to force Orochimaru back from the wicked sharp tip, which claves close enough to his nose to slice through his hair.

The kunoichi uses the opportunity to duck his guard and smash an open palm into his chest, one laden with enough paralytic ninjutsu to stop even him for a handful of seconds.

And that handful of seconds is all the fucking Uzumaki needs to slam a fully articulated seal dead center into his back.

It a chakra lock, he knows the type; and it should be far outside the range of a Genin’s ability, but it’s enough to flash freeze his chakra in his vessels, leaving him without recourse until he counters it. The placement is no accident; if he were not the man he is then he would not even be able to reach the point at which it is placed enough to undo it. But his bones bend where others will not, and he will be free soon enough.

He is still caught on the fact that this should not be possible, that no matter how strong these Genin are they are still children and could not possibly possess this much raw chakra–

The three Genin leap back and dread floods the air, because all around him power surges from each corner of the triangle they’ve formed with their bodies, hands raised in preparation for hand signs. This chakra, this deadly dense rush that makes the atmosphere heavy with its mere presence like deep-sea pressure, is one he recognises at once.

He turns his eyes to fix on the blond-haired blue-eyed menace only find those eyes are no longer blue at all, but amber bright and slit pupiled and dangerous, and the Kyuubi no Kitsune’s power saturates everything.

There are seals glowing, he can see them now, at the center of each of the Genin’s upper chests, just below the throat. The power of the seals shine even through the dark fabric of their tops, intricate traces Orochimaru can’t even comprehend.

~Bad move.~ He hears around him suddenly, a rumbling growl of a voice too deep to be human, spoken with malice and amusement in equal measure. ~Looks like the snake bit off more than he could chew and choked.~

All around him the air thrums with power as the Genin flick their hands through signs, and Orochimaru knows those sequences–

“Katon!”

“Fuuton!”

“Suiton!

They shout, and then again all at once, “Raijin Taihou!”

 

<><><> 

 

The devastation of their combination jutsu is unreal.

The thunder god canon is an A-rank jutsu, one of their sensei’s favourites, and it is the strongest of their elemental fusion ninjutsu. Normally they can hardly manage it with full energy reserves, let alone in a regular battle, but Kurama’s chakra can more than make up for what they lost in the fight.

Naruto looks down as the flow splitter seal on his chest degrades away, and Sakura sways on her feet next to him. He steadies her with a hand on her shoulder, noting the blackening bruises on her arms as the chakra lattices retreat back from her skin.

Sasuke lets out a grunt of pain on his other side and leans into him, a hand gripping the point on his neck where the creepy asshole had bitten him.

“Fuck.” He spits.

He’s about to peel back the collar of his friend’s top and inspect the damage when Kurama’s voice stops him, a rumble still heavy with protective rage.

~Later, fishcake. It’s not over yet.~

“That shit burns.” Sakura hisses, but Naruto doesn’t ask her what she’s talking about.

He hadn’t expected that jutsu to kill the shinobi, their enemy is a powerhouse of chakra like nothing Naruto has ever seen, but the man is still standing as the ozone clears, angry chakra still pulsing out from him like crashing waves.

The impact of the messy blast of mixing elements has completely destroyed the shinobi’s plaster disguise and dealt heavy electricity burns to the whole of the arm the man had used to protect his face, as well as a swath of his side.

The man is battered and scorched, but still breathing and standing and still very very dangerous.

The last attack had been their trump card, and with the way Sakura is breathing hard and Sasuke is still listing sideways in pain, all they can hope now is that it slowed him down enough.

“You little peons are going to pay for that…” The man hisses with the fury and calculated rage of a wounded cobra, gripping his strange katana tight.

Sakura is recovering fast but Sasuke isn't, and there’s black creeping in strange spirals up his neck like ink, like poison, and Naruto can see the pain creasing his face even as he tries to keep his feet, tries not to show how much agony he’s in.

Naruto leans down, pulls Sasuke’s arm over his shoulder and loops his arm around his middle, giving Sakura’s upper arm a squeeze with his other hand. She nods, overused muscles tensing beneath her skin as she prepares to bolt at his side, to counter their pursuer if necessary while they make a break for the tower and help.

Turns out they needn't bother.

Naruto feels the chakra on the air and relaxes, a bite of a smile spreading over his lips, and when Sakura looks at him, a question in her eyes, Naruto’s smile just grows wider.

“Gods I love our friends.”

Only a handful of seconds after the words leave his mouth the smooth tone of a familiar voice rings out through the trees above them.

“Katon: Black Fire Artillery!”

A concussive shot of heavy black and indigo flames blasts the spot where snake-face is standing to smithereens, forcing him to leap back, even as another, harsher voice shouts;

“Doton: Drilling Stone Fang!”

Spinning bullets of bedrock shoot up from below, one catching the arm snake-face has flung out in front of him for defence and drilling through skin and tissue with a spray of blood.

“Guys! Sakura!”

“Ino.” Sakura breathes in surprise as the blonde touches down by her side.

“You okay? What’s going on, who is this creep?” Ino asks as she tucks an arm around Sakura’s middle and lets her lean, her other hand gripping her nagamaki high up towards the blade, the shaft braced along her forearm.

“He just jumped us out of nowhere. He’s fucking crazy strong, you need to be careful.”

Ino nods, turning back to where the rest of team 10 and the whole of team 8 are peppering the area with attacks; Shikamaru cloaking and uncloaking them in turns so that it looks like the attacks are coming from nowhere at all as snake-face is forced back, his slit-pupiled eyes darting between the Genin and the surrounding woods as if weighing his options. “What the hell does he want?” Ino demands.

“He was after Sasuke. Fuck if I know why.” Naruto snarls; he doesn’t like the way Sasuke doesn't bother adding anything, too focused on his own breathing to respond himself. “The asshole bit him and injected him with something.”

Ino looks about ready to say her piece about that but teams 10 and 8 take that moment to fall back, touching down with them in the massive cradle of the Bodhi’s branches, Shino and Hinata at Sasuke’s side, Kiba and Shikamaru at Naruto’s, Choji joining Ino at Sakura’s.

“Are you guys alright?” Hinata asks, her byakugan pulling the skin around her eyes tight as she checks them over without waiting for a response.

“Define ‘alright’.” Sasuke mutters as Hinata sucks in a breath.

“What is that?” She exclaims, bending forward to examine the black mass of inky chakra at the seam between Sasuke’s neck and shoulder.

“I think it might be a botched seal or something. We need to find somewhere safe so I can take an actual look.” Naruto answers.

“Freak took off.” Kiba interrupts, jerking Naruto’s attention up.

True enough the strange shinobi has vanished, leaving nothing but traces of chakra and blood spatter behind.

“We made too much of a scene, I think.” Shino adds.

“You guys in one piece?” Shikamaru asks, sharp eyes trailing over them in search of injury. “We felt Kurama’s chakra and figured it was bad.”

“We felt Kurama’s and the freak’s chakra from two miles out and figured it was really bad.” Kiba corrects.

Naruto shakes his head. “Beat up and chakra deprived, but we’ll live. Other than Sasuke, Sakura took the worst hit.”

“Shika, a little help here.”

Ino is holding Sakura’s arms tenderly by the wrist, surveying the deep black and purple bruises over the backs of her forearms. Her left is the worst, dark and ugly and turning yellowish-green around the edges.

“I’m fine.” Sakura grouches. “I can do it myself.”

“Don’t be troublesome.” Shikamaru chastises, coming over and reaching to cradle her left arm carefully in one palm, then forming the hand signs necessary to repair a deep-tissue contusion.

“Worst hit, my ass.” Sasuke mutters after he’s out of earshot, glaring at Naruto even around his obvious pain. “Don’t think I didn’t see you take that fucking holocaust to the back.”

“I’m fine, jerk. It’s already healed.” He mutters.

“Liar.”

Kurama snickers in the back of his head at that. ~Twerp knows you too well.~

“Oh go back to sleep.”  Naruto grumps back. “And thanks.”

~Always gonna protect you kit, whether you like it or not. And you be sure to let your sensei know that this exactly why I don’t approve of this little arrangement.~

“There was no way he’d know we’d be attacked by some super-powered maniac. Besides, you jumped in when we needed you.”

~Humph.~

“Ugh. You never let me get away with anything.” He complains aloud, teasing, and Sasuke manages a smirk.

“Not a chance.”

“How bad is it?” Naruto asks, eyes tracing the sharp curls of chakra. He can almost make out some sort of symbol twisted up in the middle, but the rest is warped beyond any sort of recognition.

“My chakra veins hurt.” Sasuke mutters sourly. “Which is stupid.”

Naruto’s surprised chuckle is half laugh half sigh of relief. “Come on,” he says, holding his friend a bit tighter despite the pain that flares across his back at the motion. “We need to get to the tower.”

“We will cover you.” Shino states firmly, taking out his little pair of mechanical insects. They look like a mix between a hornet and dragonfly, brass and silver clockwork with two sets of wings for stability, each one the size of a hummingbird. He charges them and sets them loose, no doubt to watch the area for any sign of snake-face. “In case your attacker decides to make a second attempt.”

Shikamaru nods as he finishes up helping Sakura with her bruises. “Lotus formation.” he decides, tone taking on that of command. “Shino Kiba and Choji flanking team 7, Hinata and I scouting forward, and Ino will watch our backs. Sound good?”

“Look at Nara, the man with a plan.” Kiba teases, causing Shikamaru to huff. Kiba’s smile is genuine though and he adds; “You know what you’re doing, Shika. We’ll follow you.”

Shikamaru nods and Hinata flashes forward to join him, keeping her byakugan active. Sakura takes up Sasuke’s other arm, pulling it over he strong shoulders and looping her arm next to Naruto’s as Choji and Shino maneuver to their five and seven o'clock and Kiba takes the head at their twelve.

Ino steps behind them, and they all take off into the trees.

 

<> 

 

A poor unsuspecting Sound team makes the mistake of getting in their way, and Naruto laughs as Hinata hands them their earth scroll, the last of the six they needed, with a soft rib about these teams needing more training.

Naruto thinks that’s the understatement of the century– the ballsy asshole that was the Oto team’s leader had stepped forward and threatened them, all nine of them, and Kiba had bent over and nearly suffocated himself laughing at the sheer idiocy of it.

Shikamaru had just been plain pissed off.

He, Ino and Hinata had proceeded to rip the Oto team to shreds in record time while team 7 watched from their place sandwiched between Choji, Shino, and Kiba; all three of which had refused to move to take part.

And since neither team actually needed another scroll, team 7 had added it to complete their collection.

 

“Yeah.” Naruto mutters softly, for the ears of his teammates only. “I love our friends.”

Sakura laughs and smiles, her eyes sparkling, and Sasuke’s smile is reserved, but entirely genuine.