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Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...
On his way to the hospital, Naruto cursed sulphurously when a clone’s memories suddenly surged into his mind. The clone had been cutting through the hot springs carrying a bag of carryout from the dango shop when it was dispersed. Hinata had hesitantly asked if they could try something besides ramen the previous day, causing Naruto to smack himself on the forehead. He tended to get into a routine with his improvised lunch arrangements and forgot that not everyone was as crazy as he was about his favorite food.
Of course, Hinata immediately thought he was upset at her instead of himself.
Naruto shook his head. It had taken the rest of his afternoon visit to convince her that he wasn’t angry with her. This was complicated by a growing sense of rage he felt toward her so-called family. Now that he had a rough idea of what life was like in the Hyuuga Clan, it was easier for him to see how it had twisted his friend.
Now he was doubly angry. His clone had seen a white-haired old man crouched down in front of the fence that screened the women’s bathing area. The creepy old pervert was emitting a high-pitched giggle that made Naruto’s skin crawl, even in memory. Disgusted, the clone demanded to know what he was doing there.
No sooner had the words left the ersatz Naruto’s mouth than there was a loud pop and the old pervert was now facing him, sitting on top of a massive orange toad. The toad’s mouth cracked open and an enormously long tongue shot out and wrapped itself around the clone’s waist.
"You keeping making so much noise, you’re going to get me caught," the white-haired old man said in a dismissive tone. There was a glimpse of a horned forehead protector holding back the white mane. Ninja? Wearing wooden geta on his feet? "Why don’t you cool off?" the strange shinobi asked and the disgustingly slimy tongue flexed and whipped the clone off its feet and into the aqueduct that fed into the bath house.
Unfortunately, the impact with the water was hard enough to disperse the clone. Its last memory was flinging the bag of dango away from the canal.
Naruto scowled and immediately summoned ten more clones. Without a word, they took off for the hot springs to reclaim the dango… and keep an eye out for a white-haired older man in olive robes and a red over-jacket.
When he was still two blocks from the hospital, his mood became even more disgusted. His clones didn’t find anything near the hot springs, aside from a lot of angry looking women. Of course, one of them assumed the green-clad boys were there to peep as well, and they’d been attacked and dispersed before they could ask a single question.
Naruto saw a bakery right across the street from where he was standing, but he knew the owners hated him on sight. Even if they deigned to serve him, he didn’t want Hinata eating anything they knew was being sold to â€˜the demon boy’. He sighed and ducked into an alley. One quick henge later, he looked like a blond version of Kiba, without the facial tattoos. He strode out of the alley and crossed the street toward the bakery. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t want to support their stupid business in any way, but this was for Hinata.
Naruto was just leaving the hospital when one of the chuunin that assisted the Hokage caught up to him.
"Naruto-san, the Hokage would like to see you as soon as possible," the young man said in an oddly respectful tone.
Naruto frowned. It was almost time for his next session with Gai-sensei. Well, there wasn’t anything he could do about it. He created another clone and instructed it to find Gai-sensei and tell him Naruto had been summoned to the Hokage’s office.
Naruto turned back to the chuunin, who looked slightly disconcerted, and simply said "Let’s go."
The chuunin set a brisk pace, but Naruto wished they could get there sooner. He had no idea what jii-san wanted, but the way this day had gone so far, it probably wasn’t good.
At least Hinata had liked the sweet bean buns.
Sakura stared after Naruto and the chuunin as they hurried down the street. Ino had to elbow her twice to get her attention, which almost sparked an argument. The word "Ino-pig" was about to leave her lips when she caught herself. Rebuilding a relationship with her former best friend was more work than she’d imagined. It was a little disturbing how ingrained some of her more… aggressive… reactions had become. It was one thing to realize that you weren’t a very nice person, but doing something about it was quite another.
Instead, she made an effort to smile at her old friend. Ino returned it, a little tentatively. "Was that Naruto?" the blond asked.
Sakura nodded. "I think so," she answered. Ino frowned. She seemed a little ambivalent where their former classmate was concerned. Not that Sakura had much room to talk.
Things had been simpler at the Academy. Uzumaki Naruto was the class clown and an incessant prankster. He was really irritating, but it was also… reassuring… in a way. You could always predict what he’d do in a given situation. It was always "ramen" this or "Hokage" that. He was… safe.
Sakura had seen another side of him during the exams. His advice to Lee was something that still stung in her memory, mostly because it was true. Then the terrifying fight against that Grass ninja, when Naruto’s team jumped in without hesitation. Even worse was the attack by the Sound genin team, and the terrifying auras enveloping Naruto and Sasuke when they woke up.
However, the biggest shock of all was during the preliminary matches. She’d wanted to cringe when Sasuke had brought up Hinata’s defeat. Even if it was a valid tactic, it dishonored someone that had fought to defend him when he was unconscious. But she hadn’t even had time to make a face before Naruto had decisively ended the match. Where was the class clown now?
Sasuke refused to talk about the match, even after the bandage was removed from his jaw. But when a disappointed-looking Kakashi-sensei announced they were starting extra training sessions, Sasuke threw himself into the lessons with a disturbing intensity.
"I heard he goes to visit her every day," Ino said in a faint voice.
"Who?" Sakura asked, jolted out of her reverie.
"One of the ladies visiting the shop complained that she’s seen him at the hospital every day this week," Ino clarified. "He must be visiting Hinata."
That was rather… nice, Sakura concluded. She wondered if Sasuke would visit her in the hospital if she had been injured. She shook her head after a moment’s thought. No. No, he wouldn’t. Not if he had the option of training.
Sakura made an effort to change the subject and turned to Ino, asking her if Chouji or Shikamaru were nervous about their upcoming matches.
Listening to her old friend rant about her teammates was a balm to uneasy nerves. It was good to have her back.
Yuuhi Kurenai had just finished summarizing her notes when the messenger from the Hokage arrived. She took the message from the young chuunin with a nod and opened it. It was a polite request for her to report to the Hokage’s tower at her earliest convenience. On an impulse, she decided to take her notes with her. She had little doubt the Hidden Sand jinchuuriki would come up in their discussion and she might need to reference the reports she’d gathered. She knew the Sand jinchuuriki had been under close surveillance since she’d made her original report, but he or his jonin-sensei must have sensed the watchers. They’d done nothing suspicious, but they were still shinobi — the lack of suspicious activity was itself cause for concern.
Kurenai stretched her shoulders and twisted her back to loosen it up as she began walking to the center of the village. She’d been at this for days, but the safety of Naruto and Shino demanded no less.
It was unfortunate that she’d been forced to miss watching Gaara’s fight with Rock Lee. From Maito Gai’s description of the match, the Suna Genin had incredibly formidable defenses, even though he’d been unable to match Lee’s speed for most of the battle. More disturbing were reports from Mitarashi Anko concerning the crushed bodies she’d discovered in the aptly-named Forest of Death. The cause of death was catastrophic blunt trauma, though the masses of sand filling the crushed victims’ noses and throats would have killed them almost as quickly. Only remnants of the sand remained, but the ruptures and distention of the oral and nasal cavities suggested they had once been packed full of sand. All the evidence suggested this was the handiwork of Sabaku no Gaara.
The fact that the genin was a killer was not lost on Kurenai. While a few deaths were considered unavoidable in the constant skirmishing during the second exam, the fact remained that this Gaara person seemed to have no compunctions regarding the taking of human life. Moreover, given the defenses Gai described, it was more than likely that Gaara’s victims had no way of even hurting the Sand genin. The overall psychological profile she’d managed to develop was just as grim.
The political implications of the Kazekage entering such a dangerous predator into Konoha’s chuunin exam were just as ugly. However, that was the Hokage’s job to evaluate. Hers was to get him the most accurate information possible.
Kurenai had just gone over her data on Gaara when Naruto arrived.
"Hokage-sama, Sensei," Naruto greeted them with a polite bow, before quietly sitting in the other chair. Kurenai raised an eyebrow, wondering if she was being set up for another prank. Then she noticed out of the corner of her eye the old man’s expression of stark disbelief. Maybe the joke wasn’t on her this time.
"Ah, Naruto," the Hokage said after a moment. "I read your sensei’s report regarding the events that occurred during the second exam. You said that you actually… spoke to it?"
Naruto nodded soberly, and Kurenai was inwardly pleased that he was taking this seriously. "It didn’t like the idea of someone placing another seal on me. He said it could have effects on my mind, and he didn’t want his vessel being controlled by someone else. Also, the seal’s chakra was interfering with both my chakra and the fox’s chakra." Naruto paused, scratching his head. "He was really a jerk about it, but I think he was actually worried."
The Sandaime puffed on his pipe while he digested this. Kurenai was a little disconcerted at the idea of the Kyuubi being worried about anything. It was like hearing about a typhoon with hurt feelings. "And you were able to remove Orochimaru’s seal by forcing your chakra into it?"
Naruto nodded. "Mine, but mostly the fox’s chakra. It hurt, right up until the stupid thing exploded," her student explained, unconsciously clutching his right forearm. "It’s sort of like when you get a really infected pimple, so you squeeze the skin around it until it pops. It hurts the worst right before it explodes all over-"
"Yes, thank you Naruto!" Kurenai said quickly. She’d had her share of blemishes when she was younger, and had no desire to be reminded of all the gory details. No matter how apt a metaphor it might be.
She glanced quickly toward the Hokage, but the old man was merely nodding thoughtfully. "As the seal has worked constantly since you were a baby, the steady flow of chakra no doubt enlarged your coils, reinforcing them. That’s why the pressure didn’t rupture them." He nodded. "Naruto, since then, have you noticed any changes with respect to the seal or… your prisoner?"
Naruto shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable. "Not really. Sometimes I feel the red chakra a little easier when I’m mad at something, but I think that started before the Chuunin Exam."
The Hokage nodded gravely. "That doesn’t sound too bad, Naruto, provided you keep your temper under control. I know you didn’t ask for this responsibility, but you need to make sure there are not any… accidents."
Kurenai knew the Hokage was definitely hinting about the upcoming finals, but hoped he didn’t press the point. Hyuuga Neji’s behavior during his match with Hinata was just short of criminal, and her student’s desire to return the favor was not something she disagreed with. On the other hand, if Naruto did get out of hand… some might seek to use that. Still, better to not belabor the point, or else Naruto might think they were more interested in protecting the Hyuuga prodigy.
Fortunately, the Hokage was satisfied with Naruto’s quick nod. "I’ve also asked a former student of mine to return to Konoha. With all the people looking for him, I actually expected him before now. Apparently he was delayed. In any event, Jiraiya is an expert on seals, and he helped the Fourth develop some of the techniques that went into the seal placed on you, Naruto. He is probably the person most qualified to make sure the seal hasn’t been damaged in any way." Kurenai’s eyebrows lifted when she realized who the Hokage was referring to.
There was a knock at the door, and one of the chuunin guards stuck his head inside. "Jiraiya-sama is here, Hokage-sama," he said in a quietly reverent tone. From what little Kurenai had heard about the Hokage’s legendary students, known throughout the land as the Sannin, it was more than merited.
After a nod from the Hokage, the door opened all the way and a tall, broad-shouldered man strode into the room. He wore dull green robes over a mesh shirt that she could see glimpses of at the neck and wrists. On top of everything else he wore an oversized red vest with a yellow circle over each breast. Archaic wooden geta clacked on the floor, but his stride exhibited the steadiness that spoke of long experience wearing them.
The white hair suggested age, but his face was for the most part unlined. Kurenai estimated him to be in his fifties — a most dangerous age for shinobi. Without the energy of youth, some shinobi were content to slow down at that age, to take things easier. The more serious ones refused to concede anything to the passage of years, possibly even intensifying their training regimen. While maybe not as resilient as they once were, they stayed every bit as strong, and their accumulated experience made them far deadlier. Yuuhi Kurenai did not need to guess into which category this man had fallen. She almost unconsciously straightened her spine. This was obviously a man worthy of respect.
The fact that he was casually munching on a stick of dango only reinforced this impression. Not many would be comfortable acting so casual in the Hokage’s office. Though she understood that Naruto was an exception to that rule…
As if on cue, she heard her genin erupt in sputters of outrage.
"You no-good bastard thief!" Naruto shouted, jumping up from his chair.
"Naruto!" Kurenai snapped, too shocked at his reaction to do much more than gape.
"He’s still eating the evidence!" Naruto snarled, pointing a finger in the man’s face as he consumed the last of the sweet treat. "I bought that for Hinata-chan!" he added angrily, as if that made it even more contemptible. Kurenai frowned.
Jiriaiya cocked his head and peered at Kurenai through hooded eyes. "Isn’t he a little young for a girlfriend?" he asked.
Naruto’s shout of protest was ignored with a wave of the Sannin’s hand. "I just kept it from going to waste," Jiraiya replied casually, picking at his teeth with the dango stick. "Your clone shouldn’t have been so rude. Are you normally too lazy to run your own errands?" he asked curiously.
Naruto was red in the face, fists clenched, and emitting more than a small amount of killing intent. Kurenai was about to say something when she watched him visibly gather himself, opening his fists and closing his eyes until his complexion was back to normal. When he opened his eyes again, their normal blue tint seemed more like winter ice than summer skies.
"My clone just wanted to know why you were peeping into the women’s baths," Naruto replied in an icy tone.
Kurenai spun toward Jiraiya, vaguely aware that there was now a kunai in her hand. "Is this true?" she asked in a deceptively mild voice. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the Hokage massaging his forehead with a pained expression.
"Of course not!" Jiraiya blustered. "I was doing research!"
"Research on what?" Kurenai asked calmly.
"Er, spying techniques. That’s part of my cover, you know. No one takes a drunken old lecher seriously, so I can gather a lot of information with no one noticing." By the end of his explanation, he was clearly on a roll, chest puffed out and chin up. "I’m willing to make any sacrifice necessary to serve Konoha, for I am Myouboku Mountain’s Monk of the Toad Spirits, also known as the Toad Hermit!" With that he struck a dramatic pose that made Kurenai roll her eyes. This was the Hokage’s expert?
"Jiraiya has sent back quite a bit of information," the Hokage said in a strained voice. It didn’t escape Kurenai’s attention that he hadn’t commented on the rest of his former student’s claims. "I expected you at least a week ago," the Hokage continued, directing his attention toward Jiraiya now. "What delayed you?"
"Well," Jiraiya began, grimacing as he stretched his neck until it cracked, "someone had the brilliant idea to send this kid out to the border with Earth Country. I heard a few rumors as I was coming back and decided to chase them down. A renegade faction in Iwakagure was putting out word they wanted to hire missing-nins for an assassination within Konoha. Normally, that would require a bank full of ryou, but since the target was only a genin, some of the more desperate mercenaries were getting interested."
The Hokage scowled fiercely. "This is getting completely out of hand," he said, "has something been done about them?"
Jiraiya nodded smugly. "I had a few words with some contacts I maintain in the Tsuchikage’s office, and they leaked the information to the right people. Iwagakure doesn’t want a war with Konoha, at least not this year."
Almost in spite of herself, Kurenai felt a bit of gratitude toward the Sannin. The last thing Naruto needed right now was more people that wanted him dead.
"That’s good, as long as no hint of your involvement gets out," the Hokage said in a worried tone. "How reliable are these contacts of yours?"
"Very," Jiraiya answered, "they know I’m using them to some extent, but exposing this faction furthered their own interests as well. Besides, they are big fans of my work."
"Ah," the Hokage replied in a careful tone. "That’s useful, I suppose."
"Fans?" Kurenai asked curiously as she slid the kunai back into its concealed sheath.
"Of my great literary works," Jiraiya responded in a grandiose manner.
"Hmph," Naruto grunted. "If it was written by you, it’s probably a dirty book."
"Naruto!" Kurenai snapped. Disreputable or not, this Jiraiya had done them no small service. It wouldn’t be prudent to alienate him.
On the other hand, as Jiraiya began to harangue Naruto about respecting his elders, Kurenai did notice an odd expression flicker across the Hokage’s face. It was an odd mixture of guilt and amusement. "My apologies, Jiraiya-sama," she said in a formal tone. "My student is, as you can see, still upset. I am, however, fairly well read and I am curious to see if I may have read one of your books. What are their titles?"
"I’m about to publish Icha-Icha Paradise, volume seven!" Jiraiya announced proudly, ignoring the frantic waving of the Hokage’s hands.
"The books with the… orange covers?" Kurenai asked, slipping the kunai back into her hand as the Hokage covered his eyes.
"Why yes," Jiraiya answered slyly. "I can get you an advance copy, if you like."
"Naruto," Kurenai said through slightly clenched teeth. "Would you mind waiting in the hallway for a moment?"
"No, Sensei," Naruto said quickly and scuttled out of the room. A distant portion of her mind wondered why he had gone so pale. Maybe he was even more disgusted than she was.
"Good idea," Jiraiya said with a leer that turned her stomach. "Some things shouldn’t be discussed around brats, at least not until they are older."
Kurenai turned to glare at the older man. Sannin or not, she’d wondered about the source of Kakashi’s disgusting books for a while now. "I’m not sure what conversational topics you are referring to, but there are things I do not want a boy of that age exposed to. Among them is my opinion of the garbage you write."
Jiraiya’s mouth dropped open. He turned shocked eyes toward the Hokage, but out of the corner of her eye, Kurenai saw the old man looking down as he fiddled with his pipe.
"It’s bad enough to even have those thoughts, to treat women as mere sex objects, but to publish them so others can revel in your perversity? Do you know how many times I’ve had to sit through jonin meetings and listen to Hatake Kakashi, an otherwise skilled shinobi of the Leaf, reading one of your books and giggling like an adolescent schoolgirl? Half of the people I deal with don’t take me seriously as a jonin because of the sexist ideas that infest our society, and here you are spreading the infection."
Kurenai took a deep breath. This was an issue that had annoyed her for as long as she could remember, but this immature idiot was still a high ranking shinobi who could help her student. Stabbing him, while highly satisfying, would not be prudent. "Uzumaki Naruto," she said in a cold voice, "has put up with a lot of crap in his life, little of it deserved. This village hates him for incredibly stupid reasons, yet he has persevered and exceeded even my expectations. If you do anything to damage that, or corrupt him in any way, you will answer to me, and, Sannin or not, I will find a way to make you pay. Is that understood?"
Jiraiya’s face went stony during her tirade, and Kurenai braced herself for an explosion of wounded male pride. Instead, he just cocked his head and cracked a lop-sided grin. "Little brat really got to you, didn’t he?" he asked.
Things were a little calmer when Naruto was summoned back into the Hokage’s office. While it was a relief to feel the tension was mostly gone, he was a little disappointed to find the old pervert unharmed.
He didn’t even want to think of what Kurenai-sensei would do to him if she caught him peeking into the women’s baths. He wasn’t even sure she had realized that she was holding a kunai in her hand, but the fact that the hand in question had been at waist level had made quite an impression on him.
He was slightly self-conscious when the toad hermit told him to take off his jacket and t-shirt. If Kurenai-sensei and Hokage-sama weren’t there, he might even have bolted. Who knew what kind of sick stuff the old pervert might be into?
It didn’t help that this Jiraiya guy couldn’t keep from making comments once he was naked from the waist up.
"Damn, don’t they feed kids here anymore?" he asked with a smirk.
"It might help if he ate something besides ramen," Kurenai observed coolly. Naruto knew she was probably still irritated at this Jiraiya person, but now she was taking it out on him. Naruto’s irritation spiked even higher when Jiraiya reached out and squeezed his bicep.
"Wiry, but he’s still got some good muscle tone," the old man said speculatively.
"In addition to his normal missions and team training, he’s been working with a taijutsu specialist," Kurenai observed. "Very few shinobi train as hard as he does." Naruto willed his cheeks not to redden. It still felt good to hear his sensei acknowledge all his hard work.
"That’s good," Jiraiya replied with a nod. "But taijutsu is only part of being a shinobi."
"Taijutsu was an area that had been especially neglected by his instructors at the Academy," Kurenai shot back. "Improving that also improves the performance of his clones, which he is highly skilled with. I’ve also introduced them to basic jutsu of different types. However, given his situation, Naruto has experienced some unique challenges with respect to ninjutsu."
Naruto frowned. "Neh, sensei, I haven’t blown up a tree in ages!" It wouldn’t hurt to remind them that he was right here after all.
"Nonetheless, you almost did yourself serious injury with a very basic technique," Kurenai replied.
"Oh, I’ve got to hear this," Jiraiya said with a grin.
Naruto scowled as Kurenai explained his little mishap with the raiton jutsu. While she didn’t go out of her way to make him sound stupid, the smiles and chuckles from Jiraiya and the Hokage were getting on his nerves.
But the old creep looked thoughtful when she explained how Naruto had to consciously withhold chakra to keep from overloading his jutsu. "Things may be farther along than I anticipated. Okay, brat, I want you to mold some chakra. Don’t do anything with it, just mold it."
Naruto did as he was told, but he almost lost his focus when Jiraiya leaned forward to stare at his stomach. Naruto looked down and saw the elaborate eight-lobed seal had become visible around his navel.
"Keep it steady," Jiraiya ordered as his eyes narrowed.
After a while, the old pervert straightened up and told Naruto he could relax. "It looks like everything is intact. None of the elements appear to be breaking down, but it’s advanced a little farther than I expected."
"Advanced?" Kurenai asked quickly.
"The seal was designed to let the Kyuubi’s chakra leak out and slowly mix with Naruto’s," Jiraiya explained. "Done gradually enough, this would allow his body to adjust and absorb the chakra into his own reserves. As he grew, the constant pressure enlarged his coils, even as they were reinforced to handle the extra load. Now from what I can see, these passages were designed to slowly expand as Naruto aged, to increase the rate at which he can access this chakra. Otherwise, the Kyuubi could have flooded him too quickly when he was younger, and either damaged his coils or tried to influence him."
"The passages are dilated more than I expected to see at his age. On the other hand, from what I can see his coils are also better developed, so it’s still under control. You’d need to get a Hyuuga or someone to seriously check out his coils, but I think the seal is adapting to Naruto’s own development," the old man said with a grin. "That has to be my student’s finest work," he added, the pride in his voice unmistakable.
"You taught the Fourth?" Naruto demanded. The Fourth Hokage, savior of Konoha, was taught by a pervert?
"I’ll have Hinata do an evaluation when she’s released from the hospital," Kurenai said, her expression unreadable.
"She’s a Hyuuga?" Jiraiya asked. Then he winked at Naruto. "Not bad, kid."
"She’s not my girlfriend," Naruto said quickly, remembering Jiraiya’s earlier remark. "She’s my teammate."
The Hokage cleared his throat. "Well, it’s good to hear that we don’t have anything to worry about," he said. "And it looks like Naruto will continue to grow stronger if he keeps this up. Though he may always have some issues with respect to having too much chakra."
Naruto shrugged, but an idea had taken root in the back of his mind. Time for some payback. "I think I already know all the jutsu I need. Taijutsu is much more useful anyway."
That earned him a sharp look from Kurenai, but the old hermit simply exploded. "Is that what you think, you little brat? I can show you things that will make your hair stand on end, permanently!"
"I think that’s an excellent idea," the Hokage said quickly. "Given his reserves, Naruto could use some assistance learning more advanced jutsu than is normally taught to genin."
Jiraiya’s eyes bulged in their sockets. "Hey! He already has a sensei!" he objected.
"Kurenai is a genjutsu specialist, an area in which I understand that Naruto’s attributes mean he is especially challenged." The Hokage replied, lighting his pipe again.
"It requires a certain delicacy to the chakra manipulations, and his control is still not up to that level," Kurenai explained with an apologetic look toward Naruto. "He is, however, amazingly talented as dispelling genjutsu."
"Not to mention that Kurenai also has a third genin that Naruto could possibly fight in the finals," the Hokage added. "It would be somewhat awkward, if she were to spend significantly more time with one student than the other."
Naruto could smell a con job a mile away. "Don’t worry about it," he said dismissively. "I’d rather spend more time with Gai-sensei if he’ll let me. He’s a really good teacher and I know I’ll learn more useful things than I could with this pervert."
Jiraiya rounded on Naruto, his face the picture of outrage. "Is that what you think?" he demanded. "Put your clothes back on and follow me."
After Naruto followed Jiraiya out of the office, Kurenai turned to the Hokage. "That was very neat," she observed.
The old man chuckled. "Sannin or not, I’ve known him since he was a boy. Naruto did most of the work though. You’ve really done wonders with him."
Kurenai allowed herself a slight smile. "I can’t take too much credit. He’s always been exceedingly clever." But then she thought of Hinata and the smile bled off of her face. "I think he’s going to need it though."
"Is there something you’d like to report?" the Hokage asked in a delicate tone.
"Officially?" Kurenai replied. "No. Unofficially, I think Naruto has had some things confirmed that I’ve been suspecting. It will be… challenging for him to deal with this knowledge, since the wrongdoer is far too politically connected to answer for his crimes. But that’s just the way things are, isn’t it? Better he learn that sooner than later." Her bitterness was unmistakable.
She felt a flash of guilt when the Hokage winced. "I can still open an inquiry," he offered, "but-"
"But with no new evidence, the outcome will be useless," Kurenai admitted. "Worse, some will see this as politically motivated and use that against you."
"And if they discover that you were the instigator of the investigation…" the Hokage added, letting his voice trail off.
Kurenai frowned. "Yes, that would be enough justification to demand she be transferred to another jonin. I think he’d do that just to spite both of us."
"If you can think of another way to address this, please let me know," Sarutobi added before taking a thoughtful puff on his pipe.
"I don’t think there is," Kurenai said in a pained voice. "And that’s the lesson Naruto has to learn from all this. But I don’t think it’s one he will accept."
By the time they quit later that evening, Naruto had to admit the old pervert knew his jutsu. He proved this by ordering Naruto to show him a technique he knew, and then had him stand back.
After Naruto demonstrated Doton: Wana, causing a training log to sink a couple of feet into the ground, the toad hermit made a series of seals and exclaimed "Doton: Yomi Numa!" Instantly, the ground fell away in front of the toad hermit, the hole filling with water. The so-called "Swamp of the Underworld" engulfed half the training ground, undermining trees, submerging equipment, and generally creating havoc.
Naruto found himself drooling. He’d never seen anything so… beautiful. He imagined using that on an unwary pursuit team chasing his friends and shivered.
"What were the seals for that one again?" he asked in a reverent tone.
In the end, they worked out a compromised schedule. Naruto continued working with Gai and Lee in the morning, had lunch with Hinata-chan at the hospital while she was still being treated, and then spent the afternoons and early evenings with the toad hermit.
Jiraiya preferred that division, since he said he â€˜wasn’t a morning person’. Since Naruto always saw him heading off toward Konoha’s red lantern district after their training sessions, he had a pretty good idea of why.
Naruto was a little hesitant to tell Gai-sensei that he wouldn’t be working with them in the afternoons anymore, but the minute Jiraiya’s name left his mouth, Gai was most enthusiastic about the change. Naruto could only assume Gai knew the toad hermit, or at least of his reputation, which made Naruto begin to wonder about the old man. Maybe he wasn’t as flaky as he acted, sort of like Gai-sensei at the hospital.
In any event, he made the most of this more limited training time, fighting Rock Lee head on, rather than trying to always outlast him. It was mostly pretty painful, but he did cherish the few times he managed to knock his friend on his butt.
A couple of days into this new routine, Kurenai invited him and Shino over for dinner at her house. Naruto arrived at the small homestead, somewhat curious as to her purpose. He hoped it wasn’t to talk about Hinata — the things she’d told him were said in confidence, and it wouldn’t feel right to repeat them, even to Shino and Kurenai.
Shino was just walking up to the front door when Naruto arrived. Superficially, the Aburame genin looked the same as always. However, Gai had been coaching him and Lee on how to evaluate an opponent’s body language. Shino’s stride seemed tighter, more controlled, and his center of gravity never deviated as he walked. Naruto didn’t doubt that Shino’s mother had really been working on his weapon skills.
Shino acknowledged Naruto’s wave with a barely perceptible nod before Naruto knocked on the door.
Their sensei opened the door and showed them into her home. Naruto muttered the traditional pleasantries that Hinata had drilled him on as they walked to the Aburame household, but Kurenai merely waved them off. He looked around curiously. The house was… comfortable… he supposed was the best word to describe it. The furniture was simple, but well-maintained, and everything was arranged in an orderly fashion. There were a few pictures on the walls, mostly of an older couple he guessed were her parents. The only picture of his sensei was in a faded group shot that he guessed was her old team, along with a burly man who had to be Kobaru-sensei.
Kurenai showed him and Shino into the dining room and gestured for them to sit down. Naruto was surprised to see the table piled with papers and scrolls. A few cardboard containers were piled haphazardly on a side table, but they did smell good.
"I picked up some take-out dinners from Moritake’s," Kurenai explained as she passed them each a box and sat down. "I figured we could eat while I go over my findings."
Naruto carefully set aside his dinner and curiously opened the top folder on the pile in front of him. Inside was a stack of papers, topped with a picture of Hyuuga Neji.
"…and that pretty much sums up all the competitors in the Chuunin Examination finals, with two exceptions," Kurenai said as she concluded her presentation.
"Naruto and myself," Shino replied.
"Yes," Kurenai agreed. She was pleasantly surprised at how attentive her audience was. There was something to be said for mortal peril with respect to sharpening one’s focus. "I assume the two of you know each other fairly well, so that would be wasted effort. Furthermore, these reports contain a fair amount of speculation and guesswork on my part, based on the available data."
"And you do not wish to inadvertently compromise anything either of us has told you in confidence," Shino added. Naruto nodded. No doubt his recent conversations with Hinata had made him especially sensitive to such concerns.
"That is correct," Kurenai confirmed.
Naruto shrugged. "I won’t do anything to kill your bugs, Shino."
"It would be inappropriate for me to expect you to hold back, Naruto," Shino replied, straightening his dark glasses.
Naruto grinned. "You told me they can’t really drain my chakra too well. They keep getting full and falling off."
"I can utilize them to consume flesh as well as chakra," Shino informed him. "The former, however is not usually necessary, and the utilization of anthropophagous techniques against nominal allies is contraindicated for a rank progression match."
Naruto made a face. "Are you trying to get the tent to yourself, next time we go camping?"
Kurenai cleared her throat very loudly. "I want both of you to do you best," she told them, "but I also do not want to see either of you inflicting permanent injuries on each other. Is that understood?"
Naruto nodded. "I’m saving all that for Neji," he declared with a wide grin.
Shino adjusted his glasses again. The repeated gesture betrayed his agitation to anyone who knew him well. Kurenai wondered if she should ask him how he felt about the match-ups for the final. He wasn’t visibly distressed that Naruto would get to fight Neji first, but sometimes she wondered. After a moment, Shino spoke again, "If I am over-matched in one of my fights, I will endeavor to drain as much of their chakra before I am defeated. This should help you if you face them afterward."
Naruto scratched his head. "Thanks," he said after a moment. "If I, er, get into the same situation, I’ll try to hit their legs if I can and slow them down for your bugs to catch."
Kurenai sighed. "I suppose no one can blame you two for that," she said. Then she began gathering up the notes she’d gone through. "Both of you take your copies home with you. I’d be very careful about letting anyone else see them, but you should make a point of memorizing all the pertinent details."
Shino had already organized his reports neatly into the file, but Naruto had let his papers spread out. He hurriedly began shuffling the papers back together. "Ah, sensei," he said after a moment as he got them all together, "I almost forgot I needed to ask you something."
"What is it Naruto?" Kurenai asked as she stood up and stretched. After little rest the last few nights, she would have no trouble sleeping tonight.
"The old pervert was showing me some new moves, and something called summoning technique," Naruto explained. "He said I could learn it, but first I had to sign a special contract." He shrugged. "You said I should be careful about signing any sort of contract and to talk to you before I did."
Kurenai nodded, even as she sighed. Technically, it would be advantageous for him not to bring this up in front of Shino, but he apparently wasn’t capable of regarding his teammates as potential enemies. "I’ve heard of summoning contracts before," she admitted. "I understand they can be useful, but are very chakra-intensive. That’s why they aren’t really covered at the Academy. Normally only a jonin can use one effectively. Also, this is something you might want to think over. Normally, I understand that these contracts usually contain an exclusivity clause that would prevent you from signing a contract with a different type of animal in the future."
Naruto frowned and looked thoughtful.
"I presume that Jiraiya has the contract for toads?" Kurenai asked.
Naruto nodded, and they both jumped as Shino dropped his folder on the floor. Shino quickly bent over and began gathering his papers, shoving them haphazardly into the folder. When he straightened up, Kurenai thought she noticed a slight tremor in his hands. "Are you all right?" she asked.
Shino nodded. Then he turned to Naruto. "That would be a very formidable technique. That being the case, I will no doubt be forced to forfeit the match if we meet in the finals."
"Forfeit?" Naruto asked, clearly dismayed. "But why?"
"Toads are incredibly voracious insectivores," Shino explained, "capable of consuming a significant portion of their own body mass in a single night. If I attempted to use my kikai jutsu around them, I would stand to lose significant portions of my colonies in short order. Even if I were to defeat you, I would be effectively crippled in the process."
"Oh," Naruto said.
"However, you should not let that be your sole decision criterion," Shino concluded. "As this should remain between you and Kurenai-sensei, I will bid you both good evening."
With that, Shino left, and Kurenai wondered if it was her imagination or he was walking a little faster than usual. She shook her head and turned back to Naruto. "If you’d like some more information, I’ll see what I can find at the library."
Naruto shook his head. "No way am I signing that scroll now," he declared.
Kurenai merely raised an eyebrow and awaited his explanation.
"The old pervert was showing off when he demonstrated the technique," Naruto began. "Some of those toads are really big. I wouldn’t dare try using them when we’re on a mission — one of them might eat Shino, just to get all his bugs."
Kurenai blinked. "I see," she said. That was definitely a novel reason not to learn a new jutsu. She only hoped Naruto didn’t later regret his thoughtfulness.
The day of the Chuunin Examination Final Matches dawned bright and sunny. Naruto stood in a line with the other competitors as the Hokage made a speech from the Kage’s elevated platform welcoming all the spectators.
Things had gone well the last couple of weeks. Though disappointed about the contract, Jiraiya had still shown him some cool jutsu. Gai and Lee had his taijutsu at a level he’d barely imagined being capable of.
Best of all, Hinata wasn’t in the damn hospital anymore.
After three weeks of convalescence, she was released with a long list of exercises she needed to perform. Though the rupture was healed, these exercises were vital to ensure the pulmonary tissues healed without excessive scarring or loss of elasticity.
More importantly, since the injury was sustained in the course of her normal duties, Kurenai-sensei directed Hinata to stay at her home until she’d fully recovered. This allowed the jonin to supervise Hinata’s rehabilitation and make sure she was fully recovered before returning to active duty. At least, that was the official explanation.
Naruto couldn’t deny the palpable relief he felt when Hinata told him about Kurenai’s offer, but the joy on his friend’s face ignited a spark of anger as well. It wasn’t right that she should feel this way, that she’d rather train forever and never see her family again.
Almost against his will, he felt his eyes cutting over toward Neji, standing beside him. The Hyuuga prodigy’s face seemed almost inhumanly composed. Naruto knew he’d have to do something about that.
After the Hokage was finished, Hayate walked out in front of them, looking as sickly as ever. He coughed once before speaking. "All right, as most of you know, the rule for these matches is that there aren’t really any rules. You fight until you are dead, knocked out, or surrender." Another cough. "But if I decide the match is over, it’s over. Understood?" Naruto wondered if it was his imagination or Hayate’s glare seemed to fix itself on Neji and Gaara more than the rest of them.
"Okay, the first match is Uzumaki Naruto and Hyuuga Neji," Hayate continued. "I want the rest of you to go back to the waiting area until your matches are called."
The other six genin slowly filed off the field. Most of them were expressionless, but Shino and Naruto managed to share a quick nod before the Aburame boy left. The unspoken message was clear to Naruto. Kick Neji’s ass.
Umino Iruka made his way gingerly through the stands as the competitors were gathered on the field. He had no desire to trip and bump into some visiting dignitary. An international incident would not look good on his next performance review at the Konoha Ninja Academy.
Normally, he would sit with the academy instructors or the other chuunin and jonin attending the finals. This year found him sitting in more rarefied areas, wearing a fine kimono purchased with some of his recent winnings. Sartorial finery wasn’t really his thing, but it was necessary for him to fit in and get close to his targets.
It was odd to apply the things he taught to something that most definitely wasn’t a mission.
Almost reflexively his fingers brushed across the heavy purse belted to his waist. He didn’t normally carry this much money around and it made him a little nervous. Not only did it contain his winnings from the preliminary round, but Ichiraku Teuchi, Yuuhi Kurenai, and a couple of others had added their money to his. He’d even approached Maito Gai at the end of one of his training sessions. He made sure Naruto wasn’t around before mentioning the betting, as he didn’t want to put any more pressure on the boy, but he felt he owed Gai an opportunity to profit as well. Gai frowned, thinking for well over a minute, before he regretfully declined. While he appreciated the offer, it didn’t feel right to be betting against one of his own students, no matter what had happened before. Iruka didn’t press the issue, understanding the man’s awkwardness. But that didn’t stop Rock Lee from catching up with Iruka later that day and pressing on him a squirrel-shaped wallet stuffed with ryou.
Listening carefully, Iruka’s sharp ears located the amused murmurs, the dismissive whispers that guided him to his targets. He glanced around as he took a seat, apparently chosen at random. The rich finery and ostentatiously displayed wealth indicated some were no doubt members of the village council. There were a few lined faces with white eyes that he assumed were Hyuuga elders. The two youngest-looking Hyuugas there were Hiashi and his daughter, Hanabi. The latter seemed to look right through Iruka, not recognizing him out of his uniform.
Smoothing down his kimono with a fussy gesture, Iruka said, in a highly accented voice. "Well, this match looks interesting. Would anyone care to place a wager or two on the outcome?"
Naruto turned to face his opponent, who gazed back with a slightly superior expression. "You look like you want to say something," Neji said in a cold voice.
Naruto leaned forward slightly and grinned. Kurenai-sensei told him once that his canine teeth were a little larger than normal, and displaying them to best effect could have an unsettling effect on others. "Only that I’ve been looking forward to this for a month," he snarled.
Neji didn’t bat an eye. "Given our relative capacities, that is a foolish desire."
"Foolish or not," Naruto said, "I will defeat you." He tensed a little as Hayate said to start and he saw Neji’s Byakugan activate.
"You may honestly believe you have a chance against me," Neji said. "But I will also see your face when you realize the truth of your situation."
"You’re not the first person to think that," Naruto scoffed, "and I doubt you’ll be the last. Wherever he is, your father must be very disappointed."
That last barb sailed right through Hyuuga Neji’s icy composure. The veins around his eyes bulged so far Naruto wondered if they might pop. "For that, I will kill you," Neji snapped.
Naruto shrugged. "Hey, at least you have some memories of yours. And I don’t take my grief out on someone who shares it. Fool." The last word was pure Shino speaking, but Naruto couldn’t quite get the same contemptuous tone his teammate could.
"Are you two here to fight or talk?" Hayate interrupted, sounding annoyed.
"My apologies, Hayate-san," Naruto said lightly. "I just wanted Neji-kun to understand exactly why I’m going to beat him like a drum." With that, he formed the familiar ram seal and cried out "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"
A dozen clones surrounded Neji and immediately began to charge at the Hyuuga. He spun and dodged, avoiding all the attacks and exploding clones left and right.
"His Jyuuken is pretty good, isn’t it?" Naruto asked Hayate in a conversational tone.
Hayate just turned to stare at him.
Naruto frowned. Maybe he thought this was a distraction so he could cheat. Then Naruto remembered there were no rules anyway. He shrugged. "He’s not as graceful as Hinata-chan, but his strikes have more power behind them." He sighed as the last of the clones was dispatched. "But Jyuuken isn’t everything, is it?"
With that, Naruto sprang away from Hayate, hurling a brace of kunai. Neji dodged them with unerring precision, moving his body just enough to make them miss.
Neji responded with his own volley of kunai. Naruto dodged all but one of them.
That one he caught and threw back with a mocking smile.
Neji moved in, closing the distance. "At least you recognize your limitations," he said with a sneer. "Everyone is born with a certain degree of talent, and that does not change. Struggling against your fate is futile. You do not have the ability to defeat me, so you do well to keep your distance."
"Is that what the Hyuuga genius thinks?" Naruto snarled as he charged.
Hinata let out a gasp as she saw Naruto abruptly switch tactics. Kurenai-sensei wasn’t sure she was up to watching the finals, but Hinata insisted she was fine. To prove the point, she even performed the prescribed daily breathing exercises three times yesterday to show she was fit. The idea of not watching Naruto fight was… was simply unacceptable.
However, watching the match was… surprisingly difficult for her. Of course, she wanted Naruto to win, but she also didn’t want to see Neji killed. So much had been taken from her cousin… it didn’t seem right that he lose everything else. But she couldn’t ask Naruto to hold back either. Not when she didn’t think Neji would hesitate to hurt her teammate.
In a way, it was a relief when Naruto insisted she explain about the Hyuuga clan. Not only did it give her a warm glow when he insisted there was nothing wrong with her, but it also allowed her to explain about Neji and his resentment of the main family. He’d lost his father to protect her father. Showing anger toward her father simply wasn’t safe, not with the seal on Neji’s forehead, waiting to be activated. So she was the logical target for his rage.
Kurenai, fortunately, hadn’t heard her outburst. Sensei’s attention was solely focused on the match, which shamed Hinata a little. She knew Kurenai was too disciplined to let random thoughts distract her from things. That was an example she should work harder to meet.
"You are just as foolish as I thought," Neji said as he ducked under Naruto’s kick and countered with a palm-strike loaded with chakra. "Or are you anxious to meet your fate?"
Naruto executed a spinning block he perfected sparring with Hinata. His left palm slammed into Neji’s forearm, well behind the chakra spike, turning the strike aside. "There is no fate but what we make," he replied with a tight grin. Continuing the motion, Naruto spun completely around and his right heel only missed Neji’s ribs because the Hyuuga genius leapt backward. "I learned that one sparring with Hinata," Naruto informed him with a grin.
"You haven’t seen the true power of Jyuuken, sparring with that weakling," Neji sneered.
Naruto’s fragile rein on his temper cracked with an audible snap.
"She’s not a weakling, asshole!" Naruto screamed and charged. His fist grazed Neji’s jaw right before a Jyuuken strike speared through his shoulder.
"Dammit," Naruto growled as he somersaulted backwards. Ignoring the burning agony in his shoulder, he straightened his back at the right moment to launch himself backwards into the air.
Neji’s follow-up blow struck the uncaring ground, rather than Naruto’s spine.
Naruto was done playing with this idiot. He hit the weight-release catches and arched his back. As his rotation slowed, Naruto abruptly bent at the waist, snapping his arms and legs together and launching the weights like missiles. The momentum they imparted sent his much-lighter body flying backward like it had been shot from a cannon. He stuck to the wall using chakra and looked down at the arena floor.
Only one of the chakra-enhanced masses struck the target, much to Naruto’s disappointment. But that one was enough to send Neji rolling across the arena. The rest had cratered rather impressively into the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust that had Hayate coughing again.
Neji climbed to his feet, not looking as battered as Naruto might have hoped. Of course, if he wasn’t pretty damn good, he never would have beaten Hinata-chan. "More tricks?" the Hyuuga called out angrily. "Is that what you learned from my cousin?" he sneered. "Useless tricks like this?"
Naruto jumped down to the arena floor. "If it was useless, then how did you get knocked on your ass?" he asked. He bounced lightly on the balls of his feet. He hadn’t taken his weights off in a long time. It felt good. Really good. Time to up the ante. "Here’s some more tricks," he called out as he threw a wide spread of kunai, each one with an explosive tag attached.
Neji’s eyes of course picked up the tags. Dodging multiple explosions would be damn near impossible. Instead, he raised his arms to shoulder level and began to spin. As he turned, chakra began to stream from his body, expanding outward even as it made him turn faster and faster.
Neither Hinata nor Kurenai knew for sure if Neji could perform the Hakkeshou Kaiten, or Heavenly Spin technique, an all-around defense against attacks. But if he didn’t know it already, there was a good chance Hiashi might have taught him in the month of preparation. If nothing else, it would make a strong impression on the rest of the village, Kurenai had reasoned in her notes.
Looks like she was right, Naruto thought as he summoned a horde of clones. He sent them against Neji in fours and fives. They exploded as soon as they touched the sphere of spinning chakra that surrounded him, but the noise and puffs of smoke were definitely a distraction.
Naruto kneeled at the back of the crowd, gathering his chakra. "Doton: Yomi Numa!" he called out as he slapped his palm against the ground. He must have been a little over-excited, Naruto guessed, because the ground crumbled away even faster than he expected.
Most of the remaining clones charged forward as their footing disappeared. The pops as they exploded were almost deafening, but they served their purpose. Naruto watched with growing satisfaction as the Kaiten began to sink into the softening ground, slowly at first and then faster and faster as the Heavenly Spin sent mud flying in every direction and Hyuuga Neji’s technique screwed himself into the ground.
By the time Neji realized what was happening and stopped, he was already ten feet down. Worse, no longer supported by his chakra emissions, the walls of liquefied mud that surrounded him collapsed. He was abruptly engulfed.
Naruto couldn’t help but laugh, falling to one knee as he was overcome by the humor of what just happened. So he was caught completely off-guard when a Neji-shaped mass of mud erupted from the instant swamp and speared him between the eyes with a Jyuuken strike. The green-clad genin stiffened as his frontal lobes were shredded, destroying most of his higher brain functions.
Then he exploded into a cloud of vapor.
Neji spun around as a piece of debris disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving Uzumaki Naruto standing in its place. Naruto’s fist dug into Neji’s stomach, blowing him backward off his feet. "Your eyes can see through genjutsu," Naruto told him as he stalked toward the Hyuuga prodigy, who was now covered in mud, struggling to his knees, missing both his forehead protector and his silly-ass hat. Neji glared as he clutched his stomach. "But I showed you what you expected to see. What use are those fancy eyes if you won’t use them?" Naruto asked.
"I can see that you’ve come within range of my divination," Neji snapped, surging to his feet with greater speed than he’d shown a moment ago. "Divination Field: Sixty-Four Strikes!"
Naruto had glimpsed Hinata do something like this once, but she couldn’t really explain it or even replicate it when they sparred. Now Naruto got a much better view of it than he really wanted. The Hyuuga’s hands moved with blinding speed. "Two strikes!" and two sharp pains registered in Naruto’s mind. "Four strikes!" and Naruto now felt four, all on his torso. "Eight strikes!" and he realized that Neji was hitting his tenketsu points with unerring precision. "Sixteen strikes!" It looked like he was trying to close all of them. "Thirty-two strikes!" the muddy shinobi shouted as his hands stabbed Naruto like knives, inflicting immense pain even as they deadened everything they touched. "Sixty-four strikes!" and Naruto flew backwards from the storm of chakra strikes, landing in a heap on the ground.
Neji settled back into a ready stance, ignoring the slowly-drying mud that dripped from his arms. "I have closed all the tenketsu on your body," he announced, "and thus your fate is sealed. This fight is over."
Naruto grunted and got his knees under him.
"Mortifying, isn’t it?" Neji asked in a contemptuous tone. "You are on your knees before a power you cannot defeat, discovering just how truly powerless you really are. Your conviction that working hard will change things is only an illusion. Both for you and my cousin."
Up in the stands, the sudden quiet that had fallen after the fight’s surprising conclusion made Neji’s words audible to Hinata. She was already dismayed by the mastery of advanced Jyuuken technique Neji had demonstrated, and his cruel words only made her feel worse. Now Naruto would know the bitter sting of defeat. Would it change him? Would he blame her?
Just thinking those thoughts made something twist, deep in her stomach. This… this wasn’t right.
She leaned forward, fingers digging into the flesh above her knees, willing Naruto to get up. To win.
"Is that what you think?" Naruto gasped out as he painfully climbed to his feet.
He was rewarded with the barest flicker of doubt within the white eyes of the Hyuuga genius. "Don’t you realize this is futile?" Neji asked. "You’re just going to get hurt worse if you continue."
"Do you think I can just walk away from this after what you did?" Naruto demanded.
"After what I did?" Neji shot back. "Do you know what they did to me?" Neji’s normally restrained voice grew rough with uncontrolled emotion. He swiped the mud from his forehead. "This seal controls my fate, just as it did my father’s. He died in place of the clan leader to keep the peace with Kumo."
"I know about that," Naruto replied, narrowing his eyes. "Hinata’s father killed the man who kidnapped her, but is it her fault that happened? Maybe her father should have disabled him instead of killing him. Maybe it would have been better if we went to war with Kumo if they are going to do things like that. But the only thing Hinata has to do with your father or your seal is being born."
Naruto straightened and took a deep breath. "But you refuse to see the truth of that. So I’m going to have to beat it into you." He let out a harsh cry as he surged his chakra.
Uzumaki Naruto was used to re-opening his tenketsu. Doing that was a normal consequence of sparring with Hinata. But he’d never had to open all of them at once. In doing this, he discovered two things.
One, it hurt like hell. Normally, he was used to a small twinge in his chakra coils from the back pressure. This felt more like someone rammed a utility pole through them.
The second was that pushing out that much chakra all at once, when it was suddenly released by the points opening, was pretty noticeable. Hayate, who’d been edging closer, obviously wondering if he needed to stop the fight, was bowled over. Neji, who was standing a lot closer, went airborne.
Of course, the Hyuuga managed to control his descent, landing lightly on his feet. But when he turned to face Naruto, his expression was clearly shocked. "That’s impossible," he whispered. Fortunately, Naruto could read lips.
"Just as impossible as fighting against fate," Naruto said as he closed in again, "Just as impossible as fighting a Jyuuken user hand to hand."
Iruka inhaled sharply as he watched Naruto do the impossible. No one could counter the effects of Jyuuken. Avoiding the attacks was the only possible defense. At least, up until now.
From the choked gasps and sputtering that erupted around him, he didn’t think he was alone in that opinion.
"Is it--?" one man asked behind him.
"No, it’s not. We’d be able to feel it," a voice answered.
"That’s good," a third one said.
"No it’s not," the second voice replied. "That brat has still trumped our greatest weapon. We can’t let him live with that knowledge."
Iruka’s head spun around so fast he was sure he’d pulled a muscle, but the voices had already cut off. Behind him, he saw a mix of council elders and older Hyuugas, some of whom were now glaring at him with a mixture of confusion and hostility.
"Neji has not been defeated," Hyuuga Hiashi said, drawing their attention away from the disguised chuunin. Iruka quickly turned back to the match.
Naruto was now intensely grateful for every sparring session with Hinata. It took everything he’d learned, everything they’d practiced to keep up with Hyuuga Neji.
But that was the point. He was keeping up.
The Hyuuga genius couldn’t seem to hit him squarely, only managing glancing blows every now and then. Of course, the chakra enhancing those blows made them hurt like hell. But Naruto just gritted his teeth and bore it, and slowly the pain would fade.
Then Neji made a sweet little hesitating juke that drew Naruto’s attention to the wrong side for a moment. In that instant, the feint turned into a full on Jyuuken strike aimed at Naruto’s heart.
Desperate, Naruto copied one of Hinata’s moves, and bent back sharply at the waist. The powerful Jyuuken strike passed over his now horizontal torso, the chakra spike making the skin of his face tingle.
In that instant of surprise as Neji realized his strike had missed, Naruto’s hands shot up and clamped around Neji’s wrist. His feet left the ground and an instant later slammed squarely into Neji’s ribcage. As he heard the air rush out of the Hyuuga’s lungs in a startled exhalation, Naruto wrenched at the arm he held with all his strength.
There was a sickening pop as he wrenched Neji’s shoulder out of its socket.
Naruto let go almost immediately and rolled to his feet. Neji fell to his knees, his right arm twisted at an odd angle. With his good hand, he hurled a brace of shuriken at Naruto.
Naruto dodged all but one of the missiles, and used a kunai to deflect that one skyward.
Neji let out a groan as he pulled on his arm, and finally wrenched it back into the socket. The surge of pain almost made him pass out. He blinked and glared at Naruto, who suddenly disappeared, only to be replaced by a familiar-looking shuriken.
He looked left and right, slowly mustering the chakra to reactivate his Byakugan. He’d already expended much more of his reserves than he expected to, but nothing about this fight had gone as he expected.
He was distracted by motion below him. Why was his shadow growing? His instincts screamed at him to move, so he threw himself to the side as something green slammed into the ground where he’d been kneeling.
When the debris settled, there was a small crater, with Uzumaki Naruto on one knee at the bottom of it. His right fist was touching the ground, in the exact center of the crater.
He looked up and met Neji’s eyes. For an instant, Naruto’s eyes flashed purple as he exploded forward.
Naruto didn’t let up for an instant as he pummeled Neji. His fist snapped the Hyuuga’s head back, but Naruto was already dropping to the ground to do a foot-sweep. Neji’s feet were knocked out from under him so hard he was horizontal in mid-air when a hammer-fist strike to his solar plexus slammed him to the ground and the air burst from his lungs.
Neji was gasping for breath as Naruto dragged him to his feet, a handful of Neji’s grimy tunic in his left hand. His head lolled loosely on his neck.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hayate opening his mouth to stop the match. He drew back his right hand, the fingers curling into claws and red chakra surging around it like hungry flames. He ripped it across Neji’s face as Hayate shouted for him to stop.
Blood flew across the dirt as Neji was slammed to the ground.
He didn’t move.
The match was over.
Thanks again to Runsamok and Bibliophile for vetting this in short order after the last chapter. It’s amazing how the words fly when you finally figure out how to make all the pieces fit together.
And you can all thank Bibliophile for raising the issue of toads being insect-eaters. That Shino freak-out scene is for you, Joe!
Hmmm… I wish people would do a little digging before they rush to correct me. According to Wikipedia, it’s WHITE chrysanthemums that are used for funerals (you even see some at the Sandaime’s funeral in canon) — not yellow.
And for the people freaking out because of the events of this chapter: If all you wanted was a re-hash of canon, then why are you reading fanfiction? I was surprised by the number of reviews for the last chapter from people distressed that I’m not doing everything just like the original. Some plot elements will be changed by the AU divergence, some will not. But I do have a plan, and I think the majority of you will like it. There is method to my madness!
More AU questions: Hayate didn’t die because the forewarned Hokage had ANBU watching the Sand team pretty carefully. No late night meetings with Baki for him to stumble into and get pwned.
Yes, that was a Terminator quote. It seemed appropriate.
As always, my blog has progress meters showing how far I am in the new chapters. And the blog site now has forums for updates, questions, and sneak previews of upcoming chapters. Check out my profile for a link.
And, now, as promised. The winner to Team 8 Omake Contest #2:
All the entries were quite good, and longer than I anticipated. Kudos to all who participated. (You can see all the entries on my forums.)
With no further ado, I present the winner, by tjchaos:
â€˜Chouji against Yoroi. Damn. I hope Chouji does well, although it is amazing that he and the rest of the rookies got this far.’ Iruka thought to himself as he followed the other four
chuunin out of the auditorium. He paused to give one last glance back over his shoulder while standing in the doorway and watched Naruto climb the stairs for a second.
Only the three lead proctors, the Hokage and the genin teams’ jounin instructors would remain in the auditorium with the genin that were fighting in this preliminary round. Iruka and the four proctors he was walking with would join the other junior proctors in a nearby ready room.
Iruka looked around the room and sighed as he entered; he was still a little wobbly at times from his injuries and was surprised to see as many people there. The crowd wasn’t going to make his trek across the room any easier. There were easily two or three dozen ninja scattered around the room sitting at various tables and all were intently watching the television screens that were mounted at regular intervals around the room. His eyes widened slightly as he spotted a bar along a wall. That seemed to be a strange addition but then again to even have an addition elimination round at this stage of the chuunin exam was unusual.
There was even an odd bartender standing behind the bar cleaning a glass. Iruka looked at the white haired man as he stood there. Something about the man was oddly familiar but Iruka couldn’t place him. If anything the man looked like he belonged more in some high class establishment with his dark vest and sharply tied bow tie. Iruka thought the bartenders white handlebars mustache was a little over the top and his glasses made the academy instructor a little uneasy. He couldn’t quite figure out what the deal was with the glasses but he couldn’t see the bartenders eyes behind the strange glasses despite the lenses not being dark. Of course the best available seat was at the bar. Iruka sighed again as he walked over and sat on one of the stools. At least he had an unobstructed view of one of the screens over the bar.
"Welcome, what would you like." The bartender said with a smile.
"You wouldn’t happen to have any fruit juice would you?" Iruka replied.
"Sure, plenty of everything here. Although plain fruit juice is an odd choice with this crowd."
"I was recently released from the hospital, gotta hold off on any alcohol for a little while yet."
"Ah, that would explain it. Interesting exam this time around. Hard to believe so many Konoha rookies made it this far isn’t it?" The tall man stated as he placed a glass full of fruit juice on the bar in front of Iruka and nodded to the already started fight on the screen.
"There were quite a number of exceptional students in the last class. A little odd having a bar and bartender here isn’t it?" Iruka said as he took the glass, his eyes though never left the screen.
"Old Sarutobi asked me to be here, it was apparently obvious a few days ago that this round was going to happen and he wanted all of you guys to be served by the best." The strange man stated with a smile.
Iruka glanced around as he simply nodded to the bartender and noted there was some betting going on around the room. None of the bettors favored Chouji but at 3 to 1 odds there were several willing to wager a bit of cash on the young Akimichi.
"Doesn’t look too good for the heavy set kid." The bartender muttered as the fight progressed.
Suddenly the sound from the televisions vanished. Iruka thought he heard a very faint â€˜shit’ emanate from the various speakers but it was so low he could have been mistaken.
"I think the â€˜heavy set kid’ as you called him just won the match." Iruka smiled at the bartenders puzzled look.
Sure enough, in a surprisingly short time Hayate was declaring Chouji the winner and called for the medic-nins.
The room was relatively quiet for the next round. There were some odd rumors going around concerning the genin team from Suna. Nobody seemed to actually know anything substantial about the young blond woman facing Tenten. None of them cared to place any bets against one of their own, at least not when facing a foreign ninja tied to those odd rumors going around.
As the two young women walked down to the lower floor the only conversation that seemed to really be going on around the room was how impressed everyone was with the camera crews. It wasn’t easy coordinating a few hidden cameras to the television feed well enough to capture the action on the floor well. Granted they only had the one fight so far to judge but none of them had any complaints. That conversation died out when someone mentioned that they were pretty sure that blond Suna genin was sixteen and the younger chuunin were suddenly watching the screen a little more intently.
Iruka snorted slightly in amusement at the change in conversation he was hearing. His slight amusement quickly died off as he watched Tenten’s first attacks brushed aside as though they were nothing. His eyes widened slightly at how quickly Tenten was defeated and there was plenty of muttering around the room at the end of the match to match his own surprise at the match.
The rooms attention switched to the television that always showed status board. It quickly the names of Aburame Shino and Inuzuka Kiba and the room erupted in a flurry of betting. Everyone was betting evenly and Iruka placed a small bet on Shino. He mused to himself that just a few months ago he likely would have bet on Kiba but knowing their respective sensei and teammates, Iruka believed that Shino now held the advantage.
Kiba and Shino put up the best fight seen so far and some of the chuunin in the room were actually cheering for whichever genin they had bet on. Still the match was only a few minutes and Iruka was tempted to roll his eyes at the reactions a few of his fellow ninja displayed at the sight of the two streams of kikai that were moving from Kiba and Akamaru to Shino.
As the board displayed the next fight there wasn’t any enthusiasm in betting on it. Apparently the Nara reputation for laziness was rather well known and dampened the betting. Iruka himself didn’t bet and was curious to see if Shikamaru would actually fight or if he would simply go through a few motions and withdraw. It was hard to tell with Shikamaru, sometimes he couldn’t be motivated to do anything but occasionally, if there wasn’t much effort required, he would rise to the occasion well sort of anyway.
That fight was relatively quick as well. Iruka stared at the screen for a few moments and wondered how many other people noticed that Shikamaru hadn’t even moved from his starting position. Iruka shook his head slightly and slowly at the rather stunning display of laziness, even though it was rather effective in this case.
Iruka felt as though a hand of ice suddenly grabbed his heart as he read the next two names. Neji against Hinata. There was simply no way this was going to go well. Once again the interest in betting died as the crowd of Konoha ninja grew silent and the all watched the various screens intently. Despite the Hyuuga reputation of being the best fighters in the village actually being able to watch one of the famous clan fight was rare. To be able to see two face off against each other was unprecedented. Factor in Neji’s growing reputation as a â€˜genius’ and the fact that virtually nothing similar was ever said about Hinata effectively killed any betting. Iruka glanced around at several Shinobi as they grumbled over the lack of any betting prospects for this fight. So far only the fight between Shino and Kiba had actually done anything to satisfy the urge to gamble that permeated the room.
The room grew quiet as they all listened to Neji basically taunt and insult Hinata. The young mans harsh words caused Iruka to grind his teeth together.
As the match really got started the entire room grew quiet as they all watched. Everyone was stricken by silence at the raw intensity of the two young ninja as they fought. It wasn’t long before they all clearly heard Neji as he smiled and told Hinata that she had lost. Although to most everyone watching, it had looked like she was the only one to score any sort of decent hit with that palm strike to Neji’s stomach just before he claimed she had lost.
Hinata’s Byakugan faded and she pushed up her sleeve to reveal several small chakra burns dotting along her arm.
"Whoa." Shiranui Genma stated softly.
"What?" Kamizuki Izumo asked.
"Neji is correct, she’s lost. He’s shut off her ability to mold chakra. She can’t use Jyuuken, ninjutsu or probably even genjutsu won’t work for her now. Not that it’s likely she knew any genjutsu that could fool Neji’s Byakugan." Genma answered.
"But how, when? Hagene Kotetsu piped in.
"It appears that Neji is even more gifted than his reputation made him out to be. We just witnessed a rather impressive example of the Hyuuga Jyuuken. It seems that he managed to strike and close her tenketsu not only fast enough for us not to see it but judging by her reaction, possibly fast enough that Hinata didn’t realize at first either."
"Whoa is right." Mozuku added.
The fight quickly resumed much to the surprise of many of the jounin and older chuunin in the room. It didn’t make sense for the young woman to continue fighting at this point many of them thought.
The low muttering going on around the room died away as the fight became even more intense and far more brutal than before. The silence continued and it was surprisingly obvious that many of the people in the room were watching Neji with disapproval on their faces. Before long it was over and almost all of the previous looks of disapproval had turned to disgust.
"So, any idea what was with the little blond kid who pulled a kawarimi with that poor girl?" The bartender asked Iruka as the chuunin scowled.
"They’re very good friends." Iruka said softly, he didn’t think Naruto was going to take what happened to Hinata well at all.
The next fight was announced and this time the betting returned. Granted the previous enthusiasm was gone, the last match had left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Iruka winced as he watched Ino and Sakura walk to the arena floor. This was likely to be a rougher fight than what most would assume by just looking at the girls. As the blond and pink haired girls fought the room began to liven up and the betting actually began to increase as the fight continued.
A few moments later the room grew quieter as the two unconscious girls were removed from the floor and the next match was announced. Nobody had bet that the fight would be a draw and the undertone of irritated muttering returned. Almost everyone was not only upset with the last stalemate but they were all disappointed over the lack of any betting prospects for this match, after all who in their right mind would bet on Naruto of all people in a fight against Uchiha Saske? Umino Iruka smiled.
"So what kind odds can I get for Naruto." Iruka stated calmly as he pulled a thick envelope out of his vest.
For a brief moment almost everyone froze as they all eyed the well packed bank envelope. That moment didn’t last more than maybe a second before there was a mad rush to Iruka.
"I’ll give you five to one!" Suzume Namida called out.
"I’ll give you eight to one!" Tobitake Tonbo yelled out.
"Ten to one! I know the Uchiha clan well and there’s no way that kid can beat a Uchiha, especially Sasuke." Funeno Daikoku called out as he smugly crossed his arms for a moment before quickly pulling out his own wallet.
"For five percent, I’ll hold all the bets." The bartender said with a smile as more and more money appeared.
"I’ve got several weeks pay here and I’ll put it all on Naruto." Iruka called out to the room as he put the envelope down onto the bar.
Iruka eyed the bartender with a hint of suspicion as the mans hands blurred and Iruka’s money was suddenly organized into separate piles coupled with corresponding piles from each person betting against Naruto. The bartender had even managed to somehow tag each pile with the appropriate name of whoever put up their money against Iruka’s.
"Pretty impressive." Iruka said to the white haired man as he nodded to the well organized bets.
"Lots of practice placing bets and making drinks under pressure." The man answered with a broad smile.
"So how come you didn’t help out with any of the earlier betting?" Iruka asked as he watched more and more separate piles appear as the crowd flowed up to the bar and each person drifted back after placing their bet.
"All of that was too spread out and you’re the only one betting on that kid. Trust me you need a bit of help if you really want to bet all of your money like this and actually find enough people who have the cash on them to make good on ten to one odds." The man continued as his hands maintained their blurred sorting action.
"Are you sure you really want to do this? I didn’t think you suffered any serious head injuries when those missing nin grabbed Konohamaru." Genma asked as he sat down next to Iruka.
"Definitely. What about you, not betting on the Uchiha?" Iruka said with a rather large smile.
"Nope, I think I’ll sit this one out. That blond kid is full of surprises and after the first exam I wouldn’t bet against him, certainly not at the odds you’re getting anyway. Whatever Kurenai is doing with his training has really changed him. The kid even managed to impress Ibiki for the first part of the exam. Heck I not sure I’d even want to face him now, it’s down right unsettling how easily he generates shadow clones." Genma’s voice dropped after his first sentence so only Iruka and the bartender actually heard him continue talking.
"Shadow clones? Isn’t that a high level jutsu?" The bartender asked with sudden interest as he looked to a screen himself.
"Yeah, Naruto is quite gifted with them despite only being a genin. Genma here had a run in with a few henged clones of Narutos a few days ago.
The room erupted in laughter as Naruto leaped to the auditorium floor and nearly fell on his face. Iruka stole a glance to Genma and was surprised to see a rather calculating smile on the face of the special jounin.
"Maybe you’d like to place a bet of your own on the kid?" The bartender asked Genma.
"Nah, I’m good. This just might be Iruka’s time to shine." Genma nodded to the screen and the senbon needle in his mouth twitched with his growing smile.
There were a couple of snippets of snide muttering as Sasuke taunted Naruto about Hinata. Iruka glanced around and was happy to see that despite those few remarks the majority of the room was frowning at Sasukes words.
Hayate’s voice saying â€˜Begin’ emanated from the televisions and the crowd erupted in cheering as they anticipated an easy victory for the Uchiha. The cheering stopped almost instantly as a shocked silence took hold of the room. Exclamations of disbelief began to pop up around the room and Iruka smiled broadly as Naruto gave a dark glare towards the unconscious Uchiha before he turned and began to walk towards the exit.
The room was in such a state of shock that most people in the room actually missed the beginning of the last match and no bets were placed. In short order everyone began watching the match intently though. The Suna genin was using some rather unusual jutsu that was like nothing any of them had ever seen before. There was also a lot of interest in seeing Gai’s student that no ability to mold chakra fight and the young mans taijutsu skill impressed all of them greatly.
Everyone waited a bit after the match before leaving in order to show their respect to the Hokage as he explained the next stage of the exam.
"Five percent I believe you said?" Iruka asked with a smile as he began to gather all of his winnings and split off the bartenders take.
"That’s correct." The man smiled himself as Iruka finished adding to the smaller pile for the bartender.
"Thanks for that, there was no way I would have been able to make all those bets without you."
"No problem. That was an interesting kid you were betting on."
"You don’t know the half of it." Iruka said with a chuckle as he walked out of the room with a wave.
There's already a discussion thread opened on my forums here.