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Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...

Chapter 14

Naruto scowled as both teams gathered themselves after the battle. Everyone looked like they’d been beaten with a stick. A large, dirty stick. The dark marks on Sasuke’s skin had faded away, but the boy still seemed a little… off… to Naruto.

Kiba groaned and rolled onto his side before vomiting. Naruto wrinkled his nose at the smell. Akamaru whined piteously as he circled his partner. Shino was only just beginning to sit up, and Sakura was clinging to the Uchiha like a terrified barnacle.

“Crap,” Naruto muttered and went back to the cave, looking for his backpack. He pulled out his partially depleted first aid kit, wondering where all his spare kunai had gone. When he emerged from the cave, Shino was shakily climbing to his feet with Hinata’s assistance.

They’d tended the worst of their wounds when Kiba, his equilibrium finally restored, looked around and frowned at the scroll the sound team had left behind. “That looks like an Earth scroll,” he said as he slowly climbed to his feet and spat. “We got a Heaven scroll, so we could use this,” he said carefully. “What about you guys?”

“Looks like you got lucky then,” Naruto replied glibly. “Good thing, too, because I don’t think your team could handle the Konohamaru Corps right now.”

Kiba whirled around, instantly furious. Naruto noticed that nothing set off the Inuzuka faster than an insult to his ‘pack’. “You want me to ‘handle’ your loser butt, Uzumaki?” the larger boy snarled.

“You’d have to catch me!” Naruto shot back with a cheeky grin and dived into the underbrush.

OoOoO

Hinata was more than a little perturbed with her teammate. Sure, it was nice that he was bouncing back so quickly from his ordeal, but this wasn’t really the place or time for him to revert to his academy behavior. She wondered for a moment if he’d been struck on the head during either of the last two battles.

Shino-kun let out a quiet sigh as Kiba chased Naruto out of the clearing. She was tempted to activate her eyes to track them, but her head ached abominably, so she refrained since they were still within earshot.

Not that it was hard to do – they were making a lot of noise out there. Evidently a full-blown wrestling match had ensued.

“Can’t you control him?” Shino and Sakura both said simultaneously. Both of them looked sharply at each other and Sasuke muttered something that sounded like “Idiots!” under his breath.

After a couple of minutes, a somewhat rumpled-looking Naruto was hurled back into the clearing. He shot to his feet as Kiba stalked toward him. The Inuzuka, however, was intercepted by a pink-haired kunoichi that had evidently had enough of his foolishness. She let him know this verbally and by grabbing his ear and yanking it hard enough to turn him around.

Akamaru whined in sympathy as he trotted along behind his humbled partner.

Naruto stuck his tongue out at Kiba, but refrained from further childishness when Hinata grasped his forearm. Shino didn’t say or do anything, but his irritation was a palpable weight in the air.

However, the Aburame didn’t make a habit of voicing his displeasure in front of others. It wasn’t until Team Seven had made their goodbyes and left for the tower that he spoke.

“Your pupils are not dilated, and I do not recall our opponent utilizing any psychotropic chemical attacks, so I would appreciate an explanation of your behavior,” Shino said, his frustration showing in how he bit off the words.

“What do you mean?” Naruto asked. “The scrolls?”

“Yes. The scrolls,” Shino replied. “I presume there is some reason you wanted Team Seven to think we had an Earth Scroll?”

“Yeah,” Naruto replied. “If I didn’t, they might not have taken the scroll those Sound jerks left. Sasuke is pretty proud – he wouldn’t want to think we are doing them any favors.”

Shino let out another microscopic sigh. If Hinata’s hearing were any less acute, she wouldn’t have caught it at all. “What I do not comprehend is why you are so adamant that they get the scroll, seeing as how we had equal need for it. I understand that Maito Gai wished that we would support comrades in need, but I think this goes beyond what he intended.”

Naruto frowned for a moment, and Hinata realized that he hadn’t even considered Gai-sensei’s words in that context. “That isn’t it at all,” he said as he lowered his voice and glanced around. He gave Hinata a very direct look.

Despite her aching head, Hinata activated her blood limit and did a very quick scan of the area. No one was within her range, so she cautiously shook her head.

“Okay, I wanted them to get the scroll so they could get Sasuke to a medic-nin fast,” Naruto whispered.

“He seemed all right when they left,” Shino observed.

Naruto shook his head. “I don’t think so. I broke the seal that freak put on me, but Sasuke… he did something else. It’s still on him, and whatever it does it’s nasty enough to scare my prisoner into helping me get rid of it.”

“Your… prisoner?” Hinata asked in a shaky voice.

Naruto nodded. “While I was out, it paid me a visit, like inside my mind. I could see it, trapped behind the seal, and it was as big a jerk as I imagined it would be. But it could feel that thing on my arm and it said it would start to influence me the longer it was on me. It didn’t want to be imprisoned any worse than it already was, so it helped me push the chakra to tear it off.” Naruto paused. “I supposed it considered putting up with just me to be less of a pain. Anyway, the sooner they get him to the medics and the Hokage, the better. When Kiba followed me into the bushes, I grabbed him and used some clones to make noise. I told him to get his team to the tower and tell that Kakashi guy about the seal immediately.”

“Why didn’t you just tell them directly?” Hinata asked, puzzled.

Naruto shrugged. “Sasuke wouldn’t believe ‘dead last’ if I told him the sky was blue. Sakura will always back him up too. And… I don’t really want to talk too much about how I found out about the seal.”

Shino nodded. “That was… impressive.”

Naruto blinked.

“I agree with both your reasoning and your methodology. We are under less of a time constraint than our allies, whether they know it or not, and will have other opportunities to acquire an Earth scroll.”

Hinata couldn’t help but smile at the pleased blush that colored Naruto-kun’s cheeks as they resumed their journey.

OoOoO

After that freaky grass weirdo, and the Hidden Sound assassination squad, running into a group of Hidden Mist genin with all of Team Eight awake and functional was… a bit of a relief.

Hinata tapped her pant leg with two fingers, signaling that she’d sensed a low-powered Genjutsu trying to affect them. Naruto counted ten steps before bringing his hands together and concentrating his chakra. “Naruto Majutsu: Chakra Pulse!” he murmured as he released a highly restrained surge.

This one only covered the immediate vicinity, rather than half of Konoha. No sense scaring the visitors.

The air seemed to waver, and a trio in light grey bodysuits and dark blue cloaks shimmered into view. Naruto had to squint to identify the village symbols on their hitai-ite, and realized that the air was growing hazy.

Naruto was fairly sure the haze was caused by moisture gathering in the air, but he wasn’t prepared to take any chances. “Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!” he snarled as he formed the ram seal. There was an explosion of smoke and a dozen clones materialized between Team 8 and the Mizu-Genin team.

“Manabu!” the slightly taller one in the middle snapped. The one on the right, who wore dark glasses, brought his hands together for seals and four clones of him appeared in front of Naruto’s clones and attacked.

The clone war was short and one-sided. However, when the enemy clones were hit, they dissipated into masses of frothy water with an unhealthy green tinge to it. When the liquid fell to the ground, it splashed everything in the immediate vicinity and proceeded to eat smoking holes in it. Taking out the four clones cost Naruto six of his, dispelled by the acidic spray.

While this was happening, the Mist ninja on the left drew Naruto’s attention. The skinny boy’s arms were moving under his cloak, but instead of forming seals, Naruto saw that his hands were digging into large containers strapped to each leg. His hands whipped forward, hurling four small green spheres at Naruto.

Naruto’s shuriken were in the air before he even thought about it, and intercepted three of the spheres, causing them to burst open and spray more of the green gunk on his remaining clones. He didn’t need the memories after they exploded to know that it was more of that caustic liquid. He ducked under the last sphere and it struck the ground in front of Shino and Hinata, spraying them with its acidic contents.

Naruto smirked as the two henged clones behind him exploded.

Three Hinatas charged out of the undergrowth at the grenade-thrower. He spun, throwing more of his acid spheres. The two left-most Hinatas kept running, and the spheres sailed harmlessly through the insubstantial bunshin. The real Hinata dived forward into a rolling somersault that Naruto, quite indignantly, remembered using on her when they sparred. She shot to her feet practically within the stunned Mizu-shinobi’s cloak and folded him up with a Jyuuken strike to the abdomen that left him spasming on the ground.

The leader spun toward Hinata, a long staff that looked like it was made out of water forming in his hands. She side-stepped his first swing and the grass burned where the shimmering end of the staff touched it.

The dark-glasses guy made some more acid clones, but he only managed two this time, and the effort left him bent over and weaving. He let out a scream as a dark mass of insects fell out of the canopy and enveloped his head.

Naruto was already charging forward, but couldn’t suppress a sympathetic shudder. He was really glad Shino never did that to him when they sparred.

The guy staggered, clawing at his face as the acid clones lost cohesion and splashed to the ground. Shino put him out of his misery by the simple expedient of dropping out of the trees on top of him, driving his knees into his back, and slamming him into the forest loam.

The distinctive sound of ribs breaking distracted the leader from his attempts to maim the dodging Hyuuga. Naruto’s thrown kunai lodging in his shoulder was even more distracting, making him drop the acid staff.

Naruto’s fist hammering into the side of his head just made him unconscious.

OoOoO

Naruto couldn’t help smiling to himself as they tied up the unconscious shinobi. It was about damn time all that planning and training worked right. Of course, it probably helped that they were facing real genin for once.

If that freaky grass dude is really a genin, he’d give up ramen.

For life.

Even better, the only damage they’d taken was a couple of discolored spots on the sleeve of his jacket. Using the clones to soak up the initial attacks so they could figure them out worked like a charm, as did using the smoke as cover so Hinata and Shino could slip away and set up surprise attacks.

When Shino found an Earth scroll in the leader’s belt pouch, Naruto wanted to cheer but he knew Shino would frown on making too much noise. He settled for lifting Hinata-chan up by the shoulders and spinning around twice as he did the official Konohamaru Corps victory dance.

He belatedly remembered she was still a little hurt when he saw how red her face grew around those awful bruises. “Ah, sorry Hinata-chan!” he hissed as he carefully set her back down. “I forgot,” he explained as he looked down, shamefaced.

“A-ano, it’s all right Naruto-kun,” she said, though she sounded like she was having trouble catching her breath. Had she injured her ribs more than they knew? “I’m glad we have our second scroll too.”

As they approached the tower to turn in their scrolls, Shino quietly brought up the possibility of other teams staking out the grounds near the tower to ambush weary competitors with both scrolls.

Naruto thought about this for a minute as they rested on a high tree branch. “As stealthy as we try to be, there’s only so many ways to get to the tower, right?”

Shino nodded. “Given the time constraints and limited approach vectors, the situation is not an optimal one for covert movement.”

Hinata looked a little distressed, but didn’t say anything.

Then a thought struck Naruto. “We’re going about this all wrong!” he declared as he brought his hands together. “Tajuu Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!” he said aloud as he pushed almost all the chakra he had into the technique.

Objectively, he knew that he’d improved a lot since that night with Iruka and Mizuki, but he was still surprised at the throng of clones that covered every available bit of flat space he could see.

Shino’s eyebrows were clearly visible above his glasses, but the way the left one was twitching indicated that he was less than pleased with Naruto’s ‘one tool for all jobs’ attitude toward his favorite technique.

“All right!” Naruto shouted in a loud voice that had Hinata making frantic shushing gestures toward him. “You know what to do. Split into groups of three and henge!”

There was a staccato roar of pops. When the smoke cleared, a third of the clones looked like Shino and a third looked like a blushing Hinata.

“Now, staying with your groups, spread out and charge the tower! Last ones there have to buy the ramen!” Naruto announced. He turned to Hinata and Shino as the clones took off – which took a while. There were so many that they got in each other’s way at first. “It’s not like a recon mission,” he said in a more normal tone of voice. “We don’t have to conceal that we were here, we just have to make it impossible for anyone to pick us out before we reach the finish line.”

Naruto looked at them expectantly. Shino’s eyebrow had stopped twitching, but now they both stood stock still. “Let’s get moving,” he urged them. “I don’t have the money to buy that much ramen.”

OoOoO

By the time they reached the tower, Naruto was nursing one hell of a headache. Between the other teams, the traps that had been set, and the normal forest hazards, less than a third of the clones made it through. The problem was random bits of memory that Naruto was constantly bombarded with as his clones were dispelled in an amazing variety of ways.

His wince was particularly painful when he received the memories of the idiot that expired trying to give Sabaku no Gaara a noogie. He had no idea you could do that with sand, and it looked really painful. At least it was a clone of him and not Shino or Hinata that did it. He didn’t want that weird kid focusing on anyone else if he could help it.

On the other hand, he chuckled when he learned of the one that died mooning Neji. But the way he’d gone after the Hinata-clone as well was a little disturbing. Maybe he could tell it really wasn’t his cousin and resented the deception. Genius or not, he had no sense of humor whatsoever.

But in the end, what mattered was that his less than subtle ruse had worked. They made it into the tower without another scratch and he was pleasantly surprised when they used their scrolls as the sign suggested and Iruka-sensei appeared in a cloud of smoke.

“Hello!” he greeted them, “I knew you’d…” his face fell as he looked at them, his eyes lingering on Hinata’s bruised face. “What happened to you out there? Are you all right?”

Shino twisted a little, finally allowing his discomfort to show as he pressed on his ribs. “We ran into some… unusually skilled… opposition. A visit with a medical professional after our debriefing may be prudent.”

OoOoO

Since they’d reached the tower with almost a full day to go before the second exam ended, there was plenty of time for them to make their reports. Given all the high-level visitors attending the Chuunin Exam, they ended up just talking to Kurenai-sensei in a rather dusty meeting room in the basement of the tower.

Naruto was looking at Kurenai when Shino described the encounter with the grass freak, so he was treated to the sight of his jonin instructor going completely white.

“Are you absolutely sure that snake chasing Kiba was a summons?” she asked, interrupting Shino’s monologue.

Shino adjusted his glasses. “It gave every appearance of being one,” he answered. “Upon receiving a mortal injury, it dissipated in a manner not unlike one of Naruto’s shadow clones.”

She nodded slowly. “Unfortunately, I agree. Please continue.”

Shino continued without interruption, though the subtle cues Naruto was picking up from his sensei suggested it was a near thing. Shino himself paused right after describing Hinata punching the freak in the back – Kurenai spun toward the girl in obvious surprise, and her proud smile had the Hyuuga girl blushing and looking down at her clasped hands.

When he was finished, Kurenai nodded and was silent for a moment, apparently thinking, before she spoke. “You three have done amazingly well, far better than I hoped. However, I want you to be very cautious from now on. There is something going on here that I do not understand. That man you fought was, as best I can tell, an S-Class missing-nin named Orochimaru. He was the genius student of the Hokage before he betrayed Konoha and should be considered extremely dangerous. Do not seek him out, but if you do see any sign of him, inform a jonin or ANBU at once!”

“Sensei, did Team 7 make it in okay?” Naruto asked in a sick voice. Had that nut case ambushed them again after they separated?

“Yes, they did,” Kurenai assured him. “Now I understand why Kakashi left almost immediately with Sasuke. Are you sure the seal he put on you is completely gone, Naruto?”

Naruto nodded and pushed up the sleeve of his jacket to show her the scar. “Er… it said it was bad enough being trapped inside me without that messing around with my mind.”

Kurenai frowned. “I don’t even begin to understand how you can talk to that thing. I’m going to ask the Hokage if he can give me any more information on the seal, or a means to contact someone who can tell us more. I want you to be equally cautious when dealing with your… prisoner. Don’t take anything it says at face value.”

Naruto nodded soberly. There was little chance of him ever doing that, but he could hear the concern in his sensei’s voice.

So, for once, Uzumaki Naruto decided to keep his mouth shut.

OoOoO

Sitting in an office elsewhere in the tower updating the list of remaining participants, Umino Iruka suddenly stiffened as all the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He didn’t know what was causing it, but he instinctively knew that a massive violation of the natural order was occurring. He suspiciously peered around, even looking under his desk, but he couldn’t find anything to explain that uneasy feeling.

Controlling his shudders of dread, the chuunin sat back down and double-checked the list again.

OoOoO

Naruto also didn’t resist at all when Kurenai sent them to the infirmary to be checked out by the medic-nins. He wasn’t so much concerned for himself though. Shino was still slightly stooped over, favoring his ribs. The deviance wasn’t great, but it was apparent to anyone familiar with his normal ruler-straight posture. Hinata-chan was visibly worse off, and he had to struggle not to flinch every time he saw the massive bruises on her face from the battle with Orochimaru. He’d follow sensei’s orders to avoid him in general, but if he had a chance to smack him one to cover their retreat, he’d definitely take it.

The medics mostly ignored him at first, which was fine by him. But Shino and Hinata were insistent, actually downright scary, about them attending to him as well.

The senior medic, with a frown of distaste, performed the seals for what appeared to be a diagnostic jutsu of some sort. His extended palm passed over Naruto’s head and torso without comment, but paused over his forearm. Naruto didn’t think his other injuries would even be detectable - the speed with which he healed was pretty unreal. With a sigh, he slid up his sleeve again.

“What happened there?” the medic-nin asked curiously, leaning forward and peering at the scar.

“Curse seal,” Naruto said with a shrug. “I had to blow it up.”

The medic-nin straightened up so fast he almost fell over backwards. “I-I see,” he stammered. “I think you are fine to go now. All of you.”

Naruto glanced over at his teammates. Shino was taking deeper breaths now, relief evident in his posture, and Hinata was bowing to a younger woman, and when she turned toward him her face was unmarked. “Thank you very much,” he said politely, bowing to the surprised senior medic-nin.

OoOoO

With hours to go before the second exam officially ended, there was more than enough time to get cleaned up and take a short nap in the examinee’s dormitory before Kurenai-sensei collected them.

The jonin led them to a large enclosed auditorium, where they joined the ranks of the teams that completed the second exam. Naruto was a little ashamed to admit he was surprised to see Team 10 among the victors, though he supposed Shikamaru would have found it more troublesome to put up with Ino’s complaints if they failed. The latter was glaring at Sakura since Team 7 was lined up next to them and the pink-haired kunoichi was between her and Sasuke. Sasuke looked a little pale, but just as surly as ever, so that Kakashi guy must have fixed his seal.

Naruto wasn’t surprised to see Team Gai there as well, but the only other Konoha team to pass the second exam was Kabuto’s trio of older genin. Unfortunately, the Sand team was there as well. Naruto knew there wasn’t much chance of that Gaara character not making it through, but he’d held out some faint hope that one of his teammates might have to drop out and thereby disqualify all three.

He suppressed a smirk when he felt the killing intent radiating from both Gaara and Neji. It was nice to know his skills at annoying people hadn’t grown rusty since his academy days.

Still, that left only eighteen participants in the exam, fifteen of them from Konoha, which Naruto thought was pretty damn good. He couldn’t help but smile a little as the Hokage addressed them from a raised platform, flanked by the teams’ jonin sensei.

That smile disappeared soon enough though. After the Hokage congratulated them on passing the second round, he explained the reasons why they do a joint test and introduced the third examiner, a guy with a nasty cough named Gekkou Hayate. In between throat clearings, the sickly-looking guy told them there were more people left than could be run through the third examination. There would have to be a preliminary elimination round.

Most of the people around Naruto made comments about that, and few of them were favorable.

Both the preliminary round and the actual third exam would be one-on-one battles between the examinees. However, the teams were effectively dissolved until the end of the examination, so losing would not disqualify your team-mates. Naruto cautiously looked around at his fellow genin and frowned. His eyes were met with hard glares from more than a few. According to the examiner, only those who won the preliminary round and fought publicly in the finals would have a chance of being granted chuunin status.

Before they began, Hayate asked if anyone felt like they could no longer continue. To Naruto’s surprise, Kabuto raised his hand, saying he was too injured to fight. Naruto didn’t think he looked that beat up, but the examiner just nodded and the silver-haired genin exited through the door they entered by.

“All right, with seventeen of you, there will be eight matches,” Hayate announced. “After eight matches, whoever the odd person is will have a bye and proceed directly to the finals. These matches are randomly selected, so you will all have an equal chance.”

With that, the rest of them were directed to stairs that led up to a balcony that overlooked the arena floor. Most of their jonin sensei joined them up there and the genin assembled in little team-sized clumps.

“I can’t believe all the rookies made it, and almost no one else did,” Naruto muttered.

“That does seem to stretch the bounds of probability,” Shino agreed. “I hope that no one takes it as a sign of collusion.”

“Why the hell would we want to cheat?” Naruto demanded, his voice rising slightly. “If we aren’t qualified to take chuunin-level missions, what’s the point of making us chuunin?”

“Remember what the Hokage said: The exams often serve political purposes,” Kurenai interjected, “and showcase the strengths of each village. If a village’s shinobi look stronger to outsiders, they are more likely to be hired for missions. However, the Hokage doesn’t countenance such tactics. Wars between hidden villages have started over less.” The glare that accompanied her words spoke even louder and Naruto subsided.

The electronic bulletin board flashed, and announced the first randomly selected match, Adakou Yoroi versus Akimichi Chouji.

Kabuto’s teammate was a large, muscular man with small dark glasses and a cloth covering the rest of his face. Unlike the friendly silver-haired genin, Yoroi was a fairly nasty-looking customer. The chubby boy didn’t even come up to his opponent’s shoulder. No sooner did Hayate call for them to begin than he swiped at Chouji with a glowing hand.

Chouji jumped back with a barely muffled screech, but the heel of the larger man’s hand still brushed his shoulder. Chouji visibly wilted and stumbled backward on unsteady legs.

“You have no defense against my technique,” Yoroi sneered as he stalked toward Chouji. The boy backed away, looking like he wanted to run for it.

Yoroi herded Chouji into a corner and took another swipe at him. Chouji dived to the side, barely avoiding the attack. He frantically scrambled to his feet, his eyes glued to his opponent.

“Would you stop delaying the inevitable?” Yoroi growled. “Or are you a coward as well as fat?”

The sudden silence was deafening – the only thing that marred it was the single word muttered by Shikamaru.

“Shit.”

Chouji’s face went red. “Did you call me… fat?”

Yoroi paused in his advance. Privately, Naruto didn’t blame him. There was suddenly an overabundance of killing intent in the room, and it hadn’t been there ten seconds ago.

“Yeah, I did,” Yoroi snapped in a belligerent tone. “Do you think you can stop me?” he asked, making a ‘come hither’ gesture with his glowing hand. “I’ll pull all the chakra out of your body faster than you can empty a bento box… fatass.”

Naruto cringed.

Chouji’s eyes seemed to fill with flames. “I’m going to crush you like a grape!” he screamed as he jumped backward. “Ninpou Baika no Jutsu!”

Naruto’s mouth dropped open as Chouji’s torso expanded to several times the normal size, becoming almost perfectly spherical. With a jerk, his arms, legs, and head retracted, only to be replaced by jets of blue chakra flames. Chouji began to spin in place, suspended by the jets of fire, until he touched down and began rolling forward with increasing speed.

The dumbfounded Yoroi stared at the Akimichi Meatball Tank bearing down on him. At the last second he jumped back to avoid it, but the spinning Chouji kept accelerating. Yoroi dodged aside at the last moment, but Chouji still managed to clip him, sending the older genin flying.

Naruto decided the spin must have made that hit even harder than it appeared, because Yoroi landed heavily on his side and lurched to his feet favoring his right leg.

Chouji didn’t corner very sharply in his Meatball Tank form, so Yoroi had time to regain his bearings. By the time Chouji got turned around to make another pass, Yoroi had his chakra-draining technique ready. Again, he side-stepped at the last second, trailing his palm across Chouji’s axis of rotation. The Meatball Tank wobbled as its rotation veered out of true, but Chouji got it back under control again and came around for another pass. However, the chakra drain seemed to have had an effect, because he wasn’t spinning nearly as fast as before.

Yoroi tried to do the same trick again, but this time Chouji managed to veer into him as he dodged aside. Yoroi let out a startled scream as Chouji ground him down into the cement floor. He slammed his palm directly against Chouji’s mass and the snap of his fingers being bent backward and broken was sickening.

Yoroi was completely out of sight when Chouji’s jutsu collapsed, leaving him tumbling forward to land in a moaning heap. When the dust cleared, the older genin’s broken body was visible amidst the shards of concrete.

After looking at Chouji, who was slowly sitting up, holding his head, Hayate quickly declared him the winner of the first match and called for some medic-nins. Chouji stared at his opponent, eyes widening in horror, until his sensei appeared next to him and led him back up to the balcony, speaking softly the entire way.

After Yoroi had been carried off, the second match was announced. Tenten from Team Gai was pitted against the girl from Gaara’s team, Temari. As soon as it was announced, Gai and Lee began cheering for her at the top of their lungs. Naruto and his team slowly edged away from the spandex-clad duo to preserve their hearing.

Naruto ended up near Shikamaru as Tenten began her first attack, which amazingly enough missed.

“This is going to be troublesome,” Shikamaru murmured.

“Why do you say that?” Naruto asked in a low voice.

“It’s already over,” Shikamaru said and turned toward Chouji, who had just finished talking to his sensei, Asuma. The boy looked a little more settled, but he was still a little green around the edges.

“If Shikamaru says it’s over, it’s over,” Chouji confirmed with a nod.

Naruto frowned and turned back to the fight. Tenten did some weird trick with a scroll that allowed her to throw a dozen weapons at a time, but Temari just blocked them all by swinging her fan. Despite its lack of success, Naruto was really glad she hadn’t used that technique on him and Lee during her ‘target practice’ sessions.

Naruto glanced over at Shikamaru, but his expression didn’t change. He turned toward Shino who appeared to be frowning. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be picking up on, but two of the smarter people he knew didn’t like this match, so he started to worry about Tenten.

Tenten raised the stakes with her next attack, using two scrolls at once to throw a simply ridiculous number of sharp objects at the Sand kunoichi. Unfortunately, it was no more effective – Temari just swung her fan and blew them all off course.

Then Tenten did something with chakra to lift the weapons up again and send them raining down on her foe… only this time she was caught in the blast of wind from Temari’s fan and sent flying.

Naruto scowled. Tenten specialized in ranged attacks, but it was almost impossible for her to hit Temari because of her fan. This was almost the worst possible match-up for her. Was that what Shikamaru and Shino were annoyed about?

The fight ended when Temari finally attacked with her fan, creating a massive whirlwind that pulled Tenten into the air and knocked her unconscious with chakra-laced wind.

As Naruto watched Hayate declare Temari the winner, he realized something about the nature of the test. Random or not, these one-on-one fights could easily pit someone against an opponent that they didn’t have the techniques or the tactics to fight. When they fought as a team, each member instinctively sought out opponents they could do well against. For example, someone trying to use Taijutsu to defend against a Hyuuga like Hinata was asking for a quick trip to the hospital. Likewise, someone without area effect attacks wouldn’t fare well against Shino’s bugs.

But shinobi didn’t always fight in teams, and they didn’t always have the luxury of picking their opponent. Forcing them to fight someone with skills that trumped their normal tactics made them learn to adapt on the fly – or learn to lose gracefully. Of course, in the field, on a real mission, you’d replace “losing” with “dying.”

Such sobering thoughts made him all the more uneasy when the next match was announced: “Aburame Shino versus Inuzuka Kiba.”

Naruto shook his head. He didn’t need to worry so much about his teammate. Even if he won, Kiba wouldn’t do anything that would permanently injure a former classmate. Loud and boastful he might be, but he wasn’t cruel or vicious.

He grinned and patted his silent friend on the shoulder as he walked by. He knew from sparring with him that Shino didn’t particularly like to lose.

When the boys faced each other in front of Hayate, Kiba nodded and smirked. “Don’t think I’m going to go easy on you, because of what happened in the forest,” he said, sticking his jaw out belligerently.

“Don’t hold back on my account,” Shino replied coolly as he adjusted his glasses.

As soon as Hayate signaled for them to begin, Kiba crouched down and brought his hands together to form seals. “Gijyuu Ninpou, Shikyaku no Jutsu!” he growled as he dropped onto all fours.

Naruto’s eyes widened as Kiba’s body was enveloped in a light haze of chakra and his fingernails grew into sharp claws.

Shino dropped into a combat stance with more weight balanced on his back leg. The shafts of his kamas shot out of his sleeves and into his waiting hands, but he did not immediately deploy the blades.

“Let’s go!” Kiba shouted and charged forward in a blur of motion.

Shino’s feet didn’t move, but his torso twisted as his left arm shot forward. There was a loud clang and Kiba reeled backward, his forehead protector twisted halfway around his head.

“I thought you were faster than that,” Shino observed in the same tone of voice he might use to discuss the weather. He spun the kama once in his hand before returning it to a guard position. With the blade still concealed inside, it looked more like a baton. A thick baton with a metal cap on each end.

Kiba snarled something that Naruto was just as glad they couldn’t hear from up on the balcony. There were certain words and phrases that Kurenai-sensei had informed him were not appropriate for mixed company. Kiba pulled something out of his equipment pouch and threw it at Shino’s feet.

Naruto’s team mate was enveloped in thick clouds of black smoke. Kiba dived into the smoke cloud while Akamaru circled it warily. There were several dull thuds before Kiba stumbled backward out of the cloud, his hand pressed against his jaw.

When the smoke dissipated, Shino was still standing in the same spot, in the same stance. He didn’t say a word, and that just seemed to further enrage his opponent.

Naruto frowned when Kiba pulled a pill out of his pouch and flipped it to Akamaru. The puppy gulped it down and then growled fiercely as its fur changed from white to reddish-brown. Kiba gulped down a pill as well, and then crouched down. Akamaru sprang onto his master’s back as Kiba growled “Gijyuu Ninpou: Jyuujin Bunshin!”

There was a burst of smoke, and when it cleared Naruto now saw two feral-looking Kibas glaring at Shino. It was impossible to tell which one was Kiba and which one was really Akamaru.

“You know, Naruto makes a lot more than two clones when we free spar,” Shino observed in a neutral voice.

That just seemed to enrage them further and they sprang at Shino, extending the short claws that had replaced their fingernails.

This time, Shino did move, pivoting smoothly to the side and out of reach of one of the Kibas. The other reached out to claw at the Aburame, but Shino brought his kama around with surprising speed and smacked him on the elbow with a loud crack.

The struck Kiba yelped and somersaulted forward. One of his trailing legs hooked toward Shino’s head, forcing the Aburame to duck. The other one pivoted and leapt toward Shino. Shino spun away from the charge, but left a piece of his jacket sleeve behind.

Naruto was impressed by how well the beast clone coordinated with the original as they took turns springing at Shino. His team mate always managed to avoid or re-direct their attacks, but it was often a close thing.

Finally, when Shino was forced to jump backwards from a coordinated strike, one of the Kibas yelled “Gatsuuga!” and they both began to spin so fast that they were little more than spiraling grey blurs as they barreled into Shino, hurling him into the air as more rips appeared in his jacket.

Both Kibas landed in a crouch, balanced on their fingertips and the balls of their feet. Shino twisted as he fell and barely managed to land on his feet.

But he still had a firm grip on his weapons. There was a loud click as the blades folded out of the shafts and locked into place. Naruto didn’t have to be able to see through the dark glasses to know his friend was getting serious.

Both Kibas launched themselves into the air with another cry of “Gatsuuga!” as their Double-Fang Technique sent them hurling down at the ground where Shino stood.

Naruto was dimly aware of his fingers digging into the railing.

There was a cloud of dust as both spirals slammed into the ground, totally obscuring the combatants. Naruto winced as one of Shino’s kamas came flying out of the dust cloud, apparently torn from his grasp. It flipped end over end through the air until it clattered to the ground near the balcony. Naruto’s eyes picked up the wet red stain running along the edge of the blade.

Kiba stumbled out of the cloud as the dust settled, coughing hard. Shino picked himself up off the floor of the arena, cradling one wrist against his chest, while still holding his remaining kama at the ready. Beyond him, Naruto could see another Kiba, sprawled on the ground with a jagged cut arcing up one sleeve of his jacket – which was now leaking blood fairly rapidly.

The wounded Kiba let out a whimper and with a pop turned back into an Akamaru with a bloody foreleg. The nin-dog edged away from Shino, carefully holding the wounded limb so it didn’t touch the ground.

“You bastard!” Kiba growled. “You hurt Akamaru!” He stalked toward the wounded Aburame, his face constricted with fury. But after the third step, he stumbled, and then fell to one knee. With a surprised expression, he toppled forward onto his face.

Hayate stared at Kiba, then looked over at Shino.

“His chakra has been exhausted,” Shino explained. A line of kikai bugs exited Kiba’s jacket and made their way toward their host. Another mass crawled out of Akamaru’s fur as the small dog’s rear legs folded up and it sat down. It slowly curled up on the floor, barely lifting its head enough to lick at the wound on its leg.

Hayate swallowed and then coughed. “Winner, Aburame Shino.”

Medic-nins with a stretcher came out and rolled Kiba onto it. Another approached Shino, but the boy pointed toward the prostrate dog. With some reluctance, the medic picked up the dozing Akamaru and Shino followed him out the arena exit.

Naruto stared after his team mate as he made his way out of the arena, pausing only as the next match was announced. Naruto was wondering whether Shino was really all right and actually missed the announcement. He looked up as the door closed behind his friend and saw the names: “Nara Shikamaru versus Tsurugi Misumi”.

Of course, the disgusted sigh coming from his classmate should have clued Naruto in that Shikamaru had been called. The Nara genin looked far less enthusiastic about the match than Chouji, let alone Ino. He didn’t even start moving until his jounin-sensei, Asuma, put his hand on the annoyed-looking genin’s shoulder.

The last of Kabuto’s purple-clad teammates had clear glasses to go with his weird veil. However, his uniform tunic left his arms bare, covered only by a plain white short-sleeve shirt. That and the long gloves on his hands suggested he might be some variety of close-range fighter.

The older genin seemed a bit more eager to fight, and sneered at Shikamaru as he approached. “Don’t think I’ll take it easy on you because you’re just a spoiled brat.”

Shikamaru plodded up to his place in front of Hayate and then finally raised his eyes to look at his opponent. “I didn’t think anyone could be as annoying as Ino,” he drawled.

“Hey!” Ino shouted, shaking her fist. But no one really paid much attention. Their arguments at the academy were as predictable as the behavior of Sasuke’s fan club.

“Once I get hold of you,” the older genin warned, “this fight will be over. You should show more respect for your seniors!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Shikamaru sighed, rolling his eyes. “Now you sound like my dad.”

Hayate evidently decided to start the match before it started without him. “Begin!” he commanded.

Misumi instantly charged forward and launched a taijutsu combination that flowed into a grappling move. Naruto blinked and rubbed his eyes. “Flowed” was really the right word. The older genin’s arms, and then his legs twisted around Shikamaru in a bizarre fashion, like they were made of rubber.

In an instant, he’d wrapped Shikamaru up, binding his legs in place and pinning his arms against his torso. “I can unhinge my joints and use chakra to control my body. I can strangle you or simply break your bones until you give up.”

Naruto swallowed. That was a really, really creepy fighting style. Unless maybe you were fighting a girl… he swallowed again and blushed. No, it was still really creepy. How could such a weirdo like him and his chakra-sucking partner grow up in Konoha? At least Kabuto seemed somewhat normal.

“That’s interesting,” Shikamaru grunted. “And informative,” he added as his neck muscles strained against the arm wrapped around them. “In return, I feel obliged to remind you of the last village council meeting.”

Naruto frowned, as did the weirdo and damn near everyone else he could see.

“What about it?” Misumi asked, pausing but not loosening his grip at all.

“They cut funding to the hospital,” Shikamaru replied in a bored tone.

“What does that have to do with anything?” Misumi demanded, getting angry again.

Shikamaru grunted as the man’s limbs seemed to tighten even more. “Without that money, they haven’t been able to stock up on some of the rarer anti-venins… like the Wind Country King Scorpion venom on the kunai I’m holding against your arm.”

There was a loud snapping sound as Misumi sprang away from his prey, limbs flying out in all directions. He landed in an awkward crouch as his joints realigned. He glared at Shikamaru who spread empty hands before him. “You little liar!” he accused.

Shikamaru shrugged as his hand reached into his pouch. “I bluffed, but these are real,” he said as he hurled a pair of shuriken at Misumi’s head. There was a cracking sound as his neck stretched upward, making the shuriken miss completely.

“You missed, boy!” Misumi sneered, his voice sounding really strange now.

“I never intended to hit.  Kagemane no Jutsu!” Shikamaru’s shadow stretched out along the ground, merging with Misumi’s shadow. As soon as contact was made, Misumi’s body froze in place. Shikamaru moved his arms from a guard position to let them hang free at his sides. As he did this, Misumi’s arms moved as well, perfectly mirroring the rookie’s motions.

Then Shikamaru inhaled deeply and bent forward rapidly at the waist. The stringy genin folded almost perfectly in half, his head facing his knees. With his disjointed neck stretching out due to the speed of the movement, Misumi’s forehead struck the ground with a loud crack, making Naruto wince.

No sooner did that happen then Shikamaru straightened and bent backwards in one motion. His back arched, the genin’s palms struck the floor just like one of the flexibility exercises Iruka-sensei had drilled them on in the academy. The back of the dazed Misumi’s head struck the floor with an even louder thump.

“Release,” Shikamaru said, still bent backwards. The second his shadow detached from Misumi’s the older genin collapsed in a boneless heap.

With a grunt, Shikamaru pushed off from the floor and straightened up, stretching as he did so. Naruto noted that the number one lazy bastard from his class hadn’t even moved from his starting point.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at Hayate, cocking his head toward his unconscious opponent. Hayate blinked twice. “Winner, Nara Shikamaru,” he announced with an embarrassed cough.

Everyone stared at Shikamaru as he slouched back toward the stairs leading to the observation deck. Even his own team was silent as he returned to his spot, leaning his elbows on the railing with a bored sigh.

“You were… actually good, Shika…” Ino said, eyes wide. She shook her head. “Not as cool as Sasuke-kun, but not bad at all.”

“How troublesome,” Shikamaru murmured. Chouji offered him a bag of chips, but Shikamaru just shook his head.

The medic-nins took a little while getting Misumi loaded onto a stretcher. It seemed to Naruto that they were a little reluctant to touch his stretchy neck, making it hard to keep his head on the stretcher, and not dragging on the ground. In the end, they finally managed to get him out of there and Hayate asked for the next match to be displayed.

Naruto felt a chill go down the back of his neck with the selection that was displayed: “Hyuuga Hinata versus Hyuuga Neji.” He spun toward his team mate, who’d gone even paler than usual.

Her eyes were a little wide, but her mouth took on a determined line as he looked at her. Something prompted him to speak before she walked away. “You can do this, Hinata,” he said in a low voice.

She paused, one foot lifted to take her first step. She gave him a single nod as her face took on an even more determined expression.

Naruto watched her march down the stairs to the arena floor, feeling like there was something he should be doing. But he didn’t know what. He glanced over at Kurenai-sensei, and while she didn’t say anything, he could read her expressions well enough to know that she wasn’t pleased with this match-up either.

A voice from the opposite direction made Naruto jump. “This is most unfortunate.”

He spun around, surprised to see Shino already rejoining them, his arm bound in a light sling. Naruto just nodded, remembering how Neji had gone after his kage bunshin that had been henged to look like Hinata.

While Hinata’s posture could only be described as resolute as she marched to the center of the floor, Neji seemed almost unconcerned. Hinata dropped into a basic Jyuuken guard position when Hayate told them to begin, but Neji just stood there glaring at her.

“You can’t win, you know,” the older Hyuuga said in a matter-of-fact tone. “You have never defeated me in a sparring match; you don’t have the physical or mental capacity to challenge me. If you surrender now, I will not be forced to harm a member of the main family and you can return to your career as a mediocre kunoichi.”

It took a moment for Naruto to realize that the grinding sound was coming from his own molars.

Surprisingly, Hinata showed almost no reaction to his words, other than minutely drawing her eyebrows together. “I have worked too hard to get here, cousin, and I refuse to disappoint my sensei or my team.”

Neji stared at her for a moment, and Naruto wondered if he was actually surprised by Hinata’s words. She seemed nothing like the exhausted wreck he’d seen the morning after her family’s ‘special training.’ The next instant the Hyuuga genius blurred into motion as he attacked.

Hinata smoothly blocked and countered and the two Jyuuken-users began an elaborate dance, punctuated with sharp bursts of chakra as they launched strikes designed to shred internal organs. Naruto’s eyes could barely keep up with their movements, despite all the time he’d spent sparring with Hinata. This made him realize two things.

The first was that Jyuuken users are just as adept at fighting each other as those who practice other taijutsu styles, and in a peculiar way the moves almost seemed to interlock.

The second, more chilling realization, was that Neji was even faster than he thought. Hinata was holding her own, but Naruto feared she was just one mis-step away from disaster. He could feel the chakra bursts from where he stood, and they were nothing like the weaker spikes Hinata used when she sparred with him. Those blows would numb his arm for a short time, even shorter if he expended the chakra.

These blows were intended to maim, if not kill.

Still, Hinata held off her cousin’s attacks, and her counterblows sometimes put him back on the defensive. Naruto wanted to cheer her on, but he was also afraid of distracting her at a fatal moment.

As he watched, something began to bother him. The chakra behind Hinata’s Jyuuken strikes began to falter. It was almost like she was exhausting her reserves, but he knew from their sparring sessions that she had far more than she’d expended so far. He wondered if she was trying to lull Neji into getting overconfident, setting him up for a big hit.

Maybe Shino wasn’t the sneakiest shinobi on Team Eight.

Finally, it happened. Hinata ducked under Neji’s strike at her face, instead of blocking. Rather than making her eyeballs explode, the taller boy ended up with Hinata well inside his guard and her palm strike nailed him firmly in the stomach.

She jumped back as Neji grunted, still on guard.

But the older Hyuuga just looked at her. And then he smiled. “You’ve lost,” he said.

Hinata frowned as her Byakugan seemed to release on its own and Naruto noticed her flexing her hand and rubbing at her forearm. At her cousin’s words, she pushed up the sleeve of her jacket and Naruto saw that it was dotted with small chakra burns, corresponding with places he knew held tenketsu points. It wasn’t like he hadn’t flushed his own out often enough. “Damn,” he muttered under his breath. For Neji to be capable of doing that, during a fight like that, was pretty impressive. It also explained why Hinata couldn’t focus chakra down her arms anymore.

Hinata’s eyes flickered towards the observation balcony, and for an instant she seemed to stare right into his eyes. Then she turned back to her cousin and her eyes hardened. The Byakugan was active again, but Naruto couldn’t remember seeing her do the seals this time. Had she managed to do it without them?

“I am a shinobi of the leaf, Neji-nii-san,” she said, “and a Hyuuga. I. Do. Not. Give. Up.” With that, she jumped backward, throwing a brace of shuriken as she did so.

Neji dodged the barrage with a burst of speed that made Naruto even more anxious. “You’ve picked a bad time to discover your pride,” he said in a cold voice as he closed in on Hinata.

Hinata evaded a strike to her chest by dropping to the ground and launching a leg sweep to knock Neji off his feet. Neji simply leapt backward, flipping to land on his feet and charge back in as a single movement.

Hinata somersaulted backward and clashed her wrists together in a motion she and Naruto had practiced many times. She spun, palms out, but as each arm moved toward Neji, she dropped her hand flat into a knife-hand and the weighted bracer flew off her wrist. Neji ducked backward, avoiding the first one, but the second struck him on the temple with stunning force.

The Hyuuga genius stumbled, backward, a cut opened at the corner of one eye, as Hinata released the weights on her legs and kicked them toward him as well. However, despite their practice, Naruto knew neither of them was as accurate flinging their leg weights, and Neji easily evaded both of them.

“I see you decided to resort to tricks to make up for your lack of skill,” Neji sneered. “But it won’t help. You were born a failure and you will die a failure, a blot on the honor of the main family.”

Hinata didn’t respond verbally, but just swallowed as she settled into a Goken stance. Naruto knew she wasn’t nearly as proficient in the style she’d only recently learned with Gai-sensei, but with her arms like that… her Jyuuken was pretty much useless to her.

Neji’s face began to lose its emotionless mask as he moved toward her, launching a series of blindingly fast attacks.

But with her weights off, Hinata moved so fast that she was little more than a blur, making several people gasp and Lee began to very quietly cheer her on. Naruto recognized several of her evasions as ones he’d worked out from sparring with her. “Go Hinata!” he roared, making everyone jump. “Kick his ass!”

Naruto felt a hand latch onto his shoulder and quickly muttered, “Sorry sensei.”

Neji’s expression grew even more frustrated as Hinata continued to dodge his Jyuuken strikes. She improvised quick off-axis attacks, making him guard his footing and distracting him from predicting her next dodge. Naruto began to hope she’d pull this off. She managed to connect a few times, but her margin of error was so thin…

Finally, it happened. Neji apparently allowed her to land a hammerfist strike to his ribs, not even trying to block but instead using that instant to land a Jyuuken strike that speared into the left side of her back, below the shoulderblade.

Neji stumbled back, clapping a hand to his side, where his rib was bruised, if not cracked. But Hinata fell to one knee and coughed, blood spattering the floor in front of where she knelt. She slowly toppled to one side, falling prone.

“So much for your tricks,” Neji said in a dismissive tone as he turned away, and in that instant Naruto would gladly have ended his life.

“It looks like this match is over,” Hayate said in a voice that sounded slightly regretful.

“N-no…” The voice was faint, but unmistakably came from where Hinata lay.

Neji spun back toward his cousin, his expression a mixture of frustration, annoyance, and something else that Naruto couldn’t identify.

Hinata painfully struggled to her feet. “I’m not done with you yet,” she said, her eyes fixed on her cousin.

What followed next was one of the most painful and frustrating experiences of Naruto’s life. Hinata could barely hold her Goken stance as Neji strode over to her. His fist snapped out and slammed into her jaw, sending her crashing to the ground.

And she got up again.

Neji punched her in the stomach, folding her up as he knocked her off her feet. He didn’t even bother to use Jyuuken anymore. The damage Hinata had taken rendered her barely able to stand, let alone defend herself.

But she kept getting up again.

“Why do you keep getting up?” Neji finally demanded. “Do you want to die? Do you think that will make you less of a failure?”

Hinata slowly raised her head, meeting Neji’s glare.

“You were destined to be the Hyuuga failure from the day you were born,” Neji snapped. “I’ve seen that with my eyes from the first day I saw you. You cursed your own powerlessness and blamed yourself. But we all knew the truth, and you haven’t changed at all. That is your destiny, accept it and stop this foolishness.”

“You’re wrong, Neji-nii-san,” Hinata said between shuddering breaths. She paused to cough up a little more blood. She wiped her mouth and cocked her head to one side, looking past her cousin. “I can see that you are hurting worse than I am. You hate yourself even more than you hate me.”

Neji let out a strangled cry of rage as Hinata’s eyes rolled back in her head and her legs began to buckle. Time seemed to stand still as Hayate yelled for him to stop. There was a sudden rush of air and Naruto dimly realized that Kurenai-sensei had launched herself off the balcony.

But his eyes were locked onto the slowly toppling form of his friend and teammate, falling even as sure death approached her. Naruto wasn’t even aware of his fingers forming seals, but suddenly he was there – half deafened by a thunderous pop and gritting his teeth against the spike of pain that seemed to have been rammed through his chest.

Naruto stumbled backward, clutching his chest. Hayate seemed to have been caught flat-footed, but Kurenai-sensei, Kakashi, and Gai-sensei all had a hold of Hyuuga Neji, whose palm still glowed from the chakra spike that had struck Naruto. The so-called genius was bitterly protesting favoritism being shown to the main house, but Naruto ignored him.

Up on the balcony where Naruto had been standing, Hinata crumpled to the ground. Shino grabbed her, keeping her head from striking the balcony, but she was still unconscious. Bloody froth bubbled at the corner of her mouth. “Medics! Now!” Shino yelled in a loud voice that made everyone jump.

Naruto’s chest hurt like hell, but he straightened up enough to limp over to the stairs, trailing behind the scrambling medics. He stopped when Kurenai grabbed his shoulder.

“Stay out of their way,” she said in a quiet voice, her eyes glued on Shino as he supported Hinata’s head and helped the medic-nins load her onto a stretcher.

Naruto nodded, slowly straightening and wiping the blood from his chin. He watched the medics carry the stretcher down off the balcony at a fast trot. The haste with which they moved chilled his blood. Her wounds were likely to be at least as serious as he had feared. As they passed him, he couldn’t help but stare at his friend’s face. Her skin had gone as pale as snow and the rise and fall of her chest was barely perceptible.

Naruto felt a sudden spike of killing intent from behind him, seemingly coinciding with Gai’s voice. He spun around. Neji’s face was a frozen mask of fury as he was remonstrated by his jounin-sensei, and suddenly Naruto wanted nothing more than to rip that bastard’s throat out with his teeth. The light in the arena seemed to take on a reddish tone as his fingernails dug into his palms, drawing blood. Naruto was dimly aware of startled glances coming from Kakashi as well as Gai, but it was Kurenai’s words that sunk in.

“Calm down and we’ll follow Hinata to the infirmary,” she all but whispered in his ear.

Naruto spun on his heel and took off after the medic-nins, ignoring the blood dripping from his fists.

OoOoO

Shino watched the rest of his team leave. While he might have preferred to follow them, it would serve no logical purpose. Also, there were still several shinobi present in the room that possessed unknown capabilities. He could best serve his team by staying and making careful observations. He had qualified for the next round, and he had little doubt that Naruto would as well, so any information he might glean could prove vital.

But that didn’t mean he had to like it.

Maito Gai had removed Hyuuga Neji from the room, which was fortunate. There were several individuals present that did not appreciate his actions, and candor required that he admit he was one of them. It would not do for them to begin the next set of matches before the preliminaries concluded, as he doubted that such eagerness would be appreciated by the examiners.

Glancing around, he noticed that both Rock Lee and Tenten were staring at him. Looking down, he realized that there was a fine spray of aspirated blood across the front of his jacket. Hinata’s blood. He looked back up.

“What variety of flowers would be appropriate?” he asked in the calmest, most matter-of-fact tone of voice he could muster.

“What?” Tenten asked, rubbing a bruise on the side of her head that she’d sustained in her loss to Temari. To their credit, both of them appeared upset with the outcome of the last match, but Shino still had a point to make.

“For your team mate’s funeral,” he clarified.

Lee paled.

OoOoO

Naruto followed as long as he could, but suddenly the medics started shouting and carried Hinata’s stretcher through a pair of swinging doors marked ‘For Authorized Personnel Only’.

Kurenai-sensei grabbed his shoulder again, halting him in his tracks. “We’ll only be in the way,” she murmured before she turned to one of the attendants.

Naruto looked down, taking some deep breaths and resisting the urge to leap through the doors anyway. His palms ached a little, but despite the blood caked on his hands, they were unmarked and his chest felt like it was getting back to normal. He felt guilty as hell, like he let someone down, but he couldn’t see what he should have done differently. Did telling Hinata to kick Neji’s ass make her want to keep fighting long after she couldn’t? Was it wrong for him to encourage her? Had his Kawarimi no Jutsu hurt her worse, or was it more important that Neji not hit her again?

Neji. Hyuuga Neji. Hinata’s own cousin tried to kill her! Was he mad about something to do with their clan? What was that crap about the main family about anyway? How the hell could he blame her for that? It wasn’t like she was in charge of their crappy family. Was he just taking it out on her because he could?

Naruto shook his head. He didn’t really care why that creep had a vendetta against Hinata. What he did know was that he was going to beat that bastard like a drum and make his hair bleed. No one hurt his friends, especially Hinata.

Naruto looked up, blinking. Where had that thought come from?

He felt a hand on his elbow and spun around. Kurenai-sensei didn’t even blink, but began speaking as soon as she had his attention. “Naruto, I’m going to stay down here with Hinata, but I need you to go back to the auditorium.”

Naruto shook his head, but she cut him off before he could speak.

“I know you want to stay here, but you still haven’t had your preliminary match yet. If you stay down here you will be disqualified,” she reminded him.

“That’s not important,” Naruto said in a stubborn tone.

“You won’t get a chance to fight Neji if you don’t advance,” Kurenai reminded him. “He’ll probably say you stayed down here to get disqualified because you were afraid to face him.”

Naruto had to give his sensei credit. She was pretty good at putting the screws to people when she wanted to. He let out a sigh that sounded more like a growl.

Kurenai sighed as well. “All right, Naruto. What do you think Hinata will think if you stay down here because she was hurt?”

It didn’t take much imagination to figure that out. “She’ll think it was her fault I was disqualified,” he said in a resigned tone.

“Right Naruto,” Kurenai agreed, “and that’s not something she needs to deal with while she’s recovering. The nurse says they got her here just in time, and they do need to do some serious work before she regains consciousness. I know you and Shino will both want to be here when she wakes up, so beat whoever you have to fight quickly.”

Naruto nodded. “Yes sensei!” he said loudly enough to draw a glare from the attendant before he ran back down the hallway.

OoOoO

Naruto entered the auditorium just in time to see both Ino and Sakura being helped off the floor. Both of them looked pretty shaky and he wondered who won. He made his way over to Shino as quickly as he could without drawing too much attention.

“She’s in surgery now,” Naruto said in response to the unspoken question. “Kurenai-sensei thinks she’s going to be okay, but they got her there just in time and she’ll be out a while.”

Shino nodded and his posture seemed to loosen a little – though it might just have been Naruto’s imagination. “You only missed one match,” Shino said, nodding toward the two battered kunoichi. “Double knock-out,” he added.

Naruto blinked. He wondered how the hell they managed that. But his attention was diverted by the display for the next match: “Uchiha Sasuke versus Uzumaki Naruto.”

Naruto glanced over at Sasuke, who just smirked back at him. Naruto frowned. The genin was rolling the shoulder that he remembered the curse seal being on. Kurenai assured him it had been dealt with, but he wondered.

Naruto quickly knelt down next to Shino, adjusting his sandal. While he was bent over, he hit the releases on his arm and leg weights, leaving them in a pile next to his team mate. When he straightened up, Sasuke was leaving the stairs and Hayate was frowning at him, so Naruto just vaulted the railing.

Of course, without his weights, he went considerably farther than he expected and landed badly off balance. Sasuke just rolled his eyes while Hayate cleared his throat.

“Can’t you do anything right, dead last?” Sasuke asked him in a superior tone as he slid back into an advanced taijutsu stance. Naruto ignored him, knowing the Uchiha just wanted him angry and off balance.

But that didn’t help one bit when he heard his opponent’s next words. “I hope you put up a better fight than your pathetic teammate.”

Naruto looked up at Sasuke, his rage returning.

Sasuke smirked, evidently pleased that his barb had struck home.

“Begin!” Hayate commanded.

OoOoO

Shino winced as he witnessed the Uchiha’s attempt at psychological warfare. While it was a valid tactic in many circumstances, this wasn’t one he’d personally recommend.

When the examiner said “Begin!” there was a green blur of motion that ended in a loud crack.

Naruto was standing in the space formerly occupied by the Uchiha, fist extended. Shino noticed that his eyes were a much darker shade of blue than normal, almost a deep purple.

As for Sasuke, he was flying backwards, landing in a boneless heap three and a half meters behind his starting position. There was a large lump already forming on the side of his jaw as he bounced once before sliding to a halt. To Shino’s untrained eye, it was quite apparent that the last Uchiha had sustained a broken jaw.

Gekkou Hayate stared at the clearly unconscious boy as the one who struck him turned and began marching toward the exit. Clearing his throat, he announced, “Winner, Uzumaki Naruto.”

OoOoO

Naruto knew the way to the infirmary now, so he made much better time on his second trip. Kurenai-sensei was still waiting near the surgery unit, so he sat down beside her. She looked at the clock and frowned.

“I fought Sasuke,” he said as he sat down.

She sighed, patted him awkwardly on the shoulder, and went back to staring at the clock.

After nearly twenty minutes, Naruto was about to climb the walls. His fidgeting grew noisier and noisier until Kurenai gave him a sharp look and he forcibly stilled himself. Looking away, he saw Shino leading Gai-sensei and a wobbly-looking Lee.

“The matches are concluded,” Shino said with no preamble, “I will share my observations as needed. How is our comrade?”

“No word yet,” Naruto answered with a frown.

An attendant approached Gai and over his protests Lee was led away for an x-ray. Naruto wondered why Sasuke hadn’t been brought down here, or whether he’d be treated on the spot. Maybe he should have hit him harder.

A moment later, Gai returned and nodded to Kurenai. “Thank you for the information regarding that Sand genin. Lee had to fight him and even with the Celestial Gates open, he could not land a decisive blow. Without our extra endurance training I’m not sure he could have fought as long as he did.”

“What happened to Lee?” Naruto asked.

“When the fires of Lee’s Youth began to run out of fuel, this Sabaku no Gaara was able to catch him a glancing blow with his sand and hurl him against the wall.” Gai reported in a distressed voice. Naruto realized that seeing Lee unable to win, despite all his hard work, was physically painful for his sensei. “I… I was forced to intervene before he was severely injured.”

“I’m sure Lee knows you did the right thing,” Kurenai assured him, looking a bit uncomfortable herself.

“Yes, but when he is recovered we will run a thousand laps around Konoha, backward, on our hands!” Gai assured her.

Shino nodded to Naruto. “With that match, Kankuro from the Sand was not required to fight. I will share my observations on the others as needed, but the matches for the next round in a month have already been selected. You will fight Hyuuga Neji.”

Kurenai-sensei’s eyes widened in surprise.

Naruto’s disgruntlement over the Sand guy’s luck dissipated as a beatific grin spread across his face.

Author Notes:

Gaara took a lot longer to reach the tower because he insisted that his team prowl around the forest for a while… he was hoping to run into that jinchuuriki he encountered on the rooftop before the exam.

Chouji fought a little better than he did in canon because he went first – and didn’t have time to be intimidated watching everyone else fight. And Yoroi’s technique is a really bad match-up against the infamous Akimichi Meatball Tank. He wasn’t fast enough to use a touch-jutsu and get away without getting crunched.

At over 11,000 words, I was so tempted to end the chapter when they announced Naruto’s match, but I’d like to live to see the New Year.

(Bibliophile’s Beta note: and I thought he should have ended the chapter there, too, but after a bit of thought, I have to agree that this works out better)

As always, mucho thanks to my betas, Runsamok and Bibliophile.

And a final reminder, since it’s been a while since this was brought up. This *is* an AU story, and the divergence point occurs well before chapter one begins. More will be revealed about it later, but that means that some characters will not act exactly as they did in canon. Some of the differences will be very apparent, some will be more subtle. But if someone is acting different than what you expect, that’s probably why.

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