Chapter Fourteen: Do Cacti Count as Trees?

Alternate Title: No


Asuma, Kakashi, and Kurenai sat in the hotel room, complaining about their students over drinks. Well, Itachi was there too, because which self-preserving person would tell her she couldn't? All the jounin had been complaining a lot, and they may or may not have been very drunk. Actually, they were extremely drunk, though everyone refused to accept it.

Kurenai held her head in her hands. "You know, I always wanted to be a jounin-sensei," she mumbled, eyeing the shot glass. "I was so happy to get a team. I just… I just didn't expect my team to be so unstable. I've got an a loudmouth Inuzuka, an Aburame, and Hyuuga-fucking-Hinata, avenger extraordinaire. It's such a mess."

"Tell me about it." Kakashi didn't sigh, but it was a close thing. "I didn't expect the team to be worse than before, you know. It was already dysfunctional the last time around. Though their teamwork's now great, I'm left fearing for the world's safety." He blinked and hastily added, "You know, with the Chuunin Exams really pushing everything into overdrive. Yeah."

Asuma, on the other hand, did sigh. "Kids, man. The next generation of ninja is so batshit crazy."

"However, that is mainly Kakashi's fault. It always is." Itachi's words were met with vehement agreement by both Asuma and Kurenai. Kakashi ignored them. They were obviously jealous.

"Did I say…" Asuma blinked and frowned. "Did I say that the next generation is batshit crazy already? 'Cause they totally are."

"Shut up, Asuma." Kurenai jabbed a finger in his direction, though with how drunk she was, she ended up pointing at Itachi. "You don't get to complain. Your kids are all stable—"

"Which is probably why they all flunked out," mused Kakashi.

"—and were practically raised to have perfect teamwork." Kurenai scowled and inched away from Asuma, but her expression would be more threatening had she not been sitting in his lap. "I'd kill to make my team that sane."

"Hey, I'm pretty sure that liking Sakura is a clear measure of instability!" Asuma said.

Everyone fell silent for a moment as they contemplated his protest. He had a very valid point. Kakashi had to admit that, even if grudgingly.

"Alright, Asuma, you get complaining privileges again." Kakashi nodded his head in a very authoritative (and not drunk, thank you very much) manner. "But you don't get to complain about your kids being in the Chuunin Exams, because they all failed."

Asuma seemed a little miffed at that, but he simply sipped his drink a little more.

"It's so nice to do this," said Kurenai, filling the silence. "Gathering together without a war happening. Though… wait." She looked around, realization dawning. "Where's Gai—"

"Don't summon him!" hissed Asuma and Kakashi at the same time. Kakashi took cover under the table, and Asuma attempted to follow him before remembering that Kurenai was still sitting on his lap.

"Training," Itachi answered for them. "His kunoichi student is still in the exam, and I believe he is making her do laps around the village."

"Of course he is." Kurenai leaned against Asuma and groaned. "That man doesn't quit, huh? Even when it concerns his students." Her gaze turned coy as she lowered her lashes. "I can't say that I'm much different. I've been training Hinata pretty hard, though she's never needed much motivation for that."

Kakashi snorted at her ill-disguised brag.

"Shut it, Kakashi." Kurenai frowned at him. "You have it easy. Everyone else does your teaching for you. Speaking of which..." She turned to Itachi. "How is Sasuke's training coming along?"

"Very well." Itachi's blank gaze seemed a touch pleased. "His progress has been more than adequate."

"Hey!" Kakashi responded a tad late as he crawled out from under the table. "I don't slack off on everything. Sure, Itachi's teaching Sasuke, and Minato-sensei's teaching Naruto, but I've still been training Sakura."

Asuma winced, and Kurenai made unintelligible noises of sympathy. Itachi suddenly frowned and looked very suspicious.

"How's that been?" asked Asuma.

Kakashi actually did sigh. "It's… It's been—"

"Absolutely wonderful!" squealed Sakura, draping her arm around Kakashi's neck.

Asuma and Kurenai both overreacted with shock, Asuma flailing around for his trench knives and Kurenai casting and cancelling various genjutsu. Itachi, on the other hand, seemed completely unsurprised, but she frowned and activated her sharingan regardless.

I really regret leaving the safety of the table, Kakashi thought with a wince. Sadly, over the last two weeks, he'd gotten used to having no privacy as Sakura attempted to steal his eye and/or learn from him. He'd been successful at avoiding the first but not so successful at avoiding the second. Kakashi still refused to teach her chidori, though. Perhaps it wasn't a good idea to teach kids, especially her, assassination jutsu…

"Sakura-chan." Itachi's greeting was stiff and formal.

Asuma's, on the other hand, was not so kind.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" he yelped, a thin coating of wind chakra flickering over his blades.

"Stealth training!" Sakura beamed as she tugged on her bandages.

"She's been stalking me," said Kakashi at the same time. To himself, he muttered, "I'm getting so much deja-vu."

He wasn't quiet enough, unfortunately, so both Sakura and Itachi sent him twin glares. Kakashi wasn't sure whose was scarier.

"Stealth training, is it?" Kurenai's normally elegant smile was a tad shaky. "Do you plan on using that approach in the final rounds?

"Nope!" Sakura seemed more thoughtful than manic. "I'll probably terrify them into submission instead."

Her arm snaked further around Kakashi's shoulder, and her fingers reached for his headband, itching for the sharingan underneath. With honed instincts and exasperation, Kakashi batted her fingers away for the thousandth time.

"Bad Sakura!" He flicked her on the forehead just as she turned her gaze towards Itachi's still-red eyes. "What did Itachi and I tell you about eye theft?"

She grumbled but said, "To reserve it for filthy non-Konoha ninja."

"Exactly."

Next to Kakashi, Itachi nodded with approval. It had taken some… convincing from the both of them, but Sakura had eventually learned the lesson that her probable relative hadn't. (Actually, now that he thought about it, Kakashi really had to get back to Tsunade and make sure. At this point, he didn't know what was worse: Sakura being related to Danzo, or Sakura not being related to Danzo.)

Kurenai opened and closed her mouth before faintly saying, "I see. You've been learning some, uh, interesting things." She blinked. "Well I'm sure you'll do well, no matter what approach you take."

"You bet!" Sakura showed her teeth in something that was definitely not a smile. "I just can't wait."


Kakashi's two weeks of hell were over. They were finally at the rebuilt stadium, which was bigger and grander than before. Ninja could use earth jutsu, so why the hell would it take a longer than two weeks? Considering the frequency that buildings were blown up and villages destroyed, they had plenty of experience. The shimmering, gold-painted seats were packed with merchants and nobles; the higher up they sat, the richer they were. At the very top were the Kage, though only three were present—Minato, Rasa, and Yagura, of all people.

After an overly dramatic entrance involving fireballs, the proctor, whose name resembled Pakkun's to an uncomfortable degree, announced the matchups. (Kakashi was a little miffed that she'd gotten the dramatic entrance. That was his job. Suna would probably attack him if he tried it, but still. He'd lost his chance this time; he'd only been five minutes late due to the unlikely possibility of an invasion.) The first "matchup" had Kankuro with a bye. That brought grumbles of favoritism by the non-Suna ninja, but favoritism was basically a fact of ninja life.

The first actual battle, which had Tenten vs Temari, went basically as before, though Temari dominated even more. Not only did she have a giant fan to blow away all the weapons that Tenten threw, but Temari also had magnet release. It… did not go well for Tenten. Gai sobbed about tears of Youth, but he hurriedly assured his student that he was proud of her with a gigantic hug. Because the two were still in the fucking rainbow jumpsuits oh god please, Kakashi and everyone present erased the touching scene from their memories.

The second match was Naruto against Hinata, which made Kakashi either want to laugh hysterically or bang his head against the seat. Instead, he gave a thumbs-up as his knucklehead student rushed into the arena. Then, Kakashi settled into his seat, eager to watch the show.

This was going to be an absolute trainwreck, but damn if it wasn't going to be an entertaining one.


Naruto pointed dramatically at Hinata. "I'm going to avenge Neji, just so you know!"

Hinata's white eyes narrowed. "Don't speak to me about revenge. You don't understand. You never will." She held her hands out in front of her in the loose style that the Hyuuga favored. "B-Besides, Neji's not dead. You can't avenge the living."

"That's what you think." Naruto paused and frowned. "Wait, wait, no. I didn't mean it like that. Neji's still alive. I meant the part about avenging the living? You know, since you said that I can't…" He flailed a bit as he tried to figure out what to say. "And… uh, I don't like people telling me what I can't do! I'm Uzumaki Naruto, believe it!" He brightened. "Yeah, like that one time my dad told me I couldn't eat fifteen bowls of ramen and…"

In the stands, Sasuke rolled his eyes. "I can't believe that I'm on a team with that idiot. He'd better win, though. People consumed by revenge are pathetic." He gave a decisive nod. "That's what my sister told me."

Kakashi burst into giggles at this, but his adorable students ignored him, thoroughly desensitized to his behavior. Itachi, however, gave him a weird look.

"And she's never wrong," mocked Sakura, dodging Sasuke's kick. "But I agree with you. Naruto will make us look bad if he loses. I'll beat him up if he doesn't win!"

Sasuke nodded, though he gave her a wary glance. "And then we'll get revenge on Hinata."

"Exactly."

Itachi gave a short sigh. "I think he missed the point of my lecture," she murmured.

"Your lecture?" Kakashi peeked over his latest book, Icha Icha Next Generation, which also didn't exist in his world; Jiraiya had written a prequel instead.

"Yes, the one on the futility of revenge and the cycle of hatred. I give it to all the younger Uchiha before they enter the Academy." She frowned at him. "Don't you remember? You helped with the last one."

It's a really good idea, considering the clan's track record, thought Kakashi. He scratched his head at her suspicious look and turned to his students.

"Aww, I'm so glad that you decided to put aside your differences to prey upon other Konoha ninja!" He ruffled their hair. "Remember, don't do anything I wouldn't do." Kakashi frowned. "Actually, scratch that."

Before Kakashi could give his genin more detailed restrictions, the proctor had gotten tired of Naruto's ongoing speech and demanded that they start. Hinata wasted no time, lunging for him, fingers outstretched. With a puff of smoke, twenty Narutos appeared in front of her. She was initially slowed by the barrage, but after discovering that it only took a quick poke to dispel the clones, she returned to her former speed.

"Ha ha!" said three Naruto's from behind her. Together, they were making a rasengan.

Kakashi blinked. Minato-sensei taught him it already? He, and most of the stadium, turned their gaze to the Yondaime—whose expression was a mixture of surprise, pride, and sheepishness.

Hinata backed away at the sight of a spinning sphere of chakra-death, her anger fading into wariness. Well, that was probably a good decision. Kakashi supposed that the rasengan was even more infamous since Minato was still alive.

"Whatcha gonna do now?" the Narutos taunted as they approached her. "Neji, this is for you!"

Lightning fast, Hinata dashed forward. Her outstretched fingers stabbed at his hand, and the rasengan flew to the side, blasting a chunk of the wall. Two Naruto clones dispersed due to the sheer force of the explosion.

"Huh," said the remaining Naruto, staring at the hole. "I didn't know you could do that."

Even Hinata looked surprised for a moment, blinking at him instead of immediately going on the offensive. Naruto was the first to make use of the lull. He brought his hands together, took a deep breath, and spit a burst of water straight into her face.

Her eyes narrowed as the anger returned tenfold. She stood, shaking, as water dripped from her soaked hair and clothes, gathering into a puddle by her feet.

"Oh, shit."

("Language!" barked Minato from the stands.)

Hinata began chasing him, her jabs becoming jyuuken grabby hands. Just as Naruto gained enough distance, Hinata flickered in front of him and kicked him hard enough to break his ribs—had Naruto not burst into smoke.

Hands erupted from the ground, grabbing Hinata and pulling her into the ground. Hinata, of course, did the reasonable thing and jyuuken-ed the hands… also turning them into smoke. Instead of being submerged to her head, Hinata was only trapped until her knees. That too was easily solved with a rendition of the Eight Trigrams Palms: Revolving Heaven. The audience murmured and coughed as, for the second time this battle, a pressure wave of dirt was thrown into the air. The dust settled, and a perfectly round crater stretched around Hinata. Fifty Naruto clones burst out of the ground, and the battle resumed.

"She's really good," murmured Sasuke, contemplative. "I guess the rumors about her strength weren't so exaggerated."

Sakura scoffed, but it wasn't as dismissive as it could have been. "I could take her." She whipped her head to stare at Sasuke. "You aren't interested in her, are you?"

Sasuke turned pale. "Please don't hurt me."

(Itachi's sharingan activated, and Kakashi was beginning to be seriously concerned. For who exactly, he didn't really know, but he was concerned, dammit!)

"Actually…" Sakura tapped her chin, contemplative, "she also has an ocular bloodline. If you really insist, I wouldn't mind her as our concubine."

"Wow, Sakura, that's messed up." Naruto squeezed between the two, which was probably for the best, considering that Sasuke was beginning to hyperventilate. "No, seriously, that's super messed up. Sure, Hinata's a little weird and angsty, but I don't think she deserves that."

Out of reflex, Sakura punched him. He didn't pop. Instead, he cursed and rubbed his arm.

"Naruto," said Sasuke, giving him a look that was both baffled and grateful. "What are you doing here?"

Naruto shrugged, mumbling something about needing to rescue his best friend.

Sakura sniffed. "Well, you're down to ten clones. If you want to win and not completely disgrace Team 7, you'd better get back in there."

Frowning, Naruto squinted at the stadium. "Huh I guess you're right." With a couple hand signs, Naruto substituted with one of his clones down below. Suddenly, the field was again awash with more clones.

"I swear," Sakura said, rolling her eyes, "can he do anything besides making shadow clones?"

"There's that water jutsu," Sasuke offered. "And that other water jutsu. Well, now there's the rasengan..."

Speaking of which, Naruto had conjured several rasengan using his clones.

"Guess what! I know the rasengan, now!" announced Naruto a little belatedly, considering that he'd already used it several times during the battle. "So take that!"

Hinata narrowed her bulging eyes. "Y-You're not the only one who knows advanced techniques!" She fell into the stance that preceded the Eight Trigrams Palms Revolving Heaven.

With a roar, the multiple Narutos leaped at her with a rasengan. Hinata spun, creating a tight sphere of chakra—

… and promptly slipped on a puddle of water created by Naruto's earlier water jutsu.

Naruto didn't fail to take advantage. One clone held her down, and the other two held a rasengan above her head.

"Forfeit!" he yelled.

The proctor watched, body tense as she prepared to call the match.

Hinata snarled. Her byakugan bulged again, and her hand darted upwards, right towards Naruto's face. She squawked, taken completely off guard by different pair of hands that burst out of the ground, pulling her head straight down into the dirt.

Hinata, Kakashi mused, now resembles a turnip. Her legs dangled in the air as the rest of her flailed underground.

"Match goes to Uzumaki Naruto!" shouted the proctor, and the stadium burst into raucous, thunderous celebration. Minato, of course, was the loudest.

While the proctors began digging Hinata out, Naruto joined the rest of his team. Kakashi crinkled his eyes, clasping his student on the shoulder.

"Well done."

"Thanks, sensei!" Beaming, Naruto flashed a thumbs up at his teammates.

Sasuke nudged his friend in response. "I knew you could do it."

"I didn't, but it was a pleasant surprise." Sakura flipped her hair. "Good job with not disgracing us."

The Suna ninja had finished restoring the stadium with earth jutsu, and the proctor brought everyone's attention back with another flashy fire jutsu.

"The next match," she announced, "will be Gaara of the Sand versus Haruna Sakura."

Well, shit.


Kakashi turned his attention to his student's opponent. He was currently staring at Sakura with wide, blank eyes.

"Mother. I want her," he said loudly, tone as flat as his eyes.

So Gaara still spoke to Shukaku, huh—

"Knock yourself out. We have to learn from our own mistakes," sighed Rasa. Oh, right. Gaara actually had a mother. "Remember what I told you about the crazy ones?"

"Take them to bed because they make the strongest children?"

"Exactly."

Beside Rasa, Minato smacked his forehead loud enough to be heard throughout the stadium. He began to say something about parenting, but he quickly gave up, realizing that it was a lost cause. The two borderline-psychopathic genin (or so Kakashi assumed; Gaara seemed pretty well-adjusted, actually, the whole "wanting Sakura" thing aside) made their way to the Arena.

Sakura stood in her usual, relaxed position, but her grin was too large to be natural. Gaara yawned, but his eyes were still intensely focused on his current fixation.

"Begin!"

Gaara made the first move, gently sending a weak wave of sand. That was lackluster. Kakashi paused. Oh, dear, he wasn't going easy on her because of his crush, was he? Poor, poor Gaara. Well, he'd brought it on himself.

Sakura hopped over the pathetic sliver of sand and dashed towards him, kunai drawn. He sent a stronger wave, and Sakura easily dodged and retaliated by throwing a kunai behind him. She flickered in front of him, and with a perfect substitution, switched places with her kunai. Weapon in hand, Sakura lunged. Caught of guard, he reacted with true, powerful blast of sand. Undaunted, Sakura simply chakra-walked up the looming wall of sand. With a quick flip, she was behind his defense. Gaara blinked, seemingly impressed, but that was quickly pushed aside as Sakura began a barrage of attacks.

In all Kakashi's time of teaching her, Sakura had never used more than the basic Academy three, plus-or-minus the occasional genjutsu or technique that Kakashi had taught her. Despite that, she'd managed to put a jinchuuriki on defense.

"That's… pretty terrifying," he mumbled to himself. Itachi inclined her head, her sharingan activated as she watched—something she hadn't done for any match prior.

Gaara grew more and more terrified as he sent wave after wave of sand, attempting to engulf her or hit her or even touch her, but Sakura was too fast. Her reaction time increased with each attack, outspeeding the sand defense by a larger and larger margin, and just as she stabbed downwards with a kunai—

An explosion wracked the stadium, and Kakashi had never seen anyone look as relieved as Gaara to see an invading force of S-ranked ninja.

Down came Konan, flying from the hole in the ceiling like an angel with paper wings. In her arms was Pein. Kakashi grimaced, remembering what had happened the last time they'd met. Dying hadn't been very pleasant. That aside, the two Akatsuki were recognizable and matched his memory of them. It was a small consolation, but Kakashi would take what he could get.

"Hi guys!" shouted Pein, smiling brightly. "How's it going? We're here to steal the jinchuuriki! It's gonna be super awesome, since three of y'all are conveniently in one place!"

Kakashi opened and closed his mouth, deciding that it'd be best for his sanity to completely ignore Pein's obnoxious cheerfulness. This version had a little too much Uzumaki in him. Yeah, that seemed like a good explanation. Satisfied, Kakashi scanned the stadium, noting that the rest of the Akatsuki had appeared in strategic locations throughout the stadium. They were too far away to examine for differences, which was probably for the best.

"Oh, and I have another announcement!" Pein snapped his fingers, and Konan spun in the air, sending flyers everywhere.

Kakashi grabbed one and stared.

"AKATSUKI: S RANK NIN AT DISCOUNT!" it read.

"And guess what!" Pein spread his arms. "If you use the promo code CHUUNIN EXAM, you'll receive fifteen percent off!"

That was the last straw. Affronted by their blatant undercutting of prices, the ninja in the stadium burst into action, and the stadium erupted into pandemonium.

Kakashi groaned. Fucking hell. An invasion. Of course, the universe had to throw the Akatsuki at him just to prove him wrong. Why did he even bother anymore? It was time he'd accepted the truth.

The universe would go to any length to make his life hell.


AN: Two more months till the deadline, and two more chapters to go. Maybe three, if I decide on a separate epilogue.

Thanks to Duesal Bladesinger and Igornerd for looking this over!

The next chapter should have invasions, yay! And foliage! And Akatsuki! Oh man, this is going to be so much fun. I've had the next scenes planned since the beginning, and I'm so excited!

I appreciate every follow, adore every favorite, and read every review. Especially the flames. Your support is what has kept me coming back to this, and I thank you all for reading.