Author's Note: Hey, everyone! Sorry for the wait, been pretty sick for a good while but I finally got this bad boy finished.

I'll keep it short and sweet but it only took twenty five chapters to reach five hundred thousand, yay! Hope you enjoy the chapter!

Disclaimer: Spider-Man and all related characters are owned by Marvel and in turn, Disney. Naruto and all related characters are owned by Masashi Kishimoto, I own nothing.

Training Days (Road to Finals Arc)

It was midday somewhere far outside of Konoha's tall walls, beyond the untamed woods and deep inside the bowels of the Earth. Jagged rocks that looked more akin to spikes lined both walls of the crevice and a bottomless drop was waiting below, certain death for anyone unfortunate enough to stumble into. And it certainly looked that way for the blonde-haired boy that had been pushed clean over the edge, falling for what felt like forever before he came to an abrupt stop.

Naruto had managed to save himself, searching deep within and summoning the power to do so. Speaking of summoning, he'd pulled a toad that dwarfed most buildings into the crevice with him. And while the boy may have been elated at the idea of living to see another day, the amphibian didn't share his enthusiasm.

"Will you stop tapdancing on my head already?! You're giving me a headache, you little snot!" Lord Gamabunta bellowed, his booming voice more than enough to shake the very walls of the gap in the Earth.

Naruto's teeth chattered as he fell backwards, rolling right onto the toad's short stubby snout. "All right, I'll stop! I'll stop! Just please don't eat me!" He begged, throwing his hands up in fear and quaking before the mighty creature.

The toad was silent for a moment, its slit-shaped pupils focusing on the little orange spec. "Eat you?! I'm a toad, you idiot! I don't eat little squirts like you!" He yelled, simultaneously scaring Naruto and making him breathe a sigh of relief.

At least he wasn't going to be some mystical animal's dinner, that would've been worse than falling to his death. "But that doesn't mean I won't squash you if you don't tell me what's going on right now!" Gamabunta ordered, the added threat being enough to get Naruto's imagination running wild.

"Uh—right! Well, Mister Chief Toad… sir, Jiraiya told me to use my Chakra to save myself and—" Naruto began to frantically explain himself, being awful quick to mention the entire reason he was in this mess to start with.

The toad shifted its weight at the mention of Naruto's conveniently absent teacher, forcing the boy to cling to the beast's slimy skin as best as he could. "Jiraiya? Jiraiya?! I should've known! This has his grubby little hands all over it! Where is he?!" Gamabunta demanded, his wrath now directed at the party responsible.

Naruto didn't mind one bit; he wasn't taking the blame for ticking off a real-life titan. "He should still be up top, standing on the cliff's edge… if he hasn't bailed on me." The kid muttered that last part because honestly, it wouldn't have surprised him in the least.

This all seemed like some kind of practical joke, getting Naruto into hot water might've been the whole point of it. "I wouldn't put it past him, that man has an eye for mischief like no other." Gamabunta seemed to agree, his deafening tone softening as he lamented the strange nature of his friend.

Though on some days, 'friend' was really pushing it. "Oh, so you know each other pretty well then, huh? I guess he really is a Toad Sage," Naruto pondered, that little bit of doubt over the man's claims disappearing once and for all.

Gamabunta nodded, much to Naruto's chagrin as he tried to keep his balance. "Unfortunately, yes. Though, not well enough to understand why he'd summon me here of all places." The toad replied, talking to the boy on his snout instead of barking orders at him.

Something Naruto appreciated, even if he did have some of the details wrong. "Well, actually, Pervy Sage didn't summon you. That was all me, Chief Toad… sir." The orphan explained himself, rubbing the back of his neck and giving a bright beaming smile.

Once again, the toad fell silent. "You? You? Summoned me?" Gamabunta broke it with a few questions, each one sounding more and more incredulous.

Naruto's shoulders slumped a little, of course he wouldn't believe him. "Yeah, I had to. It was either that or falling to my death so… thanks for saving me!" He still deemed it wise to show his gratitude, saluting the toad.

Until it began roaring with laughter, laughter aimed at him. The very same laughter Naruto knew all too well, the kind of laughter that mocked him, the kind that didn't believe he could've done something so extraordinary. Naruto would've been lying if he'd said it didn't get to him, it downright boiled his blood.

"Stop playing games, kid. The amount of Chakra needed to summon a being like me is far beyond what you're capable of," Gamabunta ceased his fit of mirth, writing off the boy as he began to position himself for the ascent up the crevice.

Naruto hopped to his feet, stamping them a little in order to get the giant's attention. "But I did summon you! Honest! Why won't you just give me a chance?!" He yelled, attempting to match the toad's effortless bellow.

Something Gamabunta wasn't receptive to, flicking his snout up and throwing Naruto onto his back. "Ah, shut up! For someone so tiny, you have a pretty big mouth! I'll get to the bottom of this, one way or another!" He asserted, the muscles in his large legs beginning to tighten and coil as he poised himself for a jump.

Naruto had the sense to hang on for dear life, scrambling for the toad's ceremonial kimono. All it took was one powerful leap, forcing Naruto flat against his back like gravity times a thousand. Gamabunta reached the Earth's surface in seconds, even clearing the crevice's edge and still moving skyward.

Naruto screamed the entire way, his terrified cries breaking the sombre silence of the bright blue sky around him. And then the toad began to fall, pulling his unwelcome passenger along with him whether he liked it or not. For the umpteenth time that day, Naruto genuinely thought he was going to die. Why on Earth couldn't he catch a break?

The impact of the toad's landing was felt for miles around as a literal giant cratered into the forest, a wave of wind exploding away from the source and blowing trees right over like a hurricane. Imagine that, a being so big that such a simple movement became an incredible force of nature. Naruto's grip faltered, tumbling forward and right over the toad's head.

He couldn't use his Chakra to grab onto anything, he had nothing left to give. Luckily, the fall wasn't enough to injure him but it was enough to plant him face first into the dirt. What a day he was having and to add insult to injury, he was right.

"Hmm… I don't see that good for nothing Sage anywhere, seems he's snuck off somewhere like the coward he is." Gamabunta spelled out what Naruto already knew; his so-called sensei had left him to fend for himself.

The boy climbed to his feet, more than a little shaky on them as he brushed the dirt and dust from his face. "Figures," Naruto muttered, his tone a mixture of disappointment and resentment.

He didn't know what the guy was playing at, Kakashi-Sensei had never done anything even remotely close to this. "As for you, how am I supposed to believe you summoned me when you can't even hang onto my back for more than a few minutes? A little pitiful, wouldn't you say?" Gamabunta directed his attention towards the sorry looking gnat on the ground, teasing him with a chuckle.

Naruto's teeth ground together; he was so done with this entire day. "Hey! If that's all I have to do to impress you then consider it done! But if I last the rest of the day without falling off, you gotta start showing me the respect I deserve!" He demanded, pointing a shaking finger right at the looming creature.

Gamabunta stared down at the child, who appeared no bigger than a fly to him. "Nobody deserves respect, boy… they earn it. That being said, I accept your silly little challenge… because you don't have what it takes." More mocking, more teasing and more laughter.

Naruto was going to stay on this jerk's back as if his life depended on it, no matter what. Then he wouldn't be laughing, then nobody would be laughing. Gamabunta spat his colossal tongue out and wrapped Naruto right up, throwing the child up onto his back again. This was it; the games had well and truly begun.

But what Naruto didn't know was that Gamabunta knew full well he'd summoned him, it was all just an act to see what sort of stuff he was made of. They had the rest of the day to figure that one out, hopefully neither of them was left disappointed.

Deep in the forests of Konoha, Pīta blinked as he fruitlessly tried to keep the sweat out of his eyes. "How… much longer?" He managed to force past his lips and through his mask, his voice strained and lacking in its usual attitude.

Juria silently listened as Ayami watched, all eight of her eyes taking in the boy's precarious predicament. "Just a few moments more," the former assured him, impressed with his endurance and strength.

He'd been like this for quite some time, balancing on one hand upside down as a boulder bigger than himself rested on the soles of his sandals. A test of strength, stamina and equilibrium all in one. Juria believed two hours was more than long enough, snapping her fingers to audibly let him know that he could stop.

Pīta did his best to raise his head at that, sending the boulder skyward with a forceful kick and finding his feet on solid ground yet again. "All right, what's next?" The boy questioned, holding his hand out in front of him expectantly.

It didn't take long for the boulder to come plummeting back down from its ascent, the dull thud of its stone surface connecting with Pīta's open palm making Juria's ears twitch. "Well, now that the warm-up's out of the way, I thought we'd work on something important to your progress as a ninja." Juria responded, strolling right by him and plucking the boulder out of his hand.

Pīta watched as she weighed it carefully before she lazily threw it into the nearby overgrowth, apparently done with it. "If it's what I think it is then I gotta be honest, we're not gonna get far." He voiced the self-deprecative thought, following her like a bear cub would the mama bear.

Ayami fell in step behind the pair of them, taking up the rear as she scuttled along the forest's floor. "That sort of attitude won't serve you well, boy. Kakashi tells me that for all you excel in, you seem to have trouble controlling your Chakra." She addressed him loudly, as if speaking to the air.

Pīta nodded despite her inability to see it, he was sort of embarrassed about it. "I don't know what to tell you, I'm just no good when it comes to this kind of stuff." He replied honestly, able to recognize his own shortcomings.

Juria chuckled, just a short little chortle as they walked to their mystery destination. "Yes, we're all a little hopeless in that regard. Spiders, I mean." If the laugh hadn't confused the poor boy, that chestnut certainly had.

"Uh… wanna run that by me again? You're saying I can't control my Charka, like… at all?" Pīta queried in disbelief, there was no way that could've been true.

That seemed like an important piece of information everyone had neglected to tell him about, yet it hadn't even come up once. "You're being dramatic, dear. Of course, you can control your Chakra. As can I, as could every Spider before us." Juria went on, quelling Pīta's concerns and avoiding a little temper tantrum on his part.

Pīta breathed a sigh of relief, though he was curious to hear more. "Okay, good to know. So, when you said we were hopeless, you meant—?" He began to ask, only for Juria to cut him off with a brandish of her walking cane.

"That we're complacent, far too dependent upon our powers and physicality. Lazy, for lack of a better word. No use teaching those that don't want to be taught, that'd be utterly hopeless… wouldn't you agree?" She poised; her head slightly turned to one side to better hear him.

Pīta nodded, it made sense after all. "Well, sure but… everyone? Throughout our history? Not a single person that even tried?" He asked, each question taking on a tone of progressive disappointment.

It was unmistakable to Juria, he was upset. "Sadly, I can only count on one hand the number of our kind that tried. They were the kind of people that were ruled by ambition, determination and the refusal to settle for great. No, they wanted—needed to be greater." Juria repeated the phrase she'd spoken to him earlier, immediately noticing his slouching shoulders straighten up as he stood to attention.

Oh, he'd really grasped onto that little nugget. "Who were they? The special ones?" Pīta begged to know more, maybe even their names.

Juria smiled, the 'special ones' was quite good. "You're looking at one for a start," she boasted, unable to supress the streak of pride flowing through her.

Pīta stepped back, gazing up at the woman as if in awe by her. "Don't give her a complex, Spiderling." Ayami pitched in, tapping his toes with one of her sharp legs to gain his attention.

The brown eyed boy looked down and nodded, watching as the Guardian began the slow ascent up his pant leg. "I should say though; it wasn't all laziness. It's easy to look back at the past and view things in a very cynical, ahistorical way. Truth is, controlling our Chakra is a little different for us than it is for other people." Juria revealed, beckoning the boy with her finger to follow her once more.

They set off again, journeying to God only knew where. "Maybe that's why I'm having so much trouble, it's not for lack of trying." Pīta opined, facing forward and doing his best to ignore the rather large spider perched atop his shoulder.

It wasn't easy but as Juria had said, she'd never hurt him. "It's because we're not quite human, boy. We're made up of half of something else entirely, it's easy to forget when we look like everyone else. But below the surface, the differences are quite prominent. Do you know what I speak of?" She questioned, putting him on the spot for a change.

Pīta perked up, the only major difference that immediately came to mind was his ability to sense danger. "You mean our spider-sense?" He double checked to make sure, it was a pretty big stab in the dark after all.

Juria stopped in her tracks, they were never going to reach their destination at this rate. "Spider-sense? I can only assume you're referring to our danger-sense? You call it your… spider-sense?" She turned to him with a smirk, what a childish thing to name something so important.

Pīta shrugged, it was a heck of a lot better than her generic 'danger-sense'. "What else am I supposed to call it? My Pīta-tingle? Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue," he quipped, folding his arms and fixing her with an unimpressed look.

Juria nodded, the alliteration did help his case. "I suppose not… very well, 'spider-sense' it is. 'Spider-sense', honestly." She relented with a shake of the head, ultimately deeming it irrelevant.

Pīta appreciated her willingness to compromise, he honestly didn't know that it wasn't called a spider-sense. "You mentioned some kind of problem with it?" The boy reminded her, attempting to get the conversation back on track.

Juria arched an eyebrow, she'd said no such thing. "No, I said that it factors into things. The problem you're having, the reason you can't seem to get a handle on your Chakra… is you, Pīta." She turned to look down at him with almost pinpoint accuracy, pretty freaky for a blind woman.

In fact, it kind of made Pīta feel uncomfortable. "Yeah, you're gonna have to… explain that one to me." The boy murmured, overcome with confusion as he scratched his head.

His teacher shrugged, no different than usual then. "For starters, show me how you do it. Water-walking, show me." She tapped his leg with her cane, forcibly ushering him along to the… lake's bank.

The boy blinked, when had they reached the lake? And taking a closer look at it, Pīta realized that it was indeed the very same one he'd been skipping stones on. The same place he'd poured his heart out to a crazy snake lady, not twenty four hours earlier.

Pīta shook his head, it was only going to end the same way it always did. "Well, I mean… I try to focus. I try to concentrate, channel Chakra into the soles of my feet and uh… repel, I guess." He flippantly raised a hand, looking down at the water's edge to see his own uncertain reflection staring back at him.

Juria nodded, good start. "And then?" She placed a hand on his shoulder, being mindful enough of Ayami's presence on the other one.

"Then I sort of try and make sense of it in my head, like… how does it work? What're the physics behind it? Is it some kind of bio-magnetism, a tiny microscopic field we can subconsciously fluctuate and manipulate? Or… is it much simpler than that? And… and… I just answered my own question, didn't I?" He turned to his mentor with a small laugh, finally understanding just what she'd meant.

Juria smiled back, knowing full well that he was hiding a rather big brain beneath all of that bluster and attitude. "You're overthinking it; you're distracting yourself and you're inside your own head. You're so concerned with how that it interferes with your ability to do," she spelled out for him, leaving his side as she took a step forward onto the water's rippling surface.

But her hand never left his shoulder, firm yet gentle like that of a parent. "Now, this is where your spider-sense comes in." Juria explained, earning a furrow of the brow from the lad.

He wasn't sure how an alarm clock inside his head was supposed to help with his Chakra control, he was eager to learn more. "My spider-sense? But I just thought… you know, danger and stuff." For once, Pīta was showing his inexperience and lack of knowledge.

It was new to him, to not have any idea what was going on. "Oh, it's so much more than that. It's a part of us, probably the purest part. Our spider-sense acts as a guide, Pīta. Not just to and away from impending threats, it gives us a feel for the world around us. If we let it, of course." She continued to lecture and being a good student, he soaked it in like a sponge.

Pīta nodded, he was ready to learn. "Walk me through it," he told her, with such conviction that Juria knew he was willing to try.

Succeed or fail, try all the same. "Pool your Chakra into your feet," she instructed, hearing Pīta's hands move to form the required hand sign.

The Spider felt it brewing in the soles of his feet, ready and waiting for him to make a move. "Now, take a deep breath and close your eyes." Juria continued, starting to pull him forward onto the water's surface.

Pīta didn't fight it, she must've known what she was doing. "Absolute silence, Pīta. No words, no thoughts. Clear your mind and listen—no, feel what your spider-sense is trying to tell you." Juria aided him, leading him out further and further over the surface of the lake like a mother teaching her child how to walk for the first time.

Pīta didn't respond, not verbally anyway. He was too busy paying attention to the rent-free tenant living inside his head, what it was explaining to him as he walked. No words, just feeling. Pīta felt the change in surface tension, the flow of the water beneath him and with every single constant fluctuation, his spider-sense adapted accordingly. No science-babble, pure instinct evolved over the course of centuries coming to light.

The boy had to take a back seat on this one, for it was second nature to the spider. He was afraid his foot was going to break the surface every now and then but his spider-sense assured him, it had him and wouldn't let him fall. Pīta nodded, striding forward with absolute confidence. Juria stopped in her tracks, the child in tow mimicking her not a second later.

"You can open your eyes now, Pīta." Juria spoke softly, unable to see the boy but fond of him all the same.

Pīta nodded, doing just that and finding himself standing slap bang in the middle of the lake with Juria in front of him. He looked down towards his feet, the sight of koi fish swimming just below the surface of the lake greeting him. The kid lifted a leg, letting it dangle before putting it back down and to his surprise, not plunging straight through. He felt it, felt the exact amount of Chakra needed to stay afloat, felt his spider-sense guiding his footfall and Chakra distribution. They were connected, they must have been.

Pīta had no idea but it was different now, he felt how deeply entwined they were. He could sense it, he could sense all of it and it was both exhilarating and terrifying.

"I did it," he muttered, an immediate sense of pride and accomplishment washing over him.

He'd struggled with this for so long, watching Sakura succeed at it had only strengthened his want to achieve it himself. "You did very well, child." Ayami congratulated from her perch on his shoulder, Pīta had almost forgot she was even there.

The boy raised a hand, his flat palm facing her and after a few seconds studying it, Ayami tapped it with one of her sharp eight legs. "Don't go celebrating just yet, the lesson isn't over." Juria cut in, the both of them now staring at her in surprise.

Pīta straightened back up, nodding as he was game for anything. "Since you're making such fine progress, let's see if you can multitask." Juria proposed, a devilish smirk appearing on her red painted lips.

A quirk of the eyebrow was all Pīta could do before his spider-sense blared, telling him to move. He immediately bent backwards, avoiding a clean swipe from his mentor. The woman in red didn't give him a second to breathe either, raising her leg high before bringing it down on top of him. Pīta was already gone when it connected with the water, a small geyser-like explosion erupting and drenching Juria completely.

Juria's ears twitched, he was fast. But as she turned on a dime and gripped the front of his hoody, Pīta discovered that she was faster. She flung him with minimal effort right across the lake's surface, the preteen tumbling and rolling like a smooth stone she'd just skimmed. He finally stopped his momentum by digging his hands and feet into the water, just as he would've done on land.

Meanwhile, Ayami was hanging on for dear life as she was still on his shoulder. "Pīta, look out!" The Guardian yelled, alerting to him what his spider-sense had told him seconds earlier.

Juria had whiplashed several trees at him from the forest surrounding the lake, using her webbing to great effect. Pīta dodged the first with a side flip, handspringing above the second and rolling beneath the third. Juria listened to every move he made, his raw speed and agility already impressive for a Spider as young as he was.

Like a blur of motion, leaving red and blue after images of himself, he was moving so fast. But Juria predicted where he'd move next, a deadly precise kunai knife forcing Pīta to backpedal directly into the path of the fourth and final skyward tree. Ayami tried to cover most of her eyes with her four front legs, anticipating the impact of the flying flora.

But Pīta wasn't just fast, he was also strong. He timed it just right, his palms making contact with the tree's trunk as soon as it got close enough. He tore it clean in two, the solid wood and bark of the tree like tissue paper in his hands. Both parts of the tree were flung behind him, submerging into the lake's depths not long after.

Pīta prepared for whatever his teacher had up her sleeve next but was surprised when she instead began to clap, just a light round of applause for his little performance. "You adapted beautifully, Pīta." Juria stated proudly, everything he'd done all still above the water.

The boy pulled himself out of the defensive stance he'd dropped into, waving off her praise. "Appreciate it but… I had a whole lotta help," he tapped the side of his head, referring to his intangible partner in crime.

"All the same, I think we've made excellent progress for our first lesson together. We'll pick this back up tomorrow with summoning, I think. Until then, you're dismissed." Juria told him, walking right over to her pupil to pat his back.

Ayami took the chance to jump from the prodigy to the old guard, settling on the woman's shoulder just as she'd done with the boy. "Thanks for the help, sensei. This whole Chakra control thing was something I just couldn't get but now… I finally feel like I'm getting somewhere, you know?" Pīta posed, the two of them journeying back to solid ground as they conversed.

Juria nodded, she knew all too well. "Not bad for a first timer, eh?" She laughed, he was the first of her kind she'd interacted with in more than a decade, much less taught.

Pīta smiled, hidden behind that mask of his but it didn't lessen how genuine it was. "Not bad at all," he agreed, before leaping into the air and firing off a web-line.

Travelling the only way he truly felt comfortable while his spider-sense guided him, he soon disappeared into the dense trees of the forest. "You mentioned summoning, which of my sisters are you going to summon?" Ayami piped up with a question, curious as to just who would be joining them in their training.

Juria remained silent as she began to trek back to the Compound, it'd be a surprise for both her and Pīta.

Back inside the village of Konoha, it was right around the time most of its populace was out in the streets and going about their business. Among them was a young girl with pink hair, very much reminiscent of the cherry blossom. That was most definitely the reason for her name at birth, quite unique all things considered.

Sakura had been spending her time doing not much of anything lately, with both of her teammates preoccupied with other matters. Naruto with his training and Pīta with… something else altogether, she really hoped he was all right. Word travelled fast around the village, didn't take long at all to learn about the death of a Leaf ninja and who was involved.

Her friend, right at the eye of the storm. Sakura shook her head, of course he'd been there. Typical Pīta Pāka, getting himself into a whole mess of trouble. That was the thing, she hadn't been surprised when she'd heard from her parents. No, she wasn't surprised at all. What caught her off-guard was that even with Pīta's involvement, his presence… a man still died.

Something must've happened, either Pīta arrived too late or there was some kind of complication. Pīta… failing? It just didn't register, didn't hit the ear right. But it was the truth and she couldn't help but worry for him, for his well-being, both mental and physical. She was his teammate, his friend… she knew he must've been taking it hard.

Probably blamed himself for it whether it was his fault or not, probably why she'd been turned away at his door by his aunt. He needed time to himself, time to accept and move on. Sakura only wished it was sooner rather than later, she couldn't imagine going forward without Pīta. Having to find a brand-new teammate? Would Kakashi-Sensei even entertain that idea? It'd be too weird; it wouldn't be right.

Sakura paused mid-thought as well as mid-step, just about catching herself as she almost completely passed her intended destination. Too caught up in her anxious thoughts, wondering if everything was going to be all right. Once again, she pushed on as she entered the small cosy store in front of her. The girl was immediately greeted by the sweet scent of freshly cut flowers, the bell hanging above the store door ringing in her ears.

The sound alerted the girl already sat behind the counter, carefully watching a prospective customer enter her store or rather… her mother's. "Ino… holding down the fort? Aren't you supposed to be training for your match?" Sakura greeted her bleach blonde peer, offering a friendly smile before turning to inspect the flora on show.

Ino shrugged, her match wasn't for another few weeks anyway. "Asuma-Sensei gave me the day off, too busy forcing Shikamaru to care about his training. As for my mom, she's out back, stressing over a shipment that's a couple of days late." She answered, her chin resting in the palm of her hands.

Sakura gave a sympathetic glance; she had no idea how hard it was to run a business. "Oh, that's too bad." As such, she didn't have much to say on the matter.

Both girls were unusually quiet, probably didn't know what to say to each other after they'd agreed to try again. Try to be friends again, try to put their mutual interest in Sasuke aside for their own good. It was going to be hard, throwing out years of constant hostility toward each other. They'd expected it to be awkward at first, they just had to get past that initial barrier.

"You don't come here often, what's the occasion?" Ino asked, not sure if she was genuinely curious or if she was just trying to make small talk.

Sakura bended at the knees, lowering herself to the ground in order to get a closer look at some of the bouquets. "Just browsing, that's all." She spoke a short answer, not leaving much leeway for a reply.

Ino huffed, she really was going to have to do all the work. "You know, I could probably help with that if I knew who you were buying for." She reasoned, hopping off her stool and moving around the counter to step out onto the store floor.

Sakura nodded, then shook her head before nodding again. "I'm not even sure myself, flowers don't really seem like his type of thing." A short laugh accompanied her words, shy and embarrassed.

Like it was a stupid idea, that maybe she shouldn't have even been there in the first place. "A boy? Wait, it's not Sasuke, is it?" Ino had to double-check, that surely wasn't going to fly with her.

Thankfully, Sakura burst her paranoid bubble. "No, Ino, it's not Sasuke. Though… flowers don't seem like his thing either," she pondered, he was more likely to light them on fire than accept them.

Ino nodded, tapping her chin with a finger as she mentally sifted the likely candidates. "So… Pīta then? Yeah, a whoopee-cushion might be more his speed." She joked, the both of them bursting out into laughter for a short moment.

The quip at the boy's expense immediately set them both at ease, leading to Sakura standing up as she felt more comfortable in the store. "I know it's dumb, but I just thought it'd cheer him up, especially after what happened the other night." The preteen explained, rubbing the back of her neck in her second bout of embarrassment that day.

Ino wore a sympathetic expression, it wasn't dumb in the least actually. "Yeah, I heard. You know how people love to talk and what happened was… horrible, have you spoken to him since?" She queried, having caught wind of the tragedy by way of her father discussing it with her mother.

Sakura's embarrassment disappeared, giving way to a rather glum demeanour as she was reminded of her failed attempt. "I tried visiting him yesterday, but his aunt turned me away… I guess he just wants to be alone." The volume of her voice lowered as she spoke, almost reaching the whisper territory as she pivoted away from Ino and towards the flowers once more.

Her friend shrugged; she didn't know Pīta as well as others but that didn't sit right with her. "I'm sure he's just… dealing with it in his own way, nothing seems to phase him after all." Ino tried her best to offer some encouraging words based on her own first-hand experience with the boy, which was admittedly limited.

Sakura hummed in response, Ino's words did have some merit but she knew that Pīta was human just like them. "I guess you're right, still… which do you think is best?" She brushed it off just like he did, moving onto something else just for the sake of it.

Ino didn't protest, she could pick up on Sakura's blue mood easily. "Well, unless you plan on confessing to him, a red rose is not the way to go." She pointed out, a hand behind her back as she spied the single flower in her friend's hands.

Sakura creased her brow before gazing down, catching onto what Ino meant as she saw the pretty red rose. "Oh! Right, of course! Red rose, romance… silly me." She awkwardly laughed, cheeks growing increasingly pink as she set it back down with the rest of them.

She hadn't even been aware that she was holding it, just when had she picked it up? Ino smirked, she was probably just lost in her own thoughts. Aiming to help her friend out, the blonde girl crouched down and plucked a single flower from a bouquet right next to the red roses.

Standing back up, she showcased the flora with a bright beam on her face. "Yellow roses however symbolize friendship and loyalty, how we'll always be there for those we gift them too." She explained, her knowledge of flowers actually serving her well as she held it out for the taking.

Sakura didn't hesitate, handling the rose gently as her green eyes lit up in admiration. "Oh, Ino… it's beautiful." She cooed, a finger stroking one of the petals with delicate precision.

Ino nodded, she thought so too. "They're not as popular as their red siblings for obvious reasons but it's the message that counts, right?" She winked, it seemed she'd found the gift for her.

"Then it's settled, I'll take two." Sakura eagerly concluded, a bright grin matching her shining eyes.

That caught Ino off-guard, the girl blinking several times before she came to. "Two? Who's the other one for?" She questioned, innocently enough but also very curious.

Hadn't they already established Sasuke's lack of interest?

Sakura gave a sad smile as the answer entered her mind; she hadn't forgotten about the broken boy in the hospital. "One for Pīta and the other… for Lee," she revealed and now it was Ino's turn to feel glum, her gaze finding the floor as she frowned.

"Oh," was all the child could mutter, reminded of the boy's harrowing fight during the prelims.

Ino was often chipper, sometimes catty and every now and then, a little petty but being genuinely upset was a rare occurrence. "I wanted to stop by and see how he was doing, maybe seeing a friendly face would be good for him. Do you… do you wanna come too?" Something Sakura took note of as she asked, maybe it wasn't the right question but it was worth a shot.

Ino didn't really want to think about Lee's condition let alone see it but it clearly meant a lot to Sakura and friends did support one another, she was sort of obligated to. "I guess I could spare some time, it's been real slow around here anyway." She put on a cheery smile for Sakura's benefit, it was a kind thing she was doing.

Sakura smiled; she didn't want to force the girl into anything but she was grateful for the company. After paying for her pair of sunshine yellow roses, Sakura stood outside of the store to give Ino some time to get ready. Minutes passed by and finally, the girl emerged from the entrance without the apron she'd been wearing. A thank you was in order but the duo simply settled for an exchange of smiles and nods, departing in silence for the hospital a few blocks away.

Elsewhere, several miles into the untamed wilderness of Konoha, two Sound-nin had made their home in a seemingly abandoned hunting shack. Dosu and Kin had decided that staying within the walls of the Leaf Village was far too risky, electing to find somewhere much more isolated and private. The shack had served its purpose thus far, providing them with rickety shelter and a place to sleep.

It was rundown, as if it hadn't been used in decades and Dosu wagered that was the case. Kin had gone off on a tangent as soon as they'd set foot in the shack, clearly irritated that the people of the village didn't even have to hunt for their own food anymore. One of the many perks of being such a large and important village was trade, the exchange of goods from neighbouring settlements and other far-off villages they were friendly with.

Fish, wheat, meat, sugar, minerals, there was no shortage of things they bargained for. What a luxury, they lamented. To have been able to wake up, go about their day and go right back to sleep for the night, all without worrying where their next meal was going to come from. Dosu listened and nodded along as Kin ranted, all the while working on modifying his gauntlet with some of Pīta's own tools. He'd stolen one of his blueprints, he figured he might as well have gone a step further.

As he worked on replicating Pīta's concept in tangible reality, he mentally took note of the severe chip Kin had on her shoulder. It seemed to have really bothered her that growing up, she had to fight for her right to exist. Whether that was searching for food or surviving the worst abuse imaginable, it was a steep uphill climb.

Dosu silently supposed it made sense, she never spoke much about her past—neither of them did—but he knew enough to understand why she'd turned out the way she had. Some people respond to cruelty in different ways, Kin was clearly the kind of person who internalized it until she grew old and big enough to lash out herself.

He… he didn't know what kind of person he was; he'd spent his childhood in relative comfort before… before it all came crashing down. Before he was met with the stark, grim reality that his mother had protected him from. No, he didn't know much at all. Didn't feel much either, come to think of it.

Dead eyes, intensely quiet tone of voice and a need for logic and reason. Dosu didn't get angry about his past or the relatively easy lives that others had, there was simply no need for it. Anger made you sloppy, made you careless and made you lose control. Dosu hadn't seen much of that in his life, control.

He'd been a puppet of Orochimaru, a foot soldier for so long that he'd gotten used to taking orders without questioning them. Without speaking up or presenting his own ideas, lest he suffer even more abuse from a man that claimed to care about him. No, this was the first time in a long time that Dosu had taken control. It was a strange feeling, not liberating per se but refreshing all the same.

The only way Dosu would feel liberated was if Orochimaru was dead and he knew him to be dead, either by his hand or the hand of someone else. Didn't matter to him, just that he was no longer breathing the same air as him. Again, it didn't come from a place of anger either. More so a place of reason, that the Snake's death would've made the world a much better place.

Dosu paused in his tinkering, screwdriver in hand. What an odd thought to have… the greater good, the ends justifying the means… when had he started caring about either of those things?

Shaking his head, he realized that he'd done all he could do in order to improve his gauntlet. "I… I think it's ready," he spoke up for the first time in what felt like hours, trepidation in his voice as Kin finally shut up.

That didn't last long though, the girl blinking a few times before she threw her hands up. "Took you long enough… but still, I don't even know what it is." She folded her arms, eyes fixed on him from her side of the shack.

Dosu lifted his arm from the table he'd been using as a workbench, a table he guessed was used to skin game in the past. "An upgrade to my Resonating Echo Speaker, a rather substantial one at that." He pointed out, able to feel the difference in weight on his arm.

Kin got up from her spot on the floor, sheets and blankets strewn about that they'd used to sleep on. "Doesn't look that much different to me," she remarked unimpressively, bending at the waist a little to better inspect the device.

Dosu supressed a roll of the eyes, she was never the sharpest blade of grass. "It's all interior, Kin. Before, the gauntlet was merely capable of generating and absorbing low-level soundwaves—think of the clinging and clanging of kunai hitting metal—so that I might manipulate it using my Chakra." He explained, gliding a hand across the porous contraption as he did so.

Kin arched an eyebrow; he was treating it like some sort of pet. "And now?" She followed up, standing up straight and folding her arms.

Dosu chuckled, being able to share his accomplishment clearly bringing him some form of joy. "Now… now it's capable of so much more, Kin. With this, I'm now able to draw in any and all sound from the immediate area and release it at a frequency lethal to anyone and anything." He elaborated, an unmistakable glint in his eye.

But it wasn't the sort of sparkle usually associated with a feeling of glee, it was something darker, something… sinister. "Oookay…" Kin trailed off, that sort of look appearing right at home on someone like Zaku more than the boy in front of her.

Dosu waved off her unspoken concern, he was perfectly aware of what he was saying and how he was saying it. "Sound isn't usually so dangerous, Kin. There's simply too much going on, it gets lost in the air and by the time it's reached our ears, it's virtually harmless." He extended an olive branch, like a teacher aiding a student.

Kin shook her head, this time frowning as crazy was one thing but harmless was another. "Not really selling me here, Dosu. I'm not saying go nuts but we at least need something with a little kick, don't you think?" She placed a hand on her waist and gestured to the open air with the other one, she was starting to regret leaving that apartment with nothing more than a blueprint.

Dosu raised a finger, both telling her to shup up and to let him finish. "But… I'm able to use my Chakra in order to carry the sound wherever I will it, wherever I want it to go." He went on, watching as Kin's expression morphed from disappointment to clear confusion.

"Well, duh! You've always been able to do that!" She blurted, obviously exasperated with his garbage sales-pitch.

Dosu slowly rose up out of his chair, towering over her in height. "Yes, and the most damage I could cause was a nosebleed—maybe induce a minor spell of dizziness or motion sickness—anything above twenty KHZ will do that. But this… take that and multiply it tenfold," she was still getting used to him standing taller than her, it was hard to let go of years of him hunched over like some sort of ape.

Kin shrank a little as he spoke, his voice carrying a very clear effect on her even when he wasn't raising it. "Uhh… that's a lot, right?" She squeaked back, a weak smile present on her lips in the hopes he'd simmer down.

The smile worked as Dosu blinked, his hard stare softening as his shoulders relaxed. "Right, anywhere from one MHZ well into the GHZ range. As I said, sound at these frequencies are lethal to just about everything despite being silent but… it's all theoretical." Dosu waved, brushing off the small crack in his otherwise impenetrable plan.

But Kin blinked, that little chestnut was hard to miss. "Theoretical? What do you mean, theoretical?" She parroted the word, not in misunderstanding of what it meant but what it meant.

Consequences, not definition. "Yes, theoretical. As in, yet to be practically tested and proven true." He knew what she really meant, didn't stop him from giving her the wrong answer.

Kin shook her head in disbelief, for all his talk and bluster, he was too afraid to test it. Probably didn't want to take the leap, maybe he'd rationalized it as being no better than Orochimaru. But Kin didn't care, there was only one way to know whether his device worked the way he said it would and that was to push the button.

So, in no uncertain terms, Kin did. "Well, there's no time like the present!" She yelled, already reaching for the gauntlet when Dosu realized what she was doing.

But it was too late, he felt the press of the button on his arm and watched it all play out in slow motion but was unable to do anything about it. "What!?" He screamed as the device began to hum, whirring to life as it charged with power.

"What's it doing?" Kin asked as she stepped back, Dosu furiously trying to get it to stop.

Frantically pressing the button again but panicking when it did nothing, terrified eyes snapping up to meet Kin's curious ones. "Absorbing sound from the immediate area, it'll keep building until expulsion!" Dosu yelled, hands finding his ears to make sure he was protected.

The bandages around his head were lined with Charka, serving more purpose than simple cosmetic. They protected him against the sound, his shock absorption clothes shielding him from the vibrations. But Kin had no such thing, standing there like a lost little puppy as imminent death creeped ever closer.

Thinking on his feet, Dosu quickly unfastened each of the locks on his gauntlet and threw it right out of one of the shack's many windowless openings. Before Kin could even ask him what on Earth he was doing, Dosu pushed her to the ground and got on top of her. He carefully shielded her head using his body or more specifically, his clothes. And finally, Dosu tried with everything he had to use his Chakra to contain the area of effect.

They waited in silence, Kin could feel just how tense and rigid the boy on top of her was as he concentrated and she knew she'd messed up something fierce. They waited and waited and waited, only… the moment they were dreading never came. Ever so slowly, Dosu rose off of Kin's prone body and chanced a cautious glance at the windowless opening. His eyes narrowed as he strained to hear, trying to decipher whether the device had failed to go off or… the alternative.

Kin noticed it too, no annoying tweeting of birds, no rustling of leaves, no swaying of trees and no rushing water of a nearby stream. There was nothing, simply nothing. Even their movements, careful and measured, generated no sound. Dosu guessed that it was some kind of side effect, sound taking a while to return to the world. He turned to Kin, eyebrows furrowed in obvious confusion when he finally touched a hand to one of his bandage-covered ears.

Protected or at least, he'd thought so. Something warm, something wet and something… red. Dosu studied his fingers for a moment, his ears weren't even ringing but by God, there was no mistaking the blood. He turned to Kin, morbid fascination morphing into something more horrifying as the effects of the device's detonation began to emerge.

His ears had been shielded by Chakra-lined bandages and yet, they'd still succumbed. But Kin… Kin had no such luxury, just the make do and mend of Dosu's quick-thinking had saved her from a grisly death. With him, the ears. With her, everything else. The nose, the eyes, the mouth and yes, the ears too.

She swayed a little, bringing her hand to her forehead in an attempt to steady herself. "Oh… I don't feel so good," she very weakly whispered, the sound of her voice—any sound really—serving as a sharp wake-up call to Dosu as the noise of the world all poured back into existence.

He caught her before she fell backwards, completely out of commission but thankfully, still breathing. Even with their protection—their specifically soundproofed protection—the device had been far too powerful, far too potent to be neutralized. All it and Dosu's Chakra had done was dampen the effect and he was positive that was the only reason they were still alive, for better or worse.

Placing his horribly reckless partner onto the relative comfort of the blanket-laden floor, Dosu felt brave enough to venture outside to fetch the monstrosity he'd created. The door to the shack swung open, the creaking of the wood filling his still bleeding ears as he looked upon what he'd done. Sure, Kin had triggered it but he'd built it.

He knew, as soon as he'd seen what it had done to him and Kin, he knew. Why the sounds of the forest had suddenly stopped, why everything felt so empty and cold. But knowing why and seeing why were two completely different things, something that only served to turn Dosu's stomach inside out as he took in the sight of a dead wood.

Birds dotted the ground, having fallen out of the trees and even the sky. The fresh corpses of a few deer were scattered in the distance, two doe and the distinct shape of antlers indicating they were in the company of a buck. Didn't matter, all dead. Squirrels, rabbits and other woodland rodents had suffered the same fate. Killed instantly, by a frequency so high that it touched and affected all.

Like some kind of sound bomb, the effects not as obvious but the damage no less extensive—perhaps even more so. A bomb made of pure soundwaves, emitted in every conceivable direction and travelling at the speed of sound. Nothing could outrun it; nothing could withstand it. In the end, the sound always won.

Dosu found himself staring at the ground, a dark thought suddenly entering his psyche for a split second. "Just imagine… imagine if this had gone off in the middle of the village," he gave it a voice, his intense tone laced with both curiosity and disgust.

This was it; this was the thing to kill Orochimaru. Dosu had seen him survive decapitation, survive bisection. He couldn't be drowned, couldn't be burnt to death, couldn't be poisoned. But this… this was it, having your brain scrambled at a sound frequency well into the GHZ range… there was no surviving that, no coming back from that.

Surveying the damage and taking everything into account, only one question remained. When was the right time? He needed to find the perfect time to set it off once more—hopefully for the last time—in order to minimize unnecessary casualties, innocent animals notwithstanding. He wanted to kill Orochimaru, not every single living creature in a five-mile radius.

And yes, the device was capable of that. It just needed to absorb an amount of sound large enough to cover that distance, the sound of screaming and shouting, metal clashing against metal and people breathing their last breath. Dosu could think of no sound better than the sound of violence, the sound of war.

The sound… of invasion…

Being led by one of the resident nurses inside Konoha Hospital, both Sakura and Ino remained unusually quiet as she glanced at them mid-stride. "You'll have to keep your visit short; Rock Lee needs all the rest he can get." The older woman advised, keeping her tone friendly but also firm in its delivery.

Her job was serious business, they needed to heed her words. "Of course, ma'am." Sakura piped up; they weren't there to cause trouble after all.

Ino concurred with a nod but also had something on her mind, it being the entire reason for their visit. "How is he?" She queried, though she didn't know why she'd been compelled to ask a question with such an obvious answer.

As though she was hoping that something miraculous had happened, that he'd somehow been cured overnight. "See for yourself. Lee, I have two pretty visitors here for you." The nurse told the girl before turning her attention to her patient, sliding open the wooden door and crossing the threshold with her company in tow.

Only she'd spoken to nothing but thin air, an empty bed sitting in an vacant room. "What?! Empty?! This is terrible!" The nurse hollered, panic in her voice and a worried expression painted across her face.

Ino paled whilst Sakura's brow furrowed, her head dipping slightly in sadness. "Oh no… Lee…" She murmured, in what could've only been described as disappointment.

"If his injuries are as bad as I've heard, he couldn't have gotten far." Ino was the first to snap out of her initial shock, logic shining through as she reasoned with the nurse.

The nurse agreed, standing right by the open window to the room with a rather stern expression. "You're right, not far at all." She directed both of the girls' attention outside, pointing right to where Lee had been the entire time.

Out in the hospital yard, busted and bandaged up beyond repair but still doing push-ups all the same. "That boy! Just as stubborn as his sensei!" The nurse shouted in clear frustration; it was her job on the line after all.

It didn't take them long to rush outside and join him in the yard, his grunts and groans of struggle filling their ears. "Lee, stop it this instant!" The nurse ordered, approaching him with a creased brow and clear authority.

Lee ignored her, completely ghosted her as if she wasn't even standing there. "One hundred and ninety-eight… if I cannot do two hundred push-ups, then it is one hundred leg squats!" He powered on, one of his eyes half-lidded as sweat ran from his forehead and dripped from his chin.

The nurse shook her head incredulously, he was going to end up permanently hurting himself. "Rock Lee, as your nurse, I must insist that you get back in your bed right now!" She yelled louder, this time reaching out with the intention of dragging him back inside, whether he liked it or not.

Except he screamed right back, gritted teeth and a desperate look on his face. "Don't touch me! Have to—have to do this! All by myself!" Like this was it, that if he somehow wasn't able to complete the challenges he'd set for himself then it was over.

The nurse backed off; she hadn't known a patient so difficult in all her years. "Lee, can't you see how hurt you are?!" Sakura stepped forward in her stead, maybe he'd be more receptive to a friend.

Ino followed, the both of them simply concerned for the boy. "Can't you feel it?" She went a different route, employing a far quieter tone as more screaming didn't do anyone any good.

But Lee ignored them just as he'd done with the nurse, nothing and no-one was stopping him as he pushed on. Even as his single arm began to buckle, the other being held securely in a sling. It simply got too much for the boy, the pain pulling a scream of agony right out of his lungs. Sakura instinctively reached out to try and help him but was stopped in her tracks, a firm hand on her shoulder.

Firmer than both Ino and the nurse were capable of, a firmness she instantly recognized. "There's no stopping him, might as well let him finish." The voice only confirmed what she already knew, who she expected to find when she spun around on her heel.

Sakura opened her mouth to speak, her breath hitching in her throat for a split second. "Pīta… I… you…" She tried to form a sentence; she'd been so focused on Lee that she hadn't even heard the tell-tale whoosh of him swinging through the air.

Hadn't even heard the audible thud of him hitting the ground, bending at the knees before standing up straight. "Hold that thought," he raised a finger, moving right past her to do what she and the nurse had done before him.

The Spider crouched down to Lee's height just as the boy had managed to reach one hundred and ninety-nine push ups, pretty impressive given his condition. "Don't try… don't try to stop me, Pīta." Lee squeaked out, spying him with his one good eye but remaining focused on his goal.

Pīta tapped his chin, he wasn't sure how to approach the situation at the moment. "Well, that is a conundrum. Do I stop you and break your spirit? Or do I stand by, do nothing and watch as you break your body?" He posed both options, it really was quite a hard choice to make.

And the answer hit the boy in the exact same time he'd asked the questions, the key was to convince Lee to stop of his own accord. "Why? Why are you… here?" Lee weakly muttered, the strain in his voice painfully evident.

Pīta shrugged, he didn't think it was so hard to work out. "Thought maybe I'd check in; see how you were doing. Sorry I didn't swing by sooner, had some stuff going on. But I remembered the prelims, your fight with Sandals, how hurt you were… are." He explained, though was unable to pull the kid's attention away from his task.

The silence was deafening, it seemed he had nothing to say to him. "Heck of a fight by the way, no-one else managed to top it. No Sharingan, no spider-powers… just you." So Pīta employed the use of a different tactic altogether, highlighting the mark Lee had left on everyone.

And it was a pretty big one at that, Lee's fight had undoubtably been both the highlight and low point of the preliminary round. How he fought with such ferocity against an opponent more powerful than any other candidate, how he didn't give up even as his body began to break down. But by then it was too late, the damage had already been done.

The doctors had even said it was permanent, that he'd never fight again. Pīta was struggling with this, how do you tell someone to give it a rest when it simply wasn't in their DNA?

The trick worked as for the first time since he'd arrived, Lee looked at Pīta. "You know, not that it's my place but… no-one will think any less of you if you let people help." He gently reasoned, he had to be gentle otherwise there was no chance he was getting anywhere.

Lee grimaced, why couldn't they just leave him alone?

"We don't want you to hurt yourself, Lee." Sakura chimed in, stood behind and to the right of Pīta as she wore a look of worry.

Pīta nodded, grateful for the support. "Sakura, Ino, this very patient nurse… they want what's best for you." He gestured to them, earning concurring nods all around.

Lee studied each one of them with his haggard half-lidded gaze, his teeth grinding together as he struggled to stay upright. "I—I need—" He began, lowering himself in order to carry out the next push-up.

Pīta cut him off, this push-up was the end of the line. "Rest, Lee. Your mind, your body, they're tired and you need to let them mend themselves." He advised, careful not to touch him or overstep a boundary of any kind.

If he said the wrong thing, did the wrong thing, then Lee could've easily shut him out and he didn't want that. "I can't! Won't give up!" Lee screamed, his one good arm beginning to shudder and shake as he tried with all his might to push himself back up.

He was so close to two-hundred, then he could've stopped. "And that's good, Lee. Knowing to never give in is good… but you also need to know when to accept help. That's not giving up, that's being a different kind of strong. I had to learn this myself but it takes guts to let people reach out to you, trust me." Pīta spoke louder, clearer and firmer in order to push through the grunting and groaning of the boy.

Nevertheless, Lee kept pushing. "You're hurting yourself… you're hurting yourself and you're too blinded by pride to see it," Pīta shook his head, rising to stand as he just refused to see reason.

There was no helping someone that didn't want to be helped, a hard pill to swallow but swallow it he had. "There's no exercising broken bones, no working out torn tendons and shredded muscles. You keep going, you're done. Kiss everything you ever knew goodbye because that's it, it's over." He had to be firm, he had to hammer home how important this was.

Lee paused, apparently the no-nonsense approach serving better than the whole 'supportive friend' act. "Be smart about this, Lee. Listen to people who know what they're talking about, rest and let them take care of you and maybe, just maybe… you might still have a shot at this." Pīta kept eye contact with him the entire time, focused brown eyes boring into exhausted charcoal orbs.

Lee faltered, losing the little staring contest they were having as he shook his head. "You… you're right, I am only… making my injuries worse. Need… need rest, need… need time—" He couldn't even finish his sentence, he was so spent.

But Pīta knew what he was going to say as he collapsed onto the ground in a heap, finally succumbing to unconsciousness. Time to heal, he needed time to heal. The nurse bypassed Pīta as she rushed to the boy's aid, quickly checking his pulse just to be sure. He wasn't dead but if he had kept going the way he had, he wouldn't have been far off.

"Unconscious… poor boy's exhausted, I need to get him back to bed." The nurse affirmed, rising to stand as her duty of care called upon her.

Pīta considered just hoisting him up and carrying him back to his room but quickly nixed that idea, he didn't know the true extent of Lee's injuries and might've done more harm than good. "We'll stay with him while you fetch the orderlies, ma'am." Ino spoke up, less of a suggestion and more of an act of common-sense.

The nurse nodded before leaving to do just that, a flat even stretcher was exactly what was needed. It didn't take long for her to return, more medical-nin in tow as they gestured for the kids to give them some space. All three of them watched silently as Lee was carefully placed on the stretcher and for the second time, carried away as a morbid quietness filled the air.

It was some time before they could tear their eyes away from the sight, Pīta being the first as he turned to both girls. "So, what gives? How'd you know we were here?" Ino's shrill voice sliced right through the silence, a little strange to just dive back into casual conversation but there wasn't much else they could've done.

Pīta shrugged, he hadn't intended to find them at all. "I didn't, I really was coming to visit Lee and see how he was holding up. Guess we had the same idea, Hinata too actually." He explained, mentioning their other friend who had been in critical condition.

He'd thought of the idea on the way home from Madame Juria's training session, he'd been so self-involved these past few days that he'd completely forgotten about his friends. Pīta felt like he was catching up with everything, Sakura about to prove that true once more.

She perked up at the mention of the girl, a little bit of colour returning to her cheeks. "Hinata isn't here anymore, she was discharged a few days ago." She told the boy, understanding the confusion on his part.

It'd been a crazy few days for him, it was hard to keep track of everything that had happened. "So soon? How is she?" Pīta responded with genuine concern, he just really wanted some good news for a change.

Ino placed a hand on her hip as she obliged, taking the reins from Sakura as they brought him up to speed. "Fine as far as we know, she's helping Kiba with Shino's training for the finals." The blonde answered, earning a quizzical glance from Sakura.

"Really? Without Kurenai-Sensei?" The girl pestered her friend, finding it odd that their teacher wouldn't be helping them.

Ino shrugged, everything she knew was second-hand information. "Apparently, Genma-Sensei asked her to take over Yakumo's training." She parroted what Asuma had told her a few days back, a little gossiper in the making.

Sakura nodded as Pīta glanced between them, like any of this was important. "Oh, that makes sense. If there's anyone that can help Yakumo's Genjutsu get stronger, it's Kurenai-Sensei." She reasoned, though wasn't sure just how much stronger Yakumo could've gotten.

"Apparently, Genma-Sensei's too busy preparing for the finals. He got asked to take over as Proctor due to... uh... you know what, I'll just stop talking." Ino gave a bashful smile, suddenly very aware of the boy in their presence.

Genma had been asked to fill in for Hayate, the very same man that had died on Pīta's watch. Ino made the right call, that wouldn't have been pretty. But all Pīta seemed to have taken in from the back and forth chit chat was the good, his stance immediately changing upon hearing the news.

It morphed from blue and stiff to lose and elated in an instant, the boy letting out a sigh of pure relief. "Great! That's great! Everyone seems to be doing okay, man… you don't know how glad I am to hear that." He admitted, shaking his head with a laugh.

It'd been touch and go with Hinata as the last time he'd seen her, she hadn't been breathing. It was a hard image to shake, a small, frail girl lying on the ground… lifeless. Pīta blinked and his mind cleared once more, he didn't want to revisit that kind of situation anytime soon. He was just happy she'd recovered, especially in light of recent events.

The small bout of silence wasn't hard to miss for Sakura and Ino, the boy staring off at the ground as he must've been daydreaming. "And you? How're you feeling?" The former queried, grabbing his arm in order to garner his attention.

It worked, with Pīta's eyes meeting hers almost immediately. "Ah, I'm okay. At least… I will be, you know?" He spoke honestly, there was no quick fix for what he was feeling.

It was a process, still very much in its early stages. "Good, I'm—I'm glad. I tried to see you yesterday but… I guess you just wanted to be alone." Sakura guessed, emerald green faltering under chocolate brown.

Pīta watched her gaze lower to her feet, he was feeling the anxiousness too. "I don't know what I wanted, Sakura but barricading myself in my room wasn't what I needed." He recalled, an unexpected visitor drawing him out of his shell.

Sakura's curiosity peaked, raising her head once more as they stood there together. "What did you need?" An innocent question to ask, eliciting a smile from Pīta beneath that mask of his.

"A wake-up call. Thankfully, plenty were willing to provide." He spoke fondly, it was easy to laugh about it after the fact.

A joke, Sakura felt the tug at the corner of her own lips. "You know I would've—if you needed me… I would've—" It was familiar and telling of the boy she'd grown up with, her moment of raw honesty getting cut-off by her friend who loved to talk.

A hand she knew to be his found its way to her shoulder, strong and comforting at the same time. "I know," Pīta replied without missing a beat, his tone soft and quiet as if no-one else was around.

But that wasn't the case at all, was it?

Ino cleared her throat, she was seriously starting to feel like the odd one out. "Not to interrupt or anything but… Sakura? Don't you have something for Pīta?" She nudged her friend's arm, prompting the girl to spin around.

"Thank you for reminding me, Ino." Sakura spoke through gritted teeth, the Kunoichi having effectively ruined the moment.

Ino gave a bashful smile, taking the hint and backing off. "A gift? For me? Well, don't leave me hanging, cherry blossom." Pīta's voice and silly nickname brought her back around, a smile once again lighting up her pale features.

It took a second for her to compose herself but once she did, she shyly held out a yellow rose in front of her. "A flower?" Pīta dumbly asked, an eyebrow arched as he eyed the dainty looking plant.

Sakura shook her head, of course he wouldn't have a clue. "A yellow rose, Pīta. It symbolizes friendship and how… how I'll always be there for you… like you are for me." She managed to squeak out, cheeks glowing with a red hue as Pīta blinked a few times.

Had he really been there for her? Like, at all? What on Earth did she see in him that he couldn't see himself? Pīta peered past the patiently waiting girl to see Ino, offering him a curt nod as if silently telling him to take it and be grateful.

Pīta raised his eyebrows before dropping them once more, he wasn't about to hurt her feelings over something so silly. "I… don't know what to say," which was the truth, he'd never been offered a flower before, especially from a girl no less.

The boy took the flower by the stem, noting how it held no thorns and guessed she hadn't picked it fresh. He was careful, Sakura unwilling to completely let go until she knew he wouldn't crush it with his inhuman strength. Pīta took extra care, such a small and fragile little thing but by God, so much beauty.

He wasn't the flower type but even he could appreciate the pretty things in life, nature being especially bountiful. "So… you like it?" Sakura questioned, noticing how he was examining it in silence.

He gave an absent-minded nod, gently stroking the petals with a finger. "Do you even have to ask? I mean, it's not really my thing but… I guess I can make an exception for a friend." Pīta looked up as he spoke, finding a beaming Sakura staring back at him with her hands clasped together.

She was overjoyed he liked it, almost tempted to hug him had it not been for the rose in his hands. It wasn't much but she was just trying to do something nice for someone dear to her, just to let him know that someone cared. And she didn't intend it to be an obligation for him, as if he now had to get her something in return.

Just a one-off present for a boy who deserved it, at least he did in her bright green eyes.

"What about you, baby blues? Got something special for your ole' buddy, Pīta?" The Spider teased, earning a small laugh from Sakura as Ino shook her head.

She spat her tongue out and mimed a finger down her throat, pretending to gag. "In your dreams, loser." Ino hit back, falling right into the usual back and forth between the pair.

Pīta snorted, she was always good for a laugh. "Nightmares, maybe." He mocked, throwing a cheeky wink her way and earning a roll of the eyes in the process.

They lingered and spoke for a little while longer, not about much of anything in particular. Talking just to talk really, taking a break from the craziness that had consumed their lives lately. But duty called and each of them had responsibilities of their own, the three of them parting ways just as quickly as they'd come together.

Ino journeyed back to her mother's flower store, she was no doubt in need of the help. Pīta took to the air and disappeared in the maze-like layout of Konoha's many buildings and streets, web-slinging home alone despite offering Ino a ride.

And last but not least, Sakura recalled the other gift she'd bought intended for another boy she cared about. She ventured back into the hospital and it didn't take her long to retrace her steps back to Lee's room, only this time finding him sound asleep in his bed. She took a moment to study his still face before placing the yellow rose in an empty vase on his bedside table, a sight he would hopefully be greeted by once he regained consciousness.

Just like Pīta, she figured flowers maybe weren't his thing but then… it was the thought that counted.

Sasuke skidded and tumbled across the gravel-laden ground, skinning his arms and legs as he did so. He came to a gradual stop, lying there for a moment looking battered and bruised as he'd done nothing but fail all day. Kakashi stood some distance away from him, both of his hands stuffed firmly into his pants pockets.

They'd been training all day, trying to get past the limitations of the Chidori. They'd got off to a quick start, Sasuke was already Lightning Jutsu sensitive and producing the energy necessary for the technique proved to have been a cakewalk. But the constant mess-ups were due to the Chidori's effect on its user's peripheral vision, unable to track and counter any potential attacks coming their way.

As such, the man had been throwing him around like a ragdoll all day. "Hmm… again," Kakashi hummed to himself before lazily gesturing for the boy to hop to his feet, though a clearly demoralized Sasuke refused.

He continued to lie there in defiance, his chest rising and falling as he took a moment to rest. "What's the point? We've been at this for hours and I still can't get it," Sasuke spoke to the open air, his tone flat and deflated.

Kakashi shrugged, looking off into the distance with his lone exposed eye. "It takes time, Sasuke. I couldn't use the Chidori safely until I'd learned to master it, it didn't happen overnight." He explained, noticing just how low the sun was beginning to get.

Pretty soon, night was going to fall and things would've been even harder to see in the dark. "How long then? How long did it take you to figure this out?" Sasuke grilled, running a shaky hand down his face.

Kakashi turned back to see him still lying there, as if he'd expected anything else. "Before I could use it without risk to myself? Years, Sasuke. It took me years and even then…" The silver haired Jōnin trailed off, his dull voice suddenly dying in his throat.

He wasn't going to finish that sentence, not ever. "I don't have years," Sasuke stated the obvious, forcing himself to sit upright.

Kakashi concurred, the finals were only a few weeks away after all. "No… no, you don't. And if you want to stand a chance of besting Gaara in your match, you'll get up and try again." He told him in no uncertain terms, looming over him like a one-eyed spectre.

Sasuke fixed the man with a look of resentment, his charcoal black eyes narrowed and annoyed. "Like it's just that easy," he spat at the teacher, sounding less like the prodigy he was meant to be and more like the child he was.

Kakashi shook his head, quite a different experience to his own kids. "Nothing ever is, boy. I understand how talented you are, how most things seem to come naturally to you where others would struggle. But everyone has their hurdles to overcome, this was one of mine and now it's yours." He strolled over to the child, an orphan just like Naruto.

Of course, under starkly different circumstances. "And what if… what if I can't get it?" Sasuke asked, though knew the answer to the question already.

Perhaps he just wanted to hear someone else say it, then maybe it'd be more real. "You really shouldn't focus on what might be but since you asked, sure. For starters, you'll lose your match. I think the Chidori would give you the edge you need against Gaara and without it… well, odds are slim." Kakashi spelled out for him, with a tone so plain that it irritated Sasuke to no end.

No emotion, just cold hard facts. "Second, on top of losing, you'll most likely be killed. After what Gaara did to Guy's boy, I can't see him going much easier on you." Kakashi reasoned, bobbing his head to one side.

Sasuke shook his head, a spiteful laugh escaping his throat. "Is that all?" He posed, though it was a rhetorical question more than anything else.

That didn't stop Kakashi from answering it, crouching low enough to meet the boy's gaze. "Aside from dying? No, I'd say that's about it. Life will go on, people will forget… all because you couldn't stand up and try." He criticized the boy's poor attitude, though there was no venom in his words.

Just spoken like the truth, not relative and a stark reminder of reality. "Tough love, I get it. Is this how you treat your squad?" Now, that was a genuine question.

How on Earth did anyone deal with such a cold man on a daily basis?

"Not really, no. There's never been any need to as they rarely ever complain, even Naruto doesn't whine as much as you." Kakashi insulted, the lack of any emotion somehow making it worse.

Sasuke glared daggers at the man, now that had ticked him off. It did nothing to deter Kakashi, didn't even make him flinch. It'd take more than a severe case of the stink-eye from a child to intimidate him, staring back at Sasuke with an unimpressed half-lidded eye.

"Listen, Sasuke. This type of technique, it's not enough to simply want it. No, you have to need it." But Kakashi was willing to extend an olive branch, putting the boy down all day wasn't going to get them anywhere.

Sasuke finally straightened up, appearing a little more enthused and a little less sulky. "But I do need it… I need it to get stronger," he revealed, earning the quirk of an eyebrow from his elder.

It wasn't an unusual thing to want or need but there had to be more than that, surely. "Is that all?" Kakashi mimicked the child's own words, actually putting in the effort to copy his sarcastic tone too.

Sasuke smouldered back, head angled downwards but pitch-black pupils looking right at Kakashi. "No," the Genin muttered, loud enough for his teacher to hear but not quite sure what to think of it.

Surely, that was a positive thing but just the way he had said it struck Kakashi wrong. "Good. Then think about why you need it beyond strength, visualize it and hold onto it with everything you have. Now, care to try again?" Despite that, he decided to push forward with the lesson.

He rose to his full height, dwarfing the boy as he held his hand out right for the taking. Sasuke studied it intently for a few seconds, this must've been another one of his silly little tests. So, just as Kakashi had done when climbing the cliff, Sasuke refused the freely given aid and forced himself to his feet.

Kakashi shrugged, turning on his heel and putting some distance between them again. After reassuming his position, he folded his arms and waited on Sasuke. The prodigy tried to take the man's advice, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. He started thinking about just why he needed an ability like the Chidori, why it was absolutely vital to his progress as a ninja.

Instead of defeating Gaara or the idea of graduating to Chūnin, something else came to mind. Or rather, someone else. Itachi, his older brother. The very same face he saw each and every time he closed his eyes to sleep, taunting him to get stronger.

Sasuke remembered it very clearly, his knees coated with the blood of his parents as he knelt beside their still warm bodies. He took everything from him, all in one single night. It wasn't simply enough to best him in combat, Sasuke wanted to make him suffer, to beg for his life. But most of all, the boy just wanted to know why.

That was exactly what he'd ask, 'why would you do such a thing?'

"You know the drill; I'm going to try and stop you from reaching your target. All you have to do is… well, reach it. It really is that simple, Sasuke." Kakashi ran him through his task for the umpteenth time that day, gesturing to the rather large boulder some feet behind him.

If Sasuke had heard him, he didn't show it as he performed a hand sign and brought his left arm down, gripping his wrist with his right hand. Blue hued lightning erupted from his palm, sparking and crackling this way and that. All he had to do was reach the boulder, reach Itachi. Just standing there, mocking him.

Sasuke set his jaw, an intense frown lining his lips as he bolted from the spot and made a beeline straight for the boulder. Kakashi wasted no time in letting a handful of shuriken fly from his pouch, several stars of death headed the boy's way when it happened. Sasuke finally opened his eyes, the famed Sharingan on full scarlet display.

Only, instead of one tomoe, there were now two present. Kakashi took a step back, just when had that happened?

Sasuke's eyes took everything in, every tiny little detail of his surroundings as he quickly fetched the kunai knife from the holster on his thigh. The shuriken reached him yet did not touch him, the boy deflecting each and every projectile with frightening accuracy. And then there was the man himself, blocking his path with no trace of fear present in that single eye of his.

Kakashi decided to switch things up, keep Sasuke on his toes by going for his legs. He'd intercepted his student countless times that day, this time would've been no different. Except this time was different and Sasuke was already reacting, leaping clear over the Jōnin and avoiding a sweep of the legs in the meantime.

Kakashi watched it happen in slow motion, the orphan streaking by him in a blaze of controlled lightning and then—


Kakashi shielded his face as charred rubble and stone flew in every direction, the boulder being well and truly penetrated with a direct strike of lightning charged Chakra. The intense light was almost blinding, giving everything in the immediate vicinity a bright blue hue. He was impressed, even moving as fast he was, Sasuke had been able to spot the shuriken.

Sasuke had been able to predict Kakashi's movements and react accordingly but most importantly, able to break right through Itachi and leave a charred and scorched hand-sized hole in his chest. The boulder, Sasuke meant the boulder.

Kakashi shrugged as he began to slowly clap, they'd worked hard enough at it. "Huh… well, you got there in the end. Good job, I was beginning to think I'd made a mistake agreeing to train you." Of course, he had to slip a backhanded compliment in there too.

The lightning disappeared in Sasuke's palm as he pulled it right out of the boulder, a small smirk finding its way onto his lips. "Happy to prove you wrong… sensei," the boy replied, the use of the honorific again hitting Kakashi's ear wrong.

He didn't know what it was, perhaps he was just too used to his own kids saying it. "Well, let's not go that far." Kakashi waved it off as it was getting late, it was time to pick things up until the next day after having actually made some progress.

He had to wonder though… if it had been this hard for Sasuke, just how was Naruto getting along?

Hours had passed by and the sun had almost disappeared behind the horizon, Naruto had been hanging on for the entire time. Gamabunta hadn't gone easy on him in the slightest, submerging beneath the lake and almost drowning the kid a couple of times. The continuous ascent and descent of the toad leaping high into the clouds before plummeting back down towards the Earth was taking its toll on the kid, his arms aching so badly that he was afraid they'd fall off.

Jiraiya had been watching from afar the entire time from a high cliff, alternating his short attention span between the spectacle and a group of gorgeous young women bathing in a valley below him. He had to admit, he was both surprised and impressed that Naruto had been able to hold out for so long without the use of Chakra.

The Sage assumed he must've spent every last drop of it when he'd summoned the beast, Jiraiya couldn't see him lasting much longer because of it. Between the physical fatigue and Gamabunta being incredibly hard on him, it was safe to say that the kid had the odds stacked against him.

The toad came to an abrupt stop, having been hopping and leaping around all day was beginning to tire even him out. "All right, squirt. It's been fun but I've just about had my fill of you today, time to bring this challenge to a close!" Gamabunta yelled to the exhausted passenger on his back, every haggard breath a chore for the boy.

Naruto barely had time to even register his words before the inevitable happened, he was shot back up into the now orange and red sky. He couldn't even scream; his voice was so hoarse. Gamabunta leaped clear of the cliff Jiraiya had been perched on, sailing right over and landing in the valley below. Naruto was so out of it that he lost of his footing, hands slick with sweat and unable to find any purchase.

"NO! Not when I'm this close!" The boy hollered; his throat sore as he toppled right over the edge.

Thinking quickly and relying on something that had saved him many times in the past, he summoned what little Chakra he had left and performed the Shadow Clone Jutsu. It caught Jiraiya off-guard, the kid shouldn't have had any left, let alone enough to summon ten clones.

The carbon copies of the blonde-haired prankster tumbled right off after their creator, forming a clone ladder and just about snagging him before he hit the ground. Ever so slowly, little by little, the clones dragged him back up towards safety before each one exploded into a plume of smoke.

He sat there for a moment, hands and knees resting on slimy skin but he didn't much care. "I did it… haha, yeah! I said I'd do it and I did it! I beat you! Tiny me beat giant you!" Naruto boasted, hopping to his feet and dancing around in joyful glee just like he'd done earlier in the day.

Déjà vu all of a sudden, having saved himself twice in the same day. But as Jiraiya had guessed earlier, he couldn't last forever. Finally, after an entire day of riding a giant toad like a bull, Naruto's exhaustion caught up to him. He passed out on the spot, falling like a ragdoll right before Gamabunta's eyes.

Jiraiya jumped to his feet, ready to make a move before the toad beat him to it. Gamabunta caught him with his long, winding tongue and saved him from what surely would've been a fatal fall. Jiraiya paused, so much for his tough gruff exterior. A thought came to mind, maybe the Chief Toad would've liked to know just who this stubborn young boy was.

Jiraiya flung a scroll down into the valley, the very same scroll he'd given to Naruto to summon Gamabunta. It hit the riverbank, unfurling itself right before the toad's very eyes.

"Naruto Uzumaki, eh? Tenacious boy, I haven't seen such determination since Lord Fourth posed the very same challenge to me." Gamabunta lamented quietly, his tone a far cry from his loud bombastic bellowing.

Gamabunta turned to look at the very cliff Jiraiya was standing on, earning a friendly wave in return. "So, this was why you brought me here. Very well, I shall grant him the use of my power whenever he needs it. Meanwhile, I think he needs time to heal and recuperate from today." He concluded, watching as the Toad Sage gave him a concurring nod.

Several miles away, as night began to fall upon the quiet village of Konoha, something akin to an earthquake rumbled the ground. The village's hospital felt it more strongly than any other location, making enough noise to alert the entire building's staff. But when the resident doctors and nurses rushed outside, there was nothing around except an unconscious boy lying right in the middle of the street.

And for some reason, he held a look of pride on his slumbering face. The staff all glanced at one another before taking him inside, just where had this kid come from and what on Earth had caused such an ungodly ruckus?

Author's Note: I know it's a little slow with the training but it's necessary, hope you guys don't mind. Maybe one or two more chapters before we finally reach the finals of the exams, hang in there! Thanks for reading!

Guest Reviews:

Aztec 13: I'm glad you liked the chapter, I try to make Pīta as human and fallible as possible. These small moments of self-doubt and fear make it feel so much more earned when he overcomes them, more triumphant. Anyway, it's funny you should mention something being kept from someone. Not saying it's important but... might be later on in the story. Thanks for the review!

Boink: It's a classic Spider-Man trope, probably influenced my writing in some way. Love that story, thanks for the review!