This could be a bit of a long chapter...yeah...

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or overly-long dramatic combat scenes and plot twists, honest.

Chapter 21: Fallen Leaves

With a slight spring in his step, Kakashi walked down one of the many flights of stairs in the Forest Tower. Why was he so happy today, you ask? Well, the main reason was the new Icha Icha paradise book was out. That was always a good way to get Kakashi happy. Other reasons included he had just received word that not only his team had passed the second exam, but that his nephew's team had as well. Good cheer all around! They had both been knocked around a little, but no lost limbs! Great success.

As Kakashi hopped up on the main podium where the ceremony would be conducted, he couldn't remain serious. It was too good of a day. Anko's condition, though, did make him wince. The Special Jounin had apparently been attacked by a rouge ninja in the forest of death during the exam...or that was the cover story everyone else would hear. The Jounin had all been briefed during an emergency meeting that Orochimaru was lurking around and that there might be a spy in the ranks. It wasn't too much of a problem, though. From time to time Orochimaru would raise his snaky head and there really wasn't anything anyone could do about it unless they wanted to destroy half the village chasing him out.

'Hey, if he wants to watch the exams then fine,' Kakashi told himself. Anko didn't look very bad off from having fought the Sannin so he must not be that big of a problem anymore. Kakashi was confident that if he absolutely had to, he could take down the man. Anko had laughed at that assessment and said that everyone was underestimating Orochimaru. The Jounin all remained skeptical, though, even with the Hokage stating that there could be more to Orochimaru's presence here than meets the eye. Especially when it was implied that the missing-nin ran Otogakure. It didn't matter to Kakashi, however. Maybe with something to occupy his time, like running a village, the Sannin would be less antagonistic to Konoha. Wishful thinking to be sure, but hey, it could happen.

Apparently, both the Hokage and Anko didn't hold to this belief as evident by the beefed-up security in the village. That had brought about something even more disturbing than Orochimaru in Kakashi's opinion. ANBU Root, formally disbanded and pending a complete personnel psych review, had been reinstated, if only for a few weeks. Danzo, the former leader of Root, had argued that Orochimaru's presence in the village called for Root to be brought back for security and the Hokage had agreed, albeit reluctantly.

Kakashi's problem with Root harkened back to his days in ANBU. The group brought results, for sure, but at the cost of their agents. Not since Kirigakure's Genin exam had promotion been so bloody. Root was full of killing machines fully devoted to Danzo and his antagonistic views of policy. Like his own private army, really.

Still, none of this was dampening the spirits of Team Seven's captain. "Anko, have you seen Naruto yet?" he asked while he started reading his newest perverted book. There wasn't much else to do while they waited for the preliminaries to start, after all. Not like he could open up a nice little conversation with a foreign Jounin. Well, he could, but that Oto Jounin was too creepy to talk to.

"No," Anko answered as she adjusted her microphone, "I went by his team's room this morning but Naruto and Lee were still asleep. I think he's been avoiding that Hyuuga girl, though. Tenten mentioned something about Naruto and her getting into it during the exam." Pretty badly if the way Kurenai had flinched when asked about it was any indication. Although she wouldn't comment on it directly, Kurenai admitted that Hinata had been complaining nonstop about Naruto's "cheap" tactics. When pressed, the Hyuuga wouldn't say anything about it other than she would get some kind of revenge. Kiba and Shino were of similar attitude and their teacher was actually a bit worried.

Despite the tense atmosphere, the Hokage managed to chuckle at how his grandson was growing up. His own adolescence had been filled with war and strife and he didn't have time to make little inner-village rivalries. It certainly made the exams more interesting, just like a soap opera...not that he watched those things. Nope, not at all.

The group was soon joined by Maito Gai and his overwhelming personality. "My rival!" he called out to Kakashi. The other Jounin tried to look very interested in his book to avoid being caught up in one of Gai's one-sided debates. Unfortunately, this time was no different from all the others and the Green Beast continued on. "My youthful students all passed the second exam! I hear yours did the same, Kakashi, but they won't make it through this!" When Kakashi ignored him, Gai almost started crying in admiration of his rival's coolness. Everyone else wondered why Gai didn't noticed that Kakashi was always paying attention even if he didn't show it.

The jovial attitude was broken up by a severe case of coughing coming from the floor and all eyes turned to Hayate who looked ready to hack up a lung. Kakashi wondered if the man's habitual coughing was natural or just an act. After all, Asuma went through several packs of smokes a day and he never coughed any. Still, the students were following him out into the hall, some well rested, others having just arrived.

As they walked out, Naruto made sure to stay a good distance away from Team Eight. Hinata hadn't said anything to him but she was definitely glaring a hole in his head. Kiba, on the other hand, was far more obvious and he made sure to growl at Naruto every time their eyes met. The rest of Team Gai noticed this and stood by him to ward off any unlikely attacks.

Over at Team Seven, Neji was having an uncharacteristically good day. Hinata hadn't even said two words to him or his team for being so late in getting to the tower. He had a million and one retorts ready for whatever the main house member could toss at him but they all proved unnecessary in light of Hinata's newest obsession: Uzumaki Naruto. That was a good thing because if it were any other day Neji would have caught hell from his cousin for "tainting the name" by coming in last. Happily, he didn't have to worry about such things. This Naruto was sent by Kami-sama himself!

Sakura shuddered as she watched a grin spread over Neji's face. It was so totally unnatural for the moody Hyuuga that it scared the living shit out of her the first time he'd done it. Even though Sasuke didn't show it, he was freaked out too. Still, Sakura had bigger fish to fry at the moment than psycho-Neji and she was standing not ten feet away.

Team Ten had come in a few hours before Sakura's own and as such Ino was able to clean up a bit before coming to this little assembly. She looked even more sure of herself than Sakura could ever remember. It was like she fed off of finally getting into the limelight. Sakura, however, was more nervous than she had ever been. This was it, though. Do or die time. All of her training has led up to this one moment to shine and Sakura would just have to do her best with whatever was coming.

The Hokage looked out over the newest generation of Konoha Genin with a measure of pride. Even after a harrowing exam they all looked like there were more important things on their minds. Revenge, love, admiration, elation, everything mirrored at once on their faces. Living, feeling, killing machines, that's what each of them would have to become over the next few years. Danzo thought he could erase emotion from shinobi? Not in this lifetime. The old man nodded to Anko as a que and the woman walked forward.

"Congratulations on passing the second exam!" she shouted. Unlike after the first exam, she didn't seem to angry that so many had passed. "Hokage-sama will now explain the exam so pay attention!"

Chuckling at Anko's bipolar personality, the old man took the center of the podium. Still, he had a nice little speech to give and it required him to be somber. So, in a way, that was an odd personality trait as well, he figured. "This is the third portion of the Chuunin selection exam. I also congratulate you on getting this far, but from here you must understand what this exam is truly about." The Hokage took a long drag from his pipe, reminding himself just what it meant to be ninja. "You are not only fighting for yourselves, you are fighting for your country and its image to the world. Other leaders from all the world's countries will be present, judging your performance as the performance of your village. If you do badly, it will reflect on the missions people send to us and, at the worst, lead to war since a village may appear weak."

"War? Just what the hell is this exam?!" Ino demanded. She could see Asuma telling her to be quiet with his eyes but no one had mentioned this to her. It was supposed to be just something to get a new rank from!

"This exam is a replacement for war, Yamanaka-san," the Hokage levelly responded. "Instead of slaughtering each other on the battlefield, we slaughter each other in an arena. Instead of armies, individuals. Instead of land or money, prestige and clients."

Shikamaru sighed at the description. "So that's why the Chuunin Exams aren't closed like the Jounin exams. You want us to be seen."

Instead of answering, the Hokage only faintly smiled. Life risking battles...some of the children looking at him right now might actually die before this exam was over. Perhaps that would be best, though. To die before you could be turned into shinobi. It was times like these that Sarutobi actually envied his former students' freedom to move wherever they pleased. He knew, though, they could never forget what they were no mater how many years they lived, ryo they gambled, or books they wrote. They could neverforget.

"" For once, Hayate coughed to get someone's attention rather than almost falling over dead. "The exam, Hokage-sama, shall we start it?"

The old man blinked a few times to clear his head of memories. Seems he had gotten a bit too caught-up in the nostalgia of it all. "Yes, yes. Explain it to them if you would, Hayate." Sarutobi noticed the concerned look Anko sent him and smiled back reassuringly. She would have made a good daughter given how much she worries about him.

With minimal coughing, Hayate managed to get everyone's attention. Several of the Genin sent him worried looks as if he were going to collapse any minute. He was a Jounin for goodness sake! A little coughing wasn't going to get him down. "Ah, yes, I am Gekko Hayate, the referee of this preliminary match."

"Preliminary? You mean this isn't the third exam?" Temari asked. Gaara shot her an annoyed look for being too loud and she seemed to calm down a bit.

Hayate looked over at the blonde and tried not to cough as he began an explanation. "Um...there's too many of you," he glanced over at Anko and Ibiki as he said this, "so the rules in place for this state that a preliminary match must take place prior to the main event. Is there anyone who wants to quit now after hearing this explanation? If not, we'll begin now."

Kabuto chuckled to himself as he started to raise his hand. There were other things to take care of right now other than playing with these Genin. However, he paused when he caught Orochimaru's gaze. The Sannin, "disguised" as an odd-looking Oto Jounin, was smiling slightly. When he saw Kabuto looking at him, he shook his head in amusement and the spy reluctantly lowered his hand. When he thought about it, though, there really wasn't any reason not to fight. Pretty soon it wouldn't matter if it came out he was a spy, no one who would have cared would be left alive.

Frowning slightly at not having an easy way to cut down on the teams, Hayate gave a little cough behind his clipboard. "Okay then, the one-on-one matches will be selected at random by the computer behind me," the Jounin motioned to the large screen looming over the stage. "Now, lets select the first two combatants!"

All eyes turned towards the screen hanging over the arena, the Genin watching with rapt attention. Letters sped across the screen by the thousands until...they stopped? The Hokage looked over at Hayate who was just as confused. Orochimaru, however, almost didn't stifle the chuckle he had in his throat. 'Those kids are playing around again...'

Barrier jutsu was one of the little-known specialties of Otogakure. Of course, when you're a village that was for years solely devoted to protecting an S-Class missing-nin with eight other S-Class missing-nins after him then it's understandable. As an elite bodyguard unit that was responsible for guarding the Sannin himself, an even wider variety of barriers and seals were studied. It was one of these barriers that was being used to conceal the four figures hiding up in the rafters of the arena, oblivious to everyone outside of the barrier. Not even the Hokage himself would see them if he wasn't expecting them to be there. It was a good thing the barrier was also sound-proof or else this particular group would have been discovered in the first few minutes of setting it up...

"Come on, just give me the damn thing!" Sakon whined as he tried to grab a small control box from his kunoichi teammate. Kidomaru and Jirobo had long-sense given up trying to stop Tayuya from getting her way and merely watched Sakon struggle for their own amusement. They were evil like that.

The stoic redhead swatted away her teammate's hand as she pressed random buttons on the control override Kabuto, the nerd that he is, had made for them. It was a neat little thing, Tayuya had to admit. The bespecled spy had whipped it up at Orochimaru's insisting to manually control the security systems in the Forest Tower. Happily, Tayuya had figured out it could also be used to screw around with other electronic systems if they were close enough thus the current argument between Sakon and herself.

The blue-haired ninja muttered a few more choice words before sitting down on the rafter with the rest of the team. Tayuya was just being too difficult for him. "I just wanted to match that annoying Naruto kid with Gaara. It would have been fun to watch him go splat!" he whined.

"We have a mission with this thing, you know," Tayuya reminded the team. "'Keep Sasuke alive and intact until the end of the preliminaries' was what Orochimaru-sama ordered. Did you idiots forget that?" Of course, she was going to mess around with it but she would do so responsibly. Well, at least responsibly enough to avoid Orochimaru's wrath. "With this, we can make protecting the Uchiha someone else's problem," the kunoichi told them as she punched in some keys on the small device...

Back on the floor the screen finally flashed back to life just as the Hokage was about to send a tech crew to go check on it. Smiling to himself, he moved back on his platform along with Ibiki and Anko to watch the fights while the rest of the Jounin had retreated back up to the stairs. He could tell that the Special Jounin would rather be up with her student, though.

"And the first match is..." Hayate called out to get everyone's attention, "...Uchiha Sasuke vs. Yakushi Kabuto!"

Sasuke leapt down from the overlooking stairs onto the ring below, ready to fight. His team had fought a pathetic Konoha team after being ambushed by that...thing in the forest and the fight was nothing to test himself by.

Choosing to walk down the stairs instead of making a spectacle of himself, Kabuto sighed. He had wanted to cut-loose since Orochimaru had given him permission but up against Sasuke...well, he couldn't do much of anything. This was Orochimaru's future body, after all. Don't want to scratch the paint or anything before it was even off the lot. Still, he could give the little kid a scare or two and nothing bad would happen.

The two sized each other up as Hayate went over some ground rules. Kabuto was relaxed, bored even, but Sasuke was tense. Up in the stands Kakashi was looking at he bespecled Genin with a calculating eye. Something was off about him. Going up against an Uchiha should make anyone nervous but this teen was in complete control of his emotions. It might because he thought that since the age advantage was in his favor Sasuke wasn't a threat but...well, in any event it would be a good match.

"Come on, Sasuke-kun!" Ino shouted from the side. Nearly everyone rolled their eyes except for Sakura who was trying to out-cheer Ino. Her heart didn't seem in it, though.

"Looks like you have quite a fan club," Kabuto said, disarming as ever. "I hope you give them a good show."

Sasuke didn't rise to the subtle taunt and instead launched himself immediately at the other Genin the second Hayate signaled a start to the match. Instead of scoring the easy hit he was expecting, Sasuke instead found his leg caught in the vice-like grip of Kabuto.

Twisting his arm around, Kabuto brought Sasuke crashing to the ground. He could feel the muscles of the Uchiha's leg spasming in protest to the unnatural bending but he ignored it in favor of roughly kicking the boy in the stomach. There were several gasps from the other Genin at the savage treatment...or maybe it was surprise that Sasuke didn't immediately win? Either way there were many shocked people watching.

Kicking back off the floor as he tumbled, Sasuke managed to right himself just as his opponent caught up to him. Kabuto fought with a meticulous intensity that surprised the Uchiha. It was like every regular blow was just a way to create an opening for a single, surgical-like attack. Without much of a choice, Sasuke activated his Sharingan.

With the rest of his team, Naruto watched the fight swing back and forth between his cousin and Kabuto. The blond had to admit he had underestimated the odd Genin who had stated that he failed this exam six times. Even with the Sharingan on his side Sasuke would have trouble putting away this fight. At least now the other boy could avoid those hard hits Kabuto just seemed to sneak in.

"This is a youthful fight!" Lee exclaimed. "Kabuto-kun is very talented!"

Tenten was impressed as well with the way Kabuto was handling himself. If anything, it showed her that even an Uchiha could be put on the defensive against such skill. As much as Tenten used to dislike thinking about it, it was good for both her and Lee in the event they went up against Naruto or Sasuke during this thing. Thoughts like this had come up ever since Naruto's Sharingan had developed into such a potent tool. He could even muddle his way through a jutsu-barred sparring session with Lee without getting completely embarrassed these days.

Gai noticed the solemn mood of his student and wondered what Tenten was thinking about. She had been somewhat different since Naruto had gotten kidnapped but he didn't feel it was bad enough to bring up. Tenten had been so serious in her training before the exam; though, not training in front of the others and not getting help from him. Naruto was doing the same thing but he would still give his best at the joint training sessions when Tenten was clearly holding back. It was a bit worrisome but maybe she would work it out by herself?

Not that he was ignoring his students, it's just that Gai had no idea how to relate to either Naruto or Tenten. They were so much easier to deal with when they were still fresh out of the academy. Now they were nearly Chuunin! Time just flew by for Team Two and Gai didn't like it one bit. He would have to watch Tenten just a little bit more and look for a chance to talk to her about whatever it was going on.

A loud crash from the area brought Gai's attention back to the arena. As he thought, the surprising performance from the young Kabuto had been short-lived. The Uchiha had just struck the other Genin with such force his glasses cracked. As Kabuto stumbled backwards, Sasuke ducked low and swept Kabuto's feet out from under him and had a kunai to his throat before the latter could even shake off the effects of having several sharp pieces of glass stuck in his face.

"O-okay, I give up, Sasuke-kun," Kabuto stammered.

Hayate looked things over, and finding them satisfactory, made a few marks on his clipboard before announcing the end of the match. "Winner, Uchiha Sasuke!" Predictably, his fan base cheered for the victory while he helped Kabuto back to his feet.

"That was a good match," Sasuke said to the older boy once he was back on his feet. It was a rare thing to get a compliment by the Uchiha Sasuke.

Kabuto smiled in a modest way before wincing. Apparently it wasn't a good thing to move one's face while there was glass sticking out of it. "I got a little too exited, I think," he said as he pulled off the broken frame of his glasses. "These were my favorite pair, too." When the medic team came over, Kabuto surprisingly waved them off and headed back up the stairs to stand with his team.

As his spy passed, Orochimaru quietly mused, "I counted sixteen times where you could have killed him, Kabuto. Such fine self-restraint and acting. I'm impressed."

"You overestimate me, I only counted twelve," Kabuto replied as he passed, a vicious smile spreading over his face. A pathetic match like that didn't even get the blood pumping.

On the floor, the randomizer was still having glitches in the system. Hayate just groaned at the jumbo screen once again missed its queue to begin. He could see the tech guys messing with the little button that randomized the names to little avail. Stupid thing, technology was nothing but a hassle. Just like that stupid humidifier that his doctor had told him to get years ago. Waste of money, his dad had told him and look at him now! Perfect health!

"Who do you guys want to do next?" Tayuya asked as they all shared a snicker at Kabuto getting his glasses broke. That guy was way too anal about his glasses so it served him right.

Oddly, Jirobo was the one to speak up first. "Kin against someone," he said in his usual polite voice. There was an odd tone to it, though, which caused everyone to stare at him. Even more strangely he blushed and poked his fingers together shyly. "...she wouldn't go out with me..." he admitted. They all had a nice laugh at that. Well, except for Jirobo, of course. He pouted.

Tayuya scanned the group down there for a suitable opponent for the little trollop. Truth be told, the kunoichi didn't like Kin much either ever since she had made a crack about how red hair hadto come from a bottle in this part of the world. Bad idea. Seeing a lazy-looking bastard, Nara Shikamaru if her memory from the info Kabuto had them memorize served her right, that was acting completely oblivious to the matches struck her with an idea. "Okay, we'll kill two birds with one stone. A piece of trash down there looks like he could use some exorcise."

Shikamaru groaned loudly as his name popped up on the wacky computer. Stupid randomized results. Not only did he have to fight, he had to fight a girl. "Troublesome," he said aloud.

Ino frowned at her teammate's lack of enthusiasm and she began pushing him down the runway towards the stairs. "Come on, you got lucky! It's a girl who doesn't look all that good! You could have caught me and then you're fun would have been over."

"How's that a bad thing?" the Genin moaned as he was rushed towards the ring. His opponent had settled on jumping down to the stage so she was waiting on him with some strange smile on her face. Those Oto-nin were just weird. "If someone would beat me I could go home."

The young Yamanaka stuck out her tongue at Shikamaru as she started back to the stairs. "Yeah, but think of what your mom would have put you through if you didn't even make it to the finals," she reminded. Troublesome women just flocked around poor Shikamaru.

Hayate made sure both combatants were in position before giving the signal to start. "Nara Shikamaru vs. Tsuchi Kin. Begin!"

Predictably, for Shikamaru at least, the kunoichi instantly attacked in the form of needles. They had bells attached to them, an old trick, but they also had nearly-invisible wires attached that would trick him. Sound in theory and it would probably be enough against someone else but it was a bit weak to bring to a Chuunin exam. It was easy as sending his shadow under the wire while he took a hit from one of the needles. Not too complicated, actually.

Kin, however, was surprised at the turn of events. "But, but I was watching the shadow!" she cried in frustration. Shikamaru had to raise an eyebrow at that one, how did she know about his shadow bind? Whatever, it would take too much effort to find out.

"Strings that narrow won't leave a shadow, moron," he sighed, unhappy at having to explain something so simple. Reaching down to his weapon pouch, he pulled a shuriken with Kin mimicking him. One throw to keep her distracted so she didn't struggle with the shadow bind and her head rammed into the wall with a disturbing cracking noise.

Hayate's cough was pretty much the only thing in way of fanfare ending the match. Looking at how the poor Oto kunoichi was twitching, it was safe to say she wouldn't be getting up anytime soon. "Winner, Nara Shikamaru!" he called simply to let everyone else know they should be paying attention again. Other than a pat on the back from Ino and Choji, there really wasn't anything greeting the hapless Nara when he rejoined his team.

Back up on the rafters, the reaction was pretty much the same. Jirobo was stunned into silence at how easily Kin had been taken out, robbing him of seeing some good blood sport. Tayuya put the thoughts of everyone else to words with a short, simple, "That was shit."

Sakon rolled his eyes as he once again started fighting for the control box. "That was a pathetic match! You can't pick anything! Give me that damn thing!"

Sighing, Tayuya handed it over like she couldn't care less. That wasa sad match so she couldn't really argue with his logic. "Just pick something fun, fag." Sakon was planning on doing just that until the small box was taken from his hands by Kidomaru.

"What the hell, man?!" Sakon whined at once again getting foiled in his match-setting quest.

The multi-armed ninja ignored his teammate and started to type in names for the machine to display. "I want to see that pink-haired girl get mauled," he said out of the blue. When everyone looked at him with varying degrees of confusion, he shrugged. "What can I say? I hate the color pink." Well, lucky for him the rest of them disliked that color too so they didn't hassle him about it. Stupid pink being all pinkish.

Hayate's eyebrows sank as he watched the randomizer start randomizing before he even asked the technicians to select a new match. For Kami's sake, that Kin girl hadn't even been scrapped off the wall yet! "Um...I guess the third match is starting now..." he mumbled as the names came to a stop. Oh, well this would be quick.

Ino laughed at her teammate as he returned, complaining about how boring his match was. "I thought you wanted to go home?" she asked.

"Well, I was already down there, you know," Shikamaru said in way of a reply. He knew just as well as everyone else that he would have still been complaining but it was the thought that counted. "This match should be decent enough," he commented, trying to divert Ino's attention away from his laziness.

The young kunoichi took the bait and checked the screen. "Hey forehead girl, you're up," she called out to Team Seven which was further down the balcony.

Sakura was surprised to hear Ino calling out to her as she was busy attempting to hold a conversation with her team. Given the disposition of the two troubled children, though, it wasn't going too well. The randomizer had chosen a good time to cut-in, not like she was getting anywhere. After getting a few "good lucks" from the other Konoha teams, she passed Team Ten and tried to smirk at her rival. "Looks like I'm up first," she said to Ino. There was still that odd tension between them but at least they had both gotten used to it to the point where they could attempt to talk normally.

Ino nervously chuckled as a means to cover up the time it took her to come up with something to say. It was just so weird between them now. "Uh, just try not to lose too badly." Yeah, it was lame but it was all she could come up with. Sakura uncomfortably laughed and mumbled some remark about not losing at all before she walked past the group. Everyone noticed the overall weirdness of the exchange but Ino's sour mood stalled any questions they might have had.

Down on the floor, Hayate was finally announcing the match. "Ahem, and now for the third match of the Chuunin preliminaries. Haruno Sakura vs. Abumi Zaku! Contestants please come down to the floor."

Up on the other balcony, Orochimaru chuckled at how eager Zaku was to prove himself. It was nonsense, of course, as he was just fodder but such work ethic was nice. Ever eager to showoff in front of Orochimaru, the boy had already shunshin'd down to the stage. Zaku wasn't too excited, though. His opponent was some whiny girl who probably didn't know the first thing about fighting.

"Damn it, can't you give me someone better?" he asked Hayate. "I won't even break a sweat with this girl."

Sakura's eyes narrowed at the little brat standing across from her. Won't even break a sweat? Oh yeah, heads were going to roll. Subtly, she traced a finger of the single scroll hanging off her belt. This would be a good test, actually. "What's wrong? You don't want to get beat by me in front of your team?" she taunted, trying to provoke a reaction.

The plan worked as Zaku wheeled around with a fierce look in his eye. "What was that?! You wish you had a chance against me!"

Watching these two rile each other up was particularily annoying to the ever-ill examiner. It was times like this Hayate felt more like a boxing referee than a teacher. When Zaku started squabbeling, though, that was enough. "And begin!"

The sudden start caught both Genin by surprise. Sakura responded by leaping back from her opponent while Zaku started charging a jutsu. Before Sakura could react, a blast of air sent her flying into the wall with a harsh thud. The blast itself was powerful enough by itself but the collateral damage it could cause by sending someone into a wall was another level for Sakura entirely. As she slid down the stone, she wondered just how the other Genin could have used a futon jutsu so quickly.

Zaku smirked and lowered his hands when Sakura didn't immediately rise. "See? Pathetic," he said as he turned to the examiner. "Call the match, it's over." However, Hayate frowned at how egotistical this kid was for turning his back on a downed opponent. Oh well, he would get it beat into his head soon enough.

Zaku's eyes went wide as he felt the air behind him be disturbed and he dropped to the ground just quick enough that Sakura's kick went sailing over his head.

Sakura cursed as her surprise attack failed to produce results. Apparently this guy was good with either his sense of smell or air pressure as there was no way she could have made any noise. Regardless, Sakura jumped over Zaku's attempt at sweeping her and brought down an axe handle on the boy as she landed. This too was avoided as Zaku rolled out of the way and brought his palms to bare again. At least now he was taking her seriously. However, Sakura was ready for the blast. When Zaku called out his attack, she ran through a few hand seals and dissapeared in a cloud of smoke leaving behind an odd hat. On the podium, the Hokage sighed at the treatment his poor cap was getting but didn't grudge the girl for using it. Anything for a win, he supposed, and the hat was made of sturdy stuff so it should be alright...if not, he knew who to send the bill to.

Zaku became enraged at having been thwarted by such a novice jutsu and started firing at the girl as she ran around the room. Chunks of the walls were blasted away and many of the spectators up on the balcony were having to shield themselves from bits of stone.

"This guy is crazy!" Naruto shouted over the roar of the wind. "Can't someone stop the match?!"

Ino, however, was doing her best to keep watching the floor through squinted eyes. The destruction was getting pretty bad and Sakura couldn't keep dodging forever. "Sakura!" she called out, "Stop this guy already!"

To her surprise, the pink-haired kunoichi abruptly reversed direction and ran up the side of the room to dodge one of the blasts. As Sakura hit the balcony, she landed on the railing and managed to give her rival a smirk before leaping into the air as the next blast blew the railing away. Ino gasped not only at being blown backwards by the air but also at Sakura's decision to jump for it. She couldn't dodge in the air!

"Dumb move!" Zaku shouted as he trained his hands on his opponent. "Full Power Zankuha!" The blast itself was like a cannon going off and Hayate was ready to jump in and stop the match as the visible wave of pressure headed towards Sakura. He caught himself, though, when a brief flash of smoke appeared around Sakura right as the wave hit.

Up in the rafters, the Sound Four were hanging on for dear life to the anchored pipes they had been sitting on. "Damn that fucking shit head!" Tayuya cursed as she struggled to hold onto both the remote and her perch, "I'll skin him myself if someone else doesn't!" She also wished she had an extra set of arms like Kidomaru and Sakon. Freaking lucky mutants. The poor girl started cursing again as large chunks of ceiling started to come down around her.

Back on the ground, Zaku was breathing a little harder after such a titanic blast but, he was smug. There was no way in hell Sakura could have dodged that one and he was just scanning the room to find a pink stain under some piece of rock. The Konoha-nin were glaring at him something fierce but so what? Not like he cared if this place was trashed. "Hey ref, help me find her corpse," he laughed.

"What a pathetic attack," Temari sighed as she brushed bits of rubble out of her hair. "He didn't even bring down the roof," she sighed. Well, not everyone could be such a bitching wind user so she could let it slip.

Kankuro was less than happy as he rubbed a lump on his head. "Doesn't matter, it was complete overkill for someone of that girl's level. Look at my head! I have to repaint my face thanks to all this dust!"

Safely inside his little shroud of sand, Gaara cast his eyes among the rubble littering the ring. "Kankuro, be quiet," he lazily ordered. "You're making yourself look even more pathetic than usual. Look down at the ring before you start calling the match."

Unbelievingly, Kankuro followed his brother's eyes and scoffed in disbelief. "How the hell does that little girl keep upright with that thing?" he wondered. Of course, Temari carried around a slab of metal too, but still. Crazy women and giant weapons. Talk about penis envy...

Zaku was still arguing with Hayate to call the match when the examiner finally got tired of the boy's annoying mouth and leapt back away from him. Initially confused, the Oto-nin soon found out the reason as he was forced to dodge yet another sneak attack. It wasn't the same, though, as looking back at the enormous sword now cleaved into the solid stone he had just been standing on sent a cold chill down the boy's spine.

With a grunt of effort, Sakura freed the Kubikiri Houcho from the floor and heaved it onto her shoulder. It was taking a lot of effort simply to stand upright but the image should be enough to rattle Zaku's cage. "What's wrong? Don't want to continue?" she asked when the boy studied her in disbelief from across the room. Her baggy pants were torn and dirty and her fishnet shirt was ripped in a few placed but other than that she looked no worse for the ware.

Ino had to grin at the show her rival was putting on and at the faces her fellow Genin were making. Even Naruto looked shocked beyond words while Asuma looked like he had just laid an egg. "What the hell did Kakashi do to her?" Ino heard him mumble to Kurenai.

"That's his sword," Sasuke commented to Neji and Kakashi in confusion. "I thought Sakura buried it with Zabuza and Haku. She kept it all this time?"

That caught Ino's attention. "Haku? What do you mean bury?" she asked. Haku was alive and well...somewhere. "Did he die in the exams?!" she demanded, walking right over to Team Seven.

Kakashi scratched his head and wondered just how to get out of this one. This was going to be tricky and require an unshakable amount of coolness, tact, and trickery...

"Are you an idiot? Haku died in Wave Country with Zabuza, the missing-nin who Sakura got that sword from," Neji bluntly stated. At Ino's confused expression, he sighed and began retelling the mission in detail.

...or someone could come right out and say it. That would work too, Kakashi mused. Although he was glad it was Neji that did it so he could avoid the wrath of Sakura when she found out. Of course, judging by the ever-increasing killing intent coming off of Ino, the Jounin wondered if Sakura would be in any shape to take vengeance.

Zaku shifted slightly on his feet. This was...well, it wasn't bad, he wouldn't admit that it was bad, but the situation had just gotteninteresting. He should have guessed that this kunoichi would have some kind of trump card she wasn't showing based on how rudamentery her jutsu was. "I bet you can't hold that thing up much longer," he stated, streaching out his hands. "Doesn't matter, I'll just blow it away! Zankuha!"

Sakura quickly wedged the blade into the cracked stone of the ring and stood behind it as the blast overtook her position. Just like before, the sword absorbed and diverted the wind, acting as a nice shield with little physical effort on her behalf. This was one of the styles she had come up with while recovering from her fight with Ino; large-scale shielding with the Kubikiri Houcho. As the debris flew by, Sakura picked a small rock out of the air and formulated a plan.

Eventually, Zaku's chakra started to wane and he was forced to cut the pressure. The second he did, Sakura ran from behind the zanbato

as fast as her legs could carry her. Already Zaku was leaping into the air to recover but Sakura followed him up. When she completly lifted off the ground, the Oto Genin smirked and aimed his palms at her, relishing the success of his little feint. However, that happiness soon turned back into frustration as he watched his opponent turn into that damned sword as the wind hit her. This girl was annoyingly good at Kawarimi no Jutsu.

"Damn you, stay still!" Zaku shouted as he watched the zanbato fly wildly in the violent winds he produced. It ended up nearly skewering Choji up on the balcony and even cut through his trademark bag of chips. "Come out and fight you bi-" Zaku's rant was rudely interrupted when a small chunk of ceiling careened into his head, stopping his attack along with making his brain ring inside his skull. Zaku was so rattled by the sudden attack that he couldn't control his landing and ended up falling into a pile of rubble.

Sakura hopped over the large piece of stone she had been using for cover and made her way over to the battered Genin. Nearly out of chakra, Zaku forced himself to his feet and took a taijutsu stance although it was obvious he was still off-balance. "How did you hit me?!" he demanded. His anger only increased when the girl smiled condecindingly at him.

"You haven't figured it out?" Sakura asked as she cracked her knuckles. "I knew you were good at sensing a difference of air pressure before an attack so I just waited until you made the air so unstable that a small thing like a rock couldn't be noticed over the currents you were creating. You're lucky I didn't use a kunai."

With a feral yell, Zaku launched himself at the cause of his embarassment. To his growing horror, his fists only met air as Sakura dodged like he was nothing but an annoyance. Frustrated beyond belief, he lashed out with his feet, trying anything to throw the other Genin off her game. Instead of dodging the foot, Sakura caught the leg with a grunt and wrapped her arm around it. Using the last bit of her strength, Sakura heaved Zaku up into the air and slammed him into the nearest solid surface. All those days spent swinging around her zanbato weren't so useless after all.

Hayate winced as Zaku hit the wall with a sickening thud. That little girl had a good bit of power in her if she could slam someone her own size into a wall by his leg. When Zaku didn't get up after a few moments, the Jounin knew the match was over. "Winner, Haruno Sakura!"

Stunned, Sakura could only blink in amazement. She had won? Her breathing hitched as she heard a few claps coming from the podium. Some of the minor Chuunin that were already clearing the ring were obviously impressed and even the Hokage was smiling! Too bad about his hat, though.

With a definite spring in her step, Sakura thanked the ref and started back up to her team. As she passed Team Ten, Asuma grinned and handed back her zanbato while Choji was still shaking over in the corner. Ino, though, wasn't with her team and Sakura spotted her over by Sasuke and Neji.

Kakashi chuckled at his student's match. This was the first time he had seen just what Sakura had come up with while she was in the hospital. A style that used the sword more as a tool than a weapon, pretty clever. However, when he glanced at Ino the Jounin had to wonder just how much of a dampener she would put on Sakura's victory. His worry came for nothing, surprisingly, as Ino rushed up to Sakura and wrapped her in a tight embrace that seemed to shock the pink-haired girl almost as much as everyone else.

"Good job, forehead girl!" Ino...squeeled? Oh yeah, something was wrong, Sakura told herself. Still, she had to admit it was nice to be held like this...maybe a bit too nice. Startled at the thought, Sakura wiggled her way out of the glomp.

"Th-thanks Ino," Sakura managed to reply despite her embarassment. "It wasn't that hard..."

Ino smiled back with as much sincerity as she could currently muster. That's it, lull Sakura into a false sense of security and then spring it on her! 'Twas a brilliant plan and Ino congradulated herself on thinking it up on such short notice. So, Sakura thought she could get some kicks from messing around with her feelings like she had been the last few days, huh? Forehead girl was going to find out just how far a Yamanaka would go in getting even. 'Get all cozy with me, will she?' Ino thought to herself. 'I bet she really thought a lot of herself after she tricked me like that! Probably had a good laugh about it.' Well, if Sakura wanted to see how far she could take it then fine, turning the tables it is. Just as soon as Sakura tried to pull that henge trick again the war would commence.

Back up on the rafters, the Sound Four were just finishing up strenghtening their seal. That last little wind jolt had taken out one of the anchors. Nothing too serious, but it would require a bit of work to fix so that the entire jutsu didn't collapse. Conversation, though, obviously wasn't too distracting from the process.

"I can't believe that little girl won," Kidomaru mumbled. He had really wanted to see her get aquished. "Damn Zaku couldn't even kill a Genin. No wonder he was picked for the exam, he wouldn't have to hold back any."

Tayuya had to agree, but that Sakura girl had put on a bit of a show herself. Of course, Kidomaru probably had something nasty already planed out to finish the girl off so it wasn't a big deal. She might have to remind him and keep him focused, though. As an afterthought, the redhead glanced down at Orochimaru, expecting to see him somewhat upset. Instead, what Tayuya saw surprised her enough that she didn't notice Sakon sneak the remote out from under a rock and start typing.

"Kabuto, make a note of that girl," the Sannin stated with a small smirk. A kunoichi with talent, what a rare thing. Orochimaru would have to see if she would make a decent candidate for something more useful in the near future. After all, his own forces were sure to be depleated in a few days.

The undercover Oto-nin shrugged and took out Sakura's nin-card. A few pokes of chakra and it was overridden, the perfect reminder when they started to weed people out. Kabuto could tell why Orochimaru would be interested in the girl but he didn't think she was note-worthy. Zaku was only an idiot, after all. Still, slap a seal on the girl and she might be worth something should she survive. Speaking of the battles, those matches were getting pretty weird. It was almost as if someone were rigging them...nah.

Back up on the balcony overlooking the ring, Asuma lit up a cigarette. Well, that wasn't too bad of a fight. Like Kurenai and the majority of Konoha Chuunin, he wondered just what Kakashi had done for Sakura to get her up to that level. The former ANBU Captain used to be well-known for his strict training regiments and flawless mission record but those days were long past, or so he had thought. Well, maybe it was exaggerated considering how much Sakura had improved in just one short year.

The electronic beeping of the randomizer caught the Jounin's attention and he let out a large cloud of smoke. "Ino, heads up," he called out. The young girl stopped talking to Sakura to look up and she grinned. That wasn't good for whoever was fighting her. Asuma noticed something brewing underneath the manic personality his student usually sported and it made him shiver. A plotting Yamanaka was never a good thing.

"Finally!" Ino happily sighed as she bounded down to the ring. Normally she wouldn't want to fight in such a limited fashion, but this was a very special case. Something she'd been looking forward to since the academy. "I'm going to show you how to fight, Forehead-Girl," she called out, much to the chagrin of her opponent who had joined her at the ring.

Kiba literally growled at the kunoichi as she jovially waved back to her friends. "You think you're hot shit now, huh?" he asked. The Inuzuka was beyond pissed at not getting to fight Naruto. Still, Naruto had helped Ino at the academy so it would kinda be the same thing. "I don't even need Akamaru for this, you're just a woman after all." Behind him, he could literally feel Hinata glaring at him. Shit. Didn't she threaten to "snip snip" the next time he said something sexist? Kiba had to force himself not to whimper at the very thought. Maybe if he took out Ino quick enough Hinata would forget about it...worth a shot.

"Inuzuka Kiba vs. Yamanaka Ino...begin!" Hayate called out as he let the match get underway.

Kiba instantly rushed towards Ino, hoping to end the fight with one punch. It was just Ino no matter how smug she looked. It was a shock, then, when Ino's hair grabbed his fist just as it approached her face. With a deft twist of her head, Kiba was flipped over onto his back several feet away and left to wonder just what the hell had happened to him. When he jumped back to his feet, he saw just exactly he had run into.

"Is Ino's hair...alive?" Sakura asked aloud. It sure looked that way. Even though they had gotten into it a few days ago, as the constantly-itchy scar on her throat reminded her, Ino hadn't used her hair this much. This was The kunoichi's ponytail was whipping around her head like a snake, snapping this way and that.

Naruto, who was standing near Team Seven with Lee and Tenten, blinked at Ino's improvement. Last time they had sparred the Yamanaka couldn't control her hair to this degree. "She's threading her chakra through her hair itself," he replied to Sakura. "I didn't think she had that kind of control." Although Sakura didn't like being informed of something by her least-favorite person, she was too enthralled with Ino to listen. That is to say, enthralled by Ino'smatch. Yes, the match.

"Well, biscuit? Is that all you got?" Ino asked, standing quite loosely with her arms folded. It was an easy way to goad someone into attacking and getting into her range. Knowing Kiba, he couldn't be able to resist it. As par for course, the Genin snarled and charged yet again.

Ino's hand deflected the first punch as her hair lanced out and cut a thin line on Kiba's cheek. When he grabbed a fist-full of the golden locks, the kunoichi's knee came up and nearly neutered him in the most unpleasant of ways. Again he was forced to withdraw from close combat and he somersaulted backwards a few meters. It was like fighting someone with an extra set of limbs armed with swords.

Finally, Kiba decided to play things a bit smarter than usual. "Akamaru! Let's get her!" he called out. The small dog rushed over from the sidelines and yapped happily at getting to have a little fun. "You ready? Let's go! Shikyaku no Jutsu!"

'That's Naruto's jutsu!' Ino thought, shocked. The speed that Kiba came at her was enough to allow him to slip through her defenses and land a solid hit in her gut, sending her skidding backwards. It took everything to just stay on her feet. From the side, Akamaru came in and nearly latched onto Ino's arm but the kunoichi's hair snaked out and wrapped around the canine's waist, flinging him across the ring. When Kiba rushed to catch him, Ino caught her breath. That attack had been at a level above what Naruto could manage with the same jutsu, it would seem.

Rushing to the side, Ino tried to flank Kiba while he was looking over Akamaru. Only after she was committed to the attack did she see the small dog swallow a little red pill. When Akamaru's fur turned bright red, she could feel the chakra rolling off of the dog. When the animal launched himself at Ino mid-swing, he finally hit paydirt and latched onto Ino's arm. The girl recoiled at the pain and punched the dog in the skull. It made Akamaru let go, but split her attention away from Kiba who landed another violent hit, this time sending Ino rolling along the ground like a rag doll.

"Yahoo! That all you got, girly?" Kiba cawed, looking mighty pleased with himself. "Time to finish this, come on Akamaru! Juujin Bunshin no Jutsu!" The little dog leapt up onto Kiba's back and both transformed into identical, but feral, Genin.

Ino's eyes narrowed as she took a good look at her new opponents. With that soldier pill, Akamaru probably had as much chakra as Kiba for a few hours so instead of one pissed Kiba she now had to fight two. Perfect. "I didn't want to show everything I had here, but you're making me do it, dog breath!" the girl snarled. Lowering her arms, she made a strange seal with her hands and her hair erupted from it's neat ponytail into a wild visage of tangled threads. "Heapou: Heki Sukin!"

More than a few eyebrows were raised when Ino's hair snapped into place on her arms and neck like golden armor. The long strands were more than enough to cover her face, neck, torso, and arms in a sheet of living armor. Kiba, although wary, charged in together with Akamaru, his claws extended. When he connected, he let out a loud cheer that soon turned into a cry of pain. His nails had not penetrated the sheet of hair on Ino's shoulder and now a strand of hair was skewering his hand through the palm while more was slowly creeping up his arm.

"What the hell is this?!" he shouted as he tried to rip his arm away. Despite the pain he must have been feeling, Kiba was still determined to escape even if his skin was starting to stretch and be cut. He tried to hit Ino with his free fist but this too was caught in the maw of hair covering the girl's face.

Ino laughed under her golden mane. "Idiot, I can run chakra through my hair," she stated as if she were talking to a child. "Of course you're going to get caught by it. Give up or be smothered!"

Akamaru took a look at his master's predicament and rushed to help. He tackled Kiba hard and managed to rip the poor boy away from Ino's trap but not without serious damage being done to Kiba's arm which was half-way snared. It was hanging limply at his side and his palm was tore to shreds. However, Kiba's fighting spirit didn't seem to diminish in the least as his face was a visage of pure fury.

"That's it, bitch!" Kiba snarled. "Come on, Akamaru! We're getting serious! Gatsuuga!" Despite his injuries, the Inuzuka managed to launch himself into the air along with Akamaru. The twin cyclones snaked around the ring at a break-neck pace and Ino found herself caught between the swirling maws of death. She just managed to roll to the side as the ground where she was formally standing became rubble.

There was just no way to fight them both at the same time, especially since they stayed far out of range of her hair. The obvious answer to her problem is to cut the numbers. To that end, Ino made a mad dash towards the wall of the stage and started running vertical. As expected, Kiba and Akamaru had to either come in from the side or ahead since the balcony was above and the floor below. When they started towards her, Ino started pumping large amounts of her remaining chakra into her hair and raised her open palms to take the impact. "Heapou: GenzonTate!" Her hair retreated back from her waist and arms to form a half-shell between her outstretched hands. Perfectly symmetrical, it left no edges for Kiba's claws to catch on. When the two hit the shell, they both slid along the shield and ran into one another before they could stop themselves.

Kiba rolled along the ground with various grunts and yelps while Akamaru hit the ground hard below Ino. The puppy was still breathing but between his own Gatsuuga and Kiba's, his body was cut up like a butcher's chopping block. Out of chakra, Ino dropped from the wall onto shaky feet. Her hair was now limply hanging down her back but at least that mutt was out of the way and Kiba didn't look in too good of shape. The Genzon Tate was only as strong as how much chakra was pumped into it, after all. Making a shield of that size and strength was taxing enough; if Kiba managed to get back to his feet there wouldn't be much left she could do in way of jutsu so there was only one thing to do.

Something was definitely broken, Kiba imagined as he pushed himself up with his only good arm. It felt like either his hand or a few fingers, maybe his nose. He smelled Akamaru on the other side of the room, probably coated with blood based on how thick the smell of it was. And...oh great, Ino was still up and mobile. Kiba tried to push himself up onto his feet but a sandaled foot roughly kicked his good arm and sent him sprawling again.

"It's over, Kiba," Ino stated, struggling to keep the strain out of her voice. Luckily, Kiba had his eyes closed or else he would have seen Ino's hand shaking as she fought to keep a steady grip on her kunai. The chakra pathways in her hands were fried and Ino knew it would take a few days to get them straightened out again. To keep the blade steady, she rested it on the fallen Genin's neck. There was little doubt in her mind that if Kiba decided to try and disarm her he would win.

The Inuzuka stiffened when he felt the steel on his skin. If he tried to move, Ino could easily kill him. His arm was busted up and his face was far too bloody from crashing into Akamaru's Gatsuuga to see. Ino's voice sounded tired, but hard. She just might do it. "Damn it," he cursed and Ino pressed the blade into his skin just a little more. "I...I...give up," Kiba finally sighed as his body went limp with defeat.

"Winner, Yamanaka Ino!" Hayate's sudden outcry sent Ino falling backwards in shock. The sickly Jounin was a sneaky one, that was for sure.

The young kunoichi leaned back with a sigh and rolled her neck, cracking several joints in the process. Kiba had put up a fight, that was for sure. "Hey, Biscuit," she called out, tapping the boy with her foot, "You caused me a lot of problems, you know? I didn't want to show any jutsu!"

Kiba chuckled into the dusty floor. "You're a pushy bitch, you knowthat? Complaining at me when I'm like this. I'll get you back when I heal up," he promised. The medics were already out on the floor with Akamaru while Kiba struggled to sit up and get onto the stretcher provided. At the very least he'd get onto it under his own power.

"Man, Ino's going to be even more troublesome now that she's won," Shikamaru sighed as he watched Kiba and the medics clear the floor. Honestly, he hadn't expected Ino to win, not that he'd ever tell her that. Kiba was one of the people to beat in this exam and to be taken out in the prelims was a feat to be sure. Looking at Asuma, Shikamaru could tell the man was smug in the fact that one of his students had surprised everyone else so much. Oh well, the old guy was entitled to a little gloating. That line of thinking was probably what kept Kurenai from launching herself at Asuma. He was sending quite a few smug looks her way.

Hayate sighed at how bloody the exam was getting. These kids were tearing each other up and it was only a month before the main exams. If one of them got seriously hurt winning and couldn't compete, then what would they do? As he was mulling this over, a technician shuffled over with a tiny bit of good news. The randomizer was fixed, it seems. "Good work," he told the nerdy man. Hey, wait, did he just hear someone cursing from above? Nah, probably nothing.

In the rafters, Tayuya was cursing a certain ninja info card-wielding egghead and his defective equipment. What, it could work after getting a rock smashed into it? What a piece of shit!

...yeah, definitely his imagination. "Ahem, the fifth preliminary match will now begin! The contestants are...Aburame Shino and Sabaku no Temari! Contestants to the ring."

Ino walked up the stairs as Shino and Temari squared-off. It was sure to be an interesting match, but bug boy didn't look to be in the best of shape. Hell, half his coat was burnt off. 'Wonder how that happened?' the kunoichi mused.

"Good match, Ino," Sakura complimented. Her voice was so quiet that the tired Yamanaka almost didn't hear her. However, in line with the plan to get back at Sakura for tricking her, Ino forced a smile and leaned on the nearby rail to speak with her pink-haired rival.

"Ah, it was nothing too bad. Just used up too much chakra," Ino said, dismissing of Kiba's performance. In all, it had been a pretty bad slug-fest. Her face was puffed up quite a lot and she was certain her right eye was black. At least her retina hadn't ruptured. "Dog Biscuit talks a better game than anything." She poignantly ignored the blank looks of her team as she double-checked the stitches on her neck. That one hit Kiba had gotten in had busted a few...nothing a medic couldn't fix later, though.

A sharp blast of wind interrupted the conversation and Ino looked over her shoulder at the fight. Shino's bugs were chasing the buff-looking kunoichi all around the ring but when they would almost get close enough to catch her, Temari would blast them away with her fan. "Bad match for Shino," Sakura commented and Ino had to agree. "He looks pretty rough before the match even started, though. I wonder what happened."

A few feet away, Naruto stifled a chuckle. Of course, it drew most everyone's attention and the blond rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed. "Nothing, nothing! Honest!" he defended. The smile on his face gave him away, though.

"Yeah? Your lying, Naruto," Ino accused. "You know something..."

At fist, the other Genin wasn't going to answer but when Kurenai pinned him with her freaky eyes he cracked. Not like anyone could stand up to those freaky eyes. Spooky. "It's really not anything big, I just ran into his team in the forest," Naruto admitted. "Burnt up a few of Shino's bugs and mayberoughed-up Kiba a little."

Kurenai rolled her eyes and glared at Gai. The other Jounin, as youthful as he was, made a point to look anywhere but at the annoyed kunoichi. Not even he was crazy enough to get on the genjutsu master's bad side. "So that's why Hinata was so upset," Kurenai sighed. "Still, she said something about you using 'cheap tricks' to get away. Do you know what she was talking about, Naruto-kun?"

The young boy visibly flinched and everyone's eyebrows ticked upwards. However, Kakashi came to the rescue and ruffled his nephew's hair with a smile. "It was that new jutsu you were working on, right? It's pretty sneaky."

Still not convinced, but not willing to push the point, Kurenai turned her attention back to her student's fight and let Naruto off the hook...for the moment. That was enough for Naruto as he relaxed a bit after sending his uncle a thankful glance. Gai, however, was another story entirely.

"Yosh! A new technique! You shall have to demonstrate it in your match, perhaps against the youthful Lee!" he exclaimed. Lee nodded enthusiastically and pumped his fists in unison with his teacher while Tenten looked ready to crawl into a hole in the wall. How very embarrassing.

"Y-yeah, sure. I'll show you guys my...wonderfully sneaky technique in my match," Naruto stated. He hoped that Gai would be somewhat appeased and maybe even forget about the entire thing. Probably wasn't that lucky, though.

There was a collective wince from all present when they heard a loud thud below them. A quick check confirmed that it was Shino who was now being scrapped off of the wall by medics. Apparently Temari had finally caught him with one of her blasts. Now there was a nice Shino-shaped indention in the wall to add to all the other damage. At least it was a cool indention.

Hinata frowned at the sad display her teammates had shown. First Kiba loses to Yamanaka Ino of all people and now Shino lost to some foreign kunoichi. What did that say about her leadership abilities? Well, the battles were one on one so it's not like she had direct control over the action. Still, it was a bitter pill to swallow. The Hyuuga heiress gripped the railing as she watched the medics carry Shino away. The only thing left to do was to win her own match with overwhelming superiority. It was the only way to restore some semblance of honor to Team Eight.

"We will now begin the sixth match!" Hayate called out. With the randomizer working correctly the matches can proceed normally. The computer started to randomize from the remaining names before two more came up. Finally, a nice, quiet match. "Ama Tenten vs. Sabaku no Kankuro! Contestants to the ring."

Tenten rolled her arms and stretched a bit. Not exactly the best match, but it would be a decent enough workout. "I'm off, guys," the kunoichi stated as she walked away. The blunt way Tenten had said her goodbye made Gai sigh.

Naruto noticed his teacher's mood and quietly inquired, "Gai-sensei, what's wrong? You haven't been as loud as usual today."

The Jounin scratched his head and debated whether or not to put on a fake smile. No point, he imagined, as Naruto was a perspective student. "Tenten has been acting detached," he admitted only as loud as needed. It was a strange thing to hear Gai being so subdued. "You've noticed, right? I don't know what's wrong with her."

With a contemplative hum, Naruto nodded at his teacher and headed aver his teammate. Tenten was already off the stairs when he caught up.

"Tenten! Wait up a second!" he called out. The kunoichi paused and regarded the blond for a moment as he ran up to her. When it became obvious she was waiting on him to speak first, Naruto said, "I didn't get to tell you something. Don't lose."

The girl chuckled at the blunt statement, ignoring the impatient look Hayate was giving her. "That's it? I'm not going to lose, come on!"

Naruto laughed along with her. "I know I don't have to say it, but I guess I want to see how good you've gotten," he admitted before getting sheepish. "Heh, we've all been a little secretive with our training, you know? Team Two is the best team with the best people! We have to give everyone a good show if we're matched up. Wipe the floor with this guy!"

To say that Tenten was stunned would be a mild description. Speechless would be more accurate. Naruto grinned at her surprise and walked back up to the rest of Team Two. Before he could get too far, though, Tenten came to her senses. "I want to see what I can do against people like you and Lee!" she called out. "I'll prove that our Team only has the best in it!"

Lee let out a cheer at the sudden flurry of youthfulness and Gai did his signature thumbs up. The other teams mostly had only strange stares to pass along, but the resolve in Team Two was unshakable. Without burden, Tenten turned to her opponent with nothing but pure confidence. "Fair warning, you're going to lose," she told the strange Suna-nin standing opposite of her.

For his part, Kankuro was content to simply let all the dramatics get out of the way. Temari had won her match and Gaara was a guaranteed thing so he couldn't fail here. The mission called for as many agents to get into the competition as possible. Orochimaru's group didn't look to be in very good condition so it would be up to Suna. As he directed Karasu to place him on the floor, Kankuro wondered just what kind of specialty this girl had. She didn't seem too remarkable.

"The sixth match of the Chuunin preliminaries will now commence," Hayate informed the room. "Contestants...begin!"

Tenten immediately leapt backwards as she unleashed a hail of kunai at the Suna-nin. Lucky for Kankuro all of the projectiles were aimed at Karasu rather than himself, but it told him a few things. This girl was obviously a long-range fighter so she shouldn't be too good at taijutsu. While Kankuro himself wasn't the best hand-to-hand fighter, his direction of Karasu would work to his advantage. The puppet easily deflected the kunai with little damage so hopefully the girl would assume that he was a close-range type that wore armor.

The next barrage came from above and Karasu dodged to the side, away from Kankuro. The puppet charged in towards Tenten and the lithe kunoichi dodged a punch aimed at her skull. How the hell was this guy so fast, she wondered. Still, he was probably a taijutsu-type despite how pudgy he looked. No problem, Tenten thought with a smirk. When the Suna-nin came in once again, Tenten weaved around the kick and swept out his legs. Taijutsu wasn't her best forte' but being in Team Two had really drove the point home that she needed it. Also, how could a future Hokage not be good at everything?

Karasu almost didn't get vertical fast enough to dodge the spear aimed at his shoulder. From his forgotten position on the floor wrapped up like a mummy, Kankuro watched Tenten discard the scroll she had just summoned her weapon from. What was it with this village and weapons? Judging from just how many scrolls he saw in Tenten's pouch, he was in for a long fight if he simply waited for her to run out of tools. Basing how much she was pushing his puppet around, Kankuro knew that Karasu would break or be discovered before that happened. Well, there were still a few tricks to deal with her.

Tenten grunted with effort as another spear thrust was blocked by this crazy guy's arm. It was like the force wasn't even bothering him. Some sort of pain-suppressing pill or excellent armor, probably. Regardless, a clean hit on the face, neck, or torso would put him down. Firstly, his movement would have to be restricted. Suddenly backpedaling, Tenten tossed her spear at the Suna-nin. As expected, he swatted it away but he didn't catch the thin wire Tenten had attached. As it wedged itself in the floor several feet away, the kunoichi started running in circles to wrap the ninja up.

The first signs of trouble for Kankuro came from the sluggish response he was getting from his puppet. Being so far away, he couldn't see the thin wires that were now blocking its movement but the fact that he was having trouble was a sign enough that things were bad. Tenten pulled taunt just in time to catch the puppet before it could leap upwards to avoid the attack, binding it to the ground.

"Got you," the kunoichi declared with a smile. That wasn't too bad, actually. She pulled out kunai and walked up to the bound puppet. "You better give up before your struggling makes those wires start to cut."

'Big mistake,' Kankuro mused as he twitched one of his fingers. It would give him away, but so what. Karasu's head snapped backwards, much to Tenten's abject shock, and erupted in a cloud of purple gas. The cloud overtook her before she could escape and she inhaled some of the poison.

"A damn puppet?!" Tenten exclaimed once she would out of the cloud. She frantically looked around the ring for anything the puppeteer could hide behind until her eyes fell on the still-wrapped thing laying on the floor. "That means that...there you are!"

Kankuro frantically rolled as a hail of weapons peppered his position. Cutting the strings to Karasu, he darted out of his wrappings and ran for all his worth. Winning depended on dodging this girl long enough for the poison to set in. However, she hadn't taken in as much of the cloud as he had hopped so things didn't look too good. When a kunai caught him in the back of the knee, his running was over.

After ripping out the weapon, Kankuro rolled over to find an irate Tenten standing over him with a kunai to his throat. She was sweating profusely, likely from the poison setting in, but she could still kill him before that happened. "H-hey! If you kill me, you won't get the antidote!" Kankuro reasoned. When Tenten drew back a bit, he pushed his luck farther. "Give up and I'll give it to you. Kill me and you die. Simple as that."

The Suna-nin let out a small chuckle when Tenten drew back. "That's more like it," he sighed as he got back to his feet. The wound in his leg was shallow and would probably heal before the main event matches. Perfect. "Now, call that examiner over here and I'll-"

Tenten's fist roughly cut the other Genin off. Kankuro's head snapped back almost as much as his puppets before he hit the ground and skidded a few feet before coming to rest. He fought to lift his head off the ground and practically snarled, "What the hell?! Do you want to die?"

"I can't...lose now!" Tenten responded, nearly falling over herself. She was hunched over and breathing heavily but the fire in her eyes was burning bright. Defiance, pride, and rage were all mixed into one furious expression. "If I give up because of some second-rate poison, I'll never be the things I want to be! I can't let someone like you blemish me." Kankuro obviously had more to say on the matter but Tenten's foot cut him off.

Hayate walked over and checked the Suna-nin. As expected, he was out cold. Tenten had won, but at what price the Jounin wondered. "Winner of the sixth match, Ama Tenten!"

Most of the cheers were coming from her team, but Tenten didn't care. She relished the feeling of actual accomplishment for a moment before starting to stagger towards the medic bay under the stairs. Until she hit those doors, though, she held her head up and walked as steadily as possible.

From the podium, the Hokage watched Tenten collapse as soon as the eyes of the spectators on the balcony were blocked. "A true shinobi of Konoha," he mumbled to himself. Behind him, Anko was inclined to agree.

"I know what kind of poison that was, Hokage-sama," Anko stated. "I'll go make sure the medics give her the right one."

The elderly man puffed his pipe a bit before nodding. "After you do that, you're dismissed. Feel free to join Kakashi and Naruto up on the balcony. His match will probably come up soon."

Anko gave the Hokage a lopsided smile before hopping off the stage. Hayate was just calling out the next match as she passed him but it wasn't going to be very interesting in her opinion.

"The seventh match of the Chuunin preliminaries will now begin!" the Jounin called out. "Hyuuga Neji vs. Akimichi Choji!" Poor Choji, Ino was already dragging him down to the floor.

As the match was trying to get underway, Choji was surprisingly good at holding onto the railing, Naruto wandered down to the medical bay. He knew he should probably watch Neji fight in order to deal with Hinata later on but Tenten had been in rough shape. When he saw Anko coming as well, he fell in beside his favorite Jounin.

"Hebi-chan, what are you doing?" he asked. "Don't you have...examiner stuff or something?" Not that he was complaining. Any chance to see Anko was a good one. She seemed to be in a decent mood, as well, which was always a plus.

The Special Jounin glanced at her unofficial student with blank eyes. Her fight with Orochimaru had opened doors that she had firmly shut over a year ago during their little escapade with Uchiha Itachi and she was in no way wanting to go to that place again. What was more, the Snake Sannin was probably still lurking around somewhere and since he had spies in the village, getting too close to Naruto would put him in danger.

Instead of directly responding, Anko rummaged through her coat and pulled out a small vial of liquid. "Hey, give this to the medics in there, brat. It's for Tenten's condition," she ordered before turning to walk up the stairs. Naruto called after her but she merely waved to him over her shoulder, much to his aggravation. Every time he would gain an inch with Anko lately she would step back a yard.

Sighing at his misfortune when it came to the fairer sex, but still wanting to make sure his teammate was alright, Naruto continued on to the medical wing alone. Behind him he could hear Neji winding up some sort of speech about destiny so Naruto figured he would have a few minutes before the fight was over. It had to be a required trait to be long-winded when you were a Hyuuga.

As expected, Tenten was conked-out on one of the medical cots. There was a fair amount of blood around that Naruto guessed belonged to Kiba. The faint smell of dog gave it away. There was a medic looking through a chart beside her, but other than that they were pretty much alone.

"Hey," Naruto called out to the short medic-nin, "Anko-sama told me to give this to you for Tenten."

The short man looked over the vial and probed it with a scanning jutsu. "Ah, the antidote. We were having trouble pinning down what poison was used. Mitarashi Anko gave you this? She would know about it, then." The correct dosage was soon dolled out and Tenten regained a little color in her cheeks. "She just needs some rest now. I can give you a few minutes before we take her to the hospital." With that, the medic excused himself while Naruto thanked him.

Tenten stirred a bit in response to Naruto's footsteps getting closer. "Hey," she said as her eyes fluttered open. "What the hell was in that cloud, huh?"

Naruto lopsidedly smiled at the question and leaned up against the wall beside Tenten's bedside. "Yeah, lucky that Hebi-chan had an antidote for you."

There was a slight pause from Tenten before she responded, "Anko had an antidote? I guess I should thank her when I get out of here." It was no secret that Tenten had taken a dislike to Anko over the years. The older woman never fit her idea of a model kunoichi. Still, Anko was always around for a good lesson and, as shown here, versed on some of the more advanced things to know.

"'re the first one in the finals, then. Pretty good!" Naruto praised. The Genin really didn't know what kind of mood Tenten would be in so he was treading lightly.

Tenten grunted as she propped herself up. That antidote was working fairly well and she didn't want to be bed-ridden any longer than necessary. When Naruto noticed, though, he put on a worried face. "Don't push yourself, the match is over. Relax some!" he said.

The kunoichi frowned as she fully sat up on her cot. "I can't relax, Naruto! The Hokage is watching, you know. I have to show him the best I have or I'll never advance to Chuunin." She was annoyed, really. Naruto had such a carefree attitude when it came to promotion. "Just why are you here, Naruto?" she finally sighed.

Surprised, Naruto stepped back from the cot. "What are you talking about? I'm here for the team and to have some fun," he responded.

"For fun," Tenten repeated to herself. "Why are you even a ninja, Naruto? You could have fun as a civilian!" With a little effort, the young girl got to her feet. Her joints were a little sore but all-in-all things were pretty good. "Naruto, if you're only here for us then you shouldn't be here. You don't take this calling seriously!"

The blond gave his teammate a level stare as she leaned up against the wall adjacent from him. He could hear Choji rolling around in the background, the match must be in full-swing then. But no, he didn't get to watch it. "Get to the point, Tenten! I have fun, so what? I'm here with you and Lee so what's the problem? I want to be here!"

"That's not the point!" Tenten responded back just as vehemently. "Whyare you here? I'm here to advance so I can be the first female Hokage one day. Lee's here to prove to everyone that he can be just as good as them. You? You're here to 'have fun' and help us. Isn't there anything else?" she asked. "It...I don't know...degrades the exams if the only reason you're here is because you had nothing better to do. You don't even take it seriously."

As much as he would have liked to deny it, Naruto couldn't find the words. Just some kind of rebuttal would be enough, some sort of counter-point. So what if he was only here because the rest of the team was? Kakashi had always said that teammates come first. Wasn't that enough?

A horrifying scream cut the conversation short and a few medics rushed past the two Genin. Naruto leaned back so he could look at the ring and immediately wished he didn't. The entire place had gained a red tint and the smell of blood was overwhelming. In the middle of the ring, the stoic Gaara was just beginning to walk away from a scowling Hayate. Oddly, while everyone else had at least a little blood on them, Gaara was clean.

"What is it?" Tenten asked as she walked over to Naruto so she could get a look. When she did, her reaction was much the same as her teammate's. "It was a bloodbath..." she said to herself. She looked away when the medics brought in what was left of Gaara's opponent. Even with the blanket over the body, both Genin recognized the crushed metal construct on the limp arm that was handing from the stretcher.

"He was that Oto-nin," Naruto stated. It was a member of the team Tayuya had told him to watch out for and he was mangled so badly? Just what the hell was Gaara? "Bet you're glad you got his teammate instead of him, huh?" he asked Tenten with a laugh.

The young girl didn't answer but instead took a deep breath and started walking past a confused Naruto. "If I have to fight him, I will," she stated before she was out of doorway. "See, that's what's different about us. I'd fight someone like Gaara for my dream. Lee would too, you know. Why would you fight him? For fun?" she asked. With a sigh, she shook her head and walked out of view. "I'll see you up on the balcony," were her final words her teammate heard.

Naruto stared off into the space Tenten had occupied long after she was gone. She didn't have a point...did she? No way Tenten would willingly fight something that could splatter her all over the place. Maybe Lee, but he was crazy like that.

'What does she know?' Naruto asked himself. Tenten had been the one pulling the least slack in the team recently. Always off training by herself, never giving her best in the missions, and never going out with the team to lunch or anything anymore. Then again, neither had Lee or Gai. Ever since Lee did that special Lotus training, he would always be off training, too.

Was that it? Was that what Tenten had meant, a lack of training? Naruto had trained for years to get to this point. Maybe...maybe that wasn't it. Tenten had said she was fighting for her dreams. Did Naruto have any dreams? Thinking about it, the only ones that came to mind were getting Anko to recognize him and having fun. "Is that all there is to my life?" Naruto wondered aloud. Lee was fighting to prove his existence and Tenten wanted to bring about real change. Was that so much better than wanting to be around his friends?

"No, Tenten's right...I could do that as a civilian," Naruto admitted. Darn her for bringing this up in the middle of the exam! There had to be more to it, there just had to be. When he thought about it, though, Naruto found he hadn't really worked hard to get where he was. His academy grades were average and he would never work on the things he didn't want to. That was probably why his taijutsu and genjutsu skills were sorely lacking. Just picking up flashy jutsu to look impressive and show off, basically. "Damn pathetic," Naruto snarled as he slammed his fist into the wall of the infirmary.

Hayate's voice cut through the cloud of anger fogging the boy's mind long enough for Naruto to recognize Lee's name being called. With his lips a grim line, the Uchiha walked to the hallway leading to the ring to watch his teammate's match. Naruto just wasn't ready to join the others up on the balcony.

Lee's opponent, one of Kabuto's teammates, strolled down the stairs. He was a strange one, Naruto noted. The Sharingan wasn't even needed for Naruto to tell that this Genin's movements were strange. More fluid, lithe, not used to being held in check for some reason. Still, despite whatever strange physical condition this guy had, Naruto knew his teammate would win. Indeed, as he jumped down from the railing amid shouts of encouragement from Gai, Lee looked confident. Was this what Tenten was talking about? Some kind of purpose for continuing on that he lacked?

As the opening blows started, Naruto couldn't help but compare the competition here to his own past fights. Sakura, Ino, Sasuke, and even Shikamaru looked driven; the latter even if he didn't show it during the match. What made them fight so hard? Ino had been his friend for over a year now and she didn't ever seem particularly motivated. Well, except when it came to training or Sasuke. She would be like Lee, then. Trying to show everyone what she could do and train to do so. Wasn't that what he was doing, Naruto wondered. Somehow, it didn't have the same ring to it.

The match was progressing quickly. Lee, not even bothering to take off his weights, was dominating his opponent. Misumi, as Naruto expected, was fighting by dislocating his bones and using them as a surprisingly-good grappling style. Unfortunately for him, Lee was much too fast to be caught. Misumi would probably only last another few minutes before his body couldn't take any more punishment. The confident look on Lee's face hadn't left yet, not even when a lucky hit would land. Smiling through the bruises, as it were.

"Is that because his purpose is driving him forward?" Naruto wondered. Wanting to be with friends and help them couldn't give Lee that kind of drive. No, only a real purpose could push someone that far.

All the thinking was starting to rattle Naruto's brain so the young Genin decided to just enjoy the fight and put all this destiny business on the back-burner for the time being. Somehow, Misumi managed to wrap his limbs around Lee's leg and the boy was doing his best to shake the creepy Genin off. It was kind of pathetic, really. Lee had both hands on the ground and a leg up in the air, shaking it madly. Finally, gravity and frantic shaking disrupted Misumi's hold on his opponent and he was sent up into the air. Naruto winced as Lee caught him with a devastating uppercut on the way down. It was a really good thing that the poor Genin didn't have many bones, at least his jaw would heal quicker.

'Who needs to fight with a purpose when all these guys suck?' Naruto wondered. Yeah, this wouldn't be too bad. If he could catch another Misumi there wouldn't be a problem at all. He could simply trounce him and move on. Now...who was left that hadn't fought yet...

"...This next mach should be good," Kurenai mused, trying to sound nonchalant. It didn't work, of course, as Kurenai had as much acting ability as Anko had patience. There was a reason she had studied so hard with genjutsu, after all.

"It'll be a bloodbath," Anko declared with a happy chirp. The joy with which she replied caused most of the Genin took a solid step away from the insane Jounin. "Oh come on, this exam has been lacking in blood and guts! That Gaara head job has the right idea!" the woman defended when she noticed a few of the looks.

Kakashi shuddered at how happy Anko was at the prospect of blood. "Anko...sometimes I really worry..." Kakashi started.

"About me?" she asked, cutting him off.

", about how much random crazy you can transfer to other people per hour. With you and the Suna team here, I think we might be overexposed." That little comedic gem earned Kakashi a solid punch in the head. Most everyone agreed with him, however, but they avoided saying as much. No one needed more injuries to add to the ones they already had.

Sadly, Anko's assault was interrupted by an impromptu visit by an unconscious Misumi. The poor Genin had been completely knocked out of the ring by Lee's last attack. Fortunately for him, though, Kakashi's head was there to break his fall. Anko sniffed and dusted her hands. She simply said, "Karma. It's a bitch," before rolling Misumi off of his landing pad.

The Jounin grumbled as he got back up, wincing when Gai started cheering right next to his ear. Loudly. "Gai, I think he can hear you even if you're not that loud."

"But we must cheer! The overwhelming youth from my team is threatening to devour this entire building with it's burning passion!" In Gai world, that made sense; everyone else simply took another collective step away from yet another crazy Jounin.

With that, Naruto stepped out of the shadows of the hallway and clapped for his friend. "Easy match, right?" he asked as Lee walked up to him. "Too bad you didn't get someone interesting."

Lee shook his head, happy as could be. "This was a great fight! My opponent put his all into the match and that's all that matters! I must go congratulate him, not mock!"

That was a shock to the other Genin. "What? He didn't stand a chance, though. Didn't you want to show-off a little? I know you and Gai-sensei were working on something special," Naruto pointed out. If it were him in that match, Naruto would have been upset with the pathetic showing that Misumi had presented.

"Naruto-kun, so long as both of us put our all into what we believe in, the match was a success," Lee stated in a rare quiet tone. "I fight to prove that I am a true ninja of Konoha, not to become the very thing I hated back in the Academy. Not...someone who only wants to impress others. I want Gai-sensei to be proud of me, but he's proud of me always! I'm proving my worth through my youthful spirit, not how badly I can beat my opponent. You know that, right?" Before Naruto could answer, Lee was called up to the balcony by an exuberant Tenten.

The young blond boy looked up at his team, friends, and family. Tenten was congratulating Lee on his match along with Gai; Naruto could feel her confidence and pride even from where he was standing. Lee was helping his battered opponent stand, much to Misumi's discomfort. The other Jounins were talking to each other in subdued voices and he could feel a few of their eyes lingering on him.

'Do they expect me to put on a show?' Naruto asked himself. As he scanned more and more of the crowd, he noticed most eyes on him. The other Genin were lined up on the railing, smiling and talking adamantly. 'Are they...waiting to be impressed? Like they were with Sasuke?' Was that it? Well, why not? He was the grandson of the Hokage, the person to go to if you wanted to witness good performance. "No, no...there's more to me than that," Naruto told himself, almost desperately.

Deep inside his psyche, something chuckled. Something dark, malevolent, and very interested in this line of thinking.

"And now, the last match of the Chuunin Exams!" Hayate's voice cut through the breakdown Naruto was having and the world went back into focus. Slowly, painfully, the young teen's eyes locked onto the randomizer which was blinking out the last thing he wanted to see. "Uzumaki Naruto vs. Hyuuga Hinata," Naruto whispered as Hayate announced it.

Somewhere off in the distance Naruto could hear his team shouting encouragement. Somewhere deep inside, some part of him cared. Not now, though. Not when so many things were still unresolved within.

Up on the balcony, Kakashi noticed that his nephew was fairly vacant as he slowly walked into the center of the ring. Something was definitely bothering him but no one seemed to notice...well, other than Gai and Anko. Gai looked about as concerned as Kakashi himself was while Anko's face was a grim mask of forced indifference. 'I wonder if she has an idea of what's wrong...' Kakashi mused. As he watched Hinata leap over the railing, the Jounin hoped that whatever was bothering his nephew would resolve itself quickly. If not, Naruto would be in for a rough fight. The Hyuuga genius wasn't someone to give a handicap to before the match even starts.

Naruto didn't bother looking up at the crowd. Even with his match glaring right in front of him, Naruto couldn't keep his mind on things. One of the odd things he did notice, the state of the ring, only caused another flurry of thought. 'All of this was done by people who put their lives on the line for the things they believe in,' he told himself. The will of fire, that his grandfather believed so fully in, was on grand display all around. 'What am I, though? The ego of fire?'

"You're ignoring me! Bad move!"

Naruto snapped back to reality just in time to get slammed in the stomach by an irate Hinata. While not packing much raw power, Naruto could feel a foreign chakra invading his system before he could feel nothing. On instinct, his body moved to block the follow-up and he leapt back to add some distance.

"Juuken," Naruto snarled once he landed. So, one of his chakra points had been sealed by that hit. From the way Hinata was frowning, the Uchiha guessed that she had missed her mark. Judging from the position of the blow, it was probably a major organ. No kiddy gloves this time, it seemed. "How boring, trying to end the fight with one hit? No way!"

Hinata scoffed as Naruto took stance. "That is a pathetic style you're using. It's academy-level in the hands of someone with talent; with you it's nothing but an open door to pain." She could see, with her eyes, that Naruto was subtly adjusting his chakra to reinforce the area she had hit. He had talent with chakra, although that might be more a gift of his blood than any real ability. "You make us, the true geniuses of Konoha, look pathetic. Show some breeding!"

With an audible growl, Naruto blindly charged. It was extremely dumb, but all the boy could see was red at the moment. "What would you know?!" he demanded as Hinata ducked out of the way of his strikes. With every dodge, Naruto was getting more and more wound up and it showed in the ferocity of his attacks, even if they did lack the ability to hit his opponent.

"How could someone like you be a genius?" the Hyuuga heiress sneered as she swatted Naruto's fist out of her way. "You aren't even thinking, are you?" A few taps to the boy's legs sent him to the ground. "Look at yourself. How could someone like you be from that family? A disgrace."

Yes, a disgrace, Naruto's mind yelled. This is what everyone must be thinking at this point. His team, his friends, his family, Anko...all of them. 'That's why Anko doesn't want to be around me anymore,' Naruto told himself, 'I live for absolutely nothing!'

"What the hell is Naruto doing?!" Anko snarled as she leaned over the railing to get a better look. "Idiot! He can't fight like that against her!" Her worry only increased when Hinata's fists took on the eerie blue tint of chakra. "Damn it, move!" Anko shouted.

Her shout, however, did not reach Naruto in time. Hinata's palms connected squarely with the boy's shoulders, knocking him back into the ring's wall. Slowly and without resistance, Naruto slid downwards until he was sitting with the wall propping him up. Staring down at the floor, the young Genin didn't even respond to the stinging now searing up both arms.

Hinata flicked her head in distain. "Yes, why don't you move," she taunted, laughing when Naruto didn't respond. "How sad, you can't do anything, can you? Not even with a Jounin trying to coach you from the sidelines. Just like a child playing a game, you have no idea what you're doing."

At those words, Naruto went ridged. Even his breathing was still as for the first time his opponent had his undivided attention.

Hinata, however, didn't notice and continued with her rant. "Favoritism much? You should know when to be silent!" she hissed as she craned her head up at Anko. Their eyes met and Kakashi had to subtly move himself closer to the railing incase Anko actually leapt down at the girl. "You are no better than the trash in the branch family, traitor. You could at least try and pretend you're following the rules."

"Take that back..." Naruto whispered. His hands were digging so hard into the stone floor that they were starting to drip blood.

Finally, the other Genin noticed that her opponent was still conscious. When she saw the blood, though, Hinata assumed that the end was near. "And you, training under her, learning those techniques. I, as the future heir of the oldest and most respected clan, know what you are. Your fate will meet with a short road, just like your teacher. That, and that alone, shall be your destiny."

Slowly, painfully, it seemed, Naruto rose. His hitai-et fell from his neck and his hair matted by sweat covered his eyes. "I don't care what you say about me, but you take everything you said about Anko back." When his head finally rose to meet Hinata's eyes, she was hit with a brutal wave of killing intent. Even those up on the balcony or in the rafters felt it. "Take it back, now! Do you understand me?!"

Pure, unadultured malice, churning in the air around Hinata just as the blood-red Sharingan swirled in Naruto's eyes.

Those on the opposite side of the ring had a clear view of Naruto's face. The Suna-nin watched with curiosity while Orochimaru laughed quietly to himself. That blood was boiling now and all it took was a few stray words. Delicious.

Despite how she might have felt, Hyuuga Hinata was above showing it on her face. Fighting back the nausea caused by directed killing intent, she stood proud and retook her stance. "Finally, you're serious," she said, "Come, show me what your clan has left in this world. I'll prove that fate left you behind."

The blows came faster than those of lesser ability could see at first. Naruto's punches were blurs of the gray from his coat sleeve. Hinata started backtracking as her own hands were working to deflect each hit, trying to create an opening. To her ire, however, Naruto was proving to be frustratingly better at deflecting hits himself and the two simply traded blows for a solid minute before Hinata grew tired of the back and forth.

"Kaiten!" The small dome of pure chakra sent Naruto skidding backwards and Hinata gained a small bit of repose. Her hits were getting less and less frequent, not that she didn't understand why. Still, Hinata had to conceal that fact that she was in doubt from her opponent. "I thought those eyes could do more than that," she spat in defiance.

Up on the balcony, most of the Genin were trying to figure out what Hinata was talking about. Naruto had his back to them the entire time so getting a look at his eyes wasn't possible.

"Kakashi, Gai...what is Hinata talking about?" Kurenai asked. She had her own opinions but was subtly sizing the other Jounin up. Kakashi, as expected, didn't change at all. His face was the same dull mask as always. Well, he did used to be in ANBU so it was expected. The other one, however...

"...what do you mean?" Gai asked, clearly trying to keep a level face. There were reasons that he never joined in on the weekly Jounin poker tournaments. "What could possibly be wrong with my student's youthful eyes?"

Tenten felt the need to edge closer to her teacher and elbow him hard in the ribs. The second Naruto turned around everyone would know anyway, no point in letting the cat out of the bag any sooner. "What Gai-sensei means is that we should all just watch the match. Right, Sensei?" Sheepishly, the man nodded and clammed up. The damage was already done, though, as everyone looked down at Naruto with renewed interest.

Naruto could feel their eyes on him as he and Hinata paced before one another. "I said to apologize," he once again ordered. Unlike his earlier attack, the boy seemed more focused and controlled.

'He's back on his game...I have to keep him angry, unfocused, and then land a hit that will take him out,' Hinata mused. To that end, she laughed and said, "Apologize for what? Telling the truth?" She smirked when Naruto's feet hitched in place. "She's a traitor who was the student of the man that wished to destroy Konoha. And're even worse than her."

Slowly, in that swirling maw of raw hatred and malice that defined Naruto's gaze at that moment, a small pool of black started to bleed through the red. "Take...take that back right now..." the Genin managed to ground out between his clenched teeth. His sanity was still there, if only a sliver.

When Hinata slowly shook her head with that same, condescending smirk on her lips, the dam broke. Literally roaring out of his stupor, Naruto rushed the awaiting Hyuuga. However, to Hinata's surprise, her opponent's moves did not get more disorganized or emotion like she had expected. Instead, Naruto's eyes seemed to bury into hers, giving the illusion that she was the only thing he cared about at the moment. It was more than a little unnerving.

Ever determined, however, Hinata's palms lit up with chakra. Naruto leapt backwards, not missing a beat, and ran through a set of seals. "Raiton: Denryuu no Jutsu." Calm and imposing, Naruto's hands lit up with a sickly yellow glow as tendrils of electricity lanced between his fingers. "And now, I'm going to kill you." The words carried no heat or malice, only casual conviction. It was enough to unnerve anyone who had talked to Naruto before.

'He's lost to the monster lurking in his blood,' the Hokage thought to himself, 'Or, did he just give himself up to it voluntarily?' Regardless, it was obvious that Naruto had changed. If what he saw of his grandson's eyes was correct, then the Sharingan had evolved into its final natural stage. Still, a few stray comments about Anko shouldn't have triggered such a reaction. Certainly not to the point of actually trying to kill someone over them. The Sandaime had to wonder just what happened in that infirmary to provoke Naruto this much.

Hinata weaved out of the way of Naruto's fist as a crackling line of lighting cut its way through the space she had just been occupying. If that would have hit...well, she really didn't want to think about it. Unfortunately, the moment her mind strayed Naruto's fist crashed into her jaw. The impact itself was jarring enough, but the added sting of several hundred volts assaulting her system was what really sent her reeling. Once she skidded to a halt, Hinata took a deep breath and started releasing chakra. "Try that again, I dare you," she snarled.

Although he didn't know what Hinata was trying to do, Naruto sprinted towards her. When his first kick strike landed, the Uchiha's fist was simply redirected by the chakra. Hinata didn't let the chance slip by as she expelled the chakra around her to push her opponent off balance.

"And now you find out why the Uchiha are dead and the Hyuuga still live!" Lightning fast, Hinata ducked down and exploded into motion! "Hakke two hands!" Naruto was pushed farther backwards by the dual impact. Even though he could see the blows, his chakra was seemingly going haywire and avoiding them was impossible, even for him. "Hakke four hands! Eight hands!" The twelve successive blows backed the boy up into the wall, completely open to more punishment. "Sixteen! Thirty-two! Sixty-four hands!"

Naruto grunted as he slid downward off of the wall. Hinata, breathing heavily but still ready for more, backed up and went back into stance. "That is the limit of your inheritance. Accept it and repent, perhaps you will find redemption before you die in the future. I doubt it, though."

Those up on the balcony had clearly heard what was said during the match. "Uchiha?" Sasuke mumbled to himself. Looking up at Kakashi, the boy searched for some kind of explanation. ", she's wrong. There are only two Uchiha left alive."

Kurenai, who was closer to Kakashi than the rest of his team, looked over at the other Jounin in abject shock. "Kakashi, Hinata isn't one to lie like that, just what have you been hiding?!" she demanded. Those around her looked up at the unusually quiet Jounin in shock. Could it actually be possible? In the quiet pause of everyone waiting for a answer, Anko leaned farther over the ring, her eyes wide with shock...she could almost hear Naruto's mind snapping.

Quiet laughing cut through the silence of the area and all eyes turned back to the ring where Naruto's body was lighting shaking. Hinata was even more in shock than the audience. "'s not possible..." she whispered as Naruto rose from the ground. That only made Naruto's laughter grow in intensity and insanity. It was haunting.

"You think that your eyes can beat mine? Idiot." Naruto brushed himself off, taking the time to pick individual pieces of stone from his coat. When he locked eyes with the Hyuuga, his psychotic smile only widened as he sensed the fear coming off of her. "As if I couldn't avoid you hitting anything important. These eyes are far above what you could hope to ever beat. Oh...but you did draw blood..." The boy looked down at a bruise on his arm that had split open, probably early in the match. Dabbing his finger in the red liquid, he brought it to his lips to drink gleefully. "Beautiful, fresh blood. Hinata-chan, lets bleed together!"

At that moment, the walls and floor of the arena started to shake and split. To Hinata's horror and awe, a length of chain burst its way out of the stone and wrapped around her neck, drawing taunt. The purpose of Naruto's opossum playing became evident as his hand fed chakra into a small hole he had been covering when seated. A simple feint with deadly results.

'That's...!'Anko couldn't believe her eyes as she watched Naruto toss one end of the chain over the rafters on the ceiling. With a deft pull, Hinata was suspended over the arena by her neck. Kurenai, who was standing slighting behind her, was obviously having to restrain herself as Hinata thrashed around in the air, trying to free herself. Kakashi seemed to be struggling to believe what his eye was telling him and Anko had to agree, this was...sadistic.

"Ah, what's wrong, Hinata-chan? You're not enjoying our game now?" Naruto asked as he gave a small tug on his kusari-fundo. "You need to loosen up! This wouldn't have happened if it wasn't 'your destiny', right?" The girl let out a strangled cry as Naruto ran some electrical current up the chain, lighting Hinata up like the pain end of a cattle prod. Just as her screaming reached a new height, the voltage stopped and the chain gave a little slack as Naruto calmly walked towards his captive. "'s alright," he whispered before savagely driving his fist into the girl's mouth, splitting her lip open. "Ah, there's that wonderful blood. Let's have a taste..." Just as he was about to take a drink, a strong arm had him in a headlock and the chain was wrenched from his fingers.

Kakashi slowly let the battered girl down into Kurenai's arms as he kept a firm hold on his nephew. Still, even held as he was, Naruto's hand still snaked out to brush Hinata's jaw. "As delicious as I thought it'd be, Hinata-chan," Naruto cooed as a visibly disturbed Hayate called the match in Naruto's favor.

Anko stumbled backwards until she hit the wall. 'That...that wasn't Naruto...' she thought. "What the hell happened to him?" That question was mirrored by more than one person present. Off on the stage, the Sandaime was doing his level best to remain calm.

Although he had seen many more unstable people during his long life, seeing such a streak in his own grandson, blood relation or not, was a bitter pill to swallow. 'It's not so bad, though. He did win the match,' the old Hokage reminded himself. Unlike many of the more idealistic shinobi of the newer generation, the Sandaime knew the world required a certain amount of insanity to get through it. After all, he himself was almost looking forward to seeing his dear old student, Orochimaru, again even if he would have to kill him. 'No, we live in a glass world, none of us should throw rocks.' He did worry about the way Kakashi was looking at the boy, though.

Once Hinata was safely out of the arena, Kakashi eased up on his hold and allowed Naruto to escape. "Just...what was that..." he could barely put the question into words.

Naruto turned around and regarded his uncle with the same wild look he had sported during the match. It was a look much like the one the Hokage had described Naruto has having during his fight against the Kumo-nin that had abducted him.

"What's wrong, uncle? You should be happy I won the match." The condescending tone wasn't lost on the Jounin and he looked down at his nephew with even more surprise.

Choosing his words carefully, as to not rile up Naruto even further, Kakashi answered, "Wasn't it a bit...excessive for a preliminary match?" His visible eye narrowed in thought as Naruto's expression went blank. What was that about?

Naruto blinked and turned his head to watch Hinata being treated inside the medical bay under the balcony. "People wanted a show, so I gave them one," is all the boy said in response, greatly confusing his uncle. With that, he shrugged Kakashi's hand from his shoulder and started to walk over to the podium where everyone else was milling around. Subtly, he brought his blood-drenched fingers up to his mouth to lick the remaining blood off. "A show is always best when the actors mix reality with the part they are supposed to play," Naruto whispered to himself, a bloodthirsty grin crawling over his face.

"What the hell are you, Uzumaki Naruto?" a voice called out.

The blond Genin looked over at the scowling face of Uchiha Sasuke with a grin. "What do you think I am?" he countered.

Sasuke shrugged, stepping out from his team defiantly. "I personally think you're a psychopath but your opponent thought you were something else. Something there is no possibility of you being." Tenten and Lee warily looked between the two and subtly nodded to each other to be ready incase either Uchiha started something. They would, of course, back up their teammate and judging from how Sakura and Neji tensed, they would do the same.

However, Naruto confused the situation with a dark chuckle. "If I can't be what you expect, then why ask me at all?" Brushing past his team, he made his way up to the front but not before calling out behind him, "Make it to the finals and maybe you'll see exactly what I am, Sa-su-ke-kun." With a scoff, Sasuke walked back over to the other side of the room, content in his belief that there was no way such a person could share his blood. Hyuuga Hinata had to be mistaken.

As the Hokage explained what was expected of the group of finalists, Anko walked down to where Kakashi was leaned up inside the hallway leading to the infirmary. He was periodically looking between the bed-ridden Hinata and Naruto, obviously scowling under his mask. When he noticed Anko, his mood only darkened.

"Are you content yet, Anko?" he asked out of the blue, catching the Special Jounin by surprise. Before she could ask what the hell that was supposed to mean, he continued, "Naruto has turned out just like you now. I don't know what you did to him, but he...he isn't what he was only a few hours ago! What did you say to him before his match?!"

Anko glared in return to the accusation and grabbed the man by his collar. "I didn't do shit to him," she growled, "He just snapped. That Hyuuga girl was spouting all kinds of things to get under his skin!" Anko's own anger and frustration was starting to get to her and the Heaven Seal on her neck started to burn. It took a great deal of concentration to keep it from activating right then and there.

Kakashi roughly swatted away the hand holding him. "This didn't just happen. That wasn't a fight, it was a beating. He was about tobleed her. I only know two people who enjoy things like that." He didn't need to point out exactly who those two people were. "I've overlooked this...infatuation you have with Naruto for the last few years. Don't go near him again." With that said, Kakashi pushed his way past the stunned Anko, intent on catching the Hokage in his office. Perhaps it wasn't too late to undo some of this damage before it went too hard. Never would he let teammate's son, their legacy, turn into the monster he saw today. This he swore.

Both Jounin were unaware, however, of the third party with an interest in these events. Above the medical bay, up on the balcony, the Snake Sannin smiled quietly to himself. "What a web you have built around yourself, Anko-chan," Orochimaru mused. Perhaps it was time he took a role in his poor, neglected student's life? After all, he had a month's worth of time to kill before the main event...

Well, that's all for this chapter! 20,000 words, a new Black Sheep record. Thanks to all the help from all the incredibly talented writers that helped me out with this chapter. Brainstorming, pre-reviewing, and just encouragement to get it done. You know who you are, you losers.