Chapter 27: DUEL!
The last time the entire court had held its breath like this was at the funeral of the Emperor. Intense silence, broken only by the barest rustle of white leaves, held sway over the body of people before the Grand High Prince.
The first test, of course, would be stance. Sasuke set to the onerous task of examining Naruto's body in detail. The blond was securely weighted on his back foot, his hand behind his back, palm facing outwards, his rapier held lightly in his other hand. For all of the insults Naruto threw at the weapon, it now looked like an extension of his arm. Shikamaru had obviously done his job.
The prince felt tension rise steadily in the audience, not to mention the duellers themselves. It was getting to the stage where one of them would have to make a move. Almost imperceptibly, Sasuke tightened his grip on the arm of his chair.
Naruto and Neji both leant forward slightly, and he knew it had really begun. To his surprise, the blond became a blur. One second he was standing still in the courtyard, the next there was a whirl of noise and the duellers clashed. Before Sasuke knew it, he had his sharingan out just to catch the movements. Shikamaru had obviously done his job well.
They pulled back, rapiers to the ready, each taking in slow breathes. Sasuke nearly started at the expression on Naruto's face – it was composed, impassive, not a bead of sweat touched his skin. His clear blue eyes were expressionless and piercing at the same time. Sasuke was absorbed in the strand of hair that really needed to be brushed back into place, to complete the rather compelling image before him.
Neji took a step to the left, Naruto one to the right. They started circling one another. For a moment Neji glanced down at the slash in the material between the plates of armour on his arm. Then he looked back at Naruto, his gaze . . . darker than it had been before.
'First Heir to the House of Stone,' said Naruto, and Sasuke breathed a sigh of relief that the blond had used the only correct form of address in these circumstances. 'Are you enjoying your new status? Are you getting comfortable in it? Usurpers usually find that to be the hard part, but I must congratulate you on how you seem to be handling it.'
In the deep, cautious silence that spread through the crowd of courtiers, there was a loud snort most probably belonging to Kiba. He was the only one who knew that the real heir, Hinata, was alive and well, and also the only person there brave or reckless enough to react openly to Neji's most touchy subject. People glanced at the brown-haired boy, some inched away.
Sasuke noticed none of this. He was too caught up in the memory of that voice. Naruto's voice had been lower than usual, clear and strangely intimate. It sent a shiver down his spine. Not only that, his accent had been perfect, had been different. He enunciated his words to their full, being courteous and yet striking a nerve as nothing else could. It was as if he had grown up at court.
For his part, Neji bit off each of his words, 'Someone's brought you up to speed rather quickly, Naruto.' Sharp intakes of breath dotted the courtyard. Sasuke could not believe the break in protocol – Neji had used Naruto's name. 'But a trained monkey can only pull off a few tricks before its true nature comes out.'
Sasuke found he had to admit that Naruto then pulled off a perfect imitation of his own characteristic, 'Hn.' Then the blond boy attacked.
Now the fighting was evenly matched – Neji had obviously become more wary of his opponent. In fact, soon Naruto shot back, out of the reach of Neji's rapier, but not in time to prevent a cut down the back on his hand. He lifted his hand to look at the slowly gathering blood, and faced Neji without his expression ever changing.
Neji opened his mouth. Sasuke could imagine what was about to come out of it. He'd heard it often enough before, growing up seeing the boy interacting with lesser nobles.
'There's nothing you can do about it, you know. You're simply going to lose.'
Was it just Sasuke's paranoia, or had there been a tinge of red in Naruto's eyes?
Neji continued, unaware of the possible danger he was bringing on himself. 'It's fate. I am a noble, you are not. You are a filthy, worthless, weak commoner. I, on the other hand, feel the blood of kings run through my veins.'
Another, more derisive snort from Kiba broke the atmosphere for half a second.
Naruto shrugged, rather a little too dismissively in Sasuke's opinion, and said, 'I guess the blood of dead kings isn't for everyone, right?' Then he shot a lightning-fast glance at Gaara, who stood on the side of the courtyard.
Neji's complexion turned pale, then white. He spat out, 'And dirty blood is for very few indeed. Any superior person wouldn't keep your kind around for long.' He lifted his sword again before adding quietly, 'And he didn't, did he?'
For his part, the Grand High Prince was chanting in his head: Please let Naruto not know about Rule 247, please let Naruto not know about Rule 247 . . .
Down on the marble floor of the courtyard, Naruto straightened sharply, stiffened. He said very, very coldly, 'You dare insult my king?'
Sasuke's chant was interrupted with a sudden 'fuck' dislodging all other thoughts. Shikamaru had done his job (1) too well. From Naruto's tone of voice, he knew exactly what the consequences of such an insult were – under Rule 247, this could now become a death match.
The idiot blond raised his sword, his voice still trembling with cold rage, 'You dare insult my king?'
The 'king' (2) in question looked around surreptitiously.
Neji blinked away his shock at Nartuo's knowledge of the rules of duelling, and at the fact that Naruto would up the ante of the duel like this. He had risen to the bait. Neji's smirk came back, his stance confident, arrogant, he said clearly, 'And what are you going to do about it? You are afraid of this duel, I am a better fighter than you will ever be. I am better trained than you in magic. I have better blood than you - and therefore my magic will always be stronger. You know that. I can see that you're scared, Naruto.'
Quiet, Naruto faced down Neji. Sasuke was more impressed at this that at anything he'd seen so far today – Naruto was keeping his cool after being severely insulted. He was just calmly holding his sword-arm out to the side, for once he was not going to do anything reckles-
Before he could finish the thought, Naruto opened his hand, and let go of his rapier.
Fuck. Sasuke felt dread settle in his stomach as he whipped his hand up into the air, two fingers raised. Without a moment's hesitation, the sentries posted along the upper storey gallery, perched crossed-legged on the railing, completed their hand-seals. A barrier of magic flashed down between the duellers and the courtiers, flaring brightly before fading into transparency.
Sasuke had hoped that it wouldn't even get to the stage of one of them being disarmed and magic being used.
As the rapier started to twist and fall down through the air, Naruto struck a fighting pose, gathered a sphere of pulsing magic and struck it out away from himself as his hands flickered into hand-seal after hand-seal.
Neji threw down his own weapon, his hands twisting into retaliating hand seals. He flicked his palms up in front of him, and a shield curved around him. The shield wavered, and seemed to flicker against Naruto's magic. But it held – and, in an instant, condensed in on itself to a point of pure power which Neji directed with a flick of his arm.
Naruto dodged, landing light-footedly, as the point dispersed brightly into the cage protecting the crowd. Sasuke glanced at each of the shield holders, making sure they were still in place. In the second his attention was away, the blond boy had created something blinding. People threw up their arms to hide their eyes, twisting away from the light. The light dissipated just in time for Sasuke to see Naruto's dropped rapier finally hit the ground.
There was a moment of silence when the duellers drew breath. Neji lowered his hand, the shield faded out. Both readied their hand-seals, their eyes locked.
Sasuke felt magic rising up in each of them, and in the moment before all hell broke loose, he felt the scars on his wrist tingle: a phantom pain or memory of the pain from the heated metal of the chain that day he saw Naruto's terrifying magic come out.
Something was different about it though. Before, Naruto's magic had felt utterly wrong, but now that sense was muted almost completely. What had changed? This was beyond anything Shikamaru could have done – a higher power was at work here.
Inside the cage, they darted back and forth like lightning in clouds. Magic was flung at alarming speeds, ricocheting off the cage-shield and the duellers' own hastily erected efforts at protection.
Sasuke nearly started when he saw a burst of magic heading towards him. Just when he reminded himself that the shield was in place, he saw Naruto – a blur – jump in front of the magic. Naruto's shield, which he hadn't had time to fortify, eventually gave, and the boy took the force of the blow. He staggered to one knee, his head lolled forward, a drop of blood falling out of the corner of his mouth.
Part of Sasuke was amazed that the boy was still alive, part of him wanted to groan at the sheer stupidity of it all. Now Naruto was hurt. In danger. Blond. Hurt. Not. Good.
Shit, that was sore. Naruto stood up and shook himself off – noticing that he had at least caught Neji by surprise by leaping into magic that was going to miss him. He grinned and rubbed the blood off chin with the back of his fist. What to do next? He eyed Neji warily, watching him cut his own palm with a nail, then lift a finger and make a symbol in the air.
Ero-senin had never taught Naruto anything like that. The quality of the air changed around him, it felt like the magic was already here. There was no way to react, if the magic was all around him. He felt the now-familiar pressure against his stomach which had always surfaced in the face of danger – but he knew how to control the demon now.
And then he heard a strange crackling sound behind him. He turned to see the most idiotic fucking Prince in the entire world shoot through some sort of shield that must have just sprung up. As Naruto looked back at Neji, Sasuke appeared between them, impossibly quickly, right before Naruto. He flicked the air back into normality, grabbed both of Naruto's wrists, holding them behind his own back as he faced Neji.
Naruto swore loudly. What was the point in getting into the danger zone after Naruto had just tried to keep him safe?
Sasuke ignored him and spoke to the noble. 'Hyuuga Neji, Blood Magic is forbidden in Konoha, the duel is hereby annulled and you shall be arrested.'
Neji stood his ground. 'No, this is an honour duel, and Naruto has invoked Rule 247. I am within my rights to insist that it carried on. My lord.'
Although Naruto couldn't see much from right behind Sasuke, he knew that the boy was glaring. Naruto finally managed to slip one hand out of Sasuke's grip, which he used to whack the Prince across the back of the head with. 'Hey! Teme! Let me fight! What areyou doing?'
Sasuke swung round and, with the one hand he still held, whipped Naruto onto his back and pressed his arms into the broken tiles. 'Can't you fucking feel it? I'm not having you get out of control.' Concern was written all over his face. It lasted for a moment, then he glared.
In front of a very bemused Neji, Naruto looked up at the Prince and said, 'Oh, that?' He grinned. 'You don't have to worry about it.'
With utter certainty, the blond replied, 'Yup, it's sealed.'
'Oh.' The Grand High Prince must have then realised that he was straddling Naruto in front of the whole court, because he almost looked sheepish.
'Get off me! And get out of this shield thing! I've gotta finish this fight!'
Sasuke glanced at the shocked courtiers for an instant, then back down at Naruto, still firmly holding the boy's arms to the floor. He bit his lip. 'I hereby name myself as Uzumaki Naruto's Second in this duel.'
Neji looked as if he'd been punched in the stomach.
Naruto shouted immediately, squirming, 'What the fuck? Like hell you do!'
Sasuke shot him an imperious glance. 'For obvious reasons, my decision is final.'
'Bloody well get off me and then we can talk! Teme!'
'I'm not getting off until you agree!' Then more quietly he hissed, 'Can't you just shut up and be happy?'
'Never-!' Naruto began, but then they both felt a sudden pressure in the air. Their gazes locked together, instantly serious. Sasuke rolled off Naruto and at the same time the blond jumped up into a defensive stance, magic already gathering in his palm. He created a shield which fit the two of them like a second skin, and just as he set it up, Sasuke's fire burst round it and shot toward Neji, burning the glowing blood symbols in the air.
The shield-cage cracked in one tiny area, and Neji was knocked through it into the crowd which parted swiftly. His robe was singed, and smoking slightly, along the arm he'd used to protect himself. Naruto noticed that Neji had landed practically at Gaara's feet.
He remembered a talk Kiba had given him before the duel.
- Frashoo-backoo -
'All right, Naruto. I suppose you should know why this duel is happening . . .'
Naruto frowned into the middle-distance. His frown deepened. He scratched the back of his neck. 'That's right, I don't really know, do I?'
'I thought as much.' Kiba said dryly as, on the far side of their attic, Jiraiya turned a page of his book and sniggered to himself. 'You know Neji and Gaara, right?'
'You know Gaara's been acting kind of funny towards you?'
Naruto gave a vigorous nod. 'Yes . . . Flirting.'
'Very good. Now, when he was doing this, he was ignoring Neji. This upset Neji because they are very good friends.' Kiba then looked at Naruto for a while, as if waiting for something, some sort of reaction. 'And Neji doesn't like being ignored.'
'I can understand that. It's not nice being ignored.'
With an utterly dead-pan expression, Kiba patted Naruto on the head and said, 'Yes. Exactly that.'
- End of fwrashoo- backoo -
Naruto expected Gaara now to help Neji, because he knew that that's what very good friends do.
But the red-read took a step back, hardly looking down.
Naruto frowned. (4)
Thank the lord that Gaara and Neji had been fighting recently, because if that strange weirdo got involved, Sasuke had a feeling the fight would get messy. There had been a sinister air to the entire court ever since the boy arrived. Sasuke already had Hebi looking into it most seriously.
Then he heard a voice right next to him say, 'What kind of a friend does that?'
Gaara faced Naruto, expressionless.
The blond's hands balled into fists at his sides. 'What kind of a friend are you to let him just lie there? He's trying to get up and you're just standing there?!'
Sasuke felt like pointing out that Naruto was fighting Neji, and shouldn't be overly concerned about the horizontal or vertical state of someone he'd just challenged to a duel to the death. But as usual, he didn't have time to voice his opinion before Naruto yelled out again.
'He's your friend, isn't he? Help him up! That's what friends do!'
Neji sat up, scowling darkly, saying 'I need no-one's aid, and I certainly don't you're your pity.'
'Of course you need help. Geez, and people call me an idiot. You can't even stand!'
Gaara announced coldly, 'I don't help the weak.'
Neji stiffened and Naruto's entire face went red.
'What!? You weirdo! That's when people bloody-well need help! (5) You are such a bastard! Pig-headed fool!'
Sasuke grabbed Naruto's arm, wanting to warn him that something wasn't quite right about this guy, but was shaken off roughly.
'Have you never felt like there's no-one to help you?' Naruto shouted.
Gaara's only response was, 'Now you're beginning to annoy me.'
'Have you never felt that you're all alone? I can't stand this anymore, I hate this stupid duel!'
Then Naruto proceeded to launch himself at Gaara. Everyone there was blown back by the force that Gaara released – a huge arm of sand grew over his own, and he used it to strike Naruto, knocking all the wind out of the blond and sending him flying and skidding across the courtyard before Sasuke could do a thing about it.
Then Sasuke saw that, before attacking, Gaara had moved to stand in front of Neji. Neji looked up at him with a quizzical expression on his face and Gaara looked over his shoulder. The corner of his mouth lifted a little and he said, 'That just sort of happened.' Before giving Neji a hand up, he looked back at Naruto, saying almost conversationally, 'Damn, that guy's annoying.'
'Ha!' shouted the rather battered aforementioned annoying person from across the courtyard. 'You thought I was going to hurt Neji! And you helped him! You are his friend! See!'
The two pairs of fighters faced each other. On the one side was the head of the Hyuuga household and nearly the best swordsman in Konoha, next to what he suspected was a blood-thirsty demon-holder. On the other side was the prince of the realm, who shouldn't be in the duel in any way whatsoever, and an annoying blond who insisted on making the situation worse rather than running off and playing safely on pirate ships.
Naruto, still on the ground, grinned toothily. 'Ha! Now it's a real fight!'
His partner in arms had to stop himself putting his head in his hands, and quietly gave the signal to evacuate the whole western wing of the palace.
1) or wob, as little pirate said
2) the head of the Uchicha clan is the /King of Konoha and its surrounding territory, and since Itatchi's out of the city and presumably the country, the functioning 'king' is the highest- standing member of the Uchiha's in Konoha – namely, one Uchiha – Sasuke
3) we rather seriously considered ending the chapter on this poignant note
4) something serious was stirring deep inside of him!
5) you have ppl help you put eyeliner on in the morning, god damnit! They're your friends, aren't they?
this chapter appeared like blood out of a stone. But here it is! Enjoy! Comment! We love you all!