Chapter 18:

A/N: Well, I know it's been a while, but I finally got the next chap out. Hopefully it's not too bad. Anyway, if you actually took the time to read this AN, then make sure you read the one at the end of the chap as well. It's fairly important if you actually care about this story at all.

Disclaimer: Nope, don't own Naruto. Why? I ask myself that as well every night as I cry myself to sleep over it.

Chapter 18: Finally Here

The day had finally arrived.

The final day of the Chuunin exams had finally arrived and the village of Konoha was abuzz with excitement. Everyone in the village was talking about it, with the hottest topic of discussion being the matches, or more specifically, two of the matches.

The first, being the face off between the two Geniuses of the two most prestigious clans in Konoha, Uchiha Sasuke and Hyuuga Neji.

The second, and almost bigger topic, being the ensuing battle of the two most well known individuals, be it due to hatred, fear, respect, or a combination of the three, Uzumaki Naruto and Jagaa.

To think that those four famous faces would be matched up in that particular pairing was something that villagers could have only dreamed possible, and if ever there had been a Chuunin exam that people would kill to be at, it was this one. Already several riots had broken out in the last few weeks as people fought tooth and nail to get tickets to the event. Rumors were even flying that people really had killed to get a ticket. Of course those were only rumors, but the veritable sea of thousands of people standing out side a giant out door arena trying to force their way in faster to get better seats made them somewhat believable. The excitement only grew as time moved on and the stadium slowly filled.

It had finally arrived.

X X X X X

"So, today's the day, huh?" Kankuro asked mildly as he and the rest of team Suna were getting ready to leave for the stadium.

"Yeah." Temari sighed.

"What is it, Temari?" Their Jounin Sensei, Baki, asked.

"I…I don't like it." Temari muttered. "So many lives were lost before we finally achieved peace, and we're just going to throw it all away because of our fa…I mean, the Kazekage's ambitions."

The room when quiet and Temari's words hung in the air between the group.

"It can't be helped." Baki finally broke the silence. "We are Ninja of Suna. We must abide by the will of the Kazekage."

"I know that." Temari said looking up into his eyes a bitter grimace on her face. "But that still doesn't make it any more pleasant."

"Well I don't know about you," Kankuro spoke up, "but I'm just glad that the signal to start the invasion is during Gaara's match. That means that even if I win, I won't have to fight that Jagaa guy." Temari shuddered her agreement.

A spike of killing intent washed over them and all three of them warily looked over to Gaara who was staring out the window. Every day for the last month, it had taken all three of constantly reasoning with and placating the red haired boy to keep him from trying to hunt down the black wearing teenager. It had been hard, and more than a little dangerous, to calm the boy's bloodlust.

"Gaara, remember the plan." Baki said.

"I will kill him." Gaara growled looking at them all with bloodlust clear in his eyes. "And anyone who stands in my way."

The other three looked between each other nervously, each praying that Gaara would at least hold himself back until the signal for the attack.

X X X X X

Sakura had a small blush on her face as she faced the mirror examining her new clothes, still amazed how much of a difference her change of style had made on her.

Her red dress had been replaced by a sleeveless red belly shirt, and a pair of tight, black spandex pants that ended about midway down her shins. A black kunai pouch was strapped to her right thigh to make room for the kodaichi she now had strapped to her lower back and her hands had been covered by a pair of black fingerless gloves. Even her hair was shorter, now reaching just above her shoulders instead of (to her) past her waist, with her hitai-ate in its usual place on her head.

Sakura couldn't deny that she looked pretty good.

"I'll have to thank Kurenai-sensei after the tournament." She said thoughtfully, "She was right, I really do feel like a real Kunoichi now." She had thought Kurenai had just been trying to make her feel better when the red eyed woman had dragged her into the clothing store intent on giving Sakura a make over and saying 'If you start dressing like you're a serious Kunoichi, you'll start feeling more like a serious Kunoichi'. True, Sakura was still a little upset about the loss of her hair, but she knew she'd get used to it eventually.

Sakura's hand dipped down to the kodachi on her back and she stroked the handle affectionately. It had been a gift from Jagaa a couple weeks into their training together, along with lessons on how to use it as part of their sparring sessions. It was funny, how much the simple gift had meant to her, almost to the point that she had started to wonder if she was developing a crush on the older boy, but after a few more sparring sessions she realized that it wasn't a crush, no, it was more like, admiration.

She had begun to respect him, to trust him.

She wasn't sure exactly when she had begun to value his opinion so. Maybe it was when he made her look inside herself and find a reason for wanting to be stronger. Maybe it was because he didn't treat her like a fragile little girl when they trained, even to the point she had woken up almost too stiff to move the next day. It really didn't matter anymore. She just knew that when he gave her the short blade, she somehow felt that he had acknowledged her, that she hadn't just wasted his time by training with her, and it made her happier than she could have thought possible.

"I won't disappoint him." Sakura said with conviction to her reflected self, "I'll make sure he never regrets helping me." With one last look at herself, Sakura turned away from the mirror and headed out of her room to get some breakfast. As she made her way down to the kitchen, Sakura couldn't help the small smirk that came to her lips.

'Ino pig isn't going to know what hit her.'

X X X X X

Ino was in high spirits as she darted around her room getting ready to leave for the stadium. It had been a month since she had last seen Naruto. A month! She had managed to plead and beg her way into several days off during the time to try to run into him, but she never could. A couple times she had even gone to his house, but each time there was no one there. She wasn't sure if she wanted to hug him the next time she saw him, or knock the crap out of him for the days of training she wasted by begging out so she could go look for him.

Then again, it wasn't all that big a deal considering her first opponent was Sakura.

Ino smirked. She couldn't believe how lucky she was. She was almost a shoe in for at least the semifinals as far she could see it. She knew Sakura's skill level was far below her own. Hell, the girl had barely improved at all since the academy. Beating her would be a cake walk, leaving Ino still fresh and ready for her next match.

She remembered that it was the Suna girl and her old class mate Aburame Shino, that were going to be fighting after her, just as she knew that neither of them were pushovers. She would have to watch both of them carefully when they fought so she would be ready to fight whichever one won, but she was almost certain that they would exhaust each other enough to give her a decent advantage that could allow her to take the win.

That would mean that in the end she would be going up against Jagaa in the semi finals. She would just give up then. After all, she knew from experience that she couldn't beat him.

Ino felt guilty that she was so certain it would be Jagaa she met in the Semis. Even though she knew Naruto was a lot stronger than people believed, and was certainly stronger than herself, she was certain that he wouldn't be able to beat Jagaa one on one. To be honest, she really didn't like the fact that they had to fight each other at all and was hoping that one of them would just forfeit and let the other advance, but deep down she knew that would never happen.

With a sigh, Ino grabbed her weapons pouch and attached it to her waist before leaving her room and going down to the kitchen. She saw her parents sitting at the table already eating and smiled happily. "Good morning!" She said as she kissed each of them on the cheek before going to the cupboard and pulling out a box of cereal.

"Good morning Sweety." Her mom said with a smile. "Are you ready for the big day?"

Ino smiled confidently as she sat down with her breakfast. "Of course. They won't know what hit them."

"Are you sure, Princess?" Inoichi asked. "You took almost a week off from training in total. Are you sure you're ready for your matches?"

"Oh come on daddy." Ino scoffed. "My first fight is with Sakura for crying out loud. There's no way I'm worried about fighting her. It's almost as if I was fighting a rookie fresh from the academy."

Inoichi sighed at his daughter's ignorance. 'At least it will be a good lesson for her.' He thought before looking up at her and clearing his throat. "Did you know that Jagaa and the examiner from the second exam, Anko, have become pretty good friends lately?"

Ino looked up in surprise. "That crazy lady?" At Inoichi's nod she started laughing a little and shaking her head. "Why doesn't that surprise me?"

Inoichi smiled lightly before continuing. "Well as it happens, I went to the Jounin bar about a week ago and just happened to run into Anko, who for some reason was looking a bit down. After having a few drinks together she admitted to me that she was feeling kind of depressed that her little 'Jagaa-chan' couldn't spend time with her because he was always training that pink haired girl." Inoichi rubbed his chin in feigned thought as he discreetly watched his daughter. "I wonder what she meant." He almost laughed when he saw the look of understanding and panic flash across his daughter's face, and did laugh when she conveyed her feelings on the matter.

"Oh shit!"

X X X X X

Sasuke walked alone through the empty streets of the Uchiha clan district. It had only been a couple of months that he had been living with Naruto and Jagaa in their new home, but it was starting to feel like a lifetime.

It was strange.

Every time before now when he had walked down these same streets, he had been assaulted with the memories of that fateful night. He would see the bodies of his clansmen lying in pools of their own blood in the middle of the street with the kind old woman and her husband dead in front of their shop. He would relive the images Itachi had forced upon him, making him watch how the man had ruthlessly slaughtered everyone in the clan, including their own parents, without any hesitation.

Even after his conversation with Jagaa all those years ago, it would still spark those buried desires to make the man pay. To make that him suffer for what he had done before killing him the man suffer for what he had done before killing him. Even after becoming friends with both Naruto and Jagaa, and learning to live a happy life in spite of the dark events clouding his past, Sasuke still hadn't been able to put it completely behind him, and for a long time, he thought he never would.

However, as he walked through the streets now, he realized that something had changed. For the first time since that night, he could see the happier times. He saw children playing Ninja and shouting about how they were going to join the police force when they grew up. He saw women shopping and laughing while the men drank and boasted with each other. He saw smiles. He saw laughs. But most importantly…

He saw life.

When was it that he had been able to start truly moving past it? Was it when he saw firsthand what living only for revenge could turn someone into that day on the bridge? Was it when Jagaa told him to grow strong to protect what you have, not avenge what you've lost? Both those incidents were a contributor, Sasuke knew that, but it was when the image of a pale eyed girl flashed through his mind that he knew the largest reason he was finally moving on.

Ever since Hinata had come into his life, it was like some sort of void in him was being closed a little more each day. Every time she smiled, every time she laughed, every time she blushed, he felt a warmth in his heart that had never been there before. Having her near him made him happy, and because of that, he was able to fully remember the happiness that had once existed in these empty streets.

The process that had been started four years ago, when he talked to Naruto in that out of the way training area, had finally been completed by a shy girl that had worked her way deep into his heart.

"And that bastard hurt her!" He growled low in his throat as an image of Neji appeared in his mind. "That son of a bitch has no idea how lucky he is that Hinata made me promise not to kill him or permanently cripple him!" Sasuke's face took on a smirk of pure evil. "Too bad for him she forgot to say anything about humiliating him! He's gonna wish I had killed him when I'm done with him!"

Looking up to the sky, Sasuke saw that the sun had risen considerably. It was time to start heading to the exam stadium. Looking back into the empty streets, Sasuke smiled.

"Everyone, watch me. I'll make you all proud by how I live."

Though it may have been a trick of the light, as Sasuke walked away it appeared as if there were two people standing in the middle of the street behind him. Proud smiles shining clearly on their faces before they vanished with the breeze.

X X X X X

'Today, huh?' Jagaa thought as he sat in the window sill of the room wearing only his black pants, watching the sun slowly rising in the distance. His scars shadowed and defined on his uncovered torso, and his rarely seen eyes glowing in the morning light with the absence of his sunglasses. As he sat there, a soft set of arms encircled him from the side and cheek rested on his shoulder.

"You're up early." The seventeen year old girl said as she traced the long scar across his chest. "Can't sleep?"

"I hardly ever sleep these days." Jagaa replied before looking back at the girl beside him. "What about you, Lyn? Shouldn't you try to catch some more sleep before you have to go to work?"

"It'll be fine. With everyone going to the Chuunin exam it's going to be a slow day anyway." Lyn frowned at him slightly. "More importantly, are you okay?"

Jagaa looked at her curiously. "I'm good as ever. Why?"

"You had another nightmare."

Jagaa's eyes widened slightly before he turned away from the dark haired girl. "So you heard."

Lyn nodded. "Lately you've been having them frequently." Lyn already knew the answer to her next question, but she asked anyway. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"Not really. Besides, I already know what's causing them."

Lyn shook her head. It was always the same. Anytime Jagaa was troubled he would refuse to talk about it. "You know, it's all right for you to tell people when something's bothering you." Lyn's voice took on a noticeable edge. "Or is it that you still don't trust me?"

Jagaa rounded on her, his eyes hardening slightly as they locked onto her own. "Don't try to pull that shit on me, Lyn. We both know that you're looking into the proof that I trust you."

Lyn flinched guiltily and towards the ground, unable to meet his gaze. She knew well how sensitive Jagaa was about his eyes. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound like that. It's just that, you're my best friend. If you can't tell even tell me what's bothering you, then who can you tell?"

Jagaa sighed and looked away from the girl. "I'm sorry, Lyn."

The two of them sat in silence for a time staring out the window at the rising sun.

"You bring up an interesting question though." Jagaa said in a light voice. "Why weren't we ever able to move past just being friends?"

Lyn knew he was just trying to change the subject, since they were both fully aware of the answer. The truth was that they had tried to be more than just friends with benefits a while back, but it just hadn't felt right to either of them. So they had gone back to they way they were now and had been just fine with it. They had even made an agreement that if one of them should ever get into a relationship with someone else, they would stop their nocturnal activities and just be regular best friends.

Lyn was about to use her regular response of, 'You're just too young for a mature woman like me' response, when she remembered something from a few weeks back. Smiling impishly, she answered. "Well if what I overheard in that coffee shop a while back is true. It's probably because you have a thing for that girl who puts her hair up in buns."

That was when Lyn saw something she had thought she would never see…Jagaa falling out of the window sill in surprise and landing on the floor with a loud 'thud'.

"What? Are you talking about, Mousey? You got to be kidding! I'll admit she's cute, especially with her hair down, but she hates my guts! Hell, she throws kunai at me almost every time she sees me! Why would I be interested in her?" Jagaa was breathing a bit hard as he finished, still sitting on the ground.

Lyn nearly squealed in delight at Jagaa's reaction. She had never seen him get flustered like this over any female. Oh, this was a very good sign. "Oh, 'Mousey' is it? I don't think I've ever heard you give a girl a nickname before. She must have really caught your attention." Lyn smirked victoriously at Jagaa's trapped expression.

Jagaa gaped at the girl standing above him and Lyn was feeling quite pleased with herself. At least, she was until Jagaa looked down to the floor, his shining eyes going dull and a sad smile coming to his lips. "Maybe you're right."

Lyn's merriment died as she frowned down at her friend. She had seen that look before. "You plan on avoiding her now, don't you?" when Jagaa made no answer she continued in a low voice. "Is it because you're still blaming yourself?"

Jagaa still didn't look at her, but responded with a voice filled with self loathing. "Who else is there to blame?"

"A lot of people, but even if I told you all of them, it wouldn't make a difference would it?"

"No…it wouldn't."

Lyn sighed again as she heard Jagaa stand up and move over to the bed to gather his things and put his shirt and boots back on. "So, you're going to leave." It wasn't really a question.

"I have to go talk to the old man before the tournament starts, so yeah." Jagaa said as he finished adjusting his sword to his back.

Lyn heard him walking up behind her and waited until he was beside her. "That's not what I meant."

Jagaa moved passed her and stood in front of the window, sliding his sunglasses back on his face. "I know."

Lyn sighed as she turned and took a few steps away from the window before stopping and speaking back over her shoulder. "You know, Jagaa. It's not a crime for you to be happy." There was a moment of silence before Jagaa's low voice reached her.

"That depends on your point of view."

She listened as Jagaa leapt through the window into the gentle wind before wiping her moistening eyes.

X X X X X

Naruto stood in the middle of the quiet street as the sun peeked over the mountains.

It was today.

After an exhausting month of training under the Ero-sennin, the day had finally come where he would face Jagaa in the exams… and Naruto was nervous as hell.

He had been so confident that day he declared that he would win, and that confidence had not faded once in the last month as he lost himself in his training. But now, as he stood there alone with only a few hours to go before the fateful confrontation, it was getting a lot harder to hold onto that confidence as his mind processed the fact that he had blissfully blocked from his mind.

He was fighting Jagaa.

How could Naruto have forgotten that he was fighting the same person who could spar with him, Sasuke, and Ino all at once and still win? The same person, who's scarred body told the story of a life filled with constant death and battle, and surviving to fight again.

The same person, whose hands had been soaked in blood since he was six years old.

The more Naruto thought about it, the more foolish he felt for his proud declaration of victory. The difference between himself and his brother had always been incredible, but it had never weighed on him as much as it did right now. The worst part was that he realized it wouldn't be a spar this time. It was going to be a real fight. If Naruto couldn't even match Jagaa when the older boy wasn't trying to hurt him, how could he possibly hope to win when he was? Even with all the training he had gotten from Ero-sennin, would it really be enough for him to even hold his own? Naruto's thoughts were spiraling further and further down on their depressing course when a familiar voice reached his ears.

"Naruto?"

Naruto snapped his head up to find himself looking into the familiar face of a man with a scar running across his nose and a pineapple like hair style. "Iruka-sensei? What are you doing here?"

"That's what I was about to ask you." The man replied. "Shouldn't you be getting ready for the Chuunin exam finals?"

Naruto's face visibly fell and he looked down to the ground. "Yeah."

The Chuunin instantly became concerned for the young blonde and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Naruto, what's wrong?"

"I…I don't think I can beat him, Iruka-sensei." Naruto whispered just loud enough for the man to hear.

Iruka didn't need to ask who the boy was talking about. He was already well aware of the match ups due to the gossip of the village. "I know that it will be hard for you to fight your brother, Naruto, but all you have to do is try your best. That way, even if you do lose you'll still…"

"You don't understand, Sensei!" Naruto practically shouted, startling the Chuunin. "I have to beat him!"

Taking a moment to recover himself from his surprise at the outburst, Iruka looked Naruto in the eye. "Why? Why are you so desperate to beat him? Is it really so important that you become a Chuunin?"

Naruto shook his head. "That's not it, Iruka-sensei."

"Then why?"

Naruto looked back to the ground making it impossible to see his face but made no response. After a few seconds Iruka started to worry. "Naruto…"

"Because I have to show him," Naruto's voice stopped Iruka cold before the boy looked at him with an intensity Iruka had never seen in the boy before. "I have to show him that we don't have to be the demons they want us to be." As he stared at his teacher, Naruto's eyes slowly lost their intensity and determination as he looked down to the ground. "I just don't know if I can." He finished softly.

Iruka looked at the young boy, taking in the forlorn expression and a soft smile came to his face. Straightening up, Iruka indicated the area around them. "Naruto, do you happen to know where we are?"

Naruto looked up at his old sensei strangely. What kind of a question was that?

Noticing Naruto's look, Iruka smiled down at the boy. "It seems you don't. So how about I tell you a little story about something that happened here." Iruka looked up at the surrounding buildings with a nostalgic expression. "About four years ago, in this very spot, something incredible happened that changed a great many peoples perspective on something. Two boys were walking down the street when a large group of people surrounded them and started yelling at them and insulting them. They were after one of the boys in particular, one who they blamed for the loss of a great many people years ago, but were angry at the other one because he seemed to be protecting him. Finally, one of the people threw a rock that hit the boy they were after in the head causing him to cry out in pain." Iruka looked Naruto in the eye as he continued, seeing the understanding rising in his face.

"What happened next was something beyond what anyone could have imagined. The older boy grew enraged at the attack, and released a killing intent so powerful that it rivaled the feeling of the very creature they had hated so much. So powerful was it that many people's very hearts burst from the terror it incited. The older boy drew the blade on his back and charged into the crowd, intending to murder every one of them where they stood, but he never did. Mere seconds before his blade could end the life of one of the assailants, the very boy they had come to attack cried out for the other to stop and then pleaded for their lives…but the most surprising part of all, was that the older boy listened."

Iruka kneeled down in front of Naruto, a soft smile on his face as he looked into the boy's crystalline blue eyes. "You saved a great deal of lives that day, Naruto. The ANBU themselves have admitted that they have no idea how many he would have killed before they were able to stop him, but he listened to you. It was your voice that stopped someone who carried enough rage and bloodlust in his heart that it rivaled even the greatest of demons to the people who felt it." Iruka smiled confidently at the blonde boy. "That's why I know that if anybody can help your brother overcome his own demons, it's you Naruto."

Naruto smiled as he looked gratefully back at his old sensei. "Thanks, Iruka-sensei." His smile then turned into a playful smirk. "Too bad I can't win the fight by yelling at him though, huh?"

Iruka laughed and rubbed the boy's head affectionately. "Don't worry. I'm sure you'll think of something."

"Damn right I will! I'm Uzumaki Naruto and I'm gonna be the Hokage some day!" Naruto declared with a grin, proudly pumping his fist in the air. "I'll beat Nii-san no matter what it takes!" With his last declaration Naruto turned and started running in the direction of the stadium waving back over his shoulder. "See you later, Iruka-sensei!"

Iruka smiled fondly as he watched the blonde boy sprinting away. 'I wonder if he realizes that the finals don't start for another four hours.' Iruka thought chuckling lightly as he continued on his trek to the academy, mulling over the possibility of letting class out early so he could watch Naruto's match.

X X X X X

Naruto gazed in awe at the amount of people filling the giant stadium twenty minutes before the finals were to begin. He had just arrived (For the second time, after having gone to get some ramen when he realized by the lack of people that he was way to early the first time.) about five minutes ago and was standing in the middle of the battle field along with Shino, Shikamaru, Neji (Someone Naruto wasn't thrilled to see), and the three Suna Genin. Looking into the stands, Naruto couldn't find a single open seat and noticed that many people had even taken to standing in the aisles. It was incredible to see.

Taking his eyes off the stands Naruto glanced around the arena floor. There was still no sign of the rest of his team and despite the fact it was still twenty minutes until the matches were supposed to start, he was starting to worry. However, his worry ended quickly when a familiar voice from behind him filled with a fury that made his blood run cold.

"NA-RU-TO!"

Naruto squeaked in surprise when he felt an iron grip on his shoulder before being whirled around so that he was staring directly into Ino's furious blue eyes.

"Where the hell were you for the last month!?" She yelled at him. "I skipped out on almost a weeks worth of training so I could go see you, and I couldn't find you even once! On top of that, I just found out that Nii-san has been training Forehead for the last month! HOW DO YOU PLAN ON MAKING UP FOR MAKING ME MISS A WEEK OF TRAINING!?" She was shaking him by the front of his shirt as she screamed the last part.

"B-but Ino-chan, I was training. You even said that we wouldn't see each other for a month so I didn't think you'd come looking for me before then." Naruto timidly tried to reason with the furious girl.

Unfortunately, it seemed reason was useless. "Just because I said we wouldn't see each other for a month didn't mean I wouldn't try to see you! You should know that!" Ino shouted shaking him again.

"How-was-I-supposed-to-know-tha-aa-aat?" Naruto managed to say between Ino's violent shakes. His reward was to be shaken even harder. "YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, DAMN IT!" She yelled. Naruto couldn't really ponder the unfairness of her statement due to the fact he felt like his head was going to fly off his shoulders at any moment.

"Shouldn't you be nicer to your boyfriend, Ino-pig, or is it to hard for livestock to control their temper?"

Ino stopped shaking Naruto at the sound of the familiar voice and turned her furious face in the direction it came from. "Kiss my ass forehe…" Ino trailed off and her mouth hung open when she saw the pink haired girl. Confused Naruto turned (along with everyone else present) to see why Ino had stopped and his jaw (along with all the males present) dropped.

"S-Sakura, is that really you?" Naruto gaped.

Sakura blushed lightly, still self conscious about her new look. "Do I look okay, Naruto?" She asked a bit hesitantly. Naruto flashed his fox like grin and scratched the back of his head. "You look really great." Sakura smiled happily and Naruto blushed lightly.

Ino was still in shock at seeing her rival dressed, well, sexy, when she heard Naruto's compliment towards her rival. The poor boy didn't even have time to blink before Ino's fist connected with his face sending him flying backwards. "WHY ARE YOU COMPLIMENTING FOREHEAD GIRL YOU TRAITOR!?"

Sitting up from the ground in a dazed state, Naruto's eyes widened at the evil aura that was seeping out of Ino. "B-b-but I-Ino-chan, s-she asked me how she looked and it would have been wrong not to be honest right?" He turned ghostly pale when the killing intent around Ino rose to unimaginable proportions. "ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY SHE'S BETTER LOOKING THAN ME!?"

"N-N-N-N-No, I-I-I-I never said that! I was just saying that she looked good! That's all!" Naruto reasoned as he crawled backwards across the ground, but it was clear that Ino wasn't listening as she bore down on him with death in her eyes.

"Looks like you're getting yourself into trouble as usual, Dobe." Sasuke's sudden appearance caused a small pause in activity as the group looked over to see the raven haired boy walking up with a smirk on his face.

"Sasuke! Help! Ino is gonna kill me!" Naruto pleaded, stretching his hand out to his friend imploringly.

Sasuke's smirk grew wider and his eyes twinkled evilly. "For what? All you did was ogle Sakura, right?"

Naruto looked at Sasuke as if the boy had just signed his death sentence. Which he may well have, considering the way Ino's anger sky rocketed before she grabbed the front of the cringing boy's shirt and dragged him to his feet, their faces were almost touching. "OGLE! YOU WERE OGLEING, FOREHEAD!" Naruto eyes held nothing but terror while Ino's held pure death. "I can't believe I wasted precious days I could have spent training to go looking for you, and the first thing you do is ogle my opponent! I swear I'm gonna…mmfff"

Ino's eyes (along with the eyes of the onlookers) widened when she felt a pair of soft lips connect with her own, stopping her cold. Pulling back slowly, Naruto looked into Ino's eyes and smiled. "Come on now, Ino. You know you're the only girl I'll ever ogle." Naruto's smile was calm and confident, but his mind was far from it. 'Please work! Please work! Please work! Please work! For the love of Kami PLEASE WORK!'

Ino stared at Naruto for what felt like a lifetime to the frightened boy. Finally, he saw a small blush on her cheeks as she let go of his shirt and stepped back, looking down demurely. "Do you really mean that?" She asked in an uncharacteristically timid voice.

"Believe it." Naruto said confidently earning a soft smile of happiness from the blonde girl. Naruto looked content on the outside, but inside, his mind was having a victory party at the fact he had finally made a move on Ino.

And the fact he was still alive.

"Wasn't expecting to see that when I got here."

At the sound of the voice, everyone present turned quickly to see Jagaa standing off to the side with his eyebrows raised curiously as he watched Ino and Naruto. Naruto felt his throat constrict, making it impossible to say anything to his brother. He wasn't afraid anymore, thanks to his talk with Iruka that morning, but Jagaa's arrival meant they were that much closer to their fight that would decide everything between them.

Behind Naruto, both Temari and Kankuro's eyes widened as soon as they saw Jagaa and they quickly turned and started whispering desperately to Gaara, who was looking at the older boy with pure murder in his eyes.

Jagaa walked over and joined the group, turning his head to face Sasuke. "I'm a little surprised to see you here already, considering who you were training with and all."

Sasuke shrugged. "I was supposed to do some last minute training with him today, but I skipped out so I could go do some other things." Sasuke's nonchalant expression became dark. "Besides, there was no way I was going to miss my fight because of him." His eyes shifted over to Neji, who was watching them all coldly. "No way in hell."

"I see, well it's good that you…" Jagaa shifted to the right to avoid the surprise flying kick Ino had just tried to hit him with. "What are you doing?" He asked idly, turning to face the outraged looking girl.

"WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA WITH YOU TRAINING FOREHEAD GIRL!?" Ino shouted, her face a perfect picture of the betrayed heroine. "DO YOU WANT ME TO LOSE OR SOMETHING!?"

Jagaa's eyebrow rose over his sunglasses. "Why would you think that? Like I explained to Sakura, helping her improve would make you have to fight harder and display more of your talents. So by training her I'm improving your chances at being promoted. Besides, as long as you didn't slack off on your training, you'll probably still be well ahead of her. You did train seriously for the last month, didn't you?"

Ino paused before looking at the ground and start shifting back and forth on her feet while mumbling. Only words such as "looking", "Naruto", and "just Sakura" coming through intelligibly.

Jagaa sighed and rubbed his forehead. "I'll take that as a 'No'." He said before dropping his voice to a mumble, "Well, this will make the betting more interesting at least."

"What was that, Nii-san?" Naruto asked suspiciously.

"Huh, oh, nothing, nothing at all." Jagaa waved his hands in front of him, then pointed up to the stands. "More importantly, did you all notice that?"

Following Jagaa's finger, the assembled Genin looked up to the stands, at which point both Sasuke and Naruto face's fell as the rest of them gaped at what they were seeing.

The stands were filled with pictures of Naruto, Sasuke, Jagaa, and even Neji with big hearts drawn around the head. Signs and banner with love confessions could be seen everywhere, and it even looked like a great deal of women had gotten T-shirts made with the face of the boy they were supporting on the front. A few fights had broken out between the various factions as well, and from the looks of things the Ninja in charge of keeping order in the stands were in the midst of separating the factions into different sections of the stands.

"Now doesn't that just give you a warm and fuzzy feeling inside?" Jagaa laughed. Naruto and Sasuke looked horrified, and Neji just looked away with a grunt.

"That's just sick." Sakura huffed, turning away with disgust.

"I don't think you can be one to talk, Forehead. Since a month ago that could have been you up there." Ino said snidely.

"Back at you Piggy, or did you forget about your own Fangirl days?" Sakura shot back.

"You want to go right now Billboard Brow!?" Ino shouted, stomping over to Sakura.

"Bring it on Pig Girl!" Sakura challenged, putting her face in Ino's so that the two girls were glaring into each others eyes with only millimeters of distance between them and sparks crackling in the air.

"But as they glared into each others eyes, they felt a stirring of emotions deep inside them that they had never felt before. Rage slowly started fading away, being replaced by a deep yearning for the one before them. The Cherry Blossoms eyes went down of their own accord, taking in the full view of the Sun Flower's alluring form. The Sun Flower herself found her own eyes locked onto the Cherry Blossoms lush lips, desire to capture those lips with her own flooding through her. How long had they suppressed these emotions? How long had they hid desire behind a cloak of insults and rivalry? It had been so long that neither knew the answer anymore. However, none of that mattered as their longing gazes found each other once again. Slowly they drew closer, the distance between their lips closing with every…"

"STOP!" Ino and Sakura screamed at the top of their lungs, their faces beat red and their breathing heavy from embarrassment.

Jagaa stopped his narration and looked up from the pad of paper in his hand, his pencil halting its movement. "What?"

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN, "WHAT"?" Ino screamed. "WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU DOING?"

Jagaa made a show of cleaning out his ears before holding up his pad of paper. "Well, since I'm always reading 'Icha Icha' I was thinking of trying my hand at writing as well." Jagaa brought the pad back down and frowned at it. "It's a lot harder than I thought though. That just plain sucked."

"I don't know. I was starting to enjoy it." Naruto muttered too low for anyone to hear.

"Don't you ever do that again! Do you understand me?" Sakura growled threateningly.

"Hai, hai, you don't need to get so bent out of shape about it." Jagaa's tone indicated clearly that he wasn't concerned in the slightest about her warning, making the girl huff in annoyance. Smirking slightly, Jagaa turned his attention to the three Suna Nin standing off to the side. "So just how long do you plan on sending that killing intent my way? Think you could give it a rest, unless you're actually planning on doing something?" Surprised by his statement, the other Konoha Genin faced the Suna Genin as well just in time to see Temari and Kankuro back away from Gaara hurriedly as the sand began swirling violently around the red haired boy.

"You," Gaara's eyes narrowed dangerously, "will be the proof of my existence."

"Is that so?" Jagaa answered, his tone going dark. "But, what if I decided…that I would rather end your existence?"

Gaara's eyes widened insanely and his sand rushed forward, causing shouts of alarm from the other Genin and the spectators. Jagaa stood unmoving as the sand bore down on him, a small smirk coming to his lips as the brown tendrils closed in.

Just before it reached him, the sand erupted outwards and a Jounin with a senbon needle in his mouth stood directly in front of Jagaa with a disapproving frown on his face. "Hey now, the matches haven't started yet. Don't be so hasty." Gaara was looking murderous as Baki stood behind him whispering frantically to the red haired boy. Finally, the sand slowly snaked back Gaara and into the large gourd on his back. With a final glare, he turned away from the rest of them, folding his arms and lowering his head slightly. Baki looked up and nodded to the new Jounin, who responded in kind before turning around to face Jagaa. "You okay?"

"Nobody asked for your help." Jagaa said in a cold tone that surprised the other Konoha Genin.

"Uh, okay." The man said uncertainly, "Well, since it looks like everyone is here, if you could all please line up and face the audience, we'll get this show under way."

X X X X X

High in the stands, a pair of chocolate brown eyes watched the eleven Genin as they lined up behind the Jounin. However, her main focus was on the one who had taken up the spot on the far left of the group, his black clothing making him look almost like a shadow from the distance.

She had seen the way he stood unmoving as the deadly sand bore down on him and she couldn't figure out what he had been thinking. Why would he just stand their like that? Even from where she was, she could feel the killing intent coming off the red haired boy, so there was no way Jagaa could have thought Gaara was just bluffing, could he? A vision of his cold, ruthless eyes during his fight with Lee flashed through her mind, sending chills up Tenten's spine.

Maybe it wasn't so strange after all.

"Just who are you?" She muttered to herself. She found it was a question that she was asking more and more frequently as the days passed.

"Did you say something, Cupcake?" Tenten was brought out of her thoughts by the voice of her father. Shaking her head slightly, she looked over at him with a false smile. "I'm fine, Daddy, just thinking about something."

Kyougu nodded, a knowing smirk rising on his face. "Oh, I don't suppose it has anything to do with our favorite scarred, sword wielding teenage customer with a curious need to wear black all the time, would it?"

"W-what? What would make you think that?" Tenten sputtered, turning her face to hide her caught expression.

"Oh I don't know, maybe because you asked me what I knew about him no less than six times this last month, followed by the fact you haven't taken your eyes off him since he arrived." Kyougu smirked victoriously as the portion of his daughters face that he could see became beat red.

"What are you trying to say?" Tenten demanded, rounding on her father who held up his hands defensively despite his smirk.

"I'm just saying it's a little odd for you. Especially since you didn't seem to get along with him…well…at all. So the fact you seem to have taken such an interest in him…" Kyougu shrugged, leaving the end open to interpretation.

"IT'S NOT LIKE THAT!" Tenten screamed, causing many of the people next to them to start inching away. "It's just that…" She turned looking down from the stands at the boy in question, "I have no idea who he really is."

Kyougu sighed and put his hand on his daughters shoulder. "Trust me, Cupcake, I don't think anybody really does."

Tenten nodded and the two of them sat in silence for some time. "Say, Daddy?" Tenten finally asked.

"Hmm, what is it Cupcake?" He asked with a smile.

"Do you think you could stop calling me that? It's kind of embarrassing."

This time many of the nearby people chose to get up and go stand in the back when Kyougu burst out into tears of despair.

X X X X X

The Sandaime Hokage, Sarutobi, sat high above the arena floor next to the Yondaime Kazekage in the booth reserved for the Kages, looking down at the line of Genin. He was proud beyond measure that eight of the eleven below were all Genin from Konoha. Still, the Genin from Suna had proven that they were a force to be reckoned with, all three of them possessing skills well above the average Genin.

That line of thought drew the old mans attention to the darkest figure among the line up. Sarutobi's mind drifted back to the conversation he had had earlier with the scarred boy, and he let out a long sigh. 'Jagaa-kun, are you really going to…'

"Why the long face, Hokage-dono?" The Kazekage asked from Sarutobi's right, "Seeing as you have so many Genin representing your village in the final exam, I would think you would be much more excited."

"Oh, make no mistake, Kazekage-dono, I am indeed proud of the youth of our village." The old man said with a smile, "I am also pleased to see that your own Genin have preformed so well. With so many talented young Ninja competing today, I am expecting great things from the matches to come."

"Indeed." The Kazekage nodded his agreement, "However, I would have to say that your village has not only the most numbers, but the most talent as well. Wouldn't you agree, Hokage-dono?"

"I don't know. The three you sent are quite strong. I wouldn't be surprised if one of them manages to win the tournament." Sarutobi replied.

"Ah, but I am talking about overall talent. After all, a Hyuuga prodigy and the last of the Uchiha, wielder of the infamous Sharingan," The Kazekage's eyes lit up strangely as he spoke of the Doujutsu, "both being in the same exam will give Konoha quite the edge wouldn't you say?"

"Well, those two are talented, I will admit that, but talent is not the only factor in a fight." Sarutobi responded sagely.

"It seems only the outcome of the matches will be able to decide this for us, Hokage-dono." The Kazekage laughed as his eyes roamed down to the Genin below. "There is something I would like to ask you though, Hokage-dono. That boy on the end wearing black, how long has he been in this village?"

Sarutobi's eyes narrowed slightly. "What makes you think he hasn't always lived here, Kazekage-dono?"

"Hmm, just a feeling I had. It seems I may have been wrong though." Despite his words, there was a slight glint in the Kazekage's eyes that Sarutobi found slightly worrying. If Jagaa had done something in the past that had some how offended the Kazekage, things could get complicated. He didn't get much time to dwell on the issue though, due to the fact it was time to start the final test of the Chuunin exams.

"Hokage-sama," The Jounin with the senbon needle called from below, "I, Shiranui Genma, judge for the third and final test, hereby present the final participants of this Chuunin exam." He indicated the Genin behind him with a wave of his hand.

Sarutobi nodded to Genma before standing up and moving to the edge of the dais. Looking down at the eleven Genin below him, Sarutobi smiled proudly. "Congratulations, all of you, for making it this far. You have gone through many trials and hardship to reach this point, and now you stand at the finish line. I expect great things from all of you in the coming matches. Now, let the final test of the Chuunin exam begin." The old mans speech was met with a roar from the crowd that shook the stadium walls.

The day had finally arrived.

A/N: IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMNT (If you actually care)

Well first off, I am NOT scrapping the story, so if you thought that was it, then you were wrong. However, I have been having some difficulty lately getting the ideas flowing for this story. It's as if I know where I want to go, but have lost the map on how to get there (I like that analogy). To be honest, I have no idea when there will be another update at this rate.

SO, in order to try to get the ideas coming again, I'm going to go back through all the previous chapters and revamp them using some of the experience I've gained. I've already got plans to add in some dialog, pick up some of the action on the fight scenes, and just try to make the reading experience more enjoyable over all. I'm hoping that by doing so, my muse will start putting some effort into this story again as well, instead of being so focused on my second one. I still plan to try to finish new chaps even as I rework the old ones, but like I said, I have no idea when I'll have a new chapter written. Sorry about this to anyone who was hoping for faster updates, but this is the best I can do right now.

Well, I guess that's about it. Hopefully I can ideas again faster than I though, but right now, I don't know what the hells going on.