Alright, even I'm starting to get pissed at myself for the long updates. I'll go further into the issue at the end for anyone that cares. Anyways, here's perhaps my longest chapter yet to be posted on this site. I'm still waiting to get my beta'd one back (not his fault mind you, it's mostly mine) and I'll update it when I have the chance. For now, I hope that you enjoy this chapter.

"After you, Naruto," Sarutobi said, opening the door for the Genin. Looking back at the Hokage for just a second, Naruto complied and walked slowly into the dimly lit room. Though he knew that he had gone up stairs to get to this level, it looked more like a dungeon than the top floor of a great tower. There were no windows at all and the only source of light came from the open door behind him. As soon as Sarutobi and Hizashi walked in though, that too was shut and they were left in complete darkness.

For a moment, Naruto just stood silently, squinting through the darkness and trying to get a good look at his surroundings. When his eyes did finally adjust though, his heart felt as though it stopped in alarm. Another second later though, he was raggedly breathing again. He could now see the numerous columns that surrounded him, stretching too far off into the room for him to see where they ended. They had been going up stairs for a little while, so perhaps this was the roof. But this wasn't why he had become so shaken up. On the floor were two circles, one large one and another smaller one inside of it. Spread throughout the circle were various kunai stabbed into the floor, and drawn from the center of the circles were various kanjis, stretching out well past the circles…it reminded him all too much of the day that he had been branded with the Caged Bird Seal…when he had been "adopted" as a Hyuuga. Naruto could swear that he could suddenly feel an intense throbbing begin to pound in his head.

He started in surprise when he felt a hand fall on his shoulder. Looking back, he saw Sarutobi's gentle smile looking down at him, giving him an understanding nod and pat. Still looking at him, Naruto gulped down his fear and nodded back at the Hokage, slowly regaining the steady rhythm of his heart. When he had finally calmed down, Sarutobi gave another nod to Naruto and then walked past him to the seals on the ground.

"Kakashi prepared the sealing excellently," the Sanidaime said, walking around it and inspecting it. He turned his eyes back up once again and looked past Naruto and at Hizashi. "Forgive me if I am mistaken, but I presume you have a wide array of knowledge concerning sealing jutsu outside of your clan's own, am I wrong?" Naruto looked back to see Hizashi silently nod back at his Hokage. His eyes never fell onto Naruto. "Will you help me with the adjustments then?"

With another nod, Hizashi walked past Naruto, still not making eye contact and next to the Hokage. Naruto's eyebrows raised as both of them took from the folds of their robes a kunai each. Without even a moment's hesitation, they both cut into their left palms, squeezing the blood out for a small pool to form in their hands. Using their other hands, they dipped their fingers into the blood and slowly began to trace several seals into the floor, sometimes adding on and other times completely erasing one mark that had been there before. When the two of them were done, Sarutobi took a few moments to double check everything before giving a satisfied nod.

"Alright, Naruto, everything is almost ready," he said. "I'm going to have to ask you to take off your shirt though." Naruto nodded back, untying the sash around his waist and throwing the top half of his clothing to the side. "Now if you'll please sit in the middle of this circle, I'm going to have to make a few more seals on your own body as well…after I'm done, I'll be sure to take time to answer any questions that you might have."

Naruto walked over to the circle and obediently sat down in its center. Sarutobi once again squeezed some blood out of the wound on his hand and forced it to slowly drip down his finger. Walking behind Naruto, he quickly, but also carefully, began writing just as many kanjis down Naruto's body as he had on the floor. On a couple occasions, Naruto had to struggle to keep himself from laughing, specifically when he traveled down his right side. When he was done, the Hokage let out a long sigh and pulled out a bandage from within his robe, tying the wound around his hand.

"Well, now that we have that over with," he said sitting down beside Hizashi and across from Naruto, "we can finally take a moment to talk. So Naruto, if there is anything you want to ask about concerning the last week, I'm here to answer as many questions as I can."

"Um…What should I ask?" Naruto asked.

"Anything you want."

Anything? Well that was good. But he had so many questions he didn't have a clue where to start.

"Who…is Orochimaru?" Naruto finally said after a few more moments of silence.

To this question, Hizashi turned his blank eyes to the Hokage, who was gazing down at Naruto with a grim smile. "An excellent question to ask first, Naruto," the elderly man said approvingly, though he did not look any less sad than before. "Do you remember studying the Sannin in the academy?"


"Uh…" Naruto rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, avoiding Sarutobi's gaze. "We…probably went over that during a day I was sk…wasn't at school."

A small chuckle escaped from the Hokage as he shook his head at Naruto. "Well," he began, taking off his large hat and putting it off to the side, "the Sannin are three extraordinarily talented shinobi who originate from Konohakagure. Before you were even born, they were once our village's first and also last line of defense. As a unit, there was hardly a sole person alive who would be able to match them in battle…Orochimaru is one of the Sannin."

"What?!" Naruto shouted in shock, his mouth agape. "B-but I fought him! Me, Sasuke, and Shino nearly defeated him. We nearly took him down!"

"I'm sorry, Naruto," the Sanidaime said grimly. "If you truly did fight Orochimaru, then the only reason why you or any of your friends are alive right now is because he wanted you to live. At one time, he was even considered to become my successor, the Yondaime of this village."

Naruto suddenly became so much more aware of every breath he was taking, every beat his heart made in his chest. He had fought one of the most powerful shinobi that have ever come out of Konoha, and he had survived. No…he had been let go.

A sudden crash seemed to shake the very foundations of the entire tower. Naruto started and began looking about him in fear, but stopped when both the Hokage and Hizashi only looked around with mild interest. When they both saw how startled Naruto had been, a small smirk appeared on both of their faces, causing Naruto to fold his hands in his lap and stare back embarrassedly.

"Sounds like the next match had already started," Sarutobi said, almost as if he was commenting about something as simple as the weather. "I suppose that we should hurry along with our conversation so I may make it down for the final match. Now Naruto, what would you like to know next?"

Naruto took a moment to think for a moment. He was slightly inclined to ask about his seal, but he couldn't let the subject of Orochimaru go with what little information he had. "What happened to him? Why did Orochimaru leave the village?"

"The story of the Sannin is not one with a happy ending," Sarutobi said, looking much more somber than Naruto expected after asking. It was as if every word he was speaking was causing him pain. "I will only include the parts which concern Orochimaru. As I said before, Orochimaru was one of the few shinobi who were considered for the title of Yondaime. He was known far and wide throughout the village as one of the best. He had completed more S Rank missions than anyone in the ANBU combined. Most of all, he was efficient. Every mission that he was assigned to was carried flawlessly. He never left a mission unfinished. No matter the costs."

"What do you mean, 'no matter the costs'?" Naruto asked.

"…Though Orochimaru was recognized as one of the best shinobi of not only our village, but of the entire world, he was also infamous for his callousness. For the majority of his missions, he worked alone. He commented once how it was easier to complete a mission with no one holding you back. On the few assignments he was assigned to a team…not many of his comrades ever returned home. Oddly enough, many of their bodies were never found. The ones that did make it back talked of how unmerciful he was to not only his enemies, but his companions as well. He never came to any of their aid in battle. He never waited for them whenever one was injured. To him, such acts of kindness would only cause a hindrance to the success of a mission. In a normal case, I would say that he thought the mission came first, but that is inaccurate. To Orochimaru, the mission was the only thing that mattered. Nothing else did. Not even the lives of his comrades."

"Is that why he didn't become Hokage?"

"Partly," Sarutobi said with a nod. "But the true reason was because we found out exactly what he did outside of these missions. Sometime just before the Kyuubi attacked the village, there was a leak of information saying that Orochimaru was…conducting experiments. In those experiments, his test subjects were the bodies of dozens of shinobi and villagers alike, but the mostly comprised of the shinobi who had died on missions with him. Later studies suggested that he appeared to have been trying to develop an immortality jutsu." All through his story, the look of pain on the Hokage's face grew more and more strained. He no longer looked at Naruto, but at the floor. Finally, even his eyes were closed. "He escaped from the village and became a missing nin of Konoha. He hasn't been seen for the last thirteen years…until now."

Naruto was silent for a moment, looking at the old man in front of him. Who was this Orochimaru guy? Or perhaps a better question: who did he think he was? Immortality? Using experiments on other shinobi…from his own village even! Once again, Naruto had to force down his rage, gripping his fists. How could anyone do that? To betray one's own village…he couldn't even imagine. Konohakagure was his home. How could he do that?

"…Why is he back? And why did he put this seal on me?" he asked, jabbing his thumb to the back of his neck.

"To answer the first of those two questions, we only have theories," the Hokage said. "Luckily for us though, one of the proctors of the exam was able to detect Orochimaru's presence during the second part of the exam. Unfortunately though, she was much too late to locate you or any of your friends before Orochimaru had. She confronted Orochimaru, most foolishly I must add, and was able to survive through the encounter. Orochimaru must have been in a excellent mood since he nearly answered every question that she asked. According to her, he said that he didn't have 'enough men' yet to attack the village, so that doesn't seem to be the case."

"But didn't you say that you had some theories why he came back?"

"Well…" Sarutobi sighed and finally fished into his robe. After a moment, he took out a match box and his pipe. After lighting it, he stuck the pipe in his mouth and took in a deep breath, exhaling slowly. "I do have one prediction," he finally said. "Ever since he was a child, Orochimaru has always been interested in bloodline limits as he didn't possess any of his own. I recall that he was particularly fond of one specific doujutsu…the Sharingan of the Uchiha clan."

"You mean that bastard was after Sasuke?!" Naruto shouted, jumping to his feet. His rage had peaked. His heart was beating faster than any time during his match that had ended only about ten minutes ago. In his gripped fist, he began to feel something wet begin to drip down his hand. "He thought he could convince Sasuke to join him?"

"Naruto, you should already know, your own sensei is not of the Uchiha clan but he possess the Sharingan. We can presume that perhaps he wanted to do the same with Sasuke's own eyes," the Hokage said solemnly. Against Naruto's own belief, his rage rose even higher. But that would have meant that snake bastard would have probably killed him. Naruto could hardly believe how much rage he felt now. The anger he felt whenever Neji activated his seal now only seemed like a mild annoyance compared to how he felt now. He needed to hit something. Destroy something…or someone. And he had the perfect person in mind.

"Naruto, please, you must calm down," the Hokage said calmly. Beside him, Hizashi exchanged worried glances between the Sanidaime and Naruto. Time passed slowly as the two of them exchanged stares. Finally, Naruto's heart began to slow once again. He fell back to the floor, taken aback at how drained he felt.

"Yes, Naruto," Sarutobi finally said with the same calm tone as before. "We suspect that he may have come to the Chunin exam for Sasuke. Perhaps his whole purpose of him being here was to brand him with the seal that you both as well as Shino share. My guess that the two of you garnered enough attention along side Sasuke that he took an interest to both of you as well. We have reasons to believe that it is some kind of 'gift' that he gives to shinobi who he believes has the potential to become great. It's a way of seduction to him, to gain more followers. It grants the wearer an unknown amount of power when activated. But the power is a double edged sword, if you will. Though you will gain much more power than you originally possess, you will also lose yourself to the seal, and in turn to Orochimaru. You will be under his complete control. It acts spontaneously, or at the very least, when a certain amount of chakra is used by the wielder. It also responds to emotions as well. You may have not noticed, but when you jumped to your feet just a moment ago, the seal had activated. Black marks had begun to spread throughout your entire body."

"What?" Naruto asked, shocked by the sudden news. He hadn't even noticed anything happening. He thought he had just stood up…had he really lost control that easily? He had no idea…it had come so unexpectedly. If the Old Man hadn't stayed calm through their conversation, what would he have done? Would he have gone out of control again like he had when fighting that Genin in the Forest of Death? It wouldn't be the first time either that someone had told him that he had much too short of a temper for his own good. Was this going to happen every time he got slightly angry? Would he be able to keep his anger in enough check every waking second? Suddenly, Naruto felt an emotion quite different from the anger he had just had…it was fear. He didn't know how he could trust himself anymore. What if he got angry at Sasuke or Shikamaru or even Kakashi-sensei? Would he suddenly lash out at them in a rage?

"Don't worry yourself, Naruto," Sarutobi said reassuringly, rising up to his feet. "We're here for the exact purpose that you won't have to worry about stuff like that anymore." Naruto waited quietly as the elderly man slowly walked behind him, inhaling one last drag from his pipe and then setting it off to the side beside his overly large hat. "Now listen, Naruto," Sarutobi said seriously. "I cannot guarantee you that this will be a comfortable experience. In fact, it's going to be just the opposite. But I can assure you that it will be over in only a moment. Are you ready?"

Sarutobi was caught off guard when instead of receiving an answer, he received a chuckle. He looked bewilderedly down at Naruto, which only caused the boy's smile to widen even more. "Sorry, Old Man," he said, closing his eyes. "I just thought it was kind of funny. The seal keeping in that bastard fox, my cursed seal, the Hyuuga's seal…and now this one? I'm starting to feel like I'm some kind of tattoo fanatic."

The pained expression returned once again to Sarutobi, placing a reassuring hand on Naruto's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Naruto. So much is constantly put on your shoulders and no matter situation, you always take them on with a smile. It takes a strong will to not give into their suffering…you should be proud."

"Nah," Naruto said back shrugging, looking forward again. "I just have some good friends keeping me out of trouble."

Though he knew that Naruto couldn't see him, Sarutobi nodded down at Naruto approvingly, giving the blonde one last squeeze on the shoulder before removing his hand and beginning to go through the seals. Naruto waited patiently for him to complete the hand signs, staring forward in the dark room. After a moment of waiting, his eyes drifted back to Hizashi, and both of his eyebrows rose in surprise. He had mostly avoided eye contact throughout the Sanidaime and his conversation, so it was the first time that he took the moment to look at him closely. Whatever he had been expecting…it had not been this from the esteemed leader of the Hyuuga clan. It almost looked like…regret?

Naruto was snapped out of his thoughts when he felt a hand drop down on his shoulder. A moment later, he cried out in agony as the jutsu took effect. Unable to stay cross legged, fell to his side, gripping his body. It almost reminded him of the pain from the activation of his Caged Bird Seal…but the difference was that instead of the pain originating and residing mostly in his head, this echoed throughout his entire body. Rolling onto his stomach, he cried out as his body began to spasm. It took all the strength he could muster to even open his eyes. Right away, his attention focused on his right hand. It was gripped strangely, not completely closed but not open either. He watched it turn clawed and back to normal again, switching back and forth at varying intervals. At one time, small lines stretched down his arm, the marks stretching down a bright orange color and then retracting back while jet black. With one last cry in pain, he took a breath as he was finally relieved from the jutsu. Gathering as much strength as he could, he lifted his hand up to his neck and felt where the mark was.

"Don't worry, Naruto, the seal is set," Sarutobi said soothingly, though his voice sounded so far off. He began to close his eyes, but reopened them slightly when he heard someone kneel beside him. He glanced up and saw the Hokage right next to him, looking serious once more. "Naruto, you must listen to me for just couple more moments," he instructed carefully. "You need to know that this seal will keep the one that Orochimaru put on you in check. But this specific seal relies on your own willpower. If you ever doubt yourself…if you ever question the power's purpose, that it could be used as a gift, the seal will fail and take over. Your own spirit is the only thing keeping Orochimaru from corrupting you."

Naruto was able to nod weakly back before his eyes finally closed as he lost consciousness. Sarutobi once again stood to his feet, but he did not take his gaze off of Naruto. He found it surprising that he did not have the least bit of worry about Naruto keeping the seal in check. After all, there were few who could even hope to contend with Naruto's fierce will of determination and spirit.

Looking back up, he found Hizashi also staring down at Naruto, his blank eyes slightly closed, obviously deep in thought. "I wouldn't have disapproved if you took part during his questions," the Hokage stated.

"…The conversation was between you and him alone," Hizashi replied back. "I did not wish to interfere."

The Sanidaime only stared back at Hizashi for a few moments before bringing them back down to Naruto. "I never imagined the sealing would have such a violent reaction to him. The sealing in general is not supposed to be a pleasant experience, but I had not seen anyone react so strongly to it before."

"Do you have a suspicion why?"

"…Slightly," the Hokage said back slowly. "Could the Kyuubi have a part in it? His body did go through some transformations that may suggest that…but I'm not exactly sure. I will have to take some time to investigate further. Until then, I'm once again leaving him in your care."

"I promise not to disappoint you, Hokage-sama," Hizashi said respectfully, picking up the unconscious Naruto and carrying him in his arms. "I'll get him to the hospital quickly and make sure that he gets proper care and guard."

"Good," Sarutobi said back, as Hizashi walked by him toward the door. "But Hizashi…" The Hyuuga leader stopped, turning around once more to face his elder. With his most grave expression yet, he stared darkly at Hizashi, but not in suspicion of his motives. By his expression, Hizashi gathered that this information that he was about to hear was of top priority in Sarutobi's book. "Hizashi, you must already be aware that you and your clan are under constant watch by villagers and shinobi alike. Your actions of late have been, to say the very least, controversial. Now, because of Naruto's most recent condition, this will only become more so than ever before. I will do all I can to try and keep the cursed seal confidential, but rumors spread fast. You'll be under more watch than ever before now. This is the only friendly warning that you will get from me or anyone else…be careful where you tread Hizashi. One false step made by either you or Naruto could send the entire village, as well as yourselves, in chaos."

Time passed slowly as Hizashi stood motionlessly and mutely with his back to the man behind him. "…I understand completely," Hizashi finally responded, seeming to grip Naruto's body in his hand just a tad more. "Hokage-sama, the day after Naruto was inducted into my clan, I told you that I only had the boy's best interests at heart…that this was not for my own personal interest. In all honesty, I did not speak the whole truth to you on that day." The Hokage waited silently, waiting for the clan leader of the Hyuuga clan to continue. "In truth, there was a part of me that felt remorse that I had not done anything for the boy sooner. I had deluded myself for near thirteen years that this boy was not my problem…that lie came crashing down around me the day that Naruto walked into the Hyuuga estate behind Hinata. I thought that if I could just do this one thing for him…not only for him, but for the Yondaime…I may someday be able to make up for all my past mistakes, and maybe even be able to visit my old friend's grave once again someday…"

Sarutobi had become silent after Hizashi's monologue. He never would have dreamed that he would see the seemingly unemotional leader of the Hyuugas open up like this. He supposed that even the most stoic of people could only keep feelings bottled up their feelings for too long. And there was something else. For a moment, Sarutobi could have sworn that he saw Hizashi's shoulders drop slightly, almost as if a tremendous weight that he had been carrying around for so long had suddenly been taken off of him.

"…I will be sure to take what you say to heart, Hokage-sama," Hizashi finally spoke again, and then turned his back to walk out the door, leaving the Sanidaime alone in the room to ponder what he had just heard even further.

"Akimichi Choji has surrendered the battle. As a result, Tenten will move on to the finals," Hayate said, pointing his hand in the kunoichi's direction where she smiled proudly in victory. On the opposite side of her, a very shaken Choji was sprawled back on the ground with his back against the wall. Surrounding him on all sides was every weapon imaginable, from kunai to katanas to scythes to explosive tags. One particularly large club had been lodged near dangerous territory right between his legs. He nearly jumped out of his pants when he finally noticed Tenten had approached him and offered her hand to help him up. Hesitantly, he accepted it and attempted to rise to his feet, but ultimately failed as he plopped back to the ground. He held his arm painfully at his side and also stared at his left leg, as if looking at it hard enough will make it move.

"Well, Kiba," Kurenai said, putting a hand on top of her student's hooded head, "it seems that you'll be the only one from our squad that will be representing us in the finals. I'm sure that you'll make us all proud and do a fantastic job."

"Thanks, sensei," Kiba said appreciatively. He looked past her for a second and over to Sakura, but she was still intent to not look anywhere near his direction. With a disappointed sigh, he leaned back over the railing and watched Choji get examined by medic nins on the other side of the room for the injuries that he had received in the battle. Choji hadn't actually performed badly in his match. Hell, it was the best Kiba had ever seen him fight before. Kiba had almost been sure that he had won the match when he had performed a pinball like Nikudan Sensha attack on Tenten and caught her off guard. Unfortunately though, a quickly summoned bow staff propelled her over Choji and set her up for her win.

Wordlessly, Nara Shikamaru left his spot beside Kiba and began to slowly walk toward the stairs. Kiba only then remembered that he and Choji had been great friends when they were all at the academy. It made since that he would want to check up on him. Though hesitating for a brief second, Kiba followed Shikamaru down to the first level.

Looking back, it was only at that moment that Kiba noticed just how much their group on the balcony had slimmed. The same seemed to be true for the other side as well. Many of the matches ended with the victor needing to leave for medical attention as well as the loser. Others who hadn't moved on, such as Hinata, Ino, and the two older Genin where their match ended in a draw, had to leave also. The only two on their side really that were still around after winning their match was Shikamaru himself, and Tenten once she got back to their level. But there were only two matches left, so perhaps they didn't have to worry too much about anymore injuries. There was one of the older Konoha guys on the other balcony left, and then there was Shino, the kunoichi Oto nin…and that one last Suna Genin. Maybe everything will get done quick and smoothly without anyone getting seriously injured.

While walking down the stairs, Kiba watched Tenten wall ran back up to the balcony, seeming to have forgotten the stairs and landed beside her weird looking sensei. He was kind of distressed for a second when he saw that the later of the two had been reduced to tears, ranting about how far she had come since she had first joined his squad. From this far away there were times where his speech became so fast and blubbery that the only thing that Kiba could recognize was the words "youth" and "proud".

By the time he and Shikamaru got to Choji most of the medic nins had returned to their places around the room, but one still remained, tending to his arm.

"How's it look?" Shikamaru asked before Kiba could.

"He'll be just fine," the medic nin said reassuringly. "I don't think he even needs to go to the infirmary either. It might take a little while for me to heal him up though. He's got a good tolerance of pain. But when he was hit by that bow staff mid match, his right arm was fractured in two places." At this information it seemed as though Choji was hovering between the point of panic and pride. Akamaru suddenly jumped out of his resting place inside Kiba's sweater and walked up to Choji, placing a sympathetic paw on Choji's uninjured arm.

"This guy will be fine as long as he doesn't get hungry," Shikamaru said with a chuckle. Choji seemed to be avoiding eye contact with him, instead staring down at the floor. "Hey, don't you worry about a thing," Shikamaru said with a warm smile, and slapping his old friend on the back. "There was not much you could do about her, you got unlucky. You saw her two teammates go at each other. She's been training with them for about two years, not to mention that she's our senior. I think you actually did pretty well."

"Yeah, no joke," Kiba joined in, trying to cheer his teammate up. "I thought you had her a couple times. With how good you are now, you'll make Chunin no problem next year."

"You two are just saying that to make me feel better," Choji mumbled, his shoulders sagging even further. "You guys got into the finals no problem…"

No problem? The red mark that was still on his neck was proof enough that he had some trouble in his match. Kiba was about to say something but stopped when Shikamaru put up his hand to shush him. "Well, that's too bad," the other Genin said with a shrug. "I was going to treat you to barbeque after all of this was done, but I suppose it'd be too troublesome to bring a gloomy person like you along…"

"Barbeque!" Choji yelled, his face suddenly lighting up. "Why didn't you say so in the first place?! Hey, doc! Hurry up and heal me up, there's a barbeque steak with my name on it!" He winced in pain shortly after yelling this though, seeming to regret such an impulsive outburst. The medic nin only smiled back kindly as she continued to heal him.

Kiba sighed to himself and shook his head, not believing that he hadn't thought of the idea first. Looking over to Shikamaru, he gave him a thankful thumbs up gratitude, which he responded back with a lazy shrug back.

"Excuse me." The three Genins and medic nin looked up simultaneously at the proctor that had approached them. "We need to get on to the next match," he explained in his sick and raspy voice. "We can't continue while you're on this level. Could you heal him on one of the balconies instead?"

"Oh, of course," the medic nin said kindly, rising to her feet and looking at Shikamaru. "You're this boy's friend, correct? Would you mind giving me a hand taking him back up to the second level?"

"Sure, no problem," the Genin replied back, kneeling beside Choji and putting his uninjured arm around his shoulder. He was about to begin following Kiba back to their side of the room, but then he noticed that the medic nin was no longer following him. Instead, she had already begun to start her way up to the level from the side they were on.

"Um…could we maybe go to the other side?" Shikamaru asked. "I think his sensei and other teammate might want to check up on him."

"Oh, they've got nothing to worry about," the woman said back, waving carelessly in Shikamaru's direction. "We're already on this side of the room anyways and we might as well just get up to the balcony as soon as we can. Besides, this will give you a good chance to get to know some other Genin from other villages. After all, the Chunin exam was first established to strengthen the bond of ally shinobi nations," she recited intelligently.

Our leaders want us to become closer to other villages by beating the snot out of each other? Shikamaru couldn't help but wonder, glancing back up warily at the balcony. He could already spot farther down the third and now lone Oto Genin, glaring down at his direction. No doubt she probably still held a grudge toward him for not only what had happened in the Forest of Death but also for beating her teammate. Not to mention the Suna Genin that Naruto and Sasuke nearly got into a rumble with just before the exams had begun. With a sigh, he realized that there was probably little chance that he could convince the woman, and even if he did it would take too long and would further annoy the proctor. Looking back to Kiba, he gave the other Genin a wave, signaling for him to go on without him. For a moment, the dog nin glanced back and forth from one balcony and to the other. Finally, he took a breath and walked past Shikamaru and began his way up the balcony they were at. After a moment of watching him walk up the stairs, Shikamaru slowly followed.

When he got to the top of the balcony, Shikamaru carefully set Choji down on the floor against the wall for the medic nin to continue her work. After doing so, he took the empty space on Kiba's left on the railing. Glancing out of the corner of his eye the Nara could already tell that the two of them had become the center of attention, though Choji on the other hand was blessedly overlooked. The Oto kunoichi's glower had only become even more intense since they had arrived to the top, and the last thing that Shikamaru wanted was to get into yet another fight. From his spot against the wall, the Genin from Suna who had defeated Hinata in his battle occasionally looked up at both him and Kiba, eyeing them warily. He didn't seem to have any hostile motives, but he seemed to make sure that he didn't take his eyes off of them for very long. Perhaps the last one who seemed to be trying her best to pretend she didn't notice them was the Suna kunoichi who had beaten Sakura. She was on Shikamaru's left side of the railing, a little less than ten feet away. Though Shikamaru never could catch her looking directly at them, something made him feel as if her entire attention was on them.

Peculiarly enough, the last male Genin from Suna seemed completely oblivious to their arrival. Not once did the red headed boy (who appeared to be closer to Shikamaru and Kiba's age compared to the other two) look over in their directions. It was almost as if the two of them were nothing more than unimportant objects that happened to be in the room. Not that Shikamaru was complaining or anything. The less trouble he had to deal with the better. He had just about enough of fighting for his life for that week with the combination of the events in the Forest of Death and his match with Dosu.

The now familiar sound of the computer choosing its new combatants filled the room as it began to file through the four competitors that remained for the last time. A moment later, Shikamaru turned his head up toward the names that had appeared up on the screen in large, gold letters. "Subaku no Gaara vs. Akado Yoroi". That meant Shino would be facing the last Oto Genin. A small part of him began to worry about Shino. When they had parted in the forest of death after battling Orochimaru, the seal he had been branded with had nearly killed him, and as a result he had lost most if not all of the insects that he practically relied on in battle. Now that he thought about it, with the troubles that Naruto was having on their team with his own cursed seal, it was amazing that Shino, Sasuke, and Ino were actually able to make it to the preliminaries when two of their members were not at full strength. He supposed that they weren't recognized as the "elite" Genin squad for nothing.

Only a couple yards away from Shikamaru, the squad from Suna were thinking less about the match that was about to come and more about their own personal safety. Temari hesitantly looked back over at Gaara to check once again what his status was. She let out a relieved sigh when she saw that her brother seemed more disappointed of the match's setup than anything else. That was a reassuring, especially compared to what his condition had been just two matches ago had been.

At the beginning of the exams, Gaara's general interest in the matches taking place on the level just below him was near zero. It was only until the third match that he had seemed to show any interest at all. That had been during Uchiha's fight. By the time the match was done, Gaara seemed generally interested in Uchiha, which Temari couldn't say was a good thing for the kid. More often than not whenever Gaara took an interest in someone, they weren't long for the world. Temari did not consider it her problem though. The last thing she ever wanted was to get in the way of Gaara and his prey. Those people usually lasted an even shorter amount of time in Gaara's affairs.

From that point on, her brother once again seemed to lose all interest in the matches. Even the seemingly epic match between the Hyuuga and his teammate which had stunned even Temari had no effect on him whatsoever. But then came Uzumaki Hyuuga Naruto's turn. At the start, his match didn't seem anymore special than the others. Gaara showed some brief interest at the beginning, most likely because of his encounter with the blonde before the exam, but he once again seemed to lose interest as time went on.

But then that all changed about halfway through the match. It was when Uzumaki was trapped in the arms of his opponent in his strange jutsu. Temari had felt it before she saw it. Or rather she sensed it. It was as if a pulse of energy had blown right through her, freezing her blood to ice. She had looked over to Kankuro and Ibiki-sensei to see if they had felt the same thing, which she was able to gather by their expressions that they had. When she looked back to the other Genin on their balcony, they had seemed completely unaware. Perhaps it had been because the feeling that she had sensed felt so familiar.

It was then that she had felt the shockwave that had actually originated from Uzumaki's chakra. The same feeling as before filled her again, and she looked down as quickly as she could. She could hardly believe what she saw as she watched the red chakra slowly bubble out of the kid. To see chakra in the first place required a tremendous amount to be exuded all at once, a feat that even some Jonin in her village lacked. But there was no end to the chakra that poured out of this child's body. It was as if he was a fountain of chakra, it hardly seemed possible. She was also caught off guard when nearly all the shinobi from Konoha above the rank of Chunin suddenly gathered around their Hokage in alarm. It was obvious that they knew something that she and the rest of her squad didn't.

It was only after this moment that she had turned her attention over to Gaara. She had never seen Gaara in such a state before. He still had his arms crossed, but he gripped them so tightly that she noticed his knuckles becoming white. Not just that, but she could have sworn she had heard a swishing sound coming from inside his gourd. It was as if its contents were trying to escape, like it truly did have a mind of its own. But what made Temari afraid the most was Gaara's expression. His eyes had gone wider than she had ever seen in her life. It was like the look of an animal that had found its prey after hunting for it for several weeks. Even that seemed to be an understatement. He had stared unblinkingly down at Naruto, not taking his eyes off of him for a single moment until he was out of the room, and even then he did not take his eyes off of the doorway for several minutes after he was gone. She had literally felt the bloodlust coming from him…

After this last match and Uzumaki's departure from the room, he seemed to have calmed down. But one could never be quite sure when it came to Gaara. Temari had decided to still keep her distance. Now that his match has started, maybe he'll be able to work off some of the excess energy he still had after watching Uzumaki fight.

She silently watched silently as Gaara walk past her and toward the stairway, following her opponent down the stairs. When her gaze fell on Shikamaru though, her eyes momentarily locked with his and she quickly looked away. She immediately regretted doing such. What did she have to fear from this kid? By the looks of him he was probably two years her junior, maybe even more. Maybe the reason why she had looked away so quickly was how he had looked at her. It was as if he was analyzing her reaction as Gaara passed by her, as if he was gathering information for an important mission. Maybe it was because Temari was even the slightest bit intimidated by him. During his match, she had been sure after only a few minutes that he would not walk away the victor, and she was rarely ever wrong. Yet even she couldn't scoff at the brilliant strategy that he had devised with after such a short amount of time. In her experience, she understood that a smart shinobi was far more dangerous than a powerful one. The kid from Otokagure had underestimated him and now he was in the infirmary. She would be sure to not make the same mistake.

"Okay," Hayate said when the two combatants had finally made their way to the bottom level. "The ninth match will be betweenSubaku no Gaara against Akado Yoroi. Are there any objections?" A few moments passed as the two shinobi stood facing the other, not answering. Hayate took this as a no. "Well then, when the two of you are ready, you may begin."

"But of course," Akado said, crouching down to prepare his attack. "You must forgive me, Gaara-san. Despite the alliance between our two villages, I'm afraid that I can't allow you to proceed to the finals. You see, there is one there that I wish to fight. You should give up now while you can. There's no way that you can defeat me."

"…You talk too much," was the red-head Genin's only aggravated remark.

His opponent snarled back from beneath his mask, as his hands began to emit a peculiar light blue aura. "In that case, I'll let my actions speak for me!" Akado then dashed forward at his adversary, his arm stretched out in front of him. Gaara hardly even reacted to the oncoming attack at all. He remained motionless with his arms crossed, regarding Akado as though he was nothing more than an irksome fly that had decided to buzz around him for a few moments. Just before Akado's hand reached Gaara, the cork that sealed the gourd on his back shot out across the room and sand came pouring out. Akado's hand then collided into the wall of sand that felt as hard as steel, blocking him from his target. With a frustrated grunt, he darted to the side and attempted another strike, which the sand once again blocked. Growing irritated, he attacked from Gaara's back this time, but even then with his opponent not even looking at him, his attacks came up empty.

"So he uses sand, eh?" Kiba asked with one arm on the railing. "That's something that I haven't heard of. Is that kind of thing common in Suna or something?"

The snicker had escaped from Temari before she could stop it. She realized her mistake when the two Konoha Genin turned her way, as if waiting for her to continue. Temari only regarded them casually out of the corner of her eye before turning back to the match below, where Akado continued his futile attacks on Gaara. "…This kind of jutsu is unique to Gaara and him alone," she finally spoke for whatever reason. "Though he, for the most part, has complete control of the sand's actions, it also reacts instinctively to defend Gaara whenever he is threatened. Gaara doesn't even need to move or react to defend himself."

"Well that seems weird," Choji said, finally rising to his feet from behind them and took up the spot between Shikamaru and Kiba. The two glanced at him in concern, but Choji just waved at them dismissively in reassurance. Kiba slapped him in a friendly fashion while Shikamaru nodded back before returning his attention to the bottom level.

Now that he thought about it, "weird" was perhaps the only way that Shikamaru could describe the Gaara's technique. That and convenient. Not even needing to move to win a fight. He thought back to the day before the exam when he and his team along with Sasuke and Ino had first met this squad from Suna. He remembered when the second boy, who he remembered to be named Kankuro, had drawn out a kunai to attack them but stopped when some sand seemed to stop him from moving his arm. What he especially remembered though was the look of terror that had befallen him after he noticed it. Judging by his match with Hinata, he was no pushover by any means. Though the sand seemed not very threatening at the moment, someone like him would not be frightened so easily without proper reason. A sinking feeling appeared in Shikamaru's stomach, causing him to feel uneasy.

On the bottom floor, Akado leapt back to put space between himself and Gaara. His opponent on the other hand stood by motionlessly, staring back at him indifferently. That sand was just too fast for him to get around at his regular speed, he admitted begrudgingly. If that was the case though, he would just have to step it up a notch. Forming the necessary hand seal, he began concentrating his chakra to his feet. His special chakra stealing jutsu was not the only trick that he had up his sleeve. When he had finally collected enough chakra, he smiled underneath his mask and began to run at his opponent again. He jabbed his arm forward once again, and as soon as he saw the sand rise up to block his attack, he activated his jutsu and flickered out of sight. He reappeared directly behind his opponent, clearly surprising him. It seemed that the sand was fast, but it was no match for the Shunshin no Jutsu.

"This match is over!" he shouted in triumph, his arm reaching for his opponents head. He nearly stopped breathing though when his hand stopped. It took a moment for his mind to fully process that the sand was now gripping his wrist, his open hand only centimeters away from Gaara. He actually did stop breathing though when the grip around his wrist suddenly tightened and the younger Genin turned to look at him. He had never seen such eyes before…it was as if they were that of a beast's.

He was suddenly brought to his senses as more sand than ever began to pour out of his gourd and toward him, grabbing his other wrist and his ankles. Slowly, he began to rise up into the air until he was hovering higher than those up in the balcony.

"I don't like this," Kiba grunted from beside Shikamaru, taking a step back. Choji nodded in agreement, a bead of sweat trailing down the side of his face. Inside Kiba's jacket, Akamaru let out one last whimper before retreating inside his jacket, his body clearly shivering against his master's body.

"Wha-what are you doing?!" Akado shouted, clearly frightened, looking around him. He was not a fan of heights by any means, and the fact that he was held up by only his wrists and ankles did not soothe his worries. "Let me down this instant!"

Gaara studied him from below where he stood, not seeming to care in the slightest what his opponent was saying. All at once the sand that had been surrounding him suddenly piled together until it had taken the shape of a spear that was nearly as large as Akado himself, though hardly any wider than the railings that were on the balconies. Akado's eyes grew large behind his sunglasses when he saw this new weapon and desperately began trying to free his hands. No matter how he struggled though, the sand around him only gripped him tighter. He could already feel blood trickling down his wrist from the pressure that they were being held at.

"P-please!" Akado shouted, all of his self dignity utterly forgotten. "Please stop! I surr-" The end of his sentence was cut short as some of the sand that was around his wrist came up to his mouth, covering it so that nothing else he said made sense whatsoever.

"Finally we get to shut that irksome mouth of yours," Gaara said dully as the spear beside him began to tilt up toward Akado.

Shikamaru's heart was pounding within his chest. He could hardly bring himself to watch this. The guy had no chance, and this kid seemed to be enjoying his misery.

"This ends now," Gaara said, a psychotic smile spreading on his face. The spear beside him suddenly shot out at Akado and impaled him right in the center of his chest. From across the room, Kiba spotted Sakura covering her mouth in horror at the scene, not seeming to be able to take her eyes off of the man. His mouth still quivered agape, his full attention focused on the lance that had become lodged into his chest. Suddenly, the sand dispersed and this time wrapped around Akado's entire body so that his body looked like nothing more than a mass of floating sand. "Sabaku Sousou!" Gaara shouted. The sand suddenly seemed to compress up in the air and an agonizing cry filled the room. Then, there was complete silence.

Slowly, the sand lowered back to the floor. When it was finally arrived, it began pooling back into Gaara's gourd. What it left behind Shikamaru could not even bare to look at. Akado's body had been completely crushed by the sand. His arms and legs were twisted and bent in unusual ways and his entire body looked misshapen. It was as if he had been run over by a herd of stampeding oxen. Thankfully, his clothing mostly covered up the area where he had been skewered, but his purple attire was now soaked with blood.

Hayate could hardly even bring himself to cough as he looked between the corpse and Gaara. When he had seen the spear being made, he had not stopped the match since he had not actually believed that the kid would do such a thing. By the time he had realized his miscalculation, it was already too late. Looking back, he doubted that there would have been anything that he could have done to stop this kid. The look in his eyes had been savage and ruthless. But now, they seemed the complete opposite, he appeared almost calm. As if his mind had wandered off onto some other subject.

He couldn't really punish the kid for doing what he did. The matches were essentially battles to the death. It just so happened that this kid took this prospect perhaps a little too seriously. There was one thing for sure, he sure was glad that he wasn't the Genin who would face him in the finals.

"The winner," he finally said, outstretching his hand toward the victor, "is Sabaku no Gaara."

Gaara wordlessly turned his back to his fallen opponent and began his way back up the stairs. Immediately, Shikamaru, Choji, and Kiba's eyes met each others. The very prospect of this guy even walking by them now put all three of them on edge. The way that he had killed this guy so unmercifully…it could hardly even be called human. Each of them kept their eyes forward and down to the main level, keeping sure to not look at the corpse that had been left behind, which was now being covered up and collected by several medic nins. Shikamaru listened carefully to the patting footsteps climbing the stairs and eventually toward him, waiting for them to pass by. His heart froze though when he heard the steps stop, directly behind him. From the corner of his eye, Shikamaru could see Kiba tightening his grip on the railing in front of him and he heard Choji gulp loudly.

As time crept past, it became apparent that the Genin behind them was waiting. Taking a deep breath, Shikamaru shakily turned his body to look at Gaara, which Choji and Kiba followed suit. Instead of Gaara looking at all three of them at the same time, his entire attention had become focused on Shikamaru, staring at him with his cold, hardened eyes. Shikamaru's throat had become so dry that he couldn't even bring himself to swallow like Choji had before. He tried to suppress his shaking, though he could not seem to steady his hands no matter how he tried.

"…You are teammates with Uzumaki Hyuuga Naruto, correct?" Gaara finally asked, still gazing at Shikamaru.

The question took Shikamaru off guard, not able to find the words at first. "Yes…" he finally said, nodding back slowly.

"Please deliver this message to him for me," the other Genin responded back. "Tell him that I will see him in the finals, and that he better not lose before then." With that said Gaara turned his back to the three Konoha Genin and walked away, positioning himself in the exact same spot as he had been before against the wall.

Shikamaru had to grab the railing to prevent his legs from giving out on him. This week just kept getting better and better. He had thought that he had been terrified back in the Forest of Death when they had fought Orochimaru. Now this kid comes along and makes him just as frightened, if not more. And what did he want with Naruto? After hesitating only a moment, Shikamaru turned his head and glanced over in Gaara's direction, but the Genin merely continued to stare blankly out in front of him, as if their conversation had never happened. Just who the hell was this kid?

"Alright, then," Hayate said, looking back up to the separate balconies after the body had been cleared from the room. "Now we can proceed to the final match. Will the last two combatants please come down to the main level?"

It took a while for Shino to fully comprehend that he was being addressed. It wasn't until Asuma patted him on the back for good luck that he was brought back completely to his senses. Looking back at his sensei, he nodded back in his usual calm demeanor before heading toward the stairs. One characteristic of his that Shino took great pride in was how he could keep his emotions hidden from others, a natural talent that's been passed down through the Aburame clan from generation to generation. Rarely did anyone know what he was thinking or felt; which has resulted in his "questionable" reputation at the academy. He had never done anything to deserve such a reputation. It was just an unfortunate side affect. His father assured him though that such a talent would someday save his life on the battlefield.

But though he could cover his emotions, Shino could not bring himself to completely cut himself off from them. At that moment, walking down the stairs to his battle, he could not help but feel the fear slowly begin to race through his body. It was a response to the pervious match and how it had concluded. He could hardly believe that Suna Genin had killed his opponent in such cold blood. Worst off, he had appeared to have actually enjoyed it. Shino was a shinobi, prepared to do what he must for the sake of his village and family, but that did not mean he did not cringe at the thought of taking another's life. And that Genin…that kid who appeared no older than him, had relished the bloodshed.

Shino was even further put on edge from the reaction of the proctor. Barely even a minute after the body had been removed from the room, he called him to begin the next match, moving on as if nothing had happened. How could one do such a thing? Did a human life mean so little to a shinobi?

Shino gripped his fist, immediately clearing his thoughts. Now was not the time to ponder such things. If he allowed his mind to be clouded, he would inevitably lose focus on the battle, and ultimately lead to his own defeat. Also, from what he heard from Ino, this was one of the Genin who had been sent to kill Sasuke. How could he be sure that he would be treated any differently? He had to stay focused on his match. There was no point of contemplating what has already occurred and could not be changed. The man was dead and that was the end of it. Besides, he had never laid eyes on the man before today anyways. What did it matter to him that he died…? But weren't those the very thoughts that had put him on edge with the proctor?

The sharp and familiar pain that Shino had come all too used to over the week suddenly returned, though he did not allow himself to flinch while his opponent was within sight of him. He could not show any weakness. Besides, the mark on his neck had not ceased aching since he had awoken prior to their fight with Orochimaru, which disturbed him. From what he gathered, Sasuke's seal activated spontaneously and without warning. His, on the other hand, constantly throbbed and aggravated him. The pain had kept him awake for days on end while in the forest. But it was when he fell asleep when things went bad. Every time he would be plagued with nightmares, usually involving him futilely battling Orochimaru. Other times it was of his teammates being slaughtered by some unknown enemy whose face would only be revealed when the last victim had been cut down…each time he had been the murderer.

When he woke up, he would find his arms becoming incased with the strange markings that resembled what Sasuke had described when he had undergone the transformation. More often than not the marks would disappear soon after he notices them, but that did not put his mind at ease…

When he finally reached the main level, he passed by Shikamaru, Choji, and Kiba as they were returning to their side of the balcony. Shikamaru gave Shino a small nod as he passed, probably in respect to when their respective teams had worked together in the Forest of Death. Shino returned the same nod back, walking out into the middle of the room where his opponent waited patiently for him.

"The final battle will be between Aburame Shino and Tsuchi Kin. Are there any objections?" The two replied back, "No," simultaneously, practically answering before he had finished his sentence. Hayate nodded as he stepped back to give the two room. "If that is the case, then you may begin."

As soon as the proctor had finished his sentence, Kin fished into her weapons pouch and produced three kunai, launching them at Shino. The Aburame though was able to quickly dodge to the side and avoid the weapons, though his opponent did not allow him any time to prepare an attack of his own. She quickly lunged forward went for a quick kick to the side, though Shino was able to block the attack with his forearm.

"You're scared, aren't you?" she asked suddenly, sneering at him.

Angrily, Shino pushed her leg away and lunged at her as well. She jumped around him though and sidestepped his strikes, easily avoiding his attacks. This was not good. He couldn't catch her. He was too exhausted from both lack of sleep and the arduous second exam. Not to mention that he wasn't what one would call the best at Taijutsu either. If he were to ever throw a punch, it would usually be a swift and powerful one to end the battle immediately. He usually left the hand to hand combat to Sasuke and Ino. Plus normally he could count on his insects to assist him and give him the edge he needed in battle, but now he had lost him trump card. Things weren't looking up for him.

"You can't hide your fear from me," Kin continued as she avoided each of Shino's strikes. She suddenly produced a kunai from behind her, slashing at Shino. He nimbly dodged the weapon though and was able to bring out his own kunai. The two clashed together, their weapons locking as the two fought for control. He was surprised at how powerful she actually was. Or was his fatigue having more of an effect on him than he had originally thought? "I know why you're scared too. That was the first time you had ever seen someone die, hasn't it? I can tell that you're the kind of guy who can usually keep his emotions in check," Kin continued, leaning in closer so that Shino could hear her clearly as their kuani remained locked together. "Your face is practically devoid of emotion. But…your eyes give you away. Though you can control your expression, you can't control your emotions, and your eyes tell me everything I need to know."

Shino was caught of guard as Kin suddenly leapt backwards, causing him to stumble forward, off balanced. It was pure luck this time around that he was actually able to dodge the kunai she threw at him, though he was not able to recover fast enough to dodge or block her next assault. The high kick sent him spiraling backwards before rolling to a stop.

A small laugh rose from her, but she stopped as Shino slowly picked himself up from the floor, facing her once again. "You're right," he said, rubbing his right shoulder. "I'll admit that I was…affected by the previous match. Although, I must say that I would feel more unease if I didn't react in such a manner. Yes I was frightened, and yes I still feel those same affects. But that does not mean that I will not do what I must to win this match. If I were to lose here, I would only be disappointing my teammates as well as myself. So, if you are finished, I would like to continue this match."

Shino only wished that he actually felt just as confident as he sounded. Quickly and quietly, he analyzed his situation. He didn't allow himself to reach into his weapons pouch to check on his equipment, he was already aware of what he had. He and his team usually split the responsibility of carrying certain weapons to the one most proficient with said weapon. Sasuke usually took care of most of the wire that they took along, possessing a special talent in traps and utilizing them in battle. Ino, for the most part, kept with her most of the shuriken and kunai, which she always made sure that he and Sasuke were in ample supply of at all times. He, on the other hand, hardly used any weapons at all, and as such he was put in charge of the least used, but at the same time most dangerous of all their tools. Smoke bombs and explosive tags. He understood the risk he was taking for relying so much on such dangerous weapons. They could work as much against him as it could work for him. But when he thought about it though, he concluded that he probably had little choice in the matter.

"You want us to finish up this match? Fine, then let's finish up," Kin said, reaching back once again into her weapon's pouch. At first glance, Shino thought for a moment that she had mistakenly drawn out nothing. When she brought back both of her hands though, he was able to detect a slight glint of light reflecting off of the senbon that were in each hand. While she moved her arm back though, his ears picked up the small chime of bells that were at the end of the senbon. He ducked out of the way as soon as the weapons were thrown, keeping an eye out for any extra senbon without bells. Sure enough, he caught sight of three of them heading his way and leapt out of the way.

This was by no means what he would call a brilliant strategy. The intention was obvious. Catch the opponent off guard by having him rely on the sound of the bells to judge where the senbon were. After doing so, throw senbon without bells that your opponent won't be paying attention to and catch him off guard. Shino had heard of such a strategy before back at the academy, but this was not what he would call a well carried out version of the plan. Besides, senbon were weapons meant for only the most skilled weapon specialists. Unlike a kunai, they cannot cause long lasting damage by just hitting anywhere on the body. As they were much smaller, senbon required to hit a specific area the size of a marble to do any lasting damage. Even if Shino did let a few senbon escape his notice, as long as he kept moving, he'd be able to avoid any serious injury.

Suddenly, Shino's legs gave out on him, and he fell to the ground, which resulted in three senbon sinking into his arm, coming dangerously close to one of his vitals. He quickly tried to rise to his feet, but only then realized that he couldn't move. Another chime of the bells on the wall behind him alerted him to the truth. Genjutsu! How could he have overlooked something so obvious?! The senbon without the bells were the true distraction so he didn't pay so much attention to the ones with bells attached to them. He should have known better…

"Having some problems?" Kin asked. Shino looked across to her, not surprised to see her doubling in front of him, an obvious effect of the Genjutsu. He numbly took out one of the senbon in his arms and threw it at the middle Kin. Unsurprisingly, the senbon flew straight through the image. "I take it that means that you're starting to hallucinate, she said laughing. All the images suddenly produced three senbon in their hands and threw them right at him. It was all Shino could do to just raise his arms to block the rain of needles. Luckily, only three sunk into his arm, though he could hardly call such a thing "lucky". He had to do something…she was only toying with him now. The moment she gets bored with him, he'd lose the match, or worse…

"I can't believe that he was so interested in you," she said next. Shino hadn't noticed just how close she had gotten. A violent kick to the face sent him spiraling backwards. For a moment, the pain snapped him out of the genjutsu, but another quick ring of the bell fixed that. Fortunately though, it did not have such a strong effect as before. Not just that, he realized as time passed from each ringing of the bells, the genjutsu would decrease in power. She needed to keep the bells chiming to keep him under the technique. All he needed was enough time to make a plan… Slowly, his hand inched closer and closer to it. As soon as his hand touched it though, he felt a foot pin him down from behind, putting him face down to the ground. Once again though, his genjutsu was temporarily broken, which gave him just enough time to grab what he needed and prepare…

"I can understand why he chose Uchiha and that Uzumaki kid, those two are actually impressive. You, on the other hand, you're nothing more than a weakling compared to the other two. You're nothing but a little bug…" she stated, raising her hand over her head for one final attack with her senbon.

A moment passed in silence as Kin waited for a reply. A very strange thing happened though as time crept by. At first, it almost sounded like Shino was sobbing, bringing a sneer to Kin's face. It didn't take long for her to realize though exactly what it was. He was chuckling.

"An excellent choice of words," Shino said, glancing back up at her. "You see, I know more about bugs than anyone else in this room combined. Though you are correct that insects do not possess the natural brute force to contend with other organisms, I've come to learn that they find other such ways to level the playing field."

Summoning every ounce of energy he had, Shino shoved himself up from the floor just enough to knock Kin off of him. She stumbled back a few steps, trying to catch her balance. Angrily, she turned her gaze back down to him and drew back her senbon, but stopped when she saw what he had prepared. As quickly as she could, she rang the bells on the other side of the room with the wire in her hand, stopping Shino once again, the kunai inches away from a paper bomb that was on the ground.

"You've got to be insane," Kin said, her eyes darting from Shino to the kunai in his hand and then down to the paper bomb and then repeating the process and ringing the bells once again to keep the genjutsu in affect. "You would've blown us both to hell if you had done that."

This wasn't good. All Kin needed to do was take a better look at the explosive tag to see the small bulge underneath it to understand. He needed to activate it! Gritting his teeth, Shino put all the willpower that he had into his arm in an attempt to force it down on the tag. Noticing this new added effort, Kin activated her bells again and simultaniously threw three more senbon at Shino into his hand that held the kunai. Though pain rushed up his entire arm, he did not allow himself to let go of the weapon. Sasuke had overcome his opponent, and Naruto had been able to defeat his against all odds. He would not be the only one of the three to be defeated here! His breath quickened as his hand slowly began descending to the tag, not even paying attention to the ringing that was sounding behind him or the senbon that he was continually being impaled with.

More…more…more! Shino thought, getting closer and closer to the tag. Then, something seemed to snap within him. With a dark smile, he brought down his kunai as hard as he could onto the fake tag, activating the small smoke bomb that he had hidden underneath it. Immediately, everything around him and Kin was shrouded in purple smoke. To his amusement, he realized that he had been completely released from the Genjutsu that he had been under. Perfect… Reaching back into the weapon's pouch, he drew out three more smoke bombs and threw them to the ground, enshrouding him and his opponent in even more smoke.

Following the sound of his opponent's cough, as soon as he caught sight of her through the purple haze he grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and threw her to the ground. Before she could react, he punched her in the nose, forcing her head to collide with the floor. Still, she tried to rise to her feet, but Shino only punched her once again.

"Do I seem so weak to you now?" Shino asked standing to his feet, feeling his smile widen even further. Bringing up his foot, he stomped it into Kin's stomach, forcing the air out of her. In a panic, she looked tried her best to regain the air that she had lost, but the smoke stopped her. The smoke used in smoke bombs was a special, heavy kind that did not rise, but fell. "Please…stop…" she gasped, weakly trying to lift the foot off her stomach and looking at Shino in terror.

"Sorry," Shino said, putting even more force down onto her and drawing out this time an actual explosive tag from his weapon's pouch, "you're going to have to speak up." He savored the look of fear on her face as he slowly brought the explosive tag so that it was inches from her face. It was then that Shino looked down to his own hand, finally noticing the black, circular markings that had enveloped his hand.

This brought him swiftly back to his senses. He stumbled back in shock, looking at the blood that had stained his hand from punching his opponent. What had happened to him? And when had the markings returned? He lifted up his sleeve and saw the same circular pattern had traveled up his arm as well. Looking at his other hand, he saw the same thing. He was swiftly brought down on his knees when the mark on his neck sent another rush of pain through his body. This was not good. He had to calm himself down. Control, he had to regain control!

Slowly, he forced his heart to regain its normal rate. With deep breaths, he watched the marks on both of his hands gradually snake their way back down his arm and up his sleeve. By the time the smoke had finally dissipated around him, the pain as well as the marks on his body was gone. Weakly looking up, he saw that Kin had slipped into unconsciousness while he was trying to control himself. He opened his right hand and saw that he still held the explosive tag in his hand…just what exactly had he planned to do with it, he wondered with a shudder.

He realized that he had been proclaimed the winner when he noticed Asuma beside him. He heard his sensei asking him worried questions that Shino could not comprehend. Before he could make any sort of reply, exhaustion overtook him and he slipped into unconsciousness.

Sarutobi watched silently as the last of the three Genin that Orochimaru had branded left the room. This time though, he was being carried instead of lead out like the other two. The Hokage had been able to sneak into the room with a quick Kawarimi no Jutsu with his Kage Bushin midway through the previous match. Not that he felt now that he had actually needed it. He probably could have walked straight through the front door and no one would have noticed him during that fight.

But he could contemplate about that match later. Right now, there were other pressing matters to attend to. Turning his head, he studied Anko beside him, who was watching Shino very intently as he was carried out of the room by his sensei against the wishes of several medic nins. He found it difficult to place exactly how she felt about the situation. Part of him thought that she wasn't even thinking about the present, and instead had drifted off onto some other unknown subject.

"Well, Anko, what do you think?" the Sanidaime finally asked.

Anko didn't question what he meant, putting her hand on her chin in thought. "…I didn't like how that last match ended up. That Kin girl had hardly a scratch on her when that smoke came up and when it was gone it looked like she had a sledgehammer pound her face in. The kid was too cool and calculating in my opinion beforehand to actually pull it off. By his actions I'd say that he wanted to end the battle as quickly as possible. We don't know what happened to them in that smoke, but I have a feeling something…went wrong."

Understanding what she meant, Sarutobi nodded back. "Do you believe that the seal was activated intentionally?"

Anko took a couple more moments to contemplate her answer for this one. "…No. If he wanted to activate his seal at the beginning of the match, he would have done the smoke trick earlier and pulled it off better. I bet he accidentally tapped into it while trying to get to that smoke bomb he had under that dud tag. Still, he might be unstable. He'll need to be put under careful watch-"

"You understand that I can only go so far concerning that option," Sarutobi interrupted, making himself clear. Anko didn't respond back, obviously not liking the answer. In the end though, she only shrugged at the elder man. "What about the other two?" he asked next.

"I think we can worry the least about the Uchiha kid," Anko said rubbing her chin. "He had some trouble with the seal during the fight but it never activated. As long as we keep it in check with the counter seal, I think he should be fine. But Uzumaki…that's another story. He didn't give into his seal, true. But he did give into the power of…something else during his match." Sarutobi understood what she was saying. He had wanted Naruto to elaborate on the subject for him before, but eventually decided that it could wait. The boy has had a long week. "Even though he didn't use the seal, he still tapped into the other power when he was in danger. If he gets into another dangerous situation and that power doesn't end up being enough, there is a possibility that he could be tempted to use the seal. He might be the one that we have to keep an eye on the most…"

"I may have a solution to that problem."

Anko and Sarutobi both turned their heads toward the voice. Standing across from them was Kakashi, his hands casually tucked into his pocket. He let out a sigh while facing Anko's heated stare for jumping into their conversation, but he had no choice in the matter right now.

"What are you talking about, Hatake?" Anko asked, not very nicely if Kakashi might add.

"Oh, just a way to keep Naruto in check at all times that will benefit him in more ways than one. Mostly though, it's just a favor."

"Will you be able to elaborate with us, Kakashi?" Sarutobi asked, raising his eyebrows. Something told him though that he wasn't the primary person that was being addressed.

"Sure thing," the Copy Nin replied back with a chuckle. He had to admit though, this was probably either the greatest plan that he had ever developed in his life…or the worst.

I've found out something in this chapter. Shino is difficult to write about for me. I'm definetely going to need more work with him (which I'll get plenty of time with next chapter *wink wink*). Anyways, I'm still pretty 'meh' about his match anyways. I wanted to fit the cursed seal in somehow... I have to say though, thinking up a different fight every single chapter is incredibly difficult. I went into the Chunin Prelims excited and now I'm leaving glad that it's finally over. Funny how that works out.

But here we are though, the time between the prelims and the finals. Honestly though, I'm pretty excited about it. I have A LOT planned in between here. Lot's of character development from many characters and I may even throw in an extra mission (working on that). I think that this will be partly easier and partly just as hard as the prelims. Oh well, at least I have time now to worry about the finals.

As for my lack of updates...let's just say that I've been a little more active as of late. Trying to find a job, playing various video games, and just hanging out with friends who I'm going to be leaving very soon are taking up a lot of time. Plus my otaku level has considerably raised this past five months (my God it's really been that long). I've been catching up with some new anime like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (totally epic anime!!!), Death Note (nuff said), and even others like Berserk, Genshiken, and Black Lagoon. I've gotten plenty of inspiration from all of these too (goodie points to those who can catch the Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann reference this chapter).

Anyways, I apologize (again...) for the long wait and hope you enjoyed the chapter. Any feedback that you can provide is most apprciated. Favorite, review, yadayadaya. Again, if anyone is interested, I now have my own youtube account. You can find the link to it via my fanfiction account. Anyways, until the next chapter everyone. I hope to see you all soon.