A/N: Mandalore-holics and True Believers, thank you for your patience. I know I promised and promised this would be out much sooner, but, meh. Life happens. Even still, I hope you all will thoroughly enjoy the next exciting chapter of Ultimate Experiment: Weapon-X in its' final form.
Chapter Seven: The Chuunin Selection Examination Preliminary Round
"It's good to see you're all right, Naruto-kun," greeted Sarutobi as Naruto and Anko made their way into the private offices of the Forest Tower. Each of the villages had representatives stationed in Konoha, each with their own offices and recreational lounges. The previous night's incident with Orochimaru did little to promote public relations, especially with Konoha's Anbu now on high alert and Naruto's burst of Chakra within the forest along with Orochimaru's own.
Sarutobi Hiruzen had been swamped with all sorts of questions and paperwork since the previous night. It was a difficult and on going task to keep everything under wraps.
The Leaf Shinobi in the room had all been informed of the recent tide of events. Most of them were clan heads and/or members of the Konohagakure no Sato Council. They were all well aware of both Naruto's identity and his heritage, along with his time with Orochimaru- without specific details. Naruto smirked at the looks and smell of discomfort and fear on many of the councilmen.
Others in the room were those who were 'in the loop'. These included the primary proctors for the exam which were, Morino Ibiki, Shiranui Genma, and Gekkou Hayate. Others were elite Jounin- Hatake Kakashi, Sarutobi Asuma, Maito Gai, and, to the protest of many, Momochi Zabuza.
Yuuhi Kurenai, being a rookie Jounin, had not been apart of the initial group and was actually left completely out of the loop until Team 7, Team Akira and Anko had engaged Orochimaru in combat. However, unlike Asuma and Kakashi, she still wasn't completely 'in the know' and only knew that Hinata and the others managed to pull through and that Naruto was the missing Kyuubi container and a former operative of Orochimaru who, unlike Anko, still had his memories completely intact.
"It would take more than the snake to keep me down," Naruto replied.
"You still look like Hell, gaki," stated Zabuza.
"Let me try starting a forest fire with your body and see how well you look, bastard," Naruto responded.
"Childish bickering aside," said the disdainful voice of Danzou, "We need to discuss our next plan of action now that Orochimaru has made his move."
Naruto frowned, "Then why am I up here?"
"I agree Saru, why is the gaki here. It seems convenient that his appearance just so happens to coincide with the return of your wayward student," responded Danzou.
Naruto growled and let the three claws of his right hand pop out. "I am NOT working with Hebi-teme! And if you want to keep what's left of your body attached to it, cripple, I wouldn't even think about suggesting that again. I admit to having no love for this village, but as long as you are Orochimaru's enemy, I am your ally."
Many were not happy to hear that statement, but were too afraid of saying anything to make the former subordinate of Orochimaru snap.
"It is very unwise to threaten me Uzumaki-kun. I may not be what I once was, but I am more than capable enough to handle problematic situations as they arise," Danzou threatened back openly glaring at Naruto.
"Send your assassins, as many of them as you can," replied Naruto, "I'll gladly send all of them back to you in pieces." Naruto glared right back at the crippled old shinobi, while emitting a small amount of killing intent that was returned in equal force.
"Be that as it may, Naruto," Sarutobi intervened diplomatically, "Since you have dealt with and interacted with my former pupil the most recently, you have the most up to date information of how his organization works, your input will be invaluable to this meeting."
Both Naruto and Danzou scoffed, neither unwilling to break the other one's gaze.
"What's there to discuss!?" asked Anko incredulously, "We have to cancel the exams and detain the Uchiha while sending out as many teams as we can spare after Orochimaru. There's no telling where he could be after last night!"
"We can't," replied Naruto.
"And why the hell not!?" demanded Anko, feeling betrayed that Naruto would take a stance against her.
"We have too many foreign shinobi in the village," said Naruto, "Canceling the exams would only hamper our movements by spreading out our already too thin forces to set up proper security. We wouldn't have enough ninja for a team capable of taking him and whatever guards he brought with him down. He only brought the Otoyon to the Forest of Death, but we don't know who else he brought into the village or who he has waiting outside of it."
"Orochimaru has plans, and those include the Chuunin Exams," Nara Shikaku added.
"Which is all the more reason we should stop them!" exclaimed a frustrated Anko.
The Nara Clan Head shook his head in disagreement. "It's all the more reason to keep the exams going. Whatever plans he has, they involve the exams and the Uchiha. Knowing that much, we can plan accordingly and set up extra precautions. He has made the first move and we have to tread lightly to counter it. His move was very decisive, but we're not in a good enough position to make a bold move like that from where we're at."
"And that's just from a strategic point of view," added Utatane Koharu. "Canceling the exams would not only be strategically damning, but there are also the political ramifications to consider."
"Screw politics! There is the safety of the village to consider! While my old sensei is out there, no one is safe!" shouted Anko.
"That's enough of your insolence Mitarashi!" snapped Koharu. "I can not fully comprehend the things done to you and Uzumaki-san, however you must think things through rationally, or have you already forgotten your own encounter in the forest with Orochimaru?" Anko flinched at that. "Both you and Uzumaki both acted hastily and irrationally. However, where Uzumaki had little choice, you rushed into a battle you knew you had little chance of winning, alone, and nearly paid dearly for it! How many people have to die before your need for revenge is sated?"
Anko looked as if she had been physically struck. Naruto had to admit that the old bat still had a bit of fire to her to still be able to put people like Anko in their place. The snake mistress backed down from her stance, but she definitely gave Naruto a look that they would be discussing the matter further in private.
"So, Uzumaki, since you're our new 'expert' on Orochimaru, what do you think he'll do next?" asked Danzou mockingly, causing others in the room to frown.
Naruto let out a low growl. The old war hawk was most certainly not helping. "I'd say he was getting ready for an all out attack, but he doesn't have the type of numbers to successfully invade Konoha alone."
"What about the other Weapons, you told Hokage-sama that there were twenty of you," suggested Koharu.
Naruto shook his head. "Even if he were to unleash the Weapons, at most, they could equalize the battle. Kimmimaro's disease has been getting worse, if Orochimaru had found a cure for it; we'd have seen him last night in the forest. Thirteen is too rabid to predict what he'd do. He's as big a threat to friendly forces as he is to the enemy. Nineteen, last I heard, was to be destroyed. He snapped under the pressures of being a weapon and became uncontrollable. I have no idea where Suigetsu and Vinsento are, but I know neither one are working for Orochimaru. It goes without saying that some of the others haven't even been battle tested yet. As careless as Hebi-teme can be with his subordinates, a full scale invasion would not be the place to test how strong his creations are."
"Wouldn't it?" asked Danzou. "It seems like the perfect time to unleash strong subordinates in order to bolster troop morale."
"But there are no guarantees that they'll be as strong as he hopes. Especially with me being here," said Naruto, "I am the strongest of all the Weapons. Any confrontation between me and them will result in my victory."
"You seem rather sure of yourself," said Danzou evenly.
"I was made the leader of his most elite team for a reason, don't push me," warned Naruto as his eyes flashed red. "Now, if he does go for an all out assault on the village, he's going to have two targets that he'll focus on so his men can destroy as much of the village as possible. Me and the Hokage."
"What about the Uchiha?" asked Inoichi.
Shikaku shook his head. "No, he's already achieved what he wanted to there. From the reports from Hyuuga Hinata and Haku, Orochimaru said that Uchiha Sasuke would eventually come to him. This fact, combined with supplemental reports from Naruto on the cursed seal, suggests that the seal has some sort mental control component."
"Which is why I had Kakashi place another seal on it upon their arrival this morning to help contain those side effects," interrupted the Sandaime.
"Every single one of Orochimaru's subordinates has at least heard of the Mokushiroku no Yonkishu, some have even seen us in action, he'll want to keep me as far away from his subordinates as possible. The Hokage, aside from being his old sensei, is Konoha's greatest protector. The Hokage's death would be a serious blow to our forces. Orochimaru will find a way to deal with him personally."
"It makes sense," said Shikaku, "With you having the most knowledge, he would want you out of the way fairly early, even if it's only a distraction."
"So what's our next move going to be?" asked Akimichi Chouza.
"Nothing," answered Naruto. Shikaku nodded.
"What do you mean, 'nothing', Naruto?" Anko asked venomously.
"It's the only thing we can do," stated Shikaku, "We currently don't have enough information, so we'll let the Chuunin Exams proceed as usual, gradually stepping up our ANBU patrols and having some extra security set up during the finals."
"Damn it! That isn't enough!" Anko pressed.
"It's going to have to be for the time being Anko-chan," replied Sarutobi with a stern look at Anko that told her to drop it. Gritting her teeth and letting out a small growl she complied.
"What about the Uchiha?" she asked in an annoyed tone.
"We let him compete," Danzou spoke up. "So long as he doesn't use the Ten no Juin's power, I see no reason to keep him from doing so."
"But…!" Anko began to shout.
"We understand you concerns Mitarashi-san, but you have to look at the big picture," Hiashi interjected. "As host of the Chuunin Exams between ourselves, Suna, Taki, Oto, Kusa and Ame all eyes are on us, even those of the villages not involved in these exams. The battle between Uzumaki and Orochimaru did us no favors and already the other villages are suspicious, even if they haven't outright said it. No matter how dire the situation, we must maintain a perfect image for the greater good of Konoha."
"Fucking politics…" Anko cursed.
"You will find that most of us agree, but they are a necessary evil," Hiashi replied. "Too much hangs in the balance of how we handle the situation, we must tread carefully."
Two cloaked figures sat underneath the moonlit sky, atop the central tower of the Forest of Death. They had been up there for quite some time after their debriefing with the Hokage hours earlier.
"I was impressed with one of our Rookie Teams," said Anko. "They almost shattered all the course records getting here in a mere eight hours."
Naruto raised an eyebrow, "Oh... Which one?"
"Nai-chan's team," said Anko.
"Hn... I'd have been disappointed in them if they hadn't gotten here first," said Naruto. "They're a recon team, first and foremost, and this is a forest. Missions like this are their specialty and they're on home turf."
"Yeah, well they weren't first," said Anko, "A Suna Team was."
"The one with the Kazekage's children on it," said Naruto with slightly narrowed eyes. His tone was that of a statement rather than a question.
"Uh-huh..." Anko informed him eyebrow quirked inquiringly.
"Something isn't right on that team..." said Naruto frowning. "The older two are pretty skilled. The older brother is quite crafty and good at deception and the sister; she's even more deadly than she is beautiful. Very good with strategy and tactics. She'd be a long range powerhouse on any other team."
"What do you mean, Naru-chan?" asked Anko curiously, she had been about to tease him about the beautiful comment until he made that last statement.
"It's the youngest one, Gaara... Something isn't right with him..." said Naruto, "And his scent is more familiar to me than it should be, it's almost as if he..."
"Was a monster?" said a voice behind them.
Naruto and Anko's eyes widened at the fact a mere Genin from a foreign village had snuck up on them.
'He's down wind... But I should have still sensed him up here... There is no way he's an ordinary Genin...' thought Naruto.
"From the day I was born, that is what I have always been…" said Gaara, "A monster... The Ultimate Weapon, a demon of the sands. And all for what it is that I contain within me, since the day of my birth."
'A Jinchuuriki!' thought Anko in shock.
"Neither of you are afraid. Surprised, but not afraid... Why?" asked Gaara with a slight frown.
"Because... I'm like you..." said Naruto, "Monster, Demon, Abomination, Freak, and Murderer… A Weapon…"
Gaara's eyes widened in shock right before he got an eager glint in his eye. "Then you will be the ultimate test of my existence."
The cork of Gaara's gourd popped off and tendrils of sand began to spill out. Naruto's eyes took on an otherworldly glow as he brought out his claws and let out a menacing growl. "Bring it, bub."
The three looked towards the source of the voice only to see a Suna Jounin with half his covered. "That's enough! We don't need you getting disqualified."
Gaara glared at the Jounin and let loose a torrent of killing intent. To the Jounin's credit, he didn't even flinch, though Naruto could tell he was more than slightly apprehensive at the prospect at having to face Gaara.
"Wolverine, we will face each other once more, and then... I'll kill you," said Gaara, "Mother will especially enjoy the taste of your blood in my sand."
Gaara then leapt from the roof top. Anko and Naruto looked towards the Suna Jounin and found him gone already.
"Kuso... I let my guard down... No one has ever been able to sneak up on me like that in a long time..." said Naruto clenching his fists.
"We have to inform Hokage-sama. With as unstable as he appears to be, Gaara is as big a threat as Orochimaru," Anko said to him. If there was anything in recent years that could never be called into question it was Anko's loyalty to the village and to Sarutobi in particular.
Naruto nodded his head in agreement.
The coming days saw the Oto Team, Team Asuma, Team Gai and the team which had Kabuto on it arrive at the tower.
There were no other direct interactions between Naruto and Gaara but everyone at the tower could feel the underlying tension between the two.
"Kabuto, what have you to report?" asked Orochimaru, the triple scars along his face had faded, but not disappeared completely. "And it had better be good, you're not supposed to contact me this early and you've done so twice already!"
"Orochimaru-dono, I would suggest altering your plans," said Kabuto, "The Suna Jinchuuriki no longer has the desire for mindless killing like we had anticipated."
"Oh, and what brought upon this development?" asked Orochimaru in mild interest.
"Naruto-kun," said Kabuto, "Sabaku no Gaara has found purpose in wanting to see him destroyed and he may have lost sight of the mission."
Orochimaru thought for a moment. "No plan survives first contact with the enemy, Kabuto-kun. We shall proceed as planned, though alterations will be made accordingly. Naruto-kun is very much like Gaara, and when Gaara finally does decide to go after him, it will be most advantageous to us, for the collateral damage alone will be great indeed. Their fight will decimate a good portion of the village on its own and will distract Naruto-kun from coming after me."
"Do you think Gaara will be able to defeat Weapon-X?" asked Kabuto.
Orochimaru laughed, "No. Naruto-kun was crafted for very special and specific purposes. Had we been able to properly repress the Kyuubi, his body would have been my finest, and possibly last, vessel. He is superior to Gaara in every way, but that is of little consequence, as I would have likely have killed the Suna Jinchuuriki after the Invasion anyway. Naruto-kun will only spare me the trouble."
"Orochimaru-dono... I don't mean to question your methods, but is antagonizing Akatsuki any further than you already have necessary?" asked Kabuto.
"No, but it is... Liberating... I will not live in fear of them," said Orochimaru, "They too are of little consequence, only the Leader, Itachi, Sasori and Kisame are a threat to me, and Sasori only because of the length of time we worked together for. Much of my research and his human puppetry are very closely linked. I wouldn't be half as far as I am without him, and neither would he. It was luck that he beat the Sandaime Kazekage, even as skilled as he was back then."
"I have little doubts that were they to fight today, they'd be much more equally matched," Orochimaru speculated and then sighed, "We have come too far to turn back now Kabuto. Remember what our true purpose is."
"Hai, Orochimaru-sama," Kabuto bowed and then left.
Another thing noticed by those around the Tower was the open hostility that the 'last' Uchiha had shown for the now barely clothed Wolverine. Only Teams Akira, Asuma and Kakashi knew why, but no one gave out any information except for Ino, who told Sakura what had happened in the Forest of Death.
"Sakura-chan..." said Ino walking up to her former best friend hesitantly.
Sakura looked at Ino strangely, not quite getting her nervousness, "Ino-chan...?"
"Do we really know Sasuke-kun?" asked Ino.
"What do you mean Ino-pig? Of course we know Sasuke-kun!" said Sakura indignantly.
"I know that we know him," said Ino a bit impatiently. Sakura then knew that Ino had a need for a heartfelt conversation with her old friend since the blonde girl hadn't referred to her by her long standing nickname, nor had she reacted to her own. "But do we actually KNOW him?"
"I'm not following you Ino," Sakura sighed.
"It's just that... I saw a side of Sasuke out there in the Forest of Death I don't think I ever thought he was capable of..." Ino explained. She then explained everything that had went on with the Oto-nin.
"Wow... I didn't think anyone would have been able to beat Sasuke-kun in these exams," said Sakura, "Even Shino said that there weren't many he thought would be able to beat him in a one-on-one fight."
"And Wolverine did it without barely trying," said Ino. "Have you ever felt useless? Or that you were just in the way?"
"It's kind of hard not to with teammates like Shino and Taka," Sakura answered honestly. "But Kurenai-sensei has been helping with that."
"Heh... I guess you've got a point there..." Ino lightly chuckled. "I've never felt that around Shikamaru and Chouji... With every strategy, Shikamaru takes everything into account. It isn't very often that he misses anything. His plans are usually so flawless and our teamwork so perfect, that I never think about what I would do without them. I always just assume that they'll be there... After seeing Sasuke-kun and Wolverine-kun fight, I can't help but feel so... Useless..."
"Kurenai-sensei said it was rare that Rookies are even placed in the Chuunin Exam, let alone make it as far as we have," said Sakura, "The odds have been stacked against us from the start." Sakura gave Ino a small smile, "We've already made it this far, right? Let's do our best."
"You... You've changed haven't you, Sakura-chan?" said Ino looking at Sakura differently than she ever had before.
"It... It was kind of hard not to with Kurenai-sensei..." Sakura admitted sheepishly. "Besides, you're not the same either."
Ino giggled, "I suppose. Sakura... Let's be friends again..."
Ino was looking nervous, but Sakura smiled at her. "Sure."
The end of the 5 day time limit would come quickly and the remaining teams were lined up in front of their Jounin Senseis, the Sandaime Hokage, and various other exam proctors.
Naruto was quick to catch Anko's eye for a quick moment when he caught it.
A VERY familiar one at that. He let out a low growl that caused Neji and Gaara, who were at either side of him, to glance in his direction, while Haku gently touched his wrist in an effort to calm him down.
The Hokage, and then Gekko Hayate were explaining the intricacies and purpose of the Chuunin Selection Exams as Naruto cased the room for the source of the familiar scent.
"Is there anyone who would like to forfeit at this time?" asked Hayate before going into a slight coughing fit.
"I would," said Yakushi Kabuto as he raised his hand. Seeing their stares all on him, he explained. "I ran into some difficultly in the forest. While I was able to make it here, I'm afraid I can not carry on at this point. My body has taken too much abuse."
As he left, Naruto watched the brief argument between Kabuto and his teammates. They obviously weren't happy with his choice. However, Kabuto then did something unexpected. As he turned to leave he met Naruto's gaze and smirked. Naruto's eyes narrowed in suspicion; however, before he could think more on it, the first match was called.
However, one thought repeatedly repeated itself.
"Alright, now if you look up (cough) on the wall over there you will see a large screen," stated Hayate. "It will cycle through two names (cough) at random and the names chosen will have to fight for their right to advance to the (cough) Third and Final Round of the Chuunin Exams."
They all watched in anticipation as the marquee began to scroll through two sets of names before coming to a sudden stop.
"YES!" Lee shouted excitedly, pumping his arm as he jumped up and down, "At last, I shall show off my Flames of Youth and prove my nindo!"
"Get real kid," said Yoroi, "You don't stand a chance."
"I need all but the named competitors (cough) to move themselves to the observation deck so we can begin the preliminary matches for the Third Exam of the Chuunin Selection Exams," said the sickly proctor. Immediately, all but Lee and Yoroi had moved to the upper level to observe the melee that was about to begin.
Hayate looked to both Lee and Yoroi and got nods from each that they were ready.
"Akado Yoroi vs. Rock Lee... FIGHT!" shouted Hayate jumping away from the fray.
Suddenly Yoroi's hands became alight with flaming blue chakra as he charged at Lee. He threw a punch at Lee who ducked under the blow, grabbing the man's wrist, pulling on it as he drove his knee into the man's rib sage. Lee then spun around and drove his elbow into the man's back.
Yoroi's back arched with the impact, as Lee became a blur of motion, spinning around again to bury is knee into his torso. Lee then slammed his hands into Yoroi's back, finally knocking the man to the floor. Lee then jumped back, unwilling to hit an opponent when they were down.
"What the hell..." said Yoroi coughing as he tried to stand, "There is no way you should have been able to do that... I should have been able to drain your chakra, even without striking you directly..."
"An interesting Kekkei Genkai ability," said Rock Lee, "However, in this case, it is very unfortunate that I am your opponent as it appears that you heavily rely on the advantages that it affords you."
Yoroi's eyes narrowed, "What the hell do you mean?"
"My entire time in the Shinobi Academy, I was always looked down on. Ridiculed because of my inability to mold even the smallest amounts of chakra outside of the tree and water walking exercises," explained Lee, "I was the dobe of my class because I am incapable of doing even the simplest of ninjutsu and genjutsu, leaving Taijutsu as my sole weapon of defense and attack. But, I believe with hard work and determination, one can become a great shinobi despite these handicaps. It is my goal to prove that one such as I can be just as great a shinobi as those who possess a Kekkei Genkai and are hailed by titles like "genius" or "prodigy". That, through hard work, I can achieve the same accomplishments as those with natural talent and abilities."
"Believe what you want kid... You won't beat me!" declared Yoroi, as he stood up, "You may not be using Chakra, but I can still pull it from your body."
"You misunderstand," said Lee, "It is not my inability to control it that makes me unable to use Chakra... I am physically unable to do so. Your bloodline abilities are useless against a foe such as me."
"You're bluffing!" stated Yoroi. His hands began to glow with the fiery chakra aura as he charged Lee. Lee met his charge, locking their hands together. "Got you!"
The two combatants stood there, locked in a test of strength. Lee took a step forward, making Yoroi step back.
'Damn... I'm hardly getting any chakra out of him...' thought Yoroi frantically.
"Give up... To continue to fight would be pointless," said Lee, "I do not wish to harm you."
Naruto snorted gaining an odd look from many around him.
"He's probably the only person here who would say that and not mean it as a taunt," Naruto said with a smirk.
Gai also smiled.
"Never!" shouted Yoroi as he head butted Lee. Lee stumbled back, releasing Yoroi's hands. Yoroi went to punch Lee, but Lee ducked under his arm, grabbing the wrist, before wrapping his other arm around Yoroi's neck, locking his opponent in a hammerlock, while cutting off his air circulation. Lee kicked the back of Yoroi's legs, bringing the bigger man to his knees, while tightening the hold on the man's throat. Yoroi was using his free hand to grab Lee's arm to try and loosen up the Taijutsu Specialist's hold on his air passageways, to no avail. Lee tightened his grip on the man's throat and slowly Yoroi lost consciousness.
Hayate grabbed Yoroi's wrist and lifted it up. He then let go and the man's arm fell lifelessly to his side.
"Winner... Rock Lee!" shouted Hayate.
"That's incredible," said Ino with a bit of awe.
"Not really," Naruto replied. He either did not see the frown on Gai's face or he ignored it. "It was just a bad match up. If Yoroi didn't rely on his Kekkei Genkai ability so much, Lee might have actually have had to break a sweat. While the victory might have looked impressive, the actual opponents were just badly mismatched. That's why Jounin specialize in more than one thing and shinobi most often travel in teams."
Even Gai had to concede that point to Naruto.
Ino and some of the others got worried looks on their faces as they contemplated what it would be like if they were to be matched up against someone who's fighting technique they were weak against like that.
Akado Yoroi, when he came to, left in an angry huff, not wanting to stick around for the rest of the round as Rock Lee walked up the stairs to the observation deck with excitement. As he did so the marquee began to cycle through two more names.
Of course once the names had been announced, Temari and Kankuro were not sure it was a good thing as Gaara had been a bit obsessively focused on the Wolverine for the last couple of days. Still, even Temari had to admit the mysterious and no longer masked boy was intriguing and she was curious to see what he could do.
Kankuro, on the other hand couldn't care less and hoped Wolverine would get what was coming to him for embarrassing him before the start of the Chuunin Exams.
"This will be an interesting fight..." said Naruto grinning. Shino nodded in agreement before walking down the steps. Naruto, on the other hand, jumped over the railing. However, he stopped his descent just above the ground with a large burst of wind, causing many of the ninja's eyes widen in surprise.
'A powerful and highly skilled Fuuton user...' thought Asuma, 'As if the Aburame gaki didn't have such a huge disadvantage before...'
'He's... He's definitely better than me... Could he match Baki-sensei...?' Temari thought in contemplation.
'As expected from Weapon-X...' Dosu observed, shaking slightly.
'What is with him? Dosu has never shown that much fear against anyone... Not even Kimimaro-sempai...' thought Kin in wide-eyed surprise.
"I'm going to enjoy this," said Naruto grinning.
'Shino-kun... Be careful...' Kurenai pleaded mentally. She remembered how Anko was after she had come back from her time with Orochimaru and knew of the many scars her best friend carried. While Naruto had been a big part of the healing process, she couldn't help but worry. She dearly hoped Naruto didn't carry many of those same scars.
"Kurenai-chan," said Anko, breaking the Genjutsu Mistresses train of thought.
"You worry too much. Naru-chan won't hurt him," said Anko comfortingly, "Too bad." she added teasingly, before letting out a small laugh.
Sakura and Ino, who had overheard this exchange, looked at each other and then back down to the arena below.
'Just who was this guy?'
"Aburame Shino... Wolverine... Fight!" shouted Hayate, bringing his arm down and jumping back.
Naruto's claws popped out of his hands, and with speed surprising Shino, he charged forward. Many stared in shock as Naruto's claws sunk into Shino's torso. "Too slow..."
Suddenly, Shino burst into thousands of bugs.
"Eww..." Ino cringed, as did Sakura.
"You... get used to it... Sort of..."
"Damn it!" shouted Naruto swatting at Shino's Kikaichu trying to throw them off of him. "Get off!"
"Impressive work with the Mushi Bunshin," said Naruto from behind everyone including Shino. Everyone turned in surprise to not only hear Naruto's voice behind them but to see both competitors still up on the balcony with them.
However, no one seemed more surprised than Shino, whose eyebrows extended past his shades. He quickly turned his head behind him and saw Wolverine smirking at him. He then turned to the scene below and saw his opponent standing straight up.
The Wolverine lifted one of his clawed hands as he smirked, despite the insects swarming all over him. Much to the shock of most and the amusement of a few, Naruto retracted the outer two claws of that hand.
"Kuso!" Shino whispered a curse as his opponent's bunshin puffed out of existence. Shino immediately jumped and spun around launching a kunai from his sleeve at the Wolverine behind him.
Naruto ignored it as he swiped at Shino, but Shino was just out of range of his claws- or so many thought. However, many were shocked again as three claw marks appeared on Shino's torso and blood began to stain his jacket.
He landed on the arena below, and immediately fell to his knees gripping his wounded torso. Naruto, after pulling the kunai out of the center of his chest, then jumped after Shino, letting out a roar. Shino jumped backwards, evading Wolverine's strike. However, Wolverine was quick to pursue. Wolverine's superior speed allowed him to easily catch up to Shino.
Naruto then detracted his claws as he punched Shino in the stomach, knocking him into the wall.
Naruto then slammed into Shino, his forearm at Shino's neck. He then brought his claws up to Shino's face. The center claw of his left hand was retracted, but slowly detracted itself until it was pressing up against Shino's chin.
"Give up," demanded Naruto, "It's over."
"Indeed," said Shino. However, his voice came from behind Naruto. Naruto's eyes widened. "My suspicions were correct; your sensory perception is on par, if not superior, to that of an Inuzuka. I had developed that technique in the event I would have to face Kiba, but it was proven to be equally effective on you."
Shino was still clutching his torso, and was bleeding profusely. "I suspected from the start that it was true, after all, your features are quite feral, much like Kiba's. I suspect it was the only reason you took a chance to start with a killing blow at the onset of the match. After your clone dispersed, I sent my Kikaichu to create another Bunshin, complete with my wound, capable of mimicking my scent. I was then able to then use Kawarimi no Jutsu to switch myself out with my clone just before you struck me."
Shino then lifted his right arm and swarms of Kikaichu came from his sleeve towards Naruto as the second Mushi Bunshin exploded and swarmed all over Naruto.
"So this is how you want to play it, huh?" asked Naruto as he was forced to his knees. "Shokkuweibu (Shockwave)!"
A shockwave of wind burst from Naruto, forcing all of Shino's Kikaichu off of him, and knocking Shino off of his feet. Baki's visible eye widened in surprise, as Kakashi uncovered his Sharingan.
'As I suspected,' Kakashi observed. 'Yet another double edged technique. A technique like that would have ripped anyone else to shreds.'
However, as easily and quickly the tears appeared on Naruto, they instantly healed, leaving many unaware of the drawbacks of such a technique.
"Your bugs are useless and you won't last much longer with a wound like that, bub," said Wolverine staring Shino down. "Give up."
Shino weakly stood up, though he was slouching slightly. "I concede..." He stumbled, but before he could fall he was caught by his opponent.
"You did well, you would have beaten anyone else," Shino heard as he blacked out.
"Winner, The Wolverine!" shouted Hayate.
Sabaku no Gaara
"Good, a challenge!" exclaimed Zaku as he saw the names currently displayed on the marquee.
"Don't be a fool, Zaku," warned Dosu, "Though he is not Weapon-X, he is still a very dangerous foe. You should withdraw."
"Well I think he's just overrated," replied Zaku smugly. "Let's find out if 'the monster' lives up to his name."
Gaara merely grunted in response as he waited for Zaku to come down to the arena, though he kept his gaze on Naruto. Naruto's eyes, on the other hand, narrowed as Gaara peered into his eyes.
"The next match... Zaku Abumi vs. Sabaku no Gaara!" shouted Hayate, as the two contestants stood in the center, "FIGHT!"
"You seem rather docile for a monster. I guess you are over hyped!" taunted Zaku. Gaara gave no outward reaction.
"He always was a cocky idiot, and now it's going to get him killed," Naruto whispered to Haku. She only nodded in response. She looked over at Zaku's team and noticed that Dosu seemed to be thinking the same thing.
"Well, since you're too scared to make the first move, I guess I'll have to!" shouted Zaku with unrepressed glee. He went through a few handseals before he thrust his arms forwards and called out, "Zankuha!"
Gaara disappeared in a huge explosion. A few of the shinobi in the room looked over at Gaara's team only to see that each of them had rather bored expressions on their faces, not looking the least bit concerned for the youngest member of their team.
"Too easy," said Zaku confidently.
"Guess again, meathead!" Naruto called out as the dust began to clear. Many were astonished to see a half orb-like wall of sand in between Gaara and Zaku. Then it collapsed.
"You are weak... Not even worth killing," said Gaara in an even tone.
Zaku went from nervous to enraged instantly, "I'll show you weak! Zankukyokuha!"
The explosion was even bigger and more devastating than last time. Bits of sand went flying in all directions. On the Suna team, only Gaara's elder sister, Temari, seemed to be mildly concerned.
"Do you think...?" Haku began to ask Naruto.
"Not a chance. Zaku lacks the power and the skill to get through Gaara's defense. I don't think there are too many people here that could actually beat Gaara, Jounin included," analyzed Naruto.
"Sabaku Kyuu..." Was heard from the dust cloud. Many were then caught off guard when an arm of Sand launched itself from the cloud of smoke, though none were surprised more than Zaku, who found himself quickly immobilized. Zaku struggled and screamed to get free to no avail until he was completely encased in sand. The audience then heard Gaara shout, "Sabaku SouSou!"
There was a loud shuddering sound, and the large compact ball of sand seemed to compress even more than it was. Streams of blood shot from the sandy orb.
Naruto let out a loud whistle showing he was rather impressed, while the Suna team looked unsurprised. Many in the room appeared to turn three shades lighter, with a tinge of green added to their complexion.
"Winner..." said Hayate, "Sabaku no Gaara!"
The assembled group on the observation deck could only watch in silence as Gaara casually strolled back to his team as if he hadn't just brutally killed someone. Most barely noted the screen had begun cycling through the next set of opponents.
Shikamaru sighed, "This is going to be troublesome..."
Before he could go further, he was stopped by his female teammate, "Shika-kun... Are... Are you sure...? I mean, after Hinata..."
"As troublesome as it is to do this, my Kaa-san would only be more so if I just gave up now," replied Shikamaru, "I think I've come up with something."
"If you're sure..." replied Ino in an almost uncharacteristic show of concern. While she rarely let it show, she truly did care for both of her teammates greatly and it was Uchiha Sasuke's rampage in the Forest of Death, combined with his fight with The Wolverine that made her realize how much she needed and relied on them. She wasn't sure what she'd do if she lost either of them.
"Relax, Ino," said Chouji reassuringly, "There is no way Shikamaru will lose if he sets his mind to it."
Ino sighed, "I guess you're right, but I can't help but worry..."
Dosu waited patiently for his opponent to make his way to the arena, his one eye piercing Shikamaru with its' intense, penetrating gaze. "Are you ready for another humiliating defeat? I have studied your jutsu, I know its' weakness. Without the Wolverine's interference, you will surely perish."
Shikamaru merely shrugged. "You might know my technique, but I also know yours. You have to get close to be able to use it, which puts you in range of my jutsu."
Dosu's eye narrowed.
"I've been waiting to see what the Nara gaki is made of," said Naruto.
"Why is that, Wolverine-san," asked Kakashi, "Shikamaru isn't exactly known for his combat prowess."
"Because I know about where Dosu's skill and power level is," replied Naruto, "He's good, better than most. Even your typical Chuunin would have trouble beating him. He's primarily a close range fighter and his strength, speed and stamina are all far superior to Shikamaru's. He has good analytical skills and is fairly good with strategic planning and tactics. There is a reason he is the leader of his team."
Dosu charged as Shikamaru, who jumped back throwing various kunai at his opponent. Dosu blocked each on with his Melody arm as he attempted to get into range to complete his attack.
Just as Dosu was almost in range, Shikamaru's hands formed a hand seal, "Kagemane no Jutsu!"
His shadow then elongated towards his opponent, who immediately jumped backwards. However, the shadow was still coming. Dosu ran right and Shikamaru's shadow bent to follow. Dosu jumped backwards again, to try and keep Shikamaru's shadow from touching his own. When Dosu got to a certain point he realized that Shikamaru's shadow could no longer follow him.
"You make it sound like the result has already been decided," said Kurenai frowning, as was Asuma. Kakashi, on the other hand, raised an eyebrow at Naruto.
Neji, at this point, spoke up. "One's fate is impossible to change. Our destinies are predestined from birth. While his team can make up for his inadequacies, Nara-san is a mere drop-out, barely scoring higher than Hinata-sama. In single combat, he will fall to a far superior shinobi."
This statement caused many of the Rookies, Ino and Chouji especially, to glare at the Hyuuga, who was either oblivious to their insulted expressions, or he just didn't care.
"A futile plan, as I have now discovered another flaw in your jutsu," boasted Dosu.
Shikamaru gave an uncharacteristic smirk as he threw a kunai behind him. His hands then formed the required seals once more, this time his shadow running to each of the kunai that were now sticking out of the ground.
Dosu's eyes widened in realization as the shadow jumped from kunai to kunai. He predicted correctly that each of the minute shadows cast by the small throwing weapons allowed the Nara scion to extend the range of his jutsu. Dosu jumped away to further avoid the jutsu. Though the kunai did extent the range of Shikamaru's Kagemane no Jutsu several feet, it just wasn't enough to entrap the Oto-nin.
"Not clever enough. Soon, your pitiful chakra reserves will be depleted from your failed attempts at trying to defeat me, and I will have a clear path to strike out at you at will," analyzed Dosu, who was slightly confused why Shikamaru simply stood in the same position, rooted in place with his eyes closed, merely holding the jutsu and taking no other action.
Naruto snorted humorously, causing Neji to look at him inquiringly. "You don't actually believe that garbage do you? If I was a betting man, I'd put my money on the Nara."
"I don't see why you would waste your money on such a pathetic loser. You just said he was an inferior shinobi, and from everything I have observed, it is an accurate assessment," replied Neji coolly.
"Then you better get your eyes checked, bub, because your observations skills suck," Naruto said bluntly, causing many to gape at his direct insult to Neji's skill with the Hyuuga doujutsu. "Never underestimate an opponent no matter how much or how little threatening they are. Dosu's good enough that he might even be able to beat you. He's easily capable of thinking three steps ahead of his enemy. He's confident in his skills and he has every right to be. However, his confidence clouds his judgment. Because his team beat Shikamaru's in the forest, he thinks that Shikamaru isn't a threat, causing him to underestimate his opponent."
After he said this, he closed his eyes and covered them with his arm. Many in the room were confused by this action, though a few took the hint and did the same. Just seconds later the room was completely bathed in bright light.
The increase of light behind Shikamaru was more than enough for him to be able to extend his shadow to entrap the now blinded Oto-nin.
"Kagemane Jutsu... Success..." said Shikamaru, who then bent backwards as far as he could go. Being entrapped by Shikamaru's jutsu, Dosu had no choice but to mimic his opponent's actions. Unfortunately for him, he was close enough to the wall to be knocked out cold.
When the light died out and nearly everyone had regained most of their eyesight, Hayate declared Shikamaru the victor.
"Sometimes it doesn't matter how much stronger, faster, or 'better' you are," stated Naruto, "In the Shinobi world sometimes it isn't the strong that survive, it's the smartest. The right amount of tactics can make any advantage useless and turn your strengths into weaknesses. Shikamaru was fated to lose that match, but he defied his so called destiny and emerged victorious. Nothing is predestined; a man chooses his own fate."
"And what do you know of the unshakable burdens given to us at birth that predetermine our 'chosen' paths? What do you know about fate?" asked Neji accusingly, his voice only revealing a small fraction of the annoyance and hatred he felt.
Naruto met his accusing Byakugan unwaveringly and replied, "More than you'll ever know."
Though he would never admit it, either to himself or aloud, Neji, strangely enough, believed him.
Before anyone could contemplate anything further, the marquee began to cycle through opponents once more.
Sabaku no Temari
Hinata wouldn't admit it, but she was envious of the two kunoichi entering the fighting area.
Haku moved with so much fluid grace, her movements careful and well practiced and Temari moved with such deadly confidence, sure in her abilities to take on even the best and the brightest. They were what she strived to be, a true kunoichi.
Sasuke and Kiba may have deluded themselves into thinking they were true ninja of Konohagakure no Sato after the Wave Mission, but she had not. Her beliefs were confirmed when they fought Orochimaru in the Forest of Death- or rather- when Naruto and Sasuke fought Orochimaru. The sheer intensity and skill between Naruto and Sasuke were astronomical. They both fought equally hard, but both had been taken out fairly quickly and she hadn't managed to do anything about it.
Not that it would have mattered.
She was certain that if Orochimaru really wanted to mark her and Haku like he did Sasuke, even with the help of Kiba, Akamaru and Funaki, they wouldn't be able to stop him. After all, if the difference between Naruto and Sasuke was astronomical, the difference between them and Orochimaru was doubly so.
It was just a fact of life, survival of the fittest. The strong either subjugated or protected the weak. In the case of Orochimaru, it was the former, whether it was by manipulation or by force, it was all the same.
Hinata shuddered. To think she was almost subjected to the things Naruto had gone through. She felt sick and dirty and never before had she ever felt so helpless. Not even back then...
She glanced over at Naruto who was steadfastly watching the match that was about to begin in the staging area below.
"Sabaku no Temari vs. Haku... Fight!" shouted Hayate as he leapt out of the way.
"I've seen you around..." commented Temari, with a smirk, "You're quite good, but you're going to lose."
"It would be unwise to underestimate your opponent," said Haku calmly. "They may catch you by surprise. Suddenly, Haku sank into the floor, when an ice mirror sprouted from the ground to Temari's right. Haku then flung a small barrage of senbon at Temari. The Suna kunoichi merely stood rooted in place, opening her fan to reveal a single moon.
Many were shocked to see Haku's senbon miss her completely.
I barely saw her move...' thought Haku, 'Her skills don't quite match up to Sasuke's, but her superior experience shows...'
"Impressive trick... But it won't be enough," stated Temari. She then opened her fan wider, as Haku stepped into a mirror. Two more mirrors formed around Temari, forming a triangle.
Temari felt the wind shift behind her and turned to see Haku throwing more senbon that would clatter harmlessly to the floor. Haku then shot up into the air with another barrage of senbon. Temari jumped back to avoid them. When she looked up, she noticed a fourth mirror, but it was empty.
She could hear the projectile sailing through the air behind her. Closing her fan, the senbon all bounced off of its' metal casing.
Temari cursed herself. She had let her opponent gain the upper hand.
"To continue would be folly..." said Haku calmly. "Surrender and you shall come to no harm."
"Don't underestimate me!" Temari practically growled as she fully opened her fan and waved it at Haku.
The mirrors that Temari was facing were instantly destroyed and many of the spectators covered their eyes to try and block the oncoming wind attack as much as possible, however it was unnecessary as a wall of wind shielded them from Temari's blast.
They each looked up to see Wolverine with his arms spread in front of them, smirking. Many were even more surprised than they already were. Not only was it was quite rare for a Konoha Shinobi to even have a Wind affinity, but it was rare for any shinobi to be able to manipulate wind on such a level. Baki was the most surprised as even many Suna-Nins could not manage Wind Manipulation on that level, as the majority of them were like Temari, and required the aid of a Battle Fan.
'There is no way I can stand a direct hit...' thought Haku, 'She's more powerful than I anticipated...'
'Kuso...' thought Temari, 'She's too fast... But her speed seems to come from traveling from mirror to mirror...'
"You are very impressive," complimented Haku.
Temari smirked, "You're not too bad yourself. I hadn't expected this much of a challenge, especially, not from a Konoha kunoichi."
"You will find that not all of us are frivolous fangirls," said Haku, who glanced up at the balcony. Both Sakura and Ino had the decency to blush in shame, though they also glared down at their fellow Konoha Kunoichi in the battle area.
"Shall we step this up a notch?" asked Temari with a smirk that was returned by her opponent.
Haku suddenly flicked her wrists and six senbon appeared in her hands, between the fingers of her closed fists. She immediately charged at Temari.
Temari immediately opened her fan all the way, revealing the three moons and swung it with all of her might.
A mirror sprouted up from the ground. Haku was already in the mirror before Temari had completed her swing.
Another mirror appeared to Temari's left and Haku threw the Senbon in her left hand. Another mirror formed in her path and she immediately stepped into it. Temari swung her fan back in the direction that Haku had been, blocking the senbon and destroying the mirrors that had been in place.
Temari's eyes widened as she felt the wind shift behind her.
'Kuso!' she thought as she ducked, as small barrage of senbon sailing over her head. She glanced over her shoulder to find that Haku was already gone. She then immediately jumped backwards as Haku came down on the space she had been occupying just seconds before. Temari shut her fan and swung it at Haku in one fluid movement, attempting to bludgeon Haku with it.
Haku jumped back with just barely in time to avoid the heavy metallic object. However, using the fan's momentum, Temari brought it over her head and opened it as she swung it. A burst of wind hit Haku dead on and the ice kunoichi was sent hurtling towards the wall behind her.
A mirror sprouted up from the ground between Haku and the wall and Haku was saved from a world of pain.
'Useful trick...' Temari thought in frustration, gritting her teeth. Temari snapped her fan shut again as she felt the air being disturbed behind her once more. She, closing it, swung her fan as she turned around.
Haku had been about to hit a vital with one of her senbon when she had to duck the incoming attack from Temari's fan. She then lashed out with the senbon, but Temari dodged that, knocking Haku's arm away before swinging it at Haku with a powerful one armed swing. Haku swung her body low, barely avoiding the heavy object that was her opponent's weapon. Haku attempted to stick the senbon in Temari's neck in order to put her in a death-like state, but the Suna-nin was able to move her body enough that the senbon ended up in her left shoulder as she swung the Battle Fan at Haku, finally striking her opponent with a direct hit.
Haku went to her knees after that last hit. She was disoriented and dizzy.
'A concussion...' she thought as she could feel the throbbing in her head. 'I have to move!'
However, this thought came too late as Temari had pulled out the senbon, jumping back a few paces. With the last of her strength, Temari ignored the pain in her shoulder as she swung her now open fan at her disoriented opponent.
Haku took the blast head on, but it was weak enough that she was only knocked off her feet, bouncing a few times off the stone floor.
Temari was panting in exhaustion. She wasn't sure if she could continue the fight. The battle had taken much out of her. She couldn't even muster up the energy to attack Haku as the ice kunoichi attempted to get up.
Holding her head, Haku finally called out to Hayate. "Proctor, I can no longer continue this fight..."
The exam proctor nodded. "Winner... Sabaku no Temari!"
At the announcement, Temari fell to her knees barely conscious. However, she had a new found respect for Konoha and their kunoichi. Especially since she had been pushed to her limits and the fight could have gone either way. She felt her face breaking into a content and accomplished grin as she knew she had faced an opponent of equal or superior skills to her own and came out victorious.
Hinata's stomach felt like lead. She didn't think she'd ever be able to compete on such a level. Taking a quick glance at Naruto, she bolstered her courage. If she wanted to help him, help anyone, most of all herself, she had to get stronger. She had to not only train herself to rise up to the level of combat prowess of Haku and Temari, but she had to surpass them. Not for the first time did she wonder if she'd be able to do it.
Both Sakura and Ino knew they couldn't fight anywhere near that level. They both knew that had either of them had been in the arena fighting either Temari or Haku, they would have been decimated. However, the battle sparked a new resolve in both of them and each had a glint in her eyes that promised a new beginning for each of them. Kurenai noticed this look and couldn't help but be proud of Sakura and Ino's new found determination.
'Those two...' thought Tenten. 'I've trained with Neji and Lee day in and day out... But I'm not sure if I could have beaten either of them... They're both at a level above mine... Was it all for nothing...?'
She suddenly felt a hand on he shoulder and saw that it belonged to her sensei.
"Fear not Tenten," Gai said evenly with a smile, "They were both very skilled, but so are you. You are one of the most skilled kunoichi I have seen in a long time. But you still have room to grow, we all do and that is part of what these exams are all about. The true purpose of the exam is to allow you to showcase your abilities, show that you can use them efficiently and learning from the mistakes of your peers and yourself. If nothing else, I am proud of what you have learned and accomplished thus far."
"Thanks, Gai-sensei," said Tenten appreciatively.
Gai flashed his most winning smile. "I couldn't let the Flames of Youth wane in one of the finest students I've had the honor of teaching, could I?"
Tenten smiled and shook her head. No matter his quirks, Maito Gai always knew what to say at the right moment.
Naruto had a scowl on his face as the next match was called. After Naruto's observations of Shikamaru's match, Kakashi was very interested in what Naruto was thinking about.
"So what do you think the outcome of this match will be?" he asked.
"It's hard to say, their abilities are similar..." answered Naruto, "Misumi has underwent a few surgeries and had special training to use the Nan no Kaizou Jutsu. I doubt he could use it to the same extent as Orochimaru, but it is still a formidable technique." Kakashi was listening intently, taking in the information Naruto was giving him, though he had come to some of the same conclusions in some of the previous battles. "Chouji is an Akimichi, and seems to have a decent grasp on most of the techniques he uses. It really comes down to how good he is in using his clan jutsus. Otherwise, Tsurugi will win just because he has more field experience."
Kakashi nodded in agreement, not answering nor did he look up from his orange book.
"How do you know so much about everyone and their abilities?" asked Ino somewhat suspiciously.
"Same way Kabuto does," Naruto replied taking a drag of his cigar, "When I found out I'd be competing in the exam a couple weeks ago, I studied each of my potential opponents. First by gathering whatever information there was on them and then by studying them while they trained. Figuring out their strengths and how I would get around them and their weaknesses and how to exploit them."
"B-But there were hundreds of applicants! And most came from foreign villages," exclaimed Sakura.
"I have a good memory, Pinky," replied Naruto, ignoring Sakura's anger at her new nickname, "Besides, some of the teams arrived a few weeks in advance so they could be well rested for the exams. The rest filtered in, in groups, even the local teams, so I had plenty of time to scout each of them out."
Asuma frowned, "You were the source of the foreign chakra I detected a few weeks ago..."
"You and the Bug Kid were the only two that nearly detected me," said Naruto with a small grin.
"So Rookie, ready to get your fat ass handed to you!" said Misumi to a nervous Chouji. Predictably, Chouji became rather sensitive about his weight and size issues.
"I'M NOT FAT! JUST BIG BONED!" he shouted. "Bubun Baika no Jutsu!"
Misumi seemed to be caught off guard as Chouji's humongous, lumbering fist came at him.
However, Tsurugi took advantage of the situation, using his ability with the Nan no Kaizou to wrap himself around Chouji's arm. Seeing this startled Chouji, who instinctively let his arm shrink back down to normal size.
Tsurugi, used this to his advantage as well, allowing him to get in close to Chouji and wrap himself around the "big boned" Genin.
"Predictable," said Naruto with a frown, "If he's lucky, his temper only lost him the match."
"How can you say something like that!?" asked Ino. "If that guy keeps it up he'll either crush or suffocate Chouji!"
"Because on a mission, it can get him AND whoever his teammates are killed," Naruto scolded the Yamanaka Heiress. "The second he lost his temper AND focus he placed his life in the hands of his opponent."
"Pathetically weak," taunted Tsurugi as he tightened his hold on the Akimichi Heir. "I should put you out of your misery for your teammate's sake, you're a liability. I'd be doing them a favor."
Chouji's face was bright red from lack of air and strain from keeping the stretchy shinobi from crushing him.
"You might as well give up," Misumi advised, "Or else you'll die!"
The edges of Chouji's vision began to blur and turn black. Sounds became distorted and seemed slower. The stretchy shinobi was too much for him.
He would not let himself give up. He would prove his opponent wrong.
With his free left hand, Chouji managed to pull Misumi's arm away, just enough to speak once more.
"Baika no Jutsu!" he rasped.
Instead of the usually explosive expansion that usually accompanies the jutsu, Chouji just seemed to bulge underneath Misumi's iron grip as the stretch nin tried to keep Chouji contained.
Unfortunately, for Misumi, he couldn't stretch any further and was overpowered by Chouji's Clan Jutsu. And was practically shot off like a rubber band.
After being partially stretched beyond his limit, Misumi began to slowly recover. However, Chouji returned to his normal size. After taking a small breather, the aggravated 'Big Boned' Genin went on the attack.
"Bubun Baika no Jutsu!" shouted Chouji as he punched Tsurugi. This time his oversized fist struck true and Misumi was sent flying into the wall, and knocked out cold. Hayate went to check on Tsurugi's condition.
"Winner, Akimichi Chouji!" he called out.
"Go Chouji!" Ino cheered.
"He was lucky," Naruto stated with a scowl.
Next to him, Team 10's jounin sensei nodded. "He was, but sometimes that's all you need. It's like you said before, sometimes it doesn't matter how much 'better' you are than your opponent. If they get lucky, you're still beaten."
"I'd rather not take that chance," replied Naruto as the cycle continued and the next two names were displayed on the marquee.
"Shit..." cursed Funaki.
While he was by no means a weak or unskilled shinobi, there was really only one term to describe Funaki.
Meanwhile, many of the Uchiha Clan, and Sasuke in particular, were referred to by the much revered titles such as "Genius", "Prodigy", and "Elite", and with good reason. The Uchiha Clan, in it's glory days, not only made up over 80 percent of the entire Military Police Force, but they also had the highest percentage of prodigies that underwent training in the Shinobi Academy, with Uchiha Itachi, Sasuke's older brother, being their crown jewel, as an ANBU Captain at the age of 13.
Not even Hatake Kakashi had managed such an incredible feat.
While Funaki knew that Sasuke was not his brother, he also knew he was most definitely not another Kakashi in the making. He hoped that his greater field experience would aid him in battle, but he knew the skill and general power levels between him and the Uchiha were most likely too much to overcome.
That didn't mean, however, that he wouldn't fight the Uchiha every step of the way to become a Chuunin.
Sasuke and Funaki took in everything they could about their opponent, before Hayate gave the signal to start. However, Funaki's look of determination was far different from the Uchiha's emotionless scowl and seemed to be far less practiced. Funaki was almost sure the Uchiha spent several hours in the mirror each day to practice such a depressing blank look on his face.
"The match between Uchiha Sasuke and Funaki will now begin... Fight!" shouted Hayate, once more moving away from the combatants.
Funaki took a defensive stance immediately, while Sasuke merely closed his eyes. Funaki quickly drew two kunai and flung them at the Uchiha, who opened his eyes and easily deflected them.
'Damn!' Funaki cursed to himself as he drew two more kunai and put some distance between himself and the Uchiha.
"Pitiful, you will fall to the might of the Uchiha Clan!" declared Sasuke.
Funaki's eyes narrowed at Sasuke's taunt. Funaki knew his chances of victory were slim, but he sure as hell would make sure the Uchiha fought tooth and nail for his victory.
Sasuke then charged at Funaki, who surprised many by charging at the Uchiha prodigy. They each lashed at each other with their kunai, locking them together as the met. They seemed to be stalemated for the time being. However, while Funaki's face was a mask of strained determination, Sasuke's had fallen into a comfortable smirk, which only seemed to make Funaki more aggravated. The more experienced, clan-less Genin growled in anger and slashed at Sasuke with his other kunai, intent on slicing up his opponent's torso.
Sasuke managed to avoid the blow as he drew a second kunai of his own. The two then exchanged a short series of blows, though neither scored more than a grazing cut. Though Funaki was the aggressor and Sasuke was on the defensive, the latter's skill was showing to be far more superior to that of his opponents.
Sasuke swiped at Funaki with an uppercut, followed by a leg sweep. Funaki shifted slightly to dodge the first blow and then back flipped away from Sasuke to avoid the leg sweep. As he landed, he quickly took a ready defensive stance for Sasuke's follow up attack that never came.
Funaki, gazing attentively at his opponent, saw Sasuke merely smirk.
"Not bad, but not good enough," said Sasuke full of confidence. Funaki tensed, his grip on his kunai tightening. The Uchiha prodigy closed his eyes. "I'll end this quickly!"
Sasuke's eyes snapped open to reveal two blood red, two tomoe Sharingan. To his credit, Funaki didn't flinch at the appearance of the famed Uchiha doujutsu. However, mentally, Funaki was having a mild panic attack.
Sasuke edged towards Funaki, who slid slightly backwards. The two charged at one another once more. The two combatant's kunai met once more, except this time, Sasuke slightly twisted his wrist and Funaki's kunai scraped of it, his momentum causing him to over extend. Sasuke then left go of his kunai and gripped Funaki's wrist and pulled, bringing Funaki to his knees. He then placed his remaining kunai to Funaki's throat.
"It's over," said Sasuke confidently, as his kunai pressed against Funaki's jugular.
"Winner... Uchiha Sasuke!" announced Hayate, calling the match to an end. Sasuke released Funaki before confidently going back up to the balcony with the others, leaving a frustrated Funaki behind. Taking a moment to recompose himself Funaki made his way back to the waiting area with the others, vowing to himself to improve enough to compete with all these exceptional Rookies that seemed to be able to put the best and the brightest of Genin he had ever seen to shame.
In the background, the sound of the marquee cycling through the remaining opponents could be heard.
Sabaku no Kankuro
"This should be interesting," said Naruto as he read the names.
"Why do you say that Naruto?" asked Kakashi casually. Gai seemed very interested in the answer.
"This is one of the few match-ups that are pretty even," replied Naruto. "Both have similar fighting styles and are about equally skilled. While Tenten has the advantage of far greater accuracy, it's nullified by the fact that Kankuro can count on one hand the number of weapons he hasn't laced with poison. He won't have to score a direct hit in order to beat her."
"Yosh, Tenten! Show him the power of your Youth!" shouted Rock Lee.
Tenten merely groaned in response, but wordlessly left to confront her opponent from Sunagakure no Sato. She quickly noticed that he too, was sporting a grimace.
Hayate then gave the signal for the fight to commence.
"Let's give this all we've got!" exclaimed Tenten with an encouraging smile.
This only caused Kankuro to scowl even more.
"What can a girl like you do!?" he asked disgustedly, "I bet a weakling like you is barely worth my time!"
Tenten growled with righteous feminine fury. "Don't underestimate me!" she shouted.
Before any reply could be heard from the male combatant, Tenten ran to her left, unfurling a minute scroll as she did so. There was a puff of smoke emitted from it as a small barrage of kunai was launched from the scroll.
Kankuro immediately threw the bandaged item off of his back, as he ducked beneath Tenten's attack.
"Kuso!" he cursed as he then reached for the bundle. However, he was stopped as his arm was nearly impaled by a fuma shuriken.
"I don't think so!" shouted Tenten as she unleashed another scroll. This time dozens of shuriken not only intercepted his path, but also came flying after him. He flinched back and tried to scramble away from the attack, but he over compensated and ended up flat on his back. However, with quick thinking, he rolled out of the last bit of Tenten's attack.
Tenten took to the air and launched another volley of kunai and shuriken at her Suna opponent that he was just barely able to avoid as he scrambled to his feet. Kankuro grit his teeth in frustration, as the Konoha Kunoichi was able to not only keep him separated from his primary weapon, but was also closer to it than he was.
The two opponents locked gazes for a short moment when Kankuro suddenly cut his eyes to his right, eyeing the bundle. Tenten followed his gaze while determining a counteraction to take for his next move.
Simultaneously, the two made for the bundle at a full sprint, when Kankuro suddenly came to a full stop. Catching this act with her peripheral vision, Tenten also stopped and took a defensive stance. Suddenly, Kankuro's mouth opened wider than humanly possible.
Tenten was caught off guard when a small cache of senbon came flying at her at high velocities. However, the weapon's mistress managed to deflect each of them with a kunai that mysteriously appeared in her hand, though one of them managed to grazed her shoulder.
Tenten shuddered before she dropped to her knees, still clutching her weapon in her hand.
"So... You're... That kind of fighter..." she said as the kunai clanked onto the stone floor and she slumped into unconsciousness.
"Winner... Sabaku no Kankuro!" shouted Hayate, who then caught the vial of the antidote from a scowling Kankuro as he made his way back to where the rest of his team was standing.
"So much for being a weak girl, huh?" asked Temari smirking.
"She was just a little better than I thought she'd be..." Kankuro said, looking away in embarrassment.
Those two simple words from their youngest sibling silenced seemed to suck the life right out of the both of them as neither said another word, their faces rapidly paling. They were thankful for the distraction of the next two competitors being announced.
Sakura and Ino shared a look before Sakura left to take the center stage. She had a look of almost pure confidence, but Naruto could see the hesitation in her expression, the underlying nervousness.
He then gazed at Kin who was making her way to the arena. She was showing pure confidence. She was absolutely sure she had the match in the bag.
After all, the Konoha kunoichi were taken out pretty easily in their fight in the forest, why shouldn't this be an easy win for her? Especially when the pinkette seemed to be every bit as much of a simpering fangirl as the blonde one. The only Konoha kunoichis who seemed to be of any worth seemed to be that Haku girl and the chick with the weapons and both of them had already lost their matches.
Hayate looked at both competitors and raised his hand. "Fight!"
Sakura quickly sped through handseals as Kin launched her senbon at Sakura, forcing the Konoha kunoichi to stop whatever jutsu she was attempting. Sakura was able to dodge most of them and quickly drew a kunai to deflect the last one.
After deflecting the last one, Sakura became disoriented. The senbon she deflected had one of Kin's trademark genjutsu bells attached to it. Fortunately, for Sakura, it hadn't been attached to any strings like the ones Haku had fallen prey to, so the genjutsu properties of the bell were severely diminished. Unfortunately, this gave Kin the opportunity she needed to follow up with her signature attack. The same one she used to take out Haku in the forest.
Kin smirked. "It's over." She jingled the bells, further disorienting Sakura. Another jingle forced Sakura to her knees as she dropped her kunai. "Pitiful. All of you Konoha kunoichi are pathetic."
Sakura grit her teeth in frustration as she tried to stand. "I... I won't... Give up..."
Kin jingled the bells once more, dropping Sakura like a sack of stones.
"Well then, it looks like I'll have to finish this," Kin replied as she confidently strolled over to Sakura.
"Get up, Forehead!" yelled Ino.
Each time Sakura would try to stand, Kin would send her own chakra into the strings and jingle the bells to keep the pink haired girl down. Try as she might, she was unable to do anything as Kin strolled towards her.
"Shut up... Ino-pig..." Sakura muttered, too disoriented to say more or stand. Kin jingled the bells once more for good measure, causing Sakura to heave.
"Amazing you've been able to last even this long," Kin taunted. "If you had any actual skill, you might've been able to last longer. I mean, look at that hair. Hair like that has to take you hours to keep it looking like that. The only thing that would make a little girl go through that much effort is a boy. Where is that boy now? Is he going to save you?"
Kin began to laugh.
"Piss off!" said Sakura glaring up defiantly at Kin.
"Is that how that boy would want you to talk?" Kin taunted further. "Maybe you're finally learning what it is to be a true kunoichi. Too bad it's too little to late!"
With that, Kin drew her own kunai and went to slash at Sakura who immediately exploded in a flurry of Sakura petals. Kin's eyes widened as she immediately spun around to see Sakura charging at her, kunai in hand. As sudden and surprising Sakura's counterattack came, Kin's reaction was faster.
Two things happened.
Sakura found a kunai deep in her stomach and Kin found that her hand completely passed through Sakura.
'Bunshin!' Kin thought, even more surprised. Kin then turned to see Sakura standing up, her fist cocked back to strike at Kin. Once more, Kin was faster, deflecting the punch. Kin smirked as this one was the real one. However, she wasn't prepared for Sakura's next move as darkness overcame her.
Many were shocked at the amount of skill and tactics Sakura utilized in the fight. It was far above many of their expectations. Even Naruto seemed slightly surprised, while Ino and Kurenai both wore smug expressions. Meanwhile, Shikamaru still had the same sleepy expression that he always wore.
"Way to use that huge forehead of yours, Sakura-chan!" cheered Ino loudly.
Any joy and exhilaration Sakura felt in the aftermath of her victory, quickly evaporated with Ino's choice of praise. She froze in midstep and clenched her fists and jaw in anger.
"Bitch..." Sakura mumbled as she stiffly made her way back to the platform above the fighting pit.
'One point Yamanaka, Forehead girl, Zero...' Ino thought as she smirked as Sakura in victory.
"Wait... What just happened?" asked Kiba, voicing the confusion of many of the others. "She could barely move."
"She initially used a genjutsu on herself to deafen herself when she saw their names appear on the screen," explained Kurenai. "Then when Hayate-san started the match she used a small, weak area genjutsu that shows people what they either want or expect to see. Kin thought she was interrupting Sakura's jutsu, as did many of you, so that's what both you and her saw."
"So while Kin was distracted tormenting me," Sakura continued, her own smug expression had returned, "I added another layer to my genjutsu and created a bunshin."
"So when she went to attack Sakura's illusion, she activated the second layer," Kurenai added, "She then sent her Bunshin to attack Kin from behind to give herself an opening to attack."
"Where Forehead girl dropped her with that huge billboard she calls her forehead!" Ino excitedly added.
"Ino-pig..." Sakura warned through clenched teeth. Ino turned away from Sakura, flipping her long blonde hair at her best friend and rival.
'Yamanaka two, Forehead zip!' Ino thought as she giggled.
"Troublesome..." mumbled Shikamaru at the two girl's behavior.
Once more the marquee began to cycle through the names revealing the next set of competitors.
Hinata's stomach turned to lead.
Three reactions were almost instantaneous. The first was from Hinata's older cousin who merely scoffed in disgust as he went down to the competitor's deck to await the start of the match. The second came from her team mate.
"Give him hell," interrupted a third voice, this one belonging to Uzumaki Naruto. Both she and Kiba were surprised.
Hinata stole another quick glance at the marquee before she gulped and started towards the arena. However, she was stopped by a hand gripping her arm.
"You're better than you give yourself credit for. You can do this," Naruto told her looking the timid kunoichi in the eye. Many were confused by whatever was going on between the two of them.
"H-Hai…" Hinata stuttered and gave him a hesitant nod before continuing on.
As soon as Hinata left, Kiba hissed at Naruto. "Are you crazy!? There is no way she can beat him and he's likely to hurt her badly or worse!"
Naruto looked at Kiba with a stern glare. "This is something she has to do. If she can't overcome this, how is she going to become a capable ninja? This is something she has to face head on or she'll never reach her full potential."
Kiba snorted in disbelief. "What good is reaching her potential if he kills her?"
"It won't come to that. He'll want to humiliate her first, break down her will, first mentally and then physically. If she can make it through all of that, THEN he'll try going in for the kill. Hayate-san will stop the match before he lets that happen," Naruto said confidently.
"And what if he won't stop," asked Kiba worriedly referring to Neji. Kurenai had to admit this was also one of her worries.
Naruto looked down at Hinata and Neji.
"I'll make him."
Kiba wondered if he should be more worried for Neji than Hinata after that statement.
"The match between Hyuuga Hinata vs. Hyuuga Neji will now begin, Fight!" shouted Hayate.
"I never thought I'd be facing you," commented Neji as his gaze bored into Hinata's eyes.
Hinata gulped. "N-Neji-nii-san…"
Hinata's stuttered response shocked many, and they all listened as Kakashi, Gai and Lee explained the relationship of Hinata and Neji, except for Naruto and Kiba who were watching the match with anticipation.
"I will give you fair warning, Hinata-sama," said Neji, "You should forfeit this match; there is no place for failures in this exam."
Even though Hinata knew what he would say, his cruel words still cut her to her very core.
"You are too soft and king, always hoping to avoid conflict, never resisting, needlessly agreeing with others to avoid confrontation," Neji continued, "You are sorely lacking in any sort of self confidence. Considering how inferior you are to others, it would probably be for the best for you to remain a Genin. I sense that the only reason you even entered into the exams was because of the fact that they can only be taken by teams of three and you had no wish to hold back either of your stronger, more competent team mates."
Kiba was gritting his teeth. Glancing over at the others, he saw Kakashi with his book in front of his face; however, he wasn't moving his eye signifying that he was actually focused on what was happening between Neji and Hinata.
Sasuke still kept his aloof uncaring expression he always wore, however he too was carefully watching Neji and Hinata with a small flicker of concern in his eyes. Ant then there was Naruto…
Naruto, who, despite watching the match intensely, looked rather apathetic; his face was completely devoid of all emotion. Kiba squinted his eyes a bit to try and gauge what the blonde shinobi was thinking to no avail. In some ways, Naruto was colder and more unreadable than Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei.
"You and I both know you're here against your will, that be both know you feel as if you do not belong here," Neji taunted. "Am I wrong?"
Hinata gulped. "W-well… I… I just wanted to change myself…" she said softly.
'Hinata…' thought Kurenai as she watched the girl she'd tried to take on as her own student crumble before her.
Neji huffed in contempt. "It's just as I thought. You are merely a spoilt brat of the Main House. People do not change themselves. You are either born as a member of the elite, bound for glory, or you are forever doomed to remain a loser, it is an immutable fact that can not change. You and I both know that no matter how much you work, no matter how much you try, the result of this match will be the same every time. No matter what scenarios you could imagine the ending will ALWAYS be the same! You will lose, broken and utterly defeated!"
"What is the point, Hinata-sama? There is no point in being humiliated, I am showing you a mercy," Neji pressed. "We both know it is impossible to change your…"
"Who the hell are you to judge her like that!?" demanded Kiba. His outburst gained him the attention of everyone in the small arena, including the two competitors down on the competitor's deck. However, whereas Neji turned towards the enraged Inuzuka, Hinata's gaze immediately focused on the figure right next to him.
'Naruto…' she thought.
"Huh, bastard!" Kiba raged. "What gives you the right!?"
'N-Naruto-kun… How am I going to help you if I can't even help myself?' Hinata mentally asked herself. 'I… I have to believe that I… That I can change…'
She found herself meeting Naruto's gaze and the blonde Weapon nodded slightly to her.
Hinata's expression when from nervous to contemplative to determined as she took up the stance for the Jyuuken fighting style. Neji then turned his focus from Kiba back to Hinata, seeing a rather dramatic change from how she was before.
Neji's eyes narrowed slightly. "So, you won't forfeit. Then I shall not be held responsible for whatever happens. You should have given…"
"Byakugan!" Much to everyone's surprise, it was Hinata who made the first move, charging at Neji. Neji stood his ground waiting to see what she'd do. "Sen'eijashu!"
His eyes widened slightly in surprise as a snake shot out of the sleeve of her jacket towards his face. However, his superior skills showed when he managed to twist and duck beneath the attack while closing in on Hinata.
Seeing his closing in on her, Hinata transferred a large amount of chakra to the soles of her feet, remembering what happened when Sasuke first attempted the tree walking exercise. She twisted slightly as the ground crumbled beneath her and she leapt into the air out of Neji's reach, his palm striking empty air.
She landed a few feet away, bouncing twice as she landed, retaking an attack stance. Only this time, instead of retaking the famed Hyuuga fighting style, she fell into the fighting stance of the former student of the Sandaime Hokage, the Hebiken.
"Pitiful," Neji observed disgustedly. "It's bad enough that you're an embarrassment to the clan. A loser with few redeeming qualities. Now you've degraded yourself by relying on the tactics and tricks of others. Pathetic, you're nothing more than a disgrace."
Naruto's eyes narrowed slightly.
"W-we have different v-views, Neji-nii-san, on what… What it means t-to be a disgrace," Hinata stuttered boldly.
"Clearly," Neji replied shortly. Neji was the one who went on the offensive this time. He charged Hinata with a glowing palm strike, which missed due to Hinata's greater flexibility. Unfortunately, her counter was easily blocked as they engaged in an all out Taijutsu battle.
"Go Hinata!" Kiba cheered, pumping his. Next to him, on the opposite side of Naruto, was Rock Lee, who was intently watching the match.
"Her technique… There are similarities, but it is completely different from Neji's Jyuuken…" Lee observed. "It's not one I recognize."
"It's the Hebiken, the personal Taijutsu fighting style of Orochimaru, the former student of the Sandaime Hokage," Gai lectured. "It's one of the few styles that I'm familiar with that I do not know. However, I do know enough to know that her style is different from his."
"That's because she knows her Jyuuken isn't enough to match-up against Neji's and her knowledge with the Hebiken is very basic, so she's trying to combine both styles to throw him off guard," Naruto replied. "Only it's not working nearly as well as she'd hoped."
"I thought as much," Gai commented. "I take it you were the one who taught her?"
Naruto didn't reply to Gai's inquiry.
Suddenly, much to the surprise of most everyone, Hinata struck Neji in the jaw with a closed fist. Neji's head snapped back and he stumbled a bit, reeling from the blow. Hinata followed up with a palm strike, only to have it countered as Neji struck her in the chest with a palm strike of his own. The force of the blow was strong enough to send a spike of chakra through her body and send Hinata sliding back a few feet.
"You scored a lucky blow," Neji said with repressed anger. "I was indulging you before, but now it's time to end this."
Hinata was nervous once more. She didn't like the tone of Neji's voice. Not once had she ever heard him as angry as he seemed to be at that moment.
"You are within range of my Divination," Neji told her as his stance changed. Hinata's eyes widened almost comically, as did many of the others, including Naruto's.
"I underestimated him," Naruto whispered.
Kiba looked at him strangely. "What do you mean?"
"Branch Family Members don't learn that technique. In fact, only a select few learn anything other than the basic three, and those are all med-nins. The only ones that learn advanced Jutsu like Hakke Rokujuuyon Shou are Main Branch Members like Tenshi-hime," Naruto informed him.
"As I told Sasuke-kun earlier," Lee remarked. "Nearly without contest, the strongest Genin of Konoha is Hyuuga Neji."
With speed previously unseen in the match, and almost too quickly for many of his fellow genin to follow, Neji charged at Hinata, striking her with his index and middle fingers at various points in her body. Once more, thin needles of chakra could be seen piercing straight through Hinata as he did so.
It was becoming hard for some of them to watch at this point, yet none could look away.
"Thirty two strikes!"
"Damn it!" Kiba cursed, his fists clenching tightly to the guard rail.
"Sixty four strikes!"
The last two strikes hit Hinata's left shoulder and her lower left abdomen. Neji slowly removed his hands and stepped back. When he did so, Hinata dropped limply to the floor.
"Hinata!" Kiba shouted, as did a few others, however Naruto gripped his shoulder to stop him from going down to the competitor's deck.
"She's still alive," Naruto told him. "And she'll be all right with medical attention, don't get yourself disqualified needlessly."
"It's over," Neji said coldly. He then turned his back on Hinata. Hayate went to call the match when Hinata stood up, her breathing heavily labored and her entire body shaking with strain.
Neji turned sharply, his eyes narrowed. "Stay down. Your chakra is completely sealed and you're barely able to stand. Even with those petty tricks, you were unable to deal any significant damage. This is what it means for a loser to stand up against the elite. One can not change the immutable power of fate. Forfeit."
"N-No… I can… Can not…" said a shaky Hinata defiantly. "I will… Not…"
"Why do you disgrace yourself further?" asked Neji maliciously. "Take your defeat with some dignity."
Kiba strained against the hold Naruto had on his shoulder.
"Kiba, knock it off. I won't let anything happen to Hinata-chan," Naruto whispered to Kiba. The actual use of his teammates' name surprised Kiba a bit and he turned to look at Naruto. The slitted demonic looking eyes of Naruto were still as unsettling as usual, but there was something else there too. Something Kiba couldn't quite identify something that looked foreign in the Weapon's rapidly purpling irises.
Hinata stood straight up as best she could, but everyone could tell she was struggling to even stay conscious. "Y-You… You're surprised I'm e-even standing. I'm st-stronger than either of u-us expected." Her breathing was heavily labored, but she spoke with confidence than none had ever seen in her before. "Th-That means, you… You're not in-infallible… Y-You're wrong, N-Neji-nii-san… I… I am n-not the one lacking dignity i-in light of… Of y-your victory… It's you…"
The sudden, sharp spike in Neji's killing intent was all the warning anyone got before he charged at Hinata with speed previously unmatched by nearly anyone else in the preliminary round.
"Hinata!" Kiba shouted as he vaulted over the railing of the balcony surrounding the fighting pit. He barely felt the rush of wind that blew past him. However, he froze when he landed, as did many others.
"N-Naru-to-kun…" Hinata whispered as she finally succumbed to her bodies' fatigue and pain.
The room was deathly silent as it seemed Naruto had moved as fast, if not faster than the rest of the Jounin in the room.
Neji found himself looking, instead of the surprised and possibly lifeless gaze of his younger cousin Hinata, into the crimson, angered gaze of the Wolverine. Blood was dripping from the corners of his mouth. In that moment, neither the Jounin restraining him, nor the unconscious girl that had previously been his target mattered any longer. The Hyuuga prodigy was shocked out of his rage and took a step back instinctively. He was quick to note third degree chakra burns on the blonde's chest over his heart.
'How is he still standing? His heart should have exploded with the force of a Jyuuken strike like that…' he mentally exclaimed as his Byakugan immediately responded to his mental inquiry. He was shocked to see the blonde's heart was rapidly reforming itself. Despite this, it seemed as if the blonde was currently standing in defiance to Neji on sheer will alone as just moments before his heart had quite literally been disintegrated.
"Wh-what are you…?" Neji whispered.
"Death…" Naruto whispered back. He remained where he was in between Neji and the Hyuuga Heiress until Hinata was in the hands of the med-nins. Only then did he retreat back up to the balcony. Neji also returned, but at a slightly more sedate pace, wary of the blonde shinobi who had made short work of the Aburame earlier.
Kiba looked at Naruto in awe and frustration, his fist clenched. 'Damn… He's the same age as the rest of us and he's still better than most of the Jounin here… I couldn't do anything…'
Akamaru's bark brought him out of his reverie.
Kiba smiled at his long time companion. "Yeah… We will, won't we boy?"
With one last fight and three potential competitors, everyone waited in anticipation to see who between Yamanaka Ino of Team 10, Michinuku Taka of Team 8 and Inuzuka Kiba of Team 7 would be competing against each other for the last spot in the final round of the Chuunin Exams and who would be getting the bye.
Kiba grinned as he saw the name of his opponent. "All right Akamaru, it's just like old times!" Akamaru barked once as if to punctuate what Kiba had said.
Taka looked over to Kiba as they both made their way down to the arena. "Not quite, I've got quite a few new tricks since we've left the academy."
Taka was rather short in stature compared to most of his fellow Genin. His hair was cut short and spiked in the front. He wore a sleeveless blue shirt, and blue pants with black boots and wristbands.
"And what do you think me and Akamaru have been doing since graduation?" asked Kiba challengingly.
"You barely beat me last time," replied Taka, "This time we can use jutsu and I can fully unleash my Taijutsu on you." A gentle breeze could be felt flowing through the room and seemed to circulate around the blue clad Genin.
Baki's eyes narrowed. 'Another wind user... Konoha is turning up prodigies of all sorts in this competition. They may be far stronger than anticipated...'
"Fancy tricks won't get you anywhere," Kiba declared as he slid into a basic Taijutsu stance. Taka, meanwhile, had slid into the Ba Gua stance that was part of his familial Taijutsu style. Both Neji and Naruto were intently watching the match.
'Interesting... His fighting style... It is similar to that of my clan...' analyzed Neji, his Byakugan activated, 'Modified due to their lack of possession of the Byakugan... A bastardized style at best, though it should be more than enough against a brawling mongrel like Hinata-sama's team mate.'
"So, why don't we get this started?" asked Kiba with a grin.
Naruto frowned. 'Stupid Inu-baka... Don't get over confident...'
Hayate nodded and called for the match to begin.
Kiba's grin never faltered as he sped through handseals. "Shikyaku no Jutsu!"
The Inuzuka's features then began to change as his chakra aura became visible. Many of the more observant ninja also noticed his features changing. His elongated canines became even more pronounced, his hair even more unruly than it had been previously and his nails seemed to grow rapidly, sharpening themselves at the tips, they even looked as if they had hardened to not only mimic a dog's claws, but to serve a similar purpose as well.
Taka's eyes widened in surprise as he felt Kiba's chakra signature become significantly more powerful. He looked at his last remaining teammate who was up on the balcony. Sakura was shocked as well, as she was far more sensitive to the feel of chakra around them. He briefly wondered what Shino's reaction would be as, other than Kurenai-sensei, Shino was the best at detecting chakra on their team, even without the use of his Kikaichu.
It was easily apparent that the jutsu Kiba had used had most definitely increased his strength by a good margin if the tightening of his muscles were any indication. With Kiba's muscles bulging as they were, Taka was sure that the strength came with a price, most likely at the sacrifice of speed as well as a large amount of chakra output.
Taka smirked, however, that smirk quickly turned into a small grin. As long as he held the speed advantage he could win this.
"You ready!?" asked Kiba confidently.
"Bring it!" responded Taka with equal confidence. His smile vanished when Kiba dropped to all fours. His expression only caused Kiba's grin to become more pronounced. 'Kuso...'
Kiba was a blur of motion as he ran straight for his opponent, intent on causing a high amount of blunt trauma to his opponent's torso. Taka managed to dodge to the left, Kiba's right, barely dodging the Inu-nin's attack. Kiba immediately skid on the tiled arena floor, struggling to change directions as Taka touched down on the ground with one hand and flipped to face Kiba once more.
Taka winced as he felt a stinging sensation on his ankle. A brief glance had shown him that Kiba's trained partner, Akamaru, had a grip on his ankle and he could no longer move easily, giving Kiba an easy target. Instead of attempting to shake the dog loose, Taka began to gather his wind chakra into a shield as he had seen the Wolverine do earlier. Unfortunately for him, Kiba's speed was more than enough to keep him from completely succeeding.
Taka felt the wind being knocked out of him in a single excruciating rush as Kiba barreled into his stomach. Kiba grinned ferally as Taka was knocked off of his vertical base and actually bounced off the floor once before skidding nearly half a foot. The Michinuku prodigy grabbed his torso as he shakily stood. It was fortunate he managed to construct such a rudimentary wind barrier as he did or else an uncushioned attack from Kiba would have ended the match and possibly his life.
'I underestimated him...' thought Taka before addressing Kiba. "Guess this isn't some school yard brawl, huh?" He was panting heavily to catch his breath.
"Guess you're ready to take this up a notch?" asked Kiba.
"Yeah..." replied Taka trying to anticipate his old sparring partner's next move. However, that proved difficult as Kiba had never teamed with Akamaru in any of their spars in the academy, just as Taka had never utilized his Clan's Taijutsu and elemental conditioning. There were just too many unknowns and Kiba was winning the match. He couldn't help but grind his teeth in mild frustration.
"Akamaru!" shouted Kiba as he crouched low, having completed the handseals for his next jutsu, "Juujin Bunshin!" Chakra seemed to ooze off of Kiba once more as a puff of smoke erupted above him. As it cleared there was another copy of the beastly shinobi where Akamaru once stood, just as human and feral looking as Kiba.
"Couldn't take me by yourself so you had to get help," said Taka with a smile. "You do realize that two times zero power is still zero power, don't you."
Both Kibas glared at Taka. "We'll show you zero power! Akamaru!"
Kiba's doppelganger growled and barked in agreement. Akamaru then lunged off of Kiba and charged towards Taka with Kiba not too far behind.
The doppelgangers jumped simultaneously, entering a dangerous spin whose effects were potentially lethal for Taka if he could not dodge.
Taka barely managed to dodge the first spinning canine tornado only to move into the path of the second. Taka hastily threw out a burst of wind that only slightly slowed the second attack's momentum, only barely softening the blow. He was sent sprawling across the floor, bouncing twice as he rolled.
"Taka!" shouted Sakura when her teammate was hit.
Taka was still for a moment before he began to rise shakily to his feet. He was gritting his teeth as he whipped a bit of blood that dribbled from the corner of his mouth.
"That's how you want to play it Kiba?" asked Taka in a threatening manner. "Fine. Bunshin no Jutsu!"
Suddenly, one Taka became seven.
"I think you hit your head," mocked Kiba. "Those copies are just illusions; I can still smell the original."
"Are you sure?" asked Taka.
The arena went still. Channeling more chakra into his nose Kiba realized he could no longer smell his opponent.
"What the hell!?"
"We realized when we heard that both of our teams would be entered into the Chuunin Exams that your team would be a problem between your nose and the eyes of both the Uchiha and Hyuuga at your disposal," Taka explained. "Between mine and Shino's techniques to cover our scents and Sasuke's inexperience with his Sharingan, the only real threat to our strategies was Hinata, especially with how much she seemed to change after your mission to Wave Country. Unfortunately, for you, you don't have either Sasuke or Hinata to rely on in this fight."
Taka's clones then surrounded Kiba and Akamaru.
"Akamaru, back to back!" Kiba ordered as he and his doppelganger both took fighting stances behind one another.
One of the Takas took a step forward. "Now all you have to do, Kiba, is decide…"
Another one of them then inched forward. "Decide which on of us…"
"Is the real…"
"One!" Finally one of the copies charged right at Kiba and Akamaru, but then turned abruptly before he got within range of the canine duo.
Another then charged at them and they reacted accordingly, only to have that one disengage his attack before reaching them. Suddenly, one of the Taka's leapt into the air right towards Kiba and Akamaru, a small amount of wind nature chakra swirling around his clenched fist.
"Damn!" cursed Kiba as he moved into position. Another two of the Takas charged in, also with wind chakra being charged in their fists and Akamaru growled in response.
One of the charging Taka's stopped and shouted as he punched at Kiba and Akamaru. "Namiken (Wave Fist)!"
The jutsu forced the shinobi and his canine companion to duck. Kiba could feel the wind as it sailed over their heads.
"Gotcha!" Kiba shouted as he started to head towards the one that threw the Fuuton jutsu at them. However, he was stopped when he heard Akamaru whine, having been hit by the Taka that jumped above them.
"What!?" Before Kiba could ponder what had happened further, the third attacking Taka made his move.
The small fist sized ball of wind chakra smashed Kiba in the face and sent him sprawling onto the floor. Kiba's mind was racing as he wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth. 'Damn it… How can his clones be solid?'
"How can his clones be solid?" asked Ino.
It was Sakura, of all people, who answered this question. "Those aren't regular clones, they're Kaze Bunshin. Because they're made of wind, they can use Taka's Fuuton Jutsu and because Taka's encased himself in wind chakra, Kiba can't tell one from another."
"It also means that Inu-baka's overconfidence cost him the match the minute he let Shorty down there make those clones," Naruto noted. "If he'd kept on the offensive, Taka wouldn't have stood a chance, but he let Shorty stall for time and let him do two jutsu. Then he let himself be fooled by the second jutsu by not paying attention to the handseals Shorty used."
"Kiba could still turn the tide with a wide area jutsu, but he only knows one, which heavily relies on his sense of smell and is only half as effective without Akamaru," added Kakashi. "Of course Kiba could always try to stall for time. That scent masking jutsu likely consumes a lot of chakra, meaning Taka can't keep it up for long. Especially not while simultaneously maintaining that many Kaze Bunshin. Taka will tire fairly quickly if the fight continues too much longer."
"I'd kiss Broody-chan before that would ever happen," Naruto commented, knowing Kiba was far from the patient type.
"Akamaru!" shouted Kiba, seeing his canine companion sprawled out on the floor from the knock out blow that the aerial Taka hit him with. The Juujin Bunshin expelled when the dog was knocked unconscious. The strength of the jutsu employed also caused the Kaze Bunshin that had attacked him to dispel as well. "You bastard!"
Kiba then charged blindly, angered that Akamaru had been taken out of the battle. He got two steps when one of the Takas to his right unleashed another attack on him. "Namiken!"
Kiba took the jutsu full on in the side of his face, which caused him to skid to a stop. Before Kiba realized it, he found a fist impacting with his stomach and a second one encased in wind chakra impacting with his temple. The Inuzuka was seeing stars as he sprawled across the floor.
'Damn…' Taka mentally cursed fatigue was racking his body, the strain of using so much chakra was beginning to get to him. 'He's tougher than I thought…'
His eyes widened in realization when Kiba's gaze locked onto him. For a brief moment, Taka's jutsu failed as the slight aura of wind chakra encasing him flickered for just a second, allowing Kiba to pinpoint his position. Dropping all pretenses, Taka released the jutsu and charged at Kiba. The Inuzuka merely grinned in response, knowing he had the superior strength and speed over Taka. However, Kiba had briefly forgotten about the remaining five Bunshin, as one grabbed his arm.
Kiba backhanded it with a powerful blow that dispelled it, when another Bunshin punched him in the face. Kiba retaliated with a strong punch of his own dispelling a third bunshin. Taka then dove at Kiba in a move reminiscent of Hinata's fight with Neji As the last three Kaze Bunshin dispelled. Only this time instead of being used for a tactical retreat, Taka used the small explosion of chakra and crumbling stone to propel him towards Kiba. "NAMIKEN!"
Kiba felt the air rushing out of him as both of Taka's fists impacted with his stomach. With the release of all that wind chakra from Taka's fists, Kiba was then propelled away from his opponent, bouncing once off the floor before slamming into the wall, cracking it slightly with the impact. Kiba then fell to the floor in a seemingly boneless heap. Taka, meanwhile, was heaving heavily, unable to catch his breathe, sweat dripping off his face onto the floor.
Hayate finally cut through the silence. "Winner… Michinuku Taka!"
As soon as it was announce, Taka also collapsed into unconsciousness due to chakra exhaustion.
The winners of the Preliminary Round, minus Taka, assembled in the fitting pit to be addressed by the Sandaime Hokage once more.
"Each of you have done extremely well to make it this far," said the Sandaime, "It's been an impressive effort by all of you. Now, you will all have to draw your numbers for your position in the tournament. Now, since there are twelve of you, those who draw three, six, seven and ten will get an automatic bye into the quarterfinals."
Anko then stepped forward with a box. The ever enthusiastic Rock Lee was the first to draw for his position in the Chuunin Exam Tournament for the third round. "Twelve!"
A nervous Chouji was the next to go. His chosen number didn't help his demeanor any. "Eleven."
"Four," said Temari, closely followed by her brother Kankuro.
"Two," came the lazy reply of Nara Shikamaru as he drew his own number.
Uchiha Sasuke was the next to step up. "Seven."
Ino went next, followed by Sakura.
"Six," was drawn by Neji.
"Ten," said Kurenai as she drew for Taka.
The next number drawn made Kankuro physically ill as it was drawn by his younger brother. "Three."
"I guess that just leaves me with number five," said Naruto, however, he drew his number anyway, only to confirm what he'd said.
"The Exam Tournament will be held in a month," said Hayate, "That will give each of you time to both recover and recuperate (cough) from the last couple of days in the Forest of Death and give you time to (cough) train yourselves in some new techniques while further refining techniques you already know."
"I look forward to seeing what each of you can do in the coming month," said the Sandaime. "Dismissed."
"So what are you going to do for the next month, Wolverine?" asked Funaki, Haku also looked interested in his response.
"I think I might just train in the Forest of Death the entire month," said Naruto. "Maybe see if there is actually anything dangerous in there."
Funaki shuddered. "No one comes here. I think the only person who actually enters Training Ground 44 willingly on a regular basis is the second exam proctor, Anko."
"Maybe I'll get some decent training after all," replied Naruto.
"You've got other plans this month," said a voice from above them that startled Funaki and Haku. The man looked the three of them over. 'You look like your father, kid…'
'Who is this man? Zabuza-sama has trained me to hear the drop of a pin from several meters away. Nobody could be that silent,' Haku thought to herself before amending her thoughts as she looked at Naruto. 'Nobody but Naruto, and yet even I couldn't detect this old man. He is more than he appears.'
Neither of his teammates knew who the man was, but Naruto recognized him despite having never seen him before.
"Hello, Jiraiya," he greeted neutrally.
Funaki felt trapped in a whirlwind. First his teammate ran off to fight the Legendary Orochimaru and now the Gallant Jiraiya was standing before them. Something was going on, something big and he didn't have the slightest clue what, and yet he was right in the middle of it all, caught up in the eye of a storm for which only the most exceptionally strong could survive.
Suddenly the man, now revealed as Jiraiya, disappeared. "I have to borrow your teammate for a while."
'Fast!' Haku and Funaki thought as they spun around. Jiraiya's hand was already on Naruto's shoulder as he used the Konoha Shunshin and disappeared with Naruto in a swirl of leaves.
"You know, there were less obvious ways to handle that," said Naruto as they rematerialized in another part of the forest that looked rather secluded.
"Perhaps, but subtlety has never been my thing," replied Jiraiya. "I doubt it's really ever been yours either."
"I can be discreet when I need to be," Naruto responded.
"Don't I know it," Jiraiya commented.
"So what do you want me for?" asked Naruto.
"I had him bring you here for your next assignments," said the Sandaime.
"Assignments?" asked Naruto. "Am I being pulled off the Chuunin Exams?"
"No, you'll be maintaining your cover until the end of the Exams," said the Sandaime. "Under the guise of training for the Exams, I want you to go with Jiraiya to search out a third student of mine, Tsunade. Orochimaru is one of the cleverest shinobi we've ever had and if we're to succeed in foiling whatever schemes he's come up with, we need all the help we can get."
"She'll never come back willingly," Naruto replied. "You might want to cut your losses there."
"If I'm right, if there is anyone who could convince her to come back, it's the two of you," Sarutobi told him.
"I'm an assassin, a killer," said Naruto somewhat heatedly. "I'm not good at negotiations that don't involve killing or bodily harm."
"Avoid that, if possible, but do bring her back," Sarutobi ordered. "We need an ace in the hole for whatever Orochimaru has planned for the final round of the exams. The biggest threats to Orochimaru's schemes are the three of us and he'll deal with each accordingly. Jiraiya will be taking care of any summoned creatures that appear and you'll be tied up dealing with whatever other distractions he can come up with so he can face me directly without interference. Tsunade's unexpected appearance would both demoralize his subordinates and possibly disrupt his plans enough for a more definitive victory."
"Understood," Naruto nodded thinking things over.
"For your second assignment, we need to find a way to deal with Orochimaru and Akatsuki."
"Hold on, Sarutobi," interjected Jiraiya. "I think his little scuffle in the Forest of Death proved that he's no where near ready for that. He's not strong enough to take on one or the other, what makes you think he's capable of going after both?"
"I'll do it," Naruto responded. "If anyone could find a way, it's me."
"I know, that's why I want you to put together a task force to deal with them," said Sarutobi.
"I work alone," Naruto argued.
"And how's that worked out for you so far?" asked Jiraiya.
"I haven't seen you do anything yet, despite having been tracking both Orochimaru and Akatsuki for the last few years," Naruto shot back.
"Naruto, Jiraiya, enough!" snapped the Sandaime. "Naruto, as powerful and skilled as you are, even if you do have the potential to become even better than they are, they still have numbers on their side. Whether you like it or not, you will need help."
"Fine. Aburame Shino," Naruto grudgingly agreed.
"What?" asked Jiraiya in confusion.
"You guys want me to put together a task force to take out all of our most powerful enemies, I choose who gets to be on it, and I want the bug kid," Naruto demanded.
Sarutobi frowned. "He's a rookie Genin, a talented one, but he doesn't have a lot of experience."
"He's also got the most potential of any of the other Genin I've seen and the one with the most potential to be a Chuunin," countered Naruto, "He just had the misfortune of facing me in the preliminary round."
"Be that as it may, I'd rather not have Genin on a Task Force like that, no matter how talented," Sarutobi said in thought.
"So how about another compromise?" suggested Jiraiya. "We watch how he conducts himself when Orochimaru makes his move and if his performance is satisfactory enough by all of our standards, we can give him a battlefield promotion. If the kid's not up to snuff, though, if you still want him on your team Naruto you'll have to wait until he gets promoted to Chuunin."
"That's acceptable," Sarutobi conceded, though a bit reluctantly. "Naruto?"
"Sure," he replied.
"What about Haku, she's quite talented," suggested Sarutobi, "The medics at the hospital say she's one of the best they've seen in a long time."
Naruto shook his head. "Maybe, but she's too soft." He ignored the snort from Jiraiya. "Zabuza always made it a point to shelter her from some of the darker aspects of shinobi life when they traveled together. What about Zabuza?"
"After his probation period, but I think he wants to join the ANBU T & I Department," said Sarutobi. "If he agrees, you can have him for your team, but I'd like to keep him, Anko, Gai, Tenzou, and Kakashi on hand here in reserve in case either Akatsuki or Orochimaru decide to make any moves against us in the village."
Jiraiya frowned. "He'll need someone with a summoning contract on his squad. I don't know about the members of Akatsuki, but Orochimaru has one and despite their mutual hatred, he and Manda work pretty well together."
"I've got that covered," Naruto informed them.
"Something other than snakes?" asked Jiraiya.
Naruto nodded, but offered no further clarification. "If there's nothing else, I've got to catch up to Haku and Funaki and make up some explanation as to what you called me here for."
"Eager to get back to your girlfriend, huh?" asked Jiraiya teasingly.
Naruto snorted. "You're just jealous because you still have to live vicariously through your novels."
Jiraiya muttered something about disrespectful kids before addressing Naruto more seriously. "We're leaving in about an hour or so, so be ready."
"I'll be ready," Naruto said as he lit a cigar and walked off into the distance.
A/N: Like every other chapter, a list of dossiers for the major characters for the story. Since this chapter is longer than most, this will have a few more dossiers than normal. This chapter we have Jiraiya, Team 8 and Funaki.
Aliases: Ero-Sennin, Jiraiya-sama, Gama Sennin
Rank: Kage Equivalent
Special Abilities: Gama Contract
Specialties: Gama Jutsu, Fuin Jutsu, Information Gathering, Stealth
Elemental Affinities: Fire, Earth
Name: Yuuhi Kurenai
Special Abilities: None
Specialties: Genjutsu, Recon, Tracking and Stealth
Elemental Affinities: Fire
Name: Aburame Shino
Aliases: Bug Boy
Special Abilities: Kikaichu
Specialties: Aburame Clan Jutsu, Tracking, Detection, Stealth
Elemental Affinities: None
Name: Haruno Sakura
Aliases: Forehead Girl, Pinky
Special Abilities: Inner Sakura
Specialties: Chakra Control, Genjutsu
Elemental Affinities: None
Name: Michinuku Taka
Special Abilities: Michinuku Clan Taijutsu, Elemental Chakra Manipulation
Specialties: Michinuku Clan Jutsu
Elemental Affinities: Lightning, Wind
Special Abilities: None
Specialties: Aerial Jutsu
Elemental Affinities: None