Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. If I did, I probably wouldn't be doing this.
AN: Well, here's the next one.
The Demon Brothers hit the grass with a thud, Gouzu rolling backwards to his feet while Meizu stayed sprawled out on the ground, only bothering to draw himself up onto his elbows. Kunai and shuriken littered the training ground, and their razor-sharp chain was broke. Again, Gouzu thought as he let out a barely audible sigh. At this rate they'd need to just buy a new one instead of fixing it up again. Turning forlorn eyes from the once-prized weapon, he focused in on Zabuza's aggravated rant about their rather unimpressive (at least by Zabuza standards) performance. Meizu rolled his eyes and glanced to his brother with a look that would just be begging for a blow to skull if Zabuza noticed.
"…I don't expect you to take down Haku, or hell, even Naruto, but this is just pathetic. You guys are supposed to be Chunin already, dammit! Do you really want to get shown up by all these little punks? You know how it'll look if my own subordinates can't even keep up with a bunch of little brats in a little competition?"
"Come on Boss, do you really think any of those brats will be able to give us trouble? Yeah, Naruto can be pretty tough when he wants, but I doubt he's Chunin material. I guess that Sasuke kid might be the same since he's Itachi's brother, but Haku here's the only one that's a big deal, and we don't have to worry about him."
"Idiot." Zabuza's opinion, as always, was obvious.
"Idiot." Meizu's opinion, as always, was apparently on the same page as Zabuza.
"You shouldn't be so overconfident, Gouzu." At least he could always count on Haku to be nicer. Then again, maybe if he'd actually been in the training session instead of sitting off to the side watching while their leader gave them a thorough thrashing, the feminine child wouldn't have been so amiable.
"Oh please. It's not like the village is full of freak-of-nature prodigies or anything."
"I don't give a damn, Meizu! You're going to get your ass back to work, and this time you'll give it your best plus some! Now Haku, I want you to-Haku?" He glanced around sharply, but there was no sign of his long-time companion.
"It looks like he decided he wanted to avoid our training session. I think he knew you were about to bring him into this."
"Man, and you ride our asses over this crap? That kid's got you whipped good, bossman."
The glare said more than words, but Gouzu needed to say something anyway.
From the shadows of the forest, the ever-watchful shinobi assigned to observe the newcomers to the village for suspicious activity winced at the sight before him, and for a moment Yamato almost felt sorry for the Demon Duo.
"Man, this is such a drag." Shikamaru let himself drop to the ground, sprawling out and clearly intent on staying that way. Asuma just chuckled from the post he was sitting on while he watched the bickering. Maybe it was time for their training session to end for the day.
"Shut up Shikamaru! Stop complaining all the time! I've gotta become a Chunin so I can impress Sasuke! We're doing this again!" Choji looked over at Ino's declaration, not surprised in the least, but looking as though someone had just told him that every restaurant in the village had been bombed.
"B-But Ino, I want to go to lunch."
"You shut it too, Chouji! We're gonna go over this until we get it right!"
"I'm with Chouji, Ino." The half-hearted complaint from the ground wasn't helping.
"Of course you are, you lazy ass!"
"Come on Ino, that was pretty mean."
"Argh! You're both hopeless, lazy bums. Why couldn't I have been on Sasuke's team?"
"So freaking troublesome."
Sometimes, her teammates made her want to scream. When that happened, she knew there was always someone she could turn to, at least when it came to training. After all, with the exams coming up he'd been pushing them harder than ever, and he'd been so determined to impress Kurenai (Even if he refused to admit it) that there was no way Asuma would-
"You know, I think the guys are right. We should probably call it a day and grab some lunch." Then again, sometimes her teacher was just as bad.
And so with a final cry of frustration, Ino caved and agreed to join them on the condition that Asuma paid for everything, knowing that she could at least get revenge by making him foot Choji's bill.
"It's been half an hour. Kiba?"
"Same as always, guys. Sensei's can't hide her scent completely, but she's not half bad at it, and she's sure gotten good at throwing it off. Between all the normal crap around the forest and the stuff she's got spread around, I can't get anything specific. I can tell you that she probably hasn't left the training field though, so we're not gonna be chasin' her around the village."
"Not for now. I admit I haven't had much luck either at this juncture."
"I-it's okay, Shino. You got us this far, s-s-so we can't blame you, right?"
"Hinata's right, man. You kept us on her trail for at least an hour or two, so let us take care of some of the work. Let's take a look at what we've got here."
"Hm. We know that she's found a way to hide herself from my insects, and that she's found effective means of limiting the use of your enhanced senses."
"S-she also has the Cloak of Invisibility technique."
"Yeah, I guess. It might be an academy technique, but with a Jonin like her it might as well be a top level skill, eh?"
"Quite. So smell and typical sight are out of the question." He shifted his position subtly. Most would consider it an annoyed twitch, but his teammates had known him at least long enough to get the signal. "And my insects are also unable to do the job. She won't make a sound, we already know that much, so we can't rely on our ears. That means-"
"Byakugan!" Hinata activated the Kekkei Genkai without warning, immediately scanning the area…and paling before letting out a shout, "Kiba, down!"
The boy barely ducked in time to avoid the spinning blades of the shuriken. Shino lurched forward to knock it aside, and then stepped in front of Hinata as a barrage of the small blades slammed into his chest. The forest seemed to explode into action as his body separated into thousands of insects, the clone having lost its use as the real Shino reached his target. Unfortunately, when faced with their Jonin Sensei, even the element of surprise had only limited uses…and honestly, he doubted that they even had that particular element in their advantage right now.
When he only managed to land on his feet just in time for Kiba to come barreling into him after a sharp kick to the stomach, he considered the hypothesis tested and confirmed. The duo scrambled to their feet as Hinata joined their side, all three standing backs to one another and searching for their teacher, no hidden once again. Then a voice came from the space between their backs, all but Shino visibly leaping away in fright and surprise at the woman's sudden proximity to them.
"I think that's enough for now, kids."
"What the hell was that, Sensei!"
"Just a little trick I picked up back in my rookie days."
"No, not that disappeary thing! You coulda killed me with those!"
"I had faith in your abilities." That seemed to quiet the boy slightly. "Shino's clone would have taken the hit if you were too slow to get out of the way."
Kiba gawked at the chuckling woman (soon joined by Hinata), and shot a half-serious glare at Shino. Oh, the boy might not have shown it, but he was pretty darn certain that the insect user was smirking at him. Sooner or later he'd be the one that needed saving and Kiba had every intention of teasing him with that for the rest of their lives. It just had to actually happen. And it would. Someday. Probably later. Oh well, if the mission was over, it was time for the praise. Kurenai smiled warmly at her students for a brief moment before beginning the short appraisals of their performances.
"You're doing great, Hinata, but you need to be more confident. You may not be able to hold the Byakugan for too long, but don't be afraid to use it if you think it could help."
"Great work, Hina!"
"You've improved greatly."
"T-thank you, sensei, Kiba, Shino. You did a really well too."
"Shino, you did an excellent job as well. Still, you need to work on some of your other practical skills. You have a great tactical mind, but may not always be able to rely on your insects for every scenario."
"Yeah, bug-boy, you need to do a little more brawling! Like me, ya know?"
"And Kiba, tone it down a little. Confidence is good, but loud and arrogant will get you in trouble."
"Still, you managed to keep alert and reacted well. Just work on not charging headfirst at your enemies every time."
"Yeah, yeah, avoid the bum rushing. Gotcha."
"So, how does lunch sound? My treat, since you've all agreed on your participation in the exams."
"T-thank you, Sensei."
"I see no problem in joining you."
"Free food? Hell yeah, let's get going already!"
"Ha! I've got you this time!" Sakura yelled as the kunai arced sliced through the air only to widen her eyes in surprise as "Itachi's" body became a torrent of crows flying into the skies.
Behind! She glanced behind her just in time to see the blade arcing down. Smirking just as it made contact, Sakura's body exploded into a whirlwind of flower petals, spinning around Itachi and blocking his view. His eyes shifted across the blossoms as he waited for an attack. Yet it never came. The wind died down, the petals falling gently to the earth below him.
Odd. It wasn't like her to completely retreat during their lessons. Now where did you go?
The moment he stepped forward he felt it, and spun around in time to stomp down on the girl's kunai as she seemed to appear from the grass below, pinning her hands to the ground. He twisted around while bringing his free foot around towards her face with a kick that would no doubt leave a very, very painful bruise. If, of course, he hadn't immediately altered the course of his blow just before it made contact, bending his leg at the knee and coming full circle to his first position just in time to drive said knee into the charging Sakura's stomach, sending her rolling backwards across the ground as the illusion he'd pinned moments before disappeared. The real Sakura began picking herself up, clutching at her aching belly but grinning at him all the same.
"I'm impressed. It's only been a matter of days, yet you've improved drastically. I would like to teach you more, but this should do for the time being. I doubt you'll be encountering any other contestants on a level this advanced during the exams anyway."
"Thanks, sensei. So do you think we can keep up the training after the exams?"
"Hm. Perhaps so. That is, if you don't feel that you've outgrown your teacher." She put on a pseudo-shocked expression, dramatically grasping at her heart.
"What? Of course not! I'd never get tired of you, oh Mighty Ultimate Genjutsu Master of the Universe!" The smirk returned. "Oh, and by the way, it looks like I did get you this time. Bye-bye, sensei!"
And with that, Sakura turned to make her order at the small restaurant, satisfied that she'd finally managed to pull one over on her temporary Genjutsu tutor. She chuckled behind the menu, knowing that he'd probably get her back the next time she met him for a lesson, but the look on his face…
"Priceless." She glanced up in horror at the "waiter," easily recognizing said tutor's voice. She couldn't seem to form the words as he raised an eyebrow, looking down at her with amusement.
"Perhaps someday, my little student. But not today." And as Sakura found herself back in the park, she let out a cry of frustration. Sometimes that boy is just so…so…
The explosion from the Uchiha's personal training grounds sounded across the compound. Yet not a single head was turned in surprise, all of the occupants having gotten used to the exploits of Shisui Uchiha and his little cousin Sasuke. From her home, Mikoto sighed.
There they go again. They'd have to replant the trees. Again.
Meanwhile, in the training ground, the younger of the increasingly infamous Uchiha duo released over a dozen spinning shuriken all around him towards the burning vegetation of the forest. As he focused his chakra into the strings controlling the blades, the flames spreading through the forest seemed drawn to them, surrounding the already deadly weapons to increase their effectiveness twice over. He began to twist and spin, the now-burning blades creating a defensive field around their owner as he awaited his pursuer's next attempt.
A rumbling overcame the sounds of the crackling flames, and Sasuke released the blades just as waves of water coursed through the trees towards his position, dousing the flames and packing enough momentum to cause some genuine damage…if they were able to make contact. He flipped through a quick series of seals before clapping his hands together, taking a deep breath, and releasing a small burst of fire in between them. His arms shot out to his side, and as his hands separated a massive pillar of fire followed, surrounding him at the moment that the water jutsu was in range. The immense heat quickly overcame its competitor, filling the entire field with a thick cloud of steam.
A hand firmly gripping a kunai broke through the misty air, stopping right between Sasuke's eyes.
"Too slow!" Shisui said with a smirk. Sasuke only returned the expression, causing his cousin to narrow his eyes before the younger boy disappeared in a blur of motion, only to feel the slight pressure of a blade at the back of his neck.
"Am I too slow now, sensei!" Shisui raised his arms into the air as if in defeat, turning around to look at the younger boy.
"Afraid so, little cousin."
"I know that you're not using a Shadow Clone, Shisui. And you hate using Genjutsu. So tell me, what makes you think you can get out of this one? Maybe I'm just that good."
"Ah, the arrogance of youth." Sasuke was about to speak when he felt a blade pressed against his own neck, and his eyes widened with shock as the Shisui in front of him disappeared. There were no theatrics, there was no motion, there was nothing indicating that he'd even been there. He was just…gone.
W-what in the world was that?
"That kind of arrogance will kill you. It will kill you, and your team, and your friends. You're good, Sasuke. But you're not nearly good enough to be so certain of your victory."
Sasuke could only stare back at his cousin, eyes widened in a combination of admiration, shock, and even a bit of fear. He'd never heard of such a technique. He'd studied almost obsessively when it came to all three of the primary combat arts utilized by ninja across the world, but he'd never seen this before. Clones, the Body Flicker, illusions, or even sheer speed…This was none of those. Perhaps, from the look on his cousin's face, this was the kind of thing that Jonin were really capable of.
He'd expected Shisui to be ready for something like this. He hadn't honestly believed that he could catch the man who had trained him, and who was years ahead of him in terms of experience, off guard for very long. But to be so completely outmatched, and so effortlessly…it wasn't something easy to accept. He'd played off Itachi's easy victory as unfamiliarity with his opponent's skills, that they were simply sparring, and a variety of other excuses. He'd never seriously trained with any of his other relatives, either. If this was what Jonin really were capable of, then he would be a fool not to realize that had quite a long way to go before he could afford that sort of confidence in his skills.
"So, little cousin, wanna get some breakfast? Lunch? Brunch? Brinner? Dinner? Brunner? Middle aftermorning snacktime? I'm starving back here."
And apparently the man was still as obnoxiously whiny as ever, even in this position. He couldn't ignore the nagging feeling that sometimes, he was the more mature of their little master-student team.
Hanabi Hyuuga was confused. Oh, she wasn't lost, not this time. She simply wasn't certain what to do. The leaders of the clan were needed at the village's main administration building to prepare for a final meeting between the village leaders before the exams. In fact, most of the clan was doing something or another in regards to the upcoming exams, including all of the replacement trainers that her father might have considered while he was busy. And considering that she hadn't had any major problems when she'd been out the previous time (Not that Hiashi knew of, anyway) he'd felt it would be alright to give her a day off.
And that was how she landed in this particular predicament; she had never actually taken a day off to just wander the village, and now hadn't the slightest idea where she wanted to go, or where she would have to go to find it even if she had known. Heck, she'd only even left the compound for errands twice, and the first time she'd gotten lost on the way to her destination only to be found by…her solution. If there was anyone outside of her clan that she knew would be willing to help her around, it would be the crazy boy who wore far too much orange for any reasonable creature to willingly wear. But he was nice, and he'd told her to find him the next time she was around to treat her to lunch, and she planned to do just that.
But how to find him?
Her first stop had been the ramen shop that he'd tried to take her to before. It still wasn't open, but an old man who claimed to be the owner had been standing outside speaking to someone, and had been more than pleased to address the young girl who'd waited so politely and patiently for him to finish his business. He didn't know where Naruto was, but he'd seen him earlier and knew of a few places that the boy had frequented a few years earlier. Considering his attitude before, the first of those suggestions she'd looked in to was the Hokage Monument. And lo and behold, there he'd been, calmly sitting on the Fourth Hokage's head as though it wasn't a legendary and revered landmark, legs crossed and arms folded in front of him in a meditative pose.
Maybe this wasn't a good idea. If he was going to be in the Chunin Exams, and this meditation was part of his training, interfering would be wrong. People got hurt in the tests, and she didn't want to cause him any trouble down the line just because she'd been uncertain of what to do and nagged him into helping her.
So naturally she nearly fell over in surprise when his head tilted to the side, and a loud snore made it very clear that he was most certainly not meditating.
You-You little! Frustrated that she'd been so concerned without reason, Hanabi then did something she wouldn't have normally done. She gave a sleeping man a rather firm smack to the back of the head, eyebrow twitching in annoyance.
"GIANTTOAD!" Naruto shot up the moment that he was moved from his position, glancing around as if expecting to see some kind of monster. When his eyes settled on the annoyed (and thoroughly confused) little girl standing before him, he grinned. "Hey there, Little Girl. Whatcha been doin' lately?"
"Oh. Okay. So what'd you need?"
"I was hoping to take you up on your offer. From before, I mean."
"Hm? Oh, yeah, sure. No problem. Where do you wanna go? I could use some lunch anyway, what with all the training I've been doing for these Chunin Exam thingies lately."
"I see. Your training looked…intense." She sighed, following the strange boy as he made his way down the mountain. "You know, Father says that the Chunin Examinations this year are likely to be harsher than usual. He says that there are far more contestants than almost any other exam he's seen."
His reaction wasn't quite what she expected.
"Sounds great! Man, I'm so pumped for this thing! Kinda feels like it's taking forever to get here though."
"You know that the exams are dangerous, right?" Again, he just smiled.
"Then it's perfect!"
"You're…confident. It's strange." He tilted his head back to look at her, confusion etched across his face.
"I don't see very many of our village's ninja outside of the Hyuuga Clan since my father puts so much time into my training, but from what I understand, most Genin hope for an easy exam. Why are you so excited that it will be harder?" He turned away from her, scratching his chin and looking thoughtful.
"I guess it's like a guy I met a while back used to say. 'You can't be the best unless you're the best.'" She raised an eyebrow at that.
"…Does that not go without saying?"
"Yeah, I didn't get it at first. Guy was kinda weird. See, it's like this, alright? I'm planning to be Hokage someday, which means I've gotta be the best in the village. If I can't even be the best in the exam, then that dream's pretty far off. But if the strongest and smartest guys aren't my opponents, what's the point in being better than them? If I'm not up against the best, then I might as well beat up all the kids at the academy and say I'm the best. To be the best, I have to be the best out there, and I can't do that if I'm not up against the best…Don't know if that makes any sense, but it sounded good enough in my head."
"Actually, I think I understand." It's almost like our clan. The Hyuuga Clan didn't become elite by defeating weak opponents. We became strong by defeating strong opponents. Proving your strength over those who are obviously weaker doesn't prove your true strength at all. It's meaningless. She hadn't expected something like that from the spacey and slightly obnoxious boy (Kind and friendly sure, but still a bit of a brat all the same). It wasn't the deepest philosophy she'd ever heard, but not something she'd have expected from a "common" ninja, as she'd heard some of her clansmen call the others in Konoha on occasion.
"Anyway, I'm not too worried. I'm pretty sure I've fought worse than whatever these guys can throw at me. Nah, I think Princess is the biggest thing to worry about."
"Princess?" She caught up to him, walking behind him along the streets rather than slightly behind as he weaved through the crowds with surprising ease for someone so clumsy.
"He's a friend of mine. Great guy, has some killer moves, but acts girlier than most of the girls I know." Unless you threaten Zabuza. That was something he'd only seen a few times, but he doubted he'd ever get used to seeing his friend's personality make such a massive shift. He could be outright vicious when Zabuza's safety was at stake. "Either way, I can't wait! I probably won't have much fun fighting anybody, but I'm sure there'll be some other challenges."
"Still, you should be more cautious. If you don't take this exam seriously you could get hurt." And she didn't want that. How odd that she felt so strongly about someone outside of the clan. Not that they lacked empathy for others, but she rarely saw any of them often enough to develop any kind of relationship. Yet after only one meeting, she was already concerned for this one's safety.
"Ah, you worry too much. I appreciate it though, kid." He wrapped an arm around her shoulders to give her a playful hug, causing a blush to spread across her cheeks.
That night, the Hokage Office…
"Ambassadors of my friends and allies, men and women of my own village, new and old alike. We've struggled many years for the peace that we now have the privilege of passing on to the next generation. Yet as we grow older, it is time once again for the next generation to take the next step on the path to succeeding their mothers and fathers as shinobi. And finally letting me retire." A few chuckles were heard from the younger faces in the crowd, though several of the older shinobi wore knowing expressions.
"Tomorrow, the Chunin Examinations begin. For several years now these tests have provided us with a means of competing, a sign of good faith between our former enemies, and strengthening the bonds between our honored allies. And so as the Kage of the sponsoring village of Konohagakure, and as a show of my faith in our continued friendship, I wish every one of you the best of luck."
AN: Well…there goes. I don't know what's been keeping me on all of my stories lately. Just life, I guess. Anyway, in the next chapter we see some of the competitors from other villages, see the entire Konoha gang get together, get through the written exams, and kick off the Forest of Death arc.