A/N: So! If my math is right, it has been seventeen months since the last update. I can only imagine how surprising it is to see this story updated, haha. As usual, school is the culprit. I've now recently graduated from high school and have time to write, so here we are. I've forgotten how delightful writing is.

Recap of chapter 16: Naruto blackmails Jiraiya into training him, Kiba keeps training with his clan. Sakura comforts Ino about Gaara, confronts her parents about their misgivings towards her being a ninja, and resolves to learn medical jutsu under Tanaka the grocery guy. Naruto lands in hospital learning the Rasengan. Team Eight temporarily united. Convincing Sakura to sneak him out of hospital, they sit on the Hokage Monument and Sakura comes up with a way to further Naruto's Rasengan training. Then they have ramen together. Jiraiya and Kurenai find out that Dosu and Hayate are dead. And finally, Ino has a bit of a late night run-in with Gaara.

... I sound like an episode recap. Anyway, after so many months, I've got nothing to say but sorry for the lack of updates in all my stories, and I hope that the upcoming ones are worth half the wait. Again, check out my blog (link in the profile) for updates about my other multichapter stories if you follow them.

Chapter 17 – On The Edge

A talented student of Jiraiya's had once told the Sannin that he was a brilliant teacher, but obviously not an environmentalist. Looking around at the ravaged training ground of deformed trees and yawning ditches, Jiraiya thought he was beginning to see the truth in those words. That was why he winced when the now-familiar snarl of "Rasengan!" was followed by the also familiar sound of splintering bark.

"What was that? A demolition crew?"

"Sounds dangerous… you want to get out now?"

"Yeah, let's go. They could be peeking at us…"

Alternatively, the two women climbing out of the pond could also be held responsible for Jiraiya's distraught and frustrated scowl as he rounded on Naruto, who stood panting in front of a gravely wounded oak tree. "Can't you keep it down? You're interrupting my research!"

Naruto wiped a trickle of sweat from his brow and shot the white-haired man a glare. "Are you supervising my training or what, Ero-sennin?"

"Oh! Is this how you treat your esteemed master? Do you know what I'm sacrificing just to train this ungrateful brat?"

As if he'd been waiting for the cue, Naruto raised three fingers and counted down as he said, "Getting drunk, splurging and… what was it? Oh – 'playing' with lots of pretty onee-chan!" He crossed his arms with a petulant frown. "You're supposed to be training me for the tournament!"

Jiraiya studied the worn down boy, who had given new meaning to the word 'stubborn' in his dictionary. Naruto had trained relentlessly, dawn to dusk, ever since he burst into the inn Jiraiya was lodging at and triumphantly ruptured the rubber ball in the hung-over man's face. The boy had improved drastically and although he had yet to perfect the Rasengan, Naruto's progress was such that Jiraiya could not help but be impressed. But obviously, his new student wasn't satisfied.

Jiraiya pulled out a gourd of sake and upended it, catching the last drops on his tongue. "The Rasengan is an advanced jutsu and you've mastered most of it. All that's left is practice. What more do you expect me to teach you, kid?"

Without hesitation, Naruto said, "I want to walk into that tournament feeling a hundred percent sure I can kick Gaara's ass."

Jiraiya watched him silently, sensing something amiss. "Listen Naruto," he said, his serious voice bringing Naruto to immediate attention. "There is no such thing as a hundred percent in the shinobi world." Naruto opened his mouth but Jiraiya went on. "You can have one hundred percent cotton or one hundred percent mature content – but there's no hundred percent survival. Got that?"

"I can still try!" Naruto persisted, trying not to sound frustrated.

Jiraiya sighed. "Kid. You're trying too hard.

After a moment of silence, Naruto cocked his head. "I don't get it."

He expected Jiraiya to explode in retorts of his mental capacity, but all the man did was sit down with another sigh and pat the spot next to him. If Naruto hadn't been convinced that he was witnessing the Toad Sannin's rare solemn side, he definitely believed it now. He sat.

"I knew someone who was a lot like you," Jiraiya began. "He was the man who invented the Rasengan, by the way."

"Who was he?" Naruto asked predictably.

Jiraiya smirked. He jerked a thumb toward the Hokage Monument, visible from almost every angle in the village. "The guy next to old Sandaime up there."

"Wow, you knew the Nidaime? You must be old."

Twitching, Jiraiya planted a hand on Naruto's spiky head and adjusted his line of vision. "The Yondaime, you idiot!"

Naruto became strangely subdued when he looked up at the proud figurehead. "You know, I always thought the Fourth Hokage was the coolest… because he saved the village from the Kyuubi," he said softly.

After a long pause, Jiraiya lifted his hand off Naruto's hair. "Do you blame him?" he asked lightly. The boy had come to a subconscious conclusion that Jiraiya was aware of the demon in his navel. Sadly, it did nothing but reveal his insecurity.

Naruto took a moment to consider. "Nah, guess not."

Jiraiya regretted his thoughtlessness. Uzumaki Naruto was a lot more complex than he had expected, and for some reason the revelation saddened him.

"Anyway," the Sannin continued, tactfully moving the conversation along. "He never backed down. He would always find a way to make ends meet no matter the odds against him. Then come the day he's offered the position of Hokage, and he says to me, 'I don't think I can do this. I don't know how to lead a village. I don't know how I can protect everyone.' And then he goes ahead to be one of the best bloody Kage in history." Jiraiya chuckled. "He was an idiot. And you're just like him, kid."

Naruto frowned. "I still don't get it."

"You lose half the fight just by thinking that you're not good enough. That's what I'm trying to tell you." Jiraiya prodded Naruto's chest with a finger. "If you've got it in you, you'll figure out a way to defeat your opponent. No one is going to hold your hand and teach you how to win. You figure it out yourself."

Naruto rubbed his chest thoughtfully. "What if I can't figure it out?"

Jiraiya rolled his eyes. "Then you're screwed. But you definitely don't stand a chance if you think that from the start." He peered at Naruto. "Why am I counselling you about this kind of thing? You wouldn't give up even if someone banned ramen worldwide. Don't tell me you're scared of getting a little beat up."

"I'm not scared!" Naruto said indignantly. Then he lowered his eyes. "I just… I promised my friends I would be careful. And I promised myself I wouldn't make them worry."

Jiraiya smiled to himself. For someone so erratic and extraordinary, Uzumaki Naruto had a very run of the mill weakness.

"Geez, I don't get what you're complaining about," Jiraiya said dismissively as he closed his eyes and comfortably leaned back. "I wouldn't mind having a cute girl worrying about me. By the way, my research says your little friend is going to grow into one hell of a – oww!"

"Not everyone is dirty like you!" Naruto shouted. He tried to conjure the killer intent he had summoned on his team's first C-rank, when Sakura had told him that there was a pervert spying on the women's bath – but the memory of his teammate in nothing but a towel, framed by wispy white steam, only made Naruto's face feel extremely hot.

"Arghhhh! Stupid Ero-sennin!"

"You're such a lucky – yowch – hey –"

"Baka! Sakura-chan will kill you!"

"Ooohh, Sakura-chan, huh? My, my – will you stop hitting me with that stick?"

Days before the Chuunin Final Exam, Sakura found herself helping Tanaka Noboru set up his store, a chore she had convinced the man to let her partake to compensate for his tuition. It hadn't taken a lot of effort; Sakura was slowly becoming acquainted with her teacher's 'true self': a man with motivation on par with Nara Shikamaru's. Typical, the pink-haired genin thought with a roll of her eyes.

Due to Tanaka's constant excuses to leave the stall for a moment of freedom, Sakura had become accustomed to manning the business in his absence. So when a shadow fell over the counter, she was comfortable enough to drop everything and turn around with a smile. But she hadn't even uttered a professional greeting when she was blindsided by a sharp object spinning out from nowhere.

Sakura's first instinct was to duck, so she did. Then, when she registered that the spiky weapon was in fact a pineapple from Tanaka's own stand, she yelped and dived to rescue it before it hit the ground.

Sputtering on dust, Sakura came up with a scowl. "Mou, Tanaka-san! That was dangerous!" Tanaka was always testing her reflexes, but this was definitely the first time he'd pegged a pineapple at her before.

"Excuses, excuses," an unimpressed, un-Tanaka voice droned. "I see you've been slacking off, Pinky."

Sakura spun around. "Takara-sensei!" Although aware that she ought to feel insulted, Sakura could not help but beam at Yamane Takara. "Are you shopping?"

Takara surveyed her student, grudgingly relishing in what hadn't changed and finding herself both surprised and impressed by what had. Sakura had grown. "So what, did you realise your lifelong dream to become a fruit ninja?"

Sakura's smile became a tad tight as she belatedly remembered that Takara was, well, Takara. She probably shouldn't have expected anything else in the first place. At the same time she was glad that the dark-haired woman hadn't changed one bit. "No," she answered as she replaced the pineapple, "I'm just looking after the shop for a bit."


"Because I'm learning medical jutsu from the owner." Sakura tried to deliver her response as casually as possible, but her subtlety immediately became blatantly obnoxious when Takara burst out laughing. "W-what?" she demanded, flustered.

"You're taking lessons from Nobu-jii?"

Sakura blinked. Nobu-jii? Then she recalled that Kurenai had known Tanaka in her genin years. Clearly, she wasn't the only one. Once Sakura saw past this, she began to frown. "What do you mean 'you're' taking lessons?" she huffed indignantly.

Still chuckling, Takara waved a hand. "Sorry, sorry. It's just so perfect."

Sakura blinked again. Was that a compliment?

"Our sensei made Kurenai study under Nobu-jii. It was really useful," Takara explained. Not useful enough, the voices of her demons whispered. Takara closed her mind, trying to keep Masuru and Kouta-sensei in the darkness of her memories. It wasn't easy, and she sometimes wondered how Kurenai dealt with her own demons. She continued in a controlled voice. "She had the best chakra control in the team, and she got us out of several tight spots even though she only knew the basics. You, Pinky, have even better control than Kurenai did then. Learning medical jutsu is the best way to put that to use."

Sakura glowed at her words. Takara shook her head. Kids were so easy to please, and so disturbingly hopeful. Sometimes they needed a reality check. "Aren't you being a little overambitious though?" she mused. "It's easy for you to learn with Nobu-jii now, but that won't be the case when the final exam is over. You have to return to active duty, and don't expect me to take it easy on you when we start training again."

The smile slid off Sakura's face. After weeks of suffering from and overcoming her insecurities, she felt confident enough to look straight into Takara's eyes; the dark pupils widened slightly as they gazed into fierce emerald orbs. "I'm not going to be left behind," Sakura said in a voice she barely recognised.

Several moments passed until Takara broke away to pick up a familiar pineapple and thrust it in Sakura's face. "I'll take this." Watching Sakura fumble with the fruit for the second time, Takara hid a smile. Kurenai had her hands full.

Sakura leaned over and placed the pineapple in Takara's basket – and was stunned when she felt a hand gently patting her head. "You know, kids like you aren't all that bad."

By the time Sakura recovered from her shock, Takara had already been swallowed by the morning crowd. She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, "You're coming to the tournament, right?"

"She'll be there."

Sakura managed to stay calm when the gravelly voice sounded from directly behind her. "And where have you been?" she demanded sternly over her shoulder, knowing her teacher would ignore her. In a quieter voice, she added, "I think Naruto and Kiba would really want her to be there."

Tanaka waved a hand dismissively. "She may be a beast but she's as sentimental as they come. Don't worry about it."

Sakura just smiled, because she knew it was true.

"By the way," Tanaka tapped his wooden leg, eliciting a sharp thud that Sakura had come to recognise as a sign that she had done something wrong. Up until now, it had always been used to correct her study of medical techniques. "You do know she didn't pay for that, right?"

On the morning of the Chuunin Exam's final round, Kurenai woke early enough to have tidied her house, watered her plants and finished her tea by the time she sensed the village and its guests making their way toward the stadium. She'd slept well enough considering the fact that she had spent the previous day attending a comrade's funeral service and at a pub where no one tried to stay sober despite their duties, on top of hauling Anko home in the middle of the night.

Unfortunately, she seemed to be the only one who had slept at all.

Kurenai could recognise an insomniac's slump even in a busy street of anticipated chatter, especially that of Sarutobi Asuma. The corner of her mouth twitched when his greeting was punctuated by a wide yawn.

"Cover your mouth," she said wryly, and fell into step beside him. "I told you not to drink so much. I doubt your father will be impressed if he finds out you were hung over on such an important day."

"'M not hung over," he mumbled, and promptly let out another yawn.

Kurenai glanced at him. "Your cigarette isn't lit."

"Oh." He patted his vest pockets, then his trousers'. "Crap, where'd I put my lighter? I swear…" He heard a sigh and then Kurenai passed him a flame on her fingertip. Blinking, he leaned in. He inhaled a deep breath, sighing as it circulated lazily through his waking body. "That's better. Thanks."

She nodded. "Genma isn't hung over, is he?"

"No, he didn't drink at all. He doesn't like it, having to replace Hayate. Do you know how Yuugao is doing?"

"I haven't seen her. She's been busy with village security."

"She should take some time off. She's working herself too hard."

"Can you blame her?" Kurenai murmured.

Asuma took another long drag from his cigarette, feeling his head clear. Despite what others thought, he didn't like to smoke. He felt he needed a reason to light his cigarette, and the reasons had only ever been bad on all occasions. He lifted his eyes to the clear blue sky. "No, I guess not."

After a short pause, Asuma said, "How do you think the tournament will turn out? Reckon your kids-"

He stopped abruptly when Kurenai held up her hand. She looked over her shoulder. He did too – and reddened uncontrollably when he saw the sly expressions on the faces of the genins who had been casually tailing them for half the journey. Maybe he was hung over after all.

"Are we being light bulbs, Sensei?" Kiba grinned.

"Don't worry, we didn't hear anything," Naruto chimed in, and waggled his eyebrows at Asuma. The jounin coughed.

Kurenai's amusement transformed into a what-am-I-ever-going-to-do-with-you-three look as her gaze settled on her mischievous genins. "You're not forgetting something?"

The three of them straightened immediately. "Good morning, Kurenai-sensei, Asuma-sensei!" they chorused loudly.

Asuma nodded absently. "I'll… go ahead, Kurenai."

Team Eight watched him leave. Sakura couldn't help but confirm; "We really weren't interrupting anything, Sensei?"

Kurenai rolled her eyes with a hidden smile. "Did you three really get together to stalk your teacher?"

"Of course!" Naruto said loudly, still wearing his cheeky grin.

Sakura gave him a pointed look. "Actually, we were worried Naruto would sleep in."

"For good reason," Kiba smirked, nudging the blonde boy.

Kurenai raised her eyebrow at Naruto, who glared at Kiba. "I was just about to get up!"

"Oh yeah, of course."

"Come on, I need lots of sleep to look good for the fans. No champion looks like they just woke up."

Kurenai shook her head. "Alright, champion, come over here." She patted down his ruffled bed hair, well aware that the boy was turning pink while his teammates sniggered behind their hands. "Kiba, you too."

"I combed my hair," he protested, although Akamaru shifted conspicuously to cover more of his master's spiky locks.

Kurenai looked down at the two boys, who immediately stopped fidgeting. "Are we ready?" she asked softly. Naruto and Kiba looked at each other, then back at her, and grinned widely.

"You bet!"

Kurenai looked past the boys and found Sakura's eyes. They were the same as hers; so worried yet so proud, and so guilty for it all. Then Sakura smiled tentatively, and Kurenai left it all behind.

"Then let's go."

Seated on the Kage platform, Sarutobi could tell the audience had become restless. It wasn't surprising; this year had drawn up interesting candidates. Watching Uchiha Sasuke join the row of finalists, minutes belated, and flatly ignore Naruto's challenging glare, the aged Hokage chuckled quietly to himself. He would never get used to seeing children he had watched grow up standing as true shinobi before him.

He turned to the man seated beside him. "Pardon the delay, Kazekage-sama. We can begin now."

The slanted eyes of Suna's leader met his. "Very good. I am excited to see how this tournament unfolds. The Leaf seems to have very promising shinobi."

Sarutobi looked down at Sabaku no Gaara, who stood unmoved by the crowd's rising cheers. "As does the Sand."

The Kazekage made a soft sound behind his veil and inclined his head slightly. Sarutobi continued to watch the man from the corner of his eye. The Kazekage was a boastful man, and Sarutobi noticed perceptively that his eyes were unmistakeably not trained on Gaara. Hiding a thoughtful frown, Sarutobi caught Genma's eye below and nodded. The jounin stepped forward and raised his hand.

"The first match will now begin. Aburame Shino, Inuzuka Kiba – step forward."

The two competitors had just taken their positions on either side of the referee when Sakura felt a presence over her shoulder. "Ano… may I sit here?" Hyuuga Hinata asked quietly.

The pink-haired girl took her eyes off the arena to look up at her former classmate, surprised. "Sure, go right ahead."

Hinata looked relieved. "Thank you. I couldn't find a seat anywhere." Sakura smiled back.

It wasn't hard to believe; it was an understatement to say that the stadium was filled. Several matches were highly anticipated – Sasuke's, for one. It was so bad that Sakura and the other genins would be standing at the back if it weren't for the Inuzuka. The clans had reserved seats and the Inuzuka seemed to have an overabundance of them in their aisle. Maybe it was the large, battle-worn dogs. Sakura's companions hadn't looked particularly thrilled by the prospect of sitting among the most feral clan in the village. Truth be told, Sakura had her own misgivings but there was nowhere else to sit and the clan easily accepted them as Kiba's friends.

It did take a bit of work to convince Ino after Hana's Haimaru triplets excitedly tackled the pink-haired girl, though.

Now, as Hinata gratefully sat down next to her, Sakura wondered why she wasn't sitting across the stadium with the Hyuuga, but refrained from asking. It wasn't her business, and if Tsume had no complaints about the heiress sitting with her clan, Sakura was hardly in any position to question it.

Two seats across, Tenten was looking down at the field with interest. "Any bets?"

"Kiba," Sakura said automatically, not because she felt obligated but because she'd learned to believe.

"Shino," Ino disagreed, simply because she felt obligated to spite her rival.

Sakura told herself she wouldn't rise to it. She didn't have the nerves for it right now, and she could tell Ino didn't either. Judging from the way Ino had refused to look anywhere near a certain finalist, they both had heavy thoughts on their mind. Instead, Sakura simply made a face at the blonde girl and turned to Hinata before the latter could retaliate. "What do you think, Hinata?"

Hinata's head came up in surprise. "P-Pardon?" she stammered distractedly. She had just felt the piercing pressure of her sister's Byakugan on her, making her cringe inwardly. It had taken a great deal of courage to excuse herself from the clan, and already she regretted it. Father would definitely lecture her afterwards; perhaps the only thing more despairing than the fact that Neji, a branch house member, was in the finalists' balcony while his daughter was not, was the fact that Hinata hadn't yet crippled herself with shame. Hiashi didn't understand that he'd already done it himself, from the moment he had pitted Hinata against her younger sister.

"Shino or Kiba?" Sakura reminded lightly.

"Oh. I-I think…" Hinata's pale eyes flitted down to the stadium, where the two boys had just finished bowing to each other. "I think both Kiba-kun and Shino-kun are very strong."

Sakura followed her gaze, her own eyes settling on Kiba's back. She couldn't help but notice that it was broader, his stance more solid. It suddenly occurred to her that she and Hinata were in the same situation; the only one of their team to be in the audience, having lost to each other's teammate. Looking back at Hinata, Sakura realised that she had something the other girl didn't. The revelation made her grab Hinata's hand and shoot to her feet.

"Let's cheer for them," she smiled when Hinata let out a surprised squeak. Her heart was thumping as she cupped her hands to her mouth. "Go Kiba!" she bellowed along with the rest of the crowd, and it felt so good. "I'll kill you if you make me lose my bet!"

She laughed when Kiba rolled up his sleeves with determination. Somewhere distant but not far enough, Naruto whooped. "Come on, Hinata," Sakura encouraged.

The Hyuuga girl looked flustered. "Sh-Shino-kun…!" she called uncertainly. She jumped when Ino thumped her back, coming up on her other side.

"You can do better than that," Ino remarked. Sakura met her eye briefly and they exchanged a quick grin. The last time the two of them had been united, it had been to cheer for Sasuke.

Squeezing Hinata's arm, they continued to yell down even when they were drowned out by the crowd and the sound of metal against metal.

No sooner had the proctor lifted his hand did Kiba spring at his opponent with a rush of his best speed. It took Shino by surprise, but it was hard to see exactly how much under the glasses and high collar. The other boy barely had time to raise his arm – and although that was all he managed to do, Kiba's kunai still made hard, metallic contact with his forearm.

"What are you, a walking heap of scrap metal?" the Inuzuka couldn't help but grunt.

Shino lifted his arm so that his wide sleeve shifted to reveal the hilt of a kunai. "A ninja should always be equipped for an ambush," he said in his low voice.

Kiba's lips pulled back in a grin. "Nice one, Aburame." He put his weight into the kunai. His eyes flickered down; where Shino had furtively shifted one foot back for better purchase. "But you clearly aren't the taijutsu type, are you?"

His opponent didn't say anything. Instead, Kiba's sensitive ears picked up a high frequency buzzing. Akamaru barked a warning, but Kiba had already leapt back – just as a horde of dark insects spilled from Shino's heavy jacket. Kiba tossed his kunai into the dark mist; they parted around it and Shino merely shifted slightly to let the blade whiz by his ear. The kikaichu hovered loosely around their master.

Kiba eyed his opponent with narrowed eyes. He knew little about Shino from their Academy years, but he hadn't been far off the mark when he had presumed reliance on his bugs meant Shino was rusty on hand-to-hand combat. The problem, Kiba mused as he studied the Aburame's clouds of insects, was getting close enough without being swarmed by the kikaichu. From the prepared kunai in the sleeve, he was almost certain Shino had more bugs nested inside him for reserve.

What a terrible matchup.

Kiba reached into his pouch. He'd stand no chance to face Naruto in the next round if he wasn't careful. "Let's go, Akamaru." He tossed a soldier pill to his partner, who leapt to snatch it from the air. Feeling slightly excited, Kiba grinned and put his hands together. "Juujin Bunshin!"

The crowd was roused when one of the two Kibas leapt at the Aburame. A wave of kikaichu rose to sweep Akamaru back as he lunged. Kiba dived in from the side with a midair kick that Shino intercepted with one arm. Ignoring the bugs that partially redirected from Akamaru towards him, Kiba twisted to bring his other leg down on Shino's head. The latter was forced to sidestep – right into Akamaru's swipe at his face.

A burst of kikaichu streamed from Shino's collar and rushed up to engulf Akamaru's clawed hands, rapidly rising up his arm. Kiba cursed and backtracked a few steps. "Down, boy!" he called out, just as he finished the handseals. "Great Fireball Jutsu!"

The flames were small but enough to make the bugs scatter. Akamaru, shrunken back in his usual form, shook himself out – but stopped in time to fling himself to the side to avoid being speared with shuriken.

Kiba growled gutturally, rounding on Shino. He was taken aback by the intense glare that he felt even through the shaded lenses. Blinking, Kiba chuckled. It seemed the Inuzuka weren't the only ones protective of their familiars. Already, the match was nothing like he'd anticipated.

He sprang back as the kikaichu began to form a barricade around him. He could already feel the handful that had managed to attach themselves draining his chakra in small bites. It was hardly noticeable, but Kiba knew that he was in trouble if that changed.

Sensing the flicker of chakra behind him, Kiba spun with a swift backhand. Shino ducked beneath the blow and came up with a kunai shooting from his sleeve. Jerking hard to the left, Kiba's right leg shot out to catch the Aburame's side. He'd put out a hand to break his fall, but almost toppled over when his foot lashed against air.

Then Akamaru barked and Kiba's eyes flickered down at the bugs making their way up his leg. From the corner of his eye, he saw the clone burst into more bugs. Rapidly pulling away, Kiba threw himself into a Tsuuga in an attempt to dislodge the kikaichu from his body. Coming up on the other side of the arena, he shifted into a loose defensive stance as he surveyed the field. Shino, that sly creep. He'd taken advantage of the situation to conceal himself in the surrounding undergrowth.

Kiba's nose twitched, and he glanced at a particularly large tree several yards from his right. Surely, Shino would know it was useless to hide from an Inuzuka, and in such a limited area no less. It didn't take much to see that he was up against a shrewd, calculative opponent. If Shino was keeping himself hidden despite knowing it was a futile effort, he was obviously trying to lure Kiba into a trap of some sort. He wracked his head. What's he planning?

His leg still tingled with faint stings from the bugs. Kiba shook it out. The sensation of having chakra leeched from his system burned unpleasantly, and he hated to think that at one point he'd have to encounter those sordid kikaichu again.

Then, as he cautiously looked around for signs of Shino's bugs, he realised that was what the Aburame had intended. Flaunting his jutsu's range and effects had put Kiba on the defensive. The Inuzuka scowled – he'd already played into his opponent's hands.

"Kiba's getting frustrated," Hana observed.

Tsume scoffed, arms folded. "Who wouldn't be? Shibi's kid fights just like him."

Hana glanced at her mother. She knew better than to call Inuzuka Tsume a hypocrite, but at times like this she really had to wonder how she had turned out so unlike her mother and brother.

The crowd was whispering to each other, making bets between them. Hana didn't have to listen to know that Aburame Shino had made Kiba look like a hard-headed brute with little capacity to think before he acted. They weren't far off from the truth, but those laying bets on the Aburame would be running for their money if they thought that was all Kiba could do.

Down by the rails, Sakura and her former classmates were watching the arena intently. "Kiba's in trouble," Ino said. "Shino completely wiped the floor with that Sound nin in the preliminary matches."

"Kiba won't let that happen," Sakura answered without looking away from her teammate. Kiba was standing still, and she knew him well enough that she could practically hear his mind churning. The thought of Kiba getting carried away on a stretcher one limb short was… "He'll be fine," the pink-haired girl said clearly.

Ino raised an eyebrow. Did her rival even see how much she worried about those talkative boys she called her teammates? "Well, I'm pretty sure Shino wouldn't be that ruthless anyway." She nudged Hinata, who had started to look like she had fallen into thoughts completely unrelated to the match. "Right?"

The Hyuuga girl jumped a little. "Sh-Shino-kun is very… careful," she mumbled.

Hana thought Kiba was also being very careful. It didn't hurt that he'd learned to think strategically; lately, she had been surprised by how close Kiba came to overwhelming her with cleverly executed manoeuvres and traps. Still, Hana felt her brother seemed overly cautious today, and when as she listened to the murmurs of her elders behind her, she came to understand why. The Inuzuka were a small clan and more open-minded than most, but they were still a clan.


"Just watch, Hana," Tsume said, with a light smirk to herself. Sometimes she wondered if she had it, but at least her motherly intuition didn't fail her when she needed it. "Kiba has to learn how to stand on his own. You don't want to be clan head, right?"

Hana laughed, shaking her head. "He made that promise when he was five, Mom."

"Well, he does keep some promises."

The two women chuckled. Hana smiled as she continued to watch her brother. She'd always tried to shield him from the clan's affairs and had been fairly successful until she herself had undone it.

After sitting through her first clan meeting, Hana had come out looking so gloomy that even her kid brother had noticed. Even as a genin, she'd realised then that despite being the eldest child, she was not fit to lead the clan. It wasn't the responsibility – what Hana disliked was that the uncles, aunties and grandparents she loved became stern adults who delegated responsibility to her mother, swooping like vultures whenever a complicated matter reared its head.

She'd made the mistake of voicing it to Kiba. For a kid whose greatest pastime was chasing after her three dogs, Hana had thought her brother wouldn't understand. That was, until he'd barged into the next meeting with a barking puppy and demanded that he – and Akamaru – be included in the discussion.

Hana became a lot more watchful of what she said around her brother after that. Kiba had always been the type to obsess over one thing to ignore it a week later – but eight years later, he still attended clan meetings no matter how much he complained about them. Kiba was reliable, stubborn – and hated to lose.

"There we go," Tsume said, as Kiba began to move. She sat back and watched as he and Akamaru performed the Beast Clone Jutsu once more, charging into the trees with a destructive Gatsuuga. They tripped wires and didn't falter as they ripped through the shower of weapons that flew at them.

Dark bugs poured out from the tree to form a suffocating sphere around the grey blurs. Tsume grinned when the exploding tags on the clones detonated, swallowing up any kikaichu within a two metre radius. Halfway on the other side of the stadium, the Aburame clan winced.

Kiba had been circling around his opponent's hiding place and sprang when the Aburame was shaken by the loss a large portion of his allies. Shino noticed the ambush only when Kiba's fist was inches from his face, but by then the kikaichu he had placed in the leaves around his position for this very purpose had latched onto the Inuzuka, leaving little of the other boy visible.

Still, the punch that slammed into his jaw and sent him spinning from the branch had enough power behind it to make Shino spit out a wad of blood as his sunglasses flew off his face. He flipped backwards into the air. Kiba's sharp eyes tracked him, face half obscured by bugs, and he crouched in preparation to leap after him.

"So reckless," Hana sighed.

"What's he thinking?" Sakura's blonde friend said in disbelief – and disgust. "Those bugs are all over him! He's not going to last like that even if he wins."

Sakura looked doubtful herself, but her answer summed up Hana's sentiments better than the woman could have done herself. "Kiba takes things as they come. That idiot can't fight any other way."

Shino felt a presence above him. Without his shades, the sun almost blinded him as he twisted his head to see.

"Akamaru!" Kiba yelled as he launched himself after Shino. "Dynamic Marking!"

He hated the sensation of writhing masses of insects on his skin and the searing burn of his chakra siphoning from his pathways in waves. His body was already starting to feel heavy and he hated to imagine how he looked. Naruto would never let him live it down.

But Kiba would rather endure that than hover uncertainly in the open, warily shooting himself in the foot while his body called for him to rush up and teach Shino that the Inuzuka should not be underestimated. He was smart enough to see that he could not think strategically on the same level as Shino, and trying was simply paranoia. He'd drawn an opponent whose specialties matched unfavourably against his – he'd just have to deal with it, wouldn't he?

Kiba coiled back, doing a better job of ignoring the bugs crawling over him than he'd thought possible. All he knew was that after making it so far with his team to stand in this arena with his clan, friends and village watching him, he'd rather lose trying than lose standing in fear of defeat. After he settled into that mindset, the match almost became exciting. This was his fight, and he was going to have fun.

That was why he grinned when he heard his clan's uproarious laughter even before Akamaru spun and urinated on Shino's head with precision honed from hours of practice. Kiba could swear Naruto's cackle was the loudest.

More bugs latched onto his face, forcing him to close his eyes. Kiba barely hesitated as he rocketed off the branch and shot towards his airborne opponent.

Shino quickly changed track from wiping his face to drawing shuriken from his pouch. The white puppy falling away from him let out a bark, and Kiba threw himself into a Piercing Fang just as the weapons left Shino's hand. The furious vortex knocked the projectiles aside like toys. Frowning, the Aburame substituted himself for a log and continued falling to the ground.

He didn't expect the grey hurricane to immediately veer away from its original path to follow his descent – then again, Shino hadn't expected Kiba to attack him headlong despite being aware of the kikaichu. Shino hated unpredictable foes.

He threw up his arms to shield himself as Kiba slammed down at him with enough force to spear him into the ground and break up the earth beneath his back. Shino's sharply exhaled breath was lost in the impact.

Straddling him, Kiba put a hand on Shino's neck. The familiar, acrid scent of his dog's urine rushed up his nose. His Tsuuga had shed a great deal of the bugs from his body but opening his eyes took more effort than he'd expected. He grimaced; the kikaichu worked a lot faster than he'd thought. At this rate, he'd barely have enough chakra for a simple kawarimi.

"That was a foolish move, Inuzuka," Shino said. He was breathing hard and carefully.

Kiba chuckled. "I know, huh? I'm going to cop it from my mom later, wearing myself out just to win the first match."

"You won't win," Shino told him calmly.

Pointed teeth flashed in a grin. "But I'm not planning to lose, either."

Shino pulled his knees up to plant his feet on Kiba's abdomen and kick him off. Kiba staggered slightly when he landed, knees threatening to give way, but even so his guard was solid when Shino swept a roundhouse kick at his face. The air around them hummed with the remaining kikaichu. As he'd expected, most of the bugs reattached themselves to Kiba. Both combatants knew taijutsu was Shino's weakest field. Whittling down his opponent to chakra exhaustion before he was overwhelmed was the most sensible tactic.

Kiba knocked aside sharp jab at his jugular, his breath beginning to come in laboured gasps. Even though he could smell Shino's position, the kikaichu that purposefully obscured his vision made it hard for him to see the Aburame's strikes – he was taking more blows than he was landing them. His movements began to grow sluggish, his senses going slightly numb. Gritting his teeth, Kiba threw himself into his punches, determined to make them count.

His elbow caught Shino's gut. A hiss escaped the other boy's lips as he reeled back, clutching ribs previously cracked from Kiba's first assault. The kikaichu lifted off Kiba like a spell to rapidly form a wall between the two genin as Kiba, seeing an opening, lunged.

With a yell, his fist broke through the incomplete barrier and caught Shino in the jaw and lifted the Aburame off his feet. Pushing his burning limbs forward, Kiba drew up next to his opponent and slammed him down in a lariat.

Holding him down, Kiba breathed, "Didn't see that coming, did you?"

Shino had trouble focusing his vision to meet his opponent's gaze. Experimentally, he shakily flexed a hand. He could hardly move. "I am surprised," he said, the words coming out breathlessly. "I was confident in this match."

"I know. That really pissed me off, you know." Kiba laughed a little shakily. "But I showed you. No hard feelings, hey?"

Shino narrowed his eyes. Did Inuzuka not see the lack of logic in his statement? Since their Academy years, Shino had thought he had figured out most of his classmates. Now, though, he was starting to see that even Inuzuka Kiba could be difficult to understand.

Genma strode over to look down at the two beaten combatants. He smirked amusedly. The Inuzuka had driven his opponent to the point where both of them had put everything into the fight. Not the smartest move, but it had made the tournament's opening match a lot more eventful than it would have otherwise turned out.

"Hey kid," he said to Kiba. "Can you stand?"

Kiba grimaced at the thought. His legs, now devoid of adrenaline, trembled as he slowly tried to raise himself. He couldn't believe the kikaichu had managed to drain so much of his chakra in minutes. He'd have to stress to his mother never to agitate the Aburame clan.

An itch crawled down his arm. Kiba glanced down to see a trail of bugs marching down the back of his hand, retreating into Shino's jacket. The other boy stared expressionlessly up at the sky. Kiba smiled wearily. "Thanks."

Genma stepped back to give the boy room to stand. He raised an eyebrow when a loud whoop echoed down from the contestant's box.

"The winner of this match is Inuzuka Kiba."

The crowd erupted. A chorus of rough barks from the Inuzuka clan's aisle joined the cheers. Genma smiled behind the senbon. Every year, the aspiring genins made so many mistakes that it was exasperating for veterans to watch, but at the end of the day the ones in envy were those same veterans. There was something compelling about a youth's silly recklessness.

That was why Genma laughed when Inuzuka Kiba let out a groan and pitched forward. The special jounin caught the genin by the hood of his jacket and gently dropped him to the ground in a boneless heap. The crowd went silent as the victor of the match went down.

Then, shattering the sudden hush, "Kiba, you idiot! You still have to fight me!"

Kiba moaned into the dirt. Akamaru licked his face fondly. Shut up, Naruto.

Kurenai glanced at Asuma. "You owe me a meal."

"That does not count," he argued.

"Genma thinks it does. In any case," Kurenai added with a pointed look, "if you insist on insinuating that my student fought tooth and nail for a victory that 'does not count', you will owe me more than a meal, Sarutobi."

Sighing, Asuma raised a hand in defeat. Having known Yuuhi Kurenai longer than most meant he knew exactly where his colleague drew the fine line between humour and that beyond. It made him wonder why he tested her anyway. "Alright, two meals."

Kurenai lifted an eyebrow with a wry look in her eyes. "I see your hangover robbed you of subtlety."

He reddened slightly, shrugging. "Give a man a chance, will you?"

Kurenai watched him silently. Looking slightly uncomfortable, Asuma met her crimson gaze. Not many people looked directly into her eyes. Hiding a smile, Kurenai turned away as Naruto and Gaara entered the arena. "Your thoughts on this match?"

Asuma glanced down. "Hell, I'm not betting on that kid," he snorted

"Wise," she approved, amusement warm in her tone. Uzumaki Naruto was the most surprising ninja after all. She only hoped he knew what he was doing.

Neither genin exchanged a word as they faced each other, but Genma's frown, visible even from a distance, made it clear that the tension between the two boys was heavy. Kurenai leaned forward on the rail, studying Naruto's grim expression. She'd been impressed by the speed Kiba had displayed, which made her all the more interested in seeing how much Naruto had grown under Jiraiya's tutelage.

Asuma slumped over the rail beside her. In a low voice, he muttered, "Two squads of ANBU for this whole place. Makes me wonder where the rest are."

"Hokage-sama must expect something to happen," Kurenai said quietly.

Her companion grunted thoughtfully as he eyed the next match. "I've got a bad feeling about this."

Kurenai remained silent. Naruto had once asked if she ever got tired of being right all the time. She'd laughed and told him that he merely hadn't been there when she had made the most, and worst mistakes. She'd chosen not to mention that sometimes, like now, a jounin's hunch was better off mistaken.

From the beginning, the bloodshot, almost hungry look in Gaara's eyes told Naruto that all he had to do was slip up once to go down. As he'd thought, Sabaku no Gaara was after him. But he'd be damned if he thought Uzumaki Naruto intended to stand still and tremble like forsaken prey.

None of his shadow clones got close to the red-headed boy. Vicious plumes of sand easily knocked them back, and Naruto winced as he reabsorbed memories of being speared. A wall of sand rose to block the shuriken he flung at his opponent. He was already moving before the barrier rippled and sent the sharp projectiles flinging outward with incredible speed. His remaining clones yelped as they were pierced.

Naruto ran in, just as a shapeless column of sand shot out at him. Dropping into a low crouch, he thrust a kunai upwards and rolled away as the sand collapsed to the ground. But when he tried to spring at Gaara, a tendril of sand snatched his ankle and slammed him back down. As Naruto watched, a bulbous head emerged from the shapeless mound of sand, followed by thick arms. The clone brought a large hand down on his head.

Naruto went under with a sickening crunch, holding the stadium in a sharp intake of breath.

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

The sand clone fell under the weight of a dozen shadow clones. One broke away to charge Gaara. Putting on a burst of speed, Naruto ducked under the sweeping sand and sprang up with an uppercut that sent the other boy staggering backwards.

Naruto cursed and shook out his bruised knuckles. It was like he had punched concrete. Gaara reeled back, a thin crack splitting across his chin. Naruto watched as a wisp of sand fused into the blemish and sealed it. His eyes narrowed. An armour?

Gaara held out a hand, fingers clenched like claws. "I'll kill you," he vowed breathlessly.

Sharp bullets of sand pelted Naruto. He quickly flattened himself to the ground. At such close range, it was all he could do to avoid getting perforated. His leg flicked out and swept Gaara's from under him. With a growl, Naruto came down on him, hammering as many punches as he could into the Sand nin's face before he sensed a wave of sand coming down behind him.

Flinging himself out of range, Naruto nimbly danced away from the pursuing sand claws, all the while drawing closer to Gaara. Even after days of practice, he was still surprised by the speed he'd built up from the weights that he had taken off for the event. He managed to evade most of the sand, splitting any in his path with a kunai, but when he drew up face to face with Gaara once more, Naruto thought he felt the sand hang back somewhat. Glancing up, he found Gaara looking directly at him.

Gaara bared his teeth. "Come."

Naruto straightened cautiously. "I'm not like you," he said, softly enough that he could just as easily be assuring himself. He looked into Gaara's eyes, wondering what he could find in those orbs. "I'm not like you," Naruto repeated.

Gaara stared fixatedly at him. "Really?" he asked in an eerily calm voice. Naruto tensed when he flung an arm wide, but all he did was gesture to the crowd in the stands. "All these people don't hate you then?"

"Not all of them," Naruto said after a pause.

"Really?" Gaara raised a hand to his face, touching the red tattoo inked on his forehead. Then he smiled, cold and sadistically. "They didn't run from you? They didn't try to kill you? They didn't try to deny your existence?"

Naruto frowned.

"Well?" Gaara's voice had risen into a guttural growl, and he suddenly staggered backwards as if hit. He clutched his head, eyes squeezed tightly shut.

The ghastly aura that emanated from his opponent set Naruto on edge. Still, he watched Sabaku no Gaara as the realisation hit him – not much separated them, but what did was important enough that Naruto had become who he was. If he'd never experienced it, he could all too easily have been staring at a reflection of himself. It was the first time he'd been able to fully comprehend the undeniable fact.

It was so simple that it frightened him.

Naruto's fist clenched so tightly it hurt. They'd both grown up standing alone, hadn't they? They had been left out of games, sat hollowly in empty rooms with their shadows and been treated like a plague. No one had seen them as the children they were. Naruto lowered his head. There was someone just like him – probably more out there. If he could understand how Gaara of the Desert felt, then surely Gaara did too. He wasn't the only one.

Then why did it make him feel so… sad?

He launched himself at Gaara with a hoarse cry. The sand rose, but Naruto had taken him by surprise and managed to seize him by the shirt. Then suddenly, he stopped, gripping the rough fabric with enough strength to make his arm tremble.

The crowd leaned forward, murmuring. What was going on?

"I get it now," Naruto said with a grimace. "I'm not like you – but you're the same as I once was."

The ground rumbled. Four slabs of condensed sand rose, cutting between the two boys. Naruto stepped backwards as they began to enclose him. "'Was'?" Gaara questioned flatly.

Naruto's gut twisted as he looked back at the stands, where he knew Kurenai was watching with the other jounins, then at the opposite end where he'd heard Sakura threatening him with the same decapitating vow she'd called to Kiba earlier. He almost felt guilty for a moment, like he'd been granted something that never should have been. But Team Eight was something so wholly his that he could never wish otherwise.

"Was," Naruto repeated firmly.

Gaara narrowed his eyes. Sand filled Naruto's vision, shooting high above his head. Despite the blockade, he heard his opponent's reply too clearly: "Uzumaki Naruto. You are weak."

Standing in the cold darkness of his prison's shadow, Naruto felt he ought to be offended. Instead, though, some sort of guilty gratitude settled at the bottom of his stomach, warm yet heavy. As he pulled his hands together in a familiar handseal, he decided he was going to thank Old Man Hokage and Iruka-sensei after this, for being there when no one else had.


"Tajuu Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

The sand burst into a rain of millions of grains as a chorus of yells rang out. Gaara threw up a hand reflexively even as his sand halted inches from his body. Something slammed into the back of his shoulder, sending him spinning around to fall into a waiting fist that snapped his head back with relentless force.

Staggering backwards, Gaara blindly flung both arms out. A vortex of sand churned around him, whipping up a storm that took a full minute to settle. When it cleared, Gaara was standing alone in the centre of the stadium. He touched his cheek, feeling his armour flake away. Narrowing his eyes, he looked up.

Uzumaki Naruto was everywhere. In the trees, crouched on the ground, facing him from every direction. Gaara spun around. His eyes knifed up to the stands and the hundreds of spectators that filled it. Thousands of pairs of eyes were trained on him. He could almost feel them – their deep gazes digging into his skin, the murmur of whispers.

He clenched his jaw. "Mother, they're watching us," he muttered.

We'll kill them all. We'll kill them slowly, one by one.

That sounded very good. His blood bubbled with rising adrenaline. Gaara lurched forward, hand flying to his pulsing head. Panting haggardly, he grinned slowly. "That one first, Mother?"

His armour crumpled away from his skin. The remaining sand slithered back to him, forming a ring around his feet.

Yes… his blood smells good.

A shudder crept through Naruto's body moments before he felt an abrupt jolt in his navel. His eyes widened as a pungent mist of red, acrid chakra simmered in his coils. Closing his eyes to calm his mind, he managed to suppress it easily, but the fact that Kyuubi had stirred at all perturbed him. There was only one possible cause for the beast's arousal, and it stood holding his head as tendrils of sand coiled around his body.

Naruto didn't like the heavy, foreboding atmosphere radiating from Gaara. Neither did his clones, enough that they charged as one with a loud yell even as the sand around Gaara began to enclose him in a large sphere. Putting on simultaneous bursts of speed, they raced for the rapidly diminishing openings.

The blonde-haired genins leapt for their target. Moments before impact, the sphere ruptured into deadly spikes, leaving strangled cries of surprise, billowing smoke and the distinctive pops of dispelled clones in its wake.

Naruto winced as he withdrew his bruised fist. By instinctive reflex and sheer luck, he had only been sheared shallowly in the shoulder and ankles by the sandy thorns. He was the only one standing within a two metre radius of the cocoon. Quickly leaping back to rejoin the clones that had hung back and survived, Naruto shook out his bleeding knuckles and took stock of the situation.

From the sharp pain in his hand, and the flood of memories from the defeated clones, the strange sphere was obviously a powerful defence jutsu. It was nothing like the sand armour. His hand trembled slightly with aftershock. Prior to this match, Naruto would never have fathomed that sand could be that hard.

A small amount of sand extracted itself from the top of the cocoon. Naruto watched with vague fascination as it took the form of an eye. It hovered above the sphere and swivelled idly on the spot. A defence with no openings.

Think, Naruto urged himself, and it suddenly occurred to him that this was how Kiba must have felt fighting Shino. He chuckled to himself. Kurenai-sensei never failed to point out that the two boys were too brash for their own good. Naruto could almost hear his mentor's wryly amused voice in his head now, as if he were sitting cross-legged on the grass with his teammates on either side of him: Think like Sakura.

Naruto took a deep breath to still his nerves. Then he studied the cocoon again, through what he hoped were new, thoughtful eyes. His opponent had withdrawn himself into a defensive position – possibly his strongest. At the moment, the large sphere showed no signs of movement and Naruto felt it was safe to rule out the possibility that Gaara intended to prey on his patience to draw him close and impale him – surely no shinobi was that dense. In other words, Gaara was biding his time inside the cocoon. He was preparing.

For what?

Naruto suppressed another sharp pull on his seal with a grim expression. He didn't like this any more than the hostile, alien eye one of his clones had glimpsed moments before the cocoon sealed shut. He cursed under his breath. He had the feeling the match was quickly spiralling away from its purpose, that like he'd sensed in the Forest of Death, Gaara cared nothing about the Chuunin Exams.

As the terrible aura shrouding Gaara's defence thickened, Naruto lowered himself into a coiled crouch, ready to sprint. A quick glance told him that the proctor was wary of Gaara's jutsu, but in front of the Kazekage, no one would be able to officially interfere on the grounds of suspicion. Turning back to his opponent, Naruto wondered if it wouldn't be long before his personal safety was no longer the only thing at risk.

He wasn't going to let that happen.

A murmur travelled through the spectators as the small battalion of blonde-haired genins blurred into motion. Lunging with surprising speed, several clones managed to strike the unmovable sphere of sand with kunai. The blades glanced off the dense hull with hardly more than a dull clang, and fell to the ground as jagged spikes shot out to skewer their wielders.

The crowd chuckled in exasperation as a second wave of Narutos ran in only to meet the same fate. It seemed the blonde genin's riveting upper hand in the first half of the match had been a fluke. The villagers began to shake their heads for having expected anything less from the village pariah; this was Naruto, the troublemaker infamously stubborn for the wrong causes and reasons.

Yet sighs of disappointment were among the stands. Naruto's opponent wasn't a favourite for reasons beyond the rumours that the short redhead was the Kazekage's youngest son, and that he was anything but a regular genin. Even children could feel the hostile intent Sabaku no Gaara emitted. Unbeknownst to the villagers, they reluctantly feared for Naruto in their subconsciousness, and those that were parents thought of their children and were grateful that Uzumaki Naruto had none to anxiously grip their seats and watch as their son fought a losing battle against an opponent out for blood.

When the last of the shadow clones vaporised in defeat, the stadium went still. There was no movement on the battlefield, no sign of either competitor. The civilians looked around in confusion.

The shinobi spectators knew to look upwards. They squinted against the sun until their eyes widened at the recognition of a jutsu they had never thought they would witness in battle again – and in the Chuunin Exam finale, of all places. The rest of the audience eventually noticed the falling body as the distant howling of wind ripping through a maelstrom of chakra picked up – and as soon as they did, their attention was immediately diverted back to the ground as a chain reaction of explosions rocked the Sand nin's cocoon and swathed the field in drifting debris.

Few eyes witnessed the sight of Uzumaki Naruto dropping from the sky like a fiery comet – but everyone heard his loud yell and the thunderous crash that followed.


When Gaara abruptly went suspiciously still after being overwhelmed by Naruto's Mass Shadow Clone Jutsu, Sakura heard a sharp intake of breath and looked down to see Ino's fingers gripping her wrist.

"It's the same," the blonde girl muttered, in a detached voice that made Sakura wonder if her friend was even aware that she was squeezing her arm so tightly it was going numb.

"What is?" Sakura asked. Her initial impatience vaporised when she saw Ino's expression – an unusual mixture of fear, recognition and – from the looks of it – unconscious empathy. It was enough for Sakura to give her companion her full attention. "Ino?" she pressed. When the other girl didn't respond, Sakura shook her shoulder. "Ino!"

Jolted from her daze, Ino turned to her with wide, blank eyes. She opened her mouth only to close it again. Sakura almost prompted her but stopped when she realised that Ino was not wholly there. A thread of uneasiness wormed into Sakura's mind as she recognised the state Ino had been in following her preliminary match. Once she realised this, Sakura for some reason began to dread the words Ino struggled to get out.

"It's the same as…" Her voice trailed off as she stared transfixed at the place Gaara had stood before being enveloped by sand. Sakura winced as Ino's nails dug into her skin. Without looking away, Ino whispered, "He's trying to kill Naruto."

Sakura froze. For a long moment she stared uncomprehendingly at Ino, and then uncertainly looked down at the small war raging between hundreds of Naruto clones and the unmovable sand shield. Her mind scrambled to reconcile the notion of suggesting that Ino needed some rest, with the rising trepidation she felt for her teammate.

That was why she failed to notice Naruto's diversion for what it was.

Like a spell, Sakura's mind instantly quietened when she belatedly sensed the rapidly rising chakra presence below her. No sooner had she instinctively stepped away from the edge of the balcony did a navy and maroon blur shoot over her face.

On either side of her, Hinata squeaked and Ino jerked back to her usual self with a surprised curse. Both of them stumbled away from the rail. But Sakura only blinked with wide eyes as the potent whirl of chakra in Naruto's hand passed by her face, pushing her hair from her face.

In the midst of the commotion of the battle, few spectators had noticed a pair of Narutos scaling the perimeter wall at breakneck speed. As they reached the top, the uppermost one suddenly turned around to seize the second by the arm. With a loud grunt, he spun with the momentum of both bodies and hurtled his partner into the air, high above the heads of the unsuspecting audience.

Shaking herself out, Sakura leaned over the rail in time to see the clone fall back to earth. Their eyes met and they exchange surprised looks for a moment. Then the whiskered face split in a familiar grin, just before the clone fell into the bushes and dissipated.

As if on cue, a thunderous explosion swallowed Gaara's sand sphere in embers of flame and smog. Some members of the audience stood to better view the spectacle, murmuring surprise to their neighbours. Behind Sakura, the Inuzuka started nodding with approval.

"N-Naruto-kun planted explosive tags all around the armour," Hinata said. Sakura glanced at her, surprised to hear the excitement and admiration in the dark-haired girl's voice. But she would be lying if she said she didn't feel the same.

The shadow clones' futile ground assault had been much more than simple diversion. Naruto had thought ahead. With a strangely warm sensation in her chest, Sakura realised that Naruto had grown from the immature loudmouth she had once shaken off like the plague. She had known this all along, yet for some reason the reality that she hadn't truly noticed did not strike her until today.

Seeing the brightly glowing orb in Naruto's hand as he plummeted towards earth brought a small sense of satisfaction to Sakura. The Rasengan that they had both solved together reminded her that she was a part of her teammate's growth. It was so profound that she wondered how Kurenai-sensei, as their mentor, felt.

Naruto fell into the billowing smoke. The force of gravity behind him ensured that the collision between the Rasengan and the thick sand armour was a deafening one. A rush of chakra forced the smog outward. The crowd leaned forward to peer in as one as it cleared.

Naruto was suspended above the cocoon by the Rasengan that fiercely ground into its hull with sharp crackling sounds. The sphere was dented at the point of impact.

"Will it hold?" Ino asked, awestruck.

"I don't know," Sakura replied in a similar tone without looking away.

The sand began to give slightly, but still stood strong. Not for the first time, a hush of anticipation silenced the spectator stands. So when Naruto suddenly growled and shouted, "Come on!" the two syllables echoed into the crisp morning air and hung there until Sakura, sharing looks with Ino and Hinata, couldn't help but break into stifled laughter.

And just like that, a hollow crack snapped through the silence like a broken cord as the impenetrable defence crumpled inwards.

A sinister chakra leaked from the cracked shell.

The silence hovered, unbroken, as spectators in the stands began to keel over in deep slumber.

Kurenai and Asuma were halfway across the arena even before the genjutsu had settled. The stands, thick with unconscious civilians, were still only for a breath – before the Kage's balcony erupted in smoke and pandemonium broke out.

Leaf nin and grey-garbed enemy shinobi leapt from their seats to meet each other over the heads of slumbering spectators. The first foe Kurenai whirled around to impale with two senbon in the neck stopped in his tracks to choke and grapple at his blood before slowly pitching forward. It was more than enough time for her to narrow her eyes at the man's hitai-ate.

"Sound," she murmured.

Asuma glanced down at the arena. "And Sand, from the looks of it."

Kurenai followed his gaze. She recognised the genin team from Suna on the ground, their jounin instructor facing Genma. Naruto stood bewildered as he struggled to make sense of the chaos raging around him. Kurenai was about to call down to him when a familiar presence brushed unnecessarily close to her on its way to Shunshin down to the arena. Blinking, she drew her mouth in a grim smile and raced ahead of Asuma.

With the unknown genjutsu leaving the seats motionless and the Inuzuka aisle empty, it was easy to spot Sakura as she backed into the railing, a kunai extended uncertainly in front of her. Behind her, Hyuuga Hinata held up an unconscious Yamanaka Ino. Both girls stared at the Sound nin rushing over the vacant seats with a predator's gleam in his hooded eyes. As Hinata, still shaken, activated her Byakugan, she became aware of the second adversary approaching from the side too late to warn Sakura.

Emerald eyes widened when the pink-haired girl felt a hand on her shoulder. The whispered "Don't move, Sakura," was all the warning the genin had to spread into a defensive, sturdy stance as Kurenai, using her student as leverage, pivoted to slam the back of her heel into the first Sound nin's temple and sent him reeling into his comrade. The two men crashed into the rail in a boneless heap. Sakura instinctively turned away even as Kurenai placed herself in her line of vision, and sank two kunai through the Oto forehead protectors.

"What's happening, Sensei?" she asked shakily when the jounin turned to her.

"Sand and Sound are attacking us," Kurenai replied after a distracted pause, during which she looked over Sakura's head to narrow her eyes at an approaching Sand shinobi. The man faltered, confused, before suddenly throwing himself over the rail. He didn't even yell.

When she noticed the anxious look Sakura and Hinata traded, Kurenai remembered that they were still genin and, trusting her back to Gai and Kakashi, smiled reassuringly at them. "Don't panic. Konoha is well prepared for an attack. Both of you are capable kunoichi."

Sakura caught the hint almost immediately. Kurenai watched approvingly as her student took a deep breath to clear her mind. "What can we do?" she asked finally. The anxiety still made her voice sound thin, but the resolution in her eyes was all Kurenai had to see.

She looked at Hinata, distantly noticing that the girl recognised her. "You did well dispelling the genjutsu," Kurenai praised lightly. "Wake Yamanaka-san. Then I would like the two of you to assist in the evacuation process. Can you do that?"

Hinata's pupil-less eyes widened. "H-Hai!"

Kurenai nodded and glanced back to check on Naruto, only to find the arena empty but for two combating jounin. Pausing for a moment, she located the blonde boy vaulting over the rail across the stadium. He looked around for a moment before spotting his teacher watching him, and hastily began to make his way through the battles flickering around him. Turning away, Kurenai met Kakashi's eye as he too noticed the missing Sand genin team.

"Sakura," Kurenai said. "I want you to go to the infirmary and, if they are fit, bring Kiba and Akamaru here. We will need them to track Sabaku no Gaara and his team."

Sakura opened her mouth, but ultimately closed it without a word. In such a crisis, it was no time for a jounin like Kurenai to be occupied with a genin's curiosity. Sakura was still a shinobi receiving orders from her superior. So she nodded, forced down her confusion and fear, and made for the stairs at the back of the stands.

Once Sakura and Hinata had safely disappeared from sight, Kurenai surveyed her surroundings. Kakashi and Gai were tearing through enemy ranks, the latter looking fiercely passionate with each victory. Kurenai chuckled under her breath.

She wasn't the only one who found the sight familiar. After decapitating another pair of Sound nin on the verge of overwhelming a Leaf chuunin, Kurenai straightened to find Asuma at her shoulder. "It's been a while since all of us fought together, huh?"

"Quite a relief," Kurenai remarked.

Asuma flung his chakra blades to the side so that blood flecked the seats. "We haven't had a good challenge in ages either."

Kurenai smiled. "Alright."

Then her hand flicked out with a kunai just as Asuma shifted his head slightly to allow the blade to whizz past his ear and thud into the forehead of the Sand shinobi coming up behind him.

"I'll let you have that one," he grunted.

But Kurenai was yet again already halfway across the stadium, leaving a trail of fallen Sand and Sound shinobi in her wake. Asuma chuckled, spat out his cigarette and took off in the opposite direction.

Naruto knew from the moment his Rasengan plowed into Gaara's left shoulder that something was wrong. His suspicions were chillingly confirmed when Gaara, after forcefully flinging himself away from the dangerous ball of chakra, raised a hand to his wound and stared bug-eyed at the crimson tipping his fingers. Then he screamed.

The next thing Naruto was aware of was blinking to find Gaara's siblings supporting him on both sides, and their tall jounin instructor scolding the red-headed boy. He saw this all from behind the exam proctor's broad back.

"Oi, what… what's going on?" Naruto demanded.

"Report to your sensei," the man answered without looking away. His fair brown eyes were hard. "The Chuunin Exam is over."

Naruto's mouth fell open. He was about to protest when movement caught the corner of his eye. A large bearded man had appeared beside Genma, but what captured Naruto's attention were the smoke-filled Kage box and the large purple barrier that had formed at the roof of one of the towers. His stomach lurched involuntarily as he thought of Sandaime. Clenching his fist, Naruto's eyes shifted back to the Suna ninja. Gaara was holding his head like it would split.

"I don't think he can use it anymore," Temari told her teacher urgently.

The man bit out a curse. "Damn it, Gaara… Abort the mission. Take him and retreat. I'll handle things here."

Hesitantly, Kankurou slung his brother over his shoulder. With a brief flare of chakra, he and Temari leapt over the stadium walls. Naruto automatically took a step forward, only to find a large, rough hand clamping his shoulder. Looking up, he saw the bearded man watching the Sand jounin steadily. "This isn't your fight, kid," he said gruffly.

Naruto faltered. "Who are you?" he asked.

At that moment, the exam proctor recognised the other man. "Taichou!" he said in a surprised voice lined with respect.

The man let out a coarse, humourless laugh. "I'm not your captain anymore, Genma. Right now, I'm just an old man looking to play with fire." He finally glanced at Naruto. His eyes were grey and sharp as a veteran's. "Go, boy."

Something told Naruto not to argue with this man. He spun and ran to the edges of the stadium. As he leapt onto the walls for the second time that day, he glanced back at the tense scene.

Baki studied the man standing before him. Despite the civilian garb, the newcomer was releasing dangerous spikes of chakra that belied the wooden stub that took the place of his right leg.

"I'll give you thirty seconds, stranger," the man said in a low, grim voice. "I don't care who you are. You'll need a prayer if you're the one who killed my sister's fiancé."

Naruto pulled himself over the railings – and immediately flattened himself as an ANBU member leapt over his head. What in the world was going on? Disorientated, he cast around. He was relieved to catch sight of Kurenai-sensei. She was looking for him. Picking himself up, Naruto hurriedly picked his way through the stands.

As he neared his teacher, he caught a flash of pink hair. "Sakura-chan!"

It took a moment for Sakura to backtrack from the stairs she had hurriedly thrown herself down. Her expression cleared when she saw her teammate. "Naru-" She broke off to grab him by the jacket and yank him to the ground. They winced as Gai plowed into a Sand ninja above their heads, smashing him through the wall with a sickening crunch. "We're being attacked," Sakura explained needlessly.

"By who? Why?" Naruto asked immediately in a rush, and his teammate sighed as she wondered if he truly thought she had all the answers.

"Sand and Sound. I'm not sure why. Ask Kurenai-sensei – actually don't, she looks busy."

The two genin looked over their shoulders to see Kurenai binding three assailants in a genjutsu while flickering behind a fourth to dislocate his shoulder. They had never seen their teacher in true combat before, and marvelled at the ruthless efficiency of a jounin.

Naruto looked back at Sakura. "Are you going somewhere?"

"Sensei told me to find Kiba. You should stay here and make sure everyone is okay," she added when her teammate opened his mouth. "I'm sure I wasn't the only genin who dispelled that genjutsu."

Naruto reluctantly nodded. "Be quick."

She punched him lightly. "You just want to go after Gaara and finish fighting him, don't you?"

He didn't try to correct her, because there was no way he could make Sakura understand that Gaara was even more dangerous than she'd thought he was, that only another jinchuuriki could want to pursue him for reasons other than to defeat him. Instead, Naruto grinned back, the wide smile easily masking his thoughts. "Aww, you know me so well, Sakura-chan!"

Sakura sent him off with another half-hearted smack on the head. She watched as Naruto crouched behind some seats, drawing a kunai. He was a lot calmer than she'd thought he would be. She was impressed that he had managed to injure Gaara without being severely wounded himself – but Sakura decided that she would keep it to herself. It would take days for Naruto to get over the compliment.

The sounds of battle dulled to mere echoes as Sakura descended into the corridors below the stands. Thankfully, they were empty. Even more thankfully, Sakura discovered a directory plastered on the wall that mapped the temporarily facilities converted for the Chuunin Exam. Sakura quickly memorised the directions to the infirmary, and set off a quick jog. Being alone under such dire circumstances could make anybody nervous.

Sakura wondered if her parents were safely evacuated. She squeezed her hands into tight fists when she realised that her village, her home, was under attack. There had never been a time where Haruno Sakura had felt such a strong awareness of her status as a kunoichi. For shinobi, their village was a fort that had nursed and protected them as children, and which they were obligated to return the favour to. As a rumbling quake shook the earth, Sakura broke into a sprint.

The lights overhead flickered. Sakura glanced up warily as debris drifted down. Slight movement in her peripheral vision immediately pulled her gaze back down.

A cloaked man was walking down the corridor she had just passed. A civilian who had lost their way? Sakura ran up to him, calling, "Excuse me! It's not safe here. I think you should… go…" Her voice trailed off when the man stopped walking. For several seconds, he didn't move. Later, if Sakura had to pinpoint exactly when she had sensed something amiss, she would come back to this moment. The eerie silence made her grimace. "Umm… excuse me?"

He turned his head slightly. It was enough for Sakura to see the pale white mask, partially obscured by his hood. She unconsciously took a step back. "ANBU-san? Why are you… we're being attacked."

Sakura swallowed when he chuckled quietly. "I know." His voice was smooth and quietly polite. For some reason, it made Sakura's brow furrow. There was something familiar about this person… yet she was not acquainted with anyone from ANBU Black Ops.

"A genin like you should stay somewhere safe," he added.

"What about you?" She faltered when dark eyes regarded her. "Shouldn't you be…" Fighting? Protecting the village? Sakura didn't know how to say it without sounding rude.

He waited for her to finish. The sharp clash of kunai echoed down the hollow corridor. Sakura caught a whiff of smoke in the air. Yet the ANBU operative stood there, calmly watching her. Sakura's hand twitched and unconsciously neared her weapons pouch.

In the next instant, Sakura's breath left her in a gasp as she was twisted and slammed into the wall. "You're sharper than I thought," a vaguely amused voice said in her ear. "Haruno Sakura-chan."

The brick was cold against her cheek, her shoulder burning as her arm was wrenched behind her back. "Who are you?" Sakura asked breathlessly, even as her blood raced. "Are you the one who cast the genjutsu?"

A surprised whistle. "I'm impressed."

Sakura pushed off the leg she had levered against the wall. She spun to face her foe, the jade rings in her hair cracking into the porcelain mask the same way it had Sasuke's face, all those weeks ago. Adrenaline pumping, Sakura seized the hand gripping her left, fisted her right on the tan cloak, and threw the man over her shoulder.

Breathing hard, she whirled around, expecting to see him on the floor. Her eyes widened, but not from the sight of an empty corridor.

Slowly, Sakura looked down at the senbon protruding from her chest. It had pierced her through the back of her right shoulder. The silver needle was clean of blood, and Sakura felt no pain other than the tingle of encroaching numbness near the wound. It was the first time she had been poisoned, but Sakura knew it instantly.

"This one is a prototype strain," a voice from behind informed her. "I'd like to stay and see how quickly it circulates, but I'm afraid I can't."

Sakura bit her lip as she pulled the senbon out. It left a nasty, fiery sensation on her skin. She flung it in the direction of the voice, but didn't need the distant clatter of it hitting the floor to know the man had evaded. Sakura looked over her shoulder. The mask had splintered. She watched as her foe raised a hand to remove it.

Sakura didn't gasp. In fact, she hardly reacted. It wasn't that she wasn't surprised; her body was beginning to feel sluggish and did not move the way she urged it to. She tried not to show it. "Why are you doing this?" she asked. A pause, in which her breath was loud in her own ears. "Were you even with Konoha to begin with?"

Yakushi Kabuto chuckled. "I wonder," he mused. He smiled at the girl standing before him, noticing the way she struggled to focus on him. "I'm sorry. Usually I would have let you go but you don't seem like you would let me walk away." He pushed his glasses up his nose with a finger as he turned away. "I underestimated you."

"Wait-" Sakura fingers brushed a kunai in her pouch, but her vision swam and sent her reeling into the wall. She clutched at it with gritted teeth, not expecting the effects to surface so quickly, and in such intensity. Kabuto would probably be pleased. But when Sakura lifted her head, he was gone.

She slid down to the floor as her knees buckled. Sakura closed her eyes and let her head fall back to the wall. She twitched her fingers and tried to form a fist. She knew it was a matter of minutes before she lost sensation in her entire body.

Sakura sat there for a few precious seconds, listening to her quick, laboured breaths. She felt amazingly calm despite her predicament. She wondered how long it would be before Naruto or Kurenai noticed her absence and came looking for her. And what about Kiba? Sakura was supposed to bring him. They were supposed to pursue Gaara. She wasn't supposed to be sitting here with her mind dancing the fine line between subconsciousness and pitch blackness.

Don't, she thought when darkness encroached on her vision. She tried to narrow her eyes and somehow managed to clench her senseless fingers into a fist. Don't…

"What the hell is this?"

Naruto turned to see Kiba emerging from the staircase beside him, Akamaru on his head. The Inuzuka stared wide-eyed at the chaos, his eyes landing on a motionless Sand shinobi lying face down in a pool of crimson. He eventually looked at Naruto. "What-"

The other boy pulled him down into a crouch. "Stay down!" Naruto peered over the back of the seats. Enemy numbers in the stadium had fallen, but now smoke was rising from the village centre. The giant snake he had glimpsed in the distance worried him.

Kiba joined him in surveying the scene. He couldn't see any Inuzuka clansmen anywhere. "We're under attack?" Naruto, distracted, nodded. "Why are we hiding here then? We should go out and fight!"

An unimpressed snort sounded from Naruto's other side. Kiba looked over his teammate's head. "And why are you here?"

Instead of returning Kiba's miffed look, Sasuke shot Naruto a glare of irritation. "Ask dead last."

"Quit calling me that," Naruto scowled. He glanced sheepishly at Kiba. "I dragged him. Sakura told me to look for more of us. Bastard here was the only one I could find. Everyone else is evacuating people, I think." Then he blinked and checked behind them. "Kiba, where's Sakura?"

"Sakura?" Kiba repeated blankly.

Before Naruto could say more, Kurenai had appeared beside them. She hadn't even studied Kiba and Akamaru properly when Naruto suddenly turned to her. "Kurenai-sensei, Sakura-chan isn't here."

Kurenai's brow creased. "Didn't she bring you here, Kiba?"

Slowly, Kiba shook his head. "I didn't see her at all. Shino and I heard these loud sounds in the infirmary so I said I would see what was going on. Then I come out and see – this." When Kurenai's frown deepened, Kiba realised why she was concerned. His expression became serious. "Me and Akamaru will look for her – maybe she got lost."

"I'll come with you," Naruto said quickly.

Kurenai nodded unthinkingly before the weight of the situation returned to her. "Wait." Both boys stopped at her voice. She looked at Kiba. "Can you catch Sakura's scent?"

Kiba raised his nose and sniffed. Then he looked at Akamaru. The puppy whined. "No, there's too much smoke… and blood." He shook his head. "We'll be quick, Sensei. She should be close."

"What about Sabaku no Gaara?" the jounin asked.

Looking confused, Kiba replied, "The same."

"What if you knew which direction he went?"

"Akamaru can probably pick up the scent then." Kiba hesitated, sharing a glance with Naruto. "Sensei?"

Kurenai understood the uncertainty in Kiba's voice and the low whine from Akamaru. She closed her eyes for a brief moment to think. As a child, her late father had taught her that in every situation, there was an objective and subjective answer. Kurenai had always been well aware that shinobi were often required to prioritise the former over the latter. It was logical and it was something Yuuhi Kurenai had had little difficulty doing throughout her career.

Yet she chose not to look at her students as she said, "Naruto, Kiba and Sasuke, I am going to assign you a mission. Pursue the Sand genins and apprehend them if possible. Keep a close eye on their actions."

"Sensei!" Naruto protested immediately. "Sakura-"

"Is not where she is supposed to be, and the village is under attack," Kurenai finished for him. She opened her eyes to meet his incredulous gaze. "I know, Naruto."

Naruto had angrily opened his mouth to argue until Kurenai's quiet voice cut through him. It was the first time he had felt such fury against his teacher and it burned unpleasantly – she had just made a decision he would never have believed of Kurenai-sensei. It was the silent concern in her tone that silenced him and made Naruto lower his head. He ground his teeth in frustration as Sakura's voice echoed in his mind. Naruto said it himself… Kurenai-sensei would only want what's best for us.

"We can't leave Sabaku no Gaara unattended," Kurenai explained softly. "Kiba, Akamaru-"

"We're fine. The worst I have from the match is chakra exhaustion. I can take a soldier pill." As she'd thought, Kiba understood the ways of ninja better than Naruto. Only his clenched jaw betrayed how upset he was.

Kurenai put her hand on both boys' heads. "I will look for Sakura. Don't worry."

They nodded reluctantly. Naruto lifted a shoulder in a shrug that failed to be as dismissive as he tried. "Sakura-chan is okay. She's strong – I mean, she beats me up all the time and I'm the future Hokage."

"Yeah, yeah." Kiba dodged the elbow Naruto threw at his ribs.

Naruto gave a small grin. "She'll catch up."

Kurenai returned the smile, knowing it was part of her role as their mentor. Then she looked over at Sasuke, who had been watching silently. She hadn't expected that the Uchiha would be around for Naruto to discover him, but he was an asset. Kurenai had an unlikely yet competent four-man cell on her hands. "The targets were headed towards the forest outskirts. Be prepared for combat. This would rank as an A-class mission."

The three genin nodded.


A/N: Yes, I was lazy and from chapter 15 set up the matches so that Naruto's followed Kiba's, leaving me less fight scenes to write. Which was a good thing, because Kiba's somehow ended up pages and pages long. Naruto's Rasengan against Gaara's shield was something I'd had in mind before, but was confirmed by coincidentally seeing it in one of the Naruto movies - the fourth one, I think? (edit: aha! I've been informed it was the third movie. Thanks Lobo Argost!)

Writing this chapter made it more painfully obvious how rusty I am. I write in such short bursts now - but I'm proud to say I wrote 3.5K today so I could post this chapter! Huzzah! And since it is 3 a.m, I shall now sleep...