Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, go figure.

Posted: 1/15/09

A/N: Back for another round we are.

First things first. I got a large number of reviews that enjoyed the Kakuzu/Hidan scene in the story. That's all well and good, except for one problem:

That wasn't Hidan.

It was the nameless fodder member that acts as Kakuzu's partner up to the time skip. He's only in one scene – the Akatsuki cave meeting in chapter 238 of the manga, and has the lines, "fufu… all of us meeting together like this" and "Itachi… your brother…"

Kakuzu kills him over the time skip.

I'd like to mention that, due to many reviewers' questions concerning Hanzou, I've written a short one-shot concerning his life entitled The Unforgiven.

Hopefully, it answers more questions than it raises. It addresses a few elements concerning the history of the Naruto world as I see it – especially concerning Rain Country – and I would encourage anyone following this story to read it.

Chapter Title: Dirty Laundry by Don Henley

You must quash their doubts.

Ame is strong. Hanzou is strong.

All is right with their infantile farce of a reality.

Make them believe.

Tsunade of the Legendary Sannin was exiting a high stakes gambling house with her almost-niece in Otafuku Gai. She had grown tired of the slots and decided that she'd try her hand at picking a winner in Konoha's current Chuunin Exam finals – which had actually already begun.

Luckily for her and her sleep-'til-lunch philosophy, the results of the examination wouldn't reach the city until late that evening by ninja courier – and not the shitty mail ones. No, these were jounin who were hired to carry the sensitive results quickly and without incident – an A-rank assignment – by the large gambling houses that ran the betting pools.

It was big business, after all.

So they allowed betting until two in the afternoon.

It was a good thing that she had waited so long, too, because the odds on the Ame ninja in the tournament had gotten even longer – now at thirteen to one against.

She had a good feeling about this one. Better than the bad taste in her mouth she got from the mere sight of the Hyuuga or Uchiha names, anyways. Those two clans were far too full of themselves for their own good. It was no surprise to her that someone had wiped out one of them. The only surprise had been that it was one of the Uchiha's own that had done the deed.

She had to think that the old salamander from Ame had sent someone good. He had close to a decade of young genin to choose from if he so desired, and the man was well known for his grandstanding. The blonde had heard that the old bastard had declined to visit Fire Country to support his subordinate – which was expected. He didn't like to leave Ame.

Rather, he preferred to lure his enemies in.

It was a bitter thought, and she managed to put it out of mind as she emerged into the noon sunlight from indoors.

That is until she scanned the busy thoroughfare and spotted another pair of unnatural eyes that looked so similar to his, if not in color.

The tall figure wore a black cloak and cut a wide swath through the crowd – all of whom seemed eager to get out of his way. Behind him trailed a similarly dressed figure that followed the larger man like a lost puppy. It was an odd sight, to be sure.

And then those inhuman eyes found hers, and the man stopped. Just like Hanzou, this man's face and head were almost entirely covered – in this case by a mask and hood – the only distinguishing feature being a slashed-through Taki forehead protector.

Now that was either a proud battle scar, or a bold statement.

She never saw it actually happen, but somehow a thick black book found its way into his hand. It was a Bingo Book, she knew – but not just any book. It was a large version – the sort used by hunter ninja. It had extra space alongside each profile in which to jot down updated information and personal notes on targets.

And that was a bad, bad thing.

Shizune had noticed too – as attuned as she was to her mentor's quirks – and shifted into a defensive stance.

The man with hideous teal hair seemed oblivious, but had surreptitiously moved a few steps away from his partner in anticipation of a fight. The furtive glances he sent the larger man made her think that he didn't quite know what was going on.

The man with strange eyes hadn't stopped staring at her, even though the book in his hand was open and the pages were turning at incredible speed.

She didn't know how he could have managed that, given that the hand that held the book remained perfectly still. Perhaps it was some mechanism up his sleeve?

Finally the pages stopped and the tall man glanced down at the open book, only to narrow his eyes in annoyance. He turned another page. A moment later he met her gaze once again. "Greetings, Lady Tsunade. What a strange coincidence it is that we stumbled across you here. Could you be betting on the tournament in Konoha, I wonder?"

The man's voice was deep and rather ominous. She didn't like it. "Have we met?"

He didn't respond for a time, but continued to meet her hostile glare. "No, Lady Tsunade, but I was once… acquainted with your grandfather."

How old was this guy? She eyed the hunter's book in his open palm. "Do we have business?"

The book snapped shut and disappeared into the dark cloak nearly as quickly as it had appeared.

"No. Most of the hidden villages have rescinded your bounty since you've gone so long without associating with the Leaf. The bookies you steal from, on the other hand, would rather see you alive than dead, but won't put forth the money required to see it so. There is only one bounty on your head at the moment, as a matter of fact."

Tsunade's eyebrow rose. She actually hadn't known that, and was torn between relief and disappointment at having been written off by so many. "What's my bounty at, then?"

"Answer me this and I will answer in turn: Who did you bet on?"

"The Ame boy."

The man nodded. "Your bounty is set by Akasuna no Chiyo, for fifty."

The Legendary Sannin snorted. "Fifty million? What a joke. Looks like that old hag has finally lost her mind."

"You made a good selection for the tournament, Lady Tsunade. Yellow will win." He gave his partner a glance and turned to leave.

Tsunade felt a sense of foreboding at the man's words. She'd meant to throw her money away betting on a long shot, but if the man knew something that she didn't and was right, she'd make a fortune.

And that never boded well for the Sannin.

Once again that deep, gravelly voice brought her out of her thoughts. "You seem to have misunderstood me, however. The bounty on your head…"

"…is fifty ryo."

Then she blinked as his last words sank in.

"Fifty fucking ryo?"

"You look like you have something to say."

Naruto cocked his head to the side and stared across the dusty arena floor at the longhaired boy opposite him. "To you? No."

"Well I have something to say to you. Throwing about idle threats is the mark of a coward and a weakling. I can't say I'm surprised to hear them from a foreign ninja, though."

Naruto stared at the boy impassively. "And what makes you think I didn't mean what I said?"

"You must be incredibly arrogant then, to think you can get away with threatening me like that. Like most foreigners, you believe that you can walk all over the Leaf, don't you? Well I beg to differ."

The blond stood in a relaxed pose, bleeding boredom and indifference. If he knew anything about ninja like Hyuuga Neji, he knew that their pride was their greatest weakness. Normally he wouldn't care to hold a conversation with the boy, but this was different from a normal battle and letting Neji run his mouth might succeed in adding to the spectacle.

It was a spectacle, after all. Naruto was on display for the first time in his life. He wanted – no – he needed to make a lasting impression.

"I'll go out on a limb here and guess that you lost someone close to you to foreign shinobi. But really, who hasn't? You live in a ninja village. You're from a ninja clan. And since I doubt that any of the spectators here care about your personal woes any more than I do, maybe we should start?"

The crowd murmured in agreement. That surprised Naruto quite a bit, seeing as he was considered an underdog in this bout and an outsider to boot, but there were plenty of ninja – and enough foreigners, he supposed – in attendance that agreed with his sentiments.

This was a tournament, not a talk show.

"I'll only say this once, because frankly I don't give a damn about you. Give up. Fate made its choice when you drew me as your opponent. You can't win against me. Give up now, and I'll spare you the agony of defeat. I may kill you otherwise, foreigner."

Naruto's eyes hardened as the Hyuuga spoke. "You're coming dangerously close to insulting me again. I'd hoped that maybe I'd earned a bit of respect when I defeated your teammate, but apparently you choose only to see that which supports your childish worldview. I seriously doubt that you are in any way superior to him."

That was enough to set Neji off. The boy rushed at Naruto with speed that would rival most seasoned chuunin, but that wasn't what the blond needed to worry about. He knew that the Hyuuga could never match his teammate in a flat sprint. The boy was dangerous in close combat, though – his arm speed being much greater than a ninja of his age and experience should possess thanks to the excellent internal chakra control gifted by the Byakugan.

Naruto made a clone as the boy approached. The doppelganger wasted no time and attacked with a straight kick at the charging Neji. It would be interesting to see what the boy did.

The clone was faster than Neji was, but the attack was obvious. The Hyuuga parried the blow with his forearms and grunted under the impact. Yes, Naruto hit hard.

Neji had a problem here. If anything, his attack speed in close combat was only marginally superior to Naruto's. The blond hit much harder, though – the same or better than an un-weighted Lee. The Hyuuga prodigy couldn't simply block with one arm or his hands. He'd risk having them broken like that. But if he couldn't use his hands to stop the clones, then he couldn't dispel them using his Jyuuken style.

It was a problem, but he could work around it.

He spun away from the first clone just as a second doppelganger attacked from the side. That fist would have hit Neji's kidney if he hadn't moved. These clones were very good at working in tandem, he knew, and were it not for his Byakugan they would tear him apart.

As it was, he was having a rough time just avoiding their staggered attacks – especially when a third clone joined the fray.

The original Ame ninja simply stood back and watched.

The sounds of the quick and deadly taijutsu match were drowned out by the dull roar of the crowd as the four figures battled across the center of the arena – none able to land a solid hit. The fight was entertaining at the least, but the roars of the crowd in support of the Hyuuga began to grate on Naruto's nerves after a time.

He remained patient, though. As a jinchuuriki, he would probably be able to shrug off all but the strongest of the dark haired boy's strikes thanks to his enhanced chakra circulatory system, but he would rather be safe by taking this time to observe than to end up dead later.

A powerful enough strike to his head or heart might actually be able to kill him.

Neji finally saw an opening in the guard of one of the clones attacking him. The one directly behind him had draw back in anticipation of sending a powerful haymaker at the back of his head – leaving his torso unguarded.

The Hyuuga boy had done his research over the month break. He knew how the Shadow Clone jutsu worked – that it split chakra between bodies making it impossible for his Byakugan to distinguish between the real ninja and his doppelgangers. He also knew that – like all clone techniques – the shadow clone was decidedly fragile. If its form was disrupted in any significant way, the chakra matrix would fail and the clone would be destroyed.

He only had to land a glancing Jyuuken blow in order to take a clone out – though up until this point he had been frustratingly denied the opportunity thanks to the superb teamwork that the clones displayed.

Neji reached back quickly and tapped the attacking clone with an open palm in the stomach, forcing what he deemed as a sufficient amount of chakra into the attack. He didn't even turn his head to assess the effectiveness of his technique – his Byakugan could take care of that for him.

His face didn't even have time to register his shock as his blood-gifted vision followed the fist of the clone right into the back of his head.

Neji was sent tumbling away from his attackers.

The stricken clone disappeared in a cloud of white smoke.

The crowd roared its approval.

Naruto smirked behind his re-breather.

The remaining clones straightened and waited for the Hyuuga to regain his feet. There was no point attacking him when he was down. He was putting on a show here, not fighting for his life.

Or at least he knew that he wasn't. The Hyuuga may have believed differently.

"I see you did your homework, but you seem to have underestimated my technique. You may be able to dispel them with such a weak attack, but not immediately. For that you'll need to use a bit more effort."

Neji's face was murderous as he stood and dusted himself off. Apparently he didn't like being talked down to.

Naruto didn't give him time to respond, though. The two clones rushed the Hyuuga boy at incredible speed and jumped to attack in tandem.

The dark haired boy just stared at them in contempt and, just as they were about to lash out at him, began to spin in place, an aura of blue chakra surrounding him like a cocoon.

The clones dispelled on the wall of energy and Naruto nodded. This was another technique that Hanzou had written about extensively – even going so far as to attempt to modify the technique for his own use. In the end, he'd abandoned the project. A non-Hyuuga body wasn't capable of releasing such a powerful burst of raw chakra from so many tenketsu at once. Still, the legendary ninja had been fascinated by the concept nonetheless. Perhaps it's what had led him to create his "nova of electric death" technique, as Naruto had so lovingly named it.

"I won't be falling for the same trick twice. It's time I stopped playing with your imitations." Neji, it seems, hadn't expected to have to use that technique here.

Too damn bad.

Naruto made four more clones.

"Don't you understand? Your techniques are useless against me. You can't defy your fate – just accept it. You're going to lose to me."

The blond frowned. "You keep talking about fate, and I don't particularly care to hear the reasons, but as I said before, what makes you so sure it's not your fate to lose to me?"

This wasn't the first time that an opponent had insisted on chatting up Naruto. He'd lost count of how many men and women he'd killed who'd had the urge to spill their life stories to him, usually trying to justify their actions – sometimes trying to beg for mercy. Naruto prided himself on being fairly indulgent. They were the poor saps' last words, after all.

Because the stories didn't stop him from killing them.

He might as well play along with the Hyuuga. It would please the crowd, at least.

He just had to make sure he didn't kill the boy out of habit at the end of it. There was no better way to spit on the old man's good graces than that.

"I'm a member of the Hyuuga clan – the strongest in Konoha. Do you honestly believe you ever stood a chance against me? How could fate decide any other outcome?"

Naruto shook his head in exasperation, and then gave a nod to his clones. "I wouldn't know anything about fate. I can't bring myself to think like that, because it causes one to stagnate. What good is trying when failure is obvious? What good is trying your hardest when success is guaranteed?"

The clones rushed forward and circled the Hyuuga, evenly spaced around him.

Neji bent low and settled into a Jyuuken stance. "That's the point, fool. Try as you might, you can't win here. That's why you should have given up when you had the chance."

The clones lunged forward.

Neji spun, the blue chakra whipping around him. Ultimate defense indeed.

But that didn't stop Naruto from wanting to defeat it.

The clones stopped right at the edge of Neji's spin and each raised its right hand in front of it. The ninja watching from the stands gasped in surprise as the telltale distortion of cutting wind surrounded the arms of the clones. It was an A-rank elemental manipulation, after all.

The roar of the crowd picked up yet again when the wind blades pressed against the edge of the ball of chakra. Since Neji's technique spun around the edge of his body in a circular path, the four clones pressed their attacks into the sphere at the same height – even with the clones' chests – and began cutting through at the same latitude of the sphere as one another. The chakra at that height couldn't recover as the four wind blades sliced it apart and the hands of the clones continued to push inward.

Neji was cutting his own technique on Naruto's blades, and he couldn't stop. Not now. If he let go then those blades would be on him.

If he kept spinning, those blades would be on him.

The shock was almost too much to bear.

But Hyuuga Neji wasn't called a genius for nothing.

He held the technique for as long as possible before dropping to the ground and releasing his chakra in a massive burst while still continuing his rotation. The dome of chakra that had surrounded him flattened and bulged out at shin level into a thick disk, knocking all four of the clones off of their feet.

A moment later, they disappeared in a cloud of smoke while Neji stood up panting from the exertion he had just used. He'd never held the Heavenly Spin for that long before.

"Do you play poker, Hyuuga Neji, or is something as unseemly as that beneath your noble self?" Naruto could play the talking game too, and he'd already gotten the crowd's attention with that last ploy. They hung on his every word.

Neji didn't respond, but kept his gaze focused closely on Naruto – who still hadn't moved an inch during their battle.

"I'll assume that you at least know how it's played. Five card draw, yes?" The dark haired boy just glared, so Naruto moved on. "I like to think of life as a game of five card draw. You get your hand at the beginning of the game – that's when you're born – and then you have to make a choice. Do you stick with what you have, content with your lot in life – you can call it fate or what have you – or do you take a chance? Do you strive for something greater than what you're handed? Do you aim to be the very best?

"You were dealt a good hand – let's say a full house. You have a powerful bloodline limit and a powerful family. You live in and fight for a powerful village. Now that's a good deal. You don't really have to try. After all, if you're sitting at a card table with a full house in hand, chances are you're going to win. Out of all of the genin in this village, you might be the very strongest of them all.

"But what if you're sitting in a room full of card players with only a full house in hand? Chances are that someone out there is going to have you beat. Just think of all of the ninja in this village that could defeat you. A full house doesn't look like such a good hand anymore, now does it? Not with the Hokage sitting with a straight flush, the elite jounin with a few fours of a kind, and no small amount of folks with full houses better than your own. You can go far with what you have, but that fate crap you keep preaching…

"That's just you admitting that you're too scared to draw."

Neji was turning purple. He didn't like being dissected. That was what he did to others. Right now, though, his eyes were telling him that his opponent was completely confident, at ease, and even maybe… bored?

It made him furious.

"Do you want to know what I was dealt, Hyuuga?"

The dark haired boy's voice dripped venom. "Why would I give a damn about you or anything about you?"

Naruto ignored him. "I was dealt a joker, Hyuuga. I was dealt a wildcard." He was pacing back and forth slowly now. He really shouldn't get so worked up over this, but not only was it a great way to make an impression on the crowd; it was also somewhat therapeutic.

It was then, standing there in the middle of the ring with the crowd listening to his every word with rapt attention, that he realized that he'd gone too long simply following orders and completing missions – no matter how important they were.

He was sincerely glad that he'd come to Konoha.

"But knowing how to play a joker in life isn't as simple as knowing how to play it in a game of cards. I'm not content with sitting on it. I want more. I want to win."

Naruto stopped his pacing and turned to face his opponent once again. "Your fate is to lose, Hyuuga, if that's the only rationale you cling to. Even if it isn't me that defeats you."

The crowd had grown silent during Naruto's musings in order to better hear his words. There was no small number of them that agreed with the Ame ninja. The Hyuuga boy's ramblings about fate were rather unbecoming of a shinobi and all-around distasteful for everyone else.

They could easily hear the Konoha ninja's declaration through the silence.

"Proctor, I intend to kill him."

Naruto's face grew stony behind his re-breather. "Do you really want to cross that line, Hyuuga? You don't know what I'm capable of."

"You're an arrogant, obnoxious fool. Your fate has already been decided. Perhaps when they bury you they'll remember why the Hyuuga, and Konoha, are feared so strongly in a pitiful village like yours."

Neji bolted forward, intent on ending the match. He slowed and his eyes widened in surprise, however, as the short boy in front of him flashed expertly through a short series of hand seals that he had only seen his sensei use before.

"Just who do you think you're insulting?"

Sarutobi Hiruzen watched impassively as the match below progressed. If even a fraction of what Naruto and Jiraiya had mentioned to him was true, young Neji had no chance of winning this fight. Naruto was just stringing the boy along.

It was a rather cruel thing to do, but it was probably for the best. Naruto had explained that Hanzou expected a memorable and definitive showing from him, and that failing at that would only increase the Salamander's ire and inspire him to hunt down his once-apprentice. Neji also needed a wake up call, and a thorough beating at the hands of Naruto might just provide that – as cold as it may seem. All of this talk of fate and the Hyuuga's posturing was rather embarrassing for the village – not to mention the painful memories that it brought forth for the old man.

He'd never truly forgiven himself for not finding some alternative to Hizashi's death, and the fact that it still haunted the boy simply compounded his frustration. Even as the strongest Kage in the world, politics and level-headedness had won out at that time. He'd made the best decision in allowing the Hyuuga elders to perpetrate their ruse, but not the right decision.

Naruto's speech made him a bit nervous about what the boy intended to reveal. The fallout would be severe.

Then again, he might not live to see the sun set on his beloved village. It was a sobering thought, but one that he'd had many times before.

At least then the blond boy's revelation would be someone else's to deal with.

Whatever he had expected Naruto to show in his match though, it wasn't this.

He was on his feet before he'd even realized it – his two, jounin guards beside him and an ANBU captain at his side. The Kazekage had risen even faster than Sarutobi's weary bones had allowed and was staring down into the arena with wide eyes as his own guards moved in close to him – their own gazes darting about nervously. Sarutobi scanned the arena quickly. The rest of the small ANBU detail within the stadium had leapt to the railing overlooking the arena floor and waited for orders.

A full third of the spectators had leapt out of their seats and made to act as soon as the enormous plume of smoke had appeared. Many of these were dressed as civilians, but the Hokage could also make out his own Konoha jounin on their feet, warily taking measure of the other standing figures and the spectacle before them.

All of them were ninja. Most were jounin. They were wearing civilian clothing because they were pretending to be anything but highly trained killers. Some of them the Hokage knew by sight. These were the sanctioned "scouts" sent by every ninja village in the world to observe the Chuunin Exam Finals in order to relay the results to their respective leaders. Sarutobi allowed them because it was really for their sake that these exams even existed, and because they were followed nearly everywhere within the city while they visited. They were ninja who were really guests of honor who pretended to be civilians who the Konoha ninja pretended to treat like civilians, but didn't.

It was a complicated political game. These men were no danger, though.

Then again, there were fewer than twenty of those individuals in his city. The rest were undoubtedly Orochimaru's men.

Come to think of it, Sarutobi couldn't have planned this better if he'd wanted to. Thanks to Naruto, his men had marked every single ninja in the stadium able to recognize Salamander Hanzou's infamous summon by sight.

That would make things much easier in a few minutes.

Assuming Ajisuke didn't kill them all, of course.

Poor Neji looked like a deer caught in the headlights. He didn't have a clue as to what to do. There was a hundred foot monster towering over him – its long body curved around the edge of the arena floor and taking up more than its fair share of space – and that was that.

The Salamander King's massive head turned upwards and a loud intake of air could be heard throughout the silent-as-the-grave stadium. Sarutobi had seen this before many times – it was a ritual of the summon's that he performed whenever he was called to fight. The old amphibian had a keen nose. Sarutobi had learned that the hard way in decades and battles past.

Finally, the monster turned up towards the Kage box, and what could only be described as a wicked smirk stretched the monster's enormous maw revealing rows of small but dangerously sharp teeth within.

"Greetings, young Sarutobi. It has been long since we last met." The head turned slightly and its beady eyes focused. The grin grew even wider. "And congratulations to you, young fighter, on finally achieving the title of 'Fourth.'"

The Kazekage blinked and gave a small nod of acknowledgement, though Sarutobi was sure that the expression beneath his mask was poisonous.

"I did not expect to see you here, Lord Ajisuke. I don't believe that your presence is entirely… appropriate." Sarutobi's eyes flicked up to Naruto, who stood with his arms crossed atop the salamander's head, his eyes watching the old Hokage's every move. Neji was apparently forgotten for the moment.

The giant creature scanned his surroundings once again, taking his time as he went. Many of the ninja who had leapt to their feet had promptly returned to their seats once the immediate danger seemed to have passed. "Namikaze. Why have you called me here?"

Naruto turned back to observe Neji, who could only continue to stare onward in shock and confusion – his head swiveling between the massive summon and the Hokage. "I simply wished to demonstrate how 'pitiful' Ame is, Ajisuke. This fool doubted our power."

Ajisuke bent forward to eye Neji, who had finally regained some of his senses and had backed away from the massive creature and settled into his trademark Jyuuken stance – little good though it was. "You summoned me here to fight a branch family Hyuuga in a chuunin selection exam? Do you think I have nothing better to do than amuse you, boy?"

"I was proving a point, as you well know. Now would you please squash this fool for me, or am I going to have to do that myself?"

The monster growled. The stadium shuddered. Someone screamed.

"Do not call on me again until you find a worthy focus for my attentions, Naruto!"

"I'll see if I can't think of something, old man."

With that, the arena once again filled with white smoke as the summon made his departure. Naruto fell from his former perch and landed gracefully on the arena floor before straightening and facing Neji.

Whispers erupted from around the arena as the still-standing ninja regained their seats. He and Ajisuke had given them a few things to think about.

"Looks like you lucked out."

Neji had fully regained himself now, and moved closer to Naruto from the edge of the arena where he had retreated. "Pathetic, that you can't even control your own summon."

Naruto laughed. The murmurings of the crowd grew. "Maybe you didn't hear him, Hyuuga. You weren't worth his time."

The shock had bled away and once again, Neji was furious. "How dare you! A fool who hides behind a mask, a summon who won't fight for him, and a false name. Are you too weak to face me yourself? Take off your mask, you miserable failure. I want to see your face when I kill you! I want to see your eyes when you die with my Byakugan – the strongest weapon in Konoha!"

That was all the encouragement that Naruto needed. "You want to see this face? To know my name?" He brought his hands together in front of him, grasped the end of the middle finger on his right glove, and pulled it off.

Those that could see his clawed hand let out gasps of surprise or narrowed their eyes in concentration. They'd already had their hackles raised by names like Namikaze and Naruto being thrown about, though which one they focused on depended on where they called home. After all, no one had been given either of those names in Konoha for over thirteen years.

They were curious, alright.

Naruto peeled the other glove off of his left hand and flexed his clawed fingers. It felt good to finally be able to feel them in the sunlight after a month of hiding them from sight. Then he unclasped the re-breather and faceplate from his head and dumped them on the arena floor along with his gloves. Last came the long bandana that hid his golden hair from sight. It was a relief to once again be able to feel the light breeze in his shaggy mane.

This was much better.

"Well? What do you think of me now, Hyuuga? Am I what you expected?" Naruto's lips twisted into a feral grin, showing off his long fangs to the world. "My name, fool, is Namikaze Naruto. My father was the leader of this village once and the strongest ninja in the world. He sealed the power of the mightiest bijuu – the Nine-Tailed Fox – into me on the day I was born." Naruto crouched low, his arms spread wide and his clawed fingers splayed out cruelly. "So you see, Hyuuga Neji… I am the strongest weapon in Konoha, not your paltry bloodline limit."

The crowd erupted into a cacophony of shouting, screaming, and muttering. Many of the spectators were on their feet again – either yelling obscenities or trying to get a better look at the self-proclaimed son of the infamous Yellow Flash. Naruto glanced at the Kage box to find Sarutobi looking down at him with worry etched across his face and the Kazekage with a mad gleam in his eyes.

"Even if what you say is true, I don't intend to lose!" Neji had had enough of their dialogue. The boy sprinted at Naruto just as he had earlier, but this time the blond just watched him come – his expression eager and his fingers twitching in anticipation.

Just as Neji was about ready to strike, Naruto leapt forward – his claws reaching for Neji's unprotected arms. The Hyuuga boy couldn't attempt tenketsu strikes here – he needed to stop his opponent's forward progress or the claws would shred him. On top of that, Naruto twisted his forearms right as they came within Neji's reach.

It was a disaster for the dark haired boy. He tried to parry the dangerous hands away, but gasped as he felt the sharp claws dig into the palm of his left hand and tear open the forearm of his right arm. It didn't matter if he used Jyuuken against the smaller boy's hands – the claws would still tear at him.

The pain broke Neji's concentration and he caught Naruto's booted foot in his hip, sending him tumbling across the arena floor once again. He sat up quickly and pushed himself to his feet – gritting his teeth as dirt rubbed into the bloody wound on his palm. The Ame ninja's style was too difficult to follow. It was all reflex and nuance – those claws could go anywhere. If he had to describe it, he'd say that it was the opposite of Lee's style – the opposite of how the blond fought against Neji until this point.

Nothing was telegraphed and even glancing blows were painful and dangerous.

The blond just stared at him expressionlessly with those animalistic eyes, body crouched low and arms spread wide in front of him in anticipation of another attack.

Neji growled in anger and frustration. The demonic boy in front of him had been holding back all along – using some knock-off taijutsu style and still managing to keep up with him. Now though… did he even have a chance?

Yes, yes he did. "You're within range of my divination. The fight is over, fool." Neji crouched low and took an exaggerated stance – his hands stretched out one in front and the other behind him – and pushed chakra through his body in preparation of his attack. He'd worked hard to create this – his ultimate technique. It could shut down the chakra system of even the most powerful opponents completely – rendering them unable to fight or even move.

While it wasn't fatal, it would put this brat at his mercy.

He lunged forward with chakra-enhanced speed and aimed for the first two points of his strike – the major tenketsu just inside the shoulder. With those points closed, the arms became almost worthless and preventing the rest of his attack became impossible.

Naruto had barely moved – his open hands still spread wide in front of him. There was no way he could react in time.

Then Neji flinched and stumbled back in astonishment as pain shot up from his fingertips.

It felt like they had been shoved into a garbage disposal. He gasped and stared at his hands, only to find that the tips of his fingers had indeed been rubbed raw by whatever he had hit. He turned his focus to his opponent in disbelief as twin disks of yellow chakra spun in front of his hands – each nearly sixteen inches across.

"Combining the Body Flicker with a tenketsu strike? That's not going to work. Too obvious."

Neji couldn't hide his astonishment and dismay. It was impossible. His strongest technique couldn't have been overcome so easily!

Naruto let his jutsu dissipate and watched as the emotions played out across the Hyuuga's face with mild interest. Had the boy really thought that it would be that easy? That techniques like the Heavenly Spin and whatever he had just tried to use were enough to bring down any ninja he came across? This boy may have been a ninja genius, but a genius he was not.

The blond was actually disappointed.

At least his simple modification of the Rasengan had born some fruit. It wouldn't stop chakra intensive techniques like the Blade of Wind or a full-powered Rasengan, but it could overcome simple taijutsu and thrown weapons.

It was stunningly similar to a tiny Heavenly Spin, now that he thought about it.

Neji just stood and stared. For the first time since the match began, Naruto could make out the despair etched into his face. It was unbecoming of the dark haired boy.

Time to end it, he supposed.

The Hyuuga's nerves were shot. His hand and arm were bleeding – his fingers were burned. He didn't even give much of a reaction as Naruto flashed forward with a Body Flicker of his own and slammed his balled fist into the stunned boy's stomach.

Neji crumpled to the arena floor and passed out.

His fate had caught up with him.

At least he could make a new one tomorrow.

"Winner. Namikaze Naruto." The short blond spoke quietly, but the entire stadium heard him.

The proctor stared at him silently for a moment before looking to the Kage's box. At a nod from the old man, the senbon-sucking jounin called it.

"Winner. Namikaze Naruto!"

There was no cheering. The murmurs grew and grew as the seconds dragged on, but no one called out.

Could it be true?

The medical team rushed out and lifted the Hyuuga boy onto a stretcher that they had brought along with them, making no effort to hide their curious glances towards the feral boy.

Naruto ignored them and began to walk off the field towards the stairway that led up to the competitor's balcony. He'd done his part. Now he just had to wait for the fireworks to begin.

"You forgot your gear."

The proctor was gesturing towards Naruto's discarded armor and accessories.

"I don't need them. Not anymore." The blond kept walking off of the field. He planned to never wear anything even resembling Hanzou's outfit ever again.

As he neared the opening to the stairwell, his eyes were drawn to the familiar sight and sound of a ninja appearing from a Body Flicker. Not fifteen feet in front of him stood Hatake Kakashi and Uchiha Sasuke amidst a flurry of fluttering leaves. Kakashi's visible eye was glued to him in obvious shock, while Sasuke simply stared suspiciously.

"Is it really you?" The masked jounin's voice held a strange quality to it that Naruto couldn't quite place. Was it relief?

The blond nodded and continued walking towards the man, eager to get off of the arena floor and out from under the stares of the crowd.

He could feel Kakashi's eye on his back as he stepped around the elite ninja and continued up the stairs. He didn't need more time in the spotlight right now. Better to let the shock sink in a bit. He'd certainly have enough to deal with after the day was over as it was.

Gaara was standing at the top of the staircase.

Naruto smelt blood.


The sandy haired boy stared at him with intensity and started down the stairs. As he drew closer, Naruto could make out a mad gleam dancing in his eyes. The Ichibi container was truly sick.

A small part of Naruto felt sympathy, but a much larger part of him – the same part that remembered the mad jinchuuriki's attempt to kill him without provocation and threatened to cut out the mad boy's eye – felt nothing but contempt.

This would not be a good day for Sabaku no Gaara.

They passed one another without a second glance. Nothing needed to be said between them.

Naruto didn't look for the bodies.

He emerged from the stairwell onto the competitor's balcony to find all eyes on him. Until he met their stares, that is. The only two that returned his looks were Shino and Sai. Or so it appeared. He couldn't see the Aburame's eyes behind his sunglasses, after all.

Naruto stepped up the balcony to stand beside Gaara's older sister, Temari. She tensed up a bit when she noticed that he had chosen to stand next to her and pretended to be fixated on the two fighters squaring off below. For a kunoichi that he had pegged at mid-chuunin level, she didn't seem to be very good at disguising her glances at him out of the corner of her eye.

Maybe it was nerves.

Maybe it was the fact that he was staring her up and down without pretense.

"What?" His attentions were obviously making her nervous. She probably shouldn't have spoken, though. Her question provided an excellent excuse for the rest of the assembly to once again focus on Naruto, and by association, her.

Naruto didn't reply immediately, continuing to devour her appearance with his eyes.

She was hot, after all.

And older.

And blonde.

He liked that.

"Nothing." He finally turned his attention back to the match below, which was just about to start. Normally he'd never be caught staring at a woman in public like that – he wasn't Jiraiya, after all – but who would suspect him "checking out" the competition in these circumstances? They simply assumed that he was actually checking the competition out.

He'd take what he could get, thank you very much.

Naruto spent most of Sasuke and Gaara's match stealing glances at the young woman beside him. He was much better at it than she had been, though that may have been due to the fact that she was focused entirely on the match below and was practically radiating nervous anticipation.

He didn't particularly care about the fight raging in the arena – the outcome was assured. The Uchiha did manage to surprise him with his massive increase in speed over the month break, however. It seemed that the boy had mastered enhancing his movements with his chakra in order to overcome the speed of Gaara's sand. The biggest surprise was when the boy backed off from the Suna ninja's sand-ensconced form and summoned Hatake Kakashi's famous technique – the Chidori.

It was truly impressive that the Uchiha had learned so much over the break in the exam, though Naruto had a guess that his Sharingan eyes had had a hand in his success.

Naruto had to suppress a frown at the way the match was going. That jutsu was going to tear through Gaara's earth-based sand shield like a marble thrown through tissue paper.

This had the potential to get ugly a lot sooner than Naruto had expected.

The blood curdling scream and the massive sand-made arm that answered the attack only succeeded in aggravating his concerns.

He didn't want to have to fight the Ichibi in the middle of Konoha.

Glancing to his side, he found both of Gaara's siblings trembling in horror, their eyes wide and glued to the scene below. It was a bit sad to think that the boy terrified even his own siblings.

Then the genjutsu began.

It was a fairly obvious and low-level mass-effect sleep technique – though the ninja that used it had to have been fairly powerful in order to subdue the entire stadium. The Suna ninja formed hand seals to dispel the technique almost immediately. They had been expecting it, but so had Naruto. The Konoha ninja quickly followed suit, though Shikamaru hesitated. There was something to be said for being able to sleep through the chaos, after all.

The pale boy Sai was watching the three foreign ninja intently – his right hand held loosely at his side next to his sheathed ninja-to. He obviously didn't trust them to behave themselves.

Naruto didn't form hand seals. He didn't need to. Instead, he forced the chakra running through his body to surge momentarily in what Pain had called a Chakra Flex. It was one of the surprisingly simple to understand yet incredibly difficult to master abilities that the man had forced Naruto to master in his youth, and it had taken a whole four months for the blond to learn it properly.

Normally, a ninja learned to dispel ninjutsu by forcefully stopping his chakra flow and disrupting the influence that the genjutsu user had on his chakra system. The downside of this, of course, was that the ninja that was trying to break the jutsu had to stop his chakra flow – necessitating him to slow down his movement and keeping him unable to use any ninja techniques until the genjutsu was cancelled.

The Chakra Flex dispelled a genjutsu by overpowering the caster's control with a rush of chakra through the ninja's system. It was an incredibly difficult skill to master, and as far as Naruto knew it was a technique of Pain's own creation. The advantages of this ability were that the Flexing ninja could continue to fight at full capacity while the genjutsu was overpowered and could do so without the use of hand seals. On the other hand, only a ninja with high chakra reserves and the ability to call on them in an instant could learn the technique. It was incredibly effective against low and medium level illusions, but against powerful, focused techniques – the sort that an Uchiha might cast on a single opponent with his Sharingan – Flexing was ineffective.

It worked well enough for this occasion, at least.

Naruto grabbed Temari's hand where it clutched railing in front of her, gripping tightly as the girl gasped and tried to pull away. The short boy leaned in close to her and began to speak. He only hoped that she listened. It would make his job much easier later on. "If your brother transforms here, one of the Konoha jounin will kill him."

The Suna kunoichi just stared at him with wide eyes.

"Don't believe they aren't capable of it. If you want him to live, you have to get him out of the city."

He released her hand, but she didn't move right away. Kankuro looked on with a confused expression on his painted face.

"Well get going, don't you know there's a war on?"

The two Suna ninja gave one another a quick glance before jumping over the railing and down to the floor below, where Naruto spotted their jounin sensei standing over Gaara – who seemed to have been weakened by the Uchiha's attack.

He had to reach out and grab Sai's wrist as he tried to go after them. Naruto spun in place and threw the pale boy back towards Shino and Shikamaru, where he came skidding to a stop with his hand resting on the hilt of his short sword.

Naruto looked between the three quickly before speaking. "Let them go. Believe me when I say that you don't want an insane jinchuuriki transforming in the middle of town. None of you would be a match for him anyway. In case you haven't noticed, your village is under attack."

The three Konoha ninja took a moment to let his words soak in. Surprisingly, it was Shino that spoke up. "And what of you? We can't let an Ame ninja run around the village as he pleases."

Naruto looked out over the stadium floor, where the examiner had begun to face off with the Suna jounin. The four genin – Sasuke, Gaara, Temari, and Kankuro – were nowhere in sight. "I'm going to find the Hokage."

With that, he disappeared from the balcony in a gust of swirling wind.

Naruto grabbed the flapping black cloak and pulled, dragging the masked man to the tiled roof just before reaching the strange purple barrier. He let go as the man twisted out of his grip and turned to face the boy, his three comrades landing in a circle around him.

The jinchuuriki ignored the hostile stances of the four ANBU and stood calmly facing the one he had pulled out of the air. "Do you know what that is, ninja?"

The man didn't answer, instead turning his masked face to the only member of the squad wearing a white cloak.

"No?" Naruto shook his head in exasperation. "Then don't fucking touch it."

Then again, he'd never seen anything quite like it either. Best to ask someone who had. "How do we break this thing, old man?" His eyes darted between the four Sound ninja at the corners of the massive technique. They were protected completely by the field that they had created.

Sarutobi did his best to keep his eye on Orochimaru while glancing over at Naruto. At a nod from him, the white-cloaked captain gave a signal and the four ANBU relaxed their stances.

Naruto didn't seem to notice.

"One of the four creating the barrier must be neutralized, but as you can see, that isn't possible now." The old man didn't seem too perturbed by that fact.

"The roof?"

The Hokage shook his head, causing the long cloth streamers flowing from his battle helmet to dance through the shimmering purple of the barrier. "The technique will have extended below the roof as well. It seems that I'm on my own in here."

Naruto turned his head at the sound of an arrogant chuckle. Something about it make his skin crawl. It was unnatural.

"But that suits you just fine, doesn't it, sensei? You'd rather not have anyone get in your way." The man was incredibly pale, with strange purple discolorations around his eyes and odd, yellow irises. He even emphasized his words in a way that mimicked how a snake might speak.

The jinchuuriki scowled. Here was a traitor of traitors. A disgusting worm that cared for nothing but himself – destroying and corrupting wantonly without any thought to the damages he leveled on the world around him. A man with no purpose but to see his own twisted ends achieved.

Naruto had never met him before, but he already despised Orochimaru.

"So this is what a man who is about to lose a war looks like? I would have thought you'd be a bit humbler, but then again, you never expected to win, did you?"

The snake-like eyes found his slit ones, and the man sneered. "This attack may never have had a chance of succeeding, child, but I will still take my prize. Or perhaps your master never taught you of such a concept, despite living it through countless battles. How is the old man, by the way? Still reveling in his own sense of superiority?"

"Time may have humbled him somewhat, though it seems unlikely that the same can be said for you, traitor. I'll tell you this – were it worth my master's efforts he would gladly kill you."

The missing ninja looked on coldly. "Traitor, you say? Have I defied that fool's expectations, then? If he is so upset then why not settle with me himself instead of sending his pet to parrot his words? Be gone child, I have a score to settle with the old man and no time to play games with the likes of you. Your days are numbered, regardless."

Naruto couldn't help but bare his fangs at that. Everything about the man was so repulsive that Naruto felt the need to kill him right then and there, if only it were within his power.


Someday soon.

"Naruto. Where is Gaara?"

The blond boy turned to the Hokage and his face softened. "My shadow clones are tracking him right now. His brother and sister took him and fled the city, probably so that he could recover. I intend to fight him outside the city proper."

The old man nodded, his eyes still focused on his former student. "Are you sure you can do this alone? The Shukaku's power…"

"Don't worry old man. I'm a professional, after all. It'll be taken care of. Just focus on this fight and I'll tell you all about it later." Naruto gave his one-time grandfather a small smile when his head turned towards the boy slightly.

They both knew that that conversation was unlikely to ever happen.

"Still, Jiraiya is in the city. If you need his assistance, just find him."

"He has other things to worry about. I'm sure Aji and I can handle it. After all, what sort of bijuu hunter would I be if I couldn't even handle the Ichibi?"

The Hokage gave a small smile at Naruto's antics. He could still see a small glimpse of the young boy he once knew all those years ago. "Be careful, Naruto. Find Jiraiya when this is all over – he'll help you with whatever you may need."

The blond's face tightened. It was time he said goodbye.

Sasuke was thrown through the air once again by Gaara's massive sand arm. The fight wasn't going in his favor at all. Truth be told, he had no real idea of what he was dealing with. He'd never seen – or even heard – of a ninja using sand like the Suna shinobi did.

On top of that, the mad boy seemed to be slowly but surely losing whatever small hold on sanity that he had. Even his own sister looked terrified of the massive, disfigured, drooling beast he had become.

He was over his head, Sasuke knew, but he couldn't bring himself to back down. He'd worked so hard over the last month trying to improve as much as possible just to beat this opponent. Well, him and the Ame ninja, though Sasuke understood from Kakashi's explanation of the Chidori that the jutsu was specifically geared towards defeating the sand user.

Lightning defeated earth, after all.

He wasn't sure if he'd be willing to use the assassination technique against the Rain boy. Maybe he would have gone out of his way to merely maim him. Then again, the boy had called himself the son of the Fourth Hokage and claimed to have the Kyuubi's power within him, whatever that nonsense was.

But Kakashi seemed to believe it.

None of those musings helped in his current situation, however.

He needed to become stronger. Stronger than Gaara. Stronger than Namikaze Naruto. Stronger than Itachi.

He couldn't lose here.

The cursed seal flared up. Pain arced through his body from the mark on his neck, whispering to his subconscious. He tried to ignore it – tried to push it back yet again.

But he wanted that power.

Power as strong as that of the demon he was fighting.

"You're too weak!" Sasuke could only stare at the screaming monster before him who barely sounded human any longer.

He wasn't weak.

"You're too soft because your hatred isn't strong enough!"

He hated. He hated so much. This thing had no idea how much he hated.

"The power to hate is the power to kill. The power to kill is the power of vengeance!"

He would kill him. He would.

"Your hatred is weaker than mine! Do you know what that means?"

Shut up. He didn't want to hear this.

Live a wretched life.

Shut up.

Come before me.

Shut up!

To measure my… capacity.

"Shut up!"

"It means that you're weaker than me!"

The Chidori. He'd kill this monster with it. He'd kill his brother with it.

But the pain wouldn't let him think about those things. His third Chidori of the day was spent. The cursed seal ached on his neck. He knew that it had activated again.

He collapsed.

He could still hear the monster moving behind him.

It was over.

Then he heard a frustrated, inhuman growl from Gaara and the squelch of wet… Oh.

"Trouble in paradise, princess?"

Oh, no. God no. Not now.

"Sasuke! Are you alright?"

He almost wished that Gaara had killed him. Better that than dealing with these two nitwits.

They were his teammates, though. "You have to get out of here, he's too strong."

"Beauty not working out with the beast? No fairytale ending? I thought he'd sweep you right off your feet."

"God dammit, Sai! We have to get out of here! You don't know…"

The pale boy's voice cut him off. "He's the Ichibi jinchuuriki. Of course you're not strong enough to win. Sakura, grab her majesty and I'll hold off Gaara until some help arrives or we can flee."

Sasuke had liked the pale boy much better when he'd been a socially retarded robot. Now thanks to Sakura's "help" he was almost intolerable. And he knew it, too.

"I suppose that's my cue."

It was the Ame ninja – Naruto. A few of him, actually. The three figures were standing on an overhead branch nonchalantly, as if there wasn't a psychotic sand monster crushing the large black birds that flapped around its head with manic glee.

Gaara smashed the last of Sai's animated creations in his enormous, disfigured fist and turned to stare up at the blond, spittle dripping out of the corner of his gaping maw as his tongue lolled sickeningly.

He laughed. There was not an ounce of sanity in the sound he made. His lopsided body shook and twitched in his madness.

The Ame ninja simply looked on with an expression of pure disgust as the Sand ninja lost himself.

With a shriek, Gaara cried out.

"I knew you'd come! I knew you'd come! Mother will have your blood!"

Sasuke silently thanked whatever deities were watching him that someone had drawn the monster's attention. He didn't even argue when Sakura pulled him protectively to her.

He was safe. He survived. Everything was alright.

Until he realized that, once again, he had been too weak to save anyone.

Next Chapter: Crazy Train by Ozzy Osbourne