Writing Policy #9: Don't assume that a story has been abandoned just because it hasn't been updated in a long time. A fic is only abandoned once I announce that it is.
That thought in mind, let's see if anyone still remembers this little fic.
The next few rounds of the third exam all followed a distinctively noticeable pattern.
First, Shikamaru faced Neji. Shikamaru gave up immediately.
Then, Choji faced Kankuro. Choji gave up immediately.
Lastly, Tenten faced Kabuto's other teammate, whatever his name was. The boneless guy. The one that no one remembers or cares about. Not like it matters, since Not-Yoroi gave up immediately anyway.
And through it all, Yamanaka Ino's nerves frayed just a little further. Her two stupid teammates might be in the clear, since now that it was every person for them self Sakura probably no longer cared if they stuck around or not, but what about her? She was still stuck here waiting to find out if she was going to be facing the big-eyebrowed kid who she knew nothing about, the two remaining Suna kids who she knew nothing about, or Naruto and Sakura who she already knew way too much about!
And it wasn't like she could just give up immediately like all the other lucky bastards here; Sakura wouldn't like that! If she wanted to get out of this, she was going to have to lose while making it look like she had at least tried to win, and that was still assuming that she didn't end up facing Sakura herself! What the Hell was she supposed to do then?
She felt a hand on her shoulder and nearly went through the ceiling. Jerking around, she found Kakashi staring down at her with understanding in his mismatched eyes, and while she appreciated the sentiment, she really didn't need sympathy. What she needed was a miracle.
"Next match..." Hayate announced as the board finished cycling through the remaining faces, coming to rest on- "Uzumaki Naruto versus-"
He was interrupted by a loud bellow, which most of the room mistook for terror until Rock Lee jumped onto the rail, pumping his fist fiercely.
"The time has come for me to prove myself!" the bowl-cut boy shouted as he twisted around and pointed dramatically at Naruto. "Uzumaki-san, I understand that you are a true force to be reckoned with, and that you have the power to strike fear into the hearts of those around you! But rest assured: no fear lies in the heart of Konoha's Gallant Green Beast, the Genius of Hard Work and Dedication, and apprentice to Maito Gai: Rock Lee!"
You could practically hear the ocean waves crashing against the rocky coastline in the background.
"You should probably forfeit," Tenten stated, causing Lee to lose his balance and nearly tumble into the pit below.
The girl nodded sternly. "Seriously, there's something unnatural about him, even more than the other two. Just quit now."
Lee retook his dramatic pose. "Nonsense, Tenten! What would it say about me if I were the only member of the team to not make it to the next round?"
"Nothing that I haven't said about you already," Neji muttered, receiving a small swat to the arm from Tenten.
Gai stepped forward and placed his hands on Lee's shoulders. "Lee."
Sensei and student stared into each others eyes for several long, and some would say uncomfortable, seconds.
"Try to end this one quickly."
Lee blinked owlishly. "You mean-"
Gai nodded. "No holding back." He flashed the boy a winning smile and thumbs up. "Show your spirit, Lee!"
With a quick salute and emphatic "Yes, Gai-sensei!", Lee backflipped off the rail. As he reached the peak of his jump, he reached down and unstrapped the weights hidden under his orange leg-warmers and tossed them aside. He landed gracefully before getting shrouded in a cloud of dust from the two ground-breaking objects, garnering a few gasps and whistles.
Naruto, meanwhile, began his funeral march toward the stairs.
Kakashi pinched his nose. "Sakura-chan?"
With no further prompting, Sakura walked over, effortlessly lifted Naruto off the ground by his waist, and casually dropped him over the edge of the rail. He landed no-so-gracefully on his face, garnering a few winces and groans.
Kakashi patted her on the head. "Good girl."
Pulling himself off the floor, Naruto glanced back up with the closest approximation to a glare that he was capable of mustering; thinking that maybe now was the time to take revenge on his female teammate.
"Good luck, Naruto-kun!" the pinkette called down while blowing him a kiss.
Then again, maybe he was being too hasty.
Turning back, he finally made his way to the center of the arena to face his eager opponent.
"Naruto versus Lee," Hayate announced. "Begin!"
Like a clap of thunder, Lee's foot connected with Naruto's face; the force behind it so great that it backflipped the blonde three times before dropping him in a heap on the exact spot he'd just been standing. Skidding to a halt, Lee turned around and retook his stance.
The exchange took one point two seconds.
"Son of a shit, I just went cross-eyed!" Kankuro cried, rubbing hard at his eyes. His teammates felt varying degrees of shock, as well.
Tenten seemed impressed, if not a little disappointed. "Well, that was..."
"Horribly anticlimactic?" Neji offered.
"Yeah, pretty much."
Team Ten gaped in awe.
"He... he got him," Ino stated.
"He knocked him out with one kick," Shikamaru added.
"He might have killed him!" Choji dared to hope.
"He didn't even drop his lantern," Sakura informed them.
"No, he certainly didn't," Kakashi confirmed.
The spectators all turned back to see Naruto calmly push himself back up to his knees and then the rest of the way to his feet.
Team Ten let out a collective 'damnit' and hung their heads in misery.
"That's a bit closer to what I was expecting," Tenten admitted with a small nod.
Neji activated his Byakugan. "By all rights, his jaw should be shattered from a hit that hard. At the very least, he should have lost a tooth or two. Lee might be in trouble."
Naruto turned to face his foe, slowly reaching into his robe-
Three dozen punches connected with his face, ribs, sternum and stomach before a second kick sent him bouncing end over end across the floor and into the wall, which spider-webbed from the impact. He crumpled to the floor again.
"Or not," the prodigy amended with a shrug.
Gaara giggled, freaking the Hell out of his siblings in doing so. Even if it wasn't him doing it, he was still getting a good bit of sadistic pleasure out of seeing his glassy-eyed tormentor get the shit kicked out of him.
"Did he drop the lantern that time?" Choji asked. He still was not totally sure what that was supposed to mean, but Sakura made it seem important, so he thought he ought to ask.
Naruto (who had not dropped the lantern) finished reaching into his robe from his slumped over position. Retrieving his knife, he took some time to turn himself right side up so he could shamble back to his hands and knees again.
Lee took a running leap and used both feet to curb-stomp his face into the floor. A few on-lookers groaned as Naruto's body spasmed harshly.
From his perch atop the blonde head, Lee watched the boy twitch a few more times before addressing Hayate. "Do I win?"
Naruto, whose face was pressed firmly against the cement, let out a very muffled 'Doink!' and awkwardly swung his knife upward, trying to stab Lee in the leg. Muffled though it was, the noise still caught Lee's attention fast enough that it allowed him to jump over the attempted stab and then stomp down on his head a second time.
Naruto swung his knife.
Lee jumped and stomped him again.
Thus began a pattern. Stab, jump, stomp, twitch. Stab, jump, stomp, twitch.
After about a full minute, and just as the last of the onlookers were starting to get bored, Lee gave one final stomp before hopping a few feet away to avoid any further stab attempts. And while Naruto was grateful that his head was no longer being used as a trampoline, he quickly found himself in a new predicament: that being his head was now embedded so deeply into the floor that pulling it out was becoming a struggle in itself.
Seeing his opponent's dilemma, Lee took the time to gather his thoughts. He crossed his arms and placed a hand to his chin, humming softly over the fact that despite all the damage he'd dealt, the blonde still seemed more annoyed than hurt. He might not have even been annoyed; it was kind of impossible to tell.
Finally, he looked up toward his team. "Gai-sensei!"
"I think he might literally be made of steel!"
"Dumbass," Neji muttered as Tenten shook her head.
"Don't be discouraged, Lee!" Gai shouted. "The fires of your youth are strong enough to melt any steel!"
Naruto gave up on pulling his head loose and sheathed his knife instead.
"But my attacks don't seem to be having any effect, Gai-sensei!"
Naruto slung his lantern onto his wrist.
"It's alright, Lee. He may be durable, but your superior speed still gives you the advantage! I know you'll figure out a way to win this fight so long as you don't panic!"
Naruto formed a seal.
An explosion of smoke had Lee blinking owlishly as he suddenly found himself an island in an ocean of Narutos, all of whom did not have their heads stuck in the floor. And were all brandishing knives in his direction.
The crowd responses to this sight were... reasonable.
Team Ten collectively fainted.
Sarutobi mentally added another thing to the growing list of benefits for an early retirement. So did Hayate.
Kakashi decided to go for a nice long walk. He'd already had this nightmare before; he sure as Hell wasn't going to stick around for the ending.
Sakura blissfully played with a duckling that had somehow wandered in from the forest.
Sasuke snored from his curled up spot on the floor next to her.
Gaara began frothing at the mouth, rambling incomprehensibly, and then fell to the ground in a spasming heap. His sensei and siblings watched in horrid fascination, collectively wishing that they could join Kakashi on his walk around the deadly, evil forest.
Neji and Tenten paid their last respects for their very doomed teammate.
Gai reassessed the new situation carefully for a moment. "Lee!"
"Now you can panic!"
Taking the only action he could think of, Lee immediately leapt straight up and planted his feet on the ceiling. Looking down, he saw the lake of Naruto's staring back up at him. It seemed that he was safe for now, but if he had any hope of winning this fight, he was going to have to go back on the offensive eventually.
It was clear that his only chance for success now lie in the opening of his Gates, which would take quite a bit of time. Fortunately for him, it didn't seem like his opponents had any way of attacking or reaching him up here.
...Unless they all decided to start walking up the walls toward him in every possible direction.
"Crap crap crap!" he muttered, mentally kicking the First and Second Gates off their hinges.
Back on the ground, Hayate was wishing he'd followed Lee's example of escaping to the ceiling. Not that he felt personally threatened by the mass of Narutos surrounding him, but more because he could literally feel his body growing colder every time one of them brushed past him. "Boy, I do not *hack hack cough* get paid nearly enough for this."
Everyone else who was still conscious and not named Sakura or Sasuke quickly vacated the immediate area as the Naruto tide swept up the pit wall toward them. Well, Gaara had to be dragged away, since he seemed perfectly content to just sit on the floor, staring into space and mumbling a little. Team Ten got trampled pretty hard, not that they were aware of it.
(Lee tore open the Third Gate; the air sizzling around him from the heat his body was releasing as the first of the clones reached the next wall, continuing their ascent toward the ceiling.)
The original Naruto, as it turned out, was getting slightly annoyed. Slightly. Barely noticeable even if you squinted. Partially because his head was still planted firmly in the concrete, partially of the guy who put it there, and mostly because of how difficult it was becoming to put the guy down. He was too fast to even get a single stab off, making close range fighting next to impossible even with all of his clones, and like his female teammate he'd also never killed, so he had no grudges to settle.
If only he knew some kind of technique that would allow him to teleport, or possibly switch his body with something else, or just move faster... he felt like he probably should have known at least two of those by now...
(Lee smashed through the Fourth Gate. This would have to be good enough. The ceiling he was standing on was starting to crack and the clones were getting a little too close for comfort.)
...Hell, at the very least he should probably have more than one long-range attack for situations like this one.
(Lee crouched down (up?) on the ceiling, his eyes locked firmly below (above?) him on the single Naruto still stuck in the ground.)
Naruto awkwardly raised his lantern into the air.
Lee kicked off the ceiling with so much force that not only did it shatter the section of roof he'd been standing on, but the resulting sonic boom also scattered and dissipated the swarm of clones that had just finished closing in on him. In a fraction of a second, he would strike his helpless foe with enough power to shatter a small mountainside.
Then a refrigerator landed on him.
And on top of that refrigerator landed a large safe, followed by an anvil, a kitchen sink, a potted plant, a rubber ducky, a marble statue of the Nidaime Hokage, half a dozen bedpans and approximately two tons worth of other assorted junk.
And then there was silence.
Long and very uncomfortable silence.
You could literally hear the collective blinking of the onlookers.
From the perch his team had taken to escape the clone army, Kankuro broke the silence."What the honest and actual fuck just happened?"
"You took the words right out of my mouth," Sarutobi mumbled to himself.
"Lee!" Gai cried, fearing the worst for his student. He gave a weak sigh of relief when a very faint "Grgsrsa," was heard from beneath the junk heap, and quickly jumped down to start digging him out.
Hayate scratched his head, glancing between the two combatants; one struggling to remove his head from the floor and the other spasming weakly under a five foot pile of junk. Technically, they were both incapacitated, but on the other hand, Naruto was still capable of continuing... sort of...
He had the feeling that Kakashi had returned from his walk, because while Hayate happened to be looking the opposite direction, he was almost positive that the back of his head was smoking from the fierce glare being directed at it, almost as though the jounin could sense the mental dilemma on whether or not he should call the match a draw.
If I didn't need the extra paycheck for an engagement ring... he thought in resignation. "Uhm, winner: Naruto... I guess."
"Took him long enough," Sasuke mumbled while stifling a yawn.
"Yay, Naruto-kun!" Sakura cheered.
"Two down, one away. Two down, one away," Kakashi chanted under his breath, failing to reign in his excitement and anxiety at the prospect of finally being free of this curse placed upon him.
"I can't help but feel like Lee got off easier than us here," Tenten mentioned to Neji.
"He was flattened under a pile of junk, and we got by without a scratch," the genius countered.
"Yeah, but he's out of the exams now, and we're still in it. With them."
Neji scoffed for lack of any real response he could give to that.
"Come on, then," Sarutobi called down. "Let's get this cleaned up and finish the last two matches. Someone should probably wake up Yamanaka and pull Naruto's head out of the floor."
As Kakashi went to retrieve his soon-to-be-no-longer student and the other jounin made short work of the junk heap, Sakura elected to revive her friend. By straddling her stomach and slapping her somewhat lightly across the face.
"Nnn... did I die?" the groggy blonde questioned upon her return to consciousness.
"Not yet!" Sakura cheerfully informed her. Realizing the position she was in, Ino's eyes began rolling back, which earned her another 'playful' slap before the darkness could reclaim her. "Hey, you can't sleep now, Ino-chan! We both still have to fight!"
"...we?" Ino whimpered, all color draining from her face.
Sakura nodded. "Yep. You, me, the desert girl, and her cutie-pie brother."
Ino wanted to sigh in relief, but knowing it was far to early for that, instead simply allowed Sakura to haul her limp body back up to its feet. At this point she couldn't care less about the giant trash heap that had been pushed off to the side of the arena, or why Kakashi was prying Naruto's head out of a hole in the floor, or even why her still unconscious teammates had shoe prints all over their bodies. All she could focus on was the match screen hanging above them (she also didn't care what happened to the rest of the ceiling, either). She felt herself start to hyperventilate as the four remaining genin names began cycling across it. Her body was so numb she didn't even feel Sakura's hand gripping hers, and the only thing she could hear was the sound of her own blood pulsing in her ears.
This was it: Her short life was about to come to an end. She just knew it. She had been so lucky having survived close contact with Sakura and, by extension, her teammates over the course of the last two months that it only made sense that her luck would run out eventually.
'Oh, but Ino,' her stupid teammates had tried to tell her. 'Sakura would never actually kill her best friend. She has to have at least that much restraint!'
HA! Sakura's idea of restraint was putting one bullet into a person instead of emptying the clip! As the designated best friend, the best she could probably hope for would be a painless death that she didn't see coming! And believe her, a violent, bloody death was not what she had in mind the day she signed up to be a kunoichi! All she'd wanted was to learn some impressive techniques and wear tight, skimpy outfits like all kunoichi did. But that had been more for Sasuke's benefit than her own, really. Shame that he turned out to be just as crazy as Sakura did.
Good God, was that stupid board still cycling through names!? There were only four left, just get it over with already! The suspense was somehow worse than the inevitably painful conclusion! Put me out of my misery, for God's sake! I'll face my end with dignity and grace if you will just-
"YES! YES YES YES YES YES! SWEET LOVING MOTHER OF GOD IN HEAVEN, YE-HE-HE-HE-HESSSS!"
Ino's extremely loud and ecstatic cry woke her teammates and sensei, but didn't come as a surprise to anyone else except, surprisingly, Sakura, who turned back to find her friend collapsed to her knees with tears streaming from her eyes and her body shaking with joyful choked laughter.
Sensing Sakura's scrutiny of her, Ino shot back to her feet and reigned in her grin to a more convincing level. "I'm just really happy that we don't have to fight each other and can both go onto the next round together," she explained.
Sakura stared a moment longer before smiling back. "Good point, Ino-chan. Besides..." She turned her gaze toward the Suna team, a dark gleam in her eyes. "I think this fight will be much more fun."
From his fetal position, Gaara whimpered, and though nobody else could hear it, Shukaku whimpered along with him.
"Next match: Haruno Sakura versus Gaara."
"Sensei," Kankuro weakly asked. "Can we go home now?"
Two years... I literally have no idea how so much time could have passed since my last update. The freakin' manga ended before I could get this chapter out! And what a shitty ending it was, too (according to spoilers, anyway. I stopped reading the manga years ago). Granted, the last two years of my life have been ridiculously hectic, but I won't bore you all with that. Instead, just know that the story isn't dead, and I do still intend to finish it, although I can't even guess how long it's going to take me.
In any case, I have a lot of catching up to do, so... until then.