chapter 31

for the sake of my friends

Naruto walked through the hallways leading back to the arena, delaying as long as possible now that Shino and Tenten's match was over, the weapon-using kunoichi having won after a hard fight. He wanted as much extra time as possible to decide how best to deal with Sasuke; all that stuff he'd learned from Kiba would need to be taken into account now. Plus, he was also taking his time so his teammate would miss as little of the fight as possible. The medic, whose name they'd finally learned was Hibari Kotaro, had said he wanted to keep the Inuzuka for another five minutes or so, just to be sure everything was okay.

The young genin was drawn from his thoughts by the presence of two men waiting for him, both with Kusa headbands. "Hey kid, hold up a sec," the one on the left called out, while leaning against the wall in what was to all outward appearances a casual manner.

"What d'you want? I've got a match to get to," the blonde told them, already suspicious of the pair.

"Yeah, about that," the other spoke up, "you probably don't know this, but tournaments like these Chunin Exams are great for betting; a lot of the nobles come here for that very reason."

The orange-clad shinobi could already see where this was going, but he decided to let them talk anyway.

Then the first one picked up right where his partner had left off. "Our employer put a lot of money on the Uchiha winning, so..."

"Would you mind losing this match?"

Naruto's response was immediate. "Like hell. Sorry, but whoever you work for is about t'lose all that money."

Instantly, the not-so-subtle threatening aura the pair were putting off became even less subtle. "Well then, I guess we'll just have to make sure you can't win," goon number two said, a kunai appearing in his hand.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Chewing on his toothpick in annoyance, Genma glanced up at the contestant box again impatiently. The Uzumaki boy had vanished almost right after the last fight ended, but it had been three minutes since then still with no sign of him.

Just as he was thinking that, the short blonde came out of the stairs at a fast jog and headed straight for the jonin, completely ignoring his waiting opponent.

"Hey proctor-jonin-toothpick-guy-san! Before we start could you send a medic team back that way?" he asked while gesturing wildly over his shoulder, "Y'see when I was on my way down there were these two guys an' I'm pretty sure they were genin which is weird 'cause I didn't know genin got bodyguard missions for nobles. Anyway they were all like "throw the fight," an' I said no so they attacked me but like I said I didn't think they'd be that weak so I kinda hit 'em a bit too hard so I'm worried I might've really hurt 'em so if you could send someone to check and make sure they'll be okay that'd probably be good."

Genma just stared blankly for a second, amazed that the small boy had said all that at once without even having to take a deep breath. Then the actual words registered, and he looked to the standby medic team and made a few quick hand signals, telling them to go check it out.

But the kid was right that genin were never assigned to the rich nobles, which meant the two he'd so effortlessly taken out were indeed chunin. Interesting.

A quick glance back at the young shinobi, who had already moved to his starting position across from the Uchiha, and the proctor froze. All the wild energy and excitement that had filled the boy just a moment ago was gone, as though it had never existed at all. In its was a calm intensity, twin sapphire orbs burning, locked on to his opponent.

Suddenly, any doubt about who would win the match was erased from the jonin's mind.

"Sasuke," the blonde spoke, the seals in place spreading the single word out to the entire audience. Everyone fell silent.

"What you did to Sakura," he continued, "was unforgivable."

The taller boy gazed back calmly. "Is that why you're trying to act all serious? Because I beat up your crush?"

"I grew out of that a while ago. And don't try to minimize it: you didn't just beat her up, you put your teammate in a coma." Genma could feel the stunned disbelief emanating from the crowd; rumors had gotten around the past month, but for most of them, this was the first real confirmation.

"Teammate? I have no need for useless people like those two," the dark-haired boy retorted, leaving the onlookers shocked at his callousness.

"That's where you're wrong, and I'm going to prove it to you here and now. Genma-san, would you please?" he addressed the man, piercing blue eyes not leaving the Uchiha's face for an instant.

So the boy did know his name. "Third match: Uzumaki Naruto versus Uchiha Sasuke, begin!" the jonin announced and prepared to watch a fight unlike any he had ever seen.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Sasuke still clearly remembered his opponent from their time in the academy, Naruto the screwup idiot, couldn't even do a simple bunshin, always boasting about how he'd become Hokage, and taijutsu so sloppy Mizuki had kept him out of spars for fear of injuring himself. And while the short blonde had to have grown somewhat in the past half a year to be able to make it this far, so had the Uchiha.

He'd end this fast, saving his chakra for the upcoming matches. Not even bothering to activate his Sharingan, the dark-haired boy rushed in straight away with the speed he'd gained over the past month. The orange eyesore didn't even have time to move as a fist came around to his temple in a knockout punch.

But the satisfying feeling of knuckles meeting skull never came. Instead, Sasuke found himself hurtling headfirst towards the arena wall, with no idea how he'd gotten there. He quickly flipped around so he'd hit feet-first, channeling a bit of chakra to his legs to reinforce them. Even still, the impact stung badly, and his feet sunk into the cement an inch or so, leaving behind a pair of sandal-shaped indentations.

Naruto hadn't moved from his starting position, only turning to face him. "If that's all you've got, you should just quit," he taunted.

Taking a deep, calming breath, the last Uchha activated his bloodline, the world around him slowing to a crawl. He came in again, faster this time, with a powerful kick from his right leg at the blonde's side. Fast, too fast, his opponent's left hand shot out and wrapped around his ankle in a grip like steel, instantly halting the attack. Then his right shot out in a fist, too quickly for Sasuke to react aside from simple chakra reinforcement, and slammed into his stomach. His body bent double over the punch, and he found himself flying for the second time in fifteen seconds.

The moment his feet touched the ground, the young genin used chakra to stick to the earth and kill his momentum, though he still slid a few feet. "What the hell?" he gasped out under his breath, not able to believe he was being so casually brushed aside by Naruto of all people.

"Stop thinking of me as the idiot I was back at the Academy and fight me," the orange-clad ninja told him. Sasuke gritted his teeth in rage as piercing blue eyes stared at him unblinkingly, taunting him.

His hands sped through the seal sequence he'd learned by heart at age six.

"Katon: goukakyuu no jutsu"

The massive fireball soared straight at the blonde, who made no move to dodge, and it exploded on contact, engulfing the center of the arena in smoke. When it cleared, his opponent was completely unharmed and hadn't shifted an inch, his body coated in a thick stone armor.

Sasuke threw some shuriken as a distraction, watching as they bounced off harmlessly. While the weapons were still flying through the air, his fingers moved deftly inside his weapon pouch, wrapping three kunai hilts with exploding tags. The idiot wouldn't be able to just shrug this off.

The deadly trio of weapons sliced through the air, their paper seals burning down to the inevitable explosion. Naruto made a single graceful leap, launching himself high into the air, and the Uchiha had to jump back quickly on realizing that his opponent's trajectory would have him come crashing down right where he was standing.

Sure enough, the shorter boy hit the earth with a powerful axe kick, the force so great from all the additional mass that it cracked the ground. Sasuke realized he'd be best off avoiding reckless close combat; even with his Sharingan, it wasn't guaranteed that he could dodge everything, and he couldn't afford to take another hit, his stomach already groaning in pain at every movement.

So what if the blonde wanted to hide behind some doton jutsu? He had a perfect solution for that.

This fight was far from over.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Kiba hurried towards the contestant box, not wanting to miss any more of his teammate's match. And while he was undeniably curious as to why two unconscious Grass nins had been rushed past him on stretchers, watching Naruto put that Uchiha bastard in his place rated much higher on his list of things to do. He could already hear the sounds of fighting from up ahead.

Arriving just in time to see Sasuke fire a bolt of lightning from his hand at the blonde, he took the empty spot next to Ino.

"He hasn't even bothered to use clones yet," she informed him, as the shorter of the two fighters blurred through handseals, the concentrated electricity dissipating harmlessly against a barrier of wind. Seeing this, the dark-haired combatant launched several small fireballs, but a few quick seals later and a small rock wall sprang up right in their path.

The wall then exploded outwards when its creator struck it with a devastating palm thrust, leaving the red-eyed shinobi busy dodging flying debris. "Y'know," Naruto commented, casually dodging his opponent's retaliatory shuriken with slight shifts of his body, "when I transferred to Iruka-sensei's class, you were the first person I really noticed. You were always so alone, I thought maybe we could be friends..." The three shuriken rapidly circled around his body, wrapping him tightly in the cords of ninja wire looped through their holes. "But you just never wanted anything to do with anyone else, so I didn't know what to say to you," the blonde finished, effortlessly freeing himself just as white-hot flame shot down the wires; Kiba had no idea if he'd used wind chakra or sheer brute force to do it.

In the brief quiet that followed, the Inuzuka heard the sharp, rapid clacking of claws on cement as Akamaru ran up to him from behind before jumping up on top of the boy's head. "Hey, boy. So Onee-chan got you all fixed up?"

His partner's small white head bent down in front of his eyes, "Arf! Rrff! /I'm all better. What did I miss?/

"Not much," the Inuzuka answered. "Naruto's got the bastard completely shut down, and he's just talkin' to him."

"/Talking? Why?/" the puppy whined.

Kiba looked at him in confusion for a moment before remembering, "Oh yeah, you weren't there. The knucklehead decided that just poundin' him into a bloody pulp wouldn't help anyone, so instead he's working to get through to him, show him how the way he treats people is wrong."

The white-furred canine gave the dog equivalent of a laugh. "/Somehow, I'm not surprised./"

While the two were conversing, the battle below had continued on, Sasuke attacking furiously but failing to even come close to touching the shorter ninja. His katons were blocked by dotons, raitons instantly rendered useless by fuutons, and any attempts to connect with taijutsu or weapons were brushed off with contemptuous ease.

"Why d'you do it, reject everyone?" the blonde asked. "Are you just too afraid of losing someone again, or do you actually think you deserve to live with that pain all the time? Because no one deserves that."

Next to the Inuzuka, Ino let out a quiet gasp of surprise. "What is it?" he asked in a hushed tone.

"The past few weeks, Naruto's been asking me for some help learning basic psychology. I guess I know why," the kunoichi answered at the same low volume.

"What the hell are you talking about, idiot?" the Uchiha shouted.

"Loneliness," his opponent replied simply, deep blue eyes taking on that piercing quality that made you wonder if he couldn't actually see your very soul. "I know what kind of hell it can be, when you have no one, so I want t'know: why do you keep choosing to close yourself off?"

Kiba felt an intense but quiet, for lack of a better word, killing intent begin to radiate from Sabaku no Gaara, bad enough that he flinched and Akamaru let out a small whimper.

There were several seconds of near-total silence, Sasuke's heavy breathing the only sound. The audience was completely riveted by what was going on before them; calling it a fight didn't quite work, seeing as Naruto wasn't actually fighting.

"I don't need to hear this!" the raven-haired boy screamed, "Shut up!"

"Make me," was the blonde's only response.

The Uchiha heir resumed his assault, only with considerably less finesse than he had shown previously.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Kakashi found his attention almost fully absorbed by the match on the arena floor, though perhaps not for the same reasons as most of the spectators. It was both stunning and humbling to see Naruto's simple empathy and direct manner breaking straight through the young Uchiha's blindly arrogant mindset, when everything he himself had tried had failed to even scratch the surface.

"Damn it! I can't lose here!" his student raged.

"Why?" Sensei's son responded calmly. "Because you need to kill Itachi?" His opponent's inarticulate roar of anger and blind frontal charge, a kunai gripped tightly in his right hand, served just as well as any answer.

The experienced ninja made a mental note to scold the boy for this total lack of strategy and common sense, assuming he kept him as a student.

"The way you're going right now, that's impossible," the orange-clad shinobi advised as he grabbed the elbow of the arm holding the weapon, before easily tossing the taller youth aside like a rag-doll.

The jonin would admit to having had his concerns when Jiraiya-sama had shown up early on in the month break, all but ordering him to make Sasuke as strong as he could in the available time, that it wouldn't affect the outcome of the match in the slightest. But watching Naruto stop his opponent's every attempt to attack without even seeming to try, he felt he understood what the legendary ninja was thinking. The stronger the Uchiha avenger felt going into the match, the more humiliated he would feel at being so obviously outclassed, and the more open he would become to the other's verbal assault.

And the blonde most certainly had him outclassed. From what the silver-haired man's eye and other senses were telling him, the boy was capable of fighting at a level that would give some of the weaker jonin a run for their money, at least in direct combat. It was astounding to see, especially when compared to his academy records, barely more than half a year old.

"Don't talk about things you don't understand!" Sasuke roared, flecks of spittle flying from his mouth, before launching a dozen small fireballs with the hosenka no jutsu.

Naruto reacted by forming the iwa no yoroi (stone armor) around just his right hand, then using that hand to lazily bat away each individual ball of flame, before taking a small step to the side to avoid the follow-up rakurai (lightning bolt). "I think I do understand, at least a little. What it's like to hate someone so much you want to make them suffer for an eternity before permanently erasing any sign of their existence, but you can't because they're so much stronger than you that trying would end with you dead or worse." Hearing that, Kakashi found himself wondering just who it was the forgiving boy could possibly hold so much hate for.

"I've got no problem with you wanting to kill the bastard; from what I know, he deserves everything you can think of and then some," Minato-sensei's son continued, "It's just that you're acting like you have to do it all by yourself."

"Enough of your nonsense!" the Uchiha screamed, trying to ignore the blonde's words even as a part of him no doubt saw the truth in them. "Fight me already!"

"Fight you? Ha. The way you are now, you're too pathetic to be worth my time." Naruto replied, knowing exactly what to say to enrage the other boy beyond all reason.

This time, instead of the wild attacks he had been throwing out previously, Sasuke leapt up to the arena wall and scaled it almost to the very top. The silver-haired jonin frowned, instantly recognizing when the young ninja started the handseals for chidori.

The orange-clad jinchuuriki didn't let him finish, forming a single kage bunshin at the base of the wall, which ran right up to him and pulled his hands apart in the time most people took to blink. "Ah, ah, ah," the clone admonished, as if telling off a naughty child, "you're not supposed to be using that one, are you?"

Hmm, seeing as his student didn't actually complete the jutsu, plus the fact that the blonde had clearly been goading him into using it, Kakashi decided not to go through on the punishment he'd laid out for using the assassination technique without permission. Well, maybe; it would depend on how the boy reacted once the match was all over.

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It was about time to bring this whole thing to a close, Naruto mused as his kage bunshin's perspective of the last few seconds entered his head, the clone having been dispelled by a headbutt, his purpose accomplished. The next time Sasuke came in close, he'd finish it.

The red-eyed genin had returned to the ground and was now standing still in a slight crouch, arms crossed in front of his head... Wait, that stance...

Why that thieving bastard! The moment he realized what was going on, the blonde rushed forward, intent on stopping the other boy even as his skin began to darken and his chakra levels skyrocketed, the energy forming a blue aura around his body. He was just milliseconds too slow.

"Seimon: kai!"

Honestly, he was a bit surprised at how little the punch hurt. Sure it'd cracked a rib or two, and he'd flown across the arena to form a Naruto-shaped crater in the far wall, but it wasn't quite as bad as when Jiraiya got a good hit in, and nowhere near the speed and power Fuzzy-brows could unleash with three gates open.

Then again, hadn't Gai-sensei once said something about the effects of the Gates being proportional to the user's overall physical condition, or something like that? And while Sasuke was of course in peak shape, being a ninja, people like the Green Beasts took it to a whole new level. Plus, whatever training the Uchiha had done over the past month, it had to have been in secret, meaning he still wasn't used to the power boost.

Of course, finally getting a hit in had made his smug superiority resurface. "Still not worth your time?"

"You're an idiot, Sasuke," the blonde replied as he dusted himself off, going with his usual plan for when something unexpected happened: saying and doing the first thing that came to his head, "I barely felt that."

Judging by that first punch, his opponent was a tiny tad faster than him, but not quite as strong. So basically, it would be like fighting Lee, albeit a vicious Lee with no stamina who wasn't used to high-speed combat (while his eyes and body could no doubt keep up, his mind wouldn't be able to do the same) and who he had to be careful not to hurt very badly at the risk of causing permanent damage. Another downside of the Eight Gates no one really paid attention to was that the body was especially vulnerable while they were active, though the damage wouldn't really register untill afterwards. He'd need some way to hit the Uchiha without actually hitting him.

Both fighters dashed forward, Naruto moving at full speed for the first time during the match. The distance between them shrinking rapidly, he remembered a trick Jiraiya had taught him (he might hate him as a person, but the man was still an amazing ninja) that would work perfectly here, assuming Sasuke stayed true to form. As they closed, the blonde cocked back his right fist for a straight punch to the face, and sure enough, his opponent did the same.

At the last instant, the orange-clad ninja switched, instead dropping into a low crouch, his momentum keeping him sliding forward. Then he thrust upward and slightly outward with his left palm, straight into the black-haired boy's midsection, twisting to add as much force as possible to the strike. Only instead of actually connecting, he slowed his attack the instant before it hit, letting the built-up wave of air pressure lift the Uchiha off his feet. He didn't stop there of course, following through with the maneuver until his arm was fully extended and knees just slightly bent.

The end result was the satisfying sight of Sasuke soaring over a dozen meters up into the air, to the point where he was actually level with the lowest members of the crowd, before returning to the earth, landing hard on his back, unharmed but in no condition to move, his lack of experience with the Gates having made them close back up early in his flight. Naruto walked over to the prone boy and looked down at him, coal-black eyes staring back up in a mixture of disbelief and fear.

"H-how?" the Uchiha croaked out, "You were... a failure..."

"You're right, I was a failure. So what changed?" He saw surprise and curiosity mix in with the other emotions. "The only thing different about the me now from the me at the academy is that I stopped trying to go it alone.

"I found friends, people I care about and who care about me in return. We help each other and grow together. If I'd kept on trying to do everything by myself, I probably wouldn't be breathing, and I definitely wouldn't be here.

"My strength, the strength that beat you, it's something I gained for the sake of my friends. True power comes from the desire to protect those who are precious to you. If one work towards their goals with them in mind, they'll achieve things they would've never thought possible.

"You should try it sometime," he finished, offering the confused boy a sincere smile before looking up, not giving him time to answer. "Proctor, it's over."

After taking a moment to remember that, yes, he had a job to do, the toothpick-chewing jonin announced him the winner. The crowd cheered, roared his name and, while it was nice to hear, the sound paled in comparison to the glimmering wetness he had seen in Sasuke's eyes the instant before he had looked away.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Orochimaru was seething.

He showed no outward sign of it, of course, but on the inside, he was about ready to explode with rage. Only the thought of what would happen before the sun set was enough to keep him from throwing all his plans to the winds and just stabbing the old fool sitting next to him right now.

The Sasuke-kun he had met in the forest would have gladly left this pathetic village, even without the cursed seal. But after this... He had been watching the boy throughout the match, seeing how the Kyuubi brat's words had affected him.

No, the Sharingan would no longer come to him willingly, and it was all that damn Kyuubi brat's fault!

Unless... Yes, that might work. He would need time to plan and prepare, but Sasuke-kun's body would still be his.

"Kazekage-dono, is everything all right?" Sarutobi-sensei jarred him from his plans, "You appeared quite upset about something."

Damn you Sensei and your damn perceptiveness! "It is nothing," he responded calmly from behind his disguise, "The match merely reminded me of some troubles back home."

"Oh? Then perhaps you should have stayed to resolve the issues," the old monkey observed.

The snake Sannin waved the man off, "No, no. One week of absence will not cause any harm. Besides, the candidates this year all seem quite promising. This next match especially, I have been quite looking forward to."

"Indeed," the aged leader replied, "Your son Gaara against a budding young taijutsu enthusiast. It should be quite the interesting battle."

Oh, you have no idea, Sarutobi-sensei, no idea at all.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

comments:

Well I certainly got this chapter finished faster than the last one. Also unlike last time, I feel quite satisfied with it. I'd originally hoped to make it longer, but all my attempts to do so just felt like I was adding more for the sake of adding more.

Anyway, I'm sure most of you have been waiting for this chapter quite a while now, so I hope I didn't disappoint.

Those two Grass ninjas at the beginning are some of the more often-forgotten characters in fanfiction, probably because they don't really do anything besides get crushed by Gaara. I decided to bring them in because a) they allow for a bit of humor to start off the chapter b) nothing I've changed would really affect their presence and c) I felt like it.

I didn't really want to do another scene with Genma, since he's such a minor character, and he just had one last chapter, but there really wasn't any good way to avoid it while still keeping the same feel to the opening section.

The whole thing I had Sasuke mention, about Naruto transferring academy classes, if you look back to the flashback during the Naruto-Kiba fight, they mention that it's his third year at the Academy, yet he's new in Iruka's class. Presumably, his two failed graduations prior to the start of canon were those first two years.

And of course Naruto's words to Sasuke would have some effect on Gaara as well, though that's one thing that feels sort of thrown in there, even if it makes sense. Since this chapter isn't really about Gaara, bringing him up so suddenly is a bit weird, but it felt weirder to just ignore him.

As for jutsu usage, I got tired of labeling, bolding, and splitting off each instance. Sometimes it's good, but others it breaks up the flow of the writing too much. Translations for japanese names will always follow immediately in parentheses like I've been doing (excluding the common canon ones of course), as I don't like forcing my readers to scroll all over the place while reading; just expect more that are unnamed or have the name inserted into a sentence, like I did in this chapter.

The fight was a lot of fun to write, because not only is it a fight between Naruto and Sasuke, I also had to take into account how Naruto could get through to a power-obsessed, revenge-consumed, budding psychopath, what sorts of things he'd say, how he'd act, etc.

And if anyone is wondering who it is Naruto hates, it shouldn't be hard to guess. There's only one character in the story so far whom he has reason to detest so fully with every fiber of his being.

Then of course I had to conclude with Orochimaru, since he offers such a perfect foreshadowing for what we all know is coming up (hint: it's the invasion).

I hope you enjoyed the chapter.