Frozen Heart, Crimson Steel
Chapter Thirteen: …Would be 'Good for Nothing'
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
Following the conclusion of their match, Haku and Tenten shook hands before leaving the floor. Once both kunoichi had returned to the observation balconies to congratulations or condolences from their respective teammates, Hayate raised an arm as a signal for the electronic signboard to display the next two fighters.
"Seventh match, Nara Shikamaru versus Aburame Shino!"
"Be careful," Haku called out after her teammate.
"And kick his ass too," Naruto added.
Shino paused mid-step to nod in acknowledgement before continuing down the stairs, hands resting relaxedly in the pockets of his large coat.
"Tch, this is troublesome," Shikamaru muttered as he made his own way to the floor in a lazy ambling gait. His hands were shoved into pockets as well, in his gray pants.
"Do you wish to forfeit the match? It might be easier that way," Shino offered.
"Funny you should say that," Shikamaru replied. "I don't even care, but my mom packed me some insecticide bombs for the Forest of Death test. If she found out I was matched against you and didn't at least try to use them she'd raise holy hell, and that would be even more troublesome."
"Shall we start then?"
"I suppose. I have to warn you though, these are pretty potent bombs. I'm pretty sure the gas is strong enough to kill your bugs with just a little exposure."
Shino nodded as he spread his feet into a more stable fighting stance. No matter how carelessly laid back he acted, the pineapple-headed slacker did not offer information for no reason. The bug user recognized the casually delivered words as a warning that Shikamaru was prepared to kill a good portion of his Kikaichu to win, and also as a roundabout way of advising that he forfeit the match before such an eventuality came to pass. He did not doubt the existence of the bombs, or that they were as potent as suggested; amongst Konoha's shinobi clans the overbearing Nara matron was as famous for her diligence as the men were for their lackadaisical attitude. Those things didn't matter though. He user had his own ideas about how to approach the fight.
"I guess we'd better get to it," Shikamaru muttered, rolling his neck around to work out a kink before moving into a defensive posture. "The sooner this is over with the sooner I can go home for a shower and a nap."
Shino's hands came out of the pockets of his jacket, a kunai in held in each in a reverse grip. Compared to the more conventional grip method with the kunai blade extending from the thumb side, the reverse grip made throwing impractical and reduced the kunai's effective range as a melee weapon. In the hands of a skilled knife fighter however the reverse grip allowed for a faster and more fluid defense, and was also potentially more lethal in close ranges.
"When did you learn how to fight with kunai like that?" the pineapple-headed boy asked.
In response Shino snapped his lower arms forward to launch the kunai at his opponent. It was one of the methods his sensei had taught him for concealing a kunai's throwing motion. This type of throw lacked in accuracy and delivered much less force than a conventional one, but in this case he only needed the kunai for the momentary distraction.
The bug user launched into motion behind his pair of flung kunai, rapidly closing the distance between himself and his opponent with a third kunai held in his right hand in a regular grip.
Shikamaru was caught off guard by the unconventional kunai throw. The lazy Nara only had the time to deflect them with a hastily drawn kunai before Shino approached within taijutsu range. Attacking with a quick succession of stabs from various angles, the bug user was able to prevent his opponent from having enough time to initiate his clan's signature shadow jutsu.
Haku leaned a bit over the observation balcony railing to get a better view. "Can Shino win like that?"
"No," Naruto replied with a quick shake of his head, his eyes firmly fixed on the ongoing fight. "It's probably a distraction while he sets something up."
Although swords and kunai were very different as melee weapons, there was enough overlap in general principles and basic body mechanics that Naruto could gauge the relative skill levels of both combatants. The two were little better than rank amateurs, their skill level with kunai fighting having improved little from the few perfunctory academy classes on the subject. Their attacks were either timid cuts that failed to take full advantage of the additional reach the weapon offered, or overly aggressive thrusts which left them too overextended and off-balance to defend themselves. The counterattacks to exploit those deficiencies never came however; the two Leaf Genin were just as poor at kunai defense as they were on offense and needed time to recover after each block or evasion where a more skilled fighter could have immediately struck back.
Shino, several inches taller than Shikamaru, had the advantage of greater reach. The bug user's position was precarious though. By committing to taijutsu range he was putting himself right on top of his opponent's shadow. One slip of footing, one break in attack tempo, and the lazy Nara would be able to put his hands into the single rat seal that initiated his family's shadow jutsu.
Naruto knew his teammate was smarter than to engage in close combat without some kind of plan, especially since the bug user spent so much of his practice time developing long-ranged attack capabilities to complement the blond's kenjutsu prowess. Thanks to his more sensitive left eye, Naruto was able to spot the irregular streams of Kikaichu trailing down Shino's legs as the bug user jockeyed for position with his opponent. Closing to taijutsu range was a ruse, meant to distract Shikamaru from realizing that Shino had been spreading his bugs the entire time. Naruto couldn't figure out what his teammate had in mind beyond that however.
Shino's attack pattern finally broke. Shikamaru, steadily retreating throughout the match, gradually maneuvered the fight to where Zaku's body had been not long ago. Though the mess had been cleaned up, the floor was still wet and caused Shino's sandaled foot to momentarily slip. The lazy pineapple-headed Leaf Genin deftly dodged to one side and allowed the bug user's overextended body to stagger past. He then put his hands together with the fingers of his right hand curled around the straightened index and middle fingers of his left.
"Kagemane no Jutsu!"
With his shadow already under the target, Shikamaru's Shadow Imitation Technique took effect immediately. Shino's muscles suddenly stiffened, instantly locking his frame into temporary rigidity. Then the muscles fell loose as his body moved limply into an imitation of his pineapple-headed opponent's posture.
"Finally got you," Shikamaru declared. He jumped back several times to create distance, the shadow connecting the two thinning into a long black strand as Shino matched him movement for movement.
"It wasn't hard to see through what you were planning," the lazy Genin continued. "I may not have actually seen you spreading your bugs around, but trying to conceal that was the only rational reason for why you would engage me head on. It doesn't matter though."
Shikamaru paused to lob an insecticide bomb at Shino with his right hand, miming a grabbing motion so that the bug user would catch it as it moved along the downward part of its arcing path. His left hand dug into the pocket of his gray pants, pulling out a cotton breathing mask and a second insecticide bomb.
"My mom packs too much stuff sometimes," Shikamaru muttered as he secured the mask on his face with the thumb and index finger of his left hand, the other three digits wrapped securely around the bomb.
"So this is how it is," he resumed in a louder voice once his preparations were completed. "If you send your bugs after me I'll just drop this bomb right beside me to kill them. If you don't forfeit I'll make you drop the bomb you're holding. You may be able to protect your bugs if you keep them inside you. Like I said before though, this is pretty strong stuff, if you stand in it long enough it'll knock you out."
Shikamaru moved his hands together, emphasizing his verbal threat by miming the act of pulling the activation tab on the bomb.
"One moment please," Shino said in an even and calm voice, as if his body was not completely under his opponent's control. "Please pull the sleeves of my jacket back. There's something you might be interested in seeing first."
The pineapple-headed boy's eyes narrowed as he studied the taller Genin for a moment, then he shrugged and mimed pulling sleeves up his arms. The bug user copied the motion, revealing a pair of explosive tags stuck to the insides of his forearms. They had mostly been hidden by the jacket's long sleeves, with one of the long ends of each tag extending a bit past the inner forearms to touch the base of the bug user's palms.
"Please do not move your arms, if you do I will trigger these tags," Shino stated, his tone as relaxed as if he were discussing the weather. "You have full control over my body moves, but not over how I expel chakra. I assure you, I am fully capable of igniting these tags even under the control of your Kagemane no Jutsu."
"What are you trying to do?" Shikamaru asked, his hands frozen mid-movement in the act of miming reaching for and tearing the tags away.
"I'm fully aware of the limitations of your family's base jutsu," the bug user replied. "You will suffer any damage I do while under the effect of the Kagemane."
"You're bluffing! You'd blow your own hands off if you tried that."
"Perhaps I am bluffing. Perhaps I have more faith in Konoha Hospital's surgeons than you do. Are you willing to take that risk?"
Shikamaru grimaced at Shino's words. Before the match started he had thought of a number of different strategic approaches that the taller bushy-haired Genin could have taken, and had come up with reasonable plans of action against most of them. Self-mutilation was not something he had considered though. He was pretty sure that the bug user was bluffing, but didn't want to act until he had a guaranteed countermeasure. If there was the slightest chance that Shino wasn't bluffing, the consequences were too bothersome to deal with.
The pineapple-headed boy's thoughts were interrupted by the sudden sensation of danger from behind. He responded by instinctively pushed a spike of shadow out to catch whatever was behind him. When he turned around to look, he saw that his shadow had latched onto a second Shino standing stiffly three feet behind him, arm extended with a kunai pointed directly at the back of his neck. This new Shino held his posture rigidly for a second before the full effects of the Kagemane no Jutsu took hold, and then he too moved into an imitation of the way the lazy Nara stood.
Shikamaru turned back to the Shino standing before him. "Your plan was to use a bug clone to attack me from behind while I had you in my jutsu?"
"Part of it, yes," the first Shino replied. "I did not know whether you had improved your Shadow Imitation Technique to the point where you could bind multiple targets, so I came up with using the explosive tags as a secondary plan."
"Just so you know, I have tags on my arms too," the Shino behind him added.
"One of us is a clone, but do you know which one?" the original Shino asked. "I do not know whether you suffer the same injuries if the jutsu is holding a clone rather than the original. It might be interesting to find out."
Shikamaru pondered his situation in silence for several moments. He was almost certain that his opponent was bluffing. Shino was nothing if not rational. There was no way the taller boy would consider self-mutilation to be a worthwhile price to pay for winning a preliminary match, especially since the Chunin exams were held at regular intervals and he could simply try again if he failed.
But what if he was wrong? The Aburame scion was the quietest one of the current graduating year; it was hard to get a sense of the bug user's real personality with how few words he said. Maybe Shino really was willing to go that far. What about the question of which one was the original and which the clone? He believed that the Shino in front of him was the real one, but couldn't be certain of it. There was a brief moment during the fight when he had lost track of the taller boy's hands; it was possible that the bug user had used a quick Kawarimi to switch himself with a hidden bug clone during that time. There was normally enough smoke and chakra residue that it was obvious a Substitution Technique had been used, but he didn't know much about bug clones and couldn't be certain the same thing applied to them.
And there was the matter of what would happen next if he won. He really didn't want to go to the finals and have to face that creepy Sand kid who squished people. Even if he avoided that matchup or gave up right away, there would be more work and more responsibility if he was promoted. If he failed, then all of this would be pointless.
After a few more seconds of thought Shikamaru shrugged in resignation. "This is too troublesome. I forfeit."
The lazy Nara pushed his arms above his head, stretching them out after having held them motionless for so long. His shadows retreated away from their captives into a diffuse gray blob beneath his own feet. A muted buzzing sound accompanied the release of the Shino behind him; he didn't need to turn around to know that it was the bug clone dispersing to return to its host.
"So the whole thing about me not knowing which one was the clone was a bluff?" he asked.
In response the body of the Shino before him scattered apart into bugs as well. The real Shino then stepped out from the shadows cast by the statue of the giant hands on the far side of the room. His sleeves were pulled up to reveal that his forearms also had a pair of explosive tags attached.
"Perhaps," he said simply in answer to Shikamaru's question.
"The winner of the seventh match is Aburame Shino!" Hayate declared as the two Konoha Genin returned to their respective teams' places on the observation balconies.
Haku turned and smiled at her taller teammate as he reclaimed his position on the railing to her right. "Congratulations on the victory."
"That was a nice idea with the tags. It's not easy to outsmart Shikamaru like that," Naruto added.
Shino shrugged in reply. "I doubt I actually managed to outmaneuver him. That wasn't my goal though. I knew he would not be particularly motivated, especially since both his teammates had already lost their matches. I simply pushed the stakes of the match beyond what he was willing to risk, and relied on his inherent nature to take care of the rest."
"So you basically bluffed him?"
"In part. I honestly do not know whether triggering an explosive tag on a bug clone bound with Kagemane would have resulted in the same injuries on him, but I was not willing to risk it against a fellow Leaf shinobi. He did not know that for certain however, and it was to my advantage that the members of my clan have a reputation for being socially reserved and lacking in emotion."
The bug user moved a hand to push his sunglasses up before continuing.
"The Nara clan uses Shogi as one of its training methods. In contrast, my family's game of choice is the western card game called Poker. Shikamaru and his father excel in creating strategies for clearly defined tactical situations in which the strengths and limitations of each piece are well-known. In this case I presented him with a situation based on my willingness to harm allied shinobi for my own personal gain. As that was something he could not gauge with certainty, the safer course of action for him was to concede the match."
On the floor of the hall sickly exam proctor stepped forward once more, coughing several times before announcing the next pair of fighters. "Match number eight, Temari versus Kin Tsuchi!"
The female Oto-nin with long black hair hopped up to balance on the railing of the eastern observation balcony. She then stepped off the barrier, landing lightly on the floor beneath and walking to the center of the hall. From the other side of the room Temari jumped onto the leaves of her giant fan and floated down to the floor to meet her opponent. As she landed she closed the fan and dropped it upside down onto the ground beside her with a resounding clang.
"I need to work out my frustrations over my idiot brother getting himself hurt," Temari said with a smirk, "I hope you're up to the challenge."
"Don't look down on me just because I come from a small village!" the female Oto-nin scowled.
The fan wielder waved a hand in front of her. "That's not it at all. I look down on you because you don't seem to be much of anything. Your teammates were embarrassingly weak in their matches. I don't expect much more from you."
Kin gritted her teeth in anger. She had barely known Dosu and Zaku; the team had been put together as a matter of convenience for the exams. While she felt a certain degree of respect for Dosu, it was strictly because of his leadership abilities. Zaku on the other hand was little more than a loudmouthed annoyance. She didn't care what Temari said about her teammates, but the blonde fan wielder had insulted her as well.
Her hand shot forward, sending a pair of senbon flying towards the female Suna-nin. The second, released a fraction of a second later, was hidden under the first senbon's shadow as they sped towards their target.
Temari casually leaned her giant fan in front of her to block the attack. She did not bother to watch her opponent. Instead, she busied herself with examining the fingernails of her left hand for imperfections.
"I hope you have something more than that," she commented airily.
Kin threw both arms forward, unleashing a barrage of senbon at once. "Take this!"
The outline of the Suna-nin's giant fan momentarily blurred. A moment later Kin's senbon dropped straight out of the air to land on the ground between the two kunoichi. As the thin projectiles landed some of them produced light metallic ringing sounds. Her curiosity piqued, Temari finally turned to her front so she could see what had caused the noise. Her eyes roamed over the scattered needle weapons until she found the source of the noise. A number of the senbon had small bells hanging off one end.
"What did you do? How did you do that?" the female Oto-nin asked in astonishment.
Temari didn't answer, but posed a question of her own instead. "Senbon with bells attached? What kind of stupid idea is that? You're ruining their aerodynamic profile."
Kin snarled in response. "I'll show you what kind of stupid idea it is!"
She turned her palms up and curled her fingers inward sharply. Strands of nearly invisible wire connected to each finger pulled at the bells of her previously thrown senbon, shaking them into resonance in a chorus of discordant tinny rings. Her chakra flowed with the sound to create her primary genjutsu, and a dozen copies of her materialized to either side.
"How do you like that?" the army of identical female Oto-nin asked in unison, their faces twisting into matching sneers. "I can use those bells to directly affect your mind, creating a genjutsu that makes you see multiple copies of me. Now you don't know which one to attack!"
Temari laughed. "Thanks for explaining your jutsu like that, now I know just how to deal with it."
She snapped her giant fan open and swept it forcefully across her body, sending a strong gust of wind slicing across the hall at her opponent. The wind lifted up the scattered senbon and bells in the middle of the room and threw them back in the faces of the group of female Oto-nin. One by one the illusory copies faded away as the wind gust disrupted the bells that anchored the genjutsu in place. The remaining Kin crossed her hands before her face instinctively to block the return barrage of her own weaponry.
Temari ran toward her opponent with her giant fan balanced across one shoulder. She was not very fast, being more of a long distance fighter who preferred to keep her enemies away with ranged attacks. The wind gust from her fan had provided enough of a distraction for her to cover the distance however. After weathering through her own weapons being blown back at her by Temari's wind gust, Kin put her hands down just in time to see the Suna kunoichi's fist flying at her face.
The impact knocked Kin off her feet and put her on her back a short distance away. She turned over and tried to push herself upright, but Temari had closed in once again. The fan wielder grabbed a handful of Kin's extraordinarily long hair and pulled on it, twisting the other girl's head back to meet her foot mid-kick. Once more the female Oto-nin tumbled back to the ground. This time however she was too dazed to react.
"What moron told you knee-length hair was appropriate for a ninja?" Temari asked condescendingly as she put one foot down on Kin's long black hair to hold the Oto kunoichi in place. "And for the record, that bell thing really was a pretty stupid idea."
She leaned forward, using the motion to sling her weapon of choice off her shoulder in a tight vertical arc. The giant fan smashed into Kin's face with a hollow thud, knocking her unconscious even before the back of her head had bounced against the floor.
Hayate waved Temari aside and moved in to check Kin's pulse. After making certain the Oto-nin was unable to continue, he stood back up to declared the result. "The winner of the eighth match is Temari!"
Naruto whistled. "That was pretty one-sided."
Haku nodded. "With the way she was able to knock the senbon out of the air with her fan, she has a strong advantage against throwing specialists. I'm glad I wasn't matched up against her."
With all but two of the qualifying Genin having already fought, Hayate did not need to wait for the signboard to stop before clearing his throat to announce the final matchup.
"The final match of the Chunin exam preliminaries, Hyuuga Neji versus Uzumaki Naruto!"
As Sasuke had done earlier in the day, Neji calmly strode the length of the observation balcony and down the stairs to reach the match area. Unlike Lee however, Naruto waited for Neji to pass by before turning and following the Hyuuga genius.
Naruto took his time, taking paced leisurely steps that put him further and further behind the older long-haired boy as the two headed towards the center of the large hall where Hayate waited. He used the time to study his opponent carefully. Having graduated in the same academy class as Rock Lee, Neji was a year older than Naruto and his teammates. He was quite a bit taller than Naruto, roughly the same height as Shino, and with what the blond guessed was probably a similar reach. The Hyuuga genius had a relatively slender build though, with a lighter and less muscled frame than either Shino or Rock Lee. Were it not for the formidable reputation of the Hyuuga clan's signature taijutsu style, Naruto wouldn't have thought of Neji as a close combat specialist at all.
Like all clan special abilities, academy lessons only covered the Hyuuga Byakugan and Jyuuken in generalities. The blond only knew that the Byakugan was supposed to be able to see through things, and that Jyuuken was an unarmed fighting style that somehow used the principle of softness. He recalled how, several matches ago, Hinata had defeated her taller and larger opponent with what appeared to be an effortless grace. Her attack were light and relaxed, each one landing with seemingly no more force than a light tap or a gentle brush. Despite Hinata's strikes leaving no visible injuries though, they somehow affected Ino and made her movements successively slower and weaker, and in the end they forced the Yamanaka blonde to forfeit the match.
"You're hesitating. Is it because you've finally realized the futility of fighting someone superior to you?" Neji asked, a hint of a mocking lilt creeping into the edge of his dispassionate tone of voice.
Naruto gazed at his opponent in silence for a few seconds, deliberately delaying his response to irritate the Hyuuga genius, and to reinforce whatever idea Neji has about why he was taking his time.
"What gives you the idea that I think you're superior to me?" the blond finally replied as he took the last step to reach his designated starting point.
The corners of the Hyuuga genius's lips curled into a tight smile. "Do you really consider yourself my equal in combat?"
"We're about to find out aren't we?"
"You seriously believe that you have a chance at defeating me. That's good," Neji replied, his tone of voice and entire demeanor seeming to come alive. "I was not looking forward to wasting my time fighting a tedious match, but I see this will turn out to be interesting after all. Come, raise your sword and show me how you'll struggle in vain against your destiny."
"Destiny? What does that have to do with anything?"
"Each of us has a fate that cannot be denied. Mine was decided the moment I was born, yours was revealed when you lost an eye. It seems that Hokage-sama took pity and waived the rules so that you were allowed to graduate as a Genin, but the path in life that has been written for you cannot be changed."
Neji brought both hands up, hands open and palms facing inward.
"It was not your destiny to be a shinobi," the Hyuuga genius continued. "With these hands, I will make you understand the futility of fighting against your preordained destiny. I will make you understand the pain of fighting against someone fate decreed to be your superior."
His right hand drew back to his hip. His left extended forward, palm turning to face Naruto as the arm straightened.
"In the end when you give up, broken and defeated, I will enjoy the look of bitter disappointment on your face when you finally realize that it was your destiny to fail all along," Neji finished as he closed his hands into fists in a violent jerking motion.
The blond's lips pulled apart, baring his teeth with a feral snarl. He was angry at the arrogant long-haired Hyuuga genius. Angry that Neji considered himself superior before the fight even started, angry that the older boy thought he only graduated from the academy as some kind of charity case of the Hokage's. Most of all, Naruto was angry that Neji had so casually dismissed all of his hard work over the last two years as pointless.
"Your words are empty and meaningless," the blond retorted angrily as he brought his sword up. "There's no such thing as fate, just what can achieved through ability and strength of determination. After I beat you, I'm going to shove them back down your throat!"
"Come then, show me the strength of your determination and I will show you how little it means when faced with a barrier that cannot be overcome," Neji taunted, the sudden bulging of the veins around his eyes signaling the activation of his Byakugan.
Naruto turned his body completely sideways, with his right shoulder pointing towards Neji and most of his weight settled on his flexed left leg. His hands came up to his left shoulder, holding the wooden sword parallel to the ground with the tip aimed directly at the long-haired Hyuuga. Then, with a loud roar, he dashed at his opponent.
The fight with Sasuke had taught the blond the folly of allowing himself to be goaded into rash action. He was genuinely angry at Neji's words, but over the last few months had worked on controlling his own emotional reactions. The rage that he deliberately allowed to manifest in his verbal and physical responses was meant to make the Hyuuga genius believe that he was still a hot-headed kid who would attack without forethought.
The blond's attempt at deception worked as he abruptly broke his stride and paused just before he was within striking range of his opponent. Having expected the reckless frontal charge, Neji was caught off guard by the momentary change in tempo. The fingers of the Hyuuga genius's open left hand twitched and his eyes flickered as he restrained himself from reacting to the anticipated thrusting attack that did not come.
Naruto took advantage of his opponent's momentary lapse in focus. His left leg straightened and his hands moved forward as he pushed himself into a thrust at Neji's upper sternum. The Hyuuga genius reacted from instinct developed through years of hard training, moving away from danger as he twisted his body. The attack struck his chest before sliding off to one side, much of its power lost due to the oblique angle of impact.
Naruto shuffled forward to maintain distance, pressuring Neji with a pair of quick thrusts. The first grazed lightly against Neji's shoulder. The second was evaded entirely when the Hyuuga genius's hand brushed lightly against the back of his right wrist, redirecting the angle of the attack just enough to push it off target.
The blond then lunged forward, turning his hands over to deliver a horizontal left to right cut aimed at the chest. Neji responded by leaning back while simultaneously extending one hand to tap the base of the wooden blade from below with two fingers. The light impact pushed the sword's arc upwards, causing it to slice harmlessly through empty air. The long-haired Hyuuga then brought his left palm up to push at Naruto's right elbow, continuing with a right palm strike against the side of the blond's now-exposed ribs.
Naruto jumped away, his quick backwards movement creating enough distance to prevent his opponent from following up with any further attacks. Neji did not follow, instead settling back into a Jyuuken stance with the right hand at the hip and left palm extended forward. The Hyuuga genius seemed content with waiting for the blond to initiate another exchange.
"Are you starting to understand?" Neji asked. "Are you seeing the futility of fighting someone you cannot beat?"
Naruto ignored his words, using the time to shake out his right arm instead. The limb felt a little weak, and there was a tingling sensation running through the last two fingers of his hand. Perhaps Neji had struck a nerve by chance during the attack?
The blond considered his options as he brought his right hand back to the hilt of his sword. He couldn't use the same approach as before; Neji was unlikely to fall for a fake angry charge a second time. He decided on using careful probing attacks instead, staying at the edge of his range and limiting his combos to minimize the counterattack opportunities he presented the Hyuuga genius with.
A few exchanges with the more careful approach confirmed Naruto's initial suspicions about his opponent's skill level with taijutsu. Neji was good. Far better than Sasuke or Kiba, the two who were the best at taijutsu from the current graduating year. Easily better than Iruka or even Mizuki from the academy when the two instructors practice sparred against their students, and probably the best of everyone who had fought in the preliminaries during the day.
Like Naruto himself, Neji had the ability to evade attacks using the smallest and most efficient shifts of posture. He combined that with an ease of movement that made his offensive motions seem casually nonchalant. Used to reading his opponents through subtle body cues like sudden breaths and muscle flexes, the blond found it difficult to accurately gauge Neji's intentions until the Hyuuga genius's strikes were already well on their way to landing on their targets. Each attack was a soft brush of the palm or light tap of the fingers, yet Naruto felt as if his arms were getting more and more sluggish, as if each seemingly inconsequential strike was actually targeted at some nerve or other. They didn't feel like any nerve strikes he had experienced however. Where a nerve strike was usually immediately painful or disabling, he doubted that he would have noticed the change in his movements at all if he were any less skilled in close combat himself.
The careful approach was getting the blond nowhere. If he kept it up his opponent would wear him down by sheer attrition. A frontal attack was out of the question, Neji was simply too skilled. He would have to find a way to attack from an unexpected angle instead.
Naruto reached into a side pocket and pulled out a pair of tagged kunai. Instead of the typical configuration of having explosive notes loosely tied to their rings however, Naruto had drawn the tags on light cloth and then wrapped them tightly around the kunai's handle to conceal their true nature. The trigger and explosive seals faced inwards, with a series of nearly-invisible thin lines leading from the trigger around the edge of the tag to its reverse side. These chakra-conducting lines allowed for the tags to be triggered without having to expose the seal elements.
He had found through experimentation that this sort of tag and kunai configuration wasn't very useful with standard explosive tags. While they could be made to look like regular kunai, with their seals facing inwards much of their explosive force would be wasted on blowing up the kunai handle. This particular pair carried a new tag design however, with the explosive chakra mostly redirected towards producing smoke through additional conversion seals. The small amount of remaining explosive energy was sufficient to blow the thin fabric apart at carefully prepared seams so that the smoke could then be released properly. Their effect was essentially identical to smoke bombs, but the blond preferred his own creations as they were free and produced smoke at a faster rate than the bombs he could buy from ninja equipment merchants.
Naruto flung both kunai with a sweeping arm movement. Neji didn't react, holding his position confidently after having accurately judged that the two projectiles would land well off the mark on either side of him. Naruto waited until the tags triggered, seeing a brief flash of surprise in Neji's eyes before the area around the Hyuuga genius filled up with black smoke. The blond then shoved his sword into his belt and brought both hands together for a Bunshin no Jutsu. He didn't know if the Byakugan could see through the smokescreen, but it was a possibility and there was no point revealing his ability to use one-handed seals for no advantage.
Seven Bunshin popped into existence around Naruto. As Neji still hadn't moved out of the cloud, the blond took it to mean that the Byakugan's enhanced vision could penetrate the smoke. He directed his Bunshin to move in a complicated pattern while circling the cloud, hoping that the interweaving paths would confuse the Hyuuga genius as to which was real and which were clones. When the smoke cleared, Neji found himself surrounded by eight identical instances of Naruto, each with sword raised in a slightly different posture.
"Is this the limit of the strength of your determination?" Neji asked with a condescending tone. "Smoke bombs and Bunshin? This is how you think you're qualified to be a shinobi?"
Once more Naruto ignored the long-haired Hyuuga's words. Having decided that directly in front and directly in back were too obvious, the blond had placed himself behind and to Neji's right instead, with the other seven spots being taken up by Bunshin. He sent a pair of clones at the front and the one directly behind charging at his opponent, figuring that the Hyuuga genius would think that he was using the two front clones as a distraction to open the way for a strike from the rear. The blond didn't commit himself to the attack until he saw Neji begin to move in reaction to the three Bunshin approaching him.
Naruto readied his sword for a horizontal cut aimed at the abdomen as he charged. Before he could start the attack however Neji was somehow all over him, striking down at his forearm to choke off the swing and then continuing with a series of palm strikes and finger jabs. Naruto was able to ward off the first few attacks as he retreated, but then his defenses began to crumble and Neji scored more and more hits. The Hyuuga genius finished with a devastatingly powerful palm strike into his solar plexus.
The blond staggered back a few steps before dropping to his knees as a wave of nausea washed over him. He pushed against the floor with his arms to keep his torso upright, but they felt weak and rubbery, as if they were ready to give out at any time. He could feel blood moving at the back of his throat as he struggled to fill his lungs with air.
"Get up! You're not finished yet!" Neji ordered. "Show me how desperately you're willing to push yourself to achieve your goal. Show me the strength of your determination. And then show me your despair as you realize how utterly meaningless your struggle against fate has been!"
Naruto slowly rose back to his feet, spitting out a mouthful of blood and using the wooden sword like a cane to support his wobbly legs. As Neji was making no move to attack, the blond decided to try and fix the damage from the last exchange before resuming the fight. The pain in his chest vanished and firmness returned to his legs immediately as the blond drew chakra to fuel his healing ability. Strength and feeling returned to his arms more slowly though, coming in successive waves over several seconds, starting from the upper arms and gradually progressing to the fingertips. The way his arms healed seemed strange to the blond. As far as he could remember, whenever he consciously focused on any kind of injury the results had always been nearly immediate.
"Interesting, you've somehow managed to reopen your chakra pathways," Neji remarked. "The rumors were right after all."
"What are you talking about?" Naruto demanded as he flexed his arms and fingers to work out the last bits of weakness he felt.
"There have been rumors of one of the new Genin developing a healing Kekkei Genkai. They must have been talking about you, as none of the Konoha clans have the ability to immediately neutralize the effects of a Jyuuken strike without the application of medical ninjutsu."
Naruto briefly considered how such a rumor could have spread before setting the matter aside as not immediately relevant. Instead he tried to probe his opponent for any information that could help him formulate a new tactical approach.
"Your soft attacks weren't nerve strikes then. You're somehow disrupting my tenketsu to block my chakra flow."
"Correct," Neji confirmed. "That is the strength of the Hyuuga clan's gentle fist style, and that is why I am an insurmountable obstacle for you. You cannot defeat me in single combat, while with a touch I can shut your body down or even destroy your organs through chakra overload. Your ability to reopen your tenketsu counts for nothing. With these eyes, I can see how much chakra it cost you to do that. Even if your reserves are greater than average you will eventually run out. Your defeat is inevitable; it's simply a matter of time."
The Hyuuga genius paused a moment before continuing. "Perhaps this is your tragedy then. Perhaps, once you've been bred into one of the clans, the combination of your healing Kekkei Genkai and their offensive abilities will result in a line of formidable shinobi. But that role is not for you. As you are, especially with your handicap, all that you can hope to accomplish on the battlefield is being cannon fodder that's more durable than normal. You have my sympathies."
"I don't need your pity," Naruto growled.
"It does not matter how you feel, or how I feel," Neji replied calmly. "We've traded blows and the differences in skill and ability have been clear. Nothing can change the eventual outcome of this match."
The verbal exchange had given Naruto some ideas about how to proceed. There were ways to defend against nerve strikes, keeping the arms and body positioned in such a way as to limit the exposure of the most vulnerable exposed nerves. Tenketsu were distributed more or less evenly throughout the body however. If those were the targets of Jyuuken attacks, then the blond could not allow his opponent to touch him at all. Neji's taijutsu style seemed to be a faster and more refined version of what Hinata had used, but still consisted of the same rapid palm strikes and finger thrusts thrown straight or nearly straight. As long as he could neutralize those attacks, he would be able to prolong the match indefinitely.
On the other hand, finding a winning tactic was more difficult. During the last clash Neji had somehow been able to keep track of real from clone and react to his attack without ever having turned to look at him. The blond didn't know if the Byakugan gave its user some sort of enhanced perception beyond the periphery of a normal field of vision, but it seemed that he would not be able to surprise the Hyuuga genius with a flank attack. A straight frontal assault wouldn't work either; his opponent was simply too fast and too good. Perhaps he could harass Neji into exposing some sort of opening?
Naruto brought his sword up and settled into a fighting stance again. This time however, he bent his knees more than normal and turned his front foot slightly inward. The changes would allow him to push off into a retreat more easily. Keeping the tip of the sword pointed at Neji's throat, he brought the hilt up to mid-sternum height with his arms held mostly straight. The posture made strong thrusts impossible and made it more difficult to execute powerful cutting attacks with speed, but that wasn't what he in mind.
"More tricks? You can't beat me with standard kenjutsu so you're trying to win with bizarre stances?" the Hyuuga genius asked, his tone of voice mirroring the contempt he felt at Naruto's tactics.
"If you're so confident about the superiority of your fate, then come and test my tricks," the blond rejoined.
"Don't presume to speak as if you know anything about my fate!" Neji hissed, showing anger for the first time.
The Hyuuga genius's left hand extended forward with palm open as he settled himself into the standard Jyuuken fighting stance. For a few seconds the two studied each other in silence. Then, with a narrowing of the eyes and a nearly silent exhale, Neji advanced.
With the fight nearing the half-hour mark, the last match of the preliminaries had gone on longer than any of the previous ones.
Naruto's change in tactics had proven effective, to a point. Instead of targeting the torso area, he was now aiming his attacks at his opponent's extended hand and forearm. By constantly retreating to lure Neji in while using wrist movements and quick hip jerks to move the tip of the sword in tight circles, the blond was able to prevent Neji from closing to taijutsu striking distance while landing a good number of attacks of his own. The strikes were light, mostly of little more than annoyance value. The few times his sword impacted against exposed fingers though had brought satisfying grunts of pain from the Hyuuga genius.
Though Naruto was able to prolong the fight, he still could not find a way to land a decisive strike. He had tried to pull the sword back for a strong cut several times, but each instance Neji was able to take advantage of the small window of opportunity to land a Jyuuken attack. The blond was able to heal the effects of the strikes almost immediately, but he judged himself to be in a stalemate situation at best. The Hyuuga genius' strikes were no longer aimed at shutting down tenketsu points on his arms. Instead the attacks were to his center mass, and each successful blow brought a coppery taste to the back of his throat that was indicative of some sort of internal injury.
Neji had clearly moved past disabling attacks to potentially lethal ones. All it would take was one critical failure in his defenses, one significant lapse in his concentration, and he would be faced with potential defeat or worse. The blond didn't know whether Jyuuken had any sort of one strike disabling or killing attack, or whether his healing ability could overcome even those. He did not intend for the match to go on long enough to find out however.
He needed separation. He needed time to think. The blond turned his body away while reaching into his pockets with his left hand, giving Neji an opening to attack his right upper arm in order to buy the distance he needed. The blow was strong, far stronger than necessary for a Jyuuken attack. Naruto felt his entire right arm go numb, though he didn't know whether it was from the force of the impact itself or from the chakra blocking effects of Jyuuken. His now-lifeless fingers rolled open and his sword fell to the ground with a loud clatter.
The sacrifice had served its purpose however. He used the time to pull a trio of kunai from his pockets, trigger their attached explosive tags, and drop them on the floor between himself and his opponent. The two Genin leapt away from each other moments before the tags exploded, their chakra-powered jumps immediately putting them on opposite ends of the hall. As he landed the blond sent a wave of chakra through his right arm to revive it even as his left hand pulled out a storage scroll that held one of his backup swords.
"Why don't you give up now?" Neji asked, brushing back a stray lock of hair that had fallen loose. "There's no doubt about the outcome, everything you've tried so far has only served to delay the inevitable. Accept your fate with grace."
Naruto responded by bringing his right hand up with one finger extended. "This is what I think about your fate."
It wasn't a witty comeback by any means. He was preoccupied with considering and rejecting one idea after another for attacking Neji, and had simply gone with the first response that came to mind.
The Hyuuga genius' lips curled back, showing his disdain of the blond's reply. "Very well. You should have taken the opportunity to quit shinobi life for a quiet existence as a civilian. Now, I will see to it that you will do so as a cripple."
The blond didn't respond; he finally had a plan that might be workable. At first he had nearly rejected it as he did so many other previous ideas. This one was bizarre enough, complicated enough, and possibly stupid enough, that it had a chance of succeeding.
After unsealing a spare wooden sword and shoving it through his belt, Naruto's hands dug into his pockets and returned with a smoke tagged kunai gripped between the curled third and fourth fingers of each hand. He then crossed his arms together before him with the index and middle fingers of both hands extended straight in a pair of one-handed ram seals. He timed the next few steps of his plan carefully; he needed everything to come together at just the right time.
"Kirigakure no Jutsu!" the blond called out loud, taking extra care in enunciating the jutsu name clearly.
He swept both arms outward just as the thinnest film of mist began to form. Thrown from a much less than ideal grip, the pair of kunai traveled in a wobbly arc before landing between the two Genin. Naruto had timed them so that they triggered just as they made contact with the ground. As the two tags detonated to create a thick curtain of black smoke, Naruto set the rest of his plan into motion.
Neji jumped backwards a few steps when the kunai flew. Even though they looked like they would fall well short, he had already been surprised by Naruto's tagged kunai once. He had been able to use that situation to his advantage, allowing the blond to think that he was successfully hiding amongst his Bunshin when the Byakugan was not only able to distinguish clone from original, but could also use its 360 degree vision to track all of them at once. One success was not a reason to get complacent however.
His eyes automatically adjusted, the smokescreen fading to invisibility as the Byakugan penetrated it. He saw that Naruto had used it as a distraction to move ten feet to the right. His lips curved up into a tight smirk as he saw what else was happening however.
Naruto was groping around blindly, head turning back and forth sightlessly and left hand feeling around tentatively before him. Neji didn't know where the blond had learned the Hidden Mist Jutsu, but it was obvious that he had used it to blind them both in the belief that he could somehow pull off a surprise attack during the ensuing confusion. This was a critical blunder however. Naruto had only blinded himself, while the Byakugan could see through the chakra-laced mist as easily as the smokescreen from the tags.
Neji had to admit that the fight was both more interesting and more frustrating than he had anticipated. He had been under the impression that none of the new Genin would pose a decent challenge, an idea that was only reinforced when Uchiha Sasuke, this year's top rookie, had failed so miserably against his teammate. Naruto had put up a great deal more resistance than he expected however, and even managed to surprise him a few times.
The Hyuuga genius moved carefully, edging towards his opponent with silent gliding steps so that he would not give his position away. As much grudging respect as he had for the determination Naruto showed, in the end the only thing this match proved was that fate could not be denied. All he had to do was get close enough without the blond detecting his presence. Then a single Jyuuken spear hand into the ribs near the back, a burst of chakra to rupture the spleen, and whatever happened afterwards would no longer be his concern.
Naruto began veering off to the right, apparently having lost his sense of orientation from the mist blinding him. Neji changed his own path just a bit to the right in response, moving to put himself at a perfect angle to strike at the back of the blond's left ribcage.
Three more steps and he would be in range. Neji briefly considered the possibility that his opponent wasn't really blinded at all, that it was some elaborate ruse to trick him. He dismissed that idea however. In the course of groping around Naruto had turned to expose his left side. A ruse would only work if the blond could actually see while feigning blindness, and with a missing left eye it would be impossible for him to track anything happening on that side. Bolstered by that bit of logic, the Hyuuga genius pressed on.
Another step, and another. It was time to end things.
Naruto watched his opponent's legs carefully. His Kirigakure no Jutsu was a ruse. He used just enough chakra to create the beginnings of a mist, and then released the technique as soon as he threw the kunai. He had gambled on the Byakugan being able to see through both smoke and mist at once, and also on Neji being so accustomed to seeing through things with those special eyes that the Hyuuga genuis wouldn't even notice that the mist was no longer there. Judging from Neji's movements afterwards, it had proven to be a good bet.
The blond had pushed his hitai-ate up just a bit when the smoke tags detonated. It wasn't enough to fully expose his left eye, but by looking down he could see the ground for four or five feet around and could track Neji's approach that way. With his head angled downwards there was no way for the taller Genin to catch a glimpse of the eye either.
He waited, his left arm groping ahead in feigned sightlessness and his body veering slightly more to the right with every pace, until his opponent was within range for a good sword cut. Then he held himself back as Neji took another step; he would only have one opportunity and needed to make it count. Finally, just before the Hyuuga genius reached taijutsu range, Naruto made his move.
The blond stepped towards his opponent while twisting his hips hard to the left, bringing his sword along in a horizontal cut aimed at the midsection. Neji's shock at the unexpected attack was evident on his face. The Hyuuga genius' honed combat reflexes took over however and his arms instantly dropped down to intercept the cut. Naruto's step had brought both of them well within taijutsu range, and Neji was able to block the sword near the hilt to choke off the swing.
Naruto moved right into the next part of his plan. "Sen'eijashu!"
A pair of red and yellow striped snakes burst from his left sleeve. They shot across the small distance separating Naruto from his opponent, wrapping themselves around Neji's wrists to trap his hands. Simultaneously the blond sent his right hand flying forward for a palm strike targeted at the older Genin's sternum.
Taken by surprise and with his hands tied by snakes, the Hyuuga genius did the only thing that came to mind. He forced chakra out of every chakra point at once while throwing his body into a rapid spin.
Naruto's palm grazed Neji's chest just as the long-haired Hyuuga's defensive spin began. The rotational force of the jutsu threw the blond to the side, sending a sharp spike of pain through his right elbow when he landed on it awkwardly. Neji's momentary smirk of triumph as he exited the spin was replaced by confusion when he looked down to see that Naruto had managed to stick an explosive tag on his chest during the palm strike. The Hyuuga genius' right hand flew up to tear the tag away, but it went off before he reached it. The flashbang tag, triggering inches from his face, produced enough light to blind even the Byakugan. Neji dropped to his knees, stunned by the effects of the tag.
Having anticipated the tag detonation and prepared himself beforehand, Naruto was able to take advantage of his opponent's incapacitated state. He sprang back to his feet and rushed forward with sword held high in preparation for a vertical cut. As Neji looked back up with watery unfocused eyes, Naruto's sword sliced in a downward arc at the older Genin's left collarbone. The loud snap and the Hyuuga genius' choked cry of pain told him that his attack had broken the weak bone.
Neji fell forward from the pain of the strike. Naruto quickly moved behind him, dropping one knee on Neji's right elbow to hold the arm in place while placing the bulk of his weight on the older Genin's back to pin his body down. The blond then grabbed a handful of the Hyuuga genius' long hair and pulled his head up.
"You know Neji, you were right," Naruto hissed into his ear. "I do believe fate exists."
He shoved his hand forward to slam Neji's face into the ground before pulling back on the hair again.
"I defy every fate!"
Once more the Hyuuga geniuss' face smashed into the ground before him. This time he grunted in pain as his head was pulled back up, a small trail of blood dribbling from his broken nose.
"I grab the fate I want with my own hands!"
Naruto drove the older Genin's face into the ground for the third time. When the blond finally released his grip on Neji's hair, the Hyuuga genius did not move. He had been knocked unconscious.
A blue-sleeved hand cut in front of Naruto. The blond looked up to see the exam proctor standing over him, one arm extended to prevent him from injuring Neji any further.
"The final match's winner is Uzumaki Naruto!" Hayate declared.
Naruto pushed himself away from the unconscious Hyuuga tiredly, the effects of the fight finally catching up to him physically and mentally. Waving away the team of medics approaching him, he moved with weary steps around the hall to collect the two swords he had used during the match. He absently sealed one of the swords in its scroll and tucked the other into his belt as he headed up the stairs. His teammates were waiting for him at the top, Haku with a smiling face and Shino with his facial expression shifted ever so slightly in the way that Naruto had come to recognize as the Aburame equivalent of a smile. His sensei was there as well, having joined his teammates sometime during his fight
"Congratulations on the victory Naruto, that was a difficult fight," Haku said as her hands made small clapping motions.
Shino nodded in agreement. "Your tactical approach was quite inventive. Using the Kirigakure no Jutsu and then dispersing the mist immediately, acting as if you were blinded and tricking Neji into thinking that you were unaware of the Byakugan's abilities, all to lure him close enough for a decisive attack."
"He was a strong fighter, I couldn't find a way to attack through normal means," the blond replied. "Even after that I still had to layer in a couple more things in order to create an opening."
"Both of you fought well, but you definitely deserved that victory. You were able to overcome your opponent's bloodline ability and superior fighting skills through tenacity and clever tactics," Kurenai observed. "There's one thing I'm wondering though. Did his words get to you during the fight?"
"Because of the way I beat him into the ground at the end?" Naruto asked.
At a nod from his sensei, he continued. "I guess he did. All that talk about fate being unchangeable and how I should never have been a ninja annoyed me. I know that Jiji had to bend some rules for me. I've been working as hard as I can all this time to prove that he made the right choice, I don't need someone telling me that I was destined to fail as a ninja or that none of my effort mattered. I guess I might have gotten carried away there."
The red-eyed Jounin shrugged, pausing momentarily to glance around the hall at the other teams before turning back to reply.
"Even though the preliminaries are supposed to be life or death battles, our loyalty to each other as Konoha shinobi should supersede that. In other circumstances I might have admonished you for hurting your fellow Leaf shinobi unnecessarily. It looked to me though as if Neji had switched from tenketsu shutdown attacks to strikes aimed at causing internal injury near the end of the fight. With that in mind, I can't really fault you for ending the match decisively like that. All I'll say is congratulations on a hard-won victory, and I'm proud of you. All three of you."
Still on the floor of the hall, Hayate coughed loudly, catching the attention of all the remaining Genin in the room. Once he was sure that all eyes were on him, the sickly Tokubetsu Jounin cleared his throat to make his last announcement for the day.
"The final part of the Chunin exam will be held in one month, and will be in the form of a single elimination knockout tournament. Since some of you have shown all your abilities in the preliminaries, this is a chance to improve your skills or learn new ones. Your first matches will be determined randomly today, so you can tailor your training over the coming month based on what you know about your opponent."
The electronic signboard flashed to life again, this time displaying eight names in four lines:
Rock Lee versus Uzumaki Naruto
Sabaku no Gaara versus Aburame Shino
Fuyuno Haku versus Hyuuga Hinata
Temari versus Inuzuka Kiba
Not much to say about this chapter. I originally intended for the prelims to be a single chapter, but the Naruto fight alone was around 5K words, so it made more sense to expand the prelims into two chapters rather than hyper-condense eight fights into the other 5K, especially since there were certain things I wanted to do with a number of the other fights.
I intended to say this with the last chapter, but forgot in the rush to update. This is a response to an unsigned review about two weeks ago. I welcome any sort of response to my work. I welcome criticism, constructive or not, and outright flames as well. I'm not going to necessarily acknowledge the validity of your point just because you took the time to write a review, but I'll read and think about it nonetheless. Don't feel like you have to sugar-coat your review (or outright refrain from leaving one) with me just because other authors have reacted badly to critical reviews in the past.
6/18/10: First Upload