Hi, everyone. Against all odds, I have taken slightly less than a year to update this (last time was Christmas Eve of 2011). I hope you all enjoy this very chapter, very long in production.
Warning: It's occurred to me that this chapter might be disturbing to some people, since it depicts prejudice against someone for their sexuality. Also, there's minor blood and other such injuries, but I don't think there's anything else you wouldn't see in canonical Naruto.
Chapter Ten: A Successful Match
Hiashi stood in a room that was near empty, and wondered how Hinata had survived in such a barren place. The bed covers were white, as were the walls and door. Nothing sat on the shelves save for an old-kunai box, and the single desk that Hinata owned was a medium brown. There was only one window, and the view from it was not particularly inspiring, but he could tell from where the desk was placed that Hinata must have looked out of it a great deal. It was perhaps no wonder that other members of the clan complained to him about her 'undisciplined spirit' and her constant wandering. Based on how lavishly their quarters were decorated, he doubted they could live in a room like Hinata's for very long.
Turning away from the window, Hiashi's eyes passed the kunai box on the shelf, and noticed a sliver of paper poking out from the box's lid. Suspicious, he walked over to the shelf and opened the box. Save for the single piece of paper, it was empty.
He picked up the paper and read it.
Who has told of the days long, where the silent creatures of the perilous dark came so close to ending the fires of life itself? the paper read. Who has heard of those who stalked the shadows of the night, hidden weapons against mankind? Few, now, if ever. But far before now, in an ancient time, a lone shinobi battled such evil. His name was Okachisai.
Hiashi stared confusedly at this bizarre paragraph, but got no further than that as he heard footsteps from the hall growing louder. Stuffing the paper into his pocket, he left Hinata's room quickly, shutting the door behind him as two Hyuga approached.
A tall man accompanied a girl that looked a little older than Hinata; Hiashi guessed she was Hoshi. Neither were wearing the Konoha headband, an act that Hiashi had deemed an offence for active ninja, but that was not important now. Whatever had happened between Hoshi, her friend Hiroko, Hinata and (apparently) Naruto Uzumaki, it had given Hinata the power of Gentle Fist. If Hiashi's theory was correct, Hoshi and Hiroko had severely emotionally affected Hinata. The question was how.
The man spoke first.
"Lady Hoshi informed me you wished to speak with her, Lord Hiashi."
Hiashi sized him up – a muscular man, with hair that only reached his shoulders. Three kunai hung on the side of his belt; this was unusual for a Hyuga, who mostly disdained those who openly displayed weapons. Judging by his thick arms and the belt's faded but not heavily scratched nature, he was someone who fought a great deal, but in terms of sparring rather than in real confrontations. A taijutsu instructor.
"You are...Hotaka, yes?" Hiashi said.
"That is correct, Lord Hiashi," Hotaka said, bowing slightly. "I attempted to instruct your daughter in Gentle Fist for some time."
"She appears to have learned on her own," noted Hiashi, which caused a twinge of annoyance in Hotaka.
Hiashi looked to the so-far silent Hoshi, who was more or less standing up straight, though she was fidgeting, feeling around her left hand's fingertips with her thumb. An unpleasant wave of bad memories returned to him as he watched her fidget. A perfect Hyuga (and his father's mantra was basically 'all Hyuga must be perfect') was meant to be able to stand perfectly still for as long as need be, a skill that required years of practice. The fact that Hoshi couldn't manage this, even if she was part of an ultra pro-Hyuga crowd, meant that there was still some ordinary human being left in her.
"You witnessed Hinata using Gentle Fist, didn't you, Hoshi?" Hiashi asked.
Hoshi spoke, with an accidental touch of the dramatic.
"She threatened me, Lord Hiashi. And Hiroko. And Naruto Uzumaki did as well."
Hiashi was not certain if Naruto Uzumaki was the type to threaten anyone, but he was pretty sure that Hinata wasn't.
"Why would my daughter threaten you?" he asked. "She is not known for her confrontational nature."
"She's in with a bad crowd," declared Hoshi.
She is not alone in that regard, thought Hiashi, fighting the urge to glance meaningfully at Hotaka for Hoshi's benefit.
"That Inuzuka, and the Aburame, and Naruto," Hoshi continued. "Why else would she leave the clan?"
Hotaka nodded in what he obviously considered a sage manner.
"Your daughter always lacked any element of self-control, Lord Hiashi," he said. "She never successfully performed a kata to the standards of the other children her age, regardless of how long I had her drill it."
Hiashi resisted frowning, mustered his not inconsiderable reserves of contempt, then densely packed them into a single syllable.
"Oh?" he said, raising an eyebrow.
Hotaka was perceptive enough to fall silent, but Hoshi spoke again.
"I'm sorry, Lord Hiashi," she said, "but Hinata doesn't have much poise. She was crying, and loudly, when she threatened us."
Hiashi considered this.
Good, he thought.
"Thankyou, Hoshi," he said. "This has been informative."
Bowing slightly, he turned away. Waiting until he was a few paces from the two of them, he then turned back and spoke again.
"And you are correct," he said, looking straight into Hoshi's eyes.
He flicked his eyes right, from the short girl to Hotaka beside her, and held his gaze even as the instructor narrowed his eyes in quiet anger.
"Controlling oneself is vital," said Hiashi.
With another quick glance at Hoshi, who seemed to look a little puzzled at what Hiashi had just said, he turned and left them completely.
The plan was developing nicely.
The three genin stood nervously in front of the guard chunin as he went over their Scrolls of Heaven and Earth. Hinata, conscious of the fact that she probably poked her fingers together too much for her own good, had stuck her hands in her pockets and was rocking back and forth on her feet. Kiba stood sideways to the others, sniffing a little to check if any other squad was forthcoming. Akamaru sat on the boy's head, ears pricked slightly. Shino was perfectly still and calm-looking, although an observant ninja might notice that a dragonfly near him was repeatedly flying in a perfect equilateral triangle.
Eventually, the guard nin gave the papers back.
"Is everything in order?" asked Shino.
"Yeah, these're real," said the guard nin. "You got here pretty quick. You guys're only the second team to arrive."
Shino's outward expression did not change, but his unwitting control over the dragonfly disappeared, and it went back to doing whatever dragonflies usually did. The three children nodded thanks to the guard, then walked past him as the entered the building.
"That can't be good," said Shino, last to enter, closing the door behind him.
"What?" asked Kiba. "That we only came second?"
Prompted by a sign saying "Chunin Exams Waiting Room This Way", they all turned a corner, the soles of their sandals tapping the wood-panelled floor of the hallway.
"That we did so well in the first place," said Shino.
"Wh-why?" Hinata said. "Reconnaissance squads are meant to be fast."
"I don't think we're that proficient," said Shino. "Do you remember how long we took to get to Kurenai's test in the forest? Our sloth in that case would imply that our speed in finishing this test is unusual."
"M-maybe we've gotten a lot better since then," said Hinata.
It felt like years since she'd first met Shino and Kiba, and her time in school was already a distant memory.
Shino began to speak again.
All three stopped abruptly as they came across a very tall boy, dressed entirely in black and wearing purple facepaint in an intricate design. Behind him was the door to the waiting room, through which they could see the rest of the boy's squad.
"S-sorry," said Hinata, bowing a little.
Awkwardly stepping past, the three of them walked through the door, stealing glances at the other two genin as they passed. One was a blonde girl with large pigtails, the other a red-haired boy with a tattoo on his forehead and a lack of eyebrows. Remembering Naruto's warning about that boy, Hinata gestured for the other two to follow her, and they sat on the opposite side of the fairly large room.
Leaning up against the wall, all three tried not to look at either genin.
Hinata looked to Kiba, who put Akamaru in his lap and began patting him.
"Are you okay?" she whispered.
Kiba said nothing, only looking down slightly.
Shino, apparently from nowhere, pulled out a piece of paper and a pen, and held it out to Kiba.
Kiba and Hinata stared at him.
"...you're kidding," Kiba said.
Shino leaned down, wrote something on the paper, then handed it and the pen to Kiba.
No. it read, in Shino's handwriting.
Gesturing to Kiba, Hinata took the paper and wrote, then passed it back to Kiba again.
Kiba, are you okay? she wrote. We didn't get a chance to talk on the way here.
Kiba thought on this, then wrote on the paper below what she and Shino had done. Once finished, Shino and Hinata leaned over and read it.
I never expected Ashinoura to come back., Kiba's section read. It's not just that he's joined up with the Hyuga, it's that he's here at all.
The presence of Jade Clones both here and at Hisui suggests some kind of connection to Gishiki as well., wrote Shino. Hinata, if you know, what happened to your mother?
I don't know. My father never told me about her, and I was too young to remember much.
Kiba grunted at this, then wrote:
Bastard'd keep you in the dark for anything.
Possibly, although he may find it difficult to discuss. She was his wife.
Yeah., Kiba wrote. Mom doesn't talk about dad much.
What do you think that thing from the tomb was? asked Hinata.
Something that can't be seen by the Byakugan and can't be tracked even with a nose like mine or Akamaru's. Ring any bells?
Whatever killed Naruto's father?
Seems like it.
Thinking deeply, Shino stuck the end of the pen in his mouth.
"Eww," said Kiba, very quietly.
"It's my pen," protested Shino.
Kiba shook his head in disgust, and Shino put the pen away. He then brought out another one, and wrote on the paper again.
There's something deeper here. It's worth looking into.
By ourselves? wrote Hinata, sceptical.
Yes. Pragmatically speaking, the involvement of your clan and Kiba's father mean it will be unlikely the village will believe us.
Not to mention Jade Clones, long-dead civilisations, human sacrifice and people talking about a 'knife'.
Hinata sighed as she read this. It seemed strange, how elaborately life chose to make things difficult.
We should ask Neji., Kiba wrote.
Hinata took a long time to consider how to respond to this, until eventually she simply wrote:
Neji's part of the Hyuga, so he should be able to open the tomb like you did. If we can get him to help us, we'll be able to prove it's not just to damage the Hyuga and my dad. I know he doesn't like you, Hinata, but maybe we can convince him.
Breathing in deeply, Hinata prepared to tell them the truth. She knew that she would have to explain the clan's situation some day, but she'd hoped it wouldn't be so soon.
That's not going to work., she wrote.
He's a member of the Hyuga clan Branch House.
Kiba ruminated on this for a moment.
How can he be in a branch house if he's your dad's nephew? he wrote.
It's because of how our fathers were born. My father was born first, so he was chosen as heir to the clan. Neji's father was put in the Branch House, along with his son. That's why he hates me.
Kiba's response made Hinata relieved and even more tense, all at once.
They put curse marks on Hyuga Branch House members, don't they? it read.
Slowly, Hinata nodded.
A silence then lasted for a long time, and Hinata couldn't bring herself to look at either boy. She didn't want to see the faces of friends who'd trusted her, who thought she was kind, finding out the worst part of the Hyuga clan.
"Let's go," said Kiba.
"We're a recon squad," he said, standing up. "Let's reconnoitre."
Still sitting, Shino looked up at Kiba and raised his eyebrows.
"'Reconnoitre'?" he said.
Kiba smiled, clutching Akamaru.
"Been reading my calendar."
Shino stood as well, and they both looked expectantly at Hinata. She looked back, cautiously, uncertain of their reaction.
"...what?" asked Shino.
Hinata smiled slightly, and she stood up by her friends. Together, they left the room, and walked through the hallway to a huge window. The three children sat on the window's edge, their backs to the glass, watching as the light from outside made rippling shadows on the wall in front of them.
Eventually, Hinata spoke again.
"Kiba, how do you know about the Branch House?" she asked.
"My mom," Kiba said. "Remember, Hyuga and Inuzuka used to be allies; we have connections like that. They're kind of everywhere in the village anyway, though."
"Hmm," said Hinata, cursing herself for never noticing.
"What happened to Neji's father?" asked Shino.
Kiba almost winced as Shino said this.
"Shino..." he began, but Hinata held up a hand.
"I-it's okay," she said. "You should both know everything."
She put both hands by her side to steady herself, and began to explain.
"...when I was about four, men came from the Land of Lightning," she said. "They traded with my father, but then they tried to kidnap me. F-for the Byakugan. My father killed the ninja who took me. They said they didn't kidnap me, and demanded my father die for what he did."
"When you were four?" asked Kiba. "Who the hell kidnaps a four year old?"
"And why would they demand your father die?" asked Shino. "Is that legal?"
"Hyuga try to solve things by their laws," said Hinata. "N-not the village's. A-anyway, my father had to die, even though he was head of the clan."
"To get the Byakugan from him?" asked Kiba.
Hinata nodded. She swallowed back a lump in her throat, then continued.
"Neji's father was my father's twin, and Branch House members have a seal on their head that removes the Byakugan when they die. I-it causes pain as well...we use that to control them. They took Neji's father instead of mine and killed him. Th-they must have known it wasn't my father once he died and they lost the Byakugan, but there was nothing they could do."
Not bothering to wipe the rapidly-forming tears from her eyes, Hinata finished:
"S-so we won. M-my father lived, and Neji lost the only parent he had because they wanted me."
The two boys considered this.
"We got all the luck, don't we?" said Kiba.
Hinata laughed and sobbed at the same time, wiping her eyes with her sleeve.
"Hinata," said Shino. "Don't think that you were the cause of this."
"I know," she said, reaching up to scratch the back of her head. "I-I haven't dealt with it very well, though."
"You haven't dealt with it well?" said Kiba. "Well, that's unacceptable, Hinata. You should've beaten up eight highly trained ninja at once when you were four, I should've punched my dad in the face until he stopped running, and Shino should've held the guys who trained him by the kikai 'til they left him the hell alone."
Hinata laughed, properly this time, and Shino looked thoughtful.
"I actually did control my tutors' kikai once," he said, almost wistfully. "I didn't hold them up in the air or anything, but I pushed back against one of my tutors when I got angry."
"Really?" he said.
"I was put in confinement for the rest of the day," said Shino.
Hinata laughed again.
"You rebel," said Kiba.
"Yes," agreed Shino. "I am veritably the bad boy of the Aburame clan."
"Y-you've done more than I have," Hinata said.
"C'mon, Hinata," said Kiba. "You can't've been all 'do what the clan says'."
"I used to hoard stuff in my old room," she admitted. "S-so the clan couldn't find out."
"Like what?" asked Kiba.
"Clippings from Real Ninja Stories," said Hinata. "Things I'd found while I was out in the village. And..."
Involuntarily, her fingers came together and pushed themselves as she avoided directly looking at either of her squadmates.
"...um..." she said, a blush forming.
"What?" asked Shino.
"…a little while ago, before we left for Hisui, N-naruto gave me his goggles," Hinata said. "They're probably still under my mattress."
"Your mattress?" asked Shino, as if this was a historical curiosity rather than the most embarrassing thing Hinata had ever admitted to anyone.
"You sure they're not under your pillow, Hinata?" he asked.
Hinata blushed furiously.
"I h-hate both of you," she said.
Akamaru wandered away from Kiba's lap, passed over Shino's, and ended up on Hinata's, sniffing at her and whining a little.
"N-not you, Akamaru, you're nice."
Picking him up, she rubbed his belly, smiling at him.
"Y-you're a good boy, aren't you?" said Hinata.
A chunin walked past, and Hinata suddenly stopped patting Akamaru, handing him back to Kiba. She hoped her face wasn't red now. If she was going to be taken seriously as a kunoichi, she couldn't act so childish in public.
Once the chunin left, Hinata pushed herself down from the windowsill, and smiled at Kiba and Shino as they followed suit.
"T-thankyou," she said to both of them.
Pushing his hood down and putting the small dog on his shoulders, Kiba shook his head.
"You never have to thank us," he said, and Shino nodded in agreement.
Hinata looked behind her, to the door to the room.
"We should head back," she said.
After another hour or so of waiting, a ninja who persistently coughed every few sentences came along and told the two squads to follow him to the next stage of the exam. This was a much bigger place, with audience stands on either side of a fighting arena and a large statue of a Buddha in the middle of the back wall. Even then, it was still just Squad Eight and the squad from Sunagakure. Following the established routine, the squads stood on the opposite sides of the room, each in the stands to the sides of the fighting arena.
Eventually, another squad from Konoha came, but to Hinata's misfortune it was Neji's. Rock Lee waved enthusiastically to both Squad Eight and the Suna Squad, but no amount of cajoling on his part could get Neji to stand anywhere near Hinata. Eventually giving up, Lee loudly declared that everybody present was a splendid ninja, and started doing stomach crunches in the far corner of the Konoha stand. Kiba looked like he was considering speaking to the girl in the squad, but then she started sharpening an apparently endless supply of kunai, and that discouraged him.
Shino stood, leaning on the railing of the stand, and stared at the Buddha statue.
"...thinking about it, do either of you find that odd?" he asked.
"What?" asked Hinata quietly.
"The Buddha statue," said Shino. "A symbol of unattachment and non-violence in a fighting arena."
Akamaru tugged at Kiba's leg, and he picked him up as he spoke.
"That's not that weird," he said. "There're war Buddhas, anyway."
"How?" he asked. "That would seem counterintuitive."
"Th-they're representatives of fighting against the things that k-keep you from being enlightened," said Hinata.
Shino and Kiba both looked to her, curious.
"Everyone h-has to learn about it in m-my clan," said Hinata. "Me in particular, because they thought I'd be leading the rites someday."
She thought for a moment, then asked:
"I'm s-sorry, I kind of assumed you both believed in Buddhas as well..."
"That's okay," said Kiba. "I'm not really sure what I think. My family only prays to Buddhas or spirits when it's a festival or something really important's coming up."
Narrowing his eyes, Shino wondered what exactly his stance on religion was. Before his mother had died, he hadn't given the nature of Buddhas or spirits much thought. It wasn't that he actively denied their existence, it was more that they weren't that relevant to him. Now, though...did his mother still exist somewhere, even if she wasn't alive? Were his regular trips to the memorial to speak with her actually effective, or were they merely emotionally useful to him?
"I'm not sure either," he finally said. "But in any case, my clan is officially secular."
He looked back at the statue, then to Hinata.
"You said they were about fighting against what keeps you from enlightenment?"
"I suppose that might make sense," said Shino. "If truth can emerge from the clash of adverse opinions, it might come out of the clash between adverse fists."
"I figured you'd know about all that stuff anyway," said Kiba.
Shino looked at him.
"Why?" he asked.
"You know about ghosts," said Kiba, "and human sacrifice and stuff."
"Knowing such things is pragmatism," said Shino. "There's plenty of folklore about Shinigami, but they're a real thing."
Demon foxes too, thought Hinata.
Then, as if on cue, Hinata heard a cry of anger somewhere outside. It was Naruto's voice.
Quickly performing the Byakugan, Hinata looked out to the front of the tower. There were two Narutos there: one knelt above the other and repeatedly punched him in the face, while the other, pinned to the ground, was frantically reaching for his kunai. A few metres away, Sasuke and Sakura looked on, both seeming quite surprised. Attempting to drag the attacking Naruto away, the attacking Naruto kicked the prone one and caused a puff of smoke, which revealed that the ninja lying on the ground was an imposter.
Hinata couldn't make out what the imposter-Naruto's headband symbol was, but he had spiked black hair and wore a breathing apparatus around his mouth. In any case, Sasuke and Naruto seemed to make short work of the intruder, both knocking him out quickly. With a final punch to Naruto that fell far short of the target, the intruder collapsed, apparently unconscious.
Naruto and Sasuke began arguing as they took a scroll off the intruder.
"You didn't even notice?!" Hinata heard Naruto shout, despite the distance between them.
Sasuke turned away from Naruto, holding two scrolls out to the guard-nin, and said something too quietly to be heard.
"Huh," said Naruto, rubbing his bandaged face.
Stepping forward to the guard-nin, Naruto suddenly jumped as Sasuke grabbed at his back. Throwing something into the air and pushing Naruto away, Sasuke shielded his eyes as a paper-bomb exploded in mid-air, showering Squad Seven with burnt-up paper.
"What?" Kiba asked Hinata, poking her on the arm. "What's happening?"
Hinata wondered how to explain all this.
"Um…" she said, pushing her fingers together.
A moment later, the doors slammed open as Squad Eight entered the room, Naruto and Sasuke still arguing.
"Pay better attention next time," said Sasuke.
"Yeah?" said Naruto. "How long did you not notice I was gone?"
Looking more closely at Sasuke, he added:
"And what happened to your neck?!"
Assurances from Sakura calmed the two boys down, and the three of them went to the Konoha stands. To Hinata's regret, Naruto didn't say hello to her, though he didn't speak to anybody else either.
Over time, more squads came trickling in, and once Squad Ten entered the room, the guard-nin that accompanied them announced that time was up, and the next stage of the Chunin exams would be beginning shortly. Here, each squad's sensei entered and went over to their squad.
"Good work on making it, guys," said Kurenai as she approached Squad Eight. "And Hinata."
"Thanks, sensei," said Kiba.
"Mm," Hinata nodded.
Thankful, Shino smiled at Kurenai, who seemed taken aback, then approving. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ino glance at him, and rapidly had to order his kikai to stop moving. Forcing his smile to disappear, Shino looked disapprovingly as Yoru upbraided Hikui and Kohaku a little way away, while Reido calmly read a book.
"How in the hell does Yoru get past reasonable training standards, sensei?" asked Kiba.
Kurenai's expression soured as she watched Yoru.
"She's got connections," said Kurenai. "And her teams usually do produce good ninja. Or, at least, people who are good at being ninja."
Wondering what Kurenai meant by that, Hinata was distracted by the shrill noise of a whistle being blown. Everyone gathered at the railings and looked down as Anko stood in the centre of the room, holding her right hand up high to quieten everybody.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" Anko cried out, waving her hand in the air. "Arrrre you ready?!"
Much to Anko's visible disappointment, nobody in the stands responded with cheers, although Hinata thought Kakashi at least chuckled.
"Okay, you're all boring," said Anko. "Welcome to the preliminary finals of the Chunin Exams. You all made it this far, but the fights aren't over yet. Now you all go one-on-one."
There was muttering among the candidates, and Shino looked concerned.
"Sensei, how will that work?" he asked. "There are seven squads, which makes twenty-one people."
"I'm not sure," Kurenai responded. "There might be a three-person battle."
"They have those?" asked Kiba.
"They're not common in Chunin exams, but we need to be prepared for anything," she said.
Anko pointed to a large electronic board that was hanging overhead, slightly to the left of the giant Buddha statue.
"Each fight is randomised based on this board," she said. "You have the option of forfeiting at any time, but the only way to go on to the next round is to fight."
Turning to another chunin, she said:
"Start it up."
With some flourish, the board lit up and began to spin numbers around. Each genin in the room stared on, tense, as their names all flashed past each other in a rapid spin of colours, until eventually it landed on two names:
Ino Yamanaka vs Shino Aburame.
Shino stared blankly at the numbers.
This bodes ill for our nascent relationship, he thought.
…oh, who am I fooling? Any relationship I have with Ino is barely even foetal, let alone nascent.
"Good luck," said Kiba, lightly pushing Shino's shoulder to break the bug-nin out of his reverie.
"W-we'll cheer for you," said Hinata.
"Thankyou," Shino replied.
He walked past the other squads and down the stairs, Ino a little way ahead of him. At this point, he was unsure where the advantage lay. He had no idea of her prowess at taijutsu, but he knew that his own skills at hand-to-hand were not high, even after extensive training with Kiba and Hinata. Ino had been inside of his mind, too, but he didn't think she had read it. Most importantly, she apparently hadn't noticed the kikai during her possession. That meant that they were an ace up his sleeve if he she turned out to be stronger than him.
Thinking about it, though, Shino didn't particularly want Ino to know about the kikai. He had an idea of why, but he wasn't quite willing to admit it to himself.
Reaching the floor, both children stood in the centre of the room, the coughing ninja in between them.
Shino turned his head sideways (his sunglasses were polarized) to see Ino better, then spoke.
"Is your hair shorter?" he asked.
Ino looked surprised.
"Uh…yeah," she said.
Shino got the feeling that she wasn't expecting him to say that.
"Alright," said the coughing ninja. "Start when the timer goes to zero."
3... the board counted down.
Ino brought her fingers together and with lightning speed cast her soul at Shino's body. He dodged to his right, hands up in a defensive taijutsu stance, and Ino's soul returned to her prone body. Flipping back up on her feet, she took a stance herself, turning sideways to face Shino and crouching slightly.
"Well?" she asked, expectantly.
Shino stared at her, blank.
"I was on the floor helpless," Ino said. "Why didn't you attack me?"
"That wouldn't be very sporting," he said.
Ino raised an eyebrow at this.
"Besides," he added, "My assumption is that you've only got the ability to use your jutsu a few times before you tire ou-"
She threw a shuriken at him.
This came almost too fast to dodge, and Shino leapt backwards in a manner he didn't think was all that graceful. Recovering, he parried Ino's hand-to-hand strikes and tried to strategise.
While Ino was not much of a taijutsu expert, neither was he; he relied on the element of surprise to have any success in hand-to-hand, and Ino had taken that from him. All she'd need to do to win would be to incapacitate him for a brief moment, then throw her soul into him and declare herself the winner. He had to go on the offensive.
Hoping it wouldn't terrify her, Shino leapt back as far as he could, and raised his hands up.
The kikai flowed from him, chittering as they flew through the air. Most of the crowd gasped, with everyone except Squad Eight on the Konoha side shocked.
"Cool," said Hikui, and ignored Yoru's disapproving sniffs to lean further over the railing.
Shino pointed at Ino, and the kikai flew towards her. Sweeping his left arm around, he used them to push her close to the wall. Mostly unaffected by her kicks and punches, the kikai formed ropes around Ino's hands, holding them apart at Shino's command. Thus incapacitated, Shino approached Ino.
"Do you admit defeat?" he asked.
Ino, breathing heavily, turned her head sharply to move her hair to her mouth. She then tugged at her hair with her teeth, and a crumpled piece of paper fell from her side.
Far from the two of them, back on the Konoha side of the room, Naruto said:
As the paper fell, Ino kicked it at Shino with a glowing foot. As the paper lit up with chakra, Shino realised what it was, and quickly reformed the kikai to shield himself from the explosion of the paper bomb.
The explosion singed some kikai, leaving them to drop on the floor, and Shino felt a sudden numbness as Ino's soul entered his body. He watched her body behind him fall to the ground, and would have sighed with regret were he able to.
"Shino forfeits," she declared, in his voice.
The overseeing ninja's speech was interrupted by a brief coughing fit, but he eventually managed to proclaim:
There was a great deal of clapping on the Konoha stand, with cheers from Ino's squad and Asuma, and a nod of respect to Ino-Shino from Sakura. Sasuke, on the other hand, seemed to pay this development no great amount of attention. With disappointment on Shino's face, Ino exited Shino's body and went back to her own. Shino reabsorbed the kikai as quickly as he could, then saw Ino sitting on the floor. Hoping to be a good loser, Shino held out a hand to her.
"I'm fine," she said.
Shino nodded, and went to walk up the stairs to the Konoha stands.
Then, he sensed something.
Turning back, Shino went to the other side of the room, where the explosion happened. A thin outline of ash was there, as were ten or so burnt kikai. One was still moving, weakly buzzing as it flapped its one remaining wing.
Shino reached down with his hand, and called the last living kikai among them back to him. It responded, hopped onto his palm, and burrowed in, Shino wincing slightly as his skin broke and healed over.
This done, Shino left the dead kikai and went back up the stairs to the Konoha stand. Ino was surrounded by her squad, who were congratulating her.
"Good job, Ino," said Choji.
"Yeah, nice," said Shikamaru.
"No thanks to you two," said Ino. "I got us out of Kiba's rope-net, and all you two did was complain and eat chips!"
"I didn't eat chips," protested Shikamaru.
Back with Kiba and Hinata, Kurenai looked at Shino waiting behind Ino. Shino tried to ignore his sensei's gaze and spoke.
"How did you make the explosive tag drop?" he asked.
Ino stopped poking Shikamaru on the shoulder and turned around, surprised that Shino was there.
"My hair attached to it worked like a string," she said.
Shino nodded. That explained her shorter hair, in any case.
"It was an excellent strategy," he said.
"Thanks," she responded.
With this, the two children parted ways. Shino wondered why Kurenai had been looking at him. Did she know he know he liked – was attracted to – Ino?
I need to be less obvious, Shino decided.
"Never mind, Shino," Kurenai said as he returned.
"It's alright," said Shino.
"Y-you did very well anyway," said Hinata.
"Yeah," said Kiba. "It was a good fight, man."
The board next to the Buddha started up again, and everyone turned around to look at it. After the words and pictures scrolled through, it eventually landed on two ninja:
Kin Tsuchi vs Reido Zettai.
Hinata looked over her shoulder as Reido put her book on the ground, walking away from her squad with nothing said between them. Yoru folded her arms confidently, smirking. Standing a metre away from Yoru, Hikui and Kohaku watched their teammate leave with mild interest.
On the floor, Reido faced a short girl with long dark hair who wore a scarf around her neck. At Hayate's cue, both bowed slightly, and once the countdown reached zero, the match began.
In a blur of movement, the dark-haired girl flung something at Reido. Reido stepped left to dodge it, then gasped with pain, clutching her left shoulder. Uncertain as to what was happening, Hinata activated the Byakugan, and found that Reido had a tiny needle stuck in her.
"What's going on?" whispered Kiba to Hinata.
"Sh-she threw a senbon," Hinata responded.
"What's the matter?" asked the dark-haired girl as Reido's breathing became more ragged. "Too much of a scholar to handle any pain?"
Reido began to speak, but instead fell to her knees and started coughing up blood.
Previously uninterested genin on both sides ran for the railings and watched as Reido doubled over in pain. Hinata turned off the Byakugan as she saw tears appear in Reido's eyes, and watched with shock as Kin kicked Reido in the stomach.
The coughing ninja stepped in and pushed Kin back.
"Get up!" shouted Yoru, running down the stairs. "Reido, get up!"
"She's unfit to fight now," said the coughing ninja, signalling for medics.
"NO!" screamed Yoru.
Against Yoru's protests, Reido was put on a stretcher and carried away. Looking despondent, Yoru returned to the Konoha stands amid much chatter from the genin.
Hinata watched Yoru as she spoke to her genin, sternly ordering them to follow her. Had Yoru just been exaggerating Reido's abilities, or was Reido holding back for some reason? From what Kurenai had said, genin under Yoru usually flourished.
Yoru turned sharply and walked out of a door to the side of the room, with Kohaku and Hikui reluctantly following. Looking around cautiously, Hinata made sure nobody was looking at her, and created a Clone of herself. Quietly stepping around the arguing Squad Ten, Hinata followed Yoru's squad at a distance, walking through a hallway. Eventually, they entered a room that branched off from the hallway. Hinata activated the Byakugan and entered a room just ahead of Yoru's squad's, leaning against the wall so as to hear them speaking.
Yoru spoke first.
"If the two of you disappoint me as much as Reido just did," she said, "there will be severe consequences."
"Sensei-" Hikui began.
"Thirty pushups, Hikui," said Yoru, not looking.
As Hikui dropped to the ground, Kohaku spoke.
"Reido couldn't've fought against poison," said Kohaku.
Yoru shook her head.
"She should have persevered," she said. "A field ninja needs to understand that. To leave a threat like her opponent alive is the height of incompetence."
"I'm glad...you're so concerned...about her test score," said Hikui, still doing pushups.
"Ninja are not trained to be failures," said Yoru. "I had assumed up until now that despite your deficiencies, Reido was worthy of my time. But it seems you and Kohaku have dragged her down."
There was silence.
"You know what, Yoru?" asked Kohaku. "If us three are really doing that badly right now, why don't we request an internal investigation of the squad? I'm sure the village'd be only too happy to look into your teaching methods."
Yoru smiled, which to Hinata seemed oddly disturbing. The jonin put her hand on Kohaku's shoulder.
"Maybe," she said. "But then I might have to divulge your...abnormality."
Hikui looked up nervously, frozen mid-pushup. Eyes wide, Kohaku pushed Yoru's hand off his shoulder and stepped away, standing beside Hikui.
"Please don't," he said, quietly.
"Then do better," said Yoru, still calm and smiling.
The door of the room swung open, and the coughing ninja stepped in. Hinata jumped, worried that he'd see her, before remembering she was on the other side of the wall. Yoru turned to face the interloper, her expression changing back to a haughty one. Behind her, Hikui stood up and held Kohaku's hand very tightly.
The ninja paused to cough, then asked:
Kohaku cautiously spoke.
"You're up," said the ninja. "Against Naruto Uzumaki."
Hinata had to grab her mouth to avoid gasping, but none of Yoru's squad reacted as much. Letting go of Hikui's hand, Kohaku followed the coughing ninja, and Hikui and Yoru followed.
Waiting until they were outside the hallway entirely, Hinata carefully opened the door of her room, deactivating the Byakugan. Sighing at how little she could do to help Kohaku, she started to walk back to the main room.
She had an idea of what his 'abnormality' was.
A chunin suddenly stepped out from a door into the hallway; the same one that had passed Hinata before, when she sat on the windowsill. As they passed each other, the chunin stopped and whispered to Hinata:
"Message from your father."
Hinata couldn't see through the chunin's disguise, but she guessed from his voice it was Orora.
"I-if it's from my father, I don't want it," she said.
"Humour me," said Orora.
Slowly, reluctantly, Hinata held out her hand, and Orora put a small piece of paper in it, torn from something else. Stuffing it in her pocket, Hinata turned and walked away, not bothering to see if Orora had left.
She returned, quietly dispelling the Clone she'd created. The board was counting down, and Naruto and Kohaku were facing one another.
Naruto was incredibly confused for the first thirty seconds of the fight, because it consisted of him frantically punching Kohaku to no effect whatsoever. Any time his fists reached the older boy, a flash of green light occurred, and they seemed to hit nothing but air.
"Wh...?" asked Naruto. "How come you're doin' that?"
Finally, Kohaku moved away from Naruto's strike and hit him in return. Naruto attempted to retaliate, but his attacks kept phasing through Kohaku as if they were nothing.
Growing tired of this, Naruto stepped back, still in a taijutsu stance but no longer attacking.
"How're you doing this?" he said.
Kohaku raised an eyebrow at him.
"What," he said, "you want me to explain my entire range of jutsu in detail?"
Naruto considered this.
"…it'd help a lot," he said.
Shrugging, Kohaku stood still. Naruto, facing the Konoha stand and with his back to the other village's genin, stepped backwards until he had his back to a wall. Then, running as fast as he could, he ran up to Kohaku and, with all his might, failed to hit him again.
Kohaku calmly stepped right through Naruto as the orange-jacketed ninja tripped and fell to the ground. Amidst laughter on both sides, Naruto angrily pushed himself up from the floor, and faced Kohaku.
Now, their positions were reversed. Kohaku faced the Konoha side, and Naruto faced the side with ninja from Otogakure and Sunagakure. Briefly, Naruto glanced up at the genin there, but all regarded him with disdain or disinterest.
Naruto frowned. Even outside of Konoha he was a nobody.
Recovering from his distraction, Naruto's eyes widened in worry as he saw Kohaku sink down into the floor. Bringing his hands together, he made as many shadow clones as he could.
The hundred or so Narutos began jumping around and doing flips, hoping to distract Kohaku from the real one among them. Somewhere, the Narutos thought they heard somebody giggle for a second, but they were probably just woozy from hitting the ground before.
As they moved around, the shadow clones began to disappear, a spectral green hand grabbing at their feet and knocking them off balance. Once each Naruto was gone, Kohaku rose from the ground among the smoke, and looked for his target.
The real Naruto was climbing up the Buddha statue, sneaking towards the head. Seeing this, Kohaku broke into a run, heading for the statue's base. Reaching it, Kohaku leapt up and ran up the statue's front, his feet glowing with chakra.
Kiba nudged Kurenai.
"Sensei, how's he doing that?"
"Ssh," she responded.
As Naruto reached the top, Kohaku jumped up and phased through the Buddha's head, hitting Naruto in the face. This Naruto disappeared.
The puff of smoke of its destruction gave way to six or so Narutos, who promptly grabbed Kohaku's feet and hands. Incapable of phasing with his hands kept apart, Kohaku was kicked a dozen times as he and the Narutos fell from the Buddha, landing in a pile of shadow clones.
The smoke clearing as the shadow clones dissipated, both boys pushed themselves upright, and took stances again, circling each other slowly.
"How can you make so many clones?" asked Kohaku, blood coming from his chin.
"...long story," said Naruto.
"Huh," said Kohaku. "Don't want to tell me?"
Naruto inclined his head a little.
"I don't even know your name," he said.
"It's on the giant board right behind you," said Kohaku.
There was silence.
"...I'm not lookin'," Naruto said.
"It's Kohaku," said Kohaku, wiping sweat from his forehead.
Naruto blinked, and prepared for the worst of it.
"Naruto Uzumaki," he said.
"I've heard of you," said Kohaku. "They say you're a loser."
After a moment's reflection, Naruto declared:
"…they're jealous 'cos they suck."
"Well, uh…" he said. "I kind of need to say something. Something I've been keeping quiet about for a long time."
Kohaku pointed behind him, to the Konoha stand.
"To them. Is that...okay?"
Naruto cocked his head, looking carefully at Kohaku, who remained still. This didn't seem like a trick to him, but what kind of announcement would Kohaku need to make in the middle of a fight?
Slowly, Naruto nodded.
"Hey," said Kohaku, louder than before. "Konoha stand!"
The ninja on Konoha stand all turned to pay attention to Kohaku. All seemed curious, save for the disinterested Sasuke, as usual.
"The match can't go on until I've said something," he said. "Naruto's cool with this."
He looked back to Naruto.
"Right?" he said.
Nodding again, Naruto stepped backwards, his fighting stance disappearing until he stood upright.
I hope this guy's legit, he thought.
Kohaku wiped the blood from his chin.
"I've...been a ninja since I was six, like everybody else," he said, half to the Konoha stand and half to himself. "My parents are ninja and they've fought for their village, like pretty much everybody else in this room. And I passed the Academy at twelve, got my headband, and went into a squad, like all of you.
"But some ways, I'm not like all of you. My jutsu is weird. And…I'm not…I'm only…"
Blinking very quickly, Kohaku stuck his hands in his pockets and confessed it to the stand:
"…interested in other boys."
The room was so silent, Kohaku was worried everyone might hear his heart beating.
"I didn't think I'd tell everyone like this," he said. "But I had to."
He stared straight at Yoru, and added:
"Or Yoru Aotsuki would've said it for me."
The previous silence of the Konoha side was broken as every jonin and genin turned to stare at Yoru, who stoically didn't look at any of them.
"You held this over me for a year, sensei," said Kohaku. "I thought the person the village chose to make me into the best fucking ninja I could be wouldn't use it against me. But I can say it now. I've got Hikui."
He looked behind him to a very confused-looking Naruto.
"And Naruto here, who I've had my back turned to for well over a minute but still hasn't attacked me."
The orange boy shrugged.
"I can't fight you now," he said. "You're working stuff out."
"Thankyou," he said.
He looked around for Anko, and found her on the sidelines, rubbing her chin.
"Proctor Mitarashi," he said. "What channels do I go through to formally say all this against Yoru?"
Anko thought it over.
"…Hayate," she said, her usual energetic demeanour entirely absent, "can you take Kohaku, and Hikui to room Four Oh Three? Get Reido too, if she's recovered."
The coughing ninja, whose name was Hayate, was apparently too surprised to even cough, as he simply said "Yeah" and went for the stairs. Hikui went to him, passing Yoru without acknowledging her.
Anko looked up at Yoru.
"Yoru," she said. "With me."
Yoru felt the stares of a roomful of highly trained killers, and as a result felt somewhat uncomfortable.
"He's lying," she said, loudly and shakily.
Realising that that obviously wasn't going to work, Yoru slowly walked down the stairs, with whatever dignity she might have had before disappearing in seconds. Reaching Anko, she stood in silence, now staring at the ceiling.
"Genma," Anko said, turning to a ninja with a straw of grass in his mouth. "You're proctor 'til we're back."
"Right," said Genma.
Anko turned and left through the door to the hallway, and Yoru walked behind her. The door shut behind Yoru with a click that echoed around the room.
This done, Hayate went to Kohaku, waiting a few metres away from the combatants.
Kohaku breathed what may have been a sigh of relief, and turned around to speak to Naruto.
"I have to go," Kohaku said.
"What about the fight?" he said.
"Yeah, I'm sorry," he said. "I know you wanted to win a real match."
"Don't you?" asked Naruto.
Kohaku shook his head.
"Not like this," he said. "I don't wanna get promoted to chunin and think 'Yoru got me here', even for a second."
He looked to Genma.
"I forfeit," he said.
Kohaku joined Hikui, and began to walk away with Hayate. Just as Kohaku reached the door to the room, Naruto called out:
"I want a rematch, though!"
Kohaku thought on this.
"Deal," he said, and stepped out of the door.
There was muttering in the stands as Naruto walk back up to the stairs. Hinata, Kiba and Shino exchanged looks, pondering what they'd just witnessed.
"I was…not expecting that," Kiba said.
"An interesting development," noted Shino.
"How is it 'interesting'?" she asked.
"Village law forbids discrimination by gender or sexuality," said Kurenai. "Yoru's gonna be grounded from missions for a long time, and she'll definitely never work with genin again."
"What'll happen to Squad Eleven?" asked Kiba.
"That's up to the Hokage," said Kurenai. "They'll most likely get a new sensei, but stay as a group."
As Naruto walked past Squad Eight, Kurenai called out to him.
"Naruto," Kurenai said.
"How you behaved out there was very chivalrous," she said.
"...what's 'chivalrous' mean?" asked Naruto, scratching his head.
"'Chivalrous' means acting like a gentleman, Naruto," said Kakashi.
"I'm not a gentleman!" Naruto protested. "Gentlemen wear kimonos and eat deer and stuff!"
"Technically, it also means you ride a horse," Shino added.
"And I've never done that either!" said Naruto.
(He had always been scared of horses. He held a deep suspicion that they were somehow up to no good.)
"Just accept the compliment, Naruto," said Kakashi.
"Okay," he said. "Thanks, Kurenai-sensei."
Nodding to Shino, but conspicuously not looking at Kiba or Hinata, Naruto went back to his squad, literally jumping for joy when Kakashi informed him he was allowed to eat as much ramen as he wanted for the next three days.
Hinata ruefully pushed her fingers together. Had she been too forward, kissing him on the forehead before they entered the forest?
"You should talk to him," Kiba whispered to her, as everyone else was distracted by the board lighting up again.
"Y-you should talk to him," said Hinata.
She then added:
"A-and that's not just a stupid comeback. You should."
Kiba shrugged, then leaned on the railing, rubbing Akamaru's chin.
Pity I didn't get to fight him, he thought as the board activated again. Probably would'a worked a lot of stuff out that way. Still, Kohaku was lucky he got Naruto.
Looking sideways at Sasuke, Kiba had the feeling that not every genin here would have given Kohaku the chance to speak, given the huge opening in his defence it left. Sasuke was definitely the 'win at all costs' type, and Kiba really didn't like the look of that ginger kid with no eyebrows…
The board stopped.
Kiba Inuzuka vs Sasuke Uchiha.
"Woohoo!" shouted Ino, much to her squadmates' annoyance. "Go Sasuke!"
Kiba gave a sympathetic look to Shino, who shrugged at this, and fistbumped with Hinata before leaving for the stairs. Sasuke was already down on the floor, deep in strategic thought.
"Alright, Akamaru," Kiba whispered, "let's teach this pretty bastard why you shouldn't go up against an Inuzuka."
Barking in approval, Akamaru jumped down from Kiba's shoulder and walked by his side, boy and dog reaching Hayate quickly.
"This should be interesting, huh Sasuke?" asked Kiba, stretching. "You've never lost a taijutsu match, have you?"
To Kiba's surprise and delight, Sasuke deigned to respond.
"Have you ever been in one outside of training?" he asked, quietly.
"Tch," said Kiba, brimming with confidence. "I've seen stuff you wouldn't believe."
"Hn," said Sasuke, and he entered a fighting stance.
The board began to count down.
When Sasuke's fist slammed into his gut within the first second of the match, Kiba wondered if he hadn't slightly overestimated his own skills. Leaping backwards and then rolling away to avoid Sasuke's kick, Kiba barely had enough breath to shout for Akamaru. The little dog attempted to clamp onto Sasuke's arm, but the rival ninja was simply too fast, and Akamaru leapt through the air with no success.
"Fang Over Fang!" shouted Kiba, instructing Akamaru.
Akamaru spun rapidly, driving into the small of Sasuke's back as Kiba did his best to push away Sasuke's blows. Sasuke turned around to punch Akamaru away, and in that moment Kiba leapt as far as he could to the other end of the room, Akamaru following.
Landing on both feet and a hand, Kiba breathed raggedly, and stood up to wipe sweat from his brow. He glanced at the clock on the board, discovering they'd been fighting for about thirty seconds.
Damn, thought Kiba. He's even better than before.
Far away, Sasuke was standing still, staring off into the distance. Sniffing the air, Kiba detected a higher concentration of female pheromones than had previously been present in the room.
Jerk, thought Kiba as he heard Ino and Sakura sighing.
"C'mon, Akamaru," he said.
Breaking into a run, the two of them charged at Sasuke, Kiba's fist raised and Akamaru's teeth bared. Sasuke, who ran forward to meet them, remained stoic.
As they reached each other, Kiba shouted "Psych!" and leapt over Sasuke instead of punching him, leaving Akamaru to bite at the Uchiha as Kiba struck at Sasuke's back. Sasuke was too fast again, however, and hit both Kiba and Akamaru with a spinning kick, sending both to the floor.
"Do you admit def-" Sasuke began to ask, and was interrupted by having to dodge Kiba's punch.
Stepping to the side, he parried Kiba's strikes with minimal effort, then kicked the dog-nin away again, letting him land beside Akamaru.
Almost growling in anger, Kiba's rage brought him a plan, and he grinned.
"Hey, bud," said Kiba to Akamaru. "You can jump high, right?"
Akamaru barked his agreement.
"Great," said Kiba. "Lemme just make sure Sasuke stay-"
Rolling out of the way to avoid Sasuke stomping on him, Kiba pushed himself up from the ground and landed a kick to Sasuke's chest, staggering the rival ninja. This done, Kiba grabbed onto Sasuke's arms and pulled them back as hard as he could, kicking at his legs to stop Sasuke from throwing him.
"Now!" shouted Kiba.
Akamaru leapt almost to the top of the building's roof, and began to spin. Kiba and Sasuke's hair rustled as Akamaru's spinning grew faster and faster, falling towards both of them.
Yes, thought Kiba. Finally.
He was going to be the genin who beat Sasuke Uchiha.
"Come on, boy," Kiba said, as Akamaru fell closer and closer to them.
He could hear the air whistling as Akamaru pushed through it, only a few metres above them now.
A sudden pain in his nose shocked Kiba, and he let go of Sasuke, realising that he'd been backwards-headbutted. Sasuke pushed him back and moved forward, and Akamaru fell between them, tearing up floorboards until he lay dazed in a crumpled heap.
The crowd on the Konoha side gasped.
"Wh…" Kiba began.
Sasuke turned around to reveal he was covered in ink-black blotches across his body, eyes glowing red. He said nothing, but he wasn't wearing his usual look of bored disdain. Here, he looked angry.
"…Sasuke?" asked Kiba, suddenly uncertain.
Sasuke raised his foot over Akamaru, still unable to move.
Kiba's eyes widened.
"What are you doing?"
Sasuke raised his foot higher, his red eyes still staring into Kiba's own.
"Seriously," said Kiba, "what are you doing? It's Akamaru, leave him, he barely even touched you, if you want me to forfeit you don't have to hurt Akamaru-"
"Only losers forfeit," said Sasuke, and he brought his foot down on Akamaru.
The dog and his owner both cried out in pain as Sasuke's foot connected, and there was a collective shout of disapproval in the Konoha stands.
"Sensei!" Naruto shouted, despite Kakashi being right next to him. "He can't do that, right?"
"…Akamaru is a combatant," he said. "It's legal."
Sasuke stepped off Akamaru, leaving the dog to whimper as he turned his back on Kiba, walking towards the Konoha stairs. Kiba knelt by Akamaru, feeling his pulse.
"It's alright, boy," he said. "Hold on, you can make it."
Akamaru's bark was feeble but encouraging.
"I'm sorry," said Kiba, but Akamaru leaned up and licked his nose, despite his laboured breathing.
Kiba laughed with relief, then looked up as Sasuke spoke from far off.
"Are you ready to forfeit now?"
"I can't hear you," said Kiba, "when you're on the other end of the room and you're not even looking at me, staring out into space like you're a godsdamn t-shirt model, you dumb shit."
Much to Kiba's surprise, he heard laughter on both sides of the stadium, and on the Konoha stand he was pretty sure it was Naruto.
Sasuke turned around.
"You don't know anything you talk about," he said, eyes still red.
"Your clan dying?" asked Kiba. "That's your lifelong ticket to do whatever the hell you want and who cares about anyone else, right?"
The glare that Sasuke gave Kiba was the most honest emotion the dog-nin had seen the Uchiha ever express.
"I've had enough of this conversation," said Sasuke, beginning to move forward.
"Suits me," muttered Kiba, who broke into a run.
Even before Sasuke's fist connected with his face and he fell to the ground, Kiba knew he was about to lose. Whatever Sasuke had done to give himself the black spots on his body, it had made him stronger; far too strong for Kiba to manage without Hinata, Shino and Akamaru. But as he collapsed, in the last few seconds of consciousness, Kiba was happy.
I'm the genin who got through to Sasuke Uchiha.
When Kiba recovered, he was lying down, and his vision was blurred. From the feeling of sheets on his body, he guessed it was a medical bay of some kind. Before the bed was a blur in the vague shape of a person.
"How is he?" he asked.
"Akamaru's stable," said the shape, in Kurenai's voice. "They've called your mother so she can take a second look, but the medics think he'll be fine."
"Great," said Kiba, as his vision finally resolved enough to see Kurenai standing over his bed.
"You overdid it," said Kurenai.
Kiba pushed himself into a sitting position, and shrugged.
"Maybe," he said.
"No, Kiba, you really went too far this time," she said. "Do you know what that fight looked like to everyone else out there?"
"A guy who stepped on a dog," said Kiba, "against a guy who fought tooth and nail to beat him for doing that."
Kurenai sat on Kiba's bed, Kiba moving his feet to give her space.
"According to the rules of the exams, which you signed," she said, "Akamaru was a combatant, same as you. Begging Sasuke not to hurt him would be like begging an enemy not to hurt Hinata or Shino if they were in a similar position."
"And that's bad?" asked Kiba.
"Kiba…" began Kurenai.
"No, come on, sensei," said Kiba. "Every time I've ever ended up part of a hostage situation, somebody's come through and saved the day. Akamaru couldn't 'cos he'd just done Fang Over Fang, and even though he's smart for a dog he's still a dog, but Hinata or Shino or someone else could'a gotten out of what Sasuke did."
"You shouldn't have gotten that emotional," said Kurenai. "It's one of your weaknesses. One of Hinata's, too."
She thought about the way the squad had changed behaviour, in the time that she'd known them.
"Maybe Shino as well," she added.
Kiba folded his arms.
"If getting emotional is a weakness, I'm fine being weak," he said. "I don't want to know what I'd be if I never expressed myself. 'Sides, I'm betting Sasuke's not so full of himself now, huh?"
Kurenai frowned disapprovingly, and leaned closer to Kiba.
"Kiba, I know you don't like Sasuke," she whispered. "It probably doesn't help that he's basically the only boy girls in your class ever showed interest in, but you can't let that interfere with your work as a ninja."
"That's not it," said Kiba.
(That was partly it, but Kiba wasn't about to let Kurenai know that.)
"Sasuke needs to lose," he continued. "Winning over and over means you never get used to failure, which means when it finally happens you can't handle it. Sasuke losing to me would be great, because I'm not that good a ninja, so it'd show him even he can trip up sometimes. Maybe he'd lose some of that Hokage Monument-sized chip on his shoulder."
He rubbed at his neck.
"Even now, though," he said, "when I yelled at him after he stepped on Akamaru, I'm pretty sure I got through to him. Not even he can keep everything inside forever."
"It's not your job to get through to Sasuke," said Kurenai. "And I'd ask you not to talk about his clan again."
Stubborn kid, thought Kurenai as Kiba looked away, frowning.
Eventually, he muttered:
Kurenai got off the bed, and Kiba began to move the bedsheets to leave.
"No," said Kurenai. "Stay there for now."
"I want to see Hinata fight," Kiba said as she began to walk out.
"She hasn't been called yet," said Kurenai, stopping at the door. "I'll get you when it's time."
Kiba smiled and nodded.
"Thanks, sensei," he said.
Ten minutes or so after Kurenai left, a medic-nin came over to Kiba, who was experimentally moving around his knuckles and looking at the bones move underneath the skin.
"Ahem," said the medic-nin, and Kiba abruptly stopped.
"Yeah?" he said, looking up.
"We think you're fine," said the medic. "Only unusual thing is the tests showed your adrenaline activity was a bit higher than usual for someone your age."
Kiba's smile receded a little.
"That's fine," he said. "I'm an Inuzuka."
"…oh," said the medic. "Sorry, I should have remembered."
"Mm," said Kiba, who swung his feet off the bed and began to put his shoes on.
"I heard from Hayate a kid who was fighting came out during a match," said the medic as he straightened out pillows nearby.
"Yeah," said Kiba.
"How come?" asked the medic.
"His sensei was Yoru Aotsuki," said Kiba. "He said she was blackmailing him with it. She would've told everyone if he didn't."
The medic sighed.
"I'd say that's low even for Yoru, but thinking about it, that sounds exactly like her," he said, writing something on his clipboard. "At least now that kind of thing gets punished."
"Eventually," said Kiba.
"Well, we can't know if you guys don't report it," said the medic.
Sure, thought Kiba as he tightened the straps on his sandals, the solution is for all of us to trust you more.
"Yeah," said Kiba. "Thanks for patching me up…"
"Kabuto," said the medic.
Thanking Kabuto, Kiba left the infirmary. When Kiba returned to the fighting room, two ninja were locked in battle, one wielding some kind of humanoid wooden machine at the other.
"These're the Sound guys, right?" he asked as he stood next to Shino and Hinata again.
"The bandaged one is from Otogakure," said Shino, "but the one in black's from Suna. Is Akamaru alright?"
"Yeah, he's fine, but they're waiting for a second opinion," said Kiba. "Medic-nin aren't all trained to cure dogs."
Seeing Hinata and Shino relieved, he looked around. A lot of the sensei weren't there (he guessed they were somewhere else, discussing what happened with Kohaku), and neither was Choji.
"Where's Choji?" he asked.
"He lost," said Hinata. "D-didn't you see him in the infirmary?"
"Nope," said Kiba. "Who beat him?
"Temari," said Hinata.
"The blonde girl with pigtails?" asked Kiba, as the bandaged shinobi frantically kicked at the black one's machine.
"Hm," Shino nodded. "He lost quite quickly, too."
Leaning on the rails nearby, Shikamaru scratched his nose and spoke.
"If you're not ready for these fights, it's better to drop out before you get hurt," he said.
As Shikamaru said this, Hinata noticed Neji a few metres away, the only member of his squad not watching the match. He glanced at her, then looked down at the floor below.
Noticing Hinata's nervous look, Shikamaru added:
"Maybe we'll end up fighting, Hinata," he said.
"I c-could deal with that," said Hinata.
"I'd probably forfeit," said Shikamaru.
"W-what?" asked Hinata. "But you and Ino and Choji all got so far!"
"Yeah," said Ino, "but it took us so long to get scrolls after you took ours, Shikamaru's probably minutes away from collapsing."
"You're a drag, Yamanaka," said Shikamaru.
The black-clad ninja won, and after packing his machine away, he returned to the Otogakure-Sunagakure stands.
"Uh…" said Naruto, scratching the back of his head and looking in Kiba's direction, "sorry about what Sasuke did, Kiba."
"You shouldn't be apologising for what he did," said Kiba.
He looked around, and realised Sasuke was missing too.
"Where is he?" Kiba asked.
"Kakashi-sensei's taking care of him," said Sakura.
"What was the cause of the black spots on him?" asked Shino.
After getting over her surprise at hearing Shino speak to her, Sakura responded, looking away:
"I don't think I should talk about it."
That's fair enough, thought Kiba.
"Weird stuff happens in that forest," he mused.
"I have no idea either," said Naruto. "Wherever he learned to do that, I wasn't around."
Leaning onto the railing in front of him, Naruto added:
"Then again, Sasuke learns a lotta stuff quickly."
Hinata tried to look Naruto in the eye sympathetically, but he seemed to be avoiding her gaze.
She brought her fingers together and pushed them out of habit, then quickly stuck her hands in her pockets to stop herself from doing that.
It probably doesn't mean anything, she thought. Naruto can't think about me all the time.
Cursing her selfishness, Hinata became more annoyed as she felt the note from her father in her pocket. She'd throw it out, but the others might see, and she somehow suspected that notes from outside the exams weren't allowed.
"I hope I g-go next," she said, as the board lit up.
"I wanna go, though," said Shikamaru. "Being this nervous makes it hard to nap."
Who's left… she pondered. Shikamaru, Sakura, everyone from Neji's squad… I hope it's somebody from Konoha.
No! she scolded herself. Just because someone's not from Konoha doesn't mean they can't be nice.
She looked nervously across the room to the Oto-Suna stand.
Although if they're nice, they're all hiding it very well, she thought.
Out of the corner of her eye, Hinata saw somebody watching her, and moving her head slightly revealed that it was Neji. His focused glare was unsettling. Was he trying to scare her before her match? Exactly how much did he want to sabotage her?
Hinata turned her head further, and stared back at Neji.
The board stopped, and Kiba poked her arm immediately.
Looking back, Hinata's bravery of a few seconds ago evaporated.
Neji Hyuga vs Hinata Hyuga.
Straightening out her jacket, Hinata walked towards the stairs, feeling like she was floating.
This isn't actually happening, she thought. Any second, Shino will grow to thirty feet tall, and the room will be full of spoons, and I'll wake up in bed at hom-
…at Kiba's house.
Frowning resentfully at her disappointing subconscious, Hinata further thought:
If I'm dreaming, why can't I dream about a giant pile of kittens or something?
Reaching Genma before Neji did, Hinata bowed a little to the chunin, who was chewing on a piece of grass. Neji followed, slowly, walking towards Hinata with a purposeful stride. Hinata decided to jump backwards as soon as the fight started, hoping not to give Neji an edge in the first few seconds. That had cost Kiba in his match with Sasuke.
Once he reached Genma, Neji stood still, and Genma waved a hand. The board's countdown began.
Hinata quickly stepped backward to avoid an attack that never came.
Neji did not move.
"Um..." said Genma. "…go?"
Neji reached up to the back of his headband, untied the knot there, then threw his headband down. The clink of metal echoed as it landed on the floor, and for the first time, Hinata saw the seal on his head. It had long been described to her as a tattoo, but in truth it looked more like a scar, its dark X-shape seared into Neji's flesh.
This could only mean one thing.
Neji was daring her to activate the seal.
This must have been father's doing, Hinata thought. An opening to rejoin the clan.
Stepping forward, Hinata crouched down and picked up Neji's headband, then stood up and held it out to him.
His calm disdain giving way to anger, Neji slapped the headband out of Hinata's hand and pushed at her with his other hand. She dodged, stepping sideways, and struck once herself, actually hitting Neji in the chest. It wasn't much use, considering that without the Byakugan hitting a chakra channel was incredibly difficult, but it still connected.
Both surprised at Hinata's success, Neji and Hinata stepped back to activate the Byakugan, and then the circling began. The ultimate goal of Gentle Fist was to outmanoeuvre the opponent so as to hit the chakra point on their lower neck, stopping chakra flow to the rest of their body. Footwork was vital to the flow, and Hinata regretted the fact that she'd never quite practiced it enough.
Neji moved forward and aimed for Hinata's face, which Hinata parried as quickly as she could manage, striking at Neji's chest in return. She'd overextended herself, however, and as she pulled back to avoid Neji hitting her in the neck, his right hand connected with her right shoulder, leaving it to flop uselessly.
Hinata jumped back and started drumming the place where Neji had struck her with her other hand, a technique for getting chakra to move again that Tsume had told her about.
"You have no chance of beating me without using the seal," said Neji, still circling.
Hinata said nothing, tapping her shoulder.
"It was made for the advantage of people like you," said Neji. "The children of firstborn, the ones that by pure luck found power and riches. It is not your fate to remain apart from the clan. As much as you hate it, it is your home, and you will always return."
"Y-you don't know what my fate is," said Hinata.
Neji dashed forward to hit Hinata in the belly. Realising this at the last second, Hinata chakra-jumped over him, then after landing on his other side, jump-kicked him in the ribs. There was an appreciative cheer from the crowd as Hinata landed and pushed herself up, seeing Neji stumble backwards at her attack.
For the first time in the fight, Hinata smiled. That was a Whirling Leaf attack - Gentle Fist rarely, if ever used kicks – but since the only Hyuga present was Neji, nobody was going to criticise her for using it.
Standing up, Hinata took up a fighting stance again, and leapt forward at Neji. He turned back to let her go past him, then she rolled out of the way of his strike at her back. As she stood up, she jabbed her open hand at his right shoulder, and her palm struck, making him wince. Neji pushed his own hand at her arm, and she stepped back to a safe distance.
The circling game resumed.
Hinata breathed heavily. Despite her strength at Whirling Leaf, Neji was a better taijutsu specialist, and he was clearly less tired than she was.
What I'm winning with right now might tire me out too much to go on, Hinata thought. Less chakra-jumping.
She realised that she'd been thinking too long, however, for Neji was already running towards her, and when his palm connected with her stomach she was thrown back, feet skidding on the floor, tears forming as she came to a stop and fell to the ground.
"Use the seal," said Neji, standing over her.
Hinata shook her head.
"Y-you…deserve better," she said.
Neji's eyes thinned.
"Better?" he asked.
"W-we're both fighting as equals," she said, looking up from the floor. "I-if you give up now, then you give in to what they want. They want things to stay the same forever, a-and that's the worst thing that could ever happen. You have to let go of everything s-someday, s-so..."
Hinata got to her feet, growing more steady.
"I'm sorry I never helped you, or any other of the Branch House," she said. "It doesn't matter what happened to me. I s-shouldn't have let how scared I was stop me."
Breathing out heavily, she added:
"A-and you shouldn't have treated me like you did."
"You're a Main House member," said Neji.
"Yes," said Hinata. "But that's not all I am. And th-there was no use hurting me."
Neji's glare softened, but he still seemed unconvinced.
"One of us must walk off this field a loser," he said. "This is our fate."
"The best ninja are losers," said Hinata. "I've failed at almost everything I've ever tried, b-but I'm still going to keep going."
They stood there in silence for a moment.
"…then I will fight you," said Neji. "And not for them."
As he stepped back to retrieve his headband, Hinata wondered at his wording.
Feeling around inside her pocket, Hinata moved the piece of paper around so she could read the message on it without taking the note out. As Neji tied his headband, Hinata saw the words:
I'm proud you left.
There was nothing else written there.
Hinata looked confused.
Of all the things, father wrote that?
Shaken out of this by seeing Neji waiting in the centre of the room, Hinata walked over to him, and the two took fighting stances again.
"Good luck, Neji-niisan," she said.
Neji stared at her.
"You'll need it," added Hinata, and in a burst of movement struck him on the chest.
Stepping back, Neji struck at Hinata with a one-two combination of hands, but these were parried to the left, letting Hinata jab at his right knee, weakening it. Circling, Neji dodged a strike from Hinata's left hand and struck her in the stomach again. Hinata was only saved from winding by turning to the left slightly, but she still fell to her knees in pain.
Hoping to end the match quickly, Neji raised a hand to strike Hinata on the neck. Adrenaline pumping, Hinata rapidly stood up, hitting Neji in five places: the right knee, the right of the solar plexus, left of the chest near the heart, and finally the left side of the head, all with her left hand as her right defended.
Neji collapsed behind her.
"D...d'you admit...d-defeat?" she asked, out of breath.
Neji raised his face from the floor in an attempt to remain dignified.
"For now," he said.
"...Hinata wins," said Genma.
The Konoha stands erupted with cheers like a very supportive volcano, as medic-nin came down with a stretcher. Some began loading Neji onto it, while two others checked Hinata.
"I'm a-alright," said Hinata, who was stumbling a little. "I just need to sit down."
As Neji was loaded onto the stretcher, he spoke to Hinata.
"Hinata..." he said, "…this is a good start."
"Thankyou," said Hinata, bowing her head a little.
"But I still don't like you very much," said Neji.
"Th-that's okay," she said. "I d-don't really like you, either."
Walking back, Hinata was almost knocked over as Kiba hugged her. Laughing as she pushed him off, she fistbumped Shino as he stood to the side, and the three of them walked back to the foot of the stairs.
"Kurenai's squad is really touchy-feely," said Sakura, watching over the side of the rail.
Naruto didn't seem to hear her.
Huh? thought Sakura. Naruto's always bugging me…
"Naruto?" she asked.
When he looked back at her for a second, he seemed uncertain about something, but Sakura only saw his face briefly. Quickly he left her, going to the top of the stairs to see Hinata, Kiba and Shino.
"You guys are all...amazing," he said.
Tentatively, Kiba held out his fist.
After a moment's thought, Naruto made his own fist and fistbumped with Kiba, then also did so with Shino.
When Hinata held her fist out, though, Naruto's own fist wavered, and he lowered it.
Hinata tried very, very hard to stop herself from crying.
"You're the amazingest," he said.
Naruto went down one step, held his arms out, and hugged Hinata.
Hinata tried very, very hard to stop herself from crying.
Half an hour later, the Konoha stand stood in reverent silence as the dust settled from Rock Lee's match, the critically injured shinobi being carried away on a stretcher.
"Damn," said Kiba.
"My sentiments exactly," said Shino.
"Gaara's jutsu is incredible," asked Kiba. "Unbreakable defence."
"Lee's speed was phenomenal, though," said Shino. "I'm not certain who I'd less want to fight."
Hinata looked up to Kurenai.
"W-will he be alright, Kurenai-sensei?" she asked.
Kurenai watched as the chunin below held hushed discussions, while the red-haired boy returned to the Oto-Suna side.
"I don't know," said Kurenai.
"Lee..." Neji said, the only genin in his squad out of the infirmary.
"Poor guy didn't seem to know when to stop," said Kiba.
"Doesn't," corrected Neji, quite forcefully. "A mere career-ending injury won't stop Lee."
A gloom fell over all the Konoha genin.
"Someone's gonna have to fight that guy," said Naruto.
He looked nervously at Hinata.
"I-if I get him, I'll probably forfeit," said Hinata.
"Yeah," said Naruto. "I might too."
"It won't be randomly selected next round," said Kakashi.
Kiba looked over to Kakashi.
"What do you mean, Kakashi-sensei?" he asked.
"The Chunin exams bring a lot of money into the Land of Fire," said Asuma. "People will want to see certain ninja up against certain other ninja. With that much at stake, they won't want to leave things to chance."
"So who fights who, sensei?" asked Ino.
"It's down to whatever the village thinks is most interesting," said Asuma.
Shino put his hands together.
"...excellent," he said.
Kiba stared at him.
"How is this excellent?" he asked.
"Ino, Naruto, Sasuke and Hinata, you're all obviously capable ninja-"
"Gee, thanks," said Shikamaru, raising his head from slumber.
Immediately after winning his match, Shikamaru had declared 'nap time', and no amount of poking or nagging had roused him until this point.
"...I was under the impression you were asleep," said Shino, confused.
"Just 'cause I'm asleep doesn't mean I'm not paying attention," said Shikamaru, standing up.
"Fine," said Shino, "all of you and Shikamaru are capable ninja, but none of you are known outside of the village."
"Yeah I am!" Naruto protested. "I've got a bridge named after me!"
Kakashi and Sakura both nodded, Sasuke refusing to dignify this with any response.
"...that is impressive, and somewhat baffling," said Shino, "but the fact remains that Sasuke had the highest grades of any ninja in our year. Can such a ninja last long without developing a reputation? Of course not. Given that ninja from around the world will be coming for the final stage of the exams, and that Konoha wants to bring in as much money as possible, it's almost certain that Sasuke will be fighting Gaara."
"So we're okay?" asked Naruto.
"You're not going to be fighting Gaara," said Shino. "Who you will fight is beyond my ability to guess."
With the fights over, Anko returned, waving a hand again to call the winners over. The losing genin and their sensei began to leave, Neji nodding briefly to Hinata as he left with Tenten.
"That's gotta suck," said Kiba, after they left. "Not even getting one squad member into the finals."
"Th-that happened to Kohaku and Hikui as well," said Hinata.
Remembering, she added:
"Actually, Hikui d-didn't even get to fight."
"She won't, either," said Shino. "The number of finalists would be uneven."
"I guess that's how it goes," said Kiba. "This can't be the first time something's gone weird with exams."
He clapped a hand on Shino's shoulder.
"C'mon, Shino," he said, seeing other genin leave. "These guys probably all have to be in victory parades."
"Take your hand off my shoulder," said Shino.
"Yyyyep," said Kiba, doing so, and together they walked off.
"Congratulations, Hinata," said Kurenai. "I'll be waiting outside the room."
"O-okay," said Hinata.
I wish Kurenai-sensei and Anko had been there when I won, thought Hinata.
She'd been surprised at her victory, and it would have been nice for Anko and Kurenai to see for themselves that their training and encouragement wasn't lost on her.
That's alright, though, Hinata thought. I proved I can win. And that's a good start.
Sakura was waiting in front of Sasuke and Naruto.
"Good luck," she said, holding hands behind her back.
"Thanks, Sakura," said Naruto, leaving for the stairs.
Sasuke said nothing, and followed after him. Watching him go, Sakura walked off to join Kakashi, not looking at Ino or Hinata.
"...Sakura!" Ino called out.
Sakura stopped walking and looked back at Ino, pink hair swishing as she turned.
"Make sure you two win," she said. "You're representing Konoha's kunoichi now."
"What if they make us fight each other?" asked Ino.
"No excuses!" said Sakura, and left for Kakashi again.
Now the only two remaining on the Konoha stand, Ino and Hinata went down the stairs and joined the others standing in line in the middle of the room. Sasuke and Naruto were on the other end of the line to Ino and Hinata. Between the two ends, Hinata counted six other genin: the girl who had fought Reido, a spiky-haired male genin from Kin's squad who'd fought Sakura, the still tired-looking Shikamaru, and all three members of the Sunagakure squad.
Anko walked up and down this line, as if she were inspecting her troops.
"So," she said. "You're all the finalists. You've fought long and hard to get here, and now you get to know who you're fighting. As of now, you'll get a month to get ready for the finals. This is not a guarantee that you'll make Chunin, but a lot of people watch these things. Important people. Make sure you look good out there when it's your shot."
Hayate handed Anko a stack of envelopes, and Anko handed them out one by one, each genin handling theirs nervously. As Hinata got hers, she began to open it with a finger, too concerned about damaging the contents to use a kunai.
Ino was first to discover her opponent.
"Ino Yamanaka vs Kin Tsuchi," she read out loud. "Oh, her."
"Be careful," Hinata said, still getting hers open.
Watching the other genin, she guessed from the glance that Sasuke shot at Gaara that they were fighting one another. Relieved, she briefly looked at Naruto struggling to open his envelope, then went back to her own.
Maybe we can train together... she mused.
She opened her envelope, taking out the small piece of card that had her and her opponent's name on it. It was the wrong side, so she flipped it over.
In that moment, she felt like her heart had stopped entirely.
Hinata Hyuga vs Naruto Uzumaki.
I would like to reiterate that I'm terribly sorry that I've become the George R.R. Martin of Naruto fanfiction. (In terms of update schedules, anyway. I'm not going to feature gratuituous nudity or thirty page-long feast scenes, and too many grim Northern accents would strain me.)