Disclaimer: I own nothing.


Chapter V

The Chunin Exams Begin!

The sun rose over the Hokage Monument like it did every morning, spreading light over the Village Hidden in the Leaves. Already the village was stirring, already feeling the giddy anticipation for the day's events: The Chunin Exam Finals. It was a highly celebrated occasion, for shinobi and civilians alike. The shinobi all felt a certain amount of pride as they rose and dressed for the matchups, although those with family or even children fighting felt a pang of worry with their pride. For the civilians, greedy excitement filled them as the Finals brought in visitors from all over the land, all with pockets full of money and the need to spend it. And for the competitors, each felt very different.

In the Hyuuga Compound, Neji stared hatefully at a photograph of his extended family, his fists clenched in hatred driven by cruel twists of fate.

In the Akimichi household, Choji stuffed his mouth with a stack of western style pancakes, a dozen eggs, four doughnuts, and a large pot of coffee.

Shino Aburame sat quietly in a small greenhouse, listening to his family's hives buzz around him.

Ino stared into a mirror, brushing out her long hair. Her eyes, however, were hollow and haunted. A shiver raced up her spine as she pictured a pair of swirling red eyes.

Rock Lee woke up with a loud yawn, quickly dressed in his green training leotard, strapped on his weights, and raced out of his house to squeeze in one last training session.

A pair of raccoon-blacked eyes blinked in the morning sun. Outside the window a chirping bird was suddenly silenced by a tendril of sand.

In the Nara house, Shikamaru shut off his troublesome alarm clock and rolled back over, struggling to squeeze in a few more moments of sleep.

Dosu sharpened a pair of kunai against his sound bracer, relishing the sound of metal scraping over metal.

Inside the all but abandoned Uchiha District, an untouched bed sat amongst empty homes.

Naruto Uzumaki stood atop the Hokage Monument, his armor shining with the dawn. He looked down at his village, his sharp eyes able to make out faces even from the peak of the Monument. In his right hand, the Uru hammer, Mjolnir, dangled from its worn leather strap.

Time to introduce the world to the new God of Thunder, Naruto thought with a smile. He raised his hammer toward the sky and vanished in a bolt of bright lightning. Seconds later, he appeared inside the still empty stadium. Naruto walked over the dirt and grass field, looked sadly at the single tree growing in the stadium, and stopped in the middle of the field.

The field defiantly favors Earth and Fire users, Naruto mused. Earth and Fire are the most common affinities in Konoha…how convenient for Sasuke and the others. There isn't even a small water source. This is blatant favoritism. I'll have to talk to Jiji about this later.

Naruto thought about storming off to find the Hokage right then and there, but decided to have a little fun instead. Drawing Mjolnir from his belt, Naruto spun the hammer over his head and slammed it against the ground. When the dust settled, a circular crater, several meters in diameter and depth, took up an entire corner of the field. Naruto spun Mjolnir in the air again, this time summoning a small raincloud above the crater. Naruto rose back into the air, passing through the rain with a happy smirk on his face.


As the sun rose higher in the morning sky, Konoha Stadium's stands began to fill with spectators, both non-competing Shinobi and civilian alike. The stadium was alive with people, all eager for the competition to begin. Shortly before the scheduled beginning, the competitors filed into the stadium amongst the roars of the crowd. Everyone cheered for their favorite competitor and whispers swept through the stadium as people realized that both Sasuke Uchiha and Naruto Uzumaki were not in the procession. While no one other than the rest of the Konoha Rookies gave a second thought to Naruto's absence, many were worried about Sasuke's absence and several civilians even went off to search for the boy.

"Where are they?" Kiba wondered from the stands. "I hope Naruto gets here soon; I wanted to see him smack Neji upside the head with that hammer of his."

"Neji deserves it after what he did to Hinata," Tenten agreed. "I can understand why Sasuke's late, after all he's with Kakashi-sensei, but it's not like Naruto to be late for anything, especially something so important."

"Naruto will be here," Hinata said softly as she walked down the bleachers. She still had several bandages poking out of her formal kimono. Her father and younger sister followed behind her; Hanabi looked bored and Hiashi his usual stoic and cold temperament.

"Hey, Hinata!" Kiba grinned. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm feeling much better, thank you," Hinata answered with a slight bow. Behind her, Hanabi snorted.

"You're lucky Neji-kun held back. Your loss still shames the Hyuuga Main House."

"Jeez, lighten up, firecracker," Tenten muttered under her breath.

"You should stay out of Hyuuga business, Panda," Hanabi growled back, the veins in her eyes pulsing threateningly. Tenten's hand inched toward her kunai pouch, but Kiba jumped in-between the two girls before a full blown fight erupted in the bleachers.

"Easy, girls. This isn't the time or the place for a throw down. C'mon Tenten, the Kages are arriving."

The Hyuuga's walked past Kiba and Tenten—Hanabi had a very smug look on her face as walked past Tenten—and took their seats in a much more expensive and prestigious section of the bleachers that afforded them a much better view. The rest of the spectators rose and turned as the respected Kages entered the arena. The Hokage led the procession as the host and was followed closely by the Kazekage and Otokage. The three VIPs and their appointed bodyguards; one bodyguard for the Otokage, two for the Kazekage, and two ANBU for the Hokage; waved to the roaring crowd and took their seats in the appointed box high above the field.

"These are fine seats, Hokage-sama," the Kazekage commented as he sat deep in his cushioned chair. He wore his traditional Kage hat and robes, but also wore a mask that hid his face from view. Such a practice was common in Suna to protect one from the swirling sands, but in Konoha it looked very out of place, perhaps even rude. "You truly went out of your way to spoil us. These accommodations almost make up for the horrible bias against our villages in these Exams."

"Come now, Kazekage-sama," Sarutobi sighed. "I've heard these allegations for the last month. I would hope our mutual trust in the rules of the Chunin Exams would be enough to put down these silly accusations."

"Still, you cannot deny that Konoha is much more heavily represented than usual at this year's Exam," the Kazekage continued. "The Otokage and I made the long trip here with only having a single competitor left in the exams apiece."

"And for that I am overjoyed," Sarutobi responded. "Though it is a shame that more of your teams did not advance to the Finals, I am glad that you both still chose to join me."

"Thank you, Hokage-sama," the Otokage spoke for the first time. His voice was deep and low, a heavy bass that seemed strange with his diminutive stature. The Otokage was slim and almost demure in built and had a delicacy in his movements that was rarely seen in a male shinobi. "I must disagree with you, Kazekage-sama. Hokage-sama is one of the most entrusted and noble leaders to have ever graced the Elemental Villages. If he has deceived us and violated the sacred and ancient rules of the Chunin Exams, then I am Orochimaru's long lost daughter."

Sarutobi was curious about this new leader that had, apparently, started his own hidden village in Rice country. From first appearances, Sarutobi found him lacking. The man felt more like a worm than a leader.

"How can you defend him when the proof is staring you in the face?" the Kazekage shouted. "Both of our villages are practically missing from the Finals! Only one of your Genin and my son are the only ones from Suna or Oto that reached the finals."

"Exactly. We both only entered one team. Konoha entered many more. Hokage-sama clearly had more faith in his Genin pool than we did and allowed more teams to enter. It is only mathematical logic that Konoha would have more participants in the Exams. It is simple numbers."

"We both know that any one of our Shinobi is worth five of his!" the Kazekage growled angrily.

"Perhaps," Sarutobi smirked. "We shall see, won't we? Isn't that what the Exam finals are for? Look, it is time for the exams to begin."

Down on the arena floor, the competitors, minus Naruto and Sasuke, marched out in a single-file straight line. Beside them, Hayate stood ready to referee the Finals as he had the Preliminaries. Back up in the Kage box, the Kazekage started a new tirade.

"While you can speak about logic and the probability about the number of competitors from each village, no one can argue that having a Konoha Nin as referee isn't a conflict of interest and against the rules of the Exams!"

The Hokage was about to speak, but the Otokage held up a hand. "I'm afraid I must agree with him, Hokage-sama. The fact that there are so many Leaf Nin in the exams makes it unfair to have a Leaf Jonin officiating. I must agree that an impartial referee be assigned instead."

Sarutobi frowned, but nodded his head. "I understand. And if I was in your places, I feel that I would feel the same way. I believe that a team from Ame is still in Konoha recovering from their wounds in the Forest of Death. Would their Jonin sensei be an acceptable replacement referee?"

Both the Otokage and Kazekage nodded in agreement since Ame had no one left in the Exams. Sarutobi nodded to the ANBU to his right and the bodyguard vanished in a swirl of leaves. The ANBU reappeared beside Hayate, whispered the news into his ear, before vanishing again to get the new proctor. Hayate nodded and turned toward the participants.

"It seems that there is one last surprise in store for you," Hayate called out. "To maintain impartiality, a Jonin from a non-participating village will be proctoring the Finals. It's been fun guys, but this is my stop." He gave them a parting salute before he disappeared with the ANBU in a burst of leaves. Seconds later, another Jonin slowly walked out from inside the arena.

She was a small, young woman with straight blue hair framing her heart-shaped face. An origami flower, folded from a piece of yellow paper, decorated her hair. Her amber eyes swept over the participants, while the steel piercing beneath her lip drew their gazes.

"My name is Konan. The Hokage asked me to step in as the referee for today's matches. Since Ame has no Genin participating, I am the most impartial Jonin referee available. If any of you have a problem with that, speak now or keep your mouths shut and deal with it!" When none of the Genin objected, Konan smirked and continued. "It seems that two of your number can't follow simple directions and report on time. Have any of you seen candidates Naruto Uzumaki or Sasuke Uchiha?"

"None of us have seen Sasuke for a month," Choji reported. "Naruto did his training in Konoha; he should be here unless something bad happened to him."

"Sasuke is with Kakashi Hakate," Shikamaru added. "I wouldn't expect them for about three hours or so."

Konan frowned. "If it were up to me, I'd disqualify both of them right now. A Chunin should be more punctual than this. But the rules state that they have until their matches begin. So let's get this show on the road. Will Naruto Uzumaki and Neji Hyuuga remain here? The rest of you, get off my field and wait for your matches!"

The participants gave another look around for Naruto, shrugged, and trooped off the arena floor. Neji remained behind with Konan, a smug smirk on his face.

"Last call for Naruto Uzumaki!" Konan shouted across the arena. Neji's smirk grew as the seconds ticked by.

"He isn't coming," he said. "Apparently, the gaki is smarter than he thought. He realized that Fate had decreed that I would be the winner today. He was surprisingly wise to not even bother showing up."

"Looks like," Konan said and raised her hand to declare Neji the winner. Suddenly, a crack of thunder roared through the sky and a bolt of lightning speared into the arena floor! Both Neji and Konan jumped back into defensive stances; a dagger of paper appeared in Konan's hand while Neji drew a kunai from his pouch.

The flash dimmed to reveal Naruto resting on one knee in the center of the lightning impact. The morning sun gleamed off the concentric circles on his uniform and the wind ruffled his long blonde hair. He rose, Mjolnir in hand, and held the hammer towards Neji and Konan.

"Hold thy hand, proctor. I am here."

Konan looked at Naruto carefully, taking in his features as if committing them to memory. "You're late," she finally said. "Another few seconds and I would have disqualified you."

"You would've broken the rules, then, because I've been here a lot longer than anyone else," Naruto laughed. "It's a shame no one ever looks up."

"You are still nothing but a common braggart," Neji shouted, trying to make up for his embarrassment at jumping away from the lightning bolt. "Still trying to impress people, to make them notice you. You've merely changed from a bright orange jumpsuit and foolish pranks to fake lightning."

"There is nothing fake about it," Naruto growled back. "You will see for yourself."

"Fate has already declared me the winner here," Neji replied, his voice smug and confident. "This so called match is just the first formality of the day for me."

"I hope you two can do more than just talk," Konan groaned at the two boys' bickering. "The first match of the Chunin Exam Finals: Neji Hyuuga VS Naruto Uzumaki. BEGIN!"

Neji immediately dashed forward with impressive speed, Byakugan active, his fingers raised to strike Naruto's chakra points. Neji thrust forward, his bandage-wrapped hands a blur as they streaked towards Naruto's chest. Naruto slipped to the side, carefully dodging Neji's attacks. Neji grew angrier at the ease Naruto was dodging his strikes until he glimpsed down at Naruto's feet. Naruto was hovering two inches off the ground. Neji stopped his assault and just looked at Naruto.

"Took those all seeing eyes long enough to spot that," the blonde smirked. Neji narrowed his Byakugan and searched for the way Naruto was manipulating chakra through his feet.

It must be a wind-based jutsu or a variation of the water-walking technique, Neji thought, but couldn't see a thing. There was no sign of any sort of technique or jutsu anywhere.

"It seems that you have a trick up your sleeve," Neji said and jumped away from Naruto. He held up his kunai and smiled. "Fortunately, I have some too."

He hurled the kunai at Naruto's head and followed with two more. Naruto easily dodged the kunai, but never saw the fourth hidden in the shadow of the third until it was right on top of him. Naruto ducked sideways, but the kunai still hit him in the arm. Neji's smile grew when he saw the kunai buried in Naruto's arm and it nearly cracked his face when he saw Naruto roughly pull it out of his own flesh.

Naruto ripped the kunai out of his bicep and held it up to Neji. The tip of the throwing blade was broken off. Naruto pinched his bicep and the tip of the kunai popped out of his flesh. Naruto flicked the tip back at Neji and wiped away the line of blood. The wound had already healed.

"Damn, you actually cut me for a second there. I probably should have seen that one coming too; that was the same trick Sasuke and I used against Zabuza back in Wave. We used a transformation jutsu and a Windmill Shuriken, just saying, but yours wasn't too bad either."

"I heard of the luck you had in Wave," Neji replied. "Fate spared you that day only to bring your defeat here today. Any other reason is nonsense; with your skills you should be buried back on that island like that nuke Nin Zabuza and his icy little weakling."

Naruto dropped Mjolnir where he stood and thunder growled overhead. "You never speak of them."

"I only speak the truth. They were weak and not worth the title they were given; especially if the likes of you were able to beat them."

"I said: You never speak of them!" roared Naruto and he rushed Neji, tackling him around the waist. Neji was momentarily taken back by the brutish tactics and they both fell to the ground. The two boys rolled in the dirt for a moment until Neji managed to kick Naruto off him. Naruto was back after him instantly, throwing wild, enraged blows at Neji. Now it was Neji's turn to dodge and retreat. Naruto was relentless in his attacks, never pausing, never hesitating in his assault. Unfortunately, Naruto's aggression also made him reckless. Neji quickly spotted openings in Naruto's attack and countered with a Juken strike to the chakra points on Naruto's left arm. Naruto staggered back, his arm limp from Neji's strikes. With Naruto's defenses compromised in a single move, Neji smirked as he went in for the kill.

"You are within my field of divination," he said as he spread his arms wide before rushing at Naruto. "Gentle Fist: Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms!"

Naruto winced in pain as Neji lashed out and speared his fingers into Naruto's chakra points.

"Two strikes! Four strikes! Eight strikes!" Neji called out each and every attack and, to Naruto, each strike felt like being stabbed with a kunai.

"Sixteen strikes! Thirty-two strikes! Sixty-four strikes!" Neji shouted and slammed both his palms into Naruto's chest, sending the blonde flying across the arena and into the solid stone wall.

"You may want to call the medics," Neji said to Konan as he walked toward the competitors' box. "The fool was always faded to lose. No one, especially not a fool with a silly hammer, can defy fate."

Konan was about to wave in the medical team standing by, when Mjolnir rose off the ground and flew to Naruto's raised hand. She watched, impressed that Naruto could still move after taking all sixty-four strikes from the Hyuuga.

"Is that all ye can muster?" Naruto asked as he struggled to walk forward. Neji's eyes narrowed in rage and he rushed at Naruto again. With a cry, he slammed the knife-edge of his hand down on the crown of Naruto's head! Naruto fell to the ground like a stone and did not move.

The entire stadium was stunned by the savagery of the blow, from the civilians to the Kages in their box. Many Konoha civilians showed horror on their faces, but secretly hid joyful smiles that the supposed curse of their village was dead. Inside the competitors' box, the Genin were all shocked!

"How…how could he?" Ino muttered softly. "N-Naruto…"

The other Leaf Genin were equally taken back and appalled by Neji's callous actions. They all knew he was an arrogant jerk for what he did to Hinata in the preliminaries, but

Konan did not speak; she had seen far worse things in Ame under Hanzo's regime. She silently gestured to the medical team and they walked out onto the field. They saw no need to run. They had just reached Naruto's body when the teen's fingers twitched around the handle of Mjolnir. The medics looked on in shock as Naruto slowly pulled himself up to this hands and knees. Blood dripped from the rapidly healing gash on his forehead and a small smile stretched Naruto's lips. His blue eyes flashed bright, like the night sky right after a bolt of lightning arced across the heavens.

"I said…is that all you can muster?" Naruto grinned and stood up. Neji froze; it had been shocking enough for Naruto to have survived the Gentle Fist: Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms, but his follow-up blow to Naruto's head was strong enough to split stone!

"No…it's impossible!" Neji stammered and took a hesitant step backwards. "You can't defy Fate; it's inconceivable!"

"Impossible? Feh," scoffed Naruto. "Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given, than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is a challenge. Impossible is nothing!"

Naruto continued to walk toward Neji, his body lighting up with micro-sized sparks. Neji activated his Byakugan and stared at Naruto, completely dumbfounded.

It's a good thing Pervy-Sage and I worked on building up my durability and strength instead of that Summoning Jutsu stuff he wanted to teach me. What good would a toad do here anyway; I can already create water and lightning is much cooler that a fire/oil combo attack. At least that god-like durability is starting to come in handy. And now for my next trick, Naruto thought with a fox-like smile. Naruto flexed every muscle in his body and concentrated. Suddenly, his closed chakra points were re-opening in tiny bursts of lightning. Neji shook off his amazement and narrowed his eyes at Naruto's midsection.

"Impressive, but you still do not defy Fate. You merely depend on another's chakra, not your own."

Naruto stopped and his eyes darted from Neji to his own midsection. "So you know, don't you?"

"All the Hyuuga do. Your stolen chakra stands out like a beacon to our eyes. We can see it without even trying."

"Stolen? You think that this is something I wanted?" Naruto growled and pointed to his stomach. "This is something that has caused me nothing but hardship and strife. And this is not it's power; this is the power I earned, the power, the legacy of Asgard!"

Naruto raised Mjolnir and held the mystical hammer in front of him. "My power is greater than anything ever sealed inside a newborn child. The power and knowledge of the Nine Realms dwells within my blood and Asgard does not bend to anything, especially Fate!"

Naruto whirled his hammer above his head and a fierce whirlwind blew across the arena. The winds slammed into Neji and swept him into the air. He crashed into the far wall of the arena, his body burst into a cloud of smoke, and a log fell to the ground.

A Substitution! Naruto recognized and couldn't help but be impressed by Neji's reaction time. He barely had a second to react to my attack. I guess I should probably lay off with the monologues before attacking. It never worked for any of the villains in Thor's memories.

Naruto searched the arena for any sign of Neji and suddenly felt a rush of chakra appear behind him. He turned and saw Neji waiting with a smirk on his face and hands stretched before and behind him.

"Eight Trigrams Palms Rotation!" Neji cried and spun in a tight circle. Chakra burst from every chakra point on Neji's body, creating a massive dome of rotating chakra. The dome slammed into Naruto and sent him sailing across the arena until he crashed into the far wall.

"What was that?" Ino asked from the competitors' box. Beside her, Lee watched the match closely, his fists clenched around the railing.

"That is the Hyuuga Rotation attack," he said, his voice low and serious. "The user released chakra from every point in their body and then spins rapidly to parry any attack. The spinning creates a shield of chakra and causes massive damage to anyone it touches. It is the most power and perfect defense, taught only to the Main House members."

"But I thought Neji was in the Branch House?"

"He is. It seems that Neji's genius has allowed him to surpass all expectations and that he taught himself somehow. That is why he is my eternal rival and why I must win so I can truly prove that I am a real Shinobi!" Lee roared.

On the other side of the competitor box, standing all alone, Gaara narrowed his eyes.

Inside the arena, Neji stopped spinning and looked toward Konan. "Now it is certainly over. No one can survive the Rotation attack so close. Fate has declared me the winner and him the loser. Make it official."

"Child, I will officially kill you if you tell me how to do my job again," Konan whispered softly enough for only Neji to hear. Konan took a small pleasure in seeing him blanch and back away slightly, but kept her composure and reminded herself that she had a job to do. She squinted toward the far wall and smiled. "You're famous—or rather over-hyped—Rotation didn't do as much as you think."

Neji was about to curse at Konan for insulting the ultimate Hyuuga jutsu until he saw Naruto climb out of the wall. The blonde had blood dripping from a cut in his right arm and from the corner of his right eye, but had a savage grin on his lips.

"Now that is more like it, villain!" Naruto laughed, the noise as savage as the smile. "My turn."

Naruto cocked his arm back and hurled Mjolnir at Neji. The hammer buried itself in Neji's stomach, driving the air out of him. With a thought, Naruto commanded the hammer skyward and lifted Neji into the air until he was high above the stadium.

"Shadow Clone Jutsu!" Four clones burst into existence around Naruto and they leapt after Neji. The five Narutos floated in the air and arced toward the still immobilized Neji.

"Uzumaki Style: Asgard Combo!" The five Narutos sprang at Neji; Mjolnir releasing and returning to the real Naruto's hand. The first clone punched Neji in the face and toward the second clone. The second kicked Neji across the chest, cracking a rib and sending Neji arcing through the air. The third clone was waiting for him and brought his hands down in a hammer fist across Neji's back. Neji let out a scream of pain as clone number four snap-kicked Neji back toward the first.

The real Naruto hovered in the air, arms crossed, watching his clones volley Neji across the sky for a moment. Finally, he flew to the spot directly over the four clones and hefted Mjolnir over his head.


The fourth clone, instead of kicking Neji back toward the first clone, kicked Neji skyward to the waiting Naruto. Naruto reached up and caught the bruised and bleeding Hyuuga by the throat. He squeezed, and Neji, fighting unconsciousness, weakly tried to slap away Naruto's arm.

"Did ye see this coming, Hyuuga?" Naruto growled, the malice dripping off his slightly elongated canines. "Was this Fate? Was it Fate that you hang broken and beaten at my mercy? Did you see this, see thyself mere heartbeats from plummeting to your doom, wishing for my mercy when you showed your innocent cousin none?"

Neji stopped struggling and cast his gaze downward, using his Byakugan to see Hinata in the stands far below them. She was in the crowd, watching, and her pale eyes were ready to burst with held back tears.

"She is a far better person than you deserve to have within your family, worm," Naruto whispered as he pulled Neji closer. "Did you visit her in the hospital? Hmm? No, you say, not even once?" Naruto's grip tightened and Neji cried out. "Do ye know that I did, that I visited Hinata? Do ye know what she said?"


Naruto walked quietly through the hospital until he reached Hinata's room, ignoring the countless dirty looks from the hospital staff and other patients. He gently knocked on Hinata's door before opening it.

"Is this a bad time?" he asked when he saw the nurse standing beside Hinata's bed. The owner of said bed had turned bright red when she saw just who her visitor was.

"No, I was just finishing changing Hinata-san's bandages," the nurse said cheerfully. Naruto felt a wave of relief as he realized she was one of the few citizens in Konoha that didn't view him as a monster. The nurse completed her work, bowed slightly to Hinata, and left. Naruto smiled as he stepped toward Hinata's bed. He reached out and handed her the small bouquet of wildflowers he had hidden behind his back.

"How are you feeling?" he asked as Hinata sniffed the flowers.

"I-I'm f-feeling bet-ter, thank you." Hinata stammered nervously.

Naruto smiled wider. "It gladdens me to hear you are recovering, Hinata-hime."

'Naruto just called me princess!' Hinata's mind sang out and she turned tomato red. Naruto stopped and looked at her in concern.

'She looks like she's burning up!'

"Are you alright? Should I get the nurse?"

"No!' Hinata shouted a little too loudly. "I'm fine, Naruto-san. Please don't go."

"As you wish," Naruto smiled and sat down in the chair beside Hinata's bed. "I'll stay for as long as you'll allow. You can let go of my arm now."

Hinata looked down and saw that she had grabbed onto and was holding Naruto's forearm. She didn't even realize she had moved at all! With a squeak she let go and fidgeted nervously under her bed covers.

"There's no need to be embarrassed, Hinata-hime."

"I'm so sorry!" Hinata immediately whispered, causing Naruto to laugh.

"And there is no need to apologize," he continued, "especially for something I enjoyed." This caused Hinata to blush even brighter and she tried to bury herself in her covers. Naruto reached up and pulled the cover off Hinata's face.

"Hinata-hime, there is no need to hide from me. I would never do you any harm. There was something I wished to speak to you about and I need you to pay attention."

"It's—it's about my match with Neji isn't it?" Hinata asked. "You are his opponent in the finals?" When Naruto nodded she paled.

"What he did to you was despicable on too many levels to speak of. He deserves to be punished."

"But Naruto-kun, Neji is a prodigy; his skill with the Gentle Fist is nearly at a Jonin level! I don't want to see you get hurt because of me."

"I've recently grown quite strong myself," Naruto chuckled with a hint of arrogance. "Had a bit of a godly growth spurt you could say."

'I'll say!' Hinata thought, a flood of naughty thoughts and ideas swam through her mind as her eyes swept over Naruto's bare arms and shoulders. Fortunately, Naruto's voice snapped her out of her fantasies before they went any farther.

"Hinata, I have to fight Neji; not just for the Exams but because of what he did to you. His actions cannot, will not go unpunished."

"Naruto-kun, will you…are you going to try to kill him?"

"I could," Naruto answered, his voice flat and low. He gazed down at Mjolnir and pondered the terrible power he could wield. "Is that what you want? I'd understand; he did his best; he would have killed you had I not intervened."

"NO!" Hinata shouted, terrified. "Neji-nee-san is tormented by the politics of our family. He's angry and lashed out at me because I represent everything he could have had, but didn't because my father was born just a few moments before his. My family got everything, his to serve. But when I was kidnapped and Neji's father died for mine, Neji's heart turned black and he sought to fight against his fate."

"So that's where that Fate Stick up his ass came from," Naruto muttered. Hinata giggled at his language and nodded.

"I agree with Neji that our family division is wrong; that is why I didn't use the Caged Bird Seal in our preliminary match."

"That's right. You could have beaten him in a second if you did that."

"Yes, but I didn't want to hurt Neji like that. To me, that was more important that the Exam. I want to abolish the Seal, like Neji does, but where he defies the family and fights against Fate, I want to work from inside the family and change the Elder's mind without resorting to violence."

"You have a kind and noble heart, Hinata-hime, and I will aid you in any way I can. But Neji still needs to be punished for what he did."

"But Naruto…"


"She argued with me for a half hour!" Naruto growled at Neji. "She made me swear upon my honor not to kill you like the dog you are."

"Even now, she insults me with her charity," Neji choked and spat at Naruto. Naruto cuffed him with an angry backhand.

"It is not charity," he shouted in Neji's face. "It is love. Even now, after all you said and did, she loves you and only wishes to help and alleviate your burden."

"And what would you know about bearing a burden? What do you know about being spat upon by Fate?"

"HA! For one with unfailing vision, you are as blind as a bat," Naruto laughed and pulled Neji close enough to whisper into his ear. "You have seen what is inside of me, you've seen the seal. You think you have a burden; fool, you have no idea what a true burden is. If I were a crueler man, I would give you just the barest glimpse of my burden and pain. But Hinata would be angrier at me than she is now. So remember this lesson as you recover in the hospital. And if you ever require it, I will gladly repeat the lesson."

With that, Naruto let go of Neji's throat and let Neji plummet back to the ground. The crowd, particularly a certain Hyuuga princess, winced and cried out when a loud crack echoed across the arena. Naruto floated to the ground as the dust settled, gave a satisfied look at the unhealthy angle of Neji's right arm and leg, and looked at the proctor.

"The winner is Naruto Uzumaki!" Konan announced loudly. A smatter of applause, mainly from the non-Konohan spectators, followed. A team of medics rushed out and carefully carted Neji away on a stretcher. One approached Naruto, but he waved her off. His injuries, while serious, were already healing and would be gone within the hour.


"That was certainly interesting," the Otokage said. "It is rare to see a wind user in Konoha, especially one so young."

"It is a shame my Temari did not reach the finals," the Kazekage commented. "Then you would see what a true wind user can do. But I do wish to know what kind of training Konoha stole from Suna to teach this boy."

"Naruto has always been a bit of a wildcard," the Hokage smiled. "And I would never endorse the theft of a village's training methods or techniques. Such things are inexcusable, don't you agree?"

"Of course," the Otokage agreed. "It is one of the oldest and most sacred of laws between villages. You really need to lighten up Kaze-kun. This stress will send you to an early grave."

The Kazekage turned away, arms crossed, and grumbled under his breath as the proctor announced the next match.


"Will Shino Aburame and Choji Akimichi please report to the floor?" Konan called. In the participants' area, Choji quickly made his way down in style, leaping from the stands in a bizarre sumo-like dive before crashing onto the ground. Despite his bravado, Choji looked nervously from side-to-side. Shino, showing traditional Aburame stoicism, was unreadable behind his calm walk, oversized coat, and dark glasses.

Before the battle could begin, Shino approached Choji with his right hand extended.

"Good luck, Choji-san," he offered. Choji was slightly taken back by his fellow Konoha-nin's act of sportsmanship.

"Thanks, Shino," he replied and shook the offered hand. "You too."

"How cute," Konan smirked. "But this isn't a game of paddy-cake. Shino Aburame VS Choji Akimichi…BEGIN!"

The two Genin leapt away from each other and landed in fighting stances. Choji was the first to act. He rushed at Shino like a bull. Shino leapt backwards as Choji's massive fist smashed into the ground, slightly cracking the arena floor. The entire crowd raised an eyebrow at the Akimichi heir's impressive strength. Even Naruto gave a slight nod to Choji's strength.

Shino continued to dodge, trying to tire Choji out. He knew the Akimichi could only maintain his assault for so long before they ran out of the necessary calories needed to maintain the pace. The Akimichi's sheer size made it difficult to keep such a frantic pace for a long time. Sure enough, after only three minutes of Choji smashing and Shino dodging, Choji began to show signs of exhaustion. He stopped chasing Shino and shrank back down to normal size, slightly thinner than before, and panted for breath.

"Now it is my turn," Shino said softly and raised his arms. Hundreds, perhaps, thousands, of insects flew out from under his sleeves. They formed a thick, black cloud over Shino's head before buzzing toward Choji.

Choji stared at the approaching cloud, unnerved by the shear amount of buzzing insects. Even though he had had a month to prepare for them, the sight of so many Kikaichu insects flying towards him was terrifying.

Choji reached a shaky hand into his shirt sleeve and popped a large pork dumpling into his mouth. Instantly feeling recharged, Choji grinned at the incoming swarm of insects.

"Partial Expansion Jutsu!" he shouted and his arms and hands grew to enormous proportions. "Sonic clap!"

Choji slammed his expanded hands together in a tremendous clap. His hands crushed hundred of Shino's Kikaichu; the resulting shockwave blew the rest away, killing the entirety of Shino's attack.

The crowd in the stands and all but Naruto in the competitors' area held their ears in pain from the thunderclap. Naruto chuckled at the effectiveness of Choji's attack.

Hulk would have been impressed that his thunderclap has been passed on, Naruto thought. According to Thor's memories, Banner was both a pain in the ass and a valued friend, depending on his mood that day. At least Choji lacks the gamma radiation and violent mood swings.

Shino watched his insects fall lifelessly to the ground with a straight face. Even though he was closer to these insects than he was his own family, Shino did not allow a single flicker of emotion mar his features. He simply pulled his hands back into his coat sleeves as Choji made a new hand seal.

"Human Meat Tank!" Choji shouted as he transformed into a massive ball of flesh and clothes. With a muffled roar, Choji rolled towards Shino at high speed. Shino remained where he was, watching impassively as Choji bore down on him. The crowd winced and turned away when the massive Akimichi rolled over Shino, crushing him.

But when Choji's momentum carried him past the spot where he squished Shino, all which remained of the Aburame was an empty coat, pants, and a pair of cracked sunglasses. While the crowd searched for any sign of Shino's remains—most looking at the back of Choji's clothes for a blood smear—Choji began to wobble and waver.

Suddenly, a swarm of Kikaichu ripped out of Choji's clothes, fat from dining on Choji's chakra, retreated toward the lone tree in the arena. Shino stepped out from behind it and allowed his insects to retreat back into his body.

Konan waited until the last of the Kikaichu insects had retreated back into Shino's body before she approached. While she had nothing to fear from the insects, they still gave her the creeps.

"Choji Akimichi is unable to continue. The winner is Shino Aburame!" she announced. There was a small smatter of applause, never smaller than for Naruto. Most of the crowd, both Shinobi and civilian, were too creped out from the swarms of insects.

"What—what happened?" Choji muttered weakly as he tried to sit up.

"A Bug Clone," Shino stated.

"Nice one," Choji smiled before closing his eyes and laying flat on the ground. "You don't happen to have any snacks on you, do ya?"

"No, I do not," Shino replied with the barest hint of a smile on his lips. "But it would be a pleasure to go with you to find some."


Such camaraderie, Konan thought as Shino helped Choji up and together they made their way out off the arena floor. Reminds me of how we used to be. Memories tried to overwhelm her, tried to overtake her, but she buried the dead memories where she thought they belonged.

"Sasuke Uchiha and Ino Yamanaka please report to the floor."

In the competitors' box, Ino paled and shook from the shadow she had stood in. She had barely been able to watch her own teammate's match from fear. But not fear for Choji, fear for herself.

"Hello girls," Sasuke grinned as he approached. "You don't know how glad I am that you're both here. All this excitement has really given me a big appetite."

"Sasuke-kun, what happened to you?" asked Ino.

"There's no need to be worried, Ino; no need to fear my new power. I finally have the way to avenge my clan and move on. Don't you want to help me revive my clan?" Sasuke asked and reached out to touch Ino. She shrunk away from his touch and his fingers grazed her broken arm.

"Sasuke, my arm!" Ino wailed and tried to stumble backwards, but Sasuke was too fast. He lashed out and grabbed her by the front of her shirt. He pulled her close to him, ignoring her cries of pain and fear.

"What's the matter, Ino? I thought you'd love to be this close to me. Isn't that what you and Sakura always fought about?"

Ino cringed and turned her head away from Sasuke's; his breath was foul and the dark marks continued to spread across his face.

The scene from the Forest of Death had played out in each and every one of Ino's nightmares during the month long break in the Exams. Ino could still remember the stink of Sasuke's breath and the feel of its foulness on her skin. Every waking thought was filled with dark marks and swirling red eyes.

She had barely slept since the Forest of Death; only when she was physically exhausted from training did she sleep, and then only fitfully. The lack of rest hindered her training and she still bore the deep purple circles beneath her eyes.

And now it was time to face her fear again; this time, without anyone beside her. Not her teammates, not Sakura, not Naruto…

Ino stopped her slow march toward the box exit and looked at her the blonde boy. Naruto noticed and quickly walked the distance between them. Naruto pulled Ino into a sudden, unexpected hug, startling her.

"One so fair should not fear," Naruto whispered in her ear. "You let that which is as far beneath you as the ground is beneath the heavens dominate your life. Let none hold dominion over thee and see thy fears flee before thee like vanquished foes. For you have more strength in thee than a host of warriors; you just need to face who you fear. And do not dread failure or consequence, for I say that Sasuke will tremble from my wrath should he attempt to do thee harm!"

Ino was taken back by Naruto's words. "Thanks," she said and gave him the smallest kiss on the cheek. Naruto's cheeks flushed brightly and he awkwardly rubbed the back of his head. Her steps lighter from Naruto's encouragement, Ino made her way to the arena floor.

She nodded to Konan, impressed by the older woman's strength and style. To see such a powerful kunoichi, even one from another village, encouraged Ino more and she hoped for an opportunity to speak with Konan at another time.

Minutes passed and Sasuke remained absent. Throughout the stadium, the crowd was torn between restlessness and the desire to see their honored Uchiha compete. Even those in the Kage box couldn't hide their disapproval.

"Your Uchiha seems to lack courtesy," the Kazekage sneered at the Hokage. "You really must not be so lax with discipline, Hokage-sama. Why, just think how bad this must look to the clients? No one wants to hire a shinobi who can't appear on time for something so important."

"I agree," the Otokage said. "This is rather insulting. How much longer are you going to allow this farce to continue? Sasuke Uchiha should be disqualified and his sensei punished for this insubordination. Well, unless of course some real trouble occurred to delay them."

Sarutobi looked at the two Kages solemnly. Damn you Sasuke and damn you Kakashi! Of all times to be late, this is the worst. Not only are we looking irresponsible and biased to the clients, but you are making me look weak for not being able to control my own shinobi as well.

Sarutobi stood up and raised his hand. Once the crowd took notice and settled, the Hokage's chakra enhanced voice carried over the entire stadium.

"Sasuke Uchiha has failed to report within the allotted time and is hereby disqualified from the Chunin Exams without any hope of promotion! A full investigation will be performed to determine if criminal charges are deemed necessary. Ino Yamanaka will advance to the next round!"

Ino let out an audible sigh of relief; even though Naruto had eased her fears of facing Sasuke, they had not been completely exorcised from her mind. She turned and began the march back to the competitors' box. She shrugged toward Naruto and saw him shake his head.

"There will be another time, Ino," he said. "You will have to face him someday. But you're Exams are not over yet."

Ino gulped, nodded, and went back to find a seat. Naruto's right. Now I'm going to have to face either Lee or that Gaara kid. Both of them are in a league of their own; I'm going to need one heck of a plan to beat them.

"Will Rock Lee and Gaara of the Sand report?" Konan called. She looked bored and was tired. Other than Naruto's first match, the Exams had been quite unimpressive in her eyes.

Gaara appeared in a cloud of swirling sands, his raccoon eyes looking even more tired than Konan's bored orbs.

"Dynamic Entry!" Lee shouted and leapt from the competitors' box. Lee shot through the air in a green blur, twirled in the sunlight, and landed in a flashy Taijutsu pose with one leg high in the air and his arms spread out like wings. Konan did a double take when she saw the spandex-clad Genin and could have sworn she saw a sunrise just behind him.

"Kai," she whispered to break the Genjutsu, but nothing happened. A flutter of panic filled her as she tried again, and again.

Why won't it go away? she wondered. Am I going insane?

"Oh dear," Sarutobi muttered as he watched Konan try over and over to break the supposed 'sunset' Genjutsu. He looked to his companions in the Kage booth and saw them trying to break it as well. He chuckled slightly to himself and nodded to one of the hidden ANBU.

Seconds later, Hayate appeared beside Konan and approached the Ame-nin cautiously, making enough noise for her to know he was there.

"It isn't a Genjutsu. We've been studying it for years, but Lee and his sensei seem to generate at it unconsciously. We still haven't figured out a way to break it. The best thing to do is just start the match. Once Lee begins fighting, it should go away," Hayate whispered.

Konan sighed and felt her body and mind relax. She nodded her thanks to Hayate, who vanished as quickly as he had appeared. Konan looked at Lee, trying her hardest not to be drawn into the freakish sunset he was projecting, and looked at Gaara.

"Rock Lee VS Gaara of the Desert. Fight!"

"Yosh!" cried Lee as he leapt into action. He sprang at Gaara and launched a mighty kick. "Leaf Hurricane!"

Lee's kick landed against a wave of hardened sand that had appeared to defend Gaara. Lee saw the sand move to grab hold of his leg and he quickly jumped back. Lee looked at Gaara in shock. The Suna Nin had not moved at all!

"What a wonderful technique!" Lee exclaimed. "Your control over the sand is most masterful. It is truly an honor to test my skills against you."

"Shut. Up," Gaara replied, his voice rude, cold, and bored. With a thought, he shot tendrils of sand at Lee, hoping to ensnare him and crush him like he did to Yoroi in the preliminaries. Lee jumped away from the tendril and cart wheeled toward the far end of the arena, trying to determine Gaara's maximum range. Gaara smirked.

"Running is useless. There is nowhere you can go where I will not find you. I will prove my existence with your blood!"

Lee ran up the arena wall; not using chakra, just pure speed; and used the wall as a springboard to leap back toward Gaara. He hurled a handful of shuriken at Gaara to further test his defenses. Another wave of sand, independent from the tendrils that still chased after Lee, blocked the shurikens from ever getting close to Gaara. A sadistic smile crept over Gaara's lips.

"Sand Shuriken!" he called and hurled discs of hardened sand at Lee. Lee's eyes grew wide; the sand discs had razor-sharp points and were moving just as fast as anything Tenten had ever thrown at Lee in training. He twisted to avoid the projectiles, but Lee never saw the new tentacle of sand until it was already wrapped around his ankle.

"Now I've got you!" Gaara shouted and cracked the tentacle like a whip, slamming Lee into the ground and throwing him into the arena wall. Lee hit the wall at high velocity and broke through the wall as if it was made of paper, not stone. The sand tentacle returned to Gaara's feet and formed into a long spear. Gaara waited, poised like a serpent waiting to strike.

Buried beneath chunks of wall, Lee struggled to free himself. Still shrouded in dust, Lee could barely see Gaara laying in wait.

Why isn't he following up his attack? I'm helpless here, why is he waiting? Lee wondered. After a second, it dawned upon him. He waited until Yoroi attacked before killing him…he's a counter-attacker. He'll wait for me to hit that shield of his and when I get stuck in that sand, he'll destroy me. Gaara is a truly marvelous shinobi and a very worthy adversary!

Lee smiled slightly as he finished freeing himself from the rubble, but he didn't leave. Still shaded by the cloud of dust, Lee stood up and stared at Gaara.

"You are indeed a worthy opponent; perhaps even more worthy than your sister was," Lee called across the arena. "I showed her a warrior's respect; it would go against my nindo to do any less for you."

Up in the stands, sitting beside Kankuro and their sensei Baki, Temari groaned and blushed from the embarrassment. Kankuro snickered until Temari hit him hard in the face. While he complained of her smearing his 'war paint', Baki wisely stayed out of it and went back to reading a new copy of Icha Icha.

Down on the arena floor, Gaara was not amused. "You talk too much."

"You are not the first person to tell me that," Lee admitted, "but it would be un-youthful of me not to display my youthful exuberance all the time!"

"I'm starting to prefer listening to mother's voice more than yours," Gaara said, his tone slightly afraid at what he was saying. "And she's telling me to spill your blood in the sands! Sand Tsunami!"

Gaara slammed his hands into the ground beneath him and a pulse of chakra raced through the ground. Dirt and sand rose out of the ground and formed in the shape of an immense wave. The wave grew as Gaara ground the rocks and minerals in the earth into more, harder sand. Lee was amazed by the feat.

"You are…genius…prodigy…monster…"

"Now die!" Gaara shouted and the wave rushed across the arena. Konan had to leap high into the air to avoid being swept away as the wave raced for Lee.

"Move Lee!" Guy and Tenten shouted as one from the stands. Lee snapped out of his stupor just in the nick of time. In one swift move, Lee pulled off his leg weights and threw them at the oncoming wave.

Gaara's shaded eyes burst wide when he saw the sets of weights rip through the dense sand and fly at him! Suddenly, Gaara did something he never did in battle before.

He dodged!

Gaara moved out of the way at the last second; the weights passed just to the right of his face and slammed into the far wall of the arena.

Nothing has ever broken through my sand before, Gaara thought in shock. While Gaara was still trying to understand what just happened, Lee made his move.

Lee leapt through the hole his weights made in the sand wave and unleashed a three punch combo on Gaara's face and stomach. The blows hit Gaara's sand armor and knocked Gaara down to one knee. The wave of sand wavered and broke apart as Gaara lost focus and his chakra control slipped.

Lee appeared behind Gaara and axe-kicked Gaara's back. The blow shattered the sand armor and Gaara crashed to the ground. Lee tried to continue his assault with a punch aimed for Gaara's temple, but the blow never connected. Lee looked down and saw a thick tentacle of sand wrapped around his wrist. He struggled to free himself, but the sand's grip was stronger.

"You increased your weights," Gaara said in cold monotone, "but you are still not fast enough. Sand Coffin!"

Lee screamed in pain as Gaara's sand crushed the bones of his wrist, shattering them. Lee curled his legs beneath him and pushed with all his considerable might, leaping away and finally breaking the sand's hold on him. He landed on the far side of the field, clutching his broken arm close to his body.

This is not good, Lee thought. Even with all the training I did, I am still not fast enough to escape his sand attacks. He is truly amazing, using something as simple as sand for such powerful attacks and defense.

Konan could see the frustration mixed with fear on Lee's face. "Do you wish to continue?" she asked.

"Of course I want to continue!" Lee uncharacteristically bellowed, sounding more like a wild beast than a teen. "There are two hundred and six bones in my body. Do you think that I will give up after only losing two of them? I will never stop!"

Lee hunched down, coiling his body, and clenching both fists, despite his injury. He screamed as his entire body seized, every muscle tensed and flexed, every nerve firing wildly. Lee stared directly at Gaara, a pained smile stretched across his lips and said: "Kaimon…kai!"

Every shinobi in the arena drew in a sharp breath of shock. Up in the Kage booth, the Otokage and Kazekage turned to the Hokage in complete disbelief.

"Hokage-sama, Sarutobi! This is outrageous! How can you allow your Jonin Sensei's to teach a mere Genin how to open the Celestial Gates?" the Kazekage yelled. "This is unheard of!"

"I believe this Rock Lee is the first Genin in history to open the first gate like this," the Otokage added. "You allow your shinobi to take far too dangerous risks! While the power he gains is incredible, the risks are monumental!"

"Lee knows the risks," the Hokage said grimly, remembering the tongue-lashing he gave Guy the month before when he reported to the Hokage that he was teaching Lee how to open the gates and listening to Guy's reasoning.

"How could you be so reckless and irresponsible?" Sarutobi shouted at Guy, slamming his fist upon his desk. "Just what were you thinking?"

"Respectfully, Hokage-sama, but you don't know enough to judge the situation," Guy replied.

"Mind what you say, Guy. Despite your relationship with the boy, remember that I am still your leader."

"What I meant, Hokage-sama, is that you do not know enough about Lee. Lee has not talent for Ninjutsu or Genjutsu and he cannot use them. However, his Taijutsu is second only to Neji Hyuuga in his age group and I believe that someday he will even surpass me in mastery of Taijutsu!"

"That is a pretty bold claim to make, Guy," Sarutobi said before frowning. "But that still doesn't explain why you taught him something as dangerous as the gates!"

"Lee will never stop. Every day he trains until his body breaks and his muscles rip," Guy explained. "Every attempt I've made to get him to properly rest or at least not train like a madman possessed, has failed. Nothing short of tying him to a hospital bed with heavy chains will slow him down. It was only a matter of time before he opened the first gate accidentally. I felt it would be better for Lee to learn properly and under my supervision than to experiment on his own."

Sarutobi thought for a moment then nodded. "Very well. You were right to try to help the boy. Just make sure he doesn't go overboard and open more than the first gate."

Guy suddenly looked very interested in studying the floor. Sarutobi saw through the guise immediately.

"Just how many gates can Lee open, Guy?"

Sarutobi looked back down at the arena and smiled, much more confidently this time. "Keep your eyes trained on the arena floor, gentlemen. We are in for quite a show."

The Kazekage and Otokage looked at each other, both slightly confused, until they heard Lee's now deeper voice ring through the air.

"Kyumon…Kai! Seimon…Kai!"

Lee's skin turned blood red as his blood flowed faster through his veins. His muscles bulged to twice their original size, nearly tearing apart Lee's tight spandex outfit (fortunately for the eyes and moral sanity of the spectators, the spandex stretched appropriately and nothing was revealed). Greenish-white bands of chakra swirled around Lee's body and, from across the arena, Gaara could feel wave after wave of power erupt off of Lee.

Lee gasped for breath, his mind reeling from massive release of strength, speed, and energy. His broken wrist no longer hurt; it was a mere inconvenience in his current state, the gate of healing had temporarily alleviated the pain.

"Now I will show you what the Springtime of Youth truly is!" shouted Lee and he vanished. Gaara searched for a sign of the green-clad Genin, but there was not a single trace to be found. Gaara's sand flared to life behind him, but there was nothing there but a green after image! The sand continued to move all on its own, but Gaara still could not see any sign of Lee.

Lee grit his teeth in frustration. Even after opening the third gate, I still cannot penetrate his defenses! The only reason I landed a hit before was because I used my weights as a distraction. I am very sorry, Guy-sensei, but I must push myself even farther, even though you warned me of the great dangers involved. If these are to be my last moments as a Shinobi, I will make them worth remembrance!

Lee stopped and stood still in front of Gaara. The Suna jinchūriki narrowed his sleepless eyes at Lee, wondering what trick the Leaf Nin was going to pull from out his spandex sleeve next.


The fourth gate opened and a shockwave of raw chakra swept across the arena. Lee's body swelled even more, the veins in his muscles pushed out and were visible through his green spandex. Gaara felt grains of sand being ripped away from his armor and cast into the wind from the sheer power Lee was generating.

Lee dashed forward. His body wasn't even a green blur anymore; one moment he was there, gathering his strength, and the next he was gone. Half a second later, Gaara's head rocked back and his body was lifted off the ground from a blow to the chin. A second and third blow followed until Gaara was hovering ten feet off the ground. Lee reappeared behind him, his eyes wide and pupil-less. He raised his hands and slammed them down across the back of Gaara's neck. Gaara let out a scream as he plummeted back to earth and skipped across the arena floor.

Lee landed roughly. As soon as his feet touched the ground, he bit his lip to stifle the cry of pain. My body cannot take much more of this, he worried. Hopefully, that last attack finished him off.

Lee looked across the arena with hope in his tired heart and brightened when he saw a bloody smear on the broken rocks. He stepped once and his left knee gave out in a crunch of cartilage. Lee fell, catching himself with one arm. He hobbled back to a vertical base and looked down at Gaara.

Gaara pulled himself out of the sandy rubble and felt…pain. He looked down and saw a line of blood dripping onto the ground. His head felt…odd. Gaara reached up and gently brushed aside the remains of his sand armor and felt something warm and sticky on his fingers. He pulled his hand back and saw nothing but red.

"Blood…my blood? Is this my blood?" Gaara cried out. His tired eyes grew fantastically wide and his hand shook violently. "I'll kill you!"

Gaara's gourd dissolved and swirled around the entire arena like a blinding sandstorm. Lee and Konan were forced to shield their eyes from the whirling sands. When the sands finally stopped, Gaara was encased in a solid ball of sand and a large eye, made entirely of polished sand, hung high above him.

"What kind of jutsu is this?" Lee wondered out loud. Curious, but tempered with caution, he reached into his pouch and hurled a kunai at Gaara. The kunai only penetrated half an inch into the reinforced sand. A tendril of sand reached out like a finger and, after removing the kunai, spun it by its ring. The finger of sand twirled the kunai twice before another tendril appeared, grabbed the blade and snapped it in half.

Lee was shocked and a little terrified. I have never seen something snap a kunai so easily before. And that was one of Tenten's kunai! Oh, no, she is going to kill me for letting it get broken. Lee felt a pulse of killing intent from the stands and suddenly he wasn't only afraid of Gaara…

Meanwhile, Gaara lurked inside his sand shield, muttering and holding his hands in a single seal. A thin trail of sand connected the third eye hovering outside his shield to his real eyes, allowing him to keep close watch on Lee. And when he saw Lee keeping his weight off his left leg, he narrowed all three of his eyes.

Sand leapt from the shield faster than before. Lee jumped backward just in time to avoid the attack, but landing on his legs caused a fresh wave of pain to shoot up his leg. Gaara noticed Lee's barely visible grimace and launched new tentacles of sand toward Lee. Each attack was just fast enough to force Lee to dodge and each one came faster than the last.

He is purposely trying to wear out my body, Lee realized. He knows I cannot stand here and just allow his attacks to crush me, but I cannot keep dodging like this either. I must go back on the offensive. But my body is giving out on me…there is only one choice left.

Lee landed as far away from Gaara as he could and crossed his arms in a great X in front of his chest. Gaara's sand slammed into Lee's guard, but Lee grit his teeth and ignored the sand-blasting pain. "Tomon…kai!"

The fifth gate opened in a roar of chakra and Lee's body actually rose off the ground. He hovered two inches off the arena floor and, when he darted forward, his body glowed green with the released chakra.

"This is it!" Lee shouted as he charged Gaara. "My final attack! Green Beast Barrage!"

Lee leapt forward, fists held out in front of him, his chakra surrounding and encasing him in a bullet of chakra. Gaara responded to Lee's charge by forming an array of sharp spikes stabbing outward from his shield, but this did not deter Lee at all. With a roar, Lee's chakra bullet glowed brighter and flew even faster.

Lee's bullet crashed into Gaara's ultimate defense and exploded in a blast of green chakra and swirling sand. The blast was bright enough to blind the spectators momentarily and shook the arena down to its foundations.

When the dust and bright glow finally cleared, both Lee and Gaara were lying on the ground. Both were battered, bruised, and bleeding; Lee, however, looked to be in worse shape. His left leg, already injured, was bent at an unnatural angle and a portion of the spandex was bulged from the broken bone pressing into the skin underneath. Gaara's sand armor was shattered and falling off his pale skin in chunks and pieces. Blood poured from his head wound and from a multitude of scraps and cuts all over his body.

Slowly, Lee raised his head and looked at Gaara through his one un-swollen eye. I hope that finished off Gaara; my body is done for, I have nothing left.

Lee let out a mental groan when he saw Gaara start to rise to one knee. Lee tried to do the same, to at least try to put up an attempt at defense. Lee managed to prop himself up on his left arm before his elbow hyper-extended and he dropped back to the ground in pain. A sadistic smirk crossed Gaara's lips and he pointed a single finger at Lee. A finger of sand wrapped around Lee's injured leg and pulled viciously. Lee screamed in pain and Konan began to step toward the pair, ready to step in if she needed to.

Gaara raised his hand and the sand lifted Lee into the air by his ankle. Gaara slowly raised his other hand, pointing at Lee's chest. A spear of sand formed in midair. Gaara took his time aiming…

Suddenly a swirl of leaves filled the arena, interrupting and blowing back Gaara, forcing him to drop Lee. Lee hit the ground already unconscious. Konan brushed a leaf out of her hair and glared at the two individuals now standing back to back in-between Lee and Gaara.

"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?" she snarled.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Kakashi said and eye-smiled. He stood beside Sasuke, who wore black and stood with his arms crossed arrogantly across his chest. "Are we late?"

Konan's right eye twitched dangerously and she was sorely tempted to pull a piece of paper from her sleeve and dismember the arrogant Jonin where he stood.

"Not only have you have interrupted an official match, but for nothing. He," she snapped and pointed at Sasuke, "has been officially disqualified."

"What?" Sasuke roared, his arrogance replaced by spoiled anger. "How dare you? What rights do you, a mere Ame peasant, a woman no less, have to disqualify an Uchiha?"

Konan's eyes twitched again and she pictured a blade of paper slicing through Sasuke's neck and becoming an umbrella to shield her from the fountain of blood. She pushed this happy thought out of her mind and pointed to the Kage booth. "I didn't. They did."

Sasuke spun and flashed his Sharingan at the Kages. "I demand to compete! These people came here to see the elite fight, not this spandex-clad rabble. I demand to be promoted!"

Up in the Kage booth, Sarutobi seethed and saw red. His armrests cracked and splintered beneath his furious grip. Beside him, the Otokage had a similar reaction. Killing intent swelled off the Hidden Sound Kage, but the Kazekage let out a soft giggle. When Sarutobi heard it, he turned and stared at the veiled Kazekage.

"Are you enjoying this spectacle?" Sarutobi growled, barely containing the anger in his voice. The Kazekage laughed again.

"I am indeed," he said. "Such audacity is rarely seen in a shinobi so young. You should be proud of the Uchiha's desire to fight. Surely this is an example of the 'Will of Fire' you Leaf shinobi are so proud of."

Sarutobi slammed his fist down upon his armrest, breaking it with a snap. "The 'Will of Fire' is not something one jests about, Kazekage. Nor among its tenets is a lack of respect to ones superiors or habitual tardiness! ANBU! Take Sasuke and Kakashi into custody for insubordination and manor unbecoming of a Leaf Shinobi!"

Groans and curses filled the arena as those who came to see the last loyal Uchiha fight expressed their disappointment; although all the foreign dignitaries, clients, and shinobi cheered and clapped appropriately for the Hokage's decision. But of everyone in the arena, Sasuke was the most upset.

"How dare you? I demand to fight!" Sasuke roared and darted at Gaara. He swung and tried to punch Gaara, but Gaara still had enough control over the sand to intercept the blow. The sand wrapped around Sasuke's wrist, Gaara clearly trying to repeat his success with Lee. Gaara made a closed fist, but Sasuke tore free before Gaara's sand could crush his wrist.

"You're too weak," Sasuke sneered and dodged a wave of sand. "Heh, sloppy. I don't even need my Sharingan to avoid your attacks."

Gaara grit his teeth in frustration. He was hurt; he never gets hurt. Pain flooded his body and clouded his mind, making it hard to focus.

Mother…mother, where are you mother? They hurt me mother, make them hurt! I'll give you their blood, mother. Please, prove my existence!

Gaara let out a scream and more sand was summoned to his side. His sand armor reformed, but thicker this time, visible, and bulky. The first traces of bluish veins appeared in the sand and Gaara's eyes darkened in color.

Sasuke narrowed his red eyes. Already, a squad of ANBU had landed on the arena floor and was cautiously approaching. Kakashi had moved to intercept; Sasuke hoped the Jonin would prove he was worth more than just a jutsu encyclopedia for him and stall the ANBU long enough for him to prove he deserved to be promoted.

"You're just a stepping stone on my path to vengeance," he told Gaara and began to flash through hand seals. "No amount of armor can stop me from destroying you."

Sasuke gripped his left wrist and held it away from his body. His chakra began to focus in his hand, growing visible and cackling like lightning.

Up in the stands, Guy was being held back by Asuma, Kurenai, Anko, and Iruka to keep from rescuing his protégé. When he saw Sasuke prepare his new attack, he stopped struggling and growled: "How dare Kakashi teach him that jutsu? How could he be so careless and reckless?"

"Um, you're one to talk, Guy," Asuma sighed. "How can you say what another sensei teaches his student after you taught Lee how to open the gates?"

"Lee would have opened the gates on his own," Guy justified, "and, as you can see, they have limits. But for Kakashi to teach this, it's completely senseless!"

"Just what's the big deal?" Anko asked. "All he's doing is focusing his chakra into his hand. The only jutsu that require someone to do that are medical jutsu and Taijutsu strikes like Tsunade does."

"There is another," Guy said ominously. "It is a one-hit-one-kill assassination jutsu that requires incredibly high speeds to pull off. The speed creates a form of tunnel vision, but the Sharingan eliminates that, making it even deadlier. It is the only jutsu that Kakashi didn't copy with his Sharingan, his sole original jutsu. He created it while trying to master the Yondaime's Rasengan; they say he used it to cut a lightning bolt in half. That's how it got its name. Chidori, the lightning cutter of a thousand chirping birds."

Sasuke's chakra grew brighter and hotter and a chorus of one thousand chirping birds filled the arena. "Chidori!" he shouted and dashed towards Gaara, the Chidori's wake burning a furrow in the ground. Gaara threw his hands in front of him, commanding a swarm of sand tendrils and spikes to intercept Sasuke.

To Sasuke's Sharingan, each tendril and spike looked like it was moving in slow motion. This is too easy, he thought as he slipped through Gaara's defenses and thrust his attack home. The Chidori ripped through Gaara's sand armor, skin, flesh, and bone with equal ease and Gaara let out a fresh wail of horrible pain. Sasuke remained still for a moment, his hand still buried up to the wrist in Gaara's stomach. With a sickening squelch, he removed his hand and a cascade of blood stained the sand at Gaara's feet.

Sasuke smirks as he raises his hand to finish Gaara off, but something grabs his upraised wrist. He looks to see a thick band of sand holding onto him. Gaara is standing behind him; he is panting heavily, but the wound in his stomach is gone. Sasuke turns back to see the Gaara he attacked crumble into a small pile of sand.

A sand clone? He's cleverer than I thought, Sasuke thought. He used those tendrils and spikes to block his real moves from my Sharingan.

"Cute trick," he said, arrogantly cutting himself free with a kunai. "Is that all you can do?"

"Mother…mother…wants to…meet you," Gaara stammered, his sand armor still growing. "She wants to…taste…Uchiha blood!"

With a roar, Gaara's left arm and right leg thickened and grew to enormous proportions of sand, claws, and blue veins. Sand crept up his shoulder and spread over the left side of Gaara's face. When it reached his eye, the whites turned black and the iris gold; when it reached the corner of his mouth, it stretched into a grin filled with large, triangular teeth. The first beginnings of a tail appeared on his hip.

"Enough of this!" Konan yelled and made her presence known with a terrifying pulse of chakra. "I'm tired of this bullshit and of the Leaf for letting it get this far. The Hokage should be ashamed his ANBU can be stalled by just one Jonin." She glared at Kakashi and the sheepish looking ANBU. Konan walked calmly toward Gaara, heedless of the obvious transformation the Suna Genin was experiencing.

"This match is over! Gaara of the Desert is the winner, due to disqualification! So you calm the hell down," she shouted and pointed at Gaara, "and you, surrender now or I will end you where you stand!" she threatened Sasuke.

The match finally officially over, Guy knocked aside his comrades and leapt into the arena. He carefully scooped up the unconscious Lee and rushed him to the medical tents. But despite the pulse of chakra, neither Sasuke nor Gaara showed any signs of backing down, nor did the embarrassed ANBU show any more initiative to arrest Sasuke or Kakashi. Konan was ready to level the entire village in frustration and rage toward the Leaf.

Kakashi put his hand on Sasuke's shoulder, stopping him from retaliating toward Konan, but Gaara had no outside influence to calm him down. He ripped past Konan and waved his transformed arm at Sasuke. The sudden blow caught Sasuke by surprise and knocked him and Kakashi out of the arena and into the stands.

In the Kage booth, Sarutobi was already out of his seat, ready to stop Gaara from harming anymore people; although he was internally debating whether it would be easier to just let the insane Genin devour Sasuke and Kakashi; and narrowly avoided the kunai aimed for his back. He spun around and saw the Kazekage holding said kunai, a dark look in his veiled eyes. Behind him, the Otokage made a hand seal and Sarutobi felt the beginnings of a massive Genjutsu spread over the entire stadium. A quick pulse of chakra freed him from its effects, but Sarutobi saw much of the stadium fall into a deep sleep.

"What is going on?" he demanded to know as he turned toward the Kazekage.

"This is the end, Hokage-sama," the Kazekage purred. "The end of the Hidden Leaf Village!"

The Otokage and Kazekage's bodyguards leapt to action, cutting down Sarutobi's ANBU before they could react. One of the Otokage's bodyguards split in two, revealing two Shinobi where there had only been one. Alongside the Kazekage's bodyguards, they leapt to the four corners of the Kage box and destroyed the pavilion roof. Tossing aside their disguises, the now exposed and infamous Sound Four began making hand seals in unison.

"Ninja Art: Four Flames Barrier!" they shouted together. Fiery red chakra exploded from their bodies, forming two barriers around the entire Kage Box and high into the sky, topped with a barrier roof. The first barrier was in front of the Four to keep anyone from attacking them; the second barrier was behind them to keep the Kages from escaping.

However, the Otokage and Kazekage had no interest in escaping, only in death and destruction. The Hokage took it all in stride, showing more curiosity in the barrier than in the two Kages trapped inside with him. He casually drew a shuriken from inside his sleeve and tossed it at the barrier. The metal disc fizzled against the barrier and burst into flames hot enough to turn the steel to ash.

"I'm actually impressed, Orochimaru. You've actually developed a fairly decent jutsu here," Sarutobi said appreciatively. When he saw the Kazekage's right eyebrow twitch, Sarutobi smirked. "Yes, I know that's you, Orochimaru. I was wondering how long I was going have to sit beside your stink before you showed your true colors."

"Oh, Sarutobi-sensei," Orochimaru chuckled. "You always were so clever. What gave it away: did I say something familiar, make a gesture, wear the wrong aftershave?"

"You're subordinate told me actually," Sarutobi reveled. "You remember Kin Tsuchi, don't you? Sasuke Uchiha set her on fire during the preliminaries. It's amazing what an inexperienced Shinobi will say under pain medication, especially when she has been abused and suffered so much under your short tutelage and her so-called teammates."

"Hmm, I thought the little whore was dead. I suppose I have one more loose end to tie up today," Orochimaru grumbled as he pulled off his robes, veil, and Kage hat. Beneath the baggy robe was the petite, but impressively curvy body of a young woman and behind the veil was a beautiful face with pale skin, red lips, and long black tresses of hair. The only thing that marked this woman as Orochimaru was her eyes: yellow with a serpentine slits for pupils. Sarutobi looked at his former student and felt a wave of repulsion crawl up his spine.

"You always did enjoy stealing Tsunade's underwear," he said, mocking Orochimaru. "I always thought you were a pervert like Jiraiya; I never suspected you were jealous of Tsunade's…features. I suppose this explains why you always rejected her advances."

"She was just angry that I looked better in her panties than she did," Orochimaru sneered and struck what he deemed as a sexy pose. Behind Orochimaru, the Otokage vomited from beneath his veil. Sarutobi gagged at the smell and struggled not to get sick himself.

"What's the matter with you?" Orochimaru whirled on his accomplice.

"Sorry, but that's a horrible mental image," the Otokage burped, trying to scrub the idea of Orochimaru's true form with Tsunade's legendary curves dressed in a tight black bra and matching lace thong. He wished there was a Yamanaka handy to wipe his memory clean, hopefully with bleach. Orochimaru shrugged and stepped away from the still retching Otokage.

"Who is your accomplice?" the Hokage asked. "I know you're the real Otokage; only one of your arrogance would start his own hidden village out of spite and jealousy."

"Perhaps if you appreciated my genius more than such measures could have been awarded," Orochimaru countered.

"Your sickness, you mean. Murdering and experimenting on innocents is not genius."

"Your opinion."

"I assume the Kazekage is a late victim?"

"Of course. He was against my little invasion plan; he merely wanted to use Gaara to embarrass the Leaf in the Exams, where as my plans are much more grandiose," Orochimaru chuckled and reached into his robe and fired a flare into the air, signaling the remainder of his forces.


Across Konoha, in the outskirts outside the village's walls, a group of Oto Chunin began chanting around a summoning seal. Inside the seal, Misumi Tsurgui and Zaku were bound and gagged. Their skin was covered in cuts and bruises and their eyes were wide in fear.

The chanting grew louder and smoke rose out of the seal. The smoke crawled and wormed toward the two tied up Genin like a serpent, slithering across their legs, up their torsos, and into their screaming mouths. Misumi and Zaku's bodies seized and spasmed as more smoke cascaded down their throats. The Genin tried in vain to scream as the smoke consumed them from the inside out until there was nothing left. The chanters stopped when the seal, satisfied by the sacrifice, burst into a cloud of white smoke. When the smoke cleared, a massive 3-headed snake slithered out of the summoning circle and toward Konoha.


Sarutobi paled when he saw the eruption of summoning smoke and gasped at the sheer size of the monstrosity. "You bastard…"

"You would know, dad," Orochimaru sneered.

"I was your teacher—"

"You were the closest thing I ever had to a real father and you let me slip away!" Orochimaru screamed. "You stood by and let others surpass me; you favored others when you should have favored me!"

Sarutobi shook his head. "Still throwing the same temper tantrum you did fifteen years ago when I chose Minato-kun as my successor and not you."

"I'm twice the Shinobi, twice the genius he was!"

"Um-hmm. Because you single-handedly won the Third Shinobi War with a revolutionary and never-been-duplicated-jutsu," Sarutobi mocked, allowing Orochimaru's anger and jealously cloud his judgment. He watched as Orochimaru's beautiful borrowed features turned bright red and spittle dripped from his lips.

"Shut up you babbling old monkey!" Orochimaru snapped and was about to leap at Sarutobi when the Otokage, finally recovered, grabbed Orochimaru's shoulders and steadied him.

"He is merely trying to play mind games with you, my lord; trying to deceive your superior mind with his paltry tricks," the Otokage reassured Orochimaru. "Allow me to put this diseased old man out of his misery."

Orochimaru smiled and ran his long tongue over his pale lips. "I have a better idea. Since Sarutobi-sensei is so proud of his title and its vaulted history, let him defend it against his predecessors." The Otokage nodded and stepped away from Orochimaru. Sarutobi raised his arms in defense, bracing himself for what was going to happen next.

Orochimaru speared both his thumbs into his fang-like front teeth. He slammed his palms and bloody thumbs on the rooftop and shouted: "Summoning Jutsu: Impure World Resurrection!"

Sarutobi's eyes widened in terror as he recognized the name of the jutsu. The Nidaime's jutsu…but he never finished it. Don't tell me Orochimaru finished his work…

Two coffins rose out of the rooftop slowly and ominously. The first, branded with the kanji for ONE, rose to Orochimaru's left; the other, marked TWO, rose to his right. Sarutobi's eyes widened even more, horrified that he recognized the caskets.

"You monster!" he yelled at Orochimaru. The Snake Sannin laughed.

"I thought you would be more grateful. There are very few people who get to see their dearly departed while they're still alive. You are lucky, Sarutobi-sensei."

The lids of the two coffins fell forward and the decaying bodies of the Shodaime and Nidaime Hokage hung limply inside. They were dressed in their red and blue armors, kunai and shuriken pouches still in place.

"You filthy bastard!" Sarutobi cursed at his former student. "Do you have no respect, not even for the dead, Orochimaru?"

"Kukuku; I do respect the dead, Sarutobi-sensei. I honored the Shodaime in my experiments and exalted the Nidaime by fulfilling his legacy and completing his greatest jutsu! And the information I've taken from their decaying bodies was particularly delicious."

"You really are a monster, Orochimaru, and it is past time for you to pay for your heinous deeds. Summoning Jutsu!" Smoke burst beside Sarutobi and Enma, the Monkey King, appeared.

"What's going on, Hiruzen?" Enma asked. "What is the snake doing here and why I am looking at the Senju brothers? Aren't all three of them supposed to be dead?"

"Orochimaru is an old mistake about to be amended; the Senju are his doing, not mine. He completed the Nidaime's resurrection jutsu."

"Oh no, Sarutobi-sensei. This is one mistake that you won't fix, this mistake will bury you!" Orochimaru grinned and produced two kunai with a string of seal tags attached to them. He stabbed a kunai into the Shodaime and Nidaime's foreheads. The kunai was sucked into the dead flesh and the strings followed until they were completely inside the skulls. Both the dead bodies began to heal before the Sandaime's eyes and he was terrified when he saw the Shodaime's hands twitch. Both dead Kage's eyelids opened the scratched, milky white corneas of the dead. They blinked and those eyes returned to those of the living, albeit tired and heavily bloodshot. The two brothers looked at each other, confused, and finally looked toward Sarutobi.

"Hiruzen? Is that you?" the Nidaime asked.

"I am sorry, Nidaime-sensei, Shodaime-sama!" Sarutobi cried and bowed deep at the waist to his predecessors. "Orochimaru has defiled and desecrated your graves and brought you back to life in a sick plot to raze Konoha and kill me."

The Shodaime looked at his brother. "I told you that resurrection jutsu wasn't a good idea."

"That's why I never finished it," the Nidaime protested. He looked over at Sarutobi and frowned. "You look old, Hiruzen."

"You should have appointed a successor by now," added the Shodaime. "Taken up golf or fishing."

"I did," Sarutobi laughed with a touch of gallows humor. "I named Minato Namikaze the Yondaime Hokage. He died sealing the Kyuubi when it attacked fifteen years ago. I took up the mantle again after his death."

"Even so, you should have appointed one of your students, one of the Sannin, to be the Godaime."

"Kukuku, do you see now, Sarutobi-sensei? Even a dead man can see that you should have appointed me to be Hokage," Orochimaru laughed. "All this death and destruction today could have been avoided if you had just acknowledged my greatness and appointed me."

"Who are you again?" the Shodaime asked. Orochimaru's pale skin turned bright red while Sarutobi, Enma, and the Otokage face-faulted.


"Oh," was the Shodaime's only reply. Orochimaru ground his teeth in rage.

"Enough foolishness. I did not bring your decrepit corpse back to this plane of existence to insult my greatness. I command you both to kill Hiruzen Sarutobi!"




"WAKE UP YOU MEWLING QUIM!" the Kyuubi shouted inside Naruto's head. The boy opened his eyes and pressed his palm against the searing pain in his head.

"Shut thy snout," he growled back. "What's wrong with you? Why won't you let me sleep? It's nighttime, that's what we human's do!"

"You're not human and it's not nighttime!" Kyuubi roared. "Use the pathetic wits that you have and look around for Midgard's sake!"

Naruto continued to grumble curses at the fox, but sat up and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. "Damn fox, always making a racket and giving me headaches…"

When Naruto finally looked around, he realized he wasn't at home in his bed like he thought. It wasn't even nighttime or even early morning. He was still in the competitor's box inside the arena and the sun was still high in the sky.

"What the hell is going on?" he wondered out loud.

"You were hit with an arena-wide genjutsu, you idiot!" the fox shouted inside Naruto's head. "Get your narrow ass in gear and get moving before you get killed!"

"And here I didn't know just how much you cared about my wellbeing," Naruto muttered sarcastically as he stood, ignoring the fox's creative and colorful curses for a moment. The arena was in chaos as dozens of Sound and Suna Shinobi ran amok through the aisles, killing and fighting along the way. All of the civilians and some weaker Leaf Shinobi were asleep and were casually being slaughtered by the invaders.

Naruto flexed his right hand angrily and Mjolnir leapt into his grip. Whirling the hammer, Naruto sped through the arena, swinging his hammer at every invader in reach. Mjolnir crushed skulls and broke spines wherever Naruto swung, but he never slowed down. Naruto became a blonde blur swirling around the arena like the winds of a typhoon, never ceasing, only avenging.

Naruto closed in on the Kage Box when a tree-trunk thick tentacle of sand slammed into the wall beside him. Naruto stopped and hovered, waiting for another attack, but none came. The sand retracted and Naruto couldn't help smirking.

Sasuke and Kakashi were both covered in shallow scrapes and had buckets of sand in the hair and clothes. Kakashi, having taken the brunt of Gaara's attack and the impact against the wall, was in much worse shape.

Looks like the bastard has two broken ribs and dislocated his shoulder, Naruto thought after a quick and casual examination with the toe of his boot. He gave Kakashi's ribs a much harder poke than necessary before looking down at the arena floor.

Gaara looked less human and more like a sandy tankuri. Small, triangular ears sprouted from the sand on top of his head and his nose and mouth were completely replaced by a snout and fangs. The partial transformation had even affected his voice.

"Is that all you've got? Come back down so I can feast on your bones!" he shouted to Sasuke and Kakashi in a deep baritone. The voice triggered several of Thor's memories, all involving a large troll named Ulik that had breath like carrion and B.O. to match.

Naruto turned his attention back to Sasuke as the rest of the able-bodied Konoha Rookie 12 arrived. They all looked concerned for one reason or another: Tenten kept looking back at the medical tents in worry for Neji and Lee, Shikamaru looked depressed from being woken up from the sleep Genjutsu, Choji was angry at the invaders as he bit down on a turkey leg, Shino was, well Shino, Kiba kept looking around and sniffing for a sign of Hinata in the panicked crowd, Sakura was trying to rush to her Sasuke-kun's side, and Ino was standing as far from Sasuke and as close to Naruto as she could.

Unfortunately for Ino, Naruto stormed toward Sasuke and picked him up by the front of his shirt. Sasuke groaned at the rough treatment, but glared venomously at Naruto.

"You self-absorbed, cowardly, cur!" Naruto snarled and punched Sasuke viciously in the jaw. Sasuke fell down again and Naruto picked him back up. "Look with those damnable eyes and see what thou hast created!"

Sasuke just stared into Naruto's eyes with his Sharingan. Naruto stared back for a moment before he grabbed Sasuke's chin in his hand and forced the Uchiha to look down at the arena floor. Sasuke's eyes widened as he watched Gaara rampage, destroying everything and everyone near him. Only Konan seemed to be able to avoid his wrath; she took to the sky on a pair of white, paper wings and was content to watch with a contemptuous scowl on her face.

Sasuke was afraid of Gaara, but he refused to let Naruto of all people see. He shook his head free and scowled. "Leave me alone. I'll defeat him and then you."

"Uh-huh," Naruto nodded, an idea forming in his head. "Well if that's the case…HEY GAARA! YOU STILL WANT THE UCHIHA?" Naruto shouted at that top of his lungs.

"I'll kill you all!" Gaara shouted back and started scaling up the arena walls towards them. The rest of the Rookies ran to the far edge of the wall, but Naruto smiled.

"Well, come and get him!" he challenged. Naruto grabbed Sasuke by the back of his collar, swung Mjolnir, and took to the skies.

"Put me down, you buffoon!" Sasuke yelled.

"Very poor choice of words," Naruto smiled and jerked his head toward the ground hundreds of feet below. Sasuke paled, swallowed the vomit building up in his throat, and stayed as still as he possibly could.

"Come back so I can feed your blood to mother!" the half-crazed jinchuiki roared.

"You're gonna have to work for your meal!" Naruto called back as he drifted in the sky towards the Forest of Death. Gaara snarled and leapt up the arena walls, using his sand tendrils like ropes and bungees to springboard his way after Naruto and Sasuke.

"C'mon you half-assed Spiderman!" laughed Naruto and he did a few mid-air acrobatics to mock Gaara, terrify Sasuke, and simply for fun.

"I haven't had this much fun in ages!" Gaara squealed as more sand took over his body. Over half his body was now covered in blue-veined sand and his appearance and attitude was much more feral.

"Come, beast. There's much more fun to be had!" Naruto yelled from the outskirts of the forest.

Author's Notes:

Here is the long awaited beginning to Thunderer. As you've read for yourself, I've taken some liberties with the canon and changed up the Exams like I did the prelims. I cut some stuff I didn't want to deal with-Naruto's training with Jiraiya for one-and changed the way battles were fought. One of the things I noticed was how accidentally and completely one-sided I made the Chunin Exam finals! It was all Konoha! I thought that such an instance would definately rile up the Kazekage or anyone else participating. I hope you all liked the addition of Konan as referee and my mystery Otokage. I wanted to throw a wildcard in with the Sarutobi vs Orochimaru battle. A shiny nickel to the person who figures out who it is. Here's a big hint: IT IS NOT KABUTO! I also hope you enjoyed some of the other Marvel references scattered here and there. Oh, and I know I'm bashing Sasuke and Kakashi a little more than canon, but I honestly think they're both weaker characters and I have something in store for them, in particularly for Sasuke after the Exams are all finished.

Some up and coming things:

1) Ino vs Sasuke is bound to happen sooner or later. I still haven't totally thought that confrontation out yet.

2) Sakura's role has yet to be decided.

3) Naruto will not be summoning toads! I've never been a fan of the toads, even if their boss is a giant yakuza ganglord! I guess I'm just not an amphibian type of writer.

4) More Marvel elements are coming soon! Will they be characters? Places? Items of lore? Heroes? Villains? Stand by to find out.

5) I am currently enraptured and consumed by National Novel Writing Month. I pretty much do this every year in the hopes that I create something original that might actually pay my electric bill (after all, Stephen King once said that a successful writer is someone who pays their electric bill with money from their work). So don't expect an update on this or The Gunslinger until after the holidays.

Until next time,