— "All of water is your weapon. All of Heaven is yours to command."

Absolute Zero: The Azure Sky
By: James D. Fawkes

Chapter One: Awaken to Fate
o.0.O.O.0.o —

Naruto's head gave a powerful throb as he climbed to his unsteady feet with shaking legs. He rubbed gingerly at the pain lancing his temples, "What —?"

The memory rushed to the forefront of his mind in a mixed jumble of images and sounds.

He remembered a grass shinobi, a rather ugly twenty-something girl with long black hair and an even longer tongue. He remembered a snake, a monstrous colossus that could have swallowed the Hokage Tower whole, and broken trees with thick mossy trunks. He remembered stopping that snake with his bare hands and a pair of kunai, and Sasuke and Sakura staring, shocked, awed, afraid, rooted to their spots. He remembered being lifted into the air by that freaky tongue, held in a grip as strong as steel that would not drop him no matter how hard he struggled. He remembered a word — Kyubi. The snake freak had recognized him.

What came next was even more of a blur. He remembered five fingers alight with purple fire, his shirt being yanked up, the wind leaving his lungs. He remembered pain, terrible pain, and a horrifying weakness — his vision going dark, his arms too feeble to lift, his eyes too heavy to stay open, and the cold, bone-numbing fear of encroaching death.


His head hurt. Pain — that meant he had to be alive, right?

"Ugh," he groaned softly. He scrunched his face up and shook his head. "What did that snake freak do to me?"

He reached down and pinched the space between his left thumb and forefinger, then rolled the captured flesh — an old remedy for headaches the old man had taught him. He opened his eyes, blinking rapidly, and looked around. First things first: finding out his location. "Where—?"

A vast expanse of pure white snow stretched out before him for miles around, and there was no end in sight — no mountains in the distance, no hazy outline on the horizon, or even a horizon to begin with. There was no clear place where earth met sky, only a blurred transition from white snow to grey clouds. Several trees littered the rolling slopes, reaching up towards the sky and barren but for small white flowers that bloomed timidly. Tiny flakes as soft as silk landed on his skin, melting and dribbling down his face and neck.

He reached out and caught petite white fuzz in his palm. It was snowing, he realized, and when the clouds shifted enough to reveal a quick ray of sun, the thousands of tiny snowflakes shimmered beautifully.

He knew he should be freezing; his jumpsuit was not designed for anything colder than mid-autumn. The snow around him should have been radiating coldness or sucking the heat from his very skin. But he didn't feel cold. In fact, he was oddly comfortable, even — dare he believe it? — warm.

He felt his eyes go wide and his mouth fall open and asked the empty air the first question that came to mind: "Where am I?"

The impossibly large trees and roots of the Forest of Death were the last place he remembered being. It had been the second part of the Chunin Selection Exams and he'd been forced to fight against a Hidden Grass ninja too strong to be anything less than a Jounin (and he had a sneaking suspicion that whoever-it-was wasn't supposed to have been there). He had been surrounded by gnarled wood three times its natural size and leaves as big trashcan lids.

But where did that leave him now? What little he could remember about the Academy lessons that seemed a lifetime ago said that the Land of Snow was the only place that got snow. But how would he have gotten to the Land of Snow, hundreds of miles away, across a sea, from the middle of Fire Country?

'On this plain of never-ending ice and snow,' he thought in a rare philosophical moment, "did I die?"

"So, you're finally here," a deep voice, like rolling thunder, spoke. Naruto nearly jumped out of his skin and spun around as fast as he could, only to come face to face with a huge blue dragon.

Its scales were smooth and slick and reflected the miniscule light perfectly, which gave them an crystalline shine. Atop its head was a crown of spikes, each of which jutted backwards like shards of broken glass. Its nostrils were thin and narrow, almost serpentine, and its snout was long and canine, like a dog's. Unlike his own puffing pants, its slow, gentle breaths made no clouds in the cold air. Two great, dark-feathered wings were unfurled along its back and its first pair of short, thickly-muscled legs supported it a little farther down. There was a moment, a flash of light through the clouds, and the dragon was, for that single instant, made entirely of ice.

"Tell me: can you hear my name?" the dragon moved closer, and its glowing red eyes bored into his own. "Can you call out to me, to Hyôrinmaru?"

"Is that you?" Naruto asked, his voice low and quavering with fear and awe. His eyes were wide and his breathing came out in shaky rasps. His heart thumped loudly, beating a tattoo against his ribs. "Are you Hyôrinmaru?"

The dragon bared two rows of shiny carnivorous teeth in a frightening parody of a satisfied grin, "So, you can hear."

A burst of warm breath came from its nostrils, "After years of having your ears plugged by the Nine-tailed Fox, you can finally hear me. It's been so long..."

"The fox?" Naruto parroted. His features quickly contorted into rage. Something horrible twisted in his stomach. The creature that stole his parents and his childhood from him. "What does he have to do with anything?"

"Do not be so quick to hate, child," a second, much stronger burst of breath came, knocking Naruto off his feet. He fell on his butt with a soft grunt. "If it were not for that beast, you would likely have failed to survive your rough childhood. He may have blocked me from you, but he did keep you alive, even if it was more for his own self-interest."

"What?" Naruto's eyebrows shot up into his hitai-ate. The sick feeling in his gut morphed into a swift thrill of shock. "But how?"

"He protected you when I could not," the dragon responded calmly. "He healed you when others would have waned away into nothing. He soothed you when sleep would not come to your young mind."

"But that was all his fault to begin with!" Naruto protested loudly. The anger was back, bitter and furious. "If he hadn't attacked Konoha, then he wouldn't have gotten his fuzzy butt sealed, and I would have had a normal life!"

And he would have had parents. A mom and a dad. People who loved him for who he was, unconditionally, who would have tucked him in at night, whispered sweet nothings in his ear, comforted him after a nightmare. He might have even had a younger brother or sister. A family.

"Do not be so quick to judge," Hyôrinmaru purred. "The fault of the Nine-tails' attack lies in the accursed blood of the Uchiha. The one called Madara…"

The dragon's eyes flashed, "Were it not for him, the beast would not be where he is. And you…you would have a family."

Naruto was sure his confusion must have shown on his face, "What does the Uchiha clan—?"

"That, I cannot answer," the serpentine beast interrupted; it had anticipated his question. Naruto had the feeling that Hyôrinmaru was not being honest with him. "I only know what information I can glean from the beast and his mutterings."

"Oh," Naruto said lamely. He glanced around, somewhat unnerved by the dragon's unblinking stare. He didn't want to ask what Hyôrinmaru wasn't saying. "So…what are you?"

There was huff from the creature in front of him, almost like an amused chuckle, but Naruto dared not imagine he was right. The dragon's tone, however, was serious when it responded, "I am the piece of your soul dedicated to fighting. I am the part of you that never gives up, even when your body is frail and defeated."

There was something powerful in the beast's voice as it continued, its pitch rising, "I am the Wrath of Heaven, the instrument with which you slay your foes. I am the lord of ice and snow, the master of all things water! I am the frigid bite of death! I am your sword and your shield, and I shall protect you until the bitter end!" — its voice rose to a roar — "I am HYÔRINMARU!"

It bowed its head submissively, startling Naruto with the foreign gesture, "Now command me, and raze your enemies to the ground!"

A sudden feeling of power rushed through his body, and he felt like he could do anything, beat anyone, and overcome any obstacle. It was like molten lava flowing through his veins, and with nothing but confidence, he reached out to touch the spiked crown of Hyôrinmaru's head.

The strange world disappeared in a flash of bright light.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Naruto's eyes snapped open with a gasp, but he shut them immediately against the dim light that burned them like the midday sun. He turned over to his side and curled into a ball. It felt as though someone had slammed a sledgehammer into his stomach, as though a cannonball had knocked the air from him with the force of a freight train. He felt sure that he must be bruised black and blue.

"….Ha!" there was a loud thud, and Naruto thought briefly of a large, perfectly cooked steak being dropped unceremoniously onto a plate. Sakura's voice cried out in answer. A vicious crack rent the air, like that of bones breaking, shattered by the blunt, unforgiving earth. Naruto's mind felt hazy, like someone had stuffed his head full of cotton or like fog had filled up every nook and cranny of his skull.

'Ugh. What's going on?'

"Kin, out of the way!" the words were thick and distorted, like they were tiny little soldiers trudging through a sea of molasses. The wind leapt to life, washing over his body like a gentle wave, a cool breeze that caressed his burning forehead. There were three sharp clunks and a soft explosion sound, one that Naruto recognized as Kawarimi. There was a battle…?

'I-ta-ta-ta-ta! Nng, did someone get the number of that kart that ran me over?' His head ached just as much as it had before, in that strange world. It was like someone had taken a drill to his skull and made several holes. Every beat of his heart sent spikes of pain lancing along every nerve in his scalp. He let out a soft hiss through his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut tightly.

"…useless!" Another blast of wind, closer, much closer, than before, showered him harshly and whipped his exposed fingers raw. His ears twitched at the dark scoff that followed.

'Quiet! You're not helping!'

"…you're not fooling anyone!" Three more thunks, then another explosion — Kawarimi again. There was definitely a battle going on, and he really shouldn't be lying around when someone was fighting on his doorstep, but he couldn't muster the strength to care. He was in too much pain.

'Damn it! What I wouldn't give to know some Medical Ninjutsu right about now!'

"...get serious!" another thud, heavier than any of the others before it, was followed by a gasp of surprise and the smell of fresh blood — someone was wounded. A girl cried out in pain, muffled, like she was gagged or something, then several meaty whacks as someone hit something repeatedly. Then there was another thud as something or someone was thrown bodily to the ground.

Wait a minute. That girl's voice — he recognized it.


His eyes snapped open and a cool, soothing relief swept through his body and eased away his pains.

He stood in one fluid motion, his fingers wrapping around the hilt of a sword, one that he'd never even seen before, that sent a satisfied rush through his veins. Everyone and everything halted before him as he turned a frigid stare out at the forest around him. His iron grip on his sword tightened.

"Naru…to," Sakura whispered dully from her spot on the ground; one eye was already bruised and swelling shut. There were several cuts along her arms and legs and small patches of blood were beginning to pool beneath her. She looked surprised to see him, like he was some phantom specter back from the dead. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the broken and defeated form of Lee lying unconscious on the ground.

"Heh," the ninja with spiky black hair grinned smugly. "So, one of those sleeping brats woke up, eh?"

Naruto focused his icy gaze on the Sound Genin. Words tumbled past his lips before he knew what he was saying, "Sôten ni zase, Hyôrinmaru." (Sit upon the Frozen Heavens, Ice Ring)

The sword in his hand glowed bright blue, sprouting from its pommel a chain on whose end was a white steel crescent, and the spiky haired Genin smirked, a cocky gleam in his eye. He scoffed, "That's it? What, nothing else? Am I supposed to be frightened of a little genin with a sword?"

"Zaku!" the bandaged one scolded. There was something antsy and agitated in his stiffened posture.

Naruto moved, and in a blur, he was standing behind the spiky-haired Zaku, already in mid swing. Startled, Zaku stumbled backwards awkwardly and landed on his butt as a flash of steel flickered over his head and severed several locks of black hair. Zaku stared. A swell of pride swirled in Naruto's chest; he felt invincible.

It was like that final moment in his inner world, where he had laid his hand upon Hyôrinmaru's spiked crown and felt the liquid courage surging through his body. Like then, he felt as though no obstacle could stand in his way, as though he were untouchable. The sword felt so familiar in his hand, and every motion felt practiced to perfection, even though he had never wielded a katana before in his life.

Instantly, Naruto was upon Zaku again, both hands grasping the hilt as his blade came down in a surprisingly graceful arc. Zaku yelped, rolling backward over his shoulder only to land straight on his feet, crouched defensively. He looked like a frightened animal too scared to move. It seemed that he could not decide whether to fight or flee. Something in Naruto crowed triumphantly, and it evoked in Naruto the urge to show the upstart in front of him its place. Bow before the ultimate predator, whelp, it seemed to say.

Naruto moved to continue his assault and Zaku leapt as far away as he could on chakra-enhanced legs, already preparing his own attack. To Naruto, he seemed to be moving in slow motion. He flung his hands out and the tubes in his arms whistled as air compressed inside them. "Zankuuha!"

A gale of tightly packed wind rushed from Zaku's palms, targeting Naruto, who had not moved and whose icy gaze had not wavered. The triumphant grin that stretched across Zaku's face made Naruto want to deck him. He'd show that punk what it meant to underestimate him.

Naruto funneled chakra to his legs (and it was so incredibly effortless) and leapt upwards, the wind whistling in his ears as the figures beneath him grew smaller. He slowed to a stop, and there was a moment as he hung there in midair, feeling completely and utterly free, where his body was untouched by gravity. Then, as he started to fall, he swung downwards and called, "Hyôrinmaru!"

From the arc of the blade, a winding, icy blue serpentine dragon soared, its eyes red and its jaw wide. It was headed straight for Zaku and the expression on his face belied the surprise that seemed to have frozen him to his spot.

"Zaku!" at the last second, Dosu called out his name and Zaku finally responded, vaulting from his spot as the sapphire beast closed in on him. He was not fast enough, however, to avoid it entirely, and his left arm was consumed. Behind him, as his female teammate gave a gasp, the dragon crashed into the ground, forming an almost flower-shaped pillar of jagged ice as the surrounding grass froze into miniature spikes.

Naruto landed next to Zaku softly, marveling at how easy it all seemed as he stalked forward. Zaku looked frightened, and the terror radiating off of him only made Naruto's cold rage more ferocious. The predator had become the prey, and only now did it think of mercy?

Every inch closer he got, the Sound girl took in a harsher, more strangled breath. Zaku's left arm was entirely encased in ice, but that did not stop him from flinging out his good arm and calling, "Zankuuha!"

With a flick of his wrist, Naruto conjured a wall of ice that deflected the attack effortlessly — the wall wasn't even dented. Then, Naruto vanished. He disappeared, and as he moved, the world around him seemed to have frozen. With a single hand, he swung, and then he stopped, sword outstretched. A line carved itself up Zaku's already injured right arm, then gave a spurt of blood. Zaku cried out in pain — in the span of a few moments, both of his arms had been rendered useless. One was frozen solid, slowly going numb, and the other had nearly been cut in half.

'Serves him right,' Naruto thought viciously. His eyebrow twitched, then he spun on his heel, blocking the attack from Zaku's male teammate, Dosu. Metal clashed and sparks flew. Dosu's gauntlet pushed against Hyôrinmaru, and neither of them gave a single inch.

Ice crept from the shallow groove Naruto's sword had carved, slowly consuming Dosu's arm in a heavy layer of crystallized water. Dosu's one eye went wide, and he tried to get away, but Naruto's left hand shot out and locked his elbow in a grasp as strong as steel. He wriggled desperately, trying to tug himself free, but Naruto's grip was firm and unwavering.

Once the gauntlet was completely frozen over, Naruto let go of Dosu and brought his sword up as his enemy stumbled. With all of his strength, he slammed the butt of his sword's hilt into the metal glove, smashing it to pieces mercilessly.

Dosu yowled and fell backwards, clutching at his severely injured right arm. Several scratches decorated the lacerated skin and Naruto could not tell whether or not he had broken the bones, but he vindictively hoped that he had. Payback for hurting Sakura, he reasoned, with plenty of interest.

As he stood there and the heady feeling of power began to drain, Naruto considered his options. He thought only for an instant of killing them, but had no sooner considered it than rejected it violently. His stomach threatened to rebel, and it was only the icy rage that was slowly thawing that allowed him to maintain the furious scowl and frigid expression on his face.

He could not, however, simply allow them to walk away and lick their wounds.

"Leave your scroll and go," he told Dosu evenly. He watched as Dosu's head snapped back up to look at him, his one visible eye impossibly wide. He had been expecting, Naruto imagined, to have both his life and the lives of his teammates forfeited. That did not help the queasy feeling in Naruto's stomach.

"Leave your scroll and go," Naruto repeated coldly, hoping that he did not have to repeat himself a second time. He needed for his stomach to settle a moment before he dared speak too much. Fortunately, Dosu nodded dumbly. With his good arm, he reached into his kunai pouch and pulled out a scroll decorated with the kanji for earth. Setting it down slowly, he motioned to his teammates silently. They left without another word.

As soon as the team of Sound Genin had vanished, Naruto picked up the scroll and turned to show it off. He grinned and displayed it proudly, "Look, Sakura-san! I got us a scroll!"

Naruto did not bother to realize he had used –san instead of –chan, nor even that Sakura did not respond to him. She simply blinked and sat up. A part of him recognized, however, that Sakura was unsure what to make of him, and that startling realization shot a jolt of something unidentifiable through his stomach.

She was looking at his sword with a measure of confusion, and that jolt became a quick thrill of nervousness. She must be wondering where he had gotten it, and that thrill of nervousness evolved into full-blown butterflies as he realized that he didn't have any explanation. He had no way to explain the beautiful sword in his hand, oddly easy and comfortable in his hand despite that it was nearly as long as he was tall. He had no way to explain where he had gotten a magnificent dai-katana with a hilt wrapped in azure and a pommel and star-shaped guard made of what seemed to be antiqued gold.

He had no way to explain the sword with the long, silvery blade and glass-like shine, a deadly weapon with a razor-sharp edge, clearly very expensive. He could not remember seeing a blade of such quality in his life, not even the legendary Kubikiri Houcho once wielded by Momochi Zabuza.

That sword, where had Naruto gotten it? That must be what Sakura was asking herself. That was what several people, including probably the Hokage himself, would ask when they saw him with it.

Even more pressing was what he had done with it. A high-quality sword he could have claimed he found in the Forest; he could say that he'd taken from a dead team or from a team he had defeated. But a sword that could do all the things he'd done with it? No ordinary Genin would be entrusted with such a thing; they were trainees, beginners with no real idea what they were doing. Not only would they not have the money for such an expensive weapon, but no one would dare give something so valuable to a mere Genin.

On the off chance he managed to convince everyone that he'd saved up and bought it with his own money, how would he explain where he had gotten it? Anyone who was suspicious of his story, and there would surely be a number of people, need only check the blacksmiths and weapon stores to discover that none of them had made it or sold it.

And even if no one realized that he couldn't have bought it, how would he explain what he'd done with it? How would he explain the dragon of liquid ice? How would he explain the abilities he had shown with it? Even if people believed that it was an ordinary chakra blade capable of channeling jutsu and chakra, how would he explain where he'd learned techniques (especially one that could be mistaken for such a high-level jutsu as Suiryuudan)?

The answer was simple: he couldn't.

Panic shot outwards from his belly, and his brain conjured up a number of possible scenarios for what he imagined was inevitable. He saw himself, tied up in a basement somewhere, beaten and bloody as the ANBU interrogated him for answers, asking where Uzumaki Naruto was and growing ever angrier as he insisted tearfully that he was Uzumaki Naruto. He imagined his body, cold and pale, lying on a table as a man approached with a small, thin knife and slowly pushed the blade into his bloodless skin. He imagined himself strapped to a bed as dozens of faceless men in white poked him with needles and took blood and pieces of his skin day in and day out, unable to move and fed through tubes in his arms.

Naruto nearly started crying. He didn't want to become a science experiment. What could he possibly tell them that could save his life?

A wave of comfort, sort of like an invisible hug that reached all the way to his heart, washed through him and he was suddenly calm.

"Tell them the truth," Hyôrinmaru said soothingly. "Truth is stranger than fiction. Tell your friends the truth, and let them keep your secret."

Naruto relaxed and absentmindedly sheathed his sword. Yes, he realized. That might work. Teamwork, like Kakashi-sensei was always going on about. Tell the people he trusted the truth and let everyone else scratch their heads.

"Hey!" Naruto looked over as a girl jumped down from the trees, her brown hair tied up in two buns on the top of her head. Her white-eyed teammate frowned. "That's a nice sword you have."

"Yeah," Naruto chuckled. "He's great, ain't he?"

"I'll say," she whistled. "The hilt is amazing in and of itself, but the blade! I've never seen something of this quality before! It's a work of art! That MUST be a family heirloom or something!"

She giggled a little hysterically, "So, 'he'?"

"Yeah," Naruto grinned. "His name's Hyôrinmaru. He's the best sword you'll ever see!"

"I can see that," she too grinned, "and his owner isn't anything to sneeze at either — in a few years, you'll be beating them off with sticks. I've seen quite a few blades, but this one is something else. I knew you could do it with chakra, but I didn't know it was possible to channel Jutsu through weapons like that! Even the White Fang's sword couldn't manage something so advanced!"

Her eyes roved hungrily over the hilt (he wondered if that's what he looked like when ramen was mentioned), taking in its splendor, "So, did your Jônin sensei teach you that?"

Naruto blinked, cocking his head to the side, "Teach me what?"

Her eyebrow twitched, as though it would like very much to arch itself, "You know, that…dragon thing."

He looked her oddly. She motioned with her arms as if swinging a sword, saying, "Where you just swing and this dragon comes out and attacks your enemies?"

"Oh that," recognition sputtered to life in Naruto's brain. "That's Hyôrinmaru."

"But…I thought Hyôrinmaru was the sword," she stated lamely. Her lips were pulled into a confused frown that was, he had to admit, kind of cute.

"He's both," Naruto told her matter-of-factly. "He's the dragon and the sword."

"But…that means…"she started, scrunching her face up as she put together the implications that statement brought. He thought that looked kind of cute, too. Man, what had he been missing out on? Had he been so focused on Sakura that he hadn't notice how pretty some of the other girls could be? "You have a dragon sealed inside of that sword?"

"Something like that," Naruto admitted sheepishly. Truth be told, he wasn't sure himself. All he knew was that Hyôrinmaru was both his sword and the dragon, and so long as that didn't interfere with anything, he was going to leave well enough alone. As long as it worked, he didn't care about the how. Hyôrinmaru was Hyôrinmaru, and that was all that mattered.

She opened her mouth and closed it several times, but nothing came out. He suddenly realized that he'd told her the secret he'd decided to tell only to those he trusted, and his insides turned cold, but he kept the smile and hoped that she didn't question it. If she didn't, if she left it alone and let it be, then maybe, just maybe, he could trust her.

Finally, she decided upon an excited grin, giggling girlishly. She turned to leave, throwing a wave over her shoulder, "You're an interesting guy! So let's meet again, Naruto-san! Don't lose, okay?"

Leaping into the trees, she and her team disappeared into the Forest.

Naruto couldn't help the grin that threatened to split his face. That girl was quite an interesting one. She was kind of strange, he had to admit, because it wasn't everyday you found a girl so obsessed with weapons. He didn't really care, though, because she was interested in him as a person and that made her okay in his book. (Though a part of him wondered if she wasn't more interested in his sword. He crossed his fingers and hoped she wouldn't blab his secret.)

That teammate of hers, though, Neji, was someone that Naruto figured he better watch out for. Lee had told him that Neji was the strongest Genin in the entire village of Konoha, and Lee himself had easily beaten Naruto. If Neji was even stronger than Lee, that meant that Naruto would definitely have to keep an eye on the Taijutsu prodigy, Hyuga Neji.

His thoughts were interrupted by Sakura's excited cry of, "Sasuke-kun!"

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

"Thanks for the save earlier, Kabuto!" Naruto called, grinning. Neither the pain in his stomach nor the powerful headache had reappeared, he had noticed as they leapt through the trees. His chakra control had gone to the dogs, though, so it was a bit difficult not to accidentally destroy the branches beneath his feet as he leapt onwards.

It was by an incredible stroke of luck that Kabuto had shown up at their camp, just in time to stop Naruto and Sasuke from opening the Earth scroll they had gotten from the Sound team. If they had, he had revealed, they would have been immediately disqualified and forced to stop their participation in the Exams.

"It wasn't a problem, Naruto-kun," Kabuto called back, smiling.

"Are you sure there are still other teams left in the forest?" Sasuke asked.

"Yeah, I'm positive," Kabuto answered. "You just need to give it a little thought. In a jungle battle or in an open forest, like this, do you know the cleverest way to fight? The goal of the examinees is the tower at the center of the forest, which means that, on the last day, the easiest place to get a scroll is in the area around that tower."

"Oh, I get it!" Sakura said, realization painting across her face. "That means we're going to go after the teams that have both scrolls and are heading for the tower."

"That's only partly correct," Kabuto admonished gently.


"Because you're not the only one thinking that," he explained. "Teams with the same idea will have set traps around the tower."

"All right," Naruto grinned. "That means there'll be a lot of enemies sitting there waiting for us, right? All we have to do is beat them up and grab a Heaven scroll, and we'll be home free!"

"Nope, that's still not completely right," Kabuto said. Naruto nearly missed his next landing. "We have to think of the collectors who appear in exams like this. Even really close to the tower, you're still not safe. Collectors will take as many extra scrolls as they can, so they can surrender one if they face an enemy they can't beat or give one to their comrades from the same village. Or they might even exchange it for information about getting through the remaining exams easier. As you've probably figured out, these are the tough guys looking to eliminate the competition for the next round."

"I see," Sasuke said smugly. "Now I understand why you decided to come with us. You're scared of these guys, aren't you?"

Kabuto blinked, then smiled sheepishly, "Yeah, I guess so."

It was only hours later that they stood in front of the tower, but night had already fallen with all of its distant sounds. Somewhere, an owl hooted and crickets chirped incessantly. A wolf howled at the moon, bright and full, which had risen into the sky, casting an eerie gray light down upon the trees and the tower.

The closer they got to the tower, the smaller the trees seemed to become (though they were still quite massive), so Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura, with Kabuto leading them, stopped on one of the taller trees, looking out over the much smaller trees towards their goal. They were close — even if they walked, it was only a few hours away, half a day at most.

"And there's the tower," Kabuto said calmly. He adjusted his glasses. "This is where things get serious." He turned to Team Seven, frowning and solemn. "From here on out, we should limit the amount of noise we make. If we go forward too loudly, all of those enemies we want to avoid will give us a very passionate welcome."

Sasuke smirked, Sakura nodded, and Naruto gave him a grin and a thumbs-up. Turning back forward, he knelt down and fished a small metal box out of his utility pouch, flipping it open casually. He held the box level with his right eye and closed the left, peering through the slot the box's lid and calculating something. Naruto thought that Kabuto must be a pretty smart guy to do that really complicated math all in his head.

"All right," he said, standing and snapping his box shut. He dropped it unceremoniously back into his utility pouch. "This is fine. We'll keep heading in this direction."

And they were off again, dropping down to the grass as they reached the smaller trees and proceeding cautiously, every sense thrumming and humming with tension. They were like taut bow strings — even the slightest new sound or movement sent them vibrating and fingering their weapons.

It became obvious as they continued that they were not the first team to have walked that path — they spotted several traps, a number of which had already been sprung…and still held their victims. More than once, Naruto had grimaced as his stomach threatened to revolt and thanked whoever upstairs was listening for the fact that the darkness made it difficult to see the expressions of eternal agony carved onto the faces of the dead.

As they went on, however, Naruto noticed a faint prickling in the back of his neck — the fine hairs there were standing on end and there was an almost warning tingle at the base of his skull. He paid it no mind, figuring it was probably the tension, and continued onwards. Behind him, Sakura collapsed to her knees.

"I can't go on," she panted. "No matter how far we go, the tower never seems to get any closer. It's so weird. It's like its right in front of us."

"You're right," Sasuke murmured suspiciously.

"It seems that we've already fallen prey to someone's 'passionate welcome'," Kabuto said with a frown. He pointed at a team of trap victims — a team that looked eerily familiar, Naruto realized. "See? We've passed them at least three times, now."

"No way!" Sakura whispered.

"Genjutsu," Sasuke confirmed.

"So it seems," Kabuto agreed. "They had us all fooled and very carefully tricked us into walking in circles."

"We're being watched."

"They probably wanted us to waste our strength so they could ambush us when we tired out."

"Then we're already playing into their hands," Sasuke mused stoically.

Kabuto cast his eyes around, adjusting his glasses absently, "And we could be attacked at any moment."

No sooner had he spoken those words than did they appear — dozens of identical figures, all pulling themselves out of branches or up from the grass, melting out of a tree, body half-fused with the bark. They were all the same and all approached sluggishly, slumped over and slouched, looking at Team Seven plus one with blank, soulless eyes. Each wore also the headband of the Rain village, with four vertical slashes down the metal plate that protected their forehead.

"They're here," Sasuke declared simply.

Naruto grinned and reached up, freeing Hyôrinmaru effortlessly. The sheath evaporated into a thick, frosty vapor, "En masse, eh? This'll make for a fun handicap."

"There's so many," Sakura whispered worriedly.

"And they're all Bunshin," Kabuto added.

One of the enemies chuckled through his mask, "Like a mouse in a trap."

"I'll show you 'mouse'!" Naruto shouted, lifting his sword. "Sôten ni zase, Hyôrinmaru!"

The sword lengthened and the chain and crescent dangled down to the ground. Naruto swung, curving it horizontally at his waist, "Hyôryû Senbi!" (Ice Dragon Swirling Tail)

A wave of water formed along the arc of his blade, washing over several of the Bunshin, then flash froze into a spiked crescent of ice, slanted outwards. A number of the doppelgangers were consumed in the ice and frozen solid, but those who had been skewered or sliced instead grew appendages, sometimes a whole second torso, head, and pair of arms, and stood back up.

Naruto took a step back, horror etched across his face, "What the—?"

The horror quickly contorted into rage, "Yeah? Then take this!" He swung again. "Hyôrinmaru!"

A dragon leapt from his blade, soaring forward and catching several Bunshin at once, driving them back and into a tree, splashing and tearing away the bark. Naruto swept his sword upwards, "Zekku!" (Severing Void)

The torrent of water leapt upward and cut clear through the tree, splitting it in half height-wise before freezing into a vertical crescent. The clones that were caught did not break free and melted into a brown goop.

"Sasuke-kun!" Sakura's voice cried.

Naruto looked back to see Sasuke rigid and motionless on the ground, Kabuto's body thrown protectively overtop him. Kabuto himself had been injured — there was a nasty-looking, if rather shallow, gash on his left arm, and the kunai that had done it was embedded in the grass a little ways away. Naruto looked back to the clones in front of him and brandished Hyôrinmaru defensively.

"So, wait a minute," he said. "If Kabuto got hurt, does that mean that they're Kage Bunshin with real flesh? But-but Kage Bunshin disappear if you get a good hit in! They don't! That means they're illusions, right? Damn it, which is it?"

"They're not real, Naruto!" Sasuke said, sitting up. He was clutching oddly at his shoulder. "They're illusions!"

"But Kabuto-san's wound is real!" Sakura protested.

"No, Sasuke-kun's right," Kabuto said, standing straight. He rubbed at the cut on his arm tenderly. "The real enemy is hiding somewhere, using these clones to mask their own attacks. It gives the illusion that the Bunshin are the ones attacking us."

"Then I'll find the real ones and beat them up!" Naruto declared angrily. It was that simple. The Bunshin didn't matter.

"Wait a moment, Naruto-kun," Kabuto said. "That's the whole point. We don't know where the real ninja are. With guys like these, who aren't that great at ninjutsu or taijutsu, they prefer to attack with genjutsu like this from the safety of their hiding spot. They won't show themselves until we can't move anymore at all. The only thing we can do now…is dodge."

Naruto snarled. He couldn't accept that. Not when he had all this new power — what was it good for if it couldn't help him win?

"Screw that!" he said furiously, rearing back his arm. Water swirled around the blade of his sword, snakelike. "I'm leveling this place! See if they can hide without any trees!"

A look of realization and a little bit of horror dawned on Sasuke's face. Naruto saw it out of the corner of his eye, and it gave him such an incredible feeling of power.

"Shit!" he cursed. He grabbed Sakura by the shoulder and Kabuto by the arm and pulled them to the ground. "Get down!"


Naruto spun on his heel, swinging himself and his sword in a complete circle. A torrent of water, as much liquid ice as anything else, gushed outward from the tip, slicing the surrounding trees and brush clear off their trunks and washing them away with all the power of a waterfall.

As powerful as it looked, it sounded just as much so. The water roared as it flooded outwards, clamoring and pounding like the white rapids just before a waterfall. The trees rooted strong enough not to be swept away gave loud, ominous cracks before they split, leaving behind only a mangled trunk and half-upturned roots. There were three panicked screams — then quiet.

When everything had stilled, Naruto saw Sasuke, Sakura, and Kabuto lift their heads to look around — and they promptly let out a collective gasp. They were in a big circle of clear, dry land, maybe twelve feet in diameter at the most, but outside of it was layer upon layer, wave upon wave, of frozen water, jutting out from the center in jagged spikes. Those trees that had not been completely washed away were impaled viciously (none of them wanted to imagine a human's fate on the business end of those spikes), and there was no sign of the three Rain ninja.

Naruto, panting, sank to one knee, using his sword (which had returned to normal) as a crutch.

"And that," he said breathlessly, "is why you don't screw with Uzumaki Naruto!"

"I-I think you overdid it, Naruto-kun," Kabuto said shakily as he pulled himself to his feet. "I-I mean, the clones are gone, b-but where are the real ninja? Without them, you can't get the scroll you need."

"Right here!" a second Naruto dropped the three Rain ninja unceremoniously on the ground — they were unconscious. "And, lookie, lookie!" Grinning, the second Naruto reached into its utility pouch and held out a white scroll. "The Heaven scroll!"

Sakura was suddenly on her feet, her face screwed up in a furious scowl, and stomping angrily over in the clone's direction. The Kage Bunshin didn't know what to do, cringing away from her as she got close, and threw its arms up to protect its face. Sakura didn't bother with its head and punched it mercilessly in its unguarded stomach. The Kage Bunshin vanished with a poof and Sakura caught the scroll effortlessly.

The real Naruto let out a breath, like he'd just been on the receiving end of a punch to the gut, and shouted indignantly, "Hey, that hurt!"

"Well, it should!" Sakura yelled back without bothering to realize that she'd punched a clone, not the original. "You deserved it! That was the most incredibly reckless thing you've ever done, and considering the whole fiasco with Zabuza, that's saying something!"

"Well, at least I did something!" Naruto retorted. "If I hadn't done that when I did, we probably would've been stuck her 'til next year!"

"Oh, so that gives you the right to almost KILL your teammates? Do you realize how close you came to hitting one of us with that spark of brilliance? You could've taken my head off! You could've cut Sasuke-kun!"

Naruto snarled. "Cause Rikudô forbid if Sasuke were to ever break a nail!"

He affected a falsetto voice. "'Oh, no, Sasuke-kun! You've got a smudge of dirt on your nose! The world is ending! The sky is falling! Oh no!'"

"This isn't about Sasuke-kun! This is about how you almost—!"

Naruto wished at that moment that things had not gone back to normal, and that Sakura was still staring at him like she didn't know what to make of him. At least then, it would have been quiet.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

"I say we open the scrolls," Naruto said, injecting his opinion. After roughly three hours of nonstop running, Team Seven had finally parted ways with Kabuto and made it to the tower…where they promptly got into a fight about what to do.

"Idiot!" Sakura punched Naruto over the head, a vein popping out on her brow. "Anko-san said not to open the scrolls! We'd get disqualified!"

"She was talking about before we got to the tower!" Naruto shouted back, rubbing the bump forming on his cranium. "I'm the one who got us both our scrolls! If it wasn't for me, we'd still be out there!"

"I don't care!" Sakura fumed, glaring at him. "I'm not about to let you and your stupidity get Sasuke-kun disqualified from the Chûnin Exams!"

"It's logic!" Naruto argued angrily. "We're in the tower with no one to greet us! The only explanation is that the scrolls have something to do with our qualification into the next part of the Exams!"

"Since when do you know anything about logic?" Sakura demanded rhetorically. "I'm not going to let you take any chances! This is one of the most important milestones in Sasuke-kun's life! You're not going to mess that up!"

"Jeez!" Naruto flung his hands up in exasperation and rolled his eyes. "For the smartest girl in the Academy you sure are pretty dumb!"

"What did you say?" Sakura's voice rose. "I dare you to say that to my face!"

"I said," Naruto yelled back, "YOU'RE DUMB!"

"Come here, you little—!" Sakura reached for his neck. Her fingers were twitching as though she would like nothing more than the wring the very life from him.

"Hey, guys," both of them froze as Sasuke looked at them with his serious face. Naruto thought it made him look constipated. "I think we should open the scrolls."

Naruto palmed his face as Sakura squealed and crooned about how right her Sasuke-kun was, and about how he always had the best ideas. Even after the mess with the three Sound ninja, she was still Sasuke's little cheerleader.

"Ugh," he muttered to himself. "Why did I even like her, anyway?"

He jerked his thoughts to a halt. Did? Why was he using the past tense? He liked Sakura, didn't he? As in, still does? Always has?

No, he realized. His stomach gave a funny jolt. He didn't like Sakura anymore. His heart, which used to flutter excitedly every time he greeted her, had been calm every morning since the one-sided battle with those Sound freaks. His belly, which had done flip-flops at the sight of her smile, had been calm for just as long. Every reaction his body had had to her since he had started crushing on her had just stopped. The realization sputtered to life in his brain.

He didn't like Sakura anymore.

His lungs suddenly constricted and forced the air from his chest. Every muscle in his body seized abruptly and froze, and his eyes grew impossibly wide as his mouth formed into a small, puckered, 'oh.' His heart skipped a whole two beats.

He didn't like Sakura anymore.

A tentative, nervous excitement built up in his gut, slowly branching out and feeding adrenaline to his arms and legs, then up his neck and into his head. He suddenly felt…free. Free, like he'd been imprisoned in the dark for years and was suddenly being let out into the sun. He felt absolutely liberated.

He didn't like Sakura anymore.

"Come on, baka!" Sakura pulled him from his thoughts by the sleeve of his jacket, shoving the Heaven scroll into his stomach forcefully. "Help me open the scrolls."

Grudgingly peeling open the scroll given to him, he stared at its contents. Several characters were written down, focused around single kanji in the center. Naruto blinked, "'Jin'?"

As soon as the word left his lips, the scrolls began to smoke and sizzle in their hands. Naruto nearly dropped it as Sasuke spoke again, his tone urgent, "Naruto, Sakura, throw the scrolls away!"

Trusting the Uchiha to know what he was talking about (though Naruto would never admit it aloud), his teammates hurled the scrolls at the floor several feet away, watching as the smoke rose to an apex and exploded outwards. As the smoke began to clear, however, a shape could be seen within the dispersing cloud. Team Seven tensed, prepared to fight whatever had appeared from their scrolls.

Naruto blinked in surprise, then grinned, "Iruka-sensei!"

True enough, the smog dissipated, revealing their trusted Academy teacher, Umino Iruka. He grinned at them and gave them a friendly wave, "Hey, guys. It's been a while, huh?"

He looked them all over, and his eyes halted at each scratch, scrape, and bump. "Looks like you guys have been through the meat grinder."

Sakura stared, confused, "Iruka-sensei…what just happened?"

"Oh, well," Iruka rubbed the back of his neck, "the summoning spell on the scrolls was designed to let us Chûnin greet the applicants at the end of the second exam. It's just luck that I was the one who wound up meeting you three. Congratulations! You all pass the second exam!"

Naruto grinned broadly and thumbed his nose, but didn't do anything else. Iruka blinked, but didn't comment on the fact that Naruto wasn't bouncing around the room. Naruto was just being patient; soon enough, he'd drag Iruka off to Ichiraku's for ramen.

"If we had sneaked a peek at the scrolls before the exam was over," Sasuke started, "what would you have done, Iruka-sensei?"

Iruka scratched his temple with his index finger, "Sharp as ever, huh, Sasuke?"

He shrugged, "Our orders were very specific. Anyone who opened a scroll too soon was to be knocked out until the end of the second exam."

Sakura rolled her eyes heavenward and wiped her brow in relief. Her gaze flickered back to the poster on the wall, which they had observed briefly before the earlier fight had broken out. If there was one thing Naruto had to admire about her, even now, it was the speed at which her mind seemed to work, and how it latched onto a subject so thoroughly and refused to let go until it was satisfied.

"Sensei," she said, "what does that text on the wall mean? It's incomplete, so I don't get it."

Iruka glanced over his shoulder at it, then looked back at her, grinning and rubbing the back of his head sheepishly, "Actually, I was just about to explain that. That's the other part of this mission."

He gestured behind himself, "This is the principle that you should keep in mind as Chunin. Hokage-sama himself wrote it. The 'Heaven' in the text refers to the brain, a person's intelligence, and 'Earth' refers to the body, a person's physical skills and strength. 'If Heaven you lack, gain knowledge and be prepared.' So, if a person's weak point is his brain, like Naruto" — there was an indignant "Hey!" — "he should study and prepare for his missions.

"And 'if Earth you lack, run through the fields and seek strength," Iruka continued. "So someone whose weakness lies in strength, like Sakura-san, should train herself every day. 'And if you have both Earth and Heaven, the most dangerous of foes can be beaten.' Even the most perilous of missions can be overcome. They might even be easy."

"Then," Sakura said, "what about the missing letter?"

Iruka lifted one of the scrolls that had summoned him, revealing the blank center, "'Person.' The character for 'person' that was in here goes in the blanks. The survival mission you took in these past five days tested the basic abilities of the examinees as Chunin, and you guys completed it a day early. Carve the importance of knowledge and strength into your heart. Chunin are leaders. Take this principle with you and proceed to the Third Exam. That's all I was ordered to tell you."

There was a moment of silence as his expression softened, "Listen…about the third exam…don't overdo things, okay?"

The three Genin looked at him, blinking in surprise. He continued, "I mean it. I worry about you guys. Especially you, Naruto."

Naruto grinned.

"Don't worry about me, Iruka-sensei," he said, fingering the hilt of his sword. Iruka suddenly blinked, and it seemed he'd just realized that Naruto'd had it the entire time they'd been talking. "No one in this exam is a match for Hyôrinmaru!"

Naruto felt faintly the presence of Hyôrinmaru hovering protectively over his shoulder, and watched as Iruka's eyes went wide. His heart skipped a beat, but he made sure that his grin never faltered. Was Iruka seeing Hyôrinmaru, he wondered. And was Hyôrinmaru doing it on purpose?

Iruka grinned, rubbing his neck sheepishly, "Yeah, I guess so, huh?"

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

In the front of the room stood a group consisting of Chûnin, Jônin, and the Hokage. Protruding from the front wall was a pair of stone hands forming the seal for "Ram."

The Hokage's gaze swept out over the assembled Genin, and Naruto saw the old man's lips twitch as their eyes met, like he was holding back a smile. Naruto looked around him at the remaining contestants: twenty-one of them had made it and the majority of them were from his own village. Nine of those twenty-one were rookies, himself included, and another three belonged to a team that had only been in rotation for a year — Hyuga Neji, Tenten the weapons girls, and Rock Lee, Gai's team, who had graduated a year before Naruto. A swell of pride arose in his chest; he'd made it to the Third Exam. He'd passed the test that had disqualified fifty-one other examinees.

At the front, Kakashi and Gai appeared to be having a conversation — or rather, Gai was talking at Kakashi, who made no motion to signal that he was paying any attention. When Gai had finished speaking, Kakashi looked at him after a moment of silence and said a single sentence. Naruto slapped a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing as Gai deflated and spun around to make half-angry gestures at the back wall.

Anko stood straight and put a hand on her hip, smirking at the Genin as though she knew a secret, "Congratulations on passing! Hokage-sama will now explain the third test, so listen carefully, you brats!"

The Sandaime took a step forward, "Before we begin, there is something I'd like you to know."

He tugged his hat down slightly, baring the kanji for fire imprinted upon its center, "Why do we have all the alliance countries taking this exam together? 'To promote friendship amongst the countries' and 'To raise the level of Shinobi'… I don't want you to be confused about the true meaning. This exam is a replacement for war among the allied countries."

Sandaime's face was impassive as he took a puff on his pipe, "If you go back in time, the current allies were enemies who fought each other over who would rule. In order to prevent wasteful fighting, the stage that those countries chose for fighting…That is the origin of the Chûnin Exams."

"What do you mean?" Tenten asked, leaning to the side and peering around the person in front of her to see Sarutobi.

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!" Inuzuka Kiba shouted. "I thought the point was to select Chûnin!"

Sarutobi continued, undaunted by the questions thrown at him, "It is true that this exam decides who is to become Chûnin, but it is also an opportunity for the different countries to show off their ninja to the important figures who watch this third exam — feudal lords and famous people from various countries, all of whom are potential clients, are invited here as guests. All of them will be here and see each of you fight.

He took another puff on his pipe.

"If there's a significant difference in power, the stronger country will receive more jobs and the weaker countries will receive less. And, just as importantly, a village will be able to show its rivals how it's grown and the quality of its warriors. A country is only as strong as its shinobi village, and the village is only as strong as its ninja. A shinobi village is only as strong as its weakest link. And a ninja's true strength is only revealed in a battle of life and death."

"Whatever," the redheaded Gaara muttered darkly. "Could you wrap up this philosophical talk and get down to the life and death stuff any time soon?"

"Hmph! If you insist," he paused for a second and took one last puff, "on to the third exam…"

"Actually…" A sick looking Jônin appeared in front of the Hokage. "As referee…Hokage-sama, if I may…?"

Sandaime nodded, a small smile on his face, "By all means…"

The Jônin turned toward the Genin, revealing his weary face and the dark bags under his eyes, "I am Gekkô Hayate and I am the referee." (Cough, cough) "Before the third test, I'm afraid we'll have to hold a preliminary. Since we are going to begin right away," (cough, cough) "I must ask any who wish to quit to do so now."

"Preliminary?" Kiba echoed incredulously. "Right now?"

"Hayate-san, I don't understand," Sakura piped up. "Why do we need a preliminary? Can't we just start the third exam with the remaining examinees?"

"Well," Gekkô said, coughing again, "it's not as if the first two tests weren't challenging enough. On the contrary, they were quite difficult. We still have too many applicants, however, and, like Hokage-sama said, there will be plenty of nobles watching."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Kiba retorted.

Gekkô coughed again, "The nobles will be traveling from all over to see the third exam, so the exam itself has to be quick and speedy to maintain viewer interest. To do that, we need to cut down the number of applicants with this preliminary round. As I said earlier, any who wish to quit may do so now without adversely affecting your teammates' chances of success. Everything from here on out will be one-on-one matches."

"Well," Kabuto raised his hand, "I'm out of here."

"What?" Naruto demanded sharply. "Kabuto-san, why are you quitting?"

"I'm sorry, Naruto-kun," Kabuto sighed, "but I got the crap beat out of me in the second exam. And ever since that little fight I got into with those Sound ninja right before the first exam, I've been totally deaf in my left ear."

Kabuto shook his head helplessly, "Now they're saying this could be a fight to the death! I'm just not up to that."

Naruto stared hard at Kabuto's retreating back, an uneasy feeling settling in the pit of his stomach. There was something…off about what had just happened. He didn't know what, exactly, it was, just that there was something wrong. Kabuto had lied — Lee had gotten beat up by those Sound ninja much worse than Kabuto's injury during the First Exam, yet he was well enough to fight a couple days later. There's no way Kabuto, who'd had two or three more days to heal, wouldn't have recovered, too.

Hayate looked around, but no one else raised a hand in surrender, "Right then, (cough, cough) if no one else wishes to forfeit, let's begin the preliminary rounds. As I stated before, it will be a one-on-one match — in other words, just like real combat. Since we now have exactly twenty people, there will be ten matches, and the winners will advance to the Third Exam proper. There are no rules. You will fight until the other person dies, is knocked out, or admits defeat, so, if you don't want to die, please give up. However, if I judge that the match is over, I will stop you to prevent any unnecessary deaths.

"Now," he looked over his shoulder and gave Anko a quick nod, then looked forward again. Behind him, a panel on the wall far above his head slid open to reveal a large monitor. "If you'll turn your attention to the screen behind me, this board will randomly display the names of two fighters for each match, and, without further ado, will display the names for the first match."

All of the Genin turned their gazes to the large screen behind Hayate, watching as it came to life and the blackness faded into a dark gray. The letters 'VS' lit up in the very center. Above them was the name "Uchiha Sasuke" and below them was "Akado Yoroi."

"Now," Hayate said, "if those whose names were displayed would please step forward…"

Sasuke smirked as he and Yoroi moved towards the examiner. Both looked confident and sure of their own victory. Gekkô Hayate made a motion towards the stands, "And if everyone else would please leave the arena…"

When everyone had left the area for the stands, he said, "First match: Uchiha Sasuke versus Akado Yoroi. Are there any objections?"

"No," both answered confidently.

"Please begin."

Yoroi made a hand seal. "Are you ready, Sasuke-kun?" he teased nastily.

He slipped his left hand into his utility pouch and positioned his right to hover in front of his stomach. He withdrew a few shuriken, while Sasuke simultaneously withdrew a kunai from the holster on his thigh. Without warning, Yoroi whipped his arm around and flung his shuriken at Sasuke, who knocked them away with a sharp swipe of his kunai.

Naruto only saw Sasuke wince and collapse to the floor, clutching oddly at the junction of his neck and left shoulder. Naruto frowned thoughtfully. Come to think of it, hadn't he done something similar back in the Forest when they'd been fighting those Rain ninja?

Yoroi shot forward and slammed his fist at Sasuke's head, but Sasuke rolled and dodged out of the way. Yoroi's fist sunk effortlessly into the tiled floor. Plunging his kunai into the ground as a brake, Sasuke spun around and twisted his feet, bringing Yoroi's legs from under him as he pulled the older Genin into a painful looking arm lock.

His victory was short lived. Yoroi let out a chuckle and his captured hand grabbed Sasuke's shirt in an iron grip. Naruto wasn't quite sure what to make of it — why grab his shirt? For what purpose? It got even more confusing when Sasuke let out something between a gasp and a grunt and slackened his grip on his foe. Yoroi ripped his arm free with incredibly little effort and brought his fist down on Sasuke's chest. Naruto thought he heard Sasuke's ribs crack.

The air driven viciously from Sasuke's lungs was clearly audible, even from the stands. His struggle to breathe was almost painful to watch.

Jerking up, Yoroi spun around, straddling his opponent as he latched that same hand on Sasuke's head, and it appeared to shimmer and glow.

"You're…stealing…my chakra," Sasuke gasped weakly, clutching at his opponent's wrist. His voice echoed throughout the deathly quiet stadium.

Yoroi chuckled darkly, an evil grin hidden beneath the cloth on his face, "So you finally noticed."

"Hey, Sasuke!" Naruto called down into the arena. "What the hell are you doing, letting this joker beat you up? Kick his ass!"

At that moment, Sasuke seemed to catch his second wind, and lashed out into Yoroi's stomach and kicked him off. He was on his feet almost the moment he'd broken free. There was a furious scowl darkening his face, and though he looked alert and focused, he seemed also distracted. Beside him, Naruto heard Sakura whisper Sasuke's name worriedly.

Yoroi growled as he stood back up. He rushed Sasuke again, his technique charged and ready to go. Sasuke burst into motion, ducking under his attempt at grappling and sending a kick into the Yoroi's chin, forcing him into the air. Then, like Lee had five days ago, Sasuke followed him, appearing beneath Yoroi's airborne body.

Sasuke pressed his index and middle fingers into his opponent's back, "It's over."

Pushing off of the other Genin's spine, Sasuke flipped over his enemy's body, kicking towards his stomach. It was blocked and Sasuke used Yoroi's arm as a springboard, landing a vicious backhand in his face. Still twisting, he fired a punch into Yoroi's stomach, knocking the air from his body. Now only a few feet above the ground, Sasuke used his momentum to swing around and bring a solid kick into Yoroi's body, slamming him the last few inches into the floor.

"Shishi Rendan!" Sasuke named his technique.

Yoroi let out a pained groan, then fell still as his head lolled to the side. Sasuke, apparently exhausted, collapsed backwards onto his bum. His breath came in short, shallow pants.

Hayate bent over Yoroi, checking for signs of unconsciousness. When he was finished, he turned to the audience and declared, "Akado Yoroi is unable to continue. Uchiha Sasuke wins the first round and advances beyond the preliminary."

Sasuke let out a breath of relief and collapsed backwards…right into Kakashi's legs. Naruto blinked, then turned to look at where his sensei had been standing in the spectator's seats. But Kakashi didn't stand next to him any longer. He was indeed down in the arena, and he appeared to be talking Sasuke, but whatever he was saying was too low and quiet for Naruto to hear.

"What do you want, Kakashi?" Sasuke asked flatly. He had not bothered to keep his voice down.

Kakashi said something again, and Naruto gave a frustrated groan as he struggled to hear it, but it was no use. Kakashi was being deliberately quiet, probably to keep everyone else from eavesdropping on the conversation. But Naruto wanted to know what was being said, and it irked him that he couldn't, no matter how hard he strained his ears.

"No," Sasuke refused. "I want to stay and watch the other matches."

"Perhaps I wasn't clear," Kakashi said, a dangerous edge to his tone. It was the only thing he'd said that wasn't too hushed to make out. Naruto leaned over the railing, so far that he was in danger of falling over it, but though he could see the lips beneath Kakashi's mask move, he could not make out the words.

Sasuke hesitated a moment, then scoffed in angry defeat, "Fine."

And then Kakashi and Sasuke disappeared as a troupe of white-robed medics lifted Yoroi onto a stretcher and carried him away. The screen flared to life again and rushed through the names of the competitors. Naruto half wondered what would happen if a person's name came up twice, on both the top and bottom. Would he have to fight himself?

The names flashed to a halt and stopped to blaze the identities of the next combatants, "Zaku Abumi vs. Aburame Shino."

Zaku smirked confidently. His left arm had thawed and his right was wrapped in white bandages. "Who's this loser?"

Naruto scowled. It was that guy from the Forest, that guy from the Sound who had beat up Sakura. If he made it, that meant his teammates had, too. Naruto's fists tightened around the railing. Would he wind up fighting one of the Sound again? If he did…

When both Shino and Zaku had entered the stadium and stood in front of Hayate, the referee said, "We will now begin the second match."

The remaining Genin watched the match unfold. The six Genin who had borne witness to Zaku's Zankuuha — the remnants of Team Seven, Team Ten's Ino-Shika-Cho, and Lee — winced sympathetically every time Shino took a hit from it.

Hinata fidgeted with her fingers worriedly, her eyebrows knit. "Will Shino-kun be alright?" Naruto heard her ask softly.

"I wouldn't worry about Shino," Naruto could tell from his voice that Kiba was smirking. "He's one of the guys even I don't want to fight."

Neji watched the fight with a clear disinterest, as though it was beneath him. Naruto always hated those kind of guys, the ones who thought their name or better-than-average skills made them the divine's gift to man. "For a rookie," Neji said lazily, "this guy isn't so bad. But can he win?"

Tenten grimaced when Zaku's arms ruptured — broken shards of white bone protruded from the mangled skin of his elbows and forearms. Naruto was torn between vindictive satisfaction and feeling sick.

"It seems he can and did," she said flatly.

Down in the stadium, Hayate shouted, "Winner, Aburame Shino!"

The screen lit up again as Zaku was carried away on a stretcher, "Tsurugi Misumi vs. Kankuro"

The third match was a relatively quick one, the fastest yet. Tsurugi attacked and used his technique to wrap his body around Kankuro, and proceeded to break his neck. Only then had he discovered that what he was attacking was actually a puppet, and that the package wrapped in a mass of white bandages was the real Kankuro, safe and completely unharmed. With a twitch of his fingers, Kankuro had his puppet squeeze his opponent tightly, until Tsurugi was unable to continue. It was incredibly creepy, Naruto decided.

Less than a minute after the match had started, Hayate said, "Winner, Kankuro."

Ino and Sakura's match, which was after Kankuro's, ended in an anticlimactic draw. They were too evenly matched to take the other down, so they finished with a double knock out. Naruto could hardly believe it.

The screen lit up for the fifth time, reading "Temari vs. Tenten"

Temari was the worst possible match up for Tenten. None of her weapons — not kunai, shuriken, kusari-gama, senbon, nothing — could reach Temari at all. She was defeated easily, almost effortlessly, and when Temari won, sending Tenten up towards the ceiling, she caught her beaten opponent on the top of her steel fan. Tenten's back was arched at an unhealthy angle.

Naruto felt a surge of anger burst in his gut (he may not know her that well, but he considered her his friend), and the only thing that stopped him from leaping into the arena was that Lee beat him to it. The normally calm, if extremely passionate, Lee looked positively murderous, and only Gai's reprimands to his young pupil prevented Naruto from taking off where Lee had stopped. Now was not the time and here was not the place, Naruto had gotten from Gai's short lecture. But if they met in the finals, Naruto promised himself, he would definitely be getting some revenge.

Nara Shikamaru vs. Kin Tsuchi

"A girl?" Shikamaru asked, as if looking for confirmation. He sighed, "Mendôkuse."

Their match didn't last very long either. Kin had had Shikamaru caught in her trap for a few moments, but Shikamaru had come back and out done her. Using his Kagemane no Jutsu, he forced her to hit her head against the wall. She knocked herself unconscious and Shikamaru was declared the winner.

After Kin was carried away on a stretcher, the screen flashed again, revealing the combatants of the next fight, "Uzumaki Naruto vs. Inuzuka Kiba"

"Ha! We got lucky, Akamaru!" Kiba gloated as he jumped down into the arena. Akamaru, his dog, gave an enthusiastic bark of agreement.

Excited to finally have his match, Naruto flung himself over the railing, landing on the tiled floor with surprising ease. There was a huge grin on his face, one that was easily matched by his opponent. Hayate stood between them.

"Heh," Kiba clenched his fist. "I feel bad for you, Dead Last, so I'll end this in one punch!"

"Yeah right, dog-breath!" Naruto shot back. "I'm way different than I was before! In fact, you might as well just quit right now! Why don't you and your master go back to chasing cats?"

"Akamaru isn't my master!" Kiba shouted vehemently, glaring. "He's my partner!"

"Prove it," Naruto called coolly. Kiba growled.

"The Seventh match, Uzumaki Naruto versus Inuzuka Kiba," Hayate said calmly. "Begin!"

Kiba's hands instantly clasped together in a hand seal, "Ninpô: Shikyaku no Jutsu!" (Ninja Arts: Four-legged Technique)

Kiba dropped down on all fours as a cocky grin split his face. His canines lengthened into fangs and his fingernails into claws, sharp and pointed. Without warning, he dashed for Naruto, intent, it seemed, on fulfilling his promise and winning with a single attack. Naruto, too surprised to counter (was Kiba always this fast?), was hit solidly in the stomach. He flew backwards and collided painfully with the stadium wall, which crumbled around him, sending up a thick dust.

"It's over, Hayate-san," Kiba said confidently, and Naruto could practically hear the smirk on his lips. "He won't be getting up."

Naruto's eyebrow gave a twitch, and any chastisement he had prepared for himself was flushed down the drain. But he mastered his anger; as he had learned long ago, back when everyone hated him, back before Iruka, Kakashi, and his friends, back before Konohamaru, Haku, Zabuza, and Inari, the best revenge was proving them wrong and making them eat their words.

So as the smoke and rubble dispersed, Naruto stood up, rubbing his stomach with a mocking wince. The look of surprise on the faces of both Kiba and the rest of the audience sent a thrill of satisfaction through his gut. He grinned, "You're stronger than I thought. Guess I shouldn't have let you get that free punch in."

His chakra control was shot, he knew, so the swarm tactics he'd used during Kakashi's bell test, against Mizuki, and on the bridge to scare the mercenaries wouldn't work here. With the way his chakra was fluctuating, he could get anywhere from two clones to two hundred, but never the exact amount he wanted. So Kage Bunshin was out.

Besides, he wanted to show off. He was getting tired of everyone always underestimating him.

He unsheathed the sword on his back and the scabbard disappeared into thin air. Several people gasped and Naruto's grin widened, "Let's see how you do."

There was a yell of shocked outrage somewhere up in the stands ("teaching that kind of thing to a rookie Genin!" cried a voice), but he paid it no mind. He didn't have the time, not when his opponent was tensing and prepared to pounce.

Snarling, Kiba leapt at Naruto claws first, swiping towards his chest. Holding his weapon one-handed, Naruto deflected the blow easily, knocking Kiba to the side. A dark growl rising up in his chest, Kiba turned around and ran forward, taking another swing. Again, Naruto deflected it, flinging a foot out to trip the other boy.

Kiba tumbled head first to the ground. His momentum carried him nearly two whole yards. Rolling, he flipped back onto his feet, digging his nails into the tile to slow his movement. An angry snarl curled at his lips, exposing his large incisors like a rabid dog. He reached into his kunai pouch and pulled out something small enough to fit in his fist.

He flung them and they exploded, releasing a thick smoke that rose up and engulfed Naruto like a woolen blanket. Naruto raised his free arm and covered his mouth, peering out into purplish fog with narrowed eyes. He couldn't see a thing, not even the lights above him or the floor beneath his feet. He was blind — and he was reminded suddenly of Zabuza's Kirigakure no Jutsu, of the terrible fear that trembled inside of him then and the burst of chakra Kakashi had used to clear the mist. He was reminded that sight and the ability to see weren't necessary to fight. He was reminded that Zabuza had fought using only sound. So he closed his eyes and listened.

And then he heard it, the scuffle of sharply-clawed paws on the tiles behind him. He summoned a single Kage Bunshin, gave a quick prayer of thanks that it had worked, and grabbed Akamaru out of the air by the scruff of his neck. The dog tried desperately to scratch at his face, but he held it at arm's length and handed it off to his clone.

The sound of sandals came next, and it had to be Kiba coming towards him at a run. The flutter of cloth — Kiba's jacket, he realized — a triumphant grunt, and the sound of something being swung through the air. Kiba thought he was going to win, Naruto recognized blankly. Kiba thought he was going to beat him with this next attack, as though a couple smoke bombs, a dog, and a single punch would take him down. Kiba thought he was so weak that he wouldn't and couldn't fight back.

Something cold blossomed in Naruto's chest, the same cold something that had erupted inside him during the Mizuki incident and in that battle with the Sound team during the Second Exam. It was like fury or anger, but it burned frigid instead of molten. It left his head clear instead of hot and fuzzy and red. It gave him a laser-like focus.

"Idiot," Naruto said in an uncharacteristically calm voice. His free hand caught Kiba's wrist and held tight. Kiba, no matter how much he pushed, could not move his fist forward. "You really shouldn't…underestimate me."

A massive pressure leapt out from Naruto's body, sweeping away the smoke effortlessly. Kiba took in a short, sharp gasp and seemed frozen in place, his eyes wide and mouth half open. There were several gasps up in the stands — Sakura and Ino, Naruto could see, looked like they could barely stand upright, Shikamaru's hands were shaking violently, Neji was staring unblinkingly with his mouth half open, and all of the Jounin were wide-eyed.

A canine whine drew Kiba's attention to Akamaru, who was being held up by a second Naruto only a few feet away. Naruto could see the disbelief in Kiba's face — he must be wondering how Naruto had come so far in just a few months. Naruto, who had been a failure during the Academy, was beating him effortlessly. And Naruto took pride in that; for Kiba to be thinking like that, so shocked that Naruto was beating him, Naruto had to be proving him wrong. He was proving that he was worth something, that he wasn't the useless dropout everyone had thought he was.

He let Kiba's arm go, then sent a roundhouse kick smashing into Kiba's cheek. Kiba went tumbling and skidding across the arena, and slid to a halt halfway to the other side. He'd pulled himself into a kneel almost the moment he'd stopped, wiping away the blood that was dribbling down from his split lip.

"Let Akamaru go," Kiba snarled, eyes blazing with fury.

Naruto nearly chuckled. Did Kiba think him that stupid?

"What do you take me for, a fool?" he asked, arching an eyebrow. There were several snorts from his fellow Genin.

"Fine," Kiba reached into his pouch again, "have it your way."

He tossed a small pill, which Akamaru caught in midair and promptly swallowed, his fur turning red as he growled. He spun, his claws dispelling the clone that held him. Running, he rushed past the stunned Naruto to stand faithfully next to his partner, Kiba. He wanted to protest — wasn't that cheating? — but didn't even have the chance.

"Now!" Kiba bent down, hands in a seal as Akamaru jumped atop his back. "Jujin Bunshin!" (Man-Beast Clone)

In a burst of smoke, a second Kiba had appeared in the place of the dog, smirking viciously at his opponent. Naruto blinked in surprise; he'd never seen such a technique. Then, he grinned broadly and brandished his sword offensively. Two Kibas against one of him. This just might be fun.

"Sôten ni zase," Naruto commanded calmly, "Hyôrinmaru."

"Oh no you don't!" one Kiba cried as the two of them bounded forward on all fours. They spun, creating two vortexes that rushed forth side by side. "Gatsuuga!" (Fang over Fang)

Naruto took off in their direction like a speeding bullet, sword trailing by his leg. He leapt up just as he was about to collide with them, twisting to get between the two winding tornadoes. For a single instant, time slowed, and Naruto was drifting through the air, looking upwards. He was suspended there, watching as Kiba and Akamaru soared past him both above and below. And then it was over, and he spun to land upright.

One of the vortexes suddenly veered off course; it was connected to Naruto — or rather, his sword — by a long metal chain. Naruto took hold of the chain with his free hand, using it to swing the vortex, which had stopped spinning to reveal a frozen Kiba, around on a circular path. When he released his grip, his captive kept going and slammed right into the wall. The ice covering Kiba shattered and the chain went slack, then snapped back to Naruto and hung limply down by his feet. Its extra length had vanished.

The Kiba who'd had the misfortune to be swung into the wall fell to the floor and stayed there, motionless but breathing. There was a brief puff of smoke and the transformation fell — it was actually Akamaru, not Kiba. His fur had returned to its normal white and his eyes were closed. He was clearly unconscious.

The second swirl of air and chakra dissipated and a second Kiba landed, staring at small mass of fur that was his comrade. He growled, "Akamaru."

The dog didn't respond.

"Akamaru!" Kiba cried.

Naruto grinned and said, "Looks like he's out cold!"

There were several exasperated groans throughout the arena.

"You!" Kiba snarled. He ran forward again, once more transforming into a spinning vortex as he shouted, "Tsuuga!" (Piercing Fang)

Naruto leapt over the attack, turning around in midair as he brought his sword up. Both hands tightened over the hilt, the blue wrappings rubbing comfortably against his palms. With a quick jerk, he began his downward swing. An azure dragon jolted forth from the blade's majestic arc, its red eyes gleaming.

The dragon roared as it soared for its target, carving a winding path through the air of the arena. Kiba stopped spinning and turned around, surprise etched onto his face as the beast charged towards him.

"Kiba-kun!" Kurenai called in alarm.

Her voice seemed to snap Kiba out of his stupor and he dodged at the last second, watching as the dragon collided with the tiled floor. A large ice spike remained protruding from the ground, its edges jagged and sharp. Cold steel pressed up against Kiba's neck.

Naruto stood in front of him, Hyôrinmaru poised threateningly against his opponent's jugular vein. His eyes were as icebergs floating in the frosted sea, "You lose."

Kiba jerked forward, clutching at his stomach where Naruto had punched him as his knees fell from under him. Kiba took one more glance at Naruto, then collapsed to the ground, unconscious. Naruto swung his sword over his shoulder, placing it in the sheath that had just reappeared as if from nowhere.

Hayate knelt down, checking on Kiba. He stood a second later, raising his hand in the blonde's direction as he said, in the loudest voice he could muster, "Winner: Uzumaki Naruto."

Naruto went back up to the stands again as Kiba and Akamaru were carried away on a stretcher. He felt invincible again, like nothing could touch him. He had just reached the spectator stands when two more names flashed onto the large screen.

"Hyuga Hinata vs. Hyuga Neji"

A few minutes later, they stood across from each other. Neji's stance was firm and strong, but Hinata was hunched over herself and seemed to be trying to maker herself as small as possible. Her legs were unsteady and her hands were shaking violently. The contrast was incredible.

"I never thought I'd be facing you," Neji said coolly, his face carved into a stoic mask, "Hinata-sama."

"Neji-niisan," Hinata whispered.

"Before we begin, I'd like to tell you, Hinata-sama," Neji's spoke calmly, "to surrender. You're not fit to be a ninja."

"N-no! I-I— "

"You are too gentle," Neji explained. "You seek harmony and to avoid conflict. You allow others to steer you, and you follow them because you can't stand up for yourself. You have no self-confidence. You thought it would be fine to remain a Genin, but a team cannot enter with all three members, so you went along with Inuzuka and Aburame. You are here unwillingly."

"No!" Hinata interrupted. "I e-entered this exam…t-to change myself!"

Neji's eyes narrowed, "You really are a spoiled brat of the Main House, aren't you? Don't you understand? People cannot change! A loser like you will always be a loser!"

That struck something in Naruto, and the anger that had begun to simmer when Neji started his tirade erupted in full-blown rage. His fists clenched tightly upon the steel railing and it was all he could do not to jump into the ring and deck that pompous asshole.

"Shut up!" Naruto shouted. The steel beneath his fingers gave an abused groan. Neji's narrowed eyes turned in his direction, but he was not fazed. "I'm getting tired of hearing all this stupid shit! Oi, Hinata, don't listen to him! Kick that jerk into next week!"

Something changed then in Hinata. Her shaking legs were still and firm. The slump of her shoulders straightened. Her bowed head lifted and was held high. Every iota of fear and uncertainty had been shredded and vanished. The girl who stood there now exuded confidence so potent that it was almost palpable.

Something in Naruto that he could not name growled in approval. There was a burn of adrenaline in his stomach that had nothing to do with hunger or anger.

"Hm!" Hinata moved into a stance. Neji caught it out of the corner of his eye and smirked, then sunk into his own stance.


In an instant, they were at each other's throats. The ten foot distance that separated them closed almost like magic and, in a flash, they were mere inches apart.

Neji ducked under Hinata's first strike, stepping inside her guard and aiming his own attack at her heart. Hinata quickly dodged to the side, going against the traditional Juken motions by throwing a roundhouse kick into Neji's stomach.

Neji used his momentum to duck under her kick, tucking his body into a ball as he rolled out of the way. Faster than most of the Genin could follow, he was on his feet again, flying towards Hinata with as much speed as he possessed.

Hinata moved to the side of his first glowing hand, but wasn't fast enough to dodge the follow up attack of Neji's left hand. Hinata winced and stumbled backwards, clutching at where her cousin had made contact. Naruto heard Gai-sensei explaining the Hyuga clan Taijutsu, how it was designed to attack the inside of the body instead of causing blunt force damage. It was a style that struck the chakra network and organs instead of the skin and bones.

"You should give up," Neji said again. "It's clear to me that the differences in our skills are too great. This road only ends in your failure."

"I-I won't!" Hinata declared firmly. "I don't go back on my word! B-because that...th-that is my nindou!"

Something happened, then, Naruto felt it. There was a short pause and Hinata stood motionless, completely stopped. Hyôrinmaru roused in the back of his mind curiously, as though he sensed something familiar. Naruto had a short vision of a blazing fire, which coalesced into a flaming bird and gave a single flap of its massive wings. He blinked and the image was gone.

Hinata jerked to a start. She reached her hand forwards, grasping at air as her eyes narrowed determinedly, "Hajike, Tobiume!" (Snap, Flying Plum Tree)

Naruto saw Neji's eyes narrow as the gears in his head lurched into motion. It sounded similar, yet completely different from Hyôrinmaru, but if it had even the slightest bit in common...Neji made the connection at the same time as Naruto, that whatever was about to happen would be similar to Hyôrinmaru — and Naruto could see that Neji was determined to stop Hinata before she could unleash the full power of whatever she had just summoned.

Prongs of red energy swirled in the air and coalesced into an oblong shape, then formed a sword in Hinata's palm (and elicited gasps from her audience) as Neji dashed towards her again, hands coated with chakra. With a wild, uncharacteristic scream, Hinata pointed the tip of her new blade at her cousin. A ball of pink energy shot forward, but Neji dodged around it, moved inside her guard, and knocked the weapon from her grasp. It clattered to the ground uselessly and vanished in a flash of red.

"You are within my field of Hakke!"

Hinata's head whipped around just in time to see the angry, piercing expression on her cousin's face, followed quickly by Neji's blazing hands. The fingers struck home and Naruto watched her jerk as though she'd been stabbed.

"Two palms!"

A swarm of hands, so fast that Naruto almost couldn't catch the individual motions, struck her, and she jerked again as though she'd been stabbed.

"Four palms!"

Another swarm came and the number of hits she took quadrupled.

"Eight palms! Sixteen palms!"

A third swarm rained down on her, and she looked as though every hit drained her energy. Something in Naruto squirmed in anxious desperation.

"Thirty-two palms!"

The last swarm came faster than the rest, and they seemed to strike everywhere at once — her arms, her legs, and her chest. To Naruto, it seemed like every jab of Neji's fingers was an arrow piercing her body, and there was a veritable cloud that struck her all at once.

"Sixty-four palms!"

The final strike, the sixty-fifth palm, came at her, throwing her back a few feet where she collapsed to the ground. She was slumped and motionless.

"This is the difference in talent that will never change," Neji said acidly. "This is the destiny that you cannot alter."

Hayate looked ready to call it — his hand was already in motion and his mouth had just opened to speak. He was going to give the match to Neji. But…

"It's not over yet!" Naruto shouted. Everyone turned to look at him, and stared as though he had grown a second head. "Get up, Hinata! Don't let him treat you like that! I believe in you! You can do it!"

But he couldn't let him end this. He couldn't let them give up on Hinata. There was something inside him, perhaps the part that sensed a kindred spirit, that would not let them stop her. Not here, after she'd gotten so far.

"Naruto, stop!" Sakura yelled frantically. "She can't even stand! There's no way she can keep going! You're going to get her killed!"

"I-it's not," a quiet voice interrupted. Down in the arena, Hinata was slowly lifting herself off the ground, and though her arms were wobbling, her legs were unsteady, and she looked as if a strong breeze would knock her over, she did not lie down or surrender.

Hinata stood shakily, "It's n-not over…"

"Just give up," Neji told her. "Go back to being the weakling of the Main Branch. Go back to suffering at the fate of our family's differences."

"You s-say you c-can see e-everything," Hinata stuttered weakly. "But I th-think you're o-overlooking s-something. Th-the one s-suffering from the differences in o-our family…is you."

And then Neji was moving forward, and it was clear, from the blazing look in his eyes and the raw intent radiating from him that he was aiming to kill Hinata.

In a flash, several people had moved to stand between the two Hyuga. Several Jônin, including Hayate, surrounded the white-eyed boy, poised to intercept if he chose to move further and kill his cousin. Naruto had his blade set and ready to slit Neji's throat, his eyes icy.

"Sôten ni zase," Naruto whispered coldly and his intent swept outwards from his body as an incredible pressure, "Hyôrin—"

"That's enough, Naruto-kun," Kakashi stated calmly, his tone firm and brooking no argument. The pressure vanished as suddenly as it had appeared and Naruto turned his head, staring at his Jônin sensei with his frigid eyes.

Hinata coughed painfully and collapsed backwards. Naruto was at her side in an instant, lowering her gently to the floor as she trembled and coughed again.

"D-did I…?" Hinata coughed violently, and there were increasingly large amounts of blood mixed in with her saliva. Her sword had become an ordinary katana. Her eyes were closed. "D-did I do good…Naruto-kun?"

"Yeah," Naruto whispered soothingly. She didn't respond, not even to loose a satisfied sigh. She'd lost consciousness barely a second after asking. "You did great."

More blood trickled from her mouth, and it didn't show any signs of stopping. Naruto's veins ran cold and his breath caught in his chest. The only thing he could come up with to explain it was internal bleeding and considering the numerous internal injuries she had to be suffering from (what kind of person used deadly force against a member of his own family?), she might not make it all the way to the hospital. His fists clenched tightly and he stared furiously at the tiled floor. There wasn't anything he could do; he didn't know any medical ninjutsu at all.

"I wouldn't be so hasty, child," a soft voice said. Naruto's gaze jerked to his right; Hyôrinmaru's heavy snout was hovering over his shoulder as the dragon took in Hinata's injured form. To Naruto's surprise, the world had stopped and not a soul was moving or even breathing. "I will provide and manipulate the energy, all you have to do is move your hand where I tell you."

Naruto nodded quickly; he was desparate. He wanted to save Hinata, no matter what. Instantly, the world started up again as Hyôrinmaru disappeared. No more than a second later, Naruto was flooded with a powerful feeling and his body felt lighter than air.

"Now," Hyôrinmaru's voice whispered softly, "unzip her jacket and take it off. The first place we must pay attention to is her heart."

Nodding almost imperceptibly, Naruto dutifully unzipped the Hinata's heavy jacket and brushed the flaps aside. He blushed slightly at the sight of her feminine assets (far more than Sakura had, a treacherous part of his mind pointed out), restrained only by a tight black shirt, but knocked the thought away as he rested his palm — glowing white — against her sternum.

"What are you doing?" Kurenai demanded from him hotly, but he ignored her, moving his hand further down to rest on her bruised stomach at Hyôrinmaru's command. Strangely enough, he could sort of feel the damaged capillaries and taut smooth muscles heal under his fingers. It was kind of like taking someone's pulse, except he could feel the damaged flesh knitting itself back together.

Once more, he moved his hand, delicately peeling her jacket off so as to reach her arms. He watched in amazement as the purpling skin slowly returned to its natural cream color under his touch, until no sign of the bruises remained. The glow dissipated. Naruto suddenly felt dizzy and lightheaded. Bed sounded good right then. But not yet; he still had something he needed to do.

He turned, dipping his hand in the small pool of Hinata's blood, then lifted both his now crimson fist and his blazing blue eyes to Neji's stoic form. "In the Finals," he promised viciously, "you're going down."

His vision blurred and the world swayed around him, then he fell backwards into someone's arms and knew nothing more.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

When Naruto awoke, something fuzzy was tickling his nose and his arms were thrown over something large and wide. Blearily, he opened his eyes to see the gravity defying white hair of his Jônin sensei and the cobblestone streets of his home village, Konohagakure no Sato. He blinked, mumbling weakly, "Huh?"

"Oh, Naruto-kun," Kakashi glanced back at him, adjusting the boy's position on his back, "you're awake. Good."

"Un?" Naruto answered lamely. "What…happened?"

"I didn't know you could forget that kind of thing," Kakashi said casually. "After all, several people are wondering how you managed to heal such severe injuries when you yourself know nothing about medical ninjutsu. Kurenai-san was livid. She was afraid you were trying to do in Hinata-sama."

"Don't…know," Naruto muttered, resting his pounding head against Kakashi's shoulder. Oh, but he had a horrible headache. Again. "Hyôrinmaru…told me what to do…"

"Hyôrinmaru?" Kakashi posed. "Your sword told you how to heal someone?"

"Not just…a sword," Naruto loosed a jaw-cracking yawn. "He's a dragon, too. Tenten-san said something about…sealed in a sword."

"Oh?" Kakashi asked. "And this sword, this dragon, Hyôrinmaru, where did you get him? How long have you had him?"

"Forever," Naruto said tiredly. "According to him…he's been with me forever. He's only been a sword since the second part of the exam."

There was a sudden tension in Kakashi's shoulders, but it was gone so fast that Naruto wasn't sure he hadn't imagined it. "Are you sure he's safe, Naruto-kun? Are you sure he's a dragon? Are you sure he's not…" there was a hesitant pause, "the Kyûbi?"

"No, he's…dragon all right," the blond mumbled. "Seen him and everything. Said something 'bout being my sword and shield. Whatever that means."

Kakashi remained silent after that, and Naruto bobbed in and out of consciousness for the next half an hour. Before he knew it, Kakashi was carrying him up a long set of steps, then another, and another. He heard Kakashi muttered something vague about Hinata and "warning Kurenai," but his brain was filled with so much fog that he couldn't hear exactly what Kakashi intended to warn Kurenai about.

There was a tug on Naruto's right leg, and he opened bleary eyes to see that Kakashi was working the knob of a very familiar door — the door to his apartment, in fact. A few weeks before, he might have wondered at the fact that Kakashi apparently knew where he lived, but so many days of his sensei bringing him a basket of fruit to eat had long since dispelled any notions of anonymity.

Naruto closed his eyes again and began to drift off. Sometime later — it could have been an hour, it could have been six — there was a tug on his right leg again. He didn't bother to open his eyes, and even if he had been so inclined, he doubted he could have. He just felt so tired. For the first time in his life, it was as if his boundless energy had abandoned him.

He felt himself fall backwards, and thought vaguely that he might be falling, and then he landed softly on the inviting familiarity of his mattress. Kakashi had brought him to his room, to his bed, and had laid him there as gently as he could. How thoughtful, he wondered absently.

A hand grabbed his right leg and lifted it, slipping his sandal from his foot, then gently lowered it again. The hand grabbed his left leg next, lifting it, too, then slipped his other sandal off his left foot, before setting that leg back down, as well. It was the kind of thing a parent might do for their child — and that thought sent a cold, lonely chill through Naruto, down to his very core.

It was a familiar ache, the one that struck him. Though Iruka and Kakashi and all his friends had become like a family to him, he had always longed for his parents, for the people who had brought him into the world and loved him so much that they would sacrifice their lives for him.

He had often imagined their faces — perhaps he had inherited his mother's blond hair, but the spikiness had come from his father. Maybe he had his father's eyes but his mother's nose and chin. Maybe both his parents had his unusually bright blue eyes, but his father's hair was brown and his mother had given him his blonde.

Whatever faces he gave them, there was always one thing in common. They always had the biggest smiles on their faces, and those smiles were always directed at him. He imagined them smiling at him when he got up in the morning, when he had graduated from the Academy, and waiting for him when he got home. He imagined them smiling as he regaled them with a story about his latest mission, and they would always be interested, even if it was a routine D-Rank. Even if it was just capturing Tora.

He imagined their voices, too. He imagined his father's voice as a smooth tenor, kind of like Kakashi's, but a bit lighter. His mother's he thought of as a lilting soprano, though it could go higher when she screamed (as she naturally would every time he got in trouble). His father, of course, would just sit there and try not to laugh, probably hiding behind a newspaper or a book, or covering his mouth with his hand.

But no matter what, they would always love him. He wished for that more than anything — that his parents really had sacrificed themselves for him, like the old man had told him, and that they hadn't abandoned him because they didn't want him.

So, as Kakashi left and closed the door behind him, Naruto imagined his parents, smiling and telling him tenderly that they loved him, and drifted off to sleep with their voices whispering in his ear.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Naruto rubbed his eyes and slowly stood up. His sandals sunk in the snow, but no feeling of coldness reached him as the white fuzz buried his toes. He looked around, only to discover he had once more returned to the world of Hyôrinmaru. He blinked and wondered just why he was back.

"You're here," the dragon's voice said calmly, swerving its long body around him. It twisted until it was looking him in the eyes, its lower body coiled around his feet and legs. "Tell me, child, do you know why you're here?"

"No," Naruto started, shaking his head, "I—"

His tongue froze mid motion as images flashed through his mind and in front of his eyes, reminding him of what he'd done. His glowing white hand resting on Hinata's chest, Hyôrinmaru hovering over his shoulder, his palm gliding over her smooth arms, and falling back into unconsciousness.

"That…energy," Naruto began slowly, his mind working a mile a minute, "what was it? It wasn't chakra."

"Good," the dragon cooed, its eyes narrowing slightly. "You've started to become more observant. The clarity with which you perceive things is growing, sharpening. You've started down the path of a true shinobi."

Hyôrinmaru moved closer, until its snout was mere inches from his face. The two thin, long, fleshy feelers beneath its nostrils wavered in a nonexistent wind as it spoke, "As you well know, chakra is made of physical and spiritual energy blended together, but did you know that you could separate those energies and use them individually?"

Naruto's eyes widened as he slowly shook his head. Hyôrinmaru continued, "Chakra is composed of the physical energy and the spiritual energy, reiryoku. Your body mixes the two automatically, which creates Chakra, and that Chakra is what keeps you alive. Even if you have a monstrous amount of reiryoku, if it does not mix and form Chakra, you will die.

"Reiryoku, or 'spirit energy', is what allows chakra to be channeled for Jutsu. By itself, Reiryoku has several uses that can be helpful to the life of a shinobi. The easiest example was how you healed that girl of such life-threatening injuries. Beyond that, Reiryoku can be used to form attacks and the like with which you can defeat your enemies. When it is not mixed into chakra, Reiryoku is incapable of molding the elements.

"A normal shinobi might have a three-to-two or five-to-three ratio of physical and spiritual energy, and he must train to achieve a closer balance. A shinobi who can reach a perfect one-to-one ratio need not have a monstrous amount of chakra to be an extremely powerful ninja. Most, however, only reach a one-point-five-to-one ratio. A kunoichi, by contrast, tends to have a three-to-four ratio, and the fact that they have more reiryoku gives them better control of their chakra. For a kunoichi, it is much easier to have incredible chakra control.

"However," Hyôrinmaru stressed the word. "You, Naruto, as a result of the Kyubi, have a one-to-six ratio of physical and spiritual energy. You have so much excess reiryoku that your body, no matter how hard it tries, cannot compensate. It tries desperately to make more physical energy to match your reiryoku, but the rate at which your reiryoku increases is monstrous. Your chakra continues to grow and expand, elongating your lifespan, but so does your reiryoku. The imbalance makes it incredibly difficult to control. And so, Naruto, you have an enormous amount reiryoku just simmering beneath the surface, every growing and ever waiting, untouched and unused."

"I guess I sorta get what you're saying, Hyôrinmaru," Naruto started quietly, a confused frown on his face, "but what's the point of telling me? I mean, I suppose it might make it easier to train if I know what's wrong and what I need to do, but I don't know how to manipulate Reiryoku, so how's it going to help me?"

Hyôrinmaru grinned, baring his large, sharp teeth, "Quite simple, actually. You may not know how, but that does not mean you are incapable of learning."

Naruto's eyes widened to the size of dinner plates, a ghost of a grin stretching at his lips, "You mean…?"

The dragon's grin widened, "Tomorrow, you will seek out that white-haired teacher of yours and have him teach you during the afternoons. In the mornings, from dawn's first light till the sun has reached its midday zenith, I will be teaching you to mold and use your Reiryoku as a weapon."

"Really?" Naruto asked excitedly, his eyes sparkling as the dragon nodded. He thrust his arms into the air, his own grin threatening to split his face, "Yatta! This is going to be so cool! Wait!"

He refocused back onto the dragon still coiled around his lower body, "Does this stuff require hand seals?"

As Hyôrinmaru shook his head, Naruto leapt into the air, whooping loudly. He laughed excitedly, "All right! I'm gonna be an awesome ninja! Ha! Take that Sasuke! You can't copy my Jutsu, because they don't use hand seals!"

Naruto grunted as the dragon knocked him to the ground with its tail, hitting the earth face first and making an imprint in the snow. The dragon sighed, more to himself than anything, "Good grief. I don't think I could have taken much more of that."

As the Naruto stood, rubbing his head, the dragon leveled a glare at him, "You must learn to contain your excitement or else nothing I teach you will help. Shinobi are silent and cunning. You are beginning to understand and apply this concept, but you must control such loud and annoying impulses."

Naruto nodded, thoroughly cowed. Hyôrinmaru cooed, "Good. Now…"

The dragon swiveled away, leaving Naruto to stand alone as it faced him, "Your training begins…immediately."

o.0.O.O.0.o —

To be continued…

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or Bleach

I would like to ask you all a favor. For every chapter of this story you read, please leave a review. My personal goal for this story is to reach at least 1600, though I would like to reach 2000 and I do believe I might die of happiness if I got so far as 10000 (Mon Dieu!).

I've considered rewriting SUTFH, or at least revising it, for a while now. And, looking back on how this chapter turned out in the original version, and even in the two or three revisions I had of it, I must say that this version is more satisfying. It feels more proper. And I've decided also to try to maintain an unwavering restriction to Naruto's POV. I might add in the villains' POV every now and again, but once a section has a designated POV, it will stick to it. No more changes mid-paragraph.

There are several things that will be different about this story, most notably that I'm gonna try and keep Naruto more to his canon personality (which will be accomplished by imagining him as Zack Fair, funnily enough). Some things will remain the same (or even completely unchanged, as some of you will have noticed), but, by the time I've finished these revisions, I will hopefully have a more balanced Naruto and anywhere from ten to twenty-thousand more words worth of content (+6000 already!). I imagine that I will also be revising CCTAM, or even rewriting that outright as well, to match this story.

Am I the only one who nearly cried during the section about Naruto's parents?

I actually had a really cool Bleach Time Travel idea cooked up, where Ichigo's Fullbring allowed him to time travel using his Badge (with the first one being unintentional and flinging him back to right before the Shattered Shaft), but with all the other things I'm going to be doing, even if I was completely and totally free this summer, I don't think I'd have time to write it.

Another thing that bothers me, something that I've mentioned before, is the inability of some of you to realize that Naruto is the one who's changed, so Naruto is the only one who will act differently, and it's only Naruto's actions that will cause others to act differently and events to change. The story stays pretty close to canon, at least for the first few chapters, because Naruto is the point of divergence and a lot of the events happening were already in motion long before Naruto started to change. I'm sick and tired of people who come along and say, "You're just following canon." Well, yeah, because you haven't been reading long enough to see the divergence. And also because I'm not a big enough Naruto fan to toss canon and create a whole new plotline (abandoning Orochimaru, Akatsuki, Madara, Kabuto, etc.) because you can't notice the significance of the changes that HAVE been made.

Ore wa sekai o kaetai dattebayo!

James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes

James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes (Signature best viewed in Wendy Medium font style)