Disclaimer: Time is an illusion. Especially the eight months since I've last updated this. That's definitely an illusion. Yeah.

...*shifty look*


Chapter 16
Contests: Fate

The streets in the village were quiet; Konoha seemed to have emptied itself. As if in compensation, the hum of crowds echoed up from the arena ahead of them and the road on its far side leading into the stands, making a strange kind of aural backdrop. The genin stood on another street, wide, dusty and deserted under the harsh summer sun; it led directly out onto the arena floor, bypassing the stands via a long, shadowed tunnel underneath.

Four of them walked in a row. Shino, off to one side, was tall, cloaked and silent, as usual. Hinata, next to him, moved gracefully and smoothly, nothing about her indicating that she had spent most of the previous month bedridden. In spite of this, Naruto was hovering just to her other side, looking anxious. Sakura walked beside Naruto, looking at the two with a slight grin on her face.

Naruto seemed to move in cycles, first anxiously hovering right at Hinata's side, then looking flustered and moving back, repeating twice a minute or so. After a few iterations of this, Hinata blushed slightly and giggled.

"Naruto-kun, I was more than capable of walking even before Himura-san would let me, and that was a week ago. You don't need to be so worried."

Naruto laughed nervously and scratched the back of his head. "Yeah, sorry...but it's the first time you've been out of the hospital, and I just—" He shook his head. "Sorry."

Hinata looked down, but there was a small smile on her face. "That has more to do with the fact that Himura-san does not understand the Hyuuga than with my health. Really...I'm fine, Naruto-kun."

"Good!" Naruto returned a broad grin. "I...I'm glad you're doing better. I..." He paused for a moment, his mouth open, then shook his head and closed it again.

Shino glanced over at the two, his face unreadable as usual. "Hinata-san, I must confess to some curiosity about the speed of your recovery. Kurenai-sensei seemed to be under the impression that at the time of the tournament, you would still remain weaker than usual, yet I see no sign of such weakness."

Hinata ducked her head, seeming uncomfortable. "Ah...the doctor, Himura-san, he did not understand the differences between Hyuuga chakra systems and...the usual. He must have given Kurenai-sensei his diagnosis based on that."

Shino nodded. "I see. Well then, allow me to offer my congratulations on your recovery."

Hinata looked mortified. "Uh—ah...thank you, Shino-kun."

Shino gave her a look which might have been mildly amused. "Indeed."

They were nearing the gate in the arena wall. As they stepped into the shadow of the arena seats above, Sakura glanced around, then looked at Hinata.

"Hinata-san, we'd better get to the stands." She gestured at an opening in the wall of the tunnel, which led to stairs upward, lit by flickering fluorescent lights.

Hinata nodded and followed Sakura over to the stairwell. As she reached it, she looked back over her shoulder and smiled. "Good luck, Naruto-kun, Shino-kun!"

Naruto grinned and waved, while Shino gave a reserved nod. In silence, they walked down the tunnel.

"Hn. Still need work on the whole awareness thing, I see."

Naruto narrowly avoided jumping out of his skin, instead whirling about, his hands snapping into position for a strike. Sasuke stood there, unruffled, smirking at him. His hands sat nonchalantly in his pockets, but he was wearing unfamiliar clothes, and on his left hip was a short, straight sword in a scabbard, protruding out behind him at an angle. On his other side was Kakashi, who was reading his usual bright orange book. Naruto glowered at Sasuke as he relaxed.

"Where the hell did you come from? And where were you all month?"

Sasuke looked smug. "Well, now, that would be telling. And as to where we were," he gave Kakashi an irritated look, "Kakashi-sensei decided that the best way to keep me from getting distracted was to take me out north for a day's run at top speed and not tell anyone about it."

Naruto grinned. "Yeah, that sounds like him. What did you work on?"

"That," said Sasuke, with a mock-supercilious look, "would be telling. I suppose you might figure it out before I show it to everyone, if you're quick enough."

Kakashi chose that moment to look over at Naruto, raising an eyebrow. "I see you survived your training."

Naruto laughed, scratching the back of his head. "Yeah. Did some good stuff. Pretty much just the fuinjutsu, though, the stuff I've got for this tournament is mostly mine."

Kakashi grinned. "Good! I'm sure it'll be quite the spectacle." The book he was holding disappeared, and he waved casually. "I'll be up in the stands. Good luck, both of you." Then, in a flash of motion, he was gone. Sasuke seemed to look particularly smug for a moment, before turning back to Naruto.

"Onward, then?"

Naruto grinned. "Indeed."

As they reached the inner gate, Naruto glanced around at the arena. Noise washed over them, the chatter of innumerable voices, though it did not seem as if any of the audience had noticed the three shinobi walking onto the field. The arena was large—more like a courtyard within the high surrounding walls than an arena in the traditional sense—and scattered around it were large boulders and small stands of trees. As he passed under the lintel of the inner gate, he felt a tingle pass over him, so faint as to be almost imaginary; he looked forward and back with a frown.

Shino had already begun to walk to the center of the field, where a man in a Konoha flak vest and headband stood next to a small knot of genin. Sasuke made as if to follow, but looked back when Naruto paused and began to look around.

"Coming, Naruto?"

Naruto shook his head distractedly. "One second...there's something odd here." He peered around, searching for the source of the feeling that had disturbed him. It had been almost unnoticeable, but it bore a faint similarity to...the feeling of chakra in an active seal. Just as he made that connection, he noticed the arena wall, which was seemingly entirely covered with seal work, extending all the way around the circle.

He stepped over to the wall and stared at the seals. They were close and tight, but seemed to repeat constantly, and they were nowhere near the complexity of any of the intricate masterworks he had found himself analyzing over the past month. Naruto, fascinated, began looking more closely, attempting to categorize the repeating bits of work, until he heard an impatient noise behind him.

Sasuke was staring at him with a raised eyebrow. "Is this really the time?"

Naruto stood up, grinning sheepishly, and turned back to Sasuke. "Yeah, you're right. Sorry. That's really cool, though."

Sasuke shook his head and beckoned Naruto back toward the arena center. Naruto followed, but almost as an afterthought spawned five clones along the wall. They spread out, intently examining the seal, and Naruto himself walked behind Sasuke toward the other genin.

They had congregated in the center of the field, the examiner a few paces away. It was a different person this time, Naruto noticed, and he wondered absently what had happened to the man who had proctored the preliminaries. Five of the genin had arrived; Shino had come in with him and Sasuke, and Ino and Shikamaru had been present already. Shikamaru was, predictably enough, lying on the ground staring upward, and Ino had apparently given up on making him pay attention, now sitting down next to him in exasperation. Sasuke and Naruto joined the growing clump to nods of acknowledgment from the two on the ground.

The proctor, a young man in a flak jacket who seemed to be in the inexplicable habit of gnawing on a senbon, was standing, seemingly relaxed, several paces to one side. When Naruto looked at him again, however, he noticed that his eyes were hooded and darted around the arena, and he kept one hand artfully near the shuriken holster at his side. Naruto frowned, wondering what the proctor might be worried about. There was a contingent from Suna in the arena along with the Kazekage, but Suna were allies of Konoha. And even if they had taken it into their minds to attack, they were outnumbered significantly by the Konoha nin, and the Kazekage himself was in the kage box within striking range of dozens of ANBU—not to mention the Hokage. Suna would have to be insane to strike at Konoha, and no other possible threat was remotely credible in the face of the majority of Konoha's ninja corps in one place.

Well, something's sure as hell going to happen sometime, or else Orochimaru is an incompetent. Naruto grimaced and shook his head, trying to throw off his paranoia.

There was a sound at the gate, and Naruto glanced around to see the three Suna-nin walking toward them. He tensed slightly at the sight of the red-haired boy—the other jinchuuriki—but forced himself to relax. His enemy was Hyuuga Neji; time enough for other grudges afterward.

The Suna genin stood off to one side, clumped together. Naruto, glancing at them, saw that the two oldest kept glancing about nervously, seeming to divide their apprehension equally between the cluster of Konoha-nin around them and their red-haired teammate. The Suna jinchuuriki, by contrast, planted himself in place near his teammates, crossed his arms, and proceeded to ignore everything.

Naruto had just began to become impatient when the examiner glanced up to the sun, then over at the gate. He frowned, and looked over at the clump of genin.

"We're ten minutes out. Do any of you people know where Hyuuga Neji might be?"

There was a general shaking of heads, and the examiner sighed. "Wonderful. He's first, too. Well, we'll have to see."

Naruto sighed, glancing around. "Hyuuga bastard can't even be on time for his own fight? Great."

Sasuke, beside him, sniffed, mock-haughtily. "Hn. You'd never see an Uchiha engage in such behavior."

Naruto rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah. Where is he?"

Ino, sitting on the ground, began whispering something under her breath; Naruto couldn't quite catch the words, but the gist seemed to consist of imprecations against lazy and/or habitually tardy people. Naruto received the definite impression that she wasn't really referring to Neji, which was only reinforced by Shikamaru shifting and muttering something annoyed. The remainder of the genin remained silent; the Suna-nin were wary of everyone else in the arena, and no one else seemed inclined to conversation.

After a rather tense wait, punctuated with the proctor glancing around exasperatedly, Naruto noticed more movement at the gate, and the tall Hyuuga stepped out into the sunlight. He ignored the eyes on him, and simply walked over to the center, taking up a position isolated from the rest of the group and staring at the examiner.

Said examiner gave him an annoyed look. "Hyuuga Neji. Good. All of our competitors now, at last, being present, kindly line up and hear the rules."

There was a bit of a shuffle as the genin arranged themselves in a line. The examiner glanced them over with a slight frown, then nodded.

"Good. All right, people, the fight rules are the same as for the preliminaries. Which is to say, there aren't much of any. Do what you want to each other, use what you like. There's a shield around the walls of the arena, so you don't have to worry about collateral damage in the crowd. If victory is obvious but you're still trying to kill each other, I may intervene to prevent unnecessary deaths. The tournament is arranged as single elimination, and the matches are as follows: first, Uzumaki Naruto versus Hyuuga Neji, second, Aburame Shino versus Yamanaka Ino, third, Nara Shikamaru versus, uh, Temari, fourth, Gaara versus Uchiha Sasuke." He glanced up and down the row, verifying that each competitor was present.

"All right, everyone's here. So, in case you missed it, the purpose of this Exam is to determine promotions to the rank of chuunin. Of course, ultimately this is a matter for your own kage, but barring exceptional circumstances the opinion of the judges here pretty much determines it. So remember, you could lose your first match and still get promoted, if you impress the judges. Or you could win the whole thing and still miss promotion. It's not just about power, though that's a big part of it; it's about who would be an asset to their village if they were promoted. Fight with that in mind."

"Troublesome...let's just get it over with, already," grumbled Shikamaru, slouched in his place with his hands in his pockets as usual. This drew a scathing look from the Suna kunoichi, Temari, who stood next to him, and a chuckle from the examiner.

"All right, then." He gestured to an alcove balcony inset in the wall of the stadium, off to one side, and a door below it. "All the competitors who aren't in this round, please go to the balcony. Uzumaki Naruto, Hyuuga Neji, stay."

The rest of the genin peeled off from the line and moved toward the staircase, some slowly, some with alacrity. Sasuke glanced over at Naruto as he walked off, and favored him with a smirk and a wave. Naruto grinned in response.

The examiner glanced around, and noticed the five clones Naruto had set to examine the seals around the arena walls. He looked over at Naruto.

"Uzumaki-san, your match has not yet begun, and having clones on the field when it begins is outside the rules. Disperse them, please."

Naruto looked up, mildly startled, and nodded. A single clone formed and dispersed itself, distributing the memories of that instruction to the studying clones, which were by now just about evenly distributed around the arena wall. They dispersed a moment later, filling Naruto's head with information about the seals on the walls; he quickly filed that away for later, forcing it down.

This left Naruto and Neji alone on the field with the examiner. The Hyuuga turned to look at Naruto for the first time, and gave him a long, unfriendly stare. Naruto returned it with equal ill will, almost snarling, instinctively crouching slightly as he opened the seal within him; a filigree of death patterned the arena and his opponent as a rush of power flowed inside his mind, ready to be tapped. The fight might well have begun right then, if the examiner had not cleared his throat.

The tension cleared slightly, and Naruto straightened and turned back to the older shinobi. He raised one eyebrow, and motioned to the two lines that marked the fighters' starting positions. Naruto moved over to one of these, keeping one eye on his opponent. The Hyuuga stood in his designated position, disdaining any sort of stance, but his eyes had flared active, and he glared at Naruto contemptuously.

The examiner waved a hand desultorily in their general direction; he had taken several steps back, and appeared poised to retreat even further. "All right, you two know the drill. Begin." He jumped backward, putting at least a hundred feet between him and the combatants.

For all the examiner's caution, though, there was remarkably little reaction to the formal beginning of the match. Naruto tensed slightly, his weight shifting forward, and saw Neji do the same; neither, however, seemed inclined to attack just yet.

After a moment of that silent staring match, Neji snorted in disdain. "You cannot win this match," he said, his gaze remaining fixed on Naruto despite his expanded field of vision. "Whatever tricks you might have learned, they cannot avail you against someone who is truly strong. You have threatened to kill me on this field, but you need not fear. I will defeat you, and I will leave you alive that you might contemplate the differences between us."

Naruto snarled, his lips curling over teeth which had grown longer and sharper than their proper shape; a part of him alarmed at that, and sought to push down the fox's influence, but it was a bitter task against the weight of his anger. "Keep telling yourself that, bastard."

Neji's eyes widened further, the veins around them swelling. "So you still maintain some vestige of deluded hope. It will not last. Your fate is still weakness. Regardless of how you struggle, regardless of what tricks you attempt, you cannot defeat me." He smiled humorlessly, bitterly. "It is foreseen."

Naruto clenched his teeth, which had grown further despite his efforts. Flickers of red licked around his hands, and instincts not his urged him to form them into claws and rend. The lines were dark and spindly on the world; he could see them on Neji's body, on his face, and he ached to slice along them, to silence the arrogant Hyuuga who had hurt Hinata. He could foresee it, could already see the older boy falling apart, spurting blood—

He cut that thought off before it could continue, and concentrated for a moment, closing his eyes to hold back the fox's influence. I promised not to kill him. Remember. Hinata wants him alive.

He opened his eyes, having gained some control, and set his hands in a cross. With barely a thought, five clones surrounded him; Neji's face lost its arrogance and set itself in a blank mask, as the Hyuuga stepped forward and fell into a familiar stance. He was no longer taunting; every motion he made was purposeful, efficient.

Naruto was not fazed. He charged with a roar, his clones around him. It was an effort to hold his speed down to what the clones, not boosted, could maintain, but he managed to keep himself inside the crowd, anonymous even to his enemy's eyes. His first experiment with Hinata had determined that even the Byakugan, the most powerful technique of insight still alive in the world, could not quickly distinguish a shadow clone from its maker.

Neji did not take the bait. Before Naruto or his clones had closed halfway, he brought one hand forward as if to strike the air open-handed. His lips moved in the name of a technique, but Naruto could not hear him; a ripple of force had shot out from that hand, catching the whole group. The clones were dispersed instantly, amid memories of sudden pressure and crushing force. Naruto himself was caught up as if by the fist of a giant and thrown backward. The pressure hammered on his ears, making them ring, deafening him. He ignored that—nowhere near as strong as the effects of some of his own explosions—and flipped over in the air, only just managing to land on his feet almost twice as far from Neji as he had been.

Neji had returned to his stance, his face masked. Naruto's ears had already cleared, and as he walked forward again, slowly, Neji spoke, his voice as devoid of any emotion as his face.

"I warned you that your tricks would not avail you. I know better than to allow your clones to approach me. You will not find me so easy to defeat as the Inuzuka."

Naruto scowled and crossed his hands again. This time, more clones formed, almost four times as many, in an arc of almost a half-circle all around the Hyuuga. They all charged forward, Naruto with them, this time at a dead sprint.

Neji was not as overwhelmed as Naruto had hoped. He danced backward, his motions eerily reminiscent of Hinata's when they practiced together, and repeated his technique. This time, it was directed at one end of the line of clones, away from Naruto, and he could hear the Hyuuga mutter the mnemonic name—"Hakke kuushou!"

A clump of clones disappeared at once, and Naruto tuned out the burst of memories that came with their demise. The remaining clones pushed forward, but to no effect; Neji expertly kept the distance open, using three more waves of force to dispose of the entire group. This time Naruto managed to weave between the attacks, and so avoided being thrown across the field again; however, he was no closer to Neji than he had been before, and he was not making any progress.

Neji had reassumed his neutral stance, and his concentrated mask lapsed, just a fraction, into a sort of contempt.

"Is that it? Your only trick? You can create clones, and they can explode. Perhaps that would be sufficient, against shinobi of no skill. If you seek to ever advance, you will need to learn eventually that brute force is not enough!"

Naruto growled, the fox's influence again urging him to rip tear kill; he pushed it back with an effort, and shook his head abruptly.

"You think so? All right." He smiled, and for all his efforts it was a predatory look. "I'll try finesse now."

In another quick burst of chakra, he had created another small mob of clones. They charged as one, just as the last attempts had. Naruto, though, was not giving his all to the attack with his clones; he stayed in the middle of the pack, keeping his eye on Neji, and focusing his chakra.

A look of greater contempt flashed across Neji's face as he saw the horde coming. Naruto could see him preparing, moving backward, and concentrating to use his attack again; this time, he preempted him. Before Neji could release the blow, Naruto prepared to apply the results of his second experiment with Hinata—

—he slammed his hands together into a ram seal, forcing out all the chakra he could hold, and put all his breath into a deafening shout of "KAI!"—

—namely, that the Byakugan, for all its advantages over mere mortal eyes, was still subject to flash blindness.

The sudden confusion and fear that flashed across Neji's face, and his aimless casting around where before he had always stared straight at his opponent as if he could defeat him with the force of his glare, told Naruto all he needed to know. His clones spread out on cue, making more targets, keeping them all from dying to a single lucky empty palm, and Neji's desperate attack, launched vaguely in Naruto's direction, caught up only three of them. Naruto grinned wolfishly as the rest of the clones closed in, knowing he had won.

Then the fear on Neji's face flashed through resignation to resolve. Muttering something Naruto couldn't quite hear, he threw himself into a sudden spin. Just as the first of the clones approached him, blue chakra flared out from the Hyuuga's body, forming itself into a rapidly spinning dome all around him; the first clone, which had already thrown itself forward in order to tackle the Hyuuga before detonating, ran into the wall and was violently thrown aside, to collide with another clone and disperse. Then the remainder of the clones arrived. Some charged into the dome only to disperse immediately, some were thrown away to disperse on landing; two detonated themselves outside the shield, but for all the effect they had they might as well have simply dispersed themselves normally.

Naruto, still at a distance, watched incredulously as the dome wavered and collapsed to reveal Neji, inside it, coming out of his spin to stare challengingly at Naruto. His eyes had obviously cleared, from the pinpoint accuracy of his glare; he was perhaps breathing slightly harder than he had been, but he stood steady still in the neutral stance of jyuuken.

Neji's lip curled as he regained his poise, and he drew himself up and schooled his features into a mask of disdain, though anger still shone through in his voice. "Tricks! Regardless of what you might have learned—you cannot take me off guard! You cannot defeat me!"

Naruto stared warily at the Hyuuga. That move matched Hinata's cursory description of the kaiten, the most powerful defensive technique of the Hyuuga clan, but it couldn't have been—she had been very and bitterly clear that it was a technique taught only to members of the main branch. Not even to her, yet, though she knew the theory behind it; she had only mentioned it in passing, and Naruto hadn't followed up, thinking that it wouldn't be relevant for the fight against the branch-house Neji.

What should I do? If that was the Kaiten, then I probably can't get through it...but it's got to be hard on him. But it can't be—he wouldn't have learned it, he'd have to have reconstructed it himself. No one's that good.

Naruto frowned at that. Well, whichever it is, he can sure enough do it blind. No point in trying the flash again...unless I want to just try to run him out of chakra, but that's cruddy. I want to beat this guy on his own terms. He smiled thinly. All right, brute force it is, then. And I can't wait to see the expression on the guy's face.

He looked at Neji with a twisted grin. "All right, tried that!" he called. "Going back to brute force now!"

He crossed his hands again and concentrated, chakra moving according to his will in great floods, where before he had used only the smallest of streams. A blue haze began to coalesce around his body, and he saw Neji's eyes widen, just a fraction, and his lips tighten into a thin line. He released it all at once.


There was a great cloud of smoke, and a thunder of sudden creation. It was as if a wave exploded outward from where he stood, and as it passed the air was filled with white chakra smoke and the ground was broken flat under hundreds of identical blue sandals. It took only moments for the effect to trail off, wasting the last of its efforts against the sealed walls of the arena.

Where it had passed, the arena floor was no longer visible. It was carpeted thickly with clones, all surrounding the single bare space around Hyuuga Neji, and the older genin's eyes flared as he took them in. Neji was glancing around, with tiny, almost imperceptible movements of his head, but Naruto read volumes in them. He smiled again, no longer mockingly but with pure anticipation, and relaxed in the strain of holding down the fox's influence, letting the lines on his cheeks deepen and his teeth grow. The Hyuuga was afraid.

The clones had already been an oppressive presence in the arena merely by the noise of their breathing, their standing and shuffling around. When they charged, the noise redoubled, and that was before one decided to shout its anger at the Hyuuga. In a moment they were all doing it; any coherent words were lost in the overwhelming sound that echoed outward, deafening. Naruto, in the last moment that he still had a line of sight to Neji in the mob's center, saw him wince and clench his teeth in discomfort; then, before the first clones could enter their attack radius, he forced himself into a spin again, and the blue dome of chakra sprang up over him, impenetrable.

A moment later the wave of clones reached him, and even the previous noise was made as nothing by the wall of sound that swept out from the center as clones began to detonate themselves just outside Neji's defense. Naruto ignored the sound with the aplomb of someone very practiced at taking explosive techniques at close range; more problematic to him was the overwhelming blast of memories that rolled over him as each explosion took out dozens of clones that had charged in too closely packed. So many were there, however, and so quickly they closed, that even the detonations of the one clone in ten that managed to reach the center were more like constant, cacophonous thunder than individual sounds.

Naruto stood back from the crowd of clones, his hands over his eyes as he concentrated, monitoring the situation by the flashes of memory he received. Though he had summoned a crowd of clones almost as large as he was capable of, large enough to fill the arena, so quickly were they spending themselves on Neji's wall that after not even ten seconds of engagement there were noticeably fewer clones in the ring. The memories of his attacking clones were all the same; either they had been caught up in a different clone's explosion and lost pointlessly—there were fewer of those, now, as the density of clones in the arena fell—or they had closed to just outside the spinning dome and put all the chakra that made them into a detonation. The strength of the dome, however, seemed unaffected by the actions of the clones; whether it had had a few seconds respite, or whether five clones had just then exploded around it at once, it seemed indifferent.

Naruto frowned. The dome was shrinking over time, leaving a trail of plowed earth behind it, and if he kept this up for as long as he could then Neji should eventually simply cease his technique out of exhaustion. I didn't want to beat him that way, but...I guess I'll take it, if I have to. That's one impressive defense.

The constant thunder had been going on for almost a minute, now, and Naruto had adjusted to the demands of integrating his memories enough that he could look at the fight with his own eyes as well. The crowd had collectively plugged its ears, but the spectators closer to the arena seemed to be staring with fascination at the center of the ring, the point where brilliant flashes and thunder contended against the technique which Naruto was becoming steadily more certain was indeed the greatest defense of the Hyuuga clan. Perhaps a quarter of the original mob of clones remained, but Neji's dome had shrunk by more than half its diameter, and Naruto grinned wolfishly. In no more than a few seconds, the Hyuuga would be forced to drop his defense by the simple fact of having insufficient space within it, and while he had promised not to kill Hinata's cousin, he found himself looking forward immensely to beating the contempt out of him.

Then, something changed. The few clones to see it barely had time to notice the dome flare bright before it suddenly surged outward, growing to five times its size in an instant; those caught by it, almost half the remaining mob, were thrown outward, to disperse as they fell. As if the potency of the defense had been spent in that moment, it then dissolved, revealing the Hyuuga, panting as he dropped his spin and grounded himself again, seeming to shake his head slightly as he looked up with defiance in his face.

The clones around him charged as one, but before they could approach, Neji crouched low and jumped, higher than Naruto could have perhaps even with the fox's boost. He peaked high above the arena, approaching the height of the higher stands, and as he began to fall all the clones that could see him ran toward the point where his path intersected the ground.

They were entirely unprepared when Neji, still twenty feet up, did something difficult to see, and a wave of chakra shot out to crush them all against the arena floor. They were dispersed in an instant. Naruto, disoriented by the sudden wave of memories, looked up again only to see that the release had lofted Neji skyward again. His new trajectory brought him to a point directly above Naruto himself, now devoid of clones.

Naruto knew, intellectually, that the next few events happened very quickly indeed, but as he experienced them it seemed that time had decided to take a vacation. Neji had curled his arms across his chest, and as he fell, he flung them out wide, as if scattering shuriken. Instead of blades, though, another wave of chakra shot out, straight down, visible in its refraction of the sunlight from above. It was stronger than the last one, and Naruto had the wince-inducing memories of his clones testifying to that technique's power. In a moment of sudden fear, he realized that that wave might well be able to put him down long enough for Neji to finish the fight.

It was too late to dodge; there were no clones on the field to substitute with, and he was not yet fast enough at shunshin. Instead, Naruto consciously drew out the fox's power, more than before. The lines, which had faded into the background as Naruto ignored them, burned again black and wrong in his sight, tracing across the ground, his enemy, himself. He could foresee it, he only needed to call the slicing power of the cloak to him and it would leap out, make those weaknesses of the flesh tear the Hyuuga apart—but instead, he only pushed as much of the red power as he could into his right hand. The wave approached, and he slammed power out through his arm and punched upward with all his strength.

He felt a moment's resistance, as if he had hit thick, tight-stretched cloth, and then the wave seemed to split around his arm. There was a loud concussion, hammering his already-abused ears, and a sudden feeling of emptiness in his core, but Neji's technique flowed around him and pounded the arena floor, leaving him upright and swaying slightly, but undamaged.

He had only an instant to process his success before Neji himself landed in a crouch directly before him. His momentary elation turned to alarm as the Hyuuga launched himself forward, snarling. He saw the stroke coming, but he was unable to bring his arms up in time, and Neji's open palm smashed into his stomach like a sledgehammer.

Naruto found himself flying backward, a burning, racking pain throughout the whole middle of his body. It was worse than anything else he could remember, worse even then being beaten half to death at the age of nine. Abstractedly, he noticed that he was crashing to the ground, almost landing on his feet but not quite, that he was skidding through the earth almost to the wall, that he lay now still and helpless at the end of a long trench carved in the arena floor, but he could not quite bring himself to care. All his attention was forcibly drawn to the hot pokers someone kept stabbing him through the gut with.

He could only breathe heavily, for a time, until the pain abated a fraction. Then he became aware of the Kyuubi's chakra working inside him again, and he had never been more grateful for it. It contended, for a moment, with some harsh interloping force, but that could not compete; it was burned out in seconds, and the pain dwindled from unimaginable to merely quite severe.

As he again became aware of the world around him, he noted that Neji had approached, standing perhaps halfway along the trench Naruto had carved with his passing, and he was speaking.

"I must commend you. You have fought quite strongly for a shinobi not even a year out of the Academy. But it was never possible for you to win this fight. You were not born to be my equal in strength. No matter how hard you might have tried..." He trailed off, and when he finished, he seemed almost to be speaking to himself. "No one can overcome their fate."

He was silent for a moment, pensive, then straightened and looked off to one side. "Examiner! You should call the win. If he is not given treatment—what?"

He spun back to stare at Naruto, his eyes flashing again into full activation from where they had relaxed. Naruto, for his part, had one hand clamped over his stomach, which had healed itself to a degree but still ached fiercely and burned with every breath; he had laboriously rolled over, then come up to one knee, and as Neji watched incredulously, he slowly stood, glaring at the Hyuuga.

"Say that"—he gasped, coughed, at the strain, and droplets of blood spattered from his mouth—"to my face...you bastard!"

Neji's mouth was slightly open, and his face was unabashedly shocked. It took him almost a full second to reply, his voice weak. "Impossible..."

Naruto grinned ferally. The pain was beginning to abate, and the healing went faster as he forced out more power and let it play over his body. "Apparently not."

Neji shook his head slowly, as if in disbelief. "You can stand...impressive." His posture firmed itself again, and the mask of concentration formed over his face. "However, regardless of your fortitude, that strike must have severely damaged your organs and your abdominal chakra points. To fight would only degrade them further. You should surrender, or there is a very real chance that you will not survive."

Naruto's lip curled, and he glared at the Hyuuga in disgust. "You didn't seem to have that problem when you were fighting your cousin. What, was she not worth it? Why do you suddenly care about me so much?"

Neji shook his head, unmoved. "I warned her, and yet still she fought. The outcome was ordained the moment the fight began, and she persisted in struggling against it. Such a pursuit is...futile. It can only lead to pain and defeat." He stared at Naruto, unblinking. "I will warn you again. If you fight, with the damage you have already taken, you may very well die. Surrender. It is no fault of yours that you were set against me. You never had a chance."

Naruto forced down the urge to charge the Hyuuga without further discussion. If he went into the shroud just then, he couldn't hold back from killing—and Neji was strong enough to knock him out, if he charged still wounded. The ache in his stomach was diminishing, but still painful.

Keep him talking...okay. Naruto took a blind stab.

"You can't fight fate? What the hell is that?" He straightened, sending pain lancing through his stomach again, but ignored it. "You think you've gotten the worst deal anyone's ever had? What, because you were born into the branch house? What a joke! You don't know what it's like for fate to try to screw you over! And you think no one can manage to fight it, just because you've given up?"

Neji's face hardened, and his affected calm barely hid a grating anger. "Fool. You do not know whereof you speak. I suggest that you remain silent, lest your betters take offense at your insolence!"

Naruto grinned, and under the snarl of the fox's influence it was almost genuine. Gotcha. "I don't know? Then tell me! Enlighten me, Hyuuga-sama, as to the nature of your pain! Tell me what the fuck makes you think you can talk down to everyone who's actually sacrificed things for this village! My insolence—ha! You're the genius! You're the big strong one! The only power I ever got handed would love to see me dead, but look! Here! I! AM!" He had intended only to keep Neji talking and throw him off balance, but by the end of his oration Naruto had lost sight of those goals; his fists were clenched tight, his fingernails-cum-claws digging into his palms, and he glared at Neji with all the malice in him.

Neji's eyes had widened slightly as Naruto spoke; at his last challenge, the Hyuuga ground his teeth.

"So you think you can avoid your destiny?" He shifted, just slightly, keeping himself perfectly balanced as he reached behind his head and unfastened the strap of his hitai-ite. "Perhaps you can try. Perhaps by dint of your own efforts, you can make more of yourself than would exist if you had remained idle. But always there is an insurmountable wall. There are barriers you cannot pass, fates which are truly inevitable." The metal plate above his eyes came down. His forehead, exposed now, bore the mark of a cross in its center, flanked by two long slashes to the sides. They crawled with power, and the seal's own black lines spidered over it.

"This is the crystallization of my fate, Uzumaki Naruto. And, for this match, of yours. It is...insurmountable. I cannot be free. If I were to sacrifice myself for Konoha, Uzumaki Naruto, it would not be my own choice to do so. That is a decision which will be taken out of my hands."

He dropped the cloth in his hands, and the plate of his hitai-ite clattered on the ground. By the time the sound had faded, his hands had snapped back into the jyuuken ready stance, and his eyes narrowed, focused again on Naruto.

"Yet that fate does not only bind me. I have told you this, Uzumaki Naruto. You cannot win this match. It is impossible. You can no more defeat me than I can escape my bonds." He inclined his head slightly. "Come and see."

The pain in Naruto's stomach had almost subsided already, but even if it had not, he was losing the self-control to hold himself back. Shoving chakra out, he created a mob of clones, and charged among them at the Hyuuga.

This time, Neji did not hold his place and take the assault. He charged back at Naruto with startling speed. In a flash, he threw himself into the largest concentration of clones—then, before any of them could detonate themselves or even strike at him, he spun, and they were obliterated in a blue flash.

Neji continued his attack, running straight at Naruto and ignoring the few clones that remained. Naruto had only a moment to notice Neji drawing back his hand, preparing another sledgehammer jyuuken blow. He swapped himself out with one of the clones, and half a second later winced as it was disrupted catastrophically. The Hyuuga ignored the momentary cloud of chakra smoke that surrounded him, but instead whirled about and charged again—straight at Naruto, ignoring the few other clones around.

Naruto switched in for another clone earlier, this time, intending for it to detonate when the Hyuuga approached. But the moment the substitution had finished, Neji spun about, slashing his hand at the clone. A thin line of force shot out, too quickly for it to dodge, and dispersed the clone. Naruto was taken aback for a moment by the memory, and so nearly did not react in time when Neji ran straight at him.

He substituted himself out for another of his diminishing supply of clones, and crossed his hands to make more. His chakra supply was actually noticeably diminished, now, from the massive clone technique and healing himself up after Neji's ridiculously powerful blow. Ordinarily he would not have worried—his available reserves were still many times greater than the average jounin's—but the Hyuuga was unnerving him. The exhaustion which had seemed to end his long defensive kaiten had vanished, and his quick, savage movements as he cut through the clones in his way showed no sign of abating.

And he keeps going straight for me! How's that possible? Are his eyes better than Hinata-chan's, to pick me out from the clones?

No clone that approached Neji could get close enough to detonate before it was killed; though he was no longer using the kaiten, his ability to destroy clones with kuushou just before they exploded verged on the precognitive. Naruto instead threw an ordinary kunai with attached explosive tag straight under the Hyuuga's feet. Neji leaped up, avoiding the explosion easily; however, this bought Naruto time to shower him with kunai from the clones which had not yet been dispersed.

Neji spun about in midair, releasing another momentary kaiten and knocking the weapons away. Then, he released another wave of chakra behind him and shot forward, straight at Naruto.

Naruto quickly replaced himself with another clone, finding himself among the rest in a tight cluster; they had congregated in order to take the best available shots at Neji while he hung in the air. He soon regretted that, as the Hyuuga destroyed the clone he had switched with and turn to unleash a monster kuushou at the whole group.

Naruto found himself flying through the air. Disoriented by all his clones being caught at once, he did not recover until he had already landed and skidded. By that time, Neji was only three paces away, charging at him at full speed, both his hands glowing with chakra.

In a moment of sudden desperation, Naruto ceased in his efforts at controlling the fox's power, and instead pulled it frantically outside him. The cloak formed in a flash, covering his body to six inches out with surging, corrosive chakra. Not a second later, Neji's overpowered double jyuuken blow went home in his chest and stomach.

The chakra of Neji's blow contended with the cloak for a moment, and then vanished, overpowered by the more potent force. Neji's open hands were repulsed by the cloak, and he snatched them back, his eyes widening in surprise.

Naruto jumped up, his feet under him, his vision suddenly full of nothing but red. The enemy was before him. The enemy sought to hurt him. The enemy had hurt those under his protection.

He threw himself forward, slashing out at the Hyuuga with claws of red fury. Neji leaped aside, and the blow that would have rent his head in two barely caught his cheek. Naruto landed, spun about, charged again. With more warning, this time, the Hyuuga jumped straight up and over him, cleanly evading.

Naruto roared in frustration and attacked again. Neji tensed, as if to dodge, but then, instead, took a single measured step to the side.

Naruto roared again, this time triumphantly—the enemy had not moved far enough, his speed had not betrayed him—he turned the slightest bit, red claws surging out—and the enemy spun, and there was a flash of blue and noise and pain, and he was crashing to the ground twenty feet away.

He was confused, for a moment. He tried to stand, and it was a matter of some difficulty—his legs betrayed him, stiff and painful, having lost their impossible speed and strength. He staggered once, then regained his balance. The world seemed somehow impoverished, as if—

Right. He had lost the shroud; indeed, the flow of the fox's chakra in him had near-entirely ceased. The lines were still visible, but even the strength the boost granted him had waned.

Neji stood some distance away, staring at him, teeth bared in a wild look. His hands were burned and red, blisters already beginning to form, from where he had attempted to strike through the shroud. Blood ran down his face from a long, shallow cut on his cheek, dripping down onto his shirt, and his eyes were hard.

The Hyuuga stood at first in a wary stance, hands up to defend; however, as it became clear that Naruto had reverted, he relaxed, his face contemptuous.

"Again you fail! You still think that strength is a matter of all the brute force you can bring to bear! Whatever that power of yours is, you will never defeat me if the only thing you can think to do with it is charge straight at me again and again!" He shook his head. "You think that because you have such absurd chakra that you cannot be defeated? Learn to fight! I imagine you cannot even tell how I distinguish you from your copies. You think any source of power will simply make you that much stronger, without regard for the particulars. Whatever your advantages, you are not strong!"

So he can tell me from my clones! How's he doing that? Naruto jumped backward as Neji ran at him again, ending the brief lull in the combat. He hurriedly crossed his hands again, spawning another wave of clones which jumped into the Hyuuga's way. These only delayed him for a moment, and Naruto had to frantically yank the boost over him once again in order to dodge the second rush in time. There was a speed to the Hyuuga's movements even greater than before, and Naruto realized with a wince that Neji had been holding back all through the majority of the fight.

How can I take this guy down without just going fox? Can't get close to him, can't fool him...damn it, that thing would work, except he can somehow tell where I am! How?

He dodged frantically as Neji cut through another wave of his clones, then crouched and jumped high. Neji attempted to follow, but Naruto created a clone just between them, which detonated itself from outside the range of the Hyuuga's kaiten. The shockwave, ordinarily insignificant at that range, served to swat Neji out of the air; the Hyuuga landed with a roll and stared up at Naruto, who had been shot sideways by the impact of the explosion, and anchored himself to the arena wall about fifteen feet up. The intricate web of seals all along the wall seemed to shimmer slightly in the corner of his eye, and he could see the lines and points of death all along their weaving, identical yet distinct from those of the wall itself.

He stared warily at Neji, thinking furiously. How's he seeing me? He's Hyuuga, he can see the inside of my body and all my chakra pathways...but the shadow clones should be just the same! What's going on?

His respite was only momentary. After no more than five seconds to think, Neji had charged straight at the wall, and now he ran straight up it, right at Naruto. This time, though, Naruto had enough warning. Neji now seemed endowed of a paranoid determination to leave him no clones on the field for longer than five seconds, but kawarimi had never been really intended for use on clones anyway. Neji's chakra-laced blow struck an irregular chunk of wood and split it in two; Naruto found himself halfway across the arena.

Naruto found his bearings, looked up, and gritted his teeth. Neji had chosen to jump off the wall, arcing straight down toward Naruto, chakra gathering around his hands again. Naruto created another cluster of clones, all around him; this time, they did not swarm the Hyuuga, but scattered at a sprint in all directions, Naruto among them. Neji, of course, ignored the fleeing clones, and landed already running straight toward Naruto. Naruto dropped another swarm of clones behind him as he ran, which held the Hyuuga for perhaps half a second. Just as Neji approached striking range, Naruto switched himself for one of the clones which had scattered around the field, and looked warily back at Neji, now most of the arena away.

He can tell who I am...what's different between me and the clones? He said—

Neji's voice, thick with contempt, seemed almost to ring in his ears. Any source of power...Whatever your advantages, you are not strong!

Neji had crossed half the arena when it hit him, and he suppressed the urge to swear at his own stupidity. Chakra. The Hyuuga could see chakra, and he was drawing profligately on a powerful, alien chakra battery. Damn it!

He jumped away again, and in midair substituted for another of his scattered clones. The clone's memories hit him as soon as he had completed the technique, almost, and he gritted his teeth. Neji could have nowhere near his chakra capacity, but his strategy was by far the more chakra-intensive one.

Okay. If that's how he's seeing me...I can fool him. Time to use that thing.

Neji was already nearing him, and he substituted for another clone before he had even approached, then concentrated. He had only done this before when fully immersed in the cloak, but it had to still be possible...

He gathered significantly more chakra than usual, enough for a clone to hold wall or water walking for hours at a time. More significantly, though, Naruto grabbed at the fox's power and forced it out, not letting it sink into his muscles to boost him as usual, but mixing it haphazardly with his own chakra and shoving it into a kage bunshin.

Neji was already nearing him, having turned to attack again the moment he switched away. As Naruto finished creating his decoy clone, he jumped away to one side, and watched the clone run in the opposite direction—and in midair, he forced the fox's chakra out of his system and slammed the seal shut.

He almost stumbled on landing, the sudden shock of mere, ordinary human capabilities counter to his reflexes. The lines vanished, and he felt oddly diminished. But Neji, tearing past in pursuit of the clone, ignored him completely.

Naruto grinned and set about the next phase of the plan.


Hyuuga Neji ran, his teeth clenched. It was frustrating, charging headlong after Uzumaki one way across the arena only to immediately turn around and retrace his steps, but kawarimi was more suited to escape than pursuit, and he couldn't use the shunshin. Not for the first time, he cursed his lack of real options in ranged attack—the kuushou was powerful, but its attenuation at range was such that even across the arena it would be useless against the original Uzumaki. On one level, though, it was a good thing—even with the chakra boosting his speed, he was spending less of his power to cross the arena than Uzumaki was. Monstrous as his chakra capacity was, it was not infinite—and Neji only needed one mistake.

His eyes narrowed as Uzumaki created another clumsy attempt at a distraction. Like all the others, while it duplicated precisely the rookie's appearance before the match, it lacked the flaring red power the original drew on now, the power that seemed to boost Uzumaki's strength and speed to nearly equal his own, despite the other boy's lack of a taijutsu focus.

He ignored the clone, in favor of continuing his charge after the original Uzumaki, and smirked internally. The boy's speed had fallen—he was forced to resort to kawarimi more often now, barely staying ahead of Neji's strikes—and the red power inside him was flickering, dimmer now, when before it had seemed inexhaustible. Neji took inventory himself, and guessed that he was not yet halfway to the point where exhaustion would degrade his capabilities. The match would be over soon.

As if he sensed it as well, the Uzumaki did something, and the clones he had left scattered around the arena began throwing kunai and shuriken at him from all directions. They might as well not have bothered. Neji ducked, weaved, occasionally jumped, and navigated the steady rain of steel without taking a single hit. He could see every projectile in flight, trace the subtleties of their spin as they cut the air; could see each clone working, peer inside their muscles and know their motions before they occurred. A Hyuuga did not have the Uchiha's inherent predictive ability, but their eyes were the more insightful. It only required a bit of thought.

He reached into the pouch at his waist and withdrew his own projectiles. Plain shuriken would be less than useless against the real Uzumaki, who had—somehow—stood and shouted back defiance after Neji's blow should have shut his body down for days. But the clones did not share that ridiculous endurance, and it took only a single accurately delivered shot to each to disrupt their structure, the chakra so solid it was indistinguishable from real matter suddenly losing cohesion and exploding into a cloud of undifferentiated smoke. Within a few seconds, there was only one more clone on the field. Then none, as Neji closed on the original Naruto again, and the familiar flare of chakra signified his fast kawarimi escape.

Neji spun about. Uzumaki, now bereft of clones, was across the arena; Neji ran at him. Before he had gone far, however, Uzumaki jumped up on the wall and anchored himself there, fourteen feet up. Chakra flared around him, and Neji's eyes narrowed.

"Take this!" he shouted, and threw a shuriken, one that glowed bright with chakra. Neji stared at it, time seeming to slow, wishing for one traitorous moment that he had the Uchiha precognition, rather than the Hyuuga insight. Then it flashed even brighter, not so much as to blind but still more than anyone else he could think of could make a technique, as the Uzumaki on the wall shouted. "Shuriken kage bunshin no jutsu!"

The single blade, spinning in midair as it shot toward him, suddenly multiplied a thousandfold, becoming a wave of metal in the sky that threatened to crush Neji if it didn't slice him apart. For a moment of pure shock, he was frozen in place. That technique belonged to Sandaime Hokage—the only person ever to successfully apply kage bunshin to an object at a distance. It was impossible that this child, this rookie, this dead-last whose only strength was his unreasonable chakra capacity could manage it.

His reflexes saved him. As the steel wave began to break over him, by pure instinct he spun about, chakra expelled from every point on his body, the pressure forming a dome of protection around him, impenetrable. He felt it like a punch from Gai-sensei to his entire body as the leading edge of the swarm struck, but the dome held. The barrage lasted almost four seconds, and by the end Neji had put more chakra into it than he had ever used on kaiten, but it held. The trailing shuriken clattered off the dome like the last raindrops of a sudden, drenching storm, and Neji let himself still, staggering from dizziness and sudden chakra drain.

The ground around him shone with steel. In every square foot of ground there was at least one shuriken, whether lying flat, buried entirely or sticking points-up in the dirt. Behind him, near the wall and its great sealed barrier, it was even worse; the blades were scattered on top of each other two or three deep, where they had hit the immaterial wall and fallen to the ground. The circle ten feet around Neji was the only clear ground in his half of the arena.

Uzumaki had jumped down from his perch on the wall, and seemed to have been in the process of picking his way over the makeshift caltrops toward Neji's location when he noticed the Hyuuga standing uninjured in his clear zone. His eyes were wide, his face slack, and his mouth hung slightly open as he stared.

Neji gritted his teeth. That attack...impossible, but Uzumaki seemed to treat that word as a challenge. It had almost overdrawn him. He certainly could not take another; could not even play the same dancing game he had for most of the match for much longer. He had to end it decisively.

"Impressive," he said, concentrating, preparing himself. "And yet still insufficient. You should have anticipated that a projectile attack, no matter how powerful, would be unable to penetrate my defenses." He took a step forward, another; Uzumaki remained frozen. "But now, as it was fated, the battle must end." Yes, the boy was close enough. Neji took a deep breath. "You are within the range of my divination."

More chakra into his eyes, pouring it away like water. The world seemed to shrink, as he lost the extreme range of the plain Byakugan; black walls appeared to close in around the arena, until he, Uzumaki, and the blade-adorned arena floor were alone in a great, dark sphere. The blind spot behind his neck closed itself, granting him truly complete vision. He could see everything, see Uzumaki, his chakra now nearly drained, in every subtlety of his motions, see the worms and smaller creatures burrowing around tree roots below him, see the ephemeral, near-invisible swirls in the air all around. The shuriken embedded in the earth still glowed with the chakra that formed them, and he could see the places where his feet would land to reach Uzumaki in four strides.

It was a technique he should not have known, should not have been able to know. Just like the hakkeshou kaiten, it was a technique passed from Head to heir within the main branch. But Hinata-sama could not have learned this. No other Hyuuga could—even those few members of the branch family more powerful than he himself had not watched the heir's training every chance they had. Hiashi-sama had given up in disgust when Hinata did not show any genius near his level, but the few demonstrations he had seen, and the descriptions that could be gleaned from scrolls, together with his long, bitter practice...they had sufficed.

Chakra into his muscles, now, powering flashing movement. One stride, two, three, four, and Uzumaki was before him. He seemed to be moving in slow motion, an effect of the vastly increased comprehension of the hakke state; he was just jerking away from Neji in a panic, but the strikes still went home. Two jabs of the fingers into chakra points in the chest and stomach. "Two palms!"

Neji gathered himself, seeing Uzumaki reeling from the two blows, and set himself for the next. He was already moving to strike when the Uzumaki in front of him underwent a familiar unraveling. Disturbances appeared where he had struck already, propagated outward at speed, and in a moment there was no more opponent, just a puff of fading smoke. A clone. What?

And then the three cloned shuriken directly below him, which he had beforehand ignored except to avoid treading on them, flashed bright with chakra. He had only the slightest moment to react before they detonated, and he was suddenly weightless, and he could feel nothing but pain.


At the memories of the three clones that had detonated themselves, Naruto gratefully shed his henge and scrambled to his feet. Transforming into an inanimate object left him with no senses other than the crude chakra perception he had been able to achieve in his practicing. It had sufficed for his clones to judge the correct positioning of the Hyuuga and time their detonation, but it certainly did not grant him any real awareness of his surroundings otherwise, and there was no substitute for being able to see things.

He breathed deeply for a moment, winded. He had not been at full capacity when he pulled off the misdirection ploy, and while making clones that were already henged into a small form took somewhat less chakra than human ones, fifteen hundred or so of them was still pushing it. Then, after a few seconds, he spawned a single shadow clone, which dispersed, distributing the news of his success to the thousands of others still transformed into shuriken and lying around the ring.

In a massive cloud of smoke, the silvery sheen to the ground vanished. Naruto shook his head slightly at the memory of forty seconds or so of boredom and darkness, fifteen hundred times over. Then he glanced around, locating the Hyuuga's landing point, and walked toward him.

Against all odds, Neji was still conscious. His legs were a bleeding wreck, but he pushed himself up on his arms to stare at Naruto in disbelief. His eyes had deactivated, leaving him looking oddly vulnerable.


Naruto sighed. He had anticipated this moment, but seeing Neji broken on the ground seemed unaccountably to rob it of its luster. "Stronger than you thought I would be, huh?"

There was no reply. The examiner had approached to within twenty paces, and gave Naruto a questioning look. He ignored him.

After a moment, Naruto shook his head. "I told you a month ago I was going to kill you. I think...I think I would have. But you'll survive this. I didn't kill you, because your cousin, Hinata-chan, she begged me not to. Even after you beat her half to death in the ring."

Neji smirked bitterly. "Of course..." He coughed, and blood sprayed from his lips. "So this was...my fate. After all." His arms gave out, and he fell backward.

Naruto scowled at him, crossing the distance between them in only a few strides. "No! You bastard, you don't get it! If there was any stupid fate running here, you'd have won already! God knows that's what everyone else in the village expects!" He took a breath. "God damn it, just stop that. Hinata-chan didn't want you to be acting like a moron."

Neji, staring up at him, shook his head minutely. "My fate...is still intact..."

Naruto's eyes flicked to the seal on Neji's forehead, and his lips tightened. "Oh. Right." He considered for a moment. On the one hand, Kakashi had told him to keep his ability covert. On the other...

"Okay, screw that thing."

He pulled the seal open again, not drawing on the boost. Lines patterned his vision, familiar after so long.

It was the work of a moment to push a senbon through the point on Neji's face. The Hyuuga seized up, suddenly, his eyes bulging wide, his teeth clenched. The seal seemed to fade, then suddenly lost its coherence entirely, fading into a vaguely linear blur of color along Neji's forehead. Neji relaxed suddenly, but his eyes were vacant, unconscious.

There was the sound of running feet, and three shinobi dashed up beside Naruto. One shoved him aside rather unceremoniously, and all three gathered around Neji. One was already waving a glowing hand over his chest, and another was saying something urgent-sounding involving ribs and lungs.

A few seconds later, two more medics ran up, these two carrying a stretcher between them. Neji was quickly loaded onto the stretcher and carried off. Naruto was left alone on the field.

The examiner was still where he had stood to evaluate Neji. He was staring intently at Naruto. When Naruto noticed, a few moments later, he looked back, more tiredly than anything.

After a few moments, the examiner turned back up to the stands and cleared his throat. "Winner! Uzumaki Naruto!"


A/N: I live.

Seriously, this has been dormant for far too long. I was hoping to write a bunch over the summer, but I had a crisis of motivation, by which I mean I got a new computer and consequently discovered the existence of video games. Then got a summer job, which didn't help. Then came back to school and had school-type things to do...yeah.

Anyway. It's a chapter! Joy! I'm hoping to release the next few more quickly, but my historical record on that front isn't great, so who knows. On the other hand, I'm going to have some fun with the invasion arc, so maybe it'll go quicker.

Signing off.