Chapter 36

If possible, the seats were even more filled now than they had been the previous day. As Naruto looked around, he saw that the stands were filled to bursting. All he could see as he looked at the stadium was a sea of bobbing heads and mixing colors. Even the booth where nobles sat was practically overflowing. It made him wonder if perhaps some of the nobles who were attending this day had decided to skip the previous day under the assumption that today would be when the best ninja displayed their talent.

Well, whatever. What these people did wasn't any of his business.

"Look at this crowd," Haku muttered. "It's still nerve wracking to have so many people watching us, even after yesterday."

"You think so?" Akane buffed her nails on her black skirt. "Doesn't seem like that big of a crowd to me."

Haku looked at her. "Are you not bothered by this?"

Snorting, Akane took a gander at the crowd… before turning her head back down to ignore them. "I'm used to being the center of attention. Did I ever tell you about the time I pretended to be a lady in waiting within the Fire Lord's court?"

Haku's expression subtly shifted into a frown. "You have not."

"It's a good story. Remind me to tell you about it some time."

They were standing on the arena floor once more, which was different than the last time they had been there. Instead of water flooding the entire floor, with only a few small islands to stand on, there was mostly rocky ground. A few trees of varying dotted the arena floor, a copse sat to one side, and there were even a number of tiny ponds, but it was nothing like the previous day. They must have had someone use earth and water jutsu to change the landscape.

The proctor was the same bland-faced guy from yesterday. Naruto really did have to wonder about him. How could anyone look so boring? Then again, that probably made him excellent at gathering intelligence.

"I hope all of you are prepared for the next stage of the Chunin Exam," he said. "Today is the final day. Only one team out of all of you will emerge victorious. However, don't think that just being the victor will earn you the title Chunin. If you want to become Chunin, then you need to show us that you are worthy of climbing the ranks. Keep that in mind."

Naruto glanced at the other teams to see how they felt about those words. A few of them, such as Rock Lee, Tenten, Sakura, and Karui, were standing straighter than before. They were probably the most invested and high strung individuals there. Sasuke and Neji looked smug and relaxed, like they didn't have a care in the world. Samui was similarly composed, but she also seemed to be thinking about something.

It did strike him as somewhat odd that three teams from Konoha had won, but he guessed that was because there had been more Konoha genin competing. The only thing really unusual about all this was how all of the genin from his village were rookies. He supposed that meant that they had some really talented genin this year.

"I want everyone except Team Eight and Team Gai to travel up to the competitor's booth," the proctor said.

Teams Samui, Suna, and 7 split from the group of genin without even a backward glance. Akane and Haku did the same. Naruto hung back for just a second. He looked at Hinata, who was staring, not at him, surprisingly, but at Neji. The hard look in her eyes bothered him for some reason, but he soon shrugged that off and quickly caught up with the others.

As they entered the competitor's booth, Naruto found a good spot near the railing to stand. He leaned against it and looked out. Team 8 and Team Gai had already taken a position across from each other. A thick tension had consumed the area, pervading the atmosphere and causing many people to hold their breaths. It looked like the battle would commence any second now.

"Something is bothering you," Akane said as she stood beside him. Haku was also there, but he was paying more attention to what was happening in the arena.

"I feel like something is wrong with Hinata," Naruto admitted with a frown.

"I didn't think you cared about her."

"I don't." Shrugging, Naruto tried to find the words to express why he was so concerned. "My concern has less to do with what's wrong with her and more to do with why. Hinata has always been a little weird, but it was nothing like this. She was shy and lacked confidence. Now she is cold and almost seems cruel. I don't know what could warrant this kind of change, but the fact that someone could change so quickly in such a short period of time is worrying."

Akane wasn't the only one listening to him. Haku paid attention as well. The young ice user frowned as he looked at him, and then turned his attention back to Hinata.

Unlike Akane and Naruto, Haku didn't actually know what Hinata was like before her change. They had never really interacted. Haku also hadn't been in the village for that long either. Even so, while he didn't know much about her personality from before, he was intelligent enough to create his own theories on her seemingly 180 transformation.

"Do you think someone is brainwashing her?"

"It's perfectly possible." Naruto closed his eyes. "That said, if someone is brainwashing her, then I have no idea who."

"I suppose we'll just have to keep our eyes peeled," Akane said. "Whoever changed Hinata into the person she is now sounds dangerous."

Naruto nodded, but he didn't say anything more.

The battle between Team Eight and Team Gai had started.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

Despite being a little nervous about facing off against her cousin, Hinata felt oddly calm. Her nerves were not shot, her mind was clear, and her body did not shake with fear like it would have months ago. Perhaps it was because she already knew how to beat him that she did not feel scared. Danzo had been training her for the past several months. Not only was she a lot stronger now than she was back then, but the plan that he had come up with was guaranteed to grant her victory.

"Kiba. Shino." Her two teammates turned to her, and she gave them a mile-long stare that caused both to shudder. "I want you to leave Neji to me."

While Shino didn't reveal what he was thinking, possible due to his entire face being more or less covered, Kiba gaped at her like she had just said something really stupid.

"Are you kidding me?!" he asked. His eyes were practically bulging in their sockets. "You want to take on Neji alone?! Listen, Hinata, I know you've gotten a lot stronger, but this is Neji we're talking about here. You saw the talent he displayed during the last round, didn't you?"

"I have to agree with Kiba." Shino pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "I think we should come up with a plan that allows us to take Neji on at the same time. It's the only shot we have at victory."

While their words were frustrating, Hinata could understand where they were coming from. In a straight fight, there was no way she could win against Neji. He was stronger, faster, had a better grasp of the Gentle Fist style, and his eyes were better than hers. Yes, in a fair fight, there was no doubt in her mind who would be the winner.

But whoever said she planned on fighting fair?

"I can win." Hinata stared at the two with all the confidence she had. She liked to think that the confidence she'd gained since getting trained by Danzo helped settle their nerves. "Trust me."

The two stared at her for the longest time. She didn't know what was going through their heads, but she really hoped they understood her desire to do this. Neji was someone she would have to face at some point. What's more, if she couldn't defeat Neji, there was no way she could beat Akane, who she believed was a far stronger threat.

Shino was the first to give in. "Very well. If you believe you can defeat Neji, then I will support you."

"Shino?!" Kiba shouted as Akamaru barked.

"We are teammates." Shino once again pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose as he explained this. "As teammates, our job is to support and trust each other. What kind of teammate would I be if I did not extend my trust to Hinata, who is expressing confidence that she can win?"

Kiba reared back as though physically struck. He looked between Shino and her, his expression conflicted, as though he wanted to trust her but was worried at the same time. Hinata met his gaze as evenly as she could. She wanted him to know that this was something she needed to do.

Finally, he sighed. "Well… I suppose you have a point. All right!" He pounded a fist against his chest. "If this is what you two want, then I have no choice but to support you! We'll let Hinata handle Neji."

While she didn't show it because Danzo had taught her to never display her emotions, Hinata was grateful that her teammates were willing to let her do this. This also motivated her a bit more. She couldn't lose now that her teammates were willing to place their trust in her.

"Since you plan on fighting Neji, I suppose that means I'll battle against Tenten," Shino said. "She is a long-range fighter. My kikaichu will do an excellent job of keeping her occupied, though beating her is another matter entirely. A battle like ours will come down to who has the best ace in the hole."

"And I'll take on that Rock Lee guy." Kiba scratched the back of his head. "I'm a bit worried after seeing him take off those weights yesterday, but I think I can at least hold him off long enough for you two to finish your opponents."

Their plan was set, and it wasn't that different from how their previous battle went, but at least this time they were all in agreement. Hinata also didn't plan on running off on her own. That had been her mistake. She had been so eager to display her powers to Naruto and Akane that she'd gotten ahead of herself. This time would be different.

"Are both teams ready?" asked the proctor. He received a nod from everyone. "Then…" Raising his hand, he brought it down in a swift chopping motion. "Fight!"

From the moment the battle started, Shino and Kiba had thrown themselves at their respective opponents… though this wasn't exactly accurate. Shino did not rush. In fact, he didn't move at all. Bugs poured from his body and attacked Tenten, who began hopping backward to avoid them as she unleashed several kunai, though that did very little as they were stopped by the kikaichu. Kiba and Akamaru were rushing toward Rock Lee, though, and he met their head on charge with a large smile.

"Yosh! I see you are determined to engage me in a most youthful battle!" Rock Lee exclaimed as he avoided Kiba's claw swipes. Left. Right. He juked and jinked, avoiding Kiba's attacks with ease. "That is great! Come, let us bask in the sweat of our youth!"

"Dude, that sounds gross!" Kiba shouted.

Kiba tossed a pill to Akamaru, who caught it in his mouth and swallowed. The dog's skin turned red almost immediately after. His nails sharpened, his fur bristled, and his entire disposition went from cute to vicious within seconds.

As his dog became more violent, Kiba also swallowed a pill, and then crouched low as he formed a hand seal.

"Let's go, Akamaru!"

Akamaru jumped onto Kiba's head as his chakra skyrocketed.

"Man Beast Clone!"

Kiba and Akamaru were engulfed in a cloud of smoke. Rock Lee stopped moving when this happened and jumped back. Hinata didn't know if he was wary or just wanted to see what Kiba had up his sleeves, but when the smoke dispersed, it revealed not one but two Kibas. Akamaru had transformed.

"This is a most youthful technique!" Rock Lee shouted.

"We'll see how useful it is when I pulverize you!" Kiba snarled. "Come on, Akamaru!"

Akamaru growled and leapt off Kiba's back as the two of them raced toward Rock Lee, and while they were battling the other taijutsu user, Shino had become embroiled in a long-distance battle with Tenten.

They seemed to be evenly matched. Tenten couldn't throw her ninja tools past his wall of bugs, which somehow managed to catch all of her tools with ease. She tried tying some explosive notes to her weapons and tossing those, but Shino had his kikaichu opens holes in their defense to let those slip past and avoided them by leaping back. It was a sound strategy for engaging a long-range fighter, though he'd need to come up with another plan if he wanted to win.

She and Neji had yet to engage in combat. They stood across from each other. A small wind had kicked up sand and several leaves that passed between them, gently floating along the air current. Hinata felt a small trickle of sweat run down her scalp, but she refused to let Neji know that she was actually nervous.

"You should give up, Hinata," Neji said. "I do not know what you were thinking when you decided to try and take me on alone, but it's clear to me, to everyone, that you have no hope of winning. Despite being the pampered princess of the main branch, you have no talent, no ability, and no hope of victory. From the moment you were born, fate had determined that I would be stronger than you."

Hinata did not bother to hide her frown. She slowly slid into the Gentle Fist stance. Neji twitched when he saw this, but she didn't let that bother her. Activating her Byakugan, Hinata stared at her cousin with all the calm she could muster.

"It doesn't matter if you're stronger than me. You might be stronger than me right now, but I'm not about to give up."

"Tch!" Neji slid into the Gentle Fist stance as well, and while they would have looked identical to the unknowing eye, to Hinata, Neji's stance appeared a lot more refined than her own. "Fine then. If you're too stupid to know when you're outmatched, then come and find out just how big the difference between us really is!"

Hinata needed to take several calming breaths to steady her nerves. Even if she felt a lot more confident now, there was no denying that she was still nervous. She had her trump card, of course. If she wanted to, she could end this fight right now, but she at least wanted to see how far she had come since training with Danzo before that happened. This was as much to test her own abilities as it was to win.

Neji bolted at Hinata seconds before she could do anything, but that didn't mean she intended to stand there and do nothing. She threw herself forward. The wind whistled past her ear, her hair flew behind her, and she met Neji in a Gentle Fist taijutsu match seconds later.

Because he was faster, Neji was able to attack first. His palm strike was incredibly accurate. His aim was her shoulder, or rather, the tenketsu in her left shoulder.

Hinata twisted her body to the side, brought up her right hand, and used a Gentle Fist palm thrust to redirect his wrist. At least, that was her intention. Neji pulled back before her attack could hit. Then he launched another thrust at her right flank. Hinata tilted her body and defended by smacking his palm away with her own palm, which canceled out the power in his attack.

The Gentle Fist was a dangerous form of taijutsu because even a block could be turned into an attack. If someone tried to throw a punch, a Gentle Fist user could damage the tenketsu or even blood vessels in their arm by sending chakra through their hands while redirecting their opponent's attack. That was why it was better to outright avoid attacks instead of trying to block attacks.

Unless you were also a Gentle Fist user.

Hinata ducked underneath Neji's next attack, her hair ruffling as his palm soared past her head. She would have countered by sending chakra through his forearm, but then his other hand sought to strike her chest. Pain shot through her hand as she used the Gentle Fist to cancel out his attack. She hadn't gotten the chakra right, so her hand had suffered for it. However, even with this pain, she wasn't going to throw in the towel.

While Neji was a lot faster than her, Hinata soon realized that she was a lot more limber. She could contort her body in ways that Neji couldn't. As his thrusts came in, she anchored her body to the ground with chakra and began bending her body at angles that his fists couldn't reach her.

Had she been fighting someone else, this method of dodging wouldn't work. They could have just kicked her legs out. However, she was fighting another Gentle Fist user. True to the teachings of the Gentle Fist, Neji did not use his legs at all. It was considered a taboo among her clan.

The wind whistled all around Hinata as she did everything in her power to avoid Neji's strikes. She ducked underneath a palm thrust, tilted her body left to avoid a finger strike to her torso, and contorted her body like a gymnast when her cousin attempted to attack her with a strike to the chest.

Several times, her speed was not enough, and so she was forced to redirect his strikes by using the subtle method of countering developed by the Hyuuga. However, those came at a price. Neji would use those opportunities to strike the tenketsu in her arm. She winced as one in her left forearm was closed by a swift finger jab after she had redirected his other hand, which had been aimed at her shoulder.

Hinata wasn't quite sure how long their first bout lasted, but they were eventually forced to back off after running out of breath. Since the Gentle Fist required intense focus and concentration, it took a lot of energy. That was one of the downsides to their style of fighting.

"Do you see the difference in our strength now?" asked Neji. "You are clearly outmatched. Give up."

"I won't," Hinata said quietly, though she raised her voice when she spoke again. "It's true. You are stronger than me, but I don't have any intention of quitting. I refuse to back down."

Neji gritted his teeth. "Fine then. Don't blame me for what happens during this battle."

"I won't."

Shifting his feet, Neji took a new stance, one that was not the traditional Gentle Fist but denoted that he was going to use one of the taijutsu style's signature moves.

"You are within my range of divination," Neji stated before rushing toward her. This was it. Neji planned on using the Eight Trigrams Thirty-Two Palms technique. Hinata had been waiting for this moment.

Hinata straightened her body and raised her hands into a new position. She started emitting chakra through her palms, a constant, steady stream that she regulated to carefully use only as much as she needed. Then she began to move her hands in a ceaseless pattern, moving faster and faster as time went on. With the chakra emitting from her palms, creating what almost appeared to be a barrier with her chakra.

As Neji finally reached her and their clash began, Hinata called out the name of her jutsu.

"Protecting Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms!"

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

"What is this?" Mei wore a startlingly bright expression. The manner in which her eyes shone was like that of a child seeing a cool ninjutsu performed for the first time. "That technique isn't part of the Hyuuga's Gentle Fist, is it? It looks far too different from their inflexible style of combat."

Sarutobi wore a pride-filled gaze as he watched the battle below. "No, it is not. At least, not to my knowledge."

"Then this is an original technique?" The Kazekage was also staring at the battle, his gaze contemplative. He rubbed his chin for several seconds as he judged Hinata's new jutsu. "That's… impressive. It's rare for a genin to have already created an original jutsu."

Mei hummed under her breath. "That technique, what did she call it again? Protecting Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms? It appears to be a highly versatile jusu."

As they spoke, Hinata was fending off her cousins attack, Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms, by emitting a constant stream of chakra from her palms to form extremely thin, sharp blades. Neji did not appear to be getting injured by her technique. However, that was likely because every time their hands met, both of them were negating each other's chakra.

"It looks like she can use this technique both offensively and defensively." Rasa crossed his arms. "She can use it offensively by shaping her chakra into thin, sharp, and inflexible blades that let her hit hundreds of targets with extreme precision. If she uses it defensively, she can create much larger, stronger and more flexible, arc-shaped chakra blades that spread out across her attack range. This would effectively allow her to form a barricade between herself and her opponents."

It was just as Rasa had said. That was what Hinata was currently doing, creating large, arc-shaped chakra blades that formed a barrier around her body. Neji tried breaking through that barrier with his own technique, but he was being rebuffed.

"It is also thanks to Hinata's flexibility that she can even use this kind of technique." Sarutobi tapped his pipe against his chair, letting the accumulated ash out; then he brought it back up, stuffed more tobacco into it, and lit it with a small fire jutsu. "The Gentle Fist is an inflexible style. However, Hinata appears to have taken what she knows of the style and modified it suit to her own needs and body type. I actually hadn't thought about how someone can change the Gentle Fist to create such a technique. It's very impressive."

They all agreed on this front, even Rasa. However, all of them also realized that there was a problem with this technique.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

"Look at that!" Haku exclaimed. "She's actually rebuffing Neji's attacks! Hinata could actually win this!"

Naruto was sure that many other people were feeling the same way as Haku right then, and looking at Hinata, it was not hard to understand why. She was standing toe-to-toe with Neji. Both of their hands were mere blurs. For every attack he sent, she rebuffed it with amazing speed and precision.

That was what it seemed like at first glance, anyway.

"No." Naruto shook his head. "She's going to lose."

"What?" Haku turned away from the battle to look at him. "What do you mean by that?"

"Take a look at the battle again."

Haku did as instructed, and Naruto also studied the fight happening between Hinata and Neji. While it certainly appeared like Hinata was perfectly rebuffing Neji on the surface, if one looked closely enough, they would see the small cracks that Hinata was leaving in her defense, cracks that Neji was slipping through unnoticed.

"That technique is not complete," Naruto stated with certainty. "There are a number of areas that she's left defenseless because she can't move her hands fast enough to block them off. This technique requires her to constantly emit chakra from her hands and move those hands into positions that allow her to create an ultimate defense similar to the Eight Trigrams Rotation. However, that means moving her hands fast enough that she's constantly covering the hole that open in her defense when the chakra in that area runs out."

Even as he spoke, Neji's hand slipped through one of the holes that he spoke of and jabbed her in the wrist. Hinata flinched but surprisingly didn't cry out. She moved her hand and closed the hole, forcing Neji to retract his hand. Naruto thought she was very fortunate. It looked like Neji had not been able to close up her tenketsu, which would have made using that technique of hers a lot harder.

"Yes, I see what you mean," Haku finally muttered. "While the technique itself is more or less complete, Hinata has not mastered using it. Her body simply isn't fast enough to let her create an ultimate defense."

"Still, I'm very surprised that she was able to create such a technique," Akane finally said something. She was leaning over the rail, her forearms resting on top of the guard. "The Hyuuga style is completely inflexible. It requires one to be like a rock. However, Hinata is more like a feather. She can move in ways that a rock simply can't, but she also lacks the power necessary to make full use of the Gentle Fist. This technique that she's created relies on the same principles as the Hyuuga's style, but it makes use of her innate flexibility. I'm actually kind of astounded that she could create something like this."

"You're not the only one," Naruto said.

He was surprised that Hinata, shy and under confident, had been able to create such a technique. Was this also the result of her sudden change? He was beginning to suspect that there was more to her change than just a sudden transformation in demeanor. Someone must have been helping her out.

But who was that person and what did they want? Naruto didn't think it was Hinata's team helping her. They seemed every bit as surprised as he was, which meant it was someone outside of her team. A Hyuuga member? Probably not. She was widely regarded among her family as a failure because she was, had been, too soft. This meant it was an unknown individual who was lending her a hand. Naruto didn't know what this meant, but he was sure of one thing.

Whoever was helping Hinata grow stronger was probably not doing so for altruistic reasons.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

Neji leapt back as his technique ended, leaving Hinata panting and slumped over several meters away. She hadn't successfully fended off her cousins attack. True, she hadn't let him completely overwhelm her, but she had also received several injuries on her arms in exchange. More than anything else, this let her know that Neji was too strong for her.

"That technique…" Neji muttered. "That technique is not one of the traditional techniques of the Hyuuga Clan. It does not belong in the Gentle Fist. What was that?"

"It was… my own… original technique…" Hinata panted.

"Original?" Neji gawked, eyes suddenly bulging as he took a stumbling step back. "You… created that?"

"I did."

"Inconceivable." Neji gritted his teeth hard enough that Hinata thought his gums might bleed. "That is absolutely inconceivable! I refuse to accept that you have created your own technique!"

"You… you don't have to accept it."

Perhaps that was something she shouldn't have said. Neji went pale, and his face became mottled with rage, eyes narrowing fiercely for all of three seconds before he howled in anger and rushed at her. While Hinata had not expected Neji to lose his cool like this that did not mean she didn't have a plan on how to respond.

Hinata made a hand seal as Neji ran toward her.


Because he was wearing a headband, no one could see the seal light up on his forehead. With a scream, Neji tumbled to the ground, skidding along it before coming to a stop. But that didn't mean he had stopped screaming. He covered his head with his hands and squirmed along on the ground like an insect. Hinata kept the seal going for several more seconds before she stopped.

Neji stopped wiggling around, but it was clear that he was still in pain, as evidenced by the way he remained on the ground despite them being in combat.

Hinata glared down at her cousin. "You keep stating that it would be better for me to surrender, that fate had determined the difference in strength between us. However, you have also forgotten your station, Neji. I am from the main house, and you are from the branch house, and yet here you are, fighting against me. Perhaps the person who wants to fight against fate the most is not me."

Neji could not get up. He tried, certainly, but his body had been defeated by the power of the cursed seal attached to his forehead, the one that made it impossible for him to go against the main family. All he could do was glare impotently at her.

"Damn… you…"

Hinata didn't let herself appear bothered by the loathing in his eyes. This was something that she had mentally prepared herself for. Neji's hatred of the main branch was well-known to her, and Danzou had informed her that this was something she would have to deal with at some point. She pulled out a kunai, knelt beside Neji, and placed the kunai against his neck.

The battles between Tenten and Shino, and Kiba and Rock Lee were still happening. Tenten and Shino were in an obvious stalemate. Neither was able to gain an advantage over the other thanks to their respective fighting styles. Tenten was too good at keeping her distance, but Shino was too good at avoiding her kunai. The battle between Rock Lee and Kiba was more one-sided. Kiba might not have lost, but he was certainly not in the best of shape. One of his arms was dangling uselessly. It was clearly broken. He also had numerous bruises on his face and his left eye was swollen shut/\.

"I have taken Neji captive," Hinata shouted in a loud voice. "If you two do not wish for him to get hurt, then I suggest you both surrender."

The battle stopped as Tenten and Rock Lee realized that their friend was in danger. Of course, they also looked prepared to continue, perhaps realizing that Neji wasn't actually in danger of being killed.

Hinata looked at the proctor. "If this was a real battle, Neji's opponent would not hesitate to kill him if these two did not do as they said. Call the match."

While it took a moment at first, the proctor seemed to realize that what she had said was true. The Chunin Exam might not be a real battle. However, the team competition was meant to simulate real battles between ninja. In this regard, Hinata had clearly won the match.

"As the proctor, I announce that Team Gai is unable to continue." The Proctor raised his hand. "The victory goes to Team Eight!"

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

While a lot of people still seemed fairly excited by how the match had progressed, there were a few who were not expressing excitement. Maito Gai was one of them. Kurenai Yui was another. Both of them wore expressions that made Anko wish she could move away from them. They weren't quite dark, but neither of them was what she would have called pleasant.

"That was… an interesting battle," Anko muttered.

"It was a disgrace," Kurenai said. She was biting her thumb, an expression of worry written all over her face. "I can't believe Hinata would use the Cursed Seal as a means of defeating her opponent. I thought I taught her better than that."

"I'm not sure I see the problem," Kakashi said as he flipped a page of his book.

"You don't see the problem?" Kurenai parroted before an angry expression came over her face. "Hinata used the Cursed Seal to defeat her opponent."

"Hinata is also a ninja, just like you and I." Despite being on the receiving end of her death glare, Kakashi did not appear the least bit bothered. With a calm, composed expression, he lifted his eyes from his book and gazed at Kurenai. "Do not forget that we are ninja. A ninja must use any means necessary to achieve victory. What Hinata did might not work against a different opponent, but the Cursed Seal is still just another jutsu in her arsenal."

"But that's—"

"Kakashi is right." Maito Gai interrupted them. "While I do not like that she used such a technique against Neji, it is not like we shinobi are adverse to using reprehensible means to achieve victory. That's just what it means to be a ninja."

It was clear that Kurenai still did not approve of what Hinata had done, but she couldn't find it in herself to argue either. With a huff, she slumped into her seat and fixed her gaze on the arena.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

The next battle was between Team Suna and Team Samui. Both teams were already down below. Samui stood in front of Karui and Omoi, her partners, who were arguing over how to defeat Gara and his teammates.

"I'm telling you, the first thing we should do is take out Temari and Kankuro," Omoi said around his lolipop.

"And I'm telling you that we need to finish Gara first." Karui's eyes were narrowed in fierce competition, as though a fire were blazing behind them. "He's obviously the most dangerous, so taking him out before we fight the other two is the best method we have to fight these people."

"It's because Gara is so strong that we need to take out the other two first." Omoi presented his counter argument. "Since he's so powerful, we don't want to have to fight against those other two while trying to deal with Gara. If we take those two out first, we'll have a much easier time fighting against him."

Samui could already sense where this argument was going. If she let it continue, Omoi would no doubt say something that Karui misinterpreted, which would further result in Karui hitting him. While she would have normally just let these two get all that out, right now they were in the middle of a competition to decide whether they were fit to be chunin or not.

"I believe that Omoi's plan is more tactically sound." She tucked a strand of blond hair behind ear. "Right now, there is no telling how long it will take us to defeat Gara. Do not forget that Gara is a jinchurikki like sensei. That means even if he doesn't have a lot of experience, he is still a powerful force to be reckoned with. We can't afford to let ourselves grow complacent here."

"I guess," Karui grumbled and hung her head, clearly not satisfied by this outcome. Samui shrugged. There wasn't much she could do about this girl and her mood swings.

"I'm guessing you have a plan?" Omoi asked.

"I wouldn't call it a plan, but I do have a basic idea." Samui frowned and crossed her arms as she looked at all the people up in the stadium. "First thing we need to do is separate these three. After that, we need to slow down Gara's sand. If we can do that, then we can take out his two teammates before fighting against Gara three on one."

That said, it was still a long shot.

"Are both teams ready?" asked the proctor.

"We are," Samui said.

"Hurry up and get this battle started," Gara said.

"Very well. Then on three. Two. One. Fight!"

Samui knew that they would be in for a difficult fight if they did not seize the initiative, which was why she raced forward the moment the battle had started. Her tonto left its sheath with a hiss as she pulled it out. Barely a second had passed and she was already closed the distance between them.

Sand poured from the gourd as though it had a will of its own. Samui ducked low as the sand flew at her, and then she cleaved it in half, forcing the sand to disperse. While she couldn't see them, Samui knew that Karui and Omoi were following her close behind. She could hear the sound of their feet pounding against the ground.

Instead of going after Gara, Samui changed course upon reaching them and raced toward Kankuro. Just like what she did with Gara's sand, Samui sliced into Kankuro's body as though to cleave him in half, though she used the back of her blade. But rather than getting sent flying, the Kankuro she hit broke apart into multiple pieces.

A puppet?

The pieces suddenly stopped moving in midair and tried to attack her with sharp blades that were no doubt coated in poison. Samui leapt back, toward Gara, and the blades that followed her were crushed by sand when Gara tried to capture her.

As she attacked Kankuro and used Gara's sand against her current opponent, Karui and Omoi had double-teamed Temari. As a wind user, she was a lot more dangerous. Wind was strong against lightning.

"Wind Release: Wind Cutter Jutsu!"

"Cloud Style Crescent Moon Beheading!"

Temari swung her fan and unleashed an extremely sharp wind blade at Karui, but Omoi quickly rushed into the blade's line of fire and swung his sword in a crescent moon-shaped arc. This technique was normally used to counter multiple opponents. In this instance, however, it did an admirable job of canceling out Temari's jutsu.

Showing that they have great teamwork even if they argue, Karui used this opportunity to leap over Omoi, using his shoulders as a springboard to launch herself higher into the air. She came down with a powerful overhand swing that Temari blocked by bringing up her fan. The ground underneath her cracked, a testament to Karui's strength, but the Suna kunoichi held firm.

"You aren't bad," Karui said with a grit-teethed grin.

"You're not so bad yourself," Temari admitted.

While Karui was distracting Temari with their battle of strength, Omoi raced in from below, his body crouched low to the ground, and attacked the wind-user before she knew what hit her.

"Cloud-Style Front Beheading!"

Despite it's name, this technique wasn't used to actually behead someone. It was just a really quick attack from the front. Also, Omoi used the back of the blade, which was flat. That kept his sword from cutting Temari through, but the force of his swing was enough that even Samui, watching them from the corner of her eye, could tell that the other girl's ribs were broken.

Temari couldn't even so much as scream. A rasp escaped her mouth along with some spittle as she was sent flying. Her body hit the ground, and then she tumbled along the gravel before coming to a stop. Even after that, she was still conscious. She struggled to get up, but then Karui smacked her in the temple with her blade. Temari's eyes rolled into the back of her head after that and she passed out.

That meant they only had to deal with Gara and these puppets.

Samui did her best to avoid the sand that Gara sent at her as she searched for Kankuro. His puppet had been destroyed by Gara's sand, but that didn't mean the danger had passed. She was pretty sure he had a second one. Fortunately, avoiding the sand was easy. It was fast, certainly, but Samui had been trained as a swordsman, and her speed was nothing to scoff at.

The wind whipped by her as she twirled her body around to dodge another wave of sand. Gara was nowhere near her. He stood several meters away, attacking from a distance. His teammate, Kankuro, was still nowhere to be seen.

Puppeteers often hid themselves while fighting. They were not strong. The puppeteer was actually the weakest link in a puppet. If Samui could find Kankuro, she could end this battle quickly.

The sand suddenly stopped attacking her as Karui and Omoi attacked Gara, using a form of team blitz tactics. They dashed at Gara from separate directions. Their swords cut into the sand shield that Gara had erected, but perhaps owing to the amount of chakra their foe had at his disposal, their blades could barely do anything. They'd scratch the surface, which sealed up with more sand.

Samui was left with no more time to observe her teammates' fight. A spike in killing intent made her leap away from her present position. What impaled the ground was not a puppet as she expected—well, not a full puppet. It was just the body and the head. Judging from how Kankuro was attacking her with this one puppet, she could only assume that he didn't have any others.

Gripping her tanto, Samui raced forward and sliced right into the puppet's body. She felt a moment of resistance, but she just channeled lightning chakra through her blade, increasing its cutting power. After that, her blade went right out the other side. Wanting to be thorough, Samui spun around and sliced through the puppet a total of eight more times, causing the entire thing to fall to pieces.

"KARASU!" a shout echoed from the glade to her left.

Samui didn't hesitate. She tossed several kunai at the glade, forcing Kankuro to leap out, abandoning his position. In the time he leapt to the time he landed, Samui raced across the distance separate them. Kankuro's feet didn't even have time to touch the ground for more than a second before she attacked him with the flat end of her tonto.

"Cloud-Style Front Beheading!"

While Karui had a lot more power than she did, Samui was definitely the faster of the two. Her attack came in swift and sure. She felt Kankuro's face break against the flat of her blade, saw the way his cheek caved as the cheekbones broke, and then he flew backwards, slammed into a tree, and fell unconscious to the ground.

Then there was only one.

Samui turned back to Omoi and Karui's battle against Gara. It was still at a stalemate. Neither Karui or Omoi could break through that sand shield, but Gara was simply too slow to catch them.

Biting her lip, Samui observed the way the sand moved. Every time one of her teammates' blades sliced into shield, it would just repair itself, which led her to believe that Gara could indefinitely repair his shield so long as he had chakra. And he possessed a lot more chakra than them.

If we're going to get passed that shield, then we need to blow it away in one hit.

Samui didn't have a lot of attacks in her arsenal, but she did have her chakra flow, the ability to channel lightning chakra through her blade. She believed that would give her the chance to slice through Gara's sand barrier and reach him.

Holding her tonto in a ready position, Samui channeled her chakra until the blade of her tonto was sparking and crackling with electricity, and then she raced forward. By applying chakra to the bottom of her feet, she increased her speed several fold. It wasn't long before she was close to where the battle was taking place.

Karui and Omoi noticed her before too long. When they saw the lightning crackling from her sword, they both retreated.

Gara had encased himself in a literal dome of chakra, one that had spikes jutting all over its surface. She wondered how he could see anything like that, but then she noticed the eyeball floating near the top, and realized that was how he probably saw what was happening around him.

Narrowing her eyes as the spikes on the dome shot toward her, Samui juked left and right to avoid being impaled. This became harder the closer she got. A cut opened on her cheek. Pain stung her side as one of the spikes grazed her. Gritting her teeth, she plowed past the last of Gara's offensive spikes, and then it was just her and the sphere he was hiding in.

Instead of slicing the dome apart, which she did not think would work, Samui impaled the dome. She stabbed her tonto into the dome with all the strength she could muster. Thanks to the lightning chakra coating her sword, she felt no resistance. Her blade went smoothly into the sand.

There was an almost ominous moment of silence. Samui didn't know why, but the hairs on the back of her neck were prickling. Despite the fact that nothing was wrong with her body, her arms were shaking. Nothing seemed out of place. However, Samui felt like there was something very, very wrong in that moment.


The scream came from inside of the dome seconds before the dome itself exploded. It was only her instincts that saved Samui from being struck by the massive wave of sand. She leapt back seconds before the dome burst. Using chakra flow, she sliced through the sand that came at her. As she stopped moving nearly six meters from her previous position, Karui and Omoi landed next to her.

"What the hell is going on?!" shouted Karui.

"I don't know." Samui narrowed her eyes as the sand cleared up. "But I have a very bad feeling about this situation."

"You're not the only one," Omoi muttered.

With the sand now clear, they were able to perfectly see Gara, hunched over and bleeding from a shoulder wound. His eyes were bloodshot. They contained more than just hints of madness. He wore a grin that was anything but sane. Just looking at it made Samui shudder.

"You hurt me… you hurt me… you hurt me," Gara mumbled over and over again. The fact that he was repeating himself made his words all the more unnerving.

"What's with this guy?" asked Karui.

"I don't know." Omoi brought his sword in a guard position. "But I think we should defeat him now while he's raving like a lunatic."

"First time you and I have ever agreed on something!" Karui said as she also unsheathed her sword.

"Wait you two!" Samui shouted, but she was too late. Omoi and Karui were already racing toward Gara. Perhaps they felt now was the perfect time to defeat him, or maybe they had jumped the gun because of the killing intent Gara was unleashing, but whatever the reason was, Samui's instincts were yelling at her that they shouldn't rush in.

Her instincts were right. She wished they weren't.

Gara raised his arm; sand swirled around it, coalescing and hardening and growing, until it had formed a massively clawed arm that was at least three times bigger than Gara himself. Then he brought the arm down.

Omoi and Karui were quick enough to avoid it. They leapt apart, away from each other. However, Gara merely swung his arm again, horizontally this time. Karui didn't even have time to shout as the hand struck her with speeds greater than anything Samui had seen from Gara so far. Seconds after she was struck, Karui slammed into the arena wall, and there she remained, her broken body embedded into the cement.

With Karui out of the way, Gara turned his attention to Omoi, who quickly tried to back away from the insane jinchurikki. Samui also raced toward them. She shot forward, propelling herself across the distance by shoving chakra into the bottom of her feet. As the giant hand came down to crush Omoi, Samui leapt into the air, spun upside down, and sliced through the giant arm.

Gara screamed. It was not the kind of scream made by someone who was sane. Filled with madness and rage, this was the scream of an individual who had lost all reason.

And Samui could see why.

His body now covered almost entirely of sand, Gara was barely visible anymore. Only a bit of his face and some of his body remained visible. The rest of him looked like a tanuki.

Is that the Shukaku?

Landing back on the ground, Samui was forced to dodge when Gara opened his mouth and unleashed a powerful blast of wind. It struck the ground. Samui almost yelled when the attack exploded, not with fire, but with wind. Rocks and gravel flew everywhere. Raising her arms to protect her vitals, Samui grunted as she was sent skidding across the ground. Several rocks pelted her body. It stung, but at least they didn't hit anything vital.

After doing a quick check over her body to make sure she wasn't suffering from any unknown injuries, Samui looked around in an attempt to find Omoi. She did find him. Half-buried under a pile of rubble. She didn't need to go over there to know that he wasn't conscious anymore. Blood was leaking down his face, his head was tilted toward the ground, and his eyes were shut. Even if she wanted to go over and help him, she couldn't.

Gara wasn't letting her.


Samui wasn't sure what to expect from this new, crazy Gara. A wind attack like before maybe, or perhaps he would try to crush her with his giant hand. Whatever she had been expecting, it was not for him to throw himself toward her by digging his clawed hands into the ground and using them like one might use a slingshot.

He moved so quickly that Samui barely had time to get out of the way; he was so close that she could feel his foot graze her head, drawing a line of blood that stained her hair. He struck the ground with a loud crash. The arena shook, causing her to stumble forward. She righted herself, but it was already too late by then.

A tail filled her vision.

It was the last thing she saw.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

"Shit!" Naruto swore when he saw Samui get struck by Gara's massive tanuki tail. The blonde woman soared through the air, struck the ground, which shattered underneath her, kicking up a huge cloud of dust. Then the dust cleared, it revealed a broken and battered Samui. Her limbs were twisted at awkward angles, and blood ran down her lips. She was out.

Gara was not satisfied.


A large sphere of wind chakra was already forming in his mouth. Naruto didn't doubt that he planned to finish off Samui, already helpless and unable to defend herself, with that attack. There was a lot of chakra in that sphere, too. If Samui got hit with that, there wouldn't even be pieces of her remaining.

Naruto was already prepared to jump off the railing, but he needn't have bothered. Before Gara could actually go through with his murder attempt, a giant hand made of iron particles grabbed the insane jinchurikki and squeezed tightly. Gara thrashed and screamed as he attempted to break free. However, those iron particles were surprisingly strong.

"Enough of this, Gara! Calm down right now!" Rasa, now standing on the edge of the kage's viewing balcony, shouted.


Even with the iron, which Naruto now realized was the Iron Sand of the Kazekage, holding Gara fast, the crazy jinchurikki refused to surrender and kept thrashing around. This didn't do anything. The iron sand was too strong. However, Gara didn't even seem to care that he couldn't move and kept struggling, which meant the competition couldn't proceed.

They were probably fortunate that the Kazekage seemed to have experience in dealing with this. The iron sand quickly engulfed Gara's entire body inside of a cocoon. Even so, Naruto could hear the thrashing of the jinchurikki inside of the cocoon, but the kazekage ignored that as he floated the now giant ball of iron sand out of the arena.

"Well…" Naruto muttered, "that just happened."

"I wonder what the judgement call is going to be with this battle?" asked Haku.

"You and me both," Akane said.

Someone would have to be declared the victor. However, Team Samui was out of commission and Team Gara was… well, Gara had just been taken off the field, which was usually a declaration of forfeiture and disqualification. Given that, it was unsure if a winner even could be declared.

Yet even as these thoughts passed through Naruto's head, several medical ninja came onto the field and began checking the members of Team Samui, and also Temari and Kankuro, for injuries.

Naruto, Akane, Haku, and everyone else in the competitor's booth waited on baited breath as the judges and proctors conferred with each other to determine who would walk away from this debacle as the victor.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

"I am awfully disappointed in your son," Sarutobi said.

"You are not the only one," Rasa grunted as he maintained the sphere that kept Gara confined. From the sweat beading on his forehead, he was having a bit of trouble. "I never expected my son to lose it like that. He's always been difficult to control, but it's been a long time since he's gotten to the point where I have to restrain him like this."

"It sounds to me like you've created quite the monster," Mei said. "I wonder if the reason he's like this is because of how you and your village have treated him."

"I suggest you not make such base accusations about me or my village when you have no idea what we've gone through, Lord Mizukage," Rasa grunted.

"Hmph." With a huff, Mei crossed her arms and looked away.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

Several minutes passed before the proctor returned to the arena. The crowd, now anxious to know the outcome of the most recent fight, sat on baited breath and waited for his announcement of the results. Tension hung in the air as the man remained silent. It seemed as if he was drawing this out specifically for that purpose.

"After conferring with the judges, it has been decided that Team Samui has lost and Team Gara will be continuing on to the finals," the proctor said at last. "However, because of what happened during this round, the one known as Gara will be barred from being allowed to become a chunin this year, though he will still be able to compete in the exam."

People began muttering as they heard this announcement, though Naruto couldn't hear them. Everything was jumbled because there were so many people talking at once. But as he watched the people conferring with each other, or perhaps speculating and arguing, he thought about the decision that had been made and nodded.

"It seems like a fair enough decision," Naruto said.

"You think so?" Haku looked skeptical. "Given what happened, I feel like Gara should be banned from continuing the exams."

"Why? It's not like Gara killed anyone."

"But he would have if not for the Kazekage."

"Maybe, but it doesn't change the fact that no one has died. In any case, if he had been disqualified, that would not have been good for us."

"Why is that?"

Since Naruto didn't know too much about the situation, he turned to Akane, who was leaning against the railing with a contemplative frown. She noticed his stare. Turning her head, she looked at him, then at Haku, taking that second of observation to figure out what they wanted from her.

"It wouldn't be good for us because I believe something is wrong with Shukaku." Akane tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "There's definitely something going on inside of the seal that's keeping Shukaku locked up. I would like to find out what, but I can't just go up to Gara since he's a ninja from Suna. This tournament is the perfect opportunity for Naruto and I to travel inside of the seal and see what's wrong."

"So you want to go inside of the seal and see if something is wrong with Shukaku?" Haku asked for clarification.

"That's right." Akane nodded.

A vein throbbed on Haku's forehead. "And when were you planning to tell me this?"

"When the subject came up… like it did just now."

Haku's shoulders slumped.

"Will Team Seven and Team Anko come down to the arena?" the proctor called out.

"It looks like we're up again." Naruto climbed onto the railing. "Come on, you two," he said before leaping off.

"What do you think you're doing?!" shouted Haku.

Naruto just laughed as he landed on the ground without leaving so much as a crack from the impact. Akane followed him shortly after, and after a moment or two, a disgruntled Haku also leapt over the rail.

Perhaps because he didn't want to be beaten, Sasuke also leapt over the rail, though his landing was a lot less graceful. He left cracks in the ground, imprints in the shape of his feet. Sakura and Sai decided to follow him.

They moved to stand on opposite sides of the arena. Seeing that both teams looked ready, the proctor stood between them.

"Are both teams ready?" After receiving an affirmative from the members of each team, he raised his hand. "Then… fight!"

And the moment the fight began, it ended.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

"What… what just happened?" asked Asuma as he stared blankly at the arena.

"I'm not sure myself," Kurenai muttered. "Anko?"

"Don't look at me." Anko waved her hands back and forth. "I didn't see anything."

"Any ideas on what could have happened, Kakashi?" asked Maito Gai.

Kakashi was not reading his book like normal, and what's more, he had his Sharingan out and was using it to observe the battle… well, he would have been using it to observe the battle, except the fight hadn't even lasted one second.

No one could seem to figure out what had happened. Immediately after the fight had started, it appeared to be over. No one had seen anyone move, but Naruto and Akane were standing over the unconscious bodies of Sasuke, Sakura, and Sai. In the split second that the battle had started, those two had somehow closed one hundred meters worth of distance and defeated three talented genin.

"Did they use some kind of speed technique?" Kurenai theorized.

"No." Kakashi sighed as he slowly pulled down his headband until his Sharingan was covered. "They didn't use a jutsu or anything of the sort. That was nothing more than speed."

"Speed?" Asuma chuckled. "Surely, you must be joking. Only the strongest of jonin like Gai over there can travel that fast." Kakashi said nothing. Asuma's chuckling slowly dissipated. "You're… not joking, are you?"

"I am not." Kakashi scratched the back of his head. "That was nothing more than their physical abilities. No jutsu or chakra was used. They ran over to Sasuke, Sakura, and Sai, and clobbered them over the head."

"This isn't funny." Asuma looked like he had been struck by a lightning bolt. "Are those two even genin?!"

"Of course not." Anko scoffed. "Didn't I tell you that they were far stronger than any genin has a right to be."

"Well… you did, but damn, I thought you were being facetious."

"I was not."

"They really are strong," Kurenai said. "Now I'm wondering just how strong."

"Hell if I know." Anko scowled as she realized that even she still didn't know everything about those two. "I'd like to know just how strong those two are myself."

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

It was silent in the kage's booth as the three kages tried to digest what they had seen. Mei and Rasa both looked rather shocked—Rasa more than Mei, who at least had an idea of what those two were capable of. Sarutobi was the first to recover.

"Well… that was… quite something…"

"Something," Rasa muttered. "Yes, I suppose that's one way of looking at it."

"Naruto has gotten even stronger than before." Mei frowned. "I hadn't realized this when he and I sparred, but it looks like he's been holding back on me."

Rasa turned a querying look on her. "Wait. Do you mean to tell me that you have been sparring with a Konoha genin?"

"Never mind that," Mei said hurriedly. "Let's just enjoy this short interlude before the next match starts."

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

Since the next match was the semi-finals round between Team Eight and Team Suna, a half-hour break period had been granted so the two teams could recover. This was partially done because Team Anko's battle had been so fast that Team Suna hadn't been given a chance to rest. Since Temari had a broken rib and Kankuro received a concussion, it was deemed prudent to give them some time to heal from their battle.

"Kiba, Shino," Naruto said before the two could leave the competitor's booth. Both of them stopped. Hinata did, too, but Naruto didn't think paying attention to her would be a good idea, considering what had happened between them. "I don't think I need to tell you this, but Gara is extremely dangerous. If it looks like you're going to lose, then surrender."

"Hey, you don't have to tell me twice," Kiba said. "Akamaru is petrified of that guy, and having seen what he's capable of, I'm pretty well aware that none of us can beat him." He grinned. "But that doesn't mean I'm just going to give up without a fight."

"Fair enough," Naruto said. "I just wanted to warn you."

"We appreciate your concern." Shino's shades caught in the light as he push them up his nose. "We shall definitely take your advice into account."

"That's all I ask."

As the three genin left, Naruto turned back around and walked over to the railing, where he looked down. Team Suna was already there. Kankuro looked a little worse for wear, what with his head wrapped in bandages, but it looked like he had brought another puppet, or maybe he'd repaired the one that Gara had destroyed. Temari also appeared to be healed. She stood far away from Gara, who had calmed down and was standing with his arms crossed and an irritated expression on his face.

"How long do you think those three will last?" asked Akane.

"Not long." As he spoke, Kiba, Hinata, and Shino walked onto the field. "I honestly don't think they'll last more than a few minutes. It really depends on how well they can keep Gara from using his sand."

Shino had a small advantage in that department. His kikaichu could absorb chakra, which meant he could theoretically absorb Gara's chakra. Of course, Gara was a jinchurikki. He had more chakra than even most jonin. Naruto had his doubts about whether Shino could actually absorb enough chakra to make a dent in Gara's reserves.

"Should we be ready to step in?" asked Haku.

"Yes," Naruto said immediately. "I'd like to be prepared in case Gara goes crazy again. While I'm sure the jonin and kages are also prepared for that possible eventuality, I think we can do a better job of responding than they can."


The proctor had now raised his hand and was looking at the two teams. While Temari and Kankuro appeared wary of Gara, they didn't seem nervous about this upcoming fight. On the other hand, Kiba had already broken into a nervous sweat. Naruto couldn't tell what Shino or Hinata were feeling, but they had to know about the kind of danger they were in.

"Are both teams ready?" he asked and received an affirmation from everyone. The proctor took a deep breath as though steadying his own nerves. "In that case… fight!"

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

Maybe it was because Kiba knew they had no real chance of winning since before the fight had even begun, but almost from the get go of this battle, they had been playing defensively. They were unable to move forward, due in no small part thanks to Gara. In fact, he was the only person they were fighting right now.

Once the battle had commenced, Gara began attacking them with his sand. They were prepared for this. Thanks to having seen him fight several times, Team Eight was mostly aware of how he fought, and that was how they managed to keep from being captured. Even so, it was also thanks to Gara's sand that they couldn't get any closer.

"Damn it!" Kiba leapt back as a tendril crashed into the ground right in front of him, drilling through the gravel with ease. "I have no idea how we're going to get close to this guy. I suppose we should just be lucky that those other two aren't fighting now."

Temari and Kankuro were not taking part in the fight. He didn't know why. Perhaps they were wary of being hurt by Gara again, or maybe Gara had told them not to get in his way, but whatever the case may have been, it was a big help to them. That said, he was wary of surprise attacks from them.

The three of them had split up, moving off in separate directions. While Kiba played decoy, standing right in front of Gara, dodging his attacks, and making a general nuisance of himself, Hinata and Shino were moving around him. The plan was for Shino to drain Gara of his chakra, and then for Hinata to attack him up close with the Gentle Fist style of taijutsu.

Kiba had never felt this much adrenaline pumping through him in his life as he dodged, ducked, dove, and weaved through the sand attacks from Gara. It wasn't that hard from this distance. However, the sand seemed to be moving faster as time went on. He didn't know what was worse. That the sand seemed to have a learning curve, or that Gara was just standing meters away with a blank expression on his face.

It was not long before Shino was in place. Bugs flew from the sleeves of his jacket, converging on Gara and attempting to drain him of chakra. Hinata was standing on the other side, prepared to attack with her Eight Trigrams Thirty-Four Palms.

Kiba wasn't sure if he had ever expected this plan to work, but he had been hoping it would. However, when the sand that had been attacking Kiba stopped and swarmed over the bugs attacking Gara, he knew that their situation was pretty much hopeless. The bugs were crushed, and before either Shino or Hinata could come up with a counter attack, the ground beneath them suddenly consumed their bodies, leaving everything but their faces covered.

"I have taken these two hostage," Gara announced. "This battle is over. You two should consider yourselves lucky. If I could, I would have already crushed you and fed your blood to mother."

"The winner of this round goes to Team Suna," the proctor announced, though it didn't seem like he wanted to.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

"That battle was a little disappointing," Mei admitted.

Inhaling some smoke from his pipe, Sarutobi released it in numerous rings. "It is, but I don't think we could have expected much from a battle like this. Team Eight isn't a bad team, but they are still young and inexperienced. What's more, after the performance Gara put on during his battle against Team Samui, they were even more cautious than normal. I doubt they even expected to win, which also probably had a large effect on their overall performance."

"Their fear held them back, in other words." Mei crossed her left leg over her right. "I guess I cannot blame them. Gara is not someone that your average genin can face and hope to win against. I think even most jonin would have trouble fighting him."

"There's also the psychological issues," Rasa added. "The last battle undoubtedly put the fear of death into those three. They know that Gara is more than willing to kill others. He only stopped killing Team Samui because I stopped him in time, but what if that didn't happen this time? Knowing that you can't win and knowing that you might die… when you combine these two psychological factors, it's sure to take a heavy toll on a person's psyche and moral."

"Indeed." Sarutobi nodded several times. "Fortunately, this next battle should prove to be far more entertaining."

"The battle between Team Anko and my own children." Rasa straightened in his seat as though suddenly more interested. "I am curious about them. Naruto and Akane in particular seem far stronger than any genin has a right to be." He turned to Sarutobi. "I'm beginning to wonder if those two aren't secretly jonin in disguise that you sent here to display Konoha's power."

While the insinuation was insulting, it wasn't like Sarutobi could blame the man for thinking that way. Commonly referred to as Sifting, there were many villages who would train genin up until they were as powerful as a jonin, and then send them off to take part in the Chunin Exam. By doing this, they made potential customers think that all of their ninja were this powerful, when in fact, only a handful had that sort of ability. This sort of tactic was actually quite common.

"Surely you jest, Lord Kazekage." Sarutobi gave Rasa a congenial smile. "It is true that Naruto and Akane are indeed beyond the strength of a genin and even most jonin, but that is not because of anything I have done. Sadly, I cannot claim credit for this. Honestly speaking, I did not even know about their strength until after they graduated. It seems they had been hiding their true talent from the entire village until it was time to become genin."

This was a partial truth since Naruto had hidden his strength from the village, but Akane had not been a part of the village until after the graduation. Still, Sarutobi was not truly lying. He had known nothing about this until after Naruto graduated.

Rasa studied him as though trying to detect a lie. After several seconds, he was forced to concede Sarutobi's point with a nod.

"I suppose I have no choice but to believe you."

"I appreciate that, Lord Kazekage." Still wearing a congenial smile, Sarutobi decided to put a small nail in the coffin of this conversation. "Especially since you decided to send your jinchurikki to the Chunin Exam for that very reason. Why, if I didn't know any better, I would say this was a case of the pot calling the kettle black."

Rasa grimaced, obviously not appreciating the way Sarutobi called him out, but it wasn't like he had much room to stand on. Sending a jinchurikki to a Chunin Exam was like having a jonin do D-rank missions.

"Point taken," Rasa said.

"Will Team Anko please come down to the arena floor?" requested the proctor.

"It looks like the final battle is about to start." Mei licked her lips. "I can't wait to see this battle."

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

After reaching the arena floor, Naruto, Akane, and Haku stood at the designated starting point for the final battle. Standing across from them, Gara was beginning to breath heavily as though aroused. Naruto figured that was his lust to kill coming through. The fact that Gara was staring at him and him alone only confirmed this for him. Temari and Kankuro were standing further away from Gara, perhaps frightened by the aura their teammate was producing.

"How should we do this?" asked Haku.

"You can take Kankuro," Naruto said. "If you can take him out quickly, all the better, but if you can't, just keep him busy."

"I guess that means you'd like me to take out Temari?" said Akane.

Naruto shook his head. "No, I'll defeat her. I'm a wind user as well, so I'm confident I can beat her more quickly than you. She also won't be as likely to suffer from broken bones if I fight her." While Akane scratched the back of her head, conceding to his point, Naruto looked at her. "I want you to keep Gara occupied. Don't try to fight him. Just keep his attention on you long enough for me to finish dealing with Temari."

"That doesn't sound too hard, though I don't like the idea of doing nothing." Akane tapped her index finger against her thigh. "You'll owe me for this."

"I'll make it up to you when we get back to Konoha," Naruto said.

As they were speaking, the proctor walked up to stand between the two teams. Nervous sweat rolled down his face. Naruto wondered if this guy was nervous because of Gara or him.

"Are both teams ready?" the proctor asked.

"I'm ready." Naruto cracked his knuckles. "Let's get this party started."

While the others were not quite as vocal, each one expressed their readiness. The proctor nodded as he raised his hand. "Very well. Then… fight!" His shout echoed across the arena as he brought his hand down in a swift chopping motion, signaling a start to the final battle of the Chunin Exam.

Naruto and Haku rushed toward their respective targets. Since Naruto was faster, he quickly overtook Temari, who only had enough time to unfurl her fan and send a single wind jutsu at him. It was a cutting blade. He slashed out with his left hand and sent his own wind blade to negate her attack.

"What the—?!"

With his speed, Naruto was in front of her not even a second later. Standing face to face, he stared into her shocked green eyes as he slammed his fist into her solar plexus. Temari doubled over his fist. Spittle flew from her mouth as she coughed, gasped, and wheezed. Her eyes rolled up into the back of her head, and she quickly fell limp over his fist.

This really is too easy…

While he was standing there, a large wave of sand rose up to swallow him. It appeared Gara had been tracking him. He couldn't see Gara on the other side of this wall, but the killing intent coming from the jinchurikki saturated the area.

However, before the sand could actually swallow him whole, it was blasted away by a powerful explosion of fire. A lot of the sand was turned into glass. The glass scattered everywhere, shattering against the ground when something powerful crashed into it. Standing in the middle of this blaze was Akane, her fists covered in bright red flames, and her crimson hair rustling in the breeze kicked up by her own superheated attack.

She turned her head and stared at him. "Go ahead and put her somewhere safe. I'll keep him occupied until then."

"Right." Naruto said as he scooped Temari up and raced toward the wall furthest from this battle. He set the girl down. Standing back up and turning around, he took one quick moment to look at Haku.

Their ice-using teammate was battling against a puppet. This one looked similar enough to the one that Gara had destroyed in the battle against Team Samui, but Naruto thought it looked a little shoddier, a little less well-built. Perhaps it was an older model, or maybe the repairs just hadn't gone well? Either way, he was sure that Haku could handle that thing no problem.

Naruto looked at the battle between Gara and Akane, if one could call it a battle. It was honestly pretty one-sided. Gara would try to attack Akane with sand, but his mate had turned up the heat in the most literal sense. Her body was covered in a bright red flame. Whenever the sand even tried to touch her, the heat from her flames would turn it into glass. Despite this, Gara continued sending wave after wave of sand at her. He shook his head.


Even as he spoke, Akane raced forward, batting sand out of the way with ease, and then rearing her chakra-coated fist back and slamming it into Gara's face. A loud crack echoed all around them as Gara was sent sailing. He slammed into the wall almost two dozen meters away. Akane could have attacked, but she didn't. She remained there as Gara peeled himself from the wall.

Blood was leaking down his face.

"This is the second time someone has made me bleed!" he screeched as sand began covering his face, arms, and torso. It wasn't long before the sand covering Gara's body had taken the general outline of a tanuki. "I'LL KILL YOU!"

Gara sent more sand at Akane, but it didn't matter how much he sent or how powerful it was. When Gara tried to impale her with spears, Akane demolished them with physical attacks. When he sent a wall of sand at her, she punched it with a fist encased in red chakra. The wall exploded.

Channeling chakra to the bottom of his feet, Naruto raced toward Akane and Gara's battle. He sprinted there within seconds. Just as he arrived, Akane slammed her fist into another tendril of sand, causing it to explode with a great, concussive force.

"How should we do this?" asked Naruto.

"We need to find the seal." Akane twirled around and launched a high-kick in a wide arc. Red chakra leapt from her foot like fire and slammed a great wall of sand. "Let's start by tearing away that sand armor of his."

"Leave that to me."

Naruto pondered using his Kekkei Genkei, but really, he didn't think he needed that to deal with a genin—even if this one was a jinchurikki. His wind chakra should be enough.

Channeling wind chakra into his palms, Naruto sent numerous blades of wind into Gara's sand-covered form. He frowned when nothing happened. He was using too little chakra. Increasing the amount of chakra in his palms, he sent more attacks into Gara, nodding in satisfaction when large chunks of sand were cut away, revealing the form underneath. Sadly, the sand quickly came back.

This is gonna be annoying.

It looked like he really did need to use his Hitokage no Yaiba.

With nary a moment's pause, Naruto summoned his sword, the Hikage Ookami. Twirling the blade around like an expert sword dancer, he sliced through the many tentacles of sand that tried to attack him. On his left, Akane watched his flank. She used her fists, punching away the sand as it came. He paid her no mind, trusting her to guard his back, and stabbed his blade into the ground without ceremony.

"Uzumaki Secret Technique: Darkness Release: Shadow Binding!"

Spearing out of the ground were several dark, shadow-like tendrils, which curled through the air and wrapped tightly around Gara. The insane jinchurikki screamed as he struggled against his new bindings. It was no use.

Shadow Binding was a technique that used the darkness element, or rather, the yang element to bind a person or object with shadows. It was similar to the Nara clan techniques. Like most of his jutsu, the more chakra Naruto pumped into it, the stronger it would become. Gara might have had a lot of chakra, but he didn't have nearly as much as Naruto.


"You say that, but it looks like you're stuck," Naruto said.


Naruto sighed. "This guy's not even listening to me."

Shaking his head, Naruto placed his hands on the sand covering Gara's body, and then he channeled his chakra through the sand. Gara screamed as the tanuki-shaped armor exploded off his body. He probably would have tried to reform his armor, but Naruto commanded the darkness binding him to constrict. The pain this caused made Gara lose his concentration.

"Do you know where the seal is?"

"Probably on his stomach."

Naruto nodded. "Stomach. Right. Makes sense."

Using wind chakra to tear the clothes around Gara's stomach, Naruto placed his palms on the jinchurikki's skin and channeled more chakra to activate the seal. It appeared, a series of swirling red symbols and kanji. This seal was a lot less complicated than his own. Honestly, it kind of sucked. He wondered how such a dull seal with so little power could contain a beast like Shukaku.

Well, whatever.

"Ready, Akane?"

A pair of delicate hands landed on his back. "Ready."

"Then here we go!"

Naruto used his knowledge of seals to force this one open, without the key, and then he shoved only his yin chakra into the seal. With that, his and Akane's consciousnesses were sucked into the seal.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

Sarutobi eyed Rasa warily as the kazekage gripped the edge of his seat and leaned forward. The man's forceful eyes gazed at the arena as though he wanted to blow it to smithereens. Seeing such a gaze on the normally calm, if arrogant, face was a bit disconcerting.

"Is there a problem, Lord Kazekage?" asked Sarutobi.

"There might be." Rasa leaned back and unclenched his hands as though forcing himself to be calm. "Do you mind if I ask what your genin are doing?"

Sarutobi looked at Naruto and Akane again. They stood completely still before the still bound Gara, who had also stopped struggling and was completely still, as if all three of them had become frozen in time. From this angle, none of them could see what was going on. However, if he were a betting man, he'd say Naruto was doing something to Gara's seal.

"Your guess is as good as mine." He shrugged, puffed on his pipe, and smiled. "Since the proctor has not called anything yet, let us remain seated and wait to see what is happening."

"Or you could watch the battle between Haku and Kankuro," Mei suggested with a sly look. "Speaking of, you never did tell me that boy was a member of the Yuki Clan."

Sarutobi shrugged again. "It never came up."

"Oh, indeed. I suppose it has not. Just like it never came up that you're currently housing Zabuza, one of the Seven Swordsman of the Mist, in Konoha."

Sarutobi knew better than to play into the hands of this woman, so he said nothing and merely watched the proceedings.

He was curious to know what would happen next.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

While Naruto and Akane did what they needed to, Haku found himself struggling against Kankuro's puppetry. The problem with this puppet was not that the puppet itself was dangerous. Haku avoided its attacks easily enough; poison gas was dodged quickly, poisoned senbon were blocked with walls of ice, and it didn't dare attack him up close. None of that was a problem.

The problem was that he couldn't find the puppeteer.

Wearing a frown of concentration, Haku traveled across the arena, weaving through hailstorms of senbon that were launched from the puppets mouth. He wondered how many this thing had. Surely it would have to run out soon. The senbon impaled the ground and remained there as he danced across the gravelly surface, remaining careful not to trip over rocks and other potential hazards.

As he continued this game of "avoid being turned into a pincushion", he tried to figure out how he could get out of this. His tracking skills could be used to find Kankuro, but it looked like the genin had erased his scent and presence entirely. That normally wouldn't be a problem. A senbon whizzed by his ear, however, letting him know that the puppeteer had no intention of giving him time to put his tracking skills to use.

I need to defeat this puppet.

Defeating this puppet wouldn't usually be so hard. Haku's only real issue was that even if he broke it apart, Kankuro could still use the individual limbs as weapons. That was what he really needed to be wary of.

If I could just freeze it in place… but that would require a source of water…

There were several pools of water present in the arena, the nearest one being about twenty or so meters to his left. Haku wanted to lure the puppet there. Kankuro, on the other hand, seemed to have already divined his intent and refused to follow him when he moved toward a body of water.

Times like this made Haku wish he had practiced his water manipulation more. During his journeys with Zabuza, he had spent more time cultivating his tracking skills than anything else, and after that had come his Kekkei Genkai abilities. His skills in tracking helped them keep ahead of the hunter ninja. Meanwhile, his ice bloodline had given him a surprising means of fighting effectively. However, this left his other talents sorely lacking.

And I don't have a scroll filled with water either…

Naruto had offered to make a sealing scroll and fill it with water so he could use his jutsu in the event that no water was available. Haku had declined. Since this was the Land of Water, he had not considered the possibility that he wouldn't have a source of water.

I should have taken him up on his offer.

Hindsight was always twenty-twenty.

As the battle continued, clouds appeared in the sky, creating a dark overcast. Barely a minute after they appeared, a thick fog rolled in and covered the arena. True to its name, the Land of Water could be bright and clear one moment, and covered in a thick fog the next.

A slight whistling sound made Haku rush to the left. Several senbon shot out of the mist that had begun surrounding the battlefield. Seconds later, the puppet burst out of the mist and attacked him up close. Haku fended it off with a kunai, but just when he was about to attack, the puppet disappeared back into the mist. Looking around warily, Haku frowned at the thick mist that blocked his vision. It was hard to see anything. However…

I can use this.

Haku stopped running and became still, a stillness so complete that no sound escaped him, and even his breathing was practically unnoticeable.

"I see you've completely masked your presence. I've heard about this technique." Kankuro's voice suddenly echoed all around him. "They call it Silent Killing, don't they? It's a technique where a ninja hides in the mist and moves so silently that enemy ninja are often dead before they even realize it. I knew from the moment I saw your ice jutsu in the other battle that you were originally from Kirigakure. However, don't think that being able to use this technique means you've won. The sun will come out eventually, and once it does, you won't have anywhere to hide."

Kankuro was right about that, but Haku was already working out a plan to defeat him before the cloud cover could dissipate.

Channeling chakra into his ears and the mist around him, Haku used a technique similar to Naruto's wind sonar, only using the surrounding mist instead of wind to get a clear view of the area. It was actually thanks to learning about Naruto's technique that he had come up with this. He hadn't given it a name, but since it was used to supplement his Silent Killing, he didn't think it needed one.

Thanks to this technique, Haku had a clear image in his mind. He could see Naruto, Akane, and Gara. They were standing clumped together. That must mean Naruto and Akane were inside of the seal. He could see the rocks and ground and trees and lakes and even the leaves as they swayed ever so slightly.

He also saw the figure hiding behind a camouflage sheet meant to look like a rock.


Haku threw several senbon in the direction of the camouflage sheet. Kankuro might have been great at hiding, but he clearly wasn't good at stealth. There was a distinct difference in Haku's mind. A loud shout echoed back to Haku as his senbon struck the target.

Racing through the mist, Haku quickly made it to the rock where Kankuro had been hiding. Of course, Kankuro was no longer there, but a quick glance around the area revealed a blood trail on the ground leading away from the rock. Following it led to his opponent.

Kankuro was laid out on the ground. He was moving, but it was spastic motions, and those movements were growing weaker. Haku calmly walked up to Kankuro and knelt before the other genin.

"You aren't the only one who knows how to use poison, you know," he said conversationally. "Don't worry. This poison isn't deadly. However, I'm sure you've noticed that you can no longer move your limbs, and that your body is growing numb. This is a paralysis poison that will keep you from moving for about… I wanna say twenty-four to thirty hours, but it could be more or less depending on your body's constitution. Anyway, the point is, you won't be moving any time soon."

Haku was sure that Kankuro would have cursed him out if he could, but that didn't concern him. Sitting on the ground, Haku pulled out a scroll that he set on the ground and unrolled to reveal a seal. Inside of the seal was a tea set. Everything was already made, so after unsealing the contents, he just needed to pour the hot tea into his cup.

Sitting in seiza and sipping his tea, Haku quietly waited for Akane and Naruto to finish their task with Gara.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

Naruto stood inside of what seemed to be a temple… a very worn down temple. The walls were cracked and covered in claw-marks and stains, the floor creaked beneath his feet as though it was about to break, and the entire area was coated in a thick, inky darkness. More than anything, it was the darkness that disconcerted him. It wasn't natural. He wondered if the malice inside of Gara had given this darkness life.

"Is this really the inside of Gara's seal?" asked Naruto.

"Looks like it," Akane said.

"But it's so… desolate."

Aken raised an eyebrow. "Your seal was a sewer. I don't think you have any right to complain."

"Er… I guess that's true."

Naruto was glad the darkness hid his embarrassed blush. Looking around for a moment longer, they soon decided to start walking. Since it was so dark, it was a bit hard to see, especially since this darkness seemed far more encompassing than the simple darkness of night. As they walked through the temple hall, they were soon forced to stop.

A figured sat huddled by the wall.

At first glance, the figure was small, about the size of a child who was maybe four or five years of age. Messy red hair sat on their pale head, which was buried between their knees. Speaking of, this person was curled around themselves, arms wrapped around the knees as their shoulders were wracked with sobs.

"Akane?" Naruto whispered.

"I suspect this is Gara's avatar," Akane whispered back. "The avatar inside of the seal generally represents the age of the jinchurikki, but given Gara's current form, I would say this avatar represents when he experienced his greatest trauma. Perhaps it was during this age when Gara became the person he is now."

"What should we do? We can't leave him here."

"No, I suppose we cannot, but we should approach him cautiously. There's no telling what could happen."

Walking up to the huddled figure, Naruto, being careful not to startle the boy, knelt down and said, "Hey there, kid. You okay?"

Jerking his head up, the boy stared at him in shock, his green eyes widening. This was definitely Gara. The boy screamed and stumbled back, only to realize that he was backed against a wall. He then tried to run, but he tripped over his own two feet. Naruto felt sweat trickle down his scalp as Gara, turning over but still on the ground, back away with a sort of crab-like walk.

"S-Stay back!"

Seeing Gara so frightened was kind of freaky, but at the same time, it was clear that this was the young Gara, the one who came before the monster currently in control of Gara's body.

Naruto sighed and stood up. "Easy there. I'm not here to hurt you."

"That's a lie! Everyone wants to hurt me! Even Yashamaru wanted to hurt me!"

"I have no idea who Yashamaru is, but I can promise you that I'm not here to hurt you."

"Why should I believe you?"

"Because I'm just like you." Naruto paused. "Well, I was just like you. I'm not anymore."

"What do you mean 'just like me'?" asked Gara.

"I mean that I had a Tailed Beast sealed inside of me as well."

Gara's eyes widened. "Really?"

"Really." Kneeling down again, Naruto grinned. "That's why I'm here. I know what it's like to be in your place, so I've decided to help you out."

"Then… could you help me find Yashimaru?"

"Yashi… maru?"

Naruto looked at Akane who, upon seeing his gaze, sighed.

"That's probably the name that Shukaku is going by now. He likes to change his name a lot. He said it helps him blend into human society better."

That was not something he knew about, but he'd confess to not knowing a lot about the other Tailed Beasts. In either event, it sounded like Gara personally knew this Yashimaru, so he assumed that they actually had a good relationship.

"Sure, we can help you search for him."

"Thank you!"

Naruto held out his hand, and Gara finally grabbed it. He felt a little weird holding Gara's hand since the Gara he was used to was a psychopathic lunatic. Even consoling himself by repeating that this was not the Gara he knew inside of his mind like a mantra didn't really help, but he shouldered on, Akane walking beside him, and searched the massive, rundown temple for this Yashimaru.

"So, what's this Yashimaru look like?" asked Naruto.

Gara looked at the broken ceiling, his eyebrowless ridges scrunching up. "Let me think. He's really tall and skinny, and he wears ratty clothing. He's also scraggly."

Naruto sort of got some of that but not all of it. He looked at Akane, who sighed but answered his question.

"I'd say he's about seven feet tall, and he is indeed lanky. He doesn't have much muscle. Also, his clothing is often very threadbare. He's probably wearing tattered pants, a trenchcoat, and a cowboy hat."

"What's a cowboy hat?" asked Naruto.

"Something you wouldn't know about. It's foreign wear."

Shrugging, Naruto decided not to bother asking anymore questions. Chances were good that Yashimaru, or Shukaku, was the only other person in this seal, so it wasn't like they could mistake him for someone else.

"I'm guessing this Yashimaru is your friend?" asked Naruto.

Gara paused, then nodded. "Yashimaru is my best friend. He's the only person who doesn't treat me like a monster." He looked down. "Everyone else I know treats me like I'm a freak. Even Yashamaru ended up treating me like that."

Naruto and Akane looked at each other, but they said nothing.

Searching through the temple was time consuming. Technically speaking, time practically stood still while inside the seal. Minutes were hours and hours were days and days were months. It was doubtful that even a minute had passed outside, which was good because if someone separated his and Akane's bodies from Gara, it would spell trouble.

They didn't find Shukaku anywhere, but as they continued walking through the temple, passing several rundown tori gates, a sound soon caused Naruto's ears to twitch. Akane, walking in front of them, held out her hand. He and Gara stopped walking.

"Shukaku is fighting something," Akane said.

"You sure?" asked Naruto.

Akane cocked her head, listening. Naruto's ears weren't as good, so he couldn't tell what the sound was. She nodded after another moment.

"Yes. That's definitely the sound of combat."

"Then we should hurry and see what's up."

Scooping the surprised Gara up, Naruto and Akane raced through the temple, speeding through it far more quickly than before. It wasn't long before the temple opened into a massive room. Broken pillars leaned against the walls. Some had been snapped in half and lay on the floor. Buddha statues sitting on an elevated platform near the back held the same derelict appearance as everything else. Broken. Fragmented. Old. This room looked like it had been a place of worship at one point. Now it was nothing but a rotting room.

In the middle of this room, two figures clashed.

One of them was a man. Tall and lanky, he moved with a surprising amount of grace, wielding a pair of scimitars composed of sand. His rag-like mop of hair bounced as he moved left and right, dodging a pair of clawed hands that were also made of sand. Like Akane had said, his pants were ratty, with holes and tears all over them, and his trenchcoat, long and tan, was no better. He was not wearing a hat.

The other figure was one that he couldn't see much of. They were covered in shadow. However, they had shoulder-length hair, wore what Naruto recognized as the standard garb of a shinobi from Suna, and while everything else was about him was covered in darkness, the whites of his teeth, set behind an insane grin, were perfectly visible.

"Yashimaru!" Gara shouted as he struggled to free himself from Naruto's grip.

His voice made the two look over at them. Almost immediately after the shadowed figure saw them, it screamed incoherently and darted toward them, that insane, slasher's grin growing even larger than before.

"What are you doing, Gara?!" Yashimaru, or Shukaku, shouted. "I thought I told you to get out of here!"

While Gara screamed, Akane leapt forward as the creature tried to attack him. Letting her do what she needed, Naruto leapt backwards as Akane moved before him, her leg already extended. The reverse heel kick she delivered to the shadow creature's face was most impressive. The way the shadow creature spun through the air like a top was even more impressive.

"What the—who are you people?" Shukaku asked, gawking.

"I'm hurt that you don't remember me." Before the shadow creature could stand back up, Akane stomped on it with her heel. The creature screamed and tried to grab her leg, but she lifted her foot and then stepped on its face, crushing it beneath her. "Has it really been so long that you've forgotten an old friend?"

"Akane?" Shukaku blinked several times. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Is that anyway to greet an old friend?" Akane stomped on the shadow creature again when it scratched at her leg. She also coated her leg in a thick red chakra that acted a lot like armor. It also seemed to burn the shadow creature, who screamed and thrashed underneath her.

"The day you and I are friends is the day the gates to the Underworld open up," Shukaku said.

"That's a mean thing to say." Akane didn't seem to put out by the words. "So, you wanna explain what this thing is… Yashimaru?"

Shukaku grimaced as Naruto, deeming it safe, walked up to the pair and set Gara down. Once he was on the ground, Kid Gara rushed to stand beside Shukaku, who placed a hand on his head and moved protectively in front of him. It was a good decision. The shadow creature tried to attack Gara. It seemed that the desire to hurt Gara superseded everything else.

"That thing is… a combination of different problems," Shukaku said. "How much do you know of Gara's past."

"Nothing." Akane shrugged. "We don't know anything about Gara. We only knew that something was wrong with the seal."

Shukaku scratched the back of his head, seemingly put off. "Okay, this is going to take awhile. I was sealed inside of Gara while he was still in his mother's womb. However, I wasn't the only thing sealed. There was a priest, my first jinchurikki, whose spirit was sealed inside of Gara with me."

"I didn't know things like that were possible," Akane murmured.

"Anything is possible with seals," Naruto said.

"Anyway, nothing bad happened at first," Shukaku continued. "Myself and the priest were mostly just stuck inside of here. We didn't really do much. Actually, we spent most of our time playing Shogi or Go. However, we'd also occasionally watch Gara."

Now that he was learning about the priest, this temple setting made a lot more sense, though Naruto was still confused as to why the temple looked so derelict.

"When Gara was about five, his caretaker, Yashamaru—"

"Wait." Akane held up a hand. "His caretaker's name is Yashamaru?"

Shukaku paused. "Yes."

Akane grinned. "And you're calling yourself Yashimaru now?"

"Shut up and let me talk." Shukaku glared at her. Akane giggled into her hand, but she allowed him to continue. "Anyway, Yashamaru tried to kill him, and then told Gara that his mother had always hated him. It drove Gara over the edge and caused him to go insane. In order to stop this, I brought Gara in here with me and befriended him. Time moves differently in this seal. However, Gara didn't come alone."

"The hatred and loathing he feels for the village. All those dark emotions that appeared after this Yashamaru betrayed him." Akane gestured toward the shadow creature under her foot. "That's what this is, right?"

"You're only partially correct." Shukaku ran a hand through his hair, and then held the hand in front of his face. A cigarette suddenly appeared. He stuck it in his mouth and began taking a long inhale. "All that maliciousness didn't have a place to go when it was inside the seal, so it tried to enter Gara. The priest got in its way and ended up absorbing all those negative emotions." He gestured toward the shadow creature with his chin. "This was the end result."

Naruto looked down again, at the pathetic creature ineffectually trying to scratch off Akane's leg, but Akane just raised her foot and brought it back down once more, eliciting a loud screech from the thing.

Akane, too, looked down at the thing. Disgust marred her face but also pity. This person had once been a priest, and he had taken in the maliciousness of another to protect that person's innocence, nobly sacrificing his sanity for the sake of someone else.

"What about the Gara we know?" asked Naruto suddenly. "The one we're fighting right now is pretty insane."

"The priest might have allowed the maliciousness to enter him instead of Gara, but that doesn't mean Gara remained unaffected." Yashimaru, Shukaku, sighed as he ruffled Kid Gara's hair, which caused the boy to smile. "It just meant that he didn't break. However, he still became untrusting and hateful of others. It… probably doesn't help that I tried to protect Gara by bringing his innocence in here with me."

"I see." Akane looked more closely at Kid Gara, who hid behind Shukaku. "So this is not the true Gara, but merely a piece of him."

"That's right."

"Then here is the real question we need to ask," Naruto began. "What is it that you plan to do? What should we do with him?"

Naruto gestured to the former priest. Shukaku looked at the priest and grimaced, clearly knowing what needed to be done but hesitating. It couldn't be helped. Given the situation, their friendship, Naruto could understand not wanting to do anything, but they all knew they couldn't leave like this.

"Get rid of him," Shukaku said at last. "Put him out of his misery so that he no longer has to suffer like this."

"With pleasure," Akane said seconds before raising her foot again. Her foot became coated in a thick layer of chakra. It was far more chakra than such an attack would normally warrant. She brought her foot down on the priest's head, which exploded in a spray of dark mist. The body stopped moving seconds before it, too, exploded.

"I guess that's that." Withholding a pained look, Shukaku turned to Gara and placed his hands on the boy's shoulder. "Gara, it's time for you to go back."

"What?" Gara's eyes widened. "I don't want to go back!"

"But you have to. You don't belong in this place, and without you there, the Gara currently in control of your body is creating issues. You two must become whole again."

"But I… don't want to. Can't I stay here with you?"

Shukaku sighed.

Naruto stood off to the side with Akane as Shukaku tried to convince Gara that he couldn't remain there. It seemed like more of a hassle than it was worth, but he understood that this was needed. They couldn't stop Gara from rampaging unless the two Garas, this one inside of the seal and the one in control of the body, were fused together.

Of course, there was no telling what would happen if they did fuse. For all they knew, it could cause Gara to become even worse. At the same time, if they did nothing, then nothing would change, and Gara would go on killing more people and probably be killed at some point himself. There was no other option, really.

"Oi! Akane!"

Shukaku's irritated grunting made them both turn their attention toward him. He and Gara seemed to be finished talking. Gara stood in front of Shukaku, who had placed both hands on his shoulders as though to comfort him. Gara himself looked ready to burst out into tears at any second.

"Did you need something?" asked Akane.

Looking away, Shukaku said, "I need… your help. I can't fuse Gara on my own."

Akane nodded. "I assumed as much. Very well. I'll help you out."

"T-thank you," Shukaku mumbled, the words coming out strained. It seemed he really didn't like Akane for some reason.

Akane walked up to them. She stopped in front of Gara and placed a hand on his head. The young redhead flinched a bit, but he didn't resist.

"Don't worry, kid. This won't hurt a bit," Akane reassured him.

Naruto felt a sudden surge of chakra as Akane was engulfed in bright red flames. Not long after the chakra surged around them did Gara's body begin to appear translucent. He grew lighter and lighter until his body suddenly disappeared. That probably meant this young version of Gara had fused with the older Gara.

Akane walked back to him and grabbed his hand. She looked at Shukaku and nodded.

"We'll be taking our leave now."

"Yeah," Shukaku said.

A sudden grin sprang to Akane's face as she and Naruto began disappearing. "Bye bye, midget dick!"

"DON'T CALL ME THAT, YOU FUCKING BITCH!" was the last thing Naruto heard before they left the seal.

He blinked once, and then they were back in the arena. They were in the same position as when they had entered the seal, with all three of them standing clumped together, and his hands on the seal where Shukaku currently resided. Pulling his hand from Gara's abdomen, Naruto took a step back and looked at the redhead, who was blinking rapidly several times.

"Gara?" he said.

"Yes?" Gara said.

"How are you feeling?"

"I… do not know." Gara wore a confused frown as he looked around. "What am I… what have I been doing all this time? I feel as though a veil has suddenly been lifted from me."

"I suppose that means you're whole now."


"That's right." Naruto placed a hand on Gara's shoulder. "I'm not sure how much you know right now, but I bet that once you have the time to sort through whatever new information you gained from Kid Gara, you'll figure out that there's more to life than just killing people."

"Kid… Gara?"

"Nevermind that." Naruto removed his hand from Gara's shoulder. "I've done what I came here to do, so there's no more need to take part in this tournament." Turning around, Naruto raised his hand and shouted, "I forfeit this match!"

And just like that, the Chunin Exam came to a shocking conclusion.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

"That was… really anticlimactic," Asuma muttered. His cigarette had fallen to the floor as he, like the others, stared at Naruto. "I'm trying to wrap my brain around what just happened, but I seem to be having trouble. Did that kid really just quit?"

"It looks that way." Kakashi eye smiled. "That's Naruto for you. Always unpredictable."

"I just don't understand why he would forfeit," Kurenai said. "He was winning, wasn't he?"

Kakashi shrugged. "I couldn't tell you, but I'm guessing he has no interest in the tournament's outcome. Maybe he was only here for a specific reason. Once he accomplished it, he quit because winning didn't necessarily matter to him."

Asuma wasn't the only person around voicing his confusion, though it looked to Anko like more people were voicing displeasure. She couldn't hear the conversation happening around her. That said, it seemed like a lot of people were not satisfied with someone surrendering when it looked like they were on the cusp of victory. Though even with that, there were some people who expressed joy. Some people were even cheering as they held betting tickets.

They probably bet on Gara.

"Outside of that ending, what did you all think of the battle?" asked Kurenai.

While Anko pretended like she didn't care, her ears still perked up as she listened in, and she even leaned slightly to the side as if to help her hear better.

"To be honest, I don't think the battle itself was all that impressive." Asuma pulled a cigarette from his vest pouch, stuck it in his mouth, and used a fire jutsu to light it. He took a few puffs before continuing. "The problem with that match was the sheer difference in power between the two teams. It was uneven."

Kakashi was still not reading his book, and thus he added his own two cents. "I think it's clear that Naruto and Akane outmatched the team from Suna in every way. Naruto defeated Temari in no time, and Akane wasn't even trying when she defended herself against Gara's sand. Given how the match played out, I'm tempted to believe that those two were never in any real danger to begin with."

Anko nodded in spite of herself. Unlike the others, she couldn't say she was surprised. She knew things about those two that they didn't. They weren't normal genin, but no one aside from her and the hokage knew that.

"It really makes me wonder about those two," Kurenai said. "Don't they seem a little too powerful to you? It's odd that a pair of genin could become so powerful."

"Yosh!" Maito Gai stood up from his seat and clenched his right hand into a fist, which he thrust into the air. "Their flames of youth are powerful indeed!"

Anko stopped listening to the conversation between her compatriots after that. She instead looked down at the arena and sighed. It looked like she had also lost her bet with Tsunade. Not only that, but she had lost all the money she'd placed on Naruto to win this thing. She really should have known better. Now she had lost a crapton load of money and she had to give her genin team to Tsunade for a whole month.

She was going to have a long talk with Naruto when this was done.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

Tsunade felt empty. Sure, she had won the bet with Anko, but she had placed so much money on Naruto's team winning that she now wished she had lost. What did having these brats for a month matter when all of her money was now gone? All that money, which could have gone to pay off her debt, wasted.

She should have listened to Shizune.

"Um… Lady Tsunade…?" Shizune said questioningly.

Holding out a hand, Tsunade stopped the woman from talking. "Don't… talk to me right now, Shizune."

"Um, okay."

Sitting in their seats, Tsunade, Shizune, and Tonton silently watched as Naruto and his two teammates left the arena.

She had a huge headache.

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

"That boy…"

Sarutobi rubbed his forehead as he tried to keep it from throbbing. Naruto had always been an oddball, but he would have never considered the boy a headache until this moment. His forfeiting wasn't the problem. Well, it was disappointing, but it wasn't like Sarutobi cared, and he knew that Naruto wasn't really interested in becoming chunin. The issue was nothing like that.

The problem was Rasa.

"What did your shinobi do to Gara's seal?"

It had become obvious now that Naruto had been tampering with the seal on Gara's abdomen, the one that kept Shukaku locked away. Sarutobi had no idea what Naruto had been doing. He was every bit as shocked as Rasa. However, the kazekage was not accepting this excuse.

"I am being quite honest when I tell you that I don't know." Seeing the extremely irritated look that Rasa sent him, Sarutobi sighed and made a small concession. "However, if you would like, I can request Naruto's presence after the Chunin Exam is over, and we can have him explain what he was doing. Is that fair?"

Rasa grunted. "Very well, but I hope he has a very good explanation for doing… whatever it was that he did."

"I'm sure he does," Sarutobi said.

At least, I hope so.

"Well." Mei clapped her hands. "This match might have ended on an unusual note, but I was overall very pleased with the strength these genin displayed. Many of them are clearly not ready to become chunin. However, I think a lot of them displayed plenty of the qualities that are necessary for that rank."

"There are a few gems among them," the kazekage admitted. "That Nara boy in particular was quite skilled. He created a plan that his teammates immediately followed through with. Not only that, but the entire plan was done with such speed that it caught Team Samui by surprise and left them on the defensive. If it wasn't for their lack of individual strength, I'm sure they would have been able to pull off a successful victory."

"I definitely believe that Shikamaru is going to become a chunin, despite his lack of power," Sarutobi said. "I'm not so sure about Ino and Choji. I think they could still use more training and experience. I was personally impressed by Team Akiha. While they weren't successful in defeating Gara, they have excellent teamwork and were individually strong. I honestly think they could have beaten Gara had he not been a jinchurikki."

"That is kind of you to say," Mei replied with a sweet smile. "Akiha is definitely going to be promoted after this. Kiriha might as well, but I don't think Mozu is ready to become a Chunin. His communication skills could use some work."

A small drop of sweat rolled down the scalps of both Rasa and Sarutobi. Their thoughts, which they didn't express out loud, were in alignment with each other.

That's because Mozu doesn't even speak!

~Ten-Tailed Wolf~

With the Chunin Exams having come to an end, all that was left to do was name the winner and give them a prize. It was odd. Even though winning the Chunin Exam did not guarantee that one would become a chunin, they were still given a prize of 10,000 ryo and the recognition that came from winning the tournament.

The genin who had participated in the final stage of the Chunin Exams all stood in a row. The three kages were standing before them, and behind the three kages were the proctors and judges that had taken part in the exam itself.

A lot of the genin were looking like a mixed bag of emotions. Neji was staring hatefully at Hinata, who appeared to be ignoring everything around her, while both Shino and Kiba were staring at her in concern. Gara stood between Temari and Kankuro. Perhaps it was because he seemed so strangely relaxed, but his teammates looked even more freaked out than they were when he was acting like a murdering psychopath. Naruto wondered if Gara would be okay but put him out of his mind. He had other things to worry about.

Like the fact that Sasuke was glaring a hole into his head.

It shouldn't have come as a surprise to him that Sasuke would be pissed after his humiliating defeat, but then again, Naruto had kicked his ass in literally less than a second. Maybe he should have held back? Naw. There was no way he could have done that. He wasn't going to coddle some dude he didn't even like. If the duck butt was upset, then he just needed to train harder.

Mei Terumi stepped forward. "The Chunin Exams are over. I would like to congratulate you all on your splendid performances. Each one of you displayed the talent and skill that allowed you to reach this point. Though not all of you will become chunin, I believe everyone here has the potential to reach that level of strength and ability. Keep working hard, and one day you will move up in rank."

It was hard for Naruto to know whether or not the other genin were pleased to hear that. It sounded like she was attempting to console the losers to him, but that might have been the cynic talking. He also had no real investment in this tournament. It had been interesting, but ultimately, whether he became a chunin or not meant very little to him.

"Will Team Suna step forward?" asked Mei.

While Temari and Kankuro tentatively walked until they stood in front of Mei, Gara moved with slower, more contemplative steps. He didn't seem to be all there. Naruto was certain that this was because his mind was absorbing the memories, thoughts, and emotions of his younger self.

"You three are the victors of this tournament, and as such, each of you will receive a reward of ten thousand ryo, plus the recognition that comes from being the champion of the Chunin Selection Exams. This means that your team will be called upon to complete more missions that are far more difficult than the ones most genin get. I hope you three are up to the responsibility."

Given the lack of restraint that Gara had displayed, Naruto did not think their team would be called upon for special missions—not by potential customers. No one wanted someone who might kill you at the drop of a hat. However, what did he know? He was just a genin.

"To the rest of you, it has not yet been decided who will become Chunin yet." Mei gazed at the genin in turn as Team Suna went back to where they had been standing. "Our judges will be reviewing your performance and shall make a decision at a later date. If you have been selected, your kage will inform you when the results are in." Mei took a step back, smiled, and looked at the crowd. "Now then, how about everyone in the stand give a round of applause for the excellent show these talented genin put on?!"

The words were like a kickstart to the people in the stands, and it wasn't long before many of those people were clapping and cheering, though there was little doubt that more than a few people were left confused, disappointed, or both by Naruto's abrupt forfeit during the final stage. Even with that hanging over their heads, it was clear that everyone at least enjoyed the tournament.

As for Naruto… well, he was just glad this whole thing was over. He and Akane had not had sex since leaving Konoha. It was enough to make him regret ever agreeing to participate in the Chunin Exams.

Oh, well. He would just have to make up for lost times when they got back home.

I can't say I'm 100% pleased with my Chunin Exam. I feel like the battles should have been more epic, but I was trying to keep things from getting too crazy as well. Since everyone fighting with the exception of Naruto, Akane, Gara, and Team Akiha are only genin, I didn't want them to seem too powerful. At the same time, I really wish I had gone all out and made crazy epic battles.

Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed this chapter. The Chunin Exams have now come to an end, and with it, the updates for Ten-Tailed Wolf—for a while. I'm actually going to take a break from the fan fiction. I need to get back to my original stories, but once I've got my original stuff out of the way, I'll choose another fanfic to update.

Speaking of, if anyone would like to support my writing, I've got a fantasy series out now. Arcadia's Ignoble Knight volume 1 is available on paperback and kindle, and volume 2 is on pre-order. These books are available at any online retailer: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books a Million, ITunes, Kobo... and so on.

Arcadia's Ignoble Knight: The Sorceress of Ashtown Part I

Arcadia's Knight Academy is the premier school for young men hoping to become a Sorceress's Knight. Only nobles, people with power and prestige, are allowed within these hallowed grounds—which explains why Caspian Ignis del Sol is hated by everyone. He's not a noble, or of even slightly noble lineage.

As payment for being enrolled in the academy, Caspian is sometimes given tasks to perform that take him outside of the academy walls. This time, his job is to deliver a letter to a Sorceress living in Ashtown, but when the train that he's riding on is attacked by a mysterious band of thugs in cloaks, he'll find that there is a whole lot more to this quest than he first imagined.

Arcadia's Ignoble Knight: The Sorceress of Ashtown Part II

Caspian has made contact with the sorceress who resides in Ashtown, but Erica Demonica de Angelo is nothing like he expected. Arrogant. Narcissistic. Rude. She is everything that he despises, and now he's being forced to protect her. With disaster waiting around every corner, a clumsy but cute maid, a masochistic knight, the threat from an assassin looming over his head, and, of course, Erica herself, Caspian will need to hone all of his skill, strength, and wit if he wants to survive this precarious situation alive and sane.