Chapter 28

Naruto was huddling down in the laboratory, having chosen to not hang around with the other Jonin commanders as they awaited their apprentices' results. He had too much to do as it was, working with a frantic, almost desperate speed as he tossed a large scroll to the side, half-snarling as he looked over the new one in order to see what, if anything, he had missed. It gnawed on his mind, made him even more insane than he no doubt already was as he realized he was hyperventilating. Sinking down on a chair, he eventually came to put his hands over his face.

He was doing well. He knew he was doing well. No matter what Orochimaru cackled about inside his mind he knew that objectively he was in a good position. Sakura was ready, Kimiko as well. Both his charges would be able to face what lay ahead of them.

"A snivelling fangirl and a little idiot," Orochimaru purred. "Certainly your proudest achievements."

False; Kimiko was brash and sometimes naïve, true, but not truly idiotic, she was canny when pushed and could produce quite deep insights. Sakura's adoration of him didn't cloud her judgement much beyond what one could expect from a twelve-year-old. Naruto intoned silently this to himself, remembering that despite all other things he still had his logic. Even if things were counter-intuitive they could still be true. Orochimaru's poison was one of warped perspectives but X was always X no matter the perspective. He took deep, calming breaths to steady himself and opened his eyes to look down on the scroll once more. Tracing the letters on it with his finger, he kept breathing deeply but steadily as he studied it and arrived at the conclusion he hated to reach but which nevertheless was the only objective one. He had done everything correct. It made him almost articulate a thought aimed at Orochimaru about this point going to him but he didn't, refusing to indulge the ghost in his head by acknowledging its presence.

What he had done was something splendid in and of itself, siphoning the Kyuubi's power through the Dead Demon Consuming Seal and into his own creation, the Gates of Heaven and Earth Seal. It used a bit of his knowledge, some of the Uzumaki secrets and lastly a whole lot of his newly gained knowledge of Kimiko's physiology. The results had not been fully field tested yet but that was what these exams were for. And they would work, one could babble invectives until the world fell apart but that didn't change the statistics. 100% were always 100%. Period.

Something moving in the corner of his eye made him look to the side and see that he was not alone. Another was here with him now but thankfully it was Kagehebi, the small, black snake having slithered up one of the legs of the table and hissed slowly as it looked at him. The dead eyes of the serpent showed nothing as Naruto lowered his hands to look at the creature.

"Your apprentice has conquered the second exam," it hissed, Naruto blinking to himself. Already? Throwing a quick look at the watch, he found himself grimacing when seeing that it was early afternoon. He had been down here for over a day then...

"How long did it take for her?" Naruto asked, trying to not betray how unbalanced he still was. No doubt the snakes already knew but Naruto refused to admit it nevertheless.

"Two days and thirteen hours," Kagehebi said, "She decided to wait until the best teams had cleared the forest to take her pick of the weaklings. Her reason as given to your assistants was that she didn't want to 'wear herself out against the best'." Naruto couldn't help but smile widely, triumphantly, at this. Excellent... no, amazing! Everything went so well with Sakura that Naruto didn't dare believe he actually was getting that much of a break. His brilliant little jewel of an apprentice was shining like a star right now.

"And Kimiko?" He asked after a while, savouring the pride in his apprentice and feeling how Orochimaru's voice actually fell silent.

"Seven hours later," Kagehebi hissed amusedly, "Hers and several other teams ended up in a battle royale deep in the woods. I counted four teams all in all being knocked out of the exams due to crossing the Ace Team's path."

"Is anything revealed about her new abilities?" Naruto asked. That would be annoying to say the least. After all he had gone through to keep it under wraps he'd really prefer if it wasn't revealed

"No," Kagehebi told Naruto to his delight. "Her teammates and she were able to handle everything thrown at them with little trouble. None of them were killed or even maimed." Naruto couldn't help but throw his head back and laugh at this. Somehow so many more things were much more funny in his worn, frayed state right now and the way Kagehebi had dismissed everything that wasn't getting killed or maimed as "little trouble" amused him deeply.

"Where are they now?" he asked after recovering. He looked to the snake with a deranged smirk on his lips and a glow in his eyes. His two jewels were shining so brightly and his chest was about to burst with pride. And now there was a full month before they'd be expected to fight in the final exams, there was so much to be done!

"Resting before the upcoming preliminary fights," Kagehebi said and Naruto blinked. Preliminary? "Many teams made it through the exams, there will be matches to determine who'll reach the third exam." Naruto felt a sudden stab of worry and stood up, Orochimaru cackling in his head once more. "You will go?"

"I refuse to show my hand that early," he said, eyes narrowed. "One month will be too much time for people to adapt to what I've trained them in!" He spun around to head for the door, only pausing when he caught a glimpse of his sensei in the mirror he passed by. Only it wasn't Orochimaru he realized and came to a halt upon this. Orochimaru didn't have blonde hair. Stopping completely, Naruto looked at his own reflection with a sinking feeling in his guts. Was this what he had been transformed into by the stress of the latest weeks? Looking at the reflection, he felt a wave of revulsion and turned to walk into the small toilet nearby. There, he turned on the lights and began to clean himself up. He had always prided himself on being well presented. Order and cleanliness mentally and physically was his preference, how had he let himself slip this much?

"Oh aren't you the most precious little princess Naruto-kun?" Orochimaru cooed as Naruto combed and straightened out his hair. Thankfully he at least showered still but the rest was a mess. "Hoping to impress the ladies perhaps? Missing the embrace of that mist whore?" Naruto paused for a second, feeling the rage well up in him at how he referred to Mei, but he refused to comment on it and instead kept working on his appearance. "Because a whore she was, dear Naruto-kun, bedding you so that she'd get another tool in her negotiations with Konoha. And you, my ignorant little apprentice, swallowed her lies in one, needy bite." Naruto kept gritting his teeth as he worked, efficiently and expediently cleaning up his appearance and doing everything in his power to not bite. Even as the bile welled up inside him and he felt a desire, almost need, to throttle Orochimaru somehow, he didn't do anything about it and instead spun around, his hair back in its normal ponytail and a splash of water washing the worst of the exhaustion out of his face. Looking up, he seemed back to normal bar the murderous look in his eyes. Irrelevant at this point he thought and left the hidden laboratory. Orochimaru's cackling in his head only made him further and further livid, however silent said anger was.

Konoha was sunny as always, precious few signs of the ongoing exams visible amongst the populace. Perhaps the group of Kusa genin he saw walking through the streets with a defeated, angry look on their faces. But other than that, nothing out of the ordinary. He didn't know what he had expected honestly. Something off perhaps, something different to mark the effect his isolation had had on the village. A preposterous thought really, but it was still there as he walked along the streets. People didn't pay too much notice of him and the few who did soon looked away. People remembered his clash with Minato. That was objectively good, no denying that, but all the same it vexed him.

"Why would it vex you?" Orochimaru asked, "To see what Konoha truly thinks of you, beneath that thin veil of politeness, isn't that a good thing?" Naruto didn't reply even as the question made him slowly doubt inside. Was there actually a truth in that he found himself wondering, deciding however that he was being too emotional, too influenced by Orochimaru, to make clear judgements there. He therefore didn't bother with it, finding whatever Konoha thought of him massively irrelevant considering his mission and purpose.

And yet fate was not done playing its cruel game with him he thought as he rounded a corner and bumped into, of all possible people, his mother. The woman came to freeze as she saw him, the sudden shock and naked emotion blazing in her eyes. It was almost painful to see Naruto thought as he realized, in one fell swoop, that Minato had not told even Kushina what they had planned. His mother all of a sudden stood in front of him, all her shame and longing blazing in her eyes. She looked surprised to see him, like she had given up on even laying eyes on her, and Naruto felt his emotions well up, only this time they weren't as dark as before, only regretting the entire situation he was in. She made a small move towards him, an attempt to muster a smile, a hand raised in greeting. For a split-second the hesitant greeting was clear, implied and only barely begun though it was, and the sincerity was so immensely obvious. It was intense, it was enough that he almost slipped. Yet he had a role and he played it therefore, brushing past her with a raised hand and one word on his lips.

"No," he said with a heavy voice, a voice carrying an entire battering ram of faked emotions. He shot her down before she could take off, making it clear that she had nothing to gain by addressing him. A frown to her smile, narrowed eyes to her raised eyebrows, a hand cutting off her before she could say anything. The meaning he served her was clear. 'I do not want to talk to you, I do not want anything to do with you.' He slapped it straight in her face and left her behind without a second glance, reaching training field 44, the forest of death, within ten minutes. Well there, he exploded into motion, leaping up into the trees and beginning into it with a blinding speed.

All of a sudden he was eager to see what Sakura and Kimiko could deliver and therefore shot through the woods like an arrow launched from a giant bow. Only a few creatures, if any, could even follow him. One particular giant lizard took his passing by as an invitation to snack on him, its giant tongue shooting out to try to ensnare him, yet Naruto sliced the appendage in two, sending a crescent of wind-chakra with the Kusanagi straight towards it which brought about the end of the offending animal in a second. Its blood sprayed over the forest, Naruto already dozen of meters away, landing in front of the tower in the middle of the forest only about a minute later.

Pushing his way inside, he was met with a pair of chuunin watching the door. The two startled at his sudden appearance and Naruto looked to them, an instant sense of disgust coming up inside him at how they suddenly seemed hesitant, almost afraid of him.

"The preliminary matches," he said heavily, "Where are they?" One of the chuunin pointed at a door that lay up a flight of stairs, Naruto giving them a nod before he passed them by and up the stairs. The tower was old, decrepit and only partially cleaned up. Reminiscent of the sewers really, a place of scavengers and rats he thought, opening the door and coming out on the walkway above the large chambers where, from the looks of it, the preliminaries were fought. At the moment Tsubaki Zaku and Aburame Shino were staring down each other, Naruto leaning on the railing in silence without paying too much to the other spectators as he studied the situation.

Zaku stood staring at Shino with, simply put, rage on his face, rage and helplessness. Shino meanwhile was as cold as his clan tended to be. They had been staring at each other for a few seconds when Zaku snarled and raised both his hands towards Shino to fire his air-blasts when a voice cut through the air.

"Zaku, no!" Guren's voice yelled out loud, the boy freezing in place and Naruto gritting his teeth. He did not want to hear that voice right now. "Your compressors are blocked! You'll blow your damn arms off!" The look on Zaku's face told Naruto all he needed to know, Namely that Zaku knew that yet had been ready to do it anyway. The young genin, a veteran of the battle of Otogakure, ended up slowly sinking to the floor, head lowered in shame as his fingers dug into the stone beneath his hands. The winner of this round, Aburame Shino, someone who had not even seen one large-scale engagement thus far in his life, raised a hand to retrieve his bugs as the proctor, none other than Hayate gave him the victory. Naruto couldn't help but smirk joylessly at it. How utterly humiliating for the scion of a new Konoha clan to be defeated in such a manner. Zaku had been ready to maim himself to avoid it.

"Even someone like Zaku's been dulled so utterly," Orochimaru remarked. "Truly Konoha's done him good," the man said sarcastically, Naruto ignoring it as his presence first now was noted by a bystander, one who didn't have the sense to leave him alone. Sarutobi Asuma came up to him, a small smile on his bearded face.

"Come to watch your apprentice Naruto-san?" he asked, leaning against the railing as he looked down on the field of battle. He smiled at Shino as the boy looked up to him before looking to Naruto again. "Her number hasn't come up yet. I think a lot of people are eager to see what she can do now. Knowing you it'll be quite a lot," he added with a wry smile. Asuma was one of those ever-pleasant types, easygoing, calm and dependable. Right now Naruto felt his skin crawl at the man's presence.

"I must say, that was quite a brutal treatment of the Tsubaki boy," Naruto remarked evenly, "Is it a personal vendetta from Shino's side or is that Tsubaki antipathy that widely spread?" Asuma grimaced a bit at this, taking a small puff of his cigarette before replying.

"Most probably something of Shino's," he said, "I think there's some antipathy since the academy between the two. I've no details but I think Zaku was... less than impressed by the Aburame."

"And his big mouth got him in trouble," Naruto rolled his eyes. Once a fool always a fool he thought, honestly more interested in the screen that was starting to randomly select the two new fighters. Sadly the match that came was fantastically uninteresting, the Hyuuga heiress squaring off against a branch clan member, Neji if he recalled correctly. Having seen the juuken plenty enough before, Naruto chose to only idly watch and instead locked eyes across the platform with Sakura, who was approaching him now. She came up and bowed her head respectfully. Somewhat dusty, she nevertheless looked in good shape from what he could tell. "How are you doing?" he demanded of her.

"Well thus far master," she said, giving him a quick, concise report that matched what Kagehebi had told him. Naruto added in some small questions to probe her reasoning and choices and Sakura's replies were satisfactory to say the least. He therefore put a hand on her shoulder and leaned in.

"Your next task is to do what Shino did," he whispered, "Make your opponent submit, don't knock him out, have him voluntarily surrender." Sakura looked up at him, her eyes wide in shock. Naruto could only smirk grimly at it. She had been confident up until now, now she was doubting her ability to handle it again. Good, he didn't need an arrogant apprentice. Leaning back again, he looked down towards the match. It had ended much like he had guessed, with Hinata being defeated. Admittedly he hadn't expected Neji to look that mauled upon winning and from the look on the winner's face he hadn't expected it either.

"Impressive," Asuma remarked, Naruto giving a non-committal sound as he looked to the board again to see Tsubaki Dosu's and Akimichi Chouji's names come up. This might be a bit more interesting he thought as Dosu leaped into the arena, Chouji needing almost to be coaxed down into it by his sensei. Naruto couldn't help but notice just how coldly enraged Dosu looked and he looked between the two combatants before he realized something.

"Oh..." he said, understanding what was going on. Dosu had just seen his family member utterly humiliated and right now he stood in the ring with a team member of the guilty party. He looked down into the arena, dispassionately thinking that this would become an ugly affair.

And so it did. Dosu charged Chouji instantly, the sound projector on his arm ringing as he lashed out in wide, sweeping moves from which Chouji had to back-pedal in half panic. The poor Akimichi boy didn't see he was being driven against the wall and when his back hit it, Dosu's strikes fell. Naruto could see the horrified looks around at how the Tsubaki genin unleashed a furious barrage of blows against the boy, punch after punch hitting and sending shockwaves through his opponent's body, shockwaves that ripped at the skin and deeper. Naruto saw it clearly and almost winced. Dosu was enraged indeed if his brutality was anything to go by. After nearly a full minute of blows Dosu stepped back to look at Chouji, the boy leaning unsteadily against the wall, before he raised the sound projector and pushed a button on it.

The result was immense, Chouji gave a sudden, massive spasm before he fell to the floor, puking uncontrollably. As the Akimichi boy fell down, the vomit flooding forth from his mouth, Dosu turned around to look at Shino, raising two fingers to point at his own eyes before pointing at Shino and making a slicing motion over his throat with the thumb. Behind him Chouji just kept puking, his body unable to stop. Even at the medic nins came up he kept vomiting and vomiting, stopping only when he was rendered unconscious with acupuncture. Naruto looked at the boy was carried off past his teammates. Shino didn't show anything resembling a reaction to it and Kin only slapped Shino over the head.

"That's what happens when you show off," she whispered coldly to him. Naruto could tell from reading her lips. "Chunky's condition is on your head, Bug-boy, hope you're happy." He raised an eyebrow at this and looked to Asuma.

"Work in progress, this team of yours," he asked mildly, Asuma not replying. He evidently didn't take it well. Naruto didn't care however, seeing how Sakura's name came up now, Sakura's and Kiba's. He raised an eyebrow again at this. That was not a match-up he had hoped for, the Inuzuka were monsters in close combat, relentless predators. He looked to Sakura impassively however. "Remember what I said," he told her, looking down to the arena to see what would come now.

Sakura walked into the arena, realizing her heart was pounding now. With her two teammates having dropped out and left her alone in the race and now matched up against Kiba-kun of all people she was not happy, and that was before the mission her master just had given her. Make Kiba somehow surrender? How would she even do that?! She stepped down into the ring with an attempt to look nonplussed about the whole thing, but her mind was running at top speed to figure out what to do. Kiba, meanwhile, was just as she remembered him. Cocky, confident and boisterous.

"Sucks to be you Sakura-chan," he said with a grin as he cracked his knuckles, Akamaru walking silently beside him. "Maybe you shoulda stayed a real ninja instead of going for bookworm, hell you might even have had a chance then." The sting of anger came quickly to Sakura now as Kiba trash-talked her. The Inuzuka boy didn't stop though. "Really, just drop this, call it quits, we both know how it's gonna end, don't we?" he asked, smirking at her as he rolled his shoulders and his neck.

"Fight!" Hayate yelled now and Kiba looked at her, raising one eyebrow and waiting. Sakura only frowned at him now though, raising her hands and assuming a stance. Kiba's response was to roll his eyes before he attacked. Like someone had flipped a switch he charged, his legs carrying him swiftly towards Sakura and his hands flying out to the sides as chakra began to glow around them. Sakura took one deep breath, focusing on calming down as Kiba reached her and unleashed a flurry of claw-strikes towards her.

He was good, Sakura could tell why too. Predatory instinct. He struck without any kind of hesitation, it was the blow of a predator out for blood, one carrying none of the hesitation another human might show. Instinct and bloodthirst, however limited it was, made her have to focus on keeping up her defence. She began to twist and weave around, remembering the lessons her master had drilled into her. Gritting her teeth, she moved as fast as she could around the claw blows, receiving only nicks and scratches at best. Sakura, meanwhile, waited through the storm, waited for the right moment. When it came and Kiba's claw swipes ended up making him overextend himself a little, she bent backwards and used the force to send a rising kick towards his jaw, forcing him to leap back as she vaulted away from him as well, landing on her feet again and coming to face him.

"Is that all you can do?!" she asked, grinning a bit now equally much from fear as excitement. She was actually doing it! She was holding off Kiba right from the start! But how to make him surrender? The guy was fearless and stubborn both, she knew that, she'd have to somehow to strike where he feared to be struck... but how?

The answer hit her right there. She blinked, feeling something cold in her gut as she wondered just how she was going to accomplish THAT of all things. Kiba, meanwhile, had raised an eyebrow. He didn't seem to have expected her to be that good and Sakura made sure to keep moving, remaining on her toes easiest that way.

"So you can dodge, big whoop," he said, making a seal before he got down on all fours, growling a little. "Dodge this," he said as his canines grew, his face became less human, his voice more bestial. A hue of animalism came over him now as he charged again, this time even faster. Sakura leaped away again pulling out several kunai and launching them at him in an attempt to drive him off yet Kiba avoided them all, lashing out against her and managing to scratch her pretty bad. And she was supposed to defeat him without resorting to violence?! Another scratch tore up her tunic and she had to roll away from the guy, barely dodging a kick towards her head. She couldn't dodge the next blow however, having instead to roll with it and coming to tumble across the floor, ending up face down almost five meters away from Kiba.

What was she going to do? What was she missing? It had to be something obvious, something she could work around. Sakura lay there frantically thinking as Kiba's voice could be heard. She didn't even register what he said though, being too focused on figuring this out. Her mind focused to becoming as razor sharp as ninja wire, attacking the problem as she ran everything she knew and had been told through her head, moving first when Hayate spoke up.

"The winner..." the man said right before Sakura stood up, getting up to a kneeling position before she pushed himself up.

"Now I know," she said, actually smirking somewhat. Of course! That was how she could do it! Kiba was one massive double-edged blade, that was his strength and weakness both. "Is that really all you can do Kiba? Right now it's your stench that knocks me over more than your blows. Seriously, I know your family is big on dogs, but do you have to smell like one too?" she asked, trying to provoke him. It seemed to work, Kiba growled now and charged, Sakura moving fast. She carried a whole lot of things on her, one of her favourites being the small bottle she carried on her left hip which she pulled out as she backed away, uncorked and swung in front of her, the opening towards Kiba. A small cloud of smoke came from the bottle, Kiba not able to stop before he careened into it. Sakura used this, stopping her retreat and sending a low sweeping kick towards him just as he came out, making him fall to the ground. Her aim for the legs ended up missing however. Thanks to her newfound flexibility she was unable to fully aim and ended up striking higher up, between said legs.

Kiba howled now. Not just due to the low blow but also the fact that the cloud in question was filled with ammonia, a chemical whose stench was intense enough to make humans reel. For Kiba right now, it had to be hell on earth. Sakura leaped to her feet again, looking to Kiba to see if she could finish it here. Her master's words stopped her though, damn it, she had to make him surrender!

Kiba looked up now, rage in his eyes. Any restraint was long gone now and he called Akamaru to him, the dog leaping up on his back where he stood on all fours. Tossing a pill to the dog, who ate it and quickly grew in size as well as turned dark red, Kiba growled as he charged again, Akamaru with him this time. Dog and man both attacked and Sakura for a second wondered which was the more bestial. It was all according to her plan (which she by Kami-sama hoped would work) though so Sakura took it, beginning to fight back as fiercely as she could. Kiba had speed, she had flexibility, and while she wasn't an Inuzuka in close quarters she could at least hold her ground somewhat. She wasn't planning to beat him that way anyhow. She merely waited, and waited. Through the blows and the claw-strikes she waited, through the snarls and the pain, through the blindingly fast combat she patiently waited once more, seeing the opportune moment first after over a minute of ferocious fighting.

She lashed out towards Akamaru, the dog biting her arm, hard, before tearing away and carrying a chunk of skin with it away from her. The yelp that followed made her smile through and she lashed out, managing to drive Kiba away for a second as she reached a kneeling position.

"Surrender!" she screamed, "Or the dog dies!" she added, opening her eyes wide and gritting her teeth in a frantic, adrenaline-fuelled attempt to look intimidating. Kiba, enraged though he was, blinked at this and looked to Akamaru. The dog wasn't on his feet any longer. Instead Hebihisui was wrapped around his throat, hovering its wide open jaw directly over Akamaru's heart. The intense fight stopped now, Kiba shocked out of his fury. "Hebihisui's bite can kill an ox in a minute!" Sakura said now, her voice quivering a bit. "What do you think it'll do to your dog?!"

"You... you... bitch..." Kiba said, the rage returning to his eyes slowly. Sakura held out her hand with the fingers spread.

"Five seconds Kiba!" she snapped frantically, "The match or Akamaru, your call but make it fast! Four! Three!" she began, counting down with a giant lump in her stomach. She couldn't do this. She was bluffing, she couldn't just cold-heartedly kill Kiba's partner. The Inuzuka lived not just with but for their companions, this was tantamount to killing Kiba herself! She trembled, realizing she wouldn't be able to finish the count. Kiba looked to her, slowly lowering himself a bit. This, however, made Naruto-sensei visible behind him and Sakura saw only one thing in his eyes. Pride, glee, joy. Master loved what he was seeing, was amazed by it. He who had been shafted by everything and everyone finally got what he wanted, and Sakura felt her hesitation melting away at the sight.

'I'm sorry Kiba, I've got a debt to pay,' she thought. "Two!" she yelled now, eyes narrowing as her voice became ice cold. "One..." she said, holding up just one finger now and staring at Kiba with an almost challenge for him to do it. All Kiba did, however, was raise his hand.

"I give up!" he yelled, the rage once again gone. Fear and worry was all his eyes held. The bravado and cockiness was gone, fear for his partner's life all there was to see in him now. Sakura looked away from him as she made a signal for Hebihisui to return to her as Hayate spoke up again.

"The winner is Haruno Sakura!" he called out. Sakura's own partner came crawling up her leg to wrap herself around Sakura's neck much like a necklace as Sakura turned away and headed for the stairs. She felt sick, like she just had eaten something unpleasant. The thrill of victory was nowhere to be found, only a sinking sensation that she didn't like at all. But master was happy, that was something at least. She'd given him reason to be proud of her. She wasn't useless, she was strong. She had shown him that she was worthy, that she could learn everything he had to offer, that he didn't need to consider her some tertiary concern but that she deserved his full attention. So that was okay. As long as she never again was all but forgotten by him she was content.

Naruto just couldn't stop smiling as he watched Sakura walk away. A wide, triumphant smile was plastered all over his face as he watched his brilliant little apprentice left her defeated opponent behind. He raised his hands to begin applauding her slowly, feeling a sense of glee at how she had figured out how to do it so fast. When Sakura came up the stairs he walked over to her and put a hand on her shoulder, actually smiling at her.

"Well done," he told her lowly. "This is what I hoped for when taking you on. Today you touched excellence Haruno Sakura. Keep this up and you will become my equal one day." The praise was a bit more overwhelming than he had planned but he gave it anyway. Mainly because he could almost feel how it vexed Orochimaru in the back of his head. The naked emotions Sakura's eyes showed at his praise made him twitch, reminded him how different she truly was to him after all. She had the wits, the raw intelligence, the analytical ability, but not the emotional numbness. Letting go of her now, he heard the sound of footsteps and looked up to see Kimiko come running towards him.

"Oniisan!" she greeted him as she came up, "when did you come here?" she asked. Naruto noticed she looked a LOT more dishevelled but not the least exhausted. Of course she wouldn't be...

"Since Zaku's match," he told her dryly, "you need to pay better attention," he added. Kimiko looked down into the ground now, embarrassment radiating off her. Naruto rolled his eyes at it, thinking that just like Sakura, Kimiko might have grown in ability but not in maturity.

"Because you refuse to break the little brat," Orochimaru pointed out. "She could become a great weapon if you didn't waffle around so much."

"Yes yes..." Naruto thought absently in response. He was in too good a mood to care overly much about the old snake in the back of his head. A new match came up now, Naruto being unable to pay too much attention to it as Kimiko began to, in her usual manner, bombard him with an eager recap of how they had done in the exams thus far.

"Did you know the Ame nins use needles, almost like you oniisan? Me and Sasuke and Konohamaru fought against some of them, a guy who used umbrellas spitting needles and he made it rain with them, is that why they're called Ame, ame as in rain, since they make it rain needles?" she babbled happily, Naruto eventually reaching out and pinching her lips together to stop her. Unprepared for this, Kimiko's cheeks ended up inflating from the air still rushing out of her mouth, and her eyes widened in shock.

"Enough," he told her as he let go again, "Watch the matches, you'll face off against these people later on, study them and try to find their weaknesses instead." He turned to watch the intensive fight between a Suna and a Konoha kunoichi he couldn't remember the name of. The match was fast-paced and brutal, ending in a resounding defeat for the young Konoha kunoichi. Her thrown weapons were no match for the Suna kunoichi's wind techniques. "Conclusion?" he asked Sakura as the konoha kunoichi was carried off.

"Her technique was the wrong kind to deal with wind jutsu," Sakura said. "She didn't have any other way of dealing with a wind user. She should have a more diverse range of techniques."

"Suggestions?" he asked, once again feeling a gleeful pride over his apprentice.

"She should have some kind of close-quarter weapons," Sakura said after a while. "Those chains of hers could have been used to hold onto things and force a way through the wind gusts." Naruto nodded, noticing after a while that Kimiko was giving Sakura a sour glare. Jealousy? Really? He was about to whack Kimiko over the head but held back, thinking he'd probably only exacerbate the situation. Sakura didn't seem to have noticed it anyway so it was no big deal. The new match was determined and Naruto looked to the board to see Kimiko's name show up, Kimiko and Nara Shikamaru's.

Kimiko leaped into the ring almost immediately, her eagerness radiating off her and standing in massive contrast, Naruto noted, to Shikamaru. The guy seemed to almost flop down the stairs to the arena, looking more like a victim of the sleeping sickness than a shinobi getting ready for battle. Naruto pursed his lips however, knowing that the Nara might seem lethargic but there was a reason they were over-represented amongst Konoha's strategists. Talk about a match of total polar opposites... he leaned forward to see just what would happen now.

"You ready for this, huh Shikamaru-kun?" Kimiko asked with a grin as she bobbed up and down on her feet, hands already raised to her guard. Shikamaru stood slouched together meanwhile, looking at his opponent with a tired look on his face.

"Troublesome..." he muttered and rolled his eyes, "Yeah yeah, let's just do this," he continued as Hayate started the match. Kimiko charged instantly and Naruto sighed, covering his eyes as he knew what would happen now. Rubbing the bridge of his nose, he looked up after a few seconds and saw Kimiko standing stock still, having been caught in Shikamaru's shadow jutsu completely. Shikamaru, holding his hands together, had ensnared the girl with his family's signature jutsu completely. Her shadow was controlled and through that, Kimiko was controlled.

Struggling against the jutsu, Kimiko nevertheless was forced back step by step. "Sorry Kimiko," Shikamaru said with the same careless attitude. "When you rush in like that you'll get burned." Kimiko mimicked his movements, backing away with the exact same walk despite the obvious signs that she struggled to regain control of herself. It was hopeless though. After a minute Shikamaru gave a small smirk before he threw himself backwards, head first, and landed in a bridge with his hands and feet only touching the ground. Kimiko wasn't able to follow all the way however, her head impacting with the wall behind her with a loud thunk.

Naruto shook his head his sister slumped down against the wall, seemingly unconscious. A fine feather in Shikamaru's hat he supposed, having defeated a member of the Ace Team. Looking towards Sasuke and Konohamaru, however, he noticed that the two guys only seemed to be waiting for something. Looking towards Kimiko, he noticed how she was, despite the blow to her head, she was getting up again. Impressive, in a brutish way, but futile as far as he could tell. Shikamaru turned around and sent out his shadow towards Kimiko again just as the girl began to walk forward.

Yet she didn't stop. Even as the shadows grabbed hold of hers, silently and invisibly ensnaring her, she didn't stop moving. Naruto heard the gasps from the spectators now, the silence otherwise being almost oppressive now as there were no sounds of fighting. He himself pushed himself up from the railing, brow furrowed as he looked down towards Kimiko in surprise. It was then that he sensed it. A small tinge in the air, a quiet vibration, more like a memory than anything, but he nevertheless could identify the quivering sensation in an instant.

The chakra of the Kyuubi no Kitsune was subtly permeating the air in the chamber. Naruto looked down now, managing to catch a glimpse of Kimiko's eyes, her red eyes. Now a smile spread over Naruto's face again. Success! Kimiko was pulling out the Kyuubi's chakra finally! The humiliation must have helped her wrest control over the bijuu's chakra and finally she was using it, albeit in a very limited fashion. Nevertheless, this was just the breakthrough he had been hoping for!

Shikamaru, horrified by the fact that his shadow jutsu didn't work, ended up breaking his seal and Kimiko acted instantly when the shadow jutsu fell apart, charging him with a sudden explosion of movement that surprised even Naruto. The young Nara boy, however, raised his hand as quickly as he could now, yelling out.

"I yield!" he called out, Kimiko grinding to a halt just before her fist impacted with Shikamaru's face. Literally only inches from having sucker punched Shikamaru, the girl stopped. Her face showed her surprise, and then her annoyance.

"The winner is Namikaze Kimiko!" Hayate called out as Kimiko lowered her hands.

"Really?!" she asked now, a bit of a whine in her voice.

"I had 53 scenarios for beating you, none of them addressing how I was gonna do it if my jutsu doesn't work on you. How'd you do that anyway?" Shikamaru looked just as annoyed at the moment, frowning a bit at her. Kimiko grinned however, waggling her eyebrows at him.

"Secreeeeet," she sing-songed as she turned around and skipped towards the stairs again, giving her teammates a cheeky grin and a victory sign. She gave Naruto one as well and Naruto couldn't help but smile dryly as she skipped up the stairs. The girl really thought that was a great achievement of her, didn't she? As Kimiko came up to him and balanced on her heels, leaning forward, he met her eyes with a neutral expression. "Pretty sweet, huh?" she asked, Naruto now deciding to bop her over the head.

"That was just as brutish as I've resigned to expect from you," he informed her. "You still run in, you still slug it out. You're no more refined than a thrown rock and I do not care if you can muscle your way through what is at hand at the moment. Sooner rather than later, an opponent who uses his brain will kill you because you didn't think." Putting a finger against her forehead now, he glared into her eyes as he leaned forward as well. "You've got something in here, I know that for a fact. Use it or you'll die! Two of your teammates are able tacticians, have nothing imprinted upon you?" He asked her, knocking his finger on the forehead now and pointing towards the arena below. The display had chosen the new combatants, Sarutobi Konohamaru and Uchiha Sasuke, and Naruto ended up knocking Kimiko on the head again, pointing towards the arena. "Look and learn," he said, the tone in his voice brokering no back-talk. Kimiko rubbed her forehead, a tear threatening to leak out from her eye, but as Naruto didn't seem to be paying her any attention she turned to look at the match as well, albeit with a frown on her face.

Naruto couldn't help but dryly smile at the sight of the two young ace genin in the arena. Sasuke was cool, focused and calm. He stood calmly bobbing on his feet, fists balled and raised as he watched his opponent. Konohamaru, meanwhile, was trembling with emotional energy. He wore his heart on his sleeve one might say, the need for him to win radiating off him. Naruto had a feeling that if this would turn ugly it'd be due to Konohamaru, who stood in a low stance and had his hands raised somewhat higher.

"Begin!" Hayate commanded and Konohamaru was off like a thunderbolt, charging Sasuke with wide eyes and gritted teeth, the face of mania. Twirling his left hand, he lashed out and a telescope-staff snapped out to its full length. With a surprising amount of skill he lashed out towards Sasuke. It was a flurry of blows delivered with pinpoint accuracy and ferocious speed. Sasuke avoided though, dancing around the blows even as several of them grazed him. Nevertheless driven back, the Uchiha prodigy had to get away by dodging to the side and using Konohamaru's momentum against him. The Sarutobi genin flew past Sasuke, who darted in the opposite direction, made a vault and landed on his feet. Wiping his mouth, where a small bruise was forming, he smirked through the sweat, no doubt cold sweat. His Sharingan was already active.

Konohamaru didn't stop though, merely ran forward and using the staff as a vaulting pole to launch himself into the air, where he hit the wall and pushed away to come to fly through the air above Sasuke, where he flashed through seals as he slowly rotated, ending up face down a few meters above Sasuke. There, he spat out a torrent of small fireballs that flew down towards Sasuke, who ended up disappearing in a cloud of fire as the swarm of firebolts struck all around. Konohamaru wasn't done though, sending out a kunai towards the railing on the walkway in the direction he had leaped from, a shuriken Naruto realized was tied to a ninja wire. As the wire wrapped itself around the railing Konohamaru was brought to a halt and he fell downwards now, directly into the flames with his staff raised high. A scream, enraged such, resounded through the air as he brought it down with massive force and struck right in the middle of the already dying flames which killed them completely.

Naruto stood with both eyebrows raised. Reckless, brutal and over-the-top, but he would be damned if that wasn't precisely the kind of skill he'd expect from a purported ace genin. He also noted now that the shape that seemed to have been Sasuke was in truth a pile of rocks. Rock replacement was hard he thought as he looked up to see that Sasuke had escaped in the most audacious direction, directly upwards. Silently, he fell down towards Konohamaru, who only turned around when he saw the shadow. Spinning around, he blocked Sasuke's kunai stab with his staff and now a furious exchange began. Sasuke's two kunai versus Konohamaru's staff. The Uchiha kept himself as close as he could, denying Konohamaru the full range of his staff's techniques, but the Sarutobi didn't lack answer and kept Sasuke at bay enough that the kunai couldn't reach him. He looked to Kimiko, who was staring wide-eyed at her two teammates.

"That's what I meant," he told her dryly before looking back to see that the two genin were at a stalemate, kunai pushing against staff as their faces were only inches from each other. The two were muttering something to each other, Naruto couldn't hear, but he noticed how Sasuke was smirking while Konohamaru was still enraged. Sasuke loved this, Naruto could tell, but Konohamaru was still focused on winning beyond all. How interesting Naruto thought, looking to Sakura for a second. The girl's face was completely focused on the match, her brow furrowed and her lips slowly moving as she was silently studying what had happened.

No, he decided after a second that his apprentice still was the best. As fascinating and indeed alluring the prospect on training either of those two young aces down there was, Sakura was his and she was more than just a fighter, something he valued above all other qualities. Those two bruisers down there would blossom either way, Sakura was his to carve into a perfect diamond.

The two young genin suddenly threw their weapons aside almost simultaneously and dove in, beginning a brutal exchange of fists and kicks. Once again the difference stood clear. Konohamaru was a bruiser, swinging his elbows and his knees as ably as any other weapons, struck to wound and maim as much as anything else. Naruto knew his tutor was Ebisu, a by-the-books perfectionist, and thought that the man must be despairing at the sight. Sasuke meanwhile fought in an almost classic manner, perhaps with some level of Uchiha audacity. When you could decipher the moves of your opponent you could afford audacious moves. That probably was what would end this battle too though, Sasuke had full view of Konohamaru and his Sharingan was active. Konohamaru had to know that though, so why was he doing this?

As it turned out, Konohamaru just kept going. He simply did not relent. Even as the sweat ran off him, his breath turned ragged and his fists trembled he kept going. And Sasuke, meanwhile, felt the very same exhaustion as well. His eyes were still reading Konohamaru perfectly, but bit by bit his body became unable to keep up. Konohamaru's grin turned more and more triumphant as he kept going, furiously punching at his opponent with manic ferocity. After a while Sasuke was unable to keep up, raising his fist to block but being too slow. Konohamaru's blow hit him straight in the gut, the solar plexus more precisely. Sasuke flew back now, tumbled along the ground and Konohamaru kept going, leaping at him to finish it but then suddenly he came to a complete halt. Wide eyed, Konohamaru looked around and first now realized his situation. He was wrapped in ninja wires, several wires holding his arms, even more his chest and several his legs. Naruto smirked, thinking that in his berserker rage Konohamaru had failed to note the many wires Sasuke were throwing out around him and indeed ended up ensnared by his own blind aggression.

"Give up," Sasuke said, getting up as he panted. He was exhausted, but not broken, and Konohamaru only ended up getting more and more tied up as he snarled, struggling against the wires. "You're not getting out of that Konohamaru, you know it."

"Screw you," Konohamaru growled, staring with not just rage now, but hatred, at Sasuke. Sasuke got up now, starting towards Konohamaru. "I'm not beaten, not yet!"

"You'll rip yourself to shreds getting out of here!" Sasuke yelled now. "Damn it, don't you see what I mean? This blind aggression of yours, it'll end up killing you."

"DON'T YOU DARE LECTURE ME!" Konohamaru screamed now, "DON'T YOU FUCKING DARE!" he said, starting to strain more and more against the wires. They dug into his skin bit by bit, blood starting to seep from the wounds carved into him as he struggled.

"Konohamaru!" Sasuke yelled, his teammate not listening as he struggled against the wires, which began one by one to snap. In the end, they all snapped and Konohamaru was upon Sasuke, pure rage in his eyes as the blood streaked down the wires in small rivulets. Uncaring, Konohamaru pounced Sasuke, grabbing the sides of his head and squeezing his thumbs into Sasuke's eyes.

"THINK YOU'RE BETTER THAN THE REST OF US YOU UCHIHA FUCK, I'LL TAKE THOSE FUCKING EYES OF YOURS AND WE'LL SEE HOW STUCK-UP YOU ARE BY THEN!" he screamed, Naruto sighing as he covered his face. How utterly pathetic. Konohamaru was way worse off than he had thought. And now Sasuke would pay?

As it turned out, he didn't. A sudden series of cracks broke off Konohamaru's screaming and Naruto looked up to see that Sasuke had managed to twist away Konohamaru's hands, knee him in the face and elbow him in the neck. The young Sarutobi was down, falling unmoving to the floor. Naruto raised an eyebrow, impressed by Sasuke's ability to handle that situation. Also, he glanced to Asuma, whose face showed hid dismay and horror at what he had witnessed. The man's hand was up, covering his mouth.

"The things being abandoned by your own family can do to you," he said mildly, having no respect for Asuma and his abandonment of Konohamaru at the moment. Obviously one might point to the stress Asuma had been under himself and how hard the death of his father had weighed on the elder Sarutobi, but seeing how Konohamaru had become he didn't care. "Come Sakura, we've got things to do," he continued, motioning for Sakura to follow him as he started to walk away. After a while he looked back to Kimiko, who was staring in horror at the scene below where Konohamaru was being carried off by medic nins. "If it wasn't obvious," he said dryly, "It would be the Uchiha you should model yourself on," he told her before turning and leaving with Sakura in tow. The preliminary matches would conclude soon and Naruto didn't care overmuch for the battles coming after this.

A/N: Why hello there everyone. I'm writing this note, actually, to shamelessly promote stuff. I've namely started a couple of new venues of my writing. One of these you can find in the Final Fantasy VII section here on this very site, named "The Commando Project". If there are any FFVII fans out there then please, go take a look. I'm sure you'll like it. What more, for those who enjoyed getting the s**t scared out of them with the gag chapter involving MLP might want to check out my profile for a link to my userpage on Fimfiction, where I've published a couple of small MLP fics I'm personally very proud of. Now with this shameless promotion done, I hoped you liked this chapter, and I'll see you later.