The First Flower of Spring
Down Came God (Part II)
Naruto was canny like a fox, possessed of almost animal instincts that had guided him mostly unharmed through over a decade of unfriendly villagers. So he was well aware of the apprehension of some of his fellow contestants as they congregated on the contestants level to watch the match between Sakura and Kiba.
Kiba had won against Chouji in the match-ups of the second round, but while the cocky bastard strutted around bragging about his quick victory, Naruto had heard Asuma-sensei bribing the exhausted Akamichi to even enter the match at all. So Naruto was less than impressed.
Coupling that with his opponent being Sakura, Naruto was more than a little certain how the match would end. It was the middle he worried about, mostly because while he thought Kiba was irritating, no one deserved to enter a battle with post-Academy Sakura without fair warning. Like, maybe a separate liability contract.
Yep. Right again, he thought with resignation as he watched Temari's smothered flinch. The hard-as-nails kunoichi from the desert seemed to have an unexpected soft spot for the small and furry, which Sakura didn't share. At all. Of course, if Sakura had soft spots, Naruto was unaware of them. Months of being a team had led him to the conclusion that she was like a jewel, which was a comparison he'd never understood to be flattering when applied to girls. Because he took it to mean she was hard and shiny with sharp edges, though she put effort into being a good teammate. And even if her definition of that seemed a bit skewed and she seemed to have to put a unnerving lot of effort into doing things that seemed painfully obvious to him-like being a decent human being-he still liked her better than the dark-haired bastard without a sense of humor.
Sakura's match was over quickly and while he was certain he looked like an idiot, he couldn't help but grin at the stunt she'd obviously stolen from Kakashi-sensei. Who still hadn't showed up. He hadn't had time to ask Sakura-chan if she'd heard at all from Kakashi-sensei during their training period, but he certainly hadn't.
The teacher that Kakashi-sensei had "acquired" for him-Naruto was betting on some form of blackmail being involved, given his response to a test run of a variation of the Sexy no Jutsu-had been an odd duck and his lessons pretty boring, but when he'd remembered the ease with which both his teammates could perform the basic exercises that had almost not seen him graduate, he'd gritted his teeth and stuck it out.
If he had left lasting psychological scars on Ebisu-sensei, well, the ninja should just own up to being a pervert and embrace it. Naruto snickered as he recalled the really excellent expression that the thin, self-important shinobi had made the first time he'd asked him to display his best jutsu.
If Neji had been less of an asshole to Hinata, he might have considered using the Sexy no Jutsu, but pranks lost their shock value when they were repeated too often. And while the Hyuuga looked straight-laced, he could see people's internal organs. A woman's naughty bits probably wouldn't even make him blink.
So he, unlike Sakura-chan, was going into his match without any predetermined plan, but he was quick on his metaphoric feet. As Sakura-chan passed beneath them through the door, he cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, "Good job, Sakura-chan!"
His pink-haired teammate, whose hair seemed to have darkened a shade in their month apart, stepped backward and said politely, "Thank you, Naruto-san. Good luck with your match."
"Gotcha!" Naruto said, flashing her a thumbs up before bounding over the railing and to the stadium floor. "And hey," he said, drawing her attention, "apologize to Kiba and Akamaru."
Sakura frowned, her brows drawing together. "Why?" she asked, tilting her head slightly to one side in inquiry, her braid sliding over her shoulder. "I didn't violate any rules."
"Trust me on this one," he told her cheerfully.
She nodded slowly, then disappeared up the stairs, taking with her his buoyant mood. Sakura had been right, at least partially, about the Neji and Hinata fiasco. He had felt guilty that Hinata had gotten hurt. And no matter how timid Hinata's personality was, she hadn't even really tried to protest that the other Hyuuga was wrong. And while most people believed she was only a shrinking violet, if you overlooked her stuttering while she was doing it, she wasn't one to overlook things that were flat-out wrong.
He sensed clan nastiness was afoot, though of what kind, he had no idea. Still, whatever the clan had done to inspire the wrath of Hyuuga Neji, he was fairly certain Hinata had not personally done him any wrong, but it had been Hinata vomiting blood onto the floor of that concrete battleground.
So, therefore, Neji deserved some comeuppance. And Naruto was perfectly willing to give it to him. He'd even do it without pranking-some people learned from them, others, like Sasuke, just got sulky and pissy. And, well, he'd admit the Hyuuga eyes were a total killjoy from that angle as well.
Naruto scowled at his opponent as Neji looked snottily disaffected from the match. There was absolutely no recognition of him as an equal combatant in those eerie off-white eyes. Just like in Sasuke's eyes, Naruto could see no reflection of his own worth, of his place as a shinobi. He only caught glimpses of it in Kakashi-sensei's eyes, but that felt less personal. He suspected Kakashi-sensei, for all his cool jutsu and lightning-quick battle reflexes, didn't actually see his team that often. 'Cept for Sasuke. But for all the attention he paid to the other young ninja, Naruto wasn't always a hundred percent certain that what Kakashi-sensei thought he saw there was good.
He knew that better than anyone-people paid attention to things they liked and things they were uncomfortable around.
Like Sakura-chan. That made his lips quirk upward into a grin. "If you win this match, you have to fight Sakura-chan next, dontcha?"
Dark brows disappeared beneath his forehead protector. "Planning to lose already?" he asked snidely. "At least the outcome of this match won't be a surprise."
Naruto scoffed. "I should let you win. Sakura would hand your ass to you in a gift-wrapped basket."
"I know," Naruto responded, his grin widening. "I'm awesome. That's why I'll give you a choice. You wanna tell me why you felt like you had to beat Hinata-chan almost to death before I pummel you into the ground or after?"
Neji sneered at that proclamation, but Naruto hadn't expected him to take him up on the offer. "You think you'll even be able to touch me?" Neji taunted.
Naruto very vividly remembered Sakura-chan's nasty habit of countering Sasuke's jutsu with paper bombs, of which he had quite a few tucked in his pouch. That was a no touching required option, but somehow less attractive than the thought of his fists crushing that smug confidence. A small, nagging voice in his brain reminded him that Neji's specialty was taijutsu, but in his mind the focus had shifted from winning the match to proving a point.
He could retake this exam in six months. Hinata could have permanent damage to her heart.
Naruto had paid attention to the lay of the battlefield, but in a straight-up match like this, with only one tree for cover, stealth was pretty hard to come by.
But not impossible. Slight of hand was fundamental to pranking and escaping the consequences of those pranks. The key was that people generally saw what they wanted to see.
With that thought in mind, Naruto formed the handseal for his signature jutsu, littering the ground of the stadium with ten identical copies of himself, all of whom gleefully undertook heckling the Hyuuga, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the fight.
But, just as he'd implied, none of them were able to touch Neji, not even when a triangular formation of Narutoids almost emptied his kunai point attempting to turn the other shinobi into a pincushion. Even as his enveloped the nearest clones and turned them into so much smoke and noise, Naruto sent another wave and then another, keeping up the pretense of mindless attack as he slunk up the trunk of the single tree, very carefully recalling his lessons with Ebisu-sensei.
Scale made things easier for him, he'd learned, like a child first learning to scribble with an oversized pencil. Most shinobi children learned from the opposite end of the spectrum, manipulating what little of their developing chakra was available to them in detailed ways. Since that was how the majority learned, that was how lessons in the Academy were taught. It just didn't work so well for him. He needed broad strokes, the big picture.
If it could be broken down into simple steps, so much the better. If he trained himself to learn the steps, he could link them together so quickly it was almost the same as being able to do a more complex jutsu. For example, he could create clones almost without thought and he'd finally mastered a more basic form of henge under Ebisu-sensei's instruction. So, if he created clones so weak as to be almost negligible and in the instant after had them disguise themselves as leaves in the tree, what did he have?
A very clever trap, waiting to be sprung.
But first, bait. The one issue with replicating himself was that there was no way to communicate with his autonomous copies except through pretty mundane means-he signaled to a clone posted closer to the ground, who whistled shrilly, causing the Narutoids to change their strategy.
Namely, making use of those paper bombs.
Not that he thought any would get through, but Neji could keep up this stalemate until his frustration would overwhelm his planning ability. Naruto needed Neji to close in for the kill to make his move.
He could already tell that Neji wasn't really pleased with how the battle had proceeded so far, some of his long hair coming loose from its bindings and sticking to his cheeks.
One of the Narutoids took the initiative, wrapping its paper bomb around the handle of a discarded kunai, tossing it casually toward the long-haired nin. Even as he began his rotation, the others joined in, attacking from different angles and at different speeds, until Naruto heard an almost literal snap of his patience reaching its end.
Faster than Naruto's eyes could track, the Narutoids were being dispersed, the feedback from so many deaths a little dizzying. But very soon, Neji was glaring at him from below as he sat comforting in the Y of a tree branch.
Naruto grinned. "What makes you think you can touch me?" he mocked.
In a fit of temper, Neji's palm smashed into the trunk of the tree, sending shudders of chakra racing up through it. Several "leaves" drifted to the ground.
"Stop playing games," Neji said coldly.
"Games?" Naruto asked, allowing a little of his own seriousness to peek through. "Was it a game, what you did to Hinata? You'd already won, asshole."
"It's none of your business," Neji said. "And it has nothing to do with this match."
"Yeah? Well, I'm not going to get serious until you tell me what your problem is," Naruto said. "Bet I have more chakra than you do. You're gonna get dizzy before I run out of clones."
Neji frowned. "Your chakra is meaningless if I close off your chakra points."
Naruto shrugged. "I'm up here. You're down there."
"You're going to dodge kunai from up on your bird-perch?"
"You gonna throw kunai? Because so far, you've just shown off your fancy taijutsu. Finger-poke of death," Naruto stabbed the air with his own fingers as he spoke.
Neji frowned deeply at him, but then the edges of his lips quirked upwards rather unnervingly. "I hate to ruin your plan," he said, "but I can see chakra-and you're within the range of my divination."
Naruto would later judge the fight to be about a forty percent success-most of the success point were lost because he hadn't counted on just how fast Hyuuga Neji could move. But a few of his henge-d Narutoids did manage to break through the pattern, only to burst on contact with the Hyuuga's skin.
"You kekkai genkei users are so irritating!" Naruto growled, abandoning his perch and his plan when it became obvious that it wasn't viable. If good planning and clever tricks wouldn't get him through, then he would rely on something had never failed him-his stubbornness.
Sakura was uncertain whether the confession Naruto-san had managed to exact from Hyuuga Neji was what he'd wanted from the match that had ended in the collapse of both parties, but it had given her fodder to ruminate over during the course of the next two matches, which, insultingly enough to the shinobi involved, were being viewed as interlude matches by the spectators.
Especially when the puppeteer conceded the match against Aburame-san. Sakura's eyes narrowed at that action, which was wise but at odds with the hot-tempered shinobi who'd bullied an unknown child and who'd taken such prideful glee in his abilities during the elimination round.
Shiho-nii concurred, standing in midair next to the balcony-it had been he who had relayed the conversation between the prideful branch clan member and Naruto-san.
She knew it was neither the time nor place, but Sakura wanted to speak to Shiho-nii about Hyuuga-san's situation. It was not a terribly close parallel, as the Haruno's branch clan's ability could not be stolen-and the thought of someone wanting to acquire it was a little odd-and their manifestations of the kekkei genkai were radically different, rather than this odd sort of knowledge control that was the only thing separating branch from main. But, still, there was a faint sense of entrapment that shrouded all of it; if she could not be sensitive to outsiders, she could at least make certain of Shiho-nii's feelings, even if she could not change their circumstances.
Still, from Sakura's perspective, while she doubted they would promote Hyuuga-san after he'd become so emotionally-driven and lost control of the fight's momentum , it worked to her favor. She had no ready plan to counter his defense and she wasn't prepared to show techniques advanced enough to win her a promotion despite a loss with this crowd looking on. Her next opponent would be the Aburame, who caught her glance and shrugged faintly, perhaps interpreting the gesture as a question on his opinion of the Suna-nin's too-easy surrender.
"Sakura-" Shiho-nii began, but he was interrupted by the manifestation of Kagami-sama.
"You'll want to tap that when you're old enough," she suggested with no softening lead-in at all, leaning forward toward Sakura in such a way that her modified kimono gave a very suggestive view of her assets. "Get him to show you what other wicked things he can do with tenketsu. That he's pretty much genetically assured to be attractive is just a bonus. Every woman should sleep with a Hyuuga man at least once-it'll give you a standard by which to perceive the failings of other men."
There were times when Sakura was half-certain that the natural emotional detachment of the main house was a coping mechanism designed to make them look less like they were schizophrenics, reacting to stimuli no one else could see or hear. Sakura was drawing on all this and every minute of her shinobi training in order to keep her blush contained to the tips of her ears. She didn't even want to contemplate how or why Kagami-sama had developed that theory, having belonged to Kumogakure when alive.
Shiho-nii sighed and pinched the bridge of his noise. "With respect, Kagami-sama-."
A throaty chuckle interrupted his scolding. "I know. Keep Sakura-chan pure as driven snow for as long as possible. I'm not here just to tease; Shiki wanted to impart a little life lesson in case you ever find yourself facing a Hyuuga on the battlefield. Normally, outsiders can't see us and if a Hyuuga were to look at our weapon body with their kekkei genkai activated, they wouldn't be able to perceive anything odd about it. But, if you're channeling chakra through Shiho-I don't think your training has gone this far yet-it'll awaken his residual chakra. A Hyuuga still wouldn't be able to see his spirit form, but they would notice that your weapon has human chakra residing in it."
"She'll be careful," Shiho-nii promised on her behalf, since her own responses were limited. "And Sakura is discreet."
"Unlike me?" Kagami-sama sulked, but she couldn't completely erase her mirth. "Ah, to be partnered with someone who knows how to blush-Shiki's so stifling." Kagami-sama flicked her hair back over her shoulders. "Anyhow, hint: this Suna team? They're siblings. And their father is sitting right next to the Hokage, wearing the same outfit in blue. And Shiki? He's been smiling since puppet boy gave up. So watch yourselves. Shiki won't do a thing to help if something does happen."
That was like saying the sky was blue. Shiki-dono wouldn't interfere if it wasn't in his interests, in the Haruno clan's interests, to do so. Still, the information she'd provided was troubling and Sakura, eager for a more private setting to consult with Shiho-nii, used the excuse of checking on Naruto-san to retreat to an alcove that was secluded enough that she could whisper without fear of being overheard, but explainable should someone catch sight of her. She had little idea how long the match between Nara-san and the Suna kunoichi would go on for, but the announcement for the match's victor should be audible from her position.
Shiho-nii materialized into being at her side moments after she settled on the floor, knees partway drawn up, hands steepled. It was the position of a shinobi at contemplation, a little clanless genin worrying over a proper strategy to defeat an opponent who had the advantage of range and jutsu. It was a valid concern, for Aburame-san would be almost as difficult to fight as Hyuuga-san, but for now it was not the primary one.
His sleeves billowed as he knelt down next to her, crossing his arms across his knees. It was an achingly familiar posture-Shiho-nii had never been hesitant to bring himself level with her to speak when she was a child. It almost made him look normal, human, except for his extraordinary clothing and ice-white hair, which lent him an air of some extraordinary, as if he ought to be a subject of religious art rather than part of her mundane world.
"Don't make too much out of what Kagami-sama said," he cautioned her before she could begin to speak. "Kagami-sama has-well, there were two standards she measured her life by while she was alive and one hasn't changed after her death. She adores shock value for itself, so she might simply be trying to unnerve you."
Sakura stared at Shiho-nii, rather unconvinced by his ploy, but too polite to point out that if he felt the need to explain the character of a woman who had habitually embarrassed her since she was old enough to understand what sexual innuendo meant, then he was obviously shaken by what she had disclosed.
"The Kazekage shouldn't be here, should he?" she asked after a careful consideration of the facts available to her. "The chunnin exams are hosted in rotation by each of the major villages and as gesture of goodwill and trust, oversight by foreign villages is minimal. The presence of a foreign Kage could even be interpreted as an insult, as well as a major security hazard. Both because a Kage-level shinobi would be capable of immense destruction if that was his intent and because if he were to have an unfortunate accident while within the walls, we'd be held accountable. Suna could use his death as a reason to declare war. Even if those children are his, if he wanted to watch them take the exams, he should have done so in Suna. And why would three siblings be in the same team? The kunoichi is old enough-and talented enough-that she should already hold chunin rank. Something...isn't right," Sakura murmured.
A/N: Wow. I'd forgotten how much trouble I have writing in Naruto's voice until this section came up-very much a switch from the calculating voice of Sakura, who, if this was written in Japanese, would use very polite, formal language, while Naruto would definitely use slang and familiar terms. Sometimes I feel this Naruto is almost as far from his canon self as Sakura is. But I can write clever prankster better than idiot-savant shounen hero. And, yes, for plot points that play out almost exactly the same as in canon, expect me to summarize. I've read the manga, rewritten it once in FKftD, and don't feel the need to rehash it again here. You know whose match is coming next.