Hey. Been a LONG time, hasn't it? Sorry, been busy. Also, I was trying to work on Legends. I spent months planning, writing and deleting before I realized I was stuck and decided to come back to it later... then I had some problems in real life. Then I had to rewrite some parts of the chapter quite a few times before I was satisfied. Throw in some procrastination and here we are.

I've gotten some comments about the lack of romance here... I'm going to admit I underestimated how many chapters I would be on these arcs. Unless you count Hinata's feelings and Naruto's obliviousness to them and the affect he has on her as romance it won't start until Fuu joins the party in the arc after the next, and even then they won't fall in love immediately. It will be a gradual thing. There will also be side pairings. This is going to be a long fic, there will be plenty of time for romance.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.

"Man, I knew that jutsu would make her stronger but I didn't see that coming!" Naruto said, grinning as he gripped the railing and surveyed the damage caused by Sakura's attack.

"I can't believe it... No one's ever broken through his shield of sand before!" Temari spoke in a shocked tone. 'It still wasn't enough to break through his armor too... but... if she can hit him... with that water...'

Not that she was worried he'd actually lose. Not with the power he had at his disposal. Still, this might push him too far... and if Sakura used the terrain well enough, he could actually get hurt. Despite how he treated them, she and Kankuro were still his older siblings. They couldn't help but worry about him.

"There's a first time for everything." Sasuke commented as he stared into the arena.

"Show 'em what you're made of Sakura!" Naruto yelled.

"Y-... you've gotta be kidding me... when did Sakura get that strong?" Ino questioned, gaping as she stared down at the arena.

"Kakashi... what was that jutsu?" Gai asked his rival, clearly perplexed by the display.

"Earth Style: Earth Spear." Kakashi answered, not taking his eye off his student. "It's a chakra flow technique that saturates the body with earth chakra, concentrating it in the skin and hardening it until it's stronger than steel. Given the nature of earth chakra, it also vastly increases the user's attacking power. No matter how much pressure he tries to smother her with, it'll never be enough."

"I don't recall you ever using a jutsu like that in our matches." Gai mused, cupping his chin and looking to the sky in thought.

The Sharingan wielder shrugged. "That's because I didn't teach it to her. I helped, but she learned it from a scroll. It's an effective counter for Gaara's abilities... So long as he doesn't have a field advantage at least, but thanks to Naruto that won't be a problem."

'Of course, everything has a downside.' Kakashi mused to himself. 'While she's using Earth Spear, she won't be able to use any other technique... not only that...'

Sakura took a deep breath as she stared at the spot where Gaara disappeared. This wasn't exactly how she planned to use the Earth Spear. Her plan was to use poison and genjutsu while this technique ensured she could survive the sand, and maybe let her get a few direct hits in.

Unfortunately, that was before she learned exactly how big an obstacle that sand would be. If it would defend him even independent of his will or knowledge, most of her planned tactics and strategies went out the window. Misdirection was pointless; his shield would block her even if he didn't know there was an attack coming. A few of her ideas could still work, but most would be a waste of energy.

Though the water did offer new possibilities.

'Like Kakashi-sensei said, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy...'

"It sounds kind of like the Nintaijutsu the Raikage are famous for... something like that can't be easy on her reserves." Asuma analyzed before turning a grim gaze on Kakashi.

The silver haired man nodded. "Sakura's reserves have always been small... and her lifestyle up until recently didn't help that in the slightest."

"Ain't that the truth?" Zabuza commented. "I was surprised she actually managed to graduate with the way she carried herself before. She can still develop above average stores if she doesn't slack off, but three months isn't a lot of time to improve there..."

'Very true... chakra reserves are usually very difficult to build up. To some degree, you're stuck with what you're born with, that's why control is so important. At best she could hold that technique for four minutes, and that's if she isn't expending chakra any other way.' Kakashi frowned as he stared at the arena. 'How long can she keep fighting while using that jutsu?'

Gaara opened his eyes, disbelieving as he sunk to the bottom of the arena, his sand having shifted from its normally concealed state to a muddy color that made his armor visible to all who might see him. He stared up at the shimmering light of the water's surface, his mind failing to process what had happened mere moments ago.

Never in his life had his sand failed to protect him. The only thing that came close was when his father would weigh it down, and even then that only restrained him. No matter what obstacle stood in his way, what foe lied before him, no threat to his being had ever managed to reach him.

How was it that this weak girl was the first to do what he had long come to believe impossible?

That wasn't the only unfamiliar sensation that was causing the redhead some mild distress at the moment. He was also painfully aware that, for another first, the sand that served as his shield and weapon was gone, hovering above the water's surface and unable to reach him.

He grits his teeth as he continued to sink deeper, looking at the muddy sediment covering his form. 'My armor's still protecting me... but its soaking up the water around me. It's hard to move with it weighing me down like this...'

It was then that the water's surface burst at the edge of his sight, banishing the light of the sun as waves rippled across and a shape obscured by bubbles darted towards him. The obscuring foam quickly dispersed to reveal the now dark skinned girl he'd been fighting, diving down to meet him with her fist cocked back. Without his shield of sand, all he could do is raise his arms in an attempt to defend himself before she reached him, slamming her fist past his hasty defense and into his chest.

The force began to drive him through the water, but something held him firm, causing him to jerk as his momentum was halted. He could feel Sakura gripping his arm with her other hand, pulling him back to her as they both sunk to the bottom, pulled by the weight of Gaara's armor and Sakura's stone-like skin.

When he turned his gaze back to his opponent, he found her fist inches from his face, a white orb tightly clenched between her fingers. 'What is...?' Then the next punch collided with is face, and the moment it did the object exploded into a purple cloud that tainted the surrounding liquid and filled his vision. 'Poison!'

Sakura smirked as the toxic water washed over them. 'Since my skin's basically stone right now that should keep this poison from soaking through for the most part... but Gaara's not so lucky. If I can keep him down here long enough, it should saturate his armor completely. And besides...' The pink haired girl pulled him into her knee, causing him to bend over before slamming her elbow into the back of his head, streams of bubbles to bursting from his mouth at both impacts. 'I bet if I can hit him hard enough, I can make him take in a nice deep breath...'

'There's no way I'll lose to someone like her!' It wasn't his forte, but Gaara was hardly helpless physically. He twisted his body to avoid another blow to the face and aimed his hand at her own, attempting to stab the only unprotected area of her body: her eyes.

Sakura bent her body to the side, letting the sluggish attack miss her and grabbed his arm, using them to pull the red head towards her as she brought her knee to his chest, causing him to double over, more bubbles leaving his mouth as the poison cloud began to clear.

It was at that moment that Gaara saw his chance, and not a moment too soon as he felt his lungs beginning to burn, demanding he replace the air he lost. He straightened up and slammed his head into her face.

Sakura let out a muffled cry as some of the sand from Gaara's armor broke off and lodged itself in her eyes. As she brought her free arm to try to clear her vision, she felt her grip on Gaara literally crumble, the sand coating his arm flaking off and loosening her grip to allow him to escape.

'NO!' Sakura's panicked briefly before glaring as she shot forward, throwing a punch at Gaara. However, the moment the fist made contact with the genin, he shattered into flakes of sand. 'Damn it! He used his armor for a Substitution Jutsu!'

Half the arena away from the now faint purple cloud, a shadow appeared, growing for a moment before Gaara burst through the water's surface, immediately taking in a deep breath of air. He welcomed the relief from the unfamiliar pain, the desperate sensation and the sense of helplessness it brought. He quickly climbed out, jumping the moment his foot stepped onto the water as his sand embraced him. A small cloud formed beneath his feet as his armor was restored, taking him high above the arena.

"Damn, he got away." Naruto cursed as he glared at the redhead.

Temari put her hand on her chest and breathed out a sigh of relief. While she was confident he'd win in the end, seeing her brother actually backed into a corner for the first time had been somewhat nerve wracking.

"Well, at least she accomplished something. I doubt he made it out of that without at least taking in some of the poison..." Sasuke noted, his brow furrowed and his hands resting in his pockets.

"Yeah... but is that enough to give Sakura another edge? She needs all she can get here..." 'She's already being pushed by the way she's relying on Earth Spear... but then...' His Rinnegan flared, allowing him to see the solid blue aura given Gaara's by his armor. 'That armor of his is eating his chakra hand over fist. He's got huge reserves, but keeping it up for long would probably be pushing it...'

His hand clenched at his side. 'Come on, Sakura... just make it through this.'

"Did you think you could make a fool of me!?" Gaara yelled at the still waters, enraged that she had managed to put him in such a vulnerable position. "Come out, come out... you can't stay down there forever."

He continued to scan over the water before finally, a shadow appeared, starting small but growing larger by the moment. He raised his arm, pointing a clawed hand at the shape as sand formed an arc in front of him.

It was then that an explosion erupted beneath him, sending a burst of water up to meet him. It collided with the platform of sand he'd formed, soaking it in an instant.

The surprised sand user faltered as the sand at his feet crumbled into muddied clumps. That was when Sakura burst from the water, flipping in midair and bringing her foot down on Gaara, only for some of his remaining sand to come to his defense.

The pink haired kunoichi, her hands already together, smirked as she reactivated her jutsu, her skin turning brown once again as she twisted and swept out with her foot, breaking through the quickly formed defense, only for Gaara's form to shatter once again.

'Another substitution...' Sakura released her jutsu as she fell back to the water, allowing her to stand on its surface. She jerked her head from side to side; scanning the arena for any sign of her opponent when suddenly the far wall of the arena began to crack, sand pouring forth from the gaps in the stone before large sections of it burst outward, large masses of the newly formed sediment was flying towards her.

Sakura threw herself back to avoid the attacks, the impact sending up sprays of water that blocked her vision. She just barely ducked in time to dodge another mass of darkened sand that cut through the water before breaking out in a run to avoid another.

As the tendrils fell apart into the lake, she stopped and gaped at the mass of sand emerging from the wall. 'No way... he ground the stone in the arena wall into more sand...' Her hand tightened into a trembling fist at her side. 'I... I thought I was actually pushing him there...' Forcing whatever fear and frustration she felt down, she reached into her pouch, pulling out a pill. 'Better take the antidote...' She popped it into her mouth and swallowed as she waited.

It was then that she saw Gaara, halfway submerged in the now sandy interior of the wall, tendrils of the brown sediment reaching out from the surrounding cracks and wrapping around his form as he looked up at her, and when he did she couldn't help the shiver that went down her spine.

He was looking at her with wide open eyes and a smile far too wide to be sane, showing all his teeth. She could see the lust for blood in his expression, even from that distance.

Then he raised his palm at her, and the sand responded, an arc forming before him and unleashing a barrage of sand bullets.

Sakura immediately burst into motion, dodging the seemingly endless barrage with a series of ducks, flips and twirls, twisting her body around every attack. While the bullets of sand were fast and numerous, they weren't targeted at her and dodging them was much easier than Haku's needles, especially when he used his ice mirrors.

That said; the bullets were just as dangerous. While a well-placed needle could leave you paralyzed and helpless, the huge sprays of water the sand bullets kicked up told her they'd likely fracture bones if any of them hit, and the amount of them was increasing every moment. Soon enough she would be overwhelmed.

After a few moments of this, she brought her hands together in a series of hand seals and vanished in a burst of smoke as one of the projectiles stuck her, revealing a shattered log that was quickly reduced to splinters as the assault ended.

Gaara looked around for his opponent, wondering where she was hiding as he maintained his position in the wall. His lips twisted into a grimace of frustration as he scanned the arena, feeling out with the sand that coursed through the wall for any trace of her as...

'Wh-... what?' He gripped his head and clenched his eyes shut, suddenly feeling... wrong. It was almost like everything was starting to spin. He was beginning to feel lightheaded and... He could feel his heart pounding in his chest. It had been years since he last felt something like this. He let out a grunt as he tried to keep his focus. 'The poison... this must be...'

His head whipped from side to side, though he immediately regretted doing so as his vision tilted to and fro for a few moments' afterwords, causing him to stop. 'Where did she go? When I find her...'

He got his answer when a nearby section shattered to reveal the pink haired girl, reactivating her jutsu as she bolted towards him. Fortunately for Gaara, his sand would continue to protect him regardless of his compromised senses. Tendrils immediately burst from the sand. They burst at Sakura's punches, but when three came at her at once she was forced to leap back.

The moment Sakura's foot touched the wall, a small tendril of sand burst out and wrapped around her ankle. Her attention was quickly diverted from this trap as she heard stone crumble behind her and saw a mass of sand moving to engulf her. She cursed, reaching into her pouch and pulling out more explosive tags.

The mass consumed her before being blown apart in an explosion. Three kunai, each with an explosive tag, flew out of the cloud. Only one was caught by the sand, the other two instead embedding themselves in the wall above the sand genin.

Gaara vanished in a cloud of dirt and debris when they exploded and Sakura crouched, launching herself like a bullet at the spot where Gaara had been with her fist reared back. With a cry of effort, she punched forward with all her strength as she heard the sand shifting. Her punch blew the shield apart, but this time there was enough mass and chakra in it to stop her attack in its tracks. To make matters worse, more quickly rose to take its place.

Sakura continued to rain punches down on Gaara from above him, who remained fixed in the wall, the force keeping her in the air. More and more sand rose until it threatened to consume her, forcing her to kick off the next tendril that came her way. 'I could probably hide in the wall again... but if I try that too much, he'll probably just send the sand throughout the whole arena. It's bad enough right now; if he starts attacking from every direction I'm finished. But he'll probably do that anyway if the fight drags on too long...'

As she fell, she watched him glare at her, still gripping his head. 'Well, at least something's going right. His increased heart rate will speed up the spread of the poison. It should really start hitting him pretty soon...'

Gaara watched as she fell into the water below, her stone like skin causing her to sink to vanish into its depths instantly. He frowned, firing a barrage of bullets where she fell, but there was no reaction. 'Of course not... they wouldn't harm her thanks to that jutsu... Next time I capture her, I'm going to bury her under so much sand that she won't be able to move. Then she can either wait until she runs out of air or give up and let herself be crushed...' He placed his hand on his chest, feeling the thudding beat of his heart. At a mental command, his sand began to spread throughout the arena, soon encompassing everything above the water in a fine brown mist.

Sakura meanwhile swam near the bottom of the lake with her jutsu deactivated, keeping to the shadowed area of the arena as she considered her options. 'I'm just about out of chakra... I probably couldn't keep up the Earth Spear for another minute at this point... Ok. It looks like time's just about up then. I've got fifteen kunai left in my scrolls, but eight of them are part of my last trick, and four explosive tags. Might as well not waste any more than I need to.'

Moments passed and there was no change in the battlefield. Seconds turned into a minute and still, there was no sign of the pink haired girl. With every moment, Gaara clearly became more and more irritated. He gripped his chest, his heart pounding hard enough to be felt through his whole rib cage. He growled lightly as his eyes narrowed. He was beginning to feel light headed, and the world was blurring in and out. Every time he moved his head, his vision would swim for a few moments.

He hated this. He hadn't felt this vulnerable in years and he hated every second of it.

Minutes passed and it became clear that, if she hadn't hidden herself in the wall again and Gaara's sand said she hadn't, she was planning to stay under water as long as possible to let the poison do its work.

Finally, Sakura burst from the water and Gaara's eyes snapped full open. He immediately threw his hand out toward her as she landed on the arena wall. The pink haired girl's let out a shocked yelp as all the sand in the air began to converge on her, managing to bring her hands together just as she was encased in another coffin.

The growing mass of sand burst apart immediately under Sakura's enhanced strength, revealing her darkened skin once more and causing Gaara to let out an aggravated growl. As the sand tried to capture her again, she pulled out yet another kunai with an explosive tag.

The resulting blast blew the sand away and Sakura shot out of the resulting cloud of dirt and debris, reaching Gaara in an instant. Once more, her fist collided uselessly with his shield, but this time she didn't pull back and allowed the sand to envelop her fist. There was yet another explosive kunai in her hand.

Gaara let out a stunned gasp as his shield was blown apart from the inside. His armor however held strong. He expected an attack, but one never came. Instead as the smoke cleared, flecks of white filled his vision before shifting to... pink? He raised his arm and found it and his chest was covered in... Cherry blossoms? It was then that he looked around and noticed that Sakura was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the stands were empty too.

No matter where he looked, all he saw were cherry blossoms.

'Genjutsu.' He realized immediately. He likely would have noticed sooner were it not for the poison. He put his hands together into a seal. 'Release!' And... Nothing changed. His lightheadedness was making it difficult to control his chakra and break the kunoichi's influence.

He growled in frustration and then looked on in confusion as his sand formed a protective dome around him... but something was off. It was shifting, moving the closest sand away from him. He also noticed his armor doing the same, trying to keep him covered with a new layer while peeling the old away. Soon enough, he was completely concealed in the dome of sand.

He focused, screwing his eyes shut and drawing up as much chakra as he could. 'Release!' He cried, and shattered the illusion.

"GAARA!" He heard his sister's cry, which was concerning in itself. The only time he'd ever heard that tone from her was when she was trying to stop him from going too far. When he opened his eyes, he looked down at his shifting armor and they widened in alarm.

The petals that had covered his form were miniature paper bombs.

Outside on the arena wall Sakura smirked as more slips of paper rained down on Gaara, her clothing torn apart by the constant explosions. Her right sleeve had been utterly destroyed along with part of the shoulder of her dress. And a lot of what remained was ragged and torn and her skin was exposed in various patches all over.

Eight kunai had been loaded with those mini bombs which now littered the sands surrounding Gaara. She pulled out one of her last kunai, armed with an explosive tag, and threw it at the shield. "Hey Gaara!" She yelled, hoping she got his attention. '"Sakura Blizzard Jutsu. Enjoy!" She made a hand seal, detonating the kunai. A flaw with the mini bombs was that, unlike the larger ones, they couldn't be detonated by chakra. They could only be used as part of a chain reaction, but that was easy enough to accomplish.

A massive explosion consumed the shield as all the paper bombs detonated. The fact that due to its attempts to shift them away from the unknowing Gaara, they were all throughout its surface, ensuring it was blown apart. The blast ripped the wall the redhead had embedded itself in apart and at that moment, Sakura made the sign to reactivate her jutsu and shot forward just as Gaara fell out of the cloud, cracks littering his form.

His sand quickly rushed to catch him, but it wasn't fast enough. Sakura cocked her fist back beside her chest and punched Gaara in his stomach, sending him flying across the arena to an area she had never gone near, where his sand hadn't spread to, crashing into it with enough force to send cracks all the way to the top and vanish beneath the water.

The pink haired girl landed on the wall and immediately launched herself after him before the sand could envelope her. She slammed her fist into his chest, the impact sending cracks throughout the wall and kicking up a cloud of debris as large sections of stone broke off and fell into the water.

The next blow drove Gaara up through the cracked stone, carving a path through the arena wall and sending him into the air above the arena, his head thrown back. The girl followed him into the air, grabbing him by the arm and swinging him around so that he was beneath her. The sand user, still in shock from this turn of events, raised his free arm to defend as Sakura readied her final attack. With a cry of effort she drove her fist into his stomach, sending him into the water below with enough force to kick up a huge spray of water.

"Way to go, Sakura! You nailed him!" Naruto yelled, cheering his teammate.

Sasuke just smirked at how far the fan girl had come, while Shikamaru gaped.

'Seriously? Ah man, I really shouldn't be here. This is such a drag... Well, at least I won't be fighting either of them... that jutsu might make her strong enough to overpower my Shadow Possession...'

Temari meanwhile appeared to be in a mild panic. 'This is bad... Gaara... if he's been pushed this hard, he might...'

The water was still rippling as Sakura fell from the air, her jutsu releasing as she panted. This time, rather than her skin shifting back to normal all at once her fair skin tone spread out from her extremities, showing she no longer had the strength to maintain the jutsu.

When she landed, it was with a splash. She didn't even put the small amount of chakra forth needed to stand on the water and instead sunk in, surfacing a moment later and taking in a deep breath before panting in exhaustion. She felt completely drained, almost as bad as she had after some of their worst training/torture sessions over the last few months.

She looked around, grimacing when she looked at the sand that fell from the arena walls. 'Ugh... did I actually help at all?' She knew she hadn't won, and she hadn't expected to. She just wanted to soften Gaara up as best she could, but... 'The poison will probably slow him down, and I don't think he'll recover all the chakra he spent here but... will that make up for all that sand he made?'

The young kunoichi looked down at the water and to her surprise saw a shape rapidly rising to meet her. She flipped back out of the water, out of reach as Gaara's hand shot out to grab her and kicked back as he surfaced.

She skidded to a stop on the water's surface and fell into a kneeling position, watching as Gaara stood hunched over with his face hidden by his hair, unmoving as his sand began to swirl around him. When he looked up and glared at her, Sakura couldn't help but gasp.

Gaara's left eye had changed. In place of his normal, blank green eye was a yellow orb surrounded by black sclera. It had an odd pupil, shaped like a four armed shuriken with a dot between each of the extensions.

"Whoa, what is that?" Naruto asked, seeing the eye.

"Is it a dojutsu?" Sasuke wondered aloud as Temari tensed, cringing at the sight of her brother's eye.

Naruto once again activated his Rinnegan, curious to see what was going on with Gaara. When he did, he couldn't help the sharp intake of breath, nor the jolting step backwards as the chakra became visible to him.

Both Shikamaru and the Uchiha heir noticed Naruto's reaction and looked at him, the former in confusion while the latter with narrowed eyes, guessing what happened, that the blond had seen something that shocked him to his core. "Something wrong?" The Nara asked, but Naruto said nothing, simply staring with his mouth hanging open.

Sasuke quickly activated his own dojutsu and immediately his eyebrows rose nearly to his scalp before furrowing.

Red chakra was coursing through Gaara's system. It was different than Naruto's somehow, and seemed much less powerful, but there were too many overall similarities, not to mention the inherent malice it seemed to possess. 'What is this? Whatever power Naruto has... Gaara has it too?'

Sakura rose to her feet, her gaze not leaving Gaara as he continued to glare at her. The sand swirled madly around him, replacing his once more muddy armor as he took deep raspy breaths, both due to the poison coursing through his system and the anger he felt over how much trouble this girl he'd dismissed as a weakling had put him through. He raised his hand, pointing his open palm in front of him as tendrils formed around him, preparing to launch themselves at the exhausted girl.

The pink haired genin tensed, ready to flee as best she could at a moment's notice. She lifted her own right arm into the air and the redhead narrowed his eyes and growled as he sent a command to the sand...

... Only for Sakura to bring her hand high in the air above her. "I forfeit."

Gaara jerked to a stop, staring at her in disbelief. "What?" He snarled, rage clear in his normally emotionless tone.

'Glad she knows when to throw in the towel.' Genma thought with no small amount of relief. He'd thought for a moment he was about to witness a bloodbath. "Winner: Gaara!"

Sakura allowed herself to relax a little knowing the match was over. Casting a wary glance at her opponent, she began making her way to the fighter's booth.

Gaara remained still for a few moments as the girl began to walk away, before his face contorted in anger. There was no way he was letting her get away with pushing him the way she had. Responding to his will, the sand surged forth, barreling towards the kunoichi.

Sakura turned to see the wave of sand almost upon her and braced herself... but the blow never came. She opened her eyes to see Naruto standing in front of her, his open palm pointed at Gaara.

Naruto had recovered quickly after the shock of seeing that red chakra so similar to the Kyuubi's. Knowing what he did about the sand user's disposition and the anger that coursed through that chakra he had readied himself to intervene. After what happened in the prelims, there was no way he was going to wait for the jounin to make a move. "Hey, jackass! Can't you hear? The match is over!" He pointed his thumb at his chest as he glared at the redhead. "Try that again, and you're going to have to deal with me, got it ya bastard?!"

At his place in the fighter's booth, Sasuke smirked. He'd been ready to intervene as well, but when he'd noticed Naruto was about to do the same he had decided it wasn't necessary. After all, the blond had far better counters to that sand than he did.

Gaara snarled and began to attack again but the proctor's next words drew his attention. "You heard him. Try that again and you're out of here." His eyes darted from the two members of Team 7 to the proctor before they closed and he took a deep breath. When he opened his eyes again, they were both their normal green. The sand reformed his gourd before it swirled around him and he vanished, reappearing beside his blonde sibling. She turned to him worriedly as he clutched at his chest, his heart pounding so hard he could feel it in his ears, another wholly foreign experience to him.

Ino had stood up when Gaara had launched his last attack, but fell back into her chair with a sigh of relief. "Man that was a close one... I thought Sakura was a goner."

Sayuri stared down, relief and shock warring within her. 'He... saved her?'

Sakura sighed in relief once Gaara was gone and turned to her teammate. "Thanks for the save, Naruto."

Naruto rubbed the back of his head and grinned. "Don't worry about it. We're a team, right? Besides, I wasn't about to let a repeat of what he pulled at the prelims go down." He then glanced to the fighter's booth, glaring at Gaara before giving her a serious look. "You might want to head to the stands with Gaara in the fighter's booth."

Sakura grimaced. "Isn't that obvious? He looked liable to lash out at me again first chance he gets." She looked to the booth and shook her head. "Good luck Naruto. Tell Sasuke I said the same to him too."

"You got it. And great job out there, Sakura."

Sakura smiled. "I'm just glad I'm not just dead weight anymore." She raised her fist. "You better be ready. I'm not going to fall behind again. I'm going to catch up to you and Sasuke, so I'm never useless again."

"Hey, we never thought that." Naruto denied, somewhat frustrated by her self-depreciation.

The kunoichi gave a rueful chuckle, looking bitterly at the water at her feet. "So what was I good for before, moral support? Face it, you may have made mistakes back at Wave, but at least you could fight. I couldn't do anything to help you guys, and don't say I was guarding the client, we both know I wouldn't have lasted five seconds back there." She then looked up and smiled confidently. "But it'll be different from here on out if I have anything to say about it! You two can count on me!"

Naruto grinned. While he disagreed with her assessment of who she was before, he was glad she was confident in herself now. "Same to you, Sakura. The three of us can take anything the world can throw at us." Sakura smiled and nodded before walking away, towards the arena wall to climb to the stands. As she left, Naruto's smile fell and he thought back to what he'd seen.

The red chakra Gaara had released was different than that of the Kyuubi, but there were similarities that couldn't be coincidence. And it carried the same malice that his own beast's power did. Was that why he was so messed up? Because he had a demon inside him too?

... Could he have wound up that way, had things been different?

'How did he block my attack?' Gaara wondered as he watched the blond make his way back to the booth. He hadn't seen anything, and yet his sand had been deflected somehow. The only thing he could think of that resembled the brief display was a wind jutsu, but it didn't seem like any technique of that element he knew of.

He was still feeling the effects of the poison, the world blurred in and out at times.

"Gaara." The voice of his sister drew his attention.

"What is it?" He asked in his usual, apathetic tone.

"I just... wanted to make sure you were ok." Temari said somewhat nervously, not sure how he'd react. "This was the first time anyone managed to actually touch you... are you-"

"I'm fine." He cut her off, before walking away. "Don't pretend you're concerned."

"I'm not pretending!" She said adamantly. "Look, I'm not going to lie, you scare the hell out of me but... you're still my little brother. Of course I'm worried about you." Gaara didn't reply and after a moment, Temari sighed. "Look just... we don't know what kind of poison that girl used. If it gets worse, tell me, ok?" When she still didn't receive a response, she jumped down into the arena for her match, passing Naruto on her way down.

The Uzumaki arrived to find Shikamaru staring down at the battleground with a conflicted expression. Sasuke was giving the Nara an annoyed glare until he noticed his teammate's approach.

"So, Sakura headed to the stands?" The Uchiha stated. Though it wasn't a question, the blond nodded anyway.

"Can you blame her?" The Rinnegan bearer then turned to Shikamaru and asked, "Hey, what's the hold up here? Everyone's waiting on you, you know."

"Three guesses." Sasuke replied, once more throwing a vexed look the Nara's way.

At that very moment, Genma was glaring at the still stationary Nara and called out, "Hey! Shikamaru! Get down here before you're disqualified."

Shikamaru palmed his face and grumbled, "This whole thing's been such a drag... and now on top of that I have to fight a girl. This is too much trouble. I should just forfeit and be done with it."

The look of contempt on Sasuke's face made his opinion of that idea clear, but Naruto just grinned mischievously before putting his hand on the Nara's back in a supporting gesture and adopting a sagely air. The way he held his head implied he had his eyes closed behind his sunglasses.

"I get what you're saying, even if we don't see eye to eye about it." He said understandingly and with a smile. "But think of it this way. You can go down there and fight Temari. She seems pretty tough. It'll probably be a hard fight and you might wind up getting your ass kicked..."

"You're not making a strong case for why I should bother." Shikamaru gave him dry look before sighing and saying with a slight smirk, "Alright, you've convinced me. I'll forfe-"

"OR-," Naruto cut him off and continued as if he hadn't said a word. "You can back out, and then Ino will definitely kick your ass for throwing away your shot at getting pay back for the beat down Temari gave her and making your team look like a couple of wusses."

Shikamaru flinched, and suddenly became aware of a glare focused his way. He looked to the stands, where he could just feel his blonde teammate's killing intent being sent his way. As far away as she was, he could clearly see her in his mind's eye. He could picture those icy blue eyes staring at him, just daring him to do what he wanted to and back down, fire dancing beneath the surface as they shared a dark promise of what she would do to him if he wasn't in the arena in the next 5 seconds.

His attention was only drawn away from the stands when he heard Naruto say; "Here. Let me make it easy for you."

"Wha-" that was all Shikamaru had the chance to utter before Naruto unceremoniously pushed him over the railing and into the arena. Naruto watched as the cried out in alarm and fell all the way into the water. He was too surprised to use his chakra to stand, and thus he vanished beneath its surface with a splash.

"Dick move." Sasuke admonished, though the smirk he wore showed he was amused.

Naruto just grinned widely, chuckling as he placed his hands behind his head. "Hey, you know Shikamaru. He needed a good kick to get him going."

Shikamaru broke through the water and took in a deep gasp of air, taking a moment to catch his breath before glaring up at the Rinnegan bearer. 'Naruto, you jerk...'

"Hey kid, now's not the time for a relaxing soak. Get over here so we can get started." Genma called out, crossing his arms as he glared at the lazy genin.

Shikamaru sighed before he began to climb out of the water. "Yeah, yeah... keep your jacket on..." 'I don't even care about becoming a chunin, why did I even show up? And why do I have to fight a girl? It's not classy for a man to go around hitting girls, no matter how tough they are... but Naruto had a point, if I back out now Ino will let me have it... Troublesome blonds, all three of them...'

The Nara put his hands in his pockets and made his way to where the proctor and his opponent waited, moving with slowness that told everyone watching he had absolutely no interest in fighting. Temari seemed more than a little annoyed at his disinterested attitude, but he paid her no mind. 'Lucky for me I guess, my fighting style doesn't usually involve hitting my opponents...'

"I guess you decided to fight after all." Temari began with a grin when he finally joined them, placing a hand on her fan. "Thought you were about to chicken out."

"Well someone's eager." Shikamaru commented lazily. 'Perfect, she's hot-blooded too...' He shrugged, tilting his head to the side. "I would, I don't particularly care if I became a chunin or not... unfortunately, I've got a teammate who'll give me hell if I just throw in the towel without even trying."

The proctor's eyes traveled from one genin to the other before he raised his hand. "Begin!"

Temari immediately whipped her fan forward and unleashed a gust of wind that barreled toward Shikamaru, sending out a spray of water that obscured all in its path. The leaf genin vanished under the wave of wind and water that continued all the way to the far wall, but as the water came down there was no sign of the lazy Nara.

The sand kunoichi's eyes scanned the arena, searching for any sign of her opponent when the sound of something cutting through the wind reached her ears. She turned her head and sure enough there were a series of kunai flying towards her. She ducked beneath the first two and leapt to the side to dodge the remaining three, but as she moved through the air, a shifting shadow along the edge of the arena caught her eyes.

It came at her from the side, stretching out from the wall and gliding across the murky water's surface. Temari kicked backwards a few steps before coming to a stop when the shadow's movement halted. It seemed to shiver as if struggling to stretch farther, before it finally retracted. The blonde followed its movement and it led her to the remains of a tree floating in the water.

"So, that's where you're hiding?" With a swipe of her fan another wave of wind cut through the water and the tree, but all that remained in its wake were chunks of wood, causing her to click her tongue. 'If I follow him into the shadows, I'll have less time to dodge his jutsu. Staying near the center of the arena gives me the best chance to avoid it... that said, he could always try to go underwater to get the jump on me...' While not nearly to the same degree as her younger brother, this terrain wouldn't be her first choice to fight in. Her fan and most of her jutsu would be useless underwater.

She let out a sigh as she looked down at the water. 'I guess I should be thankful it's cloudy at least... if it was clear his shadow would probably travel along the lake bottom instead...' The best place for her was the center of the lake. The closer she got to the shadows, the larger the threat her opponent's jutsu was. Shikamaru wouldn't be able to approach her without her seeing him coming, so she could use her greater range to her advantage.

At that moment, a shadow began to grow in the water on the other side of another of the uprooted trees floating through the arena. Shikamaru burst from the water and took a deep breath of air before climbing out and hiding behind the bark, unknowingly proving Temari's assumption. He then sat down on the lake's surface. 'That... was about what I expected from that fan... just great. She's definitely got the edge in range.'

He closed his eyes, his hands forming a circle in his lap, a stance that had always helped him think. 'Ok... the water level means smaller shadows than there would have been before Naruto's stunt... not good for me. On top of that, she's too fast for me to catch her with them at a distance...' So he had to either get into close range without getting thrashed by wind or extend the shadows farther...

Ok, he could think of a few ways he could make this work...

His eyes widened as he heard ripping winds slicing through water, but it didn't sound like it was near him. His head turning so quickly one might wonder if he'd given himself whiplash, he saw a piece of debris torn apart by a wave of air. The act was repeated again and again, steadily decreasing the amount of cover. He clicked his tongue. 'Well, guess there's no better time to get started...'

Shikamaru rose from cover just long enough to throw a kunai at the blonde kunoichi, who immediately turned in his direction. 'There you are!' A wave of her fan batted the weapon aside, only for the explosive tag on the dagger to detonate, not nearly close enough to damage her, but the resulting wave of fire and smoke obscured her vision until she dispersed it with a second wave of her fan.

'Damn!' He was already gone. Her head shifted from side to side as she searched for any sign of him. As her head made a full turn to the right, she once again caught sight of a shifting shadow out of the corner of her vision.

As soon as she saw the threat approaching, she once again burst into motion, kicking herself back as the shadow reached the space her own had occupied a moment before and watching attentively as the shadow approached, ready to move again if it wasn't enough. However, soon enough the shadow hit its limit and retracted once more.

Temari followed the shadow as it retreated once more before vanishing behind another upturned tree. With a swing of her fan, she demolished the wooden cover only to find nothing.

'He's baiting me...' She thought to herself as her eyes scanned the water for any sign of her opponent. 'But why? What's he planning?' She then smirked, a plan beginning to form in her mind. 'Well, two can play at that game.'

She swung her fan full open and held it in front of her before closing it. However, as the cover peeled away, there was Temari had vanished. And when the fan closed completely, it vanished into thin air, leaving no trace of the sand kunoichi.

Shikamaru peeked out from his new hiding place. 'Where'd she go? Damn it.' He may need to adjust his strategy, and possible add more traps.

Silently, Temari reappeared on the far wall of the arena and immediately looked beneath her to ensure she wasn't in range of her opponent's jutsu as she affixed her fan to her back. Her eyes then quickly scanned the rest of the arena and found Shikamaru's hiding spot. 'There!'

She made a hand seal and vanished in a burst of speed, reappearing above Shikamaru. "What?!" The Nara had just enough time to cry before Temari made a sweep of her fan, unleashing a blade of wind. The leaf genin barely had enough time to jump back as the sickle of air came down from above. Though he dodged the worst of it, half a dozen lacerations appeared over his body and blood staining his shirt and pants around the wounds.

But he saw an opportunity here. He quickly put his hands together and activated his jutsu, causing his shadow to shoot out. In a mere moment it connected to Temari's... and then the blonde burst into smoke, replaced by a log. 'Damn! Substitution!' He guessed where his opponent would reappear, and sure enough she materialized in a burst of speed behind him, her fan reared back and ready to unleash another wave of wind.

The Nara cut off the flow of chakra to his feet, allowing himself to slip below the water just in time as Temari whipped her fan forward, unleashing a gust of wind that washed over the spot he'd occupied a moment earlier and coalesced into a cyclone that would have engulfed him.

The wind user clicked her tongue as her twister drilled into the lake and became a water spout before dispersing, sending the water back down to the rest. Once again she was left searching for any sign of her opponent.

Then she heard it, just barely. A splash of water that signified her opponent emerging. With a grin, she slashed her fan at the area, hidden behind yet another floating log. The debris was ripped to shreds and she heard a cry of shock and pain as Shikamaru was thrown against the far wall, using his arms to try to defend himself. Bleeding cuts covered his form from where the blades of wind had sliced open his skin and clothing.

Temari then whipped her fan around again, the wind curving around as it flew towards Shikamaru, who looked up with wide eyes. He dived below the water just in time to avoid the swirling maelstrom that formed where he'd been just a moment before.

She growled in annoyance at the missed opportunity and let her whirlwind dissipate. She scanned the arena once more when her eyes widened at another splash, this time directly behind her. She turned to see Shikamaru emerge from the water, his hands already in the sign for his clan's signature technique.

Temari jumped backwards, putting distance between them as she readied her fan, certain that her jutsu was the faster between them. She smirked, sure of her victory, but that confidence died away when Shikamaru returned that smirk. He then changed his hand seal.

And at that moment, an explosion erupted underwater just behind Temari, the blast of water throwing her higher into the air with a yelp of shock. 'What? Don't tell me...' He must have planted that kunai underwater at some point. Maybe he threw it while he was submerged, maybe it was when he distracted her with that other explosive kunai, and it didn't matter. The water had produced shadows on the lake surface, not to mention her own shadow was extended thanks to her elevated position before her and she was currently helpless.

She tried to recover, but Shikamaru was already weaving his jutsu. She readied her fan, but was a moment too late as his shadow connected with hers and she felt her body lock up.

Temari's eyes widened as she fell under his jutsu, her hands forced to mirror the movements of his own, causing her fan to slip out of her hands and fall away from her, landing in the water with a splash a moment after she did. She was forced to conform as he stood up straight and began to walk towards her, all the while her mind fought over the idea that she had lost. She hated losing, especially to someone as seemingly indolent as the Nara. At the same time, she had to admit she was impressed he'd been able to out-think her.

As they reached one another, he raised his arm and she closed her eyes, immediately thinking he was going to knock her out somehow.

"I forfeit."

And that was the last thing she expected to hear.

"WHAT!?" Ino cried, shooting to her feet before clenching her fists in front of her chest, her face twisted in indignant outrage. "How could he just throw the fight after all that?"

'I really should have seen that coming...' Sakura thought, sitting on the steps nearby her gathered friends, teachers and mother since the seats were packed full.

"What do you expect? He's Shikamaru." Chouji said with a chuckle, as if that should be all the explanation needed.

Honestly, for anyone who knew him it kind of was...

"Ah geez..." Asuma palmed his face, fighting off the desire to walk to the nearest wall and bang his head against it. "Couldn't he have at least taken the win? It's not like he couldn't have forfeited before the next match..."

Kurenai nodded with a sigh. "But he did display good judgement and planning. I'd say he has a pretty good chance of making chunin."

"Huh? Seriously?" Ino blinked as she turned to look at the older kunoichi.

"He basically won the fight, even if he forfeited at the last second. Being a chunin means being a leader, and while a leader needs to have the courage to push ahead, they also need to be able to weigh the risks and determine when to retreat. If he has burned through most his chakra, then there's little point in continuing." Kurenai explained to the blond, who still didn't look happy that her teammate and given up.

The pink haired kunoichi couldn't help but wonder about her own performance. She'd pretty much given up on advancing when she'd been matched up with Gaara. She turned to her sensei a few rows above and asked, "How did you think I did?"

Kakashi cupped his chin, his visible eye wandering to the sky as he hummed in thought. "Well, you clearly had a plan and were able to adapt when you learned just how difficult it would be to circumvent Gaara's sand. You kept a level head throughout the fight, despite how dangerous your opponent was. That said, your strategy probably didn't win you any points. In a real mission, a plan like that would probably have gotten you killed."

Sakura gave her sensei a deadpan stare. "In a real mission, I would've bolted after poisoning him."

"That would probably be wise." Kakashi responded in the same deadpan tone.

"Why am I not surprised?" Naruto wondered aloud in slight exasperation, shaking his head as he rested his hand on his scalp. "Well, at least he didn't just throw the match at the start..." He had to admit he couldn't blame him for backing out the way he did. The Lazy Nara had always put forth the bare minimum of effort, and that probably did not do his stamina any favors. He wasn't as bad off as Sakura before the Wave mission, but his chakra still wasn't anything to write home about.

He turned his head to look at the others in the booth. Sasuke kept his thoughts about their comrade's choice to himself. Gaara meanwhile seemed completely unconcerned about the outcome of his sister's fight. The redhead was trying hard not to show that Sakura's poison was affecting him, but he was clearly breathing heavily and he occasionally seemed to struggle to remain focused.

The fight that had just unfolded before them seemed to be the farthest thing from a certain Hyuga's mind however. Hinata's pale eyes seemed to roam anywhere but the arena and her posture radiated a sense of nervousness, causing Naruto to frown.

"Something eating you, Hinata?" The blond asked, drawing a startled reaction from her. His brow furrowed in confusion as she blinked twice before averting her gaze nervously.

"N- Nothing's wrong! Don't worry, I'm just..." She struggled to come up with an answer that wouldn't leave her a stuttering cherry faced mess when they called for her match. "Just a little nervous. My whole clan is here watching and I did fine in my last match but... well, they don't... have the best opinion on me so..." She mentally patted herself on the back. It wasn't a lie that was a very real concern of hers...

It just wasn't why she was so jittery right now.

Naruto frowned at that. He would say that she shouldn't care what they think, but then they were her family. For someone who had never had a family, nor any real substitute besides a very busy grandfather figure for most of his formative years, two ramen chefs and much later an older brother figure, and who envied those who did he wouldn't know how to take having a family that looked down on him the way the village did. That was after all one of his greatest fears growing up.

Giving her a smile, he shrugged and placed his hands behind his head. "Don't worry so much." That drew her gaze. "You're not helping yourself by getting worked up over it. Besides, what's there to sweat over?" He tilted his head and gestured around them. "Think about it, only the best of the best made it this round. You even made it farther than that jerk Neji, and he's supposed to be some so called genius of your clan, isn't he? You're plenty strong, they'll see."

Hinata blushed from his words of reassurance. "Y- Yeah… I guess you're right."

"Alright, we're moving on to the next match. Get down here if you don't want to be disqualified." The proctor called out from the arena below.

"That's our cue." Naruto grinned. "Let's give everyone in the stands what they came for."

Hinata took a breath and looked to the arena, trying to focus more on her upcoming fight rather than who she'd be fighting, and nodded.

Moments later, Naruto and Hinata stood across from each other on the water's surface. Hinata took a breath as she slid into the stance for her clan's taijutsu style, the veins around her eyes bulging as she activated her dōjutsu. She was determined to prove herself to her clan and to the blond across from her. He said he thought she was strong; she wasn't going to disappoint him. Naruto meanwhile smirked as he slid one foot back as she raised his arms, ready for the fight.

A moment of silence before Genma called out, "Begin!"

And that's the end of the chapter. Hope you enjoyed it. Hopefully, the next chapter of this or Legends of Two Jinchuriki will be out sooner... much sooner...