AN: After quite a delay, I am back… for the moment. Who knows when next I'll return? For the record, I don't know either. Thank you for reading and reviewing, and I hope you all enjoy. Oh, and I don't own Naruto- though why anyone would think that at this point is beyond me.
Chapter Two: On The Edge
Danzo nodded slightly as his one-time student departed the field. Too overconfident, but still, it was a rather impressive performance overall. And he hadn't shown much of his hand. Granted, his Taijutsu had noticeably improved- to the point of being an asset rather than a weakness-, and the few jutsus he had used were noticeable, but overall, nothing much had been shown. If he ended up facing the Ichibi container, it would be a match where the boy held little knowledge of the scope of his abilities. But by contrast, he knew what the other Jinchuuriki was capable of. And that worked just fine for him.
"There will be a ten minute break, to allow for the arrival of the participants of the second match!" The Hokage announced to the stadium at large. Danzo frowned, and then began scanning the stadium. Hmm, yes the Ichibi container was there, so… where was Sasuke Uchiha? Hmm. No. Not there. And the Hokage would not have made that announcement without prompting. So the boy was late. He would have been worried if it weren't for the fact that his mentor was a man infamous for his lack of punctuality. No, this was most likely… disregard.
Danzo wearily got to his feat. Unacceptable. Completley unacceptable. And yet, it fit perfectly into his plans. He'd been hoping for an opportunity to pit Uzumaki against the Kazekage's son, despite how ludicrous such a matchup seemed on paper. It had been why he'd helped the boy develop strategies to specifically counter the Ichibi container and his sand defense. After all, their one-time Sand Allies had gotten a little too comfortable with their position. So much so that they were apparently now in league with the rogue Sannin. The defeat of their strongest asset should be enough to restore the Leaf's standing and force them back into line. Especially seeing as he and the Hokage knew that the boy's transformation was supposed to herald their invasion. It was why his Root soldiers were out quietly dispatching their forces. Yes, the Sand would need to meet a grievous defeat today. And to do so, it was now imperative that Gaara of the dessert was facing off against their most capable Shinobi for this situation. Another Jinchuuriki. Like Naruto Uzumaki. Danzo reached the door he had been heading for and knocked. Once. Twice. A third time.
"Ye- Good Afternoon, Danzo-san," The Hokage's guard greeted quietly. "Can I help you?"
"Yes. May I please have a few moments of the Hokage's time?" He asked neutrally. The guard walked away. He returned with the elderly Hokage, looking majestic in his ceremonial robes. At least he looked as the Hokage was supposed to, even on the eve of such a crisis.
"What can I do for you, Danzo-san?" The Hokage asked wearily. He glanced back at the Kazekage before nodding slightly. And then he threw up his most subtle of privacy jutsus to ensure this conversation would stay confidential.
"I have request, Hokage-sama," Danzo began formally. "In light of Sasuke Uchiha's apparent lateness, I ask that you disqualify him and advance his opponent to the next round," He finished.
The Hokage's eyes rose. "Do you now? And why, might I ask, do you desire such a thing?" Not that he even really needed to ask why he desired it. He just needed to know why he should grant it; where this fit into the grand plans that would ensure the village was defended.
"A matter of village security," Danzo replied swiftly, his tone much lower, and the Hokage nodded slightly. Invasion. Yes, he'd thought the same thing. While he was still… displeased with Danzo's interference, he could understand the reasoning. No reason to let him know that, though. "I feel that the arrangement of such a match would be most… fortuitous," He finished tersely. "Besides, as talented a Shinobi as Sasuke Uchiha is, we do not want to encourage the same bad habits that plague his mentor, do we?" He said that in a louder tone, as the Hokage momentarily dispelled the barrier before reapplying it, so any around them could hear their pre-planned excuse. Just in case; they'd been around long enough to know that cover, physical or mental, was always a good thing to have.
"You are confident that he can handle it?" The Hokage asked neutrally. Even though they had essentially agreed beforehand, he was pushing the envelope by asking to match Jinchuuriki again Jinchuuriki, and cut Sasuke Uchiha out of the loop. Though the idea was certainly appealing to him… if Naruto could handle it. The idea was more appealing than sending the last of the Uchiha to face a bloodthirsty demon container. Danzo smirked inside. They'd had this same conversation once before, and he'd technically won last time too.
"Good evening, Hokage-sama," Danzo greeted. He quickly slid a scroll in front of the Hokage. "As one of your security advisors, I feel it is my duty to inform you of this," The Hokage took the scroll and read the heading: Updated Security Plans For Sand-Sound Invasion.
"Yes, I am quite aware of this, Danzo. My intelligence is just as good as yours," He replied tersely. Of course, what they didn't know was that their intelligence emanated from the same place; a captured Sand Jounin who was trying to cover up Gaara's apparent assassination of a fellow Genin. Not that the Sand, or their new Oto allies, were aware of that, of course.
Danzo smirked. "Yes, but there is a development. You see, in light of the apparent threat- section 2.3 on what we know of the Jinchuuriki Gaara- I felt it would be pertinent to have an ace in the whole." He stared at his one-time friend, and current rival. "For the past month, I have been training Naruto Uzumaki in tandem with Jiraiya."
The Hokage stared at him levelly. "I see," He said with a puff of his pipe. "And I assume that while you are telling me this, you will also be telling me about why I shouldn't have you executed for going against my orders?" Not that he could follow through on his threat at this moment. The Sand and Oto forces were standing by, and now that they'd caught a break thanks to Danzo's new student, they were working to quietly eliminate the threat… and send a message. A ninja village like theirs simply couldn't tolerate such plots against them.
Danzo shrugged. "Because the stakes are too high. If He hadn't recovered these plans, we would have been caught blind. And now that we know, we need a trained Jinchuuriki to match the threat of their own. Though I applaud your initiative of having him trained by your former student," A move he'd made with no idea that such an attack was so close on the horizon, "I truly did not feel that it was enough. Jiraiya, for all his efficiency and strength, is lazy and undisciplined. Naruto needed more focused attention. Thus, I took it upon myself to do just that. And if training a boy to help fend off an invasion that may destroy his home is treason, then please, kill me now. Or hand me a sword, and I will do it myself."
A dark scowl came over the Hokage's face. "Naruto knows?" He asked in a deadly whisper. As much as he saw Naruto as son, he knew the blonde boy was a loudmouth. He was not the person to be told about the greatest intelligence coup in a decade, even if he had unwittingly handed it to them. And he didn't have the time to properly drill secrecy into his thick skull.
"No. But I knew. We have been looking for ways to better the odds for the past few weeks. This seemed to be a good option, despite your objections. Uzumaki is now a capable Shinobi. More than capable of matching their own Jinchuuriki at this point," He declared proudly. Not that the Hokage needed to know that he had defied his orders before the threat ever materialized. "And now one of the many logistical problems facing us has been resolved. I make no apologies, Hokage-sama."
"Desperate times, Danzo?" The Hokage sighed. The idea of resolving one of the greatest hurdles of their counterstrike, the release of the Demon inside the boy, was enough to soften his tone. No, their odds just became a lot better.
"They do call for desperate measures," He replied cattily. The slight smirk dropped. "Without Uzumaki being trained, I am uncertain if the village can survive," He admitted. "The problem presented by the Ichibi container is great for our forces to handle. But Ichibi against Kyuubi…"
The Hokage nodded. "You shall have no further contact with him afterwards," The Hokage declared steadily. 'And I will make sure of that.' Danzo nodded earnestly. "But I am grateful for the steps you have taken, Danzo. Sadly the needs of the Leaf outweigh my own moral qualms about this." He glanced back at the intelligence report. "Please leave now before I change my mind."
"He is," Danzo nodded. "I would even go so far as to say to that it as if he has been trained for this very moment." The Hokage nodded slightly, understanding the message. Though he and Danzo had not typically seen eye to eye in the past, this was the moment where everything else was inconsequential in the face of such a threat. There was nothing else for it.
"I shall take your word for it," The Hokage replied, the edge evident in his tone. "Until later," He muttered as he walked back into the box. Sasuke's ten minutes were up. "Due to his absence, I declare Gaara of the Dessert the winner of this match!" He announced to stunned crowd.
The second after he made the announcement, the Stadium erupted in outrage. Angry spectators began shrieking, booing, and actually throwing debris on the field. Some even got to their feet and began flocking out of the stadium. The Kazekage looked absolutely miffed that he wasn't going to see the fight. But after a moment, where raw anger was etched onto his face, he seemingly calmed himself and schooled his face into a mask of neutrality. The Hokage took it as a signal that the plan was still in place. Gaara was still the herald of the invasion. The best possible outcome they could hope for; it meant their special forces had more time to weed out the invaders.
The Hokage quickly dispatched his Anbu to begin restoring order, while Danzo watched the ruckus impassively from his own seat. If they understood the stakes, they would never have clamored for this trivial match. The ironic thing was that this would never have been possible; they might have been caught entirely blind, if not for Uzumaki.
"Excuse me," Naruto tiredly tugged on the Anbu's sleeve. He was so damn tired. Man, Danzo was really putting him through his paces. But the old guy was kind of right; he had never been worked nearly that hard. It was no wonder why he felt like he'd been hit by a train.
The Anbu turned sharply, Cat mask revealing nothing to him. "Yes?" She asked sternly.
"Um, well, why are there people fighting on that roof?" Naruto asked, pointing up at a nearby roof.
"What are you talking about?" She asked sternly. Was this supposed to be part of another of his infamous pranks?
"There are two people fighting on that roof, and then there are like, three more people watching them," He explained slowly. "I think one of them is on that roof right there," He pointed right up at the building next to her.
"Move along, Uzumaki. I'll handle this," She told him calmly. Neko shook her head before calling for back-up. It might be prank of some kind, but on the other hand, if it wasn't, well… it was a choice between potentially be splattered in paint or missing a fight that could have consequences. The consequences of the discovery of a murder along her route… well, those kinds of investigations were never pretty, and there had been too many launched in recent times.
She entered the apartment building and climbed the steps slowly. Now that she was apparently getting closer, she could hear what he was talking about. It certainly sounded like a fight was taking place close by. Quietly, she opened the door to the roof and slowly inched her head out. There was… someone. And… yes, that looked like that Gaara kid. Or at least the sand… she was pretty sure it was sand… looked familiar. And… it looked like the fight was over. In the distance, she could barely make out two others moving away. The spectator on the roof turned, and she quietly closed the door, moving back so she could ambush him on the landing below. At very least, this merited a thorough questioning from Ibiki.
Quietly, she moved into the corner, the darkness shielding her presence. Slowly, the sound of footsteps drew closer. The figure quietly walked past, and she could barely make out in the darkness traditional Sand garb. What was an ally doing watching a fight. She emerged from her hiding place quietly dipping a withdrawn Shuriken in knockout poison. If she was wrong… but… she could tell, she wasn't wrong. The Sand Shinobi was just about to reach the next flight of stairs, so she drew her hand back and threw. The figure turned slightly, hearing the noise, but the shuriken impaled them slightly in the side. They began running down the stairs as the poison quickly spread through their system. At the bottom, they could go no further and collapsed to the ground.
She quickly reached the body, and bent low to examine it. The mysterious figure was apparently a male, and it looked like he was a Jounin. So why was a Sand Jounin out and about at this time of night? And what was with the fight? Then again, this was Ibiki's department. She quickly got a good grip on the figure, before she slung him over the shoulder for a midnight rendezvous with the Head Interrogator.
Of course, Ibiki's special arsenal quickly had the Jounin singing like a canary. It might have caused an international incident, if not for the evidence that there had been a death sometime in the night. Trace amounts of blood indicated that. And there seemed to be an apparent connection with Gekko Hayate's recent death. So they did have the authority to question him, seeing as they did have evidence he had witnessed… something. Circumstantial to be sure, but evidence nonetheless.
But what he revealed was stunning; a conspiracy at the Roots of Konoha. He did know something about Hayate's death; that Sand was behind it because he had learned of their plot. Their plot to invade Konoha in combination with Oto's forces at Orochimaru's behest. He didn't have everything, but he apparently had enough details, and knowledge of where to get more, that everything came to light. After Ibiki was done with him, Inoichi quickly came in and erased his knowledge of his capture and interrogation. He was released the next day, having no idea he'd given everything away.
Since that point, Konoha's forces had sprung into action against the Sand. Key figures of the invasion were captured, silenced, and all together neutralized. There were a few who couldn't be touched, like Gaara, but the quiet work they'd done would ensure that once their invasion swiftly failed. And in the aftermath… Konoha would rise to prominence among nations once more. But for now… another match was about to begin. And then… showtime.
Kankuro had swiftly surrendered when Gemna had called him for his match with Shino, meaning that it was time for Shikamaru's match with Temari. Both had swiftly moved into the arena while Gaara levelly stared at him, the message clear.
"So you're up next?" Shino asked quietly as the match began. Naruto nodded wordlessly, returning Gaara's stare. "It was nice knowing you," He muttered, sizing up the Ichibi Container, and not liking what he was seeing.
Naruto turned his head slightly. "Saw how I did against Neji?" Shino nodded silently. "It was sloppier than I intended, but I was ready for him." A slight smile made its way onto his face. "Just like I'm sure you were ready for the puppeteer."
"You make a valid point, but I do worry that you are in over your head," He whispered quietly.
"I've been in over my head since I got my graduated," Naruto remarked airily. "What's one more time?"
"Possibly the last time, though," Shino pointed out. "One time will be the last time, if you keep this up," He replied morbidly.
"But not this time," Naruto quickly countered. "I'm ready for him." He spared Shino a glance. "But I don't think you're going to be happy with the Arena once I get through with it," He assured him, turning away.
Both Shino and Naruto began quietly watching the fight as Shikamaru battled Temari. "Is it just me, or is this fight really boring?" Naruto asked dully. He shook his head. "This is why I wanted to give him advice; so we're not stuck here for four hours, bored out of our minds."
"I understand how you're feeling," Shino agreed. "On the other hand, considering that the point is to show off…"
"Hey, I understand. But there are fifty different ways of showing off. And at this point, it's… well kind of monotonous," Naruto replied. "I mean, I get that they're both good with strategy," Another one of Temari's special wind attacks forced Shikamaru to dodge, "But at this point, it seems like they're both so committed to strategy that they're ignoring the direct approach."
Shino's glasses flashed. "I see what you're saying. But perhaps it is the only way he knows how to fight."
"Perhaps. But, coming to back to the point of this match, it seems like this kind of thing would actually lose him points. Unless that's what he wants, of course. Shika is pretty damn lazy," Naruto muttered.
"Perhaps." He turned slightly and gazed at Naruto. "There is one thing I am curious about though: what is responsible for your sudden turnaround?"
"And you expect me to tell you? Just like that?" Naruto remarked, not looking at him.
"There was a time when you would have told me, Sakura, Sasuke, and anyone else willing to listen," He replied neutrally. "But I guess things have changed. Or at least, you have. So why?"
"Because," Naruto answered simply. He could tell Shino was expecting more of an answer, and frankly, it was simpler to answer the bug user now than to leave lingering questions. "Because there does come a point where you realize that you're not good enough, that it's time to start taking life a little more seriously."
"And you reached that point," Shino guessed quietly. "And you just… got better?" He asked skeptically.
"No one just gets better, Shino. You already know that. I improved the same way anyone else ever improved; sweat, blood, tears, persistence, the works," Naruto remarked quietly. "Personally, I think the real shock of this all is that it took me this long to get my act together. But obliviousness is sometimes such a wonderful and awful thing." He turned back to the field. "Oh look, Shikamaru has it all wrapped up."
Indeed, Temari seemed caught in his trap with no hope of escape. "I surrender," Shikamaru declared, letting go of the shadow. Naruto and Shino shook their heads; it was par for the course from the lazy genius.
While everyone was marveling at his surrender just as he had won, Shikamaru jumped back into the stands while Temari continued to sputter indignantly. Finally, she returned to the stands, still shaking her head. Gemna was about to call the next match when two figures appeared in a swirl of leaves.
"Are we too late?" Kakashi asked nonchalantly as he and Sasuke finally arrived.
Gemna's eyes flicked to the Hokage's box as he received his answer. "Yes. Please vacate the field. Will Gaara of the Dessert and Naruto Uzumaki please come down here?" He announced to the stands.
Sasuke glared at Kakashi and stalked off to the stands as Naruto quickly jumped down. Kakashi stared at him for a moment before he shook his head and wandered off to join his other students. Gaara joined him in a whirlwind of sand.
"You will prove my existence," Gaara hissed lowly as they took their places before the match began.
"Perhaps," He agreed, Shino's words echoing in his head. "But we'll see. And maybe be pleasantly surprised," He said, setting himself in a combat stance. He glanced at Gemna. "Shall we?"
He nodded. "Ready… Hajime!" Gemna announced, as the match began. Naruto smiled slightly, despite the opponent facing him, ready for the chance to bring the sand boy low and finally prove himself to these people, once and for all.