Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto
Chapter Thirty Two:
The Old Man's speech would have been more interesting if Sensei had not already laid bare the dual purposes of the Chuunin Exam to Naruto and his teammates. Beyond a venue for promoting genin to chuunin, it served as substitute warfare between villages and free advertising. The system seemed to work somehow, though Naruto couldn't help but think it was an awfully random way to go about playing mock war. Then again, no one had ever said that war was an orderly affair.
Given that eight of the sixteen teams who entered training ground forty four for the survival portion of the Chuunin Exam were from foreign nations, Naruto expected at least one or two of them to make it to the end, even considering that Team Nine had disqualified one Suna team and indirectly led to an Ame team also being eliminated. That did not appear to be the case, however. Whether the fighting had been especially intense and bloody throughout the Forest of Death or the teams just hadn't been able to find the appropriate scroll to match their own – it was a big freaking forest and not everyone had a teammate like Neji to trivialize the search and seizure aspect of the exam – looking up now at the large screen embedded in the wall of the tower's basement, all he could see were Konoha teams.
Half the names on the board were rookie genin, graduates of the class that would have been Naruto's if he'd not been withdrawn from the academy. Team Nine, experience aside, were considered little more than rookies themselves. Naruto did not recognize the names of the final team, they were all much older than his contemporaries, but the Konoha forehead protector was unmistakable on the brow of every genin now standing in the massive underground room. Home ground advantage was one thing, a total shut out of foreign teams was another all together.
Even as a citizen of Konoha and a member of its ninja forces, Naruto wouldn't have been totally incredulous if someone claimed the Chuunin Exam had been unfairly fixed to eliminate foreigners.
How would having all the tournament participants come from Konoha affect attendance of the approaching tournament? Didn't that kind of invalidate the mock warfare aspect? Fortunately, that sort of stuff was for the Old Man to worry about. When Naruto received the Hokage hat, then he'd be stuck dealing with logistics and political considerations. Now was the time to make a name for himself.
The two columns of names began to blur in response to a signal given by the Hokage. The randomization took only a moment, resulting in the initial six tournament matchups appearing one after the other.
Uchiha Sasuke versus Haruno Sakura
Sasuke slumped in his wheelchair, apparently already sensing the piercing shriek of horror that was about to emanate from the pink-haired girl who'd wheeled him into the gathering of genin. Naruto, and most others present, winced in sympathy, the Uchiha boy was less than a meter away from Sakura and she had a decent set of lungs on her. At least Sasuke had an easy fight for the first round, unless Sakura had made significant strides in the past couple years. The girl he'd once sorta maybe had a little crush on was very intelligent, if Naruto recalled her academic scores correctly, but she'd been a poor combatant in the academy. She was very pretty…
Higurashi Tenten versus Tsurugi Misumi
His bun-haired teammate perked up and cast a glance toward the trio of older genin, wondering which she would fight. Naruto wouldn't assume any of the older genin was pushovers, even if they seemed old for their rank. While age did not necessarily equate to skill, it was a good indicator, and additional years of experience could only be an advantage.
Uzumaki Naruto versus Hyuuga Hinata
Huh. Naruto turned to regard Hinata more closely. While hanging out with Kiba and Akamaru over the past several days, he'd tried to interact with the Inuzuka's teammates. Shino was a genin of very few words and more uptight than Sensei, if that was possible. Hinata appeared to have some sort of nervous disorder. He didn't really remember much of the Hyuuga girl from his time in the academy, she'd never made an effort to stand out and he'd been distracted by other matters. The little time he'd spent around her in the tower revealed that Hinata was a stuttering, self-conscious girl prone to frequent blushing and the occasional fainting spell. Now, the girl was deathly pale and trembling. She wasn't that terrified of fighting him, right? What in hell had that asshole Kiba been telling her?
Rock Lee versus Hyuuga Neji
As was typical for his Hyuuga teammate, the boy didn't noticeably react upon learning of his opponent. Rock Lee, on the other hand, was having paroxysms of joy. By far the oddest looking of the genin present, the green-clad kid with his bowl cut hair and impressively large eyebrows, completed his celebration with a backward somersault and a pronouncement about his "Youth" and how it would "Shine Forth!". Lee was the kid from Neji and Tenten's graduating class who'd been apprenticed to Might Guy for the past eighteen months. According to Sensei, Guy was one of the most powerful jounin in the village. His student was not likely to be a slouch.
Yakushi Kabuto versus Inuzuka Kiba
Akamaru barked once, expressing general enthusiasm and a desire to prove himself, and Kiba muttered something that Naruto couldn't quite understand when he learned he'd be fighting another of the older genin. Naruto had a feeling it was the grey-haired guy with glasses, going by the slight smirk on the man's face as he eyed his younger opponent.
Aburame Shino versus Akado Yoroi
The heir to the Aburame clan, true to form, showed as little reaction to the announcement as Neji had.
The small herd of successful genin was led from the basement arena by an exam proctor, this one a sickly looking fellow afflicted with a persistent cough.
As Sensei predicted, they would have a month to train in between the survival and tournament portions of the Chuunin Exam. That was a relief because Naruto needed time to work out a strategy. He had no doubt that he would end up fighting one of his teammates in the next part of the exam. Not only had they seen everything he could do, and vice versa, he had no desire to hurt either of them. Actually, he didn't want to hurt any of his fellow Konoha genin. There were differing degrees of hurt, though, and despite medical ninjutsu being just short of miraculous in its effects, very little of his arsenal wasn't outright crippling, if not lethal.
During the past few years spent developing and refining his skills, Naruto had not put any thought into how he would fight allies. If he wanted to guarantee a promotion to chuunin, his performance would need to be spectacular. Hmm…
"I can't believe you, Chouji! We missed the deadline!" exclaimed the unmistakable voice of Yamanaka Ino from down a side corridor. "Why would you eat a black and purple mushroom?"
There was more shouting, but they were moving out of range and the murmuring of the group quickly drowned out Ino's scathing reprimands of her teammate. It was a relief just to know that Chouji and Shikamaru had survived the Forest of Death, even if they wouldn't be advancing further into the competition. To be honest, and he'd never mention the possibility around the Yamanaka girl, Naruto wouldn't put it past Shikamaru and Chouji to sabotage their promotion. Neither was all that eager to become chuunin and he knew for a fact that if not for threats of maternal violence on the Nara's part and an act of outright food bribery in the case of the Akimichi, his two friends would not have elected to enter the Chuunin Exam.
Kiba snickered at the situation the males of Team Ten found themselves in. "Yapping bitch should be happy her team didn't pass. She'd get torn apart in the tournament."
Naruto sighed at the boy's crassness. It was one thing to talk like that when there weren't any girls around, but another entirely when Hinata was standing right next to the boy and Tenten, who had a definite problem with females being disrespected, was only meters away. When there was no immediate retaliation, he figured the Hyuuga heiress was just too nice to wallop her deserving teammate. Maybe Tenten just hadn't noticed.
"Ack!" Kiba yelped as a miniscule bolt of lightning arced down from the ceiling and connected with the top of his head.
Or maybe Tenten had noticed after all.
Meeting with their Sensei after being escorted out of the Forest of Death, Team Nine was treated to one of the jounin's rare smiles.
"Congratulations, students. I've received word that you three broke the old exam completion record, a time that has stood unchallenged for two decades, by nearly five hours." Left unmentioned was the side mission the team had appointed for itself. Sensei had not approved, despite Gaara's blatant attempt to murder them all without cause. Naruto wouldn't be surprised if the matter was never brought up again, by Sensei or Team Nine.
"I'd say we're awesome for kicking ass and breaking the record," responded Naruto as he and his teammates followed Sensei, "but it was too easy. Having Neji along for something like that test is practically cheating." Not that he minded cheating. They were ninja, after all, and the byakugan was just another tool in their arsenal. It sure had worked well during the written test.
"Nah, we're still awesome," said Tenten, flashing Naruto a victory sign. Laughing, the two genin high-fived, prompting Neji to roll his white eyes at their antics.
With Sensei in the lead, Team Nine followed the jounin through the streets of Konoha, sedately making their way to his home. Along the way, they chatted amicably.
It turned out that Naruto had been correct in his assumption that the basement in the central tower in the Forest of Death had once been used for training, though that was many decades ago. In more recent times, it had been repurposed to occasionally serve as a combat venue during Konoha-based Chuunin Exams. If Team Ten hadn't been delayed in arriving at the tower, there would have likely been enough genin to justify holding a preliminary tournament to weed out the weaker contestants before the big event next month.
"Such an occurrence is rare, though not unheard of," responded Sensei to Naruto's question about only Konoha teams advancing to the finals. "In any given exam, depending on the number of participants and the manner in which the host village conducts the trials, it's expected that two-thirds to three-quarters of finalists will be from the host village itself. Each of the major hidden villages occupies a specific geographic niche that favors those most accustomed to the environment; Konoha has its forests, Suna the desert, Kumo the mountains, and so on. Naturally, this slants the results of the survival tests accordingly."
Well, so long as a real war wasn't going to break out because the people in charge were denied their entertainment, Naruto didn't mind.
Just because Team Nine could be competing against one another in the coming weeks, Sensei had no intention of neglecting any of their training. He was willing to cut back mandatory team training to four hours per day, barring the usual extenuating factors. He was also encouraging them to seek out specialized instruction and would set aside two hours per genin per day that would be straight one on one time if they felt they needed additional practice. Sensei would not be giving any of his genin advice, hints, techniques, or anything else specifically geared toward defeating one of their teammates, not that any of them had asked. That was Sensei for you.
"You want to…forfeit?" Kakashi-sensei repeated, gazing sideways at Sakura with his one visible eye. Between the man's mask and the crooked forehead protector that covered his implanted sharingan eye, it was always difficult to tell what Team Seven's commander was thinking unless he made exaggerated expressions. This time, even with his face obscured, it was clear by tone of voice alone that Kakashi-sensei was puzzled.
"Yes, sir," she said with a determined nod. Her pink hair shifted under the makeshift scarf she was using to hide the horrible damage inflicted by Sasuke's battle with Orochimaru. As soon as she could schedule a visit with a stylist, she would at least be able to get it evened out. Ino would be absolutely delighted to see her once long locks reduced to a shadow of their former glory. She sighed and forced herself to stop worrying about her hair, lest she start crying again. That would be embarrassing in front of her beloved. "I can't fight Sasuke!"
Just thinking about the boy made her giddy, totally erasing the concerns she'd harbored about her ruined hair only moments earlier. He was letting her push his wheelchair! Who knows, if she played her cards right, maybe he'd let her stay over at his place and nurse him back to health. In his injured state, she would have to help him with everything, of course. The sponge baths alone…
Focus, Sakura! She insisted mentally. Now wasn't the time to fantasize.
"Why not?" asked the jounin, though most of his attention was turned toward one of his disgusting orange books.
"Isn't it obvious, Kakashi-sensei? Sasuke is still badly injured from his battle with Orochimaru! I couldn't bring myself to fight him in his weakened condition. What if he got hurt again?" The Uchiha boy had been confined to his bed for days on end, his body ravaged by the insidious poison injected into him by the rogue ninja. Sasuke still wasn't able to walk more than a few steps and the medical ninja who had discharged him from the infirmary insisted that he not attempt to use chakra for at least another week, so heavily damage were his chakra coils.
"Weak?" Sasuke snapped. He'd only been half paying attention to Sakura's exchange with Kakashi. Initially, he assumed she didn't want to fight him because she knew just how unimpressive her skills were in comparison to his own. When Orochimaru attacked, at least he'd put up a fight against the bastard, while she'd been swept aside in the first moments of the encounter. To hear that she thought him too weak to fight her, the thought of it alone was ludicrous.
"You think I'm weak?" he repeated, clenching the armrests of the wheelchair in his fists with enough force that they began to creak in a protest of stressed metal.
Fucking wheelchair. It mocked Sasuke with its very presence and clear necessity, reminding him that his sole attempt at walking on his own had resulted in an embarrassing stumble and fall in front of Kakashi, two medical ninja he did not know by name, and his pink-haired teammate.
"No, Sasuke, I-" she began to reply, but he cut her off.
"Save your sentiments for someone who cares!" Sasuke tore his fists away from the armrests and moved to grip the wheels themselves. It caused shooting pains to erupt from his shoulder that lanced down his left arm and into his fingertips, and his ribs ached terribly, but there was a great deal of satisfaction in hearing Sakura's quiet cry of protest as he propelled the chair forward under his own power, tearing it away from her control.
"Wait, I'm sorry, Sasuke. Please don't go." Her apology and entreaties only served as motivation to pump his arms harder to put greater distance between himself and the girl.
"Let him go, Sakura. I'll check up on him later," was Kakashi's response, apparently silencing Sakura. Continuing to guide the wheelchair toward his apartment in the mostly abandoned Uchiha district, less than a minute passed before he could no longer hear them following behind.
He was hardly paying attention, between the pain in his shoulder and arm and the anger at his useless teammate for insinuating that he was too weak to fight, so did not notice the lines of red-rimmed black snaking their way across his flesh, originating from the location where only days earlier he'd been bitten by Orochimaru.
A/N: Holy crap, it took me a week to update! Sorry about that, folks. Between going out of town and other factors, I've just not had the time or energy to sit down and crank out another chapter; I'm dedicated, but not quite enough to try to belt out a chapter using my Kindle. I was really hoping to have the first major story arc, and the Chuunin Exam along with it, completed soon. With my current distractions, that might not happen before classes resume next month. Don't worry, though, I'm not abandoning the story. One week without an update seemed to worry some people… ^_^
One quick note on the relative strength of Naruto and his teammates in this story; yes, they're powerful for their age. Are they "super" powered? No, I don't believe so. Let's just say they've advanced more quickly than most of their peers. It's going to be difficult to power them up enough so that they're in the same league with the latter types of opposition that is introduced in canon following the time skip. Those who've complained about this aspect of the story aren't likely reading any longer, so it's not much of an issue. To everyone else, I hope you continue to enjoy reading along.
For those who have asked, Naruto does not have any special bloodline or Kyuubi-related ability that lets him converse with Akamaru. His ability to communicate with the dog is just author's fiat. Anyone else ever wanted to know what their pet was thinking? Since this isn't a "boy and his dog" type story, I've just borrowed Kiba's for fun.
Please remember to review. Comments and criticisms are greatly appreciated and help keep me on task.
Published: 7/13/2012 - [It's Friday the 13th! I should have left this chapter hanging on a major cliffhanger]