The Sharpest Edge

Chapter VII – The Harshness of Reality

Sakura jumped back a few paces, determined to put valuable distance between Hinata and herself, so that she could observe the Hyūga, and determine the appropriate course of action.

Looking over the relatively short distance between them, she noticed that Hinata seemed to be considering her as well, the Hyūga's pale eyes focused exclusively upon her. It was a little unnerving, the way Hinata stared at her, watching hawk-like for the slightest twitch of a muscle. Sakura watched on with growing trepidation as Hinata's eyes grew seemingly larger, with several veins rising prominently to the surface either side of them. "Byakugan," whispered the two girls, almost with perfect timing. Hinata's hands rose up in front of her chest, palms outwards, fingers rigidly upright.

Sakura stared back, just as determinedly, showing outwardly that she was unafraid. Inwardly, there was a great deal of concern, however, this was her big chance to show that she was worthy of graduating from the Academy. Plus, it would give her the opportunity to show her Sasuke-kun just how beneficial it would be for him to choose her.

Deciding that their battle of stares was getting them nowhere fast, Sakura grabbed a handful of shuriken and flung them as fast as she could. Seeing the threat the impending throwing stars presented, Hinata leapt backwards, before coming to a stop a few metres back. Releasing a deep breath, Hinata retook her stance. Aside from the dirt covering her palms and fingers, Hinata was completely unscathed.

Sakura hadn't expected such a simple thing to work. Hinata was the heiress of the Hyūga clan, and was bound to have been trained to an exceptionally high standard at home. That didn't mean that Sakura felt inferior, though. She had parents who were shinobi as well, and they had trained their daughter well.

She needed a plan of action; something that would give her an advantage over the seemingly impenetrable defence that Hinata was showcasing. Engaging in close combat was a definitely bad idea. From what her parents had told her, the Hyūga were famous for both their Byakugan, and their mastery of the Jūken style of taijutsu, a powerful martial art that damaged their enemies by forcing pulses of their own chakra through their opponent's bodies, effectively destroying them from the inside out. Keeping her distance was vital, however, Sakura did not possess any long-range battle techniques. The only attacks she could muster from distance were her kunai and shuriken, and Hinata had just demonstrated perfectly the results of such actions. To say that Sakura was concerned about her chances in this battle would be an understatement.

Hinata, on the other hand, was not aware of the thoughts running through her opponent's mind. Instead, Hinata had been keeping a close watch on Sakura, looking for any potential weaknesses; the only thing that sprang to her mind was her affection for Uchiha Sasuke, but that was something that she didn't feel was exploitable in the current situation.

Truthfully, the Hyūga heiress didn't want to battle at all. She absolutely hated fighting. From when she was young and able to recall memories on command, all she could remember was conflict. Arguments between her mother and father, where on occasion her father's words could be very cutting; to sparring with her little sister – although Hanabi had not looked upon them as friendly training, but rather as opportunities to showcase her own dominance over Hinata, who was much more reserved, not wanting to hurt her sister – almost daily; to having to bear her father's disapproving stares almost every time she saw him.

She had to stop the direction of her thoughts. They were proving distracting from the task at hand. Her current goal was to incapacitate the girl opposite her, no matter how much distaste she felt for it. These exams were far too important for her to simply give up. They were a stepping stone; a platform from which she could begin to achieve her ambition.

Thusly, when Hinata saw that Sakura was not willing to engage her, she took the initiative. "Here I come, Sakura-san," she said, before beginning a run, her style still preserved despite the speed with which she moved.

Sakura, being left with little choice, dashed towards Hinata, intent upon ending the battle with a few well-placed powerful punches. Slowing her run and settling back into a practised stance, Hinata held firm, waiting for the opportune moment.

As Sakura drew close, she thrust her right hand forwards, clenched tightly into a fist. Blocking with her forearm, Hinata stopped the attack, then thrust her hand forwards, aiming to slam it into her opponent's chest. Sakura was ready, though. She had expected the retaliatory blow, so ducking beneath the attack, she swept her right leg in a wide arc, attempting to unbalance the Hyūga.

Hinata, not expecting this, took the full force of the attack, her right leg nearly buckling beneath her. Hinata gritted her teeth as she felt the pain register in her nerves, while Sakura nimbly scooted away.

"I guess the first round goes to me," said Sakura, a small amount of smugness entering her voice. She was sorely tempted to search out Sasuke, just to see what his reaction was. As it stood, however, she couldn't afford to take her eyes off of the Hyūga heiress.

Hinata could feel tears trying to force themselves from her eyes, but she blinked them away angrily. She would not cry! Not today, nor ever again. Today was supposed to be the beginning of the new Hinata; instead, she was nearly reduced to a quivering wreck by one hit. Forcing herself to stand straight and proud, she faced her opponent. "I guess it does, Sakura-san," she replied, giving the pink-haired girl a small smile that quickly became a straight line, devoid of any outward emotion. "However, the final round will belong to me."

That said, Hinata began a new assault. With rapid steps, Hinata reduced the distance between herself and Sakura, forcing Sakura onto the defensive instantaneously. Taking out a kunai, she gripped it firmly in her right hand. This way, she reasoned she would be able to hold Hinata's taijutsu for a short while, just until she considered her options. "Come then, Hinata! Let's see what you can do!" she goaded, hoping that her heckling would break through Hinata's composure.

It didn't seem to work, though, for Hinata continued her run, her whole body primed to attack. As she drew closer, Sakura could see something in Hinata's eyes: resolve. Sakura could see that no matter what she might do, or how she might prepare, Hinata was not going to stop her charge.

Sakura didn't want to seriously hurt Hinata by potentially stabbing her with the kunai held in her now shaking hand, but she hadn't got any clue as to what to do next.

Those moments of hesitation allowed Hinata to bear upon Sakura, her palm slamming against Sakura's chest, eliciting dual gasps – one of pain from Sakura, and one of anguish from Hinata.

Falling back from the force exerted by Hinata's strike, Sakura fell, her back crashing to the ground. She winced as she felt pain cascading around her body. Reality then rushed upon her, and she realised that she was lying on her back! All Hinata would need to do was either hold her at kunai-point or incapacitate her another way, and she would be given the victory! With a sudden rush of adrenaline, Sakura forced herself to her feet, wobbling slightly as she tried to right her equilibrium. She felt dizzy, holding a hand to her forehead, willing the disorientation away.

It was at that moment that she realised that Hinata was yet to try and claim the match. Blinking owlishly, she looked to Hinata; the girl seemed shaken. Her hands were scrunched together, she chewed on her lower lip – seemingly not noticing – and her eyes were shimmering.

"Hinata," said Sakura, drawing Hinata's attention to her, "why are you so bothered by this little injury? It's not that bad." Really, while she was appreciative of Hinata's concern, this was not the place for it. They were supposed to be fighting, damn it!

"Sakura-san, I...I really dislike fighting," Hinata softly admitted, unclenching her hands long enough to begin nervously prodding her fingertips together. "I don't like hurting others."

"Hinata," began Sakura cautiously, "this is a battle. Accidents sometimes happen. Besides, as ninja, there are going to be times when we will have no choice but to fight."

"I know that!" exclaimed Hinata passionately, surprising herself with the emotion she put into the words. "I know that..."

"If you know that, why would you become a ninja, then?" asked Sakura, genuinely curious.

"To fulfil my dream," answered Hinata after a moment of contemplative thought.

"Your...dream...?"

Hinata smiled as she took in a deep breath. She remembered her promise to herself, back when she was younger, then repeated the words for everyone to hear. "I want to become a great shinobi! Strong like my father, and kind like my mother. To fulfil that dream, I will work hard, then, perhaps one day, I might finally get the recognition I desire." Her father's approving face flashed through her mind as she completed her words. Of course, it was an image she had created in her imagination, but it provided her with the comfort that she may one day see that look on his face. One day, perhaps.

"Hinata..."

"Sakura-san. I swore to myself before this battle began...that I would give it my all, no matter how much it hurt me to do so. It doesn't matter whether I dislike fighting," said Hinata, shaking her head slowly. "The truth is...to become what I want to be, I have to work hard for it, never giving up. I have to ignore the fact that I am hurting others, and do what needs to be done, to protect both my home, and those I love. Maybe then, I will be able to say that I am proud of who I am."

"Go for it, Hinata!" cheered Ino, waving her arms widely. "Do your best!"

"Ino-san..."

"Hey, Ino! What the hell?!" seethed Sakura.

"Oh!" said Ino, sounding surprised. "You as well, Sakura."

"Ino!"

Hinata softly giggled at their battle of words, a genuine smile blossoming on her face. She would show everybody watching that she was more than capable. She would prove to everybody that she had worked hard. Most importantly, she would prove to herself that she could change, and become the person she wanted to be. "Strong and kind, just like my parents..." she breathed, before a fierce look of determination blossomed on her face. "Sakura-san, I am going to give this battle my all from this point forward," she stated fiercely.

Sakura gave a short grin. "I wouldn't want it any other way, Hinata!"

"It looks like they're going to get serious, huh?" Ino asked of her best friend.

"It looks that way," replied Naruto, turning back to the match. "I wonder what Sakura will do."

So do I, thought Sakura as she faced off once more against a newly resolve hardened Hinata. Sakura ran through her arsenal mentally: her ninjutsu comprised of the basic skills taught in the Academy – substitution, clone and transformation. Although her father had said that she seemed as though she possessed an aptitude for genjutsu, he had been unable to teach her, and neither he nor her mother had been able to arrange possible lessons with those who were more versed in the ways of illusion; therefore, he had taught her what he did know – taijutsu. I guess I'll have to try and disable her up close, she thought grimly, not much looking forward to the upcoming conflict.

Hinata took in a few deep, calming breaths. She hadn't expected things to turn out this way, but in a way she was glad. Knowing that she had people – even a few – who were willing to support her in her strive for change made her whole body feel lighter, and she kept on smiling, whether she willed it or no. Now, I have to prove that I can change, she thought determinedly, her mouth set in a straight line.

One more deep, settling breath and Hinata was off like a shot, her feet daintily touching the ground for the fleetest of moments as she cut the distance between herself and Sakura in a handful of heartbeats. Sakura, having seen Hinata's stalwart charge, responded in kind, her feet thumping the ground beneath her as she raced at Hinata, her fists tightly clenched.

As they met in the middle, Sakura slammed her fist forwards, intending to strike Hinata in the gut, hopefully winding her, however, Hinata predicted the attack and met the blow with her open palm. Wincing at the force behind the strike, Hinata watched as Sakura winced alike, pulling back her fist and gingerly touching her knuckles. I can't feel my fingers, thought Sakura, looking at Hinata, almost in awe. That taijutsu style of hers is dangerous. I can't let myself get caught by it again.

Gritting her teeth against the numbness locked in her right hand, she tensed the muscles in her left and swung, almost wildly, at Hinata's face. Hinata, not wanting to be struck, aimed to block her again, much as she had with the first attack. Stopping it mere centimetres from her face, she was rewarded with Sakura's gasp of pain as her Jūken struck, causing further damage to Sakura's main mode of offence.

Yet, Sakura was not done. She quickly dropped down, sweeping with her leg again as she had at the very beginning of the match. I already weakened Hinata's legs earlier in the match, she reasoned. All it will take is one solid blow and she'll crumple. I'm betting everything on this final attack!

Her leg blitzed, the attack strong and true...only to be met by Hinata's palm. What...?!

Hinata allowed herself a small smile as she looked Sakura in the eyes, Byakugan-enhanced crystal meeting forest-green. "I won't be fooled for a second time, Sakura-san," she said as she hit Sakura's leg with one solid blow.

Sakura cursed as she felt her leg give way beneath her. Unbalanced, Sakura fell in a heap on the ground. Her legs beneath her – one of them injured beyond any further use without medical attention – Sakura was forced to stay where she was. Hinata towered over her, her Byakugan suddenly oddly menacing, a thin line where her lips should be. "Do you yield, Sakura-san?" she asked in an even tone.

Sakura looked away from Hinata; away from the scene of her failure; away from the person who had so thoroughly defeated her. She instead faced her gathered classmates, ignored the mixed looks of sympathy and mockery, and sought out one special person. Sasuke-kun! she thought, her eyes finding the Uchiha, however, she realised that something was wrong. Why doesn't he look at me? Sasuke's gaze was fixed solely upon a vacant space in front of himself, clearly not interested in Sakura, her battle or her condition. Isn't he upset by the fact that I'm hurt? Doesn't he care that I've fought my hardest? Is he not concerned about me at all? Her eyes had been slowly welling up with tears as she asked herself those questions. Finally, the dam broke as she thought one final thing: Why will you not look at me?!

Tears falling silently from her brilliant eyes, Sakura whispered, "I yield."

Iruka nodded, his face as serious as she had ever seen it. "The winner of this match by forfeit, Hyūga Hinata."

Hinata's face spoke volumes of disbelief as she was awarded the victory. Smiling softly, she extended a hand to Sakura. "Thank you, Sakura-san, for an amazing battle."

Sakura looked at the hand of friendship and felt herself smile back, despite the situation. Grasping Hinata's hand tightly, the two girls managed to get Sakura to her feet. Tucking her head beneath Sakura's armpit, she carefully supported Sakura's weight, walking the two of them back to their classmates. "You're changing, Hinata."

"Sakura-san...?" questioned Hinata, unsure of whether she had heard the pink-haired girl correctly.

"You're strong, Hinata," continued Sakura as if Hinata hadn't spoken. "You'll only get even stronger from here. I know you can make your dream come true."

Hinata's soft, shy smile, accompanied by colouring cheeks was Sakura's answer.

"That was a well-fought match," said Naruto as the girls came close. "Congratulations, Hinata-san."

"Thank you, Naruto-san," whispered a blushing Hinata, lowering Sakura to sit on the grass by Ino.

"Bad luck, Sakura, but you did your best," commiserated Ino as she knelt to check out Sakura's injuries. "Hmm," she pondered, softly touching Sakura's leg, making the pink-haired girl cry out. Backing away, she ran through a small number of hand-seals; around her hands, there seemed to be a strange glow – a luminescent green. Applying her hands to the leg, she watched as Sakura's face immediately began to loose its tension and her usual expression returned.

"Ino, is that...?" began Naruto.

Ino nodded her head. "Medical ninjutsu. I've been learning from my mother for a long time now. It's only recently that I've finally been able to get the control needed."

"That's really amazing, Ino!" smiled Naruto.

Ino, however, shook her head. "No, I still have a long way to go. My mother is still far more skilled than I am. Smaller injuries, such as this, are about the limit of my abilities."

"Don't put yourself down, Ino," said Naruto fiercely, making Ino's head jolt up. "I don't know how many medical ninja there are in Konoha, but I bet none of them is as young as you are. You've got to give yourself more credit."

"Naruto..."

"Honest, Ino!" he beamed, his words resonating with the sheer belief in her he held. "You are amazing."

Ino's cheeks brightened and felt so very warm as she allowed her best friend's words to wash over her. Looking down at her patient, she was rewarded for her efforts with the sight of Sakura resting peacefully, her eyes closed and her breathing set in a steady rhythm, indicative of her having fallen asleep. "She'll still need to be checked at the hospital properly once this tournament is over, but for now she'll be alright."

Releasing the jutsu, Ino fell back a little, causing Naruto to cry out in alarm. "I'm fine, Naruto," she reassured, seeing the concern in his eyes. "I just used a little bit too much of my chakra."

"Are you sure you're alright? What about our match?"

Ino managed to smirk, albeit tiredly. "Not to worry. Our match shouldn't be for at least another hour. I'm just going to...close my eyes...for a minute..." Her voice trailed off as she began to fall backwards in earnest. Naruto – already wary – fell to his knees, collecting her falling body in his arms. Looking closely at her face, he could see the sweat beading on her brow, and the way her whole body spoke of exhaustion, even as she softly breathed. To go so far for a friend. You really are amazing, Ino, he thought fondly, smiling gently.

"How cute!" gushed one of the girls who had been watching Naruto's expression change rapidly from panic to tenderness.

"I hope I find somebody who'll care for me like that someday," said another wistfully.

Sasuke snorted as he watched the whole sorry affair play out. What use were emotions like friendship and love? The only emotion he needed was hatred. Fostering it deep within his heart, his whole life had now been overrun by the powerfully dark emotion. After all, as the blood traitor had said, if his hatred was not strong enough, what hope did he stand? Just you wait. I'm coming for you...Itachi!

Iruka had watched Ino with amazement shining in his eyes. To think...here was one of his students, not even a genin, and yet able to perform an A-Rank ninjutsu. He had to reason that her chakra control was insanely high for her age. Of course, having a mother who was a medical ninja had to help, but even so, Iruka had high hopes for the Yamanaka heiress. To his mind, she had the potential to achieve anything.

"Next match – Nara Shikamaru against Akimichi Chōji. Would both combatants step forward?" Trudging forwards reluctantly, Chōji stood rigidly, his whole person screaming discomfort. "Good," said Iruka, before noticing that something was not quite right.

Shikamaru had not moved. He still stood lazily in the same spot he had occupied since the whole blasted tournament started. He didn't want to fight full-stop, yet alone against his best friend. Why did I have to be put against you, Chōji? he thought. I just wanted to graduate – no fuss, no hassle, no bother. Why does this happen to me?

A sudden force against his back pushed Shikamaru forwards. Looking behind himself, Shikamaru saw the cause of his sudden momentum. "Naruto, you troublesome pest."

Looking pleased with himself, Naruto grinned brightly. "You can thank me later, Shikamaru!"

"Do you know how much of a pain you are?" grumbled the Nara, running a hand tiredly through his hair. When he got a black stare in response, Shikamaru sighed. "Such a pain..."

"Hey, Shikamaru, hurry up over here," ordered Iruka. With slow, measured steps, Shikamaru walked his weary way to where his best friend stood. "Good," repeated Iruka, now satisfied. "Are you both ready? Shikamaru?"

"This is too much work," complained the Nara – Iruka took that as a yes.

"Chōji?"

"Sensei?" replied the loyal Akimichi, turning his response into a question.

Iruka raised his eyebrows. "What is it?"

Chōji shuffled uncomfortably on the spot. "I don't...do I have to fight Shikamaru?"

"That is the point of this exercise, Chōji," said Iruka patiently.

"But I...I don't want..."

"Chōji." Hearing his name said by the familiar voice, Chōji turned his eyes to Shikamaru. "It's fine, Chōji."

"But, Shikamaru..."

"It's a total pain, to be honest," said Shikamaru, his head held partially upright by his left hand. "You know me, Chōji. I'd much rather be at our favourite place, staring at the clouds. Of course," he said with a chuckle, "when I think of the earache I'll get if I don't at least try, well...You know how irate she can get." Chōji nodded in agreement. He had been present many a time when Shikamaru's mother launched into one of her infamous tirades. The results were usually...unpleasant.

"Still," continued Shikamaru, a rare, wry smile etched onto his face, "even though I really don't want to exert myself, I'm glad it's you I get to fight against, Chōji."

"Shikamaru..."

"You're my best friend," he stated simply.

"You are mine, as well," replied Chōji, his cheeks a ruddy red.

"Well, as your best friend, Chōji, I'm going to give this fight my all." Chōji opened his mouth to speak, but Shikamaru cut him to the quick. "Normally, I wouldn't be bothered, but this is your chance to become a genin. If I don't get serious against you, you won't have a chance to show just how hard you train. I won't let you fail, just because it's too troublesome."

"Shikamaru..." began Chōji, feeling his eyes watering. Rubbing the traitorous tears away, Chōji straightened up, and a serious expression blossomed. "I will fight, too. This is as much your chance as it is mine."

"Don't worry, Chōji," reassured the Nara. "No matter what happens, you are still my best friend. That fact won't ever change."

"Never," voiced Chōji, vehemently agreeing. Scrunching his face up, the loyal Akimichi fought deep in himself for the resolve to follow through with his words. He really didn't want to hurt his best friend, the one person to look beyond his outer appearance and clumsiness, and accept him as he was, without stipulations or qualms.

What Shikamaru had said had rung true deep down, though. If he had simply surrendered, it was unlikely that either of them would graduate – not having taken the chance to prove themselves would prove fatalistic to both of them. If Chōji wanted wither of them to advance, he would have to fight his hardest, and show Iruka and Mizuki that he was worthy of becoming a genin. Taking up a battle stance, he stared down his best friend. "Are you ready, Shikamaru?"

"Ah," replied the Nara, already formulating at least a dozen strategies he could choose to employ.

Iruka was smiling on the inside, despite his rough-seeming exterior. Already, the seeds of friendship and loyalty were sown with these two young men. Over time, the bonds they possessed would only grow ever stronger. The Will of Fire burns strongly still, he smiled. "Very well," he said. "Chōji; Shikamaru; begin!"

Placing his hands together, Chōji shouted out the name of his attack: "Baika no Jutsu!" His whole body expanded, almost as though he had suddenly been filled to overflowing with gas or water. Shikamaru looked at Chōji's actions; discarding several of his already formulated plots, he devised several more, taking into account the rapidly developing situation.

"Nikudan Sensha!" Withdrawing his hands and legs into his clothing, Chōji began to spin, rapidly gaining speed as his rolls became more forceful and driven. Finally, once he felt he was rotating at a sufficient pace, he moved, rolling towards Shikamaru faster than anyone gathered thought possible.

Shikamaru was ready. Dropping to his knee, he formed the rat seal. "Kagemane no Jutsu!" His shadow sprang into being, extending from Shikamaru's crouched position, aiming straight for Chōji's rapidly approaching form.

As the shadow reached Chōji, the Akimichi suddenly sped up even more, bypassing Shikamaru's shadow. Damn! He's fast! Backtracking as fast as he may, his shadow did an about-turn, chasing down the runaway Chōji. Seeing the imposing form of Chōji's boulder-like appearance, Shikamaru dodged, leaping above, safely out of the path of Chōji's assault.

His speed is the problem, thought Shikamaru as Chōji began a tight turn, bringing him back on a collision course with the Nara. I need a way to slow him down. Thinking quickly, Shikamaru formulated the correct plan of action.

Watching Chōji's course carefully, Shikamaru began to throw kunai, seemingly in random directions. "What is he doing?" wondered one of the girls aloud.

"Is he really that bad at aiming?" another one scoffed.

Naruto remained quiet, though with what he knew of Shikamaru, it was obvious that he was not just throwing random kunai for the sake of it. With the Nara, there was always a very good reason as to why he did anything. Now, it was simply a case of waiting to see what the reason for this was.

Chōji couldn't hear the sounds of impact; his whole body was moving so rapidly, his ears were useless. Instead, he had to rely upon his ability to sense his surroundings. Admittedly, he still wasn't as good as his father, but for the purposes of this one-on-one battle, they were proving sufficient. Detecting Shikamaru's chakra, Chōji continued his full-on assault.

A sudden explosion rocked the field as several of Shikamaru's kunai blew up, taking out large chunks of earth, creating several ditches and craters.

"Exploding tags!" gasped the girl who had scoffed at Shikamaru.

"I see," breathed out Naruto, impressed with the Nara's plan.

Chōji could feel heat suddenly spring up as out of nowhere, and knew that something had occurred that would need him to rethink his strategy. Attempting to slow himself down, the Akimichi rolled headlong into one of the largest of the newly formed craters; with the speed he was still travelling at, Chōji was forced into the sky, his whole body resembling a runaway cannonball.

"Damn!" cursed Shikamaru, not having expected Chōji to still be moving quite so fast. Rolling out of the way as best he could, Shikamaru managed to avoid the runaway Akimichi, but not before sustaining an injury to his foot. Chōji was simply falling much too fast; having misjudged his timing, Shikamaru's leg had still been extended mid-roll when Chōji passed, leading to his foot being snapped back.

With his roll completed, Shikamaru was able to curse loudly, just as Chōji crashed back down to earth. Shikamaru felt certain his foot was broken. Gingerly touching a hand to his awkwardly angled appendage, he cried out as the nerves burned. Yes, definitely broken, he thought with a wry smile, watching as Chōji managed to clamber to his feet, the Akimichi's whole body shaking. "Hey, Chōji," greeted the Nara, his voice somewhat strained. "I don't think I'm going to be able to continue this fight any longer, sorry."

Looking at Shikamaru in confusion, Chōji suddenly noticed the awkward placement of Shikamaru's foot. "Oh my, Shikamaru! Are you alright? Did I do that? Oh, I'm so sorry!" he cried, his eyes watering.

"Hey, hey, Chōji," placated the pained Nara. "I'm fine. This is nothing to worry about. Don't go blaming yourself. I miscalculated, that's all." He turned to face a distant Iruka. "Iruka-sensei, I give up. This is way too much hassle."

"Understood," nodded the scarred chūnin. "The winner of the match by forfeit, Akimichi Chōji."

Chōji stumbled forwards, intent upon helping his best friend, only to be beaten by Mizuki. "Mizuki-sensei, what is it?" he asked.

"I'll take Shikamaru to the hospital, Chōji," said the white-haired chūnin. "Would you like to come with me?"

"Is that alright?" he asked, not wanting to miss cheering on his friends.

"It is up to you," shrugged Mizuki, stooping to scoop Shikamaru in his arms. Shikamaru gritted his teeth as best he could against the pain, but he couldn't help letting a groan escape past his lips.

That moan made up Chōji's mind. "I'll go with you," he said fiercely, helping to support Shikamaru's leg as he best he could.

Iruka watched them leave, a contemplative expression etched on his face. "Okay, next battle..."

Naruto sat with Ino, keeping watch over her as she slept. The other matches varied in degrees of excitement. One match was prolonged, the two boys using varying degrees of taijutsu and weaponry: a katana against a pair of sai – a very unusual weapon choice, yet the boy handled them expertly – to try and overwhelm each other. Eventually, the boy using the sai had proven to be the victor.

Another match was over swiftly. This one involved Shino against a girl who literally shrieked when she saw Shino's insects swarm from his hands. Not expecting the Aburame style of fighting, she surrendered almost instantaneously, causing Shino to mutter about squeamish opponents.

Naruto could sympathise. After waiting through six other matches, the Aburame had wanted to make the Aburame Clan proud, but instead ended up getting a bye. Naruto hoped that Iruka would allow for those whose opponents surrendered early, otherwise it was unlikely Shino would be able to advance, not having used any jutsu of any variety.

Perhaps an hour-and-a-half after Shikamaru and Chōji's match concluded, Iruka watched as a girl held her opponent – a terrified looking boy – in a powerful genjutsu. "I don't think he will be getting free from this technique, Iruka-sensei," said the girl, her voice oddly ominous.

"No, I agree," said Iruka evenly. "Very well, I am calling this battle. The winner – Kagami." Kagami released her genjutsu, leaving the boy breathing heavily in a heap on the floor, his eyes wide, spittle running down his chin. Walking up to the boy, Iruka placed a steady hand on his back. "Hey," he said, watching as the boy's eyes locked on his own immediately, "you're alright. Everything is fine."

The boy continued breathing heavily, his mouth moving as if to form words. "I...I...That...That was...horrible..." His voice was cracking with each syllable, until he finally broke. His eyes began watering, and wouldn't stop. His cries made some of his classmates nod in solemn support.

Iruka simply knelt awkwardly, patting the boy's back periodically, until one of the girls rushed up to him, her own eyes shimmering with tears. "Come along, Atsuo-kun," said the girl, smiling kindly at the whimpering boy, despite the fact that she wanted to cry just as much as he was. "Let's go and sit with our friends."

"Atsuko-nēchan," whispered Atsuo tearfully, allowing himself to be led away, Atsuko keeping a firm hold of her brother's shaking arm. She continued to whisper support to him as the walked back to their classmates.

Finally, the time has come. I've been looking forward to this match, thought Iruka, biased as to how much interest he had placed upon this match. It was with good reason, though. It would be a battle between possibly the two strongest members of the class, and after having seen what the one of them could do without batting an eyelash, he had nothing but great expectations for the fight. It would be the heiress of one of Konoha's oldest, most prestigious clans against the Kyūbi jinchūriki.

"It is time for the next match," he announced with aplomb, drawing the attention of every able-minded student. The air seemed alive, almost as if there was static floating around them. "Uzumaki Naruto will face Yamanaka Ino. Combatants, please step forwards."

He waited patiently for a handful of seconds – perhaps twenty or more – but nobody was forthcoming. "What's wrong?"

As it turned out, Naruto was still knelt with Ino. He hadn't yet woken her as he wanted her to get as much rest as she possibly could. He could tell how drained she was after having used her medical ninjutsu to help Sakura. Now, the time for resting was over. The time for fighting had arrived. "Ino," he whispered, gently tapping her shoulder. All she did was snuggle further into his lap, causing a chorus of simpering coos from the female population, while Naruto had to fight down a blush. "Hey, Ino, wake up," he said more forcefully, giving her a soft, but firm, shake. Blearily, Ino opened her eyes. "Hey there, sleepyhead," greeted Naruto, smiling at his best friend.

"What is it, Naruto?" she asked, blinking away the tiredness.

"It's time."

Ino perked up immediately at that. There was only one thing that Naruto's serious tone could make it out to be. "Okay," she said grimly, slowly getting to her feet. Without a glance back at Naruto, she walked away from him and the rest of their classmates, heading directly for Iruka.

Following after her, Naruto walked at a sedate pace, his mind whirling. Even now, he still didn't want to fight her, but after seeing Hinata's determination to change, and Chōji's resolve, he wouldn't allow his personal misgivings to get in the way. Ino had made him promise to give her his very best, and he would be damned if he would ever break it.

Finally arriving at the spot in front of Iruka, he faced her – his very best friend in the world, and his personal saviour. He could see the resolve burning in her eyes from where he stood. He swallowed past the trepidation welling in his chest, and faced her with the same intensity.

"Hey, Naruto," called Ino, "don't forget."

"I won't," replied Naruto. "A battle to remember, right?"

Ino smiled brightly. "Right."

Iruka nodded with approval at the two. Looks like there won't be any holding back from these two. This looks as though it will be an interesting match. Speaking out loud, the scarred chūnin looked to each of them. "Naruto, are you ready?

"Yes."

"Are you prepared, Ino?"

"Yes, Iruka-sensei."

"Very well, then. Begin!"

xOxOx

A/N: I don't normally do this, but I feel as though I have to thank each and every one of you for the support shown. Never in my almost two years here have I ever received such an outpouring of positivity from one of my stories, and I have all of you to thank for that. To be put on a single Community was an amazing achievement for me, so to be put on six is unreal, and this is only off six chapters! Who knows how high that number could go...

Now, onto the good stuff. Next chapter will be the long-awaited clash between Naruto and Ino. On my profile, I have a poll as to who you think will win, so please, let me see what you all think. Any questions you may have can be asked, and I always reply to every message and review I receive, so get in touch and let me know what's going through your mind.

In summary, thank you all. This story is as much of a journey for me as it is for you. Let us see where this adventure will take us.