AN: So here we go! Prelims! Who's ready to see who comes out on top of these grueling one on one match ups? The wait's been long enough, that's for sure. Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. I own a very small amount of free time that I waste on video games or this website right here. Credit for the chapter title goes to Slaughterhouse for a rather fitting title.
"Danzo, here's your report on the information extracted from the Oto kunochi by Inoichi. We're expecting you to comply and dispose of her discreetly. Oto's Daimyo won't likely raise a complaint about his gennin team never being recovered from the forest, so long as Orochimaru doesn't order him to, but she cannot be found by anyone. Ought to be simple for your Root troops. The information gathered wasn't much, but it gives us a better speculation on the amount of shinobi amassed under Oto. The number indicates more than we expected, but the quality is what we predicted. Some of our better gennin's could even pick these grunts apart. The girl wasn't informed of any invasion plans, as I suspect Orochimaru didn't expect her to make it out of the Forest of Death. She was assigned a mission to assassinate two marks, but Inoichi couldn't discern who. She'd received a concussion that ruined her short term memory, but given the state your men found her in near her deceased teammates, it's presumed she failed."
The elder man was shrouded in shadows, but Jiraiya could see the man accept the information. It was likely he already knew most of what was reported, given how involved Root had been in extracting the girl from the exams. Root had already planned on 'retrieving' the Oto team inside the forest, in order to gather all the information they could on the coming invasion. To their surprise, the team had already been defeated, with two members dead and one in no condition to continue. That made for an easy extraction. No one had seen them or noticed the girl's disappearance from the exam.
Danzo's men had reported to him well in advance of the situation and the astute elder had quickly assessed the situation. The Oto team had been given a mission to assassinate two particular gennin examinees. Orochimaru had just been spotted in the forest and confessed to branding Sasuke Uchiha with his Juinjutsu during his fight with his previous apprentice. The extraction team had witnessed this themselves when they saw the Uchiha fight off the Oto team with the Curse Mark. After that failure, the Oto team had attempted to kill the single Naruto Senju.
His men watched as the Senju boy disposed of them handily, but they also reported that he used a Curse Mark similar to the Uchiha's. Danzo had pieced together that Orochimaru had sent the team to test the two boys after he marked them, forcing them to use the power and be tainted by it before it could be sealed off. The team would be disposed of shortly after, as was Orochimaru's way. Danzo was unsurprised by the rouge Sannin's interest in the Uchiha. The deranged ninja's desire for the Sharingan power was well known by Danzo.
The interest in the Senju boy was puzzling. Danzo had had the boy monitored before and found nothing about him too special. He displayed no signs of using his bijuu's power and while he was a skilled medic, he showed no other signs of being an ideal shinobi. He was of no use to Danzo as a potential Root recruit as he was too well known to be taken into the fold. As much as it bothered him, Danzo could find no reason for Orochimaru to mark him. Maybe it was to spite the Fourth Hokage, or maybe to anger his two former teammates who were greatly attached to the boy. Neither option seemed very reasonable, even for a madman like Orochimaru. But even without Orochimaru's motive, Danzo could still use the information. The seemingly useless Naruto Senju could now be a valuable tool to use in the coming chaos of the invasion, so long as he played his cards right.
Jiraiya watched the man carefully as he spoke his piece, carefully observing for some sort of missing piece to a much larger puzzle than the coming invasion. The man knew something that he wasn't forthcoming with. Danzo was always that way, but the past seven years had taught Jiraiya that he had to trust the elder's hesitancy with revealing sensitive information. Danzo had proven himself invaluable to Konoha, crippling enemy strength to an extent it made Jiraiya curse himself for never seeing it all of those years before. The Sandaime, in the waning strength of a Konoha recovering from the devastating loss of the Uchiha Clan and the recent war with Kumo, had revived the once forbidden sect of Anbu privately run by his old rival. Hiruzen had made several hard choices during his second reign as Hokage, most forced by an angry council led by his trusted advisors.
In a way, Jiraiya understood the council's desire for Konoha's absolute power. It would guarantee Konoha's peace and safety from other villages. But he could never appreciate the means by which Konoha's peace had been attained. It cost many more to make sacrifices that should've been avoided. Root cost many talented shinobi their lives in the extremely risky operations and the conditioning needed to perform them. The Sandaime had even sacrifice his own grandson into an accelerated training program to prepare a newer generation of younger shinobi in case of future wars to placate council members. And now the village was handing over a teenage girl to the ruthless bastard that was Danzo, just because of the possible political fallout that would become from her noted disappearance. Her life was now forfeit, all for a stronger Konoha.
'It shouldn't be this way…' Jiraiya reflected to himself. But it was. Regret wouldn't change the fact that as it's shinobi, he would do what he had to in order to keep Konoha safe. Minato's noted death, the lack of a Jinchuuriki inside the village, weakened shinobi forces from the Kyuubi attack, a failed Uchiha uprising and a war with Kumo had led to Konoha's declined state that could've spelled its destruction should any of its enemies pounced. Measures had to be taken.
Now, it seemed that Konoha had regained its security as the top of the totem pole. Tsunade had returned to take the Hokage's mantle, Sarutobi would retire to a senior post overlooking Anbu operations, where he could monitor Root as well. Naruto had been brought back to the village, and while Tsunade had forbid it, Jiraiya would likely find a way to train the boy into a proper Jinchuuriki, for his own sake as well as the village's.
Oto's soon to be failed invasion would prove to the world that Konoha was still the strongest of the nations and not to be provoked. The dust would settle and the word would spread, cementing Konoha's position and the status quo of the nations for that much longer. Time Jiraiya could use to use to prepare his godson for what would lie ahead.
Danzo's shadowed form turned, revealing his weathered and crippled form in the dim light of the office. His one good eye seemed to be looking into the future as he stared past Jiraiya and said "The girl will be taken care of. Mind yourself on the way out, Jiraiya. We've got a war to prepare for after all."
'A makeshift war? Using gennin to test the strength of other nations? I guess that makes sense… Use the lowest rank of shinobi, the most expendable, to showcase your village's talent and draw in customers for the higher ranks. All the while, you get to watch the other hidden villages potential shinobi quality. But I guess that means Suna's best has made it here to show out and steal our clients to assist their ailing economy.' Naruto thought in his head, checking out the Suna team that had made it to the preliminaries.
The girl, blonde and tall, sported a tessen battle fan. Naruto could only assume she used it for Futon jutsu, as Suna shinobi were famous for. She looked to be the oldest of the team, with the second being the boy covered in black. Naruto had to question the logic of someone wearing all black in the desert of all places, as it even covered his head in a makeshift hood. The teen had a lump strapped onto his back, wrapped completely by white binding cloth. 'Could be a puppet user.' Naruto noted.
The last gennin of the Suna cell was who gave Naruto the most concern. The redhead was short, shorter than him even, but had a very ominous presence about him. The large sand gourd on his back gave little doubt on how he fought, but Naruto couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to that gennin than met the eye.
His attention returned to the Hokage as he finished up his speech, introducing the proctor for the preliminaries. It was a familiar face, as Naruto recognized a much healthier Hayate step forward and make his announcement.
"The preliminary matches will be one on one matches between randomly selected gennin in order to cut the remaining number in half. Those of you that win your matches will proceed onto the Third Exam. Due to our uneven numbers, one gennin will receive a bye and not need to fight in order to proceed to the final round. So with that, the first two fighters will remain on the floor will the others move onto the overlooking balcony space." Hayate finished as the large flat screen monitor shuffled through the dozen names rapidly, before settling onto two.
"Sasuke Uchiha. Yoroi Akado."
Naruto's head whipped around to examine the two teens, one in particular. Finding a place on the balcony in between the Konoha teams, Naruto gripped the railing tightly as his mind whirled. 'Sasuke was marked too. Has he used it yet? Surely he knows the danger of using Juinjutsu. But can he win this without it? Can he even fight? Would he risk using it just to win?'
Before Naruto could worry too much, a voice beside him spoke. "Don't worry, Naruto-kun. I just spoke with Sasuke, and while he's not in the best condition, he's still well enough to win this fight."
Naruto's firm grip on the railing kept him from jumping out of his skin, but he faced Kakashi with a smile that matched the man's own eye-smile. Oddly enough, Naruto felt relieved to see Kakashi again, much like he had with Shizune. It made him feel more secure, knowing such a powerful shinobi was beside him. But as relieved as he was to see the man, a pit formed in his stomach at his words.
"Worried?" Naruto questioned, watching Sasuke again, who was still clutching onto his shoulder. "Why would I be worried for Sasuke? He seems fine, just a little roughed up from the forest. Is there something wrong with him?"
Naruto didn't know why he was being so careful, but he did not want Kakashi to find out about his own Cure Mark that he'd received, as it was apparent the man knew about Sasuke's. Naruto just wanted the preliminary matches to be over, so he could find Jiraiya and have him check things out. Once he got the mark's influence sealed away, he'd feel all the more better about it. Until then, it was a secret for him to keep from everyone who didn't need to know.
Kakashi realized his overstep and placated the blonde "Ano, you're right. Sasuke's fine. The Second Exam just took a lot out of him is all. Now let's see how he does."
And then the first match started. Naruto watched, keeping his eye on Sasuke's shoulder. The way he was holding it earlier, Naruto was sure that was where the Uchiha had been marked. Taijutsu was the name of the game for the match and while Sasuke had the match well in hand with his jujitsu, a flash of blue chakra changed everything. Suddenly Sasuke slacked up on his hold and the match changed dramatically from there.
Sasuke was then put on the ropes by the strange technique Yoroi utilized to drain his chakra. When it seemed the young teen was finally cornered, a sudden kick snapped Yoroi's head upward, with the rest of his body trailing behind. Sasuke appeared in the shadow of the airborne Yoroi, preparing for some sort of taijutsu barrage. He stopped and Naruto saw red markings crawling over his neck as the reason why.
'His curse mark! They're gonna stop the fight, right?' Naruto checked on Kakashi, who had tensed up for action, but otherwise hadn't moved. The man was giving Sasuke the benefit of the doubt here. Sasuke disappointed. Even with the flame like markings spreading all over his body, Sasuke started his attack in a series of kicks before finishing with a final slam that left Yoroi unconscious on the now busted floor. Sasuke landed nearby, only to collapse in pain, clutching his shoulder and screaming in pain. Kakashi and Anko, surprisingly, were by his side instantly and were gone a moment later, taking the Uchiha with them.
Hayate stepped forward, checking to make sure Yoroi was really unconscious before making his announcement. "Since Yoroi was knocked unconscious before any interference, I declare Sasuke Uchiha the winner of the first match."
'He had one hell of a handicap. It's impressive that he could win against such an experienced adversary without any chakra.' Naruto appraised internally. Thinking on Kakashi's disappearance with his student, 'He must be taking Sasuke to get the Curse Mark tended to. I wonder if he could do the same for me if it acts up? Should I even tell him?' Naruto debated, his stomach up churning by his lack of satisfying answers.
It wasn't that he didn't trust Kakashi. Out of all the shinobi Naruto had met so far in Konoha, he trusted Kakashi the most. But something about telling anyone didn't sit right with him. 'It might just be best to tell as few people as possible. And Jiraiya is the only one who HAS to know. I just hope I can convince him to keep quiet about it.'
While he didn't think about it explicitly, the fear had already set in about telling Tsunade and Shizune. He couldn't explain why he was so scared to tell them. The seal hadn't changed him. He was still Naruto. He didn't have Orochimaru sealed away in his chest like he did the Kyuubi. So long as he didn't use it anymore, he'd be fine. Or that's what he was telling himself.
The second match was announced as the monitor screen settled on two randomized names.
"Temari of Sunagakure. Shino Aburame" Hayate crowed, clearing his throat several times afterwards. Naruto couldn't help but admire the acting skills Hayate was using, even here. Naruto could tell the coughing was all fake, but the man still looked genuinely sick. Impressively deceptive.
The two gennin made their way down to the floor, eyeing each other the entire way. They met near the center, Hayate separating them by several feet without a word. "Are both contestants ready?" Hayate questioned, required to by regulation. A nod was given by Shino, while a calm "Of course." was replied by Temari. With that, Hayate stepped back, officially starting the match with "Hajime!"
Temari backpedaled away, clawing for her large fan from its strap, wasting no time in opening it up. With a graceful twirl, the fan opened in a practiced motion and wind screamed out of it, tearing into the black cloud that had been summoned upon her.
Immediately after the match had started, Shino had drawn out a large force of his colony to overwhelm the Suna gennin. The silent Aburame had assumed correctly that the girl was not a close range fighter. Seeing her opening move proved that and showed him what he needed to do. Unfortunately, her opening move had also cost him a decidedly too large amount of his colony.
Still directing his swarm to disperse widely as a screen in front of him, Shino slipped in from the left, breaking through his self created wall of bugs in an attempt to catch Temari off-guard with up close taijutsu. All the while, his bugs would be ever encroaching on her en mass. Surprised by his sudden appearance, Temari still wasn't caught completely unaware.
Dodging around Shino's stiff taijutsu barrage, Temari was careful to arrange herself to constantly keep both Shino and his horde of kikaichu beetles. Fleet footed, Temari couldn't help but smirk at Shino's lack of success and chided "Did you honestly think I wouldn't be prepared for this sort of thing? As a long-range Wind specialist, I'm well aware that my weakness is close-range. But I'm no idiot like my brother." A quick flip backwards, followed by a fully opened fan, had Temari riding her own weapon of choice, using wind chakra to power its flight as she put distance between herself and Shino.
Shino didn't answer with words, instead sending three prongs of beetles in columns to attack. Temari seemed to be waiting for this, letting the columns get close before dropping to the floor and whipping her still open fan back and forth several times, kicking up a powerful storm of winds that devastated the approaching bugs.
Temari laughed aloud as the mostly shredded remains of the kikaichu horde rained down, even if some of the fell near her. "You left your most valuable tool out for me to destroy it and now you have no way to beat me. Give up now while you still have some dignity."
Shino stoically crossed his arms, tucking them into the sleeves to hide them from view. Temari tensed, thinking he was preparing for a jutsu, but there was no spike in chakra. A second passed, and it dawned on her that he was simply waiting. 'For what? Temari wondered, before it hit her. Suddenly, the exhaustion she felt from the fighting spiked and she felt her skin crawl.
Looking down, Temari found that not all of the bugs had been destroyed by her scathing wind. Many had simply fallen in a ruse to get closer to her with her guard down. With realization hitting her like a ton of bricks and desperation welling up in her body, Temari leapt away from where she once stood and began to frantically swat all of the beetles on her.
"It's far too late for that. Accept defeat. The minute you let your guard down around my 'defeated' horde, you sealed your fate. The survivors of your attack crept upon you and began eating your chakra before you even noticed. You won't get them all off, and even if you do, you won't have enough chakra left to fight. In your words, give up now while you still have your dignity." Shino stated. No inflections, a strict and controlled monotone, as was his family's way.
Temari, furious at being outsmarted, gripped her fan with both hands and gave a mighty swipe with it, screaming "Shut up! Kamaitachi (Wind Scythe) jutsu! I'll beat you in one move!"
A massive gale of sharp winds swept Shino up into a funnel of sharp blades that tore into him mercilessly. Temari panted in relief as the jutsu faded and Shino fell to the ground prostrate. Only instead of blood leaking from the many wounds that covered his body, it bled kikaichu beetles. The body dissolved into a squirming pile of black masses all thriving together. That was the last sight Temari saw before a swift punch to the back of the head from Shino knocked the exhausted girl out cold.
"I had an ace in the hole, even if you tried to fight. The outcome was guaranteed, regardless of the struggle. But you've cost me more of my colony this way…" Shino intoned to the unconscious girl, before withdrawing the few remaining of his beetles.
Medics came out onto the field and carried Temari away on a stretcher and Hayate declared Shino the winner of his match. As Shino made his way back up the balcony towards his teammates, Naruto congratulated him. "Good match, Shino. That was a superb job." Shino nodded his head in thanks, replying as he quietly slipped away "I look forward to seeing your match as well, Naruto-san."
Naruto returned his focus to the monitor screen, which was already scrambling through names at an incredible pace. After a few seconds, the names finally stopped and settled on two.
"Misume Tsurugi. Kankuro of Sunagakure." Another hacking cough from Hayate, but the man controlled himself and regained composure as the two gennin made their way down. Kankuro was clearly upset about his sister's loss and looked quite eager to take some of that anger out on Misume.
Naruto, on the other hand, wasn't quite as interested in watching Kankuro make stupid mistakes due to his anger. A quick glance at his fellow gennin showed that a few felt the same way. Checking over all the participants left, Naruto began to run through scenarios.
'All of the rookies made it. There's still Konohamaru, Kiba, Choji, Sakura, Ino, Shikamaru, and Hinata left out of the 9. If I have to face any of them, I'll be alright.' Glancing further down the balcony, Naruto saw the twin buns of Tenten right next to her teammates. 'If I have to fight any one of them, Kaa-chan told me to be careful. Neji's a Hyuuga and Lee is a miniature taijutsu specialist or something. Tenten uses a weapon of some kind that's made her hands all but rawhide.'
Looking over to the far side of the room, Naruto saw the two gennin left from the teams over there. Gaara and Kabuto. 'Gaara is super creepy. I can't shake that nasty vibe I keep reading from him. I really hope I don't have to fight him… Kabuto, on the other hand, would be an easier fight, I think.. This is his seventh exam after all, and looking at how badly his two teammates are doing, surely he can't be any better.'
The match below had ended quickly and violently, with several nasty snaps originating from Misume. Very minimal chance of recovery from that sort of injury. His career was over, then and there. The room was silent as Kankuro gleefully made his way back towards his brother's side, but not too close. Even his cheer at such an outright victory didn't dull his sense of self-preservation.
Naruto had to admit and admire the skill Kankuro had shown with his puppets. Very few gennin had the control needed to manipulate something as complex as a puppet so discreetly, let alone a male. Naruto would have to be careful when dealing with him later in the Exams.
Naruto turned his face back to the screen, watching as it rotated through the dwindling number of names left. The screen eventually settled on two and Hayate called them out.
"Shikamaru Nara. Tenten"
A small smile slipped onto Naruto's face, although Naruto wasn't sure why. Tenten stepped passed him and down to the floor below, focused entirely on the fight ahead of her. Shikamaru slumped after her at a much more sluggish pace, hands tucked in his pockets and his shoulders slumped. When they aligned across from each other, Hayate quickly started the match after both agreed.
Quickly taking action, Tenten took several deliberate steps back and withdrew several kunai and shuriken, ready for both offensive and defensive measures. Shikamaru, quite oppositely, hadn't moved an inch since the match started. His hands were still in his pocket and he'd yet to straighten out of the slump he was standing in. He looked bored. Naruto could see that plainly, as could Tenten.
"Aren't you gonna start? The match started, so are you gonna fight or are you just gonna sit there? Forfeit if you're in such a hurry to lose."
Shikamaru blinked once, before answering "Even if this whole match isn't anything but troublesome, I won't lose. I'd never hear the end of it from my dad if he found out I lost to a girl."
Whether it was intentional or not, Shikamaru's words lit a fire within Tenten. Now furious, Tenten began to hurl her weapons with pinpoint accuracy, drawing more and hurling them as well while shouting "Kunoichi aren't any less of an opponent just because we're girls! I'll make you pay for that!"
Shikamaru either didn't care to reply to the girl's false assumption or was simply too busy dodging the massive amount of sharp, pointy weapons hurled at him, each one coming dangerously close to the young Nara. By the time Tenten finally eased her near relentless barrage, Shikamaru was sporting several small cuts, mostly due to his lack of effort in evasive action. His feet still hadn't left the very spot they were when the match started.
Tenten seemed to take some satisfaction in Shikamaru's state and gloated "So are you finally gonna start or do you want me to get serious and finish the job of turning you into a pin cushion?"
Shikamaru rolled his neck to each side and stretched his shoulders some before conceding. "If you insist. Consider this match over."
Slipping his hands out of his pockets, the Nara formed a single hand sign before his shadow shot out, heading straight for Tenten. The girl leapt back several times and the shadow gave chase relentlessly, until it suddenly stopped. Looking at Shikamaru and the strain he was under, Tenten pointed out "This is the range of your jutsu. You can't reach me from this far away. How unfortunate that I can still plaster you from back here."
"You're right. That is my limit. Pretty lame. But that just means it's time for a change in tactics." With that, Shikamaru withdrew some shuriken of his own and launched them out in a wide, probing attack. Seeing the challenge, Tenten returned fire with more shuriken that knocked each of Shikamaru's out of the air perfectly. "You're not gonna win this way." Tenten warned. Shikamaru paid her no mind as his withdrew more ninja tools. Secretly slapping a paper tag onto a kunai handle, Shikamaru once again threw his weapons. Tenten batted them down with weapons of her own with a sigh of boredom.
Reaching into her thigh pouches, the brunette retrieved two scrolls. "Since you won't fight, I'll go ahead and end this. And I'll even use one of my best techniques, that way when you lose, you can take some pride in the fact you lost to my best."
Shikamaru merely pointed at one of his kunai that was planted blade down into the floor, before saying "This match is still already over."
Tenten was instantly on guard as a bright flash of light erupted from the tag, momentarily blinding her and nearly every other gennin in the room. When the bright light finally faded and her vision returned to normal, Tenten checked her surroundings carefully, looking everywhere for Shikamaru. She finally spotted him, still in the exact same spot he was in before the flash bang.
"Well that was pointless! I'm sick of this and sick of you! Take this!" Tenten leapt upwards into a spiral, unfurling her scrolls as she went upwards. "Soshoryu (Twin Rising Dragons) Jutsu!" As she reached the apex of her jump, Tenten began to rapidly unseal a massive assortment of weapons from inside the scrolls and hurl them directly at Shikamaru.
The sheer amount of weapons kicked up a cloud of dust that covered the area Shikamaru was in. Tenten landed and waited for the dust to settle, only to see a perfectly unharmed Shikamaru standing, still exactly where he once was. Hundreds of discarded weapons laid behind him, having done no harm at all to the boy.
"How?! How could you've not been hit at all by all of those weapons? There's no way you could've avoided all of those!" Tenten shouted, clearly confused by the upset of her strongest move.
Shikamaru simply folded his hands into a single hand sign once again for a brief moment, before propping them behind his head. "Kagemane (Shadow Possession) jutsu, success."
Tenten stiffened for a moment, before looking down to see that indeed Shikamaru's shadow had stretched and connected to her own. Even more confusion arose, as the sudden clarity of her situation became apparent to her.
"How? I'm still outside of your range! I saw you at your limit earlier, you weren't bluffing!"
"Correct. But like I said, this match was over from the start. I deliberately showed you my jutsu's range in order to give you a false sense of security. Then, I tested you with several weapons and hid that flash bomb inside the attack. When that went off, I replaced myself with a Bunshin (Clone) and used a Henge (Transformation) to hide as its shadow. All of your weapons missed me and hit my clone. I simply took his place after he popped. Then, while you were busy being surprised, I laced my shadow through all of the smaller shadows left by the kunai in between us, giving me a longer reach."
It was as clear as day to Shikamaru. The way he said it, it was as if he was lecturing a petulant child. It was infuriating to Tenten, but try as she might, she couldn't break the hold of his jutsu. Bending down to scoop up one of the plenty kunai around his feet, Shikamaru armed himself with the single blade. Tenten had been forced to mimic his motions, but did not have a kunai to show for it.
"Forfeit, or I return one of your little knives back to you the hard way." His voice was firm. While Tenten knew in her heart Shikamaru didn't have it in him to kill a fellow Konoha ninja over Chunin Exams, she admitted defeat anyways. She'd been outsmarted and beaten thoroughly and there was no saving face or trying to deny it.
Hayate called the match and the two made their way back to the balcony, Tenten stopping to quickly reseal all of her ninja tools back inside her scrolls. The brunette quickly made her way back to her teammates side, head hung lowly, and Shikamaru continued his snail's pace as per norm. Naruto congratulated him as he went by, but the Nara just grunted and plopped to the ground beside his teammates to take a nap. The Nara wasn't so quick to snooze however.
The next match elicited a noticeable shift among the Rookie 9 as two former friends were now forced to square off down below. Ino and Sakura both made their way down to the floor chatter rising up as they left. Naruto, completely out of the loop as to why there was so much talking, slipped down the walkway closer to his fellow gennin. In between a now anxious Konohamaru and an annoyed Shikamaru, Naruto tried to break the ice.
"There's a lot of tension about this match in particular. Is there some sort of history between these two? I thought they were friends?"
Shikamaru grunted, before Choji pulled him to his feet. Propped onto the rail and watching carefully, the young genius began to explain. "Those two used to be the best of friends when they were kids. Then, they had a falling out over a certain boy, like dumb girls do. Now, not only is it a fight between them over love, it's also a fight to see if Sakura has finally come out of Ino's shadow and into her own. It's troublesome."
Naruto stared at the Nara for a while, before turning to watch the match start in earnest. There was a lot of banter between the two amidst the action, indicating the history Shikamaru had laid out. But one thing struck Naruto as odd about the fight and he turned to not Shikamaru, but Konohamaru.
"Hey, why doesn't Sakura branch off into other techniques? I know Ino has her clan techniques that she can use, but what all can Sakura do?"
The younger gennin squirmed at the question, not tearing his eyes off his teammate. After a few moments to think, he finally answered. "Sakura doesn't really know anything outside of the academy basics… She was always the brains of our missions, but she never had to fight anyone directly till the Second Exam. And even then, a lot of people came to help her. That's why I'm so nervous. I don't want her to lose, but I don't see how she can win."
Naruto stared in surprise at Konohamaru, before watching Sakura and Ino again. "Surely she has something that could give her an edge here. There's no way she's not good at something she can use." You said she was smart, right?"
"Book smart. She retains information like a sponge or something, according to Iruka-sensei. But I don't think that'll help her here."
"Don't worry. The worst thing that could happen would be for her to lose. Ino won't really hurt her if they're friends. Let's just watch."
The match ended up being a double knock-out, with both girls eliminating the other. Konohamaru and Choji both went and brought them back to their teammates, since neither of them were hurt enough to waste a hospital bed on. They'd wake up and hopefully watch a few more matches before it was all over. Naruto looked out at the rest of the competition, realizing that it was getting stiffer and stiffer as it seemed all of the easier match-ups were finished.
Naruto watched the screen rotate through even more names and lamented aloud. "I kinda wish I could just fight somebody so I can get this over with."
"Keep talking, and you may just get your wish, Senju-san." Naruto didn't bat an eye as he responded to the Hyuuga's thinly veiled hinting. "Knock 'em dead, right Neji?"
The older gennin didn't respond, just resumed his pace down to his match. Hinata followed after, quiet as a mouse the entire time. Once those two were out of earshot, Naruto turned to the two gennin beside him and whispered "He's gonna slaughter her, isn't he?"
Konohamaru wanted to protest, but couldn't seem to get the words out. He looked genuinely upset by it, in fact. He wanted to root for Hinata, but must've known or possibly seen Neji's alleged talent. Shikamaru confirmed the news himself as the match started.
"Neji is only a year older than us, but he's the most prominent gennin that Konoha has to offer. He's a branch member of the Hyuuga clan, so he's family with Hinata. But on that same token, she's a main branch member, the heir to the clan in fact. There's bad blood there."
Naruto couldn't help but feel bad for the petite Hyuuga below him. She didn't deserve any hatred just for being born into a higher position than Neji was. But that was just like Neji hating him just because he was born lower than him and yet Naruto had come up into something spectacular. It was only unfair until something was done about it. This was her time to do something, for better or worse.
Hinata held her own, matching strike for strike with Neji as they seemingly danced into and out of each other. Both of them moved with such grace, dexterity, and flexibility that Naruto couldn't help but admire. The Hyuuga had an awe worthy form of taijutsu that they had mastered. Even watching two young users of the style, Naruto could see its effectiveness.
"Gramps used to have me spar with Hinata's little sister when I was in the academy, to test that I was really ready to be a shinobi at such a young age. Most of the time I would spar with Hanabi right after Neji and Hinata finished sparring. Hinata never won once. Neji could never really go all out with Hinata's father watching, but I could just tell that he was holding back from really hurting her. I don't think he'll do the same here." Konohamaru recounted. He looked genuinely upset for Hinata's fate, but the girl herself was holding her own at the moment.
In fact, she was doing so surprisingly well, she grew confident enough to press the attack. Faster and faster strikes rained out from the petite girl, making Neji take one, then tow, and finally a third step backwards. Naruto watched the footwork, which seemed the most impressive to him. It was graceful enough for it to almost be a dance. Then it stopped suddenly, followed by a loud gasp for breath and a cry. Naruto's eyes drew to the attractive Jonin that had cried out for her student. Then they settled on Hinata.
Even from his spot in the balcony, Naruto could see how critical Hinata's condition was. Her lungs weren't properly expanding, given her short gasps for breath. The chance of her bleeding into her own lungs were very high, which could be life threatening. But it wasn't his place to intervene. It was the Jonin's.
Looking over, Naruto could see how it was weighing on the woman he assumed was Hinata's sensei. She was ready to leap to her student's side in a heartbeat, but held herself back.
'I hope that doesn't come back to bite her.' Naruto thought bitterly, before watching the match again. Hinata had gotten up, mustering up some sort of reserve of strength that left the other gennin surprised. She attacked Neji again with a sudden ferocity that seemed so out of character for her. It was impressive, but short-lived. Neji, on the defensive, baited her with over eagerness before slamming her with another painful palm strike.
On her back, Hinata coughed in pain, sending more blood up and onto the floor. Neji seemed proud of himself, having put down the girl so handily. There wasn't a mark on him, after all. But Hinata wasn't done. Shakily, Hinata made her way upright and into a broken Jyuuken (Gentle Fist) stance. Leaning in, Naruto could faintly hear the two conversing about who was truly hurt there. Neji became furious, rushing in to end a girl that was already finished, when several Jonin appeared around him just in time to stop a fatal strike.
Naruto sighed in relief at Hinata's salvation, letting the strong grip he had on the railing slip away. He hadn't even noticed he'd gotten so concerned. That Neji would actually try to kill Hinata during that match… It made Naruto ache inside. They were family after all, even if their family was burdened by old, clandestine traditions and customs. For such anger to go so far… It made Naruto scared of having to fight Neji in the Third Exam. But seeing Hinata hauled out on a stretcher reminded Naruto that he wasn't in Hinata's position anymore. He was finally strong enough to not take everyone else's anger and hate like a punching bag. Neji would find that out for sure if they fought in the Third Exam.
Speaking of whom, the genius Hyuuga made his way back up the balcony, his normal demeanor back after being interrupted by so many Jonin. Naruto planned to simply ignore him as he went by. After all, Neji had been within the rules to attack with the intent to kill. Using it on an opponent that was already so beaten was frowned upon, however. And pointless, as was proven by the Jonin. Still, he'd won his match. But the Hyuuga made it a point to deliberately provoke him.
"I tried to heed your advice, Senju-san. Seems like the Jonin didn't hear your wish beforehand. Next time, I'll try harder to please you."
Naruto's grip on the railing returned, tighter than he cared to admit. Neji was an asshole, but that didn't mean Naruto should let him get under his skin. He was better than that. And Tsunade hadn't beaten his smart mouth out of him just to let others step all over him.
"Plan on it, Hyuuga-san. You looked like you had fun demolishing someone that didn't stand a chance. I think I will too whenever we fight in the Third Exam."
The Hyuuga scoffed, walking off without a reply. Naruto didn't feel the victor of that encounter either way. A hand on his shoulder made Naruto look back and see a eye-smiling face. "Making friends with Neji, are we? You should be careful, Naruto-kun. He doesn't seem the type to treat his friends that well."
Naruto just grimaced back at Kakashi. "Seems you arrived at just the right time then. You saw that?"
The silver haired Jonin nodded. "I helped stop him. That kid's got as much anger as he does talent. He's aware of that, too." The man cut off for a moment, before brightening up. "So what all did I miss?" Shikamaru filled the Jonin in, leaving out his impressive strategy for a rather blank recounting of the match victors. Kakashi seemed to accept that, glancing at a still unawake Sakura.
"It sounds like she really grew some during her match. I'm sorry to have missed that. But that means that all of my hopes lie with you, Konohamaru."
The young gennin looked back at his sensei, face full of determination. "You can count on me, sensei! Even if Sasuke can't make it to the next round to fight me, I'll just become a Chunin and rub it in his face!"
"Good! Or at least make it to the next round. I bet with the other Jonin over all of the rookies. For every student that doesn't make it to the next round, you get to keep a certain something. If a student loses, then we Jonin have to give it up for a month until the next round starts. If you win this, I can still keep the important thing."
"Your dignity?" Naruto ventured.
Konohamaru snorted, not amused by his sensei's antics. "He's talking about those stupid Icha Icha novels! Dirty Ero-sensei." Kakashi said nothing in his defense, just pulling out his literature of choice and opening it up.
Naruto laughed as Konohamaru steamed at the sight and said "As much as I disapprove reading porn in public, I can't hate those books. Tsunade probably know this, but those books taught me more about female anatomy than anything else I've ever come across in medical textbooks."
Kakashi giggled, but no one was sure if it was from Naruto's story or the book. Konohamaru and Shikamaru just gave the orange book one last glance before turning back to the floor below.
"Knowing Asuma, I probably just saved his smoking habit for the month. He would've been a pain without them, so I guess my win was worth it after all."
Down on the match floor, two more gennin had squared off. Lee stood across from his opponent, eager to begin the match. Kiba, on the other hand, looked downright bloodthirsty.
"I'm gonna tear you apart here, then I'm gonna show your prick of a teammate what's what in the next round."
Lee didn't let the words faze him, but did say "I too disagree with Neji's actions in his match. I plan on fighting him in the next round as well, so I can finally prove that all of my hard work can overcome his genius once and for all."
With that, the match started. Kiba wasted no time, dropping down to all fours and activating his clan's signature jutsu. In a primal lunge, he leapt at Lee, twisting himself into a violently spinning bullet. Lee quickly leapt aside as Kiba tore threw his previous location, scarring the tile beneath him as he went by.
Missing his attack, Kiba grew even angrier, withdrawing his pet ninken Akamaru. Setting him down, he fished out a pill from his pocket.
"While I'm eager to do battle with you, Kiba-san, I do not wish to hurt your dog as well. That would be most unyouthfull." Lee missed the grin on Kiba's face as the feral boy feed Akamaru the pill. "Don't worry, you super eye-browed freak. You won't harm a hair on Akamaru's head after this."
Chakra began to pour out of Akamaru, before a cloud of smoke erupted around him. It cleared to reveal a second Kiba. "Akamaru can use jutsu too! Now let's get him boy! Gatsuga (Fang Passing Fang)!"
Even faster before, the now two twisting bullets shot at Lee, flanking him from each side. An evasive leap put him over the attack, but before he could land, the two had already bounced off the floor and aimed their trajectory directly into him. The older gennin was battered on both sides by the attack, carving into his guard before flinging him downward into the hard floor.
Kiba and Akamaru landed, grins on their faces at the success. But Lee got right back up, arms bleeding but still ready to go. "Very well. I apologize for not taking your attack serious enough. From now on you have my full attention." With that, the green leotard clad gennin charged straight towards them.
The two Inuzuka just smirked before diving into another Gatsuga and barreling forward again. Lee was ready, sliding under the first and rising up into the air with a twist to unleash a devastating spin kick that sent the second wildly off course and straight into a wall. "Konoha Senpu (Leaf Whirlwind)!
The crash sent up a great cloud of dust, before revealing that the attack had carved straight into the wall, leaving a huge gash that had nearly broken through. Kiba lay in the center of it, his body held there boy the force of his own trajectory being multiplied by Lee's kick. The second Kiba speedily made his way over, dragging him out of the wall before collapsing to all fours and erupting into a cloud of smoke. Akamaru then yipped several times, drawing medics onto the floor to haul Kiba away, the dog on their heels the entire time.
Hayate stepped out to declare the match over and Lee the winner. The energetic boy jumped into the air in victory and cheered, striking a pose and giving his sensei a thumbs up. "Gai-sensei! I won! It is my destiny to face Neji in the Third Exam and to defeat him there! My flames of youth have never been burning brighter!"
The duo spouted off more insanity as Naruto looked to Kakashi. "How can those two be so…?"
"Insane?" Shikamaru finished, looking at the pair and their energy as if they were the bijuu reincarnated.
"Those two are just alike. Gai poured himself into Lee, teaching him everything he knows, beating it into him at points. Lee can't use jutsu, so for him to still be a shinobi means everything to him. Those two have become veritable monsters of taijutsu as a result. Lee is one of the top contenders of this Exam through taijutsu alone, of that I have no doubt. But he can still be overcome if one can merely take advantage of his weaknesses."
Naruto looked back to Lee, respecting the boy a little more now. He was still weird, and dressed awfully, but he seemed to be a good person, even when he was beside people like Neji all the time. Konohamaru's sigh came from behind him, causing Naruto to find the source.
The younger boy just stared at the board for a moment and answered. "Look who all is left. It's me, you, Kabuto, Choji, and that Gaara kid. There's no one left that I really want to fight. I don't want to fight any of my friends and I certainly don't want to fight that creepy Suna ninja. But there's no way I can make it to the next round on a bye. I could never except the spot."
Naruto watched the board, understanding the younger gennin's sentiment as names flashed across the screen. "Don't worry, Konohamaru. Chances are you'll fight a Konoha ninja. And if you do, you should give it your all, so you don't disrespect them. No one left here is weak enough for you to pity. We all worked hard to get here, and for you to give anything less than your best in your match would dishonor us all as shinobi of Konoha. Understood?" Konohamaru stared at Naruto for a moment, catching his firm gaze with a solid one of his own. After a moment, he nodded his head, before making his way down the steps.
Naruto glanced at the board to read the names.
"Choji Akimichi. Konohamaru Sarutobi."
Both participants shook hands, Choji's easily dwarfing Konohamaru's. The two took a few steps back and Hayate checked with both of them. Two nods were his answer as he started the match with a single gesture. Konohamaru showed that he wasn't scared of Choji's bigger size, leaping at him with a flying kick that bounced off of Choji's blocking arm.
The large boy took a clubbing swipe at Konohamaru with his free arm, only for Konohamaru to flip over it by kicking off from Choji's guard. A dropping axe kick landed on Choji's shoulder, barely budging him and having only just missed scoring a headshot. Choji seemed to realize the real danger of having Konohamaru up close and made room, flexing himself to knock Konohamaru away. The much sprier boy landed on his feet, still skidding backwards from the force of the push.
Regaining his footing, Konohamaru was about to engage again, but found that Choji wasn't looking for another taijutsu match. Instead, the boy had signed through the few hand seals needed for his family technique, calling out "Baika (Multi-size) no Jutsu! Here I come Konohamaru! Nikudan Sensha (Human Bullet Tank)!
Tucking in all of his extremities, Choji began to spin forward in a startlingly fast roll. Konohamaru was quickly put on the run, dodging out of the way as Choji sped past, destroying the wall as he crashed into it. The younger gennin wasn't given any reprieve as Choji started up again, showing that unlike Kiba, his technique allowed him to take collisions in stride.
The chase continued for a few minutes more, with various attempts from Konohamaru to stop the oncoming boulder of an attack. Nothing worked. Naruto grimaced as he watched Konohamaru continue to run. Cupping his hands to his mouth, he shouted "Konohamaru! What did I tell you? Give Choji a little respect here to take whatever you can throw at him. Don't give up here!"
The younger boy didn't stop to give Naruto any sign that he heard, instead planting his feet firmly and beginning to weave hand signs at a quick pace. Choji sped up, hoping to catch him before he finished, but it wasn't to be.
"Doton: Tsuchiana (Earth Style: Earthen Pit)!
An impressively sized hollow was carved into the tile floor, both deep and wide enough for the still-rolling Choji to fall into and get stuck in. Konohamaru didn't stop there, going through another series of hand signs, inhaling a deep breath and exhaling "Katon: Hono'o Yaei (Fire Style: Flame Encampment)!
The exhaled flames covered the pit entrance in a bright red fire, allowing no escape for the gennin beneath. At first, Naruto was a bit shocked by the jutsu, hoping Konohamaru hadn't gone as far as setting Choji on fire. But after a few seconds with no interference from any Jonin, it dawned on Naruto what was going on. The flame cover continued for another minute, taking its toll on Konohamaru, who was still keeping the jutsu alive.
He finally quit, planting his butt on the floor and panted in exhaustion as Hayate checked the pit. A hop downwards into it and out, lugging Choji with him showed that Naruto's suspicions were true. Konohamaru had burned all of the oxygen down in the pit with Choji, causing him to pass out from oxygen deprivation. Medics carried him off on a stretcher, probably just to make sure he resumed breathing properly.
Lee had hopped over the rails and helped Konohamaru up, cheering over his 'youthful' victory. He brought the exhausted gennin back to his sensei before depositing him near the wall so the boy could rest. Naruto grinned at the Sarutobi boy, saying "See? You had to give it your all, and even then you didn't hurt Choji. That was awesome! I had no idea you could use two different elemental jutsu on such a large scale. Your reserves must be huge for your age."
Konohamaru just chuckled and mumbled something about gramps and hard training before drifting off to sleep. Kakashi eyed his student with pride, obviously pleased with more than just the fact he would keep his smut for the month. Konohamaru had put on an impressive show. Kakashi clapped a hand on Naruto's shoulder, surprising the blonde.
"You ready?" Naruto blinked owlishly, before turning around to see his name on the screen. "Good luck."
AN: Ok! So there was a bit of a change up here in the preliminaries. I was conflicted on just how much I wanted to change this, but I think I'm satisfied with what I've got. Sasuke, Shino, Kankuro, Shikamaru, Neji, Lee, and Konohamaru have all earned their spots in the next round. It's a bit of a sausage fest, but sue me. I hope that this was original enough to not of bored anybody. The next match will of course end the prelims and get the training started, with some subplot to tie things together before the Invasion. I haven't exactly scripted it in story, but Sarutobi did have to concede to the council on certain measures to ensure a safer Konoha. In my mind, the Third always knew Root never shut down, so for it to be officially accepted by him shouldn't be out of character. As for training Konohamaru so young, it's a sacrifice he'd make along the lines that the Fourth did. Who else could he ask when he had a child of his own to fill the spot? Moegi, Udon, and Hanabi are all going through a more wartime-ish academy after a new age requirement was approved after Konohamaru excelled like he has. These changes were from the several weakening events that happened in such a short time and will make things different from cannon. How different, I can't really say. I just hope this sits well with my readers and that you'll tell me in a review if it does or doesn't. BigWillis, out.