When you finally achieve what you've sought, is it everything you imagined, or is the reality different than anticipated?
"Mushiyose no Jutsu."
Naruto watched as insects of all kinds flocked to Shino's outstretched hand, pushing down the pang of jealousy that pinged in his chest. Jiraiya had reactivated the Camouflage Seal on both himself and Tenten for the mission at hand, cautious of the Land of Rivers' heightened security for the upcoming gathering and unwilling to expose the Hidden Leaf's involvement in the task ahead, and the blond was sorely missing his chakra.
Shino released all but a couple of mosquitos from the hold his chakra had on the gathered insects, prompting the blond to uncork a ceramic jar and hold it out to the Aburame. One by one, the mosquitos landed on the surface of the liquid inside the jar and remained there for several seconds before taking off again, buzzing around the bug-user's head. When all were ready to go, Shino dispersed them with a wave of his hand while Naruto stoppered the bottle and handed it to his teammate for safekeeping. "They'll make it?" asked the Jinchūriki.
"They simply need to locate the correct targets," affirmed the bug-nin. "If your assumptions are correct, they will be incapacitated shortly."
"I see them."
Naruto and Shino's heads turned to the side to find the veins around Hyūga Neji's eyes bulging, his focus in the direction of the castle the Land of Rivers' daimyō and Tanigakure leaders were meeting in. Tenten stood beside him, idly twirling a small dagger by its handle. "Can you tell if any of them are sensors?"
"No," replied the Hyūga. "The Byakugan cannot make such distinctions."
"Neither can the kikaichū," Shino added. "And even if they could, it would be unwise to attempt it. Why? Because if they are truly adept sensors, they may be able to detect my allies."
Well, not like I didn't see that comin'. It was one of the reasons he'd specifically chosen Neji to accompany him on the mission; the Hyūga's range of sight was unparalleled within the workforce members of the clan – his ironic shortsightedness with regards to his life philosophy notwithstanding – and would allow him to keep an eye on the chakra-less Naruto and Tenten from a distance beyond detection. Jiraiya had agreed with his logic, and it had been a stroke of good fortune that Team Gai had returned from its own mission the day before the Special Jōnin had come back from his own.
Even after suggesting it, he'd been hesitant in following through, given how he'd left things with the older male, but Neji had remained…docile so far, if not stoic. In fact, it almost seemed like the long-haired Jōnin was studying him, though for what reason he didn't know.
Regardless, he was glad things were turning out okay. It certainly wasn't the first time he'd been wrong about something; he doubted it would be the last, either.
He was drawn from his musing by Neji's stated, "They have made contact." Another minute passed before he continued, "The toxin has taken effect. They are vomiting…quite prolifically."
Naruto allowed himself a small grin at that pronouncement; Neji almost sounded humored by the effects of his poison. "C'mon," he prompted, "let's get in position."
Naruto watched as Tenten finished a juggling performance with seven sharp swords and was promptly directed to where a few individuals had been gathered by the surrounding Tani-nin. So far, everything was going according to plan.
Following the incapacitation of a number of people poised to service the meeting in the Land of Rivers, the Hidden Valley shinobi in charge of making sure everything went smoothly would be forced to supplement the castle with the nearest available source. So with Neji and Shino overseeing things from afar, Naruto and Tenten had infiltrated the nearby village and joined the lineup of people being corralled as potential replacements.
The brunette – her hair once again pulled back into a long braid – was using her expertise with weapons to disguise herself as an entertainer, though like the Hyūga and Aburame, she was there mostly as backup, and to serve as his eyes within the castle's walls.
Naruto was the most important piece of the puzzle, and coincidentally, the one calling the shots.
When two Tani-nin walked up to him, the blond – his hair dyed a deep brown, and makeup once more covering his distinctive facial markings – attempted to look as nervous as a civilian might under the circumstances. "What do you do?" one asked him.
"I cook," he replied, bleeding a tinge of anxiety in his voice. "Mostly vegetarian stuff."
The two Valley shinobi exchanged glances before the second one clasped his hands together and closed his eyes. A moment passed before he opened them again, nodding at his companion. Sensor, Naruto thought. "We need a salad chef," continued the first Tani-nin. "Think you can do that?"
"Anything for Kensuke-sama," Naruto said, naming the Land of Rivers' daimyō. He allowed himself a pleased grin as they shuffled him over to where Tenten now stood. We're in.
'In', of course, was just the beginning, and by far the easiest part of his plan. Sure, things could have gone wrong ahead of that – not being chosen as part of the delegation that made it into the castle, for instance – but desperate people made poor decisions, and the Camouflage Seal hid him and Tenten from the primary method of detection the Tani-nin were using.
The hard part came with implementing the actual plan of attack: assassinating the hierarchy of the Land of Rivers without getting caught or implicating Konoha. It was why they weren't getting close without having their chakra blocked, and why Naruto's usual methods weren't being implemented – they had to make it look like an accident, or at the very least, like someone from within the Land of Rivers dissented against the potential alliance with Akatsuki; avoiding confrontation with the Tani-nin was key. Naruto was good at a lot of things, but the ability to shoot a wind-enhanced arrow through a building wasn't exactly discrete enough to serve their intentions right now.
His poison knowledge and botanical know-how, though…those were far more subtle.
When it seemed the Hidden Valley shinobi had found replacements for all the personnel Naruto and Shino had neutralized, the group was hustled towards the castle at a hurried pace. The trek still took about an hour – while the castle loomed over the village and surrounding forest, the path up to it was unnecessarily winding – and by the end, Naruto and Tenten both had to simulate the same exertion their fellows were showing after the climb; even without access to their chakra, they were still trained shinobi, and far better equipped to deal with physical activities than the other chefs, entertainers, and assorted villagers traveling alongside them.
The castle was built of dark stone, its façade weathered after years of standing tall against both the elements and invading forces. (Naruto couldn't say he knew anything about the history of the Land of Rivers, but it seemed a good bet that someone in the past had fought for the building's grandeur.) Sconces lit the interior of the long hallway they were led through, the Tani-nin showing them the wing of the castle where they could wash and rest (far away from the important figures, the blond wagered) before separating the cooks from the crowd and leading them to the kitchen.
Unlike the rest of the building, the kitchen was constructed of clean, white tile. Numerous ovens and stovetops stood against one wall, with a walk-in cooler taking up a whole other wall, and wooden islands littering the middle space, leaving enough room for harried kitchen staff to rush along the makeshift aisles. It had probably been updated as new technology had been invented, Naruto mused, observing someone move past with wheels of cheese in his arms. "Kensuke-sama and the Council are expecting something light tonight," one of the Tani-nin informed them. "Dinner is in 30 minutes."
Naruto and three other new additions scrambled to report to the head chef, a tall man with close-cropped black hair and a big nose who introduced himself as Daisuke. They were immediately set to work after that, the blond calling for walnuts and strawberries for a fresh, seasonal salad.
It was strange how easy it was to fall into the role of subservient salad chef. The Jinchūriki had never expected his growing cooking skills to be used for anyone other than himself, though he was silently grateful that it provided both the perfect cover and opportunity for this mission.
By the time he and his two assistants were done chopping fruits, nuts, and lettuce, as well as preparing the dressings, Naruto was exhausted. He'd never had to make so much food in one sitting before, and compounded with the travel both to the Land of Rivers and then up to the castle, a heavy weariness had sunk into his bones; that wasn't even taking into account the mental stress from being treated like a lower-class citizen. Working in fatigued silence, the kitchen staff cleaned up under the watchful eye of several Valley shinobi before they were eventually led back to their chambers.
He spent a long time in the (thankfully) hot baths designated to the servants' quarters, head leaning back almost 90 degrees against the stone that ringed the pool. Hundreds of stars winked at him from above, more than he'd ever noticed or even cared to pay attention to back in Konoha, with its bright streetlights and busy night life. Most of the remaining male kitchen staff were soaking with him, all experiencing the same silent dread of the work ahead; a wooden wall separated them from their female companions, though no noise floated over from that side either.
If that one meal was anything like what he could expect moving forward – or perhaps an easier version, as the Land of Rivers hierarchy had only wanted 'something light' – the blond was sorely tempted to hurry through with the assassination, consequences be damned. Only the night's quiet transience helped dispel his annoyed impatience. He relished the peace and quiet, knowing that this would be his only real chance to enjoy it during his stay in the Land of Rivers. Relax, he told himself, repeating the mantra he'd taken up during his training sessions with Jiraiya. You'll be outta here soon enough. Just gotta stick with it for now.
But then, he mused, getting up and leaving the bathing area behind, things like that were always easier said than done.
Jiraiya's goal – as Naruto saw it – was one of those things: remove enough of the River hierarchy from power that talk of an alliance with Akatsuki became moot. Either the Land of Rivers would become embroiled in a civil war over the mysterious circumstances surrounding its leaders' deaths (which was unlikely to direly affect Konoha), or Akatsuki would swoop in and either take the blame for the assassinations (which would paint them in further bad light) or usurp control in the ensuing chaos (which would give Konoha a place to target them, as well as showing the other minor villages that the terrorist organization was not to be trusted).
Jiraiya made it sound so simple. Naruto wasn't sure the idea of leaving everything in anarchy was a great one, but then again, he also didn't have as firm a grasp of the world's politics as the Hokage, and (more importantly) he wasn't paid to care. So long as he was a Leaf shinobi, a mission was a mission, and orders were orders.
When the echo of hurried footsteps on stone and the slamming of the door to the servants' quarters sounded out like thunder in the pre-dawn darkness of the fourth day, Naruto allowed himself an internal fist-pump of success while outwardly appearing as scared and confused as those around him. "Get up!" barked the Tani-nin who entered first; more shinobi flooded into the room from behind him. "Search everything," he ordered as the bleary-eyed castle staff were herded away from their meager belongings.
Blue eyes watched as sensors once more ran down the line of staff, noting the sweat on their brows as they came nearer to him; they were exerting much more effort than before to find a ninja who, for all intents and purposes, didn't exist. Nor would they find any evidence of foul play among the staff's belongings; Naruto hadn't used a phial of poison, but one of nature's deadliest plants to do his dirty work.
Every day, food was delivered to the kitchen at dawn's light, overseen by a group of Tani-nin who performed a cursory check for anything out of the ordinary being smuggled in. When the inspection was completed, staff members would store the edibles in their appropriate places before resuming whatever duties Daisuke dished out to them.
Naruto had been consistent in using a mixture of turnips and carrots in each meal, blended into salad dressings or served alongside the main course. It had been an intentional strategy so that he could claim they'd used no new ingredients when the River hierarchy's last meal had been served.
The nearly-identical water hemlock he'd actually used last night, though…even if the Valley shinobi figured it out (which the blond doubted, seeing as how they hadn't discovered it in the first place), water hemlock grew in the Kushiro River that was the border between the Lands of Rain and Rivers, so suspicion would fall on an infiltrator from Amegakure (a fellow minor village jealous of Akatsuki's attention) rather than Konoha.
He offered silent thanks to Neji and Shino for finding the water hemlock and sneaking it into the supply cart without getting caught.
It took most of the day for the Tani-nin to decide that the staff appeared to be above suspicion, and by then, rumors were going around about traitors in the Land of Rivers' midst. Apparently Naruto's poisoned dinner had hit the daimyō, three Council members, and at least six members of their personal staff, leaving the three remaining Councilors – one of which was supposedly the most outspoken against allowing Akatsuki a further foothold in the country – as prime suspects.
Just as Jiraiya had hoped.
By the time the Tani-nin bustled them away from the castle late that evening, several of the younger shinobi had started whispering about who they could trust, eyes shifting back and forth suspiciously from one companion to the next. Naruto allowed himself a mental pat on the back for achieving what his team had been sent to accomplish, grateful that the other Hidden Villages lacked a clan with the Yamanakas' capabilities for mental espionage. It was amazing how one clever technique could undo days of careful preparation, planning, and execution, he mused as they were returned to the village from where they'd been plucked.
He snuck out of the village around 3 AM, wary of any bump in the night that could be a Tani-nin looking for an out-of-the-box explanation as to the deaths of the country's hierarchy. Fortunately, there were no obstacles, and he eventually made his way to the pre-established rendezvous point, where the other three members of his team were waiting. "Mission accomplished?" he offered lightly.
Neji walked over and gestured for Naruto to remove his shirt; the blond acquiesced without complaint, giving the Hyūga access to the Camouflage Seal on his back. The dark-haired male went through the seals Jiraiya had taught him as Shino stated, "From our perspective, it would appear so, although it is your determination. Why? Because you are the leader for this mission, and only you can ascertain its completeness."
Naruto flexed his fingers as he felt his chakra once more circulating through his body, Neji taking a silent post beside Tenten, who regarded him with curious brown eyes. They'd all done a good job – much better than he'd imagined, considering how he'd left things with both Neji and Tenten in some strange limbo of hostility and confusion, respectively. Without Shino and Neji to deliver the original toxic doses and both find the water hemlock and smuggle it into the castle, or Tenten to surreptitiously inform him which server should take the poisoned bowl, the blond honestly wasn't sure he could have completed such a parameter-strict mission alone. The admission chaffed slightly, though it was tempered by the fact that, in his ideal endgame, he wouldn't have had to perform the mission in the first place. "Yeah," he affirmed, ineffectively trying to rub the makeup from his face onto his sleeve, "mission accomplished."
"I figured Neji would hate me more. You know, glare a lot and try to kick my ass at every opportunity."
"He's been more pensive lately. I think maybe you beating him showed him that not everything is set in stone."
Naruto let out a thoughtful 'hmm', remarking with quirked lips, "Fate is a fickle thing."
From his periphery, he could see Tenten shoot him a dry look. "I would not say that in front of him. He's better, but don't test him."
"Oh, like you're one to talk. You love testing limits. Training with Neji and Lee, wanting to be the next Tsunade…and are you ever gonna tell me why you kissed me after our mission was complete?"
"Challenging myself to be my best and having goals to shoot for aren't bad things," argued the brunette.
Naruto didn't bother disputing her logic; he'd known they were weak points to begin with, distractions meant to pull attention away from the last question. "And the kiss?" He'd thought that maybe Ino and Tenten – vastly different people in all other respects – actually had something in common in their romantic interest in him, but the latter's lack of follow-up had left him more confused than either's attraction to him in the first place.
The mystery had been irritating him for weeks now.
Tenten smiled to herself. "Curiosity. You're such a stick-in-the-mud, I thought it would be fun to catch you out of your element."
"Because the mission wasn't enough for you," he deadpanned.
"You lie to yourself too well; it allows you to fall into a role really easily."
The blond frowned at that, but decided not to open a second can of worms at this time. "So you don't like me."
"I didn't say that."
"…Yeah, you lost me," he admitted.
Tenten shrugged. "You either like me back or you don't. If you did, then you would've said something by now. Since you haven't, I'm assuming you don't, so what's the point in making a big deal out of it? We're young, our lives are always in flux, and I've got bigger things to focus on than whether or not you like me. If something changes, you know where to find me."
Naruto didn't have a response to that, though he found it a little ironic that, despite how different Ino and Tenten were, both had ended their conversations with him with essentially the same line. He was saved from having to think too hard about it by a sharp crackle in his ear; Neji's droll voice resonated a moment after. "We have located the camp. There are sixteen shinobi present, with one sentry posted in each cardinal direction."
"Best as Akamaru and I can tell, they're all Chūnin-level," Kiba reported. "Heh, should be a piece a cake."
Naruto placed a finger to his ear and pressed the transmitter button. "Don't move yet. Neji, where are you guys?"
The Hyūga began to relay instructions as the blond considered the appropriate course of action. The camp they'd found belonged to a ragtag group of renegade shinobi from the Villages Hidden in Rock, Stone, and Grass who had managed to make a nuisance of themselves along the Land of Fire's trade routes. Naruto's team had been tasked with removing the threat, and while the four of them were talented enough to dispose of them – especially if Kiba was right about the enemies' skill levels – the blond wanted to minimize risk as much as possible. Neji and Kiba both relied on close combat to get things done, which was unfavorable considering the Leaf shinobi were outnumbered four to one (three to one if Akamaru was included).
"Spread out," he ordered after he and Tenten had followed Neji's directions and regrouped with the two trackers. "Take out the guards first, quietly. Then Tenten and I will attack the group from afar, and you two can pick off whoever's left."
"Man," Kiba whined, "why you gotta ruin all the fun?"
Naruto shot him an irritated look – Kiba was more brawn than brain, a lot like how he imagined he might have turned out if Zetsu hadn't sunk roots in him – but it was Neji's curt voice that cut across his complaint. "Uzumaki has the right idea. We are outnumbered, and even a skilled shinobi can be taken by surprise." The blond almost interjected, 'You would know', but decided that having the Hyūga's support was worth more than the sassy remark. "Sowing disarray into their ranks from a distance is a wise course of action."
Kiba scoffed, but said nothing else; at his side, Akamaru let out a low whine and nuzzled his nose under his partner's hand reassuringly. Naruto graced Neji with a grateful nod before assigning targets for his teammates, taking to a high tree bough as they circled around to obey his orders.
He removed a compact scroll from his belt and unsealed the contents within, slinging a quiver of arrows over his shoulder while retaining a firm grasp on the yew bow Tenten had gifted him. Nocking an arrow and squinting down its length, he could just barely make out the southern sentry's distinctive red hair, a phenotype more common to the shinobi of Iwa.
His finger tapped a noiseless rhythm against the bow, and he realized with a small amount of annoyance that what Tenten had said during their exchange had irked him. He spent so much time internally debating the merits of philosophy – arguing with himself, the Kyūbi had phrased it, which was, to be fair, accurate – that sometimes he couldn't be sure what was real and what was simply a well-conceived fiction constructed to suit his means. That was, after all, how he'd tried to justify the pleasurable sensations he'd experienced during his mission with the brunette to the Land of Hot Water.
It was probably why he was mildly vexed at Tenten's blasé attitude about the whole thing, not to mention himself for his own interest in pursuing the topic; his curiosity and desire for concrete answers made it hard to let sleeping dogs lie.
"I am in position," came Neji's voice in his ear, followed by Kiba's and then Tenten's a minute after.
"Alright, count to five, then take them out." Releasing the communicator, he readied his bow and began the silent countdown. At five, the arrow sped through the air, catching the unsuspecting guard in the head and killing him instantly. He thought he heard someone in the camp yell something, but was too far away to make it out.
Kiba's curse, on the other hand, echoed in the earpiece clearly. "Damn, that was louder than I thought it would be. They're coming my way to look."
"Kiba, stay where you are. Tenten, wide area attack, now," Naruto snapped. Nocking a second arrow, he channeled wind chakra into the tip, aimed high, and released. Slinging the bowstring across his body, he went through the signs for the Senbon Shadow Clone Technique, creating hundreds of arrows to rain down upon the nukenin campsite. Then he raced towards the clearing to see the fruits of his labor.
Only four of the remaining twelve nukenin had been caught by his and Tenten's assault, riddled with arrows, kunai, and swords. There was a notable gap in the rain of projectiles where one had likely used a wind technique to blow them away, and he could see that three nukenin had created rocky walls and earthen armor to soak the blows; four were unaccounted for, likely chasing any or all of his three teammates.
Neji appeared from the west at that moment, pushing forward a pulse of air that shattered the earthen barriers. As their attention turned to the Hyūga, Naruto threw a couple of senbon at the nearest nukenin, but a gust of wind blew them off course; he glanced over to see the wind-user – a former Grass shinobi – wielding a bō staff, pockets of chakra-enhanced wind swirling around either end.
Tenten showed up then, twin tonfa in her hands, distracting the Kusa-nin and affording Naruto the opportunity to slip underground with the Attack Prevention Technique. Finding a tangle of roots in the Land of Fire was simple, and Naruto activated the Green Sight Technique upon the first cluster, feeding his chakra through the network of flora. Six chakra signatures became apparent, two of them crouched amidst a large shrub. "Kiba, four incoming," he warned, though the Inuzuka likely already knew about his tail. "I'll be there shortly, keep 'em busy."
Tunneling through the underground, he situated himself beneath one of the foreign shinobi – who Kiba seemed to be successfully distracting – and activated the Earth Release: Double Suicide Decapitation Technique. Instead of leaving the enemy's head aboveground, however, he pulled the other ninja completely beneath the surface, stabbing the surprised man in the neck with a senbon.
The ground began to shake, and Naruto quickly rose from it, intent on not getting caught in whatever technique was being used. A grey blur slammed into the attacking Stone shinobi, the blunt force of Kiba's Piercing Fang crushing the Ishi-nin's ribs.
Naruto ducked the swipe of a katana that would have beheaded him, silently thanking Tenten for all the training he'd had with avoiding different weapons. Already low, he placed his hands on the ground and summoned a spike of earth that tore through the other ninja's leg. There was a yell of pain, and the blond rose, delivering a palm-heel to his enemy's jaw that laid him out; one senbon to the carotid, and nightshade was running through the man's bloodstream, racing to strangle his heart.
He stood up and looked around; Kiba and Akamaru had handled the last nukenin easily enough, though the dog seemed to be nursing a large gash on his flank, and the Inuzuka's hands were red with blood. "Told ya it would be easy."
Naruto rolled his eyes as he walked over. "I was trying to minimize injuries." He unsealed a jar of salve and a roll of bandages from a scroll clipped to his belt, making sure to seal away his bow and arrows while he had the chance. "This should help," he commented, handing the jar to Kiba, who began to apply it to his partner's wound, "though Neji might be able to heal it better."
"I believe it would be more prudent to allow a vet to look at it," stated the Hyūga, joining them with Tenten a step behind, "but I will do what I can."
Naruto looked between the two brunettes, noting the long rip in Tenten's white outfit. "You guys okay?"
She smiled at him tightly. "Wind chakra kinda sucks. Neji patched me up, though."
"It was a minor injury," Neji added, bringing a hand glowing with green chakra over Akamaru's wound. "Fate," he started, then cleared his throat strangely, as if it had been a slip of the tongue, and said, "not every plan survives first contact. Considering the chaos that ensued, the outcome is more than acceptable."
"Yeah, well, I want more practice against Fūton-users anyway," Tenten stated. "Help me when we get back?"
"Yeah, sure," Naruto agreed.
Neji rose from Akamaru's side. "Done."
"You all good, Akamaru?" The dog barked a reply, and Kiba shot them a grin that flashed his canines. "Ready when you guys are."
Naruto exchanged a glance with Tenten, who simply nodded. "Alright, let's go then."
As they left, the blond couldn't help but think back to his discussion with Tenten and how things seemed so different from what he'd expected.
'You lie to yourself too well.'
His gaze landed on the back of his friend's billowing white blouse. Maybe…but am I the only one?
Show up prepared for a fight, Jiraiya had told him, and Naruto, ever the paranoid pragmatist, arrived at Training Ground 24 armed to do so.
What he hadn't expected was the small group of people idling around the area. Jiraiya, Asuma, and Shizune were all there, as were a porcelain-masked ANBU member, Shikamaru, and a scarred man who looked like an older version of the Nara.
Standing in the middle of the field was a teenager his height with blueish-black hair spiked backwards and framing his sharp, pale features. He wore a high-collared, short-sleeved, grey shirt and dark blue pants; a black sash kept a blue garment – almost an apron – tied to his waist. Coal black eyes flitted lazily over the blond before dismissing him by turning his head away.
It had been almost five years, but Naruto still recognized Uchiha Sasuke even after so much time.
Even Hatake Kakashi's gravity-defying grey hair was familiar as he made his way over to the small group and greeted, "Hokage-sama. What's all this?"
Jiraiya cleared his throat. "Uzumaki Naruto," he began, and the Jinchūriki straightened slightly, recognizing the formal tone in his teacher's voice, "welcome to your Jōnin Exam."
Naruto had to resist the urge to pump his fist in excitement. Finally! He'd been wondering at Jiraiya's recent insistence over the past number of months to have him lead missions, and now he finally had an explanation: the Sannin had been testing him.
The requirements for advancing to Jōnin were…poorly defined. The Chūnin Exams were relatively cut-and-dry, but after that, promotions were made at the behest of each village's Kage, with Tokubetsu Jōnin often serving in niche roles and ANBU displaying the highest level of aptitude for the shinobi arts.
But Jōnin…Naruto knew little else aside from the fact that skillfulness (if not some loose definition of mastery) of at least two elements was required (though it was possible that special circumstances existed for those hopefuls belonging to prominent clans, like the Hyūga or Nara), which was why he'd started learning Earth Release ninjutsu from Zetsu a year ago. Barring that, there were no guidelines he could find that would push along his promotion, nor any Jōnin who would give straight answers to his questions, so he'd taken every assignment he'd been offered in whatever role he'd been cast to bolster himself in the eyes of the Godaime.
Each mission had given him another opportunity to hone his skills and perfect his combinations, theoretically bringing him one step closer to Jōnin. And now his waiting had finally paid off.
"The goal here," continued the Hokage, "is to display an appropriate level of skill against a superior opponent so that we can judge your performance. This is to simulate the potential scenario of a solo mission gone awry and showcase your response to an unfavorable situation. You will fight to incapacitate, but not kill," he added, glancing between both boys.
Naruto caught the look, but was too busy internally fuming over his teacher's 'superior opponent' line to give it much thought. It reminded him far too much of the early days of Team 7, when Sasuke's holier-than-thou attitude had been an annoying constant. It wasn't that the Uchiha hadn't earned the title of Rookie of the Year for no reason, but the way he'd underestimated and slighted the blond throughout their time together – especially that moment at the Chūnin Exams, when the Jinchūriki had wanted nothing more than to shove a senbon into his teammate's neck – had always rankled.
It normally worked for him, but Naruto was just a little tired of being underestimated.
"Are you ready?"
Naruto made his way over to Shikamaru and unloaded a summoning scroll, two pouches of senbon, and three jars of bottled gases from his belt. "Non-lethal stuff only, right?" he confirmed. "Watch this for me, yeah?" The Nara, well aware of his replacement's proclivity for dangerous toxins, nodded gravely. Naruto almost felt naked, giving up his deadliest poisons, but he wasn't sure that he wouldn't be tempted to use them in the heat of battle. "Alright, good to go."
Jiraiya cast him a suspicious, almost warning side-eye before announcing, "Begin!"
For a long time, the two former teammates didn't move. Naruto knew it was stupid to attack first; Sasuke had apparently been chosen specifically to counter him – though in what capacity, he wasn't sure – and most of the blond's typical strategies involved either some measure of foreknowledge of his opponent or that his opponent didn't know he was there. He was skilled in stealth and assassination, not open combat, and the fact that he couldn't use any toxins that would cause permanent injury was limiting.
Beyond that, utilizing the Kyūbi's chakra would likely result in a disqualification, and (to the best of his knowledge) his plant-based techniques weren't known to anyone else (a secret he intended to keep), so those were out as well.
It was almost like his first Chūnin Exams all over again, him in a place where he could pass or fail and it wouldn't truly make a difference in the grand scheme of things, except that this time, he wanted to succeed. If, after all this time, he couldn't beat Sasuke, even handicapped, then the conclusion he'd arrived at so long ago would not come to fruition.
From across the field, Sasuke's expression seemed to twist into an arrogant smirk. Then he disappeared.
Naruto allowed the ground to swallow him up on instinct, a whoosh of air accompanying the action as his former teammate's katana slashed through now-empty space. Fast! It hadn't even looked like a Body Flicker, just sheer speed that rivaled even Jiraiya's reflexes. The blond would have to be wary of the Uchiha's skills in close combat and—
He quickly tunneled away as the crackle of lightning sounded out aboveground, surfacing 20 feet away in enough time to watch Sasuke plunge a sword covered in blue-white lightning into the spot he'd disappeared. He had a brief flashback to his mission against Rokushō Aoi and wondered if the way Sasuke's lightning-natured chakra tore apart the earth was anything similar to what had happened years prior.
Acting while his former teammate was distracted, he flicked a handful of senbon at his opponent. Sasuke whirled on the spot, bringing up his katana and deflecting the weapons easily. "Hmph, is that all you've got, dobe?" Lightning erupted across the length of his blade before he swung, sending a hail of blue-white needles at the blond. "Chidori Senbon!"
Naruto brought his hands together in the sign of the Bird before rotating his palms forward and unleashing a Wind Release: Great Breakthrough. The wall of wind scattered the incoming needles and continued to plow on towards Sasuke, who dashed to the side to avoid it. Naruto used the reprieve to withdraw his hunting knives and bring them into a defensive position as his opponent changed directions and brought his sword to bear.
There was a clang of metal on metal as the blades clashed, neither boy budging from their stalemate. Blue eyes flickered up to the Uchiha's pale face and caught sight of crimson irides, three black tomoe in each spinning clockwise.
"THE SHARINGAN," growled the Kyūbi in his mind. "WHAT A DISGUSTING ABOMINATION OF CELLS."
Naruto couldn't say he knew much of what the Sharingan actually did – Sasuke hadn't had much opportunity to use it in the brief time they'd been together – but with the way the fox seemed to hate it, he was willing to bet he didn't want to find out. He began to gather chakra in his chest for a Dokugiri, and Sasuke's eyes narrowed suspiciously, as if wary of an impending attack he knew nothing about. Lightning hummed along his katana, and Naruto forced wind chakra through his knives to counter, his breath caught somewhere in his throat as he changed tactics. Sasuke disengaged when the sharp element began to bite into the tempered steel of his blade, and Naruto took the moment to breathe out a Poison Mist that shrouded the training field in black smoke, obscuring everything from view.
The smoke shifted as Sasuke dashed through it, and the blond changed his stance to meet his former teammate head-on, fighting the urge to let the earth swallow him. Even as he did so, he could tell his movements felt sluggish, the way the smoke billowed in his opponent's wake strange, and as he tried to appeal to his initial inclination of disappearing, the Uchiha's katana slipped through his guard and scored a deep cut across his left shoulder.
"GENJUTSU, FROM THOSE ACCURSED EYES."
Naruto had experimented with enough psychotropic plants and fungi – a precautionary measure against his arguably limited understanding of genjutsu – to recognize the distorted reality and impaired reaction time based on one miscalculation, even without the fox's help.
"I COULD BREAK—"
"Don't bother," he muttered, finally slipping underground before Sasuke could launch another offensive. Not only did he not want to hear whatever concessions he might have to give up for the Kyūbi's assistance, but if he couldn't beat the dark-haired male with his own power, then his self-appointed goal would be meaningless. "Kai!" Twisting his hands from the focus sign into even more hand seals, he summoned chakra to the earth around him and coalesced a series of earth clones into existence.
Activating the Green Sight Technique, he tracked as the Uchiha handily destroyed one doppelganger after another with speedy kenjutsu. As he targeted the last clone, Naruto finished another series of seals and spread his chakra through the dirt beneath his duplicate. "Doton: Yomi Numa."
Everything in a 30-foot radius liquefied to sludge as the Earth Release: Swamp of the Underworld took effect, and Naruto released the Attack Prevention Technique, surfacing 10 feet away from a sinking Sasuke. Grotesque mud clones – indiscernible blobs of dirt and water – rose up around the Uchiha and oozed around the teenager's body to restrict his movements.
Sasuke smirked. "Don't think this'll stop me, dobe." He inhaled deeply, a parody of Naruto's own Dokugiri, then exhaled with an aggressive, "Katon: Hōsenka no Jutsu!"
Naruto quickly lobbed the jar of sleeping gas he'd palmed at Sasuke's position, but the bursts of fire that exploded from the Uchiha's mouth caused it to break prematurely. Each fireball impacted a different part of the Swamp of the Underworld, baking the mud into a clay that cracked at Sasuke's feet. The telltale sound of chirping birds filled the air again, and Naruto activated the Storm's Eye technique around himself just in time to hear his opponent's shouted, "Chidori Zenkai!"
Lightning tore through the ground, breaking it into chunks and sending debris flying around the field. The winds swirling around Naruto repelled any earthen fragments that came too close, as well as negating the pillars of lightning that seemed to erupt sporadically around him.
With earth, wind, and lightning raging about him, Naruto could suddenly understand with an objective clarity why Jiraiya had said what he'd said about Sasuke being a superior opponent. The Uchiha was physically faster and likely stronger, capable of casting illusions with a kekkei genkai whose abilities probably hadn't even been fully used yet, had a longer reach with his sword, and possessed affinities for Katon and Raiton, essentially negating the blond's own Fūton and Doton proclivities.
But Naruto had sought this opportunity – both the promotion and the chance to show up his former teammate – for far too long to simply give up, and his victory here would be all the sweeter when faced with such overwhelming odds.
Freed from the Swamp of the Underworld, Sasuke exhaled an enormous gout of flames with the shape of a dragon's head. It curved through the air towards the whirlwind surrounding Naruto, its heat quickly becoming searing, and the blond released the Storm's Eye technique to shove chakra into the ground and raise a thick Earth-Style Wall.
Crouched behind it as first one, then another fiery dragon head exploded against his defense, Naruto brought his pointer and middle fingers into a cross shape, summoning half a dozen shadow clones at his side. They immediately leaped away, hands moving through seals to unleash a multidirectional Wind Release: Wall of Wind at Sasuke.
Naruto dove out from behind his barrier in enough time to watch his former teammate disappear into the ground. He felt a brief stab of annoyance as the zephyrs converged on empty space; mimicry was only the greatest form of flattery when it didn't make things difficult for him.
Fortunately, the blond also knew what he would do in the same situation, which meant he could anticipate his opponent's actions. Weaving a string of signs, he muttered, "Doton: Akubi Wareme no Jutsu."
The ground fissured and split apart even further as his Yawning Chasm Technique took effect, dirt shifting and crumbling away as the land within a 50-foot radius shattered. Naruto jumped up and away as the spot he was standing on began to collapse, bringing wind-sheathed knives to bear as lances of lightning appeared from the ground's ruins and speared his clones out of existence. Each bolt of lightning fractured into multiple streams as they found their targets, any that got too close to the Jinchūriki nullified by the superior element.
From the air, he threw a handful of senbon at the ground, multiplying them into a rain of steel with a Senbon Shadow Clone Technique. Sasuke protected himself with a hemisphere of electricity, repelling the needles easily.
His options were dwindling, Naruto thought, mind working quickly to find his next move even as he began to freefall. The Yawning Chasm Technique was the strongest Earth Release skill he possessed – most of his Doton moves were supplemental or defensive in nature – and Sasuke was too fast and too proficient with his lightning nature to make his abilities with earth or projectiles useful. Anything he threw out, his opponent could counter.
It was time for a change in tactics, then.
He adjusted the chakra output being channeled along his blades, throwing out bursts of air that allowed him to zip out of the way of the fireballs Sasuke began spitting at him while forcing the other boy to dodge. When his feet finally touched the ground, he charged at his former teammate, slashing at the air with his knives and sending high-speed sickles of wind at the dark-haired male. The Uchiha seemed to dodge each attack with ease, though Naruto made sure to continue the assault to discourage him from countering properly.
It wasn't the first time Sasuke had anticipated an attack he shouldn't have; the Sharingan was probably letting him see and react to elemental ninjutsu. Well, Naruto thought with mild annoyance, I've still got some tricks he shouldn't see coming.
He needed to finish the battle soon, too; the ache in his shoulder was starting to become noticeable.
He finished closing the gap between himself and his former rival, summoning an exorbitant amount of chakra to his hunting knives when he was several feet away to create three-foot blades of pure wind chakra that mimicked Asuma's famous Flying Swallow technique. It was hard to tell in the heat of the moment, but Sasuke's face almost seemed to twitch at the thrumming blades of energy. The dark-haired boy brought his katana up reflexively in defense as Naruto slashed across his body.
Wind chakra met steel and continued through as easily as a hot knife through butter, the top half of the Uchiha's sword falling to the ground with barely a sound. Momentarily stunned at the turn of events, Sasuke reacted a fraction too late to completely avoid Naruto's exhaled Poison Mist. He distanced himself from the blond, using his sleeve to furiously rub away the wetness in his eyes his opponent's tear gas had caused.
With how perceptive the Sharingan seemed to be, Naruto hoped with a mild sense of vindication that it made Sasuke's eyes extra sensitive to the onion-based chemical mist.
Taking advantage of his opponent's momentary blindness, Naruto unleashed another hail of senbon, then created a new set of shadow clones to spread out and attack Sasuke as a precaution.
His prudence was proven correct when the Uchiha blindly unleashed a circle of fireballs with shuriken inside that both repelled his senbon and destroyed half his doppelgangers. Deciding to literally fight fire with fire, Naruto focused on summoning a small twister as his remaining clones converged on Sasuke. The nearest fireball got caught in his Wind Release: Rising Whirlwind's funnel, causing it to explode into a giant conflagration that Naruto quickly warped into a towering tornado of flames.
He briefly shifted his focus to his opponent, catching sight of Sasuke dispelling the last of his clones with decisive hand-to-hand strikes. Perfect, Naruto mused with a small half-smile as the smoke from his Poison Shadow Clone Technique finished dissipating.
Refocusing on the blazing twister before him, Naruto sent the wind spinning towards Sasuke. The Uchiha moved out of the tornado's path, but the blond released his hold on it and instead turned his attention to its interior. With a single hand sign, wind coalesced within the vortex's eye and then exploded with a Kakudai Kiri. The Expanding Mist technique blew apart the twister, sending fireballs spewing in every direction. Sasuke weaved around the spouts of flames while the would-be Jōnin erected another Earth-Style Wall to defend from any potential backlash.
Lightning crackled from across the training area, and Naruto summoned a Wind Sphere to surround himself as bolts of blue-white electricity rushed towards him. Sasuke appeared before him in a Body Flicker, fire held in the palm of his hand. The conflagration was lobbed at him, and Naruto slipped underground once again to avoid being engulfed by a fiery ball.
They were playing a strange game, the blond noted. Sasuke's lightning attacks could be nullified by his wind, but use too much Fūton ninjutsu and the Uchiha would just pervert it with fire. Then Naruto could slip away, but in doing so, he left himself vulnerable to more Raiton techniques, thus perpetuating the cycle.
Expecting the dance to continue, he surfaced quickly, only to fall prey to a volley of lightning needles that left him on the ground, momentarily stunned. Ugh, he didn't—
"Hn, I've been studying you, dobe. Don't think you can use the same trick on me twice."
Naruto looked up into scarlet eyes set in an expressionless visage. He hated that he'd been caught by surprise, especially since it seemed that several of his opponent's senbon had struck nerves, but judging by the slight slump in the Uchiha's shoulders, the toxic vapor comprising his poisonous shadow clones had taken effect. "Maybe not," he allowed, climbing to his feet and testing to see what mobility he had in his arms; between the lightning and the throbbing wound in his shoulder, he'd been in better shape, "but I don't have to."
Sasuke's eyes narrowed briefly before summoning more lightning chakra to his palm and slamming it into the blond's chest. Naruto was momentarily thankful that lethal moves had been prohibited – it was hard to forget the way Kakashi's hand had slid through Haku's chest, and it wasn't a far cry to believe his former teacher had passed the technique down to his pupil – as the force of the blow sent him sailing backwards, electricity dancing along his limbs.
He righted himself some distance away, surprised but wearing a victorious grin; Sasuke was weakening.
Even the Uchiha seemed vaguely aware that something was wrong, staring at his hand with an annoyed, almost confused, look.
Naruto didn't give him time to think about it, leveling his arm at his opponent and sending waves of Senbon Storms at the other male. Sasuke appeared to zip around and in-between each volley with his speed, though each needle seemed to come closer and closer to landing. When he almost seemed to be on top of the blond, Naruto threw his palms to each side (to the best of his ability) and performed a seal-less Fūton: Daitoppa, sending a buffet of wind out in all directions. The Uchiha was caught in the blast and sent flying, landing rather gracelessly on his knees, breath coming in shallow gasps.
Then his eyes went wide and he keeled over, muscles too paralyzed to keep him upright any longer.
Naruto took careful aim and flicked a couple of senbon coated with knockout poison at his former teammate's prone form as a precaution, then sat down and began to tend to his shoulder. "He won't be getting up for a bit," he announced to his audience without looking up from his work.
A delicate hand shrouded in glowing green chakra entered his periphery moments later, and the pain in his shoulder ebbed away. Shizune offered him a kind smile filled with pride. "You did so well, Naruto-kun. You didn't use hemlock on Sasuke-kun, did you?"
"No, azaleas. I've got the antidote here, too," he added, unsealing a jar from one of his scrolls and presenting it to the medic. He graced her with a small smile. "Thanks, Shizune-nee-san."
The clearing of a throat drew his attention away from the medic, and Naruto lifted his eyes further to find Jiraiya standing not far away. Shizune excused herself and hustled over to where Sasuke lay, beginning the process of revitalizing him. Naruto rose to his feet and inclined his head to his teacher respectfully, murmuring, "Hokage-sama."
"Naruto," returned the older shinobi. "You displayed an impressive amount of aptitude for Doton and Fūton ninjutsu, as well as restraint in your choice of attacks. You showed a strong awareness of your surroundings and a good grasp of strategy, especially considering the disadvantages against your opponent. I have also received a number of reports from Shikamaru and Neji that prove you can safely and effectively lead teams on missions." Jiraiya's serious expression broke into a wide smile. "Congrats, kid, you're a Jōnin now."
The blond couldn't stop the enthusiastic holler that escaped his lungs at the news, even as Jiraiya chuckled bemusedly. I did it! And handicapped, too…
He wondered how things might've gone differently if he and Sasuke had been allowed to use more dangerous techniques, but then shrugged off the hypothetical, too excited at the news to pay heed to the whirlwind of thoughts in his head.
"Drop by the office later," Jiraiya said. "We'll make everything official then." He waved to the ANBU member – who appeared to be talking to Kakashi – and then disappeared from sight, Asuma and Shizune making their exits after offering their own congratulations, the former promising a celebratory Team 10 dinner in the near future. Naruto made his way over to where Shikamaru was talking to his dad, the older Nara offering a curt bob of his head as he departed. "Nice job," Shikamaru said when they were alone.
"Thanks," Naruto replied, repacking the supplies he'd left at his friend's feet. "So I get why Asuma and Shizune were here, but you and your dad?"
"Jōnin Commander," came the response, the Nara thumbing in the direction his senior had ambled off in. "And they're grooming me for some higher position."
Shikamaru grinned wryly, rolling his eyes for effect. "It is." Dark eyes flickered to a point behind the blond. "Anyway, we'll catch up later."
"Sure, later," Naruto bade as his friend strolled away. He turned around, only to come face-to-face with Kakashi's mask. "Oh, Kakashi…"
"Yo. How's it been, Naruto?"
"Fine." When the silver-haired man didn't immediately say anything in response, Naruto continued, "Well, if you don't mind—"
"You've grown strong," noted the older Jōnin. His visible eye crinkled in the expression Naruto had once learned meant Kakashi was smiling. "I'm proud of the man you've become."
Naruto was silent for a long moment, simply staring at the teacher who'd essentially set him up to be Zetsu's plaything because of his inaction. A long time ago, he might have been pissed at the man for how his teaching skills (or lack thereof) had poisoned his worldview; after failing the Chūnin Exams, he might have even been grateful for how Kakashi's hypocrisy had pushed him towards the plant-man's philosophy.
Now…he wasn't sure he felt anything except the strange realization that things must have happened for a reason, and that Kakashi, for better or worse, had played an integral part in how his life had turned out.
"Don't be," he finally said. If Kakashi could teach…if Sasuke wasn't a jackass…if Sakura had opened her eyes earlier…what would've changed? He'd made peace with how he'd turned out, jaded as he was, but he had enough self-awareness to know— "Things should've been different."
And with that cryptic message, he left his former teacher (and awakening ex-teammate) behind.
The strange mismatch of humanity and plant life that comprised Zetsu's chakra was hidden within the thick trunk of a tall oak tree. Naruto watched as the plant-man's monochrome face melded out from the bark, wide yellow eyes peering at him curiously. "What's up, Naruto-kun?"
"Boss sent me," replied the blond's shadow clone. "He says it's time…wants to know if you're still good for that favor."
Zetsu's half-mouth twisted into a maniacal grin, yellow eyes appearing to glow in the final minutes of the sunset. "Finally."
Naruto rapped on the door he stood before, a strange nervousness thudding deep in his chest. It wasn't a big deal if he didn't get the response he wanted, but as Zetsu had advised, to gain the appropriate perspective, everything should be tried at least once, and this would likely be his last chance.
The door opened to reveal the surprised visage of Yamanaka Ino. "Naruto?"
"Hey Ino. Wanna go out tonight?"
Author's Note: Guys, thank you SO MUCH! You made me feel like a rock star with all those reviews, and if I didn't thank you personally, I hope this suffices, and I promise to get to you this time.
It took me awhile to figure out who I should get Naruto to fight to become Jōnin, but then someone asked when Sasuke would reappear, and the answer presented itself. Keep in mind that both combatants are restricted by the 'no lethal techniques' rule, so the fight is comparably tame to many of their canon fights. As always, please feel free to let me know what you think.