A/N: Lighting Up the Dark is recruiting beta readers. If you're interested, please get in touch.
Naruto was missing.
Sakura's time to shine had finally come, and Naruto was missing. She looked up at the stands, seeking that eye-searing blue-and-orange outfit. Where was he? Why wasn't he here? If he dared skip her match, after everything she'd been through, she would make sure he didn't live to enjoy his chūnin promotion (assuming his idiot savant superpowers got him that far against opponents who were actually competent).
She scanned the stands yet again. Kiba was trying to bully Shino, while Shino was slumped apathetically against the safety railing. Hinata was glancing around anxiously, probably for the same reasons as Sakura. Shikamaru was tense in a way she'd rarely seen, which was weird since he wasn't even on Sakura's team. Ino was holding up her fist in a "You go, girl!" posture, which lightened Sakura's heart a little, and Sasuke was looking in her direction in a way that doubled its rate again. Still, no sign of that little moron. Didn't he realise that he risked missing his own fight if he turned up late?
"Hey, pink girl," her opponent addressed her.
Sakura barely restrained herself from replying, "Hey, purple face." Kankurō's war paint was embarrassing. He didn't look so much like an intimidating warrior as a desperately plain girl who thought the purpose of makeup was to replace her face rather than bring out its best features. She was tempted to give him some of her old magazines before he left for Sand, out of sheer pity.
"Listen," Kankurō said, quietly enough to be inaudible beneath the excited clamour of the audience. "There's no shame in being weak. I'll try to go easy on you, so you show off as much as you feel you need to, and then just surrender when you've had enough."
Sakura had walked into the arena planning to be a mature adult who wasn't swayed by taunts. Now, as she saw the concern on Kankurō's face, she felt a spike of sudden, unbearable temptation. The reclaimed power of Inner Sakura, arrogant and without mercy, begged to be unleashed on the fool who thought he could patronise her.
After a brief struggle, temptation won hands down.
"I had a doll when I was eight years old," Sakura told him. "Her name was Princess Yuna, and she was class president by day and a magical girl who fought crime by night. She was also secretly the daughter of the faerie queen.
"I'm a bit too old to play with dolls now, but I can make an exception for you," she said with a generous, condescending smile. "What are yours called? You're a boy, so I bet they all have big manly names like 'Death Scythe' or 'Soul Eater'."
Sakura could tell from the way Kankurō flushed that she'd hit the mark.
"There's no point telling their names to a dead woman," he spat.
The referee had apparently decided that they'd used up their allotted bantering time, because he swung his hand down. "Begin!"
In a swift, practised movement, Kankurō drew a storage scroll the length of his forearm from an unseen holster, its ends dyed a rich blood-red. A smooth sliding motion with his other hand activated the trigger element in the middle as it unfurled.
The puppet that appeared between him and Sakura had little in common with Princess Yuna. Sakura's gaze travelled up, starting from its reverse-jointed, birdlike legs ending in splayed, taloned feet. A bulky dome-shaped torso connected to two thick, straight cylindrical arms, triangular blade-claws emerging directly from the wrist in lieu of hands. There was no head as such, but an oni mask glared at her from atop an elongated neck, complete with curled horns, a tapering chin, and a malevolent, hungry grin.
Sakura flinched. The mask was nothing more than you might expect a serial killer to wear in a by-the-numbers horror movie, but in context, it transformed a clunky wooden assemblage into a creepy, unnaturally-proportioned, animate thing.
Kankurō flicked his hands open sharply, dropping the scroll as unseen strings snapped out from his fingers and brought the puppet to life. Its legs stayed still, but the torso began to rotate towards her.
Sakura's focus narrowed. Some of history's most famous victories had been decided by the right opening move. Many more had been decided by the wrong one.
You have exactly three strengths, Sakura. Everything else is terrible. With my educational skills, I can work a miracle and get you to an overall level of basic competence, but make no mistake. If you don't leverage your few advantages, you will fail and probably die, and I don't do refunds.
Those bird legs looked like they could pack a deadly kick, but the puppet was stout and not streamlined for mobility. It wasn't a taijutsu type. The arms, too, looked like they had a limited range of motion, and Kankurō could have customised them with built-in blades, or spikes, or battleaxes or whatever, but instead he'd kept them smooth, like he didn't want the extra weight.
As the arms rose perpendicular to the body and the claws retracted into sheaths to reveal a pair of hollow wrists, Sakura was already moving.
Strength the first: you have a brain. This is a rare virtue in a shinobi, so treasure it. Whenever you can, think before acting.
It had to be a ranged puppet, a throwing or launching type. Sakura's choices were to move in close and try to finish Kankurō before it could strike, or to open up distance and observe while she decided her next move. And when you knew that your opponent had hidden tricks literally up his sleeve, and you both knew that immediately trying to pin him down in melee was the obvious thing to do…
Sakura fled, and not a moment too soon, as a series of throwing needles perforated the space where she'd been standing—and kept on perforating. The puppet's arms tracked her, unleashing a never-ending stream of needles where she'd been only a second ago. If she'd stayed in melee range, she realised with a chill, the arena sand would already have been soaked in her blood.
Luckily, her guess about Kankurō's reflexes had been right. She'd just had a month of brutal, relentless taijutsu training, while Kankurō was a back-line combatant who relied on his puppets to do his fighting for him. His reflexes, plus whatever delay was imposed by having to convey his orders through chakra strings, meant his line of fire moved just a little slower than she did. As long as she kept running circles around him, rather than turning to approach head-on, he wouldn't be able to catch up.
She couldn't help noticing, now she had a moment to observe, that the puppet's torso was marked with bright purple characters reading, "Cursed Lancer". Boys.
Now, Plan A was to wait for him to run out of needles. After everything Ebisu-sensei had put her through, she had faith in her endurance, and at that rate of fire, the painted wonder's supply would give out before her legs did. She still didn't relish the idea of getting in range of those talons, but puppets couldn't be good for defensive fighting—how was Kankurō going to block Sakura in melee without simultaneously blocking his own line of sight?
Next, Plan B…
Suddenly, the Lancer's left arm stopped firing. Instead, a hidden joint in the front of the torso unlocked, revealing a dark cavity. The puppet reached the left arm in (revealing that it did have primitive elbow joints), and after a few ominous seconds, pulled it back into position.
Before Sakura could decide how to react, the puppet fired.
It seemed like Kankurō lost accuracy when aiming both arms independently, and the new projectile's greater size meant it suffered more from air resistance. Sakura dodged without slowing down.
Then she realised the big wooden ball hadn't been aimed for her.
Sand sprayed in her eyes as the missile impacted the arena floor, leaving her blind.
The resulting moment of hesitation cost her dearly as a needle pierced the back of her leg. Sakura stumbled, feeling the beginning of panic.
Strength the second: incredibly, the Academy hasn't managed to destroy your interest in learning. You can use books as a weapon, while everyone else is stuck with mere kunai and exploding tags.
The rest of the world was briefly blotted out by Exam Queen Sakura's tunnel vision. Soleus, gastrocnemius… no, probably the tibialis anterior. There weren't any muscles that it was good to be stabbed in while you were running, but Sakura remembered her anatomy charts. More importantly, she remembered Mizuki-sensei's annotations, which gave great detail on the kinds of injury that justified fleeing the battlefield. (His sudden resignation really was a great loss for the Academy.)
The panic receded. Haruno Sakura was not a woman to be defeated by a single needle-sized flesh wound.
Two Sakuras ran ahead at different speeds. Another fell. One rolled under the single needle stream to run the other way, and the last spun to charge directly at Kankurō, a very obvious decoy—unless it wasn't, in which case he'd be placing himself in grave danger by ignoring it. Sakura took advantage of his moment of hesitation to get the sand out of her eyes.
While it took Kankurō time to wipe out the clones one by one, Sakura was now the one on a timer. Even a minor injury could turn crippling if she kept demanding top performance from those muscles—and worse, Sakura bled while her clones didn't. As soon as the bleeding got obvious enough for Kankurō to catch on, the fight was over.
But unlike certain people who could only deal with a ranged specialist by running in circles until Sasuke could come to bail them out, Sakura hadn't been wasting her time. She'd analysed all the evidence in front of her, and what stood out was a weakness that seemed so obvious she almost suspected a trap. If it was, she was about to be in a world of pain. But if she'd judged Kankurō's character correctly, then he'd be helpless against the Team Seven trademark: an attack that was simultaneously ingenious and ridiculously stupid.
A whole pack of Sakuras turned to face Kankurō head-on, and began to sprint for their painfully brief lives. The Cursed Lancer pivoted to mow them down as they spread out…
"Substitution Technique! Substitution Technique! Clone Technique! Substitution Technique!"
Firing off a dozen techniques in quick succession might have knocked out the old Sakura, with her miserable chakra reserves, but Ebisu-sensei considered stamina training to begin when she ran out of strength to stand up.
Clone after clone popped as the stream of needles moved relentlessly from left to right, but it took only one clone to successfully roll under it, and for her to Substitute with it and create more. Now there were clones on both sides of the Cursed Lancer's stream, forcing its lone firing arm to swerve back and forth to hit them, and resetting the other one was taking precious seconds.
If this had been last century, that needle would have been poisoned and she would already be disabled or dead. She gave silent thanks to the Second Hokage and poison resistance conditioning. These days, poisons that would reliably work on ninja were rare and expensive enough that using them was like trying to drown an enemy in a bucket of two-hundred-year-old wine.
Sakura Substituted from clone to clone faster than she'd done in her entire life, constantly moments away from a successful lock-on which would turn her into a pincushion. Was Kankurō's luck improving, or had he spotted the blood that marked the real Sakura?
The second arm came online. The Cursed Lancer opened its arms as if for an enormous hug, and a fan of needles wiped out every last clone. Sakura survived only by diving into a desperate roll towards the briefly safe middle area.
Sakura was out of clones. The pain in her leg spiked as she straightened. Those arms would close, and the double stream would obliterate her, long before she made it to Kankurō.
But then, she'd never planned to.
Three more metres. Two metres. One.
Strength the third...
Her trump card was a miracle of timing and precision well beyond the rest of her taijutsu. In theory, it was a roundhouse kick, the kind designed for people with legs longer than Sakura would ever have. In practice, raw momentum had plenty of other uses.
She twisted her hips, snapped her hands together in the same motion…
Sakura, you really are good at the Substitution Technique.
Sakura Substituted with the Cursed Lancer mid-twist, passing on the momentum to spin it one hundred and eighty degrees. As she dropped to the ground, and before Kankurō had time to react, twin streams of needles poured over her head and into his defenceless body.
Kankurō's other distinguishing feature, apart from the awful war paint, was the cocoon he always wore on his back—which, now she knew his abilities, could only be a readied puppet. But he hadn't drawn the Cursed Lancer from his back; he'd pulled it out of a storage scroll. You couldn't store chakra in a storage scroll. It was why no one ever tried just sealing away their opponent. That meant the puppet wasn't infused with Kankurō's chakra, and that meant it was a legal target for Substitution.
Sakura limped over to her fallen opponent. She opened her mouth to deliver some humiliating quip about Kankurō being broken by his toys—then stopped dead.
She'd heard no screams. She'd seen no blood.
Kankurō had deployed a puppet from a storage scroll, not from his back.
There was a series of clicking sounds from behind her, and a cold, contemptuous voice.
"I haven't been limited to a single puppet since I was ten years old."
Then Sakura was plunged into darkness, and there was no escape.
Naruto zoomed through the streets, zigzagging around obstacles with incredible speed like a very indecisive lightning strike. What in the cold hells had possessed him to ask a question that took an entire narrative to answer on this of all mornings?
But, assuming he still got to fight Sasuke and show off his epic new technique, he didn't regret asking. Jiraiya's answer, simple yet in its own way painfully complicated, had filled in a hundred gaps, and solved mysteries Naruto hadn't even known were there. It had also turned his relationship with Jiraiya into something he didn't know how to approach, a twisted knot of affection and deception, past and present. Above all, now he needed to meet Tsunade. Nothing could be accepted, nothing could be forgiven until he heard the truth of why she'd done what she'd done from her own mouth.
But that was a confrontation for another day. Here and now, Naruto was finally back in Leaf—finally home. Though the journey to Wave had been much longer and more eventful, somehow it was Naruto's second time outside Leaf that felt like it had lasted forever. Even in Wave, far away from everything he knew, he'd still had Sasuke and Sakura by his side (not to mention Kakashi-sensei). This past month was the longest he'd been apart from them since his first day at the Academy. A year or two ago, that might not have meant so much, but Naruto's world was a strange place now, one marked by bonds he still didn't know how he'd made.
Then, of course, there was Hinata, the girl who'd earned herself a central position in his life in mere months after half a lifetime of irrelevance. Naruto couldn't claim he'd thought about her every day during his time in Shady Springs—that would imply having had the brainpower to spare after Jiraiya's increasingly sadistic training—but he could honestly say that whenever he started missing Leaf, her face was the first thing to come to mind. Increasingly, Naruto felt a gap between him and his past self, who'd fantasised about leaving Leaf precisely to get away from its people.
Hinata was the symbol of that change. She had brought him the revelation that he could be accepted, not through the blind kindness of a special few, but through being seen and appreciated for who he was.
It was time, he decided, to let her do so for real.
Granted, it might not be a great idea to tell her everything at once. Even the most stable psyche might be overloaded by the revelation that one was dating a functionally noble-blooded, possibly gay, possibly polyamorous (those hours spent proofreading the tamer bits of Jiraiya's draft hadn't been completely wasted) living host to an apocalyptic eyeball monster as he sought vengeance against a dark conspiracy at the highest levels of government. (Put that way, it really made Naruto sound like a manga protagonist.) But assuming Hinata was able to handle the truth, in whatever bite-sized pieces were necessary, it could only bring them closer. It might even bring them close enough for her to trust him in return, and finally open up about her family. Thanks to her, he was slowly starting to heal the wounds of his past. Nothing could be more special than the chance to return that gift.
Naruto picked up the pace—the heir of the Yellow Flash could do better than mere lightning speed.
Sure, he'd face off against Sasuke in the finals if not before. There was no way Old Man Hokage would be dumb enough to disqualify Leaf's strongest genin from the Chūnin Exam for poor schedule management. But that still left him in danger of missing the second most important event of the day. Hinata's boyfriend had to be there to cheer her on as she finally proved her strength before the eyes of the world.
Where could Naruto be at a time like this? Could it have been a training accident? No, he'd have been taken off the matchup list. Could he have encountered an enemy on his way back? No, that was silly. For now, Naruto was still only a genin, nowhere near important enough for a hostile village to target, and he was hardly going to bump into missing-nin on the road. Should she use the Byakugan? No, too late. Now that she was down in the arena, using abilities before the match started would be considered cheating.
He was probably just preparing a dramatic entrance. Yes, that sounded exactly like something Naruto would do. Any minute now, he'd burst in, strike a manga pose, tell all the other ninja they might as well give up and go home now he was here, and then get dragged off by angry proctors until it was his turn.
Either way, Hinata couldn't let him down. If he missed her first match, then she'd win the next. If he was still late, she'd win again. She would show him the improved Sidewinder Style (prototype), strengthened with Neji's training, and maybe she'd even reach the finals alongside him and test it against the latest evolution of the Uzumaki Style. The thought was both thrilling and terrifying.
"Is it true the Byakugan lets you see chakra?" her opponent asked, and his gentle, polite voice brutally snapped her back to reality. "I've always wondered what it looks like."
"It varies," Hinata said tensely. "If you want to talk about it, would you mind waiting until after the match?"
Gaara of the Desert gave a disappointed smile. "I'm sorry, but that won't be possible. After all… it isn't the second stage of the Chūnin Exam anymore."