.


Chapter Thirty-Five


Akatsuki Isami's wedding was absolute torture.

See, the tenketsu on my legs were still blocked, and while this made my famous limp quite believable, it made keeping up the henge utterly miserable. Suzume was part of the wedding and the go-between for every foreign well-wisher looking for a good seal contract. Many of those foreigners were competent ninjas. Ughhh.

Shisui, as he'd warned, spent most of the morning hovering nearby. He wasn't my date, but as the day progressed and some of the wedding guests began whispering of death threats and blackmail . . . I was glad to have support.

The wedding was impossibly flashy. There was a knife show for the groom (he was a picky man), and everywhere Isami stepped, hundreds of tiny butterflies scattered like small clouds of glitter. We'd made flowers. We'd set up miniature ceremonial dancers to occupy early arrivals. We'd even made a subtle rainbow and far-off gemlike raindrops just to catch the sunlight.

The Hokage officiated with good-natured grace and awareness of the many timed seals. Isami and Sadao beamed with happiness and a healthy dose of nerves. This was a really edgy advertisement for our village and its special seals. If it worked, Konoha would be so on top of the market that we'd have to offer apprenticeships or something. Maybe we'd get bonus PR points for a happy civilian and ninja marriage.

While everyone stared at the genjutsu (except for various guards and paranoid attendees who refused to let their chakra be influenced), I kept an eye on my father and the clone he'd made into me. The clone kept raising its eyebrows appraisingly. It was mimicking my chakra scarily well.

I gather Daddy wanted any danger pointed at the clone, not me.

"Have you heard anything?" Dad mouthed imperceptibly.

Yes, I told him via family sign language. We weren't using communicative genjutsu today. There were too many ways to sense the subtle haze of chakra involved. I also didn't want to upset the visiting ninja. Or affect the wedding seals at all.

Nah, actually I wasn't up to it today because of my friend Neji. Every time I recovered, I went back to spar with him. You'd think I'd learn.

At least I wasn't in the hospital like Naruto was . . . the poor kid was going to be devastated when he woke up to find the wedding over with. Telling Isami that her sweet genin friend was unconscious hadn't been fun. I wish I could have gotten away with a clone plus henge.

With one last flourish of elemental visual effects, Isami and Sadao finished the ceremony and headed for the reception. I winced at the cheers and followed.

My mother, of course, attended the wedding. She'd brought two unfamiliar jōnin and told them to mingle while she congratulated the couple and sought me out. She was really . . . enthusiastic. "Are you ever going to be a bride one day?" she asked me, among other things. Oh boy.

The Kazekage watched the wedding and left soon after. If memory served correctly, the Kazekage was Orochimaru in disguise. But. His chakra didn't seem anything like Orochimaru's, and he didn't say anything that would incriminate himself. He didn't even allude to the scroll that Gaara had given me a few weeks ago.

Gaara's scroll had turned out to be a formal request from the Kazekage for gag tags that would hide chakra strings. The tags hadn't been difficult to make, and several prototypes were currently waiting on the Hokage's approval. They wouldn't go to Suna until the chūnin exam was over. Especially not after I'd told Daddy that Orochimaru knew about Suzume.

Dad had of course linked Orochimaru to Suna and set about looking for proof. He hadn't found anything.

I didn't hear anything.

Indecision struck. I didn't remember the Kazekage's chakra presence at all what with my hearing's hard reset years ago. What if something had changed (or my memory was wrong) and he was just being used? Orochimaru hadn't admitted to an alliance with Suna when he'd told me that he knew I was also Suzume.

Either way, the Kazekage stressed me out and I was happy when he left.

Kankuro was the only child of the Kazekage who'd come along willingly. He tried to catch me alone while his poor sister debated the merits of ridding the earth of either him or herself. She also worried for Gaara, who was wandering in the woods somewhere killing squirrels.

I didn't have time to get hit on by a mere genin. This wedding had enough influential attendees sniping at each other that I wished Neji had gone ahead and put me in a coma. Because what do you know, everyone wanted me as a friend.

A few of the guests wanted more than a friend. Shisui faithfully scared them off.

The Fire Daimyō brought along some truly generous wedding presents and all but smothered us with compliments and polite curiosity. Once his group moved on, Isami's mother dragged me to the business side of things and I didn't escape until the newlyweds finally left for their honeymoon. As I said, it was torture.

I met over twenty sealmasters, including Naruto's new teacher Jiraiya, who kept winking at me for reasons unknown. Some of the sealmasters looked like they wouldn't survive the return trip without wrinkling into nothingness. All expressed curiosity for the wedding's sealing methods. A handful agreed to exchange information.

Over one hundred people asked for an apprenticeship or gave me letters from a nephew or granddaughter requesting the same. If I'd been a finalist in the chūnin exam I would have gone insane right then and there.

Shisui transported me to my house when the coast was clear. The clone of me was sitting on my bed. I shoved it off and fell right asleep.


.


Bang bang bang bang bang bang bang! Bang bang bang bang bang ba

I slammed the front door open to see Naruto and bright afternoon sunlight. "Yes?" I croaked.

His eyes bulged a bit in typical Naruto fashion. "What happened to you?"

"What didn't?" I muttered, rubbing one of my thighs to stop the tingly feeling of an inflamed tenketsu point. My hair was a mess as usual. My clothes were in the best shape, since I'd found that wrinkle-free fabrics are a lot easier to henge with.

I looked into Naruto's face for the first time and found tiny tears there. Not surprising. I flinched anyway. "Hey, if you need help finding your new sensei—"

"He's meeting with a bunch of old fogeys."

"Or my dad, I'm sure—"

"He's long gone. Once he asked Ero-sennin to help me he disappeared with Sasuke. That was weeks ago."

I pursed my lips. "Okay, fine, you can come in. I'm sorry you were unconscious in the hospital. I'll describe everything you want."

Aw, he looked so forlorn.

"It was just a wedding," I said.

"IT WAS NOT, IT WAS MAGIC."

Magic had less rules and regulations.


.


Three hours of illustrations, it turned out, was enough to appease Naruto. The kid had to know I was Suzume by this point. Still, we kept up the charade and I pretended that I didn't know every seal backwards and forwards and twice over. He had his usual suggestions and compliments of how terrifyingly lifelike my illusions were. Such flattery.

A faithfully-appeased Naruto proved very easy to redirect. It was the last day before the tournament. He wanted to hunt down my alter ego to see if he could watch the actual seals. He wanted to hunt down Jiraiya even more. Jiraiya had landed him in the hospital right before The Wedding.

Naruto trotted off to pester his teacher.

I dashed out the door in the other direction, doing my level best not to limp.

It was the last day before the tournament. Mei was tied up with bureaucracy, Shisui was rigging some sort of thou-shalt-sleep-tonight trap for Sasuke, and Neji had already gotten in his last shot. I was supposed to be an hour into meeting with Hinata.

Good thing she had today off.

"Sorry!" I called when I reached the little meadow we'd taken to meeting at.

Hinata looked up from a bouquet of wildflowers that might have taken the whole hour to pick. "It's good to see you again, K—Kana-chan."

"I was tied up," I explained. "Thanks for waiting."

She shrugged. "Kurenai-sensei th—thought that I should relax today. I like picking flowers."

"Mm, well." I smiled at Hinata. "Is it working? I can carry some for you if you want."

She shook her head firmly. "No, thank you. I'd like to f—finish our last spar."

I nodded and began stretching. The Hyūga clan really meant business when they sparred. Hinata put more weight behind her punches than anyone had a right to. I feared for the day that she gained the strength to match.

Hinata separated her bouquet into careful piles of color. We'd have to keep away from the flowers if she was going to use Revolving Heaven. Other than that, neither of us would have to worry. We were both pretty aware of our surroundings. We weren't likely to throw explosive tags and tended to stick to close-range jutsu. Much better than my fights with Neji.

"It's been nice getting to know you," I said while I massaged the tenketsu points on my leg. That Neji.

"Li—likewise. Um, are you limping again?"

She'd noticed?

"No, I just thought it would be fun to pretend." I frowned down at my leg. "I don't know why it's acting like this; I stretched before I came and I managed to run without limping. I guess I'm better at running than at walking. Uncle Gai would be proud."

"It sounds like the tenketsu p—point is still partially blocked and you overcompensated with the rest of your chakra," she said quietly.

"So it was a regulation thing?"

She explained that because the tenketsu point was blocked, I'd unconsciously made up for the lack. I'd probably thrown too much chakra at the partially-blocked point and that would have made me limp again. Something like that.

I grinned. "On the plus side, I think I figured out why you've been having trouble with that one punch lately. You're just not mean enough."

"N—Neji-niisan is not mean, Kana-chan."

"Tell me again after the finals. Have you sparred with him recently? He doesn't even try to hurt me." I paused when I saw a funny little glint in her eyes. "I'm no more than a neutral party, and he's happy to take me down."

"You're his friend," she said. "I'm s—sure he'd leave your tenketsu points alone if you asked him."

No, he wouldn't. We didn't do handicaps. I didn't like contact with the Gentle Fist, but it was my fault if I got touched by it. I was the one who changed styles, not Neji. Although he'd started to adapt quicker . . .

Hinata's face, which had been rather pale from the whole "I'm in a chūnin tournament tomorrow" thing, suddenly gained some color. Her eyes twinkled.

I'd seen that kind of look all day yesterday and I didn't want to associate Hinata with it.

"You're his friend," she repeated, smiling softly. She seemed so pleased by this idea that I almost nodded along.

The prejudice that accompanied my memories, however, was stronger.

"If I'm his friend," I said quietly, "then how is he going to treat you? He'll rip you apart."

Even a blind man would notice the animosity Neji had towards her. But Hinata, as usual, brushed past my doom and gloom.

"I don't think you m—mean that."

I rolled my eyes. "Fine, fine. Think what you want. Today's our last day, regardless. Just please promise me that you'll unblock my tenketsu when we're done and that you'll check your cousin's handiwork for any lasting damage. I can't see my chakra network like you can."

Hinata activated her Byakūgan. "I'll unblock that right now. Don't worry, Kana-chan, I won't block your tenketsu points during our spar."

I sighed. "Hina-chan. This is our last spar. You keep insisting that I should've made the finals. If you believe that, don't insult me by holding back. Okay?"

A pause.

"O—okay."


.


I'd thought that Isami's wedding was torture.

I was wrong.

Trying to sleep the night before the tournament was torture.

What if, what if, what if.

Fortunately, I fell asleep with the presence of mind to know that my dream about Orochimaru's revenge was just that. Dream events weren't much different than genjutsu.

Real life, on the other hand, involved more than just me.


.


Kato and I arrived early at the tournament to prove that Daddy's lateness wasn't genetic.

Yakumo came soon after. She sat in her clan's box, smirked, and immediately set to casting a communicative genjutsu. Her parents were seated next to her. Shisui was in the row behind them. He traded the Uchiha section out for favors all of the time.

Konoha was on high alert today. Orochimaru hadn't been sighted after the ambush. Yakumo was under watch for the moment. Even my newlywed friends had an ANBU guard for their honeymoon, thanks to Orochimaru's comment about my alter ego. The wedding would have been a great time to strike.

No one fully expected Orochimaru to stick around after his cover had been blown. Didn't mean we weren't preparing for it anyway.

A squad of ANBU had actually lined the arena with some kind of anti-summoning seal. No one was going to summon large snakes among our civilians. Hopefully some poor genin wouldn't lose a match to the seal.

From the ANBU jargon, though, it would take an awfully nasty summons to activate the thing.

Too bad I couldn't make seals like that! I could have spent the night making them instead of psyching myself out.

But I digress.

Let's go, Team Konoha! Yakumo wrote across my vision. Are you ready?

Get those words out of my face or you'll regret it, I wrote back. I let the words flash black and white.

Don't be a stick-in-the-mud, she wrote in brown.

I wouldn't dare, honored teammate. You'd spam my vision with too many complaints!

As per procedure, the usual official platitudes were said, and the first fight was announced: Gaara versus the sound-based Tsuchi Kin. Who's going to win that fight?

Kin was down in less than thirty seconds with crushed hands. She went into shock immediately, since hands are our life in this profession.

Next on the roster was Shikamaru and Temari. This fight, too, went as expected. Both of them tried to draw each other out. Neither went for a maiming blow, and Shikamaru won with his usual casual grace. He apologized to Temari for winning. A mistake. She held a grudge now.

Contrary to appearances, he hadn't apologized for winning to a girl but for neatly wrecking her chance at a promotion. Shika's token strategy of laziness was a real kill joy. He didn't want to mess with flashy techniques. Temari had lost the moment she'd let him take the wind out of her sails.

Wow, that was impressive, Yakumo said. I can see you winning like that. Do you think he has a chance of winning the tournament?

I could only listen frantically to the Kazekage's innocent breathing so much. No, I replied. He'll drop out the second he qualifies to be promoted. I bet he's hoping for a desk job.

The chūnin proctor below announced the match of Neji and Hinata.

I'd dreaded this one for so long that my stomach couldn't even muster any butterflies. Neji was going to try to slaughter her. I'd said what I could to both of them, and I'd sure put myself out there to give Hinata a fighting chance.

Yakumo perked up at the shared Hyūga name. Aren't they cousins? Mother and Father introduced me to the clan head at that genjutsu wedding. It must be nice to be able to fight your family. You know how far you can go.

I pushed the commentary out of my mind and zeroed in on the two Hyūga genin.

Hinata and Neji jumped to the area floor. Hinata's lips quivered with determination. Neji's turned down with something that resembled hatred. Up in the stands, Hinata's father tensed.

"GOOO HINATA-CHAN," a certain blonde yelled.

The sweet girl smiled and fought a blush. Three, two, one . . .

Hinata was a trooper. Neji was a berserker.

She spun right into Revolving Heaven, bless her instincts. He laid into her like an angry bear. He couldn't get past the defensive jutsu, though, and was forced to fall back. She ducked out of the stance with a shower of kunai.

"Pathetic," he taunted, batting them away.

He charged forward again.

Hinata seemed to think that her family's defensive jutsu went against the rules of a chūnin exam—rest assured, it did not—and met him head-on.

It. Was. Terrifying.

If Neji had ever turned this kind of force on me, I would have set my father on him and dug the grave long ago. But Hinata didn't cower. Oh, she didn't want to hurt her cousin and didn't like his attitude. Yes, it hurt her deeply. She took the punches and did her best to return them. She did astoundingly well.

Aren't they family?! Yakumo spluttered.

Neji left Hinata crumpled on the ground, deactivated his Byakūgan, and turned to the proctor.

The proctor's lips were pursed. "She's still conscious."

Neji scoffed. "Her tenketsu are blocked. There's no way—"

Idiot. Hinata had practiced crazy hard unblocking mine. Her own couldn't be much worse to unblock.

But. Neji is very fast. Hinata is not.

The fight ended when Kurenai jumped in front of the girl and all but hurled her genin student's torturer into the stands. Unfortunately, he was on the far side of the stadium, well out of my reach.

I am a bystander and will not cast a genjutsu. I am a bystander and will sit here and wait. I am a bystander and no longer allowed to punch anyone. Much as he deserves a world of pain!

Large, invasive words scrolled across my vision. Kana, are you okay?

"Kana, you're grinding your teeth and if I can hear it, you've really lost it," Kato said from his seat beside me. "Do you want to leave for a while?"

Really, now. "In what universe," I bit out, "is this okay?"

"I thought you were his friend."

I held up a hand. "Hatake Wakato, don't you dare say anything further. I don't support savagery. I didn't tolerate him because he's a good fighter. He's a very noble person underneath the nasty shell he's built for himself, but my tolerance is gone. I trained with both of them all month to stop this very thing."

Kato raised his eyebrows. "You tried to stop that? What could you do, henge into her and let him try to kill you, instead?" His eyes narrowed. "Did you do that?"

"You're hopeless," I said. "No, I didn't do anything like that with him. I've never used a solid henge around him."

"Good, because I don't need any more games with dangerous people."

"Are you sure you're not Dad?"

My twin snickered. "Would Dad be here already?"

I recovered my senses enough to regret letting my emotions show on my face. I didn't, however, wish to take back what I'd said. Neji had a hard road ahead of him if he wanted to be friends with me again. You can learn a lot about people by seeing what makes them angry. I didn't really care if anyone used this to figure me out.

Sasuke and Tenten were called to the arena next. Once again, it was an ill-fated fight. The Uchiha boy was fast and agile. Tenten's ranged weapons struck with deadly precision, but that didn't matter against the Sharingan. She tried to predict his moves to trap him. He used a lightning-based shield I've seen my father use before and closed in.

Although she'd obviously been told not to look at his eyes, Tenten wasn't afraid to go all out. Her plethora of summonable weapons looked very impressive. In fact, I could see gears turning in Sasuke's head. He liked the thought of summoning.

(If he deserted the village, could I provide him with summoning seals? I'd already thought about incorporating wards into fancy jewelry. Summoning wristbands wouldn't be too hard. I could call them wristguards to appeal to him more.)

With a blur of Sharingan-aided motion, Tenten's giant summoning scroll ended up in Sasuke's hands. He retreated and formed a few fireballs to fend her off. While she was distracted, he went through the hand seals for his clan's great fireball jutsu. He aimed for the scroll.

Tenten surrendered.

Dad slinked in like a person-sized cat just as Haku and Lee entered the arena. "Yo, kiddos."

I moved over. Kato went through the obligatory accusations.

"Whatever," I said. "I'm just glad that Sasuke-kun didn't catch the lateness disease. Did you see his match?"

"No. Did I miss anything?"

"Eh, not really. It was a decent fight."

We hushed up and put our serious faces on. Haku versus Lee was the match-up the Hatake household had talked about the most. Zabuza had bragged on the former quite a bit. Gai had bragged about the latter even more. Both were fast enough that most of the spectators wouldn't be able to track them.

They also both apologized to each other right off the bat. It seemed they wanted a clean fight and no hard feelings. Hint hint, Neji.

The two genin spent several minutes sizing each other up as they dodged each other's attacks, spent a few minutes sparring, and eventually separated. Lee dropped his training weights. Haku complimented the Leaf genin for being enough of a threat to resort to the ol' kekkei genkai.

Lee charged at a pace that seemed awfully close to the speed of sound. Haku threw up his ice mirrors system.

When the dust settled, Lee was unconscious and the Mist genin was coughing up blood. He was conscious, so he got the win. Barring a miracle, he was probably going to cede the next fight. Ouch.

The last genin in the tournament was Naruto. His intended opponent had vanished a week or two ago. It worked out great for him. All of the other contestants had to get past a predetermined opponent to get to the next round, and Naruto got to go in fresh. He was the only person I know who probably wouldn't lose chakra from a fight anyway.

The randomizer cycled through Gaara, Shikamaru, Neji, Sasuke, and Haku. "I don't envy him right now," I muttered.

"I do," Kato replied. "I'd like to cut that Hyūga down to size. What did Hinata-san ever do to him?"

The names began to slow. "You think you'd beat him?" I asked. It was possible. He'd expended a lot of chakra taking down his cousin.

"I'd like to see him deflect chidori," Kato said tersely. "And we're working on that ace up our sleeves." He stopped talking when I stiffened. "Sorry." There wasn't much chance that Orochimaru's spies hadn't figured out our parentage by this point, I suppose. Still. Why not use the minimum of one year it would take to master our dual natures to do that before telling the public?

Pretty soon we'd be either bigger targets or protected by our father's position anyway.

Naruto's opponent was Gaara . . . Sasuke . . . Neji. Hyūga Neji of the Leaf.

"Yes!" Kato hissed.

I toned out the various cheers and shouts. "'Yes'?"

"Oh," he explained. "I don't know how he'll possibly win, but you know Naruto's going to clobber him for what he did. He's going down."

Against Neji, I didn't doubt it. The Naruto of past memories had pulled a miraculous win and cured Neji of his blind prejudice and hatred. Here, I wasn't so sure. But I wasn't going to say that out loud.

"Goodbye, Neji-san," I said. "You upset our dad's favorite student, you go down. No question."

"You gave him some good seals, right? Consolation prize for missing the wedding?"

I felt my expression go flat. "Brother mine, the Byakūgan doesn't even see the illusions, just the chakra involved, and that's not much."

Kato missed the opportunity to blithely say that the seals would be needed for Naruto's next opponent. Beside us, Daddy pulled up his hite-ate.

Wow, I didn't think that Neji was good enough to study. He was self-taught but surely he hadn't developed his own style. Genin that developed their own styles were usually better cannon fodder than study material.

On the ground, Naruto growled when Neji told him that Hinata's loss was both deserved and predestined. The blonde had been nursing a grudge for a while now. It was impressive that he hadn't outright attacked the Hyūga after the beating.

Neji rolled his eyes. "I'd hoped for a challenge this round."

"You'll eat those words!"

Naruto had refused to tell me why he'd ended up comatose in the hospital. I was dead certain that he'd done something with his Nine Tails chakra. He had a specific brand of evasive for that.

I realized why Daddy's Sharingan was uncovered and like him, began hoping that the boy wouldn't lose that much control. I'd seen what happened when his teammates had been hurt in the forest. Hinata was far from a forgotten classmate. Just one of the sweetest, kindest girls to grace the earth. Naruto would do a lot to avenge her.

I had to figure out a way to keep her in the family.

Below, Neji's mouth twisted up. "Are those really your choice of last words? Even you must realize that you cannot win against destiny."

"I'm not going to beat destiny. I'm going to beat what you did to Hinata-chan into your stupid face!"

The proctor started the match, and Naruto went for Neji. A foolish move by most standards. He knew the other genin's basic abilities. I'd forced them into him yesterday. Along with a few seals and suggestions for various fights (spam shadow clones and Shika would surrender if his previous fight had gone well).

Naruto fell back and spammed eleven clones. They formed a formation of sorts and charged.

The stands erupted in a wave of chattering. The civvies thought that clones seemed smart. The ninja population was shocked that a mere genin could possibly know the jutsu for and form that many shadow clones. They decided that since shadow clones are made by splitting one's chakra evenly, the clones had to be pretty weak.

Each clone lasted until Neji scored a direct hit to important tenketsu points. The clones weren't terrible brawlers, but Neji is basically unstoppable. Holding a kunai isn't enough to deflect those blows. My tantō is barely a deterrent. I felt sorry for the clones.

Naruto regrouped and scowled to himself. I hoped he remembered what I'd told him about the Byakūgan.

Unlikely. His memory worked differently than the rest of the world's. The only way to ingrain something in his head was to have a deep, emotional soul-baring talk at the same time. He's actually rarely in the mood for those. He's mostly in the mood for ramen and happy belligerence.

A new brigade of clones swarmed Neji in waves. They'd already improved at evasion. Naruto ducked into the mass and threw explosive tags through one of the gaps.

Neji spun into Revolving Heaven. That did away with the clones, too. He lunged at Naruto and did something nasty with tenketsu. I knew a bit about tenketsu attacks and I still had no clue what had just happened.

Naruto stumbled backwards. Neji suggested surrender. Naruto declined.

In a supremely bad political move, Neji told Naruto all about the bad blood in the Hyūga clan and what had driven his revenge. Long ago, toddler Hinata had been kidnapped by a Cloud ambassador. Her father had saved her. Cloud, of course, demanded recompense for such "coldblooded murder." As Hinata's father was the head of the clan and Neji's was his twin brother, Neji's father was forced to offer himself up in exchange. That way, the clan head wouldn't die. And no one would gain the secrets of the much-desired Byakūgan, since Neji's dad had the clan's self-destructing seal on his person.

Only Neji didn't know that his father had volunteered to die those years ago.

He'd clearly never accidently eavesdropped on a clan meeting while his brother was in therapy before. His view of twin loyalty was clearly skewed. I suppose that having a Clan Hatake with a branch house and a clan-secret-saving murder seal would make me kind of paranoid.

Naruto, being himself, thought Neji's story was a sissy view of things and that Neji needed to get out more. He managed to catch the Hyūga with a seal—a prototype meant to make the victim feel separated from his chakra—and tried to finish the fight. Neji stumbled out of range and ripped off the seal. He said something clever about sympathizing with Hinata and irony.

The younger genin quickly discovered that the Gentle Fist is neither gentle nor inflicted by an actual fist. Tenketsu strikes have to be very precise, so one finger is all that can be used to inflict them. Hyūga fingers feel like knives.

That finished, Neji "nobly" asked the proctor to call the fight, since he didn't want to be responsible for any deaths and Naruto was clearly down. The proctor hesitated.

Naruto growled and lurched upright. He looked as determined as I did when I tried to unblock my tenketsu, only I'd never managed it. He could have won the fight then and there by pushing Neji with a finger at that exact moment.

Neji got over it. He didn't know that jinchūriki have two chakras since there are two living beings inside their bodies.

Naruto's problem was that Neji refused to deactivate the Byakūgan. What to do?

Thirty seconds later, Naruto was lying in a ball and Neji climbed out of a Revolving Heaven-induced crater. Naruto's blood was very convincing. As was the iconic clone that jumped up and took out Neji.

"Winner, Uzumaki Naruto."

The crowd wild.

I cackled. "I could kiss that boy!"

Daddy's head swerved in my direction.

"I could shake that boy's hand from a safe distance!"

The elation faded as I recalled the way Hinata's heart had flickered while the medics had carted her away.

Naruto grinned up at our family. Kato waved. Daddy gave a thumbs up. I tried to soften gimlet eyes. The victorious genin nodded. "She's your friend, too, Kana-chan," he said under his breath.

She was. I would have gone for Neji's head, too. Or somewhere more vulnerable.

The randomizer began cycling again. The first name was Sasuke. The second was Haku.

They didn't fight long before Sasuke managed to snare Haku with the Sharingan and trick him into surrendering. Only I'm not so sure that Haku was actually fooled. They'd started their fight with all kinds of close combat and jutsu versus senbon nonsense. A good ninja would quit while he was ahead.

Promotions didn't come from winning every fight.

The next pair was Shikamaru and Naruto. Naruto grinned and popped up twenty odd clones the second the match began. Shika just sighed and surrendered quietly. When Naruto questioned this, Shika replied that it would have simply been too easy to win. Naruto looked bewildered.

Gaara lucked out of this second round, not that he cared. He was promptly matched with Sasuke. The two of them looked somewhat excited in their own patently apathetic ways. They were apprehensive for good reason. Sasuke had heard the rumors that Gaara had killed Naruto's original opponent. Gaara had just watched Sasuke win with the Sharingan.

Unfortunately, this fight felt just as one-sided as the others had. Sasuke punched and kicked. Gaara's sand blocked. Gaara himself didn't lift a finger.

Sasuke activated the Sharingan and sped up to Lee-esque speeds. Gaara formed a sand clone.

Clone and Uchiha duked it out. The sand clone was nothing to sneeze at—if I were Gaara, Sauce Cakes would be choking out his lungs down there—it was inhumanely agile and shrugged off some nasty hits. But the clone didn't check its blind spots.

Why did it have blind spots? This was the kid that made a floating eyeball during the written exam. Surely he could personalize his clone. Unlike shadow clones, sand clones wouldn't have to have a normal system to function. Elemental clones were just chakra-infused elements. Kato liked to talk his way through the subject every few days to remind me.

Sasuke blurred his way behind the clone and kicked it hard enough that I felt a slight tremor from my seat in the solid stone building. The clone dissolved at the point of impact. The sand immediately reformed around the Uchiha's leg.

Oh good, Sasuke said via his next action, now I can skewer you with this handy chidori.

Chidori won. It wasn't even the full version.

Sasuke went for Gaara before the redhead could shape his sand into a solid shield again. Sasuke meant business this time. He copied Lee's tremendous speed and I only had my hearing to tell me that Gaara didn't flinch. Then I heard Sasuke's fist connect with Gaara's face. Crack!

"Sand armor," Dad explained leisurely to us peasants who couldn't see through the dust.

The Uchiha boy grinned.

The Suna boy panicked and coated himself with his sand. He formed a sphere of the stuff. A smaller sphere split off and hovered nearby to give Gaara a decent view. (If he could use his sand to see, why did he have to form an eyeball? Seriously, he could make his protective sphere into an eye!)

Sasuke went on the offensive until the sand started sending out spikes. Gaara should have tried those earlier. Along with using dust. And poisoning his sand. Sasuke wouldn't have stood a chance.

At this point in the fight I was treated to a great deal of opinions. Everyone in the stands had some advice for Sasuke when he backed away from the spikes. Even Shisui muttered something. I kept an eye on Sasuke's strategic retreat and listened to my sensei. He usually had good input.

"First blood, my foot," Shisui scoffed under his breath.

Oh-kay? Gaara had just stabbed Sasuke, but Sasuke, as far as I could tell, hadn't managed to cut Gaara. Clearly the Uchiha wasn't ready to show off his recent attempts at infusing his tantō with lightning. Good. Brand new skills shouldn't be tried out in fights like this. Sasuke was obviously going to use his trusted chidori . . .

(What are you saying, Shisui? Ah, well.)

Oblivious to all commentary, Sasuke finished his chidori and charged the spiky sphere of sand.

I don't know why he did that first. There was a floating eyeball of sand that had to be a better choice of target. What if Gaara, oh, say, dodged the chidori?

Gaara didn't. The gathered lightning bit through his shield and ate at the Suna ninja's arm, armor and all. Gaara screamed. His siblings both jumped like their spines had been set on fire. They probably had no clue that their brother could make a noise like that.

Something inside of the sand sounded really weird.

I jumped as a familiar hand descended onto my shoulder. "Do you see it?" Dad asked.

"Uh."

His fingers squeezed lightly. I listened to the screaming below us, the way the sand contorted and slithered differently than it had before the boy had been injured. Nothing was visible through the hole the chidori had blasted.

Don't come out, I willed it. The man who invented that jutsu is sitting right next to me. He really likes his student. Stay in your shell, One Tail.

Sasuke looked concerned down there. He jumped backward and watched the sand as though he could figure out where exactly he'd injured the other genin. He'd enjoyed this fight. He was concerned for his fellow genin. Come on, it was just a hit to the arm—why all the screaming?

Sand gathered at the hole. I flinched. Dad grew all taut and serious.

But the sandy shape retreated.

A good half of the Konoha ninjas breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

Dad and I didn't relax.

It was at this moment, eerily true to my flaky memory, that a mass of white feathers descended upon the stadium.


.


.


~Turns out that because I have chapters in reserve, I feel like I have to work on all. Of. Them. At. Once. And it's not little edits, it's bigger stuff like this scene is stagnant, that one needs more content, this one is weirdly similar to the one two chapters from now, wait, if I do that plot point then I can add in a foreshadowing scene here...urk. In short, here is the next chapter. You are welcome. Thank you for waiting! I'd love it if you guys could help out by writing it, but I guess that isn't possible.

As always, I thought it would be fine to do the final edits with the FFN editor, and the site logged me out just before I copied this document in case it didn't save. I waded into computer software waters to try to retrieve the cache, but to no avail. Know that re-revising the Naruto and Hinata scenes was frustrating.

To my dear anonymous spectators/commentators: Dira (I go back to fact-check quite often as I write and am always stunned by how much I've written...all the stuff packed in there scares me. I apologize for your confusion! I throw so much into this story that it can be easy to miss a sentence and things get thrown off. Please let me know about any specific questions, and if you ever make an account, I'll be happy to PM you directly. I'm glad you're having fun, though! I know it's a layered story and yeah, a lot of that is intentional.), Zaph (Aw, thanks, so sweet), Guest Ch19 on 12/30/18 (Indeed, Kakashi did say that their mom wasn't famous: "Their mother wasn't an Uchiha. She wasn't famous, either, and look where that's gotten them." However, he didn't say she *isn't* famous. He was saying that she wasn't famous when they were *born*), Guest Ch29 on 12/30/18 (I know, right? Writing stuff like that is my favorite part...I try to be sparing), Guest Ch34 on 12/31/18 (Thanks! It's great to hear that I did good with Shisui! Yeah, Neji interaction is cuter than I expected), SandwichGoddess (I found a way for you to love this more, and I call it updating! Thank you so much for your comment)

To potatoqueen, who has PM disabled: Yeah that sounds terrifying. I completely forgot that I made that joke - thanks for reminding me! He's only been a recent sparring partner, so you didn't forget anything. :)

And . . . Oh, I just love hearing from you guys. Sometimes I'm a bit intimidated to reply to all of you wonderful people (too much happiness at once!) and I know I'm a late replier. But I love the feedback, and I love knowing that there are people out there who read this, and some of them are my friends now! Thanks, everyone.

Bonus content for this chapter is a little Sasuke/Gaara fight nonsense. I also thought I'd share a bit of how I write.


Below: a snapshot of my amazing writing process when I cover a canon scene (the Neji/Naruto fight in this case). If you've read my Itachi SI OC story, I do this for it, too. First, I write the story up to the canon scene. Next, I watch the anime and read the manga chapters. Several times. How much I watch and read depends on what I have to do with the scene. Am I focusing on emotions? Specific actions? Rewording a conversation? Sometimes I'll watch the sub, other times the dub so I can type out a super rough sketch like this below my current writing spot:


Canon: You got anything to say to me, smirking

Holds fist - Only what I told you the last time. I vow to win!

Stances, I can't wait to see the look on your face, when you learn that your foolish vow is impossible to keep

Are we gonna stand here talking all day! Show me what you got!

Alright. Now let the first match … begin!

Frontal, tenketsu exchange - Do you understand now? You have no way of beating me!

Get real I was just checking you out that's all! 5 clones

Well isn't he something.

Even distribution

Its fitting that you sympathized with Hinata because you're about to share her fate.

Proctor. I suggest you stop the match. If he's foolish enough to continue the fight, I will not be responsible for what happens to him.


Recognize the scene?

Yeah. Really rough. Gibberish, isn't it? Admittedly, it's gibberish because I'm typing fast and trying to sketch the scene with minimal time. But it helps me think, and gives me something to look at - and often I end up summarizing or glossing over the dialogue. I like looking at the words that the characters said (albeit translated words of varying quality) even when I'm going to significantly change the scene. You should have seen how many times I skipped through the fight with Orochimaru in the second part of the exam.

You can probably see that I cared a lot more about what was said in this fight than what blows were exchanged. I didn't plan to go into much detail. I wanted to figure out how Neji thought, so that kind of jab mattered more. Then, of course, I adjusted for this Neji. He's not very different at all.

After the word-bleh version, I decide what to cut and which words to change. I start writing again from where I left off. A few witty things sneak in. Then I keep writing and it's usually several weeks before I look back through the scene. I add in at least a third more words. I leave lots of brackets to remind me that I don't like that word, this is awkward phrasing, I need to hint at X event here. Then there's one more good edit - this time I fix most of the bracket spots and add in humor. Probably more sentences again. And then, hours before I update, I do one last quick edit-through where I usually just really want to update and am annoyed that I can't decide which word is better . . . so it's always the worst edit-through. I throw up my hands - "close enough" - and post the chapter.

I treat other scenes slightly differently. But that's basically how I edit everything. Lots of time for reflection. Lots of cynicism.


Also, I realize that I never mentioned how the pre-tournament fights went. Sorry, I couldn't find a good place to fit that in! I used a randomizer for the pre-tournament/elimination matches. Most of the winners were pretty clear.

Pretournament:
Gaara v Dosu (canon!)
Lee v Ino
Shikamaru v Kankuro
Hinata v Sakura
Temari v Zaku
Neji v Haku redshirt #2
Sasuke v Kiba
Tenten v Haku redshirt #1
Naruto v Shino
Kin v Choji
Haku (free pass)

I had a looong internal debate about who would win, Sakura or Hinata. The only other dilemma was Naruto versus Shino . . . sorry, Shino.

The final tournament also went through a randomizer. Since there was an odd number, someone got a free pass. I picked the recipient because this was on-screen stuff and I wanted some control over the pacing.

Gaara
Kin
Shikamaru
Temari
Neji
Hinata
Sasuke
Tenten
Naruto (I gave him the free pass)
Haku
Lee

I went through the trouble of randomizing it so everything wouldn't seem set in stone - it stayed pretty close to canon on its own.


What did you think of the wedding (sorry we zoomed through it)? Who do you think deserves a promotion? Did you see any typos? Did you notice that "Daddy" has been phasing out recently? I've slaved over this chapter for months and I'd love to hear a different perspective! :P

...So, whatcha think happens next?

I wish you all the best! Until our next meeting.

~4.5.19