“What about Kiba?” Sasuke asked. “Are you pinned between them?”
“They can’t see each other yet,” Naruto said. “But Kiba’s group are turning south now. Neji’s team is coming in from a few degrees north. Shouldn’t be able to trap all of me at once.”
“Should we fight?” Sasuke asked.
Naruto closed his eyes, running through the options in his head.
“They’re not far off and they can move just as fast, with Neji’s byakugan to track us, so running’s probably no good unless we want to disqualify ourselves intentionally. I can split our scroll and get rid of it though; they should leave us alone to chase after it if we haven’t got anything to take. Even if Neji wants to fight anyway, I think I should be able to stall him with a shield until he goes away.”
Naruto took the scroll from Sasuke and made a few copies. Neji was still too far away to see them, here. A fresh pack of clones took off in multiple directions, mostly heading eastward to get far away from the impending confrontation.
When that was done they headed back down to the field around the tower and encased themselves in a barrier with a few spare clones, and waited for Neji’s team to reach them. Trying to hide was pointless against a hostile byakugan, but Hinata had time to remind them of what she knew about their enemy. Neji and Lee were both close-combat specialists, and Tenten had a bloodline that let her seal and retrieve weapons in a giant scroll she carried. If it came to a fight, Naruto would keep all three of them busy as best he could with clones while they focused their attacks on Tenten first, to knock her out quick.
Soon the team of Hyuuga Neji, Rock Lee and Tenten emerged from the overgrowth at a slow walk. They came to a halt before the barrier, not even bothering with a combat stance.
Neji folded his arms. “Hinata… you have brought a shame unprecedented upon your house. Whether you intended this as retaliation for your recent reduction in status or merely acquiesced to the charms of this clanless genin who now possesses our sacred eye matters not. You are not yet marked as a member of the branch house, but with this crime you have forfeited any right to my protection. When that shield falls, you will face justice.”
That was not a particularly good start.
Naruto cleared his throat. “Hi. Um—”
Naruto cleared his throat, again. “Hi, Neji. As you can see, we don’t have a scroll here. My clone’s still trying to get away from another team we just met. See, if you look at these bugs with the byaku—”
“I know well the techniques of the Aburame clan, insect. We have been trailing them for some time already and I would thank you not to further taint the sanctity of the Hyuuga eye in your head with that filthy tongue.”
Rock Lee looked over at his teammate. “Neji…”
“I did see some clones of yours,” Neji continued, “and they were indeed fleeing something, but I do not believe they were carrying your earth scroll away. I think that that was the Aburame’s scroll, which you also pilfered, and that if I were to kill you and walk eastward I would soon discover a second earth scroll hidden buried in a hole, or up a tree. Am I far from the mark?”
Naruto whistled like he was impressed, feigning a kind of self-assurance he definitely didn’t feel. “Wow, pretty close! Only, instead of burying it, we just ran off and left these shadow clones here to stall you. Keep talking, though.”
“Fool,” barked Neji. “You have again betrayed the frailty of your own intellect. If this were truly an attempt to stall us you would of course have remained silent. The only reason to admit to such a thing so readily would be if you were nervous that we might not otherwise have even noticed the possibility of your team having other bodies, which you do not, so that we would run off in pursuit of them, which we shall not. It is rarely wise to underestimate the dexterity of your executioner.”
Naruto wished that Neji had taken all that a step further—that this could have been one of those ludicrous quintuple-bluff situations which never seemed to happen outside of stories, but in truth he actually hadn’t thought it would be a good idea for Hinata and Sasuke to make any clones of their own. A single shadow clone for them represented more than six hours worth of regeneration costs, and he hadn’t expected it would be quite so difficult to get rid of Neji when he could plainly see there was no scroll here. He seemed to value his sense of honor enough to happily pass up what should have been a good opportunity in the examination. Maybe he was just so confident he didn’t even care.
“Well, you got me,” Naruto said. “I guess you’ll have to wait us out after all, then. Unless we really do turn out to be shadow clones after all, because certainly we wouldn’t want to prove it, if this was a bluff. Which is of course just my last weak attempt to draw you into my failed bluff, because why else would I say that, right? You’re too good.”
“Your childish mind might be so easily tangled up with such idiocy, but do not mistake me for one of your peasant friends,” Neji said. “I shall indeed remain here until you exhaust yourself, which I suspect will not be so very long with so many of your techniques deployed simultaneously. You are like a cornered animal puffing itself up to appear larger than it is. If I thought you were capable of shame you’d be feeling it now.”
So, the negotiations were not going particularly well, but they still had options. Naruto could call in some clones from the outside to attack, maybe, or to try to lure them off with one of the scrolls. Neji would see them coming from a long way off of course, but the shield really wouldn’t exhaust his chakra any time soon, and theoretically Naruto could just make another one even if they tried to break through. Alternatively, they could head to the edge of the arena to surrender, and let the law outside protect them, but he could only move the shield at a walk, so it would be easy to follow them, and Naruto didn’t want to make such a grand show of his endurance if he could avoid it; even his own team might start to wonder where he got all his chakra. The shield, his clones, maybe the byakugan too, all at once, whether he stalled here or tried to leave. Battle was dangerous, but none of their options looked good.
Tenten piped up from behind Lee. “If you bring us the earth scroll, we’ll let you go!”
“Don’t make decisions on your own,” Neji snapped. “We’re killing them all, whether they surrender or not.”
Sasuke activated his sharingan, staring into Neji’s eyes with a cold indifference. He was pretty intimidating too, in his own way.
“Do you realize what that would mean, Neji?” Naruto asked, a little inspiration coming. “If we do fight, I’ll have to tell the heir of the Uchiha here about the weakness inherent in the byakugan.”
Sasuke looked at Naruto. “Weakness?”
“See,” Naruto said, “he still doesn’t know. And you’re still sworn to protect the Hyuuga clan, aren’t you?”
Neji grit his teeth. “…Do you see what you have done, Hinata? Do you see it with that peasant’s eye?”
“It’ll be your fault, Neji,” Naruto said. “I still don’t need to tell—”
“You will do nothing, because I will kill you first.”
“I’m just a clone, remember? You saw at least three of me on your way here. Even if you think we really are so stupid that we just stood here waiting for you without any margin of safety for Hinata and Sasuke, you know you can’t kill me just by waiting. My other bodies can go wherever they want, and once I’m outside the arena it’d be a crime to kill me. What do you think—could I find a clan willing to protect me in exchange for all these juicy Hyuuga secrets?”
“Run if you will, coward. I’ll pluck that eye from a mountain of corpses if I have to.”
Naruto frowned. “Now you’re just being silly.”
Neji didn’t even seem to care about his clan—or maybe he just didn’t want to believe it was possible for Naruto to do them any real damage. He was stubborn, but Naruto couldn’t really just let his teammates die here. He searched his thoughts for something else to use as a bluff, but it was one of the spare clones biting his tongue that brought the inspiration.
Naruto turned to Sasuke. “Sorry, Sasuke, I think I have to tell him about… ‘it’.”
To his credit, Sasuke said nothing that could have revealed the ploy.
“I visited the Hyuuga compound a while back, Neji,” Naruto said, “I think I saw you there, actually, training with Hanabi. Anyway, I was there to finalize a deal we made with the main branch of the Hyuuga clan. I’m sure the elders didn’t mean any offense by not telling you, but you are still just a genin of the branch family, after all. In truth, the eye was sold to us. Fair and square.”
“Nonsense! Nothing in this world is of comparable value.”
“To your eye-technique? I’m afraid there is one thing,” Naruto said. “Sasuke, can you show them your forehead?”
Sasuke complied, undoing his forehead-protector to show the seal left on his flesh by Gen’yumaru’s syringe.
“Now, maybe this is all just another crazy bluff,” Naruto said, “but do you really think that I saw you coming and then decided to sit down and paint Sasuke’s forehead real quick, just to trick you? Honestly, not even Hinata would have been generous enough to just give me her eye, in exchange for nothing. No offense, Hinata. What you’re looking at, Neji, is the ultimate eye technique of the first son of the first ninja. The rinnegan! Lost since the time the Hyuuga and Uchiha were cousins, but thanks to our deal, Hanabi will be the first of the Hyuuga to reawaken it.”
“Lies, lies, lies! Does your tongue never cease?”
Sasuke brushed his thumb past the seal. Black swirls of flame began to spread, crawling out across his flesh as the nature chakra bubbled up in his blood, clear and visible to Neji’s byakugan.
“Well my eyes certainly can’t do anything that dramatic,” Naruto said. “Probably just another bluff though, right? Just some kind of genjutsu illusion, maybe—but then, the byakugan should have seen right through it, huh? …Weird.”
Neji crouched into the characteristic stance of the gentle fist, his arms spaced apart.
“Oh, and uh, Rock Lee,” Naruto said, “before we fight I just want to say I’m a really big fan—I’ve seen how hard you work and I think you set a great example for everyone in Leaf. Neji’s private business with us hasn’t got anything to do with you and Tenten, or with the exam, and we’re all Leaf ninja here after all, so we won’t waste our energy fighting you two if you both stand back. We’ll be gentle.”
“Thank you, Uzumaki Naruto!” Lee said, bowing before he entered his own combat stance. “I too have long admired you from afar, and I return your admirable sentiments! It would be my honor to accept your challenge, and I stand ready to begin!”
These people were insane. They wouldn’t respond to anything. At this rate—
Neji turned toward the north, where the river emerged from the forest. Naruto followed his eye and saw nothing, at first, but then, between the disordered mess of plants and animals he spotted a team of three Cloud ninja strolling casually into the range of his byakugan. One of the three carried a pair of scrolls. Heaven and earth.
Naruto reacted first. “Okay Neji, new deal. Either we stand here in our shield and let you try to fight those three Cloud ninja on your own while we watch for an opportunity to sweep up whatever’s left of the winner, or, you and your team can make peace with us, we all move off the field before they get here, and then join forces to ambush them and take both of their scrolls.”
“Cloud ninja are coming?” Lee asked.
“This isn’t about scrolls!” Neji snapped. “They have one of each already. They don’t need to fight. They can just keep to their own business, and we’ll keep to ours.”
Naruto grinned. “Ah, but it’s not really up to you, is it?” he said. “Everybody knows you three are one of the strongest teams in here, but the three of us, why, we’re just fresh little genin, barely out of the academy. I’m sure they’ll be interested to learn of this rare opportunity to gang up and eliminate you before the tournament stage even begins.”
“Then we’ll kill them, and then we’ll kill you!”
Naruto rocked his head indecisively. Such radical bluffing was having a weird effect on his mental state. “I don’t know, Neji… they must be pretty tough to have won a scroll already, don’t you think? And they don’t seem to be in much of a hurry. They look pretty relaxed, actually, and that blonde girl must be at least a few years older than us, judging by her—”
“Be silent! Your mere existence offends me!”
Naruto turned to one of his clones. “You take over here. I’ll go speak to the Cloud team.”
Before anyone else could comment he bit his tongue, updating the minds of all his other bodies, inside the barrier and outside. One of his shadow clones started moving through the range of Neji’s byakugan, visibly heading in the direction of the Cloud ninja.
“Neji, are we not all fellow shinobi of Leaf?” Lee said. “Let us put aside our differences and fight together, as one!”
Tenten agreed. “Neji… we can’t take on all six at once…”
Neji set his jaw, fuming with anger as Naruto’s clone moved closer to the Cloud ninja.
“Fine. We will allow your temporary cooperation to dispatch the Cloud team,” he said. “But this is not over.”
If they could manage to grab a heaven scroll and get back underneath a shield then the three of them could just walk inside the tower and be safe until the tournament, at least. Assuming of course that Neji didn’t get so enraged as to actually test the strength of the barrier, and break through quicker than Naruto or Hinata could put up another one. In fact—there was really no good reason not to have been using more than one layer already, other than maybe the impaired audibility. It was pretty strong, and it had proven able to safely deflect any number of lesser attacks, including Sasuke’s fireball, but both the chidori and his own whirlpool technique had carried more than enough concentrated power to break through, and it was pretty likely that Neji had a strong offensive technique with similar power in his repertoire.
“Give me your word you’ll fight honestly beside us, against them,” Naruto said. “On your honor as a Hyuuga.”
“Yes, fine, I swear on my honor to fight the Cloud-nin beside you,” Neji replied. “Hurry up and drop your shield, we will be visible to them soon.”
Naruto was fine with Neji thinking he could honorably betray them later, as long as he cooperated long enough for them to work themselves into a better position. Naruto wasn’t nearly as confident as he pretended that the Cloud ninja would have actually wanted to join up against Neji.
“Back off into the woods, then. We’ll wait on the other side of the river. Signal the ambush through the byakugan.”
Neji glared at him for a second before finally moving to leave with his team. “I will be watching you.”
Once they were far enough that he felt safe, Naruto suggested to Hinata and Sasuke that they should create a few shadow clones themselves, despite the cost. He dropped the shield and let their new copies run off with some clones of his own, in multiple directions. Now it really was too late for Neji to catch them again. Naruto saw him as he watched it happening—he was furious, but he still couldn’t do anything about it; if he came back out from the forest now he’d be in a significantly worse position than he had been a minute ago, and the Cloud ninja were still on their way.
Nevertheless, Naruto took two full teams of their bodies to the other side of the river, as promised. They could have just run, and maybe met up with one of his scroll-carriers on their way out, but this was still the best place to be. Neji had little reason not to cooperate, other than spite, and in the worst case they’d only waste a few minutes and a little chakra by losing the clones here. If things went well they might actually get their hands on one of the heaven scrolls and be the first team to make it to safety inside the tower.
They concealed themselves behind some bushes, with a second set of bodies close enough behind to get back into the fight quickly, if necessary, or to supply more clones for the battle. Hopefully such exertions wouldn’t be necessary, though; Hinata and Sasuke couldn’t afford to be wasting much chakra on a failed venture.
Sasuke deactivated his third-eye seal to save chakra, waiting for the approach of the Cloud team. Naruto had done the math with him; at 1000 mc to start and 50 per second to maintain, it was cheaper to turn off and reactivate later whenever the gap would be greater than 20 seconds.
“That thing about the byakugan’s weakness wasn’t another bluff, was it?” he whispered. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wasn’t being sneaky,” Naruto said, “I just honestly didn’t think of it. It’s not even much of a weakness; I was exaggerating a bit for Neji’s sake. Hinata, do you mind if I tell Sasuke about it? We still might have to fight them, soon.”
“N—no. I don’t mind,” she said.
“Alright, well, I won’t point at it because Neji can still see me,” Naruto said, “but there’s a little conical blind spot in the radius of the byakugan, just behind the back of the neck. It’s pretty small, maybe two degrees wide, and it’s pretty easy to work around just by turning your head regularly, but maybe it could be useful to know about. I think we mentioned it before, actually—when my clone got ambushed, Hinata asked if I was moving my head around right.”
“Right,” Sasuke said.
“I wasn’t trying to hide it from you, but if you feel like I should have—”
“It’s fine,” Sasuke said. “I don’t think you were trying to hide it.”
“Okay, good. Thanks.”
“That won’t stop me from using it against you when we’re facing off in the finals, though.”
Naruto cocked his head. “It’s heart-warming how much confidence you seem to have in my combat abilities, but let’s just try to survive the next few minute, first. You should be able to see the Cloud team soon.”
Sasuke peered through the leaves, looking upriver with his sharingan. “I see them,” he said, “…is—is she singing?”
“I think so,” Naruto said. “And that guy looks like he’s using his mouth to make sounds, like a drummer.”
The Cloud trio sauntered casually along the riverbank, their voices carrying through the air.
“…stone cold ninja from the village of Cloud, she makes the spectators scream incredibly loud…”
“What are they doing?” Naruto wondered aloud.
“That’s traditional Cloud folk singing,” Hinata whispered. “A delegation performed for us at the compound, once. It’s a sacred kind of rhyme-song that they have to make up as they go—they say it has been practiced since the time of the ancients.”
“Getting tired of trees and can’t wait to sit down. Rest her sore feet… make sure her shit is still… brown? …Fuck, no… Shit. Bee won’t ever acknowledge me at this rate.”
The male on her team ceased his rhythmic noises and replaced the spent lollipop-stick in his mouth with a fresh one from his back pocket. “That dude’s got a mental condition,” he said. “He ain’t safe. Probably having some kinda seizure, non-stop, his whole life.”
“Rapping makes him more confident in battle. Like, so he can just go on his intuition, he said,” the girl explained. “Well, I mean, he rapped it at me, anyway. That ninja don’t even stop to breathe—anyway, I’ll go again. Blah blah, I can’t wait to sit down… something something…”
“Crown? Renown?” he offered. “…Drown?”
“Rest her sore feet ‘n leave this forest a ghost-town!” she sang, triumphant. “Cause she’s back now and with even better rhymes than before. She’s a deadly Cloud ninja that you can’t ignore! Spots six leafy genin hiding out in the trees, but at the sound of her rhymes they’re going weak in the knees.”
“—Whoa, for real?” He looked around, spotting something in the distance. “Oh shit, there really are! Hey, we’re about to get ambushed right now! What if they’d attacked while you were rapping and I got hit? Even a small infection might go untreated out here and lead to full-body paralysis.”
Naruto could hardly believe how they were taking it—they hadn’t even stopped walking. The ambush had clearly failed.
“Whatever ninja, they’re just genin. Yo, what rhymes with genin?”
Lee charged from the bushes on the other side of the river, heading straight toward them with a resounding battle cry. Neji and Tenten followed him.
But, the way she’d said genin… that’s why they weren’t scared of an ambush. These three were Cloud village chuunin, here to pad out the numbers and show off for their village, with Leaf unwilling to object given the necessity of the treaty.
Six on three would count for a lot, though, and if they were underestimated, that was all for the better. Naruto, Sasuke and Hinata charged forward to join in the ambush.
The male chuunin took the lollipop out of his mouth and flicked it in their direction with a snap of his fingers. Only Sasuke had the reflexes to dodge when he should have, but the lollipop exploded midair, throwing tiny bits of molten shrapnel in all directions, dispelling the three of them in an instant.
Naruto summoned out another pack of clones from behind the bush where their three closest backups were stationed, but gestured for Sasuke and Hinata to wait—he didn’t want them to waste too much chakra on clone after clone if this effort was already doomed.
At the edge of the river the blonde one waved her wrist and brought forth a wall of ice from the water as Tenten was making her leap overhead. Lee and Neji moved to race around the back of the wall, but in the air Tenten had no control over her momentum, and the wall rapidly rose up into the air behind her, and then circled around overhead to crash down into the earth on the other side, forming an arched tunnel. Tenten smacked into the inside of the wall as it came down, missing her landing against the slick ice.
She dropped to the ground as the Cloud ninja were passing beneath.
The rhyming darker-skinned girl drew her longsword and swept it smoothly through the air as she fell, cutting through Tenten’s calf in a single motion.
Tenten screamed as she hit the ground, blood spraying from her severed limb. Scrambling one-legged, she kicked at the ground with ragged bursts of chakra, pushing herself away and out the back of the ice tunnel as the Cloud girl jogged to catch up with her teammates, sheathing her sword.
They hadn’t even stopped walking.
“Tenten!” cried Lee, seeing her writhing on the grass. He hurried to her side while Neji stared after the Cloud ninja, his resolve to fight fading.
“Neji, she’s bleeding!” Lee shouted, tearing the bandages off his fists to wrap the stump that was left below her knee. “You have to reattach it!”
The blonde girl snapped her fingers in the distance and the ice tunnel shattered into tiny pieces around them, raining down harmlessly to form a little mound by the riverside.
The darker-skinned girl looked back over her shoulder.
Neji met Naruto’s eye, and then looked over at his teammates, injured and distracted. Sasuke and Hinata had come up from behind, now, and the three of them were formed up on the opposite bank of the river.
“Go…” Neji said to Lee. “Go! Get her out of sight.”
He pointed at Naruto. “Do not follow us.”
Lee picked Tenten up in his arms, carrying the severed limb in the recess of her body. Neji hurried after them into the forest.
“You wanna follow ‘em?” Sasuke asked.
“…Tenten will die if they have to fight us,” Hinata said. “Neji knows some medical ninjutsu, but reattaching a limb takes time, even just to get it to hold…”
“They were pretty clear about wanting to kill us,” Sasuke said.
“I don’t think we should,” Naruto said. “Not for Tenten’s sake; I just think that they’re still too much of a threat. Lee and Neji were always the main concern, and they’re both still in perfect condition. My clones will be here soon with Shino’s earth scroll, so we might still be able to get through this with a peaceful trade.”
Naruto kept an eye on Neji’s team with the byakugan as the three of them turned back to the forest. They were taking Tenten to the northwest, and they probably wouldn’t feel safe stopping for a while.
“Well that was a lot of work for nothing,” Sasuke said.
“Yeah it’s been a little, uh… intense,” Naruto said. “I’m starting to think it wasn’t such a good idea to rush into the middle after all. Sorry.”
“Whatever. Just bad luck,” Sasuke said. “That shit you said to Neji back in the shield was pretty hilarious, though. You had, like, twelve lies in a row all lined up.”
Naruto smiled. “Speaking of which, my clones just asked if it’s fine for your other clones to dispel. Do you want me to tell them that it’s okay now? We have a pretty wide radius of safety here.”
“Yeah, let ‘em know,” Sasuke said.
The Cloud trio had entered the tower in the center of the arena, now. They’d handed in their scrolls to one of the Leaf chuunin, and he’d spoke to them briefly before leading them up to a set of bedrooms on a higher floor, where they were settling in to wait out the remainder of the test period.
Naruto’s clones gradually organized themselves back into proper formation, communicating silently through the thoughts of dispelled bodies. When the first clone with Shino’s scroll arrived back at the main group, an instruction was sent out to burst all the other copies, thus making the one they held “real”, once again.
The last time he’d seen Shino’s team was in the south-western quadrant of the arena, chasing after one of his clones. Once he’d burst he had lost sight of the area, but even if they had a way to track him down again, they’d have to fight for it now. Then again, from Shino’s perspective there still might not be any weaker opponents in here. Maybe they could work out a deal or something, to hand back their scroll without a fight if Shino’s team would help them gang up on another group for a heaven scroll. That might work, actually. They couldn’t all be as strong as the Cloud chuunin.
Scarcely an hour had passed since the beginning of the exam, but it felt like days. Three hostile encounters, though they hadn’t yet actually had to really fight anyone, properly. He supposed that made sense though—the books always said that preparing for combat and trying to influence the circumstances of the fight was as much a part of being a ninja as the actual battles, which were often decided within seconds, or had an outcome more or less predetermined before the fight even began.
One of the twelve teams was out of the arena now, at least, but it was plausible that whichever team the Cloud ninja had defeated for their second scroll were either dead or seeking medical attention back in Leaf. If they’d been left alive without any scrolls they’d have two more fights to win before they could advance, at a minimum, so they might have even just given up already, for the sake of caution. Shino’s team were in a similar position, with their only scroll gone, and Neji’s team would want to rest a while, until Tenten could help fight again, or at least until she could move a little on her own. That left about seven teams unaccounted for, and judging by the direction each of them had originally come, Neji’s northwestern quadrant was probably the least likely to be densely occupied, but enough time had already passed that such estimates could only be a rough guess. Anyone might be more or less anywhere, by now.
One of Naruto’s clones dispersed with the information that he had spotted a Rain village team with an earth scroll heading north, about six miles to the west, but after mentioning it to Sasuke and Hinata they both agreed that there was really nothing to be gained by chasing after a third earth scroll. One spare would be enough to trade with, if the opportunity ever came.
It hadn’t been until the afternoon that the forest trial had even begun, following the morning’s written exam, so it wasn’t long before the trio began to discuss sleeping plans.
Naruto could easily make do with ten elevenths of a full night’s sleep, if he put ten clones on sleeping and left one to keep watch with the byakugan. Hinata and Sasuke both seemed accustomed now to the ubiquity of his shadow clones, and didn’t bother to question his grasp on responsible chakra management.
He could have kept more than one scout on watch overnight for a little extra safety, but the radius of even a single constant byakugan was a lot more than most teams could hope for, and he wanted to leave a little room to regenerate some of whatever he’d spent during the day, without needing another ten extra clones sleeping to make up for the second body’s vigilance. He’d lost count of exactly how much chakra he had used so far, but he knew he was in no real danger of running low. The reserves would be there if he needed them.
Hinata and Sasuke slept in hammocks slung up in the trees alongside Naruto’s own snoring choir, entrusting their safety entirely to the lone sentinel stationed at the tip of the tallest tree nearby, more out of drilled habit than any necessity, seeing all things in all directions, listening to the wind and the chirping and creaking of the forest up high as the hours of night passed in peace.
Even the Cloud trio was sleeping now, visible just at the edge of his byakugan’s vision. The dark-skinned girl had kicked her blankets onto the floor, limbs splayed out to cool off, as content as any child.
It was a strange thing that she should be so comfortable while Tenten cried out in agony, somewhere. It was strange just how completely normal it was, for ninja to suffer so much, with so little to show for it. He wondered if the ancients had lived the same sorts of lives, in their time, and what their philosophers said about such things—what they might have known that he didn’t. Things he might never know, born as late as he was.
He would have liked to learn about whatever it was that let them create the beautiful things they had made. A ninja had great elemental power—and so many varieties of destructive strength, but the ancients needed none of it to build towers that dwarfed even the tallest spires of Leaf. The ruins that Rain village had been built upon were said to have once reached a dozen stories high.
Not for the first time, he wondered what it would have been like to be born in that time—to live in their pristine world, where the people might sing in rhyme about the Panasoniku, dancing gracefully in elegant costume. A more gentle time, before the coming of ninjutsu.
Around midnight he spotted something at the edge of his vision and clambered down to wake his team.
The sleeping clones dispelled themselves as they woke, instantly rejuvenating their tired guardian with hours of hard-earned sleep.
“There’s a different Rain team from before, just northeast of us, heading south,” Naruto said. “They’ve got a heaven scroll, and two of them don’t look much older than we are. I think they’re looking for sleeping teams to ambush.”
Sasuke rubbed his eyes. “You wanna attack? Or just hold out for a trade tomorrow?”
“I think we could beat them,” Naruto said. “An ambush shouldn’t be too hard. The way they’re looking around makes me doubt they have any good sensory abilities. We could drop out of the trees. Trade would be better but we can’t rely on it. I don’t think we should ignore a good opportunity.”
“Well, I’m up for it if you are,” Sasuke said, yawning
“I will do my best,” she said.
After a short discussion of possible strategies, including contingency plans for regrouping, the three of them worked their way through the forest toward a point that lay almost directly in the path of the approaching Rain team. On arriving they got to work quickly putting together a makeshift shelter from gathered branches. It sat out in the open, prominent enough to be clearly visible in the dark.
In their last battle they had learned the hard way why most Leaf jounin didn’t just leave shadow clones stationed somewhere safe every time they started a fight. Being so easily burst might have been something Naruto could counter, with even greater numbers, but Hinata and Sasuke couldn’t actually fight if a single touch was all it took to rip them out of the battlefield. They would wait up in the trees while Naruto’s clones lay on the ground, transformed and motionless like they were asleep, acting as bait. If the fight went badly they could either escape by the usual means or trade the location of one of their scrolls for mercy. He still couldn’t move around properly without dropping his transformation, but he had finally managed to maintain it while talking in a false voice, just before the exams. Not that it would matter for faking the appearance of sleep.
The Rain ninja approached the trap as soon as they’d seen it, excitedly pointing out what they’d seen to each other. They advanced to stand above his clones, briefly pausing to synchronize their three impaling-blows with their strange umbrella-halberds.
The clones burst, harmlessly spreading the impact over a large pool of prepared bodies as Sasuke and Hinata leaped down from the trees with the rest of his clones, knocking the Rain ninja to the ground.
“Ah! We—we yield!” cried the shortest of the three Rain ninja, a kunai against his throat.
The oldest one sighed. “Shit…”
“Don’t kill us,” pleaded the third, “please don’t kill us.”
One of Naruto’s clones took their heaven scroll out from under the cloak of the tall one, and instructed them not to move. Then, as they’d planned, he kicked off the ground with Hinata and Sasuke, speeding westward while Naruto’s clones kept watch over their captives.
They’d been wary at first, feeling it had all gone too smoothly, but as they gained distance it became clear that their plan had simply worked. As plans were supposed to.
“…Felt almost cruel, winning that easily,” Naruto said as they coasted toward the tower, two scrolls in hand and a clear radius of safety around them.
“That’s what it’s like being strong,” Sasuke replied. “You just do whatever you want.”
“Is that why you want to be strong?” Naruto asked.
“Nope…” he said. “It’s why Itachi did, though.”
Naruto wondered what he would do with that kind of power—the kind it took to actually defeat someone like Itachi, or the Sannin. Probably nothing, really. Maybe go live on an island somewhere, get some reading done. The First Hokage had used his strength to try to end war entirely; to bring about a new age of peace by founding villages, but it hadn’t worked out at all like he’d hoped. Even in the hands of the strongest ninja in generations, a guy who had accomplished everything he’d ever dreamed of as much by natural charisma as by force—all his good intentions hadn’t meant a thing. Like the story of King Cuckoo ordering the tide to halt. The waves would just do what they wanted.
Naruto’s clones were already waiting at the entrance to the tower when they arrived. No other teams had been spotted on the way over, other than the Cloud team still sleeping inside.
They made one final check that everything was in order before pushing open the large doors and walking inside. A startled chuunin came awake in his chair.
“Oh!” he said, standing up. “Hello. Two scrolls, then?”
Naruto handed their scrolls over, including the extra they’d picked up from Shino’s team. The chuunin inspected them to confirm that the wax seals were unbroken.
“Well!” he said. “Congratulations to the three of you. You’re only the second team we’ve had come in yet, so there’s probably going to be a bit of a wait. We might be staging a few preliminary matches before the tournament, once the other teams get in, but you’re welcome to rest and regenerate a little until then.”
“Preliminary matches?” Naruto asked. “You mean—you’ll pick teams to fight?”
“Oh, no, just individuals,” he replied. “Mano-a-mano, as they say. Whatever that even means. We’ll throw a dice or something to pair you kids up ‘til we have eight for the tournament. And hey! You might even get stuck with one of your own teammates, so you’d best be ready for anything! But can I get you something to eat, or to drink? Cup of tea, maybe?”
“What about the other team in here?” Sasuke asked. “Would we get disqualified for fighting early?”
“Afraid so,” the chuunin replied. “You shouldn’t really need to speak with them at all, though, really—there’s plenty of space for everyone, and I’m always here if you need a third party to make peace. Or there’s my cousin, if I’m asleep. He’s great. Have I offered you tea? I have, haven’t I. We’re not short on tea, here, I’ll tell you that much.”
Chattering all the way, he escorted them up to their room, stopping briefly on his way back down to inform the Cloud team that they had company. Naruto wondered if maybe this chuunin had been getting a little starved for conversation out here in the forest.
Once he was relatively satisfied with their new situation, Naruto summoned a clone and dispelled it, letting his other shadow clones down in the forest know that it was safe to dispel. He’d had no particular reason to be suspicious, but as Kakashi said: caution was a habit.
They took turns bathing and then went back to sleep for the rest of the night, not rising until well after sunrise. Naruto estimated their chakra reserves to be more or less back at full capacity, as ready as they’d ever be for the preliminary bouts. Naruto had even brought a few extra clones out just to keep watch on their surroundings, and to get a little bit of light training done. The Cloud team seemed content to laze around in their rooms, gambling over some sort of dice game.
Naruto still had plenty of food pellets left, but the cupboards were stocked with supplies to keep the competitors well fed, and no-one had said anything about needing to leave any of it behind when they left.
It was a matter of practicality. Meals weren’t cheap.
It was strange to think that his team had already passed two thirds of the exam, now, without even really having won a proper fight. From here on out, though, whether it was the preliminaries or the tournament, he’d be tested on nothing but single combat. An absolute minimum of three battles to win, unless he lost, and losing… well, it wouldn’t necessarily kill him, but he doubted they’d let him start the fight with any of his shadow clones.
In the late afternoon Naruto spotted Neji’s team making their way back toward the tower, moving slowly out of necessity now rather than confidence. Tenten limped along beside them, one arm over Lee’s shoulder, her leg wrapped in bandages.
Neji frowned at where Naruto’s clones were watching with the byakugan, from high up in the tower.
He hefted a cloth sack off his shoulder, opening it up to offer Naruto a clearer view. Inside were a bunch of scrolls piled up on top of each other.
He counted two of earth, and five of heaven.
Naruto turned to his teammates. “Uh, guys? …I think the exam might be over.”
“There’s still, like, ten more teams,” Sasuke said.
“I guess… they lost?” Naruto said, “Or they died or something? I don’t know, but Neji’s team are on their way in, and they have all seven of the remaining scrolls.”
Hinata looked up. “What? Seven?”
“Did Neji go berserk or something?” Sasuke asked. “I didn’t think he was that stupid.”
“No idea,” Naruto said. “They’re coming in, though.”
“That means it’s just the nine of us, though,” Sasuke said. “So, what, just one preliminary fight?”
“I guess so,” Naruto said. “Unless Tenten backs out. Her leg’s back on but she’s not walking on her own, yet.”
Sasuke stood up. “Let’s get down there, then. Maybe they’ll let us go back to the village early… Food in this place fucking sucks.”
Naruto followed him down, Hinata trailing behind.
The two chuunin were both out of their rooms, downstairs, speaking with Neji’s team.
“Oh, here they are,” the talkative one said. “Now we just need those other three to come down. Could one of you three just run up and—”
“Uh…” the other chuunin interrupted, “I should, uh, probably do that myself. In case of… whatever.”
“Oh, yeah, well, hey, don’t be too long!”
Neji glared at them from across the room. Naruto wasn’t sure whether he hated Hinata the most for giving away the byakugan or him for receiving it, but it probably didn’t make much of a difference—he still clearly intended to kill the two of them, at some point.
“Um, since they just brought the last of the scrolls in, could we find out who survived the whole forest stage, now?” Naruto asked. “I’m just curious. Some of my old classmates were in there.”
The chuunin tilted his head. “Gosh, I don’t know. I guess you’ll have to wait until they sweep the forest for bodies in a few days. There might still be some fighting going on.”
“Naruto…” Lee said, his face solemn. “I regret to inform you that your classmates Aburame Shino, Inuzuka Kiba and Haruno Sakura have all lost their lives,” he said. “Along with two of the older Leaf genin, they were killed by the team from Waterfall village. We met with that team today and avenged their deaths.”
“It seems someone stole Shino’s scroll,” Neji jeered, “so his team couldn’t surrender properly. The Waterfall team thought they were just refusing to admit where it was. They were tortured for many hours before they died.”
Naruto blinked. “Oh…”
“It’s okay, Naruto,” Lee said, “your team was not at fault.”
Gentle little Haruno Sakura—he could hardly imagine her hurting a fly. She’d been tortured to death, for the lack of a scroll that Naruto’s team hadn’t even needed, after all that. It probably wasn’t the wrong choice to have made at the time, but still—it was a difficult image to suppress.
“It saddens me greatly,” Lee continued, “my heart aches—that my precious Sakura should have been taken from me so early in life. But I am a ninja… I will not give in to regret, or to defeatism. I will use her death to fuel my burning will, to grow even stronger… That is what she would have wanted.”
Naruto swallowed over the lump in his throat. “R—right…”
Sasuke looked across at Neji with disdain. “So, did you march your crippled teammate around long, collecting all those scrolls?”
Lee answered for him. “Neji and I managed to obtain a second heaven scroll while Tenten rested. We then fought and defeated a team with two earth scrolls, though we had hoped only to trade. On our way to the tower we were attacked by the Waterfall ninja. They had three scrolls of heaven, and they knew we were their only chance to pass. We could not flee, with Tenten’s injury. It was a difficult fight.”
Three more fights, all in one day, and outnumbered without Tenten’s help.
They didn’t even look tired.
The trio from Cloud emerged from the stairwell in the company of the other chuunin.
“Alright everybody, let’s get started!”
The talkative chuunin took a bone dice from his pocket. “Line up, line up. I’ll roll the dice and count inward from the left side to choose the first fighter, then again to count in from the right side for the second fighter. There’s nine of you so we’ll just do the one fight, then you can get back to rest. Unless anyone wants to bow out now, before we begin?”
Neji and Lee raised no objection, though really it should have been the chuunin’s responsibility to give them a chance to rest, first.
“Hey, you’re those guys from yesterday!” the dark-skinned girl from Cloud said. “Haha. ‘Teamwork!’”
“Wait a second,” Naruto said, turning back to the Leaf chuunin, “you said you’ll go over the nine of us, with two dice rolls that overlap in the middle? Those odds wouldn’t work out evenly.”
The chuunin rubbed his hands together. “Well, hey, if you find a nine sided dice anywhere around here you let me know, ‘kay? Any other questions?”
Naruto’s mind boggled at the casual response. He knew there must be some simple way to cover nine people fairly with one dice, but he wasn’t familiar enough with the mathematics that he could immediately see how. Three throws of a six sided dice could count up eighteen, which could be nine wrapped around twice, but then the middle numbers would be more likely because of how the three rolls would add up—
“Okay!” the chuunin said. The dice rolled out of his hand.
He counted off two people from the left, seeing the result, landing on the dark-skinned girl from Cloud.
She punched at the air. “Jackpot-a-bingo!”
By the time Naruto looked back at him the chuunin had tossed the dice again and rolled a six. Sasuke, standing in the middle of the group, just like he’d feared. It was absurd that something so trivial might be about to lead to Sasuke’s death—insane that something so clearly, pointlessly wrong could arouse so little interest from anyone else. If he’d had just a minute to think, he might have solved it, somehow—he was never good at mathematics under pressure, but if he’d just had a few dozen clones thinking about it all at once—but now it was too late, it would look like sour grapes from a member of the losing team. The result was as good as fixed the moment he’d even paused to think. He should have objected more forcefully, right away—he should have—
“It’s fine, Naruto.” Sasuke said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Hey, you’re from the Uchiha!” said the Cloud girl, pointing at the emblem on Sasuke’s back. “Are you really the last one? ‘Cause of that crazy guy who killed your clan?”
Sasuke looked her up and down. “…Yeah. I’m him.”
“Oh my gosh! I can’t believe I get to fight the last of the flipping Uchiha!” she said, squealing at her team. “Do you think they would let me take his eyes? They have to, right? I could be famous! They could call me Karui of Cloud: …The Clan Eraser!”
The blonde girl on her team nodded. “…Cool.”
“It’s cooler than being cool!”
The male one shook his head. “Ice cold…”
“Alright, alright, alright,” the Leaf chuunin said, waving his hands. “Let’s clear a bit of a space for them to fight here. Not much room I’m afraid. Hope you two don’t need a lot of mobility. And try not to hit any of us or I miiiight have to disqualify you.”
Sasuke re-tied his forehead protector around his neck, and brushed his thumb across his forehead to activate his third-eye seal.
His eyes went red with the power of the sharingan.
“Whoa, hey, don’t start yet, haha,” the chuunin said. “Actually… I guess we are basically ready now, so… yeah! I’ll count down. You two can begin when I say three. Alrighty: …one… two… three!”
Sasuke kicked hard off the solid floor and flew straight at her.
Naruto’s eye saw jets of chakra flaming from the soles of his boots as he spun to drive his foot into the side of her head. It connected with incredible force, sending the girl across the room with the power of the impact, careening head-first into the wall.
Her muscles relaxed as she slumped to the floor.
The Cloud girl’s teammates glanced at each other before rushing to her side. “H—hey!”
The Leaf chuunin clapped his hands. “Alright, great job!” he said. “The winner is… this guy!”
The male crouched beside his fallen teammate. “Shit! I think her neck’s broken!”
The blonde girl turned back to face them. “Is anybody here familiar with medical ninjutsu?”
Naruto looked over at Neji.
Nobody said anything.
Neji nodded to his teammates and turned toward the stairs.
Lee looked back and forth between the limp body of the girl from Cloud and his two teammates before following after Neji.