The crowd roared with savage exhilaration.
Naruto felt like his lungs were empty. Hinata was alive, and Neji had been—he’d been more than defeated. She had destroyed him.
The Hyuuga looked like they were about ready to walk out in protest, but they stayed in their seats. Few outside of their clan were likely to understand the wider context of the fight—for Hinata of all people to defeat Neji. Neji might have been motivated in part by his own passions, but there was clearly no sudden sense of renewed approval among the Hyuuga for Hinata now that she had shown herself the victor. The crowd adored her for winning, but they knew nothing of the mismatched eyes hidden behind the shabby old goggles she wore.
“Next bout,” announced the adjudicator, pointing with his flags, “Samui of Cloud fights Rock Lee of Leaf.”
The medical team escorted Hinata from the field for the customary once-over now that her battle was complete. Naruto wanted to go down to see her, to make sure she was okay, but the chuunin had him under guard where he stood. He wouldn’t be free to leave until the day was over. And neither would she.
Rock Lee had clearly been preparing for this fight since their encounter in the forest. As soon as the battle began he was after her like some kind of green beast.
Samui was probably a long range fighter, judging by her reflexive use of defensive ninjutsu in the forest, and the fact that her teammates both carried longswords while she only kept a short blade on her lower back.
She shot a surge of water from her mouth and formed it again into a barrier of solid ice between the two of them, but Lee seemed to have expected as much. He got around the side of it before the ice-tunnel had even fully formed.
Samui had a second technique ready and waiting for him. She shot a heavy bolt of water that flared out in the narrow confines of the tunnel. Lee dived over it with acrobatic precision, sliding against the smooth ice ceiling before kicking off to collide physically with her, pinning her with his hand at her neck.
“I yield,” she said.
The adjudicator raised a flag. “Winner: Rock Lee of Leaf.”
Lee stood up, and the walls shattered into harmless fragments again.
“I am sorry for the fate of your friend,” Lee said.
“Yeah…” she replied. “Yours too.”
The medics took them both below as a team of civilians rushed out to sweep away the shattered ice. Someone would have to dispose of it, the leftovers no different now than water frozen by any other means, but already the adjudicator was announcing the next fight. Naruto against Tenten.
He took his place in the arena as Hinata was escorted back up above. She looked down and tried to smile, but he could tell it wasn’t real. There was no reason for anyone to smile, here—he found himself hating the entire crowd, hating the fact that he too had once enjoyed the spectacle. This exam made everyone into beasts. It was nothing but war, artificially recreated and distilled to its essence. Kill or die. Win the fight, then start again.
Mercy was a luxury only the strongest could afford.
Tenten’s leg seemed to have healed well enough for her to drop down safely into the ring, but it was not with great confidence that she stepped forward to face him.
On the call for the bout to begin, she kicked off the ground and threw a pair of kunai at Naruto, soaring overhead, but the distance gave him time to move, and his direction was random, at first.
Tenten was a long range fighter like Samui, but preferred thrown weapons to ninjutsu. She also seemed most comfortable airborne and far away, so Naruto’s first goal was to keep her on the ground, and close.
Unfortunately he didn’t have Hinata’s great control, so the shield had to be anchored on his own body, but he did have a whole lot of chakra to spare. He timed his seal chain to finish around the time Tenten’s feet hit the ground and threw up an enormous barrier technique, enveloping almost the entire field.
Tenten didn’t immediately notice what he’d done. She kicked off the ground again at a new angle and collided with the newly made ceiling above. Her fall from the sky reminded him of her encounter with the Cloud team. Naruto brought his hands slowly together as he ran toward her, contracting the shield inward to further limit her ability to move. He felt oddly exposed running into battle with only one body, but he’d recognized in planning this fight that Tenten was uncommonly well-suited to destroying a lot of clones quickly and easily from a distance, which would have freed her from any shields they were maintaining.
Tenten’s eyes went wide as she saw the shield coming in around her.
“N—no! I yield! I yield!”
She dropped to her knees. “Please no, please, I yield…”
Stunned, Naruto released the barrier.
“Winner: Uzumaki Naruto of Leaf,” said the adjudicator.
She was terrified—shaking, now. “Please, no, I yield, please…”
Naruto stood there bewildered, as the medical team saw to her. She flinched away from them, curled up and crying as they carried her away.
She had briefly lost her leg in the forest, and then only minutes ago seen her teammate crushed alive. She must have thought that was what he had intended to do, too—Naruto being on Hinata’s team, using the same technique, the shield contracting in. She didn’t know he couldn’t anchor it on other sources, yet. He hadn’t even realized it would look that way.
“Next bout: Omoi of Cloud fights Uchiha Sasuke of Leaf.”
“Fuck that,” Omoi said, from his place at the side of the arena. “I’ve got to survive this motherfucker tryin’ to break my neck, just so I can fight one of those other motherfuckers, gonna crush me up or something, man. Fuck this genin shit. Shit’s dangerous. I yield.”
The representatives of Cloud were not likely to take that well, but that was his choice, and honestly, Sasuke really might have killed him. Not intentionally—it would look pretty good to the judges if he could force a chuunin to surrender, but there were a wide range of possible outcomes to any battle.
The crowd had an intermission slightly longer than usual for bathroom breaks and to make purchases from the vendors before the semi-finals, but after a few minutes the next bout was announced. Naruto against Rock Lee.
Lee caught his attention as they were taking up their opposing positions on the field.
“Naruto,” he said, “I want you to know that I hold no grudge against you for your actions, or those of your team. If I defeat you, I will not kill you. That is not my way.”
“I wasn’t trying to kill Tenten in our fight, even if that’s what it looked like,” Naruto said. “I don’t want to kill you either. Our team isn’t out for blood or anything; we’re just trying to survive.”
Lee nodded. “Very well. Thank you for your consideration.”
“I’m sorry in advance, if I do end up hurting you, too,” Naruto said. “I don’t know if I’m strong enough to win against you, but I’m even less likely to be strong enough to win without causing injury. I wasn’t lying in the forest though, Lee; I like you. It’s just these exams…”
“Fight hard, Uzumaki Naruto,” Lee replied. “I do not fear death.”
Naruto had spent less of his time thinking about how to fight Lee than the Cloud chuunin—and he’d expected more resistance from Tenten, but he had decided that if this fight did take place, his very first move would have to be his whirlpool technique.
“Zero… one… two… three!”
As expected, Lee dashed for him the moment the battle began; he had no ability for ninjutsu, and shunned even thrown weapons, perhaps to balance against his teammate Tenten. Close-combat was everything, to him.
Naruto had seen how fast he could move, and he knew that Lee would need to get in close, but the rules of the tournament prevented Naruto from beginning the fight with any shadow clones or active techniques, and with his unremarkable chakra control it would require multiple hand-seals to summon any of them, or to raise a barrier. Under normal circumstances it didn’t matter much—he hadn’t been shrunk down to a single vulnerable body even once in the forest, but if he wanted to win in the arena he needed to do something before Lee could get on top of him, and the only thing he could bring to bear quickly enough for that was his whirlpool; his only 100% manual technique.
He cried the name of the whirlpool and ringed his fist in raging water, no time wasted on cumbersome hand-seals—a swirling gyre of force destructive enough to rip apart any part of Lee that got too close.
Lee’s reflexes were quick enough to halt his advance with room to spare as the technique bubbled to life. He put himself at middle range—too far for Naruto to strike, but close enough to be back on him immediately if circumstances changed—faster even than when the battle had started.
They stood there for a moment, sizing each other up. Lee probably thought that any delay was to his advantage, given the obvious chakra cost that would be necessary to maintain such a visibly powerful technique in its ready state, and in a sense he was correct—Naruto was in no danger of actually depleting his chakra reserves, but Lee only needed to stand there to force him to take the next move.
They circled slowly around each other. Lee made a few feints left and right, trying to get Naruto to commit to some mistaken motion that could be exploited. Naruto needed somehow to get free of him. A few seconds were all he would need, just a window of safety long enough to summon his shadow clones; once the first were out it would be very difficult for Lee to compress him back down to a single body everywhere at once.
He had at his disposal only four techniques: the barrier, the shadow clone, the transformation technique, and the whirlpool. The byakugan too, in a sense, plus the use of his mobility and taijutsu skills—both inferior to Lee’s, and a few kunai, shuriken, his clothes, the arena itself… he’d given up on carrying around his little hand-mirror since Hinata had offered him her eye.
Naruto leaped off the ground with a chakra-powered kick, flying straight up, far above the crowd. Lee seemed at first like he might follow, but then thought better of it—that would have been a big mistake for him. Naruto had hoped that his sudden movement might prompt Lee into unthinking pursuit, where he could have turned his whirlpool in the air—Lee wouldn’t have had any chance to evade once his own trajectory was decided, but once he saw that Lee wasn’t following him up Naruto released the whirlpool from his fist and raced through the hand-seals of the shadow clone. He kept a close watch on Lee as he did, ready to abandon his attempt and go back to the whirlpool if Lee came after him too quick.
One hundred shadow clones burst into existence in the air beside him, the wind whipping at their clothes as their height peaked well above the tallest building of Leaf. For an instant he hung motionless as nature slowed his ascent. Lee’s best chance to win had passed, now.
Bodies rained down from the sky. It might have terrified him, once, but he had experienced his own impending death so many thousands of times now that it no longer aroused any response. More clones than usual failed their landings—disoriented by the wind and by having been summoned mid-air, a few even had to bite their tongues before landing amongst the crowd in the stands, but even with dozens burst and Lee tearing a path through the rest, every one of his new bodies were working on the seal-chain of the barrier technique. A few even stopped partway through, trying instead to catch Lee unaware with a kunai braced against his approach, but his reflexes were too good—it didn’t even seem to slow him down. Even so, he only had four limbs, and he could only cover so much ground in the few seconds it took. Enough clones remained untouched as the barriers started coming up that some of the rest even let up on purpose, just to avoid making too much of a spectacle of the expenditure.
Individually isolated the clones had little value, even inside their shields. Lee cleared out the exposed clones where he could, occasionally striking one of his shields, ineffectively. Naruto’s clones coordinated to drop and raise certain barriers, concentrating themselves into groups with spare hands free inside the protective domes.
Seeing that his methods were accomplishing nothing, Lee backed off for a moment and stood in an open area of ground, in the middle of the arena. Oddly, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath—too obvious a trap to even waste clones on. Naruto proceeded with his plan, shuffling his barriers together to form a ring of them around Lee.
A haze of something like steam seemed to waft from Lee’s ruddy flesh. Veins bulged from his forehead, and Naruto started to wonder whether it really was just an obvious trap he was attempting. A few opportunistic clones dropped their shields to attack as the rest began the next phase of his plan—a second layer of shields constructed on top of the first; a barrier of barriers. The deadly Shield-Igloo formation.
Lee dodged the attacks of Naruto’s clones effortlessly, his entire body seeming to flit out of the way before surging forward into the nearest barrier, shattering it with the incredible force of his bare fist.
The first clone to realize what Lee had just done bit his tongue, but even after having experienced the thought himself Naruto had difficulty accepting the idea.
Lee had opened the chakra gates inside his body—an incredibly dangerous feat of internal chakra control that even jounin weren’t supposed to attempt. He’d heard that there was apparently only one guy in the whole village who had survived the process of learning to do it—some guy who called himself Leaf’s Noble Gentleman—and that he was completely insane.
The chakra gates were an internal regulatory mechanism that kept ninja from killing themselves with their own chakra. Eight “gates”, all located around the belly, which regulated and stabilized the flow of chakra—and which some enterprising ninja long ago had discovered could be intentionally damaged to allow the kind of ridiculous temporary output that would allow a barrier to be broken by nothing but Rock Lee’s bare knuckles. The downside was that it inevitably harmed the user’s own body and mind, driving them further from sanity with every use, gradually impairing their long-term memory and cognitive function until eventually they were unable to even remember their own age, or the names of their sworn enemies. Even learning how to do it was a ludicrous risk, almost always fatal—the act of opening the gates was medically equivalent to having your guts blown open; it took a special kind of madness to even start down that path.
Lee wiped out the stunned clones inside the barrier with a sweep of his leg—he seemed to be on fire with chakra as he moved, visible even to the naked eye. The clones in the layer above fell in as the floor collapsed beneath them, leaving a wide gap in the wall he’d been trying to construct.
Lee moved on from shield to shield, breaking through each with a single powerful attack and then destroying the clones within, not all of whom managed to bite their tongues before he cleaved them apart with his foot.
Naruto’s clones split off into new shields, trying to plug the gaps faster than Lee could open them, and with their numbers they seemed to be managing it. Lee had to be burning chakra at an incredible rate, and it clearly took something out of him every time he broke through one of the shields, but Naruto was spending chakra like mad too, just to keep up—already he’d been throwing up dozens of barriers and hundreds of shadow clones, probably enough to completely exhaust any normal ninja’s reserves. He likely could have outlasted Lee at this rate, but it would be an empty victory if even one member of the crowd started wondering who this genin with so much chakra was—and wasn’t Uzumaki the name of the clan who used to be jinchuuriki in Leaf, and don’t people say that the jinchuuriki have a lot of chakra? Naruto couldn’t allow himself to get carried away with winning today at the cost of his life next week. Better to lose than to let it become such an extravagant endurance challenge—or better still, to win, but fast.
The barrier teams on the lower levels shuffled inward, closing Lee into a smaller space between them. He could have broken himself out at any time, but he was happy to be surrounded, the pace of his carnage accelerating as the clones condensed around him. Lee seemed to be hoping to outlast him—even he understood how much it must cost to keep remaking so many shields and shadow clones.
Once the capstone of his igloo was in position the second layer released their barriers in sync, dropping the team at the pinnacle directly down on top of lee, pinning him to the ground by their weight. The clone maintaining their barrier was floating in the air, partly supported by the other clones cushioning him inside.
The weight of more than a dozen healthy genin pinned Lee face-down on the dirt—in theory, at least. As it happened, fifteen bodies weren’t nearly enough to weigh heavy on the new Lee. Sweat beaded off his nose as he lifted himself up, almost seeming to force the earth down by the chakra-magnified force of his triceps, as if this was the single monumental push-up he had been training for his entire life.
He heaved the ball of clones onto his shoulder as he stood, like some great titan of myth, and flung it into the sky before the clone holding it together from the inside could even think to pop. Blasting chakra from his feet he shot off to pursue it into the sky, higher even than Naruto had flown at the beginning of their fight.
Seeing this, one of Naruto’s clones made the mental connection and bit his tongue.
Naruto was quickly coming to appreciate the value of fielding a hundred extra bodies, even if just for the extra chances to actually notice when his enemies made a mistake.
His clones on the ground dispelled themselves all at once, as well as all of the ones up above Lee in the air—all except the one at its center, who reached the peak of his ascent just as Lee was rising up into the sky beneath him.
This one body—his only real body, now—falling headfirst from some ridiculous height above the ground, aimed himself like a weapon pointed directly at Lee, and began to channel the whirlpool technique’s chakra around his hand.
Lee had nothing to push against, here; there was no solid ground or wall to kick off to change his trajectory, and no hope now even of dispelling his enemy before being hit, since Naruto had already made himself real by removing his other clones from existence.
Lee quickly realized his error and rotated midair to face Naruto feet-first, hoping to minimize the damage to his vital areas, but his rising trajectory had him at a significant disadvantage.
The faint howl of the crowd beneath faded into the wind.
Naruto drove his spinning drill through Lee’s upper arm as the two of them collided, midair, in a gleaming flash of chakra, water and blood.
The spiraling force tore the limb away and sent it spinning off through the air, Lee’s blood streaming out in rings over the crowd as it went. The two of them hit the ground on opposite sides of the arena within moments of each other, both managing to cushion their landings with enough chakra to avoid shattering their bodies against the hard ground.
Naruto had intentionally aimed for a limb, to disable rather than to kill. Out in the field a lost arm might have been deadly, but here, with teams of Leaf’s most elite medical ninja waiting ready it was unlikely to be more than a temporary problem. The cut wasn’t as clean as Tenten’s injury by the sword, but he would probably be back to fighting strength within a few weeks. Unlike the spinal cord, muscle and bone were a simple matter to re-grow.
Lee picked himself up off the ground, clutching at the stump of his right shoulder, breathing heavily.
For a second Naruto stood there, waiting for the announcement of his victory, but Lee hadn’t actually said that he had yielded, yet.
Naruto looked up at the jounin adjudicator, uncertain.
With no clones and no shield ready Naruto had little to defend himself with, but to his surprise he had little difficulty holding his own against Lee’s tired kicks and elbows, his one remaining arm too busy stemming the loss of blood to fight.
This was insanity.
“Lee, stop!” Naruto shouted. “You’ll die! Get healed!”
Lee looked at his stump of a shoulder. “…s’just a fresh wound… barely even lost any blood, yet. You can quit if you’re tired…”
“This is crazy! You could die!” Naruto said, fending off the clumsy blows as he spoke. Whatever control Lee had had over his ungated chakra flow had been further impaired by the loss of an arm. “If you’re hoping that I’ll give up just so you can get your arm fixed without dying, you should know that I don’t respond to blackmail, and I also think that that’s really really stupid.”
“I’m not blackmailing, I just won’t quit,” Lee said. “Giving up is not a choice I know how to make! And if I’m getting a little tired from you, then you must be getting a little tired from me, but I won’t quit, so really, this is all working out in my favor. As long as I refuse to die, I cannot be killed!”
“Screw this,” Naruto said, raising another whirlpool around his fist.
Lee kicked off to get out of range, and Naruto dropped the technique again, pushing off in the opposite direction as he used the moment of freedom to bring out another batch of shadow clones.
Only about a dozen would be necessary, this time. They moved to surround Lee as he sprung back toward Naruto, serving as a necessary distraction for one lone shadow clone to leap up to the top of the arena’s wall, unnoticed.
The clone stood up on the railing that separated the crowd from the battle. He worked his fingers through the Hokage’s filter prefix, followed by the regular hand-seals necessary to cast the transformation technique.
“Lee!” he shouted, wearing the illusory form of the jounin clad in the green jumpsuit he’d seen with Lee’s team, days ago.
Lee wasn’t distracted for even an instant by the sound. He called back in reply, “I have almost won!”
“Fool!” the clone barked, hoping that it was a passable impression of a man he’d never met. “Real endurance is more than merely fighting on while you bleed. It means enduring the pain of loss, even when you’d rather fight, so that you may live on to fight again! No son of mine will abandon the battlefield of tomorrow before the fight has even begun!”
Lee stopped attacking, his eyes going wide as he turned to face the clone on the railing. “You—you said… you’re my dad?”
Naruto swallowed, suddenly realizing the magnitude of his error. With those matching jumpsuits—he’d just assumed…
The clone spoke with absolute confidence.
“Lee… I am your father.”
“…I knew it…” Lee wailed, his eyes damp. He lurched to one side, dizzy. “Somehow, I always knew!”
He collapsed, out cold from the loss of blood as the crowd looked on in horrified silence. Naruto’s transformed clone vanished along with the rest of his extra bodies.
The real jounin came tearing down the stairs and leaned out over the railing. “It’s not true!” he shouted, “Lee! Your mother and I—we were just good friends!”
“Winner: Uzumaki Naruto of Leaf.”
The jounin slumped over the railing as the medical team picked up the unconscious Rock Lee, and carried him under the stands, along with his severed arm.
The next match was announced while the medical team gave Naruto his own examination; Hinata fighting Sasuke. Wisely, she forfeited immediately on account of having almost no chakra left after her exhausting battle with Neji. Sasuke won his second fight in a row by default.
As a consequence, Naruto had scarcely emerged from beneath the stands when he was called down to the field again for the final battle of the day—the culmination of the tournament, a battle between himself and Sasuke. Somehow, out of a hundred and fifty genin, the three of them had managed to make it to the end unscathed.
“I hope you’ve got enough energy left to make this fun,” Sasuke said, stepping out onto the field. “I was starting to think I’d get the trophy just for showing up.”
Naruto tried to smile.
He’d have to yield this one—he’d spent far too much chakra on Lee. He couldn’t justify the kind of expenditure that would be necessary to keep up with Sasuke, after all that.
Maybe he could put up a shield first, though, and let Sasuke break through it, to show off his strength for the judges. One last little bit of “teamwork.”
The crowd’s growing noise interrupted the adjudicator before he could begin the fight. Naruto’s attention was drawn to a mob crowding around the Hokage’s box. Dignitaries and jounin were rushing around in a panic, ninja and civilians alike pointing and shouting.
After a few moments of uncertain delay a Leaf chuunin raced down the stairs and shouted across the ring to the jounin adjudicator.
“Hey! Hey, get up here! Someone just assassinated the Hokage!”