The Last Prayer @graefoxx
22The Prelims

Hey Friends,

First, my deepest apologies for the delay. "Life," is the general shoulder shrug answer I'd give because I usually feel a reader is here to read a story, not so much to read about what's going on with the author. However, considering what's going on and the alterations to my life I will now have to make, I decided to create some social media accounts. These methods of contact will be for more than just explaining the loss of my job, but also for fanfic support, discussion, updating you guys about what I'm writing, delays, etc. That being said I'll leave that info after the story.

This chapter is 11.4K and I wrote several versions for 3 reasons. 1)It was difficult to organize the POV's. 2)I wanted to get Gaara and the flow just right. 3)My laptop crashed to high hell and I lost most of my info.

Warning: Graphic Violence.

Anyway, I've held you up long enough. Enjoy!

KABUTO

Under the forest's shade of the early morning sun, walking away from the tall tower at the center of Training Ground 44 where the preliminary matches will take place, a distracted Kabuto couldn't keep his highly efficient mind from replay his exchange with Naruto-kun. So focused on his disturbing recollection, the silver-haired 'genin' felt more comfortable walking than traveling through the trees.

"You're quitting!?" Naruto asked, despite the three-man lines of genin around them.

"Sadly, I'm out of chakra, Naruto-kun," Kabuto regretfully said, ignoring the attention the blond headache tends to draw with his loud voice.

"And?" the blond immediately questioned. Kabuto could easily sense Naruto-kun's urgency as if trying to reconcile two conflicting halves of himself. Whatever the talk Haku had with the boy, Kabuto's instincts tell him that Naruto is trying to reach out despite his clear reservations. "Your hands and feet work," Naruto continued. "And you still have weapons. You can still fight."

Smiling his perfected smile, Kabuto maintains, "from a logical standpoint, it's best if I don't risk my safety for false validation."

When Naruto-kun seems disappointed, Kabuto felt he was finally starting to make some progress with the blond headache. If he was ever going to secure a place for Haku in Sound, Naruto-kun would either need to be with them or dead… whether Orochimaru-sama approves Haku-kun or not.

'No,' he mentally assured himself. 'I'll make Orochimaru-sama see Haku's value.'

Thoughts of picturesque brunette always lead to a chaotic mind for Kabuto, and though he won't admit to himself that anything is wrong, when Naruto says, "I don't know what Haku sees in you," Kabuto felt the first painful stabs of a deeper meaning behind the very beautiful boy. In a balanced world, Haku should not affect him so, and yet Kabuto's priorities felt incredibly conflicted by the mere thought of him.

'All I needs is Orochimaru-sama,' his stubborn mind repeats.

Naruto adds wind to fire when he continued. "Whatever he sees, I doubt it's this gutless stranger in front of me." Though his teammate Haruno-chan admonishes him for being rude, Naruto adds the final cutting word. "You want to know why I don't trust you around Haku? It's because I can't see you. I don't know what you stand for. You could betray Haku just as easily as you could care about him and I won't ever let you hurt my friend."

Traveling over the grass, a subtle snap unlike grass bringing his attentive eyes down to a beautiful flower he's stepped on and Kabuto's deviant mind repeats Naruto-kun's cutting words without his consent.

By the time he exits Death Forest all he wonders over and over is, 'who am I? Does Haku know? Does Orochimaru-sama know?'

With a superior like Orochimaru-sama, Kabuto can feel how these dangerous thoughts raise his anxiety level, and more than anything, he needs to stop it. Orochimaru-sama is counting on him and everything needs to go according to his plans, but deep deep down, he can feel his need for Haku to endure the devastation that's to come.

TEMARI

"This exam is a replacement for war," Hiruzen continues to announce to the remaining seven teams for the Chūnin exam. "The strength of a country is the strength of its village, the strength of a village is the strength of its shinobi, and a shinobi's true strength is born only through life-risking battle. That is the true meaning behind taking the exams together."

"I don't care about the true meaning of this exam," Gaara calmly states, though Temari can feel the underlying blood-lust in his voice. "Hurry up and tell us what this life-risking battle entails."

"Hello everyone," a sickly proctor steps forward. With dark bags under his eyes and a persistent cough, he informs everyone, "I'm Gekkō Hayate, your proctor for the preliminary test to decide who among you will advance to the third test."

Subtly observing the remaining genin with an analytical eye, only one shinobi decided to quit and the loud blond seemed to take real offense to it, going so far as to call the silver-haired boy with glasses a coward. Temari didn't understand the situation but she was simply happy the blond disappeared for the past four days and she didn't have to engage in ridiculously flirtatious conversation with the loud-mouth.

"There are basically no rules," Hayate tells the genin after some coughing. "No matter what, the fight continues until one of you admits defeat, is knocked out, or dies. Now, if there are no-" The sickly proctor pauses to cough for a few moments, making many worry about his health. "If there are no questions, the first match will be…"

As the electronic score-board continuously beeps with every name change, Temari had a funny wish for that blond to match up with Gaara. She found it funny he would finally get his wish to meet her youngest brother, only to finally see how utterly outmatched he is… 'as they all are against him,' she thinks.

THE PRELIM'S

Blond brows raise and Naruto's countenance is completely taken by the first match up. His baby-blue eyes widen at the names and his mouth absentmindedly comments, "well that's definitely different…"

On the large screen high on the wall for all to read, Uchiha Sasuke vs Uzumaki Naruto is displayed. As Sound's Jōnin-sensei grins wickedly, Sasuke focuses his confident onyx-eyes on his blond teammate, grateful for the match-up, but also, optimistically invigorated in a way Naruto hasn't seen before, like when a far-fetched plan works out perfectly.

For Naruto's part, he had expected to fight Kiba, as Naru-nii had, however, he's fully aware that his past decisions and their resulting outcomes have already diverged from his future counterpart's experiences. It's why Naruto thought he might fight Gaara, Rock Lee, or maybe Neji. Clearly, Naruto has changed too much for things to go precisely as Naru-nii had told him, which means, moving forward, he'll always need to be ready for the unexpected.

'And now I have to fight Sasuke,' Naruto thinks, wondering how different this fight might be from the fight Naru-nii and future Sasuke had at the Valley of the End.

Recalling their month-long story session, Naru-nii had explained, 'I let my selfishness get the better of me.'

At the time, Naruto was laying on Kurenai's couch, waiting on dinner as his headache subsided when he thought back, 'what do you mean?'

'At first, I truly didn't think he'd ever abandon his friends, his teammates, his village,' Naru-nii softly voices, as if vividly recalling the very moment. 'But Sasuke was serious—dead serious—and it wasn't until he plunged his hand through my chest that I realized I'm going to have to fight him for real.'

'…He tried to kill you,' Naruto couldn't help but ask, dumbfounded to learn Sasuke would fall so far as to try and kill him.

'Yeah, and can you believe I still wanted to bring him back,' Naru-nii presses. 'I never gave up hope he could return, but instead of just summoning Gamabunta to help me stop him, like I could've done, I selfishly wanted to fight him, match him, beat him.'

'To prove that you matter,' Naruto asks in the affirmative, thinking of his dwindling rivalry with the raven-haired genius.

'Yeah,' Naru-nii regretfully agrees. 'He wasn't just a brother to me, he was the bar I always thought I had to clear to turn around all the bad stuff, so rather then do everything in my power to keep him from being corrupted by his hate, I unconsciously used that moment to prove a point to myself; that I had value, that I was strong, that everyone was wrong about me… which is why I failed. Ever since then, I trained as hard as I could, every day, for another chance to fix my mistake.'

'But eventually you learned keeping Sasuke from his hate wasn't your job,' Naruto connects the dots from their month-long story-time.

'Sasuke already had a brother helping him and it wasn't me,' Naru-nii agrees. 'Had I known of the true villains out there, I might've spent less time worrying about Sasuke and more time training because it shouldn't have taken me so long to get this strong. Things might've gone completely different if I wasn't so selfishly stubborn.'

'Well, if the Valley of the End happens this time around and I brawl it out with Sasuke,' Naruto states in a light and energetic voice, hoping to break Naru-nii of his funk. 'I'm just going to kick his narrow ass,' and Naruto felt content to hear Naru-nii snicker and approve before their mystic prayer ended.

The sickly proctor, Hayate, turns to the surprised Hokage before Hiruzen turns from the scoreboard to a masked shinobi beside him. The man then disappears as Asuma and Kurenai, along with their students walk toward Kakashi as he walks to his team. Guy-sensei is nearby as well, with Hyūga Neji taking enough of an interest to move closer to the gathering Konoha ninja.

"What freaking luck, eh, Sasuke," Kiba laughs, though Sasuke hadn't taken his menacing eyes off Naruto. Shikamaru and Chōji agree with their own corroborative comments, Chōji going so far as to yowl, "aww man, Naruto-kun was the one person I wanted to match up against…"

The Jōnin Kakashi, Asuma, Kurenai, and Guy all stare at the Hokage as Kurenai tells Kakashi, "that shouldn't have happened."

Turning away from her teammates, Sakura says in a questioning tone, "Kakashi-sensei," while giving Ino a knowing sideways glance. This match-up means a great deal for Sakura as Sasuke is a never-ending source of turmoil between her heart and her mind, and Naruto is a good person who's always treated her with loving care; even when she didn't deserve it.

'And now they have to fight,' her concerned mind states. Regardless of how obvious it is she ought to be cheering for Naruto, she simply can't. Her aching heart can't cheer for Naruto, her miserable mind can't cheer on Sasuke, and yet, she still feels lucky compared to Ino.

Ino ignores Sakura's aware green eyes as they both understand this isn't a simple fight between teammates. For years, Sasuke was the most dominant affection in her young heart, but, after all the unexpected perspective she's recently gained, she's not the same girl she was when she graduated, and her love for the beautiful Uchiha has waned significantly. Sasuke has the crown for longest love of her life, but Naruto is the unexpected, can't-quite-believe, quality feeling making Ino's heart throb now.

'And now the most disregarded boy in the village, who I like, has to fight our class's strongest genin that everyone loves,' Ino thinks glumly. Ino felt like this colliding engagement was a deciding moment for her heart and mind. 'It's put up or shut up,' she harshly thinks, and so, her pupil-less blue eyes spy on Kurenai-sensei for strength, wisdom, or just any sign that it'll be alright. Ino only sees unexpected concern in the beautiful woman's ruby-red irises.

"The electronic match-up board may be random," Kakashi informs the gathering of genin. "But it shouldn't pair genin within the same team."

Adding a little more detail for the gathered teens, Kurenai states, "that could easily be viewed as duplicitous. Like Hokage-sama said, this selection process involves prospective clients, which then involves trade, ryo, and a village's prosperity. In this case, if two Sand or two Sound nin fought each other, that would lower their chances of reaching the finals with more participants and attracting business without any Konoha genin needing to fight them. It's a clear advantage for us which is why the scoreboard is programmed to randomly generate one genin from each team."

"In short," Asuma adds moving to stand next to Kurenai and cross his large arms. "If you want to avoid a diplomatic nightmare, it's better if everything remains as fair and above-board as possible."

The masked shinobi that had disappeared returns beside the Hokage and whispers information before the Hokage turns to the gathering, announcing to all, "my apologies to our Chūnin candidates and their Jōnin-sensei. While the match-ups are indeed selected at random, for the purposes of balance, it has been programmed not to pair teammates. If no one has any objection, we will run the generator again-"

Hiruzen is interrupted when Sasuke purposefully walks to the center of the stone ring, telling the Hokage, "I object," then turns to eye Naruto, calm in his bold move as he awaits the blond thorn in his side.

"…Sasuke," Naruto hears Sakura mouth from beside him.

"I object as well," the smiling Jōnin-sensei from the Hidden Village of Sound announces.

Baki-sensei from Sunagakure also objects, prompting Hiruzen to assert it will not be changed should their genin teammates have to fight each other. Naruto notes Gaara eying Sasuke before moving with his teammates toward the stairs to the upper walkway. Like with Haku, Naruto is certain he'll also be good friends with Gaara, and though he can't be sure how the future will play out, if there's a chance Gaara can see that Naruto is, in fact, worth the redhead's time, then maybe the pair of Jinchūriki can bridge the gap a little faster.

"Don't be discouraged, Naruto-kun," Lee calls with a clenched fist and fiery eyes, bringing Naruto out of his thoughts. "Amidst the truly strong exist the genius types and the hard-working types. Sasuke-kun may be a genius type, but those who work hard and never give up can truly be strong too!"

"OHHHH!" Guy-sensei calls, also with clenched fists and fiery eyes. "Well said, my beautiful student! That is what youth is all about!"

Naruto can see why Naru-nii likes them so much as Hinata walks up to him, despite being observed by her sensei, teammates, and peers, and wishes him, "g-good luck, Naruto-kun."

With a smile and a strong nod, Naruto replies, "thanks, Hinata-chan," bringing out different measures of envy in a raven and blond-haired kunoichi watching.

Turning at a very troubled and baneful avenger, Naruto decides not to wait for Valley of the End. As his Konoha peers move up to the second-floor walkway, Naruto walks to the stone stage as their sickly proctor gestures Naruto and Sasuke in opposing positions. With a small smile, Sasuke voices, "it's about time, dumbass."

As Naruto took his place, from the walkway above, Kiba calls, "two thousand ryo says Naruto loses in under two minutes."

"Make it three thousand and you got yourself a deal," Chōji counters between the loudly chewing of his potato chips.

"This can't seriously be allowed," Ino calls looking between Kurenai and Asuma. "They're teammates! Is the Hokage really going to allow this?"

"Why do you even care," Kiba asks from a few paces ahead. "It's the Dead-Last. If Sasuke-kun even thinks about losing to anyone, it's going to be me."

"Kiba-kun," Kurenai coldly voices. "I'm sure I've expressed my distaste for belittling fellow shinobi. More importantly, I've taught you better than to underestimate an opponent and you've failed to properly assess Naruto-kun's abilities."

Kiba is visibly shocked by the sharp ruby eyes behind his sensei's retort, shaking his hooded head before doubling down and assuring his sensei, "even if Naruto's gotten stronger, Sasuke's the real deal." Puffing out his chest he boldly claims, "and only another genius can beat him," with a knowing grin.

"I guess we can look forward to Sasuke-kun vs Neji-kun in the finals then," Tenten says from beside Rock Lee.

Removing his unlit cigarette, Asuma turns to Kakashi and asks, "they're your students… who do you think'll win?"

The only answer Kakashi offers is his hand raising his eye-concealing bandanna so the Copy-Ninja's Sharingan won't miss a thing. Observing as much felt sobering of group's levity and all of them pay more attention to the boys at the center of the stage.

Growing far too nervous, Hinata disregards what may be improper and quickly performs her clan's signature eleven hand seals ending with her index and middle parallel to her nose as she calls, "Byakugan." It surprised many around her, especially her cousin who reluctantly follows suit.

On the opposite observation deck, Kankurō couldn't help smiling as he says, "Kami, I hope that midget gets pounded into the dirt," then turns to his sister before adding, "I bet you're happy you didn't have to use those wiles you hate so much."

"Yes, Kankurō, I'm quite happy I didn't have to whore myself out for information," Temari flatly answers.

"Quiet," Gaara commands his older siblings, ending any further conversation.

Arms crossed, the Jōnin-sensei behind the sound genin watches on, smiling in anticipation, eager to see how Sasuke enjoys the gifts he's given him. 'Show me, Sasuke-kun,' he humorously thinks.

Hayate starts, "the two participants in the first fight are," only to pause to cough. "Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki Naruto. Are you ready?"

"Yes," Sasuke states at the same time Naruto answers, "yeah."

"Please begin," Hayate says after clearing his sore throat, however, neither genin move.

"This won't be a friendly spar," Sasuke warns. Thinking about their near-spar after his and Kakashi's return, the Uchiha adds, "don't expect them to stop it because it's a little dangerous. I've already awakened, Dobe," Sasuke calmly states as he drops into his clan's stance. "Come at me with everything you have so I can show you why it'll never be enough!"

On top of being belittled by the hate-filled Uchiha, Naruto notices Sasuke hasn't activated his Sharingan. Setting his own stance before his rival, Naruto can easily understand why Naru-nii wanted to use this moment to prove to himself that everyone was wrong about him. He could feel that powerful life-long urge unconsciously energize his fists, however, with the blond's inability to forget the trouble that will befall so many people he holds dear—including the friends he's yet to make and the future for all that's at stake—Naruto can see well beyond this fight.

With confident eyes matching his assured tone, Naruto proclaims to his troubled opponent, "I'm telling you here and now, even though I totally get your whacked-out anger issues, it's not my priority. You are not my priority. I won't be the one to truly help you… but we're teammates, so, after I smash your delicate little face in, I'll definitely get the person you need."

Though the boys' gazes are intense, Sasuke's onyx eyes are far angrier. The room and its spectators vanish from their tunneling their vision—focusing instead on simply detecting the sheer determination of one another—and in the blink of an eye, both boys spring from their positions, meeting each other center-stage in no time at all. They catch each other's heavy punch, and though they both want to simply hit the other as hard as they can, they acknowledge each other's speed before spring-boarding into a back and forth trade of fast-paced blows.

Maneuvering effortlessly, Sasuke dodges a three strike combination before countering into a four strike combo that Naruto evades, guards, and counters himself. The sound of snapping wind and heavy muscle thudding flood their ears. The pair dance and somersault around each other, each of their fists chasing for that elusive flaw in the other's defense, however, after nearly a minute of sliding, leaping, and sidestepping between repeatedly speeding punches, elbows, knees, and kicks, neither boy relents.

Creatively fluid in his strikes, Sasuke proves yet again he is a genius combat specialist, however, Naruto's work ethic cannot be overlooked. Regularly sparing against multiple clones, against Sakura's intelligence, against Hinata's technique, and against Haku's speed and experience, Naruto is keeping pace with the genius…

…Until he's not.

Suddenly, Naruto feels like he's fighting against air. None of his attacks are landing. Instead, Naruto is being countered, effortlessly struck painfully hard in the stomach, chest, and face before Sasuke buries a roundhouse kick into his teammate's stomach, rocketing him back. A grunting and hurt Naruto hits the stone floor hard, rolling several times before sliding onto his feet. The blood-red dōjutsu of Sasuke's three tomoe Sharingan stares amused as Naruto winces from the rolling pain of the perfectly countered hit.

Naru-nii had warned him Sasuke's eyes can predict what he's going to do, but he also said, 'there's predicting it and then there's actually dodging it.'

From above, when Hinata voices, "Sasuke-kun activated his Sharingan," Kiba calls, "that's it. It's over. I win."

"This is why I don't gamble," Chōji glumly states.

Crossing his index and middle fingers, Naruto yells, "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" With half-a-dozen puffs of smoke, six clones charge after Sasuke's sides and Naruto runs straight for him, surprising Kiba, Shikamaru, Chōji, Neji and Rock Lee while the Jōnin watch on impassively as Naruto uses numbers to overwhelm the genius Uchiha.

'This idiot went through similar pain,' Naruto's mind yells, jumping in the air as his clones surround and assist him as he descends. Looking for any blind spot or weak guard, seven Narutos attack with carefully practiced precision with the goal of learning a better timing to Sasuke's attacks, but the raven-haired avenger continues to demonstrate why he's a genius, swatting away predicted attacks or combining offense and defense to smoothly elude and attack at the same time.

'We became teammates under one of the strongest shinobi in the village, and instead of letting anyone in, he'd rather stay this way,' Naruto's mind hotly remarks. Catching Sasuke's smirk, Naruto may be hit, he may be parried and brushed to the side, but his insides are rapidly boiling. Naruto's angry. Angry that this fight has to even happen when both of them could be uniting their significant efforts to stop Obito and his boss, Madara.

'SASUKE!' Naruto's mind yells, and crossing fast fists with his rival, hearing sharp inhales, grunts, tight skidding of sandals against stone, high-speed swishing of clothes, the meaty smack of muscle covered bone and cartilage. It was like a conversation through their fists identical to when he fought Haku, and Naruto could understand his opponent more simply by crossing unrelenting fists with the Uchiha.

Sasuke's leaping windmill kicks allows for evasion, leg sweeps, and counters to the face or body of Naruto's clones as the Uchiha's precognitive eyes helps him land intercepting strike after strike on clone after clone, and still, Naruto's fighting limbs won't stop targeting Sasuke. Mentally seeing a flash of a very young Sasuke sadly sitting alone on a wooden dock of the lake, Naruto knows with the certainty of the dawn that he can't stop.

No matter the sharp throbbing pain to his body, Naruto's indomitable will only thrives as the impassioned blond mentally yells, 'you were alone like me!'

The pair continue to trade meat-grinding blow after blow, each trying to attain the better offensive position to land something truly devastating when Naruto swears he hears Sasuke's voice say, 'you can't stop me. I'm nothing like you!'

Absolutely aching to show Sasuke who he really is, Naruto's driven heart demands his body move faster, and with each clone dispelled, his multiple perspectives pick up on more of the Uchiha's rhythm. With all his clones dispersed, Naruto can't completely dodge Sasuke's painful attacks, but he's blocking more… an irritation Sasuke can't stand.

Naruto's ears then distinctly pick up the unmistakable sound of cold steel sliding sharply against leather as Sasuke pulls out a kunai, spinning it before slashing down to take Naruto's eye. Opening his fist to open-palm strikes, as Hinata has often shown him, Naruto redirects and continuously parries Sasuke's repeated kunai slash until Naruto's first available chance to withdraw his kunai.

"That's…" a surprised Rock Lee starts to say before turning to Neji. The sight of Naruto incorporating Hyūga clan taijutsu prompts him to turn a sharp pale eye on a blushing Hinata. No one noticed Kurenai smirking proudly.

The boy's kunai clang against each other, sparking loudly until Sasuke's Sharingan sights an opening and Naruto takes a foot to the stomach. With a grunt, Uzumaki flies back from the inhuman kick, giving Sasuke more than ample time to string six seals in rapid succession before yelling, "Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu!" And launches a great fireball directly at his floor-skipping teammate.

Skidding to a chakra-assisted stop, Naruto leaps high and fast, reaching and sticking to the ceiling of the large room as the fireball scorches the stone floor below, however, Sasuke had already launched two more balls of fire, and without answers for them, Naruto springs back down to the ground, exactly where Sasuke's eyes foresaw. Naruto launches a line of shuriken to intercept the raven-haired avenger, landing on the floor just as Sasuke breaks through his guard with the hardest kick he's felt yet. Naruto is launched back farther than the room would allow and hits the wall, radially fracturing the stone around him before landing hard on the floor.

One look at the black flame-like markings across Sasuke's skin, and it became clear why Sasuke was suddenly much more powerful. Naruto's insides felt like boiling soup and his vision goes in and out of focus as the sweaty blond slowly rises to his feet, however, ever the tactician, Sasuke won't allow him to do any more than that. He attacks with a combination of speed, power, and perception Naruto has never faced before, giving him no chance to make clones or use Rasengan.

"Uh, aren't they going kind of fast," Kiba asks struggling to keep up with the boys from Team 7, and Chōji adds, "what's that black stuff on Sasuke-kun's skin?" Watching the way the inexplicably tattooed Sasuke is savagely beating Naruto bloody, Shikamaru poses critically, "oi, oi, isn't this getting a little out of hand?"

With a heel-palm to the face, Naruto feels his vision's haze worsen, his nose clog, and he can taste a river of copper travel both out of his mouth and down his throat before Sasuke's lightning covered hand thrusts straight through ribs eight, nine, and ten, through part of his stomach, and punctures with a red splash out his back.

Doubling over from the gut, as if horrifically struck through their own bodies, a repulsed Hinata is dead-frozen, paralyzed, and a woefully distressed Kurenai mentally yells what a gutted Ino actually screams, "NARUTO!"

The agonizing pain blinds Naruto's entire body from sensing anything other than excruciating stabbing. His outstretched mouth screams piercingly loud, reverberating throughout the room. His body twitches as electrical signal involuntarily spam odd parts of his body. With his vision nearly blacking out, he hears someone yell his name but he can barely perceive it over the rod of spikes sawing through his bloody torso.

Along with Kiba and the other genin, Sakura eyes a fearful Ino. The sheer worry on the Yamanaka's face was more than her own love for Sasuke, after all, Sakura's learned that a girl could care about her crush for a boy more than the boy himself, and what Ino's pupil-less blue eyes are telling her, is her former best friend and rival is terrified for the impaled Naruto.

Sakura feels gutted herself, not simply because her blond teammate was just grievously injured by her other teammate, nor because Sasuke has just forcefully ripped away Naruto's chances of ever becoming Hokage, but because she's actually witnessing the depths Sasuke's hatred can lead him toward. It was easy for Sakura's mind to overlap Naruto's pain-curdling scream with her parents screaming and the pinkette grips the railing that much harder to stay upright on her drastically weakened knees.

Overlaying her knowledge of the human anatomy, she analytically understands Sasuke's Chidori punched right through the false ribs eight, nine, and ten, and part of Naruto's stomach. Sakura gravely notes the specks and splatter of red on the floor, thinking, 'that's a lot of blood.'

Distastefully astonished, Kiba mutters what the other genin are thinking, "damn, Sasuke…"

"His own teammate," Chōji slowly voices in horrid awe, never in a million years thinking a teammate could do that to another.

Though Kurenai hides her rapidly devolving turmoil behind her glazed mask, her heart is beating painfully fast, and at the reverberating sound of Naruto's scream, she's stopped breathing. Her body overheats, her knees feel paper-thin, and her toned gut tightened to steel as she mentally screams, 'nonononononono!' Despite being a kunoichi who believes in village unity, especially among countrymen, her angry red eyes land on Kakashi, mentally yelling, 'you let this happen!'

After redirecting what would've been a strike to the heart, Naruto's weakened hand desperately grips Sasuke's bloody forearm as he screams till he's out of breath. With a face of unbridled anguish, his sweaty blond head falls forward, locking piercing blue eyes with Sasuke's three-tomoe Sharingan.

Through the salting spikes of pain drills continuously down to his twitching toes, Naruto's blood leaking mouth gasps, "you… really…"

"It's over," a stern-eyed Sasuke calmly asserts, roughly removing his arm from the bloody hole he created. He grips Naruto's neck as he comments, "you may have deflected my attack but you can no longer- NGGH!" Sasuke grunts as Naruto's jittery hand grips Sasuke's wrist before doubling then tripling in strength.

Within the dank depth of Naruto's seal, in the dark room of the flooded grand chamber, and before the tower-tall shoddy gates, Naruto grimly stares up at an impressively irate and growling Kurama. Feeling just as insanely provoked, Naruto extends two fingers to his orange-furry partner and Kurama chuckles. Red chakra then flows forward with purpose, enveloping a very willing Naruto in the seal as it does in the dueling chamber.

Kurenai was contemplating beating an apology out Kakashi when the atmosphere in the room suddenly spiked violently, nearly instantly fluctuating the displaced molecules in the air so hard the entire room forcefully heats with an odd blueish-white glow.

The audience is unprepared, shocked, and confused, however, none more so than Sasuke. The energy in the room quickly grows dark, poisonous, sinister, and before Sasuke could react, Naruto punches him meters away harder than he's ever been hit before, to the point Sasuke ignores the skin-scrapping pain of his body skidding on the ground tearing at his shirt, as well as hitting the wall, for the terrifying sensation radiating from his face, like his fractured skull and torn facial muscles were melting off.

Through his disorientation, Sasuke unleashes the full power of his cursed seal, turning his pale skin dark-gray, his ebony hair long light-blue, adding a black four-pointed star on the bridge of his nose, and sprouting wings in the shape of a hand. He hasn't practiced entering the third stage of the cursed seal, but Orochimaru explained enough for Sasuke's mind to figure it out on the fly. Fortunately, the throbbing pain to his face diminishes as more power swells within him, infusing more chakra into his shocked Sharingan as he beholds a slant-standing Naruto.

Naruto's blond hair whips ferally as the gaping red wound just below his left pectoral heals impossibly fast. The room's spectators all view Sasuke's blond and bloody opponent reform muscle mapped bone before searing skin sizzles and bubbles into place in seconds. All the while, chakra energy rushes around him so forcibly, it rips the zipper of his jacket open, revealing the wire body mesh underneath.

Recognizing the chakra, Kurenai along with the other Jōnin prepare to intervene before it's too late when their Hokage waves them off with a single raised palm. Kurenai isn't sure why her Hokage would allow this unnecessary risk to everyone in the room but her fear for Naruto immediately doubles.

"…I don't understand," Ino bemoans with a clear sniff, clearing the rolling tears streaming down the corner of her eyes. Looking from the suddenly demon-like Sasuke with wings clutching his wincing face, to Naruto as red chakra envelops every part of him, Ino asks anyone, "how…"

"What's going on," Shikamaru slowly asks his sensei in disbelief only to take note that Asuma has his chakra blades out sharpened with his blue chakra as he keeps his eyes focused on the stage. It's then that Shikamaru notices his sensei, Guy-sensei, and Kakashi-sensei are all in a defensive stance. Even the other Jōnin and the Hokage are positioned in high alert, as if expecting to enter the fight themselves.

Naruto hunches over as his power multiplies exponentially, visibly layering his form in red chakra, and unlike the previous occasion on the bridge against Zabuza, the shroud bubbles a long red tail as well. The tail whips hypnotically as his thrashing chakra super-charges the atmospheric pressure violently, disrupting the air, stone, dust, and ninja in the room with painful waves of itchy energy. The pressure in the atmosphere burns hotter around the feral blond, nearly making him glow as the floor and walls rattle, only becoming worse when a second tail begins to bubble and form, nearly suffocating those nearby.

"What's with this creepy feeling," Chōji yells, staring at his hands as he feels the oppressive oily energy pushing on his skin.

Watching Naruto with two tails and elongated ears made entirely of chakra, Ino commands to know from Sakura, "what's going on with Naruto?" There is no response Sakura can give as the gathered genin simply stare in unacceptable disbelief.

"That's… not possible," a thoroughly bewildered Sasuke utters.

The black slits within Naruto's red eyes glare mercilessly at the further enhanced Uchiha. Through clenched, sharper canine teeth, a feral chakra-covered Naruto growls a long-drawn-out sound, and though he's nearly delirious with the staggering amount of power surging ferociously through his system, his mind and focus are clear.

Naruto throws out a large red arm, causing a shock-wave too large for the small room, shoving everyone back. Sasuke jumps over the angry red hand. Not expecting another arm to shoot out from the previous extension, Sasuke's meaty wings flap him out of the way, only to be grabbed by the feet by another red hand before Naruto whirls him through the air like a ball at the end of a string and slams his teammate into the stone floor at the other end of the room, fracturing a three-foot radius of stone around Sasuke's battered body.

With an ear-piercing roar, the large room shudders in the unrelenting hot density waves bombarding everyone. Naruto pulls on the red chakra hand, explosively drawing Sasuke to him with all the abundant strength in him. The gray skin of Sasuke's bleeding face flaps like paper in a tornado before contorting around Naruto's iron fist as he's punched so hard, the last Uchiha rockets through the wood and stone wall to the room beyond.

After hearing a meaty crunch and snap in the same breath as heavy stone falling to the ground, and rolling rubble, the room stills. For many moments, all that can be heard from the stage below is the sizzling of Naruto's chakra heating the air and his low snarl.

For all who remember Naruto's antics, Naruto's grades, Naruto's thoughtless boasting… the chakra-covered genin below was such an impossible sight to witness. It was unthinkable to see the blond Dead Last of their class stand tall and dominant against the rookie of the year, the genius Uchiha Sasuke, yet, to deny it would be to deny reality and descend into delusion.

For most, it was like the game they've all been playing since their Academy day was suddenly outdated and boring, especially when Rock Lee asks his sensei, "Guy-sensei, are your sure Naruto-kun was the Dead Last of their class?"

Naruto huffs in mild amusement when Sasuke's shaky gray hand grips the broken stone wall and he slowly staggers through the hole and over rubble. He's hemorrhaging from his nose, mouth, swollen left eye, and unswollen right eye, sweating profusely, dirty, and his heavy breathing causes some twitching of his torso, likely from broken ribs. Naruto wonders if his teammate has a punctured lung but with three slow hand-seals, lighting erupts from Sasuke's left hand along with the sound Chidori is described after.

Naruto sprints faster than an exhausted Sasuke can physically react, cracking the stone floor with his every sprinted step and embeds his body-launching, overpowered fist into Sasuke's gut, instantly snatching Sasuke's left arm to keep the boy from flying away. Like a running dog chained to a stake, Sasuke grunts loudly as his withheld arm is dislocated by the explosive motion of his catapulted body.

Grunting loudly, the Uchiha grips his dislocated shoulder as his disheveled hair begins to return to its coal-black color, his gray dirty skin to its pale tone, and his single visible Sharingan deactivates. When Sasuke feebly tries to remove his arm, Naruto doesn't let go, and instead squeezes his forearm that much tighter, drawing a wincing grunt from the last Uchiha.

"I don't expect you to do a complete one-eighty and change the way you think just because you lost once," Naruto tells Sasuke. "But you better start getting it through your thick skull you aren't the only one suffering."

Naruto lets a heaving and bleeding Sasuke go and the raven-haired avenger drops to a knee so near to passing out if not for his sheer will to refuse to. Instead, he vaguely hears Kiba gasp, "I don't believe it," before the proctor calls,

"Winner, Uzumaki Naruto."

NARUTO

As attendants begin rushing to clean the war-ravaged stage of blood and debris, Naruto hops and sticks to the railing in front of a provoked Gaara, eying him sternly as he expresses, "I'm being serious about becoming friends, you know," as his red chakra-tails ebb and flow hypnotically.

Gaara's icy blue eyes—eyes of death and hatred that long for absolute strength—glare at the latest and clearest threat to his very existence. If his father ever hired this blond boy to try and kill him, Gaara hates to admit he may succeed and it only makes the redhead want to kill Naruto more.

"I still am," Naruto adds. Looking at the tattoo of love on his forehead, Naruto can't help but explain, "I think we have a lot in common, like, I'm sure we've both had a tough life, but, I know we can get along if we give it a try."

Relishing in the thought of destroying yet another one of life's plans to end his life, Gaara heartlessly shares, "loneliness is the only companionship that exists, so I have no need of yours."

"Are you a fortune-teller," Naruto asks with a smirk. "Can you see the future? If not, I can't imagine how you would know if you don't need a friend."

Like his ultimate defense, Gaara's cold face is impassive as he reveals, "I fight only for my sake and I live to love no one but myself. A soul needs a purpose to live and I've come to learn my purpose is to kill everyone besides myself. It's how I feel alive."

"Well, I don't believe that, like, at all," Naruto emphasizes, a little surprised by the redhead's bitter enmity. From Naru-nii's stories, Naruto knows they've gone through the same challenges in life, and while one-by-one, Naruto gained Teuchi-jiji, Ayame-neechan, Iruka-sensei, and Ji-chan, followed by Nai-chan, Haku, Ino-chan, Hinata-chan, and his teammates, Gaara only met betrayal after betrayal from his village and even his family. It took no effort at all for Naruto to imagine that large, dark, chasm of loathing hatred if he didn't have his loved ones.

So with a great longing to help the murderous boy in front of him, Naruto declares, "friends and family are what help you feel alive. You probably just need the right friend and I'm going to show you exactly that."

Assuming his intentions to be threatening, Gaara leans forward, primed to attack as he coldly avows, "I will not cease to exist. Your bitter corpse's crimson tears will flow and mingle with the endless sand, feeding the chaos within me, making me stronger. Your bloody death, will make me stronger." The cork from the gourd wiggles free, prompting Temari and Kankurō to take several steps back from their young brother as they look to Baki.

Overflowing with Kurama's chakra, Naruto isn't worried. What's important to him is that he doesn't blink. He stares down Gaara's icy blue eyes, determined to show his fellow Jinchūriki that no matter how much he fights or doubts, someone will stand by his side. If there's anyone in this world who can understand him, it's Naruto, and just like Haku, he won't give up on the potential for another great friend. So, with two chakra tails whipping behind him, Naruto's intense slitted red eyes confidently assert his defiance in the face of Gaara's hatred.

"Naruto-kun," he hears Kakashi call from the wrecked stage below. Immediately the tenseness in the air dissipates as he momentarily glances to his sensei below. Returning his attention to the triplet of sand-nin he's hoping to one day be close with, Naruto sends Kankurō a snide, "hmph," Gaara one last hopeful look, and Temari a smile before hopping down to the damaged first floor to meet his serene sensei.

Due to Kakashi's curious eye, Naruto realizes his red chakra cloak is still active and calmly allows Kurama's chakra to return to its owner.

"That was unexpected," Kakashi casually comments, and a less feral Naruto can sense the underlying question regarding Kurama's chakra.

However, since his amped body is still feeling hot contention from his ridiculous and unexpected fight with Sasuke, with squinted eyes, Naruto scratches his head as he asks, "oh, you mean when Sasuke used a technique you taught him to skewer me through the chest? Yeah, who could've seen that coming?"

As the attendants behind them rush to reset the stage for the next fight, Kakashi momentarily eyes the Iryō-nin—followed by a team of Anbu—rushing an unconscious Sasuke away before he asserts, "I'll be speaking with Sasuke-kun as soon as he's able. Your control over the red chakra has gotten better. Care to explain how that happened?"

"It happened the same way everything else I can do has," Naruto states, thinking of Naru-nii. Though the agitated side of himself wanted to answer, 'without you,' he lamely concludes, "with training."

With a single nod, Kakashi states, "so long as you're in control," and Naruto watches his jōnin-sensei shunshin to Ji-chan's side to whisper the information, then shunshin away; likely to check on Sasuke's condition.

Without Kakashi blocking his view, Naruto finally notices the observation deck above full of his shocked peers all staring down at him. Looking around the room, Naruto is alarmed when he realizes all of the genin and Jōnin are highly observant of him.

Turning to the sound ninja who Naruto guesses is Orochimaru in disguise, he, yet again, wants nothing more than to take care of him here and now, however, he's been told that would be a tall order. Naru-nii had explained how Orochimaru fought and killed Ji-chan, fought Tsunade-baachan without working arms and survived, fought a four-tails cloaked Naru-nii without properly working arms and survived, and even came back from the dead. Naru-nii suggested they wait and set the ultimate prank, and after hearing all of that, Naruto wholeheartedly agrees. So he quickly returns his attention to his ponderous comrades.

Except for Sakura and Kakashi, none of them have ever seen him fight to such lengths before. He's trained under Kurenai-chan, fought Tenten-chan, sparred with Hinata-chan, spoken about his training with Ino-chan, but they've never seen him battle with his life on the line. The others either only remember him from how he was in the Academy or have never heard of him. Sakura is the only one who's even seen him fight with a tail and now that they've all seen him beat Sasuke with two, Naruto is at a loss as to how he should react.

The first thing the blond shinobi wonders is, 'have they guessed my secret?'

His whole body was covered in red chakra, and he had two tails and long ears made out of Kurama's chakra. The fact that he's a Jinchūriki wouldn't be a hard leap to make, especially for someone with deductive reasoning like Shikamaru. 'Would they hate me now? Like all the villagers?'

Judging by their glare, the two from Kabuto's team seem to. Looking at the circumspect faces of Shikamaru, Chōji, Kiba, Lee, and Tenten, Naruto can't imagine they'd ever want to hang out now. However, looking at Sakura, Hinata, Ino, and Kurenai's mournful, agitated alarm, he soon realizes there's something more important to worry about.

His relationship with Kurenai has taught him how others might feel if he died or was seriously injured. That night with her made a deep impression on him that cannot be removed, and due to that reflection, he knows Hinata-chan and Kurenai-chan will have been worried about him; possibly even Ino-chan. Kurenai has grown to be just as irreplaceable as Iruka-sensei, Ji-chan, Naru-nii, and because of the raven-haired jōnin, Naruto can imagine they might feel the same about him.

'Another reason to help Gaara,' Naruto thinks as he walks the length of the stage toward the stairs. 'So he can feel that love as well.'

Thinking along those lines, he can't imagine Kurenai, Ino, Hinata, and possibly Sakura felt good about witnessing him be impaled. Walking up the stairs, he wonders if they might've felt like the time when he was helpless to watch Iruka-sensei protect him by taking a Fuma Shuriken to the spine. Being forced to watch someone he cares about be grievously injured was devastated for Naruto, and even if Kurenai, Ino, and Hinata don't care about him to the same degree, he doesn't want them to worry about him any more than they need to.

Traversing the final step to the walkway, Naruto takes his blood-smeared jacket off and wraps it around his waist knotting it by the sleeves. There's still a reddish hole in the wire-mesh armored shirt but his tan skin is clear and without a mark. The thoughtful blond reasons, 'if they see I'm not hurt,then that'd obviously make them feel better.'

Nearly to the stunned group, the electric board begins bleeping as it runs through random names, and a widely smiling Naruto calls out to his fellow Konoha ninja, "yo!"

His face was cheerful, his posture was upbeat, and his hand waved to them, but he doesn't receive quite the reception he was hoping for. Shikamaru, Chōji, Kiba, Tenten, and Lee were staring at him in disbelief, lost for words. Neji's sharp eyes are practically glaring at him. Kurenai and the jōnin were unreadable, Ino-chan and Sakura were a mix of relief and doubt, and Hinata was blushing, reserved, and eerily still.

Fortunately, the electronic board chooses another pair of names to duel. Kiba and another Konoha shinobi named Yoroi begin their walk to the newly swept stage below. Upon passing the Inuzuka, Naruto notices Kiba's small pupils, made worse by widened eyes, parted mouth, and drawn brows at him.

Rather than force himself within their circle, Naruto simply leans on the railing several paces away as Kiba and Yoroi take their place, however, he's surprised when Ino-chan leans against the railing beside him. She's so close to him, her shoulder touches his, and while her focus remains on the match below, he notices the red hue on her cheeks as she tells him, "you scared me."

He marvels by her warmth and willingness to be beside him and absentmindedly answers, "I'm sorry."

Giving his shoulder an affectionate shove as her pupil-less blue eyes remain on the stage as she tells him, "don't think you're getting out of making this up to me."

Smiling with growing relief, he confidently tells her, "I wouldn't dream of it." Her cheeks redden and even her neck grows passionately colorful when he's further surprised by a blushing Hinata-chan slowly, yet bravely, taking the space at his other side and shyly tells him, "Co-Congratulations, Naruto-kun."

"Thanks, Hinata-chan," he happily replies, overjoyed she doesn't seem afraid to be near him. Sakura stands next to Ino-chan and watches the match below before Kurenai-chan leans against the wall behind him. Shino stands beside Hinata-chan but Naruto assumes it's to stand beside his team.

Twisting his body to see the sexy Jōnin, Naruto ignores the beautiful mask of her impassive face for the arduous soul behind her ruby-red eyes and effortlessly recognizes longing just below the surface. He was right to be concerned about those close to him. He feels she was indeed scared for him, and oddly enough, that makes him happy; so happy he couldn't help expressing to her his own feelings with an uncharacteristically tranquil and grateful smile.

'I'll make it up to you too,' his mind promises and effortlessly communicates with his confident blue eyes. With her slight ruby-red smirk, Naruto returns his attention to the pair down below.

Asuma stands beside Kurenai, followed by his genin, Rock Lee, Tenten, and Guy-sensei. Neji was the furthest away but he still moved closer, and Naruto couldn't believe how surrounded he is by friends and fellow ninja. It made him happy, grateful, and giddy; so much so, he eyes Gaara at the very opposite end of the battleground before them, staring right back at him, and Naruto makes a promise to help him.

"Umm… Now, we will… begin the second match," Hayate eventually says through his coughing. "Please begin."

Though Naruto had been told of the matches, it was interesting to see Kiba best Yoroi, Shino best the sound nin Zaku, and Gaara's brother, Kankurō best Misumi.

HINATA

For the fifth match, the scoreboard matched Hyūga Hinata versus Haruno Sakura, and Hinata could only be happier if her opponent was Uchiha Sasuke himself; not that she expected to win against the raven-haired genius—she wasn't so confident in her skills. Simply put, Hinata was aching for an outlet to vent her frustrations, and the only way the opportunity to do just that could've been more proper is if it was with the Uchiha himself.

Venting isn't like her. Hinata is not an angry person. Even after her dearly beloved mother passed away, Hinata has never wished ill-will on others or sought to assault anyone out in anger or retribution. The only resentment Hinata could ever claim to feel was in herself, for her many weaknesses, her meekness, and the shame she burdens upon everyone around her. More than anything, Hinata wants for everyone to understand and love one another amidst a lasting life of peace and laughter for all she holds dear—her hurting cousin, Neji, her beautiful sister, Hanabi, her strong father, Hiashi, but, none more than Naruto-kun, her north star…

…And only minutes ago, Hinata witnessed, with her hyper perceptive eyes, her most cherished person nearly die… very nearly murdered in the most horrific way… at the bloody hand of his teammate… for no other reason than refusing to be a stepping stone for the very person Hinata knows, for a fact, Sakura-chan has loved since their Academy days: Uchiha Sasuke.

'Sakura-chan loves Sasuke-kun,'Hinata's mind blares, clearing from coast-to-coast any other thought in her mind. The sight of Naruto's blood still staining the stone floor below made her feel anger unlike anything she's ever experienced. It made her chest tighten every time she recalled the raven-haired Uchiha burying his arm to the elbow inside of Naruto's torso… it made her heart beat furiously when her eyes focused in on Sasuke-kun's satisfied grin… it made her blood rush hot when her omnidirectional vision closed-in on the horrid pain on Naruto-kun's screaming face… and turning her pale eyes accusingly at Sakura-chan, her mind screamed, 'she loves the shinobi that nearly killed the person I admire most in the world!'

After Naruto's victory, Hinata hadn't known what to do with her horribly displacing, irritatingly dark, and fear-inducing memories of Naruto nearly dying at Sasuke's hand—even seeing Naruto miraculously well didn't alleviate this tsunami of energy—until she saw her name match up with Haruno Sakura.

All her cherished memories of dinners with Naruto, sparring with Naruto, talking to Haku-san about Naruto… to so nearly lose all that, the Hyūga heiress' Byakugan activated on its own and her only target was Sakura. When Sakura joins her in the stage below, Hinata drops in her gentle fist stance, absolutely eager for the proctor to begin their match.

'Sakura-chan loves Sasuke-kun, and Sasuke-kun nearly killed the love of my life,' Hinata's pained and angered mind yells right before Hayate coughs, then says, "please begin."

SAKURA

Sakura may have been stronger, sturdier, and more intelligent than the indigo-haired heiress, but after one painful bout of close-quarter taijutsu, her strategy quickly shifted to doing everything in her power to keep her internal organs away from Hinata's Gentle Fist. Without the ability to set traps, Sakura's ranged attacks were as ineffective against the Byakugan as her close-range attacks.

Ultimately, the frightfully angry Hyūga heiress closed the distance, and though Sakura's taijutsu could block or evade the indigo-haired girl, she couldn't safeguard her internal organs or her chakra circulatory system from Hinata's large and imposing veined eyes coupled with superior taijutsu. With every painful strike, Sakura felt herself becoming weaker and slower until she took a palm to the liver, the electric shock, of which, dropped the bruised pinkette to her knees.

Worse than being unable to think of a strategy through the suffocating pain, Sakura couldn't even get up. Fighting back embarrassing tears, Sakura couldn't help but once again, acutely feel the harshness of her grand weaknesses. This quite heiress isn't anywhere near Orochimaru's league, yet Sakura is still losing to her, embarrassingly bad. It spoke volumes about her lack of significant training, her lack of grit… her lack of heart; the fighting spirit she's heard of that keep a ninja going when everything says the battle is lost. Weakly, with tears flooding her green eyes, her thoughts weep, 'Naruto has it… Sasuke has it… Why don't I?'

When she hears, "COME ON SAKURA-CHAN," yelled from the pathways above, Sakura struggles to tilt her head enough to see an angry Naruto gripping the rails as he yells, "GET UP!"

For no reason that mattered, it pissed her off that Naruto would yell for her to try harder. 'Of course I want to get up, you idiot!' And with that anger, she slowly struggles to her feet, not that it mattered to the match. In the end, she may have stood when she thought she couldn't, but the match was over. Mercifully, Hinata avoided her torso and attacked her legs to bring her down before a perfect aimed fist knocking her out.

Sakura couldn't hear the proctor call, "winner, Hyūga Hinata."

NARUTO

Naruto rushes to the stairs as Hinata takes the final step, calling out, "I didn't want you to lose!" Hinata only has time enough to blush and express surprise before Naruto continues. "I didn't want either of you to lose… which I get isn't possible. I guess I mean, it didn't matter who won as long as you both did your best."

To his joy, she smiles her sweet, red-cheeked smile and softly explains, "I know, Naruto-kun. I- I know… you're…" her blush doubles as she takes a deep breath. "I know… you're a ca-caring person. I know, more than anything… you would've done the same for me, if I was in the same position."

"Damn right I would," Naruto assures her with a clenched fist. Confident in his friend's words, Naruto smiles as he congratulates her. "You were awesome! Your taijutsu was as devastating as ever- Oh! Did you see when I used some of the techniques you taught me? Speaking of, do you think we can talk later. I'm hoping you can help me with some chakra control training."

"Excuse me," Tenten calls from behind them.

Naruto and Hinata allow her to pass, wishing her luck before they return to the others. Tenten lost to Temari nearly exactly as Naru-nii had described, however, Tenten had managed to unseal electricity from a scroll and connect it to wired weapons as she attacked from a distance. It surprised Temari, however, not enough to affect the outcome.

Naruto was amused watching Shikamaru best Kin, however, no matter how much he screamed from the rafters, Ino had lost to Neji. Though Neji didn't appreciate all his yelling, but Naruto expressed his mind by saluting the Hyūga his stiff middle finger.

When the next match is announced, a resolute Naruto walks over to Guy-sensei and sternly whispers in the man's ear, "Gaara is like me. Lee could open five gates and it wouldn't be enough to beat Gaara." Fortunately the man was too shocked about the threat to his student to ask how Naruto might know of the inner gates.

Before the test, Naruto had debated whether he would intervene or not. In his mind, it always came down to whether sparing him some pain now will help his future, or hurt him in some way Naru-nii couldn't predict. After all, Naru-nii explained that Lee eventually makes a full recovery. In the end, he decided to leave the choice with the person who knows him best; Guy-sensei.

To everyone's grand amazement and awe, Lee's fight against Gaara was the most astonishing testament to guts they've ever seen. His disadvantages, the weights, the speed, the strength of the inner gates, it was pivotal; no moment more so than when Gaara's sand seized Lee's left arm and leg, however, before the future can repeat itself as Naru-nii had described, Guy-sensei leaps like a cannonball shot out of a cannon and blows away the crippling sand, staring menacingly at an unstable Gaara.

The match is called in Gaara's favor due to outside interference, and though Lee wanted to argue, he could hardly stand without great exertion. Naruto knows Lee feels deprived by his sensei's intervention, but Guy whispers something to his student, who glumly nods before passing out. Gaara may have beaten Lee, but for his guts, inner gates, and raw tenacity, everyone gained a new appreciation for the black bobbed genin.

For the last match, Naruto thinks as he watches the boy struggle to get up, 'what's important is you tried your best, Chōji.'

"If you look at the scoreboard," Hayate begins to explain to the remaining genin. "You will see your match in the final task of the exam."

The board reads Naruto and his opponent Gaara, Neji and his opponent Hinata, Shino and his opponent Kankurō, Temari and her opponent Shikamaru, and lastly, Dosu and his opponent Kiba.

With the Hokage and the Jōnin-sensei behind the sickly proctor, he announces, to the candidates, "you all have a month to prepare as best you can for your matches. Good luck," he finishes before Ji-chan dismisses them.

GAARA

After being dismissed, Gaara watches the blond try to approach him with a smile that eerily reminds him of Yashamura, to which he feels a searing pain on his forehead. Rather than face him, rather than kill him, Gaara's sand flows around him before he shunshins away and the voice in his head laughs at his weakness; that he would flee rather than kill. Gaara becomes more agitated with every second.

'Heeeheeeheehehehe,' an errant voice screams more than laughs… 'or is it my voice,' Gaara asks himself as he flies through the air and out of the training ground on his sand. 'You run, but where's your fight!'

Never quite asleep nor awake, Gaara struggles with his thoughts throughout his return to the main populous of the village. His loopy logic eventually offers a debilitated sense for why he would run rather than kill the blue-eyed leaf-nin. His tired and strained mind easily realized the blond shinobi was special, more so than that Uchiha, which clearly meant he needed to die in the most singular manner. This blond, like his uncle's explosive demise, needed to die with a smile on his face. This leaf-nin's death needed to be significant to truly exemplify his existence in this cold and spiteful world.

'Your existence will be erased,' a grueling and exhaustive thought gripped his worn pale body. 'You will not survive him! Heeeheeeheeeheeheeheehehehe!'

Looking out the window of their domicile into a very bright day, onto a picturesque village, and down on all of the villager's content faces, Gaara's worn and warped mind plans how to completely destroy the smiling, lying, blond as he waits for his siblings to return to their assigned villa.

'He smiles just like Yashamura,' the voice probes… or Gaara thinks. He can't be sure, but he's long past caring. Gaara needs quiet, but he can't rest, not until he kills him. When his blood-sacks finally enter the villa, Gaara immediately calls, "Temari," making her and the others tense. Disgusted by such a carefree village, Gaara asserts without actually looking at them, "a quick death will not be enough for him."

Temari looks from her distant youngest brother to the others before asking, "enough for who?"

Without clarifying, Gaara answers, "I want to see him suffer before I kill him. He must suffer, as I have suffered."

"Okay," Temari tentatively agrees before calmly asking again, "who?"

Gaara turns to them, and at the thought of the smiling blond liar, his cold eyes widen madly as he exhales an unsettling, "Himmmmmm." He's practically glaring at them when he specifies, "that blond."

Kankurō, Temari, and Baki all grow more tense, dreading the possibility of another one of Gaara's manic episodes. They've gone through this before, but unlike being in Suna, they can't send him on a mission to sate his blood-lust, and so, they try their best to accommodate their homicidal little brother; their village's weapon.

Kankurō swallows audibly before asking, "uh, what did you have in mind?"

Recalling an unsavory comment she made earlier, Gaara eyes his eldest blood-sack like a tool rather than a human being—much less family—and demands of her, "you will gain his loyalty and complete trust."

She's unsure of what her little brother means, but rather than question the directive, she assures him, "…he won't trust me."

"We only have a month before the third test," Kankurō remarks. "That's not enough time to establish that level of trust-"

"Don't bother me with how you do it. Your only value is to see this done," Gaara coldly tells her. "Use your heart, your mind, your body to manipulate him. I don't care what you do or how degrading it is, so long as he completely trusts you."

Aghast by what he was asking, Temari couldn't keep her silence and questions, "why?"

Recalling images of Yashamaru looking at him, smiling at him, as he conveys how his mother always hated him sparks a pang of pain in Gaara's head. Wincing as he grips at his love-tattooed skull, the huffing redhead declares, "the moment his trust—his heart—shatters upon witnessing your betrayal, I will kill him. And with his dying breath, he will know love is the worst death of all."

"You can't make her do this," Kankurō yells.

"I don't think anything of either of you," Gaara coldly informs them. "If you get in my way, I will kill you."

"Gaara, stop this," Temari tries. "We're family-"

From within the gourd, they can hear the sand whirling around, as if agitated, and his cold blue eyes say as much as his voice relays. "Family? You're just lumps of meat linked by hatred and murderous intent. I am alone. I won't believe in anyone, I won't love anyone, and you will do this or you have no further value to me."

Temari and Kankurō turn to Baki, but as expected, their glorified babysitter does nothing. Gaara retires to his room and rather than plan how they're going to make this outrageous demand happen, Temari calmly walks into her room.

TENTEN

"Tou-chan," Tenten calls out with a hint of curiosity as she enters her father's shop. At first, she didn't understand why the shop was closed, and then she's further bewildered by the dark room. She turns on the light before she walks through the shop into the back and up the stairs to their apartment above. All the while she can't help but constantly replay the fight between Sasuke-kun and Naruto-kun.

Absentmindedly, she recalls her team meeting around Lee's bed. He was awake, however, having used the Inner Gates, he'll be bedridden for at least a week. The only two questions the three of them had was why he stopped Lee's match and about Naruto-kun. Having fought the loud blond herself, never in her wildest imagination could she have predicted such an absurd amount of strength. Guy-sensei wouldn't completely reveal why Naruto-kun was so powerful but he assured his team it's not too unlike Lee's gates.

"He can call upon power when he truly needs it, very much like that young Gaara-kun," Guy-sensei told a bedridden Lee. "I'm sorry Lee-kun. One of life's greatest difficulties is no one ninja is capable of defeating everyone they come across."

Focusing on herself and Neji-kun, Guy-sensei adds, "none of you are. No one shinobi that can beat everyone. If Konoha expected as much out of its ninja, our village would surely be weak indeed. We fight as a team because this world and its monsters are much larger than any one man."

Turning to Lee, their sensei tells him, "if I allowed the match to continue, I feel confident he could've ended your career as a shinobi."

Lee was dejected to hear such disheartening news, as was Tenten, because it means Naruto went easy on her. She thought it was impressive that he could create so many clones of himself, but that didn't even scratch the surface of his full capabilities…

'I'm not good enough to bring out his best,' she loathes to accept.

With a sigh, she enters the living space of their two-bedroom apartment to the startling shock of seeing her father tied and gagged to a chair. Before she can even utter a syllable, the very long blade of Kubikiribōchō advances from behind her, passing the side of her head so the corner of her vision can see an ill-defined reflection of her entire face against the flat of the blade. The edge was pointed to the floor, and if whoever was wielding the blade brought it down, it would cut through her trapezius muscle, her collar bone, her ribs, lungs, liver, and she'd surely die.

"Far too lax," a deep and dark voice calls from behind her. The hairs on the back of her neck stand, however, she manages to control her breathing as he continues. "Your life hasn't hovered near death enough, girl. You're no ninja."

"Wh-Who-" Tenten starts and is interrupted by her father's muffled yelling.

"Your trash of a father made a grave error when he tried to sell my sword," the ominous voice imparts.

With wide eyes, a shaky Tenten realizes aloud, "you- you're Momochi Zabuza…"

His sinister chuckle was his only response.

1st, as I said, my laptop crashed and I lost most of the chapter, which really hurt my soul, if I'm honest. I've now set my settings to back up EVERY SECOND! I went over the chap often but if I missed anything, please let me know.

2nd, I don't want to hear anything about Sakura losing to Hinata 😉. Chūnin-Sakura vs Chūnin-Hinata? Hinata would totally stomp on Sakura with her taijutsu alone. If you're a logical person, it's a fairly accurate conclusion to reach. But this will ultimately help Sakura. I feel like both Hinata and Sakura are in a good place for more attention.

3rd, The way Naru-nii was preparing Naruto could be considered covert changes to history because it was just him training in his little pocket of the world. But now, everyone saw him. Orochimaru saw him, Baki saw him, Gaara, and everyone in the room from Konoha really and truly saw him in a visceral way they couldn't have at this stage in canon.

For example, in canon, if Sakura actually saw Sasuke skewer Naruto through the chest, would she still feel the same? Probably, but the image/memory would be very powerful, and something that would be difficult for her to forget, especially with her memory.

In my fic, Naruto and Sasuke's fight means a lot to the various stages the girls are in. It will be a moment that I think will stay with them for some time to come. It hit Hinata right away. I know she's not typically an angry person and when she fought Pain in canon, it was mostly to protect Naruto, but with my version of Hinata, I like to think she was, at least, a little bit angry to see that with her vision.

4th, Yes, I know, no lemon in this one 😢😭. Soon. Promise.

5th, As you can tell, I'm working Temari in next. I've read a bunch of old quotes from Gaara, and let me say, I had forgotten how nuts this guy was. Some of you may notice some of his quotes in my fic. How could I not with such a character? Anyway, with a brother like Gaara, I didn't have a hard time imagining Gaara demanding something of Temari if it served a greater purpose. There will be more in the next chapter, so wait for that.

6th, just a reminder: Kurenai and Ino are the closest, Sakura close, Tenten and Temari need more story, and I still need to fully introduce Mei, Samui, and Mabui more than that soft intro. And Hinata, of course. Those are the girls currently in my head, and with relation to Naruto, they're all in various stages of forming a relationship with him.

Lastly, I'm not a fan of FFNet's comment section(which has the most traffic for this fic) only because it doesn't let you guys see my responses to many of your questions. I wish it was a little more like AO3 but whatever. If any of you would like to contact me or read answers to rather commonly asked questions for either From Ruin or The Last Prayer, my social media contact is below.

Facebook: Grae Foxx

Reddit: GraeFoxx_

Twitter: FoxxGrae

Thank you for your support. I'd love to hear your thoughts and as always, have a great one,

-Grae

PS. I haven't forgotten about From Ruin. Soon, I swear.

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