A Song for Them @nihilistic_bunny
Finals Arc, Let the Games Begin

Naruto Fan Fiction!
Adventure! SI-OC!


"A Song for Them"

A/N: We have reached over half a million words! Muwhahaha! Gosh, I feel so accomplished. Okay, here we go, folks. Tuck 'em if you got them. What are we tucking in? No idea. This is unknown territory, people!

Oh my god. I kept Strong and Strike and The Raising Fighting Spirit OST's playing on loop throughout writing most of this. It was excellent. I would recommend you do the same when the first match begins.

DISCLAIMER: Disclaimers are the usual. I own nothing but my sass, and boy do I own that well.

WARNING! RATED M! For future mentions of gore and other stuffs! Today though, he have glitter and love. Maybe some murder if you squint? Who knows.

Finals Arc,

Chapter Fifty-Four: "Let the Games begin"

"descensus in cuniculi cavum" -Anon E. Muss


空 (sky)

My heart was oddly calm in my chest, even though the heavy gravity of the day was weighing on my stomach, convincing me that I was going to hurl in front of a majority of the Village and any foreign dignitaries present. Thereby embarrassing myself in a most spectacular fashion.

I was nauseous, but calm.

Maybe it had something to do with the few hours of sleep before Kakashi had woken us up, none too gently either. He was lucky that I didn't mind Bull's slobber as long as I got cuddles as recompense. And I had to shower anyway. Naruto and Sasuke checked out without any problems and we simply split up. The Hero and I headed home to get a light breakfast and gather up our tools, while Kakashi accompanied Sasuke with the vague excuse of needing to talk with him about something. Privately, I hoped it would be something as close as Kakashi can muster to a scolding about chakra exhaustion.

Naruto was uncharacteristically quiet during breakfast, but still managed to be as energetic as possible without saying anything. Face pensive, his leg bounced up and down constantly in a jittery show of nerves. Pausing in the middle of my omelet, I reached over the table and placed my hand over his. Blue eyes snapped up immediately and the leg tapping stopped.

I pat his hand and gave him a small, reassuring smile. Unlike the smile I was expecting in return on that whiskered face, the pensive look stayed. My smile faded and I looked at him in concern, asking what was wrong.

"Ahh, it's just," his brow furrowed, staring at the table. "Uhm, well, I guess you would know — but, I don't want you to think that I'm scared or nothin'! That's not it 'ttebayo! I just thought that it'd be smart to ask or somethin' but then I thought that—"

I tapped the table, grabbing his attention, signing: 'Ask.'

Bright blue eyes searched mine for a moment, lips pressing into a thin line. "Neji… he's pretty strong, isn't he?" he asked. Ah. Doubt.

'You're stronger.' I immediately replied, wholly serious.

He huffed, giving a half-hearted smile. "Thanks, Sora-chan…'

I frowned. What was that reaction? Did he not believe me? I made sure to school my expression into a serious one! Just in case something got lost in translation, I told him that I was being completely serious. He nodded, forcing his smile to widen and I was starting to get annoyed.

'This isn't some Academy test I'm wishing you luck on.' I told him, barring myself from outright frowning at him. 'This fight is serious. Many, many people will be watching you.'

"You don't need to tell me that, 'ttebayo!" he snapped, dropping his smile and being honest about his frustration.

'You don't need me to tell you that this is going to be a tough fight, either.' I shot back. 'Of course he's strong! But he's an idiot, too.'

His nose scrunched up. "Wha? But why does everyone call him a genius then 'ttebayo?!"

I rolled my eyes so hard. I will never understand why people do that. It's one thing to be supportive and give encouragement when called for, but it's another to inflate a kid's ego to the point they actually start to believe that everyone else is just born stupid.

'They mean talented.' I explained with an irritated frown. 'It's stupid to call him a genius. He believes stupid things.'

"Like what? In, like, the tooth fairy or somethin'?"

I tried not to smile at that adorable question, shaking my head. I was trying to be serious right now.

'Ask him yourself. Realize he's an idiot. Then win,' I told him. He let out a harsh breath as he glared at me, even though a flash of delightful rebellion spiked through his chakra, approving of my words.

"Things aren't always as easy as you say it is, yanno?" he complained, running a hand through his hair. "He's — all I keep hearing is how good he is 'ttebayo! You saw how he fought! It didn't even look like he hit that hard but he made Hinata bleed! Even Kakashi-sensei said his Sharingan thing couldn't do what he can!"

'I did see the fight. And I heard your promise. You promised to beat him.'

He perked up, back straightening and jaw setting tight. Seems I've got his attention now. Good.

'Unless,' I eyed him, changing tactics. 'You are going back on your word? Are you giving up before even fighting?' I asked the blonde, arching a brow. I ignored the growl from across the table, making sure to have a very thoughtful expression on my face. 'I guess it doesn't matter. Duckie will jump at the chance to fight.'


A slow, even mocking smile stretched my lips, challenging him. Blue eyes were defiant as I leaned forward, making sure to look as taunting as possible.

'Or maybe I can be the Her—'

He stood up, slapping his hands against the table. The dishes shook, clattering slightly. There was a foxy grin curling his face, showing off his sharp canines. He thrust a thumb into his chest, shouting. "I'm gonna be the one to kick his ass, dattebayo!" he leveled a finger at my nose, grin bolstering. "And then I'm gonna kick your ass and Sasuke's ass and anyone else's asses, too! Bring it on 'ttebayo!"

Well that was settled.

I set my chin in my hand, satisfied with the pep-talk. It took him a moment, but he realized what I just did and punched my shoulder. With love, of course.

We finished breakfast and split off, doing a last minute equipment check. I made sure that my pouches were full of kunai, the white and black labeling cloths taken off as a precautionary measure. My hair was tied doubly tight so there was little chance of it coming loose. Grabbed my brand new burlap glove and shoved it into my hip bag. Checked if the ink had completely dried on my soles and that I was wearing my best set of mesh under armor.

Lastly, I tied my hitai-ate tightly over my forehead. I combed some of my brightly-colored hair out of the way of the Leaf symbol. The light streaming in from my window bounced off the shiny metal, causing a glare. I stared at my reflection, frown deepening as I rubbed my thumb over the carved leaf.

A good two-thirds of me thought I kinda looked like an idiot playing pretend.

By the time I had finished looping my old orange scarf around my neck there was a knock at my front door, accompanied by a pair of crystal Clear chakra signatures that I recognized all too easily. I opened the door to see Hinata! And little Hanabi, too! I did a double-take when I noticed their outfits. While Hinata was dressed conservatively, it was noticeably more fashionable than usual. She was wearing a pale yellow silk blouse with cute little white flowers embroidered on one side that matched the silvery buttons, a pair of dark and loose trousers and navy-blue flats with the same flowers on her blouse.

Hanabi grinned widely, clinging onto her big sister's arm like a particularly cute little monkey. She was wearing a girly kimono that I'm pretty sure was designed to look like a sunset, wrapping her in carefully chosen shades of yellow, orange and red. As soon as the door was wide open enough, the little Firecracker slipped forward and tackled my waist in a tight hug.

"Morning, Sora-neesan!" she chirped. I gave a grin, returning the hug with one arm around her shoulder. Still standing in the doorway, Hinata explained their unexpected visit with a bashful smile.

"Good morning, Sora-chan. Sorry if we're interrupting you. Hanabi-chan wanted to w-wish you luck in person." her cheeks were slightly flushed, her chakra telling me that she was worried they actually had interrupted me.

I stepped out the door - a tiny Hyūga still playfully clinging to my side - and quickly assured my Mouse that I had just finished getting ready and by then, Naruto had exited his apartment and spotted us. A surprised grin lit up his whiskered face upon seeing the girls.

"Huh? Oh, hey, good morning Hinata! Morning, Hanabi-chan!" he chirped, jogging the short distance over. Hanabi released my side and suddenly grappled her sister's just as the color Hinata's cheeks deepened a few shades.

We talked for a few moments before Hanabi announced her plans for walking us to the stadium which came as a surprise to Hinata and us, but the Hero readily went along with it. Hanabi glomped back to Mouse's side and we headed down the dirty, creaking metal staircase and began to walk towards the stadium together.

As we traveled down the street, I sensed the critical and slightly overbearing eyes of Kō and Natsu Hyūga burning into the back of my head. Both Mouse and the Firecracker's retainers were present today? While I was glad that meant Hiashi was being cautious about the wellbeing of both his daughters, I had to wonder if that also meant he was aware of what was going to happen today? I mean, you didn't have to be someone with Jiraiya's clearance to know that there was something up.

For example, the first day of July always meant a sale on decorative hand-fans from old man Daisuke, who sets up shop next to the waterway by the mouth of the Western Residential district, catching people right as they are heading into the crowds that flock to the Main Shopping district. I must've passed him a thousand times for as long as I can remember, wishing on the sweltering days that I had enough spare cash to buy one myself.

But today, old man Daisuke wasn't there.

There were quite a few people that weren't, in fact. I mean, you couldn't tell at first glance but a there were a lot of subtle differences only noticeable to Konoha natives. Right off of the Main Road there were a number of places that were closed, signs hanging out the front to say they were attending the matches today which wouldn't be unusual in itself - if you ignore how this is probably one of the most economically lucrative days Konoha saw with all the rich people coming in from all over the Land of Fire hoping to see a bloodsport - but there was also a certain lack of off-duty chūnin loitering around the places that were open.

The roofs, which were usually frequent with the sights of in and outbound shinobi were strangely clear of pesky open-toed sandals. There were a number a friendly-looking Akimichi clansmen, manning food stalls down every foot path that had tourists. And though they weren't visible, I could sense ANBU patrolling through the districts like silent winds sweeping through the streets.

In the least, they were prepared for something to happen.

Hanabi tugged on my arm, pulling me from my observations. "Ne, ne! Sora-neesan, did you notice my hair? I'm wearing it different today!" she asked, beaming slightly.

I smiled, I had noticed it. Usually she was content to let the heavy dark hair fall around her face without a care but today it was tied back. It was a bit loose and there might've been an escaped lock of hair that hung down the center of her face, but it was very cute. Especially with how the ribbon was tied into a nice bow, it actually kinda reminded me of how I did mine.

I blinked. Wait a second…

"You look cute, Hanabi-chan!" Naruto piped in while I indulged myself in the idea that she might be copying me. The blonde gave her a whiskered grin, showing that he was aware enough to know when a girl is seeking a compliment and delivering on it. Too bad for the Hero that Hanabi didn't want to hear that from him.

She huffed, cheeks puffing up. "I didn't ask you, Naru-baka!"

I hid my smile at how the Hero pouted at her rejection, and then followed up with his usual complaint of 'why doesn't Hanabi-chan like meee 'ttebayo?' directed at Mouse and myself. Which, I honestly had no clue about. For some unknown reason, Hanabi just had a grudge against Naruto. It wasn't anything malicious or brought on by handed-down prejudice either. It was more like… jealousy, I wanted to say, but that didn't quite fit because it made almost no sense. Out of the two of us, I was the one soaking up most of her beloved Onee-san's attention and yet poor Naruto was usually the target of the seven-year-old's snark.

"Hey, Booooss!" shouted a small, adorable voice. We all looked down the street to see little Konohamaru, dashing his way towards us as he waved. While his long blue scarf trailed on the ground behind him, a burst of fond feels filled me as I spied a pair of those familiar goggles on his head.

He was panting slightly when he made it to us, cutely round cheeks flushed pink from effort. "I — haah! — was on my way cause I thought — haah! — that you might be late or somethin' but I — haah! — should've known that the man meant to be my rival shouldn't be underestimated, ey!"

Also, verbal tics will never grow old. They are simply too cute not to in my completely unbiased opinion. Hinata made a noise of recognition beside me, remembering Konohamaru from our last encounter. Between us, Hanabi had begun scowling at the newcomer with her cute little face.

Konohamaru straightened up after catching his breath, giving Naruto a thumbs-up. "And I wanted to wish you luck in person, ey! Everybody's talkin' about how talented your opponent is, but I know you can pull it off, Boss!"

Naruto laughed boisterously, a pleased feeling rippling through his chakra at the vote of confidence. He flashed the Little Leaf a wide, whiskered grin, returning the thumbs-up. "Hahah! I don't need luck 'ttebayo!"

"Tch! Well, even if Naru-baka doesn't beat Neji-san then I know Sora-neesan will!" Hanabi interjected, causing all of us to turn to her in surprise. Konohamaru startled, as if he only just noticed Hanabi. He then did a double-take, eyeing her pretty outfit up and down and looking adorably confused on how to react to the usually sporty and messy girl.

As for the littlest Hyūga princess, she only shot Konohamaru a dirty look before beaming up at me with shining pale eyes and I melted. Oh. The faith this pure child has in my abilities is so heartwarming. I am unworthy! I pat her head indulgently, thankful for the morale support no matter how misplaced it is. While I could outmaneuver Stick while running through alleys, I didn't really think I'd stand a very good chance.

Plus, I lacked the most important tool required in the fight against Neji: Talk-no-jutsu.

Once Konohamaru snapped out of it, he jumped to the defense of his Boss' honor and the rest of us watched as the kiddies got into a spat over… basically who was the superior role model? What? Was that what was happening right now? Naruto and I shared bemused looks over a fretting Hinata as she tried to get them to stop bickering over us.

A few minutes of this passed and the argument seemed to be going nowhere and the longer it went on, Naruto seemed to be getting a little depressed by Hanabi's brutally honest evaluation of his Academic track record. Which, while her points weren't exactly wrong, it certainly wasn't helping the Hero's morale any. I was just about to intervene in the childish argument when Hinata's voice piped up over them, louder and more forceful than her usual tenor.

"I think that both of them are a-awesome in their own ways." she stammered, causing me and everyone else to turn our attention. Her pale cheeks flushed, she dropped her gaze to the ground, staring at it with sudden resolution as she continued. "I admire the way that… how easily Sora-chan can make people smile. H-How she's always thinking about others, a-and I like how she'll go out of her way to help her friends… even if it's a risk or will just cause more problems for herself. She'll just smile for you, and tell you it was worth all the trouble."

Critical hit! I pressed a hand to my heart, cheeks warming a little as a silly smile curled my lips. Oh gosh, that was so sweet.

"And N-Naruto-kun," her eyes darted up a moment to meet his before she returned to staring at the ground again. "I think the way that Naruto-kun always stands back up, even after he's failed — n-no, especially after he's failed. I feel… by watching him, I feel like I can be stronger, too. He doesn't let an-any walls stop him… he just breaks them down and keeps moving forward towards his goal. No matter what. Neither of them are perfect, a-and they can mess up, sure. But… but because they aren't perfect, because they never stop fighting for what's important to them… they both are very… inspiring… to me."

Her voice dropped to a small trembling thing by the time she was done. When she noticed we were all watching her in shocked silence her face glowed red until it rivaled a strawberry, her fingers twisting themselves into furiously nervous little knots. She looked very much like she wanted to hide behind a nearby lamp pole now.

Konohamaru and Hanabi looked at each other, were reminded that their spat was more about upstaging one another instead of defending us, opened their mouths simultaneously and the Hero and I moved first. The Little Leaf gave a yelp as Naruto gave him a vigorous hair ruffle and I crouched down to smush my cheek against the Firecracker's in a tight hug, both of us thankful for the support, but not interested in continuing the debate any longer.

Hinata had said all that was really needed.

Turning to the dark-haired girl, Naruto grinned, a sight that was nearly blinding and filled with so much warmth it'd cause sunburn. "Thanks, Hinata! You're pretty cool, too, 'ttebayo!"

Mouse looked faint after that, so I took it upon myself to wrap her up in my arms from behind, holding her upright. I don't think it helped her heart much though when I pressed my face to the side of her head and nuzzled affectionately, trying to express all the fluffy feels she just gave me. She could only squeak in embarrassment and make jumbled, stuttering pleas to not make a scene in public. I hadn't intended on letting go quite yet - I could see Natsu just barely holding back Kō from stomping over and tearing me off the princess - but Hinata began to get this dizzy look in her pearly eyes, so I relented, content with keeping one arm looped around hers.

We had resumed our walk towards the northern-most District, where the Stadium stood in the middle of a Hashirama grove. It was a heavily forested area and out of the way of the main thoroughfare of the rest of the Village, but it was as captivatingly scenic as the best lookouts in Konoha. Lush, emerald-green trees, standing taller than most buildings were lined along a carefully paved path of white stone. Their branches arched out over the path, as if reaching for the one opposite of them, and created an intricate canopy that held back the overbearing heat of the summer rays, only allowing the occasional beam of sunlight to stream down through.

It reminded me of just how beautiful this place could be, when it wanted to be.

Konohamaru had been in the middle of talking up Naruto about a 'super secret' entrance into the Stadium and the Hero had begun to look worryingly fascinated by the details when the rest of Konohamaru's little gang had showed up, scolding him for ditching class. I swear, my head started turning in search of Iruka-sensei to appear behind them like a wraith just to scold all of us for skipping. The Little Leaf gave Naruto another bout of encouragement along with his friends before they dashed off towards the municipal building and the Academy.

When we reached the end of the shaded part of the path and were headed towards the imposing red walls of the Stadium, the Hyūga Princesses and their babysitters finally left us, citing that they were expected to watch the matches with Hiashi and whoever else was there. Probably Hiroto too by the way the corner of Mouse's lips slid down. She still managed to give us another bashful smile with good luck wishes before heading to the spectator's areas.

"Hey, Sora-chan," Naruto began as we made our way to the participant's entrance. Blue eyes flickered over my face. "Are you nervous about your match? It's against Bushy-brow's other teammate, right? She's probably pretty strong like Bushy-brows and that Stick asshole. Um, wait!" his eyes widened, realizing this is not how you start a pep-talk. "Not that I'm saying that you're not strong — You've been training a LOT more recently, 'ttebayo! And-and you've gotten really fast, too! Plus you have all your awesome seals so you don't even need fight her upfront! Yeah, you've got this! You shouldn't worry, Sora-chan!"

By the time he had successfully convinced himself of my chances he was grinning supportively and gave my back a hearty slap. I shook my head with an exasperated smile. He went through a range of emotions with just one conversation with himself. And while I hadn't been worried about fighting Tenten before, I was freshly reminded that my Taijutsu skills were known to be remarkably average. So much so that both my teammates have felt the need to point out the disadvantage I was at, even though the Hero was more sensitive about my feelings than the Duck on the subject.

My hand unconsciously brushed against the glove hanging out of my bag. I bit my lip, suppressing a smile.

I wonder if I'll be able to give them both a little surprise today?

"You better focus on winning your own match before worrying about others, Dead Last." someone called out and both our heads turned at the ever-snarky voice of our very own Uchiha.

He was smirking all Uchiha-like, leaning against the hallway entrance with one foot on the wall and arms crossed ever-so casually over his chest. Dressed in an all-black outfit he was really trying to give off the edgy vibes. My eyes zoomed in on the other details though, like how he was wearing compression sleeves to brace his elbows, and the bandages on his shins and left arm were further supported by thick leather straps. I frowned. I know he was probably training pretty intensely the last few weeks, but he's never worn that much supportive equipment before… did that mean he was anticipating stress injuries?

I didn't get to wonder long on it before the Hero jumped on the chance to brag about how he had been training very, very hard the last few weeks and he even learned a super cool new Jutsu that was definitely going to blow away whatever you learned, Bastard!

Yah. I'd heard all about his 'training' after he woke up in the hospital yesterday. And while everyone besides Hinata hadn't believed for a second that he had summoned up a sixty-foot boss toad, I had been very outwardly excited and only minorly - majorly - horrified on the inside to hear about how he'd been chucked down a rocky chasm, abandoned by Jiraiya, and then forced to cling atop the head of the aggressively leaping Boss Toad until he passed out from exhaustion. Though I had been plenty happy for his success, the story made one thing abundantly clear to me…

When I killed Jiriaya, I would not make it quick.

Sasuke scoffed at Naruto, making a comment about wondering if he could back up his words with action and I was pleasantly surprised. That was as close to encouraging as I've ever heard Duckie get. I wonder if he had a fever? He was pretty exhausted from training too, and he doesn't have the same recuperative abilities that our blonde ball of energy has.

Speaking of, as soon as we entered the hall leading to the arena Naruto ran off ahead like a ball of blonde excitement, eager for a peek at the crowds as they filled in their seats. Sasuke and I walked leisurely behind him, lingering in the shade the hallway offered and enjoying the cool air brought through by the nexus of long stone corridors that led to other exits and entrances. Some even led below ground and I really wouldn't be surprised if the secret passage Konohamaru was whispering to Naruto about really did exist. The Stadium was one of the oldest buildings in Konoha, with many long, winding paths that led all the way down to the roots.

While the old place hasn't been used for a Chūnin exam Final Round since… jeez, at least over half a decade. It still got some use out of it mostly as a place where some of the big Clans could come and settle their disputes in a more old-fashioned way, though that isn't nearly as common as it used to be a couple decades ago, according to some of the gossip the old grannies share after having a couple oolongs.

I still remember when I first saw this place with Naruto, back when we were exploring every nook and alley that first year together. It had looked like a grand coliseum with walls that reached into the sky, ready to be filled with lions and tigers and all manner of exciting animals that filled my imagination. The Hero and I had run all around wherever we could, through the stands and down every hall that caught our interest until we were lost three times over and had to be plucked out by an ANBU babysitter disguised as a irritated chūnin.

We had always stayed away from the paths that held no light, though. Even back then we knew better than to wander down dark places, tempting shadows to snuff us out.

"You're zoning out."

My eyes darted over to the dark-haired boy beside me. I blinked owlishly at him. Had I been spacing off? Duckie rolled his eyes and — Ice flooded my veins, the air sucked from my lungs — my feet became frozen in place, legs turning into dead weight as a presence approached from down the hall. An unmistakable, dreaded presence that had no right to be here. Why was he here? What did he want?

Sasuke turned his head, ignorant of who was walking down the hall. I saw his ever-alert eyes narrow as he pushed himself of the wall, looking over my shoulder. My breaths came in short, strangled gasps that didn't fill my lungs. My bones ached, ghosts of pain that I tried to suppress, ignore — get ahold of yourself, damn it. Breathe.

That man came to a stop, pausing by one of the stairways that led downwards, where the light didn't reach. A voice in my head screamed. Angry and raw, terror and fury all at once. My ears rung with the sound of my rushing blood and it took all I had to remain standing, body as still as stone.

Dark and twisted chakra was seeping from his right side and bearing down on me like invisible weights, making it impossible to breathe. I almost couldn't control the tremors shooting through my hands. My fingernails dug into my palms, the physical sting of pain calming in the moment.

I had to reassure myself of Naruto's infectious light just outside and the agitated storm that was Sasuke right beside me. I focused on that — on them. Breathing became easier all of a sudden. Swallowing down the bile sitting in the back of my throat, I breathed, releasing the weight on my chest and finally finding my center.

Leaning against the cool stone wall and facing the darkened passage, I slid on a signature Hatake Kakashi Closed-Eye Smile™ and tucked my hands into my pockets. Smiling pleasantly, I pretended like there wasn't screaming inside my brain. I pretended like everything was perfectly fine.

This was fine.

We were fine.

I was fucking fine.

Standing in the shadows of the hall, Shimura Danzō regarded our presence like one would a couple of insects.

A cane in hand, bandages wound around half of his twisted body. The lighting was dim, with most of it streaming in from the arena entrances on my left and right, but he was unmistakable. I tried not to focus too much on how he looked exactly the same as when I'd last seen him over a decade ago, standing over me and telling me from that day on I was nothing but a tool to be used for the Village's disposal. How I'd never get to live under the light again. How he'd thrown me into that darkness to watch me either break or die. Whatever came first.

My face became tighter, my cheeks beginning to hurt from the mask.

After what felt like forever what was probably not more than a few seconds, he turned away, walking down the hall with his cane.

As soon as he was gone, so was the strength keeping me upright. My legs gave out under me and I slowly slid against the wall down until I was on my ass. I closed my eyes and pushed my head back, willing the buzzing sitting at the base of my skull to leave. Holy shit, of all the scenarios I had mentally prepared myself for today — that was not one.

I let out a heavy breath, expelling the wave of negative emotions I'd just acquired. When I opened my eyes again, it was to meet a pair of critical onyx orbs silently judging me.

Belatedly, I realized that Sasuke had an incredible knack for catching me at the worst of moments. It was honestly getting less distressing and just plain embarrassing at this point. He opened his mouth like he was going to ask something but thankfully Naruto came bounding back in at that moment, babbling at a rapid-fire speed about maybe seeing a real deal princess somewhere in the stands.

I turned my full attention to the Hero so that the dark-haired sleuth didn't get to pry into any more of my personal panic-attack materials. Though, he was giving me a rather sharp side-eye that spoke of having questions but not quite having a shit to spare to ask them. At least, not right now. Maybe he was just being sensitive about talking about it in front of Naruto.

In which case, I wasn't quite sure how to feel about that.

We stuck right inside the entrance of the arena as we waited for noon, watching as the stands were filled to the brim with people of all kinds. There were only three areas overlooking the arena, two pavilions to the north and east that looked to be holding a couple hundred spectators each. A larger more obviously higher class platform placed between them, each of them were connected by sturdy crossways and topped by large sloping roofs. Everything was so big and grand and I was starting to feel a little nauseous again.

I spared a moment to wonder where Kakashi was watching from, and if maybe Neko was with him. I really hope he was watching. I wanted to show him what I was capable of.

Kiba was the first of the other competitors that joined us, claiming the only reason he hadn't beaten us here was because he'd been held up by his Mom and sister. I teased that they were giving him a last minute flea bath and got a loud laugh out of Naruto, while Kiba took it with faux offense and shot back at me, starting up some tension-relieving banter. Though, I did pout when I wasn't allowed to snuggle Akamaru. His less-cuddly partner barking at me to act more professional for once paired with an exasperated glare from Duckie popped all my balloons.

When Kiba became distracted with trash-talking Naruto, the puppers and I shared a look, one that promised fluffy cuddles and delicious treats once this was all over.

Gai's booming words of pride and encouragement echoing from down the entryway sounded the arrival of Team Gai. From beside me, Naruto stood more on edge, shoulders tensing up in anticipation. Their eyes zeroed in on us the moment they entered the hall, taking up positions opposite of us. There was silence from both our groups for the most part, except for a low snarl that came from either Kiba or Akamaru, undoubtedly directed towards Stick. But while we didn't speak, there was the slightly embarrassing moment that Lee's expression had kinda lit up after seeing me. While he had visibly restrained himself from greeting in any kind of Youthful way, he had given me a bright, cheek-aching smile that made me fidget.

Trying not to give anyone the wrong idea but also not being rude like most my acquaintances tended to be, I returned his smile with a polite one of my own. Then, for good measure, I looked at Stick and stuck my tongue out. The reaction was instant: A vein seemed to bulge from his clenched jaw and his eyes swore my death.

My smile grew a little wider when Lee bit his lip to stop from laughing and Naruto snickered without remorse.

And then… all the levity seemed to be sapped out of the air when Gaara and Temari arrived. Everyone but Naruto's attention became laser-focused on the redhead with the gourd, including mine. Though my attention was waaay less hostile than the others. I was glad for the noise of the crowds gathering above our heads, otherwise this silence might've been a bit too unbearable for me and I might've done something stupid. My fingers tapped rhythmically against my thigh, playing a tune with a forgettable name that I'd heard on the radio.

Our sleepy genius was the last to officially arrive. I couldn't help but smile slightly when he stopped in the middle of the hall, drowsy eyes taking one look at the intense group, before he let out a terribly inconvenienced sigh.

"Friendly atmosphere," Shikamaru muttered sarcastically when he came to stand beside me.

I snorted, shooting him a wry look. He gave a shrug, letting out a large yawn.

Twenty minutes till noon, Hayate-san, who still looked like he was in a constant state of fever and malnutrition, strolled out to the center of the arena. We left our positions in the shade to line up in front of him, waiting for the official signal for the events to start. Outwardly, we were all silent and serious. I kept my eyes on the ground, taking deep breaths to remain calm as each minute ticked closer to the moment of truth.

I idly played with the end of my faded blue sleeve, rubbing my thumb against the soft material, glad I decided to wear my usual mission outfit. Though it was hot enough to warrant going with as little layers as possible I thought it was best to dress in my finest for today. Even if my mission clothing wasn't 'fine' by any means, it was durable enough for a rough fight and it brought me a comfortable sense of familiarity. Like wearing a suit of armor for battle, I imagine. That thought caused me to seriously wonder if I should've brought a sword? Mm. Something to consider another day.

Beside me the Hero was dressed in his usual outfit of orange and more orange, the only thing outwardly different about him were the wraps around his knuckles, as if he was expecting to bust them on someone's face. I tried very much not to smile at that, because smiling at that thought would speak badly to my character. I should not take any pleasure in the idea that Stick would soon - so very soon - be not only eating dirt, but also his words. Glorious retribution was nigh!

…okay, so I was taking a little pleasure from it.

The fireworks that exploded overhead echoed loudly against the tall stadium walls, signaling noon and the beginning of the tournament. The crowd let out a roar that was louder than maybe anything I've ever heard before, and I've had a lot of explosions ring my ears.

Ah, there's that nausea again.

In the pavilion overlooking us, an entourage approached the Hokage's balcony. Seeing the distinctly shaped hat, I realized it was the Kazekage, who I didn't even — I sucked in a sharp breath as Killing Intent spiked next to me. My eyes darted over, zeroing in on the redhead leaking KI. His previously stoic expression just warped into something angry and very murdery.

Okay then. We're already off to a great start.

The Hokage stood and walked forward, making a short address to thank everyone for attending, announcing the commencement of the Final Round. There was a spattering of cheers from the crowd and a general sense of impatience from the group around me.

Hayate-san explained between some dry coughs that the rules were just like last time: There basically were none unless someone died, gave up, or was so beaten down that he called it for them. "The first match—" he coughed, wheezing a little. "Will be between Tenten and Sora. Please, will the rest of you wait in the observation room through there?"

Tenten and I took places opposite of each other as everyone else exited the arena. I resisted looking over my shoulder at the boys and kept my gaze on my opponent. Her expression was tight; a frown on her lips and an intense and quiet focus in her brown eyes. Honestly, she looked pretty intimidating, but half of that might be because I didn't know her as well as her teammates. Neji and I had a long, sordid history of unfortunate encounters but I knew him. And Lee was an easy guy. Kind, thoughtful, honest and exuberant as anything, but an easy guy to figure out after just spending ten minutes with him.

I didn't know the first thing about who Tenten was.

The crowd's reaction wasn't overly enthusiastic when it was just us. Just a few scattered cheers from distracted spectators. A quick glance up at the stands showed that there wasn't exactly an outpouring of excitement for us. Well, to be expected? Neither of us were from a fancy clan or were outstanding when compared to our teammates. The boys were the ones that stood out, and that's who they all were waiting for.

We were just the kunoichi.

I grabbed the fingerless-glove hanging out of my back pouch and slid it over my left hand. My heartrate was beginning to pick up speed, a certain nervous feeling like butterflies fluttering in my stomach. Tenten leapt back without a word, putting a safe distance between us. Every line in her body grew taut like the strings of a well-tuned instrument.

"Are both participants ready?"

In response, I bowed my head slightly as I kept my eyes on her and made the seal of confrontation with one hand. Her eyes widened, brows lifting minutely in surprise. I took a deep breath, tuning out everything and everyone else. Hayate-san's gaze shifted between us and when Tenten made no move, he signaled the start of the match.

She took a defensive position from a distance and I will admit to being surprised at the choice, thought she would've taken a more aggressive approach. Guess she was more cautious than her teammates who both possessed the bad habit of invading my personal space.

Within a heartbeat my hand slid into my pouch, pulling out a kunai and flinging it forward. Tenten reacted instinctively, pulling out a kunai of her own to perfectly counter my projectile. So she is the type to deflect instead of catch. Good to know. Choosing my first strategy, I switched pouches, grabbing a handful more of kunai and throwing them. Tenten's brow furrowed as she used more kunai to deflect each one without even trying, scattering them around. Was she really going to match each of my kunai with her own?

Hah. Well, I hope she brought enough.

I put another few yards between us and Tenten watched me with careful eyes as her hand crept behind her back, obviously trying to figure out what I was doing. I reached both hands into the bag on my lower back, pulling out several more kunai, pulsing chakra into my arms and then hands as I launched them upwards, high into the sky.

Tenten readied a handful of shuriken to deflect my kunai, but stopped short, her brow furrowed deeply as she realized there was no little-to-no chance they were even gonna hit her. My body was practically buzzing as I watched her expression, getting ready for it.

My kunai flipped about in the air, gravity taking over it's trajectory and angling it back towards the earth. And right about then is when the timing feature on the seals went off, there was a billowy 'poof' of smoke and then the contents of the storage seal were violently ejected downwards.

A thirty-foot tree speared into the hard ground of the arena floor.

Tenten let out a shriek of surprise and stumbled back in shock when the tree hit. I grinned wickedly wide as the rest of my airborne delivery kunai followed suit. She was more prepared when the other… oh, fourteen trees shot down. The both of us moved towards the walls on opposite sides of the arena, watching in relative safety as the rest of the trees wedged themselves into the ground. Some were upright, some were upside down and some of the trees, after having been doubled up in a seal, kind of violently exploded into woody chunks of splinters when they made contact with the ground.


By the sounds of it, the crowd seemed to be interested in the kunoichi match now.

Tenten made the next move after trees stopped raining from the sky. Leaping up into the air, she positioned herself atop one of my pines and pulled out a scroll from a holster on her leg. With a snap of her wrist, she unfurled the entire length, sending the paper twisting and gliding around her body like a ribbon. I caught flashes of ink as it spun and I realized what it was: One long-ass storage scroll.

For a moment, I was blinded with envy that she had so much vellum to spare and only minorly horrified at the inefficient use of the space with all those clunky seals. But then it started hailing down dozens of sharp and pointy weapons and I made a mad dash for cover.

I slid forward, rolling into a crouch and tucking myself against the closest thing which happened to be one of the trees that had broken apart. I heard the distinct 'thun-thun-thunking!' of kunai and shuriken being lodged into wood and gave myself a mental head pat for the idea to bring extra things to hide behind. She may be able to hit ten out of ten targets, but she's gonna have a harder time of it when her target has a few feet of wood in blocking it.

'CHi-tiNk — tiNK!' A shuriken tore through my pants, shallowly slicing my calf. I hissed through my teeth in pain, pressing myself against the tree corpse and trying to make myself as flat as possible. Just in time for a hand-scythe-thing to impact right where my foot had been two seconds before. Okay, so ricocheting weapons around cover still works. And that over-watch position she held certainly wasn't doing me any favors.

She really was good, as expected. Oh well. That just meant I wouldn't be getting a moment to breathe until we finished this.

I pulled a tag and threw my arm up and over my cover, aiming in Tenten's general direction. I pulsed chakra into my palm, releasing the contents of my Compressurized seal: a kindling of long, pokey sticks went hurtling through the air. For a moment, her weapon rain stopped so that she could focus on the scatter shot — I moved from my cover as she took them down, sidestepping at the last moment to avoid a kunai to the boot. Because yah, she could still aim at me while taking out other targets.

Sliding behind one of the trees that landed right-side up, I had managed to circle around her position a little. I palmed another tag and took aim. Next, rocks of varying sizes that I'd picked out from the riverside went shooting like a round of scattershot. None bigger than my fist but what they lacked in size, they made up for in numbers. Another flick of her wrist and she deftly gathered up her scroll. She reached behind her back and pulled out her Bō staff this time, not wanting to waste any more of her weaponry shooting them all down.


I moved from my cover again, maneuvering myself into a spot with a clear line-of-sight to launch my next seal. As soon as she had finished spinning her staff to easily deflect the rocks, more wood was flying through the air again, but this time they were in nicely chopped up logs that were too big to be shot down.

Tenten left her position instead of dealing with the logs, leaping down onto a lower branch so she could focus fire on me. She gathered up a handful of kunai - four at once, I can barely manage two - and threw them directly at me. I held my breath as my hands went though Tiger, Boar, Ox, Dog, Snake — thu-thu-thun-thunk! Each kunai hit their mark — there was a pull as I was displaced and then I was falling through the air.

I grinned as a pair of shocked brown eyes snapped up to mine.

Why would I do such a insanely stupid thing, you would wonder?

Well, this.

Tenten had just gotten over gaping when I lifted my left hand, pulsing my chakra through it and commanding the ink on my glove to come alive. Like a photo being taken, my hand flashed with bright white light! Tenten yelped, shutting her eyes and turning her head away on instinct as I gave her a taste of my silent flashbang.

Twisting my body because I was still falling — I brought my leg down in an overhead kick, getting blocked by the staff at the last moment. The branch she was standing on creaked in a dangerously 'I'm-about-to-drop-some-fools' kind of way. Tenten heard it too and she dropped to the ground, eyes still squeezed shut. I grabbed onto another branch on the way down, swung with my momentum and threw myself back at Tenten as she rubbed her eyes, trying to adjust.

My feet hit the ground and time had long been slowed down, adrenaline running hot in my veins — I moved forward.

Deep breath.

Remember what that damned woman taught you.

I held my hands flat and firm, focusing the strength into the ends of my fingers. I drew my body taut, muscles coiling up. My arm shot out — the heel of my hand solidly connected to the side of Tenten's jaw, whipping her head to the side.

One official hit.

I didn't let up. Her eyes began to open again - if only on instinct from getting smacked in the face - and I thrust my hand out again, giving her another round of the Razzle Dazzle. Restricting her sight gave me the slight advantage I needed here, and I needed every advantage I could get. Her staff swung in wide sweeps as she retreated backwards, trying to keep my strikes away. Occasionally she twirled around her whacking stick in a professional and fairly intimidating way but I just circled around behind when she did, causing her to go back to wide sweeps in hopes of catching me the second I slowed down.

She kept me busy with reading her movements and either jumping or ducking to avoid the hits, so much so that the hits I actually did get close enough to land were rewarded with a stinging slap on the hands or arms from the Bō. She lunged forward once — The end of her staff hit me smack in the middle of my forehead, clanging against the metal of my Hitai-ate and making my head feel like a bell that just got the shit rung out of it. For a split moment, I saw double - maybe triple - and just focused on the one in the middle.

I had to keep attacking to keep her flustered and off-balance. It worked for the most part, but I wasn't suited for stamina battles. And though I'm sure she wasn't either when compared to her boys, she still seemed to be doing a lot better than me. I was also somewhat frustrated to note that it seemed like she was holding back? At every chance she kept trying to edge away and was barely putting an effort in attacking back, just defending. I know she can do better than that, so why…

Oh god, is this how Duckie feels when I fight defensively?!

That's… okay, I understand why that's annoying now.

Tenten swept my feet again and the next time I jumped, I lurched forward, slamming my hands on her shoulders and pushing myself up. For half a moment, time was still as I was perfectly perched on top of her. Almost weightless. Then my momentum continued and I dug my fingers into her shirt, pulling — My body bent in preparation for landing — she tipped backwards, her footing giving out — I landed, feet coated in chakra — I used my entire body to yank her up and I threw.

She tumbled once after hitting the ground, quickly picking herself back up again. I didn't pursue right away, taking a breath for myself. Dodging like that was pretty stamina intensive. I might've made some progress the last few weeks but it was obvious I needed more training on that front.

Panting lightly herself, Tenten cautiously peeled one eye open. Blood slipped down her chin, her bottom lip was busted open from my first strike. She wiped it off, giving the back of her now-bloodied hand an odd look before she stared at me, brows furrowed. Ah, there was that colorful puzzle look again. Why though? Usually the only repeated looks I got ranged from broad affection to deep exasperation.

It was harder to get an accurate sense on an individual chakra signature with this mass of people around us, but not impossible. It helped we weren't that far away from each other. Her chakra wasn't the most refined. Spinning more like a chaotic and Sharp mess, like a tornado of blades. And it was strong, potent. Not like Naruto's or Gaara's, but a kind of chakra that held Weight. And what was more important, I could read her emotions as clear as a summer day.

Tenten was still afraid of me.

Well, that won't do.

Channeling my best impression of a certain foxy troublemaker: I gifted the Weapons Specialist an insufferably smug grin, flashing a peace sign with my gloved hand.

The crowd jeered somewhat, obviously not enthralled by my exemplar performance thus far. I made a show to flip my hair over my shoulder, dismissing all of them along with Tenten. The girl in question made a noise of surprise right before her jaw tightened. I could practically see her hackles rising, her fear being swapped out with irritation and indignation.

Oh good, at least that was easy.

She stored away her staff, exchanging it for a… I blinked as she pulled out a kusagarigama, a chain with a weighted end. Perfect for clocking smartasses out. Haha… hah. A hand reached up, grabbing her hitai-ate, and she pulled it down over her eyes. Blindfolding herself? Oh, in preparation of being flashed? That was probably smart. Just cutting me out of the equation all together.

Tenten took a heavy breath, centering herself — Intent spiked, the chains began to whip — I leaned my head slightly, just barely made it — air fluttered against my cheek, the cool metal of the weight sailing by my skin lighter than a butterfly's kiss.


Her wrist twisted and I was already bending backwards, back arched and palms flat against the ground. The chain lashed in the air above me and that shit definitely would not have made a pretty necklace. The kusagarigama was swinging again at too fast a speed to dodge — quick as I could, I went through the seals for Kawarimi and substituted with one of my logs a short distance away. The weight sunk into the wood instead. I cringed when Tenten's next hit had simply obliterated the log, realizing that was nearly me.

Yep, definitely should've brought the sword!

Hearing the crack of the substitution, Tenten pulled up her hitai-ate enough to uncover one eye to search for me. She located me pretty quick and smirked, not bothering to blind herself again as she spun around her weapon. She realized I wanted nothing to do with that damn thing, dammit. Like hell I was going to risk getting hit with that piece of work. So much for keeping her on her toes with the close combat.

The brunette continued with her chained assault without any preamble, causing me to dodge and jump like there was no tomorrow. As I was quickly losing my breath from exertion, I spared a thought that maaaybe I shouldn't have helped her relax — duck! Woah, shit — Ah, I'm an idiot sometimes. Oh well.

My back was met with bark and I reacted instinctively, applying chakra to my feet and hand to flip up and stick onto the side. Her chain whipped and wrapped around the tree twice, splintering some of the bark. No time to worry how bad that might've been if I was any slower. My hand slipped into a pouch, pulling a specially marked storage seal with the Kanji for Water plastered in the center. A pulse of chakra later and I released a frothing torrent from the seal, my knees bending slightly from the force of an active waterfall shooting from my palm.

Tenten's shout of surprise was somewhat muffled by the mouthful of water she took as she was washed away.

The water petered out of the seal and I stowed it back away, taking a survey of the area. There were a few unfortunate fish that had been caught, flopping around in the muddy puddles. Something of a makeshift pond sitting at the center of where my seal had been shooting. Tenten's weapon was still attached to my tree but the Weapon Specialist herself was halfway across the arena, clinging to some wood debris and coughing up river water. Ooooh. Long brown hair was draped over the side of her face, wet and undone. I took out one of her hair-buns!

I feel like I should be awarded points for that.

NO ONE IS GIVING YOU POINTS FOR THAT! My highly-strung one-third informed me.

Also, that is a true shame. I would just have to give myself points for it. I really feel like I should be racking them up for creativity alone by now.

Her uncovered brown eye zeroed in on me with a dirty look, gritted teeth bared in a scowl. I had already slipped around to the other side of the tree when a volley of shuriken lodged into where I'd been crouching. Hot damn, I barely saw her reach for them! Okay, need to close the distance again. Thinking quick, I edged out of my cover and charged a low-level Taser tag around a kunai, letting it crackle in my hand. That buzzting sound was unmistakable, it was just enough of a hint for Tenten to spot the electrical current and realize she was standing ankle-deep in water and put two and two together.

I did an unnecessary spin out of cover and with a quick sleight of hand I switched out my kunai, tossing it at Tenten's feet. The Weapon Specialist reacted very well, slamming her Bō down into the water and lifting herself up, balancing one-handedly on the top of it and avoiding what she thought would be a nasty shock as the kunai landed below her. And I had to admit: For a moment there, she looked pretty badass.

Then a huge cloud of rainbow-colored dyes exploded out of my kunai's seal, looking like a mushroom-shaped unicorn fart. It also was packed with what was probably an excessive amount of glitter.

The Rainbow Glitz Bomb is a resounding success.

Tenten was engulfed and from somewhere under the sudden upward cadence of the crowd, I heard her coughing. Probably from the glitter. I tugged up the orange scarf around my neck, covering my mouth and nose before I dove into the cloud after her. I closed my eyes as the smoke surrounded me, letting my sensing take over. In my mind's eye I could clearly see that Weighty chakra of hers as she jumped down from her staff. I coated my feet in chakra to skate over the water and twisted my hips, throwing my all of my force into a roundhouse. My heel connected tp her head in another solid hit.

Well, ain't that a kick to the head. Heheh…

Ah, musical puns are best.

I felt her head snap to the side, her body spinning with the hit. I tried to follow up but she kept going with the momentum, running straight out of the smoke into the clear air again. I was about to do the same when I sensed her turn back towards the smoke and her chakra scatter forward—

Tags, I realized. Explosive

My heart pounded. I wouldn't be able to dodge them fast enough—

I heard the burning of paper around me, fuses igniting—

I slammed my foot down, hands shaped into the Boar seal. The sign called upon just the right amount of mental and physical chakra, mixing, fueling — calling on my Fūinjutsu to come alive. In a rush, chakra alighting the ink on my shoes, the pale writing lashing out, speeding around and upwards until a blue screen encased me in a protective dome.

The muddy earth around me shook slightly from the shock of her tags rocking what they got, but I was completely untouched by it. They weren't even a high enough grade to damage my wonderful creation. I smiled contently, pulling down my scarf as the dust settled and the faintest traces of glitter fell through the air.

A couple shallow ditches were made around my barrier, resulted from the tags. The remains of an unfortunate tree that was caught in the crossfire had been blown to bits. But twenty feet away, Tenten was staring at me in surprise. Those shrewd brown orbs scrutinizing my Sealing School specialty for a weakness or an opening. Too bad for her she wouldn't be finding one.

All was silent within my little bubble, but I felt as if the crowd had hushed as well. They were all waiting for one of us to fall already. Some of them probably hadn't thought we'd make such a bang on the field. Speaking of, Tenten's attack was decent, but those explosions were practically adorable compared to some of what I tend to play around with.

Time to show them all was a real bang was.

My lips curled up higher. There was a wicked twist to my smile that may or may not have been brought on by intense excitement for what was about to happen next. I crouched to a knee, reinforcing my barrier with more chakra as my hands formed the Bird seal.

Tenten, sopping wet and covered in dirt and glitter, paled — At once I released out a wide pulse of chakra, setting off the explosion tags attached to the kunai I planted around the arena when the fight first started.

The place erupted.

Earth shaking, wonderfully reverberating, explosions shuttered the ground. Dust and smoke obscured my vision again but I felt it rumble down to my bone, my teeth chattering from the force. Outside, Tenten's chakra signature weakened significantly. It wasn't low enough to be worryingly critical, but a comfortable dim like when someone is unconscious.

So, did that mean… I won?

Cautiously, I lowered my barrier as the air cleared up again, squinting my eyes through… oh my. Those were some pretty big holes in the ground. The nearest one looked to be at least six feet deep, filled with rubble. I resisted a flinch when Hayate-san shunshin'd back into the arena, also surveying the arena before giving me a slightly judgmental look. Pfft. Like this was entirely my fault? He's the one that said there were almost no rules! That includes the generous use of medium-grade explosives! I mean, the crack in the wall isn't even that big…

When the dust cleared we turned our attention to where Tenten should've been but instead, there was a giant metal… was that a turtle shell? What the hell? Why was there a giant metal shell now?

Hayate-san suddenly shunshin'd away again.

"Twin Rising Dragons!"

Two stacks of smoke shot up into the sky. They took a shape — looking uncannily like actual dragons — my jaw dropped to the ground. I kinda wanted to laugh, not because it looked funny. But because I knew I was probably in trouble right about now. It was just about confirmed as Tenten leapt onto the top of the dome before propelling herself into the air with her dragons.

A little part of me could hear the drums and guitar riff of her theme song playing in my mind as Tenten spun in the air. She unlatched the scrolls and sent them cascading around her with her ribbon dance again, a poof of chakra and then it began to rain again.

I spun on my heel to make a dash for cover and had to stumble back just out of reach of a dozen kunai and shuriken that skewered the ground in front of me. Heart pounding in my ears, I twisted and turned as spears rained down and speared the ground around me. Giant shuriken cut my paths off before I could move. It was an indiscriminate barrage of weapons that was quickly closing in around me. Last ditch escape effort was far more literal than I was comfortable with as I skidded across the dirt and dove into one of the craters I'd made, using one of the larger pieces of rock in there to hide in. I pulled out a kunai to try and deflect any ricochets, but then the unexpected happened.

The barrage stopped.

My eyes snapped up in confusion, looking over my measly cover. Tenen's arms swung forward in an arc, glinting light bouncing of the oh holy shit I know what that is — The weapons on the ground came to life, jerking back up into the air. Wires laced through the sky, snapping and dancing at Tenten's movement. They all flew towards me — I slammed my foot down, raising the barrier just in time. I flinched on instinct after hearing a dull clash of metal from outside, wires and the weapons attached on the end of them wrapping around my barrier like ribbon on a present. I could hear the creaking of the wires as they were pulled as tightly as possible against my wall, and for a moment I had to remind myself that Tenten did not possess the physical strength required to cause my barrier to cave in on itself.

But, thinking about it now, someone that did have the strength very well might be able to crush this on all sides like a fizzy soda can. Presently, my formula works by focusing its shielding in targeted areas to repel and then repair any damage sustained. Like, it could take one chidori from upfront, but a dozen chidoris - chidories? chidor-i? how do you even say this - from all sides? Yeah, a couple of those would probably get through. I should probably work on fixing that formula flaw.

From between a couple giant shuriken, I could see Tenten land on top of her big-ass metal dome again. I spared only a moment of admiration for the other girl's truly vast array of tools before I began to wrack my mind for what my next step was. I sat down on the scorched dirt, dropping my head in my hand for a moment's rest as I thought this out.

My wood replacements were all used up and what had been left behind was probably blown to bits now, so there was no quick switch out of this. And I couldn't exactly use tags and blow myself up in here, ruling out my explosives. I knew no earth jutsu to help dig myself out and the second I released my barrier, her weapons would come flying in, squeezing me tighter than Iruka-sensei's old stress toy.

Poor Googly-eye-chan survived only a couple months into our third year of the Academy. Naruto had been particularly restless that year — Focus! Back to the topic at hand.

I mean, I could try sealing away all her weapons? Well, that was certainly an idea but what about after? I tried everything I could to hinder and take her out in close combat and barely managed a few, albeit satisfying, blows. Ignoring the getting past the weapons part, I still felt pretty good stamina-wise. I could try and go at it for a while longer and test my luck against her but… to what extent? I've run out of tricks - for this fight, at least - and my skill level in Taijutsu still wasn't high enough to compete with her.

Hm. I guess I came to my answer.

Smiling, I stood and lifted my hands in surrender, turning away from Tenten. Hayate-san reappeared on the cusp of my crater with a slight cough, regarding me with a tilt of the head.

"Are you forfeiting?"

I nodded, tucking my hands behind my head and allowing my body to finally relax. Geez, how long was I wound up like that anyway? I feel like that fight lasted two hours. I was good with this result. We both had a long day ahead of us and we already put up a damn good fight. No one could say that I didn't give it my all.

"Winner of the first round: Tenten!"


糖 (sugar)

"That little shit!"

I slammed my fist against the console, knocking the half-eaten takeout from last night onto the floor. Yamashiro startled at my outburst and choked on his tea. I was too busy glaring at the stadium broadcast to really give a damn at the moment.

"That brat! How could she toss in the towel like that after all the damn effort I put into her!?" I hissed, seething. There were at least half a dozen openings when she could've planted one of those wimpy-ass tags on her opponent — seriously, she could've even fried the other brat and finished her off! She would've been walked it off.


Okay, once we put a stop to whatever shit That Man was planning for today and things were settled down, I was gonna have to cut out some time to have a little chat with the priss about taking the more opportunistic route. The damn brat has studied under two ANBU captains known for being lethally efficient on assassinations, and yet she's still playing softball in combat.

I'll make certain to fix that.


空 (sky)

I let out a sudden sneeze. I shivered as an unseasonal chill ran up my spine, leaving goosebumps on my arms. For a second there I could've sworn that I sensed malicious Intent in the air, but that didn't make any sense? Oh well. That was probably a problem for later me.

With Tenten releasing her weapons, I was able to safely let my barrier down and step out. The second I did, my ears were met with the near deafening cheers of the crowds. My eyes went wide as I looked around the stands. I hear my name and turned to see Naruto waving frantically from the observation deck with the others, I got to see his grin only for a second before he pushed away from the railing and ran out of sight. Lee, who had been waving with him, following right behind.

I blinked at the now-empty spot. Looking slightly to the left I met Sasuke's eyes, a smirk tilting up one side of his face. I made a face at him. I don't know what more annoying about that ambiguous smirk, the fact I couldn't tell if he was impressed with my fight or that he was probably mocking my predicted lost.

"Hey, uhm."

My attention was drawn back, I looked up to see Tenten standing at the edge of my crater. She was still soaked from head to toe, one hair bun in total disarray, her bottom lip had started to swell and she was also completely covered in little flecks of glitter.

She reached a hand out, lips pulling back into a hesitant, but genuine smile.

"That… was a good fight!"

My heart fluttered a little with pride and relief. I gave her a bright grin in return, accepting her hand. She helped pull me out of the crater and twisted her fingers with mine, making the seal of Reconciliation. My grin widened even further, making my cheeks hurt.

We parted and headed towards the doorway the others had gone through as Hayate-san called for Naruto and Neji. Out of sight, I pressed my hand against my pant-leg to stop the prickling from the physical contact. Though my heart appreciated the gesture, my body did not. Oh well.

In the hall, we waved off a couple medics on standby that asked if either of us needed medical attention. They made sure to let us know where to find the first aid station before directing us towards the observation deck with the rest. We didn't even get to make it another five steps before Naruto and Lee came pealing down to meet us. My grin came back in a heartbeat as Lee gushed over the both of us in rapid-fire while Naruto caught his breath. Congratulating Tenten and complimenting her techniques along with my creative use of Seals, even though I'm pretty sure he didn't quite understand how they worked.

He kind of got this starry look in his eyes when he started talking about how I managed to get Tenten into a close-combat twice, complimenting my fighting style, saying that with more polish and some Hard Work then it could be something great. I will admit it, I was flattered with his praise. Having my Taijutsu being complimented by a guy that lives and breathes the stuff is a definite confidence booster. I ignored the little voices in my head that claimed the praise was coming from a biased source — Lee was honest to a fault. He wouldn't say unnecessary things just to make someone feel better about a loss.

The cheerful mood deflated a little as another person came walking down the hall after the boys. Neji made no supportive comment about Tenten's win or even make a snide remark on my loss. His pale eyes were focused ahead with a determined gaze and a disdainful sneer that showed exactly how he felt about what was about to happen.

Lee turned to the Hero, who had begun glaring at Stick's back, and clapped a bandaged hand on his shoulder. "I wish you luck, Naruto-kun!"

Naruto gave him a foxy grin in return, pushing up his sleeves. "Nah! I don't need luck! I can kick this guy's ass on my own!" he announced.

Lee was ignited by that confidence, metaphorically and a little literally by the fiery look that struck up in his eyes. Tenten began to try and reign in Lee's sudden overflow of excitement by ushering him down back towards the waiting room, giving Naruto and I a moment. His grin sobered up somewhat, but there was an unshakable sort of confidence in those baby blues that dashed any kind of nagging doubts that lingered in the back of my mind.

He's got this.

I held out my fist and he met it with his own, pressing our knuckles together.

"I made a promise, yeah?" he said. "Just watch me, Sora-chan. I won't go back on it."

The grin on my face was nothing short than proud. My Hero was about to show everyone just what he was made of, and for the first time in years, they'll be seeing him and not the fox. It was about damn time, too.

With his head held high, Naruto passed me and entered the arena. I turned right around and ran down the hall with a stupid grin on my face, way more excited for this than I should be. I caught up with Tenten and Lee easily, who fell into a eager jog with me as we raced to watch the match. Just outside of the observation deck, something brushed against my senses and I turned my head on instinct.

My eyes met with two dark holes of a painted porcelain mask. Down at the far end the hall, standing behind the spectators was an ANBU in full-uniform. The one that I had expected to be here, at least. I met his stare for a moment until Lee called my name, looking back at me in concern. I smiled to reassure him and when I looked back over my shoulder, Kabuto had already slunk off to another shadow.

I put him out of my mind. His presence only further confirmed the events today were still on track, despite my meddling back in the forest. Just the same, I ignored the slight thrum of the seal on my arm and joined my friends up on the observation deck. Everyone already seemed to be lined up along the railing. I took it upon myself to stand at the edge of the Leaf group, putting myself closest to Gaara. It was just coincidence that had previously been Sasuke's chosen position as well. Said Uchiha glanced at me out of the corner of his eye with an almost knowing look of annoyance.

"You have glitter in your hair." he said instead. My hand when to my head immediately, fingers combing though my ponytail and finding a surprising amount of wooden splinters.

"Not that I'm rooting for that asshole or anything," Kiba piped up as Naruto and Neji began to stare each other down. "But I give Naruto like, five minutes before this thing is over."

I leaned back and whistled shortly to catch his attention, signing when the Inuzuka boy looked over. 'He will win.'

"Naruto?" He scoffed, jabbing a thumb towards Tenten. "How hard did she hit you? Maybe you ought to rethink about getting your head checked."

I flipped him off.

"Sorry to pop your bubble," Tenten gently input, in the middle of tying back up her bun. "But Neji isn't one to be taken so lightly. Right, Lee?"

Lee looked very put on the spot then. While it was clear on his face that he agreed with Tenten, he also didn't want to dismiss Naruto before he'd even gotten a chance. Which, that was really sweet. I saved him from answering by reiterating my point on my notepad

"Naruto will win. Without a doubt."

"You willin' to bet on that, Pomegranate?" I nodded without even hesitating, matching his toothy grin with one of my own. His brows raised in surprise, grin unfaltering. "Academy stakes?" he wagered. And oh, it was on.

"Don't," Shikamaru advised, giving my impish look a wary once over. Whatever he found, he decidedly didn't trust. "That woman is scarily confident right now. She's gotta know somethin' we don't."

Kiba shrugged off the warning, Akamaru giving his partner a yip of support. Oooh. Unwise. "It doesn't matter." he said. "No amount of cheering is gonna get the Dead Last out of this one. I'll be the one to get back at that asshole for what he did to Hinata!"

"It seems you have something you want to say," — I heard Stick's stupidly proud voice speak up and I furiously shushed all of them. All eyes turned to the center of the arena, to where the two boys faced each other.

Naruto held his fist toward at Neji.

"I'll win, no matter what!"

After a truly excessive amount of glaring from both parties, the Hero was the first to make a move. Engaging Stick in close combat from the get-go in typical Hero fashion. He always likes to get a measure of someone with his fist before using his head, but ah. That's just his process.

"What?!" Kiba snapped, in response. "I can't believe he's that dumb!"

"This'll be over faster than I thought…" Tenten muttered to herself. Sasuke clicked his tongue in annoyance, but Shikamaru and Lee simply watched in quiet observation. The Sand duo doing the same, though I could feel Temari's eyes on us more than on the match.

Naruto backed off before he could get struck badly and summoned up a handful of clones, sending them forward for an assault that Neji dispersed with ease. I leaned on the railing, setting my chin in my hand as that short-haired asshole began to rag on Naruto's Hokage ambitions, patiently biding my time to see the moment he gets to eat those words.

G'head Neji, talk about destiny all you like. You're only riling him up even more. Man, I should've brought snacks — oh wait. I've got something in my sealing book, don't I? Like some chips or something. I looked away from the fight as I leaf through my little black book, finding the seal with my food supply and summoning up a bag of plain chips.

As Naruto sent a troupe of shadow clones after Neji, I offered others some of my snack. Kiba cursed my nonchalance, accusing me trying to psyche him out. In the end Shikamaru was the only one to accept a chip, but that was probably more out of habit than anything. He also shot me the most bemused look as he did, paying even more attention to the fight because of my laidback attitude. I only smiled as I snacked.

Neji went in for the clone lingering at the back of the group and I reveled in the exclamations of surprise when Naruto's fake-out was revealed. The look of aggravation on Neji's face was particularly satisfying.

"ALL RIGHT! GOOOO! NARUTO!" Kiba has completely forgotten about the bet already and got carried away, but that's fine. As long he didn't doubt my Hero any more I wouldn't hold it against him. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Lee practically bouncing in place as he watched and even Sasuke seemed less outwardly apathetic than usual.

Naruto looked like he finally landed a hit, but then Neji's chakra exploded. Blasting out around him in a crystal Clear wave, encircling him in a protective shell. All of Naruto's clones were sent flying.

I sighed. It was about time he started taking this fight more seriously.


視力 (sight)

I couldn't believe my eyes. That move. Was that… he knows of Rotation? Neji-niisan… did you really learn such an advanced technique all on your own? Without anyone to help you?

Hanabi gasped, her hand tightening around mine. "Wait, but t-that's Father's…"

"The Rotation is a secret Art passed down from generation to generation only to the Hyūga head family." Father explained, his expression severe as he looked down at Neji-niisan. He lowered his voice to speak under his breath. "…he was able to create that on his own? To come have come this far… he really is…"

A genius.

Neji-niisan bent his forward knee, extending his arms out. My eyes widened in fear — that form! Oh, no! Naruto-kun! That was —

"Eight Tetragrams, Two Palms!" his hands connected to Naruto's torso. I covered my mouth to hold in my gasp. Neji-niisan continued, completely and successfully preforming what I have never been able to achieve. I watched in horror as every single hit shut off another of Naruto-kun's tenketsu.

"Four Palms!"

Two more strikes. Directly to his chest.

"Eight Palms!"

Four more. Naruto-kun choked.

"Sixteen Palms!"

Eight. I saw blood on his mouth.

"Thirty-Two Palms!"

Sixteen. He shouted in pain.

"Sixty-Four Palms!"

Thirty-two, all to his most vital chakra pathways.

Naruto-kun was thrown by the force of the blows, skidding across the ground. I pressed my hand to my mouth, my chest aching at the sight as he struggled. I wanted to close my eyes. It hurt so much to see Naruto-kun like this, he… he shouldn't be able to even stand after that, and yet…

I clutched my chest and kept my eyes on Naruto-kun. To look away now, it… it'd be… to look away would be to not acknowledge Naruto-kun's struggle. He kept his eyes on me as I fought against Neji-niisan and I found strength in that even when I struggled to breathe. Especially now, with so many of his tenketsu shut off it must be hard to even stay conscious, and yet

Slowly, he stood back to his feet.

"I told you, didn't I…?" he said, blood dripping down his face. "I don't know when to give up."

My heart soared with relief, a smile touching my face as Naruto-kun stood tall. He demanded to know why Neji-niisan acted the way he did, and why - my heart did a strange stutter when he said my name - he had called me a failure, saying that he would not forgive anyone that would call someone else a failure.

Then, Neji-niisan untied his headband, revealing the Seal of the Caged Bird. He told him of the Branch clan, and of our tradition. Neji-niisan turned, looking up into the crowd, at us — and I finally averted my eyes, my heart being weighed down by shame.

Even with the seal to destroy the Byakugan upon death, a member of the Hyūga clan cannot even leave if they wished it. Whether they be from the Branch clan or the head family. As long as they possessed the Byakugan, they were forced to follow our traditions

I've heard rumors before, that in the past some members have even gone so far to — to willingly blind themselves to escape, only then to still be confined to the laws of the Clan. They are laws that imprison every member, but it was especially cruel to those of the Branch family who are forced to serve those that shared their own blood! Those that were supposed to love and protect one another are instead enslaved by our traditions, fostering nothing but contempt and pain.

My vision swam as the ache in my chest intensified.

I… I really hated those traditions.


空 (sky)

I felt my face twist as Neji took off his hitai-ate, bearing that warped excuse of a Seal to the world. Honestly, I found Neji and most members of the Hyūga clan to be utter dicks with all their strict rules and condescending attitudes, but I considered the kind of person that used the Seal of the Caged Bird to be a particularly disgusting kind of creature.

As a fūinjutsu practitioner, that mark's existence was deeply offensive on a number of levels. And as a human being that encouraged the liberal use of free will — it was abhorrent.

"Neji…" I heard Tenten murmur. She looked over at Lee, her brow furrowed with worry. "He's never talked about his clan before, not even around us. What's gotten into him?"

For a half of a second, I pitied Neji for being so isolated in his feelings that he couldn't even bring himself to share his pain with his teammates. The two people that are probably the closest thing he has to friends. But then the dummy doubled down on his philosophy that Naruto was born to be a loser and I was back to eating my chips and awaiting his ass-kicking.

"You with your destiny stuff," Naruto lifted his head, hand clutching his side. "I won't lose… to a jerk with cold feet like you, no matter what!"

"A brat who knows nothing shouldn't lecture arrogantly! People are born burdened with an inherent destiny that they cannot defy." Neji hissed, his composure finally cracking at the edges. That frustration of his surfacing. "You can't possibly understand the destiny of being burdened with a mark that cannot be wiped off for life!"

I sneered.

You know nothing, Neji Hyūga.

"Yeah, I do understand it." Naruto gave a bloody grin. "So… what of it?"

It honestly felt like he was casting a spell over the arena as he began to speak, scolding Neji for acting like he's the only victim of his clan's actions. Calling out his treatment of Hinata as unjust. Telling him the truth he tries so hard to deny — that he is just as desperate as Hinata to change the circumstances of his life, to fight against destiny.

Neji warned Hayate-san that he was going to fight with the intent to kill, taking an aggressive stance.

Naruto defied expectations began to channel Kurama's chakra, even when all his chakra points were supposedly closed.

As the potency of the chakra grew, so did it's opacity, becoming visible swells of red energy that whipped at the air. Malevolent red chakra thrashed and twisted around, kicking up vicious winds that were hitting even us pretty hard. Neji had to brace himself against it on the ground. I gripped the railing as hot winds tugged at my hair and clothing, the intensity of the Kyūbi's chakra nearly burning my face with it's Scorching energy. I honestly felt like sticking my face next to an open oven, and wasn't that incredible? For Naruto to have come so far, to grow from a little boy that used to cling to the back of my dress to be standing here, in front of half the village as he called Kurama's chakra to aid him.

It was incredible. But, something disturbing I noticed?

Shukaku's chakra responded.

Akamaru cried softly before burrowing himself into Kiba's coat, I think he was the only one to notice the heightened KI that stirred up beside. As everyone else was ensnared by Naruto preforming a feat that was supposed to be impossible, my eyes slid over to Gaara. His jaw was clenched tightly, teal eyes bulging in their sockets as he looked down at Naruto. Those eyes that were once passive were now alert and nearly wild. I had to wonder if he or Shukaku recognized his big brother's chakra?

The lashing of chakra settled down, drawing back to Naruto before sharpening. Becoming focused around him like an aura. He looked revitalized, probably from the advanced regeneration he borrowed from Fluffy. He sped through the waiting period anyone else would've needed to recover from their tenketsu being blocked. The little bulldozer.

Then, in the blink of an eye, Naruto dashed out of sight and ran up the side of one of the trees. He launched himself off it and propelled himself into the air to throw shuriken at Neji from above. Neji spun and caught the weapons as Naruto landed on the wall, pushing off it to propel his body at Neji again.

"That speed," Sasuke muttered beside me. A glance showed his brow was furrowed deeply, eyes closely following Naruto's movements. "He must be channeling an extreme amount of chakra into his legs to get that fast — that Idiot's going to tear his body apart if he keeps that up..."

I had a flash of worry, but I reminded myself that the Hero would be fine as long as Fluffy's chakra was fueling him. His chakra was just replenished while Neji has been using that chakra-intensive defense over and over. He can't last much longer now. Still… watching them exchange blows, I won't lie and say that I was completely confident Naruto wasn't going to come out without a few scrapes and cuts.

Then Naruto started charging head-on at Neji, intent on knocking his shit out the old-fashioned way. The ground gave under his feet as he tore it up with his chakra, leaving behind small craters with every step. Neji braced himself, ready to counter.

"I don't know what the Hyūga destiny of hatred is! But if you're going to say it's futile, you don't have to do anything! Cause after I become Hokage—" Naruto swung his kunai. Neji spun with his Rotation. I smiled, proud. "I'LL CHANGE THE HYŪGA!"

Kurama's chakra and Neji's Rotation clashed, exploding.

The quake that followed rivaled one of my medium-tier explosive tags, a cloud of smoke and dust obscuring the entire field. When it cleared, there were two smoking body-sized craters. I could sense one was Neji and the other had…

Tenten let out a breath of relief as Neji began to claw himself out of his pit. Lee's brow was furrowed, mouth parted in disbelief. Kiba's teeth were bared in an angry sneer. Shikamaru looked like he forgot how to breath and Sasuke was glaring at where Naruto lied, hands gripping the railing in a white-knuckle grip.

Neji stumbled over to Naruto to monologue for the last time and the earth beneath his feet shifted, breaking apart to reveal a bloody fist.

And just like that, it was finished.

Naruto was the one left standing as Neji was sprawled out on the ground. The Hero said his final piece, telling Neji it was stupid for someone like him to believe in their fates being decided. If someone like him, who had struggled to learn the clone technique can fight against his fate, then what could someone like Neji do?

I was proud of my Hero for saying that, but at the same time I was a little annoyed because I still think he was giving Stick a little too much credit. That's just my own slightly biased opinion though.

"Winner - cough, cough - of the second match, Uzumaki Naruto!"

The clapping started slowly, just a few scattered applause. Then it grew into a steady roar of cheers that I joined in on. What I lacked in vocals to shout with I made up for with a whistle loud enough to make Sasuke and Kiba flinch away. Too bad for them. I have been waiting for this validation for ages now!

I couldn't help but giggle as Naruto did a victory lap around the arena as Neji was being loaded up on a stretcher. Shikamaru groaned, asking under his breath if that actually just happened. Kiba's own cheers for Naruto died down after he caught a look at me and realized he lost the bet, he cursed but I think he was just happy to see Neji's ass kicked.

My eyes found themselves drifting over to Lee on their own.

For a moment, he was staring down at Naruto and Neji with an expression of disbelief. Wide eyes and mouth parted. Then his brow knit together slightly, lips pressing together into a sad but soft kind of smile. I didn't need to feel his chakra to understand what that expression was. Finally, like a switch being flipped, that sad smile gave way to a blinding grin as he leaned over the railing to holler his cheers for Naruto's victory.

There was a snort of amusement next to me and my attention was drawn to Duckie, who was looking at me with his brow arched and — I just realized I'd been smiling goofily. While staring at Lee, oh dear. There was an impish look about him as he glanced at Lee and then back to me. I could practically hear the teasing about my 'boyfriend' later. It got worse when Shikamaru noticed it, also glancing between me and the spandex-clad boy. He chuckled. The pair of them looked absolutely insufferable together, which was amazing considering they rarely if ever actually speak with one another.

I had the sudden and terrible thought that they might bond over teasing me.

Oh, God. I ducked my head down when I heard a chuckle, trying to hide in my scarf and my warming cheeks. If I ignored them then they wouldn't be able to tease me about staring at Lee, which, I might've been staring but for completely other reasons than the ones they might assume!

"May the next competitors please - cough - come down?" Hayate-san called up to us.

Shikamaru let out a rather put-out sigh. "Oi," he was looking out at the arena with wary eyes. "Did you women really have to turn the landscape into a friggin' war-zone? Not that what Naruto did was any better, but still…"

I very much did not snicker at the undertone of fear in his voice. A glance over at Tenten showed there was a slight glow of pride around her, telling me she shared my feeling of accomplishment about what we managed. I didn't get to make a snappy comeback because there was a dark chuckle from behind us.

We looked to see Temari was smirking with a hand on her hip, looking at Shikamaru with a prideful sneer. "If you're scared of what those little girls could do then you better back out now." she announced, tongue cutting sharper than a wind scythe. "I won't be any gentler with you, coward."

Ouch. Did she just manage to trash Shikamaru and us girls? Why! I thought we were cool! We had ramen together! She didn't wait for a response before she snapped open her fan, stirring up a strong gale that swept under her, propelling her fan into the air with her atop it. She glided over the railing and into the sky, literally flying down into the arena. Mid-air, she even managed to throw a flirtatious wink at Duckie.

The Uchiha grimaced predictably.

Beside me, my favorite - and only, really - shōji opponent made a disgruntled noise that sounded an awful like 'troublesome woman.' He looked at me. "You got any bets to place on me?" he asked wryly. I opened my mouth, paused, and in that single moment of hesitation he groaned. "This is gonna be a pain, isn't it…? Maybe it would be better to abstain." he wondered aloud.

'Ino will kick your ass if you give up too soon,' I decided to remind him instead. Shikamaru actually glared at me for that.

"Tch. Great friend you are. Aren't you supposed to be supportive and crap?" I was being supportive. Semi-successfully keeping my smile off my face, I leaned over and gave his shoulder a consoling pat.

"Will Nara Shikamaru come down, or - couuugh, wheeze - w-will he abstain?"

Shikamaru was about to respond, but then — "YOSH! We will be cheering you on, Shikamaru-kun! Simply fight your all and there will be no regrets!" — Lee filled in the requested role of 'friend that was supportive and crap' and gave him what was supposed to be an encouraging clap on the back, but it came across as maybe a little too supportive.

I gasped as it happened, Akamaru barked in alarm — the Nara boy yelped, tumbling over the railing. Falling sixteen feet through the air — I winced when I heard the thud of his landing in the bushes below.

Collectively, those of us left peered over the railing at Shikamaru who, though still alive, didn't look too happy at the moment. Poor guy. Our reluctant genius had been unprepared for the level of enthusiasm Rock Lee possessed. In all fairness, I think most people were though. In Lee's defense, he looked terribly guilty about the whoopsie.

It wasn't long after Shikamaru's fight started - well, not fight, more like waiting game - that the Hero came running up the stairs and rejoined us, the biggest grin on his whiskered face. I turned around, raising my hand and he rushed over to high-five it.

"You were right, 'ttebayo," Naruto told me seriously. "He really did believe some stupid stuff."

I nodded solemnly. He understood my frustration now.

Kiba came up and slung an arm around Naruto's shoulders, shaking him with a fanged grin on his face. "I'll admit it, I didn't see you pulling that win out of your ass! You actually beat that Neji! Guess this means I should stop calling you Dead Last, huh?"

Naruto preened.

"I won't." Sasuke chimed, smirking at the scowl that quickly donned on Naruto's face. "Don't get too carried away, Loser. That was only one fight. You have to prove that wasn't just idiot's luck."

I frowned as Naruto bristled. Wasn't it called beginners luck?

Twenty minutes into Shikamaru's strategy there were an unholy amount of complaining from the boys around me. My blonde was the loudest and most common of them, of course. He never had much patience for waiting games. Kiba had just left with the excuse of taking a walk, but I figured it was more to give Akamaru a chance to relax. Tenten joined him, telling Lee that she wanted to check on how Stick was doing.

Time ticked by as lazily as the clouds, like the calm before the storm. All there was left to do now was have patience.

…and also make sure to Sasuke stops glaring at the One-Tailed jinchūriki. Naruto was doing it, too. And also Lee, though Lee was not glaring so much as he was staring with determination.

Though, I didn't blame them for staring.

I glanced over Gaara from the corner of my eye. He was pressing his fingers against his temple as he looked to be fighting off a monster-sized headache. He was agitated and I wondered just how much of it was caused by Fluffy's presence? The change in attitude was subtle, but his sister seemed to notice - or recognize, maybe? - the traces of bloodthirst leaking from him as well.

A thought crossed my mind.

I could find a way to incapacitate him now, if I wanted to.

I was sure I could get it done. It could be as simple as slipping the Siphoning tag into a book and then handing it to him. He hadn't tore up the last one right away, after all. It was a realistic plan. One touch on the surface of the book and he would lose enough chakra to knock Naruto out. I wouldn't be able to get near him with that Perfect Defense of his but if I used the Trojan Horse method of attack then...

I'd be completely destroying the minuscule amount of trust I'd built up with him and depriving him of any chance of getting Talk-no-justu'd — but then who was I to weigh the risks here? What made Gaara any more deserving than any of the people that are going to die today? And that was possible result with these people. To them, Gaara was a weapon to be used. A dangerously erratic one. Really, I knew deep down that when you looked only at the facts of the situation… the most efficient way of dealing with a threat like a wild Jinchūriki was to put it down before it could kill anyone else.

He wasn't a child to them.

He was a tool to be used.

He was a monster.

The fact is… Gaara was highly unstable and could very well end up killing someone today if something goes awry. He could kill Sasuke, Naruto, or anyone that crossed his path at the wrong moment. I knew this was a real possibility.

Why then, haven't I knocked him out yet? It was the safest and surest way to protect those around me. Just because I knew him? I knew his sad past of discrimination and hate? Was it because he was going to become one of the strongest ninja on earth? Because he will one day change his country for the better? No — it wasn't because of any of that. I tried to be a good person, but I wasn't that altruistic.

I knew the real reason. It was a simple, yet terribly selfish motivation.

One day, he was going to become Naruto's friend. Gaara would become someone that Naruto will be able to relate to in ways he can't with anyone else. Not even me. A good, loyal friend that will last the Hero for the rest of his life. And for Naruto, I would do anything to make him happy. Even if it meant risking other people's lives and toying with their fates.

Ah. That probably made me a bad person? Probably.

But, the smile on Naruto's face tended to make things worth it.

"What is that, Sora-san?"

I startled slightly, looking over to find Lee had made his way over to stand beside me. He was looking down at — wait, when did I pull out my Siphoning Seal? I blinked owlishly at the paper tag. Had I pulled it out unconsciously?

To answer Lee's question I wrote a brief explanation on my notepad. "It's a seal that siphons chakra. It was designed to non-lethally knock out an opponent. You only need to attach to a forehead and bamout like a light!"

"Ohhhhh!" Lee's expression lit up with fascination. Then he looked at me with those large, innocently curious eyes. "Why did you not use it during your fight with Tenten? I believe there were a few openings where you could have applied it, and then you would have won."

I blinked rapidly.


I averted my eyes and scratched my cheek. Huh. He actually had a point. If I had thought of it then I could've won. But… I really hadn't been thinking about winning. I just wanted to prove what I've learned over the last few weeks to Naruto and them, even show Kakashi or Neko - if he was watching - that I was taking my training seriously.

That I wasn't just… wasting their time.

"Because…" I wrote slowly, carefully choosing my words. "I think I wanted to test myself. To see how far I've come in my training. To prove that I've grown stronger."

I smiled to myself, a little happy. I feel like I really have improved over the last few weeks.

"Whuu—" Lee's eyes got worryingly shiny in a short amount of time. He quickly turned his head away, one hand shooting to grasp the fabric over his heart while the other pressed a fist to his mouth. Oh shoot. Did I make things worse again!?

"Winner of the Third Round: Temari!" Wait, the match is over already? I missed the end! I mean, I know what happened but I still wanted to see Shikamaru's plan fall into action…

"WHAT!?" My blonde teammate blurted, narrowing his eyes. "Did that lazy ass really just give up when he was that close to winning?! I'm gonna give him a piece of my mind 'ttebayo!"

By the time I looked up, Naruto had already vaulted over the railing and into the arena to yell at Shikamaru. I could only sigh in exasperation as Sasuke muttered an 'idiot' under his breath. Lee turned to me again and sheepishly asked what happened when he looked away. I was more then happy to give a quick recap as Hayate-san called down Gaara and Sasuke to enter the arena next.

If there was one word I had to use to describe the level of excitement in Duckie's chakra right now, it'd be: Worrying. Don't get me wrong, he looked totally sober and crap on the surface. But his chakra told a completely different story with emotions ranging from intense anticipation, wariness and something bordering dangerously close to delight.

Friggin' Uchiha.

Sasuke looked over at Gaara one last time before his image shuttered and he was suddenly standing in the center of the arena, leaves kicked up around his feet. Lee made a surprised sound next to me. The crowd screamed, the lot of them eating it up. Okay, so he was just going to go all in with the showing off. He's in that kind of mood. Good to know.

"That is… Sasuke-kun has really—"

TremblingKilLkILlKilLkiLL—I grabbed Lee's wrist and squeezed it bruisingly tight. He froze at the contact, remaining as still as stone.

Specs of sand drifted in the air, catching the sunlight.

"Haaaahh… haaahhh…"

Neither of us a muscle as Gaara slowly turned, walking towards the stairs behind us. A cold sweat broke out on the back of my neck as I counted each step of his retreating sandals. It actually felt a bit like my heart had stopped beating out of the idea that he might hear it if it was too loud.

But nothing happened.

The sand drifted out of sight and the sounds of Gaara's heavy breaths cleared out without gruesome incident. Lee and I let out a breath at the same time. When I saw his dark eyes again, an understanding of Gaara's bloody intentions seemed to have been reinforced in his mind.

Still, Lee glanced at me and then back towards the arena, expression pinched. "Sasuke-kun, he…" he cut himself off, shaking his head. As if he was physically shaking any bad thoughts from his mind. "Nothing. Do not mind me. Sasuke-kun is not one to be underestimated, after all! I am certain that he will not allow himself to be beaten so easily!"

He finished by giving me a bright grin with his Good Guy thumbs-up. As if he saw all my anxiety on my face and wanted to make me feel a little better. I mean, he was right. Duckie has been training himself silly and knows what he's up against. For the most part.

Gaara finally made it out onto the field, standing across from Sasuke.


Sasuke, please? Do this one little thing for me, I don't care about how much you tease me about my skill compared to yours, or make stupid insinuations about romance when you clearly have no idea what you're talking about, but please…

...please, don't die?


愛 (love)

The time to prove my existence has come again once more.

Uchiha Sasuke, I wonder… is your hatred as strong as mine?

"Hey, Gaara of the Sand, right? These chūnin exams—"

Two pests stood in my way.

pEsTSSs, Mother seethed.

A noice rang in my head, pulsing and grinding. Gnashing and clawing at the edges.

"Hey, come on, at least give us an answer."

"Too scared to say anything…?"

They are not worthy.

One raised a weapon and Mother embraced quickly him.

The other one tried to run. He screamed as he was engulfed within Mother.


"I-I'm sorry, you're right."




I pressed my hand to my skull, hearing Mother's demands echo again and again. Burning and thrashing. Over and over and over—


"Yes, soon… mother." I whispered. "Soon."

Uchiha Sasuke awaits.

Very soon, I will justify my existence to the world once again.


群れ (scent)

"I smell Hinata?"

"Huh?" I paused, frowning. I looked in the direction Akamaru pointed out and saw Hinata of all people standing in the hall. What was she doing all the way down here? We were just underground, there shouldn't be any reason she should be here. She was leaning a wall, eyes staring forward at nothing. She seemed to be in deep thought about something.

"She's upset?" Akamaru asked, whining a little in concern. Hm, I wonder… if she's here because of what I think she's here for. I hope not.

"Hinata!" I called out as I headed down the hall towards her. She startled badly, snapping out of her head. "What brings you down here? I thought you were watching the matches with your little sister?"

"Oh, I-I was just…" she paused, pressing her fingers together in that nervous habit. Her eyes naturally drifted to door a little behind her. When I read the paper taped on the front of it I groaned, rolling my eyes.

It was the first-aid station set up for the Examinees.

"You came down here because worried about that asshole, weren't you?" I scowled. Of course she was. "Damn it, Hinata. You've really got to stop being so nice to guys that don't deserve it!"

Her eyes widened, then she pressed a hand to her mouth to cover her giggle. What the hell? I was being totally serious! I grouched at her, asking what I said that was so funny.

"It's j-just, right then," she smiled, relaxing. "You sounded a lot like Sora-chan."

I made a face as Akamaru agreed. "Ugh. Do me a favor and don't put me in the same category as her, thanks."

Akamaru shuffled further out of my jacket, nosing my jaw. "Ask what she's sad about."

Oh, right. She did look like she was thinking about something a minute ago. I leaned against the wall next to her, asking. Immediately her eyes fell again, her smile disappearing.

"O-Oh, it's just… I was thinking of how Neji-niisan has lived with such a burden because of me. It's my fault his father died, after all." I frowned, not liking where this was going. Her voice got quieter, so much that it was hard to catch what she said next. "I-I was wondering if, maybe… if I had never been born, then maybe he—"

What the HELL—

"Hey!" I snarled, grabbing the front of her shirt on instinct and shaking her. "You cut that shit out right now! I don't want to hear crap like that come out of your mouth, got it?! Don't ever say—no, don't even think that anyone would've been better off if you weren't born! Don't be an idiot!"

Her eyes were wide and for a moment I was worried I was too harsh, but she slowly relaxed. That stupid sad look leaving her face. She placed her small hand over the one I had fisted into her shirt and smiled.

"…you're right. I'm sorry." she said. "Thank you, Kiba-kun."

I let out a harsh breath, still upset. I let go of her shirt though, and apologized for getting rough. Still, it annoyed me that damn family of hers made her feel like the world would be better if she wasn't around. Like hell if I would ever put up with that shit! If Sis or Ma had ever abused me like Hinata's family did her, then I know I would've ditched the pack a long time ago.

"Y'know," I started, looking at her seriously. "If you ever needed it, then my Ma would be more than happy to let you stay at our place. And 'ya know how much Hana like having you around."

Hinata didn't say anything. She only smiled at me. I was about to say something — but a chill ran down my spine, causing the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end.

"Scary!" Akamaru whined, burrowing deeper into my jacket. I tried to calm him down by running my hand through his fur, but it was no use. So much for a walk. You could still sense that bloodthirsty intent from all the way down here.

I looked up at the stone ceiling, hearing the dulled cheers from the crowds above our heads. So the last match of the first round's started, eh? Sasuke and that dangerous guy from Sand.

Maybe I should've asked who Sora was betting on for this fight?


空 (sky)

Sasuke was literally running circles around Gaara now.

I narrowed my eyes, frowning. Yeah, so when he was commenting on Naruto tearing his body up with the increased chakra circulation for speed, he was speaking from personal experience? Tch. I didn't even know who to be mad at; Sasuke for doing it, or Kakashi for enabling him.

Either way, from the sounds of amazement Lee was making as Sasuke moved, I would guess that this behavior was only going to get encouraged from now on.

"I haven't missed anything yet, have I, lovebirds?" called out a voice. Lee and I both broke on focus on the battle long enough to see Temari finally rejoin us. I'd wondered where she went. I thought she would've flown back up the same way she went down. Maybe she went to see her other brother, wherever the hell he is.

Also, what was that about who being lovebirds

"U-Uhm, S-Sora-san," Lee stammered suddenly.

I glanced at his face, surprised to find his cheeks were a glowing shade of pink. His eyes shifted on and off my face nervously, then they fell down. I followed his line of sight to realize how tightly my hand was still wrapped around his wrist.

Oh. Whoops.

I snapped my hand away like it was on fire - except it wasn't, I didn't even notice the contact. Did that mean I was already comfortable in his presence? - and clasped my hands in front of me, trying to ignore how heat bloomed on my face for that totally innocent action! Temari snickered at our expense. I pointedly ignored it and faced Sasuke's fight again, keeping a mental track of the Sand Princess' position behind us.

She was lingering by the stairs and if I were a more paranoid person, I'd almost say she was blocking off the only exit. Oh who am I kidding? That's totally what she's doing. But then the mood of the fight changed and all her focus turned to her little brother.

The next few moments happened in heartbeats compared to the hours that led up to this.

All attention turned to Gaara, who had just turtled up in his sand.

I kept my focus on Temari, a low warning buzz stirring at the base of my skull. She moved forward, mouth agape at the scene.

Sasuke scaled the wall and braced his arm, his chakra beginning to burn brightly.

I controlled my breathing, remaining calm. I closed my eyes as anticipation made my fingers twitch.

The sounds of a thousand birds started singing through the air.

Lee gasped Sasuke's name. He nearly pitched over the railing as he leaned forward, trying to see closer.

Lightning cut through a wall of sand.

A beat of silence, the entire world seemed to hold it's breath.

Temari gripped the railing, panic filling her eyes.

"…Blood? M-my — MY BLOOOOOOOOD—"

Then all Hell broke loose.

Finals Arc,

Chapter Fifty-Four: "Let the Games begin"


A/N: This Chapter was brought to you by the joy in my heart and a healthy dose of righteous spite, because of the very first review I got on the last chapter. Here it is, just so you guys can know what motivated me:

Emo Stunt
Holy shit finally. I was about to drop this story due to not moving on and starting the third exam and wasting so much time during this nothing period. You realize that your "Montage Arc" is 15 chapters long. Longer than any other arc in this story.

And you wanna know what. I bet there is even going to be an Interlude before the next arc even start.

Whelp, see you August 2021 for Naruto vs Neji.

Now, with that done…

HAH! Not only is there no Interlude (As technically, Ikari's interlude has been playing through the last several chapters) BUT I DID ALL THE FIGHTS IN ONE GO! MWUAHAHAHAHAH! Damn, that is cathartic. Okay, but seriously. I am well aware of how damn long that arc was and honestly started regretting using arc names so that everyone can count with me — But also, I called it Montage with heavy sarcasm, fully aware this would be one of Sora's busiest times. While everyone was off doing one thing to train, Sora was doing a dozen different things and interacting with characters that will ONLY be available in this time. Also cause Sora will be doing a whole lotta nothing after this arc. For reasons you will understand in… around Chapter 61, I think.

I love names with double meaning, inside jokes or sarcastic undertones to a sickening degree. You should know this about me, if you weren't aware: I am sorry. But going forward, be aware. If something is named something *COUGHSENSUSABLECOUGH* then there is probably a specific reason why I did this. Why I have Darth Sora call Naruto and Sasuke by Indra and Asura. Why I haven't told you Darth Sora's name, because she does have one. Why the hell Sora keeps visiting one specific dumpling shop. Lots of things.

I am a sick person, with a twisted sense of humor that gets her kicks off little things like puns.

Now, BACK to the review because I don't want it mistaken that I'm upset over anything negative! No, I actually had a pretty damn good laugh when I got to the 'see you in August' part. That was damn good — mostly about how true it could have been. For a moment there I had my knees curled up to my chest as I drew shapes into the dirt, mumbling 'they're right, they're SO right' but then I got up off my ass and got to writing. But… even putting that aside, the amount of love that you guys have shared for this story is so amazing. I really, honestly do appreciate ALL kinds of feedback! You don't have to comment anonymously either! I would LOVE to have a conversation with you if you have any complaints or just wanted to talk about it.

Also, now I want to take a serious moment to thank all of you that have taken the time out of your day to write and review and tell me what you think. You guys are so incredible and the amount of support I've gotten since the last chapter was just so amazing and really helped me in getting through all the anxiety in my life recently. Thank you all, so incredibly much. I try to get back to you and respond to each review personally but in the case that I can't or that you can't receive it, I just wanted to express my gratitude properly.

You are all, so very amazing. I love getting to write for you guys and I am thankful for the chance to. I also want to thank my amazing friend ClosetCase for all their efforts in helping me edit this chapter and being supportive!

Also, a brief flit of self-consciousness before I wrap this up — but how were the fights? I didn't see the point in changing anything about the canon ones but I also didn't want to rehash what we already knows goes down, so I decided to view the fights through perspectives we didn't get enough of. But… about Sora and Tenten's fight… did you guys like it? I've been practicing really hard these last few months with my action writing for this, so… I hope you guys liked it. I tried to make it interesting and fitting for them both.

Author Question!

"Hum. What is… your favorite Naruto AU world? Like, Mythical with Vampires and Werewolves or like, a High School AU! Pick anyone, even if it hasn't been created yet but you love the idea anyway!"

I am a classic and love the High School AU scene. I was homeschooled so I never got to experience any of the stereotypical High School life, even though I've long taken off my rose-colored glasses and realized I would've totally been the type to be bullied for my weirdness. XD I'm still a sucker for those stories though. Plus, I think that Sora dropped in a High School environment would just be too much fun.

Okay, finally done with all my ranting. I hope you guys are safe, warm and healthy.

Be kind and receive kindness back.
It might not be an immediate return, and you certainly don't get a receipt, but it will come back around.

Until next time I see you, know that ewe are very wuved.

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