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One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 5: Strong and Strike

Disclaimer: Naruto does not belong to me, strange though that may seem. Instead it is Kishimoto Masashi's creation. However, the text of this fanfic is mine, and may not be used without permission. Also, baboons.

Day Twenty-nine

Tayuya of the Hidden Sound did not have the correct temperament to be a model prisoner. She hadn't even cooperated with the medics who had seen to it that her legs would heal rather than be paralyzed for life. To the guards, she did her best to be a living nightmare. Every other sentence to leave her mouth was an insult to their manhood - or when the occasion demanded, womanhood. It galled her terribly, though, that no one seemed to care.

It was probably the masks, she decided. It made it easier for them to hide their reactions. She couldn't see mouths tighten or eyes flare with anger. It was nice to imagine that behind their masks the ANBU guards reacted to her profanity-strewn insults. It made her feel a little better about how she had sung like a songbird when the Leaf torturers were through with her. She had been told it would happen in training, of course - every ninja in every country was told that if the enemy held you for long enough you would say anything to make the pain stop. She had used the appropriate mental techniques to resist the interrogation and hide at least a little, but there was a limit to how much could be hidden without inviting worse torture.

Surprisingly, though, the Leaf ANBU she was the most scared of was the only one who reacted to her insults - if only by returning them a hundredfold. It should have made the woman who ironically wore a serpent mask more human, weaker - an elementary mistake of a novice interrogator. That was what Tayuya had thought at first. It had been the day they had brought in a sealing expert to add another seal around her cursed seal when her opinion had changed. She had sneered after the extreme pain of the sealing had passed and they had explained the seal to her.

"What good will it do you fuckers?" she had asked. "You say the power of this seal relies on my own will? Why would I want to restrain Orochimaru-sama's gift to me?"

The sealing expert had been about to reply when the serpent-masked woman had waved him off. "Let me handle this," she had said, and after a few moments of whispered conferencing the other guards had left the room.

Tayuya had straightened, pulling against the chains that suspended her in the center of the room. "Sure you can handle me by yourself?" she had asked. Channeling the tiny amounts of chakra she had dredged up over the weeks of torture she had released her seal, smiling as power had flowed through her as the dark lines spread over her skin. Ignoring the pain the filled her body, she had struggled against the chains.

"That won't work," the ANBU woman had said. "Those chains have been tested against Orochimaru's Heaven Seal. Your seal won't give you enough power." Tayuya had snarled at the woman, wishing she could muster the chakra to jumpstart a full transformation. The woman had only shook her her head sadly, walking forward to stand directly in front of her. "Before we transfer you to permanent holding," she had said, "one of our Hyuuga colleagues will close your last tenketsu. If you don't restrain it, your cursed seal will eventually consume your body trying to activate." The woman had paused, perhaps smiling. "It will feel a little like this." She had slowly, deliberately formed a sequence of seals that Tayuya recognized far too well, then placed her hand gently on the back of Tayuya's neck.

Tayuya's world had exploded into pain. When she could see again, she had hung weakly in the chains. "How did you know -" she had asked.

"You are not the first ninja with a cursed seal Orochimaru has sacrificed to the Leaf," the woman had said, her voice harsh. "I am the foremost expert on the subject after Orochimaru himself." After that, the serpent-masked woman had not hesitated to use Orochimaru's punishment technique in the torture sessions, and Tayuya had come to fear her.

It had been weeks since the last interrogation though, and she had been transfered to another cell. As promised, every tenketsu in her body was closed regularly, and she had found the need to restrain the cursed seal or suffer unimaginably. Tayuya supposed they had gotten all they needed from her.

There were footsteps outside her cell, and Tayuya looked up curiously. "It isn't time for more pigfeed," she commented. Then she saw the serpent mask in the back of the cluster of ANBU guards, and she stilled her tongue. The cell door was opened and her hands were bound behind her. Tayuya didn't resist. It was futile, after all, with no chakra and no cursed seal.

"I don't have anything more to tell you," she protested as she was taken to the torture chamber, undressed, and again suspended by the chains. She hated the tremor of weakness in her voice, and silently cursed herself.

An unmasked woman in a dark kimono she hadn't seen before entered the room, waving all the guards except for the serpent woman out of the room and setting down a number of scrolls on the wooden table in one corner. "This isn't interrogation, Tayuya-san," she had said quietly. "This is medical research." She held out a hand, and the serpent-masked ANBU handed her a scalpel.

"Research?" Tayuya had asked uncertainly as the woman moved behind her. She winced as the woman drew her scalpel across the cursed seal on the back of her neck. Blood began to flow freely flow the wound, and the woman began to trace crimson characters down her bare back.

"Give me scroll eighteen," the woman said to the ANBU kunoichi, ignoring Tayuya's question. "I think by using blood from the site of the cursed seal we might improve the blocking effect."

"Of course, Shizune-sempai," the ANBU said coldly, unrolling a scroll and handing it to the other woman.

Shizune unrolled the scroll, taking more blood from Tayuya and dripping it on the paper. Then she formed seals. Tayuya screamed as the bloody characters on her back crawled up into the wound. Her flesh hissed as the cut sealed itself. Shizune nodded and the serpent woman stepped forward, forming that familiar set of seals. The ANBU placed her hand on top of the cursed seal, and Tayuya's world exploded into pain like none she had ever felt before.

Haruno Sakura was quickly becoming used to having a teacher that showed up on time - and on occasion, even more inconceivably, early - to training sessions. The first early-morning training session had been brutal, as she'd been unconsciously expecting several hours to rest in between the time set for the meeting and when the training actually began. Since then she hadn't made the mistake of staying up too late studying in the library when there was training scheduled for the next morning.

She already hated those nights, though, where she lay awake on her borrowed bed in Naruto's empty apartment At least on the other nights she could lose herself in the intriguing but maddeningly vague technique descriptions that were scattered through the scrolls in the genin library. She had started hoping to find a technique she could teach herself, but she hadn't uncovered any scrolls with that much detail. They weren't useless though; she now had at least some idea what sort of techniques genin from the various allied countries might have access to - valuable information for the second and third exams. Best of all, by the time she dragged herself away from the scrolls and returned to the apartment, she was tired enough that she slept almost instantly.

This morning, Sakura was the first to arrive at the training ground - the same one where she had taken the bell test around a year ago. It seemed like it had been far longer, but when she added up the days and weeks that was what it came to. She felt decades older than that naive, weak girl that had been unable to do anything but faint. That girl had known nothing of real fear, nothing of pain, and as much as she might have protested otherwise, nothing of love and little of friendship.

Sakura set herself to stretching, ignoring the familiar weights on her legs. She had been wearing them almost constantly for several weeks now, and they already seemed a part of her. Occasionally she wondered how fast she might be without them, but for some reason she hesitated to find out. There would be time enough for that in the future.

Someone coughed, and Sakura looked up from her exercises to see Asuma leaning against one of the three wooden posts, lighting a cigarette "Good morning, Asuma-sensei," she said after a moment.

"The others aren't here yet?" the jounin asked. When Sakura nodded, he spoke again. "Well, they still have a few minutes. That works out, since there's something I want to talk to you about."

Sakura frowned, puzzled. "What?" she asked as she stood.

"You went on a mission with Mitarashi Anko, right?" Asuma asked.

"I did," Sakura said with a nod. And if there was any justice in the world, she never would again. That madwoman was scary.

"Kurenai wants me to ask you about that mission," Asuma continued. "Something hit Mitarashi pretty bad about that mission, something about a sister she didn't know she had. You know anything about that?"

Sakura certainly did, but she wasn't certain what she could say. "Umm… we aren't supposed to talk about mission details," she answered after a moment.

Asuma rolled his eyes. "I am a jounin, Sakura-kun. Give me a little credit." He paused, exhaling a puff of smoke. "I know the rules. Kurenai is my friend, though, and Mitarashi is her friend. I'm not asking you to spill any real secrets, but…" He trailed off.

"All right," Sakura said after a moment. "Let me see. It was a diplomatic mission, but it unexpectedly turned out that there was a competing party."

"Mitarashi's sister?" Asuma asked. He guessed that the mission was probably something family-related, then. Otherwise it was too much of a coincidence.

Sakura nodded. "Mitarashi-sensei thought that she died when they were young, but it turned out that she'd survived and become a jounin with the Mist."

"That's about what Kurenai and I gathered," he said. His eyes narrowed slightly. "The sister have any students?"

"One," Sakura admitted after a moment, wondering why this question was relevant.

"You fought her?" Asuma guessed.

"I did." Sakura shook her head a second later. "I don't see why those questions are relevant to helping Mitarashi-sensei."

Asuma sighed. "They aren't really." He let out another puff of smoke. "I shouldn't tell you this, but a favor for a favor. Actually, given the situation it's probably a good idea to tell you to prevent any mishaps. The Hidden Mist are sending a team to the Chuunin Exam."

Sakura blinked. "But the exams are limited to the allied nations, aren't they? We're not at war with the Water Country right now, but they aren't part of the alliance."

"That's right," Asuma said, "but a special exception was made. It happens from time to time."

"And the team that's coming is Mitarashi-sensei's sister's team," Sakura concluded.

"Yes," Asuma said. "So don't panic if you see her or her student in the village." He grinned suddenly. "Did you win your fight?"

"Yes," Sakura said. For a moment she remembered Shimano Ren, lying on the ground unable to rise from the pain of the wounds Sakura's Claw of the Fire Dragon had given her. She pushed the image aside. That was just part of being a ninja.

"Ah," Asuma said. For a long moment, he said nothing, then he asked, "Do you know that -"

Sakura looked around as her teacher cut off, and saw Ino approaching. "Good morning, Forehead," the other girl said cheerfully.

"Good morning," Sakura responded after a moment.

A minute or two later, the third member of the team arrived and Asuma began the training session. "All right," he said, clapping his hands to ensure he had their attention. "We're going to do something a little different this time. I'm going to teach the three of you a technique."

He slowly formed seals, making sure the three genin could catch the sequence. He turned slightly away, taking a deep breath. "Katon: Fireball Technique!" Fire spewed from his mouth, forming a small globe that flew through the air, dissolving away moments before it would have hit a tree trunk.

Ino glanced at Sakura. "Isn't that -" She cut off suddenly, unable to say the name that came to her lips.

Sakura shook her head. "His technique is different," she said. Chouji looked slightly puzzled at the exchange.

Asuma knew enough to guess what they were talking about. "The Uchiha Clan developed a variation on this technique," he said. "The Great Fireball Technique produces more flame, but the range is limited and you have to keep feeding it with more chakra. Of you three, probably only Chouji has the chakra reserves for that one, anyway."

Asuma paused, pulling out and lighting another cigarette "This one is the most basic of the fire element techniques. You concentrate chakra in your throat and mouth, and mold it into fire as it passes your lips. Chouji, you ought to be able to get a pretty good blast out of it." He glanced at Sakura and Ino. "You two don't have the chakra to waste doing a lot of damage with this, but it'll still be useful to force your opponent to back off or change direction."

Ino nodded. "Right."

"All right, then," Asuma said. "If you all caught the seals, get to it. Aim out over the lake, and be careful not to create any fire too far inside your mouth."

On the first try, none of the three genin succesfully produced flame. Sakura slowly moved through the seals a second time, closing her eyes and concentrating as she channeled chakra. This time, a tiny pellet of flame came out of her mouth. Sakura guessed that she hadn't been using enough chakra, and she tried it again, using the same amount she used to start off a Claw of the Fire Dragon. This time, she got a much more respectable fireball, though it dissolved into nothingness a few feet out.

By the time Ino and Chouji had begun to produce recognizable fireballs, Sakura felt she had a good handle on the technique. Asuma had been right - to produce anything big took over half her chakra. Still, she could easily produce enough fire to give an enemy pause, and she could get pretty decent range.

Observing this, Asuma smiled. "I guess you've already learned a fire element technique, Sakura-kun," he commented.

The three genin traded glances, but after a moment Sakura nodded. "We were saving it for a surprise if we needed it in one of your training exercises."

"Which one?" Asuma asked.

"Claw of the Fire Dragon," Sakura answered after a moment.

Asuma looked puzzled for a moment, then nodded. "Ah. Learned it from Mitarashi?" He puffed on his cigarette "Care to demonstrate it?" Sakura complied, and Asuma nodded appreciatively. "I guess you can work on improving the length of the fire," he said. "I know Mitarashi can make them longer."

A few hours later, Sakura had consistently gotten only another inch or two on the claws. Ino and Chouji, however, had successfully mastered the Fireball Technique. As Asuma had predicted, Chouji by far could produce the biggest, strongest blasts. Ino's were a bit more powerful than Sakura's, but of the three Sakura could get the longest range.

"Very good," Asuma said after he had his students demonstrate the technique one more time. He paused to light yet another cigarette "Listen up. The Fireball Technique is one of the most common techniques in the Leaf Village. Most genin learn it in their second or third year. Don't expect to surprise anyone with it, and don't be surprised if someone else uses it. Most of your classmates probably know it already.

"Let's end this early today," Asuma continued. "I need to get some lunch before I have to do Shikamaru's gate shift."

When she left, Sakura noticed that Ino was following her. At first, she ignored the other girl, but as they neared her destination she turned around to face her rival. "What do you want, Ino-pig?" she asked in a weak half-snarl, no real venom in her voice.

"Going to the library, Sakura?" Ino asked. There was a hint of something in her voice that Sakura couldn't place and didn't like.

"Yes," Sakura admitted after a moment. It wasn't like there was anything wrong with that.

"Is that why I haven't seen you anywhere outside of training?" It was worry in Ino's voice, Sakura realized. "Sakura, when was the last time you took a break and did something besides preparing for the exams?"

Sakura's mouth twitched into a weak smile. "What are you, Ino-pig, my new mother?"

"I'm your… teammate," Ino said. Both of them knew but would not acknowledge the word she had almost said instead of teammate. Not now. "Sakura, is something wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," Sakura said, more harshly than she had intended. Even as the words let her mouth she knew that the tone of her voice carried an opposite message from her words. "I don't have time to waste if I want to be ready for the exams." It was true, but Sakura knew that it was a transparent excuse.

Ino's eyes narrowed. "I don't know or want to know what's going on in the giant forehead of yours, but if you think I'm going to let you burn yourself out before the exams you should think again." Once again, it was a true statement, but it was just as bad as Sakura's excuse at concealing her true feelings. "Are you going home to rest, or am I going to be forced to beat you up and drag you home?"

"I'd like to see you try," Sakura growled. Then she sighed. "Fine, I'll rest."

It was almost an hour later, as she started her reduced shift at her family's flower shop, that Ino realized her rival had not headed toward her house when they parted ways.

Unusually, Uzumaki Naruto picked at his food, rather than scarfing it down as quickly as possible. He could feel the hostile gazes that surrounded him, and while he knew that they had only to do with the Leaf forehead protector he wore, they were far too similar to the hateful glares of his childhood. He had started to come to meals late, to avoid interacting with the Rock ninja as much as possible. The handful he knew personally weren't that bad, he supposed, but the bulk of the ninja staying at Iwakuro Hojo's estate saw only a foreign ninja, from the village that had long thwarted the Rock's efforts to dominate the small countries between the Earth and Fire Countries.

Now that he was staying in one place and had time to think without worrying about being attacked, Naruto was starting to get homesick. If he remembered correctly - and he was fairly certain he did, as he'd been marking off the days and weeks on his calender back home - the Chuunin Exams ought to be starting soon. For a moment, he felt a burst of sharp annoyance that he wouldn't be able to participate. If it hadn't been for that whole invasion thing, he could be a chuunin already, he thought. Now he was missing his next chance. Still, he knew the reasons and he knew they were wise.

A shadow fell over him, and Naruto started. He looked up into the harsh face of Iwakuro Hojo himself. For a long moment the two stared into each others' eyes, then Hojo seated himself besides the much younger ninja. The room seemed to hush instantly, almost all eyes turning to the unlikely pair. Hojo gave an irritated wave, and the sounds of conversation resumed, though they sounded more than a little forced.

"You look unhappy," Hojo commented, as though he were simply stating that water was wet or fire hot. The old ninja's eyes were a hard, flinty gray, and there was not a trace of sympathy in them. The legendary Rock ninja was certainly not trying to cheer Naruto up.

"Yes," Naruto admitted. "I miss my home and friends." In the back of his mind, he wondered who was about to take the exams. Hadn't Jiraiya said that they'd be here for about a month? Maybe he'd be able to convince his teacher to head back to the Leaf Village to see the third exam.

"You should be more concerned with your training," Hojo said flatly. "You have the dubious distinction of being among the least talented students I've ever had to teach the basic earth element techniques." Naruto glowered at this, and Hojo sighed. "Or perhaps I have been assuming you were more advanced than you are, since you were Jiraiya's student. What elemental techniques have you learned?"

Naruto blinked. "None," he said after a moment.

Hojo rubbed his forehead, closing his eyes in exasperation. "Jiraiya, you fool, I'm an advanced tutor, not an academy teacher," he muttered to himself. He opened his eyes again. "All right. Let's start from the beginning. You know what the five major schools of elemental techniques are?"

Naruto nodded. "Fire, Earth, Water," he listed, then paused for a moment. "Wind," he added. "And… Lightning!" The Leaf genin grinned proudly. And Sakura always said he could never remember anything.

Hojo stared at him. "Surprising. You actually do know something." He smiled coldly. "What else do you know?"

Naruto tried to come up with something, but his mind was blank. "Not… very much," he admitted quietly.

Hojo sighed. "You have gone to a ninja academy, right?" he asked.

Naruto laughed, rubbing the back of his head nervously. "Yes, but it was boring." Sometimes, at times like this, Naruto wondered whether it might actually have been a good idea to listen to at least a few of the lectures.

Hojo shook his head. "How in the world did an idiot like you become the Toad Hermit's apprentice?" The legendary ninja gazed at Naruto, and the young genin realized that the question was not intended as rhetorical.

Before he could even begin to consider how to answer the question, the Toad Hermit himself appeared, laying his hand on his student's shoulder. "Are you looking for hints, Hojo?" he asked quietly. "You know what you need to know about Naruto, I'm sure."

Hojo rose. "Ah, Jiraiya. I was looking for you earlier, but you were detained."

"Oh?" Jiraiya asked. "You should have known that I would have been happy to make time for my host."

"I have no sympathy for your research," Hojo said dryly. "I preferred to wait for those kunoichi to finish with you."

Naruto grimaced, and Jiraiya laughed. "What did you want?" he asked seriously.

"I finally managed to mostly settle that mess your entry into this country caused," Hojo said. "There are no longer official orders for your capture or death."

"That's a relief," Jiraiya said.

"The messengers haven't been able to find those Kamizuru, though," Hojo said. "They're probably still looking for you." The Rock ninja snorted. "You must be getting old, Jiraiya. Those three shouldn't have been able to cause you that much trouble."

"I underestimated the first one and his poison," Jiraiya said. "Beyond that, I was trying to get here without having to kill anyone. That made things more difficult."

"What, you didn't want to finish your masterpiece?" Hojo asked, a dark undercurrent in his voice. All the Rock ninja in the room were watching the two converse, and neither seemed to notice.

"That's enough, Hojo," Jiraiya said quietly. "If you want to talk about that, let's do it in private."

Hojo seemed to realize for the first time in a while where he was, and he straightened himself. "No need," he said. He glanced down at Naruto. "In any case, boy, I expect you to begin to arrive an hour early for the training sessions."

Naruto resisted the urge to protest and nodded. With a nod of his own, Hojo walked off. Jiraiya seated himself in the seat the Rock ninja had recently vacated. "Naruto," he said softly. "I should have mentioned this before, but it's important to remember that these ninja aren't allies. Don't tell anyone, even Hojo or those three you're training with, anything important. Do you understand?"

Naruto nodded. "Yes," he said.

"Good." Jiraiya stood. "Also," he said quietly, his lips barely moving, "don't use the Rasengan." When Naruto nodded slightly even though he looked puzzled, Jiraiya turned to leave.

"Hey, wait a minute, Ero-sennin!" Naruto said suddenly. When Jiraiya stopped, he continued. "Do you think maybe I could write a letter to Sakura-chan?"

Jiraiya rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, I ought to put together a report for Tsunade, I suppose." He pondered a moment later. "All right, but I'm going to have to read it first, boy."

Naruto nodded and returned to his meal with new vigor, eager to start writing.

Day Thirty

"Come on, Leaf boy," Yamakita Akira said challengingly. "What are you, chicken?"

Akira's male teammate, Gonkuro, sighed in annoyance. "We're supposed to be training, not fighting," he said coldly.

Mako, the third member of the team of Rock genin, grinned, her purple eyes coming alight. "I want to see Akira-kun and Leaf boy fight."

Naruto was long since tired of the name Akira had given him during their very first training session together, but he did his best to ignore the trio. Instead, he was trying - and failing - to get his chakra to flow through the stony ground he was squatting on. When he placed his hands on the ground, he could channel a bit through the earth, but once his chakra was more than a foot or so outside his body it dissipated.

"Hojo-sama wanted us to keep practicing," Gonkuro repeated. Iwakuro Hojo has left the four genin in one of the several training grounds outside his estate while he went to train with some of his other students. Naruto was glad for this, for there was a disturbing look in Hojo's eyes whenever the master ninja studied him.

"What better way to practice than trying the techniques out in sparring?" Akira said. "Well, Leaf boy?"

Naruto glared at Akira. "Fine," he growled. "Maybe once I've beaten you up you'll shut up."

"Ooh, I'm scared," Akira said. "Well, what are we waiting for?"

"This is idiocy," Gonkuro said. "Naruto-kun is Hojo-sama's guest, Akira."

Akira grinned. "It's just a friendly spar, isn't it?" Behind him, Mako nodded.

Gonkuro glanced at Naruto. "You don't have to do this, Naruto-kun," he said quietly.

Naruto opened his mouth, then with visible effort he restrained himself. As much as he felt the urge to pound on Akira until he felt better, he remembered Jiraiya's numerous warnings. "I shouldn't," he said after a moment.

Akira laughed. "Scaredy-cat." Naruto clenched his fists tightly, but he didn't respond.

"Actually," a new voice said. "Akira-kun is right in some respects." All four genin turned to face Hojo, who had appeared perched on top of a large boulder. "Sparring is a good way to test mastery of techniques." Akira grinned widely, but his smile faded as Hojo gave him a cold stare. "Antagonizing a guest to force a fight, however, is not." Gonkuro gave Akira a triumphant glare, and the other ninja stuck out his tongue. Mako just giggled.

Hojo smiled. "You will spar now, but you will do it in a useful fashion. It will be two on two."

"I'm with Akira-kun!" Mako declared.

Gonkuro nodded. "Fine," he said. He glanced at the Leaf ninja. "If that's all right with you, Naruto-kun." Naruto just nodded. Gonkuro might be a bit cold, but at least he wasn't deliberately annoying like Akira.

Hojo nodded also. "Very well. The rules are simple. No killing strikes. No genjutsu." The legendary Rock ninja snorted. "Not that any of you have the talent for that. Earth element techniques are the only advanced ninjutsu allowed. When I say the fight is over, it's over. Understand?" All four genin nodded. "Then split into your teams and go to opposite sides of the training ground."

The training ground, encircled by a low chain link fence that served more to mark a boundary than limit access, was a stony field littered with large boulders. It was in between one of these boulders and the fence that Naruto and Gonkuro briefly conferred, planning their course of action. Less than two minutes after that, the match began.

Five minutes later, Hojo shook his head sadly. "You two," he said in a quiet, dangerous voice, "were pathetic."

From her position buried up to her neck in the ground, Mako grinned sheepishly. "I didn't expect Naruto-san to come up from beneath."

Hojo sighed. "Whenever you're fighting an earth element user, that's the first thing you should expect." He glanced at Naruto. "Though I must admit, I wasn't aware you had mastered the Underground Fish Projection already."

Naruto laughed, displaying his bloody hands. "Not very well, but some digging took care of the rest."

Hojo blinked and shook his head. "I see," he said slowly. I suppose you'll be out of training while those heal."

Naruto blinked. "What? I'll be fine in an hour or so," he said, sounding confused.

"Let me see your hands," Hojo demanded harshly. Naruto complied, and the legendary ninja's eyes widened. "I see," he said again, but he didn't elaborate, walking over to where Akira was sitting and groaning. Gonkuro stood over his fallen teammate, grinning. Hojo looked down at Akira. "Akira, you should have realized you were fighting Gonkuro transformed into Naruto much sooner. He is your teammate; you know his fighting style."

"Yes, sir," Akira said sullenly.

"Gonkuro, good work keeping your replication out of the fight while looking natural. I take it you developed the plan, correct?"

The victorious Rock genin shook his head. "Naruto-kun came up with the basic idea," he said quietly.

Hojo glanced back at Naruto. "I see," he said once again, a hint of surprise in his voice. "Perhaps that fool picked his apprentice for a reason."

Sakura pondered the absurdity of what she was about to do. This had been her home for as long as she could remember, and she had been able to go in and out as she pleased. Now she was mentally running through all her lessons on breaking and entering from the academy, preparing to apply them to her own home. If only she hadn't left her key behind when she'd stormed out of the house after that last fight with her mother, she wouldn't be forced to do this. Then again, going in the main entrance would be too likely to lead to a confrontation with her mother, and that was something she wanted to avoid.

Sakura knew she had several advantages in infiltrating the target - it helped to keep herself focused if she thought of it in such clinical terms. She need not worry about being seen, at least at this stage. All the neighbors knew she lived here and would find nothing odd seeing her in the neighborhood. Sakura knew her mother's habits and knew that if she was careful and quiet, there would be no risk of detection at this time if she could avoid the kitchen. It would be a simple retrieval mission - barely a C-rank, if not a D-rank, had it been an official mission.

After glancing about to make sure she wasn't being observed, Sakura moved to the roof of her home. She carefully made her way over to one side, then dropped to her belly, peering carefully over the side. After verifying that she could see no one through the window below, she turned around and let herself down. Aided by her chakra, her feet glued themselves to the windowsill of her former room. Sakura crouched over, testing the window. It was locked, of course. Keeping the window locked was basic security.

Sakura frowned as she gazed through the clean glass at the lock. She would very much prefer to enter without having to break anything. Around a month ago - it seemed as though it had been a much longer time - the legendary Sannin Jiraiya had stood where she now stood and unlocked the window with a pulse of chakra. Could she replicate that feat? Sakura thought she understood how it might be done, but it would require exceedingly fine control. She smirked slightly. Control was something she had never lacked.

Sakura's hands formed a simple seal to focus her chakra. She then carefully placed one hand on the glass, as close to the simple lock as possible. At her command, chakra began to leak from her fingertips, seeping into the window pane. Sakura jerked her hand away, frowning. The glass was absorbing her chakra, making things difficult. Forming the seal again, Sakura concentrated. She would need to keep a tight focus to penetrate the glass.

This time, her chakra pierced the glass like tiny needles. Nodding to herself, Sakura danced her fingertips across the glass, sending the tiny threads of chakra to ensnare the lock. This done, she slowly moved her hand away. The lock didn't budge, even though Sakura could feel her chakra catching on it. Frowning again, Sakura strengthened and strengthened the chakra flow, until finally the lock opened.

A wave of dizziness passed through her, and Sakura almost tumbled from her perch. She felt incredibly drained, her chakra reserves as low as after a grueling practice session. The scrolls she had read had said that it was draining to use chakra to directly manipulate physical objects, but she had never imagined it would take this much. No wonder she had been able to feel Jiraiya open the lock.

After catching her breath, Sakura opened the window and slipped into her room. She set down the backpack she wore and began to move quickly and silently through the room. First she ransacked her stores of spare ninja equipment. She couldn't take all the weapons in one trip, but the explosive tags were expensive to replace. Then she moved to her closet, retrieving several of her favorite red dresses. She might not be able to wear them right now, but once she could take the weights off she wanted to be able to wear them again. After a moment's thought, she also took a heavier jacket of the same color. It was already beginning to get a little chilly for the green light jacket she was wearing over her mesh shirt, and it would only get colder as fall turned into winter.

The jacket was, like her usual dresses, a piece of clothing she had gotten from her mother. For a moment, Sakura's eyes watered, then she stuffed the jacket into her pack and returned to her work. Spare underwear was one of the things she most needed, and she almost cleaned out that drawer of her wardrobe. A few of her books and scrolls went next, and Sakura decided she was done. Closing the pack and picking it up, she made her way back over to the window.

Sakura realized a moment too late that someone was watching from the rooftop of the next house over. "Paralysis Technique!" a far-too-familiar voice called out, and Sakura froze. A moment later, Ino landed on the windowsill.

"All right," Ino said in a satisfied tone. "What exactly is going - Sakura!" The other kunoichi's eyes widened. "Sorry," she muttered, her hands forming a quick seal. She laid one hand on Sakura's shoulder. "Release!" Sakura twitched as control returned to her muscles. "I thought someone was breaking in to your room," Ino said in apology, though there was more than a little question in her voice.

Sakura's mouth curled into a weak smile. "I am," she said. Before Ino could ask a question, Sakura placed a finger over her lips. "I'll explain later," she said grudgingly. There was no way Ino would let her off without an explanation. "Come with me."

A moment later, they were on the street below, and after making sure they hadn't attracted any unwanted attention, Sakura set off. "Where are you going?" Ino asked as she followed.

"Naruto's apartment," Sakura said shortly. "I've been living there," she admitted a moment later.

Ino's eyes widened. "Are you," she began, disbelief in her voice.

"No!" Sakura said, shocked at her rival's question. "Of course not." Her eyes flicked downwards. "I've been having problems with my mom," she said. "Naruto's gone, and I have a key to his apartment, so it was convenient."

"You could have stayed with me," Ino said. Sakura gave her a sideways glance, and after a moment she chuckled weakly. "Okay, maybe it wouldn't have been a good idea."

"You have that right, Ino-pig," Sakura muttered. Then she suddenly stumbled, almost collapsing.

"Sakura!" Ino caught her rival. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Sakura said as she straightened. "I had to open the window lock with chakra, and I guess it took more out of me than I thought." She swayed momentarily as she she glanced about and saw that they had reached the Ichiraku ramen stand. "Let's go get something to eat," she said. "I'll be fine once I get something to eat. It's almost lunchtime, anyway."

"Sakura-chan!" the owner called out as the the two kunoichi entered. "You want your usual?"

Sakura nodded, seating herself and setting her bag down. She hadn't had much time for shopping or cooking lately, so she'd been eating here almost every day. It was close to the apartment, cheap, and - for the price - good, so long as one had a taste for ramen. "That'll be great, Teuchi-san," she answered.

"And for you, young lady?" the owner asked Ino as his daughter busied herself preparing Sakura's meal. Ino ordered, and a few moments later the pair's food was ready. Ino grimaced as she began to eat. "You know I'm not much of a ramen eater, Forehead," she commented.

Sakura smiled. "You're lucky you weren't on a team with Naruto, then."

Ino shuddered at the thought. "So, talk, Sakura," she said seriously. "What's going on?"

"My mother didn't want me to take the Chuunin Exam." Sakura sighed. "She grounded me, but I had to leave on a mission the next morning."

"So?" Ino asked.

"She wanted me to refuse the mission," Sakura explained.

Ino blinked. "That's crazy."

Sakura nodded. "I tried to explain, but she wouldn't listen. So, she kicked me out."

Ino rubbed at her forehead, picking absently at her ramen. "When my father gets back from his mission, I can talk to him," she offered. "He's friends with your mother and might be able to explain."

Sakura shook her head. "Thank you," she said after a moment, "but this between my mother and me. I don't want anyone else to get involved." She knew that if her mother didn't repent on her own, they would just have this same fight again and again. If other people got involved, her mother might back down to avoid trouble, but it wouldn't solve the underlying problem. "Please don't tell anyone, Ino," Sakura continued. "This is my problem, and I'll handle it myself."

After a long moment, Ino nodded. "All right," she said dubiously. "I guess so."

Day Thirty-one

Naruto did not like his private training sessions with Iwakuro Hojo very much. Hojo was a harsh teacher and had little patience when Naruto did not understand something he explained. This was not why Naruto disliked these sessions, though. The master ninja seemed to be constantly testing him, not just as a teacher tests a student, but as though he was looking for something very specific in Naruto. Though this probing did not stop entirely after the one hour period Hojo had Naruto to himself, it certainly became less flagrant once the three Rock genin Hojo was also tutoring arrived.

Right now, Hojo stood about twenty feet away from Naruto, whirling a heavy metal staff about himself like it weighed nothing at all. The boulder-strewn field that lay between the two was littered with several fresh craters. All of them had been created when Hojo's weapon had hit the ground. Naruto wiped the sweat from his forehead carefully. One hit like that and he was finished.

"Scared, boy?" Hojo asked mockingly. "I'm only using half my strength."

Naruto snorted. "That's half your strength? Tsunade-baachan can make bigger craters with a tenth her strength, and she doesn't need to use a weapon."

Hojo blinked, his staff's motion stopping suddenly. "Tsunade-baachan?" he asked disbelievingly. "Does Tsunade-hime know you call her that when she isn't around?"

"Of course," Naruto said with a laugh. "I call her that when she is around."

"Do I want to know what you call Orochimaru?" Hojo asked.

Now Naruto blinked. "I call him Orochimaru," he said. "What else would I call him?"

Hojo sighed. "You're certainly a unique fellow," he commented as he brought his staff back to a ready position. "Now, come!"

Instantly, Naruto charged. As he neared, Hojo thrust out with his staff, slamming one end into Naruto's chest. The small boulder Naruto used for the replacement technique shattered under the force of the strike. Hojo wasn't surprised by this, his staff moving inhumanly swiftly to swing at Naruto. The Leaf genin danced out of the way of the strike, circling around behind Hojo.

Hojo smiled, though the boy couldn't see. "Not good enough," he commented as his weapon reversed directions. This time the swing caught Naruto in the side, and even though Hojo pulled the blow Naruto went flying back almost a dozen feet to slam into a large boulder. It took Naruto several moments to rise, and when he did he staggered slightly.

"Did I break anything?" Hojo asked. Naruto shook his head, and Hojo nodded. "Good. What's not good is your performance. Even if I just limit myself to taijutsu using my staff, just charging in blindly isn't going to let you land a hit on me. You need to use strategy, boy."

Naruto grinned weakly. "Is that so?" he asked. Hojo's eyes widened, and as though this was a signal a half-dozen shadow clones, fists already extended for an uppercut, burst from the earth around the legendary ninja. However, before any of them could land a blow, Hojo's staff swung about in two half-circles, easily disrupting the clones.

"Still not good eno -" Hojo cut off suddenly, jumping backward as a seventh clone sprung from the earth from directly beneath him. The clone's leg swept out at Hojo's feet, but he jumped again, poking forward with his staff to disrupt the last clone.

Then the real Naruto came in from above, delivering a powerful kick to Hojo's shoulder. There was a puff a smoke, and it was a man-sized rock that flew away from the kick, a small crater showing where Naruto's foot had landed. The real Hojo hit the stone in mid-air with his staff, and the rock shattered.

"Surprising," Hojo said. "I never saw you make the replications."

Naruto, panting, grinned again. "I made them and had them hide underground before you arrived. I'm still not that good with that underground fish thing myself, but for some reason my shadow replications can do it perfectly."

"You used your first attack to keep me busy while the clones moved so I wouldn't notice," Hojo stated. "Clever," he added grudgingly. "I shouldn't have underestimated your tactics after seeing what Gonkuro and you did to Akira and Mako before."

Naruto's grin just widened. "So, do I pass?"

"Well, you were supposed to realize that you could use the Mud Wall Technique I've been trying to teach you to catch my staff," Hojo said. "Since I limited myself to staff taijutsu, I wouldn't be able to defend myself."

Naruto snorted. "You're strong enough that you could have pulled the staff right back out," he answered.

"If you put enough chakra into it, maybe not," Hojo said. "You have amazing chakra reserves, boy. You shouldn't be afraid to use them to your advantage. You could easily put enough chakra into a Mud Wall Technique so that it took me more than a couple seconds to free my weapon. That would be long enough to land a blow."

"If you say so," Naruto answered dubiously. "I'm not good with that technique yet."

"From what I've seen," Hojo said, "You're not good with any techniques but the Shadow Replication Technique." Naruto glowered, and Hojo sighed. "Still, I must admit that you have a lot more talent than I first thought." The legendary Rock ninja paused, then continued in a too casual voice. "How'd you get that fool Jiraiya to teach you, though? Last I had heard, he had sworn to never take another apprentice."

Naruto frowned. Jiraiya had said not to tell Hojo anything important, but Naruto didn't see any way that this could be important. Besides, not answering would be more suspicious. "I showed him my first original technique," Naruto said, "and he was impressed." It was stretching the truth, but only a little.

"Oh?" Hojo asked curiously. "Any chance I can see that technique?"

Naruto gulped, trying to think of any way to gracefully decline. Not finding any, he nervously formed a single seal. "Sexy Technique!" There was a burst of white smoke as he transformed.

"I see." Hojo blinked several times. "Ero-sennin indeed." Hojo sounded strangely disappointed, but a moment later he smiled wryly. "The other three are almost here," he commented. "If I were you, I would release that technique before they arrive, unless you want Akira-kun to give you a new nickname."

Naruto gulped and quickly followed his tutor's advice.

This town was well known as being the closest to the Leaf Village, and occasionally an old map would even mark it with that name. Its main industry was the inns and other establishments that catered to the numerous travelers that passed through its streets. Despite the vast forest on its outskirts, none dared to take ax to tree and start a logging industry. Those woods were home to the Hidden Village of the Leaf, and the ninja would not treat kindly any who threatened that forest.

As the name suggested, the ninja village's precise location within those woods was a secret, at least officially. In reality, anyone who wanted to know could discover its location easily enough. For, despite what else it was, the Hidden Village of the Leaf was also a small city in this day and age, and such a thing was too large and too connected with the outside world to be truly hidden. Despite this, it was courteous for a prospective client to come to this town on the outskirts of the forest and ask the Leaf ninja stationed in a small guard post there for an escort to the Leaf Village. Some valued their time more than courtesy, and those that were not among the unfortunate few who ran afoul of the traps and other hidden dangers of the woods found that their haste would prove expensive.

Despite its nearness to the Leaf Village - only a few hours' run to a ninja in a hurry - this town rarely saw ninja beyond those few genin who were assigned to the guard post and their chuunin commander. After all, with the Leaf Village so close, ninja had little reason to tarry here. Despite this, tonight eight ninja had taken up residence in one of the town's finest inns. This had proved rather expensive, for the innkeepers of the town remembered well an incident from earlier in the year that had left much of an inn's upper story in ruins. The fact that one of those responsible - the legendary Sannin Jiraiya the Toad Hermit - had paid well to compensate did not make the innkeepers think of ninja guests any more fondly.

Yamanaka Inoichi, the Leaf jounin who had been detached from the Leaf's mission to the Wave Country to escort this unlikely company to the Leaf Village, thought the money well spent. It was far better to arrive in the morning, well after the runner he had sent ahead had warned the village to prepare for his arrival, than to arrive unannounced late at night. Dealing with foreign ninja was always tricky, and it was doubly so when those ninja were not allies. Even now, as they ate dinner with the six genin in their care in the private room Inoichi had paid handsomely for, he felt nervous as he watched his Mist counterpart. Mitarashi Kimi smiled slightly at him, perhaps noticing his suspicious scrutiny, and Inoichi sighed to himself. At least this mess would not be his concern for much longer.

Nara Shikaku had, in his infinite wisdom, decided to assign a team of genin that had to return for the Chuunin Exam anyway to escort the Mist team there. It made sense, save for the fact that the two teams had last week fought an inconclusive battle, and more than a few of the six were at least considering the possibility of not waiting for the exams to stage a rematch. It had not helped that Kimi had been more amused than concerned by the potential for violence, leaving it to Inoichi to keep that potential from being realized. Thankfully, only harsh words had been exchanged between the two teams on the journey so far.

As if to complement Inoichi's thoughts, the Mist kunoichi Ren spoke as Kiba fed a choice piece of meat to Akamaru. "You pamper your pet, Kiba-san," she said in her usual quiet tone. Inoichi suspected that her soft way of speaking was very deliberate, rather than an expression of her character as it was with Hinata.

The Inuzuka grinned toothily. "You'll see see just how pampered Akamaru is if we fight again in the exams. I hope you have better moves than what you showed back in Wave Country."

"We shall see, Kiba-san," Ren replied. "We shall see."

"Yeah," the lone male on the Mist team agreed. "We'll see when Ren-chan kicks your ass."

"Saburo," Ren said, a hint of warning in her voice.

"What?" Saburo responded. Ren just shook her head slightly, and with a sigh the male ninja returned to his food, muttering quietly to himself.

Inoichi relaxed slightly. Another potential crisis was past, and in a matter of hours he would be rid of this group. Surely it was not too much to hope that the night would pass quietly. Inoichi glanced at the slight smirk that still graced Mitarashi Kimi's face, and revised his assessment. It probably was too much to hope. The Leaf jounin glanced carefully at Aburame Shino, who was seated next to him. Besides Hinata, he was perhaps the calmest of the group. After a moment, the bug user nodded in understanding. He would make sure to keep his team in their rooms after dinner.

Inoichi frowned to himself. It would have saved much money if he could have paid for two rooms in every inn along the way instead of four, but there was no way he was putting Hinata in a room with the three Mist kunoichi. That arrangement would be even more a disaster in the making than placing Kiba and Saburo in the same room, though through no fault of Hinata's. While Ren seemed calm enough and Inoichi felt certain Kimi wasn't dumb enough to try anything stupid, the third Mist kunoichi was another matter entirely. Midori's eyes rarely left Hinata when the two were together, and there was hatred in that gaze that was too bitter to be the result of their brief fight.

No, Inoichi thought that he had a pretty good idea of the cause of that hatred. Though the active hunting had mostly stopped since the Mist had undergone their reformation a decade ago, the scars of the Bloodline Purges still ran deep in Water Country. Midori clearly bore some of those wounds, and Inoichi had a good idea of what sort. If his suspicions were correct, it was no surprise that she would take an instant dislike to a Hyuuga.

The kunoichi in question rose suddenly, pushing her barely touched plate away. "I'm done," she said simply.

Saburo blinked. "Midori, you barely ate. Are you -"

"Saburo," Ren hissed quietly in a voice that Inoichi doubted most of the table could hear. Blinking, the male mist genin stopped talking, but Midori answered his unfinished question anyway.

"I feel sick," Midori stated simply, glaring across the table at Hinata. Inoichi frowned as he prepared himself to rise. Midori was trying to start a fight. He quietly prayed that Hinata would just let the comment pass.

"I - I have some medical training, Midori-san," Hinata said, her voice trembling at first but growing stronger as she continued. "I have some medicine that may -"

"Shut up!" Midori snarled. "the only thing that will make me feel better is gouging out those eyes of yours."

In an instant, Kiba was standing on the table, a kunai drawn and pointed at Midori's throat. "Kiba-kun," Hinata breathed, half-standing herself. Shino continued to quietly eat his food, as though nothing important was happening.

Inoichi rose. "All right, everyone -"

"I don't know what your problem is, but if you want to hurt Hinata," Kiba growled over Inoichi's words, "you'll have to go through me first."

There was another blur of motion, and now Saburo stood on the table as well, a kunai of his own pushing Kiba's weapon away from Midori. "And if you threaten my teammates, you'll have to fight me first," Saburo declared. While this was going on, Ren had stood and backed away from the table, her hand hovering over the hilt of her kunai. Kimi watched the confrontation eagerly, her smile never leaving her face.

"The next person to move -" Inoichi began, but his words were rendered irrelevant before he could finish the sentence. Snarling, Kiba punched Saburo in the gut with his free hand. The Mist genin flew away, landing with a thud against the wall. Ren drew her weapon, charging the table. Before she could reach it, a cloud of bugs rose up from the floor, swarming around her. Desperately, she tried to ward the insects off with her dagger. In front of her, Shino silently stood, more bugs pouring out of his body.

Midori glared at Kiba as she formed seals, whispering something under her breath. Kiba stiffened, then toppled over, screaming. The veins around Hinata's eyes bulged as she stood. "Genjutsu," she said, forming a seal then laying her hands on Kiba's side. "Release!"

Kiba shook. "What the hell was that?" he said as he rolled off the table, landing in a crouch behind Hinata. Midori just smiled, a kunai in her hands.

"Enough!" Inoichi roared, his hands blurring. "Mass Paralysis Technique!" In an instant, all motion in the room ceased, save for Shino's bugs. "Shino," Inoichi said quietly, and in response to a silent command the insects swarming around Ren rose up and flew back to vanish inside Shino's coat.

"Mitarashi-san," Inoichi said, "I ask that you restrain your students in the future."

Kimi's smile still hadn't weakened. "I remind you, Yamanaka-san," she answered, "that it was a Leaf ninja who struck the first blow."

"He will be disciplined," Inoichi said. "As will anyone who makes any hostile moves once I release my technique," he continued, glaring at each of the genin in turn. Slowly, his hands broke out of the seal they had been maintaining, and the genin began to move again. Thankfully, none of them were stupid enough to continue the fight.

As though the release of the Mass Paralysis Technique had been a signal, the innkeeper burst into private dining room, demanding to know what was going on and who was going to pay to clean up the mess. Inoichi sighed. The Hokage was not going to appreciate his expense report.

Day Thirty-two

"I guess we're about done for now," Ino said, breathing heavily. "There's only so much we three can do without Asuma-sensei."

Sakura nodded as she slumped to the ground, leaning against a tree trunk. Exhaustion swept through her limbs. She was going to need to make sure she got plenty of sleep the next few nights. Ino had been right, much as she hated to admit it; she'd been training too hard. She wouldn't do the team any good if she was dead on her feet when the actual exam rolled around. "I was going to suggest that we go to the library and look at the maps for the large-scale training grounds," she said after a moment. "One of those will probably be where the second exam is held. I'm too tired to concentrate properly, though."

"There's almost fifty of those," Chouji said. "We couldn't remember enough about any specific one to make any difference, anyway." Though he seemed by far the least tired of the three, he squatted down beside the two girls and pulled out one of his ever-present bags of potato chips. Opening it in one smooth motion, he began to noisily snack on them.

Part of Sakura wanted to wince at this, but she forced that part aside. From what she now knew of the Akimichi Clan's techniques, there was a good reason Chouji was the way he was. Besides, he'd burned through far more energy in this morning's training session than either girl, and Sakura felt like she could eat most of a bag of chips herself and from the way Ino's stomach was rumbling her rival would agree. Probably neither of them would choose barbecue flavor, though.

"So what now, then?" Ino asked. Seeming a little less tired, she grinned suddenly. "Should we go tease Asuma-sensei about having to do Shikamaru's gate duty?"

Sakura groaned. "That would require standing up," she complained.

"The teams from other countries ought to be showing up now," Chouji commented. "Maybe Asuma-sensei could tell us something about the ones that passed through his gate."

Sakura had to admit that seemed something like a good idea, though she wasn't certain Asuma would tell them anything useful. He'd been bending the rules to tell Sakura that a team from the Mist was coming, after all. Unbidden, Sakura found herself wondering what she would say to Shimano Ren if she saw her. She forced the troublesome thought aside, reminding herself that they had agreed that there would be no hard feelings. If Ren bore a grudge regardless, she would have to deal with that when the time came.

Slowly, Sakura stood, and with a groan Ino followed suit. Sakura glanced at her rival. "This is your idea, so you shouldn't complain, Ino-pig."

Ino rolled her eyes. "Did I say anything, Forehead?" she asked. "Let's get moving." Chouji noisily finished off the last of his snack and stood himself, and a few moments later the trio was on its way to the main gates. Along the way, Sakura noted an abnormally large number of ANBU patrols on the streets. Had they done that before the last exams or was this a reaction to Orochimaru's attack?

Those patrols were the only unusual thing they saw, at least until they neared the gates. Then, Ino grinned. "We're in luck! It looks like there's a team coming in now."

"Kiba's team is there too," Chouji commented as he peered across the busy square at the gates. "And isn't that your dad, Ino?" he asked.

"What?" Ino said. "You're right! I thought he was supposed to be in the Wave Country for another week," she commented. "I wonder -" She cut off suddenly as she realized that Sakura was staring at the foreign jounin who was showing her papers to Asuma. "Sakura, what's wrong?" she asked as she too began to study the older woman. "That's a Hidden Mist forehead protector!" Ino exclaimed before Sakura could say anything.

Chouji frowned. "They aren't part of the alliance."

Sakura nodded weakly. "I understand there was an exception made," she stated.

"You knew?" Ino asked. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"I wasn't supposed to know," Sakura answered, "but Asuma-sensei told me since -" Sakura cut off as Asuma handed the papers back to Kimi, and Yamanaka Inoichi and Team Eight began to lead the visitors from Mist across the square.

"Dad!" Ino called out loudly, waving. "Over here!" Sakura looked at her rival in dawning horror as Inoichi heard his daughter's cry and adjusted his course slightly.

"Ino-chan!" he said moments later as he gathered his daughter into a hug. Sakura didn't pay any attention, instead staring at one of the Mist genin. Shimano Ren returned the gaze levelly.

Chouji blinked. "Is something wrong, Sakura?"

"Sakura-san," Ren said quietly.

"Ren-san," Sakura returned after a moment, barely able to keep her voice steady. Her mind unwillingly returned to the image of the burns her final strike had inflicted on the other girl.

Behind the Mist team, Team Eight stirred. "You know her?" Kiba asked.

Ren ignored him, instead speaking to Sakura. "I did not get a chance to say this before," she said in her usual strangely strong soft voice, "but my congratulations on your victory." Her mouth twitched into a semblance of a smile. "As inappropriate as they might be."

"Thank you," Sakura said weakly.

Ino suddenly noticed what was going on, disentangling herself from her father's embrace. "Sakura?" she asked. Inoichi straightened, seeming to notice Sakura for the first time and paling. Mitarashi Kimi, standing slightly behind the other jounin, smirked.

"This is the one who calls herself Haruno Sakura?" the other kunoichi on Ren's team said suddenly.

The anger in her voice forced Sakura to turn to look at the speaker. For an instant, their eyes met, and the other girl frowned. Then the male member of the Mist team interposed himself between them. "This is the one who beat you, Ren?" he asked. She nodded.

Kiba suddenly laughed. "You're lucky I was holding back before, Ren-san," he said. "Sakura beat you?" He shook his head, chuckling. "That's absolutely pathetic."

"Kiba-kun!" Hinata said in protest.

Sakura glared at the boy. "Is that so?" she asked dangerously.

Kiba blinked. "Ah, sorry, Sakura. I shouldn't have said it like that," he admitted. "But still, we're sort of in different leagues, you know? If we fight in the exams, it won't last long."

Sakura hated to admit it, but Kiba was probably right if he'd improved at all in the past six months. Still, there was something about the way he said it that set Sakura's teeth on edge. "I seem to remember," she commented after a moment, "that you said something along those lines to Naruto right before he beat you."

"You're not Naruto," Kiba said, but he still frowned, his eyes narrowing as he studied Sakura.

"Thankfully not," Sakura muttered.

"You shouldn't be so cocky, Kiba," Chouji commented unexpectedly. Kiba's frown deepened, and Sakura glanced at her stocky teammate, more than a little surprised. It had been obvious to her that Chouji had been holding back quite a bit more than she had been in their practice sessions, and still she hadn't beaten him in a one-on-one spar. It was heartening that he seemed to consider her a serious combatant regardless.

The male Mist ninja spoke again. "Enough of that," he said, and Sakura's attention returned to him. "I take it you are planning to participate in the exams?" he asked, and Sakura nodded. Grinning eagerly, he formed a fist, sticking it in Sakura's face. "My name is Aoki Saburo, and for hurting Ren-chan," he said, "I'm going to beat you up!" Despite his words, his voice was light.

"Saburo!" both of the other members of his team growled. Behind them, Mitarashi Kimi sighed.

Before Sakura could say anything, there was a blur of motion as another ninja interposed himself, grabbing Saburo's fist before he could retract it. "I am sorry," Rock Lee said, "but if you attempt to hurt Sakura-san, I will stop you."

Saburo wrenched his arm out of Lee's grasp. "Who the hell are you?" he demanded.

Lee grinned widely, his teeth sparkling. "I have the honor of being the Leaf's beautiful green beast, Rock Lee!"

Saburo twitched. "What the hell are you?" he asked weakly. He shook his head, as though to dislodge an uncomfortable image. "Then I'll just have to beat you up too!" he said.

There wasn't even a blur of motion. One moment Rock Lee stood in front of the Mist ninja, the next he was behind him. "I will welcome your attempt," he said, "once the exams begin." Saburo started, looking backward at the Leaf ninja in something akin to horror.

"I know we can handle them, Lee," Tenten said as she and Neji walked up to the cluster of ninja, "but do you really have to go out of your way to get teams to aim for us in the second exam?"

The Mist kunoichi who's name Sakura still didn't know glanced at Neji. "Great," she muttered. "Another silver-eyed freak."

Neji glanced behind her at Hinata and frowned, before returning his gaze to the Mist kunoichi. "An interesting prejudice," he said flatly, "considering that you are a doujutsu user yourself."

Kiba suddenly snapped his fingers. "That's how she," he began before trailing off.

The girl's eyes widened. "How did you know?" she asked.

"When Lee appeared," Neji answered, "you formed a seal and concentrated chakra in your eyes. It's easy enough to determine that you were strengthening your eyesight to try and catch his motion."

"Freak," the girl growled, her hand dropping to the hilt of a kunai.

"Midori," Ren said warningly. "Now isn't the -"

"Enough!" Yamanaka Inoichi bellowed. Sakura started, and suddenly noticing that the cluster of ninja was attracting a great deal of attention. Most ominously, a three-man squad of masked ANBU were perched on top of a nearby rooftop. "Anyone who starts a fight will immediately be disqualified from the exams!" Inoichi continued. "Am I understood?"

Slowly, the various genin nodded, the four teams carefully backing away from each other. A couple of seconds after that, Team Eight closed in again on the Mist team, remembering that they were supposed to be escorting them. Inoichi nodded, satisfied. "All of you will get a chance to fight soon enough," he said. "Save all this fighting spirit for the exams. You'll need it."

The government of the Hidden Village of the Leaf was more complicated than most people suspected. Officially, the village was ruled, along with the rest of the Fire Country, by the highest daimyo of the nation. As one of his vassals, the Hokage governed the village at his pleasure, at least in theory. In reality, the truth was closer to the other way around. Any daimyo that wished to depose a Hokage had no ability to actually enforce his desires. Meanwhile, if the Hokage ever tired of the daimyo, all knew that the daimyo would soon experience a fatal accident. Still, the Hidden Village of the Leaf did not have the manpower to govern the Fire Country on its own. Without the cooperation of the nobility, the country would fall apart. Thus was the balance of power kept.

It was fortunate for the Fire Country that, unlike in some other countries, there had always been a cooperative relationship between the two people who were effectively co-rulers of the country. While the daimyo might dream of enjoying a stronger position and the Hokage no doubt occasionally envied the unchallenged dominance of the Raikage, for the most part the system functioned well. While the daimyo busied himself with the mundane matters of rulership, the security of the Fire Country and its relations with the other nations were in the Hokage's capable hands.

Inside the Hidden Village of the Leaf, on paper the Hokage was an absolute ruler. In reality, it was impossible to govern a village of ninja without the consent of the governed. Most of the clans had signed treaties granting them many rights when they had joined the Leaf, and it would be a foolish ruler who even hinted at infringing upon them. Custom and tradition were as binding as any formal law could ever be, and in the years since the First Hokage had declared that the coalition of four clans from the Wood and Fire Countries he led was now the Hidden Village of the Leaf there had been time for many customs to be born.

One such custom was that of the village council. As befitted a body that had come into being over time on its own, rather than ever being formally established, its membership was somewhat fluid. The Hokage, of course, always sat on it, along with his or her advisers. They were the only constants. The remaining members varied from meeting to meeting, depending on who was concerned with the matters on the agenda. The heads of the clans each had a right to a seat if they desired one, along with a number of other high-ranking ninja. Though he held no formal position, had he been in the village none would have denied Jiraiya a place on the council in the unusual event he had wished one.

Today, the council was rather small. Besides Tsunade and Utatane Koharu and Mitokado Homura, the advisers she had inherited from the Third, only the theoretically anonymous commander of ANBU was present. Despite the fact that the other three knew his identity well, he still wore his mask as he gave his report. "In short, Hokage-sama," he concluded, "between the casualties suffered six months ago, the need for increased exam security, and our ordinary missions, ANBU is overstretched."

"The whole village is in that situation," Koharu commented.

"I do not need to explain to you, Utatane-dono" the masked ninja said, "the vital role that ANBU plays. I know that other divisions are also short-handed, but I still must request permission to reactivate reserve ANBU and step up recruitment."

"I am inclined to agree," Homura stated. "Hokage-sama?"

"With one exception," Tsunade said. "Uzuki Yuugao left ANBU and is currently leading a genin team."

"I would not call her up in any case," the ANBU commander responded. "She is not psychologically fit for ANBU duty at this time." He paused. "I will also refrain from reactivating any former ANBU currently leading a team in the Chuunin Exams until the exams are over," he added.

Tsunade nodded. "All right, then. Koharu, care to make it unanimous, or will you dissent?"

"I'll consent," Koharu responded.

Tsunade nodded again. "Your motion passes, Hyuuga-san."

"Hokage-sama, please," the commander said with a sigh.

Tsunade grinned. "Sorry," she said.

"I would also propose that the examination board be asked to recommend any new chuunin that seem suited for ANBU duty," the commander continued.

"Rookie chuunin in ANBU?" Homura asked, aghast. "They'll be killed!"

"Not necessarily," Koharu said, her eyes narrowing. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I suspect you intend to use them for internal policing to free up elite chuunin and jounin."

"You are correct," the commander responded.

"That's more reasonable," Homura agreed after a moment.

"I don't like it," Tsunade said. "Even for policing. The old police standards were almost as rigorous as ANBU's, and for good reason." In theory, she could override the council's decision, but in practice if she couldn't muster a majority it wasn't worth using that power. "Still, the motion passes, I suppose, but I'm going to require my personal approval for any postings to ANBU for rookie chuunin." Her voice left no room for debate, and none of the other three raised any protest. "Anything else?"

"That is all," the ANBU responded.

Now Homura spoke. "I'm concerned about the reports from our northern border." He paused, shuffling through the papers on the table in front of him. "It's not like Orochimaru to randomly pick a fight with the Valley."

"You would be surprised," Tsunade said dryly.

The ANBU commander spoke up. "I have not read the recent reports. What is the situation?"

"A couple of weeks ago there was the first real battle," Tsunade said. "From what we can gather, it seems like the Valley finally tried to respond in force to those skirmishes in the southern Hill Country. The Sound met them at the border and repelled them."

Koharu picked up the thread. "Since then things have been relatively quiet. The Rain and Grass have reinforced the Waterfall in case things spill over into that country." She tapped her fingers on the table for a moment. "Other than keeping heavy patrols on our own border, I don't know what else we can do at this point." There was general agreement.

After confirming that the other three had no more issues to raise, Tsunade spoke. "The Chuunin Selection Exam will begin in three days," she said. "The first exam has been designed and approved by the examination board. Morino Ibiki assures me that the testing ground for the second exam will be ready in four days. We already have all participating teams from Waterfall, Sand, and Grass in the village. The last of our own teams out on missions should return by tomorrow. The teams from Rain are scheduled to arrive the day after."

"And the Mist team?" the ANBU commander asked, his voice cold.

"They and their escort should be arriving any minute now." Tsunade answered.

Koharu grimaced. "I don't like this. Denying the Mizukage's request would have been a sign of terrible weakness, but I almost think it might have been a better idea."

"It's only one team," Tsunade said. "I'm sure ANBU will be watching them."

"Of course," the commander said.

There was a knock on the door. "Enter," Tsunade said after a moment.

A woman in an ANBU uniform slipped into council chamber. She walked over to her commander and handed him a slip of paper, before bowing and leaving without saying a word. The commander unfolded the note, quickly interpreting the coded message. "I had asked to be informed of any incidents involving the Mist team immediately," he explained.

"Is there already a problem?" Homura asked.

"Not much of one," the commander answered. "There was almost a brawl between them and some of our genin, but it was defused in time."

"Who was involved?" Tsunade asked.

The ANBU glanced back at the note. "Besides the Mist, three full Leaf genin teams were present and likely to become involved in any fighting."

"That could have been a real mess," Tsunade said. She shook her head. "On a lighter note," she said, "I'm planning to take on a new apprentice once the exams are done with."

"That's a surprise," Koharu said. "It isn't like you to go looking for more work."

"Well, since Jiraiya picked up a second apprentice," Tsunade answered lightly, "I decided I shouldn't let him show me up."

Tsunade could almost feel the ANBU commander blink behind his mask. "Jiraiya-sama has a new student?" he asked.

Tsunade nodded. "Uzumaki Naruto," she said dryly, and the ANBU stiffened.

"That seems unwise," he said.

"On the contrary," Koharu interjected. "Who else would you trust to handle him?" After a moment, the ANBU nodded.

"So," Homura said, "have you anyone in mind, Hokage-sama?" he asked.

Tsunade smiled sweetly at him. "I do," she said, "but I'm holding off on a final decision until after the exams." The Hokage rose. "That's all for today, I believe," she said. "I've got a lot of paperwork to do if I'm going to get Shizune to let me leave at a reasonable hour."

Homura's eyes narrowed as he watched Tsunade leave the council chambers.

Day Thirty-three

"I was hoping, Yamanaka-san," Tsunade said dryly, "that you would tell me that there had been some terrible mistake on this expense report."

Yamanaka Inoichi shook his head. "I'm very sorry, Hokage-sama," he said, "I did my best, but that is what it cost. Between rooms, food, and damages, I'm lucky it was only that bad."

Shizune, in her usual position behind Tsunade, frowned. "Damages?" she asked the jounin. "What do you mean?"

"The inn we stayed at the night before we arrived," Inoichi said slowly. "There was a bit of a scuffle between Yuuhi's team and our guests. Nothing serious, but the innkeeper almost had a nervous breakdown and I needed to calm him down."

"A scuffle?" Tsunade said. "I suppose that you'll be filing a reprimand for them, then. Their mission was to escort the Mist team to the village without incident. They shouldn't have been fighting them."

"They were provoked and stood down when ordered," Inoichi said. "In my judgment as commander of the mission, the provocation was sufficient that their actions do not warrant a full reprimand for the team, though I will be putting in a formal warning for Inuzuka Kiba. It'll all be in the full report." His mouth twitched. "In my judgment, Shikaku made a mistake giving them the mission."

Tsunade put down the summary report Inoichi had given her, folding her hands in front of her face. "It seems efficient to me," she said. "Yuuhi-san is certainly happy to have an extra day to prepare her team for the exam."

"In the Wave Country," Inoichi said, "they were the team that intercepted our guests."

Tsunade glanced at the summary report, then nodded. "I see." She paused. "We don't have ninja to spare, though, Yamanaka-san."

"I know. Do you require anything else?" he asked.

"There's been a lot of speculation in the village council as to the Mist's motives," Tsunade said. "I'd like to hear your observations on that."

Inoichi nodded. "Our guests were clearly sent to the Wave Country to scout out the defenses we're putting into place there. This could be a prelude to an assault there, but I'm inclined to say not. They likely were just taking advantage of the opportunity presented by having a team with a legitimate reason to pass through the area."

Tsunade nodded. "I would order the same," she said.

"The genin team is good, but nothing exceptional," Inoichi said. "So far as I can tell, they think they're here to participate in the exams and take a look at the Leaf Village. There's nothing overly sinister about that. Their commander, Mitarashi Kimi, is the one to watch," he continued. "I haven't got solid evidence, but I suspect she has at least one other mission."

"I see," Tsunade said.

Shizune spoke up. "It may not be a mission, but rather a personal matter. Anko-chan -"

Tsunade cut her assistant off with a wave of her hand. "I know, I know. Remind me to make sure to keep Anko-chan out of her way."

"I'm more worried about her sister seeking out Anko-chan," Shizune answered.

"Do you require anything else?" Inoichi asked.

"Is there anything else you think I need to know?" Tsunade responded.

"Well," Inoichi began, then paused. A moment later, he continued. "One of Kimi's team appears to have had a prior encounter with -"

"Haruno Sakura," Tsunade finished smoothly. "I'm aware of the matter."

Inoichi bowed. "I suspected as much, but I thought I should make sure."

Tsunade nodded. "There's something else I'd like to talk to you about. I was going to make Shizune ask you later, but since Sakura-chan's already come up, I might as well ask you personally."

"Hokage-sama?" Inoichi asked, a hint of worry in his voice.

"Twelve years ago," Tsunade asked, "you vouched for Haruno Amaya as to her story regarding the father of her daughter, correct?"

Inoichi nodded. "Is there… a problem, Hokage-sama?"

"Do you still have contact with Haruno-san?" Tsunade asked.

"Yes. We're friends," Inoichi said. "What -"

"It has come to my attention," Tsunade said, "that Sakura-chan and her mother have been having difficulties." Tsunade smiled behind her hands. "I thought you might like to know."

"Thank you, Hokage-sama," Inoichi said after a moment.

"I understand that you were supposed to have two week's leave in a week," Tsunade said. "Let's move that up and start it off now, since you're already in the village." She grinned. "It'll give you a chance to help your daughter before the first two exams, instead of only afterwards."

Inoichi grinned. "I see you figured out my motives," he said.     "It wasn't hard," Tsunade said, "considering that Akimichi Chouza filed for a leave request starting immediately after you return to Wave Country. You're dismissed."    

Bowing, Inoichi left and headed for his wife's flower shop. "Dad!" Ino greeted him cheerfully as he entered. "Mom said to ask you what you wanted for dinner."

"I don't know," Inoichi said. "Tell her to surprise me." He grinned. "My leave got moved up, so I'll be here for a while now."

"That's great!" Ino said. "So, will you -"

Inoichi nodded. "Tell Asuma I'll be giving you some private training tomorrow. We've only got one day, but we'll make it count." He smiled. "So you and Chouji are teaming up with Sakura-chan?"

Ino nodded. "Forehead begged us and we needed a team member anyway, so we let her in."

"Be nice, Ino-chan," her father responded.

Ino grimaced. "Maybe when she stops calling me a pig," she said.

"Ino." Her father's voice was serious. "Tell me everything you know about what's going on between Sakura-chan and her mother."

Ino's eyes widened. "How did you - Sakura asked me not to tell anyone about that."

"I already know about it," Inoichi responded. "I want you to tell me what you know."

After a long moment, Ino nodded. "Sakura said that her mother didn't want her to take the exams and grounded her because of it. When she had to leave on a mission, she got kicked out."

"Where's she staying?" Inoichi asked.

"Naruto's apartment," Ino responded.

Inoichi grimaced. "Tell her that she's welcome to come here. She shouldn't be -"

"Naruto isn't there," Ino hurriedly added. "He's on a long mission."

"That's," Inoichi began, then he paused. "I guess that's okay. Still, make the offer, Ino. She shouldn't be alone."

"I don't think it would be a good idea for the two of us to be under same roof." Ino grinned. "Particularly since we'll be preparing for the third exam."

"Optimistic, aren't you?" Inoichi said dryly.

"Chouji's gotten real strong," Ino said, "and you know how much better I've gotten. Even Forehead is being useful, and Asuma-sensei says we've got good teamwork."

"That's good," Inoichi said, "but what Chouji said to Inuzuka-kun yesterday applies to you also. Don't get cocky."

Ino rolled her eyes. "Yes, Dad."

"By the way," Inoichi said, "do you know any reason why Hokage-sama would be interested in Sakura-chan?"

Ino blinked. "Hokage-sama? Well, she was Sasuke-kun's teammate." Her voice skipped a little as she said Sasuke's name. "And I think Sakura mentioned that Naruto was on the mission that brought Hokage-sama back to the village."

"I see. I'm going to go have a word with Sakura-chan's mother," Inoichi said. "Don't worry if I'm a little bit late for dinner." Ino nodded, and her father left. A few minutes later, he was knocking on the front door of the Haruno residence.

The door cracked open, and Haruno Amaya peered out. "Inoichi!" she exclaimed.

"Amaya," Inoichi responded. "Can I come in?"

"Of course," she replied after a moment, letting the door swing open. "Have a seat," she said, pointing at the kitchen table. "I'll put some tea on."

"Thank you," Inoichi replied.

As she busied herself with making tea, Amaya said, "I thought you were on a mission."

"I was," Inoichi replied, "but I got my leave moved up since I had to escort a foreign team to the Chuunin Exam. From the Mist, if you'll believe it."

Amaya was silent for a moment. "I see," she said as she brought a teapot over to the table and sat down. She began to pour her guest a cup.

"One of the girls on that team," Inoichi said, his voice serious, "had pretty green eyes. They reminded me of yours."

Amaya's hand jerked, and she spilled some of the tea. "Are you flirting with me?" she asked weakly.

"Amaya," Inoichi said. "I'm here to talk about Sakura." Amaya didn't say anything. "Ino told me you tried to ground her for wanting to take the Chuunin Exam."

Amaya's face hardened. "I grounded her because she lied to me about it."

"And why did she think she had to lie about it, Amaya?" Inoichi asked. The woman didn't say anything. "Amaya," Inoichi repeated. "Sakura is a ninja of the Hidden Leaf. That's what you wanted, isn't it? To honor Takeru-kun's memory?"

"Yes," Amaya responded after a moment. "That's what I wanted."

"Then, why?" Inoichi asked.

"I… I'm scared," Amaya responded after a moment. "Scared of what might happen to her."

Inoichi frowned. "And you think that leaving her without a mother will make that less likely? Amaya, you should know better." He sighed. "You need to be there for her, now more than ever."

Amaya sighed. "I'll think about it, Inoichi."

"I guess that's all I can ask," Inoichi responded uncertainly, "but I would suggest you think quickly, before Sakura-chan decides that she doesn't want her mother back. That wouldn't be good, for you or her."

"So how has your training gone so far?" Jiraiya asked as he seated himself on his bed in the room the two leaf ninja had been given.

"All right," Naruto said. "I think I'm starting to get the hang of this earth element stuff." He snorted. "At least Hojo-sensei is a better teacher than you, Ero-sennin."

Jiraiya laughed. "That's why I brought you here, boy. I'm not very good at teaching this kind of thing."

"You're not very good at teaching anything, Ero-sennin," Naruto replied. "You just show me a technique and make me figure out how to do it while you go off and do perverted things."

Now Jiraiya snorted. "What you mean is that I make you think instead of holding your hand. It's not enough to be able to perform a technique, boy. To really master something, you need to understand it perfectly. I'm teaching you how to understand techniques - or at least I'm trying to."

Naruto grimaced. "That's just an excuse because you don't want to actually teach me."

"One day you'll understand, boy. Probably when you make it to full jounin and have to teach a team." Jiraiya rolled his eyes. "Do I ever pity the poor genin who wind up under you."

"So if the way you teach is so good, Ero-sennin," Naruto asked, his voice making it clear just how ludicrous he found that idea, "why does Hojo-sensei teach us normally? All the Rock ninja say he's a great teacher!"

"He is," Jiraiya answered. "He's very good at teaching earth element techniques. His way of teaching is good for learning the basics of a technique quickly. But it's just rote learning. You can use that technique, and nothing else. Every new technique you have to learn from scratch."

"So?" Naruto asked. "I can still use the technique!"

"But what you aren't learning," Jiraiya said, "is how to learn and create earth element techniques. You're just learning the techniques. You can use them to do what they're designed for, but you don't have the understanding to do anything else with them."

"If that's so important," Naruto said, "why did you bring me here?"

"Because just knowing techniques is still useful." Jiraiya's face was grim. "I intend to make you strong enough to survive both the battle you want to fight and the battles that are going to come to you. I don't have time to teach you everything you need to know my way."

Jiraiya's words hung heavily in the air. Eventually, Naruto quietly said, "I see."

"One thing I need to teach you," Jiraiya said, "is how to think. You have a good tactical mind, boy, but it is untrained. Your mind is a weapon more powerful than any technique, but only if you know how to use it." Jiraiya smiled. "So here's a question for you. I've told you that every technique you learn should be for a reason. What are the reasons for learning the techniques Hojo is teaching you?"

"To make me stronger, of course," Naruto answered.

"But how will they make you stronger?" Jiraiya asked. "Your strength isn't just some number that gets points added to it just by learning a technique. To make you stronger, a new technique has to let you do something you couldn't do before."

Naruto frowned as he puzzled his way through this. "The underground fish thing," he said after a moment, "helps me hide and lets me attack from beneath my opponent."

Jiraiya nodded. "Good. Let's focus on that technique for a moment. What else is it good for?"

Naruto pondered the question for a few more seconds. "A lot of techniques won't hurt me when I'm underground."

"Right," Jiraiya said. "A strong opponent will have techniques that can reach you so you can't use it as a permanent defense, but you can still use the Underground Fish Projection to dodge if you're fast enough."

"Ero-sennin," Naruto said. "When I use it, I'm pretty slow and I still have to dig some." He paused. "But when I use my shadow replications," he continued, "they can move quickly and don't have to dig."

"That's interesting," Jiraiya said after a moment. "There's a couple of reasons that might be happening, but I'd have to watch you to be sure. Maybe once you finish training tomorrow I'll have a look at you."

Naruto nodded. "Hojo-sensei didn't seem to be interested," he said.

Jiraiya shook his head. "I'm sure he was," Jiraiya said, "but the Shadow Replication Technique is a technique developed by the Leaf Village. He doesn't know it." Jiraiya paused. "So tell me, boy. Are you working on your control?"

Naruto blinked at the sudden change of subject. "I'm working on learning the earth element techniques!"

Jiraiya sighed. "Chakra control should be part of everything you do, boy. It applies to every technique you learn."

"Well, yeah," Naruto said. "I know that, but I'm just trying to focus on learning the techniques now. I have to use a lot of chakra to get them to work right. That makes control harder, right?"

Jiraiya let out another sigh. "I'm going to have to find some way to teach you not to just use brute force for everything you do," he said. "Remember why you haven't learned the Whirlwind Counter? You're trying to do the same thing and manipulating the earth just by using a lot of chakra wildly."

"It works!" Naruto protested.

"It does for simple earth element techniques," Jiraiya said, "but not as well. You need to try and make your chakra merge with the earth, not just push it around. That's one of the main advantages of earth element techniques. Only water is easier to suffuse with chakra, but water isn't always available. Unless you're fighting over the deep ocean, earth is."

"If you say so," Naruto said dubiously. "It seems pretty difficult to me."

Jiraiya shook his head. "Try it some more," he said. "Now, what I want you to do is go over in your head the rest of the techniques you've learned here the way we did the Underground Fish Projection."

Naruto groaned. "It's bedtime! I have to get up early for training."

Jiraiya laughed. "I suppose I should let you sleep. But think on that tomorrow, all right?" Naruto nodded. "By the way, did you ever finish that letter you were writing?"

Naruto nodded again, fishing through one of his packs for a folded piece of paper. "Here."

Jiraiya took the paper. "Assuming you didn't say anything you shouldn't, I'll give it and my report to a toad tomorrow and send it to Tsunade. It should get there in a couple weeks."

"Ero-sennin, we're going to be here for about a month, right?" Naruto asked suddenly. "That means we should be finished in time to go back home for the end of the Chuunin Exams."

Jiraiya frowned. "I wasn't planning on going back to the Leaf Village so quickly," he said.

"But," Naruto began to protest, then cut off.

"I understand," Jiraiya said with a laugh. "We'll see how things go, boy."

Day Thirty-four

Once again, after a brief tutoring session and giving the four genin several tasks, Iwakuro Hojo had left his students to their own devices. As he squatted on the ground, trying to figure out what Jiraiya had meant by telling his to merge his chakra with the earth, Naruto grumbled to himself about this. "He seems like a good teacher and all," he admitted even during his complaining, "but wouldn't we get a lot more done if he stuck around?"

Gonkuro gazed at Naruto dispassionately. "Hojo-sama has many other students."

"It's good that Leaf boy came," Akira said. "Otherwise we'd never have gotten any training until the Jounin Exams."

"The Jounin Exams?" Naruto asked.

"What, Leaf boy?" Akira said. "Don't you know what they are?"

"Of course," Naruto answered. "But why -"

"Hojo-sama is preparing several chuunin for them," Mako answered before Naruto could finish his question. "Since they're only a couple weeks away, he spends most of his time with them."

"Oh," Naruto said. He stared at the ground a moment, then raised his hands from it. He wasn't making any progress, anyway. "Hey, have any of you taken the Chuunin Exam?" he asked.

Mako blinked. "Of course not."

"It takes years to be ready for those," Gonkuro said. "We're still in our first year, and we haven't even taken any real missions yet since we've been training with Hojo-sama."

"In theory at least," Akira commented.

Naruto snorted. "All the genin from my year took the exam in our first year, and we all made it to the final part!" he boasted. "I would have won, too, if the exam hadn't been canceled."

"Canceled?" Mako asked.

"Idiot," Gonkuro said. "The Sand and Sound invaded the Leaf Village right before we graduated, remember?"

"Oh yeah," Mako said, blushing slightly.

Akira laughed. "The Leaf must have really wimpy Chuunin Exams if Leaf boy almost won one. He's not that tough."

Naruto glared at him. "I've beaten you every time we've fought," he commented.

"Akira," Gonkuro warned. "Remember what Hojo-sama said."

"I'm not looking for a fight," Akira stated. "I'm just saying the truth. Leaf boy's better than us, but we're just first-year genin. He's not that much stronger than us."

"Akira," Gonkuro said seriously. "He's been holding back."

"What?" Mako asked.

"That replication technique of his," Gonkuro said. "I read something about it once. It's a jounin-level technique of the Leaf Village that divides your chakra evenly among the clones, but his clones can perform every technique Hojo-sama has taught him. Think of how much chakra Naruto-kun must have."

Naruto grinned. "More than you three combined," he said immodestly. Both Akira and Mako's eyes widened.

"Just how strong are you?" Mako asked.

"That's an interesting question," a new voice said. Naruto started. He recognized that voice, but he couldn't quite place it. "Why don't we we find out just how strong you've become, Naruto-kun?" the voice continued.

All four genin looked around wildly before finding the intruders. Two pairs of figures stood on the edge of the training ground, clad in identical red and black cloaks. The high cloaks and large hats they wore obscured their faces, leaving the massive, bandaged sword one of the pair in back carried slung over one shoulder as the only other identifying mark visible. Naruto froze. "You're," he said, then fell silent.

As if on cue, the member of the back pair who wasn't carrying a sword briefly raised his hat slightly. For an instant, a pair of red Sharingan eyes was visible. Naruto could feel his heart pounding. "Whatever you do," Naruto said to the three Rock genin after a moment. "Don't look into that one's eyes." Damn it. What was he supposed to do?

"It wouldn't do any good," one of the pair in front said - the same voice as before.

A terrible torrent of power and killing intent swept out of the four intruders. Gonkuro stumbled under the sudden onslaught, and Mako swore quietly. "What tremendous chakra," she breathed.

Shaking, Akira pulled out a kunai. "We aren't scared of you," he said, though the tremor in his voice put the lie to his words.

"Stay out of this," the figure who stood next to the first speaker - a woman, from her voice - said. "We aren't interested in you. We only want the Leaf boy."

"We," Gonkuro began, only to falter.

"We can't let you have him," snarled Akira, hurling his kunai at the man who had spoken first. As the cloaked figure easily sidestepped the projectile, Akira charged him. "Face the secret technique of the Yamakita Clan," he shouted. "Iron Fist Technique!" His arm turned gray and hard as he punched at the man's face with outstanding speed and strength.

The man dodged backward but not quite quickly enough. Akira's punch hit his hat, knocking it off his head. Before it hit the ground, the man had counterattacked. Naruto couldn't even see the blow, but Akira toppled over, unconscious. "Akira-kun!" Mako yelled.

Then Naruto gasped, his eyes falling on the scratched Sound forehead protector the man wore before lowering to his very familiar face. "You're," he gasped.

"Hello, Naruto-kun," Yakushi Kabuto said with a smirk as he reached up to adjust his glasses. "I must admit that I did not expect to see you again this quickly."

"You hurt Akira-kun!" Mako shouted angrily. She charged Kabuto, futilely hurling a dozen shuriken in rapid succession.

"Mako," Gonkuro yelled, "Don't -"

Naruto shook himself. He had to do something. "Mass Shadow Replication Technique!" he called out, cutting Gonkuro off. The male Rock ninja stared briefly at the horde of clones, then fainted. Two of the replications grabbed Mako before she could reach Kabuto, even as a dozen clones jumped forward and began to circle around the man.

"Impressive, Naruto-kun," Kabuto said, "but pointless. Katon: Great Fireball Technique!" The massive fireball engulfed the clones in front of him. The two carrying the struggling Mako away were caught in the edge of the blast and vanished. Mako tumbled forward, and did not rise.

The clones behind Kabuto charged, sliding in to kick the man up into the air. "Uzumaki," they began to shout, only to cut off as there was a puff of smoke. A pile of small stones appeared where Kabuto had been, falling back toward the clones and disrupting several when they hit.

"Replacement Technique," snarled one Naruto.

"Correct," Kabuto agreed from his perch atop a nearby boulder. He reached behind him, pulling out a handful of shuriken. He tossed them into the air, then raced through seals. "Shuriken Shadow Replication Technique!" A torrent of steel raced through the horde of clones, turning the training ground into a field of white smoke. When it cleared, not a single Naruto was visible.

"I thought we weren't going to have to fight," the woman who had stood beside Kabuto at the beginning of the battle said. "If we wait too much longer, we'll be noticed."

Kabuto sighed. "You are correct, of course," he said. "Naruto-kun!" he called out. "We are not here to capture you." The apparently former Sound ninja smiled. "We aren't ready for that now."

A Naruto appeared in a puff of smoke on top of a boulder. "Then what are you here for, Kabuto-san?"

Kabuto adjusted his glasses. "Our organization decided that it would be troublesome if Orochimaru got his hands on the Sharingan." He paused, his smirk widening. "I was ordered to capture Sasuke-kun and take him away from Orochimaru."

The visible Naruto's eyes widened. "And?" he asked.

"Our organization does not have the time to handle Sasuke-kun ourselves, and Itachi-san won't let us simply kill him." Kabuto sighed. "He's a difficult person like that." In the back, Uchiha Itachi made no comment. "We need to give him to someone who can keep Orochimaru away. When we found out you and Jiraiya-sama were in the area, a solution presented itself."

"What do you mean?" Naruto asked.

"We have Sasuke-kun in a cave near here. Come with us, and we will give him to you," Kabuto said. "We don't want to involve Jiraiya-sama directly, because he will no doubt try to kill us."

"How do I know it's not a trick?" Naruto snarled.

"You don't," Kabuto said. "But," he continued, sighing, picking up Akira's still form by the neck, "if you don't come, I'll kill this boy."

"Kabuto," the woman said warningly, but he only waved her away.

"Well, Naruto-kun?" Kabuto asked. "You know I'm fast enough to kill him before you can do anything."

Shadow clones began to erupt from the earth around Kabuto. As they rose into the air, their eyes shifted color and waves of power almost matching the killing intent the four intruders had mustered poured out from them. Faintly visible red chakra swirled through the air as they descended toward Kabuto. The traitorous Leaf ninja smiled slightly as he leapt away.

"Interesting," he commented. Kabuto tossed Akira at the woman behind him, who caught him after fumbling a moment. Kabuto had already raced through a set of seals. "Katon: Great Fireball Technique!" Again a massive ball of flame appeared before him, catching most of the descending clones. Thrown kunai skewered the remaining handful. Still smiling, Kabuto took Akira back from the woman. "That was your one free chance," he said. "Next time this boy dies."

The Naruto perched on top of a boulder swore before vanishing in a puff of smoke. If it was just Kabuto, he might be able to handle it, but he couldn't go all out against him in case one of the other three Akatsuki got involved. There wasn't anything he could do against all four unless Jiraiya or Hojo - or better, both - showed up soon.

"Well, Naruto-kun?" Kabuto asked, tightening his grip around Akira's neck. "Last chance."

After a still moment, Naruto stepped out from another boulder. "All right," he said as he walked toward the four intruders. As soon as he was among them, the woman grabbed him and slung him over her shoulder. He didn't resist, and Kabuto gently placed Akira on the ground. Instants later, the five ninja were gone, rapidly moving away from Hojo's estate.

Several moments later, they stopped in front of a massive dome of wax and the woman set Naruto down. "How do we know Jiraiya will find us?" Itachi asked. Naruto frowned. That voice seemed off, and why would they want Jiraiya to find them?

Kabuto adjusted his glasses, sighing. "The toad this boy summoned will bring him soon enough, I'm sure."

Itachi's eyes widened. "When did he -" he began.

Something became clear to Naruto. "You aren't," he began only to stop as Kabuto prodded the back of his neck. Slowly, he collapsed.

Kabuto sighed again. "That would have been troublesome. You shouldn't have broken character, Kurobachi-san."

There was a puff of smoke as the man dispelled the transformation technique, tossing aside his hat and cloak. "Sorry," he said. A moment later, the other two Kamizuru followed suit.

"How long will he be out for?" Suzumebachi asked as she stared down at Naruto's still form.

"Long enough," Kabuto answered. "You three should take him inside to bait the trap. I will watch for the Toad Hermit's approach." Suzumebachi nodded, and the three Kamizuru complied with Kabuto's orders.

Once they had vanished into the giant bee hive, Kabuto smiled softly to himself. "Long enough for Orochimaru-sama's purposes, that is," he said to the empty air as he seated himself on a nearby boulder and turned to watch the hive. "This should at least be entertaining. You'd best hurry, Jiraiya-sama, or you'll miss the show."

Jiraiya had just bitten his thumb, drawing just a bit a blood to summon a messenger toad to take his report and Naruto's letter to Tsunade, when Gamakichi appeared on the desk in his room. "You're a little early," he commented. "I hadn't even used the technique yet."

"Naruto summoned me!" the toad said, sounding slightly annoyed.

Jiraiya blinked as he stared at the amphibian. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"Four really scary people in weird cloaks were there and -"

"What?" Jiraiya interrupted, rising from his seat. "What type of cloaks?"

"Black, with red clouds on them," the toad answered.

Jiraiya swore. "What happened?"

"They said something about having that Sasuke kid," the toad said quickly. "They wanted Naruto to come with them so they could give him to him." The toad paused briefly to catch his breath. "He went and told me to get you."

"That idiot!" Jiraiya swore again. "I didn't think even he was dumb enough to fall for -"

"They had a hostage!" Gamakichi protested. "Naruto tried to save him but there wasn't any other way."

Jiraiya sighed. "Damn it." He glanced at the toad. "Good work. You can go now." As the toad vanished in a puff of smoke, Jiraiya left the room almost as quickly. The other ninja at Hojo's estate saw only a blur of motion as he raced to the training ground where Hojo was working with his advanced students.

"What do you want, fool?" Hojo asked as Jiraiya suddenly appeared in the center of the training ground.

"I seem to have terribly overestimated how much time we had," Jiraiya said coldly.

Hojo's eyes widened. "Them? Already?" When Jiraiya nodded grimly, the legendary Rock ninja gestured at his students. "Go back to the estate. Sound the alarm and get all available ninja organized into search parties."

Moments later, Jiraiya and Hojo were at the training ground Naruto and the three Rock genin had been at. Hojo's face hardened as he stared at the fallen forms of his three genin students. "There will be a reckoning for this," he snarled, racing through seals. He knelt, plunging one hand to the ground. "Doton: Earth Dragon Hunter!" The ground rumbled briefly. "Five people," Hojo stated. "They didn't go far, not even out of range of my technique. Due west for a few minutes."

Jiraiya nodded. "Thank you."

"Don't." Hojo's eyes were hard. "I take full responsibility for this disaster. Even if we didn't think they would strike for a while yet, it was foolish of me to leave the Kyuubi without a competent guard."

"It isn't over yet," Jiraiya said.

Hojo nodded. "Go. I will arrange care for these three and follow as quickly as I can."

Jiraiya nodded again, and a moment later he was gone. Several minutes after that, he was frowning at the cloaked man who confronted him before the entrance to a massive bee hive. Had the Kamizuru made common cause with Akatsuki? How would they even have met? "Yakushi Kabuto," Jiraiya said. "You seem to go through more masters in a year than most men do in a lifetime."

"Or perhaps I only serve one master," Kabuto replied.

Jiraiya stepped forward. "Yourself, you mean?" he asked.

Kabuto smiled. "Perhaps," he repeated as he discarded his cloak and passed one hand over his marred forehead protector. When his hand dropped away the scratch was gone. "I'm afraid I cannot let you pass just yet," he replied.

Jiraiya snorted. "You intend to stop me, kid?"

"Not alone," Kabuto replied as three men in Sound uniforms appeared in front of him. Suddenly, the hive behind them shuddered, and Jiraiya could feel tremendous waves of power. "Ah," Kabuto said, "it's begun."

Jiraiya frowned. "What?"

"Orochimaru-sama wished to determine how strong Naruto-kun was becoming." Kabuto smiled, gesturing back at the hive. "The Kamizuru provided an opportunity for me to provide a test for Naruto-kun and acquire a few other things of interest to my master."

Jiraiya's eyes followed his gesture. "That chakra is way too big to be the Kamizuru."

Kabuto's smile widened. "It's a drug I've developed. It doesn't actually make your chakra any stronger, but it makes it feel that way. It helped us fool poor Naruto-kun. Of course," he said with a sigh, "the chakra feels stronger to the user too, so those three will probably burn themselves out since they won't know when they're running out of chakra." Kabuto smiled. "I doubt you will shed many tears for them, Jiraiya-sama."

A new wave of power pulsed out of the hive. "Naruto," Jiraiya said softly, his eyes narrowing.

Kabuto whistled appreciatively. "He must be in a foul mood," he said.

"I don't seem to have time to play with you four," Jiraiya said, "so I'll end this quick."

One of the Sound ninja raced through seals. "Sonic Wave Barrage!" he shouted, throwing his arms out wide. Jiraiya appeared to stagger, and another Sound ninja charged, plunging a kunai into Jiraiya's stomach. The shadow clone vanished in a puff of smoke, and the real Jiraiya appeared, a Rasengan spinning in one hand. When it hit the Sound ninja though, there was another puff a smoke. The log that was left behind shattered under Jiraiya's attack.

The third Sound ninja sliced at his own palm with a kunai. He rapidly pulled out a scroll and opened it, letting his dripping blood fall along it. "Ninpou: Summoning - Devouring Serpent Technique!" A massive snake appeared in a puff of smoke.

Jiraiya sighed, biting at his thumb. "Ninpou: Summoning - Food Cart Destroyer Technique!" The even larger toad that appeared crushed the snake, gazing down in boredom at the tiny ninja that surrounded him.

Kabuto smiled. "Katon: Fire Dragon Blast!" He raised a hand to his mouth, guiding the torrent of flame that surged out of it toward the toad. Jiraiya formed a seal, and the toad vanished in a giant cloud of smoke before the flames could reach it. The toad would almost certainly have survived, but Jiraiya didn't like to see his allies in pain.

One of the three Sound ninja had circled behind Jiraiya and charged. Jiraiya let him draw near before spinning around and slamming a Rasengan into his chest. This time, the ninja couldn't dodge in time and he did not rise when he fell. Jiraiya's hands raced through seals as he turned to the other two Sound ninja. "Katon: Phoenix Flame Technique!" One after another, small fireballs spewed out of Jiraiya's mouth. The enemy ninja managed to dodge the first few, but soon enough they were taking hits. It wasn't enough to take them out of the fight, though.

The twin Rasengan Jiraiya's shadow clones placed at their backs were, however. As his two allies fell, Kabuto smiled. "You truly are worthy of your title as one of the legendary Sannin," he commented.

The two clones vanished, and Jiraiya glared at him. "You're next, kid," he said.

Then there was a new wave of power racing out of the bee hive. Both ninja glanced at it, and Kabuto's eyes widened as the wax walls began to shatter. "Very impressive," he said. The hive began to collapse, and Kabuto jumped away moments before a chunk of wax hit where he had been standing.

When the destruction finished, a figure was crouched on top of the pile of rubble. Thick red chakra shone around him, clinging to his form like something physical. Atop his head the malevolent energy formed long ears, while a long tail of chakra protruded from his rear, moving about like a living thing. A second tail was half-formed, growing slightly then shrinking in a constant oscillation. It was hard to see under the crimson aura, but Jiraiya could make out the blood that covered Naruto. Somehow, he doubted that it belonged to his student.

"This is more than I expected," Kabuto commented dryly.

"In the name of all that is holy," a new voice breathed.

Jiraiya glanced sideways. "Hojo," he said in greeting.

"It seems things are getting a little out of hand," Kabuto said. "I will take my leave." There was a puff of smoke, and when it faded he was gone.

Naruto's crimson eyes turned to his teacher. He growled, and there was nothing human in his gaze or voice. He tensed, then vanished in a blur of motion. Jiraiya leapt backward moments before Naruto pounced at where he had been standing. "He's gone berserk," Hojo commented. "We might have no choice but to kill him."

As if in answer to his words, the second tail pulsed one last time, then rapidly retreated. As it vanished, Jiraiya for the first time saw something besides mindless rage in Naruto's red eyes. Then they widened, turning blue as the malevolent aura faded away. "Ero-sennin," Naruto said weakly.

Then he fainted.

Day Thirty-five

Sakura's heart was pounding. Despite her best efforts, she had barely gotten any sleep the night before. She had wound up spending most of the night pouring over her scrolls of notes one last time, unable to even think about sleeping. It was somehow worse, knowing what was coming. Six months ago, she didn't think she had been this nervous. Even though she had - rightfully, she now knew - doubted that her skills were adequate to pass the exam, she hadn't known just how difficult the exam would be.

Now she did, and now she had a much firmer goal. The Hokage had told her that she was expected to improve on her performance this time if she wanted to become her apprentice. Sakura had to win at least one match in the third exam. "I have to," Sakura muttered to herself. She wasn't going to ever be left behind again, and this was the first step on that road. She clenched her fist.


She looked at the speaker and forced a smile onto her face. "Lee-san, good morning."

Lee and his teammates walked over the tree Sakura was leaning against. "Where is you team?" Neji asked after a moment.

Sakura shrugged. "They still have a few minutes before they're late. I couldn't sleep so I got up early."

Tenten looked down at the orange leg warmers Sakura wore. "Are those," she began, only to cut off as Sakura nodded. "Interesting," the other kunoichi said, glancing sideways at Lee. Her gaze returned to Sakura. "Do you really think that you can take on Kiba-san?" she asked.

It took Sakura a moment to remember her bold words of three days ago. She swallowed nervously, but she managed to stop herself from saying no. "There's only one way to find out," she said, her voice steady. Damn it. What was she going to do if she was paired up against Kiba, or worse someone like Gaara, in the third exam?

Tenten gave Sakura a measuring gaze. "Well, at least you have the right spirit now, Haruno," she said. She turned back to her teammates. "Come on. Let's get this over with, you two." Without a word, Neji followed her towards the academy building. Lee smiled at Sakura, then with a wave went after his teammates.

A few minutes later, Ino and Chouji arrived. "You ready, Forehead?" Ino asked.

Sakura grinned weakly. "Any time, Ino-pig," she said. Chouji glanced between his two teammates and sighed. "Let's go," Sakura said, and as one the team entered the academy building and made their way up the stairs. Just like six months ago, the first exam was being held in room 301.

"Here we go," Ino said a moment later.

"Are you blind, Ino-pig?" Sakura asked. "This is the second floor. It's a genjutsu just like last time."

Ino rolled her eyes. "I know that," she said. "But we can still take a look at the competition." She grinned. "Besides, Shikamaru asked me to take us by there."

Sakura shrugged. "All right," she said, following Ino and Chouji onto what seemed to be but wasn't the third floor. There was already a cluster of ninja crowding around the door labeled 301. Still, the three exam veterans were able to force their way through the crowd with ease. Sakura blinked as she saw who was blocking the door.

"Yo," Shikamaru said with a wave. Three genin, frozen in front of him, helplessly imitated the wave. Shikamaru sighed, and his shadow retracted itself. "You three can go on through," he told his two teammates and Sakura.

"Hey!" a girl in the crowd protested. "Why do they get to go through?" Sakura frowned. She recognized that voice.

"Because," Shikamaru said slowly, "they're worthy to take this exam." He sighed again. "This exam would be less troublesome if you all would wait until you're as good as them."

The girl let out a bark of laughter. "Those three? Better than us? You're joking!"

Sakura blinked as she turned to face the protester, who had made her way to the front of the crowd. Two more genin, a boy and a girl, followed after her. Sakura smiled. Yes, she knew this person. She glanced sideways at Ino. The other kunoichi smiled back at her. "I'll let you do the honors," she said, taking a step toward Shikamaru.

Sakura turned back to the protester, looking her up and down. The crowd around them hushed as they watched the confrontation. "Uzuki Ami," she said slowly. "It's been a while. Not since you and your cronies failed the final exam that year and had to be held back, right?"

Ami pushed a strand of her purple hair back behind an ear, her dark eyes flaring. "Get out of my way, forehead girl, before I have to hurt you."

Behind Sakura, Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "What's all this about?" he asked Ino, who grinned at him.

"Sakura's enjoying a little payback," she explained quietly. "Ami was the biggest bully in our kunoichi training class, and Sakura was her favorite victim."

Sakura ignored Ami, turning to the other rookie girl. "Mitokado Fuki. I see you're still hanging around with Ami-chan. Where's Kasumi? Did she finally flunk out?"

"She's on my aunt's team," Ami answered for her friend. "Hey, Ino!" she called out. "You should come over here. Forehead girl's going to need rescuing, just like the old days." Ino only rolled her eyes.

Sakura pondered her options, and decided that simple was best. She turned around, showing her back to her old tormentor. "If you're so confident," she said as she walked back to her team, "give it your best shot." Ami snarled and charged. Sakura had planned to use the replacement technique, but there was no need. Resisting the urge to yawn theatrically, Sakura sidestepped, reaching out and grabbing the other girl's shoulder as she passed. "Is that all?" Sakura asked. Was Ami really this weak?

"Hey, Ami," the boy on her team said. "That's enough. No need to show off." Ami snarled again as she shook herself free of Sakura's grasp, but she backed away. "Chouji, Shikamaru," the boy said as he nodded at the other two male genin.

"You know him?" Ino asked.

"Inuzuka Shinta," Chouji answered. "He's a year below us."

"Inuzuka?" Sakura said, glancing at the boy. "Shouldn't you have a dog?"

Shinta grinned, lightly tapping the blocks of color tattooed on his cheeks. "You're thinking of the main families, like Kiba-san from your class," he said casually. "Different tattoos, see? My family has its own techniques."

"Ah," Sakura said.

"Anyway," Shikamaru said, stepping aside. "Go on, you three. I'd wish you luck, but you probably don't need it."

"But," Chouji began, only to silence at a look from Shikamaru. Without another word, he entered what was really room 201. A moment later, Ino and Sakura followed. The crowd of rookie genin began to murmur excitedly as Shikamaru stepped back into position, shutting the door behind the three veterans.

Inside room 201, a much older chuunin was sitting in a chair. "Shikamaru-kun's doing a good job," he commented. "With the performance you three gave, I don't know if any of those rookies will notice the genjutsu and pass the application turn-in phase."

Ino laughed. "Probably not," she agreed.

Chouji looked around the almost empty room. "How will we get upstairs?"

The chuunin pointed at an open window. "Up the wall," he said dryly. "You three can handle that, right?"

Moments later, the three had climbed through another open window into a room that Sakura recognized. This was where Sasuke and Lee had fought. Sakura shook her head. She couldn't believe that it had only been six months ago. "Something wrong?" Ino asked. Sakura shook her head again, and Ino shrugged. "Let's go, then," she said. "We've only got another fifteen minutes."

When they entered the real room 301, the sight of the gathered genin was nowhere near as intimidating as the last time. Sakura's eyes still narrowed as she took in the room. Instead of the long rows of seats, many smaller desks had been installed. Each one had three chairs at it. Were they going to take the exam as a team?

"Hey, you made it!" Inuzuka Kiba said as he walked forward toward them. The other two members of his team trailed after him. "You all ready?" he asked, grinning.

"Of course!" Ino said loudly. "You better believe it!"

Neji, Tenten, and Lee walked up to the six. "It's a different feeling than the last time," Neji said quietly, without wasting time on a greeting. Sakura glanced around. He was right. Once again, nine Leaf genin - though a different nine - were gathering near the doorway. This time, though, none of them seemed to care about the hostile glares they were already receiving.

Kiba grinned, waving broadly. "It's too bad Naruto isn't here to give his challenge," he said. "What was it? I'm not going to lose to any of you?"

Neji smirked. "He was right."

Kiba shook his head. "I would never have believed it," he said.

The doors to the exam room opened, admitting a trio of Sand ninja. In an instant, Lee stood in front of them. "Excuse me," he said. "May I ask you a question?"

Tenten sighed. "What kind of trouble is he getting into now?" she asked, walking toward her teammate. A moment later, other seven genin followed.

The lead Sand ninja blinked. "What do you want, kid?"

"One of the genin from your village who was here last time," Lee said. "I have been looking for him, but I haven't seen him. Could you tell me if he is attending the exam?"

The Sand ninja blinked. "You're a veteran?" he asked. When Lee nodded, he shrugged. "Who are you looking for?"

"Gaara of the Desert," Lee said simply.

All three Sand ninja stiffened. "Why?" the lead one asked.

"I desire a rematch with him," Lee responded.

The Sand ninja stared at Lee, eyes wide. "You fought Gaara and lived?" he asked, disbelievingly.

Lee shrugged modestly. "That's nothing," he said, gesturing back at Sakura. "Sakura-san's old team fought Gaara and won."

Sakura blinked as all the Sand ninja within earshot began to stare at her. Her hands twitched. She'd never thought she would say this to herself, but she really wanted to throttle Lee. She'd spent almost that entire battle unconscious, damn it! Now all the Sand ninja thought she could take on a monster like Gaara!

"When did you fight Gaara?" Ino whispered.

"During the invasion," Sakura said quietly. "It wasn't really me, though."

Ino laughed softly. "I guess Sasuke-kun -" She cut off as she said the name.

Sakura shook her head. "It wasn't him," she said. She could still remember the strange tone in Sasuke's voice when she had tried to thank him for saving her and he had told her that Naruto was the one responsible.

"You're trying to tell me Naruto beat him?" Ino asked, her voice strangled. "How the hell did that happen?"

Sakura shrugged. "I didn't see the fight," was all she said, her attention returning to Lee.

"I see," he said to the Sand ninja. "May I ask why he isn't taking the exam?"

"When he came back from the… from the exam," the Sand ninja explained, "he declared that he was now a chuunin." He paused. "And, well… nobody wanted to argue with Gaara of the Desert."

"I see," Lee said. "How disappointing. I was looking forward to facing him again." The Sand ninja stared at Lee in something akin to horror.

"What about the other two?" Tenten asked suddenly.

"Kankuro-san and Temari-san?" one of the three Sand ninja asked. When Tenten nodded, he continued. "We were out of the village when it happened, but I hear Temari-san was complaining about not being able to find a third member for her team, so Gaara just announced that his siblings were now also chuunin." The ninja shrugged. "And, well -"

"Nobody wanted to argue with Gaara of the Desert," Tenten finished for him. "I see."

"It looks like the desks are labeled," Chouji said suddenly to his teammates. "We should go find our seats." Sakura and Ino nodded, and the three walked away from the cluster at the doors. About a minute later, they had located the desk labeled with their names. As Sakura had guessed, they were together at the same desk.

"Looks like I won't have to switch bodies with you two like we planned," Ino commented.

Sakura shuddered. "Good." It had made sense as the easiest way to share answers without detection, but she hated the way it felt when Ino hijacked her body.

A shadow suddenly fell across them. Sakura looked up, seeing a boy who seemed to be a couple of years older than them and wore a Waterfall forehead protector. "Excuse me," he said. "Are you Haruno Sakura?"

Sakura blinked. "I am. Do I know you?"

The Waterfall ninja shook his head. "I am Hiraki Arata," he said, "and I was given a message for you from an Uzumaki Naruto."

Sakura straightened in her seat. "Naruto?" she asked, surprised. "How?"

"He was traveling through Waterfall Country with Jiraiya-sama," Arata explained. Ino and Chouji blinked at that. "We met when he was staying at one of the Waterfall's bases a few weeks ago."

"I see," Sakura said. So Naruto had passed through Waterfall Country. "What did he say?"

Arata coughed. "He said 'Tell her I lo… I li… I say hi.'" He grinned at Sakura.

Sakura flushed as Ino laughed. Damn Naruto. Why did he have to be so embarrassing? "Thank you," she managed to say after a moment.

"Hey, Arata!" a Waterfall kunoichi yelled loudly from across the room. "If you're done flirting, Ikkei-kun's found our seats!"

Arata rolled his eyes. "Coming, Maya!" he called back. He grinned again at Sakura. "See you," he said as he turned away.

"Well, that was interesting," Ino said, holding back laughter.

"Shut up, Ino-pig!" Sakura growled.

Before Ino could respond, the front of the classroom filled with smoke. When it cleared, a dozen chuunin in gray uniforms and carrying stacks of papers lined the front of the room. In front of them stood a special jounin Sakura just barely recognized, the ever-present toothpick in his mouth twitching as he took in the room. "My name is Shiranui Genma," he said simply. "I will be the head examiner for the first test of this Chuunin Selection Exam. If you have not yet found the desk labeled with your team's names, please do so now and be seated. One of the examiners will take your final applications and give your team a copy of the written exam. Please do not turn the paper over until you are instructed to, or I will be forced to fail your team before the exam even begins."

This took several minutes, and once it was accomplished Genma spoke again. "The rules are simple," he said. "The first test is a written exam consisting of ten questions. Nine questions are on the paper in front of you; you will have forty-five minutes to answer them and they will be worth one point each. The tenth question will be given at the end of the exam." Sakura nodded. It was more or less like the last time. "Any team caught cheating," Genma continued, "will immediately be disqualified."

Sakura blinked, trading a look with her teammates. That was different. Was this going to be a simple test of knowledge then? Sakura grinned. That would not be a problem.

"As you can see," Genma said, "each team has been given one copy of the test. You will take the test together and pass or fail as a team. If there are no questions," Genma said, pausing briefly to make sure that was the case, "you may begin."

Chouji flipped over the paper, and Sakura quickly skimmed the test. The questions seemed tough at first glimpse, but nothing like last time. While most genin might have a problem with them, this was her specialty. She'd been able to answer the questions six months ago, and they had been designed to be too tough for genin to answer. This would present no difficulty.

"Look," Ino whispered quietly, gesturing discretely at a team in the front row. "Those three are moving through without even looking at the problems. I bet they're actually examiners, like those two people last time."

"Don't try anything," Chouji said, his lips hardly moving. "The rules are different this time."

"They're probably bait," Sakura agreed.

Ino rolled her eyes. "I know," she said.

"Team number sixteen," one of the gray-uniformed examiners said. Sakura glanced at the number beside her team's names on the desk - nine - and breathed a sigh of relief. "Utatane Izumo, Yamashiro Naizen, Tatami Mai," the examiner continued. "Fail." The other genin began to murmur quietly as the named ninja began the trek back to the classroom door. The examiner smirked. "If you're going to cheat, cheat like someone who deserves to be a chuunin."

"Come on," Ino said after a moment. "Let's get started."

Chouji glanced at the first question. "List three provisions of the alliance treaty between the Leaf and Sand and explain how they are relevant to a chuunin's duties," he read.

"Easy," Sakura said quietly. She grabbed a pencil and began to write fluently. She smiled to herself. No, this exam would not be a problem at all. Indeed, twenty minutes later, she was finishing up on the ninth question - a rather tricky strategy question that seemed to be at least partially inspired by the events of the last Chuunin Exam, oddly enough. Ino and Chouji had contributed, of course, but most of the answers Sakura had provided herself. Back in the academy, her scores in other categories had dragged her down to the middle of the class ranking, but she had been the almost uncontested number one student at this kind of test. That hadn't changed.

By this point, it had been a while since the examiners had announced a team's failure. Most of the truly rash teams had already disqualified themselves. Everyone remaining seemed to have either realized that cheating was futile or was good enough to get away with it. Then one of the examiners wandering around the room slammed his hand down on a desk, attracting the attention of all the remaining genin. Sakura blinked. That was Kiba's team.

"You think you're clever, don't you?" the examiner asked. "Waiting this long to cheat so we wouldn't be paying attention, huh?"

Kiba half-rose. "Hey," he began, only to be shoved back into his seat.

"You think we don't know about the Aburame Clan's insect techniques, do you?" the examiner asked. "Protesting your innocence won't help."

"But," Hinata protested, then fell silent. Shino continued to write on his team's paper, ignoring the examiner.

"Team number thirty-one," the examiner said after a moment. "Aburame Shino, Hyuuga Hinata, Inuzuka Kiba. Fail." Sakura shook her head. She couldn't believe they could fail like that. Kiba was a loudmouth, but his teammates weren't dumb enough to try anything in these conditions.

Shino continued writing for several more moments - from the position of his pencil, he was on the last question. The examiner stared at him a moment, then wrenched the pencil from his hand. Shino rose. "Let's go," was all he said. Trading looks, Hinata and Kiba rose themselves and followed their teammate out of the classroom.

Shaking her head again, Sakura returned to her own work. A minute later, she was done, and she flipped the paper over, leaning back in her chair. "That wasn't that bad," she said.

Chouji shook his head. "It would have been tough without you," he said.

Ino snorted. "We could have done it."

The remaining twenty minutes passed slowly. Several more teams were failed, most in the last minutes as desperation drove them to try cheating. Precisely forty-five minutes after the exam had begun, Genma rose from behind the teacher's desk, his toothpick twitching. "Please put down your pencils and turn over your papers," he said.

When that was done, the first examiner continued. "The tenth question is an optional question," he said. Sakura's eyes narrowed. If this was anything like last time, the real test began now. "All teams that choose not to take it will receive one additional point. Teams that answer the question may receive up to ten points or as few as negative ten points." Sakura frowned. That was more points, either way, then the rest of the test combined.

The examiner smiled around his toothpick. "There are twenty-seven teams still participating in this exam. The teams with the top sixteen scores will proceed to the next exam. You have ten minutes to decide whether to answer the tenth question. If you decide not to, please turn your papers in to the nearest examiner and leave the classroom. Thank you." Genma seated himself again.

"What do we do?" Sakura asked. "I know we have these nine questions right."

"We stick around," Ino said with a grin. "With your over-sized forehead on our side, we'll be able to ace the tenth question."

"Chouji?" Sakura said.

"I don't know," he said. "There's probably a trick to it."

Sakura nodded. That had been the case the last time. "I think we should stay," she said.

"It's the same as before," Ino agreed. After a moment, Chouji nodded, and the three settled back. Several teams had already left, but none of the remaining teams seemed inclined to follow suit.

At the end of the ten minutes, Genma rose again. "Everyone who left this room," he said quietly, "has failed." A few of the remaining teams began to murmur, but most stayed quiet. "They showed either underconfidence or overconfidence in their abilities, and neither is becoming in a chuunin."

A Grass genin raised her hand. "Could you explain?" she asked.

"Of course," Genma said. "This test is like a battle, with all the other teams as your opponents. Those who did not take the tenth question ceded a potential advantage to the rest. There is risk in the tenth question, but there is risk on all missions. Those who are scared of risk or underestimate the competition and therefore allow their enemies the advantage do not deserve to be chuunin."

"So do we all pass, then?" Sakura asked.

"No," Genma said. "There are still twenty-two teams remaining, and only sixteen will proceed to the next exam." He smiled. "I will now give you the tenth question. You may write your answers on the back of your test. Again, any cheating will result in immediate disqualification. Are there any questions?" There were none. Genma nodded. "For the tenth question," he said, "your answer is not the most important part. While you will get points for a correct answer an incorrect answer will not receive, most of the points will be determined by whether or not you can back up your answer with a reasonable argument.

"Two of the teams in this room are chuunin who have already passed the exam. One team that was failed for cheating did not cheat, and is currently taking a tenth question of their own. Identify these teams, and explain your reasoning. You have ten minutes."

Ino grinned, eyes flicking to the team she had pointed out at the beginning of the exam. "One," she said, taking a pencil a beginning to write. Sakura nodded, her own eyes flicking about the room. Where was the other chuunin team?

"There," Chouji said, and Sakura followed his slight gesture with her eyes.

"Why?" she asked quietly.

"They aren't working on the tenth question very hard," the stocky boy explained, "and the way the middle one is sitting. That's Shikamaru using the transformation technique."

"You're right," Ino said, glancing up momentarily. Her pencil flowed smoothly over the test paper as she added this to the answer.

"You're good at this," Sakura commented.

Ino grinned as she wrote. "Information gathering is one of our team's specialties. What about the other part?"

Sakura bit at her lip. "Probably Kiba's team," she said. "I don't have any firm evidence, but they aren't dumb enough to try cheating here."

Chouji nodded, and Ino pursed her lips in thought. "The examiners would want to wait until they were certain that the team they picked wouldn't really cheat," she said. "So it has to be one of the last few teams."

Sakura's eyes narrowed. "It looked like they were on the last question when they were failed," she stated.

"They didn't act like they'd been caught cheating," Chouji added.

"It could be acting," Sakura said. If reasonableness of argument was the basis for points, one had to anticipate objections.

Ino raised an eyebrow. "Shino, maybe, but do you really think Hinata or Kiba could act that well?"

Sakura smiled slightly. "Probably not," she agreed. "Besides, if those three wanted to cheat on this they wouldn't get caught. They have too many advantages."

"All right," Ino said a few minutes later. "Done."

Sakura skimmed what her rival had written, and nodded. "We did it," she agreed.

A few minutes later, Genma stood once more. "This concludes the first part of the Chuunin Selection Exam. In a few moments, examiners will come around and collect your papers. After that, you are dismissed. Please return to this room at three o'clock this afternoon. Failure to arrive on time will result in immediate disqualification. That is all."

A few minutes later, Sakura and her team had made their way to a park close to the academy to wait. They made occasional smalltalk, but time still crawled with agonizing slowness. Sakura knew from the number of teams and her own confidence in their answers that they had almost certainly passed the first exam, but that didn't stop her from being nervous. Too much was riding on this for being almost certain to be sufficient.

As lunchtime neared, Sakura's stomach began to rumble, reminding her that she had missed breakfast. When she raised the issue of getting lunch, Ino groaned. "I'm so nervous I can't eat," she admitted. "I mean, I know we probably passed, but… you know?"

Sakura nodded, but her stomach growled at her again. She stood. "I'm going to go get something to eat anyway. Chouji?" she asked.

Chouji nodded. "I'll come." He grinned slightly. "We probably won't be getting much that's good to eat after today."

"Don't remind me," Ino groaned as she stood as well. "I'll probably puke, but I should at least try to eat something." After some discussion the three made their way to the Ichiraku ramen stand. Chouji, it turned out, was almost as fond of the place as Naruto, though in his case it seemed part of a more general appreciation for well made, cheaply priced food instead of a personal attachment. Sakura felt the urge to go there since six months ago Naruto had insisted on eating there for good luck after finishing the first exam, and together they overrode Ino's objections that she didn't particularly like ramen.

"Betrayed by my own teammate," Ino said with a sigh as she settled into her seat. Chouji just laughed as he placed a rather large order - though it was almost tiny compared to what Naruto would start off with when really hungry. The owner's daughter had already started making Sakura's usual, so the owner's attention turned to Ino next. "Whatever's best for a nervous stomach," the kunoichi said.

The owner nodded. "Something simple, then," he said as he busied himself. A short time later, all three ninja had been served.

"Do you mind if I join you?" a soft voice asked as someone entered the stand.

Sakura looked up, her eyes widening. "Ren-san!" she said, surprised.

The Mist kunoichi smiled as she seated herself slightly apart from Sakura's team. "Miso ramen please," she told the owner, who nodded and began to prepare it.

"Where's the rest of your team?" Ino asked, her voice suspicious.

"We split up so we could cover more ground," she said as she accepted her meal. "We only have a limited amount of time in your village, so we need to gather as much information as quickly as possible."

Chouji blinked. "That's a little… open," he commented.

Ren laughed softly. "It's not like you all don't know that we're going to do it, so there's no need to be furtive about it." She shrugged. "I'm sure some of your ANBU have been watching me, anyway, so it wouldn't do me any good."

For several moments, the four ninja ate in silence, until Sakura spoke. "I didn't see your team this morning, Ren-san."

Ren nodded. "Mitarashi-sensei threatened to bust us back to academy students if we caused any more trouble, so I had to keep Saburo and Midori away from you."

"I see," Sakura replied after a moment. It was weird, she thought. If she had expected anyone to be aiming for her, it would be Ren herself, not her teammates. Some of this must have shown on her face, because the Mist kunoichi laughed.

"I would enjoy a rematch with you, Sakura-san," she said, "but we agreed that there would be no hard feelings, yes? I don't bear any grudge; you won fairly." She grinned suddenly. "I think I've figured out your trick, though."

"I suppose we'll see," Sakura said. "If one of your teammates doesn't get to me first."

Ren's face turned serious. "I wouldn't worry overmuch about Saburo if I were you, Sakura-san. He talks big, but he just thinks you'd be interesting to fight, that's all. Midori's the one you should look out for."

All three ninja stared at her for a moment. "Why?" Sakura asked, but she wasn't certain whether she was asking why she should watch out for Midori or why Ren was giving her advice.

Ren sighed as she finished her small bowl of ramen. "I shouldn't say any more," she said, standing. Her mouth quirked into a smile. "I wish you three luck, at least until you come up against my team." Then she left.

At three o'clock, the remaining teams gathered back in room 301 of the academy building. Sakura spied the Mist team across the room, but true to Ren's story that team stayed well away from Sakura's. The next familiar set of faces Sakura saw was Uzuki Ami's team. The former bully gave Sakura a triumphant glare, and Sakura sighed. Ami had no idea what was coming, did she?

"There's Neji's team," Chouji commented, leading the way to a desk next to that trio. Ino and Sakura followed, and soon they had seated themselves. The names on the desks had already been removed, Sakura noted.

Neji nodded in greeting. "The easy part's done," he commented.

Tenten toyed with a kunai in a manner that reminded Sakura uncomfortably of Anko. "Now the fun can begin," she said.

"Yo," all six ninja looked up at Inuzuka Kiba's words as he walked over to them, his two teammates trailing behind. "Surprised?" he asked.

"Of course not," Ino said. "Part of the tenth question was to figure out which failing team hadn't really failed."

"What was your tenth question?" Sakura asked.

"The tenth question," Shino stated.

"That was… unhelpful," Tenten said.

"We had to figure out what the tenth question for the other teams was," Hinata explained.

Before anything else could be said, the front of the room was flooded with smoke again. When it cleared, gray-clad chuunin again lined the front wall, though this time Shikamaru was among them, instead of hiding among the students. Ino waved at her teammate, causing him to roll his eyes and mouth a word Sakura was almost certain was "troublesome."

In front of the chuunin stood Morino Ibiki. "The teams with insufficient scores have already been informed, and so the sixteen teams you all see here have passed the first part of the Chuunin Selection Exam." Excited murmurs filled the room. Ibiki grinned. "The real exam begins now. From this point on, there is a chance of injury or death. The chuunin behind me will pass out forms for you to sign stating that you understand and accept this. If you have any reservations, now is your last chance to pull out before the second exam begins."

"Won't you tell us what the second exam is first?" Inuzuka Shinta asked.

"No," Ibiki said simply.

"That isn't fair!" another genin protested.

"Fairness does not exist on missions," Ibiki responded, "so it has no place in the Chuunin Exam." The chuunin had already begun to circulate through the room, and when the time came Sakura signed without hesitation. It would be insane to back out now, and she noted without surprise that every team in the room stayed.

Once Ibiki had collected the forms, he nodded once before handing them to a chuunin, who vanished in a puff of smoke. "The second part of the Chuunin Selection Exam begins now. We will now proceed to the site of the exam, where we should arrive at dawn." Sakura's eyes widened. There would be no chance to rest or gather supplies.

"You are all instructed to treat this as a march during wartime through territory that has experienced enemy raids," Ibiki continued. "One of the chuunin behind me will be keeping an eye on your progress and is authorized to fail your team based on your performance. Any fighting will also result in immediate disqualification. I will not be taking any questions at this time."

Ibiki smiled grimly. "Chuunin, find your assigned teams and line them up by the door."

Author's Random Ramblings

1) So, I guess I sort of lied when I said Akatsuki would strike this chapter. Oh well. It's nothing compared to the title of episode 165 - "Naruto Dies!"

2) This chapter was kind of long. In fact, it has taken Chapter Three's place as the longest chapter in the story. Chapter Six, at least, shouldn't repeat this feat - it does only cover five days, even if they are rather eventful days.

3) As always, I welcome any and all comments. I do like to know that people are reading this story, and I try to respond to every comment - and I more or less have been, assuming Fanfiction.Net's review reply feature is working properly.

4) On a related note, if you're reading this on that site and have a question you want answered, please either leave a signed review or leave an e-mail address for me to write to. There's no way to answer an anonymous review that leaves no e-mail in a timely fashion.

5) To publicly answer what seems to be a relatively common question, One Hundred Days will, as the title implies, cover 100 days, though there will be a brief epilogue taking place about a week after Day One Hundred. I am aware that Naruto's training journey lasts much longer, but One Hundred Days will not cover all of it - and the remainder of the journey may or may not occur, as I'm not trying to match things up with Part 2 of the manga. That's a moving target that would be impossible to hit perfectly.

6) Next time, in One Hundred Days Chapter Six, Heaven and Earth: do I even need to say it? The second part of the Chuunin Exam!

Draft Started: January 4, 2006
Draft Finished: January 23, 2006
Draft Released: January 24, 2006