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One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 11: Way of the Ninja

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, panthercorns!

Day Sixty-nine

Uzumaki Naruto knew that he was not always as observant as a ninja should be. He'd heard that more than enough times from his teachers back in the academy or from Kakashi and his teammates after he'd screwed up in yet another training exercise. This wasn't to say that he was always unobservant, of course. Were that the case, he would have already died far more than a dozen times. It was just that, sometimes, he didn't pay quite as much attention to things as he needed to.

Despite this, he had noticed quite a few interesting things about his teacher, the legendary Sannin Jiraiya. Even setting aside the volumes he could write on the old man's perversity even though he still had only the vaguest perception of what that perversity precisely entailed, there were countless small habits and mannerisms of which Naruto had become aware. For one, he knew the way Jiraiya's eyes shifted whenever he spoke or thought of Orochimaru. He could read the nuances of the vast collection of sighs Jiraiya could produce.

Another thing he had learned was that Jiraiya rarely, if ever, totally dropped his guard. Even when he was sleeping, the Toad Hermit seemed mere moments from being ready for battle. Still, Naruto could tell when Jiraiya thought he was safe, notice the slightly more relaxed way he carried himself. Naruto had not seen Jiraiya like that since he had awoken on the ship to Lightning Country. Even now, the older man held himself like he feared some sudden attack.

That was not what was truly making Naruto nervous. After all, as Jiraiya had reminded him several times, they were in the heart of an enemy village. Even if the Leaf were presently at peace with the Cloud and even if they were under the personal protection of the High Priestess of the Thunder Dragon, that was no reason to completely dismiss the possibility of an enemy attack. No, what was bothering Naruto was that, while Jiraiya did not seem blind to the possibility of an external assault, that was not where the bulk of his attention lay.

As they had countless times over the past week, a thousand tiny details in the way Jiraiya held himself told Naruto that the older man most feared an attack originating from Naruto himself. Naruto, not being nearly so stupid as many thought, did not need to do a lot of thinking to know why that might be, not with the convenient gaps in his memories provided by his recent comas. He remembered all too well the harsh laughter of the Kyuubi as the two-tailed construct of blood and chakra had devoured him whole before the gates of the Kyuubi's prison. It was not hard to imagine what might have happened in the real world at the same time.

What had he looked like, Naruto wondered, when the Kyuubi had taken over? He liked to think that he would have noticed if he had turned into a terrible, nine-tailed beast of destruction larger than most buildings, so it could not have been that. But had he looked like Gaara, parts of his body twisting and deforming into a miniature imitation of that monster? Or, worse, had he just been himself, only filled with the Kyuubi's power and rage? How could he ever bring himself to ask Jiraiya those questions? Best to let his teacher think him cheerfully oblivious and hope that this Kaida lady could help him before he had another chance to find out the answers.

Jiraiya let out a sigh that meant he wanted Naruto's attention as he glanced carefully about the tiny garden nestled between two wings of the temple building, searching for hidden observers. Clearly finding none, he coughed once to ensure Naruto was listening, then spoke. "I'm going to have to leave you for a bit, boy," he said.

Naruto blinked. "Why?"

"I need access to a good library to do some research," Jiraiya explained. "The way the political situation here is now, Kaida-chan isn't able to get me access to the Cloud's main library."

"So what are you going to do?" Naruto asked.

"Fortunately, there's a secret library not too far from the village that's under Kaida-chan's control. They should have what I need there," Jiraiya answered. "It's not close enough that I can head back and forth, though."

"Oh," Naruto said. "What should I do?"

"Pay attention to Kaida-chan." Jiraiya smiled weakly. "She'll hit you with lightning if you don't." His face turned serious. "If anyone can help you right now, it's her. So long as you're careful, you can trust Kaida-chan at least as far as that goes." His eyes glanced around the garden once more. "Don't trust anyone else, though. Remember that we are in an enemy village and that the Leaf are not very popular here right now."

Naruto nodded, the motion reminding him that he wasn't wearing his forehead protector. Most of the priests knew who he was of course, but Kaida and Jiraiya had seen no point in him advertising his allegiance to all the people who came to the temple during the day.

"Be even more careful than you were at Hojo's place," Jiraiya continued. His hand suddenly reached out to rest on Naruto's stomach. "Whatever you do, don't let anyone but Kaida-chan know why you're really here. So far as anyone else knows, she's teaching you lightning element techniques as a favor to me. Keep it that way."

Jiraiya's tone was serious enough that Naruto answered just as seriously. "I will."

The older ninja smiled crookedly. "No accusations that I'm just going to go check out the Cloud Village's public baths instead of working?" he asked, sounding somewhat disappointed.

Naruto twitched. "Ero-sennin!" he hollered. "You better not -" He cut off as Jiraiya's hand moved again, rubbing the top of his head fondly.

"That's my boy," Jiraiya said. He released Naruto, who scowled at him. Jiraiya laughed. "Don't look like that," he said. "I have a present for you."

Naruto blinked. "What?"

"You have no idea how hard it was to get a copy of this here in Lightning Country," Jiraiya said, pulling out a folded piece of paper and handing it to his student.

Naruto opened it, staring blankly at the diagram and the names beneath it before realizing what it was. "This is who's fighting who in the Chuunin Exam!" he declared. For a moment, all his problems were forgotten as he studied the names. "Neji doesn't have to fight anyone in the first round, that lucky bastard," he grumbled.

"That's not really luck," Jiraiya observed. "It's one less fight he has to impress the examination board, and it means his first fight is going to be against a tougher opponent."

"I guess," Naruto observed, searching for another name. "Ah! Sakura-chan made it!" She was fighting an 'Uzuki Ami.' If that was the Ami Naruto thought it was, he really wished he could have been there to see the fight and cheer Sakura on, even more than before.

Jiraiya grinned. "Good for her," he observed, and for a moment Naruto thought that Jiraiya knew something about Sakura that he wasn't telling him. Then his attention was drawn to another oddity. "That's weird," he muttered.

"What's weird?" Jiraiya asked

Naruto turned the paper so he could see, pointing at one name. "There's a Haruno Midori listed here, but it says she's from the Mist."

"That is a little odd," Jiraiya agreed, "but it could just be coincidence."

"I guess," Naruto allowed, scanning the rest of the names. He noted idly that the genin guard he'd befriended at that Waterfall stronghold had made it. Hopefully Arata had given Sakura his message. He also noticed several names that were missing. "I wonder what happened to Kiba and Shino's team."

Jiraiya just shrugged. "I should get going," he said. "Kaida-chan should be ready to see you in a bit, so don't waste too much time here." He turned away.

"Ero-sennin," Naruto said. "Wait."

Jiraiya peered back at him. "Hmm?"

"Thanks." Naruto carefully folded the piece of paper again, slipping it into his pocket. Jiraiya just grinned at him, then walked off.

Naruto's hand fiddled with the slip of paper in his pocket, and he spent several moments pondering the question of how the tournament would go. Ultimately, though, there were too many names that he didn't recognize for him to make any predictions. Sighing, he decided to follow Jiraiya's advice and go to meet with the High Priestess. He got slightly lost heading through the unfamiliar hallways of the temple, but eventually he found his way to where he was supposed to be.

The acolyte standing outside the meditation chamber where he was supposed to meet Kaida nodded as he approached. "Kaida-sama said to go ahead and let you in, but be quiet. She's meeting with her apprentice." Naruto nodded back at the young man, who opened the door. Naruto slipped inside and the acolyte softly shut the door behind him.

It took Naruto's eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness. The surprisingly large room was lit only by a handful of candles, making the strange characters and arcane patterns painted on the cold stone floor even more incomprehensible to the Leaf genin. He could just barely make out the forms of two women kneeling across from each other in the center of the room. Kaida, who was facing the entrance, made a barely perceptible shake of her head.

Remembering the acolyte's warning, Naruto interpreted the gesture correctly and stepped aside, pressing himself against the wall and doing his best not to disturb the two women. The younger woman - Kaida's apprentice, no doubt, showed no sign that she'd noticed Naruto's presence. "It's good to be back, Kaida-sama," she said softly.

"I expected you much sooner, Junhime-chan," the High Priestess responded. "Was the mission more difficult than expected?"

"Yes," Junhime stated. When Kaida raised an elegant eyebrow, she elaborated slightly. "The mission parameters were changed half-way through. The new mission was a S-rank capture mission."

"Quite a change from an A-rank assassination," Kaida replied.

"A target of opportunity presented himself." Though he couldn't see her face, Naruto could feel the young woman grimace. "We lost more than half the squad capturing him, and then another transporting him here."

"He must be very skilled, then, to do such against your strength," Kaida allowed. "That still does not explain why you are this late, though."

"He is most impressive, even setting aside his eye," Junhime agreed. Naruto frowned slightly, something setting off warning bells in the back of his mind. Kaida's apprentice continued, "We were further delayed when we got picked up by a Hidden Sky patrol. They spent several days debating how it might jeopardize the alliance if we were to vanish inside their country and whether it would be worth the risk to get their hands on the famous copy ninja Sharingan Kakashi."

Naruto didn't even pause to think, but even if he had it wouldn't have changed his next action in even the slightest. He snarled, not noticing his teeth lengthening and sharpening or the rapid growth of his fingernails into inhuman claws. Red chakra flickered around him, and he was just as oblivious to it as to the physical changes. Instantly noting the explosion of power behind her, Junhime was on her feet in an instant, whirling about to face Naruto with kunai in one hand. Her eyes widened slightly. "You're -" she began, only to cut off as Naruto snarled again.

"Oh dear," Kaida muttered, not stirring from her kneeling posture.

The scarlet chakra began to thicken around Naruto, and he noticed it for the first time. With an effort of will, he forced it to disperse back into a faint flicker, though none of the changes his body had gone through reversed themselves. "What did you do to Kakashi-sensei?" Anger and menace filled every word.

The door to the mediation chamber burst open, two robed acolytes rushing in. One reacted quickly to the sight that awaited him, hands flickering through seals. "Raiton: Hand of Thunder!" One open palm darted at Naruto's back, electricity crackling around it.

Reacting almost on its own, Naruto's hand reached back, grabbing the acolyte's wrist. Crimson chakra flared briefly, drowning out the energy of the man's technique. He twisted uncomfortably, the chakra obviously painful to him. "Answer me," Naruto snarled, his eyes never leaving Junhime.

Junhime's cold blue eyes studied him. "A Leaf ninja, here. It seems I have been away too long, Kaida-sama." Her hand tightened around the hilt of her kunai.

"Don't be foolish, Junhime-chan," Kaida chided. "He is my guest." Her eyes flicked to Naruto. "Release him, please. He was only trying to protect me."

Naruto dropped the acolyte's hand, and the man stumbled back to rejoin his companion. "I want an answer," he repeated.

"Fine," Junhime stated. "I'll give you one. I captured Hatake Kakashi and brought him here. He's now in the hands of the medical division here and they'll study him until they're certain they can safely transplant the Sharingan. Then, if I'm lucky I'll get the eye, and if you're lucky we'll trade him back to the Leaf." She smiled. "Please do try to change his fate, little boy. I'd love to have you take yourself out from under Kaida-sama's protection that way."

Naruto snarled, almost lunging at the woman, but he managed to restrain himself. Slowly relaxing, he still glared at her even as his eyes changed from crimson to blue and the rest of his body returned to normal. "If he's hurt, I will find some way to make you pay," he stated harshly, "and you'd better believe it. I don't go back on my word."

Junhime snorted, ignoring him and glaring back at her mistress. "And you had best believe that the appropriate authorities will learn just what you're sheltering here, Kaida-sama." Naruto swallowed nervously as the implication of her choice of words settled in.

"I would expect no less from you, Junhime-chan," Kaida murmured. "You have the rest of today and tomorrow off to recover from your mission, but your lessons will resume after that."

Junhime nodded. "Of course, Kaida-sama," she said, her voice strangely respectful again. Turning back to face the High Priestess and bowing, she continued, "By your leave?"

Kaida nodded, and her apprentice left, not even glancing at Naruto as she passed. "Kaida-sama?" one of the acolytes prompted.

"You may leave also," Kaida said, "and please get that wrist looked at." Once they were alone, she gave Naruto a long look, sighing. "I see Jiraiya-kun was right when he said you had problems with control."

Naruto seated himself where Junhime had knelt minutes before. "Kakashi-sensei is my teacher," was all he said.

"I see," Kaida stated. "I will do what I can for him, Naruto-kun, but please do not try anything just yet. That will only make it more difficult." After a long moment, Naruto nodded and the High Priestess continued. "I'm afraid that after that I'm going to have to ask you to agree to some restrictions on your movements for your own safety." She paused. "If I can find men I can trust, you will be under constant guard as well."

Naruto frowned, but he eventually said, "All right."

"Very well, then," Kaida said. "Let us put that aside for the moment. Shall we begin?"

Day Seventy

The arena was loud. Even now, almost an hour before the first match was scheduled to begin, the stands were packed with hundreds of observers from all over the allied nations and beyond. Vendors moved up and down the broad stairways, hawking their overpriced wares. It was a shame that none of them would ever even consider daring the guarded passageway's that lead to the Kages' platform at the top of the arena, because Tsunade could have really used a drink.

She'd never been to a chuunin exam like this. When she'd been a young girl, there hadn't been such a thing. The rank of chuunin was awarded after a series of informal tests, given to individual candidates at the Second Hokage's personal discretion. That had served the then-smaller village well. Tsunade had actually helped to set up some of the Hidden Leaf's first formal Chuunin Selection Exams, but those had been nothing like the spectacle of today's exams. The exams had continued to become more and more formal and public over the years, accelerating once they had became inter-village events. Even as late as when she had left the Leaf, though, the finals had still been barred to civilians.

Tsunade sighed as she settled into the fairly uncomfortable throne, then sighed again as she felt Shizune's worried glance. "I'm fine, Shizune," she said.

After a moment, her student nodded. "I should probably be going," the younger woman said, a hint of wistfulness in her voice.

"I'm sure Anko-chan will tell you all about it," Tsunade said. "I need somebody I can trust to do things right commanding the defenses."

"I know," Shizune answered. She fiddled with one of the scroll pouches on the uniform armored jacket she was wearing. "I'll do my best." She bowed slightly, then vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving Tsunade alone on the high platform.

Tsunade glanced at the empty throne several paces from her own. Traditionally, the Kazekage would be seated there, but at the moment there was no Kazekage. There were no Sand ninja in the finals, besides, so it was unlikely that he or she would have attended anyway. That being the case, Tsunade had felt free to bend the traditions a little bit and invite a few guests to sit with her. If she had to be stuck in a seat with such an awful view of the action, she was going to have some company.

The first of her guests to arrive were her advisers, who came together. "Tsunade-sama," Utatane Koharu said as she drew near, giving a shallow bow. "Thank you for the invitation."

"Likewise," Mitokado Homura murmured.

Tsunade waved her hand at the chairs she'd ordered placed on the platform. "Have a seat," she said.

Homura seated himself next to Tsunade, then Koharu sat next to him. "There should be many interesting fights this time," Koharu observed after a moment.

"I certainly hope so," Tsunade said. "I'd hate to have to sit out here all day to be bored. I get enough of that in the office."

"Despite being… interrupted, the last exams set a high standard," Homura observed. "Still, I think we're in for a good tournament this time." He glanced sideways at the Hokage. "I expect to be impressed by Haruno Sakura's matches, for one."

Tsunade sighed. "You know?"

"You weren't exactly subtle," Koharu observed, a hint of amusement in her voice.

"The way you spoke to me about your soon-to-be apprentice," Homura elaborated, "it had to be either Fuki-chan or Haruno." He snorted. "Our Haruno, that is. It wasn't hard to figure out the answer to, given how you had Shizune tracing her history."

"I suppose," Tsunade mumbled. "Your reaction isn't what I would have expected."

"I'm not an evil man," Homura said. "I wish her nothing but the best." He shook his head slightly. "That's one of the reasons I didn't want to acknowledge her as Takeru's daughter. Mitokado Sakura would not have had a happy life, I fear."

"I suppose," Tsunade allowed.

For a long moment, the three old ninja were silent. Then Homura spoke again. "She doesn't know, I take it."

"I haven't told her," Tsunade stated simply. "Sakura-chan has enough family problems at the moment without adding this to them."

"This Haruno Midori," Koharu agreed.

"She and my… and Fuki-chan have the first fight, I believe," Homura commented.

"You think your great-granddaughter can win?" Tsunade asked.

"Perhaps," Homura stated. Then he smiled, a twinkle in his eye. "I'd feel more confident if I could get you to lay a wager against her, though."

"Oh, shut up," Tsunade grumbled. "Shizune would kill me if I bet on anybody, anyway."

"I'm starting to think we should have just skipped the middle-woman and just made Shizune-chan Hokage directly," Koharu stated dryly.

Tsunade mock-growled at the older woman, but any further conversation was halted by the sound of approaching footsteps. Tsunade glanced sideways to see a young man in a Waterfall uniform. The man bowed deeply. "Hokage-sama, I am Matsuyo Nissho, jounin of the Hidden Waterfall. I thank you for the invitation to watch the matches with you."

Tsunade waved a hand at one of the two empty chairs. "Have a seat; there's no need to be formal."

"Thank you, Hokage-sama," Nissho said as he followed Tsunade's advice. He grinned slightly. "You are as beautiful as Jiraiya-sama described."

Tsunade blinked. "You know Jiraiya?"

"We met briefly in Waterfall Country a couple of months ago," Nissho stated. "He stumbled across one of our hidden bases while trying to evade the Valley."

"I see," Tsunade said. "I take it that it is your team competing, since you were chosen to be the Waterfall's representative."

"More or less," Nissho said. "It's complicated."

Before Tsunade could respond, the last of her guests arrived. Unlike the others, Mitarashi Kimi came escorted by two grim ANBU guards. "Hokage-sama," she said in greeting, a hint of mockery in her voice as she bowed.

Tsunade nodded her head. "Mitarashi-san." Unlike the previous times she had seen the Mist jounin, Kimi was wearing the uniform of her village. "Please, be seated."

"Thank you," Kimi said, smiling politely at Nissho as she seated herself next to him.

The noise of the crowd suddenly redoubled in intensity, and Tsunade glanced down at the arena floor far below. The fighters had taken the field, standing in a rough line facing the stands. Mitarashi Anko stood beside them, grinning widely as she waited for the cheering to die down enough that she could make herself heard to the genin. Tsunade shifted in her seat.

The third part of the Hidden Village of the Leaf's Chuunin Selection Exam was about to begin.

The roar of the crowd was deafening, and Mitarashi Anko felt herself grinning widely as her gaze swept the line of genin standing beside her. The third exam might not be quite as fun to run as the second, but it did have its moments. Her grin widened as she noted to herself just how easy it was to tell that Hyuuga Neji was the only one of the genin who had ever been in this situation before. The others were all looking around in something very much like awe.

Almost having to shout to make herself heard over the noise of the spectators, Anko told the young ninja, "You all had better give them a good show." She licked her lips, noting that the crowd had begun to quiet as they noticed her speaking. "I want to see plenty of blood." Anko smiled slightly at disgusted looks several of the genin gave her, then pulled out and unfolded a slip of paper. "In case any of you are morons, I'm supposed to show you who you'll be fighting again. There haven't been any changes.

"The rules are simple. You fight until one of you is no longer able to fight or yields. However, if I believe the match to be over, I will step in and end it. If you continue to fight after that, you can and will be disqualified and the match awarded to your opponent. Understood?" The genin all made noises or gestures of agreement, and Anko took a step back, returning the schedule of fights to her pocket. "Then let's get this thing started." Raising her hand, she gestured to Tsunade far above, who rose from her seat and began to welcome the visitors to the exam. Anko didn't pay any attention to the words, but the sudden roar of the crowd told her when Tsunade's speech was over.

"The first fight will be between Haruno Midori and Mitokado Fuki." The named kunoichi stiffened slightly. Anko cracked her knuckles. "The rest of you should go back to the waiting room." She waved vaguely in the direction of the stairs leading off the arena floor. Slowly, the other genin began to walk off, while Anko positioned the fighters the requisite handful of paces apart in the center of the arena, before taking her place between them.

Haruno Midori grinned. "Last chance," she said. "Back down now and you won't get hurt."

"I told you before," Fuki answered, "I'm going to fight you. I haven't come this far just to give up."

"Your mistake," was all Midori said in reply, falling into a ready stance. An instant later, Fuki followed suit, and Anko noted that she carefully kept her eyes off of Midori's.

Judging that the time was right, Anko activated a technique to amplify her voice so that it could be heard throughout the arena, even though she spoke only slightly more loudly than usual. "The first match," she stated, then waited a moment for the echoes to die down. In an instant, the crowd hushed itself almost completely. "The Hidden Mist's Haruno Midori against the Hidden Leaf's Mitokado Fuki… begin!"

The crowd roared and silenced itself once more, but neither fighter stirred. Anko nodded slightly to herself. They were both playing it safe, searching for any weaknesses in the other's stance rather than blindly charging in. She'd thought her sister's student had seemed overconfident enough to play into Fuki's hands like that, but Midori was proving to have at least a little caution despite her bravado.

Slowly, taking advantage of Fuki's slightly averted gaze, Midori began to surreptitiously ready shuriken in one hand. A shifting of Fuki's feet betrayed the fact that she noticed, even as behind her back the Leaf kunoichi prepared her own weapons. As though they had been signaled, the fighters simultaneously released their shuriken, then leapt away from their opponent's attack.

As she landed, Midori pulled out a kunai, charging before Fuki could prepare any defense. Fuki flipped away from the green-eyed girl, throwing a handful of smoke bombs to hide her retreat. As Midori burst from the clouds of thick black smoke, a trio of kunai flew at her. Midori expertly parried each of them, then tossed her own kunai at Fuki. The blade pierced her chest, then she vanished in a puff of smoke.

"Replication Technique," Midori snarled. "Where are you, then?" It took her only moments to locate her opponent, perched in one of the cluster of trees near one the far wall of the arena. "Hiding won't help you," the Mist kunoichi stated as she slowly advanced.

"Who said I was hiding?" Fuki returned, reaching up to pull down a handful of green leaves from the tree.

Midori stopped, falling rapidly into a defensive stance. "What are you up to?"

Fuki released the leaves, which began to flutter slowly to the ground. Her hands flickered through seals. "Leaf Shuriken Technique!" she shouted, and the falling leaves suddenly began to fly through the air as straight and true as any real shuriken. Midori darted and weaved, a kunai appearing in her hands and shredding a number of leaves that came too close, yet one leaf managed to penetrate her defense, leaving a crimson line across one cheek. "That's what I'm up to," Fuki stated as she reached for another handful of leaves.

The watching crowd erupted into loud cheers. No surprise, Anko thought. While there were likely a handful of visitors from farther away, the vast majority of the crowd were from the Leaf Village and most of the rest were from the other allied nations. All of those would be rooting against the Mist kunoichi. While they weren't at war at the moment, all the allied nations had fought the Mist in living memory.

Breathing heavily, Midori pulled out a small flask of water. "You aren't the only one with that sort of technique," she observed as she opened the flask and flung it spinning into the air, spraying water. As soon as the container left her hands, they began to form seals. "Water Shuriken Technique!" Bullets of water formed in midair, flying straight at Fuki.

The other kunoichi once more released her leaves, this time forming a longer sequence of seals. "Shield of Leaves!" More leaves fell from the tree to join the ones Fuki had thrown, formed a whirling barrier that perfectly blocked Midori's attack. As the leaves once more began to fall naturally, Fuki scanned the arena floor for her opponent. "Where are you?" she muttered.

"Right here," Midori answered as she landed behind Fuki on the tree branch. The Mist ninja's fist flew at the back of Fuki's head. Fuki half-turned to block the strike, then leapt away, landing lightly in the branches of another tree. "Running away?" Midori asked mockingly as she readied a kunai.

Fuki's hands moved through seals. "Of course not," she stated, her hands freezing on the last seal. "Leaf Shuriken Technique!" All around Midori, green leaves, loosened by Fuki earlier, detached themselves from the tree. Midori barely had time to recognize the danger before the storm of razor-sharp foliage descended on her. "Got you," Fuki stated, forming a fist and grinning in victory.

Midori's form dissolved into water. Reluctantly, Anko nodded in admiration. The Water Shuriken Technique had been used only to get enough water near Fuki to create a water replication. The clone had been used as a decoy to keep the Leaf kunoichi busy while the real Midori got herself into position. It was a clever strategy, Anko had to admit as she searched for the hidden Midori. Her eyes fell on what seemed like an empty branch. There she was.

Fuki, not being nearly so observant as the special jounin, was still looking on the arena floor for her opponent when a thrown kunai, aimed at her heart, seemed to appear out of midair. Fuki noticed the attack just in time, using the Replacement Technique to leave a thick branch behind to 'die' in her place. Reappearing on top of one tree, Fuki bit worriedly at her lip. "A cloaking genjutsu?" A calculating look appeared on her face as she obviously attempted to work out Midori's position from the angle of the attack.

Midori, of course, knew this, and wasn't staying still. Moving closer to the trees to get a better look at the fight, Anko silently willed Fuki to notice the slight shuffling of leaves and distortion in the air that betrayed Midori's path. Despite her pleas, the seemingly oblivious Fuki managed to once more present her back to Midori. Slowly, cautiously, the Mist kunoichi drew nearer to deliver a killing strike.

Then, Anko grinned. An instant later, a massive explosion engulfed the tree Midori was standing on as she stepped too close to the explosive tag Fuki had placed. Fuki had clearly decided that she couldn't see through Midori's genjutsu, so instead she had maneuvered Midori into a trap by presenting a too-tempting vulnerability. Unfortunately, it Midori had noticed the tag quickly enough to use the Replacement Technique to escape the explosion, but now her cloaking technique was disrupted. She stood, plainly visible, on the ground facing the trees.

After a moment, Fuki landed before her opponent, surrounded by gently falling leaves knocked from their places by the explosion. "It's over," she stated as for the third time she formed the seals for the Leaf Shuriken Technique, her eyes still carefully averted from Midori.

"You're right," Midori's voice came from the empty air beside Fuki. "It is over." The visible Midori vanished in a puff of smoke, and Anko's eyes widened slightly. Midori was very fast with her cloaking technique, if the Mist girl had managed to get it up again and create a replication before either the examiner herself or Fuki had noticed.

Fuki started, but wasn't able to avert her eyes quickly enough as the real Midori dropped her genjutsu. The Mist kunoichi's hands had already formed a seal. "Haruno Ninpou: Gaze of Binding," she stated as her green eyes met Fuki's. Helplessly, Fuki struggled to move, but it was clear that she was almost completely paralyzed. "Since you knew not to look in my eyes," Midori said softly, "I suspect that pink-haired bitch told you about the Gaze of Torment. If not, the name should be enough. Yield now, and I won't have to use it."

Slowly, straining against the force of Midori's technique, Fuki nodded. In an instant, Anko stood between the two fighters. "Do you yield?" she asked Fuki softly.

Fuki nodded again. "I withdraw," she muttered bitterly, and Midori glanced away, releasing her opponent from her paralysis. Fuki shuddered once as control returned to her.

Anko nodded, once more activating the technique that amplified her voice. "Mitokado Fuki yields," she stated. "The winner of the first match is Haruno Midori of the Hidden Mist." Scattered, weak cheers and much louder boos filled the air, and Midori snorted. Without waiting for any other words from Anko, she turned away and began the walk back across the arena to the waiting room.

Anko let her hand rest on Fuki's shoulder. "Don't worry about it," she told the young kunoichi. "You did really well, particularly for a rookie. You probably won't make chuunin this time, but I expect you'll manage it within a year." When Fuki didn't say anything, she continued. "You can go back to the waiting room to stay with your team or leave now, whichever you want."

Fuki nodded. "Thank you," she whispered, then she followed Midori's trail back to the waiting room. When they arrived, both fighters rejoined their teams, the trio of Mist ninja pointedly ignoring the quiet hostility of the others as Saburo loudly celebrated Midori's victory. The green-eyed kunoichi herself didn't say anything, settling for just giving Neji an evil grin. The Hyuuga prodigy didn't dignify her with a response.

Not far away, Sakura had finished giving her condolences to Fuki and walked over to her rival. "You're up next, Ino-pig," she said.

"I know that, Forehead," Ino muttered.

"Remember what I told you," Sakura said quietly, "and don't lose."

Ino grinned widely at her. "I told you before, Forehead, I'm not going to lose. Worry about your own fight." With that, she casually jumped from the waiting room to the arena floor. Sakura grimaced as she stared after her and remembered…

"The third exam's less than a week away."

Sakura snorted at her rival's words. "I know that, Ino-pig," she replied, taking of sip of her tea. The two kunoichi were in a small cafe not far from the ninja academy - Ino had loudly declared that she would skip the meeting entirely if they were going to eat at Ichiraku yet again. "Maybe you aren't, but I'm perfectly capable of using a calendar."

"That was weak, Sakura," Ino returned with a roll of her eyes. "I'm afraid with your oversized forehead, there's not enough room left in your brain for witty insults."

"Are we here to talk or fight?" Sakura asked.

"You started it, Forehead," Ino reminded her. "I'd be happy to play with you more, though I think you should probably make this quick. You'll need to spend more time training if you don't want to embarrass yourself against me in the second round." Smirking, Ino took a sip of her own drink.

"Enough," Sakura snarled. "I don't want to talk about the exam, Ino-pig."

Ino raised an eyebrow as she set down her cup. "I thought you wanted to tell me all about your fight with Shimano Ren."

"I do," Sakura answered. "There's something more important."

"Spill it, then," Ino stated.

Sakura glanced about instinctively, making sure there weren't any other ninja within easy hearing distance. When she spoke, her voice was quiet but by no means soft. "You're going to tell me everything you know about Kakashi-sensei."

Ino blinked. "Didn't Hokage-sama tell you?" she asked.

"I can't get an appointment with her!" Sakura snarled, briefly forgetting herself and raising her voice. She paused, taking a quick breath and continuing in a normal tone of voice. "Hokage-sama is busy preparing for the exam, and Shizune-sama won't tell me anything."

"All right," Ino said. "I'll tell you what I know." It was her turn to make sure no one listening - while she wasn't really doing anything wrong, the information was technically classified. It took only a few minutes to tell Sakura what she knew about how Daimyo Chichiatsu had betrayed Kakashi and sold him out to the Cloud, leading to his capture.

When she finished, Sakura quietly snarled, "Damn it." The pink-haired kunoichi clenched her fists tightly. "If I didn't know it was stupid, I'd head to Swamp Country so I could kill this daimyo myself."

Ino laughed weakly. "You'd be a little late," she said, something strange in her voice. "He's already dead."

Sakura stared at her rival a moment, quickly realizing what Ino's odd tone meant. "Ino," she breathed. "You didn't -"

"I did." Ino stared at her mostly empty cup for a long moment, a hint of a shudder passing through her. "I was in his daughter's body, and I'd tricked him into telling me the whole story." She swallowed once. "I knew what had to be done, and I did it."

"Ino," was all Sakura could find to say.

"Don't," Ino said. "I don't need," she began, only to trail off. "You know what I mean."

"I guess," Sakura replied.

"Enough of that," Ino said firmly. "Now, tell me everything you know about this Ren."

"It's been a couple of months," Sakura said after a moment's hesitation to gather her thoughts, "and she's certainly been training. My information is going to be out of date."

"I know that," Ino said. "I'm not stupid." Now she paused. "Chouji fought her briefly in the second exam. She knows that fire claw technique of yours, and Chouji said that she has some technique that creates a wall of fire."

Sakura shrugged slightly. "I don't know about that. She also likes to use a technique called Shadow Smoke Evasion. It's like the Replacement Technique, but she doesn't need to leave anything physical behind. Instead she uses a specialized replication that explodes into enough smoke to disorient you for a moment."

Ino nodded. "I think I saw that one."

"Right." Sakura paused briefly. "Mitarashi-sensei… our Mitarashi-sensei, that is, told me that her sister would probably be teaching Ren-san the Fire Dragon Fist Style."

"Fire Dragon Fist?" Ino asked, grinning. "Sounds impressive."

"It's the Mitarashi Clan's secret taijutsu style," Sakura explained. "It utilizes fire element ninjutsu and integrates well with the rest of the family techniques." She paused. "It's a short-range style emphasizing speed. I wouldn't try to get into a taijutsu fight with her; she'll run circles around you if she's been learning the style."

"Treat her like I was fighting Lee-san?" Ino asked, for once a hint of worry in her voice. She grimaced. "Lee-san with fire ninjutsu for backup."

"She's almost certainly not that fast," Sakura said. "The Fire Dragon Fist also burns through chakra really quickly. You can outlast her if she uses it." Sakura frowned in thought. "I'd guess that she'd only go for taijutsu as a last resort. She seems more of a ninjutsu-type."

"Good," Ino responded. "Anything else?"

"Well, there is one more technique, but I don't think it'll come into play." Ino gave Sakura a curious glance, and after a moment she elaborated. "She knows a technique to create chakra-charged ropes out of water." The pink-haired genin grimaced. "She almost beat me that way."

Ino's eyes lit up. "You seem to always find yourself in that sort of situation."

Sakura growled at her rival. "And I always get out of them, too. I beat Ren-san and I almost beat you."

"That was a fluke," Ino stated. "Being behind your freaky forehead weirded me out and weakened my technique. It won't happen again. This time, you're not going to stand a chance."

"In your dreams, Ino-pig," Sakura said.

Ino's fingers danced briefly on the tabletop. "In the second exam, those Mist ninja carried water with them to power their techniques. I think that water element technique of hers might come into play after all."

"Oh." Sakura waited several more moments. "Do you think you can beat Ren-san?"

Ino grinned. "I can guarantee it."

"Don't get cocky," Sakura warned.

"I'm not," Ino replied. Her grin widened. "After all, if you could beat her, there's no way she'll even land a hit on me."

Sakura twitched. "Shut up, Ino-pig," she muttered, and the conversation went downhill from there.

Yamanaka Ino landed lightly on the arena floor. She took a moment to stare up at the stands. They looked so much bigger from down here than they did when you were in them. For an instant, a hint of nervousness paralyzed her, then she forced herself to straighten and walk toward the center of the arena, where Mitarashi Anko stood impatiently.

"Good luck," the special jounin told her as she approached.

"Save it for Sakura," Ino returned. "She's going to need it when she goes up against me in the next round." Anko just laughed, and Ino glared at her.

"Save it for your opponents," Anko told her mockingly. "Now, where is that student of my sister's?"

There was a burst of black smoke, and when it faded Shimano Ren stood several paces away from Ino, on the other side of Anko. Ino snorted. What a waste of chakra. She might be a quiet girl, but this Ren seemed something of a show-off. That was good. Ino cracked her knuckles theatrically. "I'm not going to yield as easily as Fuki-san," she warned her opponent.

Ren gave Ino a curious gaze. "You're trying to provoke me… Yamanaka-san, wasn't it?" She didn't wait for an answer. "I don't provoke easily." Her voice seemed soft, but it was easily heard over the dull roar of the expectant crowd. "You'd have better luck with my teammates."

"I'll keep that in mind if either of them last long enough to fight me," Ino replied. Since Anko showed no inclination of starting the fight without waiting for them to finish their conversation, Ino began to stretch casually, as though she was preparing for a warm-up spar.

"You'll have to get past me first," Ren stated, a quiet confidence in her voice. Her mouth turned up into a crooked smile. "No hard feelings?"

"I won't have any, since I'm going to win," Ino said.

This provoked a burst of laughter from Ren. "You're an interesting one. Are you really this overconfident, or are you still trying to provoke me?"

"As amusing as this petty wordplay is," Anko interrupted, "the spectators aren't here to watch your lips move. Let's get this thing started. We've got a lot of fights to get through today."

"Don't worry," Ino said arrogantly. "This'll be over quickly." She straightened. "I'm ready."

"Likewise," Ren murmured, her eyes narrowing as she studied Ino carefully. Though she did her best to hide it, Ino returned the scrutiny.

"Good," Anko said, raising her hand. Once more, her voice began to echo throughout the arena. "The second match," she declared. "The Hidden Mist's Shimano Ren against the Hidden Leaf's Yamanaka Ino… begin!" Her hand dropped, and the battle began.

Ino didn't hesitate, charging Ren directly. Ren effortlessly blocked Ino's first wild punch, then was forced to twist away from the second. Ren's leg swept out, tripping Ino, but the Leaf kunoichi fell into a roll and regained her feet without giving Ren a chance to find an opening. Before Ino could attack again, Ren formed a familiar one-handed seal, and the blonde girl jumped away even as her opponent called out, "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!"

The flames swept at the empty air, but Ino landed unsteadily. Ren didn't press the attack, staring quizzically at her. "You can't possibly be that bad," she stated as she released her technique.

Ino gave her a cocky grin. "I'm just getting started."

"Good," Ren said. "I like a tough fight." She quickly reactivated the Claw of the Fire Dragon and charged.

Ino moved rapidly, knowing that she couldn't let Ren get into range with those flaming talons. Once more she jumped away, noting idly that Ren was pushing her away from the trees. A smart precaution, Ino supposed, though it wasn't going to do Ren any good in this fight. Ino laughed as she landed, then retreated again. "That's it?" she asked.

"You can't run forever," Ren stated.

"I suppose not," Ino said, her next jump taking her up to the wall of the arena. Using a quick flow of chakra to stabilize herself on the vertical surface, she rapidly formed seals. "Katon: Fireball Technique!" she shouted, bringing one hand to her mouth to guide the flames.

The massive globe of fire sped at Ren, who was forced to drop her technique and dodge, narrowly avoiding being caught by the edge of Ino's technique. Ino didn't let up, repeating the seals and creating another fireball that drove Ren farther away from her perch. A third fireball drove the point home, and Ren found herself with her back almost pressed against the stands, opposite Ino. The Mist kunoichi frowned, one hand inching toward forming the seal for Claw of the Fire Dragon.

With a laugh, Ino jumped down from her perch. "You're not going to beat me that way," she stated as she landed. "Fire element techniques are my village's specialty. Haven't you got some water element techniques to show me or something?" She slowly advanced on Ren, who began to walk forward herself.

"Now you're trying to goad me into switching to water element techniques," Ren commented, her hand resting over where she had to have hidden a water container. She very deliberately moved her hand away. "I'm not so foolish as to fall for that."

"Hey," Ino said, "if you want to not use some of your techniques, I'm not going to complain." Her hands filled with shuriken. "Let's go." In one smooth motion, she launched her shuriken at Ren, who flipped out of the way. However, Ino had used this time to circle around to Ren's side, and now she charged, kunai in hand.

Ren barely had time to draw her own kunai and parry Ino's first strike. "Now you're backing up your words," the Mist kunoichi said before counter-attacking. The two kunoichi exchanged dozens of strikes, but neither managed to land a solid hit on each other. Sensing the stalemate, Ren again kicked at Ino's legs, but this time Ino was ready for the attack, darting aside and slicing at Ren's side. Ren weaved away from the blow, but not quite quickly enough. Ino's blade sliced open Ren's hidden water container, releasing the contents onto the hungrily dry ground.

Ino backed away, grinning at the damp earth. "Now you really can't use your water element techniques."

Ren paused. "You've just made two mistakes, Yamanaka-san," she stated softly, sheathing her kunai.

"Oh?" Ino prompted as she followed suit.

"First, you assume that I only carried one source of water with me," Ren chided her. "Second, you assume that just because the ground has absorbed my water that I can't use it." Her hands blurred into a rapid sequence of seals. "Suiton: Water Rope Technique!" Water boiled up out of the earth, thickening and forming long tendrils that stretched from Ren's hand to wrap themselves around Ino. Ren pulled once on the water ropes, making Ino stumble. "Do you yield?" she asked.

Unable to keep her footing, Ino fell to her knees. Slowly, she began to laugh. "It's over."

Puzzled, Ren repeated herself. "Do you yield?" Then she suddenly stiffened.

"It's you that made the mistake," Ino explained. "You should have listened to yourself. I was trying to goad you into using this technique." She smiled. "These ropes work both ways. They limit my movement, by they also provide a conduit for my chakra to reach you. Now I'm using a variation on the Paralysis Technique, and you can't move at all."

"Even so," Ren stated calmly, "you can't attack either. It's a stalemate."

"Not so," Ino declared. "You're about to yield."

Ren's eyes widened. "What?"

Slowly, tortuously, Ino managed to get her hands into position to form a rapid sequence of seals. "Mind-Body Switch Technique," she breathed, and then she slumped over. An instant later, the ropes of water dissolved and Ren took a step backward.

"Examiner!" the Mist kunoichi called out, raising her hand.

Anko was beside her in less than a second. "Yes?" she asked carefully.

"I yield," Ren stated cheerfully.

"Right." There was more than a little sarcasm in Anko's voice. "Just for the record, who is yielding now?"

Ren grinned. "Why, me, Shimano Ren, of course!"

Anko rolled her eyes. "I hate that technique," she muttered. "Seems too much like cheating." Still, she raised her hand. "Shimano Ren yields. The second match goes to Yamanaka Ino!"

As the somewhat confused cheers began, Ren smiled, forming a single seal. "Release!" she shouted. Then she stumbled forward, her expression changing to a grimace.

Ino rose, smiling. "No hard feelings, right?" she said.

Ren gave her a long look. "You deserved the win," she admitted after a moment. "I knew you were trying to manipulate me, but I walked right into it anyway."

"I was really worried for a moment there when you said I was trying to goad you into using water element techniques," Ino said with a nod.

"How did you know about that technique? Sakura-san told you?"

Ino nodded again. "She did."

"I see," Ren murmured. She bowed shallowly to Ino, then walked off.

Anko grinned at the younger Leaf kunoichi. "Good show," she stated. "Even I wasn't entirely certain whether you were as arrogant as you were acting or if you were really planning something."

Ino laughed. "You must have listened to Forehead too much if you thought I was that stupid," she said. "I suppose I should get back to the waiting room so she can have her turn."

Sakura shook her head as she watched the end of Ino's fight. It seemed to her that Ino had taken an awful risk. What if Ren had chosen to use some other water element technique? Still, she had to admit it had worked, and she was glad, however sympathetic she felt toward Ren - watching Ino puppet Ren's body and force her to "concede" brought up too many bad memories. Now, all she had to do was defeat Ami, and she would get the one fight she really wanted. She clenched the railing, almost shaking as she realized that it was now her turn to fight.

Beside her, Chouji finished cheering his teammate's victory and turned to Sakura. "Are you ready?" he asked.

Sakura nodded. "If I'm not, it doesn't really matter, does it?"

Not far away, Ami laughed. "Scared, forehead girl?" she asked, pushing a strand of her purple hair back behind her ear. "I'm looking forward to crushing you."

Sakura gave her old tormentor a steady stare. "You'll be waiting a long time," she stated as she studied her soon-to-be opponent. She could see strong muscles under the other girl's dark shirt and shorts, and she wore a short sword on her back. Could she expect sword-focused taijutsu? She had to admit she didn't know what techniques the Uzuki family used.

"We'll see," Ami said, then leapt from the balcony.

Rather than follow her, Sakura turned away from the railing and headed down the stairs. She'd barely made it a quarter of the way down when she passed Ren, who murmured, "Good luck."

"Thank you," Sakura returned before continuing on her way. After a handful of seconds that seemed like an eternity, she met Ino at the bottom of the stairs.

"Now it's my turn to say don't lose, Forehead," Ino stated. "I'll never forgive you if you lose to Ami."

"I've got no intention of it, Ino-pig," Sakura stated. "We're going to have our fight."

"And then you'll lose," Ino said confidently.

"Only if by lose, you mean win," Sakura said as she pushed past Ino.

"Sakura," Ino said seriously, not turning to face her. "Kick her ass."

The pink-haired kunoichi grinned. "That's the plan," she said, and then she walked out onto the arena floor. She was greeted by the awesome roar of the crowd. They weren't even really cheering yet, just waiting for the fight to begin, but it sounded so much louder now. It was hard to believe that she was actually here, about to fight to prove herself strong enough to become a chuunin. Her stomach twitched nervously as she thought of all those people, watching her.

She took another step forward, and realized that she was still wearing the weights Gai had given her. She glanced down at the atrocious orange leg warmers that hid them - she kept on forgetting to get around to purchasing something less ugly - and considered taking them off, and not just because of the fashion disaster that they were, though at least it was warm enough that she was wearing her lighter green jacket instead of the even more poorly matching red jacket.

It would probably be wise, but on the other hand she was curious as to how far she could get without them. The thought that leaving them on would help to hide her true speed from future opponents settled the matter. If Ami pressed her too hard, she could always take them off, after all. Nodding to herself, Sakura rapidly walked to the center of the arena, where Anko and Ami were waiting.

"Took you long enough," Ami grumbled.

Sakura didn't respond, instead imitating Ino and starting to stretch. "I'm ready whenever you are, Mitarashi-sensei," she stated. The thought struck her that Anko and Ami looked sort of similar, and she idly wondered whether there was some connection between the Mitarashi and the Uzuki. She shook her head slightly. This wasn't the time for that sort of thought.

Ami's hand rested on the hilt of her sword. "I'm ready," she said.

Anko clapped once. "All right, then!" She grinned at Sakura, then raised her hand. "The third march, Uzuki Ami against Haruno Sakura… begin!" Her hand lowered, and the crowd roared.

Neither combatant moved for a moment, then Ami began a slow circle around Sakura. The pink-haired genin forced herself to laugh. "I thought you were going to crush me?"

Ami snarled at her, but didn't charge. "I'm not an idiot," she stated.

"You could have fooled me," Sakura stated as she slipped a smoke bomb into her hand. She waited for just the right moment, then tossed the bomb at her feet.

As the plume of smoke obscured Sakura, Ami cautiously increased her distance. "What are you up to?" she muttered. An instant later, a half-dozen Sakura burst from the pillar of smoke, charging her in unison. Mere seconds before they reached her, Ami's sword flashed out of its scabbard, cutting one Sakura in two. There was a puff of white smoke. "Replications aren't going to fool me," Ami snarled as she leapt into motion, disrupting two clones with a single slice of her sword as she charged the rearmost Sakura. "I know where the real one is."

Before Ami could attack, all three remaining Sakura exploded into smoke. "You should think again," the real Sakura stated from behind Ami. The purple-haired girl managed to flip out of the way of the trio of kunai that flew at her back, twisting in midair to face her opponent. Sakura grinned. She should have thought of combining deliberately poor ordinary replications with the Perfect Replication Technique a long time ago.

Ami's free hand tossed shuriken at Sakura as she began to circle once more. "That'll only work once," she stated.

Sakura easily avoided Ami's attack. "How about this one?" she asked. Her hands flickered through seals. "Katon: Fireball Technique!" A burst of fire flew from her lips, but Ami easily sidestepped the attack.

"You'll have to do better than that," she said.

Sakura nodded. "I will," she said. Then she vanished in a blur of motion. Ami backpedaled furiously, but not quickly enough as Sakura reappeared inside her guard. A strong kunai strike almost forced Ami to drop her sword, but the rookie managed to maintain her grip. An instant later, Sakura's sandaled foot struck her in the stomach, sending Ami flying.

Just barely, she managed to land on her feet. "Damn you," she snarled.

Sakura didn't respond as she raced at her opponent, flinging the kunai she held. As Ami parried the projectile, Sakura formed a one-handed seal. "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" she shouted, flames sprouting from between the fingers of her other hand and sweeping at Ami. The other girl's eyes widened, and she stumbled backward to avoid the fire. Sakura pressed her attack, swiping again and again with the fiery claws, but she was never quite able to land a blow.

Finally, Ami gained enough presence of mind to jump out of range, and Sakura let the claws die. This time, she didn't charge, waiting to see what Ami would try next. Smiling as the thought occurred to her, Sakura began her own slow circle around Ami.

Ami grimaced, sheathing her sword. "I was hoping to save this for another fight," she commented. Her hands formed seals, ending on one that left her hands clasped together. Flames began to gather above them, condensing into a small, painfully bright sphere. "Katon: Fire Soul!" Still locked into the seal, Ami's hands thrust forward, loosing the sphere.

Sakura darted aside, but the ball of flame slowly twisted in midair to follow her. Thinking quickly, Sakura realized that Ami's hands still formed that last seal. Breaking into a run to stay away from the technique, Sakura hurled shuriken at Ami, who didn't move until the last moment, when she was forced to break the seal and jump away.

Moments before it would have struck Sakura, the ball of flame stopped and pulsed. Eyes widening, Sakura flung herself to the ground as Ami's technique exploded behind her. When the dust faded, there was a shallow crater near where she had been standing, and Sakura gulped as she realized what might have happened if that attack had hit her. Not wasting any more time, she regained her feet, keeping her eyes on Ami.

Her opponent grimaced. "I'm not through yet," she hissed. Strangely, she took her still-sheathed sword, scabbard and all, off her back, holding it loosely in one hand by her side. She began to slowly walk toward Sakura, her dark eyes flaring with anger. Sakura tensed, waiting for Ami to reveal her next attack. Ami paused a few yards away from Sakura, inching her blade out of her scabbard with her thumb. "This is the end," she hissed, and then she attacked.

Ami drew her sword and cut at Sakura in one single, smooth motion, almost too quickly to see. The perfect strike was too fast to dodge, cutting the pink-haired genin in half at the waist. Grinning, Ami sheathed her weapon as Sakura's halves fell to the ground. Then they both vanished in twin puffs of smoke, revealing the small log that had actually been cut.

"You shouldn't telegraph your moves like that," Sakura stated as she reappeared behind Ami. The other girl froze, and Sakura grinned, thinking of Ino's words to her before the match. Then she slammed her foot into Ami's rear, sending the other girl stumbling forward, her sword slipping from her hand. Before Ami could recover, Sakura had grabbed her, placing a kunai at her throat. "Yield?" she asked softly.

"Never," Ami snarled as she struggled to escape Sakura's grasp.

The pink-haired kunoichi sighed. "Mitarashi-sensei?" she called out.

Anko appeared in front of the two fighters, sighing. "I can't do anything just yet," she stated. She glanced at Ami. "You going to do the smart thing?" Ami just snarled at her.

Sakura guessed the meaning behind Anko's words, and she pressed her blade harder against Ami's throat. It still took her a moment to work up the courage to actually try to cut it. Before she could do more then scratch her opponent, her weapon went spinning out of her hand and Ami was stumbling forward.

"That's enough," Anko stated, grinning widely. "No need for unnecessary deaths." She once more raised her hand. "Haruno Sakura wins the third match!"

"Good girl," Tsunade breathed as Anko announced her soon-to-be apprentice's victory. She was honestly impressed. She'd read Sakura's records when the young kunoichi had first approached her, and it was hard to believe that she was watching that then-unimpressive ninja. Sakura certainly had come a long way in the past months. She glanced sideways at Mitokado Homura, who was smiling.

When the Hokage raised an eyebrow, Homura commented quietly, "That Ami has always been a bad influence on Fuki-chan."

On Tsunade's other side, Mitarashi Kimi snorted. "Wasn't that impressive," she muttered, in a way far too much like her sister for Tsunade's comfort.

Between the two women, Matsuyo Nissho grinned. "Still disappointed that one of your students was knocked out?" the Waterfall jounin asked.

Kimi glared at him. "Don't push me, you little man," she snarled.

Utatane Koharu coughed. "You would do well to remember where you are, Mitarashi-san," she stated.

Kimi smiled innocently. "Why, thank you, Utatane-sama," she said cheerfully. "Without your reminder, I would have forgotten that I'm at the heart of an enemy village with probably a half-dozen elite ANBU ready to kill me in an instant if I even breathe suspiciously."

"Mitarashi-san," Tsunade said harshly. "You should not push me, either."

The Mist ninja paled slightly. "Forgive me, Hokage-sama," she murmured.

Perhaps hoping to change the subject, Homura gestured to the arena floor. "It looks like the next match is starting."

Kimi smiled dangerously, leaning forward in her seat. "This should be fun," she said, pointedly not looking at the man sitting beside her.

"Yes," Nissho replied calmly. "It should be."

From far below, Anko's voice came. "The fourth match, Aoki Saburo of the Hidden Village of the Mist against the Hidden Waterfall's Yuhara Maya… begin!"

Before the echoes had faded, Saburo broke into a run, charging straight at Maya. The kunoichi reacted quickly, summoning her naginata and using it to keep the Mist ninja at bay. A series of rapid thrusting attacks pushed him back, until finally he was forced to leap away from Maya, landing perhaps ten yards back.

Nissho laughed. "This should be quick," he stated.

"Yes," Kimi agreed. "It will be."

Tsunade's eyes narrowed as she studied the fight. What was the reason for Kimi's confidence? At the moment, Maya was using wind-based techniques with her weapon to drive Saburo about the battlefield, and the boy seemed helpless to respond. What was she missing? It was so hard to see the details of the fight from this far away.

Saburo tossed a small canister into the air, and a blast of cutting wind shattered it. Water spurted out of the broken container, falling all him. A slight grin on his face, Saburo's hands flickered through seals and the falling water congealed into three perfect clones of himself. As one, the water replications charged. A single blast of wind shattered them, but Saburo was following them, still forming seals, and the clones quickly reformed themselves.

He was using the clones to shield himself, but it had to be wasting a lot of chakra. Tsunade frowned as they drew nearer and nearer, and then suddenly the clones flung themselves at Maya as Saburo leapt away. The replications exploded in a sequence of bursts of water that engulfed the unfortunate kunoichi, and Saburo laughed loudly as he landed.

Then the burst of water stilled. Amazingly, Maya stood untouched in the middle of a bubble of air. Her polearm was moving rapidly, somehow pushing the water away from her and keeping it the air. She snarled something that Tsunade couldn't catch. Then, her weapon's motion changed subtly and she shouted loudly enough to be heard. "The Second Stance: Commanding the Waves!" The water surrounding her melted into a massive globe at the tip of Maya's naginata, then exploded into a torrent that slammed Saburo into one of the arena walls. The wall cracked slightly under the force, and Saburo slumped slowly to the ground.

"That's my girl," Nissho declared. Below, Maya approached her fallen foe.

"Don't gloat yet," Kimi stated. Tsunade nodded slightly as Maya's naginata poked at Saburo. The Mist ninja grabbed the weapon by the blade. Then his form wavered and burst into a blast of water rivaling Maya's attack. The kunoichi went flying, landing heavily on her back. Her weapon landed far away, and Saburo emerged from the ground next to it.

"When?" Nissho asked, shocked.

"Idiot," Kimi snarled. "If you couldn't see that, you don't deserve to be a jounin."

"He wasn't as stunned as he looked," Tsunade explained. "He summoned a water replication after hitting the wall and went underground."

Below, Saburo gingerly picked up Maya's naginata and advanced on his fallen foe. As she struggled to rise, Saburo pointed her own weapon at her throat and said something. Maya nodded, and an instant later Anko stood beside the two, declaring, "The winner of the fourth match, the Hidden Mist's Aoki Saburo!"

Yamanaka Ino grinned at her rival as Sakura returned to the waiting area, a sullen Ami trailing after her. The blonde's grin didn't fade as she watched the other girl accept congratulations from Rock Lee among others before rejoining her. "It looks like we're going to get our fight, Forehead," Ino said.

Sakura's smile was as wide and as dangerous as Ino's. "That's right," she declared. "You'd better lose impressively, Ino; it'll be your last shot to impress the judges."

Ino laughed. "In your dreams," she said. She grinned evilly, glancing at Sakura's legs. "And the only thing that you're impressing the judges with is your total lack of fashion sense. I can't believe you're still wearing those things, Forehead."

Standing beside them, Akimichi Chouji coughed. "The next match is starting," he stated, instantly drawing the two girls' attention to the battle between Saburo and Maya. No more words passed between the two kunoichi as they observed the relatively short match.

As Anko announced Saburo's victory, Ino frowned. "He can really take a hit," she allowed. "I thought he was out of it when the Waterfall girl knocked him into the wall." Her gaze went to the faintly visible cracks where Saburo had impacted the wall. "He didn't seem all that tough in the second exam."

"It has been a month," Sakura stated. "I'm sure he was training too."

"I guess," Ino replied. She glanced at Chouji. "It's your turn next, isn't it?" she asked.

Tenten, passing behind the trio on her way to the stairs, answered for him. "It is," she stated.

"Good luck," Ino told Chouji. She performed some quick calculations in her head. "If you win this one, we'll be the only team to have all three people make it into the second round." Chouji only nodded and followed Tenten down to the arena floor.

Beside Ino, Sakura frowned. "This could be a tough fight for him," she told Ino.

"No way," Ino said. "You know how strong Chouji was in the second exam, and he's been training." She grinned. "Shuriken girl isn't going to know what hit her."

Sakura shook her head. "I did some training with Tenten-san," she said. "She's no pushover either."

"That's right," Rock Lee stated, suddenly appearing beside the two kunoichi. "It will be an interesting fight."

Ino jumped. "Don't sneak up on me like that!" she snapped at the green-clad ninja.

"I'm sorry," Lee apologized, but Ino's attention was on Sakura, who frowned as she looked at Lee, then glanced in the direction of the Waterfall team.

"What's wrong, Sakura?" she asked.

"Lee-san," Sakura stated quietly. "About your opponent for the first round."

"Chiba Ikkei-san?" Lee asked, and Sakura nodded.

"I was talking with his team last week," she said, "and they let something slip. It's not much, but they seemed pretty confident that he couldn't be beaten with taijutsu."

"I see," Lee replied calmly. "It will be a good challenge, then."

Sakura sighed, but before anyone could say anything else Anko announced the beginning of the fifth match. "Tenten against Akimichi Chouji," came her enhanced voice. "Begin!"

All eyes turned to the battlefield below, where for several long moments there was no movement. Then, Tenten almost casually flung out an arm, and the air between them filled with steel. As the storm of shuriken and kunai neared, Chouji didn't move. An instant before he would have been skewered by dozens of projectiles, he plunged into the ground like it was water.

Tenten didn't wait to react, leaping into the air mere instants before Chouji burst from the ground, fist extended for an uppercut. Though Ino couldn't see the scroll Tenten must have used, there was as puff of smoke as she summoned a dark staff in midair. One end plunged into Chouji's gut, knocking the stocky ninja back to the ground. Tenten used the leverage to push herself away, gracefully landing a good distance from her opponent, her weapon snapping into a ready position.

"Not bad," Ino allowed after a moment.

"I told you she was good," Sakura replied. Below, Chouji had regained his feet and seemed to be cautiously considering his options. Not waiting for him to decide, Tenten advanced, her staff spinning in her hands.

Apparently, this was what Chouji had been waiting for, as one of hands swelled to gargantuan size. Before Tenten could react, he had wrenched the staff from her hands with monstrous strength, flinging it aside to vanish in a burst of smoke. Even as Tenten jumped out of his range, the rest of his body expanded to match his swollen hand. His arms and legs vanished into his expanded clothing, followed a moment later by his head. His roar of "Human Bullet Tank!" was audible even in the waiting room.

Tenten tried once more to jump out of the way, but Chouji was too fast, slamming into her with full force. "Get her, Chouji!" Ino hollered at him.

Chouji stopped rotating briefly, possibly to give Tenten a chance to yield, but the kunoichi trapped underneath him exploded into white smoke. A moment later, the massive ninja rolled away, revealing a shattered log. "Where is she?" Sakura muttered.

Lee pointed to the trees on the opposite side of the battleground. "There," he stated.

Ino's eyes followed his finger, finding Tenten perched among the branches. "That's not going to help her," she said after a moment.

Indeed, down below it seemed that Chouji had noted Tenten's location as he rolled across the field, rapidly picking up speed as he traveled. A half-dozen kunai, weak explosive tags hanging from their hilts, flew at him, but the over-sized ninja bulldozed through them, apparently not inconvenienced in the least as they impacted against his bulk. With a tremendous crash, he slammed into the tree that served as Tenten's sanctuary.

Ino cursed as she saw that Tenten managed to jump away before the tree toppled, but the kunoichi landed poorly, almost collapsing. In an instant, Chouji had reversed his course, barreling back toward his fallen foe. Without time to dodge, Tenten used the last moments she had to bite her thumb, rapidly forming a short sequence of seals. "Summoning Technique!" she hissed, and a pillar of smoke interposed itself between her and Chouji.

Everyone in the waiting room could hear the sound of Chouji hitting something hard, but it still took several moments for the smoke to fade. When it did, it revealed the strange sight of Chouji pushing against a turtle perhaps half as large as his swollen form. As he slowly began to gain ground, Tenten flipped away, pulling out a pair of scrolls. "Now!" she shouted, as she landed in a crouch, carefully placing the scrolls on either side of her.

The massive turtle began to push harder, slipping under the still-rotating Chouji. With an almost-human grunt of effort, the animal hurled the massive ninja high into the air, then dissolved into smoke. As Tenten formed another set of seals, she too vanished in a massive cloud of smoke. Two smoke dragons rose out of the cloud, twisting and spiraling around each other as Tenten shouted "Twin Rising Dragons!"

The smoke faded, the dragons turning back into the scrolls she had placed on the ground, unwound and still turning about each other in midair. Tenten jumped straight up through the center of the winding scrolls. A series of rapid explosions of smoke traveled up and down the scrolls as countless shuriken, kunai, and other weapons popped into existence, hurled in an unending blur of motion by Tenten at Chouji.

Still in midair, the massive ninja managed to stop his rotation, his head and limbs reemerging from the cocoon of his clothing. He had only a moment to take a deep breath and form seals before Tenten's weapons hit. "Katon: Fireball Technique!" he roared, a massive torrent of flame spewing from his lips.

The force of the blast knocked the projectiles aside, sending them plummeting to the ground. Chouji himself landed heavily, the earth shuddering and cracking under his enhanced weight. A moment later, Tenten landed gracefully in another crouch not far away, but despite the futility of her attack she was grinning widely.

Ino blinked, then her eyes narrowed as she studied the field. Then she cursed as Tenten tensed before leaping into the air. Her hands danced, suddenly visible wires lifting the litter of weapons surrounding Chouji. The stocky ninja seemed unafraid and unsurprised, merely taking in another deep breath. Once more the weapons flew at him, and once more he used the Fireball Technique. This time he spun as he did, allowing the burst of fire to counter all the weapons attacking him.

Tenten landed in a crouch behind him as her weapons clattered to the ground a second time. She raised one hand, closing it into a fist. Too quickly for Chouji to react, the discarded wires surrounding him rose into the air, twisting around him and binding him. Turning to face the over-sized ninja, Tenten brought the other end of one wire to her lips, her hands forming a seal around it. "It's over," she said loudly. "Yield!"

Ino laughed. "She's made her mistake."

Exploding into a brief burst of gray smoke, Chouji returned to his normal size. The wires that had bound his larger form fell around the shrunken ninja. One hand reached out and snagged a wire, bringing it up to his own mouth. Before Tenten Could react, Chouji's hands blurred into seals. "Katon: Dragon Fire Technique!"

Flames raced down the wire toward Tenten, who spit out her end not a moment too soon. Then she blurred into motion, racing alongside the still-blazing wire even as it fell to the ground. Dropping his own end, Chouji baked away, but not quickly enough. As Tenten neared, she leapt into the air, shouting "Leaf Whirlwind!" Her foot struck Chouji hard in the jaw, sending him flying.

"That's," Ino gasped, glancing at Lee.

The slightly older boy nodded. "Tenten is Gai-sensei's student also," he stated, his eyes tracking her opponent's path through the air. When Chouji landed, he twitched but did not rise. Breathing heavily, Tenten fell to her knees, clearly exhausted.

Anko appeared next to Chouji, briefly inspecting him. Then she raised her hand. "The winner of the fifth match, Tenten!"

Sakura winced as beside her Rock Lee loudly began to cheer his teammate's victory. "Tenten-san will be up here soon enough, Lee-san. There's no need to shout so loudly." She paused, glancing at Ino. "Besides," she started, then trailed off.

Lee caught her meaning, stopping his wild hollering and straightening as he turned to Ino, his voice serious. "Chouji-san fought well," he said. "There is no disgrace in his loss."

"I know," Ino said flatly as she watched a pair of medical ninja help Chouji off the field. Sakura knew the stocky ninja couldn't be seriously hurt, as he was walking more or less on his own, but it looked like he wouldn't be heading straight back to the waiting room. "I should go check on him."

Sakura nodded. "I'll come with you," she offered.

"No," Ino replied. She grinned weakly. "We need you here to report on the fights." It was a poor excuse, but Sakura just nodded again. Despite their brief time together earlier in the exams, she wasn't really Chouji's teammate. "I'll be back in a bit," Ino murmured, then she headed for the exit, pushing past Tenten as the weapon-expert returned.

"Tenten!" Lee shouted, waving her over to join him.

She complied, nodding in greeting to Sakura. Despite her cool poise, she looked tired to Sakura's eyes. Clearly, the other kunoichi had been hard-pressed by the fight. "Who's next?" Tenten asked after a moment.

Sakura was the first to respond. "Hiraki Arata," she said, pointing back at the Waterfall team, "against Inuzuka Shinta from the rookies. Then Lee-san against the last Waterfall." Arata and Shinta were already moving toward the exit, exchanging quiet words as they left the room.

Sakura started, feeling movement behind her, but relaxed as she realized it was only Neji moving to join his teammates. Her attention returned to the field, where the two fighters had already positioned themselves and were only waiting for Anko's word to begin. Then she started again as Neji suddenly spoke to her. "Sakura-san," he intoned gravely.

She turned slightly to face him. "What is it, Neji-san?" she asked politely, resisting the wild urge to angrily demand that he not scare her like that. The sound of Anko loudly announcing the next fight floated up from the field below.

"My opponent for the next round, this… Haruno Midori," he stated. "What can you tell me?"

Sakura grimaced. She knew why she was always being asked about Midori, but it was annoying. "Not much." She glanced out to the arena, seeing only a typical set of opening probes with kunai and shuriken. "She's a doujutsu user."

"I'm aware of that." Neji's voice was calm. "Mitokado Fuki said that you had experienced a doujutsu technique of hers that she did not display in the first match."

"Yes," Sakura said, shuddering briefly. "It's some sort of genjutsu that she has to catch your eyes for." She paused, searching for words. "It's pain."

Neji blinked. "Elaborate."

"Every thought, every sensation," Sakura replied after a moment. "It all turns into pain. I could barely move, much less fight."

"That's awful," Lee stated, and even Tenten seemed slightly shaken.

"Thank you," was all Neji said, his attention turning to the field. Sakura followed suit, seeing that the battle had traveled almost to the wall the waiting room's balcony was situated in. Somewhat surprisingly, it was Hiraki Arata whose back was to the wall, though it didn't seem like either fighter had pulled out any serious moves yet.

Thanks to the fact that they were almost directly beneath her, Sakura was able to clearly hear the two ninja's words. "You're not bad… for a rookie, that is," Arata said boldly, crouching as he caught his breath.

Inuzuka Shinta let out a bark of laughter. "You're not going to goad me into something rash that easily," he stated. "Ami is far more abrasive than you could ever be." Sakura wasn't able to resist a smirk and a glance at the purple-haired bully, who snarled, glaring back at all the eyes on her. Only Fuki's hand on her shoulder seemed to restrain her from doing something stupid.

Below, Arata grinned. "Maybe hanging back was just what I wanted you to do." His hands leapt up off the ground where they rested, blurring through a sequence of seals before returning to their prior posture. "Doton: Well-Digging Technique!" Reacting instantly, Shinta jumped away as the ground under his feet crumbled. Arata just formed another sequence of seals. "Suiton: Geyser Technique!"

A massive pillar of water sprouted from the hole his first technique had created, twisting in mid-air to fly straight toward Shinta. The Leaf ninja crossed his arms in front of his face to shield it from the worst of the blow, but the attack still knocked him back to the ground. He landed heavily, unmoving for a moment before rolling shakily to his feet.

Arata stood as water rained down between the two of them, and Sakura saw that, as the name of the technique that had created it implied, the hole he had made was filling with muddy water. The Waterfall ninja was not going to have any trouble powering his water element techniques.

Neji frowned. "That just made all the Mist ninja more dangerous," he stated.

"Surely you're not worried," Tenten said, smirking slightly. Neji didn't respond, all his attention on the battle.

"Your move," Arata said lightly as he slowly advanced.

Shinta took a deep breath, clearly calming himself. "All right," he stated. His eyes closed briefly as he concentrated, clearly summoning all of his chakra. His hands began to move through a sequence of odd seals. Beside Sakura, the veins around Neji's eyes bulged as he activated his Byakugan.

Shinta's hands locked into a final seal. "Inuzuka-Style Rare Beast Transformation: Hungry Wolf Technique!" There was a blast of smoke, and when it faded Shinta was gone. In his place stood a large gray wolf, almost as tall as the boy himself had been.

"A transformation technique?" Sakura muttered in thought.

"That's it?" Tenten asked.

"No," Neji responded. "It's not an ordinary transformation technique. It's a complete physical shape-change."

The wolf tensed briefly, then vanished in a blur of motion. Sakura had to strain her eyes to catch Shinta's attack, a familiar rotating blur of fangs and claws that came at Arata from the side. The Waterfall ninja barely managed to roll out of the way, flinging a handful of shuriken that only bounced off of his opponent's thick fur. The wolf stopped moving, his mouth slowly opening, saliva dripping from his jaws. Arata tensed, seemingly ready for anything.

The torrent of flames that spewed from Shinta's transformed mouth still surprised him. The Waterfall ninja barely managed to dodge, flinging himself to the ground. Before he could recover, the wolf was upon him, snapping at his neck. There was a puff of smoke, and Shinta's jaws closed only on wood.

"The rookie's not bad," Tenten stated as Arata reappeared next to the well he had created.

His Byakugan still active, Neji shook his head. "If he can't take and keep the advantage soon, he's going to lose."

Lee nodded gravely. "I think Arata-san is about to win." Sakura studied the battleground, but she wasn't able to determine the source of Lee's confidence. A moment later, though, Neji and Tenten both nodded in agreement.

"What?" Sakura asked, her confusion plain in her voice.

"Look at the well," Tenten stated, and Sakura did. The level of the water seemed a little lower, didn't it? She frowned in thought. It had to have gone somewhere.

As if in answer to her thoughts, Arata's hands blurred through seals. "Doton: Sinkhole Technique," he breathed, and the water-saturated ground under Shinta's feet began to give way.

"He was luring Shinta-san into that position the whole time," Sakura stated as the wolf struggled futilely to escape from the mud that ensnared it. Its struggles only seemed to make it sink faster. There was a puff of smoke, and Shinta returned to his natural form. Slowly, he managed to pull himself from the mud.

Shinta threw up a hand, halting the charge Arata started in response. "I'm out of chakra," the Leaf ninja said calmly. "I yield." Arata nodded, taking step back as Anko appeared beside him.

"The Hidden Waterfall's Hiraki Arata wins the sixth match," the special jounin declared loudly.

Arata walked over to Shinta, helping to his feet while exchanging quiet words, and then the pair began the short walk back to the waiting room.

Tenten grinned at Lee. "Your turn," she said.

"Good luck," Sakura told him.

Lee nodded. "Thank you," he said simply, turning and heading toward the door. He was joined by Chiba Ikkei from the Waterfall team, and the two left, passing Arata and Shinta. The two returning fighters quickly rejoined their teammates.

A few moments after that, Ino arrived with Chouji and - surprisingly - Shikamaru in tow. "What did we miss?" she asked as they joined Sakura, Tenten, and Neji.

"Arata-san from the Waterfall defeated Inuzuka Shinta," Sakura said. "Lee-san and the other Waterfall are just about to fight."

Shikamaru sighed. "Lee wins, most likely," he stated firmly.

Perhaps he spoke to loudly, as he attracted the attention of Yuhara Maya. "Who are you and how can you be so confident?" the Waterfall kunoichi demanded.

"Maya," Arata said warningly beside her.

"To the first," Shikamaru said loud enough for all the waiting fighters to hear, "I'm Nara Shikamaru, chuunin of the Hidden Leaf, and I've been sent to let you all know that there'll be a brief intermission after this fight. If any of last round's winners want to withdraw before their fight, this is your chance." When no one took him up on his offer, he continued. "In that case, we want all the winners - and that includes Neji-san - to come out onto the field after the end of this fight." He paused again. "Any questions?" he asked.

"What about my other question?" Maya asked angrily.

Shikamaru sighed. "I'm not about to get into a troublesome argument with you," he said. "You'll see soon enough." His hands formed a quick seal, and he vanished in a burst of smoke.

Below, Lee and Ikkei had arrived at their positions, and Anko stood between them. "This is the final match of the first round!" her voice came. "From the Hidden Village of Waterfall, Chiba Ikkei. From the Hidden Leaf, Rock Lee!" She waited a moment for the cheers to die off, then shouted, "Begin!"

Everything was still for a moment. Then Lee disappeared. Clearly unprepared for his speed, Ikkei stumbled back, almost tripping. Lee's fist shot over the Waterfall ninja's head, but without pausing Lee somehow got behind him, foot darting out to sweep Ikkei's legs out from under him. He managed to catch his fall with one hand, a leg spinning to counterattack. Lee caught the desperate strike on crossed arms, but this bought Ikkei enough time to regain his feet.

After a second too long to weigh his options, he darted for the well his teammate had created. Lee moved to intercept, a fierce punch sending Ikkei flying. Sakura winced when Ikkei bounced once before coming to a stop. Lee had clearly been holding back even more than she'd thought in their spars. Beside her, Ino glared triumphantly at Maya. "Shikamaru's always right," the blonde girl bragged.

The Waterfall kunoichi just snorted. "It's not over yet," she said.

On the field below, Ikkei had shakily regained his feet, one hand reaching for a kunai. In an instant, Lee was there, his foot sweeping toward his opponent's chest… and through it, as Ikkei dissolved into water. Sakura frowned. "A water replication?" she asked.

Ino matched her rival's expression. "When did he have a chance to -"

"He didn't," Neji stated firmly, his Byakugan activating. After a moment, he let out an almost-impressed "Ah."

"What is it?" Tenten asked.

Before Neji could answer, the puddle of water that had recently been Ikkei exploded into motion under Lee's feet. Only the green-clad ninja's inhumanly fast reactions kept him from being snared by the suddenly flailing tendrils of water. He landed lightly, but was forced to move again as the water drew itself up into a wave that tried to crash down on him.

"This is the Chiba Clan's Bloodline Limit," Maya stated proudly, "the ability to change one's entire body into water."

"Freak." Predictably, the muttered insult came from Haruno Midori, though the other two Mist's faces did nothing to hide their own distaste.

On the field, the water rose up into an approximation of Ikkei's shape. "You might as well yield," he stated loudly. "You can't hurt me when I'm like this."

Sakura couldn't hear Lee's answer, but his actions made it evident as he broke for the trees on the other side of the arena. This time it was Ikkei who moved to intercept, but Lee proved fast enough to dart through the twisting arcs of water. Sakura bit nervously at her lip. What was Lee planning?

"It won't do any good," Maya boasted. "Ikkei-kun's just getting started."

As though he had heard Maya's words, Ikkei drew himself together, forming a massive liquid hand that dove at Lee, who froze. Tenten cursed softly, and Sakura paled. That was just like Gaara's attack. A moment too late, Lee tried to dodge. The hand engulfed him, melting into a perfect sphere that rose up into the air. Sakura winced.

"What?" Maya's voice was shocked. "When did he -"

Sakura risked a look, and saw that instead of Lee, Ikkei had only caught a small branch, clearly broken off from one of the trees. "That can't be the Replacement Technique," Chouji murmured.

"It wasn't." Sakura shook her head. "He just moved that fast."

"No one's that fast!" Ino protested.

"It still won't help -" Maya began shakily.

Neji shook his head, pointing at the branch. "It's over." Sakura's eyes narrowed, and she spotted the three high-power explosive tags pasted to it mere instants before they exploded. As the gray smoke faded away, it almost appeared like a small rainstorm, the water - Ikkei - falling to the ground.

Lee reappeared, bending down to pick up something near where he had frozen earlier. "Ikkei-san?" he asked calmly, his voice carrying across the distance to the waiting room.

A few moments later, enough water gathered back together to reform in the image of Ikkei. He solidified once more, and said something that Sakura couldn't hear. A few moments later, his meaning was clear, though, as Anko loudly announced Lee as the victor of the match.

Mitarashi Anko grinned for a moment at Lee as Ikkei began the long walk back to the waiting room, glancing at the weights he held. "Those aren't your only weights, are they?"

Lee shook his head. "I added some extra ones this morning," he said, sounding a little regretful. "I was hoping I could make it longer with them."

Anko just shook her head. She was never going to understand Maito Gai, much less his student, who had inherited all of Gai's… Gai-ness and more beside. Whatever sort of stupid idiot wore weights to a real fight, adding extra weights for a fight required idiocy that made that person look like a genius. Anko shook her head again. She was going to have words with Sakura once all this was over about that, whether the pink-haired girl liked it or not. She would have had them already, but she couldn't show too much interest in her sort-of-student until all this was over. If she did, it could become troublesome, as a certain chuunin assistant of hers would say.

"Just stay here," she told Lee after a moment. "The others should be on their way."

"I see them," the genin replied, and Anko turned to see that indeed the other remaining fighters had made it onto the field and were headed toward the center. When they arrived, it took her several moments to get them arranged properly. Then she turned to face the crowd, reactivating her voice amplification technique. "That concludes the first round of the final stage of the Chuunin Selection Exam!" the special jounin declared, and the echoes of her statement were drowned out by the cheering of the crowd.

"There will be a brief intermission before the quarterfinal round begins so the fighters can rest," Anko continued after a moment. "Before that, though, I'd like to let those cheapskates who didn't purchase a program know just how great a line-up we have waiting for you so you don't get bored and leave!" She waited again for the laughter to die down, then moved next to one end of the line of genin she had formed.

"First up," she stated, "we've got someone you haven't seen yet, who was lucky enough to get a free pass into the quarterfinals. From the Leaf's most feared clan, Hyuuga Neji will be facing the Hidden Mist's Haruno Midori." Anko grinned nastily, glancing sideways at her sister's student. "My sources tell me our guest from the Mist has promised to rip out Neji-kun's eyes. We all know the usual Hyuuga response to that sort of threat, so we can look forward to a quick, brutal fight."

Without waiting to see how the two genin took to her comments, Anko moved on to the next pair. "For the second fight, we've got Yamanaka Ino against Haruno Sakura, both from the Leaf." Anko smiled slightly at Sakura before continuing. "These two were teammates in the first two exams, but don't let you think there'll be a soft fight! This is actually a rematch, as these two fighters managed the first recorded double knockout in over twenty years in the preliminary fights for the last exam. It's pretty rare to have both fighters wanting to avenge their defeat, so we can look forward to an interesting match!"

Moving on, Anko grinned. Those were both going to be fun fights to watch. She was looking forward to seeing the Hyuuga prodigy in action again, and having her sister's student be the victim was even better. She also had every reason to believe that Sakura's fight would not be nearly so long and dull as her first match against the Yamanaka girl. With a slight shake of her head to clear her thoughts, Anko stopped in front of the next set of fighters.

"After that, it's another Mist versus Leaf fight as Aoki Saburo fights Tenten." She made a show of grimacing. "Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any grudges or threats going into this match, so it looks like we can expect a good, clean, boring fight." She waited once more for the crowd's laughter to die down, then moved on to the last pair.

"Finally, the Waterfall's Hiraki Arata against the Leaf's Rock Lee! In case you were napping, Lee-kun just took out Arata-kun's teammate, leaving him the last member of his village in the tournament. I expect our guest will be looking to avenge his village's honor, so we should get some more fun stuff from this fight. Look forward to it!" Arata let out a strangled laugh, rolling his eyes at Rock Lee, who looked at his opponent seriously for a moment before grinning slightly.

"All right then," Anko said, turning back to the whole group of genin and letting her voice fall back to a normal volume. She clapped her hands. "Go on back to the waiting room and enjoy the break." She walked over to stand before Neji and Midori. "Unless you two can't wait," she said. "Then we can go ahead and get started now. I'd hate for the audience to miss the first strikes cause they took place up there."

"Whenever she's ready," Neji said calmly, not looking at Midori.

The Mist kunoichi hesitated slightly, then said, "I'm ready."

Anko resisted the urge to snort derisively. That was stupid. Even though Midori had been in the first fight, she had been in a fight and Neji was entirely fresh. More time to rest and recover her chakra could only help her, and she didn't gain anything in return. "All right then," she said, then raised her voice. "By agreement of the participants, the first quarterfinal fight will begin immediately!" she announced. Her voice returned to normal. "The rest of you, get off the field."

As Sakura passed the special jounin she paused briefly, murmuring softly, "Was all that… show business really necessary?"

"Nope!" Anko replied quietly but cheerfully. "It's fun, though!"

Sakura just rolled her eyes and continued on her way.

Hyuuga Neji wasn't able to stop himself from smirking as he studied the girl standing a few paces from him. For now, he met her green eyes - if she was tempted to use her own doujutsu prior to the match and disqualify herself, so much the better. It would give him all the more advantage in his next two fights. A part of him told himself that he wasn't likely to be weakened too much by this fight in any case, but he didn't want to underestimate this Midori. She could easily have been hiding her strength in the first fight.

For a moment, the question crossed his mind of just what this girl's relation was to Haruno Sakura, but he pushed the idle thought aside. Not only was this hardly the time to let his mind wander, but what did the answer matter to him? He wasn't one to pry into another clan's problems. He glanced sideways at Mitarashi Anko, noting the the special jounin was still watching the other fighters make their slow way back to the waiting room.

When his gaze returned to his opponent, he smirked again at her obvious agitation. An excited opponent was more likely to make a mistake, after all. Midori snarled wordlessly at him, then spat at the ground. Neji let out a deliberate sigh. "You have something you want to say?" he asked, letting a hint of boredom into his voice. Was he always to be cursed with that sort of foe in these battles?

"Freak," Midori stated. "You disgust me."

"So I have gathered," Neji said dryly. "The hatred of your country toward those with Bloodline Limits is well known, though I must admit the hypocrisy of your choosing to focus your ire on me is astounding."

"Hypocrisy?!" Midori almost charged him then and there, but with effort visible even without the Byakugan she restrained herself.

"Is it not obvious?" Neji pressed, encouraged by her reaction. "How are you different from me? You have your doujutsu, the secret techniques of your family."

Midori, surprisingly, threw back her head, laughing long and bitterly. "You fool," she said when she was done. "Secret techniques? The Haruno Clan has no secret techniques. All of them, from the lowest to the most difficult, were given to others, to prove that we had no Bloodline Limit. Can you say the same, freak?"

"Of course not," Neji answered.

"Of course not," Midori repeated mockingly. "Do you have any idea of the fate you avoided by mere accident of geography?" She spat again. "Of what I've had to go through because of freaks like you?"

"I have a feeling I will soon enough," Neji stated.

The Mist kunoichi snarled once more. "I knew I would be facing you," she said. "It wasn't hard to find out about the famed Hyuuga Neji. Top in his class. The strongest inheritor of the Byakugan in generations. Personal protege of his uncle, the head of the clan. An exceptional genius.

"Well, guess what? I was born exceptional, too. Top kunoichi in my class. The best eyes of my generation. Learned all the genin-level doujutsu of my family before I graduated from the academy." Midori paused, her eyes blazing as she glared at Neji.

"Does all this bragging have a point?" Neji said.

The green-eyed girl didn't respond directly, continuing as though he hadn't spoken. "Your talent was a blessing, wasn't it? No doubt you have a bright future ahead of you because of it. You'll become a jounin for sure. Maybe your children and grandchildren will study the techniques that the legendary Hyuuga Neji developed.

"Well, my destiny is a little different. I didn't get any honor from my talent. When they saw what I had become, the elders of my clan decided that it had been a mistake to have my parents marry. I'll never have any brothers or sisters. As for myself, it is too dangerous to let me breed at all, for risk of my genes giving birth to a line of bloodline freaks. My own mother performed the sealing that made sure that wouldn't be a problem. No techniques of mine will be passed down to future generations; I've been warned that developing my own unique techniques might be enough to convince some zealot that I'm the first to inherit a Bloodline Limit from the Haruno Clan."

"Fascinating," Neji stated flatly. "It seems to me your rage is misdirected, though."

"Oh, no," Midori stated. "They are right, and my visit here has only proved it. Didn't you even listen to the examiner a moment ago? The Hyuuga are the most feared clan in the Leaf, not the most loved. I've seen and read about the way your kind have lorded it over this village. One day, enough of them -" she waved broadly at the crowd "- will see the light and overcome their fear. Then you and your whole family will be hunted through the streets and torn to pieces like the subhuman abominations you are!"

She took a deep breath, visibly calming herself. "That won't happen today, though. Today, I'll just beat you and rip out your eyes. Just like I promised you, no?"

Neji snorted. "We'll see," he stated, falling into a Gentle Fist fighting stance. An instant later, his foe had readied herself as well.

"You two done?" Anko asked, sounding bored. When neither objected, she stated loudly, "The first quarterfinal match, Hyuuga Neji against Haruno Midori. Begin!"

The instant she uttered the last word, Neji activated his Byakugan, turning his eyes aside from Midori's. With his eyes, he wasn't disadvantaged by avoiding her gaze in the slightest. Without waiting, he moved, penetrating Midori's guard in a blur of motion. His hand jabbed out, fingers reaching for a tenketsu in his opponent's left shoulder.

Midori, moving with surprising speed, slipped away from the blow, one hand reaching up to grab Neji's wrist. The other made an open-handed strike at his stomach. Neji pulled away, darting around the attack as his other hand made for the kunoichi's unprotected left side. Midori released Neji's hand, jumping up and away from his second strike.

As she landed, she formed a quick sequence of seals, then raised one hand over her head. "Mist Concealment Technique," she breathed, fading away into the clouds of gray mist that rapidly formed. The chakra-charged haze was harder to see through than ordinary mist, but it wasn't enough to cloud Neji's sight. He easily tracked his foe as she raced toward the well Hiraki Arata had created and formed another sequence of seals.

Neji forced himself to stay still in the center of the unnatural mist as the numerous water clones Midori had created slowly moved to circle him. No need to let her know that he was watching her every move, much less that due to the imbalance in chakra levels telling which Midori was real was trivial and that her attempt to use her cloaking genjutsu only made it more obvious.

Several long moments passed before Midori made her move, two clones rushing at Neji from behind. Without even pretending to be at all surprised, he twisted between their attacks, then delivered twin palm strikes to their backs. The replications stumbled forward before dissolving back into water. "You'll have to do better than that," Neji said as he casually drove his elbow into the gut of the clone that was sneaking up on him from the side.

"I will," a Midori - a clone of course - said. Three clones moved in from the opposite side, and Neji summarily dispatched them, moving with a careful economy of motion that still left him several feet closer to where the real Midori stood. After a moment's thought, he also drew a kunai and hurled it at the replication that had spoken, disrupting it as well.

"You have eight water replications left," Neji announced, carefully subtracting one from the number of visible replications. "If you send all of them at me at once, there is a slight chance that one will land a minor blow. If you continue as you have been, I will destroy them all within two minutes."

Even though he was facing directly away from her, he could see Midori's smirk. "Good counting, freak," she said. "Too bad for you that isn't all the clones I could make." Her hands flickered, then the circle of clones doubled and redoubled. Twenty clones charged Neji from all directions.

The next several moments were a blur of motion as Neji fought his way through the replications. The first four went down in seconds, but the fifth almost scratched his arm with a kunai before taking a solid kick to its jaw. He rolled out of the way of the water shuriken that formed out of the splash of water, then jumped to his feet, disrupting two clones that tried to pounce on him from either side.

Eight clones used the distraction to to close with him, and sighing at being forced to use the technique, Neji began to whirl in place, chakra pouring from his body. "Heavenly Spin!" Tossed aside by his technique, the clones flew in every direction, turning back into mere water as they landed. Neji slowly came to a stop.

Just as he had planned, the battle had moved him to the edge of the mist, within striking distance of the real Midori. He half-turned, careful not to look directly at the kunoichi, and his fingers lightly struck the tenketsu he had aimed for at the beginning of the fight. He smirked again as both Midori's genjutsu and the mist faded away. "It's over."

Midori dissolved into water. "You really do have eyes in the back of your head," her voice came from behind him, near the well, "but if you don't pay attention it won't do you any good." She emerged from a puddle of water far too shallow to hold her. "Did you know that the amount of chakra in a water clone can be varied, so long as it doesn't exceed the maximum? A little cloaking genjutsu to keep you from looking too closely, and it was easy to make you think you'd found the real one."

Neji didn't turn to face her as she slowly walked toward him. "A clever stratagem," he admitted. When would he learn to stop underestimating his opponents' ability for misdirection? "It does not change the situation, though. I know what to look for now, and you cannot escape my gaze."

"No," Midori said, "and that's why I'll win." She smiled. "So proud of your freakish eyes, aren't you? Now that I've confirmed the field of vision they give you, I can end this fight anytime I want." Her smile turned vicious. "That time is now. Haruno Ninpou: Gaze of Torment."

Neji stiffened, and then he screamed. He stumbled forward, every slight motion sending waves of pain through him that blurred even his vision. Unable to stand, he toppled over, the ground producing more agony than a thousand full-strength blows from Lee. Even the act of screaming was causing him terrible anguish. In some almost-unclouded corner of his mind, he noted how apt Sakura's description of this technique as simply "pain" was.

Midori continued her slow advance. "Never thought about that, did you? Your inescapable gaze just means that your whole body might as well be your eyes." When she was within a handful of steps of Neji, she glanced sideways at Anko, who stood watching the battle. "Not going to end this?" she asked.

"Not yet," the examiner said after a moment.

"Can't until I make a killing strike, right? Good," Midori said, drawing a kunai. "There's still a promise I need to keep." She took another step forward.

Neji sprung into motion. Devoid of all his usual grace, he leapt upward, his fist striking Midori's jaw in a powerful uppercut. The green-eyed kunoichi went flying, landing with a heavy thud beside Anko. She struggled to rise, and Neji forced himself to take a step forward. "How?" Midori managed to ask after a moment.

It took Neji several moments to catch his breath, fighting against the pain that still swam around the edges of his consciousness. "Like all genjutsu," he said, "your technique works by affecting the victim's chakra." He had to pause to catch his breath again. "I just had to observe my own chakra flow and close enough of the right tenketsu to dull the effect."

Midori weakly muttered a curse, then fell back to the ground, letting unconsciousness claim her. An instant later, Neji abandoned his show of strength, falling to his knees even as the pain faded away. Anko appeared beside him. "You all right?" she asked.

"Just a moment," Neji said, taking a second to center himself before rapidly prodding a series of tenketsu along his side. Chakra and strength slowly began to flow back into him, and he stood, though somewhat shakily. Even the memory of the pain made him hesitant to move.

Anko nodded once. "The winner, Hyuuga Neji of the Hidden Village of the Leaf!" It was a shame, Neji thought, that his opponent wasn't awake to hear the crowd cheer his victory.

Sakura let out a deep breath as she saw Midori fall to the ground. Neji might possibly be the opponent she was least likely to be able to defeat - for much the same reasons that her brief spar with his cousin had been so humiliating - but at least he had no desire to see her suffer. Once all this was over, she was going to have to ask Neji what Midori had been talking about; she'd caught just enough words to know that it had been interesting.

Beside her, Ino laughed harshly. "You've got nothing to be relieved about, Forehead," she said. "We're up next, and I'm going to show you just how much of a fluke our last fight was."

"Damn right," Sakura snarled back at her. "You're not going to stand a chance, Ino-pig!"

The blonde put one hand on the railing, smiling a surprisingly good-natured smile at her rival. "Race you," she said.

"Not yet," Sakura observed. "The medics are still looking at Midori."

Ino rolled her eyes. "No really," she said. "Once its time, though."

"Sure," Sakura agreed.

A moment later, Neji returned to the waiting room. Up close, he looked far more strained than he had from a distance. Only nodding at the congratulations he received, he walked to Sakura. "Thank you for your information," he said gravely. "If I hadn't been forewarned of her technique, I would not have been able to counter it."

Sakura nodded politely at him. "How did you?" she asked curiously, and after a moment the slightly older ninja curtly explained his method. Sakura grimaced to herself. It was just like her research on the counter to those chakra threads that Fuuma ninja in Rice Field Country had used. Was every counter-technique she wanted to learn going to require the Byakugan?

"On three," Ino murmured. Sakura's eyes glanced back out to the field, and saw that the medics had finished loading Midori onto a stretcher and were heading off the arena floor. Nodding at Ino, she tensed. "One," Ino declared. "Two. Three."

Sakura blurred into motion, barely noticing the now-familiar restraint of her weights. Her jump from the balcony carried her almost a quarter of the way toward the center of the field, and she hit the ground running. She could hear Ino land behind her, but not close enough. She arrived in front of the waiting Anko with enough time to start stretching before Ino caught up.

"When did you get so fast?" Ino asked as she caught her breath.

"I was training with Lee-san," Sakura told her rival.

Anko smiled slightly, and wordlessly gestured the two into position. As they complied, Sakura had to pass close to the special jounin, and she was able to catch the whispered, "Good luck," Anko offered her through still lips. Risking a slight nod in response, Sakura finished moving into her spot, then turned to face Ino.

Sakura forced her mouth into a confident smile. "You're going down, Ino-pig."

"Be more creative, Forehead," Ino returned. "That was dull."

Sakura shrugged. "I spent more time training than coming up with banter," she allowed.

"Perfect." Ino grinned at her, cracking her knuckles. "I want a good warm-up for my fight with Neji-san."

"Dream on." Sakura began to stretch slowly. Again the thought of taking off her weights occurred to her, but again she decided to see how far she could go with them on. Maybe Gai and Lee were a little contagious, she supposed. It really wasn't terribly wise. All her bravado aside, she was expecting a tough fight, and this one was important to her.

She had already met the letter of Tsunade's requirement for becoming her apprentice. "I expect you to improve your performance over your showing last time," Tsunade had told her, and by beating Ami she had advanced further than before. Yet, in her mind, this had to be the real test. At the last exam, she had been unable to defeat Ino. Now it was her chance to prove that she really had changed, that at least she wasn't chasing Ino's back anymore, even if Sasuke and Naruto seemed as distant as ever.

"All right then," Anko declared. "Let's get this thing started. Try not to take as long as you two did last time. Even with the shortened break, we've still got a lot of fights to go through." Her hand formed a seal as she enhanced her voice. "The second quarterfinal match, Yamanaka Ino versus Haruno Sakura. Begin!"

Despite the special jounin's words, neither genin moved for a long moment. Then Ino's hands went to her forehead protector, tied securely around her waist like always. "Shall we?" she asked.

Sakura nodded, quickly untying her own forehead protector. Almost in unison, they wrapped their protectors around their heads, tying them into the proper position with simple, firm movements. Sakura fell into a ready stance. "Let's go."

"Time out," Anko, surprisingly, interjected. "You two did that last time, didn't you? Why?"

"It's a sign," Ino said, "that we're taking this seriously." She grinned. "It'd take too long to explain."

"You're just too eager to start this to take the time," Sakura commented. She grinned. "Right, Ino?"

"Right," Ino agreed. "You too, I think." She took a deep breath, centering herself. "Let's go."

Sakura nodded, and she moved. The last thing Ino should be expecting was a headlong, Naruto-like charge, right? The blonde kunoichi still reacted quickly, flinging her hands up and releasing several smoke bombs. Sakura darted through the pillars of thick black smoke, hardly slowed, but Ino used the moments this bought her to fill the air with shuriken. As the projectiles neared, a kunai appeared in Sakura's hand, expertly parrying the couple of shuriken that she wasn't able to avoid.

As the last shuriken clattered to the ground, Sakura released her kunai, sending it flying straight at Ino. She jumped out of the way, just as Sakura had planned. Almost simultaneously, Sakura leapt as well, meeting her rival in midair. Unprepared, Ino was unable to ward off Sakura's fist, which planted itself in the other girl's gut. The blonde flew away from her rival, barely managing to land in an unsteady crouch.

Sakura didn't give her a moment to recover, charging again as soon as she herself had landed. This time, it was she who hurled shuriken, keeping Ino from having any time to prepare. Sakura's foot arced up, striking Ino in the face with a thunderous crack, and Sakura felt something break underneath it.

Then there was a puff of smoke, and a small log flew away from her. Taking a deep breath, Sakura lowered her leg, making a half-turn to face Ino. The blonde was crouching perhaps a dozen paces away, breathing heavily. "You really were training with Lee-san," she said.

"Of course," Sakura said.

"It seems like it would be suicide to try and fight you with taijutsu," Ino continued. "It's a good thing that wasn't the plan." Her hands flickered through seals. "Replication Technique!" Two more Ino appeared in identical crouches, one on either side of the real one. Though Sakura watched carefully, Ino made no attempt that she could see to surreptitiously switch places with one of the clones.

"The plan?" Sakura prompted after a moment.

"It took a lot of bullying," Ino said, "but I managed to get Shikamaru to help me come up with this one. He even taught me the technique I needed to pull it off." Her hands moved through more seals, echoed by her clones, and all three sets finished on the same, familiar seal.

"No way," Sakura breathed.

"Shadow Imitation Technique!" the three Ino shouted in unison, their shadows darkening and thickening before racing at Sakura. The pink-haired girl jumped away, but the moment she landed she saw that one of the three shadows had already been moving to her landing point. A desperate half-roll, half-dive managed to get her out of the way of that one, and her training with Gai and Lee gave her the speed and reaction time to get to her feet and on the move again before it could double back to ensnare her.

Yet, as it chased her, the other two shadows were coming in from either side. Sakura jumped again, this time heading straight for Ino. In an instant, two of the shadows retracted, forming a protective barrier around the blonde. Sakura landed just outside the dark perimeter, jumping again the instant she landed to avoid the inevitable quick probe by Ino's shadows. As she landed once more, the three shadows separated, forming flailing dark tendrils that whipped across the arena floor at her.

Taking a brief moment to find a path, Sakura darted through Ino's shadows, closing in once more on the kunoichi. Again, Ino retracted a shadow to serve as a defensive barrier, but this time Sakura wasn't quite quick enough to avoid its rapid retreat, and it brushed the edge of her own shadow.

Sakura froze, but an instant later realized that she actually felt no restraint on her movements. Blinking in surprise, she rolled aside mere moments before another Ino's shadows, sneaking up from behind her, would have made contact. Her agile mind quickly figured out the reason. "The replication's shadows can't capture me," Sakura stated.

"Damn," Ino muttered, retracting all her shadows. "It won't matter if you can't tell which one is real!" she shouted. The three shadows inched forward, crossing over each other in a dark circle in front of Ino, then separating again into three individual lines of darkness, racing at Sakura from different directions.

The pink-haired kunoichi grimaced. Ino was right, there was no way to tell which shadow was which. Once again, she began to jump and jump, staying just a step ahead of Ino's pursuing shadows. She needed some time to think, damn it!

"Got you," Ino snarled as Sakura landed. A quick glance showed that there was no shadow near her, only a handful of discarded shuriken… and wires attached to to them, leading back to Ino. Sakura moved, but not quickly enough as the thin wires animated themselves, arcing into the air and swiftly wrapping themselves around her. Just barely, Sakura managed to keep one arm free, but her other was bound tightly to her side.

Ino's replications vanished in puffs of smoke, and the real Ino's shadow returned to normal. Sakura tested her bindings, noting without surprise that wires were charged with Ino's chakra and wouldn't easily be cut. "All that was just to get me into the trap you prepared with the shuriken you threw at the start of the fight," she stated after a moment.

Ino nodded, standing. "That wasn't really Shadow Imitation Technique," she explained after a moment. "Shikamaru called it the Shadow Art Technique. It just lets you manipulate your shadow."

"Could Shikamaru capture me with a replication's shadow?" Sakura asked. Part of the reason for her question was simple curiosity. The other was to keep Ino talking while she thought of a way out of this. The beginnings of a plan began to come together, and she slowly moved her free hand behind her back, reaching for her pouch. Carefully, she slipped her hand inside, feeling for what she was going to need.

"Don't ask me." Ino yanked hard on her end of the wires, almost making Sakura fall. "The question is, are you going to yield yourself or are you going to make me force you to yield?"

"You must be joking. I'm never going to yield to you," Sakura replied. "Do you really think I'd just accept defeat so easily? I'm not poor little Sakura-chan helplessly trailing after you anymore. I haven't been for a long time, and this time I'm going to prove it."

"Damn it, Sakura!" Ino shouted. "You think I don't know that?" For a moment, real rage was visible on her face, so different than the almost-mock anger that usually passed between the pair of rivals. "If that's all you want, fine! I admit it, you've grown. You're good, almost as good at me, better at some things."

"Almost as good?" Sakura forced herself to laugh, hoping the reaction she was about to provoke would distract Ino from her preparations. "I'm better than you."

Ino shook with anger, but visibly forced herself to calm down. "Damn it!" she repeated. "What is with you? Can't you get it into to your stupid, giant forehead that I'm the closest thing to a friend you've ever had and not just some… just some wall for you to overcome?" Her voice turned almost pleading. "Can't you stop trying over and over to beat me so that we can just be friends again?"

For what seemed like an eternity, Sakura wasn't able to say anything, shocked by Ino's decision to utter the forbidden word. Ino herself seemed just as surprised. Finally, Sakura responded. "No," she said. "I can't. I… I need this, Ino. There are promises I have to keep."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Ino demanded.

"You've always been one step ahead of me," Sakura stated. "I can't settle for that. I never could, really, but now more than ever. If I can't close that gap, how am I ever supposed to catch up with…" She trailed off, not able to determine what name to say - Sasuke or Naruto. "I'm sick of always being the weak one, always being protected," she continued after a moment. "I'm never going to just settle for watching anyone's back again. I'm going to get stronger and stronger, until I'm strong enough to protect everyone." She laughed softly. "Maybe that's my way of the ninja."

Ino's eyes watered slightly. "I understand," was all she said. Then her hands slowly formed seals. "Mind-Body Switch -" Sakura's free hand moved, flinging a kunai at Ino. The blonde kunoichi darted aside, easily avoiding the weapon. "It's not going to be that -" The second kunai that had been hidden in the first's shadow embedded itself in Ino's leg. For a long moment, Ino stared at the explosive tag wrapped around the hilt. "Sakura," she breathed. "You wouldn't."

Then the tag exploded. The force of the blast sent Ino flying, the wires she held falling from her hands. With Ino's chakra no longer running along them, Sakura easily wrestled herself free, then turned to face Ino, who was struggling to rise. The blonde's leg was a mess, but through some force of will she managed to stand unsteadily, glaring at Sakura. "I can't believe you did that," Ino snarled.

"It was a weak explosive tag," Sakura forced herself to say flatly. "You'll be fine."

Ino made a fist. "Let's finish this," she said, no weakness in her voice despite her injury.

Sakura echoed her rival's motion. "Fine." In unison, the two charged each other.

"Idiotic," Tenten stated as she watched the fight. "Yamanaka can't last another minute like that, but Haruno's risking everything on a stupid suicidal charge. Just like she did last time, but this time she's got no sane reason to do it."

Not even Lee protested, though his eyes grew more and more worried as the two kunoichi below drew neared. "Sakura-san's form is all wrong," he stated. "She's leaving herself wide open."

Neji studied the fighters for a moment, then nodded to himself. "It's over." Below, the two rivals met in the center of the field. Sakura's punch went wide, but Ino's easily penetrated the pink-haired girl's misplaced defenses, delivering a powerful blow to the side of Sakura's face.

There was a puff of smoke, and Ino's knuckles scraped against wood. Sakura came at her rival from above and behind before Ino had a chance to react, striking Ino in the back of the head. The blonde stumbled into the still-falling log that Sakura had used for the Replacement Technique. Sakura, breathing heavily, only watched silently as her rival slowly collapsed, unconscious.

Neji ignored his own theoretical rival's display of exuberance as Anko announced Sakura's victory. Haruno had left an obvious opening to keep her opponent from coming up with any trickery of her own. It still would have been wisest to avoid the confrontation at all, but no matter. It seemed as though Haruno Sakura was to be his opponent for the semi-final round, most definitely not something he would have expected at the start of these exams.

Almost reflexively, he activated his Byakugan and began to study the girl, pondering the fight that was to come.

"She's done well," Homura told Tsunade quietly. "It's her next fight that'll be the interesting one."

"Oh?" Tsunade prompted, even though she thought she knew his meaning.

"Uzuki Ami definitely wasn't close to chuunin-level," Homura said. "The Yamanaka girl is probably on the borderline, but not because of her raw strength. The Hyuuga will force Sakura to show us how she handles going up against a stronger opponent."

"That'll probably determine whether she becomes a chuunin," Koharu interjected. "If she reacts badly, it'll ruin her chances."

"And a good showing could guarantee it," Tsunade finished.

"And what are our hosts speaking so quietly about?" Mitarashi Kimi said lightly. "I'm feeling left out."

"Nothing of import," Tsunade responded, straightening in her seat. "It looks like the next fight is starting." It was the remaining Mist - the boy - against the kunoichi from Gai's team, the weapons expert. Tsunade didn't really know enough about either fighter to say who might win; she'd read Tenten's file, of course, but statistics on paper were notoriously poor at accurately representing a ninja's real fighting strength. It was only the lack of any better, practical alternative that made them at all worthwhile as an administrative tool.

Matsuyo Nissho studied the two genin far below as they waited for Anko to give the word for the match to begin. "Unless the Mist boy has a powerful anti-shuriken technique up his sleeve," the Waterfall jounin ventured cautiously, "I'd say the girl takes the win."

Tsunade frowned slightly. She was inclined to agree, but one thing had been bugging her about this Aoki Saburo's last fight. Yuhara Maya's attack had clearly thrown him with substantial force into the arena wall, enough so that he should have been stunned or unconscious. However, while he'd faked that, he hadn't seemed to suffer any real damage. From this distance, Tsunade hadn't been able to precisely determine how he'd defended himself. "I don't suppose you'd care to comment, Mitarashi-san?"

The purple-haired woman, who'd been in a bit more of a foul mood than usual since Hyuuga Neji had defeated Midori, shook her head. "I'll leave it a surprise, Hokage-sama." Below, Kimi's sister announced the beginning of the match, and after a moment of tense stillness, Tenten filled the air between her and Saburo with shuriken.

Saburo backed away rapidly, toward that too-convenient well created by Hiraki Arata's technique. All the water element users were getting a potential advantage in the fights from it. With well-timed dodges and parries, the Mist boy managed to avoid the worst of Tenten's attacks, though a handful of shuriken managed to score minor scratches. Clearly trying to end the fight quickly, the kunoichi charged, her hands flicking through seals as she spat a small fireball at Saburo to cover her advance.

Tsunade's frown deepened. It was clear to her that the weapons expert was still drained from her match against the Akimichi boy in the first round. Her movements were much slower, and from the weakness of her Fireball Technique she was trying to conserve chakra. It looked like stamina might be a problem for her if the fight dragged on. That made things closer, even without counting Saburo's potential trump card of a defense.

Below, Saburo seemed to be thinking much the same thing, as he stopped his retreat after rolling aside to avoid Tenten's flames. Instead, he started a charge of his own, rapidly closing the distance. In an instant, Tenten's motions regained the grace and fluidity they had been missing. A scroll appeared in her hands, and she summoned from it a short, straight sword.

Saburo barely caught her first strike with a kunai, then danced away from his suddenly more dangerous-seeming opponent. Tenten began to circle him slowly, her sword ready to attack if he tried to break out. The Mist ninja rotated in place, following Tenten, his own weapon still in hand.

"Stalemate," Nissho observed.

Utatane Koharu coughed disapprovingly. "Not for long," she stated. An instant later, Tenten got too close to the well, and Saburo's water clone burst from the shallow water. Tenten reacted instantly, spinning about and hurling her sword like it was a kunai, but it didn't avail her. The replication exploded before her weapon reached it, the blast of water knocking her to the ground.

In less than a second, Saburo was upon her, kunai going for her throat. Before he could manage that, Tenten kicked up, catching him in the chest. As Saburo went flying, Tenten managed to regain her feet. Her opponent twisted around in midair, hurling a small container at her. A kunai pierced it an instant later, and there was another burst of water, though this time Tenten was well out of range.

Saburo landed on his feet, but he hesitated, clearly sorting through his options. Tenten took advantage of his hesitation, taking out two familiar-seeming scrolls and setting them on either side of herself. Tsunade shifted in her seat. This next exchange of attacks was going to settle everything. From her guess, Tenten didn't have enough chakra left to fight well after using that technique again, but if Saburo didn't have some sort of defense he was going to get skewered.

The Mist ninja seemed to reach the same conclusion, sprinting for the shallow well even as Tenten's smoke dragons spiraled up into the air. He rolled into the water mere instants before the shower of kunai, shuriken and other weapons passed over head. Tsunade could imagine the kunoichi snarling that it wasn't over yet as she jumped once more into the air, wires dangling from her hands, and directed her weapons to hover over Saburo's improvised shelter. With one final, grand gesture, Tenten released the projectiles and let them rain down over the well.

As she landed, Mitarashi Kimi smiled. "It's over," she stated. As if she had somehow signaled her student, the well's small supply of water exploded outward, carrying the weapons with it as it burst from its confines. Tenten was flung against the wall under the waiting room's balcony. When the water receded, Tsunade could tell that she was bleeding from several small wounds where her own weapons had struck home.

Saburo, soaking wet but unharmed, emerged from the now-nearly empty well, grinning fiercely. Before his opponent could recover, her was at her back, one of her own kunai in his hands and at her throat. A few seconds later, Tenten had yielded and Anko announced Saburo as the victor of the third quarterfinal match.

Tsunade frowned to herself. Saburo must have some sort of special defense, but he'd done a very good job of hiding just what it was. The evidence suggested that it required a large source of water, but just what form it took was still unclear. Had she been closer, she might have been able to figure it out already, but not from up here. She glanced sideways at the still-smirking Kimi and resisted the urge to sigh.

Down below, the last two fighters for the quarterfinal round had positioned themselves. Anko's voice came, announcing the fight. "Hiraki Arata from the Hidden Waterfall and the Leaf's Rock Lee. Begin!"

Tsunade didn't have any trouble following Lee's movement, but it was obvious that the Waterfall boy did. Lee came at him from behind and above, catching him completely by surprise. Only quick reflexes and luck kept Arata in the fight, as he barely managed to duck under a kick that would have left him unconscious. Lee didn't give him a chance to breathe, coming back around to his front and catching him in the gut with a fierce punch.

Arata stumbled backward, throwing up a hand. Lee paused, clearly waiting for his opponent to speak, and Tsunade knew that this was the first clear look at the green-clad ninja many had gotten since the match had begun. Tsunade shook her head slowly. That sort of speed was crazy for a genin, particularly since unless she missed her guess he was still wearing some weights.

"That was pathetic," Kimi declared as Anko announced that Arata had conceded the match.

"There's no dishonor in acknowledging a foe you can't beat," Nissho protested.

Surprisingly, Utatane Koharu spoke up. "You might not know, Mitarashi-san, that the only person to be promoted in the last exams conceded his only fight." Tsunade almost smirked. Kimi must have managed to really irritate Koharu. Still, she would probably recommend against giving Arata a promotion. Lee couldn't have kept that speed up for too long, not without removing his weights. Even then, there were ways that Lee could have beaten.

As Lee and Arata left the field, Tsunade smiled to herself. She really was looking forward to this next fight.

Sakura was really not looking forward to this fight. If Hyuuga Hinata had been terrible opponent for her, it didn't leave words in her rather broad vocabulary to describe just how awful a match-up her cousin was. Even Lee himself had never bested Neji with straight taijutsu, so what good she could expect her few weeks of training with him to accomplish? The Hyuuga prodigy's Byakugan was going to make using genjutsu tricky at best. She still had no ninjutsu that could penetrate the Heavenly Spin, and Anko had laughed when she'd asked her to teach her one.

"That's a little more than you can handle, Sakura-chan," Anko had told her. "I know a couple, but they're not the sort of thing I plan on ever teaching anyone. The trick, Sakura-chan, is not to try to blast through a Hyuuga's defense like that Uzumaki brat. You just have to find a way around it." She'd grinned almost mockingly at Sakura. "You have a brain, girl. You're going to need to use it to as an equalizer if you mean to win."

Sakura took a deep breath as she studied Neji. Her mind was her weapon, and luckily she had given thought to this battle and prepared for it. She did have a plan. She was just going to have to hope that it worked and didn't just make her look like an idiot instead. She forced herself to stop staring at her opponent, instead looking at Anko. "Whenever he's ready, Mitarashi-sensei," she said, and the special jounin grinned at her.

"Sakura-san." Neji's voice was grave and serious. "I do not say this to insult you, but you cannot win this fight. I have no desire to hurt you, but I may be forced to unless you withdraw."

Anger bubbled up inside of Sakura. "I don't want to be protected," she said, "and I thought Naruto taught you something about surprises."

"As Kiba-san said before the exams began," Neji responded, "you are not Uzumaki Naruto."

"Damn right, I'm not," Sakura snarled, kneeling down. She slowly took off her weights, placing them carefully on the ground, then straightened. "I'm Haruno Sakura, and I'm going to win this fight."

"Your bravado is pointless," Neji said. "I can see your fear. Besides," he continued with a smirk, "Lee is my teammate. I assure you that I took your weights into consideration."

Was he deliberately trying to goad her? Sakura's eyes narrowed at the thought that Hyuuga Neji, of all people, might consider her a difficult enough foe for it to be worth the effort to try and gain a psychological edge. She slowly cracked her knuckles. "Let's just get this over with," she declared, and Neji frowned slightly.

"Very well," Neji agreed. "I am ready, Mitarashi-sensei."

Anko nodded. "The first semi-final match," she declared loudly. "Hyuuga Neji will fight Haruno Sakura." She nodded sharply. "Begin!"

Even before the word had faded, Sakura was almost upon Neji, running as quickly as she could, a kunai in her hands. Neji snorted, his Byakugan activating a second before Sakura reached him. Then, with perfect accuracy, his fingers struck at the air half a foot to Sakura's left.

Sakura's genjutsu faded, revealing to all the observers that Neji had struck her in the stomach. She stood frozen for a moment, then stumbled backward as Neji struck her a second time, falling over as she bit at her tongue to hold back a scream of pain. So this was what being hit by the Gentle Fist felt like, a cold analytical part of her observed. How the hell had Naruto gotten up after suffering so many strikes like that, another part of her demanded to know.

Slowly, she forced herself to her feet, finding the she now stood a few paces to Neji's right. Arrogantly, he hadn't turned to face her, and his Byakugan was deactivated. "Please withdraw," he demanded. "A genin-level genjutsu like the Displacement Technique won't work on me."

Sakura didn't say anything as her hands formed seals, slowly concentrated on using her almost perfect control to channel chakra around the tenketsu Neji had closed with his first attack as she re-activated the technique. Still without responding, she charged Neji again.

With a sigh, Neji spun to face her headlong charge, reactivating his Byakugan and striking another tenketsu. Sakura stumbled backward to avoid the follow-up attack, tripping over her own feet. When she rose, she saw that she was now facing the waiting room's balcony, when at the start of the fight her back had been to it. Her hands blurred once more as she activated the technique Kurenai had given her one last time.

Once more she charged, but this time she stopped before Neji struck, darting to his side, and almost managed to land a blow before he sent her flying with two Gentle Fist strikes. This time, though, she'd managed to shield her tenketsu, and she smiled as she landed near where she'd been standing when the match had begun. All the pieces were in place.

"Why do you smile?" Neji asked as he relaxed his Byakugan, perhaps to conserve chakra, while Sakura slowly stood.

"Because I have you just where I want you," she replied, forcing arrogance into her voice.

Neji just smirked. "The explosive tags you planted all around me? Clever, but not clever enough. Your genjutsu made it harder to notice, but I saw you on the last attack. You know that I can see where they are."

"You're assuming I'm just going to let you pick your way through them," Sakura replied. She deliberately pulled out a package of shuriken, wrapped in black plastic. Carefully, she unwrapped them.

"Poisoned?" Neji asked.

"Of course," Sakura lied. "I looked it up. It isn't illegal, and I was able to get my hands on some. One scratch from these and the fight is over, Neji-san."

"I just have to not get scratched, then." Neji actually sounded amused. "You've positioned me where I can't use my absolute defense, but I assure you I won't need it."

"We'll see," Sakura stated, and then she filled the air with her shuriken. A kunai appeared in Neji's hands. Sakura waited for just the right moment. She'd very carefully timed how long it had taken Neji to activate his Byakugan during each of her charges for just this purpose. Her hands blurred, an instant too late for Neji to be able to use his Bloodline Limit to penetrate the genjutsu she was about to work. "Shuriken Perfect Replication Technique!"

The handful of shuriken multiplied, doubling and doubling in number as they flew at Neji. He had barely a moment to decide which evil to choose, then he began to spin. The first whirls of chakra he expelled were enough to fling Sakura's real shuriken away, but the explosive tags all around him began to detonate as they were caught in his defense. Battered by the blasts, he stumbled, his spin halting, and just for that moment, he was vulnerable.

Sakura knew she wasn't going to get a second chance at this. The key to beating Neji was to find a way past his defense, then exploit that hole to win before he could recover. He wasn't the type to fall for same sort of tricks twice. Glad that she didn't have to waste time removing her weights, she blurred into motion, faster than she had ever moved before.

In less than an instant, she was inside Neji's guard. Her foot darted upward, catching Neji in the jaw and sending him into the air. As he hung there, almost seeming to float, Sakura launched herself into the air, reappearing directly behind her opponent. She punched at him, but Neji expertly deflected the strike, as well as the next several.

"Leaf Shadow Dance," he said calmly. "There's no way Gai-sensei or Lee would teach you Lotus, and copying the weaker half of Lee's moves won't let you beat me, Sakura-san."

Sakura forced one of Neji's smirks onto her face. "Who said I was copying Lee-san?" she asked, and her foe's silver eyes widened as he realized just how badly out of position Sakura's attacks had left him. Using him for leverage, Sakura rotated herself in midair, then brought her foot down at full force onto Neji's chest. "Lion Combo!"

Neji flew away from her but Sakura only snarled, "I'm not done yet," thrusting one arm toward him. Repressing a shudder at the crawling sensation under her arm, she shouted, "Hidden Snake Hands!" Four snakes burst out from under her sleeve, spiraling through the air at Neji. The Hyuuga prodigy futilely raised his hands to guard, but the snakes darted past them, sinking their fangs into him.

Channeling chakra to increase her strength, Sakura yanked back her arm, pulling Neji back up toward her. Even as she formed a one-handed seal with that hand, the snakes retracted themselves, slithering back into her sleeve. "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" she screamed as Neji seemed to fly toward her. Her other hand swiped at the air, raking Neji with talons of fire.

Then, she landed, breathing heavily and almost out of chakra. She looked up and saw Anko. "Is it over?" Sakura asked. Anko didn't answer, and the pink-haired kunoichi turned to where she had heard Neji fall. She swallowed when she saw the smoldering log that lay there. Slowly, she stood, turning about to face Neji.

The Hyuuga's face was pale, and he was clutching at his shoulder. "The snakes actually were poisonous," he said.

"Yes." Sakura took a deep breath. "Nothing fatal, just enough to start impairing your chakra control."

"I probably have about three minutes to end this," Neji declared, and Sakura nodded. After a moment, Neji bowed shallowly to her. "Please forgive me for underestimating you," he said formally. "I shall stop holding back now and give you the fight you deserve." Sakura barely had time to swallow before Neji was inside her guard. She slowly stumbled backward, somehow unable to move effectively as Neji's eyes caught hers and he settled into a stance that she recognized too well. "You are now within the range of my divination," Neji intoned.

A curse escaped Sakura's lips as she raced to form seals. "Now or never," she muttered.

"Eight Divination Signs," Neji continued as though she hadn't spoken. "Sixty-four Palms of the Hand. Two strikes!" His hands jabbed out twice. There was a puff of smoke, and Sakura was replaced by the burnt log Neji had used a moment before. "Too slow," he declared as he pivoted in place to meet Sakura's counter-attack from above and below. "Four strikes!"

Again, Sakura used the Replacement Technique with the log, and again she was unable to gain any advantage. "Eight strikes!" One strike landed, closing another tenketsu, before she managed to get the log into position. This time, she just tried to escape Neji's range, but she lacked the preparation time or chakra to cover enough distance using the Replacement Technique. "Sixteen strikes!" Half landed, and the log shattered under the other half. Sakura struggled to raise leadened arms to defend herself as Neji paused for just an instant. "Thirty-two strikes!" Again and again he hit her, striking so frequently that she wasn't even able to fall. Sakura could barely even think past the clouds of pain and unnatural exhaustion as he declared, "Sixty-four -"

Anko grabbed his hand. "That's enough," she said. Neji nodded, and as though that was a sign, Sakura finally collapsed. It took her several long moments to catch her breath, and longer to rise to her knees. Anko raised her hand. "The winner, Hyuuga Neji," she declared, and the crowd began to cheer.

Sakura was able to force herself to say, "Congratulations." She pulled a small vial out of her pocket. "Antidote."

Neji took it. "Thank you," he said simply. He paused, then continued. "Please allow me to re-open your tenketsu." After a long moment, Sakura nodded, and his hands once more began to prod at her. This time, chakra filled her with each gentle strike, and within seconds she was feeling much better.

"Thank you," she said weakly. Neji just nodded and started to walk back to the waiting room.

Anko helped Sakura stand. "You did well," she whispered hoarsely. "Very well." Then she let her go, and Sakura began the long walk back herself.

When Sakura made it back to the waiting room, Ino was waiting for her. Oddly, the first thing Sakura noticed was not the bandages wrapped around her leg, but that she had once more tied her forehead protector around her waist. Ino's eyes sought out Sakura's own forehead protector, still resting properly on her forehead. "Sakura," the blonde said flatly.

The other girl swallowed nervously. "Ino," she responded. What could she say?

"Lee-san's fight is about to start." It was Chouji who spoke, and for the first time Sakura noticed that he was standing next to his teammate.

Still unable to take her eyes of of Ino, Sakura just said, "Yes." She'd passed the green-clad ninja on her way up to the waiting room, and only by reminding him that he was about to be late to his own fight had she managed to halt his confused torrent of congratulations, commiserations, and promises to avenge her defeat in the finals.

"You were wearing weights," Ino stated. "All during our fight."

Sakura wasn't able to do anything but repeat herself. "Yes." From the field below came Anko's voice, announcing the beginning of Lee's semifinal match against Saburo.

Ino's eyes were hard. "I see."

Sakura waited to see if her rival would say anything else. When she didn't, the pink-haired girl moved to head to where she could watch the fight.

Ino grabbed her shoulder as she passed. "I'm not going to settle for watching your back either," she hissed, and then she released Sakura.

"Good," Sakura found herself saying, then she continued on her way. A moment later, Ino and Chouji had joined her at the railing. Sakura's eyes narrowed as she studied the battlefield. Saburo was not taking Lee's immense speed advantage as badly as Arata had, and he was slowly managing to make his way toward the well the Waterfall ninja had created in the first round.

Barely visible to Sakura as even a blur of motion, Lee moved in from behind Saburo, but the Mist ninja seemed to anticipate his attack. His dodge carefully positioned him even closer to his obvious objective, but Lee didn't let up, rapidly circling around Saburo, then charging in from the left. Once more Saburo managed to evade and advance, and Sakura's frown deepened.

"That's crazy," Ino muttered beside her. "How can he be reading Lee's attacks like that?"

Sakura glanced aside, and noticed the Neji's Byakugan was activated. For a long moment, he was silent, even though he had to have seen Sakura's look. Then, he spoke. "There's a shroud of chakra surrounding him," he said softly. "Even though he can't see Lee, his chakra reacts when Lee attacks, giving him just enough time to dodge."

Below, Saburo had finally reached the well, and his careful retreat halted. He met Lee's next charge without flinching, standing almost perfectly still as Lee's fist flew at his face. A disc of water appeared, harmlessly halting the taijutsu expert's attack. Saburo laughed. "Now that I have enough water, there's no way you're penetrating my defense." Lee backed away cautiously, and Saburo tossed a small cannister after him, hands blurring into seals. "Suiton: Water Explosive Technique!"

Lee vanished in a blur of motion before the burst of water hit him, reappearing behind his foe and delivering a flurry of high-speed punches and kicks. Nothing was accomplished but sending a few splashes of water flying, and Saburo didn't even turn around. "The water interacts with my chakra," he explained. "I cover myself with a field of chakra, and whenever something enters it the water moves to block."

"An absolute defense?" Ino asked disbelievingly.

"Of course not," Neji replied with a snort. "There's far too many weaknesses for that title."

Sakura closed her eyes as she thought things through. "There's a finite amount of water in his chakra field," she announced after a moment. "Rapid attacks from multiple directions should penetrate the technique."

"It has to be costing a lot of chakra too," Chouji added.

Below, Lee had backed away again, but he was smiling. "Interesting," he said calmly. "I had hoped to save this for the final fight." He slowly removed his weights, then casually flung them aside. The arena's wall shuddered as they hit, leaving tiny craters. Then Lee vanished, and even Sakura's keen eyes couldn't detect any trace of his motion.

There was a splash of water in front of Saburo's face, then another at the back of his feet. Another invisible attack came at his left side, then at his right. Again and again Lee struck all around the increasingly frightened Mist ninja. It was almost like watching Lee's fight against Gaara in the last exams again.

Then Saburo formed a rapid set of seals, and more water flew out of the small well. It joined the water that rapidly spinning around him, constantly deflecting Lee's numerous attacks from every direction. For a moment, the attacks stopped, but then Lee reappeared in the air above Saburo, his foot aiming directly for the other boy's head.

Water deflected the attack, but Lee simply used the defense for leverage, pushing himself up into the air and the brining his foot down on Saburo again. More water raced to halt the stronger blow, and Lee continued to hammer at that spot until it seemed like a small pond was floating over Saburo's head. Then Lee appeared in front of Saburo, inside his protective field, and his foot solidly struck at the Mist ninja's jaw.

Saburo crashed through the water overhead, flying into the air. Lee was waiting for him there, the bandages wrapped around his arms unwrapped. "Lotus," Neji stated. "That's overkill."

Despite the Mist genin's struggles, the bandages wrapped themselves around him, tightly binding him. "What the hell is this?!" he shouted. Sakura noticed that Anko had moved directly below the entangled fighters, a worried expression on her face.

Lee didn't answer at first, turning himself and Saburo around in midair so that their heads were pointed to the ground. He spun the two around rapidly, shouting, "Primary Lotus!" Mere instants before the two would have crashed into the arena floor, he released his foe, flipping away to land lightly facing the impact sight.

There, Anko had caught the Mist ninja, staggering slightly under the force. Sakura could almost swear that she heard the examiner cursing and complaining that she'd almost broken her arms stopping the boy's fall. "Winner of the second semi-final match," she said as she set Saburo down in a tone of voice that made Sakura certain that she'd heard the special jounin correctly, "Rock Lee of the Hidden Village of the Leaf."

Mitarashi Anko grimaced as she waited for the last of her sister's students to make his way off the field and for Hyuuga Neji to make his way onto it. Her arms were going to be sore for weeks because of this little Gai-clone's overkill finishing move. He probably didn't even appreciate how tough it had been to keep his opponent alive. Not that it hadn't been a little tempting to just let the Mist ninja die. A casualty or two made a Chuunin Exam much more memorable.

Still, as Anko had to remind herself every so often, she wasn't that sort of person. Sure, it would have been exciting, but her job was to make sure nobody was killed or seriously injured in the exam, if at all possible, and as much as she'd like to spite Kimi, the political consequences of letting Saburo die would have been more than a little troublesome. Besides, Tsunade would be pissed at her, and Anko sure didn't need to give the Hokage another reason to be mad.

Beside her, Rock Lee was stretching, trying to warm-up for the forthcoming final match. His moves were fluid, but Anko's trained eye could easily see the tiredness in them. It was another reason that using Lotus had been foolish. Nobody could put their body under that kind of strain without suffering for it, and Lee had another fight coming up immediately after that one.

Anko sighed. At least he hadn't tried to use Secondary Lotus like in the last exam. Tsunade had made her promise to intervene if it looked like Lee was going for that move, saying she had no intention of developing another miracle surgery, either for the boy or his victims. It was probably wise, but Anko knew that she'd never hear the end of it from Gai if she had to do that.

Finally, the other of Gai's male students - thankfully not nearly so Gai-ish - arrived, and Anko addressed the pair as they moved without prompting into position. "All right. You guys are the last, so let's give everyone a good show to remember today by. This isn't the time to go soft."

Hyuuga Neji smirked. "Are you ready, Lee?" he asked.

"I've been waiting for this for a long time, Neji-kun," the green-clad ninja replied softly. "I'm ready."

Neji nodded. "Examiner?"

Anko raised her hand and amplified her voice. "The final match," she announced, and then she had to pause as the cheers of the crowd washed over her. "Both from the Hidden Village of the Leaf, Hyuuga Neji and Rock Lee." She paused as both ninja fell into their respective fighting stances. "Begin!"

Lee charged, moving rapidly despite his obvious exhaustion. Neji leaned aside to avoid the first punch, countering with a Gentle Fist strike at Lee's chest. Lee vanished, reappearing behind Neji with a kick aimed at the back of his rival's head. Neji rolled forward, springing back to his feet as soon as the threat was past. He tensed, clearly - to Anko at least - pondering trying to end the fight quickly with the same combo he'd used on Sakura, but decided against it, instead turning to face Lee and backing away cautiously.

Anko frowned. Actually, all of Neji's moves had been oddly restrained. Was he holding back? He hadn't seemed the type to really go soft on someone like Lee. They had to know each other well, so trying to hide his true strength wasn't a good explanation. Besides, this was the final fight. There wasn't any need to hold things in reserve now.

Lee, too, seemed hesitant, not pressing Neji, but instead taking a few steps back himself. "You could have gotten me there, Neji-kun," he stated.

"If I could have, I would have," Neji responded. "You know me."

"I do." Lee was silent for several moments, and neither combatant showed any signs of moving toward his foe.

Anko frowned, approaching the pair. "Is something wrong?" she asked after almost thirty seconds more of stillness.

"I concede." The two spoke in what seemed like perfect unison, and Anko wasn't able to even guess at who had started first. Was there even a precedent for this sort of thing?

Neji smirked slightly. "Lee, you idiot," he said, almost fondly.

Anko blinked several times. "All right," she demanded angrily after a moment. "Somebody is going to explain to me what the hell is going on here. You two just want to withdraw? In the final match? Aren't you supposed to be rivals?"

"Sakura-san's antidote was not as effective as her poison, I fear," Neji stated after a moment. "My chakra control is degraded enough that I cannot use the Gentle Fist precisely enough to defeat Lee without killing him. I have no desire to do that."

"And you?" Anko asked, turning to Lee.

"I don't want my victory to be like this," Lee replied. "When I finally defeat Neji-kun, I want it to be when we're both at full strength."

Anko groaned. "I can't force you to fight," she said regretfully after a moment. "Whichever of you retracts his concession first will get the credit for the win." As she expected, neither of the two made a move to do that. She rolled her eyes. "Both fighters withdraw," she finally announced sourly. "The final match ends in a draw."

Author's Random Ramblings

1) And that's a wrap on the longest chapter yet. Note to self, for future reference: do not plot large tournaments in stories where the format demands the entire tournament be covered in one chapter.

2) Not coincidentally, this chapter took fairly long to write. Still, in my book, any chapter whose writing time is measured in weeks rather than months is a good thing.

3) As is ever the case, I welcome any and all comments. My thanks go out to everyone who commented on the FFML, especially Eimii and William Little.

4) Next time, in One Hundred Days Chapter Twelve, Treachery and Deceit: Jiraiya and Naruto begin to realize that they're in much more danger than they had thought in the Lightning Country. But possibly less than they'd be at home, because the Mist and Sound are finally ready to make their move…

Draft Started: June 6, 2006
Draft Finished: July 6, 2006
Draft Released: July 6, 2006
Final Released: July 13, 2006