Chapter 14

A/N: In accordance with what had better not become a tradition, here is thelatest chapter, horribly delayed but longer than any before it. Thank you,everyone, for your reviews and encouragement.

By popular request, here is a summary of the thus-far presented rules ofninjutsu. The Rule of Conservation of Space states simply that two materialobjects can’t occupy the same space, or overlap. The Rule of Consent statesthat techniques involving interference with someone else’s chakra will failunless that person is extremely chakra-drained or consents to the technique(not necessarily consciously; chakra intelligence is a factor where consciousdecision is too slow or impossible). The Rule of Automatic Return states thata person whose body is in phase space has to immediately return to real spaceif their anchor in real space is destroyed. The Rule of Stability states thatchakra anchors will only remain stable if in the form of a solid, and willquickly dissipate if in the form of a liquid, gas or most other non-solids.

Note that these are not laws of physics but laws of ninjutsu, basicprinciples that govern the function of normal techniques and the creation ofnew ones. For each, there are (or can theoretically be) techniques designed toviolate it. For example, genjutsu is deliberately designed to avoid triggeringthe Rule of Consent, as are many chakra-based attacks.

I continue to be bad at not being overwhelmed by reviews and PMs, so ifthere’s something you said/asked which I’ve obviously forgotten about(including bits of worldbuilding you feel need covering, or importantomissions of any sort), please get in touch and let me know. I promise thistime I’ll actually write it down in my story notes so I remember to dosomething about it.

Also, if you’re a guest reviewer, please make an account. I’ve had somereally interesting questions asked by guests which I’d love to answer by PM,but have no way of doing so. (I obviously have an FF account, and I cantestify that it has not spammed me with notifications or eaten my soul oranything)

For manga spoiler purposes, the anime has just had Tobi flash back to his ownChūnin Exam, in detail this time.

Please see my profile for this chapter’s Reddit discussion link.

(Minor edits for typos etc.; some reviews may no longer make total sense)

-o-

Sakura stood before the door, trying to make herself knock. Even though shewas a Genin now, not an Academy student, in the back of her mind was a sharpawareness that she’d been summoned to the teacher’s office, and good girlsdidn’t get summoned to the teacher’s office. What made it worse was that shealready knew why Kakashi-sensei (who’d had an office since when, exactly?)wanted to talk to her. She’d done her best to avoid thinking about it forweeks now, pushing away the sense of helplessness and impending doom in favourof daydreams and distractions, but now there was nowhere left to run. And ifthere was one thing worse than being summoned to the teacher’s office, it wasbeing summoned to the teacher’s office and then being late. So, finally, sheknocked.

“Come in.”

Kakashi-sensei’s voice was neutral, but then it usually was. He wasn’t one forfrequent displays of emotion, other than maybe sardonic amusement, andexaggerated resignation when yet another of Naruto’s pranks made somethingcatch fire or explode or (in the case of one memorable distraction whileNaruto was up to no good elsewhere) turn into a double-size copy of the ThirdHokage and deliver a lecture on the training of ninja hedgehogs.

With some trepidation, Sakura entered Kakashi-sensei’s office. Casting hereyes around the place, the first thing that struck her was how… unlived-in itfelt. Where were the trophies and mementos from past missions? Where were thecalligraphy scrolls hanging on the walls? Heck, where were those horriblenovels he insisted on reading in front of children, with their unmistakeablebright covers that Sakura was now able to spot from a mile off? The onlythings in the room that spoke of any degree of personalisation were thebookshelves, and those were filled with tomes with desperately dry-soundingtitles like Analyses of the Third Armistice Treaty Between Hidden Leaf andHidden Rock, vol.3, and Bloodline Limit Transplantation Theory: AnEpistemological Refutation of the Saionji Model. Oh, and the obligatorymountain of paperwork, divided into five separate messy piles.

Even as Sakura did her best to distract herself with what little there was ofnote in Kakashi-sensei’s office, however, her feet unerringly carried hertowards the chair on her side of the desk. She sat down, and prepared to takeher punishment.

“Sakura,” Kakashi-sensei began, “we need to talk about your performance.”

Yep. This was it. This was the part where he told her what she already knew –that she’d turned out to be incompetent as a Genin, incomparably worse inactual combat conditions than Sasuke (of course) but also than Naruto, andthat it was time to send her back to the Academy to join those whom the GeninExam had successfully screened out to begin with. Frankly, the only surprisewas that it had taken him this long.

When two team members were busy beating Jōnin while the third just cowered ina corner, it didn’t take a genius to predict the latter’s probable careerprogression. She’d turned out not to have what it took to be a ninja afterall, even after those years of relentless study. She’d go back to the Academy,and lose everything that mattered – her place beside Sasuke, her superiorityover Ino, knowing where she was in life and where she was going, all the self-respect she’d painstakingly built up over the last several years…

“I am very pleased with your progress.”

What.

Sakura strove to convert this reaction into something more appropriate to sayto her team leader’s face, but failed, and ended up saying nothing. However,her look of disbelief probably spoke for her.

“You performed exactly how we would hope for a Genin on a bodyguard mission toperform. You retained self-control while under threat, you protected theclient, and you responded promptly to orders that potentially put you inharm’s way.”

“B-But… Sasuke… and Naruto…”

“Are special cases, both of them,” Kakashi-sensei told her. “And until suchtime as you spontaneously develop a Bloodline Limit, or go back in time andhave a Demon Beast sealed inside you from birth, you should focus on doing thebest you can do, not the best they can do.”

Sakura wasn’t sure how to react to this. On the one hand, she apparentlywasn’t going to be sent back to the Academy. Her life was not over. She couldstop holding her breath. On the other hand, Kakashi-sensei was voicing athought she hadn’t wanted to think – that she wasn’t a special case, for allher amazing test scores, that there were people all around her who couldeffortlessly make her look mediocre and there was nothing she could do aboutit. That all her hard work amounted to nothing in the face of Sasuke’soverwhelming natural talent and whatever the hell it was Naruto had going on(she’d checked, and there was zero information available to Genin about DemonBeast hosts, other than that they existed and were extremely dangerous, bothof which she already knew).

“With that said, I appreciate your position,” Kakashi-sensei went on. “Andfrom the point of view of team balance, the gap between you and them will onlybecome more of a problem for future missions until we find a way of dealingwith it. Fortunately, you do have options.”

“What do you mean?”

“The most obvious would be for you to transfer to another team,” he explained.“Captain Kurenai, for example, would make an excellent team leader for you.She started out very similarly to you in terms of strengths and weaknesses,and I honestly think you’d blossom under her tutelage. There are otherpossibilities, but she’s probably your best choice if that’s what you decideto do.”

Sakura immediately zeroed in on the obvious implication. She’d be separatedfrom Sasuke. It was hard enough to get his attention when they were workingtogether all the time – how much worse would it be if she had to constantlyinvent opportunities to see him? And what would happen when Ino realised thatthe playing field was suddenly level again?

Something of her dismay must have shown on her face.

“There are other options. In particular, have you heard of the Chūnin Exam?”Kakashi-sensei asked.

“Sure,” Sakura nodded, feeling a reflexive impulse to restore at least some ofher credentials. “Every few years, all the major villages, as well as many ofthe minor ones, bring their stronger and more experienced Genin together in ahuge multi-stage competitive exam, and the winners get promoted to Chūnin.”The text from which she’d learned about the Chūnin Exam actually went intoquite a lot more detail, but Sakura had discovered early on in her social lifethat nobody liked a walking encyclopaedia. Learning to act normal wasn’t easyat first, but she’d been motivated, especially once she learned that boysfound excessive intelligence off-putting. Not that it turned out to make anydifference where the boy she actually liked was concerned.

“It reaffirms the spirit of friendly competition between countries, and showsthe Daimyō who come to watch that the funds they invest in ninja villages arebeing spent on quality training,” she added, to show that she’d understood theinformation rather than just memorised it.

“Close enough,” Kakashi-sensei (probably) smiled.

“Why are you asking, Kakashi-sensei? The next Chūnin Exam isn’t due for awhile, is it?”

“It’s been pushed forward. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

Sakura’s mind boggled now that she was starting to grasp the implication. “Youcan’t be suggesting that Team Seven should enter it. We’re barely out of theAcademy. It would be insa- a bad idea. Sir.”

Kakashi-sensei sighed. “Sakura, do you know the difference between you and theother two?”

Sakura assumed, correctly, that this was a rhetorical question.

“I’ve seen your Academy records. You are highly intelligent. You’re more thancapable of working hard when you have an objective and know what you need todo to achieve it. You are even, if your Advanced Trap-Making scores areanything to go by, more creative than the average ninja.”

Sakura felt herself swell up with pride.

“But you’re coasting.”

That took the wind out of her sails as surely as a blast of razor-sharpshrapnel.

“Sasuke trains hard every day, unprompted, to achieve his final goal. It’shard to say what’s going on with Naruto right now, but he didn’t hold his ownagainst one of the Seven Swordsmen of Hidden Mist because he’s a consummateprankster. Both of them are driven by something greater than the demands ofdaily life or even the duty they owe to Leaf.

“What are you driven by, Sakura? If the world you knew vanished into thin airtomorrow, where would you find your reason to carry on?” Kakashi-sensei asked,leaning forward slightly as he looked straight at her.

Sakura sat there, silent. What kind of question was that to ask a twelve-yearold? A few months out of the Academy, was she supposed to have all theanswers, to have her life purpose sorted out and ready to go? Did Kakashi-sensei not remember being twelve? Did everyone else’s team leaders ask themsuch unfair questions, or did they, at least, have some sense of perspective?

Only she couldn’t help thinking that Sasuke probably wouldn’t have reactedthat way. He‘d have an answer ready, bold and insightful, and probably soamazing it would shut Kakashi-sensei right up. _He _wouldn’t let himself bebullied by anyone, not even a Jōnin. She felt Inner Sakura’s hands on herback, pushing her forward, and resolved to stand up to Kakashi-sensei thereand then.

“I don’t see what this has to do with the Chūnin Exam,” she said defiantly.

“No, you don’t,” Kakashi-sensei replied, instantly making her feel foolishrather than rebellious. “But do you remember how you felt when you werepulling Naruto out of his possessed state?”

She’d mostly just been terrified. But there’d also been something else, justfaintly, a sense of doing something… meaningful? Important? Of knowing thather actions made a difference to something, in a way they hardly ever did.

All of which she summed up in a nod.

Kakashi-sensei nodded back, acting as if he could read her mind. It was partlyirritating, and partly a relief that she didn’t have to try to put it intowords.

“The Chūnin Exam is a high-pressure survival situation which makes you draw oninner resources you didn’t know you had. In the moment, you tend to find thatall the countless thoughts and beliefs that do not matter get stripped away.It offers you the chance to find out who you really are, with a much lowerfatality rate than an equally intense engagement in the real world. Noteveryone walks away from the Chūnin Exam a better person, but everyone walksaway changed by the experience.”

“You’re saying you think I should enter the Chūnin Exam so I can find an innerpurpose like Sasuke and Naruto have,” Sakura concluded. The idea was bizarreto say the least. Did he think this was one of Naruto’s ridiculous manga?

“I’m saying nothing of the sort, Sakura. You have to make your own decision. Ithink the benefits of entering the Chūnin Exam outweigh the risks, but that’snot to say the risks are low, especially this year, or that it’s the only wayyou can proceed. If you want to talk to other people and get more input, thatis entirely your right. I’m bringing this up now because if you want to enterthe exam, you need to submit this form,” Kakashi-sensei handed her a signedpiece of paper, “within three days.”

“What?!” Sakura had a distinct sense of injustice piling on injustice. “That’shardly any time at all!”

Kakashi-sensei raised an eyebrow. “I’ll be sure to pass on your complaintabout the scheduling to the Hokage when I next see him.”

Sakura had nothing to say to this. Instead, she picked up the piece of paperand stormed off, correctly assuming that she’d been dismissed, but too angryto wait for confirmation. She needed to think.

Kakashi-sensei’s voice caught her on the way out. “Oh, and could you tellNaruto to meet me at Meeting Place 4 at 5 pm?”

“Not here?”

Kakashi-sensei shook his head firmly. “As far as Naruto is concerned, I donot have an office. Consider it an S-rank secret, with all appropriaterepercussions for being indiscreet.”

-o-

Naruto stumbled into his flat, his weary body demanding that he fall on thebed and abandon his unconvincing pretence of consciousness. Sparring withHinata was getting more demanding, as she was gradually learning exactly howstrong she was, and therefore starting to trust herself to go on the offensivewithout risk of injury to her partner. The fact that for the last few daysshe’d seemed suffused with new energy didn’t help either. And the ceremonyhe’d gone to afterwards had been… well, a different kind of draining.Sometimes closure came with a cost.

It’s not that he regretted for a second spending time with his girlfriend. Norhad he even considered not going to the other thing after Kakashi-sensei haddiscreetly informed him of the time and date. But right now all the romance inthe world, and all the right things to do, couldn’t be worth as much as anhour of sleep.

This is why when Naruto saw an important-looking envelope on the floor next tohis door, his first reaction was a heartfelt groan, followed by an immediatedecision to let sleeping dogs lie. Nothing in that envelope could be as urgentas his need to collapse.

He was halfway to his bed when he suddenly froze. No, his eyes must have beenplaying tricks on him. That couldn’t have been…

With a sense of creeping dread, Naruto turned around and examined theenvelope. Yes, he was forced to admit, he recognised that symbol. It wasn’tone he could permit himself not to know at this point.

The Hyūga had sent him a formal letter.

He’d almost picked it up when a frightening thought occurred to him. The Hyūgaalmost certainly hated the idea of him, the village pariah, dating their clanheir. He wouldn’t for a second put it past them to decide that assassinationwas the simplest solution. Was there a Hyūga watching him right now with theByakugan, waiting for him to touch the envelope? Naruto had learned Haku’slesson well, and made sure to read up on the uses and effects of contactpoison. If the envelope was poisoned and Naruto handled it even briefly, allthat would be left was for the Hyūga assassin to sneak in and dispose of thebody, and no-one would ever know. With the Byakugan’s ability to scan forpossible witnesses, it could easily become the perfect crime.

After a few seconds of exhausted terror, Naruto mentally smacked himselfupside the head. This had to be tiredness, right? Leaf’s most badass Genin andfuture greatest Hokage couldn’t really be this dumb.

“Shadow Clone Technique!”

He breathed a sigh of relief when his clone didn’t vanish upon handling theletter. Of course, it could have a poison with a delayed effect (it wasn’tparanoia if you’d survived double digits of suspicious accidents since the ageof five), so Naruto had the clone read it, deposit it on Naruto’s leastfavourite plate, and then dispel himself to give Naruto the information.

Hyūga Hiashi

requests the pleasure of your company

for afternoon tea

at four oclock today

at the Hyūga Clan compound.

You are requested to attend in person and, in light of sensitive matters tobe discussed, to kindly refrain from informing anyone of your imminent visit.

What was the time now? Naruto didn’t even know why he bothered looking. Ofcourse it was 3:30.

-o-

The good news for Naruto was that the Hyūga Clan compound was within easyrunning distance (at least for typical ninja, to whom parkour was a form oflight exercise for the convalescent). The bad news was that half an hour wasnowhere near enough time to prepare for a confrontation with the Hyūga. For astart, there was every possibility that he was walking into a trap. How elsewas he to interpret the request that he come himself (which suggested theywere at least partially aware of his capabilities) and that he not tell anyonewhere he was going? They might as well have asked him to cut his own throatand save them the effort. And not going wasn’t an option – his few encounterswith Hinata’s relatives had made it clear that they shared the other adults’contempt for him in full. If he insulted them, they would definitely seize theexcuse to take revenge.

Still, he had a unique advantage when it came to rapid planning. “UzumakiNaruto Coalition, assemble!”

He met his clones’ eyes, one by one. “Men, you know exactly how dire thesituation is, so let’s get cracking. What’s our top priority?”

“Surviving the meeting,” Naruto Number Four volunteered. “We’ll be walkinginto the heart of the enemy compound, on their schedule, with no chance ofbackup. We need countermeasures and escape routes.”

“More importantly,” Naruto Number Seven cut in, “we need to know the etiquettefor tea with nobles. If we do the wrong thing and offend him, it might be justthe excuse he needs to decide we’re not good enough for Hinata – assuming hehasn’t already.”

“I wouldn’t even know where to start with that,” Naruto Prime admitted. “Like,do I go in my ninja uniform, or in my one smart outfit?”

“Ninja uniform, duh,” Naruto Number Two rolled his eyes. “You think you haveany chances of surviving a fight against Hyūga Hiashi without weapons?”

Naruto Number Twelve gave him an “I can’t believe I’m the same person as thisidiot” look. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m sure coming dressed for combat is going togive him a positive impression of our intentions. Or our level of refinement,for that matter. Have _you _ever heard of someone going to a tea ceremony inbattle gear? No, it’s got to be the outfit.”

“Seriously? He’s probably summoned us because he’s furious that we’re datinghis daughter, and you want to turn up to our first meeting with him wearingthe clothes from that date? Come on, Prime, back me up here.”

Naruto Prime just sighed as the uncoordinated chatter of his clones washedover him. There had to be a better way than this.

“Right,” he finally announced. “Narutos One through Three, figure out what todo about clothes. Narutos Four through Seven, decide what we most need to knowetiquette-wise, then dispel yourselves. Naruto Eight, start running to thenearest library now, and look up the stuff they choose, plus any maps andarchitectural info on the Hyūga compound you can find, then dispel yourselftoo. Narutos Nine through Twelve, I need ideas for defending myself againstwhat I’m assuming to be like Hinata’s abilities turned up to eleven.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to lie down and pretend this isn’t happening. Get me in twenty.”

-o-

“Do you know why I’ve called you here, Sasuke?” Kakashi-sensei asked.

Sasuke nodded. “You think I should go for the Chūnin Exam.”

Kakashi-sensei (probably) smiled. “Very good. I assume you noticed theincreased number of foreign shinobi.”

“Yes.” After those three from Hidden Sand, Sasuke had started paying moreattention to his surroundings. It seemed like there were unfamiliar faceseverywhere, many with outlandish, manga-like uniforms and strange weapons he’donly previously seen in books. When, shortly afterwards, Kakashi-sensei hadunexpectedly summoned him to his office, there was only one obviousconclusion.

“Are you interested? You have three days to decide and hand in this form ifyou are.”

Was Sasuke interested? Before the Wave mission, he’d probably have hesitated.The Chūnin Exam was serious business. Injuries happened. Deaths were notunknown. Was he really ready?

But things were clearer to him now. He was alone, and that meant he had to bestronger. Much stronger. Strong enough to need no one else. Something he hadsaid, at the end, kept echoing in Sasuke’s head. “If you wish to know thetruth, be strong. Be stronger than I was.”

Sasuke wanted the truth. He craved it. Why had Itachi, the Uchiha Clan’sbrightest star, turned on everyone he’d ever loved? Why had he killed themall, even his own family, even his parents, only to spare his worthless littlebrother? Why had a relentless mass murderer, who had cut down the elderly asthey tried to flee, seemed so sad in those final moments? Why did he leavebehind such cryptic words?

Why, above all, had his brother, the most important person in Sasuke’s life,abandoned him in the most brutal way possible?

Maybe that was just Sasuke’s fate. Betrayal. Abandonment. He should havelearned from the experience, and let himself be alone as he was meant to be.Things were clearer now, and he’d find the strength he needed on his own. He’dfind the answers with his own power, and the Chūnin Exam was a natural nextstep. How much stronger could he become by fighting the world’s best Genin?What new powers could he obtain by facing them now that his Sharingan wasactive, allowing him to copy any technique he was theoretically capable ofperforming? What opportunities could he encounter to utterly crush a certaintattooed poser? Little by little, as he thought about it, the emptiness insidehim was replaced with excitement. Was he interested? The question was absurd.

When Kakashi-sensei asked him if he knew what the Chūnin Exam’s purpose was,the answer was so obvious as to be trivial. It was the ultimate Genin trainingexercise, of course, high risk in return for levels of improvement that couldcatapult one to Chūnin levels of skill over just a few short days’ worth ofactivity. Ninja grew the most through real battle against real enemies, andthis was as close as training could get to that.

Before he left, though, he had to ask about something that had been bugginghim.

“Kakashi-sensei, why do you have an office? Does every Jōnin have one, or…”

“My advice to you,” Kakashi-sensei replied neutrally, “is to split your focusevenly between theoretical preparation and practical training. While theChūnin Exam traditionally has a heavy focus on combat and survival, don’t makethe mistake of being unprepared for the written examination. If you let yourguard down even a little, you will fail the test and be eliminated.”

-o-

The doors slammed shut behind Naruto. He’d done his best to memorise the routehis blank-faced Hyūga guide had taken to bring him here from the front gate,but it had been (deliberately?) circuitous and hard-to-follow, and Naruto hada sneaking suspicion that they had passed certain areas more than once. Anyfading hopes Naruto had that this was an innocent social occasion were crushedby the heavy bolt that he heard fall into place behind him a second later.

With no way back, Naruto proceeded forwards. The building was old, clearly areconstruction of something raised in the very first days of Leaf, perhapseven with some of its original materials (something, he understood, theextremely rich liked to do). It reminded him of a dojo, broad, wooden, emptybut for support pillars, some calligraphy scrolls hanging on the walls, and…hm, maybe not a dojo after all. The one object in the room, towards the back,was a statue of some ancient Hyūga patriarch, dressed in austere formal robesand sitting in a kneeling position on the floor. For something that wasprobably carved of marble, it radiated a distinct, eerie sense of presence.

Naruto had never been at ease with the reverence for one’s ancestors so commonamong the older clans. Not only was it inapplicable to him personally (theNamikaze were extinct, and the Uzumaki had been refugees from a now-destroyedvillage, so his recent revelations had not restored any lost family ties), buthe felt it skirted disturbingly close to the worship taboo. On the other hand,if this was a Hyūga holy place, that reduced the odds of its being a trap-filled gauntlet designed to test his worthiness (or indeed just to eliminatehim).

Well, nothing for it.

“Hello? It’s me, Uzumaki Naruto. I’m here!”

The statue blinked.

“So I see,” Hyūga Hiashi told him without a hint of humour in his voice.

“Thank you for coming. Please be seated.” Hinata’s father gestured in front ofhim, where – completely overlooked earlier as Naruto’s attention had beencaptured by the “statue” – a tea ceremony set laid waiting.

Naruto sat down, suddenly very glad that he was wearing his most formalclothes, but simultaneously aware that this wasn’t saying much, and that hehad probably already lost points as a result.

“Thank you for your hospitality, Lord Hyūga,” he said as evenly as possible,trying not to be intimidated, and hoping that the adrenaline flowing throughhis veins did not suddenly fade and cause him to collapse from exhaustion.

“We have much to discuss, you and I,” Hinata’s father went on, his eyes neveronce leaving Naruto’s face, “but first I invite you to sample this tea, brewedaccording to a recipe passed down through the Hyūga Clan for over twentygenerations. Its lineage is longer and more illustrious than that of many.”

Naruto couldn’t help his eyebrows rising a little. His clones had finishedtheir emergency research just in time, and he was aware that in a proper teaceremony, the tea was prepared in the presence of the guest, not in advance.

Lord Hyūga noticed. “I apologise for breaking with protocol. The brewingprocess for this tea is quite involved, and I imagine that your backgroundwould leave you with little interest in such subtleties.”

He poured the tea into two cups, each of which looked like it was worth morethan all of Naruto’s possessions put together (even including the jacket).

Naruto reached out to pick up the cup closer to him, then suddenly stopped. Heknew that, as a guest, he was supposed to drink first. He also knew that LordHyūga had taken the unusual step of preparing this tea so Naruto couldn’tobserve the process, and he estimated a three in four chance that Lord Hyūgawanted him dead or at least severely harmed. Which meant the tea had everypossibility of being poisoned. Or perhaps the tea was a distraction and he’dpoisoned the cup instead – but the cups were positioned such that Naruto couldrealistically take either, and while Lord Hyūga might well be distraught atthe thought of his heir dating Leaf’s least eligible young bachelor, he wasunlikely to risk suicide to get rid of him.

Of course, if Lord Hyūga was _really _serious about this, he’d have poisonedeverything and just used a poison he himself was immune to. But insofar asNaruto couldn’t refuse to drink altogether without giving offense, that was arisk he was going to have to take. The important thing was to get Lord Hyūgato drink first, and thereby at least narrow down the possibilities (and buyhimself time to figure out what to do next).

“Thank you, my lord,” Naruto said in his most respectful voice, which he hadto admit was not particularly well-practiced. “But I have acted rudely inarriving late,” though only by a couple of minutes, and that thanks to havingto take the extra-long way through the compound, “and by way of apology Iwould like to surrender the right to drink first to you.”

A flicker of curiosity crossed the studied polite blankness of his host’sface.

“On the contrary,” Lord Hyūga replied, “your timing allowed me to finishbrewing the tea correctly. If anyone is at fault here, it is I. It is obviousnow that in sending the invitation so late, I have denied you essential timeto prepare. Allowing you to drink first is the least I could do to atone.”

So that was the game, was it?

“You are too kind, my lord. But under any circumstances it would be rude of acommoner like myself to drink first in the company of the head of Leaf’s mostnoble clan. Please, after you.”

Lord Hyūga’s expression did not change, but something about him seemedslightly more animated and less statue-like. Oddly, it made Naruto think ofHinata the first time she’d found herself doing really well at shogi.

“Your humility does you credit, Uzumaki Naruto. But is it not written in thelaws of hospitality that the host shall always humble himself before theguest, though he be a lion receiving a flea?”

Naruto nodded his head in acknowledgment, thinking fast, and in particulartrying to find manga references that would help him figure out the rightspeaking style. “Indeed. But even before the laws of hospitality, there arethe laws of seniority, by which you are both my elder and my senior in the wayof the ninja. I would never dare disrespect my elders by being presumptuous,and so I offer the first drink to you.” For just one moment, Naruto wasextremely grateful that there were no witnesses, and no chance of anyone whoknew him overhearing that statement.

One corner of Lord Hyūga’s mouth twitched slightly. Had that been too brazen alie?

“Then surely,” the man finally answered, “you understand that seniority comeswith responsibility? While those without breeding or rank may behave like thebeasts of the field, a true gentleman must acknowledge and atone for everymisstep. And since I seem to have troubled you by inviting you to an eventnormally reserved for the aristocracy, it is only just that I takeresponsibility for my actions by granting you the right to drink first.”

Was Hinata’s father deliberately making his speech more and more complicated,or was Naruto’s exhaustion starting to take over his brain again? He had toend this fast, before he got too tired and did something stupid. Time fordesperate measures.

“My lord!” He allowed his eyes to widen as if in surprise, then bent his headto the floor in the most humble bow possible. “Please forgive me. I realisenow that I have committed the gravest of errors – that of arguing with you inyour own home over who should take the first drink, when every law demandsthat I abide by whatever judgment you hand down. I am shamed, and must atoneat the very least by surrendering the first drink to you, lest I be forced toflee this place in humiliation.” He was particularly proud of the “lest”.

Lord Hyūga looked at him for a few seconds, then seemed to come to a decision.

“Raise your head, Uzumaki Naruto, and grant me your forgiveness instead. Onlynow do I realise the arrogance of refusing the gift you have repeatedlyoffered me, and of denying the innocent spirit of youth that transcends properetiquette. I shall do as you say, and drink first.”

Naruto was only just beginning to mentally celebrate his victory when LordHyūga reached towards the cups. But as he leaned over, his movement caused theedge of his sleeve to sway just a little too far forwards, catching the edgesof both. They fell over, spilling the tea onto the floor.

“Why, I do apologise,” Lord Hyūga said, still expressionless. “This tea isonly brewed with one serving per person, so it seems neither of us will beable to partake of it today. Do excuse me while I bring cloth to clean up.”

Now Naruto was even more worried. Why would Hinata’s father spill the tea,unless it really had been poisoned? And why would the head of a noble clanclean up his own mess, unless he’d deliberately chosen to send his servantsaway to remove any witnesses of what he was about to do? Or was the wholething just a mind game designed to put Naruto off balance, in which case itwas working very well? Or was he intended to assume that it was a mind game,thereby leaving himself vulnerable to an actual assassination attempt still tocome? Just how many levels was Hyūga Hiashi playing on here? Had he given intoo easily to Naruto’s winning move, or was Naruto just being paranoid now?Perhaps that had been the intent?

By the time Lord Hyūga returned and wiped up the tea (should Naruto haveoffered to do that? Aargh), it felt like Naruto’s brain was tying itself inknots. Which, of course, was when his host decided to move on to thediscussion proper.

“Uzumaki Naruto,” he began, seating himself in the formal kneeling positiononce again, “allow me to be direct. What are your intentions towards mydaughter?”

How was Naruto supposed to answer that? He wasn’t even sure he knew himself,and he certainly couldn’t tell what answer Hinata’s father would want to hear.

“I… I want to make her happy,” he finally said. There couldn’t be any saferanswer than that, right?

But Lord Hyūga’s voice grew several degrees colder. “I will warn you now notto lie to me. After decades of practice, one does not need the Byakugan toread body language.”

“I’m not lying!” Naruto surprised himself with the intensity of his reply. “Mylord,” he hastily added, mindful of the need not to insult his girlfriend’sfather who could probably wipe him off the face of the earth with a meregesture.

But the cold did not leave Lord Hyūga’s voice. “Then you truly are a child.Happiness is for commoners to seek. A noble’s life is duty, it is theresponsibility to bear the burdens that the common man cannot. For leaders topursue their own happiness above the greater good is the path to corruption.Is this what you would wish for my daughter?”

“No, my lord.” Naruto hesitated. If Lord Hyūga could really tell when he waslying (and this wasn’t just another mind game), then that really limited hisoptions in this conversation. A lifetime of lying to everyone did not prepareyou for complete sincerity. “But… But I don’t think lack of responsibility isHinata’s problem. If anything… I think it’s crushing her.”

“Are you saying she is unfit to be the Hyūga heir?”

There was a loaded question.

“That’s not it. I think…” Naruto cast around for some way of expressing whathe did think. “My lord, you’re Hyūga Hiashi.”

Lord Hyūga somehow managed, without changing his expression in the slightest,to convey how unimpressed he was at this revelation.

“I mean… you’re the head of the Hyūga Clan. You’re a hero of the Third GreatNinja War. You’re one of Leaf’s strongest Jōnin. Maybe you don’t entirelyremember what it was like not to be strong, or maybe you were like this fromthe beginning. But Hinata’s different.

“Some people need time to grow into being strong, into being able to bear theresponsibility they’re supposed to. Sometimes they need help.”

“And you think,” Lord Hyūga asked, a trace of danger in his voice, “that youcan be of more help to my daughter than myself and the entirety of the HyūgaClan?”

Naruto took a little time to think before answering, but couldn’t see any wayaround it. “With respect, my lord, you and the entirety of the Hyūga Clan havemade her what she is now. And I get the impression that you’re not satisfiedwith the result.”

Suddenly, a sense of intense threat washed over Naruto. Lord Hyūga’s presenceexpanded to envelop him like a snowstorm, holding him in place even as shadowsmoved within the obscured space around him, waiting for their moment tostrike.

What has she said to you?

“Nothing!” Naruto rushed to get the word out like his life depended on it.

The presence retreated. Not completely, but a little, enough for some feelingto start coming back into his frozen limbs.

“Nothing. She never talks about her family life.” Naruto took a few deepbreaths to restore such calm as he could manage. “But I’m not stupid. I cansee the contours of what she doesn’t talk about, and I can draw my ownconclusions.”

“Supposing what you say is true…” the words were heavy, falling into placelike lead blocks from some great height. “Supposing that, what is it you thinkyou can do for her?”

“I can make her stronger.” Naruto was on more familiar ground now. “I can helpher believe in herself. I can help her find out what she’s capable of.” Narutofelt something, an influx of… protectiveness? Affection? Pride in who Hinatawas? He didn’t know the name of this feeling, but it felt right, and he wentwith it.

“My lord, Hinata is intelligent, imaginative, dedicated, compassionate. Shehas the potential to be a great clan leader someday. I think I can help gether there, and it’s what she wants as well. Please… I know you’re trying to doyour best for her in your own way. Let me do the same in mine.”

The sense of threat retreated a little further.

“Why?” Lord Hyūga demanded. “Why would you go so far for her?”

Was he really going to make him say it? Yes, he was, wasn’t he. Narutoinwardly cringed, but then finally sucked it up. If he could face Momochi“Demon” Zabuza in one-on-one combat, then he could damn well admit hisfeelings about a girl to her hostile father.

“Because I care about her,” Naruto said. “Because she’s my best friend, andmore. Because I don’t have anything else to give her… and I want to give hereverything I can.” That last part had sounded defiant in his head, like he wasangry with Lord Hyūga for challenging his feelings, but somehow his voicecaught when he was saying it out loud, and it came out soft, quiet, gentle.

Silence.

Lord Hyūga said nothing. There was no sense of threat anymore, just anunbroken stillness, like the snowstorm had retreated and left everythingcovered in perfect white.

Naruto had no sense of time, watching the completely motionless figure of hishost. Were minutes passing, or hours?

Finally, Lord Hyūga looked at him.

“I have made my decision. Do not think ill of me, but for the good of mydaughter and the Hyūga Clan, Uzumaki Naruto…”

His hand was suddenly in front of Naruto’s heart, his chakra one preciseneedle, piercing the flesh as if it wasn’t there.

“… you must die.”

-o-

Sakura was fed up with looking for Naruto. It was nearly 5 pm now, and he wasgoing to be late to his meeting even if she did catch up to him, and it wouldall be her fault. Even though it was all Naruto’s fault for being so hard tofind. And Kakashi-sensei’s fault for making her look in the first place. Yes,she knew the reasoning. Use Genin as messengers whenever convenient becausethey need to develop their tracking skills, and need to be able to locatefellow ninja (and especially teammates) quickly if standard communicationchannels ever fail. That didn’t make it not a pain.

She knew he’d come out of the Foreigners’ Cemetery (and what in blazes had hebeen doing there?) hours ago, then probably gone home. There the trailended. Sakura was one of the few people who knew that on the rare occasionsthat Naruto wasn’t being obnoxiously in-your-face, he could be surprisinglystealthy (such as when preparing pranks). But why would he be sneaking aroundon a day off? Actually, perhaps she didn’t want to know. It might be best tohope for the more innocent alternative, that he was in a real A-rank hurry. Ona weekend like this, with the streets so crowded, that would mean sticking tothe ninja routes (in which case the only witnesses would be people who thoughtto look up).

In other words, here was Naruto making her life as difficult as possiblewithout even trying. She’d have to alert the press.

Anyway, after a while she had a brainwave, and decided to track down Hinatainstead. Even if Naruto’s new girlfriend (and seriously, how had thathappened?) didn’t know where he was, she could always use her Bloodline Limitto locate him quickly and easily. Why Hinata was apparently in the forestoutside the village she didn’t know, but that made tracking her a lot easier,so Sakura wasn’t complaining.

After following a trail of broken twigs and occasional footprints (reassuringin that if Hinata wasn’t covering her tracks, it meant Sakura wasn’taccidentally trailing her on some sort of secret mission or private errand),she finally bumped into her target heading the other way. As Hinata appearedto be on her way home from wherever she’d been, the two girls ended up walkingback together.

“You haven’t seen Naruto, have you, Hinata?”

Hinata shook her head. “No, not since, um…” She stopped awkwardly.

“It’s OK,” Sakura tried to look friendly and not at all fed up. “I know aboutyou two dating – I was the one who helped him pick out clothes for your firstdate.”

“Oh, so you did. That was very kind of you.” Hinata smiled. “Well, we weretraining together earlier this afternoon, but I haven’t seen him since then,and I don’t know where he’d be now.”

That makes it Plan B for Byakugan, then. “In that case, would you mind usingyour ability to find him for me? I’ve got a message I need to get to him.”

But Hinata shook her head. “Sorry. I promised him I wouldn’t use the Byakuganto look for him unless there was an emergency.”

Drat. On reflection, Sakura supposed it made sense. Imagine dating someone whocould always see you, no matter where you were or what you were doing. Thecreepiness level made shivers run down her spine.

Is it an emergency?”

Sakura considered. It would serve both Naruto and Kakashi-sensei right if themessage failed to get through because of their unhelpfulness, and it wasn’treally urgent. They were probably only going to talk about the Chūnin Exam,which Naruto would go for without a second thought because he was some kind ofidiot savant superhero now. Then again, Sakura’s deep-rooted instinctsscreamed at her that if she went to the teacher’s office and received aspecial errand, then failing at that errand – or worse, abandoning it – was acrime worse than murder. There were no gold stars for people like that.

“I guess?” she finally told Hinata.

“Well, if you’re sure… Byakugan!”

Hinata scanned for a few seconds.

“Sorry, Sakura. I can’t see him. We’re too far outside the village for me tobe able to see very much of it with my range.”

“Oh. Never mind. Off I go, then.” Joy. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy, notwhere Naruto was concerned. With him and Kakashi-sensei constantly conspiringto make her life difficult, and the rest of the world being at best well-meaning but useless, was it any wonder that she turned to Sasuke as the onebeacon of sanity and competence in her life?

“Oh, um, Sakura?”

“What?” Don’t snap, don’t snap, it’s not the poor girl’s fault that she’sdating the world’s biggest pain in the butt. OK, it sort of is, but obviouslyNaruto must have driven her insane in some way for that to happen, so theblame comes back to him in the end.

“Kurenai-sensei had a word with me earlier. She, um, asked if I was preparedto consider swapping teams with you, hypothetically speaking.”

“And… what did you say?” Sakura asked hesitantly.

Hinata took a deep breath. “I… don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Really?” Sakura hadn’t seen that coming at all. “But why wouldn’t you want tobe on the same team as Naruto?” Being on the same team as Sasuke was theluckiest break she’d had in living memory. Just how insane had Naruto madeHinata, that she would turn down an opportunity like this?

The answer floored her.

“Because he needs you.”

“He what.” This time, Sakura couldn’t restrain herself.

Hinata began to fidget. “With Naruto and me, he’s always the one looking afterme. If I was on the same team with him, the way I am now, I’d only be more ofa burden on him. Maybe one day… but right now, he needs someone who can lookafter him by his side.”

“Me? Look after him?” A puzzled Sakura briefly thought through her normalpatterns of interaction with Naruto. Regular violence. A metric tonne ofsnark. The occasional very backhanded compliment. Was she missing somethinghere?

“Sure. You’re like his big sister. Or like I imagine a big sister would be.You’re always there, no matter what’s happening in his life. He knows youbetter than he knows most people, and he knows how you’ll react to anything hedoes.” Hinata paused, and frowned as she tried to collect her thoughts. “Iknow you can be a bit mean to him sometimes, but it’s mean, not hostile likean enemy. It’s the way people in a family act. And he can let himself doreally silly things, knowing that if he goes too far, you’ll ‘beat some senseinto him’.

“Um. Actually, about that…” Hinata stopped fidgeting. “I know Naruto can fighthis own battles, but, um, I’m his girlfriend now, and if you put him inhospital again… I think I’ll have to get upset.”

Sakura’s eyes widened, possibly to the size of dinner plates. What _had_Naruto done to this girl?

“Please don’t take that the wrong way!” Hinata suddenly exclaimed. “I, um, Ireally want us to be friends.” She looked down sheepishly. The fidgetingresumed.

Friends, huh? Sakura kind of missed having those. There was this thing thathappened when your one friend was the best friend you clung to like a drowningwoman to a rock, and then she became your rival and suddenly you had nofriends anymore. She wasn’t sure how she felt about Hinata, a former non-entity who had just given her an enormous compliment (if that’s what it was),threatened her and made overtures of friendship in a single shortconversation, but it was at least something to think about.

Most of her mind, however, was still stuck on Hinata’s earlier statement. “Hisbig sister? Really?”

“I think so. I think… maybe that’s who you are in Team Seven? Naruto andSasuke don’t have families, or many friends, but you’re this person who’salways got their backs, and always covers their blind spots. I, um, don’t meanninja missions or anything. Like when Naruto needed help with the date, and hewent straight to you, and I guess you were a little bit mean to him, but youstill dropped everything to help him out.

“Sorry. I’m rambling.” Hinata looked at Sakura nervously. “Just, I’ve beenthinking about this a lot, and I’m really grateful for how you make Naruto’slife more… stable, I guess? I know it’s a thing I can’t do yet.”

Sakura didn’t know what to say. It had been too long since she’d had this kindof conversation. Too long, really, since there’d been anyone she could havesuch a conversation with. Finally, she decided to go for the safe option andchange the subject.

“So what are you doing all the way out here, anyway?”

“Oh, my father asked me to deliver some documents to a Hyūga at one of themore distant guard posts. It’s a bit of a long walk, but he said I could takemy time, so I don’t mind.”

“Huh.” Wasn’t Hinata supposed to be the clan heir or something? Well, it was arelief of sorts to know that unhelpful authority figures sent Genin to runtime-consuming errands on their days off no matter how far up you went.

Sakura sighed, and said goodbye to Hinata. She did feel an unexpectedtemptation to stay, and walk back to the village at a reasonable pace, andmaybe chat a little bit in the process. But Kakashi-sensei was disturbinglyinsightful when it came to telling how hard you’d tried to carry out hisorders, and subtle in his vengeance if it wasn’t hard enough.

-o-

Naruto’s shadow clone popped with a puff of smoke, at the same time as itswristband transformed into the original (incidentally in full combat gear).The letter said to attend in person – it never said that the person had to dothe talking.

However, said original was now trapped in a dojo with a homicidal Jōnin whosenow-active Byakugan made him immune to any and all misdirection attempts,including the Transformation Technique, and who happened to be leader of ataijutsu specialist clan. Naruto had to think very fast indeed.

“Multiple Shadow Clone Technique!”

The hall was filled with several hundred shadow clones, enough to have thedensity of a crowd at a long-awaited reunion gig. Naruto staggered from thesudden chakra drain – Kakashi-sensei hadn’t been wrong about that. He’d haveto practise if he got out of this alive.

Lord Hyūga’s reply was straightforward, if stunning to someone more used toHinata’s power level.

“Eight Trigrams Two Hundred and Fifty Six Strikes.”

The clone-free space around Hinata’s father started to expand rapidly. Everyone of his strikes took out a clone, and his speed was growing exponentiallywith every second as the technique began to accelerate.

Naruto hated to use incomplete techniques in field conditions, but this timehe had no choice, nor even time to think.

“Uzumaki-Style Ninjutsu: Shell Game Technique (prototype)!”

Every clone that wasn’t actively in the middle of a (futile) taijutsu move wasnow using the Substitution Technique. The clones were swapping with each otherand the original fast enough that the Byakugan’s ability to keep track ofNaruto’s location was now useless. Even if Lord Hyūga could tell which one wasreal after so many exchanges, Naruto would be gone by the time he’d get there.

Even so, at the rate his opponent was going, this was only going to buy Narutoa few seconds at best. He’d already had a couple of close shaves where he’dmanaged to swap places with a clone an instant before Lord Hyūga’s chakrastrike pierced his skin. Pretty soon, he’d be out of clones, and then he’dhave no way of defending himself at all.

Which brought him to his other idea, and if there was one thing Naruto hatedto use more than incomplete techniques, it was suicide techniques.

“Uzumaki-Style Ninjutsu: Indoor Apocalypse Technique!”

Every clone that wasn’t immediately within range of Lord Hyūga startedthrowing kunai, as did Naruto after every Substitution. Naturally, not one ofthem hit their target.

By the time Lord Hyūga had finished disposing of the clones, the walls, roofand support beams were peppered with kunai.

“Don’t move,” Naruto said sharply.

Lord Hyūga looked at him from the other end of the dojo (where the final clonehad been tactically positioned at the last second).

“I told you that you cannot deceive me, Uzumaki Naruto. Yes, I see theexploding tags you have attached to all of those kunai. Do you not wonder whyI allowed you to launch them?”

Allowed? Oh, man.

“I can see your chakra imbued into each one. I can tell from this that theyare shadow clones, and I know that cloned explosives cannot detonate. And yes,I can see that both of the kunai you are holding are clones as well, and thetags on those. Your bluff has failed. Now, take this last chance to be like aHyūga, and accept your fate with grace.”

Then things happened very fast.

Naruto threw one of the kunai he was holding upwards. In the same movement, hebrought his hands together and detonated the tag on every real kunai attachedto the building’s insides.

At that moment, Lord Hyūga reached him. The words “Hyūga Certain Kill UltimateDeath Technique” flashed across Naruto’s mind.

Just before the strike could connect, the kunai flying upwards turned backinto a shadow clone, its hands already in starting position for theSubstitution Technique (thank you, Kyubey, for that little trick). As itswapped places with Naruto, Naruto (whose hands were still in the detonationposition), detonated the tag now attached to its sleeve, directly in front ofHyūga Hiashi.

By this point, there was fire and destruction everywhere, the building tearingitself apart as every single structural support shattered at once. Looking upat the collapsing roof, Naruto found a tiny glimpse of sky, and threw thesecond kunai through the gap towards it. As soon as it was through, the secondkunai turned back into a shadow clone, and swapped with Naruto.

He was alive.

Alive and in the middle of a compound filled with seriously pissed-off Hyūga.

-o-

Naruto was out of breath by the time he reached the nearest point of exit, thefront gate (which hopefully had enough passers-by near it to prevent the Hyūgafrom murdering him outright in public). There was no sign of pursuit so far,but that didn’t really say much when dealing with ninja who could see youwherever you were.

Still, he was here, and relatively safe for the moment, and-

“Your performance has been… satisfactory,” Lord Hyūga told him, standing in arelatively relaxed pose in the shade of the gate. “I give you permission tocontinue dating my daughter – for the time being.”

Naruto just stood there, stunned, as Lord Hyūga walked past him and back intothe compound.

-o-

It was late evening by the time Naruto had un-collapsed enough to open thenew, larger Hyūga-marked envelope he’d found upon his return. This time, he’ddecided to pointedly ignore it until he had both sufficient rest and ramen,badly-needed ramen.

Uzumaki Naruto,

Please find attached a fee for services rendered. I had been attempting tohave that eyesore demolished for years now, but the Council of Elders blockedme at every turn.

I also commend you for being the first person in some years to think ofinfusing your chakra into ordinary objects in order to confuse the Byakugan. Ibelieve you are presently the only living non-Hyūga with that knowledge.

I wish you fortune in surviving the coming trials.

It wasn’t signed. But then, it didn’t need to be.

-o-

“You know, Chōji,” Ino commented as she watched the last of the pork vanishfrom the plate, “this is supposed to be an all-team celebration. And given howit’s Asuma-sensei’s treat for us retrieving that stolen painting and all,don’t you think we should at least wait for him before digging in?”

Chōji shrugged. “Don’t worry, I’m just whetting my appetite. This doesn’t evencount as starting the meal properly.”

Shikamaru, meanwhile, sat back and continued reading the menu (or possiblystaring into space, you never could tell). Of the three of them, he’d made theleast effort with his civilian clothes, just throwing on a random T-shirt,whereas Chōji was surprisingly neatly dressed (meals out were apparently athing the Akimichi Clan traditionally took very seriously), and Ino had takenthe full opportunity to show off, one-piece dress, jewellery and everything.

Before Ino could make the required sarcastic comment, however, the door of therestaurant swung violently open, and three intimidating-looking strangers withHidden Grass forehead protectors strode in as if they owned the place.

The one in the middle, a large, stocky teenager dressed predominantly in greyand black, with a huge shuriken strapped to his back, cast his gaze over therestaurant. “We’ve been told Leaf’s legendary Ino-Shika-Chō trio were here.Where are they?”

Someone paying very careful attention might have noticed Shikamaru tensefractionally, then relax. “That would be us. And you are?”

“I’m the Fūma Ginpachi, greatest Genin of Hidden Grass,” the ninjaannounced, hands on hips, chest puffed out. “And you can’t tell me that abunch of weaklings like you are the Ino-Shika-Chō?”

“No, I think it’s true, Gin,” the girl next to him spoke up, pale, thin, andwith elaborate make-up. Her uniform seemed to feature a lot of leather, andbelts, and not very much else. “They match the description. Looks like we cameall the way here for nothing.”

“What do you want?” Ino demanded, rising out of her seat.

“We are here,” the third ninja explained, adjusting his glasses as he stoopedslightly so as not to bang his head against the ceiling, “to seize theadvantage in the upcoming Chūnin Exam by crushing the spirits of our greatestcompetition before it even begins. Or that _was _the plan, anyway.

“Well,” he said in a resigned tone, “at least this won’t take long. So, whichone of you is the brains of the outfit, I dread to ask?”

Without a word, Ino and Chōji both pointed at Shikamaru. Shikamaru shrugged.

“Look, do we really have to do this?” he asked. “We’re probably going to faceoff in the Exam anyway, and fighting now would be such a pain.”

“What’s the matter?” the tall ninja sneered, looking at down at Shikamaru. “Wehaven’t even fought yet, and you’re already prepared to run home crying toMummy?”

Shikamaru flinched. “Fine. Let’s take this outside.”

-o-

Ginpachi turned to Chōji.

“I suppose I’ll be the one to deal with you. Not that I’m expecting much. Lookat you, stuffing your face with barbecue, pretending to be a real man. Why, Ibet you’re not even fat, you’re just big-boned!”

Chōji shot up. “What did you just call me?!” Then he hesitated. “No, wait…”

Ginpachi sat down in Shikamaru’s vacated place. “You’re nothing but a wannabe.The Ginpachi will show you how it’s done.”

He waved a waitress over. “Does this place serve the Leaf Mega Meat ChallengeI’ve been hearing so much about?”

“Yes, sir. Um, would you mind putting that shuriken away? It’s scratchingthe-”

“Great. Bring us two.”

Chōji’s eyes narrowed. He was being challenged on his home ground, in everysense. “Bring me two as well.”

-o-

“So look, Yamanaka, I was gonna take you down and all, but seeing you now,it’d be, like, so lame. I mean, look at you. What’s up with that cheap-lookingbracelet?”

“Actually, it’s Mikajima, winter collection.”

“Hey, my collar’s Mikajima too! Spring, though.” The girl paused. “But youstill lose. My perfume’s Kirie Special Edition. It’s not even out in the FireCountry.”

“Did you really just go there? My family runs the Yamanaka flower shops. Wesupply Kanbashi, and we get their latest products like two seasons in advance.What do you think I’m wearing?”

“Argh, you got me there. But we’ll see what you have to say after you checkout this handbag…”

-o-

“I’m, uh, sorry, sirs, but I’m afraid the restaurant is now completely out ofmeat. I guess I could offer you a vegetarian salad?”

“Jeez, already? The Ginpachi was only just getting started!”

“Hey, I know this great place just around the corner…”

-o-

On a bench outside__…

Click.

Click.

Click.

Click.

Click.

Ametatsu was aching with disappointment. It’s not that Nara was bad as such.If he had been, Ametatsu would’ve crushed him like a bug by now, instead ofwatching the game stretch on and on with no end in sight. But his playing wasso… workmanlike, so uninspired. And Nara himself was no better, with thatconstantly bored expression of his, almost like he was doing Ametatsu a favourjust by being there.

Was this the great Ino-Shika-Chō combo, which had alternately inspired andterrified shinobi across the continent anew with every generation?

Ametatsu had been moved, though he’d never admit it out loud, by the audacityof Ginpachi’s plan. They’d travel all the way to the Fire Country. They’d takedown all the strongest Genin of Hidden Leaf, and then the other countries, andwrite the Earth, Wind and Fire combo into the annals of history. Then, whenthey came home as Chūnin who had bested the champions of the Five GreatNations, people would never again slight the name of the Kagami Clan. Hisfather would no longer look down on him for a failure he couldn’t help. Andmaybe, just maybe, she would finally see him as a man.

Then this. Where was the glory in such a victory? What tales of prowess wouldAmetatsu bring home with him at this rate? He’d faced Nara Shikamaru of hisgeneration’s Ino-Shika-Chō, and after taking his measure… After taking hismeasure…

Ametatsu looked down at the board, as if seeing it for the first time.

He looked up at Nara’s face, and saw nothing but apathy there. He looked downat the board again, and mentally replayed every move of the game until now. Achill went down his spine. He had to get out of here now.

Ametatsu stood up. “I forfeit.”

He hesitated, the pride of the Kagami pulling him one way, and his loyalty tohis team pulling him another. What he did next was one of the hardest thingshe’d ever done.

“I’m sorry for insulting you and your team,” he said, and bowed deep. “I’llmake sure we stay out of your way during the Exam, so… no hard feelings, allright?”

But as he turned to leave, Nara’s voice caught him.

“Wait.”

Ametatsu half-turned. “Yes?”

“You should go for a walk or something. Just for half an hour or so.”

There was no greater imperative at this moment than getting away from NaraShikamaru, but still, Ametatsu couldn’t resist asking.

“Why?”

And then, for the first time, Nara smiled. Just a little bit, enough that youcould miss it if you weren’t paying attention. “Our teammates are enjoyingthemselves right now. We shouldn’t get in their way.”

Ametatsu left. He’d wanted to go at a dignified walking pace, but in the endhe was satisfied that he had at least not broken into a run.

-o-

When Asuma finally arrived, delayed by paperwork, he wasn’t sure what he wasseeing at first. No sign of Shikamaru. No sign of Chōji. An empty restaurant,its only two occupants Ino and some foreign girl, thick as thieves, swappingmakeup tips and celebrity gossip.

And then, the final blow.

“They put how much on my tab?!”

-o-

I say again that he is too valuable a resource to the village to be thrownaway like this. The fact that, to date, his unique abilities have remainedunexploited is a failure of leadership as far as this village is concerned,not some triumph of ethics.

Your claims are naïve. Yes, he would make an excellent scapegoat. I grant youthat the other nations know little of him, and that everything they knowpredisposes them to see him as a major threat. They might even believe that heis the source of the coming danger, if we of Leaf tell them so, and offer himup of our own free will. It is plausible enough with the information theyhave. But the gain from his death will be far less than the opportunitieslost.

How much time do you honestly believe it will buy us? I agree that a warright now, with the threat looming on the horizon, is something we cannotafford. But the united front you speak of is a pipe dream. Convincing theother villages that the threat is gone will not lull them into peace. Rather,once they feel secure they will consider expansion once again. They will seeka use for the forces they have already built up. How much will your pacifistideals aid us then? One does not prevent a war by showing weakness, but byshowing strength.

That is what I propose. Make use of him, not as a sacrifice – not until it isnecessary – but as the asset you have left criminally unutilised until now. Ifyou are not prepared to do so, or if your emotional attachments continue toleave you unable to deal with him objectively, then I am more than prepared todo what must be done. A sufficient show of strength, on this and all otherfronts, will force the other villages to fall into line. Not forever, for thattoo is a pipe dream, but for long enough that we are each still standing tallwhen it is time to face what’s coming.

The timing to do this could not be better. Do not squander it. __That youfinally show a will to action is commendable, but it is all for nothing if youthen sacrifice the wrong things, at the wrong time, in pursuit of the wronggoal.

The Hokage read through Danzō‘s message again, and then set it on fire.


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