The anticipation was palpable as the stadium filled, ninja and non-ninja alike eager to see the day's event. As the people trickled in, finding their seats not all were there to simply enjoy an exhibition of the village's youngest generation. Rasa, the Yondaime Kazekage, would be such an individual. His month had been, frankly, shit. The panicked note from Baki informing him their plans had been uncovered and a Genin…

Rasa often had to take a breath when he recalled that a genin in the exams managed to capture Orochimaru; a man the Kage didn't think he could best in a solo fight. His children were hostages, each broken by the same boy. Uzumaki Naruto. Son of the Yondaime Hokage. Apparently an undercover prodigy, as none of his intelligence agents had anything about the genin before Ay posted that joke of a Bingo Book entry. His best chance to salvage his village had been spoiled by a mere child. He considered scrambling his SAND agents and launching a desperation hit on the boy.

He figured they had a three in ten chance of making it to the village. Two in ten chance of managing to kill the boy if they did. He also knew the Monkey God would point his two students, Kakashi and every A level killer that village of lunatics housed toward Suna; assuming Hiruzen didn't lead the march himself. It would be a siege, a drawn out affair and the winner determined by who wanted the other one dead the most. But that wasn't what stopped Rasa.

Because he'd probably survive such an engagement but his children would not. And reputation aside, he didn't have to be overly imaginative to think none of his children would go fast nor easy. It was a coin flip between who would get it the worst, Temari or Gaara but Kankuro would be thoroughly tortured for the secrets of their puppetry. He was a Kage first, that was his responsibility but there were limits. He'd face the entirety of Konoha by himself before he allowed his children to die for his mistake and if they were to die, he'd go first doing all he could to free them.

So, he obeyed Hiruzen's rules. He only brought the Honored Siblings with him. Tsunade, Jiraiya and a squad of ANBU greeted them at the border. No hard words were exchanged and all behaved professionally but the two Sannin being there was the loudest, clearest death threat Rasa had ever received. The travel was uneventful but upon arrival he hadn't been allowed to see his children nor speak to Baki. He wouldn't know how well they were until their fights, fights potentially rigged to kill them in front of him. The cushioned seat he occupied, one situated beside where he Hokage would soon be, was uncomfortable. He felt like a caged animal with the addition of a month of frayed nerves.

His discipline was slipping and where it ended instinct picked up. Right now, his was not of a leader nor a shinobi but a father. A father that wanted nothing more than to get his children to safety no matter what it'd cost him in the end.

In a secured location within the stadium, Hiruzen awaited the final security checks by his ANBU. The Hokage decided to only have two ANBU guards, if Rasa had something planned he wanted Tsunade and Jiraiya free to move about the village. Danzo was with him, the man appeared to have something to say.

"You know you can't kill him, right?"

Hiruzen briefly wondered when he became surrounded by nannies and minders instead of the ninja he commanded. He knew what Danzo meant, it would be inopportune to kill Rasa. The long and short plays said to keep the man alive. He understood that but a point of fact was he literally could kill Rasa, the Honorable Siblings and anyone else he damned please in his village because it was his village and outside his two students not a damn person could challenge him. Gai could give it a go but he'd waste that poor boy before he ever got to the required gates to be a threat.

So, yes, he could kill Rasa.

"You're being petulant, Hiruzen."

"I haven't said anything," the august Hokage responded.

"You were thinking very loudly, however, if it'll make you feel better, yes you're perfectly capable of killing Rasa."

"I'd look cool doing it, too," Hiruzen added. Danzo's shoulders slumping was the sweetest of victories.

"You're my penance," Danzo said. Hiruzen scoffed.

"If I give you even half the headaches in our golden years that you gave me in our prime you should consider yourself lucky."

"If I weren't too tired to hate I'd hate you with the entirety of my being," his former rival confessed.

"Come watch the future protectors of our village, it'll be invigorating," Hiruzen responded.

The crowds had drifted toward their seats, the excitement of seeing the future of the village creating a palpable tension. The Hokage had spoken, an implicit opening of the ceremonies as the final contestants had been paraded about. All that was left were the fights.

He wasn't the best at ceremony, too excitable, too earnest. He had no talent in ninjutsu or genjutsu but Rock Lee could fight. Standing across from his opponent he could see no trace of tension in her body as she adopted a loose stance and he hopped on his toes before settling in. The sickly proctor called a start and Lee, leg weights not worn at the behest of his sensei, blitz the Hyuuga heiress.

His sweep was evaded and he briefly felt her body on his as she rolled off his back. His body moved before conscious thought could dictate, saving the energetic boy from a swift kick aimed at his head. The dodge provided enough time for him to properly defend against her barrage of attacks. Confident he'd seen enough of the Gentle Fist from Neji, Lee began exchanging blows. He hadn't expected an oblique kick hard enough to nearly buckle his knee. The stunning blow opened his stance and Lee was punished with three quick palm thrusts that knocked him back a good twenty feet.

He rolled a little further away to give him more space. Those blows hurt. She didn't fight like Neji, his speed wasn't overwhelming her like he thought it would and he clearly had more to worry about than her grappling skills. Abandoning his initial thoughts on Hinata's skillset Lee was hastily forming a new plan.

Hiashi watched on as his eldest did battle with the Might Gai clone. His nephew may have hated him to his core but he still kept tabs on him and his team so he knew Rock Lee was formidable for a genin. As such, that Hinata was getting the better of their exchanges impressed him all the more. He'd give credit where it was due, her opponent was deftly avoiding going to the ground with her, utilizing some clever escapes and his superior strength. However, even as he managed to avoid them he'd be punished with various pokes and palm thrusts as he broke free and it was starting to take their toll.

The crowd thundered in appreciation of the taijutsu match and the proud father in him wanted to preen as they were cheering for his little girl. She deserved it. When she first told him she wouldn't follow the traditional ways of the clan he accepted it. Not because he believed in her, to his everlasting shame. But as she developed her own style and became more confident he knew her problem hadn't been a lack of talent. Roses don't grow in frozen wastelands, fish can't climb trees. It was his teachings that failed her, not the other way around.

Now, he looked on in pride he wasn't entitled to as she had her competitor beaten and breathing. Would this be enough for her to earn a promotion? Possibly. The decision was as rooted in the candidate's abilities as it was the village's needs. Maybe in this time of peace where she'd still be with her Jounin sensei, Hinata was ready. He wouldn't begrudge her a extra year or so at genin if she wasn't.

"Ugh!" a feminine voice exclaimed, instantly putting an end to Hiashi's internal deliberations. His eyes, activated from the beginning, telling him all he needed. Gai's student went for a sweep and as Hinata jumped over the boy opened the first gate. She couldn't respond to the sudden burst of speed nor the kick that followed. One powerful enough to crack three of her ribs. She tried to defend but he was able to land two swift body blows and Hiashi could see the pain in her.

No longer concerned about her victory, he just wanted his little girl to be ok.

Neji didn't outwardly respond to his cousin's show of discomfort. It would be unbecoming of a Hyuuga and with Tenten next to him, somehow having become friends with the pampered princess, he'd only stoke her ire. That didn't mean he couldn't enjoy it silently. It was divine punishment. Both of these inferiors going further into the tournament than him made the bile arise in him, the acidic taste lingering on his tongue. He didn't care who won, neither of the fighters were worthy of being Chunin nor of the praise and attention of the onlookers.

"Do you think she can still fight?" Tenten asked him. He could. He had the will, determination and all out genius to power through such injury; assuming he'd be so sloppy as to receive it, that was.

"I doubt it," was Neji's reply. He really didn't see how she could fend off Lee with her core imperiled and yet she adopted the most basic of Gentle Fist stances. It was weak and full of holes, a clear sign she had nothing left. Neji concluded Lee must have agreed as he once again rushed her. Neji assumed it would be Lee attacking relentlessly and Hinata evading or deflecting in a desperate attempt to drag this farce on.

He was wrong. And beyond being wrong he saw something new. It was like an incomplete Kaiten… but not. No, focused, generated by one hand and she moved Lee off his centerline, unbalancing his body. He couldn't avoid the upward palm thrust to his chin that landed square. Lee flung a front kick, to cause damage or generate space Neji couldn't tell. With practiced ease Hinata transferred his momentum upward. Lee was off his feet and being flipped.

He rotated a full 360 degrees, clearly not in control. Once he'd come back around, upright but still in the air, Hinata stopped his momentum by grabbing his face and slamming him in the opposite direction of his spin. Lee hit the ground with a thud, the protector was on the combats before Hinata could attack again. It wasn't necessary, Lee was unconscious. Hinata had won.

"Naruto-kun?" Hinata questioned when she arrived at the medical bay. The surprise momentarily numbed the shooting pain of her injured ribs, a pain that came right back and forced a groan from her. One of the medical ninja had her on an exam table an instant later but it seemed she was going to be tended to by her Naruto-kun.

"Hi, Hinata-chan. Take this," he instructed her. The Hyuuga heiress wanted to smile at his professionalism. She took the pills and the flimsy cup downing one and then the other. The cream colored drink tasted of vanilla. She soon felt a soothing wave of healing chakra enter her body. The next fight could be seen on the monitors but she was more focused on the Uzumaki she hadn't seen in weeks, silently blaming Kakashi for most of it. And her father for his hairbrained scheme.

"What did I take, Naruto-kun?"

"Pain pills and a high concentration of calcium. More than you'd normally want in your body but it being there aids in mending your ribs."

"So, will I be able to fight again?"

"The more time I have the better I can repair the damage but you could be medically cleared. You'd have a greater risk of reinjury." The news wasn't ideal but she wouldn't complain. Silently, she let Naruto focus and she watched the Suna kunoichi vs the Kumo ninja. The ninja couldn't close the distance between him and the kunoichi and she soon made him forfeit. It was an unfortunate clash of styles for him. Next would be Sasuke vs the Suna ninja. Or it should have been. His face buried in an orange book, the Suna nin forfeited from the stands which meant her next match was up.

"Am I cleared?" she asked. Naruto nodded.

"Just barely," he responded. It wasn't ideal but she wasn't sure she'd done enough to earn promotion with her first match so to decline this next round might sink her candidacy. Decision made, she had one thing to do before she returned to the arena floor. Sliding off the table she hugged her dear friend.

"I missed you," she whispered. There was so much she wanted to say, nothing of grand importance she just wanted to talk to her friend like she used to.

"We saw each other yesterday," Naruto said while returning the hug. She giggled. It was technically true, they had seen each other but they'd also been in seperate locations entirely. It was not the same.

"Let's meet up later, ok?"

"Ok," he affirmed. She hurried back, not wanting to be disqualified.

Temari stood alone, surrounded by people she was once meant to attack, taking stock of her current predicament. She was assured a promotion. The only reason she wasn't a Chunin now was for the sake of the invasion. If her entree into a superior rank wasn't an issue then why fight again? Well, with Gaara having lost his mind and Kankuro eliminated, it fell to her to make a good showing for her village.

It was a reason so good she was almost sure it wasn't a justification for her real motive. Slapping down, "Hinata-chan," would just be an added bonus. She was, apparently, the lynchpin. Naruto was quite open about his best friend though he never shared any information that would put her at risk. Temari couldn't tell if that was intentional or not but it was vexing as all get out. No, no, she wouldn't do this just to shame the Hyuuga or to prove decisively she was the superior choice.

It just so happens she can be of great use to her village AND shame the younger girl. Who, giving her choice of attire (black, short-sleeve, top with kusari gusoku underneath) was better developed than Temari. This village was really easy to hate. Ample resources, comfortable climate, great economy and droves and droves of perfect, angelic pretty bitches with no will and no sense.

Not that some boy was her goal. She was a loyal Suna kunoichi. As proud as she was strong. But given her father's poor decisions it is very likely Konoha would demand recompense. A boon, possibly several, and assurances Suna wouldn't betray them again. A political marriage between the son of the Fourth Hokage and the daughter of the Fourth Kazekage might do the trick.

She wouldn't like it. But she'd fulfill her duty. (And remove all those "friends" from his life with her innate feminine splendor). Schooling her features at the audience cheering the return of the Hyuuga princess, Temari evened out her breath and relaxed her muscles. The game plan was simple: keep her at a distance and overwhelm with wind jutsu and don't let up until the match is called.

"Hajime," the frail man called. Temari kicked off the ground creating distance between the taijutsu specialist and her. Once confident she had the desired distance Temari swung open her fan and instantly felt one of her shoulders go numb with pain rating outward. Blood was starting to show on her jacket but she didn't understand what happened. Looking back toward the Hyuuga, she swiftly ducked as two projectiles were aimed at her head.

'Senbon?' she wondered but didn't hear the telltale sign of metal hitting the ground. Grunting she slapped her shoulder to get some feeling back, one-handed swings were slower and less powerful. She couldn't afford either.

"Get distance on a Hyuuga, how original," she heard the girl say with a thick layer of condescension in her voice.

Having regained some feeling, Temari went to swing her fan but found herself pierced again, this time in the thigh. She dropped her fan and used it as cover once more. This situation wasn't ideal but before she was hit Temari saw it. Drops of water beneath the Hyuuga, somehow she was molding water as projectiles. Thin, fast, and precise. Temari, however, was guessing they were also frail. Plan in mind she emerged from behind her fan, hand seals in motion while the Hyuuga was gaining on her. Temari inhaled and performed the Great Breakthrough as she had a hundred times before.

The Suna kunoichi thought herself prepared for anything as she began her return to her fan. She had not expected the Hyuuga to respond with a fireball, one powerful enough to overwhelm her wind jutsu. Seeing the upcoming blaze, Temari unleashed an even more powerful gust of wind that extinguished the flames. She was given no time to savor her minor victory as she felt several finger pokes to her back. Her body reacting without her permission, Temari felt a forearm pressed against her throat, a vice-like squeeze following it as she pulled to the ground.

"This is for Tenten," were the last words she heard before she blacked out.

As the fight ended, Kakashi was gripped by a sense of trepidation. He didn't know why, he couldn't point to a single shred of proof but he just knew his most emotional student was about to do something foolish. It would likely surprise people that he thought Sasuke was the more emotional of his charges but it would only show they didn't know his students.

The first domino fell when Hinata declined the last fight. It made sense, whatever injury she suffered against Lee likely hadn't healed completely and while she gambled against a long range fighter, her not risking it against Sasuke was wise. That decision alone likely cemented her promotion, along with whatever technique she pulled off against Lee that had Gai in a state of shock. There was more there to investigate but the honey badger was getting dangerous.

Hinata pulling out should have been the end of it. Sasuke would be disappointed but with his performance in the other two exams and the prelims, his promotion wasn't completely sunk. So why was Sasuke still speaking with Hayate? Why did Hayate send a message to the Hokage? Why did the Hokage nod? And why did Hayate just leav…

"Damnit, Sasuke," Kakashi groaned, the other Jounin-Sensei and Anko all looking at him.

"What do you think he's done, Kakashi?" Gai asked.

"Just wait," Kakashi warned.

Back in the medical bay Naruto was keeping Lee company, the older boy having finished the concussion protocols. Naruto wondered if Lee was what people meant when they said someone was good natured as while he lost to Hinata he still cheered her against Temari. He rather liked Lee before but that rose the boy in his estimation.

"Lee, are we friends?"

"If we aren't I'd certainly like to be," Lee answered without hesitation.

"I'd like that, too."

"Yosh! If I didn't have one you'd make a most excellent rival, Naruto-kun!"

"Thank you, Lee."

Lee's blinding smile almost distracted Naruto from the new arrival, though his cough gave him away. The Uzumaki hadn't gotten to spend a lot of time with Gekko-san, a few dinners with him and Yugao-nee and a few kenjutsu lessons but he thought the man was affable.

"Hey, Naruto, you up for a match?"

Naruto looked at him confused for a moment before the fullness of the request dawned on him. "Against Sasuke-san?"

"Yes. Hokage-sama approved but said it's entirely up to you though there was an additional caveat from Sasuke should you agree."

"What's that?"

"He said he wants the Uzumaki Naruto that faced Orochimaru."

The crowd had quieted down, not even Kakashi had explained what he meant. He palmed his face when he saw Hayate's companion, he was right. Dressed in a black flak vest, instead of his Chunin green one, sticks, tanto and chained weapon strapped to his back and the fingerless gloves Kakashi gifted him for his promotion. Sasuke submitted the challenge and Naruto accepted. The stadium was going crazy. The last (Konoha) Uchiha versus the son of the Yondaime, the boy that stalemated a Sannin? He could feel the spectators thirsting for an epic match.

Kakashi found no joy in it. As much as he missed Naruto when he was assigned to Jiraiya, it had the positive benefit of cooling Sasuke's competitive streak and denied him easy access to an Itachi stand-in. He'd thought the boy had finally reached a place where Sasuke could see Naruto and truly become teammates. Instead, he saw someone his age approximating his life's goal and so he had to know how he measured up.

Maybe Sasuke didn't see Itachi anymore when he looked at Naruto. A worse option could have been selected, Sasuke might see himself. A better version just out of reach. This was what he feared and he hoped the fight wouldn't undo weeks of progress. Sometimes being a genius just sucked. With no way of stopping it, Kakashi simply had to watch his two students duel.

Sasuke awoke with a gasp. The sudden exhalation caused him to cough, the unwelcomed movements calling attention to his beaten and battered body. His head hurt, his eyes hurt and he wasn't sure where he was or how he'd gotten there. Laying down his most recent memory returned. Blue eyes that were not alive with combat or emotion simply looked ahead at the task at hand. A left cross and right hook to the chin caused his vision to swim. A series of rapid punches, felt but not seen, followed thereafter. Fast and strong. Sasuke didn't know which strike knocked him out but he knew several of them could have.

"I hope you're pleased with yourself," a familiar voice asked.

"I'd be more pleased if I wasn't the one knocked out and in, I assume, a hospital bed," Sasuke answered. He hoped Kakashi would avoid the lecture or, at the very least, postpone its execution until he felt more himself and less a training dummy.

"Tell me Sasuke, what was achieved with this little stunt?"

"I needed to know."

"Know what?"

"What he had and I lacked. Why he could face a Sannin with zero hesitation and survive when I doubt I could do the same. I needed to see how someone my age had eclipsed me entirely and if I could follow that path."

"And what did you learn?"

"He's stronger than he looks," the Uchiha responded and while it sounded like a quip Sasuke was being sincere.

"And?" Kakashi asked, sounding more annoyed than Sasuke had ever heard him. "Walk me through your strategy, when did you sense it wasn't working and how did you adjust?"

"I didn't have one. Winning wasn't the point."

"Oh?" Kakashi asked in mock surprise. "You looked to be trying your hardest to do that."

"It wasn't the only point," Sasuke amended in annoyance. "I really thought the wire trap would work, though," he added. When he had the Uzumaki trapped in the wires, courtesy of them being attached to shuriken he was confident a lightning jutsu would end things. "Didn't expect him to cut through the ninja wire with ease."

"Wind users are annoying like that," Kakashi rejoined. His tone suggested there was a story behind the statement, a specific memory being accessed.

"Good to know. And with wind being his affinity I assumed my ninjutsu would give me the advantage." Even when Naruto created the earth wall to intercept his grand fireball, it blowing up into dust left him confident he still had the edge in ninjutsu. When an off-target shuriken came sailing by, he ignored it and was unprepared for it to revert to a clone of Naruto. The leaping roundhouse he absorbed was the beginning of the end. Beset by clones from every direction he was picked apart until the original decided to end things.

"I could be on his level if I were challenged the same as he," Sasuke concluded.

"Or you'd be dead. Naruto should be; would be if that was Orochimaru's goal."

"That didn't stop him. I saw it with my own eyes, he didn't expect to survive."

"And what a loss that would have been. In Konoha, we protect the future so they in exchange can protect the future still. I guarantee if it were a choice between the Anko, the kunoichi he saved, and Naruto she would have sacrificed herself.

You don't have to compare yourself to anyone, your growth is yours and not dependent on anyone else."

"I have a monster to slay, Kakashi. The sooner the better and I'm nowhere close. He wasn't going all out, I could tell." Sasuke grunted when something landed on him. He opened his eyes to see a Chunin vest.

"Hokage-sama believes you're ready to wear that and bear all that comes with it. After today, I'm decidedly unsure. We've all got monsters to slay Sasuke, the trick is remaining human while doing so."

"Man,Hinata really kicked ass. Though, nothing gave me more pleasure than seeing Sasuke pounded on,"Kiba exclaimed to the group. Shino and he were joined with Team Gai and ten being escorted by Haku to Naruto's apartment. The Inuzuka wanted to celebrate and Naruto had access to a courtyard, no parental supervision and Hinata was likely already there. Win, win, win.

"Indubitably," Shino started. "Hinata's performance justified the multiple times she defeated you while training."

"You didn't have to say all that, Shino," Kiba said as his posture drooped and shoulders hung.

"Relax, dogboy, we all know Hinata beats you down. It isn't some big secret," Ino teased.

"Hey!," he exclaimed. "Maybe she does, no shame in that. And Shino can tease because we're teammates and that makes them pack but I won't be roasted by a recovering fangirl."

"Oh, and what are you gonna do about it? You couldn't even beat Sakura."

"Because she had those fancy shuriken I'd never seen before and they weren't even hers so really, I stalemated with Naruto; something Sasuke couldn't manage to do," he reasoned and earned a giggle from the older girl in front.

"That is some creative argumentation, Kiba-san," Haku said.

"Um, thanks." He gently slowed down and gave Ino a signal to do the same. "Hey," he whispered, "what's her situation?" he asked the Yamanaka.

"Her situation?" she repeated in confusion.

"Yes, her situation," he emphasized.

"Oh… don't even bother. She's out of your league."

"Dogs gotta hunt, Ino."

"Then you're barking up the wrong tree."

"Oh, does she prefer the company of ladies to gentlemen?"

Ino laughed, "Not to my knowledge but you're neither, mutt. Look, I'm certain she's into someone else so spare yourself some pain."

Kiba readjusted the paper bag in his hands as he said, "Well, what does this person have that I don't?"

"Independent wealth, brilliance, taste and style, strength and an impeccable pedigree." Each word felt like a sledgehammer using his skull for an anvil.

"My mom is the leader of one of Konoha's premiere clans. That's not nothing."

"True and we're essentially of equal stature as that goes so that should tell you something."

"Is it Sasuke?" Kiba asked.

"Why would you think that?" Ino asked in genuine surprise.

"Given everything you said, I mean who else could it be?"

"Naruto, you knob. You know, son of the Fourth Hokage."

"But he has the personality of a brick," Kiba said and was promptly rounded on.

"Because this is me you said that to and not Hinata you'll only get a warning and not a fist to the nose. Naruto has a personality and it is perfectly wonderful. He is kind and open and supportive. He can even be funny in the right context. Don't ever say that about him again or I'll deck you, got it?"

"Sure, sure. Jeez, you like him now, too?"

"No, Sasuke is still the boy for me but Naruto is a really good friend. Now, let's catch up." The dog nin user modded, Akamaru barking in agreement and the two sped up with the gang. Haku led them up the stairs, unlocking the door to Naruto's apartment, unknowingly providing an audience for Hinata's and his first kiss.

It has been way too long. I have no excuses so I offer none, just acknowledgement that this shouldn't have been delayed as much as it has. For those still sticking with the story, thank you. I appreciate it and you.

We are done with the Chunin Exams (and the congregation said, "AMEN"). We'll get a couple of lowkey chapters and then dive right into the End of Part one: The Winter War.