Chapter 3 - For Whom the Bell Tolls
"He can't be serious about this," Naruto said as he hung from a tree limb, his arms crossed. "It's been an hour! Tobi's late sometimes, but he's never this late. It's like he's doing it intentionally!" He huffed. "I bet he just wants to make us look stupid; dad says he was the prankster in his team..."
"No wonder you two get along so swimmingly," Sasuke said dryly, staring ahead without much interest.
Naruto frowned. "Hey! I'm totally a serious ninja! Don't dismiss me!" All he got in return was a derisive snort.
"Do you two have to bicker?" Hinata asked. "Just be patient, would you?" Her stance was rigid, and Naruto involuntarily flinched; he had seen her use the Hyūga family style with painful precision before, and it looked like she might break it out at any moment. Her gaze met his, and it was sharper than he would have liked; not much of her friendliness of the previous day was visible now.
"But Hinata-ch..." He swallowed his exclamation as a sudden, intense feeling of dread crept up on him. "Hinata-san. It's just... he's not usually this late, you know..."
She raised her eyebrows, her milky white eyes focusing on him. "If you feel bored, you might consider training. You could use it. Both Uchiha-san and myself have been best of the class before; you haven't. In fact, I recall that your proficiency with the Henge was rather selective for most of our schooling."
Naruto sulked, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "The academy is so boring, though!I mean, even Mom teaches better, and she's not even a proper teacher. Far too impatient for one, anyway..."
"Then concentrate on something else. There are other things to work on. Chakra control, maybe. You could always use more of that, with your kind of reserves." Hinata shrugged. "It's better than nothing."
"Or you could train at being silent," Sasuke suggested. "I would appreciate that."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Naruto scowled. "Just 'cause I'm not a Taijutsu expert, or some genius or another..." He sniffed. "Anyway, Tobi's supposed to be testing our jutsu anyway, isn't he? If we're going to use all our energy before he gets here, what's the point? We'd just be all tired! Half my techniques aren't supposed to be used against people I like, anyway."
Hinata conceded with a slight nod, then frowned. "Tell me, why do you call sensei by such a silly name, Naruto? It's disrespectful."
Naruto scratched the back of his head nervously as he looked away. "You mean 'Tobi'? Ah... it's sort of silly. When I was little, I kept switching around the letters, you know. Not sure why, but I was convinced that Tobi was the right name for Obito-san, and dad thought it was funny. It sort of stuck after that..."
"Pathetic," Sasuke muttered from his position, leaning against a tree.
Naruto twitched, eager to bash some sense into the Uchiha, but he was pretty sure that his sensei would disapprove, Hinata doubly so, and his mom triply so. Unsupervised fighting was out of the question, or he'd end up in a heap of trouble again; his mother always seemed to have chores waiting for him if he hit someone without a good reason, like the time he and Kiba had ended up in a wrestling match that went a little overboard.
"Whatever, I don't care. Waiting for his lazy ass isn't my idea of a good time!"
Naruto sighed, fetching a little water balloon from his pocket and spinning it slowly as he dangled from the tree. Even if he wasn't doing too great with this step of his Rasengan training, at least it kept his mind busy, and that counted for something. Dad had taken about three years to perfect the technique, so he had some time to get good at it; he had only been at it for about three or four months.
Even though his mother had given him many hours of instruction to improve his manipulation of chakra, the large amount which he had inherited was unwieldy and took a long time to move about. Still, it meant he could be wasteful if he wanted to be. The problem here was that being too wasteful with the water balloon would just rupture it, and he hadn't brought any spares with him. Not for the first time he cursed his lack of preparation. Considering his father seemed to have planned out every movement hours in advance, it was a bit discouraging.
Naruto glanced up after a while, as silence had descended on the trio. Hinata was moving through the measured forms of a Hyūga Taijutsu kata, designed to work with her ability to project chakra into very specific places through touch. When she noticed his attention, not to mention his lacklustre attempt at swirling his chakra around for the first stage of the Rasengan, she seemed momentarily amused, and the thin smile set Naruto at ease. Then he forget to keep his focus on the balloon, and it burst violently by bulging on one end as his chakra uncoiled, covering him in water.
"Brilliant," he murmured, and he gave up on getting any better with the Rasengan that day.
"Fantastic," Sasuke noted dryly.
"Damn it, Sasuke-" Naruto started, before he stopped himself. Breathing in deeply, he started again. "Right, that was my fault. Anyway, we're in a team now... What kind of jutsu do you use, anyway, Sasuke? Fire ones, I guess, but you never got around to them in the academy, and hardly anyone has access to the Uchiha compound..."
"Hn," Sasuke agreed with a shrug. "That's intentional, since some Uchiha jutsu are clan secrets. Though I can see the reasoning behind your question. I know the Grand Fireball, and several smaller fire jutsu that can be incorporated into Taijutsu attacks. I also know two Doton jutsu, though they require work before I can use them in a fight. I've been thinking of acquiring some Raiton ones as well, but there are few with that element among my family."
"That's not bad for a new Genin," Naruto said. "You have the Sharingan, I take it?"
The Uchiha scoffed. "Of course."
Naruto smirked. "Well, I would advise against trying to copy my techniques, at least," he said, his expression suddenly serious. "Besides it being staggeringly impolite, most of my jutsu are either very dangerous to people who don't know what they're doing, or the chakra drain could be lethal, even to you. I've heard from mom that some people end up skewering themselves with their own chakra. Nasty stuff."
"I was briefed about the risks of your parents' specialities," Sasuke murmured, turning away. "Hn. Figures I'd get on a team with people whose techniques I can't copy... Just my luck."
Naruto frowned. "It's the enemy you're supposed to copy, anyway."
"Yeah, yeah. Bastard."
Half an hour passed with little activity as Naruto wandered around on the side of his tree by sticking to it, doing little tricks every so often to keep himself busy, though he didn't know if it was helping his chakra control any. Sasuke had barely moved a muscle, just staring up at him with a frown, while Hinata continued her exercises, her Byakugan activated the entire time.
Growing tired of the prolonged silence, Naruto flopped down next to Sasuke again, hands in his pockets. "You're all gloomy as usual, I see. But if we're going to be waiting for a while, might as well get to know each other already, right? At least, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we really just heard yours. Dad's always said that knowing your teammates and their abilities is vital, so..." He frowned. "I'm the only one that doesn't have fancy eyes. But you two will be good trackers, right?"
"The Byakugan is very good for finding possible threats," Hinata agreed shortly, her demeanour back to the frosty one Naruto was used to, though she was at least more talkative than in class. She stopped her kata and turned to him. "Tracker teams often have a Hyūga family member among their number, since the ability to see for great distances and in many directions at once is very effective for scouts."
"Uchiha are common as well, due to our visual prowess," Sasuke volunteered.
Hinata gave a sharp nod. "That's not even mentioning the advantage of observing the flow of chakra, which can reveal hidden threats before they even come in range. For example, I can see that both your reserves are quite large, which would normally mean that our tactics should reflect that. If I could tell the same about an opponent, I would be able to deduce who should be taken out first. My own reserves are small, though Hyūga techniques primarily focus on chakra control, so that is of no concern."
"I read a few things about that," Naruto mused. "So... what does that chakra sight of yours look like? Blue lines, like in the pictures that I've seen? Do you just see extra floaty bits inside people, the chakra system without anything else? Or can you just look straight into people?" He shivered. "It's creepy..."
"It is hard to describe," Hinata responded, and didn't elaborate further.
Naruto grunted, glancing at Sasuke. "I know a lot about the Sharingan, at least. Tobi's been training his for ages, and I've seen him do a whole lot of techniques with them, and the ones he's copied, too. That must be pretty useful, right?"
Sasuke didn't respond at all to Naruto's attempts to start a conversation.
"Well, this team's off to a great start," Naruto said softly, but he forced himself to ignore his unease. "We have tracking and Taijutsu from you, Hinata. Sasuke's focused on his eyes and fire techniques, so that leaves me." He shook his head self-deprecatingly. "You two likely learned a lot more than me, since you're from large clans. Mom's taught me all sorts of things, but beyond some Uzumaki stuff, I don't have a specialty. I just learned what was cool. I suppose I have a bunch of Barrier techniques, but none of them are strictly ready to be used in a fight..."
"We're Genin. Most of us have not specialized yet, except those with Kekkei Genkai," Hinata pointed out, then stilled. Turning ever-so-slightly, the veins around her eyes engorged with blood as she squinted. "Obito-sensei will be here in approximately three minutes; I can see him approaching. I would suggest we prepare."
"Finally it's time to get started," Naruto said as he stretched. "Tobi-sensei probably has something neat in mind for the Genin exam, you know. Should be fun!"
Sasuke glowered just as Obito appeared from the forest, a sheepish smile on his face.
"Sorry I'm late," the man said, running a hand through his short hair. "I thought I heard something, so I had to go check if there were any old ladies that needed my help..." He smiled. "Well, never mind that, it's not important. It's good to see you're all here in time."
The world shimmered, slipped.
"Right, Tobi-sensei!" Naruto exclaimed, and he was about to enthusiastically berate his new teacher for his tardy schedule when everything suddenly felt terribly off. From one moment to the next, as if a solid lump of coal fell from the sky, everything went dark. The sun vanished, the air chilled, and the sound of ringing steel echoed eerily across the desolate training field. He glanced around uneasily, and his hands and feet felt sluggish, as if they were wading through water. Naruto was about to mention the weird sensation when it strengthened, and robbed him of his voice. He froze, eyes widening as the world seemed to convulse.
"Watch out!" came a gurgled command, just before something flashed near, something very, very fast. Naruto reacted without thinking; he dropped backwards, rolling away from where he stood in a move which he had trained often enough to become natural. He twisted back upright a solid distance from his last position, a kunai clenched in his fist. There was a jarring moment of silence, as even the village's sounds died down, and darkness clamped down like a vice.
Something dripped from his hair, and he imagined for a moment that it was just water from his balloon. It was warm, however, and he could not keep in a whimper of fear as he realized the truth.
His eyes feverishly took in the place he had left, and the solid dark lump that lay there, unmoving, surrounded by a liquid that reflected the slight ambient light.
Naruto was covered in blood.
"You are talking about an alliance with Akatsuki, sensei," Minato shook his head in disbelief. "After what happened at the border of Suna? Seriously?"
Jiraiya winced minutely. "I admit, that... incident... didn't paint Yahiko or the others in a positive light, but I think they have curtailed their army's... exuberant tendencies. Between Nagato and Yahiko, they have enough power at the top to enforce it." He walked back to the desk with a shake of his head. "You know that they mean well, right? Yahiko is a rebel, not a statesman. I am not surprised he's a bit stuck in his old ways of thought."
Minato frowned as he leaned back in his chair. "That is an interesting sentiment, but how far can we trust his organization, even if he himself was acceptable to us? Usurping Amegakure was not a tragedy considering the one previously in charge, but Akatsuki's acts of aggression since then contradict their supposed peaceful intentions. Even if their leader is a visionary, it will do us no good if his followers destroy all they touch."
Jiraiya sighed. "I know, and I think the reason is clear. Nagato is... a little different from Yahiko. You already know about his eyes, about that dōjutsu of his. I fear that he has lost perspective in recent years, but Yahiko tolerates his excesses since they are like brothers. That is why I hope that Konoha can help steer their organization back towards its roots, rather than moving further towards Nagato's revolutionary intentions." He shrugged. "At least Konan seems to agree with me, which is something."
"She's the third one of the orphans," Jiraiya noted. "I've mentioned her before, I'm sure. She's sort of the mediator among the boys, but of late she's become rather isolated. I'd hope that some real international politics would demand the attention of all three, allowing for the mending of old bridges..."
Minato grimaced. "If civil war erupts in the South, it could spread to our home. Even with your assurances of relative peace, it is far too tentative for my tastes. I would rather have a good buffer between ourselves and anarchy. Then there is the news from the north, which is even more worrisome. Orochimaru. Again."
"At least he and Akatsuki remain separate and opposed," Jiraiya pointed out. "That's good for us."
"Yes... but how long will such a tentative peace hold? Will they clash with another, or will they ally against us, if we deny Akatsuki entrance? I am not fond of betting, Jiraiya-sensei. I don't know if I should prepare for full-scale war, or not." He frowned. "Even with the village as powerful as it is, you know that we have weaknesses, chinks in our armour. Preparing our defences might also attract unwanted attention."
"We're strong, though."
"Strong enough?" Minato turned, looking outside with a troubled expression. "I would rather spare the new generation yet another crippling war, but the rumblings have started to get louder. The north is unsatisfied and will attempt something soon, and the south might help them. A pincer-movement like that might cut us off from our greatest allies if we're not careful."
Jiraiya frowned darkly. "So, what do you propose we do?"
Minato shrugged. "I think it's time we increase our border guards. The village and the land's borders, both. I will arrange for a doubling of assigned shinobi. I'm putting a halt on foreign missions until this mess is over. We have enough money saved to maintain that for a few months, at least. It will send a message of wariness more than war, which should serve our needs."
"It seems a bit... soon."
"Perhaps not soon enough," Minato replied. "The Uchiha situation came very close to disastrous as well, and nobody quite realized it. This has to be done." He nodded sharply. "I will inform the relevant people as soon as I can reach them - I believe it would be a good time to get our new Chūnin some much-needed experience."
Jiraiya shrugged, then paused. "You know, something else's been on my mind... Isn't today the day of the Genin tests? I figured you'd want to be there for Naruto, not holed up out here."
"You're right - but I think that little Obito can handle it." Minato smiled. "Hyūga, Uchiha and Namikaze in one team. An interesting combination, don't you think? Particularly with my own student leading them."
"He's not so little anymore, you know," Jiraiya observed dryly. "More like an Uchiha than anyone ever expected, I think." The Toad Sage grimaced. "You know how ruthless that twerp can be, since you've worked with him enough. Honestly, he's effectively ANBU material, not the type to lead a Genin team. It'd be like putting Ibiki in charge of one. They'll be ruined in a week."
"Obito doesn't want to be in ANBU," Minato said. "Ostensibly it's the masks, but I think it's more complex than that. He hides it, but seems less on his guard around me. In truth, he's afraid. Afraid of himself, perhaps. You know what he's capable of, as you said. I believe Obito knows that ANBU would give him free license to do his worst, and a mask to hide behind to avoid direct consequences. Those eyes of his certainly don't help matters. I think he recognizes that joining ANBU would work into a flaw in his personality."
"That's the case with all these Uchiha and their issues," Jiraiya said caustically. "It's always something. They're unreliable and questionably loyal."
"Nidaime-sama would have agreed with you," Minato observed tiredly with a thin smile. "Still, Obito is the most stable of the lot, next to Shisui," he added. "I never even implied that he was disloyal, just that he can get carried away when lives are on the line. That's something else entirely, and hardly unique among shinobi. I consider it a sign of maturity that he would even go so far as to avoid his own breaking point."
Jiraiya growled. "He still butchered fifty people that day, Minato. Even Kakashi stunk of fear for weeks after that, and he was in ANBU at the time, used to violence. If you call Obito stable, what the hell are we doing, allowing the Uchiha in this village at all?" He turned away. "Then there was the Itachi incident, of course."
Minato flinched. "This room is not secure, sensei. We cannot go into detail."
Jiraiya slammed his hand into the table. A seal burst alight on the flat surface, shining with eerie light. "Now it is. And you know damn well that we're alone in here; you've got this place sealed up so tight that even I spent ten minutes getting through the front door. This one's redundant." He sniffed. "Itachi... That disaster proves my know that we were edging on a coup, and it was all the Uchiha clan's fault, wasn't it? What happened might have removed some of the prime instigators, but it almost came to civil war. How can you forget that?"
"Obito was not involved," Minato said firmly. "He was ousted from the clan years before. Shisui and Obito were the prime reasons why the entire fiasco was prevented, don't forget that either! Whether or not you believe that they are monsters on the battlefield is not of my concern." He grasped one of his three-pronged kunai, holding it between his hands loosely. "After all, who am I to criticize them?"
"That -" Jiraiya started, then he grimaced.
"What? It's different?" Minato raised an eyebrow. "I killed more than a thousand people in the war, Jiraiya. Single-handedly. What is a kill count of fifty compared to that? What are a hundred in the wake of one team member's death and the total collapse of the other? Even I would likely have cut a swath through the enemy ranks in retaliation, had I seen Rin die - much less be partially responsible for what happened. I understand your concern, but just because Obito can be merciless, does not mean that he cannot be trusted. In fact, I think Naruto could use that kind of treatment, a little. He's been coddled enough."
"Tossing someone to the lions is not generally considered a boon," Jiraiya murmured.
"Naruto's got plenty of both me and his mother in him, Jiraiya. He's got potential, if not in academia, that he's not reaching at the moment - he does have the blood of his parents running through his veins, and we're no slouches. He's going to be a fine shinobi, but he'll need to get used to the bloodier parts of it, too." Minato leaned back in his chair, shaking his head slowly. "I think it's a good idea to put Obito in charge of that, since he has a way of getting through to rookies, especially the innocent ones. He has plenty of experience with being the clueless one on his team, after all."
Jiraiya ground his teeth. "I won't tell you to change your mind - but having him in a leadership capacity means he'll be the only Jōnin in the team most of the time - and that's taking hefty risks. Do you know how many enemies that man has?"
"Yes," Minato said coolly. "I have more than that, still. Naruto himself has already been the target of dozens of assassins merely through his relationship to me. Still - every single one is a lesson, don't you agree?"
Blood, there was blood all over him, and it reeked. Naruto looked down with wide eyes as the world seemed to wobble, before he realized that his vision was narrowing to a point, and he realized he was heading towards unconsciousness; he forced himself to breathe regularly, even as his heart hammered erratically in his chest. The blood was disgusting, strangely warm, and so sticky. His vest was nothing but a red blot, and his pants were soaked; blood dripped off hands that trembled involuntarily.
Where had it come from?
"What the hell?" He asked, even as a part of him already knew the answer, and refused to accept it with equal fury. He looked up in an instant of crystallized fear as he realized that someone must have drawn that blood, and froze. A few dozen feet ahead stood someone new, someone dangerous, a long and jagged ninjato clasped in one hand, while the other held the cloth with which he had grasped his victim. His blade was shoved down into the ground almost half a foot, impaled straight through someone's body. All Naruto recognized of the victim was teeth, gleaming white set in a smile that was frozen in death.
He moved again after a long and dreadful pause; he took in a sharp breath and yelled, tripped, and fell over his own feet, though his eyes never left that terrifying gaze, that insane bloodlust that seemed to scream for his death. Blood ran down the shinobi's face, and his hitai-ate stood out clearly on his forehead, gleaming red against the pitch-black sky. Iwa, Naruto recognized somewhere in the back of his mind. He pulled out a weapon of his own; kunai were the only close-combat weapon he carried. He held it in front of him with shaking hands as he struggled upright. His stomach roiled with panic, which he tried to subdue, knowing what it could cost him.
"So, you're this traitor's students, eh?" the man said sibilantly, tongue running across his teeth as he pulled back his sword with a sickening sound, then slashed down again into the person he had skewered, slicing through the neck with a sickening sound. The body didn't move an inch; it was already dead. Naruto tried to make sense of who it was, stretched out there on the ground, but his mind wouldn't respond with any good answer, even if he was sure he should have known. In panic he raised his trembling kunai.
"Don't come any closer!"
The man laughed, his eyes flashing with unnatural light as he took in his opponent. "The son of the Yellow Flash, cowering in his boots? Oh, this is brilliant, isn't it? I suppose stupid bravery isn't hereditary, after all." He stepped forward, his blade still dripping with blood as he raised it up and smiled, licking the edge; Naruto twitched in disgust and fear.
The man smirked. "I never thought you would be a coward, boy. Didn't figure you would run away or cower from your doom."
"I won't run!" Naruto barked, and he gritted his teeth, remembering just who he was. "You've made a big mistake. Once dad figures out -"
"Ah, yes, the Hokage. It seems he was called off." The man snickered. "Isn't that a coincidence? The same for your mother, in fact. And your dear uncle. You're alone, boy. No saviours in capes to rescue you. No, this is a private party." He let out a momentary chuckle. "Isn't that right, pretty Hyūga? Can you see how alone you truly are?"
Naruto paled as he realized he wasn't alone out there: Hinata and Sasuke were somewhere besides him, and he could hear their breathing in the distance, almost as uneven as his own. The realization sent a new jolt of energy through him, and the haze of panic lifted, enough to recognize the terrible feeling in the air for what it was. It was Killing Intent, more vicious and overbearing than he had ever felt it before. This man was projecting such intense malice that it was difficult to even think straight, let alone act.
A plan, he needed a plan, and he needed it soon. His mind refused to focus properly, but it was better than a blind haze, at least; he had the advantage of being underestimated, and that could work in his favour. He had two of the strongest Genin of his class right there, if they couldn't do anything, then nobody had a shot. Still, if this was a professional assassin of some sort, they were hopelessly outmatched. Naruto had to stall until someone came to their rescue, someone really powerful. Mom? Dad, maybe? Tobi?
"Who are you? What do you want?" Naruto asked with a wavering voice, and he wanted to kick himself for how weak he sounded. He was just buying time, it wasn't going to solve anything, but he did not have much of a choice. If he could buy some minutes, surely a shinobi would alert the ANBU, at least.
The Iwa shinobi ignored Naruto's panicked questions, his gaze sliding towards Hinata, whose eyes were widened even as her whole face had gone deathly pale. It seemed that the Killing Intent had even stopped her in her tracks, despite it being focused elsewhere. "Well, little girl. What do your all-seeing eyes tell you?" He smirked. "The Hyūga. Such a proud clan, so independent. What will you do, when I slice this boy in half? Scowl at me?" He chuckled. "You aren't marked for death. Nor is the Uchiha. Leave, before you overstay your welcome."
Iwa; of course, it made sense. This shinobi was part of a hit-squad, sent to take out the child of their old foe, the Yellow Flash. It was he that prevented Iwa from trying anything, for fear of encountering him on the battlefield once again, which had kept mild animosity going between Konoha and Iwa since the last war.
War. The chilling prospect occurred to him, then. Killing the child of a Kage would be a demonstration of how poor one's enemies defences were, and an effective way to instigate war, which implied that a lot of things had gone very, very wrong. Naruto knew his father would be like the Shinigami himself if anything were to happen to him, especially from these people, there would be a reaping among Iwa's forces, at the very least.
Well, if this shinobi was so far beyond him, at least he could get his teammates out of trouble. His startled panic made way for a cold determination that loosened up his muscles, allowed him to breathe freely in the miasma of fear that surrounded him. He had no reason to be afraid anymore of that which was inevitable. His father's calm instructions came to him, said in passing as he went about his business as Hokage.
If you are ever paralyzed by fear, you should just be afraid, and let that be it. Fear only stops you if you let it control your actions. "Go," Naruto said, voice unwavering. "He's after me alone. Go and warn someone, and don't look back. Tell them who came for me."
Neither Hinata nor Sasuke moved an inch.
Naruto groaned to himself as he realized just who were standing beside him. Two children of large clans, honour-bound to support the Hokage. Both would have been taught to fight to the death, if it should be necessary. He should have known that his status as the Hokage's son would make that even more relevant.
The Iwa shinobi's gaze moved to Sasuke next, who had his Sharingan activated, and the dark tomoe rotated around his pupils, standing out starkly in the darkness. "How about you, little Uchiha? Child of a cursed clan, one that couldn't survive unless the Hokage allowed you. It is through his tolerance that your excesses have not damned your whole family. The sole reason you have those eyes is that your clan tortures better than it does child-rearing. Pitiful." He shook his head. "Still, there is no need for you to die, today. You've heard the boy, and you've heard me. Leave." The man looked back at Naruto, eyes gleaming. "You, though... You will die."
"Maybe." Naruto struck out with his kunai with a surge of adrenaline that set his teeth on edge. A sliver of steel worked its way past the ninjato's blade, glancing off the handle and veering dangerously close to his foe's wrist. The swordsman took a step back to avoid being wounded by the slash, and a maniacal grin appeared on his face.
"That's more like it! Do you think you can kill me, Namikaze? Inferior child of a greater man? Incapable of living up to your own kin?" He smiled nastily. "No, you will never become anything other than the failed heir of a very short-lived family."
"Shut the hell up!" Naruto exclaimed viciously, a flash of burning hatred fuelling his assault, which was handily avoided as the sword-wielder stepped out of range. Naruto dropped his kunai without a thought, knowing that it would be pointless to cross blades with an expert like this, and brought his hands together. "Bunshin no jutsu!" Three copies of him popped into existence as the real Naruto backed away. "Hinata, Sasuke, get ready to back me up. Hinata, go for the arms first. Sasuke, covering fire."
"You think you can counter me, huh?" The enemy shinobi dashed towards him at such speed that his feet hardly touched the ground, his menacing grin closing in so fast that Naruto was unable to even raise his hands to protect himself. At the last moment, he managed to switch himself with one of the logs that were spread all around the training fields, whirling out of the Kawarimi and landing painfully as a bright-red streak appeared on his arm, just shallow enough not to draw blood, though it still hurt. Naruto sighed in momentary relief, though.
That was all the opening the enemy needed; he was right on top of Naruto again before he could react, and as the first strike hit him, cutting into his arm, he responded instinctively, his foot lashing out and catching the nin right on his elbow which gave a satisfying snapping sound, before the other shot out to catch empty air, but it was enough to divert the next slash that might have taken his head off
Naruto rolled out of the way, his hands flashing through hand signs as he steadied himself; a dozen Bunshin appeared, and then even more than that, blanketing the area in illusory images that would hide him, if only for a short time.
"Not a bad show," the shinobi commented, his eerie smile dripping with loathing. "Not good, either. Is this the best you can do? Academy-level jutsu?"
Naruto ignored the jibe, focusing on the strange calmness that had caught him up as he stared at that bloodstained blade, a sort of eerie peace that seemed to pulse with the wound on his arm that was bleeding, if not enough to incapacitate him. He could not hope to match a Jōnin's speed or strength, but he could test his limits, and see how long he'd last. Warnings from his parents occurred to him that were practically ingrained in him through hours of practice, and they were starting to fall away. He had techniques that he had used in private, had never showed in public, since they were meant as secret weapons for emergencies. If this didn't count, what did?
"Sasuke, Hinata; three-prongs, second Iwa stance." He glanced over his shoulder, knowing that if he could remember that particular tactic, the two clan geniuses would have it memorized. As his clones evaporated, he pressed his hands together, focusing his chakra. "Chakra Kusari!"
There was a sudden and intense flash of pain that felt like someone ran him through from front to back, and Naruto hunched over slightly to relieve the pressure, though he refused to collapse to his knees as he had done so many times before. With a horrible ripping sound, Naruto's back erupted into a shower of bright chakra, and a viciously thrashing blue-white chain ripped itself free with the sound of clinking metal, whirling through the air and circling Naruto before the sword could get a single hit in. It glanced off the chains with a shower of sparks, leaving the links unmarked.
"Uzumaki," the enemy snarled. "I should have guessed you inherited that."
Naruto looked up with hooded eyes, suppressing the pain of the imperfect technique even as he used it, forcing the chakra chain to do his bidding; the long, rectangular links in the chain rattled as the chain weaved and bobbed as the tendril of chakra moved as if it were a living thing, intercepting every attack that Naruto anticipated, far swifter than his arms or legs could even move. He smiled in satisfaction.
Then the enemy reached out with his bare hand and grabbed the chain.
Naruto blanched as his chakra almost instantly dissolved due to his momentary surprise, and he poured chakra into maintaining the construct. Despite trying to rip it loose, the chain would not release itself from the enemy's touch, the end hanging limply from his hand. Impossible! Touching the chains was supposed to be extremely dangerous, since it was pure chakra, and would sear the skin as easily as fire.
"Interesting," the enemy said. "But you are not a master yet."
Naruto growled as he flooded his chakra into the chain, keeping it intact. This shinobi had to be a cut above the others, to have a counter to such a rare technique; he felt almost proud that he required such a capable assassin. His chakra surged ever more, and he couldn't hold in a grin. I hope you'll learn about this, mom, even if I might not survive it.
Just as he prepared to unleash his gathered power, someone flashed into view.
"Hakke Sanjūni Shō!" Hinata exclaimed as her hands blurred with blinding speed, interspersed with quick exclamations, and the enemy managed to block almost every one with the flat of his blade, then seemed puzzled for a moment. Hinata stepped back, and then fire seemed to burst from her whole body as she evaporated. Sasuke was there, right behind where she had been, his hands raised to his lips even as his Sharingan took in every movement.
Naruto realized what had happened at the same time as the Iwa shinobi did. A trap!
Fire engulfed everything.
The enemy released Naruto's chakra chain in the same moment that he leapt aside; his hand vanished into his cloak, trailed by thin streams of smoke at a partial hit from the flaming projectile; Naruto's chain snapped back to action as Sasuke grinned triumphantly.
"One of you managed to hit me," the enemy said curiously, cocking his head to the side. "Well, since you seem unwilling to leave, you all die." The man's blade raised ever so slightly as the real Hinata appeared from the darkness, ready to unleash the true version of her Taijutsu assault, but she was not the enemy's target.
Sasuke had just managed to gather himself in the wake of his attack before the enemy was on him.
Three sword-slashes were countered with vicious Taijutsu blocks meant to break stances and shatter bones, but the enemy was too slippery for that, and he seemed to flow around the attacks without issue, grinning all the while. Naruto's chain snapped out, but even the great speed of the projectile was of no use against the enemy's superior skill. "It's no use..." the man crooned.
Focusing his gathered chakra differently in a change of plans, Naruto slammed his hand down to the ground, and it burst forth in straight lines, that snapped into place with a sizzle. Four equally long lines of blue fire were etched in the soil for an instant, surrounding the enemy.
"Kekkai: Shihō Hyōrō!" A blue-rimmed structure hummed into existence without a puff of smoke or any warning; from one moment to the next, a clear bright blue cube surrounded the Iwa assassin on all sides, shuddering with contained energy. Naruto stood in front of it, one hand raised to keep it up, as he lifted the other into a one-handed seal.
The entire glowing cage began shrinking as the walls closed in, the roof lowered, and the eerie humming made it plenty clear what would happen if anyone were stupid enough to try and cross through it.
"What is it?" Sasuke blurted as the Iwa nin stared balefully from beyond the barrier, as no sound could penetrate the barrier. "I thought you said your Barrier techniques-"
"I've been working on them in my spare time," Naruto said testily. "I can't get it smaller than a person, it would destabilize. I can make a hole for you, though, which should be enough." He winced. "I might not be able to crush him, but if you pour a little fire in there, I'm sure it won't be pleasant for long." he added. "Ready?"
Sasuke nodded, flashing through hand signs at high speed. Naruto changed his one-handed sign to Tiger and sent his lone chakra chain ahead. It pierced the barrier's wall without trouble, leaving a neat, round hole in its wake. Fire burst forth, spreading across the shrinking walls and down towards their victim, intent on charring him to ash.
Then the man puffed into nothingness.
"Shadow Clone!" Hinata exclaimed in surprise, but she was too late.
"Say good night," the enemy whispered from right behind Sasuke, just loud enough for Naruto to pick up, before he struck. He was far too fast for Sasuke's Taijutsu to be of any help, and there was the sickening sound of expelled breath and tearing flesh after that. For a moment, it seemed like time was frozen. Very slowly, Sasuke slumped to the ground, sliding off the Iwa-nin's gleaming blade without resistance. For a few moments his blood still came out in spurts, then it was reduced to only a slow drip.
"No, damn it!" Naruto's cold focus turned to hatred, ice-cold loathing that forced him to face it, whether he wanted to or not. Chakra burst to life as it had before, heady and overbearing, simultaneously utterly wild and perfectly controlled.
"What are you going to do about it?"
Naruto snarled with such ferocity that Hinata started, and his eyes narrowed on the enemy with a sole thought, a bestial murmur of murder and vengeance, both for Sasuke and the other, the one he could not name but who he knew was important, who still lay deathly still at the edge of the field. As if in response to his thoughts, the chakra chain he had manifested twisted into something monstrous as spikes grew from every link in the chain, and vicious barbed hooks erupted one every straight surface. The end was tipped in a long serrated blade, engulfed in the glow of chakra that poured from their conjurer. The rattling chain whirled around its owner as he cried out in denial, and two more ripped themselves into existence from his unleashed chakra, running wild.
Naruto's blood-tinged visage went completely blank now, merciless. The enemy did not spare any words, since he could not afford to; Naruto's assault came swiftly and violently, with the three blade-tipped masses of blades converging on their shared target, lashing outward with speed and dexterity that a single sword could not easily keep up with. The Iwa nin counter-attacked quickly, his blood-stained blade coming ever closer to their target as Naruto exhausted his chakra supply at great speed.
"Shugohakke Sanjūni Shō!" Hinata was there, slamming her hands into the enemy's forearm before he could try and attack again, her face as emotionless as Naruto's as she forced chakra into every tenketsu she could reach. Naruto's chakra chains lashed out to follow her, flashing by Hinata without even touching her, helping to counter every attack. She glanced back to Naruto momentarily, before nodding. "Hakke Sanjūni Shō!"
"So this is what it took to get you to fight seriously?" the enemy yelled as he fled from Hinata's close-range attacks. "Come on then!"
Naruto answered only with another assault. His target half-turned as he deflected Naruto's flailing attacks, just in time to run into Hinata's chakra-filled gentle tap that could certainly have stopped his heart. As it was, the attack brushed by his side as he threw himself aside, eliciting a tortured groan that told Naruto enough; it was a partial hit.
If they could hurt him, they could definitely kill him.
"Keep him busy for a moment," Naruto said quickly as he manoeuvred towards Sasuke, focusing "Kekkai: Hitsugi," he intoned, and Sasuke's body was scooped up in a thin and narrow box of blue chakra, dragged to the side of the battlefield and away from the enemy, whose wounds would keep him off-balance for at least a moment. The Uchiha looked deathly pale, and the vicious hole that had been torn in his chest was undoubtedly fatal. Blind black eyes looked up at Naruto, and he had the urge to vomit. He couldn't feel a tremor of chakra through the chain, as he should have been able to with anyone living; it was too late. No chakra flow, no life.
He looked up to the Iwa nin calmly. "That's enough, Hinata," Naruto said, right as she disabled the enemy's left leg with a well-timed chakra-fuelled slap. The man grimaced, whirling his ninjato around towards her, and she narrowly dodged it this time; Hinata was tiring. Naruto stepped past her as his chakra chains converged. I have to use everything!
"Finally stopped hiding behind your little friends?" The Iwa nin smirked.
"You'll die today, for what you did," Naruto said softly. "That's a promise."
"Well, let's see it, then!" The man swung his blade with incredible force, sending his sword whirling, and Hinata's eyes widened minutely a moment before she realized she could not get away in time. Then Naruto was there, and his chakra covered everything. A sickening sound was heard as blood spurted out in every direction. A body slumped over dead, utterly skewered, no more than a bloody pulp. There was no last breath - he was terminated mid-movement.
Silence reigned for what seemed like a long time.
"N-Naruto-san?" Hinata mumbled at last.
"I never break my promises," Naruto whispered harshly. Nine bloody tentacles of spiked chakra chains were embedded in the dead body of the enemy nin, slicing through every vital organ they could find, mincing and severing the entire way. One of the enemy's hands was gone from his wrist entirely; it lay on the ground a little further, still clasping the sword meant for Hinata, twitching in death. What remained of a face was set in a rictus of terror, of frozen pain.
It took some time for Naruto to look up, but when he managed to meet Hinata's gaze, terrified to find fear there, he just saw awe. He glanced back at his chakra chains, taking in the sheer number, and smiled ruefully as blood leaked from between his teeth, refusing to collapse now. The blood was not his own. "I'm -" He faltered, and his chakra began to disperse as his concentration dropped. One by one, his chains fell apart into pieces and vanished into thin air.
"I guess dad was right," he said at last, and he sank to his knees, shuddering. "He was right." He winced, raising his hand as chakra surged around it, a pale blue aura that seemed to crystallize even as he kept it there, resembling a faceted gem. "...I needed a battle."
Hinata slowly made her way to the last of Naruto's constructs, the box that kept Sasuke's body safe. She shook her head, mumbling under her breath as she leaned beside it. "It was a test," she said. "I think it was a test, Naruto."
Naruto turned to her, spent. "What?"
Hinata shook her head, blinking rapidly. "I think -" she said hastily, before she seemed to gather herself. "It's fuzzy, but Obito-sensei came for us, I'm sure of it. He arrived and said some things, and then everything changed around us. I believe -"
"Tobi..." Naruto trembled, his mind curiously blank, and he turned to the dead body that he had seen at the very start. "No! Tobi! Not you, too!"
He blinked in confusion as the body in question faded away, seeping into the ground like water. With him, the pool of blood vanished, and then most of the blood on Naruto's vest and pants followed. The conclusion came swiftly - the body had vanished because Tobi would never have been caught unawares by someone that a few Genin could defeat; it had to be a fake. Why hadn't he been able to reason that out before?
"The freaking Sharingan," Naruto spat, clenching his fists. "That's the answer, isn't it? That's why everything's so messed up. We've been made to avoid thinking about what was going on, just to see what we'd do." He got to his feet, incensed. "ENOUGH OF YOUR GAMES, TOBI-SENSEI!"
"It was indeed a test," Sasuke confirmed as he opened his eyes, his pallor vanishing along with his wound. Far from dead, the boy sat up, feeling his intact chest with a frown as both Naruto and Hinata stared at him. He seemed to notice their attention and looked away. "Don't look at me like that - I know I failed. Got myself killed." He shuddered. "Felt... real."
"So this guy..." Naruto gestured down to the enemy shinobi that he had thoroughly perforated. "He's an illusion too - a fake enemy."
"What does he look like to you, Naruto?" Hinata inquired. "I thought I heard you say something earlier, which led to my conclusion about the Genjutsu trap. Of course, it was far too late to use that information, though..."
"Some Iwa jerk," Naruto answered, puzzled. "He's got the hitai-ate and everything."
"He doesn't," Hinata said with certainty. "I'm seeing a Kumo headband. You're seeing Iwa because that's who you would reasonably believe could be sent after you - Iwa's been after your family since the last war." She frowned. "For me it's Kumo, because of the failed kidnapping attempt." She turned to Sasuke. "Let me guess - "
"I don't think we've been hearing the same things," Sasuke confirmed. "It was Genjutsu since the beginning." He focused on the enemy as he scowled. "But I still can't see through it, even with the Sharingan. It's good; it's very good. It seems that Obito-sensei's eyes are as powerful as the stories suggest."
"This was no bell test," Naruto whined. "So he did change it... Was the point to kill this guy, then?" He sighed in relief. After this much abuse of his chakra chains, more than twice his previous record, it would be days before he could try again, and more if his mother didn't end up punishing him for abusing them in a test. "Well, we succeeded at that at least, right? I guess we pass?"
I couldn't have known about all that - Tobi-sensei is sadistic!
A familiar form wavered into existence right then, a red-eyed face with a smile, followed by the rest of his body as it twisted itself into being. "Well, my dear Genin..." he started, smiling ruefully.
"What was that about!" Naruto blurted, interrupting Obito. "I thought it was real! That was cruel! I thought that someone went and killed someone right in front of me, you know! You made me use techniques I was supposed to keep a secret, now I'll get in trouble!"
"I doubt that. This outcome was the whole point," Obito said dryly. He stooped down momentarily, touching the enemy nin's form. "This was your test; life or death. I wanted to see how far you would go, when driven to the point of failure. Whether you would sacrifice your safety or your secrets for the team, or whether you would keep them at a distance. Sasuke was the strongest fighter among you three, since both his Taijutsu and Ninjutsu are considerably above average. That's why I elected to take him out. It was then that the other two truly gave their best."
"You failed me on purpose?" Sasuke sneered. "Figures, traitor."
Obito shrugged. "When Sasuke was knocked out of the game, despite your best efforts to work together - which was commendable, by the way - I wanted to see what the others would do. Naruto's intent to limit the damage to his team was respectable; in a real situation, leaving one behind to stall while others deliver a warning home is a valid tactic, but I appreciate the loyalty that the other two showed, too. It took two of you to take this guy down, after all. Naruto went a little beyond the usual, but that's not unexpected in a real fight. You'll really only find your limits when you're pushed to the edge."
"I thought Sasuke was dead," Naruto admitted slowly. "I was going to return the favour to that bastard nin..."
"Appreciate the gesture," Sasuke said dryly. "Though I'd prefer you going crazy on the enemy before he kills me."
Naruto just narrowed his eyes. "I was going to revive you, but - Tobi-sensei probably made you look like you bled out really quickly, so there was no point in trying."
"You focused on Barrier techniques and chakra chains, Naruto," Obito said, raising an eyebrow. "I knew about the latter, though your mother seems convinced that four is your limit. On the other hand, I was under the impression that you did not care for, and I quote, 'complicated girly techniques'."
Naruto frowned, and looked away. "I guess barriers are... sort of okay. The old toad taught me, all right?" Naruto said quickly. "Though I didn't tell him I completed some yet. I figured I would when I perfected my version..."
"So it was Jiraiya-san," Obito observed. "I should have known, really. Though I'm surprised you didn't beg him for the secrets of the Rasengan or the Hiraishin instead." He observed Naruto's sheepish expression and smirked. "Ah. This was the only technique he would teach you, then?"
Naruto frowned, blushing. "Yes, well - never mind that, did we pass, sensei?"
Obito nodded. "All of you. Teamwork is vital to any successful team. Though I was unsure about things when you were quibbling among yourselves at the start, you came together to fight a common enemy without a second thought. For that reason, you are officially Genin of Team 7 now, and that means you're soldiers of the village." He cocked his head to the side. "I will give you all a day or two to cope with the events of today, and then it's time for missions. I'll see if I can get a proper one to kick things off, since you obviously have the skill in combat that you'll need for a C-rank. Today is a taste of things to come. If you can't handle it, quit now."
"Understood," Hinata said quickly. "I will inform father of what happened." Sasuke grunted in acknowledgment as well, looking disinterested.
Naruto stared in confusion. "What do you mean? Cope? Quit?" he asked. "What-?"
"You will figure it out," Obito said tiredly. "ANBU will be here within minutes to clean things up." He waved lazily. "I will go report to the Hokage. Remember, drinking is illegal at your age, so think of something else."
Naruto just stared in confusion. Obito vanished as the sky brightened again, as everything returned to normal.
Naruto sighed in relief, intent on taking a good long nap, when he froze. Lying in a pool of blood, adamantly refusing to go away even as Obito's Genjutsu evaporated, was a corpse.
The colour drained from his face as Naruto gingerly retreated a few steps, realization hitting him. He couldn't keep in his outraged yell. "WHAT THE HELL, TOBI!"
Dead eyes gazed up at him in terror.
Author's Note: Heh, it's been a while. Here's the techniques used:
Chakra Kusari - Chakra Chains
Hakke Sanjūni Shō - Eight Trigrams Thirty-Two Palms
Shugohakke Sanjūni Shō - Protection of the Eight Trigrams Thirty-Two Palms
Kekkai: Shihō Hyōrō - Barrier: Four-Corner Prison
Kekkai: Shiboru -- Barrier : Squeeze
Kekkai: Hitsugi -- Barrier : Coffin