Naruto was the first to ask what was probably on everyone else’s mind as they were ushered back into the waiting arena, but not before blushing several shades of red as he realized that he had been holding Sasuke’s hand during the short walk. His initial reaction was to withdraw quickly, but one glance at their entwined hands, and a quick peek at Sasuke who seemed lost in his thoughts, had Naruto deciding ‘what the hell.’ It wasn’t as if anyone was paying that much attention, or if they were, they kept their opinions to themselves.
“Where’s the guy with no face?” he asked loudly with a nod towards Deidara who was frowning at his fingernails, which by the way, were coated with black nail polish. He was about to raise a finger to his lips to gnaw on it or bite off a hanging nail or something, when he eyed the blond warily.
“You talking to me?”
“Yeah. Where is he?”
Deidara looked as if he was about to throw up, but managed to compose his features. “Who the hell are you talking about, moron?”
“I think he means Pein,” Sasori explained quietly, turning to face Naruto. “He’s under the weather today, but you can be sure he’ll be in the finals.”
“Pretty cocky, eh?” Omoi chimed in as he overheard the conversation. “You think you’re going to get past us?”
Deidara laughed. “I can’t wait to wipe the floor with your face, you over-tanned monkey.”
“What the hell did you call me?!” Omoi roared, and before anyone could blink, the boy had moved to grab a very surprised Deidara in a chokehold. “Call me monkey again, asshole! I motherfucking dare you!”
“Omoi!” It was Yugito’s stern voice that froze the fighters, especially Naruto who had released Sasuke’s hand to dash toward his friend. The last thing they needed was a fight here to have them disqualified…not as if he minded Akatsuki getting the boot.
Omoi growled and looked up and into the annoyed features of their team leader. “You heard what he called me. I can’t let it go.”
“You’ll have your chance when the fight starts,” Yugito reasoned and turned her icy glare on Deidara who was turning a very nice shade of blue. “You’re a waste of life, Deidara, but I’ll allow him to let you live for now. Let him go, Omoi. We have to practice.”
With a huff, Omoi released the blond Akatsuki member and straightened himself, but not before spitting on the floor, narrowly missing Deidara’s foot. With a cold glare, he followed his teammates out of the room, leaving a wheezing and very pissed off Deidara in his wake.
“You had better pair me up with him,” the blond said as he eyed Konan. “I want to taste his blood.”
The blue-haired girl shrugged and began to walk out of the room, closely followed by Sasori and Deidara in tow. Kisame went last, but turned to eye the Konoha fighters, lips parting in a grin that sent shivers down the other fighters’ spines.
“Freak,” Naruto hissed beneath his breath. God, how he wanted an opportunity to kick Kisame’s ass, but he had promised to leave him to Sasuke. Remembering Sasuke’s concern was enough to have his cheeks flooding with color again, and he slid an almost shy glance towards his captain. Sasuke was speaking to Kakashi, and Naruto had to wonder when he was going to bring up the topic about last night again. The accusation of him having ‘run away’ wasn’t a complete lie, but at least Naruto felt he ought to have the opportunity to explain his reason for doing so.
“I’m going to buy a sandwich,” Karin announced. “Anyone else want one?”
“I’ll come with you,” Juugo said quietly.
“Before you take off,” Kakashi announced as he and Sasuke approached the group. “I have to set up who fights who in the next round.”
“But we don’t know who we’re going up against,” Suigetsu said with a raised brow.
“True,” the teacher replied with a nod as he opened his notebook. “However, it’s more than likely Gaara will be up as well as Kankurou and then Matsuri…since Temari’s gone and Yashamaru fought the last time. “
“Think they’ll go with Gaara last or first?” Sasuke asked quietly.
“I’m thinking they’ll save him for last if needed. So far, he hasn’t fought yet and I’m sure he’s dying to get his hands dirty…technically speaking. Anyway, Suigetsu you’re going first and then I want you Naruto…”
“What is it now?”
All eyes seemed trained on the now flushed and embarrassed blond who was finding an area on the opposite wall quite fascinating. “I don’t think I’ll be able to fight…yet…”
Kakashi looked bemused. However, it was Karin who asked aloud. “Why not? You look perfectly fine to me.”
“Yeah,” Suigetsu added, trying not to smirk. “What’s the problem, Naruto? Chickening out?”
“No, I’m not!” came the indignant response. “I’m just feeling a bit sor….sorry for not being able to fight this round,” he finished lamely, now feeling as if he was burning and unable to look at Sasuke for fear he’d be laughing at him. This was all his fault anyway.
Suigetsu, on the other hand, was more than happy to do all the laughing required. He couldn’t help it. His theories were right after all and he couldn’t wait to tease the two boys about the consummation of their relationship. Oh, tonight was going to be a blast.
“What’s so funny?” Karin asked with a frown of growing impatience. “Why can’t Naruto…?”
“Fine,” Kakashi interrupted, after staring at the blond for a long minute before seeming to come to a conclusion. “Suigetsu first, Juugo and then Sasuke if needed. Go grab something to eat and be back here in half an hour.”
“Hey!” Karin looked upset. “What’s everyone…?”
“Come on, babe,” Suigetsu drawled, as he threw an arm over her shoulder to lead her out of the room. “Let’s go and I’ll tell you everything…”
“Suigetsu!” Naruto hissed, shaking his head rapidly. Whatever else he would have said was interrupted as Sasuke moved to block his path.
“I think we need to talk, Naruto.” It wasn’t exactly a request and before Naruto could come up with a retort, Sasuke was leading the way out of the room but not towards the main lobby. He pushed open a door Naruto hadn’t even noticed and began to climb a flight of stairs quickly. A push of another door and they were standing on a balcony, looking out and below a much quieter part of the parking lot. Naruto leaned over the stone railing and closed his eyes, appreciating the warm sun on his features and the cool breeze against his flesh.
“Feels good,” he moaned, only to gasp as he was suddenly pulled into Sasuke’s arms, and his lips seized in a kiss that caused a flood of last night’s events to fill his mind in a heady rush.
His moan became louder as he parted his lips to allow Sasuke’s tongue in, a hand reaching out to thread through the dark hair, while the other clutched the front of his gi tightly.
Sasuke finally pulled away slowly, panting breathlessly as he eyed his handiwork with smug delight. “You ran away this morning,” he finally whispered against the moist, warm and slightly swollen lips before him. “Why?”
“I was hungry,” came the hasty and not altogether false reply. “Still…aren’t you going to ask how I feel today?”
“You’re still sore, so?”
“S…So?!” Naruto tried to push off the smirking boy. “Goddamnit, did you forget we had fights today? What if Karin or Juugo had been hurt…?”
“I would have fought on your behalf,” Sasuke mumbled, his lips trailing down to nuzzle Naruto’s neck, restless hands roaming down his back and down to his ass to cup it gently. “Do you want me to kiss it and make it all better?”
Naruto turned beet red and tried to push off Sasuke again, cursing his traitorous body for its aroused reaction to everything Sasuke was doing to him. “We sho…should be focusing on the matches ahead, goddamnit,” he panted. “We have the Sand next and they’re no slouches.”
Sasuke pulled away again to stare into the dilated blue eyes, a frown on his features. “Do you think we can’t beat them?”
“I’m not saying we can’t beat them, but geez, we don’t even know how Gaara’s going to fight. The guy looks dangerous.”
Sasuke seemed torn between continuing his conquest of Naruto or dealing with what reality presented. With great reluctance, he settled for the latter, pulling away completely to pace away – more to calm down and will away the boner in his pants. At least one thing was clear; Naruto definitely didn’t hate him after last night, so his worries and concerns regarding that were soothed for now.
“Gaara should be no problem,” he finally said as he leaned upon the railing to stare blindly at the people below him. “I can handle him just fine. You worry about being un-sore by tomorrow.”
Naruto rolled his eyes. “What? You’ve got a special cream for being un-sore, asshole? I swear next time, I get to be on top…”
Holy shit…had he just said ‘next time?’!
Sasuke glanced over his shoulder, a light smirk on his lips. “Next time?”
“Slip of the tongue,” came the quick defense.
“A very nice slip, Naruto,” Sasuke replied turning around, eyes darkened, amused, and clearly enjoying Naruto’s discomfort. “Maybe I will let you top me next time. I look forward to it.”
“Dream on,” the blond mumbled with embarrassment, his heart thumping hard as he imagined just how the next time would be. Spinning on his heels to make his way back into the building, he called over his shoulder. “Hurry up and let’s grab something to eat. I’m starved.”
“You go on ahead, I’ll catch up later.”
Naruto paused to glance behind him again, a frown on his features. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. Go before I change my mind and…”
“Yeah, yeah, you molest me again. Geez.” Naruto snorted. “Hurry up though. Not much time left.”
He left with a slam of the door behind him, leaving Sasuke to his thoughts. Sliding to the ground, he prepared to meditate, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. Only one more match stood between he and Kisame, and the brief moment his eyes had met the bigger boy’s narrow gaze had sent a chill of unwilling fear down his spine. There was something about Kisame that didn’t seem…normal, and Sasuke knew he’d have to be very careful in the fight or things were bound to get out of hand.
For the meantime, they had the Sand fighters to worry about, especially with Gaara being in the mix. He could only hope that Suigetsu and Juugo took care of business, so he wouldn’t have to expend too much energy today. He would definitely need it for the fight with Kisame tomorrow.
One thing was certain though; Konoha would have to get to the next round. They just had to.
Forty-five minutes later found the fighters back at the arena. Naruto was hovering over Omoi, who was stretching his legs and getting mildly irritated with his blond friend’s mother-hen attitude.
“Brother, don’t you have faith in me?” Omoi tried to look hurt, pouting and eyeing Naruto. “I can take down any of those freaks.”
“I’m not worried, dipshit,” Naruto muttered. “Just watch out for that hand of his…if you end up getting to fight Mr. Psycho.”
“Warning noted,” Omoi replied, jumping to his feet as Samui motioned for him to join the line about to match into the auditorium. He gave Naruto a quick wink and met up with the others, leaving Naruto to watch after him with a pensive look on his features.
“Somehow, I’m hoping he doesn’t win,” Suigetsu said with a light yawn of weariness. “I want Deidara for myself.”
“Omoi will win,” Naruto said solemnly, eyes glued on the figure of his friend who seemed to look small as he walked into the auditorium to thunderous applause. He felt queasy and swallowed the bitter taste that filled his mouth.
Relax. Relax. He’ll win. He has to. This is Omoi for fuck’s sake.
The blond looked up at the sound of his name, slightly surprised to see it was Juugo giving him a small but warm smile. “Your friend…believe in him.”
Sasuke, who was sitting beside Juugo, gave a soft nod of agreement. “We should start watching though…I think it’s about to start.”
Unable to sit, Naruto leaned against the wall, arms folded across his chest as he stared at the big screen. The schools were being announced and then the first fighters called into the middle of the ring. It was Yugito versus Sasori. Having never seen the redhead fight, the Konoha fighters were quite interested in seeing what he was capable of.
They fell into their stances.
Both fighters dashed towards each other at blinding speed, ending up in a loud collision that ricocheted around the auditorium. They spun away from each other, Yugito landing lithely on the tips of her toes, and Sasori sliding into a haunch as he watched the blonde female with narrowed eyes. He barely blinked as he felt the trickle of blood from the cut on his forehead. She felt a dull ache in her upper arm, but gritted her teeth, realizing her opponent must have done something to it.
With a loud grunt, she leapt towards Sasori, arm angled and fingers pointed, a dull glow of ki around her palm as she prepared to strike. Sasori noticed and dodged, but not far enough as he felt her fingernails scrap along his gi. He blinked at the ripping sound soon heard. Yugito’s fingers had sliced through his uniform neatly, leaving four straight lines in the middle of his chest.
“Shit,” he hissed and ducked as she came for him again. Holding out his hands, he concentrated and barely managed to thrust them against her torso. He thought he had missed and was ready to move out of the way again, when she seemed to buckle in mid-air.
Her eyes widened, a hand going to her stomach. “Wha…what did you do to me?” she gasped and fell to the floor. She slapped another hand over her mouth, but wasn’t fast enough to control the spurt of blood that escaped. A shocked gasp filled the auditorium, while her teammates screamed for her to get up, panic on their faces.
Sasori stared at her dispassionately and then raised his arm to give the final strike to end the match. However, he was surprised as she was still able to roll out of the way and extend a leg to topple him to the floor. Sasori growled in frustration, reaching out quickly to wrap his hand around her ankle. Her howl of pain seemed to bounce off the walls and one could visibly see the strain on her features as her body arched off the floor.
“Stop it, you bastard!” Karui screamed. “You’re going to kill her!”
That seemed to snap Sasori back to his senses and he released Yugito’s now swollen ankle and foot with a flinch. He staggered to his feet, panting harshly and holding his arm to his chest as if afraid of what he had done. Medics were already rushing to the ring with a stretcher, for it was clear that Yugito had passed out. The umpire waited until she was taken out and the floor cleaned of the blood stains, before clearing his throat and mopping his brow at the same time.
“Eh…winner of the first match…Akatsuki!”
The crowd applauded with as much enthusiasm as they could muster, but Sasori didn’t seem too interested in that as he walked away from the ring to join his teammates. His hand was still clutched against him, and he lowered his gaze as if ashamed when he met Konan’s cool gaze. Hadn’t he been warned not to lose control?
“Looks like it’s my turn,” Deidara said, leaping up to the ring as his name was called. He grinned at the furious look on Omoi’s face, snorting and flicking a thumb across his nose. “What’s wrong, blondie? Scared now? Shaking in your boots? Ready to get a smack down of epic proportions?”
Omoi said nothing, but simply spat, his body thrumming with adrenaline and fury at what had just taken place. If these Akatsuki bastards wanted to play rough, he’d play rough. Samui had left to be with Yugito, while Karui was still wiping her tears. That alone was enough to give him more of an incentive to want to wipe the smug look off Deidara’s face.
They fell into their stances.
Omoi dove for Deidara with a loud yell, no arms or hands extended, which had the blond a bit surprised. All the same, Deidara leaped into the air to dodge the attack, only to blink in surprise as Omoi suddenly seemed to appear before him.
“Miss me, fuck face?” came the taunt before Deidara found himself flying back to the floor with a sickening thud as he was delivered a crushing blow to the side of his face. He shook his head and got up on one knee, spitting out the funny taste in his mouth before realizing it was actually his blood, including a loose tooth.
He didn’t know which was worse – the fact that he was bleeding or the knowledge that he had lost a part of one of his best features.
“Yah! Get him, Omoi!” Karui screeched for the sidelines. “Break every single tooth in that mouth!”
Deidara glared at the girl, only to find himself flying across the ring and almost falling out if it wasn’t for his quick thinking. He flipped backwards and struck out a leg to kick Omoi. However, the dark-skinned boy was ready and with his hand and fingers straightened to mimic a slicing motion, he slammed it hard against Deidara’s right leg, listening to the blond’s cry of anguish as he fell on his good knee. Hardly giving Deidara a chance to recuperate, Omoi struck again, this time delivering the slicing motion against Deidara’s stomach, which had the blond doubling over.
“Payback’s a bitch,” Omoi growled. “How does it feel to eat dirt now, fuck face?”
“Your friend is pretty damn good,” Suigetsu said with an appreciative whistle. “Who woulda thunk he’d take down the great douche bag?”
Naruto couldn’t stop grinning. It was fantastic to see Omoi taking care of Deidara, and Naruto prepared to give his friend the biggest hug in the world after he won the fight. “I knew he could do it,” he said, slamming his fist into his palm. “I knew it! I knew…!”
“It’s not over yet,” Kakashi said quietly, a frown on his face. Naruto looked at his teacher, and that sharp pang of fear crawled into his stomach again. He forced himself to turn back to the screen and what he saw had him taking a shaky step closer just to be sure he wasn’t seeing things. How could it be? Wasn’t it barely a second ago that Deidara seemed to be on his last legs and now…
“Naruto!” Kakashi called out sharply as the boy dashed into the auditorium before he could be stopped.
“Omoi!” Naruto screamed as his friend was tossed aside like a rag doll, his swollen features slack and a mixture of drool and blood escaping his cracked lips. Only the whites of his eyes showed and he was completely immobile. Deidara wasn’t looking too hot either as he clutched the hand he must have used to cover Omoi’s face, to his chest, while dragging himself along the floor. Omoi had done more damage than he thought and he angrily wondered if this meant he’d be using crutches from now on.
Breaking the rules, Karui and Naruto leapt up to the ring and ran towards the prone figure, Karui’s desperate pleas for Omoi to wake up, falling on deaf ears as her tears splashed on his face.
“Is…is he dead?” Naruto asked through lips that felt numb, his vision wavering as he struggled not to break down or scream or both.
“Nooo, he can’t be!” Karui screamed, hugging Omoi’s limp body to her chest as she sobbed aloud. The umpire and a person from the medic team tried to pry him away from her, but with little success. The medic was able to feel a pulse though, but stated it was quite weak and they’d have to take him to the hospital before it was too late. Reluctantly, Karui allowed her teammate to be taken out in a stretcher, following slowly with her loud sobs filling the auditorium that buzzed with murmurs from the stunned crowd, before breaking into respectful applause for the fallen fighter.
Naruto followed with more measured steps, hardly realizing he was still walking after the medic team, until a firm hand on his shoulder pulled him back.
“Your teammates need you, Naruto,” Kakashi said quietly, staring into the dazed countenance and trying his best to snap the blond out of it. “Omoi fought well and I’m sure they’ll do all they can to make him better again. I’m sure he’d want you to make it all the way and avenge his defeat, hmm?”
Naruto gritted his teeth and pulled away from Kakashi’s touch. He froze as he watched Deidara being upheld by Konan and Sasori as they walked back into the arena. Kisame, who hadn’t even joined his teammates in the auditorium, was still leaning against a wall with his eyes closed as if asleep. He didn’t acknowledge his teammates walking past him until Konan called his name sharply, ordering him to get a move on.
Naruto felt his blood boil. “You don’t think we’re worth watching, is that it?”
The team from the Sand, who were getting ready to head out to the auditorium stopped to see what would happen next. Konan stopped for a second and glanced over her shoulder. She would have said something, but was silenced as Kisame motioned for her to move ahead. He turned back to look at the two teams left, that horrendous smile coming to his visage again.
“Thanks for the invite, Uzumaki Naruto. However, it won’t be necessary. Whoever we fight against has a good chance of losing anyway. So why waste our time? I look forward to fighting any of you tomorrow. Good luck.”
“Grr!” Naruto was literally trembling with fury.
“Cool it, Naruto,” Sasuke said quietly, having walked up to the blond without his knowledge. He too was furious, but was more able to control his emotions when occasion called for it. “We’ll get our chance. Right now…we have to get out there.”
“Man, I hate those guys so much,” Karin grumbled as she joined the line to match into the auditorium. Her head was pounding with a headache, but she knew she’d have to cheer for her boyfriend who was going to fight first.
“Who am I fighting, sensei?” Suigetsu asked while stretching.
“The guy with the painted face, eh? Sweet. This should be a piece of cake.”
“Fighters to the ring, please!”
“Good luck, babe,” Karin whispered, reaching out to squeeze his hand gently. “Win this one.”
“You know it.” He grinned and turned to Naruto, who still looked pissed, Sasuke, who looked neither angry not happy, and Juugo who looked just as neutral. “Geez, you guys are depressing me,” he mumbled. “Wish me luck, goddamnit.”
“You don’t need it, moron,” Sasuke replied with a nudge to the other boy’s ribs. “Move it and win this thing as quickly as you can.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.”
Suigetsu leaped into the ring, just as Kankurou was making his way up as well. He hadn’t spoken much throughout the tournament, but his purple face paint, which seemed to cover his entire face, made him look intimidating. Not that Suigetsu gave a damn.
Kankurou crouched as Suigetsu watched warily, bracing himself for some weird attack or…
He ducked just in time to avoid the fist that was heading for his head. Turning around completely, he was stumped to see another Kankurou behind him. Blinking, he turned back to face his original opponent and was greeted with a shove against his chest that took his breath away. With a growl, he swung an arm and caught Kankurou at the jaw, dodging and weaving his way around the ring – while still struggling to breathe as the two Kankurous gunned for him.
“What the fuck?!” Suigetsu gasped as he took a moment to try to gather some air into lungs that felt pinched with each inhalation. “You’re cheating!”
“Cheating?” The other boy laughed and wiggled his fingers. “Nope. I’m just moving way too fast for you. You think there’s two of me, right? Guess again.”
Suigetsu ducked again as another blow came his way, only for him to notice something that had his eyes widening in disbelief. Was it just his imagination or were there strings of ki coming out of Kankurou’s fingers?
“Shit!” He leaped into the air, narrowly avoiding the ki threads from wrapping themselves around his legs. With a single spin in the air, Suigetsu aimed for Kankurou’s wrist. If he could at least break that, maybe the boy wouldn’t have the ability to make those damn things anymore.
Kankurou noticed what was about to happen and smirked. “Too slow.”
In a swift move, Kankurou slid out of the way and lifted a knee to deliver a hard blow to Suigetsu’s ribs, which sent the Konoha fighter crashing into the row of judges sitting by the ring.
“Eeek!” Karin squealed in shock, covering her mouth as she watched her boyfriend slumped against the upturned chairs and flustered judges who were trying to get out of the way.
“Get up, Suigetsu!” Naruto bellowed. “You can’t lose now! Get up!”
Kankurou eyed the umpire, who was still staring at Suigetsu as if he were an amoeba of some sort. “Hey, Umpire!” Kankurou said impatiently. “You should be counting or something, right?”
“Ah…yes, yes…of course…eh…one!”
“Suigetsu!” Karin screamed. “GET UP!”
Naruto’s hands tightened into fists as he began to bounce on the balls of his feet in growing agitation. Suigetsu couldn’t lose. He just couldn’t.
Goddamn it! Suigetsu!
Karin moaned and covered her face, her soft hitches a sign that she was too distraught to look anymore. Sasuke’s jaw worked silently while Juugo twiddled his hands together in worry.
A hand shot up suddenly, causing Naruto to grin at the sight of Suigetsu shaking his head and looked incredibly pissed off as he staggered to his feet.
“You son of a bitch!” Suigetsu growled, forgetting about the rules of cursing in the middle of a tournament and watching your language and all that good stuff before the grandmasters and the other V.I.P guests. Not that anything anyone could say would get through the angry boy’s mind at this time. “Now, I’m really mad.”
“Ooh. Now, I’m reawwy scared,” Kankurou teased and crouched again. “Come at me…what?!”
He barely dodged the blow that would have struck his side, blinking and wondering if he was seeing things as it seemed like Suigetsu’s arm…well…looked swollen. Kankurou wondered if the fall had caused it, but he would have to put all thoughts of that aside as he ducked again. No, it wasn’t his imagination, after all. Suigetsu’s right arm looked way bigger than his left.
“You’re not the only one who can mess around with ki,” Suigetsu smirked and before Kankurou could move, his right wrist was captured and without missing a beat, snapped like a twig, sending him to his knees in white hot agony. A painful blow was delivered to his torso with the same ki-laced arm, and unable to control his momentum, Kankurou found himself hanging off the ring, his right wrist and arm quite useless at this point.
“He’s out, right?” Suigetsu asked the umpire.
“Well…not quite…his feet are still in the ring, so technically…”
“Hn.” Suigetsu walked up to Kankurou who was trying to wiggle his way back in. He sneered at the lame attempt, and raising his foot, he simply kicked Kankurou’s side, sending him completely out of the ring.
“There. He’s out now.”
The umpire looked as if he needed a vacation. “Eh…winner of the first match…Team Taka!”
Suigetsu bowed before the grandmasters and the audience before stepping out of the ring and into his sobbing girlfriend’s embrace and his team’s enthusiastic response. His arm was throbbing like hell, having resorted to using a technique he would rather not have. Although it was back to normal size, it looked red and sore.
“Looks like it needs an icepack,” Kakashi said with a nod. “Karin?”
“I’ll take him to the sick bay,” the girl offered, leading Suigetsu out of the auditorium to the crowd’s enthusiastic applause. “Good luck, Juugo!” she called back over her shoulder, with Suigetsu repeating the sentiments.
However, as Kakashi noticed who was making his way into the middle of the ring, he frowned, holding back Juugo who was about to step in. “Sasuke?”
The captain raised a brow. “Yes, sensei?”
“Feel up to it?”
“What?” Naruto gasped. “But I thought you said he was going…?”
“Gaara is next,” Kakashi said quietly. “I would have liked you to go, but since you’re still sor…sorry you can’t fight today, I think Sasuke should go in.”
“It’s okay, Naruto,” Sasuke said with a small smile as he began to make his way to the ring. “I need a real warm up anyway.”
Naruto walked as close to the ring as he could, lower lip caught between his teeth as his worried gaze drifted to Gaara, who looked as cool as a cucumber with that seemingly blank look on his features. Sasuke looked just as impassive, his dark eyes and body neither showing fear nor excitement as he stared into the pale eyes before him.
/He’s never gotten a scratch in fights. /
How? Sasuke wondered as the umpire asked the familiar question of ‘Ready?’ in the background. He fell into his stance, and at the cry of ‘Begin!’ he braced himself, waiting for Gaara to attack.
Why isn’t he moving?!
Gaara had closed his eyes, causing Sasuke to growl in irritation at the time being wasted with his stunt. With a light grunt, he seemed to phase out of sight, his speed impressive as he suddenly ‘appeared’ behind Gaara to strike out with a ki-charged fist. He made connection with thin air for Gaara had moved just as fast and now stood at the opposite end of the ring, his brows now furrowed as if in deep thought.
For the next few minutes, this strange ‘ballet’ between the two fighters continued with Gaara dodging Sasuke’s very well-planned attacks. The Konoha captain couldn’t understand it. It seemed as if Gaara was able to see his moves way ahead of him and was always prepared.
I see. He wears you out by letting you fight as much as you want and he keeps dodging them, and just when you’re at your most vulnerable, he strikes.
“Come on, Sasuke! Kick his ass!” came the familiar yell of encouragement from the blond loudmouth. Sasuke tried to hide his smile, and then smirked as he saw a tiny opening for him. Naruto’s yell had distracted Gaara, who had turned his head a little towards the Konoha side with something akin to mild surprise on his features…
…which soon became even more surprised as Sasuke finally managed to land a clenched fist on the other boy’s left cheek. Gaara was flung across the ring like a rag doll, landing on the floor with a grunt of pain and shock at anyone being able to touch him in so long. He got up to his knees slowly, his cheeks burning and getting swollen as he touched it gingerly. His mouth was filling with blood and he stared, almost moronically, at the red fluid that dripped from the cut on his injured cheek to the floor. He looked up and just in time to see Sasuke charging for him. With his brows now furrowed in anger, Gaara closed his eyes and concentrated.
Sasuke wasn’t sure of what hit him, but he did know that he had never felt this surge of electricity wrack through his body as he was tossed across the ring. Gaara had still not actually touched him, and yet every part of his body seemed to be throbbing with pain as if he had been punched continuously.
“Sasuke! Get up!”
He opened his eyes to stare blindly at the ceiling – which seemed miles away as the auditorium was quite huge. Naruto’s voice – as weird as it was to admit – was surprisingly the extra boost he needed to get into the fight again. Gritting his teeth to curtail the pain, Sasuke rose to his feet, much to the audience’s appreciation as they cheered loudly in support. He took a deep breath and braced himself again. He wanted to test something – to be sure his theories were right.
He dashed towards Gaara again, making it seem as if he was going for a direct attack. However, a quick feint to the left was all he needed to see that his assumption was correct. Gaara was able to manipulate his ki into a shield that blocked Sasuke’s attack. It was a fast technique, but Sasuke was able to pinpoint a slight flaw in this. Gaara could only put up the shield for less than a minute, and Sasuke noticed that it seemed to take a lot out of him. The Sand fighter was breathing a lot heavier now, those once cool eyes now looking slightly frantic with worry.
“Let’s see how fast I can wear you out,” Sasuke muttered to himself and knowing he’d have to suffer the pain, he began to feint direct attacks to Gaara, moving left, right, up into the air or crouching with a speed that made it seem like he was nothing more than a blur. Gaara was doing his best to keep up with the Konoha fighter, getting more frustrated as his ki shield wasn’t being put up as fast as he’d like. He was expending too much energy and even though it seemed like Sasuke was getting hit quite a few times, the stubborn dark-haired boy wouldn’t give up.
“Damn you,” Gaara growled as Sasuke dashed for him again. He held up his hands, in a desperate effort to protect himself, and fully expected to have Sasuke dodge again; only to gasp in stunned surprise as Sasuke suddenly penetrated his barrier to wrap his hand around Gaara’s neck.
“Im….impossible,” Gaara wheezed as he stared into the bloodied face before him. His shield had done a number on Sasuke, for the boy looked like he had been put through an electric chair. However, Sasuke wasn’t letting up and if anything, he increased the pressure around Gaara’s neck.
“How…how is it possible? Why are you suffering through the pain?” Gaara asked in bemusement.
Sasuke gave a grim smile. “Because I can’t lose here. I made a promise to the one I love and I can’t break it now. Sorry.”
With a loud yell, he lifted a leg to smash it into Gaara’s torso, releasing the other boy’s neck as he was tossed out of the ring…well almost. Gaara lay immobile on the floor, eyes wide open as if still in shock at what had just taken place.
The umpire ran to his position and hovered over the prone figure. He paused for a moment , wondering or hoping Gaara would move on his own, but seeing as the boy was making no effort to do so, he began the countdown.
Sasuke could barely stand, but he sucked in the pain and waited, wondering why the umpire wasn’t counting any faster. However, his eyes widened in disbelief as Gaara began to rise to his feet slowly.
Shit! I can’t deal with him now if he wants to continue. Urgh!
He braced himself all the same, body trembling as white hot pain laced through him. Gaara, who was now on his feet, still looked dazed and confused. He stared at the floor for a long minute and then glanced at Naruto who was all but ready to jump into the ring to protect Sasuke if need be. He tore his gaze away from the feisty blond and eyed Sasuke – a boy barely able to stand and yet willing to continue fighting for the one he loved. He wasn’t a fool and had seen the way those two had been acting towards each other all weekend. Whether it was jealousy or envy, Gaara didn’t know. He looked towards his team and blushed faintly as he noticed Yashamaru smiling warmly at him.
Cursing beneath his breath, he turned to walk away, leaving the umpire, Sasuke and the audience in dumb disbelief.
“Eh…Gaara?” the umpire called out uncertainly. “Are you giving up…?”
The boy simply raised a hand and leapt from the ring, walking out of the auditorium without looking back and with his teammates in tow.
“Well then,” the umpire cried out in excitement. “It seems like Team Sand has given up the match which means…TEAM TAKA is the winner!”
“Whoo hooo! You did it, Sasuke! I knew you could!” Naruto screamed to join the elated audience’s cheers of appreciation. He grinned and bounced up and down as Sasuke walked back to join them, only to give a soft cry as his captain slumped heavily into his arms.
“Sas…Sasuke?” He held the trembling body tightly to him, looking up at Kakashi with worry etched on his features and a dull thump of fear in his heart. “Sen…sensei?”
“We should get him to the sick bay,” came the curt command from his teacher just as the medics seemed to appear from nowhere.
“Do you need a stretcher?” one of them asked.
However, it was Juugo who shook his head and proceeded to lift Sasuke into his arms. “I’ll take him.”
The team left the auditorium, barely registering the applause or final announcement made for the two teams to fight tomorrow. Naruto stared into the pale and blood-streaked visage of his captain and swallowed the lump that rose to his throat. His eyes burned with unshed tears, hands clenching into tight fists as he realized he should have been the one fighting out there, not Sasuke. He should have just sucked in his ‘soreness’ and dealt with it instead of putting the other boy through this.
“How is he?” It was Sai who asked, as he and Haku had been let into the arena.
“Still breathing at least,” Kakashi replied.
Suigetsu and Karin were heading towards them at a jog, concern on their faces as they noticed their team captain’s state. Suigetsu’s arm was enclosed in what looked like a cast, but was actually layers of icepacks attached to it.
“Is he all right?” Karin asked, hovering around Juugo while clasping and unclasping her hands as she struggled not to break down in tears.
“Geez. He looks like hell,” Suigetsu observed. “You sure he’ll be able to fight tomorrow? Not with the way he looks and all…”
“I don’t mind taking his place,” Juugo said quietly. “He’ll need to recover…”
“He’ll fight,” Naruto interrupted calmly, his gaze trained on the floor. “He’ll fight. I know he will. He has to. He promised and he’ll keep his motherfucking promise even if it means I have to beat him back into consciousness!”
The blond looked up with eyes that blazed and took a step towards Sasuke. He stared into the pale countenance and hitched in the sob that threatened to escape.
“Do you hear me, Sasuke?” he said in a hoarse voice choked up as his eyes filled with tears. “You have to get better. You promised, goddamnit! I can’t lose you now, you hear me? I can’t! because I…I…
I love you, you bastard! I love you! I love you! I love….
A sudden heavy hand on his head, had him looking up and into the beaming features of his uncle. “What’s all the sniffling about?” Jiraiya asked. His voice might have been loud, but there was no denying the look of understanding and warmth in his eyes that finally broke Naruto’s resolve.
Not caring about the group of people around him, Naruto gave a child-like wail and buried his face against his uncle’s chest, hugging him as tight as he could.
“Help him, uncle,” came his muffled plea, not really knowing what his uncle could possibly do, but needing someone to help Sasuke…anyone. “Please…help him!”
Jiraiya stared at the shock of blond hair below him and felt his heart stir with the memories. This was only the second time, since Naruto started living with him, to ever receive a hug from the boy. The first happened when they met at his parents’ graves, and since then, getting the boy to show any sign of such intimate affection was practically impossible. He rubbed Naruto’s head gently and looked up to meet Ms. Fuyutsuki’s knowing eyes.
He smiled and then turned to the anxious group of fighters and friends that watched him in earnest.
“All right, people,” he finally said. “Why don’t you take us to your hotel room? I think we should be able to help Sasuke.”
Naruto pulled back to stare at his uncle in bemusement. “What? How…?”
All he received was a tap on the head and another warm smile. “Just lead the way, Naruto. And trust this perverted old man for once, eh?”
“They are making it way too easy,” Kisame grumbled as he watched the Konoha group leave the arena. “I don’t think I’ll get much of a challenge after all.”
“Pein says he should be able to fight tomorrow,” Konan replied quietly. Thankfully, Deidara was not here as he was back in the hotel with Sasori babysitting him.
“Good. Although he really won’t be needed.”
“I’m guessing they’ll put Uzumaki Naruto first. Pein can deal with him.”
Kisame grunted and said nothing.
“As for your opponent…it might end up being the big guy…Juugo or whatever his name is. I doubt Uchiha Sasuke will be able to fight in his condition. Gaara did a number on him.”
“I should extend my thanks, but I’m pissed off I won’t get the chance to break him myself.”
Konan eyed the big man with the leery grin and felt a shiver of revulsion shoot down her spine. “Just remember to take it easy.”
“Does it matter?” came the amused reply as Kisame pushed himself away from the wall to walk away. “It’s the finals. Anything goes, Konan and rules mean shit to me. So, if it means killing any member of the Konoha team, so be it.”