Yukiko dropped her genjutsu in order to get back into the restricted section of the arena, reverting to her natural face and her straight, blue-green hair. "Now you look like seaweed," Naruto told her.
"Better than a porcupine," she said, and ruffled his hair with her free hand. She handed one dango to Naga and sank into her seat with a sigh of relief. Her thigh wound wasn't too deep and the medic-nin had done a good job wrapping it, but it still ached and sent tiny lightning strikes of pain up her hip when she stepped too heavily. The shallow gash just below her ribs stung where sweat seeped under the bandage and into the raw flesh; Yukiko stripped off her jacket and tugged her shirt away from her side, trying to air-dry the cut.
"Where's Iruka?" she asked as Naruto dashed across the aisle and up several rows to tug on Taizen's sleeve.
Naga twitched her shoulder. "Said he was going to find his great-aunt, since he wouldn't have to fight for a while. I think she can't handle stairs -- some old war injury -- so she's over on the far side."
The far side of the arena held the section specially set up for the wounded, old veterans, the elderly, and the handicapped. "He said once or twice that he has a clan, but he never talks about them," Yukiko said. She shaded her eyes and peered across the arena, trying to spot Iruka's distinctive high ponytail. "I wonder... maybe we can get him to introduce us after the test?"
Suddenly a bell clanged, signaling the end of the intermission, and Yukiko looked up at the announcement boards. "Makiba Kohaku vs. Tonoike Naga. Huh." She looked over at Naga and grinned. "I'll save your dango. Break his leg."
Naga grinned back, gold eyes shining, and vaulted over the balcony railing.
Makiba Kohaku was one of Hino Suisen's teammates and a master of soft earth jutsu -- he specialized in instant quicksand, sudden pit traps, and miniature localized earthquakes. Yukiko studied him as he faced Naga in the center of the arena. He was short, stocky, and heavily tanned, wore brown pants and a sleeveless olive green shirt, and kept his hair trapped under a tan bandana. He had no weapons besides the standard kunai and shuriken holster, and his was oddly flat, almost empty-looking. He didn't look very threatening, but he did look like he'd be hard to find in the plains around Hidden Grass, which was probably the idea.
Yukiko was fairly sure she could beat Kohaku -- the Grass wasn't known for genjutsu or illusion-breaking techniques -- but she wasn't sure how well Naga would fare against a ninjutsu master, particularly one who could turn her footing against her. If she could get close, Naga could probably take Kohaku out easily, but it would be hard to land a good blow if she couldn't keep her balance.
Hisen raised his hand and started the match.
Kohaku sank into the earth, tiny ripples of dirt marking the spot where he'd stood. Yukiko gaped; that hadn't been in Kakashi's reports. Naga stood frozen for one long moment, as if she didn't believe her eyes either, and then leaped into the air a bare heartbeat before the ground fell away beneath her feet.
The next minute and a half looked more like a circus act than a fight, as Naga leaped, flipped, and ran, staying mere seconds and inches ahead of Kohaku's unstable earth. Every footfall, every landing, sent tremors through the ground and he tracked her by those vibrations. She had no way to retaliate; he was hidden underground.
But he couldn't stay down forever. Suddenly a bandana-covered head rose through the dirt and Kohaku gasped for air. Naga whirled and dove -- her arms shot forward -- her hands glowed with flame -- and she flipped herself into an aerial somersault, nothing but a singed bandana in her grip.
Naga dropped the cloth and ran, trying to stay ahead of Kohaku. She stumbled -- her left foot sank deep into thick, sucking quicksand -- but she reached forward, dug her fingers into the ground twelve feet away, and pulled her body to her hands. Her foot popped free with a wet schlock and she launched herself back into the air.
Now Naga scanned the ground more carefully, choosing her footing and handholds with caution. There was no pattern to the patches of quicksand that Yukiko could see from her vantage point in the balcony, and even if there was, she doubted Naga could find it with all her attention caught up in the adrenaline-soaked rush of motion. How long could Kohaku burn this level of chakra? Would he tire before Naga missed a leap, or would Naga catch him the next time he surfaced for air?
It turned out to be a moot point; suddenly Naga landed and simply stopped moving. Two seconds later the earth collapsed underneath her feet, but she held her balance as she sank into a deep hole that filled in to hold her legs and arms imprisoned.
She turned her head, searching for her opponent. "Show yourself!"
Kohaku rose from the earth, bent over with his hands braced against his thighs, and gasped for breath. "Are you crazy? Why'd you stop? You're trapped now, you know. I win."
Naga twitched her shoulder. "Not until you knock me out."
He took two steps toward her, and then stopped, a wary expression on his face. "I'm not falling for that trick. I'll stay over here, and you can just smother until you're unconscious." Kohaku fixed his hands into an ox seal and earth closed over Naga's head. He waited, panting, for nearly three minutes, until the small tremors within the cocoon of earth stopped. Then he let the dirt flow away and fill the narrow pit from the bottom up, which raised Naga to the arena floor. She lay slumped in a tangle of limbs, still and silent.
Yukiko held her breath. Kohaku walked over to confirm his win.
Naga exploded into motion. One leg hooked sideways and swept Kohaku off-balance while her arm shot forward and slammed him to the ground. She rose to her feet only to drop back down on one knee, letting gravity lend weight to her fist as it smashed against his jaw. For good measure, she hit him another three times.
"Idiot." She backed up a step and prodded him with her foot. "He's out cold," she called to Hisen. Then she unwound the bandage from her right hand, extended her tongue nearly a foot, and wiped mud out of her mouth.
Yukiko blinked. If Naga had just been holding her breath, why did she have dirt in her mouth? She'd figured that Naga was trying to lure Kohaku within striking range of her head or tongue, but had she planned something for being buried alive as well?
Naga strode over to the stairs, leaving Hisen to deal with Kohaku's unconscious and bloody body. "Didn't break his leg, but I might've broken his jaw," she said as she dropped into a seat next to Yukiko. Then she wiped her tongue again and grimaced. "Shit, mud tastes bad."
"What in the name of the kami did you do?" Yukiko asked.
Naga looked smug. "I made a plan. If he got too close, I'd pin him with my tongue and figure he'd get grossed out and drop the ninjutsu. Or I'd just stick out my neck and bite him -- that always creeps people out. If he tried to smother me, I'd use my tongue to make an air hole and figure he'd be so worried about my arms that he wouldn't notice." She plucked her dango from Yukiko's hand and favored her teammate with a cockeyed smile. "I was right."
"And that, children, is what we call 'strategy,'" a voice said from behind them. "Good job."
"Kakashi!" Yukiko winced as her abrupt turn pulled on the gash in her side. "Stop doing that!"
Kakashi's eye drooped in exaggerated sorrow. "Can't I come to congratulate my students? I'll be able to hold this over Asuma's head for months -- all three of you passed the first round, while two of his team already washed out. And his Uchiha lost to genjutsu, no less. I told you that sidestep jutsu could be useful."
He looked marvelously innocent and proud, but Yukiko could feel him smirking somewhere under his mask. She studied his hair carefully; it was still faintly pink, and she wondered if he had any vengeance planned. She also wondered if this Asuma was the sort of jounin-sensei who regarded losses as a learning experience, or the type who defended his team against anyone who showed up their defects, no matter how necessary a dose of humility might be.
"We're not your students," Naga grumbled.
"Oh? Then I must have hallucinated that fire jutsu around your hands. Remind me to get my eyes checked tomorrow." Kakashi dropped sideways into a seat in front of Yukiko, swung his feet up onto the bench, and leaned back on his elbows. "Where's Iruka?"
"With family, on the far side," Yukiko said. "Now shush, they're announcing the next fight."
Yellow letters flashed on the boards. "Aburame Kuroko vs. Nagoyaka Kafunnokaze!" Kuroko stood from her seat among her family and walked toward the stairs. The green-haired Grass-nin who'd asked about killing techniques -- Kafunnokaze, Yukiko assumed -- pulled a pair of gloves from a pocket in his long black coat, and sauntered after her.
"Interesting," Kakashi said. "Either all of Asuma's students wash out, or all the Grass-nin do."
"They could still be promoted even though they lost," Yukiko protested half-heartedly.
Kakashi shrugged, a minimal lift of his shoulders. "That happens, but they didn't fight well enough or think fast enough to impress anyone. The Uchiha and the mirror girl didn't follow through on their advantages, the dirt boy only has one trick and he wasn't careful enough when he thought he'd won, and the Hyuuga needs more practice."
"Suisen had Iruka running, but he dodged too well for her to really hit him. How could she have followed through?" Yukiko asked.
Kakashi tipped his head back and grinned with his eye. "Think of it as an exercise -- you tell me. And don't forget her other advantage over poor Iruka-kun..."
Yukiko swiped at him with her extra dango, but he ducked, rolled to the side, and snatched the food from her hand. Yukiko sighed. "Pervert. Say, shouldn't the fight be starting?"
Kakashi glanced down into the arena. "They seem to be undoing the quicksand patches the dirt boy left when he took a nap." Then he turned to Yukiko, somehow managing to leer with nothing more than a subtle shift of his posture. "Anyway, I prefer to think of myself as a humble connoisseur of the beauties of the human body, but I'm willing to let you try to change my ways. I don't suppose you'd be interested in dinner and drinks this evening...?"
Yukiko blinked. He couldn't possibly be serious -- not with that tone of voice -- so what was he trying to provoke her into doing...? She blinked again, and then had a perfectly evil idea.
"Dinner," Yukiko said with a slow smile, "sounds wonderful. On behalf of the team, I accept. And I'm sure Naruto will be thrilled to eat at a fancy restaurant. Hey, kid!" she called across the aisle as Kakashi winced and Naga snickered.
Naruto looked up from Taizen's origami lesson. "Yeah, Yukiko-neechan? Hey, hey, look -- Taizen-san can make frogs and birds and cats and things, all out of paper! I made a flower!" He held up a smudged piece of orange paper, folded into something vaguely reminiscent of a tulip.
"Neat. You'll have to show me how to do that. Anyway, Kakashi-san is taking us all out for dinner tonight. It'll be a nice restaurant, so you'll have to behave."
"Sure, Yukiko-neechan!" Naruto said, and turned back to watch Taizen's nimble fingers produce a sheet of paper from nowhere and shape it into a fish.
"Your mother has good hands," Yukiko said to Naga. "I didn't see where she keeps her paper -- does she use genjutsu?"
Naga looked sour. "Just sleight-of-hand. She likes things like origami and card tricks -- says misdirection and subtlety are good for more than just killing. She used to be a shinobi, but she quit when that bastard dishonored our clan. Now she runs a teahouse."
"More precisely, your mother runs a teahouse that caters to ninja -- the rooms are open and well-lit, the windows are small and high up, the tables are widely spaced, and her servers prepare the tea and snacks right at the tables or out on a central counter so people aren't worried about poison," Kakashi said, oddly serious for once. "Sasayaki Taizen was a very effective infiltrator in the great wars, and she still knows how to put people at ease."
Naga looked unconvinced. "Whatever. It's still a teahouse."
"You can take us there," Yukiko said to Kakashi. "Maybe Taizen-san will give you a discount if you act pitiful enough."
"Like this?" Kakashi essayed a fair imitation of Iruka and Naruto's puppy-dog eyes, and then shrugged and resumed his lazy slouch. "It's easier to just pay the bill. In any case, Hisen seems ready to start the fight."
Nagoyaka Kafunnokaze was the most puzzling of the three Grass-nin. His profile stated that he was a master of drugs and poisons -- a very useful skill for a ninja, but not one that seemed particularly suited to combat. And yet Fugaku Kohai, the jounin assigned to the Grass-nin during the second test, described him as the most dangerous fighter of that team.
Yukiko wondered how he fought.
Aburame Kuroko was a member of the most reclusive and mysterious of Konoha's great clans. The insect masters guarded their secrets so carefully that nobody really knew if their connection with the kikkai was a bloodline limit, a summoning contract, or a peculiar mix of the two. Their ability to influence other insects argued for a bloodline limit, but the way the kikkai actually lived inside their bodies, receiving chakra and a nest in return for their service, argued for a contract. Quite frankly, Yukiko didn't care; insects were creepy enough that she had no desire to think about them any more than she absolutely had to.
Besides being damn creepy, Kuroko seemed to be calm under pressure. She'd been the one to keep Akaro in line when their teams met during the second test. In retrospect, Yukiko was glad she'd faced Akaro instead of his teammate; at least Akaro was arrogant enough to give her time to make plans. Kuroko's insects could probably help their mistress spot genjutsu, and they'd bother Yukiko enough that she wouldn't be able to think clearly. And once a ninja stopped thinking, she was in trouble.
It was a little disloyal not to support fellow Leaf-nin, but Yukiko secretly hoped that Kafunnokaze won this fight. She didn't want any chance of facing Kuroko in the second round.
Hisen dropped his hand and leaped to the edge of the arena. "Begin!"
Kuroko raised her arms; kikkai poured from the sleeves of her loose, violet blouse. Most hovered in a thick cloud around her, but Yukiko spotted a few streams of black as they broke from the main swarm and flew toward Kafunnokaze. "Are you a ninjutsu master?" she called, sounding as if she were sitting in the academy discussing the nature of chakra instead of standing in the great arena at the start of a fight.
Kafunnokaze pulled something small and dark from one of his pockets -- a folded paper packet, Yukiko realized -- and tore it open with his teeth. "Not exactly," he said as he spit out the scrap of paper and dumped the packet's contents into a silk pouch. He flicked three shuriken toward Kuroko, who dodged. They sank harmlessly into the ground beside her.
"That's good," she said, as calmly as if he hadn't just attacked her. "The kikkai like ninjutsu masters -- more chakra for them to eat -- but it's hard to learn from an opponent if you never see his techniques."
Kafunnokaze grinned as he drew a glass vial from a slot on his wide belt, tucked it into the pouch, and dropped the silk bag by his feet. Then he pulled a yellow paper packet from a pocket inside his coat, near his heart. "Yeah? Well, I don't think you'll learn much from me even if you watch through those bugs on my shoulders. By the way, I soak my coat in contact poisons; they'll drop dead in a few minutes." As Kuroko blinked, he formed five hand seals, ripped open the packet, and cast red powder onto the sudden wind.
The kikkai scattered like autumn leaves and Kuroko wove a wind jutsu of her own to counter the attack; the powder blew up and sideways into the stands. A twenty foot wide section of the audience doubled over, sneezing.
Yukiko blinked. Huh. So that was how you fought with drugs. No wonder Kafunnokaze had asked about killing moves -- if he slipped, or if an opponent countered unexpectedly, he could easily poison half the audience.
"That's interesting," Kuroko said as she let her wind die. "My kikkai can't touch you, your powders can't touch me, and our winds can deflect any weapons. Shall we try close combat?"
Kafunnokaze grinned again. "Yeah, why not." He snapped his gloved fingers and suddenly held a faceted crystal on a long chain, which he swung back and forth like a pendulum. Motes of light sparked and reflected off its angled planes. "You're getting sleepy. You're getting very sleepy. Your little bugs are getting sleepy too. When I snap my fingers again, you'll do whatever I say, because you're so sleepy and it's so much easier not to think..."
Yukiko raised her eyebrows. "Hypnotism?" she said to Kakashi. "What in the name of all the kami does he expect that to do?"
"It's a distraction," Kakashi said without turning. "Watch."
Down in the arena, Kuroko frowned and called her kikkai back to sheathe her arms and flit in a halo around her head. Kafunnokaze stood his ground, swinging the crystal back and forth, back and forth, as Kuroko drew a kunai and warily walked forward. "You're getting sleepy, very sleepy. Each step is harder, like dragging your feet through sucking mud in a rainstorm, like wading through snow in midwinter. You're getting sleepy..."
She was ten steps away. The kikkai pulled inward, landing on Kuroko's hair and shoulders. She was six steps away. One insect fell to the ground. Five steps. Another fell. And a third. Four steps. Then a fifth, a tenth, a hundredth, until the entire swarm pattered to the earth like light black hail.
Kuroko stared at the black carpet. Kafunnokaze grinned, snapped the faceted glass back up into his sleeve, and dropped a torn and empty packet from his other hand. "Yeah, that about does it," he said. "Not all my powders are colored, see? Now it's your turn to go to sleep." He raised his hands toward his collar as if to pull out a new packet; while Kuroko focused on his fingers, his right foot casually stomped on the silk pouch that lay by his feet. The vial inside shattered with a muffled crunch, and he kicked the bag into Kuroko's hands.
"Say goodnight!" Kafunnokaze yanked a black cloth up from his collar and over his mouth and nose. Greenish smoke boiled from the silk pouch, wreathing around Kuroko's face before she had any chance to drop the bag or start a wind jutsu to disperse the drug. She reacted faster than Yukiko expected, though -- hurled the bag away with her left hand and sank her kunai into Kafunnokaze's shoulder with her right.
As he yanked out the knife, Kuroko lurched, swayed, and sank to her knees among her fallen kikkai. Gently she gathered insects into her hands. "Will they live?"
Kafunnokaze seemed surprised by the sudden heat in her voice. "Yeah. They're just sleeping." He tugged his mask back down as a light breeze blew the smoke away from them. "Um, you're going to black out in about thirty seconds. If you surrender I'll give you a hand up before you crush your bugs."
Kuroko swayed again and steadied herself with one hand in the patch of dirt she'd swept clear of kikkai. "Yes."
She nodded. As Kafunnokaze crouched to grab her shoulders and haul her to her feet, she said, "I did learn something from you. Next year, I'll be ready." And then she sagged against him like a puppet with cut strings.
Kafunnokaze dragged her clear in silence.
As Hisen and the arena attendants carried Kuroko over to the stairs and swept her kikkai onto a cloth for easy transport, Kakashi stretched idly. "Now there's a ninja who knows the value of misdirection. And I have to give Asuma credit -- at least the Aburame recognized that she wasn't ready this year, and she'll learn a lot from that fight."
"Like what?" Naga asked.
Kakashi raised his eyebrow. "This isn't the academy; you tell me."
"Not to make assumptions," Yukiko said after a few seconds. "That's where Akaro went wrong, and Suisen and Kohaku -- they assumed they were stronger and smarter, and didn't allow for any surprises."
Naga looked thoughtful. "I guess. And not to hesitate. She could've attacked while he had that crystal out -- can't do hand seals with your fingers tangled up -- but she was too cautious." She grimaced. "Kuroko's always too cautious. She's real cold, too."
"She seemed to care about her kikkai," Yukiko said. "Maybe that's why she's cautious -- if she gets hurt, they get hurt too."
"They're just bugs. Who cares?"
"Just bugs?" Kakashi turned and fixed Naga with a lazy eye. "Ah. Suppose you summoned a raven and I reached out, like this," -- his hand blurred with speed, and Naga yelped as her earring vanished -- "and wrung its neck?" He let the fragile mother-of-pearl disks, suspended on their silver chains, dangle loosely between his fingers. "After all, it's just a bird." His fingers tightened a fraction and the silver hook started to bend.
"Okay, okay, I get it! Now give that back -- it belonged to my grandmother!" Naga grabbed her earring as Kakashi dropped it, and fussed over the compressed hook fastening. "I swear by all the kami, all the demons, and all the blood and tears of my ancestors, if you broke my earring..."
"Then you'll break my leg. I know." Kakashi shrugged and turned back to the arena. "In a few years, you might be good enough that I'd have to take you seriously."
"Shush, both of you." Yukiko kicked Naga's legs, and then regretted it as her thigh wound complained with a flash of heat and pain. "The last fight's starting, and I want to watch without you two distracting me."
"You should be more considerate of the man whose selfless instruction got you this far, and who's going to pay for your dinner despite what your little brat did to his hair," Kakashi said, but he sat a fraction straighter in his seat and didn't argue further.
The last two genin, Aishou and Mouten Junichi, were teammates from Hidden Mist. Aishou, a tall, skinny boy in a gray bodysuit, used ninjutsu to condense mist from the air, and then either heat it to nearly boiling or cool it to nearly freezing. Either attack was painful and disorienting. Mouten Junichi, his shorter, stockier teammate, fought with his eyes closed, which sounded very odd to Yukiko. But their jounin 'client' from the second test swore that Junichi tracked motion better with his eyes shut, and could bind or slice an enemy with razor wires before anyone else realized the group was under attack.
That reeked of a bloodline limit or a secret family jutsu.
Evidently Kakashi was curious as well, since he slid his forehead protector up from his left eye, exposing the Sharingan as the two boys bowed to each other down in the arena.
"Is that really fair, to copy jutsu during the exam?" Yukiko whispered to him.
Kakashi shrugged. "We're allied with the Sand and the Grass, but with the Mist, it's only a truce that nobody really wants to break. I'd like to have some advantages if we ever go back to war with them. Facing unknown and deadly ninjutsu... well, that isn't high on my list of fun things to do. Besides, if I died, think of all the books I'd never get to read!"
Huh. It still seemed a bit like cheating, but then, the Sharingan was designed to help ninja cheat and steal techniques. Some jounin-sensei refused to send their teams to any chuunin exams hosted by Konoha, because they knew the Uchiha would be waiting to copy any special jutsu. Anyone here had tacitly accepted that risk.
Down in the arena, Junichi closed his eyes, formed a single ox seal, and settled a coil of wire into his gloved hand. Aishou unscrewed the cap of a canteen slung around his shoulder, poured out a handful of water, and flung it at the other boy. It fell a foot short, and they both laughed.
"Wanna make a bet? Loser covers the winner's cooking shifts going home," Aishou called.
Junichi grinned. "You're on. And you're going down."
"Dream on, man."
As wire lashed forward and Aishou's fingers flickered through seals, Yukiko couldn't help smiling along with the boys. They made it all the way to the finals of the chuunin exam, laid their futures on the line, and then treated it like a sparring exercise, or a game. They were honestly having fun, even when wire sliced lines of blood on Aishou's arms and steam scalded Junichi's cheek.
"I guess fighting a teammate's different from fighting someone you don't know," she mused.
Kakashi blinked. "Ah? Yes, it's different. It can be fun, but it can also get very bitter. Teammates know all each other's habits and weaknesses, and can use that familiarity. Like that." He nodded toward the arena, where Aishou had just snagged a loop of wire on a kunai.
The wire snapped with a singing wail; the cut ends lashed back toward Junichi, who rolled sideways to avoid them... right into a cloud of steam. When he rolled out, his hands were clamped tightly over his nose and mouth, and Aishou took advantage of his distraction to dive forward and pin him to the ground.
The boys rolled over twice before Aishou got a knife against Junichi's back. Junichi went limp, and slapped the ground with an open palm. "Shit! I give. You win," he panted. "Now get that knife away from my kidney."
Aishou waved Hisen over to confirm the result. "Sorry about that, man. But you know I can't cook."
"You are such a jerk, Aishou," Junichi growled, but he smiled as he said it.
The two Mist-nin picked themselves up, dusted each other off, and headed to the stairs. Hisen vanished in a puff of smoke and handily beat them back to the balcony. "We'll have another break before the second round," he told the genin as he pressed a button to display INTERMISSION on the announcement screens. "I need to program the results of this round and set up a new random selection. So go relax."
Yukiko stretched her arms above her head and looked at Naga. "Huh. We have at least fifteen minutes. Want to go find Iruka?"
AN: Um. In response to some reviews...
1) No, this story isn't going to continue much past the chuunin exam. I do have some rough bits of a sequel, dealing with the aftermath of the Uchiha massacre. But I want to write the sequel to "Tides" before I get back to Yukiko, and I need to work on my original novel.
2) Yes, Shiro is Branch House Hyuuga, but his family's far out from any of the main lines of succession, so he's not especially bitter about it.
3) Ninja aren't prejudiced idiots, but you have to remember that Naruto's seal isn't something they have much familiarity with, and other seals used to create jinchuuriki (like Gaara) obviously have some flaws... like, oh, say, turning children into sociopathic killers. :-) And they're also used to judging people by their families and bloodlines, so it's not terribly surprising that they're a bit suspicious of Naga.
4) I fixed the mislabled Chapter 2. Thanks for bringing that to my attention!
5) There will NOT be any romance. (See my livejournal for my reasons.)
6) No, the 2-bedroom apartment has no particular significance. Sorry.
7) And finally, this is an AU story... or, more properly, a divergence from canon. Originally I meant to kill Yukiko, but after a while I realized that her existence had already changed things enough that I couldn't shunt the story back into compliance with the manga. So yes, she's going to live.
Back to Chuunin and Jounin
Back to team seven
Back to the main page