As soon as they left the guarded balcony, Yukiko reinvoked her genjutsu disguise to protect herself from the audience. Naga simply glared any well-wishers into submission, while Kakashi managed to be nearly invisible, despite how difficult it should have been for a masked man with one eye and such distinctive hair to vanish.
Yukiko shoved through the mass of civilians, slipped around her fellow shinobi, and wondered if Taizen would mind terribly if she spilled something colorful and sticky on Kakashi during dinner.
She sighed. It didn't matter anyway -- it wasn't as if she'd be able to keep him from dodging.
After nearly ten minutes, they reached their goal: a section of seats bounded by ramps instead of stairs, and located beside one of Konoha's few elevators. The large, boxy platform was mostly open to the air; steel bars criss-crossed in a loose fence to keep wheelchairs from rolling off the sides, but the gaps were easily wide enough to throw weapons through, and to allow even a wounded ninja to haul herself up and off the elevator, if need be. Shinobi didn't like confined spaces where their movement was under someone else's control, and most civilians didn't want to pay for full elevators -- Yukiko had two small dumbwaiters in her building, one beside each stairwell, for hauling furniture and laundry up and down from the top floors, but they were hand-operated, to keep her power bills low.
Iruka's distinctive ponytail bobbed from a seat near the balcony railing, as he bent down to speak with an elderly woman -- his great-aunt, Yukiko presumed. She was thin and frail, like grass dried by the late summer sun, and her iron-gray hair was braided and wound into a neat bun secured by two senbon. A polished oak cane rested across her black skirt, and her blue shirt was embroidered with silver waves. Her dark eyes danced with interest in her seamed face as Yukiko, Naga, and Kakashi approached.
"These are your teammates, Iruka-kun?" she asked. "Well! Please introduce us."
Iruka flushed. "Um. This is Tonoike Naga, who's a taijutsu expert; Hatake Kakashi-san, who agreed to stand as our jounin-sensei during training; and Ayakawa Yukiko, who doesn't normally have blonde hair. Everyone, this is Umino Sadako, my great-aunt."
"And retired chuunin," Sadako added, waving at her forehead protector. "My leg isn't much use these days -- not even Tsunade-hime herself could fix my knee after the last war -- but I still have teeth." She smiled. "Please sit down. Iruka-kun has told me so much about you that I feel as though we're already friends."
"Aunt Sadako!" Iruka flushed again and scratched the base of his ponytail. "Um. Congratulations on your fight, Naga. That must have been tricky."
"He cheered for you," Sadako confided in a stage whisper. She patted Iruka's thigh as he tried to spontaneously combust with embarrassment. "He's always been an enthusiastic boy."
Naga snickered. Yukiko and Kakashi, both still standing, exchanged glances. Kakashi winked, and Yukiko rolled her eyes at him.
"So, what brings the three of you to visit an old woman like me?" Sadako asked.
"Merely seeking my wayward student, but if I'd known he was hiding a beauty like you, I'd have been here much sooner," Kakashi said lightly.
Sadako swatted at his hand. "Beauty? It's true that good looks run in the family -- my brother had the whole village after him in his day, my mother could still turn heads when she was older than I am now, and Iruka-kun here... well!" Yukiko would almost have sworn that even Iruka's hair was flushing.
"But I know flattery when I hear it," Sadako continued with a smile, "and you're a liar if I ever heard one."
Kakashi shrugged and leaned back against the balcony railing. "I learned from the best."
"From your jounin-sensei?" Sadako raised a skeptical eyebrow. "I'm sure you did. Now, Iruka-kun isn't much at subterfuge -- that's not his strength as a ninja. It wasn't mine, either. But you... you're nothing but masks, aren't you? Be careful that you don't forget who you are underneath them."
"Aunt Sadako, please stop," Iruka said, managing to keep his voice steady. "Kakashi-sensei has helped us a lot."
Kakashi met Sadako's stare with a placid eye. "Don't worry, Iruka-kun, I'm not upset. All ninja need to look underneath the underneath. It's never a bad thing to be reminded."
"Oh, I like you," Sadako said. Her dark eyes sparkled with mischief. "Iruka-kun, you can keep him -- and these two lovely young kunoichi as well."
Naga burst out laughing. Kakashi winked at Iruka. Iruka sputtered incoherent protests. And Yukiko wondered if everyone she'd met since last autumn had a peculiar disorder that made them act more immature than Naruto.
"Well! It's been good to meet you all, but I think you should hurry back to your places before the next match is announced," Sadako said as Naga's laughter trailed off into intermittent snickers. "Good luck to you, Yukiko-san and Naga-chan, though you understand that I'll have to cheer for Iruka-kun if you end up facing him. The academy needs teachers like him. And he's family."
"And he's cute?" Kakashi asked idly. "I'll be in trouble then -- all my little genin are adorable!"
"I am not adorable!" Naga growled.
"And humble, too! Your virtues know no bounds." Kakashi patted her on the head and casually dodged her retaliatory fist. Then he snagged her purple vest and Iruka's ponytail, and dragged the mismatched pair -- one snarling in outrage, one trying to sink through the floor from sheer mortification -- back around the rim of the arena.
"I swear by all the kami, I don't know them," Yukiko muttered, face buried in her hands. "I really, truly don't."
"So? Well, if they can embarrass you, then you obvious care about them -- and that's the first sign of a successful team. I think you're all very good for my nephew." Sadako patted Yukiko's shoulder with her thin, gnarled fingers. "Now, go catch up with that jounin rogue before he makes poor Iruka-kun develop a new ninjutsu to set himself on fire."
Sadako's laughter bubbled through the air as Yukiko hurried to catch up with her team.
The remaining genin gathered around Okame Hisen and waited -- with varying degrees of patience -- for him to announce the next match. The red-haired Leaf-nin fiddled with the guts of the announcement board for nearly a minute, swearing once or twice under his breath, before he shut the programming panel and touched a button on the control pad.
"Right," he said. "You six are in random order again for this round, so who you fought last time doesn't matter. Any forfeits?"
The genin shrugged, shook their heads, and murmured denials.
"Okay. First match is... Aishou vs. Shinkan!"
As the names flashed on the huge boards, a stir ran through the crowd. Aishou had already faced one teammate last round. For him to face his other partner now...
"I object to this match!" Yukiko turned at the hoarse voice, and saw the grey-shrouded Mist jounin stride forward. His air filter masked his mouth and nose, and a loose cowl shadowed his face, but his eyes were drawn downward in a scowl. "Your machine is rigged, Leaf-nin. My students should not have to fight each other twice in a row."
Hisen stiffened. "You're calling the honor of the Leaf into question, Mist-nin. Be careful."
The Mist-nin tapped his ear, drawing attention to a small radio receiver. "The Mizukage supports my objection. Stand aside and let me examine your machine."
Hisen looked over to the high balcony where the Hokage sat in his chair office. The Mizukage, leader of Hidden Mist, sat to Sarutobi-sama's left, and the Master of Hidden Grass sat to his right. The Kazekage of Hidden Sand had declined to attend the third test, since none of his genin had qualified, but a Sand jounin stood at the end of the high balcony, her expression unreadable under her dark, stylized face paint.
Sarutobi-sama stood, tilted his wide hat back so his face was clearly visible, and raised his hand for attention. "A question has been raised about the drawing of lots. Please be patient while we resolve this."
"Let Mist and Grass examine the program," one of the Anbu guards told Hisen. "We have nothing to hide."
"I don't see the point," Naga said as the tall Mist-nin bent to examine the programming panel. The Grass kunoichi knelt beside him and prodded a bundle of wires with her claw-tipped glove; the lights flickered as she loosened the connections. "If the Mist-nin fight each other, then two of us will have to fight each other as well," Naga continued. "Besides, that Shinkan is probably going to pass anyway -- if she beat Shiro, she's good."
Kakashi shrugged. "It's politics -- we've never been on particularly good terms with Hidden Mist, and they'd love an excuse to show us up or break our truce. Even though this accusation is baseless, they've made our honor look questionable in the eyes of the daimyo watching the exam. That might hurt our success at attracting new contracts and missions."
"That's stupid," Naga said, and she folded her arms with an expression of great disgust.
"No, that's life," Yukiko said with a sigh. "Trust me, that's just how businesses work -- you can try to get ahead by being the best, or you can try to make your competition look bad. Fundamentally, Konoha is a business, and so are all the other hidden villages. We just dress it up in pretty words about honor and loyalty so people forget that we're trying to earn money for killing people."
Naga twitched her shoulder. "Stop being so morbid."
"Yes, please do," Iruka said. "Besides, Konoha isn't only a business. This village is our home, and Fire Country is also our home. We do more than just kill people -- we protect people, we keep the roads safe, and we stop the daimyo from raising armies and using technology to build new weapons."
"Huh. Well, yes, that's true," Yukiko said, thinking about a book she'd once read, in which the author discussed the ways explosives and radios could easily be used to create vast armies of civilians, "but you teach people to be ninja. You have to think like that."
Iruka frowned and rubbed his scar thoughtfully. "I don't, actually -- a lot of teachers never worry about the implications of their job, and others don't care much about morality as long as the Leaf is stronger than any potential enemies. But I think that if people are going to fight -- and I don't see any way to stop that, yet -- then it's important to teach children why we fight, and why sometimes it's better not to fight. It's just as important to learn how to make friends, because if we don't have friends, we'll die."
Kakashi made a startled noise. Yukiko spun around to study him, wondering what had made him lose his control, but she couldn't see anything interesting in his line of sight. Instead, Kakashi's eye had gone vague and unfocused, as if he were seeing something that wasn't there, or had lost himself in a memory. Then he blinked and noticed his audience. "What?" he asked.
"Um..." Iruka ventured.
Kakashi twitched under the weight of the three genin's scrutiny. Then he whipped out his little orange book, flicked through the pages, and pretended he didn't feel them staring. "Oh, look!" he said. "They've finished examining the machine!"
Naga scowled, but when she opened her mouth, Yukiko shook her head. This wasn't the time to figure out their impossible jounin-sensei.
"Everything seems to be honest," the Mist-nin said reluctantly, his hoarse voice rasping as it echoed through his air filter. "I approve the match."
"I approve as well," the Grass-nin said in a firm, musical voice.
"Thank you," Hisen said dryly. "Okay, Shinkan and Aishou. You're on -- get down into the arena and wait for my signal."
Aishou vaulted over the balcony railing, while Shinkan simply sat on the edge and dropped down to the arena floor. They were both pale-skinned, dark-haired, and roughly the same height, though Aishou had the stringy look of a boy with several more years of growth ahead of him, while Shinkan seemed to have more or less reached her adult proportions. They both wore the standard grey bodysuit of Hidden Mist, but where Aishou left his unadorned, Shinkan covered hers with a loose, billowing shirt in a mottled pattern. It looked, Yukiko thought, like a green-and-black plaid that had streaked and run in the wash.
Aishou had an air filter dangling around his neck, a canteen slung over his chest and shoulder, a pack of senbon strapped to his right thigh, and a kunai holster on his left leg. Shinkan carried nothing but her sword belt, with her katana on one side and her wakizashi on the other.
"This should be interesting," Kakashi said as he leaned against the railing. "A ninjutsu master who specializes in midrange attacks, against a weapons master who specializes in close combat. The one who controls the range will have the advantage."
Yukiko sank onto a seat behind him and massaged her aching thigh. "Your wisdom is astounding, Kakashi-sensei," she said dryly. Kakashi raised his visible eyebrow, then shrugged and slouched into a seat beside her.
Naga slumped on Yukiko's other side, while Iruka stayed at the railing. "Who do you think will win?" he asked.
Kakashi shrugged again. "You tell me -- if you're right, I'll give you a shiny new lollipop!" His eye crinkled into a teasing crescent.
The three genin exchanged long-suffering glances. "You're already buying us dinner," Naga said. "We don't need extra sweets. Now shut up; they're starting."
Down in the arena, Shinkan and Aishou bowed to each other, and Hisen dropped his hand to start the match. The two teammates circled each other warily, one with drawn blades and one with an open canteen and fingers poised to start a water jutsu. "You made a bet with Junichi," Shinkan said in her loud, clear voice. "I'll make one with you. I don't want to suffer through your cooking, so I say whoever wins this fight does the other's laundry on our way home."
Aishou's face screwed up in disgust. "Shinkan! That's just gross -- I'm not gonna touch your underwear!"
Shinkan laughed. "Then you should fight to win, Aishou... not that you'll succeed." She dashed forward in a blur of grey and steel, and Aishou vanished behind a scalding hot cloud of steam.
Yukiko had a difficult time following the next minute -- Aishou's mist and steam did a very effective job of hiding both him and Shinkan -- but now and then she caught a flash of light off Aishou's canteen, a slash of curved steel as Shinkan struck, or a swift glitter as Aishou hurled senbon at his opponent.
"Why senbon?" Naga asked, looking confused. "He used kunai against Junichi."
"With Junichi, he needed to cut wire. Here, the senbon can strike nerve points to deaden Shinkan's arms, or to increase her temperature sensitivity," Iruka said. "He switches weapons according to his situation."
Huh. The Mist-nin seemed a lot more versatile than the Grass-nin, Yukiko thought. Junichi's wire was effective at close range and middle distance, and Aishou had more than one trick up his sleeve. But Shinkan... why would someone smart -- and her fight with Shiro proved that she was smart -- limit herself to only close combat?
Down in the arena, Aishou dropped a senbon and hunched over his side. Shinkan rolled out of a thick coil of steam and slammed her foot into his ankle. He stepped back to recover his balance, but she flipped to her feet and kicked the back of his knee.
His leg buckled, and Shinkan shoved him to the ground with her katana at his throat. "Surrender," she said, panting. Her face was red and blistered, and clear fluid seeped from her raw hands, but her blade was steady with the promise of death.
"All right, all right, I give," Aishou muttered. Blood stained his torso and the top of his leg, spreading from whatever had hit his side.
Shinkan looked toward Hisen, who nodded in acknowledgement of her victory. She stepped to the side and shoved her wrist into Aishou's hand, helping him to his feet. Then she slipped her shoulder under his arm for support. Her wakizashi was buried to the hilt just under his ribs.
"She threw her dagger?" Yukiko said in astonishment. "I never heard of people throwing wakizashi."
Kakashi looked at her as if she were a particularly stupid toddler. "It's a weapon. Therefore, it can be thrown, and a sensible ninja would learn to throw it. She can probably throw her katana, too, if necessary."
"Throw a katana?" Naga asked, twitching her shoulder skeptically.
As the two Mist-nin limped out of the arena, Iruka turned sideways against the railing and said, "It takes a lot of practice, but you can learn to do it. It's usually a desperation move -- when you're going to die but a second or two of surprise might give you something to work with." He grinned. "That saved my life in my first chuunin exam. I missed completely, but it distracted my enemy long enough for me to do Kawarimi and run like hell. After that, I spent a few months teaching myself to throw swords properly."
"Hey, hey, you can throw swords, Iruka-san?" a high voice piped up from behind Yukiko. "That's so cool!"
"Naruto!" Yukiko spun around, ignoring the protest of her slashed side, and grinned at the kid. "What new origami did Taizen-san teach you?"
"These!" Naruto's blue eyes gleamed as a grin split his face. He held up a double handful of folded orange paper, slightly askew at the corners and bent where clumsy, childish fingers couldn't quite master the delicacy needed to keep the paper crisp and straight, but clearly recognizable as a tulip, a crane, a butterfly, a dog, a crow, a dolphin, several frogs, a snowflake... and a fox.
Yukiko blinked at the kid's choice of subject matter, and sent Taizen a questioning glance. "I showed him the flower, crane, butterfly, and frog patterns, but he asked about the others on his own," Taizen said quietly. "Even the fox."
Huh. How much of the Kyuubi leaked through the seal? Not enough to make Naruto dangerous -- Yukiko was sure of that by now -- and not enough to influence his conscious mind... but foxes were notorious tricksters, and that might explain some of Naruto's passion for jokes. Still, that was a question for another day. "Are these presents, kid?" Yukiko asked, fishing out the crow and the dolphin.
Naruto nodded. "Yeah! Those're for Naga and Iruka-san, 'cause Naga can make crows and 'cause of Iruka-san's name, and the dog's for Kakashi-baka 'cause he's like Gouchou-san's lazy old dog on the third floor, and the snowflake's for you. You're cooler than a snowflake, Yukiko-neechan, but it's your name, and Taizen-san says it's pretty and you'll like it. Do you?"
"Yeah," Yukiko said as she held the garish orange snowflake in her cupped hands. "Yeah, kid, I like it a lot."
Hisen's voice cut through Yukiko's contemplation, drawing her attention back to the chuunin exam. "Next match is... Tonoike Naga vs. Nagoyaka Kafunnokaze!"
Naga blinked. "Fuck."
"Naga-chan, watch your language," Taizen said, a sharp edge threading through her voice. "Naruto-kun doesn't need to hear that sort of thing yet."
"Fine," Naga growled, glaring at her mother. "Yell at me before I go and get poisoned to death. I don't mind having this as our last conversation if you don't."
In the corner of her eye, Yukiko noticed Iruka and Kakashi both wince -- Kakashi covered better, but there was no way that twitch at the corner of his eye didn't mean something. "You're not going to die," she told Naga firmly. Then she leaned over and hissed into the girl's ear. "Iruka and Naruto are both orphans, you idiot. Say something nice to your mother."
Naga maintained her scowl, but she closed her eyes for a second and said, "Sorry, Mother. Thank you for coming to watch today."
Taizen's cool expression softened, and she rested her hand on Naga's shoulder. "I apologize for my tone, Naga-chan. Now, get down into the arena and uphold the honor of our village and our clan."
Naga twitched her shoulder, casting off her mother's hand, but a tiny smile hovered on her lips as she vaulted over the balcony railing. Kafunnokaze, meanwhile, walked out of the doorway at the base of the wall; he'd taken the stairs.
Yukiko looked at Iruka. "You realize this means we have to fight each other next," she said.
Iruka scratched the base of his ponytail. "Um, yes. But let's not worry about that yet. I hope Naga comes through her match without too much damage."
"Hey, hey, don't you think Naga's gonna win?" Naruto asked as he swung his heels against the legs of his seat. "She's annoying, but she's kind of cool. And she can stick out her tongue all the way across the room!"
Yukiko shrugged. "Naga's a good fighter, kid, but she doesn't have any defense against drugs and poisons. This could be hard for her."
"Oh." Naruto looked subdued for all of three seconds before he perked up again. "But she can hit really hard! Hey, hey, I bet she kicks that guy's butt."
"I'll take that bet," Kakashi said as he slouched in his seat. "If I win, I get to dye your hair, you little brat."
"Nyah!" Naruto stuck his tongue out and grinned. Yukiko pressed a hand against her head and, very softly, groaned. She was surrounded by idiots. Naruto had a right to be immature, but by all the kami, Kakashi was her age. And he was a jounin! It was extremely disconcerting when he acted like a three-year-old kid.
"Ready?" Hisen's voice drew Yukiko's attention down into the arena, where Naga and Kafunnokaze faced each other, tense and poised for action. Kafunnokaze's gloved hand was inside his coat, and Yukiko winced at the thought of the drugs he might be reaching for. "Begin!"
Naga charged. Kafunnokaze whirled and sprinted for the far side of the arena, scattering the contents of a paper packet as he ran. Naga cut sideways to dodge the windborne drug, but she was still faster than he was. She caught up, and for a second Yukiko thought she was going to throw a punch -- but she thrust off the ground into a flying kick instead.
"He poisons his coat," Kakashi said to Yukiko and Iruka's confused expressions. "She doesn't want to touch him with bare skin."
Huh. "Well, I feel stupid," Yukiko said. She was supposed to be better at strategy, but Naga had remembered the contact poison and she hadn't. Some chuunin she'd make.
Kafunnokaze stumbled as Naga's feet hit his back, but he tucked smoothly into a shoulder roll and spun to face her. As her sandaled foot crashed into his jaw, he threw a powder point-blank into her face.
Naga slapped her hand over her mouth and nose and dropped to the ground, rolling away. Her other hand splashed into a shallow puddle condensed from Aishou's mists, and she extended her neck to shove her face into the muddy water, trying to wash away Kafunnokaze's drug.
Kafunnokaze staggered to his feet, looking dazed and unbalanced from Naga's kick. He drew a kunai that glistened oddly -- probably poisoned -- and threw it at Naga's unguarded back. She scrambled aside just before it could hit her, and the knife sank harmlessly into the dirt.
They faced each other for a few seconds, both dizzy and out of breath. Then Naga tore the wrapping from her left arm and started winding it around her face. Kafunnokaze cursed and ran.
Naga tied her makeshift mask and chased him.
As she closed, she tried another kick, but Kafunnokaze dropped to the ground and froze. Naga flew harmlessly over his body, and he reached up and stabbed her calf with a kunai.
"Oh, shit," Yukiko said.
"Language, please," Taizen murmured. Her voice was calm, but her body seemed to thrum with tension. "He was kind to the Aburame girl. I'm sure he won't kill my daughter."
Yukiko glanced at the deep, red furrows Taizen's fingernails had left in her skin as she clenched her folded hands, but said nothing.
Kafunnokaze shot to his feet and ran again, still wavering a bit from the hit to his jaw. Naga yanked his kunai from her leg and hurled it after him, but it caught in his long coat without touching his body. Then she looked down at her bleeding calf, and cursed. She tore the bandage off her right arm and tied it above the wound in a sort of makeshift tourniquet, but some of the drug or poison had obviously started working through her blood and she staggered, one hand flying to her chest.
Kafunnokaze, on the far side of the arena, smiled in relief.
Naga scowled, and dashed toward him. Even drugged, she was still faster than he was, and this time, she didn't bother trying for a kick -- she just punched him, hard, in his lower back, and swept his legs from under him as he stumbled. He threw a handful of powder behind him as he fell, but Naga didn't even try to evade it. She slammed a knife-hand against the side of his neck as she collapsed to the ground.
She struggled to raise herself again, and then fell limp and unconscious, one hand clutching her chest.
Kafunnokaze twitched, moaned, and tried to get up. He managed to push himself to his hands and knees, and then slowly rose to his feet. He wavered, one hand pressed tightly against the side of his head, and nearly fell, but Hisen appeared at his side and lent him a hand in support.
"You win -- congratulations. Do you have antidotes?" Hisen asked calmly, as three medic-nin hurried out with a stretcher and lifted Naga from the ground.
"Yeah," Kafunnokaze said. His voice was thick and slow, and he blinked rapidly as if trying to clear something from his eyes. "Yeah, I have antidotes. Here." He took his hand from his head and reached into his coat for a green paper packet and a vial of yellow liquid, which he handed to one of the medic-nin. "Mix the packet into a half liter of water, and give her about three swallows. Then rub the yellow gunk over the cut on her leg. Some aspirin would probably be good too."
He lifted his hand to his jaw, where Naga had kicked him at the start of their fight, and blinked again. "Wow, she kicks hard."
Hisen smiled and led him out of the arena.
AN: Thanks for reading, and please review!
I should mention that I haven't ever read the official manga timelines. I am basing my guesses on people's ages solely on evidence within the actual manga story. Therefore, Naruto is 6, Iruka is 17, and Yukiko and Kakashi are 23. I apologize if those ages conflict too much with your perception of the characters, but I'm not going to change them.
Back to Chuunin and Jounin
Back to team seven
Back to the main page