Once again, Iruka was left down in the arena to wait for the medic-nin to release his opponent. He promptly sat down to conserve his strength, unwound the white cloth from his left wrist, and began to bandage the shallow cuts on his arms. Hisen assured the audience that Kafunnokaze would be out shortly, leapt to the genin's balcony to make Iruka and Kafunnokaze's names flash on the announcement boards, and then pushed open a door leading down to the inner rooms of the arena complex.
In the doorway, Taizen blinked in the sudden light, her arm still outstretched to pull on the door handle. "Please excuse me," she murmured, and stepped aside to let Hisen pass. Then she held the door while Naga limped through, leaning heavily on a padded crutch.
"Hey, hey, Naga! You're okay! You missed Iruka-san's fight -- it was really cool, and he can make huge 'splosions, almost as big as a tree," Naruto called as Naga walked, slowly and deliberately, along the balcony toward her team. Taizen hovered beside her daughter, ready to catch her if she faltered.
Naga favored Naruto with her small, cockeyed smile. "What kind of tree?" she asked as she lowered herself onto a seat. "Wide like a cherry or straight up like an oak?"
"Both," Naruto said, with the withering scorn he usually reserved for people who tried to convince him that other foods tasted better than ramen. Yukiko rested her chin on his head and grinned at Naga; in the corner of her eye, she saw Kakashi wave lazily and twist so his back was against the balcony railing and he could watch the conversation.
"Sounds like a big explosion," Naga agreed. She swung her bandaged leg up onto the seat between herself and Yukiko, and sighed with relief. A faint greenish tinge lingered under her skin, but her breathing sounded normal and her chest didn't seem to be bothering her anymore.
"I take it Kafunnokaze's antidotes worked," Yukiko remarked. "Was he actually using deadly poisons, or just incapacitants?"
Naga twitched her shoulder. "Coat's deadly if you rub your hands all over it, but I didn't touch it that much. Everything else probably would've worn off on its own. The antidotes just kept me from twelve hours of fever dreams, and puking my guts out when I woke up." She smiled again. "He's not bad -- gave me a chocolate bar while the medic-nin wrapped my leg."
Taizen made a small disapproving noise in the back of her throat. "Generous or not, he is still a Grass-nin."
Naga stared sourly at her mother. "So Hidden Grass got scared of bloodline limits and kicked out our clan. So what? I don't care, and I bet Kafunnokaze doesn't either. It's not like he asked me to marry him."
Taizen's face smoothed until she had no readable expression at all -- which, for a shinobi (or even a former shinobi), was generally a sign of strong emotions. Yukiko had the distinct feeling that she'd stumbled into an old family argument, one whose positions had been fought over until both Naga and her mother knew them inside and out, and one that Yukiko had no business listening to. She cast about for a change of topic. "He's a strong ninja," she said somewhat desperately. "How do you think Iruka will do against him?"
"Depends," Naga said, turning away from her mother. "If he wraps his face at the start, that'll help. And he has swords, so he doesn't have to worry about keeping his hands off the coat. But Kafunnokaze's pretty smart, and he has good aim. And he told me some of his powders are for the eyes, not the nose or mouth."
"Huh. That sounds tricky," Yukiko said, "and Iruka used up all his kunai on Shinkan. I don't know how many shuriken he has left."
"Who cares?" Naruto said with a grin. He bounced on Yukiko's lap and kicked his heels against her shins. "Iruka-san can make fire and blow up the guy in the coat!"
"Kid, you can't solve everything with fire jutsu," Yukiko said.
Naruto twisted his head around and pouted. "You're just jealous 'cause you can't make fire too, Yukiko-neechan."
Oh, this was ridiculous. "Kid, I don't need ninjutsu to make fire. If I want to fight, I can convince you that you're burning to death. If I need to relight the stove, I have matches. And if everything else fails, I have steel and a piece of flint to strike sparks. So there." Yukiko bent down and stuck her tongue out in Naruto's face.
He pulled down his lower eyelids with his index fingers, stuck his pinkies up his nose, and grinned at her.
"Okay, okay, you win!" Yukiko said, trying not to laugh. "Now stop that. It's disgusting, and we're in public."
Naruto wiped his hands on his orange jacket and looked smug.
"Yo." Yukiko turned at Kakashi's voice; the jounin was pointing down into the arena. "I apologize for interrupting this moment of domestic tranquility, but it occurred to me that you might want to watch the last fight."
"Yeah, thanks," Yukiko said. Then she raised her voice and called, "Good luck, Iruka! You can beat him!" Iruka glanced upward, waved at the balcony -- Naruto waved back frantically with both hands -- and then returned to watching Kafunnokaze's slow progress to the center of the arena.
Kafunnokaze looked unharmed -- unlike Shinkan, he had no bandages to show for his injuries -- but the careful way he placed his feet shouted to any ninja that his balance wasn't completely steady, and his vision might be a trifle blurred. Still, he'd spent the past fifteen minutes resting while Iruka had been running, bleeding, and burning chakra. Neither teenager was in the best shape for a fight.
Iruka was taller, but not by much; however, he looked much better proportioned, whereas Kafunnokaze had the stretched look of a boy who'd just finished a growth spurt. Yukiko figured that was one reason Kafunnokaze had barely tried any close combat in his previous fights. He probably wasn't sure of his reach yet and hadn't ingrained his new height into his reflexes.
Kafunnokaze pulled his black cloth mask up from his collar and settled it across his mouth and nose. Iruka frowned, and then stripped the wrapping from his other wrist and wound it several times around his lower face.
"You learn fast," Kafunnokaze said cheerfully. "This is going to be interesting."
"Thank you," Iruka said. His hand hovered near his leg, ready to draw shuriken.
Hisen popped down into the arena, glanced between the two ninja, and raised his arm. "Do you wish to forfeit?" Both boys shook their heads. "Okay. Begin!"
Kafunnokaze tore open a packet and cast a wind jutsu. Iruka was already running, circling to the right, but the wind howled after him, carrying its rust-colored poison; it swirled around him in a tight spiral, sucking dust from the ground to obscure Iruka from sight. Yukiko held her breath.
Suddenly, Iruka's swords pierced the whirlwind. One kodachi sliced down while the other slashed up, both glowing red hot with a fire jutsu Kakashi had drilled Iruka into combining with his weapons kata. The heat broke the wind's spiral, just as Kafunnokaze approached with a poisoned kunai in one hand and an open packet in the other.
Iruka coughed, dropped his kodachi, and blew flames point-blank into Kafunnokaze's chest.
The Grass-nin's heavy black coat sizzled and caught fire. Paper packets burned and exploded, sending gouts of discolored smoke into Kafunnokaze's face. He tore his arms from his sleeves and threw the coat onto Iruka. Iruka shook it off, dropped, grabbed his kodachi, and rolled to the side. Kafunnokaze followed, kicking dirt toward his smoking coat.
Now both shinobi were breathing heavily and swaying from the burning drugs that had seeped through their cloth masks. Kafunnokaze drew a long dagger from his back and a handful of kunai in his left hand, and waited. Iruka set his swords, took a deep breath, and charged.
Yukiko's hands tightened around Naruto, and the kid squeezed her arms. Iruka was skilled with his kodachi, but Kafunnokaze's blades glistened with the oily sheen of poison, and she'd seen what his concoctions had done to Naga.
Kafunnokaze managed one slice across Iruka's thigh and another on his left wrist, before Iruka twisted the dagger from his hand and kicked his knee. His balance was already shaky, and he crashed to the ground. Iruka pressed one kodachi against his neck and pointed the tip of the other at the small of his back. "Yield?"
"Yeah, I yield," Kafunnokaze said. Then he groaned and rolled onto his back. "Oh, kami, my head hurts."
"Sorry," Iruka said as he sheathed his swords. "Do you want a hand up?" Kafunnokaze held up his arms and Iruka hauled the Grass-nin, stumbling, to his feet.
Hisen appeared in front of them and offered both boys a shoulder to lean on. "Congratulations!" he said with a slight smile. "Umino Iruka, you're hereby declared the winner of this tournament, and Nagoyaka Kafunnokaze, you're the runner-up. Everyone else, please take an intermission while the judges make their final choices among this year's potential chuunin."
"He won!" Naruto yelled, wriggling out of Yukiko's arms to jump up and down on the seat beside her. "Iruka-san won! That's so cool! Hey, hey, he's gonna be a chuunin, right Yukiko-neechan?"
Yukiko grinned; she felt like jumping too, but she was a little too old for that, and besides, her leg would protest. "Probably, kid. It's not an absolute guarantee, but the person who wins the tournament almost always gets promoted."
"They'd better let Iruka-san get p'moted," Naruto declared, "or they stink."
"Nobody's arguing with you, kid." Yukiko turned to Kakashi. "Who else do you think will pass, Kakashi-san?"
The jounin shrugged and pulled his little orange book of erotica out of his vest. "Probably Kafunnokaze and Shinkan. Maybe Naga. Beyond that, I don't want to guess; I've never been good at predicting Sarutobi-sama, and when you throw in the Mizukage, the Master of Hidden Grass, and the Sand's representative..." He raised his eyebrow eloquently.
"Right," Yukiko said, taking his point.
"You think I might pass?" Naga asked. "I lost!"
Kakashi snorted, but didn't bother to look up from his reading. "Your last strike could have killed him if you'd wanted. A shinobi has to be able to complete her mission even if it costs her life. Against a true enemy, not just an opponent, you wouldn't have won -- but you wouldn't have lost, either."
"Oh." Naga sat quietly for several seconds, contemplating that. Then she shook herself and asked Yukiko, "Want to check on Iruka? I bet we have time."
"Sure. Hey, kid," Yukiko called to Naruto, who was running up and down the aisle between the blocks of seats. "We're going to visit Iruka. Are you coming?"
"Yeah!" Naruto bounced over to Yukiko's side and grabbed her hand in an effort to pull her upright and get her moving. Yukiko stood and readjusted her grip, making sure he wasn't going to dash off and try to help Naga as well; his intentions were good, but the kid would probably knock her over instead of steadying her.
"Lead the way to the medic-nin, please," Yukiko said to Naga. Naga's lips quirked up in her cockeyed smile, and she hobbled off toward the door.
The medic-nin had set up several hospital beds in a large, high-ceilinged room off the hallway that led between the outer entrance and the door into the arena floor. One Anbu stood guard at the doorway; he was sweating under his painted mask and had pushed the hood of his robes down to hang from his shoulders. He stared hard at Naruto, but seemed to recognize Naga and Yukiko, and Yukiko clutched Naruto's hand firmly. The Anbu waved them through the door.
Kafunnokaze sprawled on a bed just to the right of the doorway, sipping a cup of liquid and making terrible faces. His hands were wrapped in cotton mittens -- probably a burn treatment -- and his face was flushed. Iruka lay two beds further on, along the outer wall and right under a narrow window; the afternoon sun slanted across the edge of his bed. Someone had replaced his makeshift, dirty bandages with clean wrappings from his shoulders to his fingertips. Yukiko thought he looked a bit like a mummy.
A medic-nin was waving a cloth soaked in something astringent and highly volatile under Iruka's nose. The scent permeated the room; Naruto sneezed, and Yukiko's eyes watered. It reminded her of the bleach-based cleaner she used to mop the laundry room of her building, only this had traces of the sharp, green smell that rose from crushing fresh leaves, and a whiff of something sweet and greasy.
Iruka sneezed violently and knocked the medic-nin's arm away. "I'm fine," he insisted when the man frowned and raised the cloth again. "I was just dizzy, that's all."
"If he isn't dead yet, he's not going to die," Kafunnokaze added as he set his empty cup on the table beside his bed. "I know what my drugs do, even when some maniac sets them on fire, and you got the antidotes in fast enough that all we need is a day to rest. And guess what -- we're going to get that."
Naga snickered. "You need it -- you're as green as your hair." Kafunnokaze grinned at her.
The medic-nin looked put upon, but he tucked the cloth into a waterproof bag, helped Iruka sit up on his bed, and didn't object when Yukiko and Naruto walked over. Naga hung back to talk with Kafunnokaze.
"Hey, hey, you won, Iruka-san!" Naruto said, bouncing on his toes; Yukiko held his hand tightly to make sure the kid didn't try to jump on Iruka, or hug him while he was still woozy. "Kakashi-baka says you're gonna pass, and that means you're gonna be my teacher! That's gonna be so cool! Um, and I promise not to sneak out of your classes -- well, not much -- and I'll pay attention, and I'll be the best ninja ever!"
Iruka smiled and ruffled Naruto's hair; the kid ducked out from under his hand, but didn't scowl the way he usually did when someone tried that. "Thank you, Naruto-kun. I'm sure you'll be a wonderful student, and if I passed, I'll do my best to be a good teacher. I have to warn you, though, that if you sneak out of my classes, I won't take you to Ichiraku ramen stand anymore."
Naruto gasped and bristled, but Iruka maintained a firm expression. Then Naruto tried looking pitiful. Yukiko rolled her eyes and started counting silently in her head. She'd reached fourteen when Iruka sighed and said, "All right, I'll take you out for ramen tonight."
"Not tonight," Yukiko said quickly. "We're all eating at Taizen-san's place, courtesy of Kakashi. You can take the kid out tomorrow. Oh, and congratulations! That was a good fight."
Iruka scratched the base of his ponytail and looked adorably confused. "Kakashi-san is taking us out for dinner? That doesn't seem like him."
Yukiko grinned in remembered satisfaction. "He made a pass at me, and I did a little fast talking. It felt good to get one up on him for once! Speaking of which, Naruto wants to steal Kakashi's book and do something colorful to it -- will you help?"
"Yeah, come on, Iruka-san, it'll be fun!" Naruto said. His blue eyes glittered with mischief and the whisker marks on his face seemed to quiver with excitement.
Iruka blushed and spread his hands. "I don't think Taizen-san's restaurant is the proper place for things like that, and defacing Kakashi-san's property is a bit different from simply dyeing his hair. I won't stop you, but I have to bow out of this mission." He sighed. "Besides, I wasn't much help the last time."
"Don't be stupid -- it was your plan! This time, you can be the distraction," Yukiko said firmly. "Just make conversation and we'll do the rest." Naruto nodded enthusiastically.
"Um. Well, I suppose it would be fun," Iruka admitted with a small smile. "All right. I'm in."
"Great!" Naruto said, lunging forward to hug Iruka around the waist. Yukiko let go of the kid's hand and watched the two boys with a warm glow in her heart. She was pretty sure Naruto had a big brother now as well as a big sister, even if he and Iruka would never put the relationship into words. There was something about the kid, something about his smile and his eyes and the loneliness underneath his bravado, that reached out and tugged at people. Once you got to know him, it was almost impossible not to want to make him happy -- and he'd do his best to make you happy in return.
The people of Konoha, Yukiko thought to herself, had no idea what they were missing.
"Congratulations, Iruka," Naga said as she limped over to his bed. Kafunnokaze trailed after her, taking each step with great care, as if he weren't completely certain the floor would remain solid underneath his feet. A concussion and then an unknown mix of burning poisons could certainly throw off a person's equilibrium.
"Thanks, Naga," Iruka said. He levered himself off his bed and swayed slightly. Yukiko stepped forward and slid her shoulder under his. "Um. Thank you too, Yukiko. Can we get out of here now? I want fresh air and I'd hate to miss the announcement of the results."
"Sounds like a plan," Naga said. "Hey, brat, go open the door for us."
Naruto scowled. "I'm not a brat! But I'll open the door for Iruka-san, 'cause he's my friend." He walked off with his shoulders set in a posture that practically screamed his indignation.
Yukiko sighed. "Naga, please don't call Naruto a brat -- he is, and I realize that, but it doesn't help things."
Kafunnokaze looked politely interested. "Is he your brother? You don't look much alike."
"Adopted brother," Yukiko said shortly as she helped Iruka walk toward the doorway. His knees seemed a little shaky, but other than that he was moving normally. She hoped he'd be able to walk without a prop by the time the new chuunin were announced; it would be embarrassing for him (and for Konoha) to fall down as he was promoted.
Naruto ostentatiously held the infirmary door and then the doors at both ends of the staircase up to the balcony. Yukiko waved Naga and Kafunnokaze on ahead of her and Iruka, just in case the kid decided to slam the door once Iruka was through. As they walked out onto the balcony, Naruto stuck his tongue out at Naga, scowled at Kafunnokaze, and beamed at Iruka and Yukiko. Then he let go of the door and ran off toward Taizen and Kakashi.
"Hey, hey, Taizen-san! What's going on?"
Taizen deftly caught Naruto before he crashed into her, and swung him up onto a seat beside her. "Hokage-sama and the Mizukage seem to have disagreed about something," she said, pointing discretely across the arena to the seats of honor where the judges were conferring. "You see how their heads are close together and the way Hokage-sama's hands are set on his cane? That shows that he is angry, and that they don't want to be overheard."
"Oh," Naruto said. He kicked his heels against the bench as Yukiko and Iruka sat down next to him. "So, so, the Mizukage's being stupid like when he thought we were cheating and stuff?"
Taizen shrugged and adjusted the fall of her long black hair. "Perhaps, although I wouldn't call him stupid. He's simply looking out for the interests of his village, the way Hokage-sama looks out for Konoha."
"I'm gonna be Hokage when I get bigger," Naruto confided. "And I'm gonna protect Konoha, but 'speshly Yukiko-neechan and Iruka-san and Naga and Kakashi-baka and you, because I like you best. You're all nice."
"Same to you, kid," Yukiko said. She ruffled his hair and chuckled when he clambered into Taizen's lap to get away from her hands. Then a bell rang, quieting the audience and calling people's attention to the judges' balcony. Sarutobi-sama and the Mizukage clasped hands and bowed their heads formally to each other, after which Sarutobi-sama motioned to Hisen. The red-haired ninja vanished and reappeared in front of the control panel for the display boards, presumably ready to flash the names of the new chuunin as Sarutobi-sama announced them.
"Our decision this year was difficult," Sarutobi-sama began, "since so many of the participating genin are such excellent shinobi. They have fought well and displayed good judgment and self-control, as well as a strong respect for teamwork and an ability to innovate under pressure. We promote only the best of the best, but this year that number is high -- a favorable sign for the future of all our villages."
Yukiko wished the Hokage would skip the political speeches and get to the results. She looked over at Naruto, who was staring with rapt attention at Sarutobi-sama. "He's pretty cool for a grandpa," Naruto whispered to her, "but I bet I'll be a better Hokage. I won't make stupid speeches!" Yukiko stifled her laughter and returned her attention to Sarutobi-sama's words.
"The Hidden Villages of Leaf, Mist, Grass, and Sand are pleased to announce our new chuunin: Umino Iruka of Hidden Leaf, Nagoyaka Kafunnokaze of Hidden Grass, Shinkan of Hidden Mist, Tonoike Naga of Hidden Leaf, and finally Aishou of Hidden Mist and Ayakawa Yukiko of Hidden Leaf."
Yukiko froze. What the hell?
On her left, Naruto leapt to his feet and tackled her in a strangling hug, babbling something about how cool this was and how he knew she was the best ninja. On her right, Iruka offered congratulations. Yukiko mumbled her thanks and pried the kid's arms off her neck; once she could breathe properly, she returned his hug and smiled mechanically as he jumped up and down on the bench. She felt like a wall of glass had slammed down between her and the rest of the world, distorting everything into lunatic shapes; absently, she filed that sensation for future genjutsu experiments.
This was insane. She'd forfeited! She wasn't supposed to pass!
Sweet kami, what was she supposed to do now? Chuunin couldn't retire as easily as genin -- they were more important and had to provide convincing reasons to get their names removed from the active duty lists. As a chuunin, she'd have to lead missions. She'd be responsible for other people's lives -- not just because she was watching their backs, but because she'd be ordering them into danger. She'd have to leave Naruto behind, alone and unwanted.
The official instatement of new chuunin was an internal village affair, which meant that tomorrow, once the foreigners were escorted out of Konoha, she, Iruka, and Naga would go to the Hokage's tower, swear loyalty again, and receive the vests that symbolized their new rank. She could go early, Yukiko decided, and ask Sarutobi-sama to change his mind.
With that settled, Yukiko felt much better; the world stabilized around her and the glassy concentration that froze out any distractions dissolved into the jumbled roar of the crowd, as thousands of civilians tried to file out of the arena in an orderly fashion. Yukiko looked around and noticed that she seemed to be part of a small circle around Taizen. Iruka and Naga looked at her expectantly.
"Should we have an early dinner, or should we meet at Taizen-san's teahouse later?" Iruka repeated. He was flushed with excitement but obviously trying hard to remain calm.
"Huh." Yukiko looked at Naruto, then at her teammates and Kakashi, and decided a tactical retreat was in order until she was sure the world wouldn't spin out of kilter again. She also wanted a shower. "Let's meet in two hours," she suggested. "And ask your aunt if she wants to come."
Iruka beamed and hurried off to the other side of the arena. Kakashi glared at Yukiko, but without much heat. Taizen seemed relieved at the delay.
"I'm going to say goodbye to Kafunnokaze, then," Naga announced, and limped away before Taizen could protest. The woman stared angrily after her daughter for a second, and then smoothed her features into their normal mask of calm.
"Why can't we eat now, Yukiko-neechan?" Naruto asked as she took his hand and led him to the stairs. "I'm hungry!"
"We're giving Taizen-san some time to set up a table for us, kid, and we're giving everyone else time to go home and clean up a little. I'm sure Naga wants to change into less muddy clothing and Iruka wants to put a new shirt over his bandages. I want to take a shower." Yukiko closed her eyes as she and Naruto walked out of the arena into the late afternoon sun, and savored the thought of warm water cascading over her body, washing away sweat and blood.
"But I don't need a shower. What am I s'posed to do?" Naruto asked.
Yukiko smiled conspiratorially at him. "Plan what you want to do with Kakashi's book."
Naruto giggled evilly, and Yukiko laughed as they headed through the streets of Konoha, back to her apartment building. Whatever else had happened today, the kid had agreed to be her family, and there was no way she was going to lose her family again.
o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-oAN: Thanks for reading, and please review!
Okay, yes, I was mistaken about the "no romance" thing. In my defense, I never intended Kafunnokaze to be more than a bit part. However, like Kakashi, he was of the opinion that he deserved more screen time, and once he gave Naga a chocolate bar, well...
Characters. Can't work with 'em, can't work without 'em.
Back to Chuunin and Jounin
Back to team seven
Back to the main page