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Typical

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Team Six

Morning || Land of Fire: Konohagakure

A year had passed since he'd urged the genin to seek out tutors in their specific areas. They'd improved far beyond his expectations and when they did a mission here or there, it was nice to see how much they'd grown. This was what he loved about being a sensei, but it also made him weary. Soon enough his students wouldn't need him anymore and he wasn't sure he was ready for that. He wouldn't be there to protect them. His own team had changed considerably since his genin days. He'd lost his sensei and nearly one of his teammates. Minoru didn't want that to happen to them.

After some deliberation with Azumi, they'd come to the conclusion that they needed to get a picture of his team. Now would be the best time. In another six months they'd be approaching the application submission date for the Chunin Exams. He had faith in his kids that they'd make it through. If not there was always next year. It was barely even spring; snow was still on the ground but the beginnings of buds formed on the trees and new shoots of grass were trying to push their way up through the snow.

The sound of snow crunching from behind him caught his attention and he turned towards the sound. They were meeting at their usual spot not too far from the training grounds. Minoru had to look down in order to look at Koharu as she approached. While the kids were almost fourteen, she was still as short as she had been when he first met her. He'd asked them to dress nicely for this, as it was a special occasion. Koharu was dressed in a white long sleeve shirt with her clan symbol on the back and the hem of her sleeves was the same bright blue as her clan symbol. Her pants were much the same as they always were--basic black and slightly baggy. The sash around her hips matched the hem of her shirt and clan symbol and he was unsurprised to see her sword hanging from it.

He pat her head gently, fixing a stray lock of pale hair. "Was that necessary?" She asked with a hint of amusement lacing her words and expression. Koharu untied her braids and fixed her hair.

"Sorry. We're just waiting for the other two. Where's your shawl?"

"Home. It's warming up."With her training the use of her ice came easier and with it was a growing tolerance for the cold. She wasn't immune, no one in her clan was, but they got used to the feeling of cold when they could create ice.



Kazuhiko arrived just a few minutes early, and though he was unsurprised to find both his sensei and one of his teammates already there, he felt a twinge of guilt for not leaving earlier. While he’d been ready to leave a few minutes earlier than he did, his mother had elected to stop him, fussing over the collar of his black vest and the cuffs of the grey long sleeve he wore inside. As always, Kazuhiko had grown during the past year, and though he still fit his everyday clothes reasonably well, his mother had insisted on having new formal clothes tailored.

“The future heir deserves the best, ought to look his best,” she’d chided when he voiced his doubt, and just like that, the argument ended.

His new formal clothes weren’t so different from his old ones; all the key pieces were in place, from the Taketori symbol on the back of the vest to the small detailing trailing down the sleeves. The only real difference was that this set was slightly looser on him, held together by the belt that looped around his black pants into which his shirt was tucked. It was this slight upsizing that had prompted his mother’s fussing in the morning, but when asked, she’d merely smiled at him, patting his shoulder. “It’s in case you grow more next year,” she’d said, “so please do.”

“Good morning, Minoru-sensei, Koharu,” Kazuhiko said as he joined the pair in the snow. It was a bit chilly out, he noted, and both he and Minoru were more bundled up than Koharu was, which was more interesting than surprising. As a member of a clan from the Land of the Snow, Koharu had often talked about her memories of her previous village, which had always interested Kazuhiko. Despite the superiority that Konoha was often regarded with by his clan, none of the other villages seemed too different, if not a bit more adapted to their surroundings.

“I’m coming!” came a lively shout that Kazuhiko had come to associate with Natsuko, who dashed over, her feet crunching through the melting snow.

“Good morning, did you miss me?” she asked with a grin, looking between Kazuhiko and Koharu. “Ohh, Kazu-kun, you got taller again. Hmph, I thought the bit I grew would finally shine, but no, you had to go and grow again, huh,” she said as she stood beside him, tracing the distance between the top of her head and the top of his. “And you grew more than me too? What a surprise.”

Her dry smile hooked upwards again as she hopped through the snow to stand beside Koharu, her hand tracing her height to a hover over the pale-haired girl. “Hey, at least Haru-chan didn’t outgrow me too. Wait, did you grow at all, Haru-chan?” she asked, tracing her teammate’s lack of height again. “I feel like... you were this tall before...”

Looking back at Kazuhiko, she grinned, hopping over to his other side. “Kazu-kun, stand over here,” she said, giving him a shove that took him by enough surprise to send him stumbling so that he stood beside Koharu, “so that I can see better. And, yep, yep, the height difference is even bigger now.” She shook her head, sighing dramatically. “You two are going to end up with giants and midgets when you have kids.”

“W-what?” Kazuhiko managed, eyes wide, but Natsuko was already onto the next thing.

“Minoru-sensei, where are we taking the photos?” she asked, flourishing the silky purple blouse she wore. “I stole this thing from my sister’s closet just for the picture, so we better be taking it.”

She giggled, patting down her sleeves, around which her clan symbol was repeated in a near-white band. “As long I return it before tonight, she won’t know a thing,” she said, winking at Koharu.



Minoru didn't know what to do beyond hide his grin and bubbling laughter behind his fist. Koharu had been glaring at Natsuko when the girl brought up her lack of height. It was obvious that the girl wouldn't ever reach the heights of her teammates. Koharu focused her glare on him, and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. She had improved the glare over the past year and he felt sorry for anyone else trapped under it. "I grew a half inch!" Koharu said, stomping her foot impatiently. Her growth hadn't been that noticeable, and was made even more apparent when Kazuhiko had been shoved in her direction.

Seeing them side by side made Minoru give a hearty laugh that had him clutching his stomach. His head was tossed back and tears had formed in the corners of his eyes. He didn't comment on her teasing because he knew it would be an insult to injury. He had just laughed at them after all. "By the river-" His words were cut short by Koharu throwing a snowball at him. It hit him in the center of his chest and he looked down at the snow clinging to his clothes before he looked at the girl who had thrown it. Her cheeks were a brilliant shade of red but she was glaring at him. Minoru didn't know that the red on her cheeks was caused more from Natsuko's comment than from his laughing at them.

She didn't think that the girl knew that anything between them would be complicated by the fact that they were both heirs, although society seemed to always favor the women as giving up their positions because they could marry into clans a bit easier than men could. When Minoru turned to lead them away (and so Koharu wouldn't throw another snowball at him) the girl took the opportunity to look up at the boy next to her. He'd grown a lot but she was used to craning her neck to look at him. Her green-gray eyes crinkled at the corners and a small mischievous grin came to her lips. She didn't tease as often as Natsuko did, but she wasn't always stoic.

"If those kids are as cute as you, I wouldn't mind if they were tall or short." Koharu followed after Minoru after that, a little unsure if she crossed a line with that teasing or not. She wasn't Natsuko. And besides she wasn't entirely sure about how she felt about the boy. Koharu enjoyed his company, as she did Natsuko's, but it made her palms sweat when he'd help her when they were up high but she didn't know if that was because she was afraid of heights or because of him. It was fun to see him caught off guard though.

The pale haired girl walked beside Natsuko, hands clasped together. "I like your blouse. It's pretty." Koharu said lamely. Even after all this time she was still a little awkward. "You two have grown a lot this year. I'm just maybe a little jealous."

Minoru led his team to the river, right where there was a small bridge that connected the two sides. It had been around when he was a kid, although he hadn't grown up in Konoha, he had come with his family on occasion. Minoru didn't know who built it but he assumed it was used for training as it was along the border of the training grounds and the start of some residential buildings. The photographer was already there with their camera set on a tripod.

"Okay, kids, who should stand where?" The most obvious choice was Koharu in the middle because she was the shortest and they could all bend to her height. Or perhaps they could have Kazuhiko be in the middle. He could always kneel.



“Thanks, Haru-chan,” Natsuko said with a grin. “Our sleeves match. Sorta,” she said, shrugging as they followed behind Minoru. When they arrived, she looked around, perking up as Minoru asked his question.

“I call middle!” she yelled, bounding through the snow to position herself in the middle of the bridge. When she arrived at the spot, she struck a pose, her hands forming a wide ‘V’. “Ta-da!”

From beside the photographer, her team looked at her with varying shades of amusement and exasperation. Kazuhiko, who looked like he was recovering from being a bit shocked, for some reason, flicked his eyes over before stepping forward.

“Minoru-sensei, maybe you and I can stand on the edges, and then Koharu and me after,” he suggested.

“That’d be good. Makes the middle people look taller, and frames the picture nicely,” the photographer said from where he was setting up the camera.

Natsuko pulled a face. At Kazuhiko’s pointed look, she sighed, rolling her eyes. “Fine, be that way.”

The team took their places, and the photographer finished his last minute adjustments on his camera. “One, two, three, say ‘Chunin,’” he said.



The photographer took quite a few portrait shots: one of the team, one without Minoru, individual portraits, and a few informal shots on the behest of Natsuko, who’d wanted a few ‘fun’ ones. As Kazuhiko quickly found out, this was a set-up to get him and Koharu a ‘couple shot,’ with Natsuko dispelling her clone on the count of three. Improving her skills seemed to have given her more tools to work with when it came to her antics, and Kazuhiko wasn’t sure how he felt about that. On one hand, he was happy that she was getting better, and it was clear that it’d helped her smooth out her confidence, which was geared only towards non-jutsu-related things before. On the other, she now had a whole repertoire of options in terms of her plots, and Kazuhiko wasn’t looking forward to seeing what she could come up with chunin and jonin-level skills, if she ever decided to invest the time and learn those.

Thinking of shinobi ranks and the future reminded Kazuhiko of the countdown until Team Six would informally disband. He’d heard many a story of how teammates grew apart after passing the exams, and as much as he wanted his team to be the outlying statistic in this case, there were statistics and sayings for a reason. Whether or not they’d pass the exam was a non-issue; he and Koharu were among the strongest in their year, and as presumptuous as that thought was, he had full confidence that Natsuko would manage to pass with them, even if that meant just scraping by. She was working on her skills, for once, and in a way Kazuhiko was forced to reevaluate his opinion of her as the team’s slacking prankster. In a way, he was surprised he hadn’t realized her potential sooner: The intensity with with she tackled her training was the same as the focus and creativity she used to devise her various antics. A simple change in application would make all the difference, and he had to wonder what kind of shinobi she would go on to be if she applied herself.

On the other hand, he understood Koharu fairly well. As a fellow heir, she was like him: The prisitine face of their clan, who was expected to be close to perfect and the strongest they could be. Mistakes would be tolerated but not accepted, and pressure and expectations were always nipping at their heels. Was this shared experience why they got along well, then? Was it why he felt closer to her, felt like he could confide more in her?

As the team walked towards Minoru’s, Kazuhiko looked down at Koharu, who was chatting with Natsuko about the local going-ons. Natsuko easily commanded the conversation, but Koharu wasn’t as quiet as she’d been at one point in his memory. Where he remembered her being steamrolled by Natsuko in the past, she now held her ground, even shooting Natsuko glares when they butted heads. She was changing—for the better. And Kazuhiko admired that.



Minoru's house had not changed much aside from the addition of toys and little sandals by the front door. The yard now had a fence to keep in Kazuha, who was walking now. Azumi and their daughter were outside playing in the snow. Kazuha was bundled up more so than Azumi. The little girl had difficulty in bending due to all the layers she was wearing. Her little nose was red and running. "Say 'hi' to everyone!" Azumi said to the girl, smiling when Kazuha offered a clumsy wave. The little girl looked a lot like her mother although the shape of her eyes and nose were Minoru's features.

Kazuha stumbled towards them, almost as if she was racing towards them as she pulled her mother along. Koharu smiled and squatted down with her arms outstretched towards the child. Kazuha let go of Azumi's fingers and launched herself into Koharu's arms. The genin missed the surprised expression of her sensei and his wife. That had been the first steps Kazuha had taken unassisted and she hadn't fallen. The little girl in her arms was smiling widely, pale violet eyes locking to hers. Kazuha loved the genin, as she always got excited to see them, but Koharu knew that she and Natsuko couldn't compete with Kazuhiko.
She scooped the child up and took her to them.

"How are you feeling, Azumi-san?"

"Fine. Just pains that I'm used to!" The woman smiled as she came to stand with the group. She was pregnant again (something that Koharu had glared at her sensei for) and at just a few months she wasn't really showing all that much. Azumi looped an arm around the pale haired girl once she passed Kazuha off to Natsuko. "How'd the pictures go?"

"Good. I can't wait to see them." Koharu really was excited to have a photo of her friends and sensei. She hoped that they'd all stay in touch when they got older. Koharu intended to keep her promise to her teammates after all. When Kazuha was finally given to Minoru, Azumi took the opportunity to hug the other two genin. She held Natsuko tightly, asking her softly if she had behaved. Minoru was lax when it came to scolding the girl for teasing her teammates, although there had been a few times when Azumi had seen the teasing returned.
Natsuko was a special case. Where her team had parents that were involved in their lives, Natsuko did not. Minoru and her had decided to give Natsuko some stability and guidance that her parents might have overlooked.

"Don't tease them too much, okay? You don't need them to snap at you." Undoubtedly, the slight changes within the other two genin had been cultivated by the girl, even if she didn't know it. Azumi pressed a kiss to Natsuko's temple before letting her go. She hugged Kazuhiko next. It was a shame that he was already taller than Azumi.

When she had hugged everyone, the Hyuuga woman ushered them inside for some hot tea. "I can't believe that you let Koharu go without a coat!" Azumi wasn't happy at seeing the girl in just normal clothes. "She could catch a cold, Minoru!" The jonin was wondering what his chances would be if he ran away from the scolding.

"She said that she wasn't cold!"

"She's a tiny girl! She's probably freezing right now!"

Meanwhile, Koharu and the others were in the living room. Kazuha was playing on the floor with a few blocks. Koharu heard the scolding going on in the kitchen and it made her frown. She wasn't that cold…right? She looked at her hands curiously before looking up at her teammates. "I don't think she realizes that I'm fine…see." Koharu reached out and patted both of her teammates with her cold hands. Too bad that she misjudged how cold her hands really were.



Hearing that Azumi was pregnant again was a bit strange, considering that she’d only just given birth and stopped being pregnant. Natsuko didn’t really know what to think of the whole situation. On one hand, she was happy that everyone else was happy; on the other, Azumi didn’t exactly look comfortable pregnant, and Natsuko had to wonder about her place in the world briefly. Her own mother had started having children younger than Azumi, and though Natsuko had never thought much of it, seeing Azumi go through her pregnancy made Natsuko realize how many years her mother must have spent pregnant. Five—that was longer than she’d been a genin, and perhaps even longer than it’d take her to achieve chunin rank. With five siblings, there was never enough attention and time to go around, and someone was always sidelined. Azumi, though, was only having her second child, so Natsuko figured there was nothing to worry about. Kinda. She’d talked to Koharu about it, who’d convinced her that Minoru was to blame for the whole situation, which was why she’d done her best to mirror Koharu’s glare when her teammate shot one at their sensei.

“Pictures went great!” Natsuko said, hugging Azumi back gently, afraid to make whatever pain the woman was talking about worse. At Azumi’s question, though, she grinned, giggling. “Not too much! Just had a teensy bit of fun.”

After the greeting and hugging finished, Natsuko bouncing between her heels and toes impatiently, waiting to get out of the cold since the coat she wore over her blouse was more for appearances than it was warmth, Azumi herded them into the cozy warmth inside. Natsuko quickly claimed a spot on the ‘best’ couch, sinking into the soft cushions with a contented sigh. One day, she’d buy herself a couch just as soft.

Azumi and Minoru started talking in the kitchen, Azumi’s tone chiding towards a sensei Natsuko could only assume deserved it. Natsuko, though, was busy staring at Kazuha, who was amusing herself with some differently-shaped blocks that Natsuko was amazed could entertain anyone. But, then again, she herself had been endlessly entertained with a hand-me-down toy tea set from one of her older sisters, so maybe it wasn’t too strange after all.

Koharu distracted her by starting on about her hands, which Natsuko knew were never warm. What she didn’t know, though, were that they’d literally turned into ice cubes.

With a high-pitched squeak, Natsuko flinched away from her teammate’s cold touch. On the couch across from her, Kazuhiko stiffened dramatically, suddenly shooting stick straight.

“Yeesh, Haru-chan. Just ‘cuz you don’t feel it doesn’t mean you’re not cold,” Natsuko said, shaking her hand out. “Must be nice never getting cold.”

“It’s an adaptation. Just like how you’ve gotten used to yelling while you practice your wind jutsu and I’m able to handle my electricity for short amounts of time, and at low voltages,” Kazuhiko said, rubbing his hand. “Do you really not get cold though, Koharu?”




"I do...it just takes a while. We can still get frostbite too. But that's why a lot of the adults wear gloves." She said, looking between her teammates. Koharu wasn't yet to the level that she needed to wear gloves but in a few years she probably would adopt gloves into her clothing. Some of the adults, like her dad, didn't wear gloves. It was more preference than anything else. "I'm still learning to control it." It would get better with age, or so she was told. Truthfully because she was the heir there was more pressure placed on her to advance her skills rapidly compared to the other members of her clans. Her brothers, although not heirs themselves, had been in similar positions. Koharu folded her hands into her lap and looked at the far wall, just a little bit nervous that someone (namely Azumi) would come to wrap her up in a multitude of blankets.

"Tell me more about how your training has gone?" They only told each other so much, and she was curious about the amount of training each of them had done. She lived with her 'new' teacher so she felt as if every waking moment at home was spent training. There were several new callouses to prove it. Thankfully the blisters had healed. The bandages always were a pain to deal with. Her father was a harsh teacher but she enjoyed the lessons. Osamu was a man who didn't show much, and in that regard Kazuhiko reminded her of him greatly, but training was their bonding time.

In the kitchen the two adults had abandoned their bickering in favor of watching the genin. They poked their heads out from the kitchen, watching them all. They'd seen Koharu press her hand to those of her teammates and their reactions. The look of shock that came over all three of their faces had been priceless. As the conversation drifted towards training, Azumi spoke. "She seems to compare her training to theirs a lot, doesn't she?"

"Yes."

"Is she trying to compete with Kazuhiko?" Azumi didn't see any signs of competition between them but they were both reserved enough to hide a lot. (As she knew from experience.)

[Color=darkgray]"I don't think so. Those two can go toe to toe. Their practice sparring matches last a long time. I usually take a nap-"

WHACK

Minoru rubbed the spot on his head from where she'd smacked him. "You let them fight unsupervised? Their both heirs, Minoru. If they get hurt-"

"Kazuhiko is protective over the girls. He won't hurt them, and Koharu doesn't use her real sword when practicing with them." He'd been curious when she'd brought a practice sword, one lacking a dull edge and made of bamboo instead of metal. It still hurt when hit by it though.



“Same old same old,” Natsuko said, waving a hand. “Minoru said I’m finally close to mastering all the basics, thank god. I’m probably close to going to find a tutor to start getting special treatment like you two.”

Across from her, Kazuhiko seemed to still be in thought, his eyes on Koharu’s hands. Then, noticing Natsuko’s amused stare, he glanced away briefly, then back to her and Koharu. In one word? Absolutely adorable.

“I’m still working with Atomu, the clan tutor I told you about. He’s been training me on my sensaigan, mostly on basics right now,” Kazuhiko said, shooting a pointed glance at Natsuko as he spoke. “It’s a lot more training instincts and habits to lay the right foundation for future jutsu, and for speed, since that’s a big part of using sensaigan in battle.”

Natsuko pulled a face at Kazuhiko’s words, sticking her tongue out at him. As usual, the oh-so-cool genin ignored her, forcing her to listen along as he continued or risk being left out of the conversation, which Natsuko absolutely hated. Sure she probably had better things to do than listen to Kazuhiko drone on and on about his tutoring sessions, about which bunches of nerves connected to which bunches of muscle and all that, as interesting as it didn’t sound. Okay, so, she probably could have listened to that part, but the current part about how foot placement and arm placement was important? She could do without that. Minoru had already covered all she needed and wanted to know about posture, and she wasn’t about to listen to Kazuhiko become a more drab and dry version of her favorite sensei.

“But yeah, nothing too exciting, yet,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “I’m also still trying and failing to get Hidemi, our dojo master, to tutor me. He’s the strongest in our clan, or so everybody has said since forever. I mean, he’s older now, and I don’t think he’s been out on a mission in years, and,” he sighed, looking between Koharu and Natsuko, “he’s pretty against the idea of tutoring me.”

“Oh! This is the geezer who called you ‘boring,’ right?” Natsuko asked, grinning. Kazuhiko winced, nodding, but she was on a roll. “Hah! I love it! I need to meet him sometime—he sounds fun! Or boring. Probably boring, huh, since he’s a tutor and all that? And he doesn’t go on missions? What does he do all day then?”

Kazuhiko was silent for a moment, and Natsuko could almost imagine the gears in his head, winding and grinding as they hit the snag of—“I, well,” he started, shaking his head, “I don’t know.”

“Oh, wow, Kazuhiko doesn’t know? Must be a real mystery then. Unsolvable, even,” Natsuko said, clasping her forehead with a hand. “Whatever will we do? He called our local genius, Kazu-kun, boring!”

Kazuhiko shot her a very unamused look, and after a moment of internal gloating—because, hah, take that, how do you like a taste of your own medicine you broody string bean—Natsuko had to admit that she’d kinda overplayed the joke. Saying her boring team member was boring was only funny for so long.

“So, Haru-chan, how’s training been for you?” Natsuko asked.

As she did, Kazuha seemed to have noticed Kazuhiko, approaching him with a block in hand. Surprisingly or not, Kazuhiko attracted everyone under the age of ‘coherent’ to him for some reason. Babies loved him. Now, Natsuko wasn’t saying that she’d want babies approaching her all the time, but she at least wanted to know what it was about her gangly teammate that drew the blubbering masses to him like flies. Was it that he was tall and reminded them of their parents? Or was it that he was often in dark colors?

“Another baby down for the count,” she muttered, watching as Kazuhiko struggled to get Kazuha to stack her blocks on the coffee table. Pointing, gesturing, and inventing new forms of communication when words failed—what was fun about that? No idea, because Natsuko had never had to try.




Green-gray eyes crinkled in the corners as she watched her teammate and Kazuha. "My training is fine. My father is harsh and more often than not I've got bruises and open blisters on my palms but it's...amazing. Sounds odd, right, that I'm praising such harsh training...but my clan has passed down these techniques for generations and I'm finally learning them like my ancestors did." Koharu didn't outwardly show much of her enthusiasm for the subject aside from the way she clenched her hands together to stifle the desire to show off. Koharu didn't know if her teammates or even their sensei understood how harsh her training really was or how proud she was to have learned such techniques.

"Babies always like the awkward ones." She teased Kazuhiko. It was adorable how attached Kazuha was to him. "Play peek-a-boo with her, Kazu-kun. You look like you're scared of the blocks." Koharu leaned back on her palms in a rare display of carelessness. At home she was expected to be proper but here she knew that they didn't care about that. The habit was hard to break though so more often than not Koharu was often sitting in rigid postures that were pretty uncomfortable.

"They've grown so much." Azumi said, although it didn't need to be said. It just wasn't that they had grown physically, all of them seemed a little more sure about themselves and their abilities. Even Natsuko did. She'd often listen to her husband talk about the improvements the genin was making. Seeing the change in the other two was just a bit harder. They'd always been above Natsuko in skill but now she was starting to catch up. "I wonder how they'll be as adults." She crossed her arms, smiling as she watched Kazuha trying to get Kazuhiko to stack her blocks with her.

She glanced at her husband, finding him preoccupied with his thoughts. "Minoru?"

"Hm?"

"Are you okay?"

He nodded. The man had simply been thinking of how his team was almost ready to take the exams. They were getting closer each month. He wouldn't hold them back but he didn't want to let them go. Minoru took his wife's hand and led her into the living room.

Koharu looked up at them with an easy smile on her face. Azumi let go of her husband's hand and grabbed a blanket off the back of the couch. She draped it over the pale haired girl and kissed her on the temple. "You need to get warm." Azumi said, finding the way the girl's cheeks flared red to be adorable.

Minoru chuckled at the display. He knew the girl wouldn't argue with his wife over needing to get warm.

"Yes Azumi-san." She looked at her teammates for help.



That Koharu’s uncle was strict wasn’t surprisingly. From what Kazuhiko recalled of the gruff-voiced man, Osamu was proud and stoic—as clan heads tended to be. Though some mellowed out when not actively performing clan duties, but Osamu clearly fell into the group that didn’t, the group that lived and breathed their leadership because it was as much a part of them as it was their responsibility. Kazuhiko could only hope he’d be as consistent as Osamu when the time came.

At Koharu’s comment, Kazuhiko’s eyes widened. She was… teasing him. She was just teasing him. And offering him advice. Good advice. He’d take it.

“Okay,” he said, nodding and turning to face Kazuha head-on. The little girl’s eyes were bright as they darted between everything close to her, and she wielded a block in each hand, a third on the table. Kazuhiko took a breath, then covered his eyes with both hands. Next… “Peekaboo,” he said, opening his hands to either side like a pair of double doors.

The motion caught Kazuha’s attention, and she zeroed in on him, pausing. He repeated the action, his ‘peekaboo’ pitching up slightly this time. Kazuha smiled, uttering a happy-sounding cry, and Kazuhiko repeated the motion again. Each time he did, Kazuha seemed to go through the same moment of happiness, as if discovering that his eyes being uncovered was the greatest thing she’d seen. Her raw enthusiasm was touching, and he felt his heart warm as she continued bouncing between surprise and delight.

“How does she not get bored of this?” Natsuko asked, brows knit. Kazuhiko chose to ignore her comment in favor of Kazuha, who was now raising the blocks she held at Kazuhiko, mumbling incoherent noises.

“Yeah? Blocks?” he asked, putting his hands out. Instead of giving him the blocks, though, Kazuha walked towards him, falling into his hands and forcing him to catch her. When she didn’t make any move to stand again, he got the hint, hefting her up onto his lap.

“There,” he said, exhaling as Kazuha clapped her blocks together excitedly from her new vantage point. “Thanks, Koharu,” he said, flashing the girl a grateful smile.

At this point, Azumi arrived with a blanket for Koharu, who looked to him and Natsuko with pleading eyes.

“Ah, Azumi-san, I think Koharu managed to warm up already,” Kazuhiko said, looking to Azumi. On his lap, Kazuha noticed her mother, reaching out for her mother with her blocks.

“Yeah, but I’m still a bit chilly, so I’m just gonna,” Natsuko said, lifting the blanket from Koharu and swinging it around so that it wrapped around her instead. “Ah, yep, nice and toasty. This is what I needed.”




Seeing Kazuhiko playing with Kazuha had made the older man smile. It was nice to see the boy be something other than serious for a change. Minoru hid his laughter behind his fist when Kazuhiko pitched his voice. He didn't know just how they'd gotten Kazuhiko to do that. It was unlikely that Natsuko had pushed him to play peekaboo. That only left Koharu. Minoru wondered if she'd simply offered the advice on how to entertain the child. That's what he got for spacing out and thinking how they'd not be his kids soon enough. They'd still be his kids but they wouldn't need him anymore.

"Well Kazuha is a year old. They like anything at that age." He told Natsuko, choosing a spot next to her on the couch. As Kazuha was passed off to her mother, he watched the other two genin and he'd noticed something interesting, and definitely something heartwarming. As Kazuhiko thanked Koharu, he'd noticed that the girl's cheeks turned a faint shade of pink. Minoru didn't draw attention to that, simply because he knew that the girl would probably freeze the floor and his wife would blame him for it.

"You're welcome." Her attention was snagged by Natsuko taking the blanket and she was grateful for the distraction. Koharu knew that they could see her cheeks coloring. She didn't know why but his smile had set her heart picking up its pace and blood rushing into her cheeks. Maybe it was because he didn't smile much at all. Yeah, that was definitely why she'd blushed. "Wear a thicker jacket, Susu." Koharu said, watching the other girl wrap herself with the blanket. Koharu wondered why the girl has chosen a thin jacket despite the cold. While her words were blunt, it didn't mask the fact that she did care about Natsuko's health. Koharu had a higher tolerance for the cold but none of her teammates did.

As things grew comfortable, Azumi laid her daughter down for a nap and when she got back she'd taken the girls into the kitchen so they could help her cook. Azumi pointed out that they'd need to cook for their families one day.
Koharu made a face at that. While she wanted a family one day she didn't know when that would happen. Her clan would want a marriage that brings an advantage, they just had to wait for her to get older. Despite her age, it had been something brought up a few times already at clan meetings. Her dad was really good at making everyone shut up about marriage at those clan meetings.

Minoru was sitting quietly with Kazuhiko, looking a tad bit uncomfortable for some reason. "Kazuhiko...you're getting to that age when you're probably starting to notice girls…" He was uncomfortable with this but he felt it was necessary; Kazuhiko was growing up and he was on the same team as two girls. "Or other boys, if that's more your preference...and that's fine! You just need to be safe with anyone that you-."

From the kitchen he could see a head of pale hair sticking out of the doorway. "That's not something that you discuss in a living room with three girls in the next room, sensei." Koharu said, giving her teammate a look of sympathy. Ouch this was a painful talk. "And you're probably the last person to give this kind of talk anyway. You can't talk about being safe when you've knocked your wife up twice already."

The glare that she was giving made him freeze up. Koharu disappeared back into the kitchen with poorly concealed giggles once she was hidden behind the wall. A yelp a short time later let Minoru know that Koharu hadn't escaped the wrath of his wife.



Koharu’s cheeks colored at his comment—or did he imagine it? Were her cheeks always vaguely pink? It could have been the cold—he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t. Koharu didn’t get cold, said she wasn’t cold, but they’d been outside in the snow earlier. It was probably that, then.

“I will, when we’re not taking pictures,” Natsuko said, sticking her tongue out at Koharu when the girl responded. Kazuhiko didn’t really know what to make of the comment; looking your best was important, he figured, but so was staying healthy. Personally, he valued comfort more than appearances, though both were taken care of by his mother and the tailor she’d hired. Where he’d gotten his clothes personally made for him, Natsuko had filched something from her sister’s closet. The subtle differences between their lives astounded him at times, and as much as he knew it was unfair that he got better treatment as the clan heir, he also understood it. He’d want every clan heir—Koharu, Mariko, or his own in the future—to get every opportunity that could be afforded to them. They were key to the success of their clan, and as uncomfortable as the thought was, they needed special treatment.

“But,” Natsuko continued, a mischievous grin spreading across her face, “say, Haru-chan, is it just me or are you blushing?”

What happened next, Kazuhiko felt that Natsuko deserved it. A little ice here and there never hurt, especially when his most cheeky teammate was concerned. After he helped Azumi lay Kazuha down for a nap, his teammates went to the kitchen, and Minoru called him over to the couch. He waited expectantly as his sensei sat in silence, wondering what Minoru wanted to say.

"Kazuhiko...you're getting to that age when you're probably starting to notice girls…"

Kazuhiko froze, eyes wide. What—what was this first sentence? He’d heard from boys on other teams of the dreaded ‘talk,’ but it seemed that parents usually handled it. When their team leaders did, it always seemed to be in jest, as a passing comment in case they needed a reminder or a jibe. But Minoru was doing it here, now, in his home and with Kazuhiko’s teammates in the next room over. If Kazuhiko was one to jump up and change the topic, he would, but instead he sat there in shocked awe.

A voice from the kitchen doorway interrupted Minoru, and Kazuhiko was horrified to see Koharu peeking out at them, an amused smile on her face. Of all people, her? She was the most attentive, yes, and the one who’d tease him the least, maybe, depending on how confident she was and how much Natsuko had rubbed off on her, but why her?

“What? What is it?” Natsuko asked, poking her head out as well. Her eyes darted between Minoru and himself, a grin forming on her face as she connected the dots. Kazuhiko could literally see the cogs turning in her head as she worked out each piece of the puzzle, and he was so, so thankful when Koharu pulled her away. Their trailing giggles prompted a sense of embarrassment that made his cheeks feel warm, but he stifled the shame and shot Minoru a hard, decisive, and pleading look.

“Minoru-sensei, can we talk about this some other time?” he asked. Please.



“He was getting the talk right? That’s why both he and Minoru-sensei looked so uncomfortable, right?” Natsuko asked before dissolving into another fit of giggles. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of them look so uncomfortable! Man, this will be great. I can tease him for months about this! Minoru deserves a hug for helping me out.”

And it was true. While Kazuhiko was unshakable in many ways, he’d always had a weak spot: Girls. During their academy days, it was any girl he had contact with, and he talked to quite a few back when he was the class prodigy who helped passed back tests. When he got used to that, it was Mariko, who’d been equally annoyed about it at first. When they started being able to brush it off, Mariko playing along at times and Kazuhiko ignoring her outright, Natsuko had been left at a loss, but then it was onto Koharu, who was someone Natsuko teased not just because it was funny. Her teammates dating—what a story, what a match. Two heirs who were killing it in the field long before they started coming out of their shells. They’d be the power couple of the year, even the decade, but even that had started to get old. A whole year of teasing them about each other had helped the shock factor wear off, but now? Now, Natsuko had some new ammo: Kazuhiko ‘getting to that age,’ ‘starting to notice girls’ and ‘feel some type of way.’ This, she was sure, was going to be golden.

“The talk, huh,” Azumi said, patting her hands on her apron as she walked over. A faint smile hung on her lips—a smile, Natsuko was beginning to realize, that was a lot scarier than it seemed. “That reminds me, it’s about time that we had a talk too. Your parents haven’t given you two one, I assume”

What should she say? What could she say to get Azumi to stop? No? Would that get her to stop? And—damn it, Koharu, why did she have to be such a goody-two-shoes, telling the truth all the time?

“Well, sit down, girls,” Azumi said, herding them to the kitchen table. Natsuko had clamped her mouth shut, unwilling and relatively unable to find something else to say. Koharu! She was definitely getting some blame for this. Sure it was Natsuko’s own fault, talking so loudly, but Koharu wasn’t getting off scot-free from this either. Now came the punishment.

“Now, where do I start?” Azumi asked, looking between them, and Natsuko briefly wondered whether pretending to faint was a viable option.
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Minoru

A year later // Land of Fire: Konohagakure




It was just a few days before the start of the Chunin exams and he couldn't believe it. It felt unreal, and he wasn't ready to let his kids go. The past year had been interesting to say the least. Azumi had given birth to a baby boy last fall. They'd named the child Haru, keeping the theme they had unintentionally started. Haru looked like a small but cute potato, like all babies did. He, like his sister, had the typical pale violet eyes of their mother's clan but where Kazuha's hair was inky black, Haru's was a dull purple-black like Azumi's was. Minoru loved his growing family. His children were beautiful and his wife was happy. He'd considered retiring from being a sensei after his current team passed their exams. He had a family to focus on and it wasn't fair to Azumi if he'd pushed all the parenting onto her. It wasn't like he could just jump into a new team right after the exams. He'd taught these kids for the past few years and had seen them grow. They'd become a part of his family and he would always think of them as his.

Minoru had decided to meet his team for a bit of training and maybe a nice lunch since they'd be busy after the exams. It would be good to let them go on a good note. Minoru had no doubt that they would succeed in this endeavor. They'd all grown their skills, even Natsuko. He was proud of them. Okay, he was a bit more proud of Natsuko than the other two because Kazuhiko and Koharu had always been good at whatever they put their minds to...Natsuko had struggled with her ninjutsu.
They'd be meeting in their usual spot and he tried not to think too much about their first meeting in this very spot. He could clearly remember the way they looked as fresh-faced genin.

Over the years he'd changed too. Minoru had cut his once waist length hair to about his shoulder blades. He'd learned that young children loved to grab ahold of long hair and not let go. He had become more fit as well. Training with his genin had improved his physique (something that he knew his wife quite liked) and he'd gained a few new scars on the backs of his hands and one pale line on his chin that wasn't all that noticeable. Luckily he hadn't developed wrinkles yet, as it was common for men in his clan to have crows feet before they reached forty. Minoru was barely pushing thirty.

It was springtime, the snow had barely melted and he realized that a year ago they'd taken their team portraits around this time. He'd hung the photo of his team in his living room in a large frame that bore the names of his team burned into the wood in neat kanji. Looking at the sky, he began to mull over everything. They were surely ready to take on the exams and grow as individuals. In the past year he'd loosened his grip on the reins and let their other mentors have more wiggle room. It had left him more room to focus on his family. His son and daughter were important to him and he had asked his genin to always be a part of their lives. Koharu had taken it much more seriously than he'd expected her to. While he didn't expect any of them to brush it off, she'd taken it to heart and had promised that she would. The girl was definitely a big sister and it showed.
Minoru's fingers fiddled with the plain wedding band around his left ring finger. He always fiddled with things but it was getting more common as his anxiety about the exams grew.



Koharu

A year later // Land of Fire: Konohagakure


While their sensei was nervous, Koharu was excited. This would mark a new chapter in her life and it would mean that she was one step closer to being the head of her clan one day. Her father had been a harsh teacher, pushing and pushing her until she got the techniques down. It had left her with rough palms and a multitude of bruises ranging from black to bright yellow.
She couldn't wait to put his teachings to use. Perhaps it would also squash any wariness regarding her clan. The Wakahisa may have left their homeland with their tails between their legs but they were not useless.

She arrived early, like she always did, but had chosen to hang back and watch her sensei. He seemed worried and maybe a little sad. During their less frequent team meetings he'd always had sad eyes despite the smiles he always put on. After a few minutes of watching him look at the cloudless blue sky and fiddling around with his ring, Koharu made her presence known. "Sensei…."

He looked over at her and smiled, although it made her frown. "You don't have to be so sad. You'll still be our sensei, you know." Koharu walked over to him, hand resting on her sword. He shrugged.

"You kids have grown up too fast." He reached out and pat her head. Koharu hadn't grown much physically. Just a half inch taller, if he was being truthful. She'd started to wear her hair differently though; one braid coiled into a bun and secured with a hairpin. It made her look a little bit more grown up. Koharu swatted his hand away from her head, giving him a glare. Minoru chuckled. He was glad that she hadn't changed much in the way of personality. It was clear that once her shell was broken through that she was the middle between her teammates. She could be rowdy like Natsuko but at times quiet like Kazuhiko. He'd noticed that she no longer cared quite so much about accidentally offending her teammates as they'd all known each other long enough to understand what they meant. That also meant that he'd had to adjust to the way the girl spoke. She was very much like Osamu when it came to being unapologetic.

Koharu sighed, "Yeah, but it's still unfair that Susu and Kazu are both so tall." Wait, when had she stopped using any honorifics when addressing the boy? That caught Minoru by surprise. She'd never really used them with Natsuko, likely because the other girl wasn't heir to her clan, but she'd always used them with Kazuhiko.

"Since when did you stop calling him Kazu-kun?"

Perhaps the snow shoved up his shirt was called for for that one. She'd advanced enough in her use of her nature release to have made the snow stick to the inside of his shirt better. It wasn't as powdery as it once had been.
"Dumb Sensei reading too far into things." Koharu said, crossing her arms over her chest as she looked away from the struggling man. He still couldn't get the snow from his shirt.
She hadn't known when she dropped her teammates nickname and it didn't really matter. When they were adults and leaders of their respective clans it would have been wrong for her to address him with such a childish nickname. They were fourteen already, halfway to becoming adults. They didn't need nicknames like that. Except for when it came to Natsuko. Koharu would always call her Susu.

"You're getting better with the snow. Osamu-san has taught you well. Minoru didn't hide his pride as he finally got the snow out of his shirt. Her cheeks colored slightly and she nodded. Having someone to push her more than she already pushed herself had been a big advantage.
There was a lot riding on her shoulders. Sometimes it was a heavy burden to bear but she reminded herself that Osamu had chosen her for a reason when he could have taken her sister or even broke tradition and named his sons as his heirs. She owed it to him to be the best. "When the others get here we'll spar and I'll get to see how much you guys have improved.

Koharu was rather proud over a few little combo moves they'd managed to come up with over the past year. Not only had the three of them worked on their team move, but they'd developed a few other moves that played on their strengths. The Wakahisa had a type of kekkei genkai that used to chakra natures to make a new one, meaning that with enough practice they could use both independently as well as combine them to make ice and snow. Their ice was always the strongest of the three natures but it wasn't uncommon for them to use wind or water independently.
With Natsuko they'd tried to use her wind to propel Koharu's ice but it didn't work out very well yet. Instead they'd learned that they could both uae the same type of wind based attack in tandem to create a larger scaled attack. And with Kazuhiko she learned that her water based attack aided his lightning. Of course with these independent natures she wasn't quite so skilled so she was limited to one move that she could do. Still it was impressive, given that she was fairly rigid in her ways. Kazuhiko definitely was much more rigid than Koahru. It was Natsuko that was the flexible one. She wasn't quite so set in her ways.

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Kazuhiko Taketori

Land of Fire: Konohagakure

Time was fleeting, and it moved faster than Kazuhiko thought or wanted as the countdown until the chunin exams ran down. Training with Atomu ate up his days when he wasn’t working with his team under Minoru, and even on the weekend he felt compelled to keep busy, do something other than sitting around listening to his parents and clan elders talk. There would be time for all that and more after he passed his chunin exam, but first, he had to pass it.

Talking with his teammates about their training had reminded him about what was important: getting stronger. So Hidemi hadn’t agreed to train him—he had Atomu, who was no less capable of training him at his current level. Trying to figure out what the puzzling man wanted could wait until after the chunin exams, he figured, especially since most of the skills he first had to work on were basic, foundational ones that set the stage for those more complex. There was activating the sensaigan, maintaining it, and becoming accustomed to it. Then there was actually incorporating it into attacks, familiarizing himself with the intricacies of the nervous system so that he could make the most out of every strike. The day he managed to land a true, sensaigan-backed hit on Atomu was a landmark, but it was one of many. Every new skill led to the introduction of another, and each required what seemed like endless hours of practice.

Many a time, he wondered whether the Hyuga’s byakugan required as much time and practice as the sensaigan did, and when he finally brought it up to Atomu, the answer was an amused ‘of course.’ Taijutsu often required more time to master than ninjutsu since it was the body that was being molded, not the mind and the intricacies of chakra and how it was used. The two were taxing in different ways, but physical conditioning still took more time than chakra-fueled ones, for some reason. Perhaps, as Atomu theorized, it was the difference between the physical and spiritual worlds, but neither of them were philosophers and breaks between exercises were short.

In terms of progress, Kazuhiko was quite proud of how far he’d come, not he’d ever admit it. When he described it to his parents, it didn’t come out sounding quite as impressive as he’d thought, but his father had easily understood. Despite choosing a life of politics over field work, Kazuma was a jonin-level shinobi, as was any other “self-respecting Taketori.” According to his father, it was a matter of pride, which was why the seemingly small improvements he was making made sense with the amount of time he was investing.

“Foundation is key,” his father had said when Kazuhiko finished talking, echoing Atomu’s exact words—words that, Kazuhiko soon realized, were a mantra for most Taijutsu schools. Training, honing, and conditioning were what made the difference when it came to Taijutsu, and his gradual improvement in terms of accuracy and fluency showed.

As he transitioned from foundational skills to his first few Taketori ninjutsu, though, he realized that there was a reason why the Taketori valued their own dojo so much: Many of their skills could only be taught by those experienced with sensaigan. Ninjutsu and taijutsu skills aimed precisely at nerves could easily lead to lasting consequences, after all, and a learning Taketori had little control over their strength and precision. Though there were discussed rules and limits, deflected blows were not easily as easily dodged, and many a time Kazuhiko had felt compelled to apologize profusely to Atomu as he watched his tutor tend to fried nerves with a special blend of medical ninjutsu developed by Taketori, for Taketori. Trying to imagine putting Minoru through the same injuries was unthinkable, and he was glad that both of his teammates had managed to find tutors within their clan. Though neither Koharu nor Natsuko wielded jutsu as focused on immediate damage as his, he’d seen the reason behind in-clan tutors firsthand, and the benefits didn’t end at experience.

Though practicing with his team was allotted less time than it was in the past as a result of all three of them working on their kekkai genkai, the time they spent together was more focused than it was before. The looming deadline of the chunin exam date was daunting enough to keep Natsuko focused, and Kazuhiko had to admit he was impressed with how far she’d come over the past year. Minoru had encouraged them to combine their skillsets since “three heads are better than one,” and Koharu and Natsuko did wonders with his encouragement. Combining their wind ninjutsu was hard to time, but when they figured it out, the number of trees they managed to whip bare intimidated Kazuhiko, as did Natsuko’s lighthearted warning of a “bigger, better, more amazing technique” when she figured out how to properly mesh her wind with Koharu’s ice. The thought of ice shards zipping through the air was scary enough with Koharu on her own, nevermind more numerous ones at faster paces when Koharu was allowed to focus on just controlling her ice.

As for his techniques with his teammates, his options had been rather limited. His sensaigan didn’t mesh well for obvious reasons, and Natsuko’s wind did nothing for his lightning other than helping his electricity-charged kunai fly faster. With Koharu, he’d managed to come up with a large-scaled attack featuring her water ninjutsu, but those were rather limited in comparison to her ice-based ones, so progress was slow there.

Trying to develop team tactics, though, had encouraged an interest in picking up a second chakra element. Some water release ninjutsu would greatly expand his options with his lightning jutsu, and it’d mesh well with Koharu’s skillset too. Though Taketori water-wielders weren’t common, they weren’t unheard of either. Wind and lightning chakra affinities were most common, but water affinities made up a healthy minority of the clan. This thought, though, remained but a thought, and both Atomu and Minoru had agreed that it’d be a good thing to work on after the chunin exams. For now, he focused on improving his existing skills with his own skillset and with his teammates' because even if his sensaigan didn’t directly work with their jutsu, there was no reason their jutsu couldn’t help him close the distance between him and his opponents.



Natsuko Rinha

Noon || Land of Fire: Konohagakure — Rinha Compound

“Hi-ya!” Natsuko shouted, kicking off Sayumi’s arm and landing a few feet away. Her tutor rolled her eyes, prompting her to straighten. “What?” she whined. “Can’t I make cool sound effects while I practice? I’m bored enough as it is.”

“Training isn’t supposed to be fun, Natsuko, and you’re supposed to be focusing.” Sayumi said, sighing and straightening as well.

“I am!” Natsuko protested.

“On the basic taijutsu we were working on, or on making your ‘sound effects?’” Sayumi asked. At Natsuko’s pout, Sayumi sighed again. “Alright, run along. It’s about lunchtime anyway,” she said, dismissing Natsuko with a flippant wave of a hand.

“Okay!” Natsuko said, instantly perking up. Food sounded pretty good right about now, but just as she turned to run off, she hesitated, remembering something her father had mentioned to her. “Um, Sayumi-sensei, my parents wanted me to invite you to have lunch with at our house sometime. As thanks for you agreeing to tutor me. I think my dad’s home now, if you’re free to drop by? We’re having udon, I think.”

Sayumi looked up from where she was retrieving her water and towel. “Oh, sure. Udon sounds delicious,” she said, slinging her towel over a shoulder and walking over. “Lead the way.”

Though Natsuko led the way with a smile, she couldn’t shake her nervousness. Inviting Sayumi over for lunch had mostly been her mother’s idea. It’d been decided that her father would open up his schedule for lunch to get some time to talk to Sayumi, see how Natsuko was doing and how Sayumi was as a tutor. Since it was Minoru who’d introduced Sayumi to Natsuko, her parents weren’t as in the know as they wanted to be, and Natsukawa Rinha liked to be in the know about her own clan members. From the snippets Natsuko had heard through her room’s walls, Sayumi had been a properly accomplished jonin on active duty until very recently, when she’d had a rough mission where she’d been forced to take some risks. Though the mission had been successful, Sayumi came out of it gravely injured. Something about overloading on chakra and overexerting her body. Natsuko wasn’t too sure about the specifics, but at that point she’d figured she’d probably heard a little too much. As far as she’d been concerned, the loose cloth Sayumi wrapped around her arms and legs had been an aesthetic choice, communicating a sort of bandage-like feel without the rough appearance of gauze and injury. Knowing the truth behind them tended to make her feel guilty, and she’d spent a few days hesitating before striking when direct-contact attacks were part of the day’s training regimen.

Now, she was mostly over it. Though it was scary to think about what sort of injuries could force a full-fledged jonin onto sick leave, it wasn’t like Sayumi was bedridden or unable to move. To Natsuko, her tutor seemed as capable as the next jonin, but she couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that’d settled on her whenever she thought back to her parent’s words. ‘Gravely injured’—that sounded bad. Very bad. And Sayumi didn’t look like she was injured that bad. Which, if Natsuko had to be honest, only scared her more.

“Dad, we’re here!” she called, opening the sliding door to their house.

“Natsuko-chan, welcome back. And you must be Sayumi-san,” Masaya said, emerging from another room and bowing in greeting. “Welcome.”

“Masaya-sama, thank you for inviting me over,” Sayumi said, bowing as well.

“No need to thank me. I should thank you for offering to tutor Natsuko,” he said, gesturing to a doorway. “This way,” he said, leading the way to the dining room.

“Tell me, has Natsuko been doing well in her training? I know that she can be a bit… distracted at times, but I hope that hasn't been hindering her,” he said, indicating to a butler to have another meal set up.

“She’s been fine. She could use a bit more focus at times, but she’s learning and improving at a very reasonable pace,” Sayumi said, shooting a pointed look at Natsuko, who gave her a pursed smile.

“Good, good,” Sayumi said, indicating where Sayumi should sit. Natsuko took the other available seat beside her father, hesitating before picking up her chopsticks. Eating alone seemed like a preferable option right about now.

“How is her dark release coming along? I heard from her sensei, Minoru-san, that she’s been able to perform some Kusunemasu skills,” he said, picking up his chopsticks. Natsuko took the cue and dug in, slurping up her udon heartily. Training tended to distract her from how hungry she was, but the smell of food helped remind her of it.

It wasn’t until her third slurp that she remembered that maybe she should tone it down. Generally, she liked to slurp as loudly as she wanted, but there was a conversation going on right now, and it wasn’t like her father took a lot of time off work. Someone had to go experiment and develop new jutsu, and her mother couldn’t do it all.

“It’s, well, it’s coming along,” Sayumi said. “Her control needs some work, but whose didn’t, at her age.”

Masaya nodded, finally starting to eat. The conversation progressed from there, with Natsuko focused on eating so she could dismiss herself from the table. However, because she couldn’t slurp her noodles, trying to eat them quickly was proving quite difficult. Finding the balance between speed and manners, between quiet and loud left her teetering, and more than once her father had to glance at her.

“Also, forgive me for how late this is, but congratulations on your most recent mission, Sayumi-san. I heard you were key to the mission’s success,” Masaya said.

“Thank you, Masaya-sama. The entire team was great, and I’m lucky to have had them,” Sayumi said, dipping her head.

“I also heard that you were injured, but you seem to be in good health. I assume you’ve healed up, though? When will you be taking your next mission?”

Sayumi paused. “I’m taking a short break from missions, actually. To rest and recover.”

“Oh, of course. Good thing Natsuko found you when she did, then,” Masaya said, smiling.

Natsuko felt the stir of discomfort again. ‘Gravely injured’—did that have anything to do with Sayumi taking a break? Because, by the way her dad changed the subject again, it seemed like it did.

Late Morning || Land of Fire: Konohagakure

“Here!” Natsuko shouted, dashing towards where her team was gathered by the bridge. Looking at it now, with shoots of grass peeking out of the slush-speckled ground, invoked the memory of the cold wind from the year before, and Natsuko shook out a shiver as she came to a stop beside Koharu. “So? What’re you all talking about?”

“You,” Kazuhiko said simply, throwing her off for a moment as she stared at him, taken aback. Though she quickly realized it was a joke, it’d taken her a few seconds longer than usual to make the connection. Surprise accounted for that delay since it was Kazuhiko making the jokes. He’d started to snipe back in the past year, sometimes returning jibes with a flippant tone that always had her reeling, wondering for a second or two whether he was being serious, but she was cutting that time down. Not as quickly as she liked, perhaps, but she was working on it.

“I was just asking Minoru-sensei about how Kazuha and Haru are doing. Apparently Kazuha’s vocabulary is expanding?” Kazuhiko continued, not missing a beat despite his joke. As much as Natsuko hated the fact that his deadpan delivery threw her off, she had to respect good technique. Maybe it was time for her to stop letting her grin betray her attention before she finished her sentences.

“Oh, can Kazuha finally say something other than ‘Natsuko silly?’” she joked. Her eyes, though, stayed fixed on Minoru. Where Kazuha seemed to have multiple thoughts about how Koharu and Kazuhiko were, she’d been branded as simply ‘silly,’ which didn’t work out in her favor when she was making genuine efforts to get to know the girl and her brother.

“I thought she was rather spot-on with that assessment,” Kazuhiko said.

Natsuko crossed her arms, pouting. “First time I see you in a week and you’re this mean? What’d I do to you? Make fun of your haircut too much?”

Kazuhiko pulled a face, one hand going up to try and muss up his hair, which had been cut a bit too short to allow anything of the sort. “It doesn’t look like my dad’s. His is longer in the back.”

“Looks similar enough to me,” Natsuko said, grinning. It really didn’t, but hey, it was getting to him.



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Team Six

Late morning || Land of Fire: Konohagakure


He was sort of regretting telling them to work out team attacks because they'd gone at him full force. There was something absolutely terrifying about being pit against three people who did have some pretty impressive combined attacks. By far the one that he was the most afraid of was Natsuko's and Koharu's combined attack. The amount of ice shards that could be produced and the speed at which they'd been blasted at him had improved. Individually they'd all grown and it was a little odd to think that when they first met the kids had either average or slightly above average skills. His only consolation to this whole thing was that Koharu was weaker in taijutsu than her teammates. Sure, she had a better grasp of kenjutsu and she'd brought along her practice sword, and she'd left some harsh bruises along his arms and side, but the moment she was disarmed he could have taken her down easily. He'd been so focused on her that he'd nearly forgotten about the other two genin.
Minoru was laying on the ground contemplating if he'd need to ask for help in getting up or not. A small foot poked his side gently, prodding him to get up and Minoru whined in protest.

"You'll survive. As Otou-san says "you're not done until your heart stops"." Minoru inwardly groaned that Osamu was a sadist and he was teaching Koharu the same line of thinking. That was the last thing that the world needed. Koharu held out a small hand with bruised knuckles and he stared for a while. Healing bruises were layered with fresh ones and he wondered just how hard Osamu had been on her. He accepted the help up, groaning as a sharp pain rocked his body. Damned lightning. They were still good at their team attack that utilized all of their major skills.

"Why don't you kids go and enjoy some time off for a few hours? From what I understand all of you have been training quite a bit. You're only young once so don't work yourselves to exhaustion now." He wanted them to be kids too. They'd look back one day and regret that they'd trained so much...or not. Kazuhiko and Koharu probably wouldn't.

"You're just saying that because you need to go home and rest. You're an old man." Koharu teased. That earned a chuckle from Minoru and she helped him stand a bit. It was a bit awkward on his end because she was so much shorter than he was (still) so he had to lean over a bit. "I can make some ice for you if you need it now?"

Minoru shook his head. He really didn't want her to put ice in his shirt...again. "I'll be fine. Thank you for the offer though. You kids get going." He was able to move well enough to get home on his own. Hopefully Azumi would let him soak in a hot bath for a good hour or two. He pat Koharu on the head before doing the same to Natsuko and Kazuhiko. No matter how tall they got (or didn't) he'd pat their heads. As their sensei walked away while trying to hide a limp, the pale haired girl looked up at her teammates.

"Otou-san has a meeting today so I was going to practice my kata some more...unless you two do want to hang out with me?" Koharu was still a bit awkward in asking them if they wanted to hang out. She could hold her own against Natsuko in conversation and she could tease Kazuhiko but she couldn't ask them to spend time with her. Perhaps one day in the distant future she wouldn't be so awkward.



“Um, duh? I haven’t seen you in like a week, of course I wanna hang out,” Natsuko said immediately, and again, Kazuhiko was grateful for his more social teammate. Despite lacking much of the polish and tact his parents silently demanded of him, Natsuko managed to pull off her personality quite well. She was personable and easy to get along with, provided she wanted to get along with the person in question, and she wielded her mix of teasing obliviousness with a childish ease that made people want to smile and laugh along. It made sense, though; there were few people in the village who could claim to be friends with as many, varied people as Natsuko. While he and Koharu might have somewhat similar personalities, Mariko was somewhat of a polar opposite, wearing a smile that Kazhuhiko knew rather than saw to be false. Though training for the chunin exams had made itself a priority for her—along with all the other genins looking to pass—it wasn’t as if acquaintanceships and friendships made during their days in the genin academy were forgotten. The only difference was that while they’d only been classmates at that age, they were now teammates, working together and learning alongside each other.

His opinion of her, as well as of Koharu, had undergone drastic transitions throughout the years, if only because he hadn’t known either very well back then. Now that they’d grown out of the phase where they were class representative, new girl, and class clown, he could appreciate her careless assertiveness. Knowing that she was gunning for the conversational spotlight made it easier for him when he didn’t know what to say since quiet didn’t seem to be a word in Natsuko’s dictionary.

When his teammates turned to him, he cleared his throat. “Same,” he said.

“Well. I’m hungry,” Natsuko stated, looking back to Koharu.

There were a few options, here. A ramen stand, bento boxes at a bench, or any other normal lunch setting. However, knowing Natsuko, there was only one right answer, and it was—

“Mochi?”

“Maybe we could get mochi after lunch,” Kazuhiko suggested. He could use some food, and the thought of trying to eat sweets on an empty stomach made him a bit nauseous.

“‘After?’” Natsuko echoed, groaning. “We haven’t gotten mochi together in forever!”

“We’ll get mochi. I just… want to eat lunch first,” he said, attempting to calm Natsuko. The tantrums she threw when Minoru withheld mochi from her weren’t something he was prepared to deal with.

“Great. Let’s get noodles. I’m in the mood for some udon,” Natsuko said brightly. Grabbing both he and Koharu with an arm, she dragged them off towards town, looking back at their sensei with a grin. “Bubye, Sensei! Don’t grow too many white hairs during your nap, or Kazuha and Haru might not recognize you when you wake up!”

Kazuhiko glanced back at Minoru as he was dragged off, giving the man a helpless wave. Minoru had taken a slight beating during their training session, but there had been no getting around that. A jonin could fend off three genin, easy. Chunin, though? Probably not, which was exactly why the session had happened. That said, whether Minoru was more worn out due to the team’s success or Haru’s odd sleeping hours, Kazuhiko couldn’t tell. He just hoped that, whichever it was, Minoru got some well-deserved rest before the chunin exams.



Much to Natsuko’s dismay—or surprise, but she’ll pass it off as dismay because why not—her teammates redirected her path towards a noodle shop rather than a noodle stand. According to them, a proper establishment with tables and chairs was better to sit and chat at. According to her, tables and chairs were overrated. Unfortunately, they outnumbered her two to one, and, as Kazuhiko was all too happy to point out, she’d already chosen where they were going after.

“No way this is better than a noodle stand,” Natsuko said, sniffing as she opened the menu. So the place had more variety. She was going to a noodle shop to eat noodles, not rice or sushi.

“I think I’ll get a bowl of ramen,” Kazuhiko said, looking to Koharu instead of her. He was clearly ignoring her, Natsuko realized with a pout, but a smile found its way back onto her face soon enough. He might have gotten good at ignoring her, but she’d still managed to seat him next to Koharu. Now, if she played her cards right, she might be able to push some buttons that didn’t involve riling anyone up. What to do, oh what to do.



"Good choice. The sushi sounds good. I might get that." Koharu said, looking back down at the menu. Her family may have been pushed from their homeland but they still tried to do traditional dishes. Fish was also another food source that they'd taken to well. The fish dwelled in the almost frozen lakes of the Land of Snow and there had been a booming trade industry back when she was a baby, or so she heard. Wakahisa traditions were three hundred years old so she had a certain amount of pride in continuing them.

She set aside the menu, having already made up her mind. "Do you hear something, Kazu? I thought this place was a lot quieter." Messing with Natsuko was fun. Her lips quirked into a slight smile. There'd been one time when she'd kept a straight face while teasing and they'd thought she'd been serious. Koharu had spent fifteen minutes afterward apologizing to them.
Over the past few years Koharu had morphed from a girl unsure of her own voice to one that was steadily growing more confident. She'd envied the way that Natsuko could just say whatever came to mind and the way that Kazuhiko could just ignore things.



"Young master? Oh not again!"

In an alleyway a young boy with dark hair and skin was smothering his laughter as his retainer and a few bodyguards ran around looking for him. He loved to trick them but it was getting a bit boring. He hadn't been in Konoha since he was a kid, or what a twelve year old thought as a kid. Sure it was risky to walk around these streets without an escort but he was sure no one would know who he was, or who he was related to. Once the man passed him and he was sure he could slip away easily, the boy did just that.

"Look out Konoha, Hachiro Nakamura is here!" He placed his hands on his hips and grinned widely, definitely striking up a hero pose. The boy ran down a side road, wandering around for a little while until his stomach growled.
He pat his stomach, promising he'd get food soon.

His search led him to a noodle shop. Hachiro was the son of a daimyo so he was used to the finer things in life, and those finer things were silk sheets and noodle shops. Noodle stands were quaint but for the less fortunate. Ah, well. He pushed open the doors and looked around for an empty table. There were none, which made him deflate just a little bit, but then he caught sight of a familiar looking trio.

Was Hachiro still upset that they left? Yes. Was he going to go over there and talk to them? Yep, and they even had an open seat. As he approached it seemed like two of them were ignoring the third. He remembered Kazuhiko, the tall boy had been a curiosity to Hachiro and he'd missed him. Golden eyes trailed to the smaller pale haired girl beside him. Koharu had been patient, putting up with his antics when the others were annoyed. He'd missed her too. Then his gaze wandered to the other side of the table and he felt his breath catch. Natsuko, or ugly, as he'd called her, was pretty. Even prettier than before. Hachiro felt his cheeks warm up and he knew he was blushing a little bit.

Would they recognize him? He'd been shorter than Koharu when they'd met and now he was likely taller than she was. He wasn't as tall as Kazuhiko was though. Hachiro seemed to have major growth spurts rather than steady growth.

"Why's your hair white? Are you sick?" She never did answer his question the first time he'd asked it. The startled look that came over her face made him laugh. The startled look morphed from one of shock to realization and the girl stood up. He was a few inches taller than she was now, perhaps five inches or so. Before he'd been shorter by a few.

"Wow you're so short! Are you positive you're a shinobi? It's good to...see…you…." Hachiro trailed off when she glared at him. Damn that glare was scary for someone of her stature. Was it just him or did the room just get a little bit colder?

"You may have gotten taller but you're still a brat." Koharu said, although her words lacked any bite and she held a gentle smile. She moved forward and pulled the boy into a hug. Koharu thought about him a few times over the years. Hachiro looked surprised at first but eventually he hugged her back.



The voice beside Natsuko was an unfamiliar one, but the words weren’t. She turned, half-expecting to find the little brat she’d never gotten around to beating up beside her. Instead, she found a rather tall boy who, while young and strongly resembled the brat, had grown out of his previously button-cute features in favor of youthful ones. For a moment, it occurred to Natsuko that the kid might one day be taller than her. How absolutely horrifying.

Thankfully, Koharu was quick on a response, standing and hugging Hachiro. Natsuko rose too, giving the boy a suspicious look as Kazuhiko approached.

“You look well, Hachiro. Are you still giving your father a hard time?” he asked, patting the boy’s head. He didn’t seem as phased as the girls were by Hachiro’s growth spurt, but that was probably because he was still much taller. In fact, he probably maintained his height advantage, making him the only one in the team to do so, but then again when did Kazuhiko notice that him being tall wasn’t normal?

“If you pull anything, you’re dead,” Natsuko said, fixing Hachiro with her best rendition of Koharu’s glare. Then, uncrossing her arms, she grinned, hugging him as well. “Good to see that you haven’t gotten yourself killed without us though. That would have been karma, but sad.”

Then, drawing back, Natsuko ruffled his hair as well, a wide grin on her face. “Gotta tap this while I still can. Who knows when I won’t be able to see the top of your head anymore?” she said, standing on her toes.

“You’re here for food though, right?” Kazuhiko asked, motioning towards the seats. “Sit with us. And here’s a menu,” he said, giving Hachiro his.

“Hey, your family is rich, right?” Natsuko said, a grin stretching across her lips again as she sat. “How much have you got on you?”

“Natsuko,” Kazuhiko said warily.

“What? I’m just asking,” Natsuko said, rolling her eyes. “Can’t I be curious?”

Soon enough, the waiter came by to take their orders, and the crew got around to asking about Hachiro’s life so far and telling him about theirs. The chunin exams were central to their story, of course, and Natsuko spent no small amount of the time regaling Hachiro about the fact that she had the best team, that this was the best team, and that if there were any team to pass the exams, it would definitely be this one.

“Two clan heirs? They might as well declare us the winners, if there were winners,” she finished with a proud grin. Across the table, Kazuhiko had taken to looking at her with a rather tired look, but she ignored him. So he disagreed, perhaps with almost everything she’d said—so what? It was all true. All of it. Even the parts when she may have exaggerated her own contributions a teensy bit. Him bringing that up, though, would be super not cool, so Natsuko settled on staring at him, daring him to open his mouth.

Fortunately, food came right then, distracting her and allowing Kazuhiko to change the topic. “So, Hachiro, what brings you to Konoha?” he asked. “Are you going to be around for the chunin exams?”



In comparison to their exciting lives, his was rather tame. His tutors hammered a basic education into him and then they worked on the finer points, like the political history of the nations and how he'd fit into it. Hachiro was the eighth son in a family of nine. He'd never inherit his father's position or those of his elder brothers. His lessons were boring and his tutors expected him to remember everything they said. It wouldn't have been so bad if his tutors had tried to be fun in teaching. In a way he envied the soon to be Chunin because they had someone like Minoru as a sensei.
When things were directed at him, he grinned widely. "My dad is actually here on official business but because we also have genin who signed up, we're staying for the exams!"

The exams were a private affair until the final portion, where the fights would be held in a large arena. It became a way for the village as a whole to acknowledge those that had progressed that far. "So you'll be in Konoha for a few months then?" From what Minoru had told them, once the finalists were done with the preliminary fights they would have a month long intensive training in order to fully prepare them, and it also served to get village officials enough time to sort out who was to fight who.

Hachiro nodded. Politics were their own brand of boring and it usually took weeks of negotiating, writing up treaties and other important documents. He dug into his ramen and hummed happily. Hachiro looked up at the older kids, although the moment he'd looked at Natsuko he'd blushed.

Across the table the pale haired girl caught sight of the pink blush and she smiled. Maybe him being so mean to Natsuko when they'd first met had been the result of a child discovering something like a crush. Koharu came to think that Hachiro had matured until his eyes locked onto the sushi she'd ordered and he'd gagged.
"Ew, no one is gonna kiss you if you have fish breath. Isn't that right, Kazuhiko?"

Koharu glared at him, cheeks flaring red. "Coming from the boy who can't even look at Susu without looking like a tomato. And you're too young to be thinking about kissing, anyways." It was his turn to give her a glare marred by a blush, but his glare was nothing compared to hers.
After a while the topic had been dropped and lunch paid for. Hachiro had paid for them, covering the bill as if it had been nothing. For him it had been nothing. He was a little oblivious about his wealth at times.

"I really should take my practice sword home before we get mochi…." The statement was more for herself but Hachiro had latched onto the idea. He grinned widely and grabbed her arm and began to lead her in the wrong direction. He wanted to spend as much time with them as possible. They were his only friends after all. Koharu quietly corrected the boy and he listened.
Her home was small, since it was only her and her father living there. The Wakahisa had been granted a small section of a city block to house their homes and studios. Their civilians were craftsmen who specialized in pottery and decorative art.

"Your home is so...small! I thought you were a clan heir?" Hachiro seemed dismayed by this discovery.

"I live here with my father. We don't need a lot of space." The girl shrugged before leading them inside the plain house. By contrast to the simple outside, the inside of their house was richly decorated and rather...cozy. There was one wall dedicated entirely to swords, which was a given. Koharu had left her friends and Hachiro in the living room while she went to put her practice sword away.

It was around then that a massive man with long black hair entered the house. He stopped upon seeing the trio standing a little awkwardly in his living room. "Hello," his voice was gruff but oddly pleasant, "I assume you're here with my daughter?"
Was this guy really that laid back when he found strangers in his home? Hachiro thought it was odd that he wasn't angry at them. But he missed the way that Osamu's hand had gone to the hilt of his sword.
The man looked at Natsuko and Kazuhiko longer than he did Hachiro and the boy was relieved.

"You must be Natsuko and Kazuhiko. My daughter speaks highly of you both." Osamu didn't smile but his tone had softened slightly. Koharu was his little girl so he would try to be nice (or as much as his personality would allow) for her sake.



Kazuhiko didn’t miss either of the exchanged blushes, instead sitting back as Hachiro dealt with the aftermath of Koharu’s revelation, his eyes on Natsuko. Somehow, identifying the beginnings of a crush in others was easy. A lingering glance, a nervous redirect, an uncomfortable but controlled fidget—is this what he looked like? He hoped not, but he wasn’t exactly able to recall everything he did while he was nervous. For the most part, though, he figured he had to have been less obvious that Hachiro, because Hachiro was, for lack of a better term, pretty transparent. He talked and joked, but his emotions bled through. Perhaps one day, after many seasons in court, he’d be better-versed in presenting a poker face, but for now, unfortunately, even Natsuko seemed to have caught on.

“Hah, of course, I’m fabulous,” she said with a dramatic flip of her hair. “But get in line, brat. Wait, don’t. You’re way too young for me.”

Kazuhiko coughed to hide the laugh he didn’t manage to hold. Sometimes, he had to wonder whether anything could shake Natsuko. Thankfully, though, that comment was enough to move the conversation on, and soon enough they were finished and on the way to Koharu’s. While the thought of running into Koharu’s father was a bit nerve-wracking, given that the man had been the source of Koharu’s glare and increasing flintiness, Kazuhiko was interested in looking around the Wakahisa compound. From what he’d heard, it was a rather small place compared to that of other Konoha clans, but how small was small?

As they walked, Koharu with Hachiro and Natsuko staring at them from behind, a frown on her face, he kept pace with Natsuko. “You know, two years isn’t that much.”

Natsuko fixed him with a sharp look. You know, he’s the only thing stopping me from teasing you and Ruru, so I wouldn’t push it.”

At that, Kazuhiko felt it was due time to take a step back. Teasing people was fun, as he’d discovered, but sometimes it wasn’t worth it.

The Wakahisa compound soon came into view, and while it was small, it wasn’t as small as Kazuhiko had heard. Though his father didn’t embellish his words much, exaggerations were inevitable when information was passed around. Unlike many of the clans he was used to, which were granted entire sprawls of land reaching out of the city, the Wakahisa resided in a comfortable block or so, some of their craftsmen visible as the group walked by. Pottery and other pieces of fine art seemed to be the main products, and even though the buildings’ exteriors seemed small, the interiors betrayed what finery the clan had at their disposal.

Yes, Kazuhiko had expected some difference in wealth between his own clan and Koharu’s, but looking around, he realized what was wrong with his assumption: His father had been comparing clan wealth, but their clan was much bigger than the Wakahisa’s. Factoring in size and population, it didn’t seem like there was much difference aside from personal preference.

“Not everyone’s as spoiled as you, you know,” Natsuko said, crossing her arms and shooting Hachiro a glare when he commented on the size of the property. With this, Kazuhiko had to agree, and he listened as Koharu spoke, his eyes wandering over the subtle but sophisticated decor. Given that his parents preferred to emphasize their house’s elegance with size and simplicity, it was refreshing to see a different take on how a house could be. In a way, Koharu’s house almost reminded him of Minoru’s, which was filled with photographs and personal effects Kazuhiko’s parents preferred to keep out of sight.

“Woah, a sword collection!” Natsuko said, walking over to the decorated wall and leaning into to peer at the scabbards and hilts. “Do you use these at all, Ruru?”

Before Koharu could answer, though, Osamu entered the house, Kazuhiko straightening in recognition. He’d seen Osamu a smattering times in the past years, and every time he’d been struck by how large the man’s presence was, how intimidating yet calm he was while he commanded the room. In comparison to the clan leaders he was used to, whose authority was shown through their attitudes and accolades, Osamu took control of the room with his appearance too, which communicated everything he was.

“Wakahisa-sama,” Kazuhiko said, bowing slightly as he spoke. “Thank you for having us. This is Hachiro, a friend from one of our missions,” he said, indicating Hachiro.

Natsuko snapped out of her staring in time to cough something that sounded suspiciously like ‘brat,’ but she was quickly back to staring at Osamu. “Um, nice to meet you,” she said when she caught a glance from Kazuhiko, bowing slightly as well.



"Ruru?" Osamu looked at his daughter with a raised brow. This was the first time he'd heard the nickname, although in his defense he hadn't seen her friends more than a few quick glances. This was the first time that he had actually spoke to them. As they bowed, he gave a small nod. Even Hachiro had bowed, showing the proper respects despite not really knowing just who Osamu was. He studied the two genin, curious but masking it with a poker face. The taller boy was easy to peg as a Taketori, although the girl was harder to identify. It was only because he'd heard her name before that he knew she was of the Rinha.

Koharu gave him a sheepish shrug. She didn't particularly care what name she was called by. It made it easier at Minoru's house because they'd named their son Haru. A nickname served to separate them. It really was only just Natsuko who called her Ruru, everyone else called her Koharu. "Those are replica swords, Susu. We, uh, couldn't bring the originals from the Land of Snow. I've never used them but Otou-san has." Maybe the awkward atmosphere would shift as the topic changed. She was well aware that her father was an intimidating man, but he wasn't so bad. He pushed her and expected the best...but that was just what clan leaders did to their heirs. Kazuhiko was probably pushed quite a bit as well. Perhaps that was why the two of them didn't need to talk as much as she did with Natsuko. They understood in the simplest of terms how things were.

"Yes, I'm sure you've noted Koharu's use of a sword. They're traditional clan techniques that we pass along." If they thought that Koharu could talk about swords until she was blue in the face they'd learn the source of that habit. The Wakahisa's history was steeped in the creation and use of swords. While their craftsmen worked pottery and brightly colored tapestries, it was the forging of swords where they truly excelled. "My daughter is proudly carrying on the tradition, as I'm sure the both of you are for your clans." It was easy to see that Osamu was horrible at small talk, but it gave Hachiro the means to slip away to look at some of the pottery around their home.

Koharu followed him, just a little bit worried. "What's got you so upset? My father isn't mad that any of you are here, although I'm sure he's intimidating them…" Her words made Hachiro laugh.

"I'm not upset. And he is intimidating!" He looked down at the short girl and gave a half assed smile as if it would convince her.

"You're having girl problems. Is this about you being "too young" for Susu?" Hachiro looked surprised.

"N-no! I'm sure the ladies will be throwing themselves at me when we explore the village some more! And then she'll see that she missed out!"

She giggled softly and shook her head. Yup, definitely girl problems.

Her giggle had caught the attention of her father and he glanced over. She acted differently around her friends than she did while at home. While the girl had always been quiet, even when she was a young child, she had grown just a little bit bolder when her friends were around her. "When you three pass the exams," not if, when, like they didn't have enough pressure already, "You two may come and see our craftsmen for a gift of your choosing. Consider it a personal thank you for allowing my daughter to be a part of your team." The other two had rejoined them and he took the opportunity to place a hand on Koharu's head. Osamu was not the type of father to tell his children that he loved them every day or to give hugs. He gave harsh sounding words of encouragement and the occasional clap on the back or a head pat.

She looked surprised, and quite touched by his words. Their craftsmen didn't make gifts for just anybody nor was it cheap. "T-thank you, Otou-san."

Are you crying, Koharu? Wait! Please no ice!" Hachiro's eyes widened when the girl formed a fist full of ice and advanced on him.

Osamu was proud of her for the creative way in how she used her ice. He assumed that she'd ussd it against her teammates before as well. "I have a few more things to do, so training will continue tomorrow. Do see about getting some more ointment for your hands. The bruises will heal faster. It was...nice to meet you three. I look forward to seeing you fight." Once Osamu had disappeared farther into their house, Koharu looked at her teammates.

"He likes you three. I know it doesn't seem like it but him offering a personal gift is a big honor." And it was a huge deal, especially where Kazuhiko was concerned. Giving gifts to clan heirs was common but ones allowed by the clan head to an heir from a different clan held a greater importance. Natsuko was the main reason why she'd voiced the largely unspoken rule between clans. "Maybe we can find someone to make you a pretty necklace or something. And Kazu, while we make swords I'm sure we could forge you a kunai. Or a set of them."



“Yeah, Ruru,” Natsuko said, attempting a brave face. Truth be told, Osamu was pretty intimidating, but Natsuko wasn’t about to let that get the better of her. Sure her attempted nonchalance probably wasn’t fooling anyone, but she wasn’t going to give up because of that. Because she was so focused on pulling off a poker face, though, she couldn’t immediately find anything to say about the swords when Koharu explained the story behind them, and by the time Osamu picked up the baton, it was a bit too late to chime in.

Sometime during Osamu’s explanation, Natsuko realized that Koharu left, leaving her with Kazuhiko, who was way too interested in whatever was being said to be helpful. Sure Koharu’s clan history was interesting, and swords were cool, but to talk about them for so long was overkill.

“Oh, a gift?” Natsuko asked, eyes wide. Some part of her brain told her to be like her parents and try and decline the gift, but she wasn’t about to do that. When Koharu returned, she shot the girl a grin.

“Thank you, Osamu-sama. I’m honored to be offered a gift from your clan,” Kazuhiko said when Osamu finished, bowing.

“Oh, yeah, same,” Natsuko said, bowing as well. “Thank you!”

With that, Osamu took his leave, and Koharu turned to them with a happy smile that made Natsuko happy in turn. Were those the traces of tears she saw in her teammate’s eyes?

“Eek! I’d love a necklace! My parents usually get my siblings a bracelet after they pass their chunin exams, so this’ll be perfect,” Natsuko said with a grin as she hugged Koharu. “Thank you, Ruru! Your uncle is so nice!”

“I’m sure my parents will be encouraged to get you both something as well,” Kazuhiko said. “Our clan doesn’t have as many craftsmen, so the gift likely won’t be as unique, but I hope that’s okay.”

“Fine by me,” Natsuko said, giggling before pursing her lips in thought. “My clan has a lot of shops and stuff. I’m not sure if you two need any more clothes, but there are some pretty sweet cowls around.”

She paused, then grinned again. “Hey, how about we head over now? The shops are busier later, so right now they should be kinda empty.”

When no one disagreed, she grinned, skipping towards the door. “Right, this way!”

Through the town they went, arriving at the roomy, mid-sized plaza that housed the Rinha clan’s merchants. Behind the plaza was where the residential buildings were, but outwardly it seemed like a market street with all sorts of woven goods hanging on display. From carpets to scarves, the shapes varied as much as the colors, and Natsuko skipped past them happily.

“I mean, I guess I’d be in charge of picking them out, which would mean I’d have to save up my allowance this month… or ask my parents for more, why not, they probably wouldn’t disagree if I’m buying gifts for you two,” she said with a grin. “But yeah, these are the shops. Again, mostly clothes, but eh, see anything you might want?”

“A kunai pouch could be useful,” Kazuhiko said, looking around.

Natsuko wiggled her brows. “Someone’s looking forward to the present,” she said, laughing when Kazuhiko shot her a look. “Oh, and this way’s to my house,” she said, leading the group down a hallway between two shops. A gate on the right opened up into a demure courtyard, which too large to be small but too small to be large.

“This way!” she said, skipping over the cobblestone path towards the house, which was lined with a few decorative stone lanterns. “Anyone home?” she asked, opening the door. When no one answered, she pushed the door wide open, revealing a sitting room more spacious than Koharu’s. “Ta-da!”

A few colorful tapestries lined the walls, which were rather barren now that her siblings’ childhood drawings had been taken down. Other bits of color were found in the vases on various shelves and tables around the place, but the room was rather spotless—had been spotless for years. Looking at it now, the house silent and empty around them, made Natsuko a little nervous, and she fidgeted as her teammates looked. Though she remembered a noisy childhood, after her older siblings made chunin, the house became quieter by the year, and her parents seemed to have taken that as encouragement to spend longer hours at work. Natsuko was used to it by now, but the cozy aura of Natsuko’s house almost seemed preferable now, reminding her of the cluttered childhood she remembered with toys and books scattered everywhere.

“It’s nice,” Kazuhiko said, looking away when she looked over, which prompted her to narrow her eyes.

“Liar,” she accused, but grinned quickly. “That tapestry up there? My brother painted it. Or, dyed it. You can tell because he messed up a little here,” she said, pointing out one of the corners, which had a small splotch of green on it instead of being blue like the background. “No idea how that happened, but I guess even perfectionists can be—”

“Natsuko?” a voice asked, interrupting Natsuko and causing her to shriek, looking to the doorway on her right. Her brother walked out, his messy hair and eye bags making him look like he hadn’t slept well despite him looking like he just got back after a long day.

“Natsuya-nii-chan?” Natsuko asked, eyes wide. Then, looking to her teammates, she backpedalled. “Oh, um, this is my brother, Natsuya-san. Onii-san, these are my teammates, Kazuhiko-kun and Koharu-chan, and that’s Hachiro,” she said, indicating each of them in turn.

“Hello, nice to meet you,” Natsuya said, bowing. Kazuhiko and Koharu bowed simultaneously, and Hachiro took their cue quickly, bowing as well.

“Onii-san, did you just get back?” Natsuko asked. Natsuya was on a mission, last she heard. The details were vague, as they often were with Natsuya, but there was always more work to be done for full-fledged medical-nins.

“Yeah,” Natsuya said, looking between Koharu, Kazuhiko, and Hachiro. “I’ll leave you four to it, then,” he said after the moment of silence. “Don’t be too rough on them, Natsuko,” he said, disappearing back the way he came.

“I never am!” Natsuko called after him, then looked back at her friends. “Right?”




"Now you don't have to be so down. Susu is taking you to meet her family already!" The mischievous smile on Koharu's face wasn't as pronounced as it was on someone quite as expressive like Natsuko. Hachiro's face turned a bright shade of red and the quiet girl laughed behind her hand. He remembered a time when the girl had been stoic, showing only bare hints of smiles. It hadn't been until the last day of their mission with him that he'd seen any real emotion on her face.
His eyes trailed to Natsuko and a soft snicker made his cheeks darken in color.

Hachiro wondered what it was like to live in such a place. Koharu had such a small home and it puzzled him. Her whole house was the size of his bedroom back at his family's estate in the Land of Lightning. What would Natsuko's look like, he wondered. Would it be big and spacious or cramped. For a moment he feared that it would be little more than a patched together shack. So clans here had a means of generating money for themselves but there seemed to be a distinct theme of them having merchants and craftsmen. Was it simply the norm in Konoha? The village did have a rather large market.

Before he could ask about Kazuhiko's clan they had reached Natsuko's house. A horrified look came across his face when he realized it was between two shops. "Don't look so afraid. It's rude." He ducked his head as Koharu scolded him as she walked passed his still form.
None of these were like the palace back in her homeland but she liked these types of homes better. She found Natsuko's home to be rather cute. She knew the girl had many siblings, something that she'd learned over the years, and it made sense they needed a moderately sized house.

In truth Koharu was a tad envious that her friend had so many siblings. She only had her little sister Kotari, and her brothers Nobuyuki and Nori. Her brothers were gone now so her home lacked any sense of them. At least Natsuko could claim that she had something sentimental of her siblings. Koharu's brothers had been ten and eight years older than she was so by the time she was able to play games they were already in the academy or on missions. By the time she'd entered the academy her brother's had moved out on their own or to the barracks. After bowing to Natsuko's brother she looked back at Hachiro, who seemed to be looking around with a critical eye. "Hey you got to meet her brother. That's a step in the right direction."

Hachiro wanted to shake the girl by her small shoulders. He grit his teeth, fighting down his blush. Did she really have to tease him.

"We're used to it by now, Susu. We know you love us," she shrugged. Koharu went back to looking at the tapestry that Natsuko said had been done by her brother. It was selfish of Koharu to wish that she had something like that from her brothers. She put her arms behind her back, hands lacing together. Her bruised fingers protested the movement and it reminded her of something important. "Your family are medic-nin aren't they? Do you know which shop sells ointments? I need some for my hands." It was then that she showed her friends more than just the bruises. Koharu wasn't bothered by the callouses on her palms and fingers from her days of training, but what bothered her were the healing blisters. They hurt and she often used more medicine on them than any other injury.

"Ew, that's nasty. Aren't girls supposed to be delicate?" Hachiro, being twelve, was still immature. He looked over the short girl's shoulder at her hands. While he had no doubt that Natsuko or Koharu could beat him up he had been raised in a lifestyle in which women were dainty little wallflowers. The only spoiled girl he knew of that could scream like a demon and still get her way was his little sister. "Right Kazuhiko?" Hachiro was so sure that the older boy would agree with him.



Kazuhiko was still caught up with the fact that Koharu had trained her fingers to the point of bruises and blisters when Hachiro fired a question his way, and he was momentarily taken aback. Delicate? Sure he’d heard of women aspiring to be ‘delicate,’ but hearing someone cite the concept as if it were an obvious truth was new. Movement on Natsuko’s end—narrowing eyes and furrowing brows—urged him into motion, and he turned to Hachiro with a solemn frown.

“Kunoichi do not aspire to be delicate, Hachiro, just like how you should not aspire to poke fun at other people’s injuries. Koharu’s bruises show how hard she’s worked. No one’s pointing out how smooth your hands are and what that might mean,” he said.

“That… that was beautiful,” Natsuko said, wiping a nonexistent tear as she sniffled. “I want a Kazuhiko in shining armor to protect me too. Slap Hachiro upside the head next time he calls me ‘ugly,’ please?”

“Um.” Kazuhiko straightened, looking around. “After we get some ointment, we can drop by my house. I believe my parents ordered some wagashi, if you’re all open to having some.”

Wagashi? Natsuko near shrieked, her voice dying off into mutters immediately after. “That’s like, upgraded mochi or something. Super pricey. I can barely afford a few boxes of mochi with my allowance, much less wagashi. Sure!” she said, perking up with a wide grin. “I’d be open to some wagashi!”

“Right, um, the ointment…”

“Oh, yeah, this way,” Natsuko said, leading the group out of her home. If Kazuhiko wasn’t imagining things, there seemed to be a slight skip in her step, which was only somewhat surprising. There were some wagashi that resembled the mochi Natsuko loved so much, but even so, he hadn’t expected her to like wagashi. The teatime treats were a bit formal for casual snacking, in his opinion, but then again customs and such never seemed to bother Natsuko.

“Let’s see, Ruru, hm, bruises, I’m not too sure what ointment is good for bruises, but my brother likes coming to this shop if his hands crack due to dryness,” Natsuko said, leading them to a open-front shop with tables of canisters, each labelled concisely with what they were for. Discoloration, peeling cuticles, the list went on and on.

“Here we are! How’s this one?” Natsuko asked, selecting a canister and offering it to Koharu. “This one’s for training sores—guess there are more workaholics than slackaholics like Hachiro there. Minty, apparently, to help with the soreness.”

Turning around, she headed over to the shopkeep, chatting and pointing before grinning and nodding, bowing politely. The last part surprised Kazuhiko a bit since he’d come to expect some level of careless rudeness from Natsuko, but then again, they were all now old enough to start knowing better.

“Right, that’s taken care of. Now, Kazu-kun?” she asked with a grin.

“This way,” Kazuhiko said, leading the group out of the shop and onto the street. Where his teammates’ clans mostly occupied commercial streets near the center of town, his clan was located on the middle outskirts, where more space could be afforded to the larger clan. Unlike the Rinha and Wakahisa, the Taketori were funded more by their clan members than their subsidiaries. Their dojo was a large establishment, but the Taketori clan was big and self-sufficient, its members spread far and wide through the village. Wherever there was skill and discipline needed, the Taketori were there, providing leaders and warriors alike. Rather than wealth, they wielded power, and with power came many things—including wealth, if the situation required it. Even if the Taketori didn’t move as much money as the Rinha, they could produce the funds just as easily. It was a matter of being able to and choosing not to, in their case, and this was an attitude Kazuhiko’s parents had imparted to both himself and his home.

Behind the main door of the Taketori compound lay demure buildings elegantly spread out between tame gardens and trees. Most were studies or libraries, full of scholarly texts for those looking to reference them. Others were workshops and small academies for specific skills and subjects, which culminated in the clan’s dojo, an easily visible building against the small single-stories and well-groomed trees.

In the far end of the compound were the houses, which were bigger than the buildings in the front, complete with courtyards, gardens, and ponds for the pensive stroller. Kazuhiko led the group to one of the frontmost ones, opening the sliding door and removing his shoes before stepping in. Inside, his parents’ simple yet cultured decor awaited: a ceramic vase here and a scroll of calligraphy there, then maybe a bonsai on the drawer for good measure.

“Kazuhiko-kun, welcome back,” a woman in a yellow kimono and apron asked, bowing. “Would you and your friends like some tea?”

“That would be great, Yui. Could you bring us the wagashi as well? Thank you,” Kazuhiko said, bowing as well, gesturing for the group to follow Yui to the dining room. A simple tea table had been set up on the tatami flooring, and Kazuhiko sat at the table, waving the group over.

“Woah, why’s this all so fancy,” Natsuko whispered, looking between the table and the decor around the room, then at the garden peeking through the room’s sliding door. “Does every room have a door or something?”

“Not every room, but most of the rooms we hosts guests in do,” Kazuhiko said, thanking Yui as she poured everyone a cup of tea. A small plate of wagashi was delivered to everyone—four intricately-designed sweets reminiscent of flowers and leaves and traditional designs. Though he lacked a sweet tooth, Kazuhiko found that he didn’t mind wagashi much, but then again they didn’t tend to be overly sweet. Too many, though, and he quickly grew tired of the bean pastes and mochi, but he’d learned early on not to eat too quickly.

“Isn’t this a little too fancy?” Natsuko hissed as Yui bowed and left. “Like you have a maid?”

“Servant. The maids don’t stay here after they finish,” Kazuhiko said, then winced. “Yui helps keep things in order when my mother is out.”

Natsuko shot him a dubious look, but was quickly distracted by the treats in front of her, picking one up with a grin. “Mmm-mm,” she said, popping the wagashi in her mouth whole. “Ith delithouth!”

Kazuhiko offered her a small smile, turning to Koharu and Hachiro with some amount of hesitation. Though he was sure Hachiro was used to the meager riches his parents were willing to let show, he wasn’t sure what Koharu would make of it. As someone who tried to handle everything she could by herself, she didn’t strike him as someone who would think to hire someone to help around the house. In a way, he felt embarrassed by the fact that his family hired help so easily, that he’d accepted it so readily as he grew up. “Utilize your time elsewhere,” his parents would tell him, but here was Koharu, an heir managing everything by herself.



Hachiro didn't seem thrilled that Kazuhiko hadn't agreed with his thinking, and instead the other boy had awkwardly defended the idea that girls, or rather Kunoichi, specifically, didn't have to be delicate. It was such a foreign idea to him. He looked at the girls again, trying to see why they wouldn't want to be delicate. Maybe he was just reading too far into things, or maybe they were all just weird. Yeah, that had to be it. They began to move after that, and after Kazuhiko had awkwardly asked if they wanted to go to his house for wagashi. Hachiro didn't see why Natsuko was making such a big deal out of-oh. Her earlier words that not everyone was as spoiled as he was came back to him.

Did Natsuko's family not have money? Her house was bigger than Koharu's was, and yet the shorter girl had such finery in her home. Wealth was something that he was also oblivious to. He'd had everything handed to him on a silver platter his entire life. Everything he had ever wanted and more had been given to him and he grew up thinking that it was normal.

"If you keep thinking too hard you'll make your brain explode."

Koharu's words made him pull away from his thoughts. He looked over at her as she looked over a few canisters. Moments later a canister was set into her hands by Natsuko and she turned her attention towards it. Hachiro wondered how she was even able to still use her hands after putting them through so much abuse. Bruises aside the blisters alone looked like they hurt.
It was around then that he noticed the she had a different sword strapped to her hip alongside a small pale blue coin purse with an intricate dark blue brocade pattern. How many swords did that girl own? Hachiro noted the large amount of them that had been on display in her home. Koharu paid for the ointment and gave a bow and a thanks to the shopkeeper before catching up with the others.

Hachiro had fallen behind again but she managed to keep pace with Kazuhiko, which was a feat considering his legs were so much longer than hers. "It's adorable that Susu is so excited, isn't it?" To see Natsuko light up over something as simple as a sweet was cute in her books. Koharu was oddly aware that unlike herself and Kazuhiko, Natsuko had a very different upbringing. Even while her own clan was exiled from their homeland, they'd taken their wealth with them. It had been a while since she'd gone with Natsuko to buy mochi, mostly because she was too busy with her training or attending the occasional clan meeting to do much else in her free time. Perhaps if she had another free day soon she would take the girl for mochi. They needed a 'girls day', as she'd heard it been called.

She didn't have much of a sweet tooth herself, liking spicy things instead, but she did like to see her friends happy. "Thank you, Kazu, for telling that brat…." Koharu trailed off, unsure of why she was even thanking him, and unsure of how to phrase it. All that really mattered was at the end of the day if she was capable of using her sword. Her hands hurt but that was just a byproduct of her training and she'd been the one foolish enough to get her hands in the way.
Some of it wasn't even from sparring with her father but from her ice. She'd gotten better at using little bird shaped projectiles so she'd graduated to something a little bit bigger. Most, if not almost all, of the injuries to her fingers and back of her hands were caused from getting her hand smashed by the ice. The blisters came from holding onto her sword.

As they moved from the bustling market district and towards the residential portion of the village, Hachiro livened up a bit. He was more in his element among big fancy houses than he was busy shops and crowded streets. His gold eyes widened in wonder as they came to the Taketori compound. Now this was more like home. The manicured gardens and large homes called to him on a personal level and he wondered if Kazuhiko was more like him than he'd anticipated.
Hachiro didn't seem phased by the yellow clad servant or the way the home was decorated. It was beautiful and was closer to what he had grown up knowing.

He sat on the other side of Natsuko, right across from Koharu. It was hard to tell what the girl was thinking most of the time, but he didn't dwell on the thought. Instead he took a sip of his tea before devouring one of his wagashi--one shaped like a peony--much like Natsuko had.

"You don't need to look so embarrassed, Kazu." Koharu said as she glanced down at her plate of sweets. She probably would give half of them to Natsuko. It was easier to pick apart her teammates' expressions than it had been when they'd first met and even early on it had become clear that she could read Kazuhiko fairly well. While she'd been a bit surprised at how big Kazuhiko's home was, it did seem fitting. He was an heir to a large clan. From what she understood the Taketori were quite well off. Most old and wealthy families, particularly those closest to the main branch, liked to flaunt their wealth. No matter where you went in the world it was the same. The girl held her tea cup in her palms, the warmth seeping into her cold palms. It felt wonderful. Was he embarrassed about having such a big house or was it his family having servants that made the embarrassment known through his body language.
"I grew up in a castle, you know, so none of this bothers me if that's what you're thinking." Her tone had softened and she looked over at the tall boy with a slight smile.

Hachiro choked on his tea. "What?! You grew up in a--"

"Yes, now wipe your nose and the table." The boy had spit his tea out in surprise. "My clan were the personal guard of the daimyo of the Land of Snow. Most of our clan had married into the Royal family. My own father, my real one, was the great grandson of a nobleman." Koharu had grown up in a world more like Hachiro's but their move had forced them to shed all of that. Honestly she was happy with the way they lived now. It had become comforting to her even if it wasn't typical of a clan.

When Hachiro had begun to pester her about why she now lived in a small home the most obvious sign of her anger aside from her glare was the frost that covered her tea cup, cooling the once steaming tea. Koharu, like all of her clan, did not like to speak of the specifics behind their downgrade in lifestyle. She let go of her tea cup and grabbed a wagashi. It was delicate and she was almost too afraid to eat it. She managed to finish it before passing Natsuko the rest of them. The girl would certainly appreciate it, and that made Koharu a little happier.

"And if it's any consolation, you don't act like a spoiled rich boy. Unlike a certain someone we know."

Hachiro pouted at her words as he popped a now slightly soggy wagashi into his mouth.



Kazuhiko listened with wide eyes as Koharu recounted her childhood, surprised by both the new knowledge and the fact that it’d missed him completely. Years of being teammates, and he still barely knew anything about Koharu’s past. As much as he wanted to believe his ignorance was just a result of him respecting her privacy, he couldn’t help but feel a bit let down by the gap between him and his teammates. The chunin exams were around the corner, and their passing it was as much a guarantee as the dissolution of their team. And, if they couldn’t manage closeness despite spending days on end with each other, how would they manage it in the future, with divided schedules, priorities, and responsibilities?

“Hah!” Natsuko said, laughing at Hachiro’s pouting. “Kazu-kun strikes again! This time, silently!”

Though Kazuhiko had to wince a little as Natsuko continued giggling at Hachiro, he was relieved that Koharu accepted how his family lived so easily. It would have been easy to call him spoiled, to call his family’s choices excessive, Koharu had done none of that. In fact, if Kazuhiko were being honest, hearing Koharu say that she’d grown up around wealth was reassuring in that she was used to lavish lifestyles. Given that his clan wasn’t one to flaunt its assets, it seemed like everything went over well enough, and Hachiro and Natsuko were sufficiently entertained by the wagashi and tea to no longer be dwelling on the property itself.

While Kazuhiko would have liked to ask more about Koharu’s childhood home, it was fairly clear she didn’t want to dwell on it, given the way she’d averted her eyes, looking up only to shoot a glare at Hachiro when he tried to push his point. Having to build a new life couldn’t have been easy, and the circumstances under which the decisions had been made couldn’t have been happy. The difference between wanting to ask about Koharu’s parents and actually asking was one Kazuhiko understood, and he figured it best to move on to a new subject.

“When you all are finished with your tea, we could try visiting the dojo. It’s usually busy with some training program or class, but I believe Atomu is the one teaching classes today,” he said. “If he’s not too busy, maybe he can have us a short session.”

“Atomu? Like, your private tutor A-something?” Natsuko frowned, setting down her cup. “That doesn’t sound really fun.”

“I think he’ll be helpful in pointing out some new things to work on,” Kazuhiko said, thinking over his words as he spoke. There was a fine line between suggesting that one tutor could be helpful and implying that another hadn’t done the best job, but he figured Koharu would understand. Natsuko, on the other hand, had too much to benefit from for him to worry about whether or not she’d think of what his words might imply, which, now that he thought about it, didn’t seem like something she’d think in the first place.

“He’s your taijutsu instructor, right? I hate taijutsu,” she said, frowning. “It’s hard and tiring and makes me sweat.”

A look from Koharu prompted a shrug from her. “What? But fine, I’ll go if Ruru goes.”

Kazuhiko smiled, looking to Koharu. “Let’s go.”

“What? Ugh, I knew it. Hachiro, this is why you should never trust two people who clearly like each other,” Natsuko said as Kazuhiko led the way out of his house. It was quite easy to ignore her jibes now that Hachiro was around, given that the boy was much more receptive to Natsuko than either Kazuhiko or Koharu. Frankly, his innocence and desire to impress was endearing, and Kazuhiko was almost tempted to help him out with talking to Natsuko. At the same time, though, trying to broker some sort of conversation between the two meant that he’d get entangled in one with them, and he wasn’t too keen on the prospect of catching Natsuko’s attention now that he’d finally lost it. Besides, even if Natsuko wasn’t paying much attention to Hachiro, she was paying enough attention to him to figure out how to needle him. It was just a matter of holding her back once Hachiro stepped over the line now, whenever that’d be.

“You know, you were shorter than me last time I saw you,” Natsuko grumbled from behind Kazuhiko and, most likely, beside Hachiro. “It’s kinda weird that you’re taller than me even though you’re younger. Like, are you a kid or not?”

“I’ll pull Hachiro out of the way when the time comes?” Kazuhiko said, looking to Koharu beside him.

The short walk to the dojo concluded with the group’s arrival at the dojo’s steps, the wooden building a sizable single story with tall ceilings allowing it to look over them from above. As usual, the sound of people practicing came from inside, and when Kazuhiko led the way in, the sounds revealed themselves to be a group practicing some basic taijutsu moves. Civilians often enrolled for a few classes in the dojo to brush up some skills since they were unable to rely on chakra like most shinobi. Though guards and swords for hire existed all the same in the civilian world, there was and always would be a difference between shinobi and non-shinobi, and where better to learn about shinobi than a dojo run by them?

“Atomu-sensei,” Kazuhiko said, bowing as the man noticed them, walking over.

“Kazuhiko, what a surprise to see you here on your day off,” he said, crossing his arms with a smile. “You do realize there are better places to take your friends than a dojo, right?”

“That’s what I said,” Natsuko muttered, which Kazuhiko kindly ignored—not only because she definitely didn’t say that.

“I hope it doesn’t trouble you, but I wanted to bring my team here to let you meet them—and maybe give them some general tips to think about,” he said. “The Chunin Exams are coming up, so having some last-minute improvements in mind would be helpful.”

“If they’re anything like you, you lot don’t have anything to worry about in terms of passing. But sure, I’ve got some time. Carry on!” he called towards the people training in the main hall, then turned back to the group, waving them towards a smaller training room on the side of the dojo. “This way.”

Inside the room, Atomu stopped, turning to look between the group. “Wakahisa, Koharu, was it? Clan heir—I respect that. Nice to meet you,” he said, bowing slightly to Koharu before turning to Natsuko. “You must be Natsuko Rinha, right? Working with Sayumi?” When Natsuko nodded, frowning, he did as well, exhaling with a faint “whew,” before turning to Hachiro. “And you are?”




Admittedly it was a little too easy to get Natsuko to do what they wanted at times. As long as she pulled the 'I'll do it if Ruru does too' card, usually they could steer her into doing things that she didn't want to. This was bound to be interesting. She didn't think they could learn any more taijutsu moves from any Taketori but if she could see more of their other techniques she'd have her curiosity satisfied. Asking Kazuhiko to show her was a bit hard due to their busy schedules. "We just think alike, Susu." she said before she followed. This was an opportunity not to be wasted. One could always learn something. That's what her father always told her. While he'd drilled the traditional Wakahisa techniques into her, he wasn't opposed to her mixing in things that she learned from her teammates.

"You two are boring." Did they ever think of anything aside from training? Even when they first traveled together it had been clear that the two genin had a preference for training. He pouted upon the realization that he was being ignored. However, a few moments later he was basking in the attention that Natsuko gave him. He'd hit a major growth spurt over the years, growing rapidly from a small little boy to a giant boy. "I'm not a kid. I'm almost a teenager." Hachiro was just a few months away from turning thirteen. He was happy that the other two were walking ahead of them. His cheeks felt warm despite their conversation bring far from blush worthy. "My dad and brothers are all pretty tall too. I'm likely going to be taller than you forever." He teased. His family were all tall people. The only short one in their family was his mother and even she was a little above average height. He missed the nod that Koharu gave to Kazuhiko.

As they walked Hachiro took in the sights of the various buildings. Once they reached the dojo he could hear the sounds of people training. He wasn't a shinobi but his father had allowed him to take self defense classes. He did want to learn how to use a sword because he thought it would make him look even cooler than he already was. The problem with that was that Koharu also used swords and he didn't want to have a practice match with her because it would embarrass her if he won. (Although the chances of him beating someone like Koharu, who was more than willing to train her body to the point of injury, was slim to none.) Gold colored eyes took in the rows of people practicing in place and he wanted to join them. It looked like fun. He never got the chance to ask if he could try because his friends had begun to follow the old man that Kazuhiko had talked to. Hachiro hadn't paid enough attention to even get his name.

He watched as the man spoke to the girls, naming them off one by one. "Thank you, Atomu-san. It is nice to meet you as well." Koharu bowed to the man. It was odd that clan heirs seemed to bow to others a lot. He didn't, although in the hierarchy of life he was even above both of the clan heirs before him. He'd been lost in thought until Koharu elbowed him lightly.

"Ow, Koharu. Huh? Oh, Hachiro Nakamura. Eighth son of the daimyo of the Land of Lightning." When it became clear that Hachiro wasn't going to bow, Koharu pulled him down by the collar of his shirt. He grumbled but stayed bowed until she let go.

"Please forgive him. He is still young." Koharu felt the need to apologize for the rudeness that he'd shown. She was quite excited to meet Atomu. While she was fairly average when it came to taijutsu, there were bound to be a few things that she could learn, even if they were just bits of wisdom that didn't apply to fighting. She ignored the glare that Hachiro was giving her. "I do not know what sort of advice you could give me to help me improve, as my skills lie primarily in kenjutsu and ninjutsu," she gestured to the sword at her hip, "but it will be appreciated. Kazu has improved quite a lot under your tutelage." Koharu hoped that didn't come across as rude to either Atomu or Kazuhiko. The girl still had her moments of bluntness. But she did believe that Atomu was a capable sensei if even the class prodigy was able to become stronger thanks to him. Koharu was aware that she was above average in some aspects of being a Kunoichi but she still had her shortcomings.

"Is it me or are those two a little too formal for their own good?" Hachiro whispered to Natsuko.



“Definitely not just you. Kazu-kun’s a legendary stiff and Ruru is on her way there. Well, sorta. She’s still much better than him,” Natsuko whispered back. A look from Kazuhiko prompted her to stick her tongue out at him, then turn to Atomu, bowing slightly. “Nice to meet you, Kazu-kun’s sensei!”

“The son of a visiting daimyo, huh? Some company you keep,” Atomu said, turning to Koharu with a grin. “Of course he has. Our clan heir’s the type to improve regardless of who’s teaching him, but thankfully the sensaigan requires a target to practice on, so at the very least I can say I provided that.”

“Atomu-sensei—”

“Yes, yes, I know. I was exaggerating a little, but only to make a point,” Atomu said, waving Kazuhiko’s protest off as he turned again to Koharu. “As for what I can teach you, well, I’m going to leave your kenjutsu and ninjutsu development up to your father. He’s undoubtedly a better tutor than me in those departments, especially for your skills. Me, well, I’m a taijutsu specialist. Mostly because of my sensaigan, but taijustu is all about fundamentals. Conditioning and honing, reflexes and preciseness. The sensaigan helps us with our accuracy, but the rest of it requires training. Discipline and practice. Not something I can pass onto you in a day, and not something all of you need to learn, either,” he said, his gaze pausing on Koharu with a smile. “What I can pass onto you, though, are some simple tips. Some tricks of the trade, in a way.”

From his belt he produced a kunai, holding it up. “I’d like to focus on this humble blade today. The kunai—not a real weapon, as many would contest. Sharp, yes, but too small and short to do any real damage. But that’s all alright because we don’t use the kunai as a weapon—we use it as a tool. Sometimes as a means of delivering a tag or holding a wire. Other times we channel chakra into the dagger to strengthen it, or use it as a thrown weapon. Today, I’d like to focus on this last part. You three are close-combat fighters, and up close, in addition to strength and skill, it’s speed that matters. How fast you can launch an attack, or how quickly you can ready a defense. With the sensaigan, we teach that every second matters. Every second your opponent stays second is another second they can use to attack, so time is always of the essence. This works especially well with sensaigan since we can see where to strike, so it’s just a matter of figuring out where to hit first. And that takes time. In these cases, the kunai is an invaluable tool, allowing us to buy time while conserving energy. Throwing the kunai at the enemy will force them to dodge or defend themselves, allowing you to put distance if needed, but you can also use it to close the distance while the enemy is occupied. You can buy time for yourself to think or sign a jutsu, or to level the field or attempt to gain a slight advantage.”

“Now, I’m not saying kunai are miracle workers. After one or two throws, your opponent will likely figure out your strategy. What I’m saying is that if you need time, you should find ways to buy time. A lot of ways, if you need a lot of time. Using a kunai is one way. Jutsus are other ways. The goal, though, is to be aware of where you’re losing time in fights and focus on either finding ways to make time or figuring out how to improve so you don’t need as much time. For example, Kazuhiko’s been working on his intuition and jutsu signing. Both are things shinobi work on throughout their lives, but means ‘start now.’ All of your tutors have pushed you to work on these things, I’m sure, so I’ll leave the obvious to them. For now, why don’t I find you four some sparring partners. I’m sure there’ll be a few in my class willing to test their skills on real shinobi to be. Stay put and I’ll be back,” he said, heading back into the dojo.

As soon as he was out of sight, Natsuko yawned, stretching her arms over her head. “Ugh, I thought he’d never finish,” she said, looking between her teammates. At Kazuhiko’s confused-but-quickly-shifting-to-exasperated face, though, she backpedalled, waving her hands. “I mean, no offense, Kazu-kun, because he seems super smart and stuff, but he can really talk! It almost reminds me of our academy days. Next thing you know I’m going to be reading a textbook on taijutsu or something.”

“He’s offering some pointers. I’m sure Sayumi-san has covered the same topics before,” Kazuhiko said.

Natsuko paused. Did Sayumi offer her the same advice? Thinking about it, maybe her tutor did mention something about distracting the opponent while setting up her dark release. But that was beside the point.

“I can’t believe we’re going to train when hanging out again. Haven’t we trained enough already?” she asked, crossing her arms with a ‘hmph.’

Kazuhiko exhaled lightly, turning to Hachiro. “The people he’s training right now should be civilians, so you could probably learn some basics. Have you had any lessons before?”

“Yeah, have you?” Natsuko echoed, looking to the taller-but-younger with a grin. The pampered brat, learning how to fight? That’s too good to be true.

When Atomu returned, he brought four people with him, all young men that looked to be in their late teens or early twenties. Natsuko watched as one of the younger few looked her and her teammates over warily. Civilians, huh? If Natsuko knew anything about non-shinobi, it was that they were pretty easy to wipe the floor with.

“Right, these are some of my students from today’s class. It’s a bigger class, but it’s a tough one. They’re training to be able to take on shinobi, after all. Sure they might never be able to face a jonin in battle, but a genin or chunin? With some brains and brawn, they could hold their ground,” Atomu said, nodding. “Why don’t you all pair up and introduce yourselves? And, daimyo-chan, just ask them to give you a few pointers. They’re all career guards in one of the last steps of their training, so just try and pick something up. But, I won’t ask them to cut you slack in a fight, okay? Nobles always make sure their sons learn some basic sword skills, so give it your best.”

Kazuhiko nodded, and Natsuko, grumbling, followed his lead, setting her sights on the nervous-looking boy from earlier. The older guards definitely looked like they had a few years under their belt, and though she was sure they’d still be easy targets, she wasn’t really looking to work up a sweat here.

“Hey, you, let’s do this,” she said, walking up to him with a grin.

Though the guard looked momentarily surprised, he paused, looking her over before nodding and heading to the side with her. Upon reaching a somewhat open space, he turned, bowing. “Tsukasa Miyano,” he said, straightening, his face rather blank.

“Wow, Kazu-kun, I found your double! Though I think he’s even stiffer than you!” Natsuko called, looking to her teammate with a grin. Kazuhiko was currently occupied with one of the older-looking guards, whose muscle mass was a bit intimidating, if Natsuko were being honest. But, she wasn’t fighting him, so that didn’t matter.

“I’m Natsuko Rinha, please take care of me,” she said, flashing the boy a smile that trailed into a smirk. That wooden sword he was reaching for was rather boring compared to how many blades she’d been at the other end of, so this all, she was sure, was going to be fun.




He'd spaced out as the man droned on and he took the time to study his friends. Hachiro only snapped out of his wandering thoughts when they began to ask him if he had any type of training. He puffed out his cheeks and chest in defiance. "Of course! I watch the guards practice all the time. They even taught me a move or two!" He said proudly. Hachiro was proud of what he'd learned so far. Of course his parents hadn't allowed him to take official lessons yet but they would soon.
When the students came back with the old man he watched them. They were civilians like him and yet they wanted to learn how to fight against Shinobi like his friends. It would be useful for sure. As he looked over the students he wondered which would be his partner.

Daimyo-chan. The nickname made his eye twitch and his cheeks flared red. That color only darkened when he heard Koharu's poorly smothered laughter along with one of the men. Hachiro didn't want to admit that his friend had an adorable giggle that had ended with a snort. His eldest brother had a laugh like that. "I'll fight you." A lanky looking man said as he stepped forward, hands in the pockets of his pants. He didn't look like much, especially with that smile that was maybe a little too wide to be natural. "Asahi Kobayashi." He nodded at Hachiro.

"Hachiro Nakamura." He sized up his opponent, a little hurt that this was the man who had laughed along with Koharu. A brief glance at the pale haired girl showed that she was paired with a man much bigger than her. The man wasn't like the one he'd net earlier, Koharu's dad or whatever, but he was still big.

"Yo Hachi." Asahi said, getting his attention. Without warning his feet were swept from under him although the man hadn't even removed his hands from his pockets. "Rule number one is to never ignore an opponent." Hachiro scowled and pushed himself up from the floor and he faced Asahi again. "Good. Now let's get serious, yeah?"

"Whatever old man." That comment got to Asahi because he visibly twitched.

In contrast Koharu was still sizing up her opponent. He gave her a bow and a polite smile. "Ren. Just Ren." The man said. "You're a Wakahisa, right? I recognize that symbol on your sword."

Koharu gave a nod. "Yeah. I see you've also got a practice sword."

"We don't need to use them. You might have the unfair advantage if we do." Ren smiled at her. He seemed quite nice but she didn't stop seeing him as a threat. "Although I'd love to go up against someone from a clan who is known for their swords." Koharu didn't have much time to react before Ren was swinging the practice sword down at her. She rolled to the side and sighed.

"You need to work on your stance." She pointed out. "But I don't have a practice sword so this may not be a good idea."

"Scared you'll hurt me? I'm a tough guy. Plus I'd love to see that sword of yours up close. Your clan has pricey swords." Ren spoke truthfully. The Wakahisa made swords were often quite expensive. But you got your money's worth. The next time he brought his practice sword down at her head again she blocked it with her own. He was quick and she couldn't keep dodging forever.

At the end of it all Asahi had won. Hachiro laid on the mat trying to catch his breath and his arms hurt from blocking punches. Asahi held his hand out to help the boy up. "You did good though, isn't that right Atomu-sensei?"

"So you're saying that you can get me a discounted sword?" Ren was babbling now. His match with Koharu had been interesting. He'd managed to beat her the first time, knocking her onto her behind. The second time they sparred she had beat him. Ren had prevented her from using any hand signs and thus being unable to use her ice to gain the upper hand. He'd forced her to use the saya as a distraction. A swift jab of the saya into his stomach had given her enough time to turn the tides. Using her saya like that would take time to fully develop into a skill worthy of use on the battlefield but she was glad that she could utilize it.



Natsuko circled Miyano with a smile, which widened as she took note of the guard’s wary gaze. Fighting a civilian had never been on her list of things she wanted to do, but Kazuhiko’s sensei had asked, and she was always open to wiping the floor with another person. After all, as confident as she was in her skills nowadays, winning fights had never been her strong suit, and even now she could count on one hand the number of shinobi she’d won fights against. Civilians were a different story, though; she whupped civilian butt every other mission back in the day, if she remembered it correctly. Sure she didn’t knock out as many targets as Kazuhiko or Koharu, but she’d done her part, and this fight right now would be no different.

“Don’t go down too easy,” she teased, stopping to flash Miyano a grin as she brought her hands together to start signing a gale palm. “Without chakra, it’s only natural that—”

The blade of Miyano’s wooden sword was against her throat before she finished her thought, and she blinked, surprised.

“Only natural that?” Miyano echoed, the ghost of a smile on his lips.

Natsuko watched him with narrowed eyes as he retracted his wooden sword. In her head, she wanted to call a cheat, point out that the guard hadn’t pointed out when they were starting. That, however, would be dumb since the start of the match was a given when she started signing her jutsu. She could play up not knowing, but then she’d be cheating.

“Hmph, okay, so you move fast,” she said, gritting a grin out as she rapidly signed the same jutsu. “But I don’t sign so slow either!”

Wind enveloped her hand as she jumped forwards, her palm aimed at Miyano, but the guard was on the move. Dodging her palm, he knocked it aside with a firm strike to her arm, ducking to sweep her legs out from under her. Natsuko fell, landing in an inelegant heap on the floor, the wind around her hand fizzling out in a small flurry of dust as she pouted.

“This is unfair! You don’t let me use any of my jutsus,” she said, crossing her arms.

“As you mentioned, I don’t have chakra. So, I have to fight a bit dirty,” Miyano said, flicking his sword, then—as if realizing it were only wood—sheathing it quickly. “If I let you get a jutsu in, I’d probably lose.”

“Yeah, exactly,” Natsuko said, then blinked, frowning. “Wait, no—that’s not—” She cut herself off, pushing herself to her feet with a huff. “Again.”

“Please take care of me,” Miyano said, a twinkle in his eye as he drew his sword again. Natsuko met his eyes with a glare, just about done with his newfound cheek. Saying he was like Kazuhiko was a mistake; Kazuhiko was much easier to tease.



Kazuhiko watched Natsuko and Hachiro lose their first fights with a sympathetic wince before facing the last guard in full. Having sparred many of Atomu’s students before, he was no stranger to most of the guards chosen to train with his team today, and the last guard was no exception.

“Eiji-san,” he said, bowing.

“You look well, Kazuhiko-san,” Eiji said, his hand on the hilt of his sheathed practice sword. “The usual, then?”

“Yes,” Kazuhiko said, assuming a basic stance, his sensaigan blinking to life. “Please don’t hold back.”

“Of course not. That’d be an insult—to me and you,” he said, grinning, unsheathing his sword, and rushing forward all in one movement. Kazuhiko’s eyes caught the start of each movement, the electrical impulses running through Eiji’s body lighting up as the signals ebbed and flowed. Dodging Eiji’s first strike was easy, though he had to parry the guard’s second strike with a kunai. By the third strike he was attempting return strikes, though Eiji was too experienced a swordsman to let him knock his sword out so easily. But on the fight went, and eventually Kazuhiko gained the upper hand, winning the war of attrition with patience and a well-timed trade of his kunai for opening up Eiji’s sword hand.

“Thank you for the lesson,” he said, bowing as he handed the guard’s sword back to him.

Eiji barked a laugh, then leaned down, picking up Kazuhiko’s kunai and tossing it back to him. “You Taketori and your manners. Don’t pretend like you don’t have a mean bone in you. Intimidation works too, you know, though, again, not as well as those eyes.”

“Noted,” Kazuhiko said, his eyes relaxing as he blinked.

“Well, back to training for us then, sensei. We’ll see you back at the dojo,” Eiji said, nodding at Atomu as he turned to leave.

“I’ll know if you slack,” Atomu replied, his smile staying as he turned to the kids. “Good fights, you all. I can see it from your faces that you all learned something, but that’s a given. A good shinobi always takes something away from a fight, be that learning that civilians aren’t always easy targets,” he said, his eyes pausing meaningfully on Natsuko, who huffed, giving her shorts a final dust, “or that distractions can tip a stalemated fight into a win,” he said, looking between Kazuhiko and Koharu. “What you four just experienced was a stalemate tactic. We train civilian guards for shinobi-level threats, but we don’t train them with the goal to win. We train them with the goal to subdue, or buy time. Now, that’s not to say that if they feel they can win, they won’t lean into that instinct. It’s more that against most shinobi, they’re not going to win, so buying time so their retainer can escape or reinforcements can arrive is more important. The mission comes first.”

He looked between the four, looking for their eyes, then smiled, relaxing. “And that’s all you’re hearing from me today. It was a pleasure being your sensei for a moment. I hope the sweat was worth it,” he said, prompting another huff from Natsuko, “and I wish you three good luck on your chunin exams.”

With that and a smile and a wave, Atomu took his leave, heading back to resume his class. At this point the sun was well on its way, and Kazuhiko led them out of the Taketori compound and towards Minoru’s house.

“He meant well,” he was trying to tell Natsuko, who was still upset about the whole ‘foul play’ thing with the guards. “He just wanted to make a point about how learning to create and use distractions is a valuable skill.”

“I don’t know about you, but there was a lot less of that and a lot more of ‘move faster or get slammed’ in my fight. Curse Miyano and his smug face,” Natsuko muttered.




"It wasn't that bad. It was nice having someone other than my Otou-san or you two to spar against." Koharu said as they walked. "And besides, Miyano-san was quite cute." She lightly nudged Natsuko as they walked. Hachiro didn't seem to be thrilled with the light hearted teasing and he dragged his feet but he was easy to tune out.
The rest of the walk to Minoru's house was filled with light chatter. When they reached the house a while later Azumi was watching her children play in the front yard.

"Hello!" She grinned, looking up at them. "Oh who is this?" She stood up to bow towards Hachiro when he introduced himself. She remembered her husband telling her about the little boy who'd gotten under Natsuko's skin. "Minoru should be back any minute now. He had to go to the market for things for dinner."

Koharu waved at the children. Kazuha ran at them, small arms locking around Kazuhiko's legs. He was her favorite of the three. A small gentle smile came to Koharu's face as she watched the little girl reluctantly let go of her favorite person in order to hug Natsuko. While they were getting hugs from the energetic toddler, she took the opportunity to hog Haru all to herself. She scooped the child up and cooed at him. Haru was seven months old and her favorite person in the whole world. Hachiro was watching, eyeing the little baby curiously. He was decent with children due to being so much older than his little sister but babies still freaked him out.
When Minoru did come home carrying several bags, he tried his best to wave at them, eyes widening as he took in the now slightly older but a lot taller Hachiro.
Once they were all inside and the bags set on the counter, Hachiro hugged Minoru tightly.

They were all invited for dinner, although the question of Hachiro's guards knowing where he was had been voiced. The boy shrugged and said that he'd go back to them later. He helped where he could, proving himself useless in the kitchen so he was regulated to playing with the children. He didn't mind it so much because this was something he wasn't used to. Making dinner like this and overall acting like a large family. His brothers were all significantly older than he was, so he'd not had the chance to grow up with them. He smiled as he looked into the kitchen towards the meal being created. So this was how...normal people lived. He liked it.
The boy wondered if after the exams his friends would still have moments like this.

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Kazuhiko Taketori

Land of Fire: Konohagakure

The chattering of genin filled the classroom, their conversations scattered and varying in volume. Despite the smiles present, though, there was a tangible tension in the room, given form by fidgets and sideways glances at the door. Kazuhiko’s seat in the middle of the room wasn’t doing him any favors in this case, and he felt his wariness grow with every passing minute despite Natsuko’s constant chatter on the other side of Koharu. Between her words were laughs that ended seconds early and responses given moments late, and the unnecessary shifting of her arms and hair only served to further put him on edge. Internally admonishing himself for his nervousness was more counterproductive than not, so instead he played to his strengths. Stress was nothing new to him, and his father’s slow introduction of duty and responsibility into his life allowed him to develop composure despite the circumstances. Underneath the small frown and interlaced fingers, he was a lit fuse of jumbled thoughts and pessimistic worries, but outwardly he was still, attentive and in some ways stiff, but altogether a refined picture of calm.

A knock sounded, and the room fell silent in unison, watching, waiting as the door at the front entrance of the classroom opened to reveal their first exam proctor: Arinaga Fujito, the head of the Konoha Police. Broad-shouldered and dark-browed, Arinaga seemed by no means a friendly man. Though terming him ‘scary’ was a bit of a stretch, there was no doubt that he was intimidating in his green flak jacket and heavy boots, even when compared to the other, sometimes taller members of the police force who followed in behind him. His presence at the head of the room, standing on the speaking platform with no trace of warmth in his eyes, helped set the tone of the room better than any one of the uniformed men and women lining up on the stairs along either side of the room, and precisely at the top of the hour, he cleared his throat.

“Good morning, everyone. My name is Fujito Arinaga, and I’ll be serving as the main proctor for the first stage of your exam,” Arinaga said, his arms crossed behind his back, which seemed rigidly straight but natural at the same time. “For this stage, you will be working in your teams of three to devise a solution to the scenario presented to you. The scenario will be described in detail in the packets passed out to you by the proctors you see lined up against the wall. Communication between your team is allowed. Communication with other teams is not and will result in disqualification. You will have thirty minutes to prepare your presentation. When those thirty minutes are up, you will be escorted, one group at a time, to a separate room where I and two other proctors will hear your presentation and determine whether your team passes.”

Stacks of packets were passed down the rows, and Kazuhiko took his before passing the stack to Koharu. Though the packet was thin, it also felt heavy, and Kazuhiko managed a glance at his teammates—which Natsuko returned with owl-like eyes—before refocusing on Arinaga.

“Remember: Though there are many possible answers, there are also wrong answers. We will not be taking questions.” He paused to look around the room like a wolf appraising the herd. “Welcome to the Chunin Exam. Your time starts now.”



Natsuko Rinha

Late Morning || Land of Fire: Konohagakure

The flurry of shuffling paper filled the room, and Natsuko vaguely the sting of a possible papercut as her eyes glossed over the words on the page. Pair of jonin-level missing-nin in possession of a stolen jutsu scroll. Known information on each missing-nin in the next two pages. At the bottom of the page was the main prompt, which was bolded for emphasis.

The Hokage has chosen your team to retrieve the stolen scroll. Devise and present the best possible strategy to retrieve the scroll.

Letting out a breath she realized she’d been holding, Natsuko took a peek at the next two pages, which were profiles of the two jonin-level missing-nin and a map on tracing the missing-nin’s path, before setting the paper down and looking at her teammates. “So. Jonin-level missing-nin. Is the Hokage crazy or what?”

“Looking at the map, it looks like the missing-nin are going to pass through the Valley of the End. They’re Sunagakure and Kumogakure missing-nin who specialize in wind and lightning techniques, so we might have an advantage if we ambush them where there’s more water or forest,” Kazuhiko said, flipping between pages.

“Huh.” Natsuko mimicked his flipping, looking for something to add to the conversation. “The Sunagakure dude has the weird face paint a lot of puppet people have.”

Kazuhiko paused to stare at her, then flipped through his packet. “It’s true. I don’t think it definitely means he’s a puppeteer, but it’s a strong possibility.”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant,” Natsuko said after a beat. “He’s probably a puppeteer.”

“Right, so tactics… If the Suna missing-nin is a puppeteer, he’ll have to be carrying his puppet somehow, which would make it easier for him to be carrying the scroll as well,” Kazuhiko said, not sparing Natsuko a second glance, thankfully. She’d contributed, and he’d taken it in stride. “Doing this would free up the Kumo nin for attacks, which would probably mean he’s the scout. The puppeteer to protect the scroll, and the scouter to spot and field any attacks.”

He looked between his teammates, frowning. “But, these are just theories. If both of them are confident in their abilities, they could just be traveling without set roles. It’d be bad if we underestimated either of them because we placed them in a role since the are both jonin-level threats.”

He fell quiet, and Natsuko got the sense that he wanted some input, but she couldn’t think of anything to say here. To her, it sounded like a rock-paper-scissors scenario. One of her older sisters had tried to explain the tactics to the game once, but it was all so complicated and circular that to this day, Natsuko still believed firmly that the game was completely based on luck. If it weren’t, how could she possibly beat her sister, much less Kazuhiko and Koharu at the game?

“What do you think, Haru-chan?” she asked, looking to Koharu and flashing a smile when the girl looked back on her. Too bad—the spotlight had already been passed, and technically Natsuko had already contributed.



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Team Six

Late morning || Land of Fire: Konohagakure

"Beyond the fact that we're horribly out matched?" The girl wasn't happy about being in the spotlight one bit and she didn't hesitate to make it known through a glare that wasn't as icy as it typically was. "The puppeteer could be the scout rather than the Kumo nin. They do excell in long range combat more so than most. Which is something that as a team and as individuals we do lack." Koharu didn't mean to be such a downer but she had to state the obvious. Against a puppeteer, who could keep them all at a distance, they held the disadvantage. Hell even some of the lightning based just could be used to keep enemies at bay. She was still trying to get her ice to cooperate enough to do long ranged attacks to make up for their disadvantage, but it was a little out of her scope.

And a puppeteer also holds the advantage of the possibility of having more than one puppet. You've heard the stories of some being able to use two or more at the same time. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that rather than three against two, three with a puppet, we could become out numbered quickly So we'd need something that can take down or incapacitate a large number quickly." Koharu was not one for strategy despite the movements of her kata. Fighting against invisible enemies was just a means of meditation and focus rather than teaching her the skills required for strategy. The girl relied on her own skills and self-awareness over anticipating movements and trying to outsmart an enemy. ]"The only clear advantage we have is the fact that we do have combo moves with each other. They likely have wind and lighting chakra, respectively. Those two elements don't mesh well enough for them to attack as one or at once...and they'd lack the same type of team work that we are used to. Although she wasn't one for strategy and luring the enemy into various traps and choke points, Koharu liked to think that she was able to mesh well enough with others in order to accomplish a goal. Her father often drilled it into her head that cooperation was key. It had become their family motto in a way and it was easy to link that cooperation back to their kekkei genkai. Without the cooperation of water and air they would be unable to use their ice.
The girl bit the inside of her cheek, looking slightly uncomfortable as the moments ticked on. All they could cling to was their joint attacks. But sometimes it was strong arming opponents that worked far better than strategy.

The girl shifted in her seat, green gray eyes flicking between her teammates. "While the mission is to only retrieve the scroll, it would also be highly beneficial to get answers out of the jonin as well. They clearly are a threat to the village. So if we can think of a strategy that allows us to retrieve the scroll as well as a reliable source of information to keep the village safe as a whole…." The girl waved her hand around, not sure how to accurately finish that thought. Due to the nature of her clan being transplants, their clan had sought to prove their value to the village. Koharu was no different than her father or the craftsmen or other Wakahisa shinobi who aided the village in any way possible.



Kazuhiko listened intently as Koharu spoke, trying his best to focus on her words instead of the glare she’d directed at him seconds before. While harsh and piercing, it lacked the usual edge that tipped him, even when he thought himself prepared, into the realm of unease, and for that Kazuhiko was slightly glad. As for the points Koharu brought up, Kazuhiko agreed wholeheartedly, nodding when she finished.

“True. And if the puppeteer uses multiple puppets, chances are they’d rely on summoning scrolls instead, which would be an even more convenient way to carry the jutsu scroll,” he said. “But they hold the advantage in both skill and in ranged battle. So, we need to avoid letting the fight drag on or happen at a distance.”

“Ugh this is all so complicated,” Natsuko said, groaning. “Can’t we just steal the scroll and call it a day?”

Kazuhiko stared at Natsuko for a second. As a rash and rather carefree person, Natsuko tended not to like getting caught up in the technicalities, and it was showing. It was something she shared with Koharu, but not for the same reasons. Where Natsuko clearly hated discussing strategy because she hated sitting around in general, Koharu was more complex. If Kazuhiko had to guess, he’d say it was a combination of impatience, self-confidence, and a belief that there was no experience like firsthand experience. Some of those, he wanted to put down as part of her uncle’s beliefs rubbing off on her, at least in part. Though he figured Osamu to be someone better-versed in strategy than himself, there was a certain edge to the whole Wakahisa mentality that argued that although plans changed, strength didn’t. At the end of the day, perhaps, he could agree with that assessment since plans, especially battle plans, did have a high chance of falling through. For this exercise, though, he felt it necessary to strong-arm his teammates into discussing details. This was an exam, after all, and as far as he could see, details were the only thing separating the qualified and the underqualified.

Most of the strong-arming, then, would have to be directed at Natsuko. This was normal; though Koharu sometimes didn’t agree with him completely, she was willing to work to find and reach a compromise. Natsuko, on the other hand, was the type to want to ditch the project completely and let her emotions get the best of her. That this was an exam was likely one of the main reasons why she’d been staying in line, trying her best to understand the ongoing discussion, and Kazuhiko supposed he’d have to be happy with that much.

“In order to steal the scroll, we have to first do two things: Figure where the scroll is and which missing-nin is carrying it, and get close enough to steal it,” he said. “Both of these are hard, and if the Suna nin really is the one carrying the scroll, a simple skirmish, even if by surprise, wouldn’t be enough. If he doesn’t reveal where the scroll is, we might even have to knock him out and bring him back with us.”

Kazuhiko knit his fingers together, his eyes on the table. The task seemed impossible, but it was an exam question tailored for his team, so there had to be some way of it being possible. A risky move? A requirement that someone sacrifice themselves for the greater good? Neither of those things seemed to fit the tone of the Chunin Exam, but there was something to be said about wanting selflessness in a chunin. If that was the case, though, would he be willing to sacrifice himself?

“Looks like Kazu-kun’s off in his own world again.”

Kazuhiko blinked, looking up at Natsuko, who met his eyes with a grin. “Hey, at least Koharu and I agree you look good brooding over… and not a good time, got it.”

“Well. I got a little caught up in the details, but I don’t think it’s important right now.” He glanced down at his packet, then looked to Koharu. “Getting information out of the missing-nin would definitely be preferable, but my main concern is that we might not have enough firepower to take one of the missing-nin down, much less try and capture or interrogate one of them. If we knew who their allies are, we might have a chance of fooling them into giving something up, but we don’t have much of that. All we have is a simple dossier of their skills and known history, which starts and ends with their crimes. As for our teamwork being our advantage, though,” he said, looking to Koharu, “I agree with that. None of our individual jutsus are strong enough to faze them for long. Our team strategies would probably be the same, but they won’t be expecting it. So if we surprise them with the jutsu and tactics we worked on as a team, we might just be able to get the upper hand.”

He finished the sentence with a small thrill in his head, his thoughts finally falling into place. Flipping rapidly through the packet to the page with the map, he pointed again at the Valley of the End. “Here. It’s a waterfall with a cliff and a river in the forest. We can use the waterfall to our advantage. If we can get them into the water, I’ll be able to target them more easily with my lightning jutsu, and Koharu will be able to use her ice techniques more easily. I know you’ve been working on the amount of ice you can produce on command, but how about freezing water? It’d be an easy way to slow them down, or even capture them. And would you be able to freeze the water more efficiently with Natsuko’s help?” he asked, looking between them. As far as he knew, ice techniques were mostly built on water techniques, and something about the addition of wind to water helped freeze the water. He’d been interested in learning some water jutsu to help set up for his other jutsu, but so far it’d stayed only as interest.

“I, um, I think I’d be able to help,” Natsuko said, looking between him and Koharu. “But freezing the river entirely sounds a little… like, it’s a big river, you know?”

“I can buy you time. How much, I’m not sure, and I might need help getting them into the water. But, we have the advantage of knowing that they’ll cross the river, so we can figure out where might be best to engage them,” Kazuhiko said.



It made her happy that there was someone on their team who cared for strategies as much as Kazuhiko did. Koharu wouldn't put that sort of pressure on Natsuko, at least not at their current skill levels. As he began to lay down their strategy she couldn't help but smile a little. Her teammates were truly amazing. While Kazuhiko held the title of prodigy, she was wholeheartedly thrilled that Natsuko was willing to try, even in this mock fight. It showed how much the other girl had grown since they'd first been assigned to this team. Her smile widened into a small grin as Kazuhiko finished talking. While smiles from her were often shy little things that came about occasionally, her grins were even more rare. "That's doable. Maybe not the entire river, but a good portion of it. And you can do this, Natsuko." It was rare for her to call the other girl by her name anymore. For Koharu, Susu was an endearing name to call her friend by. The tone in which she spoke was warm, and she hoped the girl believed in herself as much as Koharu believed in her.
"Having a pre-existing water source to freeze is easier than pp it myself," She admitted, "but having Natsuko there to help freeze even more of it is beneficial. That would leave me some extra chakra to use other techniques if required."

She fell quiet as she thought through all of their techniques and fighting styles. All three were geared towards close quarters, with Natsuko and Kazuhiko needing to have direct contact with a target to use some of their jutsu. As far as a way to lure the enemies into an area where they could trap them in ice, or provide a distraction while they created the ice, she was drawing a bit of a blank. Green gray eyes stayed fixed on the information packet for a few moments longer. Would Kazuhiko be able to fight them off long enough for her and Natsuko to freeze the river? Even if this was just all ideas that they'd later present, placing one of her teammates in harm's way in an out matched fight was something she'd try to avoid.
"Or if we can't get them in the river quick enough, we can take the river to them. Otou-san agrees that my water release is better than my wind when I use them independently. And then Natsuko can apply her wind to the water and we can catch them that way?"
Weighing the pros and cons of each idea in her head, she wondered if the enemies would be able to avoid the ice underfoot if the river was frozen before they got into it or if they'd fall victim to the ice if they waited until they were on the water. Not many had that nature release so it was undoubtedly something that they hadn't encountered enough before to know how to stop it.

"Ice that's even just an inch or two thick is heavy. If they can somehow evade getting their feet or hands trapped they will be slowed down if they have ice on their clothes. The cold will also cause issues with their movement and if exposed long enough to it, hypothermia can set in."



Natsuko held Koharu’s gaze for a moment, surprised but grateful for the girl’s words, and for Kazuhiko’s nod after. At times, it seemed like her team believed in her skills more than she did, which was a depressing observation. Though it made her wonder whether she’d be able to live up to their expectations of her, it was still reassuring since her teammates weren’t the type of people to throw around words they didn’t mean. She was usually the one dishing out encouragement, not the one receiving it, and the ego boost was nice.

“Thanks, Haru-chan,” she said, giving Koharu a smile before looking back at Kazuhiko. “Yeah, bringing the river to them could work. My wind release helps freeze the water a lot quicker. Or we can just push them into the water. Maybe?”

“That’s an option. Plan A, then. And plan B is bringing the water to them,” Kazuhiko said, looking between her and Koharu. “I’ll focus on keeping the missing-nin occupied. Try and talk to them, and maybe even get some information out of them,” he said, glancing at Koharu, “while you prep your water jutsu. And Natsuko can help me drive them towards the river. I doubt we’ll be able to get them into the water, but we’ll do our best.”

Natsuko nodded as he finished, feeling a thrill of nervousness. Would she really be able to help Kazuhiko drive the missing-nin towards the river? They were jonin-level shinobi, primed to kill at a moment’s notice. But then again, this was just a presentation. They were answering a prompt, not putting their lives at stake.

“Sounds good to me. Either way, Haru-chan moves the water, I’ll help her with freezing it. Which probably won’t take much longer since I’m going to be using my wind jutsu either way.” Natsuko pursed her lips, then looked back up at her teammates. “Would my dark release be useful at all here? Like, maybe, after we trap the missing-nin in ice?”

“I’m not sure whether we can count on trapping them in ice, but if we do, we’ll definitely need you to use your dark release to help us keep them in there,” Kazuhiko said. “I doubt I’ll be able to do much in terms of actually stunning them, but I’ll do my best to keep them occupied until it’s too late for them to move.”

He looked between them again, then dropped his eyes to his packet. “We also need to decide who might be the best choice to escape with the scroll. I… I was thinking Koharu.”

Natsuko opened her mouth, but no words came out. And they needn’t have; Kazuhiko continued on immediately, not allowing for interruption.

“My sensaigan could serve as a last resort if both the ice and Natsuko’s dark release are unable to hold them. I don’t know how well I can use it to hold off two jonin-level shinobi, but I’d wager that I’d at least last a few minutes,” he said. “And I’m not saying that we should plan to do this, because we shouldn’t. Ideally, we’ll aim to trap them, grab the scroll, and all take off running. Split multiple clones if we need to. But we also need to be prepared if our plan fails. If we got faulty intel, or if the time doesn’t line up. If our plan fails and we are unable to make a proper retreat, I will engage them and make more time. Allow for both of you to escape, or just one of you, if it comes to that.” He looked back up at them, his eyes flat, intense, and unreadable, as they often got when he went into ‘leader mode’. “Does that make sense to you both?”

“Hey, don’t get so serious, Kazu-kun. It’s just a presentation. Our lives aren’t actually on the line,” Natsuko said, but she trailed off because even she knew what he was saying. He was willing to lay his life down for them, if needed. Willing to fight the impossible just so they could have a few more minutes to get away. And she… could she say the same?



The girl sat in stunned silence, openly staring at her teammate. While she was surprised, her expression was blank. Koharu wanted to keep her teammates safe, able to return home and live happy, full lives, but unfortunately this was their lot in life. It was highly likely that they'd die young, and even if they lived to an old-ish age it still wouldn't be old enough. It was something that every shinobi knew yet never spoke of. It seemed odd to have an heir to an entire clan and put them in such danger but the village expected clan leaders to serve it and many started out as shinobi before branching into politics.
She'd lost both of her brothers in service to the village. She understood that anyone of them could die at any time. Beyond that the girl had seen conflict at a young age. She could remember the heat of the fire and the young lives lost trying to put it out. Such an event colored one's entire outlook.
"Yes, I understand."

Without much warning the small girl grabbed her teammates, although it entailed her crawling halfway onto the table, even if she couldn't reach them all that well. Koharu pulled them in for a group hug, hoping that her actions spoke louder than words because at the moment she didn't think that she could say much. Her small arms held tight, perhaps even a little on the painful side. She let go moments later and took up her seat once more.
The jonin overseeing them all said they had five minutes left before they would be called up to present.

"There is no more time for pretend after this. We won't be genin anymore with Minoru-sensei to look out for us." Koharu looked down at her hands, picking nervously at her nails. "There is a big chance that we will need to make such a choice in the future. I don't like the idea of one of us being a sacrifice to allow the others to live, but...that is what needs to be done as a last resort. We won't be individuals after this exam. We'll be just one of the masses who can be expendable. We have a duty to our families and our village, even if it means dying for them." Maybe it was all that she'd seen in her life that made her fear losing her teammates in such a manner but she could rationalize it by saying that ultimately it was for the good of the village. Nori had given his life for his squad. Nobuyuki had gone missing while infiltrating enemy lines in order to do reconnaissance. Nori was buried in the Konoha cemetery. Nobuyuki wasn't buried, they had nothing of him to bury. It wasn't until a year after his death that the village had declared him dead. Their deaths had impacted Koharu in ways not known at the time.

"But we are a team. We'll protect each other whenever possible. You both are important to me. I don't think I could ever forgive myself if I left you to die if there was another option."

Across the room where the other exam proctors had gathered to watch the genin a stern faced man stood with his arms held at his sides. Dark eyes trailed over the genin groups and he kept an ear on what they were all saying. The man, Takeshi Suzuki was an ANBU recruiter. While some came to the attention of the ANBU before graduating the academy most were found as genin or chunin. His job beyond helping to give the exam was to keep an eye out for anyone who may have the aptitude for his line of work.
Some did not make the cut given their rather outspoken natures, others would require a more thorough examination but a few stood out as candidates to be. Takeshi couldn't approach them yet but he remembered their faces and would scour village records later. Just because they matched what they wanted through this test did not entirely qualify them. He'd need to see them fight before they could join his ranks.

Soon time was called and one by one the teams were called into a room off to the side of the one they were in. It was a little nerve wracking to be sitting there and waiting. They didn't even know which teams had made it through the presentation and which ones were disqualified. Koharu didn't think she'd been so nervous in all of her life. Even her first day at the academy hadn't been as nerve wracking, and back in those days she was new to the village and struggling to understand her new place in the world. Finally, when there was only them and two other teams left, they were called up.

"Team six."



The room they were led to seemed to be a smaller classroom. Instead of desks, though, there was a single table set up in the center of the room, long enough to accommodate the three people seated there. Nearest to the door was Arinaga, his arms crossed and his face impassive. Beside him was one of the proctors in the larger room, distinguishable by his scar and his inscrutable gaze. To the right of him, however, was a face Kazuhiko would have never expected to see today, and which kept his eyes as he filed into the room, coming to a stop in front of it.

“Please state your name and team,” the shinobi who’d escorted them in said.

“Team six. Taketori Kazuhiko,” Kazuhiko said, maintaining eye contact with the woman nearest to the wall.

“Rinha Natsuko,” Natsuko said, her voice bright but still betraying a note of nervousness.

Koharu sounded off too, but Kazuhiko was still fixated on the woman, whose face remained as blank as Arinaga’s, her elegant features unblemished by emotion. Of all the people who might judge the first stage of the chunin exams, the Hokage would’ve been Kazuhiko’s last guess. Surely the leader of their village had better things to do than help weed out weak among the many, many candidates who’d signed up? Some teams had signed up simply to get a taste of the exams, had penned their names down with no intention of passing. They’d be gone by the second stage, if they even made it there, but even then, important figures tended not to attend until the final stage, when only the most promising candidates were left. Yet here she was, Chisato Yanase, her piercing yellow eyes leaving no room for doubt. If there had been any stakes for the first stage, they’d just been raised, and Kazuhiko could feel his heart pounding, even if he refused to acknowledge his nervousness.

“Okay. Team Six, welcome to the first stage of your exam,” Arinaga said, uncrossing his arms and placing them on the table before him. “Here with me to judge your presentation are Takeshi Suzuki and the Hokage. You will have five minutes to present, after which we will ask you questions about your presentation. Please begin.”

“Right,” Kazuhiko said, directing a single nod at the police chief. Suddenly, he was no longer the most intimidating person in the room. “Our team was given the task of retrieving a jutsu scroll from two missing-nin passing through Konoha territory. Given what we know of their path so far, it appears that they will be passing through the Valley of the End, and we plan to intercept them there.” He met each of the judges’ eyes in turn, focusing on his words rather than their eyes as he spoke. “The presence of a river will give us an advantage since the missing-nin are Suna and Kumo nin and neither of those landscapes have many forests bordering rivers, and we plan to build upon this advantage by using the river as the basis for our plan,” he said, vaguely registering that none of the judges were writing anything down. “Before engaging them, we will attempt to determine the location of the stolen jutsu scroll and whether the missing-nin have roles within their group. Given the Suna nin’s face paint, we suspect he is a puppeteer, which would make him more likely to be carrying the scroll either on his person or within another scroll.”

Finishing, he looked to Natsuko, who cleared her throat, straightening even more.

“Our plan is to try and drive them into the river. Kazuhiko will lead this effort with his lightning jutsu, and I will support him with my wind jutsu. During our fight, we plan to try and talk to them to see whether we will be able to get some information out of them, like why they stole the scroll or where it is,” Natsuko said, her voice growing steadier as she spoke despite her hands trembling behind her back. “We will also try to move the fight towards the river, with the goal of bringing it into the river itself. If we cannot, we will focus on serving as a distraction to buy time for Koharu to use her water jutsu to move the river to them.”



Takeshi watched the genin before them with a passive expression. He was curious about this team. He'd seen the brief hug the shorter genin had pulled the other two into. Although they did their best to hide their fear, he had seen hints of it. When the other two had finished talking it was the turn of the pale haired genin. She seemed unsure of herself for a few moments before she settled her hand into the pommel of her sword. It seemed to give her the courage she needed to speak.

"While they are pushing the missing nin close to the river I will be preparing to trap them in ice." Koharu spared a glance at her teammates from the corner of her eyes. "Natsuko's wind jutsu will help me cool a larger portion of the river than I would be able to on my own. Once we have identified the scroll carrier and have retrieved it, I was chosen to carry it back to the village. And if the worst case scenario were to happen then Kazuhiko will provide a momentary distraction in order for myself and Natsuko to escape."

Takeshi had to commend the girl for being able to say such a thing with a straight face. When it was clear that she was done speaking he took the opportunity to ask a question. "If the worst case happens and you are forced to leave your teammate behind to escape, would you sacrifice the safety of the village for one life?" He had asked all of the other teams this same question and it had made them pause. Not many truly understood what their lives would be like once they were chunin. They only heard stories of those feared in other nations, not those who gave their lives for the village.

"No. As regrettable as it would be--and we would exhaust any other options before leaving one of us behind--we know it is our duty to complete the mission no matter what the cost." Koharu spoke truthfully. She wouldn't risk the life of a teammate unnecessarily but she wouldn't jeopardize the mission to save just one person. It seemed cruel but that was the point of asking such a question.
You couldn't save everybody.
Takeshi knew that, and it was something that they would have to learn. That didn't mean they needed to be heartless, though. He looked at the others to see if they had any questions of their own. The strategy was rather straightforward but it played into all of them equally. He was impressed.



Natsuko watched Koharu speak with a touch of awe, impressed by her teammate’s composure. While they’d gone over that and more during the planning phase, Natsuko still couldn’t see herself saying it without hesitation. Sacrifice her teammates, her friends, for the good of the village? Perhaps it was a selfish thought, and perhaps she was just being immature, but she didn’t want to ever leave anyone behind on a possibility that it was for “the greater good”. She’d rather pass on the mission itself than be put in that sort of situation.

“And what if your plan falls apart from the beginning? If the jonin prove too strong to be distracted by one or two of you?” Arinaga asked, his fingers knit on the desk in front of him. Though his face was relatively free of emotion, his frown lines helped give the impression of permanent disapproval, giving a harsh edge to the interest in his eyes.

“We will persevere. Attempting to retreat or regroup will be as risky as continuing the fight, in that case, and we likely won’t have a second chance at securing the scroll,” Kazuhiko said, his voice clear. Honestly, what did Natsuko do to deserve such teammates? “In the case that they prove to be stronger than expected, I will switch to utilizing my skills and energy to the fullest, without regard as to whether I will be able to sustain such tactics later on in the plan.” his eyes flicked between the trio at the table, his gaze sharp. “At the very least, I will ensure that Koharu has enough time to attempt her ice jutsu. If even that does not work, then we will have to chance escape, during which I will again act as the distraction.”

There was a moment of silence as Arinaga and Kazuhiko stared at each other. The seconds ticked by, and Natsuko started to get anxious, her eyes darting between Takeshi, who looked too calm, and the Hokage, who looked almost out of place in the genin classroom. Just as her nervousness peaked, though, Arinaga unknit his fingers, straightening.

“And what if new intel arrives saying that the missing-nin are much stronger than we originally thought? What will you do then?” he asked.

Natsuko saw Kazuhiko take these words in, saw his jaw clench as the gears in his brain whirred away, saw Koharu’s own gears turning, saw Arinaga, Takeshi, and the Hokage sitting there in their chairs silent, waiting for an answer, and…

“Can’t the Hokage just give the mission to someone else, then?” Natsuko blurted. As eyes turned to her, she put her palms up, glancing between everyone with a sheepish grin. “I mean, no offense, Hokaga-sama, but why’re you even asking chunin to take on jonin-level missing-nin? Aren’t there stronger people around?”

She met the Hokage’s eyes with some amount of trepidation. Sitting there was the most powerful shinobi in the village, and Natsuko just looked at her, doing her very best not to show how scared she was, one hand clutched on the wrist of the other behind her back. Yellow eyes and an emotionless face, her signature spell tag on one ear as she stared back at Natsuko with no semblance of acknowledgement. Everyone knew of Yanase-sama, respected her and adored her, but Natsuko wasn’t about to take her question back. She had a right to ask, didn’t she? Even if it were a test question and not the real thing. Even if it meant she might get disqualified. Because if it were the real thing, Natsuko would ask the same question in a heartbeat.

And then, the Hokage smiled. Grinned, actually, and with a poof of smoke, she disappeared. In her place sat Shikano Nara, the Jonin commander of the village, who looked quite amused about the whole thing.

“You should probably phrase it better, if you ever find yourself in this sort of situation. Yanase-sama probably wouldn’t take that kind of suggestion well, especially if you word it like that.” Shikano said, glancing to her right to Arinaga. “Well?”

The police chief looked the team over once again, then gave another nod. “That will be all for this stage. Please leave through the door to your right. The time and place of the next stage is posted outside.”

Natsuko blinked. “Wait, does—”

“Thank you,” Kazuhiko said, bowing with Koharu, and Natsuko quickly joined in before filing out behind Kazuhiko.

“What was that? Did we pass?” she asked once they were finally outside.

“Yeah, we passed,” Kazuhiko said, cracking a smile and looking to Koharu, then back at her. “The answer really was just turning down the mission. I… I actually feel kind of dumb.”




Koharu was so thankful to have someone like Natsuko in her life. The other girl was a breath of fresh air. Koharu knew that her and Kazuhiko would have come to the same conclusion if they'd been given the chance to answer the question: keep fighting. They were heirs and so much was expected of them. Duty bound to be the best and show no signs of weakness, lest someone think if their clans as weak due to a weak leader. She grinned widely once they were on the other side of the door. "Even if the answer was just that simple, they asked valid questions." She said, "Asking if we could sacrifice a teammate for the village, if our strategies are ineffective or if we are given a mission where it'll be suicide to take it at this time are all valid. They will happen to us in some way eventually. This part of the test wasn't about strength or bravado, but bravery, I think." Koharu was just speaking her mind now, which she did on the rare occasions. "Are we brave enough to lose someone we care for, are we brave enough to keep fighting when the odds are stacked against ua, and are we brave enough to know our limits."

"You three are plenty brave."

"Sensei!"

Minoru was standing just a few feet away, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his cargo pants. The sensei had been allowed to watch their team give their answers through the use of a small one way mirror hidden under the guise of it being the chalkboard. Of course they had passed, he knew that they would. Was it a surprise that Natsuko passed? Not really. The girl didn't seem to know how good she really was.

"There's different types of bravery. Anyway, congratulations are in order. I am very proud of the three of you. Now before you go home and celebrate with your families, Azumi and I have a surprise for you." But first he needed to pull them into a group hug. Minoru was so very proud of his children but at the same time he was saddened. They had been asked questions that no one should ever have to answer. He held them all tightly, trying his best to blink the tears from his eyes.

Finally, when he did pull away, he looked at them all with a small grin. "Your next phase is tomorrow, so we better hurry." Azumi, Minoru and the kids had prepared a small celebration for the genin. Azumi and Kazuha had made them a cake while Minoru had wrapped a gift for each of them while Haru "supervised". Sure they could still fail the exam, being jinxed by this little party, but they deserved a celebration. He'd seen how devastated the teams that didn't pass had been.

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Kazuhiko Taketori

Morning || Land of Fire: Konohagakure

Celebrating Team Six passing the first stage lasted an afternoon with his sensei and all of around five minutes at home. His father acknowledged the news with a single, satisfied nod as his mother fawned over him, but there were only so many hugs and praises she could give before he started feeling awkward. As kind as his mother’s reaction was, Kazuhiko found himself preferring his father’s reaction, which was more like what he’d been expecting. He was the clan heir, one of the strongest contenders in his age group, and, as Atomu kindly put it, “way overdue for a chunin title.” For him, passing the first stage wasn’t surprising in the slightest, just as passing the second wouldn’t be. The third stage was trickier, given its more individual nature, but even then he was expected to pass, if not make it to the finals. So yes, while celebrating with his team felt natural, being praised at home didn’t. Nothing in the compound, not Atomu’s knowing smile nor the calligraphed idioms hung around his house, suggested that he’d done anything except meet expectations, and that was exactly how Kazuhiko expected it’d be.

What he hadn’t expected, though, was how the second stage of the exam would be. Though he’d figured that the stage couldn’t have taken place in the academy courtyard even though that was where they’d been told to gather, and though he knew that the second stage tended to take place in an undisclosed training ground to test the adaptability in unfamiliar environments, which was important enough of a skill for them not to alter the testing conditions too much, he hadn’t been expecting to make a trek as long as they were currently making. “Follow me,” the green-haired woman who could only be the stage’s proctor had said before turning tail and bolting into the forest. And the group did, after a second of hesitation, making up for the lost seconds by jumping branches in the forest at double pace. They’d been headed due west, which made sense until they started broaching the border, then made none when they’d crossed from sparse woodland into arid grassland. By the time that the true desert began peeking through in patches, the group was smaller than it was when the stage began, which Kazuhiko only faintly noticed, the endless running occupying the rest of his thoughts with heat, sweat, and tiredness.

“Why—hah—are—hah—we running—hah—so much,” Natsuko managed, her breaths the most audible between the team. Though her question was simple and likely half rhetorical, Kazuhiko took a guess at what she meant.

“We’re probably doing the stage with the Suna genin,” he said, breaths breaking up his words as well. “The second stage usually spans a few days, at least.”

“Well I—hah—hate it,” Natsuko huffed.

The sight of a fence-like structure up ahead passed a tangible sense of relief through the group, and in minutes they’d arrived, near everyone bending over to pant or just straight-up collapsing in relief like Natsuko.

“Never again!” she panted, drawing the eyes of their proctor, whose high jacket collar hid any smile she may have had, if she was even the type to smile. Unlike the genin, she showed no signs of weariness, or even being winded, for that matter. In fact, her face showed no sign of anything as her eyes left Natsuko.

“Good morning, all. My name is Sayuri, and I am one of your proctors for stage two.” Her voice was clear and crisp, only serving to amaze Kazuhiko further. He doubted there were many shinobi who could manage running such a distance without breaking a sweat, jonin or not. How had he never heard of her?

“This is the Demon Desert. Genin from Sunagakure will join the test from the other entrance. In three minutes, a game of tag will start,” she said, pulling a scroll from the bag strapped on her back. “You will start with either a Heaven or Earth ink character. Tagging someone will let you claim their character. Each member of your team will need both characters in order to pass,” she said, opening the scroll. A flurry of black exploded from the paper, rushing at the genin. Kazuhiko stumbled back, hearing Natsuko cry out from beside him as something slapped itself onto his back. A glance around revealed that it must have been an ink character, seeing as ink strokes spelling out ‘Heaven’ and ‘Earth’ had now branded themselves onto the backs of each genin, spanning their clothes from sleeve to sleeve to form a very visible and literal target.

“The game will last five days and will start in one minute. Breaking rules will result in disqualification.” Finished wrapping the scroll up, she slid it back into her bag, her eyes sweeping across the genin. “I’ll meet you all back here in five days. Good luck.”

This time, the group was collectively faster on the uptake, dashing into the arena within seconds. “This way,” he’d said, leading his team deeper into the desert. “We should head deeper to avoid groups that are focusing on fighting their way through on the first day.”

“Ugh, but I’m tired,” Natsuko grumbled, but kept up all the same.



Natsuko Rinha

Early Morning || Land of Wind: Demon Desert

“Get it!” Natsuko yelled, dashing at the sand-colored rabbit, which hightailed it for its burrow as soon as she yelled. And, as the plan went, Kazuhiko threw an electrified kunai from the side, bringing an end to the chase, which had gone on far too long for Natsuko’s liking. She was, however, unable to complain since the whole thing had been her idea. That said, yesterday’s suggestions for dinner—scorpions, lizards, and mice—helped motivate her since it was either overly cautious rabbits or the large nest of sharp-beaked birds that’d proven too fast to reliably dodge. Though the team had filled their bellies with grilled and bony birds, the amount of effort that’d gone into fending off and nabbing a dozen of the tiny things had tired everyone out. Add in cuts and scrapes from the birds’ beaks and claws with spotty sleep due to shifts keeping watch and Natsuko was not a happy camper, which was another reason why she’d stubbornly refused to deal with anything except for rabbits today.

“See, I knew it’d work!” A grin hung on her face as she pranced over to where Kazuhiko stood holding the rabbit.

“Yeah.” He gave her a conflicted look, then in one, swift motion, he pulled a kunai out and dispatched the rabbit, which twitched out of life in his hands. As the animal’s ears drooped, Natsuko realized that suddenly birds didn’t seem like such a bad option.

“Right, next one,” he said after he gave the limp fur a few more shakes for good measure.

“Y-yeah,” Natsuko said, averting her eyes to look across the desertscape, then glancing back out of guilt. “Kazu-kun, I, um… I can try killing the next rabbit,” she said, trailing off.

Kazuhiko fixed her with another look, looking equal parts tired and kind, his eyes reminding Natsuko of her older brother. “It’s alright. It’s easier for me to grab the rabbit right after I throw a kunai anyway.”

He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder, holding her gaze for a second before breaking it and looking to Koharu. “Let’s go. I’m hungry.”

Since finding rabbits and their burrow locations took time, the team didn’t get back to their hideout until nearly noon. A close call with spotting a team in the distance, which was remedied by a hearty gust courtesy of Natsuko herself, had encouraged them to shrink their hunting radius, and at the end they managed three rabbits and two burrowing things that looked to be a cross between a rat and a squirrel. It was a generous bounty for one meal, but the team had figured it’d be better to have some supply stores. If anything, Kazu could zap the meat into something jerky-like that was nigh unchewable but still better than scorpions or an empty stomach.

Their shelter was in the west central region of the desert and consisted of a few clay ruins. Though there were a few huts with walls and roofs intact, there were still too many cracks and crevices to comfortably sustain a fire at night, so the team had to improvise. What they came up with was a strange amalgamation of techniques designed to borrow from collapsed houses to build up the one they chose. Koharu’s water techniques served as the basis of the strategy, helping to melt down the dried clay into workable shape, and Kazuhiko’s lightning techniques could heat the wet clay enough that it held its shape, after which the sun could do its thing. With the wet clay mixture, the group was able to patch cracks in the house, topping the structure off with a chimney up top. They’d done this all before setting out to hunt rabbits since Kazuhiko and Koharu were in agreement that this test was as much about survival as it was about combat, but Natsuko was just happy that Koharu was able to help her wash the mud off her hands after they were done.

While hunting, the team had picked up what dried shrubbery and branches they came across, but eThe rest of the evening was spent gathering fuel for a fire, which ended up consisting mostly of dried shrubbery since trees were few and far between.

Then, after the splitting, skinning, and skewering, the meat was finally sizzling beside the fire in their patched-up shelter, the three of them gathered around it, staring at the fire. It was the second meal they’d have this exam, but it felt like the first real meal in a while. The smell of fire-seared meat made Natsuko’s stomach growl, and she swallowed the saliva that had gathered, clearing her throat.

“So, what should we do for the rest of the day?” She glanced between her teammates with an inquisitive look. Scouring the desert for easy targets didn’t sound appealing, especially given the inescapable heat right outside the door. In the desert, daylight was hotter than fire in the long run, though the cooking fire was surprisingly bearable in the shade.

“I think the Kono genin have accepted that evening and night are the best times to move around during. It’s cold at night, but it’s still closer to home than this heat,” Kazuhiko said, indicating the door with a toss of a thumb. “As for the Suna nin, they might not have the same thoughts, but they’ll learn quickly. It’s only efficient to move around in the desert if others are moving too. Sniffing people out in the sand is an easy way to waste time and leave your back open.”

“Right,” Natsuko said, eyes on the crispy, golden-brown leg of rabbit closest to her. It’d been so helpless when Kazuhiko held it, but now Natsuko felt less than zero sympathy for the animal. All she could think about was how good it smelled, how gloriously savory it’d be, how—

“I think they’re about done,” Kazuhiko said, his voice betraying a note of amusement. The small smile he flashed at Koharu confirmed to Natsuko that he was indeed smiling at her, but she didn’t care for that right now.

“Thank you for the meal!” she said, grinning as she plucked up the stick closest to her, blowing furiously on the meat before getting impatient and attempting a bite, then recoiling with a whine.

Out of the corner of her eye, Kazuhiko shot Koharu another amused smile, but this time Natsuko caught his eye and fixed him with a glare. “Not funny.”

“Right,” he said, nodding and blowing on a his own piece of meat, but Natsuko got the distinct impression that he was being sarcastic, which was so un-Kazuhiko-ly Kazuhiko-like that she had to give it to him.

“Koharu, tell him I don’t like cheeky guys,” she said with a huff before finally digging in and, well, the wait was worth it.



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Koharu

Morning // Land of Fire: Konohagakure


Her father's reaction was far more than she'd expected. While it wasn't the same as how Minoru and Azumi had presented gifts and sweets, her father's reaction had been surprising. Osamu was a man who was quite cold, yet she knew he loved her. He wouldn't have invested so many hours training her if he didn't. Osamu had stopped in front of Koharu when she arrived home, hand resting on the kashira, in exactly the same way she did it. They were quiet for a few moments, both looking at each other as if they were having a silent conversation before he reached out and pulled her towards him. His strong arms circled her for a few brief moments. Koharu's eyes went wide and moments later the corners of her lips turned upwards as she returned his hug. Osamu said nothing, and he didn't have to, the simple touch was enough to convey his meaning. Their hug was brief and immediately after they went to eat dinner.

She wondered about her teammates and the reactions of their families to the news. She had a feeling that Kazuhiko had a similar reaction from his parents but Natsuko's family was entirely unknown to her. Would they even be there for her? Koharu blinked and pulled her hands from the teacup she'd been holding. The teacup was frosted over and she sighed softly. She was tired and perhaps a little worried about Natsuko and her family situation. The combination would make her a little careless with her ice so she retired to her room far earlier than was necessary but she wanted to sleep. The next part of the exams was bound to be harder than the first.

Before she fell asleep, the girl looked at the photo on her nightstand. It was a small photo of her and two dark haired teenagers, taken shortly before they'd settled in Konoha. Would they be proud of her, she wondered. They'd had a rocky start to being a family but they were her older brothers and she missed them. Koharu said good night, her nightly ritual, to the photo before rolling over.

In the morning she'd glanced at the photo, knowing that she couldn't take it with her. This would be the first time in four years that she wouldn't be able to tell it good night. Meeting everyone in the academy courtyard, she'd looked at all the people present. She spotted Kouji and the rest of team five. Poor Kage looked about ready to pass out from his nerves and Mariko seemed to be ignoring her teammates. No one was sure what they would be doing, especially when the green haired proctor told everyone to follow her. Koharu liked to think of herself as fast but the green haired woman was leaps and bounds ahead of her. Still the girl followed, keeping pace with her teammates.
"It'll be okay, Susu." She said softly, looking at her teammate. Koharu was hunched over with her hands on her knees. She focused on what their task was and she inwardly groaned. It was creative but was it really necessary?

Nonetheless, the girl followed her teammates into the desert. At least they'd have water covered. Sure chakra based water had a funny taste but it would keep them alive. "The quicker we can find somewhere safe the better off we'll be. I don't suppose any of you have any experience in the desert?" Koharu was a little out of her element, but she held the slight advantage in that she naturally ran a little cooler than others. The heat wouldn't bother her quite so much.

A few hours into their trek, once they found a suitable place to camp, Koharu told her teammates to hold out their hands. Her water release was getting better and she was able to give them some water. They'd need food soon enough but for now the water had to do. They needed to come up with a game plan soon on how to not only get the marks they needed to advance but also how to survive five days in a place that none had seen before.

Tetsu
Two days into second trial/ / Land of Wind: Demon Desert


Shit. How could they have been so careless? They'd been ambushed by Team One, a powerhouse of a team. Even in the academy the other three genin were quite strong. Now all of that strength was condensed into one team and it was frightening, for a lack of better words. They'd been attacked and Haru's character had been stolen by Team one and he'd been injured. It wasn't a serious wound but the boy needed to rest up a little bit. So far they had no luck in finding a place that would allow them to rest. Some teams had carved a little niche for themselves within the few habitable spots there were and others...well they didn't fare well.
He knew of one team that had fallen victim to the poisonous cacti. They were a Konoha team no doubt.

Haru rested against him, taking weight off his injured leg. They'd patched him up as best as they could but he worried it may not have been enough. "Tetsu...look." Haru pointed out a small figure in the distance. They were alone and carrying something over their back. He didn't recognize the pale head of hair and he went on guard. Whatever they had over their back was big and had multiple tails. The genin frowned and looked at his teammates and the person. An idea was forming in his mind and he wondered the odds of it actually succeeding. The figure was alone and clearly part of a team, given that they were here. Their team was likely nearby and it could be disastrous if they encountered them. There was the chance that they might actually win, even with Haruto down.

He shared his plan with the others. Haruto was all for it. They needed food and that person clearly had it. They were all used to life in the desert but sometimes hunting just came down to luck. "I mean we can take that person by surprise and get their food and their character." They did have until the end of the five days to collect their characters but there was no harm in getting ahead, was there?

"Yeah but there's another way than just ambushing them, right?" Aimi spoke up, flipping her light blonde hair over her shoulder.

"You want to go and ask them to give us their things?" Haruto shot back. Despite the high collar and dark glasses he wore, which shrouded his emotions, his voice gave away a lot. Aimi was a good teammate but she was too kind.

"Well yeah. We have a few more days before we have to have all of the characters. There's still time to get them. You're hurt anyways." She pointed out.

Tetsu sighed. She had a valid point. They had time but he doubted that the other team would just welcome them with open arms. Besides he was pretty sure that it was a genin from Konoha. No doubt they wouldn't trust them. This was a competition, not a field trip. Was it naive to think they could be peaceful? Yes. The real world wouldn't let them be peaceful. Sure there were no big wars but that didn't stop people from trying to kill each other. "You know that won't work Aimi. They won't trust us and could just as easily lead us into a trap." Tetsu shifted his weight. "We can ransom them to their team. It could give us an advantage if we have one of them."

"Exactly! They won't leave their team behind because the only way to move on is if they all have the characters. We would have the upperhand." Haruto said, turning towards the figure. They were walking at a quick enough pace to give them an idea that they were trying to hurry. They had to have a camp nearby. No genin would be dumb enough to walk halfway across the arena on their own for food. "And you said that I'm injured. If we take one of them hostage then the playing field is leveled." Haruto really wanted to ambush that genin. It would make everything so much easier on them.

Aimi frowned and glanced towards the figure once more. She would cave, just because it was two against one. Haruto and Tetsu seemed to feed off of each other but she was the voice of reason.

"We'll have to fight soon enough, the more we can see the skills of the other genin, the better off we'll be in the long run. It isn't like we're going to hurt them, we'll give them back once we have what we want."

In the end they decided to go with Tetsu's plan. He just hoped that it would work. Aimi would cut off the genin and Tetsu would engage them while Haruto would provide support and a means to make his fires that much more effective. They snuck closer, up until Aimi was able to get a good start on cutting the genin off.
Tetsu noticed that it was a girl in a white shirt and black pants. Her hair was white and was pinned up onto her head. His eyes focused on the sword at her hip. He'd given the signal to Aimi and she was off.

Koharu

Morning // Land of Wind: Demon Desert


She'd volunteered to go hunt their breakfast and rather than trying for rabbits, which had proven to be more of a hassle than a help, she wanted to go for something bigger. Scorpions wouldn't be the weirdest food she ate before, she had eaten seals and whales in her early childhood, and they were bigger than the rabbits. They'd had to ward off a few at night and she wondered where they'd hide during the day.
The answer lay in a small outcropping of rocks that formed a sort of shelf. The scorpions were half buried in the sand in the shade of the shelf. Koharu needed just one. It was impractical to kill more than they needed to.
The approach was a little awkward, as she could easily fall victim to a swarm of them. In the end she decided to use a bit of her ice to lure them out.

Some of them were the size of her hands and a pale yellow color. There were few that were about two hand lengths but she caught sight of one as long as her leg. It's three tails were poised and ready to sting, jabbing at the air when her ice would dart out of the way. Koharu didn't feel so bad about killing a giant scorpion like she did a rabbit. A single large ice shard was tossed at the biggest of the scorpions and it struck into its side. It struggled before falling limp a few moments later while the smaller ones scattered.
Koharu waited a few more before she grabbed the creature. She snapped the icicle off before discarding it and hefting the scorpion over her shoulder. Koharu carried it by a pincher with the three tails pointing towards the ground behind her.

She followed her steps back, glancing around as she did so. It was quiet and kind of nice despite the heat but she didn't dare let her guard down. Midway back to the small clay hut they had taken up residence in, a blur of light pink cane racing in front of her before stopping abruptly. A girl stood there with her arms crossed over her chest and a small smile on her face.

Koharu dropped the scorpion and grabbed her katana, unsheathing it and falling into a stance. If there was one, there were two more not far behind. It really was just a matter of trying to find them. A noise, sort of like a whooshing, came from behind her and she glanced back to see a boy with dark glasses and orange hair landing behind her. She wasn't sure how'd he got behind her without running but now wasn't the time for such thoughts. The boy behind her seemed to stumble to the side once his feet were on the ground and she decided to capitalize on that. Koharu closed the distance between them quickly, although not as quick as the pink clad girl, and she brought her sword in a downward arch, trying to get the boy to back up. He stumbled in the sand and covered his face and neck with his arms. The blow never came as another boy stopped her sword with a kunai. Her arms shook with the effort to not let him overpower her.

The black haired boy was physically stronger than she was but Koharu didn't let that deter her. She tried to sweep his feet from under him but he lept backwards, giving her a slight opening. Thankfully the most basic of the Wakahisa jutsu used two hand signs only--the dog and the bird. Ice shards formed in front of her hands before extending out and forming small little crude birds. The two boys seemed surprised when the little ice birds began to race towards them. She gripped her sword, picking it up from the sand.

The pink clad girl was temporarily forgotten as she focused on the boys. The boy with black hair was the one that she worried about. Some of the ice birds had cut his cheeks, opening thin lines on his face. The other boy was--wait where was he? Koharu could have sworn that he was right there.

"Tetsu'll take care of her." The voice of the other girl caught her ear. How had she saved the boy so fast? The girl couldn't focus on them because the boy began attacking her with a kunai. She blocked it with her sword and scowled. The boy didn't betray anything on his face, even as he grabbed her forearm and knocked her off balance.
The boy suddenly jumped back, putting more space between them, and began to sign.

Koharu had a short window to get some sort of defense up. She was surprised when the defense she'd put up stayed standing between them after the fireball had raced towards her. The black haired boy cursed and signed again as the small ice sheet crumbled and the girl began to close the distance between them. The orange haired boy yelled something at the black haired one and she was forced to halt her attack and throw up another defense as another fireball--this one even bigger than the last thanks to the added wind from the orange haired boy--came racing towards her.
Her ice had been strong against his fire, but with the added wind to fan the flames, her ice didn't stand a chance.
Koharu swore loudly as the fire licked her forearms, burning a four inch long patch on each limb. A line was pressed into her neck from behind and she knew that she was done.

Her cheeks burned in humiliation at the thought that she'd been beaten so easily, even if it had been a surrender. Her arms burned badly and the black haired boy picked up her discarded katana. "On your feet. You'll take us to your camp and give us that seal on you-"

The boy didn't get to finish his sentence because she'd whipped around and hit him square in the gut, grabbing her sword from the sand before bolting. Koharu didn't get very far before the orange haired boy landed on her, quite literally. She was sprawled out on the ground, pissed as hell.
Oh she was going to get them all for this.

Tetsu
Mid morning/ / Land of Wind: Demon Desert


The girl had put up a good fight, he'd give her that much. She'd hit him good but he'd burnt her arms. She'd refused to tell them the location of her camp so they'd found a small place to rest until they could figure out what to do with her. Any time he or Haru got close, she'd try to lash out. Tetsu had learned that taking away her katana had only infuriated her more and she'd create a dagger sized spike of ice in its place.
He was grateful that she knew that she was defeated.

The only one who had any luck in getting her to talk was Aimi, but that wasn't a surprise since his teammate was a friendly girl with a sweet disposition. Tetsu was working on getting the scorpion that they'd taken from her, cut open.

"That's for my team." The girl glared at him but he returned the ict look with one of his own.

"You lost. You don't get to keep it. Just like you didn't get to keep your character." The girl looked like she wanted to throttle him.

Aimi stepped in and stopped them before they could fight again. "How's your arms?" The girl looked down at her burned arms. She couldn't put ice on them nor did they have anything for her to use to soothe the burns.
They weren't bad but he wasn't sure if they'd blister or not.

The girl shrugged but remained quiet. Kazuhiko and Natsuko would come looking for her soon enough but she was nervous of them finding out that not only had she been beaten easily but her character had been stolen as well. "Maybe we can talk to your team and come to some type of deal. There's still a few more days for you to reclaim it." Aimi said, hoping to make the girl get into a better mood.

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Natsuko Rinha


Kazuhiko rose suddenly, his jaw tight. “It’s been too long.”

“Oh, now you think it’s been too long,” Natsuko said, arms crossed as she followed suit. “What about ten minutes ago when I said Ruru was taking too long, huh?”

But Kazuhiko ignored her, taking off into the desert and forcing Natsuko to chase after him. So, yes, she’d asked multiple times, perhaps too many times why Koharu was taking so long. She’d asked out of boredom, but clearly she’d been right. Of their team, Koharu had the most experience with hunting, which she’d mentioned was from her time in the Land of Snow, so her taking as long as Kazuhiko or Natsuko was strange. Her taking even longer, though, was just wrong, and this is what kept Natsuko from continuing her previous train of thought. Where was Koharu, and what had happened? Had some wild animal gotten to her, or had some other team? Both seemed unlikely to Natsuko given that Koharu was a naturally careful person, but she did tend to get too wrapped up in what she was doing, which could cause her to lose track of her surroundings, but she was never not careful, so…

“Where are we going?” Natsuko called to Kazuhiko, whose anxiousness showed in his pace across the sand. Again, he didn’t respond, and Natsuko had to figuratively bite her tongue to keep from snapping at him since biting her tongue while running was a good way to lose her tongue. As for holding back, she was doing that because she felt for Kazuhiko. His silence stemmed from annoyance, which stemmed from worry. Deeper still, Natsuko knew, was fear—fear that something had happened to Koharu, that she’d been hurt, was currently bleeding out somewhere, or worse. Death was not expected in the chunin exams, but it was not unthinkable either. Every exam there were deaths or injuries, unintentional and perhaps accidental, but they existed. That’s what came with being a shinobi, what could be expected more and more often after making chunin, and that’s what made the whole situation that much more terrifying.

“Kazu-kun, where are we going?” Natsuko asked again, her tone sharp now. She understood his feelings and was sympathetic to them, but even she had limits. “Kazuhiko?”

After another second, she attempted to sprint forward and corner him, remembered that she wasn’t fast enough, and instead settled on grabbing him. She caught his arm, and he whirled on her, eyes bright.

“Kazuhiko, stop it. Koharu’s my teammate too. I want to find her as much as you do,” she said, meeting his eyes with an anger of her own. She’d tried to be understanding, but it was clear he needed more than just time and silence. He needed a voice of reason, and maybe someone to shout some sense into him, if need be. “Tell me where we’re going and how I can help.”

He stared at her for another beat, and Natsuko willed herself not to be cowed. Having spent so much time with Kazuhiko only made his current state scarier because he wasn’t usually like this. The intenseness of his gaze was wholly foreign and barely seemed to belong on his face, his features accentuated with new tautness, but in another beat he deflated, his gaze shooting to the side, then to the ground before settling back on Natsuko.

“Yeah. Yeah you do. I’m sorry,” he said. “I just…” He looked around, his jaw set. “I don’t know. I just ran in the direction we saw her leave in. There aren’t any footprints so I have no idea where she went, but the land’s so flat I figured we’d spot her, or whoever got her, sooner or later, and…”

“It’s definitely a genin then? Not some wild animal from the desert?” Natsuko asked.

“No, not an animal. Koharu’s too smart for that, too fast to go down easily, and she can hold her own against almost anyone for at least a few minutes.” He looked back to Natsuko. “No, it has to be another team. A team got to her.”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” Natsuko said. She’d known the facts and been aware of the reasoning, but Kazuhiko’s words streamlined it for her, highlighting the obvious conclusion. “So we’re looking for a team. Should we split up? So we cover more ground, I mean.”

“No, too risky. Splitting up would make it easier for them to ambush us separately, which is the tactic they must have used on Koharu,” Kazuhiko said. His jaw was clenched again, his eyes on the ground. Then they shot up. “Clones. We can split off clones. If one of them gets dispelled early—”

“We’ll know that it found Koharu,” Natsuko finished. “Good idea.”

They signed the cloning jutsu in sync, their skills from their high-stakes games of tag and playing lookout coming forward easily. Eight clones popped up—three Natsuko’s and five Kazuhiko’s—and ran off in different directions.

“Hey, I only made two less than you!” Natsuko said, shooting Kazuhiko a cocky grin.

He returned with a blank look. “We don’t know how long it’ll take to find her.”

“Right.” Timing. She’d forgotten about that, gone ahead and made the maximum amount of clones she could sustain, giving her around… twenty minutes? Thirty minutes?

“Well, hopefully it won’t take that long,” she concluded, and Kazuhiko gave her a nod.

Minutes ticked by as they waited, and Natsuko kept herself busy by repeatedly going over which clone went where. Since clones didn’t pass information back to the user like shadow clones, there was usually little to glean from a clone being dispelled. That said, the user could still tell when one of their clones was dispelled. Natsuko would describe it as somewhat of a twinge, or a metaphorical poke. It wasn’t intrusive, but it was easy to register all the same. With multiple clones, the trick was putting a different amount of chakra into each so the twinges felt different. The more chakra, the more… dimension the twinge, for lack of a better term. But for Natsuko, the hardest part was keeping track of which clone was which. With two it was easy since one had more chakra and one had less; with three, she had to keep track of the order. She’d made it easier on herself by having them head off in order, so all she had to do was keep track of which directions her clones went and which one had the most chakra, which wasn’t hard, but she didn’t have a great track record with keeping track of clones either.

“Oh!” she shouted, shooting to her feet at the first sign of a twinge.

“Which way?” Kazuhiko asked, on his feet as well, a kunai already in hand.

“Um.” Natsuko hesitated. It was the middle twinge, wasn’t it? Not too large and not too small?

Kazuhiko deflated slightly. “We can call the clo—”

“No, I got it! This way!” she said, taking off into the sand in the right direction. It was the middle twinge. Definitely. And, for some reason Natsuko didn’t know but appreciated anyway, Kazuhiko didn’t question her. No, she did know: It was because they both knew how much Koharu meant to each other, and Kazuhiko was right. There was no way Natsuko was making mistakes with Koharu’s safety on the line.

Kazuhiko Taketori

Midmorning || Land of Wind: Demon Desert

At some point during the run, Kazuhiko had taken the lead, which was fine since all the clone had only given Natsuko a direction to head in. If the group had used shadow clones, the whole thing would’ve been a lot easier, but none of them had enough chakra to be splitting up their chakra at this point. Kazuhiko himself was winded after summoning two, and they still had a fight ahead, so it wasn’t really an option. But it should’ve been, really. In the event of this happening, he should’ve been able to summon clones, should’ve been able to pinpoint exactly where Koharu was, should’ve insisted that she take a shadow clone with her, however much that might wear him or her out.

But there was no point in dwelling on that now. For now, he needed to focus on finding Koharu. Given the flat landscape, they’d be looking for some sort of hideout—a cave or some ruins, most likely. Dunes here and there could obstruct their view or hide an opening, but the ones they’d passed thus far hadn’t been big enough for that to be a concern.

Figures gathered beside a large rock in the distance prompted Kazuhiko to stop, crouching down to observe the group. From the looks of it, it was a three-member team gathered around something. Koharu.

“Um, Kazu-kun, I think they see us,” Natsuko said.

Jaw clenched, he stood. Of course they did. Unlike in the forest, there was no room for stealth in the open desert, and if there was, it’d be the Suna genin who knew about it, not them.

“Wait, wha—”

The figures in the distance stood as well, a fourth figure—Koharu—joining them after a brief struggle. Kazuhiko walked forwards, pocketing his kunai as the distance between the groups closed.

“Kazu-kun, what are we doing? Are we fighting them? Should I hide some clones?” Natsuko asked from behind.

“No, negotiation’s our best move since they have a hostage,” he said, clenching and unclenching a hand. “Depending on how strong they look and what state Koharu is in, we can decide whether combat’s worth pursuing, but first we should talk to them. See if fighting’s necessary.”

Part of him wanted not to be so reasonable. Part of him wanted to charge into battle, screw the consequences. He was fast, and given how his skills catered towards burst tactics, he’d be able to take down at least one of the genin, if not two. But the other, more reasonable, sensible, and present part of him knew that was beyond stupid. Settling this peacefully was the method. Their team was strong and they still had three days, which was more than enough time to take two characters each. Settling this without wasting any more energy or getting any more injuries would allow them to start going on the offensive as soon as possible, and Kazuhiko was willing to wager that they’d be able to take this Suna team on if they’d been together. Teams that were confident in their skills wouldn’t be wasting time with a hostage situation, after all, so they were likely weak, injured, or looking for something.

As they got closer, Kazuhiko got a better look at them—and Koharu. Thankfully, Koharu so much beat up as she did livid, despite the kunai at her throat. What shone through more than her relief or the way she was keeping her hands from touching, as if they were hurt, was how ready she was for a fight, and Kazuhiko was again tempted to agree. But, unfortunately, he was him, and his father’s talk of feinting and striking from behind had rubbed off on him. He’d wait for a better opportunity, when Koharu wasn’t hurt and hostage.

“That tall dude looks like he could use a good punch or two,” Natsuko muttered to him as they walked. “And the shorter guy—those are sunglasses right? I’ll never understand Suna nin. At least the girl looks normal.”

“The one in glasses could be hiding a weapon in his pockets. Or an injury,” Kazuhiko said. “The tallest one looks like the one in charge. He thinks he won, though,” he said, noting the boy’s faint smile. “We should keep him thinking that.”

Natsuko snorted. “And hit him as soon as Ruru’s free, you mean?”

“We’ll see,” Kazuhiko said.

Now a few meters away, the Suna nin stopped, and Kazuhiko did the same.

“So,” the tallest boy said. When Kazuhiko stayed silent, annoyance flashed across his face, but it was quickly replaced by veiled smugness. “Well, as you can probably see, we have your teammate here, and we’re not afraid to hurt her.” The blade in his hand glinted in the sun, and Kazuhiko clenched a hand, careful to keep his emotions off his face. Though the other boy was pretty good with hiding his expressions, it was no poker face compared to the ones Kazuhiko saw regularly in clan and council meetings. The boy was no heir, likely had little exposure to or interest in clan politics.

“You—”

Kazuhiko’s hand was on Natsuko’s shoulder in an instant, clamping down and holding her still. She was tense with rage, but that was what the boy wanted. He was basking in his success.

“What do you want?” Kazuhiko asked.

“Your characters. And any supplies you have on you—kunai, explosive tags, everything,” he said. At his side, his teammates attempted to maintain similar poker faces, the other boy doing better than the girl. In fact, if the girl bit her lip any harder, Kazuhiko was sure it’d bleed.

“You realize that if you take our supplies, we’re going to come after you,” Kazuhiko said.

The boy with the kunai narrowed his eyes, adjusting his grip on his kunai as Kazuhiko pressed down on Natsuko’s shoulder, maintaining eye contact with the boy. Then, after a beat, the boy relaxed again, smiling. “I look forward to it, then. Now put your supplies on the floor and back away. Slowly.”

Natsuko opened her mouth to protest, but Kazuhiko squeezed her shoulder, giving her a small shake of his head as he pulled out his kunai. Onto the floor they went, along with the two explosive tags he carried with him. Given that he favored his lightning release, he didn’t tend to stock too many tags, but there they were.

After he and Natsuko had finished tossing down their supplies, they backed away. The boy with the kunai turned to his teammates, nodding, and the girl stepped forward and gathered all the tools, shooting Kazuhiko and Natsuko an apologetic look before running back to her team.

“Now turn around and put your hands on your head,” the boy with the kunai said.

Kazuhiko did as told, giving Natsuko a look that told her to do the same.

“I’m going to kick his ass so hard later, I swear,” she muttered as she raised her hands.

Footsteps sounded behind him, then went quiet. Kazuhiko strained his ears, the hand signs for a simple but effective jolt of lightning in his mind’s eye, but after a flutter of clothes and a shove, he stumbled forward, whirling around to see the boy in sunglasses already halfway back to his teammates. How had he gotten so close to Kazuhiko, so quietly? Kazuhiko had been planning on grabbing him when he got close so that they could even out the hostage situation, but that hadn’t even been an option. The boy was in and out in an instant, taking Kazuhiko’s character with him, and now all they had to barter was the word of the kunai-wielding boy.

“Well, that was fun,” the taller boy said as his teammates rejoined him. “See you—or not.”

Shoving Koharu forward, he took off in the other direction, taking his teammates with him. Kazuhiko sprinted forward, catching Koharu and leaning her against a shoulder as he watched the Suna nin sprint off. They were faster than his team, but they were also more tired. They’d fought another group recently, most likely, and probably lost, or they wouldn’t have been so quick to lose their hostage and run. They could’ve forced Kazuhiko to lead them back to his team’s camp, but they didn’t.

“Koharu! Koharu, are you okay?” Natsuko was at his side in an instant, kneeling down and grabbing Koharu, looking her over. “Oh, are those burns? Those bastards, here, I’ve got some ointment,” she said, fishing a canister from her pocket. Kazuhiko looked at her, surprised, and she rolled her eyes. “What, was I supposed to give them all of my stuff or something?”

He managed a smile, then helped Koharu into a sitting position, giving her a tired but relieved look. “Let’s not do that again,” he said.

Natsuko scoffed. “You’re kidding, right? We’re chasing them as soon as I finish rubbing this ointment, right?”

“Well.” Kazuhiko looked to Koharu. Chase or rest, it was up to her, because he and Natsuko were more than ready for a fight.

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Koharu

Morning // Land of Wind: Demon Desert


Shame burned brightly on her face and she couldn't look at them. She'd been captured and held hostage on top of losing her character. She felt like a loser in that moment. Koharu kept her eyes fixed on the sand they sat on, even as Natsuko rubbed ointment onto the burns. Koharu was pissed off at that team and at herself. She should have avoided capture. She should have fended them off better. There were so many things that she thought that she should have done differently. The girl knew that getting so worked up would only cause problems but she couldn't help it. She was angry.
As a result of her anger, Koharu felt much colder, physically, than she typically did. It wasn't just a few degrees of a difference. She felt like she was made of ice. A cold aura was noticeable around her.

When the girl finally worked up the courage to look at her teammates, some of that anger dissipated. "I'm sorry." She wasn't sure why she was apologizing to them. Maybe it was because she thought she'd disappointed them. They'd been worried about her safety. All of that unnecessary worry had been piled onto them because of her. It was pointless of apologizing for something that could have happened to any of them. She took a breath and looked up at them. "They have a fire release user, the boy with black hair. The girl is fast and the other boy uses bursts of wind to get behind people. They...also use joint attacks like we do. That's how I got burnt." Koharu said. At least she'd been observant.
"And they've fought recently. The orange haired one has a bad ankle so he isn't moving much beyond using his wind jutsu." The boy had been aided by his teammates to walk. He was a liability that they'd protect.
She stood up and dusted the sand off of her. "Let's go get them. They couldn't have made it very far. I'm pissed off." She'd made up her mind. Revenge was something that her dad told her was for fools, you couldn't change the things that happened, but in that moment she wanted to get her revenge.

They'd used the clone method again and she made three ice clones. They took a bit more chakra but the technique was easier to use, plus if they needed to fight then they were a bit more durable, given that they were made of ice. They could shatter if one knew how to hit them just right or used enough force. They moved in the direction that the enemy team had disappeared and fanned out from there. Thankfully the boy with the wind had gotten too tired to cover their tracks halfway through their escape.


Tetsu

Afternoon // Land of Wind: Demon Desert


"We should have talked to them…"

"You're still going on about that? Aimi, you can't negotiate with everyone. That girl we captured was a pain." Haruto said from the small fire where he was roasting the scorpion tail. "Right Tetsu?"

"He's right. That girl wouldn't have listened and I doubt that they would have too. You seen that boy on their team." Tetsu was just glad that they got what they wanted out of them and another fight hadn't happened. He was keeping watch while the others rested up. He was a horrible cook so both Aimi and Haru had agreed to put him on guard duty for the time being. They didn't need to battle food poisoning on top of other teams.

"But...they could help us! You know that Atsushi and his team are dangerous! That girl used ice. We can use that to our advantage." Aimi frowned, drawing a line in the sand. Haru and Tetsu just didn't understand, that was all. How many people knew how to counter ice based attacks? Plus it had been nice being around the girl because she'd wicked away the heat.

"If they can even follow our trail." Haru said as he used a kunai to flip the scorpion meat over. He'd used his wind to cover their tracks and was fairly confident that he'd done a good enough job at that.
They'd even found a gully to hide in for the time being so the light of their fire was hidden as well.
Tetsu sighed. Aimi did have a good point about Team One. They were beasts in human skin. They would have a fair chance of being able to do some serious damage to most of the teams within this desert. But he didn't want to admit that they would need help in getting the characters back. Atsushi was a puppet freak who had an unfair advantage of being somewhat of a prodigy.
When the meat was done cooking, Tetsu abandoned his post to eat with his team. It was risky but he just needed a break. He pulled his shirt up to look at the bruise that was forming from where he'd been sucker punched by that girl. The meat was good and it filled his belly to the point that he was sure he could just fall asleep.

He returned to his post, letting the other two eat their fill. He was anxious about the other team finding them. Even if Haru had covered their tracks it was likely that they'd encounter someone soon enough. The words of the other boy came back to him. They'd find them.
Time had passed rather slowly after that. Haru's ankle was rebandaged and Aimi was left on watch so Tetsu could rest. "We didn't get as much as I thought we would have." Haru said, looking over their loot. They couldn't take the sword from that pale haired girl because anytime they tried, she'd fight against them.

"Good. We'll be taking it all back then."

Both boys shot up to find the source of the voice. The three genin surrounded them, blocking all but one way out. Tetsu glared at the pale haired girl, taking in the way she stood with her sword ready to strike. She seemed haughty and smug, like she knew that they'd win. They likely would. His team was tired and they'd already fought twice in a day. "Is that so?" Tetsu was unprepared for how quick the girl was. While not as fast as Aimi, she was still decently fast. The space between them was cleared in an instant but her assault was cut short by his teammate. He wanted to curse at Aimi but he couldn't. The girl was simply doing what she believed was right.

"Please let us forge an alliance!" She begged, arms thrown out to the sides to block her teammates in. "There's a team stronger than anything you've faced before and they're collecting characters. If you help us then we can all get the characters that we need to move on!"

There was a rustling sound behind her and she quickly scolded their orange haired teammate, just as the pale haired girl moved to get around her. "Don't you dare fight, Haru. You're injured!"

"It's just a sprain!"

"It's just burns!"

Tetsu laughed louder than he should have as the two genin yelled at the same time. Oh man that was just too good. What were the odds that they'd fight someone also named Haru?

Atsushi

Afternoon // Land of Wind: Demon Desert


"ACHOO!" Atsushi rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. "I think someone's talking about us." His voice was soft yet quite deadpan and he was ninety percent sure that his team wasn't listening. Ah well, they never listened and he'd simply given up trying to explain things to them. He was just there to make sure that they didn't kill each other.

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Natsuko Rinha

Evening || Land of Wind: Demon Desert

“Right? I’ve eaten enough scorpions for a lifetime,” Natsuko said, laughing with Aimi. Beside her, Koharu was markedly less amused, and Natsuko caught her glancing at Tetsu and Haruto across the fire more than once. Still, Koharu had lightened up enough to crack a smile despite her burns, which Natsuko knew hit more mentally than physically. A year or two ago, she might not have understood, but now she did; her teammates were heirs, strong and proud of their strength. For them, every loss was weighed on them because they didn’t, couldn’t lose. The luxury of being able to laugh off a loss was not available to heirs, whose losses had a whole host of implications that started with impaired judgement and clan weakness. Koharu and Kazuhiko had attempted to explain to Natsuko one time, and though the details had been lost on her, the conversation helped reaffirm the longstanding standard of stress her teammates have had to deal with. Nowadays, Natsuko was better at spotting heir-related situations, like when she didn’t understand why one of her teammates wasn’t as happy or amused as her about something that’d happened. Sure at times it might’ve been because she wasn’t as funny as she thought, but that was Kazuhiko’s opinion. As far as she was concerned, she was hilarious.

On the other side of the fire sat said silent grouch, looking as uninterested in conversation as he could and pulling it off, to boot. His eyes were on the fire, and the skewered piece of scorpion in his hand was barely touched, but Natsuko knew him better than to believe in his seemingly natural lack of interest. He was stonewalling the Suna-nin out with his poker face tactics.

Sure, even Natsuko wasn’t quite ready to forgive the two boys for burning Ruru and taking her hostage, but they’d agreed to an alliance, given the stolen tools back, and helped hunt for their dinner. They’d even apologized, albeit under pressure from Aimi, who was capable of being quite intimidating when she was mad. More importantly, though, they’d provided her team with aloe and petroleum jelly, the former for Haru’s burns and the latter for their whole team’s chafed skin. Considering all this, Natsuko felt that Suna Team 12 was more than on their way to redeeming themselves. They had wronged, but they were trying now, and there wasn’t much more she could ask for.

To be fair, Natsuko was a little biased here. Aimi was instantly likeable, clicking with Natsuko and everyone else who spoke to her, and the petroleum jelly was working wonders on her feet, which had dried to the point of cracking despite this being only their second day in the desert. Granted, they were dealing with the Demon Desert, which touted its harshness in its name, but credit where credit was due, the Suna teams knew what they were doing in the sand. From staying aware of where their shadows fell while hunting to carrying around medical supplies for ailments common in the desert, their familiarity with the landscape was impressive. The only thing they’d lacked was a reliable water source since it didn’t seem like Suna had many water jutsu users like Koharu, but they knew how to identify the types of cacti that were edible and held water.

Even more impressive were their wind jutsu, which were specialized in ways Natsuko wasn’t aware was possible. From what she’d seen, Aimi appeared to use wind chakra to boost both her stride and the speed with which she covered it. Haruto, on the other hand, utilized chakra to turn his jumps into what was essentially floating. Only when Aimi told her it was a hiden technique passed through their clans did Natsuko feel better. For all Sayumi’s snipes about her being lazy and uncreative, her tutor couldn't expect her to use something similar to hiden techniques. Hopefully.

“Hey, why’re you three being so silent?” Aimi asked, shooting a sharp glance to both her teammates. “Battle’s over, remember? We’re allies now, so let’s see some chatting.”

Kazuhiko looked between Natsuko and Koharu, his eyes communicating his dislike of the idea, but Natsuko just gave him a smile and a shrug. Yeah, it sucked that he’d been saddled with talking to the two more disagreeable members of the team, but that’s how life went, right?

“Is it a crime to want to eat dinner in peace?” Haruto asked, his shades making it impossible to tell whether he was actually annoyed. “Not everyone’s as talkative as you.”

“As if I’d believe that after three years of watching you and Tetsu talk nonstop during meals,” Aimi shot back.

Despite Haruto’s half-obscured face, Natsuko could imagine the annoyance in his eyes now, and she covered a giggle with a hand as he turned to Kazuhiko.

“What do you think about the scorpion,” he said, his tone unnaturally even.

Kazuhiko met his gaze with an even flatter look. “Starving’s worse.”

Natsuko laughed then, drawing everyone’s eyes, and she recovered with a shrug and grin. “What? That was funny.”

“We should talk about Team 1 at some point,” Tetsu interrupted, prompting a spike of annoyance in Natsuko, but Aimi’s apologetic glance as she patted her knee was enough to keep her from interrupting. “They’re the strongest Suna team by far, and I don’t think it’d be a stretch to say they’re the strongest in this exam.”

He looked between them, pursing his lips. Considering how proud he was, Natsuko figured it must take a lot for him to admit to being weaker, which just went to show how strong Team 1 must have been.

“The shorter boy, Katsuzo, specializes in both wind and earth jutsu. His clan’s hiden jutsu mixes the two and allows him to control rocks and sand. He’s known to rocks more, but when we fought today he used sand to slow us down and grab onto Haru,” Tetsu said, looking to Haru, who gave a nod. “He’s difficult to fight in general, but in the sand, he’s basically impossible to fight.

“Then there’s the taller boy, Atsushi, the puppeteer. He has two puppets—a centipede and a hawk. In Suna he’s known as a born puppet master, a genius. Trying to predict what he’ll do with his puppets is just…” Tetsu shook his head. “All I can say is that he hid his hawk inside his centipede when we last fought, but he probably won’t do that again. Watch out for his puppets though. Puppeteers’ strongest weapons are their poisons.

“Finally, there’s Maho, the girl with the crazy strength. It’s a wind-based hiden jutsu, but take a punch from her and you’re done. Fighting her from a distance is your only option, but last time we went at her by combining our fire and wind techniques, she turned it back on us by deflecting it with one of her wind-enforced punches,” Tetsu said, annoyance bleeding into his tone. “Her jutsu can hard counter many of my jutsu, and my whole team’s since we favor close combat. With Katsuzo restricting our movement… that battle was a mess, and we were lucky to get out as fast as we did.”

There was a brief silence, and Natsuko spent it processing his words. Hearing his description and brief on the battle, she was almost intimidated. Fighting someone who could control sand, someone who wielded poisoned puppets, and someone who required that she attack from a distance all at the same time? It sounded like an impossible scenario, but it seemed to be their current one.

“If we can counter Maho, how does the situation change?” Kazuhiko asked, his eyes focused on Tetsu and his meal completely forgotten.

“Well, it changes quite a bit,” Tetsu said, grinning.

Suna Team 1

Night || Land of Wind: Demon Desert

The sneeze that burst from Maho was loud enough to send Katsuzo flinching despite him standing on Atsushi’s other side, and that action did not go unnoticed by Maho. Matching the glee forming on her face was the disgust tightening Katsuzo’s as he raised a finger to point at her.

“Atsushi, tell her to keep her germs to herself,” he demanded.

“Oh shut up, you must’ve given your cold to me,” she shot back.

“Atsushi’s the one who sneezed earlier, Aho.”

“That doesn’t mean you aren’t fucking sick, Yatsuzo.”

“I don’t know why you insist on calling me that. It’s nowhere near as good as Aho, Aho.”

“Well you’re a fucking midget.”

“Atsushi, she’s resorting to name calling.”

“Aw, ‘lil baby gonna go cry to Atsushi because I hurt his feelings?”

“Atsushi, I don’t understand why she says this kind of stuff. Can’t she understand that I don’t want anything to do with people who don’t have two brain cells to rub together?”

“Are you calling me stupid you—”

With some resignation, Atsushi placed a hand on Maho’s shoulder. He didn’t want to intervene any more than she wanted him to, but judging by how her eyes went straight past him, his warning was going unnoticed.

“Yes! Yes I am!” Katsuzo said, brows high. “I’m glad you finally figured it out! I mean, it took three years, but hey, you got there, and I guess that’s what’s important for someone with the IQ of a decapitated lizard.”

Centipede was around Maho in an instant, and she struggled, wind swirling around the puppet. Beside her, Atsushi took a step back, mild concern gracing his face. If Maho fully activated her wind jutsu, Centipede was at risk of getting damaged. The alternative was having Centipede inject her with a tranquilizer, which he wanted to avoid because it’d put an end to their plans for the night, but judging by the looks of it—Maho spitting expletives as Katsuzo smirked triumphantly from the side, enjoying the now grazing wind—it seemed like he might be better off safe than sorry.

Kazuhiko Taketori

Morning || Land of Wind: Demon Desert

Scouting the desert was made much easier by Haruto, who had access to sparrow summons. If Kazuhiko ever thought that summons were useless, he certainly didn’t anymore. A mere three sparrows was enough to scout out a good portion of the desert, given the height, aerial view, and flat landscape. The first sign of danger was when only two returned to report.

“Tsk, Hanemaru didn’t come back? Of course,” one of the sparrows sniped from his perch on Haruto’s arm, ruffling his feathers. “He was always careless, thinking he could fly at a lower altitude just because he’s a bit faster.”

“Well, we don’t know how he was caught. It could’ve been a hawk,” the other sparrow said from beside him, a shiver rustling his feathers. “I hate hawks.”

“Well whatever, he deserved it,” the first sparrow said. “As for my assignment, the southeast was clear. No Team 1.”

“I saw a Suna team that wasn’t Team 1, probably half a mile off,” the second sparrow added, “but otherwise the northeast was also clear.”

“Okay. Thank you,” Haruto said.

“We’ll be going then. Apologies on Hanemaru’s behalf,” the first sparrow said. “I’ll go give him a talking to when we get back.”

“Yeah, apologies,” the second sparrow said, and both of them poofed out of existence with a small cloud of white smoke.

“Right,” Haruto said, his sunglasses making it difficult to tell where his attention was focused as he spoke, “west, huh?”

“Seems like it,” Tetsu said, and Aimi nodded.

“But we don’t know if it’s them,” Natsuko started, confusion written across her features.

“The sparrows reported that the other two directions were clear, so the only unknown is west,” Kazuhiko explained. “Also, Suna-nin are more used to the desert, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they know to keep their eyes on the sky.”

A nod from Haruto confirmed this, and Natsuko managed a grudging “okay” before they were off, dashing across the sand to the west. Traveling across the sand was made easier by a suggestion from the Suna-nin to apply water-walking principles to the sand. By maintaining a steady layer of chakra on their feet, they were able to avoid displacing the sand below them, thus allowing them to walk on sand as if it were solid ground. While it took chakra, it saved time, and they were hoping to get the battle over with before the sun reached its peak.

Tetsu stopped first, raising a hand to signal the rest of them to stop. “There,” he said, pointing at a group of sandy-colored protrusions ahead.

“Let’s split up and corner them,” Kazuhiko said.

Tetsu nodded, and they were off, Tetsu leading his team to the left and Kazuhiko leading his to the right. Staying silent on the sand wasn’t hard, but maintaining a low profile among the sparse landscape was. Luckily, it didn’t seem like the other team was watching from within the rock formations, which Kazuhiko likely wouldn’t have recognized as a viable hiding spot on his own. Luckily, he had the Suna team’s experience to lead them through the desert and point out what might not stand out to a Konoha shinobi.

Across from each other, the teams crouched behind cacti and rocks as Kazuhiko counted them down from three. On one, they dashed forwards into the large crevice between two rock formations, only to find an abandoned fireplace with the remains of a lizard still sizzling above it.

Haruto kicked at the stones lining the fire. “Tch we missed them,”

“No,” Kazuhiko said, his eyes flicking around the hideout. Though it looked to be a short-term, possibly newly-found place, the lizard wasn’t burnt yet, and there were some stray bones scattered haphazardly on the floor, almost as if—

He stiffened, head snapping up in alarm. “They’re still—”

The world whited out, leaving him alone in the vast sea of nothingness. He saw nothing, stood on nothing, was nothing. He was standing in the middle of an endless sea of white, drifting further and further into nothingness, and—

A sharp pain hit his shoulder, and he grunted, grabbing his shoulder as the world blinked into color again. Tetsu, Haruto, and Aimi had cornered a tall, black-haired boy and a shorter and much more terrified-looking boy with green hair. Beside him, Natsuko was looking at Koharu in confusion.

“Ruru, what was that for?” she asked.

“Genjutsu,” Kazuhiko said, straightening and looking around as he caught his breath. “That’s Tadamitsu Hyuga,” he said, indicating the taller boy, who was raising his hands with a pleading smile on his face as he tried to keep the Suna-nins’ kunai at bay. “He saw us coming. And the other person on their team—”

“Specializes in genjutsu?”

A pale-haired girl stepped out from the shadows, kunai glinting in her hand. Along with her height and complexion, she was strikingly similar in appearance to Koharu, which was precisely why Kazuhiko remembered her.

“Michi,” he said, eyes flicking to her teammates, then back. “I suppose this is where we ask for your characters.”

She forced a laugh. “Well you’re a little late for that!” she said, her tone sharpening as she spoke. “Some Suna team got us first, but you’re welcome to rob us of food and whatever we have left.”

Beside him, Tetsu’s team reacted, straightening and backing off from Tadamitsu and Yasu. Aimi whispered an apology as Tetsu walked over, his face hard.

“Two boys and a girl? One puppeteer with a centipede?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Michi said, her voice taking a weary tone as she lowered her kunai. “You know them?”

“They got us too,” Tetsu said as Haruto and Aimi joined him. Haruto’s face was still unreadable, but Aimi looked fully apologetic, rubbing her arm as she glanced back at where Tadamitsu was rubbing Yasu’s back as the shorter boy sat, barely suppressing shivers.

“We’re looking for them,” Kazuhiko said. Beside him, Natsuko looked a bit awkward, offering a hesitant smile at Michi between glances at Yasu.

Michi looked between the six of them, then to Tadamitsu and Yasu, before meeting Kazuhiko’s eyes resolutely. “We can take you to them. If you guarantee us characters if you win.”

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Team Six

Late Afternoon || Land of Wind: Demon Desert

They'd needed to make a plan first before they could attack that Suna team. It was obvious that they'd taken down two teams, but it was unknown how many more they'd taken characters from. It was a slow process as none of the teams wanted to give away their skills. If they made it through this part of the exam they'd need to fight each other in the preliminary rounds and the finals. It wouldn't be very fun or fair if they knew their potential opponent's skills beforehand.

They all crammed into the cave, each sitting wherever they chose. Koharu and Tadamitsu sat fairly close. Yasu was next to the taller boy and he kept looking over nervously at Kazuhiko. Yasu had been intimidated by Kazuhiko since their academy days and it wasn't anything personal. When their sensei had paired them up based on their chakra natures… he got placed with the other boy who had been a little too intense for Yasu to handle.

The Hyuga boy had been her very first friend in the village. He'd somehow managed to work past her cold exterior and managed to secure a spot as her best friend. Natsuko and Kazuhiko now held those titles as well. Tadamitsu smiled warmly at her before looking at the scared green haired boy. "Kazuhiko-san isn't so bad," Tadamitsu said, his naturally gentle voice soothing as he spoke.

"He really isn't. He's just too tall for his own good." Koharu spoke up, forgetting that they were supposed to be plotting a way to get all of their characters back. She was sitting rather stiffly, as an heir should. They needed to be the best that they could be in order to represent their clans. Koharu had failed in that and she was still pissed off, although being kept busy with everyone else had helped a great deal.
Her eyes wandered to the others and she couldn't help but to glare at Tetsu and Haruto. They were still on her shit list. Michi and Aimi were sitting fairly close together as well and both girls were simply talking about something that she couldn't hear. Although they did giggle occasionally.

"Maho is crazy good with taijutsu." Haruto said, "So obviously that means that we need our best close quarters fighters against her." She was the powerhouse of the team. Katsuzo was the brains, while Atsushi made them work together well enough. It was quickly decided that with the Sensaigan and Byakugan on their side the task of fighting Maho would fall to Kazuhiko and Tadamitsu. Tetsu wasn't even listening, not really.
Sandy brown eyes met stormy green-gray from across the still going fire. Koharu glared at the boy, who looked away quickly with faintly pink cheeks. Koharu didn't know what was up with him. He'd occasionally do the same to Michi and so she chose to ignore it, chalking it up to the boy just being weird.

Koharu turned back to the black haired boy and she made small talk, asking about how he'd been. Tadamitsu was a good kid, always too patient with her. It was jarring to go from his gentle ways to being bombarded by someone like Natsuko but Koharu was thankful for it. She'd grown for the better because of people like her teammates. Their conversation was interrupted by Tetsu, who really couldn't tell the difference between the two pale haired girls. It didn't matter though. He'd found that he rather liked their pale hair and short statures. The girls also seemed quite capable and strong and he liked that. Even if the girl they'd held hostage that morning didn't like him much he found himself looking at her quite a bit.

"You know...you and I can probably benefit from some private training." He said, crouching down to make himself comfortable. He probably was talking to the wrong girl but he didn't much care. Aimi had a monopoly on the other one anyways.
The girl looked wide eyed at him but didn't say anything. Tetsu smirked slightly, taking her silence as a good sign.
"It'll be good practice to go against someone other than your teammates and it'll be nice to get to know a pretty girl like you."

His words made Koharu's cheeks turn a bright red. Beside her Tadamitsu hid his laughter behind his hand. He was pretty sure that the other boy meant to flirt with Michi, not Koharu. The boy wasn't at fault because both girls currently wore their hair up to help with the heat and unless you knew them then it was easy to mix them up.



Natsuko looked up from where she was listening to Koharu and Tadamitsu, surprised. If she didn’t know better, and this was a big if considering that she really didn’t know Tetsu well, she would’ve thought he was flirting with Koharu. But, looking up, she registered the small smirk on his face and the blush staining Koharu’s, and her brain did that thing it did when the facts almost but didn’t quite align.

“If anyone needs help with training, it’s me,” she said flatly.

All three genin beside her looked at her, Tetsu more visibly confused than Koharu or Tadamitsu. They didn’t know each other well, but it was easy to assume that he, the de facto leader of his team, would be stronger than her, the lagging member of hers. Sure she’d sharpened her skills for the exam, but no one else was slacking either.

“I think Aimi or Haruto would be a better fit for you,” Tetsu said brusquely before zeroing back in on Koharu. “I myself would like the challenge of training with someone who specializes in genjutsu.”

At that, Natsuko could only blink, now completely lost. Genjutsu? Since when did Koharu start using, much less specializing, in genjutsu?

“How about it?” Tetsu asked, offering a hand out to Koharu with a lopsided smirk.

Kazuhiko appeared beside Tetsu, looking at the Suna-nin impassively. “Firewood duty,” he said, slapping a stick into Tetsu’s outstretched hand, which retracted so fast it snapped the twig in two.

“I’m talking to someone here,” Tetsu ground out, straightening to look up at Kazuhiko, who had a good few inches up on him.

“And as I recall, we agreed that the fire release users were best for firewood duty,” Kazuhiko replied, his tone as cool as his eyes.

Tetsu kept his gaze for another second before turning away. “Tsk, just because he’s tall,” he muttered, his words fading out as he stalked away.

“What’s his deal?” Natsuko asked, frowning as she looked after him. “Why ask Koharu to train genjutsu when Michi’s the one who uses genjutsu?”

Kazuhiko stared at her for a second, surprise visible on his face. Then, after a brief glance at Koharu, he cleared his throat. “We should go hunt for dinner.”

“Ooo did someone say dinner?” Aimi asked, popping up from her seat with a grin. “Yes please! I am star-ving!”

The rest of the group followed suit, chatter breaking out again as they got ready to find enough food for what was now a group of nine. Tadamitsu rose too, giving Natsuko a smile.

“Let’s talk more later. We have lots of catching up to do,” he said, directing the latter half of his words towards Koharu with a more pointed smile. “Lots.”



After dinner, the group of nine had broken up into triads to practice tactics against Team 1. Kazuhiko had signed himself up for Maho along with Yasu and Tadamitsu. Though Tetsu had warned them against attempting to fight her in close-combat, it remained that the Byakugan and Sensaigan were dojutsu that allowed a certain level of prediction of the opponent’s moves, as well as the ability to mitigate them. Their similarity was precisely what drove a wedge between the clans, with the Taketori claiming the majority of both the judgement and the grudge, and while Kazuhiko disliked arguing either point, it was an inevitable argument for him as clan heir.

Though the Byakugan was acknowledged to be superior, and though the Gentle Fist was known as the most fearsome taijutsu style in Konoha, the assertions have never sat well with the Taketori. They couldn’t argue the Byakugan’s ocular advantage in scouting, which could make and break battles and wars alike since it allowed for better strategizing, but they could challenge the strength of its application. The Gentle Fist was by no means a weak technique, but it was an inefficient one. Targeting the tenketsu was a slower process than targeting the nervous system precisely because there were more tenketsu to seal than there were primary nerves to cut. What a Hyuga could do with their sixty-four palms technique, a Taketori could replicate with a single well-timed and -placed cut to the spinal cord. Thus, the Taketori claimed the most efficient taijutsu style with the Keen Fist, living up to their name. Whether speed meant power was debatable, but even Kazuhiko had to concede his clan’s point there.

As for Taketori and Hyuga working together, it wasn’t unheard of. Despite their feud and general animosity towards each others’ refusal to acknowledge the other clan’s superiority, they all bore the leaf symbol at the end of the day. Shinobi more skilled than Kazuhiko or Tadamitsu had come together before, and there were few better taijutsu pairings. The Keen Fist aimed to sever nerves, and it had trouble dealing with enemies who could heal or shield themselves with chakra. On the other hand, the Gentle Fist aimed to seal tenketsu and inhibit chakra usage, thus preventing any healing or shielding and opening the enemy up for the Keen Fist’s techniques. Together, the techniques could bring the mightiest of enemies down, provided techniques struck true and before the enemy could bring them down, and that’s precisely what Kazuhiko was aiming for them to do.

“From what Haruto said, Maho shouldn’t have access to healing techniques, so we should be able to dispatch her quickly,” Kazuhiko said, deliberately keeping his eyes on Tadamitsu and off of Yasu, whose trembling never seemed to stop around him. “We just need to figure out how to get close enough, safely.”

“Yes, Yasu should be able to help with that,” Tadamitsu said, looking to his teammate hesitantly. When Yasu failed to look up from where they were fixated on his feet, Tadamitsu reached over, patting his shoulder. “Right, Yasu? You should be able to drive Maho towards us so we can ambush her. That sounds pretty easy compared to driving whole groups of assassins towards Michi, right?”

Yasu looked up, eyes quickly flicking away from Kazuhiko and settling on his teammate. “Y-yeah.” His voice came out as a soft tremolo, and Kazuhiko settled for a nod. From what he remembered, Yasu had always been the nervous type, and his flightiness was visible in his demeanor even in his academy days. There hadn’t been a single time Kazuhiko had interacted with him without Yasu looking nervous or scared, and he could see that hadn’t changed much.

“Let’s try a practice run. It’ll mostly be for me, so I can get an understanding of your skills,” Kazuhiko conceded, which was true enough. It was also him wanting to see whether Tadamitsu’s belief in his teammate was as founded as he thought, but Kauzhiko wasn’t expecting Yasu to fail to deliver. Tadamitsu was a reasonable person, if Kazuhiko had ever met one, and if his personality had stayed at all the same, he’d still be the first to step in and suggest they try a different solution if he felt someone needed help.

“Okay.” Tadamitsu looked to Yasu, rubbing his back. “Okay, Yasu? Are you ready, or do you want to take a water break first?”

“I-I’m ready!” Yasu burst out, eyes squeezing shut as he delivered his words. His sudden assertiveness took Kazuhiko by surprise, but Kazuhiko managed to recover enough to offer him a smile when Yasu looked at him.

“Okay,” he said, nodding.



A series of booms broke Natsuko out of her post-dinner lull, and she snapped her head up, looking around for the source of the noise. “Wha—is that Kazuhiko’s group?” She frowned, squinting as she made out her tall teammate in the distance, standing beside the slightly shorter form of Tadamitsu, who she knew was still tall compared to her. “Jeez he looks even taller from far away.”

“Those are Yasu’s explosive tags,” Michi said from her seat across from Natsuko, her eyes sharp as she observed her teammates in action. “They’re probably going to use those to corner Maho’s movements.”

“Uhuh,” Natsuko said, not really understanding but feeling that she should say something to agree anyway. “So, uh, what were we talking about again? Getting close to Katsu?”

“Getting close to Katsuzo, yes.” Michi looked a little ruffled, and her sharp gaze was a bit intimidating when turned upon Natsuko instead of some target in the distance. Part of Natsuko got the feeling that Michi knew exactly how sharp her gaze was, but the other was more dismissive. Yeah, she’d tuned out of the conversation a bit, but she was listening now and that’s what counted.

“I was saying, I could buy you two some time with my genjutsu, provided I can trap him in one.” She frowned. “I’ll need to land a hit with one of my needles, which might take a while, depending.”



"You can hide them among my little birds." Koharu suggested, turning her attention from the boys and back to the girls in front of her. Katsuzo, from what she understood, could manipulate sand and rocks. It sounded a bit like a combined release like she had. "I don't think many would be able to see any amongst ice. Plus a large amount of projectiles will keep his attention. Although he could very well make a wall to shield himself." Koharu wasn't able to use ice crystals like her father could. Transferring them onto a target for either tracking purposes or to weigh them down was far beyond her skill level at this point.

Their strategy was quite simple: Michi was to snare him in a genjutsu, Koharu was to hold him for Natsuko to sap his strength. Koharu had advocated for using Natsuko as their trump card because she'd seen what her technique could do to Minoru-sensei, even if Natsuko wasn't the best at it yet. She had faith in her friend. Michi gave a nod in confirmation. The worst that would happen was that they would need to come up with something else if it didn't work or he somehow managed to spot the needles among ice.

Michi did wonder how someone like Koharu--one who excelled in close quarters--would feel being made to fight at a distance. In their academy days, the girl hadn't done so well in ranged combat in the beginning. Although if she remembered correctly Koharu had arrived in Konoha midway through the school year and thus had needed to make up for lost time. "Why don't we practice?" Michi asked, standing to her full height. She dusted off her clothes and looked at the two girls. Koharu nodded and stood up before waiting for Natsuko. "Focus is key." Michi looked at Natsuko again. The girl would likely zone out again but she couldn't pay too much attention to that. Michi had a decent glare but the one that Koharu gave her made her shudder.

"Susu knows she better pay attention or I'll put ice down her shirt."

She knew that Koharu had used that against bullies in the academy. Being the new girl, and one that stood out at that, had made her a target for a while. Michi had also been a target because beyond also standing out, the bullies often confused her for the Wakahisa heir. Their first order of business was to get the needles hidden safely among the ice. Michi watched as the ice bloomed up from a small patch formed in Koharu's palm. It was too delicate looking to do any damage but she had a feeling that they were more than what they appeared to be. The yellow eyed girl was right as Koharu made the little bird shaped ice chunks zoom across the terrain before nose diving into the ground. "We have a joint attack that makes this even more effective." She gave a small smile to Natsuko, proud that they had such a move at their disposal.



Koharu’s casual threat was enough to make Natsuko cringe and check Koharu’s hands to see whether any ice was forming. When she saw none, she let out a small breath of relief, then met Koharu’s eyes, pouting. “Not funny Ruru. It’s not even warm out anymore!”

Natsuko gestured at the orange-cast sand around them, which was darkening with the sky as the sun slid below the horizon in the distance. As she’d quickly discovered the first night, deserts weren’t always the scorching hot places she thought they were. Burning while the sun was out was expected, but as soon as the sun was gone the area became a hellish vacuum, sucking up all the heat available and dissipating it into the sand, sky, and endless space above. Kazuhiko had explained how it worked the first night, but she didn’t remember much of his long-winded speech. Instead, she had it down in her own way: Too much sun was bad, and too little was bad too. The best times, then, were dawn and dusk, making the current time—sunset—the calm before the storm.

Catching Koharu’s eyes on her, Natsuko quickly focused her attention back on Michi, who was… working out details about ice birds and needles with Koharu. “Yeah, I can use my wind jutsu to help Koharu form ice faster, or make the birds fly faster,” she said when Koharu mentioned their joint jutsu, matching her teammate’s smile with a grin. “We work together pretty well.”

Michi frowned. “Katsuzo’s earth release includes some sand techniques, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he could form walls to deflect a single joint attack.” She looked at Natsuko, her gaze contemplative. “How’re you with throwing things?”

“Um.” Natsuko glanced at Koharu, her brows furrowing. “I’m not great, but I’m not terrible? I can hit the target seven times out of ten, if we’re talking about shuriken throwing.”

Michi’s gaze held hers for a second, thinner and sharper than her needles. Then she nodded, hands pausing over her needles before she handed a few to Natsuko. “I infuse my needles with chakra to help me cast genjutsu at a distance, but the chakra doesn’t stay in them, so I’ll have to hand them to you right before the fight begins.”

“These have chakra in them?” Natsuko examined the needles she’d been handed with interest, noting nothing that made them seem any except the fine, finger-long needles they were. “I can’t tell at all!”

“I didn’t put that much in so Tadamitsu would be the only person capable of seeing it,” Michi said, glancing at where the explosions had come from earlier. She fell silent for a moment, and Natsuko got the sense that she was thinking about something. What, Natsuko couldn’t tell, but if the continued lack of a smile meant anything, it probably wasn’t anything happy.

“Well we can’t all have white eyes,” Natsuko said, shrugging as she grinned.

Michi’s sharp gaze softened as it met hers, and she managed a smile, though Natsuko could tell it was forced. “Yeah,” she said, pocketing all but a handful of needles. “We should run through our plan too. To make sure it works before we actually try it.”

“Yeah,” Natsuko agreed just as Koharu did, looking to her teammate with a grin. See, her not zoning out wasn’t impossible. Hard, sure, but not impossible. “Let’s do it.”


Suna Team Twelve

Late Afternoon || Land of Wind: Demon Desert

A distance away was Tetsu and his team. They were watching the others. It wouldn't hurt to get a read on their skills now rather than later. The green haired boy had explosive tags and he was very good at using them. Funny, Tetsu had thought of the boy as unskilled and simply riding the coattails of his teammates.
His eyes went to the group of girls next and he knew the one with ice had such a move, she'd scratched his cheek with the ice, but she hadn't used it on that scale before. They seemed to be practicing something but he couldn't tell what. Hell he couldn't even tell the girls apart, especially at this distance.

“Now’s not the time to flirt, Tetsu,” Aimi interrupted, and he looked over to see that she’d raised a half-amused, half-exasperated brow. “Also, if you want some tips, lemme know. Seeing you struggle gets old.”

“What are you going on about now?” Haruto’s glasses hid his eyes, but Tetsu knew his brows were furrowed.

“Oh you sweet, sweet child,” Aimi said, shaking her head and sighing.

“We should get to planning. Atsushi’s the tough one,” Tetsu said, focusing on Aimi. “And I wasn’t thinking about that.” At least not exactly, but she didn’t need to know that—if she didn’t already.

“Right.” Aimi’s tone dripped sarcasm, but she didn’t pursue it further, which Tetsu knew was a tactic she’d perfected over the years. Continue arguing, and you could prove your case, but if she ended the argument without resolving it? The answer would be inconclusive, and that never sat well with him, which was exactly why she tended to do it.

“Well, I agree with Tetsu. We should focus on planning,” Haruto said. “I, for one, don’t want to fight him unprepared again.”

His words sobered Tetsu up, and from the ensuing silence, he could tell that the moment when Centipede caught Haruto as they were retreating was still fresh in their minds. It’d been a failure on multiple levels, and he knew each of them blamed themself. Haruto was probably caught on not being able to dodge the last strike, Aimi on only pulling him along when she could’ve pulled both him and Haruto, and himself on not being a better leader. Justifying his teammates’ actions was simple—Haruto couldn’t have seen through the sides of his glasses, and Aimi wouldn’t have run as fast if she’d grabbed them both. Plus, there was the fact that of his team, he was the slowest runner when their kekkei genkai were accounted for, so Aimi choosing to pull him made perfect sense, just as Haruto expecting to be able to dodge the last strike did.

His actions, though? He could’ve done many things differently. He could’ve chosen to warn Haruto when he saw Atsushi’s fingers move, could’ve told Aimi to grab Haruto instead of him, could’ve chosen to be the last one getting away because that’s what leaders were supposed to do. Sure every handbook cited that the leader was more important than the group members, but it didn’t feel like that in practice. When he came out the other side and Haruto was the one who collapsed onto the ground, he didn’t feel like he’d done his job, didn’t feel like he had any right to his claim of team leader while their sensei wasn’t around. After all, what was a leader without their team?

“Hey.”

Haruto’s voice prompted him to look up and meet the shorter boy’s gaze, and even with Haru’s glasses in the way Tetsu knew Haru saw through him. Though Haru could prove rather dense at times, he could also be surprisingly perceptive. Aimi read them both like open books most times, but when it came to finer details, Haru read him better.

“The plan,” he said, squatting and picking up a stick to start drawing in the sand, “will be different from last time. Atsushi switches his tactics every time, and so will we. Last time I fought off his puppets while you two tried to handle him and the others. This time, you two will be in charge of keeping his puppets occupied, and I’ll be the one targeting him.”

In the sand were four dots, a squiggled ‘S’, and a curved ‘V’. Arrows were drawn from the squiggle and the curve towards two dots representing Haruto and Aimi, and the third dot had an arrow going from it to the final dot, which was connected to the squiggle and the curve by dashed lines. It was a crude drawing at best, but it served more as a guide for his words than a full-fledged depiction. It had all the necessary elements, and it got the job done.

Haruto and Aimi glanced at each other, then looked back at him in sync, nodding.

“Okay.”

“You got it, boss.”

Tetsu smiled, straightening. “Alright. Let’s run through it all, then.”


Team Six

Late Afternoon || Land of Wind: Demon Desert

With their plans outlined and roughly run-through, it was now just a matter of finding Team 1, and the first step to finding the team that tended to do all the finding was getting on the same schedule as them. Switching to a nocturnal schedule, then, was the first step, and the second was widespread scouting. Haruto’s sparrows were summoned again as a result, four arriving to the call this time.

SQUAWK it’s her! She’s the one who hit me!” one of them said upon seeing Michi, his white-tipped wings aflutter with distress.

“Calm down, Hanemaru. No one doubted that you got hit with a kunai,” a sparrow with a ring of black feathers at the base of her neck said, though she looked at Michi as well. “Though, her eyesight must be pretty good if she could see you coming.”

“Ah, that was me.” Tadamitsu stepped forward, a hand on the back of his neck and a sheepish expression on his face. “I saw you coming with my Byakugan and figured you were a summon from your chakra signature,” he said, his smile apologetic. “Sorry about that.”

“Hmph. Don’t apologize for being a good shinobi. In fact, Hanemaru should be the one apologizing, from what I’ve heard,” another sparrow said, fluffing out his wings as he stepped forward. The orange bands gathered around his tail set him apart from the other sparrows, who were rather bland in comparison, and the authority in his voice further designated his place in the hierarchy. “Avoiding detection is the job of a scout, and he couldn’t even do that.”

Hanemaru shrivelled under the orange-banded sparrow’s gaze. “Sorry,” he chirped quickly, glancing at Tadamitsu as he did.

“Not to him!” Orange Band’s exasperation won out, and he ruffled his feathers with a sigh. “Fledglings. For how long will they stay clueless.” He refocused on Haruto, gaze sharp. “You’ll have to forgive me for coming to check in on you myself, Haru-bouzu. I heard you were injured and wanted to see to it that you would get through the round in one piece. But, seeing all your allies,” he said, eyes flicking around the crowd, “I suppose I can rest easy.”

Haruto’s glasses made an exact prediction of his thoughts impossible for Kazuhiko, but the way he met Orange Band’s gaze steadily seemed to convey his calmness. “I’ll pass the round, Hishoto-san. We all will.”

“Good. Marus!” Hishoto called, looking over his shoulder to the other three sparrows, who instantly spread their wings. “Set out!”

The four sparrows took to the air, their trajectories making a perfect cross with Hishoto flying directly north. Last time Haruto used his summons to scout, the sparrows had wordlessly determined the directions they flew in. Though Kazuhiko knew the directions since he’d watched the sun rise, it was clear that the sparrows had an innate sense for the cardinal directions. Again he was hit with the realization of how useful having a summon could be, and he made a mental note to look into the matter once the exam was over.

“Man, that orange sparrow is really bossy,” Natsuko said from beside him, frowning. “And isn’t it weird that something so small can sound like a fifty-year-old geezer?”

Kazuhiko glanced at her, figuring her comments literal. “He’s just doing his job as the leader, and it’s not that weird. Plenty of summons are older than humans.”

Pursing her lips, Natsuko considered his words for a second, then looked back up with a grin. “Nah, it’s definitely weird.”



"He's the oldest of them. He did call them fledglings." Koharu said, looking at her teammate with a slightly amused expression. She wasn't too concerned about the way the sparrow summons sounded, but rather where they were headed and what they would find. She was slightly nervous about Natsuko helping them take on any of Team One. It wasn't that she didn't have faith that her teammate would do well in a fight but from what the others said about that team...they were outmatched, otherwise it wouldn't take three different teams to take them down. Koharu and Kazuhiko would likely fare well, just because they trained with individuals who had pushed and pushed and pushed. They were heirs and there was no room for slacking.
She looked at the other teams and wondered if they were worried too.

Koharu spotted Yasu on the edge of the group as a whole and she watched him for a little while. While he seemed wimpy and would likely cry if Kazuhiko sneezed too loud, he looked determined. Was he braver than she gave him credit for? She could hardly remember the green haired boy. He'd been quieter than she had been but he had his small group of friends that had seemed close knit. "Yasu is a bit of an oddity." Tadamitsu said, coming up beside Koharu. She looked up at him before looking back at the green haired boy. "He is scared of a lot but he has an unexpected streak of determination."
She noted the tone of affection in his voice. Tadamitsu had always been far friendlier than she was. Making friends came naturally to him. In that regard he reminded her of Natsuko. In the long run Koharu was happy that people like them existed.

"He's still terrified of Kazuhiko."

Tadamitsu didn't miss the way her green-gray eyes wandered over to her own teammate. It was rather cute, even if she was teasing them in her own way. They still had a lot of catching up to do and he knew that now wasn't likely the best time despite them needing to adjust their schedules a bit. "It's good that they brought you out of your shell." Speaking from first hand experience, he knew that the Wakahisa girl's shell was quite tough.
When she'd first been introduced to their class, Tadamitsu had been a bit intimidated by the small girl with an icy look. It had taken him weeks to get her to accept that he wanted to be her friend.

While they were talking, Michi had been talking to Aimi once more. She had been aware that Tetsu had been staring at her almost the entire time. He'd been lingering by Haruto, talking to the boy and ensuring that he was alright still. Michi looked up at him. He was tall, but not nearly as tall as Kazuhiko or Tadamitsu. He paused, looking like he was regretting even getting a few feet from her. "Sorry about...holding you hostage. And for burning your arms." Tetsu said, digging the toe of his sandals into the ground. He was being uncharacteristically shy about it but from the tone of his voice and overall demeanor, he wasn't thrilled about his apology.

Michi, for her part, was looking entirely lost. When did he hold her hostage or burn her arms? "Uh what?"

"Earlier this morning. Don't tell me that you don't remember."

She looked at Tetsu with a hard stare before it clicked in her head. He'd mistaken her for Koharu. It had been nice that no one had done that since their academy days but now it was irritating. "She is the one you need to apologize to." Michi pointed at Koharu. Tetsu followed her hand and the moment his eyes landed on the other pale haired girl, he blushed a bright red.

He'd been flirting with the wrong girl the whole time.



That Tetsu seemed to have a thing for Koharu vexed Kazuhiko. There were many questions he wanted to ask—Why? When? How?—but he had no reason to ask them, mainly because what kind of teammate asked those kinds of questions? In no way did any of those questions sound innocent, not even in his head, and Natsuko already had enough to harp on him with. Besides, he didn’t want to give the wrong impression. Koharu was a wonderful person and he’d be lying if he didn’t admit to thinking of her a few too many times more than Natsuko to be passed off as just being friends, but that’s what they were. They were genin teammates taking the chunin exam together, and they were good friends, which was admittedly embarrassing for him to admit. Outside of his clan, the people who knew him best were Minoru, Azumi, and his teammates. That made the two people closest to him both in age and in general girls, which he was sure wasn’t something to brag about. He’d be the first to jump up and defend his teammates and his friendship with them, but the fact remained that voicing the fact to anyone would be awkward, to say the least. It helped that he had other friends his age, but considering how little time he spent with them, he couldn’t claim a close relationship with them, so his teammates obviously came first. There was no denying it.

That all said, was he happy about Tetsu buzzing around Koharu like some greased up fly that couldn’t take a hint? Definitely not. Aside from being the genin who orchestrated Koharu’s capture and the one who’d burned her, he was also from Suna. Sure cross-nation romances weren’t unheard of, but they were rare, and rightfully so. Whole clan and village meetings had been called to discuss such relationships and the repercussions they might have, and that Koharu was a clan heir only made the logistical nightmare worse. To top it all off, they were currently taking an exam—an annual one that’d hold anyone who failed it back an entire year. The lack of sense and priorities was astounding, to say the least, and Kazuhiko had no idea what was going through Tetsu’s brain.

Plus, there was the matter of Koharu being utterly uninterested. Even if Kazuhiko ignored the fact that Tetsu constantly got Koharu and Michi mixed up, which admittedly was something he did a few times from the back, it remained that Koharu didn’t like Tetsu. At all. And it seemed blatantly apparent to everyone except Tetsu, for some reason. So yes, Kazuhiko had stepped in a few times to interrupt Tetsu's advances, even subtly directed him towards Michi in hopes that the Suna boy’s mistake was the other way around, but no such luck.

Now, watching Michi point Koharu out to Tetsu, who turned red enough to compliment his hair and outfit, Kazuhiko could only grit his teeth. What could he say to tell the boy, who by now he was sure had to be pretty dense, that his teammate wasn’t interested? It was clear from the way Aimi looked at him, with a hand over her mouth to hide her smile, that she didn’t think Tetsu had any luck, and even Haruto, who’d been pretty hard to read at first, was clearly not on board with the pair, losing interest and turning away whenever he saw his teammate approaching either Koharu or Michi. While Kazuhiko couldn’t be sure whether or not Tetsu’s teammates had talked to him about it, he was pretty sure Tetsu wouldn’t give it up either way, which made watching him all that much more frustrating.

“Huh, why’s Michi pointing at Koharu?” Natsuko asked, brows furrowed as she looked at the strange pair.

Kazuhiko glanced at Koharu nervously, noticed Tadamitsu looking at him from beside his teammate with a too-amused smile, and snapped his gaze back to Natsuko. “He, um, keeps mixing them up.”

“What, mixing Ruru and Michi up? How?” Natsuko asked, glancing between the two pale-haired girls with growing amusement. “Really, he should get his eyes checked.”

At this, Kazuhiko paused. From Natsuko’s words, it sounded like she didn’t think Koharu and Michi looked alike, which was strange. In their genin class, there were no two who looked more alike than Koharu and Michi, who were both pale, thin, and tomboyish. Even now that their hair were different lengths, Kazuhiko still found himself looking at the wrong girl on occasion, especially when they both tied their hair up like they had right now. While he agreed that they were more difficult to mix up head-on and that Tetsu really ought to be able to tell the girl he fancied from a girl he didn’t, it remained that for some reason, Natsuko had just spoken like she didn’t think Koharu and Michi looked alike, which hit so left field for the girl who relied more on guessing feelings than spotting them in others that Kazuhiko had to do a double-take.

As he did, though, he saw Natsuko’s amusement slide off her face as her brows scrunched again, and then shot up, her eyes widening as they flew to Kazuhiko. That her mouth quirked up at the edges as well was all Kazuhiko needed to know that she’d pieced the puzzle together, and he felt his stomach drop.

“W-wait, you don’t think Koharu and Michi look alike?” he asked, tripping over his words in his rush to get them out and distract his teammate, whose amusement was clearly directed at him.

“Huh? No, of course not. They look completely different.” Confusion returned to Natsuko’s face briefly before she grinned again, narrowing her eyes. “But nevermind that. Kazu-kun, you knew Tetsu had a crush on Ruru, didn’t you?” Her smugness grew by the minute, and Kazuhiko pursed his lips, eyes darting nervously at Koharu and Tadamitsu, who were standing too close for comfort at this point. And you were feeling jealous, which is why you came to her defense before dinner. The thing with the firewood. You were jealous.”

Swallowing, Kazuhiko took one last glance at Koharu and Tadamitsu, and saw the latter cough to cover a laugh as he turned to Koharu, engaging her in conversation as he gave Kazuhiko a thumbs up from behind. If there was any saint in this chunin exam, it would have to be Tadamitsu, and this was only one good example of why.

“I wasn’t jealous. I was just—Koharu looked uncomfortable and Tetsu was being a creep.” His words were rushed, and even to him the excuse sounded weak.

“Right,” Natsuko said, drawing the word out in a way that made her disbelief clear. “You know you can tell me if you like Ruru, right? Because she totally likes you too.”

“T-that—we’re taking an exam right now, and we need to focus.” His ears were burning, and he was aware of it, but he didn’t know how to make it stop. Thinking about his father’s disapproving gaze usually did the trick, but he was having trouble calling the image to mind right now.

“Uh huh.” Natsuko’s eyes twinkled as she looked at Koharu, catching the girl’s eyes and waving as all images Kazuhiko had been trying to conjure instantly flew out of his brain. “Hey Ruru! I think Tetsu likes you!” she said, waving as Kazuhiko choked on air. “You want me to tell him you’re not interested?”

As he coughed, Kazuhiko felt Natsuko reach over and pat his back. “Don’t worry, I gotchu. No way I’m letting that dumbass near Ruru. Over my dead body,” she whispered before giving him one last pat and breaking away, making a beeline for Tetsu. “Hey, Suna flirt, I wanna talk to you.”

“You okay?” Tadamitsu asked, walking over with Koharu, his eyes sparkling with silent laughter.

“Y-yeah,” Kazuhiko said, clearing his voice. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Tadamitsu said, glancing at Koharu. “I almost thought you were embarrassed or something, with how red you were getting.”

Did he know it was coming? In all honesty, kind of, but he’d wanted to believe Tadamitsu above the light-hearted jabs Natsuko liked to throw like candy. That, however, was a mistake, and he paid for it by choking again, though he managed to recover more quickly this time around.

“I’m fine,” he reiterated, directing a meaningful look at Tadamitsu before glancing at Koharu to check her expression.

“Well, I’m relieved,” Tadamitsu said, his grin broad. Too broad.



“C’mere,” Natsuko said, herding Tetsu a small distance away from the group as everyone, and she meant everyone because she literally saw everyone’s eyes on her as she walked the Suna boy away from the group. While she liked the attention, she didn’t like that Tetsu had made her teammate the object of his affections, especially since he’d clearly didn’t have Koharu’s best interests at heart. Plus, she’d meant it when she said Ruru deserved better, because she did. She deserved someone like Kazuhiko—someone mature, responsible, and strong enough to support her. Tetsu, on the other hand, was just about the slimiest greaseball she’d ever seen or heard walk the Earth, and now that she understood his intentions and words for what they were, she could honestly say she’d rather die than watching his poor excuse at flirting go on.

“You need to stop going after Ruru. Koharu,” she said, stabbing his chest with an accusing finger. He wasn’t too much taller than her, which made the entire thing easier and more enjoyable. “She’s not interested, okay? And you’re not good enough for her.”


Suna Team Twelve

Late Afternoon || Land of Wind: Demon Desert

Wait did she really think he had something for the girl with the ice? Well now that he thought of it it did certainly seem that way. The girl had proven that she was strong and willing to fight even when horribly outmatched. That kind of determination was admirable but he didn't like girls who would fight tooth and nail like that. In a way he'd felt inferior to them. They faced so much more than he did. But enough of those thoughts! His mind was focused on the brown haired girl who was stabbing her finger into his chest and telling her that he needed to stop.
"I don't like that Koharu girl." Tetsu made a face, trying to cover up that he definitely liked girls with pale hair. He thought it was pretty. "I was trying to apologize to her...but I got the wrong girl." Tetsu didn't like Koharu like that. She didn't like him either. He really hoped that they could fight against each other in the preliminaries or the finals. With the new information that it was Michi that he was attracted to, he hoped that the brown haired girl would stop making a scene. His mind drifted to the girl he considered his rival.

Was his fire stronger than her ice without Haruto's added wind to make the inferno bigger and better, or was her ice superior? Tetsu wanted to find out. But for now they were on the same side so he wanted to make amends so he wouldn't get a kunai in the back. Of all of the other genin, she had a personal reason to want a kunai in him more than anyone else. "I know that I can't apologize enough--this is a test and I can't help that she couldn't keep the ice up against my fire--but I want to at least ensure that she won't take the opportunity to take me out."

The brown haired girl seemed dense, but the same could be said for him. Now that the identities of the girls were clarified it was a touch easier to tell them apart. Tetsu was still a dense boy though and he'd likely end up mixing them up again but he'd try to not do that.


Team Six

Late Afternoon || Land of Wind: Demon Desert

While Koharu watched Natsuko tell Tetsu off, she glanced back at Kazuhiko. "I haven't seen you that embarrassed since Minoru-sensei gave you that talk about girls." Her words were followed by a small giggle, barely concealed behind a small hand. While she never really went as far as Natsuko it was easy to see that she'd influenced her to some degree. Koharu wasn't above teasing her stoic teammate. She was curious about what Natsuko said that had him blushing so much. It was probably something dumb that Kazuhiko fell for. While he wasn't the same twelve year old boy that used to get teased about being Mariko's star crossed lover, he was still rather shy in some areas.

Beside her, Tadamitsu tried to smother his laughter. One good thing about Koharu was that she lacked a filter and spoke what came to mind on occasion.

"Did she catch you making eyes at Michi or Aimi? They're both pretty." A small smile came to her lips but something festered in her chest at the idea. She tried her best to smother it down. Those kinds of feelings had no place in a time such as this. Although her hands were at her sides, with one resting on the hilt of her sword, it was with a white knuckled grip. Between Natsuko yelling out that Tetsu liked her and the idea that her stoic teammate fancied a girl, she was a bit frazzled.
"Just remember what Minoru-sensei told you and you'll be okay." While he'd been talked to about girls by their sensei, she and Natsuko had been told about boys by Azumi. It had been oddly nice. Her father wasn't very...open about such things nor could he explain the changes that she'd gone through like Azumi could. The changes her father faced were so much different than what females went through.

"It's okay Koharu. Lighten up and cut him a break." Tadamitsu was completely unfazed by her small glare. One good thing about having known the girl since they were eight was the fact that he'd grown immune to her glares. He wondered if her teammates had to or if they were just easier to block out. "You might want to go rescue that boy from your teammate though." Tadamitsu said, looking over at Tetsu and Natsuko.
With a shrug the pale haired girl walked over, leaving the two tall boys behind. "So...You were given the girl talk by your sensei? Did he also tell you about your teammates?" Tadamitsu couldn't help the small jab. It was quite fun.

"He isn't worth the air, Susu. Why don't you go bully Kazuhiko again?" She said, stopping just behind Natsuko. Tetsu loomed relieved, even if his cheeks were slightly pink. Koharu glared at him when he peeked over Natsuko's shoulder. "He's acting kind of weird anyway. You always know how to weasel the answer out of him. Go ask him if he likes Michi or Aimi."

Once Natsuko was gone, Koharu stared at Tetsu. The boy put on a poked face, although his emotions still bled through. "I'm sorry for burning you." He said, not expecting much from the girl. "We're fighting on the same side for a little while so I don't want this to interfere with the plan."

Koharu listened to him, standing a little taller. "I understand," Tetsu wouldn't be able to tell that she was acting like she did when addressing important members of her clan. "I can put aside personal issues. I want my team to advance to the preliminaries. They deserve it."

She looked down at Tetsu's hand when he offered it to her. After a few beats she took it, staring up at the slightly taller boy. His cheeks were pink, although the genin behind then probably couldn't hear what was being said. "Your palms are rougher than I thought." Tetsu said impulsively.

"From training. You should try it sometime." She pulled her hand from his and returned to her teammates.



Natsuko blinked. “You don’t?” Everything, from the way Kazuhiko was getting riled up to when Michi had pointed Koharu out to Tetsu, had pointed to Tetsu liking Koharu, but for some reason he was claiming the opposite.

“I don’t,” Tetsu repeated, crossing his arms. On his face was a mixture of amusement and exasperation that looked too close to the one Natsuko was used to getting from her teammates for comfort.

“Gimme a sec,” she said, her brows furrowed as she looked between Michi and Koharu. Tetsu had gotten the wrong girl while apologizing, and that was because he’d apologized to Michi instead of Koharu. That would explain why Michi had pointed Koharu out to Tetsu, but it didn’t explain why Tetsu had been flirting with Koharu. Unless…

“You like Michi!” Natsuko declared with triumph.

Tetsu almost fell over himself reaching for her, though he managed to grab her shoulder, his eyes as bright as his face was red. “Shut up! Shut up!”

“So, Michi, huh?” Natsuko asked as she shrugged out of his hold, her eyes drifting to said pale-haired girl, who could clearly be seen rolling her eyes and turning back to Aimi. “Well, as long as you don’t like Haru, we’re cool. Because you have no chance with her. Zero.”

Tetsu snorted. “I don’t want one.”

“Good,” Natsuko said. As far as she was concerned, Koharu needed someone on her level, which Tetsu was definitely not. “I still can’t believe you got them mixed up that bad. Like, are you blind or something?”

Tetsu gave her a funny look. “What do you mean?”

“Haru and Michi—they look nothing alike.” Natsuko looked between the two again, and sure enough, the short, pale-haired girls were easily distinguishable from each other.

“What? They definitely look alike,” Tetsu said, looking rapidly between the girls in the distance too. “They’re both short, have pale hair they tie up, and wear practical clothes.”

“Uh, yeah, but besides that,” Natsuko said, pointing at Koharu. “Haru’s obviously taller, and her hair’s darker, and she’s tanner overall. Plus, Michi has that red sash thing. It’s basically her brand.” Natsuko quite admired the red obi sash around Michi’s waist. Tied with a gold ribbon, it was instantly elegant yet casual, and it helped Natsuko recognize Abe family members on multiple occasions.

“Uh-huh.” The way Tetsu said the word made it obvious that he didn’t buy her list, and Natsuko responded by rolling her eyes.

“Just use that pair of see-y things in your head and you’ll see it. At least I hope so.”

“Yeah, sure.” Tetsu glanced between the girls again before looking at Natsuko with a frown.

“Thanks for the tips, Natsuko. Thanks for being patient and helping me tell two obviously different people apart,” Natsuko said, giving Tetsu a meaningful look.

“Uh, yeah, thanks,” Tetsu said, confusion written all over his face.

“What do you still have to be confused about?” Natsuko asked. The way he was looking at her now—was he confused about her? Something she said?

Koharu arrived then, speaking sense, and Natsuko nodded, grinning. “You’re right, Kazu-kun it is, though I have a feeling it’s not Michi or Aimi.”

Sparing Tetsu one suspicious look, she turned to head back, grinning once again. Even from a distance she could make out his blush, so obviously this was going to be loads of fun.



If Kazuhiko wasn’t red before, he certainly was after Koharu’s giggle, and he was very aware of it. Having Tadamitsu beside them, either failing or not caring to hide his amusement, helped Kazuhiko rein himself in, though his eyes widened at Koharu’s gibe.

“No, definitely not. We’re taking an exam right now, and I don’t know either of them well enough,” he said, his words rushed before he realized how that sounded and forcefully slowed them down.

Tadamitsu coughing pointedly told Kazuhiko that his thoughts had gone through loud and clear, and he clenched his teeth, relenting a shift of his feet. For all his belief in his ability to remain calm and composed, even he would have to admit he was struggling right now. In his defense, he was used to political pressure, the type that came from dealing with intrigue, challenges, and making hard choices. The pressure he was under right now, though, was completely different; it was both social and situational, was anxiety-inducing because there was no correct action or right answer in sight, and he was floundering.

Help came in the form of Tadamitsu asking Koharu to cut Kazuhiko a break, and his teammate relented, shrugging and heading away. Just as Kazuhiko was about to thank Tadamitsu, though, the Hyuga threw him another line, and Kazuhiko was left gaping for a second before he straightened, fixing Tadamitsu with a very unamused look.

“Thanks for covering,” he said, deciding not to answer the Hyuga boy’s questions. It was easier that way.

Tadamitsu laughed—his first full laugh, in the last few minutes, now that Kazuhiko thought about it. “No problem. And if you were concerned about Tetsu liking Koharu, don’t be. The one he likes is Michi.”

Kazuhiko blinked. Tetsu liked… Michi? “But what about him repeatedly flirting with Koharu?”

“Just like how you watch him around your teammates, I watch him around mine, and I can tell you definitively that he meant every one of those conversations for Michi,” Tadamitsu said, amusement evident in his tone.

Though Kazuhiko was still doubtful, the dots were connecting, and another few seconds of thought prompted a sigh from him. “Honestly, they are pretty hard to tell apart. I mistake them for each other from the back sometimes.”

“I’ve learned to check their face with Byakugan before assuming,” Tadamitsu agreed. “They’re definitely not making it easy by tying their hair up and wearing similar outfits.”

“Kazu-kun, Ruru told me to figure out whether you like Michi or Aimi, but I’m thinking it’s neither!” Natsuko said, prancing to a land beside him and Tadamitsu, eyes bright with mirth.

Kazuhiko spared her a tired glance and a sigh as Tadamitsu chuckled. “Any louder and you may as well ask Michi and Aimi’s opinion on it,” he said.

Natsuko widening her grin had him realize that he’d probably given her ideas he shouldn’t have, but thankfully Tadamitsu cleared his throat, his glance settling on Natsuko.

“I already told him that Tetsu likes Michi and not Koharu,” he said, and Natsuko shot him an annoyed look.

“Wow, way to spoil the fun,” she grumbled.

“Hey, if you’re all done making eyes at each other, the sparrows are back!” Aimi called, waving a hand.

“Let’s go,” Kazuhiko said, taking the easy out and leading the way over to the gathering group. A glance at Yasu and Tadamitsu showed that nervousness or not, this was happening, and they’d be prepared. And he would too; Maho was strong, but for today, they’d be coming out on top.



@Typical
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