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