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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."


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.


I'm fine if this becomes a "one or two posts a week roleplay" if that is more suitable for you.
It was a fairly dreary morning but that could be attributed to the thick smog caused by fireplaces used to warm homes. Arthur was the first to rise in the crowded hour of six. He lived there with other urchins who had nowhere else to go. The youngest was a twelve year old boy named John, and the eldest was a young woman a few years older than Arthur himself named Elise. He could see them sprawled across their one roomed abode. Elise waa given the only bed while the rest of them slept on the floor. John was tucked halfway under the small table they had pushed into the corner to make enough room for everyone to sleep.
They had barely enough coin to scrape by with rent but today was a new day and they were determined to get by. Arthur gently shook the others awake and set about slicing a bit of cheese they had left over from the night.

John sat up, still half sleep with drool staining the corner of his mouth and cheek. "Wha? Arthur?" A slice of cheese was offered to the boy and he automatically began eating. The young boy worked with Elise in the dust yards while Arthur worked at a shipyard. He was trying hard to turn his life around for those he cared for but it was a struggle. His fingers itched with the need to take shiny things and sell them for a few more coins to fill their bellies with. It was a constant struggle for survival. Arthur sighed softly as he finished up his food and a wet rag was passed around so they could wash their faces and smooth their hair before departing for work.

At five foot seven with a lanky build, Arthur was an average man with strawberry blond hair and green eyes with little flecks of brown. His clothes would need to be washed soon but that could happen tonight. As they filtered out of their small shared home, Arthur made his way towards the docks. His employer was a man named Cornelius Morgan, a miser of a man who'd made his fortune as the son of a merchant who dealt in spices. The man wasn't nearly as rich as others, Arthur had heard, but he was still richer than his employees.
The most he'd heard of the man was about his wealth and how he was trying to marry off all of his daughters as soon as possible. From his understanding the eldest three--or was it four?--were married already.
Weaving his way through the busy streets and muck, he wondered if he'd come across Reed today. They'd grown up in the streets together, even with Arthur being older by a handful of years. He hadn't seen the boy in a while, maybe a day or two, and he wouldn't conceal his worry. He'd served enough jail time to know that it was hell on earth.

Thankfully he didn't live too far from the docks so he arrived on time. In front of the main building was a fancy carriage pulled by two sleek black horses with white patches on their faces. No doubt his employer had just barely arrived.
For a few moments Arthur froze in place, musing what it was like to be able to have such fancy things. The sound of the carriage door opening caught his attention and he blinked rapidly a few times. The voice that he could barely hear about the hustle and bustle was clearly feminine, a second voice alerted him to the presence of another man. He couldn't make out their conversation but it really wasn't his place to know what they were talking about anyways.

As Arthur made his way past the carriage to skirt between the main building and a warehouse, he caught sight of the people who'd been talking. One was a tall boy with long fingered hands and neatly combed dark hair, and the other was a small girl with her hair coiled into a small bun at the nape of her neck. They were both dressed in fine clothes with shiny silver buttons that could feed him and his friends for a while.

"You can't be serious. You know father will never let you-"

"Have you heard of the slums, dear brother? The poor need help. If we can put them on the path to salvation then they can go to heaven." The girl said, following alongside her brother. Arthur was close enough to hear that snippet of conversation and he realized that it was true. There had been an influx of charitable folk all around. They wanted to help but some were ill-eqquiped for the amount of people in need. Ah well, the rich could help if they wanted to, or at least debate about helping. Arthur had to get to work.


When his shift finally ended just as the sun was beginning to go down, Arthur popped his back and continued down a narrow alleyway in order to swing by a small market so he could pinch a few things before swinging by to see his friend. Hey just because he got paid didn't mean he had enough to feed five other mouths and enough to pay rent. As he came out of the alleyway he smacked into someone. Blinking, he looked down at the small figure he'd run into.
The girl looked familiar although he couldn't place where he'd seen her before. Her dress was common and plain but showed little signs of wear, as if she hadn't worked much.

"Sorry miss." Arthur said, helping her off of the ground. The girl stared wide eyed at him, silent for a few awkward moments before she found her words.

"Ah apology accepted."

Honor cursed herself for making a fool out of herself but she was terribly out of her element. She'd come to East End with Emily, the slightly older girl that she thought of as a sister. They'd known each other since they were knee high through their fathers. Emily's family wasn't as prosperous as her own but they were nearly there.
It was Emily who'd convinced her to help in the slums but also the one who said in order to help better they needed first hand accounts of how the poor lived. They'd been separated a while ago, or perhaps Emily had gone astray of her own will, Honor couldn't be certain. All that she knew was she was frightened and alone and in clothes that were scratchy and a little too big on her.

"Name's Arthur Beckett." The boy said, looking down at her. Should she give her full name? Likely not. Even if there was more than one Morgan family around she didn't want to risk word of her slumming to get back to her father.

"Honor. Just Honor." She said, twisting her hands together in a nervous manner.

"Well Miss Honor, why don't you accompany me to the pub? Was going to meet a friend there for a round of drinks." Arthur said.

Honor wasn't sure if she needed to be wary of him or not. Emily had warned her that there were.some folk in the slums that were vile beings, but she'd assured her that most were simply wanting to live until tomorrow. Honor nodded her head before following after him. It wasn't like anyone else would be willing to talk to her, and there was the chance that Emily possibly wandered into a pub so it wouldn't hurt to look there. As they passed through a thinning market she caught the way he snagged a few carrots and stuffed them into his pockets for later.

Did he not have enough money? Honor frowned as she followed but said nothing. She had to remind herself that these people hadn't been born into money like she had been. They needed to fight for their earnings, she simply existed to be gifted with fine dresses and jewels. Once they reached the pub Arthur wandered in quite comfortably while Honor needed to work up the courage to do so. She'd never been in such a place nor had she seen men drink anything other than wine at parties.
She latched onto Arthur's jacket, the material rough under her fingers, as he led her to the back where he usually met with Reed to share some drinks. He was hoping that Reed wouldn't mind the girl tagging along. Arthur was still trying to figure out where he'd seen her before.

Here we go!

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—


“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.”


“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.


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.


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.


Morning // Land of Fire - Konohagakure

The past year had been one of the best years of his life. His team had grown in skill, reaching, and sometimes exceeding, his expectations. Although it was the past six months in particular that were his favorite. His family had grown as well. His wife had welcomed their daughter near the end of winter, and they'd named her Kazuha, in honor of Kazuhiko. She'd inherited Minoru's dark hair but her mother's pale violet eyes and to her father, she was perfect. Having his team, his eldest children, around her was amazing. He'd never expected that Koharu would have taken to caring for a young child but he'd remembered the way she'd been with Hachiro the year before. It was never hard to leave the baby with the genin if they needed to.

Kazuha played favorites though, and while he knew that she loved all of the genin, it seemed that she loved Kazuhiko just a little bit more. If her staring was any indication. He was home, currently, doting on his daughter while his wife was out running a few errands. The genin would be over in a few hours for a team meeting, more of a progress report now that they were finding tutors to help them where he could not. It wasn't unusual for their meetings to be at his house. He and Azumi wanted them to know that this was their second home and they were always welcomed. It was a little more lively with a house full of kids and he'd often joked with his wife about wanting more.
The birth had been easy, despite the screaming. He remembered that she'd gone into labor while he was training the kids and so he'd toted them to the hospital with him. Minoru would never forget the looks on their faces when he'd finally emerged from the room once Kazuha was born. He was pretty sure that Koharu was trying to kill him with the power of her glare but the moment that she'd been allowed into the room to see Azumi and Kazuha, she'd cried. Minoru had cradled the small girl to him, letting her get snot and tear stains all over his shirt.

Right now his daughter was swaddled and placed on a blanket in their living room as she soaked in the sun's rays as they filtered through the large window. He smiled, still awestruck that he'd been allowed the opportunity to be a father. Of course he loved his genin, they were his first kids, but knowing that Kazuha was his daughter was something else entirely. He was a blessed man to have such a large family. Perhaps in a few years when his genin no longer needed him he could retire and take a simpler job at the academy. Minoru was well aware that his life wouldn't be very long due to his status as a shinobi, and he'd thought about it often, but he didn't think he could fully give it up. He wanted to see Kazuha grow up in a safe village. He wanted to see his genin grow up and one day have children of their own.
Kazuha awoke with a loud cry, fussing for milk like every three month old baby did. He chuckled and grabbed her bottle before gently picking her up and cradling her in his arms. She was so small compared to him and he was still a little afraid that he'd drop her, or break her. His hands had taken many lives over the years; they were soiled and bloody but gentle when it came to his wife and daughter.

It'd only been six or seven months since they'd gone to Mumi village and helped the giant bear summon return home. He'd wondered if the genin would ever have summons of their own. They certainly had the potential to. He looked down at the feeding baby in his arms and smiled softly. Kazuha would grow up knowing some pretty incredible people and he was grateful that they would be in her life.


Morning // Land of Fire - Konohagakure

In the past six months Koharu had grown with her ice, and was now able to use it a little bit more in combat and was beginning to train with an ice sword. Her father had ensured that she was learning the proper techniques although they were really just going through the kata with a sword made of cold, but still fairly brittle ice, rather than her regular one. She remembered the moment that she'd first made her successful ice sword. Her father had been proud of her, even if he didn't outwardly show it. It couldn't be used in combat yet, but she'd get there one day.

At the moment she was enjoying breakfast with her father. The stern man was dressed in a loosely fitting robe although his massive biceps still threatened to rip the fine fabric. It was a quiet affair, as it usually was, but he was beginning to ask her more questions about her teammates. It wasn't that he hadn't before but he was now feeling comfortable in knowing that they would protect her. Osamu had made the decision to take Koharu from his sister following the death of her husband and subsequent mental breakdown. He'd needed a legitimate heir and his niece needed a parent who would care for her. It had been a win-win for both of them. Osamu loved her as his own, treating her the same as he'd treated his own sons.

He'd been surprised to learn that his daughter had given her promises to both of her teammates that they would always find an ally within her and her clan. It was childish, yes, to believe that they'd even accept them as allies or that she could make such final decisions right now, but he knew that it was not something that she took lightly. He raised her to be serious about her duties as his heir. Their clan was important to them and using it was a cheap gimmick went against their beliefs.
Koharu had told him about the strength in Kazuhiko, about the liveliness in Natsuko, and the way that her sensei pushed them to get better. She'd also told him that she desired to grow stronger as a person in order to help them. It was a good quality, and one that had to grow rather than be forced into somebody.


The sound of his voice caught her attention and she looked up at him curiously. "Yes, Otou-san?" She set aside her chopsticks and gave her father her full attention.

"If you are serious about being an ally in the future for your teammates, then you must also become a strong leader. Our clan needs a strong leader who will protect not only themselves but their allies as well." Osamu had no objections to an alliance with either clan, although he knew that the girl on Koharu's team, Natsuko, he believed, wasn't an heir and thus an alliance with her clan would be a longer process than one with Kazuhiko's family. "Now let us clean up and train." They had a small clan so servants were few and far between. It had been hard to adopt that type of lifestyle after having gone from a prestigious position within Yukigakure, but they'd adapted well.
He looked at the small girl as she readied herself in the small courtyard of their home. She was smaller than his son's had been when they were her age. It was surreal, even three year later, to know that one of his son's was dead and the other was missing. Nori, his youngest, had been killed on a mission and within a month his eldest had been declared missing after he didn't report back to his superior.

Koharu noticed the sad look on his face and she frowned. The girl knew more than she let on. He was thinking of his son's again. He always got that pained look when he thought about them. The girl knew that she'd been a convenient choice after it was decided that due to their illegitimate status, Nobuyuki and Nori weren't allowed to become the heirs so he'd taken her from her mother and named her as his heir. Koharu didn't know that her mother had ceased taking care of her and that his choice to take her away wasn't born solely out of needing someone to carry on their clan's legacy.
But she missed her brothers too. They were older than her by a great deal but they'd never been mean to her. Nobuyuki used to let her ride on his shoulders when they walked around the village and Nori used to take her to the river so he could show her how he walked on water. She remembered that the last thing that Nobuyuki had told her before he'd left for his final mission was that he loved her and would always look out for her.

The memories made her throat tight and tears pricked the corner of her eyes. A large hand planted itself on top of her head, smoothing over pale hair before she was gently pulled into her father's side. They were not an affectionate family, so these little moments were precious. He didn't need to ask what she was thinking about. "We will be training your ice today. Try to capture my feet."

Training with Osamu was always a difficult task. He didn't go easy on his daughter, citing that an enemy wouldn't show leeway just because she was a child. That wasn't to say that he smeared her into the ground, quite the opposite actually. It forced her to use all of her skills to her fullest potential if she wanted to land a hit on him. She'd touched his feet with her ice before he jumped out of range and Koharu couldn't have been happier. She was improving.


Afternoon // Land of Fire - Konohagakure

Minoru and his wife walked down a slightly bust side street close to the market. Kazuha was clutched in her mother's arms and was sleeping peacefully despite the noise of everyone bustling around. Around Minoru's forearm were a few burlap shopping bags weighed down with supplies that they needed. In one bag was food for their dinner, in another it was diapers for their daughter and in the last were a few articles of clothing.

"Honey...look at that." Azumi pointed to a few things that lay in a shop window that they were passing. "The kids might enjoy a gift." They were working hard towards their goals and she was just as proud of them as her husband was.

"Let's go check out that shop." It was a ninja tool shop and he knew that two out of his three genin would appreciate a gift from there. Natsuko would probably enjoy something different. They could find something easily for her. Kazuhiko and Koharu were just a little bit harder to buy for because they were practical people who valued functionality over aesthetics. "They're one and a half years away from taking the Chunin Exams but no harm in getting them a few early gifts."

"You like to spoil them." Azumi did too.

Together they walked into the shop and looked around,although her interest was much more superficial than his. She was a civilian so needing to learn the fine points of what constituted a good kunai was far beyond her. Her husband explained a few details as he found some items for his genin. There was a new set of kunai for Kazuhiko along with a matching pouch. Azumi had the idea to embroider his clan symbol on the front. For Koharu they'd found a small stand for her swords. It was small and made of plain wood but Minoru commented on fixing it up with some paint for her. They left with their new purchases tucked into another bag.

"We can always just get her a voucher for a year's worth of mochi." The glare his wife gave him made Minoru shrink back a little bit. "What? She loves mochi!"

"I know but she needs something more than mochi."

In the end they'd caved and gotten her two things: a small bracelet made of pale pink and white beads and the gift certificate for mochi. They also got one more gift for the other two venom so it was fair. Natsuko was Minoru's favorite and sometimes Azumi had to remind him that Kazuhiko and Koharu were just as important.

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