A pre-chapter A/N? Crazy times. But we've reached 900 reviews. That's crazy. Crazy. Thank you so much for all the love and support for this story and all its flaws.
Sending immense love to all of you out there. This is not an easy time, but we'll get through it. As always, if you need someone to chat about anything or just to have a whinge or a complaint, that's totally ok, I'll complain with you!
As for the questions from the A/N in the last chapter - the answers will be revealed soon ;))
Enjoy the chapter :))
"Nice of you to pop by."
A small part of Jiraiya was relieved to note that she was getting actual sleep and starting at dawn now, as opposed to meditating throughout the night like she used to. She had arrived an hour ago, shifting through morning stretches and warm up strength routines with well-practiced ease, before running a lap round the village. The sun was visibly emerging from the horizon now and its warm rays were felt in the still cool morning air. It was going to be a hot day.
He knew she was aware that he had been here first, but that small exchange meant she wanted him to pay attention now. The hunched shadow in the trees let out a gruff noise of acknowledgment, lazily surveying the area from the corner of his half-closed eyes.
The early morning dew dampened her trousers as she sat; breaths lengthening until she went as low as four per minute - remarkably slow considering the normal for her age was at least eighteen. This was not a quick process, and took around half an hour of her sitting immobile in meditation to achieve. Jiraiya wasn't even sure if she was consciously aware that her breathing had slowed down that drastically.
In this state she made precariously slow, controlled but fluid movements until she rose, and her arms stretched and moved in a strange sort of...dance?
It was only when a palm coincidentally stretched in his direction and he felt the heatwave that an intrigued eyebrow rose. If he watched closely, the air around her was wobbling in a way that was commonly seen above the sandy dunes in the Land of Wind. It surrounded her, and gently flowed outward in the direction her hands pushed, and, he realised, from the air she breathed. The morning dew on the grass around her feet had evaporated, the dampness that had collected on her clothes gone. The grass was beginning to yellow and wither following her steps.
It was an impressive display of tight control. It seemed as though she was rotating the chakra around her body at a faster rate than normal, transforming minute fractions of it into a pure elemental form and expelling it in small increments. Everything from the chakra control to the way she did not waste a single muscle contraction showcased the immense control she had over every aspect of her body.
This control was rarely honed by the normal shinobi. Jiraiya had only seen something of this scale in practicing monks at the Fire Temple, and while Amaterasu had spent a noticeable fraction of each day dedicated to chakra control and meditation, the Sage noted that the training she had undergone with the lynxes to strengthen her mind must have aided her success on this front considerably. One must isolate oneself from the world completely and focus all their attention without the slightest consideration of any distractions to achieve this amount of self-control. It reminded him, in a way, of his Sage training with the toads - a fleeting feeling of failure licked at his stomach as he was reminded that he had not yet mastered it.
The first flickers of actual fire came to life with no fanfare, and it licked and danced on her hands until she stilled all movement, her breath count now easing even slower than before.
Thin tendrils of fire took hold in one of those particularly long breaths, leaving her mouth and snaking down her outstretched arm to collect around her upward facing palm. They rotated around her hand at growing speed, but despite more tendrils being breathed into the collection at her palm, the size of the rotating chakra did not seem to expand. Jiraiya frowned. The buildup of chakra, plus its elemental nature, as well as shape manipulation - if she lost control now... she would lose her arm at the very least.
The girl's eyes, peculiarly gray, snapped open and with a seemingly minute flick of the hand, the built up fire natured chakra she had been refining was released. The resulting blinding flash and searing heat wave that resulted made Jiraiya wince and cover his eyes.
It was a few long seconds before he had his vision back and he forcefully blinked away the black dots that snaked their way around it. With their retreat came the bitter, acrid smell of smoke.
A good few of the large Hashirama trees that surrounded the outskirts of the village had been incinerated, the last one in the path of blackened destruction still left crackling with large flames lapping at the dry wood.
Amaterasu hadn't moved from her position, back ramrod straight and the only giveaway that she had been responsible for the death of the trees was the palm that faced the path of destruction. It seemed she was getting her breathing back up to speed in a controlled manner.
"Rasengan." she spoke finally. "is a jutsu that makes use of shape transformation of chakra alone. There aren't many jutsu that do just that." she mused thoughtfully as she withdrew her arm to stand in a neutral position. "The Uchiha are blind to think that our fire jutsu are as formidable as they can be... Elemental chakra is limited in what it can do without shape manipulation."
"That wasn't just elemental transformation, was it?" the Sage asked, hopping down to join her on the grass.
"No. It was my attempt at combining the two. A rather poor attempt, as all the others have been. I tend to focus too much on the nature manipulation as opposed to shape. That was how I was taught you see: the higher the percentage you can convert into elemental chakra, the more destructive the resulting jutsu will be. I'm starting to think that's not exactly the case. I believe there's a golden ratio of shape and nature transformation that would result in peak elemental power."
The girl paused after her musing, then promptly collapsed on the ground. Jiraiya noticed she was drenched in sweat and shaking. It would have alarmed him had he not been so familiar with the common response to stress when the body was pushed to the limit. He chucked a water bottle to land by her before moving to inspect the charred remains of the trees a fair distance away... after dousing the still burning one with a respectable amount of water drawn from thin air.
The jutsu did have some shape manipulation aspects to it, he realised. The destruction of the first few trees hadn't been from the intense heat alone - the rotating force of the chakra in a helical formation had carved through the trunks, shattering them with sheer force and making it easier for the fire nature to consume the pieces into ashes. It wasn't the same rotating form as the rasengan, not even close to its complexity, but it seems even the basic spiralling movement had amplified the fire's effects.
And she had done it without hand signs.
Granted, the entire build-up process to the final jutsu took about an hour of meditation and it would be a long time before the final product was close to being used in actual combat, but what the girl had attempted to achieve was not lost on the Sannin. If she was successful, it would become a one-hit jutsu that was not just designed to kill but outright obliterate the corpse from the inside out. The sheer scale of the technique was formidable and could potentially level buildings.
The unease rippling through his body was not in surprise at what the girl had achieved. He was long past shock at her capabilities. But how she usually worked was outlining a goal then bulldozing through everything to get there with no regard to how long it would take. Her patience and endurance was something that was very unlike a child her age, and witnessing how tightly she was able to control her chakra was a live example of how those traits have benefited her.
What end-goal was she envisioning that made her progress to such large extents? What kind of opponent was she worried about facing?
Another realisation crept up on him as he ran his hands on the deep, curved gouges on a charred piece of tree trunk.
He had had a few, passive aggressive conversations with her clan head about her ability... it seemed they were not fully aware of what she was capable of, or even what she was like. Her personality and drive towards becoming a shinobi was something she had openly displayed to him since when she had trained with him, so Shisui and Shikaku must have seen it too. However, the girl had a knack for switching off when not in training, or when asked to perform like a monkey during her 'evaluation tests'. Perhaps that's why words such as 'lazy', 'unmotivated' and 'sloppy' were used to describe her by the higher ups in her clan.
Jiraiya could see how she thought she had no reason to go all out unless she really had to, but it was looking like this mentality of hers had cost him and the village some distrust from the Uchiha. They still believed she had little to gain from her training time away from the village, simply as she had not been taught to use the Kyūbi's chakra. Jiraiya glanced at the girl who seemed to have fallen asleep after putting herself in the recovery position.
Yes. She prepared and trained like a true shinobi, but whether she was able to carry out tasks like one was a different question entirely.
Her skills and tactics were difficult to tone down for friendly sparring, he understood. Her hand-to-hand combat was flawless technique-wise, and she had the speed, flexibility and agility to manoeuvre around skilled opponents... but she had a tiny build, even for her age. No matter how much she enhanced it with chakra, any hits she landed would be close to ineffective even on teenagers. Therefore her hitting power relied on close range weapons such as kunai, which she evidently could utilise with lethality should she want to.
His concern was that she would never use her full potential unless the situation truly called for it.
She was going to lose someone that way, he realised with a pang of regret. Underestimating the wrong opponent, even a little, could lead to devastation... he knew that from experience.
Perhaps such an experience was the only way she would learn.
Perhaps loss was what she needed to finally grow.
Jiraiya was 'gone' when she was unwillingly dragged back into consciousness by an incessant kicking of her foot.
"Oi oi, are you sure it's okay for Tenten to stay with the Hokage's son for the entire time we're away?"
Ignoring him just didn't work, she knew this from experience. His teammate was remarkably stubborn when denying her of her favourite pastime: Sleeping.
A low, drawn out moan voiced her displeasure as she forced her aching muscles to contract and make her sit up. Opening her eyes only gave way to black dots dancing in her vision along with splatters of colour, and her water bottle was shoved at her lips by what she presumed was her impatient teammate.
She drank, shaking her head slightly to clear her vision and attempting to blink herself into full consciousness.
"Hey hey, are you okay? It's been a while since you've pushed yourself this far. Aren't you cutting it a bit too close to our departure day? You need to be in top shape y'know!" Chen nattered worriedly, brown eyes filling her vision as he peered down at her.
She thwacked him.
Well. Tried. He caught her feeble hand and lowered it gently, a concerned furrow being the last thing she saw before she collapsed once more into soft arms.
"What an idiot." was the last thing she heard before she slipped back into blessed unconsciousness, but it meant a residual smile rested on her face as she passed.
Itachi gently took the limp body from Chen, a green hand passing over her head. Further investigation of her muscles and general physiology showed telltale signs of chakra, physical and mental exhaustion. A quick glance at the now cooled but charred surroundings of the training field allowed him to the come to the conclusion that he had voiced a few seconds before. She was an idiot.
"She's done that again." he sighed to her fretting teammate. "Usually people after this much damage will be out for a day but it's her. It'll only knock her out for a few hours I'm afraid."
"What a shame." came the sarcastic intonation of another Uchiha, marking the silent arrival of the captain of this squad. "She must've planned it. That's just in time to miss our final training session before we leave for Kirigakure."
The irritation was not lost on Chen and he avoided the taichō's gaze. Heck. He silently raged at Ama for putting their captain in a bad mood and leaving him to suffer the wrath - the boy knew this annoyance would be made very clear once he started setting drills for him and Kabuto. Speaking of which...
"Where is Kabuto?"
"He had some other matters to deal with today. So looks like it's just you and me today, kiddo." Shisui drawled, and Chen gulped at the cold glint in his eye.
He damned his teammates to hell.
"I love you guys, you know that right guys? Right? Guys?"
Two completely blank expressions were all he was rewarded with before he was escorted away by the Mist proctors to join the other tributes standing on the edge of a tall platform. Chen wasn't afraid of heights but he was definitely afraid of the black water and large ominous shapes swimming below his feet. He felt his arms get locked behind him with handcuffs clicking around his wrists, and was that rope tightening around his ankles? His heart dropped further and he clenched his eyes shut as he was blindfolded, forcing his breathing to stabilise and thinking happy thoughts, like Tenten throwing up on Itachi, Naruto walking face-first into a fence and -
"Brats." came a nasally drawl from behind him and shooting chills down his back. "I'm not repeating the rules and no questions allowed, so listen carefully. Each team has volunteered a tribute from their team to act as hostage. Hostages will be given a code they are to convey only to their teammates. The task is simple: get the code from your hostage teammate and return to this port without letting it fall into other teams' hands. If another team presents your code at the port, your team has failed. If you do not manage to get the code before sundown, your team has failed. If you attempt to present your code without a full team, your team has failed. The world of shinobi is all about gaining, protecting and utilising information. No use being strong if you don't know what you're fighting for."
There was a short pause.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" came an impatient snarl. Chen felt the surprise and heard tentative steps before a loud cackle reverberated through the air and he felt a smothering presence and insane surge of chakra that made his breath hitch and throat run dry.
Something slammed into his chest and he was knocked off his feet backwards, rushing with speed through water, and it was after a considerable bout of disorientation that he realised he wasn't resurfacing - he couldn't breathe - opening his mouth only made it fill with cold, salty water: a little entered his lungs as he jerked and he panicked as it burned, kicking and wriggling to try and reach for air but he couldn't and his lungs were screaming and he couldn't breathe.
Something hit him in the stomach and he retched, any remaining air forced out of him instantly. Water rushed past him and disorientation returned but then a world of sound hit him and he was flying, his stomach swooping uncomfortably before he hit hard rock with a thwack and knocked his head with considerable force.
Chen turned his head to the side and vomited, wet things trickling down his chin but he barely registered the feeling - his head was spinning, his stomach hurt but he coughed and heaved and his head wouldn't stop spinning, but at least air finally entered his burning airways.
"Oh. Gross." came an unimpressed, unfamiliar voice to his right, around a meter away. Chen shook his head to try and clear his vision and tried to sit up in a feebly defensive position, but he was kicked roughly in the shoulder and forced back down.
He got the message.
His head was whirling as he tried to force himself to think. There was water. Some kind of water jutsu probably - he flinched as he remembered the oppressive feeling of the massive chakra - a huge water jutsu. He was drowning, he was... saved? He didn't think the people who had 'saved' him were particularly friendly. Were they the ones who were to give him the code? The voice sounded female and relatively young. All the Mist jōnin had been... faces flickered through his mind and voices filtered through his ears, but he wasn't able to work out the identity of the one who had spoken.
Where were Amaterasu and Kabuto? Had they been caught up in the water jutsu? Chen had been bound and blindfolded but they would have been able to get out by themselves, right? Would it be best for him to sit tight and wait for them to come here? Should he try to escape and find them? Rushing water was dangerous, what if they were slammed against a rock and lost consciousness underwater?
He felt frustration build up within him as the uncertainty made him unsure. His teammates were his confidence, they were his backbone - they were the reason he was here, a Konoha genin, representing his village in a way that he had only dreamed of as a child. The reason he had been able to leave the carpenter's house and get a small apartment for him and Tenten... that would have been impossible as a carpenter's apprentice who hadn't even been to civilian school.
It was because of those two. Their belief in him, as a teammate, that he had never understood because he had always been so lacking.
Shisui's words on teammates and trust suddenly resurfaced and he swallowed. He'd survive, escape while he could, obtain information so when they were reunited he would be of use.
He needed to trust that they were looking for him.
A confusing thought was still lingering in his thoughts: he hadn't been given a code.
"Is he alive?" A male voice, older, adolescent - the type of voice that was prone to cracking. The question made him check his breathing - it was slow and undisturbed. The default when pretending to be unconscious.
"Probably. I'm not going any closer to check. He's covered in vomit." came the female voice again. "How is Darui?"
"Fine. It was good that the Hoshigaki acted as we expected, we've gained some time over the other teams. The only thing to work out is what the code is - Darui wasn't given anything or told anything." the boy continued. His voice was calm and confident, but Chen couldn't put a face to it.
"Tch. How irritating. I didn't think the first test was going to require this much work. Are you sure he didn't hit his head while underwater and forgot?" the girl asked sceptically.
"I checked for concussion and there were no signs - just some water in his lungs that I cleared." her companion replied tonelessly.
A medic then, Chen noted with interest. He had heard that medics were rarer in other villages, especially at this level.
The girl let out an aggravated sigh.
"At least we have another hostage - we can begin the questioning and just get his code instead."
Chen heard steps before he was suddenly yanked up by the back of his collar.
"I know you're awake, your chakra is buzzing." said the boy in a monotone and Chen rapidly blinked as light flooded his eyes once his blindfold was roughly ripped off. The boy was dirty blond, and the sign for Kumogakure flashed proudly on his forehead.
"Konoha." he spat, throwing him to the ground. It was marshy and wet, and Chen smothered panic as he realised that he didn't recognise his surroundings, nor could he see very far with the thick mist.
"He's a kid." the girl intoned, a slight warning maybe, although he was probably being optimistic. She was a brighter blond that the boy and had noticeably large breasts but other than that she was in a similar uniform to the boy with no other defining features.
"Raikage-sama told us to treat all enemies as enemies, no matter what shape or form they take." the boy replied, a harsher undertone to his voice once he established Chen was from Konoha.
Something stung at that thought. The fact that he was hated because of his village... that strangely hurt. He smothered the feeling and tried to focus. He had full chakra reserves, slight injuries and was bound by some sort of handcuff and rope...
They were not chakra draining handcuffs, he realised, mentally facepalming in appal at not thinking about this before - had he not panicked underwater, he could probably have gotten out of his restraints by himself.
He thought about the code. He hadn't been given anything, but he knew that he couldn't divulge any information to other teams. Since he didn't know what he wasn't supposed to say, he decided on keeping completely silent, just in case.
Watching them stare at him coldly, he swallowed. He didn't think he could take on the two by himself, particularly knowing there was a third resting close by. If they had been able to counter or avoid the large scale water jutsu, they must be skilled. He knew the blond boy was both a medic and a talented sensor, and from the way the girl held herself and the tantō she was a swordsman.
In his current state, he was not confident he could take them on and win. Which meant... he just needed to grit his teeth and survive whatever they tried to do to get him to speak.
He gave a crooked smile as the blond boy advanced.
He'd let them do their best.
He wasn't going to let his teammates down.
The terrified bark seemed unneeded as he was moving before she was, and within seconds the two had run in front of the rest of the non-hostage Konoha-nin and whirled through handsigns, slamming their palms into the ground to force an earthen barrier between them and the water.
"Earth Release: Earth-Style Wall!"
Amaterasu realised with dawning horror at the massive wave towering over them that it was not going to be enough. The earth walls were not as strong as they were in the Land of Fire, where the rock was hard. Here it was mushy and damp, and would fall like wet paper with that wave.
She grabbed Kabuto's hand and yanked.
"Use the wall to jump on top of the wave!" she shouted, sprinting at their feeble launch point.
Multiple puffs of smoke later, the pair were thrown higher and higher with the help of strategically placed shadow clones and bursts of fire jutsu, until they just about cleared the crest of the wave and tumbled into the water. They dragged themselves on top of the churning water with chakra control the second they could to prevent themselves from being washed away into the breaking wave.
They watched in terror at the devastation wrought by the wave as it roared across the island they had been moved to for this exam, moving up and down with the after waves with such vigour that their stomachs swooped with the G-force.
"We need to get Chen." Amaterasu said shakily, locking eyes with her only companion. Their surroundings was now just water. They were in the middle of the sea.
"We need to get to Chen!" she repeated, a hint of hysteria entering her voice as she stood and started running across the water, fully aware that their chakra was going to run out soon if they kept on top of the water like this. Chen was bound and blindfolded, there was no way he'd been spared. He'd have been batted around by the wave and potentially torn apart by the strength of the water -
Her teammate grabbed her arm and his face was taut with stress.
"We need to find Yugao-senpai first." at her enraged expression he quickly continued. "She's a sensor. She'll know exactly where we can find him. There's no way we'll find him in this environment without her."
Ama bit back her immediate response of 'She can't find him if he's dead', forcing herself to calm down and think logically.
The test makers wouldn't be killing the hostages. There must have been a reason, they must have been spared from the water onslaught, surely - She saw darts of ninja in the distance and flares of chakra.
She prayed they were Mist jōnin looking out for the hostages and not Mist genin killing off the competition.
The expanse of water was scaring her. She, and all of the Konoha-nin, were way out of their comfort zone here.
She didn't know what this village was actually willing to do to win and look good in front of their competitors. Should anyone be killed, they wouldn't be penalised - it would just be written off as an accident, since participants knew exactly what they were getting into.
The true nature of this competition, and Shisui's intense worry suddenly made sense to her and she swore.
This was the first round. Was she out of her depth already? Were her teammates going to pay for it?
Amaterasu clamped down on her churning emotions as they wandered dangerously close to panic.
"You're right. Let's find Yugao. I'm going to send out some shadow clones to scout."
They ran on top of the water in the direction the wave had travelled, and Amaterasu noticed that the water was receding already. The top of the trees were showing, and she spotted someone clinging weakly to a branch.
She signalled to Kabuto and they boosted over since they were thinking the same thing - if anyone had run to the trees in a desperate situation, it was likely they were Konoha-nin.
Their hunch was right - they saw Iruka coughing and spluttering, barely conscious as he heaved in big gulps of air in between the waves smothering him. They dragged him up and Amaterasu supported him as Kabuto filled his lungs with healing chakra while expelling any residue water.
"Where are the others? Have you seen the others?" Amaterasu asked urgently to the heaving boy and he gestured below to the trees.
"Izumo and I ran here with most of the others after we saw you jump off. I don- I don't know where they are though. The water just - "
Just as he said that spluttering reached their ears and Ama whirled to see a shinobi she didn't recognise reach the surface - a quick look at his forehead protector showed that they were from Iwa.
Before she could say anything Kabuto appeared behind the struggling teen and knocked him out before seemingly hesitating with the unconscious body in his arms.
"Don't let him drown, Kabuto. There's no need. Just leave him on one of the branches - look, the water's receding pretty quickly now." she said quickly. He gave a nod and the widening of his eyes were the only warning she got before a searing heat splattered her cold arm and neck.
Ama paused, not fully comprehending what had happened for a second as Iruka yelped and scrambled backwards away from her. She slowly turned her gaze to her outstretched arm and found a kunai - her kunai- buried in a glassy-eyed Iwa teen's neck. It seemed he had leapt from a treetop behind them with a kunai but she had dodged unconsciously with a tilt of her head and counterattacked without her even realising.
"Well." she said into the loud silence from the two boys around her, false cheer making it a pitch higher than normal. "At least there's plenty of water to clean the mess."
She let the body sink as she scrubbed her arm and neck, before reaching to grab it just before it left her reach. Amaterasu then lifted it onto the branch she was resting on and closed the teen's eyes.
"Amaterasu. I think I see the others. Let's go." Kabuto intoned.
"Okay." she replied just as tonelessly, tearing her eyes away from the boy she had just killed. She ignored how Iruka flinched when she moved past him.
She arrived as her teammate washed a green hand across an unconscious Hayate, filtering out Yugao's worried chatter about how he had weak lungs to begin with. As he worked on clearing the older genin's breathing, Amaterasu turned to the purple-haired girl.
"Yugao-san. You're a sensor, right?"
Something in her tone must have been unlike her since Yugao turned to address her, and visibly blanched at her appearance. Perhaps she hadn't managed to wash away all the blood?
She had severed both his carotid arteries after all, a sly voice in her head reminded her.
"Are you okay?" the older genin asked sharply.
"Blood's not mine. Answer my question please. You're a sensor, right?" she repeated.
"Do you have our teammate Chen's signature memorised?" was the next rapid fire question, and at this the taller girl's eyes narrowed.
"I know you're Konoha but we are, of course, going to be retrieving our own hostage teammate first before we can help you."
"Kabuto, stop healing." Amaterasu ordered, and the horror that flashed across Yugao's face showed her that her teammate had indeed stopped.
"You - " she started, her pretty features marring in fury at the audacity of the tiny girl in front of her.
"We're doing you a massive favour right now. Your teammate is in a life or death situation. We could have gone to look for our teammate first, but Kabuto mentioned he's seen Hayate around in the respiratory clinic and that he'd be struggling if he'd breathed in any water." Amaterasu lied in a smooth monotone, watching the girl's expression change as she shifted through different emotions. "A recent chest infection that's been exacerbated by foreign intervention? His airways and inflammation pathways must be having a party right now. You think you can go find your third teammate without our help?"
There was a tense pause, and Amaterasu knew the elder girl was now viewing them in a severely different light to before.
"Fine. Fix him first, then we'll talk." she conceded, her voice tight.
"Your word as a Konoha shinobi. That once he's up, you'll help us find Chen first and then you'll find your hostage teammate." Amaterasu pressed, onyx eyes serious.
"Alright alright I give you my word. Happy? Fucking Kami." she hissed, before storming off. Kabuto raised his brow at Ama and she nodded once, an amused tilt of his lips not going unnoticed.
They were doing a healing session on a sturdy branch, but the water had receded almost fully now and they were a ways from the ground. Iruka sloshed down below, having dragged a newly found Izumo to their tree to be seen by Kabuto. Amaterasu hopped down instead, not having much else to do and checked breathing, tilted him to the side and thwacked his chest with a fist and a handy burst of chakra.
Izumo heaved and vomited - thankfully with her careful aiming it projected away from both her and Iruka, and while her method probably hadn't been too kind on his airways, it did work and he was breathing much deeper now (albeit with slightly rueful glares at the small girl).
"The port where we originated from was that way." Iruka said, drawing an impromptu map in the wet dirt. "The proctor said we needed to end up there, but with our hostage teammate and the code word."
Something was niggling in Amaterasu's thoughts and she frowned.
"His wording was weird." she hummed thoughtfully.
Iruka nodded in agreement.
"He said the task was to get the code from the hostage teammate and return to the port without letting it fall into other teams' hands... but then also said if you attempt to present your code without a full team, you fail. Is that what you're referring to?" he asked.
"Yeah. I guess it stops teams from receiving the code from the hostage teammate and leaving them behind to present it at the port, but no one would do that because the probability of them being forced to give up the code by another team would be too high. So why did he mention each of those points separately?" she mused aloud.
"It may seem obvious to us that a team would want to finish a task together, but you need to remember that teamwork is something that is particularly stressed in Konoha more so than other villages." Izumo spoke up in a rasp. "I wouldn't be surprised if some of the teams here ditched the hostage teammate after gaining the code should they be holding them back... even to go as far as disabling them so they physically can't tell the code to other teams."
Amaterasu absorbed that slowly, a chill running down her back at the mere thought.
"I have a feeling," she began slowly, intelligent eyes unfocused. "That the code is not actually verbal. Did you see any of the proctors say anything to the hostages after they were bound and blindfolded? I had my sharingan active just in case to read their lips so I could work out the codes for the other teams but... none of them said anything to any of them."
Iruka blinked at that.
"What about genjutsu? They could have cast a genjutsu so we couldn't see if they're saying anything to them."
Izumo gave him a weird stare at that.
"Did you not hear her? She had her sharingan active. She'd have seen through that like a mum sees through her child's lies."
At two orphans' blank stares, the oldest of the group blanched.
"She would have seen through it very easily, basically." he clarified hastily.
"That sharingan thing seems mighty useful." Iruka said admiringly, making Amaterasu quirk a smile.
"It does come in handy occasionally." she responded dryly.
"If you're done nattering, Hayate's awake and I've located Chen's signature. The sun's past halfway so we're not exactly drowning in free time." came a haughty snarl from above.
Amaterasu didn't even care about her tone - all she cared was that she had located Chen's signature. Her heart clenched - it meant he was alive.
He wasn't dead.
Just wait a little longer, we're coming, she thought desperately.
Tenten, grinning up at him with a single gap in her teeth as she munched on an apple.
Naruto, poking at said hole with an alarmed blue-eyed gaze and high pitched chattering.
Amaterasu, dryly amused on the sidelines, hand firmly planted in Sasuke's fluffy hair as he grouched, annoyed that he hadn't been the first to lose a teeth.
Kabuto subtly peering to see if he needed to cauterise any blood vessels that had broken when the tooth was coming out - the boy didn't like seeming like he overly cared when people got hurt but he was always looking, searching for something he could do to help.
Another howl escaped his mouth.
Another finger broken.
They were on the eighth one now, after realising simple beatings or slashes with kunai weren't working.
And through it all, he hadn't spoken a single word. Just animalistic cries of pain when he needed.
Thoughts of his family were all that got him through.
Tears escaped him, sounds escaped him but other than his body's natural response to pain?
"You know, no one's expecting us to get through the first round." Amaterasu mused quietly.
They were lying equidistant from each other with their heads combined in the middle like a three petalled flower. It was the position they usually took up to rest for a while after a rigorous training session in the afternoons.
"Mhm." Kabuto intoned dismissively.
"Eh." Chen agreed.
Most of their conversations went like this after training. Usually none of them had the energy to talk at this time in the day.
"I'm scared." Amaterasu whispered, and the boys tilted their heads to stare at her in disbelief and curiosity.
"I'm scared one of you are going to get hurt during this exam - the only reason we're taking it so early is because of my own greed." she admitted in a small voice.
Chen knew Ama tended to blame herself for a lot of things that weren't her fault. Even when sparring against Shisui, should she suggest a plan and it fell through, she'd be apologising for the next few weeks for it even though the other two had also agreed with it at the time.
"We wouldn't be participating if we didn't want to." he replied simply. "I think it's quite self centred of you to assume we do everything because of you. The Chūnin Exams have been my dream since I started the Academy."
"I am participating because I want to test my ability. Our ability." Kabuto corrected after a short pause. "Testing our progress at times is the first step to improving - If we get hurt, we heal, we get back up and we do it again... except better."
Chen chuckled at that, because it was quite out of character for his silver haired teammate to say. Post-training delirium made for good conversations.
"Yeah. Some things are worth getting hurt for. Some things we can't gain unless we get hurt. Some things we can't protect without getting hurt. Some things we can't learn unless we get hurt." he continued. "It's just the way life is."
"When did you both get a civilian degree in philosophy." she snarked, earning a shove from one side.
The brown haired boy smiled, eyes closed and in seeming peace as the three Kumo-nin became more agitated.
"Is this really the only way to pass this exam? Torturing a kid?" Darui growled, evidently stressed as he huffed, ruffling his light blond hair. Samui's face was drawn, images of her young brother, a similar age, wavering on the ground where the Konoha-nin lay.
The only one who wasn't phased was the dirty blond medic.
"He's a Konoha-nin. They deserve to be treated like this. The Raikage said to treat enemies like enemies, no matter their shape or form."
"Good advice." an unfamiliar high voice filled the little clearing, making the three tense and immediately reach for their weapons. Why hadn't they sensed them?
A tiny little girl walked slowly through the mist alone towards them, eyes blazing crimson.
"I'll keep your darling Raikage in mind when I burn you."