Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto, The Gamer or any other familiar characters.


Chapter 11 – Gladiator.

The museum looked like a regular building with seemingly nothing of importance. The guards were civilians, and a single man, genin level, stood at the entrance, his eyes judging new visitors.

Such inattention and lack of security could be attributed to the exhibited items having no real value -besides historical- and most of the artifacts being fakes and copies. I Observed most of them the second time I went inside, and the majority had a [Fake] tag beside their names. One exception, thankfully, was the letter I was to steal.

I tried to be as inconspicuous as I could, memorizing everything during that second visit and keeping an eye for shinobi patrols from a tea house across the street for days. From time to time, a chunin patrol prowled over the roofs with no clear schedule. They never roamed the area during the afternoons, though.

Another important thing: there were no cameras. Not a single one. From what I could remember from Naruto's the chunin exams in Konoha, there was a set of cameras around the tower at the center of the Forest of Death, so that technology existed in this world. That calmed most of my worries, but still, I shouldn't use any shinobi skill or jutsu.

The visitors were mostly civilians and I clearly wasn't; taking off your hitai-ate while visiting foreign shinobi villages was frowned upon to say the least. But I wasn't the only non-Kusa genin to enter the museum, one of the Iwa genin that failed the second part of the exams visited the museum too.

The day before the third phase of the exams I prepared myself for the task.

I entered the museum among the afternoon crowd and sauntered around looking at the exhibitions. Nearing closing time, when the civilian guards started ushering people to leave, I neared the small wooden display case that rested over its small table on the far corner of the poorly lit east wing of the building.

When I heard the guards beginning their task and the lonely old woman next to me turned and took a step toward the exit, I sealed the display case whole in my inventory. All of it. It wasn't even secured to the table.

Fortunately, sealing things into my inventory didn't make any sound or smoke, unlike a scroll.

"Does this mean it's closing time?" I caught up to the old woman.

"Oh, yes dear." She smiled at me.

We left the museum together and I headed back to the hotel.

Quest Completed!
When morning is just a few hours away.

Steal the Nidaime Tsuchikage's letter.

Rewards:
-

'Okay, done. No sweat.' I calmed down my breathing on the way to the hotel. Everything went all right, I supposed. I completed the quest without any jutsu or misdirection. I first planned to start a fight with a genjutsu or something or fake a small explosion and steal the letter during the commotion, but that would be too suspicious. Shinobi were meticulous with their investigations. Tomorrow Saturday, the museum will open after mid-morning. I'll be at the arena by then.


That night, the night before the finals, Suguna, Kichiro and I finally sat down to discuss the upcoming fights at a nearby restaurant.

This past two weeks were leisure ones. We didn't train and Haou-sensei left us to our discretion. Kichiro and Suguna spent most of their time together, strolling around the village and sampling every restaurant they encountered. We barely talked and discussed about the upcoming tournament, they wanted some time to cool off after the near-traumatic second phase. Understandable.

I even visited a book shop looking for a poisoner's book. Sure enough, I didn't find a single non-historical one.

But we had to plan ahead. One team from Iwa and one from Ame qualified for the finals. We could face any in any order.

"Iwa first," Suguna began. She was sitting across the table, next to Kichiro. "One was gravely injured after the forest, the other two looked fine. The bulky one might be a taijutsu expert, but none carried a sword or any obvious weapons though."

"There's little else. We have to expect some earth ninjutsu," I added having a sip of tea. Tea in Kusa was damn good, but it shouldn't be steeped for too long or it gets a bitter aftertaste. I bought a full crate -that would last me a year, I hoped- of the strongest I could find. All the floral and honey notes alleged by the local producers were always to be taken with a grain of salt, nevertheless.

"Ame is the wild card. There's almost no recent information from the Land of Rain since the third war, they closed their borders tight. We know they always use their respirators and that they helped with the forest's poison so we can assume they have a good hand with said poisons and we'll have to plan accordingly. I wouldn't want to face one of them and get poisoned. Maybe if we could know in advance what poisons they use we could-"

"Kichi, you're galloping your words again," Suguna chastised him while stealing a bite from his dango.

"Ame shinobi are known to use different toxins yes, but there's no way to know which ones they might use, less prepare for them all," I added. "I have something you could use if things go wrong."

"We should expect low-level earth jutsu from the Iwa genin, but besides you Kichi, we don't have an elemental advantage."

"There isn't much to discuss there. Maybe water jutsu from the Ame genin?" I wondered aloud. We were dealing with chunin-level genin, so maybe a few elemental jutsu.

"Well, what about taijutsu, anything there to discuss?" Kichiro asked.

"Not much. We know the basics of fighting genin from other villages and we were forbidden from spying on other teams..." I answered.

The conversation was mostly meaningless, but I already had a plan regarding my fights. If the Raikage wants a gladiator fight, I'll give him one. I'll bring glory to Kumo.


The next morning, we were escorted to Kusagakure's main arena, two miles away from the village.

"So, sensei. Any words of encouragement or last-minute advice from that high place?"

"No. You are experienced enough, you are adaptable. You'll get promoted." He cut my smirking comment without pause.

'No sense of humor there.'

The walk was a leisure one. Suguna chatted with Kichiro, Haou-sensei was silent, and I lazily looked around.

Suguna ditched her skirt and mesh armor for a pair of burgundy pants, she was also wearing a similar shirt that covered her midriff. The cold and still air and the faint morning fog chilled, and her heavy winter coat might prove more of a hindrance.

Kichiro and I wore the same outfit as always, his sleeveless, dark-gray coat closed in front. A pair of black fingerless gloves were the only new addition to his attire.

My own dark-gray coat was also closed. For the exams though, I carried another kunai pouch on my left leg stacked with kunai and shuriken and two small sealing scrolls. One empty and the other containing a hundred assorted kunai and shuriken intended for the last show. Some poisoned kunai waited in my inventory, and those I could summon from inside my pockets or the pouches.

The grass surrounding the dirt path began to waver. Green gave way to pale tones, yellowish bushes and some scattered russet-leaved trees. The smell of moss and dank grass gradually faded. This part of the country, even so close to the village, was evidently drier than the green grasslands we traversed weeks before.

Soon enough, we approached the venue. A collection of colored tents already dotted the surrounding tan pastures; different food, drink and souvenir stands lured customers in. The permeating aromas were strong enough to taste the spices in your mouth and mask the prevailing smell of dust. A crowd of civilians -and the sporadic shinobi- toured the area, laughing, eating and drinking. A big red booth operated as a gambling kiosk, where a number of shady-looking civilians and shinobi clumped around and yelled their opinion.

Beyond the tents, a tall stone structure rose against the pastures and the snowy mountains in the horizon, an unnerving contrast to the colorful tents. The gray building was about sixty feet tall and two hundred feet wide, broken by little windows ordered in such a fashion it somehow reminded me of medieval castles.

"Have you ever visited this arena?" Kichiro asked sensei as we made our way among the tents.

Haou-sensei shook his head in answer.

Kichiro's hand suddently lashed out and grabbed Suguna's collar. "Nope."

"But Kichi!" Suguna was fighting against the hold. "There's boar meat in the menu there! And dumplings! And I can smell dango somewhere around there! And-"

"No. We had a caloric breakfast and you know your stomach." He turned her around and hugged her by the hips. "After the fights, we can have all the dumplings you want." Suguna huffed, but silently agreed.

I smiled, those two were so fucking cute. It was somewhat unsettling seeing thirteen-year-old kids getting romantic. Sometimes I forget that this world makes kids grow up fast; some girls marry at sixteen by their own choice and no one bats an eye. Still, most kunoichi delay their motherhood until their late twenties.

Love, apparently, was a fleeting thing between shinobi, and most didn't care about tying the knot. It isn't uncommon -as you might expect from a seemingly conservative society- to see same sex couples around. Shinobi never bat an eye, only civilians have something to say.

Sooner than later, we busted through the thickening crowd and were greeted by a straw-hat-wearing Kusa jonin at the stadium's entrance.

"Participants?" she asked. Haou-sensei assented for us. "Take the right door and follow the signs to the competitor's booth."

After climbing seven sets of stone steps, we opened the labeled door to our booth and were greeted by the winter sun shining brightly from the southeast.

The stadium was huge. Not as huge as the Konoha field I remembered from the manga, but impressive nonetheless for a small village.

The arena itself was a circular area of almond-toned, dusty soil a hundred feet in diameter, barely frayed with patches of ocher grass and some dark rock outcroppings. Tall 25-foot-tall stone walls surrounded the arena. The stone seating -beginning on top of the walls and towering another ten feet over- circled half the western perimeter, offering a clear view of the fighting area below. Civilians were already pouring inside filling the empty seating. Some shinobi stood among, keeping an eye on the incoming crowd.

Our contestant's booth was diametrically opposite of the civilian seating, part of a similar albeit smaller elevated structure at the northeastern edge of the arena. The 'booth' was, more precisely, some reserved seats isolated by a three-foot-tall stone partition. I stood perching on the metal railing at the edge, Observing the few people seating in this section

Kusa shinobi, some arguably wealthy civilians and, on the seats at the back end and overseeing both the civilian and the wealthy sections, a small area sheltered by a linen awning extending between wooden pillars stood.

There, in front of some Kusa jonin, the Kusakage sat stern-faced and flaunting his robes. To his left, a low-leveled jonin from Amegakure and to his right, wearing his inscribed eyepatch and peculiar hat, sat Dodai.

'Observe.'

Name: Dodai
Title: Jonin of Kumogakure.
Level: 102
Age: 46
Dodai is a jonin from Kumogakure. He was the Sandaime Raikage's right hand and acts as advisor for the Yondaime and Kumo's ANBU force. A methodical and skilled shinobi, Dodai is regarded as one of the Land of Lightning's key war assets.

Relationship level: Good.

I should have guesses the Raikage wouldn't come to an exam in a small village, but I had the minuscule hope of seeing either Hanzo or Pain. On second thought, Pain killed Hanzo during the third war, right?

"I'll be by Dodai's side. Make us proud." Haou-sensei waved over his shoulders as he nonchalantly turned around and exited the booth.

A few minutes later, two Iwa genin entered.

'Observe.'

Name: Shuzo Satake
Title: Genin of Iwagakure.
Level: 38
Age: 13
Shuzo is a genin from Iwagakure. The middle sibling, he's admired by his younger brother and respected by the oldest. He's considered a genius among his age group and it's his second time taking the exams.

Relationship level: Neutral.

Shuzo - the third Satake sibling whose brothers I stole the flag from during the second part of the exams- was a tallish and lean boy with dark-gray dense and messy hair, tied up in a low ponytail. He wore olive-green pants and steel-toed combat boots, and a loose-fitted gray shirt with mesh armor underneath covering his arms down to the elbow. Interestingly enough, he also wore brown leather shoulder guards. His expression was set between a serene smile and a smug face, something that piqued my curiosity.

Name: Kouki Taga
Title: Genin of Iwagakure.
Level: 33
Age: 12
Kouki is a genin from Iwagakure. Coming from a clan of strong shinobi tradition, his decision to enter Iwagakure's shinobi academy was expected. Living under the shadow of his sisters and other members of the clan, Kouki's life has been a stressful one.

Relationship level: Neutral.

Kouki wore earth-colored pants that ended above the shins and a same colored long-sleeved fitted shirt. On top of all, he wore a crimson red haori. Like his teammate, he wore his hitai ate over his brow. His short and ruffled dark brown hair glistened under the morning sun.

"Good morning." We were cordially saluted by Shuzo.

"Hey," I answered. Suguna only nodded back.

Kichiro, nosy as he was, seemed to have lost his fight against proper decorum.

"Hey, what happened to you guys in the forest? How's your other teammate? He's not competing, right?" he blurted out.

"Eh. He's okay, he's not competing."

"What about the fore-"

"Kichi! Stop pestering other people."

Kichiro mouthed an apologize to his girlfriend and shut up. Shuzo made a dismissing motion with his hands, but stayed silent, looking down at the arena along his teammate, who ignored the scene.

Maybe Kichiro was fishing for information or he was honestly curious.

Five minutes later, the wooden door opened once again and the team of Ame genin entered the booth.

'Observe.'

Name: Kitahachi Tanyi
Title: Genin of Amegakure.
Level: 35
Age: 12
Kitahachi is a genin from Amegakure. Orphaned at young age, his uncle took him in and supported, albeit unwillingly, his entrance to Amegakure's shinobi academy. His tortuous life left him resenting all other shinobi.
Relationship level: Bad.

Kitahachi had the classical smug face and chest-puffed-out attitude expected from his bio. That, combined with his dark eyes, lustrous black hair combed back and prominent nose, gave him an aura of antagonist that bordered on cliché. He was not tall though, shorter than everyone in the booth -except me, of course. His blue t-shirt and gloves, and his black too-short shorts took away something from that image, too. His respirator -technically that was a rebreather I suppose- had one small canister sticking out to the left of his face. Uncomfortable: maybe. Useful: no doubt about it.

Name: Eitoku Saionji
Title: Genin of Amegakure.
Level: 36
Age: 11
Eitoku is a genin from Amegakure. Born from a civilian mother and an unknown shinobi parent, he entered the shinobi academy to escape poverty. His talent with water transformation incited his selection as a chunin candidate.
Relationship level: Neutral.

The second kid looked like the standard Ame shinobi from Naruto's chunin exams. Respirator: check. Bandages around some part of his body: check. Weird jumpsuit: check. Yes, he wore a bleached yellow jumpsuit tied in the front like someone stitched it up, Amegakure's symbol painted in black over his chest. Instead of a hitai ate, bandages held his ruffled copper-red hair and covered his left eye. His respirator had a canister sticking from both sides.

Name: Naoya Shinyama
Title: Genin of Amegakure.
Level: 33
Age: 12
Naoya is a genin from Amegakure. Raised by his older sister after their parents were publicly executed for supporting Hanzo the Salamander, Naoya grew up polishing his shinobi arts in hope of some day run away from the country.
Relationship level: Neutral.

'Huh?' Well, that confirmed it. Pain already controlled Amegakure.

Naoya was also a tallish guy -as tall as Shuzo- and had brown eyes and brown knotted hair parted in the middle. His hands were bandaged and wore black combat boots and a dark-blue coat. A distinctive umbrella was strapped to his back. If I had to guess, that was a senbon-filled weapon. As Eitoku, his black rebreather had two small canisters sticking from either side.

"Ah, here we are. Finally, I'm aching for a fight!" Kitahachi stood looking at us with his hand on his hips.

Whatever ambition to show himself as a big shot evaporated when Shuzo turned back his gaze to the arena and his teammates walked ahead of him. Naoya nodded in our direction, gazing at me for a while before leaning on the railing. Eitoku sat down on an empty seat and crossed his arms.

We were all a little anxious, you could tell, and everyone dealt with it their own way.

One last time the wooden door opened, and in came a Kusa jonin, wearing a leather-colored coat and a straw hat.

'Observe.'

Name: Masakatsu Yukiyama
Title: Jonin of Kusagakure.
Level: 72
Age: 29
Masakatsu is a jonin from Kusagakure. A sensei in Kusagakure's shinobi academy, Masakatsu is regarded as a competent instructor and coach. Recently promoted and married into a wealthy family, he now lives his life's passion: teaching.
Relationship level: Neutral.

"Good, you're all here," he said. "We'll begin shortly, so rules first. One: no fighting outside the arena. Two: a fight stops when I say it stops, either because I clearly see a surrender or a knockout, or I deem it necessary. Three: No harming civilians.

"You'll be divided into two brackets, the winners of each bracket will face each other for the first place. The first bracket will consist of two fights: Kichiro Nagumo against Eitoku Saionji and Shuzo Satake against Naoya Shinyama. The second bracket will be Kioshi Shirasu against Kitahachi Tanyi and Suguna against Kouki Taga. You follow?"

'So, Suguna's in my bracket while Kichiro is in Shuzo's. This will be interesting.'

"I'll call for you as the fights go. Follow the signs to the contestant's entrance to the arena." The proctor waited for any questions before leaving.

My first fight will be against the short Ame genin -the one wearing shorts during winter- and then against Suguna if she wins her fight against the Iwa genin.

Kichiro will have it rough. He's against Ame's highest-leveled genin and, from his description, a talented one. Then he'll have to fight either Shuzo or Naoya; my money would be on Shuzo rather than the Ame genin.

The proctor entered the arena from a rusty door below us. It was finally starting.


"The first fight of this tournament!" the proctor announced from the center of the arena, "Kichiro Nagumo from Kumogakure and Eitoku Saionji from Amegakure. Contestants, please come down to the arena."

The crowd clapped modestly.

Eitoku turned around and nonchalantly walked to the exit door.

"Here." I handed Kichiro a small vial. "It's a potent antidote, just in case."

He raised his left eyebrow with suspicion. I read between the lines.

"It wouldn't have worked, not with a lingering toxin and not without proper respirators. It doesn't make you immune," I answered the implicit question.

"Give'im hell, Kichi." Suguna kissed his cheek.

Kichiro smiled and left the contestants booth. Suguna took a deep breath and turned to look down at the arena. A minute later, both my teammate and the Ame genin joined the proctor at the center.

"Are you ready?" the proctor asked the redheads as they stood facing each other. "Start!"

Kichiro jumped back while the Ame genin simply stepped back.

"So, you're afraid?" Eitoku's voice rasped through his respirator and was followed by a dry laugh.

'He's underestimating him.' I silently chuckled. That was a cliché. A dangerous one.

A blank expression replaced Kichiro's half-smile. He was calculating, assessing his opponent.

Eitoku made the first move. He threw shuriken with each hand. When Kichiro rolled left, the Ame genin lunged at him, kunai in hand.

Kichiro immediately threw his own kunai at his attacker, but Eitoku didn't stop. He sidestepped the projectile and continued his attack. A fraction of a second before the Ame genin's kunai-wielding hand slashed my teammates face, the telltale smoke of a replacement enveloped him.

From the side, Kichiro immediately threw three shuriken after the replacement, only for Eitoku to crouch down and send his own kunai in retaliation.

Kichiro didn't hesitate and used the same tactic that his opponent used, sidestepping the kunai and lunging forward. That was the beginning of a very technical taijutsu bout.

His right fist went for Eitoku's head, followed by a left vertical hook to his jaw. Said genin tilted his head to the side, a leg shot upwards to Kichiro's jaw in return, which he blocked with his right forearm crossed over his face. Eitoku acrobatically backflipped and Kichiro capitalized upon the opportunity to copy a move Suguna loved to use against him. He kicked some dust to his enemy's face while he was still on the air.

Eitoku grimaced and closed his non-bandaged eye as his feet touched the ground. A sharp roundhouse kick sent him barreling to the arena walls. He recovered and turned mid-air, dragging his feet on the ground and stopping a few feet clear from the wall. He opened his teary eye and rolled left; three kunai almost hit him in the legs.

Kichiro didn't follow up his attack and stood there with another kunai in his grip.

"Why did he stop?" Suguna asked. She was leaning over the railing next to me, squinting her eyes and holding her magatama beads.

"You are good," Eitoku's raspy voice began, no doubt making time for his right eye to tear away the dust. "But enough with kunai." He squared his shoulders and tossed his respirator away. He spat blood to the side.

Kichiro was silent, an unreadable expression on his face.

"Then I'll start." Eitoku's hands flashed through four hand seals, finishing in Rat. A water bullet spouted from his mouth in Kichiro's direction, whose eyes widened and rolled right. The Ame genin dashed forward, holding the Rat seal above his mouth.

Kichiro flung his kunai, but another fast water bullet intercepted it and forced him to sidestep left.

Eitoku closed in and another exchange of fists and blades ensued, but Kichiro then made a rookie mistake: he dodged a sweeping low kick by somersaulting above his enemy. I heard Suguna gasp beside me.

Kichiro's feet were still airborne when Eitoku's right foot impacted his torso, sending him barreling to the side of the arena where, ironically, he had sent the other redhead before. He rolled over the ground three times before impacting the stone walls. The Ame genin smirked, lowering his leg.

The dust settled quickly. Kichiro was barely standing with his back against the dented wall and holding his side. Eitoku's bloody smirk extended to a grin as he dashed forward.

Kichiro's seal-less replacement saved him once again from a front kick that dented the stone wall even more. Then I saw it before I heard it: an exploding note detonated, blowing the off-guard Ame genin away from the wall and crashing into the ground, rolling over two times before stopping face down, three feet from Kichiro.

My teammate reacted quickly. A knee over Eitoku's lower back, his left arm held tightly against his upper back and a kunai poised to the neck.

"Winner, Kichiro Nagumo from Kumogakure!" the proctor voiced, and the crowd applauded in approval.

Kichiro let go of his opponent and Eitoku rolled over to the side, coughing. His jumpsuit smoking and his left leg starting to stain his pants red.

"Medics!"

I wasn't surprised. Kichiro cornered himself to lay a trap for a faster opponent, a commendable idea. He played his cards right and from the way he exited the arena -standing proud and looking in Dodai's direction- even his tiredness was faked. I smiled. Becoming chunin meant much for Kichiro and Suguna, and I bet he already earned his promotion.


"Kioshi Shirasu from Kumogakure and Kitahachi Tanyi from Amegakure, come down to the arena."

Kitahachi looked down at me. "This means revenge, squid. I'll scrape the floor with you."

During his teammate's fight, he leaned on the railing looking down at the arena with a smirk, only to be replaced by a scowl at Kichiro's victory, his knuckles white from gripping the metal fencing.

I convincingly trembled under his gaze. He snorted and strutted past me.

Suguna smiled at me, Shuzo and Kouki were looking at me strangely with cocked heads. Naoya ignored us all.

This tournament was set to show your skills and your village's strength, so I would play a little with the kid. 'I'll show him what happens when you underestimate Kumo shinobi.'

I made my way down to the arena, my heart beating a bit faster. Was I nervous? Probably. Even confident enough, one could never push anxiety aside. But it was okay, these exams were the only plausible way to get promoted outside of war, and I needed to get promoted to get more missions and enough clearance to leave the village and begin planning against the Akatsuki. I still had a long way to go to fight them, though.

The morning sun shone down at me as I opened the doors to the arena, warming me enough to repel the coldness. I moved to the proctor's side, Kitahachi stood at the other.

"Combatants ready?"

I took a deep breath and relaxed my scrunched-up back. I nodded, still forcing a tight-lipped smile. Kitahachi snorted, looked down at me with a curled lip.

As the proctor's hand lowered, Kitahachi dashed at me.

His left fist went straight for my face, while his hips began to turn in a hackneyed sign of an imminent spinning kick.

I weaved below his fist, turning sideways while jamming my right elbow into his incoming leg. Immediately, my right fist flew up to his jaw and connected, the blow pushing him airborne.

Hit!
147 DMG.

Kitahachi coiled and turned mid-air, landing on his feet some distance away. His smug face was now an angry red.

Briefly removing his respirator, he spat some blood to the side. I wore an expressionless facade, waiting amusingly for his next move.

His hands went for his leg pouch, as mine did the same. His aiming was decent but mine was better. My shuriken impacted his in mid-air, and I moved left and kept pressuring him with kunai. His own tried to hit me while I evaded and countered. I sensed those kunai coming and could redirect them, sure, but I was saving that for the last match.

Soon, his kunai were depleted, while mine were halfway through. With a snarl, he dashed at me again. I retrieved one kunai in each hand. My veiled fist was the perfect taijutsu style to use blades, and I was glad to put it to a test.

He closed in with a frontal right kick and I weaved left to his exposed side, my right blade sedately going for his torso. His right elbow reacted immediately and intercepted my right forearm, but that, in turn, left his arm exposed to the blade in my left hand.

Hit!
200 DMG.
Bleeding Applied.

My kunai sunk into Kitahachi's right biceps, a grunt came from his clenched teeth. His right fist contracted, and a bluish red gas poured from his glove.

My seal-less replacement wasn't fast enough.

Contact Poison detected!
[Resisted.]

My eyes teared up a bit and I coughed once, but that was all. I sensed my opponent coming from the side. From the corner of my eye I saw him closing in with my own kunai in his hand and a smirk on his lips. I mentally did the same. He thought he got me with that.

Just as he coiled his hand back for a stab, our eyes connected.

'Petrifying Gaze.'

-51 Chakra.

Seal-less genjutsu for the win.

His eyes glazed as his momentum made him stumble forward right into my hook kick. My heel connected to the back of his head and Kitahachi's trajectory turned into a collision course with the arena wall.

Hit!
220 DMG.
Stun applied.

He crashed, still paralyzed, and slumped down, his back against the arena wall. My last four kunai immediately went for his form, two nailing his shorts to the ground, one pinning his shirt to the wall and the last one embedding itself into the stone, a quarter of an inch from his head.

"Winner, Kioshi Shirasu from Kumo."

"W-What?" Kitahachi rasped from the ground. "No, I can still f-"

"He got a killing blow there, kid. You're out."

The Ame genin looked up at me, his eyes wavering and a tired sneer over his face.

'Ah, humiliation by the one he underestimated; the customary way of dealing with the rough guy.' I snorted, turning away. The fight was a joke. Besides the poison, his attacks were easy to counter and easier to read. His shurikenjutsu needs polishing and his speed was pitiful. I was moving slow and pulling my punches quite a bit.

Kitahachi was taken to the infirmary, still dazed from my kick.


"Naoya Shinyama and Shuzo Satake come down to the arena."

I was back at the competitor's booth. The Iwa genin acknowledged me with cordial nod when I returned, while Kichiro and Suguna patted my back.

"Now this is a fight I'm eager to see," I commented.

Naoya silently stood from his seat, sneering. Our eyes connected for a second and I could swear there was a hint of real hatred behind it. Neither Kitahachi nor Eitoku have come back from the infirmary yet.

Shuzo rose more energetically, his own face still set in a so-so expression. He adjusted his shoulder pads and his hitai-ate before leaving the contestant's booth.

"Hm? Why?" Kichiro asked leaning on the railing.

"Shuzo looks strong, and you guys did make it out of the Quiet Forest alive," I answered to Kichiro and the remaining Iwa genin in the booth. "If any, I'm hoping he proves stronger than Kitahachi."

"Well, yeah, but Naoya doesn't look like a pushover neither," Suguna added standing by the railing next to her boyfriend.

"True, true." But even if Shuzo was higher leveled, he still looked like someone trying to prove something with that reserved expression he tried so hard to maintain.

"Contestants ready?" The proctor's voice ringed from the center of the arena, where Shuzo and Naoya stood facing each other.

"I'm going to end this fast!" taunted the Ame genin, clutching his umbrella.

At the proctor's mark, his weapon spun up, launching metal senbon all over the area.

Shuzo already jumped back, but the sheer number of pins raining down on him had him widen his eyes for a fraction of a second. He sped through four hand seals ending in Dog and spewed a line of mud in front of him. Just in time, a six-foot-tall earth wall rose from the ground and blocked the incoming projectiles.

'Nice.'

Shuzo swiftly replaced himself with a big stone that lay next to his attacker, and Naoya, who was still obliviously observing the results of his own attack against the earthen barrier, reacted in the nick of time and blocked the incoming punch.

The stone genin proved to be a decent taijutsu combatant. His form was aggressive, and it didn't lack in finesse. A high knee connected to Naoya's solar plexus, a left-handed jab struck his right temple, and a roundhouse kick forced him to disengage and jump back. Shuzo pressed on and closed in with a kunai in hand, getting some grazes in before Naoya replaced himself away.

The Ame genin was already panting and bleeding from his arms. From a distance, he began pelting kunai at his attacker.

Shuzo circled to the right, expertly blocking the incoming blades with his own. His path led him behind his earth wall, just as Naoya switched to senbon, this time from his left leg pouch.

From the booth, we saw Shuzo's going through hand seals behind the earth wall and burrow underground.

It was five seconds afterwards when Naoya stopped trying to tear down the earth wall with his metal senbon to grasp the bleeding cut on his left forearm. The ground underneath him cracked and an arm sprouted. In an instant, the Ame genin was neck-deep into the ground, wiggling to dig himself out. But that was the end.

With a kunai in hand, Shuzo emerged behind him and poised the blade to his neck.

"Winner, Shuzo Satake from Iwagakure!"

"See, that's a very talented genin there," I said.

"What do you mean?" Suguna raised an eyebrow.

"Creating a wall from mud is pretty advanced. You basically transform your chakra to earth instead of using the earth below your feet which, unless you're standing on a layer of solid rock -and that's difficult to control too- it's almost always flimsy material," I answered, watching the earth wall still standing after Shuzo helped dug the Ame genin out. "You could compress the material underneath, but that takes a lot more chakra control."

"Yes, he's talented with earth ninjutsu and he finished the fight in under three minutes." Kichiro assented. "His reaction time was admirable too." Kichiro's lips were pressed together, his eyes focused on Shuzo as he left the arena. He would have to fight him for a spot at the finals.


"Suguna of Kumogakure and Kouki Taga from Iwagakure, please come down to the arena."

Suguna had a steeled look, betrayed by her hands holding her magatama beads.

"Good luck, Sugi." Kichiro's words appeased her trembling figure.

She nodded, took a deep breath and followed the Iwa genin down to the arena.

"Any bets?" I asked Shuzo as he entered the competitor's booth seconds after his teammate and Suguna left.

"Well, Kouki is fairly good," he answered mechanically. "I don't know about your teammate and that sword of hers might prove problematic."

Both competitors entered the arena and stood at the center. Suguna carried her ninjato strapped at her side, his tanto on her lower back and her magatama collar back around her neck.

The Stone genin opened his crimson haori, from which I could sense kunai inside.

"Combatants ready?"

Both genin nodded, and the proctor's hands dropped.

Kouki's hands flashed through seals -the "Demonic Illusion: Hell Viewing Technique" genjutsu, I recognized- while Suguna unsheathed her ninjato. Her eyes glazed for a fraction of a second before steeling into Kouki's.

She dashed at him. Fast, relentless.

Kouki didn't have time to counter, he immediately began waving around her blade, drawing his own kunai attempting to block her attacks. Suguna was faster. She got some cuts in his side and forearms, while Kouki only nicked her shoulder and her right biceps.

Suguna wasn't using lethal force, she danced around, weaving and blocking, intercepting her opponent's jabs with her blade. Kichiro next to me was smiling, enthralled.

Kouki finally caught a breath when he found the opening to jump back, throwing his kunai to keep Suguna away. His left forearm bled, and his earth-colored shirt was turning crimson as his haori. His hand seals were fast, nevertheless, as he went through six quickly while mid-air.

Suguna's dash stopped, her head darting from left to right. She slashed to her right then turned her back on her opponent with her sword poised to strike, motionless.

'Genjutsu?' I wondered.

Kouki seized the opportunity and rushed up to her with a kunai.

Suguna spun quickly, her blade on her right hand, and her ninjato found him.

Kichiro snorted. We knew that move: Kumo's Reverse Beheading. Useful, fast and difficult to counter. Tricky, to say the least, and more so if you didn't expect it of course.

Contrary to its name, Kouki kept his head but received a deep gash on his chest. He faltered while Suguna finished her spin and poised her blade on his neck.

"Winner, Suguna of Kumo! Medics!"

Kouki stopped blinking and grimaced; his hands went for his torso. Medic rushed in to take him away.

"I guess he should have seen that coming," Shuzo commented while his teammate was carried away. Suguna following behind.

"Well, we have experience with genjutsu." Kichiro smirked.

"Yep. I wonder what was that last one to get her to stop on her tracks after slashing to her side," I said.

"No fucking idea," Shuzo replied.

"You don't know your teammates strength?" Kichiro questioned.

Shuzo just shrugged. "We're only teammates for this exam."

"Yeah, so were we, but we have put a lot of thought into our team dynamics and each other's strengths. We've gone from complete strangers to friends in months because we have put our efforts in getting to know each other. What if you had a hard fight during the second stage of the exams? If you don't know the-" Kichiro was back into nosy mode and Shuzo took a step back, blinking.

The proctor's voice boomed once again. "Kichiro Nagumo from Kumogakure and Shuzo Satake from Iwagakure, please come down to the arena."

Shuzo ran to the exit, Kichiro, still with his inquisitive look and still talking, followed him.

When both genin entered the arena, Suguna entered the contestant's booth. She looked around and hurried to the handrail.

"Aw, I wanted to wish him good luck," she said while taking her magatama beads from his neck.

"Say, what was that last genjutsu?" I asked her.

"Oh, an illusion, like clones. He divided in ten different selves and they all scrambled away and circled me. One even attacked me. I assumed they were clones when my blade went through. I heard him coming from behind though."

"Nifty little concept." They resembled clones, so she was looking for clones. Misdirection. 'Note to self: include something like that into my repertoire... and double check assumptions when my kekkei genkai can't help me.' Regardless, she heard him coming, which meant the illusion was solely visual.

"Combatants ready?" the proctor's voice interrupted my thoughts. Suguna was already grabbing the railing with a white-knuckled grip as his arm dropped.

Neither moved, both genin were assessing their opponent judiciously.

Seconds passed and Shuzo moved forward.

His right fist was parried by Kichiro's left forearm and my teammate tried a jab to the face. Shuzo blocked with his left and went for a side kick to the rib cage. Kichiro backflipped, his right leg extending to hit his opponent's jaw while his hands dropped to the ground behind for a handspring. Shuzo deftly moved his head to the right and, as he drew back his right fist again, a smoke bomb detonated from the ground where my teammate's hands were poised.

Kichiro jumped away from his handstand as smoke enveloped the area. He landed on his feet as a tale-telling hiss gave way to a small ball of fire within the smoke cloud. Kichiro didn't wait for the results, he dove right as a hand popped from underground. He threw four kunai as Shuzo quickly emerged from underground, not a singe on him.

The Iwa genin expertly blocked the flying blades and hurried to engage in taijutsu. Kichiro's right cross hit Shuzo in the face, who winced and retaliated with a blow to Kichiro's gut and a side kick.

Again, Kichiro jumped back away from the kick, this time taking kunai from his gray jacket. He threw them in a wide arc. I sensed the metal wires between the kunai and, somehow, Shuzo must have noticed them too. He replaced himself with some rubble from the previous explosion.

Kichiro's face morphed to a scowl while Shuzo's blank expression became serious. Both combatants looked at each other from thirty feet away, studying each other one more time.

Yet again, Shuzo broke the inaction. He lunged faster than before, cocking his right fist and impacting Kichiro's arms he hastily raised to defend his face. My teammate was flung back nevertheless, his hands going through pained hand seals as he coiled himself to land on his feet.

Shuzo was approaching him, when a surge of electricity jumped from my teammate's hands to the Iwa genin.

I recognized that jutsu immediately. Electromagnetic Murder they called it and Kichiro's was praiseworthy. He frequently used it in all-in spars with Suguna or me, and it was fast.

Shuzo got hit, though he didn't falter. Kichiro's eyes widened as the Iwa genin roared through the paralyzing electricity and took a swing at my teammate's face. I saw how Kichiro at least retracted his head backwards to mitigate the impact, but he was thrown back once again. He crashed and rolled uncontrollably over the ground four times before getting a grip on himself and digging his feet to the ground.

He lifted his bruised face, his right hand taking a red-hilted kunai from de back of his belt, his swollen eye looking frantically for his opponent through the dust cloud his crash created.

But it was too late. Shuzo already shook the numbness away -if he felt any at all- and finalized his own set of hand seals while racing forward through the dust cloud. That I recognized one more time, the Hell Viewing Technique.

It only took a fraction of a second for Kichiro's eyes to glaze over, and another for his eyes to steel again. That was all his enemy needed; the edge of a kunai was poised against his neck from behind.

Kichiro's shoulders relaxed. "I give," he breathed out with a chuckle.


Suguna's grip on the railing loosened, blood returning to her knuckles as Kichiro headed to the Medic nin who just entered the arena.

"That was a good fight," I noted. Kichiro gave a perfect fight, but Shuzo saw through his ruses.

"It was. I hope he's okay..." Suguna breathed out. "Now," -she closed her eyes and rolled her right shoulder- "it's time." Her eyes opened, an unreadable expression on her face. She moved for the exit.

For the first time since I've met her, not a drop of fear or anxiety sat over her shoulders. I silently followed her to the arena.

"Combatants ready?"

"Wait," Suguna interrupted the proctor, looking at me directly.

I frowned, wondering what was her plan.

Her left hand went for the pouch on her leg, procuring her small sealing scroll and unfurling it on the ground at her feet. She unstrapped the pouch from her leg and tossed it over the opened scroll. "I'm fighting you today not as your enemy," she unsheathed her ninjato, tossing it over the opened scroll and repeating with the tanto on her back, "not as another soldier," she continued, unstrapping her vambraces, "and not as a Kumo shinobi," Her hands went to back of her head, untying her hitai ate and holding it in front of her. "But as your friend. Do you understand, Kioshi?"

I shook my head in mild astonishment. 'Clever girl.' She made herself undetectable, robbed me of my main advantage and forced me to oblige her request else risk looking dishonorable in front of the crowd. All without disgracing our names as shinobi of Kumogakure.

I ceremoniously untied my hitai ate and my kunai pouches and sealed them in one of my scrolls. We handed the scrolls to the proctor -who sported a reminiscent grin on his face- and moved back to our positions. "Well then, are you ready?" he asked.

I stood ten feet from of my teammate, my right fist held in front of me next to my left hip and my elbow slightly forward. My left hand resting below my right cheek, opened, palm facing right. My left foot forward, knees slightly bent and my weight on the balls of my feet.

I regarded Suguna's posture. Stiff back slightly bent forward, feet apart and her arms in front. Her fists were relaxed, her eyes fixed on me. Her specialty was the sword not her taijutsu, and you could tell, but she knew she didn't have a chance against me with a sword.

We both nodded.

"Start."

Suguna leaped at me. I smirked.

The three of us agreed not to pull any punches if we had to fight each other, though keeping damage to a minimum. First and foremost, we had a lot to show Dodai. Even if this weren't a spar -where we rarely hit each other and kept everything to taps mostly- I realized from my last match this could end too fast if I used all my strength.

Her hips rotated and I raised my arm to block the incoming roundhouse kick. She was using her height against me.

Leaning back to avoid her follow-up knee, I moved right and threw my fist to her exposed abdomen. She blocked with her left elbow, her right going for my left temple. I caught the incoming fist and threw a right swing to her face.

Hit!
70 DMG.

My fist connected, and she followed the imparted momentum with a strong spinning kick I likewise timely blocked. I was pushed back a foot, dissipating the force through my body to the ground.

She was coming in with deep punches, projecting them inches inside my body and defenses while I went, mostly, for quick jabs. I understood her idea. We agreed on it, she knew I could take it and that I had the advantage in close quarter combat. She knew the Veiled Fist was a difficult style to fight and counter, and I was stronger and faster. She was going all-in and with metal out of the equation, she believed she had a chance.

I didn't wait for her to come back at me, I went into the offensive. I stepped inside her defenses while she recovered from her spin, her eyes widening. A jab with my right fist to her face made her tilt her head back, her arms reacted, raising to her face. My ensuing body punch aimed three inches into her side, right into her liver -but still not fully powered- was met with a hissing sound.

Hit!
110 DMG.

Suguna contracted her abs and bit through the pain.

My eyes focused on her upper body, something I learned the hard way when fighting taller opponents like Yugito. I read her follow-up attack and raised my body to meet her dropping elbow halfway through. That took away most of the potential impact from the blow, otherwise it would have undoubtedly broken my left clavicle.

-10 HP!

Suguna noticed my right uppercut going for her jaw, but not my left foot I positioned behind his right. She tried to take a step back, only to misstep and fall backwards to the ground. A muffled puff of smoke signaled a replacement as my right fist impacted the ground where her head used to be.

My eyes darted around the area looking for her or her name window. Without metal on her body, I couldn't sense her. 'So that's why she was wearing pants and not her mesh shorts and skirt today,' I realized.

In a second, I spotted her; or rather, a fireball coming at me. Suguna's fireballs were fast, though low-powered. She used them mostly for misdirection. I dodged left.

She dashed from behind the fireball, her right fist cocked. I tilted my head to the side and raised my upper arm to block a spinning right kick to my face. Because of the height difference all kicks were aimed at my head, something I also got used to months ago.

I winced. The kick hurt; Suguna was strong and she put a lot of momentum behind that. My feet dragged on the ground, and I jumped back.

-50 HP!

She rushed at me again, this time with left and right jab combinations. I weaved around them and began my own attacks, this time putting more power behind them but still without concealing them.

My kicks were aimed at her torso and her side, and she blocked them all, wincing with each impact. She tried an upper knee to my jaw, and I sidestepped to the right. Her backhanded punch collided with my raised left arm.

Her taijutsu was easy to read, but the smoke bomb blasting from inside her fist wasn't. Should have expected that, though. Kichiro did something similar during his fight with Shuzo.

I jumped back from the smoke, flashing through hand seals.

Tiger, Ox, Dog, Rabbit, Snake: 'Wind Release: Great Breakthrough.'

-120 Chakra.

I showed off and powered the jutsu quite a bit. The smoke was blown away, as was the fireball Suguna sent into the cloud from the other side. Again, her fire techniques were fast, but not particularly powerful; a high-powered wind jutsu, regardless of the nature disadvantage, was enough to blow the medium-sized fireball away instead of empowering it.

The wind blew chunks of rock, dirt and dust in an angular cone, almost all the way to the walls.

Hit!
140 DMG.

Suguna got hit by the jutsu, but from the damage notification she dodged the worst of it.

To the left I immediately noticed two silhouettes and their name windows amid the settling dust, away from the most destructive path of my jutsu. A clone forefront, and Suguna way behind.

Suguna [Clone]

Suguna
[Very Good]

Restraining myself from reflexively summon kunai from my inventory, I ran. Quickly grabbing a head-sized stone torn by my jutsu, I barreled through the clone and the clearing dust, and then hurled the rock fragment in her direction.

Through the dust, I saw her ducking left, away from the projectile's path and interrupting her hand seals. Capitalizing upon her distraction, I created a simple clone while I ran and replaced myself with the still-flying rock.

-13 Chakra.

-13 Chakra.

I pivoted mid-air after the kawarimi, landing behind Suguna as she jumped back to her feet, my clone still dashing at her. My knees buckled offsetting my momentum, and I sprang back, rotating my hips for a flying kick as my clone closed in from the front.

Suguna seemed to notice the ruse. She ignored the clone and turned around to block my kick with both hands. The impact pushed her to the side and I leaped at her again. A roundhouse kick, a follow-up high knee, a dropping elbow, a left-right-left jab feint sequence; non-telegraphed, low-powered attacks she couldn't block. I was overwhelming her, chipping away her remaining strength.

A sweeping kick after a concealed staggering jab to the face forced her to jump back. Unable to avoid my follow-up rising kick, she heedlessly flung her left arm to block. I heard a popping sound from her shoulder and a short cry from her mouth.

Hit!
221 DMG.
Left arm disabled.

Suguna dropped down to one knee, her gaze fixed on mine. I moved in and seeing the signs of a retaliatory haymaker with her working arm, I stepped in her defense to counter with a knee.

That was a mistake. I didn't notice the jagged stone in her hand until it was too late, and my left forearm raised ill-prepared for the impact. In hindsight, I should have dodged that.

-80 HP!

It hurt, but once again I found myself delighted by the resilience of the shinobi body. Regardless, I followed the movement and jumped right.

Suguna stood again, breathing harshly and with blood dripping down from her clenched teeth. Her left arm was tucked to the side of his torso, unmoving.

I shook my left wrist and mentally smiled. She was a fierce shinobi, a proud kunoichi of Kumogakure. But she was spent while I was barely tired.

I lunged forward one last time. She took a step back, cocking her functional fist and tried another wild haymaker. I lurched up, trapping the coming fist under my left arm and jumped high, quickly twisting my hip clockwise as my left knee soared over her head and then lash it back against her neck.

We were taught time and time again during training one of the golden rules of shinobi combat: never grapple bladed opponents, even if they look unarmed. Suguna wasn't armed.

My abrupt twisting and pulling and my own weight made Suguna immediately slant forward over me. In an instant, when my back almost touched the ground and with her right arm between my legs and her wrist held tightly, I pulled.

She uncontrollably rolled over me to her back. I arched.

"Stop!" The proctor read Suguna's feet tapping for surrender and his voice boomed. "Winner by submission, Kioshi Shirasu from Kumogakure!"

The crowd roared. Whistling, cheers and applauds reverberated against the arena walls.

I let go of the armbar and rolled back to my feet. Suguna, her left arm still held close to her body, breathed laboriously looking at the clouds. I offered her my hand, which she took.

"Congratulations," she panted as I hoisted her up. She leaned on me and spat blood to the side.

I smiled at her. "Likewise."

The medics were rushing in. A dislocated shoulder and general bruising, nothing they couldn't manage.


"You need some time kid?" the proctor asked me with a grin as he handed me my scroll back and the medics helped Suguna away.

I realized I was still standing in the arena. "Nah, what the hell. I'm good to go." My HP was already regenerating, and my chakra was barely spent. I unsealed my pouches and my hitai ate and began to strap everything back on.

The proctor chuckled. "Sure thing, kid." He turned to the competitor's booth and voiced one last time. "The final fight: Shuzo Satake from Iwagakure versus Kioshi Shirasu from Kumogakure! Competitors, come down to the arena." The crowd applauded and cheered in high spirit.

Shuzo entered the arena and stood next to the proctor, blank faced. We both stared at each other. He seriously -but cordially- nodded at me and I replied with the same. We didn't say a word, there was no need to. I knew he was busy planning and I was doing the same.

Shuzo already proved to be fast, ingenious and proficient with earth ninjutsu and shurikenjutsu. I planned to test his bukijutsu first and save the magnet release for an extravagant, over-the-top grand finale. Just as the crowd fancied.

"Combatants ready? Start!"

Neither moved. I could feel the tension building up on his expression. But I was fairly calmed. For me, this was just a spar. I reminded myself to measure my strength; I didn't want to end this fight with only a couple of hits like my first one. Though I wouldn't underestimate Shuzo either.

'Let's start.'

I lunged and took the offensive. My right upper hook to his face was diverted, my spinning kick was blocked, and I weaved around his counters. He stepped back with every attack, blocking or dodging each hit expertly, so I kicked it up a notch.

A left feint opened his defense for my follow up low-powered roundhouse kick to his liver.

Hit!
170 DMG.

It connected, he grunted.

Yugito never fell for those feints, nor Haou-sensei; the differences between jonin and chunin or genin were astounding.

Shuzo retaliated with a right haymaker. The height difference gave me an advantage, and I dropped down for a sweep. He jumped back, and I sprung back at him. Unremitting shallow jabs pushed him back as he tried to weave around them, only for my concealed follow-up blows to connect to his upper body.

Hit!
70 DMG.

Hit!
70 DMG.

The veiled fist was difficult to telegraph and he was noticing that. He tried to go for his kunai pouch, but I struck his wrists at every attempt. He might be faster than Suguna but not faster than me, and he was being pushed back by my incessant blows.

Hit!
110 DMG.

After a hard blow connected to his right ribs, he wheezed and expertly took a step back, his right hand going for the back of his belt. Shuzo was taller and had a reach advantage; I couldn't stop him from taking a smoke bomb, though I wasn't going to let him use it.

Diverting his left jab as he dropped the smoke bomb between us, I stepped in and nonchalantly kicked the paper contraption away from us. He tried another short jab -which opened his defense- and I jumped up, my knee going for his jaw. He expertly disengaged and leaped far back. By then, we were nearing the arena walls.

I promptly reacted and in one continuous movement I flung two kunai at him fast as the smoke bomb burst six feet away.

Shuzo blurred through hand seals and mud gushed from his mouth. A hasty earth wall erected in front of him, flimsy, but stable enough to stop my not-magnet-release-powered kunai.

I was enjoying myself, Shuzo's taijutsu was almost flawless. Every defensive dodge, block and parry was instinctual, measured and fast, but still too raw and naive. As Suguna, he favored his right hand; my left forearm bruised a bit. He was definitely faster than her, though not as strong.

I sensed Shuzo's metal signature going underground. Ignoring his wall, I dropped an exploding note and jumped away as he surfaced. I expected him to go for the Double Decapitation Jutsu, but he emerged some feet away. The exploding tag nevertheless detonated, fire and dust engulfed a small area. Shuzo covered his eyes and jumped back.

'He's moving away from the wall,' I concluded. More kunai flew from my hand to his signature behind the dust cloud. He reacted, and two blades intercepted mine. 'Now that was surprising.'

He dashed at me through the dust cloud, kunai in hands. I did the same.

My first thrust was straight to his chest. He skillfully redirected the blade with his, both kunai struggling for dominance while his own right weapon went for my head. My left forearm swiftly blocked his right forearm, stopping the blade a few inches from my temple. Immediately, I let go of the struggling kunai in my right hand and lashed up for a throat punch.

He had no alternative but to lean back, going for a handspring and an upper kick to my chin. Weaving my head right, I threw the kunai in my left hand to his twisting body. He was attentive, and in a graceful display, his own left hand lashed out and parried the blade, springing back to his feet with just his right hand as ground support. I wasn't going to let him out of range.

I closed in as he finished his somersault with new kunai in each hand and went for a sweep with my right kunai. He tilted his head back, his own left kunai drawing an arc from below. I didn't block, I leaned right, away from its path. My left kunai jabbed to the right side of his chest and his hastened defense wasn't fast enough. My blade shallowly cut his impromptu right forearm.

Hit!
40 DMG.

In bladed fights, he who had the longer reach had the advantage. From my training with Yugito, I was quick enough to fight with that disadvantage and still defend myself. But I had to be cautious and precise.

Another kunai bout happened. Then another and then another.

I had a small cut on the top of my shoulder and another on my left biceps. Shuzo had multiple slashes on his arms and a deep one on his side. That was a surprise, as I used one of the kunai I coated with my intermediate toxin, but...

Resisted!

From which I could only conclude he had some sort of experience with poisons.

I was a little winded, a quarter of my SP points were gone. Shuzo, in contrast, was sweating and bleeding.

He took a deep breath before dashing back at me. He threw his kunai, and I intercepted them with my own.

A taijutsu exchange ensued. An erred step-back from Shuzo gave me the opening for a strong high kick that sent him away rolling over the ground.

Hit!
200 DMG.

I sensed him again going underground behind the raised dust, and I still could see a silhouette laying in the ground. His metal signature reappeared behind the mud wall he erected at the beginning; what was left among the dust was a clone, probably rigged with a trap.

Shuzo Satake [Mud Clone]

Noticing the amount of chakra he was throwing around with those advanced jutsu, I responded the same.

Tiger, Ox, Dog, Rabbit, Snake: 'Wind Release: Great Breakthrough.'

-180 Chakra.

I overcharged the jutsu all hell broke loose. The cone of wind razed the ground, the rocks and his earthen wall, tearing a shallow trench of destruction all the way to the arena wall. I even had to channel chakra to my feet to avoid getting propelled back.

Among the dirt storm and the howl of the sweeping winds, I heard the excited roar of the crowd.

Shuzo once again escaped underground just when his wall broke down. I sensed him popping back up again twenty feet to my left, far from the dust.

I immediately turned his way, another set of kunai in hands.

His frozen-open eyes turned into a glare and his nostrils flared, his eyebrows knitted together. He dashed at me and I took a step back, getting into a defensive position.

I could see it in his eyes, over his pale face and tight lips: the desperation turning into anger and creeping under his skin. I knew that feeling. As salt to a wound, it stung. He realized he was going to lose, and he loathed that thought.

His kunai thrust to my head, fast and decisively.

I jumped, backflipping twice. He went for a killing blow, he regarded me as a killing factor. I got rid the kid gloves and began my own onslaught.

Dropping my kunai to the ground, I launched myself to his incoming form. I weaved between each stab, riposte and slash, sensing the position of every metal signature on his body; his hitai ate, the kunai in his pouch and hands, his mesh armor, the metal buckle of his belt, his steel-toed boots, the metal frame of his shoulder pads. Each time I responded with a simple but well-timed blow to his body. His ribs cracked more than once, his mouth bled, his thighs and shins bruised, his forearms went purple.

After what felt like an hour, he replaced himself with rubble from the trench of my wind jutsu. He was holding his left side, his right arm still in a defense pose. His breathing was laborious, his eyes still frozen onto me. Shuzo was a tough kid to have come out of that beating still standing.

The crowd was cheering and applauding. I ignored most of that.

Shuzo took a deep breath as we stared at each other sixty feet apart. He unfurled a scroll and in a single motion unsealed a mass of kunai and shuriken that dropped at his feet. I smirked as he began pelting them to me at outrageous speeds for a genin. I still had something to show, and he gave me the perfect cue to start.

I stood motionless, silently diverting every weapon to my sides with my magnet release. Shuzo's scowl deepened, thirty-four shuriken and twenty-seven kunai lay buried to the handles around me.

He procured another scroll and two fuma shuriken appeared in his hands with a poof of smoke. They came flying at me in an arc. I could sense the wires tied to those and the kunai in the ground, going all the way to Shuzo's hands. His last surprise.

I stood unmoving, serene, and extended both my arms. Shuzo's eyes widened when the fuma shuriken stopped dead against my palms. The crowd gasped when the buried kunai and shuriken rose from the ground and began circling above my head, the wires snapping under my command.

Shuzo quickly went for another scroll, but this time I acted, hurling each and every kunai around me in succession, empowered by my kekkei genkai.

He proved to be smarter than I gave him credit before. He moved away from the remaining weapons at his feet and didn't block any of the incoming missiles. He dodged and weaved around them in a show of skill that even Suguna would be hard pressed to display at this level, not with those injuries. He recognized my kekkei genkai -or better said, Kumo's version- and assumed my weapons were magnetized.

Nevertheless, quickly the last of his strength and speed seemed to be fading. He replaced himself again and a glob of mud gushed from his mouth between breaths. A flimsy earthen wall erected, and the last shuriken impacted against it, some piercing through, others just cracking it.

Hit!
117 DMG.

Hit!
117 DMG.
Right arm disabled.

Shuzo jumped over his barrier, furious, and dashed at me with a snarl. His right arm now dangled limp to his side, a shuriken sticking out of his biceps and another from his shoulder.

I could use the fuma shuriken still floating at my sides, or the weapons lying around the field, or any metal he wore or even the shuriken embedded in his arm. Instead, I opted for my own creation.

Ram, Rat: 'Shellshock.'

-28 Chakra.

He staggered, his eyes quivered and his working arm trembled. He slumped unceremoniously to the ground twenty feet from me. In a final show of my talents, I stirred the fuma shuriken and all other weapons lying around the arena in unison into the air, and with utter concentration -and gusto- I sent them all to his twitching body.

The crowd gasped as the blades dug into the ground around him, forming a perfect circle. The fuma shuriken buried themselves at each side of his head.

And the crowd was silent, until a voice yelled somewhere from the spectator seating. "Hell yeah!"

The proctor shunshined from wherever to Shuzo's side as I walked there. Shuzo was breathing -albeit fitfully- and stirred. I removed the fuma shuriken at his side and he rolled over, coughing blood and dust.

"You bastard," he said once he noticed me there, his eyes half closed and his expression once again neutral, if not for the involuntary wincing.

"Winner by knockout, Kioshi Shirasu from Kumogakure!" the proctor voiced, and the crowd once again rumbled between claps. "Medics!"

I smiled. My body ached in mild discomfort. My chakra sat at 89 percent, my SP points were just above halfway gone and my HP was almost full, it only dropped because of some shallow cuts and bruises. That was an interesting fight. Nothing close to fighting Yugito, but still, interesting.

Gazing at the yelling crowd, I smiled and waved, and exited the arena feeling proud of myself.


Suguna was all right. The medics put her shoulder back and healed any ripped ligaments. After saying sorry and once again being dismissed by her, we were soberly congratulated by Haou-sensei. I completed my mission, won the exams and showed the world that Kumo's magnet release was once again let lose over the shinobi world.

Why wasn't the quest updated yet? Did I need to report back to the Raikage first?

Maybe.

We departed Kusa that same afternoon after a late lunch. The way back to Kumo was hassle-free, no problems and no squabbles. We did stop for a night at Yugakure, much to Suguna's delight. The hot waters calmed our muscles and bones.

Kichiro and I talked for quite a bit, about our plans for the future after the almost-certain promotion we three earned -according to him- and about what would we expect from our new ranks. Chunin were supposed to lead genin and other chunin, and take B and A-rank missions. But I didn't care much. I was subjected to the Raikage's command and decisions regarding my future in the shinobi force. My own plans and objectives still required me to grow quite a bit more.

The deep snow covering the Land of Frost gave way to a receding -but still quite thick- white mantle between the scattered pine trees that marked the southwestern borders of the Land of Lightning. We spent the night at the foot of the southern mountain range and crossed the White Water pass the following morning. The semi-deserted valleys surrounding the central mountain range opened below us, the sea of clouds on top covering the mountain tops where Kumogakure was.

We climbed the stairs, crossed the cloud line and left the snow behind. The gates of Kumogakure opened to us. I arrived home.

"I'll inform the Raikage of our arrival. Dodai should arrive in a couple of days, then you'll be called to his office too. Now go and have a shower," Haou-sensei said.

I said goodbye to my teammates and headed home. I really needed that shower.


"I hope you didn't tell anyone about this," the old man said.

"And nobody saw. Why was this so important?"

We were standing in his living room that afternoon. Old man Yataro was looking for a book between his collection on the wall. The letter he asked me to steal sat over the table.

I unsealed the whole desk inside one of the dungeons just in case it was rigged. But nothing. Not a trap, not a bomb, not an alarm. Nothing.

"My reasons are my own," he answered.

"Don't you think I deserve to know why you wanted an old and forgotten letter from a dead Kage of another village? What for?"

"I told you kid. I'm not telling you."

"Hey, I risked a lot for it, why can't-"

He threw a greenish book at me, one about the innovations of woodworking during the period between the warring states and the foundations of the shinobi villages. I dodged it, wide-eyed.

"Hey! Why -"

"You are going to risk a lot more during your career kid, and a lot of other people too."

"Hey c'mon, why can't you te-"

Another book flew to my head. This time a brown, heavy tome about the ancestral origins of sea produce and related cooking techniques.

"Use your brain kid. Think. Stop taking things for granted only because you've proven strong in our line of work. You've got a lot of work to do yet, Kioshi. You're strong, but this is a terrible, cruel world. You have to understand it, it'll take eve-"

"Are you trying to lecture me, old man? I know that. I lived that. I'm proud of what I have achieved, but it's hardly enough. Not now, there's too much to do."

Another book was thrown at me. I tilted my head, didn't even bother reading the name.

"Are you really trying to save the world? You think you can handle it?" He turned his head to me, his cane tapped hard against the wooden floor. "Show it to me then! Show me your resolve!"

"No!" I answered getting angry. "I'm not trying to save the world. These... world" -I corrected myself- "is beyond saving. It suffers from a disease called humanity. Independent of how beautiful the world might be old man, we are doomed to suffering. It's the human condition, being born full of desire and starved for understanding; and only through struggle we rise. Hatred, oppression, conflict... those are part of who we are, there's no changing that. There's no solution, no pill, no hidden jutsu... And you know that."

Old man Yataro eyed me for a second, his eyes downcast. "Then what do you want?"

"Heh, I've never been able to answer that particular question. Now? I'm going through the motions. I want to survive, to protect, to stop what's bound to begin. Tomorrow? Who knows? I'll figure that out along the way. Maybe settle down, study, teach... help the younger generations so Tadashi and Kazuya's fate won't repeat itself, so kids like Yugito won't have to grow with such pain, so alone. It'll be my grain of salt." I felt my eyes water, but a smile found a way. "I really thought this world was too fucked up then, you know. Yugito might be right in some way, but I've found some happiness in between. There's some beauty in human life, regardless of our imperfections. I'll keep finding it, it's the only way to endure the human condition."

My past life, the one I used to call the real world, was more like a distant dream now. I was more here than there now, and whatever remnants of that old me still roaming around my mind were slowly fading away. I should try and make new memories, good memories.

The old man was looking at me with an empty stare and a sad smile, his eyes turned to the stolen letter over his table. "I can't tell you," he said.

My eyes widened.

"You... you can't tell me? A secret?"

He nodded. "You'll figure it out eventually and you'll understand why I can't say anything about it. I personally don't care if you do."

'How can I figure it out?' I wondered. 'Or should I?'

It suddenly hit me. I tend to forget about the gaming mechanics when I'm not training or fighting, so I often just Observe new people and things once, ignoring the skill's leveling. 'I'm an idiot.'

'Observe.'

Name: Yataro Sada.
Level: 89
Age: 75
Yataro is a retired jonin from Kumogakure. During the first war, Yataro defected to the Land of Lightning and sought refuge in Kumogakure. After probation and despite his injuries, he became a centerpiece of Kumogakure's Intelligence Agency.
Relationship level: Very Good.

'What the fuck?' The old man wasn't originally from Kumo, he defected from... somewhere during the first war. 'Didn't he say he got injured during the second war.'

"It looks like you figured it out," the old man said. "It's been too long, Kioshi. I'm old and tired, but there's still so much I want to do before I die. I lost my father and my brother during the first war, and my ability to mold chakra during the second. There's little else for me here in this world, but there are still some things to do. I-"

His voice broke; his lack expression, reddening eyes and downturned head said more than his words could.

"It's ok, gramps," I said. "I'll get us some of that strong tea I brough from Kusa and we can talk about whatever, okay? Take you scarf, it's still cold outside."


I ran into Darui at the art supply store later that day. I was absentmindedly roaming around the aisles, looking for some new brushes, more oil-based paint and something to remove said paint from the floor.

"Hey kid, funny running into you here!" Darui greeted me.

'Yeah, at an art supply store close to my house in the poor district of Kumo. Funny is not the word I'd use.' Besides, I sensed his metal signature following me blocks away. He looked conflicted with my presence, but to be honest, my mind was in other places to bother myself with him.

"Everything okay?" I asked. He's voice lacked his usual bored, lazy undertone.

"Yeah, hey, congratulations by the way. I heard you won the exams."

"Yes, thank you."

Darui coughed nervously, his hand behind his neck and darting glances around us. "Say, have you seen Yugito?"

"Not today I haven't," I answered blinking. "Is something the matter?"

"Is Yugito single?" he babbled. "I mean... you spend time with her outside of work, right?"

I raised one eyebrow and tilted my head. "I don't think she's seeing anybody."

"Great! Yeah, so, thanks kid!" He awkwardly patted me in the back and left the store in a hurry, not looking back.

I took a deep breath. 'Wait, what was I buying again?'

. . . . . - - - . - . . - . - - - . - - . . .

"What?!" Yugito's voice boomed around the Raikage's office. She and Haou Kogure -the jonin sensei- stood in front of A-sama's desk, "You're giving him a gray vest?"

This wasn't another dull meeting, it seemed. Word about the Shirasu kid winning the exams by landslide spread fast and they were now deciding his fate. 'Strange kid, that one. Easy to find, though.'

"It's decided." Dodai's voice was calmed and serious, as always.

Now that he thought about it, he has never seen Dodai angry or exalted. Worried, sure, but never angry, only serious. The aging lines over his face always added to the effect.

"Care to enlighten us?" Haou's voice got ahead of what would probably have been a snarky comment from B.

Darui didn't really care that A-sama's brother frequented his office so much. It was an effective way of keeping him informed about the day-to-day news of the village, else he might have become a hermit a long time ago. He was mostly ignored, however, and only A-sama could stop his rapping.

"You saw the fights," Dodai answered.

"I didn't!" Yugito yelled again.

"You can read the report's Haou filled: he pulled his team out of the second phase by himself and won every match. But that's not it. Not remotely." Dodai leaned back against the windowpane behind the Raikage's desk. These types of meetings were always a little candid, mainly because the jonin always argued about promotions with the officials. "He dominated each fight and came out virtually unscathed. He showed extreme proficiency in close-quarter combat and shurikenjutsu. His wind manipulation is flawless and destructive, and from your own reports, he didn't use shape manipulation whatsoever. His magnet release is superbly developed, even the Kusakage was surprised."

Darui noted Yugito's gaze fixed on the floor.

"When he joined my team, he was already a heavy hitter," Haou said standing next to Yugito. "Even taking away his kekkei genkai and his blades, he used to go against Kichiro and Suguna at the same time and he would come out on top every time. He might be missing combat experience, still failing for my feints and traps, but he's growing exponentially. You're training him well, Yugito."

That, Darui appreciated. Haou Kogure, the jonin known for training the majority of the younger elite shinobi of the force, just stated that Yugito is training him well.

"The girl is clearly a front-line fighter and the Nagumo kid is a tactician, both worthy of the chunin vest. Kioshi is already beyond a fresh chunin," A-sama said, leaning back and crossing his arms. "Is that your verdict, Dodai? Give him to ANBU training?"

"But he's only eight." Yugito's whisper didn't go unheard.

"So was A-sama, so was I," Dodai said, "and so were you."

'That's precisely what's troubling her so much, old man.' Darui really wanted to say something, but he was there to listen and learn the intricacies of the office, just as the Sandaime wanted him to. In silence.

"Call them in, then," A-sama finished.

Yugito squared and nodded. She left the office with Haou Kogure following behind.

Darui wondered for a second if following her and offering a helping hand would have helped.


Author's note:

I rewrote the fights so many times they quickly became a bother.

There has been a lot of changes in writing, punctuation and other small stuff you shouldn't notice. I'm learning!

Next chapter: Time skip (finally).
I already decided on future missions, but if you have any good ideas, let me know.

Real life is... moving on, I guess. I'm trying my best to keep up writing.

Thank you all for your reviews and comments, and speak up if you spot a mistake or a typo.
Hope you're doing well, stay safe!

Edit: typo and grammar corrections.