"Sorry, Iruka. You're my buddy... But I'm going to make chuunin before you do."

They circled each other slowly. It had been a long summer, and in this clearing, the earth was dry and cracked. The dust rose as their feet slid through it. One teenager's blood dripped into the dirt.

"Shut up asshole."

Iruka muttered curses as he focused his senses. His Bro kept telling him he let up on his awareness when he wasn't fighting. He would be getting yelled at for days after he finally got through this.

He could just picture the guy standing over him, the veins in his neck bulging, the handsome face twisting into a truly grotesque expression, forehead rippling alarmingly, teeth bared in an awesome grimace, nostrils flared, the whole ugly package screaming out "What the fuck!" without having to say a word.

Then Iruka would have to say something like, "Dude, Mizuki's pretty good at ambush tactics. It's what he's best at!"

And then sensei would probably hammer his fist down on Iruka's head while saying, "I keep telling you the perfect assassin never gets snuck up on. Now you have cleaning duty for the whole week."

Iruka winced, imagining that big fist whacking him on the skull. At least sensei would probably treat him to a beer after the dressing down.

"Oh, does that hurt, Iruka-kun? Man, you always act like such a tough guy. It's just a couple of shuriken to the shoulder. I think I nicked some tendons though. You should just give me your scroll already."

Right. The blood was soaking his left sleeve down to the cuff. Damn, it would be irritating trying to wash that out. And he'd have to sew the cut himself.

"Just thinking that I hate laundry, 'buddy.' Whatever. Let's do this."

Iruka grinned as he charged at the other, a vicious smile that was also perfectly content. Yeah, nevermind tomorrow, or even five minutes from now. Whatever happened, his sensei, the man who was sometimes a brother and sometimes a father to him, would be there, with a big-ass fist ready along with an easy smile and a beer.

Poor Mizuki. What was the guy thinking getting this close to him? Just because Iruka's shoulder was wounded.

"What the... A ninja should know when to give up, you know!"

"I can beat you with one hand tied behind my back," he answered back as he attacked, laughing.

Iruka side-stepped more blurringly fast kunai as he continued rushing forward, merely angling a bit to the left or right.

He smashed his elbow into Mizuki's face. No sensation of teeth giving way, of lips getting mashed.

As expected, the stricken genin puffed away into a shattered piece of lumber.

He sensed the knife sweep out at his right kidney from behind and performed the same bit of ninja trickery, and then Mizuki was screaming, "Ohhhh shiiiiiiit!" as Iruka appeared behind him, wrapped his massive right arm around his opponent's chest and pulled him off his feet.

Iruka's feet were chakra-bonded to the earth below for extra stability, and sheer muscle did the rest as he kept a tight grip on his smaller opponent and, as he arched his back in a perfect bridge, shoulder and back and leg muscles bulging and clenching, he gleefully called out "One-armed suplex of domination!" It was fair to give the guy proper warning, and hopefully, he would have enough time to brace his neck with chakra so he did not get it broken. Maybe the guy would even get up after this! Then he could crank it up and have himself a real fight!

Mizuki's head and the back of his neck slammed into the hard earth. A cloud of dust was thrown up around them.

"Oh, yeah! Who da man!"

Iruka bent low over Mizuki and peeled his eyelids back. He probed at the little guy's neck. Right, he had done the move just fast enough so that Mizuki could not escape, but slow enough so that Mizuki could somewhat protect himself and not get killed.

"Poser! I took you out in one move. Yeesh."

Iruka whistled tunelessly as he patted down his former classmate. He took the guy's extra kunai, shuriken, bandages, water canteen, garrote, socks, flint and tinder. For good measure, he also took the cash out of his wallet. Who brings cash to a survival exam anyway? Dumbass.

"Ah-ha! Score!"

Two scrolls. He wondered who Mizuki had ambushed to get the other scroll, or if his team's scroll was with someone else and he had already gotten two and was just being stupidly greedy trying to get Iruka's.

"Hrrm." It just would not do to leave the guy there like that.

So he took the time to tie him up spread-eagled to some tent stakes. He wrote on Mizuki's face: Greedy! Overconfident! Moron! He did it in bright yellow permanent marker. And it was good.

Iruka almost forgot to pull the shuriken out of his shoulder, he felt so awesome. But he did, and bandaged it up good and proper. It had not even done that much damage. He had not needed to one-arm that suplex - but sometimes, a guy had to show off even without an audience. Sometimes, it was just better to have big muscles. On a less manly man, Mizuki's girly attack would have scraped bone, or cut tendons.

"Time for a post-fight smoke." He pulled one from a battered tin box on his breast-pocket and lit it with a seal and a little flash of fire from his fingertips.

He took to the trees and it felt like flying as he flung himself fifty feet, sixty feet, a hundred feet from branch to branch, in dangerously long jumps, bleached-blond hair whipping back from his face, laughing around the cig in his mouth, hoping that someone else would be foolhardy enough to mess with him. He was not all the way there yet, but he was on his way, he was living the dream, he was alive and invincible and did not give a shit!

Sugi evergreens slid by his vision as he dove through the air almost recklessly. Occasionally he would stretch out a hand or foot and with just the slightest application of chakra, tear long strips of red-brown bark away from the trunks as he changed direction in mid-jump with a skidding secondary jump off of another tree. Sometimes, he would drop below the level of the tall hundred to two-hundred foot sugi down to the occasional oak trees, and as he catapulted himself ever forward through branches and twigs, twisting his body back up in great leaps to the taller trees once more, the downy oak leaves brushed along the backs of his hands as they left them behind. On the way back up, sometimes he had to change direction to avoid the whorled branches of spruce trees, which would not take his weight at this speed. There were beech trees too, ninety feet tall and much better for leaping along and climbing - the gray-white bark was not harsh on the fingers and the wood stood up well for bouncing off of. There were hinoki cypress and spruces and firs.

And occasionally, there would be gigantic mutants that typified the Forest of Death. Redwoods a thousand feet tall, surrounded by lesser oaks that were still far, far larger than they should have been, reaching hundreds of feet in height. These mountainous trees were disorienting, and while Iruka loved to climb them... now was not the time. He might get lost going from branch to branch and jump out not realizing he was eight hundred feet in the air and the next tree in sight some mundane fir six hundred feet below.

He startled a giant hawk with a wingspan of forty feet.

The bird had just snagged a normal boar, which weighed several hundred pounds but was vanishingly small in those huge claws. It was so agitated by Iruka's sudden appearance that it dropped its snack.

"Oh boy."

It's shriek echoed through the forest. He considered dropping down to the ground and hiding to avoid its massive talons and that beak that could easily snap him into bits, but then considered just how much time he'd spent dicking around on the outskirts of the Forest of Death while Izumo and Kotetsu had gone straight in towards the tower in the center.

Right. Now was as good a chance as any to travel in style.

As the hawk dove through the branches after him, simply smashing through the tiny branches of lesser trees and only avoiding the main trunks of the largest of them, Iruka tossed out a line, hooked a cypress around the trunk and changed his trajectory with a wrench that almost dislocated his shoulder. It was worth it. His body was thrown about in a tight arc and he simply grinned as he found himself crouching low on the outraged bird's back, sticking to it with chakra.

"Now, now, you stupid bird, time to give you a bit of direction."

Some fire-breathing techniques forceful enough to fight the wind darting out to the left or to the right of the giant's head sufficed to control yaw, and strong, chakra-powered yanks and shoves on the giant skull to pitch them up and down, and he was in the pilot's seat.

They blasted out over the canopy and Iruka laughed at the trees whizzing by below. He saw other ninja down there, gawking at the sight of the great shadow in the sky. If he did not die trying to get off the furious thing, he would get to the tower in record time, mere minutes.

How far away was that helpless little brat he had been before? He would never be able to thank his sensei, his best friend, enough, for setting him on his path to becoming GREAT NINJA ONIZUKA.