Title: Dreaming of Sunshine

Summary: Life as a ninja. It starts with confusion and terror and doesn't get any better from there. OC Self-insert.

AN: Links still aren't working, but all the fanart can either be found on my deviantart (Silver-Queen), on the tumblr (dosbysilverqueen) or on the DOS Chapter Guide site. Don't forget the Forum, either, if you want to discuss things.

I'll probably put up the brackets for the tournament on my Deviantart with the next chapter.

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Chapter 92

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If you must play, decide upon three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time. ~Chinese Proverb

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"Welcome to the Second Exam of the Hidden Grass Chunin Exams."

There were still something like two hundred teams left in the competition. This exam would have to knock a hell of a lot of them out if they wanted to have any kind of reasonable number of competitors for the final part.

That alone amped the tension in the air quite a lot, because I wasn't the only one making that connection. There was a lot of discrete (and not so discrete) sizing up of the competition going on.

"Each team," the protector continued. "Will be given one playing card. Given the number of teams present, that means there will be five decks in play. Each is of a different colour." She held one up to demonstrate; the back of it was red. "Your objective will be to collect five cards from the same deck and return here by five o'clock."

That… didn't give us a lot of time. The forest of death had given us five days to collect one scroll. This was going to be tricky.

And. Five cards…

"A poker hand," I said quietly to my team. "He told me yesterday that poker was the game of the week. What's the bet that what cards we pick up ends up mattering?"

"Your field of battle will be the same as yesterday," the proctor continued. "Also the same is the fact that your clients will be present and watching you. Do ensure they come to no harm. Until three o'clock all eliminated competitors have been asked to remain within the housing units. After that, they are free to access the village if they should so choose."

Which meant we would then have to distinguish between Genin participating in the exam and Genin not participating. Given that we would be on a very tight schedule, we really wouldn't want to waste time fighting someone only to find out that they didn't even have a card.

"Oh, and one more thing." The proctor smiled, a quick, knife edged thing that looked very amused. "In order to eliminate unfair advantages, for the Second Exam we have instituted a mandatory team size of four shinobi. Please register your teams with the examination stations when you pick up your cards. Then you will wait until I give the signal to begin and proceed to the village."

I looked our teams.

"Well, shit," Kiba said succinctly. "What are we going to do?"

The other four Konoha teams had already grouped together, redistributing into three four-man teams. But there were nine of us. That didn't make it. One of us would have to-

I had an idea.

"Ino, go with Team Gai. Chouji, with Team Kurenai."

They protested immediately.

"No," Chouji said loyally. "You shouldn't be the one to forfeit. You deserve to be promoted – you let Shikamaru get promoted last exam. I'll step aside, this time."

I smiled at him, touched. "Thanks Chouji, but I'm not forfeiting. I saw another team that needs a fourth member. I'll be fine."

I wove through the crowds until I found them. "Hey. You guys need a hand?"

Temari relaxed a fraction, releasing the eagle eyed stare she'd had over the crowd, obviously looking for someone. "You'll do," she said as though it were a concession.

"Draw the short straw, sparky?" Kankurou asked in amusement.

"I volunteered," I said, even though there hadn't really been much discussion about it. "Since I've worked with you guys the most."

"Good," Gaara said, which seemed to be the sum total of his opinion. We followed him towards the examination station, to register and pick up a card. The examiner raised an eyebrow at the mixed village grouping, but I doubted we were the only ones who would have to resort to it.

Just outside the stations, we milled around waiting. Gaara curved his hands together, and sand swirled around in them, forming something that looked like an eyeball before dispersing. An observation jutsu, clearly, which wasn't a bad plan.

If we could find out what cards people had now, then it would be much easier to hunt down the right ones later on. I was keeping watch too, but there was a limit to what I could see of the stations, and people were being reasonably canny about what cards they were receiving.

Well, most people.

In full earshot of all the competitors, Lee jumped up and stood on his teammates shoulders. "We have a green card!" he announced, holding it aloft just so no one could doubt his words. "If you wish to claim it, please come after us!" His teeth gleamed as he smiled.

Kankurou snorted next to me, crossing his arms. "What an idiot," he muttered. "Is he for real?"

I raised an eyebrow at him. "How many of the people here actually have a chance of taking it from him?"

Kankurou, of all people, surely couldn't forget how Lee had fought in the prelims.

It wasn't, actually, that bad of a plan. Team Gai wasn't designed to set up ambushes, or to track people down, though undoubtedly they could do it in a pinch. What they were designed for was breaking ambushes. They were powerhouses, and they had a great line of defense, especially now when you added in Ino's sensory abilities to be able to identify threats earlier. Having their enemies come to them was basically the easiest way they could do this Exam.

"Too uncontrollable," Temari said after a brief pause, like she was weighing the pros and cons of the tactic. "There'd be no option of picking and choosing which teams to fight; you'd have to deal with everyone that came after you. It would waste time. And there's no guarantee that enough of the right ones would take the bait."

I nodded. Those were all fair points.

More discussion was cut off when the exam proctor signaled for our attention again.

"The Second Exam," she said. "Starts now."

There was a huge surge as teams broke and raced for the village, either to hide or to set up ambushes. More than one team didn't even bother with that – simply launching themselves at another team here and now. I thought I might have seen one Hidden Grass team sideswipe another – and wasn't that interesting. Intra-village conflict.

"This way," Gaara rasped, and led us into town with the kind of unerring, unstoppable accuracy of someone that was holding a homing beacon.

"Did you pick out specific teams?" I asked, because it didn't seem as though we were just going for the nearest red. "Our intelligence suggested that the five card draw is meant to simulate a poker hand."

"Huh," Kankurou acknowledged, though not actually seeming surprised. "So did ours. Nice to have a second source to confirm it, I guess."

I guessed it wasn't exactly surprising – if we'd run into someone willing to rig the exams, then they could have too. Especially if theirs had actually been from their Daimyo, who probably had a bit more on the line. It was a little disappointing, though, if I was honest. I didn't have much to offer apart from that information.

I felt like I was just here for the numbers. Which. Was probably the truth.

I pushed the thought away. That was far too moody and self-pitying. And possibly arrogant. I would do exactly the same as I always did, which was as much as I could. And if they didn't need it, then that was fine. No problem.

We paused on a rooftop. I double checked around us, keeping a mental tally of all the people – ninja or civilian – moving about, just in case. It was taxing just because there were so many of them. There were fights breaking out all around, and those fights were attracting audiences.

Yesterday we'd been cheered on for fighting in the street – today would likely be no different. We'd just have to watch out for people accidentally wandering into the middle of a fight.

"You two stay up here. Keep watch," Temari ordered, shifting her fan off of her back. She gave Kankurou a heavy, meaningful stare.

What it meant, I wasn't entirely sure, but he grumbled irritably at it and waved her off.

The cork popped out of Gaara's gourd, the sand snaking out of it and across the rooftop, spilling over the gutters and down the side. I wondered if the targets would even notice it before it was too late.

The two of them dropped down after it, landing lightly on the ground below.

We waited. They were back within minutes, a flash of a red card the only declaration of victory that they bothered to make.

I tried not to think that it was too easy, as we picked up and tracked down our next victims to do it all over again.

The second team was a group of Cloud ninja, though there weren't any familiar faces amongst them. I thought I had seen Karui earlier, but I couldn't be sure – the trouble with Genin was that they didn't tend to have bingo book pictures to actually remind me of what people looked like.

The oldest of them managed to do a rather nifty protective shell of lightning – from what I could see from where Kankurou and I cooled our heels in an alleyway nearby – until Temari stepped in and wiped it out with her wind blades. It did mean, though, that the easy ambush turned into an actual fight.

And while they were distracted, and we were just … standing around, someone tried to take advantage of it.

Incoming, I started to sign to Kankurou, then aborted it when I realized he wouldn't understand. Each village had its own sign language, and though there were the requisite attempts at code breaking and interception that meant it wasn't secure, it also wasn't enough to assume he would know it.

Instead I lifted three fingers, then pointed in the direction where the majority where sneaking on the roof above us, then one, and pointed down behind us.

Kankurou raised a hand, paused as he ran into the same difficulty as I had, then beckoned me over towards where Gaara and Temari were fighting.

I tilted my head. Was he just suggesting that we fall back? Or something else?

God, charades. This is terrible.

There wasn't time to try communicate like this. I primed my shadow, swirled it around my feet and hoped that he understood the motion as a prelude to reverse-ambush.

He pulled his puppet off of his back, so he must have understood something, and faded out of sight. I thought I could hear the mechanical clacking of moving machinery, but it might have just been my imagination.

There was a pause.

I waited.

Then the ninja that I was observing burst forward, dropped off the roof and landed behind me. He grabbed my upper arm, and there was the singing of a blade moving through the air before a knife came to rest at my throat.

Zero points, I decided, having grabbed him with Shadow Possession the moment he hit the ground and controlled every movement after. He hadn't even noticed.

"Hand over the card,"he said.

"You really think I have it?" I asked, striving to sound as bored as I could. His three teammates dropped down in front of me.

They were… well. A little impressive looking. Their headbands said they were from Hidden Swamp, and they had rebreathers slung around their necks even though they wouldn't need them here. One had gloves with wicked spiked knuckles.

I wouldn't have liked to go three on one in a fight with them.

But I also had them in Shadow Possession before they hit the ground so that was kind of a moot point.

"Fine, you're a hostage. Better hope your team will give up their card for you." There was a distinct taunting note in his voice that I disliked intensely. A kind of 'well they might not, and who could blame them'.

"I have a better idea," I said, keeping the same really-friggin-bored tone of voice. "You give me your card and I let you go."

There was a beat of disbelief.

"I think you misunderstand what 'hostage' means," the one behind me growled.

"I think you're not as observant as you think you are," I shot back.

His arm flexed against my jutsu, like he was trying to press the knife in closer.

Enough of this, I decided, pulling my own arm forward and away. The knife moved away from my neck.

"Hey, what-"

I lowered it down, my hand empty, hovering it over my thigh. "Femoral artery," I said. "I stab here and you bleed out in twenty minutes."

I let that hang in the air.

They struggled and came to the dawning realization that they had, in fact, fucked up big time.

"Card," I suggested.

The one on the edge looked down. "It's in my pocket," he said, voice soft. "Let me get it, then we'll go."

I considered him. "Nice try. Kankurou, if you would?"

Something came forward, but it wasn't Kankurou. It looked like him, sure, but it wasn't. Karasu stepped forward, and peeled open the boy's pocket, not flinching when what unfolded instead was a friggin spike trap that launched out into its face.

On a human, it would have been horrifying and devastating. On a puppet… well. Karasu's face swiveled an entire one eighty, so it still looked pretty horrifying. Its jointed fingers kept going through pockets, though, until it pulled out a blue backed card.

"What a waste," it said. "Not even our colour."

I shrugged. So did the rest of them. "Want to tie them up?" I asked. That probably wouldn't take them out of the exam entirely but it would buy us enough time to get clear and not have to worry about immediate retaliation.

"Yeah," Karasu said. "I've got locks."

'Locks' were apparently a version of wooden handcuffs. They came in halves, with each side having a 'z' notch in the end. You lined them up and snapped them together, and then the only way to disengage them was to slide them sideways. Which was complicated by the fact that arms tended to have hands at the end.

They wouldn't have been unbeatable, but apparently they were easy to produce, especially for puppet masters who just carved them out of wood scraps from their puppets.

"These are handy," I said, inspecting an extra set. Simple, yet effective.

"If you get stuck in it I'm not letting you out," Kankurou warned.

I snickered.

"Seriously," Temari said, appearing in the mouth of the alley, voice exasperated. "You couldn't stay out of trouble for five minutes? Lookout duty, Kankurou."

He shrugged. "We looked out. And we saw an ambush. So we dealt with it. Wasn't hardly any trouble."

The Swamp ninja nearest him snarled something invective.

Gaara gave him a look that might have actually caused ice to spontaneously combust and go up in flames, not just something as pedestrian as melt. He shut up really damn quickly. "You were… hurt?" he asked, eyes flicking over us both.

Kankurou rolled his shoulders and grinned. "Nah," he said. "Turns out sparky has some use after all."

"Hn. Well, I did most of the work there, so I don't know what you're for," I said, levelly.

It took half a second to register with Kankurou, and he spluttered. "Oi. You. Show some respect. You could have ended up with a spike trap to the face."

I blinked at him, slowly. "I'd have just made him open it himself," I pointed out. I hadn't, because I'd thought it might be exploding notes – the more easily carried kind of trap. And a ninja might be able to set exploding notes off while still in Shadow Possession, if they had that kind of chakra control. They'd still end up holding them, but some might think it a risk worth taking.

"That's enough," Gaara decided, and we were off again.

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By three o'clock we had all the cards we needed and extras in a variety of colours. The entire time had been a grind of fighting, and you could certainly tell that people were starting to feel it.

We headed back to the examination station, and started to skirt around the finishing line ambushes that the desperate were setting up.

"Huh," I said, tilting my head. "I recognize this one." What were the chances we'd run into the same team from Hidden Rain again? First in our exams, then in Land of Tea, and here a third time.

We could have backtracked and gone around it, we weren't in a rush by any means, but we'd ended up here by going around other ambushes and people were looking impatient.

Now. What were their names again?

"Oboro," I said to the silent street. "Mubi. Kagari. We've already fought twice – you can see how this is going to end. Just let us pass."

Something shimmered, low on the ground, and the form of a boy in a white jumpsuit rose up. He was the one with both eyes uncovered, so Oboro, then. He glared at me. "You killed our sensei."

"No, I didn't," I said, genuinely startled. "I mean. He was a Konoha missing ninja. I handed him over to the authorities. He's probably still alive."

That didn't, apparently, make things any better in his eyes. Well, okay. I could see that. I'd even said 'probably'.

"You aren't going to get away with it," he promised. "You'll pay."

I smiled benignly, trying to seem calm and reasonable. "Alright, but if you do it here, it's not going to work. You know that, right? Do you remember this team from the last exam? They're certainly not an easier target than mine. Very much the opposite." I let that hang for a second, then continued on. "A much better chance would be the final exam. It is a tournament, after all."

I wondered if I should add a challenging 'if you think you can make it' to the end of the sentence, but decided against it. I was going for friendly and reasonable not 'try get them to kill me'.

Pity. I had so much more success with that tactic.

Temari shifted impatiently, crossing her arms. "If you're going to attack," she said, bluntly. "Get on with it. Otherwise, get out of our way."

Oboro's eyes dragged across her, flicking over the rest of the team in indecision. It seemed he did remember them, and was smart enough to back off, because he glared at me once more and sank back into the ground.

I waited a beat, just to see if there was going to be a follow up attack, then said, "huh. I didn't think that would actually work."

"Can't see why not," Kankurou said dryly, starting to walk. "Very convincing. I don't know why everyone isn't sold on 'you can just kick my ass later'."

I made a face at his back.

We weren't the first people back to the field, but since we still had to wait until five o'clock, regardless, it didn't really matter much.

More interesting was that there were now five poker tables – with coloured felt – set up around the field. Our information was probably right on the mark then, though I noticed some other teams giving them highly uneasy looks.

By about half past four, it wasn't just ninja teams arriving. Clearly the spectators had been informed that something was about to go down, because there were plenty of them appearing in droves, some picking their way over the grass in impractical shoes, in anticipation of a good show.

At five o'clock sharp, the Exam proctor stood up and signaled for attention. "The Second Exam concludes now," she said. "No more teams will be accepted. However, there are a limited number of places in the Third Exam, so there will be one final test. You will have noticed that there are five tables set up around the field. Please make your way to the table with the same colour as your cards. The proctors will further explain the rules to you there."

There were four teams that grouped around the red table with us. None of them ones we had run into over the day, which at least spared a bit of awkwardness.

"The game," our exam proctor slash card dealer said, shuffling a deck with enough skill and agility that every card was airborne at the same time between his hands. "is standard five card poker. Each team gets four gambling chips, each one representing one person's entry into the Third Exam for the winner of the hand. If you gamble a chip and lose, you do not get it back."

He raised an eyebrow at us, until we nodded back.

"For the first round," he went on. "You'll use the cards that you retrieved in the Second Exam. For every round after that, I'll deal from this deck. We'll keep playing until the limit of entrees for the Third Exam has been reached, however long that takes. There are only thirty two spaces in the tournament available, so I don't think it will take that long."

He grinned, a quick, knife edged thing.

I did the math. There were five teams at our table. Five tables. Twenty five teams of four a piece. One hundred shinobi competing for thirty two spaces was a rough one in three chance.

Well. That was the straight math. In reality it was lopsided, because there were those of us who came prepared.

He doled out four chips to us, the kind of circular stripy things from gambling tables.

Gaara held our cards and didn't even bother to fan them out. "All in," he rasped and pushed all four buttons further into the table.

There was a smattering of applause from the audience around us, more grouping over as it became obvious there would be an interesting round. The idea of people walking around and seeing all the cards seemed antithetical – but then, cheating was obviously part and parcel of the game.

The team next to us – from Nadeshiko Village of all places – looked wide eyed. "We fold," one said hastily, dropping their cards onto the table.

Two other teams folded, but the last obviously decided we were bluffing. "All in," the leader said, staring daggers at us. Metaphorically.

The dealer smirked. "Okay, kids. Show the cards."

They had a high card and two sets of pairs.

Gaara laid down a royal flush.

There was more applause this time. The other team slapped the table and cursed.

"None of that," the dealer said, mildly enough that you had to remember he was here because he was a Chunin at the very least. "You guys are out. Team Gaara – you have four passes to the Third Exam. You can both leave the table."

We stepped away from the table. There was no one else there that I was invested enough in seeing play, but I did circle around and through the crowd so I could find out what the rest of the group was doing.

At the green table Tenten was holding the cards with gritted teeth while Lee helpfully and loudly conveyed ridiculously incorrect advice, complete with wild gestures. At her other shoulder, Neji had the tell-tale signs of the Byakugan active. And Ino was leaning against him with a vacant expression that suggested she was not entirely present.

They have that under control, I thought, amused.

Two tables over, Team Kurenai made the same 'all in' bet we had and even the Mist team conceded to them. But apparently underneath Haku's kind smile lay a card shark – or he was fast enough to cheat unnoticed – because he took the next round for all four places.

The Hidden Cloud team, with the girl I thought was Karui, also passed in its entirety. The team from Hidden Rock managed three, and Hidden Grass two. Our friends from Hidden Rain also got two of the team into the Finals, so I might actually have to fight them. And there were five single entries from different minor villages.

"Tomorrow," the exam proctor said. "We will begin the tournament. It will last for the next five days, with one round on each day. The brackets will be posted tomorrow morning. That is all, and the best of luck to you all."