The Land of Iron is the same as we left it: Gray, sturdy, and huge. The gate still groans when they open it for us and the snow still claws at our backs on the way in. But as soon as we get through and head into the streets, I realize the people are a bit different this time around.
Where muted colors and modest styles of clothing had been the norm before, every facet of fashion I've seen plus a ton that I haven't seem to be represented in the crowds now. The sweeping cloaks and cloth headdresses of the Land of Wind, the vibrant colors favored by the Land of Earth, and even some of the crazy provocative styles from the Land of Lightning, in spite of the frigid chill. As we walk farther down the street, escorted once again by a samurai guard, I find myself craning my head to and fro, admiring the sheer variety surrounding me on all sides.
And it seems the variety is admiring me, too.
For every street we walk down, the people milling about it pause whatever it is they're doing to watch us pass. Sometimes it's just a brief glance of interest, but other times it's a few whispered words to someone nearby, a pointed finger, and even a call of encouragement. Those last ones only come from a very small minority, to be fair, but they're there.
"What's the deal?" I murmur to Hatake as we turn a corner onto another street full of people to gawk at us. "Nobody cared about us last time we were here."
"That was when there were hundreds of you, and none of you had made it into the finals yet," he says. "The main event for the civilians here is the tournament, since they're not allowed to attend the tasks. You weren't important back then because they didn't know if they'd be seeing you at the tournament or not." He smiles. "Now, though, you're celebrities."
Off to my right a little boy pulls at his mother's skirt, jabbing his finger at me excitedly. "Weird."
"You're going to have to get used to it sometime, Hokage-sama," he says airily. I snort, pulling my cloak tighter around myself and turning my attention back on our guide.
It takes us a lot longer to get to our living quarters than last time, and when we arrive it becomes very clear why. Instead of the sturdy, modest hotel that we'd been lead to when we first came here, our guide directs us to an enormous mansion of a building, shining with vibrantly colored tiles and a modern style, a sharp contrast to most of the other buildings in the village.
The samurai bows, holding an arm out towards the building. "These will be your lodgings for the duration of your stay here. I hope they will suffice, and on behalf of the Land of Iron I wish you noble warriors good luck in your battles tomorrow."
I share a look with Sakura. "Uh, thanks." The samurai nods, straightening up from his bow and striding back towards his post.
The hotel, if it can even be called that, turns out to be just as ridiculous on the inside as it is on the outside. The reception area is the size of my apartment, easy, decorated with statues and paintings and all sorts of culturally magnificent things that are wasted on my shinobi sensibilities. The receptionist is a beautiful young woman with long black hair and stunning green eyes who gets us signed in with all the sunny cheer of Lee and Gai mid-youth.
But instead of getting out of her comfy-looking leather chair to show us to our rooms, the receptionist rings a little bell on her desk and a dignified man in formal civilian clothes appears from the void to our left. He bows low, his deep, smooth voice drifting up to his through his dark brown whiskers.
"Good afternoon, honored guests. Allow me to escort you to your rooms." Sakura and I share another look.
"Please do," Hatake says happily. The attendant brings us to a grand spiral staircase, like the one the old man showed me leading to his office from the torture and interrogation center back in Konoha, but bigger and flashier. We ascend the steps, past the second, third, fourth, and fifth floors, until we finally step out onto the top floor.
Instead of stepping into a hallway, like the last hotel we'd stayed at, though, we find ourselves entering a massive circular room, furnished with a towering fountain in the middle, elegant hotel couches on the edges, trays of snacks and drinks, and are those butlers? I gape at the men and women standing at attention against the walls, almost missing it when the attendant leading us points out our room.
There are ten rooms in all on the top floor, spaced evenly apart from one another, and ours are on the far side of the room from the stairs, side by side. The one my team and I are dropped in is every bit as big and fancy as the rest of the building, and furnished with three bedrooms instead of two. The kitchen is just as nice as the last hotel's, but stuffed with a higher quality of food than I've ever seen outside of the old man's desk. And the living room…
"Oh my god, this is so comfortable!" Sakura squeals, stretching out on one of the five couches the hotel room's living area has to offer. I mumble intelligibly in reply from my spot on the other side of the room, having collapsed face first onto the first open couch I saw. A couch which had turned out to be more comfortable than the one I have at my apartment.
A hotel couch that doesn't suck. It has to be a Genjutsu of some sort. The kind that can affect me, I mean.
"So, I take it you three are all ready to go for tomorrow?" Hatake asks, lounging on one of the shorter couches, his legs dangling over the side and his book laying on his chest. "Packed all your weapons, memorized all your hand seal chains, shined all your headbands?"
I roll over onto my side, staring hard at Sasuke, laid out on a couch beside Hatake. "Yeah. I'm ready."
"Me too," Sakura says, blissfully unaware of the sudden tension in the room.
"Good to hear," Hatake says. "Wouldn't want to make any embarrassing mistakes in front of all your peers, now would you?"
"Our what?" I blurt, tearing my glare away from Sasuke.
"Yup!" He confirms happily. "Teams 8 and 10 both got tickets for the finals. They'll be arriving here in the next couple days for the start of the tournament. I'm told they got very good seats, too."
"Really?" Sakura asks, craning her head to look at our sensei in disbelief. "Aren't the finals supposed to be a big deal?"
"Oh, they are," Hatake assures her. "The Daimyo got them the tickets."
Sasuke grunts. "Why would he do that?"
"Team 10's sensei, the man who trained Naruto, is an old friend of the Daimyo's. He sends him little presents like this all the time," Hatake explains.
"Because he's the old man's son, right?" I say, remembering my introduction to the jonin sensei weeks ago.
Hatake's eye quirks up. "Something like that."
"So now we have to worry about them on top of everyone else," Sakura sighs. "Great."
"Don't worry too much about it," Hatake says, waving a hand. "Neither of them are Heavy Assault teams, so I doubt they're on your level at this point. Just focus on getting through your fights and you'll impress them just fine."
We carry on with some small talk for a while, explore what will be our hotel room for the next few days, and Hatake promises to give us a more thorough briefing on all the genin competing in the tournament in the morning. He then promptly sinks further into his couch and shoves his little orange book in his face. He tends to do that rather than sleep like a normal person. Sasuke disappears into his room soon after, and Sakura and I follow suit when the moon begins its climb into the sky.
My room is of a simple design compared to the rest of the hotel, holding an oaken dresser that reaches up to my chest, a full length mirror on the wall to the left of the entrance, and a king-sized bed that I waste no time in flopping down on. I toss my backpack, jacket, and cloak across the room onto the dresser and kick my sandals off before burrowing into the silken sheets with with a moan of pleasure.
I curl up under the covers, deciding that this must be the most comfortable bed I've ever laid in. I rub my cheek against the pillow, realizing it's the softest pillow I've ever seen. I wrap the comforter tight around my shoulders, deducing that it's the warmest comforter I've ever- Yeah.
I spend a couple hours reflecting on how god damn nice this bed is, and then I crawl out of it and walk over to the window set on the far side of my room.
It isn't that I'm not tired. After five straight days of running at Gai's genin-approved pace, which had been even more hellish than usual this time around, I'm dead on my feet. Or as dead on my feet as I can get, anyway. I didn't get much sleep on our short breaks, either. Given all the rest I've been missing out on lately, I should have fallen asleep as soon as I touched that couch back in the living room. I'm beat.
The latch to the window clicks open, and it swings open on silent hinges. I climb through the windowsill and take a seat on the hotel's tiled roof, the chill of the stone shocking my bare feet and the light breeze raising goose bumps along my bare arms.
Good. The cold can clear my head. Maybe I'll get some actual thinking done tonight, instead of wallowing in self-pity.
I shove anything and everything related to Bijuu and seals out of my head to start, as that hasn't done me any good since I started thinking about it weeks ago. Maybe if I can find the old man before the tournament I'll talk to him about it, like I'd tried to weeks ago. He'd already left Konoha when I barged into the Hokage Tower that day, so I'd been left to my own thoughts. He has to be here now, though, right?
But until then I've gotta focus on my fight with Sasuke. I can worry about… that, later. Beat Sasuke and get my sword back from Samui. Those are my only concerns until I get a hold of the old man. Just leave it alone, Uzumaki.
Oh, my poor child.
"No, quit it," I growl, fisting my hands in my hair.
… Do I know you?
No, but I know of the poison in your soul.
That priest had obviously been talking about the memory of the Nibi that Sakura had sealed away, and my involvement in sealing it. He hadn't differentiated between my 'poison' and hers, after all. It wouldn't make sense for it to have been two different entities. And yet…
And yet the Kyuubi was known as a poison of sorts, too. Everywhere it went, civilizations died. Whether by its own wrath, or by the suffering that persisted in the aftermath, everything the Kyuubi no Kitsune touched died. It was the only Bijuu which could never be driven away, no matter what was thrown at it, could never be contained, no matter how its victims tried. It was the most powerful Bijuu in existence, and because of the mobility of its element it could appear anywhere, at anytime. It was the one Bijuu everyone feared.
Until the Yondaime killed it.
And that's the crux of this whole thing, the piece that doesn't fit. Everything else, my chakra, the seal, Hinata's meditation, and the crimson dreams, all makes a terrifying amount of sense when looked at from the angle of me-
But the Yondaime killed the Kyuubi twelve years ago. Everyone in the village knows that. There's a festival to celebrate it every year for six paths' sake. The old man himself told me the story of Namikaze Minato and his heroic victory over the monstrous nine-tailed fox every other week over lunch when I was little. Every single time it began with them alive, and it ended with them dead.
The old man wouldn't lie to me. Not about something so important. He might withhold information from me at times, but that's because he's the Hokage and I've only been a genin for a few months. He'd never outright lie to me. He's not that kind of person.
"God, enough already." I hunch over my curled up knees, clenching my eyes shut. I've already lost too much sleep to these doubts and fears. I can't lose my match against Sasuke to them, too. I need to focus on my fight. I need to-
"You seem conflicted," A voice observes. A very familiar voice.
I jerk my head up, eyes flying open, and find myself face to face with an orange, swirling mask. "Kazu?"
He raises a gloved hand from beneath his black cloak in greeting. "Good evening, Naruto," he says, a smile in his voice.
I'm not ashamed to admit that it takes me a long moment to process the image of my former kidnapper crouched in front of me inside one of the most powerful villages in the world, maybe twenty yards away from my elite jonin sensei, without a care in the world. When I do manage to snap out of my shock I lean forward and hiss at him.
"What the hell are you doing here!?"
"I wanted to see how you were doing," he says calmly. "And wish you good luck, of course. I hear you've been doing an incredible job in the Chunin Exams so far."
I furrow my brow. "I guess," I say slowly.
"I also hear you've been pitted against another Konoha shinobi for your first match in the final examination," he continues, a note of sympathy slipping past his featureless mask. "Is that what you were worrying over?"
"... Kind of."
Kazu settles back onto the heels of his feet, folding his arms across his knees. "Would you like to talk about it?" I glance back at the window to my room, considering the pros and cons of diving through it now before the masked shinobi has a chance to drag me through solid surfaces again. Though, if he had wanted to do that, he could have done it while I was absorbed by my own thoughts, right? And who says I'm even fast enough to get away before he paralyzes me again, or something?
"I don't think now's a good time," I finally say. "If my sensei catches you talking to me after what happened last time-"
"Don't worry about that," he cuts in, tapping a finger on the tiles beneath his sandal-clad feet. At once, the dim glow of live seals spread out from the tip of his finger and surround the both of us in a large circle. "He won't hear a thing."
"Was I really that out of it?" I ask in disbelief, twisting around to study the intricate ring of seals.
"I have something of an affinity for Fuinjutsu," Kazu replies, amused.
"No kidding," I mutter, tracing one of the symbols by my knee with the tip of my finger. A moment later they fade away back into obscurity, and I look up at Kazu's orange mask. His orange mask, and his fully matured Sharingan. "Uh, well. The guy I'm supposed to fight tomorrow is actually more than just a Konoha shinobi like me. We're on the same genin team together."
"Was it the boy who saw me take you?"
"... Yeah." He's treating that whole kidnapping thing pretty lightly, isn't he? "Anyway, I'm just worried about my fight with him. We've always been on pretty even footing in our spars, but he flat out told me that he doesn't think I can beat him in a real fight. He offered to hold back so that I'd have a chance." I scowl at the tiles beneath my feet, the memory of Sasuke's offer still as clear and infuriating in my head as it was five days ago. "I don't want to be that person. I don't want to be someone he pities."
"You want his respect," Kazu murmurs, an odd tone in his voice, and I nod. "Do you not think you can win?"
"I don't know. He's got a fire affinity and a Sharingan to counter just about everything I can do, and his super elite brother has been training him specifically to fight me for the last two weeks. All I've got is-" I sigh, my right hand finding its way to my stomach. "Wind."
A chuckle drifts past Kazu's mask. "That's all, hm?"
"Well, it's not like I can do much with it against my best friend!" I cry. "I don't want to kill him or ruin his career or anything, so my wind blades aren't gonna be much help, and my only other big attack would just throw him out of close quarters and give him time to hit me with a jutsu. I have to outmatch him and beat him down in Taijutsu before he can get his bearings or I'm screwed!"
"And you don't think you can do that, given his bloodline," Kazu says.
"Pretty much." I pause, considering my next words, and eventually decide to poke one of the elephants in the… rooftop. "You know how ridiculous the Uchiha are when they've got those eyes of theirs turned on." The masked shinobi blinks said crimson eye, reaching a hand up and brushing ridge of porcelain surrounding it.
"Ah, not quite," he says, letting his hand drop. "This was a gift from an acquaintance of mine, before he died."
"So you looted it." I deadpan.
"No, I swear," he insists. "He gave it to me of his own volition."
I roll my eyes. "Whatever you say, Kazu." Not like I'm going to be able to rat you out anyway- hold on. "Hey, why can I say your name now?" I blurt. Did the Genjutsu wear off? Only one way to find out. "You have a Sharingan, you wanted to look at my seal, you want world peace, and you've got a weird Doujutsu I've never seen before in your left eye." Each word rolls off my tongue as easy as any other. What the hell?
"I was wondering what you'd try to tell your village about me," Kazu says, the amusement back in full force. I glare at him. "No, it isn't what you think. You're still very much restricted by my technique. It's just that no one can hear you from inside this seal, so it doesn't matter whether or not you scream my secrets from the top of your lungs."
"Oh." I purse my lips. "I, uh, don't suppose I could convince you to dispel that?"
"You're kind of a dick, you know that, Kazu?"
"I'm sorry you feel that way." He props his chin on his hand, observing me with curiosity. "Would it make you feel better if I told you I have a gift for you?"
Uh. "What kind of gift?" I ask warily.
"Something I was planning on giving you anyway, if I'm honest. But you seem to have need of it, so all the better." Three static tomoe lock eyes with me. "What do you say?"
"It'll help me with my fight?" I venture after another hesitant pause. One part of me, the shinobi part, screams at me that I shouldn't even be entertaining the thought of accepting this unaffiliated shinobi's 'gift'. I should be hightailing it out of this seal as fast I can to alert Hatake to my company, and let him handle this. Trusting this complete stranger can't possibly end well, it exclaims.
The other part of me, the Uzumaki part, says that I need every trump I can get if I want to beat Sasuke. Let alone make chunin.
"If it comes to that," he confirms.
"Alright then," I say, throwing caution and common sense to the wind. "Let's see it."
If it's something useful, a weapon or a technique that I can use to even the playing field come the tournament, I'll give it a shot. If it's something useless, or dangerous enough to damage Sasuke for real, I'll take it and show it to the old man the next time I see him. That Genjutsu can only restrict me so much, right? It won't be able to stop me from bringing a scroll or-
Kazu leans forward and places his right hand flat against my stomach.
I jerk back, crying out in surprise. "What the hell!?" My stomach lights up with energy, the outline of my seal somehow shining through my shirt. I can feel the dying strand of chakra he'd forced into my stomach to bring out the seal, feel its warmth.
"Relax," Kazu says, shuffling forward and reaching out for my seal. "I'm giving you your gift."
I make to move back out of his reach and beyond the circle, not at all sure I want this gift anymore, but then his fingers, wreathed in flickering flames of chakra, touch my seal. My teeth click together sharply as I clench my jaw shut and scream while liquid fire erupts inside my stomach, branching out from the tips of his fingers and burrowing into my core. I feel my arms and legs seize up, rendered useless by the frothing agony in my stomach. Kazu twists his fingers, as if unlatching a lock, and darkness appears at the edge of my vision as the pain doubles.
The masked shinobi's fingers slide this way and that over my stomach, shifting and altering the symbols that have been inscribed into my skin for as long as I can remember. Seconds pass, minutes, hours, until he finally pulls his hand back and the fire seeps out of my veins.
I sit on the roof, frozen by the pain and covered in sweat despite the icy chill surrounding me, until the pain fades away, too. I regain control of my arms and wrap them tight around my stomach, panting and wondering what the hell just happened. I wait a while longer, Kazu content to give me time to recover, but the pressure in my stomach doesn't change. It sits right in the center of my seal, where I always draw my chakra from, pulsating with the beat of my heart. It doesn't quite hurt, but at the same time I can't quite force it out of my head, either.
"What did you do?" I gasp after a few minutes.
"I loosened it up," he says simply. "Look."
I unwrap my arms from around my gut and look down at the seal, still alight with chakra, and realize it's different now. All that poking and sliding hadn't been for show. He changed my seal. Cracked it open. Or close enough, at least. And that pressure-
"How is this going to help me fight?" I ask, struggling to bleed the pain from my tone. "It doesn't even feel like you loosened it. It feels tighter, if anything."
"That's not the seal."
I close my eyes. Take a shaky breath. "Then what is it?"
Kazu reaches out again and I try to flinch away, but he just clasps my shoulder. "When you go into your fight, Naruto, I want you to remember," he says, ignoring my question, "that wind is the undisputed most offensive element, and it is so for a reason. Wind isn't like the other elements. It's so much more than just a force to be applied to jutsu.
"It fights. It fights and howls and tears because it can't stand to lose. It rails against whatever is in its way, whether in triumph, or in defiance." Kazu squeezes my shoulder, his gaze intense. "It has life to it, a drive just like you and me, and it won't accept anything less than victory. If you give it a chance, no matter what you put it up against, it will take it. It's in its nature."
I don't have anything to say to that, and after a long moment of silence Kazu releases my shoulder and rises to his feet.
"Well, I think that's enough for one visit," he says lightly. "We won't be seeing each other again for a long while, so good luck on the rest of your exam. I'll be keeping an ear out for the results." With that said, the masked shinobi scuffs a foot along the tiles, and the seal surrounding us flares up for a single instant before dissolving into nothingness. "Until next time, Naruto."
He pauses in his jutsu, the one he used to kidnap me, and his form snaps back into solidity. "Yes?"
I look up into his single Sharingan eye, his words bouncing around in my head, my seal pulsating with the pressure of…
"How do you kill a Bijuu?" I ask. His blank, orange mask cocks to the side.
"Guys, look!" Sakura exclaims, pointing up over the line of buildings. "There it is!"
"No way," I say bluntly, staring up at the massive stone construct in disbelief. "There's no way."
"Your comrade is correct, shinobi-san," Our samurai guide says, nodding up at the stadium. "The Chunin Exams will be concluded there, in Mifune-sama's honorable colosseum." I eye the stone exterior of the thing, rising high above even the village's outer walls, as dark and imposing as can be.
"What's so honorable about it?"
"It is where we bring the samurai who have fallen into disgrace to fight for their honor," he replies easily.
Hm. "To the death?"
He nods. "Of course."
"I can't wait any longer!" Lee suddenly shouts, bouncing from foot to foot so fast his shins are little more than an orange blur. "I have to go now!" He tenses up more than he already was in preparation for a sprint to the stadium, our guide rests a hand on the hilt of one of his four blades, and then Gai slams him into the ground with a vicious punch to the head.
"Leave them," Neji says flatly when our guide pauses to watch the two youthful shinobi bawl at one another. "They'll catch up."
"You shinobi are strange," The samurai says, shaking his long mane of shaggy brown hair and continuing onward.
"We prefer 'eccentric'," Hatake chimes in from behind his book.
The stadium, as it turns out, is actually outside the village's gates, hidden by one of the mountain fangs which it's nestled beneath. It's connected to the village by an archway the size of the Academy, currently packed with people, as well as a discrete tunnel about a quarter mile down along the walls. Our guide brings us to the tunnel, guarded by not one, but four samurai, who all step aside and bow when they catch sight of us.
We head into the tunnel and down a series of hallways until we reach a set of heavy double doors with a picture of two men fighting to the death carved into its surface. Our guide stops short of the doors, stepping aside and bowing.
"You will find your examiners for the tournament beyond these doors," he says. "Good luck to you all."
Lee jumps forward and throws the doors open with a flourish, miraculously unharmed by Gai's suckerpunch, and rushes inside. Gai rushes in after him, roaring at him about the virtue of patience in a prospective chunin, and I follow them in after throwing the samurai an apologetic grin.
As soon as I step into the room I'm assaulted by the glares of over a dozen genin, in varying degrees of hatred. The guys from Suna and Kiri and such mostly look annoyed by me because of my affiliation with Lee and Gai, while the Iwa nin are doing their best to flay me with their eyes. I don't even want to think about how the Kumo nin would be looking at me if almost all of them hadn't been knocked out of the exams after the first task.
The double doors swing shut behind us, and from the other side of the room a man in a white kumo vest, sporting spiky, bleach white hair and dark skin, clears his throat. "Alright, that's the last of them. Let's get this started."
A woman with short black hair hair and pale pink eyes steps forward from the line of five proctors and gestures at the door behind them."Before we begin, we ask that the jonin sensei proceed through the door to the stands. The samurai on guard will escort you to your seats."
A low murmur sparks up as sensei go about wishing their students one final good luck, and I feel a hand ruffle my hair. I look up and see Hatake's eye curled up in a smile. "Good luck out there. You're going to blow everyone away out there, all three of you. I can feel it." He gives Sasuke a slap on the back and pats Sakura's shoulder, then walks towards the door, grabbing Gai by the back of his leotard along the way and dragging him from Neji and Lee mid-speech.
"Now then," The proctor from Kumo continues, holdings his hands out, palm up. "First off, congratulations. There were a lot of genin competing at the start of these exams, and throughout the course of the tasks the twenty-four of you proved you were the best of them all. You should all be proud of yourselves."
"Since you've made it to the final stage, though, the expectations have changed," The woman with pink eyes, Iwa's proctor, says. "You aren't fighting solely for yourselves anymore. From here on out you have a responsibility to your village, to perform to the best of your abilities and make your services and the services of your comrades desirable to all the clients in attendance, and all the clients who hear about your performance."
"The rules for your matches will be similar to the rules for the third task, with two key differences," The proctor from Suna, a man with dark blue eyes and close cropped blond hair, decked out in baggy yellow clothes with a white headdress and a thick brown belt, says. "First, you don't have to worry about leaving the arena. We'll be maintaining a barrier jutsu between you and the stands, so even if you or your jutsu made it to the edge you'd both bounce off.
"Second, we won't be interfering in any of the fights until a victor is decided. Matches will be called when one opponent is unable to fight, or forfeits." His serious gaze sweeps over us all. "The only time we will move from our stations will be to prevent outside interference. The consequences of attempting this will be severe."
"A few of you might be wondering what happens if your opponent forces you into a position where you're beat but can't forfeit, and could conceivably still fight," The Kiri proctor says, adjusting the sheath on his back and swiping a lock of black hair out of his muddy brown eyes. Several genin nod along. He crosses his arms over his chest, and stares each one of us down.
"Bottom line? You die."
"Is he serious?" I ask, voice low, as disbelief spreads through the room. Sakura shrugs helplessly, Sasuke watches the proctors with narrowed eyes, but Neji only shakes his head.
"It will not come to that for those who deserve to be here," he intones. His pale white gaze flicks toward me, lips twisting. "And though it pains me to admit it, you've proven yourselves worthy. Just pray you don't come up against either of us."
"Just be thankful Naruto and I can't both advance and crush you," Sasuke shoots back. Neji's look of grudging respect shifts into a sneer in zero seconds flat, and I find myself conflicted on who to snap at.
"Quiet!" Sakura hisses at them, relieving me of the choice. "They're saying something." After one last exchange of glares we turn our attention back to the proctors, and see the one with a Konoha headband pull a slip of paper from his flak jacket.
"If that's all the pleasantries out of the way," he says dryly, "Let's go over the tournament's structure." He unfolds the slip of paper with one hand and plucks the senbon from between his teeth with the other. I shuffle forward, squinting to get a look at the tiny scribbles on the paper, but can only get a vague outline of the brackets. Why do they look like they're separated into thirds?
The Konoha proctor taps his senbon against the paper. "The tournament will be split up into four rounds, with three different sets of brackets meeting in the finals in a threeway battle royale. The first round will have four matches per bracket, second round will have two rounds, and semifinals will have one," he says, pointing to each spot on the paper with his senbon. "Any questions?"
"I've got one, but not about the structure," A genin from Iwa says, raising a hand.
"Let's have it, then," The Kiri proctor grunts. "We're on a schedule here, kids."
"Who's going to be calling the matches if you're all going to be focused on a barrier?"
An uncomfortable look passes across each of the five elite jonin's faces. The Suna proctor coughs, sharing a glance with the Konoha proctor, and says, "Mifune-sama, the leader of the Land of Iron, has volunteered a samurai to act as the announcer for the duration of the tournament."
"Okay, that's it!" The proctor from Iwa says, clapping her hands together. "Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki Naruto report up front. Everyone else follow me to the competitors box." She strides over to one of the two doors in the room, the crowd of genin following behind her after sending Sasuke and I the obligatory sneers and glares.
I'm in the process of brushing them all off and turning back to my teammates when I notice a flash of icy green, and lock eyes with Gaara. Time freezes as the two of us size one another up, then the pressure behind my seal pulses and Gaara walks through the door. I grit my teeth and clutch my stomach.
I'm really starting to worry about that. Whatever it is.
"Well, this is it," Sakura says, pulling me from thoughts of my 'gift'. She's hanging about a yard away from me and Sasuke, looking all too reluctant to leave us to our match.
"Yeah," I say, taking hold of my resolve and casting aside everything else. "It is."
"You two…" She sighs, and then before either of us can react steps forward and wraps both of us up in a hug, squeezing us tight. "Just don't go overboard, okay? We're Team 7, remember? Don't let something as silly as a promotion get in the way of that." Sasuke rolls his eyes, though he doesn't push out of her embrace.
"I won't," I say, voice firm. And I mean it. That's the whole point of this, after all.
A team can't function without respect. And what kind of Hokage would I be if I couldn't even earn the respect of my own teammates?
"Hey, pinky!" The Kumo instructor barks, startling us all out of our hug. "Competitors box. Now."
"Good luck, both of you!" Sakura says, and after one last glance at the proctors, darts out the door.
The Kumo proctor shakes his head, muttering something about Konoha nin and their inability to keep things professional, and beckons us over. "You're Naruto and Sasuke?" We both nod, coming to stand at attention in front of the four remaining proctors. "ID?"
Sasuke relays his number and I follow suit. The proctor hums. "We're all set, then. You." He points at Sasuke. "Go with Taysuke. He'll bring you to your entrance." The Kiri proctor heads for the door, Sasuke close behind, and the Kumo shinobi turns to me and tilts his head to last of the four doors not yet used. "You're with me, kid."
He pushes open the door on the far right wall, ushering me through into the stone hallway beyond it. We move through another dizzying series of hallways, moving in a wide arc through the stadium's underground, until we turn left onto a tunnel with light streaming in from the other end, and the proctor pulls to a stop.
"The arena's on the other end of this tunnel," he says, leaning against the stone wall. "Don't head out right away. The… announcer will call you and your opponent out once he's done with the introduction. Just hang around inside the exit until he does."
I nod. "Got it."
"Remember what the Kiri proctor said," he warns. "We won't be intervening for you. Don't get in over your head."
"I've got this," I reply, conviction strengthening my tone for the first time since we left Konoha. The proctor's lip curls up.
"That's what I like to hear. Go nuts, kid." A heartbeat later he disappears in a Body Flicker, and I start down the tunnel.
As I grow closer to the light a dim roar begins to drift by my ears, similar to the sound of Konoha's market district at midday, but even greater. I get about halfway down the hall before I start distinguishing between the miasma of sound. Shouts, catcalls, and all manner of chatter pour in from the tunnel's exit. I come to a stop when I see the wall rising up on the other side of the arena, and take a moment to marvel at the sheer distance between my tunnel and Sasuke's. The arena has to be almost twice as large as the one in Konoha, and I can't even see the whole thing from here.
I ease back a few steps, leaning against the wall and closing my eyes. I breathe deep, sharpening my focus, running through all the tricks and techniques Asuma taught me over the two week break. My hands clench and unclench, wisps of wind circulating between my fingers and dancing along my palms in a soothing rhythm.
I'm halfway through my visualization of Ideal Fight Scenario #2- the one where Sasuke botches all of his ninjutsu and knocks himself out- when the low roar of activity outside is overtaken by a single, booming voice.
"GOOD MORNING, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!" A loud cheer goes up at the voice, and I peer back out onto the arena to get a look at its owner.
I see a samurai, decked out in the standard garb of bulky plated armor and four swords, standing in the middle of the arena with his arms spread out wide. He has long, spiky black hair falling over his bone white armor down to his mid back, and even from this distance I can see the wild grin on his face. What the-
"The Land of Iron welcomes you!" He cries. "To the sixth bi-annual Chunin Exams!" Another cheer goes up, and the bizarre samurai basks in the cacophony of sound before continuing. "My name is Itoh Jo and I will be your host for this most honorable of events, along with five of the shinobi world's finest." He swings his arms around some more in a grand gesture, then points up at something out of my range of view.
"Introducing: Taysuke, elite jonin of Kirigakure! Genma, special jonin of Konoha! Darui, elite jonin of Kumogakure and right hand of the Yondaime Raikage! Nampo, elite jonin of Sunagakure! And last but not certainly not least, Kurotsuchi, elite jonin of Iwagakure and granddaughter of the Sandaime Tsuchikage himself!" The crowds roar their approval for each announcement, noise level varying from respectable for our representative to near deafening for the Tsuchikage's daughter. How many people are out there, anyway?
"And now for the great warriors themselves! Allow me to direct your attention to our most honored guests, the leaders of the Five Great Hidden Villages! The five kage!" I grimace as the noise spikes again, rubbing at my right ear.
"Calm down, will you?" I mutter. "We haven't even started yet."
"Not to be forgotten, give it up for the five great lords who made this all possible! The Daimyo!"
I snort. "Yeah, I bet they did."
"And of course, our own beloved leader, without which the Land of Iron would be but a pale shadow of its current self. MIFUNE!"
It takes a good long while for the accumulated cheers for all the national leaders in attendance to die down, and by the time it does I can see a small blot of blue and white hanging back in the other tunnel. Sasuke.
"For those of you that have attended this magnificent tournament in the past, this will be just a refresher," Jo continues. "But for all of you new to these proceedings, this is the final trial those lucky twenty-four genin who have progressed past all three of the initial tasks will face before their promotion to chunin. A no holds barred tournament to decide once and for all who is truly the most skilled genin in all the Elemental Nations!" He announces, his voice and posture radiating glee, and the crowd responds in kind.
"Today you'll see the conclusion of the first and second rounds of the tournament, a total of eighteen matches separated by a four hour intermission after the twelfth match, so that the competitors might rest. And tomorrow, the semifinals and the threeway finals match will be conducted with an intermission of equal length between them. In total, that is twenty-two matches consisting of the best of the best of the next generation of shinobi. Are you ready!?"
"Introducing!" He roars, throwing an arm out towards Sasuke's tunnel. "Uchiha Sasuke of Konohagakure!"
Sasuke strides out to the center of the arena, and is immediately assaulted by a hail of catcalls, cheers, and boos, all intermixed with one another. It's actually a pretty even split between the good and bad, which is weird considering how outnumbered we must be up in the stands. But that might just be his clan name winning him some blind favor.
The exuberant samurai announcer waits until Sasuke comes to a stop a few feet away from him, and then promptly drops his left arm and throws his right one up. "And his opponent! Uzumaki Naruto of Konohagakure!"
My hands clench into fists, dispelling the strands of chakra weaving between them, and I exhale one long, slow breath. Then I square my shoulders, set my jaw, and walk into the light.
The sound hits me like thunder.
I realize as soon as I step out of the tunnel that the glimpses of sights and sounds I'd been getting had been nothing at all compared to the real thing. I find myself pausing just outside the entrance of my tunnel, entranced by the circular walls rising up and up and up around me, and the stands rising above those.
I crane my head around, sweeping across the hundreds upon hundreds of seats, all filled to bursting by the multitude of people in attendance. I lift my gaze higher, straight up, and see the dark, jagged underside of one of the Three Wolves. It isn't until I hear a familiar voice somewhere behind me, far above, that I'm snapped out of my stunned stupor.
"I don't get it, Kurenai-sensei," The voice, Kiba's voice, complains loudly. "Why couldn't we compete this year? Naruto's team all made it to the finals, and we could beat them easy! Right, Akamaru?" Kiba's dog barks in agreement. I roll my eyes and continue forward.
As I close the distance between myself and the proctor, I take another look at the arena around me. My perspective shifts with practised ease, and I consider the terrain around me with a tactical eye.
Now that I get a good look at it, the length of the arena from one end to another is closer to three times the size of the stadium back at Konoha. The ground beneath my feet is made up of dirt, frozen even more solid by the all pervasive chill. Good for dancing around, bad for taking hits. The walls of the arena are ridiculously tall, rising up around me as high as some of the apartments in Konoha's residential district. They're made of smooth stone, and look like they'll be able to take more than a few hits. Good for slamming opponents into with the Great Breakthrough.
And then there are… those.
I hadn't noticed them from my vantage point inside the tunnel, but now they're impossible to ignore. A veritable forest made of earthen trees reaching up to the sky. I cut through the arena to its center, passing by trees too dark and smooth and jagged to be alive. There are no leaves on their branches, but there are roots, and they're holding strong. I look all around the arena, counting almost a dozen earthen trees, so tall the jonin proctors crouched at the top of the arena's walls could step up onto their branches.
I file the strange constructs away in the back of my mind, vowing to utilize them somehow in the near future, and come to a stop across from Sasuke.
As soon as I do, Jo launches off into the rules of the match, which the proctors had already briefed us on back underneath the stadium. I take the time to search the tallest heights of the spectators stands, glancing over nobles and businessmen who could probably buy the entire apartment district I live in if they felt like it, searching for one box in particular. It doesn't take me long to find it.
The Kage box sits just above the Daimyo box, both set in the best possible vantage point this stadium could provide. It's difficult to make out the individual Kage from that far up, but their seating arrangement is clear enough. The Raikage and the Tsuchikage, a bear of a man and an old midget respectively, are positioned on the far right. A younger looking man garbed in the vibrant blue robes of the Mizukage sits beside them, and to his left is a man I don't recognize at all. That must be the Mifune guy, I guess.
And there, on the far left side of the box, are the Kazekage and the old man.
I hadn't been able to get in touch with the Sandaime like I'd wanted to before the tournament. Hatake made it clear that he was in the company of the Land of Iron's leader and that if I tried barging into a meeting of the world's most powerful figures without an invitation he'd burn my headband himself. In the end, I decided to let it drop.
I've still got a secret to keep, after all. I'll just have to talk to the old man about my seal after the tournament. And if whatever Kazu did to me causes problems during my fights, I'll deal with them myself. Believe it.
"And now, if our proctors would be so kind," The eccentric samurai calls, and now that I look at him up close I can see the small mic looped around his ear, projecting his voice to ridiculous volumes. At his words each of the jonin around the wall run through hand seals and press their palms to the stone, calling a barrier into being.
It takes the shape of a shimmering yellow dome overtop the arena, shining bright with energy for a few moments and getting an appreciative murmur from the crowd before fading from sight. The proctors remain in their crouched positions, though, making clear its continued existence.
"Uchiha Sasuke!" The announcer exclaims, turning his attention back to us. "Are you ready?"
I finally look at my teammate, and find him staring right back at me. "Yes," he says, voice curt. My eyes narrow.
"Uzumaki Naruto! Are you-"
I fall into my Taijutsu stance. "Yeah."
The crowd roars in anticipation, and Jo raises a hand up, a wide grin on his face. Sasuke slides back into his own stance. "Then without further ado, let the tournament BEGIN!" The announcer performs a flashy backflip away from the center of the stadium, the stands erupt with noise, and Sasuke and I surge forward.