Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or History's Strongest Disciple Kenichi. Once again I sent Kishimoto my Christmas list, but he refuses to come through with those rights to Naruto that I so desperately want. Oh well. At least he's got another full year to get the contracts worked out with his lawyers.

Chapter 27: With Friends Like These…


Naruto really usually didn't care much at all about new clothes. As long as the ones he wore to begin with were clean, didn't fall apart on him, or didn't fade colors too dramatically he didn't pay his own much mind. Sure, he bought new things when they caught his fancy, but that really didn't happen out of the blue too often.

When he was told that he absolutely would not be allowed to fight in the normal clothes that he usually tried to wear into combat, just some battered clothes that had already taken a beating and were therefore expendable, he had been five seconds short of throwing a rage-fit of epic proportions.

They coaxed him into going to the tournament, and suddenly his clothes weren't good enough to fight in? Screw that noise! Sure, they didn't actually do anything to protect him, but hey, he didn't have anything sturdy to compete in. Most of the point of being a ninja was to avoid straight-ups fight if at all available, so wearing clothes predesigned for battle really defeated that purpose.

So did joining an open fighting tournament, but that was aside the point.

Then he received his gift of 'clothing' and all of his mounting, hot anger died before it could even leave his throat or change the expression on his face.

He didn't get gifts, ever, from anyone. Not for years.

Naruto wished he could look himself over, because if his gear looked half as good on him as it did off of him he wouldn't be able to keep the grin off of his face no matter how many times he got hit today. Even though they were just clothes, he thought they were great. He had to hold himself back from hugging Shigure out of gratitude, because they were in public and he couldn't act like a giddy kid.

She did wind up receiving a quick one when he figured no one else was looking though.

His undershirt consisted of mesh armor that ran to his bicep and up to his neck tightly. Over that he wore a brown lightweight flak vest with a thick neck guard and several pockets on the front, a black ninja cowl attached securely to the interior material of the garment, dark-colored pants, and sturdy high length sandals. Around his wrists he had white tape wrapped, and on all of his fingers between the joints he had a thin band of tape as well.

"Now he dresses like a ninja," Niijima pointed out with a grin, only to duck out of sight when Naruto looked his way, "This is perfect. Now the Shade Alliance has two ways to show its strength, and both of our teams could meet in the finals!"

"Whatever," Naruto said, patting his flack vest firmly as he happily did a final check of his new gear and the ever-present bag secured over his back, "I'm just ready to get this show on the road," He was excited, and it was obvious.

"Really now?" Freya said, addressing him directly for the first time since she and the others had arrived on the island. Naruto hadn't even been aware of the fact that she associated with the 'Shade Alliance' in the slightest, "You, who tried to avoid too many direct battles to count? You're excited to fight?"

She was messing with him, in her own way. Needling him to try and get some kind of reaction for the fun of it. Freya did have a sense of humor, contrary to general belief, and even though she openly panned Naruto's normal demeanor, it was fairly enjoyable to try and push his buttons.

"You know, I don't hate fighting the way everybody thinks Kaname-chan. I actually like to fight most of the time," Naruto expressed with a grin, "It's just that I'm not supposed to. Why do you think even when I tried not to fight, it never worked?"

"Because you're a hotheaded kid."

"I'm not a damn kid!"

Button pushed.

The arena was deep, comparable to the Coliseum of Rome from the arrangement of the crowd seating that towered over the site meant for battle. Multiple boxes were set aside for the high-ranking viewing parties of the criminal guests. Down in the center rested a ring that consisted of a massive square stone platform that all of the underage fighters were expected to compete within.

Viewing boxes were set aside for the fighters on teams that weren't engaged in tournament matches, and there were armed guards all over the place. Cameras were set up to catch every moment of the action transpiring between combatants in the ring when it all finally began.

The Ryouzanpaku representatives filled one of the boxes, as well as the members of the Shade Alliance due to Niijima's insistence that the two parties were together despite their separate entries in the tournament. The masters of the vaunted dojo sat away from the disciples, allowing the youngsters to hang out with their own.

"I guess there's nothing we can do about it now," Kenichi said, sighing in resignation before accepting the fact that his friends were to take part in a Yami-organized tournament despite his reluctance to see them do so, "There really isn't anything positive to gain out of all of this you know."

…Aside from the massive prize money, and worldwide acclaim in the martial arts world that would come with winning. But those were mere trifles.

Takeda grinned and held up his own taped fist in Kenichi's direction in return, "That's pretty selfish of you Kenichi-kun. It's fine to want to keep your friends from getting hurt needlessly, but we're all martial artists, so there's no such thing. We all want to prove our worth too."

Thor clenched both of his massive hands, tensing the muscles in his defined arms at the thought of competing, "I've been training harder than you could imagine, just waiting for something like this. There's no better way to showcase my Combat Sumo."

"Being left behind really isn't on our list of things to do," Kisara followed up with a very feline-esque expression of mischief, "You just worry about your end Shirahama. If you end up against us, I'm taking your head off with a kick the first chance I get."

Naruto snickered and leaned forward over the edge of the balcony box at the thought, "If we have to take you guys on, we'll just have to kick all of your asses all over again."

"Say that to my face Uzumaki!"

"Sure! If we fight I'll kick your ass AGAIN!"

A while ago, the thought of that sort of thing would have left Kenichi's confidence in dire straits, but it was a mark of just how far he'd come that the thought of fighting the former top brass of the strongest fighters his age in town didn't frighten him.

He was nervous, and he was shaken up, but he was not paralyzed with fear the way he would have been at one point in time.

'I can handle this,' Kenichi thought to himself with calming breaths as he looked between his friends and comrades. After the initial shock of facing the crowd, they had all mellowed out to normal, or as close to normal as they got, 'With everything my masters have put me through, with all of the work I've put into this… I'm as ready as I'll ever be!'

"It's time to begin ladies and gentlemen! On your feet for the host of the day's proceedings set to make his opening speech! One of the Nine Fists One Shadow; 'The Laughing Fist' Diego Carlo!" With that, the criminals and wealthy powerhouses of the underworld in attendance stood and began raucously applauding for the figure standing at the very top of the bowl coliseum.

A tall, muscular man, which seemed to be par the course for all master-level fighters, Diego Carlo had slicked back black hair and wore a skintight red and green body costume, complete with a sash, wrestling boots, and a mask that covered the top portion of his face and eyes, leaving his mouth free and clear to reveal a wide grin.

"WELCOME TO THE DESPERATE FIGHT OF DISCIPLES!" Diego bellowed at the top of his lungs over a microphone, "Let's keep things brief in regards to the rules, they're really simple! It takes five people to form a team for any given round. You may keep stand-ins, but only five participants maximum are allowed to fight per round. Every member of the five-man team must be defeated for another team to advance! Of course as we've seen from the team makeups, five competitors aren't necessary! A single man can comprise a team if need be!"

"Well that explains why he's so cool with the mismatched teams," Naruto said, furrowing his brow and squinting his eyes as he remembered the different teams in the tournament that he'd seen during the arrival of the competitors in the center of the coliseum.

Most teams had at least five fighters, but others had only two or three.

Team Gemini, featuring Castor and Pollux of YOMI was only made up of two people. Also Team Nanken consisted of only two members. Team Santoryuu, led by a white-haired, maniacal-looking teen who kept mean-mugging at Team Ryouzanpaku with a rather insane smile, had three members, as did the aforementioned Team Ryouzanpaku.

Miu poked him in the side to garner his attention away from his deep thinking over the odds present in the tournament, probably for his own good as he looked like something upstairs was frying, "Don't tell me you're put off by all of this?"

"Nah, I do my best work with a handicap anyway," Naruto said, still squinting and crossing his arms over his chest, "You guys totally need the money, and I owe you for Shigure training me-," Amongst other things, "-So I'm gonna help you win this damn thing."

"You're just a big softie at heart aren't you?" Miu taunted slyly.

"No!" Naruto rebutted indignantly, "I owe you guys, and that's all! Don't go putting me on the spot like that, 'ttebayo!"

"No, no, Naruto-kun's just a giant kitten plushy. There's nothing wrong with it."

"Gah, sometimes you really suck, you know that?"

"Aww, we love you too."

"It's time to get things underway, but it seems however that we happen to be missing one of the teams competing!" Which confused the audience as a whole. What, did the damn kids oversleep or miss their wake-up call? "The American Kickboxing team has until their match time to arrive, otherwise they are disqualified and we have to fix the tournament brackets."

"I'm afraid that won't be necessary."

From the mouth of the arena where the fighters were meant to enter en route to the stage, a calm entity emerged, flanked and followed by seven similar members of his ilk, all wearing plain white porcelain masks and similar dark outfits consisting of high collared tops that bared the wearer's midriffs with varying lengths on sleeves, as well as dark-colored pants.

Their leader carried a short blade on his back and refrained from wearing a mask, his pale, emotionless face framed by the bangs of his short, black hair.

Ukita and Kisara didn't forget a face, especially one as poignant as the one of the group leader below.

"That's… that's the guy from the culture fair!" Kisara shouted upon realizing who it was, "No way! What's he doing here?"

It took Naruto a moment to notice from the distance he viewed them from, but when he noticed the tactically placed kunai pouches on their legs for emergency situations, and the way they carried themselves simply from the gait of their walk, it was clear.

More ninjas had decided that he needed to stop existing… and they'd managed to get onto a fortress of an island to take a shot at him. Now that was dedication.

Kenichi noticed the hard look in Naruto's eyes, even as everyone's attention was set on the newcomers, "Naruto-san, do you know these people?"

"No," Naruto replied with a shake of his head. And it was as simple as that.

Kenichi nodded gravely in return. By now he understood as much; that Naruto didn't need to know who was after him to be aware of the fact that they were going to try and kill him. If they tried though, they would find their efforts to be significantly more troublesome than they might have bargained for, because they would have to fight him as well.

Upon allowing the ninja team to reach the center of the ring, the flamboyant Lucha Libre master of Yami's top fighters grinned down at them and addressed them accordingly, "Well it looks like we have another surprise to spice up the show! And how pray tell should we classify you?"

"None of us have names," The leader declared, looking around the arena and quickly eyeing Naruto in the Shade Alliance/Team Ryouzanpaku box, "…But for the duration of this mission I at least have been designated with the codename 'Sai', just in case there was ever a need for me to identify myself."

"Interesting," Diego said, making a show of stroking his chin in thought, "And you said that waiting on the American Kickboxing team wasn't necessary. Would you care to share why?"

"They won't be coming at all, because they're no longer amongst the living," Sai said, not an ounce of remorse or any sort of feeling on his face at all, as a loud gasp echoed out through the crowd. This boy, this ninja, had just openly admitted to killing an entire team of martial artists during the night, "They all went in their sleep. It was painless for them, and we kept the mess to a minimum."

The comments amongst the audience; that they were so young to speak so easily of outright murder, not killing in the heat of conflict, but premeditated homicide. It horrified some, but for some of the more cold-blooded spectators used to dealing in death it was impressive. Exciting even, that children could be conditioned to refrain from flinching at such a topic.

Miu's hands tightened on the safety railing of their balcony box as she looked down at the ninja team before her. Thoughts of the night that Naruto had run from her outside of the dojo to meet his fate in combat with Hyuuga Neji.

He'd never told her what occurred that night, never told anyone, but in her heart she knew. He wasn't Katsujinken, and he'd never let on that he was.

…It was happening again.

These people were going to make Naruto do something… reprehensible, in order to stop them from killing him and hurting others to get to him. Because that was what he felt like he would have to do. Not this time though. This time there was no way he could keep them from standing with him for their safety, or because he had to finish things himself.

"I was of the mind that this tournament invited teams to compete. If a team is so weak that they weren't even able to survive until the start of the competition, why would you have wanted them in the first place?" Sai said, trying to appeal to the Satsujinken's cold side of reason, "We do apologize for disrupting things so much, and we would like to make amends by offering ourselves to replace the deceased team."

"I'm guessing you have your reasons for wanting to do so," Diego said, finding himself intrigued at the prospect of allowing them in. It would definitely add some spice to his already masterfully crafted piece of entertainment, "I think it would please everyone here to learn just what drove you to kill off an entire team of advertised talent."

"To kill Uzumaki Naruto," Sai smoothly revealed with ease. There was no point in hiding their intentions. Their target, if he wasn't completely brain-dead, had already more than likely ascertained why they were there, and this would change nothing, "But he is… too well insulated or hard to pin down for us to find a proper avenue to kill him. Even last night, there were too many on our level and far above our level of ability to think about trying anything and succeeding. Here, he cannot run, he cannot hide, and he is outnumbered."

Too many skilled fighters surrounded Naruto to even think about assassinating him in his sleep the way they had the American Kickboxing team. He was never alone, whether by design or not it was just the way things seemed to work out.

Not even considering the masters of Ryouzanpaku who would have noticed them long before they even got close enough to draw blades against Naruto, the Shade Alliance members were no slouches either, and it was too risky to attempt a battle with them.

"I can assure you Laughing Fist," Sai said, staring up at the top of the coliseum at the host of the tournament, "No one on my squad is older than seventeen years of age. That falls in line with the parameters required for your competition, does it not?"

"Indeed it does," Diego said with a laugh, "The only parameters actually. And I am curious to see just what a real ninja is capable of in open combat." Whether intentional or unintentional, his words quickly summoned a storm cloud of disrespect that unleashed a downpour on top of Naruto's head, "Alright then! CONSIDER YOURSELVES ENTERED IN THE TOURNAMENT AS WELL! AT LEAST UNLIKE THAT RAGTAG SHADE ALLIANCE, YOU ACTUALLY PROVED YOURSELF INSTEAD OF SIMPLY CRASHING MY SHOW!"

Sai bowed to Diego and the rest of his team followed suit almost robotically, "Since we're down here already, we don't see any need in wasting more of your tournament's time. If you would like, we're entirely willing to fight the match intended for your American Kickboxing team now."

"Very well! The first match of the first round will be the newly entered Nameless Team against the formidable Karate Team!"

XxX

"…Formidable," Sakaki said with a skeptic snort as the remnants of the opening bout were carried off by the island guards, "…Right."

A complete massacre. That was the only thing that could describe the ensuing 'fight', if one could call it that.

The Karate Team strictly adhered to Sport Karate practices, as in Karate with rules and expectations that surrounded the rules that they governed themselves by. It would have been better to declare their style as glorified point-sparring for all of its effectiveness as a fighting style in such a setting.

In a tournament where there were no holds barred, and anything was legal, they had a slim chance to begin with of success. The moment they were matched against people that would literally do anything in order to win, their fates were sealed. Their grim, bloody fates.

As a practitioner of Karate himself, Sakaki couldn't help but feel a modicum of pity. That soon gave way to exasperation, as they simply didn't know what they'd gotten themselves into. It was probably a safe bet that whoever else they would have fought first would have wiped the floor with them.

…Anyone else probably would have been less thorough about it however.

There had barely been enough seen to break down much of the style of the ninja interlopers. Even though the round had been set to be fought in a series of one-on-one matches, only two of the masked ones had fought, and that had been all that was needed to finish the job.

"Those children are trouble," Kensei said, gravely contemplating everything that had occurred during the whirlwind that was the last ten minutes, "Serious trouble."

"If they're in the tournament they have to fight, same as every other team," Sakaki reasoned gruffly, the scar-faced brute quickly trying to put what he'd just seen in the back of his mind. There was nothing he could do about it, and he had to have faith. He had his own important things to do on the island to worry about the disciples, "All of the teams in this thing won't be pushovers, and if they even get to our team, can you really say that they'll really pull off killing the brat?"

Shigure could not. She would not. She herself had trained Naruto too well, had spent too much time working with him to think such a thing. She and the others had trained Kenichi too harshly to think such a thing.

"No… chance," The soft-spoken weapon mistress said, leaving no room for dissent, as if she would have gotten any.

If entering themselves in a tournament was their best hope at getting a real chance at killing Naruto, it wasn't much of one. In a straight fight, Naruto, Miu, and Kenichi would take them down. That was all there was to it.

XxX

To say that the Shade Alliance members were shocked would have been a gross exaggeration. As former members of feared street gang Ragnarok, they had seen, and many of them had been responsible for, more lopsided beatings in their own time. Still, the stark, cold efficiency that Sai and his cohorts had displayed was akin to that of a machine. The two that had actually fought moved as if they were fighting a proxy battle.

It was like they were programmed to operate in a particular manner. Their skills were imposing enough, but the way they went about their business was downright eerie. After it all ended they simply walked off without sparing their motionless targets a second glance.

After all of that, it was still a mystery as to the layout of the tournament brackets.

"Well that was violent," Ukita said, clearing his throat to speak up as the attendants below finished cleaning the ring off, "What happens now? Who's next?"

"Who knows?" Freya said, frowning pensively after viewing the Nameless Team and their efficient, brutal methods. They hadn't hesitated for a moment to pull out those odd kunai knives to decimate the Karate Team, 'To cut down one's opponent in such a manner…'

It made her feel much better that she was well-armed. Not very though, as she still didn't know when her team would fight, or against who.

This was a far cry from the street fights where she'd originally honed her skills in combat, and everyone else felt the exact same way. There was no backing out now however. They all wanted to be there, and turning tail at the first sign of real danger would have been pathetic after coming all that way.

"The next match! The upstarts with no chance of getting out of this tournament all in one piece, the Shade Alliance, will take on the massive Mongolian Bufu Team!"

And it looked like their number had just been called.

With a gulp, Kenichi's eyes moved from the ring where the Mongolian Bufu Team was already entering, to his friends and associates that were preparing to head down and get themselves into a serious fight, "You guys be careful."

"There's no need for that kind of concern," Freya said, arms folded over her ample chest, "If people aren't awake and aware after the last match, they really don't have any business fighting here."

"Still…" Miu said, frowning pensively. They might have gotten a taste of how serious things could be with the entire ninja episode, but they hadn't had to deal with such things for nearly as long as she had. Even for as long as Naruto had to be honest.

"Don't worry about a thing honey," Takeda said in return with a bragging grin, the first to lead the way down, "Just watch us work, would you? You haven't been the only ones training,"

Despite saying such a thing, he wasn't certain of how much he had to offer. None of them really were. They had been training and training hard yes, but this was like the big fish leaving the small pond to swim in the big ocean with the other perhaps bigger fish. How much bigger they were remained to be seen.

Ukita tightly gripped the collar of his own Judo gi to try and stanch his own nerves as he brought up the tail-end of the party heading down. Takeda, Freya, Kisara, Thor, and himself would be set to fight. He'd follow them down, but whether he'd be following them back up remained to be seen.

Suddenly the box felt a lot emptier, as only Niijima and the auxiliary members of the Shade Alliance (flag-bearer Matsui included) remained with the Ryouzanpaku representatives.

It was quite easy to break tension in situations like this however. All it took was some curiosity and a need to know what was going on around oneself to do so.

"Hey, what's 'bufu' anyway?" Naruto decided to blurt out and ask as the Mongolian fighters had long since been standing outside of the ring waiting to do their thing, "I wanted to ask that before, but it didn't feel… I dunno, right, to bring up because it was so serious."

Kenichi and Miu simply stared at Naruto in return. Of course it had been serious. A team of admitted killers had come and outright declared that they were going to kill him, then had demonstrated their prowess on a team of sport karate practitioners.

Nevertheless, no one else had the ability to suck the tension right out of a room.

Akisame chuckled and in his normal astute manner he filled Naruto in, "Mongolian Bufu is basically the Mongolian contemporary of Sumo," Which explained why they were all so large, "Depending on where you live in Mongolia, it can be a harsh country. Bufu conversely is a harsh style."

The Mongolian Bufu Team certainly didn't look like pushovers. Towering young men, seemingly comprised of muscle, they wore traditional Mongolian hats on their heads and long-armed tight jackets bound at the back with the front torso left entirely exposed, as well as strange cloth briefs and leather boots.

All five sat squat, quite serious as they waited for their first round opponents to finish the trek down to the platform where they stood on the exact opposite side.

XxX

Ukita's knees shook. This was a serious out-of-water situation for him. Back in his hometown, he really hadn't ever lost a fight, but then he was beaten by Kenichi and soon found that there were people far stronger simply living around him. Now they were on an international stage.

As the first of the Mongolian Bufu members made their way into the ring to begin the first fight, Ukita held back a shudder and decided that if nothing else he would go first. No guts, no glory. He was only hoping that he wouldn't wind up seeing his own by the end of the tournament.

Before he could make his way over the platform into the ring, he was preempted by several hard claps of Thor's massive hands as the grinning Sumo crossed the bridge across the moat around the ring, "I know practitioners of a fellow grappling style when I see one. So let's see what's better; your Bufu or my Combat Sumo!"

"Sumo vs. Bufu for the first fight! Thor vs. Sükh!"

Thor grinned and stomped heavily before setting himself down on his knuckles in the traditional tachi-ai starting posture for a Sumo charge. Sükh simply tossed his hat away, not bothering to try and speak due to the lack of a bridge between their two languages.

The two behemoths drove forward at one another and met in a harsh clash of hands, forearms, and elbows, both man trying to forcefully work through the limbed defenses of the other. Between two high-level grapplers locking up, when things got that close in became a harsh little game of inches, especially when there were no rules or regulations.

Short jabs, headbutts, anything that could be used to disorient an opponent. Normally, Sumo made many of these such things forbidden, but Thor's Sumo style was meant for street fights, therefore it was all fair game until one got a good enough hold of the other to destroy them, and that hold did indeed come.

Feeling that he had a good grip, Thor leaned forward, prompting Sükh to try and grab him around the waist over his back. It was all according to plan though, as Thor locked his own arms around the backs of Sükh's legs and stood straight up, hefting the Mongolian off of the ground, "Uwaaaaaah! Izori (Backwards Body Drop)!"

Unceremoniously, he jumped up as high as he could go with the load over his shoulder, falling back with all of his weight and force, dropping Sükh on the ground, head, neck, and back-first. The move crushed him outright.

Sükh did not get back up.

Dusting off his hands as he stood up from his broken foe, Thor's face shone nobly, as if he hadn't smashed his opponent in one move, "I could see what you were going for when I bent forward. Your style doesn't hold anything back when you get the edge does it? I like that!"

He was hoping to see a bit more in this round. Perhaps he could incorporate some moves into his Combat Sumo?

"The winner of the first fight for his team; Thor!"

Stamping his feet and getting back into tachi-ai posture, Thor found himself pulled back as a significantly more diminutive figure deigned herself a candidate to take his place. Feeling a nudge on his shoulder, Thor's place was taken by the staff-wielding femme, "Wha-? Huh?"

"I know that in a situation like this it would be better for us to keep as many of our team from fighting as we can so we can hide our techniques-," Freya said, explaining why she was eager to step forward, "-But I need to see where I stand."

Thor frowned, as he still had a lot more left in the tank to fight with, after all his match had only taken a few moments to decide, but he also understood where his former Ragnarok comrade was coming from. After everything that had happened, she wanted to know just if she had found her ceiling or if her training had let her break through.

You couldn't find that information out just by sitting on the sidelines.

Without a word, Thor smiled and left the stage upon seeing the next Mongolian Bufu Team member head up to take Freya on. Thor gotten rid of his first round jitters, and it was only right to let others do the same.

"So this girl is going to be Chuluun's first opponent?" The announcer asked the crowd as Mongolian wrestler stood tall over the young woman. She twitched slightly at being referred to as 'this girl', but she otherwise didn't lose her poker face.

"No," Freya said, wasting no time in pulling out her staff and sectioning its two parts together, "I'll be his only opponent."

"The second fight of the second first round match! Shade Alliance's staff-user Freya against the monstrous Bufu Team's Chuluun!"

"Kick his ass Kaname-chan!"

Of course his voice was easily discernible over the interested chatter of the crowd. She couldn't afford to smile in such a situation though, and took the time being given to her by her enemy, doing some eagle-esque pre-match ritual dance, to note how he'd regarded her when she'd chosen to go first.

'He isn't underestimating me in skill, but he still does believe that as a woman he can defeat me based on strength.' Freya thought to herself. And Chuluun wasn't wrong. He would be the one with superior strength. It was up to Freya to keep that from being an issue, which was where carrying a weapon came into play.

Wasting no time, Chuluun lunged at Freya speedily, but she quickly moved out of reach of his attempt to grab her. She quickly smacked him in the side of the leg with her staff as she retreated, dropping him to one knee and giving her time to get her distance.

Chuluun glared and stood back up as Freya froze in place and prepared to react to his forthcoming attack once more. It would be coming. She knew that it would be. Grapplers were usually an aggressive sort who were quick to try and get in close to work their techniques.

This time however, Chuluun had an actual strategy beyond trying to grab her.

When he made his move, he noticed the way that she held her staff from her standing position; posted upright on the ground and held with both hands to react to anything that she needed to. She would be the sort that wouldn't let go of her weapon even if a stronger enemy wound up getting their hands on it as well. He was counting on that.

Faking a straightforward grab that he knew she would counter, he switched things up and lashed a hand out to grab the exposed top of the staff. Even if she repeated her previous action and hit him low on the leg to trip him or in his body to stun him, he would still have gotten to her.

From that point, if she let go of the weapon from that point she would be disarmed and a sitting duck. If she held on, she would be subsequently pulverized.

Yeah, all of that would have been great… if he'd have gotten ahold of the staff's top.

Chuluun thought he'd had it, but it moved through his hand like he'd been clutching at a phantom, and he felt the bottom end of it immediately rise up and pop him right underneath the chin.

Following up immediately, Freya flipped forward and crashed her heel down on his collarbone before smashing her staff down on top of his head with wicked intensity, "Kugatachi Ryuu Gokui: Rei Mei (Kugatachi-Style Ultimate Technique: Thunder Clap)!"

The entire audience let out a collective 'ooh' from the speed and ending result of the attack as Chuluun crumpled to the ground in a heap. Once again, the fight was over, and the ragtag group of martial artists had dropped yet another member of the favored Mongolian Bufu Team.

"Hitting you in the body or legs wouldn't have done me much good," Freya said, admitting the reasoning for her approach with a shrug, "Unfortunately that left your head, and since I didn't know how dangerous you were I had to go for it."

"Wow! It takes a truly sharp eye to have even seen Freya's staff move for that first attack! Down goes the second member of the Bufu unit to the unheralded Shade Alliance!"

Diego could only laugh in growing interest at the capabilities of the random team that had broken into his tournament.

"I've already seen what it will take to win in this kind of place, and I've already had to be saved from someone willing to kill me for nothing," Freya said, standing up out of her stance in the wake of her motionless opponent and walking away, "It's going to take more than size to scare me."

Hearing her former senior's parting words for her unconscious foe, Kisara snickered and casually walked her way into the fray. Lifting her hand to informally 'tag out' as she passed Freya on the runway to the ring. If everyone else was going to get some, she wanted a piece of the action as well. Even Takeda was still chomping at the bit to take them on.

The Mongolian Bufu Team didn't win a single match… and Ukita hadn't even wound up fighting a single one much to his chagrin and simultaneous relief.

XxX

Naruto and Kenichi both high-fived one another in celebration as Takeda polished off the last two Bufu fighters in quick succession with his iron-hard, lightning-quick fists. Watching that had set Kenichi's mind at ease when it came to his friends, but it only made him wonder just what else awaited him in the tournament.

The team comprised of himself, Naruto, and Miu still had to fight their first contest.

"Wahahahaha!" Niijima cheered, kicking his legs frantically in his chair, "That's it! Bring the wins home for your general! The Shade Alliance doesn't even need its commanders on its roster to get the job done!"

In his head, dreams of a world-reaching enterprise danced through his thoughts.

As Naruto spiritedly greeted the victorious returning Shade Alliance and began chattering animatedly about their win along with Miu, Kenichi took that moment to slip out into the posh hallways outside of the spectator's boxes.

He thought he'd made it out unnoticed, but his absence was of course picked up on quickly. He was not as unremarkable as he liked to think that he was.

"Where'd Kenichi-kun go?" Miu asked, a touch of worry in her tone after noting the lack of her dojo's 'Strongest Disciple's' presence, "Why would he just leave like that?"

No one knew, especially considering the tournament brackets were finally up for all to see.

Round One:
Match 1 – Nameless Team vs. Karate Team
Match 2 – Shade Alliance vs. Mongolian Bufu Team
Match 3 – Team Ryouzanpaku vs. Santoryuu
Match 4 – Pankration Team vs. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Team
Match 5 – Builder 5 vs. Tenchi Mushin Ryu
Match 6 – Team Gemini vs. Nanken Team
Match 7 – New York Street Fighting Team vs. Capoiera Team
Match 8 – Team Black Force vs. Escrima Team

Quarterfinals and onward:
?

"Why are the next round matches all blank?" Takeda asked, knowing how the usual format for a tournament worked, "Shouldn't we already be on there to fight those nameless fellows in the next round? Our matches were back-to-back."

Sakaki shot a glance up to where Diego was host and noted that the man had a sly, manic grin on his face, pointed right at them, "Heh, so he's that kind of guy," If he expected manipulation of the brackets to set any of the Ryouzanpaku masters off, he was definitely barking up the wrong tree.

Akisame calmly assessed the situation and answered the young boxer, "As the host, I assume he retains the right to adjust the odds as he pleases for the entertainment factor. In that regard I guess this place is more like the Roman Coliseum than one would at first think."

"Right," Sakaki said, suddenly standing up to leave, "Okay, watching kids beat on each other is fun and all, but if I know ninja-brat, his fight is going to be the cure for insomnia. I'd probably rather watch flies fuck-."

"Bite me Karate Bum!" Naruto spouted, flipping him off much to the mortification of his Shade Alliance friends who knew of Sakaki's temper and strength.

"-So I'm going to go find something more adult to do," The Karate mauler declared with a wave of his hand, "…Maybe find some actual alcohol in this place. The drinks at that party last night were watered down."

"Reh…" Naruto stuck his tongue out at the departing master and plopped down in his seat grousing to himself. He couldn't wait until he was strong enough to kick that bastard through a wall. Turnabout was fair play after all.

"You should focus on your match since you seem to be next," Freya said, sitting down near a grumbling Naruto, "Aside from that, you shouldn't antagonize master-class martial artists anyway. I'm more than certain nothing good can come of it."

Clearly, she didn't know that he'd been doing such a thing for the better part of his teenage years already, "If I ever backed off he probably wouldn't respect me… not that I even care that I have that guy's respect anyway," Naruto said unconvincingly, "Besides, I'm going to be a kage-level ninja myself, and compared to that, who cares if Karate Bum is a master? A kage-level ninja is so dangerous, they can only leave the Homeland once a year."

From the blank expression on her face it was quite clear that much of that had gone right over her head. Sometimes Naruto forgot that everyone didn't have the benefit of a formal ninja curriculum education… even if his was four years short. That was okay though, he just chalked that up to being made up for with real-world experience.

"…That means I'll be a really, really super-strong ninja," Naruto deadpanned, realizing that dropping his ambition of being a kage-level ninja fell completely flat in the face of someone that didn't realize its significance, "Tch, it's fine if you don't believe I can do it though,"

It would just make it that much better when he did. People either didn't think he could do it, or they didn't know what a kage was in the first place.

"Who said that I don't believe you?"

Whoa. Now that was a surprise. The only person that openly showed any sort of support to his ambition was Jiraiya, by heaping tons of expectations and training onto him. Shigure supported him as well… he thought. He didn't know because she never said anything about it. Tough one to read she was.

Freya regarded him with an unflinchingly serious expression, "You defeated that white-eyed ninja didn't you? To win against someone like that… there has to be more to you than even most of us have seen with our own eyes."

"…Neji."

Freya blinked in confusion of Naruto's random namedrop, "I'm sorry, what?"

"His name was Neji," Naruto said plainly, respectfully, and with the utmost seriousness as he got up to leave the room, sparing a second to put a hand on Miu's shoulder, his normal grin set back on his face as if he'd never been serious at all, "I'll find Kenichi. He probably didn't go that far."

The intent of what he'd said was not lost on anyone within earshot. Masters, disciples, it didn't matter. It was the first time Naruto had said anything of the ninja situation since it had come to a sudden and abrupt end without anyone ever witnessing the defeat of the apparent leader of the group.

His name was Neji.

The masters of Ryouzanpaku had already for the most part known that the fight between Naruto and Neji had resulted in a fatal conclusion, but for the Shade Alliance members that had put the pieces together right then and there it was hard to associate Naruto of all people with ending anyone's life in battle.

It just didn't seem like it fit. But there it was, tapping them all on the shoulder, trying to get them all to wheel around and face it. He might as well have said it.

His name was Neji.

XxX

'Everyone is so confident. Miu, Naruto-san, all of my friends…' Kenichi thought to himself, gritting his teeth as he looked at his own shaking hands, 'Why is a normal person like me even in a place like this? Gah! Why do I still even feel this way after everything that's happened?'

His friends, that he had been against joining the competition, they had the ability to defeat these exotic fighters in one or two moves. What if there was someone who could do that to him? What if there was someone that could kill him in one move?

This was a tournament hosted by Yami after all. Team Gemini's Castor and Pollux were representing as their direct champions just for starters.

It was then that he remembered that his best friend was a ninja, as he suddenly felt Naruto's presence leaning on a wall behind him. Without the Seikuuken he hadn't even felt him get that close and he wondered how long he'd been there.

"You ready to go?" Naruto asked, pointing his thumb back in the direction of the spectator's box, "We've got five minutes and then we're up."

"Haha…" Kenichi laughed humorlessly in exasperation, "You know, I think if we were the first ones to start this whole thing off I'd have been okay, but now after watching the fights and having time to think about what's waiting for us, I think I'll freeze up."

"What? Why?"

"I'm no natural born fighter, and I'm not some heartless killing machine that can just do these sorts of things without thinking about them," Kenichi explained with a sad smile, "Don't you ever get that feeling that you're out of your league? It kind of shakes me up a bit."

"You're braver than a lot of other guys," Naruto stated for his benefit, "You've fought tons of times before already, against tons of dangerous people. So what if there are some guys here that are probably stronger than you've seen before? You're stronger now too, and you'll never know how much if you don't try."

All of that tormenting training. The bruising, bone-rattling spars with Naruto and Miu. The horrendously odd exercises that his masters put him through. Every time he thought about his own weakness, he thought of how a weak person could have possibly survived that form of hell, "…Do you think it's that simple? Really? Could it be?"

"I'm not gonna spout some crap about how you have to do this and how we need you," Naruto said, unknowingly causing the raincloud over Kenichi's head to grow in size due to his blunt remark, "You do have a choice, and you don't have to fight. But I know you. If you don't go out there and leave it all in the ring, you're gonna hate yourself forever. You may not have wanted to fight many of the fights we've been in, but you've always seen 'em through. I believe in you, and Miu-chan does too!"

Miu did? That much got Kenichi's attention, but he quickly schooled his expression, "That's right."

"Yeah, just remember we're right there with you, and we rise and fall right along with you," Naruto said, grinning and punching into his palm, "You and me are partners, you know? And every girl needs a hero; even a tough one like Miu-chan. Who knows? It could be you!"

Kenichi froze up altogether, his mouth held slightly open as he regarded Naruto's parting words. Naruto nodded and walked away, leaving Kenichi to ponder his words. He was quite certain he'd hit some cool points with his speech, and after doing that, the walk-off without turning back around was the hallmark of an awesome dialogue.

He didn't know that the Miu thing was what stuck the most out of all of the pseudo-heroic crud he'd chosen to drop. Ignorance was bliss sometimes.

Something about all of that renewed Kenichi's vigor. He was still nervous, but he had a reason to stand up and do what he had to do now. He'd undertaken his training with the intent of standing by Miu's side as an equal one day. What better time was there for seeing how far he'd come to that than now?

Deciding to head down on his own to get ready for the fight, as Naruto and Miu were obviously waiting on him to arrive, Kenichi rounded a corner only to bump into the steel wall that was Elder Hayato, "Err, Elder?"

"It seems you've found a bit of your resolve," Hayato said with a good-natured laugh, "That's good. You got Miu quite worried when you first left the room."

"Oh…" Kenichi said, bowing contritely, "I'm sorry."

"There's nothing to apologize for. Sometimes a man needs to take a moment to think," Hayato said, excusing Kenichi from apologizing, "Everyone expects a lot from you, and you are capable of living up to it. You just need to learn how to control your courage, so I'll tell you what. I have a way that should help you with that."

Kenichi simply stood still and let the Elder whisper his helpful measure into his ear, only for his face to light up at what he'd heard.

Suddenly he couldn't start the fights soon enough for his taste. Even just from his hurried pace of walking, Hayato could swear Kenichi had left a dust cloud in his wake.

"Hohohoho… ah the folly of youth," Hayato said, shaking his head as he headed back off to the seats, his protégé sufficiently motivated to do his best.

XxX

"What happened Kenichi-kun?"

"Huh? Ah, I don't know what you mean Miu-san, hahaha…"

"It's just that you ambled out of the room like someone had just walked over your grave, and now you're almost snorting steam. Something really got you going?"

"Uh, you think so?"

"No, it's a good thing though. I'm glad."

While Kenichi and Miu shared a moment, Naruto stood looking around the coliseum. It was anyone's guess as to where Team Nameless resided, but it could be assured that they had someone with their eyes on him.

All he could do was advance with along his friends though. One battle as they came; that was his only option at this point in time. At least he wasn't alone. Silver linings and all that…

The stage had been transformed into a rural Chinese residential setting. A small home, surrounded by a stone wall with a circular entrance for half and a wooden fence for the other half. A tree was situated in the corner for aesthetics. Let no one say that Carlo had a lack of flair for the dramatic.

"Three-Headed Dragon," Naruto said, in regards to Santoryuu's team name, "That's a great team name. We should have come up with our own team name. Team Ryouzanpaku sounds like crap. We should have been 'The All-Night Express', or something with an acronym… like Team F.I.S.T."

"Naruto-san, what does this have to do with anything going on right now?" Kenichi asked before his brain swiftly flew off-track, "…F.I.S.T.?

"Fighters In Separate Training."

"I actually kind of like that one," Miu admitted, tapping her index finger off of her chin, "Oh! But we've got to focus! The fight's about to start!"

So it was Ryouzanpaku against three practitioners of separate Chinese Kenpo styles. That was rough. Chinese Kenpo itself was a blanket term for any style of martial arts that originated from China. There were enough versatile Chinese Kenpo styles to account for the entire world if need be.

Kaku Shin Ten; a young man with short white hair and a maniacal expression on his face. He wore a light blue tiger and dragon decorated Chinese martial arts robe with yellow trim and black pants, "This is going to be great. The chance to kill anyone having anything to do with the Ma Family is just to die for."

Chou Yin Lin was the female member of the team; a girl with solid, dark eyes and brown hair up in buns with a long braid going down her back. She wore twin brown wristbands, a short red Chinese dress with a yellow sash that exposed much of her legs, fastened across the chest loosely to leave little to the imagination of her breasts, "All together, our three styles are unbeatable."

"Good thing the matches are one-on-one then huh?" Kenichi said, trying to bring up some confidence with some banter.

"Maestro Diego Carlo has declared that the following match between Ryouzanpaku and Santoryuu will be a 3-on-3 battle royale!"

"Oh come on, you've got to be kidding me!"

Kaku only cackled in response, quietly in comparison to the booming laughs from Carlo in his station above.

Yo Tekai seemed to be the most docile of the bunch. He was a taller young man with black hair and an eyepatch, wearing a dark purple Chinese robe with yellow trim and black kung fu pants, he held his hands in his pockets coolly, only regarding this as just another fight, "Kaku can get himself all worked up about this. But he does have a point. Just thinking about what's about to happen to you is enough to bring a tear to the eye."

"This could work though," Miu mused, "If this was split up into a series of fights, there's a chance Kenichi could be stuck fighting the woman on their team," And that wouldn't end well at all, especially if she was very talented.

Naruto frowned at the thought as both he and Miu fixed Kenichi with a pensive eye, making him shift in place, "…You've got a point."

"Hey, let's all be productive," Kenichi defended, "There's a lot at stake here," Like their lives… Ryouzanpaku's honor… their lives… the prize money that the dojo desperately needed… oh, and their lives.

"I can't believe these are the representatives of the Ma Family that would have been sent to fight in this thing," Kaku said, "I would have expected Ma Renka, or one of the protégés like Ryu Genson."

"Genson?" Naruto said with a raised brow, "Yeah Genson's cool, but we're way more badass than Genson is. Rock Lee is more badass than Genson is come to think of it."

"I'm proud of you Naruto-kun," Miu said with a smile.

"Huh? Why?"

"Well I was expecting you to say something like, 'I beat Lee, so that makes me more badass than both of them,'" She said, holding her eyes and gravelling up her voice to mimic Naruto's face and voice.

Naruto gawked at her before looking over at the enemy team and then to Kenichi, "…I'm not that predictable, am I?"

No one answered him.

"Fight!"

"Actions speak louder than words!" Naruto swung his hand downward to the ground, slamming a smoke bomb down that concealed his entire team. When it dissipated, only Miu and Kenichi were left standing there. Both of them let out indignant squawks and took up their ready stances.

"Oh! And with his first move, Uzumaki disappears inside the fence of the small cottage grounds, just waiting for his moment to strike!"

Lowering the camouflage sheet he'd been using to blend in, Naruto stared up at the emcee booth with a twitching eye, "Damn it, really?" Okay, so trying to do anything indirectly tactical wasn't going to work unless it was really subtle. Good to know, "I've gotta hide my moves from the announcer now. Sweet."

His opening gambit rendered useless, Naruto jumped the wall to get back to the starting point. From there he mentally kicked himself. Miu and Kenichi had expected him to stand with them and begin things head-on. This had thrown them off when Chou was the first of her team to begin making her move.

"Damn it, it's Baguazhang! Interrupt the steps! Don't let her circle!" Naruto shouted, sprinting over to get himself into the fray. It seemed that despite the setting, the situation was going to force his hand and make him fight directly.

As he saw Kenichi move to break Chou's steps before she could strike at him or Miu, he saw a fast moving blur coming straight in. Gritting his teeth and pressing his hands together in front of himself, Naruto leaned forward as far as he could go to maximize his straight-ahead speed.

"What kind of motion is this? Is it the vaunted ninja-style of full-speed running?"

Doing so allowed him enough quickness to intercept a straightforward punch that would have nailed an unaware Kenichi otherwise.

Yo raised an eyebrow as he found his punch stopped by a lifting kick from Naruto. He could see the defined muscle that he possessed, but he hadn't really figured that he had enough strength to stop him with an off-balanced kick.

Naruto caught a sharp movement out of the corner of his eye and had to cover up as he was knocked away from Yo by Kaku who them himself vanished through Yo's Chou's circling of Kenichi and Miu to get within dangerous position of the two.

Both Miu and Kenichi were able to protect themselves, Miu deftly dodging while Kenichi blocked what he could, but the message was sent. The three knew how to work together to an extreme degree. They had their own formations and everything.

A sharp kick from Chou that got through knocked Kenichi to the ground, but surprising to the other team, he stood right back up. IF they thought Kenichi would stay down off of one hit they certainly were underestimating his threshold for punishment.

'But really, what do we have as a team?' Miu wondered, as the grinning Kaku moved back away from them and Chou stopped, allowing the two of them and Yo to stand together. The trio separated Miu and Kenichi from Naruto, who stood opposite of them on Santoryuu's other side.

It was appropriately symbolic.

Despite being friends, Naruto, Kenichi, and Miu's teamwork was nonexistent at best. Knowing each other's moves meant nothing if they didn't know how to work that into their own movements and tactics. They had never tried to do any such thing before. On the other hand, Santoryuu knew full well how to combine their own fighting styles and accentuate their strengths to make things as difficult as possible for their enemies.

"This is too easy!" Kaku laughed, standing along with his partners, "You can't even see our first formation! You're finished, it's just a matter of time!"

'I could only see through part of it!' Naruto thought to himself. He'd seen enough Baguazhang to last him a lifetime already, so he picked up on Chou's steps quicker than anything else. Neji was faster, but Miu and Kenichi had never even seen Neji fight, 'Kenichi trains with Kensei though, so shouldn't he know some of this already?'

Even if he did, that still left Kaku and Yo, of whom Naruto still knew nothing, and looking through the Santoryuu trio to Miu, the expression on her face showed that she was lost as well.

But they had them surrounded now.

With blinding speed, Kaku zigzagged back and forth from one end to the other, attacking Kenichi and Miu and Naruto on the other side, Yo doing the same only straight back and forth four times instead of once.

"I don't get it!" Kenichi communicated with Miu, rolling back to his feet in a hurry after being knocked down only to find himself circled by Chou again, "Why can't any of us read their moves? It's all we can do to defend ourselves! Oop!" He was forced to duck a lightning-quick side kick to the head from his backside from the swift female, "Why am I paired off with the girl!?"

"Sorry! Let me fix that!" Kaku stated, moving through Chou's motions again to strike at Kenichi, spinning like a top before kicking his legs out from beneath him. Kenichi fell face-first, eating dirt, "Die!"

Before he could deliver his final strike, Miu nimbly flipped between Kaku and Kenichi, forcing him to back off from her mere presence alone as she missed a kick at his head, "Not a chance," She said, in stark assertion that she would not allow him to finish his task of ending Kenichi's life, "Over my dead body."

"Well that can be arranged," Kaku said, still grinning, "This works out for the best anyway!"

Miu blocked Chou's attacks whilst she circled the blonde, 'I can block one, and I can avoid the other!' She thought to herself, taking a split-second lapse between one of Chou's attacks and another to sway out of the way of Yo's straight move, '…But I can't do it for all three!' "Kenichi, stand up!" She urged upon coming to terms with the fact that she wasn't going to be able to prevent the last attack from connecting.

Kaku spun his arms forward in a counter-clockwise manner while throwing them out to smash her into the ground. She gasped in pain upon being hit, her body feeling it double-time from the extra motion of the arms.

Even as good as she was, and as much as she'd seen in martial arts, she'd never dealt with a meshing of Chinese Kenpo offense so complete. As things stood, it was beyond her.

"Miu-san!" Kenichi leapt back to his feet as if he had been reanimated and struck out, twisting his fist from underside to upright for a straight punch at Kaku's head, "Rekka Sajinbaku (Blazing Dust Blast)!" The sudden enraged attack caught him off-guard enough for his evasion to lag, allowing Kenichi's punch to graze him.

Despite only grazing him, Kenichi managed to grab onto Kaku, deciding it was time to let his Jujitsu come into play. With his arms crossed, when Kenichi grabbed his sleeve, Kaku's arm shot up and almost gouged his eye out. Kenichi let go out of shock and self-preservation and almost fell back into the old encirclement trap as Chou managed to come close to striking him with her palms before she moved off, 'This is relentless!'

Ignoring the blood streaming down his chin from the missed punch, Kaku and his entire team turned their attention to Naruto, who had been playing the matador to Yo's charging bull, 'That guy… he's got some rage behind him. It's time to start picking them off!'

XxX

(High Up in the Coliseum)

"Tch, Maestro, they really can't keep up with those slow-moving ants?"

"Don't be so disappointed Shou," Diego said, grinning just the same as always as he watched the battle below, "They're making a good show of things as far as kids go. Didn't you want to come here to see the fights anyway? Hongo and Ogata said they let you after you finished your tests."

Shou had finagled his way into coming through the tournament through his original master Hongou Akira in order to see some interesting matches. Upon discovering that Ryouzanpaku would attend, he was all the more excited, not taking no for an answer.

"Seeing my angel made everything worth it by itself," Shou said, smiling at the thought of Miu, "…But she's better than this."

If he had a low opinion of the two male members of the dojo, it had only dropped further once he saw Miu triple-teamed and knocked to the ground. Were it not for the fact that Diego Carlo would decimate him for ruining his show, Sole Disciple of Yami or not, he would have charged right down there and lain waste to everyone else on the stage; all three members of Santoryuu and both Naruto and Kenichi.

"Your disciple has a low opinion of your handpicked entertainment doesn't he Laughing Fist?" A large, shadowed man said from his place on an ornate throne, a clear view of the battles from his position, "I think this is a marvelous show thus far!"

"Mister Fortuna…" Diego said with a laugh, the spirited luchador not upset by his student's attitude against Ryouzanpaku, "A boy as talented as Shou can have any opinion about his rivals that he wants. Until he actually falls, there isn't any disciple in the world with more potential than him," He swore he could see a gleam in the island owner's eyes after that, "…And no, I'm afraid you can't have him. You'll have to make do with your Pankration Team. Shou is Yami's heir."

Fortuna was disappointed, true, but he'd already seen some prime candidates of talented children, and on his island he had the pick of the litter. He had the power there, just as long as he didn't step on Yami's toes. Otherwise he would quickly find himself destroyed.

"She's too good to have to root around with those bugs," Shou declared, glaring as hard as he could down at the stage, "She should be above them all, flying with me."

If Miu was hurt because those two weaklings were too pathetic to protect that beautiful feather… he couldn't be held responsible for what he'd do in retaliation.

XxX

Feeling like he was being set up, Naruto moved over to the tree in the corner of the ring and backflipped onto it, sticking to it for three seconds as he noted Chou circling the trunk just underneath him. Yo rushed and leapt at him to force him to move, but Naruto held fast.

He could only stick for as long as the studs in his shoes stayed grounded. If he fell, Chou would have him right where she wanted him. If he stayed attached, Yo would decimate him with one power shot. If he tried a big jump to avoid them both, Kaku would be waiting in the wings.

"Fuck it!" Naruto pushed himself as upward as he could with his awkward positioning, dodging Yo's punch that smashed the tree trunk and grabbing onto the nearest branch he could reach. So now he was hanging in there like a cat on a motivational poster.

Down below, the trio simply stared up at him, smirking and waiting for him to come down. It was really quite amusing, "Yo can finish this," Chou said, gesturing her head to the recovering Miu and Kenichi, "Don't you want to take out Ma Kensei's student?"

"You're reading my mind," Kaku said, turning his attention back to the others.

Gritting his teeth, Naruto pulled his legs up onto the branch that he'd grabbed and leapt down at Yo as hard as he could, headfirst. Fearing for his safety, Yo jumped back, but Naruto merely flipped through, landing on his feet before using the bounce momentum to spring forward and attack with a jumping knee-kick, at twice the speed he ever had otherwise, "Don't underestimate me!"

Yo had his arms up, managing to protect himself from the sharpest of the damage. Even so, he felt as if his forearms had been cracked, 'If I hadn't been moving away from it to begin with that would have snapped my arms like twigs!'

Angry at the sudden turn of events, Yo ignored the pain in his arms and took the initiative in attacking Naruto once more.

Naruto evaded Yo's hard-charging, fast blows with timely rolls and flips out of the way. Aware of his surroundings after what had happened with the tree, and aware that he'd been backed up close to the wooden fence surrounding half of the cottage, Naruto dodged one last forward punch from Yo by jumping through the opening between the two wooden bars of it, twisting through and throwing shuriken at his slightly larger enemy.

Yo jumped the fence to stay close and subsequently dodged the shuriken as well, only to be met with a jumping front kick from Naruto who had anticipated his reaction accordingly, "Tobigeri Taihen (Jumping Front Kick)!"

Such a simple move, and it countered him. Yo landed on his back and was quick to stand back up, holding his chest where the sole of Naruto's studded shoe made contact. It would leave a mark, but it hadn't been as devastating as it could have been, and he didn't know why Naruto had let him off that easily.

He'd done it so that he could get a better spring into the air.

From above, Naruto could better see Chou and Kaku bombard Kenichi and Miu. No wonder they had been so insistent on preventing Miu from using any of her high-flying acrobatics. One view from the sky and things started to clear themselves up.

'I can see it!' Naruto thought to himself, eyes wide open, '…I think!'

So caught up in his apparent cracking of the Santoryuu code, that he hardly noticed that Yo hadn't given up his dogged pursuit of him and had closed in on him as he had touched foot on the ground. Late to react, Naruto couldn't shoot back a reverse elbow to stop him fast enough to avoid his attack.

A dashing punch caught Naruto dead on the jaw just as he'd turned his head. His sense of taste picked up nothing but blood and his vision caught nothing but stars of pain as he fell to the ground.

"Naruto/Naruto-kun/Uzumaki!"

XxX

"Ooh," Takeda winced after watching Naruto take such a heavy blow, "I… really don't think I've ever seen anyone get in that clean of a hit before," It just never happened. No one hit Naruto flush, not as far as Takeda had seen anyway. It was like he was a prodigy at minimizing damage dealt to him under normal circumstances, but Yo had just put a stamp on him, "These three kung fu styles have to be invincible or something."

They were three of the four most powerful famed styles widely known in China, and their practitioners were no amateurs.

"They're so good," Freya pointed out, knowing talent when she saw it. For a first round match, Ryouzanpaku drew an awfully tough first opponent, "That white-haired one Kaku… the others are skilled, but there's something about him that I can't put my finger on."

Kensei sighed and openly admitted something in the wake of the observant Joujutsu-user's viewpoint, "That boy was almost my disciple."

That the top practitioner of Chinese Kenpo in the world saw enough in Kaku Shin Ten to almost train him was dangerous enough. He was just so aggressive and mean-spirited. It was hard to believe that Kensei would ever consider training a dark-hearted disciple such as that.

He was mum on the matter however, and it was promptly dropped. If he didn't want to talk about it, it was his reasoning and his alone. No one would make him budge on it.

"They're splitting them up," Kisara pointed out, biting at the tip of her thumb in concern, "And it's too easy to do. The way Uzumaki fights, he has to keep moving or he loses his chances to counter. Shirahama and Fuurinji's styles are better for waiting and countering… but Uzumaki really has to force his opponents to screw up with his own moves before he can."

"It's probably for the best that they've never been caught altogether then," Akisame pointed out, "Even if the enemy is getting through, Kenichi and Miu are covering for themselves well enough to survive. If Naruto were in there with them he wound unfortunately be the weak link in their team defense because he has to be able to move for his."

The way they fought just wasn't compatible for complete teamwork.

"There's a way out of this though right? They're too good separately to let something like this beat them as a team aren't they?"

"Don't underestimate the importance of teamwork," Kensei said, breaking into the conversation after studying the Santoryuu Team's triple attack, "I can only say… that if they can't find a way to make their approaches mesh, this won't turn out well for them at all."

XxX

'Ugh, did anybody get the number of that transit?' Naruto thought to himself, fists clutching at the dirt and grass as Yo stood over him, boot lifted to stomp down on his back. As he did so, intending to break Naruto's back, he found more resistance than he would have ever expected from Naruto's bag, "Heh…"

"What the-?" Yo asked, feeling as if he'd stomped down on a bag of the most random assortment of hard materials he'd ever tried to break in his life. Like a flash, Naruto reached up into the top of his bag over his shoulder and pulled out a weighted chain. Yo moved before finding the business end of it hurled into his mug.

"You guys have done a pretty good job of kicking us around so far, but it's payback time!" Naruto shouted, taking the opening to break off from Yo entirely. 'First thing's first, I've gotta get to Kenichi and Miu!'

"You think it's that easy to go where you like?" Yo asked, directly behind Naruto in hot pursuit. He was stopped when Naruto crossed his arms and tossed both ends of the weighted chain behind him, using his own body as a fulcrum, allowing them to zero in on Yo and bounce off of his chest, "Gah!"

In her seat, Shigure silently pumped her fist along with Tochumaru on her head. Some of those defense-into-offense drills seemed to really stick after all. She was indeed a splendid teacher, "Moumoku... Dokuhebi (Blind Viper)," She labeled the move for the benefit of the others.

Miu's eyes honed in on the approaching Naruto streaking toward the encirclement of hers and Kenichi's position, but noticed something different about his approach than the one from the outset of the battle. His eyes, 'He knows something now!' She thought to herself, 'But even if he does, there isn't much he can do if Kenichi and I are stuck on the defensive.'

With a deep, calming breath she made a decision.

"Kenichi-kun, prepare yourself," Miu said, much to his surprise, "No more defense."

"What?"

Do you trust me?"

"Wha-? Yes, of course!"

"Do you trust Naruto-kun?"

"Yes."

"Then no more defending! We have to break through!"

Kaku was no fool and noticed that Naruto's approach had been the thing that had emboldened Miu to make such a statement. Pulling a fan from his robes he opened it and threw it at Naruto, forcing him to cover his vitals with his chain-wrapped arms, protecting him from being cut by the metal accessory. It was merely a feint, forcing Naruto to guard so that he could get a secondary attack using his own body, "You should have figured out by now that there isn't any use in surrounding us!"

'This is gonna hurt!' Naruto realized, bracing himself, still guarding his vitals. It was for a good cause. That was what he kept repeating in his head, 'It'll be alright! I'm not gonna take the whole attack!' He assured himself.

Rotating his arms as he lashed out, Kaku breathed in a manner that caused his entire body to vibrate from the throat, "Raisei (Thunder Sound)!" He struck at Naruto's body that was guarded by his arms, but from the added vibration to his entire body and the spiraling motion of his arms, his punch was more akin to a drill than an average human limb "Got you."

Feeling that strong tang of blood in his mouth again, Naruto still managed to grin, "I've got you too."

It was incredibly dumb, this Naruto knew from the way his throat was beseeching him to cough violently from the ruptured organ or two inside his body. He needed to disrupt their momentum though, and he didn't have any regrets. After all, he was still standing.

'That was my strongest move! Did the steel chain offset too much of the impact even with the Raisei?' Somehow, Kaku then found both himself and Naruto entangled in the latter's chain, unable to break away from his former quarry, 'When did he even get it loose enough to-? How did he-?'

Chou circled around to Naruto's exposed backside, but was met with an impactful flying kick from Miu who had found the ability to fly once again so to speak. The dark-eyed Chinese girl was caught by Yo, but the point was that she and Kaku had finally found themselves compromised.

"I'm fine Yo," Chou said, rubbing at her face where she was hit as she was set back onto her feet.

"One of you attacks in a spiral; Taichi, the other one circles; Baguazhang, and the last one comes straight on; Xing Yi Quan," Miu explained, facing off with the two of them as Naruto kept Kaku entangled, "I could see that from how you all attacked us in your formation. But if one of those parts aren't present, none of your formations work. You need all three or else there's a big hole in your offense."

Kenichi stared at the entangled Naruto and Kaku before grinning, "Did you really have to take a punch like that just to make sure Miu-san could break the formation?"

"Well Shigure gave me light armor," Naruto reasoned, "…Had to make sure it worked, you know?"

"I don't need much space to hurt you," Kaku seethed, moving his arms in a quick spiral before lashing out at Naruto's body. Naruto moved in their cramped quarters into his instep, blocking the lion's share of the damage and simultaneously headbutting forward with the Kikaku Ken. Kaku's spiraling arms offset Naruto's body enough that the blow struck him in the shoulder instead of right in the face.

'I'm not good enough at the Rasengan yet to hit him with no pullback,' Naruto thought to himself, wincing at the exchange. And somehow Kaku had managed to work himself free again, "Damn! How-?

"The girl said it herself! Spiral motion!" Kaku said, grinning maniacally once more as he lunged to strike, "Die!"

His attack was swatted aside by a third party and two fists flew at his stomach and face simultaneously, "Yamatzuki!" The spiraling motion used for attack had to double for defense, taking away enough of the force of Kenichi's attack to prevent it from landing clean, "Almost."

"Tch, this is fitting of people who claim Ma Kensei as someone to look up to. You're all jokes. Just weaklings protecting one another," Kaku sneered, "It's the only reason any of you have lasted this long, because you keep having to save each other just to survive!"

"So what?" Kenichi said, standing in front of Naruto who was feeling more of the Raisei attack than he wanted anyone to ever know. Kenichi wasn't daisy-fresh either, but he'd had time to sit back and recover from his beating, "Working to help each other doesn't make anyone weak. Sometimes you need what only another person can give to pull through when things are tough. Don't belittle others because you're too much of a coward to put your faith in anyone else."

"…What did you just say?"

"You heard me," Kenichi continued without flinching at the icy-cold tone of Kaku's voice, "You wish you could, but you would have to change too much of yourself to ever hope to have faith in anyone else. It's a shame, because I really think you would have loved being Ma-sifu's student."

For all of the man's perverted quirks, Kenichi wouldn't have traded training with him for anything. He couldn't imagine Ryouzanpaku without him. Kaku didn't have the right to speak badly about him. That right was reserved solely for Kenichi, Miu, all of Ryouzanpaku's masters, Naruto, the women he managed to peek on, every woman he managed to cop a feel from, that lady cop that he…err…

At the rate his mind was going, Kenichi could have come up with a reasonable excuse for someone to talk bad about Ma Kensei for hours, but the point stood that Kaku had no right to speak badly about a great martial artist such as him.

"I'm not going to let the disciple of a worthless clown like Ma Kensei talk down to me!" Kaku snapped, "His kung fu is trash! His training is a joke!"

Silence.

Naruto took a few steps away from Kenichi and Kaku despite his battered internal organs. He didn't want to be anywhere near the eruption of Mount Shirahama, "Uh-oh."

"A joke?" Kenichi said with a shudder, shadow covering his eyes until he looked up with an insane glint. The eyes of a man long since driven over the edge and dragged right back, "YOU! DON'T! EVEN! KNOW!" Kenichi bellowed, feeling phantom flashbacks to the horrible training.

The sensation of feeling all of the life leave his body only to be brought back from the dead mere moments later. Closing his eyes, he could see it even then.

"His training is hell!" The young man with the band-aid on his cheek continued, "It's a daily exercise in practical human torture, to see just how much a guy can endure! If his training is a joke, it's the sickest joke in the history of the world!"

"Wow," Miu deadpanned, "Tell him how you really feel Kenichi-kun."

Seriously… she wanted him to. That perv Kensei needed to hear a lot more than just that much about his depravity and debauchery. There was no need to stop just at the training methods. His entire way of life needed a black light shone on it to a degree.

Taking a deep breath, Kenichi calmed himself and pointed to the man in the stands that he knew was watching and listening, "…But he made me strong. Relying on the greatness of Ma-sifu when it counted always paid off. You don't have a clue what you're talking about."

"You still haven't defeated our three styles yet!" Chou shouted suddenly, attacking with Yo, "Just because you understood our formation and stopped it once doesn't mean you can do it again!"

Kenichi wasn't willing to let Kaku rejoin in the attack, and he seemed to know that, because he didn't even try. He left Yo and Chou alone to move on Naruto and Miu, never letting his eyes leave Kenichi's as he did, both teens staring holes through one another.

Without Kaku completing the third part of the three-motioned attack, both Naruto and Miu were able to find openings to dodge through. Naruto did so through more lateral means while Miu was able to get back to her strengths and take to the skies.

While jumping, landing, and repeating to avoid Yo and Chou's seemingly desperate attempt to duplicate their earlier success with just the two of them, she came up with a very potent idea. She just had to find a subtly way to communicate it without giving it away.

"Hey, Naruto-kun, didn't you used to like that arcade game where you fought in the huge office building?"

A vague statement that went straight over the heads of the Santoryuu members. At first, Naruto wondered why Miu would ever bring such a thing up, not because they were in a fight, but because she didn't even play video games, ever.

When he saw Miu spring up onto the wall surrounding half of the small cottage and then the roof of the cottage itself, things started to click.

Following suit in a hurry, the two of them dropped down just as Yo and Chou entered the premises of the modest home's yard only to find no sign of either blond. Both Yo and Chou stood back-to-back just as both Naruto and Miu came streaking around opposite corners of the house in a two-pronged attack.

Yo was faced with Miu, while Chou was faced with Naruto, and both of them could see the moves of their Ryouzanpaku opponents coming from a mile away. Naruto dove at Chou's legs in a sliding kick tackle with his chain trailing behind him Spiral Cycle-style, she jumped over his head. When Yo saw Miu leap at him with a flying kick he squatted down and ducked the move.

He ducked, allowing Naruto the space to aim his slide between his legs from behind, tangling and yanking his legs harshly with his loosened chain while punching him in the groin on the way through, softening his base enough for Naruto to force him to backflip. Though Miu missed Yo, she did not miss Chou, kicking the Chinese girl in her upper back and flipping her forward.

Neither of the native Chinese saw either of the real attacks coming.

Both flips joined the two together, making them give off the impression of a human propeller for one huge rotation until they hit the ground as hard as a pair of people could, Yo on his face and Chou on the back of her head. They did not get back up.

Sliding to respective stops, Naruto and Miu eyed them both carefully until they were absolutely certain that their tandem attack had gotten the job done, "Whoa! What was that? Could that have been planned all along from Uzumaki and Fuurinji?"

"And that's two down," Miu said, sighing in relief as she held up a victorious 'v' sign. They didn't even have to talk to set that gameplan up. Maybe their teamwork wasn't so bad after all?

"…Greatest high-low finish ever, 'ttebayo," Naruto said with a content grin, "We should name that. I'm probably gonna use that again, even if it's not with you."

"Really?" Miu asked, watching Naruto sit down against the side of the cottage, "Why do you have to name everything?"

Ignoring her poking holes in his show of greatness, Naruto came up with what he felt was appropriate given the use of the attack and the people they had used it on, "Ryuuoikake (Chasing the Dragon)."

"For a ninja you've really got a flair for the dramatic Naruto-kun."

"Hehehe… you think so?"

XxX

(With Kenichi)

Kaku didn't show an ounce of care for the defeat of Yo and Chou. If they had been weak enough to be taken down by a move like that, they deserved what they'd gotten. At least in defeat they'd shown him enough of how Miu and Naruto fought that he'd have an easier time with them after he killed off Kenichi.

After the beating he'd taken for much of the fight alongside Miu, and the runaround Chou had been giving him before her defeat with her Baguazhang approach, Kenichi was tired. Kaku had more in the tank than he did, and he knew it.

Without mercy, Kaku moved forward, swiftly twisting his fists inward as he struck at Kenichi's ears, intent on blowing his eardrums and his brains out with the air pressure, "Sou Fuu Kan Ji (Twin Swift Through the Ears)!" Kenichi managed to block them due to Muay Thai hand positioning keeping his hands close enough to his head to let him protect himself from the worst of it, "This is what it's like when you're really taught Chinese Kenpo!"

Kenichi's teeth had a grit to them due to the focus it took to block the attack, but he was quick to respond. Bending forward, he swung his right elbow backwards. Due to his flexibility it swung overhead at Kaku and struck him on top of the head. It would have been worse had Kaku not spun through in the direction of the blow to avoid the dangerous impact of the move, but still split him open at the hairline.

Backing off, he almost crumpled to the ground when he felt Kenichi's lashing low kick that struck him on the outside of his knee, 'He really is the martial artist being taught four complete disciplines at once! The rumors are true? Ryouzanpaku's Strongest Disciple!'

Lashing out with rapid-fire kicks while standing on one leg, Kenichi found that Kaku was able to move his arms in a spinning motion with his block to prevent all of the power of the blows from landing. Kensei had taught him a bit of Tai Chi, and even though at full speed the offensive moves seemed way too dangerous to be that form of Chinese Kenpo.

Every time he tried anything, Kaku would glide his body or a body part in some form of a spiral and make him pay. His Tai Chi was so smooth. His more powerful strikes sent Kenichi spiraling,

'If attacks coming from around don't work-,' Kenichi thought to himself before lashing out with a straight Karate-style power punch… that missed, 'Oh no!'

"I've got your head," Kaku said, holding Kenichi's head by his crown and chin from behind him, "Ban Ran!" Spinning himself around, he attempted to twist Kenichi's head off of his shoulders. Fortunately, Kenichi knew the aesthetics of Tai Chi from the technique training he'd endured already. He never let his body spin separate of his head, completely negating the killing move.

Kaku didn't let the setback get to him despite his own blood caking his face from his cut. He shook out his wrists and chuckled, "Heh-heh-heh, you see? The Chinese Kenpo you learned was trash, because your teacher is trash. Where's that greatness of Ma Kensei now? Where are those friends that you put your faith in? What good will any faith in them be to you after I end your life?"

Breathing heavily, Kenichi knew he was worn down but held up a hand to prevent Miu or Naruto from intervening. Just because Santoryuu worked the numbers game during the fight didn't mean he necessarily wanted to now that the tables had turned.

He'd seen Kaku's best attack when he thought it would kill Naruto, so he had that advantage. His legs were jelly however. Any defense would have to be a block or a counter. Kaku picked up on this however, as Kenichi hadn't moved to a significant degree since the kung fu formation had been broken.

Yo and Chou had done their damage even if they both did wind up being taken down in the end.

And that left Kaku with the prime prize of the day; the chance to finish off Ma Kensei's actual student.

Kaku's breathing changed, his preparation for his strongest attack, before he moved forward to strike Kenichi down once and for all with the Raisei, but with his feet rooted into the ground Kenichi shifted his hips and turned his body to the opposite side that Kaku had been aiming for.

The Raisei hit Kenichi's already limp body as he took a step back on the attacked side, forcing him to turn in the direction that he was struck on. Once he did, he lashed forward out of instinct with the other arm, forcing Kaku to run into a straight steel beam that was Kenichi's arm.

Everything that Kaku put behind the move blew back up in his face, or more appropriately his chest, sending him flying.

It was a Tai Chi move. Had Kaku not been completely set on attacking no matter the circumstances, he might have seen it coming. But he hadn't been, he didn't, and if any less than half of the ribs in his body weren't in pieces it would have been a miracle.

'The Taihou Shouha (Palm Wave). He really-,' Kaku thought before his body harshly hit the ground, '-Learned a high-level technique like that… from Ma Kensei of all people?'

To teach anyone a move like that... there was no possible way that anyone short of a true master could pass it on.

Kaku's vision was badly blurred, but he was still able to pick out the mustachioed master of Chinese Kenpo, standing up and looking on proudly as he watched what Kaku already knew was the end of the fight.

'If I had sucked up my vanity… if I'd have been willing to change myself, and let him train me the way he'd offered back then, even though we were supposed to be enemies…' Kaku thought to himself before losing consciousness completely, 'Maybe it could have been me to have a master with that much pride in me? Maybe I could have even trained with Shirah-… no. That's just silly.'

It didn't stop him from going out with a smile on his face as he thought about it.

"Kaku Shin Ten has been sent flying, and that's the last of the Santoryuu Team to go down! Team Ryouzanpaku wins the first round!"

Hearing the declaration of victory from the announcer was the magic word.

"HAAAAAAHHHH!" Kenichi suddenly exhaled violently before suddenly collapsing onto the ground.

His two teammates ran over to him after he'd fallen. With Despair Island physicians already seeing to Kaku and his defeated team, it was more than likely for the best to ensure Kenichi would be in the hands of Akisame and Kensei.

Those two had the most experience restoring Kenichi to full health after working the spirit right out of his body, and it would be needed before the next round, whenever that occurred.

XxX

(Elsewhere – Spectator's Box)

The entire team of nameless ninjas watched Team Ryouzanpaku's fight without turning away for a moment. Every second of it that they watched would give their odds of total success on their mission that much better chances of occurring.

Still, they came to a conclusion as they did. A stark realization that they didn't have the ego to deny.

They were not good enough to win against Naruto, Miu, and Kenichi. Even with the 5-on-3 advantage they would have in a sanctioned match, they wouldn't be able to win. The Santoryuu group had teamwork that they themselves couldn't have executed better, and as direct fighters they were the betters of Sai and his cohorts.

Santoryuu had been an extremely powerful disciple team. Had they not been faced with Team Ryouzanpaku right off the bat they would have breezed through the first round and more than likely beyond.

On the other hand, they were not in attendance to win the tournament. Entering simply gave them the best chance at getting close enough to kill Naruto. But taking their opportunity in anything resembling a fair fight was not ideal. They would die for their mission, but they wouldn't put themselves in harm's way needlessly when they had so many options available to them.

It needed some fine-tuning as far as the execution went, but there was already a plan in the works. They'd studied Naruto enough to know how he would respond to certain situations, and they knew how to back him into a corner that he had way out of.

"Whether you're stronger or not, it doesn't really matter Uzumaki Naruto," Sai said as he watched Ryouzanpaku clear the stage, "We can take all of the fight right out of you."


Suck it world! Production Assistant at a TV station! Step one on the career ladder has been taken by yours truly! One roadblock down, and sooner or later the fates are going to have no other choice but to recognize the greatness of Kenchi618!

I'ma be writin' the news mom! I'ma be writing the news!

With that outburst of victory out of the way, it's time to return to your commonplace AN.

D of D is on! It's going down! Let's make this thing happen! Now I'm gonna go grab my friends and get drunk to celebrate my newfound gainful employment in my field of choice.

Hope you enjoyed, and Happy Holidays suckas. Kenchi out.