WHOA. So busy. Finally, an update! Things go wild! This chapter is super long since you've all been so patient. It contains:

1. Torture for people who want sexy things. (evil laugh here)

2. I suck at battle scenes (cue everyone's friendly laugh?)

3. PLOT NO JUTSU?!

4. Plot no Jutsu should've explained it all to you...

5. Oreo Senju

6. Shameless Psycho-Pass references (simply names, yeah? Though I turned Akane into a Senju, -grin-)

7. Kakashi's possible great-uncle's friend's niece's brother from the Hatake Clan?

8. Hopelessly confused Mariko (she always seems to be confused. If I'm confused, I type her confused. XD)

9. The awesomeness of Hashirama and Mito.

10. Cav Alato annoying you with this list. (another evil laugh, Hidan style)

11. DUN DUN DUNNNN more plot no jutsu! An effort at imitating Kishi troll! (not really)

(Also, Takeshi! Who's Takeshi? Find him on my deviantART account...he's super adorable and has a terrible color palette. You want to know what it is? No? I'll tell you anyway: He's got blue hair and red eyes.)

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, because there should be a chapter out this week...and there's not. That, and lil' Tobirama is so badass.

Random notes: ROGUE FROM THE FUTURE! MMMM ~ and PSYCHO PASS ULTIMATE TROLLING, GINOZA AND MASAOKA NOOOO. The end.


Chapter 11: Battles


.x.X.x.


"See that bird?"

"Yeah."

"I bet you I can hit it with one try."

"I believe it."

"Let's see, the wind's light today…"


.x.X.x.


He sat with ease on his horse, the black stallion that pranced lightly beneath the reins. He didn't even need to hold the horse – he simply sat, drew his bow, and aimed. The animal cantered smoothly down the path as the boy eyed the target.

A marvelous shot, as if he'd simply been yawning, and the arrow hit its mark dead on. A smatter of applause rounded from behind the boy and the horse.

"He's excellent," said Uncle Swirl, cheerfully clapping King Hiroto on the shoulder. "Have you considered trying a competition on the mainland?"

"Competition?" echoed the King thoughtfully. "Perhaps."

"The horse," commented another man, this one a dark-skinned officer from Lightning's Coast Guard, "is splendid. See how he shifts at the boy's leg? There, he hardly touched him with a stirrup."

It was true – Katsurou's horse was sensitive and well-trained. He was a fine stallion, one that adored the boy astride him for his gentle hands and firm leg. He naturally knew the rules of the hunt.

"A little big for the boy, I suppose," the man continued. "But he'll be a wonderful match when your boy grows up."

"A good match," agreed Uncle Swirl. He then turned, because he'd known that two girls had been crowded behind the barn doors, watching them. One appeared to be a little girl that belonged on her mother's lap, but was, in fact, a good nine years old. The other was striking and long-legged, Sumiko in all her fourteen-year-old glory. "You two, come on over and tell us what you think of your brother."

Mariko was too shy to say anything, though Uncle Swirl patted her hair gently. Sumiko dryly commented that Katsurou did not keep his stirrups on the balls of his feet.

"Lightning, child," laughed the officer. "That's a bit too picky, is it not?"

"Not when our entire armed forces are mounted," Sumiko quipped. Hiroto shot her a glance that indicated that she should stop her tartness towards this officer, an important man that was here to help them with their own Coast Guard.

"Hey, Father!" called Katsurou. "Do you think I can hit that old goose over there?"

It wasn't simply an old goose a ways away, it was a strong bird, with coarse and dense feathers, swiftly swooping through the air.

"Let's see it, boy!" called Uncle Swirl when Hiroto simply nodded.

Katsurou spurred his horse forward; the stallion leapt into an eager lope. They circled the small clearing halfway, before Katsurou gracefully notched at arrow to his bow, so quickly that none of them had seen him draw from his quiver. White birch notched to a fine elm bow and fletched with soft, gray owl feathers for silent flight. A simple shift of weight slowed the black horse to an impossibly smooth trot, and then the silent release of the bowstring, snapping it back into place.

The goose fell, struck midflight, and toppled to the earth.

By then, it was easy to memorize Katsurou's movement – he simply stretched and circled, and the shot was fired. Watching from the spectator area, Mariko leaned towards the idea that her older brother could shoot anything – even the sun.


.x.X.x.


"Why are some of these pictures torn?"

"Well, Shorty, why are you short?"

"That wasn't funny. Seriously, tell me why someone's been ripped out of these pictures."

"Because he's not here anymore."

"Is that why you were sad?"

"Maybe."


.x.X.x.


"Drop the bow!" yelled Arata, pulling a fearsome blade from its sheath. The masked man did as he was told, but he crouched down beside the blunette and asked how she was. Breathlessly, she told him she was perfectly fine, before touching his shoulder gently. The clothing he wore was unfamiliar, some strange animal hide covered in earth-colored paints. He was like an old hunter, living off the land.

He held his hands up then, when a few Uchiha notched their own bows.

"Stand down," Tobirama called tiredly. He waved the Uchiha off, though they glared at him menacingly. The Senju didn't heed their swirling Sharingan stares, only stalked up to Mariko and the circle of fallen bandits. Etsuko was seen running after her cousin, but Kell caught her arm and told her something quickly. She stopped. "Well, well, the man we are looking for shows up on our doorstep."

"I'm sorry, you must have the wrong man," said the figure in the mask. There was a twinkle in his green eyes, indicating an unseen smile. "Though I must say, you owe me one now."

"I owe you nothing," Tobirama answered flatly. "If you would, Shorty."

Mariko stood up and glanced between the two men. Then, as if nothing at all had just occurred and this was all just a friendly meeting, she poked both of them in the side. Both men made faces at her.

Katsurou pulled off his hood, revealing his head of messy blue hair, and folded his arms. Tobirama took the same stance, and the two men had a stare-off. The company behind them all gaped at the sapphire-topped head that emerged from the camouflage fabrics, perfectly matching that of the Second Princess just beside him.

"Hello? Still here?" Mariko waved at them when neither would budge. Neither blinked. Maybe she should poke their eyes.

"Inuzuka Platoon Two has arrived, sir," a random shinobi called. One of the Uchiha pushed him back roughly and said something that Mariko would never repeat. At this, Tobirama whipped around and barked a sharp insult at the Uchiha, rather put off by the man's rudeness to the regular shinobi. The Uchiha spat on the ground and turned on his heel, calling his men back to their clan complex.

"Go tell Hashirama." Tobirama waved the poor shinobi away. Maybe it was because the lad was hardly twelve, around Hiruzen's age, and had a head of pink hair. Mariko had a strange warmth for this fellow, because they shared a common trait of odd hair color.

In the end, Katsurou sighed and pulled his arrows from the enemies – he'd gotten all fifteen bandits, either in this current circle, or around the village. He's also collected any stolen goods from Konoha, the Hot Springs, the Frost, and Hurricane. The blue-headed prince rolled out a sack from behind the trees, spilling it open to display some of the emeralds that had been slipped from Emerald Palace itself.

"This is Father's," he spat, disgusted. "How did it get here? Wait, don't answer that."

"Isn't this Sumi's?" Appalled, Mariko pulled out an old, redesigned dress of their sister's. "Maybe someone just wanted to wear it."

"On the mainland?" Katsurou arched his brows dubiously.

"Lord Prince," Tobirama drawled flatly. "Can we please deal with the subject of the fifteen men you just killed?"

"Well, you said please, so if we must, I suppose…" Katsurou trailed off, ending with a pointed glare at the Senju. Here was yet another battle of manliness that Mariko failed to understand, watching in confusion as Katsurou harshly brushed past her fiancé. She supposed it was his competitive reasoning come into play – he simply wanted to prove that a stuck up, rich prince like himself could also be a skilled shinobi. Tobirama, she knew, would not care much for that sort of thing.

Bodies were collected, and Mariko ushered back to the Senju complex. She threw one last glance back at the Uchiha, and saw Izuna sitting idly on the fence. He waved. Then, Madara tugged his younger brother's shoulder, and the two left for some clan business that would probably have to do with scolding Izuna for being a Senju sympathizer.

Katsurou, on the other hand, had not explained his underlying hostility towards Tobirama.


.x.X.x.


Dear Momma,

Have I been bad? Do you remember what used to happen when we misbehaved? I feel like you're still watching, even now.


.x.X.x.


"Do that one more time, Katsurou, and I will snap your bow in half." It was not often that one saw King Hiroto enraged. He was a calm man, albeit a strict father, but he did not tend to show anger towards his children.

"I'm seventeen, I'm practically an adult. Why would you care? I can do anything I want." Katsurou narrowed his eyes. He was tall, filled out almost to his full height and width, and he was almost a good head taller than his own father. He was broad and strong, lean yet muscled. He was nearly a man, he thought.

"You are a boy," the king said. "You do not know your own powers."

"My own powers? What's the hurt in –"

King Hiroto strode towards the door, and it was evident what he was going for. Shocked, Katsurou froze in place, his tall frame making him look like an oversized child, for now he was truly terrified. No one ever defied their father as much as he did, but he'd never gone far. None of them dared cross him, for he had the power to take away something precious to them. He could, and would, take action if necessary. Mariko had seen many days where he warned her that skipping lessons would mean selling her horse to the butcher. Perhaps he just worded it cruelly, but his threats were terrifying even in his calm voice.

Ryouichi stepped in front of the door.

"Father, please. Katsurou is just full of hot air today, please forgive him."

King Hiroto did not strike his children. He hit them indirectly. But he was also not about to let this matter slip, and his four children knew it. He had each and every single one of them watching just to prove his point. One hundred percent a king, he strode up to his eldest son and looked him in the eye. Of equal height, he did not have to look up or down, but his gaze was simply powerful enough to force anyone to their knees.

Everyone except Ryouichi, that is.

The First Prince kept his shoulders squared and his chin high. He dared his father to make a move.

"Ryouichi. Step out of the way."

"No, Father."

But the king had seen the slight shift in Ryouichi's body weight, the lingering nervousness left in his subconscious. And he knew how to use it.

"Ryouichi," said Hiroto, in a lower voice this time. "You are going—"

Sumiko ran towards them, grabbing the doorknob before anyone could protest. She shot out the room and down the hall, towards Katsurou's quarters. If anyone knew Sumiko, she was typically a girl of action. She also knew the best hiding places. Katsurou's bow was not going to snap any time soon.

"Mariko, sit down. Move, and your horse is gone. Katsurou, go to my desk. If you move, I will personally sail you to Uzushiogakure and have your powers sealed permanently. And Ryouichi, do I have to say anything?" The king put his hands behind his back and looked expectantly at his oldest son. Ryouichi took a breath, slow and almost shuddering, as if he was calming himself, and went to take a seat next to Mariko. He'd lost, in a way, and he wasn't happy about it. However, he was not a hot-tempered person, and he tended to deal with matters with an open mind and calm thoughts.

"Is that even possible?" spat Katsurou. "You can't seal my—"

"Do you think I don't know where Sumiko hides things?" King Hiroto suddenly interrupted. "Sit. We're talking about an important matter, Prince Katsurou. And I want every single one of you to hear it."

He opened his mouth to speak, but Queen Manami stepped lightly into the room. The children breathed silent sighs of relief. That was, until she stepped inside with Sumiko in tow, the poor girl with Katsurou's bow and arrow case in her arms. She defiantly fought back tears, trying to jerk away from her mother; she had to hide the bow.

"Child, stop struggling," Manami said gently. "It will do you no good."

"I'll run away," she threatened. And in a few years, she actually would.

"Go ahead and try," Hiroto said, sitting at his desk. Beside the mahogany table, Katsurou was clenching and unclenching his fists, so hard that his nails were biting into his palms sharply.

"We are here today to discuss matters regarding Katsurou," Manami continued calmly. "Ryouchi, as we all know, is the heir to the throne. The rest of you…"

Have your lives written out for you, and you must live by them like actors in a play. Actors that cannot express even the simplest of desires, because the lines have been completed.


.x.X.x.


"Who was it?"

"Someone."

"That's not an answer. It's obviously someone close to you, right? …If he was so close to you, why is he not in the picture anymore?"

"Because he'll never come back."

"Well, that just means you should remember him more, right?"


.x.X.x.


"You're a slippery man, Lord Prince," Hashirama sighed, tapping his pen to his notepad. Mito stood behind him, absently rubbing her husband's tight shoulders. "I've spent hours trying to figure out what your distress signals meant. We saw one, and then couldn't find you."

"You sent signals?" asked Mariko.

"Quiet, Shorty." Tobirama took her gently by the arm, but she shook him off.

"I did. Did you get Ryo? How about Sumi?" Katsurou, seated in the chair and dressed in clean clothes, sat up at the sound of his little sister's voice. At that moment, Sumiko burst into the living room and at the sight of Katsurou, ran at him and embraced her older brother.

"Stirrups, Katsurou!" she screeched. "You idiot!"

"Relax, Sumi," snorted Katsurou, pushing his other sister away. "I'm fine."

"Well of course you're fine, I haven't pummeled you yet!"

"Lady Princess," Hashirama said firmly. He continued his questioning: "Please, Lord Prince, tell us what has happened."


A mysterious Takigakure man had aims to obtain all the Kekkei Genkai he could. His abilities rotated around the idea of holding more than one heart, which seemed quite absurd to them all. He'd had black market dealers and spies following the movements of just about everybody; he was very detailed and very precise. The moment Aunt Tari had set foot on Fire Country soil, she'd been followed. All the way to Konoha, and all the way to the Tea Country. Along the way, several archers had been dropped off, hence the first shooting. Katsurou's visit, however, had been sudden, and the attack would have been earlier had the Takigakure man known.

In short, they had Aunt Tari, along with Lord and Lady Gen of the Tea Country held captive. They were bait, pretty much. His intentions regarding the Aokami royals were unclear — but at the moment, he seemed intent on drawing them all out. All the bandits and archers were his, and his alone.

"No one else is involved?" Hashirama asked seriously. "Just this man who wants to obtain Kekkei Genkai?"

"Yes."

"Weren't there recent bloodline limit purges in Kiri?" Mito noted.

"All the more to obtain them, before they die out," Tobirama answered.

"Exactly. I'd like to say that he thinks the Hyoton is endangered in Kiri, so he's after us four main bloodlines. He also likes strong shinobi in general," Katsurou said. "I've seen him once, but only a glimpse. I found him somewhere near Sunagakure — that's where my trail for Aunt Tari led me, strangely enough — but I didn't stand a chance, so I ran."

"This is too confusing," Sumi exclaimed, throwing up her hands. "Don't involve me in this shinobi stuff."

Mariko, too, was overwhelmed. Kekkei Genkai? Hearts? What in the name of Esmeralda was it all supposed to mean? She just wished they could live peacefully: yet another reason she'd wanted to marry a regular governor who lived a passive life in the countryside, announcing the openings of new recreation centers and occasionally attending a few fun daimyo's invites. But instead, here she was, at the center of the world's greatest shinobi village, dealing with politics and ninjas. Sometimes, just the words Kekkei Genkai confused her. It even took her a few moments to register that it was referring to the chakra attributes and the melding of two different elements.

Sumiko had never been patient. She blasted through the doors and made her entrance whenever and however she wanted to. And when she wanted to leave, there was no stopping her. She slipped silently out the door, presumably to cool off. Katsurou watched her leave, and then sighed into his hands.

"I'm still confused," he admitted. "I'm not quite sure what's going on."

"So we know that this Kakuzu is aiming for you and your siblings," Hashirama said. "That's basically it. Besides that, I'd have to say that the search for your aunt, the lord, and the lady will continue. Kell will help me with that." He turned to Mito. "Honey, call Etsuko and get Kell, will you?"

"Sure thing," Mito said, stepping out. "Dinner in an hour, everyone. Katsurou, you and Sumiko are welcome to join us."

"Thank you."

Mariko escaped too, because she still had too much to organize in her mind.


"Shorty, dinner."

"I'm coming."

"Doesn't look like it."

"I'm coming."

Tobirama stared at the little blunette, who was completely buried under her blankets and pillows. He stalked over and clambered over the bed, leaning over her. Peeling back the corner of the comforter, he looked at her dubiously. She flailed her arms, hoping to smack him away.

"It doesn't look like you're about to get up any time soon," Tobirama said.

"Mmph." Mariko forcefully tugged the covers over her head again. Then, she realized that Tobirama practically had his arms wrapped around the form that was her body under the covers, and popped her head back out again. "Get off me."

"Nope." He took a pillow and stuffed it into her face. "Not till you agree to get up."

"I can't get up!" she snapped, once the pillow was not muffling her. Mariko kicked through the blankets. In some form of magical teleportation, or maybe it was ninjutsu — no, definitely magic — Tobirama was under the covers with her and attempting to tickle her. She squealed and kicked him again.

"Ow, Shorty, don't kick there."

She tried again, and he grabbed her foot. That was bad, because her feet were ticklish to the point where she threatened to scream her head off and have Toka, Mito, Sumiko, and Katsurou running into the room wielding all sorts of weapons. So instead, the white-haired Senju moved his hands to her waist and pinned her to the bed, the blankets tangled around and between them. Mariko flushed, but could not push him away.

"I'll kick you," she tried.

"Doesn't look like it," he said again, raising a brow.

He planted a short, sweet kiss on her lips and then waited to see her reaction. She made a noise that sounded somewhat like a strangled cat, which amused him to no end. He thought he would get a moment similar to that one heavenly morning, but Mariko foiled his plans by kicking him again, this time successfully. Somehow, she'd shoved him in the gut the first time, and this time, a hard knee to the groin sent him doubling over and clutching her shirt.

"H-hey!" exclaimed Mariko. "What are you doing?!" Her voice turned into a hiss, because he was unabashedly grabbing her chest. Tobirama hardly noticed — he was trying to swallow the high-pitched whimper and the tears that pricked his eyes. He dared not to speak, for if he did, his voice might crack like that of a prepubescent boy's. And he would sound ridiculous.

Mariko snatched his hand and tried prying it off her breast. It didn't really work, because the albino was practically frozen. She noticed his arm was shaking, and his face was buried — embarrassingly — in her stomach. Hunched over and still, she wondered what in the world he was doing.

"Tobirama?"

"Sh-Shorty," he said, "You, uh, have—"

His voice cracked on have, and she couldn't hold back a sudden guffaw. (Oh dear, how unladylike, she thought, horrified.)

"Give me a moment," he said quickly, and before his hands could tighten around any more inappropriate body parts, she rolled over and pushed him off. It was quite intriguing, watching a tall, lean Senju curl up into a ball beside her, hugging a pillow to his chest. Comically, his eyes were closed and he was frowning, as if trying to solve an intense arithmetic equation in his head. "Why did you have to kick so hard?" he gasped after a few moments, loosening his grip on the pillow.

"Wait, what? I'm more concerned about the location of your hands," Mariko said pointedly. But Tobirama shook his head and threw the pillow aside, because his main worry was that he'd never have children now. Then again, if Mariko buried herself behind pillows every time he accidentally touched her somewhere suggestive, he'd never have children anyway. Or, more likely, if he tried getting in bed with her, they'd end up in a massive, shinobi world war level pillow fight.

"Shorty, you just kicked me," Tobirama said, eyes narrowing.

"So? Aren't you a shinobi?" She stared at him, and stared and stared until he grimaced and deliberately glanced down at himself. It took her a while, but when she thought about it, her knee had been relatively close to… "I thought shinobi were strong," she spat sardonically.

"We are," he spluttered, "this has nothing to do with it!"

"Why, because you have armor to protect you there?" She raised an eyebrow. Mariko sort of liked this spunky side of herself; perhaps she should show it more. Besides that, this topic was making her blush, and she didn't like blushing, because it looked absurd with her hair. Especially when she laughed too hard and turned into a tomato with blue stalks.

"Shorty, you're so funny," drawled Tobirama folding the pillow to his abdomen again. "You've developed an effective way to get me out of your bed."

Mariko's eyes widened at this evocative comment, as if they'd been doing something beforehand that she couldn't possibly remember. Inwardly, she slapped herself. She still wasn't even sure what kissing was supposed to be — she desperately hoped that she didn't seem like a prone doll when he kissed her — and was he suggesting a more serious step?! This was like one of those intense romance novels, and she wasn't sure she could handle it without the blood rushing to her head and making her dizzy. That is, despite her desperate want to flip the pages and progress the story.

He sat up then, daring to straddle her despite the danger to his manliness, and leaned forward over her. Gently, he put his lips to hers and they stayed that way for a while, soft, slow kisses that seemed to meld them together. At first, Mariko could hardly breathe, but when she did, she smelled his shampoo hair and forest-like crispness, the smell of freshness after a morning of rain, and an extra something that drew her to him, magnetized the two. His hands ran over her, fingers tracing the line of her waist. When they reached the edge of her shirt, they slipped beneath the thin fabric and began sliding upwards, backtracking on the inside. Before she knew it, and before she even realized it, the light lavender blouse had been pushed over her head and tossed to the side.

"Hips, Shorty," Tobirama ordered through a kiss, tapping her upper thigh. The blunette, caught up in the fact that one of his hands was playing with the straps around her shoulder and the warmth of his lips, somehow understood what he meant and obliged by lifting her pelvis up. The thumb of his other hand hooked her pants, the interestingly-cut Konoha trousers that ended halfway to the ankle, and pulled down.

Mariko's arms were wrapped around his neck, and she wasn't quite thinking clearly, but she let his hands roam her skin and pull off articles of clothing as he wished. And suddenly, both hands were sliding around her shoulders and lifting her slightly from the mattress, moving down to the clasp of her bra, sending a tingling shiver up her spine.

"TOBIRAMA, WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT CUTTING OFF THINGS THAT YOU DON'T WANT CUT OFF?!"

Tobirama nearly jumped straight up and down in the air, thrusting himself jerkily away from the blunette, who remained on the bed, stunned. If he'd been a cat, he would've hissed and arched his back, shackles on end and tail straight up. His legs were entangled with Mariko's, giving them a world's worth of trouble when they tried detaching. He, who was still fully clothed, and she, who was half-naked, stared at the woman in the doorway, who was seething with the fire of twenty Uchiha men.

"Tobirama, do I want you to explain to me why there is a half-naked Mariko in bed with you?" Toka gripped the doorframe, so hard that Mariko feared it might snap and they'd have to call Hashirama to fix it, and the entire wall itself. Then, when Hashirama came, Mito would come, and Mito would call down the gates of doom and all hell would break loose. And after all hell broke loose, Sumiko would come to investigate, and when Sumiko came, Katsurou would come, and the two would fight to the ends of the earth for their baby sister's innocence. And fighting to the end of the world meant something she couldn't possibly imagine, but only knew that Tobirama's life was endangered.

So she hoped Toka didn't break the doorway.

Tobirama shook his head frantically.

"Tobirama. Out. Now."

But the man was frozen again, eyes hilariously wide, sitting there with one leg over Mariko's and the other buried in pillows. Meanwhile, several more were littered on the ground, both from their little session and from his fantastic backwards spook, in which he flung things every which way and was terrified to his very core. At least, terrified for his manliness. Mariko was quite sure that the shinobi part of his heart was quiet and calm, sipping a cup of tea like all in the world was right, while his normal human instincts were screaming at him.

"Tobirama," growled Toka, stalking into the room. Mariko was convinced that the dark-haired woman would grab Tobirama and fling him across the room, the way her face looked.

And then, Tobirama's worst fears were realized, because the one trailing Toka by a few minutes happened to be one protective, blue-haired older sister. Her eyes widened — she made an expression that looked suspiciously like one of glee — and then her gaze turned to the man sprawled on the bed, and then her face was murder. Mariko was not sure if her sister would choose to turn on her heel and walk away, or descend on Tobirama like a bird of prey on its afternoon snack.

But then, almost conflictingly, Sumiko's face turned back into a cheery little grin. She patted Toka on the shoulder and walked away.

"Dinner in five, people!" she sang merrily. Toka, flabbergasted, stared after the older blunette princess, gaping with her jaw ajar. The dark-haired Senju woman glanced back at Tobirama, who cringed when she frowned at him. He was, at the moment, the least intimidating person on the entire shinobi continent. Mariko petted his head comfortingly, as if he were a cat frightened by a mean child. It was something Tenzou always did – he'd flatten his ears and cling to her, nuzzling anxiously into her face.

"This," Toka said, circling her finger accusingly at the messed up bed and Tobirama, "did not happen. I'll forget it…for now."

Also known as: "You owe me big time, but I still might kill you later."

And, to make things worse, as soon as Toka left, someone bounded down the hall and caught her arm, right in front of the doorway. Cheery and smiley and all gossip, gossip, gossip, Etsuko snatched up Toka's hand and begged for her cousin to come see something. Then she turned, and she saw. And the two were still sitting there, bowled over and stupefied to the likeness of ice statues.

Toka shook off Etsuko and tramped down the hall. Etsuko didn't notice; she was too busy staring at the couple, rumpled on the bed. Were they a couple, really?

Then, in exasperation: "Finally¸ Tobirama. You know, I thought you'd get to this earlier."

When Tobirama didn't answer, she continued, "Seriously, Kell and I have progressed more than you!"

No answer. Mariko stared at the younger girl, about to turn seventeen, and apparently farther than them in her relationship. The blunette started to question the meaning of this, and meanwhile, flushed slightly pink. Not that she wasn't pink before, of course. Etsuko grinned, and then jerked her thumb at Tobirama.

"You know, Mariko, he usually doesn't take things slowly," she commented casually. "It's impressive, you know. He's waited for you for, like, forever."

Forever, in Etsuko's case, meant a month and a half. Or maybe a little more, but nonetheless, Mariko gave her a look that oozed confusion. Tobirama appeared to be suffering, as if he wanted to hide under the pillows for the rest of eternity. He was the complete opposite of the cool-headed, stoic shinobi with the name of Senju Tobirama.

"Somebody, answer me," cried Etsuko, in mock exasperation. "Hey Kell! Come over here!"

At this holler down the hall, Mariko dove for the covers and Tobirama tumbled off the bed and grabbed her shirt. Etsuko laughed, because she'd called a bluff completely.

"You two are ridiculous," she giggled. Then she left.

"What just happened?" moaned Tobirama, while Mariko sheepishly dressed again. She crossed her legs and shook her head, for there was no explanation for what just happened, except for the fact that everyone was out to stop Tobirama, one way or another. That, or they wanted to cut him to pieces and save Mariko's purity.


.x.X.x.


"You're leaving today."

"I am."

"When will you come home?"

"I don't know."

"You're never coming home. Am I right?"

"Mari, don't say that. Of course I'll come home. I'll bring you Frost souvenirs, too."


.x.X.x.


Katsurou had been wounded, and being the thick-headed prince he was, he'd refused to let anyone know. It was only when Sumiko good-naturedly jabbed him in the side that his forced smile had turned into a pained wince. An old slash to the side, bloody and badly sewn together – something that Mito tutted at reproachfully – and most likely infected. Yet Katsurou bore through it with gritted teeth, and ignored the searing pain when he drew his bow and arrow. Somehow, he managed to appear smooth with his weapon, never faltering.

"You idiot," Sumiko said the next day, when they found out. "What if it got infected and you were dead before you made it here?"

"The note, Sumi, did you send it to Ryo?"

"Listen to me, stirrup head." She glared.

"I'm listening."

"What's the square root of one hundred and sixty-nine?"

"Sumi."

The prince laid on a hospital bed, a rather hard platform, wearing a pair of Hashirama's old ninja trousers and nothing on top. Mito pressed a finger to the lower rib of his ribcage, and applied a small touch of chakra.

"Can you feel that?"

"Yeah."

"How about now?"

A few silent seconds passed, and then Katsurou shook his head. Mito repeated this process several times, all around the wound. When asked what for, Mito replied that Katsurou had refused the overall anesthetic and wanted to remain awake during the entire thing. The Uzumaki also suggested that Mariko look away, if she was queasy. Mariko did as the woman told her, because she knew that though she could bear observing the wound, crusted over with old blood and jagged with the skin slightly discolored, she would not be able to watch Mito cut the badly tied sutures and open up the wound.

Hashirama stood by, watching his wife.

"Honey, he's got something in the wound," he said, even before Mito had opened it. She glanced up at him.

"You know what it is?"

"Looks like an arrowhead."

"Hashirama, how do you see this?" asked Sumiko incredulously. "I don't see a thing."

The Hokage shrugged. Then he said, "Practice, I guess."

But that hardly made any sense, because while Hashirama easily identified the miscellaneous object, Mito had not seen it beforehand, and Mito was an adept healer from the Uzumaki clan.

"That's coming from a man who can heal himself without even moving," Tobirama said flatly. "And he can heal others without any effort whatsoever."

"I learned that for a reason," Hashirama replied, glancing pointedly at his younger brother. Tobirama's eyes shifted to his feet, silent.

Mariko faced the wall, and accepted the chair that Tobirama offered her. Her ears were filled with the constant stream of conversation between Katsurou and the group. Mito didn't mind Katsurou's talking, but kept scolding him when he wiggled too much.

"Honey, numb all the way here," Hashirama said, pointing to a point on Katsurou's stomach, indicating depth. "The arrow's deeper than you think."

"Seas, Katsurou," hissed Mito. "How are you alive with an arrow in your belly?"

The Second Prince shrugged, earning himself another sharp remark from Mito, who told him to keep still.

"Lady Princess, you remind me of someone," Tobirama mused aloud. He cast a pointed glance at Mito, who expertly ignored him and stuck some bizarre sort of tool into Katsurou's side.

"Hashirama, why are you so accurate?" sighed Mito, pulling out the arrowhead.

"I'm sorry." Unexpectedly, Hashirama sat in a chair and sulked, as if he'd done something wrong.

"Honey," Mito called over flatly, "that was a compliment."

At this, the Hokage beamed. Sumiko and Katsurou exchanged glances, while Mariko tried to pretend she didn't hear the sickening slosh of what was probably guts and flesh as Mito felt around for more miscellaneous substances.

"He's having one of his moments," Tobirama sighed. "Isn't that right, Hashi?"

Hashirama sulked.

"Tobirama!" snapped Mito. "The poor man's got issues, just deal with it!"

"Ah, but Mito," Tobirama tsked, "I've dealt with him all my life."

The redhead threatened to turn around and whip the bloody arrowhead at her brother-in-law, but took a deep breath and continued closing up her surgery. Katsurou wondered out loud what in the world Mito was doing, because he felt a funky shifting, and how in the world did one not feel their guts being moved around? At this, Mariko cringed, stomach crawling and doing a slow flip.

"She could pull out your liver and you wouldn't know it," Etsuko laughed, as if it was the funniest thing in the world. The younger girl had stepped in without anyone really noticing — besides maybe Tobirama — and had been listening in for some time. For Mariko, her comment was not funny at all. It was rather horrifying, actually, for if a woman like Mito was placed on the battlefield, she could tear out enemy's hearts before they even knew they'd been pierced.

"That's disturbing," groaned the prince on the table, agreeing with his youngest sister while Mito pulled out a thick, wiry string. She closed up the wound expertly, her professional hand suturing the entire cut up quickly. Then, when she was done, she finished her end stitches and set her tools aside. Hands hovering just above the wound, they glowed a soft, eerie green, pulsating warmth through the room. Mariko wondered why she hadn't just done that in the first place, but then remembered that there was an arrow embedded in him.

Mito finished up, and then easily asked if anyone was up for lunch. Mariko, personally, was not in the mood for any food whatsoever. Katsurou claimed that he felt like a chunk of him was missing, because his midsection was still quite numb, due to a high-level medical technique that cut off nerves by intercepting chakra signals and using them to numb sense receptors for a limited time. Mariko was sure that it was much harder than Mito made it seem, pressing invisible points on Katsurou's abdomen without so much as a furrowed brow. A member of the Hyuuga, with their impossibly sharp Byakugan, could not have pinpointed as accurately as Mito.

The youngest princess retreated to her room, but then decided that it would do her no good, because she would just sit and ponder again why in the world some insane Takigakure man would be after them. She would conclude that simply because he was insane, he was capable of hunting them down and holding Aunt Tari captive.

And then they would be subject to some horrible fate, and she preferred not to think of life that way.

So, to relieve some stress and take her mind off of these issues, she walked out to the barn and occupied her time by stroking Yodel's soft nose.

"He's missed riding with you," Arata said, appearing from the tack room.

"Has it been long?" Mariko felt like days turned to weeks and weeks turned to days.

"Long or short, he misses the work," Arata sighed, leaning on the stable door beside her. Mariko was conflicted then, because here beside her was a calm, patient man that she'd considered lovely more than once. More than once, she'd wished that she was to marry Arata, rather than his white-haired cousin. Often enough, she relished in the way he was simple and honest, intelligent yet gentle. He was clear but had soft hands, like the way he handled his horses — warm, but expressing his needs and wants and loves clearly, with a familiar, quirked smile.

Now, the blunette wasn't sure what to feel. His attitude towards her had never changed; hers had. What had happened yesterday, in her room? What would have happened, had Toka failed to interrupt them then? Would life be different if she was engaged to Arata, and not Tobirama? Mariko wanted to kick something, because Tobirama was completely and utterly complicated, his moods differing from one moment to the next, but Arata was a steady pillar, faithful with his arms open.

At least, he had been, to her. To Tobirama, it seemed that they were on tight terms. They'd never been particularly close; Arata didn't have the casual friendliness that his sister had with the white-haired cousin, and after yesterday's unexpected spat — something Mariko still did not quite understand — they were no closer than before, and most likely more distant. Arata, poor, sweet, Arata, with his scarred face and thin lips, his sometimes ill complexion and darkened eye circles. But he was still Arata, with his characteristic scars and a smile that was oddly comforting, pale like Toka and always tired, but still full of never-ending support. It seemed, to Mariko, that should she fall off another cliff, he would easily cushion her fall and gently walk her back home.

Tobirama, on the other hand, would be the one dangling her off the head, daring her to open her eyes.

She wondered how he would catch her: Would he swoop her away and fly like an eagle, or would he let her fall and catch her at the last moment, leaping through the air and alighting on the roofs of Konoha buildings just for the thrill?

Sometimes angry, sometimes solemn, sometimes just a tad happier than usual to be able to land a surprise kiss on her. Delighting in her flabbergasted response, playing with her inability to reply coherently.

Arata would be the storybook prince, maybe not handsome or charming, but warm and friendly. A kiss from Arata would be like a comforting embrace, not a sudden, sparked fire that threatened to burn over.

But was that what she wanted?

Mariko petted the horse's muzzle again and again, and when Yodel pushed her nose into her shoulder after dipping into his bucket for a drink, the blunette supposed that she'd rather have a wet kiss from a loving, old horse. Slobbery or not.


.x.X.x.


"Do you have any pictures of him?"

"I'm not sure."

"You should. Hashirama might keep some, right? I've seen tons of books and photo albums in his shelves at the Hokage Tower…"

"He might."

"C'mon, he's got to be important to you! Let's look for him. Was he one of your best friends when you were younger?"

"He was my brother."


.x.X.x.


It was silent, and nearly midnight when Mariko ventured down the hall to Tobirama's room. She was hugging the flower book to her chest, wanting to show it to him in the effort of an apology. Just a little bit. She'd been too harsh that one time, and she wanted to let him know that if he was interested, then she would open up to him. At the same time, he would have to do the same for her.

Mariko also wanted to figure out her feelings more, especially after yesterday evening.

"Door's unlocked," came the bored call when she knocked. Stepping in, Mariko tentatively peered around the door and found him sitting at his desk, rummaging through folders and drawers, papers strewn across the floor. "Sit, Shorty." He hadn't even looked to know that it was her. Mariko obediently sat on his bed.

"What are you looking for?"

"What are you here for?" he replied, almost parroting her curious little voice. He was mocking her, and from his tone of voice, Mariko could tell that his mood had soured.

"I wanted to show you my hibiscus book."

"Mm. Intriguing," he replied sardonically. "Your brother, earlier, wanted to show me his fist."

Appalled, Mariko sat back.

"He what?"

"It's nothing." Apparently, nothing was referring to a man-to-man faceoff in which Katsurou probably tried to have a word with Tobirama. Somehow, being men and having an odd sense of direction when it came to working out problems, Tobirama's nothing became a fistfight. "He's just confused."

"He's just confused?!"

"It's a guy thing, don't worry about it."

Of course. Mariko fell back on the bed, sighing exasperatedly. She decided not to pursue around the matter, for she'd only come more stressed. Tobirama, who had been fishing through his drawers this entire time, now pulled a dusty old folder from the very back, last drawer. He brushed its grimy cover off and sauntered over to Mariko, laying the leather-bound album before her.

"I found one," he said softly. She felt the bed shift as he sat down, and then reclined beside her, so they were sprawled across the bed side by side. He pulled the book up to her for her to see, and handed it off.

"What's this?"

"Photos that aren't ripped."

She gingerly pulled the first page open, and saw a yellowed photo. One boy had short, brown hair, a sort of shaggy chestnut mop that Mariko was now accustomed to. The boy on the far right was obviously Tobirama, though his cheeks were unmarred and his narrow eyes were accompanied by his spiky silver hair. Finally, in the middle of the two, a shorter boy, with hair that seemed to be pulled from each of his brothers. A smiling child, one that looked startlingly similar to Hashirama, but had an odd mix of hair colors.

Mariko said, "Are you adopted, or something?"

Tobirama scowled.

"I'm serious. You don't look like them."

"He's got my hair."

"Half of it."

"Still."

"You sure you're related?"

"I look like our mother, okay?" Tobirama folded his arms and stared at her, hard. It was quite awkward because he was facing her, very close, both of them lying on their sides on the bed.

"Lies."

Tobirama rolled over, crouching over her.

"I found this for you," he emphasized, placing the book down in front of her. Mariko looked through it and, indeed, it had pictures of the mysterious boy that was supposed to be a third Senju brother. And then, nothing. "You're lucky there are even pictures at all," Tobirama muttered, crawling off of her. "I'm going to bed, Shorty. Hit the lights when you're done."

The tall, white-haired man looked absolutely preposterous as he crawled into his covers and holed himself inside of a pillow mountain, looking like a caterpillar finishing his cocoon and donning it with pillows as his finishing touch. Mariko prodded the lump that was Tobirama. Then, deciding that he was tired enough not to be bothered by her poking, she looked through the old album again.

Worn, black strings held the entire thing together, and it looked as if it was handmade, the leather cover cut a bit jaggedly and the pages uneven. But the photos were carefully printed, as if someone had taken the time to find a place to develop them, no matter how long it took. Carefully aligned and actually sewn with a tight thread to the page, the pictures were slightly worn but still visible.

"What was his name?" she asked the lump on the mattress.

After a pause, he murmured, "Itama."

"Itama," Mariko said, trying it out on her tongue. She wasn't sure if Tobirama would react to this, but judging from the lack of movement from the bed cocoon, she felt sure that he probably only reacted on the inside. "Itama, Hashirama, and Tobirama."

She liked the sound of their names; they were very distinctive. Mariko spent a good half hour or so browsing through the few pictures he had that included Itama. They weren't very old when the pictures of Itama disappeared, leaving only the two brothers she knew today left. When she decided she was done — a little disappointed she hadn't gotten to show Tobirama a certain blue flower, but glad she'd gotten to see his share of his life instead — she padded over and flipped the lights. Then, feeling her way back to the bed, Mariko practically fell on Tobirama.

"Shorty, I thought I told you to be quiet," he moaned.

"You never said anything like that," she hissed, clambering over him ungracefully. A hand shot out from beneath the covers and dragged her in so that she was tucked comfortably against his chest.

"You could've guessed easily," he rumbled, a surprisingly cold hand coming around her waist.

"Your hands are cold," she complained.

"So warm them for me," he mumbled, burying his face in the pillows and his hands under her shirt, along her hips. Mariko wiggled away from him, skin tingling at his cold palms.

"Only if you tell me what happened between you and Katsurou," she told him. "Seriously, attacking a man who just had surgery?"

Tobirama said something – it sounded vaguely like Katsurou had thrown the first punch – but it was mostly muffled by the pillow. Mariko patted his cheek, just to see if he'd react. When he only tried wrapping his arms around her again, she ran a hand fondly through his white hair. Then, he hugged her as if hugging a pillow, practically squashing her.

"Hey," she said, poking his chest. But he only nuzzled her hair, and pretended to fall asleep.


.x.X.x.


"Men are idiots. Women do all the work because men are idiots, and men are idiots because women do all the work."

"Why?"

"Because I just told you, Mari. It's stressful."

"What is?"

"Boys!"


.x.X.x.


"Lady Princess, what do you know of shinobi ranks?" inquired Kell quietly. They were in the piano room – Kell, Mariko, and Katsurou – curiously browsing through some of the old bookshelves to pass the time before they were inevitably called to help prepare for Etsuko's birthday party. The seventeenth day of August, on which Etsuko would turn seventeen. They were more than halfway through the month, a fact that only reminded Mariko that her own wedding had been postponed. Again.

Not that she minded, because she still blocked out the idea of marriage. Having feelings for a certain white-headed Senju was quite all right for now, but having a husband just blew her away.

"Shinobi ranks? Well, there's a Hokage…"

"Oh Mari, you silly," snorted Katsurou, rolling his eyes. He was reclined on the couch – a certain couch that pained Mariko to look at – with a hand resting on the side of his old wound. It was healed nearly completely, thanks to Mito's unrivaled medical ninjutsu, but he was told to take it easy nonetheless. "There's plenty of things you need to know about shinobi, if you're going to live in one of their villages."

"Well, I'm so sorry that no one ever let me learn about ninjutsu," she replied dryly.

"It's not a big deal," Kell broke in lightly. "Let me tell you about them – since it's got something to do with Etsu, after all."

"Etsu?" parroted Katsurou, with a slight crinkle to his nose. "That's cute."

Kell flushed slightly, but he faced away from the blue-haired prince, saving at least a bit of his dignity.

"First off," Kell continued, "there are genin."

"I feel like I've heard that," commented Mariko. Genin evoked memories of children, so she'd supposed that they were the young ninja. Team Tobirama, for example, was comprised of genin. She had deduced that young shinobi were led in four-man cells, the fourth member being a higher level shinobi whose rank she did not know how to pronounce or even recognize at all.

"Those are the lowest level of shinobi, unless you count the Academy kids, who aren't even ninjas yet," Kell told her. "The next level is a chuunin. They're sort of the middle class shinobi. They're allowed to lead teams, but they aren't as experienced as the jounin, which are the higher-ups of the ninja world."

That sounded about right to Mariko. Chuunin. It was a chewy word, and when Kell told her that they were changing the chuunin promotions by the Hokage to an official round of Chuunin Exams, she had fun rolling that off her tongue as well. Mariko wondered if Kell found her strange for trying to pronounce everything several times. It wasn't her fault; they didn't have chuunin in Hurricane.

"They just finished building this huge stadium downtown," Kell was saying enthusiastically. "For matches."

"You watch people fight?" Mariko asked.

"Welcome to Konoha," chortled Katsurou, leafing through an old medical booklet. He exclaimed something about deer antlers serving as important medicine components, as if it was the most interesting thing in the world. Then again, it was quite intriguing.

"Well, for now, Hashirama-sama told me they're still working it out. It was Tobirama-sama's idea, after all." Kell made it sound as if all of Tobirama's ideas needed serious debating, lest they cause a world war. Knowing Tobirama – and her new knowledge of his Uchiha clan bias – he would probably wage war against certain people without hesitation. Either that, or he'd lounge back and sip a tropical punch of some sort. You never knew what it would be with him. One moment relaxed, the next moment sharp and unflinching.

He still couldn't hold a candle to Hashirama's mood swings, though. They weren't the kind of mood swings that Mito had; they were more comical.

But that was besides the point. Kell informed her that the peace between nations was often shaky – something she actually knew about – but the shinobi nations were slowly working out relations, and were willing to send their genin – that sounded risky to Mariko, for what if one country decided to kill off all the potential ninja of their enemies? – to become certified as official chuunins.

"It's a great idea," Kell said, "but debatable. Everyone's still trying to decide what would happen if they sent their kids to Konoha." Then, in a lower voice, "Though Hashirama-sama has a reputation for being warm-hearted, so I supposed that's what changed the tide for many, especially Iwa and Suna."

"Of course Kiri wouldn't like that," Katsurou laughed dryly. "They're always suspicious of everyone, even their own kind. I remember that one of the governors was nuts, he would always kill off his own people because he was afraid they'd kill him first."

"Why did we invite him again?" asked Mariko, making a face.

"We didn't know he was crazy until later," replied Katsurou. He waved off the thought. "At least the Mizukage's not as crazy, but don't take my word for it. They're all a little strange…"

"And Kumo's got their own problems," mentioned Kell. "Otherwise, they're quite peaceful."

"Iwa's old man is friendly," added Katsurou. "He likes Frost products."

"And Sunagakure?" asked Mariko.

"They're just generally peaceful as well," Kell told her. "But the main point is," he said, seeming to backtrack entirely, "Etsu's trying to become a jounin, and you need a promotion for that. She was kind of sad that she didn't get to fight people."

Katsurou and Mariko laughed then, because it appeared as if Kell was only circling around the point so that they could talk about his fiancée. Even so, he was genuinely concerned that if she didn't get promoted, she would be depressed.

"It's her birthday, too," he sighed.

"I'm sure Hashirama will recognize her talent," Katsurou said, sitting up to pat the younger man on the shoulder. "Besides that, we were talking about Chuunin Exams. Will there be one soon, then?"

"I think so. An experimental one. Which is why Etsu's depressed about it," Kell said.

"I can't get anywhere with you," exclaimed Katsurou. "It's always back to Etsuko, isn't it?"

"He can't help it," Mariko defended, smiling gently at the Tea Country man. No, hardly a man, for he was still a boy that hadn't learned how to use his long arms and legs, and wasn't much older than herself. But he was in love, and his love was in love with him, so it was a given that he should have a period of well-deserved mushiness.

"And neither can you, baby sis." Katsurou turned and raised an eyebrow at her, before trying once more with Kell. "Tell me, Kell, where is this stadium?"


"Excuse me, but would you be able to buy some flowers?"

Mariko turned. She was walking through town in the company of Arata, Etsuko, and Toka – her safety net, in a way – when a girl with long, brown hair swept cleanly into a high ponytail had approached her. She was very pretty, this girl, with bright eyes and long lashes. Her skin was fair and she had soft, rose lips that accentuated her porcelain doll complexion.

Mariko took a look at the armful of bouquets the girl had.

"Of course," she replied, picking up a bundle that had an abundance of little bluebells thrown in. She paid the girl, who smiled and thanked her.

"Excuse me," the girl called again, a bit sheepishly. "But could you tell Tobirama-sama that Homura and I need him to retrace a scroll for us?"

"Um, sure," said Mariko, now wondering who this girl was. She watched the brunette bound away, nearly dropping a bouquet of red roses before bumping into an elderly Uchiha woman. The woman kindly bought the roses, smiling at the young girl, before turning back to her son, who was in the middle of a heated altercation with a storekeeper. Mariko had quite the time watching the Uchiha grandmother berate her son, ordering him to apologize.

"That was Biwako," Toka explained, when Mariko opened her mouth to ask about the flower girl later on. "She's the florist's daughter. Probably fundraising for something. Sweet girl."

"Terrifyingly good at setting traps," Arata commented.

"As her sensei, you should've been more aware after the time she nearly cut off your foot," Etsuko said to her brother flatly.

"Hey, that was an exercise," Arata claimed.

"You were her teacher?" asked Mariko, curious. Well, now that she knew the shinobi ranks, she could approximate who was what. It seemed like Arata was a jounin, and he'd led his own team for a time. She wondered why he stopped.

As if to answer her question, Arata spoke up. "I handed them over to one of the Hyuugas, because I didn't think I was a good enough teacher."

"Nonsense," Toka said sternly. "You were fine. The Hyuuga head herself told you that you were doing a fine job of training her son."

"Now that's nonsense," Arata chuckled lowly. "He achieved his Kaiten and Sixty-Four Palms without me. And he's still a genin."

"I think you should take the team back up. Their teacher now has a hard time balancing between operations and team leading. She's also pregnant," Etsuko commented.

"Poor thing, she's also running back and forth to Hashirama's office all day," Toka added, as if trying to guilt Arata back into training his team. This exchange, Mariko watched carefully. Toka leaned over and informed her that the Hyuuga woman they'd met in the office the day the archers had tried to hit both of the Aokami princesses was the subject of their conversation.

"You're trying to pull something, and I don't like it," Arata said. Then, abruptly, "My stomach's rumbling. Let's get lunch."

"I heard your stomach ages ago." Etsuko elbowed her brother. "C'mon."

They arrived at a small ramen shop – one that Etsuko claimed was an old favorite of Mito's – and sat down. Meanwhile, the two Senju were still trying to push their cousin and brother back into training his genin.

"Especially with these new chuunin exams," quipped Etsuko nonchalantly. Hard as she tried, she had not dropped in this point as subtly as she would have liked. Her older brother turned and gave her a hard stare, because he now knew her ploy. They were going to use the new chuunin exams, courtesy of their white-haired cousin, to push him back into being a teacher.

"I'll have to thank Tobirama, won't I?" he growled deprecatingly.

"Your kids need you," Toka told him. "They can hardly train when their sensei's expecting a child. She can hardly be with them, anyway."

"It takes a Hyuuga to train a Hyuuga," Arata reasoned.

"So what? Are you going to get Biwako's own mother to train her, and call a random Inuzuka over to help Shiro?" Etsuko crossed her arms.

Stumped, Arata stared at his sister.

"All in favor of Arata training the kids, raise your hand." Etsuko raised her hand, and Toka followed suit. They stared at Mariko. Shyly, the little blunette copied them and lifted her hand, to Arata's dismay. With the vote in the majority of what he didn't want, he was defeated. Still, he didn't seem like he was going to reclaim his team right away, so Toka and Etsuko continued pressuring him.

Arata simply grabbed a pair of chopsticks and snapped them apart emphatically. Then, he poked at his ramen, waiting for a reaction. Toka and Etsuko stared at him until he glanced warily at Mariko, who shrugged unhelpfully.

"I'll tell Hashirama tomorrow," he finally sighed, relenting. Etsuko flashed a cheeky grin, which he halfheartedly reflected. "Not permanently, though."

"You idiot, when they're chuunins, they'll be your teammates, not your students," scoffed Toka, rolling her eyes. "And as far as I know, though a Hyuuga may be able to train a Hyuuga, none of them teach vital skills as well as you do. I'll tell Hashirama for you."

"Joy," mumbled Arata, though he wiggled his eyebrows at Mariko. She studied his face; his scars were pale, as usual, which meant he wasn't emotionally charged at the moment. If he was annoyed, his ears would have turned pink and his scars would have darkened, because his skin would redden. Oddly enough, Mariko found herself noticing these odd little things about people. How Etsuko twirled her hair absently when she talked, eye often gazing upwards, and how Toka's eyes would shift from side to side instead, as if observing her surroundings during any conversation.

But mostly Arata, because he was the most intriguing. She enjoyed looking for the subtleties of his own body language, a worthy challenge, unlike Tobirama, who was so masterful at control that she found it awful trying to read him. He could smile, but be angry, or he could be angry, but actually enjoy her presence.

And she would never know.

Except for sometimes.


.x.X.x.


Dear Momma,

Remember when Ryouichi wanted to take a psychology class at Esmeralda's top university? He took it, after you died. I kind of wanted to go with him, but I never did. Maybe it would have been interesting. Maybe I would've learned more about ninjutsu and shinobi. Do shinobi behave differently? Is it their survival instincts?


.x.X.x.


Hiruzen walked in with so many flowers that one could not tell it was Hiruzen trying unsuccessfully to breach the doorway with his armful of bouquets.

"Mito-sama," he whimpered pathetically, "do you have some space to put these?"

The redhead turned from her current position at the stove, trying to figure out why in the world it wasn't turning on. Though she didn't appear to be in a good mood, her face softened when she saw the poor genin staggering under his flowers – he probably bought them just to relieve Biwako's duties – and went over to help him.

"I've a few vases," she said, then tutted at his raggedy appearance, "and perhaps your mother would like to keep some, hmm?"

Mito whisked a vase from a cabinet, far back, and then took the one on the table and emptied it of its old blooms.

"They need water," Hiruzen said. "I've been carrying them for some time, and they're sort of dry."

"No problem," Mito answered. "Tobirama, please." She gestured to the vase.

Mariko swore she was watching a magic show, the kind where the magician snaps his fingers and a rabbit pops out of a hat. Tobirama did just that, except with water. He snapped his fingers, and water seemingly materialized out of thin air and filled the vases. Mariko vaguely felt that the air became a little bit less humid, not that she minded in this summer heat.

Tobirama glanced at her, and made a face.

"You look like you've seen a ghost, Shorty."

And then, without any other words, he stood and sauntered out the door Hiruzen came in. He didn't even wait for her answer, only gestured to his student who was fumbling with the bouquet wraps. Plastic crinkled and fluttered all over the room as he frantically tried picking up the bouquets he was taking home and dropping off a few for Mito.

"Wait!" called Mariko, standing and jogging out after the two. Mito hummed lightly to herself, decorating the kitchen with far too many flowers, but it was all right with her. She watched the blunette scramble after the white-haired Senju and his student, and had a vague feeling that one of her siblings followed as well. If she wasn't having so much trouble with the silly new recipe she was currently battling, she would have clobbered the still-recovering prince. Whilst wrestling with her kitchen ingredients, Mito felt an odd sensation bubble up inside of her — she was angry, and then she was not, and then it felt as if cooking was the nicest thing in the world. She needn't worry about Katsurou either.


"This place is huge," whooped Hiruzen, running a big circle with his arms out wide like a bird. He joyfully leapt onto the wall and in an impressive display of acrobatics, leapt off the stadium's sides and flipped backwards, landing easily on his feet. Hiruzen had no worries at the moment — no man out to carve out hearts, no injured siblings, no missing aunt, no nightmares, no issues having to do with baffling males — and he was light as a feather, airy and excited. "Did Hashirama-sama grow these trees? This is amazing."

"Chill, Hiruzen," snorted Kagami, who folded his arms and quirked a smile at his friend. Mariko was sure that one could count on an eleven-year-old to be so excitable. "Hyuuga, fight me!"

The dark-haired boy made a face, his pale moon eyes reflecting a mysterious sort of disdain. He was only one of several genin circled around their instructors now, an entire gathering of Hiruzen's class assembled in the gigantic arena. He was Hyuuga Hideaki, Mariko would learn, heir to the Hyuuga head title and former student of Arata (hopefully, he would return to being Arata's student soon). A year older than Hiruzen and eternally with a scowl on his face — save the few times his expression softened into a mild chuckle — Hyuuga Hideaki, nicknamed Aki for short, was a stoic but highly-skilled genin from a top clan. Around him sat several more children from distinguished clans; very few non-clan families were allowed to enter the Academy at this point in time.

Mariko tested what she'd learned of Leaf clans. There, sitting quietly next to Koharu, a Nara girl. At least, the clan symbol emblazoned across her scarf looked like it was Nara. If Mariko recalled correctly, they manipulated shadows. That was the most she knew, for how the shadows worked remained a mystery to her. Beside her, a quiet boy with round eyes and dusty gray hair. Next, a familiar boy with blood-red triangles in the likeness of fangs tattooed to his cheeks. Mariko felt as if she should know this boy's name by now, but she'd forgotten it – typical of her – though he, alongside his black dog with the floppy ears, was distinctly Inuzuka. He and the Hyuuga were accompanied by Biwako, whose clan Mariko was not sure of.

Across the circle, two boys. One was Torifu, who Mariko was rather fond of because he was always cheerful and had an adorable hat, and the other was a slightly round boy whose name was Kousuke. Beside Torifu, the ever-silent Danzo, absently touching the scar on his chin. Mariko wasn't sure if the Shimura were a distinguished clan, but he seemed to be a well-to-do young shinobi. Beside Danzo, Team Tobirama, and then the last member of Team Toka, Uchiha Kagami. The snarky one. There was a quirk to his lips that reminded Mariko of his clan leader, and supposed that it was an Uchiha thing.

Another team arrived, then, and they placed themselves near what Mariko was now dubbing Team Arata in her mind. Hyuuga Hideaki, the Inuzuka, and Biwako. Next to Biwako, a girl with long, straw-colored hair sat beside her. Their facial structure – smooth, heart-shaped faces and similar featuers – made Mariko think that they were related, most likely. She still didn't know what clan, however. A boy with startlingly red hair plopped himself next to Hiruzen and some other boys, sniggering conspiratorially with Kagami. Mariko didn't need a clan symbol to identify him – he was Uzumaki, without a doubt. He had probably arrived with Mito's people when she moved to Konoha, for there were many people constantly immigrating to the mainland. After the Uzumaki, the meek, pink-haired boy that Mariko remembered from the scene of Katsurou's arrival – a candy-topped fellow who placed himself behind Danzo. Again, Mariko wondered if he was a clan-less child who had managed to get into the Academy, or just another kid.

"We're missing someone, aren't we," murmured one of the adults. Alongside Tobirama, Toka, and Arata, there was one other jounin. The one that had spoken had a shocking tail of purple hair woven into an intricate braid.

"Team Shogo," Arata supplied. "He's had some trouble with Sasuke, who's been trying to convince him not to marry Yayoi."

Mariko whirled at the abundance of unfamiliar names that would continue to be thrown around. She decided just to fill them in with blank faces, save Sarutobi Sasuke (well, she assumed it was the same Sasuke all around).

"Typical," sighed the purple-haired woman. "Who's on her team again?"

"Aburame Shinya, Senju Akane, and I think it was…" Arata paused.

"Sarutobi Kagari," finished Tobirama.

"Ohh! Kagari!" exclaimed Hiruzen, randomly. Everyone glanced at him, and he giggled, turning a little pink at his outburst.

"All right, kids, stand up," barked Toka, striding to the front and center of the group's attention. "Until Team Shogo gets here, I won't explain, because I don't want to say things twice."

"They're here," Tobirama said flatly.

"Ah, perfect." Toka put her hands on her hips and waited. No one appeared. "And?"

"They're coming," Tobirama told her patiently. A course of fifteen seconds passed, and a group of four came jogging into the arena. A man with soft brown shoulder-length hair – Mariko found this hairstyle to be quite strange, though it framed his face well – led his team towards the big group. He apologized, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. His team sat themselves down, just as the other children had. One was an Aburame, who had a strange buzzing noise emanating from his direction, as if he were a gigantic fly. Mariko found this intensely disturbing, because she could hear a multitude of bugs buzzing, but she could not find the bugs themselves. The boy wore dark glasses and a high-collared jacket that obscured his face, showing only his sunglasses and his frizzy black spikes of hair. Secondly, a Sarutobi that had wildly spiked hair. An attempt to hold them down with a few dark pins created a lopsided (but intended) effect. He scooted next to Hiruzen, and they grinned – they appeared to be cousins, because everyone was cousins with everyone here in Konoha. Finally, a quiet girl with hair the same color as Hashirama. Hers was short, chopped off squarely at the nape of her neck. Had it been a messy hairstyle, Mariko would have named her a mop, but it was neat and straight, uninterrupted by any hitai-ate because she wore it around her neck. In order, they were Aburame Shinya, Sarutobi Kagari, and Senju Akane.

"Ah, we're here." Toka smiled, and then shot a quick glare at their sensei, who pretended nothing had gone wrong. "Now, today, we're going to practice dueling. As you know, the newly instated Chuunin Exams—" There it was, the chewy word and its examinations. "—are being set up, and you will face challengers from other shinobi nations. Of course, it is very possible you will face off with some of the people you spar with today, but that just makes for good practice. I promise you, it doesn't get boring."

Toka made a face at Tobirama, for some reason unknown. The white-haired Senju ignored it. Mariko assumed that Tobirama was receiving funny glances because he often thought of weaker opponents as…dull? Boring?

"Yayoi-sensei," called the Nara girl, "Are the exams all in here?"

"This arena is for the final exam," Toka explained. "We're designing three parts to this Chuunin Exam, which will be revealed the day of. But we're lucky enough to get to try it out, first."

Mariko counted the children: there were eighteen children, which made for six groups of three. But so far, there were only five adults, excluding herself, serving as the jounin instructors. Toka had her team of Danzo, Kagami, and Torifu. Tobirama with Hiruzen, Koharu, and Homura. The purple-haired woman named Yayoi instructed the Nara girl, the quiet gray-haired boy, and the friendly-looking Kousuke seated beside Torifu. The team that had arrived late with Shogo counted a fourth team, plus Team Arata making five. That left three children left without a teacher – the redhead from Whirlpool, the blonde next to Biwako, and the nervous pink-haired boy.

However, no one seemed to question this, as Toka continued explaining a few of the sparring exercises that would take place. The first would be a series of team exercises, for the Chuunin Exams would stress teamwork in many situations. The second training would involve working on individual battle skills. Some of the students excitedly requested matches, while others meekly hoped that they wouldn't have to fight at all. A few other children wanted to pit their senseis against one another.

"Hush, little ones," the violet-topped jounin barked. "First, Team Shogo versus Team Arata. Everyone else climb up to the stadium seating and observe."

Mariko watched the two teams center themselves in front of each other, wondering just how long this entire thing would take if they were doing a tournament-style battle program. It was nearing four in the afternoon, and oddly enough, her stomach rumbled. The little blunette also found herself at a loss because all the young shinobi were scaling the walls and popping into the seating area with ease.

Warm arms scooped her up, princess style, just as they had before. Mariko could hardly protest before Tobirama had nimbly leapt onto the wall, the chakra on his feet evenly propelling him up the vertical surface. Within a few seconds, Mariko was placed in a seat, with Toka and her team to the right, and Tobirama with his team on the left.

"Watch, Shorty. You might learn something." His face was expressionless, but his eye twitched when she poked him in annoyance.

Team Arata, it seemed, worked more independently than Team Shogo. Arata, standing closer to the railing, frowned when the Hyuuga tried separating the opposing team to take them down one by one. The Inuzuka child and his dog bounded around the arena, prompting Mariko to question his mode of attack. Finally, Biwako and Senju Akane were just fighting hand-to-hand.

However, Team Shogo naturally aimed for the easiest target, which was Biwako at the moment. The brunette's eyes widened when she saw a swarm of bugs beginning to engulf her – Mariko was bewildered when she saw the little insects float out in a massive cloud from the one boy's sleeves – followed by a massive fireball courtesy of Hiruzen's cousin, Kagari.

Biwako hardly made it out, for the black dog had tackled her to the side in an effort to save her. Her own team scrambled into a formation, and a badly made one at that, for while the fireball was dispersed by Aki's rotating Kaiten, the bugs simply detoured and made for the dog.

In the end, the Inuzuka – whose name turned out to be Shiro – took down the bug boy, and Aki's Sixty Four Palms accurately closed all of Kagari's tenketsu. Surprisingly enough, it left the Senju girl, a short but quick figure darting around the arena.

"Watch her movements," Toka was telling her team. Senju Akane deftly twisted around one of Aki's strikes, and then jabbed him in the side. She deflected a few of Biwako's kunai, thrown from her corner where she was resting. Mariko gasped when the fiercely drilling masses that were Shiro and his dog blasted into her, but was relieved when the girl pulled a replacement technique and escaped somewhere else.

"Time," called the purple jounin, raising her hand. "I'm going to say that this match is a tie, though Team Arata, you have terrible teamwork."

The Hyuuga folded his arms and scoffed, while Shiro laughed loudly. Biwako said nothing. Kagari laughed clapped Shiro on the back, while the bug boy and the Senju girl quietly stood by. The dynamics between these teams were awfully amusing, sometimes.

The next match was Team Yayoi against Team Toka.

Unfortunately, the trio made up of the Nara girl, Kousuke Maruboshi (a mild, slightly nervous character), and the docile gray-haired boy were no match for Team Toka. Kagami fired round after brilliant round of excellently executed Katon techniques, followed up by Torifu's Akimichi style attacks. Mariko found herself smiling at the boy's attacks, as he puffed up into a gigantic ball and laced kunai around the sphere of his belly, then rolled violently towards the enemy, crashing down trees and shrubbery. While the Nara girl nearly caught Kagami with a cutting shadow, a technique that Mariko learned would bind people with a chakra-shadow connection, and Kousuke pulled a few Suiton jutsus out of his pocket, they could not take down Team Toka.

Finally, Danzo leapt in and finished them off. Utilizing a variety of seals learned from Mito and the Uzumaki, he trapped each member of Team Yayoi and pulled three shuriken from his pocket. He took a breath and prepared to use one of his slicing Fuuton jutsus.

"Danzo, heads up!" hollered Kagami. "Hatake's behind you!"

In that split second, Danzo realized that he had not sealed the gray-haired boy, but only a clone. When the bunshin puffed away, a flash of white swerved around Danzo and materialized into a genin. He wielded a short blade, and his chakra flashed brightly, like a light. In a brief but forceful downward slash, he sliced into Danzo's shoulder mercilessly. Mariko, in awe of this quiet boy who turned out to be the strongest of his group, watched as his face remained unchanged throughout the course of his attack.

Danzo managed to avoid the brunt of the blow, suffering only a minor incision as he dodged the blade. Staggering backward, he caught his breath.

"Kagami, get the other two," the scarred boy called to the Uchiha. Kagami performed a few seals and then ran towards the two bound shinobi at the other end of the field. He tilted each of their chins up and stared at them, until they slumped over, asleep.

Mariko poked Tobirama.

He scowled.

"Genjutsu," he explained gruffly. "He has the Sharingan."

"Kagami, watch his movements!" called Torifu.

"I'm busy!" shouted Kagami.

"Kagami!" repeated the Akimichi, narrowly dodging a flash of white light that was the gray-haired boy. Danzo hurled Fuuton after Fuuton slice at the remaining enemy, but failed to catch his prey. The boy paused, standing on the wall. He looked bizarre, standing horizontally like that, but Mariko supposed that this was a daily occurrence in shinobi life.

"Kagami, I can't freaking see him!" Danzo shouted. That was probably the most Mariko had ever heard the quiet Shimura speak, let alone shout. A string of quiet swears flew from Danzo's mouth, before Kagami leapt over and scanned the field with his scarlet eyes. "Hurry up!" snapped Danzo, as the gray-headed genin sped around again.

"Well I'm sorry I only have two tomoe," muttered Kagami, drawing a kunai. He threw it at the wall, and it hit the surface with a heavy plunk, embedding itself firmly. It looked as if he'd hit nothing, but a shimmering reflection of chakra stuttered to a stop, and the boy materialized from his bright white flash, forced to change direction. At that moment, Danzo let loose a wild slice of wind, cutting into the wall and making the boy leap away from the area.

Right into a spinning mass of sharp objects and human bolder. Torifu rolled into the boy, smashing him to the ground and then bouncing away.

"Idiot, that was a replacement!" Kagami yelled, before he spun around and countered a short burst of lightning from behind. "What the hell, Hatake, you're a Raiton?"

The boy said nothing, only drew his short blade again and jabbed.

Kagami caught the blade's edge with a kunai and redirected the blow. This duel went on for a while until Toka called time. It was Team Toka's victory – something the other team sulked over when the first two awoke from their illusioned stupor – but the dark-haired woman scolded her team for letting the gray-haired boy give them such a hard time. Danzo's face was dark, and Kagami just looked annoyed, while Torifu grabbed a bag of chips and munched without much worry.

Team Yayoi took their seats, the Nara girl choosing to sit by the other girls, Kousuke by Torifu, and the Hatake somewhat by himself, though Shiro refused to not talk to him about his apparently new Raiton style.

"Who was that boy?" asked Mariko.

"He's from the Hatake clan," Tobirama told her. "They're quite the skilled clan, and I'm surprised he's doing so well, though."

"Compared to others?"

"Well, Kagami's just lazy most of the time, but this kid would give Akane a hard time."

This just confused Mariko, because she had no clue as to whether or not Akane was skilled – though she appeared to be very smart – and was not sure what Tobirama meant by Kagami being lazy.

"Explain?"

"He's good, but Aki could beat him, though I'm not so sure about Saru…" Tobirama seemed to be pondering now, trying to compare his students to the others.

Meanwhile, Toka was organizing the final match.

"Team Tobirama and Team Izuna, up please," she called. Mariko started. Team Izuna?

"I'M ALL FIRED UP!" yelled the boy with the red hair. At this, his teammates flinched, and Hiruzen snorted with laughter.

"You're the life of the party, aren't you," chuckled a familiar, distinctly Uchiha voice. He'd appeared out of nowhere, and somehow knew exactly where he was going, despite his lack of eyes. Izuna ambled out into the stadium, where he met with Toka and they went over the day's plan.

At the sight of him, Team Izuna exchanged grins and leapt down into the arena, followed by Hiruzen, Koharu, and Homura. However, a few others also tensed. Senju Akane directed her attention to the Nara girl and Biwako, forcing conversation. The two other kunoichi didn't seem to mind.

At the same time, Tobirama visibly stiffened. Mariko put a hand on his knee, and he glanced at her briefly.

Izuna easily strolled over to the wall and walked up its surface, appearing before them.

"Tobirama," he said in greeting.

"Izuna," replied the Senju tersely. Mariko was confused; this had never happened before. Hadn't they been in the barn one day, with both of them in close proximity? Nothing had happened then. Then again, Tobirama hadn't stayed long anyway.

Then: "I swear, Shorty, I will cut off all your hair if you don't stop poking me."

It came out as a vicious hiss, for he was trying to watch his team, and when he glared at her, she sort of just smiled demurely. Everyone had turned to look at them, and Tobirama awkwardly looked away from her. Then, not very subtly, he slid his hand into hers and let their intertwined fingers rest on his thigh.

A hushed conversation of excited girls' voices started up over by Senju Akane and her group. Mariko did not need fantastic hearing abilities to know what they were now gossiping about. She swore she heard one of them say, "His fiancée is so adorable. And her hair is so pretty. They look so cute together." Then again, Mariko could have been hearing things, despite her fondness for these comments.

Down in the arena, Yayoi called start, and immediately the two teams bounded away from one another, establishing a safe distance. After a few seconds, a member from each team tested the other with a few kunai. Then, when the Uzumaki leapt into the battlefield, Homura, surprisingly enough, spat out a water jutsu that swirled above their heads. Tobirama nodded, approving.

However, the redheaded boy easily avoided the crashing waves and advanced on Team Tobirama. Oddly enough, the other two were standing quite still. Taking advantage of this, Hiruzen and Koharu branched out to the sides and counterattacked. However, as soon as Hiruzen reached the Uzumaki, the candy-topped fellow broke from his position and ran at them with a kunai. By the time he reached Hiruzen, there was a four-person battle occurring – Hiruzen and Koharu, who had swerved her path to assist him, versus the red and pink duo.

"Koharu, use your—" Hiruzen never finished his sentence, because a number of chains from the ground snapped tight around his torso. He struggled, but they were not ordinary metal chains; instead, they consisted of a special chakra, formed into a Whirlpool-style seal. Hiruzen cursed himself for underestimating an Uzumaki. The redhead grinned, then turned to Koharu, who he narrowly missed with another well-planned Fuuin jutsu.

"You idiot!" snapped Koharu, dodging a few kunai from the pink-headed boy. She was backed into a corner now, surrounded by a few trees along a sandy portion of the arena. The young kunoichi had her hand poised by her weapons pouch, ready to draw a packet of deadly senbon needles.

To her surprise, the pink-haired fellow leapt away, and she felt a tug at her gut. Looking straight ahead, she saw their third member kneeling and aiming a unique hand seal her way. The blonde girl suddenly slumped over.

"Move, Koharu!" Homura called too late.

"She missed, she missed!" Hiruzen replied.

"We don't miss," laughed the Uzumaki boy, dodging a fireball from Hiruzen's lips. He leapt to the aid of the blonde girl, hoisting her up to a sitting position. "Haruno, take it away."

Koharu drew a kunai. Her eyes had a strange glint to them, and all was revealed when she spun around the threw her weapons at her own teammates. Accompanied by the pink-haired fellow (who had astonishing strength), Koharu began attacking her own team.

"What's going on?" whispered Mariko urgently.

"That's a Yamanaka jutsu," explained Tobirama, becoming bored despite the trouble his team had gotten into. "They specialize in mind-related techniques. That one transfers the jutsu user's mind to that of her target. She's controlling Koharu from the inside."

Mariko found this ludicrous. First trees growing from Hashirama's hand, water appearing out of nowhere, walking on water, and now this?

Hiruzen swore loudly, dodging both the Haruno and Koharu, making sure his fire attacks did not hit his own teammate. Unwilling to harm Koharu, despite knowing that attack to his teammate would have the same effect on the jutsu user, Hiruzen backed away. Homura, on the other hand, was kneeling by the trees, trying to think up an effective jutsu. He pulled out a scroll, and contemplated it for a moment. Then, in a split second decision before the Uzumaki left his post by the girl and attacked, he threw the scroll at Hiruzen.

Hiruzen caught it, opened it, and sliced his thumb quickly.

All in one moment, he had summoned the Monkey King Enma. There was little conversation that passed between the two, for the monkey lord had somehow turned into a black staff, which Hiruzen extended to reach the girl, unconscious across the arena. Her two teammates, red and pink alike, turned around in alarm.

Koharu's eyes widened, and she quickly performed a seal, before falling to her knees. The blonde girl immediately woke up and rolled away from Hiruzen's incoming attack. However, she was too late, as the staff rammed into her side and sent her sprawling.

"Koharu, you okay?" asked Homura quietly. Koharu nodded, back to herself. She scowled, as if the feeling of someone else controlling one's body was disgusting to her; which it was, most likely.

"Formation A, people!" Hiruzen hollered back at them. Koharu, still glaring, drew a handful of senbon and stood at ready. "I need one big fat Suiton on three, Homura!"

Homura pressed his hands together, most likely gathering the remaining reserves of chakra. All at once, he let loose another gigantic water wave that flooded the arena, forcing their opponenets to gather their fallen and retreat to the far walls. Without delay, Hiruzen vaulted up onto a wall and leapt into the air, flying grandly above them all. He blew a harsh flame at the raging waters, creating a mask of steam that clouded the entire stadium.

There were yelps and cries of alarm as Koharu leapt into the mist – none of her teammates were inside, deeming it all right to let loose a barrage of weapons.

"Winner, Team Tobirama," called Yayoi, cutting the match short when the poor pink, red, and blonde team emerged somewhat similar to porcupines. Mariko cringed; it looked awfully painful, to be mercilessly stabbed by the myriad of needles that Koharu wielded. She didn't even want to imagine the pain that would come with being a shinobi.

"You let your guard down," Izuna told his team quietly. "Your mistake was leaving behind your teammate."

He must've been referring to the gaping hole they'd created when the Uzumaki left his post by the Yamanaka girl. Tobirama, on the other hand, merely asked his team what the hell they were doing in the beginning.

"Don't dawdle," he told them flatly.

"Yes sir," murmured Hiruzen and Homura. Koharu nodded.

"Whew! That was exciting," said a new voice. All the kids turned ot the source of this voice, for it was an unfamiliar one. There was a collective whisper amongst the girls, and Mariko groaned inwardly. Of course the girls would begin gossiping; there was a stunning, blue-haired man right behind them, after all.


.x.X.x.


I will never understand men.


.x.X.x.


"I'm sorry, but civilians can't—" Yayoi paused, seeming to make the connection between Mariko and this stranger at the door behind the stadium seats. She shot Tobirama a confused look.

"LORD PRINCE!" exclaimed Hiruzen, too loudly. He must've been ready to make an idiotic statement about how Katsurou's hair was still blue today, so his teammates clamped their hands over his mouth forcefully. Everyone gaped.

"Ah, Toka, I'm requested back at the Uchiha complex," Izuna said, mostly to himself. Toka nodded, dismissing him. Mariko found this rather strange, because it almost sounded as if Izuna had received a mysterious mental message, and now needed to amble off on his own. Then again, he seemed to do that a lot. "Good to see you're doing well, Lord Prince." Izuna smiled at Katsurou. "Have a good evening."

Katsurou returned the smile, though Izuna could not have possibly seen it. Nonetheless, the Uchiha fingered the sword at his hip and then exited the arena. Izuna was becoming more and more strange…

"Mito says that if we're late to dinner, she might kill us all," Katsurou called over to Tobirama, who glared. The girls were now following a tennis match, their eyes bouncing between the sapphire Prince and the icy Senju. "Either that, or she'll spike our drinks with laxatives."

Tobirama folded his arms.

"INDIVIDUAL BATTLES," someone called. It must've been Shiro, because several people shushed in his direction.

"Sensei, you should do an exhibition match," someone else said. "Toka versus Yayoi."

"Nah, I want Shogo versus Arata."

"Tobirama versus everyone!"

Mariko was so confused now. Life was confusing. Men were confusing. Shinobi and everything they ever did were confusing. Right now, she absolutely despised the mischievous grin that was spreading itself across her brother's features as he strode up to Tobirama.

"How about you and me?" he suggested. Everyone was silenced – perhaps it was because they knew Tobirama was one of the strongest in the ninja world – at this battle challenge. Apprehensively, Mariko began to step between them, because obviously something had happened between these two. Something more than a fist fight.

"You won't pull any dirty tricks this time, will you?" Tobirama raised a brow skeptically. "After all, it wasn't Mito that spiked the drinks last time."

Katsurou's smile never faltered, but his eyes hardened. They were crystalline, like emeralds, unbreakable and unexpectedly cold.

"No, fair and square."

Tobirama simply stepped over to the stadium edge and leapt over the wall, landing lightly in the arena. Katsurou followed, avoiding the hand that shot out for his arm. Mariko only caught the edge of his sleeve, hissing angrily when her brother flew down into the ring alongside Tobirama. First of all, he was still injured. Secondly, Mariko wanted an explanation.

"Would you like a handicap, then?" asked Tobirama, deprecatingly.

"Didn't I just say fair and square? Go all out, brother." Katsurou smirked and patted his pockets, as if checking for something. "I'm all set."

Tobirama touched his face guard absently, as if checking to see if it was still there. Then, he drew a short sword from out of nowhere.

"This is a bad idea," muttered Arata, pacing back and forth.

"They're just being idiots," sighed Toka, sitting down tiredly beside her team. At the moment, every single genin in the stands was crowded around the wall, leaning over to see the battle.

Hesitantly, Toka started the match with a halfhearted shout.

If Mariko thought her brother was not a real shinobi, then she had thought wrong. Years and years away from the anti-shinobi courts of Esmeralda had transformed him. Second Prince Katsurou was no longer a child; not for a single moment did he look like the lanky teen showing Mariko that he could manipulate water into ice.

Then, in the moment when it seemed like Katsurou would actually strike Tobirama, the Senju adeptly manipulated the momentum of his sword of ice, throwing off the path of the blow. Tobirama obviously appeared to be more skilled, and Mariko had the uneasy feeling that if he wanted to, he would've ended this immediately. But he was having a terrible sort of fun, toying with Katsurou.

At the same time, it seemed like the prince was having a grand time parrying with the Senju, in some bizarre manly showdown. It would have been interesting, had Mariko not been worrying her blue hair off.

Meanwhile, Yayoi the purple-haired one – Mariko appreciated the variety of hair colors adorning the gym's occupants – shook her head and told Toka something about the idiocy of men. Toka agreed readily. Arata looked peeved, and the last man who came in late (Mariko forgot his name already) sort of appeared nervous. She wondered if nervous men were suited to be shinobi.

When the battle began to intensify, what with Tobirama sending incredibly large water waves crashing through the stadium, and Katsurou freezing icicles and throwing them like deadly kunai, Mariko was afraid someone would actually get hurt. This was a ridiculous notion, being in the shinobi world, but she was still worried. Katsurou suffered mildly from cuts and scrapes, on top of his newly healed wound, and if she wasn't hallucinating, Mariko saw scuffs and bruises here and there on Tobirama.

They were fighting, and having fun.

She, personally, would not have fun in such a thing. It must've been a man thing. She wouldn't understand, though.

Tobirama was about to come down hard on Katsurou with a deadly elbow strike downwards – Katsurou attempted to build an armor of ice, hoping to shatter the blow – but they were abruptly interrupted by a fire signal from the Hokage tower. A flare was lighted and sent into the sky moments later, from the direction of the gates. Everyone stared.

Katsurou froze, as did Tobirama. The two leapt to their feet and looked into the sky. The eastern skies were smoky with the leftovers of the flare. It was a green one, and Mariko didn't know what it meant.

"Toka, to the Hokage Tower," Yayoi called. "I'll take all the kids with Shogo."

"All right," agreed Toka. "Tobirama, to the gate. Arata with him. Mariko and Lord Prince, please come with me."

Katsurou had barely scrambled out of the arena, following a quickly departing Tobirama, when Izuna returned to the stadium, yelling about someone breaking Konoha's sensory barrier. Again, Mariko couldn't fathom the meaning of this. Sensory barrier? What in the world did that mean? Was there a sensor that opened gates or something?

Tobirama and Arata spared no time. The white-haired Senju, hardly fatigued from his short battle with Katsurou, leapt away, followed by the dark-haired one. They quickly flew from sight.

Toka urgently led them to the Hokage Tower, where Mito was seen on the roof, lighting a reply flare with Etsuko. There was some sort of complicated Uzumaki seal stretching from the tower's core and outwards to the main streets. Sumiko appeared for a split second, then disappeared from the window's views.

"What's going on?" asked Katsurou, joggng to keep up with the fast-paced woman.

"We'll fill you in later," Toka replied, sounding more like she didn't quite understand what the situation was either. Mariko just followed, because that was the only thing she could do. "Mito!"

"They should be cirling the east gate!" she called. Who was she talking about? Sumiko stepped out onto the rooftop, running over to the other two women. "There's too many or us to cover alone, get the Hyuuga! I've got a seal going."

Sumiko and Etsuko set to working on something while Mito scrawled something on one of her intricate scrolls, ink dashing across the paper quickly.

Intruders?

Toka opened her mouth to ask that very question, to find out how many people were invading Konoha, but she never finished her question.

No one had time to react when and a large, dark figure dropped thin air grabbed Sumiko and whisked her away.


Somewhere after I wrote Team Tobirama's battle, I got tired and wrote BHGE chapter 36.

What is going on?!

WHY IS THIS STORY FULL OF RANDOM ATTACKS?!

The world may never know. Might as well try to eat a tootsie pop in three chomps. Courtesy of Mukurowl and a few others.

Did I mention that Makishima Shogo is evil?

Oh, and future Rogue is handsome, he's got cool hair.

Also, name suggestions for Tobirama and Mariko's daughter?