I don't know how many times I can say 'sorry' to actually express how apologetic I am for not getting this chapter out sooner. But I will say this;

Daughter. Toddler. Christmas. Work party. New Years. HECTIC.

Get the picture? :S

But I am REAAAAAAALLLLLLLLYYY sorry this took so long! I also had a bit of trouble in this chapter because I promised to make it a long one to make up for the shortness of the last and VOILA! I have fulfilled my promise! Longest. Chapter. Yet.

BOOM.

Also, I should note that Muta and Tokuma are NOT my OC's.

They're actually a part of the Narutoverse and you can check out their profiles on the Naruto wiki page :) Muta says Tokuma's Byakugan is the best, and their ages aren't defined so I decided to steals them and make them Akani's teammates :)

For those of you that are up to date with the current anime, Muta is the one who kinda gets blown up (cue sad face) by zombie Deidara and Sasori when Kankuro's war scout team thing is ambushed by that dick Kabuto and his stupid zombie puppets and his stupid creepy Reanimation Jutsu. Tokuma joined Muta on Anko's scout team to find out where the Zetsu army was based, too. FUN FACTS! YAY!

Another thing is, woooooooow, so many of you were freaking out because of the whole 'memory wipe' thing. Can I just say LOOK UNDERNEATH THE UNDERNEATH.

A hint?

Akani says she can't remember anything regarding 'her sensei and best friend.' Meaning Kushina and Obito. Do with that info, what ye will.

Maybe that cleared up something about her whole 'imprinted memory' thing :)

Xhre: Akani will be with... Hmm, you know what? I think I'll keep ya guessing, but I will let you know that he's made an appearance. :D Because I'm a sadistic S.o.B and love to keep the SUSPENSE! Haha!

HowlX23: Perverted Kakashi... hmm... I think Akani will have something to do with that but not until later. From what I know, Jiraiya didn't release Icha Icha until after Minato's death since the Yondaime was still reading Tales of a Gutsy Ninja before Naruto was born. Pervert Kakashi will be in the future, don't you worry your pretty little head :P

yelyahnadia: Mou, I'm not that old! :|

IQvibe: NO! No Rape. Bad IQvibe. Very, very bad. :P

Sethera: I LOVED YOUR REVIEW AND I LOVE YOU! True story.

XenotheWise135: All this talk about plot devices made my head spin a little because a) the story is still in progress, and b) THE STORY IS STILL IN PROGRESS. :) Thank you for your review though because you gave me a lot to think about :)

CeresMaria: MONTY PYTHON IS THE SH*T. Mauling death-bunnies FTW.


Red, red, red everywhere.

Waves, waves of red and fading blue, pulsing with chilled fear and a bitter acceptance as the light winked out.

Hands, shaking, fading in and out in the dark, drip, drip, drip.

Red, red, red, redredredred…

Oh Kami, the redredredRED!


I jerked awake and sat up rapidly, hand reaching for a kunai in my thigh pouch that wasn't there. For a moment I panicked, unsure of where I was exactly until someone familiar spoke.

"You're finally awake."
I sighed and scrubbed my face, not quite feeling up to resonating my echolocation just yet. I could tell it was Tokuma and Muta from the chakra signatures that were as memorable as my own, the former having spoken. A crackle of a small fire coupled with the scent of roasting fish meant it was night, and dinner time.

"Wha's happ'nin'?" I slurred, yawning despite having been unconscious.

"We have both scrolls. We are approximately one kilometre from the tower, however night has fallen and the way is rather thick and perilous," Muta answered.

I nodded, gratefully accepting a stick of fish that Tokuma held out for me. I didn't even realise how hungry I was until I took a bite and proceeded to gobble it down. I paused, almost choking on a fishbone. "Wait… we're that close to the tower?"

Nods.

"How long was I out?"
"Over a day."
I blinked, pointing between the two of them. "And… you guys carried me… all that time?"
Nods again.

My eyes narrowed. "And we didn't run into any other genin?"
Head shakes.

"… Do I really snore?" I asked.

"Like a boar," Tokuma deadpanned as Muta merely nodded once.

I glared, but felt my lips twitch despite myself. All too soon I was cracking up and rolling all about the place, weariness and soreness gone. I was always a fast healer so a bit of chakra exhaustion was nothing. Rin's healing meant that I would be tender, but I didn't have to worry about my wounds opening up again if I took it easy. Kinda hard to do that though, considering it was the chunin exams, but you couldn't win em all.

I leant back on my arms to stretch my stiff muscles. I smiled at my teammate. "Thanks," I said gratefully.

"None necessary," Muta replied.

"But you realise you owe us now," Tokuma input casually.

I raised a brow. "Really?"
He nodded seriously. "Yes."
"Alright, Princess, I'll bite. What do I owe you?"

This should be interesting.

I liked interesting things.

"Stop calling me Princess," the Hyuga said.

"No deal!" I cried, pointing my finger at him. "You secretly love it, don't deny it!"
"It is emasculating," he sniffed.

"And your pretty hair isn't?" I taunted, poking out my tongue. "The nickname stays! Pick something else!"

Tokuma opened his mouth, only to close it and repeat the process a few more times before facing Muta. Surprisingly the Aburame smirked a little deviously. It made me wary since I'd never seen that particular look on Muta before, and I was wondering whether I should be nervous or not.

"You have to…" he trailed off and despite myself I leaned in eagerly, wondering what was going on in that head of his. "You have to wait until the end of the examinations to find out."
I face planted into the dirt before glaring up at my two stoic teammates. "What?! That's not cool!"
"Live in fear, Akani-chan," Tokuma smirked.

I was a little taken aback by the –chan suffix but quickly forgot about it. Just meant he was finally defrosting, and that was a good thing. I pouted petulantly. "So not cool, Princess."

"Stop calling me Princess!" he snapped. "If we're about to become chunin, I do not want my moniker to be 'Princess.'"

"Nah, don't worry since I'll beat up anyone else who uses it. You're my Princess," I teased with a wink.

The Hyuga grumbled and speared another fish a little too hard and set to roasting it. I withheld a shudder since he was glaring right at me when he stuck it in the fire. He wasn't really angry with me. More annoyed. Possibly frustrated.

I smelled burnt fish and Tokuma's lips quirked a little too happily.

Okay. Maybe a lot frustrated.

"So," I drew out. "Anyone wanna see my-" I whipped out my summoning contract, "-awesome new summons?"

"No," was the resounding answer.
My smile dropped into a frown. "Why not?" I whined.

"Do not waste your chakra," my teammates said in unison, though Muta continued. "You are coming off chakra exhaustion and wounds. It would not be wise."
I sighed, placing my summoning scroll back on top of my battle scroll resting beside me. My teammates didn't even bother giving me a passing glance whenever I snuggled to it.

To keep it safe.

… yeah.

"Alright, I'll give ya that. So, anything interesting happen while I was out of it?" I asked, genuinely curious. I couldn't quite put my finger on it but the… air was different in the team now. Like something major had happened and it was changed, but I couldn't tell if it was for the better or not. My suspicions were confirmed when Tokuma tilted his head minutely towards Muta whose lips thinned just a little bit.

So… something bad?
I narrowed my eyes. "What happened?"

"Nothing that needs to be repeated," Tokuma grit out.

I gnashed my teeth. "We're a team, Princess. Something's changed between point A and B. I'm not stupid. If something happened, then I need to know! What happened while I was out?"
They were silent for so long I didn't think either of them would answer me. Muta let out a small sigh and adjusted his glasses. "Kakashi-san was under the impression that your actions were reckless-"

"Which they were," Tokuma grumped without real heat.

"-and proposed that he will be telling Hokage-sama that you should not become a chunin due to said actions," the Aburame finished, his chakra quivering a little with guilt and unease.

I gaped, feeling a little pale. Kakashi, even after I saved his life – had my first official kill, too – thought that I didn't deserve to become a chunin because I wouldn't let my friends be hurt in my stead. And he was going to say as much to the Sandaime who had the final say in promotions. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.

Laugh, and hope this was all a joke.

Or cry because even after all my needling to try and loosen him up about being a prick, he still saw me as dirt.

He still saw me as next to nothing.

Despite all my hard work – all the training and blood, sweat and tears – I still wasn't good enough for him. I didn't even realise that I was trying to earn something from him. What it was exactly I wasn't quite sure. I wanted him to notice me as a comrade and friend, but he turned a frosty shoulder and practically sneered at me from his high and mighty position on the egotistical pedestal.

It was like being locked in that cell all over again, when my cellmate didn't consider me a friend despite our circumstances. It hurt.

A lot.

I felt betrayed because I thought that on some level I had a little of Kakashi's respect, no matter how small that shred might have been.

My chest squeezed painfully and I sucked in a shuddering breath, allowing my sadness to show for a moment. Only a moment.

If Kakashi didn't think I could become a chunin, then I'd just have to go and prove him wrong, didn't I? What did he know, anyways?

Nothing, because he never cared.

Never mind that he would, but that was eventually.

I swept my face blank of any emotion and nodded slightly to my teammates. "I see."

Tokuma eyed me warily, unsure of what to make of me. My attitude was reminiscent of his more icy-hostile days than the grinning, hair-trigger-temper kunoichi I usually was.

"Are you alright, Akani-chan?" he asked with genuine concern.

I frowned a little, still feeling a little betrayed but nodded all the same. "Yeah." I lay back on my sleeping bag and rolled over, suddenly not feeling quite as hungry. "I'll take second watch."

I never noticed Muta and Tokuma exchange a private conversation with their eyes, and I didn't even have long to think about why I was so hurt when sleep claimed my mentally, emotionally and physically tired self.


The watch was uneventful, save for a few owls picking off some poor unsuspecting rodent darting between cover.

I grimaced as I heard a bone snap, despite being so far away from the happily munching night predator.

Snuggling deeper into my blankets, I inhaled the warm night air, trying to get rid of the last remnants of the nightmare I had before Muta woke me up for watch.

The forest was almost its own ecosystem, and the closeness of everything was starting to bother me.

I couldn't wait to get out of here.

I nudged Tokuma awake for the longest stretch of night watch since he wasn't injured like Muta and I.

I pretended I couldn't feel his chakra alight with concern as I passed out until dawn.


I should have been concerned about my face becoming a perma-frown with how much I was furrowing my brows as we got closer to the tower. Apparently we'd camped in the thickest part, according to fancy-eyes Princess. Since it would take too long to go around – we really wanted to get out of this stupid forest – we decided it would be best to cut straight through.

My nose was whipped by another stray branch and I howled in pain, eyes watering. "Damnit! Whose stupid idea was it to go straight through this crap?!"

"Yours," Tokuma snarled, gracefully ducking under another branch, not a strand of his pretty hair out of place. Muta was equally as slippery.

I groaned, regretting my hasty nature. I knew I should have asked the Hyuga to repeat what he shouted after me when I took off and left them behind. "Why am I always getting the stupid branches whipping my face? You two are taller than me!"

"Luck of the draw with a hint of karma," Tokuma drawled, hopping over a mossy rock which I quickly slipped on and ended up ass first in a mud pit underneath it.

I was sore.

I was tired.

I was distracted.

I was emotionally strained.

I wasn't coping, so you couldn't really blame me for what ensued.

I wailed my fists into the ground, uncaring of the extra mud I was splashing onto myself and tearfully screamed out my frustration while my two teammates simply watched in varying stages of concerned annoyance.

Red faced, I stopped screaming, my arms landing limply in my lap as I huffed and sniffled, not feeling the least satisfied. Shame swept over me in an instant. This was neither the time nor place to have a mental breakdown. I could do that after I got to the tower by doing what I did best whenever I was close to melting; break shit.

Preferably Kakashi's nose.

And now my chest hurt again.

Damn.

I rose from the mud, trying to make myself as presentable as possible. I couldn't even face my teammates. "Sorry," I mumbled.

"Let us get to the tower," Muta suggested, already turning around.

I nodded and followed the two boys I considered brothers-in-arms, leaping off the branches in silence. We travelled like that for a little while and I tried really hard not to fidget. Normally I could tell what my teammates were thinking about since it reflected emotionally through their chakra, but now…

There was nothing.

They were both a blank canvas and it worried me.

I felt a foreign presence tickle my mind and whistled softly to pull my teammates to a stop. We froze on a rather large branch as I stretched my senses, dispersing the illusion trying to claim me. "Area genjutsu," I murmured. A slightly louder hum of kikaichu let me know Muta was out of the jutsu too.

Tokuma silently activated his bloodline, seeing through everything. "One team hiding in the bushes just before a river that leads to the tower."
"An ambush?" Muta asked, kikaichu slipping from beneath his coat and quietly filtering into the forest.

"Seems like," I sighed, reeling back in my sensing. The team had almost full chakra reserves while Team Two didn't. We were exhausted and a healthy enemy could prove dangerous. "Losers can't fight for a scroll so they had to wait and ambush finishing teams while they're tired? That's so obviously tacky."
"But effective," Tokuma pointed out.

"Still tacky," I grumped, cracking my neck. "Right, so… Muta? Got bugs on them yet?"
"… Hai."
"Awesome!" I grinned. "Let's go meet the neighbours, ne?" I chuckled as I leapt onto the forest floor a little ways away from where the opposing team was hiding. I could hear the rush of water through the thinning trees, which I took as a good sign.

The tower lay just beyond, and in said tower was shower, food, bed, showershowershower.

"Come on out! We know you're there!" I shouted just as my teammates landed beside me.

We heard a chuckle and an older team leapt from cover and I suppressed a grimace as I recognised one of the boys from the classroom before the test began. He thought I was-

"Oh? We got the runt? Too easy," the heavy-set boy sneered at me.

-an 'easy target.' Apparently he was the appointed leader of the cell. I sighed wearily though my eyebrow twitched with annoyance. "What is it with everyone underestimating me because of my age, height and gender?"
"You are petite, Akani-chan," Muta replied, adjusting his glasses.

I whirled on him, popping my knuckles. "You did not just call me short!"
"Why are you so offended about the truth?" Tokuma asked. "Muta-san was merely making an observation."
"You can take your observation and stick it up your a-"

A throat cleared and I faced the opposing team who were thoroughly amused. "Like lambs to the slaughter. Babies trying to play ninja don't deserve to even be here."
I gave him a funny look. "You do know that we made it this far with both scrolls, right?" I said dryly. "Not bad for a bunch of babies, ne?"
"Oh? You have both scrolls?" the older boy said interestedly and I mentally face palmed, shrinking a little from the frustration my teammates didn't even bother to hide. "If you give us both of your scrolls, we won't have a problem."
"Seriously? Negotiation tactics?" I said incredulously. "And I thought Kakashi was an idiot for doing the same thing," I added under my breath.

"So you won't give them up without a fight?" the other genin – I'm just gonna call him 'Butch' for now – asked casually. "A real pity," he sighed.

"For us or you?" I snapped.

Butch smirked. "Why don't you come and find out, runt?"
My whole body jerked and something even tenser than before snapped inside of me.

So far in this exam I've been chased after by a crazy, avenging Iwa nin, called scum repeatedly by one of my best friends (despite what said friend tried to vehemently deny in regards to relations and my face-value bravado) and told that all of my hard work these last years might be worth nothing at the moment because I might not get promoted anyways.

I.

Was.

Pissed.

I needed an outlet and, oh! What a surprise. A willing genin team to be the victims of my ire.

"That's it! I've had enough of this shit!" I roared before channelling a large amount of earth chakra into my fist. I bought it crashing down onto the soil beneath me and a shockwave ricocheted around the area, the earth roiling and cracking in an intricate spider web pattern that spread quickly towards the other genin team.

It was so abrupt and apparently shocking enough for Butch's team to be caught off guard by a seemingly tough nine year old genin that it took them a few seconds to regain their footing.

My face was blank, but no one could deny that my stance screamed 'bring it.' I tried not to let my sudden exhaustion at the abrupt expenditure show. I was coming off injuries and I was kinda regretting losing my temper, but I couldn't dwell on it since my teammates and I had only limited time to utilise the distraction to our advantage.

Tokuma and Muta sprung into action, Gentle Fist strikes and swarms of kikaichu smearing across the small 'battlefield' as Butch faced me. I almost wanted to laugh at how similar this felt to facing off against Hayase. Leader vs. me.

Goody.

I was popular.

"Alright, so you've got some strength behind that punch, but you feel pretty tired right now so I'll do you a favour by finishing this quickly," Butch said neutrally, hand inching towards his kunai pouch.

It took me a few seconds to realise he said 'feel,' not 'look' tired. I blinked. "You're a sensor?"
"The best in the village," he bragged – untruthfully, I mentally pouted – before whipping out a small golf ball sized object. He grinned as he deployed the smoke bomb, the area around us becoming dense and heavy, the sounds of Tokuma and Muta's fight still ringing in my ears.

I snorted. What an idiot. As if smoke could-

My eyes watered and began to sting. I blinked rapidly, trying to get rid of whatever was harming them but that was a no go since it just made it worse. Given, I didn't even need my eyes but it still hurt like a bitch. Butch's voice echoed around me.

"Specially made smoke bomb which contains an irritant that attacks the eyes, blinding my opponents," he gloated, moving about the fog. "That must sting, ne?"
I pretended to be panicked, not quite wanting to give away the fact I didn't need eyesight to see where he was exactly - about four o'clock and closing in slowly, stealthily. "Where are you?" I harried.

He chuckled, thoroughly amused. "Where's the fun in that, runt? Besides, since I'm immune I don't need to worry about bothersome irritants." He followed up his words with a lunging roundhouse kick which I gracefully ducked under before twirling into his shocked guard and punching him in the solar plexus with a hint of chakra.

He bent at the waist but recovered well, fist cocked back and heading for my ribs. I blocked with an elbow, only to receive a knee in the hip for my trouble. I skidded sideways about a foot, wincing at the bruise I felt forming. Okay. Butch had some power.

Time to up the ante.

We traded blows but I was quicker despite the scrolls on my back, my small size a boon in taijutsu against larger, slower opponents. Plus the kikaichu Muta had placed on all of them was slowly sucking his chakra dry. I love those little guys.

Butch was good, but not Guy good. I felt almost sad for the guy since he obviously relied too much on his sensing abilities and trick-smoke.

Best in the village, I mentally scoffed. How lame being a one-trick pony, but I guess you worked with what you had.

I rolled between the taller genin's legs, pinching a nerve behind the knee as I went. Butch collapsed and I quickly spun around to leap back over his hunched form, tugging his shirt as I went. He struggled in his cloth prison for a moment, but it was long enough for me to knee him hard in the stomach again. I heard something creak dangerously.

Butch wheezed, shirt slipping back into place and eyes wide with shock and pain. I could tell he wanted to know how I knew where he was, his blue alight with curiosity and the vaguest touch of fear that turned my stomach a little. I smirked, making him freeze.

"A hint?" I offered. "I don't need eyesight to be a good ninja."

I pumped my arms full of chakra and bodily hauled him out of the smoke to land in a heap against a tree. All fighting stopped, Tokuma and Muta's opponents staring at their downed teammate in shock. I calmly walked out of the noxious, dissipating smog, a little out of breath and a few bruises but relatively unharmed. I ignored everyone – including Butch's teammates stammers of 'n-no way' – and simply jerked my head towards the tower.

Tokuma and Muta nodded before following me, but I stopped when I heard a slight wheeze as Butch staggered to his feet.

"H-how? How did you see me in the fog?" he growled. "It should have blinded you."

Tokuma and Muta's chakra shivered with amusement as I tried to withhold a smirk. "I told you. I don't need eyesight to be a good ninja."

And that was that.

We left Butch's team sans scrolls and downtrodden and headed towards the tower, Muta recalling his full and happy kikaichu from the other team.

Thankfully we didn't meet any other resistance as we entered the surprisingly dry construct. Outside, the forest was so cloying and damp that the difference made my skin break out in goosebumps.

"So," I sighed, fingers twitching with the urge to scratch at my eyeballs. "What now?"

"We check the scrolls," Tokuma said, motioning for Muta to hand the both over and ignoring my 'Thank you, Captain Obvious.' Muta passed them over, the Hyuga cracking both open, brows furrowed in concentration. His eyes widened as smoke began to creep out of the paper. He tossed them away, dragging Muta and I back in case it was an exploding tag.

How sweet.

But totally unnecessary.

I rolled my still burning eyes as the summoning seal was activated and Kushina popped out, a shit-eating grin on her face. I felt a weird shift in my chest and head at the sight of her, but before I could question it, it was gone. Kushina clapped her hands enthusiastically.

"You guys did it, -ttebane! I knew you could!" She paused before pointing to me. "Akani-chan, what the hell happened to your face?"
"What do you mean?" I grumped.

"The skin around your eyes are all red and veiny and creepy looking, -ttebane."

"Oh," I said, poking the tender skin just under my eyes. "Poisoned smoke that affects the optical nerves."
"Oh, that's alright then. It'll wear off. But congratulations! I'm so proud of you all, -ttebane!"
"How much money did you make off your bets?" I deadpanned, eying her warily and a little annoyed she wasn't concerned about me being poisoned. She was way too happy to see us.

Kushina coughed awkwardly, ignoring my question completely. "So, you've made it to the next stage of the exams, but since you've reached the tower before the deadline you get a days rest until they continue."
I kinda ignored everything she said afterwards, about the physical and spiritual stuff – if you're strong in one, work on the other, yadda yadda yadda – because all I heard was 'rest' which soon became a repetitive chant of 'shower-bed-shower-bed-shower.'

Kushina took a breath to keep on talking when I rushed past her. She snagged the back of my shirt. "Oi! Where are you going, -ttebane?!"

She must have heard my insane muttered ramblings of 'shower-bed' over and over again – I hadn't even realised I was saying it out loud by now – and released me with a weary sigh. I bolted past her towards the stairs. Just before I disappeared from view she called out after me.

"Hokage-sama still wants to talk to you, Akani-chan! Don't get too comfortable!"

My groan of annoyance echoed around the tower.


I fell asleep in the bath and Kushina had to kick down the door to make sure I didn't accidentally drown myself. I was only vaguely aware – being half asleep, as I was – that my sensei had only wrapped me in a large, fluffy towel before marching me through the corridors of the rooms back to Team Two's quarters.

Apparently a few teams had already shown up and were drawn into the hallway by the racket Kushina was making in scolding me and punching my skull after one of my half-slurred retorts.

It really shouldn't have amazed me that most people avoided me, either shifting uncomfortably or blushing whenever I tried to say hi that night in the mess hall.

People really avoided me when one older genin dude got a broken nose by asking me if the 'carpet matched the drapes,' whatever the hell that meant. I had a feeling it was something perverted and insulting though.

I was only slightly pissed that it was Kushina who decked the punk and not me – "It was an accident, Hokage-sama. I tripped and my fist met his face with a force that even baffled me, -ttebane!" – but I made a point to cackle gleefully when he cried.


"I want my cut."
Kushina blinked at me before laughing wildly. I was kinda surprised she didn't start rolling on the floor. Apparently she had some dignity, though I used that term loosely. She wiped a faux tear from her eye. "Oh that was a good one, Akani-chan!"
"I'm being serious!" I snapped-slash-whined. "We did all the hard work, ergo we get some of the dough from the bets you placed. Now cough it up! Cough it up, I say!"

"Oh don't be such a cry baby. Consider it hazard pay from being your sensei."
"Gotta pay to cover those grey hairs, ne, sensei?" I chuckled before a punch flattened me to the floor. I cradled my now aching head. "Will you cease and desist! I don't want to lose any more brain cells!"
"What brain cells?" Tokuma muttered from behind me. He coughed to cover what was a suspicious snicker when I glared at him murderously.

"I'm so stealing your cut, Princess," I snarled before pouting. "Kami, your man-hands almost gave me a concussion, sensei!" Fist met skull once more, making tears spring to my eyes. "Gah! Don't use chakra! Totally uncool!"
"Maybe 'uncool' for you, brat, but I'm feeling rather mollified," Kushina sniffed before crossing her arms, pointedly hiding her hands beneath her armpits. "And I do not have man hands!"

I scoffed. "Please, they're bigger than ero-bakACK!" Said man hands wrapped around my throat and began to shake me. I held out a desperate hand to my teammates who were watching the scene with an air of dignified nonchalance. "Help… me!" I wheezed.

Nothing.

They did nothing.

"C-cow… ards!"

A throat cleared and Kushina stopped trying to throttle me, eyes wide as she dropped me like a hot potato. I landed rather ungracefully on the floor, my butt stinging from the impact.

"H-Hokage-sama! What a pleasant surprise!" Kushina forced out a laugh. "I was just… uh… bonding with my team, -ttebane!"
"Since when was murder by strangulation 'bonding'?" I asked incredulously, earning myself a not-so-subtle backwards kick from the older redhead who still hadn't taken her eyes off the Sandaime.

"I apologise if I interrupted, but I need to speak with your team in regards to an incident in the forest," the Hokage said gravely despite the slight twitch at the corner of his mouth. He stepped inside the room, followed by Team Seven.

I glared at Kakashi who smirked at my splayed form on the ground before grinning at Rin and Obito, ignoring the same fluttering in my mind and body I felt with Kushina. "Hey! You guys made it!" I leaned sideways, waving stupidly at Minato. "Hey, Mini-nii-san!"

Minato gave me a small, embarrassed smile and moved closer to Kushina.
"Was there ever any doubt?" Obito laughed, chest puffing out.

"Yes," I deadpanned, snickering when he deflated. "Nah, just kidding. Welcome to the party!"

"Some party," Rin said dryly.

"Psh, you just need to loosen up, Rinny," I teased, jumping to my feet to encase her in a hug.

"Hey! Rin-chan is loose!" Obito defended, only to pause as his words sunk in. He blushed furiously, then paled just as quick. He waved his arms around frantically. "T-that's not what I meant!"

I sighed, patting Rin on the arm as she tried to shrink into nothingness. Everyone – as a general rule – ignored Kushina's roaring laughter. "If I verse him in the one on ones, I'll kick his ass for you, 'kay?"

Rin's smile was tight but I accepted it none the less.

"So, Hokage-sama, you want that report, yeah?" I said, changing the subject.

The elder shinobi coughed slightly but nodded, demeanour turning serious. "Yes. From what my ANBU and the Police have managed to gather, Hayase of the Hammer Fist, missing nin from Iwagakure, was after you Akani-chan."
"Yeah, I kinda guessed when he called me out specifically," I sighed.

"I have already gathered my reports from Guy-kun and Kakashi-kun," the Sandaime explained. I stiffened, flicking a glance at Kakashi who was as cool as a cucumber, leaning against the wall and not looking at me. "So, Tokuma-kun, Muta-kun, would you please fill me in?"

I tuned everyone out, my thoughts turning inwards. The Sandaime already had Kakashi's report, and according to Muta he didn't think I had what it takes to become a chunin.

Did that mean my chances were already shot to shit? I hoped not, or I'd be gunning for Kakashi even if it meant complete and utter decimation via spar.

He was such an ungrateful bigot that I sometimes wanted nothing more than to throttle him. He'd always been an ass, but it was upsetting to know that he was such a cold person towards me despite knowing me for half of my life.

Not to mention the little things that I thought added up to a fragile thing called 'friendship,' like turning a blind eye to me stealing his clothes or him breaking into my apartment to wake me up through painful and – begrudgingly – inventive ways.

I was pulled out of my thoughts by a voice calling my name. I glanced about the room, noting everyone's eyes on me. "Um… sorry, what was that?"
The Hokage sighed as Kushina face palmed heavily. "Everyone save Akani-chan, please leave the room. I need to speak with her privately. Kakashi-kun, you stay also."

The Sandaime gave the sensei's slight nods as they exited, the other genin glancing at Kakashi and me nervously. I gave them a bright grin and thumbs up, making a few eyes roll. Kakashi stood as still as a statue, ignoring everything.

I wondered what he was even there for, but just shrugged it off. The Hokage wanted him there for a reason so I wasn't gonna ask.

Once the door closed I got a small nod from the Hokage. I sped through seals and slapped a silencing ward around the room, getting a raised brow from the chunin but nothing else.

"Tell me what happened, Akani-chan," the Hokage demanded.

"Long story short, Hayase was under the impression that I killed his brothers, who were a part of the attempted infiltration of the Leaf a few years back. I sealed them away, though."
"Yes, I am aware."
"What's confusing, though, is that Hayase said he received severed heads," I continued, making the elderly man frown slightly.

"Severed heads, you say?" he muttered blankly. "That is… impossible."

I had a feeling that the Iwa nin I sealed were taken to get worked over by the Torture and Interrogation department, but I had no idea what happened after every secret was plucked from a prisoners head. Did they stay in prison, or were their memories erased and sent back to their home village? If they had bounties on their heads, did the village collect?
We were in the middle of a war, so prisoners of war weren't uncommon. If they were of a higher or noble class then they could possibly be used as political pawns and leverage against the Kage or Daimyo of their country.

Something about this whole situation smelled fishy, and it was putting me on edge. I didn't want people gunning for my head! Hayase didn't seem too highly skilled if Kakashi and Guy could tire him and I could finish him. His two pals weren't very strong either if they could be caught off guard so easily, which begged the question of how they got so far into Leaf territory to begin with.

They had to have had help.

And there was only one major douche I could think of that would play such underhanded tactics. But what was the point? The war had already been announced, so what was the advantage to letting three Iwa nin slip into the forest in a quest to off a single genin?

"Maybe… we're looking too much at the 'how' and not the 'who' and 'why,'" I spoke hesitantly. Both males faced me with differing degrees of curiosity. I licked my lips, unsure of how to continue. "Hokage-sama… No one knew about what I did. No one but Rin and the ANBU present, so how did Hayase know to look for me, a single genin, in particular while getting past patrols and such?"
"You're the only sealing apprentice in the Leaf," Kakashi pointed out. "An experienced spy wouldn't have trouble slipping into the village and placing two and two together."
"Speculation at best," I snapped. "There are others capable of sealing people into scrolls. Medical nin, for instance. Stasis patient storage and transportation seals are incredibly hard to maintain but not impossible for a medical nin with knowledge of fuinjutsu and a high degree of chakra control. Kushina-sensei, Minato-san and Jiraiya-sama are also capable of it, I'm sure. But Hayase referred to that incident in particular that no one should know about since they were sworn to secrecy. Also the village is pretty much on lockdown since the war was announced."

Kakashi frowned. "But… that would mean there are informants within Hokage-sama's ANBU with some powerful leeway to go behind his back and sneak a three-man enemy cell into our borders. Or Rin was compromised."
"It's not Rin," I said, staring straight at the Hokage and feeling more than a little miffed that Kakashi didn't seem at all repentant at throwing his teammate under the bus. "And it's not Hokage-sama's ANBU."

The Hokage knew who it was.

He knew that I knew who it was.

Kakashi was out of the loop, and obviously not liking it but everyone ignored him.

"Hokage-sama," I said seriously. "It's too obvious, even for…"

"Stay vigilant, Akani-chan, and tell me of any new developments." He was referring to my 'dreams.' "Rest up, both of you and give me a written report by the end of the exams. You are looking a little travel worn."
"Hai, Hokage-sama," Kakashi barked, back straightening before he swept into a diligent bow.

I gave the Sandaime a lazy salute as I deactivated the silencing wards, leaning towards Kakashi. "You know," I said in a mock whisper. "That's Hokage-sama's way of saying that we look like shit."

Kakashi looked appalled, but not at the Hokage. "Mind your mouth in the presence of the Hokage!"
I blinked. "Eh? But he doesn't mind, do ya Hokage-sama?"
"Leave me out of this, Akani-chan."
I sighed, shaking my head. "And here I thought you would have my back. For shame! Ero-baka's got a worse mouth than me. He even taught me a few while I was annoying him into teaching me some jutsu! I also heard a few new ones when he was spying on Mai-hime last time he was-"

"What?" the Sandaime hissed, eyes narrowed dangerously as he leaked a large amount of intent.

Shit. I mentioned his daughter.

I began to sweat under the doubled air pressure. "Um, did I say Mai-hime? I meant, uh… Kushina-sensei!"

I heard a muffled 'Eh?!' from the door and knew that Kushina had overheard me.

Things weren't looking too good for Jiraiya, but as I watched the Hokage glide from the room, still leaking intent and followed by an irate Uzumaki, I couldn't bring myself to feel sorry for the perv.


Elsewhere in Konoha, Jiraiya sneezed then shuddered violently, suddenly getting the insane urge to murder a certain redheaded genin while also begging for his life.


Minato glanced about the room before settling his eyes on Kakashi. "Kakashi-kun, go and rest up."
"Hai, Minato-sensei."

The chunin left with his teammates in tow but not before giving me a weird look that I couldn't decipher. Once they were out of view I smirked, holding out my hand to Minato. He sighed and placed a few wads of cash in my palm. I pocketed it.

"Pleasure doing business with ya!"
"You have no shame for such a young lady, Akani-chan. I should feel sorry for sensei, but…"
"But you can't seem to feel guilty since he was still perving on Kushina-sensei and using her for 'research' while also crashing at your place, eating all of your food and taking off with all your money and writing it off as 'travel expenses' so you decided to employ my services into getting him beaten up by the Hokage and your girlfriend?"

It was a silent agreement between the two of us; make Jiraiya's life a living hell whenever he deserved it. It was a sentiment we both shared wholeheartedly, though I was a little more vicious about it.
"Something like that," Minato agreed. "Though I think getting Kushina involved at the last minute was a little too much." He paused before smiling brightly. "I'll save you a front row seat when the beating starts."
I cackled evilly. "I like your style."

"What can I say? I'm a genius."
I rolled my eyes. "Sooo humble."

Minato scratched his cheek sheepishly before perking back up again. "Oh! I have something for you, Akani-chan!" He whipped out a storage scroll from his pocket, tossing it to me.

I unravelled it, looking at the sensei questioningly.

"It's got all of your weapons and weights you didn't pick up while you were in the forest," Minato explained just as I unsealed my stuff, resisting the urge to squeal and/or hug everything – including Minato – tightly. "Yeah, Kakashi told me to give it to you."
I almost dropped a number of sharp, pointy things. I blinked rapidly at Minato. "Kakashi… got my stuff?"
"Hai," the blonde said with a soft, secret smile that confused me. "Be sure to sharpen them. I also added something of mine in there too, just in case."
"Uh… thanks? I guess…"

"No worries, Akani-chan. Anytime."

I frowned as I sorted out and resealed my kunai and weights into my battle scroll. Curiouser and curiouser.

Boys were weird.


Unfortunately, Tokuma and Muta plied me with questions about why I was so happy when I entered the quarters and it wasn't until the money tumbled out of my pocket and onto the floor due to a flying tackle by said teammates that I confessed to getting Jiraiya beaten up by sensei and the Hokage. I made sure to note that it was Minato who paid me to do it.

I almost cried when I had to pay them off so they wouldn't tell anyone I made the whole 'spying on Mai-hime' thing up.

That was so a year ago.


"Ano, Kushina-sensei?"
"Hm?"
"… the genin team that was killed in the forest. Do you know who they were?"
"It was Team Fourteen under Atsuo-san."
"The genin, you dolt! Who were the genin?"

"Daichi Iwate, Orihime Watanabe and Kasai Arai."
I felt the breath rush out of my lungs at the last one.

I hadn't even realised I was on my knees and crying until I felt Kushina embrace me, telling me everything was going to be alright. But how? Kasai, my first self proclaimed 'rival' and eventual friend from the Academy was dead by the man who was coming after me.

Did Hayase ask if Orihime was me? Did they protect me by refusing to say? I'd never know. All I knew was that three genin who had possible bright futures are dead.

Guilt washed over me, followed by a weird sense of pride at having avenged my friend's death, even though I didn't know it was Kasai's team. Did Tokuma know, when he saw the team dead with his bloodline? If he did, why didn't he tell me? Was I really that fragile in his eyes?

Kushina's soothing words of 'you couldn't have done anything' and 'we become ninja to protect the ones we love' sounded hollow in the wake of that realisation. Tokuma must have known, and he didn't think I could handle it.

Another person who didn't think I was cut out for this.

I didn't speak to him at all that night, simply rolling over and showing him my back when he and Muta came to see if I was hungry.

I wasn't.


"Congratulations on getting this far, all of you," the Hokage said, voice echoing around the room, bouncing off the brick. The sensei's were resting against the bars of an observation deck above us, the Hokage and a number of other jonin I didn't recognise lined up on a dais in front of the genin. The ones with the masks were obviously a part of the Hokage's personal ANBU.

The week time limit was up and only five teams made it through. I glanced at the spare space where I felt that Kasai's team should be. My eyes snapped back to the front and I swallowed the sudden bile in my throat. My first kill had affected me, I knew. And the actions of Hayase had a rebound effect that caused many people great pain because he had been dealt pain first.

Somehow, in that moment, I felt a weird connection with the future Nagato. I understood, but still couldn't quite comprehend.

The Hokage droned on about how the chunin exams – under normal and peaceful circumstances – were a show of strength of the village to the other nations and such. 'The strength of the country is the strength of the village is the strength of the shinobi' and so on. It was inspiring, don't get me wrong, but I was a little too self absorbed at this point in time. Muta had to nudge me to snap me out of my funk when the Hokage stopped talking.

I trudged up the stairs to the observation deck, fiddling with the strap of my scroll and completely oblivious to the worried look Kushina had whenever she glanced at me. Apparently we were having the final stage right then and there. Something about war not giving you a chance to recuperate and I guess it made sense. I was a little frazzled though, after everything, so I wasn't as enthusiastic as I normally would have been. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you looked at it – Team Two was standing right next to Team Seven.

I almost stabbed Obito when he glomped me which just proved how out of it I was. Maybe it was a bad idea to ask Kushina about the genin team that died, but morbid curiosity had gotten the better of me.

"Can you believe it, Red? We're gonna become chunin and totally kick ass!" Obito crowed, hugging me tighter.

I struggled in his grip, but eventually went limp when I realised it was a fruitless endeavour. "Yeah, Obi," I sighed. "Can you put me down now?"
"Nope!"
"I swear to Kami I'll stab you," I growled, laughing a little when he dropped me because I would fully carry out my threat and he knew it.

He simply stared at me and I raised a brow. "What?"
"You okay, Red? You seem… different."
"I'm fine," I lied. "Just missing my bed."
Obito laughed, but it was a little forced. He was still worried about me and that made me feel bad since he was such a fun-loving, 'free-love' kinda guy.

I clapped and rubbed my hands together, plastering a smile on my face. "So who's up for some good ol' fashioned bloodshed, ne?"
"That's gross, Akani-chan," Rin scolded.

"Um… ninja?" I said blandly, pointing to myself. "Anyways, we're doing the one on ones now? How come we don't get, say, a month to work on new techniques and stuff?"
"Scared you won't pass?" Kakashi asked in that I-sound-like-I'm-asking-but-I'm-actually-insulting-you voice.

I scoffed. "Psh, no way. Why are you even here? You're already a chunin, Your Majesty, and you're an 'evaluator.'"

He ignored my air-quotes in his face. "Your point?"
"This is an exam for genin to become chunin. You, chunin," I grunted like a caveman, pointing to him then myself. "Me, genin."
"Glad to see you're speaking your native tongue again," he drawled.

My cheeks went pink in anger as Obito snickered behind me. I started to growl when I heard Kushina snort too. I stepped right into Kakashi's space, revelling in the twitch I could sense in his chakra. He wanted to move, but that would be admitting 'defeat.'

"You know what? I don't care why you're here. If the Hokage puts you up on the list I hope to Kami that I get put against you so I can break your stupid face, ya jerk."

"Don't sound so confident, Akani-chan. It'll just make you look like a fool when you lose."
"Naw," I cooed, reaching up to pinch his cloth clad cheek. "I didn't know you cared, Kashi-chan."
He gripped my wrist in a bruising hold but I didn't give him the pleasure of seeing me wince. "I don't, and it is the truth."
"It's bullshit," I snarled, ripping myself free. "Either way, whether I 'win' or 'lose' I'll walk out of this place with my head held high knowing I gave it a shot. Then I'll work harder and get stronger and try again. What will you be doing, Hatake?"

He didn't say anything, but that might have to do with the fact we'd gathered the attention of quite a few others. Apparently my voice carried.

The Hokage cleared his throat, snapping everyone to attention to peer down over the bars of the observation deck. "Let it be known that these final matches will be televised to the Daimyo, so be sure to give it your all. We also have a number of high standing jonin here to evaluate and give council on which of you will be promoted. The fights are to be in a tiered format, meaning the winners of each match will verse another winner and so on until the final match. The matches will be drawn at random so I ask that you divert your attention to the screen behind me." There was a slight whirring sound as the television screen appeared, but since I couldn't read it I just waited until someone said the matches out loud. Apparently two names were decided if the collective sighs of relief were any indication. "The first match will be between Obito Uchiha and Ibiki Morino."

Both names rang bells and I turned to Obito, stalling his dramatic entrance via leaping over the railing with a hand on his shoulder. He turned to me quizzically.

"Give it your best, Obi."
He grinned brightly and fixed his goggles over his eyes. "You got it, Red." He gripped the metal railing and flipped over the side, but not before his foot caught a little on the edge and he was sent in a wobbly forward flip. He yelped but managed to land on his feet somewhat awkwardly.

I gazed at Ibiki who was no older than twelve or so. He seemed a bit grumpy, but he wore it well. From what I could remember he would become the head of Torture and Interrogation which meant painful genjutsu. Obito was an Uchiha, though, so I wasn't sure how well genjutsu would go against him even though he didn't have the Sharingan yet.

Ibiki seemed to grin when Obito faced off against him and it was more than a little creepy.

The guy was already a sadist but hey, to each his own. He did a great service to the village, or would.

The proctor casually walked between the two genin, uncaring of the auras they were emitting to each other. "The match will end when either one of you is unconscious, willingly forfeit or is killed." A few faces around the room blanched at that. "When I say stop, you stop or you're disqualified and have to deal with me, got it?"

Obito and Ibiki nodded, faces grim and hands creeping towards kunai pouches.

The proctor grunted. "Begin."

The next ten minutes or so was filled with heat waves from wayward fireballs, clanging of kunai's meeting and trash talk – mainly from Obito since Ibiki was the 'silent' type. I don't think I shut up at all for those ten minutes, cheering Obito on and glaring at Ibiki's teammates whenever they laughed at my friend. It ended with them in a deadlock, but Obito's kunai was poised to stab into the other genin's jugular quicker. It would all come down to who yielded first.

"Give up," Obito growled, out of breath.

Ibiki entered into an intense stare off with the Uchiha but his gaze flicked towards the proctor – it was Bear, the guy who guided us genin to the forest a week ago – and gave the man a small nod. Ibiki's chest was heaving with laboured breaths. Obito had the better stamina, it appeared.

"Winner by forfeit, Obito Uchiha."

"Woo!" I screamed, hanging over the ledge. "Go Obi!"

I was yanked backwards by a hand fisted in my shirt. I glared up at Kakashi who, using his height and chakra enhancement, was holding me slightly off the ground. "Let go of me, jerk."
"Fine," he breezed, his grip slipping. I stumbled a little, not having prepared for it but it didn't take away the heat of my glare. "Don't lean too far over because if you slip I won't catch you."
"I don't need you to catch me, Kakashi," I snapped. "I can handle myself."

"Of course you can," he drawled before lazily gesturing down to the area below. "You're up."
I blinked. "Eh?"
Kushina slid behind me, a bright grin on her face. "Your turn, Akani-chan. Do your best, -ttebane!" And then she shoved me.

Hard.

I toppled over the railing with a squeak, arms pin wheeling but not finding any purchase and suddenly I was falling through the air. I quickly righted myself, managing to land in a crouch that shot pins and needles up through my feet. I hopped about for a few seconds, hissing in pain and trying to get feeling back into my tingling legs. I didn't care that people were looking at me funny, my feet bloody hurt!

I jerked my head in acknowledgment to my opponent, still hopping about. "Sup. Good luck and let's do our best!"

The teenage boy ignored me, instead turning towards the proctor and wiping his thumb under his nose. "Proctor, is it necessary for me to fight this girl?"

I stopped hopping, suddenly feeling indignant. "Oi! What was that?"

"You're gonna fight, boy," Bear growled.

"I don't wish to harm such a… small child," the other genin said, sounding a little hesitant and demeaning at the same time.

My fists clenched at my sides and I thought I heard Obito whisper 'uh oh.'

"Hey! Jerk!" I shouted, gaining his attention. He raised a brow. "You got something against girls, huh?"
"No."
"Then fight me, damn it!"
"You are so young and so… tiny," the boy finished lamely.

"Double uh oh."

"There are people in this world younger than me but stronger than a jonin!" I snapped, thinking of Itachi. "You just gonna chicken out? Afraid you're gonna be beat by a little girl?"
The boy sniffed. "What a noisy brat."
"Thank you," I mock bowed, a sardonic smile gracing my lips. "So I've been told." I turned to Bear, putting my serious face on. "Can we start? I'm gonna beat this guys nose in."

"Show him the power of your Springtime Youth, Akani-chan!"
"Shut up, Guy!"

Bear seemed somewhat amused as he took a step back. He didn't even finish the word 'begin' when I was off like a rocket towards the older boy, spinning in the air to deliver a roundhouse kick to the face.

He blocked it, but not before I snagged a kunai from my thigh holster and deflected one of his. It was kind of a shame that Kakashi was such a dick since I would have squeezed him for getting me my kunai and other weapons from the forest.

But this was reality, and Kakashi was a prick and I didn't know if his ass-ness was contagious, so… no.

I twisted, bringing my other foot around to smack hard into the side of the boys cheek, forcing him to let me go or else he be off balance. I landed in a semi-crouch, ready to move in a second. He threw out a punch but I deflected it by bending backwards at my waist, planting my hands onto the floor and pushing my chakra into it, placing a seal just beneath the surface. The older boy didn't notice.

His taijutsu was good. Better than Butch, but I'd been training with Guy and had a Hyuga on my team. I'd be even more of an idiot if I didn't learn anything from them. I righted myself, deflecting rapid punches and a few punting kicks with my chakra-laced palms to take the edge off the sting.

He swept out his foot and I just barely managed to leap backwards. I back-flipped away, coming to a stop a dozen yards away, assessing. He was caught off guard by my attack, but his response time was very good. He'd been a genin longer than me by the looks of it which meant more experience.

I tensed when the boy wrapped something hastily around a kunai handle and tossed it towards me. I simply stared at the hissing bomb as the knife thunked into the ground at my feet.

"What the hell is this?" I scoffed, bending over to snatch the tag, running my finger over the triggering seal to deactivate it. "How tiny," I mocked sarcastically.

The older genin looked at me in disbelief, as if he'd never seen a fuinjutsu student before. Seriously, deactivating exploding tags was one of my first accomplishments as a fuinjutsu student since Kushina got stab happy if I messed up and often sent explosive tags after me just to 'shake things up' and 'keep me on my toes.'

I was a good stress relief, apparently. I wouldn't know since I didn't really hear anything above the sounds of my terrified screams and Kushina's cackling, evil laughter.

Normally I would have been uneasy showing my skills in front of a large crowd but since this was an exam in an arena environment, I might as well make my future opponents a little fearful and wary of me. It would mean it would take them longer to think about the methods of taking me down, and that meant openings and hesitation.

I reached into my kunai pouch and withdrew a smoke bomb, deploying it in between me and my opponent. The small arena was quickly filled with the cloying smoke and my opponents chakra thrummed uneasily. I focused inwards, compressing my own signature and began to creep around the edges of the smoke, tapping a chakra-lit finger against the tiles at regular intervals to set up the bones of a sealing barrier.

The other genin was wary, unable to see very far in the smoke that clogged his senses but that was okay. I didn't need much time to get the barrier ready anyways. The tricky part would be sneaking up on the guy and tagging him with the final seal. I moved swiftly, managing to get the final barrier tap in place.

The boy had moved about a little, so I sent a kunai – making sure the guy could hear it – which he deflected but managed to shift him back into the centre of the smoke. I sensed him mold his chakra and two more mirages of the guy appeared. Illusionary clones. I scoffed a little. Obviously he'd never met an awesome sensor like me.

I inhaled quietly, trying to measure how far and fast I needed to run to get to the genin wandering about aimlessly. Call it silly, but the boy must have been a tad daft since he hadn't really moved much or tried to move. He was a sitting duck .

Too easy, I smirked, darting forward and avoiding the fakes.

A kunai flashed out but it was already too late. I slid between the taller boys legs, making sure to pull his legs out from underneath him as I went. He howled in pain as he face planted, his nose crunching but I was already sitting on top of him, flying through hand seals before slapping my palms onto his back.

"Seal!"

Black kanji and sealing script snaked across his clothing. I made sure to stomp a little too hard on his back as I used him as a springboard to dive through a gap in the barrier as it activated, my hands resting in a half-tiger seal. I could feel the drain as soon as the barrier flared to life, but thankfully it didn't take a lot of chakra to maintain. It was just getting close to an opponent and tagging them that made the jutsu so risky. Because of my shortness and speed I was able to use that to my advantage, but it would have never worked on a seasoned chunin and most certainly not a jonin.

Or someone quicker.

Or smarter.

Using my other hand I whipped out a storage scroll and activated it, aiming it towards the smoke. It was sucked up like a vacuum and soon everyone could see the glowing barrier with the tagged and bleeding genin inside.

"For all that talk about me being tiny, I think I got you pretty good, ne?" I smirked.

The dolt then tried to attack the barrier, only to yelp as it began to shrink around him. No matter which area of the bubble he tried to go, it would simply follow his movements, sticking to him like a film.

He raised his hands to mold some chakra, about to perform a fire jutsu but I tutted loudly. "Don't do that. The barrier stops everything, and that fancy seal you're now wearing is connected to it. Hurt the barrier and… well, I don't think you wanna know. Basically, you're trapped. Yield."

The genin grit his bloodied teeth, desperately looking for a way out. His gaze eventually settled on me and his glare could have melted steel but, well, I was blind so I didn't really care. He could glare all he wanted but he still wasn't getting out.

"Fine," he hissed. "I yield."

I deactivated the barrier. "Oh yeah! I'm so awesome!" I cheered, dancing on the spot, shooting Kushina, Guy and Obito a thumbs up. I skipped towards my sulking opponent, grasping his hand and shaking it vigorously. "Thanks for the match! I'm sure you'll do awesome and become chunin next time!"

He eyed me funnily before pulling his hand from mine. "Remove the seal."

I tapped a finger to my chin. "Well," I sang. "You sure you don't want a storage seal on your clothing? It's pretty handy."
The boy blinked. "… a storage seal?"

"Yeah."
"I thought you said it was connected to the barrier!"

"Might have exaggerated an itty bit there," I laughed, slapping his back and snaking the seal back into my skin. "No hard feelings, though, right? It's a competition after all." I paused before gesturing about the area around his nose that I said I'd beat in. "You might wanna get that checked out too. Looks nasty."

I darted back up to the observation deck before the guy could strangle me, ducking under a flying tackle hug from Guy and sidestepping a dancing Obito. Seriously, did no one think I could become a chunin and had to celebrate from the surprise?

Probably.

Ouch.

"Well done, Akani-chan!" Kushina said, crushing me in a hug. The air whooshed from my lungs as my face was pressed against her flak jacket. My sensei didn't even notice my futile punches to get her to release me. "I knew you could perfect the Sticky Bubble barrier! Given, you had to add another tier to stabilize it since your chakra is so wonky but the results were awesome! I'm such a good teacher, -ttebane! Don't you agree, Akani-chan?"

"C-can't… b-breathe," I wheezed. I was sure my face was turning purple and my punches were more like little slaps now.

Kushina dropped me with a sheepish chuckle and I sunk to the floor on all fours, sucking in oxygen like it was on sale. "Oxygen… vital… life."

"Kami forbid your brain becomes more deprived of oxygen what with how you never shut up and take a breath," Tokuma smirked. I flipped him the finger which he just laughed at. And by 'laugh' I mean a small huff of air that sounded a little happier than normal.

"You're all so mean to me," I whined, hopping back to my feet. "I want new friends."

"Oh you'll survive, I'm sure," Kushina chuckled. "Besides, you're like the little sister than no one wanted."
"What?" I blinked, slightly aghast. I looked towards the gathered. "You all feel this way?" Everyone – sans jerkface – nodded. "You all suck! I'm not little, damnit!" I stomped my foot for emphasis.

"No matter how many times you say it doesn't make it true, Akani-chan," Rin said with a small smile.

I poked my tongue out at her and crossed my arms in a huff. "So. Mean."

"Don't. Care," Kushina patted my head. Then, to add insult to injury, she rested her elbow on top of my head. She actually had to lean down a little to do it. I felt my eyebrow start to twitch.

"Get. Off."
"No. Way."
"Sen. Sei."
"That's one word, -ttebane! Not two!" Kushina barked.

I gasped dramatically. "You know how to count?! What a milestone!" I cackled. I deftly twisted away from her fist which would have cracked into my skull. "What happened to the love?"

"It died a tragic death, never to be seen again," Obito sighed dramatically. He blinked when everyone stared. "What?"
"You… you used pretty words. I-in the right context," I stuttered. I pointed at him, horrified. "Who are you and what have you done to the real Obito?!"

"I can be philosophoto when I wanna be!" the Uchiha cried out.

I snickered. "Philosophical, Obito. At least we know you're you now."
He pouted. "Whatever," Obito grumbled.

I was about to say something else when I noticed Kakashi hadn't said anything about Obito being an idiot. In fact, besides our little altercation earlier, he hadn't spoken much to anyone. Weird.

He caught me staring and raised a brow. Refusing to feel embarrassed, I narrowed my eyes and did the universal gesture for 'I'm watching you, pal.' He rolled his eyes so hard I thought for a moment they were going to pop out of his head. The thought made me giggle which I quickly cut off when I realised it seemed like I was fangirling over the jerk.

I scowled, turning my back on him and ignoring the confusion his chakra was now alight with.

No one noticed out little byplay since Rin had been called down to verse a boy on Guy's team and everyone was wishing her luck. I think I heard the name 'Ebisu' mentioned but couldn't be sure. I shot her a thumbs up. Although she smiled at me, I knew she was flicking her gaze back to Kakashi.

The fight was over relatively quickly with Rin as the victor. All it took was for one stray kunai to nick the shoulder of Rin's shirt and the fabric to droop down a little too low for poor Ebisu's brain to handle. The kid knocked himself out with a nosebleed.

I was at the railing, pointing at him as Rin sped back up to the observation deck looking like a tomato and Ebisu was staggering to feet with the help of a medic.

"You closet pervert!"

Ebisu's chakra quivered with mortification, making me feel a little bad. Until, that is, he opened his mouth. "What an uncivilised ruffian."

I frowned, not sure if I should feel insulted or complimented. I decided on a healthy medium of feeling insulted and putting him on my shit list but thanking him with a bright grin and thumbs up that ended in a glare.

Not that he could see it because of my sunglasses, but it was the thought that counted.

As Rin quickly approached us I whipped out my large scroll and searched for the storage seal I kept spare clothes in. I finally found it after unravelling about two-thirds of the thing, ignoring Obito whining under the heavy pile of paper. I unsealed a haori and handed it to my kunoichi friend who thanked me with a grateful smile.

"Sorry if it's a little too small," I said.

She slipped it on over her shirt and, as predicted, it was a bit too short on her but at least it covered her shoulders. She tied a length of ribbon she was keeping Kami-knows where around her waist, securing it.

I gasped fakely, hand to mouth. "Oh darling you look devine."

Rin fluttered her lashes, giggling a little. "You think so?"

"Oh, I know so." I pushed chakra into my scroll and it re-wrapped itself, revealing Obito. "Don't you think she looks darling, Obito?"

The Uchiha spluttered, face turning red as he picked at his nails. "A-Akani-chan!"

"That's a yes!" I crowed, finger pointing skywards in success. "New fashion statement! You little trendsetter, Rinny!"

"I try," she smiled.

Tokuma, who watched the whole exchange with a strange look on his face, sighed. "I'll never understand females."

"Ain't that the truth," Minato muttered.

I scoffed, shaking my head sadly. "Men."

"Ain't that the truth," Kushina drawled, smiling sweetly at Minato who chuckled sheepishly and became very interested in the stone patterns of the arena floor.

"So, who's next?" I asked, sidling up to Kushina, Rin at my side.

"It's still cycling," my sensei answered. "Stupid technology. Why couldn't they pull names out of a hat?"
"Like a magic trick?" I asked, smiling.

"No, baka. Like how we did it in Uzushio."

I blinked, feeling a little overwhelmed all of a sudden. Kushina never spoke about Uzushio, her home before coming to the Leaf. If things had gone differently, and Whirlpool wasn't destroyed, would I have been born there? Could things have been… different?

It sent a pang through my chest at the thought of somewhere else being my home instead of Konoha. The village had a way of seeping into your bones and shaping you, and I wasn't unaffected.

I made friends here, and intend to keep the bonds strong and safe. And that extended to the village because this was where those bonds were made.

I almost started when I realised that the inevitable had happened. I'd gotten attached. Wholly, truly attached even though I tried the distance thing because…

I frowned. Why didn't I want to get attached?
I couldn't remember.

I was snapped out of my thoughts by Kushina's gasp, her chakra shaking with a mixture of shock, disbelief and a hint of fear.

"What's wrong?" I whispered to Rin.

She looked at me grimly. "The next match has been called."
"… okay?"

"It's Muta-san verse Tokuma-san."


ONCE AGAIN I'M SOOOOOOOOO, SO SO SO SO SO SO SO SORRY THIS TOOK FOREVER!

Reviews are love, and although you might hate me for not updating sooner, I'm asking you to look deep, deep inside your hearts to forgive this poor, lowly authoress who loves you all dearly and really loves getting your reviews. :3

FUN FACTS ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND OTHER USELESS JUNK:

I'm totally going overseas in November. Can't decide between London or Vegas/New York. DEBATE TIME! WHO WANTS TO SEE ME THE MOST? UK or USA? :D I'd so do a 'meet and greet'! I wanna meet you awesome peeps!

I'm actually sticking to my New Year's resolution of becoming fitter. *gasp* Shock and awe.

My celebrity girl crush is Jennifer Lawrence.

I'm allergic to penicillin and morphine. The latter was an experience, that's for sure. I was tripping balls in the hospital for ages.

I had braces for four years and got them off the day before my formal (or prom, for all you 'Muricans :P )

Shakespeare invented the word 'assassination.'

A rhino's horn is actually compacted hair.

Da Vinci invented scissors.

Elephants can't jump.

There are more chickens than people in the word. Mmmm, chicken.

February 1865 is the only month in recorded history not to have a full moon.

Almonds are members of the peach family.