World 79: Naruto – Part 2.5

I Will Not Be Hokage, Part 4: Testing 3: So Much for Subtlety

Previously: Testing 2 – Eclectic Boogaloo

Themesong: Bodies by Drowning Pool

Between the Third Test – which was (as I’ve said) a month off – and the Second Test was a seldom used eventuality called The Preliminaries. Normally, you’d figure a single elimination tournament (as so many shonen manga have) would worry about creating a functional bracket, you know, one in which some power of two was an ideal, but not in the NarutoVerse. 

In the original timeline, there had been twenty-one genin to qualify for the Third Test, with Kabuto bowing out to keep his “boiling blood” from giving away that he was a spy for Orochimaru, which necessitated ten one on one fights to bring the final number of matches in the Third Test down to (theoretically) nine. Two fights between the seventh and tenth seed / eighth and ninth seed with everyone else getting a bye, then four matches in the standard round of eight, then two in the round of four, and one in the round of two. Nine fights.

But the arrival of me and mine had cocked that all up. Kabuto still bailed, leaving twenty-six genin, which still didn’t add up to a power of two. It also necessitated some shuffling of fights since the randomization of matches automatically blocked team-mates from fighting each other. And yes, it was random, even if (in the original timeline) Hinata and Neiji (cousins with a bitter rivalry) and Sakura and Ino (tween girls gaga over the same boy) had ended up paired by the force of narrative or something. Since the number of matches in single elimination is always one less than the number of competitors (unless there is a runner up match like in the olympics) then that would mean twelve matches on Third Test, with five fights in the round of thirteen… and thirteen in the preliminaries.

Still, I had no idea who was going to be paired with whom in this new timeline… but I had suspicions. If I was right that Sasuke’s course was (effectively) set, he’d have to fight Akado Yoroi, one of Kabuto’s fellow spies, and probably in the first round, just as he had in the canon. If canon was binding me, I’d have to fight Ino. The other big fights had been Naruto vs Kiba, and Gaara vs Rock Lee. And Shikamaru would ultimately emerge as the big winner. Now? It was anyone’s guess what would happen and I was, for once, looking forward to the Chaos… and wondering just how random things would be. How much was Narrative playing a role here?

But first, we had to listen to Sandaime Hokage give us this utterly bullshit speech about how this Chunin Exam system had replaced war and how it was entirely about demonstrating the strength of the village to foreign heads of state. Good lord… no wonder this world is in such a crap state if they believe this garbage and foist such nonsense on their younger generations. All this shitshow did was perpetuate the vicious rivalries that had led to the previous three world wars.

Unable to remain silent, I spoke up. “Uhhh… you do know that people will sit still to watch potential death matches all day, right? If you really wanted to demonstrate the so-called power of the villages, you’d have Ninja who were already Chunin selected from among the best in the village, fighting to subdue their rivals without killing or crippling them. Have each village… no I will not shut up, Ino,” I snapped, “Have each village select their four best, regardless of the size of the allied village.”

“Nonsense, child!” Orochimaru, now pretending to be the Sound Village Jonin-in-Charge, scoffed. “What good is fighting not to cripple or kill?”

I scowled at him as if he was the slowest member of the British House of Lords. “Clients aren’t usually looking for indiscriminate mayhem. They want skill, finesse, tactics. We’re ninjas, not the fucking army. Not killing is usually harder for people like us. Rock?”

The love-addled boy snapped to attention. “Yes Sakura-chan?”

“Make a skylight,” I commanded.

Without pausing to check if it was okay with anyone else, the bushy-browed kid launched himself at the ceiling of the fighting chamber we’d been gathered in. It was a reinforced concrete structure and the ceiling was forty feet straight up. He blasted a ten foot hole into it with a single punch, then landed without showing that he’d broken a sweat.

I looked to Orochimaru with an ‘oh please’ look on my face. “Know many humans who can withstand a blow that shatters rebar-reinforced concrete?” The senin frowned at me.

The Hokage also frowned at me. “We are not here to discuss international diplomacy with children,” he said, clearly intending to continue.

I cut him off. “No. You’re much more interested in having us children throw away our lives in service to your precious war economy than actually working to make a lasting peace. I may be fully willing to punt every member of every rival village’s team… and some from our own village, to be honest… from here to the Land of Iron, but I’m not killing anyone for you. You want to eliminate me for that, go right ahead.”

“Me too!” Amy / Yokumo called, thrusting her arm into the air. “I’m not killing anyone either.”

“I could kill people if I wanted to,” Kurushita / Darkseid said. “But I don’t feel like it, and I’m certainly not doing it for you. It’s bad enough I have to take orders from you incompent old farts.”

“We’re not eliminating anyone who doesn’t eliminate themselves!” Anko-Sensei snapped. 

“Certainly not,” Hayate, the Proctor for the Third Test stated. “Those who won’t fight with all they’ve got will eliminate themselves. Now, if there are no more political rants from the testees?” No one said anything… not even me, “Then we’ll begin?”

“Sasuke’s injured,” Ino said. “He should sit this out.” Oh… huh. Interesting. In the canon, it had been me, Sakura, who had tried to get Sasuke to eliminate himself due to the pain and weakness the Cursed Seal was causing him. It had been a tearful moment on the part of my counterpart, and a completely unwelcome irritant to Sasuke. Things went pretty much exactly the same way this time, except with Ino playing the tearful maiden. She was welcome to it… and him… I can’t remember if I know who she’s canonically paired up with in the Babies Ever After sequel, Boruto. Probably Sai or someone equally uninspiring. Though it would be awesome if she ends up with Kiba. Ino and Inu… heh. Sorry, that’s Wild Boar and Fang the Dog Boy. Languages amuse me. I speak over ten thousand of them… more than all the languages on Origin Earth… all of which I can speak… or could. Not certain I can still do that.

Anyway, once Sasuke had repeatedly insisted that he was fine and that he was an avenger (but not in the cool Marvel Trademarked way) and he wasn’t backing down because he really wanted to fight Naruto, Hayate grunted in approval and the big score board rolled back the first match to reveal that it was, surprise surprise, Sasuke vs Yoroi. Even less surprising was that Sasuke absolutely trounced the far more experienced Yoroi even with the Curse Seal actively flaring up and Yoroi draining his Chakra to try to force Sasuke to use the Seal’s power.

As the match came to an end, and Orochimaru was drooling over how lovely Sasuke’s luscious form was, I stepped up next to the Senin, erasing my presence until I was right next to him, then whispered, “Letting your lusts show, Old Snake? Really? I expected better of the fearsome S Rank Threat, Missing Nin Orochimaru.”

He rotated his head around too far on his neck, his slitted snake eyes regarding my uncovered blue one. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You’re a murderous monster who betrayed his friends, who betrays his followers, and who, ultimately, betrays himself. You are a snake eating its own tail, and unlike the Oroborus, you are not endless. Your experiments have only weakened you, fool.” And before he could even try to issue threats or justifications or plead his innocence or righteousness, I walked away, just in time to see the second match announcement.

In the canon, it had been Shino the Bug Ninja vs Abumi the Sound Pressure Ninja. In the new timeline it was a second canonical match, but not the right one for this round. No, this was Hinata vs Neji [AN: Yes, really, the matchup generator paired the two completely at random. I laaaaughed.] which had originally been the eighth prelim bout. Still, eighth or second, there really wasn’t any way that gentle Hinata was going to defeat highly aggressive and angry Neji, especially since he had a year’s experience on her and would do anything to win. The things Naruto yelled to buck up Hinata weren’t word for word the same, but since Neji was still being a fucking tool about predetermination and how people can’t change, they boiled down to the same thing. Neji still had to be stopped from killing Hinata… and the moment he stepped up onto the raised viewing platform, I snapkicked him in the head so hard he landed next to the stretcher they were carrying Hinata out on, then bounced into the far wall. 

Everyone stared at me. “Sorry,” I said. “Apparently, I was predestined to kick him. Nothing that I could do about it, right Neji?”

He glared daggers at me, but I ignored him, leaping down to where the medic ninjas were working on stabilizing the injured girl. I like Hinata. She’s probably the most interesting character from a baseline standpoint in the series. Shame they didn’t really do enough with her… but then again, they really didn’t do enough with any of the female characters… at least in the first half of the series. If the creator improved on that in the second half, I don’t know.

“Get away from her,” one of the medics snapped. I have a bit of a reputation in town, obviously.

“Go blow your own mother,” I replied in a conversational tone. I may not be able to use Chakra-based Medical-Jutsus (had I known any) thanks to the flares, spikes, and other control issues I had with my Chakra… but even though I didn’t have my full range of powers, I still had enough of them to help. I had sorcery from the BuffyVerse and there was some magic in this world, though not a lot. I had psi powers from Metal Gear and my mind was, mostly under control when Chara wasn’t being a little bitch. Both of them could have healed Hinata to some degree… but again, they relied on manipulation of power and right at the moment I was a little too emotional to try that. 

What I wasn’t too emotional to try was giving Hinata another tool that might help her recover faster. I couldn’t exactly stuff her into my Warehouse to give her the full Medbay treatment… but that facility had been expanded over the years with all kinds of wonderful technology. Like Nanites. Such useful things, Nanites.

Palming a hypospray, I injected her with eighty million quick-heal nano-robots, two CCs of an advanced anti-inflammatory agent, seventy-six micrograms of a regenerative booster, and a mild sedative that would keep her from going into shock but wouldn’t interfere with anything the local doctors would do for her. I then injected her with a small pulse of Aura (from RWBY… thanks free manual!) to give her just a bit more durability than she otherwise would have. 

Although Aura and Chakra are both spiritual, they’re not the same thing. Chakra doesn’t appear to be entirely native to this world as far as I can tell, while Aura definitely shouldn’t be native, but the fiat backing seemed to have grandfathered the potential in, though I hadn’t yet figured out if any of the locals would develop their own Semblances yet. I certainly wasn’t able to manifest mine.

Once Neji was back on his feet (I hadn’t hurt the jackass that much, mostly just bruised his pride with a sucker punch… sucker kick? And maybe cracked a few teeth.) and Hinata had been safely evacuated, it was time for bout three. Originally that should have been the third member of Team Kabuto vs Gaara’s brother Kankuro, but now it was Tenten (from Team Guy) versus Yokumo and I was eager to see how my little girl did in a “real” fight. 

The answer was surprisingly well. In the manga, we didn’t really get to see Tenten’s fight against Gaara’s sister Temari, merely the aftermath with all of Tenten’s weapons scattered around the arena and Tenten herself unconscious and half-broken on Temari’s giant war fan. Unfortunately for the weapon-master, Yokumo had access to the Byakugan, which meant that she could anticipate every move Tenten made as she was making it. No matter what the older girl threw at my Amaryllis, Yokumo just blocked or dodged, keeping up an impenetrable defense while forcing Tenten to divide her attention between my daughter and her Nindog, “Hitsuji”… it means ‘sheep’ in Japanese.

Tenten clearly needed better training. She had potential, but was too scattered in her approach. In some ways, she reminded me of Mousse from the RanmaVerse, another master of hidden weapons who suffered from a lack of specialization and an over-reliance on a huge arsenal. A little focus would do her a world of good, and some lessons in battlefield geometry would help immensely. It was clear that, with Rock and Neji in her group, she’d been used more in a scouting role on missions rather than in combat. Which is, of course, fine. Ninjas are supposed to be spies and scouts and assassins… not frontline combatants.

I did have some feedback for Yokumo as well, but I could give that later. Instead, I just patted the shorter girl on the head when she cleared the floor. Thankfully, Dysfunction Junction wasn’t making my relationship with my little girl rocky… although she very much didn’t approve of “Papa’s Evil Eye Parasite” as she insisted on calling Chara. Chara, on the other hand, insisted on calling Amaryllis “Sheepface”. It wasn’t much of an insult, but then again Chara’s really not much more than a childhood tantrum wrapped in a cloak of trauma and genocidal hatred. Creativity is a bit much to ask of her.

Fight four ended up being an interesting twist on the canon. As I’ve mentioned, the original match up for Rock Lee had been Gaara, where Rock had actually managed to hurt the Sand Boy by nearly killing himself. This time Rock was paired with a different one of the Sand Ninjas. Had it been Temari, Rock would almost certainly have forfeited, seeing as he’s enough of that protectionism version of sexist to not want to fight girls… but Kankuro? The Master of Puppets? Rock had no problem going all out with him.

It didn’t help. Kankuro might not have his brother’s overwhelming defenses or murderous psychopathic attitude, but he’s still a killer and what he lacks in raw power he makes up for in cunning and trickery. Rock, being Rock, still opened up the Fifth Gate (of Eight) in a fight he was utterly outmatched in tactically, and succeeded in destroying Kankuro’s Puppet… well, damaging it to the point it couldn’t work any more, but in the end, the Sand Ninja won… but who was going to fight Gaara.

The fifth bout announcement distracted me from my contemplations, for it ended the question of whether I’d be paired with Ino. The answer to that question was no. Ino, as it turns out, was paired off against Kanna… i.e. Kendra. I’m honestly not certain which side of me, Jumper or Local, was cheering Ino on more fiercely. All the animosity that existed at the best of time between Kendra and myself-the-jumper was augmented by the dysfunctional drawback drama and while Sakura and Ino had their issues, it was of the “No one gets to beat up my rival but me” variety. I might not really care about Sasuke… no really, and would have gladly handed him over to Ino… if only she asked like a reasonable person instead of engaging in tweenage romantic angst… ugh…

Anyway, Kanna had centuries of experience on Ino, and a huge speed advantage, compounded by the fact that Ino’s primary attack vector, her possession jutsu, is slow! Kanna/Kendra is a frontline fighter who broke her fighting cherry against the enemies of mankind. Ino is in no way geared to face a vampire, Kendra was and is.

With Kendra out of the way, it was time for her teammate / boytoy to shine. Zenji / Zane was placed up against Zaku… yes… World War Z… heh. Anyway, Zaku was one of the Sound Ninjas, the one who had metal tubes inside his arms. Originally they’d been filled by Aburame’s bugs and his left arm had been blown off by the reverberating sound trapped inside his body. Zenji didn’t bother with bigs. Instead, Zenji defeated Zaku with a variation on Bugs Bunny defeating Elmer Fudd’s shotgun… he grabbed Zaku’s hand, slamming their palms together just as Zaku hit the afterburners. In the manga, one of Zaku’s arms had been severed by the explosion… in this timeline, both of them went flying… when Zenji tossed them skyward in celebration of his victory… hey, Zane’s an idiot… but he’s my idiot… even if I have to share him with Kendra… in a usually platonic way (at least for me).

Fight seven was completely unfair. Once again, Temari (the third Sand-Sibling) was faced off against a Kunoichi… a female ninja. But where Temari had rather effortlessly crushed the inexperienced Tenten, this time she was faced off against Ichika / Maggy. It’s hard to say if Maggy is a better fighter than Temari… but one thing’s for certain, Maggy’s a much better Kunoichi that Big-Fan Sand-Girl. A proper Kunoichi should use subterfuge and seduction as much as brute force… and Maggy had both aspects down pat.

Yes, she won by flirting with Temari. I’m not saying that Temari fell for the seduction. Oh no. Temari is exceptionally hetero… so much so that Maggy’s flirtations actively threw her off balance long enough for my eldest to stunlock the massive fan-wielder with a lightning blast (the fan’s spine was metal… ouch… and then used Possession to force her opponent to surrender. A slow Jutsu is fine if your target is a jerking, smoldering mess whose central nervous system is still rebooting. So that was one person who’d been in the Third Test who’d been eliminated… fascinating.

Up next was the last of my kids, as Mamoru / Alex faced off against Choji von Chubby Meatball. In the original timeline, Dosu had kicked Choji’s ass, and I was pretty much expecting Alex to play basketball with the boy whose most powerful move was expanding into a sphere and rolling at the enemy. Instead, after a prolonged fight where Alex passed up a dozen chances to end the fight, Alex conceded the fight to a clearly winded Choji who had been, at the last, going above and beyond and still hadn’t been able to land a solid hit against my boy.

“Why’d you give up?” I heard Maggy ask her brother. 

“Didn’t want to risk having to fight you or Yoku…” he said with a shrug. “Not like any of this really matters. It’s all politics and posturing.”

“Wimp,” she said, but it was said fondly.

“That’s me,” he agreed without rancor.

The next bout was where things got… interesting. Let’s not forget here that this is Naruto’s story. He’s got to have his time to shine, right? Well, at least mouth off and show how determined he is. That came in round nine of the prelims, when Naruto’s name appeared on the board… facing off against Kurushita… better known as Darkseid. I held my breath.

Darkseid might be crippled by the layers of drawbacks I installed on him, by the restrictions and powering down and separation from his home universe… but he’s still huge, imposing, violent, sociopathic, vindictive, and freaking hard to fight. This is a guy who could tank a punch from Superman without flinching. 

Naruto, by comparison… is a loud mouthed punk who thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. But he has a lot of Chakra and can take a beating.  Which is good, because the fight was long and exceptionally brutal. Naruto’s hands were bleeding from punching Kurushita, who wouldn’t stop getting up, relentlessly pursuing the younger ninja and trying to smash his face in. 

With each passing minute, you could see Naruto’s will to continue flagging. This wasn’t a fun fight against a hated foe or a detested rival. This was a slogging match against a determinator, an enemy that wouldn’t stop until they were put down… and Naruto was clearly beginning to doubt he could put Kurushita down.  

Even the proctors, Hokage, and Orochimaru were beginning to mutter about how much damage Kuru was ignoring. It was unnatural. It was like a boss fight in a bad video game, one where the boss had an entire rainbow of health bars. And throughout the fight, Kurushita was silent, unwilling to engage in banter aside from the growling. Well, I guess I’ve cured the villain of Monologuing? Or maybe he just didn’t see Naruto as worthy of a This is Why You Suck speech.

Still, someone had to say something, and it looked like I was up. “Sasuke would be embarrassed at how long this fight is taking youuuu!” I laughed mirthlessly. “If you lose here, Naruto, you’re not a man! How will you be able to face Sasuke-Kun then!?” 

I have no idea what went through Naruto’s head at my words. No idea if he was buoyed by my scorn or by his infatuation with me, or if he just got his second wind when Kurushita snarled “Stay out of this, Demon Bitch!” but a moment later, Fox-Naruto was savaging Ninjaseid… as in literally chewing on his face. 

Naruto was declared the winner shortly thereafter once Kurushita demanded that the orange-haired boy be stopped from trying to eat his head. That was viewed as a concession and the two were separated. It took Kakashi a bit to calm down Fish-Cake boy and Kurushita had to sit down to have his many, many wounds tended to.

That left eight of us “rookies” and I was beginning to suspect a rat… or at least that a narrative trick was in the offing. See, of those still in the mix, only two were even vaguely important to the canon as far as I knew; Shikamaru and Gaara. And Shikamaru could not face Gaara with any chance of victory.

Fight ten was something right out of the manga; Shikamaru vs Kin, though that had originally been fight six. It went virtually identically to had it had gone in the canon timeline… all the differences could be easily chalked up to adapting a static 2D medium from a live action 3D one. So that was Shikamaru down and Gaara to go.

The next fight was one I really didn’t care about particularly, it being between Kiba (who I liked simply because I’m fond of doggies and Akamaru, Kiba’s canine partner, is pretty cute as far as dogs go) and Tsurugi, the final member of Team Kabuto and another one of Orochimaru’s spies. In the Canine, both had lost their fights pretty decisively, Kiba to Naruto’s trickery (a nice change from Shonen Protags winning by pure might) and Tsurugi to Kankuro’s puppet trickery. Tsurugi’s shtick is a rubbery body, with an attack pattern reminiscent of a snake, but with more neck snapping. It was a great style for ambushes against a single target… but never give a dog a rubber chew toy and expect the chew toy to emerge victorious. It was almost laughable as the dog and his boy practically ripped Tsurugi’s body apart… if, you know, there had been less blood and screaming.

What I did care about was that that brought the number of contestants down to four… and I was well past suspecting that this had all been, to some extent, scripted. It could not be a coincidence that Gaara and I were in the final four. And indeed, the next match up confirmed that I’d be facing a Jinchuriki with a serious sociopathic rageboner in the final preliminary bout.

You see, round twelve was Dosu, the leader of the Sound Ninja team, versus Leaf Village’s creepiest rookie, the bug loving Shina Aburame. In the canon, Dosu had fought Choji of the Akimichi and won, while Shino of the Aburame had fought the Sound Ninja Zaku, filling the sonic tubes in his arms with bugs until they exploded. Dosu’s thing was using the speaker attachment on his arm to generate killing sound and rocket propel his arm. Shino’s thing was chakra eating bugs. Unsurprisingly, a tactic that worked against one sound ninja worked pretty well against a different sound ninja and Dosu’s arm-speaker went up like a claymore, shredding the half-mummified assassin’s limb, side, and scalp into hamburger.

Once again the Medical-Nin were called in to pull a body off the fighting floor, and it was anyone’s guess if Dosu would live or not. If he did, he’d be missing an ear and fingers. 

While the floor was mopped, something that hadn’t featured in the manga or anime, but was very much necessary, everyone in the chamber looked back and forth between the two remaining contestants. Both of us were feared and hated in our respective villages, but a weapon is a weapon, and that’s what both of us were. The terms “demon” and “bakemono” had been used for both of us and we were the least human looking duo in the chamber (at least as long as Orochimaru remained in disguise.)

“Pft…” Gaara said, looking at me. “Normally I don’t like fighting women, but in your case, there’s not much that’s feminine.”

“Woo,” I drawled. “Feigned sexism. Really?” I hopped down into the arena area. The logical part of me had absolutely no desire to fight this fight. It was pointless, a showing off for merchants of death… and this wasn’t even the main show. Fighting for training or in a life or death situation was one thing… but this wasn’t that. In all my many many many centuries of life, I’d never participated in a fighting tourney where death had even been a realistic potentiality for any of the contestants, and to do so for stakes as paltry as this offended my sensibilities… but Gaara was a worthy foe and my boiling blood demanded I show this child (who was older than my current incarnation) how much smirking at me like that was a bad idea. Also, he could use a reminder in what pain felt like.

“How do you know it’s feigned?” he sneered.

“Because I know you lack enough respect for humanity to give a crap whether I’m female, male, or an animatronic doll wearing a human-skin suit,” I replied coldly. “But I couldn’t be happier to be able to face you so soon. Knocking you out of the contest entirely before you can show off to a crowd? That will be suitable humiliation for your pissant Sand Village, won’t it?”

He ground his teeth, eyes burning with hatred. “I’m not in this for the Sand Village!” He didn’t even twitch a finger as a fist of sand punched out of the giant gourd on his back and flew in my direction… only to skid off the flat of the section of stone floor I’d elevated with Earth Release. 

“You’ll have to try harder, sand boy… grit may wear away rock, but it takes centuries and I don’t think anyone here has that much patience,” I taunted, throwing up another panel to block his second sand punch.

“Your tricks will not thwart my victory,” he said, voice calm on the surface, but I could tell he wasn’t used to be stymied at all, and certainly not so casually. The splattered sand around me surged up at the word victory, forming hands that grasped my ankles. “Gotcha,” he gloated… then grunted in shock as I just smirked at him and the sand blasted away from my boots as if it had been magnetically repulsed. It hadn’t… it had been flung back because I’d allowed my Chakra to flood into my clothing and the sand, containing Gaara’s Chakra, had recoiled from the burning hatred that seethed and roiled in mine. 

Eyes wide, he grunted, “So… much… anger…” It was almost a whisper, something only those with highly refined hearing would have been able to perceive at anything more than a couple feet’s distance, but I didn’t need to hear it. I could read his lips.

“You think you know what hate is, boy,” I said, shaking my head. “I have to contend every day with genocidal rage. Your tormented childhood pales in comparison to the suffering I have experienced and so I know that your petty desire to prove yourself superior to all others does nothing but prove the others right in fearing you.” I slashed my swords through the twin spike flurries he’d sent my way. “Also, your lack of finesse is amusing to me.”

“You talk a good game, Fire Demon,” he said, his black-lined eyes narrowing. “But all I see you doing is defending. An unbreakable defense is worth nothing if you can’t use it to attack.” Flowing scythe-blades of Chakra-Hardened Sand swung towards me, and I could tell that he’d designed them to flow back together around my blades rather than be blown apart upon contact. He was learning quite rapidly. Excellent.

My eyes flashed with the joy of battle, and I shook my head in mock sincerity as I cartwheeled backwards over one blade and under the other, “Oh, Grit-boy… you don’t want to see me attack. Things would not go… smoothly for you.” 

“I think I can take it, if you think you can dish it out,” he shot back, recalling his sand to create a swirling ripple pattern of sand on the floor. “Or are you all words and no action?”

Oh… it was on. Back and forth the action swirled as we traded blows. For the first time since… I can’t remember when, I wasn’t holding back. Sure, I wasn’t going all out, and I wasn’t showing off all the things I still could do, but I was actively pushing myself, testing the limits of what I could do and what he could stop me from doing. That sand defense is no joke. It had just the right balance of compactability and resilience, able to ablate much of the force of a blow even as it hardened to near concrete when pressure was applied. Had my blades not been reinforced with Chakra, they’d have dulled to uselessness in just the first three minutes of the fight… but, to use a quote that only some will get, “I’m not left handed.”

Slowly, I built a rhythm for him to learn, a battle tempo for Gaara to fall into, and reinforced it through more than a dozen phrases of the conversation we were having. Words were extraneous at this point; we traded them, but they were almost irrelevant in the face of the moves we used on each other. My point about not being left handed is simply thus… Gaara was a savant, a brilliant young man who’d spent more than a decade, more than two thirds of his life training to master his particular gift and use it to win fights. I, on the other hand… well, let’s not start with me.

Sakura (yes, currently me, but only a small part of me) had spent eight years… also roughly two thirds of her lift, training in combat… but not in nearly as darwinian a school, and not to kill. Chara had spent centuries being a murderous ghost, but her fighting style was mostly stab and slash. Neither of them were savants of the fighting arts. Sakura was an informational genius, Chara was DETERMINED… had the two of them faced Gaara, they’d have lost… yes, even if Gaara had been bound by the rules of fighting inherent in the UndertaleVerse.

But Gaara wasn’t facing just NuSakura. He wasn’t facing just Chara. He was facing what can only be described as a Demon. A true Demon. A being far beyond his comprehension, and while at no point in my very long lifetime had I been a savant of battle, murder, or sand control… I had been a genius long before I’d heard of Jumpchain, and I’d been at this a very, very, very long time.

Even with holes in my memories large enough to drunkenly pilot the Deathstar through without scraping the sides, I had fought in more battles than Gaara had had breakfasts… and so, I wasn’t really fighting him. I was fighting myself, but not in the way you might think.

I was testing how well I could adapt to his fighting style, learning to fight him on his terms, using the techniques of this world alone. As bearer of the Senju Bloodline, I could duplicate to a lesser extent his Sand Release, which gave me a degree of resistance to having it used against me, and a potential ace in the hole should I need to punch through his defenses, but realistically, his command was so far greater than my own, and the sand so saturated with his own lifeforce that I’d only get one chance at such a strike and, since I had no desire to kill Gaara, I wasn’t going to use it in this meaningless fight.

And it was meaningless. I had no desire to win, but also a burning need not to lose… a catch twenty-two if ever there was one. So I built up the rhythm of our phrases, a term here that means a sequence of moves and counter moves in a fight. A phrase is distinct from other phrases by the pauses that naturally form in the action, the slight mutual retreat where advantage can change hands, or equilibrium be restored, at least for a moment.

It was in one of these pauses, the sixty-third of our combative dialogue, that I changed things up. I faltered in an exchange, just slightly, a down-tempoing step that took me ever so minutely too far to one side and a little forward, and Gaara, assuming no doubt that the fatigue was getting to me, struck like a desert viper. 

I took the blow, hard, knowing that (with his Sand Shield) such a small opening was easy enough for him to exploit without opening himself up at all. And so, I bounced, skidding, across the hard floor, a gasp going up from the other Leaf Ninjas, especially Naruto. No doubt, Lee would have been horrified, but he was in the infirmary at the moment. Ino was incensed and yelled, “Don’t let him hit you, Forehead!” She’s a good friend even if she is a tweenager and thus a moron. All tweenagers are morons. It’s a fact of life. Too much unwarranted confidence mixing with the first taste of growth hormones… how could it be otherwise?

Teenagers like Gaara aren’t much better. Case in point; I groaned, struggling to rise, a line of bloody spittal trailing from my mouth to the floor, and I was clutching my ribs as if he’d broken four of them. He certainly had felt them snap when he’d punched me with a sand reinforced fist…

Or thought he had. What he’d actually felt was eight chopsticks wrapped in sweat-damp cloth and hidden in my jacket, but close enough. He’d hit me exactly where I’d wanted him to and done exactly no damage to me except to my pride… but, hey, if a Kunoichi doesn’t have acting skill, what does she have? Well, in my case, an ace up my sleeve.

As I pretended to struggle to rise, Gaara unwisely stepped forward, eyes narrowing, clearly intent on making me eat my words. In that moment, his defenses were down as he prepared for an all out assault that might just have killed me… well, might just have killed Old Sakura.

But in that moment, before Kankuro and Temari could react to stop their murderous brother’s killing blow, before Gaara could even understand that he’d been played, I released sixty percent of the limiters I’d had on my speed and seventy percent of the limiters on my strength. A simple piece of physics that most people know instinctively: Force = Mass x Acceleration. I couldn’t (at the moment) increase my Mass… but I could narrow the point of impact… and I did so by making the two meters of my swordblade lengthen and narrow as I lunged to meet the One-Tail’s host.

I was moving at nine-hundred and twenty-six kilometers per hour, two-hundred and fifty-three (and a half) meters per second, three quarters the speed of sound, and my blade’s tip was extending at the rate of another five-hundred and three meters per second by the time it plunged into Gaara’s Sand Shield… but the tip was a needle instead of its former kissaki (the formal name of the tip of a Katana) and it was slowed only minutely before it plunged into the boy’s chest.

I’d calculated the strike to pass through the soft flesh of his shoulder, knowing that the sonic ripple of impact would bruise all the flesh around the entry and stun all the nerves in the area. It would be, in a word, excruciating, but hardly fatal. In fact, with a bit of physical therapy, it wouldn’t even be crippling… but in that moment, the pain would be incandescent… and Gaara, who’d been protected from harm almost his entire life by the Sand Shield, would not have the wherewithal to deal with it.

Of course, some people react to overwhelming stimulation not by shutting down, but by fighting all the harder, and since Gaara had done exactly that when Lee had managed to hurt him in the canon, it came as no surprise that he did virtually the same thing against me… but I wasn’t nearly as nice a person as Lee, and even if I hadn’t known what was coming, I wouldn’t have hesitated to press my advantage.

As Gaara tried to extract himself from the hyper-tensile needle (it was made of nano-carbon steel at least a thousand years more advanced than anything on this entire planet) in his shoulder, I was already airborne, and I came down, feet first, into his gourd, my body supercharged with Chara’s Chakra… and the sand exploded across the room.

There it was. Gaara’s control and power meant that the sand would collapse back towards him in less than two seconds, but for that singular moment, I had him laid bare, unable to stop me from doing anything I wanted to him. I leaned in and kissed him right on the place he’d carved the Kanji for Love on his forehead, then dropped a note in his hand before leaping away from the inrushing sphere of sand.

“I resign,” I said, tossing up a hand and shocking everyone in the chamber.

Gaara growled, trying to crush the noted but it was in the hand that I’d mostly paralyzed. “You can’t! The fight’s not… not… ovurrrrr…” and with that he slumped sideways and collapsed, asleep before he hit the floor. Mmmm… narcotic lipstick… exactly one use, but damned good at it.

Sarutobi glared at him, then at me. “You resigned before he passed out, so technically he won.”

“Yup,” I agreed, crossing my hands behind my back. “I told you, I’m not killing anyone just so you can show off for the other villages or clients who think of us as nothing more than expendable pawns. These wars only happen because there are Ninjas willing to die for other people’s money. I’m not. I’ll protect people, I’ll get the job done… I’ll even spy on people knowing that information can be used to harm them… but I’m not an assassin, and I’m not dying for a cause I don’t believe in.”

I strode out of the hall, whistling softly, Naruto looking between my back and Kakashi… until he finally rushed up to me and asked, “Where are you going? And what was in that note?” 

“We,” I said, smiling. “Are going to see our friends. The contents of the note are merely a seed for a future as yet unharvested.”

“Huh?” fishcake boy asked. “Are you being cryptic? And what friends?”

“No, I’m being deliberately obscure, and what do you mean, ‘What Friends?’ Sasuke, Hinata, and Lee are all in the hospital!” I frowned, spinning around to walk backwards. “I’m going to go visit them. You should go shower. You smell like a dog that’s been rolling in a week old skunk carcass.”

“Yeah… well, you smell like a,” he sniffed, then blinked. “Why don’t you smell bad? You were fighting for a while too!”

“Call it girl magic,” I said with a chuckle, then smirked. “I can teach it to you, but then you’d have to become a girl for real!” I waved my hands at him in a pseudo-spooky manner, and he flinched. He actually flinched.

Then he blushed and snapped, “You can’t really turn me into a girl!” He paused. “Can you?”

“That’s for me to know and you to worry about,” I replied, spinning back around and resuming my whistling as we headed to the medical center where Toph and AJ were standing guard over Sasuke, having replaced his Anbu guards before Kabuto could show up and kill them. No point wasting half-assed faceless special forces when we could just as easily replace them with people Kabuto would be hard pressed to beat if they were in comas, let alone waiting for him to show up.

=======

“What does she mean, ‘You’d be cute if you smiled more.’?” Kankuro asked, peering between the note and his siblings. Gaara was in the medical center, still feeling woozy from the powerful narcotic effects of the lipstick and the painkillers the medical ninjas had given him.

“It’s something mean boys say to girls all the time,” Temari replied, “So maybe she’s flirting with him? She seems pretty mean.”

“She’s crazy!” Gaara fumed, glaring at his traitorous arm. It refused to move.

“She let you win,” Kankuro pointed out.

“Maybe she likes him?” Temari suggested.

“She mocked me!” the defeated boy snarled. “I’ll make her pay for that.”

“She sent flowers,” Temari pointed out. Technically, they were Cactus Roses… don’t ask where I got desert flowers in the middle of a boreal forest, I just did.

“Ooooooo!” Kankuro grinned. “She does like you!”

“I’m going to kill you all,” Gaara muttered, or tried to. He was too busy yawning for his threat to make any kind of impact.

======

“You’re an idiot,” I said fondly… well… half fondly… barely tolerantly? Something like that.

“I am not,” Rock Lee said, doing a one armed push up despite being extremely injured from his fight. “It was important.”

“To whom?” I said, hanging upside down from a branch of the tree hanging above his head. “You risked your life and health in a fight that doesn’t matter in the slightest. They were never going to elevate you to Chunin this time around. None of us have the experience and even those of us with the technical tactical savvy aren’t really ready to lead a team… well, except me, of course.”

“Of course, Sakura-Chan,” he agreed, grunting through the agony. “But it mattered to me.”

“And that’s why I said that you’re an idiot,” I replied, placing an apple on his head. It wasn’t an apple tree, just to be clear. “It shouldn’t have mattered to you. Being a Chunin isn’t about combat skill, which is all you have going for you. Being a Chunin is about leadership, logical thinking, ability to plan ahead and adapt on the fly. Demonstrating that you’re able to punch good and take a beating is like trying to show your qualifications as a pastry chef by screaming opera lyrics in the faces of every customer that walks in the door.”

“But it’s good for the village,” he said. “We get more customers if we show that we can handle ourselves.”

“Rock… we practically have a monopoly on the services we provide. We’re subsidized by the government, we’re the only Ninja village in the Land of Fire, we’re the largest Ninja Village in the world, we’re the leading Ninja village of an alliance that includes two of the five biggest villages in two of the five largest lands… and we’ve been stealing the Sand Village’s business for more than a decade. It’s actually a threat to the peace how well we’re doing.” I added an orange to the apple, making a small stack. “Don’t drop them,” I warned him. It wasn’t an orange tree either.

“Then what should I have done?” he asked, taking a breath to steady himself. He really shouldn’t have been pushing himself, but I was far from the right person to tell anyone that hard, potentially obsessive, work was a bad idea. “Give up?”

“No. Just not risk burning yourself out or killing yourself for what amounts to a pointless award. You were never going to win the whole tournament. Never.” I added a cherry to the top of the orange. It wasn’t a cherry tree either.

“That Gaara guy isn’t that tough,” he grunted. “I could have taken him.”

“No, you couldn’t have,” I said. “And it has very little to do with how tough he is, though he is very tough indeed. It has to do with how crazy he is. He’s very seldom felt any physical pain in his entire life… if you managed to hurt him, and I’m certain you could have, you’d just have driven him into a murderous rage. And you, for all that you’re a genius of hardwork, Rock… you’re not a killer. He is. He’s a merciless, brutal, heartless killer. At least for now.”

The boy blunder opened his mouth to protest, but the cherry fell off the stack and bounced off his nose. Before he could catch himself, he lost his balance and collapsed to the ground on his injured arm, the three pieces of fruit rolling off in random directions. Quick as a flash, the ninja-ferrets lurking nearby pounced on the fruit and claimed them as their prizes. Just to be clear, it also wasn’t a ferret tree.

I flipped down to land in front of him, not offering him a hand up. He wouldn’t have taken it, anyway. “But that’s not why I said you couldn’t have won.”

“Then why?” he asked, rolling over onto his back to catch his breath.

I crouched in front of his head, my knees spread so I could look him right in the eye as I said, “Because of who the other fighters are… or rather, who three of the fighters are. Ignoring the fact that you might have to face Neji, Zenji, Gaara, Sasuke, or Naruto… all of whom have far more skill with Ninjutsu than you do… can you even bring yourself to fight a girl? Do you really think the odds are good that Yokumo, Kanna, or Ichika is going to be eliminated early? Because I don’t.”

“I could beat Naruto,” he said, changing the subject.

I snorted, then explained, “Naruto fought Kurushita to a standstill and Kurushita is like you only tougher and with less finesse. Naruto’s Shadow Clone Jutsu means he can wear you out with near limitless supplies of targets. His endurance is higher than yours and his Chakra reserves are so large he heals practically as fast as you can damage him. Sasuke learns any technique you use against him… as you saw in his fight with Yoroi. Neji… well, you know how hard it is to fight against anyone with the Bakugan. And Zenji is just as hardworking as you are and insane.”

“I’m not giving up,” he said fiercely.

“You absolutely shouldn’t,” I agreed, placing a fig on his nose. “You need to get better. You need to find a way to fight that doesn’t kill you almost as fast as it kills your opponent. You are not a bomb, designed for single use.”

He grinned. “Do you know such a technique?”

I smiled. “As it happens… I do. It’s called Musabetsu Kakutō Ryū.”

He frowned at that, the action causing the fig to roll into his mouth. He chewed it carefully, then said, “Anything Goes Fighting Style?”

“Something like that… and I think I’ll start with three techniques you’ll be able to use very well… But first, you need to heal up. Can’t have you feeling pity for yourself if you’re going to master the Moko Takabisha, and your body just isn’t up to the strain of the Bakusai Tenketsu or the Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken.”

His face screwed up as he translated Japanese into Japanese… “Pride of the Fierce Tiger… Breaking Point Technique… Divine Fiery Chestnut Fist? Did you make up these names to tease me?”

“Nope… in fact, I can demonstrate each of them for you… though I think the hospital staff might get mad if I do Breaking Point around here.” I said, then whistled. A dozen ninja-weasels appeared from the surrounding bushes and hooked the injured boy to a series of cables before he could protest. In a moment, we were rocketing into the sky as the Ninja-Ferret Micro-Zeppelin reeled us upwards and we headed for the hills for a demonstration of rock explosions (Bakusai Tenketsu), punches fast enough to grab fish out of water without getting wet or chestnuts out of a bonfire without getting burned (Tenshin Amaguriken), and a chi (not chakra) blast fueled by staggering overconfidence (Moko Takabisha).

“Should I be calling you Sensei?” he asked, eyes wide, as I assured him that exactly none of the techniques I’d just demonstrated took even the slightest amount of Chakra to use. 

“I prefer to be called Sifu,” I replied with a grin, single eye twinkling. Ranma would have liked this kid… so would Cologne I suspect.

====

“Do you think it’s okay that we’re doing this?” the smaller of the two girls asked.

“What dad doesn’t know can’t hurt him,” the boy responded.

“What an incredibly stupid thing to say,” the eldest of the trio grumbled with a resigned sigh. 

The small girl nodded enthusiastically, “Yeah! What a person doesn’t know is almost always the thing that hurts them the most.”

“That too,” the larger, older girl agreed. “But I meant the whole part about dad not finding out… she’s a master spy. Finding things out is what she does.”

“Fiiine,” the boy groused. “You two take the fun out of everything. Can we just get back to the task at hand?”

“Oh,” the eldest said. “Sure. I love watching you make a mess of things. Proceed.”

“Thaaaaanks,” the boy drawled as they banked the trio of cloaked Orion Assault shuttles around one of the Fire Village’s Early Warning Scout Towers and arrowed for the small clearing they’d selected. The vessels had started life as smuggler craft, and had been retrofitted into assault craft, and each bore a strange name that meant nothing to the trio of “youngsters” (none of them really had any idea what age meant, having been born immortal, but they were younger than their parents and that was all that mattered). 

Who or what “Zeppo”, “Pete Best”, or “Shemp” might be, they hadn’t the faintest idea… but like many things related to the eccentricities of their family, they really didn’t question it. Their brother had complained that Zeppo was a stupid name, and that meant that, of course, he’d been saddled with that ship. The older girl, who figured that if Best was in the name, it had to be hers, had assigned the youngest of their cadre to command Shemp… mostly because it sounded like Sheep. The youngest didn’t really mind; she was just happy the others were letting her play… though, preparations for war weren’t really her favorite activity. Why couldn’t everyone just settle their personal issues and dreams of global conquest with a nice card game and some hot cocoa? Or hot vanilla milk… she loved hot vanilla milk. And sheep. And her family… probably not in that order. Sometimes her brother annoyed her… like when he called vanilla a boring flavour. He actually liked mint, the heretic.

====

Ziggy was a good ferret. He’d followed momma across the stars, and the worlds, and the places in between. He’d been a thing… and another thing… and sometimes, sometimes, he’d been a third kind of thing that he didn’t really understand, but it was much bigger than the other things he normally was. But in all those times, he’d been a good ferret. Momma had said so and Momma knew best. 

But Momma had a bad thing inside her and it was making her cranky, and there was a bad man-shaped-thing in the home-place… Ware-House momma called it, and he made momma cross… and the man who gave momma her Momma Treats… Ceee Peee… had disappeared and been replaced with the sleepy lady who smelled of plants who cried a lot… and that had made momma worried… and then Momma had vanished and it had been up to Ziggy to find out where she’d gone!

Only, Ziggy wasn’t certain she was gone. He smelled her all around… so many mommas… all the mommas there had ever been and more! There were more mommas than Ziggy had toes! He’d checked three times! He could count to three… he was a very smart boy. Momma said so and Momma knew best! But she’d gone and even though Ziggy hadn’t really remembered being Ziggy, he’d remembered enough of who he was to squirm out of who he was… a flying Ziggy named Sven… and wriggle through a small hole in… in the place where they’d been for longer than usual and back into the Houseware… that wasn’t right, was it? Ziggy didn’t know. Probably. Didn’t matter.

Only, the Ware-House was a Where House… cause it wasn’t where it shoulda been! Get it?! Ziggy is very clever with the words and things! Anyway, there was just a space where the Space-box should be… but Ziggy was expert at finding where things were when they weren’t where they should be, so he followed his nose. His nose always knew… plus, it was at the end of his face! So he went where it pointed and followed the scent of Momma… not the Momma who was back there in the place where Momma was Solace and Ziggy was Sven… He followed Momma, and, because he was Ziggy and he was a good boy (Momma said), he would find Momma and make certain she was safe… and then he would get treats.

Next: War Comes to The Thousand Acre Woods

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I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in very slow progress here. Please check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have two separate bonus stories here called EssJay’s Omake Theatre #1 (Big Box Isekai) and #2 (Zed’s Chain)And if you’re on Questionable Questing (No link provided) I have an adult story you might want to check out… if you’re of legal age. If you need the link, hunt me down in one of the forums.