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a well-founded reputation

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When the tournament brackets for the Hidden Grass Exam are posted, Zabuza tries not to curse. They've successfully argued Haku into the opposite bracket to Gaara of the Sand...

But to get there he'll need to go through at least two of Maito Gai's students. There are other ninja in the tournament that they’ve worried about — Hatake’s students, the other Sand ninja, the Kantokusha boy — but most of those they’re confident that Haku can deal with.

But even worse than Haku’s matches...

The twins are both fighting Maito Gai’s students in the first round.

Zabuza exchanges a grim look with Mei.

"It'll be a bad look if we forfeit twice," she says, wincing and touching a single finger gently to her lips, "but I’d rather take the loss than risk the children."

They've been counting on the twins to soften their image—

—but throwing children into a meat-grinder will just look callous.

"Let me go and talk to Hatake," Zabuza says, finally. It’s not like he’s going to beg for Leaf to go easy on them — wouldn’t trust a promise to do so, anyway — but Hatake ought at least tell them if the kids are in real danger.

It's not exactly easy to approach Hatake — Zabuza knows he’d never get close to the group of kids themselves even if he were inclined to try and talk to them — but Hatake is apparently interested enough in why Zabuza might even try to meander his way closer.

"The twins are fighting Maito's students," Zabuza says bluntly, because he might not have time to work his way around to it, even though he knows he's going to be accused of coddling them for this whole rigmarole. "Do they need to forfeit?"

Hatake lowers his annoying book, like he actually has to think seriously about the answer to that question. "Well," he says tentatively, "they're not going to win..."

Zabuza crosses his arms. "I know that," he snaps.

The twins have potential and they've had an intensive crash course that might have even made them good — in a very narrow and limited way — but the only reason they were the best option for the Exams was because the pickings in Kiri were pretty fucking slim.

"We all heard that Rock Lee kicked the shit out of Sand’s Jinchuriki last exam. They can't take that kind of damage."

Hatake stares at him like he finds it patently unbelievable that Kiri has good enough intel to know about an event that Leaf fucking promotes.

"Unless they're secretly tiny combat monsters," Hatake says, but he says it doubtfully like he knows they're not, "Lee isn't exactly going to be pressed to use that kind of power against them."

Rock Lee might only be a genin but there's every indication that he's Maito Gai's apprentice and heir, and if he is then he only needs to be a genin.

Maito Dai had been only a genin, after all, and Zabuza had only had the chance to become one of the Seven Swordsmen following the four vacancies Maito Dai had left in their ranks, sending them reeling home in disgrace. The single greatest loss that the Seven Swordsmen have ever had, in the history of Kiri.

"They'll be... safe," Hatake says awkwardly. He adds, "they're just kids."

Zabuza unfolds his arms. "If you say so," he accepts grudgingly. For all his reputation as a stone cold killer, he doesn’t think Hatake Kakashi is all that eager to watch children die — even Kiri children.

But he's halfway back to Mei before he realises he doesn’t know which ones are the 'kids' Hatake was referring to. Maybe all of them — the genin here are all just kids.