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Ventus

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Rin looked down at the #259 badge the strange bean man had gave him. I can’t believe I actually managed to get here, he thought, gripping it tightly in his hand as if someone was going to try and steal it from him . His dream of becoming a Botanical Hunter was that much closer to coming true, and it left him with a jittery feeling in his chest.

The corners of his lips twitched up into a small smile for just a moment at the thought, before it faded as he glanced around and took in the rest of the packed room. Seems I’m not out of the woods yet. The whole place was filled with barely contained tension and unease, and it sent a shiver of apprehension down his spine at the thought of having to compete with these people. He knew there was going to be plenty of strong people that would also be taking the exam, but he didn’t expect them all to be so bloodthirsty. Almost every single one of them were eyeing each other, fully prepared to kill whoever was standing next to them if necessary. There were only a handful of others who clearly did not belong and would most likely be the first ones to go; they were the ones who were puffing out their chests in obvious bravado, but anyone who had even a hint of experience in fighting could tell they had no skills to back it up, the ones who were slightly hunched in on themselves and were glancing around nervously, as if waiting for someone to either attack or help them. And however much he sympathized with them there was no way he was sticking his neck out to offer help; it would just paint an unnecessary target onto his back, one that he didn’t need or could afford to have.

Before he could think more on the subject, the elevator let out the same obnoxious ding it did everytime the doors creaked open with its new cargo. And just like every other time, everyone in the tunnel turned over to see who would step off. This time it was three people: a man in a suit who was holding a briefcase over his shoulder, a teenager in white pants with a blue shawl, and a young boy decked out in green with what looked like a fishing rod sticking out of his backpack.

Rin watched as the bean man went over to give them their badges with numbers. The quiet clicking of their shoes was the only sound that filled the room as they walked closer to the wall where a man was sitting on a pipe— Tonpa, I think his name was.

Rin was sitting against said wall a little ways down from them, so their voices travelled easily to him in the enclosed space.

“Haven’t seen you guys around before,” Tonpa yelled. He waited until they had looked up at him before raising a hand in greeting. “Yo,” he called down, a large grin spreading across his face.

The boy in green looked confused. “You can tell we’re new?”

Tonpa nodded as he answered, “More or less.” Then proceeded to jump off the pipe. “After all, this will be my thirty fifth attempt.”

Rin sweatdropped. That’s not really something to be proud of...

“Thirty five times?!” exclaimed the man and the boy. Their voices echoed loudly throughout the room.

Rin winced, hoping they didn’t end up annoying someone enough that a fight broke out.

However, the outburst didn’t even seem to impact Tonpa, and he just let the grin sit comfortably on his face with an ease that spoke of a surprisingly large amount of patience. “Well, you could say I’m an exam veteran,” he happily said.

The guy in the suit leaned over to the teenager and attempted to whisper, though he failed horrendously, “That isn’t something to brag about.”

“Indeed,” the teenager mumbled.

A snort escaped Rin’s throat before he could stop it, and he quickly covered it up, eyeing them nervously in case they heard. It seems we share the same opinion.

“If you have any questions, feel free to ask me.” Tonpa just carried on as if they never said anything.

The little boy smiled. “Thank you.”

The overweight man raised a hand. “My name is Tonpa.” Yes, I remembered right!

“I’m Gon.” The boy shook his hand. He turned to the two behind him. “These are Kurapika and Leorio.” At least I know their names now. Gon turned back around to Tonpa, his head tilting to side and his eyes wide with curiosity. “Hey, are there others who have taken the exam a bunch of times like you?”

“Well, I have the most experience here, but there are a few others.” Tonpa looked around the room as he talked. “For instance, there’s him…” He pointed to another overweight man who was sitting on the ground, eating, and had the #255 badge pinned to his chest. “Todo, the wrestler. He’s unmatched in strength. And he’s smarter than he looks. On the other side, we have number 103.” This time Tonpa pointed at an older gentleman with a scarf and a head covering. “Bourbon, the snake charmer. He tends to hold grudges, so you don’t want to end up on his bad side. And then...number 191, Bodoro, the kung fu master.” It was an even older man that had his grey hair in a ponytail. “He’s getting old, but there still isn’t a better martial artist around.”

Rin started to zone out after Tonpa had mentioned Bourbon. This is interesting and all, but I don’t think my brain can handle all this information right now. A slight shiver went through him, this time from the temperature of the cement he was sitting on. It was cold, which was understandable considering they were underground, so Rin was glad that he had decided to go with sweatpants and a black tank top under a tan sweater. The only problem was that being warm and just sitting there doing nothing was not helping Rin stay awake in the slightest. He was having trouble keeping his eyes open, and the heavy weight of his eyelids was starting to get to him, but his head whipped up when a scream suddenly echoed throughout the tunnel. His eyes widened when he finally found the source of the chilling sound and came face-to-face with a sight he would have preferred never to have seen.

There, standing a few feet away from him, was a man whose arms were slowly disintegrating into little, red flowers. This is…

“Oh, how peculiar. His arms seem to have become flower petals.”

Rin slowly looked over to the man talking.

A clown.

There was no simpler explanation for his appearance. He had a teardrop on his left cheek and a star on the other, and he wearing a pink and white outfit that was reminiscent of a jester.

The man raised both of his hands into the air, a smirk crawling onto his face the more he spoke. “No smoke and mirrors here. Do take care. When you bump into someone, you really should apologize.”

The tension that had already been billowing around the room skyrocketed as everyone mumbled to each other in discomfort.

Rin sat completely still as every muscle in his body stiffened from the sheer amount of power pouring off of him. He could practically taste the bloodlust saturating every ounce of the man’s nen, and every instinct was telling him to run now, get away!

“That psychopath is back again.” The sound of Tonpa’s voice jolted him out of his thoughts, thankfully before he did something stupid, and he turned back to face the group that had captured his attention.

Gon was staring at Tonpa with wide eyes and asked, “Again?”

The teena- oops, Kurapika asked, “Does that mean he took last year’s exam?”

“Number 44. Hisoka, the magician. Last year, he was a virtual lock to pass the test, until he all but killed an examiner he didn’t like.” For once, Tonpa had no smile as he spoke.

Rin glanced at the magician, before quickly turning away in case he accidentally grabbed the other’s attention. I am definitely avoiding this guy.

“A-And they’re still allowing him to retake the exam this year?” Leorio stuttered out, his arms shaking as he stared at the back of the magician walking away.

“Of course,” he stated as if it was obvious. “Every year, the examiners and test content change, and the examiners are the ones who choose the new content. The devil himself could pass if that were the examiner's determination. That’s just how the Hunter Exam works. Anyway, no one likes him,” Tonpa added. “You should stay away, too.”

Rin barely managed to stop his eye from twitching at that. Well, I can see why, and isn’t that...common sense. Afterall, the guy did just cut off two limbs. Anyone with a single grain of common sense would know not to mess with him.

“He looks dangerous, that much is sure,” Leorio confirmed, nodding as if everyone else hadn’t already seen that clearly..

“Oh, right…” Tonpa’s mouth opened in a silent ‘o’, as if he suddenly remembered something. He reached into his bag and pulled out some juice, then held it out to them in offering. “A little something to mark our acquaintance. How about it?”

Leorio immediately brightened up. “Oh, appreciated. As it happened, I was thirsty.”

“Thanks,” Gon exclaimed, grabbing the drink with an enthusiasm only seen in children.

Kurapika answered more calmly and graciously took the can, “Thank you.”

Strangely enough, Rin could hear people chuckling to themselves while the exchange happened. The people nearest them were all hiding smirks behind their hands or looking away, but all of them seemed satisfied to some extent. It was only when he heard someone spitting out something that he looked back over.

“Tonpa-san, this juice must have expired. It tastes funny,” Gon admitted with a sick expression.

Eh, seriously? I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t drink mine yet, Rin thought as he peered down at the innocent looking can sitting next to him.

Leorio then proceeded to do a spit take just as he was about to take a sip. “Seriously?! That was close!” He raised a hand to frantically scrub away the leftover drink that dripped down his chin.

Tonpa was starting to look a little panicked. “H-Huh? That’s strange…” He rubbed the back of his head, guilt flashing across his face as he apologized, “I’m very sorry! I didn’t realize the juice had gone bad.”

Rin’s attention was diverted when a ringing and squeaking sound went off, and he jerked back in surprise when the wall at the end of the tunnel started to lift up.

A tall, thin man was revealed standing on the other side. “I apologize for the wait. The entry for Hunter applicants has ended. The Hunter Exam will now begin! A final caution. If you are short on luck or ability, you could very well end up seriously injured or even dead. Those who accept those risks, please follow me. Otherwise, please exit via the elevator behind you.” Despite this warning, no one moved a muscle. “Very well. All 404 applicants will participate in Phase One.” The man then proceed to walk— like a robot? What the heck is he? —away from the group.

Rin jumped to his feet at that. Oh god, I’m getting nervous again. However, despite that, he joined the crowd as everyone followed behind the man who would be their examiner for an indefinite amount of time. He frantically shook his head, trying to shake away any negativity that clung to him like a stubborn burr. I can totally do this.


 

I can’t do this. The people in the front had started running and were slowly getting faster and faster. No, stop thinking like that. Rin shook his head again to try and clear his mind, though the only thing he really succeeded in doing was make himself feel light headed.

A boy with white hair, who was skating next to him, gave Rin a strange look. Rin tried giving him a smile, but the boy only rolled his eyes and sped up. Great, now he thinks I’m crazy.

“I neglected to introduce myself,” echoed from the front of the group. “I am Satotz, the Phase One examiner. I shall lead you to the exam’s Second Phase.”

“Second Phase? What about Phase One?” the ninja guy asked.

“It has already commenced.” Well, that explains the running. Satotz glanced over his shoulder. “You must follow me to Phase Two. This is the exam’s First Phase.”

Rin was a little relieved, to be honest, that the first phase was just this. He had been worried that he would immediately have to fight someone, which had not appealed to him. It wasn’t that he was particularly weak or anything, though he also knew for certain that he wasn’t the strongest either, he just preferred not fighting if given the choice.

This though, this was something he could do all day. There was something calming about the rhythmic pounding of feet against the ground, the slight burn in a person’s lungs. It made him feel alive in ways that he hadn’t felt in a long time. The longer he ran the more he felt any tension remaining in his body melt away, including the cloud of doubt that had hovered over him like an incessant bee ever since he decided to sign up for the exam.

Hmm, if the task is to follow him, then I should probably go closer to the front. Rin picked up his pace from where he had been lagging slightly behind the pack so that he was closer to the front and could keep Satotz’s back in sight. However, a shout from behind made Rin look back for a split second, one that actually saved him because he suddenly had to jump to the side to avoid Leorio running toward him like a madman. He’s screaming like one, too , Rin thought with a chuckle.

He made the mistake, however, of not watching where he was going, and as he jumped he accidentally bumped into someone next to him. He turned to them with an apology on his lips, only to choke on it as he saw exactly who it was that he had bumped into.

Hisoka peered down at him with narrowed, gold eyes, never once faltering in his smooth, graceful pace.

The only thing that kept him from booking it right then and there was the tiny voice in his head whispering about what had happened to the other man earlier.

“S-Sorry,” he managed to squeak out, before following Leorio’s example and taking off like the devil was on his heels, because in this case it wasn’t that far from the truth.

He tried to ignore the feeling that he had just barely managed to scrape by death.


 

Why? Everything was going just fine, so why? Why must there be stairs?! Rin couldn’t help but glare at every step he went up. Ahhh, I hate stairs so much, and there’s so many of them. Looking up at the never ending staircase did nothing but drain his spirit, hence the glaring. It didn’t help that after they hit the stairs, the pace really started to pick up. I don’t understand how he can run like that on flat ground, let alone going up stairs! Rin refused to think about it anymore or else his head would probably explode.

Running on flat ground was one thing. Running up a death contraption meant to trip and injure any who dared to cross it was another.

Rin’s mouth fell open when he saw Gon and the white haired kid dart pass, laughing all the way up. How are they enjoying themselves?! By then, he was panting and sweat was dripping down his face. Stamina was not one of his strong suits by a long shot, especially when faced with his mortal enemy.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, they arrived at the exit.

Fresh air! He took a huge breath and slowly let it out, enjoying the coolness of the breeze against his heated face.

“The Numere Wetlands, also known as Swindlers Swamp. We must cross these wetlands to reach Phase Two of the exam. This place is home to many bizarre animals, many of them being cunning, insatiable creatures who deceive humans and prey upon them.” Satotz’s voice dropped a little toward the end, giving it a more ominous feeling to it. “Be very careful. If you let them fool you...you’re dead.” Nice to know… He stated it like their lives were a small, unimportant fact.

A shutter closed over the exit, cutting off a guy from coming out. And us going back .

“These wetland creatures will use every trick in the book to fool their prey. An ecosystem in which creatures obtain food through deceit…” He paused and gestured behind him with both arms, the sight of the swamp serving as an unnerving backdrop. “Hence the name Swindlers Swamp. Stay very close to me so you won’t be deceived.” So...it’s basically what we just did, they just added in some creatures who can easily kill us. Perfect.

“Don’t let them fool you! D-Don’t fall for it…” a voice suddenly yelled.

Uneasy rumbling flowed through the group of people as they all looked around for the origin of the warning.

A man limped out from around the corner of the entrance. His entire body was covered in dirt and wounds, and he was staring at them in horror. “He’s lying to you! He’s an impostor! He isn’t an examiner...I’m the real examiner.” This declaration caused even more murmurs to break out. “Look at this...It’s a Man-Faced Ape, one of the creatures that dwell in the Numere Wetlands!” He held out a limp creature by the arm, one that kind of resembled a monkey; it’s body was covered in brown hair, but it’s head had purple. It...does kind of look like him, and if it’s true that would also explain his creepy style of running.

Rin ended up accidentally zoning the rest of the conversation out, as he was too focused on staring between the ape and Satotz. Only when there were loud gasps, did he focus on what was happening again. However, by then the man was already laying on the ground with a playing card sticking out of his forehead. The sound of cards being shuffled drew everyone’s attention to the culprit, who, not surprisingly, was the clown.

He chuckled. “I see, I see.That settles it. You’re the real one.” He smirked at Satotz, who threw down the card held between his fingers.

While everyone was preoccupied, the ape chose that moment to scream and run back into the safety of the swamp, and, to Rin’s utter embarrassment, it made a squeak escape his throat. Thankfully, no one seemed to have heard it.

“Examiners are Hunters selected by the committee to perform this duty without pay. Any Hunter, bearing the title we seek, would have been able to block that attack,” Hisoka reasoned, sounding amused.

Satotz nodded. “I shall take that as a compliment. However, should you attack me again, for any reason, I will report you for turning on an examiner. And you will be immediately disqualified. Are we clear?” The stoic expression that had been on Satotz’s face since the beginning melted away into a glare.

“Sure.” Hisoka’s voice was carefree, like he honestly didn’t care about the threat.

No, that’s not quite right, Rin thought, his eyes narrowing on the pink and white clothed back. His nen is excited. The back shifted slightly, and he jerked his head away before he was discovered.

All the more reason to avoid him, he decided.


 

And more running. Rin sighed. This was going to be a long day . It didn’t help that the fog was giving him a bad feeling, and the screams in the distance were not helping either. Thankfully, the group he had ended up with had yet to encounter any of the creatures inhabiting the swamp, and he hoped that didn’t change any time soon.

He decided to chance a glance at those around him, trying to see what the others thought of their current situation. It seems I’m not the only one getting tired, he realized. They were all panting by this point and struggling to keep Satotz in sight.

Rin was just about to sigh again when he felt bloodlust fill the air, a familiar feeling bloodlust. This is...the same feeling as before. Who would be dumb enough to mess with Hisoka? He shook his head. Well, whoever they are I want nothing to do with it.

However, he couldn’t help but glance over to where the feeling was coming from. Maybe I could... He shook his head even more vigorously. No! I need to focus on finishing!

It was when he finally paid attention to running again that he noticed people suddenly giving him a wide berth and eyeing him strangely. He sweatdropped. They all think I’m crazy now.


 

Rin had never been so glad to be able to sit down than after all that running, and it was so nice to finally be able to catch his breath. Luckily, he had only ran into a couple of smaller creatures, but they were easy to avoid so he didn’t even have to fight them.

Still, it’s not over yet. He peered up at the enormous gate looming over them. It was easily two stories tall and was a deep grey color that had splashes of green in places where moss had grown. It was the place where phase two was most likely going to take place, and it made him slightly worried about what was to come.

A couple more people stumbled into the small clearing, gasping for air. It left him wondering who all had made it, so Rin glanced around, only for his face to fall into a frown. I don’t see those guys from before. Ah, wait. His eyes widened when he saw Hisoka casually walk past the trees and lean an unconscious Leorio against a tree. He was about to go over to check on him—after Hisoka left, of course—when Gon and Kurapika came running over.

“Excellent work, everyone,” Satotz called everyone’s attention. “Phase Two of the exam will occur here, in the Biska Forest Park. So, I shall take my leave. Best of luck to all of you.” He then slinked off back into the forest in the same direction they had come.

All comments were put on hold when the gate slowly started to creak open.

“Will all applicants who passed the First Phase please enter?” It was a woman with green hair put up in five ponytails and a huge guy sitting behind her. “Welcome. I’m Menchi, the Second Phase examiner.”

“And I’m Buhara, the other examiner.”

The two examiners then explained what the task was: each contestant needed to make a dish using the required ingredients, which would then be judged by the two of them. Only if both approved of it would the person be allowed to progress.

Pork, huh. Easy enough to prepare, but it’s not the cooking part I’m worried about. All the examinees filed back out into the forest to search for the target, but Rin decided to follow the group he had been keeping an eye on and ended up walking right next to Leorio.

When Gon noticed him trailing behind he turned to look at him with wide eyes. “Who are you?”

Rin gave a polite nod and answered, “My name is Rin.”

Gon beamed, and Rin had to squint his eyes slightly at the sheer brightness of the smile. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Gon. And this is Kurapika, Leorio, and Killua.” He pointed at each person as he said their name.

“It’s nice to meet you, too.” Rin gave them all a small smile.

“Why the heck are you following us, anyway?” Leorio questioned, stepping closer until their faces were inches apart; his face was pulled into a deep scowl.

Rin blinked at the sudden intrusion. “Um, I saw you were passed out earlier, and I wanted to see if you were okay.” Not exactly a lie, but also not the entire truth. “Besides, it’s not like I had anywhere else to go. We’re all looking for the same thing in this phase, so I thought it would be okay, but I’ll leave if I’m bothering you,” he rambled, peering up at Leorio through black bangs. However, he was unaware that he was unconsciously giving them the puppy-dog eyes.

Leorio jerked his head back and gaped at him, causing Rin to frown. Was it something I said? And why is he blushing?

Kurapika quickly came to Leorio’s rescue. “It’s fine. He’s just being overly suspicious.”

“If you say so,” Rin said unsurely.

“Hmph.” Leorio cleared his throat, apparently having decided to just ignore the incident. “Catch a pig and cook it. This is way easier than the First Phase.”

“I hope it will be that simple.” Kurapika admitted, sounding strangely resigned.

They eventually ended up at the top of a steep hill, and before anyone could say anything, Gon swiftly jumped and started sliding down the hill. Rin peered down at the bottom with a healthy amount of skepticism, not quite wanting to risk anything but also not wanting to fall behind the others. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to make a choice because Leorio grabbed his arm and dragged him along with him. His startled yelp was cut off abruptly when he came to a sudden halt as he ran into Killua’s back, who grunted at the weight pressing against him. Rin twisted his back so he could glare at Leorio once the man joined them in their strange line but noticed that he was staring at something else.

“What was that about, Gon?” Killua exclaimed. He was staring heatedly at the back of Gon’s head, but the boy didn’t seem to notice.

“Found them,” Gon stated nonchalantly. He raised a hand to point at the pigs grazing a few feet away from them.

Killua slowly blinked and said, “Huh?”

“Pig!” Leorio yelled happily, expression brightening up now that they had found their targets.

I don’t want to go near them! Those aren’t pigs; those are monsters! Rin cringed and hid his face in Killua’s back, much to the boy’s apparent annoyance, and was just barely peeking out to look at them. And they truly were monstrous. All of them were easily three times the size of any grown man, and they all had wicked tusks poking out from beside their mouths and had what looked like...blood...on them.

“Uh…” Leorio said very slowly. “They’re chewing on bones.”

Kurapika stared in horror. “Don’t tell me...they’re carnivores?”

One of the pigs finally noticed them and suddenly squealed at the top of its lungs, which caused all the others to squeal and start running toward them at full speed.

Rin felt his heart drop into his stomach at the absolutely terrifying sight, and he scrambled to get up before he was trampled. They all dashed away from the charging pigs as fast as they could, and Rin could feel tears start to trail down his face. This is not how I want to die!

The pigs just kept running, not caring who or what they went through, and a bunch guys were sent into the air by the charging creatures.

“These pigs are crazy!” Leorio shouted as they ran.

Rin didn’t bother answering, just trying to focus on not dying. However, he did happen to look over right as Gon smashed a pig on the top of it’s head, which actually seemed to cause it pain despite everything else people had tried.

Killua smirked in realization. “Could their foreheads be their weak point?”

“So, the pigs evolves large, strong noses in order to protect their soft foreheads,” Kurapika reasoned, a wicked grin spreading across his face.

He spared a quick look at Kurapika and smoothly sidestepped another pig. Makes sense. Now it’s just a matter of hitting it. Rin jumped in the air just as another one ran by and landed lightly on its head. Wind billowed around him as he focused most of his nen into his fist, and he sent a silent apology to it before ramming his hand into the pig’s forehead.


 

Everyone was already cooking their pigs by the time Rin came back. Well, that’s not entirely true. He had dropped off his pig then headed back into the forest, much to the confusion of everyone else.

“Rin!” Gon spotted him and started waving his hands in the air. “Over here!”

Rin smiled at them. “Hello.”

“What took you so long?” Leorio demanded. He seemed to be trying to cover up the worry shining in his eyes.

“I went to get some things.”

Kurapika looked at him, confused. “What things?” he asked.

Rin raised a finger to his lips. “It’s a surprise.” He knew he was being slightly unfair, but he couldn’t help the teasing smile that grew because of their expressions.

He put the finishing touches on his dish right as Menchi failed Todo, so he carefully place the meat that had been cut into steaks onto the plate and brought it up to the examiners. After placing it down, Rin rung his hands together and waited for the verdict.

Buhara ate it in one bite as usual and held up his pass sign. “You should try it; it’s really good, Menchi,” Buhara rumbled. He patted his stomach and gave Rin a considering look, one that made him even more nervous.

“Hmm.” She glanced at the plate. “At least you did something besides just cooking it whole.” Menchi slowly cut a piece, ever second it took seemed to cut down his life span a little more, and ate it.

Rin felt his blood freeze when she stopped and her eyes widened.

“You…” She suddenly jumped from her seat and stalked toward him.

Rin cringed into himself more and more the closer she got. Did she not like? Is she going to hit me because it was that bad?!

He had almost accepted his fate when he felt her hands on his shoulders. “Become a Gourmet Hunter!” she yelled.

“Eh.” That was not what he was expecting.

“It was cooked and seasoned to perfection!” she exclaimed, pulling him even closer to her as she talked. “I can’t let talent like this be wasted without doing anything. So, what do you say? Oh, and I never asked your name.” Menchi looked at him expectantly.

Rin shifted uncomfortably, because of both the tight hold and the intense gaze focused solely on him. “Um. My name is Rin.” He gave a deep bow, or as deep of one as he could without accidentally headbutting her in the boob. “I’m sorry, but I can’t accept your offer. I want to be a Botanical Hunter.”

She stared at him in shock for a few seconds, before shaking him as she shouted, “EHHH! No way!”

“I’m sorry.” He squeaked out. Rin peeked up at her timidly, wanting to know if he passed but also not wanting to incur her wrath now that he had denied her request. “Does this mean I don’t pass?” he asked quietly.

“Of course you pass! That steak was delicious!”

All the tension that had been building up was finally released, and he breathed out a deep sigh. He hadn’t noticed how quiet everyone else was until he turned around and saw them gaping at him. Thankfully, the others waited until he had walked over before they pounced.

Leorio grabbed his shoulders, shaking him much like Menchi had done. “What the heck was that?”

“What do you mean?” Rin asked, not understanding why he was angry.

“She actually liked yours. What did you do?” He started to shake Rin even harder, making his mind spin in dizzying circles.

“Does this have anything to do with your surprise?” Kurapika asked. When it became apparent that Rin couldn’t answer, he glowered at Leorio. “Stop shaking him before you break his neck.”

Leorio stopped abruptly. “Haha, oops. Sorry about that.” He scratched the back of his head, face bright red in embarrassment.

Rin was swaying on the spot, trying to gain his bearings as his head spun.

“Neh, neh.” Gon leapt forward and wrapped his arms around Rin’s waist to help steady him. “What was the surprise?”

“Hmm?” He glanced down at Gon once his head cleared. “Oh, I just added some rosemary, garlic, and ginger.”

They all stared at him blankly.

“That’s it?” Leorio asked, voice sounding so skeptical it was almost insulting.

“Yeah. I found some in the forest. That’s why it took me so long to come back.”

Kurapika brought one hand up to his chin. “I don’t think that alone would impress her. It would have needed to be done correctly.” He looked over at Rin and asked, “Do you cook often?”

Rin nodded. “I live alone, so I had to teach myself to cook.”

“That explains it.” Kurapika seemed satisfied at his answer.

Leorio, Gon, and Killua continued to stare blankly.

Killua was the one who finally broke the silence. “How does this help us pass?”

“This phase of the exam is a cooking test, but they’re judging us on originality and power of observation. We just need to be more creative with our dishes,” Kurapika stated.

A huge grin spread across Leorio’s face. “I see...I can do that.” And before anyone could stop him he marched up the steps to place his pig in front of Menchi and Buhara. The only difference was the tiny, little flag on top.

Rin felt like facepalming. How is that creative, Leorio?!

“How do you like my cooking?” He grinned proudly, gesturing with both hands to the pig on the table.

Mench reacted like Rin expected she would: she threw it in the air.

Gon was the next to try, but his was just as worse. Adding flowers does nothing, Gon! Rin could feel his hope of them passing slowly crumble after each attempt.

“I am next! Please judge my creation,” Kurapika stated calmly, sounding confident that he had succeeded where his friends had failed.

Menchi stared in doubt. “Finally, something besides Rin’s that resembles an actual dish.” She carefully cut and chewed on a slice, but Rin could see the exact moment that her taste buds caught up with her brain when she yelled, “Yuck!”

“Eh.” Kurapika looked surprised.

Menchi scowled and pointed a threatening finger at him. “Appearance is important, but only if it also tastes good. You’re no better than #403!”

Leorio smiled smugly. “Too bad!” he snickered, as Kurapika dejectedly made his way back to his station.

“No better than #403…” Kurapika muttered under his breath.

Buhara smacked his stomach and laughed. “That was so much food, I’m stuffed!”

“Yeah, I’m stuffed, too,” Menchi added. Oh, no. This doesn’t look good. “Therefore, only Rin passes. We’re finished here!”

Everyone started to express their dissatisfaction toward this announcement, and Rin glanced around and saw that everyone was starting to get riled up. If she’s not careful, there could be a fight.

A crash drew all eyes to Todo, who had smashed the grill he was standing behind. “I won’t accept it! I absolutely refuse to accept this!” he hollered.

“In the end, you’ve still failed,” Menchi said with a sneer, looking down at him condescendingly.

Todo’s eye twitched. “Stop screwing around! You asked for pork, so we risked our lives to-”

Menchi cut him off. “I said prepare the pork in a manner we both found delicious. None of you, except Rin, made anything remotely delicious. You all did almost the same thing. There was no effort made, and just when I thought someone else actually tried, they only changed the appearance. No one else attempted to emphasize the flavor. I’m positive that none of you took cooking seriously!” she berated, glowering down at all of them.

I wasn’t expecting to be lectured during the exam, Rin thought as he glanced over at the others. Gon was the only one who looked dejected. Killua just looked bored, Leorio was still staring in shock, and Kurapika had his eyes closed. When Rin focused back on the crowd, it became apparent that a revolt was starting to develop.

“That said…” a voice called down from the... sky? “It would be excessive to fail all but one applicant.” They all looked up to see a hot air balloon floating across the sky above them.

Can this day get any weirder? Yes, yes it could, because someone decided that jumping out of said hot air balloon was a good idea.

Rin threw an arm in front of his face to protect against the dirt that lifted during the impact, and he could just make out the figure of an old man walking toward them through the cloud of dust.

Menchi stepped forward to meet the person. “The Chairman of the Selection Committee. He’s in charge of the Hunter Exam, Chairman Netero.”

“Well, I work behind the scenes. I only take action when there’s an issue, like now,” the Chairman said. “So, Menchi-kun…”

“Yes, sir,” she answered. Her back straightening to her full height.

He stared at her with a seemingly kind smile and asked, “You failed them because you disapproved of their reluctance to try new things?”

Menchi was starting to look slightly uncomfortable. “No, sir. I lost my cool when one of the candidates insulted Gourmet Hunters, and I made the exam harder than necessary.”

“In other words, you’re aware that this exam was unacceptable.”

“Yes, sir. When cooking is involved, I lose control. I’m unqualified to be an examiner. I will resign as examiner, so please redo the Second Phase!” she pleaded.

The Chairman’s smile only grew larger, and he raised a hand to run along his beard as he regarded them all.

Why do I have a feeling it’s not going to be that simple?


 

How did we go from cooking pigs to jumping down a ravine for eggs?

After Chairman Netero decided to give Menchi another chance, they all traveled to Mt. Split-in-Half via the hot air balloon.

Rin was luckily able to bypass the new event since Menchi had already passed him in the previous one, so he was left to watch anxiously as the others leaped down into the hole and hung on by just a thread— literally. It was only when they were safely back on land that Rin let out the breath he was holding.

Leorio noticed, and he stepped forward so he could sling an arm around Rin’s shoulders. “What? Were you worried?” he asked with a smirk.

“A little,” he admitted sheepishly. After pulling the offending arm off, Rin turned to Gon. “That’s some instincts you have there.”

Gon beamed and raised an arm in the air “Thanks!”

Killua stepped closer to Rin so that he could say, “He was able to track Leorio during the First Phase with just his nose. He’s like some kind of wild animal.”

“I agree. Though, his instincts have saved us again. Without them we would all be dead,” Kurapika added.

Leorio groaned and ran a hand down his face. “Don’t remind me.”

They were interrupted when Menchi yelled that the eggs were done, and Rin watched in amusement as everyone ran forward in order to grab theirs. He hung back, since he didn’t have one that he needed to go get, and was able to just observe those around him. There were even fewer people than what had originally gotten onto the hot air balloon, and the few that were left were either by themselves or huddled in small groups like the one he had eventually become a part of. He was honestly surprised that he had made it this far. Don’t get him wrong, becoming a hunter had been his dream ever since he was a little kid, but actually going out and doing it had always been something that he put off.

His father would have been proud of him.

Rin could feel his brows slowly furrow into a frown, but he made himself put on a brighter expression when he saw the others walking back toward him. They all stopped once they had reached their little self-designated spot of dirt, but Rin noticed that Gon wasn’t with them. He looked around the area worriedly, wondering where the boy could have gone.

He soon spotted him walking in the opposite direction toward one of the lone people still standing nearing the edge. Rin watched as Gon shared some of his egg with Todo and couldn’t help but think that the boy was so adorable. However, he was quickly pulled out of his thoughts when something was suddenly shoved in his face. He tilted his head back so that he could see what the offending object was: it was an egg. Rin followed the arm holding it up to Leorio.

Leorio looked away with a slight blush. “You didn’t get to try some, so here.”

“Thank you.” He gently took it from him and took a small bite. He felt his eyes widen. “It’s really good.” A large smile spread over his face as he gazed up at Leorio.

Leorio spluttered unintelligibly in response. “H-Hmph.”

“What’s this?” Kurapika smirked, leaning closer to Leorio.

“Sh-shut up!” Leorio shouted, shaking his fist at him.

Rin looked back and forth between the two, confused on why they were fighting all of a sudden. He looked helplessly over at Killua, who simply shrugged and carried on eating.

Gon was running over to them when the Chairman’s voice rang out. “Alright. Everyone who has passed this phase will now board the airship. Those who have not will remain with Menchi and Buhara, who will escort you back safely.” He turned and walked up the ramp, only pausing to peer over his shoulder for a brief second. “Any who are too slow to board will be left behind.”

Rin chuckled when he heard Kurapika sigh in annoyance as people rushed forward, including Gon, Killua, and Leorio. The two left behind glanced at each other. Rin gave the other a smile which seemed to help ease the small frown adorning Kurapika’s face, and they both calmly walked over to the ramp.


 

Once onboard, they were all shown to a large room located toward the middle on the airship, where they would all be staying for the duration of the trip. The room was bare except for a couple of carts that had blankets and small pillows they could use if they wanted to get some rest, which was something Rin was in desperate need of, and it was what he would be doing if someone hadn’t decided that now was a good time to bug him.

Rin tried to ignore the hand shaking him and even tried to swat at it. “Go away,” he groaned and sighed in relief when it seemed that they finally gave up. Now I can go back to sleep. Snuggling down into the blanket he had grabbed, Rin had almost fell back asleep when he was suddenly yanked into the air. A high pitched squeak left him as he was jerked roughly out of what remained of his slumber. His eyes took a little time to adjust before they were finally able to focus on the enemy.

“What was that for?!” he yelled from where he was slung across Leorio’s shoulder.

“You wouldn’t wake up.” Leorio laughed. “And we’re already at the next phase.”

Rin just sighed and glared half-heartedly at both Leorio and Kurapika, then he went completely limp in the hold. Oh, well. At least this is easier than walking. Leorio didn’t put him down until they had exited the airship.

The breeze ruffled his already messy hair even more, causing black strands to whip painfully against his face.

“Oi! Over here!” Gon waved his arms.

“There you two are. Where did you guys go?” Kurapika asked once they reached Gon and Killua.

Gon just beamed happily. “We played a game with the Chairman,” he said, then glanced over at Rin, who was finally set down. “Are you alright, Rin?”

Rin just nodded sleepily. “They woke me up.”

“You’re not much of a morning person, are you?” Killua asked, one delicate looking eyebrow raising in amusement.

A headshake was all Rin managed before they were called to attention by the bean man that had given them their name tags at the beginning of the exam.

“Ahem. Everyone, the exam’s Third Phase will begin here, at the top of Trick Tower,” he informed, gazing around to look at all of them.

A random guy raised a hand and asked, “Trick Tower?”

“To pass this phase, you must reach the tower’s base alive. The time limit is seventy two hours. With that, we will now begin the Third Phase. I will pray for your success.” The bean man turned back to the airship and left.

Leorio hugged his briefcase to his chest tightly. “Are we supposed to climb down?”

“That would be suicide,” Kurapika observed.

Rin peered down at the endless drop and had to agree. “Well, it was nice knowing you guys.”

“It may be suicide for a normal person,” someone said, and they all glanced behind them at the random dude who had spoken, “But a top-class rock climber can handle this no problem.” He started to climb down the side.

Wing flaps could be heard in the distance, along with strange calls, but it wasn’t until the bird-like monsters were already upon the man that they finally noticed them. However, by that time he was already taken.

“G-Guess we can’t climb down the side,” Leorio stuttered.

“Yeah.” Even Kurapika sounded surprised. “We should probably split up. We’ll able to cover more ground that way, and maybe one of us will be able to find an entrance.”

They all agreed and headed in separate directions.

So far I don’t see anything that looks like an entrance. I wonder if the others have found anything yet. Rin paused in his searching and looked for them on the rooftop, but he didn’t see them anywhere. Eh? Did they already leave? In his panic, Rin had rushed forward, head looking back and forth along the expanse of the roof. However, just as he was stepping forward, the tile his foot was on gave under his weight. All he managed was a strangled yelp before he was free falling into blackness. Don’t panic, concentrate! His nen flared around him as he used it to decrease his speed so he could land lightly on the floor, unharmed. After landing, he looked up at the ceiling, but the tile had closed back up. Where am I now?

As Rin turned to look around the room, he felt all the blood drain from his face. Standing a few feet in front of him, leaning casually against the wall, was Hisoka.