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Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...

Chapter 11

“You want us to test for Chuunin?” Naruto asked, amazed. He couldn’t believe his sensei, who arranged extra training so he could become a respectable genin, actually thought he was now ready to become a chuunin! He looked around their usual training area, wondering if this was a prank of some sort.

“I am willing to authorize you three to participate in the Chuunin Exam,” Kurenai clarified.  

Naruto frowned. That was what he’d just said, wasn’t it?

“I believe Kurenai-sensei is specifying that the choice is ours,” Shino explained.

“A-ano,” Hinata said in a hesitant voice, the unexpected news having evidently made her fall back on older, more tentative mannerisms, “isn’t it unusual for a team to take the exam during their first year?”

Kurenai nodded. “It is, but I think it would be a valuable training experience for all of you. Also, with the exam being held in Konoha, it should be fairly safe, while still giving you three a chance to see what it is like. That will increase your chances for success at a later date.”

Naruto frowned a little. “You make it sound like we’re guaranteed to fail,” he objected.

Kurenai shook her head. “Not quite, but the odds are very low. Keep in mind how rare it is that rookie genin teams are allowed to participate at all. At the same time, teams of any age taking the exam for the second time have a much higher rate of success.”

“You say it’s rare for rookie teams to be allowed,” Shino observed. “Are any of our former classmates to participate?”

Kurenai nodded. “Asuma and Kakashi are giving their teams the option as well.”

“That means Lee and his team will be there as well,” Naruto added. There was no way Gai-sensei would let his “eternal rival’s” team trump his.

“It would be prudent that our first exposure to the exam occur in the company of allies,” Shino observed.

Naruto grunted. “I agree, except that part about us being guaranteed to fail,” he said with a scowl.

Kurenai took a deep breath. “That is merely a matter of statistical fact, Naruto. However, I do expect you three to make a good showing. There is no reason you cannot outperform your classmates, and in fact I expect you to do so! If, after all your hard work, you are shown up by Asuma’s genin, I will never hear the end of it… and therefore neither will you. Do I make myself clear?” Her voice had gone a little frosty at the end, so Naruto merely nodded and refrained from saying anything else.

The group sparring exercises they did together before their mission were particularly grueling, but no one complained.

OoOoO

Kurenai allowed herself a small smile as her team quartered the affluent neighborhood Shino’s bugs had tracked the cat to this time. It had been too long since she’d been around adolescent males; she’d forgotten how competitive they could be. Their determination to pass the Chuunin Exam on their first attempt, as rookies, no less, was as laudable as it was impractical.

Still, Naruto tended to prove people wrong, especially those who doubted him. Kurenai wondered what kinds of odds Asuma would give her…

She shook her head. Such conduct was unbecoming to a Konoha Jonin. At least, betting for money would be. Perhaps a wager of forfeits could be negotiated. Forcing Asuma to give up cigarettes or Kakashi to forgo his ‘little orange books’ for a month… could prove to be highly entertaining. Of course there was also the matter of her forfeits. She was fairly certain that playing to their male egos could let her avoid anything too onerous.

At the same time, she was guiltily glad that Iruka was still convalescing from his injuries. If he’d been there when the three of them volunteered their rookie teams, the man was sure to object. Still, she would  make a point to break the news to him personally, and explain why she was anxious for her students to make chuunin as quickly as possible.

Kurenai shook her head to clear it of such extraneous thoughts as Hinata led her teammates back, carrying the pampered and escape-prone housecat in her arms. Before their meeting, Shino had intercepted his teacher on the way to the team’s usual meeting place. He had had a proposal, one she was rather surprised to hear.  But it was a good idea, one long in coming.

“After we return the cat,” Kurenai began as they walked up to Hinata, “we will break for the day. Naruto, Hinata, I know you’ve been working hard pretty much every evening since we returned, but I’d prefer that you refrain from unsupervised training until the exam starts.”

Unsurprisingly, Naruto scowled at this. Hinata’s reaction, however, was just as visibly dismayed – at least by her standards. Kurenai secretly congratulated herself for nudging those two toward each other, but held up her hand to get their attention.

“First of all, I don’t want you to risk injuring or exhausting yourself when the exam is less than a week away. Secondly, there are many visitors entering Konoha for the exams. Training by yourselves presents a significant risk. I’m not saying you two are incapable of defending yourselves – I’m more worried about a potential competitor spying on you to learn your techniques and tactics. It’s unavoidable that you will reveal much during the exams. That is one of the purposes behind having them after all. But I’d rather you didn’t give away any more than you have to.”

Naruto looked thoughtful during this explanation, and finally nodded. Hinata acquiesced as well, though she looked somewhat crestfallen.

“If that is the case,” Shino said, interjecting into the silence that followed. “I would like to extend an invitation to all of you for dinner with my family.”

Naruto actually jumped a little. Kurenai didn’t think he’d actually forgotten his silent teammate was there… but it was rarely enough that he interrupted anyone that it was just as surprising. She also suspected that, deep down, Shino enjoyed twitting his teammate like that.

But what Naruto did next was even more distracting. As his teammate’s words registered, Naruto’s eyes grew very wide. “A-are you serious?” he asked in a shocked voice. The naked emotion on the boy’s face made Kurenai feel slightly sick. It was a bald reminder of how he’d been treated for so long… a deliberate isolation that made her ill when she allowed her thoughts to dwell upon it.

“It was a serious request,” Shino replied smoothly. “My parents have expressed a desire to meet with my teammates, and this is a logical social mechanism for facilitating such a gathering.”

“I would be honored to meet your parents, Shino-kun,” Hinata replied gravely, making a short bow.

Naruto blinked and then nodded. “Uh, yeah, Shino, that would be cool.”

“Unfortunately,” Kurenai said, “I have to attend a meeting the Hokage has called for all the jonin tonight.” While there was a meeting scheduled to go over security arrangements for the upcoming Chuunin Exam, she could probably beg off if she wanted.

But if she attended this gathering, her presence would undoubtedly influence it in many ways. Hinata and Naruto were her subordinates, and would no doubt defer to her when they met with the Aburames, just as they let her do the talking with the Hokage or even with that pig, Dariketsu. That was only proper, and in accord with the respect a genin should show for their jonin-sensei.

However, it would also prevent the Aburames from meeting the real Hinata and Naruto. The Hyuuga girl was repressed enough under normal circumstances, and Naruto had his undeserved reputation working against him. But they were both good kids, and Kurenai felt that people intelligent enough to raise Shino would no doubt see that for themselves… and do so all the better if they were acting normally.

Shino nodded gravely. “Given the timing of the exam, this may be the last free night we have for a while, so with your permission we will go ahead with it.”

Kurenai waved her hand dismissively. “Feel free. Your free time is your own. That goes for all of you,” she added.

OoOoO

Hinata was surprised and a little anxious about the unexpected invitation. Of course, she’d attended innumerable clan functions as a member of the Hyuuga Main Family, but what her teammate described sounded a lot more informal than that. She had some formal kimonos she could wear, but she thought those might be too dressy.

As Kurenai left for her meeting and Shino went ahead to bring word of their acceptance to his parents, Hinata’s eyes flickered over toward Naruto. It was then that several pieces slid into place for her. No, she wouldn’t wear a kimono. She knew from their camping trip that Naruto didn’t have many clothes aside from his uniforms and a few t-shirts and pairs of shorts. Certainly nothing dressy. And he didn’t have time to purchase something before the dinner. She would sooner take poison than embarrass her friend by dressing up and making him appear shabby by comparison.

She was also heartened to know that Shino had been as good as his word. This invitation was proof that he was making headway with his clan regarding Naruto-kun. Given the reactions she’d seen on the street, she doubted anyone would willingly invite Uzumaki Naruto into their home without strong persuasion.

She was jolted out of her reverie when the subject of her thoughts hesitantly tugged on her sleeve. “Er, Hinata,” Naruto asked, hesitantly.

“Y-yes, Naruto?” she answered, damning herself for the quaver that still showed up at times. She was much more comfortable talking to him than she ever thought she would be… but sometimes he would catch her off balance and her old habits would reassert themselves.

“Uh, I, well, you see…” he began, but let his voice trail off. “What am I supposed to do?” he finally asked, his frustration clearly overriding his nervousness.

“Do?” Hinata asked, confused.

“About this dinner thing,” he added. “Am I supposed to bring something? How do I dress? What am I supposed to say?”

Hinata blinked and quickly bit her lip. Of course Uzumaki Naruto had never been invited for dinner at someone’s house before. He had no idea what to do, and it clearly distressed him. Hinata surmised that Naruto realized what a break from custom Shino’s invitation represented and didn’t want to waste it. Without thinking, she let her free hand rest on his wrist in a comforting gesture. “I understand, Naruto-kun, I-I think this is mostly going to be an informal affair. Shino just invited us today, so probably no special preparation is expected. Our uniforms are still clean, and will be appropriate if they remain so.” Her wardrobe suspicions were confirmed when Naruto let out a relieved sigh.

His eyes flickered down to her hand on his and Hinata quickly withdrew hers with a rosy blush. But he didn’t tease her about it. “Thanks, Hinata-chan,” he said sincerely. “I guess you know more about this kind of stuff, huh?”

She nodded. “I had a lot of lessons on etiquette and protocols from Father, as well as the kunoichi lectures.”

Naruto’s eyes darkened when she mentioned her father, but she had no idea how to ask him about that without seeming to pry. “Well, I’ll just watch you a lot then,” he said with an impudent grin.

The idea of Naruto-kun watching her, taking cues from her actions, was enough to set the blood to flooding her cheeks again.

OoOoO

Naruto shifted his weight nervously from one foot to the other as Hinata pressed a lacquered tile set into the doorframe. Faint chimes could be heard through the door. Shino’s parents lived with the other Aburames in a neighborhood informally known as ‘The Hive’ to the rest of Konoha. Given their hobbies, it seemed that other people were reluctant to live in close proximity, Shino had observed as he gave them directions. But that made it easier for them to buy up all the adjoining real estate.

Naruto had thought about that as his teammate departed to let his parents know how many were coming for dinner. He had personal experience with how intolerant some people could be. It made him feel just a little better that it wasn’t only him that suffered for it. He snuck a glance at his teammate as she clasped her hands in front of her stomach in a nervous gesture. Being in a prestigious family didn’t guarantee you’d be treated well either.

He suppressed the surge of resentment that always accompanied such thoughts these days. This wasn’t the time for it.

The door opened and what seemed to be a larger version of Shino stood in the doorway.

As Naruto hoped, Hinata took the lead. “We are honored to be invited to your home, Aburame-sama,” she said, deliberately using the more deferential, polite form as they both bowed deeply.

Shino’s father politely inclined his head. “You may call me Shibi,” he said gravely, “That is an unusual method of address, coming from a Hyuuga,” he observed as he moved aside to allow them entry.

Hinata’s cheeks colored, and Naruto didn’t have to be reminded how the Hyuugas were considered first among Konoha’s ninja clans. Her father’s arrogance during their last mission had made an indelible impression on his mind. And it made Hinata’s humility and politeness all the more noteworthy, even if such attention flustered her. “Well, you’re still Shino’s dad,” Naruto said with a shrug, as if that explained everything.

Like his son, Shibi wore dark glasses, even inside his own home, so his eyes were unreadable as they gazed at Naruto for a moment. He nodded slightly, as if in acknowledgement, and then led them toward a sitting room where he informed them that his wife and son were waiting.

At this point, Naruto was expecting Shino’s mother to be much like her husband and son, except perhaps with a slightly more feminine jacket. He could not have been more wrong.

The lady of the house wore an emerald green tunic over long pants. The former had an exotic cut to it and the color matched her eyes perfectly. The fact that her eyes were visible was a shock of its own, but her behavior was even more so.

“You must be Naruto and Hinata,” she said, rising from her seat with a large smile. “Welcome to our home.”

They began to bow, Naruto watching Hinata from the corner of his eye to make sure he went far enough, but she waved them off. “No need for that, this isn’t a meeting of the clan elders, otherwise Shino would be bullying people and making them feel stupid. We just want to get to know our son’s friends. I’m Misato, and I see you’ve met Shibi-kun already.”

Both the Aburame males looked chagrined at different points in her speech.

Naruto looked up and locked gazes with the cheerful woman. She didn’t hesitate, or refuse to meet his eyes. Naruto saw curiosity and good-natured teasing in abundance, but no fear. “You’re not from around here, are you?” he asked. He hadn’t intended to voice the question out loud, and the sound of his own voice startled him just a bit.

“Not a bit,” she said. “I met my husband when he was the official envoy to Hidden Mist.” She smiled over at her husband. “He was so serious and solemn that I never stood a chance. His assignment ended right after Shino was born and all three of us returned to Konoha.”

Naruto looked over at Shino with raised eyebrows. He never knew Shino hadn’t been born in Konoha. Not that it really made a difference, but it underlined how little he really knew about his friend.

“Anyway,” Misato concluded, “that’s why I’m a little livelier than these two.” She cracked a teasing grin as Shino and Shibi both raised visible eyebrows above their glasses. “I had such hopes for Shino, too… he was such a pretty baby, always laughing and so ticklish.” Her eyes took on a wicked glint as she exercised her parental prerogative to embarrass her child in front of his peers.

“A-Ano,” Hinata interjected. “S-Shino is very lively,” she continued, defending her friend. “He’s just, er, quiet.”

“Yeah,” Naruto added quickly. “He makes up for me being so loud.”

Shino let out an audible sigh from behind his jacket collar.

“Shino…” Misato said in a tragic voice, her eyes dancing with mischief. “This is the first time you’ve brought friends home. I have a lot of time to make up for.”

“Perhaps,” Shibi countered, “we can continue this discussion over dinner, as that was the reason our guests were invited.”

“Very well,” Misato agreed and started leading them toward an archway. “The roasted termites are probably about done, but they won’t stay crispy for long.”

Naruto paused for a moment as his brain struggled with some disconcerting mental images. He swallowed heavily and silently renewed his vow to do nothing that would spoil the evening.

“She has an… unusual sense of humor,” Shino muttered quietly as he fell into step next to him.

“I heard that,” Misato said as she entered the dining room.

“And good hearing, too,” Naruto commented.

OoOoO

Fortunately for Hinata, the dinner was fairly normal fare for Konoha, although prepared with obvious precision. She’d had to eat some unusual things at formal dinners, but she wasn’t sure she could eat roasted bugs without some time to prepare herself. Shino’s mother was not what she’d expected, especially after meeting his father on the border patrol mission. But while Misato had definitely caught them off-balance, she was still quite nice – in addition to being a good cook. Her sense of humor reminded Hinata of Naruto at his pranking best – teasing and playful, but never deliberately cruel.

The conversation over the dinner table was somewhat more serious, as Shino’s parents set to learning more about their son’s comrades. However, Misato had obvious difficulty keeping a straight face once Naruto confirmed that the rumors about Maito Gai were fairly accurate. Naruto’s imitation of his taijutsu tutor’s “power of youth” rant was uncannily accurate. It also left Misato looking like she was about to injure herself or at least collapse due to lack of air.

They seemed a bit surprised at the training regimen that she and Naruto adhered to. Objectively, she knew that many kunoichi her age desired more free time to be with friends and family or just to have fun. But her shyness meant she had few friends, even if Father would have allowed her to make friends outside the clan. Shameful as it was to admit, the less time she spent around her family, the better she seemed to feel. Training with Naruto and going on missions with her team was, in fact, about the most enjoyable thing she could think of to do.

Hinata was seized with a vague sense of wrongness when she thought about how different her life seemed to be, compared to other genin. But dwelling on that didn’t seem to be a good idea. Getting stronger, helping Naruto and Shino become stronger… those were good things. Productive things. Things she could actually make a difference in.

When they finished their recital of “A Day in the Life of Team Eight”, Shino’s parents exchanged a look. “Your assessment of the relative deficits was accurate,” Aburame Shibi said, turning toward Shino. “While I do not, at this time, believe you are a liability, that may change soon. You will now spend the mornings working with your mother on her weapons specialty.”

Hinata wasn’t sure what that referred to, but given the speed at which Shino turned toward Aburame Misato, it seemed to be important.

The woman shrugged and gave a lazy grin that was almost a smirk. “I promised my teacher I wouldn’t pass anything along to someone not of the village, but technically, you were born there.”

Shino nodded slowly. “I see.” He turned back toward his father. “And the breeding project?”

“It will continue,” Shibi confirmed. “But as your Uncle Bataru’s replacement, I can assign one of the other clan members to take charge of the maintenance. It is, after all, a project that will benefit the clan as a whole if it is successful.”

“Project?” Naruto asked, his curiosity finally getting the better of him.

Shino took a deep breath, but paused and looked at his friend. He shook his head briefly. “Faster bugs,” was all he said.

“Really?” Naruto asked. “Cool.”

“So are you looking forward to the chuunin exam?” Misato asked, obviously steering the conversation onto safer ground.

Hinata couldn’t help a small smile as Naruto talked about the exam, his natural enthusiasm eroding any lingering awkwardness. Thought she did wish he hadn’t included her when he stated that ‘Team 8 would kick everyone’s butt and all make chuunin’.

“You do remember our sensei stating the odds of rookie genin passing the test?” Shino asked in a slightly acid tone.

“Never tell me the odds,” Naruto said firmly. “Besides,” he added. “We have Hinata-chan on our side! Right, Hinata-chan?”

Hyuuga Hinata promptly wished she knew a Doton jutsu she could use to sink through the floor. Her face grew redder as Naruto unabashedly boasted of her finishing off the shinobi that broke into the Hokage’s tower, and how she pierced the kidnappers’ genjutsu and rescued her sister with “spectacular acrobatics”.

Oddly enough, when Misato asked Naruto what he’d done in those fights, he just shrugged and said “I hit them a few times.” He paused. “Well, more than a few times if you count the kage bunshin.”

While Misato seemed to lead the questioning, Shino’s father just listened quietly for the most part. But Shibi’s attention still felt like a physical weight when he was focused upon you. Hinata was slightly uncomfortable with how that reminded her of her father in some respects, but his gaze seemed to lack the anger that always simmered in her father’s eyes. Of course dealing with years of failures on her part had to have a lot to do with that, she realized.

The time passed with surprising speed, and before they knew it dinner was over and they were lingering over one last cup of tea with the Aburames.

“Thank you for inviting us into your home,” Hinata said in a formal tone as the evening seemed to be winding down. Naruto nodded his agreement and Hinata had to suppress a blush. It was… odd, to finally encounter a situation where Naruto had to rely on her so heavily. It felt good. For once, she had an opportunity to guide him after all the times he’d helped her, or inspired her. Even beyond that, she found that without the nervousness inspired by her father’s assessing gaze, she’d actually enjoyed taking a meal with strangers and getting to know them. It was also refreshing to go an entire meal without slipping up, forgetting what to say, or otherwise embarrassing herself. Perhaps it was because Naruto needed her knowledge to guide them both… but she was pretty sure it was something else.

“The pleasure was all ours,” Misato said with an impish grin. Shino’s mother was so unlike her husband or son, but Hinata intuited that they actually enjoyed the differences between them. Having been raised under the strict Hyuuga protocols for proper behavior, both in public and in private, it was a startling concept for Hinata to digest. Startling, but strangely attractive nonetheless.

“Agreed,” Aburame Shibi added. “You both are welcome in our house at any time.”

Hinata, not trusting her voice at the moment, merely bowed deeply. Out of the corner of her eye, she was relieved to see Naruto aping her, despite the confused look on his face. The declaration by Shino’s father was the highest complement that could be paid to a guest, and amounted to an offer of alliance and even temporary sanctuary, if needed.

“That is not necessary,” Shibi said, though his tone was not sharp. “Shino’s assessment of your nature and characters logically requires this. Even beyond that, if his teammates were not capable, brave, and loyal, our son might not have survived his first C-ranked mission.”

“Shino did his part too,” Naruto said as he straightened up, scowling.

“Yes, he did.” Shibi agreed. “But if you two had not done yours as well, the mission could have ended in failure, or even death. Your success is integral to his success – that is the nature of a team. Even beyond that, there is the matter of the prisoner that you protect us from.”

Hinata bit her lip as Naruto froze in place at the mention of the Kyuubi.

“Everyone here is aware of your burden, Uzumaki Naruto, so I am not breaking the Hokage’s law,” Shino’s father continued. “That said- we are guilty of relying on hearsay as to your previous actions and character. That situation has since been corrected,” he added, giving Shino a sideways glance, “but I would still like to extend an apology, on behalf of my family and my clan.”

Hinata could almost feel the jumble of emotions coming from Naruto as his face went pale, then pink. He ducked his head forward, his eyes having grown suspiciously shiny. “Apologies are not necessary,” he said quickly in a thick voice.

“As you say, Uzumaki-san,” Shibi replied. “But you will not be slandered without cause within my hearing.”

Hinata looked up from Naruto and ended up locking gazes with Misato. The woman’s bright green eyes seemed to bore into hers for a moment. Then she gave the pale-eyed girl a slow, deliberate wink—for what, Hinata wasn’t sure.

OoOoO

Naruto was still a bit numb as they made their goodbyes and left the Aburame neighborhood. Objectively, he’d hoped to win over the people of Konoha when he became Hokage… hoped they would acknowledge him and the burden he’d carried for them since the day of his birth. But to have it actually happen… was not something he was prepared for.

The Aburame were not the largest or most prestigious of Konoha’s shinobi clans. But to have even one family break ranks from the rest and declare him welcome into their home at any time… He didn’t need Hinata’s whispered explanation as they walked along the moonlit streets of Konoha to know how significant that was.

And he was far too excited to be calmly walking down the street.

With a grin he grabbed Hinata’s hand and leaped onto the nearest roof. His sparring partner’s reflexes were as fast as his and she managed to time her leap to meet his own. With the moon, it was as bright as noon to their dark-adjusted eyes. With a playful grin, Naruto let go of Hinata’s hand and tapped her shoulder with his fingertips. “You’re it!” he said as he sprang away.

In an instant, Hinata was pursuing him across the rooftops.

Fortunately, they’d both increased their weights recently, so they were fairly evenly matched as they darted from roof to roof. Given their normal training regimen, they were used to far more physical activity than they’d had that day. Aside from that, Naruto had never had the chance to play games like this before – and playing tag with your own shadow clones was just pathetic.

At one point he landed near an odd-shaped roof cornice that shimmered and melted away to reveal a figure wearing an ANBU mask. “Pursuit training,” Naruto said quickly as he leapt away.

“Excuse me ANBU-san!” Naruto smiled as he heard Hinata’s voice echo from the roof he’d just vacated.

Their game meandered across the rooftops of Konoha until they cut across a block of buildings usually reserved for visiting officials. As he landed, Naruto was engulfed in a miasma of killing intent more intense than he’d ever felt. Instead of leaping away, he dropped into a crouch and spun, seeking the source of the murderous rage.

There, standing on the roof beam was a smallish red-headed shinobi with a large gourd strapped to his back. Teal-colored eyes, ringed with dark circles, glared at him with frightening intensity. Above one eye was a kanji symbol obscured by hair and shadows. The sash securing the gourd in place held a Hidden Sand symbol that glinted in the moonlight.

Fighting Kazuya to the death wasn’t nearly as frightening as having this strange kid just look at him. Naruto clenched his fists to keep his hands from shaking. His feet felt rooted in place. If this strange kid attacked, would he even be able to dodge?

Just then, Hinata landed next to him and let out a quiet gasp. Without thinking, Naruto found himself moving, standing in front of his frozen team-mate, facing the terrifying shinobi with a kunai in each hand. He could feel the red chakra pulsing in his coils now, raging like a living thing, wanting out. His eyes, suddenly seeing with incredible clarity, picked out the small wisps of sand circling around the boy’s feet. His nose picked up the smell of old blood. Was it coming from the sand or from the gourd? And how was he smelling it from here?

It wasn’t until Naruto noticed the faint red glare reflecting back from the dull tiles around him that the boy spoke. “You’re like me,” he said in a voice as quiet as the grave.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Naruto asked, his voice coming out calmer than he felt.

“I am Sabaku no Gaara,” the boy answered, again in that dry whisper. “I am here to participate in the Chuunin Exam.”

Hinata edged to his left. Out of the corner of his eye, Naruto could see her Byakugan activated. He resisted the urge to move between her and the sand shinobi again. But when Gaara’s eyes moved toward her, Naruto spoke up to keep the attention focused on him. “Maybe I’ll see you in the exam then,” he said in a mocking voice.

Gaara nodded, either missing or ignoring the sarcasm. “I didn’t know Konoha had created its own weapon. You and I will fight, in this exam. And then I will kill you.” Gaara smiled then, and Naruto had to revise his ‘most terrifying experience’ list again. Those teal-colored eyes held no hint of sanity.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Naruto said lightly. “But in the meantime, I need to escort the lady home. Enjoy the moonlight.” With that, he turned toward his teammate, making finger signs with his left hand the moment it was concealed by his body.

Hinata nodded and leapt away, Naruto following close behind her. He wasn’t comfortable turning his back on this Gaara, who… what-ever he was, even if they were fairly far away. But the boy didn’t seem ready to fight just yet, so Naruto kept his own tone as casual as possible. It seemed to work because they landed on the next roof unmolested.

“Let’s get you home,” Naruto said urgently. “Kurenai-sensei was right, with all these strangers in Konoha, this isn’t a good idea.”

Hinata didn’t look happy about it, but she nodded in agreement.

OoOoO

Kurenai was a little exasperated to hear of her students’ late-night encounter with the foreign shinobi. She’d asked them to avoid late-night training just to prevent such an encounter… but it was also gratifying that they didn’t hesitate to reveal their disobedience. But to end up in a life-threatening situation over a game of tag…

She looked at them again, taking in the uncomfortable postures, Naruto’s scowl, and Hinata’s nervous fingers… and suppressed a sigh. Sometimes it was easy to forget that they were still kids in some ways. A genin was mostly an adult, at least in the eyes of the village, but the trappings of childhood were not so easily shed. And in these two cases, she was sure neither of them had experienced much of a childhood in the first place. And a late night game of tag, conducted with sufficient stealth to apparently startle an ANBU, was hardly defiance of her orders. They’d merely had the bad luck to encounter an unusually frightening competitor on that rooftop.

“Thank you for telling me this,” Kurenai said. “In the future, you should probably not wander around after dark – especially if there is a chance that this Gaara person may seek you out. I’ll see what I can find out about him.”

Naruto nodded, but the troubled look on his face persisted. “He said that I was like him,” he said in a quiet voice, “and that he didn’t know that Konoha had created its own weapon.”

Kurenai stared at her student. There were… possibilities… implied in those words, possibilities too awful to speculate about.

“A-ano,” Hinata interjected, flinching slightly when they both turned toward her. “N-Naruto, when I looked at him with the Byakugan, there was some gold-colored chakra mixed in with his.”

“Like me,” Naruto echoed. “He has a demon… like me?”

Kurenai nodded, her mind now racing at the possibilities. She had no idea how powerful it might be, but this was something the Hokage needed to know immediately.

“Hardly like you in most respects,” Shino objected. “You do not display an excessive amount of bloodlust, nor are you given toward idle threats.” He paused. “This Gaara also seems to demonstrate a certain economy with his words that you lack.”

Naruto blinked. “So he speaks better than I do? Thanks a lot, Shino.” He smiled at his impassive teammate.

But Hinata still appeared troubled. “And you don’t see yourself as a weapon, Naruto-kun… but that’s what he called himself,” she said, her brows stitched with anguish.

“That’s right,” Naruto agreed, frowning.

“W-what…” Hinata’s voice trailed off as she stared into space. She swallowed. “What would it be like, Naruto-kun, if you had no one like us, like Iruka-sensei, like the Hokage-sama. What if everyone hated and feared you, and no one accepted you?”

Kurenai’s mind, augmented by her studies of the human mind for advanced genjutsu, came to a conclusion first. But she held her tongue to see if the others would figure it out on their own.

Surprisingly, Naruto answered first. “I… I think I’d probably hate them back. Do you think that’s what happened to him?”

Hinata nodded slowly.

“However,” Shino interjected, “that does not make him less dangerous.”

“I agree,” Kurenai added. “I would suggest that you avoid him at all costs during the exam. I need to go speak to the Hokage, so you are released from your duties today. I think this constitutes an even stronger reason to avoid being outside for long after dark.”

“D-do you think it will be alright to train within our homes?” Hinata asked quickly.

Kurenai nodded. “I think that will be fine. Tomorrow we will go over some things that might help you on the exam. I take it all three of you are still interested in taking it?”

After they nodded, Kurenai dismissed them and made her way to the Hokage’s tower at a rather quick walk. Anything more would have drawn potentially hostile attention.

OoOoO

“This kind of sucks,” Naruto muttered as they walked toward Moritake’s. He’d pressed for ramen, but been outvoted.

“We’ve eaten at Ichiraku’s four times in the past two weeks,” Shino observed, with just a hint of tolerant amusement.

“I don’t mean where we’re going for lunch,” Naruto snapped irritably. “I mean us having to cut back our training.” It was like Shino didn’t think he was capable of worrying about something besides ramen. Wonderful, hot, savory ramen…

“It will not heavily impact my new training regimen,” Shino observed. Out of the corner of his eye, Naruto noticed him rolling his shoulders slightly. Didn’t Misato say something about weapons training?

“Yeah, but that’s just because you can train at home,” Naruto countered, rolling his eyes.

“A-ano,” Hinata stammered. “C-could we not train at your apartment?” she asked.

Naruto paused as he struggled to absorb the idea. “It’s not very big,” he objected.

“We can still work on chakra control,” Hinata insisted. “Perhaps some light sparring,” she continued.

“We won’t really have much room to maneuver,” Naruto said with an embarrassed catch in his voice. His apartment was nothing to brag about.

“Sometimes combat occurs in close quarters,” Shino countered, “so it might be useful to practice in such a setting. My… new instructor… has me practice my forms in our basement, which is filled with incubation equipment.”

Naruto nodded slowly, but was even more convinced by the obvious relief Hinata was displaying. She was actually pretty good at hiding things when she tried, but he was slowly getting better at reading her. He didn’t have to be a genius shinobi to realize that she’d rather train than be around her family, so even cramped quarters at his place would be preferable. He’d just have to make sure he cleaned up and didn’t leave any dirty underwear on the floor.

OoOoO

Kurenai sighed as she left the Hokage’s office. He’d been highly concerned when she reported Naruto’s encounter with the Suna boy, Gaara. But it wasn’t like they could summarily dismiss him from the exam… not without a serious explanation. He was the youngest son of the Kazekage, which only complicated things.

Even if Suna was a nominal ally of Konoha, their entering a demon-host, especially one as bloodthirsty as this Gaara seemed to be, would be like dumping a piranha in a goldfish bowl. But if they objected to his presence, they’d have to explain how they knew… and Gaara’s words only made sense if one knew that Naruto was a Jinchuuriki as well.

Barring one without barring both of them would be seen as the worst kind of favoritism, and the Hokage was not willing to reveal Naruto’s secret to the leaders of the other delegations. There were already rumors of the shadowy Akatsuki organization taking an interest in Konoha, and there was nothing to be gained by adding fuel to that fire.

But they would be on their guard at least. Team Eight had fulfilled its primary function as a recon team – finding out important information and reporting it to the Hokage. Using that information correctly was their leader’s responsibility. She only hoped he made the right decision.

OoOoO

The day of the exam dawned with typical Konoha weather, bright sunshine and a hint of coolness on the breeze… weather that made Naruto want to stay outside all day and half the night. He met Shino and Hinata at their training ground in a frame of mind that was not really conducive to taking a long test. He’d been bouncing on the balls of his feet, bursting with nervous tension since he left his apartment.

This was it, really, the first step on his path to becoming Hokage and making everyone acknowledge him. How could he possibly remain calm? Everything was changing, even his morning training sessions with Gai, Lee, and Hinata. The last couple of days, instead of pounding each other into the dirt, they did light warm-ups, advanced forms, and attended an informal seminar on battlefield tactics. The latter showed Naruto something he was only beginning to understand.

Maito Gai was a lot smarter than his wardrobe or haircut suggested.

Outside of his… enthusiasms… the jonin could be just as ruthless as a mission called for. And since he focused on taijutsu, he’d given a lot of thought on how to handle multiple opponents, how to deal with long-range attacks, and how to neutralize an enemy’s advantages.

Naruto was a little uncomfortable with the thought that Gai-sensei might be helping them beat his own team, if the chuunin examination included head-to-head competition. He knew that Tenten was getting some special genjutsu training from Kurenai, but he still realized that Gai was going far beyond the original bargain.

It wasn’t until the end of the last session that Gai became very serious, and Naruto came to understand his reasoning.

“Tomorrow you will be entering the chuunin examination,” he said as they sprawled on the grass after performing what he called ‘simple cool-down exercises’—which most people would probably consider to be an entire workout on their own. “While you three will be better prepared than many genin, and your Power of Youth will shine very brightly for all to see…” Gai stopped and visibly restrained himself from going off on that all-too-familiar tangent. “Keep in mind that the examination itself can be very dangerous. Do not underestimate your opponents, but more importantly, do not forget who your friends are.” He paused, seeming to take in their curious looks.

“Even though the exam is being held here in Konoha, there will be many participants from other villages. Some of them may not hold very honorable intentions, and may seek to harm or kill another competitor to give them an edge. Although not encouraged, this is not strictly against the rules the Hidden Villages all agreed to.” Gai drew those incredibly thick eyebrows down into a fair approximation of a frown. “Please watch out for your fellow shinobi during the exam. Even the strongest rivalry should be put away when facing shinobi from another village. That is one of the Leaf’s greatest strengths… if we forget that, then we have truly turned our backs on the Power of Youth.”

That’s when it really struck Naruto… Gai wanted them all to pass, everyone from Konoha. And if they helped each other as he asked, then that would improve the chances for Neji, Tenten, and Lee as well. Naruto, stunned by this unexpected complexity, just nodded vigorously. Gai gave him one of those blinding smiles that made Naruto want to go buy toothpaste.

Still, such sobering thoughts couldn’t compete with Naruto’s competitive nature, so he was wound as tight as a spring when he met his teammates.

Of course, if Shino had any concerns about the exam, he wasn’t showing any of it. Sometimes the Aburame boy’s calm deliberation was more irritating than the entire Konohamaru Corps on a sugar high. For an instant, Naruto wondered if he realized that and just did it on purpose… No, not possible, he decided as he turned toward Hinata, who’d just entered the clearing as well.

For once, she was able to meet his eyes without looking away. She was standing a little straighter than usual as well. Naruto softly exhaled the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. She was so calm and centered that he couldn’t help but absorb some of that himself. For some reason, just her presence seemed to relieve his nervous agitation. The chakra control exercises she’d led him through definitely benefited from that. Even that pesky red chakra seemed to behave itself better under her watchful eye.

Naruto had lost count of how many times he’d cast the water-summoning jutsu into his sink… but bit by bit his control had improved. He was able to further reduce the amount of chakra he molded into the technique, while reducing the amount of time it took to complete the seals.

Of course, his progress was nowhere near even. The first time he’d made a breakthrough, his elation caused the jutsu to spiral out of control, spraying water across his small kitchen. Interestingly enough, when this happened Hinata threw up her hands in reflex and the spray of water seemed to split and mostly flow around her instead of soaking her jacket.

“Are we ready to go?” Hinata asked softly, jolting Naruto out of his reverie. He nodded, hoping he hadn’t been staring at her or something weird. He stayed quiet as they walked toward their destination. Kurenai-sensei said that all the jonin had been drafted to help with the exam, but that she hoped to see them in the later stages.

As they entered the building where the exam was being held, Naruto felt uncomfortable, almost like someone was watching him. His suspicions were borne out as they climbed the stairs and Hinata whispered “genjutsu” in a voice that barely carried as far as her teammates’ ears.

As they approached Room 301, or what looked like it anyway, there was a crowd of younger shinobi gathered outside the door. Two rough looking older genin had just finished knocking Lee and Tenten back as Team 7 objected.

“We’re doing you kids a favor, keeping you out,” one of the older genin said. “None of you look like you can handle us, let alone a test that makes some people forever give up being a shinobi – or just kills them.”

“That’s a sound argument,” Sasuke said in a challenging voice, “but I will pass. And undo this field you’ve created using an illusionary technique. I want to go to the third floor.”

Naruto noted the small smile on Tenten’s lips as they walked up to the altercation. Evidently she’d spotted it as well. He began concentrating chakra in his center. Something was a little fishy about those genin.

Sasuke and the unnamed genin started to exchange kicks when Lee appeared between them in a flash of green, grabbing their legs while the kicks were still chambered. For a stunned moment, both Sasuke and the genin were held in place until Lee released their legs and they had to back off to retain their balance.

Naruto released the chakra pulse while everyone’s attention was focused on the aborted fight. He frowned. He’d barely pushed anything into it, and the pulse still washed across the hallway and probably enveloped the whole building.

Still, it did what it was supposed to do. The two suspicious genin were revealed as adult chuunin in the grey uniforms of examination proctors.

Neji, who was starting to rebuke Lee for showing off, turned and glared at Naruto before turning back to his teammate. Naruto gave him a jaunty wave, guessing he’d figured out where the pulse had come from. Too bad his Byakugan hadn’t been on so it could have blinded him for a bit. Hinata’s cousin was way too arrogant for his own good.

“Evidently the exam actually began the moment we entered the building,” Shino observed.

“And we should expect other parts to not be as they seem,” Hinata added.

Naruto grunted and nodded, but his attention was more focused on Rock Lee. His cheeks were bright red as he asked Sakura out on a date. She turned him down, of course, glancing sidelong at Sasuke as if to see whether he was jealous of the attention paid to her. Naruto noted with a sinking stomach that it only seemed to fire up Lee’s determination.

He saw Lee speak briefly with his teammates as the crowd split up, now ignoring the amused chuunin, one of which was openly smirking at Naruto. When Lee followed after Team 7, Naruto knew he had to do something. “I’ll meet you on the third floor,” he said quickly as he took off after Lee.

Fortunately he managed to catch his friend right after he challenged Sasuke to a fight. “Excuse us,” he said as he dragged Lee around the corner and down the hall out of sight of Team 7.

“Naruto!” Lee said, struggling to remove his elbow from Naruto’s grasp. “Why are you interfering…?”

“Lee! Have you forgotten what Gai-sensei said?” Naruto snapped. Those were words he never thought he’d say.

Lee flinched like he had been struck a heavy blow.

“The test has begun,” Naruto said quietly. “They are still Konoha shinobi, even if Sasuke is a jerk. We don’t fight allies. Not in this kind of situation.”

Lee looked down. Naruto thought he looked unusually subdued. “After the exam, I will run two hundred-“

“Lee,” Naruto said quickly, “why did you want to fight Sasuke so badly?”

Lee didn’t say anything, but let out a heartbroken sigh.

Naruto massaged his forehead with his free hand. Sakura. He wanted to impress Sakura.

“Lee, we’re friends, right?”

“Friends and eternal rivals, like Gai-sensei and that terribly cool and hip Kakashi!”

“Er, I thought Neji was your rival.”

“He is too cold, Naruto-san. I want a rival that burns with the Fires of Youth as hotly as I do!”

“Ah. Right. Okay, well, even as a rival. Well.. you know, Lee, some things transcend rivalry.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean being a guy, Lee. We’re both guys, right?”

“Yosh!”

“Right. So, as one guy to another, I have to warn you about Sakura. I used to like her… I used to like her a lot – before I got to know her. Sakura isn’t as nice as she seems. She only likes one person and she doesn’t really give a damn about anyone else. I don’t want to see you waste your time on her like I did. She just isn’t worth it.”

“Oh, Naruto, you sound so bitter. Surely the Power of Youth has not left you forlorn?”

“One of these days that stuff’s going to make sense to me, and then I’ll know I’m in trouble. Look Lee, as your friend, as your rival, I’d rather see you pursue someone nicer than that. Take my advice or not, but if you don’t you’ll come to regret it.”

“I will think about what you have said, Naruto-san, but I find it troubling. She is so beautiful, I just…”

“I know, me too.”

Lee looked down at his elbow and Naruto released it with a sheepish grin. “We better get going before our teams kill us for making them late,” the short-statured blond said.

OoOoO

Neither shinobi noticed the pink-haired girl leaning against the wall around the corner from where they’d held their discussion. Her bright green eyes were clouded over and her face held an expression of chagrin. Even her inner self was decidedly subdued. Neither boy had said anything that Inner Sakura could really get angry about.

Naruto thought she was beautiful, but wasn’t very nice. And he was concerned that if Rock Lee pursued her, then he would be hurt as well. This coming from the boy who’d always pestered her for dates while they were at the academy. But that had stopped the day they were assigned to their teams. Belatedly, she began to wonder if she’d hurt him with her constant rejections.

It wasn’t all her fault though. It’s not like she was obligated to go out with him just because he asked. And she didn’t want to spoil her chances with Sasuke-kun…

Unbidden, memories of some of her more… forceful… rejections came to mind, burning away a lot of her self-justifications.

“I’m not a very nice person,” she whispered to herself. Her voice seemed unnaturally loud in the empty hallway.

OoOoO

After taking a ‘short-cut’ that wasn’t, Naruto and Lee caught up to their respective teams right outside the examination room. Surprisingly, Kurenai-sensei and Gai-sensei were there as well.

“I’m glad you decided to join us,” the red-eyed jonin said in a slightly sarcastic manner.

“S-sorry,” Naruto said. “I needed to talk to Lee about something.”

Kurenai raised an eyebrow. “I hope it was important, because you two have kept both teams waiting.”

Naruto glanced at Lee out of the corner of his eye. The green-clad genin’s eyes were locked onto his teacher, who was standing slightly behind Kurenai, giving them a discrete thumbs-up. “It kind of was,” he said slowly, hoping Kurenai didn’t immediately press him for details. She’d seemed a little extra irritable lately.

“It better, since your teammates cannot enter without you,” she replied dryly.

“What if not all of us wished to enter the exam?” Shino asked.

“Genin can only enter the exam as an entire team,” Kurenai clarified.

“But then why did you tell us…” Naruto started to ask, but his voice trailed off as he put the pieces together. “You wanted to make sure all three of us really wanted to test.” It wasn’t a question.

Kurenai nodded, smiling slightly. “Very good, Naruto,” she congratulated him. His sensei didn’t go into wild histrionics like Gai, but her simple words of approval warmed Naruto, almost making him blush.

Team Eight stood politely aside while Gai ushered his team into the exam room. Naruto made a point of ignoring Hyuuga Neji and the cold glares he shot at them. He didn’t know if it was Hinata, or if the boy somehow held him responsible for Lee’s drunken rampage. Naruto was completely innocent of that fiasco. However, he had to admit that if he’d known Lee would beat the snot out of the arrogant Hyuuga when liquored up, he’d have made sure it happened.

Frequently.

“I want you three to be careful in there,” Kurenai said in a voice little more than a whisper. “For political reasons, we can’t exclude this Gaara person from the exam. So I want you three to avoid him at all costs, is that understood?”

Naruto nodded along with the rest, but privately he wasn’t sure Gaara would cooperate. The odd boy seemed almost indecently focused on Naruto after he realized Naruto’s secret.

“Then good luck,” she whispered as she opened the door for them.

Objectively, Naruto realized that there would be a lot of participants in the chuunin exam. Subjectively, he wasn’t completely prepared to have almost a hundred pairs of unfriendly eyes lock onto him the moment he stepped into the testing room.

Naruto found his feet moving without thought, placing himself between his team and the potential hostiles, while his fists clenched and his face twisted into a ferocious scowl. The closest genin immediately backed up a couple of steps and Naruto wondered if they were jockeying for room in which to attack. “Don’t even think about it!” he snapped, a muscle along his jaw jumping with nervous tension.

“Oi! Naruto! Stop making a scene, it’s far too troublesome…” a bored-sounding voice snapped him out of his focus.

Naruto eased back out of the combat stance he’d dropped into and turned toward the familiar-sounding voice. Clumped together beside the door were the members of Team Seven, Team Ten, and Team Gai - who’d just preceded them into the room. Shikamaru was leaning against the wall while Choji stood next to him working on a bag of chips. Ino was talking to Sakura – and they weren’t arguing for once. In fact, Sakura seemed oddly subdued. On the other hand, Kiba was ‘talking’ to Akamaru, who seemed oddly agitated. Sasuke and Neji were both giving him strange looks as well. Tenten seemed to be whispering a question to Neji, but wasn’t getting an answer. At least Lee seemed somewhat normal – normal for him anyway – and wasn’t visibly pursuing Sakura, to Naruto’s relief.

Cautiously, Team Eight went to stand with the other rookies. Technically Team Gai wasn’t a rookie squad, but they were only a year older.

“The older genin seem to resent our presence,” Shino observed.

“Well, duh,” Kiba said, placing a rather nervous-looking dog back on top of his hood. “If you had to wait three or four years before your sensei let you take the chuunin exam, people like us make you look bad.”

Shino paused, seeming to stare at the Inuzuka boy. Naruto wondered if his teammate was becoming more expressive, or if he was just learning to read him better. “That is completely irrational,” Shino finally said in an annoyed tone. Maybe he was just becoming more irritable.

Kiba just shrugged. “You tell them that. We’ll give you an honorable burial,” he said with a tight grin.

“Not a chance,” Naruto snapped, his former anger returning. No wonder he was jumpy with all the ill-concealed hostility in the room. Anyone laying a hand on his team better be prepared to have it ripped off.

“A-ano,” Hinata said hesitantly. “I t-think he was just kidding.”

“It’s a miracle,” Kiba said with wide eyes and a taunting grin. “She talks!”

That crack got him a glare from Shino, which he ignored, and a blush from Hinata, which widened his grin. What it got from Naruto was a narrowing of his eyes and a low growl that seem to rumble from his chest of its own accord. Akamaru suddenly let out a low whine and made a series of sharp, high-pitched barks. Kiba’s eyes widened slightly and then he made a face. “It was just a joke,” he said with disgust, “get a grip.”

“Your alleged sense of humor leaves much to be desired,” Shino said in a dry tone.

“Yeah, yeah,” Kiba said dismissively, waving a hand as he turned and began bothering Sasuke.

“Hey, you guys,” an unfamiliar voice called out. “You should quiet down a little.” Naruto turned along with the rest to see a silver-haired genin approach. Despite his hair, he only appeared to be a few years older. “So you’re the rookies that just graduated from the academy, correct?”

No one answered him immediately, but he continued. “You’re all fooling around… this isn’t a field trip.”

His dismissive tone seemed to irk several of them, but Yamanaka Ino was quickest to reply. “Who are you to tell us that?” she demanded.

“I am Yakushi Kabuto,” the young man answered, “and if you look around you’ll see that everyone is on edge. I don’t want to see you get singled out. I guess you can’t help it, being rookies and not knowing anything. It reminds me of how I was when I first took the exam.”

“Kabuto-san?” Sakura asked hesitantly. “Is this your second time taking the exam?”

“No,” he answered. “My seventh.”

“Does that mean you know a lot about the exam?” she asked with a hopeful smile.

“Yes, I suppose it does,” Kabuto said with an embarrassed grin.

“More like he knows how to fail the exam,” Shikamaru observed in a bored tone. “If the exam is that difficult, it’s going to be even more troublesome.”

Kabuto seemed a little nonplussed about the abrupt dismissal, so he upped the ante. “Maybe I should give you kids some information then, with these recognition cards.”

Naruto tensed as Kabuto reached into his kunai pouch, but he only pulled out some orange and black cards.

“These have information I burned into them using my chakra,” he said. “I’ve collected information on this exam for the last four years on these two hundred cards. They appear blank, and cannot be read without my chakra.” He knelt down and began to turn one on the floor with an extended finger. After a moment, there was a soft pop and a cloud of smoke blew away from the card to reveal a map of the region. On the legend was a tally of the genin entered by each country participating in the exam.

As Kabuto began to hold forth on the purpose of the chuunin exams and how they help maintain the balance of power, Naruto was thinking. Why was this guy being so helpful? Was he a friend of one of their sensei’s? When he tried to look ‘underneath the underneath’ it made him a little uneasy. Others might accept a complete stranger helping them out of the goodness of his heart, but Naruto knew that happened pretty seldom – even in Konoha, which Kurenai said was often denigrated by other hidden villages for being ‘too soft’.

Naruto was wondering what, if anything, he should do about his half-formed suspicions when Sasuke spoke up for the first time. “Are there any cards that have detailed personal information?”

Kabuto admitted that they did, and Sasuke asked to see information on Rock Lee and Gaara, earning him a quick look from Naruto. It was a little rude to ask for information on Lee right in front of him, but Naruto wondered how Sasuke even knew Gaara’s name. Had he run into the boy as well? Or had his jonin warned him to stay away from the Suna genin at all costs? Naruto doubted Kurenai would have kept information to herself if it could potentially save the life of an ally… and Naruto had a feeling that anyone going after Sabaku no Gaara unprepared was risking everything.

Naruto wondered if he should add his own warning. But how could he reveal what he knew of Gaara without exposing himself? And would the arrogant Uchiha even believe him?

Thankfully, the sketchy information that Kabuto had regarding Gaara was enough to make anyone cautious. Completing a B-ranked mission as a genin was almost unheard of, going by Kabuto’s expression. The total lack of information regarding the foreign shinobi’s capabilities was also an effective warning. Concealed abilities were almost always more dangerous than known ones.

And never having been injured on a mission was downright scary.

To top things off on the anxiety scale, Kabuto then went into a big explanation of how five other villages sent their best genin to compete in this chuunin exam. To compete against a bunch of genin who’d only left the academy a few months ago.

Out of the corner of his eye, Naruto saw Hinata looking down. Even Rock Lee looked a little hesitant. Oh no, this would not do.

“Good!” Naruto said in a loud voice, making everyone around him jump. “If this was easy, then making chuunin would mean nothing. Strong opponents mean we get to really show what we can do! Right, Hinata?” He added the last while gently elbowing his teammate.

Hinata’s head shot up. “Hai!” she chirped, her cheeks already coloring.

Naruto gave her a warm smile that seemed to fluster her even worse and then turned to his other teammate. “Right Shino?”

Shino adjusted his glasses calmly, but Naruto thought he could detect a quiet buzzing coming from the Aburame boy. With his arm raised, Naruto noticed that the sleeves of his jacket were cut wider than normal. He had a strong suspicion there was more than just arm in there. “That is correct, Naruto,” Shino said, his voice a bit louder than usual.

“Good!” Naruto said. He then turned toward the nearest older genin, who, although they wore Konoha hitai-ite, seemed just as hostile as the foreign shinobi. “My name is Uzumaki Naruto, future Hokage of Konoha, and if you have a problem with me being here, form a line!” he roared.

The rest of the Rookie Nine and Team Gai were all staring at him incredulously. Ino asked him what the hell he thought he was doing, but he tuned them all out. His attention was on two things. The first was the small smile of approval Hinata gave him. The second was the pair of genin with Hidden Sound hitai-ite making their way toward the group of Konoha-nin at high speed.

The two Sound males appeared to be setting up a combo attack on Kabuto. Even if the older genin was a little patronizing, he was still a Konoha shinobi. As the skinny guy leapt over the crowd and sent a pair of throwing kunai at the silver-haired genin, Naruto was already in motion.

Grabbing a thrown kunai out of the air was usually an iffy proposition, given how much of it was sharp and how little of it was safe to grab. But if he just deflected them, they were likely to hit one of the foreign genin and undoubtedly spark a general brawl. Fortunately, Naruto’s timing was just right and he was able to grab the handles of the kunai as his path crossed theirs. One sharp edge dug into the palm of his fingerless gloves, but didn’t penetrate. Of course, the quick motion of his arms made his body begin tumbling as it continued to fly toward the ceiling. With a wrenching twist, Naruto managed to get his feet to hit the ceiling first, and charged with chakra they held him there upside down.

The bulky Sound genin was still heading toward Kabuto, but without the thrown kunai backing his target up into the wall, the Sound genin had to alter his path to cut through the Konoha rookies. His arm was drawn back for a haymaker swing at the silver-haired genin when Shino stepped into the arc, his own forearm held vertical, the heel of his hand turned outward. The genin’s arm’s clashed with an audible clang, but surprisingly, Shino did not move an inch. The sound genin’s one visible eye glared at Shino, but the Aburame genius seemed completely unaffected.

“This is unseemly,” Shino said, as if he were discussing Naruto’s table manners at Ichiraku’s.

The sound genin’s eye narrowed and his other hand moved under his cloak.

“Please stop,” Hinata said softly as she appeared by Shino’s side, her palm extended, glowing with chakra, less than an inch from the bandages that covered most of the sound genin’s face.

The bulky genin froze in place, and then slowly straightened. Looking down from the ceiling, Naruto also saw Sasuke palm a pair of kunai, Kiba edging around for a better angle, Neji holding Lee back from the fight, and Shikamaru, of all people, standing there with a look of focused concentration on his face. The shadows cast by the overhead lights seemed to be pooled around the Nara boy’s feet.

The skinny sound genin landed next to his comrade. “Hidden Sound is not a minor village. And we don’t need to all gang up on someone to stop them, either,” he spat, glaring at the rookies.

Naruto released the chakra in his feet and jumped down from the ceiling behind the sound genin. To their credit, neither of them jumped at the sudden noise. With a smile he casually handed the kunai back to their owner, who was visibly seething.

“You speak of our greatest strength as a weakness,” Shino said urbanely. “I find myself pitying you.”

“And if either of you want a piece of me, the offer is still open,” Naruto said in a low voice. The lack of intensive physical training the last few days had left him fidgety and just a little irritable too.

Just then there was a loud explosion and smoke billowed from the front of the examination room. “Quiet down you punks!” a rough voice bellowed.

When the smoke dissipated Naruto saw a tall scar-faced man sporting a Konoha hitai-ite and a black trenchcoat. Flanking him was a squad of chuunin dressed in proctor’s uniforms, including the two clowns he’d uncovered earlier.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” the man, who appeared to be a special jonin of some sort, continued in a smoother voice. “I am the examiner of the first test of the Chuunin Selection Exam, Morino Ibiki.”

Author’s notes:

I’d like to thank both the genius that is Runsamok and the incredible and decidedly insane Bibliophile20 for their absolutely wonderful beta work. They made me add this *grin*,

Before you ask, the ‘preliminary exams’ in canon didn’t happen because Iruka wasn’t at the meeting to protest the Rookie Nine being entered in the chuunin exam.

And a trio of affirmatives today…

Yes, I’m back. Some of this was surprisingly hard to put together, and real life (which is highly overrated) wasn’t very cooperative at all. Yes things are a little different than the canon scenes, but I’m sure if you look at everything you will realize why.

Yes, the title of this chapter is an intentional pun. “My Dinner with Andre” was a movie released back in 1981.

And yes, I’m including the Team 8 Omake winners from the contest on my blog. (Link is in my profile.)

The winner is Wolfgang Beulen, who wrote a scene that seemed to match the narrative tone of Team 8 the best.

Among the shinobi of Konoha, most tended to have rather clear and defined images of their fellow ninja, sometimes even to the point were a person was defined by the very same picture people had of her, in lieu of what she really was like. It was so common, in fact, that the few ninja who knew better could not help but to shake their heads and ask themselves what had become of 'looking underneath the underneath'. Especially when there were more than just a few cases, with some of them being of village-wide renown.

Uzumaki Naruto, of course, was a prime example, with the image of a goofy, orange-clad prankster so deeply ingrained in people's minds that few could even start to imagine him as a solemn and capable ninja. The hyperactive Mitarashi Anko was another surprise, when people heard about her interest in tea ceremonies and tried to envision her wearing a traditional kimono and partaking in such a formal and ritualistic event.

Others were of far less renown, like Inuzuka Tsume. With her feral look caused by her facial tattoos, shaggy hair, and her pronounced canines, it was easy to envision her on a battlefield, tearing some enemy limb from limb with her dog companion Kuromaru at her side. Some people even went as far as picturing her how she tore out someone's throat with her bare teeth.

The thought of her as a loving mother and housewife seemed pretty ridiculous in comparison. Therefore, more than just a few people would have stopped dead in their tracks and make a double-take at the sight of the Inuzuka woman wearing a green apron in front her kitchen's hearth and cooking a meal. Two meals, in fact; one for her son, and another one for Akamaru.

Originally, she had intended this as a small celebration of her son's first C-rank mission's completion. And while this hadn't exactly changed, it now had the added purpose of lifting Kiba's spirits a bit, and distracting him from the mission's sad outcome.

"How much longer, mom?"

"Just a few minutes. And the more you ask, the longer it'll be," she replied. As far as it seemed, her distraction was working. After recounting his tale of the mission, Kiba was now fully concentrated on the fact that his mother was preparing the favorite foods of both him and Akamaru and played impatiently with his chopsticks.

In the meanwhile, the small white dog was still busy relaying his own point of view on the events to Kuromaru, who interjected at several points with questions or comments of his own. The result was a conversation that consisted of innumerable low barks, yips, growls, and similar sounds only an Inuzuka would be able to decipher. Right now, though, Kiba was too preoccupied with his meal, and Tsume only listened halfheartedly as she checked the pot with Akamaru's food.

"How's your team coming along after this?"

"Sasuke's trying to act like a cold and indifferent jerk," Kiba began and added a muttered 'as always' under his breath before he continued. "But I can tell that it's bothering him. Sakura said that he expects a lot from himself, so he's probably both angry and disappointed that it didn't went very well.

"And Sakura... well, she's very down as well. Even more than Sasuke, in fact."

"How come?" Although she was busy preparing the meal, her question was proof that she still paid attention to her son.

He paused to scratch his cheek while thinking of an answer. In the background, he could hear Akamaru's and Kuromaru's chatter, without really listening to them.

"I think she's pretty disappointed in herself, even more so then Sasuke. Most of the time, she couldn't do much beside covering Tazuna-san. Sasuke, Kakashi-sensei and I handled the fighting against the enemy ninja. I guess she might've felt... well, useless.. And maybe she's disappointed in Sasuke as well. Or rather, in the fact that he didn't live up to the image she had of him." He shrugged.

"She tries to cover her worries by behaving as violent and aggressive as usual, though. She's not unlike sis in that manner. Don't tell her I said that, though..."

"Tell what to whom?"

Upon hearing the voice of his very own sister as she entered the room, Kiba shot a pleading glance towards his mother. Tsume just gave him a smile. "Nothing. Just that both you and Sakura are violent and aggressive."

Chuckling to herself she returned her attention toward the food she prepared and listened to the squabble between her two children that ensued. It ended soon enough, as this kind of fight often did, and she finally got the opportunity to put the meal on the table. She noticed that Akamaru was still busy telling his story to Kuromaru, though he seemed to slowly reach the end.

"It seems this year's got some strong and interesting pups," Kuromaru mentioned in the human tongue as soon as Akamaru had finished his story. Turning towards his partner, he was met with a questioning look. "Kiba and his pack, now, and the pack we met on the hunt a few days ago," he elaborated in response.

Tsume spent a few moments searching through her memory before her eyes lit up in understanding. "Ah, you mean Kurenai's team."

Kiba stopped in his meal to throw his mother a questioning look. "Naruto, Hinata, 'n Shino? I met them on the way back. What's with them?"

"They were on a border patrol mission just a few days ago and we ran into them during a rescue mission. Didn't they tell you?" She asked with her eyebrows raised in surprise. From what she had heard about them from Kiba's school stories, she would have expected for Naruto to brag about the events, at least. Shrugging slightly, she began to fill in Kiba on what happened.

"Three missing-nin of B- to A-rank kidnapped two inhabitants of our village and escaped toward the border that Kurenai's team patrolled. They intercepted the missing-nin and defeated them shortly before the rescue team that I was a part of arrived. I don't know the details, but Naruto killed at least one of them."

"Naruto killed one of them?" Kiba asked in disbelief with such a funny face that Tsume couldn't help but let out a bark of laughter that was joined by her daughter.

"I wouldn't believe it, myself, if Kuromaru hadn't told me," Hana supported her mother's claim, although her attention was more focused on Akamaru. The exchange between her mother and little brother didn't interest her too much, since she already had heard the story from her mother a couple of days earlier. Instead she beckoned the white dog to come to her and bribed him with a few pieces of meat from her food to tell her about the mission he and Kiba just had returned from. Although he had his very own meal, the prospect of some extra food made him happy to comply.

"He smelt of fresh blood," Kuromaru explained in the meantime to Kiba. As he opened his mouth, probably for some sort of protest, the canine interjected. "Human blood." Apparently, the black dog wasn't too pleased with the fact that Kiba wanted to doubt either his nose, or his statement.

"I guess you'll have to ask them yourself, if you want the whole story. We had to return to Konoha immediately after retrieving the two kidnappees from Kurenai's team. I hadn't even the time to taste out the cooking of the Hyuuga girl." The last sentence Tsume muttered more to herself than to her son. Damn that Hiashi. Who would've been hurt if they had stayed and rested for a night, or a few hours at least? Hinata had seemed like she did her very best to prepare a good meal for them, and from the appetizing look and smell it had had, she had done a damn good job at it. Somehow, it seemed like Hiashi went out of his way to make his daughter feel miserable, which was something Tsume couldn't even begin to wrap her head around.

Meanwhile, Kiba stared down at his meal with a mixture of emotions. Disbelief and anger were the prevalent ones, with a good deal of confusion thrown in as well. He and Sasuke had fought and bled and cursed together just to bring down a single enemy nin, whereas Naruto managed not only to defeat one as well, but completely on his own if what Kuromaru had told him was true. That just couldn't be right; after all Naruto hat been a complete looser at the academy.

As the moments passed, however, Kiba noted something entirely different; the fact that the Naruto now seemed different from the one he remembered from the Academy. When he met him today, he didn't brag about it like he should have without hesitation. And if he remembered the clash at the ramen bar correctly, Naruto didn't shout or scream at that time, either, and just left instead. Kiba wasn't sure what to make of all this, besides asking himself the obvious question 'How much did you change exactly, Naruto?'

And the runner up is Alle, who offered an intriguing look into the life of an Inuzuka…

Inuzuka Kiba couldn't help a relieved smile as the delicious smells of meat stew and fresh leather--home--hit his nostrils. Comfortably snuggled into what was left of Kiba's jacket, Akamaru yowled sleepily, keeping his eyes closed. Kiba shared his companion's sentiment. He felt thrashed, not that he'd ever admit it. He envisioned a warm meal, and then a warmer bed, and he couldn't decide whether he was more hungry or tired.

Kiba approached the cottage from the direction of the wind, letting it announce his arrival. He knew, from a previous unfortunate experience involving night-time, a bet, and sake, that there was no way to creep past his family's noses and ears. Even if he could fool his sisters and the dogs, which in itself was no small feat, his mother or father would always know. Passing the last tree, he brushed his shoulder against it, leaving his mark while taking in his family's. His mother was home, the tree's scents told him; his sisters were home earlier that morning. His father's trace was fainter than he remembered: still away, probably in the latest long range mission with his hunter-nin uncles.

As he entered the dining room, his gaze was drawn to the steaming bowl on the table, then to the left, where his mother Inuzuka Tsume was putting the finishing touches on a familiar-looking, brand new piece of leatherwork. A smaller bowl was on the floor under his chair, and immediately Akamaru's head popped up from Kiba's collar and he struggled to break free. They both sat down before their meal.

"Welcome back, pup", Tsume said, as she embraced him from behind. Kiba grunted gratefully, engrossed in the wonderful waft coming from the soup. Tsume smiled and nudged his back, letting him know that he should tuck in. For the few seconds it took the pair to devour dinner, the room was silent. Then Tsume refilled their plates and sat down as well. "How did it go?"

Kiba mumbled "Fine." and paused between mouthfuls, looking back at the mission to find something he should say to quickly sum it up. For some reason, the image of his bed kept popping up in his mind. When he found something suitably impressive, he started gesturing and talking: "Akamaru was amazing! You should have seen it... When a missing-nin was distracted he chomped on his leg, and kept him still so Sasuke-chibi and I could nail him good!"

Tsume raised an eyebrow, saying nothing. The senbon holes, and the smells of blood from Kiba's ruined clothes, still present even after his washing them, told of a brutal fight. There was her son's blood, far too much of it for her comfort, and she smelled his teammates, and Akamaru and someone else as well. At that time she wasn't feeling particularly impressed with Kakashi's judgment. She reached down and lifted Akamaru up, closely examining his bruised body. "Good boy", she simply said, then she touched his muzzle with her nose and gave a good lick at his collar. Akamaru panted in adoration at what amounted to highest praise, then shot towards the kennel, eager to show off the pack leader's scent to his brothers and sisters. "I feel neglected now," Kiba joked, pouting and Tsume smirked at him. "See if that jacket fits you then", she said, pointing at her handiwork from before. Kiba couldn't suppress a grin as he passed his hand over the perfect fur. "Thanks, mum. I'll try to make this one last longer."

Tsume considered letting her son rest. He seemed oddly subdued, which spoke of exhaustion, certainly, but what if there was something more? She took in his appearance, and made a decision. "Tell me everything." 

Kiba sighed.

As he told her the full story, properly embellishing his own contribution, Kiba could detect his mother's alternating tension and relief, just as he knew she would sense his own elation and excitement. There were very little secrets in the Inuzuka clan. When both you and your family could easily smell strong emotions such as anger and fear and embarrassment, being anything less than straightforward was just futile. Which suited Kiba's character just fine, thank you very much, and in fact had had a big part in forming such character in the first place.

"...and then we got back," Kiba concluded. Tsume got up and absently refilled his bowl a third time. Her son looked at her expression and some of it suddenly made sense. "Is Kakashi-sensei in trouble?" he asked. She laughed and said: "We'll see", which Kiba correctly interpreted as a resounding 'yes'. Then Tsume got serious and asked, "When you found out the Leaf had been tricked into accepting the mission, you were given the choice to return. Why didn't you?"

Kiba thought about what to say. The largest part of it, he knew, was that Inuzuka Kiba does not turn back from danger, especially not when his two teammates jump into the thick of it without hesitation. Such a revelation, he suspected, wouldn't go down well with his mother. But as he pondered more, he discovered another truth that he'd always known, just never recognized. And it did sound loads better. "That village that lied to us... They really needed our help, mum."

Tsume didn't look at him then, but he didn't need her to. Just seeing her shoulders relax, Kiba immediately knew he had said just the right thing, and could imagine her lips had that light smile she made when she was either happy or proud, or both. And he thought: 'Off the hook! Go me! Bed, here I come!'

It wasn't to be. Still looking away, Tsume said, "Kiba... What does your father tell you, is the best thing about the Inuzuka clan?"

Kiba grinned. "That we can smell when a girl is in-Ow! MUM!"

Tsume put the kettle back in the cupboard. "The other thing."

Kiba felt the growing lump on his head, grumbling. "Should've specified. It's... It's that every Inuzuka knows his place in the pack." He cleared his throat and tried imitating his father's gruff voice. "It's not your nose, cub, but patience that is the key to tracking. The most powerful combat technique in the world is the wait-until-your-opponent-is-asleep jutsu. And never, ever forget your place in the pack."

Tsume nodded. "Glad you listened to that. Go on." She kept looking at him, and when Kiba didn't add anything and just stared dumbly, she sighed.

Kiba was trying his best to look thoughtful, but this was quickly turning into the kind of girly conversation that normally had him running for his life. However, he was also well aware of the fact that Inuzuka Tsume would not be deterred by anything, much less her son's utter lack of interest. He had to show an effort before his eventual escape.

"Let me tell you something", Tsume said eventually. "While you were on your mission, three missing-nins came to our village and kidnapped a Hyuuga child and the Hokage's grandson. I took Kuromaru with me and we lead the pursuit. The tracks showed they were running for the border, probably would've made it across before we got them, but they were intercepted by a few of your classmates. It was Kurenai Yuuhi's team."

Tsume knew she had her son's attention then. "Aburame, Hyuuga... and Uzumaki?" he asked. She nodded, and Kiba scoffed. "Well that's probably why they seemed so down when I saw them, earlier today. They must've gotten their asses kicked pretty bad."

Tsume arched her eyebrow. "Actually, when we arrived, the hostages had already been rescued and all missing-nins were dead. And those three guys weren't exactly pushovers either. From what I gathered, the Aburame and Hyuuga kids were in trouble early in the fight. The last enemy was killed by Kurenai after Uzumaki had dispatched the first two."

Before his mission in Water Country, Kiba would have protested loudly by this time, that he knew how Uzumaki Naruto was a next to useless ninja, and the only jutsu he'd mastered, only made things worse by creating even more useless ninjas. Now, however, Kiba couldn't help but remember Naruto's somber expression, while finding a disturbingly similar feeling resonating in him. Naruto's wasn't the look of failure; it was the look of success, right after you got a glimpse of
the attached price tag. While frantically trying to stamp down on his newfound respect for the fellow genin, Kiba realized that his mother hadn't stopped talking... And he hadn't been listening.

"...and that cute kid even prepared dinner for all of us. I was impressed. So, Kiba", Tsume finished sagely, "Kurenai's team is a good pack."

Kiba nodded mutely, perfectly aware that there was something important his mother had been trying to convey, that had passed miles above his head. As he got up and reached his bed, he had an uncharacteristic buzzing in his head, which only grew louder as his body shut down.

It wasn't making sense. Kiba openly admired his parents. He loved being an Inuzuka and the huge world of sensation his blood and training opened for him. But he knew his role in Team Seven, and it was nothing like Naruto's. He was the tracker, he would warn the others about danger, and Akamaru and him were handy in a fight. One day he would be just as strong as his father, which was more than enough to get things done. And that was it. All Naruto did was...  Well, be loud and obnoxious and eat ramen.

And he'd killed two missing-nins. Big deal. After Hyuuga and Aburame had been taken out, his mother said.

It dawned on him right then, at the edge of sleep.

It wasn't about fighting or anything else. What Naruto had done, was protect his teammates. That was Naruto's place in the pack. "The same as mine", he whispered. Inspired by his discovery, he turned it around in his head. Did he like it? Was it enough for him? Was it worth the trouble? Would it matter if his worth was recognized or not?

Unbidden, images from the previous days came to mind. Kiba wondered at Sasuke's expression of triumph as those weird things appeared in his eyes, and he could suddenly see into the future. Kiba figured the future wasn't a happy place. Then Kiba stared at Sakura's tear-stained face as she broke down crying and hugged them both, her arms painfully constricting their necks, right after the tragedy on the bridge. Girl had muscles.

Yeah, Kiba decided; it will have to do. He would keep his pack safe.

After all, they wouldn't stand a chance without him.

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