Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...
Naruto stared down at his paper, holding his head in his hands. The rules, as explained by the scarred special jonin, were pretty straightforward. The teams were split up into randomly-assigned seats before the test papers were passed out. Everyone started with ten points, but wrong answers cost a point for each question. Getting caught cheating cost you two points every time you were caught. Run out of points and get removed from the exam. Simple, right? Oh, and if you get a zero your teammates fail as well… Just answer the questions and don’t cheat, right?
Except for the fact that Uzumaki Naruto was abysmally bad with written tests. They were the bane of his existence at the Konoha Ninja Academy. Practical exercises were different. He failed a lot of those too, but at least there was a chance. Sometimes he could figure out a way to succeed, or work around the rules. Like with the kunai-throwing examination – Iruka hadn’t specifically forbidden him to use an explosive tag, and the bull’s-eye was certainly destroyed, even if he’d struck the target three inches to the left of center…
But a written test… there was only one way to answer them correctly. No way to distract the examiner and move the starting line. And only one correct way to actually do the problem. No room for creativity at all.
A drop of sweat rolled down Naruto’s forehead and traced a path down his nose. He rubbed at it irritably. At least the first question wasn’t multiple-choice. The parabola, B, represents a shuriken’s path after being thrown by an enemy ninja from a height of seven meters. Calculate the strength of the enemy ninja that can be observed from the trajectory followed by the shuriken and figure out the maximum throwing distance on flat ground. Explain your reasoning.
Oh crap, he thought with horror, it’s even worse - they want me to do math!
Hinata leaned forward with her eyes closed, appearing to be lost in thought to an outside observer. This motion also caused her short hair to hang slightly forward along the sides of her face, as her hands moved under the desk. She oh so carefully twisted her concealed fingers into the seals that would activate her family blood-limit, whispering “Byakugan” in a ghost of a whisper. Her chakra flow was so slow, and so controlled, that the students on either side of her didn’t even look up. The bulging veins on her temples were now concealed by her hair, so she gave no outward sign as her closed eyes scanned the papers of nearby candidates. If she was going to cheat, as this test seemed to require, she was determined not to get caught.
Finding one who seemed to have filled out most of his test, she began memorizing his answers. Everything was going according to plan. She’d hoped when they began assigning seats that she’d be able to sit near Naruto-kun, but of course the ‘random’ assignments would be altered to separate teammates. Much as she wished she could help her friends, she was confident that they would find some way to succeed.
Shino nodded slightly as his spy returned. A specially-bred subspecies of kikai, it had extremely well-developed compound eyes to assist with reconnaissance missions.
Unfortunately, its brain wasn’t quite as well-developed. Though he could communicate with it easily by using one of his attuned queens, its conversational skills were as underdeveloped as those of his teammate when contemplating hot ramen. In addition, the flying insect’s memory was only sufficient to memorize a single answer at a time.
Though tedious to use, it was effective nonetheless. He only hoped that his teammates were also finding ways to succeed. A single zero would bar the entire team from progressing.
Naruto sweated as he looked over the other test questions. None of them looked particularly easy. Most of them he felt he could eventually puzzle out given unlimited time or access to the right books, but he had neither at the moment.
Why is this test so freaking hard? He asked himself, grinding his teeth in frustration. I don’t think anyone in my class, except maybe Sakura, could answer all of these in time! Why did they even let us take this test? We’re not going to get any experience if we fail in the first hour!
That gave him pause, and Naruto’s face went blank as he pondered this. Kurenai-sensei wouldn’t put them into this situation if it was impossible, so there had to be a way around it. He went over the rules again, how the points were awarded and how points were deducted if you were caught cheating. Funny how lenient that was. Iruka-sensei would kick you out of the classroom if he caught you cheating on one of his tests.
Naruto’s eyes narrowed. Why is this test so hard, but easier on that one aspect. It’s almost like they want to encourage… I’m an idiot. This is a Shinobi Rank Exam. They want to see how sneaky we can be.
Right at that moment, one of the proctors called out a number, making Naruto jump in his seat. “Number 52, you fail,” he said in a bored tone. “17 and 43, you can follow your teammate out into the hall.” Naruto glanced over at the chuunin as the angry genin filed out of the room. The predatory gleam in the older shinobi’s eyes held a hint of triumph, but no anger or outrage.
His suspicions were correct. The chuunin proctors were his real opponents.
As more teams were eliminated, Naruto began to sweat harder. He needed to find the answers, but he kept his eyes on his own paper. Those proctors were not messing around!
It wasn’t until one of the shinobi wearing a Suna marker and lots of face paint asked to be excused that he got some inspiration. Less than a minute later, Naruto had the rough outlines of a plan worked out. He just wished he had Shino handy to look for flaws…
“What is it, twenty-three?” the young-looking proctor on his row said when Naruto raised his hand.
“I, uh, need to go to the bathroom too,” Naruto stammered. He grimaced and held his stomach. “I think I drank some bad milk,” he added.
The proctor didn’t react, other than to smoothly rise to his feet and gesture for Naruto to follow. Naruto wisely kept his eyes down for the most part, but out of the corner of his eye he saw Sakura look up, eyes widening in surprise, as they walked past.
In a quiet voice, the proctor directed him to go to down the stairs to second floor, before proceeding down the hall. Naruto guessed that they wanted to make sure he and that Suna-nin didn’t come into contact. That was fine with him, if he was with Sabaku no Gaara, he was at least dangerous by proxy.
But to Naruto’s dismay, the proctor followed him into the bathroom, standing beside the sinks. Naruto clutched his stomach again and ducked into one of the stalls. Aware that the chuunin could see under the stall doors, Naruto dropped his trousers and sat down. He also pushed up the jacket sleeve on his left arm leaving the skin of his forearm exposed. After pausing long enough to very carefully mold the chakra, he coughed loudly as his fingers formed the seals.
There was a loud pop, immediately supplemented by Naruto placing his mouth on his forearm and blowing hard. The noise was deafening in the enclosed space as mist billowed out under the stall door.
In a flash, Naruto fixed his sleeve and pulled his pants up. He flushed and opened the stall door and stepped out toward the sinks, in time to see the chuunin edging back from the smoke. “Gomen,” Naruto said as he quickly washed his hands, “definitely some bad milk, but I’m lucky it was just gas. Wouldn’t want to do that in the middle of the exam though.”
The chuunin didn’t say a word, but his steps as he led Naruto back to the examination room were a bit quicker than before, as if he was reluctant to let Naruto get too close.
No sooner did the sound of their footsteps fade within the bathroom then the other stall doors flew open and the three Narutos crouched on top of the toilets jumped out. Their faces screwed up in concentration as they made the seals with their hands and suddenly they were replaced by Umino Iruka, Maito Gai, and Yuuhi Kurenai.
The two faux jonin and the faux chunnin left the bathroom quickly, moving with purpose. But not before washing their hands, of course. It was fortunate that no one was on hand to wonder what the genjutsu mistress was doing in the male restroom.
Moving quickly across the rooftops of Konoha, the three clones descended on the library. They only had a handful of minutes to get the information Naruto needed and get it back to him. Luckily, each only needed to look up information for three or four questions, and Naruto had already given some thought on where to find the information. So while the Kurenai-clone was opening up a book on ciphers, looking for a match to the one seen on the exam, the Iruka-clone had a physics book open and was scratching down equations for the kunai problem and the Gai-clone was looking up the names of the founding kage for each village. Working independently, the kage bunshin found the answers, or most of the answers, within their allotted time and met up at the entrance to the library.
But as they made their way back to the building where the examination was being held, the final obstacle confronted them, one the original Naruto didn’t have enough information about to work out ahead of time. Their information was useless if they couldn’t get it to Naruto before the test was over.
With all the foreign shinobi, the building was heavily guarded, and getting out without speaking to someone was a lot easier than getting back in. The closest they could get without a risky encounter was a rooftop that had a view of the side windows to the examination room.
Using a well-polished forehead protector as a mirror, they tried to reflect the mid-day sun at an angle to catch Naruto’s eye. Using a signal code to transmit their information would be time-consuming, but it was better than nothing at all.
The only problem was the original Naruto’s determination to not get caught cheating. He never looked up enough for the light to catch his eye.
Unfortunately, their efforts did not go completely unnoticed.
“I can’t believe you three,” an annoyed-sounding voice spoke up behind them.
In spite of themselves, the three clones jumped guiltily and spun around. A Konoha shinobi with a cloth over his head and a senbon needle in the corner of his mouth was glaring at them. “I thought it was a little odd to hear about such young teams in the exam, but I never thought I’d find some of you cheating for your students. The Hokage is going to be very disappointed.”
The Kurenai-clone, realizing the man’s assumption, spoke up without thinking. “No don’t!” he pleaded, before he realized that he wasn’t acting anything at all like his cool and rational sensei. The thought of getting Kurenai-sensei in trouble with the Hokage had evidently short-circuited his common sense.
The other Shinobi picked up on this as well. “Okay, who the hell are you?” he demanded as senbon needles appeared between his curled fingers. When the clones didn’t immediately answer, he whipped his hands up and flung the needles at the imposters.
The clones tried to dodge the missiles. Often senbon were coated with drugs or poisons to disable the target, but given how much chakra they had left, the first hit would be fatal. But as they crouched down or threw themselves to the side, the Konoha Shinobi did a seal and the senbon seemed to multiply in mid-air. Each clone was punctured by one or more needles and exploded into a puff of smoke.
Naruto abruptly stiffened in his seat as his brain was suddenly flooded with information. That jerk! He cursed to himself, why did he have to interfere with… Wait! How do I know what happened to my clones? I wasn’t there…
His questions cut off as he abruptly realized that he had the information needed for the test now. He went back to the first question and began writing down the equations before he forgot them. There would be plenty of time to think about his clones when he wasn’t taking a test.
Naruto’s pencil moved frantically as he filled in the squares allotted for his answers. As he provided workable solutions to the first nine questions, the knot in his stomach slowly began to loosen. It was by no means perfect, but at least he’d been able to ‘show his work’ on all of them… a better showing than he’d ever made at the Konoha Ninja Academy.
Of course, all his nervous tension quickly returned when Ibiki’s voice jarred him out of his reverie, almost making him drop his pencil.
“Okay,” the scary-looking man barked, “I will now give the tenth problem!”
Naruto couldn’t help but glance at the clock. Indeed, forty-five minutes had passed since the beginning of the test. It had only felt like an eternity. This Ibiki guy really should be working at the Academy – he was perfect for that place.
His musings were cut short as the weird Suna shinobi finally returned from the bathroom, only to get a sarcastic remark from the examiner. Naruto wondered if the guy didn’t get enough fiber in his diet – he certainly looked dyspeptic enough as he returned to his seat.
“I will now explain,” the scar-faced man in the black trench coat continued. “This is… a hopeless rule. First, you are all going to choose if you wish to take this tenth problem or not.”
“Choose?” asked a blond kunoichi with a Suna hitai-ite worn loosely around her neck like Hinata. Despite her hairstyle, she was the most normal-looking person from Suna that he’d noticed so far.
“If you choose not to take it, your points will be reduced to zero,” Ibiki answered with a faint smile, “In other words, you will fail. Your two teammates will fail along with you.”
That statement, of course, sparked off a low rumble of muttered comments and denials from the remaining candidates. Naruto’s eyes narrowed. This couldn’t be that easy.
“And here is the other rule,” Ibiki continued, ignoring them all as he seemed to savor the moment. “If you choose to take it and you get it wrong, you will lose the privilege of taking the Chuunin Exam forever.”
Unsurprisingly, Inuzuka Kiba was the first to break the shocked silence. “What kind of dumb rule is that?” he demanded. “There are people here who have taken the Chuunin Exam in the past!” Of course, the boy’s indignant fury was not enhanced by the small white dog on his head punctuating his statement with two high-pitched barks.
Ibiki just laughed at that, a sound that seemed to send chills down Naruto’s back to gather in the pit of his stomach. “You were unlucky,” he said. “This year, I am the rule. That is why I give you the option of quitting. Those who are not confident can choose not to take it, and take the exam next year, or the year after that.” He chuckled again, and Naruto felt his jaw clench.
“Let us begin,” Ibiki said. “Those who will not be taking the tenth question, raise your hands. After we confirm your numbers, we will have you leave.”
After a long moment, the first hand went up from a seat near Naruto. An older-looking Konoha genin with a goatee and a pinched-looking face stood up. “I quit!” he said, looking like he was in pain, “I won’t take it!” The man apologized to his teammates as their numbers were called out as well, but the one Naruto could see didn’t seem to mind very much.
As he turned to watch them file out, he saw Hinata. She seemed to have shrunk down in her seat and her face had gone very pale. He tried to give her an encouraging smile, but her eyes seemed frantic with worry. That puzzled Naruto as he turned back around. Hinata didn’t seem to be that concerned with her rank, so much as becoming stronger so her father would appreciate her, the bastard, so why… then it hit him. His dream was to become Hokage, not hers. She was worried about him. Naruto frowned as he pondered this.
That first surrender seemed to open the floodgates as others raised their hands. After their numbers were called, each team filed silently out of the room. Some looked relieved, some looked angry… but to Naruto, the worst were the ones who filed out silently, their faces impassive masks. He wondered if those would remain shinobi much longer – he doubted those teams would remain intact for the next Chuunin Exam. How bad would it be, to fail the examination because one of your teammates lost… their nerve? Or chose to make the team fail so they didn’t personally risk being barred forever from Chuunin?
Naruto’s eyes narrowed as they focused on the chief examiner. He was playing with them, in some sick way. The man had a slight smile at the corner of his mouth. Seeing that, and remembering Hinata’s obvious distress made something inside of him snap. In a sick way, it was gratifying to have someone more concerned about his ambitions than their own, but she deserved a lot better than to be tormented for it. He couldn’t talk to her, and hand signals were not practical for this, so he’d have to do it indirectly.
Naruto vaulted onto his desk, taking care not to step on his test paper. He pointed accusingly at Ibiki and yelled, “This is a load of crap!”
The examining room went dead silent.
Hinata’s hand was twitching, about to be raised, when Naruto-kun’s voice rang out. She’d been engaged in a fierce internal debate in the short time since the terms of the tenth question had been explained. She didn’t want to see the end of Naruto’s ambitions occur in this stuffy classroom. It would crush him if he was forever limited to genin, and she didn’t ever want to see such a thing happen. For a moment she wondered if this whole examination had been constructed as a trap to trick Naruto into destroying his dreams. Once, she would never have thought people could be so cruel, but the more time she spent with Naruto, the more she saw how he was treated. There were adults in Konoha who wouldn’t hesitate to do something so cruel in an effort to avenge themselves on what they saw as the Kyuubi no Kitsune. She wasn’t sure if Naruto saw the trap laid before him or not… would it be up to her to save him from himself?
She’d darted a quick glance at Shino, but he seemed unperturbed by the situation. Not that he ever really showed any emotion when he was caught off guard. Her hand had been trembling from nervous tension when Naruto’s shouted accusation made her go rigid in her seat.
“Number twenty-three, what is your problem?” the examiner asked in a bored tone.
“Even if they gave you the authority to make such a rule,” Naruto growled, “do you think another village’s kage will cooperate and not allow their own genin to ever test again?”
“You seem awfully sure of that,” Ibiki said. “Are you willing to bet your future on that? This is a choice that will impact the rest of your life.”
Naruto put his fists on his hips and straightened up even more. Hinata’s breath caught in her throat. “I bet my life every time I go on a mission and I never give up – it’s my way of the ninja! And even if they did let you bar me forever, I’ll still get stronger and I’ll just be the first genin to become Hokage… and then I’ll fire your ass for making up stupid rules!”
With that, Hinata relaxed a little, because it was true. Naruto would not let them stop him from realizing his ambitions. She was wrong to have doubted him, even for a second. She was
wondering if she should get up on her desk as well, to show her support when the examiner spoke at last. “We’ll see if your gamble pays off, twenty-three. Now get off that desk before I
disqualify you immediately for insubordination!”
Naruto hopped back into his chair, but Hinata could still faintly feel the waves of killer intent coming from her teammate.
“For the rest of you, this is your last chance to leave before your fate is sealed,” the scar-faced examiner announced in a deep voice that made Hinata’s insides twist. She concentrated on the spike of anger that came from her friend. She would see it through with him, or not at all. As teammate, friend, or even the Chuunin guarding the door to his office… where he lead, she would follow… watching his back.
Ibiki-san waited, looking around the room. But Hinata didn’t think anyone else would leave after Naruto’s words.
And she was right.
“For the First Exam, everyone here… passes!”
Naruto stared at the examiner, wondering if he’d heard him correctly.
Sakura, surprisingly, was the first to ask the question they were all thinking. “Wait, what’s the meaning of that? We pass already? What about the tenth question?”
That lead to the one of the scariest things Naruto had ever seen… even worse than Gai and Lee singing karaoke of “I Got You, Babe!” at Lee’s celebration.
Morino Ibiki was laughing.
Not a sarcastic chuckle, either. A full-blown, mouth hanging open, belly laugh. “There was no such thing to begin with,” he explained with a wide smile that made Naruto want to reach for a kunai, “or you can call the choice you made the real tenth question.”
“So what were those previous nine problems?” the Suna Kunoichi asked in an annoyed tone. “It was all a waste!”
“No, it wasn’t,” Ibiki disagreed. “Those problems accomplished their purpose, testing each individual’s information gathering skills…”
As Ibiki explained how testing as a group just added to the tension, since people didn’t want to let their teams down, it just reinforced Naruto’s opinion that the man was a natural sadist… and that his guesses about the test had been correct. At least that was somewhat gratifying.
It wasn’t until the examiner removed the cloth covering the top of his head that Naruto was distracted from his musings. He had a similar cloth for concealing his bright hair color, but Ibiki’s was for a far different purpose.
“Information can have greater value than life at times, and in missions or on battlefields,” he said as everyone stared at the gouges and massive keloid scars that covered the top of his head, leaving no hair at all on the ruined scalp. “Information is paid for with the lives of people!”
“If you are detected acquiring information, the enemy can then account for that, making it far less useful. They may even use what you learned to lure your side into a trap,” Ibiki continued as he re-tied the cloth around the top of his head. “That can lead to a disaster for your team and your village. So we eliminated those that were not able to gather information without being caught.”
“But then what about that last question?” the Suna kunoichi asked, although this time in a much more subdued voice.
“That question was the main point of this exam,” Ibiki answered spreading his arms dramatically. “You were presented with a ‘do or die’ situation, being given the choice to go for the question or not… Look at it this way. You are a Chuunin, and your mission is to capture a secret document, but the opposition, their numbers, and their capabilities are unknown. There may be traps set up in advance by the enemy. Now… will you accept this mission or not? Just because your life and the lives of your teammates may be in danger, are you able to avoid dangerous missions? The answer is no.”
Naruto frowned, trying to reconcile this with what Kurenai-sensei had been telling him. She’d been awfully cautious about all the situations Team 8 seemed to get into… But she hadn’t turned down the border patrol mission, had she? And Kurenai-sensei had agreed that Hinata was right to lead them against the kidnappers. Maybe it was less avoiding dangerous missions than it was planning ahead and working to minimize those dangers?
“There are missions that carry heavy risks,” Ibiki continued, “but cannot be avoided. This is what we look for in a Chuunin, or squad leader. Those who cannot bet their lives in a critical situation… those who give up when given the chance because there is a next year, and let their minds be swayed over an uncertain future… They are fools with no determination who have no right to become a Chuunin. You are here because you gave the right answer for the tenth question, and you can deal with the difficulties you will face.”
Naruto blinked and swallowed.
“The first portion of the Chuunin Examination ends now,” Ibiki announced. “I wish you luck,” he concluded in a voice that sounded strangely sincere to Naruto.
Of course, this touching scene was utterly disrupted when a dark object exploded through the side windows in a hail of glass that narrowly missed the head examiner. Two kunai were thrown into the ceiling supporting the corners of the unfolding bundle of dark cloth. When the cloth finished unfolding behind the figure straightening up from her landing, it announced “Second Examiner, Mitarashi Anko is here” in kanji characters two feet tall.
To say the woman was dressed oddly, even by Konoha Shinobi standards, was to make a massive understatement. She wore a skin-tight metal mesh body suit that ended well above her knees, along with shin guards over her sandals, a very short miniskirt, and a tan, knee-length trench coat.
“Everyone, there’s no time to be happy!” She announced, “I am the Second Examiner, Mitarashi Anko.” As if they couldn’t read.
“Let’s go to the next exam!” she roared raising her fist into the air. “Follow me!”
The silence as all the genin stared at her was deafening.
“I don’t think they get you,” Ibiki said quietly as he stepped out from behind the hanging cloth.
She didn’t answer, but just frowned at the remaining candidates. “Ibiki,” she said out of the corner of her mouth, “why did you let so many pass? The First Exam must have been too soft.” She concluded with a glare.
“It looks like there are a lot of good students this time,” Ibiki said diplomatically, and Naruto had the impression that they’d known each other before the exams.
“Oh well,” she said. “I’m going to have to make more than half the teams fail in the next exam. I’m getting excited!”
Naruto swallowed. If anything, she was even weirder than Ibiki.
“I will explain the details tomorrow,” Anko announced. “We will go somewhere else, so ask your jounin sensei about the rally point and time. That is all. Dismissed.”
Several of the Konoha jonin-sensei were occupying an unused lounge at the Hokage’s tower. The space was normally a back-up ready room used when a full ANBU muster was called, something that almost never happened. But the seats were comfortable, there was an ashtray for Asuma, and talking amongst themselves gave the jonin something to do while their students were tested.
The fact that the Hokage always reserved the room for them, and that it was far away from the examination building, was surely just a coincidence.
Despite her intentions, Yuuhi Kurenai found herself on edge as she sat there, brooding about how her team would do… especially under a sadistic genius like Morino Ibiki.
She’d come to know Ibiki from her debriefing after the disaster that claimed the lives of her sensei and teammates. It was only later that she realized the significance of having a man of his talents in charge… but by that point she could view the circumstances dispassionately enough to understand.
When all but one member of a team was wiped out, it was natural that there should be some suspicions. Had she betrayed them? Was she a disguised infiltrator? Had she struck a deal with the attackers to spare her life?
Ibiki listened once to her fragmentary, disjointed description of what had happened. He asked her a few questions, and then sent her off to the hospital to have her wounds tended. He’d visited her there several times to check off various details in her story, but his face had not betrayed any signs of disbelief… or any other emotion.
It wasn’t until over a month later, when she’d had time to think about what had happened and gone looking for him, that she discovered he was the head of the ANBU Torture and Interrogation Unit. The realization that she’d been under suspicion when she returned was daunting, but it didn’t stop her from telling him of her own thoughts.
He’d stared at her for a long moment after she finished. His eyes flickered toward the seals painted on the walls and she realized that, with his door closed, his office was one of the few places in Konoha that guaranteed absolute privacy.
That’s when he agreed with her that the circumstances of the attack did not add up. Too much force had been used to gain too small an objective. There was something else at stake - that much was clear. He’d also cautioned her to keep her head down and her thoughts to herself until such time as she had iron-clad proof of her accusations, lest she be made to join her team in the afterlife.
Kurenai’s stomach was churning as she left that meeting, which Morino Ibiki had logged as the ‘final debriefing from aborted mission #2579-b’. It was gratifying that he’d taken her seriously – too many sexist fools would disregard the words of young kunoichi, regardless of her intelligence. It was a relief that such a professional agreed that something was going on here – she wasn’t just suffering from paranoid delusions triggered by her grief. But at the same time, his observations had chilled her. Whoever had set them up had access to resources and information to a degree that was frankly terrifying when she stopped to consider the implications. And this unknown party had demonstrated no compunctions about shedding blood to achieve their goal. Her future survival truly depended on her discretion.
She’d never felt so alone as she walked back to her family’s house. Fortunately they were out of town on a visit to one of her father’s suppliers in Wind Country when she’d returned to Konoha – at least she’d been able to spare her mother the worry of her only daughter being in the hospital. But any mistakes she made if she tried to pursue an investigation could cost them their lives as well… so she decided to wait until they returned and speak to them both.
A week later, a scroll arrived, detailing the fire that claimed her parents’ lives. At that point, Yuuhi Kurenai realized what being all alone really meant.
Kurenai shook her head, as if to clear it of unwanted memories, and glanced up at the clock. The test should be over by now. She glanced at the others sitting there. Kakashi was reading one of his little orange books, Gai was doing one-armed push-ups on the floor, and Asuma was smoking and trying to talk Gai into joining him in some elaborate betting pool regarding the exam results.
The door to the temporary waiting room opened and everyone looked up. However, instead of Ibiki with the test results, they saw two of the younger special-jonin, Gekko Hayate and Shiranui Genma. The latter stopped after entering the room and just started laughing for some strange reason.
“What’s so funny?” Asuma asked in a faintly belligerent tone.
Hayate just shook his head and elbowed Genma. “Sorry, but we have to ask. Have any of you left the lounge since the exam started?”
All four jonin shook their heads.
Hayate let out a sigh. “That’s what I thought,” he said.
By this time Genma had mastered his amusement and cocked his head, peering at them. It seemed to Kurenai that his attention was focused on her and Gai. “At least the henge were good likenesses,” he said after a moment.
“Excuse me?” Kurenai asked, narrowing her eyes.
Genma looked over at Hayate, who sighed and nodded. “I was assigned to patrolling near the examination building this afternoon,” Genma explained. “I caught three people on a rooftop trying to signal someone in the examination room. They appeared to be you and Gai-san, along with Umino Iruka, one of the Chuunin who teach at the Academy, but when I confronted them they didn’t act quite right.” Genma shook his head at that point. “I hit them with some poisoned senbon, but they just exploded… I’m pretty sure now that they were shadow clones. I stopped them, but we’re still wondering who did it.”
Kurenai shook her head. She knew of only one clone-user that would pick her, Gai, and Iruka as models. But what the hell was he thinking?
Kakashi looked up from his book. “Since the first exam is over now, did Ibiki-san use the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Impossible Task, or something even more devious and twisted on our students?”
Hayate looked puzzled at the question, but he answered the copy-ninja nonetheless. “I believe he went with the second option, with two of his confederates seeded into the examinees to copy from.”
At that point, Kakashi’s face twisted under his ever-present mask. It wasn’t until Kurenai noted the tilt in his visible eye that she realized he was smiling. “You’ve been had, Genma-san.”
“What do you mean?” Kurenai asked sharply.
“Do any of you regularly use Kage Bunshin no Jutsu?” Kakashi asked.
Everyone shook their heads.
Kakashi shrugged. “It’s not surprising; it takes a lot of chakra to summon a clone that will disappear the first time it’s hit. More than a few will tap my reserves, so it’s only useful in certain situations. One of the reasons it’s such a chakra drain is because you are molding enough chakra for it to have a physical presence, without a sustaining material to give it mass, like with Mizu Bunshin. Another reason is because the user is creating a faint impression of his consciousness on the bunshin, allowing it to think somewhat independently.”
Kurenai remembered working with Shino on the roof repairs, and carrying on a conversation with one of Naruto’s clones, thinking it was the original. “Does the degree of independent thought depend on the amount of chakra used to create the clone?” she asked curiously. It was odd, once you got Kakashi talking about the technical details of an advanced jutsu, how his goofball persona seemed to just fall away for a time.
“To a degree,” Kakashi agreed with a nod. “One side effect of the impression process is this: when a clone is dispelled, the knowledge and memories gained by this secondary consciousness will revert to the original.”
“So what you’re saying,” Asuma interrupted, crushing out his cigarette, “is the jutsu user will know everything the clone knows?”
“That’s right,” Kakashi said. “I remember the night we agreed on the team assignments, Iruka said something about Uzumaki Naruto mastering Kage Bunshin no Jutsu?”
Kurenai frowned. “Yes, and those were probably his clones. But from the way you described Ibiki’s strategy… I believe you called it ‘The Impossible Task’, and his use of confederates… the students were supposed to cheat to pass?”
Kakashi shrugged, but Hayate nodded slightly.
“It sounds like Naruto had enough time that night to learn a jounin-level technique,” Kakashi said with an obvious smirk under his mask, “but not enough time to read all the fine print. Otherwise his clones wouldn’t have been trying so hard to signal him… they could have just dispersed themselves to give him whatever information they had collected.”
“Wait!” Genma shouted, the ever-present senbon falling out of the corner of his mouth. “That means when I…”
“When you disrupted his clones, you helped them achieve their mission,” Kakashi said lightly. “I’m sure Kurenai-sama appreciates you helping her genin… maybe you should ask her out on a date?”
Kurenai glared at the infamous copy-ninja. “Do you really think you have enough traps guarding your ‘literature’ collection, Kakashi?”
Kakashi paled for a moment, but then nodded.
“If I hired my team for a C-rank mission to burn them all, it would be money well spent,” she replied. “Do you really want to bet all your little orange books against the deviousness of the most notorious prankster to ever graduate from the Academy? I must warn you, he’s been saving up – he even fooled me once with a genjutsu.”
Kakashi visibly swallowed and slowly shook his head.
Asuma grunted. “You fight dirty,” he said approvingly.
Kurenai just smiled at him.
At this point Genma was banging his head against the wall, while Hayate tried to console him. Gai finished his push-ups, but seemed to still have a lot of nervous energy. He jumped to his feet and began lecturing Kakashi about how he should never try to be ‘cool and hip’ toward Kurenai-san, a sensei who so obviously understood the power of youth… not noticing that Kakashi had his nose again buried in the book cradled protectively in his hands.
All the noise was starting to give Kurenai a headache, so she got up and began walking toward the door. As she reached out to open it, it moved aside on its own. Ibiki stood in the doorway, his face impassive but his dark eyes glittering as she stepped back to allow him entrance.
“Is that Uzumaki brat one of yours?” he asked without greeting.
Kurenai merely raised an eyebrow. His words betrayed more emotion than he usually allowed to show. “Yes. Yes, he is. What of it?”
“That’s what I thought,” he said as he handed her the test results. “Got your fingerprints all over him, so to speak. Got one of the highest scores without being observed cheating at all, my assistants are still trying to figure out how he did it.”
“He had some unwitting assistance,” Kurenai replied absently as her eyes flitted down the scoring summary. She smiled slightly. All of her genin had done well, exceptionally well in fact. She looked up at Ibiki, who was visibly glowering. “We just figured it out – you can ask Genma. Now what else happened?”
Ibiki sighed. “The last question was a gut-check, to see if they could commit in a high-stress situation. I told them that if they chose to answer the last question and failed, they could never take the exam again.”
Kurenai frowned. “That must have gone over well.”
“Well, it did the job. All the wimps were bailing out like rats leaving a sinking ship, when your genin jumps up on his desk and starts shouting at me,” Ibiki continued, scowling. “He tells me I don’t have the authority to declare such a rule, and if I did, he’d be the first genin to become Hokage and then he’d fire me.”
“Fire you?” Kurenai asked, going very still. When Asuma nudged her shoulder, she handed him the exam results, still maintaining iron-rigid self control.
“Yes,” Ibiki confirmed sarcastically. “I believe the exact words were ‘I’ll fire your ass for making up stupid rules!’.”
“I see,” Kurenai said as she carefully edged toward the doorway. “I’ll have a word with him immediately regarding his language,” she promised as she slipped out into the hallway.
If anyone in the room heard the sound of muffled feminine laughter receding down the hallway, they chose not to say anything about it.
To his credit, Naruto actually blushed at Moritake’s that evening when Kurenai questioned him regarding his words toward Morino Ibiki. It was clear he’d been overwrought when he’d confronted the special jonin, so she eventually let it pass. Overall, she was in far too good a mood to let anything minor spoil it. All three of her genin had tested out near the top of the group, even when counting only those who had passed. Though she would never say so aloud, Hinata and Shino doing well was only to be expected… but Uzumaki Naruto had never seemed to be much for scholastic excellence, or even subtlety. She hoped that Iruka took the opportunity to rub his colleagues’ noses in that fact when the scores were released to the Academy. Naruto’s use of kage bunshin had been inspired, even if it did indicate that he wasn’t fully aware of how they worked.
Not that she refrained from bringing that up when it was his turn to describe his tactics. The rosy blush that returned to his face more than made up for any embarrassment she’d suffered in the jonin lounge. On the other hand, it was gratifying to note that he’d already mostly figured out that aspect of kage bunshin on his own.
Moreover, she was cautiously optimistic regarding the confrontation between Naruto and Ibiki. Of course, the jonin had been irked at how… publicly… Naruto had called his bluff. But at worst, he’d only have to deal with some kidding from the other instructors. Out of anyone in Konoha, she was sure the head of the ANBU torture and interrogation squad could appreciate what had been done to Naruto, and respect the boy for not turning into a murderous beast. Even his comments earlier that day had been laced with grudging respect. Hopefully when the time came, he would regard defending Naruto from a faceless conspiracy to be in the best interests of Konohagakure.
As they finished their meal, Kurenai also couldn’t help but notice that Hinata had been even more quiet than usual. The pale eyed girl described her surreptitious use of the Byakugan in as few words as possible, looking down the whole time. She even looked uncomfortable when Naruto praised her for being ‘extra sneaky’.
After giving her students directions on how to reach the second examination, using a map of the Konoha training areas, Kurenai suggested that they go home early to pack their equipment and get as much rest as possible. But after she paid the bill, she followed her students out.
“Hinata, would you stay a moment?” she asked the Hyuuga girl in a voice that was little more than a whisper.
The girl nodded. As soon as Naruto and Shino were out of sight, Kurenai spoke again. “Now what’s bothering you?”
The young kunoichi looked even more uncomfortable, if that was possible. “A-ano, Kurenai-sensei… I am j-just disappointed in myself,” she said quietly.
Kurenai refrained from comment as she gestured for Hinata to follow her. After they both sat down on a bench not too far from Moritake’s entryway, she took a deep breath. Hyuuga Hiashi’s treatment of his daughter was atrocious, and every time she had to deal with the consequences, it became harder and harder to restrain her anger. “Please explain to me why you are disappointed, Hinata,” she asked in as gentle a voice as she could manage. “I have heard nothing tonight that you should not be proud of.”
“I’m sorry, sensei,” Hinata said in a miserable tone, “it was wrong of me to conceal my failures. But I didn’t want the others to know…” her voice trailed off. “To know how close I came to making us all fail,” she added rapidly, the words practically tripping over each other.
Kurenai frowned, trying to make sense of the girl’s words.
“During the tenth question…” she choked out. “I almost raised my hand. I couldn’t bear the thought of Naruto being limited to genin for the rest of his life. I know he isn’t stupid, but I thought maybe they’d introduced that rule because he was taking the test this year. So many people are cruel to him… I couldn’t bear the thought of… but I should have believed in him!” Hinata’s shoulders hitched as her words became fragmentary.
There were few people on the street in the early evening to witness the Hyuuga heir having a public breakdown, but nonetheless Kurenai quickly cast a simple genjutsu to conceal their identities. The last thing she wanted was word of this to reach the girl’s father. Then she stiffly leaned over and wrapped her arm around her student’s thin shoulders.
Hinata went utterly still for a moment, and Kurenai worried that she’d misread the girl’s psychological state. She was about to lift her arm when Hinata turned and wrapped her arms around Kurenai with surprising strength. The girl was shaking like a leaf, but Maito Gai’s weight training program had very noticeable results.
Kurenai swallowed the lump that tried to form in her throat. She’d long ago discarded any plans of settling down and raising a family, but moments like this made her question that decision. For other reasons, Hinata’s reaction made her scowl. She wondered how long had it been since anyone had comforted her in such a manner. Since her mother passed away?
When Hinata’s trembling began to ebb and her breathing returned to normal, Kurenai finally spoke up. “Hinata, I don’t see where you did anything wrong. You were concerned for your teammate, and were looking out for his best interests. When it was clear that he correctly assessed the risks and chose to continue, you went along with that. You have nothing to apologize for, either to me or to your teammates.”
Hinata let go of her sensei in order to look up in at her in confusion. Kurenai ignored the odd pang she felt as she let go as well. “But I would have made us fail,” Hinata protested in a small voice.
“But you didn’t,” Kurenai reminded her.
Hinata slowly shook her head. “Only because Naruto-kun stopped me,” she protested. “It was foolish of me to think people would go to all this trouble to make Naruto fail,” she continued.
Kurenai froze in place for a moment as she weighed the risks. It was only an instant, so she was mildly surprised when Hinata looked up at her. “Sensei?” the genin asked in a worried voice.
“Hinata,” Kurenai said, choosing her words carefully. “There is something you should know, but you are under no circumstances to discuss this with anyone besides myself. Do I make myself clear?”
Hinata nodded, eyes even wider than normal.
Kurenai glanced around. No one was nearby, but she quickly performed another genjutsu that would mask their words from any curious ears. “Your suspicions are not completely unfounded,” she told her student after a moment. “Between Shino, Iruka-sensei, and myself, we have uncovered signs that some people are acting in ways to hurt Naruto and prevent him from being accepted in the village. I don’t think they would be able to change the Chuunin Examination rules to accomplish this, but I am cautious about everything where Naruto is concerned.”
Hinata’s next words caught Kurenai completely off-balance. “Is my father involved?” she asked, tension visible in the trembling of her jaw.
“I don’t know,” was all Kurenai could say. She hadn’t anticipated Hinata making that connection so fast. “The head of the Hyuuga clan would have the influence to do some of the things we’ve uncovered, but that alone is not proof.”
Hinata’s eyes had gone very still, and seemed to bore into Kurenai’s as she spoke. “He asked me, after we returned from the border, about the fight with the kidnappers,” Hinata said.
Kurenai’s breath seemed to catch in her throat. If he knew that Naruto had drawn on the Kyuubi’s chakra, he could use that to…
“However,” Hinata continued, “I was unconscious for some of the battle and could not answer his questions. He seemed very disappointed.”
Now Kurenai finally recognized why Hinata’s eyes seemed to have unnerved her for an instant. Her student was angry. “Your discretion is highly appreciated, Hinata,” she said evenly as she remembered a discussion between her own parents that she’d overheard a year before she graduated from the Academy.
They’d just returned from the funeral of one of her father’s trading partners, one Hiroto Yasuri. He and his daughter Natsuki both died after eating a meal prepared with some wild mushrooms that turned out to have been highly poisonous. It was ruled to be an accident, but Kurenai’s parents didn’t believe it. The daughter had been thirty-nine at the time, an unusual age for a once attractive girl to remain unwed. It wasn’t however, for a lack of suitors. Her father had rejected the young men of the village who’d asked permission to court his daughter, hoping she would catch the eye of one of the nobility. He was extremely wealthy, but money couldn’t buy entry into the nobility of Fire Country, so his only option was through marriage. Unfortunately, his insistence that his daughter could only marry someone of that class had left her alone until her youth had fled. While many who knew the family felt bad about the situation, Natsuki never complained and never spoke about it… But she’d prepared the meal that claimed her and her father’s life.
Kurenai blinked, as she wondered what had stirred up that memory. As a shinobi of the Leaf, Hinata was not quite as constrained as Hiroto Natsuki had been. Perhaps it was the reminder that a meek and soft-spoken exterior could conceal surprising depths. It was a lesson she was sure that Hyuuga Hiashi had yet to learn.
Naruto made sure he arrived at Training Area Forty-Four at least an hour before the second exam was scheduled to begin. As it was, Shino was already there, and Hinata arrived at roughly the same time. After all the nervous tension of the first exam, and then unwinding at the celebratory dinner at Moritake’s, he’d fallen asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. Now, after sleeping far later than he was used to, he felt ready to take on the world.
Which was a good thing, given how some of the other examinees were eyeing him as they arrived at what signs announced was a ‘forbidden area’.
Shino was quiet as he paced back and forth, facing the fence that marked the boundaries of the training area. Naruto had never seen his friend, well, fidget like that before. He supposed that the seriousness of the situation was finally getting to the normally unflappable Aburame.
Serious or not, he doubted Shino would appreciate him commenting on his behavior, so Naruto stood next to Hinata and went through his mental checklist of the equipment he’d packed. The instructions relayed from Kurenai-sensei said to come prepared as they usually would be for a mission. Given that some of their missions were weeks long - that could mean a lot. Also, when he looked at sensei’s map of the training areas, Area Forty-Four, located at the northwest edge of the village and extending well out into Fire Country, was a circle twenty kilometers in diameter. That suggested that the second exam might last far longer that the first.
So he, and to a lesser extent Hinata, had packed heavily for this ‘mission’. The chakra-enhanced training weights on their wrists and ankles could always be adjusted to make up the extra weight. While doing this slightly changed their balance, they had adjusted by the time they reached the training area.
Hinata left the normal bag she carried around Konoha at home, and instead wore a full-sized backpack over her jacket. Naruto’s pack was slightly oversized for his height, but was strapped on tightly and didn’t interfere with his movements. He’d even tested this by wearing it during a sparring match with Lee the day after he’d purchased it from TenTen’s father. The fabric directly over his back concealed a thin layer of metal links between it and the lining. It might not stop a kunai, but it could slow one down.
He also wore both kunai holsters and equipment pouches today. Some of the other genin looked at him curiously as they arrived, but others looked thoughtful or worried. He wondered briefly if they thought he had some inside information about the next stage, but it wasn’t like they couldn’t make the same deductions his team had.
He scowled for a moment. He was starting to sound like Shikamaru. Next thing he knew he’d be lying on his back, staring up at the sky and calling his teammates ‘troublesome’.
He glanced over at Hinata. Truth be told, if he’d been stuck with Ino, it would have been troublesome. There was no doubt in his mind regarding which kunoichi he’d rather have backing him up. His mind wandered back to his former crush on Sakura, and he was surprised that his lingering anger and disappointment were gone. Perhaps talking with Lee had helped himself as well.
“Hey Hinata?” he asked quietly.
Hinata jumped a little, but quickly turned toward him.
“Do you think we might have forgotten anything?” he asked.
Hinata shook her head. “I went over my list three times last night before I went to bed. I checked it again this morning.”
Naruto nodded. “I checked too, but I think I might have forgotten something.”
Hinata shook her head again. “I don’t think you’d-“
He smiled at her. “When I get excited, I sometimes forget the little things. You’re more… what did Kurenai-sensei call it? Detail-oriented?”
Hinata blushed and looked down. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just get worried about forgetting something, so I tend to go over things compulsively.”
Naruto frowned at her. “I think it’s a good thing that you do. We’d probably screw up a lot more if you weren’t looking out for us.”
“Shino-kun is very careful with –“ she objected, her cheeks coloring slightly.
“Okay,” Naruto capitulated with a grin. “I would probably screw up a lot more if you weren’t looking out for me.”
This time an unmistakable blush spread over her face, giving Naruto an odd sense of satisfaction. He’d been giving this a lot of thought. Kurenai-sensei wouldn’t say exactly what was going on with Hinata, but she’d hinted a lot. Remembering how he’d felt when Kurenai complimented him on something… acknowledging that he’d done something praiseworthy… he’d started to understand why Hinata seemed so flustered and embarrassed when he tried to compliment her.
The problem was, he could understand why he was so unused to praise. But what reasons could there be for Hyuuga Hinata, heir and member of main family of one of the most prestigious clans in Konoha? That wasn’t something he’d figured out yet, and sometimes he wondered if he really wanted to know. But in the meantime, he could build these elaborate traps out of words, maneuvering Hinata-chan into accepting his words at face value. It was odd, of course, how she seemed to want to believe him, but still couldn’t… of course, that just added to the challenge didn’t it? And Uzumaki Naruto lived for challenges.
“Hinata,” he said suddenly. “Could you use your eyes to check me out?”
His teammate froze, her face turning even redder. “N-Naruto?” she choked out after a moment.
“I mean, with your Byakugan, you can see inside my backpack and see if I forgot anything,” he explained. “I don’t want to open it up and dump it out here in front of everyone,” he continued. “I don’t want anyone to see all the stuff I have packed.”
“O-oh,” Hinata said after a moment, as her face began to return to normal. “That makes sense, I suppose.” Her fingers quickly formed the seal for her bloodline ability. “Byakugan!” she murmured. A hint of red remained on her cheeks as she circled around Naruto. “I can’t see anything you missed,” she said quickly, as her attention drifted down to his weapon pouches and kunai holsters for a moment. She quickly spun away and her eyes went back to normal. Oddly, her cheeks were flaming again.
“You seem to have plenty of shuriken and kunai,” she said quietly, facing away from him. “Though you only packed one box of ration bars in your backpack. What if this takes more than a week?”
“That’s still in there?” Naruto asked in surprise. “I thought I’d decided to throw it away. I figured I can always eat some tree bark if I get hungry and can’t find anything else. It would taste better.” Maybe that would remind her of how much better her cooking tasted.
Hinata stifled a giggle at his comment. Unfortunately, her self-restraint wasn’t perfect, as an extremely unlady-like snort escaped from her nose. She froze, mortified, as Naruto burst out laughing.
He wasn’t trying to be cruel, but Uzumaki Naruto couldn’t help it. It wasn’t unheard of for someone to make an odd noise when muffling laughter, but to hear it come from his refined teammate was just priceless. The horrified look on her face just made it even funnier. It was a few moments before he could even stand up straight again. “Arigato, Hinata-san!” he said, bowing deeply before his embarrassed teammate.
“Naruto?” she asked, her curiosity seeming to override her embarrassment for the moment.
He gave her his widest smile. “Here I am, getting nervous about the exam, and wondering if I forgot something… and then you do something like that to distract me. You rock,
Hinata’s face paled dramatically, then gradually returned to normal, albeit with a slight pinkish cast to it. Naruto felt inordinately pleased. He’d done something right, even if he wasn’t sure what it was.
Shino finished his nervous pacing before too many of the other examinees arrived and stood next to them. Given some of the hateful looks they’d been given the previous day, Naruto preferred that they all stand together when around strangers. That wasn’t even taking into account what they knew about Sabaku no Gaara.
Of course, this Mitarashi Anko wasn’t exactly increasing his sense of security. He didn’t even notice her arriving, which was unnerving enough. Her words didn’t help either. “This is where the second exam will take place: the forty-fourth training area, also known as the Forest of Death,” she explained in a casual, yet creepy voice.
Some of the candidates murmured at that.
“You will soon be able to experience why this place is called the Forest of Death,” she continued happily. “But before we begin the Second Exam, I’m going to pass these out to everyone.” With that, she pulled a thick stack of official looking forms out of her trench coat. “These are consent forms. Those taking the exam must sign these.”
“Why?” several examinees asked.
“From here on, people will die,” she replied in a casual tone. “Therefore we need people’s consent before we continue. Otherwise, I’d be held accountable.” She ended with chuckle, but no one else seemed to find her words funny.
“Now, I will begin to explain the second exam,” she continued after a moment. “To be brief, this is going to be a survival test.” She handed the stack of forms to Hinata, who took one and handed the stack to Naruto, who took a pair for himself and Shino before handing the rest to Shikamaru.
“This area,” she explained as she unrolled a map she’d pulled out of her trench coat, “is a circular region surrounded by forty-four locked gates. In addition to rivers and forests, there is a tower in the middle. It’s around ten kilometers from any entrance to the tower. Inside this area you will have to fend for yourselves as you battle over these scrolls,” she explained, pulling two sealed scrolls from inside her trench coat as she replaced the map. Naruto wondered briefly if there was a jutsu that allowed her to carry so much stuff in it. The light-colored scroll displayed the kanji for ‘Heaven’, while the darker-colored one displayed the symbol for ‘Earth’.
“Twenty-eight teams passed the First Exam,” Anko explained. “Half of those teams will get the Heaven scroll. The other half will get the Earth scroll. Each team gets one scroll.”
“What is needed to pass?” Sasuke asked in a serious tone, making several people look around.
“Bring the Scrolls of Heaven and Earth to the tower with your teammates,” Anko answered.
“In other words, fourteen teams, half the people here, will get their scroll stolen and therefore fail,” Sakura said thoughtfully.
“It also needs to be done within the time limit,” Anko added. “This Second Exam has a time limit of one hundred twenty hours, or exactly five days.”
“Five days?” Ino asked, incredulous.
“What about food?” Chouji asked, horrified.
“Scrounge it up yourself,” Anko said in a dismissive tone, “This forest is a treasure box of nature. There should be plenty of food.” Naruto had a feeling that Team Ten hadn’t taken a look at a map, or realized the implications of the training area size, until now.
“However,” Kabuto added helpfully, “there are a lot of man-eating beasts, poison bugs, and poisonous plants.”
“Oh no!” Chouji murmured as Ino scolded him.
“This test seems quite difficult,” Lee said with a grin that made his teeth gleam. Neji gave him a dirty look while Tenten sighed.
“And we’re surrounded by enemies,” Sasuke added thoughtfully. “We won’t be able to sleep in peace.”
“People will get hurt in the process of fighting over the scrolls,” Anko said, “and those who cannot deal with the difficulties will be revealed.”
“So can we forfeit if that happens?” Shikamaru asked.
“As a rule, you are not allowed to give up during the exam,” Anko announced. “You will spend the full five days in the forest.”
“Just as I thought,” Shikamaru said with noticeable disgust in his voice. “How troublesome.”
“While we’re on this topic,” Anko continued, ignoring the Nara boy, “here are the conditions that will fail you. First, if you do not arrive at the tower with three teammates and both scrolls, you fail. Second, if your team loses a member, you automatically fail. Finally, you are not allowed to look inside the scrolls until you reach the tower.”
“What happens if we do?” Naruto asked curiously.
“Then you will get a surprise,” Anko promised with a nasty smile. “If you become a Chuunin you will be handling top secret documents. It’s a test of your reliability. That’s it for the explanations. We will exchange three signed consent forms for one scroll over in that hut.”
Naruto’s eyes looked where she was pointing, and saw it was manned by several Chuunin proctors, some of which he recognized from the previous day.
“After you are assigned a gate entrance,” Anko continued, “everyone will begin at the same time.” She sighed gustily. “Here’s a last piece of advice: Don’t die!”
Naruto’s eyes narrowed as he clenched his fists.
It took a few minutes for the chuunin proctors to set up a curtain around the hut where the forms were to be turned in. This gave them plenty of time to fill them out, with a little left over for Ino and Sakura to snub each other. Naruto stretched to get some of the tension out of his shoulders, and saw Lee doing some warm-ups. The two boys exchanged a nod. While their teams had a fifty-fifty chance of competing directly against each other, depending on how the scrolls were distributed, they wouldn’t forget Gai-sensei’s words either. The shinobi of the Leaf would stick together if the situation got out of hand and there was a chance of permanent harm.
When it was their turn, Team Eight moved silently behind the curtain. When the chuunin held out a Heaven scroll, both Hinata and Shino gestured toward Naruto. Naruto shrugged and silently removed his backpack, shoving the scroll all the way to the bottom before closing it and putting it back on. He was touched that his teammates wished to trust him with carrying their team’s scroll, and vowed not to let them down.
After all of the teams were done, Anko sent each team off with a chuunin to guide them to their assigned gates. It wasn’t long until they arrived at gate sixteen and waited for the chuunin guide to allow them inside. After consulting his chronometer, he unlocked the padlock and stepped aside.
In a flash the three of them were through the gate moving into the forest at high speed. The first chakra-assisted leap got them up into the canopy so they stopped leaving tracks on the ground. Hinata was between the two boys, and slightly in front, allowing for the best possible coverage with her all-seeing eyes.
Shino signaled danger ahead and to the right, so they smoothly veered to the left. At Hinata’s signal they came to a sudden halt on a thick bough that easily supported their combined weight.
“No one is in range of my eyes,” Hinata whispered.
“Good,” Naruto grunted. “Shino, what was that back there?”
“I saw signs of a large colony of Konoha Forest Leeches,” the Aburame answered. “I assumed you wanted to avoid them.” He paused. “I don’t sense any of the other teams near us,” he reported.
Naruto frowned. “How…?”
“I arrived early and seeded the grass in the meeting area with female kikai bugs,” Shino explained. “I believe that one or more members of every team have one riding on them now. And as you know, other members of my colonies can-“
“-smell them from a mile away,” Naruto finished, grinning. “Shino, you sneaky bastard!” he congratulated his teammate.
“As a reconnaissance team, it would be foolish not to play to our strengths,” Shino said as he readjusted his dark glasses.
Thanks to Runsamok and Bibliophile for their beta efforts!
If you want to know the progress on the next chapter, please visit the blog www.matthewschocke.com I have progress meters, the occasional article or announcement, and some short fiction that isn’t posted anywhere else.