Notes: Erg. Okay, so I thought we didn't know the date of the Chūnin Exam, but then I was looking up other stuff and I found out we DO know it—it started on July 1st. Which means my early birthday thing for Naruto doesn't work. So please just ignore canon and pretend the exam was actually in early October, okay?
On another note, Yoko's name is made up of the kanji for "sunshine child" not the bastardized "demon fox" that is also Yoko… the fact that it is a pun was intentional though.
It was the day of the Chūnin Exam. I met with my team at a fruit stand in the main market square for breakfast. They were both vibrating with nervous energy. If I was being honest, so was I.
"The first test is in the Academy," Sakura mused. "So maybe it's a written exam?"
"Or they're trying to trick us!" Naruto exclaimed. "All Kakashi-sensei said was to meet in room 301. The test might not actually be there."
"That's possible," I said because though I knew the first test was written, Naruto made a good point. "Building on that, whatever the test appears to be, there'll likely be a hidden meaning. We shouldn't take what the instructor says at face value."
I finished my fruit cup and rice last, because Sakura had gotten the slightly smaller order and Naruto always ate fast.
"Ready?" Sakura asked.
I nodded, pushing aside my unease. Nothing would happen until after the written portion. I would have some more time to plan—I hoped. My current plans were sketchy at best. There were so many variables to consider, as well as the uneasy possibility that I was forgetting something.
We headed to the Academy by jumping on the rooftops. Ever since Kakashi had taught us the combination of Body Flicker and Tree Walking required for roof hopping, we'd been using it as a means of transportation. The roof paths were much faster, after all, and it was so cool.
Landing at the base of the Academy, we walked a flight of stairs and reached the second floor only to find a bunch of the prospective chūnin hanging around. Judging by the needling some of them were doing at the chūnin guarding the room that said 301, I guessed the rest were just waiting around for the guards—Kotetsu and Izumo, I remembered—to move. Even if I hadn't remembered that this was a genjutsu, I feel like I would have known because it was only the second floor. The fact that no one else did was ridiculous.
Then again, there weren't that many people waiting in comparison to the number I was sure were going to take the exam. It was possible these were just the dredges who hadn't noticed the genjutsu or who wanted to watch the others make a fool of themselves before moving on.
I looked at Sakura, wondering if she'd noticed the genjutsu. She frowned for a moment at the sign, but seemed soon distracted by the sight of our former classmates.
"Forehead Girl!" Ino shouted, drawing everyone's attention to us.
I shifted so that I was just slightly behind Naruto, though still on his right. Sakura copied me subconsciously on his left. All our teamwork training had paid off, at least in our awareness of each other. I felt as though I would know where Sakura and Naruto were with my eyes closed and my hearing blocked. I just knew where they were in relation to me. Perhaps, I thought, I had just gotten that used to their chakra.
"Ino," Sakura said in a calm, mature tone.
Ino blinked several times. I noticed Shikamaru watching us. He, I knew, was taking our body language and positioning in at a rapid-fire pace. I wondered what conclusions he'd draw.
"You guys look different," Chōji said before taking another handful of chips and munching on them.
"And you guys… don't," Sakura said, looking from Team Ten to Team Eight. Indeed, our classmates looked practically the same from the day they'd gotten their team assignments.
"It's only been a few months," I reminded Sakura.
Sakura shrugged, adjusting the neat bun on her head absentmindedly. "Has it? It feels longer."
I wasn't surprised. Sakura, at least, was a completely different version of herself. In contrast, our classmates hadn't changed much.
"N-na-naruto," Hinata stuttered. "Y-y-you…" She trailed off, her face bright red as she stared at Naruto's new outfit.
"Hi there, Hinata!" Naruto said, smiling brightly.
That was too much for the girl. She fainted straight away. Kiba yelped and began to worriedly check his teammate over even as Shino hovered.
I sighed. She took that crush a little to far, I thought. What kind of ninja fainted because of a boy smiling at her? I wished someone would take the initiative to give her some confidence training. Maybe put her in charge of a couple missions. Kiba, however aggressive sometimes, was a puppy when it came to people he liked so he'd listen and Shino would likely do what his current commander said.
Still, they weren't my team and it would look strange for me to suggest that to Kurenai, probably.
"My youthful, eternal rival!" A very familiar voice shouted, waking Hinata up and startling the other watching genin.
I placed a fleeting hand on Naruto's shoulder to tell him not to worry and then side stepped the kick suddenly aimed at my face. In a flash, I used shunshin to teleport to the other side of the room and then rolled. Pulling my body above my hands, I did a helicopter kick—well it wasn't called that in this society but I couldn't think of it any other way—only to find my forefront foot blocked by a hand. I went flying and twisted like a cat so I'd land on my feet.
Lee grinned at me from the other side of the room. "Truly it is most fun to spar with you, my eternal rival!"
"Hello, Lee," I said with an obvious sigh in my voice. "It's been a few months."
Lee struck his good-guy pose. "Now that my eternal rival is a genin like I, we shall have even more youthful and vigorous fights and challenges!"
"Sasuke?" Sakura asked.
"Do you remember the weird jōnin in green who crashed our practice a week ago and challenged Kakashi-sensei to a hand-walking contest?" I asked.
Naruto and Sakura nodded.
"That was Maito Gai, this guy's sensei," I said, pointing my thumb at Lee. "He considers Kakashi his eternal rival."
"And so, um, Lee considers you his?" Sakura asked.
"Sasuke has been my eternal rival since we were both youthful Academy students!" Lee proclaimed.
"Hm, so this is the weakling you're always going on about, Lee," Neji said then, walking up with Tenten. "The Uchiha."
"I do not need a jealous Hyūga commenting on my strength," I shot back, already annoyed at Neji's attitude. We hadn't even officially met and he was being an arrogant asshole! I couldn't wait for Naruto to kick him down a notch.
That was, if the fights worked the same… which they probably wouldn't. I scowled.
"You guys probably shouldn't be so loud," someone said then. I turned and saw Kabuto, in all his kind-demeanor acting, standing next to us. "It's annoying the others."
We looked around to see the other genin were frowning, some even growling, at us.
I scoffed. If they couldn't handle us talking, then they weren't ready for the Chūnin Exam. Especially not this Chūnin Exam.
"Who are you?" Naruto asked.
I watched Kabuto, searching for any sign that he was playing pretend genin even as he explained his whole thing about failing the exam seven times and having info cards on the current participants.
"Tell us about Team Seven," Ino said. I could tell she was hurting a little from the change in Sakura. Good, I thought a bit viciously. Maybe she'd grow up fast enough to not be harmed in the cruel world we all now lived in.
"Let's see," Kabuto flipped through his cards. "Team Seven, under Hatake Kakashi. My, what an impressive jōnin sensei."
At once, my teammates and I rolled our eyes. Kakashi was impressive, sure, but perhaps not in the ways most people thought when they imagined him.
"The team includes Haruno Sakura, civilian born and top kunoichi in her Academy class. She scored near perfect on all her written tests and has excellent chakra control for E-rank ninjutsu, but her taijutsu and kunai aim are mediocre at best."
I looked at Sakura, who seemed to be holding back the urge to roll her eyes again.
"Next is Uzumaki Naruto. He failed the Genin Exam three times and only passed recently because of an incident with extra credit." Kabuto glanced up. "I'm afraid the rest was classified." Naruto shrugged and grinned. "His E-rank ninjutsu was the worst of the class and his taijutsu and aim are abysmal in comparison to the graduation average. His written test scores were no higher than ten points out of a hundred. He is said to have extraordinary chakra capacity but no outlet for it."
"That's what you get for graduating dead last," I told him. Naruto stuck out his tongue.
"Uchiha Sasuke, last of the loyal Uchihas," Kabuto continued. I stiffened at the subtle way Kabuto drew out loyal. "Top marks for all components of the Genin Exam." Well, I had been an adult taking a test meant for preteens. The only thing I might have had trouble, the early-level ninja stuff, I trained like hell for. "He is also said to have awaken his Sharingan on their latest mission. Together," Kabuto said, finishing off. "They successfully completed twenty-seven C-rank missions and… an A-rank?"
"I still don't understand why it was turned A-rank," Sakura said. "I mean, it wasn't that hard in the end."
"Let's go through it," I said, because I couldn't help but be proud of my team and I wanted to explain to the non-believers around us just what that A-rank had entailed. "First Naruto fought off two chūnin practically by himself because our sensei was being lazy. Then, when our sensei was lazy again and let himself get captured, we fought off a jōnin together. After that, you, Sakura, fought off a chūnin by yourself because the other had been taken out in Naruto's trap while sensei was distracted by the same jōnin and Naruto and I fought off someone at tokubetsu jōnin-level."
"Seriously?" Tenten whispered.
"They probably weren't very strong chūnin or jōnin," Neji said.
Naruto shrugged. "Well they were missing-nin, so it wasn't like they could take anymore exams. Sensei did say the Demon Brothers were probably closer to tokubetsu jōnin-level, but they insisted they'd rather just be known as chūnin. And Zabuza is an S-ranked missing-nin, so him being a jōnin didn't really matter."
"And Haku wasn't ranked at all in Mist before he left," Sakura added. "But he was definitely tokubetsu jōnin for his poisons and senbon alone, even ignoring his kekkei genkai."
I nodded. "He did also successfully pretend to be a Hunter-nin, so we could possibly call him ANBU-level."
Everyone was gaping. I had to reel in my smug smile. Maybe it was a bit stupid of us to have shown off before the exam, since they likely wouldn't underestimate us as much anymore, but we hadn't actually explained any of our abilities and I was too proud of where we'd come as a team to have to wait until the preliminary matches to show off.
"Anyway, we should go to the actual exam room," Sakura said. "We don't want to be late."
"It's no use," Tenten said. "The chūnin won't let us in."
Sakura frowned. "But that's not even the right room. We're only on the second floor, you know."
"Let's go," Naruto said before anyone could reply to Sakura's insight. Sakura and I immediately flanked him.
"Sasuke, Sakura," Shikamaru said suddenly, bringing our attention to him.
"Yeah?" I asked.
Shikamaru didn't look bored, for once. I felt excitement curl through me at the deep intellect in his gaze as he looked between us. "You two were the top shinobi and kunoichi in the class. Which one of you leads the team?"
"Academy position has nothing to do with that, does it?" I asked. "After all, you lead yours, don't you, Shikamaru? And you were too lazy to graduate high in the class." I wondered who led Team Eight. Possibly Kiba, because of his forthrightness, but maybe Shino.
"Still," Sakura continued. "It's not either of us."
Naruto grinned at Shikamaru and I could tell it was the more foxy one, the one he always had on right before pulling a spectacular prank. "They're my team." There was no doubt as to the possessiveness in Naruto's voice.
I took a step closer to Naruto's side, as did Sakura. We met gazes behind Naruto's back. Sakura's green eyes shone with pride and excitement and just a little bit of mischievousness. I smirked at her.
"Right then, off we go!" Naruto exclaimed and led us up the stairs to the third floor. He waved at Kotetsu and Izumo as we passed them. They were both gaping openly at us.
We reached the third floor and found a bunch of jōnin instructors hanging around outside the exam room.
"Ah, you three made it," Kakashi said lazily.
"We got held up by the other teams' curiosity," Sakura explained. "And Sasuke's eternal rival."
I shrugged. "Lee's not bad, once you get to know him."
"If you say so," Sakura said.
"Yosh!" Gai said, striking his good-guy pose even as the other genin came up behind us. "Lee, is this perhaps the eternal rival you spoke to me about? You have chosen one on my eternal rival's team!"
"I know, Gai-sensei! Nothing could be more perfect!"
I covered my eyes as they hugged, embarrassed despite myself. Kakashi gave me a commiserating pat on the head. "I had hoped to save you from this fate," he said solemnly.
"Hn," I muttered nonsensically. "Can we go in now?"
Kakashi waved his had. "Good luck, my cute little genin."
"Thanks, sensei!" Sakura said. Naruto laughed as he walked us into the room.
At least half of the seats were already filled with genin. My earlier thought had indeed been correct then.
I took a seat next to my teammates, though I knew we'd be moved soon. Ibiki waited until the rest of the genin came in, and then Kotetsu and Izumo. "That's all, then," Ibiki said roughly. "My name is Morino Ibiki and I'll be your instructor for the first part of the Chūnin Exam."
As Ibiki explained the test, I observed the chūnin lining the walls of the room. The only two I recognized were Kotetsu and Izumo, but then there were certainly a number of ninja in Konoha that hadn't been featured in the show at all.
Ibiki had us get up and move to assigned seats. Naruto reached forward before we could separate and gave both me and Sakura and small hug. I huffed, but hugged him back despite the stares we were getting.
I took my new seat and wondered what I was going to do for the test. The other Sasuke used his Sharingan, I think, but I was much older than him and was curious if I could do the test without cheating. It didn't actually matter what I scored on it, after all.
I turned the test paper over and looked at it curiously. The first question was math-based —trigonometry even. Math had never been my best subject but I'd always been decent enough at it.
Sure, I wouldn't have expected myself to know how to compute the angle needed for the kunai problem as an actual twelve-year-old, but I was twenty-one plus four years in this body and I could figure it out. It was no harder than the Calculus AP I took in high school or the Statistics class I took in college.
Speaking of Stats, the next question was a probability calculation. I did that one too, though I wasn't as positive on the final answer. Then came a theoretical question on ethics. I grinned to myself. I'd certainly taken a lot of those classes in college as a supplementary subject inside my major.
Another six questions (physics, culture, psychology, geometry, biology, and battle strategy) later, I set my paper and risked a glance around. I couldn't look at my teammates since they both sat behind me, but I could see how the others I knew were doing.
Shikamaru was sleeping on his desk, but even as I watched he started awake and began writing down answers. It had to be Ino's Mind Transfer Jutsu. Since I hadn't heard her scream in fear or pain, I supposed Ino had decided not to use it on Sakura—unless my teammate had taken pity on her former best friend and let her. I'd have to ask later.
A flash of orange caught my eye. Curious, I activated my Sharingan to get a better look. The world became crisp like a movie in HD where I had some remote-like ability to slow things down if I wanted. Not too much, the laws of time still worked. It was more like my brain was suddenly able to take in and process everything quicker and with much more accuracy.
I understood how it could be so addictive to use the Sharingan. I'd gotten used to using it in spars until Kakashi had told me, after returning to the Leaf, to spar without it. I had almost panicked by how much slower my comprehension and reaction time were, but I understood Kakashi's point. It was too easy to handicap yourself by getting too used to it.
I returned my attention to the flash of orange. There, by Ibiki's desk, Yoko darted up onto the wood and paused to read something on the paper there, before darting across the room and out of my view. If I hadn't had the Sharingan on, I wouldn't have noticed anything more than that initial flash—easy to play off as a sunbeam or other trick of the light.
Oh Naruto, I thought. He was Konoha's most surprising ninja for a reason.
I ripped off a corner of my test paper and wrote, Naruto, do question nine yourself. After all, it was an interesting scenario about being the leader of a six-man squad on a mission gone wrong. I wanted to know what he thought of it, since we'd spent the last couple months going over basic tactics and strategy. I was no strategist, not like the real commanders, so my own answer was just the textbook idea. Naruto, I figured, would be more original.
I wiggled my fingers in Yoko's direction next time I caught sight of her. She ran under the desks, unnoticed by even the planted chūnin. I showed her the slip of paper, though I had no idea how she'd been relating the information to Naruto without getting caught by speaking aloud.
Yoko scurried away. A minute later, she came back and dropped a small piece of paper in my lap. I glanced at it. Already did, teme, Naruto had written in his messy scrawl.
I gave Yoko a scratch on the head and she ducked away. I deactivated my Sharingan, though kept my eyes on the spot the ninkitsune had last been. Whatever Yoko did to talk to Naruto apparently couldn't be replicated on anyone else. I wondered about her abilities. Had she informed Naruto before hand her ability to be so sneaky—so able to get around undetected?
I guess I had known that, since Kakashi had said himself that he hadn't noticed her following Naruto until his ninken had said. It was all sorts of impressive.
Ibiki called everyone to a halt and announced the tenth question—telling the genin that if they failed they'd in fact be genin for good.
Yoko slipped me another piece of paper even as the genin around me erupted in disarray. The planted chūnin began to 'quit', sparking a wave of leaving.
We gonna do this? Naruto had asked.
We're going to win this, I replied.
Good, came the answer a moment later. Sakura said so too.
A second later, Naruto slammed his fist on the table. "We're ninja here to represent our villages. To quit now is stupid cowardice and shameful to our leaders, our teammates, and the ones we've become ninja to protect."
I twisted in my seat and stared at Naruto. Across the aisle, Sakura caught my gaze and mouthed 'sunshine'. I smiled and nodded.
"So you don't scare me, Growly-ojii-san," Naruto continued. "My team won't quit."
I could tell Ibiki was annoyed by the nickname. "And what do your teammates say to your decision, gaki? Only one of them has to quit for you to be out too."
"We follow our team captain," Sakura stated evely. I knew both of us were actually thinking, we follow our Hokage. Good advisors did no less.
"He speaks for us," I agreed.
Ibiki huffed, but nodded. "Very well then, if no one else will quit…" There was silence. "You all pass!"
I tuned out Ibiki's explanation and tried to see if I could feel Anko about to come through the window. Sensing other chakra was a bit like feeling for different water currents in the river. Some, like Naruto's, were very pronounced and could almost drown out currents beside them. Others were subtler. Kakashi's when he was only doing his subconscious level of pulling in, felt like an icy undercurrent. When he was actively hiding his chakra signature, I still couldn't feel a thing.
There, I caught a glimmer of a sluggish wave. It felt a bit like water clogged with too much debris. I had to repress a shiver even as Anko arrived and announced herself the proctor of the second part of the exam. "I'll be at training field forty-four!" She announced. "See you tomorrow, kids~" And there she went.
I relaxed a bit as Anko's sluggish chakra signature left. That, I knew, was what I had to look forward to if Orochimaru got his hands, and Curse Seal, on me.
Sakura and I converged on Naruto, who was smiling at the red-faced Hinata who'd been sitting next to him. Upon seeing us, Naruto jumped up and raised a fist in the air. "One down, two to go!"
"Yeah," Sakura said. "But… Training Ground Forty-Four?"
We'd stepped outside the room then. Kakashi came meandering up to us. "The Forest of Death," he said, nodding sagely. "That'll be fun."
"If Kakashi-sensei thinks it will be fun…" Sakura began.
"We can still back out," I said, outwardly teasing but inwardly panicking as I realized it was here—Orochimaru was on my horizon.
"You can't actually," Kakashi told us cheerfully. "Not 'til the end of the second, when you're given another chance verbally." He herded us out the Academy and toward a very familiar ramen shop.
"We'll be so awesome, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto said. We sat down at the ramen stand and Naruto turned his attention to telling the ramen chef and his daughter how they'd completed the first stage of the exam.
"Will you be watching the second exam, sensei?" I asked.
"Maa," Kakashi said, shrugging. "Not sure how, if the exam is in the forest, but all the teachers observe the entire exam."
I nodded and accepted my bowl of ramen with a soft word of thanks. I hoped Kakashi would be close enough that I could perhaps get help. I wasn't sure he'd be able to defeat Orochimaru in a one-on-one fight, but he'd at least be able to hold off the S-class missing-nin until back up arrived.
"Who's this, Naruto-kun?" Ayame asked as Yoko jumped up onto the seat next to Naruto.
"This is Yoko-chan, my ninkitsune!" Naruto announced happily. "She says 'nice to meet you'."
"Of course, nice to meet you too, Yoko-chan," Ayame said, her tone that of speaking to a child's imaginary friend.
There was something more to that though. I looked from Naruto to Yoko. Every once and a while Naruto would twitch and then nod at Yoko or smile. Yoko wasn't yipping or making any obvious body communication, though.
"How does Yoko communicate with you, Naruto?" I asked finally.
Naruto tapped his head, his mouth full of ramen noodles.
"What does that mean?" Sakura asked.
Naruto swallowed. "She speaks in my head."
Kakashi leaned forward. I could tell by the subtle cold spike in his chakra that he was interested, and perhaps concerned, by this information. "Clarify."
Naruto blinked at Kakashi's abrupt tone, but did as ordered. "I hear her voice in my head."
Kakashi nodded slowly. "Finish your ramen, then meet me at my house." He shunshin'd away.
"What?" Sakura asked.
I didn't know, but something was obviously wrong. I looked pointedly at the civilian ramen chefs and then set about finishing my ramen. Sakura took the hint and pushed her bowl aside after only another couple of bites. Naruto still looked at Yoko, frowning. Yoko, for her part, was crouched low on the stool as if expecting punishment.
"Don't let her run off, Naruto," I said softly as we paid.
"She's not a danger to me," Naruto replied, but he picked Yoko up and held her close to his chest. She didn't try to escape, just lay her head on Naruto's shoulder mournfully.
We headed to Kakashi's place, which we'd only been to a couple of times before. The door opened just as we were arriving. Bull stood on the other side and nodded to us, before closing the door behind us and leading us to where Kakashi sat in the living room with the rest of his pack.
"Place Yoko down, Naruto," Kakashi ordered.
Naruto hugged her to his chest. "You won't hurt her if she hasn't done anything wrong."
Kakashi just gestured to the ground. Naruto sighed and set the fox down. She shivered slightly as she sat there, surrounded by Kakashi's ninken and the four humans. I would have felt sorry for her, except I had no idea if it was an act. She'd only been Naruto's ninkitsune for a day, after all, and it had been a rushed bonding. I figured Kakashi had wanted Naruto to have the advantage for the exam, but now our sensei was perhaps regretting that.
"My pack will smell if you lie, Yoko," Kakashi said. "I want clear answers. How long, exactly, have you been following Naruto?"
Yoko shivered harder, but answered in a soft voice. "Before he emerged from his mother, Kushina-dono."
"My father used to follow Kushina-dono. He took me from my mother when I was a kit because he said I was like him and my littermates were not. He taught me how to be silent, how to hide myself so that even the great tall ones do not sense me."
"Was your father Kushina's ninkitsune?"
"No. He never revealed himself. He said Kushina-dono did not need him, so he could only watch. I watched Naruto-dono because I was not sure if he needed me."
"I might not need you, but I want you, Yoko-chan," Naruto said.
"Hold on, Naruto," Kakashi said, though I could tell he was a little less anxious than he had been earlier. "How are you able to speak inside Naruto's mind?"
"Though the Great One," Yoko said. "The Great One ruled all of the foxes once, my father said. We can speak to the Great One and through the Great One to his current master."
The iciness was back. "And if the great one, as you say, told you to do something to harm Naruto? Or another in the Leaf?"
"The Great One is not my master, Kakashi-sama," Yoko said, some surprise in her voice. "When the Great One tried to hurt Kushina-dono and Naruto-dono, my father and I aided in fighting him off." She paused and then put her tail over her snout. "No, I did not do much. My father lost his life distracted the Great One so he could be sealed again. I was to gather help but after so long of being unseen, I could not get any shinobi to heed me." She dropped, belly to the ground. "I failed."
"Naruto," Kakashi said, ignoring the dejected fox. "Does the Kyūbi ever talk to you?"
"I've only heard him once," Naruto whispered. "When I drew on his power to fight Haku."
"You did that on purpose?" I asked, surprised. "I thought you'd just gotten overwhelmed with anger, like with the Demon Brothers."
Naruto shook his head. "I knew I needed to use the fox, because I liked Haku and I couldn't do damage with that. And then when he hurt you and I thought…" Naruto swallowed. "I demanded he give me some of his power and he did."
"I don't think Yoko is going to hurt Naruto," Sakura offered. "Or the village, if she listens to what Naruto says to do."
Kakashi nodded and Naruto knelt down at Yoko's side. "Hey, it's okay," he murmured to her. "I don't blame you for my mom's death, okay?"
"I won't fail you again, Naruto-dono," Yoko said back. "I'll be whatever you need."
I felt something clench inside me at those words—words not too dissimilar to what I had thought early on, when I considered what I needed to do. I had already hurt so much, killing the other Sasuke. I've been playing make up for that atrocity from the beginning.
"It's late and you have a test tomorrow," Kakashi said. "You can all bunk in my guest room tonight, if you want."
It was an offer I was more than happy to take up. I hadn't wanted to be apart from my team, not that night. Not when I was already feeling raw, and unsafe on top of that.
Sakura seemed the most hesitant about sleeping in the bed with us, but once she curled up around Yoko she was out like a light. Naruto slept on Yoko's other side. I lay awake in the bed next to Naruto—because I had wanted to give Sakura more space, knowing quite well how uncomfortable it was for a preteen girl to sleep in a bed with boys even if she did know them.
By the half an hour mark, I still hadn't fallen asleep. As silently as I could, I got out of bed and padded to the kitchen in hopes that some tea would calm my racing heart.
Kakashi sat at the kitchen table. His ninken were asleep on the futon in the living room, except Pakkun who sat on the table in front of him. They were talking in lower voices, which stopped as soon as I neared. Pakkun nodded his head to me and jumped off the table to go join his pack in the living room.
"Need something?" Kakashi asked. He sounded so tired, like a huge weight was on him. For just a moment, I felt a glimmer of anger. It wasn't he who knew the future, after all. He didn't have to lie awake with the crushing guilt of knowing there was so much death on the horizon and barely doing anything to prevent it. I was grasping at straws, wondering if I should just take my knowledge to the Hokage and submit to an investigation at T&I… what right did Kakashi have to–
To look like he was reliving the death of his sensei and his sensei's wife all over again.
I felt tears prickle at my eyes and took a step back, intent on turning around and going back to the room where my teammates were sleeping so Kakashi wouldn't see my tears, my weakness.
"Sasuke," Kakashi said, and his tone was different now. "Will you come here?"
My feet took the steps without my conscious decision to allow them. As soon as I was close to Kakashi, he pulled me in for a hug. It was awkward and, for a moment, terrifying. I remembered the last time large male arms had been wrapped around me and almost panicked.
But Kakashi smelled like dogs and like a storm. He felt like an icy current. And he was familiar in a thousand of other ways, from the times I saw him as an ANBU to the months he's been my sensei.
I slowly began to hug him back. He put a hand on my head, holding me in a loose, but comfortable position. I wondered who'd taught him to hug like that. Was it Minato, after Obito's 'death'? Or was it the Third Hokage, after Minato's?
"Whenever you're ready," Kakashi whispered. "I want you to talk to me about why you flinch when men move too quickly in your direction."
I winced, but I was too raw still to be upset. Of all my secrets, that was the one most likely to come out. It was a problem, because I had no explanation, but I couldn't control what my body did when a civilian man with lighter hair color seemed to walk in my direction, or when a ninja strong enough to pin me down moved in the corner of my vision. I stood on a thin wire, threatening to fall into a flashback with each man who reminded me of him.
I took a deep breath. "It wasn't Itachi," I said, because I couldn't have Kakashi, or anyone, thinking that. "It wasn't… he's not alive anymore." And I knew what Kakashi would take from that. Knew he'd think it was someone from the clan, someone Itachi had killed that night.
It wasn't the worst assumption, even if I sometimes longed to say—blond hair, grey eyes, hint of stubble—to say what really happened. Just to get it off my chest.
I had other things to worry about that night. "Tomorrow, sensei," I whispered before Kakashi could reply to my other statement. "I'm worried."
"You're ready," Kakashi said. "I know it seems so quick to throw you guys into this, but you are ready."
"I know we are," I agreed. "I'm not worried about the exam… I don't think. It's just something." I tightened my grip and wondered if this was really the best choice.
The thing was, I had to do something.
"The night before the massacre, I had this same feeling. Like something big was about to happen. It felt like I was about to drown." I pulled back, rubbing my eyes. I had to make this lie convincing, even if it was almost stupid trying to convince anyone I had some sort of foresight into the future, some mystical premonition ability. "Itachi told me it was just a nightmare and…" I touched my forehead then, because I knew Kakashi was probably aware of Itachi's old habit.
I risked a glace at Kakashi's eye. He looked serious, which was good, but I wasn't sure if he believed me.
"It's stupid," I said finally. "It's probably just my nerves–" I rubbed my arms.
"I'll be close by," Kakashi said. He put a hand on my head. "If something happens, you can have Naruto send Yoko to get me."
I swallowed, hardly believing that seemed to work, and nodded. "Yes, sensei," I said. Even if Kakashi was just humoring me, he'd be ready if Yoko came his way. Maybe he'd get there in time to save us.
Kakashi ruffled my hair. "Go to bed now. Your team will expect you to be your best, tomorrow."
"I won't let them down," I promised.
Curling up at Naruto's side, I looked at the sleeping Yoko and wondered what it would mean for her to be sent away in the middle of the battle with Orochimaru, told to find help again. I wondered how it would feel to her to fail, if something changed. The butterfly affect meant I couldn't be sure that battle would be at all the same. I couldn't even be sure Orochimaru hadn't planed on stealing me away in the middle of the night, except I slept here in Kakashi's place—safer than I would have been alone in the Uchiha compound.
But if we ran into each other in the Forest of Death, Orochimaru could easily kill Sakura as the most expendable of our team. He was possibly insane enough to kill Naruto despite the demon fox, despite only sealing Naruto's chakra in the show.
I wouldn't let that happen, I vowed. I wouldn't let that monster touch my teammates—even if it meant getting the Curse Seal. They were more important than I was, both of them. They were the future Hokage and his Chief Advisor. I knew from the show that they didn't need me, they didn't need Sasuke, to become what they were going to be.
But selfishly, I wanted to stay with them. Selfishly, I didn't want another man stronger than me to taint me with something vile. Selfishly... I wanted to be a better teammate than the other Sasuke had been.
I closed my eyes and fell into an uneasy sleep.