Disclaimer: All Characters are the property of their respective creators and anyone else who has purchased the rights. I have not purchased the rights and thus don't lay any claim to them, but i'm not making any money through the use of these characters, so if anyone feels the need to smite me for that particular presumption, please be gentle. Otherwise, smiting- er... Comment and Criticism is always welcome ^_^;...


Lesser Known Villages...

Nope, definitely not a crazy college kid anymore, Misato mused, crossing one leg over the other and subtly trying to get a little more comfortable. She was glad to be out of that stuffy formal uniform she'd worn to meet the Hokage, but she was starting to wish she'd changed into casual clothes, rather than the 'ninja uniform' Ritsuko had devised for them; actually, just a modified D-Type plugsuit. Damn, these things really don't leave anything to the imagination. Maybe I should go on a diet...

Viscously quashing the surge of insecurity that everyone feels the first time they go out in public wearing spandex, the Major took a glance around at her companions. At least she didn't look out of place. The kunoichi who'd introduced herself as Kurenai was wearing a rather unique dress that seemed to consist of long strips of cloth wrapped around her body in loops, and Misato had nearly laughed out loud a few times when she saw what some of the gennin down in the exam room were wearing.

Asuma, on the other hand, was dressed similarly to her easygoing, one-eyed escort. The field uniform of the Village of the Hidden Leaf was, in concept, pretty much the same as what she wore. That only made sense, since they'd used it as a model. An adjustable utility vest and pouches made sure everything was readily at hand, while the uniform itself was simple, weather-hardy, and easy to move in; very professional paramilitary.

As the third rookie-team instructor took draw on his cigarette, Misato was struck again by how much the man would look like Ikari Gendou if he were wearing white gloves and tinted glasses. It was a tad unnerving. The Commander had only become more devious and inscrutable since this entire ordeal began, and the way he always seemed to know what everyone was doing, twenty-four hours a day...

The sound of Kakashi taking a seat beside her distracted the Major before she could start getting paranoid. Setting down his coffee, the gray-haired shinobi handed Misato a bottle filled with liquid of a familiar amber hue. "Thank you!" she sing-songed, Commander Ikari instantly forgotten. Popping the top, she took a long draught to verify that it was indeed the soma of the Teutonic gods. She was not disappointed. "Aaaaah... that hits the spot," she sighed appreciatively, refraining from her usual slam-and-scream ritual. She was drinking with ninja, after all.

Nodding, Kakashi crossed his arms on his knees and peered over at the two local jounin. "Not a problem, though it's a shame Gai isn't here; you might've found him an... entertaining drinking partner." Ashing his cigarette, Asuma gave a knowing chuckle, while Kurenai just rolled her eyes. "Sorry I took so long; I got lost on the way back. I hope these two haven't been boring you to death."

"These lovely ladies were just making me feel old," the bearded man interjected with a smirk. "It turns out Katsuragi-san is a new jounin as well."

"Oho?" The one-eyed ninja quirked an eyebrow.

Oh, if only you knew...

"We can't all be child prodigies like you were, Kakashi," Asuma prodded lightly.

"She must pretty sharp for a rookie, is all," Kakashi parried with a shrug, turning again to Misato. "You said your rank was Major, right? I'd say that's pretty high for someone who was recently a chuunin. Plus, your team is the only one your village sent, isn't it?" Misato could feel him probing her defenses gently, even as he grinned behind his mask. "It sounds like we've got an Elite here to me."

"Nothing like that," she assured him, though she had advanced through the ranks quickly, so it wasn't like his assessment was wrong, per se. She was somewhat comforted by the fact that Kurenai was watching closely and keeping her mouth shut; the other kunoichi seemed almost as uncertain as Misato felt. "With regard to my team..." thinking momentarily of Shinji and the others, Misato put on a slightly rueful smile, "they're just ready to move on, I think."

"Well, it's sounds like that girl has got some spirit, at least," Kakashi observed, stretching and leaning back on the bench with a sigh. "Things are going to be pretty dull for a while, without my team. All of my missions are on hold."

The small grin that graced Asuma's face was just a tad mocking, Misato thought. "Don't worry, you'll be busy again soon."

"Why is that?" Kakashi wondered, leaning forward again.

"I heard that the examiner for the first test is Morino Ibiki."

For a moment silence reigned, as the masked man favored Asuma with a hood-eyed stare and the two kunoichi waited for the other shoe to drop. "... Not that sadist?" he deadpanned.

"Sadist?" Kurenai questioned, looking a bit surprised. Asuma's face grew serious and he glanced back and forth between the two women, as though he were deciding if he should say more. Kurenai didn't seem ashamed of her ignorance or deterred by Misato's presence, however. "Who is he?" she prodded, getting right to the point.

"...A Pro," the cigarette-smoking man said finally, lacing those two simple words with quiet menace.

Misato felt a surge of apprehension. If that moniker meant the same things that it did where she came from, then-

"A pro? Of what?"

Maybe ninja don't read suspense novels, Misato mused, not quite quirking an eyebrow at the woman's somewhat clueless-sounding inquiry.

If Asuma was incredulous, however, he didn't show it. "Kurenai, you're a new jounin, so you probably haven't heard of him..." Breathing out a cloud of curling smoke, he glanced at the junior shinobi present. "Torture and Interrogation Captain of the Leaf Assassination Squad, Special Jounin, Morino Ibiki."

The shock must have registered on both of their faces, for Asuma relented a bit. "Well, there wouldn't be any physical torture during a test... but still, they must be going through Hell." He leaned in a bit closer, his voice dropping conspiratorially. "Ibiki is a master, he knows the human mind perfectly. He sees every weakness. Like a surgeon, he uses them to peel away mental defenses, layer by layer, to seize the spirit, control it. There is no escape from his interrogation..."

"...Oh, is that all?" Misato replied, her relieved sigh killing the moment of tense, pregnant silence. Kicking back, she took another sip from her beer. "You almost had me worried there for a second." At the blank looks she was receiving from everyone, even Kakashi, she gave a small shrug. "He sounds a lot like my boss." Not that Shinji or Asuka ever react well to the Commander, but at least they're used to it. They should be fine...

'Rules of Desperation?' What the hell is this, a game show?

Sitting up a bit more attentively as the battle-scarred jounin examiner explained the rules for the tenth question, Nara Shikamaru wore a familiar scowl. Sheesh, talk about a hassle... He was really starting to wish Asuma-sensei hadn't recommended them for this stupid exam. Rushing into things just wasn't his style, and it was already looking like more trouble than it was worth. He should have declined.

But nooooo, Ino was sure Sasuke would be there, and she wanted to impress Mr. Dark, Brooding Prettyboy and make sure Sakura wasn't 'sinking her claws into him.' At the time, going along with it had seemed less bothersome than listening to Ino bitch and whine for the next six months, but it was now apparent that he'd been sorely mistaken.

And this, 'You guys were unlucky. This year it's my rules,' bullshit was just too much. This was a man who took himself way too seriously; if they wanted to weed out the ones with no heart, or the ones who'd crack under pressure, they could have found a better way of doing it. This little game was just as likely to fail the ones with a level head on their shoulders, and if there was anyone here who didn't care if they never became an 'official' chuunin-

Jerking in his seat, the slick-haired boy slumped forward. When he raised his head again, the frown of annoyance had vanished, replaced by look of new determination. Sorry Shi', but I can't let you screw this part up by quitting on us, Ino thought grimly, getting ready to jump back to her own body as soon as the cut was finished.

As she watched the quitters file by through Shikamaru's eyes, she started to become a little unnerved by how calmly the foreign nins were taking this. Almost all of the ones leaving were gennin of the Hidden Leaf. Granted, they had the largest number taking the exam in the first place, but it was still embarrassing, as well as a bit worrying. No pushovers here, these people were the best their countries had to offer.

In particular, the teams from the two new villages seemed completely unconcerned. Maybe it was just arrogance- the Sound shinobi and the red-haired Angel kunoichi seemed to have that in spades -but they still bore watching. Facing forward again, Ino analyzed the body language of the sole male member of the Hidden Angel team. The slight boy sitting in front of her was possibly the most relaxed person in the entire room; was he that confident?

How long are they going to drag this out? Shinji wondered in mild dismay, his gaze traveling from one face to the next. Nearly everyone seemed to be struggling; to quit, and force your comrades to resign, or to persevere, and risk everything? It was probably the hardest choice that most of the young ones had ever had to make, and for the older ninja, who'd already dedicated so much time and effort to this path, it was a potentially life-altering decision.

It was enough to make the Third Child feel a just little bit guilty. Shinji was about as enthusiastic to becoming a ninja as he'd been about becoming a pilot. For him, this was a relatively stress-free, inconsequential decision: failure meant little to him, but success wasn't particularly desirable either, and the only life on the line was his own. This choice wasn't nearly as hard as most of the dilemmas he'd faced in his other job.

If anything, the most attractive option was to take the question, then fail it on purpose and never become a chuunin. Asuka probably wouldn't even complain for very long if he did that. Sure, they'd get stopped here and sent home, but later she could just blame it on him, and then he'd never be able to surpass her as a ninja... though it'd probably be best if he never told her he'd done it on purpose. With her incredible competitive streak, there's no telling what she might do.


Snapped back to the present by the sudden cry, Shinji fumbled for his pencil as it spun out of his grasp and skittered away. When he got the wayward writing implement back under control, he looked up to discover that the loud, blonde kid from before making another proclamation. A rueful smile crossed the Third Child's lips. It looked like some people were still in high spirits.

Instinctively he glanced in Asuka's direction, but it appeared that the fiery redhead would keep her peace. There was an odd expression on her face, a grudging... not quite respect, but close; tolerance, and perhaps a hint of approval. Shinji wasn't sure whether to be worried or not. She wasn't putting any more of her pride on the line by keeping quiet, thus not worsening the blow if they failed, but if they passed that look could mean trouble later on.

It all came down to the last question, then. He returned his attention to the stare down in progress between student and teacher. Shinji could feel that the worry and uncertainty permeating the room had evaporated, replaced by a kind of thrumming, electric tension. Everyone left was watching, ready to step up and grasp their destiny in their hands. He realized that he was ready as well, though his choice was not the same as theirs.

"I'll ask you again," Ibiki intoned with the deep, foreboding rumble of storm clouds. "Your life is riding on this decision, this is your last chance to quit."

Naruto, however, was not to be swayed. Defiance burned in his voice as he met the examiner's gaze with a challenging one of his own. "I follow my unbending words. That's my ninja way..."

Shinji followed Ibiki's steely eyes as they swept the classroom, searching for anyone remaining who lacked the will to go on. Apparently he found none, for he then looked to the observers that lined the walls. Receiving nods of confirmation, he continued, his voice pitched louder now, but less threatening. "Good decisions," he affirmed. "Now, to everyone still remaining..."

This is it, the tenth question; I'm sorry, Asuka...



To be continued...
Next time: The second test! Could they possibly make this any more of a hassle?