A/N: Sorry for the delay. Real life's been busy and looks to stay that way (not to mention took down one of my stories and banned me from uploading for awhile…). I'm afraid I can't guarantee any more fortnight updates like before New Year's. Gomen. Other than that, Niko's name in the last chapter has been changed to Jirou since someone reminded me of naming conventions I should have remembered in the first place. Thanks to my beta, Kilerkki, and thank you to all my reviewers:)
It was hours before the first part of the exam finished. The torture of waiting affected many of the genin, making them nervous and edgy. Others lounged about looking calm. They were usually the older ones – veterans of the recent war despite their rank.
Kakashi paid no attention to anyone. He had followed Kai out of the bathroom and returned to Masuyo, who still wouldn't meet his eyes. They had drifted over to where the other Konoha team sat. Ume-san looked fine except for a tightness around her eyes. It was doubtful that today had been her first kill. When Yoshino-san began to move towards him, Kakashi flinched and nearly went for a kunai. He didn't want to be comforted by her, and he wasn't sure what he would do when he was held within her arms. At that moment, a hug from her was more frightening than facing any number of ninja.
If they had ever been asked, Kai and Kakashi would never have said they were good friends, but perhaps whatever they were was good enough, because Kai shielded Kakashi from Yoshino-san so he could sit down against the nearby wall.
"Kakashi-kun! Are you all right? Kakashi-kun?"
Kakashi slammed his hands over his ears, then thought better of it, and quickly placed a finger in each ear instead. Instantly, Yoshino's pleas for information were downgraded to a muffled murmur that was easy to block out when he focused on the noise from the blood rushing through his head. He looked up to see how Yoshino was taking this, and saw she was in full ranting mode – her hands on her hips as she tried to scold Kai – but Kai was stoically standing guard and she was getting no nearer.
Relieved, Kakashi pulled his knees up to his chest and buried his face in them, careful to keep his fingers in his ears. Like this, the whole world was unreal. It wouldn't be a safe thing to do on a mission, but Kai was standing guard, and at the moment, Kakashi didn't care. So, curled up and preternaturally still, Kakashi listened to the blood in his head and gradually fell asleep.
He was awakened later by muffled shouting. A fight had broken out, and this time the Stone chuunin hadn't been quick enough to stop it. By the time Kakashi opened his eyes and removed his fingers from his ears, the fight was over. A tall Sand genin stood with a kunai embedded in his shoulder. He was attempting to glare through two familiar masked figures – the Stone genin Kakashi had seen on the roof the day before – at the final member of their team. The freckled boy was obviously the one who had thrown the kunai, yet the Stone chuunin cast one unreadable glance at him, and turned to berate the Sand genin and his team instead.
"What happened?" Kakashi asked Kai softly. The older boy was in the exact same position in front of him he had been in before Kakashi fell asleep.
Kai shrugged. "Sand insulted Stone and the Tsuchikage."
"They didn't have to wake me up," Kakashi complained. He stood up and stretched.
"Aw, is the baby cranky after his nap?" asked Masuyo. The annoyance was back in his voice.
Kakashi glared at him, but refrained from replying. He wasn't in the mood for a fight. The brief moment of sleep had given him back more than energy – it had also restored his equilibrium. He felt ready to face the next part of the exam.
It was good that he did, since a few seconds later a cold breeze blew through the crowd and a dark figure appeared in the middle of the room. He was tall, and covered from head to toe in loose, black clothes. There was no sign of the usual shuriken or kunai pouches. In fact, the fabric was so loose they couldn't see a body underneath the clothing, not even hands. The man's head was covered in a hood, and his face shrouded in a black mask. The only color in the uniform was the large Stone insignia painted over the full face mask in white.
"Hello, genin. Welcome to the second part of the exam." It was like the Stone insignia was speaking. "I am your proctor, Yami. Follow me." He walked with such a smooth pace that it seemed he glided across the floor.
Out the door they followed him, and down a set of stairs on the outside of the building. They passed through a covered alleyway, and through a pair of open wooden gates that were covered in dormant paper seals. Kakashi took the opportunity to plant one of his sensei's jutsu near the gate.
Once they were through, the gate swung shut, and the paper seals glowed faintly. Many of the genin shivered as they realized they were now locked in an area that required heavy levels of protection. Yami turned to his right and continued to walk across the suddenly barren ground. Eventually the whole group stopped before a looming cliff face of red and yellow streaked rock. There were crevices and dark caves scattered about the cliff. Running down the center of the cliff was a deep crack through which they could barely see arches of colored rock and beyond that a pine forest.
Yami turned to face them. He stared at them all until some genin began to shift uncomfortably under his unseen eyes. "Your teams are disbanded," he said finally, ignoring their dismay. "Behind me is the Valley of Shadows. As ninja, you will find there are times when all you can rely on is yourself and your own power. Here in the shadows, you will be tested." His tone was somber and detached.
All Kakashi could do was clamp down on his growing sense of horror and listen.
"Each of you will be given half of a medallion with a symbol on it. It must be worn in a visible place on your body at all times. Your purpose is to enter the valley alone, and find the other half, which will be held by one of the genin here. Anything goes. On the fifth day, you must be back here before sundown with your completed medallion. If you leave the valley before the fifth day, you will be disqualified."
Kai had actually put his hand on Kakashi's shoulder, he was so alarmed. Kakashi could feel its heavy weight as his mind raced through possibilities. The genius part of him – the one who planned ahead and saw so many things more clearly than some adults ever would – was racing to meet the challenge. While the six-year old child he rarely remembered to be cringed under the speculative and predatory glances he was now receiving.
It was to be expected in a situation like this. They were all going to have to hunt each other down for their medallions. He was considered the weakest one here, so not only would he be hunted by whoever had his opposite medallion, he would be hunted period. He was the obvious target, and there would be plenty who would try to eliminate competition by collecting medallions. It was no comfort that the freckled Stone genin was getting some of those predatory looks as well.
"There's no rule saying we can't work together, is there?" asked Arata-san. The Konoha genin was trying to hide his worry. He was the weakest member of his team, and was used to working in a group.
"Form alliances with whom you will," said Yami, "but you will not be entering as a team. When I call your name, claim a medallion from my assistants, and enter an entrance of your choice." There were several caves and the great crack in the cliff for them to choose from. Kakashi stared at them, analyzing which would be best for him as the first name was called. Whichever entrance he chose, others were sure to follow. He had already decided that if he was called in the beginning, he would plant some traps and ambush his hunters. If he was called near the end, he was the one who was going to be ambushed.
"Kakashi-san. Masuyo-san," said Kai in a hushed voice. "We need to meet up once we're in the valley." Kakashi gave him a startled look. He had forgotten he had teammates.
Masuyo scowled. "It's impossible. We don't know the layout of the valley, and even if we did – everyone's listening!" He raised his voice on the last word, causing at least one of their listeners to flinch visibly.
"We can all chose the same entrance," insisted Kai.
"Not without them hearing," said Masuyo. He stared at Kakashi, and at the surrounding genin. "The kid should quit now."
Kakashi's glare was cold, but also distracted. There was no question of him going in the valley. He needed to focus on survival, and not the stupidity of his teammates. "Imbeck–imbecile," he hissed at his older teammate, then turned his furious glare elsewhere as his tongue betrayed him. His eyes met those of the freckled Stone genin, who looked both amused and superior. Kakashi had to urge to stick his tongue out at him, and since he was supposed to be childish during this exam, he went through with the action.
"Kakashi–" began Kai, and then Yami's voice cut through everything, "Hamato Kai."
Like any good ninja, nothing showed on Kai's face, but it was obvious he wasn't happy. "I'll be in the forest," Kai said abruptly, and he met Kakashi's eyes for a moment before he left to get his medallion.
Kakashi knew his own worry showed on his face. He couldn't decide if Kai was being stupid or smart. Everyone around them now knew that Kai would be in the forest and that Kakashi would probably be heading there. Two easy ambushes. And yet, the forest looked large from here so maybe it would be easy for them to hide their presences. Kai was fantastic at disappearing when he wanted to, and he would leave a sign only Kakashi would understand for him to find.
"Why is everybody in Konoha insane except for me?" asked Masuyo. He was winding a wire around one of his rings distractedly. "I certainly won't be heading for the forest now."
"You'd probably get lost anyway." Kakashi was really beginning to hate the man. Why couldn't he stop his complaining and act like the adult he was supposed to be?
"Not as lost as you're going to be."
Kakashi ignored him, keeping his eyes focused on his choice of entrances. There was a cave off to the left. It looked no different than the others, but off to the side he could see a faint path worn by the tread of many feet that led into its entrance. He would have bet that it was the regular entrance to the valley. And if it was a trap? He would deal with that as well.
"Hatake Kakashi," called Yami.
He met no one's eyes as he pushed through the sudden crowd towards the black-clad ninja. Masuyo was forgotten. He had five days in which to find a medallion and survive. Nothing was going to stop him.
His hiding place for the rest of the day was a shallow pit. Choosing a random patch of ground among the barren arches and boulders that made up the first part of the valley, he dug deep enough to cover his body and used a jutsu to hide the telltale signs of his location in the dirt. With the help of the breathing tube he was carrying in his pack, he was able to breathe and think.
The cave he had chosen to enter had been a good choice. Even when it plunged into total darkness he had been able to follow the faint indentation on the hard, mud floor to find his way easily to the inside of the valley. After checking for traps, he had set one of his own on the exit. Patient waiting had brought him his first prey – a teenage Stone genin who had cursed up a storm before Kakashi knocked him unconscious and took his medallion. He had set up the trap a second time figuring that the predatory looks he had been receiving outside would send someone else after him soon. The second genin – this one from Grass – had been caught, but only for a second. Kakashi had reluctantly left when he lost the advantage of surprise.
He had spent some time scouting and avoiding others before he settled in his hiding place to plan the next five days. Both his sensei and his father had always impressed on him the importance of thinking ahead, even if it was hard to concentrate. The longer he stayed underground, the more he began to think of his hiding spot as a grave, and the more he began to think how vulnerable he was without his eyes and nose to warn him of danger.
The medallion half he had been given had half of the kanji for "monkey" on it. The one he had stolen had half the kanji for "ox". He could only assume that twelve of the medallions had the kanji for the various hand signals on them. It was unfortunate that he would have to wear his own medallion in a visible spot. He'd rather wear the ox one and fool the other genin, but Yami's rules had been specific. Then again, the man had only said the medallion had to be visible… He grinned as the idea came to him, and filed it away for later.
The length of the exam would work both for and against him. On one hand, he now had five days to find the other half of his medallion. On the other, he had five days in which to avoid all the people hunting him and meet up with Kai if he could. He also was under orders to show as little of his skills as possible. There was no way the Stone nin were watching the exam too closely – the valley was too large, but it was likely they were checking up on everyone. He had to plant his sensei's jutsu as well.
And so he had to decide what to do now. Masuyo was a write off. Other genin would be dangerous to approach, but he would have to check as many as possible for his medallion. In many ways, this exam depended on a ninja's luck. There were over fifty genin in the valley, and you could hide other people's medallions. In fact, after the first day or two, it'd probably become impossible to find all of the medallions.
The wise thing to do would be to identify as many medallions and their owners as possible on the first day, and hope to find your own. Of course, they would be doing the same thing, and many wouldn't stop with simply looking. It wasn't just the other person with the monkey medallion who would attack Kakashi. He was too easy a target.
Kakashi stifled a sigh, grimacing at the feel of dirt pressing him in on all sides. It didn't matter how long he waited, or what he planned. He was still a target, so he might as well get out and moving. He would stick to high ground and make his way to the forest. If Kai was there, they could team up. If not, he would make it on his own. That was what being strong meant.
He waited, senses straining to sense anyone around his hiding place, before breaking cover. Nothing happened, so he assumed he was safe and took a moment to brush off the dirt. Instincts saved him. He was dropping to the ground before he even saw the kunai heading for his body. He rolled, and used kawarimi no jutsu to disappear before the second wave of kunai chimed on the piece of rock he'd used for the technique. Hidden in the shadow of one of the many nearby rocks, he surveyed the area. He knew where the kunai had come from, but it was likely the other genin had moved to follow him. Time to disappear again.
He left a bunshin where he had been standing, and concealed himself nearby. It was obvious the genin had been staking him out while he thought, but he couldn't be all that skilled or else Kakashi would have been dead by now.
Kakashi's bunshin was well hidden, but it only took a few more seconds before it was found again. The other genin was smart enough not to show himself, and instead sent another shower of kunai. Before it could land, or rather, go through the bunshin, Kakashi was heading towards the source of the kunai. He leapt high over the rock his opponent was hidden behind, reaching into his pack at the same time for the long-bladed tanto his father had gifted him with the week before. He hit the top of his arc, twisted and threw. There was a glimpse of a dark-skinned face squinting up at him, then he was past. He had chosen the tanto because he wanted a weapon that would skewer the other boy, but he was beginning to feel it had been the wrong choice.
All was quiet once he landed. The prudent thing to do would be to run, but he refused to leave the tanto behind. He doubted he had actually killed the other boy, so the silence was a trap. One he would have to spring. All ninja were expected to carry mirrors and Kakashi was no exception. He pulled his out and used it to peer around the rock to see his opponent – who was no where to be found except for a splash of blood.
Once again, Kakashi's instincts screamed for him to move, but this time he was too slow. A foot connected heavily with his side, just below his ribs. It jerked his body to the side, and he let his momentum pull him into a sideways roll away from his attacker. He ended up standing, facing his opponent for the first time. The pain in his side was already fading.
The other boy looked about twelve, with the dark skin Kakashi had noticed before. Tattooed on his forehead was an intricate red flower that seemed to grow brighter with chakra even as Kakashi watched. He was suddenly sure that it would have been a very good idea if he had forgotten the tanto and run.
"I'm Goro. This is a nice knife." He held up the tanto. The last few inches were dark with blood. The hitaiate around his waist showed he was from Grass, and tied right next to it was half of a medallion with the kanji for 'dog'.
"Hatake Kakashi. Give it back and leave." He gestured at his own medallion which was currently around his neck. "I don't have your medallion."
Goro's smile would have been friendly if it had reached his eyes. "I had already planned to take it off your dead body."
"And if I give it to you now?" Kakashi hated himself for making the offer, but he was sure he didn't want to face Goro's power right now.
"You drew my blood. That makes you mine."
A thousand options went through Kakashi's mind, and he settled on one of the weirder ones. Sensei would love it.
He stared up at the other boy and let his face relax into his best "upset" face. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do it!" he wailed.
Goro blinked in puzzlement at the abrupt change. With perfect timing, Kakashi slammed one foot between the boy's legs, then drove his palm straight up into Goro's chin. Goro scream of agony was cut off abruptly as his jaw clicked shut, and he collapsed brokenly to the ground. Kakashi grabbed the tanto that Goro had dropped in surprise, and ran as fast as he could.
Hours later, Kakashi was trying to figure out why he had reacted with so much… fear to the other boy. There had been something about that red flower on Goro's forehead that sent a sweep of panic through his body. He could still feel an echo of it now, and he hated the sensation. He had been excited and confident about this exam, but now that he was here, he was worried. What if he did fail and disappoint his father? His sensei? His village? Swallowing, he shook his head to clear it. A true ninja wouldn't have these doubts, so neither would Kakashi.
He was on the edge of the forest. Pine trees that had looked tiny from the entrance to the valley were actually gigantic with trunks wider than Kakashi could stretch his arms. Most were bare near the ground, but further up there were lots of dead branches sheltered under a canopy of green needles. It should have been dark, especially since the sun had already set over the rock edge of the valley, but there were hundreds of glowing, yellow bugs flying through the air above him. Their irregular flights cast strange patterns on the forest floor.
Kakashi was on edge. The shifting patterns of light were perfect for covering an attack. He couldn't feel anyone watching him, but that didn't mean anything if the other ninja was skilled. He followed the edge of the forest looking for any sign of Kai. The floor of the valley wasn't all that wide and within a half hour he had reached a sheer rock face and was forced to go deeper into the forest to avoid covering old ground. He had already decided he would search for Kai until he was too tired to stay alert. Then he would hole himself up in one of the trees and get some light sleep before he continued on his medallion search.
He found Kai's sign over an hour later. It was etched deep into the base of a great pine close to the center of the forest. The sign consisted of Kai's name and nothing else. Kakashi stared at it, having expected more information since all he knew now was that Kai had made it here. He examined the area, looking for some other sign or perhaps a trap. Nothing.
He came back to stare at the name, and finally realized what he was supposed to do. It was like in the books his sensei gave him to read – a riddle was left for the hero to solve. He was definitely going to have to speak to Kai about the difference between 'obvious' and 'stupid' though. With a frown, he held his hand up in the traditional sign. "Kai!"
The name faded away to be replaced with a set of grid coordinates that also identified the tree he was standing at as the point of origin. That was better. He memorized them, then scored them out with his kunai. No one would follow him.
He leapt up into the trees and raced through the forest, following the mental map in his head. The coordinates revealed a small glade where the faint moonlight mingled with the light from the glowing bugs. Kakashi leapt down from the trees to land just outside the glade, trying to sense any hidden traps.
The pine scent was overwhelming, so he didn't notice the body until he was standing in front of it. Bound to the nearest tree with endless loops of silver wire was the body of his teammate, Hamato Kai.
Next chapter: The second part of the exam continues... Reviews are always appreciated:)