School, work, a novel, and a funeral. The past few months have been murder on my general state of mind. It's odd, when you look at something objectively, and realize that—while it never seemed like all that much in the moment—you've gone through some serious life-changing…things.

I've submitted my first work of fiction to a paying publication; I've been published in an award-winning literary magazine; I've been saddled with the longest research paper I've ever come across in my academic career as a final project; there's been a death in my family, my little brother got called into his principal's office regarding "adult material" he watched at a friend's house, and through all of this, my brain has been largely unable to keep up.

My stories have suffered for this, but we're coming up on a new year pretty soon. That always seems like a good breaking-off point, where we dust off the old and herald in the new. For about a week. Then, you know, we start back with the old habits.

New Year's Resolutions are the ultimate lie we tell ourselves.

In any case, let's check in on our intrepid band of…hero-ish folks. Shall we?


They sat together in the dark, the night before the exams. There was no more tactful way to say it than that Hinata and Naruto had cornered their red-haired brother and staged an intervention. Naruto did most of the talking, because that was his way. Hinata merely watched Gaara's reactions, and gave silent signals—a squeeze on the arm, a sharp look, a sigh—to tell Naruto when to pull back, and when to forge ahead.

"Kakashi-sensei taught us," Naruto said at one point, a few minutes to midnight. "We don't play it close to the chest. Not with each other. Not when it's our asses on the line. And these exams are important, right? And not only that, but…we're looking at being put on an assassination! You think we don't know that's a big deal to you? Oh, sure, I ain't got my parents anymore. And yeah, Old Man Hyuuga is…well. Whatever. Point is, we aren't stupid, man. Maybe we don't understand, but that's what talking's for! We're a team. Remember that part?"

Gaara seemed about to make some waspish retort, but stopped himself. He said, "The only man I respected when I lived in that sandstorm was my uncle. I didn't know it at the time, but…he was the only man I loved. And here he is, a representative for my brother, and my sister, and my father, and the Uchiha…betraying his country for me."

"By the letter of the law, maybe he is betraying his country," Naruto said, "but…what? You think he doesn't care about the Sand? Guys like that don't do stuff like that 'cuz they hate their country. They do it 'cuz they love their country. C'mon, Gaara, be honest. I've been to your home, remember? It was a cesspool. People scared to go outside, people praying on the streets for God knows what absolution. Guards pointing weapons at kids playing tag."

"That was all because of me!" Gaara suddenly cried out.

"Bullshit!" Naruto shot back. "That's a copout! A dirty goddamn copout!" Gaara, stunned, stared at the blond in open horror. "That's the Kage's job! It's the Kage's responsibility to see to the freaking people! And it's the people's job to stand up! You were a kid, Gaara, same as me! Same as Hinata! Same as—same as any of us!"

"…Did you ever terrorize your peers, in a misguided attempt to fit in?"

"Probably! But the funny part is, that guy you call Sarutobi-sama never tried to have me assassinated, either. You're a product of your surroundings, Gaara. That's somethin' Iruka-sensei said to me once. He said, we're all a product of our surroundings, and we shape ourselves from the outside based on what people think of us. We shape ourselves from the inside based on what we think of ourselves. There's a…a balance, right? You weren't balanced. Your whole frickin' village wasn't balanced. They screwed it up for you. Hear me? You know how I know? Lookit what this place made you into. Lookit what you've done in the Hidden Leaf. I mean…c'mon. Seriously? You're gonna sit here and blame yourself for those guys bein' stupid? You know what you are to the people here? An example. You're the favorite. First round draft pick. Rising star. All that jazz. That's you. That's what you are. So man up and act like it."

Gaara lowered his eyes, closed them, drew in several deep breaths.

When he opened them again, they were the eyes that his teammates remembered.

He said, "…Okay."


Gaara watched his brother and sister. As they were all being funneled into the room that would house the first exam, he paid close attention to the way they acted. How they moved. What they said. He paid no attention to the rest of his first-year peers, nor to the upper-classman with silver hair that was trying to prepare them for the tests ahead.

He watched Kankurou. He watched Temari.

He paid no mind to Sasuke, either, because that one didn't concern him. He wanted to know how the people who shared blood with him had turned out, under the leadership of the man his uncle wanted him to kill. What had Yashamaru wanted him to see? What had Yashamaru wanted him to understand? He had an idea, yes. Of course he did. And he could predict the rest of it rather easily. But he was facing a decision that would affect lives, and he needed more than predictions and hunches. He needed more than petulant arrogance and apathy.

He needed proof.

He needed evidence.

He needed truth.

To say that Kankurou was confident would have been roughly equivalent to saying Naruto was loud. It seemed a defining characteristic of his nature. He was downright haughty, staring down his painted nose at everything and everyone around him, including to upper-ranked ninja acting as security. The little leaf etched into their headbands seemed to insult him.

Temari wasn't so much confident as she was…unconcerned. Like Sasuke, she seemed to place very little importance on the exam itself. The only emotion she seemed willing—or able—to express was exasperation at her younger brother's domineering strut. Unless Gaara missed his guess, she knew that he was watching her, scrutinizing and searching. She did not seem surprised or concerned about it, though. If anything, it seemed to amuse her.

The first leg of the examination was a written test. Immediately, Gaara suspected foul play. Such a thing seemed far too pedestrian, especially considering the hulking barrel of a man that Sarutobi had elected to run it. As he sat down, far apart from either of his teammates, and glanced over the sheet of paper in his hands, Gaara slowly realized—it was like the tide was rising up along a beach, slow and crawling but relentless—that he had no idea what any of it meant. These were equations and scenarios so far beyond anything he understood, and on the heels of that came the dumbstruck realization that they weren't the point.

The examiner had said, "Those who try to cheat without thinking carefully will…hurt themselves. And others."

Yashamaru was part of the security detail. He hadn't even bothered to disguise himself. The man's eyes were slowly dragging themselves through the room. He held a clipboard in front of him, but unlike his fellows he was not writing on it. He held a pencil in his other hand, but it dangled nonchalantly at his side. He clearly had no intention of using it.

He wasn't even looking at the students. Instead, he was staring at the ceiling. Gaara followed his uncle's gaze and saw…

Mirrors?

Back to Yashamaru; now he was looking over toward the front of the room, at one of the few people actually writing anything. Then he closed his eyes, shook his head vigorously, and rubbed his eyes.

"If your aim is to prove to us that you're real ninja," the examiner had said, "then act like it."

The clues were in the instructions, and it seemed that Yashamaru understood something. Gaara looked back at his paper. It struck him that if he didn't understand—and he surely didn't—the questions, then Naruto had no chance. He was a man (so to speak) of action, and his theoretical knowledge of the arts of war was…well, abysmal.

He looked up again, an now Yashamaru was watching one of his fellows. They were all wearing the same uniform, grey and nondescript and…almost part of the scenery. But Yashamaru was fixated on one of them in particular.

Gaara frowned. The object of his uncle's attention was sitting nearest to Kankurou.

People started getting caught, and their teams were being eliminated. As the answer crystalized in Gaara's mind, sand began to gather like needy pets around his feet.


Ten points. Nine questions. Tenth coming toward the end.

Ten points. Nine stupid freaking questions. Last hope toward the end.

Sheesh.

Was this some kind of sick joke? Proof that he wasn't suited to do this? There wasn't a damn thing on this stupid paper that anyone'd ever covered in class. Not Iruka, not the old man, not Kakashi, nobody! Was this designed to make him understand that there wasn't any room in the shinobi world for stupid excuses?

Uzumaki Naruto didn't think of himself as a whiner. Not really. But he was known to voice out against things he thought were unfair. There was a big part of him, sitting in this exam hall right now, who wanted to shout and scream and punch things, because this was seriously unfair.

But he kept looking up at that Ibiki guy, with his scars and his long coat and his stupid face, and Naruto realized…what the hell did he care? And, right behind that, why should he? It wasn't his job to make things fair. Right? That mission to the Wave hadn't been fair. What good would it've done for him to bitch and whine at Zabuza? Or Haku? Or those guys with poison on their claws? Or…fuck, Gatou?

No, seriously. Fuck Gatou.

They wouldn't have changed things just 'cuz it didn't match up with Naruto's own expectations. And here he was, facing the chance to move up in the ranks. The chance to rise to the level of the man who'd given him his headband. This was Naruto's chance to prove himself to that man, the man who'd given him so many opportunities.

He wasn't gonna screw it up just 'cuz Ibiki was a tool-bag.

But still…what the hell was he supposed to do?

Cradling his head in his hands, Naruto contemplated his own inadequacy, and the futility of the universe, and whether broth counted as a food group—and never before had he been more desperate to have someone nearby on whom he could lean for support; someone smart, someone who could tell him something. But no. He was sitting in between a pair of goons he'd never met before.

They were probably stupid.

He was just gearing up to bet everything on the final question, hoping against hope that Gaara and Hinata would make up for a horrible performance and maybe, just maybe, convince themselves not to murder him, when he happened to glance down at the floor and spy a thin, innocuous tendril of sand inching its way along, slipping and sliding until it made out a word:

Cheat

It was only there for a second, just long enough to read, before it changed.

Testing how well

Another change:

We can cheat

Last:

Don't Get Caught


Seventy-eight.

It was baffling. That there were so many genin battling for the chance to rise in the ranks. Hinata didn't like to think of herself as especially talented; surrounded as she was, on all sides, from truly gifted shinobi, it was a shock to her sensibilities that she was sitting here at the end of the first leg that would (potentially) mark the end of her days as a genin. That there were so many others was, at one end of the spectrum, gratifying. It made her feel good about her fellows, and it made her feel connected to them. But on the other end, it made her nervous.

Every one of these people was competing for the same position she was.

But then…she couldn't blame them. Given the right platform, Naruto really was an inspiring presence; nobody knew that better and more intimately than she did. And somehow, she'd known he would speak up when Ibiki started talking about the tenth question being all-or-nothing.

"What kinda coward do you take me for?" he'd demanded, standing up from his seat. "What, you think just 'cuz you throw some questions at me that I'm gonna turn tail? Don't you treat us like children, you son of a bitch! I'll take your last question. I'll take it and I'll chew it up and I'll spit it back in your stupid face. You don't scare me. You don't scare a damn one of us. So get on with it!"

He had just the right kind of belligerence that impressed certain people, even though it tended to exasperate most. Morino Ibiki was one of those certain people. And just like that, the test was over. They passed. Just by taking their final question, by agreeing to take that gamble. The more Hinata thought about it, the more it made sense. It did make her wonder about the point behind the paper test, but…well, maybe that was why she wasn't a chuunin yet. Maybe she would understand once everything was over.

Seventy-eight candidates, moving on to the second test. As Hinata stood up and started to leave the hall, wondering what the next day might have in store for her, she noticed that Gaara's uncle was heading for her. She smiled, and waved, and he returned the gesture.

Once outside, she noticed that for all his bravado, Naruto was shaking slightly. He drew in a deep breath and shook his head violently. "I'm freaking dumb, you guys know that, right?"

"Not at all," Yashamaru said with a smile. "That was quite a display."

"Sure, sure. But if I…"

The small-talk continued. Hinata noted that Gaara seemed calmer than he had been, but still withdrawn and sullen. His eyes weren't burning anymore, but embers still lurked there. She caught his eye, but didn't say anything. She merely smiled and gave him a reassuring nod.

Gaara sighed. Stopped walking.

Yashamaru stopped, too, and glanced over at his nephew. "Gaara?"

"…I'll do it."


It moved quickly, and it probably wouldn't make sense for anyone who hasn't watched the Chuunin Exams arc recently, but what I tried to do with this chapter was move it along at a decent clip, while adding in the elements that would have changed, based on my understanding of what I've done.

While there may be issues with this chapter, I feel it represents what I should have done with the previous story arc.

I hope that you enjoyed this, and that you'll join me for the next leg of the race.