Chapter 12

Whoosh. Thud.

"Udon! I was trying to sleep!"

"Sasuke-san said to attack you when you were least expecting it."

"He meant when we're moving."

"Yes, I did. New plan."

Whoosh. Thud.

"You hypocrite…"

"You're most likely to be attacked when you're asleep."

"Just wait until my shift, Uchiha-san. Then we'll see how you like—"

"Will you three shut up? Udon, you're supposed to be on guard."

"Yes'm."

"Uchiha, do something useful with your insomnia for a change, and get some water."

"…Hn."

"And…heh… and Hanabi…"

"Stop laughing, sensei!"

"Heh. Go… bandage that up or something. You'll attract a predator, and since I'm going back to sleep you kiddies will have to handle it on your own."

"But I…! Oh, fine."

***

The day had dawned bright and hot. Tree branches trapped thick patches of haze under the leaves—cloying patches of moisture that stole breath right out of a person's lungs and trapped sweat on exposed skin. Heat rose in messy, damp waves up to the branches under the canopy, where the four ninja traveled in a compromise between the shade and the thick air. This heat was something they'd all experienced before, trained in since old enough to hold kunai, and while annoying they were used to it.

They had much more of a problem when the landscape changed from forests to dry, grassy wasteland.

On the steppes surrounding the Village Hidden in the Grass, the heat was dry, and the sun-baked earth loose enough that the inevitable wind kicked up large patches of dust that stuck to skin and sapped all the moisture out. This was especially so in the old riverbed Anko had chosen to follow instead of fighting through the tall, sharp grasses. The dust they kicked up by walking got in their eyes and mouth, and their hair stuck to their faces in damp, gritty clumps. Sasuke, who had left the sleeveless shirts he'd been wearing at home in favor of a loose black gi and thick sword belt, was torn between being grateful for the added protection from the dust and annoyed that the long sleeves and high neck were managing to trap the heat close to his skin.

Hanabi seemed to be having similar problems, what with the traditional heavy white clothing favored by much of her clan. Her mood was not helped by the fact that, three days later, her neck was still sore, and she had been run ragged by near constant bombardment, courtesy of her traveling companions. The result was irritable complaining about how the turns made what should have been a few hours' walk into nearly a day of journeying. Anko pointed out that if she really objected she could blaze a new trail herself. "'Course," she added speculatively, "you'll never find the village, since our escorts through the genjutsu are all waiting on this path, and you don't know the terrain very well, and you'd probably get bitten by a rattlesnake, but don't let that stop you from striking out on your own. Initiative is an important quality for a ninja, after all."

Hanabi glared the glare of someone who wants to retort, but can't work up the energy, while Anko exercised the infuriating ability all teachers have to ignore nonverbal death threats from their students. This was, by now, a pretty familiar exchange. Sasuke tuned them out. He was far too hot to actively take an interest in his team at the moment. He was, in fact, far too hot to do much of anything except struggle against the exhaustion brought on through sleep deprivation and near-constant physical activity. He rolled his stiff shoulders and cast around the monotonous scenery for something to focus on.

As though on cue, Udon threw a senbon at Hanabi, who proceeded to jump out of the way and round on him, looking ready to spit fire. It was a tribute to how tired she really was that she worded her response so harshly; "Udon, if you throw one more weapon at me I will shove it straight up your—"

"Quiet!" Anko snapped suddenly, just as Sasuke tensed and turned towards the foreign presence he'd suddenly sensed to his left.

The nin who stepped out of the grass was surprisingly short, not to mention remarkably fresh in comparison to the four dirty, sweaty Leaf-nin in front of him. He had a firm, easy stance that spoke of years of training, and wore the scimitar at his side like it was second nature to do so. At least, Sasuke thought it was a 'he.' Gender was obscured by the loose long-sleeve shirt and long pants he was wearing, likely to protect from the sharp blades of grass he'd been standing in, and the hitae-ate tied around his neck obscured whether or not he had an Adam's apple. Either way, the nin somehow managed to give the impression that he was looking them over even though any identifying features (including his hair and his eyes) were hidden by a rice hat angled over his face.

Sasuke found he rather disliked the attention. He pasted his best unimpressed look onto his face and pointedly returned the favor.

"Your walls shall not hold me, for I have wings to fly," the nin murmured, his voice monotone, but distinctly male nevertheless.

"You cannot track my flight, for I will take to the trees," Anko drawled back, somehow managing to give the impression of reclining nonchalantly against something in the middle of a clear pathway. "You people come up with some pretty fucking weird passwords…"

The nin did not respond. "Welcome, Konoha entrants," he said instead. "I will be your guide through the genjutsu surrounding the Village Hidden in the Grass, and to your lodgings in the village. If you will please follow me." With that, he turned and walked straight back into the tall grass again, completely disappearing from view.

"Oh, of course," Hanabi muttered, reaching up to rub her neck with a grimace. "Force us down a needlessly winding, dusty path for hours, when we could have just walked straight there through the grass." Sasuke marveled at her ability to forget logical arguments posed earlier that day. It explained quite a bit, actually…

"Maybe it's an attempt to throw off our sense of direction," suggested Udon, looking speculatively after their guide. "If they just gave us coordinates, it wouldn't really be a hidden village, would it?"

Somehow, Sasuke doubted that was it. He frowned at the place where the grass nin had disappeared, activating sharingan as he did. There was a genjutsu there, for sure, but it was hard to tell what it was hiding from his angle. "Wait," he ordered the others before they could step off the path after the unnamed Grass nin.

"What now?" Hanabi snapped, clearly reaching the end of her rope. "He said to follow him off the path!"

Sasuke very nearly ignored her (he was sure it was common sense not to follow a nin from another village into unknown territory), but Anko was right. He needed to be chuunin, and if they didn't pass then he wouldn't either. And as Hanabi had just once again demonstrated, they were either too inexperienced or too stupid to do it on their own. Which meant he'd have to spell everything out. Wonderful… "He's a high-ranking ninja from another hidden village, and we are here to participate in the chuunin exam," he told her, voice coming out a little more annoyed than he'd intended to let on. "Last time I entered, they started the weeding out process before the first test even began. I want to be sure he's been sent to guide us."

Hanabi bristled at him like an offended cat, then pointedly looked to Anko, who shrugged. "He's got a point. For what it's worth though, the guy did know the password."

"It wouldn't hurt for Sasuke-san to check, right?" Udon chimed in, frowning at the place where the ninja had disappeared with a new wariness (Sasuke found a new appreciation for Udon's often latent ability to reason). Figuring this counted as a vote in his favor, Sasuke walked up the path until he was directly in front of the place where the Grass nin vanished, and looked into the thick plant life.

"There's another path that forks from this point," he reported, frowning. "It's hidden by about five layers of genjutsu, all showing thick grass growing at slightly different angles to obstruct a casual observer's view. Two of the layers look like they hold a seal of some sort." It was actually very well done. He was impressed. Of course, it was a genjutsu to hide the entrance to a hidden village. Impressiveness came with the territory. "I can't tell exactly what the seals do, and I don't see any other blatant traps," he continued, deciding to keep his teammates informed in case they had to respond to the situation, "but I don't see our guide either. Hanabi."

"Right," she answered, walking up to the newly discovered path herself and taking Sasuke's place directly in front of it. She formed a quick seal and narrowed her eyes. "Byakugan… Oh." She relaxed, her the look on her face settling somewhere between annoyed and puzzled. "He's… standing in the grass to the right of the path."

"Um… is he doing anything?" Udon asked after a pause.

"No. He's just standing there. Looks like he's listening to something. Probably us."

"So it's safe to proceed, then? No mouse traps blocking your path?" Anko asked, obviously amused.

"No mouse traps, jounin-san," came a call from the grass. "I do suggest your genin refrain from using such interesting tricks in the genjutsu, however. Chakra use will activate the protections around the village, and then I will be forced to disqualify the team on the grounds of having too few members."

"You heard the man, kiddies. Eyes off," Anko said cheerfully, walking past Sasuke and Hanabi and onto the path, Udon following quietly behind her. Sasuke frowned, but did as instructed, and nudged Hanabi as he walked off the main road.

"Defense," he reminded her. For a moment it looked like she was going to argue, and then, miraculously, she sighed and deactivated byakugan as well.

"Yes, yes," she muttered. "I know."

***

The genjutsu itself was pretty unbelievable, once one entered it. Upon stepping off the path, Sasuke found himself in a four foot by four foot square of path, surrounded on all sides by the thick grass they'd been walking alongside for the past half a day. The square moved with the guide, and the guide didn't wait for them, so they had to stay pretty close together and nearly on top of the grass nin in order to avoid becoming lost. After a while the four walls became indistinguishable from each other, ensuring that the nin caught inside would be well and truly lost should they stray from the path.

There were two explanations for this. The first was that Grass had failed utterly to adequately disguise its village, which, considering its reputation for genjutsu, Sasuke doubted rather strongly. The second explanation required there to be a much subtler genjutsu at work, from which the first genjutsu distracted the viewer. If there were any discordant details, they would be small. Fortunately, Sasuke had been trained from an early age to watch for such elements in his surroundings, so as to prepare him to better use his bloodline. Sharingan of course made seeing through a genjutsu easier, but he theoretically didn't need it.

The problem was, in practice he couldn't seem to focus on his surroundings. His mind kept drifting from its task, concentration always far enough away that he couldn't quite hold on to it. He was burnt out and too uncomfortable to do anything more than follow his team and its guide. Of course, he recognized what he was feeling as his body hitting its limit. He'd felt nearly the same when he'd fought that blond-haired Akatsuki member, the one who fought using explosions, with the weird fixation on art. The fact was, he shouldn't have been hitting that limit. He hadn't done anything physically taxing for days, and sleep deprivation was something he'd experienced many times before. The most disturbing part, though, was that he couldn't bring himself to worry about any of it now.

Of course, it was possible that Hanabi was worrying enough for the both of them. To her credit, she hadn't gone so far as to actually hyperventilate in the middle of enemy territory, but she was holding herself too stiffly. Her white eyes, made even more prominent by the black and blue smudges underneath them, were too wide and darting around like a frightened rabbit's. Sasuke supposed that, for someone with a fighting style that depended almost entirely on being able to see in all directions, having to purposely cut off her long-range vision in an insecure setting was something out of a nightmare. Then again, even Anko was holding herself too purposely relaxed, as though trying too hard to show she wasn't bothered by the arrangements while keeping herself loose enough to turn on a dime, should the need arise, and the guide had a set to his shoulders that implied he'd much rather not have four nin from another country at his back.

Really, the only one of Sasuke's temporary companions who did not seem a little disconcerted was Udon. He was looking around himself with a frown on his face, and he kept glancing up at the sun and then squinting ahead of the quide as though he might be able to see where they were going. "How much further is the village, Grass-nin-san?" he asked suddenly. Sasuke frowned at him, even as Hanabi whipped her head around (wincing as her neck protested the movement) and glared at him, presumably for asking such a stupid question. The Grass-nin halted and turned slowly to face him.

Udon ignored everyone but the Grass-nin (even Anko, who had snickered), a determined look on his face. "It's just that, according to the sun, we've been walking for a few hours now, and if we don't get there soon we'll have to travel through the dark." The Grass-nin's mouth turned down a little, before smoothing back out into a straight, neutral line. Sasuke found himself wondering if the frown was due to annoyance, contemplation, or the thought of having to escort the four of them through the dark while they were armed. It was impossible to tell without seeing his whole face. Personally, Sasuke would be most concerned with guiding armed nin, but one never knew how stupid other people were. It was always best not to assume.

"I am afraid," their guide said slowly, in tone that implied he was planning what to say before actually saying it, "that I am not authorized to state the exact distance we have remaining. However, we should reach the village well before dark, Leaf-nin-kun."

"Great!" Anko cut in. "Can we keep walking, then?"

The Grass-nin looked at her for a minute, before giving a very short bow and continuing forward. Hanabi narrowed her eyes. "He's mocking us, I just know it," she muttered, presumably in the general direction of her teammates.

Sasuke had a brief internal debate before deciding that a response was better than ignoring her entirely. "He isn't important. We only need him to get to the village. A good shinobi knows when not to rise to provocation."

"Oh, you are such a hypocrite!" Hanabi snapped. "I don't see anyone else slamming people into trees!"

Sasuke bristled, mostly because she was right about him losing control of his temper. "Funny," he responded as coldly as he could manage. "I don't see anyone else purposely provoking people capable of slamming others into trees."

Udon looked over his shoulder worriedly. "Guys, maybe you shouldn't fight here…"

"Oh, just be quiet, Udon! This has nothing to do with you!" Hanabi snapped. Udon frowned at her.

"Well, if you're going to be that way about it, I don't see anyone else on this team making an effort to work together. We're going to be taking a very dangerous exam in a few days. It'd be a good idea to get along, don't you think?"

"Don't broadcast our weaknesses in the middle of enemy territory," Sasuke snapped, pointedly keeping his voice as low as possible and glancing at the guide out of the corner of his eye (he seemed to be tuning them out, fortunately).

"He's right!" Hanabi spat, immediately changing her assault in favor of gaining an ally. "You think you're so great, but we're here, too, and we want to pass just as much as—"

"We're here!" Anko interrupted. Sasuke whipped his head forwards and peered through the opening that had just appeared in the grass walls.

Below him was a shinobi village.

***

Grass, Sasuke thought, was a bit of an architectural marvel. The village was built, as most villages were, with a solid wall all around the perimeter and a heavy guard duty around the main enterance. Unlike other villages, however, Grass had another wall about a third of the way in, and another wall after that. All three had solid gates that opened only after their guide proved his identity with more obscure lines that Sasuke found vaguely familiar but couldn't place, and stated that all four of the guests in his company were from Leaf and here solely for the chuunin exams. The buildings (all high enough that they should have collapsed under their own weight) were made almost entirely of mud bricks and thatched roofs, woven so tightly that the village's shinobi could use them as a secondary highway. Grass bridges stretched along the particularly wide jumps in order to better facilitate traffic. On the ground, there was a network of small, winding roads through the structures, made even more confusing by the near hundreds of stands pushed up against every available surface. Vendors selling baskets and ceramic products were prominent, Sasuke noted as he followed their guide through the maze. Not too many food stands, really, but this could probably be explained by the fact that Grass's climate was pretty unfavorable for large surpluses of crops. Most common of all, of course, were weapons manufacturers; Sasuke tried to muster up the interest to catalogue how many, but gave up around thirty-eight, all with shelves stocked with blades curved in order to more easily cut through the thick stalks protecting the village on either side, thick grass ropes and nets, sturdy twine and row upon row of explosive tags and other types of diversionary devices. What space wasn't taken up by weapons and trap materials was filled with jutsu scrolls. Sasuke suspected, should he bother to look, that a vast majority would be for genjutsu. It fit with Grass's reputation and emphasis very well to lean towards the type of technique meant to trick the senses.

Slightly more interesting, to Sasuke at least, was that upon fully entering the village the sun repositioned itself in the sky to about three hours earlier and about 35º to the left. There had been three different levels, then, instead of two. The first one, the walls of the path, was obvious, and meant to distract the target from the other two layers. Usually, an obvious genjutsu such as that would clue someone in, and they'd dispel it, but they'd been warned that using chakra inside the path would trigger traps, thus ensuring that the other two levels could continue to function uninterrupted. Next was the sun's accelerated movement across the sky, which the target would accept while in the genjutsu, but could correct for upon leaving it. Most nin would assume that the second level was the last, since once freed from the illusion, the difference became obvious. Thus, the effect of the third level of genjutsu would remain hidden. That is, the target would never notice that the path, which had seemed straight, was probably full of twists and turns that obscured both the location of the hidden village and its distance from the riverbed. Of course, this last was just a theory based on the sun's location in the sky. Sasuke would never really know. Bastards…

Anko left them shortly after entering the third and final gate, of course. "Don't get into too much trouble now, kiddies," she said cheerfully. "I'll see you at the first part of the exam, and if I have my say not a moment before." She wandered off cackling at them, and Sasuke wondered somewhat sardonically if she'd remember to at least check them in before finding the filthiest bar she could stand and getting thoroughly smashed.

"Oh, damn," Hanabi said suddenly. "I forgot to ask her what that bit of poetry was from. Now she'll just pretend she doesn't know what I'm talking about if I bring it up."

Poetry? Sasuke thought, confused as to what she was talking about, even as Udon asked, "What poetry?"

Hanabi frowned. "You know," she insisted, "that code she used when he," here she gestured to their guide, who was pretending not to eavesdrop on them as he wound his way through the streets, "showed up. I'd bet a year's salary it's from an untitled poem by an anonymous author, written sometime last century, and that Anko-sensei knows the entire thing by heart."

"Really?" Udon asked, understandably incredulous about this bit of news. "Poetry?"

"Poetry," Hanabi insisted. "She comes out with it every once in a while when she's speaking, but unless you ask her pretty soon after she'll never tell you what it's from. I think she's embarrassed about it, or something." She shrugged, then, in the universal genin-chuunin code for 'who the hell knows what jounin are thinking, anyway?'

The three temporary teammates fell silent after that, Sasuke at least taking a little time to mull over all the interaction he'd had with Anko and wonder if she'd ever dropped a phrase that he'd missed. If she had, it had been ridiculously well-hidden. Then again, poetry wasn't really his area of expertise, and he eventually let it slide into the corner of his brain titled "Quirks People Have that Make No Sense" and brought his mind back to more important things. Like looking at the ridiculously tall mud-brick building in front of which the Grass-nin had stopped.

"This is the hotel you will be staying at for the entirety of your time in our village," the guide intoned politely. "If you go inside and talk to the receptionist, she will make sure you each get a room. I have here three passes that will allow you to travel as you wish through all three shells of Grass. Show them to the receptionist when you go in." He pulled from his kunai pouch three thin slabs, each with a number and katakana stamped into them, presumably as an identifier. "As a representative of the Village Hidden in the Grass, I wish you all luck in the upcoming exam, Leaf-nin."

He bowed, making it extremely rude on their parts if the three Konoha nin didn't do the same. They all did, albeit stiffly, with murmured thanks for the well-wishes and guidance into the village, and then turned and walked back into the throng of people without another word. Sasuke watched him turn a corner and fall out of his line of vision, then turned to stare at Hanabi and Udon, who were eyeing him and each other awkwardly. He raised an eyebrow. "Standing in front of the hotel isn't conducive to getting a room," he opined flatly. "Go and get some rest."

"Oh, yes, and let you do all of the scouting for us? Thank you, no, I think I'll take a look around myself," Hanabi replied haughtily, lifting herself up to her full height (Sasuke found himself once again wishing for a large sack and permission to knock her out and put her in it). "I am, after all, uniquely equipped to do so. Besides, the entire point of the three of your random attack spree was to tire me to a point of reflex. I hardly see how rest is going to help."

"I wasn't implying that I would scout the village myself," Sasuke responded, feeling a twinge of defensiveness at the accusation. He was beginning to think this whole 'team bonding' thing was more trouble than it was worth. He'd never had to make an effort before, after all, and it had always worked out fine. "I assumed you'd want a few hours to yourself after being in the constant company of three other people for nearly a week." He left off the 'I certainly do' that threatened to come out of his mouth. "Besides, there is a difference between acting on reflex and plain sloppiness. I'd prefer if you were doing the former during the exam."

"…Um, so would I, actually," Udon piped up, sounding a little apologetic. "We should probably all get settled in at least. None of us have really been sleeping that well over the past week, and exhaustion often leads to similar symptoms as intoxication. Slow response time, poor coordination, lowered inhibitions…"

"Oh, heaven forbid Uchiha-san lower his inhibitions," Hanabi interrupted caustically. "What do inhibitions have to do with fighting, anyway?"

Sasuke gave up. "Do what you want. I'm going to get a room." He turned his back on the two of them and started walking towards the door. So close to a bed, the full force of his exhaustion hit him, and he suddenly felt weighted down, as though it was hard to move, or like the air was particularly thick here. He definitely needed a nap. And to get away from the pests for a bit.

The pests in question were having a hurried, whispered conversation. It ended abruptly when Udon called his name. He sighed inwardly, then looked over his shoulder at them and raised an eyebrow. What now?

"Would you like to meet us tomorrow morning to look around?" the younger boy asked. "We can do it together, see if any of the other teams are here yet…?" He sounded hesitant, like he was asking for a personal favor from someone who didn't particularly like him. Sasuke considered working up the energy to come up with something caustic.

He shrugged instead. "Alright," he answered. "See you tomorrow at 0-800." He faced forward again and walked away before Udon could reply.

He'd meant it too, had fully planned to meet them the next morning to scout for competition. The plan had been to take a quick nap, then get some dinner and do a preliminary sweep of the area around the hotel for useful stalls, in fact. But when Hanabi and Udon came into his room and woke him up the next morning (from a healthy distance away, they weren't complete fools), understandably annoyed that he'd missed the meeting he'd set up by hours and (in Hanabi's case) ranting about all the time wasted on their only full day in Grass before the exam. The sun shining through the window, the clock on the bedside table indicated 10:30, and getting out of bed felt more difficult than the entire five-day trip combined.

***

The building housing the first part of the chuunin exam was squat compared to the hotel. It sat in the middle of quite possibly the only area of Hidden Grass that wasn't filled with vendors. Instead, someone had taken the time to build a highly landscaped garden of plants that grew well in the village's climate, and lining the path were obviously high-level ninja, body language relaxed but eyes on each shinobi or kunoichi that went through the door. Sasuke could feel their eyes following him like a physical presence crawling up and down his spine. He was strangely grateful for it, actually, as it got some adrenaline pumping through his system and worked to focus his foggy head a little. This was, after all, definitely not the time to be succumbing to… well, whatever was going on with him these days.

"We're supposed to report to room 4-L," Udon informed his teammates, as they walked through a surprisingly decorative entrance hall towards the stairwell at the far end. "There should be a table just inside the door where we have to give our names and the numbers on our passes." He rustled the scroll that had appeared without warning on the desk in his bedroom that morning, brightly colored seal on the back proclaiming it the official instructions for all teams entering the exam. He squinted at the tiny kanji someone had painstakingly written in, Sasuke was sure, as bland a language as humanly possible. "We're not supposed to bring anything in with us except weapons and provisions, in case we pass to the second round, and we'll be searched at the door. Damn," he said, frowning. He reached into a pocket on the jacket he was wearing and pulled out what looked like a well-worn medical scroll. "Guess I can't bring this in, then, huh?"

"Give it to me," Sasuke offered. "I'll make sure they don't find it when they search us."

"Thanks," Udon said gratefully, handing it over with a smile. "It's got all the medic jutsus I know on it, with notes on how to use them. I know I'd forget exactly the one I needed if I didn't have it." He turned back to the scroll, apparently unaware of the grimace from Hanabi and the eyebrow twitch Sasuke gave at the implication that their medic would forget a jutsu under pressure. "The exam is supposed to start at 0-700 hours," he read. "We're supposed to listen to exactly what the examiners tell us to do, with the understanding that if we don't they can fail us. Also, the…"

"What's that over there?" Hanabi asked suddenly. They'd reached the third floor of the building, and there was a gaggle of genin at the end, crowded around a man sitting at a desk, apparently arguing with him. Sasuke looked at the number by the door, which proclaimed it to be room 4-L. He snorted.

"That's a test. Ignore it. The more people taken in by it, the better for us."

"It says 4-L on the door," Hanabi pointed out. "Genjutsu?"

"Che."

Hanabi glared at Sasuke for the sound, but didn't comment. Maybe because she realized that someone trying for chuunin with an activated doujutsu shouldn't have had to ask that question.

"Yeah," Udon answered, squinting at the group until the staircase rounded a corner and blocked his view. "One they usually put up to catch the people first taking the test. It got most of the ninja in my year the first time my team took it." He eyed Sasuke. "What about you, Uchiha-san?"

"My team saw past it," Sasuke answered shortly, wondering when this had turned into story time. "What else does that scroll say?"

"Oh, sorry, um…" Udon returned to the scroll, and the rest of the short walk to the end of the hall on the fourth floor was spent listening to Udon list the requirements and qualifications for entering the exam. The jounin sitting at the actual table let them through with relative ease (after making some obscure reference to the fact that their sensei was completely insane, of course), and then Sasuke was walking into the room where he would take the first part of the chuunin exam for the second time in his life. He took a moment to ponder how strange it was to feel both more and less confident about the whole thing.

Then he got a good look at who they would be competing with, and the 'less confident' feeling went away immediately.

The three of them were standing in a plain, white room with rows of desks, as expected. Also as expected, the entrants seemed to have broken themselves up by village, and further by individual team. Sasuke tuned out Udon, who had continued to read the instructions under his breath, and Hanabi who was hissing questions back. He took off his hitae-ate and used the ties to secure it to his forearm, letting the fabric of his sleeve bunch underneath and prevent it from sliding off, allowing the surface to be used as a mirror. Then, leaning back against the wall, he passed his eyes over their competition.

Mist hadn't sent too many teams this year, he noted. He counted only three, and neither looked particularly interesting. Either the village had a shortage of teams, or the genin looked weaker than they were, then. From the way they were standing (overly aggressive), and the fact that they seemed to be more interested in being intimidating than scoping out their competition, he suspected the former. Maybe all that purging of bloodlines had finally taken its toll on the once powerful village, if these were the best genin they could produce. Either way, Stone had made a much more impressive turn-out. seven teams, and all of them older shinobi. He frowned as he noted one that may be trouble (a traditional two-boys-and-a-girl, idly chatting and apparently ignoring everyone else around them, but one of the men had a sword out that he was leaning on, and it was turning subtly so as to get the lay-out of the room), then did a quick sweep over the Sand teams (depending on how the first test was organized, these would be annoying or a non-issue), before allowing himself to settle on the largest group in the room.

Traditionally, the village hosting the exam had the largest turn-out, and this year was no exception. There were eight teams from Grass huddled in the room, interspersed with some chuunin that were clearly there to help facilitate the test. All of the ninja were arranged semi-casually around a team of openly-awed rookies who were staring at the crowd as though they'd never seen so many different ninja in one place in their lives. Sasuke felt a wave of amused nostalgia settle into him, breaking temporarily through the numb professionalism he'd wrestled his exhaustion under this morning before meeting up with Hanabi and Udon. Heh, he thought. Nothing to worry about, but it might be interesting… He mentally shook his head and went back to his survey.

Konoha had predictably made a pretty low showing. There was one other team, and from what Sasuke could tell at first glance, the only person on it with a prayer of passing was the girl (an Inuzuka, who was holding her puppy to her chest and grinning either to herself or to the room at large, as though she knew something none of them did and they'd be very sorry soon enough). Over all, not too bad a group, but nothing he couldn't handle. He stretched up and locked his fingers above his head, before leaning forward from the wall and rotating his shoulders before lowering his arms behind his back, still laced--a test to the flexibility of his injured wrist, as well as a show to anyone looking that it was a non-issue and a convenient way to get his hands out of sight.

Rabbit, monkey, ram…

The door slammed open, revealing an attractive, dark-haired Grass jounin who walked in quietly enough to give the impression that her feet weren't touching the ground. Her hitae-ate was around her neck instead of her forehead, allowing her bangs to fall just above her dark eyes and her short-cropped hair to frame her angular face in a way that would be very pretty if her expression wasn't that of a person who was about to enter a swamp against her will. A series of jounin filed in behind her and took a place against the wall. "My name is Korou," the woman told the suddenly quiet room at large in a voice that implied she was about to give a loud-speaker announcement and was rather bored with the prospect. "I am the head examiner for the first test in this exam. I am going to move to the front of the room, and you lot of flea-infested field mice are going to form a single-file line in front of me to collect a number. You will then go to the chair marked with your number and sit in it until I get bored enough to hand out your exams." Not waiting to see how the room at large would react to this announcement, she set off across the room leaving the participating genin to dive out of her path. Sasuke took a quick look at his two teammates, who were staring at her with ridiculous, gobsmacked expressions on their faces. He smirked, then made three seals under the cover of the sudden activity in the room (dragon, rat, dragon). This part of the exam was suddenly much more entertaining.

***

Korou waited a good five minutes after everyone had seated themselves before letting up her level, unimpressed stare and turning to the chalk board, where she began writing (Sasuke had a sudden flashback to academy and tried not to shudder visibly at the thought of Iruka turning around and shouting while appearing to grow three times in size). "Alright, you miserable excuses for academy rubbish," she stated in the same calm, collected voice. "Here are the rules. You'll get an exam sheet with ten questions on it. You get a point for each correct question. The twelve teams with the highest total scores will go on to the second section of the exam. You lose two points for each time you cheat. If you lose all of your points, your entire team fails this section." She rounded on the classroom suddenly, and fixed them all with the blank look she'd held since walking in. "Questions?" she asked in a way that managed to imply what would happen to those who didn't understand in exquisite detail. "No? Well then." She formed four seals, and the exam papers appeared in front of each participant. "Begin."

There was another flurry of activity, during which every entrant looked down at the paper in front of him or her, and several let out gasps of surprise at what they saw. Later, Sasuke would of course deny it until he was blue in the face, but he was as surprised as the rest of them, though not for the same reason.

There were actually ten questions on the paper, question ten as obscure and useless in practice as the previous nine. This was actually a written test, without any tricks or hidden meaning. Sasuke glanced at Udon, who was sitting two rows in front of him and three seats down, whose shoulders had hunched (in embarrassment or anxiety, Sasuke couldn't tell), and at Hanabi, who was scowling with her eyes firmly fixed on the paper. Not that that meant anything, with her bloodline limit, Sasuke thought wryly. Ah, well, incorrect intelligence was a fact of life as a shinobi, and she might as well learn to deal with it now.

Sasuke looked at his paper, determined to attempt answers without looking. There was a chance, after all, that it could convince the jounin watching that he knew all of the answers without cheating, which would make it easier to cheat on the next few questions. Under the table, he let his left fingers fall into half the symbol for rabbit, before bringing it out into plain sight and continuing to work on a problem about the angle of trajectory of a kunai at a target six feet off the ground.

As this last of three levels of genjutsu settled over the occupants of the room, Sasuke dropped his pen, did a few stretches on his injured wrist so that it didn't cramp in the interim of the exam, adjusted the hitae-ate on his arm so that it reflected the writing hand of the nearest chuunin, and bent his head so that his hair obscured the view of his eyes, in which he promptly activated sharingan. This last deception was probably an unnecessary precaution, but it gave him some security should one of the jounin manage to notice and dispel all three layers. He smirked a little at the image of the chuunin he'd chosen to copy, then let his hand move in tandem with him. The jounin examiners' eyes slid off him as though he wasn't there.

Sometimes, it was good to have Sakura as a teammate. Particularly when she'd spent a good two years focusing on genjutsu, and was willing to share her knowledge. Genjutsu hid what he was actually doing to cheat, and this particular set meant that he didn't have to use sharingan on fifteen people at once. Plus, even if they counted each layer as a penalty, and caught him using his bloodline limit, he'd only have eight points off, and he'd remain qualified for the grading portion of the exam. Now he just had to hope that Udon and Hanabi would both manage to finish the test with high scores as well, and they had a pretty good chance to finish in the top twelve.

A kunai flew through the air and landed in the table through the exam of a ninja four seats to Sasuke's left. "You fail," Konou told the ninja, who was looking vaguely startled at the projectile weapon suddenly a few inches from his face. "You and your team can pack up and go." Ha, did you see that? crowed the Naruto voice in Sasuke's head, four minutes in and already one team down. We are going to kick so much ass! Sasuke was glad for the genjutsu and his longer bangs, because he couldn't quite suppress the smirk that slipped onto his face as the sound of another weapon hitting wood broke through the sound of scratching pens. Two down

***

The twenty-seven teams had been whittled down to fifteen by the time Konou told everyone to bring up their exams ("Single-file, and if I see any more writing you and your good-for-nothing team fail immediately"). Sasuke, who'd been done for the past half-an-hour, dropped the outer-most layer of his genjutsu and stood up. Udon gave him a thumbs-up from where he was standing near the front of the line, which he ignored quite pointedly. A quick scan of the other faces showed a wide variation of emotion from exuberant cockiness to nervous chagrin, and Sasuke was reminded once again of academy. It was an uncomfortable association, to be honest, and he suspected he'd be quite glad when it was over.

He waited until they'd been dismissed to an adjoining waiting room before dropping the last two layers of genjutsu, and took some pleasure in watching the in the other room jounin who'd accompanied them blink a few times and look around suspiciously. The first layer had been a blanket genjutsu telling everyone in the room that the ceiling was white, which was actually true. This made the genjutsu very easy to accept, and thus made it easier to become ensnared in Sasuke's second layer. This one made it appear that Sasuke was following directions, and attempting to answer all the test questions without cheating. He proceeded to do everything he appeared to do in the genjutsu until he completed the sign for the third and final level, which forced the jounins' eyes away from him. Theoretically, after accepting the first two layers, this last layer would go unnoticed.

His amusement at the examiners' confusion evaporated when two or three of them turned their suspicious gazes on him through the open door. I should have waited until I was away, he acknowledged grudgingly, then inwardly shrugged. There was little chance of the knowledge that he'd had a genjutsu up would affect anything now, though there was a possibility that they were still taking points for discovered cheating. A risk, but an acceptable one, particularly since he'd been using chakra to hold the illusions in place. He pushed the slight unease at the slip in caution away, and turned to watch as Hanabi pushed her way through the crowd to meet up with him, Udon trailing behind her like a puppy that just gone on the furniture and was very sorry about it.

Time to face the consequences of misinforming her about the tenth question, then. Sasuke sighed, and began hoping to any higher power available that the results came in before she reached him. After nearly a month in her company, he'd much rather face Grass's equivalent of the Forest of Death than an irate Hyuuga Hanabi.

***

A/N: It has been a very, very long time since I last updated this fic, and for that I apologize. I am still working on it (as this chapter hopefully proves!) and I intend to keep doing so! I may have finally managed to get over my several-month-long writers' block, which is a good sign for future chapters. n.n;;

Normally I'd go through all of the reviews I've gotten and respond to each one, but it has been so very long that I doubt you remember what you wrote, back in the day. So, just rest assured that I read your review and am very thankful to have received it. I hope that you will continue to read and enjoy my fic!

Now I have to give a huge thanks to my beta, Jade, without whom I would never have managed to get through this damn thing, and all of the people in the interim who asked how I was doing and reminded me that people actually wanted to see what was next. In particular, I'd like to thank Asuka Kureru, who is, by the way, one of the best writers in this fandom in addition to being a great person, and if you haven't read her fics you should.

I think that's all I've got. Hope you enjoyed this chapter, and I'll try to not take so long on the next one!