Okay, so it's been over a year since I last updated this story, and I'm really sorry for that. But the good news is that, for the second time, I have completely edited the story and I am much happier with it now. Chapters 19 and 23 have especially changed, nearly doubling in length, because I just hated the way they turned out the first time around. For those of you who would like to go back and reread some of the chapter and tell me what you think, I'd be really grateful! ^.^

Not to mention, of course, this is a new chapter for those of you who have waited forever. It's not all that great, but it's a start for the next bit of action to come. Now that I've finished my editing I should be able to update more often, but please know that I will never give up on any of my stories!

That said, please enjoy the chapter!

26

"We can hardly act like we know everything, Sasuke!" Naruto whined, barely holding back a grin at the look on Sasuke's face.

Naruto's team, made up of himself, Sasuke, and Itachi, were making their way through Konoha to the first part of the Chuunin exams. All three of them were disguised by Naruto's kekkei genkai, though they couldn't really tell how they appeared to others outside of the technique, or doujutsu, as the Uchihas had taken to calling it.

They'd changed their names, too, but Naruto had discovered a way to use his kekkei genkai to make people hear different names entirely when certain names were spoken aloud, so they could each use their real names aloud. He was still discovering the many facets of his abilities and wondered what other benefits his still-new eyes could possibly give him.

The town around them was only just beginning to wake up. Shop owners waved at them tiredly, and Naruto waved back somewhat jovially. The two Uchiha, however, seemed to want to crawl back into their beds; Naruto and the rest of Nigasu had long since learned that they were not morning people. He loved to mess with them for it, too. Itachi and Sasuke specifically hated it when he switched back to his loud, cheerful, exuberant personality, which had begun to become a rarity during their travels. "Too loud." they said.

At the moment, Naruto and Sasuke were arguing over how much skill they should allow to be seen in the midst of the fighting portions of the exams. Itachi was trying his best to ignore them, though he stuck close.

"Yes. We can. Remember how Gaara and his team came out of Anko's exam? Not a scratch on them, and the most that got them was a raised eyebrow. We won't be out of place at all." Sasuke said grouchily.

"Yes, but the proctors will be more careful now. Konoha just got attacked not too long ago, remember? What if they take us out of the exam? Not to mention, we can't just start using the Fourth's techniques and expect not to be singled out!"

"Well, that's obvious." Sasuke snorted. "We can just tone our techniques down a bit. Not to mention, it's not like I can use Chidori, or you the Rasengan. Your shadow clones are somewhat off limits, too, unless you can change your hand signs. But we can still use our elemental jutsu."

"We can't do too much of that either, can we? It's not like a lot of what we know is common knowledge to Genin."

"Actually, it is." Itachi interjected. The two of them looked at each other and then to the older Uchiha. He raised an eyebrow. "Konoha's ninja may have many innate talents, but other villages actually teach their Genin a lot of what Konoha only teaches their Chuunin and Jounin. Leaf focuses more on individual talents and fostering loyalty to the village when ninja are young, not advanced chakra techniques."

Sasuke raised a brow. "So Kakashi slacked off on the job. Not surprising."

Naruto laughed. "Well, that solves that, then. So we can use anything except the more recognizable techniques?"

"Basically, yes. And your tangible kekkei genkai techniques, such as the Mangekyou; although that would probably be overkill anyway. The good thing is that you can still use the more insubstantial techniques - like the beginning form of the Sharingan, Sasuke - because of Naruto's doujutsu. It can cover your eyes." Itachi looked a bit more awake now that he was plotting. Naruto smiled at the thought. He was also glad that Itachi hadn't completely lost the copied jutsu and reflexes his own Sharingan had given him in the past. With the people they were up against, they'd need every advantage they could get.

"It probably would have been better if we'd gone over what we can and can't use last night." Itachi continued, with a severe look at Naruto and Sasuke. "But you two had to go out and exhaust yourselves in training."

"It's not like you didn't go and tire yourself out with Deidara." Sasuke pointed out, barely managing to hold a straight face. Itachi didn't say anything. Naruto laughed and began to slow once he saw the building they had been directed to find. Outside of it, there were teams of Genin milling around, and some Jounin, who were probably sensei.

"Gaara said we have to meet on the second floor." Sasuke said. "They'll probably pull the same trick as last time, so we should probably go find Karin, Suigetsu, and Juugo. They can see a trap if they're ready for it, but not if it's subtle like that."

"I see them. Over there." Naruto pointed over to a corner near to one of the building's many entrances. The three of them stood out among the Genin, but they didn't attract any real attention from their surroundings because Naruto had cloaked them, too. To the other ninja in the area, they were just another team of kids trying to get to the rank of Chuunin, but Nigasu could see each other for who they really were. The reason they stood out, though, might have been because the three of them, and Naruto's team too, he realized, were being given a fairly wide berth. The Sand hitai-ate were probably the reason for that; he saw another team that actually was from Suna not too far away that was being given the same treatment.

As Naruto ran up the three and loudly attracted the attention of the general vicinity, Itachi and Sasuke followed slowly, scanning the crowd for anything out of place. Like their information had said, there were a great many teams, and there were probably even more inside the building. It was probably a result of recent and anticipated conflicts; everyone wanted to jump ranks as soon as they could.

"Sasuke! Itachi!" Naruto yelled. Itachi flinched, not yet used to being able to use real names when undercover. Sasuke just sighed and shook his head. Naruto only grinned at them. He knew exactly what he was doing to them, and he was enjoying it, too.

Karin, Suigetsu, and Juugo didn't look all that happy to be there. They were all leaning against the side of the building that the first exam would be held in, trying to look as menacing as possible to scare away curious Genin. It was working, of course, and both teams managed to make their way easily into the building once Sasuke and Itachi joined them.

True to Sasuke's prediction, the same trick had been used on the second floor, but this time it served to convince the unwary genin that they were on the third floor and would have to return to the previous floor to find the correct room. Either way, it worked fairly well. Most of the people who could see through the genjutsu just waited until those who couldn't left the floor and then entered the room, unwilling to have more competition than absolutely necessary.

It happened to be that the two Nigasu teams also chose to do this. Naruto was glad to see that they were among the first to arrive, with only a few other teams having beaten them there. Two of them were some older genin teams from Leaf, while the other four were a scattering of Sand, Rock, and Cloud. When the Nigasu teams entered the large, open room, all eighteen eyes turned to them, gauging their would-be opponents. Apparently, Naruto's jutsu led them to be very unimpressed, and they all turned back to their previous conversations.

Suigetsu scowled at Naruto.

"Why'd you have to go and make us look like weaklings, Naruto?" He asked.

"You know why, so don't bother arguing." Karin said before Naruto could irritate the water-user with a response. Itachi shook his head.

"We can't let them think our teams won't stick together if it comes to a fight. Don't start arguing now."

"Right." Suigetsu said sullenly. Naruto echoed him after a look from Itachi. Everyone could see the laughter dancing in his eyes.

The two teams found the last unoccupied corner of the room and Itachi put up a silencing jutsu. One ninja, not too far away from them, looked up immediately with narrowed eyes focused completely on them. He quickly turned back to his team and began speaking quietly to his team. At some point he jerked his head over at them and his teammates' eyes flickered in their direction. He was a member of the sole team from Cloud.

Of course, the Nigasu teams didn't let it be known that they knew they were the subjects of such attentions. After all, they weren't really genin, but they had to act like clueless little fools with some neat little tricks.

"We'll have to watch them." Juugo said. Sasuke nodded.

"Seems like." Naruto agreed. "But first, we need to talk about the first exam."

Sasuke interrupted with an amused glance-over at each of them. "Which, according to Itachi, we should have already done, instead of doing, well, whatever else we were all doing." The others laughed, though Suigetsu and Karin were blushing. Naruto and Sasuke had been training, so they didn't have to worry about being messed with, but it was interesting to note that Juugo's face had a rather nice blush, too.

"Oh shush, Sasuke, let Itachi be grumpy. That was the last of Deidara he'd see until tomorrow evening." Naruto said with a cheeky grin, ignoring the narrowed gaze that was directed at him. The rest of Nigasu shook their heads, knowing that Naruto would pay for that remark later in training.

"Anyway, as I was saying. If we're lucky it'll be the same as it was before. It's not likely, but if it does happen, we know what'll go down. When Sasuke and I took the exam before, it was just a paper exam designed to test how well you could covertly gather information from the people around you, or so I've been told." Naruto gave a self-deprecating smile to Sasuke, who chuckled.

"At the end," Sasuke said "The proctor asks one last question which determines if you pass or fail."

"Do I need to guess which route Naruto took?" Itachi asked dryly with a raised eyebrow. The group, including Naruto, laughed quietly.

"Right. Well. Either way, if they throw something new at us, we'll have to wing it either way." Naruto said.

"Well, they can't be all that imaginative, can they?" Suigetsu asked with a raised eyebrow. Karin scowled and lightly hit his shoulder.

"Don't jinx us! It's bad enough that we're already the enemies of every real country here but Sand!"

And so they spent the rest of the time determining which jutsu they had needed that to be put out of use for the duration of the exams and they also studied each of the teams that came through the doors. Finally, about thirty minutes later, as predicted, they were called into the testing room and directed into specific places all around the room, so that they were separated from their teammates.

Naruto thought that there might have been at least one hundred teams in the huge lecture hall even though there hadn't seemed to be that many when they'd all been standing around. That made for about three hundred ninja who might or might not be part of an infiltration squad from Madara or Orochimaru. Either way, the moment Morino Ibiki stepped into the room from a side door, projecting a rather menacing aura, the room quieted to a dull roar. When he spoke, all sound immediately disappeared.

"All right, brats. You all know why you're here. But, if you didn't, you're here to join the ranks of the real ninja." Naruto nearly rolled his eyes at the dramatization. "There are four parts to this exam, instead of the usual three. You brats got unlucky. There are almost three times the normal amount of applicants this year and we're going to have to go through you all with a fine tooth comb."

Ibiki paced the length of floor at the front of the room with his hands behind his back. "First, you will be taking my written exam. This is designed to test common knowledge questions. I suggest you keep your eyes off of your neighbor's papers or there will be very unpleasant consequences. Once you receive your paper and pencil, you may begin."

The instructions were briefer than last year, Naruto mused, and Ibiki hadn't tried to scare them, too much, this time. He mentally shrugged. The quicker they got through this, the quicker they could search the village for Madara's thugs.

He sat on the fifth row, behind Sasuke and Suigetsu, who were both in the second row, but he was in front of any of the others in Nigasu. By the time he received his paper, he saw that Sasuke was already writing and he thought he might have seen the shimmer of light reflecting off of water droplets at the pencil's tip and on the paper. Strange, wasn't it, that the paper didn't absorb the water?

Naruto grinned and turned his focus to his own paper. It took him more than a minute at least to start writing. And it wasn't because the questions were hard.

He stared in wonder at the paper in front of him. He couldn't believe that he knew any one of the answers, let alone every single one of them.

He'd always been better at practical application, even with all the books he'd read from the local library. All the technical words and complicated theory written on the pages had simply left his mind the moment he turned the page. Not to mention, he'd had a hard time paying attention to topics being taught in the classroom, always trying too hard to keep up his act and get the other students to like him as a child.

And, really, he hadn't thought he'd changed all that much since then, at least for the part about knowing theory. But all the same, he found himself steadily scribbling down the answers. He wondered how he knew them. He certainly couldn't ever remember reading about these sorts of questions in any book, but he didn't think his teachers had ever asked things like that either. Then again, it may have just come from experience he hadn't had when he had just become a genin.

A question that he couldn't have possibly answered without some sort of intricate math formula just came to him with easy reckoning. Where to throw a kunai from in this sort of situation to reach this result. When to trigger the trap with a shuriken when you were X distance away from it and your target was moving southeast at Y speed.

He marveled at the simple knowing he felt when answering each of the nine questions quickly and easily. He nearly laughed in amazement. He wondered how he could never have known these answers as a genin, and, as he looked around at the clueless expressions around him, he wondered how they could not know it either.

He sat quietly when he finished and waited for the tenth question, which Ibiki had begun explaining five minutes into the exam. Naruto had ignored him, of course, already knowing what was going on, though he heard many loud objections to the idea that the tenth question would decide their fate, regardless of the other nine questions.

He saw that Sasuke was done, looking just as smug as Naruto felt, though he kept one hand over the neatly scribbled answers, as Naruto did, to encourage cheaters to look elsewhere. He saw that Suigetsu had folded his own paper in half and was sitting back in his chair with crossed arms. He looked irritated and more than ready to get on with the rest of the exams.

He didn't try to turn around and look at his other teammates, but he saw, with quick glances, that there was a great number of genin who had picked up on the idea of this first exam and were each finding ways to steal the answers from their brighter neighbors.

Naruto hid a grin by leaning forward and laying his head on his crossed arms on the table in front of him. He wouldn't try to go to sleep, but it might be good to make it seem like he was careless.

xXx

Sasuke was surprised to find that the first exam was exactly the same as it had been when he and team 7 had first taken it. He remembered cheating to take these exact same answers with his Sharingan before. Somehow he had thought it might have been at least the slightest bit different, but he was disappointed that the first exam wouldn't even present a challenge.

Ibiki was as imposing a figure as ever, but Sasuke found that the slight anxiety that had burned at the edges of his thoughts so many years ago was less than nonexistent now. He knew he could take down virtually any ninja in the room, including Ibiki himself. And he knew that his teammates could do the same.

So, instead of being anxious, he was excited, even with the disappointment that the first exam presented.

The exams had been passed out twenty minutes ago and all the rules, same as before, were explained. The introduction of a fourth part to the exam was a bit offsetting, but he could deal with that easily enough, he was sure.

He knew that he hadn't actually needed to answer any of the questions on the paper in front of him, but the perfectionist in him couldn't bear not to. When he saw the condensation forming on his pencil, and the image of a grinning Suigetsu from within, he just rolled his eyes and scribbled in the answers from his Sharingan's memory, not really bothering to even read the questions

He'd felt like an idiot when he'd first taken this exam, being forced to cheat to get the answers in the first place, but he realized now that, even without the Sharingan, he could have answered the questions quite easily. And now, others were cheating off of him! Or trying to, at least.

Thinking about it more, though, the feeling of disappointment he felt in the exam while most of the others in the room struggled to grasp even the simplest of the questions made him feel as if he didn't belong here. But then, that was true, wasn't it? He wasn't boasting when he said he was one of the strongest ninja in the world. He wondered idly what he was doing here, taking a little exam with a bunch of genin.

But I'm a genin too, aren't I? He half-sneered to himself. That's why I'm here. To earn recognition the right way.

He remembered one of the reasons they'd had for entering this exam and coming to Konoha; for him and Naruto to gain the rank of ninja that they deserved. But it really only hit him now. It was almost surreal, the fact that they were still genin. He honestly forgot about it most of the time, but when he remembered it, it stabbed at him. Making him regret ever being foolish enough to leave Konoha in the first place.

And the other reason he was here. Sure, he would love to foil Madara and Orochimaru's plans. He'd love to help find and help this Bijuu who had miraculously escaped Akatsuki's clutches. But there was only one other reason that could completely convince him to step into the heart of his hometown once again.

That reason was Naruto himself. The fact had already been proven once, months ago, when he'd rushed to stop Madara's trap. Now he was proving it again by coming to a place that had a signed death warrant out for every single member of Nigasu.

Naruto was the only man who could ever claim to be his best friend. For a long time, he'd been his only friend. Even when Sasuke had refused to see it. He would never be able to express his gratitude for the one great constant in his life. But he was sure Naruto knew that. The fact that Naruto had left Konoha for his sake only made him more grateful, and he'd do anything to pay back his debt to the man.

Sasuke shook himself mentally when he heard Ibiki finally begin to introduce the tenth question. He was surprised at himself. He didn't usually let his mind wander like that. And now was a time when he definitely shouldn't be dwelling on the past. After all, there was a mission to complete.

He scratched out a miniature Suna emblem on the sheet of paper before him and smiled as hell broke loose around him. Genin jumped up from their seats, again protesting the unfairness of the rules Ibiki had just added; he was sure he saw Suigetsu join them, rambunctiously playing the part of a furious genin. No one wanted to lose the chance to try for chuunin ever again. In five minutes, though, at least thirty teams left the room.

Ibiki then proceeded to announce that the remaining teams passed his portion of the chuunin exams. Fifteen people rose from their seats and walked over to join the proctors against the walls of the lecture hall and Ibiki explained the true purpose of the exam to those who were still clueless.

The moment Mitarashi Anko busted through the sole window of the room, Sasuke turned his head a little in the uproar that followed to meet the eyes of Naruto, who sat three rows behind him. The man was grinning and met his eyes immediately.

It was time to get to work.