Disclaimer: Masashi owns Naruto, I don't.
A/N: I'm sorry for the lack of updates, but there's been a rather frightening amount of death in the family lately. I won't get into details and I won't lie and say that I was particularly close to those who died, but you can my dilemma (Or, at least, I hope you can.). The stress of travelling around the country and sorting things out coupled with being surrounded by so many people in mourning hasn't exactly left me feeling very write-y (See what I mean?).
On a much brighter note, however, I wish to extend my most sincere thanks and appreciation to my good friend Lanky-Nathan of Deviantart for his kick-ass fan-art of Naruko. You can see it over on his Deviantart page, a link to which will soon be appearing on my profile. You da man, Nathan.
Ibiki gave the Chuunin a obliged grunt as he took the proffered watch. It was an heirloom by the looks of it; old, battered silver that had seen better days but had been dutifully tended to and was still in as perfect working order as it had ever been. He'd thrown away his own after it had gotten damaged during the preparations for the test (He'd thrown it at a particularly clumsy underling).
Flicking open its engraved casing, he checked the time. One minute to the hour.
"How many so far?" he asked without looking up.
"Thirty-two out of the original fifty-two, sir."
Ibiki grunted again. He already knew as much; he was just making sure.
He snapped the watch closed and handed it back to the Chuunin. This test was officially over. The ratty group of Genin lucky enough to pass were hovering in a scattered bunch near the exit doors, and turned as one at the distinctive sound of his heavy tread.
"The second test of this Chuunin Selection Examination is now over." he told them, one heavy hand held regally behind his back. "Congratulations, but if you think the hard part's over, then–"
One of the sixty doors of the test rooms suddenly flew open, dragging with it by her hand a yelping, lanky kunoichi in green fatigues. Her squad-mates tumbled out after her, all three of them landing in an undignified heap at Chuunin Arata's feet. Ibiki didn't have a register of the examinees at hand, but one of the Genin bore a strong resemblance to that freak Gai, so he had an inkling of who these knife-babies belonged to.
The Hyuuga was the first to detangle himself from the dog-pile. He was obviously embarrassed by his ungraceful fumble, but hid it beneath a façade of barely repressed irritation. The blush staining his pale cheeks ruined the bluff though.
"Did we make it?" he demanded of Arata. The Chuunin folded his arms and glared at the three teens.
"No." he said with cruel satisfaction.
Squad 9 winced, the single-word answer hitting them like a physical blow. They hung their heads, a near visible pall of defeat hanging over them.
Arata smirked and continued his mental assault. "You three are pathetic. Grab your kit and get out."
"Hold it right there, Chuunin."
Arata balked. "Sir?"
Ibiki stalked towards them. His heavy coat flared around his stomping feet and a deep scowl twisted the mishmash of scars mutilating his features. The effect was so terrifying that Arata fearfully took a few steps back.
"S-Sir?" he stuttered again.
"Watch." Ibiki ordered tersely.
"Your watch, Arata!"
The Chuunin nearly leapt out of his skin as he rushed to comply.
Ibiki snatched it out of his hand and ordered another Chuunin forward. She handed over her own watch without a word and took a step back, out of the line of fire. Something had gotten the Interrogator-Jounin riled up and she wanted nothing to do with it.
Ibiki held up the two watches in his hands, his narrow, malicious eyes darting between the two in close examination. When he was done he silently handed the female Chuunin her watch back and turned to face Arata.
The younger man almost lost control of his bowels at the thunderous look on Ibiki's face.
"What is this, Chuunin Arata?" he asked. His voice was as deep as ever, like two tectonic plates rubbing together, and was completely devoid of anger or irritation. That scared Arata more than anything.
"A watch, sir." the Chuunin asked. He immediately flinched at how stupid he just sounded, and the slight narrowing of Ibiki's eyes didn't help.
"Yes, it is, Arata, but what is wrong with this particular watch?"
Arata's eyes flicked between the watch and the large Jounin looming over him. His face was exceptionally pale and his brow was dotted with perspiration. He licked his suddenly dry lips and wished dearly to be anywhere but here. He glanced to his fellow Chuunin for help, but they all looked away. He was on his own.
Half out of his mind with fear he answered truthfully and prayed to get out of this with his life. "I'm afraid I don't know, sir." he managed to utter with more bravery than he was feeling.
When Morino snapped the watch closed Arata instinctively recoiled as if he'd been stabbed.
Ibiki's voice was still alarmingly calm, never wavering above the tone of idle conversation. "This watch, Chuunin Arata, is four seconds slow. Did I not state, clearly and incontrovertibly, that all watches were to be synchronised to the second before the start of this test?"
By now Arata was shaking. "Sir, I admit that I may have been a few minutes late to the pre-test meeting, but–"
"But - nothing." Ibiki intoned with clipped enunciation. "I gave very simple, very precise orders, orders which I expected to be carried out to the letter, without fail. I didn't think it was unreasonable to expect a Chuunin of such good standing as yourself to be able to set their watch to the proper time, but I see I was mistaken."
"Sir…" Arata said pleadingly. Ibiki ignored him.
"This error on your part has greatly disappointed and embarrassed me, and I do not like being embarrassed, Chuunin Arata. As it stands you are temporarily relieved of duty. You will report to my office at first light tomorrow morning to receive your punishment detail, and a note will be added to you permanent file."
"Sir!" Arata cried out in dismay. The unfairness of it all had momentarily driven away his fear. "I know I made a mistake, but with all due respect, sir, I don't see what the big deal is!"
"The big deal, Chuunin Arata," Ibiki grated out, "Is that I expect any duty I perform, be it leading an interrogation or a simple Chuunin Exam test, to be carried out with clockwork precision. Your ill-timed watch led me to believe the time limit had expired, which led me to call an end to the test before it was officially over. Those doors would have locked themselves if the time limit was up, therefore the only way for these three Genin to be standing here is if they had opened their door before time limit expired. That is why you are being relived of your duties, and I'm sure you agree that you deserve punishment for your poor performance, don't you?"
"Sir, yes sir." Arata hung his head. He knew there was no arguing with Morino Ibiki and to try would only invite more pain when the time came. If he believed he deserved to be punished then that's what would happen. There was just no changing it. With a salute he turned and went to join the rest of the Chuunin. They didn't offer any sympathy or looks of commiseration, lest they earn Ibiki's ire themselves. As far as they were concerned, Arata brought this on himself.
"So…" the Gai look-alike said, breaking the heavy silence. Ibiki looked at him. "We pass?" the boy asked with tenuous hope.
Ibiki pursed his chapped lips, but answered, "You did."
The Genin smiled. It was obvious that only his imposing presence prevented them for voicing their glee. The small show of happiness ignited a burst of irritation in the Interrogator-Jounin.
"Well, what are you smiling about?" he snapped, scaring away their excitement. "Fall in before I disqualify you for wasting my time."
They knew not to press their luck. They snapped off a hasty salute and scurried off to join the rest of the thirty-two squads to have passed this test.
Ibiki stood before them all, towering and dominating. "Now that we have that little drama out of the way…"
To the students the Academy staffroom was a forbidden place where no one who ventured inside ever returned. To the staff, it was a blessed sanctuary, free of children or stress. While the room was a little dingy, the couch long worn out and the chairs hard and covered in itchy cloth, and while smelled strongly of years of nicotine addiction, it was a well known fact among the ranks that it also boasted one of the finest selections of free snacks, refrigerated meals and a seemingly never ending supply of caffeine to be found in the village. It was these little pleasures that kept the sensei happy and allowed them to retain what little sanity they had left.
So it was only natural that the Jounin-sensei, awaiting news of how their students faired in the exam, migrated to that little sanctuary to pillage it of all its delicious goodies while the Academy staff were busy with their classes. They would surely be in for a surprise when the lunch bell sounded.
"They're going to kill us." Yuuhi Kurenai said with assurance. She was perched in the window sill, a bowl of the last of the vanilla ice-cream in her hands. Despite her words, they didn't stop her from scooping a large spoonful into her mouth.
"We're hungry with nerves. They'll understand." Tano Tokemi said, unconcerned. She was stood beside the small microwave, watching the three tacos she'd put in slowly rotate on the glass dish.
Kakashi was sprawled out lethargically across the worn couch. He'd munched his way through three packets of biscuits and a smattering of crumbs littered his vest as evidence of his crime. He had one hand tucked behind his head and was casually pursuing his latest porn novel. Deciding to take a break, he let his head loll lazily towards Gai who was seated in the armchair nearest him. "How do you think they're doing?" he asked his old friend.
Gai sat back and sipped tea from a 'Mom of the Year' mug. "I'm sure they're doing fine." he said with confidence. "I don't expect any test given by Morino Ibiki to be easy, but those three of mine are unfailingly resourceful. I'll be surprised if all three don't make it to the finals."
"That might be stretching it a little." Asuma said with a bemused grin as he lit up another cigarette.
"Not at all. I've got a natural born prodigy, a genius of hard work and a girl who's just too stubborn fail." Gai added the last point with a laugh. "I can't wait to hear their stories of what they went through."
"You might not need to. Hello, Ibiki." Kakashi greeted airily as the large master-torturer entered the staff room. Returning his attention to his book he questioned, "How was the test?"
"Torturous." Morino snarked gruffly. He stomped over to the coffee pot and snatched it up, uncaring of the small queue that had already been waiting for their turn. Nobody was stupid enough to protest. "Over an hour babysitting potential enemy shinobi plus I had to give one of my Chuunin a reaming. This tastes like shit." he grimaced as he sipped, but didn't set the cup down. "And you, Ia. One of your idiot Genin tried to burn through his squad's door with a katon jutsu when the time-limit expired. Had to have two of my men drag them to the infirmary. I'll be sending him the bill."
Said Jounin rolled her eyes. Her bottom was perched on the small kitchen unit and she was cutting a swath through someone's private stash of chocolate she'd found in an old teabag tin. Empty wrappers littered the countertop beside her.
"How many squads passed?" one of the Jounin asked.
"Thirty-three out of fifty-two." Morino answered. "Most were ours, naturally."
"That many, huh?" Kakashi chuckled with amusement. He had to turn his head slightly to glance at Ibiki. "That's not like you, Ibiki. I half expected you to fail most of them before the test even began to thin down the numbers. What's wrong? Those cute little faces melt that block of ice where your heart's meant to be?"
The man gave a great dirty snort. "Hardly. We had an unusually gifted batch this year."
"It's to be expected." Kurenai mused as she licked the last traces of ice-cream from her spoon. "Just look at how many clan heirs we have taking part. Plus, didn't I hear that the Kazekage sent his own children to take part? Kind of odd for a Kage to send his progeny to a Exam outside of their own village, don't you think?"
"He's boasting. Want's to show us up at our own Chuunin Exam by having his kids steal the show. He probably thinks it'll bring more revenue to Suna." Asuma snorted. "God knows they need it."
"Friggin' sand fleas." someone muttered derisively. A few others murmured in agreement.
"Speaking of our 'honoured' guests," Ibiki added in a low tone, "It should be noted that those three little sneaks from Oto passed with flying colours."
The Jounin all exchanged dark looks, the atmosphere suddenly becoming rather less convivial.
Tokemi shook her head. "Still can't believe the Hokage let them compete."
"He didn't exactly have a choice. The CEC had a say in it as well, remember."
"Yeah, but he could have appealed their decision. Lodged a complaint. There's got to be some rule against new villages taking part on such short notice. Hell, we don't even know where Oto is!"
"Or who runs it." a female Jounin spoke up near the window.
"What do we know about Oto?" Asuma suddenly asked.
Ibiki swallowed a mouthful of coffee before he answered. "Yamanaka had a few sweepers scour their hotel suite when their sensei was called away to deal with a 'discrepancy in their paperwork'." he grinned savagely at the minor deception. "It didn't turn up much. Apparently they specialise in sound or vibration based jutsu. Those Genin must be smart too; we found a few scrolls in their belongings. Looked like some unfinished jutsu; complex ones as well. Whatever this 'Otogakure' is, these little shits must be some of their best."
Ia grunted. "I don't like it. We should just do them in to be on the safe side."
"Now, now, there's need for that." Gai said placatingly. "We don't even know Oto's intentions. For all we know they could be potential future friends and allies."
Kakashi snorted. "Speak for yourself. The only people I'm interested in being friends with come from the Fire Country."
"Hear, hear!" a few Jounin spoke up.
"You're starting to sound like that old hellhound, Danzou." Asuma warned slyly.
"Maybe he has it right?" Kakashi offered. "Hell, look at Suna. We're allies with them, but we all know they resent us. The current treaty limits their list of prospective clients and they hate us for it. When the time comes to renew it, they'll demand we limit our operations in the Wind Country and if we don't, which is what'll likely happen, they'll break away from the alliance and go back to being our enemies. Face it: there's no such thing as an eternal peace, only temporary neutrality."
"How impassioned of you, Kakashi." Gai mocked with a look of surprise at his friend. He'd never known him to be so philosophical.
Kakashi shifted a bit and returned to his book. "Yeah, well I'm with Tokemi. We should just snuff 'em and have done with it."
"That's what I said to the Hokage." Ibiki broke in. "I told him we could snatch them during the next test, take a couple of vat-grown stiffs from the gene-labs and make it look like they got mauled by one of the other Genin squads. No one would have been any the wiser. He didn't go for it though. He said he didn't want to risk upsetting Oto and the CEC."
"He's got a point there." Kurenai grimaced. "A censure from the CEC is like a death sentence for the village that pissed them off. Nobody wants to hire shinobi from a rogue shinobi village after all."
Asuma grunted as he stubbed out his smoke and immediately lit up another. "Well, we can always hope they actually do get mauled during the exam. Who's got them for the next test again?"
Quite a few people winced and hissed through their teeth at the name.
Ia laughed with little sympathy. "Ha! Oh, I'd hate to be them right now."
Kurenai looked around. "Am I missing something here?"
Gai was the one to clue her in. "Spec. Jounin Mitarashi is Ibiki here's 2IC in the Torture and Interrogation Unit. Unfortunately, she has a bit of a reputation for being a tad…"
"Fucked up. What?" Kakashi shrugged uncaringly at Ibiki's dirty look. "The girl's cracked in the head, Ibiki. Even you have to admit it. And it's not like she denies it either."
"Morino here is the only one besides the old man who can control her." Asuma told Kurenai, jerking his head towards the torturer. "She won't listen to anyone else."
"What a minute; I've heard of her." Toji, a particularly rotund Jounin, snapped his fingers. "Wasn't she, like, the Sannin Orochimaru's only student or something?"
"Yeah. Left with him when he defected as well. Found her a few months later on a beach with no memory of what happened or where he went. Or so she says."
"Left her with nothing but some weird fuuin on her shoulder and a mind more bent than a Kiri salesman." Tokemi added.
"Such a shame, too, you seen the body on her? Ah! What the hell woman?" Asume demanded. Kurenai had bounced her spoon of his head.
"Stop being a pig." She shot him a cutting glare, and to the shock of many that knew him Sarutobi Asuma actually looked abashed at himself.
Kakashi snickered, not looking up from his book. "Be careful what you say about her. Old Ibiki's quite protective of her." The terrifying man in question was scowling at them, his expression growing steadily darker with each comment about his 2IC.
Tokemi, who was closest to him, quickly inched away.
Kakashi suddenly perked up when the lunch bell sounded. "That's us. We better scoot and let the Academy staff have their break room back."
With that the group broke apart and headed for the door. The halls were filled with the ruckus of children running either to the mess hall or the training yards. The Jounin nodded to the weary teachers, a few clapping them on the shoulders as they passed by.
It had been a gruelling day for the staff what with it being a Friday and the commotion of the Chuunin Exam test taking place out on the grounds, generating an excitement amount the students. It had been hard to get them to focus on anything. Thankfully they had forty-five minutes of child-free time before they had to go back and sit through three more hours of hell before the kids were let out for the weekend. They were a little surprised by the parade of Jounin emptying out of their staff room, but paid little mind to it.
That is, until they stepped inside.
"What the hell?"
"Those bastards ate all of our food!"
"Look at the mess!"
"The coffee's all gone!"
Out for blood, they rushed back out into the hallway, kunai in hand.
…only to find the group of Jounin nowhere in sight.
The new proctor's name was Mitarashi. Aside from the fact that she was Morino's second-in-command they didn't know anything about her.
As soon as the testing group was relieved to her, they were marched outside where several high, canvas-covered wagons were waiting for them, crewed and pulled by teams of Chuunin. They were ordered inside, nine to a wagon, and it wasn't long before they took off with a jarring lurch, making surprisingly good speed through the dusty Konoha streets.
Naruko cursed as the wagon hit another bump, causing her head to smack off the wooden partition she was squashed against. The wagon was not particularly spacious, and the press of so many bodies in such a confined space had caused the ambient temperature to shoot up, causing them to sweat even in the cool Autumn weather.
Two wooden benches lined the inside of the wagon and even without the bulky kits each Genin carried it would have been a tight squeeze. Lee was sat right across from her and their knees kept knocking together. If that wasn't bad enough, the cumbersome pouches attached to the webbing harness she wore forced her to perch right on the very edge of the unforgiving bench, causing her to wince every time the wagon hit an uneven part of the street. Since it was nine people to a wagon, meaning that one bench would have a person more than the other, it meant that she enjoyed even less room to manoeuvre than her squad-mates, and, to add the proverbial cherry on top of her sucky sundae, she was sat beside a unfairly fat Suna Genin who was apparently doing his best to squash her into Uzumaki flavoured jelly.
Neji was sitting one person down from Lee. He was as packed in as the young Green Beast was, but compared to her the bastard was all but reclining comfortably in his seat. He kept shooting her glances, smirking that damn smirk of his.
She wished she had the leg room to kick him.
For lack of anything else to do, and to distract herself from the sweaty Suna shinobi's laboured breathing, she closed her eyes and tried to work out the route the wagons were taking.
It wasn't difficult. The streets were unnaturally quiet, leading her to believe they had been cleared for the wagons' procession, but she noticed the little things that only a native of the village would notice. She knew she heard the distinctive tinkling of many bells, meaning they were passing the Washu Temple off Old Vale Avenue. They must have turned east after that because she could smell the strong scent of cinnamon that she'd come to associate with Mrs. Ijii's bakery; then the cries of many birds, telling her they were just passing the Aviary that housed the village's messenger birds. The wagon rattled down the wide stairs beside the Konoha Green, the village's largest public park, and Naruko winced each time she cracked her tailbone off the edge of the wooden bench. She'd have bruises by the morning, she was sure. They took a few more turns after that, followed by a long procession down the narrow streets in the residential areas, before they came to a sudden stop. They looked at each other, wondering if this was their stop, but they heard the voice of their proctor shouting something, then the squeal of an metal gate being opened. Then the wagons started moving again.
"Nrgn!" Naruko grunted in pain. A rattle more intense than anything before it shook the wagon, almost sending her careening forward into Lee's lap. He help her back into her bench and shot her a look.
In a low voice, quiet enough for only her to hear, he said, "We're heading into the forest."
Officially the expansive forest that concealed Konoha from the rest of the world had no name. On the majority of maps it was depicted as an imposing black void superimposed by a spiral-leaf under the words 'restricted area'. Some of the other hidden villages had slightly more detailed maps showing a vague outline and one or two landmarks, but nothing that would help a scout or spy navigate the land. Not even the archives in the capital city contained many references to the area, only that it was immeasurably secret, zealously guarded, and that before Konoha's rise the land had belonged to the Yamakaka-Nara-Akimichi coalition. Those that lived near its fringes gave it many names. In Otafuku Gai they simply called it 'Konoha Forest' since they had at least some experience with the shinobi who dwelled there, whereas the more superstitious peoples of the small fishing villages that lined the coast referred to it as the 'Shadow Country' due to its impressive size and secrecy, and whenever the militant samurai referred to it in their records it was merely known as 'HV-K'.
Only the people of the forest, who had dwelled there for generations and were regarded with as much mystique as their home itself, knew its proper name: Konoshi, the Forest of Hidden Leaves.
In size, it was massive. For dozens of kilometres in every direction it spread out, sweeping up over the network of low mountain-hills and down into shallow valleys which surrounded the village, broken only by the occasional jutting rock or mountain stream. The trees themselves were just as impressive. They appeared similar to bonsai trees taken to insane proportions, some of the oldest being over a hundred meters in height, making the forest appear even grander than it already was. The only known paths through it were the three merchant roads that allowed passage to and from the village. These roads were heavily monitored and it wasn't an uncommon occurrence for travellers to be searched more than once before they even got within sight of Konoha. This borderline paranoid security was one of the reasons the forest was avoided, only those with pressing business with the shinobi village being brave enough to risk the journey.
To the civilian population it was a place of wonder and fantasy.
To the military world it was one of the mightiest and most impregnable fortresses in the known world, and was one of the chief reasons Konoha was so feared.
Hidden beneath the leaves and boughs of Konoshi the land had been carefully riddled with defences painstakingly constructed over the course of three major wars and innumerable smaller conflicts. Hidden bunkers lay buried beneath the earth while bubble-shaped watchtowers made from the strongest timber had been skilfully constructed into the highest branches of the tallest trees, completely invisible to all but the keenest eyes, and connected by an encrypted radio and psionic relay network which linked them to the village and each other. Miles upon miles of mono-wire hung suspended between the trees like the metal thread of a spider, the slightest twinge of which would bring down a heavy log needled with spikes or detonate a nail bomb which had been secreted into the underbrush, and thin, leafy coverings covered deadly pitfalls filled with the impaled bones of those who had tried and failed to pierce Konoshi's defences in the past. It had not been unheard of for an enemy to try and bypass the forest by flying over it, but that, too, was not an option. In concealed emplacements in the mountains, large AKUMA weapon platforms watched the skies ready to shoot down anything larger than a messenger hawk with shuriken the size of the Shack, and deadly HIIKA launchers were poised to pepper the forest bellow with their 'murder hail' kunai-bolts. All of this was supplemented by mortars, minefields, incendiary traps, genjutsu shrouds, the local flora and fauna which were every bit as deadly as anything that Konoha's shinobi had added to Konoshi, and a thousand fold other death traps. These mighty fortifications were maintained and controlled by an elite division of the village forces devoted solely to patrolling the forest and ensuring its utter impenetrability. In Konoha's long and bloody history no opposing force had ever penetrated Konoshi's vicious defences.
It was truly a shame, Naruko would later muse, that she live to see that impressive record come to such an abrupt and bloody end. But as Gai had once told her; there was always a lesson to be learned in failure, and she would learn well in the coming conflict the lesson of treachery.
Naruko stared at the warped vision rearing above them, barely contained by the rusting chain links of the fence that encircled it, her mouth slightly agape with shock. "What… How is this real?"
Beside her Lee could offer no explanation. He shook his head, looking quite horrified. "This…this is terrible."
"No." Neji shook his head. "This was deliberate."
"Who in their right mind would want this?" Lee muttered.
Before either of his squad-mates could offer an explanation the moderators were calling for them to fall in.
One of the Chuunin stood before them, a clipboard tucked against the neatly pressed folds of his stark grey uniform. At his side, her hands shoved into the deep pockets of her heavy coat, was the proctor, Mitarashi. A woman of short stature and muscular build, one could tell just by looking at her that she wasn't the type that was afraid to get her hands dirty. A few scars covered her exposed legs, and an especially ragged-looking one that appeared to have been left by a kunai ran from behind her left ear and down her collarbone. It was likely she had more, but what little of her wasn't hidden by her slightly ill-fitting coat was sleeved into a skin tight mesh bodysuit which left her generous bosom bared to the world, a fact which she didn't even seem to notice. Such blatant exhibitionism might have inspired a bawdy remark from one of the braver Genin had it not been for the way she stared at them, eyes slightly wide and holding a noticeable glimmer of mania in their pupil-less brown depths. The heel of her right sandal tapped a speedy tempo in the grass. It was obvious she'd much rather be anywhere but here.
The Chuunin cleared his throat to get their attention. "Welcome to the second task of the Chuunin Selection Exams. By making it this far you've done both yourselves and your villages a great honour, one which you should be proud of."
Mitarashi shot him a bored, glassy-eyed look. Clearly she didn't see the need for his pointless praising. Feeling her gaze boring into the side of his head he coughed awkwardly and rushed on.
"While the first task demonstrated you ability to observe and gather information from your surroundings, this second task will show us your ability to operate under live-fire conditions. To that end for the next several days you will be taking part in a war game."
There was an excited commotion amongst the Genin. Neji and Lee looked at each other, smirking in anticipation. Naruko grimaced slightly.
"The fence behind us marks the boundary of the testing zone: TG-15. Though it may not the be one that was originally suggested," He glanced sidelong at Mitarashi, "It will provide more than a significant challenge for you. Your objectives are simple. This TG has a diameter of roughly ten kilometres. At the centre of those ten klicks is a tower. Using only the kit you brought with you and whatever you can scavenge in the TG you must get to that tower before the time limit expires. You'll have a total of a hundred and sixty-eight hours in the zone; that's seven whole days. If you're not inside that tower by sundown on the seventh day the doors will close and you automatically fail."
"That's it?" A girl Naruko recognised as one of the kids that had been talking to that sneak Kabuto whispered to her squad-mate. "Pfft! Some test."
"If you had let me finish, Miss Yamanaka," The Chuunin said coolly, causing the young kunoichi to squeak in embarrassment and attempt to hide behind her much larger companion. "I was going to add that to gain entrance to the tower you must provide tribute."
"What kind of tribute?" Yamanaka's other squad-mate asked curiously.
"Captives." Mitarashi suddenly hissed from the Chuunin's side. Her thin lips were pulled into a lopsided smile, giving her the striking resemblance to some vicious reptilian predator who'd found its next meal. Her chilling interruption had startled many, none less than the Chuunin at her side who flinched so severely that he nearly dropped his clipboard. He blushed furiously as several people sniggered, including his own colleagues.
"Hrmph, yes!" He cleared his throat hastily in a poor attempt to cover his fumble. "For the duration of this test one man on each squad will be tagged with a single marking inked onto their forearm. For each squad your primary goals are to protect your marked man while simultaneously attempting to capture another squad man. Let me make this explicitly clear right now: those bearing this marking are untouchable. You may use sufficient force to restrain and capture your target, but under no circumstances is a marked man to be killed, even if you already have a captive. A breach of this rule will mean immediate disqualification to the offender and his or her squad so you best damn well mind who you're throwing you kunai at in there. The rules are simple: your entire squad must make it to the tower alive and within the time limit. Once the test has begun you may not leave the boundaries of the TG until it is over unless we deem you unable to continue. You break any one of those rules and you're out, no if's, and's or but's. Any questions?"
"What're the rules of engagement?" An Ame shinobi asked as his fingers played with the razor edge of a kunai.
The moderator grinned a slightly bloodthirsty grin. "Go nuts. Besides the marked men everyone else are just bags of meat. You can maul each other to your demented little hearts' content."
That got a few dark chuckles out of the group.
"Spec. Jounin Mitarashi here will give you a brief overview of what you can expect inside the TG. Ma'am?"
The Chuunin stepped away, allowing his senior to 'take the floor'.
For several long seconds it seemed as though she hadn't heard him. Mitarashi stood as if in a daze, absently chewing her lip with a somewhat vacant look in her murky brown eyes. The silence stretched on and the Genin began to shuffle uncomfortably, shooting confused glances at each other. The Chuunin with the clipboard also looked uncomfortable. He looked back at the group of moderators standing at attention behind them, but they just shrugged, offering no help at all. He was about to step forward and tap the Spec. Jounin on the shoulder when she suddenly started to speak.
"Snakes," she began, her slightly gravely voice coming out in a low hiss that curled off her tongue, "Are wonderfully diverse creatures. They exist, in some form or another, in every climate across the world, from the dunes of the Wind Country to the marshes of the Water Isles. They live in the trees, in the dirt, and even in the water. Some are poisonous; others not. Some are small and innocuous; others large enough to swallow a man whole and shatter his bones to dust with the force of their bite. Some can glide; some can swim; they can spit venom and can even attack up to an hour after death. They are some of the most proficient predators in nature's creation, but they each share a single key trait: all snakes know the virtues of patience and cunning. When approached they run; they hide; they play dead, but only when their prey let its guard down for that rare split second to they lash out, striking hard, fast and taking their target completely by surprise."
She paced slowly before the twin ranks of Genin, her armoured legs swinging with every casual step. "Shinobi and serpents are startling in their similarities. We come from vastly different territories with vastly different skills, but the story is still the same. Our battles are just as much psychological as they are physical. If you want to survive this test then you will have to keep your heads about you and unshackle the restraints on your minds. Watch, plan, wait, and only in that single perfect moment when you have complete and total advantage over your enemy, only then do you strike."
"The single purpose of this test is to drag you to the very edge of death and see if you can claw your way back. Every facet of this exercise has been engineered around that goal. The TG behind me is just as much a predator as any snake and if you allow your resolve to waver even for a second it will devour you mind, body and soul. Remember that."
With that said Mitarashi spun on her heel and sauntered off. There was nothing more to be said.
The Chuunin with the clipboard cleared his throat as he moved forward once again. "When I call your squad you will proceed into that hut where you will sign the necessary paperwork and one of you will be marked. Konohagakure's Genin Squad 19 under Jounin-sensei Fusa Toji, step forward…"
Neji spat out a curse, his flared Byakugan eyes staring deep into the gloom of the TG.
"Bad?" Lee asked, leaning over his shoulder.
"Big?" Naruko asked from over his other shoulder.
"Very big. As far as I can see. The entire TG, most likely."
Naruko looked at Lee. "That's big." she said, feeling a little light-headed.
Gate 7-b was a half-rusted doorway set into the southern section of TG-15's immense perimeter fence, keeping anything from wandering in. Or, rather, keeping TG-15 from getting out.
TG-15 was a forested zone, but only in the barest, most opaque form of the word. It's ancient denizens were warped imitations of the grandiose bonsai-esque monoliths of Konoshi, their bark a sickly purplish-grey and their twisted limbs tangled and thorny with not a single leaf to their number. Despite the stark lack of canopy, the precious little sunlight that managed to pierce the gloom beneath the jagged roof of the forest illuminated little but wild, untamed underbrush and shadows of things moving unseen between massive sprawling root beds. This was a corpse-forest; a natural bone yard.
"Husk-rot." Lee said, gazing up at the great dead trees. "But I've never seen an infestation on this scale. If it really does run through the entire TG…this was no accident. It takes weeks for an infestation to completely rot a tree. Someone should have noticed."
"I'll wager they did, they just didn't care." Naruko said. "They wanted it this way. I wouldn't be surprised if they'd helped speed up the process."
"This changes things a bit." Neji dusted off his knees as he rose, his Byakugan dormant once more. "Tree-hopping is out. We're not risking those branches. We go in dirt-level."
"That will slow us down." Lee warned.
"Yes, it will."
Suddenly, the rusting cone of the tannoy mounted above the gate came to life with a tortured squeal. The voice of their proctor, slightly distorted by static, echoed out across the vast woodland.
*Sixty seconds before those gates pop, kunai-bait. Get your kit checked and squared away. If you've got prayers better say 'em now.*
Neji gathered his inky curtain of hair into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, securing it with a rubber band. "We head straight for the tower and rendezvous two klicks in. I'll be on point; Uzumaki, you're behind me; Lee, bring up the rear."
"Possible hostiles?" Naruko asked as she checked the rig holding her kit in place.
"None in the immediate vicinity, but that doesn't mean much. The TG is a big place and my Byakugan only has a range of fifty meters. Keep your eyes open."
"Afraid something might slip past your 'all-seeing eyes'?" Lee asked cheekily.
Neji shot him a level glare. "Never."
The Green Beast chuckled as he tightened his wrist wraps. "How do you want to play this?"
"SOP. The foreign squads will be rushing on ahead to establish positions and most likely set up ambush points. The other Konoha squads will move slow, like us."
"Unless they're crazy enough to risk tree-hopping." Naruko muttered darkly, gazing up into the TG's canopy.
"If they do then that's just one less potential problem we have to deal with." Neji said brutally.
*Ten seconds. Remember: one you secure your package make for the tower ASAP. You have seven days, boys and girls, make them count.*
The amber light above the gate began to flash. As one, Squad 9 each drew a kunai, black and cold, from their thigh-pouches and held them firmly in a reverse-grip at their sides.
Lee looked at Naruko's back. He couldn't see her face but could easily read the tension in her shoulders. "You ready for this?" he asked, tactful enough to keep his voice to a confidential whisper.
She breathed out slowly. "Yeah."
"Your first time going up against shinobi. It's a big step up from bandits and low-rent mercs."
She nodded. "I know."
He stared at her with a solemn gaze for a long moment before slapping her on the shoulder and saying with confidence, "You'll be fine. Whatever happens in there I've got your six."
She turned and shot him a grateful and heartfelt smile. "Thanks Lee."
A strong breeze washed through the clearing as the buzzer counted off the last remaining seconds. The amber light flashed three more times then, with a sound that was echoed a hundred times around TG-15's perimeter, the corroding metal weight of the gate flew open with the pained screech of poorly maintained hinges. A black cloud of birds leapt into the air, cawing and squawking with fright.
His long tail of hair fluttering in the wind Neji turned. The menacing white stare of his active Byakugan cut them to the soul. "It's time."
"Blasted midges." Lee hissed as he slapped the back of his neck, squishing another of the little bloodsuckers with cruel satisfaction. The pests seemed to thrive in the humidity of the TG and each and every one of them seemed to want to suck the Youth right out of him.
Naruko cast a glance over her shoulder. "Problem?" she asked with a knowing smirk.
"Don't get smart with me, Uzumaki. Just because no insects seem to bother you." he hissed back.
She shrugged. "What can I say? Bugs have always avoided me for some reason. Suck it up."
"Easy for you to say; you're not the one being eaten alive. Oh, for the love of–die, you insufferable little beastie!" Another bug was swatted.
*Will you two shut up back there?* Neji's voice growled through the ear buds of comm-radios strapped around their throats. He was a little ahead of them, effortlessly weaving a path through the dense foliage.
Naruko shook her head. Automatically, she let her ice-blue eyes trace over their surroundings searching for any sign of…anything, really.
One thing that had become startlingly obvious was that 'underbrush' was too lenient a term for the thickets of plant life that covered the forest floor. So thick that visibility was limited to a few meters and tall enough that they almost completely blocked out even the massive trees, a person would think they were in a jungle and not a forest at all. They had to be careful, too. They had been quick to notice that nearly every second plant or bush they passed just so happened to be, in one way or another, harmful to humans, if not outright deadly.
Neji smoothly sidestepped a colourful plume of flowers. Their sweet-smelling, bell-shaped blossoms tracked him almost yearningly as he passed by.
It was surreal, Naruko thought. Like being shrunk down and wandering through someone's feral back garden. The fact that some of the plants they passed by could rival or even outdo the Shack in size only emphasised the feeling.
*I doubt we'll be seeing many foreign squads in here.* Lee was mindful enough to stick to the radios. *Most of these plants are native only to Konoshi. I doubt many of them know what to watch out for.*
*Don't count on it.* Neji's whisper crackled back. *The leaders of the other villages wouldn't let their best Genin embarrass them like that. They probably fed them every bit of intel they had on Konoha. I doubt they know every threat to watch out for, but I wouldn't count them out so easily.*
Scrambling over a tall root, they slid down into a narrow ravine-like depression that wormed its way between the trees. Naruko almost cried out when what she thought to be a brightly coloured leaf suddenly sprouted wings and took off into the air with a startling buzz.
*Everything looks clear up ahead.* Neji sent. *Lee?*
*Nothing back here.*
*I can't see a damn thing. The foliage is too thick and the terrain too uneven. Feels more like I'm mountain climbing than walking through a forest.*
*Zip it with the complaints. You don't like pain then you shouldn't have become a kunoichi.*
Once again, Lee was forced to play peacemaker. *Are we going to finish this test or do you two need to stop for some couple's therapy?*
The two grumbled but thankfully let the matter drop.
Lee shook his head. Seven days with these two. Remaining a Genin was beginning to look more and more appealing.
They eventually came upon a small glade which the chocking plant growth had failed to overrun. The tormented branches high up in the overstory were especially thick here, plunging the clearing into a half-darkness. At some point during a storm however long ago a bolt of lightning had struck one of the branches and it now lay across the scrub, covered in years of accumulated moss and fungi. The air was hot and still.
Neji was shrugging off his heavy pack. "We'll break here. We'll continue on for a few hours and make camp before it gets dark."
Naruko sighed as she sat with her back against the fallen branch. Most of her kit was attached to her rigging and it was too much bother to try and get it off. Pulling her canteen from its pouch she took a long dreg, pouring some into her hand and using it to wash the sweat from her face.
Lee plopped down beside her, his own canteen in hand. "So how do we go about this, then?" He asked aloud between sips. "Do we go for Konoha squads, foreign squads, rookies, what?"
"To early to say." Neji said as he crouched in the scrub. He was gazing up at the few thin shafts of light that managed to stab through the crooked roof of the forest. "Wait until we set up camp, then we can scout the area and see which squads are operating in this part of the TG. "But," he sighed, "I think we should hold off on going after any Konoha squads. We have no idea on what they'll be marking us on. Targeting a squad from our own village may come back to bite us."
"They didn't say we couldn't go after them."
"They didn't say anything at all. That's what worries me. All of that 'don't look at what's there, look at what's not there' stuff Gai keeps going on about." He scratched the back of his head. His fine locks had become shiny with a light film of sweat and grime. "If they attack us then all bets are off, but until then let's just take things slow."
"Fair enough." They lapsed into a comfortable silence after that. For several minutes nothing was said. He glanced at Naruko and saw her fiddling with something in her hands. "What's that?"
"The card I took from that Yakushi guy." She said, holding up the offending item.
"That Kabuto fellow?" Lee asked with a grunt. "The nerve of him. I still can't believe that he had all that intel on us when we've never even met." He tried to grab her card but she held it at arm's length, out of his reach. "Does Naruko have something on her card she doesn't want us to see?" he inquired amusedly.
She smirked to hide her discomfort. "A girl's got to have her secrets, Lee."
"Secrets!" He snorted, but without scorn. "No offence, Naruko, but how interesting could your 'secrets' be?"
She almost burst out laughing. "Not very." She tucked the card away again.
She chuckled and closed her eyes as she let her head rest back against the branch. She turned her face towards him to ask him something when suddenly Lee leapt on top of her, shoving her to the ground. "Lee, what the–" her voice died when she saw the three kunai embedded in the wood where her head had been. "Ho–"
"Ambush!" Neji screamed. He was already on his feet and moving. "Move! Get behind the branch!"
Kunai, dozens of them, perhaps even hundreds, tore through the glade at a startling velocity, so fast that they barely registered even to Neji's keen eyes. They ripped through the foliage, shredding everything in sight and filling the air with a thick haze of sap and pulverized vegetation.
Lee yanked her off the ground. Still holding onto each other they tumbled over the branch, kunai whizzing by so close that Naruko felt them plucking at her fatigues. They crashed in a heap on the other side, almost landing on Neji. He was huddled against the dead wood, trying to keep his head down.
He had to shout to be heard over the din roaring through the glade. "Twelve o'clock, on high! Top of that fungal growth! Bas-argh!" He flinched as a large chunk of bark near his head was torn free, showing him with bits of wood. "Bastard has a kunai launcher!"
"You think?" Naruko snarked.
"How did a Genin get his hands on one of those?" Lee hollered. "Better yet, how can he even carry it?"
"You can ask him when we get our hands on him!"
One of the kunai ricocheted off a rock and embedded into the ground by Naruko, forcing her to pull her leg back lest she loose a foot. This kunai was smaller than usual, slimmer with three blades and instead of a handle there was a short shaft with a weighted metal ball at the end to act as a counterbalance.
"How the hell did he slip past your eyes?" Lee was shouting to Neji.
The pale teen risked a peek over the fallen branch and it nearly cost him his scalp. "He's caked in some kind of mud! It's masking his chakra, I can't see him!"
"The one time those eyes would be useful!" Naruko shouted in disbelief.
Neji was about to reply when his eyes flew wide and the kunai in his hand swung up. It connected with something in a tiny burst of sparks. Lee's head jerked to the side as the deflected senbon flew by her face. His arm a blur, Neji frantically tried to parry the shower of needles raining down on him.
"We're pinned!" Lee's panicky voice cried out.
Naruko tried to push herself into a better sitting position when her hand suddenly plunged into something cold and marshy. She looked down. Water was seeping up through the earth directly beneath them. It took her mind a few seconds to connect the dots. Her yelled warning came too late.
Seemingly with minds of their own, thin tendrils of water shot up from the ground. Snapping and cracking the air like whips they lashed the startled members of Squad 9 to the thick, kunai-peppered bulk of the branch. They fought viciously against their bonds, but it was futile. The water-ropes were unbreakable.
A figure dropped to the ground before them. In the gloom of the glade it was hard to make out any discerning features until he was standing right over them. As Neji had said, their attacker was covered head to toe in some kind of dark mud, but the metal plate half-hidden beneath the figure's wide kasa was unsullied.
The plate was featureless save for four vertical lines engraved into its non-reflective surface.
"Ame." Neji growled.
"Very good, Hyuuga." The older teen said as he stopped before them. He was tall and lanky, and if Naruko had to guess she'd say that beneath all that mud he was only a few years older than they. She could just make out the shape of several senbon launchers strapped to his forearms, and pouches no-doubt containing more of the needles nestled at his hips.
Something heavy landed on top of the branch. Straining her neck, Naruko looked up to see another Ame Genin perched above them. He was laughing in satisfaction. "That was easier than I thought it'd be."
"Yes, it was." A deeper voice this time, strongly accented. It was the one with the kunai launcher. He was much bigger than either of his two squad-mates, most of his size being made of muscle. He came stomping around the branch carrying the cumbersome form of the kunai launcher. It was an old model, Kiri-issue, belt-fed from the bulky bergen on his back. That made sense. Amegakure was notorious for the abilities of its scavengers to repurpose captured equipment. The one this young man carried was swathed in camo-cloth but what little she could see of it looked to be in good condition. It was so heavy that it required the trigger to be on the top and an handle just so its operator could lift it.
He didn't seem to have any problem with the weight, however. Not with the way he casually turned to point it at Lee's face. His bare arms rippled with muscle even beneath the thick coat of mud.
The one perched on the branch was having the time of his life. He was still sniggering like an idiot. "Oh, Abe, look at this kid's eyes." he cackled as he yanked Neji's head back by the hair. "Boy's furious. Probably didn't expect a little thing like mud to stop his 'all seeing eyes'. You know, Hyuuga-boy, you really should have been careful not to step in that puddle when you finished signing your consent forms. That's an old family jutsu of mine. A little chemical marker in the water and I can track you for miles. Isn't that amazing?" He laughed again, an overly loud grating noise.
Apparently his squad-mate found him about as amusing as they did. "Oi, super villain, save the monologue for later." The thin one in the kasa - Abe - said irritably. "Find out which one's the package so we can get the hell out of here before anyone comes to see what all the chaos was about. You really need to find a quieter way to ambush someone, Uoya."
Uoya shrugged with the arm not supporting the weight of the kunai launcher. "My way seems to work fine."
"Amen to that." The third Genin whooped as he hopped off the branch and began searching them. "I don't suppose you'll help us out here and tell us which one o' you has the mark?" He asked as he searched Lee.
"No." the boy said coolly as he stared at the heavy launcher aimed at his face.
"Hmm, pity." he said as he cut Lee's arm wraps free.
Naruko was silently analysing their predicament. The water-ropes binding them only held their upper bodies and arms to curve of the branch, leaving their legs free. That was better than nothing, but still not very helpful. The bindings looked deceptively fragile, but pulling at them felt like bands of steel cable had wrapped around her arm. She tried instead to slip one hand free while the Ame Genin were busy searching her squad-mates.
"No point in that." The teen searching them said. Naruko started as the thin, rectangular barrel of the kunai launcher swung in her direction. She hadn't even seen him look up. "I'm a suiton specialist, my sweet." he said with a smile. "And a rather gifted one at that. I can monitor your heart rate through those water-ropes so I'll obviously know when someone's trying to slip an arm loose. Please don't, otherwise I'm going to have to smack you one."
"Hurry it up." Abe ordered as he scanned the tree line ahead, watching for anyone coming to investigate the noise.
"He's not it." The boy turned from Lee to Neji. "What about you, pretty-eyes? You got anything for me? Oi! There'll none of that!" Neji had tried to kick him. The Ame Genin sat grabbed his legs and sat on them to keep them still. With a wicked grin he slashed open the wraps covering Neji's right arm, leaving a long, angry red scratch behind.
The situation was looking more an more hopeless by the second. Any moment now they were going to find out which one of them had the mark and then they'd most likely kill the two who didn't. The Ame squad's ambush had worked perfectly. Squad 9 were caught, plain as day. Their minds were racing, each trying to come up with a way out of this. They all came up empty. The more they thought the more they were coming to realise that there was a very good chance they wouldn't be getting out of this.
They were all battle-hyped. Adrenaline was coursing through them, heightening their perception and awareness, but Naruko didn't think any of them were quite prepared for what happened next.
The ursid stood a four meters tall, though that height could balloon almost double when it rose up on its hind legs. Weighing anywhere between five and six tonnes, it was a living death machine comprised of rolling black pelt, steel-sharp claws and enormous physical power.
It stepped out of the tall brush, propelled into a gallop and with a roar that seemed to shake the forest, leapt into the air, bringing poor Abe down.
Abe, wise and loyal Genin of Amegakure, screamed as he was destroyed. He screamed for much longer than Naruko would have thought possible given the spurting chunks of meat the bear was tearing away, but to her he screamed until he was a shredded ribcage being shaken in the bloody ferns.
With a roar of outrage, Uoya brought his chattering kunai launcher to bear on the massive predator.
"Push!" Naruko screamed to her stunned squad-mates.
They snapped out of it quickly. It was a blessing that the suiton jutsu left their legs unbound or else they would have been prime targets for the ursid's hunger. Bracing their backs against the fallen branch they dug their heels into the soil and pushed back. There was a heavy crunch as the branch tore away from the moss that had overgrown it. Great gouts of the underbrush were torn up as they shoved away from the slaughter. They managed to get several feet clear when their progress was abruptly blocked by one of the forest's mega-trees.
The ursid might have been content to worry the scraps of Abe's carcass for a few more minutes, buying them precious time, had Uoya's not provoked it. The great beast gave a strangled moan of pain as the Genin's heavy fire bit into its flank. Roaring in fury it lashed out with one of its broad paws, four-inch claws glinting in the half-light. There was a wet crunch and red splattered the forest. His weapon still firing spasmodically, Uoya's flew through the air, his intestinal organs spilling from the gaping hole where his legs used to be.
Only when it turned to face them did Naruko get her first good look at the monster.
It was an intimidating sight. It's wide, short-snouted head rested low between its broad shoulders. It's mouth, running with the blood of the teens it had just killed, was framed by two elongated sabre-like canines that protruded over its lower lip and reached well past its jaw, and the fur of its face was a striking white, contrasting sharply with the inky black pelt that covered the rest of it. Its eyes were two glittering balls of black, gleaming with animalistic intelligence.
The Great-Tusked Ursid. A predator among predators.
The mighty animal shook its head, gave a great huff, and with a low growl that rumbled up in its cavernous throat, began to charge.
"We're dead! We're dead! We're so dead!" Lee muttered to himself.
Panicking now, Naruko tried to push the branch back, but the damn tree was blocking them. Lee, being on the other side of Neji and furthest from her, yelped as his end of the branch was pushed closer to the charging carnivore.
Inspiration struck Naruko with all the sudden brightness of one of Gai's smiles. "Lee! Neji! Legs up!"
The two boys were far too terrified out of their minds to question her, but managed to curl in on themselves.
Naruko waited until just the right moment. It had to be timed perfectly. Lee was still screaming and Neji was struggling futilely against his bonds, shouting in rage and denial.
With a bellow that thumped the air and shook their diaphragms, the ursid sped into a full run and pounced.
With her own bellow Naruko dug her heels into the dirt and shoved back with all the strength she could muster.
Lee shrieked as his end of the branch suddenly flew forward. The heavy end of the branch, still blackened from where it had been broken from its tree so long ago, swung up to meet the beast mid-leap. Like a well-delivered right hook, ancient wood met the inch-thick armour-like plate of the ursid's skull with an agonizing crack that echoed through the spacious woodland. Groaning and stunned, the ursid stumbled and fell on its side, clutching its wounded head.
The suiton jutsu which had held them broke with the impact of the branch hitting the ground. Lee and Neji were flung free and landed in the bushes, narrowly missing a growth of leech-buds that would have drained their blood in seconds and left them withered husks. Lee quickly leaped to his feet. Naruko was stuck beneath the weight of the branch. "Naruko!"
"Go!" she yelled as she pulled herself free. "I'll be right behind you!"
She gasped as something heavy landed on the branch, almost crushing her beneath its weight. She twisted. Its front paws pressing down on the branch, the ursid gazed down her hungrily. One of its tusks was missing, obviously snapped off when she hit it with the branch.
It tried to bite her. Wildly, and more than a bit stupidly, she punched it right in the face. It felt like punching one of the carvings on the Hokage Monument and had about the same effect. The usrid's head pulled back, more out of surprise than pain. It stared at her for a second it what looked startlingly like amusement before it tried to bite her again when they were both doused in cold water.
It was the third Ame Genin, the one who's name she didn't know. The abrupt and violent loss off his squad, coupled with the terror he must have been feeling, had driven sanity from his mind. Grief and fury powered him.
His hands forming symbols, the canister slung across his back ruptured and exploded outward with brutal force, expelling far more water than such a little container should have held. The torrent was swirling around him, churning itself into white foam. He was screaming mindless curses.
Another geyser hit the creature's flank, almost knocking it over and tearing a large chunk out of the beast's flesh and staining the spray pink with blood. Infuriated now, the ursid abandoned her and turned on its new prey.
Naruko wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Coughing, spluttering and drenched to the bone, she scrambled out from under the branch. She wasted no time and began to run in the direction her squad-mates had gone, her limbs pumping furiously as she willed her legs to carry her faster.
In the glade behind her she could hear the two still locked in their death struggle. The hungry snarls of the ursid and the demented howls of the boy seemed to chase her through the forest. She didn't know which sound haunted her more.
Hours later when night had fallen they managed to find shelter between a formation of rock. It extended over their heads like a natural dolmen and allowed them to get a discrete fire-pit going without fear of the light being noticed. Somewhere out in the dark Neji was on first watch. They had camouflaged the entrances, set up a perimeter and hunkered down for the night.
The night air was chill and biting. The incessant chattering of nocturnal creatures filled the ambience.
Her knees drawn to her chin, Naruko stared at the embers in the pit dance as they slowly consumed the paper they used for kindling. She had dried off and swapped out her soaked fatigues for fresh ones and the few scrapes she'd taken in the battle had been tended to. The harness bearing her kit lay beside her. She was lucky. Nothing had been lost or damaged.
Lying on his side on his bedroll, his elbow propping him up, Lee stared at his squad-mate, his bushy black brows drawn together in concern. Ever since she had caught up with them she had been silent, barely saying a word beyond the occasional grunt or one-word answers. Not that it was much different from her usual demeanour.
"Hey. You okay?"
"Hmm?" She jerked out of the trance she was in and looked at him. "What?"
"I said are you okay?"
"It's just, you seem…"
He blew out a breath. "Quiet. You haven't said much since you came back."
"Do I ever say much?"
"No." he chuckled softly. "No, I've long since resigned myself to being coupled with two of the most introverted people in the village, though it does come with some strange benefits. I, for instance, like to believe I've become something of a specialist on silences."
A red eyebrow arched. "You?" The scepticism in her voice was tinged with amusement.
"Of course." he said in mock offence. Then he became serious again. "But I do know enough to know when something's wrong with one of you two. Neji could tell as well, though obviously he'd never say anything."
She snorted derisively and played with the hem of her trouser leg. "No, he wouldn't."
"You want to talk about it?"
"What are you, my psychiatrist?
"No, I'm your friend."
The sudden unexpectedness of the statement hit her like a punch in the gut. That was the first time anyone had ever said those words to her. It knocked her off balance just enough and she found the words tumbling out between her lips before she could stop them. "I've never seen anyone die before."
Lee just watched her, silently waiting for her to continue.
Had she been in her usual mindset she probably would have stopped there, but the stress of the day prompted her to keep talking. She needed to get the weight off her shoulders. "I knew I'd probably see it eventually, but…there was so much blood. I can't get the image of that kid getting mauled out of my head. It keep playing over and over like some kind of bad dream I can't wake up from. And the screams…my ears are still ringing from them."
She didn't look at him. She kept her gaze focused on the space between her feet, fearful of the pity she'd see in his eyes.
Lee heaved a sigh heavy with understanding. He was idly tracing caricatures into the dirt with his finger. Sneaking a peek, she had to smile softly as one of the characters bore an uncanny resemblance to their sensei, beaming grin and all.
For several minutes the only sound in the shelter was the soft crackling of the fire and the sounds of the forest outside. Her eyelids gradually became heavy and she stifled a yawn. She had almost dozed off when Lee began to speak.
"Last year," he began slowly, "We; sensei, Neji and I, went out on a job. It had to have been what, two months after we graduated? Yeah, that's about right. We had just lost our original fourth. She couldn't hack the PT and requested to be reassigned to a less arduous assignment. Sensei let her go. Anyway, it was the first time it would be just the three of us. A little mountain village not to far from Konoshi had asked for our help."
Naruko listened to his tale, though she didn't know where he was going with it. "What with?"
"Nothing exciting. A rockslide had blocked a few of their goat paths and they needed help shifting some of the larger boulders. It was decided that since the risk was minimal a Genin squad would be sufficient to deal with it and they handed it to us."
Lee's scratching of Gai was complete. Bellow it he began to trace a figure with long hair and pupil-less eyes. "We arrived within a day or so. To tell you the truth we weren't really needed much. The village had put together a volunteer group to help with the clearing. A guy named Morri was organising them. He was a typical village kid: twenty years old, a herder, a girlfriend bringing him water when he was thirsty. Completely boring in every way." He laughed as he added a spiral-leaf to drawing-Neji's headband, "The guy was hilarious though. Had a wit faster than any of sensei's punches. Neji was his favourite target. You would have wet yourself with laughter if you heard half the stuff he said; I know I nearly did."
He sighed and continued with his story. "With the villager's help we cleared the paths quickly enough. It looked like we'd get home by the end of the week. Everybody was in high spirits. Then…"
His finger had stopped scratching in the dirt. Naruko twisted her neck to see his face. His normally bulging eyes were dull and lacklustre.
"Lee?" she prodded gently.
He just shook his head and kept talking. His finger began to move again. "The area was more unstable than we'd thought. There was another seismic event; not as strong as the first, but it was enough to cause another rockslide. We all scrambled to get out of the way. Morri was just ahead of me. He turned and shouted something, but just as he did a rock caught him in the side of the head." He made a motion of something striking his head. Naruko winced.
"He was dead instantly. I could only huddle amongst the bigger boulders we hadn't shifted yet and wait it out. It didn't last long, but the damage had already been done. Three villagers, that's including Morri, died. It wasn't much fun after that. The squad cleared out the rest of boulders alone. We stayed only long enough to pay our respects at the funerals and left right after."
He groaned and dragged his hand through his sweat-matted bowl-cut. He looked suddenly very tired and not unlike his usual Youthful self. "I had nightmares for weeks after that. About me walking through Konoha with rocks raining from the sky and splitting people's heads open just like they split Morri's open. I kept screaming, trying to warn everybody, but no matter how much I screamed nothing would come out. It got so bad at one point that it began to effect my training. But, eventually, with time and help from Gai-sensei, I managed to move past it."
Naruko frowned. "Is this your way of telling me to get over it?"
He chuckled and sent her a bemused yet kind smile. "No." he said as he added a third face to his dirt sketch of Squad 9. "I still dream of the day Morri died and I doubt that last image of him will ever completely go away, just like I doubt you'll ever forget poor Abe or those other two Genin who died. Things like that never completely go away. But think of it this way: maybe that ursid saved our lives today? Maybe those Genin would have killed the two of us who didn't have the mark and took the one who did hostage? Maybe the thought never crossed their minds and they were just going to leave us tied to that branch? And maybe if he hadn't died on that goat path Morri would have lived to be a hundred years old with an army of grandchildren, or he would have slipped and fell to his death one day while herding his livestock?"
"What's your point, Lee?"
"My point is that despite all our powers, all our abilities and skills, one of the few things we shinobi cannot do is change the past. Tragedies happen. Accidents happen. You will see pain, heartbreak, and yes, even death in this job. You'll see things that would break most men and will break you if you let them. But, with time, the memories will fade and the pain will pass. You'll never completely forget those experiences, but eventually they'll stop being the weights that shackle you to the past and become the shield that allows you to withstand the uncertainty of the future."
"And how am I supposed to do that?" Naruko asked scornfully. Lee's speech had knocked her around mentally, leaving her dazed, confused and a little angry. The Youthful little bastard seemed to know just what to say to play havoc with her emotions.
"It's easy. You learn to open up. Let people in and accept help every once in a while. That's what we're here for."
Ice-blue eyes narrowed. "And why would you help me? Someone you've known barely six months?"
He gave her one of those big beaming smiles of his. "Because that's what friends do."
Just like that all of her anger drained from her, taking all the other bad feelings with it with such speed that it left her feeling a little light-headed.
She opened her mouth to say something - anything - but the words wouldn't come. Her throat felt strangely choked up and there was an odd fluttering sensation in her chest. A prickling sensation stung the corners of her eyes. "Lee…I…"
He tossed her another smile, softer this time, and threw in a wink. "Get some sleep, Naruko. You look like you need it. I'll wake you up when your watch starts."
With that he rolled over and flumped down onto his bedroll, wriggling around for a few seconds before falling still.
Naruko stared at his back, watching his shoulders rise and fall with every shallow breath. Then they fell upon the doodles he'd been carving into the floor with his fingers.
There was Gai alright, in all his Youthful glory. Bellow him was Neji. The caricature's stern expression was a hilarious mirror image of the one worn by its living counterpart. To its left was Lee's self-portrait into which the young Green Beast had incorporated his famous 'good guy' pose, and to its right was a scratching of a girl who's short choppy hair was held back by a bandana. Crooked whiskers adorned her cheeks and she bore an expression eerily similar to the one worn by Neji's representation. Genin Squad 9 in dirt-art form.
She turned away and flopped down onto her own bedroll. His little spiel was one thing, but she refused to let Lee's less-than-stellar artistic skills to entice any kind of sissy girl reaction out of her. She didn't care for the accusations of anyone who might have seen her surreptitiously wipe her eyes. She was not crying; her eyes were sweating, an understandable side-effect of the day's toils.
She stared at the dim firelight flickering on the rocks for a while before she let her eyes fall shut with an exhausted sigh.
One day down, six more to go. She only wondered what other horrors they would have to endure before this test was over.
A/N: I despise this chapter with the fiery ass-burning passion of a thousand Saturday night takeaways. This is just a small rundown of some of the things I went through to try and get this damn thing right, and I'm STILL not happy with how it turned out:
TWENTY-ONE different drafts which total in at up to several hundred thousand words of abandoned work. Three different proctors. Four variations of the test. Numerous structural problems. An inability to make the fight scenes interesting.
There's more but I won't bore you here. I'll just shut up and get to writing the next chapter.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The kunai launcher was inspired by the weapons wielded by the Sky Ninja in the movie Bonds. This is just one of a few slightly more modern weapons I want to incorporate into the story. My goal is to make war in this Narutoverse more fast paced and realistic than in the anime or manga. You probably saw a few of early my modernisation attempts in the Otafuku Gai arc.
Don't worry though. Naruko's not going to suddenly bust out with a Bren light-machinegun, tearing ass through an Akatsuki base on the back of a vintage Harley (Though admittedly that would be pretty sweet to write.). Picture a more medieval level of warfare intermixed with a few semi-modern warfare and fantasy elements. Remember, the ancient Greeks had flamethrowers and nations have been using mortars to hurl their balls into the faces of their enemy since the 1400's (lmao!). TV's are not an everyday household item, and most people will listen to the radio for the day's entertainment. My goal is to keep to the traditional Naruto-style shinobi story while throwing in a few ideas of my own to spice things up. I especially can't wait to hear what you have to say about how I organise the shinobi army which you should see at the end/just after the Chuunin Exams. I put a lot of hard work into it and I hope it pays off.
Oh, and once again I apologise for the unoriginality of this test. As I mentioned above things have not been so great here and my creativity had been a bit stunted. I assure you though that after the Chuunin Exam arc this story will be completely AU. Hopefully my ideas for spicing up what I have will keep you interested in the time being.
Mini-disclaimer: the scene with the ursid was greatly inspired by a scene in Dan Abnett's amazing Eisenhorn trilogy.
Remember, read and review!