Chapter 1: Never Challenged
Shikamaru sighed and looked back at Ino. "What was that?" He asked, his voice drawling lazily. She had been saying something but like a mosquito in his ear he hadn't really paid attention. His hands fell to his sides and he pushed them in his pockets. As he watched emotions play across her face comically he spared one last glance at the clouds above him and assumed the scowl he normally wore. Clouds were the Rorschach of the skies. Completely interpretive and peaceful. While he stared up into the sky the thousands of things bouncing around inside his skull gradually faded until there was only the clouds and what they looked like. Occasionally his mind threw meaningless chatter at the sky, such as how he could determine the distance from the bottom of a cloud to the ground but they faded quickly.
Ino was the antithesis of this exercise in mental stability. As the gears in his mind began turning again, filling his mind with a constant drone he stared at Ino and realized that she was a perfect mascot for the reason he wanted to stare at the clouds in the first place.
He just wanted a little quiet.
He sighed again, if only there was an exercise that quieted the boisterous kunoichi.
"I said that Asuma-sensai has decided to let us go to the exams. Kakashi-sama is letting his team try too."
As she got all this out his mind went through a list of possible outcomes of trying to get Hinata on his team. She was so much quieter but it would have taken someone with the social skills of your average garden snake to not notice that she had an almost debilitating crush on Naruto. Given that she obviously enjoyed his boisterous manner and his annoying habit of never giving up, despite it being a better choice sometimes, he doubted that he would be successful in capturing her attention professionally.
If Naruto never got the hint and if she never got the nerve it was likely she would be married to the Inuzaka. No...Hinata would be impossible, Sakura like Ino was smitten with the Uchiha. It seemed odd to him that people would pursue other people romantically that made the worst matches. Sakura and Ino were both highly emotional and could be very warm people. The closest he had ever seen Sasuke get to real emotion was while explaining their mission in Wave Country.
He looked up and saw Ino staring at him expectantly. "That sounds troublesome." He said, meaning it.
She rolled her eyes and spat back. "You think everything is troublesome. Don't you see? We could all be Chunin!" He wondered for a moment if he shouldn't keep his reasons for thinking the way he did away from her and dismissed it.
"Less than two percent of first year genin make chunin. The percentage goes up to seven percent for second years then a little less than fifty percent for third years. It would be less troublesome to just get it done on the first try. That is more likely in the third year." He didn't mention that seventy percent of fith year attempts resulted in either lifetime genin or a change of vocation.
"I don't care about statistics." She said, but without her usual fire. It was his turn to roll his eyes.
"I'm assuming Asuma-sensai wanted to meet with us to discuss it?" He said, glancing back at the clouds longingly. A pear was slowly evolving into a mushroom.
"At his house." She said, a little nonplussed. Her normally fiery eyes were a little more circumspect now and while he didn't enjoy shoving reality down her throat, the quiet was welcome. "Do you know where Chouji is?" She asked as they began walking towards their sensei's residence.
"With his mother, he'll already be told I think." She glared at hole in his cheek but he refused to look at her.
"How the hell would you know?" He shrugged, not wanting to go through the explanation. He heard her mouth shut with a click and they made their way through Konoha until they were in front of the Sarutobi compound.
The Hokage had been the first Sarutobi to rise above chunin and had done well for himself but Asuma had contributed much as well and the estate was well manicured and aesthetically pleasing. A bamboo grove sat at the far end of an immaculate rock garden and the gentle thunk thunk thunk of a bamboo cup filling and spilling was calming.
The entire compound was surrounded by ten foot walls hidden behind evenly spaced fig trees. The main house was used for entertaining guests and they had only seen it a few times. Most of their guild palavar was done at Asuma's private residence just to the south of the main building and next to a stream. He settled himself on his favorite pillow and stared at the empty game board for a while until he lost interest in playing against himself.
Not long after Asuma announced himself in a puff of cigarette smoke. "Ohayo, Ino-chan, Shiki-chan." Shikamaru wrinkled his nose at his nickname, unable to stop himself. If Asuma knew that it bothered him as much as it did he'd use it more often. He was constantly trying to get a rise out of the "laziest" ninja.
He continued on in a light tone, "We'll wait for Chouji, he should be along in a few minutes. Care for a game?" He asked, eying Shikamaru. Ino harrumphed grumpily and Shikamaru sighed, knowing that he had angered Ino yet again. He had classified her as a social minefield early on in the academy. It was impossible to know where to step and almost everything set her off.
"Ok." He said simply.
Twenty minutes later Asuma called a halt to the rout as Chouji strolled up the crushed limestone path, a bag of chips in one hand.
As Asuma-sensei spelled out the "rules" for the chuunin exam Shikamaru listened with only half an ear. The real explanation was in what wasn't being said.
That it was being held in Konoha greatly improved their chances of surviving, if not passing. The percentages he had quoted to Ino had been from first-time attempts at the exam. If he were to take it this year where he was afforded some bit of safety and advantage by it being held in Konoha his chances of passing the first time were still abysmally low but next year would jump to almost twenty five percent. If he was an average ninja, and he planned on being one...he did a quick bit of math in his head...in three years with this failure under his belt he would be twenty percent more likely to survive and twelve percent more likely to pass, bumping him up to almost two thirds probability.
I should have been a tailor. He thought acidly. Still, it was nice to do something familiar and he as Asuma finished his explanation Shikamaru finished their game in his head. He would win in four moves, maybe as few as three if Asuma-sensei wasn't paying attention.
When Asuma finished he waited for their collective response. Chouji looked at him in particular and Shikamaru knew that they'd all choose to do the exam. While he was not seen as the leader to Ino, she generally went with his implied direction.
Asuma-sensei looked at the group of them, "So what do you think?" Chouji was waiting for him to speak and Ino was pointedly ignoring him.
"Yeah, ok." Was all he said and Chouji returned to eating after a positive grunt.
Ino took the least dignified way out, "I have to go, I know that billboard brow is going to try with her team."
Asuma looked perplexed for a moment and then grinned broadly, his cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth precariously. "Great! I'll make the preparations."
It wasn't till the three of them were alone that they spoke again, Chouji first. "I didn't think you'd go for this, Shikamaru."Chouji, despite his appearances, was not stupid by any stretch of the imagination. He understood what his strengths were but like any good ninja he knew very intimately what his weaknesses were as well.
While he was not a strategist, he was more than capable of thinking his way out of problems. Extrapolative thought as well as "thinking around corners" as he liked to call it, was not his strength. It was Shikamaru's. Shikamaru couldn't crush a tree trunk with his bare hands so it was an even trade off he thought. As such, he'd appointed Shikamaru their unofficial leader, he just didn't have the courage to tell Ino.
"Makes more sense to participate when it's at least a little safer." He explained and Chouji nodded opening a fresh bag of chips, barbeque this time.
They passed the next week in their normal way, Shikamaru trouncing Asuma-sensei in Go and Shogi, practicing a few jutsus until he began to sweat, Ino carrying on about Sasuke until they all felt like rupturing their own eardrums. Chouji practiced his meatball tank as well as a few enlargement bloodlimits. To an outsider it looked as though their sensei was not pushing them when in fact Asuma was just as influenced by Shikamaru's practices as they all were.
The day of the test found the rookie teams all gathered together. More for safety than anything else. These genin aren't happy to see us. He thought, surveying the crowd.
Rock Lee had just broken up a fight with surprising speed and for once Sasuke looked as though he didn't want to have anything to do with the elder genin.
A silver haired shinobi who's name he didn't catch began showing them informational cards regarding the people involved in the test. The cards were as cryptic as helpful. A few people were completely blank showing only a mission list. One that Sasuke had singled out, Gaara of the Sand was known only for never being injured.
Shikamaru paused at this. He'd never been injured either but he'd yet to complete an A-class mission as well. He shrugged, maybe the guy was just a decent planner. He did little but follow the group, happy to have little to decide, as they exposed the chuunin proctors and climbed to the third floor.
The test itself wasn't bad, he actually had a rather decent nap after he had finished writing Chouji's answers with his shadow possession technique. He already knew that Ino had the problem licked with her own blood line technique. He didn't wake up until he heard Naruto shouting. He lifted his head sleepily and saw the idiot on top of his desk shouting at the proctor.
Shikamaru rubbed his eyes and yawned, stretching lazily. As such he missed the tenth question but it wouldn't have mattered, the impossible task was not exactly a secret technique of torture. Konohagakure had developed it under the fourth's reign and it was still employed, prior to any physical methods of persuasion.
He had answered eight of the ten questions correctly on both their tests and picked different ones to get wrong on purpose. Getting branded as an overachiever had it's own list of hassles associated with it but he didn't want to be mistaken for an idiot who couldn't disguise mutual cheating either. Average was good.
The second proctor's entrance was far more grand then it needed to be, the window blowing open and a banner unfurling in front of the class. As the Kunoichi introduced herself he tried to remember an Anko from the jonin roster but couldn't. Likely she had been an anbu for the last few years. Anbu were stricken from the jonin roster in order to protect their identities.
Anbu were primarily made up of loners. No family, few friends. It made the transition from loving your job to living your job that much easier.
He squashed the physical attraction he felt towards her. It was mostly her outfit and it left little to the imagination. This was, he realized after a moment, designed to distract. A shinobi used every weapon they possessed, her form was likely not the most powerful of her weapons but it wasn't a blunted kunai either. So a recently anbu loner, efficient and cold in the use of her body. Likely the next test was to be her reintroduction into Konohagakure life after her stint in the shadowy anbu. Probably try to prove something.
Kunoichi had a much higher attrition rate than males who were already high to begin with. Accomplished kunoichi generally had a large chip on their shoulder and almost never married another ninja.
"...tomorrow at training area nineteen." She finished. He yawned again and followed Chouji out of the classroom.
The next day the twenty two teams listened to Anko's explanation and he grew more and more annoyed. He understood that such things were common in chuunin exams but it did not make him enjoy it any more than he did. Which was to say not at all.
He couldn't remember any figures about half completing an exam resulting in higher percentages than nothing at all. The relevant information had been written in absolutes. Finished, survived, passed. He sighed and resigned himself to participating in this as well. With Ino in their group it wasn't likely that they'd be able to focus on stealth, not for long at any rate. Still, they had to play to their strengths which, in this case, was doing as little as possible to the most effect.
He took her to the side as the teams began filing into the tent to receive their scrolls. "Mindswap one of those sound nin. The girl." He had seen her possess male ninja before and to his eyes they always walked like females. It wouldn't do to be found out for a bit of a strut.
She smiled maliciously and made the appropriate hand symbols. He watched out of the corner of his eye as the kunoichi stiffened and then followed the other two ninjas into the tent.
Ino generally didn't root around in people's minds much. Mostly because the only people she had mindswapped with were her peers. Friends in the case of her team. Things like that were rude though given half a chance she wouldn't mind looking through one of Sasuke's memories and finding a post-shower mirror glance.
As she was currently inhabiting a competitor and potential enemy she felt no such reservations as she casually opened memory after memory like a person ransacking a house. It didn't take much effort to move the body she was in and the rest of her time was spent rifling through the kunoichi's head.
The shock she felt at what she found played out over the sound-nin's face and she hastily retreated out of the mind, throwing herself back into her own body.
"Shiki...maru." She said, gasping for breath in her panic. "Something's wrong..."
He heard a startled yelp from inside the tent and shoved Ino onto her back, laying down next to her. He pointed up at the clouds and began a monologue that he hoped sounded at least a little convincing. "...strata-cumulous in the upper..."
Chouji is what sold it though, he looked startled as the sound-kunoichi barged out of the tent, a hot flush in her cheeks and murder in her eyes. He even stopped chewing for a moment while she cast about looking for the culprit. Probably knows that's a Konoha bloodline.
His mind clicked over her words over and over again. They couldn't discuss it now, and as another part of his mind counted the seconds away until Ino would be able to stand again, the majority of it focused on that. Wrong with the jutsu? Wrong with the kunoichi...the exam...the scrolls?
He hated not having at least enough information to form several hypothesis so he tried to actually stare at the clouds while the other teams filed in and out of the tent. He was nearing the end of his count when their team number was called and he stood. He offered her his hand as if he were just being nice but he knew, from practicing with her that she would show the strain if he didn't help her.
She tried to speak under her breath but he shushed her by squeezing her hand. Together the three walked in and collected their earth scroll and tried to keep Chouji from asking too many questions. He didn't know what they had done but he could tell that something was wrong.
As they split up to enter the training area from different points he finally relaxed enough to ask her about it. It came out in a rush that he asked her to repeat. "They're not here for the exam." She said, calming slightly now that it was out, she felt like she had almost exploded with the knowledge. She continued on after he offered her a sip from his canteen. "I couldn't see who they're after but that's why they've come, to kill someone in the chunin exam."
He thought about this for a moment. The only people participating in the chuunin exam were of course, genin. It was unlikely that any of the genin present had angered anyone outside of their respective villages enough to warrant an assassination attempt but he didn't doubt her words.
Of the genin assembled, according to the cards that had been shown them by the silver-haired genin, only two teams had completed anything higher than a B-class mission. The sand-nin team led by the eerie Gaara and of course the Konohagakure team of Sasuke, Sakura and Naruto. If any had made enemies in their current missions it would be those two groups. He felt little loyalty to the sand shinobi but it would be a dereliction of duty to not inform at least the proctor.
"Anything else?" He asked, his voice not betraying the tension he felt.
"Just their leader's name. Oorochimaru-sama she thinks of him as." She also began to detail the teams fighting attributes but he was hardly listening now, going over the list of crimes that the former Leaf-nin had perpetrated. He was also one of the three sanin, trained by the third hokage himself.
He felt his thoughts being sidetracked as she continued to explain their fighting styles. "Just...shut up for a minute." He said, not really putting any heat into the comment. He was too busy with the implications of an s-class missing nin having a hand in their exam to notice that for once, Ino really did shut up.
They were still standing outside the entrance to the training area. It was not a matter of deciding to go in or not, he was trying to figure out Oorochimaru's intent. He had several theories at present but nothing he could explore further without getting more information on the missing nin.
"Chouji, inform the closest proctor that our team forfeits and then demand to be taken to that Anko lady. She's in charge of the test and she should be told. Tell her that the Hokage has summoned her and that Ibiki guy to his office."
"You can't speak for the hokage!" Ino began, almost immediately.
"He'll summon them." He said, brushing off the comment.
"She said there wasn't any backing out of this test, Shikamaru." Chouji added.
"You'll think of something." Shikamaru gave him a sparse smile and rubbed his temples before turning back to the kunoichi. "Ino, head to your clan and inform your father that the Hokage has requested his team as well as the Inouzuka and Hyuuga clan heads to meet at his office within the hour." He glared at the ground trying to find another flaw in his plan to stamp out.
"My dad's on a mission." Chouji said after a moment.
"That's..." Shikamaru started. He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his temples harder. He was starting to get a headache. Definitely should have been a tailor. "...that's fine. Time is...pretty important. Get to them as fast as you can. Then meet at the hokage's office." He turned and pointed at Ino, "You especially, if you can't find them in an hour, come anyways." For once she didn't glare at his finger, only nodded, looking slightly aggravated.
With the last of his preparations made he made decent time to the Hokage's office. He stared at the two chunin guarding the Hokage's door and sighed. They didn't look at all like letting him in. He stepped a bit closer, closing the gap between them. "I need to see the Hokage." He said, his voice never rising above it's lazy drawl.
"Aren't you supposed to be taking a test?" The one with a scar across his face asked, eyeing him up and down.
Shikamaru shrugged. "It's kinda about that." They looked at each other and he calculated the time it would take to explain to them to the extent that they would allow him entrance as opposed to just subduing them. He looked up at the ceiling tiles. "They all wonder why I like clouds." He said, mistily.
As the two chuunin looked upward reflexively he pulled his hands from his pockets and made the necessary symbols. "Kagemane no jutsu." He said in a bored tone and watch as his shadow lanced out to meld with theirs. In the darkened hallway it was hardly fair but he didn't really care about fair.
He stuffed his hands back in his pockets and watch as the two chunin did the same, their eyes rolling wildly in their heads, then he simply walked forward and opened the door to the Hokage's office, barely noticing that as he walked through he passed between them and then walked neatly into the far wall. Not enough to harm them but likely enough to annoy them. He kept walking forward and heard the shuffling scrape as they continued trying to walk through the wall.
The Hokage was looking at him with a chagrined but amused expression. "Hokage, Orochimaru has infiltrated the chunin exam." With that he released the Kagemane and didn't turn as he heard thudding footfalls behind him.
The hokage raised an old hand and stopped the two chuunin. "It's alright, close the door." The two chunin grumbled at the dismissal but did as they were commanded. "How do you know this, Shikamaru?"
Shikamaru related Ino's experience to the Hokage. Shikamaru was surprised the Hokage hadn't called him on using the technique prior to the test's actual start but the old man didn't bat an eye as he explained.
Sarutobi grumped something a bit louder and the doors opened. "Send for Anko." One of the chuunin's bowed and left, the other stayed at the doorway, waiting for further instruction. The old man chewed on his pipe stem in contemplation. "Orochimaru wasn't on the oto team though?" He peered at Shikamaru, barely tilting the brim of his hat enough to lock eyes with the genin.
"Nope. Ino said they didn't know where he was and it was that way on purpose." The Hokage nodded, looking even older than when Shikamaru had first entered. He drummed his fingers for a minute more before Anko burst through the door.
"I'm in the middle of proctoring your exam, Hokage-sama. I told you I didn't want to do it in the first place but you're not going to get a very good..." She trailed off as she caught his eye. He spoke just as her mouth opened to ask him what was wrong.
"Orochimaru is either in the exam or has placed a team there." Anko, for all that Shikamaru had pegged her as the typical rough and tumble kunoichi, went pale. Personal experience with him? He thought, but it was only a guess. Her mouth seemed to work before her mind did.
"They're in there with him?" Chouji filed into the office behind Anko and gave a sheepish smile to Shikamaru. For once, the bag of chips was gone.
"It would appear so." The Hokage said, calmly.
Shikamaru spoke quickly while Anko was still stunned. Once she got going again he had no doubt that like every other woman in his life, she'd dominate the conversation. "You trained Orochimaru, Hokage-sama. What are his goals?"
The Hokage sucked on his pipe and exhaled a small stream of smoke. "The destruction of Konoha, me as well but one can't happen without the other. He's also attempting to learn every jutsu in the world and wants to become immortal."
Shikamaru snorted. Is that all? Even in his head the thought dripped with sarcasm.
Anko seemed to regain a bit of control and began speaking quickly.
Shikamaru crouched in the corner and placed his hands in the eternity pose his father had taught him. "Everything is a circle, Shikamaru, we just enter the circle at different places." It was a romantic notion but regardless, it helped him concentrate. He barely noticed as Ino arrived with his father, her father and both the Inuzuka and Hyuuga clan heads. The Hokage's surprise escaped him as he poured theories into the molds of what he knew.
Destruction...possibly...doesn't account for assassination squad, none have the training or power to contend with the Hokage even if they got him alone. Given his objectives that we know, not after sand nin... Likely a two or even three objective mission. Kill genin...who? Ninjutsu knowledge...all learned, road to immortality. That gave him pause and he explored that avenue. If he wants all the ninjutsu...Sasuke is the last of his clan. Jutsu that's passed down? That was a cold avenue. The Uchiha weren't known for special jutsus as much as just knowing a lot of them. Kakashi knows a lot too. Competent, loyal ninja. Sasuke, angsty genin. His eyes closed partly. The sharingan...copy-cat ninja.
"He's after Uchiha Sasuke." He spoke loudly, interrupting whatever they had been talking about. He hadn't been paying attention but knew they had been arguing about something. Even Ino looked at him in perplexity. The Hokage only puffed on his pipe and waited for an explanation.
"Or rather Sasuke's eyes." He continued, feeling the weight of all their eyes falling on him.
"Like Kakashi. He could learn jutsu's by seeing them only once." He rubbed a knuckle under his lips, scratching an itch he didn't have. "That's only a secondary goal though or he could have just taken the Uchiha in his sleep. If he's making it look like a chuunin exam casualty then he has an additional goal."
He looked up at the gathered Jonin and clan heads. "He means to attack, if not Konoha itself then the Hokage. It would be logical to assume that if he means to attack either or both of those targets he has sufficient manpower and planning to have a chance at succeeding. It would probably be best not to alert him that we're aware of his presence. I was wrong to send for all these jonin. They would make the correct hunting team to track and kill him but that's...not quite right yet."
Hyuuga Hiashi spoke first, his voice going frosty. "A genin summoned me?"
Shikamaru turned to him, not really intimidated. His own father was a clan head, if not as respected at the Hyuuga clan. "Aside from being a good choice as a part of a hunting squad I thought you might like to know that your daughter is in a hostile situation with an s-class missing nin." He shrugged. That Hinata couldn't possibly be the ninja Orochimaru was looking for played no part in this lie and he left it unsaid. He didn't bother to see what Hyuga's reaction to this was. He'd probably be given extra d-rank missions for his trouble. So very troublesome.
"I'm sure that his target is the last Uchiha given what the Hokage has told me. So either you alert him by removing Sasuke from the exam or attempt to use his interest in the Uchiha to your advantage." The Hokage turned to him but said nothing. He took this as an indication to continue. His father was frowning at him. Extra chores too, looks like. He sighed inwardly.
"I suggest both." Now he even had the Inuzuka clan head looking at him, her feral eyes questioning him. How are they not seeing this? "Replace Sasuke with a henge. In this case Kakashi-sensei would be ideal." The one damn person I didn't send for. "He knows his team better than any of the other jonin and he'll have the best chance at not arousing Naruto and Sakura's suspicion."
"To do what, exactly?" This from Ino's dad. Shikamaru put his hands behind his head and looked up at the ceiling again.
"Not die...for the most part. Observe and report. The nin that Ino came into contact with are a known quantity. Chunin level most likely. If they are the only thing hunting Sasuke at the moment then it's likely that Kakashi can handle anything they've prepared for him. Ino can explain their abilities and relative strength to whoever is going to go." He looked at the Hokage. "Err...if they're going."
The Hokage smiled. "I haven't stopped you yet, go on."
Not sure if he felt relieved or afraid that he had the Hokage's blessing he continued. "If the team after Sasuke has at least some inkling of the plan that Orochimaru is putting into action then..." He was stopped as Ibiki entered the room. He gestured at the head of the torture and interrogation squad. The man, of all the responses he was capable of looked slightly confused and pointed at himself with a quirk of his eyebrow.
"We'll have a limited time to find out from them. It would...be best if we could convince the team that one of their members was killed as opposed to being captured." Ino piped in at this point, drawing all eyes in the room to her and blushing hotly. She continued on though. "The bandaged one, Dosu is their leader."
Shikamaru nodded, "Then likely he'd know the most about this." He turned to the Inuzuka. "It would be best if we found Kakashi-sensei quickly...you are the best tracker in the village." She snorted, good naturedly and the Hokage nodded at her as she glanced at him. Shikamaru turned to Ibiki, not watching the Inuzuka leave. "If you have a body lying around that could substitute for the sound nin?"
Ibiki grinned at him, a little disconcerting to see such a stern man actually smiling, not the scowl he expected. "Dozens!"
Shikamaru glanced at Chouji who spoke immediately. "Two meters exactly, 86 kilos with a hunched walk."
Shikamaru remembered the sound nin's arm-weapon. He didn't even know what it did, replication would be out of the question. "A medic nin will be needed too. You're going to have to cut off his right arm and leave it behind." Ino blanched at this. He didn't like the idea any more than she did but it was necessary and far be it from him to try to bend logic to his stomach's will.
Kakashi arrived a little less than a half an hour later, looking slightly rumpled and giving his best one-eyed glare at the nin-dog that was tailing him. "The Hokage has summoned you.' How hard is that?" He asked, glaring at the Inozuka. Shikamaru didn't bother to correct him on his assumption, he only explained the plan.
The gathered jonin and Hokage made several changes to the actual replacement plan but for the most part found it to be a solid idea. "To reduce the risk of being caught only Kakashi-sensei should go but...how will you find him?" Instead of answering the copy-cat ninja bit his thumb and performed several hand symbols and struck the ground with an open palm. As the mist cleared a small, grumpy looking dog stared up at all of them with droopy eyes.
"What?" The pooch asked finally.
Kakashi smiled at the dog. "Pakun can find anything." The dog harrumphed and Kakashi took him aside to explain his prey. That finished the copy-nin took off to replace the Uchiha.
The situation was the only thing that kept the Hokage from smiling to himself. All great leaders trained their subordinates to be able to survive and thrive without them. It was the paradox of a true leader: Train to not be needed.
It was one thing to say it but quite a different thing to see it in action. Sarutobi smiled inwardly as he watched a genin make intelligent conclusions, formulate a competent plan of action and draw on available resources to carry it out. Middle of his class! Very likely that was a ruse or the result of not being challenged. He wrote a small note on a piece of paper and handed it to one of his guardian chuunin. Bring me Asuma. The chuunin bowed and left silently.
Four hours later Ino's dad came back with the first report from the field. "The Uchiha has been successfully removed from the exam and Kakashi has taken his place." He wanted to ask where the Uchiha was being held but knew that the plan required the boy to be held somewhere secure until the end of the ruse. He was growing impatient for more information but that was no reason to insult his fellow ninja.
The Hokage had sent for lunch for all of them when Chouji's stomach started growling. Shikamaru didn't realize how hungry he was until the bento was placed in front of him.
"We haven't discussed your withdrawal from the exam." His father said conversationally.
He winced. "I didn't think it was too important. Only two percent of first year genin make chuunin." He didn't notice the Hokage smiling to himself.
"Still...you'll have to explain it to your comrades." His father went on.
Shikamaru groaned inwardly as Ino opened her mouth. "Ha! Not likely, Shikamaru quits at everything he does. They wont even ask why he quit."
Chouji didn't help. "Yep, that's Shikamaru for you."
There were still four and a half days left in the second part of the exam but Shikamaru had no intention of leaving the information center so he took a cot in an empty office. It wasn't until the second day the second report came in.
This time it was Anko who gave it. "They have the sound nin Dosu." Meaning they had a one armed ninja in the interrogation room right now and were likely torturing him for information.
He stepped out of the Hokage's office and promptly vomited over the railing. Because of me. He thought, wiping the back of his mouth with his hand. Even a waiter would have been easier. Ibiki found them all an hour later in the same place, looking at ease as he explained what Dosu knew.
What he knew wasn't a lot but at least they had a general idea for Oorochimaru's goal. He wanted to cripple Konoha and kill the Hokage. If the Hokage was impressed by the idea of one of the worlds deadliest nin wanting him dead, he didn't show it.
Shikamaru turned to Ibiki, "There's no chance that he held anything back?" Ibiki shook his head though he looked annoyed with the question. You're a professional, yeah yeah. I got it.
"There aren't enough ninja in the city for an assassination let alone an invasion." This came from Anko.
Hiashi and his own father hadn't returned after the first day, not being part of the planning process or any immediate moving parts, he didn't miss Hiashi's presence but he wouldn't mind his father being present. The elder Nara was the only person that occasionally beat him at shogi and he had the benefit of decades of experience.
"Our failure to see the method he means to attack does not preclude him from attacking." Ibiki again.
"Or when." The Hokage added. The Hokage turned to Shikamaru. "When would you attack?" He asked, and took a sip of his tea.
They had gone over Orochimaru's known abilities. "What other stages of the exam are there?"
Anko grumbled something about him not being privy to that information but Ibiki answered over her. "A preliminary match set then a final, tiered competition."
Shikamaru crouched down again, placing his hands in their familiar concentrating pose. "Where do those take place, respectively?" He asked, his voice growing soft. Ibiki explained the locations of the preliminary and final exams.
"I would attack in the finals, he'd almost have to. Anko pointed out, correctly, that even if he's got a hundred jonin hidden in the city we'd still have the advantage. During the finals though we'll be responsible for the safety of the spectators as well. A force divided is easier to conquer. I would start with a large scale attack at our walls, it would have to seem like the primary push and given what Ibiki has learned, it likely will be a push for the heart of Konoha. That would draw the majority of the ninja not protecting the public away from the Hokage. Orochimaru will be at the stadium, not at the main attack. I just can't figure out…"
He trailed off, trying to follow the endless number of forks that path went down. "The Hokage is old but..." He continued, ignoring whoever chuckled at that statement, "...he would not be easily defeated, even by Oorochimaru...maybe especially not by Oorochimaru. It would take time...he would have to isolate him...I don't know how he will do that." He mumbled to himself as he thought of all the possible outcomes of such a battle. None looked good, not without knowing Oorochimaru's full capabilities and support.
The Hokage turned to him. "I will handle Orochimaru, Shikamaru. You've given your best guess, trust other ninjas to do their part." It took him a moment to digest the Hokage's words and he nodded silently.
With nothing else to plan and no other questions asked of him he sat in the corner and mostly worried about any unknown mistakes or false assumptions he had made. This wasn't his first introduction to tactical planning but it was the first real life scenario he had undertaken and while he couldn't find any flaws he would have preferred to have at least a few c-class missions under his belt before matching tactical wits with an s-class nin trained by the Hokage himself. He sighed and went over the possibilities again for the hundredth time in his head.
The skull session bled into late afternoon before they finally called a halt, Ibiki stating, "Over-planning has its dangers too." Shikamaru left without a word, ignoring the dirty looks the chunin guards gave him.
His headache grew and as the day waned and fell into night he gave up all hopes of sleep and instead walked around Konoha, trying to calm his mind. He let his feet wander and it wasn't long before he was standing in front of Ino's family flower shop. He was about to chalk up that particular bad decision to stress and his subconscious and make his getaway when Ino walked out with two hands full of trash.
Her eyes took a moment to adjust, something he hadn't thought of when he decided to stay instead of hurting her feelings. He could have escaped while she was still blinking into the dark and she would have never been the wiser. Mentally kicking himself he sighed and waved. "Ohayo, Ino-kun."
"Shikamaru?" She asked into the dark, still not able to distinguish him from the shadows. "Shouldn't you be at the Hokage's tower?" He struggled with his facial expressions, no one was supposed to know that. "He let me out of punishment for the night. He's still pretty angry I quit the exam though, I'll probably have to go back for a week."
At least she had the good sense to blush, though even that was potentially problematic. He could practically feel the heat rising off of her in waves as he walked up the steps. "Mind if I come in?" He had half a mind to leave her in her embarrassment but empathy won out once again. He sighed dramatically.
She gestured him inside and closed the door behind them both. Setting the trash down she whispered a quick, "Sorry."
"I thought I'd try my hand at floristry." He didn't say, Because it's the most boring thing I can think of and it's most likely to put me to sleep. The thought certainly screamed at him though. She stared at him with no small amount of suspicion but Shikamaru wasn't sarcastic, he was just apathetic.
"I was just about to close up, if you wait in back I'll finish up and we can start on the first orders for tomorrow." He nodded and without another word, shoved his hands back into his pockets and walked to the rear of the business.
Ino's curiosity was piqued and she finished the last of the closing quickly, taking out the trash, closing the register and setting the watering timer for the more sensitive plants. A few minutes later she was handing Shikamaru a pair of her mother's gardening gloves and an apron. He looked ridiculous and any of his male counterparts would tease him incessantly if they saw him but he didn't seem to mind.
She started him with repotting the zinnias. They were getting too large for the small paper pots they were still in and she'd been putting it off. She watched him for the first few and confident that he wasn't going to snap any of the springy roots she began pruning the last of the blue roses.
"It seems odd...going back to normal things knowing what we know." His head snapped up and he glared at her in warning. "Oh, sorry. Most of the shops in Konoha have a warded room, it keeps the customers from hearing any squabbles. We can hear the sales room but any sound that originates in here ends here."
He relaxed and went back to potting with a tired nod. He looked rumpled, worse in fact than she'd ever seen him. Normally his grooming was immaculate, even after training exercises he insisted on a shower and new clothing if his were soiled. His normally neat ponytail was frayed and hair was sticking out in places. This is what he looks like after he's actually tried at something. She thought, suddenly. Followed by the obvious. I've just never seen him try before.
It endeared him to her. She looked at him as he stared intently at the row of paper pots, probably trying to figure out a better way of doing it. Slightly. She amended. It was ridiculously annoying to be paired with someone who never had to try at anything to succeed. Still...it was good to know that his apathy was constrained to things that he didn't consider important.
They worked in silence until he finished and then she showed him the appropriate amount of salt-peter to mix in with the plain soil to make the potting soil. It was heavier work but he wanted to 'try his hand' at it.
Most people thought of floristry as pruning plants and arranging flowers. While that was a large part of what she did that's only because she had been doing it for years now. You didn't trust any fool off the street to hack at your orchids because they wanted to be a florist. They started small just like anything else. In this case, as labor.
She had been alone with Shikamaru before but never in silence such as they were now. It wasn't uncomfortable, not after training together for months now. Even before that their fathers were team mates and fast friends so they, along with Chouji, had known each other all through the academy as well. Still, something about the silence was different and she noticed that the scowl he usually wore was gone. Still slouching though, you'd think his mother would talk to him about that.
She didn't know how long they worked until she happened to yawn and looked at the wall clock. It read 0240 and she rubbed her grainy eyes. "At least I wont have to wake up early tomorrow, I've got all the prep work done." She said, meaning to steer him in the direction of wanting to leave.
He locked eyes with her, taking her meaning and began removing the apron and gloves. "Thanks, Ino. That was...relaxing." He was dirty to his elbows, the sure sign of an inexperienced florist but she'd been there once too. She wrinkled her nose, pretending to get a whiff of him. He was obviously sweating and she didn't like how informal the situation had become.
"Make sure you take a bath." He grimaced but refrained from taking the bait. She was trying to get a rise out of him.
"See you tomorrow." He said, his scowl settling back into place.
Shikamaru paid a bit more attention as he walked this time. The foray into Ino's daily life had been relaxing, he hadn't been lying about that but something was tugging at a corner of his mind. It was eating away at his calm by the moment.
He had forgotten something. Something important. Try as he might it eluded him. As tired as he was he knew that it was affecting his ability to think clearly but never-the-less he made his way to the Hokage tower. The chuunin at the door gave him a few nasty stares and half-muttered comments he was supposed to hear but he ignored them. The important thing was that they let him in.
He wasn't sure if he was surprised to see the Hokage up and about at that time of the morning. He wondered if the old man had slept already and had woken up or just hadn't gone to sleep. Likely he, as Shikamaru had, tried but failed.
"Shikamaru, I didn't expect to see you this late. I hope your father knows where you're at." He thought about that a moment. That was something else he'd forgotten. To tell his mother where he was. He checking the nagging sense of doom in his mind but it was unfazed by this revelation. He shrugged.
"I've missed something." He said, simply enough. Dirt flaked off his arms as he crossed them in front of himself. The Hokage, for all the reactions he had expected, only smiled. He gestured at a pair of cushions to the far side of the room, away from his desk and they both seated themselves. The Hokage with no little joint popping.
"You know Orochimaru was my student?" He asked as he lit a small burner under a teapot. He had removed his hat and for some reason the balding, liver-spotted scalp of the old man bothered Shikamaru. It made him look old and weak. Frail.
"One of the three sanin, Jiraiya the Toad Hermit and the first Hokage's Granddaughter were the others." Shikamaru recited. He knew most of the teams and their instructors since the first Hokage founded the village. The Hokage smiled at the teapot.
"Odd that you should put it that way. Hokage's Granddaughter I mean. It's ever been the next generation's curse to live through our triumph's and mistakes. I imagine it couldn't have been easy for her to be the granddaughter of the first Hokage, constantly in his shadow but still a competent kunoichi herself. My own grandson is having similar difficulties though he's been...better of late thanks to Naruto."
Shikamaru wasn't sure where the Hokage was going with this but he understood his error. "I didn't mean to disrespect her, Hokage-sama. Princess Tsunade seemed a pretty grand title though."
The Hokage chuckled this time as he added leaves to the heating water. "I think so too." He sighed, the mirth leaving him quickly. "But yes, the three were mine to train. Most people attributed their success to my teachings. I'm not so modest as to say that I didn't help them along but for the most part they trained each other. Later, after they had gone on to be jonin...there were always whispers. Rumors of horror at Orochimaru's hands. Just rumors, mind you. Nothing ever concrete but I didn't want to believe them. It wasn't pride that made me blind...I can say that much at least."
He sighed, not meeting Shikamaru's eyes. "I was proud of my students, the great sanin even then." He began pouring their tea, Shikamaru's first.
"No, I loved him. I still do I suppose, for what he was, not what he's become." He finished pouring the tea and held the warm cup in gnarled hands. "I loved him and I didn't want to believe that he was capable of the things we'd all heard. Ambition without morality is a horrible thing to witness."
He scratched absently at a wizened eyebrow. "When we finally came across evidence of actual law-breaking I confronted him, in his own lair. He'd done things, Shikamaru...things that would make you sick to see. Things I saw for myself when I confronted him." He took a sip of the tea as if to wash a bad taste out of his mouth and Shikamaru mimicked him, not remembering taking the cup.
"When I found him, I was in my prime and he a fresh jonin. I could have ended it then, I could have saved countless lives but I failed to act. Even had he repented and seen the error of his ways...he still would have been sentenced to death for his crimes. There was no reason not to stop him then. Only I hesitated a moment and allowed him to escape." His blue eyes locked with Shikamaru's. "Now I've given my mistakes to the next generation."
He leaned forward and patted Shikamaru on the shoulder, giving him a smile. "No matter what occurs as a result of Orochimaru's actions, your team has given myself and Konoha a better chance of surviving it. No plan survives the first contact, Shikamaru but everything has a second side. Our plan will survive no more than his does but no less." He drank his tea again and was silent as Shikamaru tried to digest this.
Seeing that his words did little to assuage the gennin's worry he smiled broadly, if a bit forced. "Get some sleep, Shikamaru. You can take the side office, a cot is still set up there I think. I feel shamed enough that Orochimaru is an immediate danger to the village again. I don't think I'll ever be able to hold up my head if my genin are losing sleep trying to correct an old fool's mistake." Shikamaru started to protest and the Hokage held up a hand to silence him. "A shower too." Then he winked and Shikamaru could only rise and bow, leaving his half-full cup behind.
He was shown into the Hokage's private bathroom and given a robe by one of the chuunin guards. He washed off mechanically, his mind still turning up what the Hokage had told him. He wished he could let go the nagging feeling in the back of his mind, tell himself that he'd done the best he could, now he'd just have to watch and see. "Wishing didn't cook dinner." His mother liked to say. He sighed, resigning himself to a night of no sleep but as he was told by the sandaime he finished the shower and lay down on the cot. The window was open and he heard a cricket chirping faintly before sleep pounced on him.
When he woke it was slowly though not entirely pleasant. He had decided to let the rest of the rookie teams know what was happening but not until the day of the final exam. None of them were traitors. The only one he would have even remotely suspected was Sasuke and he was one of the rogue-nin's objectives. Too many mouths spilled secrets though.
Today was also the end of the second part of the exam and the preliminary bouts, provided that most of the teams had survived. He hadn't even thought of that. Was Sasuke going to be allowed to participate in the bouts now that they knew he was one of the objectives of a possible invasion force?
If he had the choice to make he would keep the genin under wraps until the whole situation was over with. He has the top genin of their generation as far as raw combat was concerned but being the best of the least experienced would do little to win them the day.
He forced himself out of bed though the sun was still just a half circle on the horizon. He found his clothes cleaned and folded neatly on the desk of whoever's office this was. He went through what morning ablutions he could without a comb or a toothbrush. Looking in the mirror he sighed. He hated not appearing in charge of himself. It was one of his pet peeves.
He walked to Chouji's family home and ate breakfast with him and his mother. He was not looking forward to returning to his own home and getting the third degree from his parents. There was always plenty to eat at Chouji's house anyways.
"Today's the preliminaries, I thought we'd go down and watch the fights. See who's going to be in the finals." Chouji nodded, looking more somber than usual.
"Is there anything I can do to help Shika?" He asked, under his breath as his mother began washing the dishes.
Shikamaru realized that Chouji was worried about him, likely because of his appearance. "I just didn't have a brush. I slept in the Hokage tower last night."
Chouji sniffed and ignored the food on his plate, giving Shikamaru a dark eyeball. "We're a team. You don't have to take this on all alone."
The Nara nodded and stood from the table. "For now it's just wait and see. When the day of the finals comes I'll need a lot of help." Chouji quirked an eyebrow but Shikamaru waved off the implied question. "Besides, you've already saved our tails once by just being you and I don't have your talent for guessing people's body-type. The medic-nins would have been flying blind with Dosu."
Chouji looked over his shoulder, pretending to be offended. "It's gauging not guessing." Then grinned at Shikamaru sincerely, pleased that he had done something.
Just like that he had a second wind. He borrowed Chouji's comb and fixed his appearance so he didn't appear to be completely out of control and they both headed to Ino's house. Usually they'd find her at the shop this early in the morning but Shikamaru knew she'd want to sleep in after the night they had.
Her father answered the door and gestured them both in. He explained that Ino was still sleeping but he'd peek in on her. If they didn't need her for official Konoha business he wasn't going to wake her. "She stayed up half the night at the shop for some fool reason." He grumped as he trudged up the stairs.
Chouji spoke quietly around eating a bag of pork rinds. "My dad should be back in a few days. It was only an a-class mission he went on." Shikamaru nodded and was about to reply when there was a shuffle from the top of the stairs. Both looked up and their eyes went wide at what could only be described as a bog monster shuffled down the stairs in an unsteady gait.
He knew, in the back of his mind, that it was Ino underneath all that green goo and wild hair but it still frightened him to see what a woman could become when she wasn't out to impress a man.
Chouji whimpered and tugged on his sleeve. "We'll meet you there, Ino-kun!" He shouted, louder than he probably intended then dragged Shikamaru out of the house. Shikamaru was only along for the ride as the larger ninja picked him bodily up and ran with surprising speed until they were out of sight.
They stood on the balcony and it was only a short while later, despite the severe appearance change in their third teammate. Gone was the green muck that had covered her face and her hair was done up in her usual perky pony-tail. Chouji still kept Shikamaru between them but Ino appeared to be too tired to be embarrassed about it. She'd be setting the carpet on fire if it had been Sasuke that saw it. He thought, uncharitably.
Of the twenty two teams that had set out only six had made it this far. When their team had left the second part of the exam they had also taken one of the scrolls with them, reducing the amount of teams that could pass by two.
He assumed that the disparity between the teams that mathematically could have passed versus the teams that actually did pass was due to the nature of the exam itself. There was no guarantee that when a team faced another that one side would be incapacitated but not have the correct scroll to give to the winners. Still, it seemed like a pitifully small bunch that had survived thus far and everyone except that creepy sand-nin Gaara looked worse for the experience.
The Sand genin team was still in the running as was 'Sasuke' Naruto and Sakura. Kiba's trio as well as last years graduating team of Rock Lee, Tenten and Neji. While they were a year ahead in experience this was their first exam as well. He tried to calculate the odds of all the rookie teams making it this far as opposed to the other teams and decided against it. He'd probably kick himself for not staying in the running.
He sighed. He wasn't any more likely to pass next year as he had no real experience from the exam this year. Hopefully any missions he undertook would balance the loss of opportunity. Another Leaf team, the silver haired genin they had met on the way to the first test and his two team mates. Shikamaru hadn't been there when the genin had introduced himself and didn't know his name, or that of his two team mates. He frowned.
The last team was from the village hidden in the mist. All wore gas masks and looked a bit on the wild-eyed side. The Hokage was explaining something that Shikamaru couldn't quite hear. He did hear the result of it, both Kiba and Naruto began whining about taking a break from the second exam. Should have saved something for this. He wondered what had happened with Kakashi on their team. One of the Leaf's strongest ninjas retaking the chuunin exam was a bit on the ironic side but the trio didn't look any better off than any of the others.
Must have held back a bit. He mused. So long as they didn't have any run-ins with an assassination squad he didn't really care what Kakashi had done. He was curious how he would handle this next part though. The Hokage silenced the complaints and made the final declaration. "From here out all teams are disbanded and you will advance or fail by yourselves. You may decline to participate without disqualifying the rest of your team."
Almost immediately the silver haired leaf genin raised his hand and bowed out. As twelve of the surviving eighteen people were of the leaf village and not likely to cause any lasting harm Shikamaru failed to see the good choice in bowing out now but the nin claimed to be injured. He shrugged it off. That left seventeen, meaning one person would advance automatically. Six matches and one pass.
The Hokage pointed at the balcony where Shikamaru was standing and said something to the proctor a sickly jonin named Hayate. In a flash the man was next to Shikamaru coughing softly. "The Hokage wants you on the tournament floor." Then he was gone.
Ino and Chouji both looked at him worriedly and he hesitated a moment before Asuma-sensei nudged him. "Don't keep the Hokage waiting."
Shikamaru vaulted the railing and landed lightly on the ground below. Not normally given to running he never-the-less trotted to where the rest of the genin stood looking at him quizzically. The Hokage spared him a dark look that he hoped was feigned. He never wanted to be the target of that gaze when the Hokage meant it, that was for certain.
"I have a rare opportunity. Everyone, this is Shikamaru. As we're a shinobi short of a proper tournament he will be the extra."
The sand nin with the expensive looking face make-up spoke up, not bothering to hide his opinion in the matter. "He didn't complete the second test, why should he be given a second chance?"
The Hokage snorted. "No second chance for this one. He will not be promoted to Chunin no matter how hard he tries. He gave up in the first hour of the second exam, causing his two team mates to fail with him. No, Nara Shikamaru will be learning what it means to fight without hope of personal gain." The Hokage lifted his ever-present pipe to his lips and chewed on the stem thoughtfully.
"Unless I see a decent showing from him I'll be sending him back to the academy for another year, minus his forehead protector. He will not advance but will only fight when there's an odd match." He suppressed the sigh that wanted to come up. Acting or not the hokage's anger was intimidating.
Shikamaru's mind raced with reasons for the Hokage dragging him into this. Did he think that one of the genin present was with Oorochimaru? His surprise in the matter was not feigned and the sand nin smirked at him, placated. He was to be the punching bag of the final part of the chuunin exam. At best he would only have to fight in one match. At worst, two. Before he could get his hopes up the Hokage spoke.
"Jonin Sarutobi, take your team outside. Shikamaru, in his laziness, is still fresh while these fine shinobi have been in trial for the last five days. Chouji-san and Ino-san can show him what it means to act as a team while they spar him."
So much for two battles. This time he did sigh but the Hokage barked a loud 'Go!' and he trotted off. As he climbed back up to the balcony Ino cracked her knuckles and grinned at him cruelly. Chouji looked apologetic, even though he knew it was a ruse. To top it off Asuma sensei smacked him on the back of his head as he exited the arena.
Kakashi, in a largely discomfortable smaller form, watched the display with the customary Sasuke slouch n'smirk that he had perfected at Sakura's expense. If he was doing it right she visibly wilted every time she tried to talk to him. Brooding wasn't exactly outside of Sasuke's nature and while he hated being mean to his students he supposed it wouldn't do to toy with their emotions by being overly nice, either.
He still wants to test the Nara. I guess he made quite the impression on the Old Man. Weird that he was only middle of his class with that sort of problem solving skill. Then again, maybe the lazy wasn't an act.
He shrugged inwardly and wished for the thousandth time in the last five days that Sasuke had taken to reading Ichi Ichi Paradise so that it wouldn't look out of place when he buried his nose in one. Even so his hands twitched for something to hold on to. Kurenai said he had a problem, as if reading was as bad as Asuma's smoking, but he had to admit that even if it was a healthy addiction, it was still an addiction.
He stilled his traitorous hands by crossing his arms. The Hokage had finished explaining and dismissed them. He was, no doubt, going to watch Shikamaru fight Chouji and Ino. Not likely to be a good showing. There was a reason those three bloodlines were paired together. The synergy they produced was exponentially superior to almost any other team in the ninja world. That didn't mean they were the best, only that they were the best fit. It also meant that while they worked the best together, they weren't exactly meant to fight each other either. He hoped Chouji didn't pound him to a pulp but he didn't think Asuma would let it get too far out of hand.
The first match popped up on the score board, "Rock Lee V. Misumi T." The little Guy clone cheered, jumping into the air and pumping his arms up and down. "First!" He vaulted the railing and hit the ground with an audible thud. Kakashi's sharp eyes could see the hairline cracks in the floor beneath the genin's feet. Either that kid was made out of lead or his leg warmers hiding a bit more than just unshapely calves.
Rock Lee's eyes cooled from the burning joy of being picked first and he calmed himself visibly by entering the Deference Stance. One hand in front and one behind his back and his feet almost completely together. The stance itself was somewhat ridiculed but that was only because only a master could react from it. He'd seen Guy use it to taunt other ninjas.
The other genin began taunting Lee as the rules were explained. Hayate asked if they both understood, Lee nodded gravely and the other ninja barked a laugh. "Sure, better call this one fast though. This reject from salon school is gonna get hurt." Lee didn't appear to notice his insult. He only twitched his fingers in a, 'Come on.' gesture.
The ninja, not someone Kakashi had ever seen fight before, surged forward fluidly. There was a muffled cracking sound as his joints unhinged and he flowed around Lee. As the nin's limbs constricted Lee disappeared only to reappear behind the ninja again.
If anyone had written off Lee as a goofy excuse for a ninja they were paying attention now. The nin, a little disoriented spun around haphazardly and crowed uneasy laughter. "Keep running, fish face, that's all you can do."
Lee, still not rising to the bait spoke calmly. "I see you've cultivated your body as your weapon of choice. We must work hard to show the ninja world that we can be effective shinobi. I wish you luck!" He said and then he was gone again, Kakashi barely picked up a green blur as it streaked towards the other nin who was caught flat footed as Lee slammed into him, lifting him clear of the ground, his elongated limbs trailing in front of him as he flew backwards.
Kakashi saw a bright splash of blood as the nin coughed with the impact. As he was about to hit the wall behind him Lee appeared on it and launched himself towards the hurtling ninja. The wall under Lee's feet buckled and cracked as he shot forward, using the combined velocity of his jump as well as the nin's backward trajectory to deliver a devastating punch to his hips.
He could have killed the other nin had he performed that same punch to the middle of his back or his head. Instead there was a loud crack like a falling tree branch as the nin's hip was broken. The nin, caught off center screamed in a warbling cry as he was flipped around by the punch and finally hit the ground, landing on his shoulder.
Lee, ever like his sensei, assumed the deference pose again until Hayate called the match, seeing the other nin in debilitating pain. He heard Sakura to his left, "Holy cow. I didn't even see him move. Is that the kind of ninjas we're going to be up against?" He grunted something that he hoped sounded Sasuke-ish. Naruto was screaming his approval for Lee who was trying to make sure the nin was alright. As the medic-nins carried the groaning shinobi out of the arena Guy appeared next to Lee and gripped his shoulder.
"Yosh Lee! You've won two battles! You bested your opponent and you showed restraint in the face of adversity!" He gave his student a blinding smile and tears began to well in Lee's eyes. For once he didn't have to pretend to be Sasuke when he let out a disgusted groan.
As they launched into another chorus of "Guy sensei!" "Lee!" Hayate cleared his throat and ended up causing himself a coughing fit.
Guy took Lee back up to the balcony where he was pounced on by Naruto who, in his honesty, was too happy for Lee to be worried about facing him at some later date. It was his most sincere hope that some of that would rub off on Sasuke. Too much empathy was a personal liability but too little was the mark of a monster.
The next match was announced quickly. "Tenten vs. Naruto U." Lee managed to cheer Naruto and Tenten. Naruto looking a little put out. Probably wanted to fight Sasuke.
It didn't help Naruto's self esteem at all to be handed a scroll by his number one rival after he had claimed to be going on a bathroom break. Kakashi knew he had been itching to test himself against Sasuke since the first day of the second test. Hopefully in a month he'd be able to sit his team down and explain everything that had happened. The least he could do was visit Sasuke as soon as the preliminary matches were done and explain to him why he was being held.
He hadn't had the time or the inclination to answer questions about it when he had first taken Sasuke out of the exam. Today would be his first chance to explain. It would also be in a secure area where he could drop the henge, rest for a little while and maybe catch up on his reading.
Naruto dropped to the arena floor followed by Tenten. The two shinobi, from the same village, but had never spoken before. Tenten bowed politely which Naruto mimicked. "I'm not going to go easy on you!" He said after he straightened back up.
Kakashi seriously doubted that Tenten was too worried about Naruto going to rough on her. As soon as Hayate started the match both shinobi were in motion. Tenten jumped directly backwards, creating more distance between them. Naruto created about a dozen clones in a ridiculous display of his unbelievable chakra capacity.
It's not fair! I could have made forty clones with what he just burnt up on twelve. If he tried it likely would have left him weak and trembling. He sighed and returned his attention to the match. If the runt just had Sakura's control of chakra he could begin teaching him some real jutsus. The Shadow Clone was very advanced stuff and it definitely had hundreds of uses but only a fool carried a toolbox with only one tool in it.
Tenten bit her thumb and swiped it across a scroll that billowed out in front of her in a practiced move. Dozens of weapons burst into being with a puff of mist and streaked towards the clones. While the watching genin were impressed he didn't think they understood what sort of skill it took to imbue summoned things with inertia. If she had simply bound them to a scroll they would have just fallen to the ground with little to no effect. She had sealed these within the scroll with pinpoint timing. It was probably hours of work, practiced work, to get that many into a scroll with arc of aim. He wasn't lazy but he definitely knew that he hadn't put that much effort into his own Chunin exam.
An inertial summon was particularly deadly in that it couldn't be read, even with the sharingan. When she improved her throwing arm and her aim with the scrolls he had no doubt that she would be a deadly ninja. Even as a jonin it was impressive to behold.
Still, it was one tool in a toolbox. Physical attacks were useful in many situations but Naruto was used to pain and his body just wouldn't give up.
He wondered if the academy instructors had even gone over genjutsu as a weapon as opposed to just how to defend against it. None of the new crop of shinobi appeared to utilize it at all and it would fold up Naruto in an instant. He had no emotional control over himself and lacked the necessary chakra control to remove himself from one.
Naruto's next attack came from the wall. Kakashi was proud to see him scale the wall so easily after he'd had such a tough time with the exercise but it was to little avail. Tenten summoned a sansetsukon, or tri-section staff and knocked him off his perch before he could line up an attack. She then proceeded to pummel him from one end of the arena to the other. He occasionally blocked but for the most part he drew on his immense stamina to keep him upright. When he finally got some distance from her he was bruised all over and bleeding from a split lip.
Naruto was thinking less clearly now and charged at her, without shadow clones this time. Tenten brought the tri-staff above her head in a humming circle as she spun it effortlessly. She appeared to be wide open and Naruto howled as he closed in on her.
Kakashi didn't see her do anything different, he probably would have needed the use of his sharingan to catch it but she dropped down into a crouch with the whirling staff and there was a sharp click. One of the sections came free, apparently by design, and whipped off in Naruto's direction. It bounced off the ground once and then struck him just below the knees with a hollow thunk! Naruto cursed vividly and tumbled forward, his charge now working against him as he rolled towards a waiting Tenten. She let the sansetsukon fall from her hands and summoned one last weapon, a chain-sickle or kusarigama.
The appearance of an obviously deadly weapon alarmed him and despite his promise to the Hokage he began to make the hand symbols to kwarmi Naruto out of there but he needn't have bothered. Using the sickle as a handle Tenten instead threw the blunt, weighted end of the chain out and whipped it in a broad circle. The middle of the chain struck Naruto in the back of the neck and the whole chain came around, entangling his legs and one of his arms and it swept around and around him. It was only enough to unbalance him further but Tenten took the opportunity and pounced on him, bringing baton side of the sickle down on the top of the blonde genin's head. Naruto's eyes rolled back and the match was over. Kakashi couldn't help but chuckle, something that Sakura took as 'Sasuke' being mean.
"He tried his best, Sasuke. You could have at least cheered him on!" He grunted again, hoping he sounded convincing. Sakura, despite being a complete airhead when it came to all things 'Sasuke' was very observant and very intelligent. If he didn't want her asking the wrong questions he had to be on his toes. Thankfully that generally meant he just had to be a jerk to her. He was starting to feel like a jerk though and it was more than a little uncomfortable for someone half his age to be making moon-eyes at him.
He shrugged and watched the board, waiting for the next match to be announced. He hadn't been told who he was going to be paired against but he had figured out that the Hokage most likely wanted him out of the matches so he'd have to throw the fight. Ego didn't play a part in his battles anymore. Ego had killed enough of his friends already. Lost in his own thoughts he didn't notice as Sakura stared at him intently.
The third match was between Gaara and another leaf shinobi. His particular talent was draining chakra with a touch. It might have been an excellent pairing if Gaara's sand had even let him get close. The match was over almost before it began and Hayate had to intervene at the end lest the leaf genin be killed in what looked like a very excruciating manner.
The fourth match was announced as "Sasuke U. v. Neji H." He suppressed a smile. At least he wasn't going against someone who wasn't going to hurt Sasuke's ego to lose to. Guy must have been told about this particular pairing. The Hyuuga eyes could see through a henge a mile away. Then again, he thought as he looked at Guy, Sasuke's ego knew very few boundaries.
He took the stairs down to the arena floor. Hayate explained the rules to them but he only half payed attention, he was still thinking of the last bit of Ichi Ichi Paradise he had read. He had been halfway through his favorite pairing when that Inuzuka had dragged him bodily in front of the Hokage. Honestly…you see someone naked once and they think they can walk all over you.
Neji said something to him and before he could stop himself he said, "What was that?" Guy already knew he had taken on Sasuke's appearance for the foreseeable future. Guy was one of the few ninja that Kakashi trusted as much as the Hokage. He was just annoying as hell sometimes. Still, it stung to see his 'arch rival' wince at the slip.
He grinned in his best approximation of a Sasuke sneer and was rewarded with a nasty blush creeping up Neji's face. "Your clan fight too or are you going to bore me to death?" Neji's eyes narrowed at this and Kakashi decided to go for the gold. "At least Naruto got to fight a real ninja even if the fraidy-cat lost."
Neji rushed forward with a muttered curse and Kakashi marveled at how far he'd progressed even from being number one in his academy class. He forced himself to slow his reaction times and speed. He knew a few kaiton jutsus that would definitely look authentic but he decided to go for the accidental loss instead of a prolonged battle. It would give Neji more time for recovery and better yet, it required the least amount of effort from him.
As Neji came in with a gentle-fist technique he feinted to the inside in what he hoped looked like a bold move. At the last moment he turned away from the blow only to catch it's follow-up in his shoulder.
The entire joint froze up and he groaned, this time in real pain. He hadn't been hit with a gentle fist in over a decade but it was pretty hard to forget. He made a show of trying to block with one hand but anyone could see the fight was over with. Three more jyuuken strikes and he was left gasping on the floor. In no way was that part faked and he hoped at some point, this mission would be given a classification so that he might actually get paid for it. Just being an angsty thirteen year old ranked a high B low A. Getting pummeled as one should net him S-team pay.
Guy picked him up off the arena floor with a single arm. "You'll be fine in no time, Sasuke-kun and to show my cold-fish arch rival what it means to be a true teacher I will look after you until you're feeling better." All he could do was grunt. It was taking the majority of his concentration not to interrupt the flow of chakra that kept his henge in place. He had already had to re-route around his frozen thigh.
"Don't let the fires of your youth sputter and go out after a single defeat!" He said loudly. Well, in his defense everything he said he said loudly. Still, he wasn't sure if Guy was paying him back for all the times he'd gotten the best of him or if he was really just acting the part. Either way, receiving the "power of youth" speech was painful at this range and when the mans calloused hands patted him on his head it felt like he was trying to mash his brains in.
Guy propped him up on a wall facing the arena floor. The fourth match was called, Hinata H. v. Temari.
The sand kunoichi smirked at the violet haired leaf ninja and bounded down to the arena floor carrying a large fan.
Kakashi remarked on the smirk. If she knew who Hinata was then she must have at least some information on her. Everything she needed to know had been in the last match though. Neji and Hinata had been trained by the same man in Jyuuken, Hyuuga Hiashi.
Jyuuken was another form of combat that he couldn't mimic. He could only plan against at. The only way to defeat a Jyuuken user was to attack from afar. Up close fighters like Rock Lee and Naruto would be punished for not having more long range skills.
A fan was used in several different disciplines of the shinobi. A metal fan could be used as a sword breaker as well as a slicing weapon in the truest sense of the word. As Hayate finished the explanation and warning Temari jumped back and opened the fan slightly, waving it front of her in mid-air and carrying her further away than her leap alone could have.
Immediately Hinata ducked under something unseen. Kakashi saw a barely visible blade of air strike the ground where Hinata had been.
It was also used for the production and enhancement of wind-based jutsus. He was certainly impressed. He hadn't learned about his own elemental affiliation until he was well into his third year as a chunin. A genin had already learned her affiliation and was now proficient enough in it to use it as an effective weapon.
In this case, Kakashi observed, the wind was not as large of advantage as it normally would have been. Wind had the added benefit to be almost invisible. Hinata, with her byakuugan active, could see the chakra that formed it in the air as if it had been made out of blue ink.
"A close range attacker against my wind attacks is just stupid. Give up now, little girl, and you wont get hurt." Temari began throwing more and more wind attacks at the juken user even as Hinata tried to close the distance between them. As the words came out Hinata seemed to shrink in on herself.
Naruto who was nursing a fairly large goose egg on his head shook his fist at the sand nin and yelled, "Don't take that shit, Hinata!" He winced after he yelled it but the fist stayed up. A medic nin was trying to fuss over him but the boisterous blonde was too busy jumping up and down and yelling, "Kick her ass!" Slowly but surely Hinata's stance solidified.
Wish I could command that sort of reaction. He thought offhandedly. Aside from his willingness to train himself into the ground, Naruto's largest asset was his ability to rally others. Infect them with his no-lose state of mind. The only problem was that no one else had the nine-tailed fox and the Uzumaki stamina regenerating them when they got hurt.
He supposed that Naruto was the most dangerous person in the room because of that. Not because he would be unstoppable in a fight, Tenten had already disproven that. No…it was that win at all costs mentality that he could spread like a virus.
Kakashi decided that he would impress on Naruto that not all others could push themselves like he could without risk of death or permanent impairment. It was good that he believed in his fellow shinobi but he had a powerful gift in influencing people and he should at least be made aware of the more adverse effects of it.
Still, it had a significant and positive effect on Hinata. He had seen the Hyuga's fight for most of his life and he, as with any one else who had witnessed their particular specialties knew that using blade ninjitsu was a waste of time. Large scale jutsus worked better, things they couldn't slice through. Genjutsu was also a waste of time as they could see right through most of them.
Hinata was only dodging the attacks at the moment but Kakashi knew that if she chose she could slice through the thin wind blades with little effort. He hadn't had the occasion to see Hinata fight but she was very flexible and agile.
Hinata made a flying leap through a particularly complex set of blades and rolled to her feet, coming up in a picture perfect Juken stance. She darted in closer to the sand kunoichi but was forced into a backflip as the nin sent another flurry of chakra enchanced wind blades at the smaller leaf ninja. He could see Hinata setting up Temari. Dodging in, darting away. Always at the mercy of the wind blades.
To Naruto it looked as though she was losing and Kakashi heard him bellowing his support to "Win!"
He doubted that Hinata heard him, she chose that moment to spring the trap. She surged forward, skipping lightly over the stone of the arena. Her feet, glued to the floor with chakra allowed her to dodge quicker than normal and she bounded to the side, avoiding the first volley. She was almost on top of Temari now and the blond genin smirked, seeing that Hinata was now too close to avoid her attack. She brought her fan around in a huge arc and sent the blades at the violet haired shinobi.
Kakashi watched as her hands, blue with chakra infusion, cut through the wind blades. Temari, hadn't bothered to put more distance between herself and Hinata and was caught flat-footed as the mousy girl closed off the most strategic tenketsu points. After the first was closed on her strong shoulder it was only a matter of time before Hinata systematically shut down her muscle functions and removed her ability to mold chakra.
A few short moments later Temari fell to the ground and Hayate called the match. Hinata didn't appear to have heard, she was still staring at the spot that the sand nin should have been in, flabbergasted at her own victory.
Kakashi snorted in derision, trying to keep the Sasuke front alive but he was also pleased with the victory. Anyone who'd been around the kunoichi for more than two minutes knew that she was painfully shy.
Might do her a world of good to have a little unavoidable and deserved attention thrown her way.
Kiba and Shino, met her on the arena floor, Kiba ruffling her hair and Shino congratulating her in what appeared to be a somber manner. Naruto was practically vibrating now but he waited for her to return to the balcony before pestering her. Kakashi hid a smile in the crook of his elbow as he leaned against the railing.
Shikamaru stumbled in for the next match, just in front of the Hokage. He did indeed look ruffled, bruises were visible on his arms and one particularly nasty looking gash was coloring his pants a deep red.
He was in time to watch the double mist village match in which both were knocked out and thus both disqualified.
He received a minimum of medical attention for the gash and almost as soon as they were done the next match was called out, "Shikamaru N. vs. Sakura H."
Shikamaru had already made tentative attack plans for the remaining ninja as he walked back into the arena. He dismissed them all and concentrated on the Haruno. He wasn't happy about facing a girl in front of everyone but the Hokage had left him very little wiggle room in this ruse.
It was all a lie but even in a lie everyone had to follow the Hokage's orders.
Smart, good chakra control, no demonstrated niche talents...Haruno's are not a ninja family, no blood-lines. He assumed she, like he did with everyone else in the arena, knew his own blood-limit. He rubbed his shoulder and winced. Chouji didn't have to hit me that hard.
He sighed as Hayate finished with the rules and started the match.
Almost immediately Sakura threw a brace of Shurikan. He jerked a kunai from his thigh holster and knocked away what he couldn't dodge. She followed up with a kunai trailing an explosive tag. The heat of the blast was intense even as he jumped away. When he landed he could smell the fabric of his pants smouldering. Another one that close and he wasn't going to be much of a punching bag for the rest of the exam.
Sakura kept the pressure on, not allowing him time to make any hand symbols.
She kwarmi no-jutsu'd behind him and only his flexibilty saved him. He bent over backwards as Sakura's feet trailed over him with a heavy woosh of air.
God I hate fighting. He thought. His own approach to things was largely tactical. Given a little time and some first-hand knowledge he doubted that he wouldn't find a way to beat Sakura in short order but she was allowing very little time for him to concentrate.
His biggest problem is that he didn't want to hurt her. Intellectually he knew that female ninjas weren't any less able to stick a kunai in him (as evidenced by his bloody pants) but he still couldn't help the sexism that seeped to the surface. He flipped back onto his hands and carried his legs over until his feet hit the ground again.
Then suddenly he had it, glaring at him. He wished he hadn't almost been blown up to figure it out but done was done.
He straightened up and lept backwards, deliberately placing his back to the wall just under the observation balcony. He didn't have the reserves of stamina and chakra that Chouji had and after the beating he'd just received at the hands of his team mates he was flagging fast. If she made it to the third stage of the seven stages he had planned he would lose. He just didn't have the chakra to go past stage two.
He didn't bother to look up at the girder above him, he was in it's shadow and that's all that mattered. He made a quick hand seal as Sakura stepped close to the beam shadow and she lept away from it even though it remained unchanged.
He felt the familiar tightening sensation as his Kagemane was completed. He relaxed his hands and carefully kept the chakra in check. Sakura just looked at him quizzically for a moment.
"Kagemane successful." He said, mostly to himself. It was an old training habit his father had drilled into him. He wouldn't always be able to tell his team how he planned on capturing a ninja to be their personal punch-doll so it was a good habit to speak the successful completion of a kagemane outloud so they knew.
"The hell it was!" Sakura growled at him and charged. As she neared him he took a step forward and vaulted over her, not bothering to pull his kunai out. She spun around, kunai at the ready and was just quick enough at detecting the growing shadow at her feet to look up. Naruto, bound by the Kagemane had lept over the balcony just as he had lept over Sakura and was now gravity's plaything. He bent his knees so Naruto wouldn't hurt her too much but she absorbed the majority of his impact with her back, crashing to the ground in a cloud of dust.
As soon as the kagemane was released Naruto ran for cover but he needn't have, Sakura was sleeptalking deep in her own dreamland. Hayate spoke, breaking through her unintelligible babble. "Shikamaru wins."
He didn't think that counted as him harming her. Naruto's own fault for not being observant.
The next match pitted Shino versus the last mist village genin. It was a close thing for the majority of the match but Shikamaru saw the growing patch of bugs on the back of the mist genin and knew what the outcome was going to be. After a few minutes of intense fighting the mist genin became sluggish until finally he collapsed on his face.
Kiba faced the last Sand shinobi and had the Hokage not been there he knew that the outcome would have caused an international incident. A gas cloud enveloped Akamaru, almost killing him and Kiba went into a rage, destroying the shinobi's puppet but also flying through another of the gas eclouds. Kankuro, the puppet-user, balked about giving the antidote for the poison and it looked as though the entire Leaf Village rookie force was going to bum rush him and the rest of his team.
In the end Garaa said something to Kankuro and the sand shinobi relinquished the antidote with a warning, "In our country, he would be left to die."
The Hokage took the stage with a broad grin and congradulated them all. He explained the final stage of the exam and had them all draw numbers one through seven from a hat. He was not allowed to draw because, "You'll be fighting the odd Shinobi out, Nara." The Hokage said sternly.
Of the numbered strips, Neji was first then Rock Lee, Shino, Hinata, Gaara, Kankuro and last was Tenten.
Another girl! He grumped to himself in his mind. Aloud he only sighed. He was anxious for the Hokage to finish, he didn't want to be around when Sakura woke up.
Re-editing some mistakes.