"Team Twelve, do you want to enter the Chūnin Selection Exams?"
No. I did not.
Yes, Kato did.
But we held off on voicing our ambitions about the chūnin exam in favor of Yakumo, who looked like she had a question. She proceeded to ask it.
"Sensei, what is our team's specialization?"
Kato and I exchanged glances. We'd spent hours discussing that very topic. We had the debate down to a science by now. The problem was that Shisui had never really drilled any real group maneuvers into us, and group maneuvers were practically the hallmark of any team specialization. We were pretty sure that "anarchy" didn't actually count. Although if team squabbling was a specialization, we had it in the bag.
Shisui smiled at us innocently. "What do you think?"
Ah, our favorite response. Yakumo cast about for help. I took pity on her first. "Not tracking," I said. "There's a rookie team that has an Aburame, an Inuzuka, and a Hyūga."
"Or first response," Kato said slowly. He was thinking of Yakumo's blatant physical weakness.
"It's not . . . intelligence," Yakumo added. "We're nothing like the famous Ino-Shika-Chō formation." Well. . . .
Shisui shook his head. "Who says genin teams even have specializations? Shouldn't that be left to chūnin squads?"
"Chūnin don't get individualized attention," Kato informed him. "They're put in temporary squads according to the village's needs. Genin teams have a jōnin sensei and spend at least a year learning to work together."
"They need individualized help to learn their own specialization," Yakumo said more quietly.
I smirked. "And a village that can't rely on its genin is a village that won't trust its chūnin, either. 'Fess up, Shisui-sensei. The sooner we know, the sooner we can work for a common goal."
Shisui grinned. "Ah, but would you really know what the goal was if I just told you?"
"One way to find out," I shot back.
With the three of us in unprecedented agreement, our sensei visibly mulled over his options. If we gave him time, he would make something up. If we didn't give him time, he wouldn't tell us anything.
All three of us genin exchanged flat looks.
And that was that.
Shisui opened his mouth and cracked his neck. "You want to know what our skill-set is?"
"Not at all," Kato muttered sarcastically so that only I could hear him.
Team Shisui, huh? More like Team Sarcasm.
Our illustrious sensei rolled his eyes. "There are plenty of teams without any particular specialization," he began. "That doesn't mean they're weak. A weak team is a team that can't rise to any occasion. So. Team Twelve." He gave each of us a look in turn. "Do you promise to rise to every occasion?"
No, but we were good at rising to his bait. And that probably amounted to the same thing.
"We'll give it our all, Sensei," Yakumo said with conviction. Kato nodded along. I just tried not to laugh.
"Espionage and assassination," Shisui told us.
Yakumo's face was the most interesting to watch. She looked somewhat horrified. Well, that wasn't so bad—Kato was likely to be the one dealing out finishing blows. I didn't like the thought of killing people, either, but Kato and I were at least somewhat mentally prepared for it. We had each other.
Yakumo was an only child with an interesting self-esteem issue. No one with a desire to prove himself should be asked or, as it really goes in the ninja world, encouraged to murder. Shisui had to know that, and the more I got to know our sensei, the more I learned to trust in his intuition.
Shisui's declaration was big news. We could now settle down and work on our specialization. Which wouldn't be easy. Espionage involves pretty much every skill on the roster and then some.
In light of this, Shisui gave us the rest of the day off to mull over our decision.
Silly him. I think we'd all already made it.
Kato and I stayed in the Naka forest to train to his heart's desire. He had fancy new tricks that Shisui had taught him. I didn't want my brother to die of accidentally stabbing his own eye out one day, so I dutifully played my part opposite him. Shisui's little tricks weren't foolproof. I liked figuring out their weak points. It helped me feel better about my utter failure with thrown weapons.
"Evening is coming," I said when the sun stopped shining through the gaps in the forest's leafy canopy. "It'll be dark soon. It's your turn to make supper, right?"
Kato pouted. "Can't we train in the dark? I know you're just fine at night because of your hearing, but I'm not and I hate looking bad when Shisui-sensei does those night drills. He's a sadist."
I smiled. "The point isn't to look good. How can he help if there's nothing to improve on?"
Kato shot me a glance that said there was always something to improve on, and he knew we both knew it. I shrugged. I was enjoying my simultaneous mental debate on who was more sadistic—Shisui or Ibiki. Both of the jōnin had some very valid points in their favor.
"You do pretty well in the dark," Kato said, "and Shisui gives you plenty of pointers. But they're pointers. All I get is suggestions to listen more and be aware of my surroundings. That's not going to help us if the chūnin exam has a survival exercise—and you know most of them do."
My own gaze shifted to the cliff-side bank of the Naka River, which I would be able to see if the trees weren't always so stubbornly thick throughout this forest. Kato huffed. "Fine. Be grumpy about the chūnin exam, then. I want to enter, and I bet Yakumo does, too. She doesn't want to stay weak." He mulled over what he'd just said and relented. "Sorry. You're not weak. I just really want to enter the exam. I know you want to perfect all of the things you're working on. You want to wait until you're certain you'll win."
"But I want a challenge," he said. "I'd rather work and lose than do nothing."
I think Kato had just summed up both of our life philosophies, but a thought struck me and I had to laugh. My twin's navy blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What?"
Oh, the joys of needing to know why your family member was laughing. I took pity on his confusion and waited for the giggles to subside. "You realize we're the perfect mixture of Daddy," I said. "He works exactly like you do."
"And he gets your results?" Kato grinned. "Go us."
We smirked at each other in typical sibling fashion before Kato remembered our previous subject. "Will you stay? I'll let you win."
I laughed again. "I always win in the dark and you know it. The—" The village bells began to toll the hour, and I froze. "Ack, sorry, I forgot that Dad started his new system. Wait a sec." I shut my eyes and used my hearing to search out where our father was. Not his team's training ground, not the house . . . ah, there he was, perched by the Memorial Stone. Or standing. I couldn't tell from this far away.
"We're having supper with Zabuza-san tonight," Daddy said. "Tell your brother. Naruto-kun and Haku-kun will be there, too."
"What did he say?" Kato asked when I stopped frowning.
I tried to frown again, but it came out as a choked smile. Perhaps I looked speculative? Eh, no matter. "We're having a family dinner with Zabuza-san, Haku-san, and Naruto-kun." Try as I might, I couldn't quite picture how that would go. I'd never actually met either of the Mist duo beyond the initial rush to get the injured Kakashi to the hospital. What would we talk about? Would we end up listening to Naruto ramble his way through an awkward, stilted dinner conversation? Or maybe Zabuza would start listing all of his apprentice's many virtues since many people were defensive around my father the Copy Ninja. . . .
"Kana!" I jumped and rubbed my ears.
"What? That hurt, Kato."
Kato wasn't interested. He gave me an expression of pure panic. "Where are we eating?!"
Kato was on supper duty. We were eating with what amounted to two state visitors and was at worst two powerful people who'd featured in the important lifelong tale of "how Daddy managed to not die yet again."
"Um," I said, "If he said, I didn't catch it."
My brother's eyes opened impressively wide as he considered the lack of data. I took a step back. "Don't kill me. He was at the Memorial Stone. Um—"
But Kato was already gone.
For the third time in what couldn't have been as many minutes, I burst out laughing.
We ate at an Akimichi restaurant. Naruto was crushed. He got over it quickly. It seemed his sensei kept an eye on his team's diet and brought bento boxes when the collective nutrition level was running low. I would know. I made most of those bento boxes. However, that's beside the point.
When Kato had caught up to Daddy, Kato and I learned that Daddy hadn't told Zabuza that we had a house, let alone volunteered its location. I guess that explained why we hadn't hosted them in our living room that first night. Although I would have paid to see someone as big as Zabuza (seriously, wow) try to sleep on our couch. Zabuza wasn't much taller than Daddy, but it was all in the posture. Daddy didn't do much in the way of intimidation. Zabuza's little finger was intimidating. It was inspiring.
We didn't have very much time to get ready for supper. Kato stopped by the house to drop off his tantō. I showered, began the long process of drying my hair, and ended up using a henge anyway. I wasn't vain. Obviously, I knew the power of appearances by this point—I mean, I literally ran a double life for my side job, let alone other disguises—but the older I became, the more I found that I enjoyed being clean and not having hair like a rat's nest.
Oh, hair. Why?
Kato and I left for the restaurant. Kato, of course, had seen me put on the henge and asked why I'd bothered.
Question not the annoyance of wet hair, brother. It makes me look drowned—and more importantly, it implies that I'd actually tried to put in an effort for meeting two infamous ninja visitors. I wouldn't be caught dead doing that! Making an effort to look presentable? That was one thing. Getting stuck halfway in the middle? Nope!
If I needed to drop the henge, I'd wait until my hair had had time to dry and I would visit the restroom to drop the henge as unintrusively as possible (been there, done that "unexpectedly perform minor jutsu in front of twitchy ninja" mistake before). It was just a ponytail! Nothing like the boy-catching lie Kato was spinning.
We arrived at the restaurant first, and we reserved a private room for six people. We asked the waitress to send everyone else to the room when they arrived. The gleam in her eye said that she knew exactly who our main Kiri guest was, and that she very much liked the chance to get to meet him. Ninja wait staff. They don't intimidate easily.
Besides, the whole Copy-Ninja-and-powerful-Demon-of-the-Hidden-Mist-epically-destroy-double-crossing-corrupt-businessman thing had gotten around. If she didn't know Kato and me by sight, the "Hatake, table of six" clearly rang a bell.
Zabuza, Haku, and an ecstatic Naruto crowded in a few minutes after Kato and I staked our claim. We ran through the greetings and "introductions" just fine—thanks to Naruto, introductions lasted about zero point five seconds—and we waited for Daddy to show up. I don't see why, though. Surely Daddy's reputation of pointed lateness should have jaded everyone into complicity by now. I'd half expected Zabuza to not show, what with the Mist jōnin's own mask. Was it a new fashion trend?
Kato didn't take long to quietly elbow me in the side. "I'm working on it," I hissed back just as discreetly. Across the table, Haku eyed us with polite interest. Zabuza didn't even bother to look at us. He was too busy treating Naruto to a grumpy stare.
I located Daddy on a rooftop near the Hokage Tower. From what I could tell, he was watching the last glimmers of the sunset. He gave absolutely no hint of budging.
I glanced at Kato. Kato nodded.
"Ah, Naruto-kun," I said, slipping into one of the blonde's infrequent pauses for air. "I think my father has been . . . waylaid." I wasn't pleased. I wasn't going to save my father's face on top of the usual apologies. "I'm very sorry, Zabuza-san, Haku-san, but I believe I know where he is. If you'll bear with me for just a minute, I'll be right back with him." I'd already sneaked to the door, so my polite bow almost managed to exhibit nothing but my head.
I practically teleported to the Hokage Tower.
"Daddy! You're fifteen minutes late. Have you no shame?" The question was meant to be a bit cutting, but when he turned to face me, I rolled my eyes. "Really. I know it doesn't bother you to be late. I don't care all that much either, but I don't know how well Zabuza-san tolerates Naruto, and I had to leave Kato alone with him to come get you."
Daddy cracked a smile at that. "That boy worms his way into people's affections."
"Then there's bound to be structural damage at some point. Can you come supervise?"
Daddy relented and led the way back to the restaurant. I say led. It's a nicer way of saying "raced."
The dinner was one of the most memorable and yet uneventful meals I've ever attended. I don't even know where to begin. Naruto jabbed away and missed social clues so blatantly obvious that he had to be doing it on purpose. In fact, he was. His conspiratorial wink let me in on the fun. The interesting part was that Daddy refused to tell Naruto to hush. Even when we were ordering.
It struck me that Daddy was using his student as a filibuster. I didn't want to imagine the ways Daddy might use Naruto. Naruto was bound to meet a bunch of influential people. Daddy wasn't supposed to wield him. And yet here was proof right now.
Zabuza was mostly content to eat in silence. Daddy followed suite. This left me with the task of creating an interesting conversation.
I smiled disarmingly. "So, Haku-san, what's life like as a chūnin?" Kato sat up straight beside me. Kato was easy to entertain these days. Practically any word that started with a C intrigued him. Chūnin, chain lightning. . . .
Haku and I hadn't done much more than smile politely at each other yet. His feminine face contributed to his politeness, I was willing to bet. If I'd henged into a face like his, I would go the dainty route, too. But manners didn't dictate someone's heart. The Haku I remembered from my distant memories had been gentle with a protective streak. Just looking at this young man told me that his appearance meant absolutely nothing. And I got that. Appearances were more limiting than people really considered.
That didn't help with my opinion that Haku's eyes were shaped almost exactly the same as Itachi's. Haku's were drab brown instead of indeterminately dark, and I could tell that the Mist ninja didn't share Itachi's personally, but oof. Looking at him was like a slap in the face. Genetics had really pulled a fast one there!
Fortunately, Haku was used to getting a similar reaction from girls, so I felt camouflaged.
Haku froze like a deer in the headlights at my question. A flush crept up the part of his neck that I could see above his turtleneck and slowly turned half of his face into a splotchy mess. (In the privacy of my mind, I allowed myself a laugh. If the girls who were jealous of Haku's looks could see this, I think the jealousy would be solved.) "I'm a genin," he admitted softly.
That's funny, the grapevine wasn't usually wrong. "Are you sure?" I wanted to ask. I reined that urge in just in time—of course the boy was sure—and settled for, "I'm sorry, you're not a chūnin yet?"
He had the good grace to blush even harder. It was, in a word, impressive. "Zabuza-sensei and I spend most of our time out of the village. We, ah, never bothered entering a chūnin exam."
"But there was no field promotion? From what I heard, you single-handedly held off an S-ranked missing-nin for several minutes."
Haku's familiar eyes told me that he wasn't the biggest fan of boasting, and that he was secretly glad that he'd already blushed to full capacity. He opened his mouth and explained that combat aside, the Mizukage would be traveling to the village of Konoha within the next few weeks. She only did promotions in person. Besides which, it would be bad form to promote a genin when there was a chūnin exam in that genin's proximity.
"The other competitors must be excited to prove themselves against you, then," I said.
The whole room became silent.
A rare feeling punched into my gut with vindictiveness.
I cleared my throat. What had I said? What had I alluded to?
Haku had held off an S-ranked missing-nin. His finesse with his ice kekkei genkai put him far above the average level of a genin competitor. The other genin probably weren't excited. More like hopeless.
Zabuza smiled into the roomful of unintentional and indecipherable faux pas. "Hey kid, don't just throw your intentions out there."
I jumped. Say what now? Ohhhhh, I thought as I met the jōnin's cold but eerily amused eyes. Okay, so if Zabuza thought I was posturing, then Haku probably felt kind of awkward, Naruto was thinking deep thoughts about fighting his friends, Daddy was watching to see my opinion on taking the exam, and Kato would be his typical neutral self.
"Um," I said. No one else spoke. My own cheeks began to flame from the collectively misconstrued assumption. I bit down a defensive retort and hoped Naruto would jump in to my aid. No such luck.
Fine, then. I'd step backwards. "I don't want to prove myself to others," I said, "until I've proved myself to me."
Trying to confidently out-stare a man like Zabuza wasn't going to work. I gave up before I committed too much.
"That's a very limiting way to think," Zabuza said.
"Good," I said grouchily. "That's why the rest of you can fight each other and I'll sit on the sidelines and take notes."
Daddy didn't even look my way to telepathically communicate his parental disapproval. Tough. I wasn't the parent here. I wasn't sorry.
"You can fight me, Kana-chan," Naruto cut in in a spectacular save. "I know how Haku-san fights, but I've never sparred with you. You use a tantō, right?"
Kato finally chose to join in on the conversation. "Yeah, and Shisui-sensei. . . ."
Zabuza choked quietly. "You never mentioned who their squad leader was," he muttered to Daddy.
"Oh? How forgetful of me."
Zabuza sized Kato and me up again as Kato and Naruto began to chatter back and forth. "Shisui of the Body Flicker," he murmured under his breath. "There's a fight for you, Haku."
Not if I could help it!
I learned quite a few things from that meal. Chief among them was that Zabuza loved challenges. He wouldn't respect someone who wouldn't stand up for himself. I gathered that he had mixed feelings about me.
Daddy had indeed bragged about my hearing at some point in the past. That all but confirmed that his whole team knew about my ability. I'd already suspected he'd warned them to keep the secret of the Nine Tails. Zabuza had been privy to the same reveal, because he remembered that I could hear his private little mutters at some point and began cracking little side comments, instead. And people thought advanced hearing made my life easier! My whole family already used me as a one-way texting service. What was one more to the fold?
Kato told Naruto and Haku practically nothing of Team Shisui's abilities but somehow managed to present Shisui as the most dedicated and adaptable sensei ever (Shisui's love of lateral thinking and heuristics worked, I'll say that much). Haku tried not to grill us on what it was like to train under someone with the Sharingan, even though he was clearly interested in genjutsu. I think that's called "taste."
For being the Copy Ninja, Daddy sure didn't do much with genjutsu. I suppose that effective genjutsu usually can't be copied. That and Konoha's supply of genjutsu specialists had take a distinct plunge. . . .
Naruto told Haku that I was a master of henges. Naruto also insisted that I was so sneaky, I probably had one on right now. Busted. I released the henge after Kato ratted me out. My hair was still a bit damp. Can't win them all.
It occurred to me that Naruto still hadn't realized that my henges were solid. I hadn't seen the boy henge in a while, but I dimly recalled that his ought to be the same. Well, most of his henges, that was. It was weird that putting too much chakra into a normal henge would not make it solid. Naruto must have inherited some kind of solid chakra thing somewhere along the line.
There was nothing else notable about the dinner. Not even the farce of half of our number wearing masks really mattered. Zabuza had loosened his to fall around his neck as soon as he'd picked up his chopsticks. Kato practiced his lifelong skill of eating just like Daddy did. And Daddy might have used some kind of undetectable genjutsu, for all I know.
I just concentrated on not putting my foot in my mouth.
I froze and checked my ears again. Yes, that was Shisui. I couldn't detect anyone else by him, though.
"Shisui-kun," the Hokage acknowledged.
Right, so after I went to get my hearing checked. . . .
The conversation was taking place on an empty roof some blocks away. I really only found an empty park bench close to where I was because I didn't like the thought of not being able to hear the Hokage's heartbeat and figured it couldn't hurt to concentrate.
"You can speak freely," the Hokage continued. "Are you concerned about your charge or about your team?"
There was a faint swishing as Shisui shook his head. "I'm worried for Kana," he admitted.
My conscience lost the ensuing battle of curiosity quite soundly. As Shisui paused a moment to collect his thoughts, I mimicked an anonymous chakra signature (one of Isami's civilian friends'). Shisui and the Hokage hadn't noticed me yet. If I stayed unobtrusive and still, they probably wouldn't notice me later. Plus, I'm pretty sure that chakra-repressant things like the Hokage was doing limited one's sensing.
"She suspects Yakumo," Shisui said when he'd finished frowning ominously. "They had a few minutes today where tension was suspiciously low, but overall, they fight like cats."
Hey! I complained to myself. I've been toning it down. We tolerate each other now, and—
"I'm glad Itachi was a boy, not a girl," Shisui continued. "I thought that was a complicated business. Kana and Yakumo bicker without even thinking conscious thoughts. It's a wonder that Kato and I are still alive."
The Hokage chuckled in a grandfatherly-like way. "That's hardly unusual in young girls. That's why the Nidaime suggested teams of two boys and one girl." Yes, well, Tobirama had never married, and it showed. Girls could get along just as well as boys could. "Granted, the male to female ratio generally makes that a necessity," my grandfather said wryly. "And since most of the village's ambitious young women choose to begin a family after their jōnin promotions, I can't exactly foist female teams onto the remaining jōnin."
"Yūhi-san isn't married," Shisui said sweetly.
Grandfather snorted. "You know perfectly well that she might as well be. Much as I'd like to, I can't give more difficult teams to women who might go on maternity leave."
I could feel Shisui's hesitation as his casual mention became a lot more serious. "From what I know of Yūhi-san, Hokage-sama, she would never neglect her duty."
"I know very well how seriously Yūhi Kurenai takes her duty. That's why I chose to give her the team I did."
Wait . . . did I just hear that the Hokage assigned Kiba, Shino, and Hinata to Kurenai so that she wouldn't feel guilty about having a baby? I don't think I needed to hear that.
Shisui coughed in agreement with me. "Well, I suppose I'll take my team assignment as support of my bachelor status."
I didn't need to hear the Hokage's replying grin to sense it. "Take it as you want. What of genjutsu? Is Wakana improving as quickly as we hoped?"
Shisui's silence was painful. "When I taught her a secret clan technique five years ago, she was dying of a chakra overload. The chakra was eating at her senses. Even with that distraction, she managed the technique on her fourth or fifth try. That was the child my clan nearly destroyed. A genjutsu prodigy, which you know is unusual because of the mental maturity and complexity required by the art. That was how she was five years ago."
Shisui pulled a breath through his teeth and let it go. "Something in her broke."
If I could see my grandfather, I'm certain he'd be frowning in concern.
"I don't know what the trigger was. I have guesses. Her chakra was reprogrammed to kill her. She had close friends, as I've heard, in my clan."
Grandfather stirred. "Wakana was very young. She was affected, but I believe she has recovered."
"She went from being able to learn the new concept of a genjutsu within minutes to spending days refreshing just the hand seals of each new jutsu I teach her. She tires me out thinking through the mechanics of every detail of every single genjutsu she learns."
"By itself that does not sound bad."
"It's not, but I've never seen someone so happy to learn so slowly. Yakumo, especially, hates it."
Shisui pulled himself out of the rut that was my learning style and pressed on. "I don't like the way she's going about it, but Kana is meeting my expectations. If anyone could escape the Id's genjutsu world, I think that she could. Her grasp of the basics of genjutsu may well save her if she ever has to escape the creature. I'm more worried for Kato. If I'm not around and the Id comes out, the Id will kill him. If it attacks them at the same time, they won't stand a chance. They're far too supportive of each other. I think that we need to warn them before it's too late."
"That is Yakumo's choice," the Hokage said. "That was her one request when I asked her to join a team."
"It's her request," Shisui said, "but it's my team's lives at stake, including her own. I won't risk them."
"Yakumo must tell them herself," my grandfather said with a note of warning in his voice. "She feels she has no control. Give her this decision."
"And the chūnin exam? Will your students be participating?"
"I will ask them in the morning, Hokage-sama."
"I see. Well, I'm afraid that an old man needs his rest more than the office of Hokage likes to afford. I will see you later, Shisui-kun."
Shisui left the roof in favor of a quick supper at one of the late-night roadside stands. I stayed on my bench and tried not to shiver.
What was Yakumo hiding? The "Id," I suppose. What was an Id?
I was going to find out.
~Hey, guys! Happy December and soon-to-come Christmas holidays (or any winter/holiday vacation time you'll get this month).
Anonymous review replies: DSP (Good to hear! No problem), Ninaa (Kids worm their way in one way or another (: ), Guest on Oct. 23 (That is awesome to hear. :') Yeah, I'm looking forward to that meeting. It'll be complicated. And yes, the more friendship the better. Hinata would be adorable friends with anyone! I think she's going to get some screen time in the next chapter), Halie (Thank you!), Guest on Nov. 26 (Yay, someone else likes my writing style! Yes, "different" is pretty accurate. You can support ShiKana as much as you want. He's currently twelve and she's eleven, so you're in for a wait.)
It probably hasn't escaped your notice that Kana's team still hasn't decided whether or not to participate in the next exam. If you want to weigh in on this, there's a poll on my profile.
Want to vote in a poll? I just put one up—do you vote yea or nay for the chūnin exam? I feel like this has been the question of the entire last year for me.
I hope you enjoyed the various interactions and ominous foreshadowing! Dum, dum, dum.
This chapter's bonus content is four years old. It's one of the first concept scenes I wrote for this story. It's a bit of what would have originally happened at the exam. Back in the days when I expected that Kana and Kato would still be academy students, before their character development really started, and before the plot twists began. Suffice to say, I like what we've got going here a whole lot, and even though four years has been a long wait for all parties involved, having that much time to mull over the plot has been great. We've managed a few unique plot points, right?
Until next time! And you might want to strap yourselves in—the next few chapters are bound to get interesting.