Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto
Team 7's Ascension
Chapter XI – Grow the Tree I
Experience – in the end, that was all it came down to. The muscles in his fingers wanted to twitch, his eye tried to focus on everything at once; but experience prevented him from making such mistakes. It made sure that every reaction of surprise – however small – was suppressed.
Kakashi heard the sound of a smith working his craft and adrenalin rushed through his veins. His body tried to betray him once more; this time though he let it happen. That, too, was a part of experience as long as it happened consciously, because showing nothing at all was just as damning as showing everything.
With the return of the noise, the Chūnin who led him through the maze of tents stopped. He shifted slightly in the sand – sloppy footwork. The young man had noticed Kakashi's wavering attention and looked at him, hazel eyes full of confusion.
"Is something the matter?" he asked.
Kakashi turned his head toward the noise. There he saw a stocky man standing above an anvil – chest covered in sweat. The smith's muscles tensed, the sound of escaping air rushed through Kakashi's ears, and the hammer came crashing down.
It was a moment of clarity, but also one of worry – would Konoha become the hammer, or the anvil? Turning his attention back to his guide, he pointed with his thumb at the smith who worked under a large, open tent.
"Nothing." Kakashi smiled. "Just heard the noise, that's all."
The guide nodded. "Ah, I see. It can get a bit loud 'round here; preparation and all that. Don't worry though, you'll get used to it quickly."
They soon resumed their walk, steadily marching through the city of wooden poles and tarpaulins. Shinōbi of all ranks sat around fires; eating, drinking, and telling stories of previous battles. Few looked up as the duo passed them, but most shrugged and continued with their own endeavors. Only some were observant enough to notice Kakashi's different armor and narrowed their eyes in understanding – in most cases old armor meant that the one wearing it was a veteran and had quite some experience under his belt.
Kakashi nodded toward those shinōbi. If they hadn't alarmed anyone, then that meant that he wasn't the only one with such an antiquated piece of armor. Good – his cover held.
"We'll be there soon," said the guide.
Kakashi patted his weapon pouch. "I'm ready for one last time."
Insane laughter rang through his head though, as he spoke those veiled words of mockery, only made more amusing by the Chūnin who looked very convinced of Kakashi's good intentions. Obviously, the clarity from before had vanished. Not good, but not bad either, because when clarity vanished, worry did too... and without worry, the thrill came back.
"I'm sure," answered the Chūnin. "Anyhow, the general's a busy man. Make sure to be concise once you stand in front of him. He'll listen to you, but this' no time to exchange old war stories."
The guide had said those words with an interesting inflection; he sounded amused – although for very different reasons probably. Kakashi nodded, which appeased the man, and soon they arrived at their destination. He quickly took stock of his surroundings. The monstrosity in front of him was easily the largest tent he had seen so far. It was closed and looked very different from the others; not that this was unusual for a place that housed the general of an army.
With its vertical red and white stripes it had quite the catchy coloring, too. It was definitely a nice change to the dull grays and browns from earlier, though there were no other tents with such boring colors in adjacency, which made the general's haunt that much more imposing.
It was impressive.
Sand stretched for several yards into every direction around the tent. Long torches were stuck into the ground and had been spaced out in a large circle, cutting the protective area in half. Hazy shadows were thrown by the shinōbi who guarded the place as the sun slowly descended. They stood ramrod straight, didn't twitch and didn't move.
Jōnin – one for each torch. It was a good defense against eavesdroppers ad spies. And truly, nothing less was to be expected from a major shinōbi village, a driving power of the churning mills that were the Elemental Nations.
Impressive; utterly useless, but impressive nonetheless. The best spy was able to march directly and unimpeded through the front door. He'd be leaving through the same too, by the way; and, if possible, without arousing suspicion.
The Jōnin to the left of the tent's entrance stepped forward. His female companion on the right side fingered her small war-fans covertly. Kakashi had noticed it, but focused on a point next to her head, before switching his attention over to the other guard. He wasn't supposed to notice, after all. Or was he? Perhaps not noticing made his cover of being an old veteran unbelievable...
In any case, it was too late to change; and – once more – clarity lost before it even made an attempt. For now that was good though, and anticipation thrummed pleasantly in his head. Too much worry would lead to doubt, then to mistakes.
"Name your purpose."
His guide saluted the man. He truly was an amiable chap, that one. Not too different from Konoha's Chūnin. Well, he'd fit right in – probably tagged and bagged in a mass grave. Only, of course, if the gathered army here was truly directed against Konoha. There was no need to kill between friends and allies, after all.
The Chūnin pointed at Kakashi and answered, "I've sent a messenger ahead. This is the man."
The male guard nodded once and vanished into the tent. In the meantime, Kakashi offered the shapely woman with the war-fans a friendly smile. She didn't smile back. How grim. When the other Jōnin returned, he beckoned Kakashi forward.
"The general's giving you five minutes. Make the most of it."
Having the tent flap held open for him, Kakashi walked through. It was just a fleeting moment, but it was his last chance to stretch his senses, categorize and interpret what happened outside. He used it wisely and felt an interesting sensation – heat. It was emitted from a large stationary bowl standing next to the male guard and was filled with red glowing embers.
That was unexpected, but could come in handy later on.
Inside he saw three men; that he could count at least. Who knew what kind of special assassins were hiding in the shadows – shinōbi had a surprising amount of means they could employ when it came to staying hidden. Two of the visible men were standing bowed over a large table in the back, arguing heatedly with each other.
The table was burdened with the weight of dozen maps and more – how very interesting.
Someone cleared his throat next to him and Kakashi turned around, coming face to face with his appointment. The general wore an armor similar to his own – old, antiquated, the sign of a survivor, a veteran. His brown hair was cropped short and some stubble was visible on his chin and jaw due to a lack of time most probably.
Unforgettable gray eyes bored into him. He knew the man, had fought beside him in several battles sixteen years ago – how wonderful. Truly, playing mind games with other Elite Jōnin wasn't that high on his to-do list, but he should have expected it.
The general's facial expression eased somewhat. "The new recruit, I take it?"
"New is debatable," replied Kakashi.
Laughter rang through the tent and ripped the other two arguing Jōnin out of their discussion. They looked over shortly, saw the newcomer, and then turned back to the table and their previous debate.
The general sat down on a stool and took a large gulp from a wooden goblet. It was the stark contrast to the other two Jōnin that struck Kakashi as odd. They, too, were wearing armor, but it was weighted down by ornamental gold – splendor before convenience. Perhaps they had been elevated into higher positions through connections and money?
It wouldn't be the first time.
"I petitioned for the old veterans to be reactivated, you know? Too many naysayers though. They've already served. They've earned their rest!" The general snorted. "Maybe it's for the best. Certainly spares me the hassle of saying no to the incompetent ones. You're not the only one from the old guard who's made it here. I knew there were still some observant ones left."
The man sounded bitter. He was looking for competence in an army of trained, but inexperienced soldiers. Kakashi could work with that, although it was a gamble. Names were dangerous things, after all. And – for all he knew – the man in front of him could have been the best friend of the dead guy he stole the armor from.
What was sanity? He had forgotten, again. Maybe that was a good thing though. It certainly made it easier to go through with his idea.
"Too much mistakes?" Kakashi asked.
He pointed with his thumb toward the entrance of the tent. "I wondered why no one even bothered to ask for my name. That wouldn't have happened back in the war, I can tell you that much."
"They-" The general shot up from his seat, then let himself fall back down again. "Never mind. I'll talk to them later."
"Unbelievable," he muttered, and shook his head in denial.
Suna's Miracle Tactician (Senryaku no Fushigi) – the man's title in the bingo book. Kakashi finally remembered. He had started to doubt his own memory; knowing the name and title of the general didn't make things easier though.
The man looked up. "Well, at least you're one more veteran I can count on."
"I'd think so," answered Kakashi.
Weird – a slight difference in the quality of the general's intonation. The change had been subtle, incredibly so. Something was wrong, or it would be very soon. His brazen confidence left him. The pleasant thrum in his head that had kept him from worrying vanished. Not anchored to his delusions of superiority and invincibility anymore, he was suddenly thrown around violently by the vicious winds of a summer storm. Rather like a leaf, being ripped away from its branch.
This was the absolute worst moment for his sanity to rear its head.
The general grinned. "The more of the old folks we can get, the better. You remember what happened at Bōdā No Tani (Valley of Border)? I'll never forget how fast the Iwa scum was running once they noticed our counter-attack."
Damn. Kakashi knew it. He had heard of the battle at Bōdā No Tani. How it ended though... that was a completely different story. Saying yes could be a trap, or not. Saying no could be a trap, or not.
Hesitation. Too much hesitation.
Kakashi laughed."Heh, how could I forget?"
That was apparently the wrong answer and his instincts screamed and raged at him.
"Fūton: Hasai-Fū (Crushing Wind)!"
Substitution – the most trained aspect of the shinōbi arts in the Hatake Clan. Beloved Kawarimi. Once more it saved his hide, at least temporarily.
He reappeared next to the woman outside the tent. She twitched, but wasn't fast enough. He stole one of her war-fans; and, once opened, sliced her fellow Jōnin's throat with the sharp end. Simultaneously, a kunai in his left hand found its way through her long hair, directly into her spine.
The two guards were dead before they even had a chance to recognize the threat.
Behind him, the large tent went up in flames. He heard screams. Not of pain, but of anger. The Fūton technique that was meant to crush him had collided with the large bowl of hot embers from outside.
Kawarimi – even more instinctual than breathing.
A Shunshin later he stood next to the small forge where the smith was still making weapons for the army. Abandoning all pretense, Kakashi ignored the confused looks and dashed away.
He leaned against a large rock in the vast desert, expertly wrapping bandages around his injured arm. It wasn't a deep cut, just some minor technique that had clipped him during his escape, but it was a wound nonetheless; and he hated wounds. Kakashi was about to pull the end of the bandages tight with his teeth, when the sound of rapidly shifting sand alerted him to newcomers. He pressed himself closer against the rock and held his breath while a part of the bandage was dangling out of his mouth.
Three shinōbi raced past his hiding place and Kakashi smiled – fooled, again.
His countenance soon turned into a frown however, as he contemplated his current situation. He had overestimated himself, a mistake that made his present position rather precarious. It wasn't death and injury he feared though, as those could be quite easily avoided should he escape toward Konoha – navigating the desert was hard, but not impossible.
Rather, the problem was that he had to make the Suna shinōbi believe they managed to kill him in their mad chase. Otherwise, all the information he had gathered would become useless, and they would change their plans, perhaps even attack earlier to offset a possible counter-attack – an outcome which definitely wasn't an option. As unfortunate as it sounded, a direct escape to his village was out of question.
Hopefully, this time his deception – the illusions he wove without chakra – would be more effective than before. How to facilitate the demise of an old veteran though, without actually dying in the process? That would bear some further thoughts.
Another squad, this time amounting to four shinōbi, approached his position. They were slower thn the last group, which suited Kakashi just fine. It enabled him to get into the right frame of mind for the fight. He pulled a few shuriken out of his pouch and crouched low, making himself ready to leave his hideout.
They had to continue their hunt for him; simple as that. As long as he was visible to them, they had no reasons to change their plans. Contingency plans were already being made – he'd expect nothing less – those wouldn't come into effect though, should they manage to land a killing blow on him.
When the group was barely a few yards away, he threw his shuriken and sped through seals.
"Ninpō: Kageshuriken no Jutsu."
"Futōn: Anzen no Kaze (Winds of Safety)!"
Most of the shuriken were averted by the strong gales of wind that had picked up as soon as the most experienced shinōbi on the team countered with his own technique. His reaction time wasn't bad; rather impressive even, for a Chūnin.
Kakashi grinned. That guy would do. He'd be the one to be left alive, spreading the tale of the fleeing veteran. Nevertheless, despite his brevity, it wouldn't be easy to make the fight convincing. He had to make it seem as if he had been beaten – if barely – but still been able to escape while leaving the other man alive.
Kami, this would actually hurt.
The hailstorm of metal was diverted away from the team – or most of it, at least. It had served its purpose though, and the fourth member fell to the ground, three shuriken embedded in her head. The other two, less experienced, shinōbi stood back to back, trying to anticipate where he'd come from, while the leader focused on intercepting more possible weapons.
Time to play.
Kakashi became visible as he stepped away from the rocks, and with a gait almost as lazy as a Nara's, he walked toward his prey. This would become ugly. For all of them, himself included, but at least he could relish in their obvious fear for a bit longer.
He clamped down hard on this particular emotion.
In his head, three little Genin told him to focus, and – while he'd love nothing more than to unleash utter horror upon his current enemies – those three Genin, and the whole village, depended on the information he had gathered.
Suna was a threat. To him, to his new family, to the village – clarity returned once more. Kakashi abandoned his lazy walk and broke out in a sprint. Nevertheless, he allowed himself to grin wolfishly. Bad habits and tendencies weren't that easy to get rid of.
"So, this is it?"
Naruto nodded toward a large building at the end of the street. It was painted in a light yellow and had only a few windows built in, most of which were closed. Above the entrance hung a large metal sign with dozens of insignias engraved on it – some were bigger than the rest, instantly demanding attention; others had been made unreadable by rust, the ever faithful companion of passing ages and a lack of tender care.
"Yes." Sasuke pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his weapon pouch and glanced at it. "It's in the right place and fits the description."
Sakura leaned over Sasuke's shoulder and compared the data on the information slip with the building. "Looks rather dull, but it's the right one; definitely."
Next to Team 7, Ino huffed exasperatedly. "Why are you making such a fuss over the building?"
"Shinōbi," answered Naruto. "From here on out, everything could be a test – or not."
"Well, whatever the test, I'm sure that with us nine together we will manage." Shikamaru leaned against a lamppost and watched the building with narrowed eyes. Several shinōbi – foreign Genin most probably – had just entered it.
Kiba heard the statement and grinned. Sitting on a toppled barrel, his right leg was moving up and down quickly. His canines showed and within one jump he stood next to Hinata who held Akamaru in her arms.
"Let's move then," he said. "We've waited long enough."
"Indeed." Shino pushed his glasses up his nose. "There is nothing hindering our departure now."
Naruto looked at his teammates and his new allies. "Everyone knows what to do?"
"We instructed out teams sufficiently, Naruto-san," answered Shino.
"Good, let's go then."
With Naruto calmly walking in the front, the group of former schoolmates set out to finally begin their Chūnin Examination. To most of them, the alliance, and in some cases even fragile bonds they had formed over the last three days was a novel thing; especially considering that until their fateful meeting in the Nara Compound, Team 7 had been a squad of three lone wolves who only suffered the company of each other.
It had been a humbling experience for them – more so for Naruto, who aspired to one day place Sarutobi's hat on his own head. Just as there were some things you could only do alone, there were many things that would only be possible to achieve with allies.
His flawed thoughts – centered mostly around the supremacy of his team – quickly turned out to be self-serving illusions, nothing more. Hubris – a quality he hadn't even known he possessed had indeed taken hold of him, and he was thankful that the constant interaction with the other teams had broken its shackles thoroughly. Still, it was – while temporarily defeated – a beast ever lurking, and he swore to do his utmost to avoid it in the future.
He smiled. The ease with which Team 8 had gathered information about most of the foreign teams participating – only leaving out a selected few they had deemed to be too dangerous to spy on – was almost frightening. He had listened to their recounts, had asked some questions, and to this minute continued to be amazed by them. Such a different approach from what his own team would have done; but, undeniably, yielding results.
Not to detract from Team 10's contribution, of course. Shikamaru's input and analysis of the data alone was worth every minute of shame Naruto had felt after their talk. As was the conference afterward, where every member of the unusual alliance forwarded ideas on how to improve their chances in the Chūnin Exams. They had a rough outline of the tasks, or at least which competence the tasks were supposed to test, and prepared accordingly.
Even now, as they neared the building, one of these ideas was put in motion. Their group, while looking rather informal and unorganized, actually walked in a tight formation that suited their abilities and ensured their safety. Team 8, Ino, and Shikamaru made up the core of the formation. They were the sensors who would subtly alert the rest to the surrounding dangers, as well as the ones who were vulnerable after using their clan techniques.
Team 7 was generally accepted as the most combat experienced team and it was therefore unsurprising that they took to three of the four sides. Sakura secured their back, Sasuke strolled alongside the group to the right – ninja-to plainly visible – and Naruto walked in front. What had surprised the trio though, was the combat capability of Chouji. The amiable Akimichi, who proudly walked to the left of Shikamaru, had apparently received some serious training from his father after the debacle in Nami no Kuni. The long Bo-staff that was carelessly slung over his shoulder definitely wasn't just for show.
For a short moment their formation was disbanded as they stepped through the door, but upon their entrance into the long corridor they immediately re-assumed it. Facing them were several small groups of threes loitering around in the hallway; and, at the end of it, the group of nine saw a sign of familiarity – the senseis of Team 8 and 10 were diligently waiting for their students to arrive.
"I'm surprised that you are working together now." Kurenai glanced over the assembled Genin once, letting her gaze linger on the last Uchiha.
Sasuke, for all the superiority he often felt, had to put all of his ability to use not to falter under her stare. Those red eyes – looking so much like his own – penetrated deeply. His pride and Kakashi's training kept him from tensing the muscles in his face, from showing any signs of being nervous, but they both knew that it was a facade, a crafted mask of aloofness, nothing more. It was all too apparent that the woman took his attempt at spying on her team seriously; and, while she hadn't taken action just yet, Sasuke nevertheless knew that he would be watched by her from now on. Yuuhi Kurenai – a name he would definitely remember; for his own interest, as well as that of his team.
"It was the easiest solution," said Shikamaru. He nodded toward his sensei, Asuma. "Everything else would have been too bothersome to even try."
Kurenai's facial expression betrayed nothing and it was unclear if she was surprised by such a statement. Asuma, however, chuckled and threw his arm over Shikamaru's shoulder, making the young Genin's head nearly vanish through the sheer discrepancy of size between them.
"That's a Nara for you," he said. "Well, as long as all of you agreed to this, then there should be no problem, right?"
Ino and Chouji nodded barely perceptible as Asuma, still draped over Shikamaru's shoulder and laughing, watched them intently. Something similar happened with Team 8 and their sensei, whose countenance eased up considerably after confirming that her team hadn't been forced into the alliance in any shape or form.
All of this byplay, no matter how the senseis tried to conceal it, wasn't lost on the members of Team 7. Kakashi had trained them to notice subtlety in all its various forms, and although Kurenai and Asuma were masters at their crafts – outstripping Team 7's abilities by far – the recipients of the hidden conversation were only Genin who had yet to reach the proficiency of their teachers.
Naruto could, in all honesty, understand their reluctance. Still, this definitely would have been made easier had Kakashi taken his place among the senseis. He was – in a manner of speaking – the shield of Team 7 against 'opponents' of such caliber and his absence made this a very awkward meeting.
He looked over to his teammates and wasn't surprised to see Sakura's hand resting on Sasuke's shoulder. The Uchiha stared ahead stoically, nary a muscle moved on his athletic frame – Sakura seemed to have some kind of calming influence on him. Sasuke soon noticed Naruto's gaze and returned it in a vivid fashion that, frankly spoken, surprised the Uzumaki. These onyx eyes, alight with suppressed anger and wounded pride, still were able to communicate that he had enough control not to succumb to such baser urges. It reassured Naruto who dipped his head slightly in response.
Asuma released Shikamaru from his one-armed hug and straightened himself. "Anyhow, I hope you are prepared. The exam starts in a few minutes and none of your competitors will show you any mercy – in most cases not even those from Konoha."
"We have prepared sufficiently," answered Shino. Next to him, Kiba smirked and Hinata smiled.
Having kept his silence long enough, Naruto walked into visible range of the two Jōnin. "Nothing untoward will happen to your teams, I promise."
Kurenai narrowed her eyes and leaned forward. "Do not make promises you cannot keep. You even failed at spying on my team, how could I trust you with their safety?"
Behind their sensei, Team 8 cringed at the rebuke. Over the last three days they had formed tentative bonds with Team 7 – nothing lasting just yet, of course, and while appreciated, their overzealous sensei's treatment was a bit too harsh.
"Don't worry too much, Kurenai," said Asuma. He had, after all, seen that Team 7 could hold their own back in Nami no Kuni. "They're good. I'm sure Naruto had nothing but good intentions when he promised their safety."
Kurenai appeared to be reluctant, but took a step back nevertheless. "If you say so," she said.
It looked as if she wanted to add something, but another Jōnin appeared in the middle of the hallway and his booming voice reverberated through the whole corridor.
"Attention! The first task of the Chūnin Examination will start in five minutes. Everyone who isn't in the large hall by then will be disqualified. If only one member of your team is missing, the whole team will fail as well." Having delivered his message, the Jōnin vanished in a whirl of leaves.
Naruto shot Sakura an inquiring look and she was quick to answer, "He did something to his vocal cords. Probably Fūton manipulation."
"Ah," said Naruto. Then he turned around to the group, momentarily forgetting the two senseis behind him. "Well, this is it, guys. Remember what we planned and we should all make it through."
He shared a last glance with Sasuke, then strode past Kurenai and Asuma, and into the large meeting hall beyond the door. The other teams said last words of goodbye, and quickly followed him, once more taking up their planned formation.
When the last of them had vanished through the entrance, Asuma pulled out a cigarette and lit it, grinning to himself. "You've been pretty hard on Team 7 there, Kurenai."
Kurenai wrinkled her nose. "They deserved it. Spying on fellow Konoha shinōbi, their former classmates no less..."
"Maybe they did," conceded Asuma. "Then again, they've been trained extensively by Kakashi. Honestly, I expected nothing less."
"They should have known that their chances are nil as long as there's a Jōnin nearby. Does Kakashi train them in reckless behavior?"
Asuma looked at her strangely for a moment, then started laughing. "The opposite is more likely. He lets them figure out things on their own, true, but spying on Konoha's teams is as safe as it can get."
"Exactly. I bet Kakashi knew they'd try something like that and let it go through because there was next to no risk involved. Rotten Bastard. He's not even here in Konoha and still trains his team like that."
Kurenai furrowed her brows. "I don't believe it. He couldn't have predicted his team's actions that far, could he?"
"Couldn't he?" Asuma laughed again. He went to one of the closed windows, opened it and threw out the bud. "I've run some missions with him. The guy can be quite the mastermind. It wouldn't do to underestimate him, ever."
In another part of the Elemental Countries, said mastermind was in the process of making his fights with the pursuing shinōbi from Suna believable. Dozens of projectiles were dodged as he swerved from left to right, then – suddenly – one would hit him just enough to draw blood. Cursing loudly, he would once more retreat far into the desert, giving his pursuers every bit of evidence they needed to continue the chase and still belief he'd be captured eventually.
On his retreat, he encountered another group of three that had tried to box him in.
He dodged to the side, avoiding the crushing wind and simultaneously threw three shuriken into the air.
"Magen: Chikara Nemuri!"
For a split-second, Kakashi felt sleepy. Then he pumped chakra through his tenketsu and ripped the Genjutsu into pieces. The woman who had managed to get close to him unnoticed received an elbow into her stomach. There wasn't much time to do something more permanent though, as the next wave of weapons was already on the way.
Well, there was one thing.
He grabbed the female Chūnin behind him by her vest and threw her with all his strength toward the incoming kunai. No matter how thick the vest had been, there was no chance for that woman to survive. The angry shrieks of her teammates rang through the desert. In the momentary horror that gripped them after having killed their friend through their own weapons, Kakashi vanished.
Above them, Kakashi had substituted with the shuriken in the middle and, now in free fall, grabbed the other two, sending them flying toward their targets. Their trajectory curved slightly, slitting the throats of both.
He landed in a crouch, but quickly ran into the direction from whence the group came. There were still enough pursuers behind him, and slowly but surely he should think of a way how to escape without letting them know that he escaped.
The meeting hall was enormous; definitely larger than the building looked from the outside. It was filled to the brim with Genin aspiring to become Chūnin. At the far end of the room stood a man who was at least seven feet tall and his bulging muscles looked as if they could rip his Jōnin vest apart any second. He leaned against a podium made of stone and observed the chattering mass of shinōbi with cool indifference.
To the left of him were three normal sized doors, each guarded by one further Chūnin. Above the doors, a large clock was ticking away; and, as soon as the fingers reached twelve, a thundering sound echoed through the hall. The huge Jōnin's countenance had changed. He grinned and held a large gong in one hand, a padded stick in the other. The group of nine, who had just arrived was startled at first, but quickly paid attention as the large man began to talk.
"I welcome all of you to the first task of the Chūnin Examination. You may call me Kyojin-sama (Kyojin – colossus). The Sandaime Hokage has given me the honorable task of explaining the further proceedings to you, so listen well for I won't repeat myself."
Naruto shuffled a few inches over to Sakura and whispered, "Kyojin-sama? Fits him, I guess."
"Quiet. We need to hear this," answered Sakura after playfully elbowing Naruto in the stomach.
"First of all – a special number has been attached to each team; a number which you can find on the board over there." Kyojin pointed at a large black board that was, indeed, filled with countless rows of written names and numbers. "The task is simple. You see these three doors over there?"
After seeing that most of the audience had nodded, he continued, "When your team's number is called, you will step up to these doors and walk through them. There's one for each member of your team. On the other side though, you'll find a challenge you have to face in order to advance."
Everyone observed the doors for a few moments, but they were just non-descriptive metal doors; there was nothing that would have hinted at what lies behind them.
"Your performance during the challenges behind the door will be graded, of course. There is a maximum of five points to achieve for each challenge, which makes a grand total of fifteen points for the team. Here's the catch though – if your team falls under ten points, you're disqualified. In the same way, if you have exactly ten points on the merit of two members, while your third member failed his challenge – you will be disqualified as well."
Naruto had full confidence, not just in his own team, but in the alliance as well. It was interesting nonetheless to see how some teams around them already seemed to fall apart. A few Genin who didn't look too strong were reprimanded harshly by their teammates before they had even done anything.
"In five minutes we will start with the first group. Remember, one member for each door." Kyojin shot the assembled horde of Genin a last smirk, before leaving the room.
The alliance quickly assembled around Shikamaru, not breaking their formation, but tightening it instead. "So, Shika, you're up."
"I know... troublesome." Shikamaru scratched his head and narrowed his eyes. "It's rather obvious. Each door represents a different challenge. We have to find out who goes where. Better said, we have to find out what lies behind the doors. It's possible, of course, that everyone here could manage every door, but I'd rather not risk it."
"Reconnaissance then," muttered Naruto. His ears twitched. "Some of the other teams are making a lot of noise. Some even seem to know what's behind the doors."
"Ignore them," answered Shikamaru. "They're probably plants. We can't trust their information – it might be correct, but it could also be wrong."
Shino cleared his throat. "This seems to be a situation uniquely tailored to Team 8's skill set."
Kiba looked at him for a moment, before understanding settled in. "Shino's right-"
He would have continued in the same loud voice, had Hinata not grabbed his hand. It stupefied him for a moment, then he understood and grinned sheepishly. "Sorry," he whispered. "Shino's right. If we get close enough to the rooms, we can use our clan techniques to get some information."
"That would break out formation though," said Sasuke.
"For a short moment, yes." Shikamaru sighed. "But this is important. Without the information we can't make reliable decisions."
Choji looked quizzically at Shikamaru. "Why don't we just all go to the doors?"
"Too obvious. If a group of nine tries to bully their way through this whole mass of Genin, there's bound to be trouble. No, according to the board we still got quite some time left. I suggest going in pairs. This way it won't be as suspicious."
Naruto nodded toward Shikamaru, then looked at his teammates and Team 8. "Who goes with whom then? You still have Choji here with you, Shika; so, I guess you're going to be fine."
Sakura, who had already seen that the chemistry between Naruto, Sasuke, and Kiba wasn't of the good kind, quickly spoke up. "I'll go with Kiba."
Sasuke glanced at Hinata and Shino before nodding to the latter one.
"Well, that leaves us, Hinata," said Naruto. He grinned and motioned with his hand to follow him.
It was quite hard to navigate through the throngs of Genin without losing sight of the other two pairs, but they managed somehow. Naruto observed how Sakura expertly tripped on the ground in front of the doors – becoming the laughing stock of the surrounding shinōbi – while Kiba, under the guise of helping her up, smelled the surroundings for all he was worth.
On the other side of the room, Sasuke stood guard next to Shino who carefully extended his net of bugs and let them crawl through the doors and on other participants. A surge of miniscule killing intent caught Naruto's attention, but it had vanished as quickly as it came up. He looked around, but all he found was a Genin with a gray ponytail staring at Sasuke like a lovesick puppy.
"Are we close enough, Hinata?" Naruto asked after having brought them only a few feet away from the doors.
She nodded. "Hai. Byakugan."
Again, Naruto felt killing intent. This time though, it didn't vanish and it was definitely from a different person. Unobtrusively, he reached up to the shoulder without a plate and fingered one of his hidden kunai.
Long, brown hair; white eyes; a look of perpetual displeasure and anger – he had found Hyūga Neji. Naruto still couldn't believe that Hinata's own family would try something during the exams, but the killing intent had been very real. It would be prudent of him to remain careful. He sent a concentrated spike of intent to get Neji's attention, and when the boy's eyes whipped around to him, Naruto slowly shook his head.
It was a warning. According to the information Hinata had given them about Team 9 though, he probably wouldn't heed it.
"I'm finished, Naruto-kun."
"Good work. Let's get back to Shikamaru. The others have finished up as well."
They made their way back to the large group without any incident, and although Naruto noticed the burning gaze of Hinata's cousin on the back of his head, he didn't turn around. There was nothing the Hyūga prodigy could do in this task; they were too far apart.
Once they took up their formation, each member of Team 8 reported their findings.
"I saw only a second corridor behind the first door," said Hinata. "There seems to be some kind of hazy outline around it though. It might be a Genjutsu."
Her words were spoken slowly, timidly even, but she didn't stutter. Kiba grinned in response and gave her a one-armed hug. "That's great Hinata! Sorry, guys, but I couldn't find out much. There are just so many scents in this damn room. Anyway, I still managed to filter out one smell from behind the second door. It's kinda creepy, but there was definitely the smell of death behind it."
"The smell of death?" Ino asked sceptically.
"Not death exactly... more like decay. I can't describe in any better."
Shikamaru groaned. "This doesn't sound too promising for us. Shino, what about you?"
"My Kickaichu have infiltrated most of the other participants and will report back to me, as soon as the first groups go through their doors."
"Good job. Hopefully this will give us enough information to make a good plan. According to the board, Team 7 will be the first to go. Regardless of what the third door has behind it, do you have an idea whom to send where?"
Naruto looked at his teammates, especially at Sakura and shrugged. "I'll take door tw-"
"Door two," interrupted Sakura.
Naruto shot her a surprised look. "You up for decay?"
"I've seen plenty already, that's not the point. You should go for door one – if it's really a Genjutsu. Take it as a training exercise."
"... so mean."
Sasuke, who was standing next to Naruto, smirked. "I'm sure it will be no problem, Dobe. Anyhow, that leaves the third door for me; and whatever lies behind it."
Ino looked at them and shook her head; her blonde ponytail flew around wildly. "How can you be so calm? Training exercise? This is the Chūnin Exam! How can you send Naruto to the Genjutsu door? And, Sakura, decay? Really?"
"Mah, don't worry Ino," answered Sakura. "I have full confidence that Naruto will make it through; as will I."
"Some of my Kickaichu are back."
Naruto instantly turned to the Aburame. "Report."
"The first door leads indeed into a corridor enshrouded in Genjutsu. I can't tell you what he saw, but when he started running down the hallway, an instructor came and knocked him out."
Naruto tapped his foot on the ground. "So I'll have to dispel the Genjutsu the moment I go through the door. Sounds simple enough. What about the second room?"
"As far as my Kickaichu saw, it is an obstacle course; a rather vicious one. Especially toward the end it intensifies dramatically. There were some corpses around that area, but I can't say whether they've been place to frighten us, or not."
"... decay," mumbled Kiba. "I wonder who these poor sods were?"
"Not to sound callous, but that's irrelevant for the moment." Shikamaru nodded to Shino. "Continue, please."
"The third room is a simple living room, but to leave it you need a code to enter into the keypad on the opposite side. The code seems to be hidden somewhere in the room, and when you found it, you have to hide it again – wherever you please. I do believe that the grading will be for both; finding the code and hiding it."
Shikamaru nodded. "Thank you, Shino. That's all the information we needed. Team 7, your turn will be up soon as far as I can see. Team 8, you and us, we'll have to wait a bit longer." Shikamaru stretched his limbs. "The board says that Team 10 goes directly after Team 8, so that shouldn't be a problem. I would advise you to send Hinata to room one, Kiba to room two, and Shino, you should take room three."
"That sounds like logical advise. Thank you, Shikamaru-san," answered Shino and dipped his head slightly.
"Why do I have to get the death room?"
"You were always one of the fastest in the Academy, Kiba-kun. The obstacle course will be easy for you." Hinata favored him with a shy smile. "But if you don't want to go, I can try."
That statement surprised everyone, but for different reasons. Naruto, who's secondary task was to protect Hinata, spun around and looked fiercely at Kiba. He couldn't protect her in that room, and the obstacle course sounded like the most dangerous out of the three options.
"Too afraid of a few corpses, Kiba?"
The Inuzuka, who didn't want Hinata to go there himself, quickly caught on and replied, "Me? Dream on, Naruto! Sorry, Hinata-chan, but that obstacle course is mine."
"Well, that leaves only us," said Shikamaru and looked at his team. "I'll take the obstacle course. Ino, you're good at dealing with Genjutsu... Choji, try to find the code."
"You on the obstacle course?" Ino asked.
Shikamaru scratched his head and yawned. "Hai, I'll do the course. Troublesome..."
Barely a few moments later, one of the administrating Chūnin called the number of Team 7. Naruto gave the rest of the alliance a short wave and smiled. "We'll see you on the other side."
Naruto had barely cross the threshold, when the door behind him slammed shut with a loud noise. He looked around and immediately took stock of his surroundings. The door had led him onto a small platform which, after descending three marbled steps, changed into a narrow corridor. On the ceiling were several lights, some of them broken, some flickering.
Putting one palm against the wall, he felt the rough texture of the material surrounding him.
"Stone," Naruto muttered.
That was surprising indeed. In Konoha, the inner structure of most buildings was primarily made of wood. Perhaps the Genjutsu was already in effect? If yes, then such discrepancies could help him to dispel it later on.
A torturous groan was to be heard above him and as Naruto looked up, dust and small pieces of debris rained down on him. He had to give the examiner credit. Had he not been forewarned by Shino and Hinata, he likely wouldn't have thought of this being a Genjutsu. With their intel though, the slowly descending ceiling wasn't even half as scary as it could have been.
Shino had warned them that one participant ran toward the end of the corridor where a Chūnin – obviously not affected by the Genjutsu – knocked him out. Naruto could understand the running now, especially as the door at the end of the hallway became more visible the lower the ceiling went.
Was the sinking ceiling really everything though? It would likely cost his team a point, but he wanted to sate his curiosity. He made three quick steps forward and beheld the consequences of his short experiment – small stone bullets shot out of the walls, electric currents ran through suddenly developing puddles... everything that would make one believe that running faster toward the end is the best alternative; a Genjutsu concealed in its lethality.
Naruto observed the spectacle for a moment longer, before deciding that he had seen enough. In the end, they might be graded on their times too. He formed the appropriate seal with his hands and abruptly cut off the circulation in his pathways, before re-flooding them with the enormous amount of chakra inhabiting his body.
The lamps continued to flicker but every other obstacle; the ceiling, the bullets, the puddles became hazy outlines before vanishing altogether. He put his palm once more against the wall and smiled. His earlier assumption had been right – it was indeed wood and not stone.
While Naruto experimented with the Genjutsu in his room, Sakura had followed a normal-looking hallway until she arrived in a very large chamber. This, she knew, had to be the place where the obstacle course would be; and, indeed, once she set foot on the floor which was made of metal plates, something extraordinary happened.
The room, which had till then, been a hall made completely out of metal changed as if someone layered a large illusion over it. The walls became picturesque imitations of the dark forests around Konoha. In front of her, and in the whole room, several metal flaps opened and 'trees' made of metal rose out of them. Their material was only visible for a few moments though, as instantly the massive Genjutsu covered them too and made them seem to be real trees. The same occurred with everything else the room needed to become an obstacle course – stones, water, underbrush, and probably also traps.
Sakura had never before seen something that elaborate, nor had she ever heard of a Genjutsu with such large scale capabilities. It amazed her just as much as it terrified her. She took the second door to prove herself, took the hardest route, because that was what it would take for her to catch up to her teammates.
She steeled herself, readied a kunai and stepped into the artificial forest. Instantly though, she was set upon by numerous projectiles – shuriken, kunai, even arrows – and was forced to dodge the incoming hailstorm by rolling around and diving out of the way. No one had explicitly forbidden the use of chakra and techniques, but she'd save that up for later.
Who knew what would come next?
Sidestepping another bout of shuriken, she parried two kunai and sent them away in arcs that would make them impact with other incoming weapons. The obstacle course wasn't easy, of course, but it had nothing on Kakashi's training in the forests of Hi no Kuni. Ducking and weaving, she slowly made her way through the various traps, and even started to smile as she continued to dodge everything with relative ease.
A torrential flood of water appeared in her peripheral vision, and she quickly raced through seals. "Dotōn: Doroku Gaeshi!"
Her first impulse had been to use one of the first techniques Kakashi-sensei had shown her, but then she remembered that the ground under her feet wasn't really earth, but metal disguised as mud. Nevertheless, she was happy with her choice as the waves of water crashed against her earth wall and nothing happened to her.
Still, it would be better to end the course soon. She didn't know whether the examiners had permission to alter the course if someone actually had fun. It took her another three minutes until she was near the end of the room; the part where Kiba had smelled decay and Shino's bugs found some corpses.
Sakura looked ahead, and surely, there were lying quite a few dead people. The question though was whether those corpses were real or not. If they were, then the obstacle course would apparently become much more difficult soon. If, however, they were just an attempt to psych her out...
She moved toward the first corpse, nestled in the roots of an artificial tree, and had to avoid projectiles once more. This time though they were more numerous and flew at her with a much higher velocity.
Dodging them still wasn't an issue; what made them problematic though was that they herded her directly into a few unfriendly Ninjutsu. It took a lot of effort and quite some chakra to evade all of it with substitutions and agility.
Once the area calmed down a bit, she sent the corpse a suffering look. It truly didn't matter whether it was real or not; whether the course got harder or not... the only way was forward and she'd be damned before Team 7 failed because of her.
Sasuke entered the cozy living room behind the door with the same aloofness that one would attribute to walking into a familiar place. Honestly, from all three choices he had gotten the least interesting one. Sure, it could take time to find the code – better said, the place where the last participant had hidden it – but he doubted he'd need long for it.
The room was furnished with quite a lot of items – good places to hide something. There was a large shelf filled with old and musty tomes, as well as scrolls. Several potted plants made the place into something akin to a greenhouse... perhaps Naruto would have had his fun with this room. Sasuke vaguely remembered that the blond had given his own plant a name.
He walked into the middle of the room, where an official looking piece of paper was nailed onto a small table.
'You have five minutes to find the code. Remember it, then hide it again – Kyojin-sama.'
"Five minutes, huh?"
Sasuke looked around, but found no immediate hint as to the whereabouts of the code. Well, he didn't exactly enter the room with the intentions of searching in an honorable way. He was a shinōbi after all and two seconds later, red eyes began the search anew.
With his highly enhanced vision and greatly improved processing abilities – courtesy of the Sharingan – he soon found what he was looking for. Next to one of the potted plants were a few crumbs of earth. Sloppy work. Sasuke walked over to the plant, paused for a second, then put his hands deep into the earth in the pot and began digging.
Moments later, his hands emerged with a dirty slip of paper. He read it and rolled his eyes.
And people told him that he was vain...
Sasuke marched over to the door leading out of the room, rolled the note into a small ball and with some spit glued it under the keypad. Afterward he punched in the numbers – 11, 25, 15, 10, 9, 14. The keypad beeped two times, then the door unlocked and Sasuke stepped through, thoroughly satisfied.
It was Sasuke who had finished his room first, followed shortly by Naruto and then – two minutes later – by Sakura. The Genin assembled before the Chūnin who awaited them in the small chamber all rooms had led to. He had three sheets of paper in front of him and peered at them critically. After a moment, he put them inside the locker of his desk.
"Team 7, led by Elite Jōnin Hatake Kakashi. Uchiha Sasuke, five points. Haruno Sakura, four points. Uzumaki Naruto, four points. Congratulations, you have passed with a total score of thirteen."
Sasuke smirked. "Hn. Only four points, Dobe?"
"I only got four points too, Sasuke." Sakura looked at the Uchiha with the sweetest smile she could manage.
"... that's different."
"How is th-"
The Chūnin cleared his throat. "Team 7, you have successfully finished the first task. Please exit toward the room on your left, where you will receive further instructions."
They waved sheepishly at the administrator and quickly left the chamber through the aforementioned exit. The new room however wasn't empty and some teams had already made it there. Team 7 took to a small bench in one of the corners, from where they could observe most of the room. Naruto – in particular – had his eyes on the red-haired kid from Suna, and the weird gray-haired guy that covertly ogled his teammate like a piece of meat.
Even if he'd overlook the amount of killing intent the Suna Genin emitted, Naruto would still be wary of him as his team was one of the few Team 8 didn't manage to spy on.
"So, what do you think? When will the others come through?" asked Sakura.
Naruto scratched his stubbly chin. "That could take a while. The board had them listed pretty far down. Team 8 goes directly before Team 10 though."
And, indeed, a lot of other Genin came through the chambers – none of them from their alliance though. But, what sparked Naruto's curiosity was that every single of those teams had failed, and if the rumors his ears picked up were to believed, they all failed in the third room.
Naruto looked at Sasuke with narrowed eyes. "Where exactly did you hide the code?"
That question actually elicited a grin from the Uchiha. "Crushed it into a very small ball and glued it with spit under the keypad."
Next to them, Sakura chuckled. "Most people probably wouldn't look for it there. You had how long to search and hide the code?"
"Mhh," Naruto stretched his legs out and folded his arms behind his head. "Have you considered that Shino and Choji have to find it too?"
"Of course," answered Sasuke. "I looked at the board, and Team 9 – the one with Neji – is up a few teams before Shino."
"How do you know that he'll be in the third room?"
Sasuke yawned. "Simple. I overheard them as I walked past them. Besides, Shino has one of his bugs on pretty much every participant with the exception of the Hyuga. Whatever happens, I have no doubt he'll clear the room in seconds."
When Team 8's number was finally called, they marched toward the three doors with steady steps, only stopping once as Shino exchanged some last words with Choji, and Shikamaru whispered something into Kiba's ear.
Hinata with her Byakugan was perfectly suited to clear the first room. She was very sensitive to chakra as it was the most cherished weapon of her clan; and, although her clan thought her a failure, she had nevertheless been trained enough in the art to immediately notice the foreign chakra encroaching on her internal pathways. In addition to that, the guidance she had received from her sensei – a famous Genjutsu mistress – made this room a very easy challenge to overcome.
Not even her shaky confidence would be able to stop her in the first task. Team 8, as well as the rest of her age group depended on her.
"Byakugan," whispered Hinata; and, for the first time since she was able to use her clan's bloodline, the All-seeing Eye activated without any hand seals.
The Genjutsu had barely taken hold on her, never even reaching the part of her senses that would have induced the illusion in its full effect, when it shattered and fell off. Just like at the beginning, Hinata stood in a narrow hallway.
The shinōbi responsible for this task soon appeared and waved her through the next door, where – to her surprise – she was the first one of her team to arrive.
"Hyūga-sama, please sit down and wait for your teammates." The administrative Chūnin smiled at her and pointed at a row of chairs on one side of the chamber.
"Hai. Thank you," answered Hinata.
Soon afterward, she was joined by Kiba and Shino – the former sweating heavily and gasping for air, while the latter simply righted his collar and stared at the Chūnin through his sunglasses.
Kiba supported himself on his knees, and Akamaru barked softly. "That was quite some obstacle course... beats the one from the academy by miles."
"Of course it does," commented the Chūnin. "You aren't here as academy students, but as Genin aspiring to ascend in rank. There's quite a difference. Anyhow, Team 8, led by Jōnin Yuuhi Kurenai. Hyuga Hinata, five points. Aburame Shino, four points. Inuzuka Kiba, three points. Congratulations, you have passed with a total score of twelve."
"Are you really sure that you'll make it through the second door, Shika?"
Shikamaru looked at Ino and his lips tugged upward. "Have some faith in me. It'd be too troublesome to die here..."
"But," Choji interrupted after he ate a few chips. "She's kinda right. Taking the obstacle course isn't really something you'd normally do. Well, at least if you have no plan..."
"Who said I have no plan?" Shikamaru smirked. "You should know me better than that, Choji. Don't worry guys, I'll make it through just fine."
Ino returned the smirk with one of her own as soon as they reached the doors. "I'll be the first one anyway, so don't make me wait too long, understood?"
Shikamaru sighed. "Hai, hai..."
In comparison to the other candidates participating in the Chūnin Exams, Team 8 definitely had it the easiest if one was inclined to exclude the rest of the alliance. Ino didn't have the benefit of a Hyūga's chakra sensitivity, nor had she received any training from a Genjutsu mistress; but, nonetheless, she was just as quick as Hinata when it came to dispelling the illusion behind the first door.
Never let it be said that the Yamanaka Clan was composed of slackers. She certainly had enjoyed a carefree childhood; that, however, didn't mean that her father hadn't been insistent on training with her at least thrice a week as long as his busy schedule allowed it.
But, even though she was just as quick as Hinata, in the chamber of the administrating shinōbi Choji was already waiting for her.
Choji walked over to her and whispered in her ear, "Shino was in the room before me. He simply left the code on the table, next to the instructions and his bugs pointed at a pretty good hiding place; they looked liked a gigantic arrow."
"That's... cheating?" Ino whispered, though her voice sounded uncertain.
Choji shrugged. "We're shinōbi, aren't we?"
In the large gathering chamber, Team 8 had found Team 7 in the meanwhile and was conversing with them while observing the opposition.
"So, you left Choji a hint?" Naruto asked.
"I did. He should have had no problems with it. But, I suspect that I lost one point for hiding the code in such an obvious place."
Sasuke nodded. "That explains why you got four out of five."
"What about Ino-san?" asked Hinata.
Sakura chortled and waved her hand around. "Don't worry about her, Hinata. She's a pig, but she can hold her own against Genjutsu. Her clan specializes in the mind arts."
"That's good to know." Hinata sighed relieved.
Naruto observed his classmates with a smile – being together like this felt good. Though the smile changed quickly into a frown. "I can't really wrap my head around Shika's decision to take the second room. He's neither the fastest, nor the most agile of Team 10. What's his plan?"
"Well, I can't tell you what his plan is – can't see in the guy's head, you know?" Kiba scratched Akamaru's fur absentmindedly . "But, the reason why I only got three points is that he asked me to do something for him in the second room. Took me a while, and I had to run the obstacle course twice."
"Really? Must have been some task... not bad to still get three points," said Sakura.
That information alone was very enlightening for her. She had no doubt that she could actually take Kiba in a fight and win, or at least bring it to a draw... nevertheless, what his statement revealed about his speed was nothing short of astonishing.
"What exactly did he ask you to do?" Sasuke asked.
"Impressive." Shikamaru stepped into the large hall and whistled in appreciation as he watched the Genjutsu unfold. That was truly some high-class illusion. Soon, he stood in the same replication of Konoha's forest that Sakura and Kiba had already traversed; twice in the latter case.
He jogged toward the start of the course, parried a few incoming shuriken and then, at the specific point where he had told Kiba to drop his load, found exactly what he wanted to find. Shikamaru allowed himself to grin. He'd make sure to thank the Inuzuka later on.
"Well then, let's go. Ninpō: Kagemane no Jutsu."
Like twisted marionettes, two of the corpses – which were indeed real human corpses – rose from the ground and righted themselves until they had the same slouching position as their controller. Kiba really came through for him; and, what made the whole thing even easier, it took less chakra to control something that didn't struggle – like corpses, for example.
With the dead as his shield, and Shikamaru couldn't help but feel like a necromancer of some sort, it was easy if somewhat time consuming to traverse the obstacle course. Shuriken and kunai were caught by their flesh, Katōn techniques charred their already dead bodies, but never managed to reach the shadow puppeteer himself.
And, at the end of the course, he placed the mangled bodies in a way that would deter the following participants even more than before. For a short moment, he wondered why he felt no disgust, nor any sort of remorse for using the dead like this. Indeed, he had treated this rather like an experiment of his clan techniques, and not as the important task it was.
In any case, his team, the whole group, was through. That was all that counted in the end. He'd think about the implications of this day's actions later.
When he arrived in the next chamber, he was treated to the sight of a happily smiling Ino, and a relieved Choji.
"Now, now," said Shikamaru. "I told you I'd make it through. Just took me some time."
"I'm impressed," commented Ino. "Not one scratch."
Before the reunion could continue though, the Chūnin announced the scores, "Team 10, led by Jōnin Sarutobi Asuma. Yamanaka Ino, five points. Akimichi Choji, five points. Nara Shikamaru, four points. Congratulations, you have passed with a total score of fourteen. Please, go to the next chamber where you'll receive new instructions."
"It was certainly clever," said Naruto.
Ino shuddered and Hinate blanched in response.
Sakura glanced at her two fellow females. "Clever isn't the word I'd use, Naruto."
"Why not? It got the job done, and he didn't injure himself once."
Shino and Sasuke nodded, although the former laid a hand on Naruto's shoulder – a sign of trust not often seen by an Aburame. Apparently, Team 8 was more forgiving than their sensei. "Regardless if clever or not, I suggest we change the topic, Naruto-san."
"Huh, you're right," Naruto answered. Still, behind his back he gave the silent Shikamaru a hidden thumbs-up.
Instead of discussing these issues, there time was better spent watching the others anyway. The amount of Genin in the first gathering hall, the one with the doors, had been frighteningly high. Now, although somewhat lessened – in particular through Sasuke's little trick with the keypad – there was still an uncountable amount present.
Two minutes later, the sound of a large gong rang through the hall and everyone directed their attention toward the podium, where Kyojin-sama appeared.
"To all of you," he began. "My most sincere congratulations! You all succeeded in the first task and have proven your ability to gather information, to detect and dispel Genjutsu, and to let nothing hinder you at completing your mission. All these are competences we look for in future Chūnin. Well done."
He hammered the padded stick once more again the gong – out of pure pleasure apparently, then he continued, "Although I, the magnificent Kyojin-sama, am not the one to accompany you to your further tasks, I do have the honorable mission of giving you the specific location where you will meet the next examiner tomorrow morning. The place is called Training Ground 44, or – the Forest of Death. Shinōbi of Konoha will already know where it is, but for all the foreigners there are maps distributed at a stall outside this building. Be there at eight am, sharp."
The members of Team 7 grinned at each other and Naruto patted Shikamaru's shoulder. "Don't worry. This is actually better for us than anything else they could have come up with."
"You know the place then?" asked Ino.
"Know it?" Sakura laughed. "We practically lived there for months."
"This is a security nightmare, Hiruzen."
The Hokage, decked out in his complete combat gear, pushed himself up and down for the umpteenth time; sweat trailing down his face in rivers. "Don't you think I know that, Hotaru?"
"Well, what are you going to do? We never anticipated that much teams to appear in Konoha. One-hundred and four teams, Hiruzen, one-hundred and four!" Hotaru walked agitatedly through the chamber. "Over three-hundred participants, and more than half have made it through the first task!"
"You're telling me nothing new. The situation isn't a good one, but for now all we can do is prepare to the best of our abilities."
Koharu, sitting on a couch next to Danzo sipping tea, added, "The Forest of Death is large, our largest trainings ground in fact, but will it be enough for fifty-eight teams?"
"Doubtful," answered Danzo. "Hiruzen, you know what this means, don't you?"
The Hokage jumped into an upright position and flew through several katas. "That we're going to hold preliminaries which will last forever?"
A snort actually escaped Danzo before he regained his perfect countenance. "Don't be daft, Hiruzen."
"I know too well what it means..."
Koharu sat down her cup with a noticeable clinking sound. "It's going to be a bloodbath. Ground 44 will become a battlefield in the truest sense of the word."
"That it will," admitted the Hokage.
"I'm sure that at least in this task, most of the other nations and villages will have formed alliances of some sort. Killing is allowed, so there will be no repercussions for them."
"Are we ready for this? I heard that apart from some senior Genin teams, we sent three rookie squads as well."
Hiruzen stopped shortly in his kata and allowed himself to laugh. "I wouldn't worry too much about them. Last I heard, they have already formed an alliance days before the exam even started."
Then, his tone became grim. "If they do indeed leave the mortal coil however, I'm assured in my belief that they'll take as many with them as they can."