The days went by quickly, as they always did when you wished for them to pass slowly, and then it was the morning of the chūnin exams. The three genin were standing side-by-side in front of the building’s entrance, each lost in their own thoughts. Naruto was finally starting to feel the full weight of what they were about to do: If they were ever going to turn back, now would have been the time.
“Let’s go,” said Sasuke, and they went.
The first round of the Exam was to be held in the same red round Academy building they had spent so much time in during their formative years, and yet suddenly its dusky rooms and dank hallways seemed so much more ominous than they had before. Logic dictated that the building should seem smaller to them now, but somehow the opposite seemed to be the case. As they made their way through the long corridors to the registration desk, old unwanted memories began to resurface in Naruto’s mind, bringing with them feelings of loneliness and resentment that he had thought long forgotten.
As the team handed in their entrance forms, Naruto spotted an oddly familiar boy clad in forest greens with a black bowl cut, along with another boy and girl each of whom were handing in their own forms. Suddenly Naruto’s memory sparked with recognition. “Hey, you’re that guy, right? From the forest? You were doing laps around the Village on your hands, and saying all that crazy stuff about becoming a ninja even though you can’t mould chakra, and holding on to vows that make no sense.”
“Naruto!” Sakura looked like she wanted to bob him on the head, but she visibly held herself back. “You can’t speak like that to upperclassmen. They’re older than us; you have to accord them respect.”
Even as Sakura berated him, a small snort emanated from the new girl. “That sounds like Lee, all right.” She was small and round-faced, with brown hair tied up in buns that made her look a little like a panda, though Naruto thought it better not to mention the fact. “I’m Tenten, by the way.”
The boy in green frowned at Naruto, his thick eyebrows making him look strangely sincere. “You should not underestimate the power of youth. It is my firm belief that hard work and dedication can overcome any barrier, no matter how tall. With enough practice, even someone like me who cannot mould chakra can overcome reality and accomplish the impossible.”
“But – but that doesn’t…” Naruto spluttered helplessly, struggling to explain the patently obvious. “Look, first of all you’re not really a ninja if you aren’t able to use ninjutsu or genjutsu, if anything that would make you a samurai – but you definitely can’t overcome reality itself, that’s completely nonsensical!”
“How do you know?” Lee asked curiously. “Have you ever tried it?”
“It’s not a matter of trying! Reality is real, I mean, that’s just what the word means. That’s like saying you’re going to draw a square circle – it’s a totally different kind of impossible from just saying you’re going to fix all of the world’s problems or something like that. It literally can’t be done!”
“I see,” said Lee. “But just because something cannot be done does not mean you should not do it.”
Naruto opened his mouth to form a response to this, but the boy beside Lee shook his head wearily. “Do not strain yourself; arguing against Lee only makes his conviction stronger. I suspect he was struck in the head a few too many times while sparring in his youth.” His pale skin and eyes and dark ponytail marked him as a member of the Hyūga clan, just like Hinata, though he sounded nothing like her. “You are Hatake Kakashi’s team, are you not? Our sensei has made mention of you. Particularly…” he focussed his gaze on Sasuke. “What is your name?”
Sasuke regarded the older boy apprehensively. “You know, when you ask for someone’s name it’s generally considered polite to introduce yourself first.” He turned to face Tenten, giving her a small nod. “My name is Uchiha Sasuke, by the way – I’m pleased to meet your acquaintance.”
The girl blushed ever so slightly in response. Well, of course she does.
The Hyūga boy crossed his arms and glared at Sasuke. “Never mind, everyone already knows who you are, Uchiha. The proctors must be excited, having the heir to Konoha’s second most noble clan taking part in their Exams.”
“I would have been happy to grant the honoured Hyūga clan that title,” Sasuke replied easily. “But I’m flattered you would grant us both first and second place. I imagine these exams will end with a very similar result.”
The Hyūga’s eyes narrowed dangerously, and his teammates tensed. “We shall see. Perhaps it would be fun to crush you in the finals and show the world just how pathetic your clan really is – but then, I suppose your brother has already done us that favour.” He turned around and strode out of the room. “Let’s go. Lee. Ten-ten.”
The two older boys swiftly left the room, while the girl gave an embarrassed bow and mouthed a silent apology before hurrying on after them. Sakura shot a worried look at Sasuke, who was trembling ever so slightly as he stared at the spot where the newcomers had left. “Sasuke-kun, are you all right?”
Slowly, a weak grin formed on Sasuke’s face. “This exam… it looks like it’s going to be interesting.”
They stepped through the door to the waiting room, and Naruto was instantly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people there. He immediately spotted the upperclassmen of before amongst the bustling crowd – though Naruto avoided eye-contact with them – but there were also genin from countless other villages, each in their own uniforms and wearing their Village’s insignia’s on their headbands. Naruto recognized the broad straw hats of the Hidden Grass, and of course the dusty and dour Sand ninjas were easy to spot, but there were countless others that Naruto could not place. He also could not help but notice how much older the other contestants were compared to him, and he wondered if perhaps the other Villages had sent some chūnin over to compete as genin while simultaneously spying on the others. In fact, now that he thought about it, he found it almost inconceivable that they had not.
They had already submitted their entrance forms, but perhaps it was not yet too late to turn back…
“Oh, Sasuke-kun!” With her clan’s telepathic abilities, Ino had instantly located Sasuke and was now draping herself over him. “You’re late! I was afraid you would not make it. We’re all just so eager to see you in action!” She was followed at a distance by her team mates Chōji and Shikamaru, who were wisely staying out of this.
“Oh, hey guys,” said Naruto. “I didn’t know you were taking the exam too.”
Shikamaru opened his mouth to reply, but he was interrupted by a loud groan from Sakura. “Oh for goodness sake, Ino-pig, unhand him! Have you no sense of shame or moral decency? You would think the heir to the noble Yamanaka clan would know better than to behave like some back alley prostitute. ”
“And there is our precious little Sakura.” Ino motioned to Sakura with a roll of her eyes. “Sasuke-kun, please tell me that this humourless harridan has not yet managed to seduce you with her vile and bookish wiles. I realize you men can get lonely on those cold nights away from the Village, but surely the thought of me waiting for you would have kept you warm?” Her voice took on a note of concern. “Hey, you don’t have a thing for grotesquely engorged foreheads, do you?”
Sasuke disentangled himself with admirable stoicism. “Never more so than in this moment.”
Ino huffed loudly, hands on her hips as she mock-pouted. “Tch, why is it that all the best looking boys have such terrible taste in girls? What’s a beautiful young woman like me to do?”
“Hah, forget about the pretty boy, Ino – it’s about time you let a real man into your life.” This remark was followed by loud yapping noises from Kiba’s large white dog, Akamaru. The feral boy grinned at the group as he stepped out of the crowd, his friend Shino in tow. “Looks like the old gang’s back together! Did you all come here just to watch me win these exams? Aww, you shouldn’t have.”
Sasuke gave the newcomer a smirk. “You seem confident, Kiba. Did your master feed you an extra portion of biscuits today?”
“Har, no. We’ve got ourselves a special weapon – a secret source of information! The other teams won’t know what hit ‘em. But, since we’re all friends here I’ll share it with you… for a cost.”
“There is no point in asking for money,” said Shino. Between his hood and upturned collar it was almost impossible to gauge his expression. “Why? Because Ino can easily use her chakra sensing ability to tell that you’re referring to the person in the corner of the room who is surrounded by all the others.”
“Aw, come on!” cried Kiba. “What’d you tell them that for? I was about to make a fortune here.”
Shino adjusted his glasses. “Why? Because you just said that we are friends, and friends should act as one for the good of the whole. That is what I believe the word ‘friend’ means.”
Kiba’s secret source of information turned out to be an older genin with glasses by the name of Kabuto – one who had already failed the exam six times, no less. His claim to fame was a huge assortment of cards with information on each of the exam’s participants, complete with an in-depth analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.
He smiled warmly at them. “Ah, more rookies fresh out of the academy, is it? There are more of you than usual this year.” He turned several cards over with a flick of his finger. “I have all the information available right here, on these cards: For a small price, you can gain a significant edge over your enemy by buying their card from me – or you can buy your own card, if you want to protect your privacy. Selling information on others or trading info for info is fine too, if you prefer. Everything works for me.”
The other rookies quickly fell upon the cards, trying to see what the data had to say about them, but Kabuto withdrew his goods with a wag of his finger, and soon he had them haggling over prices.
Naruto frowned at the sight. “Come on guys, let’s just go. This is obviously a scam of some sort.”
“Huh, a scam?” Kiba turned around and acknowledged Naruto’s existence with a sniff. “What are you babbling about? This is our ticket to an easy victory, right here.”
Naruto stared at him. “Kiba, this guy said he failed the exam six times. I mean, if that’s true, then he’s gotta be the most incompetent ninja ever, in which case why listen to anything he has to say? It’s totally obvious he’s taking this exam over and over just so he can sell his stuff to people like us, and come on – he’s only selling his information to rookies? That doesn’t sound suspicious to you at all?”
“Hey, maybe he’s just a nice guy and he’s trying to help us out, you don’t know.” This remark was followed by a derisive snort from Sasuke, which caused Kiba to turn a bright shade of red. “Bah, I bet you’re just jealous you didn’t find out about this guy yourself. What the hell makes you think you know anything about it, anyway? You didn’t even bother to show up for the academy exams, and you had to get your daddy to bail you out. I don’t need to take crap like this from a dropout like you.”
Naruto stared at him, dumbstruck. “But that was because – wait. You really think I’m stupid?”
“Uh, yeah? You’re a dumbass and everyone knows it; you don’t even know how to speak properly! Even your own team mates call you an idiot, like, all the time. Dumbass.” Satisfied that he had won the argument, Kiba turned and walked away. “Come on, let’s leave these losers to it. We’ve got an exam to win.” Shino seemed to follow more out of a sense of obligation than anything else.
“They’re just saying that to make fun of me, they don’t actually mean any of that stuff!” Naruto trailed off as he stared at the circle of faces surrounding him. Do they?
“Just ignore him,” said Shikamaru. The Nara clan heir was rubbing the sleep from his eyes, managing to look just as bored after the heated exchange as right before. His elongated face and pony tail gave his features a sharp and pointed look, but that was the only thing that looked sharp about him. “Look, when you spend all your time around genius-types like Hatake Kakashi and Sasuke, it’s easy to forget just how dumb most people are – though I don’t really think Kiba is all that stupid, in fact I’d say he’s above average. But when you’re put in the same class as all the Village’s clan heirs, I guess it gets all the more important that you’re not at the bottom of the pack.” He sighed. “Man, what a pain.”
To Shikamaru’s right, the rotund Chōji was nodding firmly along as always. “You said it, Shikamaru.”
Naruto was just about to reply to the duo, when a familiar voice piped up behind him.
“I’m – I’m sorry, Naruto-kun… I’m sure Kiba-kun didn’t mean it like that…”
Naruto turned around to find a pale, dark haired girl standing right behind him, almost the mirror image of the Hyūga he met earlier. “Oh, Hinata-chan! Wait, were you standing behind me this whole time?” A blush crept onto her cheeks. “Oh wow, I totally didn’t notice you. What’re you doing here?”
“I… I’m here to p-participate in the chūnin exams, Naruto-kun.” Her blush intensified. “I’m on K-Kiba-kun’s team.”
Naruto froze on the spot. “But that’s – I mean, isn’t that… uhm, you know, dangerous?” Hinata stared at her feet, unable to speak. Dimly, Naruto noticed Ino shooting him a warning glance.
I should tell her to quit. I should tell her right now, before it’s too late.
Naruto opened his mouth to speak. “Hinata-chan… I don’t think…” She looked up, her pale eyes full of fear of what he might say next. Everyone was staring at him now. “I mean, what I want to say is…”
She’s going to get hurt. She’ll die out there, and it’ll be your fault. Tell her to quit!
Naruto stuck up his thumb and smiled falteringly. “G-good luck in the exams, Hinata-chan!”
Coward. I am a useless, worthless, spineless coward.
Hinata smiled in surprise and, still flustered, nodded mutely. Suddenly, there was an expulsion of air in the doorway as the exam proctors arrived: It seemed the first round of the exams was about to begin. Naruto saw the head examiner standing in the doorway, and nearly choked.
…You’ve got to be kidding me.
There was an exam booklet lying open on the desk in front of Naruto, as well as a note sheet. Both were empty.
The reason they were empty was because there was a man standing in front of Naruto. A man built like a bear, wearing a stark grey uniform with a great black overcoat, and black leather gloves that creaked whenever he flexed his fingers. His face was like a slab of meat that had been savaged by a wild animal. It was the same man who had made Mizuki-sensei scream in abject terror, and weep tears of blood.
It was a man by the name of Morino Ibiki.
Naruto had asked Sakura about him, and she had found out all that she could: It turned out that he had already been head of the Torture and Interrogation unit of the Anbu during the Kyūbi’s attack on Konoha. When the head of the Intelligence Division died in the attack, Ibiki had been promoted to that position as well, effectively making him his own master. And because the Uchiha clan had been directing Konoha’s police force by virtue of their unique abilities, the Uchiha massacre had left the Anbu as the primary enforcers of the law, which of course needed to be led by somebody…
In the span of a few years, Morino Ibiki had become the sole master of a force of silent assassins that could make anyone disappear into the night, answerable to no one but the Hokage. He had gained more than anyone else from the sins and tragedies of the past. If Naruto had met anyone since reading his father’s letter who he thought capable of being behind it all, it was him. And this person had been assigned to coordinate the chūnin exams this year. In fact, he had almost certainly volunteered for it.
Naruto had not a single answer.
He stared at his exam sheet, the words fading in and out and dancing before his eyes. He had known there might be a written exam, since there had been one last time as well. He had created a set of shadow clones in advance for just such a situation. He had left them at the public Library, ready to read anything he ordered them to and transfer the knowledge directly to his mind.
And it was completely pointless, because Naruto could not even focus long enough to read the first question, let alone figure out a way to create and dispel a shadow clone unseen to contact the others.
He was going to fail the exam without having read even a single question.
He dared a glance upwards. Morino Ibiki was looking directly at him, and smiling.
Nara Shikamaru stared at the exam instructions. It seemed everyone started with ten points, one for each question. For each failed question a point was subtracted, while being caught cheating cost you two points. The total score for each team was to be summed together, and only the highest scoring teams would be allowed to continue to the next round.
The implications were obvious, if you read between the lines: This was a test that encouraged cheating. Moreover, if you considered that the rankings were relative and that it was unknown how many participants would pass, it made it tempting to try and sabotage the others. Add to that the fact that they were being watched by proctors on every side, fuelling the uncertainty and the tension of the situation… this was truly an exam designed by and for ninjas.
“Inuzuka Kiba! Minus two points,” one of the proctors suddenly called out. Kiba let out a low growl in response. It looked like the idiot had tried to send his dog to steal someone’s exam papers – as though that could ever work. All around the room inexperienced genin were making clumsy attempts to cheat, before promptly getting caught, while the smarter participants watched and bided their time.
No, sabotaging others was too dangerous: It only improved your ranking compared to that one specific person, and it risked even worse retaliation from anyone worth sabotaging. It looked like the key to passing this exam was to carefully evaluate risk and reward in a situation that simulated a real information-gathering mission, being able to quickly read an unfamiliar situation and of course, cooperating with your teammates without actually speaking.
“Shikamaru,” Ino’s voice sounded in his head. It looked like she had finally activated her clan’s mental technique. “I’m ready. What do you want me to do?”
Start by reading the minds of people in the room that are writing, and copy any answers that you see multiple times, he replied. Once you’ve answered every question, communicate them to me and Chōji. Then if you have any chakra left, you can start planting false suggestions in the minds of whoever has at least as many questions correct as we do, without alerting them to your presence.
Shikamaru mentally readied his Shadow Imitation technique, black strands of darkness forming under his desk as he prepared to counterattack whoever was foolish enough to try and sabotage his team. The whole test would be a drag if he did not get do at least something interesting, after all.
A rictus grin was fixed onto Sasuke’s face. I see… It seems I can’t answer even a single one of these questions. So that’s how it is.
If Sasuke could not answer the questions, then it stood to reason that the proctors did not expect them to be answered. Therefore, the exam was meant to test the participant’s information-gathering ability in a hostile environment by encouraging them to cheat… or so they would have him believe.
He recalled Hatake Kakashi’s words. A ninja must see underneath the underneath, was it?
If he was right, then the true purpose of the test was to give them the opportunity to spy on the techniques of their enemies, giving them vital information in preparation for the coming rounds. Even as he used the Sharingan to copy answers, he kept one eye on his surroundings at all times, reading the flow of his opponents’ chakra with perfect clarity as they cast their techniques.
I see… so that Sand Ninja is able to create a third eye out of the sand he carries in the gourd on his back, and he can let it float freely to spy on those around him. I’ll need to watch out for that one.
Sakura was not thinking about any of this; she was having too much fun answering the exam questions.
A determined smile played on her lips, her mind fully focussed on the task at hand. Finally, finally the academy was treating her with the seriousness she deserved. The questions were truly perfectly designed – each of them relevant and challenging in an entirely novel and interesting way.
After checking over her answers for the fourth time, the thought occurred to her that Naruto was probably having some difficulty with the test. After deliberating for a moment, she formed hand seals and cast a genjutsu on him: Genjutsu worked by manipulating the subconscious, but if she could just suggest the form of the correct answers to him… there. That should help the poor guy out a little.
Satisfied that she had made the right decision, she went back to checking her answers for the fifth time. One could never be too careful, after all.
After forty-five minutes of nerve-wrecking tension, Naruto received a sudden flash of inspiration in which the correct answers to the test were revealed to him. This was made all the more amazing by the fact that he had still not succeeded in reading even a single question. Fifteen minutes of frantic writing later, Naruto put down his pencil and managed to start breathing again.
“Time’s up,” Morino Ibiki declared. “Anyone who is still writing by the time I finish speaking this sentence is disqualified.” All around the room the sound of falling pencils reverberated. The man clacked his fingers. “Applicant number fifty-two: Disqualified.” Cries of protest arose and were immediately silenced as the proctors fell upon the girl’s team and dragged them out of the room.
Morino Ibiki stood looming over them, both hands in his pockets as he addressed the room. “Anyone who passed this test will understand already, but I will explain it for the dim-witted: This round was meant to test your ability to gather information by encouraging you to cheat. However, there is another shinobi quality that is even more important, which is the ability to follow orders. For the remainder of the exam, anyone who tries to be clever by bending the rules will be disqualified. There will be no fighting without permission of the examiner, and even if permission is granted, killing your opponent will not be tolerated. Furthermore, anyone who breaks Konoha’s laws will be held accountable under the full extent of the law – meaning you’ll have to deal with me. Am I making myself clear?”
The room was deathly silent.
“Good. You will now go back to the waiting room. You will sit there and do nothing until the results are in. Those that passed this round will then follow Mitarashi Anko to the next stage of the exam – she will continue as examiner at that point and you will obey her as you obey me. The rest of you will leave. Go.”
The entire room sat frozen for a moment, and then the area exploded with movement as everyone rushed for the exit all at once. Naruto mixed himself in with the crowd, trying to hide within the press of bodies as he slowly wormed his way towards the door. Almost… almost… nearly there!
Something cold and hard snaked up his leg. He let out a frightened scream as it yanked his leg out from underneath him until he was on his belly and sliding away from the exit, pulled between and past the feet of the other contestants even as his fingernails screeched over the wooden floorboards. The last of the genin fled the room and slammed the door shut behind them, never so much as looking backwards.
“Not you, Uzumaki.”
The cold hard thing let go of Naruto’s leg and he crawled away in terror. He propped his back against a desk and turned to stare at the disfigured face of the man who might well have killed his father and burned the Village. A long iron chain was slithering its way up the examiner’s sleeve before disappearing entirely. “We did not get time to talk the last time we met – how are you holding up?”
Naruto stared at the monstrous man. “What?”
“As Konoha’s chief interrogator, I’m well aware of the effect mental trauma can have on a developing mind,” Morino Ibiki said, “especially for a sheltered peacetime child such as yourself. I’m asking whether you feel prepared for the remaining rounds of this exam. There is no shame in backing out at the last moment: Being able to pick and choose your battles is an important ninja quality as well.”
Naruto found purchase on the desk’s edge and pulled himself upward, not trusting his shaking legs to support him. “You don’t care how I feel.”
The man’s scarred lips twisted upwards. “You have no idea what I care about.” His expression grew serious again. “I understand that during your one and only dangerous mission, something none of us want to see happen almost came to pass. Now you are about to enter a similarly dangerous situation. Is there any risk of the same thing happening again?”
It took a second for Naruto to realize what he was talking about, and then another to consider how he should reply. “My dad doesn’t think so.”
“Your father is a pervert and a drunk,” the torturer replied. “I’m asking what you think.”
“My dad’s not-” Naruto cut himself off: The man was not technically wrong. “I mean, I don’t think so. That thing only happened because of a very specific set of circumstances.” Specifically: Naruto being merely very nearly dead and not totally completely dead. “Of course, it shouldn’t even have happened in the first place, so I guess we can’t be completely certain…” Maybe calling it off would be a good idea.
“We’ll take precautions,” said the man. He sat down on one of the examiner’s chairs, pulled off his black leather gloves and began rubbing his hands gingerly. They were burned, but not as horribly burned as he had expected. “Those specific circumstances already happened last time, and it turned out well enough. If anything this is the perfect test: With the Anbu standing at the ready and everyone else watching, we’ll find out…” He noticed Naruto staring at him. “Am I bothering you?”
“Bother?” Naruto gaped at him. “You torture people.”
He half expected the man to deny it, but he merely gave him an annoyed look. “Is that what this is about? You civilians… what do you even think torture is? Do you think it’s just a matter of inflicting as much pain as possible on someone until they talk?”
Naruto hesitated, unsure how to respond. It was not as if he had given it much thought.
“Bah.” The man pointed at his disfigured face. “Do you think I would look like this if I had been tortured by someone competent? Bloody amateurs had no idea what they were doing.” He shook his head. “Real torture isn’t about causing pain, boy, it’s about fear: Pull a man’s teeth out, and he’ll curse you until his death, but do the same to his friend while he can just barely make out what’s happening…” The man was smiling in full now, and what a smile it was: Naruto could easily imagine red blood running down those teeth after a fresh kill. “I suppose that’s why I wanted to master the art: If you’re going to do a job, you should do it right. Though, it’s nearly all Yamanaka-style mindreading nowadays…”
“But,” said Naruto, “but… you torture people.”
“Yes, I torture people!” The man waved his burned right hand irately. “Do you think you’re the first to bring it up? The Village’s clans… all those blessedly noble twits sneer at me behind my back, but do any of them ever volunteer to do my job? No, they’re all perfectly happy to keep Papa Ibiki around to curse and hate and fear, but the moment they have someone to interrogate they come knocking at my door. This Village’s leadership is nothing but hypocrites, and you’re no different, boy.” His eyes narrowed, and Naruto shrank back. “Though, at least you have the guts to insult me to my face.”
“I wasn’t trying to insult you, sir,” Naruto said feebly, suddenly questioning his wisdom from before. “I was just… you know, wondering about all the torture you do. Sir.”
Ibiki stared at him a moment longer, and then he suddenly burst out laughing. “Hah! You know what? I think I just might be starting to like you, boy.” He slapped his knees with his ruined hands as he laughed, which must have hurt him immensely. “Well, off you go then, lad. Interrogation is over.”
Naruto half stumbled towards the exit, pausing only when he had reached the door. “Sir,” he said, as he half turned around. “About Mizuki-sensei…” He swallowed. “What really happened to him?”
Ibiki smiled, baring his teeth. “I think the second round is about to start. You wouldn’t want to disappoint the proctors by being late, would you?”
Naruto turned and ran.