Naruto felt conspicuously out of place. He knelt down to try to offer some condolence to Hinata, but he didn’t know what he could actually say. He knew almost nothing of the practices of her clan.
“Hey—it’s alright,” he said, feebly. “Our jounin will probably teach us all sorts of new things. And we’ll be too busy on missions soon to think about clan stuff, anyway.”
She picked herself up, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “I’m sorry, Naruto—thank you for coming, but—”
“R—right, yeah, I should—I’ll find my way back out,” He said. “Unless I should stay, that is, because—no, right, I should let you… right.”
She covered her face with her hands, nodding.
“I’ll, uh—I’ll tell the jounin that you’re sick, if you don’t feel up to it tomorrow morning,” he said. “Okay… bye… Sorry…”
Naruto arrived thirty minutes early to their meeting place the next morning, by the bridge. He’d spent part of the previous night looking up the public records on this jounin, Hatake Kakashi, and to his surprise had found that he had already been assigned as captain to five separate genin teams in the last five years, all of whom had been immediately returned to the academy for re-education.
Technically, any jounin captain had the right to recommend that a member of their team be removed, if they were found to be so under qualified as to endanger the further education of their teammates, but that rule was rarely ever put into practice—most unqualified genin simply didn’t stay alive long enough for their weakness to become a problem. For five full teams to be sent back, all in a row… that suggested something else entirely. Naruto had visions of a hard-headed veteran of the front lines, fresh from the last few wars; a ninja who would tolerate nothing less than perfection from their very first encounter. He had been sure to wake up bright and early just to head off any risk of arriving late.
But despite his better judgment, he hadn’t been able to resist getting started on a little preliminary experimentation with his new shadow clone technique, before bed. The scroll had said something about his chakra dividing evenly between the clones, so in order to begin determining his total “clone capacity”, in an approximate sense, he first summoned a single clone, which he presumed should have half of his total chakra, and then had that clone summon another itself, which he could guess should either contain one quarter or one third of his total chakra—depending on whether it divided up its chakra with its summoner, or with his entire pool across all three bodies.
He continued summoning, copies branching off himself one by one in a chain, until the seventh clone said that he was unable to summon an eighth. Since Naruto knew he could supply a lot more than eight clones in a single instance, and he’d had most of a day to recover from the exhaustion, this observation seemed to confirm that his entire chakra pool probably wasn’t just rebalancing itself with every cast, and therefore that the sequence in which he summoned his clones might actually be relevant, if he didn’t want to waste chakra where it wasn’t necessary, or find half his clones had run out of energy in the middle of a fight.
He dispelled the last three clones by having them bite down moderately-hard on their own tongues, which seemed like the fastest safe way to reliably inflict enough damage to dispel one. Then, he had the fourth copy of himself attempt to use all of his chakra summoning out as many clones as he could, all at once, just like he’d done last night. He assumed that if the seventh couldn’t afford to make even one, then with the pool size effectively halved at each step, the fourth body should have had enough chakra for eight more bodies, at most.
From this mistake Naruto learned the importance of proper experimental protocol. Dozens of densely packed copies burst into existence in the cramped quarters of his tiny apartment, crammed in on top of each other, limbs splayed. His desk collapsed under their weight, shattering every glass and plate he’d left out, the sharp edges of which combined with the crumpling of the pack to do enough damage in the ensuing chaos that he couldn’t even make out a rough headcount. That was most of his savings, gone.
At least he had learned it wasn’t possible to make clones through walls.
Those that were left tried to clean up some of the mess, but within less than a minute they had almost all vanished again, either accidentally cutting themselves or running out of energy, like from the chakra exhaustion he’d experienced last night, only this time there were still three healthy bodies still standing at the end of it—the first three versions of him, still unaffected by all the exertions of their brothers.
The third was even successfully able to resummon a fourth, who summoned a fifth, who summoned a sixth. The sixth was unable to create a seventh, this time.
The six of him looked around the wreckage of their room, uncertain what to make of all this, but diligently recording it all for the sake of later analysis. One idea was that there might be some large “fixed cost” associated with casting the technique in the first place, and then only a small extra price for each additional clone, which would explain why he’d been unable to cast it at all with a clone who should have had something like one sixty-fourth of his total chakra (minus whatever costs had been incurred along the way).
He figured that the scroll probably would have warned him if the technique cost a minimum of half your total chakra every time you used it, and if the chakra was splitting up, he suspected that what was unspent might be returned along with the new memories that came when a clone burst, which also seemed to imply that it might spread out evenly, as the memories seemed to, rather than all going back to the direct summoner of that particular body. A quick test by dispelling the sixth and then finding himself unable to resummon it from the fifth body seemed to suggest the same, and was consistent with newly made clones having only the memories of their summoner.
So, when created, a clone seemed to duplicate the mind and split the chakra with the single direct ancestor who created it, but on death its chakra and memories rejoined evenly with all the rest of his active bodies. Simple enough.
It would take a lot of meticulous testing before he could be very sure of anything, but he decided that for the rest of the night he would leave the present five active as long as possible, to see how long it took for them to run out of chakra and die. He knew from experience now that there was a cost associated with maintaining the extra bodies, and between these five clones he could have a range of chakra pool sizes spanning a factor of ten or more, which he could gather data from even as he slept. There probably wasn’t any risk of total chakra exhaustion—his “oldest” body should still retain roughly half of his total chakra intact, which the Hokage had implied would be more than enough for anyone.
But to his surprise, only one of the clones had disappeared by morning. He had intended to dispel any that were left, but his curiosity wouldn’t allow him to start getting ready for the day without at least a quick investigation. The fourth clone, last-summoned and thus most-nearly-exhausted, had no trouble paying the price in chakra to summon another duplicate.
He couldn’t tell yet from his messy notes whether that was because the fifth had fallen asleep with so much less chakra left than the fourth, or whether his natural chakra regeneration was also being carved in half at each step down the line, but if it was the latter… then that could potentially be very interesting. If even a tiny fraction of his regeneration could fully counteract a whole night’s worth of steady burn, well then just how many shadow clones might he be able sustain if he made them all from his first body? The scroll hadn’t said anything about using the technique for extended periods, but if unusual regeneration came alongside his unusually-large chakra pool, well, that might open up all sorts of strange avenues. He might even be strong enough to survive to jounin rank, if he could figure all it out fast enough.
But further testing would have to wait—he wouldn’t get anywhere if his team captain sent him back to the academy on his first day.
Hinata arrived ten minutes before the hour. She greeted Naruto politely before sitting down a few paces away. Sasuke arrived right on time, and gave no greeting; he leant against the railing of the bridge, arms folded. Naruto was glad at least to see that none of them could be punished now for arriving later than Kakashi did.
Minutes passed in uncomfortable silence. Ten, then fifteen… Naruto began to worry that they might have failed somehow already—that this was some kind of test, and it had already filtered out five teams in a row. That made a lot of sense, actually—a stern hand might grow soft over time, after rejecting five teams; surely any instructor would come to recognize he was being too harsh. A test though, with a clearer standard of failure, even if it was too difficult it might feel like he was admitting an error if he abandoned it.
The maddening thing was that it could be a test of obedience, on the one hand—will you sit and wait at the bridge as instructed? Or, on the other hand it might be a test of… of resourcefulness, or something like that, where you were supposed to go and look for him. Attempting to pass one kind meant failing the other. He might even be watching them, that very moment, waiting to spring out and dismiss them as soon as they got too impatient and abandoned their post. Maybe that was why he’d chosen this bridge, right outside the academy—just a short walk back to the classroom.
Naruto scrutinized the people on the street, suspicious. He didn’t even know what this “Hatake Kakashi” looked like. A man, presumably, but mastery of the transformation technique was common even among chuunin; he could pass for anybody else, at a glance. It took all sorts of specialized techniques and protocols just to make regular commerce and communications possible, but fooling a trio of genin might be a simple thing for a jounin. He might be in the guise of that old woman beating her carpets, or that little boy, hoop-trundling. The kid was giggling and smiling a lot, maybe too much—trying too hard to sell the illusion, perhaps? Not conclusive evidence, but it was certainly suspicious. He’d keep his eye on that one.
Forty, fifty minutes passed without a word between the three of them. By now it would have been strange to start talking, but Naruto didn’t mind. He wasn’t sure whether he could keep Sasuke from running off if he got the idea that they might be supposed to leave, and he was increasingly certain that a test of obedience for sitting still was more likely to have been failed by five teams in a row than a test which required you to run off and do something. Indeed, if the test was just to wait patiently, then there could hardly be a better team than three loners, bound by aloofness, bashfulness and prudent strategy into a static silence that none dared to break. They might well be the only team capable of passing such a test. Assuming the three of them hadn’t all somehow mistaken the place they were supposed to meet him. It was unbelievable that any mere delay could explain more than an hour’s lateness from a responsible jounin on their first meeting.
Minutes more passed, until eventually a spiky-haired man in a Leaf flak-jacket came ambling slowly over the bridge with his hands in his pockets. As soon as they made eye contact, Naruto knew it was him. He looked more like a real ninja than anyone he’d ever seen; he had a mask covering the bottom half of his face, and his forehead-protector was pulled down over one eye and everything, like he didn’t even need depth perception.
It only excited him more to know that they hadn’t been the ones to crack first. It had taken eighty slow and painful minutes, but they’d done it. Now he’d have no choice but to acknowledge them.
Naruto jumped to his feet as the jounin approached. “Hah! I knew it! We passed, didn’t we!”
Sasuke and Hinata looked blankly at him.
“This was all a test,” Naruto explained. “And we won.”
The jounin’s languid eyes widened a little in surprise.
“What was a test?” Hinata asked.
“You’re late,” Sasuke said.
Hatake Kakashi scratched at his head, drowsily.
“The—the test that we would wait here… properly…” Naruto said, trailing off as he grew increasingly certain that he’d had this jounin completely wrong.
“Ahh…” Kakashi said, looking thoughtfully up at the sky.
This hadn’t been any sort of test at all…
Hatake Kakashi was just a really, really, really careless ninja.
“Yep…” he said. A smile was faintly visible beneath his mask. “You passed.”
Sasuke sniffed. “Unbelievable. How does a guy like you make it to jounin? Are you really ‘sharingan’ Kakashi?”
“Oh, you’ve heard of me?” Kakashi asked.
“I’m an Uchiha, of course I’ve heard of you,” Sasuke replied. “But I don’t have hours to waste sitting around while I wait for you to crawl out of bed in the morning, so the next time you ask me to be somewhere, I hope you’ll have the discipline to follow your own schedule.”
Kakashi apologized, sheepishly.
Alarm bells started to ring in Naruto’s mind—jounin didn’t apologize to genin. This situation was too weird—lazy or not, those records weren’t lying.
“Sasuke…” Naruto said, cautiously, “I found out last night that the last five genin teams our captain has had were all sent back to the academy before they took on even a single mission. I, uh… I assumed it was a test of some kind, to wait for instructions, but now I don’t know what to think. Something filtered those teams out, though.”
Naruto didn’t want to be too clear about what he was saying—if he openly told Sasuke not to be so rude it would probably have the exact opposite effect and get them all thrown out, but he needed to make clear what he knew. This guy was a jounin. Anything was possible.
“Ahh, right,” Kakashi said. “Yes, there will be a test, but don’t worry about that, it’s easy. I guess it might have been a bit tough for the last few teams, but that’s okay, we can do it later. First we are supposed to follow the customary introductory procedure, to form an unshakeable bond that will last a lifetime… So! Everybody please state your name, something you like, something you dislike, and your dreams for the future. Then we’ll do the test.”
He looked to Sasuke first, who seemed barely able to mask his contempt for the exercise.
“…Uchiha Sasuke. Training to become stronger is what I like… I dislike people interfering with my training, and when I’m strong enough, my dream is to kill my brother and avenge the Uchiha clan.”
It seemed a little dark for a friendly introduction.
“My name is Hinata; I am a member of the Hyuuga clan… I hope to become strong enough to make my family proud. My dislikes are… um… I don’t like those cheeses with mold in them.”
She’d managed to pull herself together pretty well since yesterday, though it probably wasn’t so good in the long run for her to be drawing her self-confidence from the approval of her clan. Especially if they didn’t think very highly of her.
Naruto adjusted his new Leaf village forehead-protector, proudly. He hadn’t even known himself until yesterday that the spiral in their emblem and on the back of the Leaf jackets had anything to do with the Uzumaki.
“I’m Uzumaki Naruto, and… hmm… I don’t think I have any big dreams or ambitions or anything,” he said. “I guess I’m curious about how ninjutsu works, so I’d like to figure it all out, someday, if that counts? My likes are, um… I like being efficient! Technically I was asleep for thirty-seven hours straight last night, and I was learning so much from it that I ran out of room in my notebook when I woke up. And I hate it when my cheese goes moldy, too.”
Kakashi stood up off the railing and clapped his hands together. “Okay! The bond is forged. Let’s get to it.”
Sasuke scoffed. “You didn’t even introduce yourself.”
“Hmm…” Kakashi said, strolling off ahead. “I guess it’ll have to wait ‘til you pass.”
Kakashi led them to a wide clearing in the forest on the outskirts of Leaf and produced a pair of little bells from his pocket. He looked more awake, now—more serious in his expression, which struck Naruto as a strange thing to have noticed, seeing as literally eighty percent of his face was covered.
“Your task is to snatch one of these bells away from me. Those who fail will be sent back to the academy,” he said, tying them in a loop, to his waist. “I won’t counterattack and subdue you, or try to protect the bells in my fist and run away, or do any of the hundreds of things that a real ninja would do if this was a real mission. I’ll be standing here in the open to give you every possible advantage, but, I suggest you come at me with your full strength right from the beginning, because I’ve only got two bells here for the three of you, and by the time you decide to get serious they might already be gone. You have until noon.”
He drew a small book from his pocket and wandered out into the middle of the clearing, casually reading as he walked. He seemed not to have a care in the world for the three ninja he was exposing his back to.
Sasuke looked like he was about to charge right in after him. Naruto put a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s a trap,” he said. “He’s playing mind games to make us angry—probably to fail us for thinking a jounin would really be stupid enough to leave such an easy opening.”
Sasuke didn’t seem pleased, but he’d paused, at least.
“The real test,” Naruto said, “obviously, is that we have a much better chance of getting a bell if we all attack at once, but that with only two bells between the three of us we’ll find it impossible to work together. He thinks we’re all dumb enough to try to sabotage each other if someone’s going to get one before we do. The simple solution would be just to make an agreement to cooperate until we get the bells off of him, somehow, and then once we have them we can roll a dice or something to see which one of us has to miss out.”
Sasuke squinted at him, suspicious. “Then what’s to stop whoever’s holding them from deciding he doesn’t want to miss out?”
Naruto suspected he was asking just to be antagonistic, more than out of any desire to really do such a thing, himself. Actual thieves usually didn’t gloat to their victims about their crimes before they had even been committed.
“I guess, uh, our… unshakeable bonds? I mean, I don’t really know Hinata that well, for example, but I’d trust her.”
“I—I would trust you too, Naruto,” Hinata said.
“Yeah, and I’d trust you too, Sasuke,” Naruto said. “That might be important, actually, because you’re probably the fastest one of us. And if you’re the one who grabs them, you don’t even need to trust us, so I guess we can both just rely on your word, as an Uchiha. Right?”
The appeal to the honor of his clan might have been a bit cheap, but it seemed to work. Sasuke agreed that if the three of them did have no choice but to work together, then he’d go along with the dice roll, as long as they backed off and gave him an opportunity to try it alone, first.
“Not because I’m stupid enough to think I can take down a jounin yet,” Sasuke clarified, “just because I want to check my own strength against someone that can take a hit.”
Naruto nodded, looking to Hinata for confirmation.
“We’ll go and wait around the other side of him then, so that we can come in from opposite angles,” Naruto said. “Be careful not to let him wear you down before we do get the bells, though.”
Sasuke smirked. “I may not have slept thirty-seven hours last night, but I think I’ll manage.”
Sasuke strode confidently out into the middle of the clearing as Naruto crept through the trees, silently, with Hinata following close behind.
Sasuke approached Kakashi with a kunai in hand, trying to bait him with feinted movements, but Kakashi was completely nonreactive, all his attention focused on the book he was reading.
Abruptly, two shuriken flew from Sasuke’s open fist. Kakashi swayed out of their path with the kind of unnatural agility only possible to a fully trained ninja. As a jounin Kakashi would have long since mastered the physical manipulation of chakra; he could fire it in invisible jets, precisely controlling the acceleration of every part of his body.
Sasuke took advantage of his opponent’s stance to wind up a spinning heel kick that met the back of Kakashi’s hand with impressive force, but there was only the strength of muscle behind it—Sasuke was still a genin, after all. Kakashi’s arm didn’t move an inch.
Sasuke carried through with the momentum of his body to bring his other leg around for a second strike. Kakashi’s move to parry hadn’t even connected before Sasuke twisted his torso and shoulder, turning himself around as his hand shot out toward the bells at Kakashi’s waist. With a brisk quarter-turn Kakashi denied him his reach, letting him stumble forward.
Sasuke oriented himself and pressed on, but it was clear he didn’t have a chance. Kakashi avoided or deflected every strike effortlessly, using deliberately slow and obvious movements. Carefully placed nudges and shoves threw Sasuke repeatedly off-balance, or turned him around on his feet until finally, with a quick tug on his sleeve, Sasuke fell over backwards, his arms flailing like a child.
It wouldn’t be any good if Sasuke got too frustrated to cooperate.
Naruto met his eye, nodded, and formed the chain of hand-seals necessary to execute the shadow clone technique.
Two dozen bodies went slinking through the trees to surround the clearing. Oddly, his new forehead-protector didn’t seem to have been duplicated by the technique, leaving his clones bare-headed even though the rest of his clothing hadn’t posed a problem. He would have liked to indulge his curiosity, but again he recognized that this was not the right time for it. Instead, he waited for Sasuke’s next round of attacks to commence and then charged in from all directions at once. Hinata followed behind, her cheeks streaked with the prominent veins characteristic of the active byakugan.
The three of them together had more limbs than one ninja should have been able to deal with, but Kakashi had no problem dispatching several clones at once with a single sweep of his fist, and deflecting or avoiding the blows as they came from anyone he couldn’t dispel.
Sasuke took the opportunity afforded by Naruto’s clones to back off a few steps, and begin a chain of hand-seals for some technique of his own.
He inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with air.
Naruto recognized the motion—Sasuke was about to perform a breath technique. He grabbed Hinata by the back of her jacket and wrenched her out of the way only moments before an immense plume of fire gushed from Sasuke’s mouth.
Most of his clones had been quick enough to bite their tongues before it hit, or had been dispatched by Kakashi already, but one took the brunt of the heat to the point of incineration. Naruto felt a flare of warmth distributed across his skin, passed along from that fractionally-diminished death. That had been dangerously close. And Kakashi had moved himself out of the way of it even more easily than he had from their more agile attacks.
Naruto summoned a new batch of clones from a body he’d left behind a bush, and Hinata climbed back to her feet to resume, but on seeing Kakashi emerge from his blast unscathed Sasuke raised his hand and called out to wait.
“This isn’t working,” he said. “Let’s pause and plan a bit before you guys run out of chakra.”
“Alright,” Naruto said, dispelling all but one of his bodies. “I have a lot of chakra, though, so I can last a while. It’s a clan thing.”
Kakashi’s eyes briefly glanced up at him, and Naruto worried that he had said too much. He didn’t want to give anyone much reason to suspect he was the carrier of a tailed beast, but all that extra chakra would be worthless if he couldn’t make any use of it in public. The “clan” excuse had seemed like his best option—special bloodlines seemed to offer all sorts of weird and exceptional abilities.
“Let’s try not to reveal too many of our clan secrets, right?” Sasuke said. “He might not wait until noon to fail us.”
Naruto followed him into the forest where the three of them could deliberate over tactics unobserved.
Hinata claimed to have seen something strange with her byakugan. There was a log just beyond the edge of the clearing that glowed, to her eyes, with a pale luminescence indicating it had been coated with chakra. They didn’t know how he might have done it without them seeing, unless he’d woken up earlier to prepare it, but it had most likely been set up for use of the body replacement technique, which allowed the one-way instantaneous short-range teleportation into the place of a nearby object of similar mass, if one had the appropriate object set up and ready with a coating of chakra.
Now that they knew about it, it wouldn’t pose much of a threat, though; Naruto could station a few clones by the log to grab at the bells if he came through, but they hadn’t even been able to do more than briefly pester him so far, even attacking together.
Along with his fireball technique, Sasuke claimed to also have already mastered the transformation technique well enough to maintain the illusion while fighting, as long as he didn’t have to use his chakra for anything else at the same time.
Naruto and Hinata could only maintain their transformations while standing still, which was all that had been required to graduate, but the byakugan was potentially very valuable. He wasn’t sure how to make use of it, but everyone knew how lucky the Hyuuga were to have access to it.
Naruto briefly described how his shadow clones worked, for the sake of his teammates, explaining that despite how it might look, the original summoner was no longer any more “real” than his other bodies, once he cast the technique, and if ever he had only one clone left then that’d be the one that suddenly became “real” again, but that it didn’t mean he was temporarily indestructible; he took damage in proportion to the number of bodies he had active to spread an injury out over, though he still wasn’t sure what exactly that meant—if he got stabbed, would he burst fast enough to avoid the worst of it? Naturally, he was reluctant to try such an experiment. He didn’t mention anything about Sasuke’s fireball in particular, to avoid provoking him, but he hoped that Sasuke would make the connection himself, and not come so close to burning them both alive, next time.
Between the three of them they had a few dozen kunai and shuriken, two smoke bombs in Hinata’s pouch, a length of steel wire in Sasuke’s, Naruto’s small convex mirror, three pocket notebooks and pencils, some food pellets and water, 310 ryo, and, technically, their clothing too, which included cloth, thread, bits of metal… At a stretch there was the whole forest to use, too, which had wood, grass, leaves, dirt… or there might be things nearer to town—but no great ideas jumped out at them.
Naruto’s clone technique seemed able to duplicate the clothes he was wearing, but unable to duplicate a handful of dirt, or Hinata’s pencil, though it duplicated his own pencil just fine. Hinata timidly suggested that he might try coating her pencil with his chakra, as she could see that some had soaked into his own clothes and items over time. That would also explain the recent case of his brand new forehead-protector failing to duplicate.
Her theory was confirmed after a few minutes work with a huddled circle of clones. Manual chakra manifestation wasn’t an easy thing for a genin, even through the fingertips, but like his classmates he had at least been taught how to release a little bit, gradually, and with Hinata’s byakugan to guide him it wasn’t long before he had a successful copy. Further experimentation showed that the item had to be within a certain distance of his person, on casting, but that with a little focus he could opt not to duplicate such an item, even going so far as to produce a shadow clone without any clothes, but he could see by this point that Sasuke was getting annoyed, so he forced his attention back to more important matters. A single clone dispatched himself to sit further away from the rest of the team, taking notes on his thoughts and ideas, and when they were done talking the other ones could coalesce back into the clone whose notebook needed to be kept.
A short while later, after much discussion of the potential strategic avenues, the three of them figured they had finally come up with about as good a plan as they could realistically hope to. They returned to the clearing where Kakashi was waiting, his attention still on his book.
Hinata transformed herself into an illusory copy of one of Naruto’s shadow clones and stood amongst the crowd, motionless at the edge of the tree line. Two of Naruto’s real clones turned themselves into immobile copies of Hinata and Sasuke. Sasuke’s transformation was the only real convincing one, blending in effortlessly amongst Naruto’s real clones as they fanned out around the clearing.
They coordinated, silently, moving to attack in sync. The first wave was made up of pure shadow clones, but the second concealed Sasuke in his guise as one of Naruto’s clones, and Hinata dropped her transformation to attack at the same time, from behind.
They had hoped that Kakashi might continue with his strategy of making broad sweeping strikes to dispel the ring of “shadow clones” that might otherwise overwhelm him, and that they might have a brief moment of opportunity when his attack failed to pass through Sasuke, but he didn’t even try to make Sasuke burst; he’d seen through their plan already. Hinata had no more luck; Kakashi having turned around so much in the fighting that he would have seen her even if her timing had been a little better.
They pressed on with their assault anyway, partly out of the hope that he might slip up, and partly for lack of any better idea of what they could do. He was a jounin, it just wasn’t reasonable to expect a few fresh genin to steal something he didn’t want to be stolen.
At one point, Kakashi even went so far as to squander the body-replacement technique he’d prepared, at a moment when he hadn’t even needed it, as if for no other reason than to demonstrate that their plans wouldn’t be any use there, either. He didn’t have any trouble clearing away Naruto’s clone-ambush of clones with a single spinning kick.
By noontime the three of them were so physically exhausted from trying to keep up with him that they welcomed the opportunity to sit down, even if it did mean acknowledging their defeat, and the imminent dismissal that would no doubt follow.
“You all did terribly,” Kakashi said, looming over them with his arms folded. “Not one of you managed even to get a hand on my bells.”
None of them said anything in reply—shamed into silence, or just too exhausted to argue.
“I suppose I could condemn you the least, Uzumaki Naruto,” Kakashi said. “That was a clever ploy you used to get your classmates to follow your plan unquestioningly. If one of them had actually managed to take a bell then your weighted dice would have probably been enough to secure your own success, at least.”
Naruto looked up at him, dazed. “Huh?”
“What weighted dice?” Sasuke said.
“In his left pocket,” Kakashi said.
Naruto felt around in his pocket and pulled out a little bone dice he’d never seen before. “H—hey! This isn’t mine.”
Sasuke didn’t look convinced.
“I emptied my pockets when we were comparing our gear! Remember?” he said. “And—and how could I have even known to bring a trick dice along, anyway? I didn’t know what kind of test we would be doing!”
Hinata looked over it with her byakugan. “It—it’s real, at least. It’s not any kind of genjutsu illusion,” she said, “not that I think—”
“You didn’t see me carrying it before, right? Your eyes see through everything, did you see him slip it into my pocket or something? He’s still screwing with us.”
“I—I wasn’t looking at your pockets,” Hinata said. “There’s so much around to see, I—”
“But why would Kakashi just happen to have brought a trick dice, then?” Sasuke asked. “He didn’t know you were going to try to make us roll a dice to get the bells, and you were the one to tell us about all the teams he failed, so maybe you already knew what the test was, too. You came up with the dice idea pretty fast.”
“It’s not mine!” Naruto repeated. “Look, it’s not covered in my chakra yet, right Hinata? So it couldn’t have been copied when I had to get away from the fireball that almost killed us. And besides, how did he even know which pocket I had it in, if he didn’t put it there? Or how would he have known that it wasn’t just a normal dice? Maybe he carries it because he likes to cheat at dice games—or it might not even be a trick dice!”
Sasuke grumbled something, mistrustful of them both.
Naruto started rolling the dice on the grass, trying to figure out if it really was weighted unfairly.
Kakashi turned to the others. “I will tell you two, at least, that this was not intended to be a mere test of teamwork that only required you three to work together, as Naruto suggested. This is a filter, and it’s designed to weed out the students who aren’t ready to be ninja.”
“That’s such a lie,” Naruto snapped. “Maybe that’s what you have to say out loud, but I think we all know the real reason for the test is that you just need to invent some official justification for sending us all back to the academy. I don’t know what it is you’d rather be doing, but I can’t really believe that the last five teams were all unworthy of being genin. Sasuke was by far the top of our class, I did okay myself, and I’m pretty sure there are jounin teams who would pay just to carry Hinata around in a box as a surveillance tool. By any reasonable standard for three genin a single day out of the academy, we did fine.”
Sasuke leant back on his elbows, “Mmm… I’m definitely good enough to be a genin. That’s obvious. And I don’t think that teamwork thing makes sense, either…” he said. “Two bells for three people means you designed it to make cooperation hard. The dice trick might have worked… pretty dumb test though, either way.”
Kakashi’s narrowed his gaze. “I’m sorry to be the one to break the genjutsu illusion you’ve both fallen into, but foreign ninja won’t care how hard you tried, or how well you did despite all your excuses. You had a very simple task, and you were given every possible advantage, and you failed.”
He held up a finger. “But… considering the time that you wasted messing around in the forest, I’ve decided to grant you an extra thirty minutes. I suggest you use the time wisely, as you three seem like slow learners, and this may be your last day outside the academy for some time.”
Kakashi walked away, hands in his pockets.
Naruto had enough evidence now to be convinced.
“This dice isn’t even rigged!” he shouted, pelting it at the back of Kakashi’s head.
He dodged it, though.
Sasuke stared after him. “…Suddenly, I really want those fucking bells.”
Naruto grit his teeth. “Maybe once we get them, we can stuff them up his nose and ring his head.”
“I—I wish that I—” Hinata stammered, “I still… want to pass.”
The three of them were more united now in opposition to Kakashi’s injustice than they had ever been by the mere utility of cooperation.
“Alright my fellow slow-learners,” Naruto said, “I’m open to suggestion, but here’s what I’m thinking…”