Foreign guest ninja had been gradually trickling into Leaf for some time.
Apparently, Sand village had abruptly backed out of the new alliance with Leaf, somewhat undermining the whole “teamwork” theme of the exams, but the preparations had already been made, so everything had gone ahead regardless.
According to Kakashi, Leaf had hastily renegotiated the standing treaties with Cloud as a matter of diplomatic necessity, and had invited them to attend the exams in Sand’s stead. A lot of Leaf ninja were on edge, with every post manned. The alliance with Sand had itself only been a recent thing, formed to counter the coalition of Stone and Mist, which threatened a simultaneous attack on two fronts.
The border states between Leaf and Stone were all present too; Rain, Grass and Waterfall, but with Sand’s intentions now unclear there was an undercurrent of tension, and a fear of having been betrayed for some nefarious reason, as if the Sand shinobi might show up to attack at any moment. Naruto wasn’t worried, though—it would be suicide to invade right when the greatest number of ninja were gathered in Leaf to resist, and Sand’s population wasn’t even half as large as their own.
The three of them sat quietly in the waiting room, Naruto tallying up the forehead-protectors of the other genin present, counting the number of ninja from each village, occasionally having to resort to guesses based on where they were sitting, or on the dark skin of some of the Cloud ninja.
His final count of all those present came out to 87 Leaf genin, 30 from Cloud, 21 from Rain, 6 from Grass, and 6 from Waterfall.
Kakashi had expected that they would be down about ten teams due to Sand’s absence, but it seemed that Cloud had stepped up to fill the gap pretty quickly. Though on reflection it was possible that some of the Cloud ninja would be a little under qualified if they’d been encouraged to attend just to pad out the numbers. Despite the short notice they’d made a big show of parading into Leaf with costumed drummers and musicians marching in line with a variety of exotic animals.
Most of the larger villages tended to prefer hosting their own chuunin examinations these days, and only infrequently combined their events with another village’s, usually as a show of force. Generations ago the First Hokage had tried to begin the tradition of finishing the exams with a tournament of genin from of all of the great villages. He’d hoped to foster a spirit of unity, and of friendly competition, but his plan had backfired rather dramatically when all eight of the genin that finally emerged from the second qualifying stage turned out to be from Leaf. Really though, that outcome should have been pretty predictable even beforehand, given the difference in population sizes; eight competitors just wasn’t enough to statistically guarantee much representation for more than a few countries.
Among the Leaf genin present Naruto recognized two other teams from his academy class, and it probably wasn’t a coincidence that they were the teams of Nara Shikamaru and Aburame Shino; the only two other people he’d ever seen visiting the library. Shikamaru’s father held a position of high command in the military administration, as well as a very potent bloodline technique, but Shino’s whole clan had some kind of creepy bloodline affinity for bugs. There was a story that his mother had once assassinated an almost-invincible foreign ninja by jamming spiders down her throat, and building a web to clog up her lungs.
Their teammates were not as impressive, though—good coordination on Shikamaru’s team, with Chouji and Ino, but he didn’t expect much from Kiba and Sakura.
Hinata’s cousin was present with his team, too. Hyuuga Neji was supposedly the most talented of his own class, occupying a position similar to Sasuke’s but with an entire year’s worth of extra training by now. His team hadn’t competed in any examinations yet, but Hinata said that the Hyuuga thought he might even manage to win the final tournament. He was teamed up with an orphan girl named Tenten and a black-haired youth with thick eyebrows whom Hinata pointed out as “Rock Lee”.
“No way,” Naruto said, “that’s Rock Lee? My clones see him sprinting around the village all the time.”
He’d heard the name “Rock Lee” before, too, but as something more akin to legend than fact; a story passed around by whispered voices. Rock Lee: the civilian who had trained so hard he turned into a ninja.
“Wouldn’t be easy to mistake him for anyone else,” Sasuke muttered, glancing only briefly at the team. Lee was wearing some kind of bright-green jumpsuit that matched that of an older ninja that Naruto usually saw him with; his dad, presumably.
“Is it true what they say? About him being a civilian?” Naruto asked.
Hinata smiled. “It would be a nice story, but I don’t think that even Lee could train hard enough to change his blood… Neji says that he was born with a crippled chakra system, and he can’t do anything other than blast raw unshaped chakra, so he trains in taijutsu martial arts exclusively. You can see it flow strangely, if you look with your byakugan.”
“I should just take your word for it,” Naruto said. He had his forehead-protector pulled down over one eye now, like Kakashi, so he didn’t think Neji would have noticed it without using his own byakugan, but who knew what other spying techniques might be floating around a room as crowded as this. Sasuke’s own seal was hidden behind his forehead protector, too—not exactly hiding in plain sight, since no-one could see it, but it would look pretty dramatic if he took it off to fight.
Eventually they were directed into a wide and empty classroom made from smaller rooms with the walls removed to accommodate their numbers. They sat down and listened to a few official pronouncements before the written tests were handed out. The first phase of his first chuunin examination had officially begun.
The questions didn’t seem particularly closely related to “teamwork” in any way he could see, but there were always three phases to these exams, with only the latter tournament phase remaining unchanged each time, so it was likely that the part requiring teamwork would come second.
Naruto scanned through the test briefly before working through the questions as listed, finding them surprisingly arcane for a test that was supposed to be passed by a large fraction of the genin present.
He managed most of it with relative confidence, but it seemed pretty likely that Sasuke or Hinata might get stuck somewhere, and without them he doubted he’d have much success in the next phase.
Cautiously, with his hands forming the seal beneath the desk and his eye hidden from sight, he activated his new byakugan eye.
None of the chuunin proctors made any immediate objection if they’d noticed, but that might just have been because the room was apparently full of other genin making absolutely terrible attempts to “cheat” on the exams—attempts which the chuunin seemed to be trying their hardest not to notice. Sasuke and Hinata both had their eyes activated already, and were making good use of them, but most of the other shinobi didn’t have such convenient techniques available, and were instead fruitlessly trying to make out the reflection of a neighbor’s test in the steel of their kunai, or leaning back in their seats to yawn and glance around, comically nonchalant.
Hinata had no trouble finding the correct answers with her eye, but Sasuke seemed to be primarily imitating pencil and hand motions to figure out the answers on his test that weren’t easily within his line of sight, or visible in the reflection of something, somewhere. Naruto tried to help him out by spending the next few minutes going slowly over his answers with big, clear gestures, and repeating the ones Sasuke had missed.
Nothing seemed too surprising about the answers of any of the other genin. Neji had filled out his entire test perfectly without resorting to his own byakugan—and he’d done it with much nicer handwriting than Naruto had, too—but his teammate Rock Lee had left every question blank. He was breathing heavily, his fists clenched on the table. Poor guy.
After about forty-five minutes a heavily-scarred Leaf ninja stood up and declared that the tenth and final question would now be administered, and that a new rule was also being announced; those who chose to attempt the tenth question would be barred forever from any advancement in rank if they answered incorrectly; they’d be stuck genin for life. Those who chose instead to concede before the question was posed would fail their teammates out as well, but at least they would all retain the potential for being promoted in the future.
So that was the teamwork element.
It was a pretty cruel setup, really; the weakest ninja—those with little confidence in their own abilities—would be forced to either sacrifice their entire future careers, or alternatively to antagonize their more skilled teammates by forcing a frustrating failure on the three of them.
The first of many hands rose up to concede defeat, and three by three the overseers escorted teams of genin from the room over shouts of protest. The momentum of surrender seemed to build on itself every time a ninja resigned, making it just a little less shameful for the next one to follow suit, until eventually more than half of the entire group had either voluntarily left the classroom or been pulled out to follow after their withdrawing teammates.
One foreign shinobi didn’t seem to be taking very well to the idea of being failed by a Leaf examiner, and loudly chastised his teammate for thinking that some “foreign ogre” could ever have the power to make a binding decree on the examiners in Cloud. The Leaf chuunin hurried him out of the room before a diplomatic incident could be ignited.
Naruto knew that there wasn’t any real chance Sasuke would give up; he seemed to hold the entire system of formal ranks in contempt; he called it a “lazy” way to measure strength. Naruto figured it was probably necessary to have something like that just to keep so many ninja organized, but Sasuke probably wouldn’t even care what his rank was as long as it didn’t interfere with killing his brother. More to the point, Naruto doubted he’d want to admit his own potential weakness in public. Even if he claimed to be willing to sacrifice his pride in the pursuit of power, he had never been the type to ask a teacher for help when he made an error. Traits like that were slow to change.
Hinata seemed even less likely to bow out; from what he’d seen of her personality she would probably prefer to personally suffer the humiliation of eternal low rank than to mildly inconvenience anybody else by forcing their withdrawal. She might still have been scared, though. Naruto gave her a thumbs-up, under the table.
For his part, Naruto found the entire premise of the question a bit suspicious. It seemed likely, at least, that Cloud really wouldn’t have tolerated losing several teams worth of potentially valuable ninja, keeping them genin forever just for the sake of some gimmicky foreign exam question, and it made just as little sense for Leaf, militarily. Maybe the real test was to see through how stupid the premise of the question was.
With approximately 150 genin taking the exam and only 8 slots in the final tournament, it could be assumed that each of the first two rounds had to filter out roughly three quarters of the incoming participants. Naruto could count that they were already down to a mere thirty-six genin left in the room, which meant that unless the administration had significantly miscalculated, this final test question would have to be something pretty easy if they wanted to have any ninja left to compete in the tournament.
Abruptly, Rock Lee slammed his fist against his desk.
“Don’t underestimate me!” he shouted, standing up and pointing his finger at the examiner. “I’ll never surrender! Even if I’m a genin forever I’ll fight through it all and still become Hokage! And then I’ll make Haruno Sakura my bride—that’s my way of being a ninja. Believe it!”
The classroom burst into cheers and laughter. Naruto snorted, covering his face with his hands. Sakura looked embarrassed enough to die in her seat, but it was hard for Naruto not to like a guy that sincere, even if he did seem like a bit of a moron. Of course, it would have been terrifying to actually entrust the administration of a state to someone like him, but there was no real risk of that ever happening.
It turned out that there was, in fact, no tenth question. Everyone remaining in the room would pass, regardless of their prior performance; merely for having the guts to sit still. Alternatively, a more cynical interpretation was that someone behind the scenes had seen more than a hundred of the students already leave and panicked enough to force this jumped up “special” jounin to call a halt before they ran out of competitors.
On the other hand, the special jounin did seem to be taking a particular pleasure in explaining how clever he was for coming up with that little trick. He also seemed weirdly interested in showing off the extensive battle-scars concealed beneath his forehead-protector, which included what looked like a number of screw-holes running deep into his brain. Naruto wondered if it was possible that some higher up had taken pity on the poor guy—making him an honorary special kind of jounin. One not perhaps quite fit for active duty, anymore, without adult supervision.
A woman broke in through the window before the jounin had finished talking. Some of the quicker-witted genin were already on their feet and combat-ready, but Naruto had already been idly watching her psyche herself up outside for a minute or two, outside.
The byakugan was a very useful technique.
She introduced herself as Mitarashi Anko, Head Ninja in Charge.
One of the Cloud ninja girls whooped approvingly, and received a suggestive wink in reply.
Anko, their new examiner, led them out of the classroom and on a long walk that took them out of the village and eventually down to a cordoned-off section of the forest where some tall fences had been erected and signs posted warning “danger”.
She explained that the 12 remaining teams of genin would each be stationed around the rim of the forest and given one of two scrolls, marked either “heaven” or “earth”. To pass the exam a team had to reach the tower located in the middle of the enclosed forest and present both kinds of scroll to the chuunin who were already waiting there. The tower was supposedly about ten miles in, but the examination period would last a full five days whether or not any teams were still alive.
Assuming that the ring was approximately circular, a 10 mile radius meant a circumference of about 63 miles—so, with twelve teams, that was about 5 miles of space on either side to begin with, which could have been covered in mere minutes by any competent genin over open ground. This was dense forest, though, and packed with obstructions which might actually give the Leaf ninja a small advantage.
Battles were technically to the death, as was standard for the exams, but it was understood that those with enough skill to subdue their opponents alive would be looked upon with greater favor for promotion. The exams were a valuable educational experience, so the act of unnecessarily killing an enemy ninja—even one from a foreign country—was widely considered to be a breach of good manners.
If a scroll became damaged or the wax seal was broken, it would be considered inadmissible, and they’d have to find another. Teams also had the choice of making their way back out to the perimeter to seek proper medical attention in the village, but of course they would be disqualified from the exams for doing so.
She asked if there were any questions, and Naruto raised his hand.
“If a ninja exits the ring alone, is it their whole team that’s disqualified or just them?”
“Their whole team.”
That was interesting.
“So, theoretically, if someone was moved outside the ring against their will, without their team knowing they were all disqualified, how would—”
Anko interrupted him. “What’s your name, cutie pie?”
She sauntered through the congregation of genin, moving toward him as all eyes turned to follow. She leant down next to him with a wolfish grin on her face, laid a hand gently on his shoulder and spoke directly into his ear.
“Careful, Naruto,” she said. “You keep asking questions like that and I might just have to sneak in there and ‘disqualify’ you myself…”
He swallowed, nodding nervously.
He wasn’t sure how exactly to interpret a statement like that, but he got the sense that this was the kind of girl his parents would have warned him about, and she didn’t seem to be wearing a whole lot of clothing underneath that big, suspicious trench coat.
The consent forms were handed out, and Naruto tried to get his thoughts back on the exams. Regardless of how easy the first phase might have seemed, this one would be dangerous. Assuming his class had been of about average size, then very roughly 30 new genin graduated from the academy in Leaf every year, and it was reasonable to guess that with a fairly stable population there would be roughly 30 Leaf ninja dying every year. If those deaths were randomly distributed across the 150 or so genin of Leaf, and the 400-odd chuunin, and maybe 200 jounin, then that would imply that about 6 genin, 16 chuunin and 8 jounin died every year. But he knew that usually only a few new chuunin were made at each of the year’s two exams, and even fewer new jounin were selected from the chuunin, which fit well with the common observation that genin did most of the dying. A better-balanced guess might therefore have been closer to about 15 dead genin per year, 12 dead chuunin, and 3 jounin.
Clans were always eager to produce more genin for the sake of their own relative position, if nothing else, but at the same time every adult ninja with any influence wanted to minimize his potential competitors for position by imposing the strongest possible barriers to entry, filtering down the genin while they were still too young and weak to matter. The civilians bred like rabbits if their numbers weren’t kept in check, but the pencil-pushers and artisans were as necessary to the survival of Leaf as were shinobi, and there was only so much surplus food to go around. To live was a privilege, and it had to be earned.
15 dead genin per year was half of his graduating class. He had no idea whether his numbers were even close to correct, but that was one tenth of the total number of genin, dying, for every single year that it took them to make chuunin rank, and only a few were selected from each exam. Given how much time most genin spent training and standing guard and running other harmless D-rank missions inside Leaf’s borders, these examinations alone were responsible for the bulk of their exposure to battle. With two exams per year, six dead genin could probably be expected in each, from Leaf alone, and while their numbers had already been whittled down a lot in the first phase, nobody had actually died yet.
18 of the 36 genin remaining were from Leaf, his own team included, which seemed roughly proportional to the numbers they’d started with. With roughly six from Leaf expected to die, he could expect roughly a one in three chance of not making it through the week. The odds that his whole team would make it through were even worse.
It hadn’t seemed quite so bad when there had been five times this many people sitting in the waiting room. The three of them were among the youngest present, too. Unless—numerically speaking, if entire teams tended to die all together, that would at least improve their odds of surviving fully intact. Then again, it might actually be that when a team lost a member they would be more likely to surrender to save the other two, which would make it even more likely that the deaths would come from a broad range of teams.
Six deaths to account for, on average, and six separate teams coming from Leaf…
Naruto handed back the signed consent form when prompted, but he wasn’t nearly so sure anymore that this was a good idea.
“I don’t get it,” Sasuke said. “How do they expect a signed piece of paper to stop anyone from seeking revenge if they actually wanted to? It’s pointless.”
He signed it with a bloody fingerprint and handed it back to the chuunin.
“Um, I think—actually, they may have a purpose,” Hinata said. “Father used to tell me that it is often, um, beneficial, to allow an opponent a path of safe retreat—so that they don’t feel forced to keep fighting to the last man. Consent forms allow clans to save face, if they don’t want to throw everything away seeking vengeance for one lost genin. They can pretend as if they would like nothing more than to destroy their neighbors, to reclaim their honor, but they are sadly bound by the agreement not to act… It saves them, partially, from having to appear weak.”
Sasuke clicked his tongue in disgust. “Clans are such horseshit.”
Alongside their own team and Neji’s, both Shikamaru’s and Shino’s team would be competing in the second phase, though that wasn’t really very impressive considering that the first phase could technically have been passed by a sleeping kitten. Other than the two older Leaf teams he didn’t recognize, the 18 other ninja were made up of three Cloud teams, two from Rain and one from Waterfall. But they were all genin, like he was, so how tough could they really be?
Actually—no, tougher was good. They had to be strong enough to win without needing to kill him. Being only slightly stronger was the worst possibility of all. Yeah. They were definitely much tougher than he was. Years of extra training. No problem at all.
Once everyone had returned their signed consent forms the teams were separated and escorted by one of the chuunin to their assigned gates at the periphery of the forest.
Naruto, Sasuke and Hinata were guided about a third of the way around, taking a short detour through the exterior forest at first, so that they would approach their gate without crossing the path of any of the other teams—they’d even been far enough out that his byakugan hadn’t been able to spot anything.
The chuunin flipped a coin on arrival and then handed them one of the scrolls he was carrying. “Earth”, it read.
If that was how everyone was doing it then there was a good chance that not even a full half of the teams could pass, but with 36 ninja and only 8 slots for competitors in the tournament they would have to cut the numbers down one way or another; less than one in four could make it through. Having too many would be better for the organizers than having too few—maybe they aimed for a small excess and then narrowed it down randomly to eight for the final round.
“So uh, I’ve got a few thoughts about what we could do in there,” Naruto said. “Do either of you have any ideas you want to suggest first, though?”
The chuunin sat down next to his hourglass, slowly watching the grains of sand fall down. It wouldn’t be long before they could begin.
“I don’t really care what we do,” Sasuke said. “Half those teams weren’t even any older than us. Chouji doesn’t scare me.”
“I think, um, Kiba and Sakura on Shino’s team may be… the least challenging,” Hinata said. “The byakugan might help us to find them early.”
“Yeah, Kiba’s team is probably the least of a threat if we have to fight someone,” Naruto said, “ideally though we’d get through this without the risk of actual combat.”
“You wanna just steal someone’s scroll?” Sasuke asked. “Dunno if that’d be any easier.”
“I was thinking more like a trade,” Naruto said. “Probably half these teams are going to win a fight and then end up with a second scroll of the same type that they don’t even need, right? Once that happens, they might realize that there are other teams who probably have two scrolls of the other kind, and that they could both peacefully trade duplicates instead of risking anything in a fight. And since everyone has to get to the tower in the middle eventually anyway, that would be the natural place to look for other teams willing to trade. I thought maybe we could go there first, and then act like we have an extra scroll, maybe use the byakugan to see what the other teams have first, and then decide what to do next. Maybe we can trick them into giving up their spare for nothing, somehow. I don’t know yet.”
“Sounds fine to me,” Sasuke said. “We can just take it by force if the trick doesn’t work.”
“But, won’t we be guaranteed to run into all of the strongest teams in the middle?” Hinata asked. “At least once, each?”
“Don’t worry,” Naruto said, lowering his voice a little. “With this eye my clones can scout a huge range around us. We’ll pick the weakest targets and stay back from the rest. But, another important thing is that I think that I should probably carry you two on the way in there.”
“Carry us?” Sasuke protested. “What, like babies?”
“Well, I was just thinking—it makes sense, in terms of chakra. If we all ran we could get there before anyone else and then we’d have the best pickings, but this test could turn into an endurance challenge. It’s much better if I just make a couple of clones to carry you, and we keep you two at full capacity. I’ve got the chakra for it.”
“That’s fucking absurd,” Sasuke said, “I’m not letting you carry me.”
Naruto took a deep breath. He’d expected this. “Do you remember what we were reading in that marriage counseling book last week? Let’s try exercise three again, and start our sentences with ‘I feel…’”
“Fucking—really? Right now you’re doing this?”
“Ugh…” Sasuke ran a hand through his hair, exasperated. “I feel… that the Uchiha who came before me would not be pleased to see the last of their line being carried off in your arms like some pretty little civilian.”
Naruto nodded, acknowledging the validity of his feelings, as the book had suggested. “Well, I feel… that if the Uchiha care so much about appearances, then they might be holding you back.”
“Hey, that’s not how it works!” Sasuke said. “You’re supposed to say how you feel, not just start with ‘I feel’ and then insult me. Watch, dumbass: I feel pissed off when you belittle my ancestors, so don’t.”
“You’re right. Sorry,” Naruto said. “I feel ashamed for asking you to use the technique and then screwing up with it myself, but, I also feel a little bit proud of you now, for calling me out on it.”
“I feel patronized when you say you’re proud of me, like I’m your kid brother or something.”
“I feel even more proud that you’re clearly communicating how patronized you feel.”
“Stop it, fuck!”
“Now I’m not proud any more. You ruined it.”
“Fuck you! I mean, I feel angry, and fuck you!”
“Thirty seconds…” warned the chuunin, behind them.
“Okay, uh, let me try again,” Naruto said. “I feel that this test is important and that matters of pride shouldn’t count for much against winning, but I can also understand that you’re the one who has to actually suffer through it, so maybe you feel differently. If you don’t want to be carried we should decide the best alternative very soon.”
“I feel like it would be stupid to avoid any idea just for that reason,” Sasuke said, “but I still feel resentful of being forced to tolerate such a stupid fucking plan.”
“Ten seconds,” said the chuunin, stepping out in front of them.
“That’s good enough for me if it’s good enough for you. I acknowledge your resentment and I regret not having a better plan,” Naruto said, splitting into three shadow clones. “What about you, Hinata. Do you mind if I carry you?”
“Um… I feel—I feel fine, with that…”
The chuunin pushed open the gate leading into the forest.
Naruto’s clones took his teammates in their arms and kicked off the ground.
The cost of sustaining three bodies and one byakugan was 16 millichakra per second; significantly less than his rate of regeneration, but if both clones had to work roughly twice as hard as usual to carry all the extra weight then he’d be burning another 100 mc/sec or more on movement alone. Even so, after twenty minutes of travel that would only be about… 66 net loss per second, multiplied by 60 seconds, then by 20 minutes… call it 36 by two times a thousand, so about 70,000 mc. He’d still have more than 95% of his chakra left; ten times what most ninja had.
The forest was weirdly eerie on the inside of the fence. The signs had warned about poisonous creatures and dangerous animals being introduced for the purposes of the exam, but Naruto didn’t expect snakes and leopards could pose much threat to a competent genin. It served to set the mood, but there was a reason the philosophers liked to say that the zero-tailed beast was man.
The first few minutes of the exam were likely the closest thing they’d have to a guaranteed period of safety. Even if one of the neighboring entrances was manned by a Leaf team who moved directly to intercept them they could probably make it halfway to the tower before it would make sense to feel as nervous as he already did.
They crossed a river on their way in, choosing to stay clear of its banks thereafter. The open space above the running water would allow foreign teams to move more quickly along its length, so the river could be seen as a kind of open “road” through the arena, along which any number of enemy teams might move.
After half an hour or so at a moderate pace Naruto spotted the approaching edge of the clearing with his byakugan.
“Found it,” he said. “We’re almost there.”
The river ran right past the tower, but there were no other ninja in the vicinity visible yet, other than the two Leaf chuunin hunkered down inside with sandwiches, playing cards while they waited for the winning teams to show up.
Naruto stationed shadow clones around the perimeter to keep watch with the byakugan. Hinata and Sasuke concealed themselves in the forest near the clearing, keeping a few of Naruto’s clones nearby for the sake of communication.
He wasn’t eager to spend too much chakra at the beginning of what might turn into a five-day endurance challenge, but even just a few byakugan could cover a pretty wide radius, even with some overlap for safety.
They had been trying to come up with a good plan on the way in to trick an enemy team with the promise of trade, but it seemed clear that anyone who showed up this early would probably have been hurrying into the middle themselves, and wouldn’t yet have a second scroll either, or be likely to believe that anyone else had got one and then beaten them in.
One of Naruto’s shadow clones burst while they were debating it. It had been keeping watch from some distance away, but no cause of death seemed obvious from its recent memories.
“A clone just died,” he said. “No idea what killed it, though… ‘Bout a mile west of the tower.”
Sasuke turned westward, peering through the bushes, “I thought you were using the byakugan.”
“How do you get ambushed when you can see literally everything?”
“My other clones are heading in now,” Naruto said. He summoned another ten bodies and dispersed them with their byakugan enabled. He felt instinctively like they should be moving to escape by now, but the whole reason they’d come here was to find other teams. “I don’t know what happened, I just didn’t see anything.”
Sasuke snickered. “Maybe you just bit your tongue by accident.”
“Maybe…” Naruto said. “That almost never happens, though.”
“You’ve actually done that?”
“That’s not the point. Hinata, you said Stone village jounin have an invisibility technique, didn’t you? The byakugan would see through it though, right?”
“Yes, it would…” Hinata replied. “Were you, um, moving your head around, properly?”
“Yeah, I was doing it all just like you showed me. I thought I was, anyway. Maybe I missed something with all that detail; there are so many little animals and bugs and sources of nature chakra skittering around, but I think I would have noticed—”
“Shino,” Hinata said. “He can fight with his bugs, even from a distance.”
“Ohhhh… right…” Naruto said, popping a clone to let his other bodies know. “That sneaky bastard!”
“Hmph,” Sasuke sniffed, “that means Sakura and Kiba should be on their way soon. Pretty easy win for us, if they don’t get away.”
“Kiba’s probably itching to fight, and we might look like one of the least tough targets, to the other teams,” Naruto said. “Not sure about the other two, though.”
“Shino will probably try to surround us with his bugs if we give him the opportunity,” Hinata said. “If you look carefully, though, you should see them carrying some of his yin and yang chakra, like very small ninja. You could tell them apart from other animals with the byakugan.”
Naruto burst another body to spread the new information, and shortly received back an acknowledgment that some of these altered bugs were indeed visible.
“They’re there. West. Wave of bugs, moving east.”
“Let’s attack then,” Sasuke said. “Or plan fast, then attack. This is probably the best chance we’ll get.”
“One of my clones just asked permission to go shout at the bugs and offer to trade an earth scroll for a heaven scroll. It might give us some idea of what they’re carrying.”
“Sounds fine to me,” Sasuke said.
Naruto nodded, popping another body to pass the message along.
“The barrier technique you showed me would work well against Shino, I think,” Hinata said.
Hinata had been training a lot with the barrier recently. She’d already got it down to only a single hand-seal—an almost instantaneous defense. Naruto was no quicker than before, even with the advantage of the byakugan—but he’d had other priorities.
“Maybe we should try to fight them out in the open, too,” Naruto said. “Less room for his bugs to hide behind trees or drop down on us.”
“I might need to clear out the bugs with a fireball, so watch out for that,” Sasuke said. “If you two can keep Shino busy, though, I’ll go after Kiba and Sakura.”
“Sounds good,” Naruto said. “Maybe Hinata can lock them in a bubble with you. Watch out for bugs though, anyway, with your sharingan. Might be poisonous.”
The three of them moved out and crossed the open field to take shelter beneath the tower itself, on the eastern side, just out of sight of where Shino’s team would probably emerge. Naruto burst another clone to keep the rest of him up to date—the chakra cost of replacing them was mere minutes worth of regeneration.
“Westernmost clone just reported. He’s delivered the message and Kiba is now approaching rapidly.”
“Is he coming to trade?” Hinata asked.
“Doubt it,” Naruto said. “He wasn’t carrying their scroll and I really doubt that they have a second one already, so it’d be a bluff anyway.”
Another clone burst in the west.
“I’ve seen Shino and Sakura,” Naruto said. “All three approaching fast from the west. None of them were carrying the scroll.”
“What?” Sasuke scoffed. “They lost it already?”
“It would have been hard to lose and then get here this fast.”
“They might have hidden it,” Hinata said. “They know that I’m with you and that I could see the scroll with the byakugan, maybe they think we’ll focus fire to steal it.”
“They might escape and regroup, then, even if the fight goes badly for them.”
Naruto summoned a new pack of clones and broke one to convey his instructions.
“I’ve put a couple of bodies onto looking for it,” he said. “The search area shouldn’t be too large behind them. You wanna try luring them away instead of fighting, while I look?”
“Shit, nice trick,” Sasuke said. “Hah—yeah, let’s do that.”
Naruto’s clones burned chakra racing westward, some shielded from Shino’s bugs with the barrier technique, others observing with their byakugan.
“Shino’s seen me moving,” Naruto reported. “Looks like he’s still heading toward us with Sakura and Kiba, though. He wouldn’t know I have the byakugan. Probably thinks I’m just trying to get behind him for the fight.”
Kiba reached the edge of the forest clearing where Sasuke could see him around the rim of the tower. He paused there a moment to catch his breath, looking around for where they were hiding while his team caught up.
“I’m behind them all now,” Naruto said. “Clones fanning out for the scroll. Let’s get out of here now that Kiba’s here.”
The trio started running back toward the forest, clearly visible across the open field. Kiba broke into pursuit without even waiting to consult his team, some animalistic part of him probably taking their flight as reason to be confident. Just as planned.
“Crap!” Naruto said. “I found where their scroll is buried. It’s an earth scroll, like ours.”
“What do we do now, then?” Sasuke said, glancing back over his shoulder.
Kiba seemed to be born for the pursuit. He had some weird relationship with his dog—he kept it in his jacket, and liked to walk around on four legs sometimes, claimed to be able to hear things—he said it was a bloodline technique, but Naruto had never really believed it until now. He looked pretty stupid galloping after them like some kind of weird horse, but somehow, for him, it worked. He was gaining on them faster than expected, though both of his teammates were still far behind.
Technically he was “chasing” them, but… he wouldn’t know what to do if he actually caught them.
“No use fighting,” Naruto said. “We can show them we only have an earth scroll.”
“Will they believe us?”
“If we had a heaven scroll too then we could have gone into the tower already.”
“We stop on three, then?”
“Right,” Naruto said. “I’ll raise a barrier, you show the scroll, okay?”
He nodded. “Got it.”
“Okay,” Hinata echoed.
Naruto timed it to his hand-seals. “One, two, three!”
They made their landings together as Sasuke pulled out their earth scroll.
A protective bubble big enough for the three of them rose up and blocked off Kiba’s advance.
“This is our earth scroll,” Sasuke called, his eyes red with the sharingan as Kiba skidded to a stop just short of a collision. His teammates were closing quickly from behind him.
“If we had a heaven scroll too we could have gone into the tower, so you know we’re telling the truth. Got it?”
“We know you only have an earth scroll too,” Naruto added. “We saw you bury it a few miles back.”
Kiba hesitated, seemingly uncertain. “Bullshit,” he snarled.
“South side of a big tree, marked with a vine?”
Shino and Sakura closed in, landing on the far side of the shield.
Kiba called out to them. “Hey! They saw where we hid the scroll dude! I told you to let me hold it!”
“We only have an earth scroll,” Sasuke repeated, holding it aloft for Shino’s benefit. “Still want to fight?”
Shino recoiled in alarm. “Kiba, get to the scroll! Naruto’s clones are moving there!”
“Not so fast,” Naruto said. “I’ve already dug it up, so—”
“Track him! Go!”
“You can’t—” Naruto began, but Kiba had already left. “Oh… I was going to say that you two can’t take on the three of us alone…”
Sakura held a single kunai in her shaking hands. She was staring at Sasuke’s feet, visibly terrified.
“Come, Sakura!” Shino said, grabbing her by the wrist. They raced back toward the western half of the arena.
Naruto watched them go for a moment before dropping the barrier. Sasuke put the scroll back under his jacket.
“Pointless to chase ’em, right?” Sasuke asked.
“Are they going to catch your shadow clone?” Hinata asked.
“Maybe,” Naruto said. “They’ll probably want to take their scroll back from a clone rather than fighting a real team for one, though.”
Naruto slapped at a little blue beetle Shino had left behind to spy on them.
“I’ve coated their scroll in chakra though, now. Duplicated it across a few clones,” he said, “so even if they catch one I’ll just burst myself and still be alive with it elsewhere. They can’t go after all of me at once, so I should be able to get it back around to us eventually.”
“Still just another earth scroll, though,” Sasuke said. “Guess we might end up trading spares after all.”
“Oh shoot…” Naruto said. “A clone in the west just burst. He saw Neji’s team. They have a heaven scroll, and Neji saw me with Shino’s earth scroll. He saw my byakugan, too. He looks really mad.”