Naruto: Myoushuu no Fuuin

by May Wren

Chapter Eight

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

Kakashi wasn't particularly happy to have been called to the Hokage's office. Again. He found it utterly ridiculous that he'd met with the Hokage more during his months as a Jounin-sensei than during his years as an ANBU captain. This was almost certainly because there was a command structure for ANBU captains—they reported to the heads of their divisions, who in turn reported to the ANBU chief, who reported to the Hokage—and no structured reporting system at all for Jounin-sensei.

He couldn't imagine how much of the Hokage's time was eaten up dealing with it all and, while it was likely occasionally entertaining (if most genin got up to even a tenth of what his did, he could see the attraction of the occasional hands on reports), the fact of the matter was that most genin teams spent the better part of six months doing nothing more taxing than a D-rank mission. So he wasn't entirely certain why the Hokage insisted on handing those out himself, when there was certainly a more efficient system.

Passing the final security check to be allowed into the Hokage's suite, Kakashi smiled at the secretary. (New this week, he noted. A particularly curvy, nubile number. The Hokage was a dirty, dirty old man.) He knew she couldn't be nearly as vacuous as her expression indicated, not when ANBU took turns serving as one of the Hokage's last lines of defense, but whoever was impersonating the secretary this week had the act down particularly well.

"Hokage-sama is waiting for you, Kakashi-sempai," she said with a giggle, twirling a pen through her fingers in front of her in such a way as to highlight her assets. Kunoichi then, he decided, as most shinobi—even when they knew they would be impersonating a woman—didn't bother learning kunoichi tricks.

He let his attention be drawn exactly where she had directed and admired the view for a few moments. Because even if it was fake, it was still a nice view. Then he nodded and headed into the office.

It came as a brief surprise to find the office already full, and with most of Konoha's most important figures: Jiraiya, Tsunade, and Yomi, the current ANBU chief who was, of course, wearing the black mask that signified his rank.

Kakashi didn't know the chief's true identity—nobody but the Hokage ever did—because once they donned the black mask, their former identity was subsumed by it. The mask never came off even in sleep, they lived in dedicated space at ANBU headquarters, and they took on the name Yomi until they died or retired. Nobody really knew how many had served as Yomi over the years and guesses ran anywhere from five to five dozen. He supposed it didn't truly matter, as the Yomi were largely viewed as interchangeable. Urban legend among the new ANBU recruits said that there was only ever one Yomi, straight from the pits of the underworld he'd been named after, who would never age, never die, and whose sole purpose was to make their lives misery.

A pretty myth, but Kakashi supposed it served the Chief. For himself, Kakashi was reasonably certain that this was the second Yomi since he'd been aware enough to pay attention. He attributed the appearances of seamless transition to a lengthy one, spanning at least two years, with the new Yomi slowly stepping in more and more until all of the duties had been transferred to his shoulders.

"Ano, am I late?" Kakashi asked, glancing around the room again as he rubbed at the back of his head. With this crowd, being late wouldn't be fun.

"If you are, then I am, too," Taka said, coming straight in and sitting in one of the two remaining chairs. The High Jounin hadn't served on active duty as a field shinobi in more than twenty years, so even though he'd been facing away from the door Kakashi hadn't been startled by his entrance. He did, however, become even more intrigued by why they might have all been brought together like this.

And especially why he'd been asked to join. Because if the Hokage were going to press him to be his successor again and had this entire group behind him, well… he could still decline, but it would be much more difficult.

He nervously took his seat and looked to Jiraiya for a clue, but the older man just shook his head.

The Hokage set his pipe down on a dish on his desk and steepled his hands in front of him.

"I have just received confirmation that this will be the largest Chuunin Exam in history," the Third began. "In fact, of the Great Shinobi Nations, only Earth has declined. I believe this in large part due to your team, Kakashi."

Kakashi cocked his head curiously. "Ah, you think my team somehow caused Earth to decline?" If so, he had no idea how that was possible. Well, other than Stone somehow finding out what even Naruto didn't, and then he'd have thought they'd send as many genin teams as possible to try to kill him.

"No, I think the Great Naruto Lagoon and the Great Naruto Bridge are responsible for Cloud and Mist accepting," the Hokage clarified. "And I believe that if there were even slightly less animosity between us, even Stone would have sent an official team."

"Oh, ah, well…" Kakashi trailed off, unsure of the best way to reply.

"This has led to increased participation from our allies and normal participants, who do not want to be outshone and possibly lose revenue to the Great Nations anymore than they already do. Which leads us to the current state of affairs."

"We're going to have roughly 70 foreign teams participating, which means an equal number of foreign Jounin and more than 200 foreign genin," Taka interjected. "The logistics alone of hosting that many foreigners is troublesome, not to mention running an exam for what will be more than a hundred teams once we get the final count of our own in there. But even worse, it's going to be a security nightmare."

"On top of that, my most trusted intelligence analysts has been reviewing reports. In fact, yours, Kakashi, in which you submitted recording your own conclusions as to the failure of the mission to protect the Haruno caravan and your… ah, strongly worded views as to its initial assessment, was one of the integral factors," Yomi said, voice muffled by the mask. "And my analysts have concluded there is at least one Hidden Village preparing for armed conflict with us."

Put more finely, war. Kakashi closed his eyes momentarily, assimilating what he'd just been told and adjusting to it. He knew it was unreasonable to hope his students wouldn't have to see it, but he'd hoped they wouldn't have to quite so young. But such was the life of a shinobi.

"So there will likely be war," the Hokage said. "Though we don't know from which side, and we don't know when. It will be most likely that our enemies will use the Chuunin Exams to gauge our strength. So let us give them something to think on which may make them reconsider."

Kakashi nodded in agreement even as he mourned what was certainly going to be the end of Konoha's easy peace time. Konoha at war was a different village, and one he wasn't looking forward to living in again.

"Jiraiya, Tsunade, your return to Konoha hasn't been a closely guarded secret, but it hasn't been advertised yet. We will be changing that during the opening of the Chuunin Exams," the Hokage said. It was clear this was not a suggestion.

"Of course," Jiraiya agreed. "Though if it's who I think it is behind this, I think that will make aggression more likely instead of less."

The Hokage grimaced, and Kakashi realized Jiraiya had meant Orochimaru. Interesting, as he was a missing nin, so not part of a village capable of mounting an attack. Terrifying, because Orochimaru was one of the Sannin, and one of the best shinobi Konoha had ever produced.

"Kakashi, do you believe there might be any difficulty with your team making it to the finals?" the Hokage asked.

Kakashi tilted his head and considered all he knew about Konoha's genin and what he could extrapolate about the shinobi all of the other nations might feasibly be able to send as 'genin.'

"Not unless they manage to pass a Jounin as a member of one of the teams," Kakashi concluded. "I am not… certain they would lose against a very young Jounin, but one backed up by two genin or, more likely, two Chuunin, would likely cause significant problems. Of course, if they did face that kind of opposition, they'd be more likely to fall back and proceed in an alternate fashion. And even many Jounin would have difficulty finding my team when they wanted to hide."

And if Kakashi's voice hinted at how proud he was over that fact, well, he figured it was his due.

"We'll be vetting the teams," Yomi spoke up. "They'll be able to slip in Chuunin who are young enough since we don't want to show anyone how good our intelligence on foreign village shinobi is, but we'll be denying entry to any and all Jounin, regardless of age."

Taka grinned, tilting his chair back far enough that Kakashi wondered if he was using chakra to keep from tipping over. "Because if we didn't do that, they'd think we either knew far more or far less than we do," he said.

"Good," the Hokage said. "Since your team has raised foreign interests, I expect them to give an exceptional showing. Understood?" Kakashi nodded.

"Then you're dismissed. I believe Taka wanted a word with you."

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

When the others had left, the Hokage picked his pipe back up and relit it. Jiraiya glared the whole time.

"If it really is Orochimaru who is behind the movements against Konoha, it is very likely he will attempt to strike at me directly," the Hokage said.

Jiraiya glared harder. Because of course it was Orochimaru and all of the problems associated with him that were coming home to roost, and of course he would make every effort to kill his old sensei. It seemed the old man still had something of a blind spot when it came to the one who'd been his favorite student.

"I know what you're going to ask, and the answer is no," he said, hoping to preempt the entire conversation. Once upon a time, he'd wanted to be Hokage more than he'd wanted to breathe. And once upon a time, the Third had told him in no uncertain terms that if any of his students was going to succeed him, it would be the genius of them, so he should concentrate on more realistic aspirations. Like simply making Jounin.

Jiraiya wasn't sure he'd ever forgiven him for that. Then again, he wasn't sure he'd ever have come so far as a shinobi if he hadn't had that push behind him. And he wasn't sure the old man hadn't known that all along.

And that was what had really burned, after he'd started wondering about that. Manipulative old bastard.

Unfortunately, he didn't seem moved by the statement, and just puffed on his pipe.

"I mean it, old man, if you kick the bucket, I'm not taking your desk," Jiraiya said.

"And don't look at me," Tsunade said. "I'm not even active duty. Can you imagine any of the shinobi corps actually accepting me? If it's got to be one of us, I vote Jiraiya."

"Tsunade-hime has the name," Jiraiya pointed out. "Senju still means a lot in Konoha, no matter that you've been doing field research into advanced healing practices for the past few years."

Tsunade looked at him sourly.

"I was not," she countered. "I was gambling and drinking and doing my best to forget this village even existed."

"And while that might be technically true, you can rest assured that my version of events is the one that has been spread throughout Konoha, Fire, and the Elemental Nations," Jiraiya said, a small grin on his face at getting one over on Tsunade. "Only give weight by your immediately starting an iryounin school upon your return."

"Which just goes to show you're better suited to be Hokage than I am, if you can manage that feat," Tsunade rejoined. It was Jiraiya's turn to look sour.

They both turned to their old sensei, who was watching them in amusement as he made smoke circles. Jiraiya hated when the Hokage used silence to make his arguments for him. He hated it more when it was so effective.

"Don't give me that look," Jiraiya said. "I absolutely, categorically, undeniably refuse."

"Same here. The job's a damn death sentence, and I'm not nearly fool enough to take the hot seat," Tsunade agreed.

They sat in silence for a good minute, neither he nor Tsunade willing to give an inch.

Finally, the Hokage sighed, set down his pipe, and turned to the window. Jiraiya's attention was drawn, of course, to the Hokage Monument the window framed perfectly. And as always, his gaze fell to Minato, who'd fallen so far before his time.

"Neither of you are my ideal successor," the Hokage finally spoke. "But my first choice died long ago, and the one I would like to appoint is almost as against the idea as the both of you are. All I ask is that, should I fall before he is ready to take over, you not allow Konoha to fall with me and that one of you step in until he is ready. Regardless of your issues with me, I trust that you care enough for certain individuals in this village to act to prevent what would certainly be their own deaths if someone else in this village were to capitalize on events."

Jiraiya kicked the desk hard enough to split the wood and stormed out.

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

While typically the only opening ceremony was held prior to the final tournament, it was highly likely that some of the villages would be completely eliminated before the final round of exams and the Hokage had wanted to spread his message as widely as possible. Kakashi still wasn't entirely certain what that message was, other than the general 'Konoha is strong.' He supposed that with the threat of war heavy in the air, that might be message enough. Regardless, the Hokage had wanted an opening ceremony before the exams began, so an opening ceremony was what he got.

Kakashi, with his many years of service, had seen more than his fair share of ceremonial events and so often found all the pomp and circumstance more irritating and bothersome than anything else. But even so, he was reluctantly impressed by the spectacle the Hokage had managed to put on.

Taka had solved the logistical problems of hosting so many foreigners by creating a camp outside the village walls for each ninja village that had sent a team to participate. The camps weren't nearly as comfortable as a hotel would have been, but they were better than the rough sleeping shinobi on missions were used to. And with the multiple ANBU teams stationed to each camp—ostensibly for their own protection from the other camps—it was also a brilliant solution to keeping tabs on them all without their being able to object. Because as much as it was being used as a smokescreen for their own spying, there was enough animosity between some of the villages that it held just enough truth to make everyone slightly less jumpy to know that everyone's locations were being tracked, including their enemy's.

More than just the ANBU were watching them at the moment, though, as the Hokage had decided a parade would start things off nicely. So the foreigners walked team by team from the Trade Gate to the arena down a pathway lined with every Chuunin Konoha could spare.

That turned out to be quite a lot of Chuunin. Kakashi wondered whether some of them weren't ANBU and clerical nins thrown into the formal Chuunin uniform just for the day to create the spectacle. The crowds of civilians who hadn't been able to get a seat in the arena cheering and gawking behind that line of still and silent shinobi only added to the rather ostentatious display.

A display in which he was about to grudgingly partake. He pulled at the sleeves of his own formal uniform and glared at Sakura for a moment.

"Stop tugging at it, Sensei," Sakura chided, eyes never leaving the Mist nins she was watching.

"I wouldn't have to if you hadn't sent it to the cleaners," he said. "It's just been gathering dust for the past few years."

"Exactly."

Kakashi would have rolled his eyes if he hadn't been cataloging how one of the foreign Jounin moved for later extrapolation and analysis.

He did take the time to give his boys the eye as they sniggered at the exchange. He rather thought they should be on his side in this particular exchange—commiserating with him over sleeves that were just a hair too short and pants that had the slightest bit too much starch in them to be completely comfortable. In fact, the only plus to a Jounin's formals that he could see was that the longer coat allowed him to hide away a good deal more weaponry than the Jounin vest did. That didn't even begin to make up for the inordinate detriments, though.

Then the last of the foreigners had made their way down to the Arena, and it was time for the Konoha contingent to make its presence known. He ran his eye over them all, amused by the mixture of nervous fidgeting, terrified silence, and utter boredom that ran through the ranks. Thirty Konoha teams would participate and while he didn't know how many of them would make it to the finals, he was certain that it would be at least as many as all the foreigners combined.

He and the High Jounin had spent hours going over the strengths and weaknesses of all of the Konoha teams and had at least a thousand contingency plans to make sure of it. Chuunin exams were more exercises in foreign relations than truly about selecting Chuunin, after all, and it wouldn't do for Konoha to have a poor showing at home. So if some Konoha teams were given furtive assistance passing from one exam to the next, and some foreign teams were surreptitiously sabotaged, well, so long as nobody was caught at it nobody would cry foul. Not when they all did the same when they had home court advantage.

"Ready?" he asked his kids, knowing they were. He'd made it very clear to Taka and the planning committee that his team wouldn't be in any need of special extra assistance.

"Course we are, Kaka-sensei," Naruto said, bouncing on the balls of his feet as though his body couldn't quite contain his eagerness. Sakura nodded and smiled at him brightly as Sasuke made a noise that he'd come to understand was his version of enthusiastic agreement.

"Good," Kakashi replied.

The dull buzz of the crowd became a screaming roar as the first of the Konoha teams stepped into the parade, and it was time. He grinned and ruffled the boys' hair (only grinning wider at Naruto's indignant protest and Sasuke's disgruntled glare), patted Sakura on the shoulder, and darted off to their place in line before any of them could consider retribution.

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

It was later that afternoon when Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura stood in front of the building where the Chuunin Exams were scheduled to begin. They looked from the line of Genin waiting to get in, to each other, and back again. The never ending ceremony had been bad enough; none of them had any desire to stand and wait in a never ending line.

"Roof?" Sakura suggested. The boys nodded and Naruto tilted his head for them to follow. Sakura and Sasuke had learned long ago during missions to capture the Daimyo's wife's cat Tora that Naruto had an incredibly detailed mental map of all of Konoha's streets and back alleys. He led them away from the testing building through a handful of back passageways to one that was hidden enough for them to make their jump to the roofs without all the other Genin seeing them. Then they were up to the top and a few short leaps took them back to the testing building.

"Either of you see the roof hatch?" Sakura asked, looking around for the feature which was a common installation in Konoha's buildings, especially those frequented by shinobi.

"Over here," Sasuke called as he found it and pulled it open. From there, it was easy for them to find the third floor and the correct room for them to turn in their tickets and wait for the exam to begin.

There were only a handful of teams already there waiting. An older looking Konoha genin approached them, and Sasuke and Sakura automatically fell in beside Naruto.

"Hey, Konoha rookies, eh?" the guy said. "I'm Yakushi Kabuto. Also a genin, as you can see." He gestured to his forehead protector. "I've taken the Exam seven times now, so if you have any questions, I might be able to help."

"Ano, Kabuto-sempai," Sakura said, voice pitched like a cute girl's instead of the kunoichi she was. It was one of Naruto's favorite cons, as with her bubblegum pink hair and an artful application of eyeliner that made her eyes look enormous, quite literally everyone fell for it. He only wished he could pull it off, too. "To take it seven times, your team must be really experienced! Will all of the teams participating this year be as experienced as your team?"

"Oh, some of them undoubtedly," he said, scratching the back of his head in apparent embarrassment. Naruto wondered what this guy's game was; he'd never been old enough to pull the embarrassed expert routine, but he'd seen it often enough to recognize it when it was being used. But to use it on him, of all people… He was almost insulted that someone would try such an obvious hook on him. "But there are sure to be a number of rookies like yourselves, as well. Was there anyone in particular you were interested in learning more about?"

He pulled a deck of cards out of his pouch.

"Cards?" Sasuke asked, looking at them curiously.

"Ah, they're special cards," Kabuto said. "I've managed to gather some information about most of the participants this year, and I've transcribed them onto these cards."

"…they're blank," Naruto said from behind him. Kabuto whirled around in surprise.

"They require my chakra to activate them and show their contents," Kabuto explained, trying to get back into control. "For example, let's look at one of your cards, shall we?" He pulled one out and lit it up with his chakra.

"Uchiha Sasuke," he read. "Two A-ranked missions, four C-ranked missions, sixty-seven D-ranked mission. My, that's quite a bit for rookie genin."

Naruto frowned; there was no way a simple genin should have access to mission logs to allow him that sort of information. At least, not outside infiltrating the Hokage's Tower. He scrunched his nose for a moment at the hypocrisy of doubting someone else's loyalty for something he himself had so recently done, then decided it was completely justified. When they'd done it, their first loyalty hadn't been to Konoha, either. Not that the Hokage would ever ever ever be told that.

The lecture the old man had given them after Kakashi had made them confess to him were bad enough. The lecture (and subsequent training and demonstrations) from Kakashi had been much, much worse. He shuddered as he recalled them, and how firmly Kakashi had shot down the idea that any genin, no matter how talented, brilliant, or well trained, could break into the Hokage's Tower without leaving any trace.

If Kabuto had done so (as the info cards indicated), then either Kakashi was wrong or Kabuto was not a genin. And if Naruto were a betting man (which he most certainly was), then he knew where he'd lay odds.

Naruto wasn't entirely sure what exactly this Kabuto was, but he knew something about the older genin wasn't right. So they made a bit of small talk until the other rookies came barging in, Ino darting over to practically tackle Sasuke. Naruto's foot in the right place made sure they all toppled over, creating the distraction needed to slip his fingers into Kabuto's equipment pouch and take the deck of cards before the older genin wandered off.

That he also enjoyed watching her tumble gracelessly to the floor was an added bonus. Kakashi may have made them promise no direct retribution, but he'd said nothing about not getting it in more oblique ways.

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

Sasuke had noted immediately when Ibiki had come into the room. He'd been on the panel that had interviewed the three of them when Kakashi had been under review, so they'd done their best to acquire all available intelligence on him. There hadn't been much, other than that he was the head of Konoha's Torture and Intelligence section.

His mind quickly flit through all of what that could mean for the test and what he could do to further their chances of success.

"Alright maggots, I'll only explain the rules to this test once, so listen up and listen good," Ibiki began. Sasuke took a moment to appreciate he'd drawn the correct conclusion before paying strict attention to what he was saying. "In the next room are a series of numbered work stations containing six cups of tea. Three of the teas at each station are poisoned, and three hold the corresponding antidotes. Any single cup of poison drunk without the correct antidote taken immediately probably will not be strong enough to kill one of you; two cups of poison likely will."

He looked around the room to let this sink in, and Sasuke wondered if he was telling the truth. He was likely the single most difficult person to read that Sasuke had ever met, and he doubted whether even Naruto could get a good reading off him unless the older man permitted it.

"In addition to the tea, each team will start off with ten points and a box. All of the boxes are identical, and each contains information about the poisons at their station. Your test will end only when all six cups have been consumed, or when a team has lost all of their points. Only the teams with the highest number of points will pass and be allowed to proceed, so if don't want to fail right off the bat, pay attention. We don't have all day, so you lose three points every ten minutes. Consider it incentive to work fast." Ibiki's grin looked more vicious than reassuring, but Sasuke supposed that it was intended to.

"In addition, if your box is damaged in any way, you lose eight points. If your box is opened without damage, a team gains five points. If any of you are caught cheating, you lose three points. If any member of the team becomes incapacitated, the team loses fifteen points."

Ibiki stepped to the side and waved his hand at the table behind him, where two Chuunin sat ready to hand out numbers.

"Each team will come up to the table and draw a number, which will correspond to one of the work stations set up in the next room. Come," Ibiki ordered. "When you all have your numbers, we'll open the door to the next room and you may begin."

Sasuke followed along behind Naruto and Sakura as they retrieved their cubby assignment, considering the Jounin's words. Being told that being caught cheating would only lose them points and not disqualify them was as blatant an invitation to cheat as he'd ever heard. Though, he doubted they would have to. After all, Sakura was coming to specialize in poisons (and would continue to do so, she'd said, at least until she'd finished learning from Shizune) and the test was technically over when they drank all of the teas.

Sasuke had noted—though he'd wondered how many others had—that Ibiki had not promised the solution to the poison/antidote cup identification. But even if the clue inside the boxes did say which cups held poison, Ibiki hadn't mentioned anything about information on the antidotes being in the boxes. And it would do them little good to only know which tea was poison when they didn't know which antidote to mate it to, not when incapacitation meant automatic disqualification even if that hadn't been what Ibiki had called it.

And he doubted cheating would help much, no matter that it wouldn't necessarily get them kicked out if they were caught. For all that he'd said the boxes were identically, Ibiki hadn't mentioned anything about the cups containing the same thing at any given station. No, for all Sasuke knew, every poison cup in the room could contain a different type of poison, and if the arrangement of poison and antidote cups wasn't different at every cubby, well, Sasuke was sure it was only because there were a finite number of iterations when you only had six variables to work with.

He contemplated whether they should even attempt to open their box. It would gain them five points, but it could lose them valuable time. Then again, he doubted he'd be much help to Sakura in figuring out the cups, so he might as well try.

After all, given how Ibiki had described them, the boxes had to be puzzle boxes, else how could there be any possibility it might take more than half an hour to open it? But, then, half an hour was not usually sufficient to solve a difficult puzzle box, not when the whole point of a puzzle box was that it wouldn't open unless you found all of the hidden panels which could be on any side of the box and could slide any number of times in any direction, and only by sliding exactly the right panels in exactly the right direction in exactly the right sequence could the box be opened without damaging it. And forfeiting eight points.

He wondered how many moves there were on the boxes. Certainly more than the three or four moves of the cheapest boxes, but it couldn't be any of the great boxes with dozens of moves, either, for with so many teams competing, the expense alone would have prevented the test from being feasible.

Sasuke frowned as the memory of his father switching him for playing with one while he was supposed to be practicing with his shuriken floated through his thoughts. He frowned harder when he remembered Itachi returning the box in the middle of the night, with a pot of liniment for the marks on his legs hidden inside, and soft words telling him to hide it carefully.

Shaking his head once, he put the memory aside along with the thought of the box's current hiding place in his bedroom in Kakashi's house. And he absolutely refused to allow his mind to drift to thoughts that, before he'd gone insane and killed their entire family, Itachi had been much kinder to him than their father ever had been, for that way lay madness.

He'd flirted with madness in the past, of course, and likely would from time to time for years to come. But the middle of the Chuunin Exams was not an appropriate time to examine how far a slide he'd taken this time.

Naruto lightly bumped into him, a wordless expression of support that wouldn't be noticed by any of the others. Because of course he'd noticed something was wrong. It was somewhat annoying that he couldn't hide it from Naruto (or Sakura, he noted, as she leaned into his personal space), but the easy strength and comfort they freely gave was more than worth the irritation.

Sasuke forced it all out of his mind to concentrate on the task at hand, for Sakura had gotten their station assignment and they were all lining up to head into the testing room.

"So, I'll analyze the cups while you two work on the box?" Sakura suggested, voice pitched softly so it wouldn't carry beyond their small circle.

"Keep careful watch over them," Naruto pointed out, surveying their opponents. "I'm sure some of these folks wouldn't mind adding a few things to some of the teas to make certain to get rid of the competition."

Sasuke made a few miniscule hand signs that indicated he would take the target, and that Naruto should work on intelligence. It wasn't a perfect corollary to what they were doing, but then, sign language never was, and there weren't really signs for, 'I'll work on figuring out the puzzle box while you try to cheat without getting caught.' Naruto quickly signed back in the affirmative though, so he wasn't concerned the message had been mistaken.

They'd barely agreed to their small plan when the doors into the examination room opened.

"Begin," Ibiki ordered them all, and the genin all made a mad dash to their assigned work stations. Team 7 was no different.

Sasuke wasn't certain what he'd expected the work stations to be like, but it certainly hadn't been this. There was row after row of tables laid out with mathematical precision, each surrounded by the cubical walls he'd previously only seen in the bowels of the administrative building he'd had to visit to reclaim the Uchiha district after a particularly greedy foster had tried to have it razed for a building project the foster would have benefited from enormously.

The cubical walls were cheap and flimsy, and would barely stand up to a determined toddler much less trained genin teams, but he supposed that was likely the point. He thought it highly probable that a good quarter of the teams would get frustrated enough to destroy their entire work station, so cheap made sense. And that the teams had been invited to cheat, they needed some pretense of security so that the worst of the teams would be weeded out—either through other teams sabotaging them or through being overly obvious in their own cheating and sabotage attempts.

All in all, Sasuke approved, even as he abhorred the stupid walls and the memories associated with them. Then he considered that the foster was currently working behind walls just like these in the sub-basement of some unimportant office building instead of his previously prestigious position, and reconsidered his dislike of cubicles.

Sasuke's eyes flit over the room and found the number on their chit in a fraction of the time it would have taken normal eyes. There were more benefits to having Uchiha eyes than just the Sharingan, after all. But a movement caught right at the edge of his vision made his eyes flash with it.

The blade moving to Naruto's unprotected side seemed to move in slow motion as Sasuke reacted with all of the speed and skill Kakashi-sensei had beaten into him. He saw Naruto moving before it happened—saw he would grab the enemy's wrist, twisting and bending it as he moved so the kunai wound up in the attacker's own side. So Sasuke was moving in easy concert, following Naruto's measures with his own as he broke the boy's arm in three places.

The attacker screamed once, pitifully, as Sasuke finished the movement by releasing the boy's wrist and using his elbow against the boy's temple to render him unconscious.

Sakura had fallen into a defensive support position, eyes monitoring the crowd for additional threats—a position so long engrained into the three of them Sasuke didn't need to look to see where she was.

The boy was falling to the floor at Sasuke's feet was the only movement in the room. Shocked silence took over for a handful of breaths before the boom of Ibiki's incisive, gravelly voice broke it.

"Team 14, representing the Village Hidden in the Mist: minus three points for cheating; minus fifteen points for an incapacitated teammate. That's negative eight points total. Team 14 is dismissed."

"Wait, what?" roared one of the Mist genin's teammates.

"I said you are dismissed, genin," Ibiki repeated. "Congratulations on being the first team knocked out of the first exam. Exit through the door to my left."

When the genin looked ready to protest again, Ibiki pulled a look. Sasuke recognized it. it was a look his father had often used.

"Remove your team or I will have your team removed for you."

The teammate who hadn't yet spoken—the one who looked to be the oldest, standing a head taller and a good hand's width wider than Sasuke was—gave Naruto a look he knew meant trouble. But he grabbed his unconscious teammate and his till protesting one and took them from the room.

"Well?" Ibiki prompted. "What are you waiting for?"

The remaining genin scrambled for their work stations even as they gave Team 7 wide berth and cautious glances.

"The plan stays the same," he murmured to his teammates. They nodded.

"I'll keep careful watch at the same time, though," Naruto pointed out. "The other Mist teams look ready for our blood."

Sasuke nodded and turned his focus to the box, picking it up and turning it over and over in his hands. It was a fairly standard example of the craftsmanship required to build a puzzlebox. It was about the length of his hand, so Sasuke estimated it to be four sun. The inlaid design was a repetitive pattern of Konoha's leave symbol. It worked to hide the lines which might otherwise help people know where the panels of wood separated, an important step in figuring out which panel to move when. He turned the box over a few more times, analyzing it, then began to work it between his fingers, testing parts to see what would move and how, and sliding panels back and forth as he prodded at the box to see if there were any pressure points that needed to be released.

Right forward; turn up; left to the right; turn clockwise; left forwards right back; turn down; panel up…

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

Naruto was keeping a vigilant watch out to make sure nobody else would try to disable him or either of his teammates again. He was also keeping a careful eye out for any opportunities to cheat effectively. Which meant not being so ham-handed as that Mist team had been. Because, really, trying to stab him while there were twenty proctors in the immediate vicinity? Naruto barely kept from scoffing; just thinking about the attempt made his disdain for the would-be assassin come right back.

His was the only role not actively engaged in passing this part of the exams, but he didn't mind being set the relatively simple duty of guarding the others while they worked. The only thing he knew about poisons was how to use them, and puzzle boxes were what the high born used to keep secrets from each other. He briefly contemplated what would have happened if he'd ever tried to use a puzzlebox to keep one of his secrets secret down in the Akasen and shook his head.

Yeah, never would've worked. Stolen and/or smashed in about five seconds flat.

So that he wasn't particularly well-matched to either of the tasks didn't bother him. That was why they were a team, after all. And if they'd had to do something else… say, if the task had involved persuading a target to hand over the information about the poisons, well, Naruto fancied himself a bit more suited to that than either of his teammates. But for this he was content being left the grunt work.

Besides, he was better at cheating than they were. He'd already caught four attempts to copy Sasuke's movements with the box, and another two that had attempted to throw off Sakura's work. Naruto had responded with adequate distractions for the former, but he'd responded with prejudice to the latter. If she wound up messing something up, it would be her or Sasuke who would most likely be the ones hurt because of it. Naruto was pretty sure he'd come out alright no matter what, given the Fox.

For that matter, Naruto was inclined to ensure that the teams of the Evil Jounin Who Tried to Take Kakashi Away failed miserably during the first tests, just to humiliate the Jounin. He was pretty sure that eliminating the competition was sideways enough that it wasn't necessarily direct retribution, so he'd work around his promise to Kakashi alright, but then, he couldn't justify the possibility of accidentally killing one of his comrades.

No matter how annoying he found some of them.

"Ten minutes. All remaining teams are minus three points," Ibiki announced. Not counting the Mist team that had tried to kill him, twenty-six teams had already been eliminated—three of them from guessing at the tea and having one of their teammates collapse, another eight from being rendered unconscious via sabotage, and about ten from smashing the box, hoping it would have the answers then being caught cheating when they realized it hadn't. Idiots.

Another nine teams had already completed the exam. For four of those teams, one of the members had just drunk all six cups almost immediately. The two teams had simply analyzed the cups quickly enough to drink them before the ten minutes were up. Naruto noted all six teams as having poison specialists for future reference.

He was making a careful survey of the remaining teams. There were about 65 teams left. Of them, he guessed a good fifteen would let time run out before picking a tea out of fear of accidentally killing themselves. Another dozen would likely be eliminated for their cheating within the next ten minutes. The rest Naruto estimated had a fair chance of passing, but with the skill of a number of the saboteurs, he thought probably only fifteen to twenty would actually make it.

Of the other Evil Konoha Jounin Teams, surprisingly, he found that Kurenai's team would likely be one of the next to pass. Hinata had used her eyes to see through the box for the clue, and then he'd watched Shino use his bugs to test the various tea combinations. He gave them another ten to twelve minutes before they were ready to drink them themselves.

Neji had done the Hyuuga eye trick, too, but as they had no poison specialists, he wasn't sure what their plan was. Team 10 wasn't doing poorly, but could have done better. Shikamaru had fiddled with the box until it was open, but Ino and Chouji hadn't done anything to analyze the tea until after they had the clue. He shook his head at the waste of time.

A soft hiss of satisfaction from Sasuke at minute 18 indicated he'd succeeded in opening the box. Naruto didn't dare turn to look; now it was more important than ever to keep watch over what was going on outside their workstation. He averted five attempts to see what Sasuke had pulled out of the box, three of which resulted in the teams being eliminated.

"Switch," Sasuke said, handing over the box to him. Naruto was startled for a moment, until he saw the scroll Sasuke had left on the table for him and it became obvious Sasuke wanted him to seal the box away. He wasn't sure why Sasuke wanted to take the box with them, as none of the other teams thus far had bothered, but he was sure Sasuke had his reasons. Probably. And though they hadn't been explicitly forbidden from taking the boxes, neither had they been granted permission. Probably prudent to hide it, then.

He quickly drew a storage seal locked to open only to members of Team 7—a ridiculously easy security feature he'd been shocked so many people didn't bother with. But then, he guessed there weren't too many teams with a sealing specialist, so it would probably be a lot more expensive to get custom made storage scrolls. Their loss. It was a matter of moments for him to activate the seal and roll the scroll up, and a handful more to reverse pick-pocket Sasuke to stick it in his storage pouch.

"Done," Naruto told him. Sasuke took his eyes off of the room only long enough to give him a disgruntled look, saying without words that he knew very well that Naruto's hands had been in his pockets and even if he didn't feel it and couldn't catch it, Naruto should know better by now. Naruto only grinned.

"Twenty minutes," Ibiki announced. "All remaining teams are minus three points." Three teams were kicked out at this announcement.

Naruto did some quick math: ten to start, minus six for time passing, plus five for opening the box left them with nine points. Sakura had thirty minutes to figure it out.

Between he and Sasuke, they managed to get two teams enraged to the point they smashed their boxes (which at that point meant instant disqualification), one team to drink the tea before they were actually ready (leading to the incapacitation of one of their teammates), and one particular hothead to attack them (so they could defend themselves without fear of losing any points, a tactic a few other teams had used in the past 25 minutes as well).

"Hmm, tricky," Sakura murmured. Naruto let his attention split just enough to take in Sakura's expression, her posture. Accomplishment. Relief. She'd figured it out.

"Well?" he prompted.

"Two of the antidotes turn into a poison if drunk together, and all of the antidotes exacerbate the symptoms of the two poisons they don't cure. Interestingly, though, two of the poisons actually counteract each other if taken together," she said.

"They do like to fuck with us," Naruto said with a grunt.

"We only have two and a half minutes before we're docked three more points, and they haven't told us the point cut off for actually passing. Which should we drink, Sakura," Sasuke said.

When she handed them out, Naruto gave them both a grin.

"Kampai!" he toasted them, then drank one after another, barely taking a breath. His teammates followed suit, and they presented themselves to Ibiki for inspection.

"Nine points," he said, giving them a chit with the number 9 written on it. "Pass through the door behind me."

They went through the door in careful formation, well aware that the teams who'd already completed could be ready to further thin out the competition. Instead, they found a table with three Konoha Chuunin waiting for them and nobody else.

"Chit?" one of them demanded. Sasuke held it up cautiously.

"Good. Make sure you hold onto it. Next exam is at the Forest of Death and begins in two hours. You'll give that chit to the proctor when you get your assignment. Now get out of here."

"I see," Sakura said. "The points didn't matter then, or, only mattered in the negative?"

One of the Chuunin grinned. "And made sure everyone wanted to get done as quickly as possible," she said. "Now scram."

And as they raced to the Forest of Death, Naruto noted he wasn't the only one of them grinning madly. They were going to trounce this entire exam.