World 79: Naruto – Part 2.3

I Will Not Be Hokage, Part 3: Testing the Night Away

Previously: A Bridge Not Far Enough

Themesong: Just an Illusion by Julia Zahra

As I’d said they would, Temari and Kankuro showed up in the village one day a few months after the Great Naruto Bridge incident, just in time to run into Konohamaru (the boy named for the village)… or rather for said boy to run straight into them. 

Kankuro, charming people person that he is, immediately snatched up the eight year old “honored grandson” and snapped, “That hurt, you little piece of-”

He didn’t get any further before I crossed the four large paving stones that separated me from the Sand Siblings and grabbed his wrist with just shy of crushing force. “Hospitality has limits,” I whispered so that only the two boys could hear me. “The child’s rudeness does not give you license to harm him. In the name of peace, I’ll give you a chance to release him, and the two of you shall exchange apologies.”

“I’m not apologizing-” Konohamaru began, but then he saw how my one visible eye was blazing and he wisely shut the hell up.

Kankuro, who (for those who do not know of him) is one of the most iconic of Naruto characters. He wears a hooded black bodysuit in the Bunraku Puppet Theatre style that covers him from head to wrist and ankles, black fingerless gloves, the same black toeless boots that everyone seems to wear in this universe, and Noh Theatre style facepaint. His hood has weird animal ear-like shapes on the top and drapes that hang on the side of his face, and on his back is a large bandage-bound shape that is, in actuality, a man-sized puppet that he uses in battle, hence the puppeteer outfit. He often has his eyes squinted almost closed, as he did when he turned his head, and only his head, to face me.

“Who are you to tell me what to do?” he asked with a trace of menace in his voice, the sunlight shining off the Sand-Village Hitai-ate headband he wore (his elder sister wore hers as a torq for some reason). “And what will you do if I don’t, Leaf Genin?” The rank was said as an insult, as if he wasn’t also one. Not surprising since he and his siblings were Chunin in all but name already.

“I have no desire to illuminate you,” I said, barely keeping my calm as Chara raged inside me to kick his ass… well, Chara and the Boiling Blood need to fight. “But I am more than willing to prove to you that you do not want to underestimate the Leaf Village.”

“Yeah!” Naruto snapped, “So let go of Konohamaru, Fatass!”

“A fight?” Kankuro said, smirking to cover the pain my grip had to be causing as I ground his radius and ulna together. “Very well… we have time to play a little before the boss arrives.”

“Bastard!” Naruto yelled, charging forward to rescue his little playmate, but before he could take more than a pair of steps, Kankuro did something I couldn’t quite see from my position that caused mister impetuosity to fall flat on his butt. 

“I hate midgets,” Kankuro said smugly, “Especially rude ones. Makes me want to kill them.” He balled his fist as if to punch the kid, though it was clear he was referring to Naruto as much as Konohamaru.

“Yeah?” I asked. “Well, I hate people who think it’s okay to bully those weaker than themselves.” Yes. this is me, the Pot, calling the Kettle black. At least when I do it it’s to defend others… usually. Sometimes I’m just a bitch. “So put the kid down or I promise you, Kankuro, that you’ll be controlling your toy with one hand and I’ll be apologizing to Temari and Gaara for weakening their team a week before the Chunin Exam.”

His eyes flashed wide as I named him and his siblings, and he glanced to his older sister in shock.

“I’m not involved in this,” she said. “Beat him up, don’t beat him up. I don’t care. We’ll do just fine without him in the Exam.” I’d never actually been a big sister in any of my jumps… that I could remember at the moment at least, but I recognized the combination of big sisterly resignation and annoyance in her body language.

“You heard the lady,” I said, pulling Kankuro’s arm straight forward so that he either lost his balance and stumbled forward or dropped the kid (fulcrums are great kids), just as I performed a backflip, the tip of my toes flashing a millimeter from Puppet-boy’s nose as he jerked backwards, landing on his own ass. I caught Konohamaru with one hand, doing a handstand with the other, focusing my Chakra into keeping my balance in that improbable configuration.

Kankuro leapt to his feat, ready to retaliate, but a stone bounced off his headband, rocking him back and all eyes looked up to see Sasuke, being all angsty and handsome in a nearby tree… shut up stupid teenage hormones!

Of course, this pissed Kankuro off more than my standing up to him… or maybe he’d been so thoroughly cowed by Temari growing up that he didn’t even think about fighting a girl. Either way, he swung the puppet off his back and growled at Sasuke, “Get down here, punk! I hate show-offs like you the most!”

Before Temari or I could react, a new voice snapped out in command, “Kankuro, stop it! You’re disgracing our village.” All eyes turned to see the new comer, my own included. This would be the first time I was seeing Gaara, Jinchuriki of the One-Tailed Tanuki Shukaku. He was hanging, upside down, from the branch of a tree opposite Sasuke’s, and I hadn’t felt him approach. Stupid stupid stupid… My senses were as screwed up as everything else, clearly, but Gaara had clearly suppressed his chakra… impressive as hell for a Jinchuriki.

Kankuro visibly started sweating, and even Temari looked a little worried… or maybe aggravated? Hard to tell. “They started it!” Kankuro said, point at me. “I was just…”

“Losing control of your temper,” Gaara and I said as one, and it was hard to tell which of us had more disdain in their voice, though mine was hot and Gaara’s cool as a cucumber. The sand-boy with black rings around his eyes and the kanj “Ai” meaning love scarred into his forehead were stark against the paleness of his skin… how anyone could live in a desert and be that pale I just don’t know.

“Hello, Tanuki,” I said, smirking up at him. “You just saved me the bother of wiping the street with your brother and his toy. You’re the boss… you should really teach him the rules of hospitality.

“Would not!” Kankuro protested

“Shut up,” Gaara said without emotion. “Or I’ll kill you.” It was hard to tell if he was talking to his brother or me or both of us… though he’d used that threat in the comic on just Kankuro, sooo… take your pick.

“So… sorry,” Kankuro mumbled and even Temari felt the need to add how sorry she was.

“I must apologize to you all,” Gaara said, spinning out of the tree to land between his brother and sister. “It looks like we arrived a bit too early, but we didn’t come here to play around.”

“No. You came for the Chunin Selection Exam,” I agreed. “Though you should treat your team-mates better… even if they weren’t your siblings.” He ignored me, turning his back (which was covered in a giant gourd covered in seals) on me as if I hadn’t spoken. Without thinking, I flash-stepped in front of him. I may have lost a step or two… but I’m still fast enough to beat anyone who’s not a dedicated speed ninja… I did skid a dozen paces too far as my Chakra flared as I pushed myself to speed and couldn’t stop myself as soon as I wanted to, but I spun, dropping into a combat stance as though I’d meant to do that, my white hair billowing in the breeze of my motion, leaves swirling past me. “Sand and Leaf might be allies, but that doesn’t allow you to go wherever you please and assault our citizens. Your brother hasn’t apologized.”

Gaara just growled and Kankuro swallowed hard, then bowed and muttered something that might have been “Kokorokara owabi moushiagemasu”… which was the kind of thing a businessman might use to apologize for incompetence. Well, that said a lot about Gaara’s relationship with his brother.

Naruto waved his hand as if in class. “What’s the Chunin Selection Exam?”

While Gaara and I stared at each other, Temari explained for the attention impaired that, as the name implied, the CSEs were the method by which Genin were elevated to Chunin… where most of them would normally remain for the rest of their ninja career. Genin made up the Seiki Butai, the “Regular Forces” of each village, with Chunin and Jonin as officers. In general, one in three academy students would be selected to become a Genin, with most dropping out of the program if they hadn’t graduated by the time they reached the age of sixteen. Technically, another third would graduate and be given the rank of Genin, but these individuals typically held administrative and support duties and knew that, unless they markedly improved somehow, they would never be granted higher office. It was a brutal system… but in times of war, even Academy Students could be conscripted to fight and potentially die for their villages.

Of those Genin who were actually on the mission-active list, one in five would normally reach Chunin, with half those who didn’t either dying on mission or being too traumatized or crippled to continue. If one didn’t reach Chunin by the age of thirty-two, it was generally accepted that it was never going to happen. 

Of those who reached Chunin, one in six would be elevated to Jonin, though in Konoha Village there was a specialist rank called Tokubetsu Jonin which lay between Chunin and Jonin. It was reserved for those who focused on one area of ninjutsu, taijutsu, or genjutsu to the extent that they could match or even exceed a Jonin in that area, but were largely Chunin level in everything else. Most often, TokuJo (as they were somewhat patronizingly called… think “Butter Bar” for the US Armed Forces equivalent) were Sensor Ninjas or Medical Ninjas… though Messenger and Quartermaster Ninja were also on the list of those given such rank.

All in all, it was a terrible system, the kind created by a civilian who had never so much as cracked a book on military theory… but this was fantasy and, for all its ridiculousness, it had all the hallmarks of a society that had also never written any books on military theory. Perhaps a logical state of affairs as the extreme power difference between a normal and even the weakest of ninjas was far far greater than mere force of arms could compensate for. Who needed a full fledged army when a handful of super-soldiers could smash a town flat in minutes.

Was a simplified command structure then ideal for a military that relied on independent units operating deep in the shadows, out of contact with home for weeks, months, or even years? Yes and no. Without a huge force of standing soldiers, there wasn’t a need for the sixteen to twenty or so ranks of various “modern” militaries, but there was a need for more flexibility than the Ninja Ranking system had.

It was a system built on waste; wasted lives, wasted potential, wasted energy. The Academies… or at least the one here in Konoha Village would have benefited greatly from a better structure, one that actually prepared the students for what life would be like as a field Ninja… with focus on team-building exercises, early Chakra development, and mock battles. What we had now relied too heavily on the family unit providing most of that, meaning that the clans with long traditions would continue to dominate, which was good for core strength, but allowed no expansion, and prioritized loyalty to clan far more than loyalty to friends and village. 

It meant that new blood was harder to cultivate, that the students who came out would be more likely to fail the graduation exam simply because they’d not been molded into people who would pass. InoShikaCho kept having incredible success at this because their teams were incredibly loyal to the concept of Team itself, for example. It was trained into them by their families from an early age.

The other problem was that the Academy was the only institution of education in the village, and it didn’t provide education that would be useful for those who flunked out of the Ninja programs. I can hear you saying, “But EssJay! This is a Ninja Village! Surely all they need are Ninjas! Ninninnin!” To which I say, “Hush.” 

Look, the fighting / reconnaissance / get er done end of any military only functions because of the support network behind it. Research and Development and Logistics might seem like minor concerns in a world where individual power is enough to destroy most defenses, but trust me, there’s still plenty of theory you want studied and the villages themselves need logistics and administration. Having people who aren’t specialists in these fields doing the tasks is how you get massive messes… like every fucking Village in this world as far as I can tell. 

And while all the Ninjas are, in theory, Intelligence Agents, this society doesn’t have dedicated Intelligence Analysts, doesn’t have dedicated Historians, doesn’t have dedicated Infiltration Counter-Agents. It’s all the flash but none of the substance. Medical Ninjas but no Doctors, Instructor Ninjas but no Teachers, Builders but no Architects. Everything in this world has a ramshackle feel about it… even the defenses.

Following the Second World War back on good old Origin, twenty years after being reduced to rubble, Berlin was a thriving world class city. The same with Tokyo! Here? Twenty years after the Third Ninja War? Everything looks like it’s slowly falling apart. The hodgepodge of new and old, opulence and slum in the same buildings often is staggering. Oh… and NINJAS SHOULD NOT BE WEARING ORANGE!

Anyway… I’ve drifted far afield, and had done so as I studied the boy who in just a few short years would be running one of the Great Ninja Villages. Did he ever find someone to love him? Was there another generation of Gaara? Did all three Sand Siblings live through the Fourth War that was coming?

I blinked and shook my head to clear it as Temari finished her lecture to Naruto, and Gaara frowned slightly at the motion, as if wondering what it meant, his hand shifting back towards the plug on his gourd. My own left hand, the hand sinister, the one that Chara was able to control if I didn’t stop her, had drifted towards the handle of one of the pair of dai-chokuto (straight-bladed cousins of a nodachi) I had taken to wearing. I reined my hand in, forcing down the desire to wipe the non-existent smirk off of Gaara’s face.

Sasuke jumped down between him and me, as if anticipating an attack, and snapped, “What’s your name?”

Temari blushed and stammered, “Me?” Oh good lord. It’s not bad enough that Ino is lusting after Sasuke, but this girl three years our elder was doing it to0? He’s not thaaat sexy! He’s an emotionally unavailable ass!

“I told you what his name is, you idiot,” I snapped. “It’s Gaara. And those are his brother and sister, Kankuro and Temari!”

“Wait,” Sasuke said, glancing over his shoulder at me, “Those are their actual names?” I nodded, he looked back at Gaara, and asked, surprise evident in his voice, “Those are your actual-” He didn’t get to finish the question because I’d karate chopped him in the middle of his thick angsty skull.

“Sasuke no Baka!” I growled. “I wouldn’t just randomly give them names! I’m not an idiot!”

“Sasuke, hmmm?” Gaara said, but he wasn’t looking at him. “And your name?”

The yellow-haired imbecile leaned into frame, pointing his thumb at his face. “I’m Uzumaki Naruto, you better believe it!”

Gaara didn’t even glance at him. “Not interested.” His eyes were still fixed on me, though with SasuTo in the way it was hard to tell that.

“Haruno Sakura,” I said. “And I don’t care if you believe it or not.”

He nodded, then turned, motioning for his siblings to follow him. “Let’s go.”

As he walked away, I turned and looked for the Sound Ninja team hidden in a third large tree nearby. Because that was how everyone entered this scene, it seems, by standing in a tree. “You three idiots can fuck right off!” I snapped, glaring one eyed at them, letting my Chakra boil out of me, tinging the air crimson. I barely managed to keep from blurting out that they could tell their serpentine boss to go screw himself too. Didn’t need to give away the fact that I knew where their allegiance lay. 

Their leader, the heavily bandaged Dosu, sneered at me. “We’ll go where we want to, little girl.”

Sasuke looked where I was looking, then asked, “You know those three?”

“Sound Ninjas,” I agreed. “Their names are Doomed, Dead Meat, and Aaaa Mommy I don’t wanna die!” I said, loud enough to be heard by the trio who, if everything went as it had originally were, in fact going to die… two of them (Kin and Zaku) being sacrificed by Orochimaru to return the First and Second Hokage from the grave as his puppets. I still hadn’t figured out if I was going to try to save them yet. On the one hand, they were assassins in the service of an evil mad scientist… on the other hand, they were fourteen year old child soldiers raised to be murderous fuck-heads by someone old enough and introspective enough to know what he was doing was wrong.

“Now you’re just mocking me,” Sasuke said dryly.

“Nope. I’m mocking them. They think they’re so superior, lurking there like lurking lurkers… I mean, see how they’ve arranged themselves so their faces are in shadow?” I thumbed my nose at the trio in the tree and yelled, “Sound and Fury signifies nothing! It is a tale told by an idiot!” Hey, if Kin could quote Hemmingway, I could paraphrase the Bard. Before they could respond, I turned and walked away, leaving Naruto and Konohamaru to talk about how Naruto was anything but intimidating.

*****

The next day, Kakashi-Sensei had us meet up, bright and early. So early that Naruto hadn’t had time to wash his face or brush his teeth. I mean, part of that was because he’d slept in, but mostly because he was lazy. I hadn’t bothered brushing my teeth either… in fact the last time I’d done so had been… uh… hmm… my last day in Pokelandia. Once I’d gotten my Body Mod, my teeth were never less than perfectly clean… body too for that matter. It was as if I’d just gotten out of the shower… well, and dried myself off. My hair was pretty much always perfect too, which — omg — saved just sooo much time. Never having to shave my legs… or anything else for that matter… was just the bee’s freaking knees! No waxing, no plucking… I didn’t even need makeup to look my best… though sometimes I wore it just because sometimes a person likes to feel pretty… prettier. I say person, because I’d been known to wear make-up even in some of my male forms. Maybe I should be a futanari someday… wow… focusing is really hard for some reason…

Anway, we’d been called to meet with Kakashi the next morning, whereupon he (big surprise) told us that he’d nominated us for the Chunin Selection Exam. Naruto, overcome with joy, flung himself at Sensei and professed his love for the older man. I could almost hear the shotacon shippers writing their slash-fics.

Once Kakashi had freed himself from the boy-blunder, he handed out application sheets, and informed us that, though he’d nominated us, it was our choice to determine if we were ready. Then he gave us the day to think about it, telling us that the applications were due by mid-afternoon the next day. (The manga had said 4pm, but in actuality, the world of Naruto didn’t use a western time schedule at all. Instead, the day was divided into six watches, each of which were in turn divided into thirty turnings, each of which was divided further into a thousand countings that very nearly equaled half a second each. This meant that the day of Naruto’s world was actually almost exactly half an hour longer than an Earth day… no idea why.

As it turned out, when we arrived to hand in our slips, every one of the teams for our year had, as expected, been nominated, and all of our classmates, all six teams (plus Might Guy’s team from the previous graduating class) of the Konoha “11” (in reality twenty-six strong since the original “11” actually contained 14 members (Sai, Sasuke, and Akamaru are not included in the count, but are considered part of the group) and my own group included ten “humans”, one dog, and Chara… wait, if Chara counted, did Kurama count? This is getting complicated… Anyway, there were a total of eighty-seven entrants from Konohagakure (The Village of Flaaaaaame), thirty from Sunagakure (Sand Village in the land of Wind), twenty-one from Amegakure (Rain Village… not one of the five great villages), six each from Kusagakure (Grass Village, also not a great village) and Takigakure (Waterfall Village, still not a great village), and three from Otogakure (the Sound Village, yet another not great village). 

All of these freaks and weirdos from Konoha’s alliance of “theoretically” peace-loving villages were gathered outside of the building that housed room 301… though the reason they were all outside was because two idiots were blocking the doors to the room, beating up anyone who tried to get inside. Said idiots were known to me through both my spies and my knowledge of the manga. They were two chunin disguised as genin, trying to discourage those trying to enter the room where the first part of the CSE would be given.

One of them, Hagane Kotetsu, had just backhanded Tenten, a member of Might Guy’s Team of 13 year olds when we arrived, and Rock Lee, Might Guy’s protege, was on the floor nursing a bruised cheek as well. “You should quit now,” his partner, Kamizuki Izumo, said. “You’re just little kids. The Chunin Exam isn’t easy. Some end up quitting the Shinobi Life completely after taking this exam. Some die. We’ve failed three straight times and seen it all.”

Someone in the crowd yelled, “Yeah, well… that’s ‘cause you’re losers!”

“You kids really think you can pass?” Kotetsu sneered, looking very much like a snotnosed sixteen year old despite being in his mid twenties. “Chunin often are placed in charge of military teams; the failure of a mission, the death of a comrade… all that will be your responsibility! You really think you can…” he trailed off as he felt the heat of my gaze.

“We’re just thinning out those who will fail anyway,” Izumo said, not realizing why his partner had stopped talking.

“That’s all well and good,” Sasuke said, “But you’re going to let me pass, and you’re going to quit it with the genjutsu.”

“Oh?” Izumo said. “Somebody finally noticed.”

I hopped over the intervening crowd, landing between the duo, draping my arms over their shoulders, my feet suctioning down to the floor, pulling the duo, who were twenty centimeters taller than me, downward. They gasped at the sudden pressure, stumbled into each other, headbands smacking together, then rebounded, landing on their asses.

“You’re all idiots,” I snapped at the crowd. “These two are Chunin, and this is the second floor. Can’t you fucking count staircases? Jizu!” I stopped off, then paused to look back as the sound of a superhumanly fast kick hitting Chakra-reinforced flesh reached my ears.

Behind me stood Rock Lee, his arms spread, blocking a kick from Kotetsu that had been aimed squarely at the back of my head and another from Sasuke that had been aimed to intercept that kick… okay, that was somewhat sweet. Good on Sasuke, defending a team mate like that… and good on Rock Lee for getting in the way.

“I thought we weren’t drawing attention to ourselves,” Hyuga Neji (the only person in the series less fun to be around than Sasuke) aka “The Man Without Pupils” said. 

Lee ignored him, clenching his fist in determination… and then he came up to me and, swear to god, asked me out and promised to protect me with his life all in the same breath. I relieved him of the rest of said breath by shrieking like a girl and punching him in the gut… I might need to work on my anger issues… well, Chara’s anger issues. To be fair, my other reaction would have been to tell him exactly why I wasn’t going to date him… starting with his eyebrows and working my way through his haircut, lack of anything approaching fashion sense, the fact that I was twelve and he was an idiot, and finishing up with the fact that YOU DON’T FUCKING ASK SOMEONE YOU JUST MET IN A SCHOOL HALLWAY TO GO OUT WITH YOU!

Fucking… doi!

And of course, as Naruto, Sasuke, and I walked away, Tenten’s eyes were fixed on Sasuke’s butt. Save… me… now. Teenage… hormones… suuuuuck. Like… suck worse than Orochimaru!

We’d only gotten about a hundred meters down the corridor when Lee caught up to us… and, having recovered from the suckerpunch with the speed of long practice dealing with being pounded like a tough steak on a daily basis, challenged Sasuke to a fight, right there in the middle of the hallway. Christ… I know why I was a hothead, but was everyone around here infected with testosterone poisoning, estrogen overload, or the Creeping Narutos? Symptoms of the Creeping Narutos include constant use of a singular verbal comma, failure to think things through to their logical conclusion, and a tendency to attempt to eat one’s own feet.

Anyway, Lee challenged Sasuke… giving his name and everything, then explained that he wanted to fight a member of the famous Uchiha Clan… and then took the opportunity to flirt with me some more, going so far as to blow me a kiss. I dodged and (for good measure) made a snide remark about how someone who couldn’t be arsed to ask a girl’s name before asking her out didn’t deserve to be taken seriously as suitors.

Naruto, seeing his chance to impress me and show up Sasuke at the same time, charged Rock Lee… and promptly had his ass handed to him. “You guys cannot defeat me,” he said, all trace of joviality and silly cutesy flirting gone. “Because right now, I’m the strongest Leaf Genin.”

“Second,” I said. “And strength matters less than skill… and you’re not even third in that regard, eyebrow boy.”

“You have that much faith in your teammate?” Lee asked.

“Oh… no,” I said, smirking. “Go ahead and kick his ass. I’ll wait.”

Sasuke frowned. “I’ll make you eat those words, Haruno.”

“Yeah yeah,” I waved him towards the other boy. “Do it and I’ll give you a cookie, but all I’m hearing is big talk. Let’s see some punching. We’ve still got thirty minutes.”

“It won’t even take me five,” Sasuke said. He was right. It took him less than two to be completely overpowered by Lee, despite using his Sharingan. The only thing that saved him was the timely arrival of a talking Tortoise named Ningame, the personal summons of Rock Lee’s mentor, Might Guy. After the reptile delivered a stern tongue-lashing, his master appeared in a puff of smoke, standing on the creature’s symbol marked shell.

The Jounin berated his student for giving away his secret techniques in a fight that didn’t matter, decked him hard enough to kill a normal person, then hugged him close, both of them crying manly tears of manly manliness! (trademark pending). “You’re a good kid, Lee. Youth and mistakes go together… but you did start a fight and almost broke my rules… so after the exam, you’ll have to run five hundred laps around the practice range!!” the older man exclaimed, doing what looked remarkably like a disco-pose, right knee cocked forward, left leg back, left hand on left hip, right arm punching the sky. Ugh. 

“Yes Sensei!” Lee said, snapping to attention and saluting.

The chastisement of the idiot concluded, Guy turned his attention to us. “Hey! How’s Kakashi doing?”

“You know Sensei?” Sasuke asked.

“OH, for fuck’s saaake, Sasuke!” I bellowed. “Of course he fucking knows… they’re both Jonin! HOW THE HELL WOULD TWO LEAF JONIN NOT KNOW EACH OTHER!” I might have been letting Chara influence my actions there, but come on! There are some questions that are just too fucking dumb. No… sorry, that’s not right. There are no stupid questions… just stupid people not fucking thinking before asking them!!!

Sasuke looked taken aback by that, and Naruto looked torn between hiding from scary Sakura and smirking at his rival’s discomfort.

Might Guy just smirked at us… then vanished, appearing behind us. Even though I’d known it was coming… it was still damned fast. I mean really fast. Fast enough that, had I not previously been to Bleach and Tenchi Muyo, two places where fights routinely happened at c-fractional speeds, I’d have been struggling to conceptualize. Sure sure, I’d also been to Teen Titans and Young Justice, places where fights occasionally happened at superluminal speeds… but even as bizarro Supergirl I couldn’t move that fast without manipulating time… and in none of those cases had EssJay Prime been a Drop-In, so there was no fucking way I could even come close to that level of speed right at the moment.

Still… I was fast, and experienced. I’d had more fights than Might Guy had done push-ups and while Naruto and Sasuke were still flinching and Guy was explaining to us that people refer to Kakashi and him as “Eternal Rivals”, I was already in motion. I didn’t even turn around, merely falling forward onto my hands and pumping both legs backwards in a donkey kick that caught the unprepared Jonin square in the crotch.

He made a funny little choking sound, went crosseyed, clutched his family jewels, knees together, and crumpled, slowly, sideways. Still, even in what was apparent agony, he managed to gasp out, “fifty wins… forty-nine losses… I’m… str…onger… th… than Kakashi.”

Give the eyebrow-team credit, they recovered fast, and a minute later, they were gone, vaulting up to the third floor as if stairs were for chumps. I dunno… I’ve been able to fly for most of the last 14,000 years… and I still like taking the stairs. Or walking up the walls. Jumping is so… lacking in finesse. Especially the way Rock Lee did it. Then again, everything Lee did was lacking in finesse.

When they were gone, Sasuke turned to me and asked, “Not even third? Who’s stronger than bushy-brows?”

“Well, for one thing, Hyuga Neji is on his team… and Lee knows Neji is stronger than he is. That’s one,” I said. 

“Who are two and three?” Naruto asked, clearly hoping I’d say him.

“Well… Nara Shikamaru is pretty lazy… so you wouldn’t know it, but he’s the second strongest in our class,” I allowed.

“Aaaaaand?” He asked, bouncing on his toes.

I looked at him with an “oh please” expression, then sighed, shaking my head. “If you have to ask who the strongest genin in the village is, you’ve not been paying attention.” and with that, I walked up the stairs, because jumping is just showing off to gravity… and gravity doesn’t fucking care.

***

I know I’m covering things in more detail than is my usual wont, and I will skip ahead soon enough, but let me just say this… the Chunin Selection Exams are idiocy of the highest degree. Not only are they full of ‘Gotchas!’ but they are inefficient, prone to killing off valuable agents, and wildly skewed towards those that cheat. And I don’t mean the prospective ninjas who cheat… I mean the villages that cheat. The assumption that lesser villages would play fair with the secret “do not tell the genin taking the test” rules is so laughable as to sail past the border of naivety and into the land of delusion.

Forgive me if I must elaborate, but I must and so I shall. The little prank down below with the senior ninjas pretending to be past individuals who took the test and failed and are now discouraging others? This is stupid. If you want to discourage the genin, have a wall of pictures of everyone who has died in the twice yearly CSE in the last twenty years… you know, even the slowest genin’s lifetime. People who were probably friends of their parents, or of their elder siblings, or maybe even of theirs. Or have their own Jounin just flat up tell them “I was one of only three who passed the CSE out of more than a hundred, and a third of those who failed died. This isn’t a joke.” 

What I’m saying is, played straight, you could have gotten better results. And it goes deeper, for as we reached the testing room, Kakashi showed up to drop the bombshell that, had any one of us decided that we weren’t ready, all three of us would have been disqualified. This is stupidity too. Yes, team-work, rah rah. (she says with tone as dry as the Namib Desert). No. Just No. Holding back someone because their friend and team-mate is nervous, not ready, or prudent? This is a great way to ruin teamwork. Especially considering the fact that, ultimately, the CSE often selects no one for promotion.

Yup. You heard right. This CSE is that level of bullshit. Takes a few weeks to a month out of the productivity of all the proctors and Kages and working genin, has a death rate of unacceptable even for combat troops, and all that will come of it is one… yes I said one… promoted genin… and that’s not always a guarantee, though this year’s big winner had proven himself worthy of the promotion. Sure, the Sand Trio would be promoted outside of this… hell, Gaara would be promoted all the way to Kazekage following the death of his father… but that’s the thing. The CSE isn’t really a promotion test. It’s a way for allied villages to test each other’s genin against each other and, incidentally to that, see who might… might… be worthy.

See, the first test is that all three members of the team have to agree. Assume that that’s fair. The next test is even stupider. This is the first formal part of the exam, a ten question test that varies from year to year, but always takes the form of something that seems to be a straight forward paper exam… but it’s always a trick. For example, this year’s trick was a ten question exam that featured nine questions that were harder than the average genin could deal with, to be answered in an hour’s time. Forty-five minutes in, everyone who hasn’t been disqualified for cheating will be given the opportunity to answer the tenth question. If they answer that one correctly, they pass. If they answer incorrectly not only do they fail, they’ll never be allowed to take the exams ever again. If they forfeit, an act which disqualifies their entire team, they’ll be able to try again next time. They must decide before hearing the question.

If you can see what’s moronic about this, you’re doing better than all the so called wise ninjas of the NarutoVerse. Because just being willing to move on is the test. Just saying that you’ll stay in, risking being disqualified forever, rather than just getting your team booted for six months? That’s the test. The rest is just smoke and mirrors. See what I mean about villages cheating to get an advantage?

This is important because of the teams from Konoha (29), Suna (10), and Ame (7) there were teams that were disqualified for cheating… but only Konoha had teams that forfeited. Of the five teams from Kusa, Taki, and Oto? No disquals for cheating, no forfeits. Suspicious? Or just that the smaller villages sent their best? Well, without Third Eye of Satori, I would not have been able to tell, but I cracked it open just a little, just a tiny tiny amount, unwilling to show off my dojutsu (yes, it’s an eye power, and in this world? It’s actually a third eye in the middle of my forehead… weird… but hey, that’s what you get for bringing alien eye powers into a setting full of the damned things) to everyone, and scanned them.

Oto’s team was, of course, a plant. All of them were Chunin already. Kusa’s teams were experienced and had been through CSEs before. Taki’s teams were one team that had been through five previous CSEs and the other was a veteran team that had been doing missions for four years, though they’d never been through a CSE before. Suna, despite being about to betray their allegiance with Konoha, had sent mostly expendable genin. They had three teams that actually knew what was going on, including Gaara’s team, of course, since it was both pivotal to the planned Konoha Crush and made of the children of the current Fourth Kazekage.

And, of course, one of our own teams, the one that included a Konoha ninja named Yakushi Kabuto and his two accomplices, Akado Yoroi and Tsurugi Misumi, were secretly Otogakure spies. I scanned the rest of the crowd, looking for those radiating duplicity. With my eye just barely cracked, it took more time than normal to scan each individual, and I couldn’t do more than get a surface scan, but looking for emotional states was easy enough.

I briefly considered just stabbing Kabuto, but this was hardly the time or place for such murder, and then I remembered that I wasn’t allowed to kill people… and that it would be setting a bad example for Chara and siiighed. Being a paragon of rectitude was annoying. Much less fun than just offing the evil morons what needed offing. Still, when Kabuto tried to psyche us (meaning the freshmen graduates of the Academy) by pointing out how accomplished “elite” genin like Lee and Gaara were, I had a little to say.

“Sooo, we should just turn tail and hide like frighted puppies, is that what you’re saying,” I scoffed, getting right up in foureyes’s face. “Because the only failure is not trying. If we don’t succeed this year, we’ll succeed next year or the year after. And each time we try it, we’ll learn more… unlike you, who’ve failed what… six times? Oh wait, no… it’s seven times because you’re going to fail this year too, aren’t you? I know medical ninjas aren’t the best fighters, but really, shouldn’t you have passed by now? Or are you just not trying very hard?”

He frowned at me, something everyone else would assume stemmed from the insulting tone I’d used, but which I at least knew was because he was extremely uncomfortable with me knowing so much about him. Spies usually don’t like being noticed for some inscrutable reason. My hint that I at least suspected that he was planning on dropping out before finishing this year’s exam had to be gnawing at him and he seemed more than a little taken aback, uncertain how to proceed.

Naruto however had (apparently) taken my words to heart, because he pointed to the gathered so-called ‘elite’ genin and, introducing himself in his normal boisterous tone, announced that he’d beat them all. Good to know someone so brainless can succeed later in life. I just hoped that success didn’t come with too high a price. Some shonen stories got really dark. Of course, the word he used to describe everyone else was ‘Bastards’ so that forced me to decide between throttling him and making things worse. Since I’d been saddled with the Boiling Blood Drawback, you can guess what I did.

“They’re not Bastards, Naru-chan,” I said with mock sweetness, “That’s an insult to those whose mothers didn’t marry their fathers. I’m certain that in most of these colorfully attired losers’ cases their mothers couldn’t have married those fathers had they wanted to… After all, most nations have laws against marrying livestock.”

The room, which had been full of glaring, muttering comments about how the orange-haired pipsqueak shouldn’t run his mouth off, suddenly went silent and I could feel the murderous glares focusing on me. I turned and favored them all with a big smirk, cocking one hip definitely. “Anyone who thinks they can make me eat my words is welcome to try. You can all attack me at once if you’re too chickenshit to come at me one on one.”

Before any one of them could attack however, there was a flash-bang at the podium and the Examiners had arrived. Their leader, Ibiki Morino, was well known around the village, a tokubetsu jonin (specialist… in Morino’s case of interrogation), and a generally nice guy… his wife was part of Sakura’s mother’s gossip circle.

“This is as good a time as any to say this,” he stated bluntly, smirking at the crowd. “There will be no fighting without direct permission from one of my staff.” He motioned to the dozen Chunin behind him. “Even if permission is granted, killing your opponent will not be tolerated. Anyone breaking the first rule will be immediately disqualified. Anyone breaking the second rule intentionally will be punished to the full extent of Ninja Law.”

Then he had us draw lots to determine where in the room we’d be sitting for the written part of the CSE before going over the rules… which, to be fair, I hadn’t really paid attention to the wording of when I’d read the manga or watched the anime. There was a rather obvious clue in them that I hadn’t noticed the first two times around and which hadn’t dawned on the rules lawyer in me until I heard them and saw them written at the same time.

“Pay attention, because I won’t be answering any questions,” he said as he started writing on the blackboard without even looking at it. “First, everyone starts with ten points. The test is made up of ten questions and each of them is worth one point. Get a question wrong and you lose a point. This is a team test; passing will be determined by the combined score of your team mates. Anyone caught doing anything sneaky, namely cheating, will have two points subtracted for every offense. Anyone who loses all their points during the exam will be asked to leave. Those that lose all their points during the test and don’t answer any questions correctly will fail along with their team-mates. That’s it. You can begin. You have one hour.” 

See what I mean by bullshit? I mean, don’t get me wrong, a test you can only pass by cheating is very very ninja… but this was all a trick. The clue, the big huge clue… was that you started with ten points and only lost points for either getting caught cheating or for getting a question wrong. Note that this implies that only one right answer per person was needed. One question each. And anyone looking at the paper could see that there were only nine answers. The tenth question just said “This question will be revealed 45 minutes into the test. Listen to the examiner closely before answering.” Such nonsense.

I looked at the test, chuckled, and wrote “Fuck your trick questions. The answer to question 10 is ‘Bring it on’.” on the paper in large block letters, then folded it into a paper airplane and sailed it across the room to land on Morino-Sensei’s head. He looked at me and I smiled back, waving cheekily. Plucking it off his head, he read the note I’d written and frowned, but simply folded it up and stuck it in his pocket. I leaned back, unworried.

Sure, I could have answered the questions even if Naruto and Sasuke couldn’t have. Even Vanilla Sakura could have answered seven of the nine without too much trouble. They were challenging… but hardly impossible. Sasuke would be cheating using his Sharingan to copy the answers from one of the Chunin hidden in the classroom as genin. 

So why didn’t I just do that? Well, a) the answers to 1-9 were meaningless, a filter and nothing else, but b) the big worry was that Ino, Sakura’s ex-best friend, would have tried to use her family’s bloodline talent for taking over another person’s body while leaving their own unconscious. I really didn’t feel like letting Ino’s spirit anywhere near Chara’s, and I wasn’t certain if I could block her or not… but certainly didn’t want to give away any possible advantage if I could. Better she find someone else to copy.

Finally it came time for the 10th question… and something weird happened. In the normal course of events, a couple people would drop out rather than risking being stuck at Genin forever, and then Naruto, who hadn’t answered a single question, would have given a defiant speech about how he wasn’t going to quit, how even if he was stuck as an eternal-genin he’d will himself to become Hokage. This would have happened just before Sakura could have surrendered to save Naruto from himself, for though she’d been confident in her ability to answer the 10th, she’d known Naruto almost certainly couldn’t and didn’t want him to risk his dream. Me? I knew the trick, and even if I hadn’t, I was experienced enough to know that a master of Interrogation and Torture would be playing mind-games.

But I wasn’t about to resign… and Naruto was just shuddering as if caught in his own mind… I sensed I could let the clock run out, leaving the poor kid in this by default, but also sensed that that was the wrong course of action. Someone needed to give the speech… and if it wasn’t Naruto, it had to be me.

“Oh, get on with it and stop trying to frighten everyone, you scar-faced thug,” I snapped, and everyone in the room gasped. “WHAT?!” I growled at them, standing up and doing my impression of a Tokyo Biker Gang Boss by Captain Morganing the desk and leaning forward to glare at everyone around me. “It’s not like we lose points for being rude! Stop being cowards and act like Ninjas, Kami damn your eyes!”

That produced nervous chuckles from some, squeaks of protest from Hinata and Ino, and a loud braying laugh from Naruto who finally snapped out of his fuge and did his whole “I’m Not Afraid!” speech, then turned and gave me a thumbs up. What the hell hero?! Are you broken or something? This was the second time he’d been… slow? Where I’d had to take some action to ensure he arrived to the battle… There was something fucky going on here, I just knew it. This couldn’t have been because of butterflies I’d caused… could it? I’d fucked with things larger than this before and things had kept on ticking… down to individual story beats most times. There was a kind of force of destiny in most narratives… and I’d seen it enough in this world to know it was still working… but somehow it wasn’t keeping Naruto as tightly locked to the canon as it should have been. I hoped that wasn’t a sign of bad things to come… but I was all too certain that that hope was in vain.

Anyway, so, we passed the first part of the CSE. Big surprise. You knew we would. I knew we would. It had just taken a last minute hail mary from me to bring it about… and I was, for the first time I could recall, unhappy about being the star of my own show. I didn’t want to save this world… I didn’t even know what I was saving it from! Then again… I’m pretty certain neither did Naruto and or Sasuke? Was Sasuke important to saving the world? Had Canon-Sakura leveled up to actually plot relevant? Curse Origin-Me for giving up reading Naruto! I needed more information!!!

Next: I Will Not Be Hokage, Part 4

Resources: BuildDocument

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Parzival, bearblue, and Ryune, but all of you who read my work and comment are wonderful.

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in very slow progress here. Please check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have two separate bonus stories here called EssJay’s Omake Theatre #1 (Big Box Isekai) and #2 (Zed’s Chain)And if you’re on Questionable Questing (No link provided) I have an adult story you might want to check out… if you’re of legal age. If you need the link, hunt me down in one of the forums.