It’s Just That Any One of Us Is Half Without Another One Is You – Chapter Three

In which the Chuunin Exam seems to be a lot easier this time around. Action, I-2

“So why do we only have big exams for chuunin? I mean, the genin exam is just, like, the finals at the academy, and I don’t even know how you get to be jounin, why aren’t those like this too?”

Kakashi thought just a little wistfully of the days when a really brisk pace meant Naruto didn’t have the breath to chatter. These days, even a good, hard run across sand and through canyons wouldn’t do it. “A public exam for genin would be boring for everyone. Except, possibly, the students, and they should be keeping their minds on their work anyway. As for jounin promotions, no sane village would be willing to show those kind of advanced techniques openly. Chuunin is the only level that’s interesting and useful to watch without giving too much away.” He paused and eyed his students, and finally added, “Normal chuunin, anyway.”

“Oh.” A breath of silence and then, “So, Gaara will be there, right? I want to see him again!”

“After the exams, you might be able to see him privately,” Kakashi allowed.

Naruto nearly tripped. “Wait, huh? Why can’t I see him? We’re friends!”

Sakura swung closer for a moment and fetched him a smack on the shoulder without breaking stride. “He’s the Kazekage, now, Naruto, and he’s the host of the exams this season. You don’t want anyone thinking that he favored Leaf, do you?”

Naruto rubbed his shoulder, frowning. “But he does favor us,” he objected. “I mean, we’re allies right?”

Sometimes, Kakashi thought with a hidden smile, Naruto’s simplicity really did see right to the heart. “We are,” he agreed, as Sakura sputtered over how to explain hidden village politics to her teammate. “And that’s exactly why the Kazekage can’t be seen to do anything special for us during the exams. Some of the other villages will already assume he would, and will be looking for signs they can use to discredit Sand. The host must appear to be neutral, just like the examinees must appear not to be cheating on the first part.” As Naruto frowned deeper in puzzlement, he tried, “You don’t want anyone thinking you passed because of favoritism, either, do you?”

If they hadn’t been running, he was sure Naruto would have crossed his arms. “Of course not! I’ll pass all on my own!”

Sasuke, running silent and efficiently beside Naruto, rolled his eyes, but Kakashi saw the corner of his mouth twitch up.

“Well, at least we missed the round held in Hidden Rain,” Sakura put in, diplomatically changing the subject. “Ino said there were people following them around every second they were there. Sand-nin should be a lot nicer to us, I’d think, after the Hokage’s policy of contract-sharing, this year.”

“Don’t relax too much,” Kakashi cautioned them. “Sand is an ally, probably our closest ally right now, but this isn’t home. It will be good training for all of you.” He paused and his mouth quirked behind his mask. “And don’t be surprised if you hear a bit of grumbling over those joint missions.”

“Why?” Sasuke finally spoke up to ask. “It’s bringing money back into their village, isn’t it? And it’s only the contracts coming out of Sand that we share with them, so the other villages shouldn’t have anything to complain about.”

“The grumble you’ll be most likely to hear is about ‘babysitting’,” Kakashi said dryly, leading them up a striated cliff wall before they could get too deep into what he recalled was a dead-end canyon. “Those missions are where the genin of less experience or ability are getting assigned, these days. It’s a good deal for everyone: our genin get some seasoning under Sand chuunin or even jounin, the contract fee is split according to rank so Sand usually gets more of the money, and it takes a little of the pressure off us while we’re short-handed. But the fact is, those contracts still come from Wind citizens and even the Wind government, and there’s some lingering resentment over that.”

After a long, quiet moment, Naruto said, “People can be kind of dumb, you know?”

“A fact of life that any future Kage has to deal with,” Kakashi murmured.

He was actually starting to look forward to seeing whether, and how, Naruto would deal with it.

Naruto crawled through the desert scrub, grinning all over his face. He’d hated the first part of the chuunin exam, last time. A paper test! What kind of ninja needed paper tests? Well, aside from Sakura-chan, because she was just that brilliant. This one, though? This was like being allowed to play the biggest practical joke ever.

He spotted the first target in the distance, standing with her back to a stone formation, and paused to think. This test was like an obstacle course that they each had to get through without being spotted, but at the same time they were supposed to be marking each watcher they saw with a special seal-tag. Like paint-bombs, only not as colorful; too bad, really, paint bombs would have been more fun. They’d all been told that something would happen, after each run, to make it clear how many tags they’d been able to place before they finished or got caught, but no one knew what it was, and he’d just have to leave a bunch of tags stuck on behind him to see. After considering all the angles for a minute, he flipped his hands through the summoning seals, bit his thumb, and set his hand down quietly. Gamakichi puffed into being and looked around brightly. “Hey!”

“Shhh,” Naruto told him, finger pressed to his lips. “We’re sneaking. Here.” He held out the tag, blank side up. “Lick this for me, will you?”

Gamakichi sat back on his hind legs and gave him a skeptical look. “You want me to what?”

“I need to stick it on that ninja over there,” Naruto explained. “And if I use any ninjutsu that close she’ll sense me, I’m not very good at hiding my chakra techniques, and I didn’t think to bring any glue, and I told Sakura-chan not to help with this test and Sasuke wouldn’t have anyway.”

Gamakichi looked between the watcher and Naruto a few times and grinned a toad-grin. “I’ll do it, as long as I get to come along.”

“Deal,” Naruto promised.

Gamakichi spat stickily on the end of the tag and crawled onto Naruto’s shoulder. Naruto eeled along the sand and scrub, freezing every time the watcher stirred. Finally, he was close enough to hold up the tag so the end pressed against her vest as she shifted her weight again. Perfect! He crept back into the shadow of the stones and over a shallow hill before he and Gamakichi slapped triumphant palms and he went in search of his next target.

There were twelve in all, and Naruto tagged nine of them. He couldn’t figure out a way to reach the other three without using genjutsu or ninjutsu, which, honestly, would just get him spotted anyway, and he figured that getting past everyone unseen counted for more than tagging everyone. At least that’s what missions seemed to need, more often. So when he popped up at the end of the course to grin at the judge, he was pretty satisfied. And it was someone he knew, too! “Temari-san, hi!”

“Ah, it’s you.” She looked him up and down, mouth quirked. “Not bad. I didn’t think you’d be any good at sneaking.”

Naruto drew himself up, indignant. “I am really good at sneaking! At least when I don’t have to use chakra,” he added.

She snorted. “Well, let’s see how you did on the other part, then.”

Gamakichi and Naruto watched with interest as she pulled out a paper tag bigger than the ones he’d used and held two fingers in front of her lips in the initiation seal, whispering a few quick words.

Across the course, nine puffs of smoke rose, virulent blue and pink and orange, followed by some faint cursing.

Naruto stared in delighted disbelief and finally burst into laughter. They’d been paint bombs after all! “That is so cool!”

Temari-san snorted again, tucking away the tag. “You would think so. Honestly,” she shook her head, “my brother likes you way too much. I’m hoping you don’t become Hokage any time soon, or we’ll be screwed at the negotiating table.”

He gave her a wounded look. “I wouldn’t do that, Temari-san.” And then he blinked. “Hey, hey, wait a minute. You mean… the smoke was Gaara’s idea?”

She crossed her arms and gave him an exasperated glare of the kind he was way more used to getting from his own teachers than foreign shinobi. He figured that was a yes. He also felt like his grin might spit his face in two. Gaara was figuring out how to play tricks and have some fun! Temari-san sighed and waved a hand at him.

“Go on, then. Shoo. Find your teammates, all three of you passed, congratulations.” Her lips twitched unwillingly as she looked out at the drifting, multi-colored smoke. “I guess we owe you this much, at least. Gaara is… doing better these days.”

Naruto caught her hand for a moment. “I’m really glad, Temari-san,” he told her. And then, before she could stop starting at him with wide eyes and smack him with that gigantic fan of hers or something, he dashed past her to find Sakura and Sasuke.

One down!

“The second part is a simulation of a nighttime raid,” a tall Sand-nin explained to all the first round survivors. “Your objective is at the center of the test area; you are required to get in, find the scroll that matches the chakra imprint of the one given to your team, and get back to your starting point. The objective will be guarded by chuunin of at least two years seniority. If you encounter other teams, you may ignore them, assist them, or hinder them.”

Sasuke exchanged looks with the other two. Naruto was grinning like the idiot he usually was, and even Sakura looked like she was trying not to laugh. Sasuke snorted and voiced the thought for all of them. “No problem.”

They re-sorted their gear quickly: a handful of Sakura’s concealing seal-tags went into Naruto’s pouches, far more subtle than anything he could do with his own genjutsu; one more of Sasuke’s chakra-sharpened kunai was added to Sakura’s thigh holster, her extra edge in hand-to-hand with any guards; Sasuke slipped a few extra packets of Naruto’s chakra-free chemical experiments, explosives, hallucinogens, and sleeping powder, into his arm wrap. When the examiner at the gate let them in they slipped through, Sasuke on point with his Sharingan activated, Sakura behind his shoulder, Naruto at the rear to guard their flanks. It was comfortable and familiar, and Sasuke felt none of the tension he had during their last exam—only a cool crinkle down his nerves, familiar from this past year of missions.

He didn’t like to admit it, but perhaps sending them to the last exams to fail had been the best thing Kakashi-sensei could have done for them. They wouldn’t be where they were now without the furious determination to overcome that failure to push them forward. It was a familiar motivation for him, especially, worn smooth and hard in the years since the massacre.

The thought flickered through his mind, that Naruto and his idiot insistence, Sakura and her calculated plans, pushed him further than thoughts of Itachi alone ever had. He caught the thought and stuffed it away for later. A mission wasn’t the time to think, not about that.

The test area here was completely unlike the Forest of Death. It was a range of shallow dunes and hills around a craggy plateau. Their target was at the top. It was a good location, defensible, with clear lines of sight even with night falling. Around them, the other teams flickered through the dusk and vanished into the folds of the land—vanished from normal sight, at least. Sasuke watched their paths and led his own team down into a dry wash that wound a little away from the plateau, avoiding the obvious approaches most of the others had chosen.

The impersonal observation he had been trained to while using the Sharingan noted down all the signs that surrounded him, relevant and not, waiting for the clues that would let him sort between the two. Sakura was silent and sure on the patches of sand, a bare breath of chakra whispering about her feet, maybe not even noticeable to him if he hadn’t known her so well. Naruto moved at a crouch on the softer footing, almost as silent, using his hands to steady him; his chakra burned and sang through the night, but somehow it fit in with this bare land the same way it did into a forest of their own country. The night air was growing cold fast, cold like he’d never felt even on their mission north into the Lightning Country. Sakura was starting to shiver.

That needed action. He fought a brief struggle with himself over the obvious answer, but Sakura was part of his team, and they were damn well going to win this year, and there was no one to object any more. He stopped and beckoned her closer. “Watch,” he mouthed silently, not trusting even a whisper in this open land and still air, and held out his hands. As she watched intently, he shaped the seals for Inner Fire and laid one suddenly-warm hand on her bare arm. Her eyes widened in the starlight. She followed his seals slowly, and he only had to correct her once before he saw her chakra settle into a new form and she straightened, shivers subsiding. He nodded and would have turned back to their path except for her hand on his arm in turn. “Thank you,” she mouthed, eyes steady.

He told himself she couldn’t know it was a clan secret and was just glad to be warm. He would be too, if he was that thin. He nodded briskly and looked for Naruto. Naruto slid down from where he’d been standing, still and on guard, a little up the slope from them. He grinned and clapped Sasuke’s shoulder in passing as he fell back into his position. It was in passing, so Sasuke didn’t have to figure out what to do about it, which was a relief right now.

They slipped through the night, quick and steady, avoiding the one team to cross their path—one of the three from Hidden Rain. One of them was actually complaining out loud about the dryness of the air. Sasuke and his teammates looked at each other with mutual disbelief and went around. That lot would probably eliminate themselves without any help.

The steep sides of the plateau were trapped all the way up. The best handholds were mined with contact-explosives and the whole face was seeded with more explosives triggered by chakra. Naruto shrugged when Sasuke finished tallying everything he could see. “Me first, then,” he whispered, and slung his rope coil firmly around his waist. Sasuke and Sakura took cover under some of the dusty brush at the foot and waited.

“Why can’t he act serious more often,” Sasuke muttered, exasperated, as he watched Naruto scramble up the cliff from one precarious hold to another, making it look easy. It was absolutely infuriating to have a competent rival one moment and a loud-mouthed, eye-blinding idiot the next. The problem hadn’t gotten better in the past year, no matter how often he pointed out that a bright orange, attack yelling ninja was just plain not a proper ninja.

"At least we got him to wear decently dark pants lately?" Sakura offered comfortingly, though her eyes danced even in the moonlight.

"The jacket is still orange enough for three," Sasuke grumbled, and he was pretty sure she was stifling a laugh at him. Her chakra looked that way. He was completely right about Naruto’s damn jacket. Sometimes he wondered whether Sakura teasing him was really any better than her mooning over him had been.

The climb up, once Naruto let down the rope, went quickly. The creep past the outer guards went more slowly, but one of the Sand teams had made it ahead of them and gotten overconfident. The scuffle when they were discovered covered Sasuke’s team’s dash to the wall. “Split up to get in, meet in that room,” Sakura mouthed, pointing to one of the windows above them. Sasuke nodded and ghosted down the wall toward a tower while Naruto fished out two of Sakura’s illusion seals. Sasuke climbed, planted some explosive tags on the level where his team would meet and, when they went off, slipped through the window two levels up. The one guard who had stayed at his post was distracted enough for sleep powder to take care of, and when found would concentrate attention on the wrong floor. He came down the far staircase and met the other two in Sakura’s chosen room. Naruto was snickering over the brief chaos down the hall. Sasuke had thought that would probably amuse him. Not that that had been part of his calculations, of course.

Sakura gave both of them an admonishing head shake and nudged Sasuke back on point. The path through to the “treasury room” was almost insultingly easy. Sasuke found himself thinking that this couldn’t possibly be more than a C-rank mission and then had to remind himself that it was supposed to be. The guards on the “treasury” were already knocked out, and inside they came face to face with another Sand team, older than the ones who were caught outside. Sasuke tensed as they whipped around, one huge shuriken and paired knives ready and poised while the third member kept sorting scrolls in an alarmingly disciplined way. Sakura stepped out to the side, giving them all weapons clearance, and showed open hands. “I propose we not interfere with each other,” she said, low. “It would take time and might attract attention if we fought here. We’ll both do better, at this point, to ignore each other for now and start back while the other teams are starting to distract the guards.”

There was a flash of yellow by the dark-haired woman sorting scrolls and she whispered. “Got it.” She stood and cast an assessing eye over them. Sasuke thought she was noticing their lack of any injuries. Finally she nodded to her teammates, who relaxed. “She’s right. No sense maybe getting injured when we already have our objective and are first getting out. Let’s go.” She nodded to Sakura, who waved Sasuke and Naruto to one side with her. Sasuke was just as glad; the sharpness of the woman’s gaze reminded him uncomfortably of Mitarashi, and that was no one he wanted to fight if he didn’t have to.

He’d gone to visit Mitarashi, before they left. He still wasn’t entirely sure why; he certainly didn’t like her personally, she reminded him way too much of Naruto. Only a lot more crazed. He’d lay money down that she’d spent time in ANBU, if she wasn’t in still. He’d just felt like he needed to see her, was all. She, for her part, had insulted his ninjutsu abilities, challenged him to a sparring match, and dragged him along to the dango shop once she’d finished wiping the thirty-seventh practice ground with him. He’d put the whole experience down, in his own mind, as good preparation for this exam and tried not to think about the things she’d yelled at him while fighting, about recognizing a mindfuck when he saw it and getting his head out of his ass. He was doing perfectly fine, and when his team passed handily everyone would know it.

As soon as the other team was out of the room, Sakura pulled out their own scroll and dove for the heap in the middle of the room. “Watch my back.”

It seemed to take longer than three minutes, but Sasuke was familiar with that effect and counted his heartbeats as he and Naruto flanked the door, one looking out and one in just in case any traps activated. Finally there was a flash of red light and Sakura was beside them again with two scrolls in hand. “Let’s go.”

It actually took longer getting out, because the other teams were arriving and the halls were more full of fighting as some were discovered, but they weren’t seen, they didn’t trip any traps, and soon they were back into the cold night air at the bottom of the cliff, looking at each other a little blankly.

“Is it supposed to be that easy?” Naruto wondered.

Sakura laughed softly. “Well, like I’ve said before. We are a really strong team.”

The satisfaction gleaming in her smile was a reflection of Sasuke’s own.