A Work of Blatant Self-Insertion
Chapter 5: Champions
Sarutobi Hiruzen did not consider himself unsociable. For a ninja who lived in a village of ninja and had the job of out-ninjaing a bunch of other ninja, he thought he was a remarkably outgoing man. He made a habit of being seen among his citizens as often as possible, especially the children. He tried to make time for the personal concerns of his shinobi and kunoichi. He never missed a festival or holiday. He actually loved making speeches. He felt he had a knack for it, and sometimes spent hours practising in front of his mirror.
His oratorical skills were not as universally beloved as his personable attitude, but none of his ninja were rude enough to bring it up to his face.
These thoughts struck him as he considered how difficult it was for the man in charge of the most secrets, in a village dedicated to keeping secrets, to actually keep a meeting secret. First, it couldn’t take place in his office. It couldn’t even take place in his home. Or the home of either of the men he was visiting with. He couldn’t meet anywhere where the meeting could be construed as a social visit.
Especially not with these two.
The room they ended up in was one of the emergency shelters built into Monument Mountain. There was only one entrance, and the ground around it had been reinforced over the past four generations by retired jounin with seals and jutsu. Further, his two companions were perhaps the best he could ask for to determine if anybody had somehow broken through all his precautions and found some way to eavesdrop.
“Gentleman, I presume we are officially alone?” he asked, holding his pipe in one hand. He wore casual clothes, but his hat-of-state was hung up on a nearby wall, unobtrusive but serving as a symbol of his office.
Hyuuga Hiashi released his hands from the focusing seal as his eyes returned from the active to inactive stage of the Byakugan. “I can confirm there are no interlopers to the limit of my perception.”
Hatake Kakashi slid his forehead protector back over his Sharingan. The subtle seals etched into the inside of the hitai-ate would help him put the eye to rest. Though its use was a constant drain on the man’s chakra, Hiruzen knew it was second in perception only to the Byakugan.
“Very well then, gentlemen, let’s not waste time.” He tapped his pipe out into a pouch in his other hand and began to refill it with some of his favourite blend. “Even with shadow clones distracting our usual watchers, someone will miss our presence eventually.”
Kakashi held up a one-handed seal. “I suppose I’m the one who should start then,” he said. “I’m the reason we had to go through so much trouble.”
“…and you were late.”
“I’m sorry,” Kakashi said. Hiashi gave no impression he had said anything. Hiruzen snapped his fingers and summoned a tiny flame to light his pipe. “I have a great deal to report about the recent mission Team 7 undertook in the Land of Waves.”
Hiruzen listened attentively as Kakashi explained a great deal that was not in his official report. The details were startling, perhaps even unbelievable. If the man delivering the report had not been Kakashi, he would not have even entertained the possibility it could be truth. Hiashi, however, did not have a look of disbelief on his face as he listened to the tale. Instead, there was only a sort of resigned confirmation. The occasional subtle nod or shrug at Hiruzen’s glances was enough to tell him that the normally pragmatic clan head was taking everything Kakashi said seriously.
Finally, Kakashi lowered his hand and slipped it into his pocket. His posture was a seemingly casual slouch, but Hiruzen had known him long enough to read the tension in the tilt of his neck and the tiny lines around his one visible eye.
“And you can confirm this?” Hiruzen asked Hiashi.
Hiashi had his hands folded in front of his stomach, the sleeves of his green overcoat concealing them from view. “I can’t speak from personal experience.” He unlaced his arms and held out one hand which had a scroll rolled up into it. “But this document was written by my brother before his death. One of his last requests was that all its details be locked behind family secret fuinjutsu.” He approached and held the scroll to his Hokage. “I have unsealed it and taken a brief look…”
Hiruzen carefully unrolled the scroll. He allowed a cloud of smoke to escape from his lips and took another breath through the pipe, allowing the smoky-sweet taste to spread down through his lungs and calm his nerves.
“I admit, what is in that scroll is beyond me.” Hiashi stepped backward and resumed his formal posture. “My brother was the trained medic, not I. The routine anatomical training of our clan, while greater than most, was insufficient to the task.”
Hiruzen repressed a shudder. It wouldn’t do for any of his soldiers to see their general being unnerved. Sometimes he imagined most of the Hokage’s job was projecting strength and invincibility, rather than actually having it. He scrolled through the document quickly, his eyes flickering from the complex technical language to the extremely detailed diagrams and back again. Finally he snapped the scroll closed with a flick of his wrist.
“I haven’t seen anything so disturbing since the time we broke into the hidden laboratories of Orochimaru.” The scroll vanished into an inner pocket. “It certainly lends some credibility to Kakashi’s report. Though the other aspects seem strange to me. Time-space jutsu that can create a zone outside of time’s flow? In all the summoning jutsu I have studied, I have never seen anything so bizarre.” He glanced at Kakashi. “And you said it weakened the seal of the Nine-Tailed Fox?”
“It was that which ultimately convinced me to bring all this to your attention,” Kakashi said. He looked away for a moment. “For a time, I considered keeping it a secret like Sakura requested.”
“You seriously considered that?” Hiashi sounded shocked. “If I’d known what was in that scroll nine years ago…” He trailed off.
“I mean, a few minutes is ‘a time’, isn’t it?” He shrugged and turned his attention back to his Hokage. “Sakura… can be extremely convincing when she puts her mind to it.”
“Oh?” Hiruzen prompted him to continue. Sometimes getting things out of Kakashi was like fly-fishing. Patience and a deft hand were required.
“When she summoned that time-space zone – no, even before that, I should have put a stop to the training she proposed right there. An untested and unvetted jutsu cast on my entire team at once? Especially one made of that chaotic presence that infuses her?” He sighed. “Sometimes I wonder what I was thinking.” He shrugged again. “When you’re talking to her, she comes off as so trustworthy and harmless. She really does look like a perfectly innocent cute little girl, and that doesn’t help. Yet later, when I’m alone, I feel doubt about my decisions after her requests. I keep thinking that I should have reacted differently.”
“Do you think she was… influencing you somehow?” Hiashi’s question seemed to lower the temperature in the room.
“A genjutsu?” Hiruzen frowned. He blew a cloud of smoke to conceal his unease.
“I had my Sharingan open during a significant part of our training. If she had been using a genjutsu on me, I would have known.”
“How can you be certain?” Hiashi waved his hand in a subtle gesture that kept the smoke away from him and also conveyed his concern. “You yourself said that whatever this chaotic cloud that Sakura generates, it doesn’t register as chakra. Would your Sharingan be able to pierce it?”
“I believe so.” Kakashi considered his response after he said it, and then nodded. “With the Sharingan active, I was able to see through her chaotic energy much like I am normal genjutsu or transformation techniques. For instance, she is running around all the time with a constant illusion over her body.”
“An illusion?” Hiashi asked.
“You noticed the diagrams of Sakura’s ears?” Kakashi gestured to his own as if to illustrate. “Her ears are actually funnel-shaped and extend something like ten centimetres to the sides. And there are several other cosmetic changes.”
Hiruzen coughed, thinking of his one female student. “At least she shows some traits of a teenage girl.”
“You would think, but if anything her illusion makes her less attractive. She adds minor blemishes, reduces her height by a few centimetres and-” He coughed and gestured vaguely at his chest. “Well, let’s say she looks less… mature in general.” Hiashi’s eyebrows rose alarmingly, but Kakashi could only give him a pained look. “If anything, under her illusion she is almost too perfect. She looks like a sculpture, or an ideal fantasy from some story.”
Hiruzen cleared his throat. “Yes, well… aside from that…” He tapped his pipe against his palm. “The fact remains, what are we going to do about her?”
Kakashi considered his request. Hiashi remained quiet. “I don’t think she is a threat to the village,” he said finally. “Or to her team. Maybe I’m just getting soft in my old age, but I genuinely think she did more damage out of ignorance than anything resembling malice. Plus, the fact she managed to significantly improve both Sasuke and Naruto’s chakra control basically overnight needs to be taken into account.”
“If she is an infiltrator, it is the longest con job in the history of the Elemental Nations.” Hiashi nodded his agreement to Kakashi. “Her mother hasn’t left the village since years before she was born, ever since she was assigned to the code-breaking and analysis unit. Her father does nothing but courier dispatches between low priority villages throughout the Land of Fire. She was born and raised in the village. Unless someone managed to sneak into a kunoichi’s womb, we can be sure she isn’t an outside plant.”
“Though if she does have the ability to ‘step outside time’, she could have done all sorts of journeying about that we wouldn’t be aware of,” Hiruzen said. He didn’t really believe it himself, but it was worth saying. “And what do you think about her desire to conceal her true nature from her Hokage?” He focused his attention on Kakashi again.
Kakashi took his time answering. “She’s afraid.” He looked down. “Almost paranoid. She thinks that someone in the village is a threat to her, or the entire village. She is convinced that if she had allowed her unusual nature slip years ago, something would have happened to her by now.”
“And your opinion?”
Hiashi snorted. “This belief that Konoha produces no clanless geniuses is ridiculous. The fourth Hokage and Lord Jiraiya alone put her words to doubt.”
“The question isn’t whether it’s true,” Kakashi said. “It’s whether she believes it.”
“Why would she believe it?” Hiashi said.
Kakashi glanced at Hiruzen. “Remember ten years ago, when she was first coming into her power, was when a large number of chunin, jonin and genin vanished.”
Hiruzen clenched his pipe in his teeth. Orochimaru… how far did one foolish old man’s mistakes extend?
Kakashi sighed. “I guess if anyone is going to talk about it, then it has to be me.” He turned to face his Hokage. “The fact is, there are very few ninja from the other side of the sheets.”
Hiashi gave Kakashi a frown. Hiruzen coughed again.
“In a ninja village, ninja relieve stress wherever they can.” Kakashi rubbed the back of his neck. “There are bound to be… one night stands and such. Birth control in the village is advanced for that reason. But… accidents happen.”
“Are you suggesting…?” Hiashi trailed off into a slightly offended expression.
“I’m just saying that a lot of ninja in Konoha seem to have certain clannish traits. The Hatake have strong noses… just like the Inuzuka. Certain other ninja have seemingly pupilless eyes. And so on.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Hiashi said and turned his nose up.
“Even so.” Kakashi looked at Hiruzen. “It seems that, in a lot of cases, these children with undocumented parentage… Not many of them end up joining the academy. For various reasons.” Kakashi shrugged, his hands in his pockets. His visible eye focused on the Hokage. “But still, we both know that sometimes young people end up on dark paths in life.”
Hiruzen gripped his pipe tightly and inhaled sharply. Hiashi was protesting, but Hiruzen didn’t care about the words. The fact was that he trusted everyone in his village. And yet, in times past, he had been betrayed. His own student, Orochimaru, had been experimenting on civilians and ninja beneath his very nose for years.
His grip became white-knuckled, then he forced himself to relax. Orochimaru was a problem for the future, not something to worry about now.
“So, you’re saying that Sakura saw these trends but came to the wrong conclusions?” he asked finally.
“It’s possible,” Kakashi said. He shrugged again. “She’s a genius, certified brilliant. She could have put together hints and rumors and a bit of research and come to an almost correct idea.” Leaning back in his chair, his visible eye stared at the rough-hewn stone of the ceiling as he tapped idly at the table with one hand. “She certainly came up with a brilliant plan in Wave country. I never would have thought of cutting right to the heart of the issue by taking out Gato himself.”
“A mission you weren’t paid for,” Hiruzen said mildly.
“Yes, well… at that point we were volunteering anyway, so why not go all the way?” He shrugged. “The fact the Demon of Kirigakure and his ward ended up dead shows her planning skills aren’t as advanced as they could be. She understands people, but not ninja.”
“Then do we trust this girl?” Hiashi cut straight back to the point.
“She’s no danger to my team or the village.”
“I agree.” Hiruzen waved his hand to dismiss the question. “A bit of paranoia can be warranted, but her unknown power is no reason to drag her to Torture and Interrogation all by itself.” He took another draw on his pipe. “Keeping her abilities secret is not a particularly suspicious request in a village of ninja, who can live or die based on their abilities being leaked to a future enemy.” He released a cloud of smoke. “I’ll agree to keep this all a secret between just the three of us for now. There is no other ninja I would entrust this valuable girl with than you, Kakashi.”
“Thank you, Hokage.” Kakashi gave as good a formal bow as he could, which wasn’t much.
“There is one other thing.” Hiashi removed another scroll from his sleeves. “This letter is one my brother wrote before his death. He asked me not to unseal it until the untimely death or disappearance of Haruno Sakura. I still haven’t broken the seal on it.”
The question was obvious. If ordered, Hiashi would unseal it at the request of his Hokage. Hiruzen spent a few minutes enjoying his pipe and considering the offer. His mind flashed back to that confrontation, ten years ago in the sewers beneath Konoha. The forbidden knowledge sealed down there, forever, by his own hand. What kind of terrible secrets had been contained within? What path did curiosity lead to?
Finally he extinguished it and tapped the ash into his pouch. “Very well, I’ll leave that in your capable hands. I imagine it contains some secrets of Sakura’s mahoujutsu, much like the medical report contains secrets of her body modifications. Intellectually interesting, but until we can turn them from theory into something all ninja could benefit from, not worth breaking a brother’s sacred trust.”
Hiashi inclined his head slightly, and the scroll vanished into his sleeve again.
Hiruzen straightened up and walked slowly but gracefully to the exit. “If that is all, gentlemen, I have other duties I am no doubt being missed at even now. In less than two months we begin the chunin selection exams, and there is much to prepare for.” He paused and looked over his shoulder. “Isn’t that right, Kakashi?”
“I understand, Hokage.” He nodded and made a hand sign, then vanished.
Yamanaka Ino was the best kunoichi of her generation. If anybody had questioned that obvious fact, she wouldn’t even get angry; she’d pity them for their lack of perception instead.
Then she’d get angry, because she already had enough numbskulls to put up with without adding another.
Her credentials spoke for themselves. Here she was, barely three months out of the academy, and already her sensei had put her up for the chunin exams. If only she could count on those selfsame numbskills to hold up their end of the deal, her future was set – but it wasn’t looking good. One of them, after all, was such a lazy fool she’d had to cajole him into even showing up!
Ino glared at him accusatorily. Shikamaru was crouched next to the wall, looking wistfully out the window. His short black hair was tightly bound in a topknot that looked like a spiky pineapple, and he wore a vest and ninja mesh. His expression, as usual, was pained and tired. He even wore his hitai-ate as an armband, as if he couldn’t be bothered to tie it on properly.
Then there was Choji, who was nervously eating as he looked furtively around an auditorium full of foreign ninja and older Konoha genin. She could tell it was his nervous eating (as opposed to his bored eating or excited eating or just eating eating) because he concealed the crunch of his potato chips. Brown hair stuck out from the holes in his headband, which was at least on his forehead. His cheeks were marked with red spirals, and he wore a long scarf and green jacket open in the front to show off the clan seal on his shirt.
Ino knew that her father and theirs had made some sort of super team, but so far Ino had been dragging her teammates around by their necks. She crossed her arms and tossed her head in disdain. Unlike her two fashion disaster teammates, Ino’s flattering purple outfit combined style and functionality. Her hitai-ate was belted at her waist, which was admittedly unorthodox, but necessary to let her fabulous blonde locks free, displayed elegantly in a combat-suitable ponytail.
Well, in a way, the unfitness of the other two just was another tribute to how amazing Ino was. Obviously, her sensei Azuma was overwhelmed by her skill, determination, intelligence, amazing jutsu and, most of all, beauty and charm! This upcoming competition would finally prove once and for all that Yamanaka Ino was the best kunoichi of her generation, and the most deserving to be Sasuke’s one true love! She clenched her fist and smirked to herself.
“Look out, here it comes…” Shikamaru muttered to Choji.
Ino chose to ignore him. “I can’t wait to show Sakura up with my new chunin vest,” she said. “It’s going to be so cool. I’ll finally prove that I’m better than her at every ninja technique, and win Sasuke’s heart at the same time.” She crossed her arms and nodded.
“Yup,” Shikamaru said.
“I’ll teach her to edge me out in every exam!” she continued. “Miss Perfect Grades can’t be a teacher’s pet forever. In the real world, practical skills beat out theory every single time!”
“That’s right,” Shikamaru said.
She clenched her fists. “Can you believe the nerve of that girl? ‘I don’t need you Ino, sorry.'” She mimed Sakura’s pathetic voice perfectly. “Throwing away my offer of friendship to hang out with that Hyuga princess? She thinks she’s better than everyone! And she wants to rub it in everyone’s faces!”
“You bet, Ino.”
“And the pinnacle of the insults is that she got put in the same team as Sasuke!” Ino threw her head to the side, letting her long ponytail fan out. “That isn’t even fair! Doesn’t she already have a boyfriend?”
“Man, Shikamaru, why’re you going along with this?” Choji asked between handfuls of chips.
“Going along with her is easier,” Shikamaru said. “Having her yell at me is too troublesome.”
Ino suppressed her twitching eyebrows. She reminded herself she needed both of them to get through the exam and earn what was rightfully hers. In fact, this was a golden opportunity! If part of being a chunin was showing leadership, she’d show she could motivate even a lazy ass like Shikamaru and a glutton like Choji.
“Ino, how pleasant to see that you have been put up for promotion, too.”
She jerked her head back to her front. Her mouth formed a line of displeasure. Hinata and her team had arrived while she’d been distracted by her entirely justified annoyance at her teammates and that damn Miss Perfect Sakura Haruno.
Hinata was shorter than Ino, and wore a large overcoat that seemed more suitable to winter weather than the normally pleasant heat of the Fire Country. Her hitai-ate was tied prominently to her forehead and her dark – almost purple – hair was styled in a neat bob cut to frame it. Her eyes had pupils that were the same white as her eyes, making them almost impossible to pick out. Just as how Ino’s pupils had shrunk so much that it almost looked like she had nothing but irises, they were a legacy of clan breeding.
Standing behind her were two boys. Like her, both wore their headbands properly around their forehead. The one on her right was the scruffy Inuzuka, wearing a dirty hoodie and with a puppy perched in his unkempt brown hair. Even his fang-shaped cheek tattoos looked uncleaned. Ino shuddered at that level of dirt. The other was the silent Aburame. Like always, he wore a high collared coat and tinted wire rim glass that left most of him concealed. Ino didn’t know him that well, and wasn’t in a hurry to change that. He wasn’t a dirty ruffian like Inuzuka Kiba, but something about him always gave her the creeps anyway.
“Hinata,” Ino said warmly. In contrast to her two creepy squad members, Hinata carried herself with a sort of meticulous pride. Ino wished she could have gotten to know her better. As the two genius clan kunoichi of their year, the two would have been natural allies. But Hinata was always walking around with Sakura. And worse yet, Hinata was so nice and open and pleasant to everyone that all the girls in their class wanted to hang around with the two of them rather than Ino. “Your team is participating, too?”
“Ah, I suppose we are.” Hinata blushed demurely, but didn’t take her eyes off Ino. “Though sometimes I think sensei Kurenai just wants to push us extra hard.”
“C’mon, Hinata,” Kiba said as he slugged her playfully in the shoulder. “This is just proof that we’re the cream of the crop.” He grinned, his enlarged canines giving his expression a feral look. “I keep hearing stories from my pop and older sister about how in the old days, the promotions came fast and furious in the field. We’re just going to show them that this generation is full of great ninja.”
“We must have earned this. Why? Because I trust sensei to have faith in us.” Aburame adjusted his glasses with one hand, then hid the hand in the pockets of his long coat.
“This is great!” Ino said. “It’s going to be fun to have a chance for just us girls to work together and pass the exam together.” She slapped a fist into her palm, smirking. “But don’t think I’m going to go easy on you if we end facing each other in the exam. You won’t have Sakura around to bail you out anymore.”
“I look forward to the competition,” Hinata said, bowing slightly. “But Sakura is right over there.” Rising, she pointed.
Ino’s smile was a little forced as she turned her head. Sure enough, her own personal menace was walking towards the two groups of rookie genin with a dreamy smile on her face. She was taking up the rear of her team. Her hitai-ate was hung around her neck like a necklace. She had taken to wearing a long red cloak that she kept open, revealing the ankle to neck black bodysuit she wore underneath. Her boots, along with fingerless gloves, elbow and knee pads and some sort of belt, were made of armoured ceramic. Her long pink hair glittered in the meagre light of the auditorium.
In front of her came that absolute loser, Naruto. He wore his forehead protector properly, which only made his spiky blond hair look even more ridiculous. He wore a loud orange coat and pants. His grin was both challenging and cheerful.
Just to Naruto’s left walked-
“Sasuke!” Ino threw herself over his shoulder, wrapping her arms around his neck and pressing her chest against his.
“Ugh,” Sasuke said, his body stiffening. “You again.”
“Sasuke, you talk about me in that tone and you’ll hurt my feelings,” Ino said with a seductive croon.
“Can you get her off me?” he asked Sakura.
Sakura blinked, then waved her hand dismissively. “Oh no, I learned my lesson about getting between the two of you in another life.”
Ino let him go and backed off, though she made certain to angle her stance to perfectly flatter her charm points. “Don’t be so coy, Sasuke,” she said in a teasing tone. “Eventually, you’ll be won over by my beauty!”
Sakura coughed into her fist, and for some reason the Aburame barked out a short laugh immediately after. Kiba gave the taller boy a weird look before going back to casting the stink eye at Sakura.
“Man, they really let the standards for this test drop if you two are here,” Kiba sneered towards Sakura and Naruto. “A chakraless brainiac and a hopeless idiot.” He smirked at Sasuke. “I guess they had to make allowances for the top rookie to get in.”
Sasuke gave him a level stare. Then he grunted and put his hands into his pockets and turned away. He glanced at Hinata, who had shrunk back a bit. She was blushing prettily and fidgeting her fingers. All the decorum seemed to have faded out of her.
“Oh, hey, I see Lee and Neji!” Sakura said and pointed. “I’ll be right back, I want to say hi.” She stepped away. Naruto perked up and chased after her, waving to attract her attention. Sasuke looked like he wanted to follow, but apparently decided to not bother.
Hinata was left gazing longingly after the departing pair. She had an odd look on her face as the two chatted amiably while they walked. Naruto had his hands laced behind his neck. Sakura was making some obscure gestures with her hands.
“Why do you like those two so much anyway, Hinata?” Kiba asked bluntly. “They’re losers and always will be losers.”
“Kiba!” she said with a very polite force. “Sakura has been my friend for years, and Naruto…” She trailed off and tapped her fingers together. She shook her head. “Sakura has been nothing but nice to me. I wish you two could get along.”
Kiba grunted and rubbed his nose. His puppy barked encouragement. “She just rubs me the wrong way, playing at being a ninja because she thinks she’s so smart.” He grunted. “Besides, she stinks.” Everyone stared at him. “C’mon, you guys can smell it too, right? It’s disgusting.” He spat as if trying to get the taste of her scent out of his mouth.
“Ah, Neji, you’re here, too?”
Ino stepped back as a trio of older genin were dragged into the circle of Konoha rookies. Neji was obviously the tall Hyuga boy; long hair immaculate, pristine beige top and black shorts that stood out starkly against his pale skin. He was also being dragged along by Sakura, who had her arm looped through one of his. The boy had an expression of serene annoyance on his face. Ino was impressed; she had never seen someone manage to pull that off.
Behind the two of them came two older genin. One was a girl wearing a pink top with her hair done up in buns. She was gazing at the back of the Hyuga and Sakura with a wistful look. The other was a boy with an ugly bowl cut, an uglier green spandex jumpsuit and even uglier giant bushy eyebrows. As he spotted the group, he ran slightly ahead and stood before them, bouncing on his heels.
“Ah, my fellow young genin! Truly I am pleased to see you burn so bright these days!” He clenched one fist and gestured expansively towards the crowds of other examinees clustered throughout the room. “It will be amazing working together and against each other, in the spirit of competition!”
“You moron,” Neji growled. At some point Sakura had released his arm and was standing nearby, rocking on her heels with a dreamy smile on her face. “Stop drawing attention. All that effort at the fake entrance will be wasted if you keep this up.”
“Stop picking on Lee, Neji!” Hinata said, poking him gently in the shoulder. Neji frowned and grimaced at her. “You’re supposed to be friends.”
“Don’t but Hinata me.” Hinata crossed her arms, her normally demure expression and attitude evaporating. “You’re terrible at making friends, Neji. If I didn’t bully you, then you’d be driving everyone off with your dour face and attitude.”
Neji ducked his head, declining to meet her suddenly fierce gaze. “Hinata, you know I didn’t really mean it.”
“Apologise to Lee, then!”
Neji looked at her with a resigned expression and then to Sakura. She smiled and gave him a thumbs up. He rubbed his face. “I’m sorry, Lee.”
“All is forgiven, my stoic teammate!” Lee said with excessive enthusiasm. He gave a thumbs up as well.
“Wow, Hinata can be bossy when she wants to be,” Naruto said in wonder.
Suddenly Hinata froze. Her face turned deep red. She glanced at Naruto, who had wandered back into the group again. She was stammering and poking her fingers together. Naruto glanced at her then at Sakura. Sakura was rubbing her face with both hands and shaking her head slightly.
Ino and the kunoichi in the hair buns exchanged a knowing glance.
“Sakura, you have my overwhelming gratitude,” Lee said and turned to her, clenching both fists. “Allow me to repay your kindness by taking you on a date!” He snapped into a new pose, giving her a thumbs up and a wink.
Sakura’s grin was a little strained. “Lee…” She ducked her head. “Lee, you truly are the hero this world deserves, but not the hero it needs.” She looked up, tears dripping from her eyes in big extravagant streams. “But I cannot return your feelings!”
Lee rocked back on one leg and grasped at his heart. “My heart will burst if you keep treating me this way!” He stamped down, causing a small cloud of dust to raise from his feet as he pointed at her. “But I will prove myself!” He turned to Neji. “Just you wait, Neji! I will exceed you in Sakura’s heart!”
“You can have her, Lee.” Neji looked vaguely ill. “Stop dragging me into these childish games.” He glanced at Hinata, but she appeared distracted. “…fool.”
“Then Neji leaves me no choice!” Lee spun back to Sakura and pointed at her again. “I challenge you, again! To win your heart!”
“That isn’t how it works, Lee,” Sakura said with a long-suffering smile.
“Then I challenge you, to a race to make chunin first, and if I lose, I will run one thousand times around the village on one hand!” He spun dramatically and pointed at the sky.
“Lee…” Sakura spun and pointed at the sky as well. “I accept your challenge! And if I lose, I’ll do one million math proofs!”
“As expected of my rival!” Lee said with a goofy grin. “Truly, your penalty games fill my soul with dread.”
“Wait, wait,” Naruto broke in. “You’re Sakura’s rival?” He turned to Sakura. “This bushy brows is your rival, really?”
“Indeed!” Lee said with a nod. “So far we have fought one hundred battles, and of those clashes I have emerged the victor fifty-one times!”
Suddenly Sasuke moved, grabbing Lee’s extended fist by the wrist. “Fifty-one times?” he said with a snarl. “You have to be joking.”
“Nope,” Sakura said with a whimsical popping sound. She crossed her arms behind her back and rocked on her heels slightly. “I find Lee is an excellent opponent to test out my taijutsu.”
Sasuke stared between Lee and Sakura for a moment before releasing Lee’s wrist. He rubbed his hand slightly, giving the bandages wrapped around Lee’s wrists a careful glance. Lee grinned cheerfully at him. “You would be Uchiha Sasuke! I had hoped to catch you outside the exam room so that we could test each other’s skills.”
Sasuke smirked. “Why stand on formality?” he said. “If you want to fight, I’m right here.” His eyes narrowed.
“Seriously, is nobody else amazed that bushy brows is anyone’s rival?”
“To fight you would be a pleasure.” Lee’s face remained unthreatening, but now had a more serious frown. “You are one of the ones known as a genius. But I wish to prove myself a superior ninja with nothing but hard work and taijutsu! You would be a stepping stone on my path.” Lee stood straight, one arm tucked behind his back and the other with the palm held up, inward towards his face.
“I’m nobody’s stepping stone,” Sasuke said with a smirk. He began to fall into a stance.
“Get him, Sasuke!” Ino shouted.
“You guys should be careful, you’re drawing attention to yourselves.”
The words seemed to defuse the sudden tension, and everyone turned. A tall genin with a Konoha headband and white hair was standing a few paces away. He wore a purple uniform which looked vaguely like that of the nurses in the hospital.
“I’m sorry for butting in on a reunion between friends, but I – and everyone in the room – couldn’t help but overhear.” He stepped forward. “If you want some advice from a veteran of the-“
He stopped suddenly as Sakura appeared between him and the group. Her stance was tense, her body angled to present him the smallest profile. Her hand had snapped out and caught the genin’s wrist. Her pupils had shrunk even as her eyes widened, and her grin was defiant and wild.
“Nobody asked for your fucking advice, you piece of shit,” she spat. “Why don’t you squirm back into whatever sewer you crawled out of, before I decide to save myself a lot of trouble and rip your fucking head off?”
The boy pulled lightly at her grip, and for a single moment Ino thought Sakura really was going to attack. Then she released him and stepped away, still keeping herself between him and the rest of the rookie genin.
“Quite the grip,” he said mildly, examining his wrist. He shrugged. “If you don’t want to talk to me, then I won’t intrude.” He turned away but paused, speaking over his shoulder at them. “But maybe think of how seriously everyone else in this room, many of them from very far away, are taking this exam… even if you guys are acting like school kids.”
Sakura chuckled as he left and turned back to the group, rubbing the back of her neck in embarrassment. “Sorry guys, sometimes I get carried away with myself.”
Yakushi Kabuto walked across the auditorium, rubbing his wrist. A discreet scan showed some minor stress fractures on the bones. The girl was strong, he had to give her that. He flipped out one of his data cards and activated it with a pulse of chakra. Her stats were illuminating, though there was no indication of any special strength or the chakra control required to enhance it.
Orochimaru was going to be upset with him for not getting himself closer to the Uchiha boy. Still, there would be plenty more opportunities throughout the exam for Kabuto to advance his master’s agenda. He made certain to take a long route back to his team, which was also packed with spies Orochimaru had managed to either insert or corrupt out of the supposedly loyal ninja of Konoha. As he walked, he passed by the trio of ninja from the village of Sound.
He wasn’t impressed by what he saw. He was even less impressed by how slapdash the security must have been in the village. All three of the young ninja were acting hostile and suspicious, which wasn’t precisely unusual. However, the ninja from the other villages at least came from allies that had been trusted for years. These came from a group that had appeared almost literally overnight, in the ten years since Orochimaru’s defection, from a land that Konoha had never even visited.
Disposable weapons, Kabuto concluded as he approached the rest of his team. All of them. Orochimaru had some agenda of his own here, some greater plan. Kabuto wasn’t certain if the objective was Uchiha Sasuke’s nascent Sharingan, the destruction of Konoha for revenge (or amusement), or if the only real point to the entire infiltration was simply to show that he could. Kabuto honestly thought it might be a combination of all three.
“You’re back quickly,” Yoroi said when Kabuto arrived. Kabuto smiled thinly. He could read the condemnation in the simple words, even behind the man’s mostly concealed expression.
“I was surprised,” Kabuto said. The two gave him long looks. “Just be ready to play your part. Keep in mind our mission.” The two turned their attention away from him to focus on the group of Konoha rookies across the room. They were clustered like children, laughing and mocking each other.
A brief flare of pain escaped from Kabuto’s heart, but it was quickly captured and removed by his iron will. His fingers twitched, and he turned his attention from the Uchiha to the girl who had so suddenly and thoroughly driven him out of the group and away from his primary mission. He looked at his hand again and smiled, a secret knowing smile.
Sometimes even Orochimaru underestimated Kabuto’s skills. Kabuto had been working for his secret master for years, but before that he was a weapon of Root and had been on more infiltration and undercover missions than he could easily remember. Being underestimated and unknown was his specialty. He was so good at it that on occasion even Kabuto found it difficult to recall who he really was.
That experience had cost him much, but it had also brought benefits – like his ability to use the Diagnosis Jutsu without any visible hand signs or other clues. He rubbed his wrist and allowed his smile to remain in place. Yes. There was certainly something that had surprised him.
Ino froze. The first thing she noticed was wrong was that she was still in her own body. The Yamanaka secret jutsu, Shintenshin, allowed her to move her mind into the body of another. It was originally designed to be used on animals, but had been perfected for use on humans and even enemy ninja over time. It was the ultimate infiltration technique, allowing a ninja to enter an enemy stronghold as one of the enemy. As a result, Ino had been drilled extensively on the use of the jutsu with all sorts of bodies. It was a requirement that she be able to perfectly assume the body language of her target instantly, often right in front of sentries or alert bystanders.
So when she had looked at the questions on her exam sheet that freaky scar-faced proctor was forcing them to go through, her first thought had been that there was no chance of answering half of them. Ino was smart. You didn’t learn the ability to adopt the mannerisms of dozens of different people without having some degree of intelligence. And so it didn’t take her long to realise that she wasn’t intended to answer most of these questions, especially when combined with the speech given by the proctor about how the test was being graded.
In effect the rule was ‘cheat, but don’t get caught.’
If there was one person Ino knew would have all the answers, it would be Sakura. The insufferable girl had taken pride in answering every question at the academy she could, always showing off her book smarts to make up for her chakra being so low Ino couldn’t even feel it. So Ino had, of course, decided to let Sakura produce the answers for her.
She had been expecting to make her hand seal, shoot her soul out of her body and into Sakura, and take over the girl’s brain just long enough to steal all the information she needed. She certainly had not been expecting to appear in a… wherever this was.
It certainly was not in the auditorium any more. The place was made of softwoods and glass, with furnishings in the form of comfortable stuffed leather chairs and semi-circular couches and lounges. They formed intimate conversation circles or secluded nooks and crannies where one could be alone with their thoughts. Plants – some Ino recognised and others she had never seen before – decorated the walls and floor, along with objets de arts such as paintings and sculptures. Along one wall there was a serving window which opened into a kitchen of some kind.
The other windows looked out upon… an impossible vision. Far off in the distance, hovering like a glowing blue and white jewel, was a sphere. It was impossibly huge, and incredibly distant. Ino’s fingers were shaking as she looked at it. Navigation was a required course, and navigation required an accurate knowledge of the shape of the planet.
It was impossible, but that was a world. The entire world. She was staring down at the world.
What was this place?
“Nice, isn’t it?”
Ino turned her head slowly, and that was the point she realised she had collapsed onto her backside, barely propped up by her arms. Sakura was crouched next to her, smiling in a weirdly friendly way. Except it wasn’t Sakura. It was a girl who looked a lot like Sakura but also a lot unlike her. She had features that were more defined, with less little imperfections. Plus her ears were long and pointed, shaped like funnels or knives.
“Sakura…” Ino began uncertainly.
“It’s not what you think,” the Sakura-lookalike said. She gestured out the window. “That isn’t our world out there.” She smiled wistfully and placed her chin in her hands. “It’s a planet called Earth. Of course, I’ve never been there except in VR.”
“It’s only a model,” another voice said. Ino twisted her head and saw another Sakura… no, wait. This wasn’t the same Sakura. For one thing, this was a man. It looked like an older version of Sakura, a brother perhaps. The same pink hair, but styled more boyishly. “Now what are we going to do with you?” he asked.
“Aaron, we can’t hurt her,” the pointy-eared Sakura said, bouncing to her feet.
“I never said that,” this older male version of Sakura said, crossing his arms. “Besides, it’s not a decision I can make all by myself.” Ino looked around and noticed that there were more than two Sakuras around the room. There were eight. The one standing near them was the only male version – all the others looked like variations on Sakura, like a clan of older sisters. They all had those long ears, though each had their own distinctive traits as well.
“Would you guys keep it down in there?,” a voice – another Sakura’s voice – suddenly flooded the room from what sounded like an intercom. “I’m trying to keep an eye on this exam.”
The male version held up his hand, clutching some sort of device that looked like a small microphone. “Forget the exam. It’s not important now. We have a level 1 security breach in interior consciousness. We need everyone on deck.”
“What?” The voice in the intercom sounded shocked. “That’s impossible.”
“And yet…” the boy-Sakura said.
“Well, they’re going to notice if I let us collapse face-first into the desk in meatspace,” the voice responded.
“Run a gamma fork or a NPC simulation,” the boy replied into his device, waving his other hand dismissively. “It’s not like anything important happens here. We could pass this entire test by sitting still for the whole thing.”
“Aren’t you the one who said that Ino should ignore us for the entire test, as well?” the Sakura next to Ino asked in a mocking tone.
“We’ll figure out why she targeted us later,” the boy said to her. He looked up at the ceiling. “You ready yet?”
There was a hiss of steam from a nearby doorway. A cloud of white billowed out as another version of Sakura stepped into the room, waving the mist away from her face. She appeared like an adult version of Sakura, more developed in every way. She was also wearing a pair of glasses and had her hair pulled back in a bun. Like all the other Sakuras, she had long ears, but her features were sharper.
“It really is Ino,” the new Sakura observed as she walked up to the small group. The rest of the Sakuras were clustered around the walls, watching carefully. Except one, who had walked over and thrown herself into a stuffed easy chair, kicking her feet up on the arms of another chair nearby. She pulled out a kunai and began to sharpen it with a whetstone. She caught Ino staring and looked at her, grinning. Ino shuddered. This girl had teeth like needles and eyes slitted like a cat. There was something feral and dangerous about her.
“Fascinating,” the newly arrived Sakura said. Her eyes were studying Ino through her glasses as she gripped the frames with one hand. She crouched down to get a better view. “Absolutely fascinating. There is no chakra network for her to grip onto, so how is she here?” She looked at the male Sakura. “She should have passed right through us like a wall or a mist.”
“Well, so much for theory, I guess,” the boy said and placed his hands in his pockets.
“I don’t think you understand how amazing this is,” the glasses-girl stood up, her fists clenched in front of her face. “This has implications for our entire theory of natural law for this world!” She bounced back and forth on her heels, grinning impishly. “Could it be that her ‘soul’ is not made of chakra, but some other substance entirely? There could be whole entire layers of existence that are being opened by this revelation!” Her voice rose in pitch as she spoke until she began to squeal out her words. “And for her soul to interface with our sense implants and embody itself in a virtual simulation!” She spun in place, throwing out her arms towards the ceiling. “Could this be ‘residual self-image’, or some other phenomena yet to be discovered?!” She spun and leaned over Ino, reaching out with both hands, her fingers undulating in a terrifying manner. “I want to dissect her soul…” she said hungrily.
“No!” The teenage version of Sakura jumped in and began to push the scary glasses lady version away with one palm. “Bad! No dissecting souls!”
The older one was making feeble efforts to get past the younger version. “But… but science!”
“No!” younger Sakura insisted. Ino shrank down in her shadow. Her heart felt like it was beating a thousand times a second. She clutched at her chest and throat, trying to breathe and calm herself. She was a ninja! What was this pathetic performance?
“I’m sorry about her,” the boy said, crouching down next to her. “Some of me doesn’t understand ethics or morality very well. That’s why we usually make big decisions together.”
“I am not a committee!” one of the ones on the periphery of the room shouted and then broke down laughing. Everyone glared at her until she grew quiet. She backed away, muttering to herself and sulking. “Philistines… do you know how long I’ve been waiting to make that joke…”
The boy shook his head and turned his attention back to Ino. He straightened and offered his hand. “Come on, stand up.”
Ino batted his hand away and leapt to her own feet. “Who? What?” She flicked her vision from point to point in the room. “What is this? Some sort of genjutsu? What game are you playing, Sakura?”
The words seemed to amuse him, because he smiled slightly before wiping the expression off his face. “This is confusing. I understand.” He reached out his hand again. “I’m sorry I startled you. This is a lot to take in all at once.”
“All at once?” Ino yelled. “I won’t be fooled by your genjutsu, Sakura. I don’t know how you managed to capture me out of the Shintenshin, especially with your pitiful chakra, but you won’t gain anything with this charade.”
“Hey, that’s an option,” another of the Sakuras said, walking in from the corner of the room. This one was older, like the terrifying glasses lady, but wore a long robe and a big pointed hat with a wide brim. “We could just let her continue to think this is a genjutsu. Just me messing with her head.” She looked at the boy. “Or I could alter her…”
“No,” the boy said firmly. “We’re not messing with memories or identity.” He shook his head.
“You never let me have any fun,” she sighed and gestured, floating one of the chairs over and sitting in it. “You have my suggestion. I literally could not care less about what happens to the Yamanaka.”
“The trouble will be if she reports this,” another Sakura said. This one was leaning against the window with her hands laced behind her back. She was dressed more provocatively than the others. “Even if she believes this is just a genjutsu, what if the village authorities don’t?” She tilted her head back. “We’re too close to the plan starting in earnest to let a wild card interfere now.”
“Let’s kill her,” the feral Sakura with the needle teeth said.
“That’s your answer to everything,” the one at the window snapped back.
“I am what I made me,” the girl said with a grin. “Unless any of you bleeding hearts have the will to do what is required in the end?” Everyone gave her grave looks but raised no objections. “I didn’t think so. Fucking useless compassion, all of you.”
The boy glared at her. “We’ve been letting you out too much. You’re getting arrogant.”
“Let?” the girl smirked.
“Beside, if we kill her there will be even more questions than if we let her out with a crazy story about weird genjutsu.”
“I could whip up a parasite seed,” scary-glasses-lady Sakura said eagerly.
“No killing!” teenage Sakura snapped.
“We’ll store her original personality as a ghost program,” the scary one said, holding up her hands in a placating manner. “And she’ll be better off with a full nanomorph body anyway!” She looked around. “I’ve wanted to see how a chakra network would interact with a full bioplas body for ages! Please!”
“I agree with Sakura Prime,” the boy said with a sigh. “No killing, and certainly no messing around with people’s bodies or minds without their permission.”
“Hey, Ino, can I please dissect your so-“
“No! Bad!” Sakura the teenager pointed to a corner. The glasses-lady ducked her head and walked over like a chastised child.
“What a mess,” the boy rubbed a hand over his face. “Anyone else have any plans – that don’t involve murder or mind rape?”
“I agree with Sakura Arcana,” the one at the window said. “If we can’t do anything drastic, we have no choice but to let her go and hope her story is so crazy no one believes it.” A general assent passed through the crowd of Sakuras.
The boy turned to Ino and nodded. “Okay, you can go. Maybe you should leave now, before you see anything else that will give you nightmares?”
Ino looked around the room. She had no idea what Sakura hoped to gain from such a crazy genjutsu, but decided she didn’t care. This was obviously a dead end, and Ino needed to get back to her own body so she could find another source of answers. Choji and Shikamaru were counting on her to gather intelligence!
“Fine, whatever, crazy Sakura.” Ino made a hand sign. “Shintenshin, release!”
Ino felt the first creeping edges of panic. She made the hand seals again and concentrated, trying to draw up chakra. “Release!” she called. Nothing happened. “What, why can’t I feel any chakra flowing through the seal…”
“Uh, Ino. A question, if you would.” The Sakura with the pointed hat held up one hand and sat forward. “How do you use jutsu when you are possessing someone else’s body?”
“I…” Well, it wasn’t exactly a secret. “I use the chakra of the victim.”
All the Sakuras exchanged a series of chagrined glances. The feral one threw back her head and laughed.
“Well, fuck,” the boy said, rubbing the back of his head.