Advice from a Caterpillar

save me,

I'm together with your plans

The sky curled around at the edges of the world, a looming dome of black clouds shifting across the night like loam, the broken moon hanging limp and useless in the sky and a man with wild hair and a monster with the world in it's jaws bore each other down and their eyes made of rings met like infinity to infinity, and somehow, between the world ending and the beast in front of him his purpose struck him with startling clarity, because the man with the thousand eyes and the demon who ate a thousand souls were all coming together, all coming together—

And a crack sounded on his window and Naruto fell out of his bed.

He gasped for breath, staring dazedly up at his ceiling.

Behind his eyes his dream dissolved into nothing, leaving him with a tangled knot of emotions—fear, lament, and regret; all of which congealed together into something terrible that sat at the bottom of his stomach.

In his mouth was the taste of blood—whose, he didn't know. This, however, was not all that surprising. Recently, he didn't even know himself.

After a moment or two, as he lay there catching his heartbeat, his eyes turned quietly to the impassive mask on the other side of his window.

The expressionless mask gave nothing away, but Naruto felt as if he could smell apprehension off the man anyway.

"Did you need something?" He yawned, stretching, the last flickering memories of his dream fading with the warm light of morning.

The ANBU held up a scroll, rapping it lightly against the glass before he set it on the sill, erupting into a cloud of smoke.

Naruto sighed.


Abruptly, something lodged in his throat and he flew up off the bed, falling to his knees on the floor and choking up a storm. He coughed blood all over the carpet, the color a thick, dark red poison, clotted as if it had been there for some time. Naruto gagged. That was disgusting. Even worse—now it was never going to get out of his carpet.

"That's fucking gross." He scowled, directing this towards his demon tenant.

Kyuubi did not deign this with a response.




Hi no Kuni loped around the ocean in a string of sharp rock faces and brittle trees, the entire landscape covered judiciously with mountainous drifts of sand and framed by an immense and cloudless sky. To its right was the inaccurately named nation of River country—for no rivers flowed through the land until its border with Ame. The rest had been besieged by desert rapidly spreading from Suna.

All this meant that traveling around this part of the country meant traveling with little to no cover. It was half the reason ninja avoided and half the reason no one lived there in the first place.

The only indent of civilization lay in a winding road that lead the trail from the one end of Hi no Kuni all the way to the very edges of Sunagakure. While treacherous and incredibly tedious, it was the only legitimate way between the two countries.

The looping road leveled parallel to the only establishment Yugao had seen for miles; a dilapidated shack of wood, leaning into the side of a sand dune, weathered from years of the elements until it looked just as desolate and unwanted as the rest of this godforsaken land. No other movement but the soundless flutter of the paper fringes hanging from the thatched roof, no other sound but the sorrowful, half-hearted chime of bells at the entrance. Yugao peered up sightlessly into the blinding sky—not a cloud in sight.

What a mission. No cover, nowhere to run. She counted down the seconds in her head, feeling skittish and on edge just by waiting out here.

Towa posted up not too far from her, perched upon one of the wooden stumps surrounding the entrance that she supposed had, at some point, resembled a fence. He hunched over himself gracelessly, cigarette in hand—looking about as put upon as she did and doing about as fine a job of keeping watch.

Not that she could blame him; they'd been out here for the better part of the last three hours.

Koga, their usual negotiator, had claimed illness and was currently in the hospital with a deathly case of the flu. Or so he had liberally insisted; something told Yugao that he had actually just hoped the border into Tea country, undoubtedly to make amends with his on and off again girlfriend—of whom he complained about, loudly, all the goddamn time.

And Captain Tenzou… being the lovable and irrevocably gullible man he was, readily allowed him to leave. She wouldn't have minded—really, she would be the first in line punting him over the border if it meant he'd finally stop bemoaning his love life (or lack thereof)—but Yamato could take hours negotiating and consistently gave them a worse bargain then they had come for.

But, more importantly—hours. Hours.

And then, there was Kyuubi.

The demon stood as an immovable presence in sharp relief of billowing dust clouds; a silent, inhuman wraith. If he had moved even a muscle since they had arrived, she did not know of it. And she'd been staring at him, scrutinizing, for the better part of a half hour.

Towa sighed loudly, stubbing out the end of his cigarette. "How much longer is he gonna take?"

Her eyes slid over to her companion in exasperation. He, of all people, should be just as aware of Yamato's unfortunate tendencies as she was. After all, the two of them had been on Yamato's team since, well—since he had even had a team at all.

That being said, clearly his question was a rhetoric, because he did not wait for an answer before lighting up another cigarette.

But her gaze quickly averted back to the demon in front of her; unwilling, or perhaps unable, to allow him to sit in her peripheral for long. She was no great fan of allowing him to be anywhere but in her sights—though he had, quite frankly, given her no reason to be so distrusting. For all intent purposes, the fox had proved no legitimate threat to Konoha. Though it was clear he held them in no genuine regard, he had also never endangered them or jeopardized a mission; if anything, he was a crucial fixture in keeping missions alive.

That the demon tolerated them at all was disconcerting; that he could even come this close to deferential even more so.

She did not trust him in the slightest.

But that being said, it was quite clear that whatever machinations the demon undoubtedly had for the future; the destruction of Konoha was not part of them. Or at least, not any time soon. She wondered what he could be thinking, when he stood so still in the distance like that, when he fixated his inhuman eyes upon the moon, with such tangible longing. Or when he turned over his hands, as if contemplating the lines of his palms.

Yugao shivered.

Sometimes, even he could appear human.

The desert stilled again, the shifting wall of dust in the distance providing soundless movement. Yugao's thoughts strayed to home, as she wondered on Hayate; she didn't envy him, chaperoning little Gennin and having to begrudgingly rescue them when they lethally endangered themselves—which, considering they were Gennin, would probably be fairly often. She envied herself even less, standing on guard en route back to Konoha, in the same position she had been for the last three hours, with only Towa, Yamato, and a demon god for company.

She sighed, scuffing her feet.

Certainly neither were favorable positions, and invariably the moment team Shiroi stepped back into Konoha they'd be assigned a position not unlike Hayate's. Alas, this was the life of ANBU during Chuunin exams.

How unfortunate.

In a brief, starlting motion, Kyuubi's head whipped to the side. It startled her out of her reverie, and her attention snapped to the where his gaze fixated.

She squinted into the tumbling dust and sand: nothing. Nothing but an impenetrable wall of sand clouds and the muted whispers of dust against dust. She grunted; Yamato sure knew how to pick a rendezvous spot—no cover, no visibility, and nothing to hear unless you happened to have demonic senses.

After a moment of deliberation, Yugao walked towards the demon, conscious to made her movements as obvious as possible. The last thing she wanted was to be accidentally gutted like a fish for sneaking up on him. But aside from the narrow slide of his eyes, he gave no indication that he was going to slide a knife into her stomach. His attention remained on some indeterminable point on the horizon, everything in him diverted onto something she couldn't see.

She turned to him, puzzled. "How can you hear anything over the dust?"

"I can't." Came his enigmatic, toneless response.

She frowned, wishing she could see some kind of emotion behind his mask, if only to get a read on what he was thinking. "Then, how do you know something's out there?"

He made no move to answer, only staring pensively into the ether. When it became clear he would give no response, she returned her own gaze to the horizon line; diffused whorls of dust clouted the sky like smoke. The pattern was strangely mesmerizing.

Finally, after perhaps an eternity or two had drifted by, he replied at length, "I can sense it."

Yugao tilted her head. Sense what? Chakra? No… she would have noticed too. Perhaps he could focus his chakra to the earth, like the Iwa-nin could. But in a desert, with constant shifting layers of earth, that was probably near impossible.

He turned abruptly on his heel, waltzing into the hut and ignoring Towa's squawk of protest. He did, however, spare the moment to topple Towa into the sand when the ANBU moved to stop him.

"What's his problem?" Towa glowered crossly.

Yugao only shrugged. "How would I know?"

"Whatever it is," He began tempestuously. "He doesn't have to be such an ass about it."

Yugao paid him no mind, attempting to listen in on the conversation inside. Whatever relationship the demon god had with her captain was… curious. Though Kyuubi appeared to silently loathe the entire lot of them, he had been strangely yielding towards Yamato. She wasn't sure if that was simply because he could respect Yamato's prowess as a shinobi or because Yamato had done something to prove his worth, but she suspected the latter. Regardless, Kyuubi gone out of his way to warn Yamato once already, when he had no need to do so.

"—You're sure?" She could make out Yamato's voice, concerned.

"Would you care to wait and find out?" Came Kyuubi's ominous response.

It would appear that Yamato would not.

The two abruptly exited the shop, much to the owners vocal displeasure. Yugao could have thrown her hands up in relief when she saw the scroll in Kyuubi's hands as proof of their victory over seedy civilians. Perhaps it would have been more effective to throw Kyuubi in their and have him batter the man into submission; it would have saved them a significant amount of time, at any rate.

Towa watched the exit with about as much relief as she did, but with infinitely more curiosity.

"Not that I'm upset that we're leaving," He prefaced quickly, "But, what's the rush for?"

Nobody bothered to answer them, already making for the dunes some ways away. Yugao decided it best not to ask any more questions—if both Yamato and Kyuubi were this concerned on keeping pace, then she would assume there to be a significant reason for it, and leapt into the air after them. She wondered if whatever Kyuubi had warned about passed, for it was some time before anyone spoke again.

But then the demon growled, and dropped out of the sky to crater soundlessly into the sand. The ANBU team abruptly stopped to follow suit, dropping down onto the dunes.

A whirling cloud of smoke-like dust passed them.

And then small, blurred figures dotted the horizon. There was perhaps three or four, two medium height—taller than Naruto, but certainly smaller than Yamato, Towa, and Yugao—and one curiously short. Almost leveled with Naruto. Kyuubi made no other discernible move besides a sniff to the air, almost in disdain. It was hard to make them out, as their small wraith-like forms were continuously buffeted out of sight by large columns of dust, but they appeared to be heading their way.

As they began to walk closer, dark lines wavering in the movement of the dust, Yugao raised her katana dangerously.

"This is what I had hoped to avoid." Kyuubi sighed, sounding more put upon than she'd ever heard him.

Upon closer look, the figures were revealed to be Suna shinobi, probably from their height and the looks of the four man team they were a Gennin team. Yugao's sword faltered in its position. Kyuubi's impassive form gave no indication that he had lowered his guard—or if he had any at all.

Yamato studied them closely, before murmuring. "The Kazekage's children..."

Yugao blinked at him, before looking back to the children in front of them, none of which even looked remotely related. One was blonde, with a sour and contrary look on her pinched face, the other was a brunette under his dark cap, and had a look as if he had just seen two slugs having sex, with green spreading on his face. The last was emotionless, his hollow green eyes contrasting violently with his fiery red hair. Their presumed teacher, shifted his weight in blatant nervousness.

"Konoha ANBU." He greeted, voice high.

Yamato nodded. "Yes. And I presume, these are your students?"

"Ah, yes." He nodded once. And then twice, quicker. "These are Temari, Kankoro, and Gaara. We're on our way to the Chuunin Exams."

Yamato blinked owlishly at them, his mask tilting. "Now, these two I am familiar with. A diplomatic mission to Suna...Temari and Kankoro? The Kazekage's children?" He peered over to the redhead, who, if possible, looked even more blank. "And this is...?"

"The Kazekage's third son." The Suna Jounin coughed nondescriptly.

Yamato's brows were raised, but he made no comment.

As the Captain had easily shifted into his diplomatic persona, he hadn't noticed the flicker of the red-head's eyes, as he met Kyuubi's. The boys shoulders tensed, and he quickly looked away, stone-faced and intense-eyed, a look of confusion passing through the green irises, accompanied by fear. Kyuubi only smirked, stuffing his hands into his pockets. None of the party had noticed the display.

"Where's the rest of the Kazekage's entourage?" Yamato asked benignly, and though his pleasant voice gave nothing away, Yugao could hear the steel beneath it.

The Jounin stiffened, before looking around. "We had to make a slight detour," His voice was carefully flat, but the blond girl's quick glance to her youngest brother was all the information Yamato needed. "I'd assume they were nearing Konoha's borders by now."

Yamato took that as the needed answer, ushering the rest of the team for their take off. "Ah. Well, I bid you safe travels, and hope to see you soon."

The Konoha ANBU waved their leave, before disappearing into the dust without so much as a forgotten footprint left in the sand.




When they reached Konoha's gates six hours and many miles later, the entire team was out of breath. Konoha's crisp spring air was a welcomed relief from the dry and dense desert heat that seemed to weigh upon them.

Yugao shook her hair out daintily, the layers falling smoothly into shiny tresses, as she swiftly walked in front of the group. Yamato veered off to the left immediately, nodding to the awed Chuunin guards (you'd think, after months of ANBU going in and out they'd be used to this, or perhaps they were simply mystified by Yugao and her pretty hair) as he passed. Towa only grunted, much too tired for his typical unprofessional antics.

Kyuubi however, had turned in the other direction, near the steps that lead into the city, and not too far from the lining of trees.

"See, that's an ANBU team." Kakashi was lecturing. "After passing the Chuunin exams, which I'm certain you'll all do fine in—" Kyuubi caught a quick glance at Sakura's face, which seemed to lose its pallor. "—You go on to the Jounin Exams, or you can immediately take your ANBU exams. ANBU is a much more demanding class of shinobi, and are considered the true protectors of their villages, generally taking on the hardest of missions..."

Kyuubi didn't bother to wait around and hear the rest of Kakashi's lecture on the importance of the Chuunin Exams, an event that the Jounin was obviously doing to placate the pink-haired girl's nerves and strengthen her resolve—which was clearly backfiring—and sped up to catch up to his team some paces in front of him, until he was close enough that they all walked side by side.

"You may want to report to your Hokage," He drawled. "About those Suna-nin."

Towa snorted. "Oh? And not about how you scared off one of our only contacts in River Country which Hokage-sama specifically asked you not to do—

"Why do you say that?" Tenzou cut him off briskly, looking genuinely interested in Kyuubi's advice.

"Its a bit strange, don't you think? That little red-headed didn't know he was the Kazekage's son? Isn't it strange to shield one child but not the rest from the public eye?" Kyuubi mused aloud, ambiguous as always.

Before Yamato could ask anymore, Kyuubi made a sharp and abrupt left turn into the heart of the city, and was immediately overtaken by the crowds of bustling people.




Naruto pulled the mask out of his face and shook out his hair, which was still dusty from Kyuubi's earlier mission in River Country.

While Yamato had took his sweet time bartering with the seedy shopkeeper, Kyuubi had given him a crash course on the eight other tailed beasts. And though Naruto had been aware that Kyuubi couldn't be the only one, he'd never really understood much about them outside of the abstract. Kyuubi's motives in this lecture became clear after their encounter with the one-tailed Jinchuuriki, an eerily quite boy with an even stranger lack of expression. But perhaps what had struck Naruto most about the entire conversation was how Kyuubi addressed himself, in relation to the other demons. It was almost as if he… considered them a part of him.

Naruto shook his head, deciding he'd leave that headache for another day, and followed his nose to a familiar bridge.

Sasuke had the smell of the outdoors, of a man who spent most of his life in the training grounds.

Sakura smelt the opposite, surrounded in the flutter of soft smells; flowers, honey, and food.

Sai was peculiarly blank...his smell almost sterile, some sort of common perfunctory soap.

And the last one, Kakashi...well, he must have spent a long time watching Sakura and Sasuke in that tree, he was beginning to smell like oak.

Naruto plodded silently, being sure that he was out of sight, practicing navigating through forestry with only his nose.

Suddenly, he walked past a flowered bush, the repugnant scent sending him into a spiraling descent of wheezes and coughs, nearly hacking up his entire lunch in his futile attempt to choke the stink out of his system.

Sakura whirled around, and would have easily saw him, had he not hidden in a tree much faster then he could have ever moved before. Sasuke turned around immediately after, certainly not going to be bested by Sakura of all people, and his dark eyes swept the tree line as he scowled. Sai made no move to even bother, and hadn't moved from staring just past bridge's crossing red bars and the sky, a bit to the right of the tree Kakashi was reading in.

His old sensei hopped from the tree—no doubt to lead the three Gennin off of Naruto's trail— and greeted them with a smile and an entirely blasphemous excuse for his usual tardiness. Sakura's expression made it clear just how much she appreciated that.

Naruto was briefly entertaining the idea of walking over there, when Kyuubi abruptly slid into his skin, jostling Naruto out of control.

Naruto wondered why he was so surprised by this; after all, it would be remiss of him to renege on a deal that he had agreed to, but the thought reminded him of how little Kyuubi had been taking advantage of it. For the most part, the demon slept and allowed Naruto free reign for most of the day—and aside from missions, or when Naruto was asleep, didn't come out at all.

The thought surprised him as much as it worried him.

Kyuubi deftly maneuvered around fences and crowds, ANBU mask making everyone give him a wide, respectful berth.

Naruto noticed that Kyuubi seemed to be following some sort of trail, and took note to sense the smells the next time Kyuubi breathed.

Whatever the demon god was smelt familiar.

It reminded him of his strange dreams.

He stopped suddenly, and Naruto jolted when he realized that there was the same guy from their ANBU mission dangling Konohamaru like some sort of prey. He would have wrestled the demon for control—if only to save Konohamaru, before Kyuubi ultimately did it for him.

"Leave." Kyuubi snapped coldly, and the blonde and the boy looked successfully cowed, dropping the Hokage's grandson in a hurry and hustling backwards.

The young boy scampered off, too scared to even thank him.

Kyuubi immediately looked into the tree, where Gaara's light eyes stared back at him, unblinking and impassive. He also took note of the Uchiha, shrouded in the canopy of leaves. Whatever meeting Kakashi had held was obviously short; he probably just gave them the Chuunin Exam forms and left wordlessly, knowing Kakashi. But Naruto was more concerned by whatever Kyuubi was planning.

"Shukaku," The demon god near purred, as if somehow allured.

In his mind's eye a demon grew out of the ground.

Raging in the sky, its one eye gleaming with thousands of rings and its tails spread round and ripping the world apart at its seams.

Naruto cleared his head of the strange, flickering images.

The boy stiffened, and a look of confusion filtered past his face, before the impassivity obscured it once more.

"No..." His voice was distant, trance-like, as if he truly wasn't denying it at all.

Kyuubi turned to the Uchiha, amusement heavy in his voice. "And the you think you're sly, listening in?"

Kyuubi seemed to ponder the young boy for a moment, as the young Uchiha clenched his jaw, looking away, dark hair covering his eyes in inky shadows.

"Perhaps some other time..." The demon king was muttering. "In the future...yes..."

He tutted before shaking his head. "But certainly not now." And then, louder. "I suggest you leave, don't you have somewhere to be?"

The Uchiha scowled, but knew better then to back talk to an ANBU.

Kyuubi turned back to Gaara, who stared back.

Eventually, the redhead averted his gaze, and Kyuubi smirked triumphantly. "No, you're not Shukaku." He tapped his chin thoughtfully, a very human movement that wasn't lost upon Naruto. "You're just a human."

Gaara seemed even more puzzled, if not downright confused.

Kyuubi turned away. "But not for very long."





Naruto's lashes fluttered open, blue iris brighter than the sky in winter and shining like refracted sunlight.

His gaze trailed to the moon, where it rested longingly for sometime, the blonde's unwavering, unblinking stare disturbing and hypnotic.

Finally, he pulled himself out, the eyes reverting to normal and Naruto blinking quickly, taken aback by the trance that had come over him. He rubbed his head and smoothed a hand over his hair, looking back up into the sky. The moon hung loosely, but it was full and heavy and weighed upon with stars. Mere moments ago Naruto felt like he never wanted to stop looking at it, but now, he only felt a vague sense of longing that he couldn't grasp, a torn and indecipherable feeling. Naruto chalked it up to being some strange Kyuubi centered reason, and decided to call it a night and get back to bed.

He awoke several hours later and slipped on his ANBU mask, readying for the day.

His limbs ached from traveling the distance between River country and Konoha, protesting as he moved about and pulled his vest over his bare torso. It slid on perfectly, and he pushed his hands into his fingerless gloves, Konoha's emblem scratched onto the metal plate over his knuckles. When he looked at himself in the gleam of his window—the shutters had broken, and he hadn't bothered to buy new ones—he thought more and more how much this persona was Kyuubi more than Naruto. It seemed strange, and he flexed his hand, just to make sure it was him and not the fox (he was having a hard time distinguishing nowadays).

The ANBU outpost was a tall and imposing building, windowless and sprawling up the side of one of Konoha's largest trees. Contrary to the outside, which was composed of a mixture of wood planks and concrete, the inside looked sleek and was made entirely from steel-lending a certain sterile hostility to the whole compound. While the ANBU headquarters was a building of the many in Konoha's deepest streets, its other bases were spread across the city, this current one was located inside of a forest accurately named "the forest of death"; one of the training grounds used by ANBU and high level Jounin.

Why they were using this particular man-eating plant infested forest for a Chuunin Examination was beyond him. He knew enough about the world of ANBU to realize that the class difference between an ANBU and a Gennin was equivalent to a rock and the moon.

The ANBU base was a little to the right of the Tower in the heart of the forest, where the Gennin were supposed to enter by an alotted amount of time, and covered in a Genjutsu that made it look like a highly poisonous vine that crawled up the tree, in hopes of dissuading anyone to come near it. Knowing ignorant Gennin, this was highly unlikely.

Naruto wove his way around the base on instincts alone, trying to use his sense of smell to point out Yugao's floral scent. Not quite like Sakura's; darker, and more natural.

He ended up meeting Tenzou first, the scent of wood nearly grafted onto his skin.

While it was a bit overbearing, the smell wasn't entirely uncommon for Konoha ninja who perpetually spent their missions in the trees.

"The Hokage has already briefed myself and the other ANBU leader's whose teams are chaperoning this task." Tenzou looked around, as Towa abruptly appeared from a clout of smoke, as did Koga. Yugao walked up languidly from behind him.

"So which one is it?" Naruto asked curiously, more because of his friends than any legitimate curiosity over the exams themselves.

Yamato looked at him sharply, clearly catching him out. "The first task doesn't require any ANBU supervision—its located at the academy in one of the classrooms, and is a written test—unless ANBU captain's wish to scout for potential members—

At this, Koga snorted loudly, as if the idea was so ludicrous it didn't deign an actual response.

Towa mimicked the motion.

Captain shot them an exasperated look before continuing. "The second takes place here in the forest. The Gennin will then have to make it to the central tower in five days, collecting two scrolls from the other Gennin teams. Our team and another will be patrolling during this task."

"Sounds easy enough." Towa shrugged. "So why do we have to watch the shrimps?"

"Its not like anything interesting is going to happen." Koga added with a scowl.

Yugao ribbed him. "Doesn't matter. Hokage's orders." And then, with quiet resignation, "Not that I'm looking forward to it either."

Yamato said nothing, probably agreeing with the statement but too professional to acknowledge it. Naruto was perhaps the only ANBU in existence right now not bemoaning his fate for the next few weeks; his stomach tied itself into knots at the thought of team seven having to go up against all these obstacles. Hell, a few months ago this forest probably could have killed him. But.. Sasuke was strong, right? And a genius, so he'd most likely have no problem with that first test—and god knows Sakura undoubtedly wouldn't. Sasuke was also considered the best rookie Gennin, so perhaps he'd be able to make it through the second test as well…

Naruto swallowed.

More than anything he wanted to be there to support them—by their side, not in the trees above.

"What's the third?" Naruto he asked abruptly.

Yamato eyed him deeply. "Well, the third is going to be a match up of the remaining Gennin. Starting with the preliminaries held in the tower, the finals will be held a month later at the stadium."

"So that's why Hokage-sama wanted so many ANBU back." Yugao frowned to herself in annoyance. "Rowdy spectators."

"That's it?" Towa asked in disbelief. "I'm sure there's a couple Chuunin around how could deal with that."

Koga nodded. "Isn't ANBU a bit overkill for this?"

Tenzou shrugged. "These are Hokage-sama's orders. Either way, there're another couple platoons who are going to be guarding during the Finals. I'd suspect that it will be a very light guard. In the meantime, we'll be out in Kusagakure killing off some wayward missing-nin!" Yamato clapped his hands brightly, and Towa yowled, high fiving with Koga.

Yugao only rolled her eyes and fluffed her hair.

Naruto said nothing. He actually wanted to watch the finals...

And the first task, for that matter…

"Taichou," He began quickly. "When does the first exam start?"

"I'd think in thirty minutes." Yamato looked at his watch. "Maybe less. Depending on when Ibiki decides to show up."

Naruto remembered Ibiki. One of Kakashi's friends—but then, Kakashi had many friends in many weird places. Hell, Kakashi probably knew all about the Chuunin Exams. Maybe they were easier then they sounded...why else would he nominate Team Seven if he thought they couldn't pass?

Without warning Naruto bolted in the opposite direction, hoping to make a hasty escape over to the Academy.

Yugao watched him turn the corner, before pivoting back to face Yamato. Koga and Towa had already fled, most likely to get a little more of their life before they were all forced onto Gennin babysitting duties.

Yugao noticed Tenzou's face and sighed. "Should I follow?"




Sakura held her breath, and the air went still and stagnant around her, as if it whorled out the window into a vacuum in space. Sasuke's figure in front of her became diffused in the retrogade florescent lights from the ceiling above, and her head started to pulse in and out like a beating drum. She felt so nervous she was nauseous and more than anything she wished she was back in her room, back at the red bridge—anywhere but here. Sai was next to her, with that impassive look on his face and that strange, twisted smile that was physically painful to see. She wearily put a hand to her head, and tried not to throw up. Some of the nominees must be way past twelve...eighteen, even! And they all stared at the young Team Seven hungrily.

Even when the rest of the nominated rookies came up to banter with them, Sakura only did so half heartedly. Not even Ino launching herself at Sasuke could get a rise out of her. Sai was a quiet, almost unnatural presence by her side.

She felt herself awkwardly stare around the room, searching for Naruto. But he wasn't there.

Sakura gulped.

Maybe Naruto wasn't taking it this year.

"You guys need to keep quiet." A man walked up to their group, pushing up his glasses as he did so. He gave a sweep across the crowd of Gennin, and Sakura admired his face. He had a nice appearance, if not a bit shady looking. "You don't want to attract the attention of people around here, everyone can already tell you're all wet behind the ears."

Kabuto gave another glance at each of them, as if to instill some sort of fear. Sakura was successfully scared by it, but him and Sasuke seemed to duel each other with their eyes. Eventually though, Sasuke only growled and turned his head, and Kabuto had a perverse smile on his face that made Sakura's toes curl in what certainly wasn't pleasure.

He showed them some cards, to which Sasuke immediately asked for Rock Lee, that odd boy who had proclaimed love to her, a girl he had barely met. Sakura decided it was better not to bring that up though. Sasuke again asked for another character, a Hyuga Neji, to which Kabuto easily produced another card.

They were on the same Gennin Team, along with another girl named TenTen. Sakura scanned the crowd, and found the three of them staring back. She quickly brought her gaze down.

Sasuke opened his mouth, surely to ask for another, but Ibiki came in and began to shout at all of them, making Sakura near jump in her boots. The man was ferocious, eying them like maggots under his boots—and calling them so a couple times—and instilling more fear then she thought she was capable of having.

As he explained the rules, Chuunin began to file into the room,inspecting the Gennin and holding clipboards. Ibiki said that they were there to determine that none of the students cheated. Sakura frowned. That sure was a hefty amount of shinobi for just that.

"You have three strikes," Ibiki growled at them all. "On the third, one of the Chuunin will escort you and your team out."

Protests began to voice into the air, and Sakura shuffled over to where Sasuke had his arms folded, leaning on the wall closest to the Chuunin. She clasped her hands tightly behind her back, trying to feel comforted by his presence so close. It wasn't working. Not wanting to watch Ibiki rage at her and the other Gennin, her eyes trailed to the door they had come in by, and the windows to the opposite wall.

The two Chuunin she stood in front of had begun to whisper to themselves.

One made a vague nudge-like gesture to the far wall.

There was a flash of cloth, and a man—no, boy—fully clothed in black leapt into the room from an open window. A masked woman with beautiful, long purple hair followed him closely.

"That's Kyuubi, isn't it?" The Chuunin whispered, beady eyes following the young ANBU with an unfaltering and jealous gaze.

The one next to him, with a bandage over one of his eyes hummed his agreement. "Yeah. He's pretty young. Meko from the mailing center said that he's younger than Itachi, even."

Sasuke stiffened.

"You think so?" The two watched the ANBU lean against the wall; the masked boy was surreptitious, and Sakura doubted that if she hadn't been standing so close to the Chuunin to hear their conversation she wouldn't have noticed his presence at all. "Yamato's team, right?"

"Yeah." The bandaged Chuunin agreed. "Did you hear about their mission to Grass? I heard he cleaved a guy in two, and then ate his eyes."

The other laughed. "Have you been watching too much True Blood?"

Attuned to her surroundings more, she began to scan the crowd that wasn't made up of Gennin. The Chuunin proctors were lined against the wall, but sometimes in the shadows Sakura could catch glimpses of glinting white masks.

"What do you think they're doing here?" The bandaged one mused aloud. "Shit. You don't think Captain Yamato actually give two fucks about any of these Gennin, do you?"

"This lot?" The one with dark hair snorted. "Doubtful."

Team Seven moved to their seats with the rest of the Gennin wearily, and Sakura hedged closer to Sasuke.

"Do you really think his name's Kyuubi?" Sakura asked in disbelief, evidently remembering her history classes. "Why would someone name their child that?"

Sasuke looked at her slowly, blinking incredulously. "ANBU chose their own codenames." He told her as patiently as he could.

Cowed, the pink-haired girl looked down. "Oh."

"Kyuubi is a name that inspires fear." Sai mused aloud, much to the surprise of his teammates. They had only heard him speak a few times, and Sakura was fairly sure she could count all of them on one hand. "That ANBU was smart to use it."

The two watched him with gagged bewilderment.

"Or maybe it doesn't have much to do with smarts at all.." He seemed to speak to himself, before he turned abruptly into his row.

Sakura observed him for another moment, before she two ducked into her row too, leaving Sasuke to walk up to his in the near back. Sakura wished hers was that far. She was worried about the questions on the test...of course, she had studied impeccably in the Academy, so surely she would do well. But what happens if she didn't?

As the test was passed out, Sakura sighed in relief when she noticed that all of them were ones she knew, or at least, ones she could figure out.

She could only hope her teammates were fairing the same.

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