As I Wake

Pass the Butter

Ibiki cleared his throat. “Now, enough with your pettiness. Save it for the exam. It’s time to begin. Hand over your paperwork. In return, you each will be given a number. This number determines where you will sit. We’ll start the written task once you are all seated.”

“The what? Did he say… written?!” Naruto’s eyes bugged.

After disappointingly climbing off Cotton Candy Boy, I received my number and took my seat. My seat was dead, leaving a sufficient amount of ninja surrounding me. Leda sat close, only a row in front of me, but Mae was on the far left of the room. Her face was barely visible through the tangle of torsos. Naruto was close as well, with Hinata next to him. Sakura’s pink hair was easy to spot a few rows behind me. Sasuke sat far, but I could see his passive aggressive glare from here.

“Alright listen up,” Ibiki began. “There are a few rules you need to be aware of and I won’t answer any questions—so you better pay attention the first time around.” I rolled my eyes even though I tried hard not to. Ibiki was too confident in his superiority— a characteristic that doesn’t mesh well with mine.

“The first rule is this— the written part of the exam is graded on a point reduction system. Contrary of what you may be used to, you all begin the task with a perfect score of ten points. One point will be deducted for each answer you get wrong. So if you missed three, your final score will be seven.”

And if I miss ten, my final score will be zero, I internally groaned.

“Rule number two, teams will pass or fail based on the total score of all three members—”

“What! What a second. You’re saying we all get scored… as a team!” Sakura banged her head on her desk, flabbergasted. My best guess was because we all knew how well Naruto does with tests, especially written tests. He did get the lowest scores in the Academy after all.

“Silence!” Ibiki castigated. “I have my reasons, so shut up and listen… Rule number three, the sentinels you see positioned around the room are there to watch you carefully for any signs of cheating and for every incident they spot, they will subtract two points from the culprit’s score.”

The sentinels sat side-by-side along the perimeter of the room—all much older than us. They didn’t look welcoming with their sneers and glares.

“Be warned, their eyes are extremely sharp and if they catch you five times, you will be dismissed before the tests are even scored. Anyone foolish enough to be caught cheating by the sentinels doesn’t deserve to be here.”

“I got my eyes on you guys,” said a lookout who, ironically, had bandages over both of his eyes. His shinobi headband was placed over said wrapping.

“If you want to be considered shinobi, then show us what exceptional shinobi you can be,” Ibiki said affirmatively. “One more thing, if any candidate gets a zero and fails the test, then the entire team fails.”

“What he say?!” Sakura and Naruto exclaimed simultaneously. Naruto looked blue in the face with anxiousness.

“The final question won’t be given out until fifteen minutes before the end of the testing period. You’ll have one hour total.”

I stared at the clock as the seconds hand ticked rapidly. Naruto had a right to be blue. This test wasn’t to be taken lightly and with Ibiki on board, it has become more intense. The room reeked with fear— and it wasn’t coming just from Naruto. Even though I didn’t attend class at the end of the term, I still kept up with my studies and, essentially, had the same level of knowledge as anyone else in this room. But, doubt gnawed at my subconscious.

“Begin!” Ibiki commanded and with a startle, I did what I was told.

My eyes scanned across the first question:

What is the air velocity of an unladen swallow?

My heart dive bombed into the pit of my stomach. What the actual fuck. How am I supposed to know the answer to this? It doesn’t even specify if it’s an African or European swallow.

Out of paranoia, I quickly scanned the other questions. It got worse and more complex as the questions went on. These are integrated problems based on principles of uncertainty, I concluded. I couldn’t begin to understand any of these problems. One of them was even written in French! What did passez le beurre, cochon even mean?

I missed some schooling, but knew better than to assume the class learned all of this while I was gone. These questions were too advanced for a bunch of genin. Scanning the room, everyone looked as stumped. From here, Mae’s pencil moved frantically. Knowing her, she read and answered these types of questions before bed time.

Leda, on the other hand, looked like she didn’t have a care in the world. Her head slumped onto her hand as her penciled moved idly, begging for the test to be over. Glancing cautiously, her markings weren’t of words, they were…

Are those penises? I gawked at the array of male genitalia plaguing her paper. Leave it to the red head, who was panicking before we got here, to be high on the Chill Pill.

The tapping of a sentinel’s pencil onto his pad snapped my eyes back to my paper. I tried to remain calm. As nice as Leda’s Picasso skills were, her effort effected Mae and I. Mae would keep up her end and I should be able to do the same to balance out the team with a decent mark.

I hope. I thought, staring down at the alien exam.

The clock ticked loudly, ringing in my eardrums. That’s when what felt like a monster emerged. From the darkness, it clawed into my conscience with a thought that cut me like a double edge sword.

I could cheat.

I shook my head violently and pushed the thought away. Ibiki clearly stated what happened to cheaters. Cheaters would be caught, cheaters would be asked to leave with their team, cheaters would fail— indefinitely. But parallel to the Unknown, the thought was persistent.

Naruto looked like he had the same idea as he sat fidgety. Hinata was beckoning him to look at her paper. He was listening to his inner demons and as his head turned to Hinata’s paper— a kunai knife soared past Naruto. He was knocked back from the shock but he soon realized that the ambush wasn’t for him.

“Wha- what was that all about?” called Cotton Candy boy as he jumped up on instinct.

“Five strikes and you’re out. You just failed the test,” spoke the sentinel with the bandages.

“What, you can’t be—”

“You and your teammates must leave the room, immediately.”

Cotton Candy testified. “No, no way. Who says I cheated five times? Where’s your proof? How can you keep track of all of us? You got the wrong guy. How do you know I just –” His words were cut short as the sentinel punched the participant in the gut, knocking the breath out of him. Cotton Candy winced with shock and fear.

“Sorry, pal. We were chosen for this because we don’t make mistakes like that. You can’t even blink without us seeing it. We’re the best of the best and you, my friend, are history. Now get out.” His words could cut steel. “Take your teammates with you.”

His teammates silently, and definitely angrily, left the room with Cotton Candy trudging behind. As much as I wanted to deck his Easter egg head, I still felt bad. It was a shitty way to fail and wait to take the exams again next year.

As everyone returned diligently to the exams, Naruto didn’t even attempt to look at Hinata’s paper. He whispered to her – imagining it was to decline her offer – as she scooted her paper away from view.

Naruto banged his head on the desk and I sympathized with the Knucklehead. The event should have jolted my mind to veer away from cheating but the thought was still present. Naruto and I shared the same frustration and there wasn’t that much time left!

I thought back to my conservation with Kakashi I had moments before entering the exam…

Before I fully entered the exam room, Kakashi grabbed my wrist. “Hold on, Quorra.”

I gave him a questioning look as everyone proceeded inside. Kakashi gently pulled my wrist to the sidelines. “What is it, Kakashi?”

“I just wanted—” he stopped himself and eyed Gachero-Sensei, who was still standing by our side. “Do you mind, Gachero-Sensei,” he asked kindly. “I wish to talk to Quorra.”

“Oh, yes. Of course,” Gachero-Sensei said.

Gachero remained idle as Kakashi continued to eye him. “Alone?”

“Oh, right. Right.” Gachero gave me a look that asked for my approval to Kakashi’s request and I courteously nodded. “I’ll be right down the hall if you need me,” he spoke and stared, not too discretely, at Kakashi’s grasp on my wrist.

When Gachero-Sensei was out of hearing distance, Kakashi released my wrist. “I just wanted to wish you luck.”

“You already wished us luck, Kakashi,” I joked.

“True,” Kakashi confirmed. “But I want to wish you luck and to tell you to stay strong. The team relies on you as much as you rely on them. And as much as you doubt yourself, you are capable of succeeding.”

“I know that now,” I reassured. Leda made me fully aware of that. We were a team. This was just as much of an experience for me as it was for them.

“But you need to be careful, too.” Kakashi warned. “Be smart. Be aware of your surroundings and never assume the obvious.”

Why was he telling me this? Why was he only telling this to me? “Okay.”

“Not okay, Quorra. I’m serious. If something happens to you in there… I won’t be able to save you.”

“I don’t need saving,” I barked. The statement didn’t settle right with me. It felt insulting, like everything he meant before was a lie. That I couldn’t take care of myself.

“I know you don’t. All I am saying is to not take this too lightly. Ninjas die from this exam, Quorra. I don’t know what I would do if…” he trailed off.

I was taken aback by Kakashi’s remark. It was unlike him to be so emotionally invested. He saved and looked after me for all this time. This was the first time I was going somewhere he couldn’t get to. I was the baby bird leaving the nest. He wanted me to succeed, it was just hard for him to let me go.

“Thank you for caring about me,” I said. He stared wide-eyed as I went for the door.

“A ninja must see through deception,” he called.

“I will,” I said as the door closed behind me.

I picked up the enigmatic test and tried to look at it with a different perspective. There were nine, ridiculously hard questions staring back at me, challenging me. Nine questions that determined whether, my team and I, were to pass the written or to pack our bags.

There was no way any genin, unless you were Mae, could solve these problems. It was as if the test was begging us to cheat. But, Ibiki was very adamant about cheating— more than any teacher would normally be. If that was so, why was he only deducting two points for each incident? Cheating was a zero tolerance rule. A one strike and you’re out kind of deal— why give us five chances to fuck up? What was I missing?

My eyes squinted to read in between the lines. My mind drifted to Kakashi’s Golden Rule:

A ninja must see through deception.

Deception… deception, what does that mean? What was Ibiki trying to deceive us with?

Suddenly the thought hit me with such force, I couldn’t decide if I was more shocked that Ibiki was a sly fox or angry that it took me this long to realize. He was testing us on how well we can gather information without getting caught.

He wants us to cheat…

By the time light shined to my dense skull, the hour was almost up. Even though I solved the mystery, there was one problem…

… how was I supposed to cheat?!

The genin around seemed to be drawing the same conclusion and they were thinking of creative ways of not getting caught. Sasuke was using his Sharingan to mimic the pencil movements of the person sitting in front of him. Kankuro was excusing himself to the bathroom with the escort of a sentinel— a sentinel of his own creation. And Leda was drawing an elaborate portrait of Shiri-Sensei with dark X’s over his eyes.

I dragged my hands over my face, digging my nails into my skin. I didn’t have a special ability like the Sharingan or a helper like The Crow. And I certainly didn’t have brains like Mae or Sakura. I was royally fucked.

I was so engulfed in beating myself up over not going to magician school, I didn’t notice the fuzz ball at my feet. It wasn’t until it clawed at my shins did I realize what – or who it was.

“Akamaru?” I whispered. “What are you doing, boy?”

The pup crawled from under my desk and jumped into my lap. His hind legs balanced on my thin thighs as his forelegs used my chest for stability. Slobber streaked my already abused face.

“What is it, Akamaru? Can’t you see I’m busy failing here?”

Akamaru continued to show his affection as something popped in and out of view. I laid the energetic pup on my lap and patted his head to get a good look. I retrieved what was a thin rolled up piece of paper that was tucked under his collar.

I tug my nails into the small scroll and methodically unrolled it. Inside were nine, almost disturbingly neat, paragraphs.

“Give Kiba the biggest, most sloppy kiss for me,” I said, kissing the pup softly on his little forehead. Akamaru accepted the challenge with a yip and scurried back to his owner.

By the time I heard Kiba’s cry with disgust from the biggest tsunami of kisses, it was time to get to work.

“Listen up, here’s the tenth and final question,” Ibiki commanded. “But, before I give out the question, there are some more rules you need to be aware of.”

Kankuro interrupted Ibiki as he walked back into the room. “Ah, made it just in time. I hope you found your trip to the bathroom… enlightening,” Ibiki said. Kankuro stood stiff in fear of his cheating scheme was found out.

“Well? Take your seat already,” Ibiki gestured to his empty chair.

“R-right,” Kankuro relaxed and walked back to his desk.

“These rules are unique to question ten. Rule number one, each of you can choose not to be given the final question— it’s your decision.”

“Woah, so what’s the catch? Let’s say we decide we don’t wanna do it. Then what?” the female sand shinobi from Gaara and Kankuro’s squad asked. Wariness laced her words.

“Yeah, like Temari said. What happens then?” Kankuro added.

“If you choose not to take the tenth question, regardless to the answers to the other nine, you will get a zero. In other words, you fail and your teammates as well.” Chatter sprung in the crowd. It seemed like an easy choice.

“Not so fast, you didn’t let me finish. If you do accept the question and answer it incorrectly, you will not only fail— you will be banned from taking the Chunin exams ever again.

“Hey, that’s bull, man.” Kiba stood, as angry and confused as everyone else. “That’s ridiculous! What kind of bogus rule is that?” He pointed accusingly at Ibiki. “There’s lots of people who have taken the test before.” Akamaru barked agreeably.

Ibiki laughed. “I guess you are just… unlucky. I wasn’t making the rules before, but I am now. Of course, if you don’t want to take it, you don’t have to.” He challenged Kiba. “If you’re not feeling confident then by all means skip it. You can come back and try again next year.” He stared everyone down. Knowing fully well what kind of hell he released on the already mentally exhausted shinobi. “Those who don’t want to take it, raise your hand. Your number will be recorded and then you’re free to go.”

Everyone, including myself, sat in overwhelming awe. One by one, hands shakily rose as their numbers were called. The girl next to me stood up in tears as her and her teammates walked out the door. The room that was moments ago crowded with genin quickly diminished to a mere half.

I sat frozen, uncertain what to do. It was a miracle in itself that I was even here, competing as a genin. I should take the most caution since my position as a shinobi was so fragile, but I would never forgive myself if I didn’t try. Giving up was not in my stubborn personality and determined-filled blood. On the flip-side, was I willing to risk Leda and Mae’s future over my pig-headedness?

Naruto must be freaking out even more than everyone else. Knowing Naruto, he never caught onto the whole cheating thing. His head hung down as he shakily rose his hand. He probably doesn’t want to risk failing not only himself, but Sakura and Sasuke as well.

Before Naruto’s number was recorded and would be free to go, he slammed his hand on the table. “Don’t underestimate me. I don’t quit and I don’t run. You can act tough all you want— you guys aren’t going to scare me off. No way! I don’t care if I do get stuck as a genin for the rest of my life! I’ll still be Hokage someday!”

Ibiki looked at Naruto with intrigue as he rose a brow. “This decision is one that could change your life. If for any reason you would rather quit… now’s your last chance.”

“No way.” Naruto stood up. “I never go back on my word. That’s the way of the ninja.”

The Knucklehead’s words marinated into my thoughts. He was right, I couldn’t quit, not when I’ve gotten so far. I couldn’t let the Unknown get to me. I couldn’t let the future scare me. Life was about taking risks and since Mae and Leda’s hands weren’t up, they must feel the same way. Naruto’s speech seemed to have an effect on the others too. No one else rose their hand.

Ibiki looked around the dwindled group of shinobi and didn’t spot anyone left wavering. “Well then, I admire your determination. For those of you remaining, there’s only one thing left to do and that’s for me to tell you… that you all pass the first exam.”

Feeling shocked would have been an understatement. “Hold on. What just happened? What do you mean we passed? Where’s the tenth question?” Sakura asked.

Ibiki let out a happy laugh. “There never was one. Not a written one at least. Actually, your decision to stay was the answer to the tenth question.”

“A ninja must see through deception,” I said, slumping back into my chair, feeling stupid for not expecting this.

“Exactly,” Ibiki said.

“Wait a second. So the other nine questions were a waste of time? Is that what you’re saying?” Temari called out.

“Oh no, not at all,” Ibiki clarified. “Quite the opposite. The first nine questions were to test your abilities to strategically gather intelligence under the most adverse of circumstances.”

“Oh, well that clears up everything,” Temari rolled her eyes.

“Let me explain. You see my objective was to test your abilities not only individually, but as a team and how well you function as a part of that team. That’s why the test was scored on a point basis so that everything you did or fail to do would directly affect your teammates. I wanted to see how you handle pressure.”

“Mhm, yeah. I figured it was something like that that’s why I kept my cool,” Naruto nodded along with Ibiki. It took all my strength to not call him out on his bull like I loved so often to do.

“The first nine questions on the test were difficult. In fact, as you all realized, too difficult for any genin to solve. I imagine most of you quickly came to the conclusion that you had to cheat for any chance of passing. The fact is, the test was designed to encourage you to cheat. It almost demanded it. Of course, it would have done you little good unless you had someone to cheat from so I disguised two chunin who already knew the answers and had them sit in with you.”

On cue, two chunin stood from their positions in the crowd and took a bow. They could easily fool us as nothing stood out that gave any signs they weren’t clueless genin like the rest of us.

Naruto waved off Ibiki. “Oh, come on. I wasn’t fooled for a second. You have to be a complete doofus not to see it, isn’t that right, Hinata?” Hinata staggered with her reply.

“If you wanted us to cheat, you should have made the questions harder.” Mae confidently spoke, pushing her glasses up her nose. “These questions were so easy to answer, I had time to write the answers down in six different languages.”

One of the disguised chunin walked over to examine Mae’s test. “She right. They’re all correct- even the other languages. She even corrected one of the answers I got wrong.”

“That’s our lil genius,” Leda gave Mae a thumbs up. “Too smart for her own stinkin’ good.”

Mae stared at me with pride as I discreetly looked away. Mae was now a threat to others and with the whole fiasco, I was trying to stay under the radar.

“I see, well those who were caught at it, failed. Better not to cheat than to cheat clumsily.” Ibiki removed his leaf village bandana and no one could be prepared for what came next. A festering of scars and puncture wounds plagued the top of his hairless head. Many of them looked old, but there were fresher ones. Each one had a story— a painful story. “Information can be most valuable weapon in battle. How well you gather intelligence can determine whether a mission was a success or failure. There will be times you have to risk your live to get it.”

“Of course, you have to consider your source of information. Enemy intelligence is not necessarily accurate. This information can be worse than no info at all. It can lead to the death of comrades or a loss of a village. There will be many missions where they will seem almost suicidal to even think about but you only think of the goal through courage and discipline. These are the qualities required of a chunin. Those who choose otherwise, those whose determination faults in the face of adversity- those who put their comrades' lives in jeopardy by worrying about their own, will never call themselves chunin – at least as long as I'm here.”

His even tone and battle wounds left us silent. This wasn't about sporting a cool headband and being strong with various jutsu. This was about risking your life for people who couldn't defend themselves. It was putting your heart and your comrades' on the line every single day for the rest of your shinobi life. And that was exactly what I wanted to do.

“That's why I put you in the position where you had to gather accurate intelligence—cheat in order to survive. Those who weren't good at it were weeded out, leaving the rest of you. You have successfully answered the ten questions. You have passed through the first gate. I hereby declare this part of the chunin exam complete, there's nothing left but to wish you good luck—”

Ibiki was interrupted by a figure flipping through the window, scattering it. Sparks of glass coated the floor as a woman stood tall. She had light brown, pupil-less eyes and black hair that fanned out in a short ponytail. She wore a tan overcoat with a fitted mesh suit underneath and an orange skirt.

“Heads up boys and girls. This is no time to be celebrating. I'll be your next protector, Anko Mitarashi. Ready for the second test? Good! Then follow me!” No one could decide if she was being serious or was a complete loon.

“You're early… again,” Ibiki groaned.

“How many are there?” Anko surveyed the room. “Ibiki… you let all these guys pass? Your test was too easy. You must be getting soft.”

“Or it could be a strong crowd of candidates this year,” Ibiki countered.

“Mmm, they don't look like it. Trust me, when I'm done with them— more than half will be eliminated.”

“More than half? Really?” Mae said in curiosity.

“This is going to be fun.” Anko stared at the squirming genin. “Alright, you maggots, things are about to be different. I'll have your squad leaders notified that you have made it this far." I couldn't tell what she was thinking behind her mysterious smirk. “Now then… follow me!”

“Woah, nice place. What is it?” Naruto said as the rest of us wondered the same question.

“This is the location of the second phase of the exam. It’s the forty-fourth battle training zone, but we call it…” Anko did her mysterious smirk once more.

“…The Forest of Death.”

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