The ground floor of the tower was a big circular room that could have welcomed all the Konohajin Jōnin for their monthly meeting. Next to each door, she saw the ninja precept about the relationship between body and mind. ‘If you do not possess Heaven, gain knowledge and be prepared. If you do not possess Earth, run through the field and seek strength. If you open both Heaven and Earth scrolls, dangerous paths turn into safe ones. This is the secret of [ ]. It shall lead you on your way. — Hokage the Third.’ Hitomi watched the precept for a moment then raised her hand and brushed her fingers on the empty space in the sentence, almost intimidated. “I think it’s time to open our scrolls,” she said gently.
The two other teams then revealed the hiding methods they had chosen: in his gourd of sand for Gaara’s team and in a secret pocket of Shikamaru’s uniform for Team Ten. For Team Seven, the solution was a bit more complicated, but she had been the one to choose this option, so she was the one to face the consequences. Focusing what chakra she had left, she sliced her thumb open, formed the hand seals and pressed her fingers to the ground. Hoshihi, Hai, Haīro and Kurokumo appeared. She hadn’t planned on summoning the younger one, but she had probably been next to her master, since she was currently on his shoulders, licking the back of his ears.
“Haīro, Kurokumo, the scrolls please,” she asked in a weakening voice. Her ears had started ringing, her whole body protesting the strain her chakra reserves were going through. She stumbled, Naruto wrapping an arm around her waist to stop her from falling. She gave him a thankful look, then took the Heaven and Earth scrolls. They seemed so small, suddenly, so insignificant. All this hardship for such small things… “I think we’d better open them in pairs. Together?”
The other nodded in approval. Hitomi handed one to Sasuke and another to Naruto then sat down, hoping it would help her nausea go away. It didn’t seem to work, but at least if she fell now it would be from a lower height. She closed her eyes as her friends started counting, then felt the snap of six seals activating on her exhausted meridians.
“Throw them to the ground!” Sasuke yelled. “Those are summoning seals!”
They barely had the time to obey that Iruka, Ebisu and a Chūnin Hitomi didn’t know appeared in a big puff of smoke. They evaluated the group of Genin with a look, obviously a bit at loss to see three teams together, then a grin appeared on Iruka’s face. He stepped forward, looking down to where Hitomi was sitting, her back to the wall. “That’s your idea, isn’t it, Hitomi-chan?”
“What can I say, sensei, an old dog doesn’t learn new tricks.”
Only then did the young man realise in what state the three teams were: virtually untouched for Shikamaru’s and Gaara’s teams, which had been protected by conscious sand, and to the end of their rope for Naruto’s. His brown eyes stopped on the scar on Hitomi’s face, larger than a fist. He seemed to want to say something but decided otherwise, breathed in and then started speaking. “I see you had it rough… However, I congratulate you for coming this far. Traditionally, the Chūnin from the host village welcome the contestants at the end of the second stage. I don’t think my companions would mind if I handled it for your three teams.”
The two other men nodded and he seemed to feel it, since he continued. “In addition to my congratulations, I have a message to give you. First of all, very nice time. It’s rare to get teams within the first twenty-four hours. It’s a sign of talent, potential and tenacity.”
Hitomi had to swallow an icy laugh. Talent? What talent had she shown against Orochimaru? The same could be said of the other qualities he had enumerated. She had been terribly defenceless, there, outside. It couldn’t happen anymore. She had to do something to prevent it, anything. However, she had to acknowledge that the others deserved those compliments. Sasuke hadn’t allowed Orochimaru to terrify him for long, and he had even managed to land a hit. As for Naruto, he hadn’t been afraid, not for a single moment. She wished she had been that brave.
“I think I just understood something,” Sasuke said. “Say, Iruka-sensei, what would you have done if we had opened our scrolls before arriving here?”
“Still as canny, Sasuke. You probably have understood that this exam tested your behaviour in a real mission situation. In other terms, if you had broken the rules and opened the scrolls, I’d have appeared in front of you and knocked you out until the end of the exam.”
“Isn’t it dangerous, though?” Naruto asked. “The Forest of Death isn’t exactly a nice place to take a nap.”
“Don’t worry, Naruto-kun, the technique was paired with a compulsive barrier. Anything walking towards it with bad intentions would have been under stronger and stronger suggestions to leave the place where the team would have been asleep.”
“And the mission words on the precept, sensei?”
“Yes, I’m here to explain that too. It’s one of the Chūnin precepts Hokage the Third decided to leave for the future generations. The heaven is a soldier’s mind and the ground their body. Take it like this: to be a good Chūnin, you have to have a sharp mind and strong body. You’ll need those for the missions you’ll have to accomplish but also to gain the respect of the people you’ll have to lead in some missions.”
“And the missing word?” Naruto asked.
“It’s the word ‘men’, the one that was the centre of the summoning scrolls. Take it as a synonym of ‘Chūnin’ in this instance, of course. During this survival exercise, the basic skills of a Chūnin have been put to the test, and you have succeeded.”
Once more, Hitomi had to bite her lower lip to stifle a cold laugh. Was surviving an encounter with a fucking Sannin included in the requirements to be promoted? If so, Konoha was bloody demanding. But Iruka didn’t seem to be aware of the deserter’s presence in the village, nor of his actions during the exam. The information was probably reserved for Jōnin and ANBU only. If he had known, the young teacher would have been far more concerned with their wounds, he who had always been so fond of his students – and especially Naruto.
“The Chūnin is a leader. One of his responsibilities is to lead a team during one or several missions. You’ll face the next test for this exam soon, but please remember this precept: the systematic combination of knowledge and physical prowess is necessary to succeed. There… That was my message.”
“Haha, you’re welcome, Naruto-kun. The third and last stage of the exam is the most dangerous. Please be careful.”
This time, Hitomi couldn’t help but roll her eyes. More perilous? She’d exchange her encounter with Orochimaru for any fight against her peers any day.
“Naruto-kun! I’ll see you at Ichiraku’s in a week, at noon. Don’t be late, okay?”
Before Naruto could answer, the teacher disappeared in a puff of smoke, the two other Chūnin with him. The blonde child was hopping up and down in excitement, obviously over the moon. It was so easy to bring him to that state of mind. Hitomi would have protected him and his joy no matter the cost. She tried to stand up but fell back immediately, pain creasing her features. Her cats approached, worried, Hoshihi sniffing her neck, looking for traces of sickness or injury.
“I-I’m okay. I just really need to rest.”
“I understand, Lady Summoner. You’ll have all the time in the world to tell me what put you in such a state while I take you where you need to go. Can someone help you get on my back?”
Gaara ended up doing it, his hands firm but gentle, making sure she had a good grip on Hoshihi’s fire-coloured pelt. He started to walk to the only visible flight of stairs as if she weighed nothing. The other Genin and cats followed, as if they often let a feline lead the way and decide where they went. After a few minutes walking up and down the corridors and stairs of the tower, they found the floor where the teams that had passed the test were settled, a room for each team. They found Team Eight easily – they had apparently finished the test in six hours, a record time. Quick enough, twelve Genin and four cats piled up in a small room with naked walls.
Hinata let out a choked exclamation when she saw Hitomi’s injured cheek. The Yūhi girl looked away, her face burning with shame. She hadn’t seen her reflection since she had burned her own flesh to stop it from being eaten away by acid, but she knew the result couldn’t possibly be pretty. Scars weren’t meant to look nice, but to tell a story, the life tale of the people wearing them like an affront or a trophy. She hadn’t yet decided which one hers would be.
“Woah, you look like you went in the loving care of the Torture and Intelligence Department for a few days, you three.”
“Delicate as ever, Kiba,” Shino retorted, his voice full of reproach. “Do you want to tell us what happened?” he added, looking at Team Seven.
All the eyes fell on Hitomi. She was the only one to have been conscious through the whole thing, after all. Reluctantly, she started telling them about Orochimaru attacking them – and too bad if it was Jōnin-only intel, Jōnin had done absolutely nothing to help them. She told them about the Cursed Seal, too. It had no business being a secret, not when most people in this room would probably have to risk their life in a few months, when Orochimaru would send his Quartet to collect Sasuke.
She told them how the deserter had attacked Naruto, leaving the Kyūbi out entirely – it wasn’t her story to tell – then what the man had done to Sasuke, what his snake had done to her. She told the anguish, the terror, the impression – no, the certainty – that she was going to die alone and defenceless in that forest. She told the agony and the decision she had had to take to stop her injury from progressing, all in a distant and tired voice.
Then she went to the Otojin team attacking her. She told her friends how Lee had stepped in, saving her from a certain death, and had paid a heavy price for that, how she had lost control and how much the voice inside her terrified her now that she knew what it meant, what it did. Gaara and Shikamaru, who had arrived before her mind was clear, gave several clarifications. When she finally stopped talking, she felt like she couldn’t say even one more word without collapsing from exhaustion.
A heavy silence settled on the little overheated room, only interrupted by the soft brush of Hoshihi’s fur against the naked stone floor when he stood up and cuddled her cold body, his head on her knees. She drew avid comfort from his contact; if he felt the faintest pain in the way she clung to him, he didn’t say.
Finally, someone helped her on the cat’s back again and he transported her to the room next to Team Eight’s. The following room was taken by Team Ten, and the Children of the Sand took the one after that. Hitomi witnessed all those decisions in a kind of fog that grew thicker by the minute. She had been placed in a sitting position on one of the three beds in their room, Naruto promising to come back with something to eat very soon. She hadn’t dared to tell him she wasn’t sure she could eat anything.
He ended up being right, in a typical Naruto way: as soon as he came back and she breathed in the smell of the instant noodles he had prepared for her, her stomach clenched around its own emptiness. Chakra exhaustion was very taxing for the body, but it also awoke and exacerbated its needs. Once the nausea passed, one needed to eat, and to eat a lot. She inhaled three complete noodle cups before she was sated, or perhaps too tired to eat anymore. During her whole meal, her brothers had made sure she was never alone. Finally, she let the wooden chopsticks fall into the plastic cup and put it with the two others on her nightstand.
“We still need to talk, don’t we?”
The two boys exchanged a long look, then Sasuke nodded, giving his brother the first turn. The blond boy put a hand against the seal on his stomach before he said anything. “W-what happened in the forest…”
“The Demon Fox. The Kyūbi. It’s a S-ranked secret in the village, Naruto. I’m not supposed to know – no one is supposed to know, but I’m sure Mom told you about it when you graduated. She promised.”
“Yeah, she did, but… How do you know?”
She sighed, an almost reluctant smile on her lips. “I know because many villagers, and especially our dear Jōnin, can’t keep their mouths shut. I’ve known for years. I knew even before meeting you, before leaving the village with Ensui-shishou. If I had had the slightest chance of telling you about it without the ANBU taking me into custody, I’d have done so, I swear. I just want you to know, right now, that it doesn’t change anything for me. In fact, I’d be delighted if you started making friends with the fox or the Hermit knows what. If we have to encounter enemies like Orochimaru, we have to get stronger, and fast.”
Naruto’s face had relaxed along with her little speech and, when she finished it, he was beaming again, radiating confidence as warm as sunlight. “You’re right! We’ll kick his skinny ass next time, believe it!”
She smiled too then turned to Sasuke, who sensed it was his turn. “Orochimaru. I want to know what he has done to me.”
“I-I don’t exactly know. Corporal seals are far above my current fūinjutsu skills. What I can understand from its appearance is meagre, but here goes: it’s a three-parts seal, it’s linked to your own chakra system and draws from it, although I’ve frozen that part with my own seal, and it contains some of Orochimaru’s spiritual energy. That part pushed me to act right now, I didn’t want his seal to develop any further inside your body. That measure is very temporary, though. Tomorrow and all the following days, until someone can do something more permanent, I’ll have to fill my seal with chakra to keep it active.”
She folded on herself then, because she knew what came next. It still hurt, despite steeling herself, to see her brothers look at her like she was broken – she felt so close to broken.
“Hitomi, your face…”
“I know, Naruto. I didn’t have any other choice, believe me. The snake grazed its fang against my cheek and venom got in the wound. It was very acidic, and already eating my cheek away when I cauterised to stop it. It looks more serious than it really is. I can still be a ninja, after all. And did you even see Ibiki-san? Does he look like he pities himself for having scars on his face? No. If he can endure, so can I.”
“O-of course you can! You’re so strong! And it doesn’t make you any less pretty, believe it! I saw how Lee-san looked at you before he had to leave.”
A distracted smile on her lips, Hitomi allowed Naruto’s words to comfort her. She didn’t know if he was telling the truth or not, but, like she told them, it did not matter. It was just a scar, and a scar didn’t matter. If she repeated it often enough, she’d end up believing it too, hopefully. She couldn’t waste time crying on something as insignificant as a smooth cheek, not when she foresaw much more important and urgent matters on the horizon.
The night was hard. Sasuke startled her awake with a nightmare, interrupting her own. She had a bit of her strength back, so she left her bed and went in her brother’s, caressing his naked back with her fingertips until he calmed down. Dawn found them cuddling, just like when they were children and their nightmares focused on one subject each. Things had been so much simpler then. Now, there were many things outside they had to fear.
She was the first to leave her room. The doors of the others were still shut, which didn’t surprise her: it was still early and many were still exhausted from their journey through the forest. She was too, if she was being honest. Her chakra levels still left much to be desired, despite the meal and sleep. Wounds and chakra formed a vicious cycle, one of the ninja’s sworn enemies: if one was injured, weakened, they didn’t get their chakra back as quickly, but low chakra reserves also meant that recovering from the injury took way longer. This cycle had cost their lives to many shinobi, without distinction of power or rank.
“You look better than yesterday, Hitomi-san.”
The girl spun around, her whole body tensing. Then she recognised Lee and slowly lowered her hands, trying to control the fear he had unwittingly provoked in her. “I do feel better,” she said after a moment. “And you look well too. How are the ears?”
“Almost as good as new! I’ll have to thank Yamanaka-san for her efforts. Tenten told me she had used medical ninjutsu to mend my eardrums.”
“She did. We have a friend working in the hospital as a doctor who’s also getting trained to become a field medic. She started the Academy with us but decided to get into med studies instead when she saw what the medics were able to do. She and Ino are very close.”
After all, in this world, Sakura had never had a crush on Sasuke, which meant she and Ino were never rivals. She mostly spent time with her colleagues and Hitomi had heard she had been going out with someone from the hospital during a couple of the summer months, her first crush. It had ended when the boy had decided to follow his parents, who had moved to another big city in the Land of Fire. Anyway, at their age, none of her peers were really interested in long, intimate relationships like adults were. By making things official, Hinata and her had been sticking out.
“You reached the tower during the night, didn’t you?”
“Yes! Neji-kun told me he had seen you arrive with his Byakugan at the end of the afternoon, but we were still tracking our target by then, and we still had to fight for the scrolls. A very youthful fight, I can assure you!”
“I don’t doubt it,” Hitomi smiled. While still talking with Lee, she started walking towards the little kitchen the monitors had prepared and left at the disposal of the Genin who passed the test. Everything that could be used as a weapon, like knives, had been replaced by plastic replicas. A creative killer could still use them, but such amorality wasn’t expected of Genin. Distractedly, the girl started preparing tea for two, answering Lee’s questions and comments without fully putting her mind to it.
“… and I found the first test particularly well-thought!”
“Same,” she admitted. “My mother is a friend of Morino-san, she even managed to have him babysit me once when I was younger. I didn’t expect him to be this… intense, in a work setting.” With a hint of a smile, she handed one of the mugs to Lee and took hers between her two palms, as if to warm them up. Soon enough, the bitter-sweet liquid was on her tongue, quite the meagre comfort in comparison to the ordeals she had been through and that was still haunting her – and yet she’d accept just about any source of comfort, no matter how futile it was. Side by side, the two Genin sat on the ground, their back to the kitchen’s wall, cross-legged. Lee could be calm, when he wanted to. Maybe he felt that was what she needed.
“Your cheek is healing nicely,” he said after a while.
Hitomi nodded, her eyes lost in the contemplation of her tea. Water was as flexible as it was fragile. She’d have to spend quite some time meditating on its nature, its strengths and weaknesses, if she wanted to get better, to get stronger. She felt that she was onto something each time she learned a new technique. The ninjas with a water affinity were particularly rare in Konoha, where most shinobi had fire or earth affinities – and sometimes even both. Hitomi couldn’t think of any Jōnin with a main affinity with water.
“You did your best, you know. Of course, you still have many things to learn, but those Otojin ninjas… They weren’t at Genin level. I discussed it with my teammates and they agreed. It was normal for you to be in a tough spot against all three of them.”
The image of the bodies she had left in the forest, probably already ripped apart by the predators that had turned that place into their domain, came back at the front of her mind. In answer, the voice responsible for the carnage purred in satisfaction. Horrified, Hitomi pushed the feeling down as hard as she could. She didn’t want to be that kind of person. Violence was a means, yes, a very useful and often necessary means, but she didn’t want to take any pleasure in the bloodbaths she’d have to cause in the future. What would Naruto say if she became such a cruel person?
“Thanks again for coming to help me,” she said when she was sure the voice wouldn’t come back right away. “You could have just looked the other way. One less opponent on your way… It would have been understandable.”
“I would never have done that. I couldn’t stand looking at myself if I had let those people hurt you when it was possible for me to step in. Gai-sensei taught me precious values, an honour code, and I intend to live by it until the end.”
“Kakashi-sensei tries to teach us values too. Teamwork, that’s his big thing. You know what they say in the village, right? He always brings his team back alive.”
“He’s very strong. Do you know that he and Gai-sensei are rivals?”
“Of course I know. I don’t think anyone in the village can be unaware of their competition. Your sensei is leading currently, isn’t he? He’s very strong, I’m sure.”
“He’s the best! He’s kind and passionate and no one seems able to beat him. His energy is limitless!”
“Looks like you form quite the pair. I don’t know you well yet, Lee, but it seems to me that those qualities are yours as well.”
Lee’s eyes went wide, as if he had a hard time believing that she would even compliment him, then he smiled so wide it had to hurt his cheeks, and she smiled back a bit more shily. She hadn’t expected to appreciate his company so much, but his voice was soft when he didn’t shout, and he had in him the same kind of sweetness Chōji had – the kind that often ended up crushed after a few hard missions. It didn’t seem to happen to either of the two boys, and Hitomi was glad for it.
They continued talking for a little while, until Gaara and his siblings came to join them. Immediately, the jinchūriki walked to her, his face almost impassive, trying not to show in his gait the urge that was pushing him towards her. He took her face in his hands, brushed her cheeks with his fingertips, then hugged her fiercely, offering her the embrace she had been too exhausted the previous day to tolerate. “You’re gonna get stronger,” he growled in her ear. “I don’t want to see you in such a state ever again. I’ll do everything in my power to help you, absolutely everything.”
In his arms, the girl smiled. He had found the words she needed to hear. She didn’t want pity or carefulness or delicateness, not when she still had so much to do, and so much uncertainty paving her path. Encouraging words, promises that she could get better and offers of help when necessary. She didn’t want to feel beaten – the enemies outside wouldn’t wait for her to get better, to get her strength and determination back, before they attacked. They would hit no matter if she was ready or not, willing to face them or not.
“I’ll remind you of this promise later. But first, we still have to finish this exam.”
The Children of the Sand sat around Lee and her on the ground, imitating their relaxed stance. Hitomi didn’t doubt that others would join them soon. Eight of her friends were, after all, still asleep in their room. Those eight shinobi, despite their young age, had learned how much power was laid in numbers. ‘Alone, I’ll beat a regiment, but give me ten men and I’ll beat an army,’ Hokage the Second had said when he was still the village’s war chief.
“Do you know what will happen next?” Kankurō asked.
“I can try to guess. We already know that the third stage is a tournament that will be turned into a spectacle for dignitaries of many countries as well as wealthy civilians – all in all, potential clients. We’re already fifteen to have passed the second stage, only counting our five teams, but I can’t imagine that we are the only ones. That means the organisers will try to cut down this number before the tournament. In the archives I read, when such a thing happened, they organised preliminary matches directly after the second stage.”
“That means we have an advantage over the people who will clear the second stage closer to its end,” Temari concluded.
“Indeed. I think those three complete days of rest will be decisive for some of us… Myself included. If I had to fight immediately upon my arrival in the tower, I wouldn’t have lasted long, and I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom it is the case.”
She was thinking about Lee, whose eardrums were torn the day before. Yes, Ino had healed him, but medical ninjutsu wasn’t miraculous and the process, which was only accelerating cell regeneration, was very taxing on the body. That was the reason why ninjas spent days and days sleeping after being healed for serious injuries.
“In any case, preliminaries or not, we’ll have a month to prepare for the exam. Some will stay in Konoha during that time and will get assigned a training ground they’ll use how they see fit. Others, the ones who want to go back to their village or simply train in secret, will take a risk by leaving. They could get attacked during the journey, and the days spent walking can’t be spent training.”
“We’re staying,” Gaara announced. “Baki-sensei said that, if we came this far, it was out of the question to go back to Suna only to stay there three weeks before coming to Konohagakure again. I don’t think he likes to travel much.”
“And making you lose a whole week of training would be stupid, yeah. But they won’t all choose to stay, I think.”
She didn’t mention the eventuality that most of the tournament will be centred on Konohajin Genin. In the canon, it was already the case, but she had killed the Otojin team. She didn’t dare think about how this divergence from the canon would impact the future.
“Do you know when we’ll see our sensei again?” Lee asked.
“I have no idea,” Hitomi said with a shrug. “They aren’t allowed in the tower during the test because they can’t get in here without crossing the forest and they’d risk interfering with the whole thing whether they want to or not. I guess Mitarashi-san will take them with her when she comes back to announce the end of the test.”
“I miss Gai-sensei,” the teenage boy muttered. “I need to tell him about what happened in the forest. I can’t imagine how I could have beaten the Otojin team, but he surely knows.”
“I don’t doubt it. He’ll make you train twice as hard and, next time, you have to fight against such opponents, you’ll win, I’m sure of it.”
“Yes! Gai-sensei conceives the best youthful training regimens!”
The girl let out a little laugh and the discussion continued, shifting from the exam to the differences between Konoha and Sunagakure. Hitomi could see Temari’s influence on Gaara: he was silent, yes, reserved, without a doubt, but he participated to the conversation quite easily, giving away little jewels of knowledge about his village – the best place to go stars-watching, the best restaurant in the Academy neighbourhood, the animals that his people raised in the Desert. All could see how much he loved Suna, how he cherished it and wanted to protect it.
The other teams joined them as they woke up. Shino decided to prepare entire thermoses of tea so everyone could have their fill and get a new cup when they wanted. Shikamaru, decidedly not a morning person, loved that initiative. Hitomi was relieved to see them all in good health. The previous day, she had been too exhausted to check up on them, but she was happy and proud that they all came out of it in such a good state.
Soon, Hoshihi joined her, sneaking between the shinobi who were drinking their tea without a care for the giant cat amongst them, until he could cuddle with her, despite his stature that made the operation rather complicated. The previous day, her other cats had decided to go back home so as to not exhaust her chakra reserves even more, but Hoshihi was her familiar. This special bond allowed him to spend his own chakra rather than hers when he wanted to stay by her side no matter how exhausted she was. He had been a great source of comfort for her during the evening, patiently licking away the tears running on her smooth cheek and purring the whole time. That sound, so soft and deep, had lulled her to sleep.
During the day, the Genin made sure to rest. Lee ended up joining his team, which didn’t wish to mingle with the group – probably because of the resentment Neji had for his cousin Hinata, a sentiment that hadn’t disappeared when her father had made her younger sister, Hanabi, his heir instead. Hinata was still a Sōke girl, a daughter of the main family. It was enough for her cousin to hate her.
Hitomi would have loved a way to prevent the disaster to come between those two, but she had already done her best by making sure Hinata was strong and determined during all those years they had spent training together, and she couldn’t find anything more to push her in the right direction. At least, she was almost sure she had been able to prevent the deadly injuries Gaara inflicted upon Lee in the canon, even if that change had been unplanned.
She, too, couldn’t wait to see her sensei once this test was over, she mused as she watched her friends talk around her. She needed to tell him about Sasuke and Naruto, urgently, so he could devise a plan to help them. As for the help she needed herself… It could wait. Inside her, the voice purred with approval.