[X] I apologize firsthand for my inability to reveal the questions on the paper. My IQ is not even nearly as high as Shikaku's, so I'd probably lose face if I try to make up some facts and complex solvings here, even if I am an Engineering student. I doubt Chemical Engineering is going to be present in ninja studies anyway…?


CHAPTER 5.3


"Stupid oyaji…" Shikamaru muttered, staring at his test in dismay. "You sure went all out on these questions…" He let out a sigh, closing his eyes and letting his mind drift.

Ino panicked as she skimmed the contents of the paper. These questions aren't what we were taught about in the Academy!

Shikamaru… She stared at her teammate about more than five inches away from her, boring holes into his back as if willing him for the answers.

Chōji released a bated breath. I… don't know any of them, he thought to himself, dispirited. He raised his head, spotting Ino at the far end. I hope those two find a way around this.

Tenten groaned. Neji could probably answer at least one of these…

Lee smacked his face on the table. Gai-sensei…! I'm very sorry…!

Shino stared at the paper in front of him. He could probably answer some questions, but most of them would only be hypothetical. He doubted that Shikaku would accept his answers.

Hinata squeaked as quietly as she could, swallowing the heavy lump in her throat. These are so difficult… Her lips trembled in apprehension. Every question seems to involve both conceptual findings and practical applications. Shikaku-san is amazing…

Kiba slumped in his seat, defeated. He had absolutely no idea what to do. Perhaps it would be better to just give up now and wait for next year, when Shikaku-san isn't the proctor anymore…

He glanced at his side. Although I think I'm much better off than that idiot…

Beside him, Naruto was as stiff as a statue, unmoving and sweating profusely. He had no problem with himself strength-wise; he now had the power to protect his precious people. However, this was the first time that he felt completely, utterly powerless.

This was just crazy!

Sasuke finished answering the first question in the box, making his handwriting as small as it could be. For him, the question was rather more on a moderate level rather than difficult if one analyzed it very carefully. He shot a glance at Naruto, whose bright, spiky blond hair was unmistakable. He seemed to be very rigid, and Sasuke would bet everything he had that Naruto had completely no idea what to answer or even where to start. Shaking his head at his teammate's predictable movements, he glanced at Sakura, who was seated at the far left.

His eyes widened.

Sakura looked as composed as she could be, answering the questions fluidly.


• • •


These kanji… Sakura mused to herself, her eyes drilling at the words. They look familiar… like…

a pattern?!

Putting her pencil down, she traced the kanji characters with her finger, trying to pin down what was it that was so familiar.

Kanji… then hiragana…

Those characters…

Five questions…

Small answer box…

Sakura's mind reeled. There was something here, something she couldn't quite put her finger on. It wasn't coded; no, just slightly. But there was something nagging at the back of her mind, urging her…

Sakura buried her face in her hands. What was it?! It was so frustrating. She tried to grab onto vestiges of a clue, yet it slipped through her fingers like water. She had to concentrate! She had to focus!

What was it that she was missing?

All right, she told herself, taking a deep breath. It's like when you lose something. You retrace your steps.

She thought back to Shikaku's words of instruction, relying on her good memory.

"As you can see, there's an answer box at the bottom," Shikaku said. "Place your answers there and nowhere else."

Then that means no answering at the back of the page where there's a lot of space, she concluded. But why? Why the box alone? The box is only adequate enough for the answers to about two questions or so…

Unless…

"Then find a way," Shikaku said flatly. "Your answers should only be placed inside that box. It is adequate enough. If it doesn't fit, then try your best to cram them all inside. You are ninjas; you should be able to look underneath the underneath."

Underneath the underneath… Sakura gripped the edge of the paper, inadvertently crumpling it in the midst of her deep thought.

"You all have pencils in hand," Shikaku continued on. "You can erase your answers if they can't fit so you can find another way to fit them inside. If you're planning to cheat, it's useless, because there are more than four different sets of papers. The Exam will end in exactly two hours." He glanced at the ticking clock on the wall, which showed that it was nine-fifteen. "At eleven-fifteen, I will collect all papers and determine who passes. If one member of the team fails, then everyone in that team will fail. These are all the rules. Now, start!"

Sakura's eyes fluttered open. She sent a quick glance at Shikaku, who was looking at them with a bored gaze, not even really paying attention to some of the withering glares he was receiving.

Shikaku-san looks like he isn't worrying about anything… and he's the only one in the room who's keeping an eye on us…

Sakura's breath caught in her throat. She immediately stared at the clock on the wall, realizing that fifty minutes had already passed.

That fast…?! She panicked. One hour and ten minutes to go… Oh, gawd, and I still haven't fully figured this out!


• • •


Shikamaru opened his eyes after his brief relaxation, then faced the test once more, his eyes resting on the writings as if memorizing them leisurely.

Guess I'd have to put an effort to this… or else I'd be taunted as being dumber than my dad…

Shikamaru closed his eyes, then moved his hands into a certain position.

In less than eight minutes, he opened his eyes. "Ah, I see," he said flatly before proceeding to write on the answer box in simple, quick strokes.

Shikaku noticed his son and smiled. Good. I would've been disappointed if he hadn't figured it out sooner. He noticed that a girl with vibrant pink hair seemed to be lulling over the test, her eyes narrowed in concentration as opposed to the other defeated looks of the genins around her. And she seems to have a bit of promise.

Look underneath the underneath. Heh. Shikaku smirked. I've only just realized how useful Kakashi's words are.

He glanced at the clock and stood up, catching the attention of every genin in the room.

"One hour has already passed," he announced, not missing the collective stares and gawks of disbelief and pure defeat. "I am going to give you all a hint: if you still don't get the answers by this point, you can leave the room and try again next year."

There was a beat of silence. No one wanted to be the first to leave.

That is, until a brown-haired boy shakily stood up, clenching his hands into fists.

"I give up!" he yelled. "These questions are ridiculous! I hope you won't become the proctor again next year!" Courageously, he sprinted towards the exit, his flabbergasted teammates running after him.

The leave sent a chain reaction. Many teams stood up and left, angry, dejected, disappointed, and resigned, leaving behind only those who were determined to see the test through to the end.

Fifty-one teams now dwindled to a mere twenty-six.

"Then I presume the rest of you would like to stay?" Shikaku inquired.

Some heads nodded. Shikaku nodded back in response, slipping into his seat and proceeding to watch them with half-lidded, almost tired eyes.

It was then that Shikamaru stood up.

Ino and Chōji stood up as well, alarmed.

"Shikamaru!" Ino cried out in surprise. "What are you doing?"

"A—Are you giving up?" Chōji asked, though he was more afraid of Ino than failing the exams.

Shikamaru sighed. "…What do you take me for? I'm not giving up," he stated in a matter-of-fact tone. "I'm just going to you two."

Ino and Chōji went stiff.

"Eh?!" Kiba stood up, indignant. "Oi, Shikaku-san! I know he's your son, but is that allowed? That's cheating!"

Sakura, forcing her shyness away, stood up immediately, her chair slamming into the table at her back with such impact that it caused a sea of faces to look at her.

Naruto, who had long since snapped out of his panic trance, stared at her. "Sakura-chan…?"

Sakura's throat went dry at the stares, but she swallowed back her hesitance.

"It's allowed," she said, her voice becoming clear and steady. "Shikaku-san never said anything about no cheating. Therefore… we can stand and go to our teammates and help them out."

Shock filled the room.

Shikaku smirked. "I won't say anything else, but that my rules only say that you place your answers inside the answer box, and that I will collect all your papers by the time it's eleven-fifteen."

Kiba's jaw dropped in astonishment. "Y—You mean… All this time…?!"

"Ino. Chōji." Shikamaru beckoned them over. "Come on. Let's finish this and pass."

Ino and Chōji both snapped out of their shock and ran over to him, excitement filling their chests.

"All right, Shikamaru!" Ino cheered.

"Naruto! Sasuke-kun!" Sakura called out. "I think I'm close to figuring it out now!"

Naruto and Sasuke exchanged glances, then nodded as they rushed over to their female teammate.

Lee and Tenten ran over to Neji while Hinata and Kiba went to Shino, who was halfway on solving the test paper.

"Ugh, I kind of get it now," Temari said gruffly, slightly irritated that she didn't figure it out sooner. "Gaara! Kankuro!"

"What do you know, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked.

"It's like this!" Sakura exclaimed in realization, pointing at the questions on her paper. "Sasuke-kun, combine the kanji characters from the first and last characters of every first question on each of our papers. If it doesn't fit, try the characters before or after them."

Sasuke did as he was told, his mind whirring as his fingers moved fluidly on their own.

He wrote the final, solved question on the back of his paper.

Who is the "king" you must protect?

Naruto released a breath. "The… 'king'…?"

"It must be referring to the shōgi game," Sasuke realized. "Nii-san plays that game sometimes."

"This is my question since the first word came from my paper," Sakura managed. "What are yours, Sasuke-kun? Naruto?"

After five more minutes, Sasuke's question was:

Which of your teammates is the weakest link and why?

And Naruto's was:

Who in your team would make the perfect decoy and why?

Naruto smirked. "I know the answer to this."

Sasuke nodded. "Mine as well."

No one.

Sakura bit her lip, feeling that odd sense of being out of place once more. "I—I don't know the answer to mine."

"The game of shōgi may refer to the village, especially its inhabitants," Sasuke inferred, looking thoughtful. "The 'king' is a figurative figure."

"Then… the Hokage…?" Sakura tried.

"…I don't really get it," Naruto began cluelessly, "but if you're protecting something, then wouldn't it be the people of the village?"

Sasuke and Sakura stared at him in surprise.

Naruto grinned. "And let's not forget the next generation as well, dattebayo!"


• • •


The first test was over when they all passed and were made to wait outside while Shikaku checked their papers along with some jōnins. The Rookie Twelve talked to each other excitedly, marvelling at Shikamaru's quick wit as well as Sakura's intelligence. There was even note of Shino as a close fourth, because Neji figured it all out not too long after Shikamaru and Sakura did.

The Sand Siblings only interacted more with Naruto and his team, but made small talk with the others, too. Kankuro avoided Shino, but seemingly had a common topic with Kiba. Temari mostly minded her own business, but was interested in Tenten's choice of weapons. Gaara, on the other hand, kept to himself, but after being pulled in by both Lee and Naruto, he found himself talking to them and actually enjoying their company.

It was not long after that Shikaku called them back inside the room.

"The ones who passed are…" He read off the list. "Aburame Shino. Hyūga Hinata. Inuzuka Kiba. Nara Shikamaru. Yamanaka Ino. Akimichi Chōji. Namikaze Naruto. Haruno Sakura. Uchiha Sasuke. Hyūga Neji. Tenten. Rock Lee. Gaara. Temari. Kankuro. Kobayashi Jino. Fujio Kuni…"

There were varying degrees of excitement pumping the room. After Shikaku read the last of the names, a few dejected teams left the room while the rest cheered at passing the test.

"So, all in all…" There was a semblance of a smile on Shikaku's face. "…twenty-one teams passed."

But before they could bask in their triumph, the doors suddenly slammed open, and a figure appeared in the doorway, a bright, excited, and almost feral grin painting her face.

"So these are the ones who passed the first exam? Man, they're so many! Congratulations, dattebane~!"

Naruto froze at the voice, his head turning around slowly. When he spotted the familiar long, beautiful red hair, his jaw dropped open in shock.

"K—Kaa-chan?!" he exclaimed.

Kushina's eyes widened momentarily, and she searched the sea of faces for her son. When she spotted him, she waved frantically.

"Naruto! Oh, my! Congratulations! I always thought you'd never get past the literal test! Ahahahaha!" Kushina laughed boisterously.

Naruto sweatdropped, hanging his head low. "…Thanks for the support, kaa-chan…" he muttered defeatedly.

"All right! Now that the first test is over, let's now proceed to the second!" Kushina announced, flipping her hair back. Naruto only now noticed that she was wearing the standard jōnin uniform as opposed to her usual green dress that she wore in the house. "I am Namikaze Kushina, your proctor for the second test! Shikaku may have passed so many of you, but don't think that you'll get past my test in one piece!"

Naruto could see that most of the genins weren't taking his mother seriously, cheerful aura and all. He gulped. There was a reason why he always called Kushina 'scary'. Those poor chaps just didn't get it yet…

"Tch. Overconfident woman…" one Grass nin muttered under his breath.

His teammate chuckled. "I bet you we can get past her test in less than an hour!"

Unfortunately for them, Kushina heard it, her head snapping towards that certain team. A smile was still plastered on her face; however, her eyes were now narrowed, and her hair started to stand up at the ends, reminiscent of the Kyūbi's tails.

"What was that, my dears…?" she articulated slowly, her eyebrow twitching.

The Grass nins looked at her and gulped, sudden fear rising in their throats. It was like her eyes were a pure, demon-like red!

"NNothing…!" they chorused.

Kushina instantly reverted back to her cheerful countenance. "I see! Now, let's all get going, shall we?"


• • •


"The Forest of Death," Kushina announced, grinning in enthusiasm. "Here is where the second test will be commencing! I will need to announce that this is a race."

"A race…?" Shikamaru muttered. "What a drag…"

Kushina nodded vigorously. "Yes, a race to the tower! However, there are certain… tasks each team needs to fulfill. Before I call on the first team to receive them, though, I will need all of you to sign a waiver!"

"A waiver for what?" one Rain nin with long blonde hair asked.

"For your lives," Kushina replied cheerfully. "I can't guarantee that all of you will come out alive from this forest, after all, dattebane!"

Kaa-chan… Naruto thought, sweatdropping. Your happy, sadistic smile isn't helping…

Apparently done having fun, Kushina sombered, her eyes taking on a depth of seriousness. "Experienced jōnins and chūnins will be patrolling the forest from the outside, staying on guard in case any of you are on the verge of death. However, there will always be cases wherein it will be too late to save any of you. So, after signing the waivers, line up at the stall by the right so I can give each team their respective scrolls. Is that understood?"

The female Rain nin who made an inquiry earlier placed a hand on her hip, her visage remaining expressionless.

Her male teammate with silver hair and glinting brown eyes folded his arms across his chest, a smirk playing at his lips. "Hmm… This is interesting. What do you think, Yuka? Hatori?"

Hatori, tall, dark-haired, and wearing glasses that gave him a somewhat scholarly look, closed his eyes. "Lie low, Kyo."

Kyo looked positively affronted. "But I haven't done anything!" he protested.

Hatori sent him a withering glance. "…Yet," he emphasized.

Kyo pouted, looking away from his traitorous teammates. "You guys are so mean."

Not too far away from them, Rock Lee pumped his fist into the air, seemingly pumped up.

"Yosh! Now is my time to make Gai-sensei proud of me!"

"I wonder what kind of task we'll be given…" Tenten pondered.

"Let us go get our waivers firsthand," Neji said, already walking towards the jōnins who were handing them out to the teams.

"This forest looks kinda scary," Chōji mumbled, pausing in the middle of eating his chips.

"Well, of course it does!" Ino said confidently, trying not to show her apprehension. "This wouldn't be the Chūnin Exams if it weren't challenging!"

"The first test was already challenging enough," muttered Shikamaru.

"C'mon, guys!" Kiba beckoned, stopping in the midst of his run and swivelling towards his teammates. "Let's go!"

"W—Wait, Kiba-kun…" Hinata panted, feeling numb at her inner fear.

"We are not in any particular hurry," Shino informed him.

Kiba looked dismayed. "Aren't you guys excited at all? I'm pumped up and I wanna kick some ass!"

"Hey, guys!" Naruto called out, waving at Hinata and Shino.

"Hey, I'm here, too," Kiba growled.

Coincidentally, all the Rookie Twelve were gathered in one place, exchanging either tense or friendly greetings with each other. Some ninjas from the neighbouring countries glanced at them with various emotions: interest, disinterest, disbelief, and annoyance.

"They're letting kids participate in the Exam?" Kyo muttered.

"You've already seen them in the first exam, and that was your exact question as well," Hatori informed him flatly. "Remember that they are the reason we even passed in the first place."

"But I still can't believe it," Kyo insisted, forcefully ignoring Hatori's implied insult. "They can't be any older than eight!"

"Then it must mean that they are smart and strong," Hatori said absently, his gaze focused instead on the forest, listening to the faint roars of the fierce animals dwelling inside.

"Hah! Even the strongest kid doesn't yet have the mindset of a chūnin!" Kyo said, shaking his head. "Kids are immature. They can't handle being leaders of squads yet."

"Leave them be, Kyo," Hatori said in disinterest. "If they are incapable, they will either fail the test... or die in the forest."


• • •


Sakura stared at the form in her hand with half-lidded eyes. If she were to die here… she would no longer be with her family, with her teammates, with her friends… Her life would end and that would be it, not to mention that Naruto and Sasuke would fail as well, possibly. How could she be able to survive inside that deadly forest with her meager abilities?

Inadvertently, she placed a hand on her forehead, feeling the thick bangs covering said part. She still felt that she didn't have enough to show, that she wasn't ready to make chūnin yet. But her teammates, Naruto and Sasuke, were more than ready and were far more capable than she was. They even signed their waivers without any hesitation on their parts. She, on the other hand, was still conflicted.

But she got safely past the first test, right? It would be worthless if she gave up now…

Almost robotically, Sakura wrote her name and signature on the paper.

I will not become a coward again, she promised to herself.


• • •


When Team 7's turn was up, Kushina faced them with a gentle smile on her face.

"I know you three will pull through," she encouraged. "Especially you, Naruto. Don't disappoint me, all right? If I find out that you're only goofing off and letting your teammates do all the work…"

Naruto, sweating profusely, shook his head, flapping his hands back and forth. "I—I would never do that, kaa-chan! Hehe…"

Kushina still retained her soft smile. "Good. Now, Team 7, under elite jōnin Hatake Kakashi, this is your assigned scroll."

Sasuke was the one who received it, scrutinizing the outward appearance. There was nothing particularly striking about it, just that it was designed plainly with a dull, beige colour.

"You will not open that scroll at any costs," Kushina warned. "Also, that is not the scroll you need in order to be able to go to the Tower."

When she received confused looks, she elaborated, "That scroll you have is the scroll a certain team needs. Basically, it's up to you whether or not you fight them in order for them to have it, or you use it as blackmail if ever they have your scroll in their hands."

"Wait," Sakura said, alarmed. "You mean we have to seek out other teams so we can search for our own scroll?"

Kushina nodded. "Correct!"

"What does our scroll look like?" Naruto asked.

"Team 7's scroll has black and white stripes. Remember that," Kushina said carefully. "If you accidentally take the wrong scroll and open it once you're at the Tower, you immediately fail."

Naruto gulped. This was suddenly more tense and difficult compared to the Chūnin Exams proctored by Anko.

His mother truly was a scary woman.

"Now, don't think that that's all you have to do," added Kushina, inwardly laughing at the varying incredulous looks from her son's team. "You still have another task assigned to you." She reached out from under the table, grabbed something, and revealed it to them. It was another scroll, this time with grey and pink colours. "Now this scroll is not like the other one. Find the team with the exact same scroll as this, and eliminate them."

"K—Kill them?!" Naruto exclaimed, his eyes as wide as saucers.

Kushina's eyes hardened. "Not necessarily," she said quietly. "Just take the scroll from them by force —since I doubt they'd let you take it from them since this is a race — and bring the three scrolls to the Tower."

Sakura was wringing her hands together, feeling the instant clamminess of her skin. This was getting more and more difficult. The first test was completely tame compared to the second, and they hadn't even started yet!

"Now, remember this," Kushina said in a tone that commanded their full attention. "Open the three scrolls at the same time. Do not open them one by one. Each of you will have your own scroll to open, so open them simultaneously. If you don't, there will be repercussions, and it will not be pretty."

Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura gave firm nods that they understood.

Kushina leaned back in her seat. "Good. Now, any questions?"

They shook their heads.

Kushina gave them an encouraging smile. "Good. Now hide those scrolls inside your pouches and wait for the signal outside. We'll probably be starting the second test by late afternoon since there are more teams I need to relay information to. Take this time to equip yourselves with something useful in order to survive in the forest. The other jōnins are already informing the other participants to do the same. Come back here at 5:00 sharp. If you're late, you're immediately disqualified."

"Yes, ma'am!"

Kushina watched them go, a small smile still plastered on her face.

Naruto… Good luck.


• • •


By the time the designated time was approaching, the first batch were gathered around in a circle around the wide forest, waiting for their respective gates to be opened. The second batch wasn't due to go inside until the first batch disappeared for five minutes. It was Kushina's idea since there were unexpectedly many teams still left after the first test.

As expected of the talented rookie generation of Konoha, Kushina thought proudly.

Kiba flexed his arms, readying himself. Hinata and Shino stood beside him, the former hesitant while the latter showing no obvious emotion on his part.

Lee was pumped up, jogging in place while Neji and Tenten tried not to look his way.

Shikamaru sighed, mumbling to himself. Ino attempted to wrestle Chōji's chips out of his hands, but to no avail.

Naruto exchanged a glance with Sasuke, who nodded at him with a small, almost imperceptible smile on his face. Sakura watched her seemingly confident teammates and tried not to shrink into herself.

When it struck five, Kushina hollered, "Start!"

All the teams instantly rushed into the forest.


tbc


[X] Haha... I guess I made the first test too simple. I didn't have any other ideas. Hope you all enjoyed regardless!

[X] Thanks to Guest (Um... Not sure if Hinata should really be labelled as a stalker since she's not that bad... but yeah, I agree that it's mostly because of her clan, particularly her family, that made her have low self-esteem. Here's to hoping I improve that aspect of herself in this story!) and cry0 (I'll keep that in mind! Thanks!). :)