When I went downstairs for breakfast, dressed in my kunoichi outfit, on the morning of the second test of the Chuunin Exams, both my parents were waiting around the kitchen table. I paused in surprise.
"Dad," I said, "shouldn't you have left for work already?"
"I wanted to stay back to see you go," said Dad, and then both my parents stood up, came around the table, and hugged me tightly.
"Be safe," my mother whispered raggedly into my ear. Maybe it was the pack I had with me or how dangerous my last two big missions had been, but they seemed to grasp for the first time just how dangerous this thing I was going into could be.
When they stood back, there were tears in their eyes. "We're so proud of you," my father said. My mother couldn't speak. And all they could do was watch me leave. How terrifying would that be?
Trying to break the tension, I went around the table, grabbed something, and smiled as I held up the blueberry muffin, beginning to walk out the door. "Late for things, as usual," I said, and in a watery way, my mother smiled. Then I shut the door behind me and they were gone.
I hurried down the streets, walking down the river and past the bridge to meet my teammates. They both had packs with them as well. We fell into step beside each other, heading out toward training area 44, which was on the edge of the village. We hadn't gotten very far when we heard a shout behind us.
"Naruto! Wait up! Leader!"
We looked around. Konohamaru, Moegi, and Udon ran up to us. Konohamaru stopped and put his hands on his knees, breathless.
"We - had to wish you luck -" he gasped out.
"Aww," I began, but Naruto was more canny.
"You want something? Right in the middle of the Chuunin Exams? Really?" he said. I was about to scold him, but then Konohamaru stood and grinned sheepishly.
"We have to do an article for the Academy school newspaper on the Chuunin Exams. We have to interview at least three Genin taking it. And we figured, since we already know you..."
"We don't have time for this," Sasuke muttered.
"Pleeeaaase?" Konohamaru, Moegi, and Udon looked up at us with big eyes.
What could we say? A bit harried, we agreed. So they took us aside separately and asked us our questions. The questions seemed to have been written by their Sensei.
Introduce yourself please?
My name is Haruno Sakura. I'm a Konoha Genin. I'll be thirteen in March. I'm not currently in a relationship, but I've been doing some dating. I like books, puzzles, and hanging out with my friends.
What Genin team are you on? Introduce your teammates?
I'm on one of the newest rookie teams, Genin Team Seven. My teammates are Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki Naruto. They're... complete opposites. Sasuke's really serious all the time and Naruto's really funny and energetic. They seem mean to each other, but they're really friends. Just don't tell them I said that. They complete each other and it helps to balance things out.
What missions have you completed prior to the Chuunin Exam?
I've completed several D rank missions, babysitting and gardening, things like that. I've also completed a C rank mission that involved stealing back a document, and a C rank mission that was a guard detail that went south. I'm not sure how much I should mention freely. Please don't ask me any more.
What is your relationship to your Kage?
The Hokage? He's... aged and wise. He seems like a kind and understanding person. We're very lucky to have him.
What Sensei have you had? What is your relationship to them?
My Sensei at the Konoha Ninja Academy was Umino Iruka. He yelled at people a lot, but he always meant well and he taught us well. My Jounin Sensei is Hatake Kakashi. He's... hard to define. Enigmatic, sarcastically funny. He's been through a lot. He's very experienced in the field.
How do you fight? How do your teammates fight?
I would call myself... a beginning genjutsu illusions specialist... My spell element is fire... Again, I'm not sure how much I should say. My teammates are more close-up action oriented than I am.
How do you feel about competing against so many other ninja in the Chuunin Exams? Do you have much experience with rivalry? Have you had any rivalries yourself?
Well... there are a lot of people here... they're probably all very talented. I really don't know what I'm supposed to say. The Exam will be hard, but I'll just have to do the best I can. I must admit, I don't have a lot of personal experience with rivalry. But I've known a lot of male rivals who can really respect each other. So I would say rivalry can be a very positive influence. It helps the rivals grow.
How do you feel about how the Chuunin Exam has gone so far for you?
Well, I'm still in it, aren't I? (laughs)
It was eerie, answering the questions. No one in the Chuunin Exams or beyond would even hear about, let alone bother reading, a little kid's school newspaper report. But it made me a little leery anyway. I tried to be vague about anything to do with fighting. I also had to be careful not to speak badly about anyone, which was a little inhibiting. I hoped Naruto and Sasuke didn't give away too much information. I also hoped they didn't try to skew things.
"Thank you so much," said Konohamaru and his friends at the end, bowing to us. Maybe it was talking to us as more experienced ninja that had reminded them to add the note of respect.
"No problem," I said, smiling with effort.
"See you later, Konohamaru!" Naruto waved as we left.
"You were nice to them, right?" I asked Sasuke.
"Why do you automatically turn to me?" Sasuke asked, exasperated. Naruto started laughing.
It was a nice note of relief before we continued on, a bundle of nerves, toward training ground 44.
Even from a distance, the training ground was startling. When we came closer, mixing in with the crowd of other hopefuls, our eyes widened.
Mitarashi Anko was standing in front of the fenced-off training ground, next to a tented table of assistant examiners. Behind them was a vast forest, though the term doesn't do justice to what we'd seen. The trees were huge - some of their roots were taller than me! It was dark within the forest, the huge trees close together. There was something intimidating about the very sight of training area 44. A wind whistled softly through the leaves, lifting our hair as it passed, as we stared into the darkness ahead. The fence surrounding the training area was padlocked off, its door chained up; "Entry Forbidden" said a sign hanging next to the chains. The sign next to it said, "Warning: Entry May Lead to Death," which was oddly funny, in a hysterical, not-funny sort of way.
"The second test will take place inside here," said Mitarashi Anko. She was smirking as if amused by our expressions. "Training Ground Forty-Four. Also known as the Forest of Death."
Even as we watched, a centipede larger than a hand crawled across the trunk of the closest tree. A sparrow flittered down onto a branch, and then the largest snake I had ever seen in my life snapped up out of the shadows and swallowed it whole. I jumped a little, and then swallowed. The examiner seemed to notice, and relish it.
"You all will be able to experience firsthand just why this place is called the Forest of Death," she said, laying it on thick.
"Yeah, yeah," said Naruto loudly, and I nudged him sharply in the ribs. It was too late, though. Anko had noticed.
"Do you have something to say?" she asked in a low voice, smiling dangerously.
"I just think it's ridiculous, trying to scare us like this!" said Naruto, as usual completely ignoring the tone around him. "I'm not scared." He lifted his chin defiantly.
"Oh, really?" And then Anko smiled, and threw a kunai at him. Gasping, I pushed Naruto out of the way one way and leaped back the other way myself. The kunai flew harmlessly in between us. "Aww, too bad, it didn't hit you," Anko pouted, sounding genuinely disappointed. Then she beamed. "Oh, well. You're probably going to die in this next test anyway," she said gleefully. "The loud ones always do!" She giggled and clapped her hands like a little girl.
Great, so our first examiner had been a torture expert and our second examiner was psychotic.
"Do you have something to say?" Anko added pointedly, seeing my expression.
"No, ma'am," I replied immediately. "I'm ready to meet my impending death."
"That's the spirit!" said Anko, cheering and lifting her arm. "Now, before the second test starts, the law requires me to pass out these consent forms. Everyone taking this test must sign one, because from here on out, people will die. By signing this form, you are saying you understand the risks and the village cannot be held liable if you are injured or die during the rest of the Chuunin Exam." I thought of my parents and felt a ping of nervousness.
As she passed out the forms, Anko began explaining the second test, shouting loudly so we could all hear.
"Inside this forest, you will go through an extreme survival match. The forest is a circular area surrounded by 44 locked gate entrances - that's what this fencing is for. There is a stream that runs through the forest - this training area is its own independent ecosystem - and in the exact center of the forest is a tower. The tower is approximately six miles away from any given gate. With me so far?
"You will work within training area 44 as a team. Your Genin team will compete against other Genin teams for scrolls. There are two kinds of scrolls, a white one with a seal that says "Heaven" and a black one with a seal that says "Earth." Twenty six teams are gathered here with us today. Half of those teams will get a Heaven scroll and half of those teams will get an Earth scroll. Each Genin team's goal once inside the forest is to get one copy of each kind of scroll. So you have to fight another team - and possibly kill them, anything goes inside this forest - to get the opposite kind of scroll, and then you have to fend off attacks from other teams and keep your original scroll.
"You will each begin at a different locked gate entrance and you will all be let into the training ground at once when a timer starts. Making it to the tower with both kinds of scrolls will mean you have passed the second test. All of your teammates must be alive in order for you to receive a passing score. You must reach the tower within the time limit of five days - or exactly 120 hours from when you are released into the forest - in order to receive a passing score.
"If you're keeping count, that means at least thirteen teams will fail this part of the Exam."
"What about food?!" Chouji cried in horror, and even Ino was complaining loudly.
"Some of you thought to prepare for that eventuality beforehand." Anko eyed the people who had packs, including me. I felt a little guilty. Maybe I should have thought to warn Ino about this beforehand. But we'd all learned survival and foraging techniques at the Academy. Anko agreed, which was entirely uncomfortable: "Otherwise, just scrounge up some food yourself. There are plenty of plants and animals in the forest. Once you get to the tower, however, food and bedding will be provided for you. A little extra incentive."
"Be careful, though, a lot of things in this forest are poisonous," said the older Konoha Genin with the glasses helpfully from where he was standing beside his teammates.
Chouji looked defeated already and we hadn't even started yet. "Man up, that's why it's called a survival match, I guess," said Ino, though she didn't look too happy herself. No one did. I'd known, though - this was going to take a long time.
"There is no guarantee all thirteen teams will get a scroll. Also, as the time passes, our ability to rest will get shorter and shorter," Neji pointed out.
"This will be tough," said Lee, though he seemed almost to be looking forward to it,
"And we'll be surrounded by enemies, so we won't be able to sleep in peace," said Sasuke quietly.
"Let me reiterate," said Anko. "People will get injured. People will die. There will be those who cannot bear the harshness of this exercise. None of the people I have just mentioned would make worthy Chuunin."
Shikamaru raised his hand. "Can we just give up?" he asked, typically.
"Quitting is not allowed during the Exam," said Anko sternly, so there went that idea. "Oh, and on a side note, you are not allowed to look into the scrolls during the Exam."
"It's like a mission," I said in realization. "It'll be like we're handling someone's private information." I thought of the Jye-Kura mission.
"Correct," said Anko. "It's just testing you on one of the things you're not allowed to do as a Chuunin: what you've been assigned to retrieve is not your business. Do not let your curiosity get the better of you. Your job is just to retrieve it.
"And that's it! Sign your consent forms and go with your team to the tent. You'll be taken in one team at a time, and each team will trade three signed consent forms for one scroll. Then you will each head to your assigned gate entrance and wait to be released into the forest.
"Oh. And here's a last piece of advice: Don't die, okay?"
We all went off separately to sign the consent forms. I curled up under a tree and started to read through mine. The wording was stark and wholly clinical. I felt like a piece of meat being offered up on a table. If I failed to measure up, I would be found wanting and thrown in the garbage.
"Sakura!" I looked up to find Ino jogging over to me. "I actually wanted to talk to you about something."
I had to admit, I was surprised. "Yes?"
Ino looked around and then kneeled down. "Look, I'm not sure how to say it, but... are you sure you can do this?"
"What do you mean?" I asked, frowning.
"I have my mind control techniques. Shikamaru and Chouji have powers too. Hinata, Kiba, Shino, they're all from clans. Sasuke's from a clan. God knows what Naruto's still doing here, but look, he doesn't matter! He's not my friend." Ino looked at me meaningfully. "Sakura, you don't have any techniques. Are you sure you can handle this? I'm asking as a friend."
"No judgments here if you say no," said Ino. "I'll help you find a way to get out. Okay?" She seemed pretty firm on this.
I tried not to be angry. "Ino, Kakashi-sensei's been training me a lot. Okay? Trust me, I'll be alright."
Ino was still watching me uncertainly. I looked up, nearly laughing. "Seriously," I added.
"... Huh. Maybe your team has been good for you," said Ino at last.
"What do you mean?"
"You just seem... different." Ino smiled. "But it's not a bad different. Matter of fact, I kind of like it!" She jumped up. "Awesome! And now, without further ado -"
She yanked me upward, pushed me sideways, and shoved me behind a bush. "Ino, what the hell -?!" I looked around. Hinata had been hiding behind the bush, listening to our conversation. "You were listening?" I asked, not sure why this made me so personally... angry.
Hinata looked away, frowning stubbornly.
"Oh, come on, you two!" Ino got between us where we were looking away from each other. "You know you miss us being a threesome! Hell, I know you miss us being a threesome! Hinata was worried about you," Ino told me upfront. "It was her who was worried about you dying in this forest. I was just the one 'elected' to come talk to you about it."
I looked up at last. "You were worried about me?" I asked. "Or worried I might not be able to handle it?"
Hinata looked flustered, as if this wasn't going at all the way she planned. "Well - both," she admitted at last. "Sakura -" And here, she looked away. "Why does Naruto look at you so much?"
There was a heavy pause. Ino stepped back as though hopeful to let us talk.
"I... I don't know," I admitted after a minute. "Because I talk to him? Hinata... all the things he likes in me, he'd probably also like in you. He finds it cute that I'm self conscious and he likes the fact that I have a need to prove myself to someone, and, Hinata, all those things would apply to you too. But you never talk to him."
Hinata was still looking away, depressed and annoyed and unsure. "I... You're not just saying that?" she said at last.
"Yes. Now what was that about me not being able to handle it?"
Hinata looked up heatedly. "We all know you're the weakest member of this group, physically speaking. And there's nothing wrong with that. But Sakura - you have to know your limits! If you died -!" And here, Hinata looked away, upset.
I was still a ways back, with, We all know you're the weakest member of this group.
Amazed and offended, I replied at last, "I - hope to prove you wrong. And I am definitely taking this test now."
"Sakura -!" They looked around to me in alarm.
"No," I said, stepping back from them, my face twisting. "Definitely." I grabbed my paper and stalked off to go find my teammates. Then I paused and looked back again. "You know," I said louder to Hinata, "I wonder at the fact that you think about me but don't think about my teammate! Maybe you'd get farther with your precious Naruto if you actually treated him like a human being occasionally!" And, making a furious noise in the back of my throat, I stormed off again, straight past Shikamaru and Chouji who were staring in the direction of the bush in fear and confusion as though it held The Ghost of PMS inside it.
On my way through the crowds of Genin, I spotted Gaara with his teammates. There was something harder about his face now, about his eyes, as though mentally he were already in the forest. But he still noticed me and took the time to lock his eyes on me as I passed by.
And I was so thoroughly done with people who acted like complete weirdos, that I flipped him off, did a weird little face and dance, and then just kept right on walking.
Gaara stared after me in surprise and something slightly like alarm.
I was a little flushed when I met up with Naruto and Sasuke. They looked sideways at me in worry and I said flatly, "Girl problems."
Intelligent boys that they were, they said nothing and kept outside a full foot of me at all times.
The teams went in the tent and behind the curtain one by one. Naruto grabbed up our consent forms and traded them in for one scroll, a cream-colored Heaven scroll. The color was as far removed as possible from what we were about to do. Despite my confidence with Hinata and Ino, I was nervous.
"Who should have it?" Naruto asked, and even he was quiet, looking from one teammate to the other.
"Everyone would think I have it," said Sasuke, "if just because of the clan symbol on my back. Naruto's too reckless to have it. Sakura." He turned to me. "You take it up."
I took the scroll but I wasn't sure where to put it. In my equipment pouch seemed too obvious, but my pack of things could easily get lost and then be rooted around through. At last, I turned to a false bottom underneath my pack. I opened the flap up, tucked the scroll in underneath, and then sealed it back up. That way, even if someone were looking through my pack, there was still no guarantee they'd find it.
Then, at the appointed time - which came alarmingly fast - we were led to our designated gate by one of the assistant examiners. Once we were there at the gate, staring through the fencing to the forest, I turned to my teammates.
"Once we get in there," I said, "what do we do?"
"What do we do?" Naruto asked in confusion. "Beat the shit out of people. That's what I thought the whole point of this test was." He looked around to Sasuke. "Did I miss something?"
"Yeah, we have to beat people, but -! We're not just going to stumble across someone with a good scroll, are we?" I said.
Sasuke thought for a moment. "We could try hiding and setting up some sort of trap, I suppose," he said at last. "Catch a bunch of people and find the best one. But where would we set the trap up?"
"The one place everyone's going," I responded. "Around the tower. Naruto." I turned to him and smirked. "You get to have fun. Just make the prank life-threatening, right?"
Naruto's dangerous grin came then, the one that filled his whole face.
"So, we're agreed: once we're in there, we make a beeline for the tower?"
And we all agreed that seemed wisest.
At exactly 3:30, we were released. The examiner unlocked the gate, opened it up, and immediately we shot through it, taking to the trees. If we wanted to get a good place, we had to hurry, after all. Plenty of other examinees might have the same idea. Maybe we could even catch a couple of them!
"We keep chakra in our legs until we make the six miles!" I shouted above the wind as we jumped through the trees. "We stop once each mile to replenish our systems!"
"Stay on high alert, people will be after us!" Sasuke called, and oh how right he was.
Naruto laughed and shouted above the wind, "This is so cool!" Then, with his unreal stamina, he exploded past us into the trees.
We were off.