Author's Note: SOOOOOOORRY. I'm so, so sorry! T.T I meant to update this sooner, but the writer's block didn't go away for weeks . . . . –sigh- But here it is! Finally! Thanks for the reviews and your patience!

Warning: Uhm, I remember next to nothing about this part of the Chuunin Exams, so . . . . there will be some parts that are wrong or different (or some stuff that isn't in here at all).

"Talking" / 'Thinking' / "Kyuubi" / "Jutsu"

An Inconvenient Truth
Chapter Twelve: In Which the Genin Try to Stay Alive

"All right," said Spiff. "Now this is what I say, anyone who thinks they've got a better plan can say so afterwards." (Michael de Larrabeiti, The Borribles Go for Broke)

Konohagakure no Sato; The Forest of Death
June 24th

Naruto was starting to get confused why the Forest of Death was called as such. It wasn't scary in the least – dark, yes, but all forests were that way. So far, Team 7 hadn't been stopped by anything or anyone. The forest was so quiet that Naruto was beginning to think that all the other teams had gone somewhere else.

"This is where we're supposed to be, isn't it?" he asked Sakura as they flew from tree branch to tree branch. She gave him a slightly scornful look.

"Yes," she said, her tone suggesting that Naruto was an idiot for even having to ask such a thing.

"There's nobody here, though!" Naruto exclaimed.

"We've only been in here for a few hours, baka," Sasuke told him huskily, his black eyes focused intensely on the trees ahead of them. Naruto huffed but didn't say anything more – he realized how stupid his question was, but the silence surrounding them was starting to make him uneasy. Surely there should be animals around to make noises, right? So why couldn't he hear anything?

"Keep an eye out, ningen," Kyuubi's voice sounded in the back of his head. "The animals are afraid. Something's in the forest that's scared them, and if it's so quiet now it must be close to you."

Naruto's eyes narrowed. Something scary? What would be enough to scare a large part of the forest into silence? Was it an animal or, perhaps, a powerful person? Perhaps a combination of both?

'I'm opening up my senses,' he told Kyuubi and felt the fox's rumble of approval deep in the back of his head. Naruto closed his eyes and let the hold on his senses crumble before opening them again. Only those that looked into his eyes regularly would see the subtle difference – the pupil slightly more slit, the blue slightly brighter. It was the kind of effect that using his bloodline would have – without the slit pupil, of course.

Everything seemed brighter when his senses were open – even the dreary shadows of the forest trees seemed more alive. But the eerie thing was that the silence was more pronounced in this state than with his normal human senses. He couldn't even hear the distant sound of animals in a different part of the forest. Naruto felt his sense of unease deepen – something was going on, and it wasn't a good something.

"Be on the lookout," he said softly, completely different from his earlier hyperness. Sasuke spared him a sharp look and then a nod before looking ahead once more, and Sakura gave him a questioning look. "When the animals are silent, something's not right," he explained to her. She nodded in understanding.

Naruto watched as she turned away and felt a little proud of her. Sakura had come a long way from the weak fangirl she'd been. The good parts of her spirit that Naruto had seen when he'd first met her were starting to shine through. With only a little more pushing and experience, she would become a different person – for the better.

Naruto shook off his thoughts and turned his gaze to the forest floor below them. He was to watch the ground, Sakura the surrounding trees, and Sasuke the sky. It worked better than to have them all watching those areas at the same time – they might miss something then. However, the forest floor was silent and empty – not surprising since Naruto already knew this part of the forest was abandoned. Still, he couldn't help but wonder what was so scary that the animals would abandon their homes. He thought that they only did that in the case of a huge natural disaster.

"Animals are smart, ningen," Kyuubi told him gruffly. "Smarter than humans, at any rate. When danger comes, they can sense it, and they'll run. They can always build new homes, but they only have one life – they don't want to waste it."

Naruto laughed inwardly. 'You should have been a philosopher, Kyuubi, instead of a youkai. Too bad you're wasting all your talents on little ol' me.'

Kyuubi huffed. "Brat. See if I ever try to shove information into your thick skull again."

'Did I offend the great King of all youkai? Forgive me, Kyuubi-sama, it won't happen again.'

Kyuubi laughed gruffly, the sound echoing oddly in the back of Naruto's mind. "Kyuubi-sama; I could get used to you calling me that, gaki. Feel free to use it all the time in the future."

'As if, you old furball,' Naruto retorted, and then returned back to the real world. That had been a stupid thing to do – talk to Kyuubi when he knew that there was something dangerous out there – but he couldn't pulling the fox's tail(s). It was too much fun to rile Kyuubi up.

"I heard that, you pathetic excuse for a hanyou," Kyuubi grumbled.

Naruto mentally stuck his tongue out at the demon and received a huff in return. He smiled outwardly and then returned his gaze to the forest floor. It was nice, sometimes, to have a demon in the back of your head. At the very least, it meant you were never lonely. Kyuubi would always be someone to talk to, even if he only barked out gruff orders and called him an idiotic ningen.

Naruto's eyes sharpened when he heard voices on the ground below. "Someone's coming!" he whispered to his teammates. They didn't question how he knew it – they were well aware, by now, of Naruto's extraordinary senses, even if they didn't know where he'd gotten them from. The threesome halted in the trees, hiding themselves behind the thick leaves and masking their chakra as best they could. Into the clearing below them strode another team – their headbands marked them from Iwa. The team was composed of a sour looking female with a dirty face and two tall, brute-ish looking guys. Naruto smirked to himself and activated his eyes; their power levels were low.

"We can take them," he mouthed to Sasuke and the Uchiha nodded. Sakura looked a little unsure – probably because of the thick muscles that the two guy shinobi sported – but she nodded as well. "I'll jump out first, and if they attack me you'll come out of the bushes and surprise them, alright?" Sasuke looked a bit sour at getting orders (Naruto inwardly wondered how any Uchiha could become a shinobi when they hated getting orders so much) but they both nodded all the same. Naruto grinned, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and counted silently, "One, two . . . three!"

Naruto leapt out of the tree and landed on all fours in front of the group of Iwa shinobi. They reared back, startled by his sudden appearance and Naruto slowly unfolded himself, a smirk playing on the edge of his mouth. "Fancy meeting you here," he purred, and he could feel his teammate's exasperation from here. The girl gave a high, snotty laugh and the two guys exchanged baffled looks, as if they couldn't understand what Naruto was saying. "Now, if it wouldn't be a trouble . . ." Naruto continued, "we might like to have a look at that scroll of yours."

The girl raised her eyebrows. "Why should we show it to you?" she asked in a high voice.

Naruto shrugged. "Well, it could be hurtful for you if you don't," he told her flatly. The girl smirked.

"Why? All we're up against is a puny blond Konoha nin; I have no reason to be scared of you. Taki, Dai – finish him off." She examined her nails as she added in that last bit. The two giants moved forward, eerie grins on their large faces. Naruto looked up at them with a blink.

"Wow," he said, "you really are huge." In the bushes, Sakura slapped a hand to her face. "But seriously, guys, hasn't anyone told you that size isn't everything?"

One of the giants growled and reached behind his back to retrieve his huge hammer. With a flick of his thick wrists, he sent it crashing down to the ground, ready to smash the blond into itty-bitty Naruto bits. Naruto, however, managed to dodge gracefully, and then had to whirl again as the giant's twin did the exact same thing on the other side. Soon, both giants had twin expressions of frustration on their face as they tried and failed to crush the fast little blond. The girl, standing behind and watching, had a furious look on her face.

"Damn Konoha nin," she muttered to herself. "I can't lose here. I am Asago Rukia! I'm part of the noble clans of Iwa – if I lose here, it's a disgrace to my family!"

"Well, I'm sorry to hear that," a voice said from behind her and she blinked with shock as she turned to see the blond nin had appeared from behind her. Dai and Taki, those idiots, had stopped pounding the ground with their hammers and looked around in confusion, wondering where their prey had gone to. "But if you wanted to make it out of here, perhaps you should've trained some more."

Rukia glared at him. "I have trained for this!" she snapped. "Which is why I'll be defeating you now, since those idiots couldn't handle the job." She dropped into a stance. "Konoha nin are no match for Iwa nin."

"We'll see about that, won't we?" Naruto answered, dropping into a stance of his own.

Rukia came at him pretty fast, Naruto had to admit. She didn't look like she'd be the type to train, what with that prissy attitude, but she must have felt the need to so her family would remain in grace. However, Naruto didn't think she'd win in a fight against Sakura, let alone Sasuke or himself. She was decent, but she wasn't that good.

He dodged a swipe of her hands, and rolled out of the wall of her oncoming kick. The giants must've just realized that their prey was still nearby, for they came lumbering over, hands at the ready. Annoyed with all the people coming at him, Naruto let out a shrill whistle that was a clear signal that Sasuke and Sakura wouldn't ignore. Surely enough, they came rushing out of the bushes. Rukia turned to see them and promptly gaped.

"I thought you were here alone!" she snapped at Naruto, and he shrugged.

"Why would I tell you that I have back-up?" he asked her. "Hey guys, I'll deal with her, can you take care of the brutes for me?"

"Baka," Sasuke muttered, sounding annoyed. 'So that's a yes then,' Naruto thought as he watched the Uchiha start to cleanly pummel the larger Iwa nin. Sakura smiled prettily and then turned to her own victim, and Naruto swore he could see flames around her body. Involuntarily, he shivered. That girl could be extremely scary when she wanted to be. He turned back to Rukia, who still looked sour that her single enemy had multiplied to three.

"I still won't let you win," she snarled and rushed at Naruto again. Naruto sighed as she threw him a flying kick to the head, and slipped easily under her leg, snitching the scroll from her pouch as easily as if taking candy from a baby. He slipped it under his coat and then turned to face her again.

"I think it's time we ended this, don't you?" he asked, and then dealt her a heavy blow to the chin before she could answer. She dropped like a fly and Naruto wondered if anyone had taught her how to deal with heavy blows and not drop unconscious when you got them. 'Probably not,' he decided. 'The Iwa don't tend to train their daughters as thoroughly as they do their sons.'

"Alright guys, I got the scroll!" he cried, catching the attention of Sasuke and Sakura. They looked up from where they'd been tying up their defeated giants. Naruto absently wondered how Sakura had gotten hers unconscious, but after seeing the sharp glint in her eyes he decided not to ask. He took the scroll out from under his coat and waved it over his head. "It's the one we need too!" 'Lady Luck is on our side,' he thought gleefully.

"Alright!" Sakura said, with a smile.

"Hn," Sasuke snorted and turned his head to the side. Naruto grinned at him.

"Now we can head to the Tower, if you guys want," he said.

Sakura frowned a little. "Naruto, shouldn't we stay in the forest for a few more days? I mean . . . ." she hesitated for a moment then plowed ahead. "If we arrive first, then everyone will know that we're good, right? Shouldn't we try to be in the middle so that we don't get any attention paid to us?"

Naruto beamed at her. "See, that's thinking like a ninja!" Sakura blushed slightly. "But I do think we should head to the Tower right away. Mainly because even though we haven't seen them, there are still teams out there, and they'll want to get one of our scrolls. The longer we stay, the more chance we have of getting into a harder fight than this one. We don't know what we'll have to do after the Tower, so it might be best if we tried to avoid as many fights as possible. Plus . . . ." he trailed off and then sighed. "There's something going on in this forest."

Sasuke stared at him. "What?" he asked, face blank.

Naruto shrugged. "I don't know. But the animals were silent earlier, and," he listened for a moment, "they still are now. When animals are silent, nothing good comes of it. I think it's best we get out of here as soon as possible, to be honest." He turned to Sakura. "Also, I don't think it'll set us apart from the pack. After all, everyone expects the Uchiha Sasuke to do well, don't they?" He flung an arm across Sasuke's shoulders, making said Uchiha glare at him. Sakura smiled.

"Yes, that's true," she said, considering Naruto's arguments. "I think you're right. Plus, I won't disagree to not having to sleep in this creepy forest for a night or two!" She shuddered. Naruto turned his grin towards her.

"Alright! Sasuke, you fine with this plan?"

The Uchiha shrugged. "Hn," he told Naruto, who took that as a yes 'hn', opposed to a no 'hn'.

"Alright, so we're decided then. Shall we head out to the Tower, my dear teammates?"

They took to the treetops, leaving behind the unconscious bodies of the Iwa nin. As Naruto's chatter faded from the clearing, a tall person stepped out of the trees and stared down at the stewn bodies of the Iwa nin. He licked his lips and flicked golden eyes up to the trees, staring at the direction that Team 7 had left in.

"Nice work, my pet," Orochimaru murmured.

Professionals are predictable; it's the amateurs that are dangerous. (Unknown)

The tower looked out of place against the gloom and doom of the forest – like a cheerful white knight in the midst of sardonic black ones. Naruto had to chuckle at the sight of it – the white, shining building looked like it belonged in the midst of Konoha instead of on the edge of it. But he was happy to see the place – even with the eerie lack of people or animals, the forest had been dark enough to creep him out a little.

Naruto looked over at his teammates and was bemused to find determined looks on their face (although Sasuke's determined face was just a bit of a bigger scowl, Naruto could tell – he had known Itachi for years, after all). He raised an eyebrow.

"What are you so grim about?" he asked.

Sakura gave him a look. "There's probably another test in that building," she said. "We don't know what it could be . . . ."

Naruto snorted. "We've barely used any of our weapons and that fight with the Iwa nin barely even winded us. If it's a battle, I have no doubt that we're as best prepared as we can be. And, more than that, a shinobi will always have to face circumstances where they won't know what the next obstacle will be. Think of it as practice." He grinned inwardly when he saw Sakura relax slightly and Sasuke's scowl lessen a bit. 'There,' he thought, 'Good deed of the day, done.'

The white tower was quiet and empty when they entered it. Naruto figured that they had to be the first ones to arrive; after all, the group had five days and they'd managed it in a few hours! Naruto felt proud of his group for that, but immediately squashed the feeling. Pride would only hinder him here. Naruto snapped out of his thoughts when he heard Sasuke reading musingly from a scroll hanging on the wall. 'Heaven and Earth, huh . . . .' The blond eyed the contents and then his eyes lit up. 'Maybe . . . .'

He took the scrolls from his belt and threw them open, ignoring Sakura's startled shout. Instantly, a pop and poof of fog appeared. Naruto tensed slightly until the smoke cleared away to reveal Iruka, dressed in nothing but a pair of drawstring pants. His long chocolate hair was down and wet. Both parties blinked at each other for a moment before Naruto began to laugh. Iruka turned and his eyes narrowed on the blond. Naruto, noticing his look, tried to stop his giggling, but his amusement couldn't conquered.

"S-sorry, Iruka," he stuttered, chuckles escaping his mouth. "D-did we disturb you?"

Iruka gave Naruto a look before he gave a reluctant smile. "Of course not, Naruto," he said. "I just wasn't expecting a team this soon." He gave them all a warm smile.

"But why are you here, Iruka-sensei?" Sakura asked a little confused.

Iruka turned his smile towards her. "I was given the chance to greet each of you. Unfortunately, you summoned me just as I got out of the shower . . . ." Sakura blushed at that thought. (1) "But enough about me. Do you have any thoughts on that scroll?" Iruka tilted his head towards the scroll on the wall.

"I think . . . ." All three men turned to Sakura. She blushed under the attention, but continued her theory. "That maybe . . . . "Heaven" is the mind, and "Earth" is the body. What the scroll is saying is that if you have too much of either, you have to work on the opposite. So if you're too strong in the mind, you need to work on your body. Or the opposite. And that you need to have an equal amount of both to be a good shinobi." She gave Iruka a nervous look. "Is that right?"

Iruka beamed at her. "It's absolutely correct, Sakura! I couldn't have said it better myself!"

Naruto smiled at her. He'd known that Sakura was extremely intelligent and perceptive, but he was impressed with how far she'd come from the brat that he'd met only months ago. She was developing into a good woman and a good ninja, and Naruto found that he was proud to be her teammate. He never would've thought he'd be thinking that three months ago.

"Do you boys understand the lesson as well?" Iruka asked. Naruto and Sasuke nodded in unison and Iruka smiled. "Well, you've passed your second test. Until the rest of the teams arrive, you can stay in this building; we have some rooms up a few levels that should be ready for you. The third test will be on the fifth day, at 12:00, when all the teams that can participate have gathered at the tower. Until then, you're free to spend your days as you please. There are some Jounins staying here, waiting for their teams, I believe . . . . I think Hatake-sensei is with them." Iruka paused. "Any questions?"

All three teens shook their heads and Iruka smiled, yet again. "Well then, I'll be off! I'll see you guys on the fifth day!" With a simple hand sign, Iruka disappeared from their sight with a pop of smoke.

The three teens looked at each other. Finally, Naruto grinned at them. "Well, who says yes to spending our time getting Kaka-sensei to take off his mask?"

Sakura and Sasuke exchanged looks and then, with grins stretching slowly across their faces, turned back to Naruto and nodded. All three teens shared evil grins.

A few floors above, a certain jounin felt a shiver run down his spine. (2)

No matter how good you get you can always get better and that's the exciting part. (Tiger Woods)

Raiden was ridiculously proud to see his pupil had arrived so early in the test. So was Kakashi, actually, though that pride stretched a little thin when he kept getting randomly attacked by said student and his two other pupils. Kakashi had figured out the first time they'd attacked him that they were trying to get his mask off, and had kept a vigilant look-out ever since. Kakashi had managed to keep people from seeing his real face for years, but he had no doubt if his guard dropped even a little then his team would figure out a way of un-masking him. They were sneaky little shits that way, though Kakashi was completely proud of them for being so. 'Ah, the joys of being a teacher,' he'd thought as he dodged Naruto and Sasuke's attempts at pulling down the fabric covering his face.

Raiden watched with no little amusement as his charge and his cohorts tried time and time again to un-mask Kakashi. It was no use; Raiden knew that well, and had learned it only through many attempts of his own. When it came to his mask, Kakashi was untouchable. Even in battle, no enemy, no matter how strong, had been able to get it off of him. Raiden had be-moaned this fact many times before he finally became resigned to not being able to see his friend's real face.

It was on the second day that Team 7 had been in the tower that another team finally arrived. Naruto and Raiden were unsurprised to see that it was Gaara's team. The blond had tackled the other boy as soon as he entered the building and, to everyone else's shock (excluding Raiden and the other Sabaku siblings, as they'd seen it before) Gaara caught the body hurtling towards him and allowed Naruto to squeeze the living daylights out of him.

"I knew you'd be the first!" Naruto exclaimed brightly. Then he pulled away from Gaara, beaming at the red-head.

"You got here before me," Gaara murmured, allowing the blond to remain in his personal bubble.

"Yes, well, we got off easy!" Naruto said, with a wave of his hand. "We ran into this team that wasn't very good at fighting; the girl was decent, but the guys! You remember those guys we met during your mission to Ame? Well, these guys were worse. I don't think they even knew how to think!" Naruto continued to ramble on as he pulled on Gaara's hand, leading him into the tower. No one saw either boy for the rest of the night.

The next day gave way to the arrival of a few more teams, Neji and Lee's among them. Ino's team also made it in that evening. Naruto gave his usual affectionate greetings to his friends. Everyone who saw it was amused when they watched Neji Hyuuga stiffly stand while Naruto hugged him to bits. Unlike Gaara, Neji wasn't accustomed to or wanting of such a hug, but he liked Naruto well enough and was too polite to shove the blond off of him. So he withstood it with a pained look on his face that made Kakashi and Raiden giggle in glee for the rest of the day whenever they saw him. Neji found that he had the disturbing urge to take a kunai to some sensitive places whenever he saw the two men.

The fourth day yielded the arrival to the majority of the remaining teams. Naruto was surprised that all three rookie teams had made it through the second test, but upon thinking on it, he wondered why he would be. Each team had at least one fairly powerful person on it and they all seemed to work well together, so it was no surprise that they'd managed to get this far. He'd have to see how they all did on the next test.

The day of truth dawned clear and bright. Currently, there were eight teams gathered at the tower, and Naruto felt that there might be one or two more to arrive before twelve o'clock, the official end to the second test, but somehow he doubted it. Sandaime would be arriving promptly at twelve to tell them what the third test would be and to explain the reasoning of the second test itself. Naruto wasn't sure what the third test would be; the tests themselves differed every year, although usually the core moral stayed the same. However, he kept himself calm, unlike his teammates. Although Sasuke didn't show it as much as Sakura did, he could still tell the Uchiha was apprehensive about what was to come.

The teams gathered in the main hall of the tower; the same hall where they'd all gotten their lecture on Heaven and Earth by a Chuunin. They weren't a particularly large group, but Naruto had heard of Chuunin Exams that had only had two teams by this round, so he was impressed. The crowd was waiting silently and restlessly for the arrival of Sandaime, who was due to speak to them at any second. Team Seven was in the back, next to Kakashi, who was reading his signature orange book.

"Kakashi-sensei, you shouldn't read that in front of impressionable children," Sakura scolded.

Naruto snorted. "If that know what that book's about, they're not impressionable children anymore," he said. Kakashi grinned behind his mask.

"Maa, it's nice to have my own bodyguard," he said with an eye-smile. Naruto glared at him.

"Stupid pervert," he muttered. "See if I ever defend you again."

"You'd be right not to, Naruto-kun," drawled a voice from behind him. Naruto turned to see Itachi standing behind him, a half-smirk on his usually emotionless face. The blond blinked in shock for several seconds.

"You're smirking!" he murmured, sounding almost dazed. "Have I died and gone to heaven?"

"You expect to see me in heaven?" Itachi sounded amused. Naruto's eyebrows folded as he considered the question.

"Well, no," he said, earning what sounded like a muffled snort of laughter from Sasuke and an outright chuckle from Kakashi. "I suppose I've died and gone to hell then," he said mournfully. Kakashi started to outright laugh, but hid his face behind his book when Itachi turned the Uchiha Death Glare™ on him. Sasuke had to bite his cheek and turn away to prevent his mask from falling. Sakura, though, was giggling slightly.

"Well, Itachi-sensei, what are you doing here?" Naruto asked. "I haven't seen you here for the last few days . . . ." Itachi tilted an eyebrow and Naruto blinked. "You came to watch the tests then?" A tiny lift of the lip made Naruto shake his head in exasperation. "Well, yes, you said you were going to, but you never know with you, Itachi-sensei!"

"I can never figure out how he does that," Raiden murmured to Kakashi, sidling up to the taller man. "He reads Itachi's face like a book."

"Naruto's a special kid that way," Kakashi said with a happy eye-smile. "Besides, does it really surprise you that he can read Itachi so easily?"

"No, I suppose it shouldn't with his gift and all," Raiden said, watching as Itachi made miniscule facial gestures and Naruto responded accordingly. "But still, you have to admit it's a bit eerie."

Kakashi shrugged. "Not really," he said. Raiden gave him a half disgusted look.

"You're too easy-going," he muttered. Kakashi smiled, but didn't say anything. The Sandaime had arrived, and everyone had turned quiet.

Naruto watched the Sandaime sink into his seat with thoughtful eyes. He still loved the old man, even if he hadn't told Naruto about parentage, which was why he was disturbed to see how . . . . weak the Hokage looked. He looked almost fragile. Naruto's frown deepened, but he decided to ignore it for now. Perhaps he could confront Sandaime after the Exams and see if there was anything wrong.

"Welcome, young Genin," Sandaime said with a kind smile. "It's been a long time since we've had so many make it to this round." Anko, who was standing behind the crowd of genin, made a loudly irritated noise. Sandaime ignored her. "And since we have so many, there has been an extra round added into this year's Chuunin Exams." He held up a hand to stop the protests. "It is necessary. This extra round will eliminate . . . half of you." Protests rose again, louder this time. "Silence!" Sandaime thundered, and the room fell silent.

"This round will be one-on-one challenges," he continued, more calmly. "You may well have to fight against your own teammates." Gasps echoed throughout the room, making Sandaime smile sadly. "In a moment, all genin as well as senseis and . . . other audience members," here, he shot a look towards Itachi and Raiden, making Naruto snicker quietly to himself, "will move into the balconies. Once your name is called, you will make your way down to the bottom floor and fight against your opponent. Once a person is knocked unconscious, clearly unable to continue the fight, or yields, a winner is declared."

"Now," he said, leaning back in his chair. "If anyone should wish to back out, you may do so now with a clear conscience. Your team members will be allowed to proceed without you."

The room was quiet for several moments, no one wanting to back out and look the coward. However, a single hand rose into the air and one person stepped forward. Naruto's eyes narrowed in on the silver-haired genin: Kabuto.

'Now why would a man who's failed this test seven times want to back out now, especially since he doesn't seem to have injuries?' Naruto mused as he watched the man move towards the Sandaime with a smile hanging on his lips. 'He has to be spying. There's no other explanation.'

"I think I'll back out, Sandaime-sama," Kabuto said sheepishly. Snickers ran throughout the group.

"If you're sure, Kabuto," Sandaime said calmly. "You can leave now, or watch, if you wish to."

"I think I'll hang around for a while," Kabuto said with a gentle smile, and turned to return to the main group.

"Is there anyone else who wishes to back out?" Sandaime asked. One of Kabuto's other teammates stepped forward, quietly stating his wish to back out of the competition. (3)

Naruto eyed his two teammates, but he needn't have worried. Sasuke had likely been dreaming about this competition since he entered the Academy, and Sakura had an eerily determined look on her face. They were both prepared to face whatever lay ahead. Naruto turned back to look at Sandaime with a smile on his face.

"I only have a few more things to say before we start this competition," Sandaime said, looking stern. "These tests – the Chuunin Exams themselves – have another purpose besides deciding who will move up a rank." Curious whispers ran through the crowd. Sandaime's dark eyes looked down at the Genin below him sadly. "It is also, in fact, a replacement of sorts . . . for war."

"War!" Temari gasped nearby them.

"Yes, war," Sandaime said. "If you look back in time, you will see that countries were always fighting each other. Eventually, to prevent such needless fighting, we came up with the basis that became these Chuunin Exams."

"I thought that it was decided who would be Chuunin in these exams!" Ino called out, looking a little angry.

"Yes, it is that as well. But there is another side to these exams. You see, during the third test, leaders and influential people from every country will be gathered to watch you. If the strength of a country is clear, then it receives more prestige and more clients. If it is clearly weak, then it loses clients. It will signal to potential enemy countries that 'we have this much power.'"

"Yeah, but why do we have to risk our lives for this!" Kiba shouted.

Sandaime gave a long sigh. "The strength of the country is the strength of the village. The strength of the village is the strength of its shinobi. And the strength of the shinobi . . . is born only through life-risking battles."

Silence reigned the room for several moments.

"This test shows off not only your own strength and weakness, but your country's strengths and weaknesses," Sandaime said. "Please remember this; when you fight, it's not only your dreams on the line, but your country's dreams and its prestige as well."

The teens all looked at each other, taking in the people who become their enemies in the next moments. Sandaime let them for a minute before he coughed, gathering their attention.

"Now, may I introduce your referee for this test?" he said with a smile, turning towards the congregation of shinobi near him. A slouched man in a flack jacket that looked more like he belonged in a hospital than on a battlefield came forward, coughing slightly. "This is Gekkou Hayate, and he will monitor each fight."

Hayate turned to the genin. "The rules of these battles –cough- are this: there are none. If you are knocked out, -cough- admit your defeat or –cough- you die, then you are eliminated. However, so we don't –cough- have an unesscary amount of corpses, I'll –cough- jump in when the victor is clear. The one that will decide who you –cough- fight is . . . ." he turned and motioned to the curtain slowly being pulled off a screen. "That –cough- electric scoreboard. It will show –cough- what matches there will be." Hayate turned to face them again. "Now . . . this is sudden, but we're announcing the two –cough- names of the first fight."

Everyone tensed and looked up as the scoreboard began to flick through names rapidly. It started to slow down, and everyone held their breath. Gasps were heard everyone when the names finally stopped on those who were to fight first:

Uchiha Sasuke vs. Yoroi Akada.

An older man with a bandana covering the bottom half of his face and nose and dark hair stepped forward, a gleam in his eyes that Naruto instantly disliked. Sasuke began to saunter up to meet him when Naruto caught his arm, looking seriously into his eyes.

"Don't underestimate him," he said seriously. Sasuke nodded and proceeded forward so he was standing by Yoroi.

"Now –cough- the rest of you can head into the balconies so that the floor is clear," Hayate told them. The stadium was full of sounds as everyone made their way up the stairs into the long balconies. Naruto snagged a good spot and was soon joined by Sakura, Kakashi, Itachi and Raiden. Nearby were Ino's, Gaara's and Neji's teams. They all stared down at the two left on the floor.

They faced each other casually, both examining for any possible flaws. Sasuke noted that his opponent was taller and thicker than him, which would likely make him slower. Yoroi, on the other hand, just saw a cocky brat in front of him that no one had managed to beat down yet. Yoroi smirked. 'For Orochimaru-sama, I will defeat this punk!'

The two opponents stared each other down, both impatiently waiting for the signal from their referee. Hayate, perhaps noting the tension between the two, approached the middle cautiously.

"And . . . Start!" Hayate jumped away immediately, leaving the arena clear of anyone besides the opponents.

Neither shinobi attacked right away. Instead, they were content to circle each other slowly, eyeing for weaknesses and openings.

"You're just a brat," Yoroi taunted, flexing his hand as he prepared to make his strike. "I don't know why everyone's so afraid of you!" He flew at Sasuke, hand curled into a punch. Sasuke sneered and dodged, letting the other man fly past him easily. Yoroi caught himself and turned, attacking Sasuke once more. This time he grazed Sasuke's side, but not enough to knock him out. Upstairs, Naruto gritted his teeth.

"Baka," he murmured. "Didn't I tell you not to underestimate him? Wipe that smirk off your face and take him seriously, teme!" He growled under his breath. Stupid Uchihas; they were always so cocky. While some days it was amusing, other days it was just damn annoying.

Sasuke finally made his counter move; he attacked suddenly from the side, catching Yoroi off guard. The older man managed to dodge and avoid the blow, but it grazed him enough to make him breathless for several seconds. Yoroi's eyes narrowed on Sasuke, anger evident in the lines of his face. Sasuke, however, just let his smirk widen. Slowly, his dark eyes changed to a vivid red, two black dots swirling around his pupil. Upstairs, a group of three leaned forward in interest.

"That must be the Sharingan," Seiko murmured quietly.

Noriko hummed. "Yes," she whispered. "I wonder what the Uchiha plans to do with it."

"I just wonder if it's as powerful as Orochimaru says it is," Keiji muttered, his eyes fixed on the battle below.

Across the room, Naruto perked up when he realized Sasuke had brought his Sharingan out to play. "Well, at least he's serious," the blond murmured, "although it might have been better to wait . . . ." Naruto thought about it and shrugged. Sasuke wasn't the type to wait things out; he liked to finish his battles quickly. Plus, it wasn't like everyone didn't already realize that he had Sharingan.

Yoroi's eyes narrowed further when he saw Sasuke's red eyes and a nasty smirk pulled at the side of his mouth.

"What? Think you can beat me with your fancy tricks?" Sasuke's eyes narrowed, but he stayed silent.

Yoroi hissed and rammed himself at Sasuke, apparently more aggravated by his silence than by any insults the Uchiha may have come up with. However, it didn't seem that the older shinobi had started his violent attack for the sake of anger. Naruto's eyes narrowed when he observed the smirk on Yoroi's face, and his face tightened when he saw Sasuke pull away sharply, a look of pain on his features. His eyes flickered between black and red before settling once more on the Sharingan.

"Ha!" Yoroi crowed. "Didn't like that much, did you brat? And that was only a taste of what I can do to you. If I wanted, I could drain all the chakra from your body!"

Up in the balcony, Naruto turned to Itachi. He blinked when he realized that the older Uchiha was also sporting red eyes.

"Itachi-sensei," Naruto murmured. "What did he do?"

Itachi was silent for a few moments, Sharingan eyes focused on his little brother. Then he said, "The chakra absorption technique," he murmured. Kakashi made a sound of surprise from his position against the wall.

"That's pretty rare, Itachi," he said skeptically. "Are you sure?"

"Yes," Itachi said, throwing Kakashi a look. It was only then that Kakashi realized that Itachi was using Sharingan. "I can see the chakra flow."

"What does it do to Sasuke?" Sakura asked worriedly.

"Anytime Yoroi attacks him, he'll be able to absorb chakra from Sasuke's system," Kakashi explained quietly. "The longer he waits it out, the weaker he'll be. And if he doesn't finish it soon, he'll lose control of his Sharingan and his chakra, and won't be able to use it."

"Which means he has to avoid Yoroi's attacks at all cost and finish it off quickly," Naruto summarized. "Or else he's toast."

Sakura bit her lip. "Please hurry, Sasuke," she murmured.

Naruto placed a hand around her shoulder. "He'll do fine, Sakura," he said with a smile. "After all, he's Sasuke, isn't he?"

Meanwhile, downstairs, Sasuke's brain was working furiously to come up with a solution to the end of this battle; with himself as the victor, of course. The only way he could think of was to do a particular move of the Uchiha family taijutsu. However, no one had seen such moves for a long time, mainly because Uchiha's tended to prefer chakra attacks to taijutsu. Sasuke hadn't even learned the taijutsu until after his family's death, when Itachi had taught him. Sasuke frowned, a wrinkle growing between his glowing red eyes. It wasn't the ideal solution, but it was better than getting beaten because his chakra had been absorbed. Taking a deep breath, Sasuke turned his eyes towards his still gloating opponent, moving his left leg back so he was prepared to spring.

Itachi, up in the balcony, recognized the movement and smirked. "Sasuke will win," he said calmly, catching Naruto's attention. The blond looked up at him curiously for a moment before returning his eyes to the floor below, searching Sasuke's movements. It only took a moment for him to catch what the Uchiha was doing, and when he saw it, his eyes widened.

"Yamakaji?" (4) he breathed. He turned to Itachi. "That's part of the Uchiha style, isn't it?"

Itachi nodded silently. Yoroi, down below, didn't notice Sasuke's sudden switch in position, although he'd stopped bragging about himself.

"C'mon, baby Uchiha," he said, smirking. "Show me your pitiful skills."

Before Yoroi could move, Sasuke swept forward on his right foot, lifting his left leg into a powerful roundhouse kick that sent Yoroi spinning into the air. Moving at a fast speed, Sasuke caught up with the whirling body, and kicked him again, lifting him even higher up than he'd been before. As Yoroi moved up higher and higher, Sasuke pushed himself up in the air to follow him and delivered a powerful kick to his stomach, sending Yoroi plummeting to the ground at a speed that astounded the viewers in the balconies. When the dust settled, there was a large, Yoroi-sized hole in the ground. (5)

"Winner, Uchiha Sasuke," Hayate announced with a cough. Sasuke smirked and turned to go back up the stairs, his passage to the third round now assured. Paramedics took the now unconscious Yoroi away.

Naruto smiled as Sasuke approached them. "Nicely done, Uchiha," he said. "Take out the Sharingan, then beat him with taijutsu . . . very classy."

Sasuke snorted. "Hn," he told Naruto matter-of-factly.

Naruto rolled his eyes. "Uchihas," he murmured to Sakura, making sure to make it loud enough so Sasuke and Itachi could hear him. "You give them a compliment, and they 'hn' at you. I feel so unappreciated." Sakura giggled lightly, while the said Uchihas snorted in unison.

"Now the second match will be announced," Hayate said once the floor was clear again.

The atmosphere became tense yet again as the scoreboard began to switch through names rapidly, only slowing down after several seconds. Finally it began to slow to a halt and landed on two names that no one expected to be against each other:

Aburame Shino vs. Akimichi Chouji

Naruto blinked. If he remembered rightly, the Aburame clan was mainly focused on their "bug jutsu" as Raiden had called it, rather childishly. The Akimichi, on the other hand, focused more heavily on strength, as he could see from Chouji, who was a monster of a boy already. Naruto leaned forward on his elbows with a grin. 'This ought to be interesting.'

As it was, it was almost a disappointing battle. Shino made a valiant effort in taking Chouji's chakra from him via bugs, and Naruto saw the beginnings of a tactician in the way the bug-user planned, but Chouji still managed to stay even with him. It was mostly because Chouji instantly used some of his family's techniques, including the Baika no Jutsu and Nikudan Sensha. His fat body rolled around after Shino, almost taking him down a few times.

The ending was anti-climatic compared to the battle. Chouji managed to knock Shino out the second that he passed out from chakra exhaustion after Shino's bugs ate all of his chakra. In the end, it was declared a tie with no winner, as they'd both passed out at the same time. Calmly, medics came into the stadium and took them both away on stretchers, although it took twice as many to carry Chouji.

Naruto sighed. Well, that had been somewhat boring; he'd hoped for more from two of Konoha's distinguished clans. But they'd still done a good job; it was probably more that they'd been ill-suited to each other. It was hard to fight an enemy that you really had no idea what to do against; Naruto knew from experience.

As soon as the floor cleared, it was time for the third match to be announced. There was less tension this time, for now that everyone had seen two fights with no one dying an ugly death, they'd started to think that it might not be so bad. The roll of names slowed dramatically before stopping at two names that made Naruto blink with surprise:

Nara Shikamaru vs. Haruno Sakura

Author's Note: Dun, dun, DUUUUUN. And I leave you there, my kind readers. Yes, it's a bit short but I love cliffhangers, and that was the best one I could come up with. Next chapter; Shika vs. Sakura, who will win?! What are the next groups to go? And – oh my! Naruto is fighting who? Please leave a review! (Rhyme!) (And just as a note, I am high on sugar.)

Baika no Jutsu (Multi-size technique): Used to expand the user's stomach and make them huge. A secret Akimichi technique.
Nikudan Sensha (Human Bullet Tank): Used to make a person into a human sized ball after using the Multi-size technique.

(1) Uhm, I know that this seems a bit unlikely . . . . But I'm pretty sure that Iruka was prepared for Naruto & co. to summon him, so he was all dressed and crap. But he didn't expect them to finish so soon, so he wasn't prepared, which led to half-dressed Iruka . . . . Plus my inner fangirl kept giggling at the thought of him being summoned half-dressed, so my muse wouldn't let me take it out and put something more realistic in . . . . XD
(2) Poor Kakashi keeps getting the short end of the stick, doesn't he? XD
(3) I meant for just Kabuto to go, but I realized that would leave 23 people, which means an uneven number of battles . . . . So I decided to take out another of his teammates and leave it at 22, which means 11 even battles. I feel so mathematical now. ^^
(4) Bushfire. It's not the most original name in the world, but what can you do? The main reason it's named that is because a "bushfire" is usually quick and mildly powerful, like this technique . . . and I didn't have anymore ideas concerning what to name it . . . .
(5) This move obviously is very similar to the canon move Sasuke did (he snitched it off Rock Lee, didn't he?) but since he and Lee didn't fight, I gave him the Uchiha style instead.