A piercing scream echoed through the forest of death, then...

Nothing.

"Che," Naruto snorted, as Senbonzakura's petals reformed into sword form, leaving three bloody corpses in their wake. Sheathing the sword, he wiped the rust of her shining edge, surveyed his surroundings, and finally nodded, reassured that there weren't any other 'surprises' waiting for them. "Serves em right for underestimating us."

The written test had been cake, he didn't even need to cheat, but he'd done so anyway, just to ensure Haku got a perfect score.

Now, on the second half of the exam...

A survival excercise was required.

Needless to say, it was a cakewalk, even if it was only just the two of them, thanks to Sarutobi pulling a few strings to get Haku qualified for the exam...

"Which scroll is it?" He peered at the parchment Haku had just picked up. "Heaven or earth?"

"Earth."

"Damnit." The jinchuuriki spit at the ground, fury contorting his features. "Not again!"

That is, if they could find the right scroll.

"No wait, its heaven!"

Haku's startled exclamation caused the zanpaktou user to whirl about in surprise.

"But didn't you just say-

"I did." The senbon user nodded, staring at the now white scroll in wonderment. "It just...changed."

'A henge?' Naruto looked on in wonderment, but there was no illusionary jutsu to be found.

"Weird."

--

Entering the tournament hall, they could see the others already gathered, they were lined up by team, one teammate behind the other.

"Looks like everyone made it." Naruto muttered, eyeing squad ten warily, and waving to Hinata, who blushed and turned away at the gesture. Briefly, he locked eyes with Gaara, refusing to nod, even though a small part of him wanted to.

Naruto and Haku now stood someways to the left of behind Sakura who was behind Sasuke, the pinkette letting the 'Teme' take position of team leader as always.

But it was clear that the blond didn't want to be seen right now.

"First off, congratulations on passing the Second Phase of the Chunin Exam." A Jonin said. "We will now have an explanation of the Third Phase of the Chunin Selection Exam from our own Hokage, Everyone listen up, and listen well."

With those words the elderly Third Hokage walked forward to the edge of the raised platform, and coughing out some smoke from the pipe he'd been smoking, began to speak.

"The Third Exam will begin. But before the explanation, there's one thing I want to make clear to all of you." The Hokage said in a tone that required any decent person to pay attention, "It's about the true purpose of this exam. In other words, why we do a joint exam with the allied nations of this region of the world. 'To maintain good relations with the allied nations' and 'heighten the level of the ninja' were the reasons you have probably heard but do not let them deceive you. The 'exam', so to speak, is…"

The old man was obviously a lover of theatre as he took a moment to puff on his pipe a moment in order to build up the suspense a bit.

"…The epitome of a war between the allied nations." Third finished, leaving no mistake in his voice.

"What do you mean?" Tenten asked from her position behind Rock Lee.

"If we go back through history, the allied nations right now were neighboring countries that have fought each other over and over again. To avoid wasting military power, those countries decided to choose a place to fight." The Hokage replied as he explained his earlier statement, "That is the beginning of the Chunin Selection Exam."

Naruto sighed, he was bored the old man was droning on and on, and he couldn't keep his mouth shut.

"Why do we have to do that?" Naruto growled, clearly understanding everything beyond the surface meaning of what the Third had said and annoyed by the lengthy explanation, "We're not doing this to select Chunin's?"

Sarutobi seeing the blonde's new attire and appearance, for the first time in a month, let his eyes widen, but due to years of experience he managed to hide it without anyone seeing his reaction and he used his pipe to gather himself before answering. What are you playing at Naruto? He thought before speaking again.

"Yes, this Exam does examine those who are worthy of the Chunin title. But, on the other hand, it's also a place where ninja fight and carry their country's dignity." Replied the Third Hokage.

"In this Third Exam, feudal lords and famous people from various countries who may be potential clients are invited here as guests. And feudal lords from countries with hidden villages and ninja leaders will see your battles. If there's a significant difference in power, the strong country will be flooded with jobs. If a country is seen as weak, their jobs will decrease. And at the same time, countries are able to show how their village has grown and possess excellent military power to the adjacent countries. In other words, they can put foreign pressure on them."

"So why do we have to fight with the risk of losing our lives?" a foreign nin asked, sounding like he didn't approve of being used in this manner.

"A country's power is the village's power. A village's power is the ninja's power." The Hokage replied promptly, "And a ninja's true power is only born in life-or-death battle. This Exam is also a place to show off the ninja power of one's country. Since this is an exam where you fight with your life on the line, it has a meaning and your predecessors have fought and dreamed of being in the Chunin Exam because of it."

"But why do you say it's used to promote good relations?" Tenten asked, clearly a bit uneasy about not being told all this beforehand.

"I told you at the beginning to not get it confused with that. The custom of saving one's life and fighting to maintain balance… that is the good relation in the world of the ninja." The Hokage said, sounding a bit irritated that one Konoha ninja was still thinking what they'd been told earlier was important, "This is a life-or-death battle for your dream and the village's dignity."

A silence fell over the room as the gathered Genin soaked in what the Third Hokage of Konoha had just told them.

Naruto blew out a breath of air, clearly anxious to get started.

Haku wanted to say something, but something in the back of her mind told her to keep her mouth shut this time.

Hugging her midsection she kept her head down and pouted. Come on, get this over with. I...really just want this to end. The former mist shinobi thought to herself. She hated the feelings she was experiencing and the looks a lot of the male genin in the room kept shooting her.

Not to mention the eerie killer intent Naruto seemed to be radiating.

"I don't care." Said Gaara, trying her best to maintain her previous personality, for the sake of preventing any suspicions."Tell us the details of this life-or-death exam."

"Then I will now begin the explanation of the Third Exam, but…" The Third said but before he could go further one of the ninja who had been standing behind him appeared kneeling before him.

"Excuse me, Lord Hokage" Said the long haired ninja who wore his forehead protector like a bandana, "I, Gekkou Hayate, the judge, will explain."

"Please do." The Hokage said, not sounding bothered in the least at being interrupted.

"Everyone, it's nice to meet you." Hayate said stoically before having a slight coughing fit and turning halfway to look at them, "Everyone, before the Third Phase of the Exam, (cough-cough) there's something I want you to do. Fight in some preliminary matches to see who gets to advance to the Third Phase's main fights."

"Preliminary matches? What do you mean?" Asked Shikamaru, sounding like he was something other than annoyed like usual.

"Instructor-sama, I don't understand what you mean by preliminary matches." Sakura said in a more respectful manner than Shikamaru from Team 10, "Why can't we just start the Third Phase of the Exam with the remaining examinees?"

"In this case, it must have been because the First and Second Phases of the Exam were too easy, I don't know…" Hayate replied with a sigh as he spoke, "But there are too many examinees left. According to Chunin Exam regulations, we must decrease the number of participants before we can proceed with the main matches of the Third Phase of the Exam. As previously mentioned by Lord Hokage, there are many guests for the Third Phase of the Exam, so we cannot just have a lot of matches."

Muttering from the gathered genin at this.

"We are limited on time as well. So those that aren't feeling well…" Hayate said before getting stuck in a coughing fit for a few seconds, "Excuse me. If anyone wants to quit after hearing the explanation, please let me know. The preliminary matches will begin immediately."

This was not met with much approval from those teams who had only arrived today or yesterday, since they were still in the process of recovering from the exertion of making it to the Tower.

"I forgot to mention this, but you will have one-on-one matches from here on out." Hayate said, sounding a little embarrassed at forgetting such an important fact, "So please withdraw if you wish."

Sakura looked over her shoulder.

She saw movement out of the corner of her eye and turned to see Sasuke wincing and putting his hand over the place where Orochimaru had bitten him.

We're in no shape for this. I should tell the proctor...

"We should pull out." Sakura said whispering only to have the Uchiha snarl at her. "I will not lose. Keep your damn mouth shut and mind your own damn business."

Sakura wanted to hit him, but restrained herself. She was about to bring the bite to the attention to the Hokage and gathered Jonin on the raised platform when the Genin they'd met in the classroom, Kabuto, raised his hand.

"I'll quit." He said with a soft smile.

This caused a whisper fest among the other examinees since the glasses wearing Konoha Genin didn't seem to be all that banged up, the guy looked completely unharmed, which made his quitting the exam puzzling to the others.

"Let's see…You are Konoha's Yakushi Kabuto?" Hayate asked as he looked through the clipboard of info he had in his hand, "You may leave, then."

"Kabuto-san, why are you quitting?!" one of his teammates asked, clearly showing that he didn't understand.

"I'm sorry, but my body is completely worn out already from the forest, and we'd just gotten here." Kabuto replied from his place on the edge of the assembled Genin, "I doubt I'll be able to put up much of a fight in the next Phase, so I'd rather not embarrass myself by continuing."

After saying a few hushed things with his teammates, words that were definitely not friendly even though no one couldn't make them out clearly, Kabuto exited the room. Naruto stared after him with a small frown.

With a cough, it sounded like Hayate was about to resume his work as judge for this Phase of the Chunin Exam.

"May I assume that there are no more people who wish to withdraw?" Examiner Gekkou asked letting his eyes pass over the remaining Genin.

This led to Sakura once again trying to raise her hand to draw attention to Sasuke's cursed seal, but her efforts were stopped more forcefully this time as Sasuke clamped down hard on the hand she was intending to use.

"Don't you fucking dare." Sasuke hissed.

Naruto meanwhile, paused as he mentally considered who amongst the assembled genin was the greatest threat.. He didn't really see the need, nor the reason to hold back against anyone, and though Gaara immediately came to mind, he was loathe to go up against her, mostly because they'd only just become friends.

The same went for Hinata.

Well... I guess I shouldn't hurt Hinata either, but I doubt I'll end up fighting her....

"Then, let's begin the preliminary matches." Hayate said, clearly ignoring the conflict occurring in Team 7, "It will be a one-on-one match. In other words, it will be like real combat. Now that we have exactly twenty people, we will have ten matches and the winners will be able to advance to the main part of the Third Phase of the Chunin Exam. There are no rules. You will fight until the other person dies, is knocked out or admits defeat. If you don't want to die, please give up immediately."

Several people looked nervous again.

"However, if I judge that the match is over…(cough)…I may stop you to prevent any unnecessary deaths." Hayate said, making everyone wonder why the guy wasn't in a hospital, "The thing that will determine the match ups will be this."

As the Examiner spoke those words, one of the panels on the scoreboard that was built into the wall was pulled up to reveal an electronic bulletin board.

"This electronic bulletin board will randomly display the names of the two fighters for each match." Hayate said in his usual stoic manner, "Without further delay, I will now display the names for the first match."

Looking up at the bulletin board, they watched as the names, went by at a rapid pace and Nartuo wondered if it would be his name that appeared. It was soon revealed that Fate had a different member of Team 7 in mind when it determined the match up for the first battle.

Akadou Yoroi VS Uchiha Sasuke.

"Those whose names were displayed, step up." Hayate said with his hands behind his back, "The first match's fighters are Akadou Yoroi and Uchiha Sasuke. Are there any objections?"

Neither fighter stated that he had an issue with the match up.
"We will now begin the first match." Hayate said before coughing a bit, "Everyone other than the two fighters, please move up there."

With his left arm the man indicated the balconies that existed on either side of the room about fifteen to twenty feet off the ground.

Without further delay, all the Genin as well as the Chunin and Jonin present began to go to one of the balconies in question with those from Konoha noticeably sticking closer to the people they knew. The balcony on the right side of the room soon held Team 0, Team 8, Team 10, Team 9 and Team 7 with Sakura dragging her feet, clearly exhausted. The balcony on the left side of the room had only the Sand ninjas but from the looks on their faces they didn't mind having it nearly all to themselves.

Kabuto's other teammate and the Sound team were further down from them near the other set of stairs.

The fight took a few minutes, but Naruto was slightly annoyed by the outcome, Sasuke's victory.

'Figured as much...

The screen again scrolled the names, and the blond yawned in irritation, still waiting for his turn...

Hinata Hyuuga vs Neji Hyuuga.

'Oh shit!'

Blue eyes snapped open at the declaration, his gaze flying to Hinata, who looked absolutely terrified.

Neji showed no reaction whatsoever, aside from a small tightening at the corners of his eyes.

"Are there any objections to this match?" Hayate coughed into his fist once more.

"I object." Naruto muttered immediately, just loud enough to be heard, and earning a surprised stare from everyone. True, he knew he was certainly out of line by saying this, but there was no way, not even the slightest of chances, that Hinata stood a chance against Neji.

"Hold it!" someone roughly shoved Naruto aside, and the blond turned to avoid the blow.

It was none other than Kiba, Hinata's teammate.

Hinata flushed scarlet as her teammate fixed Neji with a glare.

"I'll take him."

"K-Kiba-san!"

The Inuzuka looked over his shoulder smirked in response.

"Don't even think about it, Hinata."

Returning his gaze to Neji, Kiba's eyes narrowed to feral slits, clacking the sharp points of his fingernails together, whilst Akamaru barked an affirmative.

"He's mine."

Next time: Kiba vs Neji.