Hey, everyone. Sorry for the wait.

dextron11: Glad you and so many others enjoyed it. I thought it might be a bit early, but as I said, I really couldn't see it playing out any other way if I wanted to keep Karin and Sasuke's first meeting in. I'm considering giving him the sensing ability. I mean, he has Kurama's and possibly Sage Mode's, but he won't get those until late in the story. On the other hand, being able to sense things as clearly or more so than Karin would make him a living lie detector too... not sure I want that...

NaruCrazy: I don't think I'm going to have Karin inherit the Uzumaki talent for sealing, but that's still 3/5.

And about Sakura. I'm pretty sure her chakra levels being lower than a civilian's is pure fanon. Hinata said in a filler that she could tell someone was a civilian because their chakra coils showed no signs of development. She has far less chakra than she should have, but still much more than a civilian. And it's because of that that I think she could use it. It doesn't just cost a vast amount of chakra; it splits the user's chakra evenly between them and their clones. The remaining chakra, as well as the memories, are returned to the user upon the clone's destruction, but they're all burning through their chakra at the same rate the user normally would. So, making too many or trying to make one when you're low on chakra can be harmful. Pretty sure that, as she has more chakra than civilians, she could handle having her chakra cut in half along with whatever it takes to make the clone, though. So, as long as she and the clones don't exert themselves, she can make use of it. That's why Kakashi told her not to make more than one or use it outside of her studies, especially not in battle. All she's using it for is to read books and mess around with toxins and plant extracts. She and her clone aren't using any chakra, so it should be fine.

BlackDragonShinigami: You're right, that movie was in Kusa, but I'm not going to adapt it. Just didn't care for it.

JintoLin: Yeah, I've been noticing more lately.

Gasping in pain and stomping around like a kaiju? The Curse Mark only activates when he tries to use ninjutsu or high-intensity taijutsu, he's fine otherwise. And his test was a decent distance from the stream. Glad you agree. Like I said, how easily they let Zabuza and Haku join Konoha n the original Six Paths fic was one of my biggest mistakes.

Shadowquard: Glad you enjoy it so much.

Darkblader666: Yep.

True, though they do have cameras and radios.

He wouldn't really need to use a seal for something like that.

Antex-The Legendary Zoroark: Glad you liked it. That was one of my favorite parts to write.

avidnarutofan: I've always enjoyed fics where Team 7 really bonds. Also, there is that anime-only arc I mentioned where we see Fuu alive, though it kind of falls apart in the penultimate two episodes. It suffers from a bad filler villain in my opinion; the plot around him makes sense, but I really don't think his ability does based on the lore.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.

"Now, let's see..." Naruto said as he looked over the spread in the cafeteria.

It had been about a day since they'd arrived in the tower, which meant it was about time for Sasuke to wake up. Sakura wouldn't leave the room until he opened his eyes, so it was up to Naruto to bring back some grub for her. And Sasuke too.

Sadly, there was no ramen. It was almost a crime to have this much food and leave that out, but beggars couldn't be choosers, and what they had out was still good.

Now, what to get this time...?

"Well, well, look what we have here." Naruto turned to see Kiba walking towards him with his hands in his pockets, his little dog resting on his head as usual. "Surprised you made it. Then again, I guess you guys have Sasuke to carry you, huh?"

"Oh, Hey, Kiba. I didn't know there was a pound around here." Naruto replied, giving the brown-haired boy a look of mock surprise. "Well, good thing they managed to take one mutt of the streets."

Kiba's eye twitched. He glared at Naruto and growled like the dog he resembled, "What was that?" He then scoffed, "Whatever. I don't know why I let you get to me. Not like the dead last is going to make it through the next round. You're pretty much a free ride for whoever's lucky enough to wind up against you."

Naruto grit his teeth, raising a fist. "Think so, huh? Then get ready to get blown away; because I'll be taking names until I get to the top!"

"Keep dreaming." Kiba scoffed. He then looked over the three containers Naruto was preparing and raised a brow. "So, what's with all the food? Your team got you running errands for them?"

"Sasuke was hurt pretty bad back in the forest, though he should be up soon," Naruto answered. It wasn't exactly a lie. "Sakura won't leave his bedside, so I'm getting something for them."

Kiba just hummed in response. After a pause, he spoke up again. "Hey, listen." Naruto turned to the Inuzuka and saw him looking dead serious for once. "That kid Sasuke asked about; Gaara?"

Naruto stood up straight with a frown, the food forgotten for a moment. "Yeah, what about him?"

"I don't know what's ahead, but tell your teammates to back off or forfeit if they have to fight him."

"You see something in the forest?" Naruto asked/guessed, now as serious as Kiba.

Kiba nodded. "Yeah, we found him in a showdown with three Ame genin. Guy's tough; his gourd is full of sand that moves like it's got a will of its own. It blocked everything they threw at him."

Naruto frowned. "Yeah, that sounds pretty tough to get through, but-"

"That isn't the problem!" Kiba cut him off, his voice hard. "After Gaara showed the guy he couldn't win, he sent the sand after him. He covered the guy in it. He could have just choked him out..." He gritted his teeth as his eyes narrowed. "Instead, he lifted him into the air and crushed him like a tomato. His blood went all over the place; it covered the whole clearing. The other two gave up their scroll and begged him to let them go, but it didn't matter. He killed them both the same way."

Naruto's eyes had been widening through Kiba's story. He would have thought Kiba was exaggerating, but he'd never seen such a look on Kiba's face before. He was staring hard at the ground. There was frustration there, something he was familiar with, but more than that, there was fear. His fist was trembling at his side. And he noticed his dog, Akamaru, was trying to duck back under his hood, shivering and letting out quiet whimpers.

when Kiba looked up at him, his expression was serious. "That guy will go out of his way to kill you. So don't give him the chance to."

Naruto, looking equally serious, nodded. "Thanks for the warning. I'll tell Sasuke and Sakura what you said."

With a groan, Sasuke began to stir. His eyes cracked open, and slowly the ceiling came into view. He soon noticed that the pain from the Curse Mark was gone. 'Well, glad that worked out...'

He sat up and felt some resistance in his muscles. His body was a bit stiff from being immobile for a full day. He could feel some of his joints popping as he rose and let the sheets fall off of him.

"Sasuke!" Sakura's voice got his attention. He looked up to see his pink-haired teammate standing at his bedside. "Are you ok?"

He nodded. "Yeah, I feel a lot better now." The Uchiha answered before taking a breath and channeled chakra into his eyes. Crimson bled into those coal orbs. 'Sharingan!'

Thankfully, he found no discomfort this time. With a sigh, he let his bloodline fade. He placed a hand over the now dormant seal. "Looks like it worked. Good, it'd be a pain to go through the next round with a handicap." He then looked around. "Where's Naruto?"

"He went to get some food. He said he'd bring back an extra helping since it was around the time Lord Hokage said you'd wake up." Sakura answered. Putting some pressure on his neck, he tilted his head and felt more popping from his bones before he stretched.

"Has anyone we know shown up?" Sasuke asked.

Sakura nodded. "I haven't left the room, but Naruto said he ran into that Fuu girl he mentioned. He also saw Shino, Lee, and one of Gaara's teammates."

Sasuke processed that information. So Team Ten was still in the forest then. And it looked like they had some pretty tough competition. But that was fine with him; it was part of why he'd been excited for the exams in the first place.

He threw off the blanket covering him and swung his legs over the side of the bed, taking a few moments to stretch. It was then that the door opened. He turned to see Naruto enter the room, holding three containers.

The blond smiled. "Hey, Sasuke, glad to see you up and about again." He held up one of the containers. "Got a sandwich and some rice balls for you. I wasn't sure when you'd wake up, so I figured I'd stick with things that you could eat cold."

"Thanks," Sasuke said as he stood up. "Just set them down on that table." He then walked towards the bathroom.

Half an hour later and the three were sitting at the table in their room, eating their meal. Naruto had gotten some barbeque pork for himself, soup and anko dumplings for Sakura, and a BLT and some rice balls with tomatoes for him.

"Has anyone else shown up here?" Sasuke asked after swallowing a bite.

Naruto shrugged. "Not as far as I know. I did run into Kiba at the cafeteria, though."

"Oh, what's up?" Sakura asked.

Naruto frowned as he looked down at his food. "Well, we got to arguing, as always, but he gave me a warning before he left." He looked up. "That Gaara? He said he's dangerous."

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Like we didn't already know that."

Naruto nodded, his brow still in a deep furrow. "That's what I said, but then Kiba told me his team saw him back in the forest. He straight up massacred a team from Ame, even after two of them gave up. He said the whole clearing they fought in got covered in blood."

Sakura flinched while Sasuke shared Naruto's expression. It sounded like the way the guy's team acted around him was justified. "Did he say how?"

Naruto nodded. "That gourd on his back." He then explained what Kiba saw: how Gaara controlled sand and how he used it. "Nice of him to give us a heads up."

Sasuke nodded in agreement.

Sakura took a breath. "Ok, so we avoid fighting him if we can." She looked at Naruto. "Anything else noteworthy?"

"Nope, it's pretty boring around here," Naruto replied with a shrug.

"What've you been up to while I was out? Can't imagine you'd stay cooped up here for long." Sasuke asked. He couldn't see Naruto sitting quietly in the room if he knew he was ok.

Sakura smiled. "Oh, he's been working on his sealing jutsu." She answered for him before turning to Naruto with a smirk. "Well, that and hanging out with his new friend. They spent the whole day cloud-watching."

Oh? So Naruto pretty much sat still all day? Well, that was interesting.

Naruto just chuckled and rubbed the back of his head. "Well, you know, she's fun to be around, and there's nothing else to do around here. And I don't think she gets out much, from what she's told me." Something seemed to occur to him then, and he looked at his two teammates. "Hey, how about I take you to meet her. She sounds like she could use some more friends."

He and Sakura looked at each other before Sakura shrugged. "I was going to see how Tenten's team was doing, but I don't see why not. There's still a whole day."

Sasuke grunted in agreement. Honestly, he just wanted to make sure his teammate wasn't getting played. Naruto could be a surprisingly good judge of character sometimes. That said, even if he was better about it than he used to be, he was still really optimistic. And that could make him too trusting.

Fuu rocked back and forth on her feet, looking out the window where she and Naruto had reunited.

She could easily count yesterday as one of her best. Sure, it hadn't exactly been the most exciting, but spending the day with a new friend had made her so happy. She'd been smiling for the rest of the night, right up until she'd fallen asleep. She was so looking forward to when they could leave this tower so Naruto could make good on his promise to show her around Konoha.

It was just too bad that her team hadn't wanted to come with her. But oh well, she had time to win them over. She was sure she would.

But for now, she was waiting on Naruto. They'd agreed to meet up here again, and she was so excited she'd left a bit early. But it should be just about time.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, she heard footsteps approaching.

And not just one pair! Was she about to make even more friends!?

She turned around, smiling when she saw Naruto and his team approach. "Naruto! And you brought your team!" She said as she ran to meet them.

"Yep," Naruto replied with a wave as she ran towards them. "This is Sakura Haruno and Sasuke Uchiha." He said, gesturing towards them. Sakura smiled and waved at her while Sasuke just nodded towards her, silently appraising her. "Guys, this is Fuu."

"Nice to meet you! Let's all be friends!" The mint-haired girl said with excitement, holding out her hand.

"Just like that?" Sakura asked, raising a brow. She then shrugged. "Well, Naruto says you're alright, and you did help him back in the forest, so sure, I guess," She said, taking her hand.

Her face lit up even brighter as joy swept through her. "Whoo-hoo! That's twice as many friends as I had before!"

Sakura raised a brow and looked slightly perplexed. "Uh, twice?"

Fuu nodded quickly. "Uh-huh! One of my goals is to make a hundred friends!"

Naruto blinked. "A hundred, huh? Sounds nice. Any reason you're aiming for so many?"

Fuu smiled and put her hands on her hips. "My village chief said I should. And wouldn't it be great to have friends no matter where you are?"

Sakura frowned for a moment but nodded. "Ok... kinda odd, but..."

Fuu then turned to Sasuke, looking hopeful, but the Uchiha shook his head. "I don't call someone a friend lightly. Ask again when I know you better."

Aw. Still, that was a definite maybe! Which was better than no.

Fuu looked disappointed for a moment before she brightened up. "Ok, I will." She then looked at all three. "So, is there anything you want to do? Or should we go cloud-watching again?"

"There isn't much else to do here, is there?" Naruto asked with a shrug.

"Maybe we can trade stories?" Fuu asked, putting her hands together.

"Stories? What kind of stories?" Sasuke asked with a frown.

"Anything interesting! Like the time I snuck out of the hospital and had the staff looking all over trying to find me! Or the time I went exploring around the village and found this huge lake!" Fuu explained.

Sakura chuckled while Naruto grinned excitedly. "Oh boy. In that case, Naruto's got enough stories to last all day."

"You're looking at Konoha's number one prankster," Naruto said proudly, pointing a thumb at himself. "I'll tell you all about the best tricks I ever pulled."

"Ooh, tell me more!"

After spending half an hour on the roof with the girl, Sasuke could say he was pretty sure she wasn't trying to play Naruto. He'd suspected the girl was genuine from how her eyes had lit up the moment she saw them. Not an absolute sign that she wasn't just a good actor, but the eyes were said to be the window to the soul for a reason.

He'd been a bit suspicious when she asked to share stories, but it had become clear she was just interested in entertaining stories from their day-to-day lives. She seemed to love hearing about the pranks Naruto had pulled. She was apparently something of a trouble maker too. She wasn't a prankster(Thank goodness, he didn't want to think about what they'd get up to during her stay here were that the case), but Fuu was as hyperactive as Naruto was and had a similar tendency to do what she wanted from the sound of it.

"So, what sort of things do you do for fun around Taki?" Naruto asked.

"Hm?" Fuu looked at him before turning her eyes to the sky and placing a finger on her chin. "Well, I like to dance and explore outside the village. There are lots of lakes and underwater caves that I can swim through, and I always hope to find something new. I have a few other hobbies I picked up for one reason or another, and when I can't do anything else, I go cloud-watching."

"Huh, and they let you look around outside of Taki? I hadn't stepped outside Konoha until my first mission." Naruto said.

"When did I say they let me?" Fuu replied, leaning toward him with a grin. Both of them chuckled while he and Sakura shared a look.

Yep, they were two peas in a pod. The jury was out on whether that was a good or bad thing.

"And how about you guys?" Fuu asked.

Sasuke shrugged. "Hn, I don't do much besides training; unless these two drag me along for something. I'll usually walk around the village if I need to unwind."

"I read and play trivia games and crossword puzzles. Kinda boring, I know, but that's about it." Sakura answered.

"Doesn't sound boring to me. Mind if I play with you sometime?" The Taki kunoichi asked hopefully.

"Sure," Sakura replied, and Fuu made a happy squeal.

That was something else he'd noticed: she seemed really excited to do things with other people. That was odd. Naruto hadn't exactly had any friends before the Wave mission. Before they'd really become a team and Sasuke had learned about his mother's wish. But, while that was partly due to how the adults treated him, the way he kept making a fool of himself in class, and his tendency to brag when he couldn't back up his words hadn't helped with the other kids.

From the mint-haired girl's behavior and from how her team had refused to join her twice now, she didn't seem to have many friends either. Strange, friendly as she was, he'd have thought someone would be close to her, even if she had to drag them, kicking and screaming into her circle.

"And you?" Fuu asked, turning to Naruto.

The blond Uzumaki placed his hands behind his head. "Eh, you know how much I love pranks. Aside from that, I keep some houseplants and practice writing and calligraphy."

"Never thought about calligraphy... maybe I should try my hand at that once I get back to Taki? I'll give anything a try once." Fuu mused before she sat up and looked out to the forest. "I wish we could go back into the forest. There's so much I didn't get to see." She said wistfully.

"You want to go back in there?" Sakura looked at her incredulously.

"Yeah! I saw so many things that I never knew existed! There were tigers as big as sheds and a giant centipede, and I've only seen one tree bigger than these! One! Not a forest of them! Isn't it awesome!? It's nothing like the land around Taki!" Fuu exclaimed, throwing her arms out. She then looked out to the woods with her hands eagerly clasped in front of her chest. "There's so much in this world to see. I want to explore it all someday and make friends everywhere I go!"

That wasn't a bad dream to have, he supposed. And as a kunoichi, Fuu will probably get to see a lot of it at one point or another. Still, he wasn't going to drop his guard around a foreign ninja during these exams, whether she seemed harmless or not.

"Naruto," Sasuke said, getting the blond's attention. He turned to see the Uchiha looking up at the sky. "It's about time we head back." Sakura had already left a while ago to find Tenten and see how she was doing.

The Kyuubi Jinchuriki looked up and sighed while Fuu looked from his teammate back to him. "Yeah, you're probably right. We've gotta get ready for tomorrow."

"Huh? Already?" Fuu asked dejectedly.

"Sorry, we've got some things to work on to get ready for the next stage, whatever it is," Naruto replied before smiling. "But we're still on for that tour of the village once we're out of the forest."

Fuu brightened up and nodded, her hands forming eager fists before her chest. "Alright. I'm looking forward to it."

Naruto thought that now was a good time to warn her since it wouldn't weigh on her mind while they relaxed and enjoyed themselves. "Before we go, there's something I need to tell you." He began, causing her to blink.

She saw Naruto's features shift and grew concerned. "Hm? What is it?"

"Someone gave me a heads up about a certain someone. You know Gaara?"

Fuu frowned. "The redhead with the gourd? Yeah, I remember him. Seemed kinda... unfriendly-like." She said after a pause, clearly not wanting to come off as rude.

"That might be the understatement of the year," Naruto replied with a grimace. Fuu raised a brow at that. "My old classmate, Kiba, ran into him in the forest facing off with some Ame genin. He and his team decided to watch how it all played out. Good thing too, or they'd all be dead."

Fuu's frown turned to dismay. "What? Why?"

"That gourd of his is full of sand, and he controls it. It moves around to attack and defend for him." The blonde explained. "He told me Gaara uses it to encase people..." Naruto held out an open palm. "and when he catches you..." He closed his hand into a fist.

The mint-haired girl took a step back, her face a picture of disturbed disbelief at those words. "That's... that's such a messed up way to fight..."

Naruto shook his head grimly. "The way I heard it, it wasn't a fight at all. Gaara had him in seconds, and then when he was at his mercy..." Naruto didn't finish. He didn't need to.

Fuu had looked increasingly horrified through those last words and was now staring at him with her mouth agape. "That's..." She couldn't finish; her disgust and horror had robbed her of words.

"That's not even the worst of it." Naruto continued to a disbelieving Fuu. "The guy's teammates begged for their lives, gave up their scroll and everything. But it didn't matter. He didn't care. He killed them too." He met her gaze, a steely look in his eyes. "You need to watch out; and tell your team too."

She closed her eyes for a second, and when she looked at him, all of her usual cheer was gone. In its place was a seriousness he hadn't seen from her before. "Ok. Got it."

They parted ways soon after, and now Naruto and Sasuke were walking the halls in silence. The blond stopped and blinked as they neared the room when a familiar voice reached them.

"So, this is where you guys as staying for now?" Said a voice that just sounded done with everything.

"Uh-huh. We're free to pick anyone we want, so just make yourselves at home. No offense, but you guys look like you can use a rest." Sakura said.

"Ugh, you don't know the half of it." He heard Ino say.

He rounded the corner to find that, sure enough, Sakura was standing with Team Ten in front of their room. "Well, look what the cat dragged in," Naruto said as he and Sasuke walked joined them. "Glad you guys made it."

"Sasuke!" Ino cried happily. "You look great! I was so worried when Sakura told us what happened to you."

"Hn," was Sasuke's patented response. He felt sorry for Ino. It was pretty obvious, even to him, that Sasuke just wasn't into her. And with how long she'd been at it, he didn't see that changing anytime soon.

"Well, nice to see you've made a full recovery," Choji said.

"I guess we were right about how this is all going to go down," Shikamaru commented. They didn't need any further explanation on what he meant.

"Yep. We're just going to have to hope for the best, I guess." Naruto replied. "I was afraid you weren't going to make it for a second. How'd you guys manage out there?"

"It was horrible." Choji groaned. "We ran out of food after we left you on the second day."

"And whose fault was that?" Ino snapped at him. "Besides, you should take it as a lesson." She crossed her arms. "Sometimes, there's no way we'll be able to bring enough rations to keep us full for a whole mission. We need to learn to live off the land at some point."

Naruto raised a brow. Were they just now learning that? It looked like Kakashi-sensei wasn't the only jonin who needed to kick it in gear.

Hell, he didn't even know why they were complaining. At least they brought food! His team hadn't brought anything but water.

He saw Sakura sigh and shake her head. It looked like she thought so too.

"Ugh, I didn't think we were going to make it back there. We kept running into guys that were stronger than us." Ino groaned. "If we hadn't got the drop on those three from Ame, we'd still be out there..."

"Well, at least you made it here soon enough to kick your feet up for a bit," Naruto replied. "With you guys here, all of this year's rookies made it."

Shikamaru raised a brow. "Really? Kiba's team's already here? Huh."

"Yeah, they were here before we were," Naruto said before something occurred to him. "Hey, Sakura. You give them the heads up Kiba gave us yet?"

Sakura shrugged. "I was going to once they got settled in."

"Heads up? About what?" Shikamaru asked, looking more alert than usual.

"We'll explain once you find a room," Sasuke said, jabbing his head at the doors.

At around noon the next day, an announcement rang out throughout the tower to gather in one of its central chambers. Teams Seven and Ten made their way through the halls together. When they stepped through the large doors, they found they weren't the first to reach the room.

Naruto's brows rose as he saw Kabuto and two similarly dressed teens standing together. The older boy smiled and gave them a nod, which he returned.

Fuu's team had also arrived. She was standing alongside a boy with spiky brown hair that stood straight up. He wore a blue jacket with shoulder guards over a yellow shirt and brown shorts. Beside them was a taller boy with straight black hair that went down past his shoulders, a gray shirt, and matching pants.

The Suna team was there too. Fuu was glancing warily at Gaara before she noticed Naruto's team. She smiled and waved at Naruto and his team, and he and Sakura did the same. Sasuke just settled for a nod. He briefly glanced at Gaara himself, standing at the lead of his team with his arms crossed. Then he looked at all the people lined up facing them.

Finally, there was Lee's team. Alongside the two he recognized, there was another. He had long brown hair and wore a beige shirt with dark brown shorts and bandages around his left arm and leg. His eyes were the same featureless white as Hinata's. It had to be that Neji guy Lee mentioned.

There stood the Third Hokage in the middle of Anko, Ibiki, and one other man he didn't recognize. A man clad in the standard attire of Konoha ninja. He had short brown hair and a bandana-style forehead protector. He had dark circles under his eyes as if he hadn't slept well in a long time.

Behind them stood the jonin sensei of the genin who passed. Kakashi was there, as was Gai, but that was it as far as people he recognized.

There was a tall man with brown eyes, olive skin, short black spiky hair, and a beard. He wore a standard Konoha uniform, as most did, but his sleeves were rolled halfway up. He also wore a sash that had the kanji for Fire around his waist. He had a pair of black bangles and bandages wrapped around the arms of his sleeves.

Another was a slender brunette woman with long untamed hair reaching her upper back and red eyes with an additional ring. She wore make-up consisting of red lipstick and purple eye shadow and wore a red mesh armor blouse with only the right sleeve visible.

Finally, for Konoha jonin, there was a man with glasses and sandy blond hair, wearing the standard Konoha attire.

There were a few other jonin from other villages. One had to be Fuu's sensei. A man with spiky black hair and tanned skin like hers. He wore a dark violet vest with two scrolls attached to it, a light violet turtleneck, and dark green-colored pants.

Another was a man from Oto, which Naruto realized meant those three had passed too. He wore a purple flak jacket with a black shirt and matching pants. He had chalky white skin with long black hair tied in a ponytail.

And lastly, a tall Suna jonin wearing their village's version of the standard shinobi attire. He had red markings on the right side of his face, the only visible part of his head, with the rest being covered by his turban-like headgear and by a sheet hanging from it on the left side of his face.

The two teams took their places, and slowly the others began to trickle into the room.

Kiba's team was next. Followed by the Oto genin. Naruto smirked when Zaku threw him a dirty look, his arm still in a sling. Finally, Team Gai entered the room last.

'Anko wasn't kidding. Not even half of us made it out of that forest...' Naruto observed as he looked around. 'Still, looks like we had a pretty big turnout. I wonder what they're going to throw at us next.'

"Listen up! Lord Hokage is about to explain the third test, so you better pay attention." Anko announced, silencing the quiet murmurs that had been going on among the teams. "Lord Hokage, they're all yours."

The Hokage hummed an affirmative and stepped forward. "First, before I explain what the Third Exam entails, I'd like to explain something about the Chunin Exams themselves. Listen closely; I will now explain the true purpose of these exams."

True purpose? What did that mean? Although, he had to say he'd thought it was kind of weird that they held these exams with other nations like this.

"I'm sure some of you have wondered why our village holds these exams together with our allies. To raise the standards of our shinobi and develop friendships across allied to be sure, but they hold a deeper purpose." Hiruzen said before closing his eyes. After a pause, he continued. "They serve as a substitute for battle between allied nations."

"What does that mean?" A voice Naruto didn't recognize asked. A glance told him it was the girl on Lee's team. He realized that had to be Tenten.

"In the past, all of these allied nations once fought with each other for power and influence. To avoid wasting lives; the nations selected champions to fight for their countries. While these exams certainly exist to determine which shinobi are worthy of becoming chunin, that is not their only purpose. They also exist so those prospective chunin may fight for the pride and prestige of their nations, at the risk of their very lives."

"Pride of our nations?" Naruto asked.

"During the final stage of these exams, many leaders and prominent people will be invited to observe as guests. Those leaders will take note of the strength of each nation's shinobi. The better a village's young shinobi perform, the more favorable the impression they take away, and the more likely they are to hire the ninja of that village. Thus, these exams influence the number of jobs each village is likely to receive. As well as their power when negotiating with other nations."

"So why do we have to risk our lives?" Kiba asked.

"Because a shinobi's true strength is only achieved when it's pushed to its limits. Such as in a life and death battle. It's because your life is on the line that you can display your true power and the power of your village. Thus you will fight with your lives, your dreams, and the pride of your village on the line."

"Just like Shibuki told me..." Fuu nodded to herself with a smile.

"Well, it's better than an all-out fight between nations," Naruto said, crossing his arms. Then he smirked. "And it gives us a chance to show our stuff to every big name out there."

"Yeah, and every other village, ally or otherwise." Sasuke pointed out with a frown.

"Just get on with it," Gaara said impatiently.

"Very well. Listen closely, and I will explain to you the nature of the Third Exam." The Hokage said, placing his hands behind his back.

The leader of Konoha was then interrupted as the Konoha shinobi in the bandana vanished, reappearing down on one knee in front of the old man in a burst of speed.

"Lord Hokage, before you do, please allow me, Hayate Gekko, proctor of the third exam, to speak." The now named Hayate said.

"Very well." The Hokage nodded.

When the man turned, Naruto's brows rose. Now that he got a better look at him, he did not look good. The man had dark circles under his dull eyes. And as soon as he turned, he put his hand to his mouth and broke into a brief coughing fit.

'Is this guy sick or something?' Naruto couldn't help but wonder.

"Before we actually explain the Third Exam, I need you all to do something. We're going to hold a preliminary exam to determine who will participate in the exams final stage." Hayate explained once he calmed down.

"Whoa, preliminary? What do you mean?" Shikamaru asked loudly. Knowing him, he was probably frustrated that there would be even more work for them.

"To be frank, there are too many participants remaining. Whether it's because of your talent or because the exams were too easy this year. As Lord Hokage said, VIPs from all over the nations will spectate during the final stage. As such, we can't afford to waste their time by having the Third Exam take too long." Hayate explained. He gave them a moment, his eyes roaming the assembled genin. When no one spoke up, he continued, "Anyway, we will begin immediately. Any who wish quit after these explanations, please come forward."

"What? Right now?" Kiba asked.

'Who would throw in the towel after coming this far?' Naruto couldn't help but wonder.

His question was immediately answered when Kabuto raised his hand.

"Em, excuse me. I'd like to forfeit." The purple-clad teen said.

"Huh? Seriously?" Naruto asked incredulously as he and most of the others in the room turned to look at him.

"Sorry, Naruto," Kabuto said, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. "My team and I just got here. I got banged up pretty bad back in the forest. I'm just not in any shape to get into a fight right now." He did look a lot more scuffed than the others here, now that Naruto looked at him. "I'd like to continue, but I'd be at too much of a disadvantage."

"Are you sure? I mean, yeah, that's kinda a good point, but it's not like we'd have much choice out in the field, you know?" Naruto pointed out.

"True, but this isn't the field. I've got a choice, and I'm making it."

Hayate coughed, getting their attention. He looked down at a list and said, "Kabuto Yakushi of Konoha, correct? You may go." He then looked over the other genin. "Oh, and I forgot to mention. From now on, you will all fight individually, so judge solely for yourself."

Naruto watched as Kabuto left before turning to the proctor. No one else raised their hand. After a few moments of silence, the proctor nodded. "Very well. Then let's begin the preliminary exam." Hayate said, his dull eyes roaming over the assembled genin. "As I said, from here on, the fights will be one on one, and you're expected to fight as if they are real-life confrontations, as you did in the forest. Since we have twenty-three entrants, we'll have eleven matches. The winners of those matches will advance to the finals. The lucky odd one out will get a free ride. As for the rules... basically, there are none. The fight will continue until one side forfeits or is unable to battle. Whether that means they're incapacitated, knocked out, or killed. Be aware of your limits if you don't want to die. However, if I decide the match has been decided, I'll step in and end things. And we'll determine your matches by..."

Hayate ten half-turned and looked at the wall behind the jonin. The genin followed his gaze, above a state of two hands forming a hand sign, where a curtain fell to reveal-

"... This electronic scoreboard, which will select two of you at random. I know it's sudden, but we will decide the first match immediately."

With that, the board came to life. Yellow letters appeared on its surface, rapidly shifting through names on either side of the word VS. The genin watched as the first match was decided, and it settled on-

Ino Yamanaka vs Temari.

Naruto winced. He heard Sakura suck in a breath behind him and turned to see her looking worried at her friend. He then threw a glance at Temari.

The other blonde huffed, placing a hand on her hip and cocking her head as her teal eyes went from the board to the platinum blonde. She didn't look impressed, to say the least.

'Oh boy...' Naruto thought to himself as he looked from her to Ino, who looked at Temari with some concern before steeling herself and glaring. Probably because she was Gaara's teammate. He remembered Ino was about on par with Sakura back in the academy. If she needed anywhere near as much work as his pink-haired teammate had... '... This is going to be ugly.'

Temari struck him as a tough, no-nonsense kunoichi, who probably wouldn't hold back or show any sympathy towards her opponent. And that was before considering she was Gaara's teammate. Ino would probably get no mercy...

In short order, the genin had assembled on galleries lining either side of the room with their jonin sensei: Konoha shinobi on the right, all foreign ninja on the left.

Naruto glanced at Sakura, who leaned forward and clutched the railing as she looked down at her friend. "Don't worry, Sakura. I'm sure the proctor will step in before it gets too bad."

"I hope so," Sakura muttered.

"I'll keep an eye on things if it helps," Sasuke said. Both looked at him to find his eyes had turned crimson. Oh, right. Sasuke had told him his eyes had an upgrade. Good, the jonin would have a little warning if things were about to go too far.

"Thanks," Sakura replied gratefully.

"Hey, come on. Aren't you two supposed to be old friends? Have a little faith." Ino's sensei said, his hands in his pockets and a lit cigarette in his mouth.

Tenten looked at Sakura sympathetically. "Um, Sakura? You told me Ino was your rival, right? Where would you put her right now?"

"... About where I was when we met, just throw in some clan jutsu..." Came Sakura's dull reply.

Tenten just grimaced.

Shikamaru gave a worried murmur as he looked down at his teammate, mirroring Sakura's stance. Choji munched his potato chips faster than usual...

... Wait, where'd he get that? Oh, his sensei must have brought them.

Ino glared at her opponent down below. Temari regarded her with a bored expression with one hand on the fan on her back.

"And begin!" Hayate yelled.

Temari immediately shot forward, raising her fan over her head like a club. Ino leaped back to dodge as it crashed into the ground with enough force to kick up a dust cloud that obscured Temari.

That was her first and last mistake in this fight.

The dust was suddenly blown away to reveal Temari, swinging her fan. With one movement, she had spun on her heel and unfurled it halfway through. She unleashed a wind blast the drove Ino back. The wind compressed and twisted into a whirlwind that engulfed her. The Yamanaka heiress screamed as it dragged her through the air. Countless wind blades cut into her skin, scattering small spurts of blood through the air. The whirlwind twisted and drove her into the ground, the impact kicking up another cloud of dust.

When it cleared, Ino lay in a small crater of broken tiles. She was unmoving and covered in bleeding wounds.

Naruto sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. Yep, that's what he'd been afraid of. Sasuke just closed his eyes and shook his head.

"What a waste of time..." Temari grumbled, folding her fan and slamming its tip into the ground.

"Ino is unable to battle. The winner is Temari." Hayate declared.

Shikamaru face palmed. "Ah geez..."

Team Ten's leader winced. "Maybe we need a bit more work than I thought..."

Sakura sighed, looking down at her rival as a pair of medic-nin took her away on a stretcher. "Ino..."

"Well, hopefully, this gets her to turn things around. Fangirls tend not to last long as kunoichi." Tenten said to Sakura, trying to find the silver lining in this situation.

"Oof... way to make a first impression for us," Kiba said with a grimace, closing one eye and looking away.

"Asuma... how much of their training did you leave up to their clans?" Kurenai asked, lightly glaring at the other jonin.

"Uh..." Asuma rubbed the back of his head. "Well, given how they're all the heirs of the previous InoShikaCho trio, I thought it'd be best to leave it to them to help out with their clan jutsu and teamwork skills. I've been helping with the latter, of course, and helped them even out some edges, but..."

"In other words, you've been slacking nearly as much as Shikamaru?" Naruto said, raising a brow.

"You know, I could take that as an insult." Shikamaru pointed out while Asuma chuckled and looked away.

"Don't let it get you down, Asuma. Youth is littered with sour moments like this, but there are always sweet ones to follow." Gai said before giving him a thumbs up with a sparkling smile. "I'm sure this is the spark that will see Ino's youth burn brightly!"

"... Hopefully. Though, I don't think that'll save me from getting chewed out by my old man for that performance..." Asuma mused, looking worriedly at the Third, who was glaring at him.

Naruto blinked, looking between the two rapidly before gaping. "Woah, Old Man Hokage's your dad?"

"Yep. Oh, by the way. I've been meaning to thank you. I hear you're responsible for giving my nephew a much-needed wake-up call."

"Oh, you mean Konohamaru?" Naruto grinned widely, putting his hands behind his head. "Yeah, he's a good kid. I'm sure he'll be Hokage after me, someday." He said, getting a scoff from Kiba.

He glared, but before he could say anything, Kakashi put his hand on his shoulder. "While I'm sure you'd like to get into it with your old classmate right now, the next match is about to start."

Naruto looked up at the board. Sure enough, it had come back to life now that both combatants had been taken off the field. They all watched, Lee raising an eager fist as they waited to see the next match up.

Giichi vs Kiba Inuzuka

"All right! Looks like I'm up!" Kiba said with a wide grin, pounding a fist into his open palm. "You ready, Akamaru?" He asked the dog on his head, who barked back in response.

That wasn't a name he recognized, and so Naruto realized there were only two people it could be. Just as he'd guessed, he saw one of the Taki shinobi, the one with black hair, began to walk towards the arena. He couldn't make out what was said, but it looked like Fuu said something, but he couldn't see any response from her teammate. She took a few steps back and rested against the wall.

Naruto frowned but remained silent as Kiba jumped over the railing and quickly took his spot while the Taki nin took the long away.

In short order, the two stood across from each other. The Taki nin raised a brow.

"Hm, you brought a puppy along?" Giichi asked.

"Yep, Akamaru's my partner," Kiba said as the dog leaped off of his head. He crouched down and pet Akamaru's head, getting a happy bark in return. "Don't underestimate him just because he's on the small side."

The Taki ninja shrugged his shoulders. "Eh, I'm more of a cat person, myself. Ninja cats seem so much more useful."

Kiba's eye twitched, and Akamaru barked angrily. "Hey! Don't you dare insult my partner! And are you seriously going to start that old argument again?"

"Just stating facts. Ever hear of a ninja hound using genjutsu?" Giichi replied, getting a growl from both the dog and his owner in turn.

"And begin!" Hayate called.

Kiba kneeled down and made a hand seal before placing his hands on the ground. His fingers tensed as his nails grew into claws and he seemed to grow a bit more... feral. "Let's go, Akamaru!" The boy called, getting a bark as they charged at the Taki ninja.

"Two on one, eh?" Giichi stated as he tensed.

He then leaped backward as he ran through hand seals. He inhaled deeply before spraying a powerful just of water from his mouth. The ninja and dog pair dodged to either side, the boy jumping into the air when he turned his head, causing the torrent to sweep to the side.

As they closed the distance, Giichi made another hand seal. "Takigakure Style: Watercutting Sword!"

Water gathered in his palm and formed a sword. He swept it through the air once before pointing the jagged tip at the approaching genin before launching himself at him.

Kiba kicked back to avoid a slash. Giichi spun into a kick aimed at Akamaru, but the tiny dog kicked itself to the side and bit at him, forcing him to jump back.

Giichi was a skilled swordsman, but he was gradually forced back. Kiba would duck and weave around his watery blade as Akamaru proved an agile and hard-to-hit target, keeping the tall boy from really pressing his master.

Eventually, he kicked back, flipped his sword into a reverse grip, and tossed it at Kiba like a javelin. The Inuzuka ducked under the blade, which stuck in the ground and melted into a puddle.

The boy dropped a smoke bomb from his pouch, which immediately exploded into a smokescreen.

As Kiba charged towards it, a hail of kunai erupted from the smog. He and his dog dodged to opposite sides, sliding across the ground before launching themselves at their hidden foe.

"Hah! If you think something like that's going to slow us down, then you've got another thing coming!" Kiba said they entered the quickly vanishing cloud from nearly opposite directions.

The sound of a blow rang out the moment before the last of the smog faded, revealing Giichi falling back, Kiba's claw on his face, and Akamaru biting into his leg.

Or so it seemed, as Giichi fell apart into water.

"What!?" Kiba exclaimed.

"That's-" Sakura began, recognizing a water clone just as he and Sasuke did.

The real Giichi emerged from a puddle behind them both, hands running through seals. "Water Style: Water Prison!"

Water on the ground rose and encased the boy and his hound, immobilizing them in a sphere of water. "Well, that's game," Giichi said.

Kiba gritted his teeth from within the water and glared at his opponent, but there was nothing else he could do.

"Kiba is unable to battle. The winner is Giichi." Hayate said.

"Yes! Way to show what Taki ninja are made of!" Fuu cheered from her spot above.

"And now we're O for two. We're off to a great start." Shikamaru grumbled.

Giichi released his prison and put his hands in his pockets as his opponents landed on their feet. "Good match. Maybe pay more attention to your surroundings, though. I wasn't trying to hide back there; I was trying to keep you from thinking about the water."

"Yeah, thanks for the advice," Kiba said, begrudgingly, as he rose to his feet.

"You're pretty good. See you around." Giichi said, walking back and waving over his shoulder.

A bitter-looking Kiba made his way back to his team, glaring down at the floor.

Kurenai sighed. "Kiba's going to be nursing that blow to his pride for a while..."

Naruto chuckled. "Serves him right for having such a big head."

Sakura giggled at his side. "Oh, that's rich, coming from you."

"Who was it who said he'd introduce everyone's faces to the floor again?" Sasuke wondered aloud, smirking at him.

Naruto rubbed the back of his head with a sheepish grin. "Aw, come on, guys. Don't gang up on me like that..."

"Well, looks like it's time to put your money where your mouth is,"

Kakashi-sensei said, drawing his attention. He pointed him to the board above, which had settled on the next match.

Naruto Uzumaki vs Neji Hyuuga.

I feel like Naruto got enough curb stomps in his favor between the Oto and Ame teams. Time for some challenges.

Hope you enjoyed it. Please review.