Ox. Hare. Monkey.
Sparks crackled in the palm of his left hand. He covered them with his other hand, ignoring the sting as a few tongues of dancing energy resisted his attempt to reshape them. It was hard work; lightning was fast, and it was in its nature to dissipate just as fast. Ideally, the reshaping should happen in a matter of milliseconds, as close to instantaneous as possible. He wasn't there yet.
Sasuke gave the ball of lightning-like chakra in his cupped hands a dubious look. 'Misshapen' was a good word for it. It was still recognizable as a sphere, but the bumps were just too obvious.
Staring right into it was starting to hurt his eyes, so he closed them, and tried to feel the sphere instead. It was still his chakra, still in his hands; his mental picture was starting to take form --
"Hey -- stupid fish, don't -- no no no!"
It was a bit hard to keep up your concentration when you had to dodge flying salmon. One millisecond of inattention, and the detonation forced his hands apart, leaving them smarting and a little singed. Below him, on the lower deck of the ship that was bringing them to Water Country, Naruto grinned and tried not to look too guilty. He was still holding the fishing rod that connected to the line in the salmon's mouth.
Sasuke had a kunai in his hand in a flash, and in the next, had impaled the still wriggling fish through the gills, without breaking eye contact with the blond.
Of course, Naruto failed to recognize the threat for what it was. "Hey, you better not have ruined the hook! Bukuri-san says I'm not allowed to bum replacements off him anymore."
Scowling, Sasuke flung the fish at his head; to his great regret, it didn't hit, because Naruto lifted the pole just enough to make it swerve off track. The fish kept swinging on its line, though, and Sasuke spent an entertaining minute watching Naruto's every grab for it alter its trajectory.
"You know, if we suspended his instant ramen from the ceiling with an elastic string, that would keep him amused forever," Sakura commented as she climbed on top of the cabin where Sasuke was perched.
Sasuke snorted in wordless agreement.
On the deck, Naruto seemed to be doing an impression of a kitten losing a fight with a ball of yarn, except a little more wet and stinky. Sasuke refused to pay attention to his antics a second longer.
Sakura made herself comfortable at his side, swinging her legs over the edge of the roof. He gave her a long, searching look. She seemed to be feeling okay, but he wasn't sure that meant much. "Still seasick?"
Sakura made a little grimace, legs dangling and swinging nervously. "I don't have anything left to be sick with, I think."
She reached for his hands; Sasuke stuffed them in his pockets. "That's not how seasickness works."
Sakura sighed quietly. "Fine, if you want to be technical, I'm using chakra to stick to the boat and pretending this is a balance exercise. It's not entirely getting rid of the nausea, but it's keeping it down to a manageable level. Now please, may I see your hands?"
"It's nothing worth wasting your chakra on," Sasuke grumbled, but he didn't resist when she slipped her fingers around his wrists and gently tugged them to her.
"It's not wasting much if it really is nothing," Sakura replied with cheerful determination as she healed his singed hands. "There, you see? Already done."
Sasuke rubbed his hands together to get rid of the layer of dead skin. "...Thanks."
"It's no trouble," Sakura replied, still smiling. "Are you still working on spatial recomposition?"
"Mnh." Sasuke frowned and stared down at his hands, and tried again. Ox, hare, monkey -- the ball of chakra was a little more spherical this time, but it went unstable even faster than the previous one had. "Reshaping lightning isn't quite as easy as Kakashi made it out to be," he admitted, frustrated.
"Maybe another shape would work better?" Sakura took his hands to heal them once again. There was barely a scrape this time around, but he didn't protest.
"Like what?" he retorted, and glared at his own hands as if they had betrayed him. If Sasuke couldn't manage to master spatial recomposition before Naruto managed elemental recomposition... Naruto could already cut a leaf in two with his wind chakra; and sure, the two fields were hard to compare, but at this rate, Sasuke was going to lose his advantage, and that wasn't acceptable.
Naruto's upper body popped up in the narrow space between their knees, elbows propped on the edge of the cabin. "Dunno. But not round. I don't know about you, but when I think lightning, I don't think round."
Sasuke twitched. "Didn't ask you for advice."
"Hmm, yes -- legends about the existence of ball lightning notwithstanding, round and static is pretty much the least natural shape for lightning to take," Sakura mused. "You're working against the grain."
"I know that," Sasuke retorted. "But if I can make it round and static, then I can make it into just about anything." At least that was the theory Kakashi-sensei had taught him. Though if he kept progressing at this pace, Sasuke would have no new technique ready for use for the Chuunin exam. And they were due to arrive to the Water Country island on which the exam took place in a half-day, a day at worst. As the exam started tomorrow morning, Sasuke was starting to feel a little pressed for time.
Not that the exam would start without them, even if they were late; Team Seven had escorted Shikamaru to Sand two weeks ago, and it had been more practical to make the trip to Mist directly from the Wind country along with the Sand delegation, than to try to get back to Konoha first. Sure, no one would care if a team of genin arrived late, but Sasuke doubted they'd refuse to give some slack to the Kazekage.
Naruto snorted, pulling Sasuke out of his thoughts. "Whatcha gonna do with a lightning ball, play beach volleyball? I thought the Chidori was supposed to pierce through anything. What's a blunt Chidori good for?"
Sasuke sneered at him. "You can keep cutting corners and cheating with your Kage Bunshins; as for me, I'll master all my techniques properly. That way they'll actually work any time I need them."
"Hey! My techniques work all the time."
Sasuke gave him an unconvinced look, but didn't deign to answer. Naruto just wouldn't ever accept the fact that the only reason his Rasengan worked all the time was because he was lucky. If his Kage Bunshin was destroyed before he could stabilize the attack, or if he was in a space too narrow to manifest two or three more bodies, then he'd be fucked. Sasuke had no problem with anyone cutting corners in a pinch, but Naruto should have worked on getting over his need of that particular crutch instead of settling comfortably on it.
"Your fish is about to escape," Sakura commented innocently. Naruto jerked around to check, and rushed down the deck to keep another struggling salmon in its bucket.
Sasuke sighed, concentrated some chakra in his hands, and started shaping the seals again. "How's your training going?" he asked absently.
Sakura shrugged, hands open in a 'can't be helped' gesture. "Slowly. I can practice holding and releasing my chakra -- my speed is getting better, and so is the amount of chakra I can gather -- but I can't really train properly on a boat, so..."
"Timing still off?"
She sighed. "I think so, yes."
Sasuke hummed a distracted acknowledgement as he smoothed down a bump on his lightning sphere. The cohesion of this one was holding on so far; it was just rather ugly. The internal strain was about to hit critical, though, so he released it, opening his hands to let the chakra detonate without hurting his hands. "First test isn't supposed to need us to fight, though. I'll spar with you."
Sakura blinked wide green eyes at him, startled. "Really? Um, but if I hit you and it works..."
Sasuke shrugged, though he didn't exactly relish the idea. "Then you'll get to work on your medical jutsu too."
Sakura gave him a soft look and a happy little smile he pretended not to see. "Thank you, Sasuke-kun. But I think it would be safer if I just practiced on rocks and trees for the moment."
Sasuke frowned. "As long as you don't break your hand again."
"I can heal that, too."
"Not an excuse," he retorted, and pretended to be paying attention to the sea as Sakura grinned. "... You'd waste too much chakra on it, is all."
He had a feeling she didn't believe him, somehow. Grinning, she leaned forward, elbows on her thighs, chin resting in her hands, and tilted her face into the wind. Down on the deck, Naruto had stripped down to the waist to enjoy the sun, and was in the middle of an animated conversation with an uncharacteristically unescorted Kazekage. Not that Gaara was all that animated, but Naruto had enough blinding grins and shining eyes and wild gestures for two.
He wondered what the two of them were talking about. Apart from their sealed demons, they didn't have a lot in common. Naruto could chat with everyone, but Sasuke had a little more trouble puzzling out why Gaara wanted to hang out with Naruto. It was annoying.
Sasuke crossed his legs, closed his eyes, and tried the exercise again, visualizing a perfect sphere within his mind. All minor setbacks aside, he knew he was slowly getting closer to the trick to properly shaping the lightning-chakra, and he was determined to get there without begging for tips from Kakashi.
Three hours later, when the horizon started to darken with the low clouds that lined the Water Country's shores, his spheres still weren't spherical, but he'd had a little more success with starfish shapes. Lightning-type chakra didn't like straight lines very much either, but still more than it liked spheres.
Quiet, seated at his side, Sakura was practicing moving her chakra in various points of her body -- she said the disruption it caused distracted her from the waiting seasickness.
Gaara had been found by his bodyguards and gone back to another meeting with his advisors, and, alone again, Naruto had come to sprawl across the deck just under Sasuke and Sakura. He would have practiced his elemental recombining, but he'd been forbidden to do it on the ship after one of his uncontrolled gusts of wind almost brought the rigging down, so instead he was playing with his claws. In, out, in, out, bat at dust motes, in, out, bat at dust motes, in, out, in -- what the fuck.
Somehow, Sasuke didn't kick Naruto overboard when the blond latched onto his foot and started to gnaw, but it was a near thing. "... You're chewing on my shoe."
"Arrh. Rar. Your fault. Keep twitching your toes."
"Naruto, you're chewing on my shoe." He paused, waiting for Naruto to realize; instead, he felt the pinprick of a fang through the thick cloth. "... Do you even know what I walked through on the docks?"
Grimacing, Sakura leaned over the edge to peer at the blond. "Ew, Naruto, I'm never kissing you again."
Naruto wrinkled his nose and stopped chewing on his ankle, but his hands didn't let go. "Oh, come on, he's gone through so many puddles, 's only saltwater by now."
"Mouthwash," she ordered sternly. "Or no kissing, ever again."
"That's not fair, I don't have any in my things."
"Then find someone who does, or buy some in Mist village, I don't care."
"What if they don't sell any?!"
"Then it sucks to be you, doesn't it," Sakura retorted, sticking out her tongue.
"...Not even a good-luck kiss?
Naruto waggled his eyebrows and leered. "Not even in your naughty places?"
She almost shrieked in disgust. "Especially not in my naughty places!"
On the other side of the cabin, Temari burst out laughing. Sakura slapped her hands over her mouth, blushing fiercely. Sasuke didn't care much about what Temari thought; it wasn't like the Kazekage's sister didn't know they hadn't made much use of their separate bedrooms back in Sand Village. As long as she didn't speak about it and embarrass Sakura, it didn't matter much. She could only report it to Shikamaru, and Shikamaru had known for almost as long as they'd been together. It wouldn't help Sakura's embarrassment, though.
"Aw, please, Sakura-chan, this is the last chance we'll get to do it on a boat."
The look she threw Naruto could have dissolved stone.
"Sasuke?" Naruto tugged on his foot. "Come on, when we arrive we'll have to be on our guard all the time, and I know you, you'll never agree to do anything in enemy territory, not even hug."
"You've got that right," Sasuke retorted cynically. "Besides, I'm not relaxing my guard now. This is the ideal moment to make us disappear."
Naruto blinked, startled. "You mean Mist people? Why would they make us disappear? Okay, we've been enemies for ages, but they're hosting this one because they want to be our allies, yeah?"
Sasuke shrugged. "That's what they say. Fact is, they've never needed or wanted allies before. It would be the ideal time to eliminate some choice people." He slanted a look toward Gaara's cabin. "We're far enough from the shore that they could just sink us and wait for exhaustion to do us in. No one can water-walk for so many miles, especially on the ocean."
"My, my, it's good to know you're always on your guard, Sasuke-kun."
Sasuke twitched, and shoved at Naruto's shoulder with his free foot to make him let go. Like he hadn't been crowded enough with Sakura at his side and Naruto hindering his legs! Now there was Kakashi perched on the edge of the cabin behind him to complete the set. Sasuke really hated it when the man did that -- which, he supposed, was all the reason Kakashi needed.
"But in this case, there are no reasons why the Daimyo would want us dead. Granted, there might still be splinter groups who disagree with his decisions and choose to take the matter in their own hands..."
"That's reassuring, I suppose," Sakura remarked with a slight grimace.
"Anyway! Come on, it's time to pack up. We'll be there in twenty minutes at most."
Sasuke arched an eyebrow, glanced at the islands in the distance, and figured that either there was some kind of fast current in the area, or there was genjutsu at work.
Sasuke and Sakura jumped off the cabin roof and followed Kakashi down the deck. The Kazekage's entourage was still buzzing around, but Gaara himself was waiting by the prow, his siblings at his side. Team Seven went about getting their belongings back from the cabin, and afterward, since Shikamaru and Kakashi were already standing with the Sand trio, joined them. Gaara was wearing his robes; his sister held the hat. Sasuke wondered if the exam would go easier this time, without Gaara of the Desert as one of the participants. Probably, but he wasn't sure it was a good thing. No challenges worth the name made for a boring waste of time -- and besides he'd often wondered how a rematch would go. He was pretty sure he could beat Gaara now... But of course, challenging the Kazekage to a serious duel was pretty much off the list of things he could still afford if he didn't want the Konoha council to lock him up until he was fifty.
Gaara only gave him the shortest cursory glance before turning his attention to Naruto, who had perched on the railing to peer at the fog shrouded islands, which kind of ticked Sasuke off.
"I wonder how it's gonna go," the blond mused, distracting Sasuke from his annoyance.
"For one thing, we'll probably have fewer rookies this year," Sakura replied, and glanced at Kakashi for confirmation.
The pink-haired girl frowned, a pensive look on her face. "Well, Mist isn't really known for its gentle weeding out methods. Some years people would send rookies just so they learn what's going to be expected of them during the exam -- the teachers don't expect them to pass on their first try. But this year... I mean, I'm sure the other countries made them sign tons of things to keep the tests reasonable, but..."
"Oh, cool," Naruto retorted, an easy grin on his lips. "The kids I remember from back then would be way too easy."
Shikamaru snorted. "Sakura is right in that there will be fewer low-level, inexperienced participants. But the ones who do participate are going to be strong -- a couple might even be jounin level already."
Gaara nodded slowly, gazing at the island. "It's like my team back then. Stronger, but held in reserve until it could be used. Some villages would do the same."
Naruto gave the redhead a disturbed look. "... But there's not going to be an invasion of Mist this time around ... Right?"
Kankuro snorted. "Who the hell would want to invade Mist anyway? It's just a bunch of rocks in the middle of the sea, full of homicidal, paranoid psychos. No, it's not like that. It's just the first time they're gonna let outsiders in their borders -- maybe the last, too -- and you can be damn sure almost everyone has instructions to report back as much as they can find out. The jounin-sensei will be under strict watch, but the participants might have more freedom to snoop around. And if they want to survive it, they better be strong enough."
"Huh." Sasuke frowned. If that was the case, Team Seven was going to look pretty suspicious. If Mist Village was so paranoid, Sasuke wondered why they were even entering the alliance; but before he could ask, fog suddenly rolled up from the sea, swallowing the ship in a matter of seconds. Sasuke automatically turned to put his back to the rest of his team, a hand on his kunai pouch. There was no noise at all, but when the first Mist nin ghosted up on the bridge, he was ready. There was a whisper of killing intent as the man noticed his reaction and moved to face him...
"Stand down, you three," Kakashi whispered before anything could happen.
Sasuke twitched, but Kakashi was just watching, inscrutable, so he slowly straightened up and relaxed.
"Time for the ship to switch hands, captain," one of the Mist nins rasped out, from somewhere Sasuke couldn't see. He listened, tense and wary, as the ninjas replaced the ship's crew and started directing the ship through reefs no one else could see.
Hn. They could have done with some warning. Sasuke noticed that Kankuro and Shikamaru had visibly tensed up, too, as had a couple of Gaara's bodyguards. At least Sasuke and his teammates weren't the only ones who had been surprised.
He didn't quite relax, not with the lack of visibility and the almost tangible hint of danger in the air. There were a couple of terse orders called, but for the most part the Mist team operated in total silence. The only noises came from the creaking and flapping of the seals, and the hull, which moaned a couple of protests.
And then suddenly the fog tore like wet paper and they were sailing between forbidding dark cliffs that hadn't been anywhere close by only ten minutes ago, and loomed overhead in a way that made Sasuke even twitchier. Someone could drop straight from there onto the ship's deck -- or, even easier, drop other things, like explosive tags or a shower of kunai. There was no way they'd miss, the ship was taking up over half of the channel and there was nowhere to go.
There was a gate at the end, which they had to wait for as it creaked open, and then they were floating in a cove, where a few other ships waited. It was a nice trap, Sasuke thought. Leaving the island must get complicated when you first had to get your ship past the gate and out of there fast enough to avoid every single guard taking potshots at you from above. He wondered if the boats kept to the personal usage of the Mist nins were locked down the same way. Probably not, but finding their private harbors wouldn't be easy.
Team Seven followed the Sand Country delegation up the pier, where important-looking officials started diplomatic banalities with Gaara's sister and his advisors -- Gaara himself having the good sense to look solemn and keep mostly silent. Kakashi guided Team Seven off and to the side, where they sat on a low wall and waited for a guide to tell them where to go. Sasuke could see a few buildings -- warehouses, trading posts, other things he couldn't readily identify -- but nothing that looked like living space. Not the village yet, then, and probably not for a while.
"Team Kakashi, from Konohagakure?" a reedy middle-aged woman with a clipboard asked as she strode toward them. Kakashi nodded amiably. "Papers, please."
The woman stared at the documents with such intensity Sasuke wouldn't have been surprised to learn she was checking out the fiber of the paper for tampering. She gave their faces the same scrutiny; Sakura smiled nervously, and Naruto grinned, which produced absolutely no change on the woman's face.
"Looks in order. Come on."
She guided them toward a paved path that curved around the side of a cliff. Sasuke fell into step with Sakura, rolling his eyes at Kakashi's attempt to strike up a conversation with their unfriendly guide. Naruto took two steps, turned around, and waved wildly at the departing Sand delegation. "Bye, Gaara! See you later!"
The Kazekage paused, looked over his shoulder, and, as his advisors and guards looked properly offended, gave Naruto a little wave in return. The blond looked pleased for two seconds, until he caught sight of Sakura's tense, awkward smile.
"Naruto, you idiot," she whispered from the corner of her mouth. Naruto looked clueless.
"Nothing," she grumbled, and slipped her arm into his so she could drag him along more efficiently. Sasuke snorted, and took the rear, keeping an eye on the men shadowing them from the top of the cliff.
"There. You're in B23. Training grounds are up this path. Curfew's from eight thirty to six in the morning. Good luck for the upcoming tests." The woman stalked off, having offered exactly zero change in either tone or facial expression.
Kakashi shrugged philosophically, pushed open the dorm's door, and started looking for their room. "Well then, children -- Sakura, don't strangle Naruto, please."
"But the idiot waved goodbye at Gaara!"
"Wha's wrong -- gghk -- 'kura-chan!"
"What do you think, idiot? Like we need to attract attention to any special link between the Kazekage and one of us!"
Kakashi's eye wrinkled into a smile, and he walked into the room, checking it out casually; Sasuke did his own check, starting from the other end. It contained two bunk beds, a tiny shower stall, and a kitchen corner, and apparently, no hidden bugs.
"A good point in other circumstances -- we wouldn't want to seem more important than we are," Kakashi explained to Naruto, who still looked confused. "Or to look like the Sand and Leaf friendship extends too far. Some people wouldn't trust either of us if they thought they had to deal with both when they only want to deal with one. But it's fine here. Anyone this is going to be reported to already knows Naruto and Gaara are both demon bearers."
"And won't that cause problems?" Sakura worried, green eyes darting to the door behind them and the window.
"Funny story, the previous Daimyo would have been assassinated a lot earlier if he hadn't managed to secure the loyalty of the local demon bearer."
Naruto stared at their teacher, eyes wide, and then out of the window, where other genin teams were walking by. "Oh -- so they like us here?"
"Oh no," Kakashi replied blithely, "the civilians here would hate you even more than Konoha's."
Naruto's eyes lost their wide-open hope. Sakura gave him a worried look and caught his hand, squeezing it gently.
Kakashi pretended not to notice. "But then you have to remember that civilians wouldn't like people like Sasuke or Neji much better. The purification wars were over long enough ago that the ninjas would be somewhat more tolerant, but only so far as you prove lethal and obedient enough to counteract the taint of your bloodline."
"Charming," Sakura commented with a pinched little smile. Sasuke snorted. He supposed it was a good thing his bloodline wasn't obvious at a glance.
"To come back on topic -- the demon bearer disappeared eight months ago. Chouka-sama only survived him a week. His successor, Mizukemuri-sama, is much more progressive, especially on the topic of alliance with their neighboring countries. But then it's his only chance to avoid the same fate as his dearly departed uncle."
Sasuke threw his bag on one of the top beds, before Naruto could claim it, and climbed up the ladder. Naruto didn't notice, still standing in the middle of the bedroom, thinking.
"The demon bearer... What happened to him?"
"Ah... We're not sure. No one really knows."
Kakashi waved it off, perfectly natural; Sasuke's instincts screamed 'lie, lie, lie'.
"It's Akatsuki, isn't it."
For a few beats, there was silence in the room.
"I just told you that no one knows, Sasuke."
"But you think it's Akatsuki."
They hadn't had news in so long, Sasuke had started wondering whether they'd been disbanded -- whether they'd been killed. Not that Itachi would ever be killed by anyone but him -- no, he refused to think that. But without Akatsuki to stalk for clues, tracking his brother would be so much harder.
But the Akatsuki was resurfacing. He jumped off the bed to face his teacher, fists clenched. Now the man looked tired.
"It's possible," Kakashi allowed with a sigh. The man pierced him with a narrow-eyed, scrutinizing stare. "But right now that's not what you need to think about. Concentrate on passing the exam, Sasuke, Naruto."
Naruto stepped toward him, pleading and angry. "But Sensei--"
Kakashi's hand cut the air; stop; be quiet. "Concentrate on passing the exam," he repeated, more intensely, "if only because there's no way a genin would be sent on any Akatsuki-related mission."
"... Yes, sensei," Naruto muttered. Sasuke mouthed the words along with him, without any real conviction.
Kakashi visibly wasn't convinced, but he didn't say anything about it. "I'm going to go meet the neighbors. Try not to roam too far, if you go out."
Sasuke's fists clenched. A couple of steps to the side, Naruto looked about as pleased as he did. Sakura sighed, and stepped between them, taking their hands gently. "Hey... We already knew they were out there, didn't we. Now -- how about we go and check out the competition?"
Sasuke didn't especially feel a need to, not right now; but it was a good idea, and besides he didn't want Naruto to think too hard about that guy who'd gotten kidnapped so many months ago there was no hope left of finding him again.
Sakura took exactly seven steps at the bottom of the canyon where the other genin teams waited before she -- or more exactly, her stomach-and-groin area -- attracted her first 'wait, what?' double-take.
She had a moment of paranoia; but Naruto and Sasuke had repeatedly assured her that they couldn't even see the bulge she thought she'd noticed in her mirror. (She'd been naked at the time; she wouldn't put lying past Naruto, he had a personal agenda, but Sasuke was the rare kind of man who never flinched at the "do I look fat" question.) She couldn't have gotten a baby bulge in the ten minutes it took to walk out and get to the meeting point; the answer must lay elsewhere. The ninja's eyes looked normal, though... But when he opened his mouth to notify his teammates, Sakura saw that his tongue was forked. She guessed he could taste the air, like a snake. So that was one tracker already, and she hoped his bloodline didn't somehow mimic the venom as well.
"Sasuke-kun," she warned quietly.
Sasuke nodded, giving the forked-tongued guy a quick glance, and went back to his scrutiny of the area once again. On her other side, Naruto strolled casually, fingers laced together behind his head. It had been innocently cocky as a kid; now she thought he was cockily provoking people, and enjoying it beside.
"Oh hey, I see a Konoha headband this way!"
Sakura looked, past a few dozens of strangers whose appearance ranged from harmlessly, hopelessly civilian to -- there was no better description -- total freaks. She could see Rain, Sand, Grass, Waterfall, and even a couple of moon symbols. There was a Moon country now? That was news to her. Ages seemed to range from fourteen to around twenty, older even.
"Heyyy, Konoha guys!"
Rolling her eyes, Sakura followed Naruto, Sasuke right on her heels. At least this time he hadn't challenged the whole assembly.
The Konoha genin were young, Sakura noticed. There was a tall one, but he was still lanky; the little tuft of neither-blonde-nor-brown hair on top of vaguely greenish camo clothes made him look like a reed. The second one was a shrimp, pure and simple, cheeks still a little pudgy, eyes a little awed. The third, the girl, was slender, still not that shapely; but she had a long fall of sleek dark hair, tied at elbow height, that probably indicated feminine pride.
"Hi, rookies. Having fun yet?"
Naruto received a cold, quite unamused Hyuuga glare in answer. "We're not rookies."
Sakura sighed, and elbowed Naruto out of the way. She thought she recognized the girl now. "You're Hinata's little sister, aren't you? Hello." Sakura's first thought was that it couldn't be right, she was still too young for a Chuunin exam -- but she looked to be around thirteen, and Team Seven had been that age. And it had been six years since then.
Hyuuga Hanabi gave her a reserved look, but at least she didn't glare. "Yes. You are?" she added, with the ingrained haughtiness of the highborn.
"Haruno Sakura, this is Uchiha Sasuke, and Uzumaki Naruto. We were in Hinata's class at the academy."
The reedy boy shouldered his way in front of Hanabi and gave Sakura a would-be suave grin. "Hi there! It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Yamanaka Inoru, and the dwarf is Keu."
Yamanaka, huh? He looked nothing like Ino or her father. Sakura'd never heard of him, but then she'd always assumed either Ino didn't have a big extended family or she wasn't that close with the rest of them, because she never talked about any of them.
"So I take it this isn't the first time the three of you participate in an exam?" the boy asked, grinning winningly.
Hanabi didn't even bother glaring at him -- Sakura almost missed the way her foot moved, just enough for the Yamanaka boy to trip on it.
"Hey! What are you doing!" he hissed under his breath.
"What are you doing?" Hanabi retorted, not even bothering to pretend to be quiet.
"Pumping them for info, duh! -- uh, I mean. Eheh."
Naruto burst out laughing, and Sakura stifled giggles in her hand. "Um... Sorry, this is only the second exam we have participated in. And I'm sure the Fire Country ones are very different."
Hanabi scowled. "Second one? But I remember that guy fighting Neji-niisan back then, what have you been doing since?"
Sakura restrained the urge to grimace. "... Oh, this and that..."
The two boys looked interested. Oh, no. What was she supposed to say now? Naruto was scratching his head and grimacing guiltily; no help from that side...
From his stand at her back, Sasuke glanced at the kids, in a way that implied he found none of them worthy of much deeper interest. "Classified."
Hanabi snorted and gave him a glare that seemed borrowed straight from her older cousin's stocks. "Really? Because I was wondering if maybe you've just been doing nothing."
"Hey!" Naruto protested, at the same time Inoru did.
"Hyuuga, don't talk trash to our allies, damn it!"
Hanabi crossed her arms and gave him a glare that Sakura was sure could kill small woodland creatures at twenty paces. "They're not our allies. Or did you forget what the other stages are? We might have to fight them too."
Inoru huffed and crossed his arms, mirroring her position. "Not a reason to piss them off now."
Naruto sighed heavily and made a face at Sakura. "Do you think he's right? No need to piss off our allies now?"
Sasuke snorted. "If we get in a position to need a favor from those brats, I'd rather we just lose."
Sakura gave him a startled look, which turned outright alarmed when Naruto's pouty frown turned into a devious smirk. "Glad to see we're on the same page for once."
And then he grabbed Hanabi by the shoulders, tucked her against his side, and gave her a noogie.
Sakura expected the girl to send Naruto flying with Kaiten, she looked that angry; but apparently she had better sense than to use a secret clan technique in the middle of a gathering of enemies. The elbow she drove into Naruto's ribs was quick and merciless, though, but without the Jyuuken, she was a barely pubescent girl and Naruto a stocky teenager who, just that morning, had taken two of Sakura's rock-shattering punches and gotten back up.
Granted, there had been some whimpering.
"If you're done fondling children," Sasuke drawled.
The blond let Hanabi go and made a face at Sasuke, half-disdain and half-annoyance. "If I'm a pedo, what's that make you?"
Hanabi bristled even more at his carefree loss of interest. Ooh, Sakura knew the type, ignoring them was even more of a mortal insult than actual insults.
"Are there any other teams from home around here?" she asked hurriedly, before another fight could erupt -- between Hanabi and Naruto, or between Naruto and Sasuke, either or; she had a feeling that Naruto was this close to mentioning Orochimaru, and dragging his name in the two idiot boys' fights never ended well.
Hanabi's other teammate, the slightly pudgy one, looked relieved by Sakura's intervention. "Uh, yeah, two. One of them's even older than you -- I think one of the guys is even married."
"Oh, really?" she exclaimed dutifully. "That's weird!"
She would be married before the year was out, if everything went according to plan; the thought flitted through her mind, though she tried not to let it stay. She didn't need the distraction now.
Naruto turned toward Sakura and the boys, successfully distracted. "Is the other team Konohamaru's? I haven't seen that brat in ages... They failed last year, didn't they?"
Inoru shook his head. "I hear their teacher kept them home. I think he's scared or something. He's kind of a pansy."
"Aw, crap." Naruto's shoulders slumped. "Would have been fun to have the brat around."
"Ebisu-sensei is not a pansy," Sakura corrected. "This exam is likely to be much more dangerous than they usually are, and they're usually pretty risky as it is."
Hanabi was still fuming; Sakura decided to keep it short. "Well, um, it was nice meeting you, but we're going to see if we know the other teams now, okay?"
Still grinning a slightly painful grin, she dragged Naruto away, following Sasuke through the crowd. Hopefully he knew where they were going, though as far as she was concerned, 'away' was a perfectly acceptable destination. Before they could get very far, a wave of murmurs swept the crowd, and all heads started turning toward one of the canyon walls, where a group of Chuunin perched on a ledge watched the participants. She could see a Jounin there, face covered with a cloth mask that resembled Kakashi's, making his way to the front of the group as he read through papers pinned to his clipboard.
"Huh." His voice wasn't loud, but it resonated through the canyon. 'Good acoustics,' Sakura thought, and concentrated to memorize everything he was about to say.
"So it looks like our Mizukage-sama managed to wrangle a few concessions out of his 'allies'..." he mused; from the annoyed murmurs around her, Sakura wasn't the only one who'd heard the contempt underlining the word 'allies'. What kind of country was this, where they could insult would-be allies so freely? "Managed to do away with that stupid 'can't get to the third stage without all your teammates' bullshit too."
"He did what?" Naruto was in shock; Sasuke had only arched an eyebrow. Sakura felt her nervousness turn into foreboding. If losing one of their teammates couldn't disqualify people anymore, the second stage was going to be even more vicious than their first time. The only ways to get people out of the running would be to either scare them into giving up, or injuring them past the point they could get back up and keep fighting. Or killing them.
"... Bunch of pussies. Okay! This is what's going to happen for this test. Listen well, I'll only say it once."
"Yeah, yeah," Naruto muttered angrily. Sakura took his hand again and squeezed; he needed to actually listen, not listen while brooding about how much he already couldn't stand the guy. It wasn't the Jounin they were going to be fighting.
"There's a cave," the guy drawled, articulating as if talking to a bunch of slightly deaf five-year-olds. "You go through the cave, one team after the other. There's a stone with a secret message engraved on it. You memorize the message. You get out of the cave. And don't worry if something happens to you in there, we'll make sure to move you enough that your bodies won't tip off the next batch."
Sakura swallowed nervously.
Beside her, Sasuke gave a little shrug and crossed his arms casually. "Ibiki did that better."
"The intimidation routine."
"Oh--" Sakura blinked, and then chuckled. He was right at that, the insulting contempt was a little over the top -- not that it just couldn't be natural for the man, but if he'd been chosen as an examiner, it was for, and not despite, that peculiarity. She was letting her worry about the new settings take over. It couldn't be too much harder, right? It was just the first test, and they'd gone through that one easily at age twelve. They'd go through this one fine, too, Mist-crafted or not.
The examiner started calling out teams by their leaders; when one of the guys protested the order, claiming it to be fixed, the examiner retorted that the Jounin-sensei had drawn lots for their teams; like they had so much time to waste standing around in lines just to get a number, when they were already going to stand around waiting for their turn to go in. Sakura noticed he wasn't actually giving numbers with the teams, and if you weren't counting them on your own and finding a way to determinate who was in the team before yours, you were likely to have to stand around in a permanent state of readiness. A subtle way to mess with their nerves, probably. Sakura was counting, though; they were the ninth team on the list. Not bad. There were about thirty teams after them; they could definitely have done worse.
"Let's find somewhere to sit down," Sasuke said. "There's no telling how far apart they'll let us go in."
Sakura watched the crowd as she followed him. There were some who had gotten the same idea, nonchalantly leaning against rocks or the cliffs themselves; but the rest were still eyeing each other, tense and unwilling to relax. It was the same kind of atmosphere it had been when they'd been kids, but now she could see how many of the participants were putting on airs, trying too hard to look dangerous to cover up their own nerves.
She got three other looks from people as they either caught her scent or, she didn't know, saw through her body or something similar. There might have been more, but in that case they concealed their information-gathering attempts better. It was hard to keep her hands relaxed at her side, to prevent them from covering her still-flat stomach defensively. Her tunic still looked okay, she knew that; but she couldn't help but want to check whether it was pulling too tight around her -- barely -- thickening waist.
"Do you see the other Konoha teams?" she asked Naruto.
"Nope. Maybe they're hiding their headbands, or looking the other way..."
Sakura turned around, to check whether she could find them in the other half of the canyon; nothing. Sighing, she joined her teammates. Sasuke was busy bullying a Waterfall trio off of a prime piece of real estate, a nice little ledge in the sun that wasn't too far off from the mouth of the cave.
"There's no need to make so many enemies before this even starts, you know," she muttered at him; but she perched on the ledge anyway, and bumped him with her leg gently when he leaned against it casually, arms crossed.
It was over an hour before their turn came; she nudged a napping Naruto awake when she saw the team before them disappear inside the cave, and made her way to stand there, rolling her wrists and shaking her fingers to loosen them before she pulled on her gloves.
"About one hour for eight teams," Sasuke mused, "Either there's a time limit of seven to eight minutes, or they don't mind if we run into each other in there."
"Huh. Think we lose if we get passed?"
Sasuke's eyes narrowed threateningly. "We won't get passed."
Naruto bristled at the warning. "Don't look at me like that! Like I'm going to let them."
"So why are you even talking about it?"
"Guy, it's our turn." Sakura was almost relieved. Only until she stepped in, though; it went dark and too quiet at the first bend in the tunnel, and she almost knocked herself out on a jutting bit of rock. The ground didn't stay smooth and horizontal much farther in either.
Naruto tapped her on the shoulder. "I'm gonna take point. Just gotta track the other guys, right?"
Sasuke snorted. "Unless they all got lost and failed. Keep your eyes open."
Naruto muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath, but by some kind of miracle, didn't bother retorting. "Whatever. Uzumaki Naruto the Amazing Bloodhound, at your service!"
It was dim, but not enough to make her miss Naruto's reddening eyes and lengthening claws. He started to jog down the tunnel, movements loose and strangely fluid. Sakura followed, trying not to stare whenever he leaned down or to the sides to sniff things. His body language disturbed her a bit -- the sudden, swift movements over and around the rocks, the unselfconscious way he swerved and crouched when he caught a scent. She could have assumed he just felt his teammates wouldn't think him weird for acting like that, but the thought that they might didn't even seem to enter his brain. He still acted human enough -- he wasn't on all fours yet -- but there was something slightly off anyway, and she sincerely hoped she was just reading too much into it.
She'd asked Kakashi why they were training Naruto to be more of a fox, when he was still at risk of being influenced by Kyuubi. Shouldn't he have worked on repressing all those things, to keep the demon safely locked up inside himself?
'It's going to come out regardless, Sakura. The seal is melding them, forcing Naruto to assimilate Kyuubi. He'll have to deal with the senses and the animal instincts sooner or later -- I'd rather they weren't still associated with Kyuubi no Youko's impulses and memories when that happens.'
She understood the theory, that Naruto needed to make the harmless parts of the fox his, so that they wouldn't be inextricably linked with murderous intent and a 'humans as prey' mindset. It still seemed somewhat counterintuitive to her -- making Naruto more like a beast so that the beast inside him would leave him alone.
Disturbing, too. Mostly because Naruto didn't even seem to realize how weird suddenly acting like an animal was, and she couldn't help but wonder how much this state altered his thought process, if he even realized there was anything different.
But then he'd always been socially clueless, so it was entirely possible that his failure to notice had nothing to do with insidiously losing his humanity.
She could keep her worry for later. For now there was the cave to deal with.
There were some tripwires, suspicious-looking flat stones that looked like pressure plates, a few precariously balanced rocks and incongruous tree trunks, ready to fall on them. There were a few dead ends, a few strange forks in the path -- some of them overhead, that they had to jump into and climb, some cleverly hidden behind rocks, or in shadows. Sasuke's improvised torch made the boulders seem to dance in rhythm with its flickering, which gave the setting a slightly surreal atmosphere; but the traps were so easy to avoid that the wavering light made very little difference, even for Sakura with her normal eyes.
They reached a series of caves, and spread out to check every corner for the inscription. As Sakura had thought, it was hidden in an awkward corner, but it was also engraved on the only boulder that didn't match -- the color was the same, dark gray, but in the middle of a cave full of granite, it was made of much finer-grained basalt.
The inscription they were supposed to learn by heart was only two paragraphs long; Sakura read it three times, Sasuke five -- Naruto didn't bother -- and they were ready to go. So far it was too easy, which meant the test wasn't finished.
Sakura was opening her mouth to remind them, but that was when the cave floor crumbled under their weight.
Sakura had been trained for this; she didn't stop to think. Chakra went to her hands and feet -- but there was no wall to stick to; she grabbed a weight-tipped wire from her pouch, flung it up, hoping it would find something to tangle around and stop her fall. The torch had gone out, flame snuffed by the sudden movement, and she didn't know how far down the bottom was.
Her feet glanced off a sharply inclined surface; she leaned her side into it, skidded down, but the stone was too slick to allow her to entirely stop her momentum. When she hit the bottom, she had slowed down enough that the jarring stop only made her fall into a deep crouch, and not spill on the ground.
The deafening echoes of her own fall and the gravel skittering and rolling under her feet slowly died down, and she realized she couldn't hear her teammates at all. No swearing about pebbles lodged in uncomfortable parts of their anatomy; no soft whisper of sandals on the rocks; no breathing -- save hers.
The hair on the back of her neck prickled up.
She moved, slowly, into a fighting stance, and gathered healing chakra into her hand -- the only one of her techniques that ever shifted into the visible spectrum. The green glow on the gray stones made things strange, made her wonder what kind of dark fluid stained the slide, just out of arm's reach.
It was only when she saw Sasuke's body, crumpled and still at the end of the trail, back and neck twisted at impossible angles, that she realized it was supposed to be blood. Just overhead, faintly twitching hand all but brushing her face, dangled Naruto, with his eyes open sightlessly and a jutting spear of stone protruding from his mangled body.