"Sixteen participants," Kakashi had told them, one week exactly before the start of the tournament. "The odds of two of you meeting in the first round are slightly under thirty percent."
Of course Sakura had calculated that one already. She hadn't liked the results much.
"Assuming you all meet strangers in the first round, and you all win... The odds rise to forty-three percent in your second match. If you get as far as your third match you will have to fight a teammate." Kakashi had given them a long, sober look. "I think you'll all agree with me that not taking those matches seriously would be somewhat insulting."
By which, she knew, he meant matches against her, because Naruto and Sasuke always fought each other all-out.
She was still annoyed at Naruto for putting on his martyr face before he agreed with their teacher. Kind of made her wish she'd get to fight him at some point, but...
She'd made progress with her speed and strength during the month, come up with strategies to use against her teammates' superior ones. She hadn't come up with a miracle.
Not Naruto or Sasuke in the first round, she prayed as she stepped out of the lineup to draw her number. That's all I ask, not Naruto or Sasuke. The rules of the tournament were the same as back home; winning all your fights didn't mean you were automatically a chuunin. Chuunin was a command rank, if the lowest one; having a good head for tactics, knowing how to use everything you had on hand, and when to cut your losses, also counted for a lot. She wanted at least one chance to impress the judges.
Huh. Number seven. She smiled to herself as she handed the engraved stick to the jounin in charge and he wrote down her name on the big board. It didn't tell her whether she would fight her teammates - in Water Country they still used the traditional iroha chart, and if you went by that order Haruno came long before either Uchiha or Uzumaki - but it made her feel a little lucky anyway.
When she turned around to regain her place in the line of waiting contestants she had two seconds to scan them all again.
Three of them she already knew; the rest she hadn't noticed before, but then again they hadn't met many people in the wilderness during the second stage, apart from that annoying kunoichi trio and the people Kyuubi had savaged, and the waiting area for the first stage with the cave and the boulder test had been packed.
Yamanaka Inoru was a bratty little newcomer with a single special technique to his name, and one that was made more for spying than all-out combat; he'd likely gone as far as he could get this year, Ino's efforts to train him up notwithstanding. Hinata's little sister might go farther, for all that she was the same age of barely thirteen, because she would see attacks coming and her Gentle Palm would compensate for her lack of mass and reach.
Sakura had no idea how far Zenko would get.
She still wanted a chance to plant a fist in her face.
Zenko hadn't thrown Naruto a single glance; from the way her eyes glided past him when they were led out into the arena he might as well have been part of the scenery. But the constant background hum of banked killing intent set Sakura's teeth on edge.
She took her place in the line again, matched names with faces and body types and visible weapons. She could tell that a lot of other countries had done what Konoha had with them, if inadvertently; kept teams in reserve especially for this, so they'd have a better chance. No village wanted to make a poor showing of it when it was the first year Mist had ever condescended to participate.
Sakura's eye twitched; she kept staring ahead. They were under the eyes and intense scrutiny of about five hundred people, up in the stands; family, teachers, local Mist nin... and three Kages and several Daimyos. She couldn't get away with kicking his leg.
"What," she whispered back. Or growled, either or.
"That chick looks kinda familiar. Where do we know her from?"
Blinking, she looked at the girl now drawing her own lot. About fourteen or fifteen, with short, messy, electric blue hair and a seal (maybe just a tattoo, who knew) dark on her skin, running from her cheek down into her collar, to reappear at her hip. She wasn't exactly low-key; Sakura was sure she would have remembered someone like that...
And then the girl turned to go back to her spot, and caught her looking, and blushed. Lightly, but that was unmistakably a blush, what on Earth...
And then she leered at Sakura, blue eyebrows wagging.
"... We don't know her at all and shut up Naruto."
"Sakura-chan? You're all red."
"Shut. Up. Naruto."
Oh hell, she remembered her now. That was the girl who'd caught Naruto prancing out of Sakura's shower stall in girl shape.
"You sure? Because-"
"Naruto so help me-"
Sasuke's simple "Hey" brought them both to a guilty quiet. The murmurs of the crowd hid quite a bit down there, but she was pretty sure their immediate neighbors would have no problem overhearing them, and good job looking scary there. This really wasn't the impression they wanted to project.
"Uchiha Sasuke," called the jounin in charge, giving them a narrow-eyed warning look.
She watched Sasuke leave the lineup, his back, the line of his shoulders. He'd been quiet, this last week, away from the hotel a lot - practicing that one secret trick Kakashi had insisted they each come up with to diversify their arsenal against each other, she'd assumed, but even now he was still quiet.
She was sure no one but her had noticed. He wasn't visibly brooding, or scowling more than usual, or snapping all that often. He still flung sarcasm at Naruto when Naruto left him an obvious opening, but... She wasn't sure what to make of it.
When the jounin in charge wrote down his name on the board she forgot about it a little. Brain buzzing, the hair on her arms prickled up, she waited blankly as Naruto trudged up in turn and drew his own lot.
Looked like she would get her wish, and a little more; the gods were merciful. Two matches to impress the judges.
And then on her third match she would come up against Sasuke.
The first match didn't last five minutes. Mist guy against Lightning guy, Lightning guy much more powerful, hence cocky, and unblooded yet, hence unwilling to just finish things decisively.
What was funny was that Sasuke could tell Mist guy's counterattack had been restrained, as much as it had looked like a total 'I need to kill him before he gets around to beating me down so much I can't get back up'; Lightning guy's legs and arms might be a mess of broken bones and it was going to take him months to even walk again, but no major artery had been shredded so he would die before the medic-nins could even rush in the arena.
And now it was his turn.
He wasn't even looking forward to it much, either this match or the next with the Mist-nin - Sasuke was ruthless enough to get rid of him fast and hard. He really wasn't looking forward to the match against Sakura. She would take it seriously - with all the seriousness of their last real fight, and all the resourcefulness it brought up (just maybe less grim desperation) - so he would, too. He knew (remembered) how much he hated it when he was coddled in a fight, even when hopelessly outclassed; he wasn't going to do that to her, insult her like that.
At least after that he'd go either against Naruto or against someone who had beaten Naruto (improbable at that sounded), so maybe the finale would be interesting. The rest... god, he was so done with this country.
"From the Leaf, Hyuuga Hanabi versus Uchiha Sasuke!"
"Man," said Naruto, standing behind him in the access tunnel, as they watched the girl stalk out ahead. "I know she's a brat but ouch."
Sakura sighed from his other side. "Who knows, the Gentle Fist is hard to deal with. Anyway, Sasuke - she's a Leaf nin as well, so..."
"She's Hinata's little sister!" Naruto corrected her, joking but with a hint of real worry in his voice. "I really don't want to make Hinata cry."
"You won't," Sasuke replied, irritated for some obscure reason. 'Naruto is an idiot' covered it pretty well, though. He followed Hanabi out into the arena.
Thirteen year old. Not short for her age, but not tall either; Sasuke had the advantage of reach. Still skinny, but the Gentle Fist didn't rely on superior mass. Likely very limber. Hair pulled back in a tight tie; difficult to grab, not the brazen challenge of Neji's hair or Hinata's carelessness.
He gave the arena a quick scan, as he waited for the referee to join them. The ground was sloped, with boulders here and there, a few tall as he was, and a pond like a rough crescent moon along the wall, damp muddy ground around it. A couple bushes. No trees.
Cover was useless against a Hyuuga. Mud to mess with their footing, maybe not. He could see the girl throw a sharp glance that way, her brow furrow deeper. He threw it another furtive look himself; if she caught it and got fixated on that strategy it would only make slipping in something else easier.
He couldn't afford to go through the tournament with damage to his chakra coils, but 'she's a Leaf nin as well,' Sakura had reminded him; he could hear the unsaid things underneath. It'd be bad form to humiliate her completely. Possibly bad planning as well; he really ought to keep political enemies to a minimum, and she wasn't going to be thirteen forever. He stood, waited for her to move first. Then again the Gentle Fist was better as a defensive technique...
Hanabi threw a handful of kunai his way. He dodged two, snatched a third out of the air and deflected the last, and then she was on him, aiming for the line of tenketsu in his wrists to stop him shaping seals.
She moved well. She'd have to be a lot faster if she wanted to get him that way, sharingan or no sharingan. He let his eyes go red and started dodging, watching her smooth, practiced movements. There was a bite in them that reminded him of Neji more than any other Hyuuga he'd ever watched fight, a hint of fire.
There were plenty of reasons not to like the Hyuuga clan. There had been something of a rivalry between their clans pre-massacre. (He'd been young and hadn't paid much attention at the time.)
They'd offered to adopt him in when he was orphaned - just so happened they would get their hands on the sharingan if he said yes, and if this ended the Uchiha for good, that was just a bonus. (They weren't the only ones who'd offered, and objectively speaking Sasuke could see it was an offer that didn't cost much and might have rewarded enormously if he'd caved to self-doubt and loneliness and said yes, but he nevertheless held a faint grudge against all who had tried their luck.)
Hinata used to be in love with Naruto. Naruto found Neji attractive. He liked them both.
(With their eyes closed they looked like family.)
A wall of raw chakra startled him, straight from her striking palm. It felt like a full-body slap, stinging his skin. He jumped back, accompanying the impact instead of trying to stand his ground, rolled in the air. He landed already shaping katon seals, teeth bared.
(they looked like family Hinata's long hair was glossy and black and straight Hiashi's jawline was his father's they all moved like people who'd lived all their life practicing the traditional gestures)
(there was a Branch cousin who wore his hair in a low ponytail that fell between narrow shoulders and walked all light and cat-footed)
Defeating her faster might have been humiliating, but dragging it on would only be a show of pity, and he wasn't in the mood. He blinded her with fire, and then gathered lightning in his hand, charged the spinning wall of raw chakra she'd pulled up just in time to take on his chidori.
He veered at the last possible second and punched it at the ground.
It splintered under her feet, rock heaving with the shockwave, and she stumbled in the middle of her spin. Sasuke dashed in, forcing his way through her weakened chakra. It stung, whipped at his skin, left welts. His elbow crashed into her temple even as she lashed out; he somersaulted over her extended arm, landed at her back.
Brain shaken, she would have fallen on her own in a second, but in the meantime she was still trying to move, so he shaped his fist so the knuckles of his first two folded fingers stood out and hit her spine between her shoulder blades, hand crackling with lightning.
He didn't need to be a Hyuuga to find the major tenketsu.
He got to the exit as the referee reached ten on his count. Naruto and Sakura were still waiting there; Naruto was wincing, Sakura looked resigned.
"... Congratulations on your first win, Sasuke-kun."
He gave a faint snort. There was nothing to congratulate him about. Hanabi was good even for a Clan-bred and Clan-trained thirteen year old, but she was no Neji either, and Sasuke had five years' experience on her. It had been a foregone conclusion from the start and the sheer waste of time irritated him.
It irritated him even more to know that he might also have insulted her clan a little, that he had planned to keep himself in check and in the end he hadn't.
(Why couldn't he have fought her teammate, the Yamanaka brat? He'd have been even weaker, but he wouldn't have looked so much like -)
"Okay, so. Sakura-chan's staying downstairs cause she'll fight the winner of this one, but I'm gonna sit with Shika in the stands, you coming or staying with her?"
Sasuke almost said no to both straight away. But he...
"Think I'll hit the showers first," he said, managing casual somehow. "Go on ahead, Naruto, I'll try to catch up."
Naruto's mouth relaxed; he gave his arm a friendly slap. "You're not even sweaty! I think your match was even shorter than that first one."
"Not because of her." A shrug. "It's muggy outside."
"Aw, fine, fine, princess."
Naruto turned away, hands tucked behind his head. Sakura lingered. She hesitated, and then opened her mouth to say something Sasuke likely wouldn't like hearing, so he smirked at her and drawled, "Ready for our match, Sakura?"
It was something he would have done with Naruto, never her. He didn't want to fight her, he didn't look forward to it. He would fight seriously anyway, and it wasn't merely obligations and social rules and his teacher's advice that made him not want to insult her like that.
(It was just, the thought that he might get into it and take it too seriously, the soft swell of her belly...)
She flushed, shoulders stiffening, and she lifted her chin, part surprise and part pride, and while the way her eyes narrowed a second later told him she'd noticed the misdirection, she said "Yes" anyway.
He passed her; she turned toward the arena.
Sasuke's casually challenging smirk fell the second no one could see it anymore.
"... ultimately, the Gentle Fist is useless if your opponent's good enough not to allow it to hit. She needs more long-range attacks."
"Mnh. She also needs not to land on Uchiha friggin' Sasuke. Seriously, in any other village he'd be jounin by now, that's just a little bit unbalanced."
"Oi, oi," Naruto protested, but with a smile, as he came up behind Shikamaru and Temari. "Stop flattering him, he'll hear somehow and then he'll get all arrogant. Even more arrogant." Naruto was grinning the grin of someone who liked hearing it anyway, because yeah, his bastard was that cool. He clasped Shikamaru's shoulder in greeting, leaned between the two of them. "What about me? I'd be jounin too, huh? Huh? Maybe even Kage already."
Temari smirked at him, eyes hooded. Shikamaru snorted and shook his head. "You make it way too easy for her, you know."
"Make it easy for Temari to be mean? Pff, she manages fine on her own." He leaned past them, a hand on Shikamaru's shoulder for balance. "Hi, Ino. Hi, uh, Ino's cousin."
Ino gave him a little wave and a smile. The blond kid seated on Ino's other side gave him a sulky glowery look. "It's Inoru."
"Geeze, I met you like one time. Okay, Inoru - now why're you glaring?"
"Your teammate defeated my teammate! ... I should be all pissy at you now, right?"
Naruto snickered, more at the dubious way he'd said it than at the words themselves. Because yeah, even if you didn't get along with your teammate, it seemed right to him that you'd be on their side no matter what.
"And what's this about that guy being like jounin already? It's super not fair."
"Man, tell me about it," Naruto replied as he jostled himself a seat between Ino and Shika on the stone bench. "Stupid politics."
"It's not fair."
Shikamaru sighed in a longsuffering way. "Since when has anything in this world been about fairness? It's not fair to them either, being held back."
The kid drew himself up to protest. Ino huffed out an even longer sigh, and put her hand across the kid's mouth. "Think about it in silence for a minute. Sensei's orders."
"So," Shikamaru said, turning to Naruto, "what do you think of the match-ups?"
"Well, uh, it's great that I won't meet Sasuke until the finals."
"... Uh huh?"
And of course Shikamaru had caught on that there was something else he hadn't said. "It's... not so great that Sasuke will meet Sakura first."
He winced. His first reaction had been relief that he wasn't the one who had to fight her. His second reaction had been 'oh, shit, this'll be messy'. "But it might not happen! She might... uh."
Ino was glaring at him.
"... Lose one of her two matches first... Aw hell, I really can't hope for that either." Naruto flopped, elbows on his thighs, head hanging.
"You think Sasuke would be hard on her?"
"Hm? Yeah, though there's the..." He held his hands over his belly, following the curve or an imaginary pregnancy. "But not only. When she's cornered she gets pretty vicious."
The look he got from Shikamaru next was disbelieving; Temari's eyes were silently laughing at him, but then again she always was. "And Sasuke isn't?"
"Dude." Naruto gave Shikamaru a disbelieving look. "Sasuke might have put a hand through my chest that one time, but at least he's never kneed me in the crotch."
Temari made a snorting sound and Ino went 'pfffft' and turned away, but that didn't really hide her laughter much. Naruto huffed; it was true, damn it!
Shika slumped beside him and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Just... Try not to level the arena, okay?"
Ino turned back to him before he could reassure Shikamaru. (Why would he level the arena anyway? ... okay his and Sasuke's matches tended to be hard on the decor, and Sakura's super punches were hardly more gentle. Um. Yeah. But still, the whole arena?)
"Talking about your girlfriend... Where is she right now?"
Naruto almost didn't hear the question, caught in a little gleeful thrill at the word 'girlfriend'. Sakura-chan was his girlfriend! And people knew it! Bwee. Well okay Ino had to know because Sakura-chan was her best friend, but still, they were in public! He tried to tone down his sudden grin, scratched the back of his head for distraction against his heated cheeks. "Oh, uh, she's watching from downstairs, since she's up next."
"Ah, alright. I'll see her after that one, then. And your boyfriend?"
The same thrill of mine mine mine, no need to even use his name, knowing who this referred to...
For approximately a second.
They'd. Uh. Never talked about this with Ino before. Or... kissed before her or anything. Had they?
Ino was smirking the slow, sensual, toothy smile Naruto vaguely remembered seeing in Kyuubi's dreams of his vixens.
"Where's your boyfriend, Naruto-kun?"
Okay. He'd thought he was blushing before? Now he was blushing. Oh, Sasuke was going to kill someone over this getting out. Even if logically it had to come out at some point. Yeah. He was totally going to. And Naruto was the designated target. "He uh Iunno. Showering I think."
Ino smirked wider, rested her hand on his wrist, arched her brow like she was curious about that oh god she wanted details on the manlove abort abort run away gnaw off your hand at the wrist-
He was lucky; when he jerked up on his feet she let him go, her hand falling with casual innocence. Evil! Sneaky evil! "I. Uh. It's been a while and he's not here yet so he might have drowned or something or maybe someone's bothering him I mean he really should be here by now so I'm gonna. Go. And look for him and. Stuff."
Ino's eyebrows waggled.
"Not for that!"
He almost tripped on the bench when he stepped back over it to escape, ears burning from Ino and Temari's laughter. (Even Inoru was snickering, though Naruto would bet he didn't get it entirely.) Oh god, next Ino would actually come out and ask for details - and gah! Temari'd been around in Sand and on the boat during their trip to here, she'd have some to share! Gack. He couldn't run away fast enough.
"Wait a moment, Naruto," said Shikamaru, and Naruto did, because his voice was quiet and sober and not teasing at all. "I'll walk with you for a bit." Shikamaru got up too, ambled around the bench, nodded toward the stairs. Naruto followed his lead, grateful, but confused too.
"What is it?"
Naruto groaned. "Oh, not you too."
Shikamaru made a face. "Not about that." He drew Naruto through the doorway, down half a flight of stairs. "I just wanted to ask how he's been, since last month."
"Uh? He's been fine. We've been training like crazy with Kakashi-sensei, it's not like he could hide an injury that long."
"I didn't mean physically." Shikamaru sighed, gave him a long, piercing look. "Naruto, his brother is obviously a major trigger for him. Remember the last time he dropped by? No one wants a repeat of the Valley of the End incident."
"... I've seen nothing," he replied after a few seconds of thought. Well, the first days - before the beach - Sasuke had been really touchy, but they'd all been touchy, it came with coming so close to disaster. After that, he'd been... he'd paid a bit more attention to Naruto, for a little while, as Naruto got over the kid-stabbing issues - been gentler, when they turned off the lights and he could pretend no one was seeing it happen - but then they started training again and falling into familiar rhythms, and he hadn't really...
He'd been acting fine. Possibly the most important person in his whole life had dropped by, and Sasuke had made such a major decision as 'I'll choose you guys over him', and then he'd been acting fine. How was that not a huge red flag?
How had Naruto not even wondered?
"... I've gotta talk to him."
But Naruto was jumping down the flight of stairs already, turning into the next one. He needed to find Sasuke now.
[Chapter 10] [Chapter 12]