It was no longer dumping rain, but there were still small sprinkles of moisture in the air as Sakura, Gaara, and Sai made their way to the chuunin exams. Sakura considered it par for the course at this point, and was, quite frankly, surprised that it wasn't pouring hail over their heads instead. It would have fit the mood that had currently sunk in over herself and Gaara, though Sai, somehow, seemed to have a pleasant attitude in the face of their current dilemma.
"I called it." Sai explained, his fake smile now almost bleeding into the realm of a legitimate one. He held up his small notebook as they walked, and Sakura could clearly see the date (several days ago), and an underlined statement: 'As a show of strength to villages, neutral ambassadors with shinobi prowess will likely be called upon to participate in chuunin and jounin exams, starting with Sakura, Gaara, and myself'.
"If you called it, why didn't you tell us?" Gaara demanded.
"You heard the Pineapple. He thought Sakura would be more convincing if she didn't know about it."
Sakura frowned for a moment, trying to figure out who the hell had earned the nickname 'pineapple' before realizing that Shikamaru's hair did sort of stick up in a similar manner to a pineapple's leaves. She allowed herself a small giggle at the thought, which...helped. Humor in the face of a dire situation was proving to be a strangely adequate coping mechanism.
"I guess it won't matter much." Gaara answered. "The chuunin exams weren't exactly difficult the last time I took them."
"Speak for yourself." Sakura gently thwapped the boy's arm. "Orochimaru and his goons damn near killed me last time."
"You're stronger now."
"And you have us."
"I had Naruto and Sasuke back then, too." Sakura pointed out. "They weren't exactly incompetent shinobi. And back then, Orochimaru was too focused on Sasuke to really focus on me. This time around…"
This time around, they were facing an unknown enemy of unknown skill, planted by Danzo, whose sole purpose in this exam would likely be taking them down. It would be impossible to narrow down whom until it happened. Danzo could have planted a Konoha team of elite Root agents, or he could have convinced any of the unsigned villages to donate a team to the cause. Sakura trusted that Konan would not betray her to Danzo's wrath, but that only eliminated the sole Rain team, Waterfall, Stone, Plains, and a handful of Leaf teams from her suspicion.
And as they turned the corner to finally catch sight of the building where the first exam would take place, Sakura's heart sank down further into her chest. There had to be nearly a hundred teams participating in the exams this year, including her own, and after eliminating the teams that she could count on to not stab her in the back, there were still about seventy teams whose loyalties remained unknown. That was a little over two hundred shinobi she had to watch out for. She might as well have been in a war zone.
Sakura swallowed. She felt somewhat sick, but she couldn't allow herself to show even an ounce of fear. She was going to be an ambassador. She was the student of the Tsuchikage. She had fought off Itachi goddamn Uchiha and lived to tell about it, even if she still wasn't sure entirely how. She had strength now that she didn't have the first time she had taken these exams, and she'd be damned if she wasn't just as capable of succeeding as every other shinobi here.
Danzo wouldn't succeed. His lackeys wouldn't be able to touch her. Nobody here would be able to touch her or else, damn it all, she wouldn't be worthy of her position.
Deep in the back of her mind she felt an almost familiar surge of belligerent energy rise up from within her. Damn right, she thought to herself. If that old creep thinks he can scare me off, he's got another thing coming!
She heard a familiar voice call out, and a flash of green as Lee sprinted over to her side. "Are my eyes deceiving me? Is this too good to be true? Is it true that my eternal rival will also be participating in the exams?"
Sakura smiled as she heard how Lee referred to her. Something about being good enough to be considered someone's rival, and to have that person be Lee of all people, was more than enough to be the final step to pull her out of her dark mood. "Yup." She replied. "The Kage dragged me into it. They want to see what the three of us are capable of."
"Then that is perfect! We shall breeze through the exam and then meet on opposite sides of the arena at the tournament. Then we shall see once and for all whose training has been superior!"
"Get in line, Lee! I called a match with Sakura first!" Naruto's voice rang out from the crowd, and orange came to join green. "Sakura, you'll fight with me first, right, right?"
"Not a chance, Naruto! She is my rival!"
"And she's my...um...former teammate!"
"And she's my childhood best friend, so I get to call dibs before either of you!" From out of nowhere, Ino appeared, standing in between both of the boys with a smug look on her face. "The line starts here."
Sakura turned slightly pink as the three began to squabble. Not just Lee, but Naruto and Ino too...Ino, she understood. Ino no doubt wanted 'revenge' for the disappointing tie in the last exams. Naruto...was he really that excited to fight her?
"You know it doesn't matter, right?" Sai piped up. "If we do make it to the tournament section of the exam, matches are determined at random. For all we know, I might get to fight Sakura first." He looked her way, and Sakura could have sworn she saw a look of momentary fear in his eyes. "Though...she'd probably kill me."
"Aww, don't be so hard on yourself, Sai!" Ino piped up. She switched demeanors almost instantly, and though she began to smooze up to Sai in a manner similar to how she used to try and get close to Sasuke, Sakura noticed that the Yamanaka kept glancing back at Naruto. Was she trying to get a rise out of him? "A handsome and talented shinobi like you wouldn't have any trouble putting Billboard-Brow in the dust!"
And, to Sakura's surprise, it did get a rise out of Naruto. He puffed up his chest slightly, walking over to Sai and poking a finger at the boy's chest.
"You don't look so tough." Naruto told him. "Ino, you should know better by now who the real talent is. Sai's not going to be the next Hokage, you know!"
"A Hokage has to have a brain, Brainless."
"I do too have brains you pale son of a-" Naruto huffed, stepping back and turning to whine at Ino. "Tell him Ino, come on! You know I'm awesome!"
Ino had him hook, line, and sinker. Sakura shook her head, noticing the small smirk that had grown on Ino's face.
"Guess you two might have to fight each other before you fight Sakura." Ino teased. "Two strong boys fighting over a girl...Sakura, I'm a little jealous."
"Oh Ino, glad you can finally admit which of the two of us is the superior beauty." Sakura retorted in turn.
"You only wish, Sakura."
The boys continued to lightly bicker amongst themselves, and it was at this moment that Sakura noticed Hinata quietly heading their way. She looked nervous as she approached, and though she glanced at Naruto briefly when she arrived, Sakura realized that Hinata had come to talk to her.
"Sakura...um...you said you came with the Taki shinobi, didn't you?"
"I keep wondering if I've met one of them before." Hinata admitted, pressing her front fingers together in her usual fidgeting manner. "She keeps waving at me, and she...she told me to watch her during the exams so I'd be impressed...but Taki shinobi haven't left their country in decades, I thought…"
Fuu, Sakura realized with a small smile. The girl was just as boisterous as Naruto; she didn't doubt Fuu had just declared her intentions to Hinata outright without bothering to introduce herself. "You haven't met her before, no, but Fuu's just that kind of person. If she's calling out to you like that, she probably just thinks you're really...neat."
"Me?" Hinata blinked, turning her trademark shade of red. "N-not you or Naruto?"
"Eh, I think you're, uh, more her type." Sakura admitted. "Besides, don't sell yourself short. You're heir to the whole Hyuga clan! You're pretty cool yourself, you know." And though she couldn't say it out loud, for fear of who was listening, she'd heard Shikamaru mention just the other day how useful Hinata had been in tracking down evidence that Root had been running off with orphan children. She'd have to remind Shikamaru later to tell her that.
Before Hinata could say anymore, she heard a voice call out on a megaphone calling all of the teams to the front of the building. They had yet to let anyone in, and by the looks of things that had been completely intentional. They corralled the shinobi into a space at the front of the building, and then a Konoha shinobi that Sakura didn't recognize began to speak.
"Alright, brats, it's time to listen up! The first stage of the chuunin exams will be starting momentarily, and I'll only be telling you the rules once!"
Sakura saw Sai start to write in his notebook out of the corner of her eye, and a few moments later saw, to her amusement, that a couple other teams had taken note, hastily taking out scrolls of their own to write in.
"The first stage will be taking place in the building behind me." The shinobi continued. "There are two entrances to the building, opposite sides of each other. You will enter in through one of these entrances, and will only be allowed to leave through the same entrance. Your exam objective is simple: make your way to the top floor of the building and retrieve a labeled scroll." The proctor held up a scroll, and Sakura noticed that it was sealed shut with the Konoha crest. "Make sure you get the correct one." The proctor noted with a grin. "The building is guarded by exam proctors, and there are dozens of traps that you will need to navigate and avoid. You will be graded on a three point system. Every time you are seen by a proctor or trigger a trap, you will lose one of your three points. If you hit zero points, you will automatically fail the exam."
Simple enough at face value, Sakura noted. This exam was clearly testing infiltration skills. They would be heading into a building with unknown dangers, retrieving something of value, with the intent of doing so stealthily. Triggering a trap or alerting a guard to one's presence would be a death sentence on a real mission.
But even so, it seemed a bit too straightforward. And just as Sakura was thinking this, proctor spoke again.
"There's a few catches to this rule. The first of which is that you will only have ten minutes to complete this exam. Failure to do so within the time limit will also result in failure."
Sakura winced. Avoiding danger was hard enough when one was taking their time. Moving quickly was going to be a problem.
"The second catch is that you will not be the only team entering this building during your run. Two teams will be entering simultaneously, and there is only one scroll in the building. And only the team that leaves the building with the scroll will be allowed to proceed to the next stage of the exam!"
Sakura winced again. A timed infiltration mission, and they would be competing?
It did make sense. They needed to narrow down the number of teams for the third tournament portion of the exam. This first portion would eliminate at least half of the teams, possibly more if both teams were eliminated by time or point loss.
"It's a very interesting simulation." Sai commented as he wrote. "A scenario in which you have a limited amount of time to retrieve an asset from a guarded place, and under the knowledge that you are not the only one seeking the asset. Even upon failure, this is good training for genin."
"Maybe so, but that means our success is going to depend on how much better we are than the team on the other side." Sakura pointed out. "If we get chosen to go against Naruto's team, what do you think the chances of our success are going to be?"
"Very good." Sai retorted. "Brainless is so loud he'll alert every guard to his presence within the first minute."
"One final rule, shinobi!" The proctor yelled out over the murmuring crowd. "For this specific portion of the exam, lethal force will be prohibited! Anyone purposely using lethal force will be disqualified from the exam. Now, send up a representative to come pick a number from the box at my feet. That will determine when your team will go and who you will be facing against!"
Sakura let out a small breath of relief. No lethal force allowed...but would Danzo be willing to risk disqualifying a team to take her out? Even so, there was no way of guaranteeing that one of his teams would be facing against her here, not when they were picking numbers at random. If Danzo had plans, Sakura got the feeling that they wouldn't be taking place here.
(This of course implied that Danzo though her team strong enough to get past this part of the exam. In a way, his faith in her ability was bizarrely rewarding.)
Sakura went and pulled the number fifteen from the box, and after some comparing was pleased to note that she wouldn't be facing off against any of the Konoha rookies, nor Lee or Fuu's teams. Plus, they'd be going earlier in the day, instead of having to wait until later in the afternoon. This suited Sakura fine. They'd get the first part over with, and then have plenty of time to prepare for whatever the second part would be. (Assuming they passed at all.)
There were no windows in the building, and as the proctor mentioned, only two doors. Sai began to sketch out the building as the three of them walked around it, trying to take in what information they could while the earlier teams began their runs. Sakura figured out fairly quickly that they could use the early teams to their advantage by looking in through the doorways as the teams made their way inside. However, there was little to be gained from it. All she could glimpse were solid walls and darkness; by the look of things, there were barely any lights inside the building at all. At first, Sakura wondered if Sai had been onto something mentioning training. It was like this building had been made solely for the exams, but who would put in the effort to construct something like that just for today? Building materials, the time required...it was a bit much to commission a three story building for the exams alone.
Then, her questions were answered. After the first teams went, Sakura saw a young man with light brown hair enter the building. With a clasp of his hands, the building began to rumble, and from her position Sakura saw the wooden walls inside the building begin to move about.
"They're changing the interior layout each time." Sai pointed out. "So that previous teams can't inform new ones about what lies within."
"But how is he doing that?" Sakura hissed. "I thought nobody but the first Hokage was capable of using Wood Release jutsu like that?"
"Hmm...I could answer that. But it would be revealing Konoha secrets." Sai replied. "I think that would likely involve a breach of the trust Konoha has placed in us as ambassadors."
"Right, right." Sakura rolled her eyes. Of course Sai would think of things like that, and he was probably right, damn it all. But now she was curious. If someone had been born recently with the Wood Release...wouldn't it have been more well known?
Time passed, and eventually their turn arrived. Sakura had spent the previous run stretching and discussing their plan of attack. Thankfully, Sai had a plethora of experience in missions like these, enough so that Sakura was beginning to feel confident.
Team sixteen, their opponents for the exam, were surprisingly familiar faces. Sakura grimaced as she recognized the team that Tsunade had assigned her to before she had run away from the village, plus one new member she had not seen before. The team looked at her with harsh eyes as they went to position themselves, and Sakura wondered if it was possible that Danzo had gotten to that team. She had abandoned them after all…
"I feel kind of bad." Sakura admitted as they reached the door. "That was the team I left behind when I ran off from Konoha."
"Then it's personal." Sai retorted. "Now we have to show them that you picked the better team."
The countdown began, and as they heard the proctor yell for them to start, the three of them silently made their way through the door and into the building.
Their first move was simple. Sakura had a sensing jutsu that more than covered the range of the building. A quick pulse determined that there were twelve proctor shinobi in total, and judging by the distances she registered, there were approximately four on each floor. Sai scribbled quickly, taking note of their positions and drawing floor maps to keep track. The shinobi weren't moving, as far as Sakura could tell, which just meant they had to find routes that avoided their locations.
From there, Gaara summoned his 'sand eye', quickly connecting it to his optic nerve and letting it hover in front of them. It could check around corners and scan for traps, and as they began to move through the maze that was the first floor, Sakura noted that there were plenty of those. Some were obvious: tripwires, alarm seals, things that could be easily avoided if one were moving slowly and deliberately, but someone rushing through might stumble upon. Others, however, were more subtle. Sakura very nearly avoided stepping on a seal that had been painted brown to match the floor, stopped only by Gaara's sand grabbing at her foot and preventing her from completing her step.
Sakura took up the rear end of the group, continuing sending out sensing pulses to determine where the enemy team was in relation to themselves. If the enemy team suddenly moved upwards, then they would know where the stairs were.
"We could simply wait." Sai spoke quietly as they meandered. "Nothing says we have to be the ones to get to the top and get the scroll. We just have to be the ones to leave with it."
"An ambush team?"
"We'd have to do it silently or risk alerting proctors." Gaara pointed out. "If we attempt to ambush, it could lead to a fight. Potentially setting off traps."
"Maybe. But it means that we have to find our way to the enemy door and hope we don't set off anything in the process." Sakura sent out another pulse. So far, they were both still on the first floor. "Maybe if they get to the stairs first we can talk about it."
They turned a corner, and found the first set of stairs in front of them.
"You should say that when we get to the next floor too."
"Oh, shut it, Sai. Looks like chance made the decision for us."
Sai gave Sakura a cheeky smile before making his way to the stairs. Then, he suddenly stopped.
"...there's only one entrance into this room, with the stairs."
"What if there was no entrance?"
"And what the hell would we cover the entrance with?"
"The wood is brown. Gaara's sand is brown. It's probably a bit too dark to tell the difference."
Sakura couldn't help but grin at the idea. It was a bit of a dick move, but if the other team never found the stairs, then there wouldn't be competition to worry about. Just proctors and traps. It meant leaving Gaara down here while they retrieved the scroll, which was somewhat worrying, but...the proctors weren't going to be a danger. This portion of the exam was supposed to 'non-lethal'.
"Do it." Sakura told Gaara. "If they break through, wait down here and be ready to cover our exit. I'll be able to sense it if they move up a floor."
Gaara nodded, and with a raise of his hand sand whirled out in front of him and began to fill the entrance hole. Sai had been right. In the darkness, the sand was almost indistinguishable from the walls around it.
"Perfect." Sakura gave him a thumbs up. With that, they had...eight minutes to get to the top. She looked to Sai, and he gave her a nod of understanding. They'd have to move faster if they wanted to make it out in time.
They took to a somewhat lazy jog, softly calling out when they spotted traps. It didn't take as long to find the stairs this time, thanks to Sai rightly deducing that they were most likely on the exact opposite side of the building to maximize the distance teams had to move in the building. The third floor was the emptiest of all of them. There were only two rooms: an antechamber where the stairs were located, and a large chamber with a shrine located on the far wall. The four proctor shinobi stood at attention around the shrine, and resting on the shrine itself were five scrolls with symbols from each of the five major shinobi villages.
"That's why we take notes." Sakura gratefully nudged Sai. "We need the Konoha one, but how are we going to get it without the guards seeing? Gaara's sand would have been nice…"
"Guess I'll have to do." Sai pulled out an empty scroll and began to scribble, drawing a large rat and bringing it to life with a single hand sign. The rat scrambled into the room, keeping to the shadows and running under the feet of the proctor shinobi. Sakura didn't notice any of the proctors looking towards it, so she could only hope they weren't being deducted points. The rat grabbed the Konoha scroll in its teeth before scampering back towards the antechamber.
Scroll in hand, the duo made their way back down the stairs. Sai had sketched their route as they'd moved, which meant all they had to do was retrace their steps, and…
The floor suddenly burst in front of them, and the opposing team leaped through the newly formed hole and into the hallway.
"...looks like our gamble paid off." One of the shinobi spoke, grinning as they saw the Konoha scroll in Sai's hand. "Didn't set off traps, didn't alert guards, and now we get to beat up the village traitors for the win."
Sakura groaned. That had been one hell of a stupid gamble, but she supposed, on a time limit, if someone couldn't find stairs, the easiest thing to do would be to just move up the floors the hard way. There were only four minutes left, if she'd been timing things correctly. They didn't have time for a spat.
Sakura thought fast. The only way to counter a stupid gamble was with another stupid gamble. With a hard shove, she pushed Sai forward and into the hole. He fell through with a small yelp, and before the other team could process what she'd done, Sakura leaped in after him.
"Ow…" Sai grumbled as he stood. "Really?"
"No time for grumbles. We need to get to Gaara now."
They moved just as the enemy team leaped down behind them. They weren't in a familiar hallway, which meant that it was now a race in unfamiliar territory to get back to Gaara, and then the door. Sakura sent out a quick pulse. Gaara, thankfully, wasn't too far, but with the team hot on their heels, would they have time to grab him and make it to the door?
Maybe with a distraction, they might. Sakura flew through hand signs, making two bunshin of herself. Catching on, Sai did the same. As they hit hallway forks, they sent the bunshin off in separate directions. It was a risk: if a bunshin triggered a trap, it might be a point against them. But for now, it served as a delay. Sakura smirked as the enemy team followed a bunshin pair in the wrong direction.
They found Gaara easily enough, and from there they backtracked and made their way to the door with a minute left on the clock. They turned left, right, down one hall, back along another...and just as they turned their final corner, they saw the enemy team turn into the hallway from the other side.
"Fuck." Sakura cursed. If they tried to run for the door, the team might just try to catch them off guard and knock them out. She didn't even know if they could make it back to their own door if they stole the scroll, but maybe now all that mattered was making sure her team didn't pass.
Sakura began to go through hand signs, ready to at least go down with a fight, but before she could do anything, Gaara stepped forward. He summoned his sand in front of him again, making a wall that covered the entire hallway in front of him. Then, he thrust the sand forward, pushing the enemy team backwards and slamming them into the back wall of the hall.
Sakura blinked, confused and relieved.
"It worked on Hiroshi." Gaara pointed out with a shrug.
"That it did." Sakura laughed. "Holy shit, that it did."
They made it through the door with twenty seconds to spare. They had been docked a single point in their run; one of the upper floor proctors had seen the rat just as it had made its way out of the main room. However, one point docked was not enough to disqualify them. They made it out in time, they had the correct scroll, and without much further fanfair the first stage of the exam was done.
(The enemy team shot them plenty of sour glares as they were ushered out of the building. Sakura had to hide a laugh as Sai gave them a pleasant wave in turn.)