Sakura eyed Ryota Shimura as she walked silently behind him.
It was the start of the June training exercise, a three week excursion into the forest with minimal supplies and two partners (not the ones you would end up as genin with, of course. That would make it too easy.) There would be other challenges too, she knew: surprise trials that would test every skill they could possibly had.
Worse, they were meant to fail.
That was kind of the point of it, really: show the ten(ish) year-olds that they were not actually ready to be shinobi, regardless of whether or not one could technically take the test a year early (or, in terms of them specifically, in one month.) This 'excursion' or 'test' or 'training exercise' or whatever it was called was not actually meant to teach them a hell of a lot; it was just supposed to make them miserable enough that they'd stay in the academy for one year more than many of them really had to.
(Never mind that most clans wouldn't allow their child to graduate earlier unless circumstances (like infiltration) required it, likely the result of one treaty or another made long ago. No, everyone had to learn this lesson, regardless of how much they actually needed it.)
So, of course, Sakura had been stuck with Shimura and Kenshin Sarutobi, who (while he had certainly never been a crony of Shimura's by any definition) felt indebted to the entire Shimura clan for being the catalyst that allowed the Hidden Village to survive, and therefore gave the other boy, in Sakura's opinion, far too much leeway for his behavior.
Not, she supposed, that she could deny the Shimura clan's historical significance. Back when Konoha was simply some hastily built together tents in the general vicinity of each other and everyone, including the participants, were absolutely sure that this attempt at a peaceful ninja village was doomed from the start, it had been the Shimura clan joining that finally convinced others—and most importantly the Daimyo—that there might be something to this whole Hidden Village business.
It wasn't as if the other clans didn't participate in making it possible, of course. After all, the Yamanaka were one of the first to sign on as well. But unlike the Yamanaka, and most of the other original members, the Shimura had no kekkei genkai. Not only that, but unlike what few other Konoha clans didn't have any bloodline to speak of, the Shimura were also huge.
In other words, they were able to not only survive but prosper without the help of stupidly superior genetic hacks, and they didn't need the village in any way, shape, or form to persist. There was nothing in it for them, really, besides the ideal, and yet they'd joined anyway and packed up their entire clan and moved them miles and miles and miles to join what was then considered a suicide attempt at ninjas getting along.
Once they'd done that, requests to join (from shinobi and civilian alike) had begun flooding in, and the Daimyo had started treating Konohagakure as something more than a sideshow attraction, nice to look at but utterly worthless, and instead begun expending significant time and resources into seeing if the village actually could last.
Of course, Ryota specifically hadn't even been alive yet, but that mattered little in a culture such as theirs. Family mattered, and the Shimura had a good one.
Of course, so too did the Sarutobi considering they were related to the current Hokage and the Yamanaka given the village's reliance on them in much of the "paper-ninja" aspect of running a village (as well as some of the darker aspects, though that side was rarely talked about publicly), but somehow it was always the Shimura which commanded the most respect of the civilians and the original clans.
So, because there was no justice in the world, when the three-student cells were created for the excursion, it had been Shimura who was chosen as leader.
"We'll stop here." Shimura said, coming to a still after nearly two hours of alternating running and evasive action to deter any team which may have been following them. "There's a river nearby and it's a relatively defensive position that we can still attack from."
Sakura looked around dubiously. "There aren't many plants I can use near here. Are you sure we shouldn't keep looking?"
"And what plants would you be looking for?" Shimura sneered.
Sakura glared. "Well, considering none of us know what's going to happen, I don't know. That said, I'd at least like a few options—maybe a few plants for healing nearby and a poison, or something."
"Or," Shimura scoffed, "you're just upset that I'm team leader and want to disagree with all my orders. I won't put up with dissent, Yamanaka, I can assure you of that."
"How about you just go and find some tomorrow, Yamanaka?" Sarutobi butted in. "I'm sure we'll have the time, and you can bring them back here—Shimura's right, it is a good position, if we're going to have to fight."
Sakura wanted to protest, but she also knew some small part of that was for exactly the reason Shimura said. Putting aside her misgivings she nodded her assent and studiously ignored Shimura's pointed words about her only agreeing once Sarutobi had told her to.
For all that the Sarutobi tended to get along with the Shimura, they were also really well known for working well with the Ino-Shika-Cho, and a going joke around the village was that the Yamanaka loved mind games, the Nara board games, and the Akimichi food, but all of them veritably swooned over Sarutobi. If you asked Sakura there was very little truth to that rumor, but then she was from the inside looking out; never the best perspective when one wanted to get a full view of things.
"Fine then, your orders, Shimura?"
"Sarutobi, build a shelter. I'll hunt our meals. Yamanaka can go get her oh-so-important plants. We'll all meet back here in an hour to have dinner and set up a shelter. I'll cook tonight, and we'll set up a rotating schedule for all necessary jobs including watch duty then. Does that sound good, or does the little girl not like being told what to do?"
"Shimura." Sarutobi said, a tad warningly but more to acknowledge his orders.
"Shimura." Sakura said, to do the same.
"Wake up!" Sarutobi shouted. Sakura jerked awake and scrambled to her feet in a matter of seconds, grabbing a kunai and the weird bark armor they'd begun making the night before. She peered around Sarutobi (she'd decided to face the sound of the noise, given that anyone on watch was supposed to position themselves between the enemy and their sleeping comrades) and then relaxed. Beside her Shimura did the same.
It was one of the testing chunin, and while Sakura had no doubt that while he wasn't here to offer them some pillows and a blanket to make their stay more comfortable, it was equally unlikely that they'd have to fight in the next few seconds.
"Finished rubbing the bedbugs out of your eyes?" The chunin mocked. "Good. Rendezvous at the second highest hill on the Training Field in twelve minutes." He disappeared.
"Well, fuck." Sakura said. This was the first time she'd been in this training ground, and based on her cellmates' expressions the same held true for them. All their run yesterday had proved was how large the area was—they may have never even seen the 'second highest hill', nevermind been able to compare it to all the other hills to know that.
"Any ideas?" Shimura asked after a couple seconds. He didn't look all that thrilled either.
"How about I climb a tree? We see what the highest hill looks like from there, go there and climb a tree on top of it, and see if that allows us to spot where the hill is—or at least where other people are." Sarutobi suggested. No one had a better plan so a second later he was scrambling up, and a second after that he'd found the right direction to head in and leapt down.
They were off.
Fifteen minutes later found them finally arriving at a clearing on top of the second highest hill, were several cell groups were already standing. Ten minutes (and many arrivals) after that, one of the chunin (the lot of which were lazing about at the edge of the clearing) stood.
"Has everyone arrived?"
Everyone nodded warily.
"And they have everything they need to be the 'bestest ninja ever!'?"
More wary nodding. Sakura checked herself; primitive bark armor, three kunai (she had the best aim with those out of the group, while Shimura had been given the others' shuriken. Sarutobi would have to rely on his chakra, but then he had the most of all of them and was better trained in its use anyway.)
"Great!" The chunin said. Sakura was getting really sick of his pseudo-happy tone. "Here's the plan: for the next five hours you guys get to fight each other! Isn't that wonderful? No serious injuries or death, but anything else goes. The group that has the fewest injuries at the end of the time will get information that may be necessary for completing the rest of the excursion; the second fewest will get a bit less information, and the third fewest will get less than that. The rest of you lot will get nothing. Ready?"
"How do we know who we're paired against?" Someone shouted out.
"Paired?" The chunin laughed. "This is not paired! This is every team against every other team!"
"How far are we allowed to spread out?" Shin, standing next to his cellmates, called out.
"Bottom of the hill, no further or you're disqualified." The chunin said. Then— "Begin!"
"I'll go against my fans." Shimura said, "you two pair up and get everyone else."
Sakura and Sarutobi nodded, then immediately turned and attacked their neighbor. Every other team, once they'd made their own plans, did the same.
It was a blood bath.
Sakura ducked, driving a kunai into someone's leg (though she couldn't tell who) while Sarutobi dealt with the shuriken which had been headed straight at her head. She had five kunai now (she'd been collecting them), but it wasn't as if either of them had shuriken so Sakura guessed he was actually pretty happy about the person who'd tried.
The person she'd stabbed went down and Sakura threw a quick hand signal Saruboti's way—it was time to reposition themselves.
"Where?" He asked.
Sakura looked around. Most people were down already—about twenty minutes had passed, but those twenty had been vicious—and those that were left were beginning to attempt to avoid each other, desperate to avoid additional injury. Sakura only had one scratch on her, directly below her right elbow, but Sarutobi was limping badly due to the actions of an Inuzaka's ninken, and she didn't know how Shimura was doing at all.
"Up." She decided. "I'll watch your back, just get a sit-rep."
Sarutobi grunted and began climbing—he was long past the point where tree walking using chakra was reasonable to do.
Sakura eyed her surroundings warily.
The kid she'd stabbed had scrambled away, and whoever had thrown the shuriken seemed to have disappeared too, but Sakura knew better than to let her guard down.
They had four hours and forty minutes of this hell left. She didn't know how they were going to survive.
"Shit." Sarutobi said above her.
Sarutobi slid down. "Not exactly. It's just everyone's burrowed deep. I can't tell where anyone else is—not even Shimura." Then he blinked, and winced. "Hey, you collected some plants, right?" Sakura nodded. "Good, because Shimura needs them."
Sakura whipped around, finding Shimura hobbling towards them from a few feet away. Sarutobi and Sakura had managed to stay relatively unscathed, but the same could not be said for their team leader.
"Shit." Sakura said.
"Don't forget we have to last another four and a half hours." Sarutobi reminded her.
"Shit." She repeated.
It took a while, but using Sarutobi's shirt (the one least stained with blood) and some leaves that were supposed to help deal with cuts and possible infections she finally managed to patch Shimura up. Thankfully there seemed to have been an unvoiced agreement to pause the fight among the participants, so she had enough time to deal with all of his cuts rather than just prioritizing the worst. He'd be in a lot of pain, yeah, but hopefully he wouldn't get sick.
"We're screwed if there's any more Inuzaka out there." Shimura ground out. "I smell like weakness right now."
"I'm going to—I mean, should I try to use chakra sense, Shimura? I'm not perfect at it, but I should be able to give us a few seconds warning before anyone can reach us."
"Do that." He said, huffing as he forced himself up into a sitting position. "Sarutobi, how's the leg?"
"Could be better," the other boy said, "but my wraps blocked most of the damage—my leg's bruised, not bit."
"Good." Shimura frowned. "You any good at traps?"
"Middling at best." Sarutobi said. "How about you tell me what to do and I'll set the traps up?" As the boys finished fleshing out their own plans, Sakura settled into a position she knew she could keep for a few hours. She carefully opened her senses and began meticulously searching out any chakra signal she could find, no matter how seemingly irrelevant.
In the end it took nearly three hours for their preparations to finally be of use. By that point Sakura was nearly out of chakra (her sensing was still fairly chakra intensive, and would remain so until she had sufficient practice) and Shimura, while far better physically than he had been at the beginning of the wait, was also exhausted. Of them all Sarutobi was in the best condition but even he was beginning to lag under the pressure of the exertion he'd just put his body through and the difficulty of remaining constantly on alert for so long.
And, if that weren't bad enough, when they were finally attacked they didn't have to deal with just one team—no, that would be too easy. Instead, because apparently there was no justice in the world, they were attacked by three teams at once.
Their only saving grace was that none of the teams had actually allied with each other, so they were putting just as much effort into damaging one another as they were into hurting Sakura's team.
It was still grueling.
That fight lasted nearly twenty minutes before those who could flee did and those who couldn't were tied up and knocked unconscious. Sarutobi's limp was now much more pronounced, one of Shimura's fingers was broken, and Sakura was sporting a (Hyuuga-induced) useless left arm as well as a black eye and bruised ribs.
They cleaned up as best they could, but the final hour was hell. It wasn't because they were attacked again, thank god, but their exhaustion was such that it took all their effort to simply remain awake, much less alert.
When the chunin finally shouted that the exercise was over Sakura could barely bring herself to cheer.
They got fifth place.