"If you like the feeling of "just the tip of the iceberg" angst one chapter, and then drowning in fluffiness the next, then this story is definitely for you!" - RosaXanthina
SUMMERY: This is not where it started. These Exams aren't the beginning of Sasuke and Sakura. But, important things aren't defined by their place in life; they are defined by their influence. This is a roller-coaster of doubt, angst, and pure romance all bundled into one incredible adventure. Grow with us. Learn with us. Join us for The Jonin Exams.
WARNING: In this story, Sakura and Sasuke have their own demons to battle. This will end exactly how it's supposed to, on a HAPPY note. Canon couples are within the story and there are a few scenes involving them. THERE ARE MATURE THEMES AND SCENES. Please use discretion when reading and follow the guidelines allows for your age and region.
Note: Characters grow from their original portrayal.
[Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of its respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of HowdeeCoyote. HowdeeCoyote is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any previously copyrighted material. No copyright infringement is intended.]
Author's Note: I am looking for a Beta Reader. Please message me for inquires! Looking for someone to correct grammar/spelling mistakes. Thank you! (No time restraint, looking as of 2019.)
The woman stills, grinding her teeth painfully against one another.
They were all watching her battle. Everyone was staring at her over-flowing, bloody nostrils, and the bruises that littered her skin. They saw the tears that streamed down her face and the hesitation in her movements. They thought she was weak.
Sakura was not weak.
Sakura was human.
For as long as she could remember, the kunoichi had followed behind her dearest friends. She could only stand by idly—she wasn't Sharingan no Sasuke, nor the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox. Sakura is no God. But, her strength proved that she didn't have to be.
When Jugo exposed her back, it was an omen. It was her sign—what Sakura is now is nothing like what she used to be. If Sasuke was going to watch, he was going to watch her win.
With a burst of boldness and determination, the 20-year-old shinobi pulled the ripped sweater over her head. The sudden hotness of the smoldering day pelted her skin harshly. Warmth rose to her peach-colored flesh. The diamond on her forehead throbs with its wanted release.
Turning expertly, Sakura captures the obscenely morphed appendage that used to be Jugo's hand. Her glowing arm wraps around it and, with her other hand free, her fist slams into his face so harshly that even the earth applauds her. Purple liquid seeps from his wound and covers her skin in a splatter, searing the tissue of her stomach. It's acidic. It's putrid.
"I am not weak!" she tells him—and anyone listing. Gaining on the beast, straddling his lethargic body, she continues. "I will not bow down and I will not fail!"
There are people behind her—people there to help pry her off the surrendering man. His body cannot possibly hold up against such trauma…it's as if he's battling the Raikage all over again. The diamond of Jugo's skin chips in thickening fragments.
"Stop," Naruto says while he glows a brilliant orange. His arms engulf her shoulders and as easily as picking up a child, he removes her.
It was one of those days where the sun disappeared behind clouds, teasing spots of shadows. It was one of those days where people would walk leisurely, safely in a home that overflowed with protection. It was one of those days where everything was perfect….
…a day Sakura couldn't take anymore.
"I can heal a hundred people at a time." She starts, turning to see that Naruto's eyes are boring into her own. "I can summon slugs and axes and move mountains."
"I know you can," Naruto tries to explain. He is not sure how to console her, or how to make things better. He'd always thought strong people like her couldn't ever possibly break down…because there was too many that relied on them.
There was no questioning it, though. Her wild movements took at least a small portion of his Kyuubi power to handle. Sakura…who was smart, calm, and level headed in battle was now a frantic and angry beast.
Suigetsu and Karin rush to Jugo's side, each equally curious and worried. From the other side of the field they, too, follow Sasuke's sure steps. He doesn't rush, of course. Instead, the snake approaches with no protection other than his brutal annoyance and feverish temper.
"I'm done, Naruto! Let me go—" She screams with another kick, another punch, another heartbroken crack in her tone.
Then, like diving into a frozen lake, the warmth of Naruto's encompassing hands washes away under the pressure of Sasuke's grip. His eyes glow threateningly, as if the Sharingan is itching for its release. Pulling Sakura to her feet and away from orange, she melts into his purple. "Just what are you trying to do? What are you trying to prove?"
Sometimes, Sakura wishes mirrors weren't so…honest.
Some days, she couldn't possibly pay it any mind—she was too busy, and didn't care what her hair looked like or if she even changed out of the clothes she wore the day before.
Today…her eyes see everything. Her pale face shows no wrinkle or blemish, because with youth comes elasticity. Her waist, tapered and dainty, is only an accessory to long, lean legs that hide most of the muscle they surround. The oversized sweatshirt that falls from her humble chest like a curtain hides the boyishness of her figure. In the darkness of her bedroom, Sakura sighs.
Her mind was at the meeting she'd had with her fellow shinobi. The day before, of Rookie 9 gathered to the Rokudaime's office, waiting patiently for an important announcement. It had been a few months since she'd seen most of her comrades—the hospital she helped run was overflowing with patients. Sakura rarely had time for dinner most days, let alone mingle with comrades.
She stood tall, proud of the immense power collected into one single room.
Kakashi Hatake addressed his audience with a lazy, colorless voice. He was, after all, a lazy, colorless man. "We are introducing a new examination this year for all Chunin who hope to move up in rank. There are far too many applicants to pass on simple recommendation. You all, of course, are potential candidates."
Naruto huffed out a groan of annoyance. "Well, what's that supposed to mean? There isn't a person in this room who isn't Jōnin level, datebayo!"
It made sense, however. After the War, many aiding ninja moved up in the ranks for both bravery and competence. Men and women fought together, watched their teammates die, and pushed through difficult terrain just to come out of everything alive. Many Genin and Chunin, whether they were lucky or truly gifted, thought they deserved a promotion. Many parents and teachers thought the same thing as well.
"We're going to hold a Jōnin Exam. There are over one-thousand applications."
Kakashi let his words teeter in the air, watching as the cogs of their brains worked overdrive. A Jōnin Exam…would be comprised of fresh-faced, just-off-the-battlefield, cocky subordinates. There was no way to tell the strong from the weak, or the deserving from the undeserving when the numbers ran so high.
"We couldn't possibly have that many Jōnin. It's unheard of." Sakura had blurted out.
The Hokage looked at her steadily. His eyes were kind. "That is precisely why we're holding an Exam. So many shinobi contributed greatly to the war effort, but as everyone in this room knows, there is more to the life of a ninja than killing out of necessity. We have to decide who deserves this, and who…doesn't."
Back in the stillness of her bedroom, Sakura gazed at the scroll that she'd spread across her forearms. It contained details of the exam, jotted down in formal script. It seemed simply enough. Everything split into three sections, with a team of three for the first round, a two-man-squad for the second, and a one v. one battle for the grand finale.
Looking into her reflection, Sakura shares a brilliant smile.
Her hitai-ate wraps proudly around her scalp. It's the perfect crown for a warrior queen. Soft, pink hair bounces gently along her shoulders as she makes her way to the training grounds, where Team 7 had agreed to meet.
The reunion between herself and Sasuke had been completely underwhelming. She hadn't had a chance to say anything to him during the meeting, as he stood nearby the Hokage and looked straight ahead. Somehow, he looked authoritative even next to his mentor and the current village head. She was…astonished.
Her cheeks slowly start to glow from the memory of their last interaction. Some nights, if she falls into a loose sleep, she can still feel the brush of his fingertips against her forehead.
It is not nighttime, though, and she wasn't the same girl Sasuke had become accustomed to in their youth. Sakura, the daydreamer had turned her fluttering eyelashes into cold, hard stares.
To her surprise, she is the last that shows up to Training Ground 3.
For such formidable ninja, neither Naruto nor Sasuke seem to notice her presence. They exchange blow after blow, quickly turning a simple spar into something more. With the sound of their grunts and heaves looping around the field, Sakura finds content in her observations.
A long time ago, when they were all just children, Naruto would have never showed up to practice on time. Sakura would have been the earliest, just so she could have spent a few extra, silent minutes with The Boy with the Broken Heart, and Sasuke would have been neither late nor early, because he arrives precisely when he means to.
Without meaning to, a feminine giggle escapes her lips. She cannot help it, she's just so incredibly happy to see that, though things aren't the same…things aren't bad either.
Naruto jerks his head towards the sound and greets his friend with an obnoxious, but amicable wave. There was no one as cheerful, strong willed, or simpleminded as he.
"You finally made it! I've been here for hours. You're gonna have to buy me lunch since you made me wait, datebayo~"
Sakura makes her way to the two slowly, keeping her eyes low. She's admittedly nervous, and she hates it. Everything about Sasuke being in the village seemed…strange. Perhaps she's guilty for feeling that way. This is his home, after all. Without a doubt, she's happy he's back.
"Sasuke got his arm back," Naruto continues. "Now I don't even have to hold back!"
Looking up, Sasuke captures her gaze and she stiffens. He's so much older now—older, taller, rugged because he's been traveling through God-knows-where. His hair has grown so long that his spikes now drift downward and fall into his face, hiding his rinnegan.
As if Sakura needed proof, Naruto takes it upon himself to pull up the sleeve of Sasuke's left arm.
Sakura, a healer by nature, immediately examines what she sees. The wrappings that twirl around his new appendage look tight. There are angry, inflamed staples peeking from the top of the dressing, tugging on the recently attached skin. She gathers Sasuke's limb into her hands. "Did you wrap this? It doesn't look comfortable."
Sasuke jerks his arm away swiftly. Sakura blushes. Of course, she shouldn't have touched him so suddenly. The girl clears her throat, trying to make light of the situation. "How does it feel?"
To her surprise, the man answers, albeit curtly. "Odd."
"May I ask you what you mean by that?" She cannot help it, really. Her nursing instincts are simply a part of her now. "Do you have any numbness or pain?"
Quietly to herself, Sakura is sure she sounds strange to him. Sasuke had been gone for a very long time. He had only seen bits and pieces of her medical-jutsu on the battlefield. It's true; she's just as worrisome in war as she is during training.
Naruto chuckles knowingly and pulls his own arm out for view. The perfectly spiraled wrappings coil into themselves perfectly—proof that he allows his wife to doctor him. "I guess "odd" is a good way to describe it."
This intrigues Sakura. She had never heard any complaint from him whatsoever! "Yours feels different, too?" She asks. She turns to him now, hands fiddling here and there with no hesitation.
"Uh-huh. It kinda feels like..." The man trails off, trying to think of a good analogy. "…like wearing a condom that fits too tightly, ya know? It'll get the job done, but just barely."
A gust of wind sends a whistle through the air, echoing his words around the field. Sakura cannot help herself. Her forehead grows red with anger, and she curls her fingers into a fist for the smack of a lifetime.
"YOU BIG FREAKING PERVERT!"
Some things, of course, will never change.
Before long, both Naruto and Sasuke are back to their original spar. Sakura watches as Sasuke shakes the stiffness from his body, cracking his neck with his own hands.
Years ago, when had just entered puberty, she would have opted to peek at him from under her pale pink eyelashes. She was not ashamed to watch him anymore. Perhaps it's because she focuses on his fighting style, rather than his appearance. She watches the placement of his feet, his side steps and jukes, and the way that his arms flex to block Naruto's barrage of clones.
His thick, black hair hid messily behind a wide, horizontal binding. Three silver chains dangled down the front of his shirt, reaching just past his navel. She watches as they catch the light from the sun, glimmering with each taijutsu movement.
They both look like men, sure of their moves and always two steps ahead of each other. Naruto was no longer a prankster, but a savior. Sasuke was no longer an avenger, but a hero. Sakura was no longer…
She sighs, forcing herself to look away. What exactly…was she? Had she accomplished the goals she'd set for herself when she was young? Did she even…have any goals? She got strong, strong so she could help bring Sasuke back. She learned how to heal, how to fight, politics and economy.
Nodding and standing up to brush off the dust from her skirt, she slams her fist into her open palm. Whatever she put her mind to, she achieved. By the end of it all, her goal was to become a Jōnin and she would accomplish just that. Sakura was a woman of action, a doer, and nothing would ever change that.